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A Ranma ½ 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 1: The Advent of Twilight

Ironically enough, it all began with a delivery of good news.

Nabiki paused on the threshold between the house and the yard, waiting for the chance to speak, and in the meantime enjoying the view. Ranma Saotome — future brother-in-law, continual source of interesting chaos, and all-around easy mark — was training. Some sort of speed-building exercise, unless Nabiki missed her guess… he had set up a reinforced, padded post in the middle of the yard, and was hitting it with quick, repetitive, low-power kicks.

Even as she watched, Ranma broke the rhythm of the attack, tensing just for a split second, and then lashing out so quickly his leg blurred. Nabiki frowned slightly, expecting the target to go flying and crash through the outer wall. Another unnecessary expense. Didn't these martial artists EVER think about practical things like that?

Whether Ranma had or hadn't must remain unknown. His flurry of kicks left the post still in place, if battered and leaning back at an angle, and himself putting all his weight on his other leg, gasping and panting for breath. And grinning. He'd only been working on this idea for a couple of days, and now, all by himself, he'd managed to achieve Amaguriken speed in something other than a punch. And in his natural, slower form to boot. 'Sure beats the old ghoul's training,' he thought smugly.

The sound of clapping hands drew him back to reality. Ranma turned to find Nabiki walking toward him, applauding and wearing a typical smirk. "Bravo, Saotome. Always nice to see you take one step further beyond what mere mortals can do."

"Hey, what can I say? There's a reason they call me the best," Ranma replied.

After spending a moment wondering idly who 'they' were, Nabiki said, "I was going to tell you something, but since you're in such a good mood, maybe I'd better not."

The sun chose that exact moment to hide behind a cloud, the fading of the light coinciding nicely with the dimming of Ranma's expression. He mumbled something along the lines of "shoulda seen it coming," then spoke a little louder. "Go on an' tell me, Nabiki. Whatever it is, I'd rather get it over with. Is Akane cookin' dinner tonight? Pop have a tussle with animal control again? Or maybe Kuno got another magic sword?"

"No, no, and no," Nabiki replied. She paused, enjoying the irony.

To Ranma, the cause of her hesitation seemed only too apparent. He sighed. "All right. How much?"

"I beg your pardon, Saotome?"

"How much yen you want for whatever bomb you're about to drop on me?"

Nabiki glanced over at the post that hadn't gone crashing through any of the Tendo property. "On the house, just this once."

Ranma paled. If Nabiki wasn't even trying to turn a profit on this, it could only mean… "That bad, huh?"

"Oh, for crying out loud, Ranma, you need to loosen up. You want to hear my news or not?"

"Yeah, I guess. Shoot."

Deciding to stretch the entertainment just a little more, Nabiki began creeping toward the point. "Have you noticed anything… different… these last couple of weeks?"

"Um, Ryoga hasn't been around?"

"He's typically gone for weeks at a time. Try again."

"Our fathers haven't come up with any stupid schemes to force me an' Akane together?"

Nabiki blinked. "Knew I'd been forgetting something." She held up a marriage license, which Ranma couldn't help but notice had had his signature and Akane's forged onto it, then struck a match and reduced it to ashes. "You can pay me for that later. That's not what I was talking about, anyway."

Ranma closed his eyes and massaged his temples, trying to fight off a burgeoning headache. "Would it be worth 200 yen for ya to just tell me outright?"

The middle Tendo nearly burst out laughing. He looked so pathetic. "Well, as much fun as this is, I do have other things to do this afternoon. Keep your pocket change, Saotome. It's Miss Kodachi Kuno, who hasn't been any trouble at all lately. Right?"

"Right," Ranma said warily. "You heard something about that?"

Nabiki nodded. "Seems her luck finally ran out. Kodachi's usual antics might not draw much attention here in Nerima, but the St Hebereke gymnastics team had a competition in greater Tokyo. Guess she never learned discretion is the better part of valor. I don't know what happened exactly, but it seems she's been placed in a mental hospital. So that's one less nutcase out of your hair and ours."

"B-but… that's… that's GOOD news!" Ranma protested.

"And why exactly are you protesting, Saotome?"

"You made it sound like you had something awful to tell me, and you didn't want to ruin my good mood!"

"Oh dear, Ranma, is that what you thought? I just meant that I was going to save the news for some time when you were feeling down, so that it would cheer you up."

A slow grin broke out on Ranma's face. "Well, heck, Nabiki, I guess you succeeded then.” He snorted. "Even if you had to manufacture my bad mood yourself."

"Always happy to be of service," Nabiki returned with a smirk.

Ranma's good mood lasted the rest of the day, and on into the next. In fact, he still had a smile on his face as he and Akane walked home from school the following afternoon.

"You seem happy about something," Akane finally commented.

"Took ya this long to notice? Jeez, you're unobservant." Before Akane's temper could flare, Ranma winked at her. "Just kidding. So Nabiki didn't tell you the good news?"

Akane hesitated on the edge of annoyance, but curiosity won out. "What good news?"

"Kodachi pulled some kinda stunt where she couldn't get away with it. She's been put in the loony bin. So no more sneak attacks, no more paralysis powder, no more laughter that'd give little kids nightmares!" With a satisfied grunt, Ranma leaped into the air, turning a somersault before landing on the fence. "You better believe I'm happy about that. Heck, if they manage to cure her, maybe when she gets out she'll throw her brother and father in to get fixed up too!"

"R-really?! Kodachi's… really gone?!" Akane said, shocked. And feeling more than a little off-balance, to have such a big change come so suddenly out of the blue.

"That's what Nabiki said. Maybe we oughta throw a party to celebrate or something." Ranma glanced down and behind him. “How come you're not smiling, Akane?" he asked, conveniently forgetting that his first reaction had been shock as well.

Akane frowned at him. He made it sound like there was something wrong with her. "For your information, I don't think it's very nice to celebrate somebody getting put in a mental hospital!"

"Jeez, that's a pretty stupid thing to say," Ranma replied with his usual measure of tact. "She needs it. I think it's a great thing to celebrate, that somebody's getting the help they need."

His fiancée's face flushed. "Ranma, you're such an insensitive jerk!"

"That don't change the fact that I'm right, though, now does it?" Ranma asked reasonably. His answer was a book bag to the face. He was knocked backward, barely managing to clamp the fence top between his feet and save himself from a tumble into the canal. "What was THAT for?!" he yelled once he'd recovered his balance.

Akane just gave an angry "Humph!", picked up her fallen book bag, and stalked away. Ranma followed after her at a discreet distance, rubbing the new bruise on his face and more than a little irritated, but with the good mood still present underneath it. It would take a lot more than Akane's usual temper tantrums to knock him out of that.

As it turned out, 'a lot more' was even that moment disembarking from a silver limousine outside the Tendo home.

When Akane came into view of the house some ten minutes later, she stopped and stared at the vehicle, pushing her annoyance at Ranma to the back of her mind. There were almost never any cars parked in front of her home. It usually only happened when certain city council members visited her father. Had she seen this one before? It looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn't be sure. There had been that period during her middle school years when Tatewaki had been chauffeured to school in a series of limousines, and Akane couldn't be certain that wasn't what was causing this sense of familiarity.

"Whose car is that?" Ranma asked, walking up next to her.

"I don't know. I was thinking it looked familiar. Have you seen it before?"

Ranma gave the car a long searching glance, before shrugging. "I dunno."

Akane snorted. "Honestly, why did I even ask? Do you ever think of anything other than martial arts and food?"

"Hey, that's not…" Ranma's voice trailed off as the combination of food and martial arts triggered a memory. "Oh, crap. No, no, no…"He was still muttering "no's" under his breath as he pushed past Akane and hurried into the house. She followed, nearly running into him as he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.

There were quite a number of people in the living room, including two figures that hadn't been seen for a long time. One was a short, portly man with incredibly large ears. He was seated back a little ways from everyone else, as if he were there more for silent support than to actually take part. Kasumi was there as well, her ever-cheerful smile an incongruous note among all the other expressions. Soun and Genma were also present; Akane's father seemed a little uncomfortable, but his main response to the visitors looked to be determined opposition. Genma was in panda form in one corner, playing inconspicuously with a tire. And the last occupant of the room…

"Hello, Ranma," Kaori Daikoku said calmly. "It's been a long time."

Only because he had been expecting this did Ranma recognize her. Her long brown hair, once straight, was now styled into curls. Previously he had only seen her wear an elaborate wedding kimono and her Martial Arts Takeout uniform. Here and now, she was dressed like an ordinary teenage girl, in a pleasant blouse and skirt combination.

Given the vibes Ranma was getting from this situation, she might as well have sported a set of combat fatigues.

"Kaori." He paused for a moment, as if to gather his strength, then asked, "Why're you here?"

"Because I made a mistake, a long time ago. I walked away when I shouldn't have." Kaori took a deep breath, steeling herself. Even for a determined, take-charge kind of girl like her, saying something like this so flatly was difficult. And she didn't suppose it was going to be all that easy for him, either, just having her reappear out of nowhere and immediately come out with this. Nevertheless, Kaori had thought long and hard, and had decided this was probably the best approach to take. Get the initial shock over with quickly, as when one jumps headlong into cold water. "You were promised to be my husband. My father and I are here now to see that promise made good."

Ranma gazed with disgust at the sweating panda in the corner, and didn't say anything. Akane spoke up. “Excuse me, but you lost the Martial Arts Takeout Race. You said you'd give up on Ranma if I beat you!"

Kaori shifted her gaze to Akane, who in spite of herself took a step backward. She’d never seen such a look of cold disgust and disdain. "I offered to stand aside because it looked like you had some feelings for Ranma. I already admitted I made a mistake. And I'm going to correct it."

"Young lady, the only 'mistake' was the one made by Genma, when he made that ridiculous agreement with your father! Akane is Ranma's rightful fiancée," Soun declared, for the third time since Kaori's arrival at his home. "You can't just walk in here and demand he leave with you!"

"I'm not demanding anything, Mr. Tendo. I'm offering."

"Offering?" Soun asked, confused. The panda in the corner pricked up its ears, misunderstanding where Kaori was going with this.

"Yes. Offering to Ranma an honorable way out of his situation here," Kaori returned flatly.

"That's ridiculous!" Soun blustered. "You make it sound as if he isn't happy to be here!"

Kaori shrugged. "Well, I suppose he could be… if he's a complete masochist." She turned to face her theoretical fiancé. "May I ask a personal question, Ranma?"

"Can't really stop you, I guess," Ranma grumbled uncharitably.

Kaori didn't seem phased by his attitude. After what she had recently learned, she had gone into this fully expecting to have her work cut out for her to earn his trust. "I notice there's a bruise on your face. Who gave it to you?"

A long moment of silence. Eventually Kaori ended it herself. “Was it the same person who usually hits you? Who punishes you whenever you do something she doesn't like?" She snapped her head around to face Akane again, though still supposedly speaking to Ranma. "Who once gave you a head injury that left you with amnesia?"

She looked away from the now-seething youngest Tendo, sweeping her gaze around the room. No one else tried to meet her eyes. "I guess that's answer enough. We'll be leaving now. Ranma, I'll see you in class tomorrow."

There was silence between Kaori and her father until they left the streets of Nerima behind them. At last, Tetsuro sighed and said, "It looks like you were right."

"Weren't you convinced before now, Father?"

"I had hoped it was mostly exaggeration. Most of what you heard came second- or thirdhand."

"But there was so much of it. You can't have that much smoke without some fire," Kaori said. "And the worst of it was from reliable sources."

"I'm still not too happy about how you broke into those offices to retrieve Ranma's medical records," her father protested weakly. Kaori gave him a glare, and he sighed in defeat. “I know, I know, with something this big the end justifies the means. But still…"

" 'But still' nothing! Ranma is my fiancé. I gave up before because I thought I didn't have a chance. You and I BOTH should have taken more time to check out the situation back then before we made any agreements. We would have saved ourselves dishonor and my fiancé a great deal of pain.

"And now that we know how things really are…" Kaori stared straight ahead, with determination burning in her eyes. "I won't give up again. And I most definitely will not lose."

The door to Ucchan's swung inward, and a familiar pigtailed figure trudged through.

It was still early afternoon, but the after-school rush had subsided by now. Only a handful of customers were present at the moment. Ranma made his way over and sat down at his usual seat in front of the grill. "Hey, Ucchan," he groaned.

"Hey yourself," Ukyo returned quietly, her usual welcoming smile missing as she gave her fiancé a good long look. No bruises, contusions, or lacerations to be seen (the one he'd received earlier had faded by now), but his expression and general demeanor made it clear that he wasn't feeling too happy. "Hard day?"

"Yeah," he replied. "Could I get a coupla house specials, please?"

"Coming right up." Ukyo turned to the grill and whipped out the requested okonomiyaki, passing each to Ranma as it was done.

Once he'd finished, Ranma sighed. "Thanks, Ucchan. Man, today started out so good, and then it went straight in the toilet."

This was hardly a surprise to Ukyo. It wasn't exactly uncommon, to have him come in here when the usual chaos had him feeling a bit down. "So what happened?"

Briefly Ranma wondered again whether this was such a good idea, telling Ukyo himself that another fiancée had appeared. He came to the same conclusion as before; she was going to find out anyway tomorrow, if Kaori really was going to be joining their class at Furinkan. Better he should explain this now, in a way that made sure Ukyo's anger would be focused on the right person. "Just another stupid mistake of Pop's."

Ukyo didn't say anything in response to this. After a minute Ranma resumed speaking. "Y'know, I was about five or six when he took me away from home for good, Ucchan. You an' I met not long after that. But before then, he took me on a lot of little trips, even one when I was still just a baby. And one day…"

He went on to tell the tale of Genma's 'deal' with Tetsuro Daikoku to marry him to Kaori, and the father-daughter duo's appearance a few months before Ukyo arrived in Nerima. How he'd used his girl form to keep Kaori from winning a Martial Arts Takeout race, which had forced them to leave Nerima again.

"Except now she's back," Ranma said glumly. "Came by the dojo and said she wasn't gonna give up this time. As if I needed any more junk like this in my life!"

"No, you've certainly got more than enough fiancées after you already, don't you, Ranchan?"

There was something a little odd about Ukyo's tone, but there was no way Ranma was going to catch subtle details like that in his current mood. "Yeah, you said it. Just when I was in a good mood about Kodachi getting out of the picture, too."

"So what're things like back at the Tendo place, now that this girl's showed up again?"

Ranma made the face of one who bites into a lemon in the dark, thinking it to be a tangerine. "Don't ask. Y'know, there's a reason I'm not there right now."

"You've really had a rough day, haven't you?" Ukyo turned back to the grill and began cooking another okonomiyaki, a jumbo-sized one with plenty of extra toppings. "Have another okonomiyaki."

"Thanks, Ucchan. You're the best," Ranma said.

Ukyo watched quietly as he ate. Once he'd finished, she spoke up. "You know, Ranchan, this Kaori person doesn't have to be a problem."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"I mean there's a real simple way you could get her to leave you alone. It wouldn't solve all your problems, but it'd help with some others too."

A note of wariness entering his voice, Ranma asked, "What's that?"

Ukyo stared him straight in the eyes. The fact that she hadn't smiled once during his visit finally registered in some dim corner of his mind. She took a deep breath, and said, "Choose. All you have to do is say which fiancée you want to be with. You make that choice and mean it, and the others will have to give up. Maybe not right that instant, but you show them you mean it, and they won't hang on forever."

Ranma massaged his forehead with both hands, politely hiding a grimace of weariness. "I kinda doubt it'd work out that smoothly, Ucchan. But guess maybe I should take some time and think about it." He got up. "Tendo's have probably cooled down enough for me to head back now. See ya in class tomorrow."

"Sit. Down."

The tone of absolute command had him back on his stool and blinking in shock. There was a long moment of near-silence, broken only by the hushed movements of Ukyo's remaining few customers as they slipped quietly out the door. One considerate regular flipped the sign from 'open' to 'closed' behind him.

"How many times, Ranma?" Ukyo said at last. "How many times have you come here, scarfed down a free meal while I listened to your troubles, and then, when you were feeling better, you headed on back to the Tendo dojo?"

She actually seemed to be waiting for an answer. Eventually Ranma said, "Wha—"

"Too damn many!" Ukyo interrupted. "Do you think I like this, Ranchan? You think this is fun for me, staying here, being there for you when you need me, and when you don't you go waltzing back to the people who hurt you in the first place?! The people who use you and dump on you and treat you like crap?!"

"It ain't like that!" Ranma protested.

"The HELL it's not!! You know what your problem is?! You grew up with Genma, so you think this junk is no big deal! Well, let me tell you, Ranma, everybody has their limits. Even you. You keep putting up with all the garbage in your life, and thinking it's no problem, you're a tough guy, a man among men, you can handle it. But sooner or later everything's going to blow up in your face. Nobody can keep going forever without getting support from other people!"

"I'm telling you it ain't like that!"

Ranma's outburst heralded another uncomfortable moment of silence, as Ukyo seemed to struggle with herself, trying to decide whether to say something or hold it back. The battle was short-lived.

"No, it really isn't, is it, Ranma? You do have some people who prop you up, tell you it's okay, that they care about you." Ukyo's words came quickly now, and harshly. "You come by and I do everything I can to make you feel better, hell, feel loved, and when you do, when you've dumped all your troubles on me, you go right back to that DAMN BITCH AKANE TENDO!!"

"That's ENOUGH, Ukyo!" Ranma yelled, but his outrage faltered and died in the face of Ukyo's fury.

"It is NOT enough! Do you know how tired I am of getting pushed into the background? Of giving and giving for you, while she takes and takes and TAKES?! Of watching, while you fight for her and she calls you a pervert, while you and EVERYBODY treat her like a precious little princess that can't ever be disappointed or not get her way? Do you know how much this hurts, Ranma?!

"You remember that swim meet last year? I'm a great swimmer. I wanted to represent our class. But then Akane, who CAN'T EVEN FLOAT, butts in, and I'm pushed completely out of the picture. You jump in and try to teach Her Majesty how to swim, and when she fails, you figure out a way for her to cheat her way to victory! And I just had to put on my cute face and pretend like it didn't matter.

"Well, it mattered, Ranma. It mattered a LOT!!"

Ukyo's anger ran out then, leaving her trembling and drawing ragged breaths." 'No man is an island.' I remember that from some English class. You've got people supporting you, but you almost never give back. There’s nobody there for me when I need someone. And I… I can't take it anymore."

She gulped. "Ranma… I… I l-love you." Even now, it was hard to say. "But I'm not going to throw my life away for nothing. I'm not going to keep being a free ear and a free meal to you unless we're on the same page. I want you to go now. And don't come back unti—" She stopped herself, then deliberately said, "unless you're ready to say our engagement is for real."

Ranma opened his mouth to protest, though he had no clue what he was going to say. "GO!" Ukyo cried, losing most of what remained of her composure. It was clear that the storm of tears was not far off.

He took the action that came naturally to a Saotome male, and fled.

The afternoon sun had nearly sunk below the horizon. What light remained was blood-red, and woven through with long shadows. The streets weren't far from empty; what few pedestrians were there, were mostly hurrying back to their houses and apartments, perhaps for a home-cooked meal and the comforts of light, warmth, and company, perhaps to shower and change clothes before leaving again for a dinner date.

This hour marked a short interval of peace for many places in Nerima. Take, for example, the various parks. In daylight there would be plenty of visitors to enjoy these oases of green in the middle of the concrete sprawl. During the later evening hours, numerous couples would come in search of different commodities, such as privacy and seclusion. But for now, the grounds were silent, except for the sound of the wind through leaves.

In all but one park, anyway.

In the fading light, a casual observer would have blinked hard and rubbed his eyes, unsure of how many people he was actually watching. In point of fact there was only one to be seen, a young man in black pants and a Chinese shirt the color of the sunset, with dark hair bound into a pigtail that was all but invisible in the gloom. The young man in question was dancing through the shadows, warding off blows and returning his own to opponents that existed only in his mind's eye. But so convincing were his motions that the hypothetical observer might almost have imagined he or she did see a procession of faceless figures dancing with the one artist of flesh and bone, now striking, now defending, but never with quite enough grace to match his.

Though he moved with such control and fluidity, one glance at Ranma's face would be enough to dispel any illusion of tranquility or joy. There was an unusually hard cast to his features; his mouth was set in a bitter grimace, and his eyes were suspiciously bright in the dimness. He'd been training for quite a long time. It had been enough to keep the thoughts at bay, at first, but they were sneaking back now to the front of his awareness.

'Guess I always knew this was comin' some day.' A spin kick deflected the blade of an opponent's bokken, and the follow-up punch struck the target squarely in its face. 'Same thing I've seen over and over.' Bending like a reed in the wind allowed a blow from a sai to pass harmlessly by him. 'I'm Ranma Saotome, after all.' An elbow struck the solar plexus of the foe behind him, who was off-balance from the failed sai-strike. 'I can get all the fiancées I want.' He launched into a fierce whirl of Amaguriken-speed kicks, demolishing the remaining attackers. Gasping and panting, Ranma came to a halt near a large tree. He leaned against it for a moment, then sank slowly down to sit on the ground with the trunk supporting his back. Finally, in a whisper, he completed the thought out loud: "Just not friends."

He closed his eyes and sat there, as the shades of night lengthened around him. What he should have said to Ukyo, what he would have liked to have said, what he never could have thought to say in the stress of the moment… all these things danced through his mind.

"You aren't bein' fair, Ucchan," he muttered to the wind. "Did you ever ask me what I wanted? Ever stop and think I may not want a fiancée just yet? Ever wonder if I might not be ready for that kinda stuff? Growin' up on the road, with just Pop for company… how come none of ya ever think about what that means? I don't know how to deal with all this stuff! I just keep going along and hopin' I can find a way to work it out without hurting anybody."

He gave a shuddering sigh. "All I want right now is some friends. Is that too much to ask for?" No reply from the twilight. He answered his own question. "Sure looks like it. All the guys wanna kick my head in and the girls want to drag me to the altar.

"And you wonder why I'd rather put up with Akane's violence." Ranma shook his head, more angry than hurt for this moment. "I don't appreciate that junk you said today, Ucchan. Sure she hits me and calls me stupid names, and no, I don't like it, but at least she don't try to control me. Akane's the only one outta the whole lot of you who isn't trying to force me into something I'm not ready for."

Ranma fell silent then, brooding. A stray thought did tickle the corners of his mind… ~does she ask you what you want?~ He pushed it aside as irrelevant. Saying those things out loud had let out enough of the anger that his deeper feelings of hurt had taken the foreground again.

He didn't want to… but he remembered. Remembered again the carefree days he'd had with Ukyo, back when they were six years old and he didn't have a clue about the gender difference. The memories came more clearly now than they had in a long time. Rough-and-tumble games of tag under the bright sunlight. The delicious taste of a well-made okonomiyaki—some of the best food he could remember eating during the whole decade-long training trip. The frustration and triumph of dealing with the Gambling King. That debacle with her secret sauce… he hurriedly pushed his way past those images.

"That's what I wanted to hold onto, you know," he muttered bitterly. "I wanted a friend, not another fiancée. Don't try and make me feel guilty about that. I’m already feeling bad enough as it is. Didn’t want to lose my buddy Ucchan today, that's for sure."

He sat quietly for a time. At last, Ranma got up, and began making his way through the shadow-drenched trees. “Maybe it won't be that bad," he muttered. "I've never seen her anywhere near that pushy over the whole engagement thing. Maybe she was just in a bad mood or something, and hearin' about another fiancée showing up kinda pushed her over the edge. Maybe if I give her a little time to cool off, she'll go back to normal. Heck, maybe she'll even come and apologize to me."

Feeling a little better now, and resolving to let Ukyo make the next move (surely after she'd had some time to think about it and start missing him, she'd realize how unfair all those things she'd said were), he jumped the park fence, landing in the welcome glow of a streetlight, and began the walk toward the Tendo home.

Considering how little Ranma was looking forward to school the next day, it might seem surprising that he and Akane arrived there earlier than usual. However, there are reasons behind even the most seemingly-improbable of events. In this particular case, Kasumi had taken a moment to wake Ranma up herself, rather than entrust the task to Akane. She might prefer to turn an oblivious eye to the typical chaos in the household, but she wasn't that blind. Ranma didn't deserve to have to deal with little sister's current mood first thing in the morning.

And so Ranma had woken up early, earlier than he ever did on days when he and Genma didn't have morning practice. Breakfast had been a quick and silent affair. Genma and Soun had spent the evening drowning their woes over Kaori's return, and Ranma's father was now too hung-over even to attempt a 'speed training' duel over the contents of their plates.

The earliness of the start toward Furinkan was then compounded by the actual walk. Or perhaps the 'stalk' might be a better word. No words were exchanged between Akane and Ranma… the former hurried along at a speed that suggested she would rather leave her companion behind; the latter kept pace easily enough, but maintained a healthy distance between them. And with no random transformations to slow Ranma down, the long and short of it was they both arrived at Furinkan with more time to spare than ever before.

Kaori had still managed to beat them there, however. She was waiting in front of the main doors.

Ranma glanced upward toward his classroom. Just his luck that none of the windows were open yet. Akane had stopped on seeing the other girl, and was now standing still and glowering at her. Ranma slipped past the youngest Tendo, and focused his eyes straight on the door. Maybe if he didn't make eye contact now, Kaori might let it go for the moment.

"Good morning, Ranma," Kaori said, giving him a smile. Not a sultry look, not a devious smirk, not a challenging grin… just a friendly, welcoming, maybe even understated smile.

"Kaori," he sighed. "So you meant it about transferring to Furinkan."

She inclined her head. "Of course I did."

"Excuse me," Akane said acidly, walking forward again, pushing past Ranma and heading toward the school. "Some of us might not want to be late to class. Why don't I just leave you two alone."

"Hey, I don't wanna get stuck on bucket duty either!" Ranma exclaimed, seizing onto the excuse.

"Wait, Ranma. Please? This won't take long," Kaori said before he could take more than a couple of steps. “The first bell hasn't even rung yet. You won't be late."

"What is it?" he asked resignedly.

Kaori sent a cool gaze flickering toward Akane, who had stopped as well and was watching the exchange. Then she returned her attention to Ranma. "I just wanted to say, I know you have to deal with a lot of stress here." The nurse's records she'd 'retrieved' from the Furinkan office had made that fairly clear. "I don't know what kind of strange place this is." The Hawaiian setup, complete with trained guard crabs and booby-trapped coconuts, had been an unwelcome shock during her nocturnal raid on the school. "But I'll try not to cause any trouble for you."

She was still far from happy, but the edge of Akane's anger had been blunted. She and Ranma were now walking homeward from a day that hadn't been nearly as bad as Akane had expected. True, Kaori did manage to worm her way into class with Ranma, but the Martial Arts Takeout girl had been assigned an empty seat clear on the other side of the classroom. Akane smiled thinly. Right next to a couple of incorrigible chatterbox girls, in fact. Watching Miss Hinako get fed up and drain them, incidentally catching Kaori in the wake of her technique, had given Akane quite a bit of guilty satisfaction. She'd never expected to be GLAD the principal had moved Miss Hinako up to keep pace with Ranma when he and Akane had entered their second year.

There had been one other pleasant surprise as well. Akane knew Ranma had gone to Ukyo the prior day, and told her about Kaori. She had expected that today the chef would be all over her fiancé, clinging to him and plying him with her stupid oh-so-delicious okonomiyaki. She'd been looking for a few cutting remarks to be tossed her way as well, about how much better off Ranma honey would be away from the Tendo dojo.

None of that had happened, though. Ukyo had stayed well away, not even making eye contact with Ranma as far as Akane had noticed. One less thing to stress her out. Add that to the fact that Ranma hadn't tried to flirt with Kaori at all so far, and her temper was actually getting pretty close to cooling down completely.

She risked a glance toward Ranma. He was looking down at the pavement, rather sullenly too, she thought. It didn't look like he was feeling all that great himself. After hesitating for a moment, Akane said, "R-Ranma." She heard the catch in her voice and mentally winced. 'Honestly! Like I've got any reason to be nervous!' However, Ranma didn't seem to have noticed. Feeling thankful, Akane swallowed, then spoke again, louder and more steadily. "Ranma."

The youngest Tendo frowned as her fiancé just continued to trudge along. That he hadn't noticed the first time was grounds for relief. Ignoring her this time was not. "Hey, dummy!" she said, her voice rising to just below a shout.

"What is it, tomboy?!" Ranma snapped, his attention successfully caught.

"Well, EXCUSE ME!" Akane returned as the wind breathed new life into the embers of her recent anger. "Just because you're in a bad mood, don't take it out on me!"

"Jeez, if that ain't a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is," Ranma grumbled. "You'd be in a bad mood too if your oldest friend ditched you yesterday and ignored you all day at school today!"

"What's that supposed to…" Akane's mouth closed into a grim line. "This is about Ukyo, isn't it!"

"What d'you care anyway?" Ranma said unhappily.

"You jerk! I can't believe this! You're down in the dumps because your cute fiancée wasn't all over you today?!"

"Look, I never asked for this!" Ranma yelled back at her. "You wanna know what happened at Ucchan's yesterday, Akane? Huh?! I told her about Kaori, and the next thing you know she's tellin' me she's sick an' tired of waitin' around, and not to come back there until I'm ready to 'take the engagement seriously'!"

"Oh, and I'm sure that was just terrible news… Oh, wait, that would mean you'd have to quit freeloading off us, and give up on Shampoo, and Kodachi, and Kaori too! Oh Ranma, you really did have a bad day!"

"DAMMIT!" Ranma roared. "She's my FRIEND, Akane! I ain't got too many of those, in case you hadn't noticed! Am I not supposed to have any others than you?! Huh?! Is that it?!"

"RANMA, YOU—What did you just say?!" Akane asked, her eyes bugging out comically.

"What, are you deaf too? I asked if you think I'm not allowed ta have any other friends than you!"

"But… I… you… that is… really… you…" The fact that she was babbling inanely registered. Akane clamped her mouth shut and just stared at Ranma, who for his part was beginning to feel anxiety dilute his unhappiness. What was the big deal with Akane now?

Did he mean that? The thought whirled dizzyingly through Akane's mind. 'He… he said it so plainly… like it wasn't any big deal at all. Doesn't he know… how much time I spend wondering if he even cares…'At that point her self-deception filters kicked in, forcibly shunting her train of thought onto a slightly different track. 'He really does think of Ukyo like a friend. And she wouldn't be that for him…'

Akane gulped. "Ranma… I'm sorry."

He blinked, and then blinked again. "What'd you say?"

"I said I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had a bad day. I'm sorry I was yelling at you. I'm sorry Ukyo hurt your feelings." That last statement was true, even if part of Akane was also smiling broadly over just what the chef had done, and what Ranma hadn't.

"Go on," Ranma prompted her as she fell silent.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Akane gave him a hurt look. Here she was trying to apologize and everything!

"You left something out. Ain'tcha also sorry about Kaori showing up to cause me more trouble?"

She actually giggled. "That too. But I didn't want to list all the fiancées. I mean, we'd be here all day!"

Ranma sighed at the reminder. "Y'know, I really wish you weren't right."

Only sympathy was in Akane's eyes now as she looked at Ranma. He really was feeling down about all this stuff. 'Well, I'll do something about that. What are friends for?' And if there was a false note in that last clause of thought, Akane's self-deception filters strained it out before it reached her conscious mind. "Cheer up, Ranma." For a moment she hesitated, wondering whether she should say the next part now, or leave it as a surprise. Then she realized… she wanted to make him feel better right away. "I'll cook something really good for you tonight. What would you like me to make?"

That's the trouble with self-deception filters. In the long run, they do more harm than good.

Ranma paled, twitched, and searched desperately for an excuse. "Ah… ah… no, Akane, don't waste your time like that! I'm not gonna have any appetite tonight. So you shouldn't cook. I mean, you REALLY shouldn't cook."

Some things no amount of self-deception can block. Akane's face flushed, and her hands clenched into fists… and then she deflated. 'He may be a jerk, but he's a jerk who's in a bad mood. And… he's my friend…' With a significantly greater measure of wisdom than she usually managed, Akane realized, 'I need to do what he would want, if I want him to feel better.' The wisdom blew a fuse. 'I'm sure I could cook him a great meal,' the fuse was replaced, 'but he'll feel better now if Kasumi's going to be the one doing it.'

Aloud, she said, "Okay, Ranma. Tell you what. I'll ask Kasumi to make sukiyaki tonight. That's one of your favorites, isn't it? Think that'll bring back your appetite?"

Shock at her reaction succeeded in washing Ranma's unhappiness completely away.

A week passed, relatively quietly.

Akane had to admit, she was surprised that Kaori kept her word. The Martial Arts Takeout girl didn't cause any trouble for Ranma at school, and that was the only time they saw her. More often than not, she would find some excuse during the day to talk to him for a few minutes, and that was aggravating, and one day she offered to share her lunch, but she didn't act like it was a big deal when Ranma wormed his way out of it. Still, Akane couldn't shake the feeling that the other girl was just biding her time.

Kasumi glanced over, giving Akane a cheerful smile as her younger sister entered the kitchen. "Good afternoon, Akane."

"Hello, Kasumi." Akane glanced around the kitchen. "Um, you haven't started dinner yet, have you? Is it too late to ask you to make something in particular tonight?"

The oldest Tendo daughter's smile widened. There had been several days last week when Akane had asked for Kasumi to fix some food Ranma particularly liked for dinner. It was so nice, seeing her little sister do something so kind and thoughtful for her fiancé, instead of giving him food poisoning and reducing Kasumi's kitchen to a war zone!

This was the first time this week that Akane had made one of these requests, though. Kasumi supposed that whatever had put the slight grimace of unhappiness on her sister's face must also have made for a hard day for Ranma. Well, she would be happy to cook a dinner that would cheer both of them up. "Of course not, Akane. What would you like me to prepare?"

"I was thinking seven-herb lasagna, with garlic bread."

Kasumi frowned faintly. "Oh my. I don't believe Ranma cares for that dish very much, little sister."

"I kn— I mean, oh, really?" Akane covered her initial reaction with a ruse that wouldn't fool a two-year-old. "Well… I'm really in the mood for Italian food tonight, Kasumi. Could you fix it anyway? I'm sure Ranma won't mind." She didn't want to yell at him, and she wasn't going to hit him. Having something he didn't like for dinner was the least he deserved, as far as Akane was concerned.

"All right. Seven-herb lasagna it is, then." Kasumi walked over to a counter, retrieving a pencil and a pad of paper. She tore a sheet from the latter and began to write. "Where is Ranma, anyway?" she wondered absently.

Akane flushed, glad her sister wasn't looking her way. "He had some studying to do," she grumbled. 'Honestly, I can't believe him! How could he buy into that lame excuse Kaori gave him?! 'Oh, Ranma, if it weren't for you I wouldn't be here at Furinkan in the first place! You have to help me get caught up in class! 'Humph. Serves her right if Ranma's 'help' earns her an 'F' anyway,' Akane thought grumpily.

"Oh. I thought he might have gone by Ukyo's after school," Kasumi said.

Akane wondered for a moment whether her sister had upped her dosage of happy pills or something. "Um, no, Kasumi, remember I told you that Ukyo dumped him?"

"I remember," Kasumi said, somehow managing to sound both sweet and grave at the same time. "I just thought Ranma might have tried to make it up to her, at least as a friend. I’m sure he wasn't happy to have her walk right out of his life like that. Even if they did want two different things."

Akane shrugged. "He's getting over it." Ranma still seemed pained at the way Ukyo continued to ignore him, but unlike that business with Shampoo and the Reversal Jewel, he hadn't done anything stupid to try to win her back. A BIG plus in Akane's book. "Besides, it's not like he's really missing anything. One fiancée finally gives up, big deal. Another showed up even before it could happen."

"I see." Kasumi filled her current sheet of paper and moved onto the next. "Poor Ranma."

"Oh, like he doesn't get a kick out of embarrassing me anyway," Akane muttered under her breath. She glowered in silence for another minute or so, then said louder, "Thanks for making that tonight, Kasumi. I'll see you later—I'm going over to Sayuri's house for the afternoon."

"Oh, wait, Akane. I need you to go to the market and pick up some things for dinner."

Akane turned back around and walked over. "Oh. Okay, big sister. What things?"

Kasumi handed her several sheets of paper covered with her neat, meticulous handwriting. "Here. You might have some trouble finding some of these ingredients, so I've listed directions to various stalls that should have them. The vendors know me by name, so if you tell them you're my sister you should be able to haggle your way to a good price.

"Mrs. Hanabi keeps the best general selection for many of the herbs, but don't try to bargain with her until after you've listened to her talk about her grandchildren for a few minutes. Mr. Fujiwara has the best mushrooms you can find in our market, but if you let him he'll spend an hour trying to convince you to use shiitake instead of portobellos. The best way to handle him is to say you'd really like to try the recipe both ways, to see for yourself, but you can't afford it. He'll give you the shiitake mushrooms for free, and you can trade them at your next stop to Mrs. Onamura for the ricotta…"

Akane listened dazedly, fighting a feeling of dizziness, and wondered whether it was too late to forget about this and just let Ranma's irritating behavior slide.

Shinji leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes, and tried to let the smooth motion of the bullet train relax him. It would be a long time before the train arrived at his station… better to pass that interval in a nap, if he could. However, he was only able to hold out for a minute before one eyelid lifted, just enough to permit vision, and his rogue eyeball shifted, just enough to catch sight of a certain reflection in the window beside him.

A girl was seated not too far away, a couple of rows behind Shinji and on the opposite side of the train car. It seemed a little odd to him that she would have taken the aisle seat and left the one next to the window vacant, but since her position made it possible to study her reflection, he wasn't complaining at all. The train was currently passing through the darkness of a tunnel, and so the window served to reflect a clear image of her face. She had the look of a proud beauty, with striking features that made Shinji think of a warrior-princess he'd seen in an anime not too long ago. From his current vantage point, he could see only the smallest portion of her hair, but from the earlier episode when she'd left her seat and walked to another car of the train, Shinji knew it trailed all the way down her back in a glorious mane of purple. And when she'd returned to her seat, carrying a steaming cup of tea, he'd gotten quite a nice look at some very appealing curves.

She was clearly a gaijin, Chinese specifically unless he missed his guess, but Shinji didn't come from a particularly traditional family. He would be quite content to while away the time chatting with a pretty girl of any nationality. The only reason he hesitated now was a certain wariness, a sense that this girl might be a little bit more than he was capable of handling.

Abandoning any pretense of disinterest, he studied the reflection more closely. On further scrutiny, it seemed as if there was a hint of a smile on the girl's lips, a softness to the gleam in her eyes that he hadn't noticed before. Still a proud beauty, no question about that, but perhaps not so unapproachable as he had first thought.

As is often the case with teenage boys, it was his hormones that ultimately made the decision.

Shinji got to his feet, and crossed the distance between himself and the girl. As he arrived next to her, he noticed that she had apparently put some sort of vaguely horrible-looking mannequin in the seat next to her. Perhaps it was something conceived along the lines of a Western scarecrow, he mused, except designed to frighten away demons and evil spirits. Certainly it looked grim enough for that. Turning his eyes back to more appealing sights, Shinji cleared his throat, hoping to start a pleasant conversation with the finest babe he'd seen in a month.

It's generally not a good idea to interrupt Cologne when she is meditating. The Matriarch's eyes snapped open, and she turned to face the interloper with a scowl. "Did you want something, sonny boy?" she asked in an ominous tone.

Shinji turned and fled. But at least he didn't run screaming.

"Same as all the rest of perverted Japanese boys," Shampoo muttered. "Shampoo think Airen is only real man in whole country." The hints of softness that had so erroneously encouraged Shinji became more pronounced. "Wonder how much he miss Shampoo while we gone these weeks?"

Her great-grandmother didn't reply, having already closed her eyes once more. Shampoo answered the question in the privacy of her own mind. 'If he have to eat violent pervert girl's cooking much while Shampoo not around to save him, Airen probably be very glad to see me come back.' She smiled, a grin that tried to be secretive, yet had pride leaking out around the edges. 'Wonder what he think of surprise Shampoo have for him.'

She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. They had always been the hands of a warrior, slim and feminine to be sure, but strong and capable, with the calluses that were an inevitable result of a lifetime of dedicated training. Only Shampoo herself could make out the difference now—a few extra scars, tiny ones here and there, nothing noticeable. Certainly nothing disfiguring.

Nothing at all to indicate to a casual observer that she'd spent two weeks thrusting her hands into an open fire, trying desperately to grab roasting chestnuts before she herself was cooked.

'Hope you be proud, Airen. One thing for sure… you know who is real warrior, out of girls after you heart. Is not spatula girl. Is for sure not violent pervert what think best way to win is cheat with super-strength noodle. Is Amazon who not afraid to shed blood and sweat and tears, learn new things, keep challenging self as warrior.'

Shampoo thought back to the training her beloved had undergone to learn the Chestnut Fist. She smiled again, a gentle, rebuking look directed to the still-distant object of her affections, as she remembered the stress poor Ranma had suffered. Admittedly, he (or was that she?) had learned the move more quickly than Shampoo had. But as Shampoo thought back to the trials the Matriarch had inflicted upon Ranma, and compared them to her own recent memories of her great-grandmother soothing her burns with a special Amazon medicinal balm, she knew which path to mastery she would rather take. "One of these days, Airen, you realize just how much Great-Grandmother already do for you," she whispered. “Someday you even see how much better would be, to come willing and with respect. Shampoo hope is soon."

By the time they'd walked three-quarters of the way home from school, in silence, and without Akane ever looking his way, even Ranma was able to catch a clue that something might be wrong. 'Why's she givin' me this silent treatment?' he wondered. 'I haven't done anything to tick her off, have I?' He thought back over the day. He was just about certain he hadn't said anything insulting, and he hadn't fought anyone, not even Kuno, so it wasn't like she could be mad at him for 'bullying the weak'. 'Maybe she ain't mad at me, though. Maybe she's just worried about something.'

Rather than ponder it any longer, Ranma took his usual direct approach to a problem. He'd been walking a few paces to one side and a little behind Akane. Ranma picked up his pace, moving in front, turned to face her, and stopped, studying her expression. Not very conclusive, he decided—she didn't look like she was happy, but it wasn't the angry face he'd seen so many times either. "Yo, Akane, what's wrong?"

" 'What's wrong?' Why should anything be wrong?" Akane asked, in a tone that even Ranma recognized as sarcastic.

"Well, you haven't said a word to me or even looked my way this whole time. It’s almost like you're mad at me or something. Which wouldn't be all that unusual except for the fact that I ain't done anything lately."

"Oh, no, of course you haven't done anything, nothing at ALL to hurt my feelings, right Ranma? Why would it bother me how you're spending all this time on your stupid study dates with your cute new fiancée Kaori?" The same girl that had as good as called her a murderess in training. And did her fiancé stick up for her? 'Hah! They probably spend half their time with her talking bad about me, and him thanking her for being so nice and cute and sweet and a good cook!'

Well, at least now he knew what the problem was. It was just Akane getting the wrong idea about him and another girl. Like he wasn't familiar with that song and dance. "Jeez, Akane, usually whenever you start blamin' me for something I didn't even do, you're at least HALF right. Like, when Shampoo tries to get me to go on a date with her, at least there's SOMEONE trying to get the thing going that ticked you off." He snorted. "This time you ain't even got that much right. I've met with her three times, and all we do is go over stupid school stuff. Even a tomboy like you shouldn't get jealous of a date," he rolled his eyes as he said the last word, "like that."

"Do you really think I'm that stupid, Ranma?!" Akane demanded. "Well, I've got news for you. I'm not dumb enough to believe she'd go to the worst student in the school to help her! If you're going to lie to my face about how innocent this all is, you could at least try and think up a better story."

"Man, is there EVER a time you could jump to a conclusion, and you don't?" Ranma complained. "I know I ain't the greatest at all that school stuff, Akane. Thanks for throwin' it back in my face, by the way. And yeah, Kaori did figure that out the first time we met. Now she's the one helping me," he made a face, "whether I like it or not. She made me promise to keep meeting with her so she could try to help me get my grades up. Why everybody and their dog seems to know I never skip out on a promise is more than I can figure.” That last was said in a grumbling undertone. "And how every girl I meet knows I'm gonna cave in if she looks like she's gonna cry is another thing I'd like to find out someday."

"Ranma, this is so stupid," Akane said bitterly, more hurt now than angry. “She came over to our house and said to your face that she came back to go through with the engagement. And now you're going off and meeting with her in private, and you're trying to make it look like it's nothing more than just an innocent study session?! I'm not that dumb, Ranma, and I don't think you are either."

"ARRGH!" Ranma threw up his hands in frustration. “For cryin' out loud, Akane, which one of us has had girls throwin' themselves at him for the last year? I think I should be able to recognize it by now! She don't flirt with me, she isn't trying to get me to do romantic stuff with her, she hasn't said ONE WORD about the engagement, heck, she ain't even offered to cook for me! She's acting as different from Shampoo as YOU do!"

Akane started to say something in response to this, but Ranma didn't hear it. His attention had been riveted by an unexpected sound. Unexpected because his keen senses had pinned it as coming from the supposedly-empty air fifty feet behind and forty feet above him.

By the time Shampoo had opened her eyes from the sneeze, Ranma had already whirled and caught sight of her. This was more warning than he usually got. All too often, Shampoo would descend from the heavens like a Valkyrie who'd traded in her warhorse for a bicycle, and his first warning would be the actual shock of impact. Here and now, though, Ranma had just enough time to spring backward into the air.

It was a purely reflex action, rather than one made through conscious thought. Even as he left the ground, his tactical sense picked up on an anomaly. Namely, the path of Shampoo's descent would have brought her to a landing several feet behind him, rather than on top of him. “Maybe the sneeze threw her aim off," he muttered.

Even Ranma is fully capable of misjudging someone else's plan of attack. His evasive tactics actually helped Shampoo. The amorous airborne Amazon gave a big smile and pushed away from her bike, using it as the leverage she needed to initiate a jump directly toward her Airen. The bicycle smashed into the ground with tremendous force, leaving an impressive crater in the street yet somehow remaining unharmed. Meanwhile, its mistress sailed directly toward her beloved.

Ranma would easily have been skilled enough to knock Shampoo away with a punch or kick, but one might as well talk about Ryoga seducing Akane. As she neared him, eyes gleaming, arms spread wide for a welcoming hug, the most he could do was shoot out one hand, intending to brace his palm against the top of her head and pivot himself harmlessly around her. His eyes widened dramatically when Shampoo's own hand whipped round, catching his wrist, pulling herself to him, and gleefully locking her arms around his torso.

Now, in addition to the usual confusing ways Shampoo's full-body embraces made him feel, Ranma was also shooting completely uncontrolled through the air. He closed his eyes and braced himself, not looking forward to the moment when he'd be the one absorbing the impact for both of them.

The pavement approached… there was a confused whirling moment of dizziness… and they landed, upright, Shampoo touching down feet-first on the street, bracing herself to take the impact. If Ranma had had his eyes open, he might have at least reacted in time to keep the jolt from lodging his head in her cleavage. Probably not, though… his track record with things like that wasn't very good.

"Aiyah! Husband must really have missed Shampoo to give greeting like this!" the Amazon teased.

Ranma extracted himself and staggered backward. "Hey, Shampoo, how's it going?" he asked, with more than a hint of resignation in his tone. Was there even a point to protesting? he wondered. No. It would just be a waste of breath. "Haven't seen you for a while."

"Shampoo miss you while gone, Airen, very much." She winked at him. "Want to come over to Cat Café tonight for all you can eat free dinner? Shampoo fix all you favorite foods."

"Excuse me." Akane's tone could have flash-frozen mercury. “I’m sure I don't mind if you go off and spend the evening with Shampoo, Ranma. But don't you think your fiancée Kaori might be a little hurt?"

Shampoo's bubbly good humor waned noticeably. She looked from Ranma to Akane, then back to Ranma. "What she talking about, Airen?"

"Oh, it's nothing important, Shampoo," Akane replied before Ranma could say anything. "Just another fiancée showed up while you were gone, that's all. Her name's Kaori Daikoku, and her family owns a whole chain of restaurants. How many times have you two gone out this week, Ranma? It was three, wasn't it? Kaori sure moves fast," she said in an utterly false tone of sweetness and light. "Well, what business is it of mine anyway? Have a good time, you two." This last was more growled than spoken, as Akane turned and stalked away. But at least the anger kept her from feeling the hurt.

"Okay, Airen, Shampoo hear that from violent girl. Now what is real story?" The Amazon pitched her voice loud enough that Akane couldn't possibly miss it. Heck, people in adjacent buildings probably heard.

"It ain't like that, that's for sure!" Ranma said vehemently. "It's another one of those stupid promises my old man made when I was a little kid and we were wandering around on a training journey. He was hungry, and agreed to engage me to this guy's daughter if the guy gave him a meal. Then he skipped out with me and hoped he'd never see them again."

Shampoo snorted so fiercely that the long tassels of her hair flopped an inch away from her chest. "She think she can walk in now and expect to get husband like you, for stupid little price paid of one meal to panda father?! Is insult to good man like Airen." She gave him a piercing stare. "And what violent girl say about dates, where she get that wrong?"

"Huh. Those so-called 'dates' are just her helping me with my schoolwork. Which I don't even want anyway, but she kinda made me promise to go along with it."

The Amazon was smiling cheerfully again. "So she insult worth of Airen AND she waste you time. No worry, Ranma, Shampoo know you not like to hit girls. I go and take care of this one for you."

"Thanks, Shampoo, I… What! No, you can't do that!" Ranma protested.

"Why not?" The dangerous gleam was back in Shampoo's eye. "You say she nothing to you, right?"

"That's kinda the POINT, Shampoo! She ain't tried to get me on a date or nothing. She hasn't caused me any trouble at all yet!" Not counting Akane's reaction, but Ranma was sure she'd have found something else to misunderstand if Kaori hadn't been there. "And you know, not liking to hit girls kinda means I don't want OTHER people to go hurt them FOR me, either!"

Shampoo paused for a moment, then said decisively, "Ranma, you look Shampoo in eyes and tell how you really feel about new girl. Take what time you need to get words right."

It didn't take him all that long to find those words. "I wish she hadn't come. I don't need more complications in my life. But since she is here, I'm at least glad that she's not trying to get all romantic or cause me trouble."

After another few seconds of piercing scrutiny, Shampoo was satisfied. Whoever this new girl was, or whatever she thought might be the case, she wasn't a rival. The Amazon still intended to check this Kaori out from a distance sometime soon, just to be able to put a face to the name, but there didn't seem to be any need to take things further. "And she not hit you, feed you poison, call you stupid names? Okay, Airen, Shampoo leave her alone until she do something to hurt you."

Anyone who believes that one person can't make a real difference has never been to Furinkan High School, unless they visited while Principal Kuno was away in Hawaii. The 'headmaster from Hell' was ultimately responsible for ruining the high school experience of more individuals than could be easily counted. He took a positive delight in aggravating and attempted bullying of the student body. And if he usually left a way for them to squirm out of the really annoying schemes, this was because it was more fun to watch them writhe and wriggle their way free. After all, if he really did give all the kids bad haircuts, what would he have left to threaten them the next time he was bored?

For some reason, Principal Kuno didn't get anywhere near the same level of enjoyment from harassing teachers as he did the students. When he'd first become the headmaster of Furinkan, he had had every intention of being an equal-opportunity annoyance, dedicated to giving a hard time to instructors and pupils alike. But it just hadn't been any fun, possibly because the teachers either needed their jobs too badly to put up any fight, or didn't, and quit. These days, Principal Kuno didn't bother trying to torment the teachers; he dragooned them into playing supporting roles when a more elaborate scheme needed extra labor, and ignored them otherwise.

Ironically enough, however, the teachers generally hated the situation at Furinkan worse than the students. After all, the latter could escape after three years. Having taught at Furinkan didn't exactly spice up an educator's resume, and the longer he'd been there, the likelier he'd be there for good. Many a naive, optimistic, idealistic young teacher, fresh out of university, had found those qualities drained from them like water from an unstoppered sink, once they were trapped in Furinkan.

Ranma Saotome, currently sinking in a morass of adenosine triphosphates, aerobic and anaerobic respirations, and glycolipid absorption reactions, found himself wishing his biology teacher was one of them.

"This is ridiculous!" Ranma agreed wholeheartedly with this, but it was actually Kaori who had spoken. This was the fourth time now that they had gotten together at her place for a study session. "Why are we studying material of this level?! This seems more like something we ought to get at university!"

Ranma gave an aggrieved sigh. "I think this is Mr. Takashi's way of fightin' back, or something. Ain't none of the teachers who like Principal Kuno, but most of them just keep their heads down, don't make waves, and try to ignore all the junk he piles on us at school. Far as I know, Mr. Takashi's the only one who pushes this kind of work load on his students. He says he's doin' his best to get us ready for college. That if we can handle stuff like this now, it'll help us then." He snorted. "And may the Kami have mercy on any student who tells him maybe he don't want to go on to university."

"Don't you?" Kaori asked inquisitively.

"Are you kidding?! Bad enough I have to suffer through this junk now. No WAY am I going to put myself through four more years or however long it is of hell!"

"Ranma, you shouldn't look at it like that," his study companion said gently. "You've never been to any high school other than Furinkan, have you?" When he grunted and shook his head, she went on, "The place is a madhouse. It's nothing like the high school I was attending before I transferred here."

"Huh? No pineapple-headed morons with haircut fetishes?"

Kaori shook her head, smiling a little. "Not a one. No insane kendoists or chi-vampire teachers either. Even the clubs there are normal… no chemistry nerds brewing up nitroglycerine in the back room."

"Bet you wish you were back there sometimes," Ranma commented, absently selecting a pork bun from the plate of snacks Kaori had provided for the session, and beginning to munch.

"Sometimes, yes. It was a much better school than Furinkan, that's for sure. And that's why I said you shouldn't look at university as if it will be more of the same. It won’t. It won't be nearly as bad as this."

"Huh. Maybe it wouldn't be so crazy, but that just means I'd be bored outta my skull. This kinda stuff just isn't interesting to me, Kaori." Ranma gestured to the open biology textbook. "I mean, look at this. It drones on and on and on about just what chemical processes happen when a muscle contracts. I start thinkin' about that in the middle of a fight, and next thing you know I'm gonna be on the ground taking a short nap. Or not so short, dependin' on who I was fighting."

"There's more to university than just this. Really, there's more to school in general. Or there should be." Kaori felt a pang as she thought back to the friends she'd left behind when she came to Nerima. "As long as you're at Furinkan, you aren't really seeing school like it should be."

"Well, it ain't like I was given a choice about going there or not," Ranma grumbled. "Y'know, Kaori, you oughta go back to your old school, if you liked it a lot better than this one. It’s just gonna be a matter of time before Principal Kuno comes up with some new stupid stunt to make our lives miserable. You wouldn't want that pretty haircut mangled or nothin', would you?"

"N-no, I wouldn't," Kaori said, blushing faintly. Fortunately Ranma didn't notice, as he was attending to another pork bun. She had recovered her composure by the time he looked back at her. "Anyway, I have it on good authority," meaning the to-do list she had found when she raided the Furinkan office a while back, "that his next scheme is going to be changing the dress code. The boys will be wearing swim trunks, and the girls will get grass skirts and leis. And nothing else."

Ranma gave a strangled sound of apprehension. That'd nail him both coming and going. "Definitely gonna be time for a training trip soon. Let the other guys deal with this one."

"I don't think the guys will do much protesting," Kaori said with a smile. "But the girls will probably rush the podium and beat him to a pulp before he even finishes speaking."

"Now that might be fun to watch," Ranma chuckled. "Maybe you could string him up with that Ramen Noodle Noose thingie of yours."

Kaori blinked. "When did you see me use that? I never saw you after the start of the Martial Arts Takeout race." Before Ranma could do much more than begin to sweat, she continued, "Were you just watching from somewhere I couldn't see?"

"Uh, yeah, that's it exactly," Ranma said. 'At least for the first half of the race…'"You had some pretty good moves, I thought."

"Thank you, Ranma. I would have won, too, if I hadn't been double-teamed." Kaori glowered off into the distance for a moment. "Things would have been different."

He didn't know what to say to that, so he kept quiet. After a long moment of silence, she spoke again, in a more tentative tone that was usual for her. "I think about it sometimes. Do you? What it would have been like to leave this place behind? You wouldn't have been trapped in Furinkan. You wouldn't have had to deal with nearly so much stress, or so many doctor's visits. I’d like to think you'd have been happier, if I'd managed to win that contest then."

"Yeah, well, I dunno. I don't like being forced into stuff, Kaori." That was about as subtle as Ranma felt capable of being.

She inclined her head. "I know."

He blinked. "You do? How?"

"Silly, it didn't take me all that long to figure out, once we were spending time together like this."

Now there was a definite chill running up and down his spine. "Whaddaya mean by that? I thought these were just, you know, study dates."

"Of course they are that, Ranma." Kaori met his gaze fearlessly. "But it's more than just that, isn't it? It's a chance for us to get to know each other. A chance to start out slow, without any pressure, and build something solid. Instead of just being thrown together as fiancées." 'I tried that last time, and it didn't work very well.'

'So was I right, or was Akane?'

Ranma was now walking back to the Tendo place, much more slowly than usual. He was mulling over the revelation from his latest get-together with Kaori. It had come as a shock, and a rather nasty one too, that the innocent study sessions had indeed been motivated by her desire as a fiancée to get closer to him. Kaori, apparently sensing his skittish discomfort, had called an end to the session shortly after she'd said her piece about growing to know one another without any pressure forcing them together. She'd said that she wasn't willing to spend any more of her Saturday morning with ridiculously in-depth biology studies, but this time even Ranma could see a deeper meaning behind the words.

He had been pretty unhappy as he began the walk away from the Daikoku apartment. So she WAS thinking of herself as a fiancée for real! Well, okay, really he should've known that from the beginning, after what she'd said at the Tendo place. But he hadn't thought it had anything to do with the study sessions! And who could blame him? Like he'd told Akane, she really hadn't tried anything romantic at all. Her attitude had mainly been brisk and businesslike, reminding him somewhat of Nabiki in her more helpful moments. Except Kaori didn't charge any yen for her time and effort. Or wear an occasional smirk when some problem of his amused her.

There had been glimpses, though, through that no-nonsense facade. By the time he was out of sight of Kaori's apartment building, Ranma had turned his thoughts to these, searching his memory, analyzing them as best he could. Each time he came up with the same conclusion.

Namely, behind Kaori's impersonal, focused-on-the-schoolwork mien, there had been overtones of friendship. Not romance. Not desire. Not (brief shudder) wedding bells and thrown rice and til-death-do-you-part. Simple friendship—one area where he never seemed to have much luck.

He remembered something from class on Thursday. His math teacher had sprung a pop quiz on the students, and it just so happened that the subject was one he and Kaori had spent most of their third session covering. Ranma had been surprised to find that most of the questions on the quiz were easy. On Friday, when the papers were passed back, the teacher gave him a few words of surprised congratulations on his B+. After staring at the paper for a few seconds, Ranma had glanced over at Kaori. She was already looking his way. The expression on her face had been pleased satisfaction. She was happy for him, he thought, and also probably proud of what she had accomplished.

But the main thing he remembered now was what hadn't been there. Happiness, yes, satisfaction, no doubt, but that was all. Ranma had seen no trace of the love-light that often sparkled in Shampoo's or (in the past, anyway) Ukyo's eyes. He'd seen that many times, even occasionally from Akane when she was under some kind of spell or something, and it usually made him uncomfortable. If he were honest with himself, more often than not it frightened him. Ranma knew there was a lot he wasn't ready to handle yet, due to having grown up the way he did with the father he had. Personally, he thought it was a miracle he'd turned out as good as he was, with Genma as the main influence in his life. But that didn't mean he was prepared yet to deal with something as fragile and mysterious as a girl's heart.

Not that Ranma thought of it in such poetic terms. He just knew he wasn't ready for the stuff most of his fiancées seemed eager to drag him into.

Which thought had brought him back to Kaori. His mood was beginning to improve by now, as his natural resilience fought to overcome the bad mood he'd had at the start of the walk. Maybe she really meant it about not pushing him, not forcing him, not trying to take things any faster than he was ready for. Maybe he really could have another fiancée who was a friend first and foremost.

'Just look at today,' he thought. 'She probably knew I didn't feel like sticking around and talking more just then. She didn't push or nothing, just ended the session like it wasn't any big deal and let me go on my way.' He tried and failed to imagine Shampoo reacting similarly. His thoughts shied away from Ukyo. 'Heck, it was even less awkward than something like that would've been with Akane. Wonder why that is.'

Trying to understand Akane was one area where he never had much success. Not really being in the mood for more deep thought at this point, Ranma pushed his contemplations aside. He was feeling better now, and that was all he really needed for the moment.

A turn in his path had just brought him onto a street with a fence on one side. As was his habit, at least when not recuperating from a recent battle, Ranma left the street behind with an impressive leap, landing on the fence to continue his walk along the far narrower pathway. At this point it didn't really hone his balance any further, but it would at least keep his skills from deteriorating. Even though he did run the risk of falling into the canal on the other side of—


Ranma's head whipped around to face the direction of the shout. An out-of-control cart heavily laden with packages was speeding directly toward his section of fence. From the pace, it was clear that when it hit, no amount of balancing finesse would keep him safely on the top rail and out of the water.

This was where he should have frozen in place, his eyes bugging out and his arms waving ineffectively, until the runaway struck and catapulted him into the drink. However, Ranma, apparently not having read the script, jumped forward instead. His new speed training came to good use here, as he landed on one foot beside the cart and snaked out the other more quickly than the eye could follow, striking a rear wheel and smashing it into immobility. The cart made a screeching, grinding turn that left it and its cargo resting safely a few feet short of the fence.

Ranma smirked at the sight for a moment, then glanced around. There were a couple of passersby a little ways up the street from which the cart had come, who were currently staring at him with their eyes as wide as saucers—'Must be new to Nerima,' he thought—but no sign of anyone who might be responsible for the runaway. He toyed with the idea of sticking around until someone did show up in the hopes that there might be some kind of reward, but then dismissed the idea as something more appropriate for his old man. It was reward enough that he'd avoided being splashed.

From the other side of the canal, a pair of eyes regarded him intently. The distance between Ranma and the watcher, not to mention the two chain-link fences, made it difficult to compare him with the photograph clenched tightly in one hand. But there were other criteria by which a judgment could be made, and the observer's heart beat quickly now, anticipating an end to a long, long journey. Of course, a new one would begin immediately thereafter, but such is the way of life. She was actually quite looking forward to it.

Ranma hadn't gone very far when he began to get that old, familiar feeling. That distinct sensation when the hair stands up on the back of the neck, and the mouth suddenly goes dry, and the certain knowledge of an impending attack causes the heart rate to speed up.

He cranked up his awareness of the immediate surroundings, and paused for a moment, hoping at least that this time that he could catch sight of whoever was after his hide before they were descending on him, shouting some variation of "Ranma, prepare to die!" Of course, his challengers weren't always that courteous. In fact, usually the first time an opponent appeared, they'd just charge in without any warning at all. Ryoga… Mousse… Shampoo back when she was hunting his girl form… it had been the same thing in each case. So he wasn't all that surprised now as the seconds ticked by with no cries of challenge.

After waiting a few moments, Ranma began walking again, more slowly this time, and with his senses still on full alert for an ambush. As it turned out, though, he needn't have bothered… a few minutes of walking brought him around a corner into a larger street, with a vacant lot a little ways ahead of him. And in the center of that lot, facing directly toward him, stood a figure in an obvious combat stance.

Ranma paused, studying the other, and heaved a sigh of resignation. One of the bad things about being as good as he was, was how his reputation would draw kooks as well as serious challengers. Not that he was in the mood for a real fight just now, but dealing with putzes like this generally left a disgusted taste in his mouth.

The other stood about as tall as he did, with a more slender build. That was about all the detail Ranma could make out, as his challenger was clothed head-to-toe in an obviously-homemade ninja outfit. Ranma would have been willing to bet every last yen he owned that the inspiration for the garb had been either a kid's anime or a Halloween costume, and he was all but certain the mask had started out life as a pillowcase. A pair of cheap, tourist-gimmicky sai stuck in a belt around the other's waist completed the impression of incompetence.

He sighed again, then walked forward into the lot. "Yo… You looking for me?"

"If you're Ranma Saotome." It was more growled than spoken.

"I am. Guess we haven't met before, huh? So what's your problem?"

"Problem? What problem?" Maybe this guy just had a sore throat or something, Ranma speculated. He was still speaking as gruffly as before, but there had been honest surprise in the response. "This is a challenge, Saotome. That's all."

"Right. It mighta been nice to get, like, a letter or something first, but never mind," he replied sarcastically. "You gonna give me a name to go with this challenge?"

"No. Not yet, anyway." Now there was amusement in the growl. "Maybe I'll tell you later."

"Ohhhhkay. So what endpoint you want for this?" Ranma snorted, giving the sai a disdainful glance. "First blood?"

"We'll end the match with knockout or submission." The figure drew the sai and gave them an elaborate twirl. "And it starts now!"

'Man, I never thought I'd find someone who was more ridiculous in battle than Tsubasa,' Ranma thought disgustedly, as the shinobi wannabe began sidling toward him in the most ridiculously exaggerated parody he'd ever seen of the way movies messed up a ninja's stalking gait. 'This is one guy who really needs to find a new hobby. Guess convincing him of that is gonna be my good deed for the afternoon.'

By now his opponent had sidled close enough for Ranma to clearly note that the edges of the sai were as dull as butter knives. The pigtailed martial artist had seen letter openers that came to a sharper point, and can openers made of higher-quality steel. Shaking his head one last time in aggravation and resignation, he darted forward, tensing for a power kick to his opponent's shoulder. Ranma was all but certain that the first bit of real pain would—

The instant he had committed to the attack, everything changed. With speed not far from the Amaguriken, his opponent whipped his right arm in an arc, releasing one sai. Ranma was caught too much by surprise to block, and its hilt smacked him in the center of his forehead. His opponent's remaining sai was airborne as well, released from the grip of the left hand to land discarded on the ground.

Before it had fallen more than an inch, its former wielder had closed the remaining distance to Ranma. He'd been caught at the perfect moment of awkwardness at the beginning of his own attack, knocked off-balance by the sudden shift in his opponent's apparent skill level as much as the blow to his forehead. And fast though he was, he couldn't recover nearly quickly enough now. The challenger pivoted as he reached Ranma, bringing his left elbow up diagonally into his target's jaw. The blow disoriented Ranma further and knocked him back a pace. Meanwhile, his attacker was still turning, coming out of a full three-sixty, his right heel driving into Ranma's side in a tight spin kick. Another rotation, and another kick, a more powerful one that slammed into his hip and actually knocked him a couple of inches into the air. He hit the ground and rolled a few feet backward before forcing himself back to his feet.

The entire attack sequence had taken a little more than two seconds.

"There's a Western saying for times like these." This time there was a clear sense of smug amusement behind the gruff tones. "Never judge a book by its cover." He inclined his head. "Or its pillowcase."

"You fight as dirty as my old man," Ranma snapped, assuming a real stance this time.

"I'll take that as a compliment."

THAT comment was enough to jar the Saotome heir right out of his readiness. His eyes widened, and his jaw dropped, and his opponent blazed forward again.

Declining to be caught off-guard this time, Ranma backpedaled, blocking the flurry of kicks and punches with no real difficulty. At the first available break in the tempo of the attack, he launched a few quick blows of his own. His opponent couldn't quite manage to deflect them, absorbing them instead on crossed forearms.

And then, as Ranma's next punch shot forward, the nameless challenger lifted one arm and lowered the other, twisting them to pin Ranma's wrist. The pigtailed martial artist swung his free hand around in a hard blow aimed toward the elbow. It would have freed his arm had it landed, but his opponent was already moving, pivoting in the same direction as Ranma's countermove, sending him flying into the air with a heavily modified Judo throw.

Of course, finding himself involuntarily airborne was rather less trouble for a practitioner of Saotome Anything Goes than for the average teenage martial artist. Ranma righted himself effortlessly and landed in a new ready stance. This time it was his opponent's turn to boggle, shock causing the tight stance to loosen, and his jaw hanging slack (not that this could be seen behind the mask, of course).

"Nice try," Ranma snorted, and dashed forward. 'Two can play the 'attack-while-the-other-guy's-distracted-game.'

WHAM! His opponent flowed smoothly to one side, reaching out almost gently to grasp hold of Ranma's outstretched arm, redirecting his momentum with an Aikido technique that sent the pigtailed martial artist slamming into the ground. Ranma quickly rolled to one side, evading the follow-up Dragon Stamp (a technique that was certainly NOT found in the art of Aikido).He sprang back to his feet, immediately following this with a more impressive jump that put a couple of meters between himself and his foe.

It had not escaped Ranma's attention that holding back was giving him the worst of these exchanges. For a brief moment he considered going to full Amaguriken speed and unloading a couple hundred punches and kicks into his opponent. Nah, he decided, he was irritated, but not that irritated. Instead… "MOKO TAKABISHA!"

The other didn't even try to dodge. Instead, he shot his hands forward as if to intercept the chi blast. Then, as the missile struck, he ripped them apart with a grunt. The chi projectile shattered, for want of a better word, exploding into coruscating sparks and streams of energy.

Through the fading haze came his opponent, charging forward and launching a whirlwind series of punches. He had been fast before, but now—temporarily boosted as he was with power leeched from the disrupted chi attack—it was all Ranma could do to block the offensive.

Block it the pigtailed martial artist did, however, holding nothing back now that he was purely on the defensive. His guard held rock steady, and after half a minute the other's onslaught faltered. The blows had been incredibly fast, Ranma noted, but not really all that powerful.

As his mysterious adversary broke the attack, Ranma heard him gulping for air. "Sounds like somebody's about hit his limit," he observed with his trademark irritatingly cocky grin. "Tryin' to beat me with speed tends to do that. Ya might be able to give me a workout in a couple more years, though."

The other gave a wordless cry of rage and charged forward, in an attack almost as sloppy as his initial pose had appeared. It was Ranma's turn to shift quickly to the side. Instead of an Aikido move—he wasn't really fond of them anyway—he swung low and snaked one foot out to sweep his enemy.

The Saotome heir never would be quite able to reconstruct what happened next. His attack did indeed take his opponent's feet out from under him… but somehow the other twisted in midair (how the HECK did he get so flexible?!), jackknifing both legs around to catch Ranma's upper right arm between his ankles. This left him inverted, his bent neck and hunched shoulders all that kept his head from hitting the ground. He bent at the waist, his torso coming up, and one hand shooting ahead and around to touch Ranma in just the right spot on the back of his neck.

Even as his opponent's legs had locked around his arm, Ranma had begun moving to disengage. And so the strike to his Instant Unconsciousness point was merely a glancing connection which left him stunned and reeling, rather than taking a short nap. His opponent continued the motion into a flip away from Ranma, landing feet first and turning back to face him.

"Yield." The other was still panting for breath, but neither that nor the hoarse tone of voice disguised the triumph behind the word.

Yield?! Give up?! Like HELL he would! Ranma would have liked to yell his defiance back in his enemy's face, but remaining on his feet was taking just about all he had left. The world was spinning and twisting in dizzying whirls. His vision was blurry, and there was a roaring in his ears. His muscles felt like water…

Ranma's body might have been on the verge of collapse, but he still could still access his chi. With a supreme effort, he steadied one hand, croaked, "Moko Takabisha," and loosed a ball of energy. The other just shook his head at the sight. A valiant attempt, and very impressive that he'd managed it, but the attack had gone wildly astray, its course sending it out of the lot and into the street rather than toward Ranma's opponent.

The chi smashed into a fire hydrant… and as inevitably as the sun rising in the east, the resultant spray of water struck the nearest victim of Jusenkyo. Ranma-chan got back to her feet, bruised from the impact, and very, VERY unhappy, but no longer suffering from the shiatsu strike. The Instant Unconsciousness point was just slightly different in men and women.

"What the HELL?!"

The cry resounded through the air, easily drowning out the noise of the rushing water. Ranma-chan blinked. That certainly hadn't been the gruff tones the other had been using until now. In fact…

His challenger reached up with one trembling hand and ripped off the ninja mask. Even before the action was complete, Ranma-chan already sensed the important part of what was going to be revealed.

The cloth came away, revealing an angular face framed by shoulder-length brown hair. The cheekbones were sharper than would normally be considered attractive. The eyes were a tawny hazel color, with some trick of the overall facial structure making them seem as piercing as those of a hawk. The lips could not remotely be described as full; at the moment, shock had whitened them and thinned them even further. The nose was thin as well, and sharp as a knife's edge.

And the neck held absolutely no Adam's Apple whatsoever. This was a girl rather less attractive than he usually encountered, but it was a girl nonetheless.

"Care to explain yourself, Ranma?" she asked, shock and discomfiture plain to be heard. "This isn't the kind of thing a girl expects to see when she meets her fiancé for the first time."

For a moment, Ranma-chan just stood there, bedraggled, dripping wet, shoulders slumped, head downcast, the very picture of someone who feels like the heavens are having just a little too much fun at her expense. Then she heaved a deep sigh, straightened up, and said, "Any particular reason you didn't introduce yourself right from the start?"

Her recent opponent snorted. "Simple. You're a guy," Ranma-chan glared as she heard a definite trace of uncertainty there, "and that usually means you'd hold back if you knew you were fighting a girl. I didn't want that. I wanted to know how good you really were.

"Guess I saw that, all right. But I think we've got some more important things to talk about." The girl strode over, closing the distance between them and peering right into Ranma-chan's face. "No, it's not that illusion trick Lao Che used," she said to herself absently. "Your eyes would be glowing. Is this real? How the heck did you turn into a girl?!"

"Guess you never heard of Jusenkyo, huh?" When the other girl shook her head, Ranma-chan gave the basic explanation.

"I don't believe it," the other girl said, though her tone made it clear she was protesting against the strangeness rather than calling Ranma-chan a liar. "I've seen some crazy things, but nothing this bad." She regarded Ranma-chan contemplatively for a bit, then stepped back and fixed her with a piercing stare. "So how do you feel about this curse, Saotome?"

"What kinda stupid question is that?!" Ranma-chan all but exploded. "I am a GUY. Tried a whole buncha times to get it cured, but it never seems to work out. I HATE the damn thing!!"

"I hear you." Ranma-chan wondered why the other girl looked relieved. "No offense, I just had to ask. So you said hot water will turn you back to normal, right? Let's go get some… there's a cafe right over there."

A few minutes later, the two of them were seated at a table after each making use of one of the restrooms. Ranma was back in his birth form. His newest fiancée had taken the opportunity to change her outfit and remove the chest bindings she'd used to conceal her true gender. Not that it had been a hard secret to keep, as the figure this revealed was a bit less impressive than Akane's.

Once they were seated, a rather awkward silence fell, broken only when the girl ordered tea from a passing waitress. Ranma barely noticed when the beverage arrived; he was too busy thinking dark thoughts toward Genma. He nearly jumped out of his chair when his companion cleared her throat loudly.

"So! Where do you want to start getting to know each other?" she asked.

"Ah, okay, how about telling me your name?" Ranma asked.

A long, even more awkward moment of silence, as the as-yet-anonymous girl was now staring incredulously at him. At last she said, "You didn't care enough to remember your own fiancée's name?!" Shock was the strongest emotion present in her tone, but hints of pain and anger were noticeable as well.

"Seein' as how my old man never told me about you, it's not really my fault, now is it?"

"He… never… told… you?!" At this point, shock had completely pushed aside pain and anger.

"Nope," Ranma said bitterly. "That ain't how it works. Pop never mentions these stupid arrangements until one of them blows up in my face. You're… let's see… yeah, you're the fourth fiancée Pop's arranged for me. How many more are lurking out there, only my old man knows."

"I see." The girl's face was nearly as white as a sheet. "I'm… my name is Kaede. Kaede Hayashibara."

"An' what's your story? I mean, when and how and why did we get engaged?" Ranma asked resignedly.

"It…" Kaede took a deep breath, seeming to pull herself together a little. "It was about eleven years ago. I may not get all the details right, because I was off visiting relatives at the time this happened. My father told me the story later.

"Anyway, at the time, my father owned and operated a dojo. One day, your training trip brought you and Genma to his door. Your father challenged mine; if he won, Dad would provide the two of you with room and board for a week. If he lost, you and Genma would do any odd jobs that needed doing, free of charge."

Kaede looked down into her still-untouched cup of tea. "Dad's eyes still light up when he talks about that battle, Ranma," she said. "Our family has some very effective techniques that were never taught to the regular students. Dad used them all when he fought your father, but he couldn't take him down. He simply couldn't keep up with the way your father switched techniques so quickly, or with the sheer experience Genma had.

"After the fight was over, he humbly requested that Genma stay and teach him and me. Your father refused, saying that if he were chained down in one place he'd never be able to make you into the martial artist he wanted. He said you were going to be the best of your generation some day, but only if he could train you properly. And that meant keeping to the open road, going around and learning the best of what all the other schools had to offer, and working it into your own Anything Goes style.

"The way Dad tells it, he had never heard anyone so wise, so understanding of what it truly meant to be a martial artist." Kaede was still looking down, so she missed Ranma's rolling eyes and his head-shake of disgust. "He and Genma talked a while longer. Eventually they agreed to engage the two of us, and in return Dad would teach your father our family's techniques."

'So this time the old man didn't actually take anything away from them, huh? Least this is better than that business with Ucchan,' Ranma thought sourly. Out loud he said, "And we weren't supposed to take you with us when we left?"

Kaede shook her head. "Dad wanted that, but Genma said no. You were only about six years old then, and I was seven. He said that if Dad and I went with the two of you, you and I would grow up thinking of ourselves as brother and sister." She paused, then said, softer and only to herself, "That's right, isn't it? It wouldn't have worked out if we'd gone along with them. But why would he arrange other fiancées too…?"

Ranma snorted. "Come on. Why don't I take you to him an' let you ask him that yourself?"

"…Right." Kaede's eyes hardened. She slugged down the now-cool tea in one long series of gulps, and got to her feet. "Let's go, Ranma."

Genma tensed. The situation was critical, even desperate. He would need every scrap of his cunning and skill to escape this time. Desperately he wracked his brain, searching for inspiration… and then it struck. He stiffened, and said, in just the right tone of suppressed anxiety, "Don't look now, Tendo, but I think I see another prince making off with your daughter. "

Soun blanched, and spun to look in the direction Genma had indicated. Instantly the elder Saotome struck. His hands flashed across the shogi board, removing some pieces, replacing others, and rearranging the rest. Once he was content with the revised position, he cleared his throat and said, "Oops, my mistake, sorry about that. It was just an effect of the laundry billowing in the wind." Soun turned back to face him, panic already fading into resignation as he realized what he was going to see. Sure enough, the new configuration of the board allowed Genma to end his turn with victory. "Good game, old friend. Shall we go again?"

The Tendo patriarch closed his eyes and breathed heavily. "Saotome, there are some lines that should not be crossed. How would you like it if I distracted you by saying I saw your son running off with yet another girl?!"

"Hey, Pop!"

The shout had come from behind him. Wondering why Soun had suddenly gone grey in the face, Genma turned to face his son. "What is it, b—"He cut the last word off, managing only with difficulty not to let his jaw hang open in shock and dismay.

"Hello, Genma," Kaede said in a clipped tone. She gave a very sketchy bow. "I am Kaede Hayashibara, daughter of Soichiro Hayashibara, who you met eleven years ago. You and my father arranged an engagement between Ranma and me. Would you care to explain why there are three other girls who can say the same thing?"

Had the girl come at another time, things might have gone differently. But the recent frantic round of cheat shogi had left Genma's brain warmed up and limber, as opposed to the usual somnolent state. And so, he had the presence of mind to school his expression to calmness, and say, "Come with me, then, girl, and I'll explain."

He rose to his feet and began walking in the direction of the dojo. Kaede and Ranma followed, causing Genma to halt. "Not you, boy," he said. "I need to speak with her privately."

Ranma snorted. "So you can feed her some line of bull without me there to keep her from being suckered? I don't think so."

Genma forced a mixture of disappointment and disapproval into his tone. "Boy, she doesn't need you to hold her hand. The fact that she's here at all means she's already proved she can take care of herself." He turned to Kaede. "Will you listen to what I have to say?"

Kaede took a long moment to consider, looking first at Genma, then turning her gaze to Ranma. Eventually she said, "Ranma, let me go and talk to him now. Don't know why he wouldn't want you to listen in, but if it sounds like it isn't a good reason I'll come to you afterward and see what you think about what he said."

Ranma gave a long sigh. Yet another person who didn't listen to him. "Fine, Kaede. Guess I'll look for you in a few minutes then." He walked out into the yard and began practicing Amaguriken-speed kicks to let out frustration.

Kaede and Genma continued toward the dojo, Genma leading the way and walking a little more slowly than he might have. He kept his face impassive, but inwardly his mind was whirling with a speed it very rarely attained, calling back all the memories of the encounter with the Hayashibara family and the subsequent engagement deal, twisting and turning and plotting the best way to 'explain' things now to Kaede. 'Let's see, it happened a few months after that run-in with the Kuonjis…'

They reached the dojo, which fortunately was not currently inhabited by Akane. Genma sat down in a lotus position near the center of the building. Kaede seated herself as well, and put on her best challenging stare. Genma let the silence hold for just a minute longer, then said, "You were not to seek out my son until you had achieved a certain goal. Have you done that?"

"I have," Kaede growled, annoyed at having her integrity questioned, and her temper beginning to fray at the delays. As far as she was concerned, the only important question for now was the one she'd already asked. "I didn't come looking for Ranma until I had defeated the heirs of ten consecutive dojo, without one loss to break the string of wins."

Genma inclined his head. "Well done, then." Privately he was more than a little dismayed that his tactic to keep this engagement from ever rearing its ugly head again had failed. He would have been willing to bet quite a lot that a girl would never have been able to accomplish that task. But apparently she had. Given what he remembered of her father, there was no way she would be here now if she had backed down from the challenge. "How did you learn so well? Did your father do what he had said he was going to do, leave your dojo behind and take you on the road, so that you could learn in the true fashion of Anything Goes?"

"He did." Kaede's voice was grimmer than ever. "When I was ten years old he entrusted the dojo to someone else, and the two of us traveled all over Japan. Even into China and India for a little while." Her voice began to rise. "I spent eight years preparing to meet my fiancé, and—"

"Did you?" Genma cut her off, the question striking like a snake. "Did you really spend that much time preparing to meet my boy… or did you train to become the best martial artist that YOU could be? The heir that your father told me he wanted, that you wanted to be?"

Kaede blinked. She was conscious of a definite feeling of having the wind taken out of her sails. "Um… ah…" she pulled herself together somewhat, "Okay, it was the second one." With her balance recovered, her spirit began to rise again as well. "And what does that have to do with this situation, anyway?"

"It has EVERYTHING to do with it!" Genma declared. "Surely you have learned that the path of the true martial artist is fraught with peril and challenges. It is in striving against those that we become who we are, that we test ourselves and grow stronger! Have you not seen this?"

"Of course I have."

"Have you ever backed down from a challenge?"

"I have not!"

"No. You’ve met them and risen higher because of it." Genma paused for effect. "In fact, I dare say many of them were put before you by your father, for that very purpose. That was one lesson he had learned even before I met him, all those years ago."

"I'm still waiting to hear how this fits in with you getting other fiancées for your son besides me." Kaede's tone made it clear that she wouldn't wait much longer.

"There are two reasons." Genma met her gaze squarely, calling on every scrap of fortitude he could scrape together, and thanking all the kami that she hadn't grown up into a particularly pretty girl. No Saotome male in the last five generations had been able to deal well with those. "First… I want the best possible match for my boy. And so, yes, I did arrange several engagements, with girls who had great potential for the Art and the promise of strength of character. But who was to say whether, ten years down the road, those promises would come true? Already we've seen one girl who didn't have enough drive or grit to stick to it in the face of competition, and dropped out. And others haven't shown up yet, haven't even bothered to try to find their fiancé." Or at least he'd managed to cover his tracks well enough to keep them away.

"So you're saying this is just another competition." There was anger in Kaede's tone, but not so much as before. It had been diluted with resignation. "Just one more challenge I have to rise to, if I'm going to be worthy of him? You've got a pretty high opinion of your son, Genma Saotome."

"He's the best I've ever seen for his age." For this moment, there was no twisted truth or white lies in what Genma was saying. "He has the most potential of anyone I've ever seen. He is what I wanted him to be… the best martial artist of his generation. But that doesn't mean either he or I can slack off now."

Now back to putting a good spin on things. "That's the other side of the coin. How do you think the boy feels about this business with multiple fiancées?" He didn't bother to wait for her answer. "It's certainly not easy on him. But like you, he doesn't back away from a challenge. And this is just one more I've arranged for him, not just one trial but a long series of them, to strengthen him AND the girl he ends up marrying. Their life together will be all the sweeter for having had to go through such turmoil to get there."

"I see." Kaede fell silent, studying him intently for a few moments. Genma tried not to sweat. At last she said, "And why exactly did you not want Ranma to hear this?"

Fortunately Genma was prepared for the question. He heaved a deep, theatrical sigh. "I think there's one thing your father did better in your training than I managed with Ranma. It seems clear that you understood just why he placed obstacles in your path—to spur you on, to make you struggle higher. But Ranma has never accepted that. I think he believes that he has become as good as he is in spite of my efforts, rather than because of them.

"And so I didn't want him here now. He's still not ready to hear my reasons. I don't know when he will be." Genma looked Kaede straight in the eye. "The boy will doubtless tell you stories of what we've been up to on the road. There were times when I had to act without honor, to set up new challenges for us to strive against. And I'll admit I made some mistakes." Hopefully that would cover his rear, if Ranma ever told this girl about the Cat-Fist. "But I did what I did to present the Art with my son, and to give the Art to him. Someday he will understand."

Despite his frustrations, Ranma only practiced for a short while before breaking it off, his stomach reminding him in no uncertain terms that lunch time had already passed. Kaede found him in the kitchen, attending to a wide variety of leftovers.

Ranma grunted on seeing her, swallowing a mouthful of rice. "So how'd it go? You want any help beatin' up the old fool, or did ya already take care of that?"

Kaede sighed, shaking her head. "I can't say I'm happy about it, Ranma, but I guess I can understand his reasons. Besides, kicking my future father-in-law's butt probably isn't the best way to start things off."

"That must've been some story he told you," Ranma commented sourly.

His newest fiancée frowned slightly. Ranma's lack of respect for his father was beginning to grate on her. Especially considering how skilled he'd become under Genma's training. "He said that he arranged so many fiancées so there'd be a wide field to pick the best from, once we were all grown up. What if he HAD stopped with one, and the girl turned out to be some prissy little princess without any real drive or talent for the Art? Where would that leave you, huh, Saotome? Genma may've been pretty underhanded about it, but at least he made sure that wouldn't happen. The girl you'll end up with is the girl who's proved she can keep up with you, who can add the most to the Anything Goes style." The determined cast to her jaw made it quite clear whom Kaede intended this to be.

Ranma chuckled grimly. "That's what he told you the reason was, huh?"

"Yes, it is." True to her word, Kaede didn't bring up the part about creating new challenges for Ranma. "That's why I said I wasn't happy, to find out I still had a ways to go, and things to prove, but I understand where he's coming from."

The Saotome heir hesitated for a moment. Should he bust the old panda right now? It wouldn't be too hard to force Genma to admit he'd fed this girl a line of bull. Just get Soun in the same room, and his father wouldn't be able to keep up that 'I'll give Ranma to the best girl' line for long.

Then he decided not to bother. His newest fiancée didn't seem particularly eager to listen to what he had to say. Let her figure it out for herself. With the way Genma was always pushing him toward Akane, Kaede would catch on to the truth soon enough.

Meanwhile, she was speaking again. "So… you want to fill me in on my competition, Ranma?"

"Huh? Whatcha mean by that?"

She tsked impatiently. "The other girls. You said you had three other fiancées… Oh, wait, one of them dropped out though, right? That's what Genma said. So tell me about the other two."

"Other three. I also got one that didn't have anything to do with Genma."

Kaede paled slightly. A fiancée that hadn't been arranged by Genma… was this girl someone Ranma himself had picked out? "Who's that? And what right does she think she has to someone who's already got legitimate fiancées?"

Ranma gave another of those grim chuckles. "If ya asked her, she'd say it was you girls who were poaching on somebody who's already taken. Accordin' to her laws, she and I are actually married." He paused, waiting for a comment from Kaede. When she just stood there blinking, he went on, "Her name's Shampoo, and she's from this crazy tribe of Chinese Amazons."

One last blink, and then Kaede breathed a loud sigh of annoyance. "That old myth?! Don't tell me you actually believed her."

"Ah… huh?" Ranma asked, his train of thought momentarily derailed.

"Oh, sure, I've heard the rumors too, about a secret society of warrior women hidden deep within the wilds of China. Called the Joketsuzu or something like that, supposed to have really powerful secret techniques. Makes for an entertaining story, Ranma, but that's all it is. Please don't tell me you had some Chinese chick come onto you pretending to be an actual, honest-to-goodness Amazon, and you believed it."

"Not exactly," Ranma said dryly. "More like Pop and me visited that 'mythical' village." Kaede grimaced, plainly unconvinced, and opened her mouth to protest. Ranma continued speaking before she could. "Look, I know it's crazy, but it's true. Just stop by the Cat Café restaurant here in Nerima some time and you'll find three of them: Shampoo, my so-called 'wife', a really annoying guy named Mousse, and a three-hundred-year-old dried-up mummy of an Amazon elder, who's got enough special techniques up her sleeve to kick any three of my rivals' butts at the same time."

"So those stories are actually true?" There was still a note of skepticism in Kaede's voice, but it was lessening now. She reminded herself that the little matter of Ranma's Jusenkyo curse had already established that her fiancé had gone farther off the beaten path and seen stranger stuff than she had. "These Amazons are supposed to be fierce, skilled warriors from what I've heard. What’s this 'Shampoo' like?"

Ranma shrugged. "She's the strongest fighter out of my fiancées, that's for sure." He missed the way Kaede's eyes narrowed as he said this. "And yeah, her whole culture pretty much revolves around being strong warriors. The girls even have ta marry any guy from outside their tribe who defeats them in battle. You know, to get his skill and strength added into the village."

"Is that what happened to you?" Kaede asked.

"More or less," Ranma grumbled.

It didn't look to Kaede like he really wanted to pursue the subject any further, which was fine by her. "Hmm… well, tell me about the other two. The ones Genma arranged."

He shrugged. "Okay. One of 'em just got back to Nerima a little before you showed up. This's the second time around for her. Her name's Kaori Daikoku, and she came by once before to try and press her claim, but then she gave up and left. She practices the Martial Arts Takeout style."

"One of those people who stick with a weird minor discipline. Gotcha." And if this girl had given up once before, Kaede didn't think it would be all that hard to see that she did so again.

"She's pretty good with it, but yeah, she doesn't have anything like our experience," Ranma said. "Still, she was good enough to nearly win a Martial Arts Takeout Race, even against other people fightin' with different styles. Losin' that was why she had to leave the first time."

"What, did she bet her engagement on it?"

"Not exactly. She challenged Akane, that's my other fiancée, to the race, and said that if she lost she'd go away and leave me here." He snorted. "But she never did say she'd be gone forever."

"Sneaky," Kaede said with grudging approval, mixed with annoyance that apparently this other girl hadn't really given up in the first place. Still, she was confident that her skills would be enough to bury a rival who limited herself to something as silly as Martial Arts Takeout. "So what about Akane?"

"Akane Tendo, daughter of my old man's best friend, and heir to the Tendo school of Anything Goes."

She interrupted him before he could say more. "Tendo school… of Anything Goes?! Isn't this the Tendo dojo?" That was what she thought she remembered glimpsing on the sign out front when she and Ranma came in. "And you and your father are staying here?"

"Yep. Like I said, Pop and Mr. Tendo are old training buddies. The engagement deal there is to unite the branches of the Anything Goes school, an' have Akane and me take over the dojo."

Kaede was now fighting a grim feeling of trepidation. 'An heir to another branch of the Anything Goes school?! Someone else of Ranma's caliber?! How can I compete with that… wait,' now confusion added its voice to the din of conflicting emotions, 'Ranma said Shampoo was the best fighter out of his fiancées…'

"Kasumi, are you in here…?" Akane's voice trailed off as she entered the kitchen and took a good long look at the sight before her. Her mouth thinned into a hard line, before she asked, "Ranma? Who's this?"

"Hey, Akane," Ranma said in a tired voice. "Meet Kaede Hayashibara, newest fiancée arranged for me by my old man."

Kaede took a long, critical look, analyzing the sight before her. Akane was standing ramrod straight, her fists balled up at her sides, a scowl on her face, and a battle aura flickering around her. "You're Akane? Ranma's fiancée Akane Tendo? As in the heir to the Tendo school of Anything Goes?"

"That's right!" Akane declared, turning the full force of her glare onto Kaede. "You have a problem with that?!"

Another long moment of silence, as Kaede gave her a second searching stare. Recognizing the burning quality in her battle aura that spoke of unpolished talent and lack of control. Checking out the youngest Tendo's pretty, impractical-for-combat outfit. Considering her cute haircut and the light makeup she was wearing. Noting the lack of calluses on Akane's hands, and the hint of baby fat she still carried. Remembering the way she'd moved as she first entered the kitchen, and looking at her stance now, neither of which had shown the centered, deliberate grace Kaede or Ranma carried as second nature.

Kaede got to her feet, a hard smile in place. She walked over and gave Akane a condescending pat on the shoulder. "No, Princess, I don't have any problem with it at ALL." She turned and waved to Ranma. "See you around, Saotome."

It hadn't taken her long to get directions to the Cat Café. Not long after leaving the Tendo home, Kaede approached the Amazon stronghold, stopping a few steps away and examining it. It seemed like a nice enough place. She could see through the main window that there were plenty of customers inside, more than she would have expected for this time of day. Whatever else was true about this place, the food must be pretty good.

A thought which reminded her that she hadn't had lunch yet. After spending a few more minutes scrutinizing the building, Kaede went inside.

On entering the restaurant, she was met by a tall Chinese boy with white robes, long black hair, and glasses pushed up on top of his forehead. "Welcome to the Cat Café," he said, sounding a little harried and frazzled to Kaede. "How many in your party?"

"Just one," Kaede said, wondering idly whether he'd wanted to know if anyone would be joining her later, or if he just hadn't been sure how many people he was talking to now. Judging from the way he was facing the ornamental dragon statue off to her side, she suspected the latter.

"Right this way." Mousse turned and led Kaede to a nearby table, pulling out a chair for her and producing a menu from his sleeve. "Would you care to hear today's specials?"

"Actually, let's start by you putting me at a different table. One that doesn't already have anybody seated at it," Kaede said dryly, regarding the snickering couple on the other side of the table. "I don't think these two want me barging in on their fun."

Mousse winced and pulled his glasses down into position. "Ah, right." He led Kaede over to an unoccupied table. She seated herself and opened the menu, glancing at the prices. Quite reasonable, if the food was as good as the number of customers would indicate. Kaede ordered tea and a small mushroom ramen, and watched the waiter scurry back to the kitchen. Once he'd relayed her order, he cleared the dishes off a recently vacated table (Kaede blinked as the plates and bowls just seemed to vanish into his robe), returned to the front of the restaurant, and resumed watching the door for new arrivals.

'If I had to guess, I'd say that was probably who Ranma meant by a 'really annoying guy named Mousse',' Kaede mused. She noted that he had already pushed his glasses back on top of his forehead. 'Seems like a waste. He looks like he's a pretty good martial artist, from the way he moves. And that trick with the dishes was impressive. But if he won't keep those things on his face, he might as well pack it up and go back to China.'

She turned her attention to the main body of the restaurant, looking around for the mysterious Shampoo. Presumably the girl would come out of the kitchen to deliver her order of ramen, at least.

No sooner had Kaede finished the thought than she nearly swallowed her tongue. A small bowl of ramen came flying through the window connecting the dining room with the kitchen, spinning through the air and landing on the table before her. The bowl rocked its way through a few revolutions before settling down. Through all this, the ramen inside barely stirred.

Kaede just sat there and stared for a few seconds, her reverie broken only by the arrival of a teapot, cup, and saucer. She gulped, then reached out and tapped the side of the teapot. Aside from the heat, she could just barely make out the fading remnants of some sort of chi charge. An experimental poke with a chopstick confirmed that the ramen broth was indeed a liquid, not the near-solid gelatinous mass that common sense insisted it would have had to be to have survived its flight without spilling.

As a martial artist, she had learned that sometimes common sense needs to take a ride in the back seat. Without further ado, Kaede tucked into her meal.

Just as she was popping the last bite of noodles into her mouth, she heard the boy at the doorway say "Welcome to the Cat… Shampoo!!" She whipped her head around. As she took in the sight thus revealed, Kaede's features arranged themselves into a curious mixture of a smirk and a frown.

The newcomer stood in the doorway, regarding her greeter with a scowl of resigned annoyance that did nothing to mar the beauty of her face. Her arms were folded crossly beneath an impressive bosom. Her purple hair was long and lustrous. Her skin had the beauty of porcelain, except where a faint flush had pinkened her cheeks. Her eyes were large and thickly lashed, and appeared crimson as far as Kaede could tell at this distance. Presumably the girl preferred contact lenses to spectacles.

'Another beauty queen pretending to be a martial artist. And this is the girl that's the strongest fighter out of them all? Maybe I shouldn't even bother looking up this Kaori person.' While she was relieved, it could not be said that Kaede was completely happy at seeing Shampoo's level of beauty. She was under no illusions when it came to her own looks… 'striking' would be about the best spin that could reasonably be put on them. She might wish nature had been a little more generous there, but the facts were otherwise, and she hadn't ever seen much point in trying to deny it. Far better to play to one's strengths, which she had done ever since her father had begun training her in the Art. Those skills were what would make the difference in this contest, she reminded herself, and also remembered that Ranma hadn't seemed nervous or excited when he'd been talking to her about Shampoo.

All the same, that didn't completely quench a feeling of jealousy at the sight of her competitor's exotic beauty. Kaede turned back around, picking up her tea and taking a gulp… which she then spewed out as the vision before her registered.

Cologne spun a chopstick blindingly fast, blocking the liquid before any of it could splash on her. "Good day, young lady," she said dryly, from her typical perch atop her staff. "I don't mean to be rude, but you have the look of a seasoned martial artist. Now, that's hardly uncommon in this town, but it also seemed to me that you were looking at my great-granddaughter with some hostility. Do you have business with my Shampoo?"

All sorts of warning bells were going off in Kaede's mind now. "Nothing that can't wait," she said slowly, "but if you could spare her for the afternoon I'd appreciate it."

"For a challenge match?" Cologne asked, her eyes narrowing shrewdly. Kaede inclined her head. "I could ask you why you want one, but I suppose I'll learn soon enough from Shampoo herself. Great-Granddaughter!" she called, raising her voice and attracting Shampoo's attention.

The lavender-haired Amazon looked up from clearing dishes off a table and trotted over. "What you want, Great-Grandmother?"

Kaede had now schooled her features into an impassive expression. But she no longer had any urge to smile triumphantly.

From this distance, certain details that she hadn't been able to make out before were all too apparent. Akane's hands had been soft and smooth, but this girl's were as strong and capable as Kaede's own. Even in the short distance she'd covered to reach Kaede's table, it had been obvious that Shampoo moved with the easy grace of a seasoned warrior. And for all the lush curves the Amazon sported, Kaede could now clearly see the underlying musculature that spoke of years of serious training.

Pushing black thoughts of unfairness to the back of her mind, Kaede spoke. “I’m new in these parts, Shampoo, and I've heard you're the best female fighter my age around here. I’d like to see how good you really are."

The empty lot where she had faced Ranma earlier wasn't far off. It seemed appropriate to Kaede to have this match there as well. She led the way, keeping her eyes straight ahead, and doing her best to keep track of her opponent through other senses. This didn't prove to be a problem. She remained clearly aware of Shampoo's position relative to her own for the entire walk, which Kaede considered a hopeful sign; as far as she had seen, the more skilled and experienced a martial artist was, the more likely she would try to mute her presence without even thinking about it. Kaede was actually forcing herself not to do that, and it was making her feel a little awkward. Still, that should just lead Shampoo to underestimate her.

Shampoo frowned slightly as she followed her challenger. The other girl seemed to be trying to put a mask over her real skill by moving a bit awkwardly. No true warrior ought to stoop to such a trick. And if she did, at least she should have the good sense to do it from the very beginning, not start out moving normally and then switch tactics.

When they reached the empty lot, Shampoo noticed, with some trepidation, that apparently a fire hydrant had burst here not too long ago. The hydrant itself had been capped off, and there was a fairly large quantity of mud. No puddles as far as she could see, though. As long as the hydrant didn't blow again, she shouldn't have to worry about random transformation. Still, it was annoying… normally if Shampoo had good reason to expect a fight, she bathed with waterproof soap beforehand. Of course, most fights in Nerima that involved her happened unexpectedly, but Shampoo had at least thought that the Japanese custom of sending a challenge letter ahead of time would be enough to keep her curse from making a difference in a formal match.

"Thought Japanese way was to send letter, not just show up and challenge," the Amazon remarked irritatedly as Kaede moved to the center of the lot and turned to face her.

The girl in question rolled her eyes. "Jeez, first Ranma, then you. Is EVERYBODY in Nerima that formal all the time?!"

Shampoo's eyes narrowed dangerously. "What business you have with Airen, outsider girl?"

Kaede hadn't actually intended to reveal her motives just yet. She muttered something unpleasant, then spoke louder. "Your so-called 'husband' is my fiancé, Shampoo. Arranged by his dad and mine when we were young."

"ANOTHER one?!" Shampoo yelled incredulously. "Shampoo not BELIEVE this!! First he make stupid promises to get other girls for Airen, then he give stupid training that make husband afraid of Shampoo! How could idiot panda father cause so much trouble for me by accident?!"

"Training that makes Ranma afraid of you?" Kaede queried. "What're you talking about?"

That snapped Shampoo's attention back to the present right speedily. "Is not your concern, obstacle girl," she said, menace thick in her words. "I guess this not just the random challenge you say it was before. Is so?"

Kaede inclined her head. "Ranma said you were the best fighter out of his fiancées. I'm guessing that's why the question of who gets him hasn't ever been settled… because the strongest one didn't have a legitimate claim." She matched Shampoo's glare. "I have an honor-bound promise between Ranma's father and mine, that Ranma and I should be married. Genma told me that the girl who showed she could give the most to the Anything Goes school would be the one who ended up with Ranma. I'm going to show that that's me."

"Then you is living in dream world," Shampoo said disgustedly. "Two reasons why. You think Ranma's father support anybody other than stupid violent weakling daughter of his best friend? You blind and stupid. But Shampoo already know that…" she pulled out her bonbori maces and gave them a twirl, "…because you say you will defeat me."

"We'll see," Kaede said, doing her best to hide the fact that the sudden appearance of the weapons (far too large for Shampoo to have concealed them in any way that Kaede understood) had chipped a piece out of her confidence. "Anyway, enough talking. I came here to fight. The match is to knockout or surrender, Shampoo."

The lavender-haired girl smiled menacingly. "Amazons never surrender. Be glad to give you knockout, though."

The fight was short. And perhaps more brutal than it might have been.

Kaede came in hard and fast, trusting in her speed and flexibility to get past the maces. With Shampoo's build, it seemed like her best bet—the Chinese girl was clearly more oriented toward strength and endurance than speed. Trying to outlast her didn't strike Kaede as a good idea at all. And so she struck with all the speed she could muster, aiming her right hand in a knife strike toward a particular nerve cluster in Shampoo's elbow, while with her left hand pulling out one of the emergency tonfa she kept strapped to her upper legs.

None of which past the 'trusting in her speed' part mattered. Shampoo spun one bonbori, striking Kaede in the right forearm, destroying that attack completely, then curving the weapon's path to impact on the other girl's upper leg. With her other mace she knocked aside her opponent's blow with the tonfa, continuing the strike to land her weapon solidly in the Japanese girl's stomach. The only benefit Kaede received from her strategy was that Shampoo had to invoke the Amaguriken and sacrifice some strength for speed. Kaede's arm and leg weren't broken, and the blow to her stomach just knocked the wind out of her, sending her to her knees retching and gasping for breath. Considering that Shampoo was easily capable of shattering a full-grown tree with one bonbori swing, she got off lucky.

Not that Kaede felt particularly lucky just now. In fact, she didn't feel much of anything other than the pain.

Shampoo backed away and lowered her bonbori, as it was dishonorable in the extreme to strike a defeated foe. "You give up, outsider girl?" she asked, once it looked like Kaede had recovered enough to notice the question.

Kaede gritted her teeth, and nodded. With an arm out of commission, a leg not far from it, and feelings of nausea still lurking in the pit of her stomach, there was no way she'd be able to win at this point. "You win this time," she forced out. The quickness and ease with which it had happened hurt almost more than the physical pain. "But I wonder what would've happened if you'd fought me without those goddamn maces."

"You mean, if you had weapon and Shampoo did not?" the Amazon asked ironically. "Anyway, you lose. You leave Ranma to me."

"The HELL I will!" Kaede snapped, pride forcing her back to her feet. She was careful not to assume anything that could be mistaken for a combat stance, though.

Shampoo's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You challenge me to show who is better one for Ranma," she growled. "You say this own self. And Shampoo show it is same one it has been all along. You lose fight when he is stakes, so you give up, go away, and not try get your claws on my Airen."

"Screw that," Kaede retorted. "I never said I was betting my status as Ranma's fiancée on this match. I didn't say you had to leave if you lost either, did I?"

There was a long moment of silence as the two girls faced each other. Shampoo broke it at last, returning her bonbori to storage. "Up until now, Shampoo have treat you as honorable opponent. You showing now you not have honor after all. But I give you one more chance." Kaede's eyes bugged out and her breath caught in her throat as Shampoo produced a new weapon. The Amazon ran one finger along the razor edge of the scimitar, then said, "Shampoo not here to split cat hairs about just what words you say. You challenge to show which of us is better for Ranma, we fight, you lose. So swear now on all you honor to go away and leave Ranma alone. Or Shampoo use this."

Kaede stared desperately into Shampoo's eyes, looking for something, anything that would indicate the Chinese girl was bluffing. She saw nothing there but steely determination, which was appropriate enough. Shampoo had every intention of following through on her threat if Kaede didn't acquiesce.

Although the Amazon didn't see any need to explain just how she would be using the sword. Better to let the other girl draw her own conclusions. Given how short her hair was, she might not even care if Shampoo cut off the rest of it.

'She really does mean it,' Kaede thought desperately, and with undertones of a less familiar emotion. Namely, despair. 'I can't just lose like this… not now… but what can I do?…'She gulped, looking away from the Amazon, searching frantically for something that would get her out of this.

"SHAMPOO!! Cut it OUT!!" Ranma's cry resounded through the lot.

Faster than she had moved during the entire match, Shampoo spun around, hiding the scimitar behind her back as best she could. It would have been more effective to return it to weaponspace, but she was a little too flustered to think of that. "Nihao, Airen," she said, trying to be chirpy and cheerful and glad to see him and not at all guilty. "You come to see Shampoo?"

"I don't believe this!" Ranma yelled. "I thought better of you than this, Shampoo! What were you gonna do if I didn't show up just now, huh?!"

"Sounded to me like if I didn't give up on you and leave town, she was going to cut my head off," Kaede said helpfully. She had used the opportunity to get well away from Shampoo, and was now standing much closer to Ranma. He wouldn't have any trouble getting between the two of them if Shampoo charged.

"Is not so!" the Amazon in question bristled.

"Then what were ya doing with that sword, Shampoo? Trying to scare her off?" He hoped that was it. Now that the first shock of seeing her with the sword drawn had faded, Ranma was pretty much willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, Shampoo had been here in Nerima for nearly a year now without hurting anybody.

"That right!" The Amazon nodded her head vigorously. "Would have let her go without hurting her if she too, too stubborn to give up."

"Bullshit!" Kaede snarled. "I saw your eyes. You meant every word you said!"

"Is not so!" Shampoo returned, but her voice faltered halfway through as she realized just what she was saying. She had just meant to issue another denial of ever intending to hurt her opponent, and hadn't paid close enough attention to what Kaede was saying. As a result, her words came out uncertain and unconvincing enough that even Ranma noticed.

"You sure about that, Shampoo?" he asked sternly. "Don't sound like it to me, all of a sudden."

"Who you believe, Airen?" she asked, regaining some poise. "Stupid new girl who just show up now, or Shampoo who you know for so long?"

"Seein' as how when I first met you, you were trying to track down and kill my girl half, maybe I oughta listen to Kaede," Ranma snapped.

Shampoo flinched back. "That not fair, Airen," she said miserably. "Shampoo break that law for you, after you lie to her and say you really girl."

Ranma sighed. "Look, just tell me straight, Shampoo. Were you or were you not gonna use that sword if Kaede didn't agree to what you said?"

The Amazon hung her head for a moment, then drew herself up to her full height. Pride was in her voice, but her eyes showed mostly pain, as she answered. "She challenge me to fight. Say battle was to show who of us was best for you. I win fight, tell her she now go away and leave you alone. She say no, go back on what she say fight was for in first place. Act without honor. So Shampoo would treat her in Amazon way for opponent what have no honor. For woman, that mean shave head. That is what sword would be for. Not hurt, just show mark of shame. And thank Ranma so much for believing in Shampoo."

Being responsible sucked.

That was the general trend of Ranma's thoughts, as he walked down an alley toward the Cat Café. After Shampoo had left, he'd talked with Kaede a little more. The conversation hadn't lasted long, Kaede's loss having left her in no good mood, but it had been enough to give him a pretty good handle on where the misunderstanding had occurred. Shortly thereafter a nagging thought had come to mind… namely, that someone really ought to go talk to Shampoo and make her understand too. Maybe seeing where she'd messed up would make her more careful about jumping to conclusions in the future.

Yeah, right, Ranma thought cynically, and maybe Mousse would stop attacking him to try to free Shampoo from his evil clutches. Nothing ever changed around here… the thought of Ukyo crossed his mind, and he amended the thought to 'nothing ever changed for the better'. Still, his conscience had eventually worn down his reluctance; one thing Genma had always stressed while Ranma was growing up was the importance of fulfilling one's duty, and even after he had realized that his father didn't practice what he preached the notion had still stuck fairly well. So now he was walking through the twilight on his way to the local outpost of Amazon territory, wishing that he could have at least kept from hurting Shampoo's feelings earlier this afternoon. Hopefully she'd be in a better mood by now, though…

"Ranma, for hurting Shampoo, I'll kill you!"

The pigtailed martial artist sighed, whipping around and preparing to dodge if Mousse was actually wearing his glasses. He was, this time, but the dim light of evening was apparently affecting his aim. The chains he shot out went to either side of Ranma rather than on an intercept course. The Saotome heir heard a clanging sound behind him as the spiked weights on the ends of the chains bounced off the sides of the alley, collided with each other, and got tangled up.

"Nice try, Mousse. If you were aiming to punish those walls, anyway," Ranma said sarcastically. "So how's it going?"

Mousse didn't bother responding verbally, instead pulling his arms back toward his chest and across each other, each fist coming to rest on the opposite shoulder. The chains leading from his sleeves mimicked the motion, closing in on Ranma while the spiked weights at the end shot toward his back.

A quick leap backward sent him into the air before the chains could tangle him. The spiked weights shot under his feet while he was still airborne; a second later he had landed and was charging forward. Mousse cursed mentally and let the chains fall out of his sleeves, hastily grabbing a handful of daggers and throwing them. The myopic martial artist didn't have time to aim, and settled for throwing the knives wildly. Ranma easily deflected the few that came his way.

And then he had closed the distance to his target. Just for variety, Ranma lashed out with a series of kicks this time—he usually finished Shampoo's stubborn suitor off with a punch—striking several vulnerable spots and ending with a sweeping blow to Mousse's temple. The Chinese boy crashed to the ground, not quite unconscious, but nowhere near in full command of his facilities.

"Damn you, Saotome," Ranma heard him mumble as he walked away. "Always hurting my Shampoo… Don't know why she won't leave you… for somebody who deserves her…"

The fight (if it could even be called that) hadn't really lasted long enough to work out any of Ranma's stress. He actually paused a block further on, glancing around hopefully. Nope, no Ryoga charging out of nowhere. He sighed and continued, turning a corner a few minutes later and coming within sight of the Cat Café.

More importantly, he also saw Shampoo. She was in the alley where Cologne had first demonstrated the Chestnut Fist to him. Ironically enough, she was performing that very move, pummeling a post with blows too quick to be seen. Her mouth was set in a grim line, and in her eyes was no hint of the happiness that had been there during her morning practice.

Ranma stopped and stared, knocked farther off-balance at the realization of her improvement than he really should have been. As Shampoo caught sight of him, he pushed his surprise to the back of his mind.

"Ranma." She spoke just the one word and fell silent, looking at him with hurt still evident in her gaze.

"Hey, Shampoo." He paused, trying to think what to say next, and hoping she would break the silence. No such luck; the Amazon just stood there, regarding him through the fading light.

At last he couldn't take it any more. "Look… I'm sorry. You were right. I shouldn't've brought that up. I didn't want to hurt your feelings or nothing."

"When Shampoo first come here, I fight with Akane," the lavender-haired girl said quietly. "Gave her Kiss of Death. Is not real Kiss though, because she never defeat me. Just did as threat, to show her Shampoo not happy with way she interfere and also make her know I not keep on taking it. She not even stop to think, just jump to fight with Shampoo. We go off with nobody else around to see what happen, at least Shampoo not realize pig was stupid lost boy Ryoga at time. Did I hurt her?"

Ranma grimaced, shaking his head. "No, but…"

"Is no 'but'! Not even hit her at all. Use technique that do no damage. She less nice to you every single time Shampoo ever see you two together! And then, you lie to me and say you is really woman." Shampoo blinked back tears. "Shampoo throw law away for you and go back alone to China to get punished. Is no way for daughter of family of Matriarch to get away with disrespect for law. Shampoo know this, and still not hurt you, not hurt anyone. Not hurt anyone whole time Ranma know me. And you still not ready to believe in me? What I have to do?!"

"Look, that is NOT how it is!" Ranma declared, fighting the impulse to squirm. "I was ready to believe it when ya said you were just trying to scare Kaede. Only reason I got doubtful again was when YOU started sounding all guilty and unsure!" Shampoo's only response was to sniffle and look down. "Come on, Shampoo… I didn't want to hurt your feelings or nothing. I’m sorry!"

"Ranma say that to make Shampoo feel better, or own self?" she asked, still looking away.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked helplessly.

"Just what it sound like. Want to know whether Ranma apologize because he think he ought to, or because he really care if Shampoo hurting."

"I said I was sorry, Shampoo. And I meant it. I really didn't want to make you feel bad." Ranma wracked his brain, trying to come up with something that would convince her. "Tell you what—I'll do something to make it up to you." That ought to show her he was sincere, he thought. And then, too late as usual, his common sense spoke up, reminding him just what that promise would likely entail.

"Ranma mean it?" Shampoo asked hopefully, before he could think of a way to qualify that statement that wouldn't defeat its purpose. "Would take Shampoo on date to make me feel better?"

With a mental sigh, Ranma nodded his head. Oh well, he'd lived through dates with Shampoo before. It would probably get him in hot water with Akane, but that happened pretty regularly anyway. He wasn't looking forward to sitting through some dull romantic chick flick, though.

Shampoo smiled, which at least made him feel a little better. "Thank you, Airen. Tell you what… has usually been Shampoo who picks out where to go on dates. This time is your turn. You decide what we do." Watching his face light up made her smile grow a little wider, and also made her feel an unmistakable urge to kick herself. Great-Grandmother's advice about letting Ranma set the pace for time they spent together was obviously dead on target. She should have thought of it for herself a long time ago, no matter what those stupid shojo manga she'd read for research on Japanese dating customs had said!

"Thanks, Shampoo. How about we hit the newest Jackie Chan movie?"

"Sound good to me. It open next Wednesday, yes?"

"Well, yeah, but tickets are probably gonna be pretty hard to come by those first few days. We could go on the weekend."

"Wouldn't Airen rather see it on opening night?" Not to mention Shampoo didn't want to wait a whole week for her date. "I ask Great-Grandmother to get tickets for us. Shampoo bet it won't be a problem."

"Well, okay, if that works out it's fine with me." It would be kinda cool to see it on the first night it came out. He hesitated, then said, "There was something else I needed to talk to you about, Shampoo."

"What is?" she asked, her expression shifting into a more serious look at his tone.

"It's about Kaede." Ranma took a deep breath, hoping against hope he could get through this without making any more mistakes. If he hurt her feelings again he might find himself dragooned into two dates for the price of one. "You really didn't understand just what she meant by challenging you."

"Think so?" Shampoo snorted. "What is not to understand? Shampoo already tell you what happen… she challenge to fight to prove who is better wife for you. I defeat her. She turn around, say she not going to give up even after she lose."

"Look, it ain't that simple. Somehow, Kaede's got it through her head that I'm gonna marry whichever girl my old man thinks is the best one." He shook his head, his face taking on an expression of mingled irritation and disgust at the thought. "She wanted to prove herself to him, which is why she challenged you. If she'd won, she wasn't going to try and tell you to pack it in and leave."

Shampoo blinked in surprise, thinking back now to something Kaede had said before their fight. "She really think that? That is all up to stupid panda father, not Ranma's own choice? How can anybody be so stupid?"

"Give the poor girl a break, Shampoo. She's only been here one day," Ranma said, though privately he felt a little inclined to agree. "Besides, maybe she grew up with a father where listening to him didn't get her in trouble."

Kaede's reverie was broken by the arrival of a waitress. She accepted the pot of tea, indicated that she didn't wish to order anything else just now, and poured out a cupful. This was done much more slowly and carefully than usual; it had been less than twenty-four hours since her fight with Shampoo, and the bruises she'd picked up then hadn't really begun to fade. With some effort, she succeeded in filling the cup without spilling any tea.

Rather than taking a drink, though, she just sat there, hands curled around the teacup, not really feeling the heat from the liquid inside. Her thoughts had already shifted back to events taking place elsewhere.

'Wonder how things are going with Dad? I couldn't even tell for sure how he was feeling last night. Is he angry with what Genma's done? What's he going to say to him, anyway?' Kaede tried to imagine the scene. Her father would have long since reached the Tendo dojo… had he and Genma settled things already, or were they still talking? 'Heh, talking… as if I don't know Dad better than that. No matter what else they may have to say to each other, there's no way in the world he's not going to ask Genma for a rematch.'

She mused for a while on that subject, but it could only hold her attention so long. Eventually a less pleasant one forced its way back to the forefront of her mind.

'I couldn't even touch her.' It was a bitter pill indeed. 'I've beaten plenty of people stronger than me. But until I came here I never found someone my own age who was stronger AND faster.' Her mouth quirked into a bitter grin as she remembered actually being pleased to discover that was the case with Ranma. Someone who could challenge her like that, give her a new level of mastery toward which to strive… it was a great quality in a fiancé, as far she was concerned.

Not so great, however, in someone with whom she was competing for said fiancé. The fight had been short, but it had lasted more than long enough for Kaede to see that Shampoo was out of her current league. Those maces had been very heavy—Kaede had the bruises to prove it—but her adversary had swung them effortlessly, moving them too quickly to even be seen.

Kaede had considered the thought of challenging Shampoo to a rematch and specifically stating unarmed combat. Shampoo would still be faster than her, and at LEAST twice as strong, but if she was too dependent on her weapons the loss of them might be enough for Kaede to pull off a win anyway. Kaede had also thought of a couple of other scenarios that might allow her to win, mostly dealing with her choosing a specialized location for the fight, but all of these ideas had the same basic problem. Namely, she would be winning by handicapping her opponent. Somehow, Kaede didn't think that proving she could be sneakier and more underhanded than her opposition would show she was the one who would be the best choice to help carry on the Saotome Anything Goes school.

No, she needed a legitimate win. More than that, she needed to be able to win regularly. And Kaede was frankly unsure as to how to bring this about. Throw herself into her regular training regimen, while upping the intensity to the absolute maximum she could handle? Try to build her strength and speed more quickly than Shampoo was doing, in order to narrow the gap between them?

'Or I could save myself a lot of trouble and just give up,' Kaede thought sarcastically. "No way in hell."

"Oh, good, the seat's not taken. I'll join you then."

Ranma's newest fiancée blinked her way back to reality. Another girl had just slid into the booth with her, sitting down now on the opposite side of the table. The newcomer had brown hair cut short in a pageboy style, with large brown eyes and a smirk that looked to Kaede like it seldom left her face. "And you are?"

"Nabiki Tendo, at your service. Your father wanted someone to tell you that he was going to be late getting back to the hotel."

"Why's that?" Kaede asked.

Nabiki's smile faded a little, as she thought back to what she'd recently seen. "They talked for a while, and then he decided to challenge Mr. Saotome to a match. It was pretty impressive, if I do say so myself." She was almost sure Genma didn't use that level of skill when he sparred with Ranma in the mornings. "Mr. Saotome eventually pulled out a win. Close match, though."

"So I'm guessing he and Dad went to a bar to celebrate, right?" That was what her father usually used as the stakes when he'd challenge a master to a battle. Loser bought the drinks afterward. When Kaede was thirteen, she had asked him why he did it, as these were the only times she ever saw him drink. He'd told her that it was because that tactic ensured there were no hard feelings afterward, no matter who won. Her father had turned an amusing shade of red the next day when she challenged a dojo's top student and made that offer herself.

"That's right," Nabiki confirmed, "and your dad's picking up the tab." She hung her head, giving a moment of silence in memory of Mr. Hayashibara's bank balance.

"Okay. Thanks for telling me." Kaede picked up her tea, wincing as she moved a little too quickly. She managed to keep from spilling any, though, and took a drink.

"Not feeling so good after your fights yesterday?" Nabiki inquired.

"No," Kaede growled in a tone that made it quite plain she didn't want to talk about it.

"You got off easy, you know," Nabiki remarked. "I heard from Ranma about that stunt you pulled when you fought him. Disguising yourself as a boy so he wouldn't hold back?" The middle Tendo snorted. "I say, if a guy's stupid enough to fight below his level because he's facing a girl, the smart thing to do is take advantage of it. If he wants to be a male chauvinist, fine, but make him hurt for it."

"I wanted to know how good he was. NOT whether I could pull off some kind of sneaky victory by hitting him in his weak spots," Kaede replied.

"Hmm. Well, maybe that wouldn't be the best way to start things out with the future love of your life," Nabiki conceded.

"It isn't just that," Kaede retorted, annoyed at the other girl's flippant tone. And where did she think she got off setting herself up as an authority anyway? It was obvious that she was no martial artist. "This is one of those things where if you can't win honestly, winning doesn't mean a thing. Losing to Shampoo sucked, all right, but that doesn't mean I'm going to come back at her with some underhanded tactic to win. Any more than I'd do that with Ranma."

The smile was gone completely now from Nabiki's face. "Don't tell me you're planning to challenge her again?!"

"When I think I've got a chance to beat her, you better believe I am!"

"Even after what Ranma…" Nabiki's voice trailed off and she assumed a pained expression. "He didn't tell you, did he."

"Didn't tell me what?"

"Yesterday afternoon, Ranma realized there was something fairly important about Shampoo you needed to know, before you got any crazy ideas about running off and challenging her. His words, not mine," Nabiki added, as Kaede glared at her.

"So that's how he managed to show up just then? He was looking for me?" Nabiki nodded, and Kaede continued. "Guess the sight of Shampoo pointing a sword in my face kinda made him forget whatever he was going to say. So what was he supposed to tell me?"

Nabiki glanced over to the front of the cafe, where the various menu items and their prices were listed on a large board. "You know, Hayashibara, all this talking, not to mention walking all the way over here to tell you about your dad, has made me pretty thirsty. A soda right now could help keep my voice from giving out completely."

Kaede rolled her eyes, but decided to humor the other girl. Once Nabiki had been supplied with a soda and had taken a long drink, the middle Tendo spoke again. "Shampoo's people have some… interesting… laws about when they're defeated by someone who's not a member of the tribe."

"Ranma told me that's why she's chasing him," Kaede said. "When an Amazon gets beaten by an outsider man, as far as they're concerned she's his new wife."

"But Saotome didn't tell you about an outsider woman who defeats an Amazon, I take it?" Kaede shook her head. "She gets a little thing called the Kiss of Death. Namely, a promise by the defeated Amazon to track her to the ends of the earth, if she has to… and kill her."

Kaede's face turned pale. "You're kidding me."

"I'm afraid not. When Ranma first defeated Shampoo, he was in his girl form. She chased him and Mr. Saotome all across China, and even tracked them to Japan. Pretty impressive, you must admit."

"Impressive? I’ll tell you what's impressive," Kaede's voice rasped. "It's pretty damn impressive that one person should have so much going for her. Not to mention UNFAIR AS HELL!" She slammed her hand down on the table, palm first. The contact sounded like a rifle shot, and completely covered her involuntary gasp of pain as she realized, an instant too late, that she had used the wrong arm for making an impassioned gesture.

"Do go on," Nabiki prompted. Envy of the Amazon was NOT a reaction she'd been expecting. "What makes you say that?"

"Isn't it obvious?!" Kaede hissed through painfully-clenched teeth. "How am I supposed to beat her now?! I CAN'T!! Even if I win, I lose!"

"I really don't see why beating her is such a big deal to you," Nabiki confessed. "If it's just that tired old 'I'm a martial artist so I have to be better than every other martial artist in town' thing," without a shred of remorse she tossed her future brother-in-law to the wolves, "then you should be focusing on defeating Ranma. After all, he's significantly better than Shampoo."

"That's not it at all. How am I going to show I'm the best choice for Ranma, if there's someone I don't even dare compete against?"

"You mean you're worried about Shampoo taking him back to China with her," Nabiki surmised. "Maybe you should try to think this through a little more, Hayashibara."

"Just what is that supposed to mean?"

Nabiki gave the long-suffering sigh of one who had to do others' thinking for them. "Do you really think Ranma is going to accept Shampoo's offer? How do you think he'd feel twenty years from now, when some wandering martial artist lady comes strolling through the backwoods of China, stumbles across their little land that time forgot, and defeats his daughter? You really think Saotome is up for joining a society that kills other women for being better fighters than they are? Ranma's not a very good loser, but that's taking it a bit far even for him."

Kaede sat there and blinked for a while, turning the points Nabiki had raised over in her mind. At last she said, "You may have a point there."

"Naturally," Nabiki replied. "Now why don't you buy me some ice cream to pay me back for setting your mind at ease?"

The other girl snorted. "Don't push your luck, Tendo."

"Humph. Just so you know, Ranma appreciates generosity in a woman." As long as the matter didn't involve Akane's cooking, anyway, Nabiki silently amended. "I suppose I could sweeten the deal, though…"

"Meaning?" Kaede prompted her after a moment of silence.

"You were impressed by how fast Ranma was, correct? And Shampoo as well?" The previous day she had rescued Ranma before her irate little sister could express her displeasure at the arrival of yet another fiancée. As payment for the favor, Nabiki had taken the opportunity to grill him for information on Kaede's capabilities. Based on that information, and given what she already knew about Shampoo, Nabiki would have expected the Amazon to eventually pull out a narrow, hard-fought victory if she and Kaede fought.

Instead, later in the afternoon she had heard from Ranma that Shampoo had blown her competition out of the water. In the evening, after Ranma returned from the Cat Café, she had cornered him again, extracting the information that Shampoo had learned the Amaguriken. She was glad she'd found out as early as she did; a development like that could rip the previous odds to hell and gone in certain types of fights.

When the other girl nodded, Nabiki said, "Well, I happen to know that Ranma received advanced speed training from Shampoo's great-grandmother. Shampoo might have gone through this herself recently if she seemed unnaturally fast to you."

"And you're offering to tell me how to do this myself? No offense, but you don't really strike me as having a lot of experience training someone. What good would it do me to hear some second-hand account from you anyway?"

"It was simple enough that you wouldn't need anything else to do it yourself .But if you're not interested…" Nabiki made as if to get up from the booth.

"Okay, okay, I'll bite," Kaede grumbled. It wasn't like she couldn't afford a measly order of ice cream, after all.

One banana split and one explanation later, Kaede spoke again. Well, screeched might be a better word. "You do WHAT?!"

"Dump a double handful of chestnuts into an open fire, then try to pull them out quickly enough that you don't burn your hands."

Kaede snorted. "That's what I get for asking a normal person." Nabiki wondered whether she should feel insulted or flattered at being labeled 'normal'. "Something like that is just not possible without boosting your speed with chi. And you don't have a clue how to tell me what I need to know to be able to do that, do you?"

The middle Tendo shrugged, adopting a not-quite-cold expression. "Cologne didn't tell Ranma anything about that when she showed him the move. I think it happens automatically. Ask him yourself if you don't believe me."

"Maybe I will." Or her father might be able to help her. If possible, it would be nice to master the technique without Ranma's knowledge and surprise him. "So how many other people around here know that move?"

"Nobody else ever learned it as far as I know. Just Ranma and the Amazons."

Not Akane either, then, not that Kaede had thought it likely. That thought led her to another.

Conversation flagged. Nabiki returned her attention to her ice cream, but after a minute or so she began to feel a little uncomfortable. Kaede was openly staring at her, a contemplative look on her face. "Do I have something on my nose?"


"Just wondering why you were staring at me, that's all," Nabiki said coolly.

"I was thinking. Actually, I was wondering something myself."

"And that would be?"

"Why you're helping me out like this. Isn't your own sister one of the girls after my fiancé? Shouldn’t you be supporting her?"

The tone of Nabiki's reply dropped the room temperature by several degrees. "I try to stay neutral in the Saotome Fiancée Scramble, Hayashibara. And my reasons are just that… mine." 'I love Akane dearly, but if everyone keeps on handing her things on a silver platter, she's never going to grow up.'

'Can't believe I'm actually looking forward to this,' Ranma thought moodily. 'Hah. Ranma Saotome actually glad of an excuse to get out an' go over school stuff when I don't have to. Bet Nabiki'd lose a fortune if she'd ever laid bets on that.'

It wasn't due to any real change of heart that he was expecting to enjoy his upcoming study session with Kaori. The thought of going over more dull texts, or maybe some dreary meaningless equations, seemed about as pointless today as ever. However, discomfort was relative, and right now a legitimate excuse to get out of the Tendo household for awhile seemed like a pretty good thing to him.

Akane had made it quite clear over the last few days that she wasn't happy with her fiancé. She hadn't yelled or hit him, though… she'd just been cold and withdrawn, either ignoring him completely or giving the impression that as far as she was concerned, he could go crawl into a hole and die. It was frustrating—he would have much rather she behaved as she usually did when upset. He could handle that. He was used to it.

By contrast, Akane had only pulled this kind of stunt once before. He still wasn't sure why she'd gotten so mad that one time, when he and Happosai had accidentally destroyed a dish she'd recently finished cooking. But Akane had dropped straight into morose unhappiness laced with temper, maintaining the bad mood over the course of a couple of days. In fact her attitude had worsened over that time, culminating in the youngest Tendo retreating to the roof and spending an entire night sulking. Never mind the fact that her action had caused the entire household a great deal of worry and frenetic activity, as they spent that night searching the streets of Nerima for her.

She hadn't gone so far this time, at least. 'Huh… maybe it's cause her old man's upset at me too,' Ranma thought cynically. 'Misery loves company and all that.' It didn't seem fair to him that the Tendo patriarch should place more blame for recent developments on him than on his father, but Ranma wasn't really surprised that it had happened. Not that Soun had been all that harsh, but the Saotome heir was getting a little tired of the veiled hints that he ought to have straightened out the fiancée mess long ago. 'At least Pop's keeping a low profile for now. We’ll see how long that lasts before he starts giving me grief too.'

And there was one other semi-bright spot. Nabiki had agreed to keep his upcoming date with Shampoo secret from the rest of the household. Oh, sure, in exchange for her help she'd extracted an open-ended promise of a favor from him, to be named and claimed at her discretion, but the way Ranma looked at it, whatever he ended up doing as a result was probably something she'd have gotten him to do anyway. He'd had the presence of mind to stipulate that whatever the favor was, it couldn't go against his honor, so if she sold him on a date at least it wouldn't be in girl form to Kuno.

Yes, he was very glad that Akane didn't know he was scheduled to go on a date with Shampoo the next day. He didn't want to even think of her reaction if she'd known that. And yet, somehow, he failed to make the connection between that utterly accurate attitude, and the fact that he was even now openly heading for a study session with another fiancée. A study session that would involve just the two of them, meeting in the privacy of her own home.

It was just too bad that Ranma had never been challenged by any practitioners of Martial Arts Relationships Skills.

He had just now turned onto a street with many small shops. A few minutes of walking along this would lead him to the residential area where Kaori's apartment complex was located. Ranma stopped and looked into the display window of an electronics store. A glance at the time displayed on a computer confirmed his impression—he was early. As he wasn't in any particular hurry to reach his destination, Ranma turned his attention to another item displayed in the window, a screen displaying a demo for the latest Final Fantasy game. He snickered at the hokey pseudo martial arts currently being exhibited by one of the characters, wondering idly what the people who played stuff like that would think if they saw him pull off a Hiryu Shoten Ha.

Another character was taking a turn in the combat now, a magic user who was blasting away with some water-based attack spell. Ranma shook his head in mild irritation, and turned to go.

The sun had been peeking through the clouds when he first stopped to look in the window. The light had faded as he turned his attention to the game display. And just as the spell reached its climax, the clouds opened, dropping a brief but effective downpour onto one pigtailed Jusenkyo-cursed teen.

The newly-redheaded martial artist just stood where she was for awhile, gritting her teeth and thinking dark thoughts about whatever kami considered Ranma Saotome his personal plaything. As satisfying as this was, however, the thought eventually crossed Ranma-chan's mind that it would be MORE satisfying to walk a few blocks farther down the street to where there was a restaurant nestled among the other shops, and get some hot water.

Kaori noted, without much surprise, that after a couple of minutes the rain ended as abruptly as it had begun. She hadn't been in Nerima for very long, but she was already familiar with how unpredictable the weather could be around here.

Which fact had been more inconvenient than usual today. A series of errands had kept her occupied after school, errands which she really should have done over the weekend, or at least after school yesterday. However, spurred on by her Saturday morning conversation with Ranma, Kaori had taken an impulse weekend trip to visit some of the friends she'd left behind to come to Nerima. The matter had also slipped her mind on Monday, and now she was paying the price for her procrastination. It had taken longer than she'd expected to take care of everything, and she had been hurrying back to her apartment, uncomfortably aware that she wasn't going to have as much time to get ready for Ranma's arrival as she would have liked. And then the blasted weather had cut that time even further. At least she had managed to duck inside this restaurant before the rain had hit, though, Kaori thought to herself. Had she been soaked, there was no way she'd be able to freshen up before the time Ranma was supposed to arrive.

As watery sunlight began to stream down in the street again, Kaori stepped out of the restaurant. She eyed the scattering clouds suspiciously. Satisfied that for the moment there probably wouldn't be any more rain, she turned to go.

And then she froze, as something seen out of the corner of one eye registered. She whipped around to face the other end of the street. Her hands clenched into fists and her teeth began to grind together as the initial impression was confirmed. Hair of that particular shade of red wasn't something she would ever forget. A quick intake of breath, then Kaori turned, and raced back into the restaurant.

Ranma-chan stopped, blinking in surprise. When she was ten feet away from the door of the restaurant, it had suddenly slammed open, and Kaori had come stalking out. The look on her face and the general tension in her posture were clear indications that she was in no good mood. A bowl of ramen rested incongruously in one hand.

"Yo, Kaori. What's wrong?" Ranma-chan asked. "You get bad service in there or something?"

"So you do remember me," the brunette hissed. "I haven't forgotten you, I can promise you that. You're that miserable redheaded witch who double-teamed me with Akane Tendo, back in the Martial Arts Takeout race last year. If it weren't for you, Ranma and I would have left this place together a long time ago!"

At which point Ranma-chan remembered she was in her cursed form. A cursed form that had never been explained to Kaori, who had just slipped a pair of chopsticks into the bowl of ramen. "Ah, wait a minute—Yaah!" She skipped to one side as Kaori suddenly flicked the chopsticks, whipping a long strand of woven noodles free from the bowl and sending it lashing toward the redhead. "Cut that out!"

"You think YOU can tell ME what to do?! Guess again! I can't afford to pay Akane Tendo back like she deserves yet, but you're going to get what's coming to you!"

Ranma-chan stared, completely at a loss for words, swaying absent-mindedly from one side to the other as Kaori's noodle-noose lashed out, trying to reconcile the sight before her with her memories of the past few weeks. The person he'd thought he had been getting to know, the calm, collected, friendly girl, had seemingly disappeared, her place taken by someone who hadn't been seen since the Martial Arts Takeout race so long ago. A ruthless girl who struck hard, with neither warning nor mercy. And Ranma-chan was frankly feeling a bit betrayed.

Meanwhile, Kaori was experiencing frustration. No, more than that; she was FURIOUS. Here she had before her the girl who was most responsible for her earlier defeat, the dishonorable little cur who'd blindsided her and given the victory to Akane Tendo. The girl who hadn't even entered the race for herself, but had just interfered to aid another competitor. The girl who bore such a large share of the blame for the Daikoku family's shame and Kaori's fiancé's suffering. The girl who by rights ought now to be fighting a desperate losing battle to keep from getting the beating she so richly deserved. The girl who wasn't even paying her full attention to the fight, just staring at Kaori with a stupid blank look of noncomprehension while evading her strikes effortlessly.

Clearly the noodle offensive wasn't going to work. Kaori decided she needed to get up close and personal. She whipped the noodles back into the bowl, then tossed it over her shoulder. It flew through the air without spilling a drop to land on top of a mailbox five feet behind her. With her hands now unoccupied, Kaori charged.

Up until this point, Ranma-chan had had some vague idea of stopping the fight, getting hot water, and revealing to Kaori just who she was attacking. The Daikoku daughter's change of tactics quickly rendered that possibility academic. Ranma-chan blinked as the brunette bore down on her, barely managing to get her guard up in time to meet the hurricane.

In the Martial Arts Takeout race, Kaori had blown through a mass of lesser competitors in seconds, striking and kicking her way through them, disrupting their takeout boxes with ease. She could have defeated Akane without much more trouble, but had made the mistake of toying with her instead. Throughout all this, she had kept her own takeout box perfectly intact. And the chi technique she had used just now, when she threw the bowl of ramen without spilling any, had not been the secret of her success then. It would have been far too draining to sustain it for that length of time. No, for almost all of the race, Kaori had maintained the integrity of her ramen through sheer balance, poise, and skill.

And now, without any need to guard a precarious bowl of noodles and liquid, the full extent of that skill could be allowed to shine.

Flesh cracked on flesh as Ranma-chan hastily blocked Kaori's high palm strike. Cloth rustled as she twisted, allowing a kick to miss her by tenths of an inch. With a grunt of effort, Kaori changed the direction of the kick, twisting to bring her foot rocketing upward. Her aim was to strike Ranma-chan in the armpit, which would have hurt like crazy and possibly dislocated her arm. The redhead was too slippery though, twisting at the waist and causing Kaori's heel to merely clip her lightly on the shoulder. Simultaneous with the dodge, Ranma-chan shot one hand out to land her own glancing blow. There was very little force behind the strike, certainly not enough to bruise Kaori, but that wasn't the point. The brunette was already off-balance from the doubly-failed gambit; Ranma-chan's blow pushed her past the point of recovery. She fell down hard on her rump.

Before Ranma-chan could issue a suggestion that she give up, Kaori was back on her feet, glaring more furiously than ever and launching a blistering series of punches. She was fast, the redhead noted as she blocked, but not Amaguriken-speed fast… "YEEEOW!"

Ranma-chan stumbled backward, shocked at the ferocious stabs of pain screaming up from her hands and forearms. Kaori grinned nastily and flexed her wrists, retracting the chopsticks into her sleeves. Long ago, before she was even born, her father had heard legends of a technique wherein the utensils were used to augment one's blocking abilities. They still weren't sure it was more than a legend; neither he nor his daughter had ever figured out how to perform such a technique. However, Kaori had eventually turned the idea one hundred eighty degrees, adapting it into a countermeasure for an opponent's blocking. The piercing strike of a chopstick hurt far more and was much harder to absorb than the blunt impact of a punch.

Quickly, before her opponent could recover and close the hole in her defenses, Kaori pivoted and drove a foot into Ranma-chan's gut, knocking the redhead onto the ground. She hesitated then for a fraction of a second; her style didn't have many attacks that were designed against someone in that position. If this had been a life-or-death fight, she would have thrown a couple of razor-sharp sauceriken projectiles, but while she might despise this mystery girl she had no intention of painting the street with her blood. She wasn't carrying any spare chopsticks that could be used for a pinpoint shiatsu strike. And the ramen bowl was currently out of reach, eliminating the possibility of a noodle-noose attack.

The moment of hesitation was all Ranma-chan needed. The redhead rolled backward, bouncing to her feet. Shrugging aside the pain in her hands, Ranma-chan blasted forward at a greater speed than she'd used yet. And good though Kaori was, she simply was not fast enough to handle this. Ranma-chan pushed aside the awkward punch that was all her opponent could manage, snaked one hand around her neck, and tapped her Instant Unconsciousness shiatsu point.

Or at least, that had been the idea. Her finger passed through Kaori's curls and encountered a tightly-woven mat of hair hugging closely against the nape of her neck, which defeated the strike entirely.

The Martial Arts Takeout girl smiled grimly. She'd lost one fight to that technique, not long after her first visit to Nerima, which was the reason for her change in hairstyle. She had no intention of ever again losing to such a cheap trick as that. And every intention of making anyone else who tried it pay in spades.

In the inevitable brief instant of surprise as Ranma-chan realized her attack had failed, Kaori retaliated. Her position relative to her opponent made the attack awkward, but she struck as best she could, blasting a punch into Ranma-chan's chin that knocked the redhead back several paces.

By now the pigtailed martial artist was nearing the level of unhappiness with which her opponent had begun the fight. Screw holding back, screw being a gentleman, she was a girl now and it was OKAY to fight for real!

Kaori's face set like flint as her redheaded foe growled and dashed forward on the offensive again. She had hoped that blow would be enough to knock the fight out of the other girl, or at least slow her down to a manageable level. One glance at the fury on Ranma-chan's face had disabused her of that notion. Even as her adversary began her approach, Kaori was moving as well, backpedaling furiously. It was nowhere near enough to keep Ranma-chan from closing the distance, but that wasn't Kaori's intent. She had one trick left in her bag, one technique that had never failed her.

For an instant, the previous sequence of attacks seemed to be repeating themselves. Ranma-chan blazed forward, reaching out to push aside her opponent's feeble resistance… but as she entered Kaori's personal space, everything changed. Her entire body locked up, sending her crashing to the ground, eyes wide with shock at the sudden, inexplicable paralysis.

Kaori stumbled backward, gritting her teeth against the impulse to fall to her knees. Throwing a takeout box into the air without spilling the ramen inside was one thing. Extending the stasis technique over an entire person, even for only a few seconds, was something completely different. When she was in top condition, it took more than half her strength to perform the move. Here and now, she didn't have much left in her reserves.

But she didn't need much either. Her maneuvering of a few seconds past had left her within easy reaching distance of the previously-abandoned bowl of ramen. She grabbed it, twirled the noodles back into a cohesive strand, and sent this snaking forward to wrap around Ranma-chan's throat.

The redhead choked, pushing through the fading remnants of the paralysis to fight her way back to her knees and bring her hands up to the noodles around her neck. Try as she might, though, she couldn't get anything like a decent grip on the slippery strand. Her gaze met Kaori's, desperate and angry and betrayed clashing with stony and grim and determined.

Kaori ignored her opponent's useless struggles, concentrating on the finesse she needed. Using just enough force to cut off her opponent's air without actually damaging her throat required a great deal of focus. She knew there was no way for the redhead to struggle free of the noose, and so didn't really pay her attempts any attention, concentrating everything onto her own attack.

And so she was caught completely by surprise when Ranma-chan released the noose, dropped her hands, pointed her palms upward, and fired off a blast of chi. The energy severed the noodle-noose with ease, and then the pigtailed girl was free, coughing and gasping, but already recovering.

At this point, the phrase 'in over my head' began echoing through Kaori's mind. She knew a bit of the theory of chi attacks, and was aware that anyone who could release one that powerful when she was on her knees struggling for breath could probably blow her away when she was in better shape. A strong desire to run warred with her natural pride as a martial artist, which scorned any such act of cowardice.

Before Kaori's internal debate could be decided either way, Ranma-chan settled the issue. The redhead hadn't fully recovered yet, but anger gave her the strength she needed. She was merely a blur this time as she darted forward, circling around Kaori before the other girl could respond, shoving aside first the thick mass of curls and then the tightly-woven hair shield beneath, and striking her Instant Unconsciousness point. And even though she had gone for the win with an attack that wouldn't really hurt Kaori, Ranma-chan wasn't quite enough of a gentleman to catch the brunette as she fell.

There was silence along the street for some few moments. Eventually Ranma-chan let out a long sigh, and did her best to push her aggravation to the back of her mind. She couldn't just leave Kaori here, lying unconscious on the road. With a scowl, she bent down and picked up the larger girl, draping her over one shoulder and heading toward her original destination: the Daikoku apartment.

Not until she was about to enter the lobby of the building did something occur to Ranma-chan. Namely, if Kaori was here, there wasn't going to be anyone there to let them into her place. Her father wouldn't be getting back for another two hours at least. With a frown, Ranma-chan backed away from the building, wondering what to do. Somehow, the thought of searching Kaori's person for a key struck her as none too smart. Come to think of it, walking into the lobby with an unconscious girl slung over her shoulder like a sack of flour probably wasn't such a good idea either.

She glanced up in the direction of Kaori's apartment, and was rewarded with the solution to her dilemma. Kaori's apartment was on the seventh floor, quite a distance from Ranma-chan's position on the street, but the Saotome heir could still make out the fact that the balcony door was ajar. A few quick hops sent her from street to balcony to balcony to balcony, and then she was sliding the door open and walking through, Kaori still snugly in place on one shoulder.

She set the brunette down on a couch and made her way to the bathroom. One application of hot water followed, and Ranma walked back to the room where he'd left Kaori. He sat down in a chair on the other side of the room, and eyed the sleeping girl morosely.

"So which's the real you, huh?" he muttered, voice still raspy from the aborted choking attack. "The girl who's been nice to me so far, or the one who tried to kick my butt today?" A hard question, and not one he really felt up to confronting her about just now. Still, it would probably be better to get it over with. Better to wait here until she woke up, and let a glass of cold water show her just who the 'redheaded witch' had been. Better to get all this out in the open. Better to—

"Screw it," Ranma said abruptly, as his gaze fell on the deep bruises her chopstick attack had left on his hands. "I'm not dealing with this now."

During the entire next day Ranma deliberately did NOT think about the confrontation with Kaori. He did his best to avoid her, too, slipping into class just before the late bell rang, making himself scarce during lunch, and leaving Furinkan as soon as the last class had ended. He wouldn't have minded so much if Kaori just sought him out and apologized for apparently skipping out on their session yesterday (after all, she must be thinking he'd showed up at her place only to find the door locked and nobody home).But with his luck, he would have probably been hit by a random spray of water before she even finished getting the words out.

He knew they'd have to have the conversation some time, but wanted it to be after he'd gotten past this business of his semi-forced date with Shampoo. A date that Ranma would never have admitted looking forward to, although by now he halfway was. Not the 'date' part as such—he intended to do his darnedest to keep this on the level of a couple of friends just hanging out together—but seeing Jackie's newest film, on the day it came out, without having to pay for it, was a bit of fortune much nicer than the wind usually blew his way. Ranma just hoped it wouldn't all blow up in his face.

So far, his luck was holding. The date had proceeded amazingly well.

They met in a park, only an hour after school let out. True to Shampoo's word, Cologne had been able to acquire a pair of tickets even on such short notice, but they had been for an afternoon showing rather than one later in the evening. Ranma hadn't minded at all when he heard the news, though. He figured this ought to seem much less suspicious than if he'd waited until after dinner to leave the Tendo place. Anything that lessened his chances of getting caught sounded like a good idea to him. Which had been the reason for asking Shampoo to meet him in neutral ground, rather than going to the Cat Café to pick her up.

A glimpse of lavender caught his eye as he entered the park. A few steps farther in confirmed it—Shampoo was already there waiting for him, even though he himself had arrived a couple of minutes early. This wasn't really a surprise, though… Shampoo, late for a date with him? Yeah, right.

She was seated at a bench, facing away from him and looking out over a small pond. "Hey, Shampoo, over here," he called. His brow crinkled in mild puzzlement as she didn't turn or otherwise acknowledge the greeting. 'She had to have heard that. Why the silent treatment? Is she mad at me or something? Oh, man, was I wrong about the time?' Ranma thought with an edge of rising unease. 'Did I get here too late?'

Just as he was feeling the first stirring of anxiety at the thought that he might have already missed out on the movie, Shampoo spoke. "Nihao, Ranma."

The boy in question jumped like a cat on a hot tin roof. Shampoo hadn't spoken coldly at all; the words had come in her usual cheery tone, laced with a hint of mischief. However, they had also originated roughly six inches behind his right ear. Sure enough, Ranma whirled around to find the Amazon standing there, grinning widely at him.

Shampoo was wearing a dress he hadn't seen before, not surprising considering she had purchased it this morning just for their date. She'd put on light makeup, including her favorite shade of lipstick, one which matched her eyes perfectly. Her freshly-washed hair shone with vitality. A momentary cross-breeze carried a pleasing mixture of aromas from her to Ranma, containing a hint of perfume within a clean herbal scent. All in all, Shampoo was dressed to kill, and the sight shook Ranma even farther off balance than had the 'sneaking up on him from behind when he thought she was in front of him' part. "H-huh?"

"Is surprising, no?" Shampoo gestured toward the figure on the bench. "I know some Japanese like to dye hair, but seeing one with my exact shade is too, too strange. Bet she not look like Shampoo from front, though." The Amazon rolled her shoulders backward slightly, her posture emphasizing her chest even more than Nature had seen fit to do.

A wasted effort, unfortunately, as Ranma had already turned and begun regarding the seated girl suspiciously. "I dunno, that hair looks real to me. You sure it's not actually another Amazon like Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, dropping by to punish me?"

Shampoo blinked. "When Ranma get so paranoid?"

"With my life? It's a survival trait. Would you mind going up and talking to her, Shampoo? Or just getting a good look at her face? Make sure she's not anybody you know."

The Amazon heaved a theatrical sigh. "<The things we do for love.>" She walked several paces forward and to the side, until she could make out the other girl's reflection in the water. The sight of the multiple piercings brought a grimace—what kind of person thought that was attractive?—but also confirmed Shampoo's original guess. Just some random Japanese. "Is okay, Ran… huh?"

A gust of wind blew leaves across the ground in front of her. She stared, then turned left, then right. There was no sign of Ranma.

Shampoo quickly checked her purse. Nope, the tickets were still there… at least this wasn't going to be a repeat of their first date.

"Gotcha back, Shampoo." HIS words had come from no more than FOUR inches behind her.

She jumped, even as Ranma had. "<How the…> Mean, how you do that, Ranma?! There no cover in any direction!"

"Simple. Well, simple for me, anyway." Ranma actually only SAID the first word, but the remainder of the idea was conveyed quite clearly by his grin. "I just got behind you, and stayed behind you when you turned. Just had to be quick an' quiet enough that you didn't catch on."

"Humph! Silly Ranma." Shampoo turned her nose up in the air in the pose known as Miffed Female #3. "Should know better than that." Then she broke the pose and giggled. "Should know by now you not have to try and impress Shampoo any more. Already know how good you are."

"H-Hey! That's not…" Ranma sputtered. Shampoo stuck her tongue out at him.

"Come on, Airen," she said, breaking through his half-coherent protests. "We no want be late for movie."

They'd made it to their destination with plenty of time to spare, Ranma leading the way over the rooftops at high speed. As he had hoped, this path kept him (and perhaps more importantly, her) free from random splashings. Arriving as early as they did had another bonus, as well… namely, not having to wait in a long line to get into the theatre.

"So, uh, how long did it take you to learn the Amaguriken, Shampoo?" Of course, even bonuses have their downsides, as Ranma had realized not long afterward. Such as, here and now he was sitting in a dark movie theatre with Shampoo. A dark movie theatre with absolutely nobody else in it yet, since the two martial artists had snuck in before personnel actually opened the doors to let people begin finding seats. The situation was reminding Ranma a little too much of a time during that fiasco with the Super Soba noodles, when he and Shampoo had been trapped together in unexpected privacy. Given the opportunity, it hadn't taken her long at ALL to shift into full-blown amorous mode, and Ranma had no desire now for a repeat performance. Hence his best attempt at neutral diverting small talk.

"Almost two week, Airen. Not do so quickly as you, but what can Shampoo say?" The Amazon shrugged. "I not built for speed like you."

"An' I bet the old ghoul didn't push you so hard, either," Ranma grumbled.

"Silly Ranma." Shampoo rolled her eyes at him, forgetting for a moment the dimness of the room. "She not have to. When she train you, do all those things to make you eager to learn. Not need to do that with own great-granddaughter."

"Yeah, maybe. But don't try and tell me she didn't get a kick out of puttin' me through the wringer like that."

"Oh, no, Shampoo would not say that," the Amazon agreed. "Have not forget how much fun Great-Grandmother had that time."

Ranma snorted, but let the comment pass. Silence fell, persisting for about a minute before Shampoo broke it again. "Ranma?"

Her tone had sounded a little strange, Ranma noted idly. Kind of… tentative? "Hmm?"

"Is something Shampoo wanted to ask you. You no mind?"

The pigtailed boy in question tensed. THIS didn't sound too promising. What was she about ask? "Uh… what?"

"When you going to learn new technique?"

He blinked, caught off guard by the unexpected nature of the question. "Huh?"

"Has been while since you learn last special move, no? Ranma not really okay to just sit back and relax, I hope." A teasing note snuck back into Shampoo's voice. "Because Shampoo not do that, and if Ranma do, someday I kick your butt. Maybe MAKE you start learn again for real."

Ranma snorted, the sound a mixture of mild irritation at the thought that he might slack off like that and relief that she hadn't been leading up to something romantic. "For your information, Shampoo, only a couple of weeks ago I managed to train myself up to using the speed of the Amaguriken in a kick."

There was an odd gulping sound from the Amazon, followed by "Hmmm…"Ranma thought he heard a strange note in her tone; a more adept listener might have identified it as 'way too innocent to actually be innocent.' "That is all?"

"Whaddaya mean, 'that is all'?!" Ranma retorted. "You just got through learning the basics, and I took it to a whole new level!"

"Or could say, Shampoo just get through learn something new. All Ranma do is polish what he already know."

"Yeah, whatever," Ranma said grumpily. "So when's this stupid movie gonna start up anyway?"

Shampoo reached over and patted his arm in a gesture that was meant to be soothing. "No be that way, Ranma. Shampoo mostly kidding. Nearly hurt own throat swallowing an 'AIYAH!' when you first say. I am proud to hear you do that all by own self."

"Then what was all that about, huh?" Ranma said, his feathers still a little ruffled but largely settling down now.

"Like Shampoo say, mostly kidding. But difference between just kidding and mostly kidding could be important, Airen." Shampoo turned in her seat and gave him a serious look, leaning forward enough that the dimness of the theatre didn't obscure her face. "Is something you should keep in mind. Sooner or later, if Great-Grandmother not think you living up to potential, she maybe take it on self to teach you something new. Like how she did with Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken."

"Erk." Ranma chewed that thought for a few moments, finding it none too palatable. Cologne's training was effective, and none of it had been as bad as Genma's worst excess, but it was a far cry from enjoyable. How serious was Shampoo about this possibility? "Did she maybe tell you to say that to me?"

"No," Shampoo admitted. "I just guessing. But she HAVE say some things to Shampoo while we training with Chestnut Fist, when say she glad I eager to learn." Shampoo hesitated, then continued, "She tell me she disappointed in you some, Airen, because she have show you many secret techniques that you never ask her how to learn."

Ranma didn't quite know how to respond to this. After a few moments of silence from him, Shampoo spoke again. "No worry, I be sure to tell her you teach self Amaguriken-fast speed kick. That probably make her happier. But is still something to think about."

'Yeah, great, as if I didn't already have enough on my mind,' Ranma thought with a mental sigh. "Thanks for the warning, Shampoo."

"Happy to help. Okay to talk about something different now?"


"Is something Ranma maybe forget?"

Ranma's brow crinkled in puzzlement. "I don't remember forgetting anything, Shampoo. What're you getting at?"

"You not know?" She sighed. "Here is hint. Is about right and proper way for man to treat woman on date."

He gulped, berating himself for letting his guard down. "Ah… I d-don't know what you mean?!"

"Is simple." Shampoo leaned forward again, getting right into his personal space. She gave him a mock glare. "I pay for tickets to movie, so Ranma should pay for snacks. Is only fair."

Sneaking back into the room while carrying a double armload of snacks without being caught by an usher had been a bit of a challenge, but Ranma pulled it off without a hitch. Shortly thereafter, the doors opened and all the rest of the moviegoers streamed in. Ranma and Shampoo received a few dirty looks from the first people in line, but considering the kind of hostility the Saotome heir often encountered, it should probably come as no surprise that he didn't even notice.

The movie was as enjoyable as Ranma had hoped. He and Shampoo alternately laughed and winced their way through it. However, all good things must come to an end, and late afternoon saw the two of them entering the park where they'd met earlier, preparing to say goodbye.

"Thank you, Airen. I had very good time."

They were back in the area where they'd met two hours ago. For the moment, Shampoo wasn't looking toward Ranma, instead gazing out over the pond and admiring the play of the late afternoon sunlight over its waters. It was a beautiful sight, and she would have liked nothing more than to lead her Airen over to the unoccupied bench, curl up with him there, and enjoy the sight until the sun set.

She enjoyed the fantasy for a brief moment, before thoughts of Cologne's likely reaction to being abandoned during the dinner rush brought her back to earth.

"So did I." Although he was beginning to feel a little tense. So far this outing had gone much more smoothly than was usual, and had been a lot more fun than he was used to. And it was nearly over now… if things were going to blow up in his face after all, it pretty much had to happen in the next few minutes. After all, the date was about to officially end.

At which point Ranma remembered what Shampoo's idea was of the proper way to end a date, causing his level of tension to undergo a quick growth spurt. "S-so, yeah, I'm glad you had a good time too, Shampoo. It's getting kinda late now, though, and I bet you don't wanna keep your great-granny waiting or nothing."

"No, I not want to do that," the Amazon agreed. "See you later, Ran—Aiyah!! What that?!"

She was staring over his shoulder, eyes wide in shock. Ranma spun around, looking for whatever had caused such a reaction. He couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. "What was that about, Shampoo?" he asked, turning back to face her. "I didn't—MMPH!"

Had Cologne been watching, she would doubtless have let out an appreciative cackle at her great-granddaughter's tactic. Ranma was caught completely off-guard, his arms pinned at his sides by Shampoo's embrace, and his lips locked with hers, before he could realize where the true threat had been. The Amazon held the kiss for an impressive length of time, pleased at the way his pigtail flared straight up and his knees buckled.

She released him at last, smirking at the shell-shocked expression on his face. "Now THAT is right way to end date. Remember for next time, okay, Airen?" And with that, she turned, and sashayed away.

Ranma was given less time to recover than he might have liked.

Less than a minute after Shampoo had finally moved out of sight, another figure appeared, stalking out from a patch of trees. The glares Ranma had received at the theatre might not have registered, but the hostility radiating from this individual was enough to snap him right out of his daze.

"Hey there, Mousse," he said in a tired voice, as the Chinese boy stopped about twenty paces away. "Any particular reason you waited til now, instead of trying to bust up the actual date?"

"As if you didn't know," Mousse hissed. "That was a dirty trick, Saotome, telling the old mummy you would be MEETING Shampoo here now, when this was really when you were going to say goodbye!"

"Translation: the ghoul lied to you about the time frame. Check." He shook his head. "Would've been nice if she'd said it was fifteen minutes later than this. You'd prob'ly have been happier too."

"Shut up, you bastard." Mousse's voice trembled with rage. "How dare you do that with my Shampoo?!"

"Yep, nothing new here," Ranma muttered to himself. Louder, he said, "So that was my fault. Right. Did ya even HAVE your glasses on when you saw her kiss me?"

"DIE, SAOTOME!!" Mousse followed the words with his typical opening move, launching a volley of chains with various unpleasant things on the ends.

Ranma skipped to one side, sighing as he did. Same old, same old. Truth be told, his patience was beginning to wear very thin indeed where this particular nuisance was concerned. "Y'know something, Duck-boy, I'm getting pretty darn tired of this junk." A spiked ball whizzed past his head. "You've been giving me grief since day one." He leaped over another chain as Mousse tried attacking low. "Actin' like I'm trying to stab you in the back so I can take Shampoo for myself."

"Just shut up!! She's MY bride! You aren't worthy to even THINK about winning her!"

Ranma's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Ya think YOU are? Think you can just beat me up and drag my unconscious body to Shampoo, and she'll fall right into your arms?" He laughed scornfully. "I got news for you, buddy. She wouldn't look twice at you even if I WASN'T in the picture! You want a chance at Shampoo, you need to work on making yourself into some kinda halfway-decent guy with at least a little bit of honor! An' I sure as heck wish you would!!"

The throwing daggers he'd just selected dropped from Mousse's nerveless fingers. "You… you dare to say that to me?! YOU?!"

It was quite a bit different from the way he'd originally regarded Mousse. Ranma had been sympathetic when he first learned the other boy's story. There had been quite a long stretch of time when he would have been willing to help Mousse win Shampoo (although there were sharply defined limits to the lengths to which he'd been prepared to go). But slowly, as the Chinese boy had acted dishonorably again and again and again, those feelings had curdled. By now, Ranma held little emotion other than contempt for Shampoo's self-proclaimed true love.

And so to answer Mousse's incredulous question, the pigtailed martial artist snorted. "Yeah, me. The same guy who started out feelin' sorry for you. The same guy who was a lot nicer to you than you deserve."

"The same guy who wouldn't know honor if it stuck a sword through him!!" Mousse interjected.

"You only wish," Ranma snapped back. "Let's see, who was it who kidnapped Akane to try an' get to me? Who threw Yazuniichuan water around tryin' to hit me, without even caring what kinda innocent people might've ended up cursed? Who doesn't have any problem with getting someone else and ganging up on me? First it was with Ryoga, and don't think I don't know it was your idea, and then with the loony-tune Kunos while I had that stupid weakness moxibustion! And who told Shampoo he was going back to China and leaving her alone, and then just snuck around causin' me trouble until he couldn't stay away from her anymore?

"Oh, and let's not forget who it was that was so dead set against admitting Shampoo loved me instead of him that he almost let her get cursed to be a… to get stuck in her cursed form for good? Who couldn't let the girl he SAID he loved kiss the guy SHE said SHE loved, even to save her neck? Any of this ring any bells with you, Mousse?!"

"I don't have to take this from you." By now Mousse's entire body was trembling, rather than just his voice. He was beyond shouting for the moment, fury causing his words to emerge half-choked. "Just… just…" the dam broke, "…just DIE!!"

And with that Mousse gave it his all, flinging weapon after weapon, producing dozens of times his own body weight in concealed instruments of mayhem and hurling them toward his nemesis.

The sheer volume actually posed something of a challenge. Ranma had to devote quite a bit of attention to his safety as he dodged and blocked his way through the onslaught. Approaching Mousse for the knockout was out of the question; with the attacks coming this fast and furious, it was all he could do to hold his ground. There just wasn't room to maneuver forward.

And so he maintained his position, blurring as he struck and kicked the various weapons away from him, knocking Mousse's attempts back on themselves and disrupting subsequent ones. Chains tangled, various edged and blunt objects piled up, and it became ever more obvious that Mousse's efforts, though determined, were as futile as usual.

The Chinese boy eventually ran out of weaponry and energy. He stood there, gasping and panting, still trembling with rage but unable to act on it just now. Ranma just shook his head in disgust, and snaked one foot underneath a discarded chain. He lifted it to his hand, and began spinning the large, blunt weight on the end. "Ain't you EVER going to learn, Mousse?" The boy in question tried to dodge as Ranma launched the chain, but weariness made him stumble. And then his own weapon encircled him, binding him and clipping his wings.

Ranma looked away, not because he was bothered by the ferocity of the glare his recent foe was sending his way, but rather trying to find a tree from which to string Mousse up. The moron didn't have any choice now except to stay put and listen to what he had to say, Ranma thought determinedly, and this time he was going to get through to him even if he had to beat the ideas into Mousse's skull. At least, that was his intention, though it must be admitted he was operating out of optimism rather than realism.

And it proved to be a moot point anyway. Without Mousse's squawking to distract him, Ranma suddenly realized that there was quite a commotion proceeding from another area of the park. He listened for a few moments, fighting a feeling of mounting dread, and then hurried toward the new disturbance.

The path of a martial artist is fraught with peril. It was a saying that had been shown, time and time again, to contain much truth. And while Ranma was the one who most often felt this truth bite him in the backside, he was far from the only one. Akane was no stranger to random kidnappings. Ryoga lived his life one splash of water plus a few moments of bad luck away from becoming a tasty meal. Ukyo had nearly lost her restaurant twice over. Figures from his disreputable past occasionally surfaced to cause Genma plenty of anxiety.

Shampoo was no exception to this rule, either. From defeating the deadly minstrel Mon Lon, to the encounters with the Ghost Cat, all the way back to her very first defeat by Ranma-chan, the Amazon had had her share of dangers and confrontations. She knew and accepted that this was an inescapable part of the life she lived.

That didn't mean she enjoyed getting challenged by one of the girls chasing the man she loved right after she'd ended a date with him, though.

Shampoo didn't recognize her at first. She'd only seen this member of the competition once, which had been a week ago and from a distance. That and the fact that she was currently more interested in reliving a bit of the recent past rather than focusing on anything going on in the present meant Shampoo didn't really pay any attention to the approaching brunette. Not until Kaori stopped a few feet in front of the Amazon, glaring frostily all the while, did Shampoo come out of her daze. Her smile began to fade as she put an identity to the face before her.

"I'd like to know what you thought you were doing with my fiancé," Kaori said, cutting straight to the chase.

"Hot damn," muttered Kentaro Shimoji, roving ace reporter for a local TV news station. "Good things do come to those who wait. Point that camera over there, Toshi, and start filming!"

Toshi Otohime, his newly assigned cameraman, gave his colleague a blank look. "What? A couple of teenage girls that're about to get into a catfight? Sure, they're hot babes, but newsworthy…?" The blank look morphed into a smirk. "You wouldn't be wanting this tape just for your personal archive or something, would you?"

"You wouldn't be asking me that if you'd been around here for long, kid," Kentaro replied with a grin. "Time to learn about the stuff they didn't teach you in college. Just roll the film already, and for heaven's sake don't drop the camera when the special effects start flying!"

Shampoo turned her nose up. "What matter, take-out girl? You could not see clearly? If that is case, Shampoo know better man for you, one you have lot in common with. Would be glad introduce you to him."

"I've already got someone." Kaori's tone dipped into glacial temperatures. "The guy you just grabbed and kissed."

"No. You do not," Shampoo said, her voice adamant and shifting toward threatening. "Can dream all you want, but it not change what is truth. It was Shampoo who Ranma take on date today, was Shampoo he say he have good time with. You think promise made by Genma should make Ranma go to you? Think so highly of stupid panda man? Then Shampoo suggest you date with him. Or anybody else you want. But leave my Airen alone!"

"I guess you'd like it if I did," Kaori growled. "If I just curled up into a little ball and didn't give you any more trouble. Well, sorry, China girl, I don't think so!" She drew herself into a ready stance, wishing there had been time to get a bowl of ramen before this confrontation.

Shampoo whipped out her bonbori. "Is fine with me. Shampoo even like it better this way. Get a nice little relaxing workout!" She smiled, enjoying the way the other girl's confidence took a sudden dip at the sight of the weapons. Just like that other wannabe warrior girl. "You try not make this too, too easy, okay, take-out girl?"

Kaori's arm whipped in an arc, loosing the chopstick she had palmed, while she blessed the fact that her foe's short dress left her legs bare. The missile darted through the air, grazing Shampoo's right leg in one precise spot. The Amazon's eyes widened as her limb buckled beneath her, tremors of pain suddenly flaring up from the very tips of her toes.

The brunette smirked, recovering her equanimity at the success of the attack. "Sorry, I'm afraid it does look like it's going to be pretty easy. Better luck next ti—YAHH!" She skipped to the side, barely dodging Shampoo's thrown bonbori. The club struck a tree behind Kaori's hastily vacated location, bouncing back to the Amazon's hand.

Toshi's jaw hung slack. Fortunately his hands, better trained, maintained the camera at its proper level. "That… she… look at the bark!"

Kentaro glanced at the tree, considering the gouge in the bark and noting that the trunk hadn't been cracked through. "Yeah, she held back a lot. Probably didn't think Ranma would be too happy if she turned someone into a red smear."

Shampoo was back on her feet now, gritting her teeth and ignoring the pain in her leg. She began stalking forward. Kaori launched another chopstick at Shampoo's other leg, but the Amazon lowered a bonbori and blocked it without slackening pace. Kaori backpedaled, realizing that if she tried to turn and run she'd never be able to dodge the inevitable thrown weapon.

Plus there was the fact that she really, really wanted a victory, to make this girl pay for her effrontery with Kaori's fiancé, and to take away the sting of her earlier defeat at the hands of that wretched mystery redhead. Kaori's face hardened. At least one good thing had come of that previous battle, the brunette reflected… she was now carrying PLENTY of material for ranged attacks.

"Too stubborn for your own good," she taunted Shampoo, continuing to back away as the Amazon moved forward, trying a quick one-two chopstick strike. Both were knocked aside effortlessly. "I know how much that leg has to be hurting you."

"Try smacking own self into boulders for many days straight," the other girl growled back. Ever so slowly, she was closing the distance between them. "This pain is nothing. At least, is nothing to what you is going to be feeling soon!" Very soon indeed, if her enemy failed to realize Shampoo was herding her into a patch of low, tangled brush. No way could she back through that without falling down.

"I don't think so." Kaori brought her arms up into a crossed position. "Since you don't know when to quit, I guess I'll put you out of your misery! Daikoku school final attack: A Thousand Satisfied Customers!!" Her arms swung down and swept into windmilling motion, as Kaori launched a furious fusillade of chopsticks at Shampoo.

"KACHU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!!" Shampoo's bonbori dropped from visibility as she swung them at maximum speed, shielding herself from the chopstick barrage. With some effort, she managed to replace the technique's usual grimace of concentration with a mocking smile.

Kaori blanched, cutting the attack short before she exhausted all her ammunition. "That's pretty impressive." Her expression hardened again. "But it's not going to be good enough!" 'I hope.' She reached into a pocket, pulling out something new.

Shampoo blinked. "A fortune cookie? What kind of Japanese use silly fake food what really come from America?"

"You're almost right. But I'm afraid it's actually a MISfortune cookie!" Kaori hurled it straight at the Amazon.

Rather than block this one, Shampoo dodged awkwardly. Her opponent had to have known she was capable of knocking the thing aside. She might not like Kaori, but she also didn't think the girl was stupid enough to launch a completely worthless attack. Shampoo's hunch was proved right as the misfortune cookie struck the ground some little distance behind her, exploding with quite a bit of force.

"Nice try, but can you keep it up?!" Kaori launched another cookie, then began flinging more chopsticks. Shampoo dodged again, with some difficulty, and barely managed to shift into blocking mode in time to deflect the non-explosive projectiles. But Kaori was now firmly controlling the tempo of battle, and when she sent two cookies sailing along in the chopstick stream, there was nothing Shampoo could do but grasp her bonbori as tightly as she could, and hope.

The dual explosions knocked her right off her feet. She maintained her grip on her weapons, but couldn't shrug off the force transmitted through them. Her hands were still clenched tightly around the hafts of the maces, but she couldn't even feel them. Her arms were in slightly better shape; she could still move them, although it felt like she was pushing through wet concrete to do so.

Kaori smirked, adding insult to injury, and launched one more precision chopstick strike, nailing the Amazon's remaining good limb. Shampoo hissed in pain as her left leg joined the right in near-rebellion.

"See you later," the Martial Arts Takeout girl said cheerfully. "But when I do, I'd better not see you with Ranma. Is that underst… oh, come on, this is ridiculous." Shampoo had just struggled back to her feet. Despite the pain on her face and her generally battered condition, she was now sporting a fierce battle aura. "I'm still carrying enough ammunition to finish you, China girl."

"Good," Shampoo said, menace thick in her words. Her aura twisted, flowing down her arms. "Hope you have many of those cowardly cookie weapons left." Her bonbori were now glowing brightly. Too late, Kaori scrambled for more weapons. "Hope they all go off at once! HYAHHH!!" And with that, through the protests in her arms, ignoring the numbness in her hands, she brought her battered maces slamming together, releasing a massive wave of energy straight toward Kaori.

It was a really, really bad time for Ranma to rush between them in an attempt to stop the fight.

He just had time to realize what he'd done, but not to brace himself. The chi blaze slammed into him, bowling him over and sending him plowing into the dirt. His body dug a noticeable trench before coming to rest, twitching spasmodically with wisps of smoke rising from him."…ouch…"

"Airen!" Her bonbori fell from nerveless fingers. Ignoring the pain in her legs, Shampoo hurried toward him as best she could, remorse hurting her worse than her injuries. Nailing the man she loved with a potentially lethal attack did NOT strike her as a good follow-up on their date. "Is you okay?!"

"Don't you think you've done enough?! Get away from him!" Kaori snapped, coming up along Ranma's other side. Only the loss of Shampoo's weapons gave her the nerve to do so. "Ranma, how do you feel? Is it safe to move you?! Don't worry, I'll get you to a doctor!"

"Take own self!!" Shampoo snarled, rage giving her the focus she needed to slam a knife hand blow into the center of the other girl's breastbone. Kaori was knocked backward, falling to the ground with a muffled cry of pain.

"That's… enough…" Ranma gritted, forcing his way back to his knees. "Cut it out… both of you." He made it the rest of the way back to his feet.

"Okay, Airen. Come on now," Shampoo said worriedly. "We go back to Cat Café, get Great-Grandmother to look at you."

"Forget it," he said with a sigh. "It ain't that bad." When Shampoo began to protest again, he cut her off. "Right now I just want to get out of here without any more grief." He gave Shampoo a hard look, then shifted it to Kaori. "That means both of you head on home peacefully too." Ranma turned, and began to walk away.

"R-Ranma. No go like this," Shampoo said, her voice trembling. "Please no turn away now. This not Shampoo's fault!!"

He stopped, and gave a deep sigh. Without turning around he responded, "I don't remember sayin' it was. It's just another one of those things that happens all the time around here."

Once he was reasonably sure Shampoo wasn't following him and wouldn't see it happen, Ranma collapsed onto a bench. He wasn't as wasted as he'd been after his first encounter with Ryoga's Shi Shi Houkodan, but he wasn't far from it either. Walking away from Shampoo and Kaori without staggering had just about been the limit of what he was capable of right now. If any of his rivals turned up in the next little while, he wouldn't even be able to use the Saotome Secret Technique to end the fight.

It was an unwelcome truth, one which Ranma tried to push out of his mind. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on recovering. Immediately, however, an equally unpleasant thought bobbled up… namely, if he went back to the Tendo home now, his battered condition would raise some awkward questions. Somehow, he just couldn't see anything good coming from an explanation that he'd gotten caught in the crossfire of a brawl between Shampoo and Kaori.

Obviously, then, the thing to do was wait on this nice, comfortable bench until he felt better, and in the meantime try to think up a cover story for when he got back home. Judging from past experience, with chi blasts in particular and getting the crud beaten out of him in general, Ranma estimated that in a couple of hours he'd be feeling like someone had wrapped his body in wet towels and then wrung them dry. A BIG step up from his current condition. Heck, even Tsubasa Kurenai might be more than he could handle just now.

With a mental scowl, Ranma pushed that thought away again. It shouldn't be a problem, he reminded himself. The time was getting on toward early evening, which meant dinner, which meant that most of the usual nutcases would be busy elsewhere. Ryoga might suddenly pop up, but the lost boy had enough honor not to attack someone this battered. He'd seen that during the business with the Weakness Moxibustion, when Ryoga had defended him from Kuno and Mousse…


Ranma's eyes widened as the nagging whisper from his subconscious mind finally broke through to a cluster of mainstream neurons. Mousse… whom he had left chained up in a nearby park. Mousse, who was probably not far now from working his way free. Mousse, who might or might not head straight back to the Cat Café after his ignominious defeat. Mousse, who might be tired, but who would still be more than Ranma could handle in his present state.

With a not-very-suppressed groan, the Saotome heir forced his way back to his feet, and began walking down the lane, heading for home. Not until he'd covered four block's distance did he remember that he hadn't wanted to go back there just yet.

"This sucks," he muttered. "Shampoo, why'd ya have to use such a stupid overkill technique anyway?" He shook his head disgustedly. "Where'm I supposed to go now?" And then he stopped, head turned to one side, blinking as he realized just where he was, and what he was looking at.

He stood there for a long moment, then deliberately turned and walked through the door into Ucchan's Okonomiyaki.

It hadn't changed in the past three weeks, Ranma noted. There were a fair number of customers present, no surprise considering the time of day. It felt nice, somehow, to see that Ucchan was still doing good business. She was standing behind the grill, and hadn't seen him so far, as she was busy preparing three okonomiyaki at once.

The early dinner rush hadn't really started yet, so there were a few empty seats available. Ranma hesitated, then walked over and claimed the one right in front of the grill.

Ukyo flipped the okonomiyaki onto plates, then looked up with a smile. "Welcome to Uc… chan's…"The smile drained away, leaving her wearing a strange expression that Ranma didn't really know how to qualify. As if moving on its own, her arm passed the finished okonomiyaki down the counter. She took a deep breath. "Ranma."

"Yeah, Ucchan, it's me." Ranma blinked. As if by magic, a throwing spatula had appeared in the chef's hand. "Ah, wait a minute…"

Ukyo ignored him, launching the missile. It winged through the air and struck the sign on her door, causing it to switch from 'open' to 'closed'.

"Nice shot," Ranma said, breathing a little easier.

The chef ignored the compliment, turning to look at him with a hopeful intensity that made him less comfortable than when he thought she'd pulled a weapon on him. "Ranma. Is… is there something you wanted to tell me?"

"There is," Ranma confirmed, not meeting her gaze. "Like you can see, I'm not in good shape right now. I kinda… need a place to stay for the next couple of hours, to recover. And some okonomiyaki would be really nice too." He gulped. "I've missed those."

Without a word, Ukyo turned back to the grill, preparing a jumbo house special. She passed it to Ranma, who took the offering with a mental sigh of relief. She wasn't going to throw him out, then. It had taken longer than he'd expected, but she apparently wasn't going to stick to that ultimatum she'd laid down in front of him last time he was here.

"Ranma?" Ukyo said as he finished the last bite of his okonomiyaki. "Do you remember what I said last time you were here?"

Ranma sweated. "Y-yeah?"

"I'm not blind or stupid enough not to see that… that's not why you're here," Ukyo said quietly. "You've got a lot of nerve coming back now. Doing… just doing the same thing you always do. Coming by here for a meal, and a nice place to visit."

"Look, Ucchan, that's not fair…"

Ukyo shot out one hand, the gesture breaking up Ranma's protest. "Seven hundred yen."


"Seven hundred yen. That's the price of a house special, Ranma. Just be glad I'm not charging you for all the others you've mooched off me before."

Ranma closed his eyes, feeling first betrayal, and then anger. In one second all the memories came rushing back, memories of how he'd felt these past few weeks, how it had hurt when she ignored him. That was NOT the way a friend should act, a part of him had railed in the back of his mind.

And it spoke aloud now, as he opened his eyes. "Ucchan, is that any way… for…"

The sight before him derailed his train of thought. He couldn't meet Ukyo's eyes, because her head was completely downcast, leaving her staring directly at the floor. Not that he expected she could see it clearly, as tears were falling, dropping one after the other with little interval between. Her shoulders were trembling, but somehow her outstretched hand held rock steady.

His righteous indignation vanished in a heartbeat. A heartbeat that felt as if it had come from the pit of his stomach rather than his chest. "Ucchan… I…" Abandoning words, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket, and fumbled through it, removing the requested sum and dropping it in her palm. "I'm sorry." Even he knew it was inadequate, but it was all Ranma could manage. He got up from his seat.

"N-no, Ranma. Sit down. Stay here. Take… take those couple of hours you wanted. Get your strength back here, where it's always been safe. And then go on back to the Tendo place."

"Um… that… I don't…" Ranma didn't know what he was trying to say, but his reluctance came through clearly enough. He glanced around as if searching for inspiration; it came as a distant shock to realize that once again all the customers had melted away.

Head still downcast, Ukyo turned and walked toward the stairs that led to her living quarters. "I mean it, Ranma. Stay." Her voice came tightly controlled. "If you ever thought of me as any kind of friend, stay here and recover. Just… just don't come upstairs…" She paused on the stairway. The control slipped, nearly fracturing. "And you might…" she drew a shuddering breath, "m-might want to wipe off Shampoo's GODDAMN LIPSTICK!!"

'Saotome, you idiot, you owe me big time for this.'

It was with an increasing effort of will that Nabiki maintained her nonchalant pose on the couch, flipping through a manga in a posture that spoke of bored unconcern. Ranma wasn't back yet. Ranma should have been back an hour ago. And if Ranma didn't get his sorry carcass back here soon, Nabiki wasn't sure she could keep her end of their bargain. Akane was already restless, sneaking glances at a clock every five minutes. Nabiki had told her that she had sent Ranma off to run some errands for her, which had neatly explained his early afternoon absence. It was even true, as far as it went, though Nabiki hadn't felt it judicious to add that said errands would only take about fifteen minutes, tops.

It had been enough to hold her little sister for a while. After a couple of hours had passed, Akane had oh-so-casually asked whether the tasks Nabiki had set for Ranma involved renting him out to his other fiancées. Secretly VERY grateful for the way her sister had phrased the question, Nabiki had forced her face to register nothing but amusement. After confirming that the answer was 'no', she'd had an entertaining ten minutes needling Akane with questions as to just why she was so concerned.

That had settled little sister down for the last hour, but the effect was wearing off now. As if to illustrate this point, Akane spoke up. "It won't be much longer until Kasumi calls us all in for dinner, Nabiki. Should it really take Ranma this long to get everything done?"

"Honestly? No, Akane, not unless something unexpected came up." Nabiki figured that since something unexpected almost surely HAD come up, she might as well admit that. "But considering that we're talking about Ranma Saotome, that could just mean he realized he didn't know how to get to the places I told him to go. For all we know, he could still be trying to find the first stop on his itinerary because he's too macho to ask somebody for directions, and too dense to think about calling me here."

"Humph. So I shouldn't worry about that baka, huh?"

"Oh no, I didn't say that," Nabiki replied with a smirk. "I'm not worried, at least I won't be unless he actually misses dinner. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't worry about him."

"What? Why not?!"

"Because this is just TOO entertaining. I haven't had this much fun in days," the middle Tendo said dryly. "Watching you pretend like you don't care about him, even though you're getting completely bent out of shape just because he's not around."

Akane sniffed, tilting her nose into the air. "You wish!" She picked up the television remote and switched the set on, pointedly focusing on it and ignoring her sister.

'That might hold her for another thirty minutes,' Nabiki estimated. 'IF I'm lucky. Saotome, I should have known better than to think you might be able to handle your part of this deal. Couldn't you manage one simple little date without getting… into…'

It was at this point that the scene on the 'human interest' segment of the evening news registered with Nabiki. She sat there, stock still, shifting her attention between the set and Akane. Watching as Shampoo and Kaori screamed at each other, each claiming Ranma was rightfully hers. Wincing as Shampoo said her piece about a date, after Kaori had said HERS about a kiss. Giving a long, deep sigh of regret as she examined her sister, who sat as if carved from stone while a battle aura blazed around her. 'Jeez, Saotome, when you blow it, you really blow it big, don't you?'

Her answer came quickly, as the sound of an opening door was followed by Ranma's weary call of "I'm home!"

Nabiki winced again, closing her eyes as a sudden breeze blew her hair around. That had been Akane, exiting the room at a speed Nabiki never saw her sister attain when she was practicing martial arts. The middle Tendo kept her eyes closed, shaking her head and muttering, "Ranma, Ranma, Ranma…" while trying not to listen too closely to the inevitable confrontation.

She knew Akane had been trying to control her temper better lately, but right now Nabiki wouldn't give a bent yen coin for Ranma's chances of emerging unscathed.

"You want to tell me where you were all this time, Ranma?" That was Akane, her voice coming sharp with pain and hot with anger.

"Got caught in a fight." Ranma, weary, tired, in more than a bit of his own pain, and not even close to perceptive enough to see just how deep he was in it right now. "Stayed at Ucchan's for a little while to recover, and she basically made me feel like a worse heel than Kuno for going back when I wasn't there to tell her I'd picked her. So I ain't in a good mood right now, Akane, and I'd like to get… by…"That would be where he finally began to notice the battle aura, and the fire in her eyes.

"Nothing else?" Little sister's voice, hard and raspy. Nabiki wondered whether Ranma would realize, later, that that particular tone was the sound of choked back tears. "Nothing like, maybe, you taking Shampoo on a date? Like maybe you KISSING her, Ranma?!"

Shock that had completely destroyed what feeble discretionary verbal skills he had. "H-how'd you know?!"

"I HATE YOU!!" The scream, and the swish, and the thunk of wood on flesh, and the crunch of a body embedded into the floor. At least he hadn't gone crashing through multiple walls, Nabiki noted. She waited until she heard Akane storm away, then went out and checked on him. If she was any judge, and the number of times she'd 'assisted' Tatewaki to the nurse's office had taught her fairly well, he wouldn't be waking up before morning.

"Sweet dreams, Saotome," she muttered ironically. "Don't think I'm letting you off the hook on that favor, either. I did the best anyone could, but I'm not liable for Acts of God." She shook her head, and went to fetch Kasumi.

When he was much younger, Ranma had passed through an experience no-one should ever endure. The Cat-Fist training had been a little piece of hell on earth; misery and pain and terror and betrayal all rolled up into a ball, garnished with fish products, and sent careening into a nightmare of darkness, claws, and teeth. Those episodes had left him scarred, but they had also demonstrated a basic truth of the human psyche: when stress builds high enough, the mind will force a way to escape.

Or embrace one, when an offer is made.

Slowly and dimly, he became aware of sensation. Sparkles of light against velvet blackness. The wind in his hair. Motion, surrounding him, cocooning and caressing him. The impressions were distant, vague, seemingly part of an unimportant background rather than anything worth examining in detail.

Still, the martial artist within him wanted more than that. Needed an awareness of the environment around him. Lazily, one corner of his mind attempted to focus, though the dreamlike state made it difficult; the senses that he had honed so sharply over the course of his training seemed sleepy, unwilling to concentrate. His mind felt like it was wrapped in soft cotton, which was comforting and pleasurable to be sure, but made it difficult to discern just what was happening.

He was dimly aware of this, but somehow it didn't matter much. The situation wasn't alarming, just… curious. And that curiosity led him to stretch out, analyze his surroundings as best he could, and see. He was… he was…

He was flying through the night sky?

~Shh. Relax, Ranma.~

It couldn't be considered a voice. Certainly it was nothing he heard with his ears. The words weren't there, and then they were, softer than the moonlight on the clouds above him, closer than the air that slipped around his form.

~Don't try so hard. Just enjoy the dream.~

A dream? Of course, Ranma thought muzzily, that explained it. Curiosity satisfied, he relaxed into the embrace of the wind and the darkness, feeling a pleasant sensation of release as recent stress drained away.

~That's better. Let it go, Ranma.~ A pause, then the words came again, even softer than before. ~I've missed you.~


He stirred slightly.

"Ranma, it's time to get up."

The pillow was pulled over his head.

"Breakfast is ready."

Kasumi caught the pillow as it flew past her, catapulted by Ranma's sudden sit-up. "Huh?" The Saotome heir blinked at her for a few seconds, before giving a tremendous yawn. "Oh. Thanks, Kasumi."

The eldest Tendo daughter regarded him with an uncharacteristically grave look on her face. She knew Ranma was resilient, but this…? He seemed in much too good a mood, considering how his day had ended yesterday. "I'm glad you're feeling better this morning," she said tentatively.

"Huh? Feeling better?" At which point the blissful grace period of morning amnesia came to an end. Kasumi winced, already regretting saying anything, as Ranma's face fell. "Heh. Well, I was. Had nice dreams at least."

"I'm sorry, Ranma," she offered awkwardly. "Maybe today will be a better day."

Ranma turned and looked toward the window, and the bright sunlight that streamed down outside. He closed his eyes, remembering the calm quiet and the wind in his hair. His lips curved slightly, becoming at least the ghost of the smile he'd been wearing when she woke him. "Maybe, Kasumi. I can hope, can't I?"


To be continued.

Afterword: This is the first of three chapters, to be continued in 'Night of Ghosts and Shadows', and concluded in 'Dawn's Uncertain Light'. Detailed author's notes will appear at the end.

Chapter 2
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