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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 2A: Through the Gathering Dark


"H-huh?!" It was clear that this request for his attention had caught him by surprise. Ranma froze in his tracks, only just now realizing that Akane had stopped walking as well. "Did you say something, Akane?"

Well might he ask. His fiancée hadn't had much to say to him since Wednesday evening of the previous week. On Thursday and Friday Akane had left very early for school, early enough that he hadn't even seen her until he arrived at Furinkan. She'd spent the afternoons in the dojo, reducing a truly remarkable number of cinderblocks to rubble.

He'd kind of hoped that he'd get a chance during the weekend to tell her what really happened, to get it through her head that it had been Shampoo kissing him, not the other way around. But Akane had disappeared on Saturday morning, going off to spend the day and night with friends from school, and when she got back on Sunday afternoon Nabiki had shooed him away so that she could talk with her younger sister. He didn't know what they'd spent so much time discussing, wasn't even sure he wanted to know, and the long and short of it was he'd still had no chance to talk to Akane and tell her what happened hadn't been his fault.

Which was why the fact that here and now SHE had initiated the conversation was a bit surprising. Akane hadn't left so early this morning, but she hadn't paid Ranma any attention either. They'd walked several blocks in silence, with Akane some fifteen feet ahead of him and not looking back.

Ranma had halted fairly quickly after she did, but there was still about ten feet separating them. With the distance still between them, and with her back still turned to him, Akane spoke up again. "I… had a talk with Nabiki yesterday, Ranma."

After a few moments of silence had stretched out uncomfortably, Ranma said, "Yeah?"

"She…" He heard her take a deep breath, "she said some things… Ranma, I need to know if what she said was true. Will you please just once be really honest with me?"

Ranma allowed himself the luxury of a bitter grimace, glad that her stance meant she wouldn't see it. 'Thanks for making it sound like I lie to you all the time, Akane.' Aloud, he said, "Yeah, okay. Remember this is Nabiki we're talking about, though. IF I know whether what she said was true, I'll tell ya."

"Well, if you don't, nobody does!" Akane returned. "She said that… that you didn't want to go out on that date. That Shampoo tricked you into it."

"Huh?" Ranma boggled for a few seconds, struck off-balance by the fact that Nabiki had apparently helped him out without being asked, or asking anything in return. Recovering his sense of poise, he said, "That's almost right, Akane. I…" He sighed. "You know me an' my big mouth. I said something that hurt Shampoo's feelings, and then I kinda blurted out that I'd do something to make up for it before I really thought about what I was sayin'. It wasn't so much her tricking me; she just took advantage when I left myself open."

"And…" Akane's voice shook, and her hands were balled tightly into fists at her sides, "and what about the kiss? Nabiki said Shampoo grabbed you when you weren't looking. That it wasn't your fault at all."

"How the HECK does she find these things out?!" Ranma asked the heavens. "I mean, I didn't tell her, and I'm sure Shampoo wouldn't'a put it like that, and there wasn't anybody else who saw… except for Mousse… or maybe Kaori…" By the end of the sentence, the bewildered fury had trickled out of his tone, leaving his next words more sheepish than anything else. "Well, maybe it wouldn't have been too hard for her to ask around and put the real story together. Anyway, yeah, Akane, that's what happened. She looked over my shoulder and yelled, like there was somethin' horrible coming up behind me, I turned and looked, and when I turned back around… well, you know…"

"Yes, I know!" Akane said, pain in her voice. She forced herself not to think about those particular details, though, pushing them to the back of her mind to concentrate on something else. Something that hurt as well, but in a different way. "Ranma… I'm sorry."

"You mean… you believe me?" he asked cautiously, taking a few steps toward her, stopping again when he'd covered half the remaining distance.

"You couldn't tell a convincing lie to save your life. Yes, I believe you… it wasn't your fault…" Akane drew a deep breath. "I didn't want to blame you for something that wasn't. I'm sorry."

"Eh, don't worry about it. It's no big deal."

"Really? Are you sure?"

"I'm sure, Akane."

She let out a relieved breath, and turned around to face him. "I'm glad. And you know, it really was a little bit your fault too. After all, when you got back and I asked about YOU kissing SHAMPOO, you asked how I knew instead of telling me it was the other way around."

"I'll try and get it right the next time," Ranma grumbled. Like anything he'd said at that point would really have made a difference.

Akane frowned. "There better not BE a next time anytime soon! Honestly, Ranma, you need to stand up for yourself more. Stop letting Shampoo take advantage of you like that!"

"I really wish it was that simple," he muttered under his breath.

"What was that? I didn't hear what you said."

Walking the rest of the way over to her, and raising his voice to normal speaking tones, Ranma replied, "We're gonna be late to class if we don't get moving, Akane. C'mon, let's go."

They walked quite a distance in silence before Ranma spoke up again. The relief he'd felt on making up with Akane hadn't been enough to drive another problem from his mind, another thing he was going to have to face soon. It might even happen that today would be the day. And he had an unhappy suspicion that if he wasn't careful, he could easily end up upsetting Akane again. She had really been angry this last time, and would probably be even more touchy than usual for the next little while. On the other hand, hopefully she would also be more ready to give him the benefit of the doubt if he explained something ahead of time.

"Hey, Akane," he said, after spending some few minutes considering the best way to start things off.

He'd been walking beside her since their earlier conversation, so Akane didn't have to stop and turn around to look at him. "What is it?"

"Just something I needed to tell you, about what happened last week."

Akane sighed. "Listen, Ranma, I'd rather just forget it for now, okay? I don't want to talk about Shampoo or that day any more!"

"Huh? No, it's not that. This happened earlier on. Day before that, actually."

"Oh. You mean when you had your study date with Kaori?" The hairs on the back of Ranma's neck stirred. Akane's tone and expression were darkening. Blast it, this was what he'd been trying to AVOID by bringing this up now!

"Yes and no, Akane." Too late to quit now. Ranma forged on ahead. "We didn't actually get any studying done." Eyeing the facial tic that his fiancée had suddenly developed, and running that last sentence back through his mind, he blurted out, "That ain't what it sounded like! I mean I got caught in the rain on the way to her place and she ran into me in the street just a little later!"

"So what?!" Akane demanded. Then she blinked, as for some strange reason a vision of Kodachi pranced through her head. "Wait a minute… you don't mean you've never told her about your curse?!"

"Nope, not yet." Ranma breathed a quick sigh of relief. "So all she saw then was the girl who took her down in the Martial Arts Takeout race. And she wanted a piece of my hide for payback."

"What did you do?"

"Kaori didn't give me a whole lotta choice, actually." Ranma shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "She attacked me, didn't give me a chance to explain or nothing, did her best to squish me flat on the pavement. Story of my life, really."

The youngest Tendo sniffed. "Just like you're always picking on Ryoga. Sounds like karma to me."

"Yeah, well, I never tried chokin' Ryoga with a stupid noose made outta ramen noodles. Or any other kinda noose." Ranma didn't even bother trying to correct her impression of who was at fault in his battles with the lost boy. By now he was resigned that that was one truth he'd never make her see. "I never hid chopsticks up my sleeves so someone who tried to block my punches got some nasty bruises for their troubles."

Akane bit her lower lip. "Was it really that bad, Ranma?" She was used to Ranma thoroughly outclassing everyone his age. Getting caught between Shampoo and Kaori was one thing, but she wouldn't have thought he'd have that rough a time in a one-on-one battle.

"Well, it ain't like I couldn't handle it or nothing. But it wasn't any fun."

"I'm sorry." A bit belatedly, Akane was remembering the time she had faced Kaori in battle. Even Shampoo had never fought her so ferociously, never given her that kind of pain. "What happened then? Did you win?"

"Yeah, when I got sick of taking it I knocked her out, took her to her apartment, an' left her there." Ranma was looking ahead into the distance, and missed seeing the way Akane's eyes widened and her face paled at this. "Avoided her at school the next day, 'cause I wasn't feeling up to talking to her about all this. And maybe you didn't notice, but she wasn't there Thursday or Friday. So I still need to talk to her, tell her what's going on, and maybe today'll be the day. Just wanted you to know, if you see me going off to talk to Kaori all by myself."

"O-okay, Ranma. Thanks for warning me," Akane said quietly.

He gave her a strange glance, wondering why she'd used that tone. However, she didn't seem angry or hurt, so he let it go. The gates of Furinkan were right up ahead of them, anyway… time to concentrate on other things, he decided.

Seldom had Ranma been more right. Seldom had it done him less good.

Kaori wasn't the only one whose recent absences from Furinkan had been a bit of a relief to the pigtailed boy. The school had seen neither hide nor hair of Tatewaki Kuno for the last two weeks. These days the kendoist ranked relatively low on Ranma's scale of annoyances, and so he hadn't paid too much attention to the matter. It had been good for the occasional moment of mild thankfulness, nothing more.

However, all good things must come to an end, and when Ranma and Akane entered the schoolyard, they found Tatewaki standing there waiting. Ranma sighed and rolled his eyes. Akane frowned, expecting him to rush up for what he called 'celebrating their passion' and she called molestation. It had been two weeks since he'd seen his fierce tigress, after all, and she was sure Kuno was eager to make up for lost time.

Truth be told, however, a small part of her was a little glad to see him. HERE was someone she could pound flat and not feel guilty about it at all! As soon as he moved in to grab her, she was going to send him flying far enough that it'd take him ANOTHER fortnight to get back!

"Akane Tendo… truly you are a sight for sore eyes," Kuno said. Akane blinked, surprised not at the words but rather the tone in which Tatewaki had spoken. It was a strange mixture of harsh intensity and tightly-wound control, with undertones that she couldn't quite identify. Kuno's eyes gave much the same impression; they were bloodshot, and there were dark circles underneath, but a light of force and focus shone through, denying the physical evidences of weariness.

The upperclassman had paused after that first sentence, falling silent to stare at her. The intensity of his regard quickly made Akane extremely uncomfortable, but a few seconds later, just before she could decide on a response, Tatewaki tore his gaze away. "But needs I must ask you to go ahead now into the school building, my goddess. For the task before the Blue Thunder cannot wait even for the love we share."

"And what task is that," Ranma asked in a bored tone of voice. "Oh, wait, lemme guess. Time to challenge the vile sorcerer again to try an' free Akane and the pigtailed girl. Right?"

"Be still before your betters until spoken to, dog," Kuno spat. "I would have words with you, and it is my wish that a challenge would not become necessary."

Ranma frowned. THAT he hadn't expected. Did the kendoist mean what he said? He wasn't above using trickery, but it didn't really seem like him to lie outright. On the other hand, now that Kuno's attention was directed solely toward him, Ranma could plainly see hatred seething in the older boy's expression.

Akane could see it just as plainly. "What did you want to talk to him about, Kuno?"

"It is a matter of my family honor. It is not right to involve you. Please, Akane Tendo, go now."

Ranma glanced to the side, noting the mulish cast of determination that was settling onto Akane's face. "C'mon, Akane, just head on in. You know how stubborn Kuno is. Sooner you go ahead, sooner I can figure out what this bozo wants."

"Well, excuse me for being a little worried! Look at him, Ranma. He really seems angry!"

"Yeah? So?"

Akane threw up her hands in frustration. "Fine! Sorry! Sorry I even thought for a minute that he might decide to attack you anyway!" She turned, intending to stomp off into the school.

"Akane." The tone of Ranma's voice froze her mid-stride. The youngest Tendo turned back, and her fiancé continued. "You said to look at him? Well, I can see he's angry." Kuno's face was pale, frozen in a mask of controlled anger at the way the two teens were speaking about him as if he weren't there to hear. However, he made no sign of acknowledgement, just continued standing still and waiting.

"Now why don't you look?" Ranma said, gesturing toward the kendoist. "I mean really look. His hair's all mussed up. His eyes are all red and bleary. You can tell he's been wearing that same stupid kendo outfit for days now. He's tired, Akane. This's someone who's getting near the end of his strength, and is just pushing himself along with willpower.

"And on top of that, it's Kuno. Mr. Blue Thunder himself." Ranma's voice took on a sharper edge. "You think I need to be protected from HIM?!"

"Fine, Ranma," Akane said tightly. "Sorry for caring." She turned again, and walked ahead into the school.

"I see you yet hold her in your bonds of foul sorcery, Saotome," Kuno's voice rasped. "That she would think to shield such a one as you from such a one as me."

"Kuno, will you just tell me what you want?" Ranma snapped. "You said you were in a hurry. So talk already."

"Very well." Kuno's eyes narrowed. In a tone of vicious hatred held back by iron control, he said, "You will tell me what you have done with my sister."

Ranma blinked. "What?"

"Do not play GAMES with me!!" Even iron can fracture. "She has disappeared out of our home, vanished these past weeks. Thanks to your dark magics, you are the one and only creature in this world who could demand her obedience and receive it!" Kuno pulled a bokken from the interior of his robes. "She is my SISTER, Saotome! Tell me where you have hidden her, release her from the snares in which you have bound her, and I will allow you to walk free until another day!!"

"I mighta known it would be something this stupid," Ranma muttered. "I had nothing to do with Kodachi disappearing, Kuno. I can tell you where to look for her, though… she got locked up in the psycho ward for tryin' to assassinate some gymnastics rivals or something."

"VICIOUS LIES!!" Kuno roared, flecks of spittle appearing on his lips. "The great and noble House of Kuno would never be tainted by such darkness!" With a great deal of effort, he resumed his façade of control. "I have heard these tales and found them to be groundless rumors, spread by lesser men jealous of my glory. It does not surprise me in the least to find that you, Saotome, are their source." He trembled, seeming for a moment as if straining against some invisible leash. "I warn you for the last time. Though I have searched long and hard and have not yet discovered her, though I humble myself to asking that you release her, do not think that silence can save you now. Wherever you have hidden my sister, I will seek her out and recover her, with or without your aid. The only choice you have today is to yield to my wishes, or die on my blade here and now!"

"You've finally lost it for good, haven't you?" Ranma said quietly. Just this once, as he regarded Tatewaki Kuno there was no annoyance, anger, or disgust on his face. Only pity and discomfort. The sight of someone broken like this was something he'd have been happy to avoid for his entire life. "Kuno, if I knew where Kodachi was," meaning which particular asylum held her, "I'd take you to her." 'So they could put you in a cell near her and try to get you well too.'

"So you hold your silence even now. Very well, Saotome." Kuno moved his bokken into a ready position. "You may be silent for all eternity in the grave!"

Ranma spared the barest fraction of an instant to glance around, confirming that they were the only two present in the schoolyard. By the time he returned his full attention to the fight before him, Tatewaki was already charging, bokken raised high, his face a rictus snarl of hatred. The kendoist closed the distance quickly, bringing the weapon arcing downward. Ranma shifted to one side, allowing the blow to miss him by several inches. Considering the strength with which Tatewaki had made the strike, Ranma was quite impressed when the older boy halted his weapon's descent before it could bury itself in the ground. The Saotome heir danced backward, evading the follow-up sideways strike as well.

"YOU WILL FALL!!" Kuno roared, and suddenly the tempo of his attacks increased dramatically. Ranma's eyes widened as he adjusted his own speed, nearly too late to avoid a strike toward his throat. Tatewaki was NEVER this fast when watermelons weren't involved!

And yet, that wasn't true, Ranma would later remember. There had been one time, after Happosai had trained Kuno to face him, when the kendoist had found reserves of speed that he had never before touched. The ancient lecher had presented him with what he had said was an elixir of super-speed. Tatewaki had accepted this as truth, believing it with a stubbornness that only a Kuno could achieve, and that belief, rather than the true unsavory contents of the 'elixir', had enabled him to move with a speed greater than Ranma himself could match. The fight might have ended badly indeed, except for the true nature of the aid Happosai had given his unsuspecting student. Kuno had great resistance against blows to the head, but his stomach was far weaker, and indigestion had taken him down more painfully than Ranma ever had. And it seemed that here and now, fury, self-deception, and madness were forming an adequate substitute for Happosai's little bit of trickery.

However, through training and through desperate challenges, Ranma had come a long way himself since that other battle. While doing so could not be described as effortless, this time the Saotome heir wove his way through Kuno's furious barrage, usually dodging the bokken, occasionally deflecting it instead with the flat of his hand. Several times he forced an opening, when he could have lashed out and nailed Kuno easily with a counterstrike, but Ranma refrained from taking the opportunities. Considering how much energy his foe was expending, and remembering the signs of weariness that had already been there before their battle began, Ranma expected the older boy would collapse from exhaustion before too much longer.

After a couple of minutes of this, in which near-misses had decimated a tree and several sections of wall, and during which Kuno's fury and power had not lessened in the slightest, Ranma changed his mind. Later, when he had time for more than just split-second decisions, he would remember hearing that truly insane individuals can be capable of truly remarkable feats of strength and stamina.

For now, though, there really wasn't time for reflection. The flow of battle had put him between the school and Kuno, and the air pressure from the kendoist's missed strikes was beginning to crack glass in the windows. In that instant the decision was made; Ranma wasn't about to let any innocent bystanders get hurt because of his inaction. One way or another, Kuno was going down now.

As the next strike blurred toward him, he poured every possible ounce of speed into his left arm, reaching out, bracing his forearm above the bokken, pressing down, altering its path, and forcing the tip into the ground. His right arm came around only the merest fraction of a second later, striking near the hilt of the wooden blade in the instant before Kuno could recover from the failed attack. It was a blow that should have shattered the weapon, especially considering how much stress the bokken had already suffered from attacks that missed their target and tore up the surrounding environment.

Instead of snapping the bokken, however, Ranma's punch finally knocked away the wooden covering that hid the katana underneath.

The steel gave a muted ring as his right fist slammed through the concealing halves of wood and struck the flat of the blade. The impact was painful, to say the least. However, his left arm faired rather worse… the katana was of the straight variety rather than the curved, and it had been hidden upside-down within the bokken. Which, as the remains of the disguise fell away, left Ranma's forearm pressing down against the edge of the blade.

Tatewaki wasn't the only one who could draw on new depths of speed in a crisis situation. All the various onlookers inside the school saw was a blur, ending with Ranma fifteen feet away from the kendoist. With that distance between them, he glanced down at the cut on his arm. The pigtailed boy exhaled a quick breath of relief on realizing the wound was surprisingly shallow, then returned all his attention to the fight before him.

"So much for the so-called honor of the House of Kuno." Ranma's face and voice showed no trace now of his earlier pity. "You make me sick."

"'Twas merely a symbolic gesture, that I thought fitting," Kuno growled back. "As you attempt to hide your treacherous ways and black soul, so did I decide that the blade to end your miserable life should be hidden beneath a less alarming guise."

"Just call it like it is, Kuno. A cheap trick for a guy who doesn't care what it takes to beat me." Ranma matched Tatewaki glare for glare, and brought his hands up. "And I ain't in the mood to humor you anymore. MOKO TAKABISHA!"

The ball of chi shot forward. Kuno didn't even try to dodge. Anything that even remotely resembled retreat was unthinkable at this point. He braced himself to meet the attack, to shrug off the vile sorcerer's spell with the stoic grace of a true samurai.

However, this was AFTER he threw the katana straight toward Ranma's chest… by accident or design at the perfect instant when the glare of Ranma's own forming attack prevented him from seeing this.

The ball of chi sped away from Ranma. Not until it had covered three quarters of the distance to its target could Ranma make out the fact that there was something else gleaming in the air.

Once again, all that the students saw was a blur, resolving into one very unhappy pigtailed martial artist with his arms stretched out before him, palms clasped flat against a blade whose tip rested an inch from breaking his skin. Meanwhile, Tatewaki crashed unconscious to the ground, his body failing him at last, his fury unable to shrug off the chi blast.

Ranma sent a long, cold glare toward the kendoist, then turned his gaze to the sword. It was of high-quality but plain workmanship, obviously not the Kuno honor blade or anything like that.

Perhaps it wouldn't have made any difference if it had been. He was breathing heavily, his face flushed red. This time, Kuno had gone too far, and Ranma was ANGRY.

He braced the katana against the ground, then snapped the blade with a grunt. Ranma cast the pieces away and stood for a long moment, calming down, before half-turning and looking at Furinkan over one shoulder. The late bell had already rung, he knew, and if he headed into class now Miss Hinako would probably drain first and ask questions later.

He regarded the school for only a few seconds before turning and walking away.

"There you are."

Ranma blinked and halted his kata, not having expected to hear that voice anytime soon. He turned around to face the porch. Sure enough, Nabiki was standing there watching him. "Shouldn't you still be in school, Nabiki?"

For the moment, Nabiki chose to ignore the question. "Honestly, Saotome, more martial arts? Didn't you get enough of a workout three hours ago?"

"If you were watching then, you saw a real good example of why I can't afford to slack off practice," Ranma replied. "Besides, didn't you see how slow and smooth that kata I was doing just now was? That's an exercise to build control and promote harmony. Fightin' Kuno was all about speed and power."

Nabiki yawned, subtly indicating just how interested she was in hearing a martial arts lecture.

"Of course, that just goes to show how important those things really are," Ranma continued. "I actually did practice some for that a little while ago. The kata just now was also to help cool down from that."

"Saotome, if you didn't already owe me more money than you'll make in your entire life, I'd charge you for wasting my time with these boring details," the middle Tendo said dryly. Didn't it just figure that the only thing to really move Ranma to eloquence would be martial arts. Nabiki pulled out a piece of paper and started toward Ranma, stepping down from the porch. "Anyway— AAAHHHH!!" Her descending foot had come down squarely on a golf ball.

Before Nabiki could shift more than ten degrees away from the vertical, Ranma crossed the distance and slipped his arm behind her, steadying her. "Like I was gonna say," he grumbled, "most of them went in the koi pond, but there's still a couple of golf balls lyin' around from the speed training. Be careful where you step."

"All right, I'll bite," Nabiki said grumpily. "How exactly do you use golf balls in martial arts speed training?"

"Pop stood in one corner of the yard, and got your dad in another, and they both threw the balls toward me. I had to punch Pop's out of the air, and kick Mr. Tendo's."

"Well, that explains the round mark on your forehead." Nabiki had been wondering where that bruise had come from. "Nice to see even the great Ranma Saotome can miss sometimes."

The pigtailed martial artist shrugged. "Missing in training's no big deal." His tone darkened as he said, "It's the fights with lunatics carrying live blades where you can't afford something like that.

"By the way…" he hesitated, thinking that he might be about to ask a stupid question, but eventually continued, "are you sure Kodachi's really in an asylum?"

Nabiki blinked. "Why do you ask?"

"Didn'tcha hear the stuff Kuno was saying to me before the fight?"

"No, I don't think anyone did. If you recall, the two of you were standing near the entrance to the courtyard. The window in our classroom was open, but I couldn't make out what either of you were saying."

"Oh." Ranma related a condensed version of Tatewaki's accusations. "He really did seem convinced that Kodachi wasn't in a mental hospital or nothin', Nabiki. Said he'd looked into that and it wasn't true. I was just wondering if you knew exactly where she was supposed to be."

"No, I never heard anything that specific. But really, Ranma, I can't believe you're taking this seriously. A looonnnng time ago, Kuno-baby's ego grew too big for him to ever admit to having any flaws of his own." Nabiki shrugged. "Now it must have swelled too much for him to allow for the same thing in close family."

"Guess you're right," Ranma said, remembering that in the past, the kendoist had at least been lucid enough to realize that it was Kodachi chasing him of her own free will. But this morning Kuno had also accused him of using magic to snare Kodachi. Tatewaki must just not be willing to face any unpleasant truths anymore, whether they were his own flaws or the truth behind his sister's disappearance.

"Of course I am. Now, if we could get back to important things…" Nabiki handed him the aforementioned piece of paper. "Sign here."

"What is it?" he asked, taking the document but eyeing it warily, as if some sub-clause might involve the disposition of his first-born child.

"Honestly, Saotome, I thought even you knew how to read," Nabiki said, rolling her eyes. "It's a statement about the fight, acknowledging that Kuno attacked an unarmed opponent, specifically you, wielding a katana with apparent intent to kill. It also states that Tatewaki didn't seem rational or in his right mind at the time."

"How'd you know that?" Ranma asked. "Yeah, you're right, you already heard it from me just now how he was rantin' and raving. But how'd you know earlier?"

"Are you kidding? I might not have been able to hear what you two were saying, but I could see his face just fine." Nabiki shook her head. "Not a pretty sight, as I'm sure you noticed too. Now… your signature, please?"

Ranma wasn't ready to comply just yet. "What's this about, anyway?"

Nabiki didn't answer at first, just stared silently at him. Then she sighed, and her flippant mask seemed to crumble. "It's obvious Kuno needs help. Right?"


"Well, if he goes in front of a judge on an attempted murder charge, and assuming nobody buys his way free, what he'll probably get is jail. And what he needs is psychiatric care. That's what I'm going to be working toward, Saotome." Nabiki's gaze sharpened, until it seemed to Ranma as if it might rival the edge of Kuno's late unlamented blade. "This statement is hopefully all I'll need from you. Like I already said, it plays up the 'mental stability or lack thereof' issue rather than the attempted murder. That's the important thing here. I hope you agree."

For the life of him, Ranma couldn't think why Nabiki had said that last sentence threateningly. "Well, duh, Nabiki. Of course the reason he tried to kill me was he was crazy. Why wouldn't I agree with that?" He frowned. "You don't really think I'm that stupid, do you?"

"No, Saotome, all kidding aside, of course I don't. But there's something that might not have occurred to you yet, and I wanted you to think about how important this was." Nabiki paused for emphasis, then said, "For someone who really didn't like Tatewaki, this would be a great chance for some revenge. Emphasize the attempted murder, play down the irrational behavior, try and get Kuno sent to jail instead of to the help he needs. Heck, with his attitude and without a bokken to defend himself with, he might even end up getting his neck broken by a pissed-off cellmate.

"That's a worst-case scenario, obviously." Nabiki's gaze sharpened again. "One I intend to avoid. I know you are too honorable to do something like that," 'plus there's no way in hell you'd have thought of it by yourself', "but there are plenty of people at Furinkan who've got grudges against Kuno. Some of them might even be smart enough to work this out.

"But not with your evidence. You were there, you saw everything better than anyone else. So that's why I want your signature, Ranma. Plus it will hopefully keep you from having to testify personally. And you'd rather not waste your time like that, right?"

"Right," he agreed. He gave the paper a quick once-over, satisfying himself that there really wasn't anything on this that put him any further in debt to Nabiki, then signed it. Nabiki smiled, wearily rather than triumphantly, and reached for the paper.

However, Ranma still had a question or two. "I would rather not waste any time on this. What about you? Why're you going to this much trouble? I can't imagine there's gonna be any yen in it for you. In fact," he frowned, "if you're serious about not lettin' Kuno get off scot-free, you're shooting yourself in the foot. You're gonna be losing your biggest source of income."

"That's it, Saotome, rub it in," Nabiki snarled. "So what SHOULD I do? Nothing? And what if that winds up with Kuno killing someone?! I might not lose any sleep over YOU, but since he's apparently finally gone off the deep end, it could be some totally innocent person."

"Okay, okay, I can see that much. But why go to the trouble of keepin' him out of jail? Don't want to risk him getting out still messed up?"

Nabiki shook her head, not looking at him now. "I don't particularly want to talk about this, Ranma. I'll stretch a point though, seeing as how earlier today you caught a sword an inch from spilling your guts on the ground.

"You do know that most of the money I make goes right back into this household, right? There's a reason I don't have a new stereo, why my computer is surplus from Furinkan, why most of the clothes in my closet are borrowed from Akane. Without me, we'd never have been able to keep our home.

"I've gotten good enough nowadays not to need to leech off the Kuno coffers. But there've been times in the past when there would have been nothing on the table without me milking Tatewaki for all he was worth. I did it. I don't feel guilty about it. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. But here and now I guess I owe him this much, Ranma." Nabiki sighed, still looking down. Then she turned back to face him, gaze fiercer than ever. "Don't you ever breathe a word of this either. Not to anyone else, and definitely not to me. I don't think I'm going to want to be reminded of it."

"Don't worry, Nabiki." Ranma grinned and slapped her on the back. "Just sell me out to Shampoo or Kaori or somebody when you get the chance, an' I'll forget all about any good deeds you might've done."

Nabiki grabbed his hand and shook it. "It's a deal."

"There you are."

Ranma blinked and looked up from his slice of watermelon. "Hey, Akane. Back already?" Only an hour had passed since his talk with Nabiki; the school day wasn't yet two-thirds over. If Akane was going to cut out early to check up on him, Ranma would have expected her to do it long before this.

He frowned slightly as he got a good look at her. It wasn't a sight he had expected to see — his fiancée was pale and drawn, her eyes resembling Gosunkugi's sunken stare, her hair hanging limp and lifeless. She was holding onto the doorframe to steady herself. "Are you okay?!"

"I thought I was supposed to ask you that," she said tiredly. The youngest Tendo walked over and collapsed next to him at the table, then took a long glance at his left arm. The bandage didn't seem elaborate enough to be covering any serious wound. "I went by Dr. Tofu's clinic, but he said you hadn't stopped by. Is your arm all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, this was nothing to bother the doc about. I've been hurt plenty worse than this in training. Just got Kasumi to slap a bandage on it — it prob'ly won't even leave a scar." Waving aside the trivial matter of his own injury, Ranma returned to what he considered more important. "What happened to you?!"

"Miss Hinako. She drained me when I tried to leave and go check on you."

Ranma snorted. "She doesn't like you skipping out of class for a little bit, so she hits you with an attack that'll keep you flat on your back in the nurse's office for three hours. Real good policy."

A faint spark kindled momentarily in Akane's eyes, and she managed to say the next sentence with a hint of her usual vehemence. "It wouldn't have happened if you hadn't sent me in when Kuno told me to go. Guess that's what I get for listening to the likes of you AND him."

"Hey!" Ranma didn't much care for being lumped together with Tatewaki like that. "I didn't make ya actually go all the way to your classroom. You coulda just stood in the hall or something, and that way you'd've been out of the way when Kuno went nuts, and you still could've seen what was going on. You might've had a better view, too. Probably wouldn't have worried about me at all if you could've gotten a good look at this measly little paper cut."

"Ranma…" Akane groaned. "He tried to kill you! He came at you with a real katana! He actually did cut you! Doesn't it matter to you at all? Don't you even care?!"

He shrugged. "It's no big deal, Akane. Heck, I'd take this morning over him grabbin' at my girl form any day of the week."

For a moment, the fire flickered back into Akane's eyes, more strongly than before. She wanted to yell at him! She wanted to demand that he take this seriously, that he should notice just how worried she had been and acknowledge that she'd had reason to be! Watching him blur through Tatewaki's offensive, through a barrage of strikes that were all intended to kill, had left her stomach churning and her breath catching in her chest. She'd really been worried, Akane wanted to shout. What right did he have to just shrug this off?! What right did he have to survive something like that, to pass such a test of his martial arts skills, and treat it like it was nothing?! She'd seen him dodge through an offensive that Akane knew would have broken her. What right did he have not to realize how worried for him she had been?!

She wanted to yell all this, and maybe more, maybe even hit him for just blowing this off. But she was nowhere near fully recovered from the earlier chi drain, and weariness swallowed the fire before it could really take hold. "Fine, Ranma," she said with a sigh. "I'm just glad you're okay."

"Yeah, me too." Ranma returned his attention to his watermelon, just long enough to finish the last couple of bites, then said, "Want me to go ask Kasumi for a slice for you?"

Akane shook her head. "No. I think I'll just go to my room and rest some more."

"You'd get better faster if you had something to eat," Ranma pointed out. When she shook her head again, he sighed. "Okay. But before you go, I did want to say thanks."

"For what?"

"Well… I mean, it was pretty obvious you didn't want to go in an' leave Kuno to me like that. But you did it anyway. Thanks for not sticking around an' getting caught up in the fight, that's all. It wasn't really any big deal the way it turned out, but if Kuno had hurt you or something, I… well, you know… that'd be a whole lot worse than what did happen."

"Honestly, Ranma. He wouldn't have attacked ME."

Ranma frowned. "Maybe not on purpose. But if you'd gotten in his way, it would've happened just the same. He went berserk there, Akane, wasn't caring about anything except taking me down. You saw how, at the end, he threw his sword at me. You ever know Kuno to let go of a weapon like that?"

"Okay, maybe you've got a point." Akane was feeling better now. At least Ranma had realized that he'd asked her to do something hard, and had thanked her for it. "But you would've protected me, right?"

Ranma's face settled into the most serious expression he'd worn yet today. "I'd've done the best I could, Akane. That's what I always do." He reached over with his right hand, gently rubbing his curled fingers against the bandage on his left arm, and cast his mind more than a year into the past, to the moment when Ryoga's belt-blade had given her the haircut she still wore. "And it's pretty darn good. But I'd really hate for it to be not quite good enough."

The night sky was thick with clouds, soft puffs above and beside and below him. Only the occasional fragmentary gap allowed vision of the deeper sky behind. There was no moon, and barely a double handful of stars could be seen through the occasional breaks in the clouds. Yet it seemed that either there was light enough, starlight filtering through the canopy perhaps, or an unusual sort of darkness that didn't really obscure everything.

Such curious things may be found in dreams, after all.

Ranma recognized this, in the dim awareness that one sometimes gets in such circumstances, even managed to vaguely remember having such a dream before. He felt again the sense of carefree comfort, the freedom of being here, now, away from the usual strife and petty problems of the world below. Just the one instant to remember all this, to experience the muted gleam of recognition and turn to anticipation, and then Ranma relaxed, deliberately relinquishing thought to exist just in the moment.

After an uncertain length of time, though, he became aware that something was… off. There was some triflingly discordant note, like the faintest of itches at the back of his mind. Easy enough to ignore at first; Ranma did so for quite awhile longer. But inevitably, that one irritation began to grow, pushing forward through the sleepy haze of his contentment. Ranma made a wordless noise of protest, resenting this intrusion on the joy of the moment, and reached out to push whatever it was back to the depths of unconsciousness.

His mental grasp touched… sorrow… pain… fear…

Up until now the sky had been calm, and though Ranma's pigtail had streamed and fluttered behind him and his shirt had rippled and snapped, this was an artificial wind caused by the disturbance of his flight. The night air around him had been still and warm. In an instant, however, the wind rose with a howl. A cold gust swirled around him, battering him, lifting him, and Ranma felt his speed increase dramatically. His thoughts seemed to speed up a bit as well, shedding a little of their previous somnolent sluggishness.

~Things change. Sometimes we can't control it.~

The clouds around him shredded, like cotton candy in a sudden stream of water. In the formless way that knowledge does arrive in dreams, Ranma sensed that there was some meaning to this, that this had been the goal, the reason for the wind's sudden fury.

However, that knowledge didn't receive more than the barest fraction of his dreaming attention. All that remained was caught up in a sudden rush of joy, a sense of freedom much greater than before. He rode the wild wind, casting his eyes up to the now-uncovered stars and laughing out loud in delight. They glittered faintly, like tiny flecks of diamond set against a backdrop of deep, rich, unimaginably glorious darkness.

The pain and fear he'd touched before were still with him, closer than ever now. But somehow, they melted into the rush of freedom as he blazed through the darkened sky; Ranma was conscious of them, but didn't really feel them anymore.

~Where did they come from, Ranma? For what did you grieve?~

"Tatewaki," he whispered, pulling a small fraction of his consciousness back from the joy of flight. "Seein' him break like that… I don't like the guy, but I'd never have wanted that for him."

~Why did you hurt?~

"Because he attacked me, because he hates me, and I don't deserve to be hated."

~What caused you fear?~

In the daylight, in wakefulness, Ranma would probably not even have gotten past the first two questions. Certainly he would have pulled away, denied the third. But here, in the darkness and in the dream, those barriers were forgotten. "He tried his best to kill me," Ranma answered, "and he nearly did hurt me bad."

As he spoke, the knot of remembered pain and fear loosened. He took a deep breath of the cold, bracing air, letting the dark emotions drain away as he flew through the night.

It was another two days before Kaori returned to Furinkan.

Even then, she didn't show up for class. The final bell of the day had rung; the rooms were mostly empty and the hallways not far from it. Ranma and Akane had nearly crossed the courtyard when Kaori appeared through the gate before them. The three teens stopped, Ranma and Kaori eyeing one another with varying degrees of surprise and trepidation, Akane not actually scowling as she stared at the Martial Arts Takeout girl, but neither really hiding her reaction of distaste.

Kaori recovered most quickly. She gave her fiancé a quick bow. "Ranma, I'm very sorry about not showing up for our last study meeting. I need to talk to you about that… do you have some time free this afternoon?"

"Yeah, Kaori, actually I needed to talk to you too," Ranma replied, attempting to nerve himself to the ordeal. With her absence this morning, he had assumed he didn't have to think about this problem for another day. Ranma didn't quite pay enough attention to his own words to realize it, but the sudden dashing of those hopes lent an extremely unenthusiastic tone to his response.

Neither Kaori nor Akane missed that note, however. The youngest Tendo gave her antagonist a quick, hard smile, then turned and said, "Okay, Ranma, I'll see you later on, at home. Don't take too long, all right?" She walked away, feeling satisfaction mixed with hope. It was about time someone threw Kaori's own behavior in her face, and maybe it would make the girl give up and go away. At the very least it should keep her from causing so much trouble. Akane didn't want Ranma coming home too stressed and bruised and weary to explain important things to her.

Kaori had been meaning to ask Ranma to meet with her later, and then proceed into the school to meet with her teachers about her missed homework. Those plans died a quick death. She knew what her priorities were, after all, and if the thought of spending time with her had suddenly become unappealing to Ranma, then the first item on the agenda was talking through the problem. "I would invite you over to my place for this, Ranma, but it's just too far away. Where do you want to go?"

Ranma shrugged. "I dunno. Chuushinteki Park's pretty close. You wanna head there?"

She hesitated, remembering the park's location and estimating how long a walk would be required to reach it, then nodded her assent.

Under other circumstances, Ranma might have wondered just why Kaori was walking so slowly. However, since here and now it gave him more time to think about what he was going to say, his only reaction was a sort of vague thankfulness.

On reaching the park, they sat down on a bench near an ornamental fountain. "Do you mind if I go first?" Kaori asked. On the one hand, she was a bit nervous as to what Ranma planned to say, and didn't really enjoy stretching the anticipation of same any further. However, if he really was intending to say something she didn't want to hear, hopefully her explanation would change that.

As if Ranma was going to refuse that request. "Sure, go ahead."

"Thanks." Kaori sighed. "Like I said, I'm really sorry about missing the study meeting. I ran into somebody on the street. Somebody I didn't expect to."

Ranma glanced over at the fountain. This would be an excellent moment for the wind to carry just enough of the spray over to him.

However, this time it seemed as if the elements weren't conspiring against him. Kaori continued speaking uninterrupted by any Jusenkyo surprises. "A while ago, you told me you had seen more of the Takeout race than I thought. Do you know how it ended?"

"Yeah, I kinda saw."

Kaori frowned, looking down at the ground. "Then you realize I would have won, except some girl — I guess it must have been one of Akane's friends — got involved. She blindsided me when I had Akane on the ropes," she snorted, and said the next sentence rather bitterly, "and nearly killed her own friend too. Then when I was in the home stretch, she—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!! TIME OUT!!" It had taken a few seconds for that previous clause to register, but when it did, there was no way Ranma was going to hold back from interrupting. "Whaddaya mean about nearly killin' Akane?!"

"You saw what happened, right?" Kaori turned and stared Ranma unabashedly in the eye as she said the next sentence. "I had a Ramen Round-up Noodle Noose around her throat, and I was choking her. Remember?"

"Yeah," Ranma growled in a warning tone.

"I know it's asking a lot, to remember something that happened so long ago, but please try. Think back to after the race was over. Can you remember?" Kaori's eyes held no hint of a willingness to back down. "Did she have any bruises on her throat at all?"

Ranma's ire dissolved into confusion as he thought back, not to what had happened about a year ago, but rather to a battle that had taken place only the previous week. "N-no. I didn't… didn't see any, I mean."

"It takes a great deal of skill to pull off that attack without actually harming your opponent. Not to mention concentration. THAT'S what I'm talking about. When that redheaded wench hit me and disrupted my attack, she could easily have wound up crushing her friend's windpipe."

"Damn," Ranma muttered, looking down and fighting off a shudder.

"Right, well, I'm sure you can understand that I'm not too happy about having a near miss with first-degree murder. And of course let's not forget how she held me down and let Akane hit the finish line an inch ahead of me. Maybe there weren't any rules to the race, but common decency should say that each competitor runs on her own skill. That she doesn't have friends help her to a victory she isn't good enough to win on her own."

"Sounds like you really don't like that girl," Ranma said, his tone suddenly a bit lighter. It had never happened before, but maybe when he revealed his curse it would get this fiancée off his back for good. "Can't say I blame ya."

Kaori grimaced. "And it doesn't help that she kicked my butt last Tuesday, either."

'Nah, it was a closer fight than that,' Ranma thought generously.

After waiting a moment to see if he would say anything in response to her revelation, Kaori continued. "That's why I never showed up. I ran into her when I was hurrying back to my apartment, and I couldn't help myself — I fought her. What can I say, I wanted some payback." She grimaced bitterly. "What I got was some pavement.

"And you know what's really scary? She knocked me out, and several hours later I woke up on the couch in my apartment. The front door was locked. All the keys to it were still there. And nobody was home but me." Kaori brooded darkly for a bit. "I don't know what happened, but as soon as I see that girl again I'm going to find out."

She sighed suddenly, then qualified that last sentence. "But I hope I don't run into her for at least another couple of days. I'm in no shape for a rematch."

"Huh?" Belatedly, Ranma noticed how gingerly Kaori was seated on the bench, and remembered the slow pace she'd set to this park. Come to think of it, when she'd walked through the gate at Furinkan, there had been a taxi pulling away in the street outside the school. "You hurt or something, Kaori?"

"Well, not so much now. But last week…" the brunette winced at the memory. "I'm sure you saw Shampoo's little love tap when I suggested the one to take you to a doctor should be me. Instead of the girl who'd ground you into the dirt."

"Yeah, I remember. But it couldn't'a been that bad," Ranma protested. "I mean, if she'd hit you really hard you would've gone flying or something."

Just for a moment, Kaori gave him a sad look. "Is that really the kind of abuse you're used to, Ranma?" she asked quietly. Without waiting for a response, she said, "I'm not that durable. But that injury by itself would've just kept me out of school for one day. Which it did; I was gone on Thursday, like I guess you were too."

"Um, no, I was there."

Kaori stared blankly at him for several moments, before giving herself a little shake and resuming speaking. "Anyway, that night I received a challenge and had a match with one of your other fiancées. That unattractive Hayashibara girl."

"Oh." Now Ranma could understand why she might have had to spend a few extra days out of commission. "She give you a hard battle?"

"Yes and no. I made a stupid mistake early on, and let her close to me. If you saw the Martial Arts Takeout Race, you know I'm good at hand-to-hand." The brunette grimaced. "She's better. She surprised me, pulled out a pair of tonfa and beat me black and blue. It still hurts if I take a deep breath.

"But I was able to get in a kick that threw her backward. Once I had some good distance between us, I tangled her up with the Noodle Noose, disabled her with thrown chopsticks, then moved in and gave her a taste of her own medicine." It had taken nearly the last of her strength, too. Kaori sighed. "My own stupid fault for closing with her in the first place.

"Anyway, that's why I haven't been around sooner. I wanted to tell you why it looked like I skipped out on our study date. I didn't mean to, and I'm sorry."

"Not as sorry as you're gonna be," Ranma muttered under his breath. He got to his feet and walked on over to the fountain. "Okay, now it's my turn to tell you what I got ta say."

Kaori braced herself. Why had he suddenly, deliberately put that distance between them? "G-go on."

Ranma was a little proud of the strategy he'd managed to form on the walk over here. "Kaori… if someone's got something really, REALLY weird to tell you, do you want them to try to ease into it, or just lay it on ya all at once?" This time at least he wouldn't have to guess at the best way to reveal things!

The Martial Arts Takeout girl blinked. Not 'bad', 'weird'? "Um… I suppose just tell me straight out."

"Gotcha." Ranma plunged his arm into the water. "You ever hear about Jusenkyo?"

After splashing water on Kaori as well, in order to rouse her from her faint, giving the detailed explanation, telling her how she had been returned to her apartment after the fight, and fetching hot water from a nearby vendor to reveal the flipside of the transformation, Ranma fell silent. He stood there feeling a little frustrated at Kaori… why the heck did she tell him to just come out with the whole shock all at once if she was gonna faint after it?!

He was also more than a bit uncomfortable. Kaori hadn't said anything for a good five minutes now. The brunette was just sitting on the bench staring up at him, with such a mixture of emotions in her gaze that Ranma couldn't really identify any one of them. The intensity was plain to see, however.

Eventually, Kaori's frozen façade cracked. "I don't know how to handle this, Ranma."

The Saotome heir didn't really know how to respond to that. In any case, Kaori didn't pause long before speaking again. "Losing that race and leaving you here was bad enough. But… this?! It was my own fiancé who stabbed me in the back!"

"What the heck was I supposed to do?!" Ranma demanded. "Nothin'?! It looked like you were killin' Akane!"

"In broad daylight?! In front of a hundred witnesses?!" Kaori rose to her feet, the better to look him in the eye.

"Well, maybe I didn't stop an' take my time so I could think about that!!" Ranma yelled.

"I'll say you didn't!!" his companion shouted right back.

A tense silence fell. Both teens' faces were flushed, their breathing coming heavily. However, the pain this caused Kaori quickly distracted her, and her temper sank back down almost as rapidly as it had risen.

She returned to her seat on the bench, and when next she spoke, it was in a morose tone not far from a whisper. "Ranma… am I just wasting my time?"

He didn't have the slightest idea how to answer that one. After a minute of silence had stretched between them, Kaori reclaimed the floor. "I'm trying to help you. Are you even going to let me?" A harsh note of pain crept into her voice. "You should have told me this from the very beginning. And I mean the very beginning — all the way back a year ago, when I first showed up."

"You didn't exactly make yourself real approachable then," Ranma protested, glad at least to find one point he could argue.

Kaori hung her head and sighed. "I guess not. But you definitely should have told me this time around.

"This hurts, Ranma. I'm trying to be your friend, and you keep something like this from me? I'm trying to offer you something better than…" she waved a hand, indicating all of Nerima in one vague gesture, "this, and you're just blowing me off! Damn it, do you WANT to stick around here until that psychopathic girl caves your head in?!"

"All right, that's it! Listen, Kaori, I wanna know just why you've got it in so bad for Akane. You ain't even BEEN around to see ANYTHING of what's happened with me!"

"No. I haven't," Kaori allowed. "But my friend's cousin recently transferred out of Furinkan. And Noriko passed some stories she heard from her on to me. Stories about how one Akane Tendo treated her fiancé, who Noriko realized one day had a name she'd heard before. As the fiancé I had left behind.

"So after that, I did some poking around, confirmed a few things… and I knew I had to come back."

Ranma just shook his head sadly. This sounded an awful lot like something he'd heard from Nabiki once. "Kaori… Akane's a real popular girl at school. And because of that, there's some girls who're real jealous of her. They don't show it to her face, cause she's a martial artist and they don't want to get ground into the dirt or nothin'. But I bet they wouldn't have any problems spreadin' bad rumors around behind her back."

Kaori stared at him as if he had lobsters crawling out of his ears. At last, she said faintly, "That's supposed to make me think better of her? Did you even listen to what you just said?!"

"Huh?" He'd said it, of course he knew what he'd said. Why would Kaori have asked a question like that?

At Ranma's obvious confusion, his fiancée closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. Eventually, when she felt ready, she said, "Ranma… I'm going to ask you two questions. I want you to answer them as honestly as you can."

"Um… what's this about?" he asked warily, scenting danger on the breeze.

"You'll understand sooner or later," Kaori said evenly, though there was a hint of sadness in her tone. "Question number one. Is it true that Akane once gave you a head injury that caused temporary amnesia?"

"Well, it was kinda—"

"YES OR NO?!" Kaori demanded.

Ranma clenched his teeth, unhappy in the first place to be reminded of his brief declaration of womanhood. He'd have been happier if those memories had never eventually surfaced in his mind, he'd prefer to forget them again if at all possible, and he really didn't like being pushed this hard concerning the matter. "Yes," he gritted out.

"Question number two." The note of sadness had been joined by trepidation. She was going out on a limb here; if her guess was wrong, she might lose quite a bit of ground in this battle. "When was the last time she knocked you unconscious?"

Ranma stared, his jaw dropping. "What the heck kinda question is that?!"

"If it's been so long ago that you can't remember, just tell me so."

"That ain't what I meant!" Ranma bristled. "Look, this's none of your business!"

"Isn't it?" His lack of answer had been answer enough. Kaori was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt now — he needed the help she was trying to give him. This time, she wasn't about to bow out. She got up and took a few steps away, then stopped.

Over her shoulder she called back, "I'll see you in class tomorrow, Ranma. Until then… please think about what I've said."

The afternoon sun was sinking low, the fiery disk seeming to rest only twice its diameter above the outer wall of the Tendo compound, when Ranma returned. On hearing his call of "I'm home!", Akane left the living room and met him in the hallway.

"That sure took a long time." She did her best to keep her tone free from accusation, and mainly succeeded. "What did you and Kaori have to say that took two hours?"

"Huh? Oh, nothin' much, Akane. I didn't spend all this time talking to her. Went for a walk afterward. That's what took so long."

"Oh. I see." Akane held back a glare. "You know, there was a REASON I asked you not to take too long talking to Kaori."

"Yeah, I know that," Ranma said. "You wanted to tick her off." If there was one aspect of communication that he was good at, it was insults, and from Akane's tone and Kaori's involuntary grimace he had recognized that one quite clearly.

"Besides that!" Akane snapped. "I want to hear what she said! Is she going to give up and go away now, and stop causing trouble?"

"Nah. I mean, she's not givin' up or going away. But she won't be attacking my girl side any more. That's one bright spot, at least."

"FOOLISH BOY!!" No need to ask who that was. As soon as Ranma had come in, Genma had turned his attention from his current game of shogi, pricking up his ears to follow the subsequent conversation. He'd ignored the glimpses of motion from his peripheral vision as Soun quickly rearranged the contents of the board. And when he heard Ranma's response to the last question, he knew it was about time to give his son a refresher course in the fine points of duty, honor, and responsibility.

Genma hurried over and joined the two teens. "Come here, Ranma, I need to talk to you." Pausing only to grab a firm hold on his son's ear, he turned and strode toward the dojo, ignoring Ranma's various cries of "OW! HEY! YAAHH! LEGGO, YOU OLD FOOL! THAT HURTS! CUT IT OUT!!"

When they were inside the building, Genma released his hold, took several steps away, and assumed a pose of dignified authority: back ramrod straight, arms behind him, expression of stern righteousness, head tilted at just the right angle to cause the light to gleam off his glasses. "Ranma, listen to me. Don't you see what you're doing here? AKANE is your rightful fiancée. You hurt her when you run around, spending time with all these interloper girls. It's time for you to grow up, and settle down, and take your responsibilities seriously!"

Genma paused, surprised and encouraged at Ranma's response to this. The boy hadn't interrupted yet, hadn't even put on that stubborn frown he usually wore when his father tried to get through to him about ending this fiancée mess. Instead, he seemed to be listening attentively. Not wanting to waste a golden opportunity like this, Genma quit thinking and resumed speaking. "I understand that it's tough sometimes to do what needs to be done, Ranma. But death is lighter than a feather, and duty is heavier than a mountain. It's your duty to wed Akane and uphold the Anything Goes School.

"Putting it off only makes things worse! You and Akane should have been married by now. That way, none of these girls would still be here, running around, interfering, making things go wrong between the two of you. Everything would be perfect by now if you would just go ahead and settle things!"

Another pause to study Ranma's reaction. The younger Saotome still wasn't frowning, still seemed to be listening thoughtfully, which was a better response than Genma had thought possible. Thus encouraged, he said, "We can have a priest here as early as tomorrow afternoon, boy. Once you stop the old stubborn foolishness and go along with it, then between you, me, and Tendo, Akane won't be able to fight the matter either. And anyway I'm sure she'd be overjoyed to hear you were finally ready to tell everyone just who you really loved. So what do you say?"

"Huh?" Ranma blinked with an exaggerated expression of surprise. "You say something, Pop? Sorry, I couldn't hear ya. Some fat old fool nearly tore my ear off a few minutes ago and I'm just now getting feeling back in it."

"RAANNNMMMAAA!" Genma shifted from a pose of stern authority to outraged indignity. "Show some respect for your father!"

"That'd be a good trick! Show something I don't have?!" Ranma snorted. "Guess I'll have to borrow some from… uh… well… hey, Pop, just who does have enough respect for you that they could lend me some?"

There were times that Genma really wished Ranma wasn't so much better than him at insults. He had to settle for a trite "YOU WANT TO TAKE THIS OUTSIDE, BOY?!"

They stood at opposite ends of the koi pond, glaring at one another. In the background, Nabiki nibbled idly on a snack cracker and watched the scene. She had her camera ready — hopefully Ranma would pull off some particularly spectacular moves. Any of those caught on film would sell well to Shampoo. And it was about time she began sounding out Kaori and Kaede as well on such matters.

Genma broke the silence, leaping high into the air with a growl. "It's high time you took your responsibilities seriously, boy!" he snapped as he started his descent, his foot outstretched in a flying kick.

"And what responsibilities are those?!" Ranma retorted, jumping toward his father. He whipped his own leg around, and Genma found himself unable to respond quickly enough to his son's new speed; Ranma locked his ankle around Genma's and used the leverage to pivot himself around, launching a punch toward Genma's back.

The older Saotome curled as tightly as he could, and his son's blow glanced off. Meanwhile, Genma's elbow found purchase in Ranma's side, a quick strike meant more to put some distance between them than to actually cause damage. "To clear up all this trouble!" The dueling duo exchanged a quick series of punches that pushed them farther apart. "All these girls have no business interfering in your engagement to Akane." They landed again, each where the other had started out. "But it's going to keep happening as long as YOU keep wimping out and dodging the issue!"

"Dodge THIS!" Ranma shouted, crouching and whipping his leg at near-supersonic speed above the pond. The wind from his kick raised a large wave and sent it crashing toward Genma, who barely did manage to dodge. The elder martial artist dived and rolled, clearing the edge of the spray by mere inches. "How the heck is this MY responsibility, Pop?!" Ranma darted toward him, lashing out with a kick as Genma got back to his knees. His father caught it on crossed forearms. "In case ya forgot, YOU were the one who ARRANGED all these fiancées!"

"That's in the past," Genma snapped, heaving and flipping Ranma backward. The maneuver bought him time enough to get to his feet. "What kind of a martial artist spends all his time looking backward over his shoulder?!" As if to emphasize his point, he closed and grappled with Ranma, trying for a shoulder throw. "It's YOU the girls are all chasing after, boy. That makes YOU the one who has to deal with it!"

"You sure got THAT right!" Ranma dropped to one knee and rotated his torso, which threw Genma just enough off-balance that the younger Saotome was able to perform a modified shoulder throw of his own. "I'm the one who ALWAYS has to deal with crap from stuff you've pulled!" Genma struck the ground, landing on his back with a *whuff*. "So don't go tellin' me just what I've got to do."

"I'm only trying to help you, boy! You AND Akane!" Genma charged again, but changed his angle at the last moment, sacrificing speed and power in order to launch an awkward attack that caught Ranma completely by surprise. The punch jarred his lower ribs, but didn't have much more of an effect. "The one you're going to marry is the only one you should be paying attention to!"

"Give it a REST about the stupid marriage thing, already!" Ranma spun back to face Genma and launched a straight punch. Genma blocked and retaliated with one of his own. "I ain't interested in marryin' NOBODY just yet!" The tempo of the punches increased, each Saotome striving to force a hole in the other's defense while keeping his own intact. "And I sure ain't gonna just blow everything off and let you tell me what to do!"

"You're going to marry her sooner or later, boy. Listen to me for once!" Genma twisted, bringing his hands inside Ranma's guard. He shot his arms to either side, forcing Ranma's arms wide open and knocking his son off-balance. "Just go ahead and get it over with." The older martial artist pivoted, dropping in a controlled fall that brought one leg up and around. He grasped the side of Ranma's shirt with his toes and sent his son flying. "Trust me… you'll feel a lot better afterward!" he called as his son splashed down into the koi pond.

Nabiki permitted herself a slight wince of sympathy as she watched Genma stand up and begin to gloat over getting in the first decisive attack. She wasn't a martial artist, but somehow, an attack that made your opponent really, really mad and didn't actually hamper their ability to fight didn't look to her like a particularly good strategy. She fully expected that any second now, Genma's son-turned-daughter was going to blaze out of the pond and lay a world of hurt on him for this.

Any second now…

As the roiling waters quieted, with no sign of a redheaded avatar of wrath emerging from the depths, Genma began to feel just the slightest twinge of anxiety. What if Ranma had hit his head as he went into the pond? Perhaps he should walk over and check. On the other hand, if (as was far likelier) this was a trick of the boy's, that would be playing right into his… er, her, hands.

Genma settled for taking several steps backward, then leaping straight up. At the height of his jump, he looked down into the pond. It was a little difficult to tell, with the light of the sinking sun gleaming off the water, but he was nearly certain he caught a glimpse of Ranma-chan moving about purposefully under the water.

Nor was he in error. Even as Genma landed from his jump, the water blasted skyward in a pillar of froth and spray. Ranma-chan had leaped with all her strength, blasting off the bottom of the pond and soaring nearly two stories into the air despite the weight of the water that had been above her. Genma scrambled backward, out of range of the water, but missed the true threat. At the height of her jump, Ranma-chan began to throw the golf balls she'd gathered from the bottom of the pond, sending a fusillade that caught Genma completely unaware.

Nabiki giggled and snapped a few photos as the hapless man tried to shield himself from the attack. He made much too large a target to do so effectively, of course. The middle Tendo noted idly that after striking Genma, nearly all the golf balls bounced and rolled in such a way as to land right back in the water.

One of the few exceptions was directly behind Genma, though, and as he staggered back his foot came down on it. The ball, and his foot, shot out from under him; the former bounced off the fence and rolled into the pond, and the latter arced into the air while the rest of him came crashing down.

Right about then was when Ranma-chan landed, touching down on the far side of the koi pond. She repeated a move from earlier in the fight, kicking up a huge wall of water that tumbled straight toward Genma. This time, though, she dove forward through it, catching Genma's heel, spinning, lifting him high overhead, then, as the water caught up and triggered his transformation, smashing him down flat on his suddenly-furry belly.

Nabiki shook her head, then snapped a picture of the scene of triumph and tragedy. The redhead baring her teeth in a grin of triumph contrasted nicely with the battered, waterlogged bear, she thought. And the sign reading "ouch…" added just the right note of comic pathos. Yes, this would be one for the scrapbook.

"Heh. I do feel better," Ranma-chan said. The chance to let off some steam had done her more good than a thousand of her father's one-track lectures. She walked over and gave the prostrate panda a hard slap on the back. "Thanks for the talk, Pop. Let's do this again some time."

Ranma dreamed again, that night.

As before, his first sensation was the awareness of motion. He soared through the night sky, his attention gradually sharpening, until he was once again aware enough to recognize the dream. It was a little different from the last half of the previous interlude; the night was mild and quiet around him, with no roaring wind to buffet him and carry him along. Yet somehow the heightened sense of freedom was still with him.

As he flew along, now gliding, now gaining furious altitude, now diving and breaking into a barrel-roll, he eventually became aware of another difference. Around him, the air held a curiously smoky quality. Instead of a mass of clouds or stars, the sky above him seemed featureless and empty, hanging flat like a smudged canvas of ochre and charcoal.

Moved by some instinct, he glanced down. From that perspective, the dim haze in the air was more apparent. It hovered like a shield below him, screening him from what lay on the land beneath. Through the dimness, Ranma saw light, distant, glowing, as if fires gleamed below him under a blanket of near-solid smoke.

Whatever it was, it was quite far below him. The sight roused faint, inexplicable emotions of distaste in Ranma, but stronger than these was curiosity. He angled his flight lower, spiraling downward to determine the source of the phenomenon. As he did so the shrouding darkness thickened, so that even as the fires grew nearer they seemed to cast less light. Curiously, though, the effect of this was to allow Ranma to see more clearly, rather than less.

~Do you really want to go down there?~ The words came as softly as ever, but were suffused with a hint of disapproval and disappointment.

Ranma was already pulling back, gaining altitude again. Like the instant when a random collection of dots, blotches, and lines suddenly coalesces into a coherent picture, the gleaming brightness and curves and angles below him had suddenly become recognizable as the Tokyo skyline, seen from the unusual perspective of directly above. That which he had taken for fire had been the glow of electric lights.

It had only been curiosity that sent him downward. With that assuaged, Ranma climbed again, quickly.

~I didn't think so. It's not time yet.~

Now he understood the flat, dull nature of the sky above him. The stars were still there, but light pollution from the city beneath hid them. One corner of his mind noted vaguely that the effect seemed rather harsher in this dream than in his usual waking life. When reclining on the Tendo rooftop, he could usually make out at least the brighter of the celestial lights.

~Would you like to see the stars, Ranma?~

"Yeah, I would," he whispered to himself. "I'd like to get away from all that."

~We'll need to leave the city well behind. Follow me.~

Obediently, Ranma adjusted the angle of his flight, and increased his speed to… match…

A sudden realization jolted him, as if his eyes had been closed all this time and had only just now opened. "Wait…" it started out spoken aloud to himself, "there's… somebody else… here?" Raising his voice, he called "Where are you?!"

With a gasp, Ranma sat bolt upright. The abrupt transition from the dreaming freedom of flight to the dullness of reality left him panting, trembling, feeling as if someone had just replaced his heart with a sack full of sand. His head was spinning, as if his equilibrium were still soaring through the air while the rest of him remained unpleasantly earthbound.

It took a long time to recover his sense of balance. Once he did so, bitter disappointment replaced his disorientation. He wasn't, couldn't be, sure how long the previous two dreams had lasted, but they had felt longer than this. He couldn't remember endings for either of them, which unnoticed absence had been much better than this wrenching discontinuity.

A quick glance at the clock informed him that half the night still remained. With a frown, Ranma curled up on his futon and resolutely shut his eyes, hoping to recapture the dream.

It was a long time, though, before he was able to fall asleep again, and if he dreamed, it was of nothing particularly pleasurable or memorable.

The remainder of the week passed quietly, for which Ranma was grateful. On Friday Nabiki informed him that her efforts to see that Kuno got the treatment he needed were going along well, and she was almost sure she wouldn't need Ranma to do anything more than he already had. Kaori kept her distance at school, though this was mainly due to the need to catch up on the work she'd missed. The most contact he had with her was on Friday afternoon, when she set the date for their next study session.

The next morning found him sprawled out in the living room, eyes on the television. A casual observer would have thought him unconcerned, carefree, relaxing lazily without anything on his mind. However, in truth Ranma's attention was quite tightly focused. The television was more or less an unnoticed blur as he concentrated on another sense.

Happy humming from the kitchen… Kasumi's presence was accounted for. A cry of "Look! A three-headed monkey!" indicated that his father and Mr. Tendo were at the shogi board, as usual. Nabiki wasn't here to begin with, nor would she be returning for some hours. Akane was upstairs in her bedroom, and had just dumped the school books out of her book bag. When he heard her shut the door, he acted. Rolling quickly to his feet, Ranma turned and moved noiselessly to leave while the coast was clear.

"Oh my, Ranma. Are you going somewhere?"

The Saotome heir jumped and spun around. How had she done that?! "Uh, no, I mean, nowhere special, Kasumi. Just out for a walk."

For a moment, Kasumi hesitated, as if considering whether to say anything further or just wish him a good time. Making her decision, she said gravely, "Is that what I should tell Akane if she comes down and asks where you've gone? Just out for a walk?"

"Yeah, that's right. That's what I'm going to be doing, Kasumi. You don't think I'd want ya to lie to your sister or nothing, do you?"

"And what should I say when Akane suspects you're going to be meeting someone else on this walk?" Kasumi asked gently. "Should I tell her how nervous you were when you left?"

Ranma shook his head vigorously. For the life of her, Kasumi couldn't tell why he seemed startled at her words. "It's not like THAT!" he protested. Then, calming down, he said "Come to think of it, though, that prob'ly IS what she'd think…"

The thought actually seemed to cheer him up, which only deepened Kasumi's confusion. "Do you want her to, Ranma?" She frowned, ever so slightly. "That won't make my little sister very happy."

"I know, so when she starts gettin' all mad and stuff, that's when you go ahead and tell her what I was REALLY up to," Ranma said with a grin.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I'm gonna go use my girl form to get some free ice cream or octopus puffs or something," he explained. "Akane usually throws a hissy fit when I do that, or at least insults me for a while. But if she thinks I was out cheating on her and then she finds out I was only scammin' free food, she'll just be relieved."

"Oh. You're probably right," Kasumi allowed, thinking of a couple of times in the past when something similar had happened. Akane had been suspecting the worst, only to catch Ranma in a relatively minor transgression and let the whole thing slide. Apparently he had learned from those occasions.

Not that he couldn't stand to pick up a few more lessons, though. "But wouldn't you rather have an even better excuse?"

"Like what?" Ranma asked.

Kasumi smiled sweetly, wrote out a shopping list, and handed him several thousand yen. "Ranma, could you please go to the market and pick up some things for me?"

"Oh! Sure thing, Kasumi." He grinned back at her. "It's okay if I take my time, right?"

"Just don't spoil your appetite for lunch…" The eldest Tendo daughter blinked, as if realizing who she was talking to. "I mean, don't put any poor vendors out of business."

Just before the final dollop of ice cream could finish working its way through the bottom of the cone and begin dripping, Ranma-chan finished it off. 'Paid for a one-scoop cone and got two other scoops for free. Not bad if I do say so myself,' she thought smugly. It fell a little short of her personal best record, which was a two-scoop cone for no charge at all, but Ranma-chan was certainly not complaining.

She paused outside the door to a café, debating whether to go in and change out of her cursed form, but decided against it. Snack food vendors weren't the only ones who would give better prices to a cute little girl, after all. Kasumi would surely appreciate getting more of her money back than she'd expected, and it was the least Ranma-chan could do to repay her favor.

"Ranma? Is that you?" The call came from some twenty feet behind her.

The redhead froze, her cheerful smile dimming a little, then turned around. "Yo, Kaede." She waved to the other girl, who walked over toward her. As far as Ranma-chan could tell from her movements, she seemed to be fully recovered from any injuries she'd sustained in her fight with Kaori. "How's it going?" she asked once Kaede reached her side.

"Not so good," Kaede replied uncomfortably, before changing the subject. "Why're you… like that? You know, in your cursed form."

Ranma-chan opted not to admit that she was planning to use her feminine wiles to score better prices at the market. "Oh… you know…" she shrugged and made a disgusted face. "Part of the curse is I get splashed a lot. Water just kinda seems attracted to me."

A look of sudden enlightenment spread across Kaede's face. "Oh. That explains it." She gave a quick sigh of relief. "You could've told me that back when you were first explaining the thing, you know."

"I guess, but what's the big deal?"

Kaede snorted. " 'What's the big deal', she says. Remember our fight, Saotome? When I touched your Unconsciousness Point? You were staggering and stumbling like an extra from Drunken Monkey Fu."

"Yeah, so what?"

"So then you manage to fire off a chi blast, and target it onto a fire hydrant, AND you even hit the thing just precisely enough that when it blows, it shoots its water straight toward you." Kaede grimaced. "Talk about making me feel inadequate, once I really started thinking about it. But I guess it wasn't quite as much of a big deal as I thought."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. My actual PLAN was to splash myself with some of the water. NOT have it slam into me like that," Ranma-chan grumbled.

Kaede blinked. "Hey… that does sound like a better idea."

"So what're you up to this morning?" Ranma-chan asked, moving the conversation away from talk of curses.

"I was actually on my way over to the Tendo place," the other girl admitted. "Needed to talk to you about something. I'm actually kind of glad you were…" she made a vague gesture, indicating Ranma-chan's current curvaceous form, "like that. I probably wouldn't have noticed you if it weren't for the red hair."

The redhead blinked, a note of wariness entering her expression. "You wanted to talk to me?"

"Yeah. But it can wait, if you're busy now. I could meet you this afternoon or something."

Ranma-chan considered that for all of one second. "Nope," she said firmly, "if this was important enough for ya to walk all the way over to see me, let's talk about it now." 'While I've still got a good excuse for not being home.'

"Thanks, Ranma," Kaede said hesitantly. "I appreciate it."

The aforementioned café was just a few steps back. Kaede led Ranma-chan there, then blinked in surprise as the redhead started toward a table. "Um, Ranma?"

"Huh? Something wrong?"

"This isn't the right place for what I need to talk about." Kaede gave her companion a strange look. "I just thought you'd want to get some hot water and change back to normal."

"Yeah, whatever." Not a good sign, Ranma-chan thought apprehensively. She'd been hoping whatever kind of talk Kaede had in mind would be the kind that could go on between two girls just as easily as a girl and her fiancé. Apparently not, though… on the other hand, Kaede had also said that this wasn't the kind of place she wanted to go, and while Ranma-chan might be inexperienced she knew enough to realize that this type of spot was fairly popular for couples on dates. With no better option, she went into the restroom, returned to his birth form, and left with Kaede.

Conversation flagged between the two of them as they walked along. Any relief Ranma had been feeling at Kaede's statement that the café wasn't the right spot for their talk quickly evaporated, once he realized that she was leading him toward a nearby park. The passage of a few minutes found them there, in a secluded corner surrounded by trees. Ranma stood a little ways off to Kaede's side, leaning against a large rock. Kaede sat on the ground, knees drawn up to her chest and arms clasped around her legs, looking forward with her eyes unfocused.

The expression on her face made Ranma's stomach clench. He tried to convince himself that the hurt in her expression might be just a fading remnant of injuries from her fight with Kaori. But though he would have liked to believe this, it sure didn't look like that kind of pain to him.

Abruptly, Kaede broke the silence. "Kaori told me she's in your class at school. Did you know I challenged her, last Thursday?"

"That's what she told me," Ranma confirmed.

"And I guess you know who won, huh?"

"Yeah. I heard it was a pretty rough fight, too," he said. "I didn't see Kaori again until Wednesday afternoon, an' she was still hurting plenty then."

"Well, that's SOME consolation," Kaede muttered bitterly, still not looking at him.

"Are you okay?" Ranma asked, starting now to get really concerned. "It's been more than a week already. You didn't get hurt bad or nothing, did you?"

For a long moment, Kaede didn't respond. Then she shuddered, and in a voice of tight control, she asked, "Ranma? What do YOU think?! I've spent my life traveling and learning new styles. Facing down different challenges. I didn't even come looking for you until I beat the top students of ten dojos in a row."

'Whoa… she was a dojo destroyer?!' Ranma thought, his attention temporarily diverted by an extremely incongruous mental picture of Kaede's slight form standing next to the massive freak who'd challenged the Tendo dojo so long ago.

He tuned back in to hear "… bad enough, but I could handle losing to one of the legendary Chinese Amazons. But…" abruptly, Kaede clenched one hand into a fist, then punched down into the earth beside her, "… this is too much. It's just TOO DAMN MUCH!" She rose to her feet with the suddenness of an uncoiling spring, turning to stare him directly in the eyes. The desperation in her gaze would have knocked Ranma back a pace, had his back not been against a ton of solid stone. "What if it was you, Saotome?! How do you think YOU'D feel, if after all your hard work and sacrifices YOU lost to some loser with a pathetic style like Martial Arts Takeout?!"

"Hah. That's easy," Ranma said, glad for a question he could answer without even thinking about it. "I'd get ticked off, figure out a counter to whatever cheap trick caught me off-guard, train for the rematch, then kick my opponent's butt."

Kaede blinked, distinctly conscious of a feeling of having the wind taken out of her sails. 'Like father, like son,' she thought vaguely. Pulling herself together a bit, she said, "That's easy to SAY, Ranma. I think it might bother you just a little more than that."

"Nope. No big deal," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Been there, done that, know what I'm talking about."

"Really?" Kaede asked skeptically. "You've had this same kind of thing happen?"

"Oh yeah. First time was…" Ranma cast his memory back. He generally preferred not to stir up these recollections, but in the interests of making a girl feel better, this was a much smaller sacrifice than was usually required. "I think I was about thirteen. Got challenged to a match by the heir of Martial Arts Defenestration."

"Martial Arts… Defenestration? What the heck is that?!"

Ranma snorted. "I shoulda asked that same question. But bein' the cocky kid that I was, I didn't even bother. I figured Anything Goes would be enough to blow him away, whatever it was.

"Course, ya probably already guessed it didn't work out like that. I show up for the fight, and that's when they spring it on me that you have to win according to their rules. Which they didn't explain, I might add."

Kaede frowned. "Didn't explain?! If someone tried to pull a stunt like that on me, I'd just walk out on him."

Her fiancé shrugged. "Yeah, well, with age comes wisdom or something like that. Anyway, I thought I'd still be able to win by figuring out what he was trying to do and then doing it back to him, only better. Course, as soon as he threw me out the window, which is what 'defenestration' means, the match was over."

Almost against her will, Kaede snickered. "Sucker."

"Watch it, Kaede, or I'll challenge YOU to a match of Martial Arts Deinhibitionalization," Ranma warned.

Inwardly resolving to find a dictionary later on, Kaede said, "Okay, okay, I get your point. You lost because you got caught off-guard. And I guess I could say the same thing." She sighed, her mood darkening again just a little. "It still sucks, though. I guess I can see a couple of ways to deal with her tricks." Long pants made of thick cloth ought to block the chopstick shiatsu attacks, and carrying a real sai should let her defeat that bizarre noodle attack. "But even without them, she was a lot better than I expected."

"Get used to it," Ranma advised. "You're gonna see plenty of opponents if ya stay around Nerima for long, Kaede. Some of 'em will be really good fighters, and some of 'em will have stranger styles than you ever imagined."

"Just my bad luck to run right into someone who combines both those things, I guess," Kaede said.

"Pretty much," Ranma agreed. "Anyway, you WILL lose the early match sometimes. It's no big deal. The important thing is who wins in the end."

"…I understand." Kaede gave a quick, decisive nod. "Thanks, Ranma."

"No problem." Now that her issue had been resolved, he had a question of his own. "Hey, Kaede?"

"What is it?"

He gestured, indicating the surrounding foliage. "Why'd ya want to go all the way out here to talk about this?"

Kaede snorted. "You think I was going to spill my guts about this kind of stuff where a bunch of lame-brained normal kids could listen to me? How many people you know who would really understand why this mattered so much to me?"

'Let's see… Ryoga… Shampoo…' Ranma stopped counting at that point as he realized something. "Actually, pretty much everybody I know, except maybe Nabiki and Kasumi."

"Well, maybe I should've come to Nerima a long time ago then," she said, giving his statement the benefit of the doubt. "Only times I've met people my own age I have much in common with, it's because Dad and I are visiting their dojo for a new challenge. I've done my share of time in school, but I never really met anybody who understood me. Or who I understood, if it comes to that."

"Traveling the path of a true martial artist is lonely sometimes," Ranma said. It irked him slightly that the only thing he could think to say that really fit the conversation was a quote from Genma.

"And someone to walk it with you is something worth a lot," Kaede said softly, not looking at Ranma. "Worth fighting for, that's for sure."

Now there was NOTHING Ranma could think of to interject into the conversation. As he cast frantically about for a decent way to change the subject, Kaede turned to face him. The look in her eyes froze him completely. It was as if the last of a series of masks, shed one after another during the previous conversation, had finally come off. She was scared, and hopeful, and so very, very vulnerable. "I'd… I'd like to get to know…" Kaede cut herself off, mentally cursing herself for a coward. She took a deep breath, then said, "I've never been on a date in my life, Ranma. There's a festival coming up next week, and I'd really like to go there with my fiancé."

"Here ya go, Kasumi."

The eldest Tendo daughter blinked in mild alarm. Knowing Ranma's real reason for going out, she hadn't looked for him to return quickly. Nor had he, but he had also taken significantly longer to come back than she had expected. And now, when she finally heard him come in and met him in the living room, she found him in a much less pleasant mood than when he'd left.

"Thank you, Ranma." She took the bag full of vegetables that he'd purchased for her, and accepted her change with a quick grateful smile. "Is everything all right? You don't look happy."

"I'm not," Ranma said frankly.

After waiting a few seconds for him to continue, she prompted, "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No, but…" Ranma heaved a sigh. "But I'd probably better." His expression brightened by just the faintest of glimmers. "Maybe you can help me out, Kasumi."

"Oh my, Ranma," she said, taken aback. Visions of the kind of challenges her pigtailed houseguest usually faced danced through her head. "I don't know what I could do."

"Well, what I was hopin' was that you could figure out a way for me to tell Akane I've got a date with Kaede next week."

Akane froze, her foot a scant inch from touching the topmost stair, her descent arrested before it could really begin. She had left her room and entered the hallway in time to hear her sister ask Ranma whether he wanted to talk about something. And now… 'Did… did he say…' Mechanically her leg retracted, joining the other again, leaving her standing frozen at the top of the stairs.

His words replayed themselves in her mind. As they did, as they sunk in, her stomach clenched. Her pulse rang behind her ears like the ocean's roar. Her first impulse was to storm downstairs and demand details from Ranma. He'd let Shampoo trick him into a date just the other day! Didn't he learn anything at all?!

With teeth gritted, determination burning in her eyes, anger churning in her gut, Akane moved again. And again, her foot halted before it could touch down on the stair's surface. The anger was still there, driving her to hurry downstairs and confront Ranma… but another emotion was suddenly rising, pushing the more comfortable and familiar one aside. A sudden surge of cold fear, that also, just for a moment, thinned the veils she kept over some deeply-buried emotions.

'He told me he didn't want to go out with Shampoo. He told me she tricked him into it,' Akane thought, trying to shake off the unwelcome flood of doubt. 'But… did he… then why…'

She couldn't really put words to the thoughts that were filling her head now. They didn't even need words; the concepts shouldered their way directly from her unconscious fears to her forebrain without bothering to filter through the screen of language, coming as a dark swarm that passed through her in an instant.

Ranma had said he didn't want to go out with Shampoo… but she couldn't really trust him, could she? Not really. Not in something like this. He'd probably jumped at the chance. And that wasn't enough for him, was it? Oh, no, it wasn't enough to have Shampoo hanging all over him. It wasn't enough to sneak around behind Akane's back with the girl who did EVERYTHING that mattered better than her. It wasn't enough to have other girls chasing him too, other girls against whom she didn't dare compare herself.

It was NEVER enough for him! Now he was even chasing Kaede, too! Ranma might call her uncute all the time, but Akane felt sure she had Kaede, at least, beaten in that arena. But that didn't matter to Ranma Saotome, apparently… it didn't matter how cute Kaede wasn't… it didn't matter how Kaede or Kaori or ANYBODY treated her, even though Ranma had said she was his friend… it didn't matter who he already had who wanted him…

All these thoughts passed through her mind in a fraction of an instant, leaving her trembling and with a queasy feeling of sickness in her stomach. The anger was still there, though muted now… the outrage at this latest development hadn't been completely choked by a fear she didn't dare examine closely. Instinctively, Akane reached out to the anger again, knowing the familiar emotion would shield her, wanting only to displace the thoughts she couldn't even bring herself to face head-on.

Her sister's gentle voice drifting up the stairs distracted her, though. For a second, Akane hung motionless… balanced between emotional states even as her body hung poised, one leg still in the air, unsure whether to descend or retreat. And then, with a great effort of will, she pushed all the churning emotions into the back of her mind, burying them as deeply as she could. The youngest Tendo pulled back, just a little, her foot once again returning to rest beside the other. She waited, in a sort of frozen calm, listening carefully to hear what her errant fiancé was saying. Surely not even Ranma, untrustworthy jerk and all-around pervert that he was, could lie to Kasumi.

She hoped she was ready for whatever answers she was about to get.

Kasumi blinked. "You have a date with Kaede? Did you run into her when you went out this morning?"

"Yeah, that's why I'm late. She wanted to talk." Ranma sighed. "So we did, an' then she ends it by getting me to take her to the festival next week."

His companion waited for a few seconds, but wasn't really surprised that no more detail was forthcoming. "Ranma, I need you to tell me more than that, if I'm going to break this gently to Akane," she said.

"Like what?"

"The most important thing… Ranma, do you want to go on a date with her?"

The Saotome heir boggled. "Huh? No!" Only at the last minute did he manage to modulate the volume of his reply, speaking in an emphatic undertone rather than a shout. The LAST thing he wanted was to attract Akane's attention and have her wander downstairs!

"Then why did you agree to take her on one?" Kasumi asked, reasonably enough.

"Whaddaya mean?" he asked, squirming helplessly.

"I've seen you turn down Shampoo," the eldest Tendo daughter pointed out. "If you can do that, why not Kaede?"

"That's different!" he protested. "Shampoo's tough, it's not like I'm gonna hurt her feelings or nothin'. She asks, I say no, no big deal — she'll probably just ask again next time she sees me."

"But you think Kaede wouldn't take it like that?"

Ranma shook his head wordlessly. "You weren't there, Kasumi. She was… she…" he shrugged helplessly. "Sorry. I'm not good at talking about this kind of stuff."

'You and everyone else in this household,' a tiny voice in the very back of Kasumi's head muttered. She didn't really listen to it, though, just asked, "What did you two talk about at first? Did that have anything to do with it?"

"Yeah, kinda." This had to do with martial arts, so it was significantly easier to discuss. "She had a challenge match with Kaori last week, Kasumi, and she lost. I get the feeling that that hasn't happened to her too much. Because she was really bummed about it."

"Oh dear. Well, I'm certainly glad she had you to talk to, to tell her how to handle that experience," Kasumi said. "So she was hurting, and then you made her feel better, and then she asked you for a date?"

"Yeah, that's about how it happened."

"Well, I can see why you wouldn't want to make her feel bad again after that," Kasumi replied. "I'll speak to Akane."

"Thanks," he said awkwardly, then fell silent.

The eldest Tendo daughter waited. He might not be saying anything, but his posture indicated that there was something else trying to come out.

Abruptly, Ranma spoke up again. "I hate this, Kasumi. All this… all this crap that's piling up on me. It's all his fault, and I'm the one who has to deal with it."

"All whose fault, Ranma?" It was more a prompt to keep him talking than a serious request for information.

"You haveta ask?" The Saotome heir snorted. "My old man, that's who. He's made all these stupid deals, didn't care a thing about honor or keeping promises or nothin'. Didn't even worry about hurtin' other people as long as he could get something for himself. He did all this and now he just leaves me to take the flak for it. It's just… it's not right…"

He took a deep breath, re-establishing the control that had wavered there for a bit. "I don't wanna be like that, Kasumi. Can't be like that. I gotta do better than my old man. But it's hard… it's hard when I don't even know what to do…"

"I'm not sure what to tell you," Kasumi admitted. She had hoped that getting this off his chest would make him feel better. But if the talk had soothed any of his stress, the Tendo daughter couldn't see a sign of it. What else could she say or do, to help relieve poor Ranma's pent-up feelings?

She glanced around as if searching for inspiration. Absently she noted that the floor in this room needed to be swept soon… a noticeable (to her, at least) amount of panda hair had accumulated in the corners…

Kasumi smiled sweetly. "Perhaps you should go spar with your father, Ranma. Doing something you enjoy might make you feel better."

For a long moment, Akane remained at the top of the stairs, struggling with indecision. She couldn't decide whether to go down and tell Ranma that she'd heard, that she wasn't mad, that everything would be okay, or just to play it cool and surprise him by not getting upset when Kasumi broke the news of his next forced date to her.

When she heard Ranma's challenge to his father, Akane realized that inertia had made the decision for her. She retreated to her room, closed the door behind her, and sat down on the bed. "I hate this," she muttered, wishing P-chan were around. Speaking her thoughts and feelings out loud helped settle them, but talking to herself felt more than a little awkward. "I wish they'd all just leave. Ranma shouldn't have to put up with this… I shouldn't have to put up with this…"

She sighed. "At least Kodachi's gone. And Ukyo finally gave up… maybe…" Her voice lowered nearly to a whisper. If you really, really want something, you shouldn't speak the wish too loud. "Maybe Shampoo will soon, too. I think if she just quit and left, I could put up with the rest of them a lot easier. Not to mention how much better off Ranma would be.

"I just wish we could get a break. Lately everything seems to be happening so fast." Akane picked up her pillow, held it behind her, and scooted back until she was braced against the wall. She pulled her knees up to her chest and curved her arms around them, unknowingly imitating the posture Kaede had used earlier, when sharing her own pain with Ranma.

The hours passed, and Nabiki returned home. Akane's door wasn't closed, so the middle Tendo didn't bother to knock, just walked into the room. Her younger sister was sitting at her desk, staring half-heartedly at the pages of a textbook. "Kasumi said you wanted to see me?"

"Oh, hi, Nabiki. Yes, I did." Akane fell silent, trying to decide how to lead into her request.

After waiting a few seconds, Nabiki said, "She didn't actually tell me what you wanted, Akane. You're going to have to do that yourself."

"I know… it's just…" Akane took a deep breath, deciding to just spit it out. "This morning Kaede got Ranma to agree to a date with her."

Nabiki blinked in surprise. "So soon after that business with Shampoo? I would have thought he'd lie low for at least a little while longer."

Akane frowned. "You don't think it was his idea, do you? It's all her fault!"

Nabiki picked herself up from her facefault and stared at Akane. "Ohhhhkay. So what exactly did you want from me?"

"I want you…" Another deep breath. "I want you to tell Shampoo about the date."

"Ah. So, in other words, you don't want this date to happen." Nabiki regarded her sister thoughtfully, and with an utter lack of surprise. "There might be better ways than trying to use Shampoo as a cat's-paw."

"Forget it," Akane said, surprising her sister with her vehemence. "Just do what I asked, okay Nabiki?"

Nabiki shrugged. "Sure, fine, whatever. I'd like to know why you wanted it done like this, though."

"I just think she ought to know what she's getting herself into with Ranma, that's all," Akane said bitterly. "Let her know what it feels like, to always have other girls getting in the way and messing things up."

There were quite a number of things Nabiki could have said in response to this. She could have reminded Akane that Kaede had already taken one beating from Shampoo without it shaking her resolve. She could have offered to send Kaede to talk to Ukyo. At the very least, she could have seized the opening for some teasing. But one glance at her sister's expression was enough to clue her in that there was only one thing Akane was willing to hear right now.

"All right, little sister. I'll make sure Shampoo finds out."

This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

That plaintive sense of discontentment was the first thing he felt. Ranma didn't know what was wrong, but something was definitely amiss. As he had done before, he tried to focus, tried to get a feeling for what was happening around him.

The blank mists of dreamless sleep receded, his act of concentration pushing them back more quickly than before. The increasing clarity brought one fundamental realization… once again, he was dreaming. There wasn't evidence to support this — he wasn't aware of anything surrounding him, just a dark void — but the knowledge was there anyway.

He mulled over that thought for a bit. As his awareness continued to increase, he eventually decided it wasn't that surprising. He could even vaguely remember going to bed with the hope of a night of good dreams, to help balance out the stress of the day.

And in some fundamental (if as-yet-unrecognizable) way, this dream did remind him of some of the best ones he'd had recently. The ones where he soared through the night, unfettered and unencumbered. Where he left the strife and turmoil and complications of his real life behind, if only for a little while.

Ranma thought wistfully of those previous dreams. What was it about this one that felt similar to them? Then he had flown through the darkened sky, and his single greatest emotion had been the sense of freedom. Here, he was standing solidly on the ground. There were buildings close around him, although they were barely visible through the thick smoky haze of darkness. They loomed above him, seeming to bend as they rose; Ranma had the distant impression that their tops would have touched, forming a cage above him, except that they vanished into the enveloping shadow before this could happen.

He blinked, suddenly aware that his surroundings had changed… either that or he'd just become aware of them. Well, that might be a hopeful sign. Maybe he'd just wandered into his dream before it was fully assembled or something. Maybe it would turn into one of those good ones in another minute. Or maybe… hmmm, he couldn't really remember how any of the others had started. Possibly they all began like this. Perhaps he just needed to give it a little boost. Experimentally, Ranma jumped, hoping not to come down.

It was quite a remarkably coherent feat of deduction, considering he was dreaming and had less than twenty percent of his cognitive functions on-line. It was also, unfortunately, quite wrong.

He had leaped as hard as he could, an act that would have sent him hurtling several stories into the air in the waking world. Here, he didn't even clear a meter. He dropped back to the ground, as shocked as he could be through the clouding fog of the dream. It thinned a little further, and suddenly Ranma realized something else about his surroundings. It had been there all along; it was the source of the feeling of fundamental wrongness that had been his first sensation, but only now did he actually become aware enough to recognize it.

He could feel the earth beneath him, looming so close, so harsh, so confining. Its pull was like all the chains in the world combined, dragging him down, binding him, immobilizing him. He'd seen an anime episode once where, to build their strength and stamina, martial artists trained in a room with radically increased gravity. The Saotome heir had thought it was a cool idea at the time, but going into something like that willingly was a far cry from being subjected to it with no regard to his desires.

'Man, I can't even get a break from my own subconscious mind,' Ranma groused.

He jumped again, focusing his will and trying to break free of the grasping pull. No luck; if anything he caught less air than in his previous attempt. In frustration, he then tried to snap himself awake. That would be better than this sorry disappointing excuse for a dream. Again, no luck.

~This way, Ranma.~

Automatically, he complied. Each step took a great deal of effort, yet paradoxically required little of his attention. His mind stayed mainly focused on thinking annoyed thoughts about whatever uncooperative facet of his subconscious was subjecting him to this. Not until he'd walked two blocks did he realize what was happening.

With each step, the pull of the earth beneath him lessened, just a little. It was such a small change that it shouldn't have been perceptible, but dreams ignore such rules as often as not. So he could just walk this stupid condition off? The thought cheered Ranma quite a bit. Experimentally he tried another jump. The results were disconcerting, to say the least.

He managed to reach a height of two meters… but on landing, the pull of the earth was suddenly every bit as strong as it originally had been. Ranma swore under his breath, and started walking again, hoping whatever rules this stupid dream played by would become apparent before too much longer. As if to mock him, though, this time each step he took increased the weight of the invisible chains.

~You're going the wrong way.~

Instinctively he reoriented to the communication. And now it was better, now it was as it had been before. His first step removed all the burden that had accumulated over his last few actions, returning conditions to how they had been before his last experimental jump. Subsequent ones continued to lighten the load.

That development sparked his curiosity. Cautiously he took another jump, making sure that this time the direction of his leap didn't take him away from the path he'd been walking. A bit more than two meters… and when he landed, the earth beneath him had no more attraction than it had at his last step.

Ranma grinned, and broke into a sprint.

The continual lessening of the force holding him down was no substitute for the undiluted freedom of flight, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Ranma raced through the darkened streets, occasionally turning at intersections when word came to do so, yet still not quite realizing that he was being led.

~You're almost there.~

THAT had done the trick. Ranma skidded to a stop, blinking in surprise, as once again the realization crashed in upon him that he was not, in fact, alone.

~Up here, Ranma.~

For a moment, he stood still, looking up at the sight before him. He had come to the Tokyo Tower. Its steel skeleton loomed before him, rising like a ladder toward the invisible stars. Ranma glanced around, noting that all the other buildings within his line of sight were as they had been, only barely visible through the thick darkness that hung in the air. But there was nothing obscuring this one.

Ranma shrugged and began leaping from girder to girder, pleased to find that his jumps were no longer hindered at all. At least the important rules seemed clear for now.

In no time at all, he reached the topmost observation deck of the tower. He stopped there, looking around and waiting for whatever would happen next. Somehow, he didn't think he would have to wait very long.

Nor did it take long for things to change. Out of the corner of his eye Ranma saw it begin; he turned and gave his full attention to the Tokyo sprawl. The lights were going out, all across the city — streetlights and buildings alike were sinking down into darkness. Considering how he had moved across a significant portion of the city without encountering anybody else, Ranma felt like it was about time too. No need to blot out the night with all that brightness if there wasn't anybody around who needed it.

It only took a few moments for all the artificial fires to die. Ranma didn't look up until the last was extinguished. He wanted to see the sky untainted by any of the light pollution that had been there before.

He blinked in surprise. The stars were spread across the sky with all the clarity he remembered from his second dream… except there seemed to be a hole of sorts, where they simply didn't exist. A gap of absolute blackness, that stood out against the night sky as clearly as would a halogen light in a room of lit candles. And the gap was growing… no, not growing… approaching

Later, when he was awake, Ranma would remember that moment, and wonder just why he would dream something like that up. A darkness darker than the night? A sentient cloud roughly the volume of the room he slept in? He would eventually decide that it was just a reaction to all the weirdness he'd experienced over the last few years, and let it go at that.

For now, though, such thoughts were absent. The sight before him didn't seem unnatural. Not even surprising, really… in fact, Ranma suspected that he now knew just what had provided the shield that had surrounded him during his last two dreams.

~No questions, Ranma.~ The billowing cloud of darkness was now hanging motionless, hovering in midair more or less level with Ranma's own elevation. The words came more clearly, more emphatically, than ever before. ~This isn't the time. We can fly now in freedom, if you just accept this, if you just accept the opportunity. Or you can wake again, as you did before.

~It's up to you.~

Of course there were questions he would have liked to ask. However, the choice was an easy one to make. "Well, I don't know about you," Ranma said with a grin, "but I'm not ready for this to be over."

~I'm glad.~

A fragment of the darkness detached and approached him, flaring and extending into graceful arcs. The ephemeral wings settled into place at his shoulders. It was a very curious sensation, to suddenly realize that they'd been there all along in his previous dreams, and he simply hadn't ever noticed the fact. But Ranma didn't dwell on it for any length of time. When someone gives you the key to your cage, you don't spend your time studying it, you pop open the lock as quickly as you can.

Together, he and his companion took flight, quickly leaving the darkened city far behind.

The bright sunlight of a Monday morning was streaming down as Kaede stepped out from the shop, but she didn't let that lull her into a false sense of security. She took a long, careful look at the sky before walking away from shelter. As with Kaori, it hadn't taken her long to learn how unpredictable the weather could be in Nerima, and though under normal circumstances getting caught in a little shower didn't bother her, the package she was carrying now couldn't handle such treatment. Still, as there were no clouds to be seen, she ought to be safe enough. Kaede left the shop behind and began walking toward the inn where she and her father were staying.

She moved more slowly than usual, though, entertaining thoughts that ran much deeper than the usual day-to-day concerns. The package in her arms felt unusually heavy. As she walked, she imagined she could feel the contents within shifting back and forth in time to her steps, causing the parcel to tremble as if it were the cage of some living thing. She seemed to sense the eyes of all the pedestrians on her, staring covertly, as if they knew what she was carrying and the thought amused them.

After having walked a couple of blocks, Kaede was getting very tired of this. 'This is ridiculous!' she thought fiercely, trying to rid herself of the sensations. 'It's only a lady's festival kimono. And I've got just as much right to wear one as any of them!' She looked up from the package and glared around at the various pedestrians. 'Actually, I've got a heck of a lot more right to wear it than most of them,' she amended, seeing that most of the people around her on the street were actually men.

With renewed determination she quickened her stride, clamping down hard on the traitorous mental image that followed. Maybe most of these men WOULD just politely ignore her, Kaede admitted to herself, if they saw her decked out in her new finery. But she didn't care about their opinions. She wanted no part of their humdrum, mediocre, another-day-another-122-yen existence. She wanted to live, and for her, the Art was life. And there was only one man whose opinion of her in her new kimono was going to matter.

'I hope he likes it.' Once again Kaede's eyes had drifted down to rest on her package. 'It's been so long since I've worn one of these… I was just a little girl. I always knew things were going to change, once I caught up with my fiancé, but…' She sighed suddenly. "But I thought I'd be able to go slower," she whispered, thinking more bitterly of Genma than she usually did.

Off and on during her training journey, Kaede had speculated on what Ranma would be like, once she finally met him. During the earlier years, she had fantasized about a stereotypical 'prince on a white horse', someone handsome and kind and strong and sensitive and witty and caring and faithful… in other words, perfect. As she grew older, and realized just how few such men were out there (i.e., none), her dreams had become more realistic.

She'd wanted someone considerate; Ranma had shown he was that, if a little clumsily, when he helped her out of her depression over her loss to Kaori. She'd hoped for someone handsome, though this had been regarded more as optional icing on the cake than anything else. She certainly hadn't been disappointed there. And above all, the quality that sat squarely atop Kaede's list of requirements… her fiancé had to share, or at least understand and accept, her passion for the Art. And again, though she hadn't spent all that much time with him yet, she was nearly certain Ranma fit that mold as well.

But slowly, over the last week or two, Kaede had been realizing that there was something else she'd wanted her fiancé to have. Something that she'd never consciously considered, but rather assumed as a given. Something that it seemed was not the case after all.

She had expected to find someone more or less in the same boat as her — inexperienced when it came to the mysteries of relationships and romance. After all, like herself, he would have grown up with the knowledge that he had a fiancée waiting for him. That tie of honor should discourage anybody from the usual confusion of teenage dating games. She had always thought that once she finally met up with Ranma, the two of them would learn of such things together, at their own pace.

The situation as it stood was much less pleasant. Kaede had to assume that Ranma was much more experienced than her, given the number of girls who had gotten to him before she did. Girls who had their own honor ties to him. Girls who… she gritted her teeth… who were all significantly more attractive than she was. AND at least one of whom was apparently much more skilled than her as well.

The thought of Shampoo made her grit her teeth again, harder than before. She began walking more quickly. "Never thought I'd say this, but thank the kami for those bloodthirsty laws of hers," Kaede muttered. "That's gotta be the only reason Ranma didn't grab her as soon as she made her offer. Nobody that pretty should be that good of a martial artist too. It's just not fair. I just… I wish she weren't part of the picture."

With a resounding crash, something shattered the pavement ten feet in front of Kaede. Battle-honed instincts kicked in, and the girl jumped backward, tossing her precious package to land on an out-of-the-way bench. "What the…" Her outraged cry trailed off, become a muttered, "Oh, crap."

The sidewalk had been shattered, but not enough dust had been kicked up to obscure the approaching form. Shampoo moved forward with the lethal grace of a tiger on the prowl, bent to pick up the bonbori she'd thrown, and continued toward Kaede. "Nihao, obstacle girl," she growled.

The soft breeze of a Tuesday evening ruffled Ranma's hair. The mixed glow of paper lanterns and electric lights was behind him, casting his face into shadow. People approached and walked past him fairly regularly; each time he would check their faces, and each time the result would be the same. Kaede still hadn't showed up yet.

He stood there waiting, listening idly to the sounds of the festival behind him. The usual detritus had been cleared from two wide thoroughfares that crossed at a ninety-degree angle, and brightly-decorated booths featuring various attractions now lined their sides above and below and to either side of the intersection. These were interspersed at odd intervals with poles a little taller than Ranma's height, left unpainted and covered in spirit wards. Ranma had only taken a glance into the fair before settling down to wait for Kaede, but that sight had caught his attention. Frankly, it had given him a bit of an unpleasant jolt. The poles had seemed as repulsive as diseased, dying trees with their bark hanging loose in ragged tatters.

'Man, how much longer is Kaede going to take?' Ranma thought. 'It's almost the time she said to meet her here. She's the one who wanted this date. That means she's supposed to show up early.'

And then, only five feet away, he saw her. Several seconds earlier, a large crowd of people had turned into the lane and walked forward to enter the festival. They had prevented Ranma from seeing Kaede's arrival, but now the crowd had passed, leaving the two of them alone on the street. The pigtailed martial artist stared as slowly, painfully, the effort obvious with each step, she stumbled forward.

As she reached his side, Kaede gave Ranma a piercing stare. "It's taking all the skill I learned in a lifetime of training to keep from falling down, Ranma. How the HELL do normal women move around so quickly in one of these things?!"

Ranma sized up the kimono she wore. "I think you got one of the heavier, more traditional kind, Kaede."

She blinked. "Really? You mean…" pausing to glance at a couple of girls walking by, "… they're wearing something easier to deal with?"

"Yeah, probably. For something like you've got on, you've got to move slowly and carefully."

"Figures," Kaede grumped. "I'm not meant for slow and careful. I like to go fast."

Ranma gulped, and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Just don't do gettin' any ideas like that about tonight!"

"Huh? What do you…?" Kaede blinked as understanding hit her. She took a quick step backward, making a warding gesture as her face flushed. "N- NO! It's not like tha— AACK!" This last came as her unwieldy kimono caused the retreat to transform into a stumble, and then a fall.

Ranma's recent increase in speed meant he actually had time to hesitate, wondering whether this was an attempt to get him into glomping position, then decide that even if it was he couldn't let her hit the pavement, and still move to catch her before she had fallen past the forty-five degree angle mark. "You okay?" he asked as he straightened her back up on her feet, relieved that she hadn't tried to grab him in return.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Kaede muttered, looking down. Her cheeks were flushed worse than ever. "Stupid kimono."

The Saotome heir at least managed to recognize this emotion, due to personal experience. Kaede was mortally embarrassed. "Eh, don't worry about it. At least it looks good."

"Y-you think?" The flush hadn't lessened, but Kaede's overall emotions were suddenly a good bit less unpleasant. She had spent several hours searching for the garment that she liked the best. It was of cream-colored silk, overlaid with a pattern of orchids. At least to her, the colors seemed to both accentuate and soften her eyes.

"Yeah. Just take it slow and easy, and you'll be okay."

She swallowed, thinking of the double meaning. Deliberately she put those thoughts aside, trying for now to view this whole evening as just another kata. Let it flow, and don't think too much. "Slow and easy… right." Experimentally, Kaede took a few more steps, moving even more slowly than when she had first walked over to him. "Hmm… not so bad," she allowed, after attaining a tentative rhythm. "I think I'm getting the hang of this. You want to head on in now?"

"Yeah, let's go." Ranma stayed on the alert for a few seconds, hanging half a pace back in case Kaede should stumble again. As it became obvious that she was now moving with considerably more grace and poise than before, he had to ask, "Um, Kaede?"

"What is it, Ranma?"

"How could you walk all the way over here and not figure out how to move in that thing?"

Kaede gave him a frankly incredulous look. "You think I walked that far wearing something like this?! No thank you. I took a taxi."

They passed through the gate that marked the entrance to the festival grounds, and began to walk slowly along the concourse. As luck would have it, only a few paces in stood a booth selling various snack foods. "You want something, Kaede?" Ranma asked, indicating the vendor.

"Maybe. Let's see what they have." The two teens walked over and examined the various foodstuffs that were available. Ranma purchased a jumbo order of takoyaki. Kaede hesitated, not seeing anything she really wanted to eat. At last she settled on a packet of sweet chestnuts, and put them away for later.

They walked on, silent for the moment as Ranma finished his food. Kaede took the opportunity to look around, checking out the various other festival attendees. It was still a little annoying to see other kimono-clad teenage girls, kids who'd be too afraid of breaking a nail to even try martial arts, who were moving around more quickly and easily than she was. But here and there through the crowd, she noticed some older women moving with the same slow, graceful poise her own heavy garment had forced her to adopt. Without exception, they were wearing kimonos that seemed especially ornate, well-cared-for, and appealing to Kaede. This lessened the annoyance factor considerably, and eliminated the last vestiges of the impulse to try and match the pace set by the other teens.

After a few moments, one particular girl caught her eye for a different reason. The girl in question seemed to be even less comfortable with her kimono than Kaede was. Not particularly surprising, though, as she was a Western gaijin, with freckled skin, round green eyes, and curly blonde hair. Although she seemed out of place, the smile she wore made it clear she was enjoying herself. Her expression was mirrored by the man whose arm she held; a Japanese whom Kaede estimated to be in his early twenties.

Kaede watched them, a bit wistfully, identifying a little with the girl who was so clearly out of place here, glad that the foreigner was enjoying herself nonetheless, and hoping that she might take this as an auspicious omen for herself. As she watched, the couple moved to the nearest of the ward-covered timbers. For a moment, the man hunted for an open space of bare wood; on finding one, he placed a ward of his own, then turned and gave his date such a tender, loving smile that Kaede felt embarrassed for watching them. She glanced away, noting as she did that Ranma was just swallowing the last of his octopus puffs.

"Hey, Ranma, do you know what those pillars are for?" As it happened, they were fairly close to one now. Kaede gestured toward it.

He shrugged. "Nope. Just part of the atmosphere, maybe?"

"Ah, that is where you are wrong, young sir." Ranma and Kaede turned, to find a man clothed in the garments of a monk standing behind them. "Each of those wards contains a blessing. Before the festival began, we priests prepared a great variety of such — blessings for luck, and prosperity, and happiness, and health, and safe childbirth, and love, and a great many more. They were placed on the poles to be taken by the revelers, that if anyone should have a great need for one of these blessings, he should remove a ward that spoke of such, and carry it with him."

"The festival's been going on for two days now," Ranma pointed out. "And I don't see any big gaps on those poles. You guys put up new wards to replace the ones that get taken?"

"No. We serve now in a different way." The priest gestured to a nearby booth, one that had no colorful decorations. Behind the counter stood another man in priestly robes. "Where would be the balance if we simply gave, and the people of Nerima simply took? No, the only blessing wishes we placed were those that were there at the very beginning."

"The festival-goers fill the gaps themselves, right?" Kaede asked. "I saw somebody do that, a few minutes ago."

"Yes. Those who have been heavily favored in some way over the last year may give back of their good fortune, by having a ward made for their particular blessing. They then place it on a pole, that another might share in that which they have received." The man made a sweeping gesture that indicated the whole of the festival. "By now all the originals will be gone, all the wards you see will have been placed by others, people like yourselves, who wish to give back out of their overflow."

"Hmmm. That sounds pretty nice," Kaede said with a smile. She glanced off into the distance, her gaze settling on the pole that other couple had visited. Of course she couldn't pick out the particular ward that man had placed, but Kaede hoped it stood for newly-found love.

She turned back and walked toward the post nearest her, wanting to inspect its contents more closely. Dutifully, but a little reluctantly — the ward-covered timbers still bothered him, for some reason — Ranma followed.

Kaede stopped next to the pillar and began to inspect the various wards. After a minute she turned away, blinking in surprise. "Wait a minute… how come almost all of these say the same thing? 'Interesting times'? What kind of a blessing is that?!"

"A very common one in Nerima," the man replied solemnly. "You're new here, aren't you."

The light dawned for Ranma. "Heh. No wonder these things are givin' me the creeps. C'mon, Kaede, let's check out something else."

The two of them walked through the festival for a time, making idle conversation and enjoying the different attractions. They worked their way up to the intersection of the two main lanes, made a right-angle turn, and started down another branch of the 'X' that formed the length and breadth of the festival grounds. They found that the booths on this one were predominately games of skill and chance.

Kaede wasted several hundred yen, trying to land a ten yen coin in a spinning teacup. When Ranma managed to get one in on his first try, she gave him a long silent stare, then challenged him to do it again. Six hundred yen later, she dragged him out of the booth, him still protesting that he'd get it in just one more attempt, her shaking her head with an ironic smile on her face.

A few paces farther on, Ranma saw his chance for redemption. "That's more like it," he said, leading Kaede over to another booth and slapping down one hundred yen before she could protest. She just rolled her eyes as the operator handed her fiancé three short-bladed sai of even worse quality than the ones she'd used in her fight with him.

Needless to say, Ranma's confidence took a bit of a downturn on realizing just how poorly balanced the 'weapons' were, but he gave it his best try anyway. His first throw *thunked* into the plywood wall at the rear of the booth, only six inches to the right of one painted target. He overcorrected on the next attempt, and the sai bounced off the wall, seven inches to the target's left. With grim determination, Ranma reached down to pick up his final dagger.

Kaede stopped him, though, placing her hand on top of his and addressing the man who worked the booth. "You said the rules are he needs to throw a sai and land it in one of those painted targets to win, right?"

"Right. But ya have ta get the blade stuck in the wood. It don't count if the handle just bounces off."

"Okay." With her free hand, Kaede offered her date a different sai, one that was anything but dull and poorly-balanced. "Try this one, Ranma."

Before the gamesmaster could protest, Ranma grinned, grabbed Kaede's offering, and threw it. It sailed straight and true, burying itself squarely in the target he'd been aiming for. The Saotome heir gave a cocky grin, then did a double-take, turning back to face the board and blinking in surprise, as he realized that in his haste he'd made this throw with his left hand. 'Dang, I'm good.'

The operator rolled his eyes and sighed theatrically, but retrieved the sai, returned it to Ranma, and handed him a prize. Ranma and Kaede strolled along again, arguing playfully about which one of them really deserved the Rurouni Kenshin poster he'd just acquired.

'This is nice,' Kaede thought a few minutes later, after an easy silence had fallen between them. 'Like I hoped it would be. I was afraid it would be awkward… but it's not. It's been fun, and… comfortable.'

Another thought attempted to push itself forward from the back of her mind, a recollection that had tried to arise a few times previously this evening. As she had then, Kaede pushed it back, more forcefully than ever. Tonight was her night… hers and her fiancé's…

That thought succeeded in burying the other one… but it also threatened to destroy the equilibrium she'd managed to attain at the beginning of the date. She found herself thinking back to that beginning, when Ranma's arm had gone around her and he'd gently set her back on her feet… with some effort, she forced her thoughts away from that memory, only to find them settling on the moment at the previous booth, when she'd trapped Ranma's hand under her own…

In a last-ditch attempt to distract herself from the distracting memories, Kaede said, "Y- yen for your thoughts, Ranma?"

Ranma blinked, started, turned to face her, and Kaede realized that she'd roused him from a reverie of his own. "Sorry, Kaede. What'd you say?"

"Just wondering what you were thinking about, that's all." Kaede watched as, on hearing her question, Ranma's eyes drifted back in the direction he'd been looking a few moments past. Her own gaze shifted, seeking to see what had caught his attention. As far as she could tell, he seemed to be looking at another game booth, one that required the participant to try and scoop goldfish out of bowls with a paper-filled straining hoop.

"Oh, I was just remembering something," Ranma said absently. "That booth over there reminded me of the night I finally mastered the Amaguriken."

"Really?" The answer puzzled Kaede, to say the least. "Isn't that the speed training where you pull nuts out of a fire? What does a game like that have to do with it?"

Her companion snorted. "That's a long story. You sure you want to hear it?"

"Mm-hm." Kaede noticed a nearby unoccupied bench, and headed over to it, followed by her fiancé.

"Okay. The whole thing starts and ends with Shampoo's great-granny." Ranma digressed for a moment, asking "Have you met her?" It seemed at least possible that she would have done so whenever she first sought out Shampoo to challenge her.

"Yeah, she was there at the Cat Café, when I first went to challenge Shampoo." Kaede gave an exaggerated shudder. "Scary."

"No joke. I know somebody even worse, but he's outta town right now." Ranma got back on subject. "Anyway, the old ghoul's plenty bad enough, let me tell you. She shows up here in Nerima, tellin' me she's here to see me get hitched to Shampoo, and you wanna guess what her opening gambit is?"

"I don't think I'd get it right if I tried."

"Nope, prob'ly not. She hit me on a pressure point… one that apparently didn't wear off EVER without some kinda cure. One that made me super-sensitive to heat. Anything even a little bit warm touched me, and it felt like I was being burned alive." Ranma grimaced. "Or boiled, if it was hot water I was touchin'."

"But then… your curse… how could you change back…" Kaede's protest faded, and her face settled into a stony mask. "That was the point, wasn't it. You couldn't. And she'd cure you — if you did what she wanted."

"Bingo." Ranma sighed at the memory. "I gotta admit, she did give me another way out, but she stacked the odds WAY against me."

"And that has something to do with the Amaguriken?" Kaede asked, not really meaning to interrupt, but too interested to keep from trying to hurry him a little.

"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses," Ranma complained, not really thinking about just what he'd said. He was lucky that this particular fiancée wasn't one who would regard that as a proposition. "I'm getting there. A coupla days after she first nailed me, Shampoo comes by and tells me she's found out what'll cure the stupid condition. Says there's a pill, the Phoenix Pill, that'd put my heat resistance back up to normal. Of course, lookin' back on it now, it's pretty obvious Cologne meant for her to find out about it and tell me."

"Excuse me? Cologne? Is that the old woman's name?" Ranma nodded, and under her breath Kaede muttered, "Shampoo, Mousse, and now Cologne. Don't know why this even surprised me."

"Anyway, soon as I heard that, I ran over to the Cat Café. And guess what the old mummy is wearing on a necklace?"

"The Phoenix Pill?" Kaede guessed, after waiting long enough to determine that Ranma wasn't going to answer his own question.

"You got it." Ranma coughed, and phrased the next few sentences carefully. "And this was almost a year ago, so I wasn't nearly as good at the Art as I am now. Anyway, I tried to take it back from her, and she just knocked me around and threw me outta the restaurant. Several times in a row."

Kaede nodded sympathetically. "She seemed pretty dangerous to me, when I saw her."

"Yeah, that's about right. So anyway, after the last time I smack into the wall in the street outside, bounce off, and land in a buncha garbage bags, I notice this flyer that's advertising for a waitress position right there, in the restaurant. So I apply, figuring that'll give me plenty of chances to get the thing away from her, and she just laughs and tells me to consider myself hired."

"A waitress position. Ouch," Kaede said sympathetically. "I guess you didn't have much choice, but that had to be hard on your dignity."

"Yeah." Ranma grimaced as the memories rose up. "Let's just say it sucked, and I never quite managed to get the pill away from her.

"So then one day she calls me out behind the restaurant. She's got a fire burning in the alley there, and next thing you know she tosses a double handful of chestnuts into it, and then grabs them out so fast the sleeves on her robe don't even get singed. She tells me that the technique is called Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken," he edited out the stuff about emperors fearing the move and millennia of Amazon glory, "and says that if I can learn that, taking the pill from her should be easy."

Kaede frowned. "If you learned a move that she had just showed you she'd already mastered, it would let you beat her? How exactly was that supposed to work?"

Ranma shrugged uncomfortably, opting not to admit that that hadn't occurred to him at the time. "Hey, I already said the odds were stacked against me. Plus you've probably already noticed one other problem with that whole setup."

His fiancée shook her head. "No, I don't… Oh, wait. The fire, right? If you were so sensitive to heat, how could you even get close enough to TRY the move?"

"That's just it. I couldn't really." Ranma sighed. "That was pretty frustrating, let me tell you. I was getting faster each day — fightin' with the old ghoul while she tossed bowls of ramen for me to catch took care of that — but I couldn't even try to pull off a Chestnut Fist like it'd been demonstrated to me.

"When I finally made a breakthrough, it was in almost the opposite direction entirely. Not fire, but water." Ranma gestured toward the catch-the-fish game booth. "I was at a fair tryin' to forget my troubles for a little while. That klutzy tomboy Akane was doing her best to beat one of those same games." Ranma chuckled quietly at the memory. "I think she went through about three dozen hoops before I stepped in and took over for her. And all at once then, it just kinda hit me… it was the same thing as the Chestnut Fist, just without the fire. I caught every goldfish that guy had in less than a minute, and then when he tried to cheat me with a tankful of piranhas, I caught them all, barehanded, without getting bitten once."

"So you mastered the Amaguriken after all. And it's obvious you got cured somehow… did the old woman just give you the pill when she saw you'd learned it?"

The pigtailed martial artist shook his head in disgust, thinking back to what had followed on that night, when he'd rushed to the Cat Café to challenge the Matriarch. Cologne had limited herself in such a way that his new mastery of the Amaguriken had allowed him to slip past her guard (as he recalled, she had just used the knobby portion of her staff as she attempted to block his two-handed assault), but as she'd already replaced the Phoenix pill with some ordinary candy, it didn't do Ranma that much good. "Nah. It took me awhile longer to manage to win it from her."

For a moment Kaede hesitated, wanting to ask for the rest of the story. But there was another desire in her, one that had awoken near the beginning of this conversation, and had only grown stronger as the minutes passed. She reached into the interior pocket where she'd stored the chestnuts she had purchased earlier, bringing them out and setting them on her lap. "Hey… Ranma?"

Ranma turned back to face Kaede, surprised at the hesitant tone in which she'd spoken. "Huh? Something wrong?"

"No, nothing's wrong… not exactly… actually," Kaede indicated the package in her lap, "I was wondering if maybe we could go someplace a little quieter, and build a fire there, and then you could show me this move?"

"I guess," Ranma said, not particularly dismayed at the thought of leaving before they'd fully explored the festival. Usually when he came to one of these things, something supernatural and annoying would end up happening, like a ghost getting released from a scribble drawing. "Why'd you want to see it, though?" A rather stupid question to ask a fellow martial artist as dedicated as his latest fiancée, he realized a bit too late.

Kaede bit her lip, as Ranma's question unwittingly opened a floodgate in her mind. The memories she'd successfully choked back so far this evening would no longer be denied. In an instant, her thoughts flew back a day and half, to a morning of sunlight and sudden peril…

"Listen, Shampoo, I've got somewhere I have to be. I don't really have time to talk to you right now."

"Is fine," Shampoo retorted, not slowing her approach. "You no have to talk. Just listen, and nod head at right moments."

"Hey… I said, I don't…" Kaede's mouth snapped shut, forming into a grim line. She hadn't even been aware that she was backing away, but suddenly she realized that the Amazon was now between her and the bench with her kimono. Her spine stiffened, and she growled back, "Fine. Say whatever you came to say, and then go away."

"I have hear you make Ranma take you on date tomorrow. Is so?" Shampoo stopped her advance, just short of getting into Kaede's personal space.

"I didn't make anybody do anything. But yes, we are going out tomorrow evening."

Shampoo shook her head. "No. You are not." Seeing the Japanese girl's mounting anger, she put on a mocking expression and asked, "What? You have problem?"

"Damn straight!" Kaede shouted. "You've got a lot of nerve, trying to just… command me like that!"

The Amazon's eyes narrowed, and her expression shifted again, becoming a hard, dangerous smile. "Yes. Shampoo do. What about you? Is you ready to fight for chance at Ranma? I not think you strong enough for that. You maybe surprise me, obstacle girl?"

"I have a name, you know. It's Kaede! And I've got news for you, Amazon. What Ranma and I do is between him and me. You don't have any right to stick your nose in our business. So screw you and screw your demands. The day I let you make my decisions for me is the day I lie down and DIE!"

"You talk big," Shampoo said coolly, unimpressed by Kaede's vehemence. "But Shampoo think that all you do. Anyway, this is just taste of own medicine. You challenged me before, over matter of who is best choice for Ranma. Is your turn to get that back now, but since that question was settled, this for smaller stakes. Shampoo challenge you. You lose, you forget about go to festival with my Airen."

It was on the tip of her tongue to demand to know what Shampoo was offering as her own stake, if the Amazon should lose… but since it wouldn't make any difference, Kaede choked the impulse back, and just said curtly, "No."

Shampoo's eyes narrowed dangerously. "No? Just like that? You walk away from honor challenge?"

"That's right," Kaede said, gathering a fair measure of courage and pushing past the other girl, walking toward the bench to retrieve her kimono.

Shampoo let one bonbori fall to the street. With her now-free hand, she reached out and grabbed Kaede's shoulder, only just resisting the temptation to grip hard enough to do damage, and spun the Japanese girl back to face her. "Is bad enough when Shampoo get here she find another girl after own husband," she hissed. "Is worse when spatula girl showed up and joined the race. And is worse still that when she finally quit, a new girl join in. And now you?! Have news for you. Worthless coward like you not have no chance anyway make good man like Ranma happy!!"

Kaede's right hand shot up, striking Shampoo's wrist, breaking the Amazon's grip, and knocking her hand away. "Are you quite finished?" she rasped, fighting a very real urge to whip out the sai that had recently replaced one tonfa, and do her damnedest to cut Shampoo's own lavender mane a lot shorter. If the Amazons thought that was the correct response to a woman who acted dishonorably, then let one of their own suffer appropriately for her actions. "So you think I'm a worthless coward, huh? You want to know what I think you are?"

"What that?" Shampoo growled.

Although a tiny voice of caution at the back of her mind whispered that this was a bad idea, Kaede stepped forward, getting right into Shampoo's face. "A pitiful little bully." She spat the word. "You think because you're stronger than me, it gives you the right to tell me what to do? Is that an Amazon's idea of honor?!"

"Amazon's idea of honor is to fight for what is yours, what is important to you. And to never back down from challenge!"

"So you'd just throw Ranma away, if someone as much stronger than you as you are than me challenged you, and said you had to give him up if you lost?!"

"Of course not!" Shampoo shouted, a little too caught up in the moment to think her answer through.

"Then where the HELL do you get off calling me a coward for doing the EXACT SAME THING you'd do?!"

"Is not same thing," the Amazon growled defensively. She forced herself to calm down, so that she could find the right words to explain. "I love Ranma, but is not just matter of heart. We is married by Amazon law. So if someone make that challenge, Shampoo would fight, never back down… but even if lose, it not change anything. Is not something Shampoo can offer."

"Well, I guess that makes me more honest than you, huh?" Kaede asked relentlessly. "You'd lose, and turn around and say you couldn't pay up on the stakes. I'm saying up front that I'm not going to let you tell me what to do with — or without — Ranma Saotome."

"Fine." Shampoo gave a hard smile as she spotted an opening. "Challenge you then just to regular match. No stakes." For all the other girl's talk, she would bet her bonbori that Kaede would still find some way to squirm out of it.

Kaede snorted. "Except after you've beaten me to a bloody pulp, well, that'd pretty much take care of me going with Ranma to the festival this week, huh? Forget it."

"As Shampoo said before. Coward."

The girl so addressed just shrugged, and said bitterly, "Fine. Say whatever you want. I've been called plenty of ugly things in my life, though I will admit it's usually been a guy whose butt I've kicked, not someone who could kick mine. First time anyone ever called me a coward, but I guess there's a first time for a lot of things.

"But…" her eyes narrowed, and she glared at Shampoo as fiercely as she could, "one thing nobody will EVER call me is a killer."

The lavender-haired girl blinked at the apparent non sequitur. "What that supposed to mean?"

"Can't you figure it out, Amazon?!" Kaede poured a great deal of irony into the epithet. "Forgetting your own tribal laws? If I do fight you, and I win, I get someone out for my blood! What the hell kind of incentive is THAT for me to get in a fight with you?! If I won, I'd have to kill you just to keep you from doing it to me first!"

"That is just excuse too," Shampoo said remorselessly. "Or you would ask if could have challenge match where Kiss of Death not apply."

Kaede blinked, feeling the first faint waves of doubt beginning to erode her moral high ground. "That's possible?"

Shampoo nodded curtly.

"Ranma didn't say anything about that."

Shampoo just snorted.

"What's the catch?"

"What you mean, what's the catch?" Shampoo asked. "Is simple. You ask, Shampoo agree, we can have match where Kiss of Death not apply no matter who win."

"Then you're on, Shampoo," Kaede said grimly. "Give me a chance to get stronger, and with those terms I'll give you that match. Just as soon as I think I've got a chance at winning it."

Shampoo sniffed. "Ranma never hesitate to take on stronger fighter than him. If you want to be with him, should be willing to do same. Is best way to get better."

"Yeah, I'm so sure," Kaede said disdainfully. "Let's see, our fight lasted… thirty seconds? Twenty? And I couldn't do any serious training for a couple of days afterward, while I was recovering. How exactly did that help make me BETTER?"

The Amazon made a disgruntled sound. "Fine, just tell Shampoo when you think you ready to provide challenge to me."

"I'll do that." Kaede pinned Shampoo's eyes with a piercing stare. "And Shampoo? I want you to understand something. I don't care how long it takes. I don't care how much it hurts. I WILL eventually take you down, and pay you back in full for today. Calling me a coward when YOU were the one hiding behind your tribal laws."

"I not hide behind nothing," Shampoo said quietly, convinced now of the other girl's sincerity, and despite herself feeling the beginning of respect. "If you see laws standing between you and me, is because you put them there own self. Shampoo never hide."

With an effort, Kaede pushed the memories away again. "Why else, Ranma? I want… I NEED to learn how to do it myself. But something like that… well, you know what they say. Seeing is believing. I think I need to see the move done before I can really be confident in trying to train for it."

"I'm pretty sure you can learn it," Ranma assured her. "Fast as you were in our fight? No problem. In fact…" he frowned thoughtfully, "you actually were moving that fast, after you broke through my Mokou Takabisha."

"You mean that chi burst? Well, yeah, but that was using power I'd leeched out of your attack. I want to be able to learn this Chestnut Fist under my own strength."

"Okay, yeah, I'll be glad to show you." Ranma grinned. "But you've got to teach me that trick of yours, too." Wouldn't THAT be a nice surprise for Ryoga, the next time the lost boy tried to nail him with a Shi Shi Houkodan.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours?" Kaede asked, in that single moment greatly daring, one eyebrow arched and trying not to blush. "Sounds good to me. But you'll have to wait for your demonstration; I can't do something like that wearing this kimono."

"Good point," Ranma said, rising from the bench. Kaede followed suit. The lane on which they now stood extended only a little ways past the last booth of the festival before ending in another road, one which crossed it at a ninety-degree angle. On the far side of that road, clearly visible from the pair's current position, was one of Nerima's ubiquitous parks.

There was a pile of scrap lumber, left over from the construction of the booths, stacked neatly in a pile near the gate that marked the edge of the festival. Ranma gathered up as large an armload as he could carry and headed casually out into the open spaces beyond. Kaede moved to follow, then paused, and, almost as an afterthought, stopped at a booth, threw three rings that successfully landed over bottle necks, and selected a Lina Inverse cigarette lighter as her prize.

She hurried after Ranma as best she could, finding him a few twists and turns into the park. He had piled the wood on a patch of bare ground next to a long, rough slab of stone, and was now regarding it thoughtfully, as if trying to figure out just how he was going to start a fire. Before he could quite psyche himself up to attempting to channel extremely hot ki, Kaede coughed and handed him her newest acquisition, then carefully seated herself at one end of the rock slab.

Shortly thereafter, a fire was blazing merrily. Ranma regarded the flames with a critical eye; after a few minutes had passed, he asked for the chestnuts. Wordlessly and with mounting anticipation, Kaede passed them to him. Ranma turned to face the fire, knelt down, scattered the nuts into the flames, took a deep breath to center himself… and then, with a wild yell, he lashed out, his arms blurring as he snatched the nuts from the midst of the coals, too quickly to be burned.

A long moment of silence fell, broken at last by Kaede's barely-whispered "Wow." What struck her as perhaps the most amazing thing of all was that her fiancé was barely even breathing harder after his demonstration. Once again, she was conscious of just how greatly he would be able to challenge her, how well he would be able to spur her on to reach new heights in the Art.

Finding her voice, she said, "Thank you, Ranma. That was really something."

Ranma shrugged, managing a reasonable facsimile of modesty. "No big deal. You always gotta be on the lookout to learn something new, right?"

"Right," Kaede said, her eyes going distant again as his words sparked a fresh spate of memories. "You can't afford to hold back, or someone else will eventually leave you in her dust…"

"Whatever," Ranma's newest fiancée said dismissively. "But while we're on the subject, I've got something else to say about those laws."

"Will warn you right now, if you insult Amazon heritage too bad, honor demand I fight you here and now," Shampoo said seriously.

Kaede grimaced, and thought about just shutting up and walking away. But after the way the encounter had gone so far, her spirits were running a little too high. All of a sudden, it wasn't a question of wanting to say this… she needed to let out some more pressure, or she would burst.

Later, when she had cooled off and had time to reflect, she would realize that what came next wasn't just about Shampoo. For the last decade and more, she'd lived her life taking the knowledge of her eventual marriage to Ranma as a certainty. Finding out at last that she was just the latest to join the fray had shaken her deeply, and had left her with a brooding, growing sense of discomfort and injustice. Shampoo certainly wasn't the only girl Kaede had to contend with… but the Amazon was the only member of the competition whose claim she could attack without calling her own into question as well, and she was right here in front of her, and she had already made herself a convenient target of anger.

Still, mindful of Shampoo's warning, and nowhere near willing to risk standing Ranma up in favor of a hospital visit, she moderated what she'd intended to say.

"Fine. From what I've heard so far, your laws about what happens when you get defeated by an outsider seem really screwed-up to me. Especially the guy's-your-new-husband one."

"Humph. Think so? What is problem, exactly?"

"What's the problem?!" Kaede yelped. "What about the outsider's choice? Do only Amazons count as far as Amazons are concerned?!"

The lavender-haired girl frowned. "Will answer question with question. Where is Ranma's free choice in case with you?"

"That's… that's different!" Kaede retorted. "First of all, it was an agreement made by both our families. It's not some accident, it was a deliberate choice! And it wasn't an instant marriage on the spot, it was a promise that we would marry, eventually! And it could be dissolved honorably!"

"You not answer my question," Shampoo noted. "By your way, Ranma's father say, 'Ranma, you do this,' he have to do. Can argue or beg, but choice is father's. By Amazon way, marriage is settled because of choice Ranma made, to fight Shampoo, and what he prove, by defeat me."

"But it was still an accident," Kaede said. "And your laws don't seem to care one bit about the honor ties he already had. Promises that were made long before he ever even came to your village!"

Shampoo snorted. "So what if they were? If man is already married when he defeat Amazon, that is different. Law make provisions for that." Specifically, the usual strict requirements for joining the tribe were waived for the preexisting wife, and, when she happened to be a warrior, the newlywed Amazon wasn't allowed to challenge her for First Wife status for at least two years. "But not for silly tangle like this."

"Silly tangle? That's all this is to you?" Kaede asked, glaring. "You just blow everyone off but yourself? This isn't the forgotten lands of China, you know. You're the outsider here, and you should have a LOT more respect for the customs of the land around you!"

"Respect is earned, not given," Shampoo said with a sniff. "So far as that go, by our ways Ranma became my husband in China. You say that not count because we not there no more?"

"No, I'm saying it doesn't count because HE never AGREED to it! NOBODY ever agreed to it except Amazons!"

"It is still our law," Shampoo said, in a tone of warning. "You think you get away with go to other place and ignore laws you not like? Break them because you no agree with them? Is that honor?!"

"It's not the same thing!" Kaede protested, squashing an unpleasant little voice in the back of her mind that wanted to know just HOW it differed. "Did he know about what he was getting himself into? Huh?! Did you warn him ahead of time, 'Hey, this isn't just some casual match you've got going here, buddy'?"

The Amazon shook her head. "No. Nobody did." A serious failing on the Jusenkyo guide's part, too.

"There you go then," Kaede said triumphantly. Hurriedly, she turned to go, while she still felt confident that the upper hand was hers. Blast it all anyway, she'd expected to steamroller over Shampoo with the righteousness of her arguments! Not struggle like this for a moral victory that she doubted the purple-haired girl would even acknowledge.

"You want to hear what did happen?" Shampoo asked, the edge in her voice cutting Kaede's retreat short. Reluctantly, the Japanese girl turned back to face her. She elaborated, "Was day of tournament what happen once a year. Was competition among all Amazon warriors what not have family yet. Long day of hard fighting, come down to one last match."

The force of her gaze pinned Kaede, held her motionless, as Shampoo continued. "Was Shampoo against one other woman, one several year older than me. Not so skilled, but stronger." Kaede blanched at the thought of someone much stronger than Shampoo. "Fight take place on big log held up in air at both ends. First to fall or be knock off is loser. Shampoo knock opponent off, win last fight, become Champion of Amazons. Is very good honor.

"And then, I turn, and see table what hold victory feast for first prize. At table is red-haired foreign girl and big panda, eating my food. Shampoo tell girl what offense she give, and she just smile and say if she beat me, then is hers. We have that fight, and Shampoo sure you already know Ranma win."

Shampoo fell silent, looking at Kaede expectantly. She seemed to think she'd made some sort of point, but for the life of her the Japanese girl couldn't quite grasp it. "And…?" she prompted.

"You not see?" Shampoo snorted. "I spell it out. Ranma come to Amazon lands, to Amazon village, in middle of Amazon tradition of championship tournament." Her gaze and her tone sharpened. "When he do that and challenge for fight then, he bind self to the result. That he not know law is no excuse; honor must say he agreed to hold to our ways when he made a challenge under them." The edge of her tone would now put a razor to shame. "Can you say honor say anything else, Kaede?"

"I… I don't know… I didn't know that was how it happened…" Kaede whispered, pale with dismay. Now she wished she'd just gotten away earlier, when the getting had been good. How had Shampoo managed to twist her own claim of honor from the weakest to the strongest?! How could this girl with her broken Japanese manage to demolish Kaede's own arguments so thoroughly?! "You must have put a lot of thought into this, Shampoo…"

The Amazon in question smiled enigmatically, doing her best to ignore the small bead of sweat trickling down her forehead. She certainly had thought long and hard on the twists and turns of honor in this situation, and had had several discussions with the Matriarch, in the weeks and months that had followed a particular day. Specifically, the day Nabiki had confronted her with similar charges and chewed her up and spit her out in the subsequent debate. Using the Xi Fang Gao to wipe the memory of the debacle from the middle Tendo's mind had been the only thing that allowed Shampoo to escape with her pride even partially intact.

Meanwhile, Kaede was struggling to recover her equanimity. At first she thought to protest that Ranma had been a girl at the time… but since that would mean she was saying Shampoo ought to have tracked down and killed Kaede's fiancé, that option was quickly discarded. Finally she regained a bit of poise as she reminded herself of the preexisting nature of her own claim. "But dammit, it's not that simple!"

"Is maybe not simple," Shampoo allowed. However, there was no way she was going to bring up the Amazon provisions for multiple wives at a time like this. "Is more simple than you think, though."

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

Shampoo considered how to answer. At last, she just slowly shook her head. Judging from something the Japanese girl had said earlier, Shampoo didn't think Kaede had really realized yet just what sort of man Genma was. When Kaede had seen that for herself, Shampoo would be willing to point out that Ranma's father's lack of honor and sincerity rendered any honor-promises made with him null and void. But until then, she would content herself by saying, "Is not Shampoo who should explain that. Will just say this, that there is many things you not have see yet going on here. Important things."

When Kaede looked ready to protest this, Shampoo shook her head more forcefully. "Take this from Shampoo. I have go through same thing. When first get here, is some very important things I not understand."

This time, pushing the memories away again came harder. Kaede choked them back, though, having no desire whatsoever to recall the ending of the previous day's encounter. The visions of the past cleared away from her eyes, to be replaced by the sight of Ranma seated on the other end of the rock, snacking on the freshly-roasted chestnuts. "Hey!" she protested. "Save some of those for me!"

Ranma grinned unrepentantly and passed her half of the remaining nuts — less than a third of what had been in the original package. "Here you go."

Kaede gained a small measure of revenge by eating the chestnuts slowly, dragging the process out over the next five minutes. She ignored Ranma, choosing instead to contemplate the fire and imagine herself training for the Amaguriken.

After swallowing the last chestnut, Kaede turned back to face her companion. "So if you were me, how would you start working to learn that move?"

"Let's see…" Ranma mused. "As fast as you are already, I'm sure you could grab some of the nuts out right now without getting burned. So prob'ly the best thing to do is figure out just how many that is, and then work on getting just one more, and then one more after that, and pretty soon you'll be doing a full Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken."

"Sounds good to me. Thanks, Ranma."

"No big deal," he said with a shrug.

"No… No, it is a big deal," Kaede said with sudden firmness. "Not just that you showed me the move. Not just that you're giving me pointers on how to train for it. That's all nice, and… and I'm grateful. But the biggest thing is that you're telling me you're sure I can do it."

"Well, why wouldn't I?" her fiancé asked. "What's it matter anyway?"

"Gee, let me think," Kaede said, a bit acerbically. "Let's see… how many fights have I won since coming to this town? Oh, yeah, the big double-o. None. Not-a-one." She sighed. "Damn, but I NEVER expected to find competition on this level with people my own age. Hearing you talk like you're all confident in me… well, considering that you're the best around here, that means a lot. Thanks."

"Oh. Okay," Ranma replied.

"Something wrong?" Kaede queried, puzzled at the tone he'd used.

"Um… it's just…" He fell silent, thinking about what he wanted to say. When he'd marshaled his thoughts, Ranma continued, "Let me show you something, Kaede."

He got to his feet and moved a few steps away, orienting himself along a wide open space with no trees anywhere nearby. Ranma drew on his confidence, focused his chi, and launched a Mokou Takabisha. It sped off into the night, leaving a swiftly-fading trail of dimly glowing light.

"I saw that already," Kaede pointed out. "In our fight, remember?"

"Yeah, but do you know how I did it?"

She shook her head. "Not really. My chi training was how to break and absorb someone else's flashy draining attacks, not how to do my own."

"It uses emotions," Ranma said, ignoring the slight against his technique. "Real strong emotions. One of my rivals found out how to do this move called the Shi Shi Houkodan, which is basically where you get really depressed, and use that to focus a ball of heavy chi, and shoot it away from you. I had to learn it too to keep up with him."

"You didn't look depressed," Kaede said with a frown. "And that doesn't sound like a very healthy method to use, anyway."

"Which is why I modified it," Ranma said proudly. "That was a Mokou Takabisha, not a Shi Shi Houkodan. I use confidence instead of depression."

His fiancée blinked. "You're really that confident?"

"Yeah. If it's got martial arts in it, I can do it. I can learn any technique, or figure out how to counter it. I can beat anybody, eventually." Ranma's eyes met Kaede's in a stare of challenge. "That's how I can fire off a Mokou Takabisha, cause I KNOW all that stuff is true. I don't need anybody to tell it to me. Which is a good thing too, cause most of the guys who challenge me just rag on me and try to drag me down.

"So listen, Kaede. I'm glad I helped you feel better, but you need to know this for yourself. You need to understand your own strengths an' weaknesses, and be determined to keep on pushing yourself. That's what being a real martial artist is all about. If you don't, if you give up just cause you find someone who's a lot better than you… well, in my book that means you were just pretending," Ranma finished, vaguely surprised at his own eloquence.

Kaede took a deep breath. His words had sparked feelings of anger within her… but it had been an anger directed at herself, rather than Ranma. "You know what? You're absolutely right. Normally that's exactly how I AM. But I got knocked… I LET myself get knocked off-balance by all the shocks I've had recently, and I guess it slipped away for a little while." She clenched one fist, as a battle aura sprang up around her. "No more, though. No backing down, no doubting myself, no holding back! I'm going to FIGHT for what's mine!!"

"That's the spirit!" Ranma cheered her on. "Just remember not to fight Shampoo."

"Huh?!" she protested, deflating noticeably at his words. "Why the heck not?!"

"Kiss of Death, remember?" he chided her.

"Oh, that," Kaede brushed off the objection. "She told me that if both of us agree beforehand, it won't apply to the fight."

"Huh." Ranma sat down and blinked for a while, eventually muttering, "Man, one of these days I really need to find out some more about those crazy laws of theirs." Preferably before another of them snuck up on him from behind.

Meanwhile, Kaede had turned back to stare into the fire again. It was dying down now, with the majority of what light was still shed coming from glowing coals rather than leaping flames. "It's getting kind of late," she said after a few moments of contemplative quiet. "You want to call it a night?"

"Okay, sounds good." Ranma stood up. Kaede did so as well, with a bit of difficulty… she'd forgotten how confining this kimono was during the time she'd been sitting down.

"Um… Ranma? Will you walk with me until I can catch a taxi?" she asked. Considering how far they were from a main road, coupled with her forced slow pace, this would likely take at least another quarter-hour. However, he indicated that he didn't mind, and the two set out again. They were silent for the moment, each attending to his or her own thoughts.

The swiftly-approaching end of the evening had reminded Ranma of something that he'd managed to forget for most of it… namely, that he was in fact on a bona fide date. He tried to choke back a sudden feeling of trepidation. There hadn't been any trouble so far, which could mean that fate was saving it all for the very end (as had happened so recently in his date with Shampoo). Ranma tried to shrug that pessimistic thought aside, though… after all, it was pretty late in the evening now. Chances of anyone else interfering, as had happened with Mousse and Kaori, should be much lower in this case. 'Heck,' he thought, 'in that getup she can't even grab me and kiss me like Shampoo did.'

After a few minutes of silence, Kaede spoke up tentatively. "Ranma? Did… did you have a good time tonight?"

"Yeah, I did," he answered, a little wary of where this might be going, but remaining honest at least for now.

"I'm glad." Kaede looked away from him, casting her eyes down to the pavement a few steps in front of her. "I was worried…"

He made a noise that was intended to be noncommittal. Kaede took it for encouragement. "I mean, I told you already that I'd never been on a date before. I know you've got a lot more experience than I do in things like this. I… I didn't really know what to do… I mean, I may have said earlier that I like to go fast, but I was just talking about moving around, you know? Not like… what you thought I meant… I don't even really know where to start… I hope that's okay…"

They were at least fifteen feet away from the nearest light source, but even in the dimness Ranma could make out Kaede's blush. "It's no problem," he said slowly. "Some of the other girls come on pretty strong." Well, really just Shampoo, now, and Ranma hoped to keep it that way. "I don't like it, to tell ya the truth. Tonight was much better than that."

"Really?" Kaede asked. She thought she had heard the sincerity in his voice, but wanted some more reassurance. He nodded as firmly as he could manage. She gave him a relieved smile, and said, "So I should just take it slow and easy, and I'll be okay?"

"Something like that," Ranma said.

"All right." Kaede smiled at him. "I'll do my best not to make the same mistakes as my competition."

Even as the words left her mouth her smile dimmed. The remaining memories of her confrontation with Shampoo would no longer be denied…

"And you're telling me this… why, exactly?" Kaede inquired.

"Is warning to you to keep eyes open," Shampoo responded. "If Shampoo had done that, might not have made some early mistakes." She particularly wished she hadn't left Nerima that first time and run back to her village in defeat. Getting cursed as punishment had been very hard, first and foremost by the curse itself, second in that that had been how she had learned the truth of Jusenkyo and her husband's gender, and finally on discovering just how poorly her alternate form meshed with Ranma's ailurophobia. "Not really want to see you have such hard time too."

"Is that right. You're looking out for me," Kaede returned, unable to keep the skepticism out of her voice. "You know, it wasn't all that long ago that you were calling me worthless, Shampoo."

The Amazon inclined her head. "Was actually 'worthless coward' what Shampoo say. And I was wrong."

"Glad to hear you admit it," Kaede said tonelessly. A bit of an edge entered into her voice, and she continued, "I'm still going to pay you back for this morning. Don't think that excuse for an apology is going to change that."

Shampoo blinked… and then disconcerted Kaede to no end, by laughing right out loud. Not a scornful or mocking laugh either, but one of surprise and honest mirth. "No worry, Kaede, that is LAST thing Shampoo would want," she assured the other girl, a smile still on her lips.

"Um… what do you mean by that?"

"Have been here in Japan for nearly a year now," Shampoo said. "In all that time, you is first person to be so ready to fight me. Nobody but you ever even find out that is possible to have match without Kiss of Death."

Kaede frowned. "None of the rest of them even stood up to you at all?!"

"That not what Shampoo say," the Amazon amended. "Have been battles, but they break out when Ranma is involved. Never anyone fight me for their own sake." Except Akane when she was empowered by the Super Soba noodles, which hardly counted as an honorable challenge match. "Is always Ranma who gets the strong, determined enemies. He have many challenges to keep him on toes, to catch him with new tricks and force him keep learning. Shampoo want some of that too, but never really get it."

"Well, you've got it now," Kaede said, radiating determination. "Hope you don't live to regret those words."

"Shampoo will not," the Amazon assured her. "You work hard, make self good challenge for me, okay?"

"Don't worry, I will… DAMMIT!" Kaede suddenly burst out, no longer able to keep up the appearance of grim determination. This whole situation was just too bizarre. If Shampoo had blown her off, that would be one thing, but this…? "When I tell you I'm going to train to beat you silly, you're not supposed to be HAPPY about it!"

Shampoo rolled her eyes. "Any Amazon worth the name would be same in my place. I spend sixteen years surrounded by Amazon sisters, always ready for fight, understand me and think like I do, then all of sudden come here and live here with nobody else around who can be like that to me. Is hard." She gave Kaede a challenging stare. "You not so skilled or so strong as Shampoo, but you better than some of Amazons back home." She had seen that for sure when she happened to witness Kaede's battle with Kaori. "And most important thing anyway is heart. Shampoo think now that you have that too.

"So show Shampoo she not wrong, okay? Go train hard, make self into good challenge for me." Shampoo brightened further as a new thought struck her. "If you get strong enough, can press me hard enough, Great-Grandmother would have to cut back on my hours at restaurant for more training. Shampoo would be really grateful for that!"

"This has been one mixed-up morning," Kaede said to the heavens. She could literally feel her newfound fiery determination to best Shampoo trickling out of her, leaving her with the same uneasy feelings of inadequacy that she'd been fighting ever since her initial loss to the Amazon. The sensation sucked, as far as Kaede was concerned.

Lowering her eyes again to face Shampoo, she said, "Okay, maybe what you said makes a little sense. But I still can't believe you can change that quickly. Encouraging me to do my best?! Asking me for a favor?! You're acting like we're friends all of a sudden!"

The smile drained from Shampoo's face. Quietly, she answered, "No, I not go so far as that. Will be honest. Would like it — I think now you would make good friend. Would maybe even make good Amazon sister. But so long as you is after my husband, I not think we can be friends. Not really. And is shame, too."

'Maybe Shampoo was right,' Kaede thought. 'Maybe it is a shame.' It might have been nice to get to know some other girls who were as serious as she was about the Art. Surely there was some sort of cosmic irony in that when she had finally settled down from her long journey, she immediately met a couple… only to have any possibility of camaraderie destroyed by the fact that both of them regarded her fiancé as rightfully theirs.

But if that was the price for Ranma, Kaede thought determinedly, then so be it. She would cheerfully cut out Shampoo and Kaori and Akane and ANYONE; with a smile on her face she would leave them in her dust cursing her name. Ranma was worth it.

They walked in silence for a few more minutes, eventually turning a corner and coming within sight of a busy street with a couple of vacant taxis standing ready. "There you go, Kaede," Ranma said.

"Yeah." And so her first date ever drew to a close, Kaede mused. Inexperienced though she was, she HAD heard that you were supposed to end a date with a goodnight kiss. Well and good, but there was no way in heaven or earth that she was ready for that, and given what Ranma had said earlier, she didn't think he was either.

Still, it would be nice to end the evening in some special way… she didn't feel ready for romance, but maybe she could handle honesty…

Kaede took a deep breath. "Hey, Ranma… before we call it a night… I just wanted to say something." Without pausing, afraid her courage would run out, she continued, "I know it's not the same thing for you, but I grew up knowing there was someone out there for me. I thought about you for years, wondered what you were like. And… and I just wanted you to know… I'm not disappointed at all."

She turned, and hurried toward the nearest cab, moving at the best speed her kimono would allow. Ranma stood and silently watched her go, until she had entered the taxi and it had carried her out of sight. Then he turned, and began slowly walking back toward the Tendo household. No-one attacked him. His Jusenkyo curse didn't get activated. In fact, nothing happened at all. Strange as it seemed, for the first time in his life a date had come to completion without any trouble interfering.

Ranma thought about this, and told himself he should be happy. But he couldn't help but think back to the last moment of eye-contact he'd had with Kaede, and remember the light that had been shining in her gaze, and feel as if one more chain had been added to the burden he already bore.

The tower swayed back and forth, ever so slightly, creaking and groaning in tones so low that he shouldn't have been able to hear them. The air was anything but calm this time; the wind roared and howled, even as it had in the night after his last fight with Tatewaki. However, the gusts seemed to split around Ranma's perch, whirling to either side of the tower, while leaving a dead calm in the air immediately around him.

Beneath him he could feel the grasping, clutching reach of the earth. Its pull couldn't reach him, not here, not now… but with all the unreasoning certainty that dreams may hold, Ranma knew that the invisible chains were there, yearning to grasp him and tie him down more thoroughly than ever before.

However, somehow, the sky above him didn't seem quite so welcoming tonight. It was littered with ragged scraps of clouds, streaming and shredding and reforming in the wind. It seemed to Ranma as if they were trying to knit together into a coherent whole, a blanket to lie atop him and pin him down. There was no moon, but an apparently-sourceless light illuminated the cloud fragments all the same. Somehow this added to the sense of oppression.

He stood there at the pinnacle of the Tokyo Tower, between earth and air, and for the first time in these dreams couldn't decide what he wanted to happen next.

In some cases, waiting for things to get better is the best choice.

The first change came as the mysterious glow began to fade from the clouds. They dimmed, darkened, became all but invisible. And then, as if some measure of strength had been taken away, they abandoned the fight to rejoin and cover the sky. The cumulal kaleidoscope whirled away to nothingness, leaving empty, soothing darkness. Simultaneously, the city lights below him faded, followed by the intense awareness of the earth's thwarted grasp diminishing and disappearing as well.

Ranma took a deep, pleased breath. Slowly he turned in a circle, taking in the whole of the night in one slow glance. By the time he'd completed his rotation, the view had changed once again.

As before, a different sort of cloud hung in the air before him, a roiling shroud of absolute blackness. In some indescribable way, the sight of it was as comforting as the earlier, more distant clouds had been unpleasant.

But then again, that might just have been because Ranma expected this meant he'd be receiving his wings in another minute.

"So—" Only the first word of his question, "So what's up with all this, anyway?" was allowed to escape. As it did, everything convulsed, seeming as if to rotate, tremble, and turn inside-out all at once. Just for a second, Ranma caught a glimpse of the ceiling under which he slept…

The world stabilized, sinking back into the darkened dreamscape. A definite sense of reproach emanated forth from the twisting veil of shadow.

~I told you before, Ranma. This isn't the time for questions.~

"Okay, okay, I got it," Ranma grumbled, upset at the close shave. However, Saotome adaptability (not to mention stubbornness) prompted him to add, "I'd sure like to know what all this is about, though." That wasn't a question, so he couldn't get busted for it, right?

Amusement now, tinged with something he barely noticed, and couldn't identify. ~It's about a gift, Ranma. A free gift, no strings attached except one — each time you question it, you'll lose it.~

"Heh," Ranma said, pushing aside feelings of frustration with his own recalcitrant subconscious mind. "Ranma Saotome doesn't lose. So let's hit the sky."

~I thought you'd never ask.~ Definite amusement there, although Ranma himself just groaned at the pun. He dropped the pained pose quickly, however, as the wings coalesced behind him again.

He leaped, stretching out, slipping into the flow of air with the grace of a fish swimming like quicksilver through the racing waters of a stream. The patch of darkness flew alongside him, for the first time that he could ever clearly remember. Ranma paid it little mind, caught up as he was in the renewed rush of freedom. However, one corner of his mind did note that the wind seemed to be having an effect on the shape of his companion… whereas in still air the other remained in a large, amorphous, turbulent mass, here it had been streamlined out into a sort of negative comet, with a tail that stretched quite far back from an ovular head not much larger than Ranma himself.

Not that it interested him one way or the other. This was no time for distraction or analysis. Ranma flew through the night, enjoying the gift as it was intended that he should: without thought or concern.

~Nothing lasts forever, Ranma.~ The words came after an uncertain length of time, and were communicated in a tone of quiet reassurance. ~Not even limitations. Just be patient… you'll know when things change.~


To be continued.

Author's notes: Okay, slight change of plans. By the time I had written up to Kaede's date with Ranma, I realized that what I had planned for chapter 2 would, when fully written, be ridiculously long for one document. Therefore, I'm going to split it into two pieces. The same thing may also happen to chapter 3.

Chapter 3
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