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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 7: Riding the Winds of Change, Part 1

"Good day, son-in-law," Cologne said amiably a moment after he touched down to share the roof of the Cat Café with her. "Are you ready to begin your real training?"

"You haveta ask?" he shot back. "Yeah, I am." He glanced around the rooftop, empty but for the two of them. "What about Shampoo? Ain't she gonna be here today?" Normally the lavender-haired girl did her own Air training at the same time he did, though Cologne kept them separate as they practiced.

"She'll be here before long," the ancient Amazon replied. "There was something I wanted her to do for me first."

Ranma shook his head, musing on the irony of it all. 'Jeez, looks like Shampoo can't catch a break at all. Today's the first day in who knows how long that Mr. Tendo won't be calling to drag her over there on a delivery, and she still gets stuck with the short end of the stick. You'd think her own great-granny would be a little more sympathetic.' "What was that?" he asked. "Getting today's training props?"

"No, we won't be using any today."

"Not even the suit, one last time?" he asked, a little disappointed that a guess he'd made about the next step in the training was apparently wrong.

"No. Why would you think we'd still need that?" the Matriarch inquired. "By the end of your last practice three days ago, you were able to make even your most spectacular leaps without losing a single feather."

"Well, yeah, but I kinda got the impression that even that wasn't the absolute end-point," he explained. "That's what it felt like you were hinting at, at the end of Sunday's training. When you finally told me how long it usually takes someone to learn this stuff and how big of a help Shampoo's and my curse is." He paused for a moment, to bask once again in the knowledge that he'd shattered all the records. "You told me to think about this over the next few days when I was flying, focus on what I was really feeling, concentrate on the air and try to take the whole aura alignment thing from subconscious to conscious control." He gave her a curious stare. "Isn't that the reason why you said we should wait until today to move on to the next step?"

"Yes, that's correct," Cologne said. "But you don't need the suit for that, or any other tool. Sit down, sonny boy, and close your eyes."

"Huh? Okay," Ranma said, complying.

"Concentrate on the air around you," the Matriarch intoned. "Let your own energies bleed outward, harmonizing with the natural chi of the air. Feel the breeze as it blows, the ebb and flow of the sky's breath…"

After listening to the Matriarch ramble on in this vein for awhile, Ranma ventured to interrupt. "Are you waiting for me to realize you've been waving that stick around the whole time you were talking?"

Cologne blinked, and stopped spinning the staff. "Very good, son-in-law. I didn't expect even you to notice that quickly."

Ranma shrugged and opened his eyes. "It's no big deal. When I'm a falcon, I can naturally feel that kinda stuff, sense currents in the air and all that. I've been working on applyin' that in my normal body since Sunday. I already know what it feels like, so it's not that big of a challenge." He frowned pensively at Cologne's staff. "But you know… I could feel the way you were stirring the air, but I couldn't hear anything. Why's that?"

"I was using an advanced Air technique to stop the sound waves generated by the motion."

He considered the implications of this for a while. "So… for me to be able to feel it, that means the aura that I had linked into the air was extended out at least as far as where you're standing… and I could feel the way the stick was whirling around… but shouldn't I have been able to feel whatever it was in the air that blocked the sound?"

Cologne gave her very best ghoulish smile. "You're about a hundred years too soon to think you can go toe-to-toe with me, sonny boy." As if to prove her point, she spun the staff again, moving the wood so fast that it was little more than a blur in the air. By rights Ranma should certainly have been able to hear the whining hum generated by such velocity, but for all his ears could tell him Cologne might as well not even be armed.

Shaking off any hint of intimidation, he scowled and stretched out again, focusing every bit of his concentration into his fledgling senses, trying to detect whatever it was Cologne was using to keep the sound waves from reaching his ears.

He was distracted very quickly by a more immediate concern. Ranma had time enough to sense the incoming body — also apparently silenced — hurtling through the air on a direct course toward him, to jump to his feet and whirl around, even to notice that Shampoo had apparently kicked free of her bike at the last second. And then, with a *WHUMPH* loud enough to shake the building below them, Amazon collided with Airen, smashing him prone to the rooftop and breaking her fall nicely. Unnoticed, her abandoned vehicle tumbled down into the alley behind the restaurant.

"… Okay, I admit it," he said after a few seconds had passed. "Obviously the bike routine has been toughening me up. That didn't even hurt."

"Good to hear it," Shampoo purred, snuggling closer and quickly destroying the sang-froid he had previously managed to maintain.

"Um… hey, Shampoo… come on, we, we need to… ACK!" Ranma exclaimed, as his squirming attempts to extricate himself quickly brought him into contact with dangerous territory. He froze, then continued in a voice nearly an octave higher, "C-c'mon, we gotta get to training!"

"Yes, great-granddaughter," Cologne said dryly, cutting the girl off before she could finish crafting a good 'marital arts training' comeback. "As amusing as this is to watch, remember that there's more at stake here than just teasing him and having a good time."

Shampoo sighed, but drew back and off him. "Okay, okay. Up you get, Ranma," she said, extending her hand and helping him to a sitting position. She drew a few feet back from him and settled down facing Cologne.

"More at stake?" Ranma asked, glancing back and forth between the two Amazons. "What's that supposed to mean, Shampoo?"

She blinked. "Um… Actually, Shampoo not sure. I think she mean we should no delay training, because you only has few hours some days of week you can sneak over here for it." Shampoo sighed. "Is true, after all."

"Is that what you meant, Granny?" he wanted to know.

"Close enough," Cologne replied. "Although I was more thinking about the fact that Shampoo herself was the one who decided to offer you this training, which really makes it more her responsibility than mine to see you succeed in it. She ought to be focusing on that, not spending a half-hour trying to break you free of your fear of girls."

"Hey, that is not fair at all!" Ranma protested. "I ain't afraid of nothin', especially not girls!" Noting the politely incredulous look on Cologne's face, and Shampoo's rolled eyes and shaken head, he continued, "I just got a… a healthy… respect for consequences and possible danger situations. That's something any martial artist oughta have!"

"Right, right, I think that line might even be better than something your father could come up with," Cologne retorted. "Not afraid, are we? Not nervous at all?" She snorted. "I'll believe that on the day your heart rate doesn't speed up when you catch sight of my great-granddaughter." She gave him a sly look. "Of course, there could be other reasons for a reaction like that, one emotion in particular that sometimes has fear mixed in it but is a very different beast…"

Ranma gulped, unable to stop himself from glancing away from the old Amazon to the younger one. His traitorous heart did give an extra couple of jumps at the sight of Shampoo, currently doing her best to appear both appealing and non-threatening. A hopeful gleam was in her eyes as well, though Shampoo didn't intend or realize it, and that seemed to strike him even harder than what she was trying to show him. "C-can we just get on with the training?" he squawked, tearing his gaze away again with a valiant effort, telling himself it was all just the old ghoul messing with his head.

Cologne frowned at him. "A martial artist should face the honest truth, son-in-law," she pronounced. "Deception may have its place in some facets of the Art, but never self-deception. Denial will do nothing but chain you down."

"So who's denying anything? Not me!"

"Right," the Matriarch shot back. "Then I suppose—"

"Ranma." Shampoo focused all her attention on him, ignoring the fact that she'd just interrupted her great-grandmother. She didn't know what the Matriarch was angling for, but she did know she couldn't keep silent now. That hunted, defensive look didn't belong anywhere near her husband's face. "I-I not… I don't want you be afraid of me. You no have to be."

"Look, I'm not… I-I…" Ranma's heart gave a different kind of lurch this time as he returned his attention to Shampoo, plunging downwards in his chest as he saw the pain in her eyes. He took a few deep breaths, then said carefully, "Shampoo… I'm not. You heard her — she was just messin' around with my head, puttin' words in my mouth. That ain't how it really is. When have I ever run from you?"

Shampoo stared back at him. "All the time, when Shampoo have old curse."

"Exactly. An' you ditched that little piece of hell on earth for good, got both of us the biggest trade-up in three thousand years of Amazon history." He grinned at her. "And speaking of which, there was the time way back in the beginning, when I thought you were tryin' to kill me. Don't forget that."

"Would rather do so! Why you bring it back?" she huffed, though she felt the faintest beginning of an answering grin tugging at her lips.

"Cause both of those things are in the past. Neither one of 'em is who you are, and neither has anything to do with you being a girl." She was smiling now, if faintly, and that further bolstered Ranma's spirits. He flashed her his most confident grin and proclaimed, "I ain't afraid of girls, and I'm definitely not afraid of you." At this she broke out into a full-fledged smile, as big and bright as he'd ever seen from her. His heart gave another couple of quicker thumps at the sight, but he ignored it. Surely any guy would react the same if a girl as cute as Shampoo smiled at him like that.

Cologne let the moment stretch just long enough, then cleared her throat to draw the teens' attention back to her. "Well, that's good to hear, sonny boy. I had one more thing to tell you before you begin training in the first Air style technique."

"Which is?" Ranma said, turning reluctantly away from Shampoo's open, honest happiness, hoping that this wasn't going to be more of Cologne's mind games.

"That I'm not going to be the one training you. Shampoo is."

"What?!" both teens exclaimed simultaneously.

"Great-grandmother, is you serious?" Shampoo continued, finding more words before Ranma did. "Is not funny!"

"Well, that's good to hear, because I wasn't joking," Cologne replied.

Ranma opened his mouth, then closed it again, deciding that the best thing to do here was sit back and watch the byplay rather than interject his own voice. After all, what could he say? 'Would you please quit messing with my head, old ghoul'? 'Quit trying to call my bluff. I said I wasn't scared of her and I meant it'? 'Teach me yourself, I ain't about to settle for second best'? As that last one crossed his mind he grimaced and shook himself, wanting to cast it well away, along with the image of what would inevitably follow a comment like that. 'Jeez, as much fun as she's apparently having by jerking me around, maybe it really is better to learn the moves from Shampoo.'

"But great-grandmother, that not right at all!" the young Amazon protested. "Ranma biggest reason for learn this style is so he can use it in falcon body! I never teach anybody anything before, not even little basic thing! How you say Shampoo have to start now, something so big? Ranma deserve better than that!"

"And you don't want to look bad in front of him either, no doubt," Cologne said dryly. "I'm afraid my mind is quite made up, Shampoo. Your husband decided for himself that time wasn't of the essence in this training. Or have you forgotten whose idea it was for him just to sneak over here when he could do so without letting the Tendos find out?"

"But… but…" Shampoo's mouth gaped feebly open and closed as she tried to muster new and better arguments.

"And where are you gonna be during all this?" Ranma challenged, annoyed all the more that Cologne wasn't just jerking him around, but also her own flesh and blood. Even Genma had let him have a few hours to get used to the idea of helping Akane train, not to mention the fact that his father had tricked him into thinking it was his own idea. "Sitting back and staring at her, watching her and making her more nervous while she tries something you just sprung on her outta nowhere?"

"Now that you mention it… no." Cologne grinned, then blurred, retreating to the rooftop's edge in the blink of an eye. And then she was gone.

A long silence stretched in the wake of her departure. Ranma broke it at last, heaving a sigh and turning back to face Shampoo. She seemed less distressed now, always a good sign in a sensei, but she was still clearly nervous. "So how often does she dump stuff like that onto you, Shampoo?"

"This first time she ever put Shampoo in situation like this," the lavender-haired girl answered. "At least, where more than just me is depend on what I do. But there is other times when she turn up the heat under me all of sudden. Great-grandmother is great believer in pressure-cooker type of training; put more and more pressure on student, just make sure you not ever go over their limit. Is great way to get better fast, so long as you no push too hard." Shampoo grimaced and shook her head. "To be fair, Shampoo not think she ever do so much to me as when she teach Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken to you."

"Huh. Well, cheer up," Ranma said. "That must mean she believes you can do this, right?"

Shampoo blinked, then the remaining traces of anxiety began to melt toward a smile. "Ranma…"

"And even if you can't do a good job teaching, it ain't the end of the world," he continued reassuring her. "After all, I'll still be able to learn the moves from you. I'm just that good."

The smile remained on Shampoo's face, though one eye had developed a noticeable twitch. "Airen say the sweetest things sometime," she gritted. '<I'll show you, Ranma Saotome. I'll do just as good a job teaching this to you as great-grandmother did to me! No, even better — I'm darn well going to find a way to shift some of this pressure off me and onto you!>'

"…So, you want to start or what?" Ranma said a minute later. "Just do whatever Cologne did with you. I'm sure I'll pick up on it even if you don't get it perfect."

"In case Ranma not think it through, this not just test for him!" she retorted. "Probably not, anyway. Shampoo sure great-grandmother will pay close attention to how good I do, not just you. So let me take time I need to think!"

"Okay, okay, sorry. I guess I really wasn't thinking about that," he admitted. 'So she thinks she might need to handle things differently when it's her teaching me, instead of the old ghoul teaching her? Makes sense, I guess. After all, Shampoo ain't exactly a shriveled up prune with a few hundred years' experience in her back pocket.'

He settled down to wait patiently, or at least patiently for him when there was a new technique in the offing. Just as he opened his mouth to suggest that maybe Shampoo could tell him what Cologne had done and he could help her decide what kind of alterations needed to be made to the program, the Amazon spoke again. "All right. Shampoo think she have good idea how to do this. You remember that first technique is Buzzing Fist, yes?"


"Is simple technique and not very good on its own, but is good building block for more. I will do best I can to teach, Ranma must do best he can to learn."

"Like you had to tell me that," he said with a dismissive grin.

"Shampoo know that. No complain, Ranma, you is getting off easy. Great-grandmother give me much longer talking at first, but we about to get started for real right now. Scoot over closer." She moved forward to meet him halfway. "Hold out hands to mine," she continued once he was in place, extending hers with the palms facing down.

Ranma was slower to comply this time, but he did reach out and take her hands in his. "Not like that," she corrected him. "This not romantic date or nothing. You not supposed to hold hand like that. Just put them flat under Shampoo's, palm to palm."

A bit relieved by the correction, he adjusted his grip. "For this to work, you has to be able to feel what happening to the air," Shampoo continued. "Look like you already got that part, yes?" Grinning, she elaborated, "You able to sense me coming down on bike when great-grandmother signal, even though not until is too late."

"Yeah, and next time I'll notice in time to dodge," he shot back, not really wanting another digression just now. Not that he was scared, or anxious, or nervous, or anything at this position… it was just that he didn't want to waste more time before getting to the actual training. Nor was it appealing to think of Shampoo pouncing on him out of nowhere because Cologne had told her to. "Come on, let's get started already."

"Humph. Should just start now no explanation and let Ranma try figure out what happening," she grumbled back at him. "Okay, student, listen good. I going to use very, very low-power Buzzing Fist on one hand, do nothing on other. That give you way to look at difference, get good idea of what happening with technique, try and learn to do it on you own."

Ranma didn't bother to ask which hand, certain that it would be obvious once she initiated the move. Sure enough, a faint but clearly discernable buzz started up around Shampoo's right hand. He focused all his attention onto his own left hand, exploring the odd sensation as best he could and ignoring for now the suggestion to compare and contrast against his right.

Within the first twenty seconds, the sensation wasn't feeling as strange anymore and he'd picked up a number of important details. For one thing, the buzzing was strongest against the areas of his skin nearest to Shampoo's. The vibration faded almost to nothingness near the middle back of his hand, and was indiscernible above his wrist. There was no vibration at all in whatever minute amount of air was trapped between their two palms. Then there was the difference between Shampoo's hand and his own, just barely noticeable along the edges of overlap. He had to strain his senses to be sure, but he could sense that the air immediately next to Shampoo's skin was still, with the vibration beginning a few millimeters out, whereas around his hand that cushion of motionless air didn't exist.

Another thing that dawned on him, a bit later than it probably should have, was that he was making all these observations through his sense of touch. That wasn't right — he was supposed to be using his newborn ability to synchronize his aura with the air, to sense what was happening that way. It was difficult, though; the feel of the pulsating air against his skin was much more distracting than Cologne's droning about the metaphysics of the sky had been. After all, touch was the most immediate, the most basic of the senses.

This fact was brought home as he tried to shift his focus away from that sense. Without warning Shampoo's left hand moved, her index finger sliding along his wrist in a long, slow caress.

Ranma's eyes, closed for better concentration, shot wide open. Almost as quickly he broke contact and zipped backward, giving up five times the ground he'd covered earlier when meeting her in the middle. "Sh-Shampoo!" he protested.

The Amazon said not a word in response, but her expression spoke plainly enough. Ranma clamped his mouth shut against whatever else had been on its way out, seeing one piercing moment of pain, disappointment, and hurt.

In the next moment Shampoo's face closed, settling into a hard, flat mask. "I sorry, Ranma. I not mean to jab red-hot needle through you."

Despite the words and the harsh cast to her face, he could still see the true sentiments in her eyes. "Whatever," Ranma said uncomfortably. "I mean, you didn't… I mean… you just kinda surprised me. What'd you expect, catching me off-guard like that?"

"Expect that it would break you concentration, take you mind off one hand and onto other." Shampoo looked away. "Not that you act like I try to take that hand off at wrist."

"Come on, I wasn't tryin' to act like you were hurting me!" he shot back. "Heck, with all the training I've done pain is no big deal! It was just… you know, unexpected. Different. That's why I kinda flinched."

"And is that always how you going to react to something 'different'?" Shampoo asked quietly, still not looking at him, her hands still outstretched in empty air though her arms had slumped a little and her fingers were curled back against her palms. The tone of the question, especially the way she'd spoken the last word, made him squirm in worse discomfort than he'd felt before jumping backwards. He didn't usually catch on to those situations where girls were saying one thing and meaning another, but somehow, he was sure that her 'different' meant something other than its usual definition. For the life of him, though, he couldn't say what that was.

He did know the answer he wanted to give her, though. "No way! Anything Goes is about learning, changing, and adapting to new stuff!"

"Anything Goes," Shampoo repeated bitterly. "That where you learn this in first place, Ranma. From Genma and Akane."

Still wishing for some kind of road-map to this conversation, he floundered along as best he could. "What? Learn Anything Goes from Akane? That don't make any sense at all, Shampoo. That clumsy chick's got nothing to teach me. And as for Pop… yeah, he was pretty much the guy with all the answers for a long time, but I'm past that now. There may still be a few tricks he knows that I don't, an' I guess it wouldn't be too unbelievable if he manages to help me out once or twice more in my life, but the days when he was the master and I was the impressionable little student are long gone. I'm walking my own path. Why the heck do you think I'm here right now?"

"Shampoo hope is for just that reason," she said quietly, turning her head and raising her eyes to him again. "You going to come back now and face this, Ranma? Not run again?"

"That's right," he said as confidently as he could, retracing the distance his blurring retreat had covered, and sliding his hands back under hers. She paused for one long moment more, staring into his eyes with quiet, probing, guarded consideration, before slowly uncurling her fingers to once more rest her palms flat against his. Letting out an unconscious breath of relief, Ranma asked, "So… if you don't mind my askin', how does, er, what you did fit into this training anyway?"

"What you think? Distraction make for challenge, Airen." The ghost of a smile crossed Shampoo's face. "Need to be something to replace challenge I had from great-grandmother, challenge you not get from me. Think how small her hands are, how little… um… surface area to work with. You would not want me to go easy on you, yes?"

Ranma was mildly proud of himself for actually giving the question thought, rather than immediately blurting out a knee-jerk response. "…No. No, I wouldn't," he said once he was sure he meant it.

The air was thin and chill about him, reduced to the barest minimum that could easily fill his lungs and lift his wings. The red light of sunset glittered on clouds far below him. As he flew in long, slow circles, the sun filled his vision for a moment, to be replaced by red sky, then purple, then the first stars of evening. Ranma paid little attention to the sights, focusing only enough of his mind on them to appreciate that, once again, he was experiencing something almost nobody else ever would.

His thoughts were more concerned on his first real training session with a teacher his own age. 'Sure wasn't expecting that for today,' he thought ruefully. 'Wonder whether Shampoo or I was more surprised?' It wasn't the only thing he wondered, but it was an easier question than the big one lurking in the back of his thoughts. He pondered the issue for two complete revolutions, eventually deciding that the answer wasn't important at all — what mattered was that both of them needed to learn not to assume they knew what was going on in the Matriarch's mind.

With one easier lesson learned and tucked safely away in his mind, Ranma turned his attention outward, putting away introspection for the moment. He climbed higher, then higher again, concentrating on the purely physical challenge of flight in the rarefied air. Ten minutes passed before he sank back to a more hospitable altitude, cold and weary but satisfied at how he'd successfully pushed himself… and ready to spiral down toward something deeper.

"~Did I achieve anything at all?~" This question was the skin of the matter, not its heart, but that he could even ask it was strange enough. The Buzzing Fist might not be like anything he'd ever done before, but it was a simple, basic building block toward the real techniques of its style. In his long years of training, Ranma had encountered and mastered numerous things that could be described in such a way. He couldn't think of even one time when he'd worked on one for three solid hours without knowing he'd made progress.

Of course, none of those training times had included a sensei like Shampoo. Ranma shook his head ruefully as he thought back to the rooftop of the Cat Café, remembered how her face had showed that one unguarded moment of pain when he first skittered backward in shock, how it had taken three quarters of an hour before her smile regained its usual width, and how big that smile had grown as he continued to jump and twitch but never again pull back from her. She had increased the challenge level early on, refusing to limit herself to the pattern with which she'd begun. At any given moment the only constant had been Shampoo's hands on his; either or both could be vibrating the air, and either or both might suddenly shift in his to give one more of those teasing, distracting touches. Why they should be so much more distracting than the basic, constant contact between their hands, Ranma could not say.

He considered the thought of shiatsu. This theory would at least explain why each stroke of her finger along his wrist had caused his heart to jump up in his throat, why the effect had seemed to grow stronger, not weaker, over time. It could make sense of the fact that even now, in a body that didn't have hands, he could feel the sensation so clearly. But the problem with that idea was that it would also make his first reaction perfectly reasonable. If Shampoo really had been using some shiatsu trick to cause his blood-pressure and heart rate to skyrocket, his mouth to go dry as cotton while his brow broke into a cold sweat, then she ought just to have been amused at how well it worked. Not hurt through and through.

Ranma toyed for a few moments with a variation of the idea, that Shampoo had been hitting a pressure point without even realizing it. It didn't take long to discard this as pure wishful thinking, a dodge to excuse himself from facing the truth. He turned away again for one last moment and sank into a quick descent. Once the air had warmed up enough around him, he sighed and spoke the cold truth aloud. "~I said I wasn't afraid… but I guess that wasn't true.~"

A hundred memories flew through his mind, whirling and interweaving like a flock of crows. Akane faced him in the dojo and challenged him that he was too chicken to kiss her, though her own words were halting and choked with nerves. Shampoo actually did kiss him, seizing her opening while he panicked in the wake of her second defeat. Kodachi laid him out flat on the roof, paralyzed while she primped and readied herself for her own first kiss. Akane had saved him that time, and had done so again when Shampoo in cat form herded him into the bathtub, then jumped in herself to change back and take it from there.

One memory in particular rose up now from the depths where he usually kept it locked away. He and Akane were making their way back from Ryugenzawa, heading to the train station that would give them passage to Nerima. Ranma, still riding the high of relief that nobody had been hurt, that he'd managed to safeguard Akane through it all, had reached back and held her hand as they walked along. Even at such a time as that, it had taken almost all his strength to do so. "~Not afraid of girls…?~" he murmured bitterly. "~…Yeah, right.~"

At least he could say it here, alone among the clouds. When he'd been on the rooftop facing Shampoo, those words never would have come. Ranma pondered that as he crossed the next mile of sky, trying to work out all the reasons for this. It would be one thing if he'd only kept quiet about that truth because he didn't want to hurt her… but Cologne had said that self-deception had no place in anyone's life, and Ranma found himself agreeing. It wasn't just Shampoo and her great-grandmother he'd been trying to reassure, when he'd proclaimed so strongly that he wasn't afraid. He'd said those things to her because he himself wanted to say them. Wanted them to be true.

"~The real kicker is, I know it should be,~" he grumbled under his breath. "~The stuff I said to her, that's how it ought to be for real. Jumping five feet backward when she did something so small… that's just plain stupid. Cologne could've been a lot more diplomatic about it, but she had the right idea when she got on my case about being afraid of girls…~"

His eyes widened and his beak clicked closed. Was that the real reason the Matriarch had ducked out of the training session, leaving it to Shampoo to handle? He considered the idea for a few minutes, eventually concluding that it was probably going too far to say it was the 'real' reason, but it almost surely had been part of her motivation.

"~So was I fooling anybody there, other than myself?~" he wondered next. "~I said that stuff to Shampoo, trying to make her feel better. And… and I wasn't totally lying. At least, the important stuff was true. There used to be some real reasons for me to be scared of her, but those are gone now. What's left isn't anything that ought to make me afraid.~" His mind flitted back to Shampoo's grand entrance, and how much nicer it had felt to be pinned under her without the bicycle involved. "~A healthy respect for consequences and possible danger situations…? Yeah, that sounds good. Definitely sounds a lot better than panicking just cause something's different from what I'm used to.~"

Once again a memory of the afternoon bobbled up in his mind. "That where you learn this in first place, Ranma. From Genma and Akane," she had said. "~Don't know if she was right about Akane,~" he mused. "~It's not like I jumped back because I thought Shampoo was about to pound me for being perverted. And even with Pop I'm not sure it's fair to say it's all his fault. Sure, he dragged me all over the place to learn the Art, encouraged me to always keep my focus on training, not let any distractions in. But I never really tried to fight that. I was happy enough to go along with what I knew how to do and ignore stuff that was a mystery.~" He chuckled ruefully. "~At least until we landed here and it all got right in my face. Even then I kept it up as long as I could.~

"~So it looks like the old ghoul was right on all counts,~" he admitted. "~It's past time I got over this stupid problem.~" Continuing with Shampoo's training plan would undoubtedly prove stressful, but it would teach him more than one lesson he needed to learn.

In fact, Ranma suspected it was already working. Those hours had not been enough to put him at his ease with Shampoo's tactic, but now that he had taken a good look at the bigger picture he could see one area where they apparently had helped him. Deliberately, he thought back again to the walk away from Ryugenzawa with Akane's hand in his own. It had taken so much of his courage to do that, to show Akane that he was glad she was safe and sound. Even when she'd accepted the gesture without protest, it hadn't reassured him enough to let him relax any. The most he'd been able to do was continue as he'd begun.

That wasn't at all what Akane had done, though. It had taken him well over a week to realize the full implications, at which point he'd pushed them as far out of mind as he could.

He had been so nervous at that time, so tense, so uncertain of what he was doing… and he'd fully expected her to feel the same. Everything he and Akane had shared up till then agreed; if it had meant anything to her, she should have been at least as anxious as he was. But she hadn't said or done anything — hadn't reacted in any way — as if it mattered to her. Even through the trembling in his hand, he'd been able to tell that her own was relaxed; his own pulse had hammered, hers had thrummed at an utterly normal tempo.

The pain of this thought was why he usually kept the memory locked away. But now, gliding along with the red light of sunset at his back, he barely felt a twinge as he contemplated the matter. All the remembered pain and regret of it seemed to have leached away, and with surprise he found himself thinking that he'd gotten off lucky. Far better to have Akane quietly humor him than get flustered and smash him to the ground.

"~So now I can answer the question I started out with,~" he decided. "~Yeah, I did make some progress today. Don't know if any of it was actually on the Buzzing Fist, but this is more important anyway. More important than all of the Air Style, if it comes to that.~" But that didn't mean he was going to slack off from working to master the style. If Shampoo could modify the training so that it worked toward two totally different goals at once, Ranma Saotome could certainly rise to the simultaneous challenges!

Nodding decisively, he tilted his wings and started his final descent. He passed through the clouds and saw the lights of Nerima twinkling in the dusk below him, cheering for their favorite son and welcoming him back. Sinking lower and lower and straining his eyes, he caught sight of the Tendo home far off in the distance and adjusted his course accordingly.

One door was open and there was a light on in the dojo, he saw as he drew nearer. Hopefully that just meant someone had left it on for him, not that Akane was in there practicing. Things had been tense and silent with the tomboy ever since their last encounter in the dojo. Akane hadn't hit him in the days since then, or yelled at him, or accused him of things he hadn't done, but she'd made it quite clear that she hadn't forgiven or forgotten. 'At least this time her temper tantrum hasn't got her sulking up on the roof while everybody else panics and runs all over town looking for her,' Ranma thought, settling down on top of the dojo over the open door and listening. No sounds of strenuous exercise, not even the relative quiet of a kata or weight training rather than brick-breaking. He hopped off the roof, sinking in a quick turn that carried him through the doorway into the building.

The door whipped shut behind him almost as soon as he'd passed through it.

Caught completely off-guard, for the first time Ranma utterly lost control of his flight. His smooth passage through the air shattered into a scrambling failure to stay aloft. He hit the floor with a bounce and rolled for three body lengths before he could stop, get back to his feet, and turn around to face whatever threat had decided to ambush him here.

He hadn't expected it to be a girl he barely recognized, staring down at him with surprise and remorse. "Oh, no! Ranma, I'm sorry, I didn't think it would surprise you that much! Are you okay?" she exclaimed, though she was careful to keep her voice down.

Ranma stared at the girl for a few moments, confirming that yes, he was remembering correctly — this was one of Nabiki's friends, not Akane's. 'Somebody ought to get it through at least one Tendo girl's head that turning into a falcon doesn't make me made out of glass,' he grumbled to himself. Nodding, he fluttered back into the air, winging his way through a quick, tight circle to illustrate that everything was still working properly. Then he landed, touching down only a couple of feet away from the girl, and regarded her with his most piercing stare.

"Okay, that's good," Junko said with a sigh of relief. "Um… could you please change back now? I need to talk to you about something."

He kept the stare up for a few more seconds, then turned and flew to the corner with its modified thermos. He was pleased to note that the girl turned around without prompting, facing away so as not to watch. Ranma transformed and pulled on his clothes as quickly as possible, keeping one eye on the girl all the time, and she didn't even try to sneak a peek. 'So, as usual, I'm one hundred percent innocent, not done anything perverted at all. That probably means Akane's already randomly on her way out here to 'catch me in the act',' he thought with a grimace. "Yo, what's this about? Nabiki too busy to do this herself, whatever it is?"

Junko blinked. She hadn't expected him to remember her without any help; the number of times Ranma had seen her in her official role as Nabiki's lieutenant could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and each time he'd had plenty of more important things to occupy his mind. 'Well, it's not like the boss didn't tell us he was starting to use his head more often and better.' "Actually, yes," she replied. "Nabiki, Akane, Kasumi… they're all busy inside the house. So are your father and Mr. Tendo if they're back yet, but I don't think they are."

"No surprise there," he muttered. Early this afternoon Mr. Tendo had been sweeping up the yard, and had discovered a windblown flyer for the grand opening that very day of a new bar. He and Genma had immediately set out in search of it. If the place really was going to be serving drinks at the promotional prices listed on that sheet, Ranma didn't expect them to be back until the place shut down, threw them out, or began charging normal fees. "So what's going on inside that's got everybody tied up? And what's it got to do with… Nah, don't tell me. Let me guess." He heaved a deep sigh. "Some new fiancée has finally tracked me down an' showed up to stake her claim."

"No," she said with a smile, "but you aren't completely wrong. It is an important woman in your life, Ranma."

He just stared blankly back at her. Not a new fiancée…? The girl wouldn't be smiling like that if it were one of the old ones… maybe something good had happened to Kasumi? Maybe she'd been offered a scholarship to Tokyo U or something, and Nabiki wanted to get everyone's cooperation in persuading her to accept it? Well, if it was something like that he'd be more than happy to help. "What're you talking about?"

Junko's smile dimmed as she took a deep breath. "Before I say anything else, here. You need to read this and memorize all these facts. Everyone knows you don't pay a lot of attention in school, Ranma, but they also all know how much you can do when it's important enough for you to really try. So you need to do that now."

He took the piece of paper she was holding out and began scanning it, looking for answers as to why it was so important, why she had spoken with such unwavering conviction. Even as he committed each statement on the paper to memory, as he slotted each piece of the puzzle into place, his confusion grew. The 'facts' on the paper formed a clear, coherent whole, but nothing in the story they assembled told him why any of it was needed. 'Six weeks ago Happosai dragged Pop, Mr. Tendo, and me away on a training journey… The two of us gave him the slip by going back to China… we heard about a legendary training ground that can open up whole new worlds to martial artists… I picked up my curse there so I could take the airborne part of Anything Goes to new heights, Pop decided not to get one… What is all this?'

When he repeated the question out loud, Junko said, "It's what you need to know before you go back in there. Nabiki already did all the hard work for you, the boss built a story without any holes and told her a lot of it. You just need to fill in the gaps."

"Her? Her who?" he demanded.

She gave him the most determined stare she could muster, and replied, "Your mother."

Silence reigned in the dojo for what felt like hours. At last, through frozen lips, Ranma mumbled, "My mother."

Junko nodded.

"My mother's here," he said, louder this time.

She nodded again.

"Nabiki brought her here, and made sure she knew that this time I'm not on a training trip. That if she waits long enough today I'm gonna come walking through that door." The words were more growled than spoken.

Junko swallowed nervously. She reminded herself of the conversation she'd had with her friend, the things Nabiki had revealed to her after keeping quiet for so long. Her spine stiffened, and this time she refused to content herself to a mere nod. "That's right."

"I see." Ranma closed his eyes, chuckling bitterly even as the hand that held the paper clenched into a white-knuckled fist. "And did it ever occur to Nabiki that Pop's also coming home tonight? That he's still got the curse that this," he brandished the tortured document, "says don't exist?! That as soon as cold water does its thing, there's damn well going to be a hole in Nabiki's stupid story big enough to drive a panda through?!"

"Huh?… Don't you think the boss is smart enough to think of that?" Junko shot back, a little unprepared for this particular attack. She'd expected Ranma to demand to know what right Nabiki thought she had to interfere in the lives of the Saotome family like that, had been braced to meet that accusation. Well, this one was easier to answer anyway. "She's got twenty underclassmen in the streets all around the house, waiting to intercept him when he and Mr. Tendo get back. They'll tell him the full story and give him all your waterproof soap so he can stay human until the Nannichuan the Amazons ordered gets in."

Ranma's mouth gaped open and closed as he tried to re-center himself, not having expected the swift, competent answer. "So that's why there were more people in the street than usual," he muttered. Shaking his head and forcibly pushing aside his irritation at having his remaining soap commandeered like that — after all, surely there could be no more noble cause than keeping his mother from learning the truth about 'Ranko' and 'Mr. Panda' — he continued, "Huh. Really. Sounds like Nabiki's gone to a lot of trouble to do this. So, next question." Taking two steps forward and staring furiously down into the shorter girl's eyes, he snapped out, "Where the hell does she think she gets off doing it at all? Any of it?!"

"Why don't I ask you the same question?" Junko shot back, refusing to give ground… not that it would have been easy to do so, as she'd been standing with her back against the door this whole time. "Nabiki said you gave her and her sisters a long song-and-dance about the reason you changed your curse was so that you could finally see your mother. Then Mr. Saotome pointed out his own curse was still a problem, and you decided it was okay to let that meeting slide again. Even after it turned out that you could get his curse cured really soon, you were still planning to wait who knows how many months before you went back to her. Why, Ranma? Why did you do that?"

He stared grimly back at her. "Because Pop was supposed to take me back to Mom when I was a man among men, an' I've still got way too many problems in my life. Let's list a few of 'em, shall we? Crazy rivals — although I hope that none of the ones I got left would try to get to me by going through Mom." He felt a twinge of bitter satisfaction as the girl flinched and paled at the declaration. "Multiple fiancées with a buncha tangled honor ties that I'm still not sure how to straighten out. And last, but definitely not least, is how I got people making big, important decisions for me without even bothering to ask first. So you can go ask Nabiki just how much of a 'man among men' it makes me when she takes away the chance to go back to Mom on my own."

By now Junko's face was ashen, her mouth gaping open, her eyes wide with dismay. The things she and Nabiki had spoken of, the carefully-hidden feelings her boss had finally laid bare before her… these weren't forgotten, exactly, but Junko now realized that they weren't going to be enough to answer all of Ranma's accusations. Once again she wished she had Manami's intellect; maybe then she could have come up with some of these things on her own, could have shared them with Nabiki during their talk. Maybe they could have worked out a better way.

Any chance of that was long gone, though, and she was just going to have to wing it. "I… Ranma, I'm sorry… Neither one of us thought of any of that." Junko hung her head, feeling her own inadequacies weigh her down once more. "It's not Nabiki's fault. She was too caught up in some other stuff to see any of those things."

Despite himself Ranma felt bitterness give way to confusion. "Not her fault? She didn't see? What the heck kind of other stuff is supposed to make all this okay?"

"I didn't say it was okay, just that it's not fair to blame Nabiki. All she could really see was her own part of this, Ranma… that's all anyone can when they're personally involved in something. I'm the one who could have done better, but I just listened to her side and thought that was all there was to see." Junko took a deep breath and met his eyes again. "But that doesn't mean the stuff she said was wrong, and you need to understand that. You need to realize that holding back like you were wasn't just hurting Saotomes. Nabiki, Akane, Kasumi… none of them will ever see their mother again. Can you imagine what they'd give, how far they'd go, for even one last chance to do that? And here you were, someone who'd thought his mother was gone for good, and then you learn that you can see her again, that she's out there waiting and hoping for the chance to have her son back in her life again! And you just kick back, relax, and let her wait. Can you imagine how much that hurt them, even if they didn't show it? Maybe even if they didn't let themselves admit it?"

Ranma took a while to answer. When he did, his voice was unusually subdued. "I remember. Nabiki said something like that, way back when Mom first showed up here. Of course, she followed up by hitting me for a few thousand yen so as not to bust me to Mom… but I guess for her that don't necessarily take away any of the meaning from the first part."

Junko swallowed. "It… wouldn't surprise me if she was planning to hit you up for a lot more yen than that, as payment for services rendered once all this stuff settles down and works out." Somehow, behind those words Ranma could clearly hear the truth that Junko knew Nabiki was planning exactly that. He frowned and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything she hurried along. "I'll talk to her, I'll tell her what you said. What she couldn't see, and I didn't. Don't worry about getting anything more piled onto your tab, Ranma."

"You're gonna try to pull Nabiki and profit apart? Better you than me," he said dubiously. "But thanks for the thought, at least."

The moon was hanging low in the sky, low enough now that she could see it perfectly as she lay on her bedroll. For hours she had watched, sleepless, as the night sky visible through her second-floor window grew gradually brighter. Now, with the pale autumnal moon shining full upon her, Shampoo conceded that she just wasn't going to get any slumber tonight. There was far too much on her mind.

She glanced away from the window for a moment, gaze tracking to an empty square of flooring. In times past that place had held her great-grandmother's bedroll. When they first settled down to run this restaurant that had simply been how Cologne had decided things would be, that the two of them would share sleeping quarters. Shampoo had grumbled once that this would keep her airen from paying her any nocturnal visits, but that had been nothing more than pro forma bluster and wishful thinking. In all honesty, it had been comforting to have a solid piece of her old, familiar life so close at hand in such a strange place.

She was sure the Matriarch had known that. Earlier this week, when Shampoo had seriously asked Cologne to let her have the room all to herself, her great-grandmother had agreed without demur. Shampoo had received the faint impression that Cologne thought she was being too optimistic, but she didn't care. Even if what she hoped for was still a long ways off, even if there was no real chance yet that Ranma would drop by for a late-night get-together, simply making the gesture had bolstered her spirits. She was finally making real, significant progress, Shampoo was certain of it — and surely if Cologne disagreed she would have said something when Shampoo told her why she wanted her own room now.

The Amazon sighed, still staring at the vacant stretch of floor. She didn't regret her decision, but perhaps she had made it a bit early. She'd spent awhile tonight talking with Cologne, discussing the ramifications of this latest twist in her beloved's life. True to her word, Cologne hadn't shared anything personal about Nodoka Saotome, telling her again that these were things Shampoo ought to learn first from Ranma, and later on directly from Nodoka herself. In the end, Shampoo had found herself coming out of the discussion with more questions than she'd had going in… which, ultimately, hadn't surprised her much.

Still, even if Cologne wasn't going to dole out any easy answers, it would have been comforting to have her nearby tonight. Comforting to be reminded that someone so much wiser, more experienced, and more skilled than her was right there, working toward more or less the same things that Shampoo herself wanted so dearly. Here and now, wide awake in the small hours of the morning, Shampoo found herself wishing she'd put off her request for at least one more week. The room felt awfully empty at two A.M. with just herself in it, and only in her wildest dreams would Ranma drop in for some fun on the very night after meeting his mother again for real.

She rolled back onto her back and stared out the window again, just in time to see Ranma's upside-down head appear outside it.

Shampoo blinked, but surprise melted quickly into a wide, sultry, satisfied smile. '<Guess I fell asleep somewhere after all.>'

She rolled once more, this time coming around and up on her hands and knees. She waited just for a moment, wondering whether this would be one of the dreams where he made the first move. After two seconds passed without Ranma entering the room and separating her from her nightshift, Shampoo slid out of the garment and began slinking toward the window, maintaining eye contact with her increasingly wide-eyed beloved the whole time.

When she stood up to open the window, his precarious hold finally failed. Ranma dropped out of sight, landing with a crash loud enough to clue Shampoo in that this was no dream.

The impact might have shocked her back to her senses, but it wasn't enough to do the same thing for him. He was still lying flat on his back, staring absently up, when she opened the window and peeked out. "Ranma, you okay?" she called, as loud as she dared. He twitched and stirred, but gave no further response. Deciding not to risk a louder call, the Amazon slipped out the window and dropped easily to land beside him. Ranma unfroze a little more at the sight, as Shampoo had taken the time to put on clothes again, and not just her nightshift but slippers and a pair of loose-fitting pants as well. "Come on, Airen. Street is no place to be lying down," she said, slipping her arms under his legs and back, lifting him and leaping up and through her window, then setting him gently down.

"W-what the heck was that?" Ranma demanded in a loud whisper once they were inside the room. A quick glance around had already informed him that Cologne was nowhere to be seen.

The Amazon blushed, only just visible in the moonlight. "Um… was mistake. When Shampoo see Ranma at window so late at night, thought it was dream."

"A dream, huh? You have those kinds of dreams about me often?" he asked without stopping to think whether that was a wise question, ego blindsiding common sense once again.

Shampoo gulped, and the blush became more visible. "Um… Mm-hm." She hesitated for a long moment, uncertain whether to proceed. Ranma had to have come here for something serious, surely related in some way to his mother's return to his life. She really ought to move the conversation in that direction, away from matters related to her recent mistake. She could practically hear her great-grandmother's dry voice urging her down the sensible path, as well as reminding her that now, when she was making real progress, it would be worse than ever to scare him away by coming on too strong.

However, all the good intentions in the world apparently weren't enough to keep the next words down. "You ever dream about Shampoo, Ranma?"

Her husband paled, to a degree more noticeable than Shampoo's blush had been. Sweat broke out in rivulets on his brow. "Um… I… er… ah…"

She let him stammer awhile longer, smiling wider and wider as she read the unmistakable 'yes' behind his discomfiture. Eventually, she let him off the hook. "Okay, okay, Shampoo take back question. Sorry about misunderstanding, Airen." She gave a quick bow of her head, then continued, "You come here for something important, yes? What you need say to Shampoo?"

A few deep breaths gave him time to recover most of his composure. Ranma pushed recent memories to the back of his mind, and replied, "Something happened back at the Tendo place today while we were over here training. Something big, something unexpected, something I really wasn't ready for." He paused for a moment, grimacing once again at the memory. The middle Tendo might have had her reasons, and the reunion with Nodoka might have gone well so far, but he was nowhere near ready to simply forgive and forget how Nabiki had taken the choice away from him. "You remember what I told you about my mom, right? How she's been waiting for me an' Pop to come back to her, and I was finally seeing some light at the end of that tunnel? That once I got a few more of my problems solved, I could finally look her up again? Well, Nabiki decided to hurry the timetable a little. She brought Mom back and had her waiting for me when I got done flying and came back for dinner." He paused, finally noticing that Shampoo's reaction seemed off. The Amazon didn't seem shocked or even surprised, only puzzled. "Uh, why're you looking at me like that?"

"Did silly ex-panda not tell you?" Shampoo replied. "Shampoo already know you mother come back today… um, yesterday. Genma come running in to restaurant, beg us for anything we have keep him from turn into panda in front of her." She snorted. "Great-grandmother give him his share of Nannichuan, which she not even tell Shampoo had arrive earlier."

Ranma gaped feebly back at her. "What…? You mean… Pop came by here? That's why he was so much later than Mr. Tendo in getting back?" His voice climbing quickly higher, he asked, "That idiot already got cured?"

"He not even bother to tell you, huh?" Shampoo asked sympathetically.

"NO!" She quickly made a shushing sound and put one finger over his lips, which knocked the worst immediacy of his outrage away. Ranma continued in a much quieter, but no less intense voice. "Mr. Tendo came back a couple hours before he did, said hello to Mom an' told her my old man would be awhile longer, that he might not even get back tonight." He snorted. "You wanna hear the story he told her, Shampoo? It's good for a laugh at least."

"Sure, what is it?"

"He told Mom that Pop was out walking through the back alleys, servin' as a decoy for any punks who'd try to mug innocent people. When an' if anyone tried, the old man would beat the snot out of them so they'd know better than to do it again." Ranma rolled his eyes. "I can't believe she bought a corny story like that."

Shampoo giggled. "Well, is only natural for woman to believe best of man she love."

"Um… yeah," he said. "Anyway, by the time Pop finally got back, it was late. Later than we usually go to bed, actually. And then of course there was all the talking we all did." He brooded for a moment. "Old man better not try wakin' me up at the crack of dawn tomorrow for a sparring session."

The Amazon stared blankly back at him. "You mean… mother not stay the night?"

It was his turn for a blank stare. "No, she did. Mom's back with us for good, now. She and Pop are in what was his and my room. Where'd you get that idea?"

She rolled her eyes. "Let Shampoo just say is not likely he getting you up at crack of dawn for spar." Honestly, her beloved really needed to let his wife educate him in certain matters.

"Yeah, I guess," he said, agreeing more because Shampoo seemed so certain than because he understood why she did.

Meanwhile, a thought had struck the Amazon. "So, Genma stay in same room, mother with him, and Ranma not there. Where Ranma sleep?" she asked, ever so casually.

"Don't worry," Ranma returned with a smirk, "I'm camping out in the dojo for tonight." He was mildly proud of himself — this time he'd not only recognized that what she'd said was only the surface of what she really meant, he'd even divined the real question behind the spoken one. "It was pretty funny to watch that discussion, too. Mr. Tendo was all for me movin' into Akane's room, but Pop couldn't decide whether to shout out his agreement or pretend to be all virtuous and stuff, so he just kept quiet." The tortured, indecisive look on his father's face had been the funniest sight he'd seen in days.

"And Ranma put his foot down hard, tell them no way, he not do that? Aiyah! So glad to hear it!" Shampoo bubbled.

"Well, I would've." Maybe his track record of standing up for himself against Soun wasn't so great, but he wasn't about to let him or anyone pull something like that right in front of his mother's eyes! "But Akane kinda beat me to it. Made darn sure everybody knew that wasn't gonna fly with her." Ranma gave a wry grimace. At least the tomboy had held back from making the kind of pervert remarks he'd heard many times in the past. Doubtless that was more for his mother's sake than his. "So, like I said, I'm in the dojo tonight. Tomorrow we're gonna clean out a small storage room so I can bunk there."

Silence fell, and stretched for awhile. Shampoo was still trying, and failing, to come up with a good "You could always sneak over here to sleep, you know" remark that couldn't also be construed as pushing too hard, when he spoke again. "I still can't believe my idiotic old man didn't bother to let me know he kicked the panda habit." Although in Genma's defense, there hadn't been much chance for him to get a private moment with his son yet. Ranma frowned thoughtfully. "So why exactly was he gone so long? It was hours between when Mr. Tendo came back and when Pop did. It shouldn't've taken but a minute to splash him down with the Nannichuan, right?" Before Shampoo could answer, he gave a sudden grin. "Please tell me you made him wash dishes all that time to pay for it."

She snickered. "No, but Shampoo wish we could have." Turning serious, she said, "Took a little longer than that for use Nannichuan, Airen. Great-grandmother need to take… um, precautions that you and I not have to, because Jusenkyo not fight against change one curse for other. But for sure it no like using own power against it. So far away from cursed springs is not too hard force them to let go, but great-grandmother still have to set up magic defenses before she could use water for cure him."

Ranma blinked. "I never knew that. So she's gonna have to do that for Ryoga too, huh?"

"Is right." Shampoo grinned. "You think we should make him wash dishes few hours for payment?"

"Well, I had you get the water to cure him so I could settle the last of the debt I owe him. So I don't think I can ask you to do that." Ranma grinned back at her. "I'll leave the decision up to you." Shampoo laughed merrily at that. He chuckled as well, but then thought to ask, "Wait, though… if you actually had to go to more trouble to cure Pop than I was thinking, how does that mean you couldn't have made him wash dishes as payback…? Oh, right. Duh. You're just doing deliveries now; there aren't any dishes for him to wash."

"Is true, but that not reason we could not make him work to pay back," Shampoo explained. "Is because great-grandmother have him do something else rest of time. She sit down and talk with him about mother, help him remember everything about her before go back to her tonight, and also let great-grandmother know about who Nodoka Saotome is."

He mulled over that response, unsure how to take it. "Huh. So that prob'ly means you know more about my mother now than I do."

"No. I not get to listen to that talking," Shampoo returned. Deciding that the situation warranted use of one of the few pieces of slang she knew, she said, "And great-grandmother not tell me jack-spit about her afterward."

Ranma choked back a chuckle at the unwitting slip, picturing Shampoo in a blonde wig and Sailor Venus outfit.

Not noticing any of this, she continued, "She say is best Shampoo learn these things from you. So… you already know I not getting any sleep tonight, Ranma. I guessing is same thing for you. As much time as you willing to take, stay and talk to me about her, Shampoo happy to listen."

"…Yeah. Yeah, I think that might be good, to talk about this," he said slowly. "At least for awhile. You're definitely right about the 'not getting any sleep' part."

"Lot to think about, huh?" she said sympathetically. "I will take as much off you mind as you can give."

"Thanks, Shampoo." Ranma heaved a long sigh. "It ain't even like anything went badly. It was great seeing her again, for real I mean. And I know she was really happy to see me. She even told me she was proud of me, that from everything she's seen an' heard so far, she couldn't be happier about who her son turned out to be." By the end of the sentence he was wearing a small smile. "Which is great and all. I really am happy about that. And I'm definitely happy that we got no more chance of Pop getting busted by Jusenkyo and hurting her that way." Fear of that was what had given him the courage to brave the dangers of Shampoo's bedroom at two in the morning. Well, the journey might have started out a little more perilous than he was looking for, but Ranma found himself glad he'd come. "It's just… so much, all at once. It's really hard to wrap my head around all of it."

"Shampoo know the feeling," the Amazon returned quietly. "Like I say already, great-grandmother not tell me anything about who you mother is, Airen. But we do talk for while tonight about how things change, about how big of impact this have on you life. She also walk back with me over things I already know, things you have already tell me about Nodoka, help me see in ways I not have before. For sure is not such big thing tonight for me as you. But Shampoo can get idea of how you feeling."

"Heh. I guess we both could use a little time to let things settle down," Ranma said. A thought struck him. "You sure you want me piling anything else on you right now?"

"Yes," Shampoo declared wholeheartedly. "If it make Ranma feel better to tell, it make me feel better to hear. Even if it make own head spin a little more, that still will not equal the happiness of have you share with me."

"If you're sure… I don't really know where to start, though," he mused.

"Could tell me what you tell her of life so far," Shampoo suggested. "Did you show her you curse?"

"Yeah," Ranma answered. "Real early on. I wanted to get it out of the way."

"And she take it well?" Shampoo guessed, basing this on what he'd said earlier and the expression on his face now.

"She really did," he confirmed, smiling with remembered relief. "She was plenty surprised by it at first, of course, but she listened real close to me when I told her everything about it, how cool it was to be able to fly, to do what everybody's dreamed of for so long and almost nobody's ever been able to reach. That was enough for Mom. She's almost as happy for me to have this curse as I am." He smirked at her. "I didn't even have to mention how turning into a falcon gave me enough of an edge with some training to spank every Amazon's record in three thousand years of history."

Once again, all the good intentions in the world couldn't have held Shampoo's tongue. "So Ranma saying he want to spank Amazons?" she murmured, leaning toward him with a sultry, smoky look. She couldn't hold it long, though, dissolving into giggles as quickly as his own overconfidence evaporated.

"Uh, yeah… well… Anyway. I think that could even have been the turning point for her deciding Pop had kept his promise to her, to bring me up as a man among men. That's—"

"Aiyah! Is true?" Shampoo broke in, unable to wait any longer for the most important part. "She say promise fulfilled, no more worry about kill self if she not see for true how good man you is?"

"Looks that way," Ranma said, smiling widely. "Well, she didn't come right out and say nothin' about the seppuku oath, and Pop didn't have the guts to bring it up, but she told him flat out that he'd done a good job, that from everything she'd seen so far she was real happy with how great I'd turned out. And she made it real clear that my Falcon curse was part of what she meant when she said that."

"Is about time," Shampoo pronounced in unmistakably satisfied tones. "About time somebody else glad for Ranma sake what Shampoo do for you, rather than just angry at me."

Ranma opted not to mention just yet that Nodoka didn't, couldn't know that it had been Shampoo's gift to him. "Yeah, Mom's reaction to finding out about my Falcon curse was every bit as good as everybody else's at the dojo should've been." He made a sound midway between a snort and a chuckle. "Shouldn't complain about that, I guess, since all the rest of them put together don't matter as much as she does."

"I really glad to hear that, Ranma," Shampoo said softly. '<In more ways than one.>'

"An' I'm really glad I could say it to you," he replied. "I know I already told you how much I like this curse, said thanks and all that, but I don't think it's ever gonna be enough. I'm real grateful for all you did for me, Shampoo. Thanks to you, I was finally able to get back to my mom for real. I do mean that — thank you."

"Sh-Shampoo happy to help," the lavender-haired girl replied, speaking with some difficulty through the lump in her throat, and quickly blinking incipient tears out of her eyes.

Her back was to the window so the moonlight left her face in shadow, which meant Ranma didn't notice. "Still don't know whether to say 'thank you' or 'screw you' to Nabiki, though," he continued in a rather less pleasant tone of voice.

"Nabiki…? Oh yeah, you say she is one what responsible for getting mother there now?" Shampoo asked. "Why she do that?"

"According to one of her friends, it's 'cause her own mother's gone and that made her hate it that mine was still around and I wasn't running right back to her." Ranma glowered. "Maybe I can understand that, but it don't make it any less stupid how that made her ignore everything else."

"Like what? Other than Ranma right to make own choices, of course." Shampoo shrugged. "Is not like any Tendo ever not ignore that."

For a moment Ranma hesitated on the verge of pointing out that her own track record in that arena was hardly perfect. But he swallowed the words; Shampoo might have slipped up there from time to time, but she had also come through for him big-time on a few occasions — particularly when she stood with him against Cologne all throughout the business of the Phoenix Pill. "That's part of it, yeah," he said instead. "But I was thinking even more about the stuff I didn't get around to telling Mom tonight, stuff that she's bound to find out before long." He sighed. "I wanted to wrap up more of the problems in my life before I went back to her, you know?"

"Yes, you already tell Shampoo that," she replied, a faint note of hesitation in her voice.

Ranma didn't hear it. "Sure, she's proud of me now, but what's she gonna think after some time has gone by and she sees some of the stuff that ain't so great? Promise or no promise, I never want her changing her mind about being happy to have me for a son. I don't want her getting even a little disappointed, Shampoo. She's waited so long to see me again, and she deserves better than that. But thanks to Nabiki, I—"

"Ranma, wait. Is something I need tell you," Shampoo interjected, mind made up.

"Huh? What's that?"

"Is about what you say now. That you would rather clean up every single problem in life and be perfect when you go back to mother. Yes?"

"Well, yeah, that wasn't what I said and it wasn't what I was planning, but I'd call that the best-case scenario. Why'd you ask?"

"Is because of something great-grandmother say to me tonight, in talk Shampoo tell you we have." Shampoo stared at him, the intensity of her regard not hidden by the darkness. "You say it own self, how long it has been that mother not have you in her life. Not have own child to hold, to love, to give things for, to be mother for! Shampoo understand you never ever want disappoint her, but if you go back to her perfect, no problems in life, is maybe you do just that. If you perfect, if you life is already perfect, what you need her for?"

The words felt almost like a punch to his gut. Ranma gasped, then gaped for a while. Finding his voice at last, he said, "But… is that… are you…?"

"Think about it, Airen," she urged, taking more care than usual with her words. "How much of you life she has had to miss out on. Now she have you with her again, you in her life and she in yours. You think maybe she would be happy to see there is still some ways she can help you grow?"

"I… I never thought about it like that," he admitted. "You really think that's how it is, Shampoo?"

His words were so plaintive that Shampoo had to really struggle to get out her reply. "Ummm… maybe."

Ranma blinked. "Wait a minute… whaddaya mean, 'maybe'?"

"Mean just what say." Shampoo sighed. "This was something great-grandmother bring up to Shampoo, tell me to think about. But she do it in such a way that there no way for me to know whether she mean 'this is how it is' or 'this sound good but is not really truth at all'. So… sorry, Airen, not want to make you own burden of thoughts heavier, but I think I need to pass this on to you."

He heaved his own sigh, a loud, exasperated one. "You know, it's one thing for the old ghoul not to give me any easy answers. But she oughta cut you a lot more slack than I think she does, Shampoo."

"I tell her this once, early in Japan. She say, 'Spoil children is job of grandmother. Not great-grandmother.'"

Ranma snorted. "Can't argue about that… cause if I did, she'd smack me over the head with her stick." Shampoo nodded. "Well, I ain't gonna say that I really wanted more deep, heavy questions to think about, but it's better to see them than have them hit me from behind. Thanks, Shampoo," he said unenthusiastically.

"Is anything more I can do to help?" Shampoo thought back over those words, and realized they hadn't been chosen quite as well as they could have been. "Anything to help you feel better now?"

"I dunno about right now," he replied after a long, thoughtful pause. "Let's just get back to me telling you the general stuff, so you know pretty much everything that's going on. Maybe getting all that off my chest will help, and anyway if you know more maybe it'll help clear up whatever other mysteries your granny stuck you with." He thought for a few moments more about what would be the best way to do that. "You got a pencil and paper in here?"

"Mm-hm," she affirmed, rising and fetching them from the desk along one wall. Ranma took them and sat down at the desk, quickly filling up two sheets of paper with a near word-for-word transcription of the note Nabiki had left for him with Junko. The girl's exhortation to give his utmost in learning every nuance of Nabiki's preparation had really hit home with him, and Ranma had utterly memorized the note's contents before destroying it per Junko's instructions and heading inside. The middle Tendo had been able to squeeze everything onto one sheet of paper, but Ranma didn't even try. He finished his task and handed the papers to Shampoo.

"Ranma, I no can read this," the Amazon said flatly.

He blinked. "Well, duh. Maybe it would help if one of us turned on the light?"

Dark or not, he didn't miss her eye-rolling response. "If moonlight not enough, how you write it in first place? I talking about you handwriting, Airen." She shook her head, then said, "Why write down anyway? If this something you not want language barrier to get between us, want to make sure Shampoo understand, why we not just change into cursed forms and talk free?"

'Translation: you already got to see me naked tonight, it's only fair I get my turn too.' "That ain't it, Shampoo. I wrote this down so you'll have it to keep and memorize. Plus that's how Nabiki gave it to me, and I'm sure I couldn't do as good a job as her of phrasing everything to get the point across just right."

"Nabiki? What you talking?"

"I told you already, she's the reason Mom is back with Pop and me for good. Before she brought her back to the dojo, she met with her and told her some stuff about me. She also came up with this," he gestured to the papers, "which is basically a bunch of stuff about my life, most of which is mostly true and a little that's off the wall completely. It all locks together to make a story Mom'll be glad to hear, and which will keep her from ever finding out who 'Ranko' and 'Mr. Panda' were."

"Not sure I happy to hear Nabiki go to this much trouble, take this much on herself," Shampoo said darkly.

"Join the club," Ranma suggested. "Getting the choice made for me grates like hell. I just hope Mom won't get hurt by being called back too early, an' that it'll all work out for the best in the end."

"Me too." The Amazon took the papers from him and began scrutinizing them, barely managing to make out one character in thirty. "So what this say about me? Where is Shampoo's part in Nabiki's story?"

"That's one of the 'pretty close to the truth' parts. According to her, I fought you in my normal form, but I didn't stick around long enough to find out about the marriage laws after I won." He hesitated, then added, "She also suggested we give Mom some time to settle down before springing you or Ucchan on her." Actually, Nabiki had flat-out commanded Ranma to give his mother time to adjust before even informing the other girls about her return to his life, which was the one area he'd edited on the transcript he'd written for Shampoo.

"<Oh, she did, did she?>" Shampoo muttered under her breath, not bothering with Japanese just then. The fact that Nabiki was probably right about that only made it stick worse in her craw. She glowered darkly for a few moments, then pushed past the worst of the irritation and said, "Well, if this is roles we all have to play for Ranma, Shampoo suppose is best to learn the lines. You tell me what this say, and I write it down."

"Okay, but destroy it after you got it memorized and until then keep it safe. Don't let it blow out the window or nothing. With my luck it'd wind up right in Mom's hands somehow."

"No worry, Ranma, I know that even without you have to say." She gave a forced laugh. "Shampoo think is official now — both of us been in this crazy place way too long."

She'd had a little over thirty-six hours to think about things. The first and easiest conclusion Shampoo had reached was that she'd need lots more time to settle everything within her mind, not to mention more talks with Ranma. The hour they'd shared so early the previous day had only been a start. It had been a good start, certainly; he'd helped her understand much more of what was going on with the Saotomes, and she'd succeeded in lightening his own load of care. The Amazon hoped she'd get a chance for a repeat performance soon.

Of course, even a dozen more conversations like their last one wouldn't accomplish everything that was needed. Sooner or later she'd have to speak with Nodoka face-to-face. Towards the end of their hour, when she'd gotten around to asking Ranma how soon he thought that meeting could happen, her husband hadn't been able to say yet. Just for that one moment, Shampoo had done her utmost to push aside the fluttery feelings of warmth and love that he evoked in her — the ones that made her all too eager to believe the absolute best where he was concerned — and really see his response for what it was. As far as she could tell, the only reluctance he'd shown had been for the short-term, the same reality that she'd already grudgingly acknowledged. If she raced forward now to meet and ingratiate herself with Nodoka as fast as she could, it would only make a complicated situation even more confusing. She knew it, he knew it, and as far as Shampoo could tell that was the only driving force behind his uncertainty as to when his mother should meet his wife.

And it would certainly be in all their best interests if he had at least a little time to spend getting to know Nodoka and relaying important information to Shampoo before that meeting took place. She knew that and she accepted it. That didn't mean she was happy about him having to cancel their training session for today, though. When he had told her she'd just sighed and nodded in agreement, but now that Friday afternoon had come, with the students straggling away from Furinkan and only a half-hour remaining until she would have been meeting him again for the afternoon, it was much harder to grin and bear it.

In fact, she wasn't even trying. Perhaps the heroic thing to do would be to focus on the fact that her beloved was spending time with his mother and simply be happy for him, but she wasn't going to take such a high road. On the other hand, Shampoo wasn't about to work out her frustration and anger on Ranma, not when he hadn't done anything to deserve it. Today's disappointment was due to circumstances beyond either of their control.

Today's target was the person for whom that wasn't true.

She had trailed her quarry for the last ten minutes, ghosting across the rooftops with all the stealth she possessed, watching and waiting for the perfect moment. This was the first time she'd deliberately followed Nabiki on her way home from Furinkan. Somehow Shampoo hadn't been surprised that the middle Tendo's route was quite different from the simple, straightforward one taken by Ranma or Akane. Nabiki's path so far had gone well out of her way, twisting and winding through many different streets and neighborhoods. Interestingly, and frustratingly, and probably not coincidentally, the twisting nature of this path had kept her in wide-open, well-traveled areas the whole time. There was never a moment without several other pedestrians nearby, even discounting the mercenary's two closest underlings who kept pace with her.

Shampoo brooded over this for a few minutes, while keeping one eye on the group's progress. She might not have lived here as long as Nabiki had, but her delivery duties had enabled her to learn the streets at least as well as the other girl. If the greedy money-grubbing witch was deliberately choosing this route to get back home without ever leaving the main flow of traffic, then she ought to take a left turn… here. Shampoo allowed herself a tiny, grim smile as Nabiki did just that. When she successfully predicted the trio's next two turns as well, the smile grew larger — and Shampoo bounded away over the rooftops as fast as she could go.

Fifteen minutes later, she stared down at Nabiki, Manami, and Junko once more, panting quietly from exertion but fiercely satisfied. Nabiki hadn't yet begun to show any signs of concern, but that meant nothing; she probably spent hours schooling herself not to reveal what she was really thinking. The girl on her right was similarly impassive. However, the remaining member of the group was clearly beginning to get a little nervous. They were currently walking down a main thoroughfare of this section of Nerima, and at this time of day there should have been a steady flow of people. However, the three of them were the only ones walking between the long, blank property walls, and had been for several minutes now. What the one girl was showing, Shampoo was quite confident the other two were feeling.

She waited, the sadistic side of her hoping that she could afford to let them continue for another few minutes. That would be just enough time for them to go around a curve and see the blockade she'd formed in the street ahead of them, the reason why they'd met nobody coming the other way for some time now. That would be the perfect moment to drop in on them, in Shampoo's opinion.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. As if she could hear the thought, or at least possessed a better danger-sense than her younger sibling, Nabiki suddenly came to a halt. "I think we should head back and—" the middle Tendo started to say.

Shampoo was already moving, no longer bothering with stealth as she dropped through the air. She touched down a few feet away from Nabiki, blocking the retreat that the other girl had meant to make. Not that it would have done her any good; Shampoo had placed more than one blockade. "Nihao," she purred.

Two of the girls in front of her froze, their faces masks as rigid and unyielding as their bodies. One girl, though, was made of sterner — or at least different — stuff. "Shampoo, don't do this! I know you're angry, but—"

"You shut up!" the Amazon snarled, turning away from Nabiki. "Shampoo know what you is!" Five rapid strides took her across the distance separating her from Junko, and then Shampoo's hand lashed out with all the speed and precision of the Xi Fang Gao. This time, though, her target was a shiatsu point in the throat, not the scalp. Junko stumbled backward, wide-eyed, fearful, and clutching at her throat, unhurt but unable to utter even the slightest of sounds.

"Manami, no!" Nabiki's barked command had the Amazon spinning away from Junko to confront the other two. Manami was staring at her superior in shocked incomprehension, but the response hadn't stopped her. Nor had it affected her aim as far as Shampoo could tell; the water from Manami's pistol impacted her right in the center of her torso.

Other than getting her wet, it had no effect at all. It was with great satisfaction that Shampoo saw a flicker of true, unguarded emotion cross Nabiki's face. "For something important as this, Shampoo use waterproof soap," the Amazon sneered.

"I can't imagine why," Nabiki murmured, cool mask firmly in place once more. "It's not like you couldn't shred the three of us even in your other body."

"That not why I here. Not this time, anyway," Shampoo ground out. "This time just for talking." Turning away from Nabiki to glare at Junko, she amended, "Talking just Nabiki and me. You not say nothing for four hours now. And you," shifting her glare to Manami, "keep out of it or you get same!"

"If you're quite through threatening my friends," Nabiki drawled, "perhaps you could tell me what you wanted?"

"And here Shampoo thought you smart enough to figure out on you own," the Amazon spat. "Okay, I make it really plain. Stop try to control Ranma. He not yours, not stupid Akane's, not any Tendo! Is not right anybody but Ranma put him and mother back together!" She paused, frowning, then admitted, "Or Genma could have. If Ranma say is okay. But not you, not nobody else!"

"So Ranma already came by and told you about that, did he?" Nabiki inquired, still speaking as if she had no care in the world beyond curiosity.

The pose infuriated Shampoo, made her all the more determined to defeat this opponent even on what was decidedly not her best ground. "What you talking?" she shot back, putting as much contempt in her voice as she could manage. "You not already find out Genma come by, tell us whole story, beg for water for his cure? Maybe Nabiki just lucky all this time, not good."

"I'm not so sure you ought to be casting aspersions on my powers of deduction," Nabiki replied. "Did you ever stop and think that I might have had a very good reason for acting now, rather than sitting back and letting everything keep dragging on?"

"Sure," Shampoo said with an unpleasant laugh. "You think this give you stronger hold on Ranma, make him more in debt to you than money ever do. You no care how it feel for him, just debt of honor you think you can chain him down. Is all of it? Shampoo know that part of it at least, but she not so good as Nabiki at thinking like snake crawling through underground maze to get at baby rabbit. If there more, and it not even worse, go ahead and tell me."

"That was certainly an… imaginative little description," Nabiki said. "But then, anyone who made her plan of action believing that she got the whole, complete truth from Genma Saotome… well, imagination is certainly not something she's missing out on."

"Great-grandmother got whole story," Shampoo said as flatly as a yen piece that had been run over by a steamroller. "Let me tell you, Shampoo imagination is not part of picture here."

"Well, unless the old woman sent you, maybe you should head back to her now?" the middle Tendo suggested. "I haven't had many dealings with her, but they were enough to tell me I didn't want to get on her bad side. And I think Jusenkyo proves that she doesn't cut a lot of slack for someone just because she's family."

"If great-grandmother punish me for this, I will listen her tell me why I was wrong and not make mistake again!" Shampoo declared. "But I no think she will. Defend loved ones from evil what would stab them in back is Amazon way."

"And what about other threats, hm? What about something that wouldn't sneak up behind him, but come down on him from directly in front and kill him without him even putting up a fight?" Nabiki returned. "You want to complain about me picking when and how he went back to his mother, Shampoo? You think I should have just let it slide as long as he planned to? Please. You martial artists are all the same. If you want something, then you decide that's reason enough to believe everything's going to work out just like that. You don't bother to come up with more than the briefest little short-term, half-assed plans to get what you want, and mostly you just wait and yell for it to drop into your lap."

Shampoo could certainly have countered that accusation effectively enough, but although Nabiki's words had stoked her temper higher she was nowhere near furious enough to blurt out just how much planning, effort, and time had gone into her quest for her beloved over the last few months. "If you trying to say something, try harder. I is just poor simple martial artist, after all," Shampoo said sarcastically. "I could squash whole Tendo family one hand, but is too, too hard to try and figure out what so-smart girl Nabiki saying."

"Then I'll make it clear," Nabiki snapped. "Since you say you got the whole story from Genma, then you know about the promise he made to her about Ranma. If she didn't decide he was a 'man among men', the two of them would be in the backyard spilling their guts in the name of honor, duty, and motherly love. Now you tell me, Shampoo — what's the absolute best defense we could possibly have, against something like that? What's the one resource we've got available that could assure us Nodoka wouldn't make that decision, even if it looked like she was starting to lean that way?"

It galled the Amazon quite a lot to answer, in all honesty, "I still not know what you trying to say."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "What a surprise." Her gaze sharpening, she glared back at Shampoo and continued, "I'm talking about you, Miss Kitty-Hawk. You and that trick you pulled on my sister so long ago. The Xi Fang Gao is all the insurance Ranma and his dad could ask for, that his mom won't be calling their little debt due."

Shampoo was silent for quite awhile, letting her bitter, angry glare be her only reply while she turned all this over and over in her mind. She could smash through any wall in Nerima with a single blow, but Nabiki's words felt like a twisting maze of barriers that she couldn't bull through by any strength she possessed. And as for finding a way between them… ? Gritting her teeth and redoubling her efforts, wishing once again that the Japanese hadn't made their language so damnably, unnecessarily complicated, she finally found her point of attack. "Not good enough, Nabiki," she growled dangerously. "That not say anything why you do this now, instead of wait for Ranma own time."

The middle Tendo shrugged, and even offered her a faint, mocking smile. "I thought I'd spare you that part of it, but since you insist… Shampoo, from where I'm standing I don't see any reason to be sure you'll be around that much longer. Not four months or however long it would have been. Not even one."

Shampoo made a wordless noise of disgust. "Shampoo never abandons Airen. You not stupid enough to think that."

"Abandon him? Of course not." The smile was gone now, but the mocking look had only grown stronger. "No matter that Daddy and Mr. Saotome are pushing him harder than ever to concentrate on one particular fiancée and settle things with everyone else. No matter how surprised he was, or how thoughtful he looked just last week, when Mr. Saotome pointed out that once he and Ryoga secured their cures, there'd really be nothing left for him to get from you. Ranma's already scored something even better than a cure to his curse. What's left? Free food, sure, but he can get that for a lot less trouble elsewhere. High-powered techniques, but the same thing goes there, and yours certainly aren't 'no strings attached', now are they?"

Nabiki paused, staring coolly across the intervening space, apparently without the slightest concern for the cauldron of boiling, turbulent emotions she was stirring in Shampoo. "I suppose he might still find you helpful for some of the bigger challenges that crop up from time to time, but our boy Saotome is getting stronger every day. There can't be much water left in even that well, and I don't know whether they care about it anyway. From what Mr. Saotome said, he thinks you people finally shifted from 'somewhat useful resource' to 'potentially threatening nuisance'. And if Ranma didn't think so, he sure didn't know what to say back to put his father in his place."

"That… that is lie…" Shampoo snarled through gritted teeth, her hands clenched tightly into fists and her whole body trembling with the effort needed to restrain herself. "Shampoo see own eyes how hard Ranma take it, how sad and confuse he is when Spatula Girl tells him Amazons worthless and he need throw me away. He not hides that, he not hides relief when I tell him truth and make him see how wrong she is!"

"Oh, so you did give him reason to keep you around a little longer? All right, I stand corrected," Nabiki said airily. "But here's ten thousand yen's worth of free advice, Shampoo… Maybe you should think back over the times you two have spent together, and how much of that was simply him taking what you were oh-so-happy to give."


Shampoo barely even heard the word, certainly didn't react to it immediately. Not until Nabiki broke eye contact, her head whipping to the side to stare at some new target, did the Amazon push away the worst of her turmoil and shift her own gaze.

About five feet away, Cologne rested atop her staff. Manami and Junko were nowhere to be seen.

Shampoo clamped her mouth shut, feeling a rush of uncertainty. She had no idea how to respond now. On the one hand, she didn't want to depend on her great-grandmother to fight her battles for her — and now, with the worst of the boiling rage gone, she could see several flaws in Nabiki's insinuations. She was ready, willing, and eager to return to the attack.

On the other hand, getting in great-grandmother's way when she wore that look was very, very high on Shampoo's Bottom Ten List.

One quick hop put the Matriarch a few feet away from Nabiki, at an angle that left the middle Tendo focusing solely on her rather than Shampoo. "You have spent the last several minutes alternately twisting the truth for my great-granddaughter and lying to her outright," Cologne continued, her voice as cold as the wind that blows between the stars. "You may succeed in confusing her and giving her even more pain than her time in this land has, but she is the least of your concerns now."

"It sure does take a lot of Amazons to talk to one Japanese high schooler," Nabiki observed.

To the naked eye, Cologne didn't respond at all to the remark. However, Shampoo had been honing a new sense lately, and with it she witnessed the barest fraction of the Matriarch's aura synchronize with the air and uncurl from around her body to envelop Nabiki. It moved oddly slowly to her perception, taking much more time than Shampoo knew her ancestor needed for anything she had yet shown her great-granddaughter.

With the energy wrapped invisibly around Nabiki, Cologne spoke again, her voice no warmer. "Unlike my great-granddaughter, I know exactly why you called in Nodoka Saotome. Congratulations, Miss Tendo — you have actually managed to inconvenience me. You have forced me to alter some of my plans." Nabiki's face still showed no emotion, but she was pale and trembling now. Despite the seething contempt she felt for the other girl, Shampoo shivered herself at the sight before her… then blinked, as her own lesser Air senses finally clued her in to something. The temperature was dropping rapidly in the air surrounding Nabiki, though the effect didn't extend far enough to reach either Amazon. A gentle breeze was circling around her, making the chill even worse. Nabiki's shivering and the pallor of her skin were physiological, not psychological, in origin.

"No more, Nabiki Tendo. It ends," Cologne proclaimed, somehow managing to chill her tone by a few degrees more as she stared Nabiki straight in the eyes. Squinting, Shampoo thought she could make out the beginning of ice crystals forming on the girl's eyelashes. "This is your last warning. If I learn of any more interference from you, I will destroy you."

Just as Shampoo thought that Nabiki's shuddering must drop the girl to the street, Cologne looked away, banishing whatever technique she'd employed. The air quickly began to warm up around Nabiki again. Shampoo watched just long enough to see the girl stagger over to the nearest wall and brace herself against it to avoid falling, then turned back to regard Cologne. "Come, great-granddaughter," the ancient Amazon commanded, bounding away to the very rooftop from which her descendent had descended.

Shampoo followed, landing from her own leap to find Cologne bouncing away again. Not until she had led her great-granddaughter five blocks away did the Matriarch stop, coming to rest with a perfect one-point landing and freezing Shampoo in her tracks with a single glance. "And now, Shampoo, please tell me what you thought you were going to accomplish through that little encounter," she said.

The Amazon gulped, knowing right away that this wasn't going to be much fun. At least the Matriarch hadn't spoken in Mandarin, which she used when the matter was truly dire and she wanted to be certain every last shred of her meaning and intent were clear. Taking a deep breath, she answered, "Sh— I hurt for Ranma sake, hear from him how he hate not be one to go back to mother on his own. I not want that happen again. Ranma too, too nice to treat stupid Nabiki like she deserve, but Shampoo not have that problem. I really just mean to do what great-grandmother do for me, tell her this her last chance stop pushing Airen around."

"And what do you think you actually accomplished?"

"Had not done so good about get that message out," Shampoo admitted. "Take too long, and let Nabiki do too much of talking." Then her jaw squared in determination as she continued, "Like great-grandmother say, she make me confuse and it hurt to hear what she say — but even if you not have be there, she would not have beat me. I was find the holes in what she say, I not let her trick me into not trust Ranma or think he just waiting until he have no more use for Shampoo. Each thing she say only build up more debt for her, more trouble if she not back down in the end."

Cologne sighed. "Well, I suppose that can be considered a victory of sorts. Now, another question — how much would you be willing to pay to earn it? Would you say it was worth admitting to Nabiki that you and son-in-law have been enjoying much closer contact lately than he's let the Tendos know?"

"Great-grandmother, I not say that!" Shampoo protested. "Shampoo see it when she lay out trap for that, I slip past it by say it was Genma who tell us about mother come back!"

"Nicely overlooking the fact that when Genma came to our restaurant on Wednesday, he didn't know it was Nabiki who was responsible for his wife's return," Cologne said flatly.

"Um…" The monosyllable was all Shampoo could manage.

"Nor was that the only time you revealed things to her," the Matriarch continued remorselessly. "Almost every line she spoke was a trap, designed to hurt you and extract information, and do as much of both as possible. I am glad that you were able to resist the obvious half of her attack, Great-Granddaughter, but make no mistake — this was a loss for you and a victory for her."

"Until great-grandmother step in, anyway," Shampoo muttered. "Thank you for that, sorry you have to do."

Cologne shook her head. "I would have had this encounter with Miss Tendo regardless. Her actions, not yours, decided that. In fact, your attempt actually gave me a good opportunity to deliver my message."

It still stung to depend on someone else to clean up her own mess, Shampoo thought. "But even if you take away Nabiki victory, it still mean a loss for me. Great-grandmother… what should I have do different?"

"You should not have confronted her at all," Cologne replied. "Not on a battleground like this. It was as grievous a mismatch as if Akane Tendo were to challenge you to a fight."

Shampoo couldn't suppress the wince that these words evoked. "Is… is really that bad?" she asked plaintively. It was hardly pleasant to be told she sucked that badly in a battle of wits.

"What do you think? You engaged her in a situation where she held every single advantage! The only weapons were words, in a language you're still not proficient with. You accused her of taking away decisions that were rightfully Ranma's, when you were doing much the same by forcing the confrontation without even asking him first. Even the things you knew that she didn't, things that you could use to defeat her arguments and accusations, would work in her favor rather than yours. Getting your enemy to reveal her secrets is a victory of high order, great-granddaughter!"

The lavender-haired girl heaved a deep and bitter sigh. "Shampoo know that," she said quietly. "Not mean to do, didn't even realize I had."

"It's understandable," Cologne said, her tone softening. "Consider the effort you have put into your training. Nabiki Tendo has put just as much into learning to manipulate those around her. That is what you must understand, great-granddaughter. Once you let yourself see it, you won't need me to tell you not to fight her on her own terms."

"You have try to tell me this before, right?" Shampoo asked melancholically. "Time we talk about her and those two girl who is closest to her, what they do."

"Yes. I suppose I wasn't clear enough, so I will state it now as plainly as I can. Nabiki Tendo is far and away the most dangerous enemy you have. She is ruthless in protecting what she values the most, and that is control. Nabiki will go to nearly any lengths to maintain control over her life and the elements that are important to it, such as Ranma." Cologne paused while Shampoo growled at the idea. When her great-granddaughter didn't say anything, she went on. "She might not yet be willing to arrange a death to get her way, but make no mistake — that's the path she's walking down. And as it is, she certainly wouldn't hesitate to ruin her adversaries' lives."

"Almost sound like you say best thing Shampoo could do against her is arrange Nabiki's own death, make it look like accident," the Amazon said, doing her best to keep the uncertainty from bleeding into her voice. Her rational mind could conceive of the advantage of such a plan, but it caused a queasy, hollow sensation in the pit of her gut.

"No," Cologne replied gently. "You've never had to kill an opponent in open, honest combat, Shampoo. No one should ever take her first life in such an unfair, deceitful way."

The lavender-haired girl blinked. '<Well, at least now I can stop being confused about not following through on Akane that time.>' It was true that a random spout of water had stopped her before she reached the girl, bound and gagged and hidden away in a cave by Pantyhose Taro… but it was also true that if she had moved forward quickly and decisively, Akane would have been dead long before the fractured wall had loosed that blast of water. For a very long time now Shampoo had tried not to think back on that day, tired of not knowing whether she should be angry or relieved that she hadn't done what she'd set out to. It wasn't something she had been willing to tell Cologne in order to get her advice. '<For me to get her answer this way, without even having to admit to that… Well, I guess today's seen some good luck as well as bad.>'

Aloud, she said, "So what you saying Shampoo should do about Nabiki?" She hesitated for a moment, wondering whether she should go into more detail, or just let Cologne say what she would. Almost as soon as the thought was formed, she recognized the answer. It hurt that she'd gotten herself into a mess that her great-grandmother had had to rescue her from, and though the temptation was there to transform all that pain into anger and contempt for Nabiki, that wouldn't ultimately be very productive. Better to take what responsibility she still could. Switching to Mandarin so Cologne would know how serious she was about this, Shampoo continued, "<I would like to tell Ranma. To warn him about what kind of person she really is. But… but I don't think I can yet. I believe he's trusting me more, now. But I don't think he trusts me enough yet to just believe something like that, especially when Nabiki hasn't ever done anything bad enough and direct enough for him to see.>"

Cologne smiled for the first time since the conversation had begun. "<Very well reasoned, great-granddaughter,>" she encouraged. "<You are correct. For all that he has experienced, Ranma is still too much of an innocent to understand Miss Tendo's true nature. Especially since the kind of harm she inflicts on him is so much more subtle than the kind he's used to seeing and fighting. If you simply sat down with him and told him everything about her, attempted to make him see her for who she really is, there really is no possible good outcome.>"

Shampoo sighed. "<So he wouldn't believe me.>" She supposed that she shouldn't let it get her down. After all, it had taken two conversations for Cologne to get the full reality of the situation through her head, and Shampoo had no trouble at all admitting to being way out of her great-grandmother's league.

"<Actually, I am fairly confident you could at least convince him that you believed what you were saying,>" the Matriarch replied.

"<H-huh? Then why… ?>" Equal parts elation and confusion robbed her of any more eloquence than that.

"<Then why not do just that?>" Cologne finished. "<What do you think Ranma would do then?>"

"<If he believed me and didn't think I was just trying to yank him away from the Tendos before he's ready to go on his own, then he'd know better than to go along with any more of Nabiki's schemes!>" Shampoo declared. "<And if he just thought that I might be right, he'd try and find out for sure, and until then he'd be at least a little more wary of her! How can those not be good outcomes?>"

The Matriarch opted not to answer with words. Instead, she pinned her youngest descendent with the dreaded Lecturer's Stare, the one that Shampoo knew meant she had been given enough information to work out the answer for herself… or at least, what Cologne considered enough information.

Kicking her mind up into as high a gear as she could manage and suffering through several moments of furious thought, she attempted, "<Would he just make the same mistake I did? Face off with Nabiki on her ground, give her the chance to screw him over without even letting him know she was doing it? Ranma told me he's been trying to think about things more now, rather than just charging right ahead into something… but if he wanted to know what was really going on, he'd have to try something to get more information. No matter how hard he tried to hide what he was really doing, I don't think he could fool her into thinking he wasn't really suspicious of her. And that would be all the hint she needed to twist things around for him even more.>" There wasn't much point in telling him a truth if that act led inevitably to him being even more deceived, hurt, and confused, after all.

"<Indeed,>" Cologne pronounced. "<And it goes even further than that, great-granddaughter. Your husband is not one to conceal his emotions, at least not the ones that he himself knows and admits to. Suppose we did manage to open his eyes in one fell swoop to the reality of Miss Tendo's darker side. Do you think he could hide his newfound aversion to her? Do you think he would even try?>"

"<Probably not,>" Shampoo answered. "<I don't think that's the kind of lie he'd bother to tell. And even if he did, he probably wouldn't fool anyone but himself.>" She well remembered how transparent he'd been during that long-ago 'date' for the Instant Nannichuan. "<But how does that take things any further? I already said I knew Nabiki would see through him.>"

"<I'm not talking about Nabiki now, at least not directly. I'm referring to his mother,>" Cologne said dourly. "<From what I heard you say to Miss Tendo, Ranma himself wasn't happy about her interfering to bring Nodoka back now, when things are still so uncertain. But from everything Genma said and the things you have passed along to me from Ranma, that is not how Mrs. Saotome feels at all. She will be immensely grateful to Nabiki for having brought her family back together, grateful enough to believe the best of her against almost any provocation. It doesn't matter how true our accusations might be — if we attempt to poison Ranma's mind against Nabiki, she could take the same tack with Nodoka against us. And as things stand now, she would certainly succeed.>"

A long, tense moment of silence stretched over the rooftop. "<But… if that's… then couldn't she do that anyway?>" Shampoo eventually choked out, horror keeping any other emotions at bay for the moment.

"<She certainly could,>" Cologne answered. "<The only thing that would keep her from doing that is the belief that we would simply counter with the Xi Fang Gao. I put considerable effort into instilling a fear and respect for that technique into Miss Tendo. But if she should ever think she has nothing left to lose, that's no longer a deterrent.>"

Shampoo thanked all her lucky stars that she'd asked Ranma not to tell anyone about the rule against casual use of the technique. It was only a small glimmer of relief, though, against a great many shadows. "<And… and even if she didn't do it herself, it could still happen,>" she said slowly. "<Because Ranma wouldn't lie to his mother if she asked who told him all this. He'd want us to back him up, and…>" She hesitated, not wanting to finish the thought.

"<And no matter how good I am, there are some things that I can't do. Not without resorting to techniques that cannot be used here,>" Cologne said grimly. "<Both of us have earned trust from son-in-law, but the same is not true for his mother. Miss Tendo bought herself too great an advantage when she was the one to lead Nodoka Saotome back to her husband and son. Beyond a doubt, Nabiki believes that we would use the Xi Fang Gao to overcome that if she forces our hand, but that's because she wouldn't even wait that long if she were in our place.>"

"<So what are we going to do?>" Shampoo asked. "<How can we beat something like that?>"

"<It will take time,>" Cologne said with a sigh. "<That was what I bought us by appearing so confident in front of Miss Tendo, and by unleashing such a threat. I'll keep a closer eye on her to be certain, but she should halt all activity for at least a little while, and when she does start up with the schemes again she'll focus on subtle, long-term, easily concealed or deniable ones. A strategy like that, we can handle.>" She paused for emphasis, looked her great-granddaughter in the eyes, and said, "<But as things are now, any sort of immediate confrontation would inevitably end in disaster.>"

Shampoo closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then spat out a string of oaths so blistering that even the Matriarch, with three hundred years of experience, was impressed. "<Why does this have to be so damned hard?>" she demanded of Cologne, the universe, and everything. "<I just want to be happy with Ranma! I know I can make him happy, I know I can give him what he really wants and needs! Even if I've made some mistakes, he doesn't deserve this much struggle or trouble or heartache!!>"

The Matriarch nodded sympathetically, but said, "<Life isn't about what we deserve, great-granddaughter. At least, not unless we make it so by our own efforts.>"

"<Guess not,>" Shampoo said tightly, forcing down the tears that wanted to come. "<If we had the Nanban Mirror and it was still in one piece, I'd go back in time and stop Nabiki from ever talking to Ranma's mother! I'd use the Xi Fang Gao and damn the rules against that!>"

"<In a scenario like that, you could go even further,>" Cologne observed. "<Just go back one more day, and then it could be you contacting her and leading her back to her son. It could be you gaining that incredible windfall of Saotome goodwill.>"

"<Not a chance,>" Shampoo shot back, finding the backbone to nearly glare at the Matriarch. "<I told Nabiki — that should have been for Ranma to do, or maybe his father. Not anyone else, and that's what I meant.>"

"<Then I'm glad to hear that,>" Cologne said, summoning a larger smile than before. "<You might have failed today in talking to Nabiki, Shampoo, but you just passed a very important test.>"

"<Wonderful,>" Shampoo grumbled, dismissing the praise with an irate wave of the hand. "<And that helps Ranma's problem how? It might have been a mistake, but I was doing this for him — a lot more than for me.>"

"<Then understand that the situation isn't as dark as I've been making it out to be,>" the Matriarch replied. "<We've been focusing on the negatives here. The positives are very real too.>"

"<What are they?>" Upon receiving another dose of the Lecturer's Stare, Shampoo didn't even try to stifle her groan. "<Great-grandmother, my head hurts. And Ranma himself said that he thinks you ought to go a lot easier on me than you do.>"

Cologne let out a cackle. "<Then I'll do just that, but only since you stumbled over the answer without even realizing it.>"


"<This battle isn't ultimately about Nabiki, great-granddaughter,>" the ancient Amazon explained. "<It is about Ranma himself — the warrior who couldn't learn some important lessons growing up on the road with just his father; the boy who's becoming a man. All you have to do is continue as you have been. Be honest with him about how you really feel, give him all the love and care and support you can. You can even drop a few subtle hints to him about Nabiki,>" Cologne paused to fire off the most piercing stare she could manage, "<if you're willing to bet that I would consider them subtle. Ranma will best grow as a person, will learn the most useful lessons for himself, if he comes to understand the truth of Nabiki Tendo on his own rather than simply being fed with it. Even apart from everything we've said so far, that would be reason enough not to hit him over the head with those particular facts.>"

"<I can do all that,>" Shampoo said, feeling her usual optimism finally begin to resurface. She paused for a while to think back over the things she'd shared lately with Ranma, which strengthened the feeling considerably. After all, if her husband loved her enough he could do what she couldn't, and convince his mother of her worth and Nabiki's calumny. No matter how much credit the heartless, conniving liar had amassed with Nodoka, the woman would certainly weigh her own son's words more strongly than Nabiki's… or any Tendo's. With a smile on her face and a reasonably light heart, she said, "<I'll be happy to do all that, great-grandmother.>"

"Never thought I'd be grateful to that Hawaii headcase," Ranma said conversationally, peering down to the ground below. His vantage point on the highest roof of Furinkan gave him a good view of the chaos. In the far corner of the soccer field, a massive collection of fire pits burned merrily. The grounds near the school were littered with potted palm trees, each of which bore the sign 'Courtesy of the Flower Arrangement Club'. Students dashed and stumbled through those trees, cursing and fuming and attempting to catch the thirty-odd pigs that were desperately trying to find their way to freedom. The gates were blocked by the biggest sand dune ever seen in inner-city Nerima, and there was no other way out unless you could jump or fly. Ranma shook his head as he caught sight of a few bewildered freshmen who had apparently believed they needed to listen to Kuno Sr.'s dress code instructions for today's extracurricular activity. The guys in swim trunks and incredibly tacky floral shirts weren't so bad, but the girls wearing only grass skirts and leis…

"Ranma honey?" Ukyo's tentative voice came from behind him. "Why'd you bring me up here? Shouldn't we be down there helping everybody round up those porkers?"

"Nah," he replied. "The way I figure it, I've paid my dues on these stupid stunts the principal likes to pull. Every time during my first year here, I might'a gotten some help but in the end I had to be the one to deal with everything. Well, there's a whole new bunch of underclassmen, an' enough of them are good enough fighters that I can afford to sit this one out."

"Hmm." The chef walked over to stand beside him, looking down at the craziness with one eye. The other stayed on Ranma, making sure he wasn't just using this as an excuse to ogle those underdressed little do-what-you're-told sheep. "If you say so, Sugar."

"Besides, so far I've spotted three separate pigs that are the spittin' image of P-chan," Ranma continued. "You know as soon as I run down one of 'em, knock him out, and start dragging him over to the barbecue, Akane's gonna pop out of thin air and freak."

Ukyo let out a cheerful laugh. "You're probably right. I guess it is better for us to stay up here, where it's nice and quiet."

'Yeah, and hopefully it's gonna stay that way, without anybody interrupting,' Ranma thought, glancing behind him to the door that led inside the building. It was locked, barred, and chained as part of the principal's latest caper, which had just meant that he'd carried Ukyo as he jumped here from a lower rooftop. He didn't think anyone else at Furinkan could make that leap, so hopefully this talk would go as smoothly as possible.

He didn't want to get into the heavy stuff quite yet, though. Pushing it out of his mind for a little while longer, he looked over the roof again. He blinked at the sight of Ryoga stumbling dazedly out of a particularly thick stand of palm trees, and watched the ensuing madness with a widening grin, then chuckles, then full-blown, outright laughter.

"Oh, man, Ucchan," he finally wheezed, stepping back to the middle of the roof. "That was the funniest stuff I've seen in a long time."

"Did you see Ryoga's face when Akane told him to help her rescue 'P-chan' from the Sumo club?" she giggled. "I thought I was going to hurt myself laughing."

"Not to mention the part when that chick from the Flower Arrangement club got ticked at how many of their trees he was busting up," Ranma said, no longer laughing but still smiling widely. "Next time I see Bacon Boy I'm gonna have to ask him what it felt like, to get his butt handed to him by a girl using a style like that."

"Well, to be fair, he didn't exactly lose," Ukyo pointed out. "When he smashed out of that giant Venus Flytrap he was facing the wrong way, and I don't think he even realized it when he kept on going and smashed through the boundary wall too."

"Prob'ly realized it when all those pigs raced out the hole after him and trampled him down," Ranma replied.

Ukyo blinked. "That's what happened? You could see it from where you were standing?"

"Nah," he replied, "I'm just hoping."

The two of them shared another round of laughter, then a few moments of companionable silence. Ranma eventually let out a long, satisfied sigh. "Y'know, Ucchan, it feels kinda strange. I know just how big of a pain that would've been, if I'd actually been down in it dealing with everything. But when I wasn't, when I just stood back and watched and let other people clean up the mess, it was really, really funny." He mused on this for a moment. "Wonder if that's how my life usually is for other people."

"Maybe," she allowed. "Not really for me, cause no matter how crazy it gets it's not funny to me if you're the one getting hurt. But for somebody who didn't know you, or at least didn't care about you… yeah, I could see that." It was her turn for a few seconds of silent brooding. "I'm pretty sure that's how Nabiki looks at it, actually."

"Yeah… Nabiki." He frowned. "That's part of why I brought you up here, Ucchan. I gotta talk to you about some stuff that's happened lately."

"What's the matter, Sugar? Is Nabiki giving you grief?"

"Hmm, when you put it that way… Well, yes and no. Lemme just give you the whole story," Ranma said. Taking a deep breath, he proceeded to do just that, telling her of his return to the Tendo home on Wednesday, the message Nabiki had left for him with her lieutenants, his father's late-night return and the agreement that Nodoka would join the Tendo household for now, the fact that Genma was finally cured of the panda, his mother's happiness and pride in him, and the conversations they'd had and the time they'd spent together in the days since her arrival. He left out his nocturnal visit to Shampoo, though. Ukyo hadn't yet asked him about any kind of follow-up on the last serious conversation they'd had, and Ranma wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. Maybe this situation with his mother would be enough to push that one so far into the background, that he'd actually know how to deal with it by the time it came up again.

"So that's why I was grateful to Principal Kuno," he explained. "I wanted to tell you about this stuff, an' I needed a chance to do it when there wasn't anybody else around to interrupt. I kinda thought about it yesterday at lunch, but… I just wasn't ready to do it then."

"I can imagine," she said faintly. "Ranchan, I… I don't know where to start." After a pause, she continued, "You said your mom's proud of you, and you guys have been getting along real well… so that screwed-up promise is out of the way for good now, right?"

"I hope so," he said. "Everything Mom's said so far sounds like she does think Pop fulfilled his promise. But she ain't come out and said it, or even talked about the stupid thing at all. Unless she's discussing it with Pop in private at night."

"Well, he hasn't run for the border yet, which means nothing bad. So unless you've seen him looking all smug and self-satisfied, she probably hasn't said anything at all," Ukyo mused. "But I'm sure she's thinking it, Ranchan! She's finally got a chance to see what a great guy you really are, to know how proud she should be as your mother! If you ask me, she's probably just not making her official pronouncement yet cause she wants Genma to sweat a little longer." The chef's grin showed most of her teeth. "I sure wouldn't blame her for that."

"Nah, I don't think that's it," Ranma said. "It ain't just me, Ucchan. She's also real happy to be back with Pop."

Ukyo's jaw dropped. "Huh?" she said feebly.

"What?" Ranma asked. Sure, there was little love lost between his oldest friend and his father, for good reason. But it still felt like Ukyo was overreacting here. "She is his wife, after all. She loves him. If she didn't, I wouldn't even be here today."

"Maybe… you should tell me a little more about her," Ukyo suggested. "I mean, what is she like? Just by looking at you and contrasting you to your old man, I kinda assumed she was kind, honorable, caring, determined, strong, brave, smart, good-looking… you know, all those things you are and he's not. And she must be really high up there on all those points," Ukyo continued, missing the way Ranma's expression had darkened slightly, "cause you've spent hardly any time with her and she still passed them all on to you strong enough to survive Genma's blundering."

"Ucchan…" His tone accomplished what the look in his eyes hadn't. Ukyo clamped her mouth shut, blinking. "Look. I know Pop's made some bad mista—" He cut himself off, and said, "No. Bad decisions. And I know he really screwed up your life with one of the worst of 'em. But he ain't some kind of demon that Happosai dragged up outta hell to teach Anything Goes to. You and I both have seen people lots worse than him. And he may have screwed up our engagement, but he also admitted to it in front of all those students at Furinkan. Admitted flat out, before witnesses, that you were my fiancée."

"What's your point?" she asked.

"My point is that he knows he made a mistake, he don't know how to fix it, and even though I know he'd rather your engagement just kinda went away, he didn't try to lie about it or make out like it wasn't valid no more. He could've done a whole lot worse than he did there, Ucchan." When the girl gave a reluctant nod, Ranma continued, "And then of course there's the very first fight you had with him."

"What about that fight?"

"Did he even put up a fight at all?" he asked. "Or did he just kinda freeze in his tracks when he found out who you were?" He hadn't seen any of the encounter, but he had arrived soon enough afterward to see Genma down, his assailant not even slightly battered… and he knew that if his father fought for real, he could have taken Ukyo.

"The second one," she confirmed grudgingly. "Okay, maybe I get where you're going with this. At first he at least looked like he was ready to fight, but after I told him who I was he just staggered backward and dropped his guard faster than a diet and day job rolled into one. I smashed him flat and he didn't even try to defend himself… and maybe," by now her voice had sunk to a near growl, as the chef was having real difficulty getting this admission out, "maybe I went a little easier on him because of that. For years and years I'd been dreaming about opening the biggest can of can of whoop-ass in the history of Japan on that schmuck, and there he is, looking so horrified and so pathetic…"

'A little easier on him? Yeah, right. You beat on him less than I do in our sparring sessions.' Still, he supposed it was understandable that she wouldn't like to admit just how little she'd really done back to the man who'd done so much to her. "He'll run from his mistakes, and he'll tell me to deal with them," Ranma said with a snort. "I ain't trying to make excuses for him, and I'm sure not trying to take away any of the debt he owes you. But that don't mean you should sell him short, or somehow think it's all Mom's credit that I turned out as good as I did. For better or for worse, it was my old man who raised me, and I can say this — all along he tried to make me be a better man than him."

"So why is this such a big deal, anyway?" she asked. "I guess you've got a point, but for dang sure you've done more complaining about your father than I ever have. Why's it so important all of a sudden not to sell him even a little short?"

Ranma pondered that for a few moments. "I guess it's because of the way you were doin' it. Bashing on Pop is one thing. But takin' away some of the good stuff he legitimately earned with his life so you can pin it on Mom… It's like, I dunno… feels like it's an attack on my whole family."

"I wouldn't do that, Ranma," Ukyo said quietly.

"I know, Ucchan. Ah, heck," he said, heaving an exasperated sigh. "I probably couldn't do a worse job of talking about this if I tried. It's the kind of stuff I never even thought about for so long. It's real confusing to try to work through it now, all at once. But…" He fell silent again, doing his best to understand at least some of what was tumbling through his mind. "But… yeah. Getting back with Mom isn't just about me and her getting to be together, not any more. It ain't about me and Pop not having to go through with killing ourselves, it ain't even about her not being disappointed in me. All those things are part of it, but there's a lot more. It's about Mom and me being happy together, as a mother and her son. And it's about Mom and Pop getting back together so they can pick up where they left off, about them being what a husband and wife are supposed to be." He gave a faint grin. "Not gonna pretend I understand everything about what that really means, but at least I got a better idea now than I did when Pop first dragged me to the Tendos."

"I understand, Ranma honey," Ukyo said, reaching out hesitantly and laying her hand on his shoulder. "It's like you said before. It's about family, and really becoming one again when you haven't been for so long."

"Yeah." He offered her a stronger smile. She answered with a matching grin, gave his shoulder a squeeze, then let her hand fall.

Silence stretched for a few moments before the chef spoke again. "So when do I get to meet my future mother-in-law?"

His smile faded. "I dunno," he answered. "I want things to get at least a little more settled before I start springing the big surprises on her, you know? And maybe if I can talk to her some more, I'll be able to kind of prepare the way, build up to it. At least I might be able to figure out the best way to tell her about some of the bigger things that're lurking out there."

"Jeez, you really know how to make a girl feel special," Ukyo muttered. Louder, she said, "All right, Sugar. I'll hold my horses, I guess. But remember, if you wait too long and everything blows up in her face at once, it's gonna be ugly. She's gonna have to find out about at least some of what your old man got up to. Better to spread the surprises out over time, if you ask me."

"Whaddaya think I'm trying to do?" Ranma riposted. "I already had one fight with Akane since Mom came back, with her pulling her usual junk of trying to tell me just what to do an' getting all ticked when I didn't. Mom didn't see that one, but I figure it's only a matter of time. Prob'ly not much time at all before she picks up on the fact that Akane ain't nearly the fiancée she thought at first."

"You know, Ranma honey, that's a very good point," the chef admitted. "Okay, I'm feeling a lot less impatient now."

"So, I guess you come here often, huh, Mom?" Ranma asked. It seemed a pretty safe guess. They'd had to take a ride on a bullet train to reach this café, and all the employees seemed to have an extra bit of warmth and recognition in their smiles toward Nodoka. Not to mention the fact that his mother had actually introduced him to the proprietress as her son.

"Quite often, dear," Nodoka replied. "Of course I won't be able to while we remain guests of the Tendos, but I wanted to come at least once to show off my wonderful, manly son!"

Ranma ducked his head, blushing and grinning. "Th-thanks, Mom."

"You're very welcome," she returned serenely, taking a sip of her tea. Ranma took a few swallows of his as well, letting the embarrassment and goofy happiness subside a little. After a few moments had passed, Nodoka spoke again. "I know you didn't see much of the neighborhood yet, but is it stirring any memories?"

He blinked. "Memories? Uh, no, Mom. Should it?"

"Well, our house is only a short distance away. I thought we might stop by there for a few minutes, before returning to the Tendos." She smiled at him. "I've kept your room just the way you left it."

"Oh," was all he could manage. "Um. That'd be nice, I guess." Though it would also have been nice to hear about this farther in advance. "But what about Pop? Shouldn't we have him along for that first visit back home?"

Nodoka sighed. "I thought so too, and I wanted to bring him… but Akane was so vehement about not losing her afternoon training session…"

Ranma frowned at that, an expression almost as dark as the ones he so often provoked in that girl. 'That tomboy is going too far. If she thinks she can screw up things between Mom and Pop, she's got another think coming.' He fought down an urge to head back to Nerima, give Akane a piece of his mind, and drag his father out of the dojo and back to where he ought to be. By the time he did that, it would be too late to make a real visit to the Saotome home without missing supper, and it was obvious how much his mother loved cooking that meal for everyone. "Isn't this the kind of thing we ought to all do together?" he asked gently. "Why don't you and I put it off just a little longer? We can come back with Pop tonight, after dinner."

His mother chuckled quietly at this, which was not one of the possible reactions he had anticipated. "Uh, did I say something funny?"

"Not really. It's just that I've been waiting so many years for you to clean your room, and you're managing to postpone it even longer."

"Heh. Did I say 'tonight'? I meant 'a week from next Tuesday'," Ranma joked back. "But seriously, Mom, I think this is something we oughta do as a family."

"Well, I must admit that's what I wanted too," his mother said wistfully. "But will it cause you any trouble, dear? Don't you do your homework in the evenings, like Akane?"

Ranma waved one hand dismissively. "Eh, I can afford to give it a miss once, for something as important as this."

"I suppose that's mostly true," Nodoka allowed. When her son blinked, then gave her a questioning look, she continued, "I contacted the school to learn about your grades. Most of them were certainly decent enough. I must say, though, your scores in English could stand a lot of improvement. Do you think you'll have enough time for that homework at least?"

"Oh. English." Ranma gave a rueful laugh. "It's kinda funny you should bring that up, Mom. Technically it's my best subject." It was Nodoka's turn for a blinking, quizzical look. He elaborated, "You know how far Pop took me on our trip, right?"

"Actually, no, I don't know many details at all about it," Nodoka confessed.

"You don't?" Ranma opened his mouth to ask why not, what had she and Genma been talking about during all the private time they had in the evenings… when up from his brainstem shot an inexplicable sense that this was a question he really didn't want to ask. Deciding to obey the instinct even if he didn't understand it, he skipped ahead slightly. "Well, one of those details was half a year in America. I learned to speak real English there, not the whacked-out stuff they teach in the schools here."

Nodoka blinked again. "Really?" she said. "What they teach isn't right?"

Ranma thought back to the areas he and Genma had traveled through. "Believe you me, Mom, anybody who talked like that would've had to kick the butt of everybody he met not to have them laughin' in his face. And even then all that would accomplish is that they'd just be doin' it behind his back. It's really that bad."

His mother gave a polite little frown. "Well then, if that's the case, why don't you explain it to your teacher? Or have you tried, and he wasn't willing to listen?"

"Got it in one. Miss Hinako learned her 'Engrish' outta the textbook, so she doesn't want to listen to some kid telling her she's got it all wrong." Ranma opted not to go into the other reasons she wasn't exactly enthusiastic about taking correction from him. "And she's not about to let it slide when someone doesn't go along with what she's trying to teach. She's one of those young, idealistic sensei." 'That's putting it mildly,' he thought with a mental grimace.

"Miss Hinako? Young, you say?" An odd gleam had entered Nodoka's eye. "Is she good-looking as well, dear?"

"Huh? Yeah, I guess." He supposed that 'drop-dead gorgeous' part of the time, and 'a cute little kid' the rest could be averaged out to 'good-looking'.

"Hmm. It certainly wouldn't be right for you to have to learn something incorrect, something that might degrade the useful skills you already mastered," Nodoka pronounced. "I think it's obviously this Miss Hinako who needs to make the concessions here."

"Ain't gonna happen," Ranma said. "It's not that important, though, right? I mean, if English is something I'm gonna need, I already got it. The score in that one class don't really mean anything."

"Certainly you could ignore it if necessary," she reassured him. "But it shouldn't be. If you were to seduce her, you could certainly convince her to give you a grade worthy of how well you actually know the language."

Ranma's mouth gaped feebly open for quite a long time, as he ran that sentence back, forth, and sideways through his mind, trying to find either some way other than the obvious that it could be taken, or any hint that his mother was joking. Failing at both, he was forced to ask, "Y-you aren't serious, are ya, Mom?"

"Of course I'm serious," she replied. "It doesn't have to be a long-term relationship, dear, you could just give her some pleasure, excitement, and romance for a season of her life. I certainly wouldn't suggest anything permanent without even having met the woman."

"Y-you really don't want to do that!!" Ranma exclaimed, loud enough to draw curious glances. Realizing this, he lowered his voice as he continued, "Trust me, Mom, you wouldn't be suggestin' something like this if you knew Miss Hinako!"

"Why not?" she returned. "It would be very manly to show that you can make a conquest of someone older and presumably more experienced than you are."

'Does she really think that?' Ranma asked himself with more than a little dismay. 'Damn, I knew everything was going too smoothly. Okay, look on the bright side — if this is really how Mom sees things, it's probably the best luck I had in my life that Kodachi's not around anymore.' He thought furiously for a few more seconds, reaching the conclusion that he really needed to nip this Miss Hinako thing in the bud, or at the very least find out just how bad this twist of his mother's character truly was. "I wasn't makin' myself clear," he said. "Mom, you've met Happosai, right?"

Nodoka blanched and nodded. "Please don't remind me, dear." She gave a delicate, ladylike shudder, as her fingers played unconsciously over the wrapping on the Saotome honor blade. "I hope I never again meet someone so unbalanced. A real man certainly wouldn't care more for girls' clothes than the girls themselves, but I don't think that he's even capable of understanding that! He latched onto just one aspect of being a man, ignoring all the rest and taking that one so far that it stopped having anything to do with manliness at all!" She shuddered again, more strongly than before.

'Hmmm… if that's how bad he affects Mom, maybe I should see if Cologne will help drive him off once he finally shows back up. If I team up with her, we oughta be able to handle him just fine.' Aloud, he said, "Well, Miss Hinako had an encounter with the old freak back when she was real, real young. It kinda had a big effect on her development." 'Please don't ask me for more details, please don't say that means she needs a real man to help her get over it…'

"Oh, dear. Please don't say anything more, Ranma. She sounds most unsuitable after all." Nodoka fixed him with a mock glare which didn't hide the twinkle in her eyes. "I don't want to see your English grades get even a little better, is that understood?"

"You can count on me, Mom!" Ranma saluted, using the gesture as a chance to wipe sweat off his brow.

"I know, my son. I know." Nodoka took a few serene sips of her tea, then reopened the conversation. "I suppose I shouldn't have suggested such a thing in the first place, not without even having met her. I've heard rumors about the kind of wild, unprincipled young men and women who run amok through Nerima. I supposed this Hinako is one of them?"

"Er… Yeah, you could definitely say she's part of the problem." Ranma quickly reassured himself that he certainly wasn't unprincipled, and as far as 'wild' went, his mother had named him herself. Still…"Uh, you haven't seen it yet, but sometimes things get a little wild even at the Tendo place."

"I know," she replied. "I've heard many stories from Kasumi, during the time I've spent helping her out around the house." The Saotome matron gave an embarrassed chuckle. "In fact, I've probably spent too much time listening and chatting with her. With two people working together, the housework should get done in half the time, but somehow it never seems to work out that way." She sighed. "Still, I find it hard to regret. She's a wonderful young woman, a genuine treasure. Nabiki as well, in her own way, even though she seems so unconcerned with tradition and the values that have made us strong. I ought to have spent more time with both girls before now."

"Yeah," Ranma said, "without them the Tendos would've fallen apart a long time ago." It was considerably easier to think about Kasumi than Nabiki as he spoke the praise, but he forced himself to give the middle Tendo her due. "They're both pretty extraordinary."

"I'm glad you feel that way, my son," Nodoka said, the gleam from before returning to her eyes stronger than ever. "Could you be a little more specific, though? What are your particular thoughts on each girl?"

Ranma quickly put one corner of his mind to work in dredging up stuff he could say about Nabiki that wouldn't bug him too much and that also wouldn't get him reamed for 'damning me with faint praise, Saotome?' if word of it ever got back to her. The rest of him responded, "Well, Kasumi's one of the strongest people I know. If you've been spending that much time talkin' with her and listening to stories about what life's like at the dojo, you gotta know how much craziness and trouble has blown through there. But I've never seen her do anything worse than just get worried, and usually she don't even do that. She's kind, gentle, always trying to look on the bright side an' help anyone around her cheer up. She's taken care of almost all the housework for who knows how long, and it ain't worn her down or made her bitter or tired." He heaved a deep, respectful sigh. "I know I couldn't've done it."

"Nor should you have had to," Nodoka pointed out with a smile. Then, hinting, "Is there anything else?"

"I'm sure there's a lot of stuff," Ranma said, his tone indicating that he wasn't sure what his mother was fishing for. "No way I could do her justice in a quick little summary like that."

"Hmmm. And what about Nabiki?"

Fortunately, by now he was prepared. "Well, she's impressive in a whole lot of other ways than Kasumi. Like you said, Mom, she ain't traditional at all. Far as I can tell, she doesn't care about what society says she oughta limit herself to, doesn't think even for a minute that she should be afraid to use something she's got. She never bothers getting people to underestimate her, and she still beats them. Kasumi might be the heart of the Tendo home, but Nabiki's its brain."

"Yes," Nodoka mused, "that's a very good description, Ranma. Nabiki is the sort who would make a much better mistress than a wife. I'm sure you agree."

"Uh… huh?" Ranma blinked. Well, he supposed that was true. At least from what he vaguely understood of the matter, mistresses were supposed to be expensive.

"The same thing isn't true at all of Kasumi, of course," Nodoka continued. "She would make a wonderful wife, and really is better suited for that role than just being a mistress. Still, circumstances being what they are, sometimes half a loaf is the best one can settle for…"

This time Ranma ignored the warning screaming up from the base of his skull. He wasn't about to let any kind of misunderstanding like this develop. Kasumi deserved better than that, and if he was going to contest the point for the eldest sister, he was darn well going to do it for the middle one as well. "Mom, you ain't seriously suggesting I should be thinking about trying to take either of them as a mistress, are ya?"

"Why ever not?" Nodoka asked, plainly befuddled at the question. "You've lived with them for more than a year; surely you've noticed that they care for you. I admit that I'm not sure just how strong Kasumi's feelings for you are, whether they're enough for her to settle for being your mistress rather than a wife in her own right. But I'm confident that Nabiki at least is seriously considering it."

Ranma gaped. "R-really?" he asked as plaintively as he ever had any question in his life. It was taking all the mental strength he had to keep his panic under control. 'No way, that can't be right! Nabiki… that's not… she can't…' Fortunately, the long periods of uninterrupted thought he'd been enjoying lately had apparently taught him some things, and the solution blazed forth quickly even in the midst of such stress. 'Of course not. What's happening here is that Nabiki put a little too much into the act, what with tellin' Mom all that stuff about what a great guy I am. Heh, wish I could afford to tease her about that slip-up.' He gave a quick sigh of relief.

"Ranma…" His mother's tone and expression killed that emotion in him as quickly as it had been born. "You don't seem even a little pleased at the thought. In fact, it almost seems like you thought that was bad news."

He couldn't find anything to say back in response, and Nodoka's expression became a little more pained. "Son, how can you not be happy at the idea that such lovely young ladies might want to be with you? Might be willing to give up so much for your sake?"

Unfortunately he'd exhausted his supply of quick, insightful thought in piercing Nodoka's misunderstanding about Nabiki. He didn't do so well this time. "Um, well, it's just that… Akane! You ain't spent near enough time around her yet, Mom. She'd blow seventeen different gaskets at once if she caught even a hint of me thinkin' something like that."

The look on his mother's face informed him immediately that he'd just dug the hole deeper. "Ranma, that isn't right at all! Well, I can't speak on Akane's behalf," she amended, "and from what I've seen and heard so far, that might not be so very far from the truth. But it should be her protest to make, if anyone is going to make it. Not yours! A man should love, honor, and respect his wife, to be sure, but he must also remember what place is hers and what is his. No true man should be intimidated by his wife, or even worse, afraid of her!"

"Gesundheit, Pop," Ranma muttered under his breath, knowing that wherever his father was, he was currently rubbing his nose.

Nodoka didn't notice the interruption. She took a deep breath as if to brace herself, then continued, "Ranma. I need to know just what Genma has taught you in this area. How did he instruct you to behave toward your wife and women in general?"

'At least she ain't fingering that sword like she wants to pull it out,' he thought, uncomfortably aware of how bad things were if that was all he could find in the way of a silver lining. He forced himself to think quickly, scraping together all the things Genma had told him about girls, leaving in even the stuff that he suspected wouldn't exactly please his mother; it was too late to think about editing anything other than the absolute worst. "He's told me that as a guy, it's my responsibility to look out for girls, to protect them and keep them safe from stuff they can't handle. He's said when they're sad or angry or hurt, it's my responsibility to make them feel better. I'm the one who has to be strong, to give them what they need, and I should definitely put their needs ahead of mine."

"All of that sounds good," Nodoka said. "Though care does need to be taken with that last one… But go on. What about your wife?"

He shrugged. "Same thing, only more so. Gotta go twice as far to look out for her, give her what she needs an' wants, keep her safe and well." And — from Genma's example — either cravenly knuckle under to her or go behind her back if she wanted something he wasn't willing to give, but if they wanted him to say that to his mother, wild horses were going to have to drag it out of him. Taking a deep breath, Ranma said what he hoped would be all he was going to have admit to. "He raised me to honor, respect, and save myself for the woman who was gonna be my wife. Ain't nothing Pops ever said about it being manly to spread myself around."

"I see," Nodoka said quietly, looking down at her teacup. "Is that… is that how you feel, Ranma? Is that really how you see your future? That you would marry Akane and look only at her, not sparing even a glance or a second thought for any other girl, no matter how much she loved you and was willing to give up to be with you?"

"…NO!" The exclamation rang throughout the café, startling Ranma as much as anyone else. For a long moment he wasn't even aware that it was himself who had spoken; he was too caught up in trying to subdue, or at least work his way through, the whirling turmoil his mother's question had raised in his mind.

He didn't really understand what had happened until Nodoka let out a long sigh and said gently, "Ranma, my dear son… You aren't sure what you want, are you? Part of you thinks you ought to go along with what your father's told you, the ideals he's presented to you all along. But there's another part of you, one that won't be pushed into something so limited as that. It's been there for a while now, and it's growing stronger. Am I right?"

"Uh… yeah, Mom. I, I think you are," he said feebly, not sure he had any more answers than that for himself at the moment, let alone his mother.

"It's certainly understandable." Nodoka heaved another sigh, one more melancholy than relieved. "In most ways, Genma did a wonderful job of raising you, Ranma. Even with this, he has more than kept his promise to me. But there's no denying it — in this one area, he fell a little short. There's no way a wonderful young man like you should think you have to limit yourself to just one girl."

Ranma was silent for another couple of minutes, doing his best to think things through. At the end of that time, the best conclusion he had reached was that now wasn't the time to try to work through all of the personal ramifications of this. That could wait until he had plenty of air time. The best thing to do now was get a better grasp on the elements of this situation that weren't tied so intimately to him. Maybe he could make sense of at least some of what his mother was trying to say. "Okay… but Mom, how does that fit with the stuff I said earlier, that you said was good?" he wanted to know. "I'm talking about not hurting girls, and giving them what they need. Akane might eventually get to the point where she don't immediately have a nuclear meltdown over hearing something like that, but there's no way in the world she could ever accept it."

"I don't believe that," Nodoka reassured him. "You're young still, Ranma, and Akane is much younger." At the sight of his expression, she checked what she had been about to say and waited for him to reply.

"Huh?" Ranma said eloquently. "Mom, there's only a couple months difference between our ages."

"I'm not talking about that kind of age, dear," she explained. "I'm talking about how much of life you've seen, and how many lessons you've learned from it, and how many there are still to be learned. It's true for you, of course, but from what I've seen it's much more true for Akane. I'm going to do my best to help her with them."

'Hoo boy. I can see the storm clouds on the horizon,' he thought to himself.

"You don't have to look so uncertain, dear," she reassured him. "And you don't have to feel so confused. Akane is wrong, and that part of you that's been growing stronger all this time is right. I…" She fell silent, her face taking on a crestfallen look.

Ranma quickly pushed aside his own cares and worries. "Mom? What's wrong? You look sadder all of a sudden."

"It's… well, it's just that…" Nodoka hung her head. "I don't think I was being fair to Genma earlier. Or to you. It's true that this is a lesson that he didn't teach you, that you need to learn, but it's also true that you're already in the process of learning it. If I had waited for you to come back to me, instead of hurrying to you, I believe you would already have learned it by the time we were a family again."

"Is… is that what you would have wanted, Mom?" he asked. "I-I don't know what all to tell ya here. This is confusing and there's no way I'm gonna work through it all anytime soon… but I will say that it's important, and talking to you has at least helped me see that, and see there's more here I need to figure out, need to know just what it is I want… Would you rather I'd gotten all that nailed down before Pop and I saw you again?"

"I-it's what you promised," she said, reluctantly enough that Ranma was almost surprised she had managed to get the words out.

"Is it what you'd have wanted?" he asked, more gently than before. "Or would you rather know you're helping me work through some stuff I need to get settled?"

"I… well… that is to say…" Nodoka gave a trembling, watery-eyed smile, then looked down. "I am glad," she managed quietly, pulling out a handkerchief and dabbing at her eyes. "Maybe I shouldn't be, but I am glad I can help you in this, my son."

The table was too wide to reach across it and lay a hand on his mother's shoulder, and there was no room on her side to scoot in next to her and offer a hug. Ranma settled for watching her for a few moments, until he was sure that despite the tears, his mother wasn't hurting — she was feeling relief and happiness. He looked away, staring off into the distance with eyes wide and a small smile on his lips. "How about that," he murmured. "Shampoo was right after all."

He had thought he'd spoken too quietly to be heard, but he was wrong. Nodoka gave her eyes one last dab, then looked up, blinking. "Who is Shampoo?"

The wind whistled past him as he flashed through the air, higher and higher, reaching his apex, then descending again. In this form, at least for now, gravity still had the final say. As he touched down on the rooftop and leaped again, Ranma resolved to take the afternoon off and spend it in flight. Hopefully everything would go well enough to permit that.

Another three roof-hops brought him to his destination. He paused on the edge of the roof, surveying the street below. There were more people there than he'd expected, but certainly not enough to make it unsafe to jump down. More importantly, he hadn't gotten here too soon or too late — his mother had just sat down on a bench.

Deciding to show off a little, he jumped, landing not on the pavement but the streetlight next to her. "Hey, Mom," he called out. Once she'd spotted him and greeted him with a smile of mixed surprise, pleasure, and pride, he stepped forward and dropped gracefully down beside her. "You ready to head on in?"

"Yes, we'd better hurry," Nodoka replied. "I know you said it would be all right with your teacher if you got back to Furinkan a little late, but I'm certain you wouldn't want to miss the entire class period after lunch."

"Don't be so sure of that, Mom," he said, covering a spasm of nerves with a grin. "Remember, we weren't coming here just so we could eat lunch." He turned away from her to face the restaurant directly… and stopped in his tracks. As he'd already noticed, there was more traffic in the lane than usual, and all the pedestrians seemed to have the same destination. Through its windows he could see that the building was filled as full as he'd ever seen, almost to capacity. "Uh… maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all," he murmured feebly.

"Is it not normally this busy?" Nodoka wondered, proving once again that her hearing was sharper than her son realized.

"You could say that." Especially not over the last… however many days and weeks it had been since the Cat Café shifted to delivery-only mode. He and Shampoo had agreed on this plan and ironed out the details together, to allow the Amazon to meet and get to know his mother. It had seemed like a great idea at the time, but apparently they'd both drastically underestimated the effect reopening the place to the general public would have. Well, it looked like the ruse had blown a fuse, Ranma thought — there was no way Shampoo was going to be able to serve all those customers and still have time for any remotely meaningful conversation. She was good, but not that good. Heck, he didn't even think he could have done it!

'Oh well, maybe we can try again tomorrow, get Cologne to stay open one more day. Probably won't be so crowded the day after the 'grand reopening',' he thought. In the meantime, he and his mother might as well go ahead with lunch. Surely even with the crowds he could count on Shampoo to slip him a little preferential treatment and bump other orders down the queue below theirs. He might not even miss any class at all, and what a relief that was, Ranma thought sarcastically. With no further delay, he led his mother forward and into the restaurant.

He wasn't sure what he'd expected to see once he got inside, but four other girls waiting tables alongside Shampoo wasn't it.

Ranma stopped dead in his tracks, boggling at the sight in front of him. Not only were there four new waitresses (four cute, busty waitresses at that!), each one sported a hair color that in Japan only came out of a bottle. You had to go to China to find girls with such natural shades, in his experience — and one particular corner of China at that. For a moment Ranma felt a pang of true fear. He and Shampoo had only decided on this yesterday, late in the evening. They hadn't even cleared the plan with Cologne yet by the time he left. Ranma had thought it was at least a possibility that the Matriarch might put the veto on their proposal, but he certainly hadn't thought she might somehow be able to produce a few more Chinese Amazons to help with it!

Then he looked a little closer. The only girl moving through the tables with a warrior's grace and serving the customers with true flair and élan was Shampoo herself. All the waitresses had smiles on their faces, true, but four of those expressions looked more like masks to cover fear and desperation than anything real. The bowls and platters flying out of the kitchen toward Shampoo were moving with Cologne's usual nerve-wracking speed, but those aimed at the other girls floated with the delicacy of cherry blossoms drifting to earth. Even a non-martial artist could catch those without trouble, which Ranma supposed was a good thing… that was exactly what these newcomers were. And now that he was looking closely, he could make out the subtle facial signs that indicated they were as Japanese as he was.

He breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Cologne whipping up more Chinese Amazons out of nowhere in less than a day was a scary thought. Cologne hiring a bunch of temps and browbeating them into dying their hair just for one day's work was merely funny.

"Welcome to Cat Café!" Unsurprisingly, it was Shampoo who exited the dining area and greeted the Saotomes. "Please come right this way!" She led them to a medium-sized table in a corner of the room, gave them each a menu and a big smile, then whisked herself away to field more orders.

"Should we have been able to get a table so quickly?" Nodoka wondered. "It almost looked like this one was being held in reserve for us."

"Sure did," Ranma agreed, once again putting on a cocky grin while he pushed down the butterflies in his gut.

"In other words, my son thoughtfully set up a reservation even though he didn't know it would be this crowded," Nodoka said, filling in the gaps. "However…"

"Huh? What is it, Mom?"

"Well, I was expecting three place settings… ?" The table was large enough to seat four comfortably, but as Nodoka had pointed out, there were napkins, silverware, and glasses of water for only two people. "I know you wanted it to be something of a surprise, dear, but from the things you've said I thought this mysterious 'Shampoo' was going to be joining us. Was I wrong?" Nodoka asked. "Did you just mean that you were going to tell me something more than just her name?"

"No. It's just that… Well… Hm. Tell you what, Mom," he said slowly. "This ain't the kind of thing you should try to figure out ahead of time. I didn't mean for ya to even get as far as you did. I just meant for you to expect to learn something more today, not specifics about just what exactly was gonna go down." He paused for few moments, carefully thinking through what he needed to say. "Don't… don't try to go into this expecting something you've already seen, or that's already familiar to you. That's just not how things work in this town. Best thing you can do now is figure out what you want for lunch, then sit back and enjoy the floor show."

"Ah… All right," his mother said, her tone and expression informing him that she was confused but still ready to go along with his advice. She glanced around the restaurant as if wondering whether there was a hidden surprise waiting to burst out at her, noted absently, "It looks like we got the best waitress as well as the best seating," then turned her attention to the menu. After leafing through it for a moment, she looked back at her son with one eyebrow quirked. "The 'Saotome Special'?" she asked, pointing to the single most expensive order.

"Huh?" Ranma blinked, before flipping to the indicated page. He'd noticed right away that there was a new layout to the menus, and sure enough, his signature order appeared to have gained official status. 'Jeez, is that how much it would cost if they didn't let me have it on the house? Oh well, they wouldn't even be here running a highly successful restaurant if it wasn't for me.' "Eh heh heh… you're probably not that hungry, Mom," he said.

"Probably not," she agreed with a smile.

A few minutes later, both had decided what they wanted. Almost as soon as they'd set down their menus, Shampoo was there with another big smile to take their orders. The Saotomes watched as their waitress disappeared into the kitchen instead of simply leaving the order on the connecting counter, then turned their attention back to the general hustle and bustle around them.

A few minutes passed without more than desultory small talk between mother and son. It quickly became apparent that the remaining girls were feeling the absence of Shampoo. "I hope that—" Nodoka cut herself off as a whirling, blurring missile shot out of the kitchen, arced high overhead through the dining area, dipped down and brushed against the sign in the window, then boomeranged back and out of sight. The sign, meanwhile, was flipped from 'Open' to 'Closed'.

"Were ya saying something, Mom?" Ranma asked.

"Just that I hoped it wasn't going to get much busier before that girl comes back from her break, since it looks like the remaining waitresses have nearly reached their limit," the Saotome matron explained in a dazed voice.

Ranma eyed the girls in question, compared their labors to his own waitressing stint, and found himself unable to dredge up even a hint of sympathy.

"I know this area is famous for its martial arts devotees," Nodoka continued, "but are there many places such as this? It almost seems a little… well… over the top, to go to such lengths to put on a display for the customers."

"If that was the only reason for doin' it, you'd be right, Mom. But it's not," her son explained. "Yeah, it's impressive for the people at the tables, but more importantly than that, it's training for whoever's waiting on them."

"Well, when you put it that way, I suppose it would be nice to be paid to train," she mused. "And like you said, it definitely is an impressive sight!"

That was Shampoo's cue to reappear out of the kitchen, Ranma's order and Nodoka's balanced easily on a tray. She wove her way through the tables and set the food down before them, gave a quick bow and brilliant smile, then resumed active duty.

Ranma was halfway through his order before he noticed his mother apparently hadn't started yet. "Mom?" he asked after swallowing one last mouthful of noodles. "Something wrong? That is the order you wanted, right?"

"Oh yes, dear, there's certainly nothing wrong with the food," Nodoka replied with a secretive little smile. "I did take one bite. It tastes every bit as delicious as it looks and smells. Almost as if it were prepared by hand with special care." Her son put one hand behind his head and gave a sheepish chuckle, and her smile grew. "And what a pretty, skilled, cheerful girl that was, delivering it to us. Some of the older ladies I know might look down on her for being Chinese, but I always thought they were just being too closed-minded in their views. That might matter in a wife, but certainly not in a mistress."

'Okay, the 'subtle' part of this was a pretty miserable failure,' he thought. 'Let's hope nothing else goes wrong, like Mom repeating that last line right to Shampoo's face.' Ranma managed another sheepish chuckle, then returned his attention to his food. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his mother's wide, satisfied smile as she began eating her order of mushroom ramen. He timed his own pace to finish at the same time she did, and even as the last bite slid down his throat, his body was sliding over to make room on the bench.

"How much Ranma already let slip to Honored Mrs. Saotome without even mean to?" Shampoo asked conversationally, sliding into the space he'd so graciously made.

"Enough to make this introduction a formality, I think," Nodoka said, her eyes twinkling. "As you said, I am Nodoka Saotome, Ranma's mother. And you…?"

Shampoo smiled her best Cheshire Cat grin. "As you said, I am Shampoo. Ranma's fiancée."

Nodoka blinked, the twinkle and smile fading into a look that showed only bewilderment. "I'm sorry, did you say… his fiancée?"

Ranma, gaping, echoed the question mentally. 'Huh? But… why?' He had actually told her that it was okay to use the 'W' word here, and hadn't that been a scary block of conversation! But Ranma had thought it through long and hard, in the time that passed between his Wednesday afternoon conversation with Nodoka and his Thursday evening rendezvous with Shampoo, and the more he'd considered it the more reasonable his conclusion had seemed. He didn't know how many other fiancées he might have lurking in the shadows, but this one girl at least was not part of a dishonorable mistake on Genma's part. It was a matter of cross-cultural differences, and just how different Shampoo's culture was needed to be made clear from the get-go. Hence, though it might be more of an immediate shock for Nodoka to hear Shampoo call herself his wife, that shock would almost surely do more good than harm.

Well, apparently Shampoo had decided to spare his mother the majority of the shock, by siphoning the excess off into him. 'Man, I am going to give her a piece of my mind later,' he promised himself. 'As much of a pain as it was talking to her about that, how she just put on that wide-eyed innocent 'Shampoo no understand what Ranma try to say' act and forced me to spell it out, and then teased me afterward… She'd better have a good reason for this!'

Shampoo couldn't see her beloved's face, situated as she was directly beside him, but she could feel the sudden tension in his body. 'Oh, yes, Ranma going to want explanation for this one for sure.' Well, she might have pulled a few sneaky stunts in the past just to get some time with him, but that was hardly the reason for this decision. Reminding herself that there was an important task at hand, she focused on Nodoka and replied, "Yes, Ranma defeated Shampoo in combat and won right to take her as bride by Amazon law! Very wonderful, very romantic, just what I had always hope for!"

Nodoka gaped for a few moments, then glanced helplessly away. Shampoo wondered if she were searching for the Candid Camera crew. After a few seconds, the older woman turned back and said helplessly, "Young lady, I'm afraid I'm not following you at all. Did you say you somehow… became engaged to my son because he defeated you in combat?"

"You have not hear of custom?" Shampoo deliberately didn't refer to it as an Amazon custom; from the things she'd seen in her beloved's life, parts of Japan had obviously taken up the practice at least informally. When Nodoka shook her head, the lavender-haired girl continued, "Oh well. This would be easier if you have see Joketsuzoku documentary. It come on TV sometime, here in this town at least."

"Mom, Shampoo is from a tribe of Chinese Amazons. She's actually their champion fighter," Ranma said, having recovered enough composure to reenter the conversation. "They've been around for three thousand years, or so they say anyway." He ignored Shampoo's elbow in his ribs; Champion or no Champion, with the position they were in she couldn't put significant force behind the gesture without also making it obvious to Nodoka. "In all that time they've been focused on makin' their society strong, teachin' their kids to fight and learn and never stop gettin' stronger. For example, when Shampoo here first came to town, she busted through walls instead of using doors."

"I over that now, thank Ranma very much!" the girl in question protested. It was true enough; nowadays she only did it when she didn't like whoever owned the property she was demolishing.

"So that should give you a good idea of how important it is for them to always keep growing. And that ain't just on a personal level either," Ranma continued. "The ultimate goal is to make the Amazon tribe itself stronger. That means they've been collecting secret techniques and magical stuff for all those years, too… and it's why, when an Amazon warrior gets defeated by an outsider guy, she has to marry him. Get his genes for the tribe's future, or something like that, I guess." He trailed off a bit awkwardly as he realized that none of them had ever put it into words so bluntly as that. Why was that, he wondered.

Judging from the look on Nodoka's face, this explanation hadn't cleared everything up. "Then… that's… you mean to say…?" She paused for a while, taking a few deep breaths as she recovered herself. With her composure restored, the Saotome matron remained silent, studying first her son, then his self-proclaimed fiancée. Back and forth, searching for answers. "Shampoo…" she eventually said, "from what my son described, you didn't have a choice. He didn't give you a choice." Before either teen could recover from their shock at this misinterpretation, she continued, "You don't seem unhappy, or to have any resentment at being taken from—"

"Honored Mother, that not what Shampoo say!!" the Amazon burst out, politeness and decorum shoved well out of her mind. "Ranma not know about law! Come by accident to village, defeat Shampoo, not know what mean, leave before he could learn truth! Ranma never, ever force Shampoo or nobody to do something like that!"

Nodoka sighed. "Ah well. That was going to be my second guess."

"Uh… and what was your first?" Ranma forced himself to ask.

His mother blinked. "Why, that you did just what you said. Defeated their choicest flower of young womanhood to claim her for yourself. It's not like that would have been anything to be ashamed of, dear," she pointed out as her son gave a choking gurgle and slumped bonelessly, held up by Shampoo's swift hand. "From what Shampoo said, it's what her people believe in and what she herself wanted." Nodoka smiled again, her eyes flickering over the teenagers opposite her.

For her part Shampoo smiled back, and tugged Ranma so that he was leaning more of his weight on her. "Is right!" she proclaimed. "When Shampoo younger and dream of strong, kind, honorable man to claim her, always think of him come on purpose to seek me out. Was little strange to have it happen by accident, but to find someone so wonderful as Ranma, Shampoo will not complain one bit!"

"To catch a prize like my son? I should say not!" Nodoka proclaimed jovially, her smile just as wide and warm as Shampoo's.

The prize in question twitched, but gave no other sign of regaining awareness. 'Maybe if I play dead and don't open my big, fat mouth again, things won't get any crazier.'

"Man, I can't believe how much crazier that lunch got," Ranma complained.

"I no believe you not beat stupid Ken worse than that," Shampoo countered.

"I can't believe he picked that exact time to crash the party lookin' for a rematch." At least the interruption had happened before Shampoo and his mother could start talking grandchildren, or the act that led to them.

"I no believe neither one of us think to wear waterproof soap for lunch with you mother." Although Shampoo had no difficulty believing that Ken's crashing entrance and roaring, bellowed demand for Ranma Saotome could startle a waitress into shrieking and throwing up her tray, or that this action could propel two glasses of ice water unerringly across the entire room to douse her and Ranma.

"I can't believe Cologne didn't just storm outta the kitchen and kick his butt."

"I no can believe you think great-grandmother fight you battles for you. Her way is take own vengeance out of his hide afterward, if we had no do good enough job."

'We?' Ranma wondered. All Shampoo had done was stand back and cheer him on. Admittedly that had been quite annoying to his opponent, but still…"I can't believe that jerk kidnapped Mom as a hostage!"

Shampoo shrugged. "I can't believe he only take her so far as first empty lot, then wait there Ranma catch up."

"Yeah. I can't believe he managed to adapt that stupid Copycat technique to grab disguises an' moves from video game characters."

"Well, Shampoo can't believe he thought it good idea to use fighting games anyway. No matter how strong moves is, fighter what can only go back and forth, not turn or step side-to-side, going to lose for sure."

"No kidding." Though Ranma would admit to being intimidated, just a little, when M. Bison had apparently burst through the door of the Cat Café and bellowed his challenge. He knew that as his reputation grew it was bound to attract stronger and stronger fighters from farther and farther afield, but that was ridiculous! "Uh… I can't believe Mom took it all in stride like that."

"Umm… um…" Shampoo chewed her lip, searching for a comeback. "Oh!" She gave a smirk of victory. "I can't believe Ranma no can believe these things, after live for past year in Nerima."

"I can't believe you forgot Mom's not from Nerima," he shot directly back with his own smirk.

"Not fair!" Shampoo complained, then waved him into silence before he could reply and claim victory. "Anyway, there one other thing I can't believe." She regained her own dangerous grin. "Can't believe Ranma just let him go, now that he know Ken can copy video game characters. You think next time you enjoy fight against Seth… um, Sapphire… uh, stupid one-wing-angel from Final Fantasy 7?"

Judging from the look on her beloved's face, her fumbling with the name had not reduced the impact of the question. "Uh… 'scuse me, Shampoo," Ranma said eventually, at about the same time he finally got some color back. "I need to take care of some unfinished business."

"What that?" Shampoo asked, stepping around in front of him as he turned to go, smiling all the wider and making a victory sign with one hand. "Going to find Ken, take that copycat cloak away from him?"

"Well, duh!" Ranma shot back. "It ain't like I like doing something like that, but if it's a choice between takin' a leaf outta Pop's book and letting him come back for a rematch as Mr. 'I'm gonna destroy the freakin' world unless the heroes stop me', I know for damn sure which path I'm gonna take!"

"Is no need," she proclaimed, reaching into her sleeve and pulling out the item in question, as if she were a magician and it an oversized scarf. "Shampoo take care of while Ranma carry mother back to Tendo place."

"Huh. Okay, thanks," he said, feeling the wind leave his sails as worry was replaced by relief. "Good call, Shampoo." He held out his hand to take the cloak.

"What, you think I going to give this to you?" she countered. "Airen need to think about this little more."

"What for?" he returned. "I'm the one who kicked his butt. If someone's gotta steal that thing from him, it oughta be me! I can at least claim it as a battle trophy, makes it a little less dishonorable that way. Only thing you contributed to that fight was bouncin' around and cheering for me, which distracted me almost as much as it did him!"

"Did Ranma really want to admit to that?" Shampoo asked, giving him her best blushing ingénue impression.


"Thought not," she giggled. "Anyway, that not what I meant for Ranma to think about. Mean that this," she flicked her wrist, causing the cloak to billow and snap like a flag in a stiff wind, "is some kind of magic thing. Shampoo for sure not keep it for own self. I give to great-grandmother and she pack it off for home village, to have mage look at it. That way it not bite either of us in butt, like magic do so many time already." Also, Cologne would decide whether someone needed to detain Ken for further questioning and perhaps apply the Xi Fang Gao.

"Well… okay. You're right, that probably is the safest and smartest thing to do." Ranma took a minute to think what an unknown transformative agent like Ken's kerchief might have done to him, wiped the sweat off his brow, and gave Shampoo a smile. "Y'know, Shampoo, today's been about as crazy as they get, but even with that it really hasn't been too bad."

"Glad Ranma think so too," she replied. "Was nice to meet mother, and even though we not have much time for talking, it was nice to get good start." She grinned at him. "And is always fun to watch Ranma kick powerful enemy's butt!"

"Heh. Glad to hear it." Ranma took a few seconds longer to preen.

"So why did you say you want to meet back here with Shampoo?" she asked, gesturing to the Cat Café rooftop beneath them. "Something else you want to talk about or ask, about time we got to spend with mother?"

"Oh, yeah." Might as well move the conversation along to that point. It didn't seem nearly as important as it first had, or at least not as aggravating, but he was still curious. "When you introduced yourself to her, you called yourself my fiancée. Even though I went out on a limb yesterday, tellin' you it was okay to say 'w-wife'." Ranma heard the stutter and mentally smacked himself. 'She better not say it was cause she figured I couldn't take that much heat,' he thought moodily. 'At least, I hope that wasn't it.'

"Shampoo thought you going to ask that," the girl said quietly. All traces of amusement were now gone from her voice, replaced by a tone that was equal parts serious, subdued, and tender. "Have been thinking about how to explain. Is not easy, not in Japanese anyway. Not think I can find right words," she admitted. "Is okay we change to curse forms for this?"

"All right," Ranma agreed. Trying to inject a lighter note back into the conversation, he added, "But don't think this is gonna get you a chance to catch me in the buff."

"No promises," Shampoo chirped as she produced a flask and splashed him with its contents. She then dumped the rest on her own head, slipped out of her clothing, and settled down to explain. "~I wasn't forgetting what you said to me, or… or that it was hard for you. Please don't think I was just fooling around, or not caring that you pushed yourself so far to do that.~"

"~Okay, I won't,~" he said dubiously. "~At least if you can explain. I mean, you keep bouncing back and forth, Shampoo. Wife, fiancée, wife, fiancée… can I at least get some kind of stability here?~"

"~That's… well, really that's the problem,~" the avian Amazon admitted. "~You know why I said 'wife' back at the beginning, right?~"

"~I'm assuming it's cause that's what Amazon law says, and at least at the very start that was all you were interested in going by.~"

"~More like it's all I had to go by,~" Shampoo countered. "~But yes, that's about right. And after awhile I switched to 'fiancée'.~"

"~When you were trying to adjust and fit in more with things here in Japan,~" Ranma surmised. "~Am I right? I worked it out at least that far, but that's as much as I've been able to figure for sure.~"

"~Hmm. I bet you could get at least one step farther if you really tried,~" Shampoo opined. She hesitated for a moment, wondering whether she should ask him to do just that. It would be gratifying to see that he really did understand her that much.

Then she decided against it. He'd worked through things this far on his own, and even though he hadn't had all the answers he'd still found enough trust in her to let go of his original negative reaction, even before receiving any explanation from her. She wasn't going to hold out on giving it to him. "~It wasn't all that long ago when I went back to 'wife',~" she said quietly, turning her head so that only the corner of one eye kept watch over him. "~The feeling had been building up for a while, that I wasn't being honest. That I was denying who I really was, how I really felt. I may not be so far out of place, at least not here in Nerima, but I am not Japanese. I am a Chinese Amazon, a daughter of three thousand years of history. And I am not going to hide or lie about how I really feel. I love you, with all my heart, for all my life.~"

Silence stretched for quite a long time in the wake of Shampoo's declaration. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Ranma's posture mirrored her own. He, too, was facing mostly away from her, only keeping track of her from the very edge of his field of vision. "~I… I guess maybe I did know that after all,~" he admitted, the words barely loud enough to cross the air between them. "~That's a big part of why I told you yesterday it was okay if you said that to Mom.~" Even if he hadn't been able to go that far the previous evening, when he was explaining to her just what he was trying to say and why.

"~Thank you, Beloved.~" She had suspected that at the time, but she hadn't been sure and had been unwilling to push it quite that far. "~Like I said, it wasn't a whim or anything, when I didn't take you up on that offer today.~"

"~So… why?~"

"~Because of last night.~" Realizing that she'd misspoken, Shampoo clarified, "~Late last night, after I went to bed. I spent a lot of time thinking about this, turning everything over and around in my mind. And I realized something. Remember what I said earlier, about why I changed from 'fiancée' back to 'wife'?~"

Once her pause had lasted long enough for him to realize it was an actual question, he answered, "~Yes, you said you… weren't being honest about how you really felt.~" He wasn't sure why those last eight words were a little difficult to get out.

"~Right.~" If she'd been in her original body, she would have given him a rueful smile. "~And last night I realized I'd just done the same thing all over again.~"

Try as he might, he could make no sense of this. "~Uh… you can't cut out both 'fiancée' and 'wife', Shampoo. Not unless there's some higher level I've never even heard of.~"

She struggled for a moment, mastering the impulse to tease him about being so full of himself. After all, she wanted him to know down to the very hollow of his bones that she loved him. "~That's right,~" she said instead. "~I can't cut both of them out. In fact, I can't drop either one of them.~"

"~But… you can't exactly use them both,~" he pointed out.

"~Says who?~" she wanted to know. By now he was facing her directly. She turned her head to meet his eyes for a moment, then looked mostly away again. "~Both of them cover different parts of how I feel.~"

"~I don't get it,~" Ranma admitted. "~Not the 'fiancée' part, at least.~"

Even for her, this next part was a little difficult to get out, but say it she did. "~I love you, forever, want to spend all my life with you. That is what 'wife' means. But, but I also want you to say the same thing back to me, Ranma,~" she said quietly, turning her head just a little to make it easier to watch him without putting the pressure of a direct stare on him. "~That you love me. That you want me. That you want to be with me for all our lives, that you choose me just like I chose you so long ago. That you would marry me by the customs you grew up with.~"

"~Sh-Shampoo…~" That he was even able to stutter in spite of the Jusenkyo translation effect proved just how stunned and dizzy her proclamation had left him. Ranma was barely even aware that he was speaking. "~I-I'm not ready… I mean, I can't say that…~" He fell silent.

It took her quite awhile to reply, and when she did her voice was curiously choked and halting as well. He couldn't hear any hint of hurt or sorrow, though. "~That… It's all right, Ranma. That's why 'fiancée' is still right too. Because it's talking about a promise and a hope for the future.~"

Once again he was at a loss for words. This time, try though he might, he couldn't find the right ones to answer her. Whatever they were, they weren't going to come right now. "~…Okay,~" he eventually said, then took as deep a breath as his falcon body allowed. "~Shampoo… I don't want to run away or anything, but I don't think I can manage any more of a conversation like this…~"

"~That's fine, Beloved. One step at a time,~" Shampoo advised, her voice shifting from comforting to wistful as she turned again to face him directly. "~That's got to be the right way. Every time I tried to cover all the distance in one sprint, I just ended up falling flat on my face.~"

"~Heh. I don't think either of us wants that,~" Ranma replied. "~Anyway, I know one good way to lighten up after a real heavy conversation.~"

"~Hmmm,~" she said playfully. "~Are you saying we should fly, or that we should have a contest to see who could make the most bad jokes about flying?~"

"~The one that only you and I can do,~" he answered, before leaping away from the earth's grasp. "Catch me if you can!~"


To be continued.

Author's notes: As I warned you at the end of chapter 6, I wrote chapters 7 and 8 simultaneously. Chapter 8 will cover what's been happening during these days from the other characters' perspectives.

While we're on the subject of perspectives, there's one thing I couldn't make one hundred percent clear within the story itself, since I was only showing Ranma's perspective on a certain event. And that is the view he has developed on the walk back from Ryugenzawa with Akane — or rather, the fact that his view is wrong. In his defense, part of his conclusion was right. Based on all previous examples, one ought to expect her to be nervous, probably at least as nervous as him, if the gesture he made mattered to her. Unfortunately, our boy Saotome failed to grasp one important thing: if he himself had been so moved by recent events as to be able to make this out-of-character gesture, why should Akane not also be able to reach beyond her own limitations, and accept it without fear or stress? Too bad she couldn't reach just a little farther, and actually say something that Ranma would know meant that yes, this mattered to her. But if she could do that, or if he didn't need her to, I wouldn't be so adamantly against the Ranma-Akane matchup.

A few more original series notes: the name 'Ranma' means Wild Horse, which explains Ranma's 'his mother had named him herself' thought. For those who missed his episode, Copycat Ken was a guy who could copy other martial artists' techniques by photographing them with a camera (it's unclear whether he did this just to aid him in studying them, or if it was some kind of special move-copying ability), and could copy their very bodies (even Happosai!) by use of a large cloak. And finally, Nodoka says to Ranma that she doesn't know much about his and Genma's training trip, even though in the original series we learn that Genma had sent her letters regularly. It's my speculation that he just didn't put much detail into them (other than, you know, how well Ranma was coming along, how manly he was turning out to be, etc). This would also explain how Nodoka had not heard of Jusenkyo before this chapter; in her introductory episode, the actual wording she uses in reference to Genma's final letter to her is that he and Ranma were on a journey to an elite Chinese training ground.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this chapter and that you'll enjoy the next. I also hope that the two chapters at once makes up for the long delay since the last update. Rest assured — though my posting speed is certainly nothing to write home about, I never abandon stories once I've posted any part of them to the public. Thanks to everyone at the Refuge who gave C&C.

Chapter 8
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