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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 9: Sun Gets In Your Eyes

Shampoo took a good, long look at her beloved, standing ten feet away from her. His grin was as wide as she'd ever seen. His stance practically screamed confidence and self-assuredness. Even the dust cloud he'd raised as he landed on the rooftop seemed to radiate cocky triumph. She felt her heart quicken and her lips curl into their own smile. "Ranma, look like you have good news," she said. "Is so, yes?"

"Yep." Grinning just a little wider, he said, "Guess what."

"Now that mother know truth is more complicated than just you engage to Akane, she let you off Tendo honor hook?" Shampoo said breathlessly. That was about the best possible news she could imagine.

"Uh, no," Ranma said, his smile diminishing to more normal levels. "Try again."

"Nabiki realize it was wrong to bring mother back into you life when it still kind of dangerous, say she will make up for it by work to keep her safe?" From what Cologne had told her eleven days ago, that seemed like exactly the kind of thing the middle Tendo would consider a reasonable next move. And if this guess too was wrong, it still ought to serve as an honest-to-goodness subtle hint to her beloved about what kind of person Nabiki really was.

"Not that either," Ranma said, his smile fading to little more than a glimmer.

"Hmmm," Shampoo mused. From the way he'd told her to guess he obviously believed she ought to be able to, but she was running out of good ideas. "How about—"

"Actually, why don't I just tell ya?" Shampoo was easily the most cheerful of his fiancées, the girl who'd endured the worst setbacks and obstacles yet kept her optimism intact, but that didn't always translate into her providing a similar boost to other people's spirits. 'Hmm… Mom knows the important stuff about Shampoo and Kasumi now, and she likes them both,' Ranma mused, distracted momentarily. Maybe his mother could arrange for the Amazon to learn a few lessons from the oldest Tendo daughter. Any girl who could refer to Akane as 'a very sweet girl, just a little high-spirited' definitely knew how to spin things for minimal unpleasant impact.

Then again, he supposed he wasn't the best person to complain, if someone else said what they honestly thought and if it wasn't the most tactful thing imaginable.

He pushed aside those thoughts, remembering the news he'd come here to give her. Grinning a reasonably cocky grin once more, he said, "Better yet, let me show you." He extended his right hand, fingers and thumb held together to form a level plane. As Shampoo watched, sudden understanding in her eyes, his hand remained still… but the air around it now shimmered with turbulent, muted power.

"Ranma, you learn Buzzing Fist!" the Amazon exclaimed, clapping her hands as she gave a couple of wholly gratuitous bounces. She wasn't sure whether to be pleased or disappointed that while Ranma's eyes widened and tracked the motion faithfully, his hold over the technique didn't waver at all. "Shampoo thought for sure it take you at least a little longer, more training together, since there so much other things distract you right now!"

"Heh. You ain't seen nothing yet," Ranma bragged, then turned his attention away from her before the Amazon herself could prove any more of a distraction. For this part he needed all the focus he could manage. The air around his hand stilled for the instant it took to curve his fingers together into a clenched fist. Then he reengaged the technique, this time pouring much more strength into it.

For a moment Shampoo was content to just watch the sight in silence… but her responsibility as his sensei quickly moved her to speech. "Ranma, is nice you can put so much power into it," she said dubiously. "But for this move, control is much more important than how much power you use." She paused again, trying to assemble just what she needed to say with her limited Japanese, to craft a reminder of what she'd told him three weeks ago about the one true advantage of the Buzzing Strike over the Buzzing Fist. The vibrations emanating from the air around Ranma's fist had almost reached the point where his own flesh would take damage from the move… and they were still building. Abandoning the attempt to find a tactful way to warn him off, the Amazon shouted, "Stop, that enough! You going too far, Airen!"

"Well, if you say so…" He met her gaze, wearing again the grin he'd had when he arrived. Then, in one smooth motion, he lifted his fist so that it was pointed directly at her, and whipped his fingers open into the form for a palm strike.

Several seconds later, the last of the gale passed her by. Shampoo stood frozen for a few moments more, then raised a trembling hand and cleared her windblown tresses away from in front of her eyes. Part of her couldn't believe the sight in front of her, couldn't imagine that Ranma was just standing there with that same devil-may-care grin and his hand utterly unmarked by the tempest he'd unleashed. The rest of her, though, whispered back that she'd really known better than to expect anything else.

"It ain't real powerful, obviously," Ranma said after the Amazon let a few more moments pass in stunned silence. "I wasn't going easy on you there; that really is as powerful as I can make the effect right now. Gotta spend most of my concentration on keeping the second layer of the technique intact."

"Ranma mean…" Shampoo gulped breathlessly, then said, "Mean you can do both part at once, on purpose? Mean…" After another bout of struggling for the words in his language, she continued, "To do technique, there is thin, weak layer of still air next to you skin, but that happen automatic. Is not something you have to focus on or decide to make happen, it come natural. But Ranma, you can control that at same time you do other part too? Make the protection part strong enough to not get shred by the bigger power of outside buzzing part?"

"Yep. And it definitely ain't easy," he replied. "I'm not even sure if something like this will ever be useful on its own. But like you said back when we first started on this, the whole Buzzing Fist is really most valuable for teaching principles that lead on to bigger and better things. Same thing with this little revision, I bet."

"Looks like it good for more than just that," Shampoo said, offering him a wan smile. When he blinked at the unexpected reaction, she continued, "Is also good to show me Ranma have truly master this move, pass me by even though we only have meet for train in it that one time. You were right, Airen… maybe it not matter so much if I do a good job with teach you or not. You will still learn anyway."

'Wasn't she supposed to be happy about this?' Ranma thought incredulously. Women — he'd never understand them. "I'm not so sure, actually," he said slowly. "I mean, yeah, obviously I would learn the moves. But saying that you didn't do a good job teaching me, or that it didn't help me to get where I am now… no, that ain't right at all."

"Hmm. Well, I glad to see it work so well for you." Shampoo's smile still contained more than a hint of pain, but there was enough honest happiness for his sake mixed in to keep it from being obvious. "Sorry, Ranma, but I need to take some time to think, about what is best way to train for next move. Since I not expect you master this one so fast, had not done too much of that yet." Technically this wasn't an outright lie, but it skirted pretty close to the edge. She had spent a fair amount of time thinking, or perhaps 'fantasizing' would be the better word, about one possible way to train her husband in the Wind Strike. But now, with what she'd seen and realized this afternoon… well, she was going to have to think long, hard, and seriously before trying to lead Ranma into something like that.

"Heh. You could always blindfold me and walk around me using the technique at its lowest power, while I had to try and figure out which touches were the wind and which were you," Ranma joked. Then he blinked, walked over, squatted down, and offered Shampoo a hand up. "Yo, Shampoo, you okay? It's been a long time since I saw someone facefault hard enough to dent the roof tiles."

Shampoo might have been dazed and confused, but reflex alone was more than enough for her to accept his hand and let him pull her up, in the process squeezing his hand just a little tighter than necessary and settling down slightly closer than his aid alone would have placed her. Neither of these acts provoked a visible reaction from Ranma. Switching to her native tongue, the Amazon muttered, "<It's official. I absolutely don't understand what's going on.>"

"How's that again?"

"Shampoo just confused, that all." She waved one hand up and down in the limited space between them. "Last time you nearly jump out of skin for not much more contact than we just had. Now you sit there like it no big deal?"

"Jeez, throw it in my face why don't ya," he grumbled. He hesitated, trying to decide whether to take this any further or change the subject. The silence stretched for several long moments… and then was broken as Ranma exhaled a loud, gusty sigh. "I won't say it's no big deal," he said quietly. "But I ain't as afraid any more." He offered her the ghost of a smile. "What was that you said to me last time, about the old ghoul? Something about her liking to use the pressure-cooker kind of training."

"Yes, that right."

"Well, the last time we met for this might've been your first time teaching anybody, but you got one piece of your granny's style down real good. I ain't saying it should have been so much of a strain on me," his voice had fallen to a near-whisper, "but it was. You pushed me hard, and… and it was almost too hard. But not quite. It was just hard enough to kick me outta my rut and get me started on something I should've already dealt with. It was — it is a lesson I gotta learn."

While much of this sounded pretty darn good to Shampoo, by no means had it cleared up all her confusion. "But… Ranma say that, say you finally realize you need to learn not be so shy?" She paused, waited for him to grimace and nod, then said as gently as she could, "Then why you not come back more training? I know you is good, Airen, but you not only master Buzzing Fist, you make big change to it. You have to have spent much time working on this on you own. Why you not let me help you with that and with other lesson too, one not have anything to do with Air style, one you say you need to learn?" It was her turn to lower the volume until her companion had to strain to hear her. "One Shampoo so want to teach you…"

"Shampoo…" The girl in question looked up, blinking to see Ranma's face twisted in as much confusion as she'd ever witnessed. Before she could say anything, he continued, "That don't make any sense at all! Okay, yeah, mastering the Buzzing Fist means we won't be doing any more of that particular exercise. But…" He lifted one hand aimlessly, then let it fall. "You're the one making up the training methods. You think I came back here today expecting you to mysteriously start going easier on me?"


"That'd be 'no'." He snorted. "Remember that joke I made earlier, about how you could train me for the Wind Strike? Well… I mean, it was a joke. But… at the same time… I could seriously see ya doing something like that." He clamped his lips shut against the temptation to add something about that not being a suggestion. He was going to face this trial like he'd faced all of the others in his life, head-on with full determination, not trying to weasel his way out of it!

Well, okay, some of the others in his life, Ranma amended.

"That really how you feel, Airen?" Shampoo asked tremulously, light glinting suspiciously at the corners of her eyes.

"Y-yeah," he managed. "I wasn't trying to get out of anything, by practicing and learning the move on my own. Or at least, not anything to do with you."

Shampoo blinked. A large part of her wanted to ignore the qualification and just grab him then and there in her best hug, but another part suggested that that wouldn't be too wise. "What that mean?" she wondered.

Ranma gave her a lopsided smile. "Do ya think things might've been just a little more stressful on me than usual, this past week? It's great to have Mom back in my life, but it makes just about everything more complicated. And I think you know it was pretty dang complicated already!"

"And training is good way to get rid of stress," the Amazon filled in, "and is easier to get quick little times to you self than to get few hours to sneak over and train with Shampoo. That is what you mean when say training on you own let you get out of something?"

"You got it." Ranma heaved a sigh, then smiled at her. "And just so you know, I ain't promising the same thing won't happen again. Today's session may be the only one between you showing me the Wind Strike and me showing it back to you. Prob'ly not, though," he mused. "Prob'ly won't be such a long gap between now and our next session, especially since Mom knows about you and is happy you're there for me."

"And can Ranma maybe say the same?" Shampoo purred, looking up at him through half-closed eyelids.

He wasn't quite sure how she managed that; since they were both sitting down, their heads should have been level. Scraping together his composure and his courage, he replied, "Y- yeah. I can. I am. And…" He sighed and looked away. What he was about to say was going to be hard enough without fighting distraction as well. "And… I'm sorry, for lying to you an' me both last time, when I said I wasn't afraid. That is how it should've been, and how it's darn well going to be," he declared, turning steadfastly back to look at her. She was wide-eyed now, staring at him with a mixture of emotions Ranma couldn't entirely identify. None of them seemed negative, at least.

He waited a while for her to speak, but she just sat there staring at him. "It might be kind of a rocky road getting there," he warned at last. "But I guess you saw that last time. I'm not gonna ask you to go easy on me," this said in a tone that suggested he might not turn away such treatment either, "but I will ask you to keep in mind one thing you said about your granny's favorite method. It's a great way to make good progress quickly, just as long as you don't push too hard too fast."

A wide, trembling smile broke across Shampoo's face like a sunrise. "Ranma mean…" She stopped, swallowed hard, then said, "Mean like maybe walk around you blindfolded, use Wind Strike and own touch against you, and the blindfold you is wearing is own shirt?"

Sweat broke out on Ranma's brow. "Uh… yeah. I think that would qualify."

Shampoo sighed. "Knew my first idea was little too much." By now her smile had steadied and even regained a bit of a sultry note. "Maybe Shampoo can save that plan, modify it for use when Ranma learn Wind Ward."

He gaped. "A- Are you serious?! Were ya actually thinking about using that exact method I said?"

"No, you not listen? In my," Shampoo only just stopped herself from saying 'fantasy', "plan, Ranma wear shirt over eyes, not chest."

He closed his eyes, as if wanting to save her the trouble of blindfolding him. "Shampoo, I think that would definitely qualify as too much, too fast."

"Ranma already say that. Remember, Airen, I not Akane — I will learn from mistakes. Will listen to you, and not dump more on you than you can take. Shampoo never want to do that again." She grinned at him. "But remember, that not a promise about when we train for technique after next."

"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it," he returned. "But for now, and speaking as someone who's definitely not wimping out but who does have a reasonable idea of where he stands—" He broke off, blinking at the look on Shampoo's face. "Something wrong?"

"Is just… you not really sound like own self there, Ranma."

"Yeah, I know," he grumbled. "Don't sound at all like the guy who let things slide for over a year, never trying to learn any lessons other than stuff that tied to the Art, never even admitting I needed more than that, or thinking about what was really happening, or what was gonna happen farther down the road…" Realizing he was rambling, he cut himself short. "I can't afford that anymore, Shampoo. I prob'ly couldn't afford it even when I wasn't trying to know any better. Can't do anything about the past, though, except try and learn from it and not make those same mistakes again."

"That sound good to me," she said quietly. "I trying to do that too, you know."

"I know." He smiled at her. "And… and I'm grateful."

"Ranma…" she breathed. Shampoo hesitated just a moment longer, then made her decision. Slowly, deliberately, gently, she closed the distance between them and reached her arms around him in a warm embrace. She felt him stiffen and his heart begin to pound like a bass drum, but this time his response didn't bother her at all. It would be nice if he'd immediately hugged her back, but now she was certain that that — and more — would come in its time.

She leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. "Is this okay, Ranma?" she murmured. "Not push too hard, but not let you off easy either. You admit it now, you know these are lesson you need to learn." He began to relax against her, ever so slightly. "Shampoo think maybe what she do in the past made it harder for you. For that, I am very sorry." Much of the tension had left him now. "But if we both try to do better, is not too late." As if answering her unspoken question, his right hand came slowly and hesitantly up, to rest on her back with the gentlest of touches. Shampoo sighed, luxuriating in the contact and letting the embrace go as long as she dared. "Thank you, Airen," she said as she finally pulled back.

"Thank you, too," Ranma said, giving her shoulder a tentative squeeze before returning his hand to his side. He summoned up the fortitude to grin at her and say, "Lemme tell ya, Shampoo, I can sure say now that it's better to have you for a sensei than your granny."

Shampoo's laughter rang like golden bells. "Here and now, even she would probably let you off hook for say that. But I really glad to hear it, Ranma." After pausing for thought for a few moments, she continued, "You remember little while ago when you show me you had make new move from Buzzing Fist? Did you see that I was little bit sad as well as happy?"

"Yeah," he replied, wondering why she'd brought it back up. "Wasn't that cause you were thinking I'd worked so hard on my own because I wanted to get out of training with you?"

"No," she answered, surprising him. "Not at first, anyway. Thought of that little bit later. You know what hit me first?"

'Let's see, girls often think they're making sense when they're really not…' "You… thought you weren't being a good sensei because I only needed one session of instruction to be able to move past you?" he hazarded a guess.

Shampoo stuck her tongue out at him. "No. Well, not really. That was maybe part of it, that Ranma learn so quick, student not need teacher for solve any problems or even give hints to help him past roadblock." She met his gaze squarely, this time without any pain or disappointment. "But that was not what really hurt. I was wrong, but for that time, felt like only things I had to give you was just for being Amazon. Not for being Shampoo."

"… I'm not sure I understand," Ranma said, sparing only a little bit of concentration for the words. The rest of his mind was trying to do just that — to understand, to unravel the mystery of what a girl really meant when she was saying something so obviously important to her but unknown to him. "How could you possibly think that? I mean… you've given me lots of stuff. Usually you were able to because you're an Amazon, but that ain't the reason."

Shampoo drew her breath in sharply as she considered those words. "Maybe…" she said at last, "maybe Ranma understand better than I did. Need time to think about this, Airen."

"Heh. You and me both," he replied. "We've been here for way less than an hour, and I've already got enough stuff to think about over two or even three flights. Maybe we better stop now before we overflow our brains."

"Is very good idea." Shampoo blinked as one of her own struck her, the thought popping forth before her awareness exactly as if it had overflowed, fully-formed, out of some mental well. "And Shampoo have one too. We talk long enough, Ranma; can use rest of time to fly. Shampoo will use Wind Strike at low level to give you good winds to ride and bad winds to fight, get you used to technique that way. Is like I already do one time, only now I know move better and can make better challenge for you. Is not even very far from what Great-Grandmother do when she train me." It would be significantly less stressful on him than that method had been on her, but as Shampoo saw it the last thing Ranma needed was to be getting unnecessary stress from her. Plus, her control was hardly equal to Cologne's; she might end up seriously hurting her beloved if she tried to imitate the Matriarch's method too closely.

"Sounds good to me," Ranma said, firing off a grin nearly as cocky as the one he'd arrived with. He gestured to the flask of water resting against Shampoo's hip. "You wanna do the honors?"

Yuka stared contemplatively down into her milkshake. It almost felt like a shame to drink it, rather than take it home and put it in the freezer to be preserved for posterity. After all, she could easily buy another for actual consumption with her own money — but being treated to something for free by Nabiki Tendo was nearly unheard-of.

Looking up from the treat and across the table, she noted that Sayuri seemed to be trying to make the most of the occasion in a different way. The girl was wolfing down her sundae at a rate that reminded Yuka of the stories Akane told of Ranma's eating habits. 'Does she actually think Nabiki will buy her another if she looks like she enjoyed the first one enough?' Yuka wondered. 'Wow, if she can be that optimistic she must be all the way over the trauma from that stupid Ghost Cat.'

She turned her attention to the table's fourth and final occupant, her other best friend and a girl who'd seen more weirdness and extremes of fortune than the rest of them combined. Akane didn't seem unhappy, Yuka noted, but her friend wasn't nearly as cheerful as she usually was when it was just the three of them out for a fun time. The best word that came to mind was 'reserved'. It wasn't as bad as 'unhappy' or any of its ilk would have been, but Yuka still didn't think it was a particularly good state to be in when you were with friends.

"So how are things going with your training, Akane?" she asked. "You're awfully quiet. Is it because you're worrying what Mr. Saotome will say about you putting things off with him today?" She couldn't remember whether Akane was supposed to go straight home after school to train even on a Saturday, but considering what she'd heard of Mr. Saotome, it didn't seem unlikely.

"Huh?" Akane said, blinking. "What was that?" After her friend had repeated the question, she said, "No… not really. I mean, I wasn't worrying about that. My Saturday afternoon sessions are at the same time as all the others, and I'm sure we won't be here long enough to make me late for that. But the training is what I was thinking about." It had been a full week now since she and Genma had resumed working together, a week of greater hurt than Akane had known in her entire life. It would be nice if she could say that she'd seen the kind of improvement she deserved for all her suffering, but as far as she could tell the only things she'd gained were greater endurance and a higher pain threshold.

She wasn't about to work this hard just so Shampoo could kick her around more before winning the fight.

"You're brooding again, little sister," Nabiki chided. "How much more do you want me to do, here?"

"Huh?" Akane repeated, blinking once more.

"I'm already spending my Saturday afternoon by inviting you and your friends out for ice cream, and even paying for it. And that's still not enough to raise your spirits?" Nabiki shook her head sorrowfully, raised her eyes to the heavens, and gave the best impression she could manage of Genma's voice. "Oh, what an ungrateful sister I've raised!"

This at least succeeded in provoking a snort of laughter from Akane. "Yeah, right, Nabiki. Seriously, though, why did you invite us all here?" It was a nice enough café, but she didn't see what was special enough about it to justify coming this far out of their way for a visit. The ice cream had been tasty and the prices reasonable, but the only real difference between this place and the ones they more often frequented was its distance from their normal stomping grounds.

"What kind of a question is that?" Nabiki asked. "Can't I just want to spend some time with my little sister, and do something nice for her?"

Akane's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Okay, now I really mean it, Nabiki. Why did you want to come here?"

The middle Tendo traded her melodramatic mask for a smirk. "All kidding aside, it really is because I want to do something nice for you," she said smoothly. It wasn't even really a lie, at least if one considered 'keep Ranma tied to you by any means necessary' to be nice. "But I also need some help from you."

"Oh really," Akane replied. At least this time she'd gotten a free ice cream out of whatever the deal was. "Well, let's hear it."

"Have you noticed how Kuno has been more of a nuisance lately? How he's been more determined, more in your face, how he's taken up more of your time? It's only natural, after all — his pigtailed girl has been gone for two months now. As soon as she disappeared, it was bound to mean one of two things: either he'd take more and more attention away from you as he searched for her, or it would be 'out of sight, out of mind'. Either you'd get some relief, or things would get even worse when he chased you all the harder to make up for losing his other one true love." Nabiki shrugged. "Except we all know that with your luck, only one of those was ever really a possibility."

"You're saying that's why he's been coming on so much stronger lately?" Akane queried. She stopped, and thought back over what had happened at school during the last few weeks. Sure, she'd had to pound Kuno every few days, but… "But, Nabiki… he hasn't. I mean, I can't remember him being any more of a pest than usual."

"You are correct!" Nabiki stated, raising her spoon into the air with a flourish. From the corners of her eyes she watched Yuka and Sayuri trade glances. Good — they'd noticed the out-of-character theatrics, and were even becoming a little suspicious as a result. All the better then, for the next step. "Why do you suppose that is, Akane?"

Akane heaved a sigh. "Nabiki, if you're trying to make me wish I was back home training with Mr. Saotome, you're doing a good job." It gave her a bit of satisfaction to say that; since Nabiki didn't know the true nature of her training, she couldn't know the real impact of the statement. It felt good to say something Nabiki didn't really understand, for a change. "Maybe you could just tell me straight out what you're trying to get at?"

"Okay, fine." All traces of silly humor vanished from Nabiki's face, returning it to its typical expression, if such a word could be used for what was really an expressionless mask. She carefully thought back to the encounter with Cologne of two weeks past, letting just enough of the emotions it had spawned past her control to twist her pretty features with weariness, discomfort, and a touch of fear. "I've been running interference for you, Akane. Me and my network are the reason he hasn't been worse for you lately. And it's basically reached the point where we can't keep that up without active help from you." She sighed and looked away, using the moment as a chance to examine Yuka and Sayuri. She allowed herself a hint of cold satisfaction as she saw that their suspicion had shifted into understanding — or at least, they believed they understood. The two had swallowed her tale hook, line, and sinker. It was the same old story, Nabiki thought cynically. Show a little obvious false emotion, then show something that looks real and would explain the earlier façade, and nearly the whole world will fall all over themselves to believe. And if that technique hadn't worked, she had an entire mental arsenal of others at her disposal.

Even Happosai could be tricked or pacified, at least by someone who was sufficiently young, hot, and female as well as clever. If there was anyone in Nerima other than Cologne that she couldn't handle this way, Nabiki hadn't met them yet. Nor did she want to. It was going to be hard enough, skating around the damnable old hag and keeping enough distance between them while still getting what she wanted. But come hell or high water, Nabiki Tendo would do it. She wasn't about to let Ranma Saotome slip away, wasn't about to let the Amazons or anyone take something that belonged to her! So Cologne didn't want to learn of any more interference from her? That could be arranged.

"That's why you invited us all out here?" Sayuri asked. "To ask us for help in keeping Kuno off Akane's back? You can count on us, Nabiki, Akane!"

"Yeah!" Yuka chimed in. "Are we going to discuss strategy now? Is that why you wanted to come all the way out here, so that there wouldn't be anybody we know around to overhear?"

"Yes, that's right." Nabiki heaved a weary sigh. "If Kuno were to hear about this, it would destroy any chance of success. It's going to be complicated and hard enough as it is. Frankly, even with all of us working together it's not certain that everything will work out just right." There — her own backside was now covered. When her machinations resulted in Kuno becoming more interested rather than less, when he actually did what she said he'd already done and pushed aside the memory of a long-lost redhead to focus solely on Akane, when Tatewaki Kuno became troublesome enough that Akane needed Ranma to once again rescue her… it would just be one more of those Nerima things. Certainly nothing that anyone would lay at her feet. After all, she had done the best she could to help her sister.

"Do you really think you can do it, Nabiki?" Akane asked, a hopeful smile beginning to spread across her features. "It would be wonderful if I didn't have to put up with him any longer. And thanks for keeping him off my back as much as you have."

"You're welcome, sis," Nabiki murmured with not a shred of remorse. "As for a permanent solution… well, like I already said, all we can do is try. I think it's a good chance, but you've got to know as well as I do that there's no certainties in this town." Or at least, none that she felt like sharing with Akane at the moment. Nabiki felt certain that a few well-timed chances to play the hero would get Ranma thinking more favorably about her sister. 'After all, he won't get to prove how strong and macho he is by rescuing _Shampoo_ with any real frequency.' It certainly wouldn't solve all the recent problems in one fell swoop, but it would be a good start.

"Then let's get started!" Akane said eagerly. "Have you already got a plan, or are we going to think something up now?"

"I have a few ideas," her sister demurred. "But I thought we should talk them over and get everyone's opinions before deciding on anything final." Which would leave her yet another layer of deniability once things apparently spiraled out of control. It probably wasn't necessary, but insurance that didn't cost you anything was never a bad idea. "Okay, for starters—" Her mouth clamped closed with an audible click.

"For starters…?" Akane prompted. When her sister remained silent, she said, "Um, Nabiki…?"

"Akane…" This was Sayuri, not exactly whispering but certainly not speaking in a normal tone of voice. "Behind you."

"Huh?" It dawned on Akane that her sister wasn't actually looking at her any longer; Nabiki's gaze was fixed at something over her shoulder. She twisted around just in time to see two familiar figures disappear into a booth on the far side of the café. After her own moment of shocked silence, Akane got to her feet. "Excuse me," she growled, turning to pursue them.

Nabiki's hand shot out with speed that was truly impressive for a non-martial artist, and clamped down on her sister's arm with equally impressive force. "Hold it, Akane."

"Excuse me?!" Unlike her last use of the phrase, there wasn't even a hint of politeness in her tone now. "Do you really expect me to just sit here and not even wonder what the heck Ukyo's doing with Mrs. Saotome?"

"Of course not," Nabiki riposted, not relaxing her grip one bit. "I expect you to not screw up this opportunity." In the privacy of her own mind, the middle Tendo thought that it was about damn time they had another one of those coincidences that used to happen all the time, where random chance helped her little sister's chances with Ranma. She didn't know yet whether this meeting would be good news, bad, or indifferent; considering how many loose screws Ranma's mother had it could conceivably be all of the above. But it was certainly good news that she had the chance to get a secret ringside seat to whatever new development this was.

Aloud, she continued, "They didn't notice us, which is frankly better luck than I would have expected. We're not about to waste it. We're going to sneak over to the next booth and listen in on their whole conversation, not butt in and throw away the chance of getting inside information." When Akane still looked hesitant, the middle Tendo snapped, "For goodness' sake, think about it! Obviously Ukyo has already introduced herself to Mrs. Saotome, so you can't stop them from meeting to talk. But you can find out what Miss Kuonji has to say."

"Well, maybe," Akane said with supreme reluctance. "Fine, let's just go over there." She turned, only to be pulled up short by her sister's grip. "Nabiikiii!"

"Not until you promise you'll sit quietly and listen, not explode and blow our cover," Nabiki said forcefully, staring her sister in the eye. "I mean it, Akane. Give me your word of honor."

After taking a few deep breaths, Akane said, "All right. I promise."

'Interesting,' Nabiki mused as she let go and rose to her feet as well, followed quickly by Sayuri and Yuka. 'It looked like Akane actually thought it through and made a rational decision even when she didn't like it, rather than me having to trick her or push her into it by sheer force of will. That's a switch.' Nothing more was said as the foursome sneaked quietly over to their own booth and settled down for some serious eavesdropping.

"This is a nice place, Auntie," Ukyo said. "Thanks for inviting me here."

"You're welcome, dear. Kasumi introduced me to it last week." Nodoka smiled faintly. "She put special emphasis on how quiet and out-of-the-way it was, that you could be certain of a peaceful afternoon if you went here."

"Hmm," Ukyo murmured dubiously, remembering how true that hadn't proved to be for the late, lamented Chrysanthemum Garden. Quiet and out-of-the-way or not, it wouldn't surprise her if history repeated itself here. Hence, the chef's incongruous kimono-with-battle-spatula ensemble. She even had one razor-sharp mini-spatula hidden up a sleeve within easy reach, which could be used to slit the bottom sides of the kimono for improved mobility. Ukyo really hoped it wouldn't come to that, of course. She wasn't sure why Nodoka had invited her to this tête—tête, but she certainly wanted to make a continued good impression rather than a bad one. Hopefully if anything did blow up around them, Nodoka would forgive whatever lapse in propriety was needed since Ukyo damn well wasn't going to risk the woman getting hurt. "A nice, peaceful afternoon would be great."

The waiter arrived then with their tea. After each had taken a few sips and found it quite enjoyable, Ukyo spoke again. "Was there anything in particular you wanted to talk about, Auntie? Or did you just want to visit for a while?"

"A little of both, really," Nodoka replied. "Last Saturday made a nice start, I thought, but it certainly didn't tell me everything about you, and how things are between you and my son."

'That must be why she invited just me this afternoon, instead of me and Ranchan.' Ukyo said a quick prayer that she wouldn't let anything slip that would somehow make things harder for Ranma. She wished she'd made more time the past week to talk to him about just what was safe to present to Nodoka, and what wasn't. A moment's thought along those lines provided a possible solution, a chance to pass the time in conversation that wouldn't be dangerous at all. "Would you like to hear some stories from when he and I were kids together?"

The Saotome matron blinked, then beamed. "Oh yes, please!" She'd missed so much of Ranma's life, almost his entire childhood, and Nodoka could think of no more pleasant a way to spend an afternoon than getting a little bit of that back.

"All right," Ukyo said with a smile. 'Let's see, should I start with how we first met, or jump straight into the business with the Gambling King?' The former would seem like a more logical place to start if she was just trying to share Ranma's early history with Nodoka, but the latter would give her an opening to segue into hinting to Nodoka about the kind of treatment her son all too often received at the hands of the Tendos. Ukyo didn't doubt that they were trying to put on a good face now that Ranma's mother was actually living with them, but she also didn't doubt that they slipped up in little ways from time to time. Give Nodoka a few subtle clues by way of warning, and she'd probably see the reality behind the mask a lot quicker than she otherwise would. And that would be good for everyone, or at least everyone who deserved a good outcome. Even Akane would ultimately be happier not to be in a relationship that wasn't good for anyone, though Ukyo supposed it might take a while for that to come about.

Still, she realized, there was no hurry. No need to jump straight into that story; she'd begin at the beginning. "It all started when—"

"Actually, dear, I'm sorry, but could we save these for next time?" Nodoka spoke the words with genuine distress. In the first delightful shock of realizing she could take back a bit of her son's past, she'd quite forgotten that she'd come here with an important purpose for his future. "I really do want to hear all about it, but I think we need to discuss some other important things today."

Ukyo blinked. "Like what?"

'So much for leading into it subtly and gently,' Nodoka realized ruefully. She'd spent a week thinking about how to go about this, had put a great deal of effort into coming up with the right way to gently ease into the subject, and now, thanks to three minutes of blindsided blundering, the jig was more or less up. Ukyo would know the innocent-sounding questions were much more significant than they appeared on the surface. Nodoka made a mental note to apologize to Genma, and to do better than this with Akane.

She took a sip of tea to buy herself time to think. Perhaps she could improvise questions that, while obviously significant, led in a different direction than would seem obvious to Ukyo? Nodoka continued to sip and think furiously. At last, she set down her empty cup and said, "Really I just wanted to talk to you about your and Ranma's future."

Ukyo smiled so widely that were it not for her martial artist's resilience, her cheeks might have cracked. Not 'your future and Ranma's', but 'your future with Ranma'! With great effort, she stopped herself from drifting off into a happy little daydream. That could wait for later this afternoon (except that there probably wasn't going to be anything 'little' about it). As she thought about how to respond, Ukyo remembered one fact that allowed her to calm down from the worst of the giddy exhilaration. "We haven't talked a whole lot about it, Auntie," she said. "You know things are kind of complicated in Ranchan's life at the moment."

"I know, dear. I'm just asking for your thoughts right now."

The chef almost didn't know where to start. However, there was one aspect of her dreams that had been fuzzy for a long time but had recently become a lot more solidly defined. "Well, for a while I wasn't sure whether it would be better for us to settle down in one place for me to run my restaurant, or hit the road and serve okonomiyaki out of a yattai. There were pros and cons to both, you know? Looking at it from my side, staying in one place would mean more money and a chance to make better connections, friends and regular customers. But going on the road would give us more variety out of life, a chance to always see something new, and for that matter spread the legend of Ukyo's okonomiyaki farther and faster."

"And what about Ranma?" Nodoka interjected.

"Both of those arguments apply to him too, right? More cash and more stability, or the wind in his hair and new sights every week. And of course there's stuff either way that applies particularly to him," Ukyo explained. "Like, what would be the impact on his growth in the Art from either choice? If we settle down in one place, it makes it easier for strong challengers to find him, but if we're always moving it makes it easier for him to find them." She shrugged. "That's really not a question I can answer, Auntie, and even if I could it wouldn't be my place to do it. You'd have to ask him."

The older woman smiled as brightly and warmly as she could. That had been a very good answer. All the same, her motherly instincts felt like her guest might have been holding back, a little. It almost felt like Ukyo had meant what she said about it being Ranma's question to answer, not hers, but that the chef thought she knew the answer anyway. "I understand, dear. All the same… speaking off the record… what do you think he'd say?"

"Well… off the record of course…" Ukyo smiled back. "I think he'd say the right thing to do was put down more permanent roots. He could still go on training trips when he needed to, but I think Ranma honey would want to have a home to come back to." She winked. "A home within easy jumping distance of his mother and father."

A pang of intense happiness and sorrow shot through Nodoka. That was a very lovely picture Ukyo had painted. But all the motherly love in the world couldn't change one thing — it was the Tendo pledge that carried the greatest weight of honor and that must be upheld. It was the Tendo home where Ranma was and would be making his, and the sooner Nodoka could arrange things satisfactorily with all the girls in her manly son's life, the better.

Still, it was nowhere near time to move the conversation to that point. "That does sound nice, Ukyo. What about other things?"

Ukyo blushed and looked down at her hands, twiddling her fingers together. "Well… do you mean, like, kids?" When Nodoka nodded and gave her an encouraging smile, she continued, "Obviously that's something I'd definitely want to talk to him about. But… for me personally… I wouldn't really want to wait very long."

Nodoka's smile held a definite 'that makes two of us' quality. "And having a stable, settled-down home would be better for that as well."

"Yeah, probably so." 'Not like I'd know that from personal experience, but it seems likely.'

"What about college?" Nodoka asked next. "Is there a school you have your eye on, or were you planning to attend at all?"

"That'd be 'no' to both questions," Ukyo said, hoping this wouldn't count against her. "Going to college wouldn't give me anything I need, at least not without taking away time from stuff that's more important. I've already got my restaurant up and running, and I've learned everything I need to keep it going and growing."

"Really?" Nodoka asked, impressed despite herself. "Even the business and management skills you would need to expand from one restaurant to a chain?"

Ukyo smiled and shook her head. In truth, she'd considered that option in the past, but had decided she didn't want to go down that road. "I've got no interest in expanding like that. My Art is all about making the perfect okonomiyaki, and how that ties into martial arts. Overseeing a bunch of restaurants… no, that's not part of the picture. I'm going to make Ucchan's the best place it can be, and that da-…, er, darn well means not watering down the name with a bunch of half-hearted franchise joints."

"Oh, really? You seem to have things well planned out," Nodoka observed.

"Well, I have spent plenty of time thinking about it," the chef replied. "And anyway, this is the way the Kuonjis have done business for generations. Sometimes on the road, sometimes in their own place, passing along the Art and the love of it to family, but never letting strangers drag along on our coat-tails. And when they try to horn in on us…" Ukyo's attention drifted away from Nodoka to memories of two so-called kings, one of the crepe variety, the other a playing-card wannabe. She chuckled darkly.

The bloodthirsty grin on her guest's face wasn't particularly disconcerting to Nodoka, but it did reinforce the conclusion she'd already reached. "So in effect you've already got the basics of your life and your future planned out," she summarized, "with some flexibility built in for Ranma to have a say in things."

"I'd say that sums it up pretty good," Ukyo said proudly. She was certain neither Akane nor Shampoo could offer anything remotely like as good or as well-planned.

"Ukyo dear…" Nodoka braced herself to push along to the heart of the matter. "Has it occurred to you that there's one element you've overlooked?"

Ukyo blinked. "No, Auntie. What's that?" Before Nodoka could answer, she said, "Is it exactly what Ranma honey would be doing during all this? I have thought about that, of course, but that's another one of those 'you'd have to ask him' things. He could work in the restaurant with me, at least some times; it wouldn't be hard for someone like Ranchan to turn that into its own kind of training. And like I already said, he can do other stuff outside too, go on training trips, seek out challenges, grow in his Art as I grow in mine. We'd each be helping the other, which," she narrowly stopped herself from saying 'is the best part of marriage'. Hearing that would probably just hurt the woman who hadn't had a chance at that for herself. "Which is what I want," she concluded.

"And there's certainly nothing wrong with the things you've told me," Nodoka reassured her. "At least, not with one tiny little change. One oversight that you would have to correct."

"Um, okay," Ukyo said. "What oversight?"

"Propriety," Nodoka answered. When her guest just blinked at her, she explained, "Think about it. In that picture you outlined, it would be you owning and operating the business that supports your family, leaving Ranma free to help or do his own thing as he wishes. And that simply isn't the right way of things between a husband and a wife! You know as well as I do that Ranma is a true man, but I don't think you've quite realized that things as you'd have them would make it look like he was dangling off your apron strings. A wife can certainly keep track of the household finances, but it simply isn't right that she should be the one ultimately responsible for generating them."

Ukyo gritted her teeth together, refusing to remind Nodoka that, according to Ranma, the woman herself had done exactly that. She certainly didn't want to send this discussion spiraling out of control, and an accusation like that might well do the trick. Besides, she realized after forcing herself to cool down, it wasn't necessarily true. Nodoka had made her investments to support herself while her menfolk were gone, and from what Ranma had told her it didn't sound like the Saotome matron was going to use her wealth to sustain Genma in the lap of luxury.

No, Ukyo thought, there was a better objection to make. "Aren't you selling Ranchan a little short there? All he would have to do is win a couple tournaments every few months, and he'd pull down enough cash to make my income look like chicken feed."

"Ukyo dear, it really is the principle of the matter that we're talking about here," Nodoka said earnestly. "It is acceptable for a single woman to earn her own livelihood, even own and operate her own business… but for a wife, it simply wouldn't be right. This is something you would have to sacrifice, if you were married to my son."

"Sacrifice how? You can't mean give it up. You're talking about giving it to Ranma, right? Saying it's his place, and I just work for him."

"Yes, that's right," Nodoka said, hoping she had read the girl correctly. If Ukyo should just shrug and say 'no problem', it would make it much harder to convince the girl of her ultimate message.

Ukyo stared back, neither flinching nor giving ground. "If Ranma's name is on the ownership papers but I'm the one doing all the cooking, making the decisions, actually running the business… what difference does it make? Okonomiyaki is my Art, not his, and telling him he has to learn enough to take over for real would be hurting him. Neither of us wants to do that, Auntie."

"No, we don't. And for your first question, the difference is what I said before. It's a matter of propriety," Nodoka replied, breathing a little easier now. "Shouldn't I be the one asking you that question? Why would it matter to you, if Ranma were the owner and ultimately responsible for everything, if he allowed you to make the actual day-to-day decisions?"

'Screw it, the kid gloves are coming off,' Ukyo thought grimly. Staring into Nodoka's eyes, she pronounced, "I already hurt him like that once. I'm damn well never doing it again."

"W- What?" Nodoka asked feebly, knocked further off-balance by that response than she had been when Copycat Ken kidnapped her. "Hurt him? How?"

"There was a time when I lost confidence in that part of myself," Ukyo explained. "Lost all faith in my okonomiyaki skills, and because of that I tried to make myself into nothing more than a traditional, demure, subservient little wife-to-be for Ranma. I thought it was all that I had left." She grimaced bitterly. "I was wrong. I actually hurt him, by trying to deny that huge part of who his oldest friend and fiancée was. I'm ashamed of that, and I'm certainly not going to do it again." Her blue-green eyes shone like St. Elmo's fire upon the deep.

"And you really think that doing what propriety demands would hurt him like that again?"

"I know it. Okonomiyaki is in the bedrock of my soul, not his. He'd never want to do anything that even looked like taking it away from me. Ranchan has always told me that he likes me just the way I am, and that that's how he wants me to stay." Ukyo shrugged off an odd twinge of discomfort. Had she more control and knowledge of chi, she might have identified it as a spike of mingled jealousy, bitterness, and hurt, originating from one booth over. But Ryoga Hibiki was the only teenager in Nerima who could have sensed that truth, and he was miles away at the time.

"I'm glad to hear that, Ukyo. Please understand, I haven't been saying any of these things to hurt you," Nodoka declared. "I'm trying to help you and my son both, to show you that there's a better way for you. A way that fits better in your life and his, that allows both of you to be who you really are, together, without damaging the honor of the pledge that was made before Ranma was even born."

"That would be the promise with the Tendos," Ukyo said, her eyes narrowing. "Where exactly are you going with this?"

Nodoka allowed herself a quiet, genteel sigh. In her imagination, things had gone much more smoothly than this. However, this was only a first attempt, at something for which there wasn't any real hurry. "I mean that both you and my son would be happier and better off if you were his mistress rather than his wife." Seeing every muscle tense in the young woman across from her, except for the one next to her eye that was ticking furiously, Nodoka elaborated, "You wouldn't lose anything of substance, Ukyo, please understand that! You would still have his name, and so would the children you give him. I'd gladly adopt you into the Saotome family register." In fact, she'd insist on it if need be, not that Nodoka thought insisting would be necessary. "Ranma and you would still share just as much of everything that matters to you."

"How can you say that?!" Ukyo exclaimed, only just managing not to shout the words. "Share? Yeah, that's right, but I'd also be sharing him with someone else! With whoever is supposedly good enough to come in as his official wife!"

Nodoka stared steadily back at her. Speaking with both sympathy and steel, she replied, "And is that really any different from being his wife and sharing him with his mistresses?"

"Mistresses?! Plural?!" Ukyo took a few deep, ragged breaths. "Mrs. Saotome, I don't think—" She cut herself off, remembering once again that it wasn't safe to speak too much for Ranma when he wasn't around, that she had to keep quiet about things they might not be able to afford his mother hearing.

"Please," Nodoka said quietly, but no less firmly, "you have to understand. My son is a true man, enough of one that it just wouldn't be right to tell him he has to limit himself to only one woman. Legally he can only marry one, and honorably that must be Akane. The pledge to her family carries the greatest weight of honor and must be the one upheld." Deciding that she wasn't above a little emotional blackmail, Nodoka added, "You told me last time how much you love my son, Ukyo. That you had passed my husband's tests, had proved you would go as far as you needed to be with Ranma. This may not be exactly what you planned on or hoped for, but loving someone means you're willing to do what's best for them."

"I know that," Ukyo said with difficulty, fighting down the negative emotions. "Don't ever think I don't."

"Very well. Taking everything into consideration, I don't think something like this is much to ask, is it?" Nodoka replied. Looking down, she murmured, "Not nearly so hard as saying goodbye to your son and husband for so very long…"

Ukyo privately felt that Nodoka was as big an idiot as Genma for not insisting they take her along on that trip, but without actually saying that it was awfully hard to argue the point. "I understand where you're coming from, Auntie," she said as steadily as she could. "But there's no way I can just swallow something like this. I need time to think things over." Time to talk to Ranma and try to figure out how to deal with this latest twist. "And I hope you'll forgive me if, the next time we talk, I try to convince you to see things my way."

"Of course. Shall we say goodbye for the afternoon, then?" Nodoka asked, doing her best to radiate concern and warmth so that Ukyo would know she wasn't angry, offended, or discouraged. She hadn't made as much progress as she had hoped for, but at least it was a start. "And I'll always be willing to listen to anything you have to say."

"Thank you." Ukyo stood up… and her resolve to get out without saying anything more failed her. Right here, right now, Nodoka needed to know at least a little something concrete. Looking the older woman in the eye, she said, "Because except for Kasumi, the Tendos are a bunch of hypocrites who wouldn't know honor if it bit them in the ass. Akane's broken the engagement to Ranma four times that I know of, and each time they just expected him to crawl back to her when she got over the worst of her snit." Realizing that she was on the verge of saying things that might have a negative impact on Ranma, not just the people who were taking unfair advantage of him, Ukyo clamped her lips shut, gave a clipped nod, and hurried out of the café.

Not until Nodoka had exited as well did Nabiki unclench her grip from her sister's arm, the warning grasp that she'd taken up again as soon as the woman mentioned Ukyo's and Ranma's mutual future. For a moment she wondered bitterly whether this had been worth it, whether the advantage she would gain from getting the inside scoop would really outweigh the increased difficulty that was sure to result from Akane hearing all of that as well. She took a few deep breaths and banished the doubt. She could handle Akane; she'd been doing it for years. 'After all, all it took was my hand on her arm to keep her from breaking her promise and charging over there anyway.'

Akane glanced down at her arm as Nabiki released her grip and pulled away. She frowned at the sight of the marks her sister's tightly-clenched fingers had left. There were even going to be a couple of bruises unless Akane missed her guess… and she hadn't even noticed until now. The last time she'd even been dimly aware of Nabiki clutching at her was when the girl had first done it. "Thanks a lot, Nabiki," she said bitterly. "You don't have a lot of confidence in me, do you?"

"Not at all," Nabiki countered. "I just thought it was better to be safe than sorry." She glanced as well down at the bruises on her sister's skin with honest surprise. She wouldn't have thought herself able to inflict actual physical harm on one of the martial artists of Nerima, even such a last-place specimen as her sister. Giving Akane a contrite look, she murmured, "Er, sorry."

"Yeah, well, I'm sorry too," Akane said, even more bitterly than before. "I shouldn't be taking this out on you, not when Ukyo was the one who just got through cheerfully stabbing me in the back."

"And it wasn't just Ukyo," Sayuri added. She paused, then said, "Um… Akane?"

"What is it?"

"It's just… first that seppuku pledge, and now this… I mean, I don't want to be rude, but Ranma's mom looks like a total loon! And his dad's certainly not any better. Are you sure you want to marry into that family?"

"You shouldn't be so hard on Mr. Saotome," Akane protested. "He's been helping me a lot." Then she sighed. "But I really am disappointed in Mrs. Saotome," she said sadly. "Maybe Ranma was better off not growing up with her after all. He'd be an even bigger pervert than he already is…" Suddenly, the last question Sayuri had asked worked its way to the forefront of her attention, along with the fact that Nabiki was sitting there staring contemplatively at her. "WHAT?! M-marry that idiot? You've got to be kidding!"

"Or someone's got to be kidding, anyway," Nabiki murmured. "You sure looked like you wanted to give him something better there."

"But that's… that doesn't… I mean…" Akane shot to her feet as if her seat had suddenly grown red-hot. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go kick Ukyo's butt. Later, everybody!"

The remaining three girls watched as Akane raced out of the cafe. The silence was broken by Yuka. "Upperclassman, if we take care of teasing her at school, will you do it at home?"

Nabiki smirked back at the girl. "I suppose I could do that, if you can afford my fee." She held out one hand. "That will be fifteen yen."

"Ranchan? Can we talk?"

Ranma blinked, surprised at the question. "Sure we can, Ucchan." He glanced away from her to their fellow Astronomy Club members, streaming past them in the hallway and up the stairs to the roof. As soon as the two of them were up there, they'd have all the opportunity they needed to talk. Kaito certainly wouldn't mind; he would probably be ecstatic to have one club meeting go by without Ranma managing to somehow mess his telescope up further. "Why'd you even think you had to ask?"

"Because when I say 'talk', I really mean, 'skip today's club meeting so we can go somewhere we won't be overheard'," the chef explained. Dropping her voice and leaning conspiratorially closer, which prevented anyone else from overhearing but at the same time broadcast to them all that she and Ranma had a secret, Ukyo added, "I need to ask you some things about your mother."

"Okay, sure thing," he murmured back. Ranma put his hands in his pockets and began to walk casually backwards against the flow of students. It was more of a trickle than a flow, of course, since by now a majority of the club members were already on the rooftop, but Ukyo was still mildly impressed that he avoided hitting anyone. She was less impressed by the attempt at stealth, especially as he began whistling innocently and looking up as if staring off into the sky, and even less so when he suddenly turned and bolted out an open window with a cry of "Saotome Secret Attack! Run AWAY!!"

"Ranma you dummy, wait for me!" she exclaimed once she'd recovered from the shock, hurrying to the window and looking out. Ranma was just a fading red-and-black streak exiting the school grounds over the wall. Grumbling a few choice words under her breath, Ukyo made the descent as well, bouncing off a window ledge halfway down to slow and control her fall. "That jackass better not have bolted for real," she muttered as she raced after him.

"What took ya so long?" Ranma asked as she bounded over the wall. He was leaning against it and would have had an excellent view if she didn't wear the boys' uniform to school.

Ukyo rolled her eyes, walked back to him, and gave him a reproving punch in the shoulder. "I had to pull my jaw up off the floor. What was that stunt supposed to be, anyway?"

He shrugged. "An experiment, I guess."


"Yeah. I mean, if you an' I had just cut class together, you know what kind of rumors would be goin' around the school even before the day was over."

"Uh-huh." Ukyo nodded, her eyes going unfocused and sparkly as she contemplated just what those rumors would have been saying.

"I've been putting up with that stuff for a long time now, and it's getting kind of old. So," Ranma shrugged, "I'm trying to see what I can do about it."

She pulled herself back to the real world with some effort. "Uh, Ranchan, I hate to break it to you, but doing it that way made it even more obvious that we were skipping out together."

"You sure about that?" he said with a grin. "Cause if I were the one watching something like that, it'd look to me like I bolted and you chased after me. Not the same thing at all."

His oldest friend stared back at him with an uncertain expression. "You honestly think that will work?" The expression darkened, ever so slightly. "Seems like a lot of effort just to maybe trick Akane into thinking you didn't spend the time with me."

Ranma snorted. "Akane? Yeah, right, as if. I wasn't doing this for her, Ucchan; if I'm lucky she'll just think we were using the time to make out and that I didn't drag Shampoo into it too. Getting Akane to not jump to that kinda conclusion would take a half day's planning and probably a good hour's worth of preparations to boot. Not a spur-of-the-moment thing like I did. When I did that I was just thinking about the halfway-reasonable guys and girls at Furinkan."

"All five of them," Ukyo quipped. Well, it wasn't like the youngest Tendo was going to get any angrier at her due to her spending time with Ranma today. After what had happened on Saturday Akane might well be angrier now at Ranma for hanging out with her — which was why she would have preferred they both sneak away from Furinkan without being seen — but if he didn't think that mattered then she wasn't going to worry about it. Maybe it could even be a good thing; she'd already seen that Ranchan seemed to be putting up with less crud from Akane lately. "So you want to head on to my restaurant?"

"If that's what you want," he answered. "How long do you think this is gonna take?"

"I'm not sure. Why? You don't have anywhere else to be for an hour."

"Yeah, so I was thinking that if it didn't take that long, and if you wanted to of course, then we could have another practice match like that last one." He'd enjoyed it a lot and knew she had as well. It would be nice to have another good time like that with her, to enjoy again something reminiscent of the carefree days they'd spent together as kids. If he was going to catch grief from Akane for being with Ucchan this afternoon, he might as well go as far as he could in balancing said grief out.

Ukyo smiled widely. In that moment nothing else mattered, not worries about Ranma's mother, nor regrets that her strained friendship with Akane had finally and inevitably foundered. "That sounds great to me, Ranchan. Okay, never mind the restaurant. I think there's a vacant lot a few blocks away."

"Yep," Ranma confirmed, having rather more experience than she did with the random battlegrounds of Nerima. He took a few steps ahead of her, then turned around and began walking casually backwards again. When Ukyo gave him a quizzical look, he grinned at her, waved, and sped up. "Race ya there!" he cried.

'He can't possibly think he'll beat me like that?' she thought, doubting her eyes. Ranma was making an impressive pace, true — but it was only impressive because he was doing it while running backwards. At her top speed she would be able to blow past him like he was standing still… unless he was planning to pull some trick, of course… Ukyo mulled over that for a second, then jogged forward only fast and far enough to catch up to him. She then whipped off her bandoleer of minispatulas and looped it around her ankles like a makeshift set of manacles. This of course necessitated her stopping while she did it, but she was pleased to see Ranma stopped as well until she was moving again. She wasn't as pleased at the way he rolled his eyes and made a comment about only one of them needing a handicap to make this even, but she just smiled sweetly and hurried along as best she could without taking a stride longer than eight inches.

The pair of them undoubtedly made a funny sight as they rounded the final corner and came within sight of the lot. Ukyo's feet were nearly a blur from the quick, tiny steps; Ranma was still jogging backward and determinedly not looking over his shoulder, depending on his situational awareness and memory of Nerima to keep him on course. He was grinning at her, a taunting smile that reminded her better than words could that at their respective paces he'd been gaining a half-step on her every seventy feet.

Ukyo grinned back and shifted to full-length strides, pulling free of her carefully jury-rigged ankle-chain and blowing past him like he was standing still.

Were it not for the seconds he spent frozen in shock before whirling around and climbing to his own top speed, he might have beaten her anyway. But as it was Ukyo zipped across the finish line five steps ahead of her fiancé, gave him a good old-fashioned red-eye, then headed back into the road to retrieve her bandoleer and its ammunition. "There's probably some kind of lesson to be learned here," she confided to him as she returned to the lot.

"Yeah, maybe 'never trust a smiling girl'," Ranma shot back. He wasn't quite able to hide his grin, though. As someone who was finally realizing how much time he'd spent mired in the same old patterns, it felt good to see someone he cared about be resourceful and adaptive. Especially since the technique Ukyo had employed to win hadn't been tied to okonomiyaki.

'Hmm… Not sure I can argue with that,' Ukyo thought. That axiom certainly would have stood her in good stead during her encounter with Nodoka. The reminder didn't entirely remove her happy glow, but it did diminish it noticeably. "We can spar first, if you want," she said seriously. "But what I wanted to talk about is pretty important. Do you want to get that out of the way?"

"Yeah," he said, heading over to the side of the lot with an adjoining boundary wall, sitting down and leaning against that. As Ukyo joined him, he asked, "What did you want to talk about? You said you wanted to ask me something about Mom?"

"Actually it wasn't just to ask you something," she answered. "But I guess that's as good a way as any to start out. So, Ranchan, about your mom…" The chef hesitated for a moment, then asked, "Did you know she flat-out expects you to string along a bunch of mistresses as well as your wife?"

Ranma twitched, closed his eyes, and bit down a few choice words of his own. "Uh… well…" After a few long moments of silence he opened his eyes again to give Ukyo a sickly grin, which fell quickly off his face as his gaze met hers. Sighing, he said, "No, I didn't know. From some of the stuff she said, I suspected. I knew for sure that she wouldn't mind a bit. But actually expect it outta me? No, Ucchan, I didn't know that." He gave an unhappy laugh. "I hoped it wasn't true, but I guess it's time to let go of that."

"Oh, yeah," Ukyo said briefly, certainty weighing the monosyllables as heavily as millstones.

"So how'd you find this out?" he asked.

"You really don't know?" she replied, surprise evident in the words. "Um… did Akane not say anything to you about what happened on Saturday?"

"Huh?" What did that have to do with anything? "Just that her training session with Pop was pretty rough, which was why she got battered enough to slow her down for a couple of days."

'Uh-oh.' Time for some reevaluation. Ukyo wouldn't have bet a bent yen coin against Akane not telling Ranma anything of what had happened those two days ago. She had come to school today prepared for a wide range of possible responses, and had been seriously relieved to find Ranma no less hospitable to her than usual. Akane herself had merely kept quiet and stayed out of Ukyo's way, which was another relief. She hadn't even bad-mouthed Ukyo to her friends behind the chef's back, or at least she hadn't started doing so before they separated for their respective clubs.

Well, apparently her friends and the greater populace of Furinkan weren't the only ones she hadn't complained to. Ukyo chewed her lower lip nervously, then spit it out. "Training session my butt; Genma doesn't have anything to do with it. She overheard me say some things she didn't like, and tracked me down at my restaurant afterward and challenged me to a fight." At least Akane hadn't caught up with her before she'd been able to change out of that kimono. The taxi she'd taken might have been more expensive, but Ukyo was glad she'd returned home that way rather than settling for public transportation.

For a long, long moment Ranma stared at her, then he grimaced and shook his head. "I knew this stuff with Pop was gonna let the tomboy think it was okay to get in over her head."

"You shouldn't sell her quite that short, Ranchan," she protested.

"Really?" he said skeptically. "She actually gave you a challenge?"

"Well, no," the chef was forced to admit. "But I did have to use some actual effort to take her down. Not to mention that she didn't fold like an accordion at the first little bit of pain."

He shrugged. "Maybe she learned something from the fight then. If not directly from you, I hope Pop drove it home to her, since she had to have told him at least why she was banged up like that. Think I'll ask him, just to make sure." However the fight had gone down, it didn't seem to have discouraged Akane from training. At least, she hadn't skipped a session yet that he was aware of, though Ranma mainly only paid attention to them nowadays to know when it was safest to fly away for awhile.

Pushing those thoughts aside, he returned to more important matters. "You said Akane tracked you down after listening in on you. Who were you talking to? An' how does this tie in to Mom?"

Ukyo sighed. "Like I said, it was on Saturday. I had just got home after the half-day of class when your mom called, inviting me to go with her to a café for the afternoon. I said yes, got changed, and rode there with her in a cab. We talked for awhile, never realizing Akane was one freakin' booth over listening to everything and not being too happy about any of it."

"And just what was it that you guys talked about?" Ranma asked, hoping that he'd already heard the worst of it from Ukyo's opening question.

"Nothing you're gonna want to hear, Ranma honey," she warned him. She took a moment longer to gather her thoughts, then gave an abridged version of the talk.

"You were right," he said tiredly once she'd finished. "I didn't want to hear that."

"That makes two of us," she replied. "I've woken up sweating from nightmares that weren't as bad as hearing your mom tell me you're marrying Akane and taking as many mistresses as you can get away with."

"And Akane really sat in the background and listened to all of that? Without busting in and making her opinion known loud and clear?" he wondered. It wasn't the most important thing here, not by a long shot, but it would serve for a few minutes of distraction while he let the bigger issues sink in.

"Yeah, apparently," she said. "Seems crazy to me too, and I don't guess I like it much more than you do. I didn't tell your mom anything that wasn't true, but I wouldn't have said some of it if I'd known who was listening in."

"Was Akane really mad at you? I mean, I know she had to be pretty ticked, to challenge you to a fight and press you even a little bit. But with her, there's mad and then there's mad."

Ukyo stared wearily back at him. "She's not going to forgive me this time. Don't know if she'll pick another fight or not, but whatever limping, struggling friendship we had has finally laid down and died. It hurts," she sighed, "but to be honest, it doesn't bother me nearly as much as knowing how much trouble this stuff with your mom could be for you. You're way more important to me than Akane ever was or could be, Ranchan, and unless there's something you really need to get off your mind with her, I'd rather move on to talking about your mom again."

Ranma pondered that, feeling more than a little regret at the thought that things had truly died for real between those two of his fiancées. "Guess maybe I'd just like to know whether Akane's gonna get in my face and demand that I pick you or her," he said. It was an unpleasant thought at best. He was reasonably sure that he could stand up for himself now with her, and even that he could weather the storm of Akane's anger and resentment until she at least accepted that he didn't want to lose any of the friends he had, but he hoped it wouldn't come to that. Maybe it wouldn't; she seemed to be developing more self-control these days.

"I don't know," she said unhappily. "Can't really speak for her like that. But if she hasn't done it yet, maybe she won't. And I don't know if it means anything or not, but when she was in my face challenging me, she sure made it sound like she assumed it was all my responsibility, that your mom had found out about me."

"Weird." But maybe hopeful too. There didn't really seem anything more to be said on this subject, and so he fell silent, reluctantly turning his thoughts back to the bigger problems at hand.

Ukyo started to say something, then cut herself off as she saw the look of contemplation on Ranma's face. She remained quiet, letting him have the time he needed to think. When he was ready to open up again, she'd be there with the ideas she had come up with over the past two days.

"About Mom," he said at last. "The only thing that I'm seeing right now is to buy time. This ain't anything that's going to be fixed in a day." He gave a mirthless chuckle. "Not even the kind of crazy, turn-everything-upside-down days like we have around here."

"There haven't been all that many days that turned everything upside down anyway," she pointed out. "I mean, not for longer than just that day."

"Yeah. But the chaos could actually end up working in my favor. At least, it seems like it might be possible," he said hopefully. "As Mom sees more an' more unbelievable stuff, maybe it'll help her let go of the stuff she always thought was obviously the only way to look at things." He gave her a rueful sidelong glance. "Like that stuff about it not being right for you to own your own restaurant, but just hand it over to a guy with a smile an' a 'Yes, dear'. I'm sorry about that, by the way."

"Not like you got anything to apologize for, Ranchan," she said, nonetheless blushing and feeling very glad he'd said that. "Although now I'm wondering something. Should I be jealous that it took you less than ten minutes to come up with most of the best plan I've been able to put together with two days to think about it?"

"Huh?" It took him a couple of seconds to parse that last sentence. "You mean you already thought about that? About buying time and trying to gently lead Mom into not thinking it's only manly if there's a bunch of girls with the one guy?"

"Not sure you or your mom can afford 'gently'," she cautioned. "Life around here ain't all that gentle, you might have noticed. But yeah, that is what I was thinking." She hesitated, debating something, then said, "You got any ideas on how to do it? How to shake your mom out of her preconceptions, using stuff that's right here at hand? And maybe even solve another long-running problem at the same time? One that you were working on and got distracted from by all the latest insanity?"

"Sounds like you've got some idea about that yourself," Ranma noted, wondering why a tremor of dread had suddenly shot through him. For the life of him he couldn't see what would be setting off his danger sense like that.

"It wasn't that hard," Ukyo said modestly. "Heck, if a few minutes ago was any indication, you could probably come up with it yourself in another quarter hour." She grinned at him. "But this time I'd rather not let you steal my thunder, Ranchan."

"Yeah, so what was your idea?"

"Kill two birds with one stone," Ukyo said with a grim smile. An instant later she realized that the quotation wasn't as apt as it had seemed when she was only looking at things from one angle. "Uh, sorry, that actually doesn't fit as well as I thought. I was just thinking about Shampoo there, not you."

'Oh, crap.' Now he knew where this was going. If ever there was a time for a sudden rainstorm to happen by and get him out of trouble, it would be now. He looked desperately up. The blue of the heavens above was broken only by a single songbird, flying merrily overhead and whistling a cheerful tune. Silently Ranma promised that if he ever saw it again, it was lunch.

Back on terra firma, Ukyo was still speaking. "I mean, it seems like the best fit you could ask for. Maybe you could get rid of her all on your own, though I know how hard that would be even if your mom wasn't here taking up so much of your attention. But surely it would be better to get Mrs. Saotome involved in that too. I mean, unless you've been working behind the scenes without telling me and are just about ready to send Shampoo on her way for good," her tone made it clear that while this was a best-case scenario, she didn't think it likely, "your mom's going to have to find out about the Amazons. And once she does, she's certainly gonna let them know she's not about to have her son dragged off for a life like that. Better to tell her on your own and work together with her, or at least that's how it seems to me."

The chef paused, waiting to see if Ranma had anything to say in response. When he kept quiet, she continued, "It's not like there's any real danger of them playing too rough with her. I mean, we've all been around long enough to know that no matter how many times Shampoo says 'obstacles is for killing', those two by themselves don't really play that kind of hardball. Not here in Japan where they can't get away with it, at least. But for sure they won't just lie down and give up, they'll pull the usual stupid tricks that don't work but do give everybody more grief, they'll argue as long as they can to try and shove Nodoka around to their side. It'll buy you time while she's busy getting them to give up, and it even ought to shake some of that stupid certainty that you oughta grab every good-looking girl who's interested."

Ranma still didn't seem to have anything to say in response. Ukyo took a good look at him, noting with concern his closed eyes, slumped posture, and drawn, weary expression. "Ranma honey…?" she asked.

Without opening his eyes, he said, "Do you trust me?"

"W- What?"

"Do you trust me, Ucchan?" Now he did look up and meet her gaze.

"Yes," Ukyo said slowly, obviously wondering why he'd asked and concerned with the twist the conversation had taken. "You ought to know that, Ranma."

He gave her the ghost of a smile. "Yeah, I do. I was just reminding you, before telling you that I did talk to Shampoo about all this stuff."

"So she wouldn't listen," Ukyo guessed. "Doesn't that just make it a better idea to get your mom involved too?"

"Oh, she listened," he replied. "Just like she was listening in that day at Furinkan. You know, when you said all that to me in the first place."

The chef blanched and gulped. "Sh-she was there? She heard all that?"

Ranma opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again as Ukyo shot to her feet and darted away. Before he could spring up and chase after her, though, he saw her jump to the top of the adjacent house and stop there. She spent a few seconds looking scanning the area from that vantage point, then jumped down again and returned to her original spot seated close to him. "What was that for?" he asked.

"Just making sure nobody was eavesdropping this time," Ukyo said grimly. "For a second there I was wondering if I picked up some curse of my own, to always be overheard at the worst possible time." She well remembered how… eloquent she had been in explaining to Ranma just how critical it was to pull away from the Amazons for good. If Shampoo had really heard that, it was hard to believe that she could have simply let it slide, that she'd really let three weeks and more go by without attempting any sort of revenge. Maybe she'd just caught the tail end of the conversation and had bluffed Ranma about how much she'd really been witness to. "So… Shampoo heard all of that, huh?"

"Yeah, and she was pretty unhappy," Ranma confirmed. "Unhappy enough to spend an hour just talking with me about how things really were, what you'd gotten wrong and what none of us ever thought about."

"What I got wrong? I didn't get anything wrong!" Ukyo protested.

"Huh? Ukyo, where the heck did you get all this certainty anyway?" It had nagged Ranma off and on for a while now, every time he'd thought about the situation with Ukyo and her misunderstanding of Amazon affairs. "I mean, you only got most of this second-hand from me, and the kami know I make mistakes sometimes."

Ukyo's mouth gaped open and closed for a few moments as she tried to find an answer. "I just… it's just… it really is that obvious! What, you're saying that you wouldn't mind after all if it was your own daughter one day handing out the Kiss of Death?" she demanded, her mind flitting easily back to the conversation with those random girls that had hit her so hard. "You'd just laugh it off if it was your son getting treated like they treat Mousse? As long as Shampoo is an Amazon there's no way you can afford to even get near her, and it's plenty damn obvious she'd never give that up for you! She'd rather just sit back and expect you to fit your life to hers!"

"See, that right there is exactly what I'm talking about!" he shot back. "Ukyo, I ain't asking you to like her. Hell, I'm not even asking you not to fight with her. But you gotta see things as they really are. And apparently it doesn't mean anything to you, the fact that I already told you that when push came to shove Shampoo sided with me against Cologne? That without her help then, the old ghoul actually woulda succeeded in forcing me to marry her?"

Once again Ukyo gaped for several moments, trying and failing to reconcile that undeniable fact with something else that seemed utterly self-evident. At last, feeling as if something were crumbling despite her best efforts to hold onto it, she muttered, "Okay, maybe I was wrong about that one little thing. But—"

"But nothing!" Ranma exclaimed, hoping desperately that he could end it now before things got any worse. He couldn't give her the whole story, and without satisfying at least some of her concerns he couldn't just say "I don't want to kick Shampoo out of my life." With most other people he could have made something up — or, as Genma would put it, employed a Saotome Desperation Verbal Technique — but not Ucchan. She deserved at least a truth.

"What if I or Mom or anybody did push that hard, and Shampoo thought she had to give that up to still have a chance at me?" he asked her. "Whaddaya think the old ghoul would have to say about that?" This much was speculation on his part, though it didn't seem unlikely. Even if it was wrong, even if he were doing the Matriarch a total disservice, Ranma was still going to take the gamble. It might not be wise to draft Cologne for the role of scapegoat, but he could handle a few lumps on the head more easily than this entire situation spinning further out of control. "Think it might just make this whole tangled-up mess more complicated and dangerous?"

"Well, damn," Ukyo said bitterly. "So much for the easy answers."

"Oh, like we ever had any chance of those," Ranma retorted, doing his best to radiate only the dissatisfaction he felt with the ultimate state of affairs, and not his relief to have skirted another immediate potential disaster. "Right now Mom is the one to focus on."

"I guess you're right," Ukyo replied, regret staining her words like sake spilled over a kimono. "I don't have any more bright ideas for that, though."

"Yeah, me neither." He got to his feet and began stretching. "But right now, puttin' all of this off to the side and just having a nice, simple, relaxing fight seems like a really bright idea."

She heaved a long sigh, then nodded and stood as well. "Yeah, you're probably right. I know I could use something to remind me of better days." She dredged up a smile and said, "That doesn't mean I want this fight to end with my face in the dust and you sitting on my back, though."

He smiled back at her, the expression taking strength from hers. "Promise to throw in a couple of victory okonomiyaki back at your place an' it's a deal."

It was Ukyo's turn to smile brighter in response to his. If Ranchan wanted victory okonomiyaki, that was what he'd get… but if he actually wanted to eat them rather than watch her scarf them down, he was going to have to take that victory out of her pummeled, beaten hide. "You got it, Sugar."

Akane stared grimly down at her prone opponent. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled the savory scent of impending victory. Her fingers twitched and clenched, anticipating the moment when they would plunge piercingly down through flesh to bone. Swallowing an urge to give a war-cry, she struck the first shattering blow.

Nodoka watched in mild dismay as Akane shredded the precooked chicken. She bit back an urge to stop the girl, hoping that Akane would realize her mistake on her own.

"There! How's that, Auntie?" the youngest Tendo asked triumphantly once she'd finished, gesturing toward the pile of meat. Every bit of it had been torn to the consistency Nodoka had showed her.

"I'm afraid your approach needs some work, dear," Nodoka said regretfully.

"What? Why?"

The Saotome matron gestured toward the denuded chicken skeleton, indicating the numerous areas where small bones had been shattered and included into the pile of meat. "You're still going too fast and with too much force," she explained. "We couldn't even feed this to Mr. Panda, assuming he and Ranko hadn't moved away to stay with other family…"

Akane waited silently for the moments Nodoka spent in wistful thought. A few days ago she would have tried to distract the woman from her melancholia, not wanting Nodoka to spend any time regretting the disappearance of the redhead she'd been so fond of. Now, though, Akane just let it run its course. It brought her that much closer to the end of this stupid lesson without risking the conversation moving to areas it shouldn't. 'She's probably just upset that she can't push 'Ranko' into Ranma's bed too,' she thought, grateful that the anger and unhappiness of the idea were diluted by the massive irony involved.

"I'm sorry," she said once Nodoka had worked past her fugue and returned her attention to the present. "I guess I just got carried away with making sure the chicken was all broken down to the right size." She looked away from her teacher, down to the pile of meat. "I bet I can get the bones out, though!"

"No, Akane, don't waste your time," the Saotome matron said gently "Even if you could, you couldn't be sure you had gotten them all." She swept the chicken into a trash bag, then produced a selection of vegetables. "We'll work with these instead."

"Okay!" Akane said determinedly. "Wash them first, right?" When Nodoka smiled encouragingly and nodded, she proclaimed, "Don't worry. I won't mess this up!"

Nodoka held back a sigh as she watched her student give the vegetables a VERY thorough washing… so thorough that she used nearly a quarter of the bottle of dishwashing soap. She waited with ever-diminishing optimism, hoping against hope that this time Akane might realize her error on her own. Failing at that, perhaps the girl would at least pay enough attention to her surroundings to notice her teacher's expression, and stop and ask if there was anything wrong.

When Akane's ministrations separated the tenth leaf from the second head of cabbage, Nodoka decided the time for subtleties was past. "That's enough, Akane," she said with a sigh. "You're still trying much too hard." Forcing a smile, she said in a lighter tone, "But at least we could feed this to a pet…"

"What? Did I do something wrong again?" Akane asked, blinking innocently. "How can you try too hard to get food clean before cooking it?"

Nodoka picked up one of the detached leaves and flicked it. The move sent a lemony-fresh scent of cleaner billowing through the air, as well as illustrating how thoroughly the cabbage's natural fiber had been crushed. The leaf moved more like a piece of terrycloth than something that had grown out of the ground. "Why don't you watch me for a while?" she suggested.

"Okay," Akane agreed. When Nodoka turned away to gather more vegetables from the cupboard, she sneaked a glance at the clock. Halfway done. It would be nice to get the rest of the way through this lesson without having to wreck many more ingredients. 'Even if Mrs. Saotome is the one who paid for them, and even if I am doing this to keep her focused on safe things, it still feels bad.' Not nearly as bad as some directions this little get-together could go, though. Cooking wonderful meals for one's family was nowhere near the worst 'wifely duty' Nodoka could be trying to push on her. Akane wasn't about to let things go down that road. Better to keep the woman focused solely on the food, and if the best way to do that was by continuing to screw up royally, then so be it.

It was annoying that she'd accomplished this simply by following her instincts, but for now she could live with that.

Nodoka moved slowly and carefully as she washed the replacement ingredients, keeping up a running commentary describing what she was doing and why. She was encouraged, at least a little, to see that Akane was watching attentively and showing no signs of disappointment, distraction, or insult. On the other hand, that was how all their lessons had gone so far, and it didn't seem to mean much in terms of overall improvement on the part of her student.

'It's all well and good that she listens,' Nodoka reflected, 'but it almost seems as if she doesn't hear everything. I'm not sure how many times I've told her that she needs to slow down, use less effort and more thought, but it simply doesn't seem to be sticking. She keeps on trying too hard, putting too much of herself into everything…' A meal could only be made better by including more love, but when frustration, uncertainty, denial, and overconfidence were added to the mix it could only be a recipe for disaster.

As she moved from washing to chopping the vegetables, an idea struck her. Akane's overzealousness wasn't her only problem, but Nodoka suspected it was the worst. Perhaps her results would actually improve if she didn't try and focus every shred of her being into the task at hand? Perhaps a little distraction would actually work in her favor? It might well be possible, the woman mused, wondering how best to test it. Perhaps instead of simply verbalizing everything she was doing, she could engage Akane in unrelated conversation. Then, at the end of the lesson, she could ask her student to recap everything Nodoka had done while they were talking. If Akane could, then during their next session Nodoka could try distracting her while Akane did the cooking.

The Saotome matron looked up from her current task and gave Akane a smile. "There's really nothing special about what I'm doing now, dear, so instead of doing all the talking myself I'd like to hear more from you. How was your day today?"

"Huh?" Akane said, finding it difficult to focus on the actual question. She was more concerned with the fact that Nodoka was looking solely at her, rather than the hands that were blithely chopping a ginger root with Kasumi's sharpest knife. Even as she watched, the woman finished without incident, set the knife aside, and began tearing cabbage leaves. "Nothing special about what you're doing now…?" she echoed weakly.

Nodoka smiled and nodded, her gaze never wavering from Akane. A moment later, though, she realized that it wasn't quite true. "Well, this time ought to be special," she confided to the girl. "It's almost the only time you and I get to spend just with each other." And after what Ukyo had told her, and the other side of the story that she had received from Nabiki, that was more important than she'd first realized. "I hope it's not presumptuous of me to say so, but… but I've always missed having a daughter. And I would like it very much, if I could be there for you in any way you need me to."

Akane looked away, feeling an uncomfortable mixture of warmth and irritation. 'If she really wanted to help me out, she could do it as _Ranma's_ mother by telling Ukyo to back the heck off her son,' she thought. 'But I couldn't get that lucky. At least maybe there's a chance she won't be like that with Shampoo. She is a gaijin after all, and that's got to count with somebody as traditional as Mrs. Saotome.' Still and all, though, Akane wasn't about to be the one to tell Nodoka about the existence of the Amazon. Shampoo would inevitably learn the truth sooner or later, but Akane would just as soon keep her out of the mix as long as possible.

Aloud, she said, "I… well… thank you, Auntie. Um, you asked me a question earlier, didn't you?"

"Just how your day went, dear."

'Let's see… Between first and second period I talked to Yuka and Sayuri and heard about Ukyo chasing Ranma out of the building late yesterday, and I spent the whole day trying to keep the promise I made to myself three days ago about not blaming him for things that turn out to be her fault, and that took just about all the concentration I had…' Those were the thoughts that ran through Akane's head, but what she actually said was, "It was pretty quiet."

"I see. What about your training this afternoon? It doesn't look like Genma dearest put you through too much of a wringer this time," Nodoka said. "I'm glad today wasn't a repeat of Saturday, at least."

"Me too," Akane grumbled under her breath.

"What was that, Akane? I couldn't quite hear you."

"Um, nothing important. What I meant to say was that you shouldn't blame Uncle Saotome for that. Yeah, things got a little rough then, but that's the price you have to pay, to be a true martial artist." Akane looked down, her left hand closing tightly onto the counter before her, her right clenching into a fist. "And that's what I'm going to do," she promised. "Who I'm going to be."

"Well, if you're really sure…?"

From the way Nodoka had let the words trail off, it sounded very much to Akane like the woman expected, even needed an answer. She didn't have to think very hard about it. "I'm really, definitely, positively, absolutely sure," she declared.

Nodoka heaved the tiniest of sighs. "Then I should apologize to Genma dear, for rebuking him for going so hard on you?"

Akane blinked. "What? You gave him a hard time over it?" When Nodoka gave a shamefaced nod, she fought a minor feeling of dizziness. 'Then that means… even after his wife told him he needed to go easier on me, he didn't at all. Mr. Saotome kept pushing me just as hard as before, he wouldn't let me slack off even a little after losing to Ukyo like that. I'll have to thank him.' For a moment the plan of making a delicious dinner for him swam up from whatever self-defeating corner of her mind was responsible for such things, but Akane swiftly choked it down. She had learned at least some lessons from the times she'd spent in the kitchen with Nodoka. What would be a better way to thank him? Oh, yes. "Yes. You should apologize. I'm grateful to him for training me. And… no offense, Auntie, but he's the one who knows how to teach martial arts. You shouldn't interfere with him."

"All right, Akane. I won't," Nodoka promised. She let loose another, more noticeable sigh. "It's just that… I see you girls, who haven't had a mother for so long, or anyone who can even fill a part of that need, and I really want to be able to. As much as you need, as much as I can, and of course I just have to hope that the first of those two isn't bigger than the second… I'm sorry if I went a little too far in trying to protect you."

"That's… it's all right," Akane said slowly. 'Is that really how she feels? Is this… maybe this could be a good chance to deal with the problem head on, instead of trying to keep it from ever getting in my face?'

A few moments of frantic thought failed to resolve the matter. Maybe if she confronted Nodoka now over her biggest error in judgment, the woman might be willing to listen and consider how utterly wrong she was. Or she might just dig her heels in and refuse to even consider budging, in which case having all this out in the open could easily be worse than the current state of affairs. Akane just didn't have enough information to go on, in order to decide which outcome was more likely.

Since she couldn't make the decision based on pure reason, she decided to choose courage over caution.

"Thank you," Nodoka said, shaking her out of her thoughts. The older woman smiled at her, then turned her attention back to the various vegetables. "We've got all the ingredients prepared now, and it's time to—"

"Please, wait," Akane interjected. "Could… could we put that on hold for now?" When Nodoka blinked and gave her a questioning look, she took a deep breath and continued, "There's something I wanted to talk to you about. Something more important. Something that maybe you could help me with."

"Certainly, Akane," the Saotome matron answered. "Is it some problem? Do you need advice, or is there something else I can do?"

"Maybe." Akane fell silent while she thought of how best to continue. Just jump right in with the declaration that no, it wasn't right that Ranma ought to have his perverted way with every girl that came along? That felt like too much, too fast. Maybe she could lead into the matter through something more specific. "I talked to a couple of my friends at school today," she said at last, trying to feel her way forward without admitting too much at once. "On Saturday after school, they went to a café a long way away. And while they were there, they overheard a conversation that really surprised them."

'Oh dear.' Hoping this wasn't going where she thought it was, Nodoka asked, "What sort of conversation? And who was talking?"

Akane stared steadily back at her. "It sounds like it was you, Auntie. Talking to a girl called Ukyo Kuonji."

"I see." Nodoka's poker face was marred by the large beads of sweat springing up on her brow. "I did indeed ask her to meet me there, yes. We had tea and talked about various things, some big and some small."

The youngest Tendo upped the intensity of her stare. "From what Yuka heard, the last thing Ukyo said before she left was that my whole family was a bunch of honorless hypocrites. Was that one of the big things, maybe?"

Nodoka sighed, then replied, "Actually, no. Not as such." She waited a moment to see if Akane would respond with anything more than that stunned, wide-eyed gape. As an alarming flush began to spread up the girl's cheeks, Nodoka reconsidered the wisdom of letting Akane have the next word. "I will admit that it hit me rather hard at the moment, but the next day Nabiki noticed the signs of distress that I must not have been hiding as well as I thought. She and I talked, and although I didn't tell her many of the details, she heard enough to explain to me what Ukyo had been talking about." Nodoka reached out and placed a gentle hand on Akane's shoulder for a moment. "Ukyo was wrong to blame you as she did, Akane, but you must understand why she did it. She wants to be with Ranma, to be his wife, and that can't happen because of the promise to your family. Of course she would resent it, that there were times when you proclaimed your engagement to Ranma was over, and yet that didn't actually end the matter at all."

Despite Nodoka's best efforts, the shades of disapproval had darkened that last sentence. She might understand and excuse Akane's temper tantrums as the results of jealousy, immaturity, and lack of proper maternal guidance, but that didn't make such treatment of her wonderful son any more palatable. Still, there was time to gently correct what needed to be corrected, and in any case Nabiki said the last time Akane had pronounced the relationship over had been quite some time ago. According to the middle Tendo, in the months since then Akane hadn't gone to such lengths even when faced with the same level of provocation. Nodoka hoped it meant the girl had already been growing past such behavior, even without the aid of a mother-in-law-to-be.

Forcing herself to focus on that and let go of unfortunate past mistakes, she said in a lighter tone, "It's understandable, isn't it? If Miss Kuonji allows herself to think that it really was your decision to make, rather than your father's, then she can believe that she should have long ago gotten what she wants. She can tell herself that rightfully she ought to be Ranma's official fiancée. You shouldn't be angry with her, dear, but rather be gentle and gracious and forgiving."

"So what you're saying is, I should show that I'm better than Ukyo by not holding any of that against her. In fact, I should go to her and tell her it's all right, I'm not mad at her for anything she did."

"I'm not sure I would suggest that last part yet," Nodoka demurred. "Perhaps it would be better to let a little time pass before you try to mend any fences."

Akane gave a tight-lipped, crooked smile. "But I'm going to have to do it sooner or later, right? Because you already as good as promised her that she could have Ranma too, and even gave her a place just a half-step down from being his wife for real."

Nodoka sighed. So much for the faint hope that Akane's gossiping friends hadn't heard that portion of the conversation. "I am sorry you had to hear that now, and certainly sorry that you heard it second-hand like that," she said remorsefully. "That isn't how I wanted it, Akane."

"I'm a little more concerned with the bigger picture of what you wanted!" Akane snapped back, nearly losing her tenuous grasp of her temper. With great effort, she unclenched her hands from the grip that had been spreading cracks in the counter. "Mrs. Saotome… you said you were sorry that it all came out like that, that it wasn't how you wanted it to. I can understand that, I guess, because in a perfect world I wouldn't have to say what I'm about to say how I'm about to say it." In fact, in a perfect world she would have been able to communicate that last sentence a lot more clearly than she had. Akane grimaced and took a moment to try and settle her internal turmoil.

"Then perhaps you shouldn't," Nodoka suggested. She pushed aside regret at how things had gone and stared directly into Akane's eyes, bringing more force of personality to bear than she usually did. "Akane, it would be much better for you to take some time to think about this, not react immediately out of confusion and hurt. I'll give you all the time you need."

"I don't need any!" Akane shot back. "Taking more time to think about it wouldn't change how things are. And I'm not going to mince words or hold back." She took one more deep breath, then said what she'd wanted to for seventy-nine hours now. "The truth is, you're wrong. I don't know how you can believe all these things, but they're just not true. You talk about manliness, as if it's somehow a good thing for one guy to share his time out among a bunch of different girls, and that's not right at all! A good man is somebody you can depend on to be there for you, who'll be faithful to you! It's not being manly, to string along a bunch of girls. That's just being perverted!"

Nodoka sighed, and took a tighter grip on her temper. "And where, exactly, did you learn this?"

"W-what? Where did I learn it?" Akane gaped. "I should be asking you that! Mrs. Saotome, I don't know if you noticed, but these things you believe are not a normal attitude!"

"You mean it's not the normal way of things according to the oh-so-important modern-day Western world values," Nodoka snapped back, feeling her control begin to fray. "Those values are nothing that we need or ever ought to welcome in among us. The ways of the past were what made our people strong and our nation glorious, and if we ever lost our way it was because we moved away from those things, believed that we needed to change simply for change's sake! All throughout our history we recognized that there were great men who stood head and shoulders above the common throng, men who simply could not be tied down by the same standards that applied to ordinary people! The very things that give order and stability to those common people, would be nothing but chains and shackles to the truly great!"

She took a few deep breaths, feeling much better now that she had reminded herself of what sort of man her son was. "Those great people should never be expected to fit into a common mold, Akane. They are meant to stride on ahead of us, leading the way for us. That is the sort of man Ranma is and will be. You cannot demand that a man like that should focus all of himself on just you. He has greater responsibilities, to himself and his destiny and the world around him. That is why he deserves more than just one woman to love him and care for him and support him. And of course the more good women he has to bear his children, the better for him and for the world."

"I'm sorry you feel that way," Akane said through gritted teeth. "I know Ranma never spent much time with you but maybe it's in his blood anyway, to think that's just the kind of thing he deserves. But it's wrong. If he was a real man, he'd have sent Ukyo and Shampoo packing a long time ago!"

"That is enough!" Nodoka nearly spat the words. "Akane, I am willing to make as many allowances as I must for your misunderstandings about men and manliness in general. You may take as long as you like to overcome those problems. But you will not speak badly of my son!"

Akane stared into the older woman's implacable gaze, and felt the fire die out of her. She wasn't about to surrender, but this conflict had gone far enough. Time to disengage and walk away… though not without a parting shot, she decided. "I understand, Auntie. You'll be glad to be there for me, help me, and listen to me — just as long as I don't say anything you don't want to hear."

Shampoo smiled as she caught sight of Ranma, bounding over the rooftops toward the Cat Café. He was actually a little early for today's session, she noted — always a good thing. Her ancestors knew she'd spent enough time eager for the next chance she'd get to be with him. To see him finally and unequivocally return those sentiments would be heaven.

By now he had closed enough of the distance for her to make out the broad, open smile on his face. Her own happiness level climbed just that much higher. That wasn't the look of someone forcing himself to face down a trial, to fight through unpleasantness just to come out on the other side with greater skill in the Art. She'd seen that look on Ranma's face enough in the past to know better now. Her Airen was genuinely glad to be here.

Shampoo's grin widened and became a bit naughtier. That meant she could afford to push a little harder. After all, he'd said himself that it was for his own good.

As Ranma reached the apex of the last leap that would set him on the Cat Café rooftop, he found himself seized by a sudden blast of wind. It grabbed him and spun him head-over-heels, destroying all his control in an instant. However, it wasn't quite enough to steal awareness of his position relative to everything else; he was still headed for the rooftop that he'd been aiming for, and it looked like he was in for a softer landing than usual.

Twenty feet below him, Shampoo braced herself and spread her arms wide in a welcoming hug, all the while maintaining the high-powered Wind Strike to prevent her beloved from regaining control at the last second. It was only fair, she mused — after all, she'd used Ranma to soften her landings many times. How could she pass up a chance to return the favor? Ten feet… seven… fi—

A serpentine coil of solid air slithered across her stomach and around to her rear, destroying her concentration utterly.

That he knew the move wasn't surprising in and of itself; he'd managed it during their last session on Wednesday afternoon, two days ago. But the fact that he could pull it off under such circumstances was surprising, and that he'd use it like THAT… suffice it to say, Shampoo was every bit as stunned as her husband could have hoped. The next few seconds were nothing more than a blur to her, as Ranma twisted like his spine was made of rubber, touched down two feet ahead of her and transformed his remaining velocity in a spinning sidestep that brought him to a stop bare inches behind her, his arms shooting out and around her, his hands locking around each other just over her navel and pinning her own arms without hope of escape. "Nice try, Shampoo," he growled in her ear, and she could almost hear the smirk that framed the lips that said it.

And if he was tense and trembling, nervous at pushing this far, her own heart was pounding far too hard for her to notice.

She licked her suddenly-dry lips and fought to regain a modicum of composure. Wishful thinking aside, this probably wasn't his way of saying he was ready to take her right here and now. "If it get Ranma to do this, Shampoo think is very nice try," she purred, leaning back into him.

"Ah, yeah, well…" He gulped, loudly enough that he wondered if Shampoo could hear it. There wasn't much distance separating his throat and her neck, that was for sure… in fact, strands of her hair were brushing him there, tingling against his skin…

This time she caught his increased spike of nervousness. Shampoo sighed and braced herself for Ranma to let go as if she were red-hot and get some distance between them. She felt him tense, as if on the very verge of doing so… and then he slowly and deliberately released the hold around her, gave her a friendly punch on the shoulder, said a few more words that managed to congratulate himself more than they did her, and stepped around in front of her. Shampoo sighed and switched to Mandarin to mutter, "<Someday I'm going to have to speak to you, about not starting something you're not ready to finish.>" But she was smiling as she said it.

"What was that, Shampoo?"

"Oh, nothing." She gave him her best Cheshire Cat grin. "Shampoo think she have to say 'Not bad' back to you too. You use Wind Strike even when Shampoo was blowing you around with it already. Very impressive, Ranma."

He puffed out his chest and gloated a bit more obviously. "Wasn't easy, I can tell ya that. Specially not when so much of the wind around me had your aura wound all through it. I don't think I coulda done it at all if you'd surrounded me all the way."

"I keep that in mind for next time," Shampoo promised with a wink. "So, you got other new trick to show me? Shampoo already impress, but so far you not show me anything to say you have move past me in use this technique. Last time you surprise me, you had start basic move and take it to whole new level."

"Jeez, you think you've got those expectations high enough?" Ranma wondered. "Nah, what you saw is what I got so far for the Wind Strike." He heaved a theatrical sigh. "Just barely good enough with the move to use it and defeat it, from someone who's known it and practiced it for weeks longer than I have."

Shampoo's eyes narrowed. Ranma gave a squawk and bounced six inches into the air, one hand going reflexively behind him. Using a long-range technique to goose him was less satisfying than certain other methods, but it was enjoyable enough in its way. "You not defeat it that time, Airen," she said triumphantly.

It was Ranma's turn to narrow his eyes in a stare of determined concentration. A new coil of wind separated itself out of the greater whole of the air, streaming forward to twine against Shampoo's cheek.

At least, that had been his intention. His Wind Strike faltered as Shampoo sensed the incoming attack and dispersed it with one of her own. She grinned back at him in challenge, only just holding back from a remark that if he targeted an area somewhat lower on her body she wouldn't stop the move.

He tried again, this time with a two-pronged attack. One gust curved in strong and hard, sliding along an arc that would impact right at the seat of her pale cream-colored pants. The other followed close behind, sweeping toward Shampoo's head to toss her hair around and temporarily blind her.

Before either could land, Shampoo spun in a tight circle. The move naturally kicked up nearly-negligible currents in the air around her — or they would have been nearly negligible if the Amazon hadn't fed her aura into them and whipped them much higher. Both prongs of Ranma's attack were shredded by the spinning winds, and the quiescent extension of his aura that he'd been about to shape into the follow-up third of his counter was disrupted as well.

"This you task for today, student!" she crowed. "Two days ago you manage to do Wind Strike, now you learn to master it! Fight someone who have know it and practice it for more than month now. No surprise, no trick, just you and me and challenge I give you!"

"You're on, Shampoo!" he shot back, pushing his skill to the limits in order to launch three simultaneous attacks, each whipping chaotically toward Shampoo as unpredictably as he could manage.

She could have just flooded the air around her with her own aura, to defeat his attack that way (or at least reduce it to a question of whose strength was greater). But that wasn't the lesson she was trying to teach here, nor would such a response have helped further her own skill. Shampoo pushed hard against her own limits as she sliced neatly through each of Ranma's flows with two of her own, and slid one last current along the surface of the rooftop. Ranma didn't notice for the two critical seconds it took for that Wind Strike to rise up at his feet and slide along his leg in an unmistakable caress. He yelped and bounced away before it could get higher than mid-thigh, which was a little disappointing. But Shampoo made him pay for it by generating a new, wide-spread curtain of near-solid wind beneath his feet as he touched down from the jump, which for all practical purposes acted as a firm, frictionless surface. Ranma's feet shot out from under him and he fell to his rear, skidding just as quickly to the edge of the field.

Shampoo would have liked to lengthen and strengthen the effect, maybe even enough to send him all the way over to slide into her, but she was laughing too hard to manage it.

Ranma recovered more quickly than she did. Quick as a striking serpent his new attempt lashed out, targeting not Shampoo herself but the canteen that rested at her hip. The Amazon wasn't quite fast enough to stop him from yanking it into the air and across the distance separating them. "You want change to curse forms for this?" she asked him as he caught it. "Is up to you, Airen. Shampoo not forget that you big reason for this training is be able to fight even as falcon."

He just grinned back at her, idly tossing the canteen a few inches in the air, catching it, then repeating the process. "Nah. That was just to show you not to let your guard down. If I'd wanted to change you, I should've dumped it on your head while you were still doin' your hyena impression." He gave the flask one last toss and catch, then unstoppered it. "Each session before now when we worked on this move, we spent most of it in our cursed forms. I wanted to stay human for this one. Okay?" When Shampoo nodded her head, he turned the flask over and dumped its contents to the roof. "Thanks for understanding, Shampoo," he said, smiling as broadly and reassuringly at her as he could.

Later, Shampoo would almost be willing to swear that the gleam of sunlight off his teeth and eyes had dazzled her. How else to explain the fact that she completely missed him invoking the Wind Strike again, grabbing the falling water and sending it flying toward her in a broad curtain? By the time she recovered, the fluid had crossed most of the distance between them. Only by a desperate, haphazard spinning leap did she manage to clear the veil of water, and even that wasn't a clear victory — a good three inches of her hair soaked up moisture as the rest of it passed her by.

"Looks like I win that round," Ranma pronounced as she landed, staggering a bit to recover her balance.

"What you mean you win? I dodge the water, and no even say you not really trying get me with it!"

"Oh, sure, you dodged all right." He let the admission hang in the air for a few seconds, then added, "But ya didn't use the Wind Strike as any part of that defense, now did you Shampoo?"

"Humph!" Shampoo stood for a moment in a pose of righteous female indignation, nose tilted slightly into the air, arms crossed beneath her bosom, one foot tapping irritably. She then broke from it to run her fingers through her hair. "Ranma no have to get hair wet. You have any idea how frizzy this get if I just leave it dry on its own?"

He gave her an odd look. "Uh… no? Don't think I've ever seen that. And," he coughed into one hand, "I've seen you go from wet all over to dry at least a few times…"

"Oh, yes, that right. Shampoo thinking of something else," she admitted.

The oddness of his look intensified. "Oh yeah? Like what?"

"Like… distraction!" Shampoo's hands whipped forward and around, one gripping a bonbori and the other tossing a replacement canteen into the air before her. She brought the mace around as hard and fast as she could, shattering the plastic and loosing her own cloud of water — which she sent flashing toward Ranma on a quick, fierce gale. The Amazon knew he could evade it if he threw everything into his own desperate dodge, but just let him try to use his own Wind Strike to get out of danger!

Further thoughts were cut off as her hair whipped forward on a wind that was definitely not her own, blocking her vision and distracting her for just long enough.

"Think that round goes to me too," Ranma proclaimed as she succeeded in clearing her line of sight. He'd skipped just far enough to the left to miss her no-longer-guided deluge. Shampoo noted, with a very small amount of moody pleasure, that at least a few drops had spattered on him anyway.

That wasn't much of a consolation, though. "Okay, Ranma. Shampoo admit that you is better at this kind fighting," she said. "But is not really what I meant. Wanted us to use just Wind Strike to attack and counter, nothing else."

"Yeah, well, I'd honestly rather do it like this," he replied. "Anything Goes, Shampoo. I ain't gonna be using only this move in a battle; it'll be just one more thing in my arsenal. That means I oughta practice on integrating it like everything else is." He paused for a moment, then said, "And I was kinda hoping to help you with that, too. I mean, obviously you've got more skill and control than me, when we're talking about doing nothing but Wind Strikes. But you ain't gonna be in a battle where it's the one and only thing you got going, any more than I am. You're teaching me all this stuff, and… and I'd like to help you with something too, when I see a chance to."

"Ranma…" she said softly. She gulped, searched for words, then continued, "Thank you. But… but it not seem fair. Seem like you is taking short end of stick, to help me. This time supposed to be about help you grow best in Air style. If we take principles of Anything Goes and mix them in, we take big part of challenge away from you to give to me. As you sensei, I no can accept that. Most I can say yes to, is something that give equal challenge to both of us."

"I could go for that. You got any ideas ?" he inquired.

"Um… Shampoo still working on it," the Amazon said sheepishly.

"Okay. Take your time," Ranma said, putting his hands behind his back and beginning to pace aimlessly around the rooftop, never looking directly at Shampoo and invoking the Wind Strike at the absolute lowest power he could manage, challenging himself to ruffle her hair with a playful breeze without letting the Amazon realize it was him, rather than Mother Nature, doing so.

"If Ranma want a lock of Shampoo's hair to keep next to heart, all he have to do is ask," the Amazon murmured after a moment, deliberately not looking toward him or speaking the phrase very loud. "If you just trying to tickle, need to go lower, Airen."

"Not subtle enough, huh," he said.

"You think I not know feel of Ranma aura slide over me like second skin?" she asked, turning now to meet his gaze with a sultry look.

He chuckled feebly, looking away. "Just thought ya might be distracted enough for me to pull it off."

"Humph. Try again in middle of when world ending around me and I asleep, and maybe then Shampoo not notice." Shampoo kept up her confident smirk even as Ranma's stare prompted her to run her example back through her mind and realize it could have used a little more work. And she couldn't even blame this verbal blunder on her limited Japanese.

That triggered another thought. "Oh!" she said, blinking. "Shampoo have good idea. Good challenge for both of us, help Shampoo work on something I need even more than Ranma do, not sacrifice what Ranma need to help him most with Wind Strike!"

"Yeah? Let's hear it."

"Simple. Like Ranma want, we do something else while fight with Wind Strike. Like I want, Wind Strike is only thing we use to fight with. Ranma try to control winds to hit Shampoo, Shampoo do same back to him. Give advantage to me for just that part… but since we also is talking at same time, Ranma have his own edge too." She grinned and slid a zephyr along his right shoulder.

Ranma quickly dispersed it, while replying, "Talking? That's it? I ain't so sure that I've got much of an edge, Shampoo. Ain't had many long conversations in my life, and of the ones I've had, a good number of them have been with you, lately." He lowered a wide plane of rippling air toward her head, splitting a flow away to zip down her side at the last second.

Shampoo disrupted both with a single wind that coiled like an entire nest of dragon hatchlings. "But you Japanese is still better," she riposted. "Much — much — better." The Amazon punctuated each of those last three words with a new wind snapping toward him.

Ranma stopped them all, though it took enough effort that he forgot what he'd been going to say in reply. "Uh… well… your Chinese is a heck of a lot better than mine, so there!" This took Shampoo back enough that he succeeded in brushing her wrist with a gust. He grinned and said, "Come on, Shampoo, you gotta do better than that! You don't wanna be like Akane, right? She can't handle compliments either!" As he'd hoped, this knocked her even further off-balance, and he tagged her with two solid Wind Strikes in rapid succession.

The combo pulled Shampoo back to her senses. "For sure I not!" She sent a massive gust screaming toward him, powerful enough to throw him around like a rag doll, but veered it away before it could impact the shell-shocked youth. The Amazon stuck her tongue out at him and said, "You give her insult so bad as that, for sure she never pull punch."

"Insult? What insult?" Ranma barely remembered to follow his words up with a Wind Strike, and it suffered from not being more than an afterthought.

Shampoo effortlessly disrupted the pitiful attack. "Compare me to Akane," she teased. "What you think?"

"I think the playful breeze ruffling my hair isn't natural, that's what," he shot back. It wasn't as easy to sense Shampoo's hand in the nearly-nonexistent wind as she'd made it sound when he'd tried that trick on her, but after all she did have a month's experience on him. Nor did he doubt that Cologne pushed harder in training than Shampoo did.

"And Shampoo think you supposed to do something about—" The Amazon cut off, blinking, as something small and light struck her on the back of the head. "Ranma, what was that?" Half-turning, while keeping one wary eye on her handful of a husband, she realized that she'd been hit with a piece of broken plastic left over from when she'd shattered her canteen. "You only supposed to use Wind Strike, remember?" she chided him.

"Hey, I did," he said with a grin. "Used the Wind Strike to throw that at you. It was only eight inches away from ya when I let go of the move and let it go the rest of the distance on its own. You oughta be able to feel a Wind Strike from way more than eight inches away, right?"

Shampoo shook her head ruefully. "You get me again," she conceded. She wondered briefly about how she might escalate things in response to this.

"Maybe you shouldn't make yourself a sitting duck like that," he pronounced. Putting action to words, Ranma began strolling casually along the rooftop, keeping the same amount of distance between himself and Shampoo as had been there before. "That's better. Standing still that long just ain't for me."

"Short attention span? They make drugs to help that," Shampoo said, beginning to move as well. "And Amazon medicines can fix too. But since I not have any of those, I help you different way." She manifested seven winds, coiling toward him one after another in rapid succession, each coming from a different angle and with varying intensity.

"Jeez, just how full have you guys stuffed that bag of tricks over the last three thousand years?" Ranma asked, once he'd deflected or been tagged by each wind. Following in the spirit of Shampoo's attack, he mustered up his own best effort once more, sending three winds winging toward her.

When Shampoo stumbled to a halt and let all three strike her, Ranma's jaw nearly unhinged itself. "Sh-Shampoo?" he asked.

"I… sorry, Airen." She began moving again. "You catch me off-guard that question."

For the life of him, he couldn't see why. "Uh… why?" he asked, once he'd stopped her latest attack — a paltry effort that was virtually nothing next to what he knew she could do. He held back from countering for the moment, letting her set the pace she needed to recover and clear up whatever this confusion was.

"Remember session before session before last?" Shampoo refrained as well from launching a new strike.

"On… um… last Tuesday. Yeah, what about it?"

"Remember something Shampoo say she need time to think about?" the Amazon asked, looking sidelong at him but not stopping her movement.

"Uh…" He remembered that there had been something, and that it hadn't made much sense. Somehow he didn't think that was the answer Shampoo was looking for. Time for a Saotome Desperation Verbal Technique. "Yeah, you said you needed some time to think about the best way to train me. What's that got to do with knocking you way off balance now?"

"Oh, Ranma," Shampoo said, half-exasperatedly, half-fondly. "Not everything in life about training and techniques. Although…" the Amazon thought over what she'd just said, and developed a sweatdrop, "Shampoo suppose she not should say that, since this sort of is."

"So what're you talking about?" Both of them were still moving, still circling one another on the rooftop, still neither closing or opening the distance between them. They were going slower now, though. Ranma toyed for a moment with the idea of launching a new aerial assault to liven things back up, but decided against it. He was more curious than ever to know what had had such an effect on Shampoo, and didn't want to pull a distraction into the mix.

"About something Shampoo have think about many time since then." She gave him a rueful smile, and stopped moving. When he followed suit, she said, "Reason you surprise me so much, was because you give such good opening to talk about it."

At that point his memory finally coughed up a decently clear account of what she was probably talking about. "Wait… is this about the last real thing you said before we hit the sky? Something about you being just an Amazon, not yourself?"

She nodded her head, blushing faintly. "So Ranma do remember," she murmured. "At least enough to get close. Shampoo not forget what you said that time either; it is burn into my memory."

Ranma chewed his lip. "I don't remember sayin' something that would've had such a big impact."

"And that is big part of why it impact." She beamed at him. "For you, it was simple truth, so… um, so not remarkable that you not need to keep it in mind. But that just like you, Airen — do simple, honest thing and never know how big and important and special it is to someone else."

As usual, he felt a little cocky pride at receiving such a compliment. However, the feeling was tempered with some softer, warmer, less easily identified emotion. Putting one hand behind his head and chuckling, he said, "Thanks, Shampoo… but can ya tell me just what it was, that was so special?"

"First have to remind you, what I had say was not that I feel like being just Amazon and not myself. What Shampoo felt was, it like that all I have to give. And Ranma say that was wrong."

"I do remember that now," he said after waiting a few moments for her to continue. "Just so you know, I still don't understand why you woulda thought that. It don't make any more sense now than it did then."

"Is because it one of the things we never talk about," she said. "Neither of us ever really talk about future. Not very much since we change old curses for new one, not at all before then. You already tell me that you not even spend much time thinking about it in past, for sure not as much time as you should have." When Ranma grimaced and nodded, she gave him an apologetic look. "Well, Shampoo have think about future many, many times, but not in way I should. Just think of same few things over and over, few things that look so good and seem so plain as day to see."

He mulled over that for a few moments, putting it in terms of a martial arts battle to help him contemplate the issue. "Huh. That does sound dangerous, Shampoo," he agreed. "Only seein' a few pieces of the whole, and thinking that they are the whole story… obviously I can't say for sure until you tell me where you're going with this, but I can see how that could be even worse than not thinking about things at all."

"I not think it that bad," she said slowly. "But… but I have hurt own self, and even Ranma too. So for that, I am sorry."

"You still ain't said anything specific," he pointed out, sounding remarkably unconcerned at her last admission. What if she hadn't made whatever past mistake she was talking about? He hadn't exactly been handling things properly at the time either. It wasn't like he was gonna hold it against her.

"You want specific? Shampoo give you specific." She looked away and took a deep breath. "You maybe here now for more things than it start out for, but think back to that start. Just like many times in past, it was so you could learn new, powerful secrets that Amazons have keep safe for who knows how long. Before Air style, it was Hiryu Shoten Ha, to give you way to fight back when stupid pervert steal you strength. And before that, it was Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken, to test you and bring you levels up all over, even as it give you one specific powerful move.

"When you try to solve mystery of Japanese Nannichuan, Great-Grandmother and me there to help you. Even if she did play silly joke with yellow pot," Shampoo growled, momentarily losing her focus as she remembered Cologne's antics. The fact that it had taken her a full week to realize that there was no way on earth the Matriarch could have decoded directions on how to get from the Cat Café to the location of the third urn, without realizing that said location was the Cat Café, was one of her less proud memories.

"Joke? What joke?" he interjected.

Shampoo just stared at him for a moment, lips quivering, and then she broke out in a fit of the giggles. "Thank you for break the tension, Airen," she said.

"I'm not getting an answer to my question, am I."

"Ask again later if Ranma want. You will feel better if figure out on you own, and anyway we have more serious talking to do now." She dragged herself back to her original topic. "When stupid Ryoga learn Shi Shi Hokodan and Ranma want hurt himself like that too, Great-Grandmother not help, and even warn you off. When you fight her for Phoenix Pill on snowy icy mountain, she show just a little bit of what she really can do, enough to get you to think, and then let you win fight."

"Yeah, I'd kinda figured that out," he said, his tone and expression making it plain that he was none too happy about it. "The Cat Fist was the best I could do then, but from what I've seen it ain't near enough to take on somebody who knows the whole of the Air style. She coulda just whipped up a tornado and spun me round and round in it with a couple hundred cubic feet of snow, right? Coulda smacked all the fight outta me without even letting me close."

Shampoo nodded apologetically. "And she only bother with that if she feel like being flashy, instead of take easy way of clamp down hard on air. You no can breathe, for sure you no can fight."

It was Ranma's turn to let his gaze fall away from her, coming to rest on one fist he held out before him. "She can even do that, huh… Sometimes I wonder how far there is to go," he said, opening and closing his hand while idly spinning a breeze around it. "I can still remember the earliest days on the road with Pop, and this… all these lessons… they're so far from where everything started out…" After a few more moments of contemplative silence, he shook his head forcefully as if throwing off the distraction. "But that's for the future, and you were tellin' me about the past. What were you trying to get at, anyway?"

"Things very close to what Ranma just saying. Lessons of mastery. Doors to open and go through, and wisdom of ones what have already pass down those roads." They'd both been standing immobile for quite some time now. Shampoo broke from this to take three careful steps toward him, before stopping and saying, "Those very thing you have put at center of you whole life, Airen. Where you think you go in all the world, to find them? What places can have any chance to teach you what Amazons have to teach, give what we have to give? For sure you could do what old pervert master did — well, the non-perverted part, Shampoo mean — and travel all over to dig up secrets and learn new things by you own seeking. But he no match for all Amazon Elders at once, and no matter how good his school may be it is only small fraction to what we have. Amazons have search these secrets out for three thousand years, and work and make our own to o."

She stared at him as intensely as ever she had, glad to see him meet her gaze with no sign of reflexive denial. "Spatula Girl Ukyo no can give you anything like that. Best she could say is she maybe not put too heavy chains on you. Violent Girl Akane never in her life could ever say even that. Or she would, but it would be either lie or stupid thing she just assume without thinking things through. Crazy Ribbon Girl… well, I not even need go there, yes?"

She paused to let him say something if he wanted to, but he just kept looking pensively at her. "So. You start to see now what I believe all along? Thought for sure that contest was over before it even begin, because I am only one who can give you kind of life you really want. Could say, Amazon superiority mean Akane and Ukyo have to lose, and when I say that it not even saying anything personal about Shampoo. Just mean I am way into what you want, the path you whole life has shape you to walk."

"Is that the reason why you never seemed to take it really hard, no matter what crazy stuff happened?" Ranma asked, breaking his silence. He could have been more specific, could have said something like 'That time I bit your head off after the first run-in with the Ghost Cat' or 'That time with the Reversal Jewel when I sat there and sat there and couldn't manage to say I love you', but found he didn't want to dredge up specifics.

"Big part of it, anyway," she said. "If Shampoo sure that she going to win in the end, that there no other chance outside of stupid long-shot things like you or I die in some battle, then why worry too much about not see much progress?" She could no longer meet his gaze. "Why worry if I not doing my best to understand Ranma, to give what he need now, to ask what things he is ready for? Just jump on you and ask you to do what I want, or try shortcut to take us straight to what I so sure would be the ending anyway.

"And it not even what I want!" Her outburst caught him completely by surprise. He'd been shifting his weight, hesitating on the verge of walking forward to close some of the remaining distance between them, and he nearly fell flat on his face. He had to take two staggering steps before he recovered his balance. Shampoo didn't seem to notice. "Not know when it start, but feelings been changing for while now. Stupid thought was like warm blanket to hide under for so long, but it start to itch and nag and even hurt! I not want you to come to me because of what you can get out of new family, want you to choose me! To be happy in bigger picture as we walk down it together, to be thankful for everything Shampoo bring to you life, yes — but also say I worth having for more than just where I was born!"

"Shampoo…" He took a few quick breaths for courage, then walked close enough to put one hand on her shoulder. "You told me that already, remember? That that's what you want, how you really feel. You don't… there's no reason to get all upset like this. You think that was some terrible mistake? Just bein' complacent and taking a long time to decide things weren't going okay at first, that you needed to do better?"

"Where would we be now, if Shampoo had not make that mistake?"

"Who knows? You seem to be overlookin' the fact that you weren't the only one who needed to choke down a few hard lessons. And yeah, the way you changed things around here a couple months back is what really helped me buckle down and start learning them, but I had to be ready for it too. Like, the kind of 'ready to start changing things for the better' that comes after a year of life in this nuthouse and enough crazy stuff to write my own tragedy in three acts!"

He paused, giving her a scrutinizing look. He wasn't the best at reading people, especially outside of combat, but she seemed to be responding pretty well. Certainly she wasn't just shrugging off his words. Which was good, because Ranma was painfully aware that the reassurances weren't flowing as freely and powerfully as he would have liked. He knew what he wanted — to put an end to the sadness he'd seen in her eyes, to remove the self-recrimination, to bonk her softly but firmly over the head with the truth that he didn't blame her and she shouldn't either.

Most of all, he wanted to tell her that he wouldn't have done what she'd started out counting on and ended up fearing. He'd made some similar mistakes in the past — dating Kuno in an attempt to get his hands on the wishing sword, even going out with her for the Instant Nannichuan — but at his worst he wouldn't have taken it that far. He would never take all someone had to give just for what he could get out of it, would never have settled for a loveless marriage just because the other perks were good… he would never have hurt her like that… would never do anything to hurt her like that…

"Ranma?" Shampoo said softly. He was still looking at her, but his gaze seemed to be going through her at the same time. Her Airen was trembling and pale, but the hand he'd placed on her shoulder had only tightened its grip. In fact, he was clutching her almost as if she were the only thing keeping him up, hard enough that if she'd been a normal girl it would have actually been painful.

Shampoo was anything but normal, of course, and the strength with which he gripped her was really just reassuring. Reaching up and out with her left hand, she took gentle hold of his upper arm. She could feel him trembling even more easily through that point of contact, as if his hand on her were the steadiest part of him right then. "Ranma?" she repeated gently.

He gasped for breath, and seemed to break out of the worst of the fugue. "Shampoo…" he answered, nothing more.

"Is you okay?" she asked, as his eyes seemed to glaze over once more. There was a different look in them now, though… and was she imagining things, or was the remaining distance between them decreasing as well?

"Still a little scared," he said in a near-whisper. And now she was certain of it; he was moving slowly but inexorably forward. "Still don't know how everything's gonna work out. But…" He licked his lips, the sight of which sent an electric jolt traveling up and down her spine. "But I'm not gonna keep my head buried in the sand this time, Shampoo…"

"Ranma…" The word was more breathed than spoken. He was very close now. Shampoo closed her eyes and waited, reaching for at least enough calmness to keep her heart from exploding out of her chest.

Even with her eyes closed, Ranma filled every bit of her awareness. The scent of him, the whisper of the wind across his form, the sound of his breathing, the feel of his arm under her hand, his hand on her shoulder in a grip that had become satisfyingly possessive, the ecstatic jolt as he brought his left hand up to match that hold on her right side, the sudden pained half-gasp half-grunt that slipped out of his lips, the impact of his face against her bosom as he slumped down onto her…

"<What the hell?!>" Shampoo exclaimed, the moment well and truly shattered. Her eyes flashed open, just in time to see his flutter shut. His grip on her shoulders failed at the same time. He dropped senseless to the ground, three brightly-feathered darts protruding from his left bicep.

She spun to face the direction the projectiles must have come from.

And then she screamed loud enough to drown out a Chariot of the Storm.

The first thing he became aware of, as he struggled his way back to consciousness, was the smell.

'Unpleasant' didn't begin to do it justice. 'Foul' was laughably inadequate. It felt as if the stench had scorched its way up his sinuses and was now cheerfully chewing on his brainstem. His eyes whipped open. With an exclamation that couldn't decide whether to be a gasp or a dry heave, Ranma shot out of his chair and to his feet, staggering ten steps backward to slam against the nearest wall.

It didn't exactly get him out of the odor's reach, but at least at that point he was awake enough to notice other things. He had been seated at a square table on which sat a large cloth pouch, which Ranma sensed was the source of the vile odor. Other tables dotted the floor around him, and two of the walls were lined with booths. He was inside a familiar room, in a familiar building — the dining area of the Cat Café.

Two of the restaurant's usual occupants were in the room with him. Cologne was standing at one edge of the original table, on the side that had been to the left of his seat. The ancient Amazon was staring at him calmly, looking for all the world as if the nostril-searing reek meant nothing to her.

Mousse wasn't so stoic. The Chinese boy had his glasses on, but the streams of water leaking down his cheeks suggested that right now the lenses weren't doing him any good at all.

Ranma blinked away a few tears of his own, then scanned the vicinity for any sign of Shampoo. He kept a wary eye on Mousse while doing it, as it wasn't hard to figure out who had been responsible for his blackout. It certainly hadn't been his own nerves; he might have been scared, but he wouldn't have actually fainted just from the effort of kissing Shampoo…

That thought rumbled through his mind for a long, long moment, with the distant, growing power of an avalanche. He… he had been… he wanted to…

'Oh crap, I'm not ready for this!' Even as the protest skated through his consciousness, though, he realized it wasn't true. At least, in many important ways it was dead wrong. He was ready for some things to change, was ready to move farther down a road that he'd been walking for awhile now. Even more importantly, he was ready to stop lying to himself about just what road it was.

But he definitely wasn't ready to turn that road into a free-fall.

He took another few seconds to map out a quick plan of attack, then fixed Mousse with a glare and took a deep breath. Unfortunately, the increased distance and mental preoccupation that had shielded him from the stench for a few precious moments weren't strong enough to withstand that, and the pigtailed teen nearly collapsed as he fought off a surge of nausea.

"Good to see you back on your feet," Cologne said dryly. The Matriarch produced a large pot from somewhere, set it on the table before her, transferred the sachet from the table to the pot, then stirred briskly with her staff. Almost immediately the odor faded from the air. "My apologies for the method, but ordinary smelling salts wouldn't have overpowered the drug Mr. Part-Time here used on those darts."

Ranma scowled, remembering the sudden sting that had been the last semi-clear memory before his blackout. "At least I didn't get the worst of that stink, Granny," he growled, and although he was supposedly speaking to her he was looking straight at Mousse. The Chinese boy didn't say anything in response. It might have surprised Ranma, had he not currently been busy feeling anger, frustration, and antipathy toward his reappeared rival. He let his glare burn for five seconds longer, then shifted some attention back to Cologne. "And it didn't even bother you at all? What'd you do, block the smell from movin' through the air to your nose?"

"Nothing so impressive," she admitted. "The stench from that type of powder is only detectable by men, not women. You've seen the women's version before, I believe."

"Gotcha." All of those things were inconsequential, but that might even be a good sign. If the old ghoul was willing to talk like this about nothing in particular, then she probably didn't know what had almost happened on the roof. Mousse had undoubtedly had some complaint or other to make — Ranma would bet good money that the phrase 'forcing himself on Shampoo!' had been used at least once — but considering the half-blind boy's track record with such things Cologne would have to be truly senile to simply take his word for it. Mousse had been known to blame Ranma for mistreating Shampoo when the pigtailed teen had actually been running away from her.

Maybe he had been mistreating her at that, one tiny corner of his mind suggested. But certainly not in the way Mousse had meant.

Regardless, it was hopefully a good sign that Cologne wasn't already rubbing her hands together and cackling with glee, trying to steamroll him straight to the alter. It was a long, long step to there from where he was now, finally sort of realizing that maybe he did want more from Shampoo than friendship, and Ranma had no desire to see whether Cologne thought she could propel him over that distance with one swing of her staff.

Still, regardless of how careful he needed to be here, there was one question he wasn't going to hold off from asking any longer. "So, where's Shampoo? I don't see her around anywhere." For an instant the idea flitted through his brain, that Mousse might have caught her off-guard as well and had her caged up somewhere, and he'd be able to beat the information out of duck boy and go to her rescue. It was kind of a pleasant image, even if he did recognize its utter impossibility an instant later.

"My great-granddaughter is off working out her frustrations," Cologne returned. She glanced away from Ranma toward Mousse, giving him a hard stare. "She was most unhappy at having to let a certain someone live."

The Chinese boy still didn't say anything. The oddness of this silence was a little more noticeable to Ranma this time, but he didn't bother commenting yet. "So I guess she's the reason I didn't wake up with a slit throat or nothing? She stopped Duck Boy here from following up on his original cheap shot?"

"You could put it like that," Cologne said dryly. "And then it was my turn to step in and save a life."

"How did that happen, exactly? How'd you know you needed to?" Ranma asked, shooting her a piercing look. If Cologne had been spying, it would explain how she could have known to intervene before Shampoo cooked Mousse's goose, but it would also mean the Matriarch really had seen what had almost happened. "I know you made it sound like you weren't gonna stick around and secretly watch everything Shampoo an' me did during our training, but all you really promised was that you wouldn't do it on that one first session."

Cologne cackled. "Son-in-law, it does my heart good to hear you actually paid that much attention, and thought about things deeper than just at surface level. But no, I haven't watched or listened in on any of the times you and my great-granddaughter have spent practicing together."

Mousse stirred at this, tensing further and flushing more visibly, but still didn't say anything. Ranma's curiosity about the Chinese boy's unusual restraint ratcheted up another notch, but hashing things out with Cologne remained a higher priority. "Then how…?" he asked.

"The same way he realized you were up there with Shampoo," she returned. "The illusion I put into place doesn't block sound. Just before he could enter the restaurant, he heard you speaking to my great-granddaughter. By the same token I heard her expressing her thoughts on his return, his method of announcing his presence, and particularly his timing." The Matriarch shook her head. "In fact, I suspect everyone within at least two blocks heard her. But to my knowledge none of them speak Mandarin, so they didn't get the full power of the experience."

Ranma mulled that over, particularly the last sentence. She'd said it as if she wanted to reassure him. It sounded like what she was really saying, was that if he still wanted to keep his training with Shampoo secret then Mousse was his only concern. Probably it would be good to keep that under wraps for at least a little while longer, he decided — hopefully it would be possible.

With that thought in mind, he shifted his attention to his silent rival. "You're bein' awfully quiet there, Mousse. The old ghoul didn't clam you up with a pressure point or nothin', did she?"

"Is that good enough for you, Honored Elder?" Mousse spoke the words in a tone that robbed them of any politeness they might have had. "I just sat here quietly until someone invited me to join the conversation, didn't explode or force my way in or anything."

"You make it sound as if I gave you an order," the Matriarch returned, her own voice much softer and sadder than his. "All I did was challenge you to do that, boy, and I only did that after you made it plain you weren't willing to go elsewhere and wait for him to wake up. And yes, I was a little impressed that you showed such patience."

"Patience?" Mousse echoed bitterly. "I didn't have much other choice than learning that. Not when I went back to Jusenkyo to cure my curse, like you ordered, and wound up in the Spring of Drowned Carp instead. Spending all those weeks with a two-meter pond as your whole world will teach you how to wait, at least. Even if it doesn't do a whole lot for other skills you might have really been wanting to work on."

Despite himself, Ranma felt a pang of sympathy for Mousse. "Aw, jeez, that sucks. How'd you finally get out of there? Don't tell me some idiot scooped you outta the pond and took you to the Guide to get boiled for fish stew."

"An Elder eventually condescended to rescue me," Mousse replied bitterly. "It was Elder Bi Xinin, actually. She's the one who you can always count on to oppose Cologne and her agenda. I guess I'm lucky there was someone like that, right? Someone who'd be willing to ignore any order to keep me under wraps as long as possible."

"Are you actually accusing me of sabotaging you like that?" Cologne said incredulously. "Are you telling me to my face you believe I told everyone back home to just leave you alone and helpless in such trouble as that?"

"You're certainly not saying you didn't," Mousse pointed out, his face set like flint.

"Then let me say exactly that," the Matriarch replied, her voice a dangerous purr. "I didn't send any word at all concerning you, and certainly no orders. I didn't warn anyone back home that you would be returning to make your own trip to Jusenkyo. I left everything completely and totally up to you.

"But I did eventually get word from them!" Cologne's voice now rasped like a buzz saw. "I certainly don't know where you would have gotten the idea that the Elders must have known right away how you went there and took a longer swim than you meant to. After all, you simply went straight to Jusenkyo, you didn't go to the village first to tell anyone of your arrival. You knew that the laws regarding the cursed springs had changed, but you didn't bother to ask anyone for any more detail than that. You didn't even think it worth your while to visit your mother first!"

"Don't throw that in my face," Mousse said, his voice near-choked with fury. "I wanted to surprise her with a son who wasn't handicapped by a stupid duck body anymore."

"Hmm. The fact remains that what happened to you, happened as a result of your choices," Cologne said implacably. "Do not presume to blame me. Everything you would have needed to know about the cursed springs in order to avoid such an unfortunate accident is now publicly available knowledge. All you had to do was bend down your stiff, stubborn neck enough to ask."

"Whatever," Mousse said, shifting his gaze back to Ranma. "So there you have it, Saotome. That's where I've been, all this time while you've been free to hound Shampoo and make her life miserable."

"Yo, Cologne." Ranma didn't look away from Mousse as he said this. "Since the knowledge about Jusenkyo is free for the askin', I have a question. Is there maybe a spring there of Drowned Guy Who Can Get A Friggin' Clue?"

"There's a Spring of Drowned Righteous Man," Cologne replied. "And believe me, there are times when I'm tempted."

"Oh, really?" Mousse snapped. "I'd be willing to take a dose of that, Honored Elder — if you splash him too! I'd even be glad! If I have made any mistakes with Shampoo, I could apologize to her for them, and this honorless bastard wouldn't be constantly hurting her and just trying to use her for what he wants!"

Ranma scowled like a thunderhead. "Mousse, if you took a dip in the Spring of Drowned Righteous Guy, you'd be beggin' Shampoo to not only forgive you, but scrub all the old memories outta your head with the Xi Fang Gao!"

"Well, if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is," Mousse sneered, absently producing a black cast-iron pot and a bright shiny copper kettle from inside his robes and setting them on the table. "Saotome, my eyes might not be so great, but I've watched you often enough to see it. You don't care about her, and the only times you pretend you do are when you want to get something out of her. All you care about is what she can give you, whether that's help with whatever problem you've gotten yourself into or just the ego boost of thinking you could get a girl as wonderful as Shampoo for yourself!"

"Yeah, right," Ranma spat. There was an uncomfortable amount of truth in what Mousse had said, or at least his accusations had at one time been uncomfortably true. But even at Ranma's worst, he hadn't been that bad. "I guess that's why I fought that damn Ghost Cat to get her free. Yeah, that makes perfect sense, Mousse! I fought through my own personal idea of hell just so I could obligate her to give me a kiss!"

"Don't you dare bring that time up!"

"Why not, because it's one of the few where you couldn't completely lie to yourself about how things really were? Or is it because it's prob'ly the most blatant example of how you're the one who only wants to get what he wants from Shampoo?!"

"ENOUGH!" Cologne boomed as Mousse produced a set of knives in each hand and Ranma slipped into a ready stance. "I will not have the restaurant destroyed in a senseless brawl! Mousse, if you have anything else to say to him before you make your formal challenge, please exercise a little self-control as you do so. Ranma, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't provoke him!" Then, as Ranma turned his scowl at Mousse to a frown at her, she added in a whisper that the wind carried only to his ears, "He's been gone a very long time, no doubt dreaming of Shampoo, and you know what kind of reception she gave him just now. Please have a little compassion on him."

"Yeah, all right," Ranma agreed.

"You don't want him to provoke me?" Mousse exclaimed. "Then tell him to stay the hell away from Shampoo! The last thing I needed to see, when I finally got back here, was him about to force himself on her!"

"Oh, for goodness' sake!" Cologne snapped. "Enough with the ridiculous, idiotic accusations! Son-in-law couldn't even force himself on…" Her voice trailed off as she realized there was no good, pithy way to finish that statement, at least not without insulting Ranma more than she cared to. "What I meant to say is that if you saw anything, it was far more likely Shampoo's doing than his."

Ranma bit down hard on an idiotic impulse to forcefully correct the Matriarch. He kept as straight a face as he could, thankful that she wasn't looking his way and that even with his glasses on Mousse couldn't make out fine details at this distance.

"She wouldn't do that!" Mousse declared. "At least not if she didn't think she had to. I can think of one reason why she might, though. Maybe the head of her family was coming down hard on her?"

Cologne let loose a snort like a cannon blast. "Boy, let me make one thing abundantly clear." She paused for emphasis, then said, "I have done nothing, in all the time that you've been gone, to push Shampoo toward Ranma, or him toward her. Everything that has passed between them has been their own decision. It was Shampoo's idea to offer to spend time with him in training, and yes I did say training and nothing more sordid. Just as it was Ranma's choice to accept.

"If you want any more detail than that, you'll need to talk to Shampoo herself," the Matriarch pronounced. "And Mousse… please listen to me when I say you need to do that at least once. Have one real, honest conversation with her. If you've ever done that, in all the years you have known my great-granddaughter, I'm certainly not aware of it."

"Fine, I'll go talk to her as soon as we're done here!"

"You won't find her. As angry as she was, she'll be in the skies for hours yet to come, possibly even past nightfall." In fact, Cologne strongly suspected she wouldn't see Shampoo for dinner tonight. The Matriarch would bet good money that her great-granddaughter was planning to hunt down and eat a wild duck, which would undoubtedly relieve more than just hunger. "Anyone who would want to find her and talk to her, would have to have his own wings to do so."

'That sounded like a hint,' Ranma thought uneasily. Still, after Cologne's recent speech the thought that maybe she did know more than she was letting on wasn't quite so scary. The ancient Amazon had a point; she hadn't tried to force anything. Not recently, not for a very long time now… and she'd never once pushed as hard as she was capable of. 'Is it a good idea, though? Yeah, I do need to talk to Shampoo about this. But am I even ready for that? Or do I need to try and get my head on straight first, so that I know what I want to say and don't screw that conversation up?' Maybe the best thing to do would be to hit the sky and fly in a wide-ranging course, thinking things through while keeping half an eye out for Shampoo. Depending on what progress he'd made when, or if, he spotted her, and how unhappy she still seemed to be, he could decide then whether to approach her or let it wait a little longer.

"I can do that," Mousse said slowly, after a long pause. "I—"

"What do you mean, you can do that?" Cologne interrupted, scowling dangerously at him. "I told you that if you wanted to come back to this town, you had to cure your curse. Furthermore, I specifically stated that you couldn't just take a cure then grab another curse before returning."

"Yeah, and you also said I couldn't bring back Jusenkyo water with me to use here. But you didn't say anything about Instant Jusenkyo powders." Mousse dredged up a small, twisted grin. "I haven't forgotten what Shampoo said to me before I left, what you just trampled right over with your command that I get rid of any curse at all. She told me how great she thought it was to fly, and that she was disappointed in me for never really taking the time to explore that.

"So I obeyed the stupid letter of the law, Honored Elder. I only brought the temporary stuff with me. A crate of Drowned Falcon powders, and another of Drowned Duck."

"Better use the duck ones first," Ranma advised. "If Shampoo really said it to you like that, she might not've been one hundred percent fair. I've seen you flapping your way through the air enough times to tell you this for sure, Mousse — flying as a duck's got nothing on what it's like as a falcon. Once you try the real thing, the only use you're gonna have for the plump, juicy white joke is to turn mice or something into poultry dinners."

"Thanks for the advice, Saotome," Mousse sneered. "As it turns out, I was planning to start out with the duck powders. Although I had thought that tomorrow would be the first time I'd use one."

"And it still needs to be," Cologne broke in. "Mousse, I don't think you should chase after Shampoo tonight. I think you would do better to give her time to cool down. But if you do, under no circumstances should you do it in the form of a duck. Not unless you want Shampoo to find you, dive out of the sky and strike you dead before she realizes she didn't just catch a wild bird for her supper."

That little statement managed to push aside Mousse's simmering anger. "Y-you don't think…" he said, swallowing convulsively.

"I most assuredly do," Cologne promised, swallowing a remark about how she didn't think he wanted to go that far to get close to Shampoo. It just wouldn't have been in good taste. "Tomorrow will be soon enough for you to stretch your wings in your old form. And may I ask what plan you had for that, anyway?"

"Ain't it obvious?" Ranma asked. "You already let me know he's gonna make a formal challenge to me. Throw in the fact that he brought back the stuff to let him put on his old curse, and there you have it. Duck Boy here thinks he can 'prove himself' to Shampoo by havin' it out with me in our cursed bodies." He turned his most irritating grin — the one with enough sheer obnoxious power to even make it through Mousse's myopia — on the long-haired boy. "Well? Am I right?"

Mousse clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. "It's all in the letter," he grumbled, pulling out a sheet of paper half-covered with kanji.

Ranma ambled over to the table, finally retracing the distance he'd reflexively covered on first waking up, and took the note from Mousse. "Yep… yep… tomorrow, cursed forms at noon, predictable as ever… uh huh…" As he got to the end, his eyes widened. "Well, at least you got one genuine surprise in here, Mousse," he said slowly. "Nothing about whoever loses finally has to give up Shampoo for good? Just, the duel will prove to her who the better man is?"

"Like I said, I had a lot of time to think in that damn spring," Mousse grated. "So? Do you accept the challenge?"

"Gonna have to make one little change to these terms," Ranma answered.

Mousse snorted. "Why am I not surprised? What is it?"

The Saotome heir glared back at him. "Look, man, do you seriously think I don't know how you plan to fight this out? A duck can't possibly go beak-to-beak with a falcon and have any hope of winning. You may be stupid in a lot of ways, but not like that. You're gonna use the same tricks you always did, and fight with Hidden Weapons." His eyes narrowed. "And this time we're both gonna be in the air, maybe thousands of feet above the ground. What do you think's gonna happen to all the knives and junk you miss me with? Do ya even care about the innocent people on the ground below?"

That actually wasn't going to be a problem, but there was no way in hell Mousse was going to tell his hated rival that. "Fine, I guess you're asking for the duel to start and stay outside of town, rather than in the place I put in the letter?"

"You got it." Something occurred to Ranma. "And since I'll need some extra time to get from school all the way out there, I guess I need to move this time back too. Let's say, three o'clock in the afternoon?"

"Fine," Mousse sneered. "Any other little objections you'd like to make? Any more favors you want to ask?"

Ranma stared coldly back at him. "Let's get one thing straight, Mousse." He gestured at the paper, lying now on the tabletop before him. "A half-blind duck who's barely spent any time in the air, versus a falcon who loves it enough to spit on the idea of a curse cure? I am humoring you here, bird brain. It ain't gonna hurt you to humor me a little too."

"Fine." This time the word was spat, not sneered. "Now, if you ladies will excuse me, I'm going to break open my box of Instant Falcon powder and go after Shampoo."

"For what it's worth, I suggest you search through western Tokyo," Cologne said. "She spends a lot of time there, since the tall buildings and the winds around them make for excellent variable-condition flying challenges." Plus, she was all but certain that Shampoo wouldn't be there today. The Matriarch believed that in her great-granddaughter's mood, the girl would have sought out the most natural, unspoiled areas for her sojourn.

"And Mousse?" she called as he headed toward the stairs that would take him to a bathroom. "I know you don't honestly believe I mean this, but it's true nonetheless. I wish you good fortune, and that you find what you need."

Mousse hesitated, as if on the verge of saying something. But finally he just gave a clipped nod and walked away.

Ranma waited until he'd heard the sound of paper tearing, water running, water splashing, cloth being displaced, and feathers flying. He wasn't surprised when Mousse chose a way out of the building that didn't require the neo-falcon to fly back down within sight of him. As the clap of a closing window informed him that Mousse was finally gone, he turned back to face Cologne. "I notice you didn't say you hoped he'd find what he wanted."

"You're beginning to do quite well in thinking things through and working your way down to what they really mean," Cologne said, adding an instant later, "even if it took you a ridiculously long time to get here." She sighed. "For a teacher, it's a joy to watch and help the young learn important lessons. Or at least it should be, for anyone who calls herself a teacher. And it should hurt, when you try and fail to help someone with the lessons that he needs most critically."

"You've been trying that with Mousse for a long time?" Ranma guessed. Cologne nodded. "And you still ain't got through to him."

"Not I, not Shampoo, not anybody else who's tried," the Matriarch said. "He's gotten very good over the years at pushing those glasses up onto his forehead whenever it looks like he might have to stare into the harsh face of reality."

"Yeah, I've seen that," Ranma said, thinking back over the past year. "He wasn't usually this bitter about it, of course…"

"Well, anyone would be angrier than usual after spending all that time stuck as a fish," Cologne replied. She hesitated, then dangled a nice juicy worm on a conversational hook. "But just now it felt like there was more to it than that, somehow…"

'Yeah, almost as if he saw me actually moving in to kiss Shampoo for real,' he thought. "Uh… with all the stuff he's been through lately, do you think maybe the truth is finally starting to work its way through to him? I mean, he's never gonna be with Shampoo. If he's getting hints of that leaking through the best denial he can manage, it'd explain his attitude for sure."

"That could explain it," she allowed. "I'd like to think it might be true." She frowned. "He certainly wasn't very open or honest with me during the time we spend waiting for you to wake up, though. Not that the fool ever really has been."

Ranma was pensive for a moment. "Just out of curiosity, Granny, how hard have you tried? I mean, have you ever pushed him anywhere near as hard as you did me, during that business with the Phoenix Pill?"

"No. Why do you ask?"

"Cause it might be what he needs," he answered.

The Matriarch said nothing in reply, but she gave him the widest-eyed stare he'd ever seen on her. It quickly had him shifting uneasily beneath her gaze. "What?" he eventually asked. "Why're you staring at me like that?"

"If I lived to be eight hundred I never expected to hear you say that," she marveled. "You actually agree with the lengths I went to then?"

"Well, no," Ranma said frankly. "But some good came out of it. I learned the Amaguriken, and I managed to overcome my stupid phobia enough to deliberately use the Cat Fist. Never did that before then. And—" He clamped his lips shut against the rest of it, realizing suddenly that this might not be the best place to finish that particular sentence. There might well come a day to tell Cologne how glad he was to know Shampoo would stand with him even in such circumstances as that, but this was not that day.

"And yet you'll still suggest pushing that hard for Mousse, even though ultimately you don't think I should have done it to you?"

"Well, yeah," he explained. "He's wrong. I wasn't."

"Ah, youth," Cologne grumbled under her breath. "I will admit that the thought has crossed my head from time to time. But everything I've seen leads me to believe that if I push him, he will simply push back, even to the very end of his strength." She gave Ranma a piercing look. "The most I could do is make things generally harder on him, which might mean that he'd be more vulnerable to attack from another direction."

The pigtailed teen chewed over that for a minute, unsure whether to be proud that Cologne seemed to be implying that he might be able to do something she couldn't, or worried. "You really think that, Granny?" he asked. "You really think that even if he won't listen to you, maybe he could still learn if it was someone else who broke through his stubborn, stupid pride?"

"Perhaps," Cologne said. "If you're thinking of trying, feel free. I'm always here if you'd like advice about dealing with an Amazon."

He stood silently for another little while, pondering the situation with Mousse (and also illustrating that while he might be doing better at picking up on hidden meanings, he was by no means perfect at it yet). "Actually I've got an idea. Lemme run it by you, and see what you think."

Kasumi hummed a light, cheerful tune as she strung the laundry out to dry. It almost felt a little odd to be working on her own, rather than with Nodoka's help, but in a way it made for a restful break. The two had spent more time than usual talking during the morning, so much so that even with both of them working they had fallen behind on the chores. And so it was that Nodoka had gone to take care of the afternoon shopping while Kasumi stayed behind to finish up with this task.

"Kasumi, have you seen Mr. Saotome?" Akane asked, coming around the clothesline and into Kasumi's field of vision. Her youngest sister was wearing a gi and a puzzled, vaguely irritated look. "It's not much longer until our training session, but he's nowhere around."

"He went with Auntie to the market, so that she wouldn't have to carry the heavier groceries herself." When you were cooking to feed Saotomes, you were talking about a lot of supplies. Kasumi well remembered the times when it had been just her doing the shopping and she had fallen too far behind. Playing catch-up had always been a little embarrassing, but at least that nice Mr. Ishikawa had never charged her for the use of his forklift.

"Oh," Akane said, her voice so cold and flat that Kasumi was reminded of something she'd been meaning to bring up at a safe moment.

This moment was probably as good as it was going to get. "Akane, did something happen between you and Auntie?"

"Why do you ask, big sister?"

"Because your last cooking lesson was four days ago, and you haven't seemed interested in having another. And even more than that, I haven't seen her look interested either, and she was always the more enthusiastic of you two. Also, Auntie Nodoka has been spending even more time than usual lately talking to me, but less and less of that time has been her talking to me about you, or Nabiki for that matter." Kasumi pursed her lips. "I'm not sure what it is, exactly, but something feels different. Something is different. And I'd like you to tell me what it is if you know, Akane."

The youngest Tendo shrugged. "She's probably still ticked off at me for telling her to her face that I wasn't going to let Ranma string along a bunch of mistresses," she said as casually as she could, which meant that only a fair amount of bitterness leaked through. "For that horrible crime I had to sit through a lecture on what it really means to be a man — as if she has any idea! — and being grateful to have a sneaky, cheating, untrustworthy, perverted jerk like Ranma in my life."

Kasumi blinked. "She said that? Those words?"

Akane sighed. "No, Kasumi, those were mine. Not hers." For a moment she looked vaguely uneasy. "You don't need to repeat that actual phrase to anybody, by the way."

It was Kasumi's turn to sigh. "Actually I knew that was your take on things, little sister. I just wanted to see if I could get you to stop and think about what you said."

It was Akane's turn to blink. "What's to stop and think about? I… I'm not saying he doesn't have his good points too." Her voice faltered and softened as she spoke that last line, and it took her a few seconds to firm it up and speak decisively again. "But you'd have to be as deliberately blind as Mrs. Saotome to overlook his bad ones!"

"And how deliberately blind would you have to be, to look at those bad points and think they were really so much bigger than the good?" Kasumi shot back. When she saw her little sister's jaw set mulishly, she sighed and continued, "Akane, I need you to understand something. There is never going to be peace in our household until you manage to see Ranma as he really is. Of course he has his problems! Who wouldn't? He grew up with only his father for a point of stability, never having any other experience with family, almost no friends, never even having a place to stay that he knew he wasn't going to have to leave before long. Ranma should have our admiration, not our contempt, for the strength that brought him out of that without being worse than just rough and unpolished. You've never given him as much credit as he deserves."

Akane was quiet for a long time. Just as Kasumi was on the verge of breaking the silence again, the youngest Tendo finally sighed, and said, "Maybe you're right, big sister. At least, maybe you're right that I'm being too hard on him now. I think maybe I'm letting some of how I feel about his mother overflow onto him. And I shouldn't do that."

"I'm very glad to hear that, Akane," Kasumi said encouragingly. It was all the more important to hear Akane make an admission like that when she considered what her little sister hadn't been doing lately. She hadn't been yelling at Ranma, or hitting him, or otherwise trying to punish him. To hear Akane acknowledge that even without doing that she still might not be treating Ranma as well as he deserved, to see that she could admit that when it was merely a question of her personal thoughts… well, as far as Kasumi was concerned, it was real progress. "And what about the other things I said…?"

"I'll think about them," Akane replied in a tone much less conciliatory than she'd used for her last response. "But he's sure as heck never given me that kind of credit either, you know. No matter how hard I try." She looked away from her sister, toward the dojo, and tried to fight off a premonition that she wasn't going to get what she wanted this afternoon. "I hope Mr. Saotome doesn't take too long to get back."

A little earlier…

Nodoka looked with unmistakable pride on her manly son, smiling all the wider at his distinct 'caught with my hand in the Pocky jar' expression. Discretion was all very well and good, but there was no need for him to keep such secrets here; it was just her and Genma who'd run into him in a back-alley shortcut to the market. "Ranma dear, you wouldn't be sneaking away for a meeting that you planned to keep secret from everyone back at the dojo, now would you?"

"Uh… I… er… ah…"

The Saotome matron smiled all the wider. "So which one is it? Ukyo? Shampoo? Both?"

Ranma would have liked to reply and clear himself of all charges, but he was too busy choking. It took a few seconds to recover, and as soon as he did he was distracted by Genma. The elder Saotome had taken a couple of steps backward so that he was no longer in Nodoka's peripheral vision, then began a routine that Ranma had thought he'd seen the last of. The signs flashed too quickly for him to read without focusing all his attention on the task, which meant they didn't get read. He did catch enough phrases to be sure this wasn't anything new, though — just the same old 'you've already got a fiancée that I said you're going to marry… now go knuckle under to her!' story. 'If the old man's gonna keep on using the same thing over and over, he better expect me to take advantage of the predictability,' Ranma decided. "Yo, Pop, was there something you wanted to say?" he asked, pulling Nodoka's attention off him and onto her husband.

"Oh, nothing really. Just that I hope you'll make me proud, Boy," Genma shot back, having somehow managed to hide all the signs in the quarter-second between Nodoka turning and her actually catching sight of him. Ranma was more than a little impressed, and made a mental note not to hold back in their next sparring match.

"I'm sure he'll make both of us proud," Nodoka proclaimed. "Here, Son, you wouldn't want to be unprepared." Saying this, she stepped forward and pressed a large packet into his hand.

Automatically Ranma's hand closed over it and his eyes tracked down to it. "GYAAHH! Mom, what's this?!"

"You don't have to use them if you're ready to become a father, dear," she assured him. Of course, whether or not he thought that, her wonderful son certainly was ready, just as Nodoka was ready, willing, and eager to hold her first grandchild in her arms. It had taken quite some time to unnoticeably perforate all the condoms, reseal the package, and eliminate the outer marks of her tampering, but if it helped bring about that blessed event sooner it would have been hours well spent.

'Note to self — don't let Mom get started on one of these trips. Head her off as quickly as possible.' Without really thinking about it, Ranma stowed the incredibly embarrassing gift in the backpack he was wearing, shoving it next to the sack of balloons. "Uh, Mom, I hope it ain't gonna disappoint you, but I'm actually on my way to a challenge match."

Nodoka blinked. "Oh? Then why didn't you tell us? Shouldn't we all come along to watch you win?"

"Not this time," he answered. He hesitated for a moment longer, but couldn't see any advantage to keeping it secret whom he was actually fighting. "This is a guy who goes in for lots an' lots of long range attacks, and his eyesight ain't too good. If there's a buncha people there watching, I might not be able to protect myself and the spectators too from all the stuff he's gonna miss me with."

"Mousse? That's who you're fighting?" Genma interjected. "Are you saying he's back in town?"


"About blasted time," the elder Saotome grumbled under his breath, then flinched — for more reasons than one — when Ranma shot him an ugly glare.

"So, anyway, Mom. That's why I didn't say anything about this match. Don't tell anyone back at the dojo, okay? They'd probably be disappointed about not gettin' to see it, and it's better all around not to have that happen."

"Still, you ought to have at least one friendly person there to cheer you on and watch you win," Nodoka fretted.

Genma nodded, sensing where she was going with this. "I agree wholeheartedly," he pronounced. 'Of course if it's Mousse the boy's fighting, there's bound to be one person watching who fits that bill… but I don't think we want it to just be Shampoo in Ranma's corner. Much better for everyone if we call home and send Akane along with him.' With the progress she'd made, he was confident that his student was capable of defending herself from Mousse's random attacks.

Nodoka beamed. "Good, it's settled then. Genma will accompany you and stand witness."

"What?!" "What?!" The cries started out synchronized but quickly broke into competing protests, Ranma that as a healthy teenaged guy he needed times without any parental supervision, Genma that this was a job for Akane. "Besides, Nodoka dearest, you need me to help carry home the groceries for tonight's dinner! You can't haul such a heavy load all by yourself!"

"Now, now, I'm going to have to insist," Nodoka said back, in a voice that somehow managed to be perfectly lighthearted and pleasant despite reminding both Saotome men of the slamming of a prison door. This wasn't merely what his wife wanted, Genma realized glumly, it was The Way Things Were.

Ranma heaved a long-suffering sigh, then inclined his head. "Well, I gotta get going, Mom. It's gonna be a good while before I make it home, but don't worry — I won't miss supper at least."

"Do you think you had to tell me that?" she replied, eyes twinkling. "All right, Ranma, Genma, I'll see you when you get back. Good luck, Ranma, and remember not to crush his pride beyond any hope of recovery. After all, you want him to keep coming back and giving you new challenges, don't you?"

"Honestly, Mom, I'm not sure I'd say that for this particular guy," he admitted. "But… yeah, I'm not gonna destroy the idiot or nothing." He stepped forward and gave her a quick hug, then turned and headed off, Genma trudging behind him.

Ranma waited until they'd covered six blocks before he came to a stop. "Pop, Mom might not've been ready to take no for an answer back there, but that don't mean you ought to be tagging along. Why don'tcha call back to the dojo and get Mr. Tendo to meet you at a bar? Or maybe have Akane train with you in a park or something?"

Genma frowned at him. "Is there some reason you don't want me along, Ranma?"

The boy in question shrugged. "Already told ya. I don't want anyone there to maybe get perforated when Mousse starts doing his 'it's raining pain' thing."

"And you don't think I can take care of myself?" the elder Saotome demanded indignantly.

"Look, this fight ain't gonna be like the usual ones with Mousse," Ranma shot back. "He's had all this time to stew over the fact that Shampoo and I've got the same curse, and what's more that she deliberately gave it to me. For this challenge, he specifically said we go at it in our cursed forms, falcon against duck, an' I think you can realize what that means just as easily as I could."

Genma pulled off his glasses and polished them thoughtfully. "You mean it's going to be a midair battle? With those Hidden Weapons tricks that half-blind boy uses? Ranma, you'd darn well better tell me you said you wouldn't fight him unless it was over some unpopulated area!"

"Actually we're gonna have the fight over the Imperial Palace," Ranma managed to say with a straight face. He couldn't keep it up long though, not when Genma looked to be on the verge of a simultaneous stroke, heart attack, apoplexy, and bowel blowout. "Jeez, old man, what kind of idiot do you take me for? Of course we're gonna do it way out in the middle of nowhere! And now that you know we're gonna be fighting in the sky, you realize there won't be anything you can really watch, right?"

"Nevertheless, I'm coming," Genma said, doing his best to duplicate Nodoka's tone from earlier.

Ranma snorted. "Well, okay, Pop. Have it your way." He grinned. "But if you want to come with me, you're gonna have to keep up with me!" And with that he bounced to a nearby rooftop, pouring on the speed as soon as he'd touched down from his first leap, rocketing up, up, and away. By the time his father's bellowing cry of protest reached his ears he was already three houses farther off and two stories higher.

Genma made his own way onto the rooftops in pursuit, but Ranma quickly outdistanced him. The pigtailed teen wasn't all that surprised, truth be told; he'd been going all out, and it would have been very surprising indeed if his father could have kept up with him. Since that was true, it wasn't hard to believe that Genma would give up sooner rather than later. Still, Ranma didn't drop his guard or settle down into an easy-to-follow path, taking instead a winding, roundabout route as he headed toward his next stop.

It was more than a little annoying to find Genma waiting for him at the train station.

"You wound me, Ranma," his father complained. "Not only do you try and ditch your only father, you've even left behind the wisdom I so carefully passed along to you!"

"Left your wisdom and teachings behind?" Ranma shot back with a glare. "How'd you figure that? This doesn't have anything to do with an all-you-can-eat buffet."

"Oh, hardy har har!" Genma retorted. "Boy, stop and think for a minute about what just happened. You ran full-out to try and lose me, not even thinking for a second that you'd already given me enough information to guess where you were headed. Just how much of your energy did you burn anyway? How much more would you have used up, if I'd actually kept up the chase as long as I could?" He leveled his fiercest glare at Ranma. "I taught you better than to pull something like that before a fight!"

Ranma grimaced. "You'd have a point there, Pop, if I was headin' straight in to fight Mousse. But our match isn't until three in the afternoon."

Genma frowned, puzzled at that. He kept one eye on Ranma as he scanned the train schedule, confirming that what he'd thought was true. "That's over two hours away, Ranma. You could get to a suitable place for a fight like this in less than thirty minutes from here, if you rode on the train that's about to leave."

The pigtailed boy frowned thoughtfully, his gaze fixing on the train as its doors slid shut. "Really? You sure about that?" When his father snorted and nodded, he said, "Well, it ain't like I had a schedule of all the Tokyo trains handy when I set the time and place for the fight."

"And checking that schedule today before you decided when you needed to leave would have been too much trouble?" Genma asked as the train began to move. "Well, fine. Let's take a few minutes and talk about this fight, and Mousse, and the Amazons in general."

"What's there to talk about?" Ranma said with a casual shrug, his gaze tracking past his father. "Anyway, shouldn't you be asking them? There's Shampoo and the old ghoul coming in at the front gate now." His eyes widened. "Whoa, I had no idea Shampoo was gonna bring that much take-out ramen!"

"Really?" Genma said, whirling around and scanning the crowd.

By the time he realized he'd been played like a piano, it was almost too late.

He didn't even have time to confirm that his guess was correct. It took every last second he had available to whirl around again, sprint for the departing train, and jump to a safe landing on the very edge of the final section. Not until he'd made sure of his stability was he able to take a moment to look ahead and realize that, yes, Ranma was standing at a spot two cars down. His son was staring irritably back at him and rubbing at his temples, as if to massage away a headache. Genma fantasized for a few moments about giving the ungrateful whelp something he'd really feel in the morning, but reminded himself that the time for that was absolutely not when Ranma was on his way to a fight… especially a fight with the most bloodthirsty of his regular rivals.

"Are you going to quit this nonsense now, Boy?!" he hollered.

"I wonder how much trouble it'd be to unlock the last coupla cars off this thing," Ranma mused. "It didn't look like there were too many people inside to get inconvenienced by a nice little break."

That was Genma's cue to hurry forward until he was on the same car as his son, stopping just far enough away not to be caught off-guard by a quick sneak attack. "Ranma, I'm getting a little fed up with this!"

"Yeah?" Ranma said evenly, his tone contrasting nicely to Genma's temper. "Then why don't you give it up? I hope you don't think I missed what you said, back when Mom was sayin' somebody ought to come along and watch this fight. You didn't want to come; you wanted me to have to drag Akane along for the ride, so she'd be there to smack me around if Shampoo so much as looked like smiling at me and saying she wanted me to win. Well, that was a bunch of bull and Mom sendin' you along wasn't much better. You oughta be heading home right now so you can give that tomboy her afternoon training. She needs it a heck of a lot more than I need you here looking over my shoulder, and I really shouldn't have to lecture you about a sensei's duty to his student."

The words hit hard, much harder than Genma was prepared for. "R- Ranma," he said feebly, taking one faltering step toward his son.

Unfortunately, he'd lost all semblance of the control and focus needed to stay on top of a speeding bullet train. They were passing across the bridge over a deep canyon, the kind of place where unpredictable crosswinds could make their presence known. A stronger one than usual chose to roar in that very moment when Genma's balance was most precarious, knocking him off his feet and off the train.

Ranma stared in mild shock as Genma was swept into the void. He would have been more worried had he not seen his father almost immediately regain control of his fall. The old man might come out of this with a few bruises, but Ranma would cheerfully wager all the yen in his savings that Genma wouldn't get any worse than that. Still, he noted, that had been one heck of an odd coincidence, the wind picking that exact moment to gust so fiercely and send his father flying. As convenient as it had been for him, it certainly hadn't been his doing. He hesitated for a moment, then spent the next fifteen minutes cautiously peering down into the windows of the train, but found no sign of Shampoo or Cologne.

His early arrival at the site of the match gave him plenty of time to set up the hot water dispenser, take care of a few other preparations, and spend an hour in the sky familiarizing himself with the air currents of this location. He landed and changed back when there was roughly a quarter of an hour to go until the appointed time, which he spent brushing up on all the things he would have liked to say to Mousse during this fight, if only Jusenkyo's translation effect extended far enough to let a duck and falcon understand each other. Not that Ranma expected there was any chance of that happening; after all, Shampoo hadn't been able to understand Mousse when they were in their old cursed forms, and his late, unlamented girl side had certainly never heard any sense in P-chan's outraged squeals and grunts.

'Of course, you could almost say the same thing about Ryoga when he's in his regular body,' Ranma thought with a grin. The smile wasn't really due to the humor of his joke, such as it was, but simply because he now felt free to make such a joke at Ryoga's expense. Cologne had told him yesterday that she'd happened across the Lost Boy and provided him his cure, which meant that the last vestige of one of his big failures had finally been washed away. It would be interesting to see how their next brawl went down, though Ranma supposed the smart money was on Ryoga still finding some excuse to play the righteous avenger. 'But at least with his curse gone he won't be randomly showing up in the middle of my fight today.'

Ryoga paused, fighting off an odd sensation that there was someplace else he should be, something else he needed to do. That was nonsense, he reminded himself as he returned his concentration to the boulder and the soil surrounding it. Mastering the secrets of the Earth was the only important thing in his life right now. He needed to be able to safely pass them along to Akane, and for her sake the sooner the better.

It would also be nice if he could use this style to finally put Ranma in his place, but Ryoga wasn't kidding himself — he might get some victories, but this wasn't going to let him blow past his rival for good and all. He had to develop these new techniques all on his own, whereas Ranma had all the Amazon help he could want. If Cologne hadn't already warned her 'son-in-law' of Ryoga's new training and got the jerk learning countermeasures, he'd eat a dozen of his bandanas. The playing field had never, ever been level, and that wasn't going to change. Ryoga was never going to win if he didn't find a new way to fight.

Giving Akane what she needed, what she wanted, what she deserved, what Ranma couldn't be bothered to… that sounded like it might just do the trick.

And so he pushed aside his sudden urge to wander off in search of Akane, or Ranma, or even any other human being, and focused all his awareness into the task before him. A grimace of concentration, a surge of power, and the earth groaned, shifted, then spat up the two halves of what had been one man-sized stone. Ryoga grinned in triumph at the sight. The break in the rock was clean, almost as if done by a knife — the result of the earth shifting along a tiny, temporary fault-line Ryoga himself had created. Of course he wouldn't use this technique directly against an opponent, but he was sure he could eventually refine it to use multiple intersecting fault-lines, which ought to disperse the attack enough to simply knock someone out rather than slicing them in half.

"This is for you, Akane," he murmured after a brief rest period. Focusing his will, he sunk another nearby boulder into the ground, and began building another fault-line. The single-fault technique was working now, but he couldn't do it quickly enough yet to think about moving on to multiple ones. "No matter how long it takes, no matter how much I suffer, I'll do this for you."

'I wonder what old Bacon Breath is up to anyway,' Ranma mused. 'Probably bugging some grandmaster he randomly ran into, to teach him a new trick to beat me once and for all.' He snorted. 'I mean, jeez, Ryoga, you could've at least told Cologne to pass a 'thank you' along to me. Maybe when I do finally run into you again and we have our next fight, I oughta try and pound it through your head that the P-chan stuff wasn't the only thing that needed to change.' Perhaps it would help if he was up front with his own mistakes, if he acknowledged straight out to Ryoga that Ranma himself had been guilty too long of just sticking to the same old patterns. If someone as great as him could make that mistake, admit to it, and walk away, then it shouldn't be so hard for Ryoga to follow his lead.

This wasn't really the time to be thinking about the Lost Boy, though, he reminded himself. There were much more important things at hand, such as the four figures appearing through the trees just in time for the fight. Wait — four figures?

As Shampoo, Mousse, Cologne, and Genma entered the clearing, Ranma bit back an oath. 'Of all the times for the old man to finally start putting out effort he didn't need to, not to mention using his brain…' "Yo, Pop. Glad to see you're alive," he said, his tone making it brutally clear that what was true for 'still with us' was by no means true for 'with us right here and now'.

"I caught up with the Amazons just in time to tag along with them," Genma muttered. It looked for a moment as if he would say something else, but finally the elder Saotome just sighed and kept quiet.

Ranma kept his gaze on his father for several long minutes, glad at least that Genma wasn't trying to meet his eye. That left him free to concentrate on his peripheral vision, keeping up the appearance of concentrating on Genma while focusing on someone else entirely.

Even as he was staring at Genma, Shampoo was staring at him. He was pretty sure, however, that she wasn't just using this as an excuse to consider someone else. Whatever lingering ill-humor she might be feeling at Mousse's return, there was no sign of it now. She was smiling at him, a small mysterious smile rather than the big open ones or the sneaky mischievous ones he'd seen more often. It looked like a pretty good reaction so far, Ranma decided. She didn't seem angry that he hadn't sought her out since their aborted training yesterday. She wasn't wearing the Smirk of Triumph which she would have if she assumed he was ready to jump right ahead to fulfilling her wildest fantasies. Even the fact that it wasn't her usual big, cheerful, open smile might be a good sign, he thought — hopefully it indicated that she had come to the same conclusion he did: things had finally changed for real, but that didn't mean it was time for the two of them to run heedless and headlong down an unfamiliar path.

"Looks like you didn't need quite this much time after all," Mousse sneered. "Are you ready for this, Saotome?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever," Ranma said, turning his attention to Mousse. He was actually a little relieved that the half-blind boy had pushed forward like that, which meant he could shift his supposed focus straight from Genma to the other male newcomer. "I'd ask you the same question, except there's no way in the world you are."

"Just keep telling yourself that." Mousse shook his head. "Go ahead and get changed. I'll even let you be the first one into the air."

"You're too kind," Ranma said, trying to channel Nabiki for maximum sarcastic power. "So… you wanna say the fight starts once we're both five hundred feet up?"

"And it ends when I finally drag your honorless, defeated carcass down here and lay it at Shampoo's feet," Mousse retorted.

"Mousse, Anything Goes means I'm supposed to accept all challenges, but that only goes so far. I don't have to take one that's never gonna end," Ranma shot back with a smirk.

"Would you just—!!"

"Mousse. Ranma. Enough is enough," Cologne said, her tone cutting easily through Mousse's sputtered outrage. "Both of you, take it upside."

Ranma noted that for all her supposed seriousness the Matriarch hadn't hesitated to slip in her own witty remark. "Whatever you say, Granny," he said, bending down and pulling a flask of cold water out of his backpack. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Mousse produce a water balloon and break it over his head. That was Ranma's cue to douse himself as well. The falcon and duck slipped out of their clothes at the same time, and each paused to give the other whatever approximation of a glare his current form could muster.

"~I'm taking you down, Mousse!~" Ranma screeled, more as an experiment than an actual taunt.

"~I've got no idea what you just said, you bastard. And it doesn't matter anyway. This time I'm taking you down!" Mousse quacked furiously back.

'Well, that's one theory confirmed,' Ranma thought. He hadn't understood a word of that. Not that he supposed it had been anything worth listening to.

With no further ado, both transformed teens blasted into the air. "Kick his butt, Ranma!" Shampoo cheered, earning herself a glare from Cologne. She ignored it. Just because she'd agreed with what her great-grandmother had said, about showing mercy to Mousse rather than giving him the treatment his latest antics had earned, didn't mean she was going to let the idiot off scot-free. If it weren't for him, she and Ranma would already have taken a step that was long, long overdue. A step they probably weren't even going to get to take today, she reminded herself as she shot Genma a hard glance. He was too busy staring up after his vanishing son, and didn't notice. Just as well, in Shampoo's opinion. She wanted it to be a surprise, when she handed the ex-panda his reward for sticking his unwanted nose into Ranma's and her business.

Genma felt a fresh trill of fear along the back of his neck, which was hardly unexpected. He'd been feeling them for quite some time now. Mousse hadn't had much to say, hadn't paid any attention to Genma at all during their trek out here, but the elder Saotome had kept close watch on his body language and hadn't liked what he saw. "Be careful, Son," he whispered. "And come back to me safe."

Mousse lost track of his hated opponent almost immediately. It came as no surprise. He hadn't needed Ranma 'God's Poisoned Gift to Women' Saotome to tell him that a falcon was faster in the air than a duck. But that wasn't going to matter, he promised himself once again. This was it, the last duel, the final conflict, the battle that paid for all the times his damnable rival had managed to squeak by with victory.

He settled into a slowly-rising, outward-spiraling path, gaining altitude at a steady pace rather than the skyrocketing scramble he'd only halfway glimpsed from Ranma. His opponent could have as much as a thousand feet of altitude on him by now, but Mousse didn't let that bother him. He was the one with the ranged attacks, after all. If Ranma wanted to win this fight, he was going to have to do it just like the bird whose shape he wore — by diving out of the heavens to strike his prey with closed talons. What was more, Mousse knew very well that his rival would only attack with enough force to knock the fight out of him. The egotistical fool wouldn't even consider any other kind of victory; hell, he probably wouldn't even see it as victory at all if he couldn't gloat over his defeated, helpless adversary afterward. No, even though Ranma might physically be capable of stooping down with greater speed than Mousse could handle, he'd never do it. Such force as that would be lethal, since at this height even a simple knockout translated into eternal sleep. The only way for Ranma to win would be by wearing his rival down with quick, light blows.

That same restriction hardly applied to Mousse.

"~Where are you, Saotome?~" he quacked furiously, after five minutes had passed. It wasn't unusual for Ranma to let his opponent make the first move, but surely he wasn't trying that strategy now. "~Come on out and fight!~"

Almost before he had finished speaking, he sensed a shadow pass overhead. There was time for just a split second of triumph, as the awareness hadn't come from his human mind. No, it was the instincts of the body he wore that had sensed the predator, the insights that were normally buried too deep for a cursed victim to reach. All that time spent meditating to gain access to them had paid off.

No sooner had that thought entered his mind than it exited again, hustled out by a warning from a different sense — the whistling sound of an object descending rapidly through the air. It was still far enough away that Mousse had time to spin in a very quick loop-the-loop, catching a blurred glimpse of an incoming darkish roundish blob.

Just as he'd thought, it was moving much slower than would be the case if Ranma had dived from a thousand feet higher. Mousse would even have had time to come out of his loop and dodge, except that would be pointless against his far more maneuverable foe. No, it was time to once again prove a couple of old sayings: "The best defense is a good offense", and "Obstacles are for killing".

He waited one second longer, to let Ranma pass the point of no return, then twisted for another loop-the-loop. However, this time he sprouted thirty different knives, each of them light as a feather and sharp as a razor, and all of them tied to strings which still extended back into the depths of his Hidden Weapons storage space. With a scream that would have sounded much more impressive out of a different species of throat, Mousse spun like a buzz saw, whipping the blades through the air to lacerate his incoming enemy.

The water balloon shattered most satisfactorily, at least from Ranma's perspective.

"~What—?~" Mousse didn't even have time to complete the exclamation before he felt the familiar shifting of a Jusenkyo change crawl over him. Absolute panic skated through his mind. He was already too high up in the sky to live through a fall! So that was Saotome's plan — splash him with Instant Gerbil water or something, knowing that the only way Mousse could survive was by letting the bastard catch him and carry him safely to the ground! For a moment the panic was displaced by seething regret that he hadn't realized ahead of time how far Ranma would really sink for his kind of victory.

Panic quickly surged its way to the forefront once more, as his flight was transformed into freefall. And with that panic came mindless, instinctive response, as Mousse spread his wings once more and regained control of his flight.

'<What the hell?>' he thought, barely managing that much coherence. Wings? Flight? Hadn't he lost both of them just a second ago?

"~Yo, Mousse!~" Ranma's call broke through the worst of his confusion, though the fact that he'd actually understood it threatened to push his mind back into the chaotic abyss. "~You about ready to do this for real?~"

"~What have you done to me, Saotome?!~"

Ranma rolled his eyes and shook his head, despite the fact that it was probably the biggest wasted gesture of his life. "~Ain't it obvious? I just hit you with a balloon full of Instant Falcon water. Hey, by the way, thanks for leaving the crate full of powders just sitting out in the bathroom like that.~"

He paused, staring down and to the left across the hundred feet that separated him from Mousse, studying the black-and-white mottled bird (and noting, with some satisfaction, that here at last was someone whose cursed falcon form wasn't larger than his). The other boy had leveled off quickly into smooth flight, but that didn't seem to be the case any longer. Mousse wasn't exactly struggling to stay in the air, but nobody with Ranma's experience would have categorized his flight now as smooth or skilled. "~Hey, you okay?~"

For a long, long moment Mousse didn't say anything in reply… and then, just as Ranma was about to risk flying closer and asking again, the Chinese boy erupted into nearly the worst spate of profanity Ranma had ever heard. The only worse time had been when he was six years old, watching Genma take on all those dockworkers in a really impressive barroom brawl. The moves his father had used weren't even close to being the most educational part of that experience, he remembered, enjoying the nostalgic memories as the worst of Mousse's fury spent itself.

"~Don't hold back or nothing, Mousse!~" he called as the neo-falcon paused for breath. "~Tell me how you really feel!~" This time he was distracted from Mousse's reply by a different odd sense of familiarity. It took a minute to realize that he'd used similar words awhile back with Shampoo, after she got done telling him just what she thought of him focusing too much on Akane when he was spending time with her. He remembered as well that the lambasting she'd given him then, although not even registering on the same scale as the one Mousse was giving now, had hit far harder. 'I wonder if I'd started falling for her even that far back. Hard to say,' he mused. He knew he still had a long, long way to go before he could really master all this emotional stuff, and certainly back then his skills with it had been even less polished.

"~How can you do it, Saotome?! How can you keep on surprising me with how much lower and lower you manage to sink?!~" Mousse might have run out of epithets, but he had by no means exhausted his vitriol. "~I spent three damn weeks training to use that body for midair fighting, three weeks pushing myself to the limit to master every attack and technique I thought up while I was stuck in that pool! I nearly worked my wings off, getting ready to take you down even in a body like that, and you just… just… just take it all away without even thinking about it for a second!~"

"~Well, boo-freaking-hoo,~" Ranma shot back. "~I might be feeling a little guiltier if you didn't say you spent all the time you were gone in the Spring of Drowned Carp, rather than just some of it.~"

"~I never actually said that,~" Mousse spat, altering his flight to approach closer to the sound of Ranma's voice. "~I just let you think it.~"

"~Oh, that's a real good comeback,~" Ranma observed. "~You think maybe you might have missed my point there?~"

"~Just like you missed mine, that you're an honorless, thoughtless slimeball who couldn't care less about how hard anyone else has to work? Damn you, did you even stop to think what else this kind of change means to me? I can't use my regular glasses when I'm a duck, you know that — and the same thing goes here!~" Mousse gestured angrily with one wing-tip toward the oversized glasses barely resting on his beak. The same trick that worked to keep them in place when he was a duck — keeping the very ends of the earpieces stuck within his personal weaponspace — served here, but that didn't really qualify as good news. "~I can barely see anything at all through these!~"

"~So ditch them and put on one of the pairs you made for this body,~" Ranma suggested.

"~And what pairs would those be?~" Mousse asked bitterly.

As the implications struck him, Ranma sighed as loudly as he could, and even spared a tiny Wind Strike to hopefully carry the disgusted sound all the way to Mousse. "~Let me guess. Even though you came back planning to spend time as a falcon, you didn't bother making that particular preparation.~" He didn't bother to wait for confirmation. "~You know, Mousse, I have never even come close to being your worst enemy. You've got that title nailed down so hard, nobody's ever going to take it away.~"

"~Shut up!~" Mousse yelled, sending a flight of knives winging toward Ranma's voice.

The Saotome heir dodged the volley with no real difficulty. Unlike the last time Mousse had tried this attack, Ranma was close enough to notice that the knives were still tied to his Amazon adversary. "~Not a bad trick, Mousse,~" he called out. "~But you didn't even come close.~"

"~Is that supposed to surprise me?~" Mousse asked, this question even more bitter than the last. A quick but clumsy spin allowed him to bring the knives back along their anchor lines, vanishing into his feathers as if they had never been. "~You took away the body I spent all my time practicing in, the instincts it would have given me to sense natural predators, and even stole what little sight I would have had!~"

"~Yeah, and while you're at it go ahead and blame me for not being a mind reader!~" Ranma sighed and absently dodged another volley from Mousse. The physical side of this battle was proving even easier than he'd expected. Of course, that wasn't the real victory he was shooting for here; if he were, he would have already knocked Mousse out of the sky with the Wind Strike.

"~You don't honestly expect me to believe you'd have done anything different if you'd known all this!~" Mousse countered, launching yet another flight of knives. Ranma didn't even need to dodge this one. "~Hell, you probably did! You probably went after Shampoo yourself last night, and saw me flying along as blind as a bat! You probably already knew that these things are worse than useless for me in this body!~"

Ranma frowned. "~Worse than useless? Then why the heck are you still wearing them?~"

"~For Shampoo!~" the Chinese boy yelled. "~I was a stubborn, prideful idiot for way too long, refusing to wear them because I wanted to look good for her! I didn't even let myself realize that she just thought that was stupid, not brave. Well, I'm not going to be that stupid any more; I wore them all last night, and I'll wear them now and fight like this! No matter how many cheap shots you take against me, Saotome!~"

"~Why would I need to take any? You're already doing such a good job of landing them on yourself.~" Ranma sighed. "~Seriously, man, listen to what you're saying. Wearing those things is actually handicapping you, but you're doing it anyway 'for Shampoo'? That's no different from what you were doing before, when you didn't wear them. For Shampoo.~" He packed as much sarcasm into those last two words as he could.

Mousse trembled in rage, but couldn't deny that there was some sense to Ranma's words — a fact which made them all the more bitter. He turned the thought over and over in his head, under the cover of another wildly inaccurate attack. A few more of those, especially combined with a few more minutes of ultimately pointless talk, and his enemy's underestimation of him ought to reach critical mass…

But even if he could catch Ranma completely off-guard, a quiet voice whispered from the back of his mind, it would still be very helpful if he could see. It had been almost a miracle that he found his way back to the restaurant the previous night. Even a little visual improvement could mean the difference between success and failure. And he would never know until he tried.

Ranma tried and failed to smile as he saw Mousse give a flick of his head, his glasses sliding up and vanishing as he did so. It was a tiny, nearly invisible pinprick of reasonableness, but at this moment he'd take what he could get. He banked to the left and opened up a little more distance to his Amazon adversary. He might want Mousse to gain a better chance by losing the spectacles, but that only went so far. He wasn't about to give the boy too good a shot at him.

Once the maneuver was accomplished, he refocused on Mousse. The faux falcon hadn't responded to his sideslip at all; he was still flying straight along on the same course he'd been on. In fact, to Ranma's eye it looked like Mousse was once again flying solely along on autopilot, with his conscious mind tied up on other concerns. "~Hey, Mousse! Did that help you any?~" he called.

Mousse declined to answer. Ranma called again, and again, and yet again, becoming more puzzled with each cry. Even the shock of getting his cursed body switched for another hadn't hit him this hard. On the other hand, Ranma supposed there was at least a vague possibility that Mousse was faking this entirely, trying to lure him in closer before acknowledging his presence once more.

Deciding not to risk it, Ranma turned and dived. If Mousse really was pretending, he ought to abandon the pose now. That didn't happen, though; the black-and-white bird just kept sailing smoothly along as Ranma made his way into the top of the nearest tree, pulled loose a few twigs, carried them with him back into the air, and dropped them from seventy-five feet above Mousse. Judicious use of the Wind Strike kept them on course as they tumbled through the air to impact on Mousse's head, just hard enough to get his attention. "~What? Where?~" Mousse exclaimed, finally coming out of his fugue and whipping his head around. "~Was that you, Saotome?"

"~Yes,~" Ranma confirmed, giving up enough altitude to come nearly level with Mousse again. "~So I'm guessing that losing the glasses helped you? Probably even more than you were expecting?~" That was about the only thing he could think of, that could explain why Mousse had been so shell-shocked by the experiment. "~You don't have to thank me or anything,~" he continued modestly. "~It's not like I knew that would happen.~"

"~Still, I think I should give you something, to show my appreciation,~" Mousse replied, his voice quickly regaining the kind of tone Ranma was used to. He flapped furiously, gaining fifty feet of altitude, then sent forth another volley of knives.

Once again Ranma dodged without difficulty. This one had been better aimed than before, but as it was launched from farther away he had more time to evade. It more than evened out. Still, he decided, it might be better to keep the fight at this distance, rather than trying to get much closer. "~Nice try!~" he called back by way of 'encouragement'.

"~I thought so,~" Mousse replied, the smirk that his face couldn't form escaping through his tone.

Ranma frowned, and started to say something… then snapped his beak shut as his senses screamed a warning. Something was falling through the air above him — and not just one thing, he realized an instant later, but a broad spread of projectiles! Mousse must have thrown them while he was focused on dodging the first attack!

Well, if Duck Boy could do something his foe didn't expect, so could Ranma Saotome. He twisted ninety degrees in midair, called up a powerful Wind Strike, and rode it in a vertical rush. From this head-on perspective he was able to see the incoming objects, which were rounded masses about the size of his head and covered with spiky protrusions. No doubt one would hurt like crazy if it landed on his cranium, Ranma thought. Too bad for Mousse that wasn't going to happen. A second Wind Strike blew aside the ones that were close enough to hit him, as the first carried him up into the cloud of missiles and on toward clearer skies.

Mousse certainly had not been expecting Ranma to try avoiding the attack by flying straight into it, but this time he managed not to let surprise slow him down. He'd prepared for this moment, trained long and hard to be ready. Unfortunately, he'd been in a different body when he did that training, and this cost him a precious fraction of a second. Ranma was already slightly past the worst of the danger when he pulled out the detonator and pressed the big red button.

The bombs still stored in Mousse's weapons space were unaffected. The ones sharing airspace with Ranma exploded, rending the air with their fury.

They came very close to doing the same to Ranma. Luck alone saved him — luck that Mousse had been slower on the trigger than he'd intended, and luck that Mousse had intended to hold their fight in full view of everyone. For a normal fight, it was true that the Chinese boy didn't worry too much about spectators — if they chose to get dangerously close because they wanted to watch, that was their concern — but for a midair battle he hadn't needed Ranma to tell him that his usual attacks would simply cause too much collateral damage. Hence all the practicing he had done with knives that never escaped his reach, and hence the spectator-friendly nature of these bombs. Their shell was actually paper rather than metal, ceramic, or plastic, which meant that while the explosions released a powerful concussive blast, no actual shrapnel was involved.

The force involved was quite punishing enough. Ranma went from a smooth near-vertical climb to an out-of-control tailspin in the blink of an eye. He never was quite sure, afterward, whether he might not have been knocked unconscious for the briefest of moments. Certainly there was a gut-wrenchingly long moment when he had no idea where he was, who he was, or which way was up.

The rush of wind around him and the panic screaming in his skull were enough to bypass his floundering conscious mind and kick-start two sets of instincts: the old, familiar ones that had brought him victorious through so many fights, and the two-month-old ones honed over countless airborne hours. And so, despite the ache and shock that still weighed him down, Ranma spun and dived, flying away from Mousse without even really realizing that was what he was doing.

"~Not this time, damn you!~" Mousse screamed, wheeling in hot pursuit. "~I've fought too hard, too long, and I'm not going to lose this time!~" Ranma's far greater proficiency in the air was offset by the lingering effect of the bombs, and the Chinese boy was slowly able to narrow the gap between them. "~I've suffered long enough!~" he yelled as he closed within knife-on-a-wire distance. Instead of throwing a wide volley, which would have required him to slow down, he launched just one… but that one was perfectly targeted to strike his enemy directly between the wings.

Ranma chose that very instant to sideslip and veer away at a ninety-degree angle, his instincts saving his feathered butt. Mousse bit off a curse and followed quickly after him, releasing the tie on the knife out of his Hidden Weapons space rather than bother pulling it back. Perhaps he ought to thank Ranma for insisting they have this fight over empty forest, suggested the one corner of his mind not totally focused on catching and finally putting an end to his adversary. That corner then had a good laugh at the suggestion.

However, there was one thing he did want to say thanks for, he realized as he continued to gain on his foe. Ranma's course now was a wildly twisting corkscrew of jinks and spins, and under other circumstances Mousse wouldn't even have had a prayer of keeping up. "~I really am in your debt, Ranma!~" he called out as he launched another knife, once again not bothering to keep it tethered to him. It missed as well, but only by an inch. "~You didn't realize any more than I did that this was one of the curses that has a secondary effect to the magic! If you did, there's no way in hell you would have tried this!~"

"~What're you talking about?!~" Ranma yelled back, having finally recovered at least enough for speech. His whole body was still aching, though. He imagined he could feel the pain even in his feathers, and hear the subtle creaks of bone pushed farther than was really wise or good.

"~Think about that punk Taro!~" Mousse retorted, launching two knives in rapid succession, hoping that if Ranma dodged one he might fly right into the path of the other. It wasn't really surprising when he didn't, Mousse supposed, making a mental note of which direction Ranma did dodge. "~Think about how small his wings are and how huge and heavy that monster's body is! He couldn't possibly fly naturally. It's the magic of the curse that lets him do it!~"

"~And the curse I gave you is helping you out somehow?~" Ranma shot back desperately. "~Doing something for you it doesn't for me?!~"

"~More or less. I can see! I can see perfectly!!~" Mousse exulted. Then his eyes narrowed. "~I can even make out the fact that you're starting to fly a lot more smoothly and easily than you were. Starting to get your second wind, maybe? Not feeling those bombs so much any more? Here — have a second helping!~" Despite his words, though, he didn't immediately throw another cloud of incendiaries. Instead, he waited just for a moment, to see which direction Ranma would take as he turned to evade the attack that wasn't even coming yet. Then, and only then, did he launch another carpet bombing, a larger one this time since he didn't have to worry about sneaking the attack off in the one second Ranma was focused on something else.

"~Saotome Airborne Anything Goes Desperation Attack! JET STREAM!~" That was the meaning Jusenkyo's translation effect carried to Mousse from the split-second squawk that Ranma gave. Almost before that meaning had registered Mousse uttered a squawk of his own, although this one would be much pithier in translation: "~What the HELL?!~"

There was no-one to hear it, though, or at least no-one to understand it. Ranma was already well out of earshot, having blazed away at speeds that left Mousse doubting his magically-enhanced eyesight.

'<There's no way he could do that!>' Mousse protested, trying by sheer force of disbelieving will to deny the evidence of his senses. The only possible way Ranma could have gotten a speed boost like that was if he had somehow mastered Hidden Weapons over Mousse's nine-week absence and pulled out an emergency jetpack just now. But that would have left a contrail as evidence, and there was nothing of the sort to be seen… just empty air where the blue-and-black bird had been, only just now receiving the rain of explosives that should have finished him off for good. The bombs continued until they'd flown far enough to activate their fail-safes, at which point they exploded to no effect at all.

Mousse barely even noticed; he was too busy gaping in shock. He spent several moments longer doing so. Then he remembered one crucial thing: Ranma might have vanished from his sight, but that didn't mean he wasn't doubling back to try a sneak attack. Mousse was still reasonably confident that something like that was the only way his foe could manage to scrape a win, which meant that he needed to prevent it at all costs.

He spun through a series of revolutions, scanning every inch of the air above, around, and below him. No sign of Ranma yet, but he could feel it in his bones… his enemy was out there, biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike… Realizing that he'd come dangerously close to the treetops, Mousse soared higher. He stopped when he was satisfied that he was far enough from both the trees below and the clouds above that Ranma couldn't use either to get close enough to surprise him. He couldn't quite decide which one was more likely. Conventional thought would indicate that Ranma would rather attack from above, but he hadn't forgotten how quickly his foe had climbed, during that moment when the louse had almost managed to win past the first bombing run. An attack from below would be just as devastating, if he didn't see it coming in time to respond.

A minute passed, then two, then five. The passage of time brought no sign of Ranma, but it did raise Mousse's levels of anger and frustration higher and higher. By now his enemy had probably recovered from the earlier bombing, and it was going to be difficult to catch him in another. He still had two tricks he'd prepared for this battle that Ranma hadn't yet seen, but he didn't think either one was going to do him any good. The modified stench solution Bi Xinin had been kind enough to give him, that would only affect falcons, was worse than useless now. Another curse to lay at Saotome's feet, er, talons. And smoke that would fill the sky and blind anything might give him a slight advantage, but he doubted he'd have a chance to capitalize on it if Saotome could really flee at such unbelievable speeds.

"~Damn you, Ranma!~" he yelled as loudly as he could, hoping to draw forth his adversary. "~You're not getting away!~"

"~Man, I can't believe I got away,~" Ranma muttered, staring down at the clouds far below him. At this height all he could see was their fluffy, peaceful surface, shining so brightly white in the afternoon sun. That same sunlight was warm and comforting on his battered body, helping him ignore the slowly-fading aches that use of his new technique had spawned. "~Sure wish I'd had a chance to test that thing out before it was a matter of life and death.~" Surrounding himself with the strongest, most coherent Wind Strike he could manage and letting it rocket him away had saved his hide, but the pounding he'd taken had been almost as unpleasant as the first brush with Mousse's bombs. Still, it would undoubtedly have been much worse to stay put and take the latest attack head-on.

"~This was supposed to be so easy,~" he muttered disgustedly. "~I was going to go in, transform him so he could understand me, keep my distance, use the Wind Strike to knock his weapons aside if I had to, and finally get through to that moron about the stuff he won't let himself see. It was supposed to be just like my last fight with Ryoga, except without all the screw-ups on my part. I got someone as stubborn as him to see that there were things he was doing wrong, things that needed to change; how hard could it be to learn from that and do it with Mousse too, even better than before? After all, he's nowhere near as bad as Ryoga… right?~"

The final sentence had been meant to be a positive declaration of fact. Ranma wasn't sure why it had twisted, seemingly of its own accord, into a question at the last. Surely Mousse wasn't as stubborn and clueless as Ryoga had been, was he? After all, in the conflicts with the Lost Boy Akane had only been one point of contention, rather than the be-all and end-all of their rivalry. But with Mousse, every time he'd caused trouble for Ranma, every time he'd pulled some dishonorable trick, it had always been about getting Shampoo for himself…

He'd never really stopped to consider that, come to think of it… funny how the thought suddenly seemed to trigger a slow burn in the pit of his gut…

'This is NOT the time to pull an Akane!' Ranma thought, shaking free of the growing anger as best he could. In point of fact, he wasn't sure that was a fair statement anyway — he didn't think it was jealousy he was feeling, because whatever he might want to share with Shampoo it wasn't like Mousse was standing in his way. Not in any kind of romantic rivalry sense, at least. No, he had to remember what he'd discussed with Cologne, what he'd wanted to finally get through Mousse's thick skull: that Shampoo didn't love him, didn't want him, for damn sure didn't need him interfering in her relationship with Ranma Saotome. No matter how much he loved her, or thought he did, it didn't change those truths, didn't make it okay to keep pursuing her after thirteen years of hearing her say 'no'… didn't begin to excuse him grabbing at any chance that he thought might help him, no matter the cost to anyone else… didn't remotely give him the right to do whatever he damn well pleased if only it might eliminate some other, better choice for Shampoo…

"~WHERE ARE YOU, SAOTOME?! YOU MISERABLE COWARD, COME OUT AND FIGHT LIKE A MAN!!~" Despite the cracked fury with which Mousse screamed the words, on the inside he was cold, calm, and calculating. The insults alone might be enough to lure Ranma out of hiding, but combine insults with the ruse of being on the brink of losing all control, and that would make an even stronger lure.

He paused for a few seconds, breathing deeply and giving his throat a chance to recover from the strain of prolonged screeching, while he worked on the next taunt. Maybe something along the lines of Shampoo watching the fight through binoculars and finally seeing how pitiful and pathetic he really was…

"~You sure you want that, Mousse?~" The call was so distant he almost didn't hear it at all. Only the magic of the Jusenkyo translation effect let him understand it as clearly as if it had been whispered into his ear. "~Sure you want me to fight like a man, not a falcon?~"

There was a burning anger to Ranma's tone that Mousse couldn't remember ever hearing before. In that moment, though, the fact that he'd pushed his foe to such an extent merely fed his feeling of cold triumph. Swallowing one last time to prepare his throat for another bout of wild screaming, Mousse let loose once more with his best 'bird on the edge' impression. "~I WANT YOU TO JUST ONCE FIGHT ME WITH HONOR AND DECENCY, SO I CAN FINALLY SHOW SHAMPOO WHO THE REAL MAN IS HERE!!~"

"~Sounds good to me.~" Ranma's words drifted down to him with even more venom than before.

Once again, Mousse discounted such irrelevant details. "~I see you,~" he whispered, catching sight of Ranma up and to his left as he dipped down out of the clouds. The distance between them was too great for any of Mousse's attacks to cross, not when it was Ranma who had the altitude advantage. Resolving to correct that problem, Mousse slid into a nearby rising current and flapped as hard as he could to boost his progress.

The thermal vanished beneath him in a way that felt decidedly odd. Unnatural, even. Mousse wasn't given much time to ponder this, though, as a new, stronger wind swept down out of the blue and sent him tumbling beak-over-tailfeathers through the sky.

After a few horrible seconds that wind vanished as well… only to be replaced by an even stronger one, sweeping in from his flank with force that nearly slammed his wings together behind his back. Then another, and another… each wind blasting him from a different direction as the previous one vanished, each hitting harder and lasting less time, until the gusts felt like actual hammer-blows directly from the sky.

They stopped before they could knock him unconscious or strip feathers from his wings. That and the fact that he remained — barely — capable of flight were the only bright spots. The bizarre nature of the onslaught made it seem worse than any beating he'd ever taken before, even the ones that had left him injured worse… and of course the hostile environment meant the stakes were far more dire. The avian Amazon sensed muzzily that even another thirty seconds of… of… whatever the hell that had been would finish him off. It was taking everything he could muster to maintain a shaking, faltering glide.

"~There you go, Mousse. That's me, fighting like a man.~"

The words had come from nearby, easily within striking distance, but Mousse simply couldn't find the strength to do so. Even throwing a single blade was beyond him just now. Hoping to buy time to recover, and still praying that he might get Ranma to underestimate him one last, crucial time, he choked out, "~What… what was…?~"

"~The Wind Strike. Second-least powerful technique of the Air style,~" Ranma said curtly. "~Just another part of three thousand years of Amazon history. Except this part fits really, really well with Shampoo's and my curses, so her granny made the call to teach it to her, and she decided to pass it on to me.~"

"~Damn you,~" Mousse breathed, closing his eyes and trying not to weep. It was still happening… Ranma was still just taking whatever he wanted that should never, ever have been his… should have been Mousse's all along…

He didn't even realize he was muttering those words out loud, at least not until Ranma yelled, "~Shut up and listen to me!~" The Japanese boy punctuated the remarks with a punch of air to his torso, strong enough to ensure that Mousse had to obey at least one of those commands.

"~Should have been yours? Taking something that belonged to you? Where the hell do you think you get off, Mousse?!~" Ranma roared. "~Is this what you think love is supposed to be? I know good and damn well that I'm not the guy with all the answers here, but I can tell you one thing about love. It means you care more about what whoever you love wants, than what you do! You don't just sit back and expect them to do everything your way, give you what you want because you wanting it somehow makes you think you deserve it!~"

"~H- how dare you… how dare you say that to me…~" Mousse was barely able to get the words out through the ache in his chest, but he could no more have stopped them than halted his own heartbeat. "~After… all the times you've mistreated her…~"

"~How can I? Simple,~" Ranma said remorselessly. "~Because I'm not using myself as the example here. No way in the world am I the mark you've had to look at and see you weren't measuring up to.~"

"~I'm glad that's not what you're saying. With as much damage as I'd taken, I'd probably die laughing if you tried,~" Mousse shot back. All hope of winning this fight had ended when Ranma struck him with that last attack. If his foe wasn't above hitting him when he was this weak, then he wasn't going to give Mousse a chance to recover his fighting strength. "~I concede the damn match already. Go fly back to your father, and the old ghoul, and Sh-Shampoo. I'm sure at least two of them will be happy to cheer for you pulling out another unfair, undeserved win.~"

"~You know what? There's so many things wrong with that last sentence that I wouldn't even know where to start with it, if I cared about setting you straight from all your delusions. But I guess we're both lucky, Mousse. I'm not taking on such a crazy big challenge,~" Ranma said, his eyes narrowing. "~I'm only going to break through one of your blind spots today.~"

"~Leave me alone, Saotome! I already said, I concede the damn fight!~"

"~So who's still attacking? I'm just talking now. It's not my fault that hearing this is going to hurt you worse than punches or kicks.~" Realizing that he was circling around the point when he should at least be getting closer to it, Ranma continued, "~You can say what you like about me, kid yourself all you want about how evil and horrible and wrong for Shampoo I am. You'd be wrong, but I don't really care about that.~" 'For now, anyway.' "~But it's years and years past the point where you needed to see that you're no better!~"

"~How the hell can you say that?!~"

"~How the hell can I not? The old ghoul said you've been chasing after Shampoo since you were three years old! Out of all that time, how many times has she told you she doesn't love you, doesn't want you, and damn well isn't going to change her mind?~"

"~What if she does say stuff like that? Actions speak louder than words, Saotome! And Shampoo has showed that she does at least care about me. I just need a little more time, to prove to her how good I truly am, and she'll be able to show it for real!~"

"~Listen to yourself, for crying out loud! Since when does Shampoo, of all people, not show what she really feels? How can you know her so long and keep lying to yourself like this? We're talking about the same girl who fell for me so hard and so fast that after less than a week she couldn't manage to hurt me, even when she thought I really was the girl who'd shamed her!~" Ranma spoke the words louder and louder, overriding Mousse's protests and cries for silence. He already knew Duck Boy didn't want to hear this, and that was just too freakin' bad. "~And if that's not enough, then bite the damn bullet and remember Mao Moulin. Only a kiss from the guy she loved would save her, and you just about gave it your all to keep that from happening!~"

"~SHUT UP!~" Mousse screamed, finding somewhere the strength to pull off a quick 'barrel roll and thrown blade' combo.

"~NOT THIS TIME!~" Ranma roared back, knocking the knife aside with the Wind Strike. "~She loves me, Mousse! Me, and not you! And right now I don't give a crap how painful that is for you to admit! You're going to do it right here and now. As Kami-Sama is my witness I'll keep you up here as long as it takes!~" He called forth another Wind Strike, this one much less punishing than the blasts that had buffeted Mousse, but just as relentless in carrying him along. The wind bore the both of them higher and higher, Ranma ignoring Mousse's curses and demands to be let go.

He stopped just before the point where the air became noticeably thin. The flight up had given him time to reign in his temper, even as Mousse's anger and desperation had risen higher and higher. "~It's time to let this go, man,~" Ranma said coldly. "~I'm not even telling you anything you don't already know. I haven't forgotten that one time when first you said you were going back to China to get on with your life, and later you said you were going to make sure I made Shampoo happy. That was all fine and noble-sounding, but your first priority all through that time was to look for something, anything that would hint she might wish you hadn't left. You never found anything, did you?~"

"~What the hell would you know about any of that?!~" Mousse demanded. "~Who told you? The shriveled old hag who'd rather die than let Shampoo make her own future?!~"

"~And out comes that excuse again. 'She doesn't really want you, you jerk, it's all her mean old grandmother!'~" Ranma sighed. "~Tell you what, Mousse. Let's make a bet. If I can give you one example of Shampoo loving me and wanting me when it absolutely wasn't Cologne pushing her into it, you finally put this bull behind you and admit the truth. Deep down inside I know you know it already.~"

"~And what happens when you can't do that?~" Mousse countered, squelching the little voice that told him to just say no, don't listen, don't give the other boy any kind of opening to work with.

"~Since it's not going to happen, I don't much care. Heck, I'm willing to say I'd fly back down there and tell everyone you won the fight.~" Ranma snorted. "~Might as well have a big fat lie for my forfeit, to balance out how yours is to finally face the truth.~"

"~You're on!~" Mousse shouted with all the lungpower he had left, trying by sheer force of volume to drown out the voice from before. It was louder now, practically screaming at him to disengage, to pull into a dive, to get out of Ranma's sight before the scum could summon another wind and yank him back like a chained dog.

"~Good.~" Ranma paused for emphasis, then said, "~You already lost, Mousse. I brought it up before. Remember when she first came here? No great-grandmother to throw her weight around then. Nobody else to tell her what to do. No-one but Shampoo herself and what she honestly felt, when I lied to her and told her I was really a girl, really the girl who'd dishonored her. By your own laws, the ones you keep bitching about Cologne enforcing, she had a nice clear path then. She should've brought down the full force of Amazon vengeance on my pretty little red head.

"~And what did she do? She didn't kill me. She didn't tie me up and drag me back. She didn't say one word about slavery, or conscription, or judgment, or anything. Just looked at me with her eyes full of tears, and ran for it. My damned lie and her feelings for me stuck her with a curse she never, ever deserved, and after all that you go and pretend she doesn't really love me? Do you even respect her at all?!~"

"~Who told you?~" Mousse's pained whisper cut through Ranma's building tirade before it could really take off. "~You shouldn't have known anything about slavery, or judgment calls, or, or any of that. Who told you what the law really says?~"

"~Who do you think?~" Ranma asked. "~Shampoo, of course. You think she might want me to know I wouldn't really have to raise my kids to be killers if I went with her?~" He snorted. "~Oh, wait, I forgot. It's always got to be Cologne making those calls.~"

"~No,~" Mousse answered, so quietly that even with Jusenkyo's translation effect Ranma barely caught it. "~The mummy wouldn't have done that. Wouldn't have ignored that law. She would have just told you that you could avoid the issue by keeping Shampoo with you in Japan and letting your kids decide on their own whether they want to join the tribe.~"

"~Well, hot damn. Somehow, some way I managed to get through to you? At least a little?~"

Moving as slowly as if the gesture took all his remaining strength, Mousse craned his neck around to meet Ranma's gaze. If the Jusenkyo translation effect extended into the visible realm, Ranma would have lost the last of his anger from sensing the misery in his rival's eyes. Instead, it was Mousse's voice that did that. "~Why is it so hard to believe? You hit me over and over and over again. Anything will break if you pound it long and hard enough. And of course,~" he let out the bitterest laugh Ranma could ever remember hearing, "~Ranma Saotome doesn't lose.~"

Ranma steeled his soul against the accusation. "~Yeah, that's my rule. And I see you haven't forgotten everyone else's either: it's always Ranma's fault.~"

"~Without you I'd at least have a chance,~" Mousse replied, though the words were cold and choked with grief, not anger.

"~No. You wouldn't,~" Ranma said, pressing the point home despite his natural tendencies toward mercy. Cologne had told him that she'd tried that tactic for a very long time, and it had just given Mousse room to keep on deceiving himself. "~Thirteen years, man. I wasn't there to stand in your way. If you were going to be with her, it would've happened before I ever came into her life. It didn't. It's not going to. And you've got no room to blame me for any of it.~"

"~Fine. If you don't mind, I'll go someplace where you and Sh-Shampoo don't have to put up with my horrible, loathsome, worthless presence." And with that, Mousse folded his wings and twisted into a vertical dive, passing well outside of Wind Strike range before his rival could recover.

"~SHIT!~" Ranma squawked once he forced his way past the disbelief, entering into his own dive. Was Mousse really that far gone? Were his delusions so important to him that he'd rather die than live without them? Damn it all, if the Amazon really had been balanced on such a knife's edge, Cologne should have sensed it and warned him! Not given him extra material to use in finally smashing those illusions to dust!

He pushed those thoughts from his mind. He couldn't let Mousse end it all. Not now, not like this. Unfortunately, the other falcon had gained far too much of a head start for Ranma to catch up, at least by conventional means. Mousse was already vanishing into the clouds, with his wings still folded and sinking like the proverbial stone, as Ranma braced himself and invoked another Jet Stream.

This time, gravity was working for him, and his dive had already given him a fair bit of speed. Ranma shot down through the clouds as quickly as a cannonball, disengaging the technique the instant he saw green beneath him. He'd begun and ended the move so quickly that he didn't feel the effects until afterward. But when he did, it was all he could do to keep his focus on Mousse. The pain now was even worse than he'd felt after that first bomb blast, and only the fact that he'd braced himself for this pummeling allowed him to weather it better.

Worse, he could feel his reserves beginning to get dangerously low. Cologne had warned him just what overuse of these techniques could do, if he failed to respect his own limits. Both Jet Streams had been needed at the time, but they'd burned energy as greedily as one of those ugly oversized American cars. He couldn't pull off another of those without risking his life, and even the standard Wind Strike would be pushing his luck.

However, there wasn't much choice. And as far as luck went, at least his had been good enough that this Jet Stream had caught him almost completely up with Mousse. Ranma spared one last second to recover from the previous energy expenditure and to confirm that Mousse was still diving straight for the ground. Then, with grim determination he launched a one-two Wind Strike combination. The first smacked into Mousse from the side, breaking his flight out of absolute verticality and surprising him enough that he instinctively spread his wings. The second wind caught him under those wings, completing the task of pulling him into a level glide and out of his rendezvous with the reaper.

"~Damn you, Ranma! Can't you just leave me alone?!~" Mousse yelled, not even bothering to look around for his foe.

"~Shut the hell up!~" Ranma screamed back, trying to stoke his righteous anger high enough to overcome the bone-deep weariness spreading through his body. "~I can't believe you! Just because Shampoo really doesn't love you, that makes everything else in the world worth nothing? That makes your whole life horrible, loathsome, or worthless? Where the hell do you think you get off, pulling something like this?!~"

"~Pulling something like what?~" Now Mousse did crane his head around, so that he could at least have the satisfaction of glaring at his enemy. "~For your information, I was trying to get away from you as fast as I could, so you couldn't just grab me with another damn blast and yank me around any more!~"

"~O- Oh yeah?~" Ranma shot back, reminding himself that he couldn't afford to let Mousse trick him now. He didn't think he had another two Wind Strikes of that power level in him. "~Then what was up with saying all that stuff I quoted about yourself?~"

"~A little thing I like to call sarcasm,~" Mousse said, utilizing the quality in question. "~Guess even the great Ranma Saotome doesn't manage to see everything the way it really is.~"

"~Never claimed I did,~" Ranma shot back. "~For example, in the back of my mind I was thinking you'd be glad, even just a little, to know I'd push myself that hard to save your stupid neck.~"

"~Get real. I'm supposed to be grateful? It's just one more example of you not stopping until you've handed absolute, crushing defeat to whoever you're fighting. And let's not forget what it said about what you thought of me,~" Mousse said, anger finally managing to rise past bitterness as his dominant emotion. "~You think I'd shame my family like that? Break the hearts of the people who do love me, because there was one person who didn't? If you really do think I'm that pathetic and cowardly, then maybe the next time we fight it won't be about Shampoo at all!~"

"~That'll make a nice switch,~" Ranma muttered, not intending it to sound like he was agreeing with both halves of Mousse's sentence. But as good as the Jusenkyo translation effect was, it still couldn't fully prevent Saotome Foot-in-Mouth Syndrome.

"~You'll choke on those words some day,~" Mousse spat. "~But now, can I pretty, pretty please fly away somewhere I won't have to look at you anymore?~"

"~Yeah, fine, whatever. I'm not stopping you. Haven't been since you said you weren't trying to end it all.~" Ranma paused, wondering if there was anything else to say. His adversary probably ought to hear the honest concern that Cologne had for him, the hope she held that he could finally win free of the chains he'd borne for so long. But he didn't know whether he was the right person to tell Mousse that, and he really doubted that this was the right time.

In any case, the question was rendered academic. Mousse twisted and dove again, flying directly away from the clearing where they'd met for the battle. Musing that it was a good thing he hadn't been trying to win Mousse's admiration or friendship, Ranma turned and sailed back to the three people waiting for him, moving at a slow glide to avoid stressing his battered body any further.

She was the second of three to lower her pair of binoculars. She stayed perfectly still, even holding her breath, as he winged his way into the clearing. She remained motionless as a statue as he landed next to his hot water carafe.

Not until Ranma transformed, without bothering to signal for privacy, did Shampoo bolt forward and wrap her arms around him.

Even then she was careful not to squeeze too hard, nor turn the embrace into an offer of anything other than comfort. "Ai, Airen," she choked. "Is you okay? Really okay?"

"Yeah," he said, his voice so tired and weary that Shampoo wasn't as reassured as she might have been. "You know I ain't gonna let a jerk like Mousse finish me off."

"He, he come too-too close, it look like. Shampoo think heart stop when bombs blow up and Ranma go down." The Amazon took a deep breath, trying to regain more control. "Was all I could do not to go up into sky and deal with him own self."

"Thanks for not doing that," Ranma said, managing to say it without even a hint of sarcasm. After all, he'd been glad enough for her intervention in the battle with the deadly minstrel Mon Lon of the Seven Lucky Gods. "Thanks for leaving it up to me. Shampoo… I think I finally managed to get through to him. To get him to see you ain't gonna dump me for him, or go to him even if I wasn't in the picture."

She pulled back, just enough to stare directly into his eyes. "That why you do it like this? Why you change him from duck to falcon, why you not just use Wind Strike to win fight right away? So you could talk?"

"Uh, yeah. Cologne didn't tell you I was gonna do that?" he said with a frown. He'd been kind of happy to think that Shampoo would be cheering his efforts on, counting on him to achieve every aspect of victory — for her sake as well as his and Mousse's.

"No. All she say was, it would not be good idea for Shampoo to talk to Mousse, find out what trick he have plan, then warn you ahead of time."

Ranma's frown deepened. He wasn't sure he agreed at all with that assessment. He half-turned away from Shampoo, sending his glare toward the Matriarch.

Then he blinked. Cologne was staring back at him with a small, inscrutable smile. Her staff was extended up at a forty-five degree angle, with the widest bulges of the knobby end almost brushing against the front of his father's gi. The sight of a tiny, shriveled old lady trying to bar the way of a man as big and burly as Genma might have been humorous under other circumstances, but that thought didn't even cross Ranma's mind. 'I can't believe I forgot Pop was here, even as tired as I am and as quiet as he's being. And why's the old man looking so upset anyway? This is actually pretty mild for Shampoo.' Her hands were still on his shoulders, but that was the only point of contact between them just then. 'Jeez, if I hadn't already known which parent I inherited my hang-ups with getting close to girls from, I guess this would give me the answer. Wonder what he'd do if I actually kissed her right here and now.'

He gave serious thought to this for a moment, or as much serious thought as he could manage while riding the edge of exhaustion and doing his best to hide that fact. The effort of keeping so many things secret was beginning to wear on him. It might be nice to get some of it out into the open with his father. Genma would undoubtedly find ways to give him grief, but he'd only be able to do so when Nodoka wasn't around to catch him at it. The old man wouldn't dare throw too much of his weight around.

Ranma sighed, deciding that while the idea had some merit, it was probably too much too soon. He and Shampoo needed to have a serious talk, and maybe that ought to happen before any kissing. And he certainly didn't want to give his father a heart attack.

"Um… Ranma…" Shampoo said, hesitantly and oh so very reluctantly, "you should probably put on clothes again, before you father blow out aorta or something."

It took her words a moment to sink in. When they did, his system coughed up its last dreg of adrenaline. Ranma darted away and dressed with what was quite remarkable speed, under the circumstances.

"About time, Boy," Genma growled, ignoring the staff that still stretched in front of him.

"Back at ya, Pop," Ranma said, watching as Cologne withdrew her cane and wishing she'd offer it to him to lean on. "In fact, I'm still waiting on you. I just won the hardest battle I've had in months. Think you can spare a couple words to tell me you're glad I did?"

He'd really just meant it as typical verbal sparring of the kind he and Genma indulged in so often, and was quite surprised at the impact his words actually had. Genma flinched back, and the dark glower that he'd worn softened into something else. Ranma wasn't sure was it was, exactly… but somehow, seeing it made him feel a lot better inside.

He didn't have long to examine the expression, though, as his father sighed and hung his head. "Yes, Ranma. I am glad," the man said quietly. He was silent for a few moments. When he looked up, his face was mostly controlled again. "You shouldn't have come out of it this weak and weary, though," Genma pronounced. "Look at you! You're almost ready to fall on your face." He heaved an exaggerated sigh. "It's a good thing for you your wise and experienced father is here, to pick up your slack and give you a shoulder to lean on." And with that, Genma walked over and held out his hand.

If he'd expected Ranma to take it automatically, he was doomed to disappointment. Instead, his son stared into his eyes for a long, long moment. He received the distinct impression that Ranma was looking for something, piercing barriers that Genma wasn't sure he wanted pierced. Part of him urged the rest to look away, take the two more steps that would bring him close enough, and sling an arm around Ranma with or without the boy's cooperation.

He never was quite sure why he fought the impulse down.

The moment stretched, and stretched… and then Ranma gave a tiny nod, and grasped Genma's hand. Almost immediately he clarified, "I ain't saying anything about needing this, pop. But if you're offering, then I guess I'll accept. Thanks."

"Anytime, Son," Genma murmured as he took the brunt of Ranma's weight and began leading the way back toward civilization. Behind him he heard Shampoo and Cologne following a few paces behind. Hardly an optimal state of affairs in his opinion, but at least they weren't trying to push forward or intrude. And so, with some effort, Genma focused only on his son, pushing the Amazons out of mind for now.

He feared he'd indulged in that luxury too long already. But that was a thought for another day, when Ranma was strong enough to stand on his own two feet.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Not so much to say in the notes here, except that this chapter got so long that I had to yank several plot points from it. They will now form a side-story which will be the next thing I release.

One original series reference I've seen made dozens and dozens of times in fics is to a quote from Kasumi, referring to Akane: "She's a very sweet girl; she's just a violet maniac." This must be from either the manga or perhaps the original Japanese, because the anime quote is "She's a very sweet girl, just a little high-spirited." I bring this up here because this is the quote Ranma was thinking about, back at the beginning of this chapter.

Speaking of other fanfics, much of the values expressed by Ukyo in this chapter were influenced by her characterization in Eric Hallstrom's fic 'Family Values' (an excellent short piece). The Air style ability mentioned by Shampoo to clamp down on the air with your own aura and prevent your opponent from being able to breathe is inspired by Cologne's 'Gentle Stilling Breath' technique in Judah's fanfic 'Right Moments'.

Nothing much else to say, except that it truly is just a coincidence, when the gust of wind blows Genma off the train. Life is like that, in Nerima. ^_^

Thanks to Nemesis Zero, Beege, and Edward for C&C.

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