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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 2B: Night of Ghosts and Shadows

All day long Ranma had had the feeling he was forgetting something. Not until the final bell had rung did he realize just why this was.

The sight of Kaori, her usual oversized schoolbag at her feet, standing at the gates of Furinkan and looking expectantly toward him provided the solution to his dilemma. "Aw, man, that's right," he muttered under his breath, then raised his voice and called back, "Akane? Did I forget to tell ya I had a study session with Kaori this afternoon?"

He heard Akane sigh. She had been several paces behind him, listening to her friend Yuka, and hadn't caught sight of Kaori until just now. "Yes, you did. I guess she's waiting for you?"

"Yeah. I'll see you later on today, okay?" After hearing her acknowledgement, Ranma headed on over toward Kaori. He noted in passing that Akane's tone hadn't sounded angry, something for which to be grateful. Still, that wasn't enough to get him excited or happy or anything like it over the prospect of another session of extracurricular schoolwork.

Apparently, Kaori sensed this. After the two of them had walked a couple of blocks, exchanging desultory small talk, she came to a sudden stop. "Ranma, is something wrong?"

"Whaddaya mean?"

"It just seems like you'd rather be somewhere else."

"Well, yeah," Ranma admitted, puzzled as to just why she was asking this now. She had to know the only reason he was going along with this was because he'd promised. "C'mon, Kaori, you gotta know by now how bored I get with this stuff. When have I ever been enthusiastic about spending extra time studying?"

"I know that, but this seems worse somehow." Kaori favored him with a long, piercing stare.

Ranma considered. "I guess you're right," he agreed. "Thing is, this is the first time we've ever gone straight from school to one of these meetings. Every other time I'd get at least a couple hours' break before I had to hit the books again."

"Hmm. Well, if it makes you feel any better, think how bad this is for me," Kaori retorted. "I missed several days of school and had to play catch-up over the next week. I've been swamped with all the work I missed. So which one of us really needs a break?"

"Well, heck, if you feel the same way as me, why not do something else?" Ranma asked, seizing the opportunity.

Kaori blinked in surprise, before a slow smile spread across her face. "Maybe you're right," she allowed. "What would you like to do?"

"Huh?" Caught off-guard by the ease of his escape from academic annoyance — he'd never expected her to agree so readily — Ranma found himself unprepared to answer her question. "I don't know."

His fiancée began walking again. "Okay… what would you be doing if you'd gone back to the Tendo place for the afternoon?"

"I'd be training," the Saotome heir replied as he caught up with her.

Somehow, she wasn't surprised. "Well then, why don't we do that?"

"You serious?"

"Sure I am." Kaori shrugged. "Hey, you're the best challenge I can get around here. Not to mention the only person I could have a friendly fight with."

Well, that was sure true enough. Ranma gave her a critical look. "Still, a school uniform's not the best thing to wear for something like that."

"Right." She turned, sprinted over to a nearby phone booth, entered it, and emerged a few minutes later wearing a slightly-wrinkled but still-presentable shorts-and-casual-shirt combo.

"You do that often?" Ranma asked dubiously as she walked back to him. Frosted-glass phone booths notwithstanding, he suspected she wouldn't keep it up once Happosai was back in town.

"Usually just when I'm caught in the rain," the brunette replied. "I started carrying a spare outfit after my first week here."

"So what kind of training do you want to do?" Ranma thought to ask a few minutes later. They were still heading in the general direction of Kaori's apartment, and it had occurred to him that unless she specifically wanted to practice fighting without much room to maneuver, they ought to change their direction. The terrain along their current path was mainly a mixture of buildings, some large, some small, in a maze of twisting narrow streets.

"Oh, I don't know," Kaori responded. "I was going to let you decide. What do you think I need to work on?"

"Probably more solid hand-to-hand skills," Ranma decided. "Anybody who depends on tools too much is outta luck if they get caught without them."

Kaori nodded her head, though she did so a bit reluctantly. Loyalty to her school's special attacks prompted her to say, "Okay, but it's not like I go out unprepared anymore." Her lips quirked into an expression that was half grin, half grimace. "You taught me that lesson yourself. Nowadays I keep plenty of chopsticks on me, at the very least."

"Yeah, but what if you were at some place where you couldn't do that? Like, at the ocean. How many could you hide in a bikini, huh?"

His fiancée gave him a dry look. "I know the boy scout motto is 'be prepared', Ranma, but how many times have you seen beachside combat like that happen?"

"Lessee…" He thought back. "Five, I think."

The brunette blinked. "Okayyy… unarmed practice it is, then."

"Right. Then we're going the wrong way." Ranma turned to his left. "C'mon, there's a vacant lot a few miles in this direction." A quick leap took him three stories into the air, to the top of a nearby building. He touched down only briefly, springing off again with an even stronger jump. It wasn't a real substitute for the freedom of the dreams he'd been having recently, but it was still enough to get his blood racing. With a grin on his face, Ranma shot through the air, bouncing from rooftop to rooftop.

Five minutes later, Ranma-chan returned to her starting point, dropping from the sky with the typical Anything Goes disregard for the laws of inertia. Instead of a grin, she now wore a frown, and not just because of the large puddle she had found waiting for her on one rooftop. "Yo, Kaori. I thought you were gonna come with me?" Why the heck was her companion just standing there with her hair all toinged out?

After gulping a few times, Kaori managed to work some moisture into her throat. The delay also allowed her to recover at least a little self-possession. "Ah… Ranma?"


"HOW THE <expletive deleted> DID YOU JUST DO THAT?!"

Ranma-chan gave her a bewildered look. "You mean jump that high?" she hazarded a guess.


The redhead shrugged. "The Saotome school of Anything Goes focuses pretty heavily on midair techniques. I've been able to jump like that for a couple of years now." And she was all but certain that Ryoga, Shampoo, and Mousse could have duplicated her recent performance. She sent another questioning look Kaori's way. "What's the big deal, anyway?"

The Martial Arts Takeout girl took another couple of deep breaths. "If I took a running start, I could make the top of that building." She pointed to a one-story café. "I think I might be able to do it from a standstill. Maybe."

"So I did something you couldn't do. I still don't see why that freaked you out so bad," Ranma-chan said. Noting Kaori's sudden frosty glare, she continued, "I mean, I didn't do that when you froze me in our fight with whatever crazy technique that was."

"I… I guess that's true," Kaori admitted, her glare melting into sheepishness. "I suppose that technique would seem like magic to a normal person. And if I can do something like that, why should I get so surprised when somebody else does something incredible?" She shook her head wonderingly. "But I have to admit, I never would have thought it was possible to make jumps like that."

"So you just haven't had enough jumping practice," Ranma-chan concluded. A devious grin spread across her face. "Maybe we oughta work on that instead of hand-to-hand."


Ranma-chan smacked her on the head, just hard enough to be annoying. "TAG! You're it!" With a few running steps and what felt to her like a short hop, she bounced to the rooftop Kaori had indicated as being a doable challenge. She turned back and gave a mocking wave before disappearing out of sight.

"Why you…" Kaori growled, only somewhat playfully. She was doing her best to remind herself that this redheaded girl was actually Ranma Saotome, the fiancé she had failed once before, and not the enemy she'd originally thought her. Still, the sight of the girl had stirred her adrenaline enough that the leap to the rooftop came rather more easily than it might have.

On landing she was greeted by another flash of red, as Ranma-chan darted across an adjacent rooftop on the same level as Kaori's current position. Reaching the edge, the Saotome heir leaped again, ending up on a new building one story higher, then turned back and stuck her tongue out at Kaori. With another growl, the Daikoku daughter raced after her.

They were very high up now. The sun was warm, but the breeze was cool. Ranma-chan had a soft smile on her face as she looked out at the cityscape sprawled out below her. She had led Kaori on a madcap dash, going ever higher one level at a time, and had ended up some twenty-odd stories in the air. There were taller buildings than the one the two girls were on, but looking out from this side of the rooftop meant none of them blocked her view. "Pretty nice scenery, huh, Kaori? Worth the effort?"

"*Gasp* *huff* *puff* *wheeze*," the brunette replied.

"Guess we prob'ly oughta wait for you to get your strength back before we head down again."

"*Pant* *gasp* *whimper* *huff*"

"Or we could take the elevator," Ranma-chan said, taking pity on the other girl, and indicating a nearby door that should allow access into the building.

"*Deep breath* *deep breath* *relieved sigh*"

Ranma-chan fell silent and enjoyed the view. Eventually Kaori's breathing evened out, and she was able to focus on the sight herself. After what felt like quite a long time, she said quietly, "Absolutely."

"Absolutely what?" Ranma-chan asked, turning her attention back to her companion.

"It absolutely was worth the effort." Kaori got to her feet, and stood in silence for a few moments more, letting the breeze blow through her hair. "You know, if someone had told me this morning that in the afternoon I'd be standing on top of a building this tall… and that I'd have made it to the top by jumping from rooftop to rooftop… I'd never have thought it was possible. I still can't believe I managed to do this."

"Ain't that what the Art is all about, Kaori?" Ranma-chan asked seriously. "Taking yourself to new heights?"

Kaori rolled her eyes and smiled wryly. "Yes. It's just never been that literal for me before. Thank you, Ranma. Thanks for showing me I could do this."

"No problem."

Silence fell again for the next few minutes. Ranma-chan had gotten her fill of the view from her current vantage point, and was now gazing off into another direction. Off in the distance, she could just make out the upthrusting angle of the Tokyo Tower…

"Hey, Ranma."

With some effort, the redhead dragged her attention back to the here and now. She turned, a questioning look on her face, just in time for her companion to say "Catch", and toss her a bundle of chopsticks. Ranma-chan complied, reaching out easily enough to grasp the bundle… except that as she touched it the sticks seemed to lose whatever stickiness had held them together. She fumbled the catch, securing a good grip on one at the expense of letting the rest slip from her grasp.

Kaori suppressed the urge to boggle again, as her fiancé recovered from the slip, both hands blurring as she plucked the tumbling chopsticks from the air, reassembling them into a less-tidy bunch. "What was that for?" Ranma-chan inquired once she'd straightened back up from snatching the last chopstick.

"Just fairness, I thought," Kaori said. "You showed me something new to work for today. Wouldn't you like me to return the favor?"

An excited grin spread across Ranma-chan's face. The Saotome heir had always been at his (or her) quickest and brightest when facing something that had to do with the Art. "You mean you're gonna teach me how to do that technique you used to freeze me in place?"

"That's right," Kaori confirmed. "Well, I mean, I'm going to teach you how to train for it. It'll take you a long time to work up to that level."

Ranma-chan smiled a secretive smile, inwardly resolving to have the move perfected by whatever time Kaori decided should be their next session. With any luck, showing the Martial Arts Takeout girl how quickly Ranma had mastered this move should make her jealous enough to cancel the studying in favor of training again.

Meanwhile, Kaori had continued speaking. "The technique name is the Daikoku Secure Delivery. To use it, you have to be able to both harness your chi and project it out from you." She didn't even bother to inquire whether her fiancé could do that, asking instead, "How good are you at that, Ranma?"

With a flourish, Ranma-chan turned and fired a Moko Takabisha off into the wild blue yonder. "How's that?"

"Oh, that's right. I already saw you could do that," the other girl said, remembering (with a good bit of guilt) back to the moment when Ranma-chan had severed the noodle-noose Kaori had been using to choke her. "Um, actually, it might not be so good."

"Huh? Why not?!"

"Because a chi blast like that is all about power, but in my technique power is a really distant second place. The Daikoku Secure Delivery is all about control. It might be harder for you to learn, if you're used to concentrating on something else."

"Don't matter," Ranma-chan said resolutely. "I'll learn it. If it's got martial arts in it, I can do it."

Kaori smiled at the other girl. "Somehow, I don't doubt that." She cleared her throat. "Anyway. Could you give me back the chopsticks?" Ranma-chan complied. Kaori straightened them back into a nice, neat, orderly stack. "Training to use this technique…" she stopped herself. "Oh, by the way, Ranma. Promise me you won't teach it to anyone else. It's a secret of the Daikoku family."

"Sure," Ranma-chan agreed, not stopping to think about the implications of letting Kaori teach it to her on those terms, any more than she had when Cologne taught her the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken or Hiryu Shoten Ha.

"Okay. Well, anyway…" Kaori extended her hands before her, side-by-side with palms up. The chopsticks lay across them, with her thumbs curled over them to hold them in their bundle. "Basically, the idea of the technique is to extend your chi over whatever you're trying to immobilize." She lifted her thumbs away from the chopsticks, then flicked them into the air with a snap of her wrists. They remained in a coherent mass; she caught them and returned her hands to their previous configuration. "The chi is still connected to you, though — that's another difference from your blast — and for something small like this, it's like it becomes a part of you temporarily too." She withdrew her thumbs again, and furrowed her brow into a look of concentration. Slowly the block of chopsticks rose, coming to rest standing vertically on her right palm.

"That's how you make those Noodle Noose things work like that!" Ranma-chan exclaimed.

"Pretty much," Kaori confirmed, letting the chopsticks fall. "They really are the same fundamental principal, it's just applied in different ways. Force the chi field to hold rigid — that's the Daikoku Secure Delivery. Use the chi to control the noodles and strike with them like a whip — that's the Ramen Round-up Noodle Noose. Doing that one is easier, especially since the noodles are flexible. We think the broth may help to conduct the chi, too.

"But getting back to the whole 'freeze your enemy in her tracks thing'… I'm warning you now, Ranma, it takes a huge amount of energy to affect a person, and you shouldn't expect it to hold them for very long. No matter how strong they are, it takes several seconds to fight off the effect — but any reasonably strong person can do it. Their own life force will push away the foreign chi. You have to be something like twenty times stronger than someone else to hold them completely helpless."

"No problem," Ranma said. As fast as she was, several seconds would be plenty. "So what's the next part of how to do this thing?" She knew there had to be more to the technique than what Kaori had said so far. If it were that simple, other people would have discovered it too.

"Why don't you see if you can figure it out for yourself?" Kaori asked with a smile. "Look quick, because I'm only going to be able to show you this once." The brunette settled back into intense concentration, calling on all the chi she could spare, and warping it around the chopsticks. The concentration of the energy was such that it could actually be seen, a bright white glow that obscured the sticks beneath it. As promised, Kaori could only hold this level of power for a few seconds (although unlike when she used it to bind an opponent in place, this time when she released the technique she was able to reabsorb much of the energy). She wiped sweat from her brow, and sent a querying gaze Ranma-chan's way.

The Saotome heir was frowning, looking a little uneasy. "That… that wasn't emotion-based chi. Was it?"

Kaori shook her head, not really surprised at the question. "Is that what you're used to using?"


"If I understand how that works, when you do that you're pulling in power from around you. Not just using your own life force." Kaori shook her head. "For this kind of control, you're going to have to do it all on your own, Ranma."

The redhead sighed. "Okay. Guess you're right about this taking awhile to learn."

"Did you see anything else?"

Ranma-chan blinked. "You mean… there was something else I needed to see?"

"Mm-hm. Don't feel bad, though… the most you could possibly have caught would be just a hint of the effect. It's not really something that can be seen, exactly. It's the secret to how to get the technique to work, and it's the reason we use chopsticks to start teaching it." Kaori smiled. "It's also a good reason to pay more attention in Geometry, by the way."

Ranma-chan gave her a dubious look. The brunette continued with her explanation. "The secret is, when you form the chi field, you can't think of it as a smooth whole. It's not like a blob of oil or something like that. Instead, you have to think of it as being made up of lots of little pieces that interlock with each other… and that mesh perfectly around the object that you're trying to control. That's why chopsticks are so simple… just think of lots and lots of little stick-like pieces of chi, all parallel, all fitting snugly together with each other and around the chopsticks."

The Saotome heir grimaced, trying to stretch her mind around that. "So… when you use the technique with a bowl of ramen and make a noodle-noose…?"

"The chi-field in the bowl has to be made of tangled, swirling strands like the ramen noodles. Around the chopsticks, though, it's like I already said — an orderly bunch of straight little pieces." Kaori gave him a bemused look. "And don't try to think about the intersection between the two, because if you do that you'll lose control of the whole thing. You just have to let that part happen on its own."

"And what about holding a person?"

Kaori placed her left forefinger on her wrist and sketched a few quick lines that formed a circle around her arm. "Imagine lots of arcs that tie into each other, circling around your opponent like chains. It's like you're building a suit of armor around them, except since it's made out of your own life force they can't make it move. That's what I meant about paying more attention in Geometry. You need to be able to make good spatial judgments and imagine the little pieces that fit together within them."

"Man, this sounds like a lot of work," Ranma-chan complained. "Are you sure it's worth it, Kaori?"

The brunette shrugged. "What do you think? I'd have won our fight after I used it on you, if I'd just hit your Unconsciousness Point instead of going for a Noodle-Noose attack. If you're good enough to use it, the Daikoku Secure Delivery is about the best ace in the hole you can ask for."

Truth be told, Ranma-chan hadn't really meant her question; it had been more a case of blowing off steam than anything else. She could see the possibilities for herself. Especially pleasing was a quick fantasy of halting Happosai in his perverted little tracks the next time he tried a splash-and-grope, then punting him to the moon. "Yeah, I guess I can see that. Thanks for teachin' me this, Kaori. I really appreciate it."

"Of course, Ranma. What are" 'fiancées' "friends for?"

The final cinderblock was carefully laid atop the others.

"Are you all right, Ranma?"

He stared back at her, clearly not understanding the question. "All right? Why wouldn't I be?"

"I just thought… when Shampoo forced you on a date, you ended up getting hurt afterward. And isn't that usually what happens? Somebody shows up and ruins things?"

"Oh, you talkin' about the evening with Kaede?"

She folded the towel over the topmost block, and tried to focus.

"Don't let it go to your head! I was just… maybe a little worried about how it went…"

He had actually given her a smile. "It went okay, Akane. Nobody came outta the blue and tried to attack me, or her. Nothing crazy happened at all." He'd run that last thought back through his mind, then amended, "Unless it counts as crazy that I finally had a peaceful, kinda fun date that didn't end badly."

"Oh. I see." It had been very hard not to grit her teeth. "So you enjoyed yourself?"

One hand lifted, coming to rest at the perfect height.

"Yeah. She didn't try to grab me or get all mushy or anything. We just walked around, got some food, won a few games."

"That's all? You sure didn't come back very early last night."

"Well, we did leave the festival a little early an' go to a park. She wanted me to show her the Chestnut Fist. So I did that, and we talked about martial arts for a while." He had smiled again, happily, reminiscently.


Her hand blazed downward, the towel protecting her from the worst of the impact against the rough surface as she struck the stack of blocks. They shattered with a satisfying crunch.

Akane stared grimly down at the pile of cloth and rubble. 'I told him it was okay, that I wasn't mad because he was going out with Kaede. I heard him tell the whole thing to Kasumi! I heard how much he didn't want to go!

'Didn't I?'

He wasn't supposed to have been in a good mood the morning after! Or if he was, it ought to have been because he'd gotten an unpleasant ordeal out of the way. He wasn't supposed to think back to the date with a smile on his face!

Had she asked just a few questions more, Akane would have learned that Ranma was in a good mood after a night of pleasant dreams, that he had been recalling Kaede's promise to teach him her technique for dealing with chi blasts, and smiling in anticipation of learning a new move. But so far each question she had asked that morning had left her feeling worse, and so Akane had chosen that moment to cut her losses. She had fallen silent for the rest of their walk to school, but since that had only been a few more minutes Ranma hadn't noticed anything was wrong.

By the time school had let out she'd managed to push the bad mood to the back of her mind. Back before the date with Kaede, Akane had told Ranma that she knew he had to do these things sometimes and she wasn't mad at him. Though her resolve was now being seriously tested, she meant to hold to that.

But heaven help Kaede if the other girl came by and challenged her like she did with Shampoo. Akane knew the Amazon had obliterated Kaede, handing the interloper a much worse defeat than Shampoo had ever managed against Akane herself. Just let Kaede come by and start something, and the heir to the Tendo school of Anything Goes would be more than happy to finish it!

She found herself really, really hoping the other girl wouldn't take too long. She had a lot of hurt to work out now, and not targeting any of it on Ranma was straining her to the absolute limit.

And now, not forty-eight hours after going out with Kaede, he was meeting with Kaori for yet another stupid study date! After making several utterly useless attempts to focus on her own homework, Akane had changed into a gi and headed for the dojo. She had destroyed numerous training dummies and a large quantity of cinderblocks this afternoon, and was finally beginning to feel better.

When she left the dojo and began walking back toward the house, only to catch sight of Ranma striding along the top of the wall, heading in the same direction with a carefree smile on his face, that sensation began seeping away all too quickly.

"Hey, Akane!" Ranma said, catching sight of her. "Been working out?"

"Uh-huh. How'd the studying go?" Akane asked. "It must've been worse than usual, if you're so happy to be done now."

"Ehhhh! Wrong!" her fiancé replied playfully. "Managed to talk her into doing something else instead."

The youngest Tendo gritted her teeth. 'Gee. I bet she took a LOT of convincing.' Out loud she said, "Oh, really? So what did you do? Take her out for ice cream? Maybe stop off and see a movie? Or just go for a long romantic walk in the park?!"

Ranma's smile faded, to be replaced by a look of annoyed resignation. "And once again she jumps to the wrong conclusion," he muttered. "No, no, and no, Akane. We did some training. I helped her learn something new, and she did the same thing for me. Is that okay?"

Judging from her appearance, it wasn't. Akane's fists were clenched at her sides, so tightly that the blood had completely fled from her knuckles. Any reassurance she might have felt at hearing the outing hadn't been a date was buried under a swift tide of resentment. First Kaede, now Kaori! "Okay? OKAY?! No, Ranma, it's NOT okay! When are you going to start helping ME out like that?! Damn it, I'm a martial artist too! And you've NEVER tried to help me get better!!"

"Excuse me?" Ranma said sharply. "You wanna hear just what I helped Kaori with, Akane? You wanna know just how I did it? I found out she didn't have a clue about how good at midair attacks it was possible to be. So I smacked her one to get her good and annoyed, then I ran away and made her follow me roof-hopping. She couldn't even believe it when she looked around and realized she'd chased me all the way up twenty stories high."

So basically Ranma had led Kaori off somewhere more private. "How is that supposed to make me feel better?!" she demanded.

"Cause it's the same thing I've tried to do with you!" Ranma shouted back. "You think you're gonna get better just breakin' those stupid bricks all the time?! Dream on, Akane. Those times when I stood there and taunted you and dodged everything you'd got, that was the kind of workout you needed. Heck, it still is!"

"That's supposed to be training?! Don't lie to my face, Ranma. That was just another excuse for you to make fun of me!!" It was becoming more and more of a struggle not to hit him.

"It is NOT!! It's training! You gotta be able to focus, to anticipate what your enemy's gonna do, to control your stupid temper. It's the same kinda method Pop's used on me!"

"That's supposed to make me feel better about it? You were trying to turn me into a rude, egotistical, perverted idiot too?!"

"Look, I don't need this!" Ranma exploded. "I shoulda known you weren't gonna listen to a word I said. I don't know why you even bothered to bring this up anyway, Akane. I've only once in my LIFE seen you serious about training, and even then you botched it up anyway!"

"What… did… you… say?" the youngest Tendo gritted out.

"You heard me! Remember those two girls who thought Mr. Tendo was their dad? Remember how they kicked your ass? Only reason we won the rematch was cause I used a modified Hiryu Shoten Ha blast to stop their attack and blind 'em! What the heck did you practice during that week before the rematch? Just more hitting stuff, I bet!"

That was the straw that broke the camel's back. With a wordless cry of fury, Akane decided to get in a little more hitting practice.

~You know, Ranma, variety is the spice of life.~

He stood once again at the pinnacle of the Tokyo Tower. His companion hung in the air before him, shifting and billowing even though the night air was calm about them. "Huh. I'm not so sure about that."

~What do you mean?~

Ranma paused, musing for a brief moment that it was rather unfair that the only one allowed to ask questions was a figment of his own imagination. Then he answered, "I dunno. It just seems like in my life, the more things change, the more they stay the same."

~I see. Like this afternoon, when you laid it out for Akane and she blew up at you. Every time you've tried to train her she lost her temper and quit, but let her hear that you helped Kaori out and BOOM! There goes the volcano!~

"There goes the hammer, you mean," Ranma muttered. When Akane had thrown her latest tantrum, he'd dodged her first attempts, as a sort of object lesson. However, he had quickly grown alarmed at how much angrier this was making her. So at last he let her connect with an uppercut, sending him soaring into the wild blue yonder. It had taken him well into the evening to walk back home.

~Well, how about some real variety? If you really want to fly again, we can do that. But there's something else you might like to try.~

"Well, now my curiosity's going. And since I ain't allowed to ask questions…" Ranma said with a sarcastic grin, "Go ahead and show me this other choice you think I'll like."

~We'll still need to start out flying. Let's go, Ranma.~ The wings formed about him, and he followed his companion into the air.

This time there wasn't the usual sense of freedom and exhilaration. Such of his awareness as was available was spent wondering just what new direction this dream would take. He didn't have long to wonder, though.

As soon as they were a few dozen feet away from the Tokyo Tower, the world did another one of those twisting convulsing changes. By rights Ranma should have felt a jolt of fear — after all, the previous times he'd experienced this effect it had either ended the dream or almost ended it. But for the moment, things were different. Over the course of the last several dreams, Ranma had been more and more aware and alert in each subsequent episode, but in the instant in which he had taken to the air, his mind had sunk back into a warm, fuzzy, absolute somnolent peace that hadn't been there since the very first flight. And so when the world shifted, and he found himself and his companion were now over the ocean with no land in sight, Ranma simply accepted it.

Nor did he blink when his wings deformed, wrapping around him like a second skin, even though this left him dropping like a stone.

Passage from air to water washed the cobwebs out of his mind. Ranma slid effortlessly beneath the waves and caught sight of his companion, flowing on ahead of him and heading deeper. He followed. The shadow that had been his wings now surrounded him, encasing him in a thin film that occasionally swept outward in finlike protrusions. They seemed to ebb and flow, now streaming out from his arms, now his legs, now one from his upper back and two more from his hips, automatically moving in concert with the strokes from his arms and legs.

The 'fins' portion of his ensemble made sense; he could tell that he was cutting quite an impressive pace as he slipped through the water, but the remainder puzzled him a little. What was the point of this shield getting stretched thin to cover him completely? It wasn't keeping the ocean out. He could clearly feel the water against his skin…

His skin?! Ranma grinned a huge grin. 'All right! My stupid curse isn't getting triggered!'

~It's been a long time since you could take a swim as the man you really are.~ His companion seemed nearly as pleased as Ranma himself was. ~Are you glad you gave my other idea a try?~

"Oh, yeah," he replied. Since this was a dream, the fact that he could apparently speak and breathe underwater was somewhat less surprising than it might have been.

~I'm glad. Glad to see you're willing to try new things. It's not a good idea to hold onto something just because it's familiar.~

Ranma would spend a fair amount of time over the next few days thinking back to this dream… relishing the memories — even if they hadn't been real — of swimming in his natural form; reliving the sensation of racing along in the heart of a deep, powerful current; experiencing again the awe brought on by the sight of a pod of blue whales. Those words of his companion never would reenter his conscious thoughts, but they remained in the deeper waters of his mind, like a sunken stone that causes the currents to shift and flow in new patterns.

Kasumi walked past her father and Genma, and neither so much as glanced her way. The eldest Tendo daughter wasn't really surprised at this. Here and now she didn't suppose they would have noticed her if she had been carrying a live anaconda rather than her basketful of freshly-dried laundry. Both men were staring grimly at the shogi board, but the game took only a distant second place in their minds.

The house was quiet, but so might be the lull before a storm… and it didn't take much perception to see that there was one building. Kasumi thought back over the last several days, remembering the fight Akane and Ranma had had after his last get-together with Kaori. They hadn't made up yet, nor did Kasumi think either one had taken even the first step toward such a resolution. And she wasn't sure what such a step would be this time, anyway. Akane was adamant that Ranma needed to apologize, and Ranma was convinced he'd done nothing wrong.

The teens had avoided each other more often than not, which had been fairly easy with all the time Ranma had spent doing odd exercises. Kasumi had overheard Nabiki question him about these; Ranma's explanation was that he was trying to learn new ways to control and use his chi. This preoccupation had kept things peaceful on the surface, but the eldest Tendo daughter had felt that it was only a matter of time before that ended.

And now she was certain of it.

Today Ranma had come home from school, eaten a snack, spent a little more time fiddling around with a bunch of chopsticks… and then had prepared to leave. Perhaps by chance, Akane had been upstairs at the time, and her father had been in the dojo, visiting Mrs. Tendo's shrine. However, Genma had intercepted his son and demanded to know where he was going. Ranma's answer had been that he had plans to meet with Kaede this afternoon.

Kasumi was still surprised that Genma's bellow hadn't brought Akane racing down the stairs. The older man was furious, but before his bluster could really take off, Ranma had told him flatly that this wasn't up for discussion. He'd gone on to explain that he was meeting Kaede so she could teach him a new technique, one that would not only defeat a chi blast, but actually enable him to steal a few seconds of extra power from it.

Genma's face had twisted in tortured indecision then, no doubt remembering that Ryoga's Shi Shi Hokodan had actually allowed him to defeat Ranma once. The younger Saotome had waited to see what his father would say, which privately surprised Kasumi quite a bit. At last Genma acquiesced, but made it very clear that this get-together was only to be for the purpose of bettering his son's skills in the Art, and that he'd better keep any thoughts of a romantic nature fixed firmly on his real fiancée. Ranma had just snorted and left.

Soun had not taken the news well. In fact, he hadn't taken it at all; when he returned and wondered where Ranma was, Genma just said the boy had left for some training. And so both men sat in glum silence around the gaming table, one suspecting that Ranma was running around with some other girl, the other one knowing it was true.

It was now about thirty minutes after Ranma had left. Nabiki had gone upstairs shortly after his departure, and Akane had yet to stir from her room. The house was quiet, and might even have seemed peaceful to a casual observer. But Kasumi thought ahead to what would happen once Akane learned what Ranma was up to this afternoon, and couldn't help but consider the silence ominous.

Shampoo blinked in surprise, then halted her forward momentum before she could run into Cologne's outstretched staff. "Why you stop me, Great-Grandmother?"

"I just wanted to say something first." Cologne retracted her staff, setting it so the point rested against the ground. She vaulted to her favored position atop the knobby end, which gave her the height to look Shampoo in the eye. "You know that this will change things once and for all." Her great-granddaughter nodded solemnly, but said nothing in response. Cologne continued, "You must not shrink back, Shampoo. For the sake of your airen, you must do this, and you must do it correctly."

She leaned forward, clearly defying the laws of physics as her staff tilted past the ninety-degree angle without toppling over. Shampoo was putting up a good front, but Cologne had not missed the hint of doubt and reluctance that lurked behind her eyes. "You are the daughter of three thousand years of Amazon glory and honor. What you have, you have worked for with blood, tears, and sacrifice. She is a spoiled little girl who demands that those far above her treat her as their equal." The doubt was fading quickly from her great-granddaughter, Cologne noted with satisfaction. "When others say things that she doesn't wish to hear, she simply lashes out in temper. And the one who usually bears the brunt of it is your rightful husband. The man you love with all your heart, and she treats him like garbage." Fire rose behind Shampoo's ruby irises. Cologne finished, "And today she will receive a reckoning for her attitude." She hopped down from her staff.

"She will for true," Shampoo ground out. She turned, and began to move forward again, only to be stopped once more by Cologne's staff. Biting back the urge to demand "Now what?!", she turned and gave her great-grandmother an impatient querying look.

"There is a form to be followed here, Shampoo," Cologne said dryly. "Just walking right in wouldn't have been appropriate… especially if you made your own entrance. Allow me."

She walked the remaining distance to the rear gate of the Tendo compound, extended her staff, and knocked.

Akane jerked upright, coming out of her chair into a standing position, and wincing as the sudden motion tore her headphones right off her head. She'd been listening to the music at rather a high volume, but it hadn't come close to masking the trembling, thundering boom that had reverberated through the air.

The first one had brought her out of her seat. The next one that sounded sent Akane racing out of her room, only barely managing not to collide with Nabiki in the hallway, and hurrying downstairs. A quick look around identified only Kasumi, Soun, and Genma. "Where's Ranma?!" she demanded. A bit of a knee-jerk reaction, perhaps, but certainly not unreasonable to associate whatever weirdness was occurring with her pigtailed chaos-magnet of a fiancé.

Nabiki made a mental note to tease Akane later. Right now she was more concerned with the way her father and Mr. Saotome weren't even trying to hide their fear. The two men had turned to face the rear of the compound, flinching when another reverberation came, staring as if they expected all the demons of hell to suddenly come pouring through the back gate. "What's going on, Daddy?!" she demanded, choking down a bit of her own anxiety.

"Battle aura… very strong…" Soun gulped, and spoke the rest in a choked whisper. "The only time I've felt something like that was when the M-Master was truly angry at us…"

The middle Tendo let out a sigh of aggravation. At times like these, she really wished she were adopted. This abject terror her father held for Happosai was ridiculous even by Nerima standards. So what if the old lech was powerful enough to kick Soun's and Genma's butts at the same time? The duo had sealed him in a cave for ten years, and when he got out he didn't hand out any real payback. That ought to have clued his clueless disciples in that he wasn't the monster they seemed to think him.

Yet another boom resounded. After the echoes had faded, Nabiki sighed loudly. "Okay, Grandpappy Happi has come back early from his trip, he's pissed, and for some reason he's sitting outside the gate instead of coming right in like he usually does. I'm going back to my room until something that really matters happens."

"Open the gate!"

That cry brought Nabiki to a halt. "Oops," she muttered under her breath, recognizing Shampoo's high-pitched tones all too clearly, and remembering there was one other denizen of Nerima that could match Happosai strength for strength.

Once she sensed Soun and Genma moving toward her, Cologne pulled her battle aura back in. Expending so much energy just to magnify the sound of her knocking was more than a little bit wasteful, but the Matriarch had felt like being dramatic. She and Shampoo stepped back so the gates could swing wide without hitting them. Once the path was open, Shampoo strode forward, head held high, determination burning in her eyes. Cologne followed unobtrusively behind her, walking rather than bouncing along atop her staff. She had her own supporting role today, but it was time for her great-granddaughter to take the lead.

"What do you want, Shampoo?!" Akane snapped.

"Sign out front says challengers should use rear door. That why I here, that what I do." Shampoo met Akane's gaze squarely, returning a look that shone with determination and disdain. "I make challenge to the heir of the Tendo dojo."

"Why exactly are you doing this?" Nabiki asked coldly. Her Ice Queen mask was stretched nearly to the breaking point, though… she knew how strong Shampoo was, she doubted it was a coincidence that this challenge was occurring while Ranma was away, and Nabiki was quite frankly scared for her sister.

The Amazon smirked. She hadn't really doubted that someone would give her an opening, but that it had been Nabiki who played into her hands… Well, that was grounds for satisfaction. "Because is only right and proper." She fixed a stare like a laser on Akane. "Heir to Tendo Anything Goes always say she is martial artist too. She say everybody should respect her. She do whatever she want and think she get away with it. She hide behind man who is million times better than her when there is trouble, and when there is not she yell at him and call him stupid."

Akane was trembling now, her face pale with fury. Shampoo didn't let her get a word in edgewise, continuing, "Akane Tendo is disgrace to the Art. She is nothing but honorless little girl who plays with worthless style, running around and pretending and living in dream world. Today is day she get wake-up call. Is matter of duty for real martial artist like me."

"You… have no right to say that…" This was Soun, speaking now with barely-suppressed rage. "You stay away from my little girl. If you would challenge the Tendo School of Anything Goes, then you will face me!"

Her great-grandmother had warned her to expect this. Shampoo didn't even look at Soun, continuing to face Akane and smirking all the wider. "So you will hide behind father since Ranma not here. Why Shampoo not surprised?"

That was Nabiki's cue to turn and hurry toward the house. She could already tell that Soun's protest wasn't going to cut it. Time now for someone with an actual brain to try damage control.

"Don't you dare, Dad," Akane spoke only with difficulty, the words emerging half-choked with fury. "This is my fight." She turned to face the Amazon, and for the first time felt pure, unadulterated hatred as she stared at the lavender-haired girl. "I accept your challenge."

"Akane, no!" Soun yelled, switching from determined to terrified. "You mustn't!"

"The challenge was made to Akane Tendo of the Tendo school of Anything Goes, and she accepted," Cologne observed. "Soun Tendo, if you forbid it, then you prove once and for all that your school is nothing but a lie."

"Stay out of this, Dad!!" Akane roared. "I have to do this. I'm going to do this."

"Good. You go dress up in gi; Shampoo will meet you in dojo." The Amazon sneered. "And try to get temper under control by then. This going to be too, too easy even if you give all you have. Right now you so mad little kid could beat you."

Akane only barely held back from charging right then and there. Shampoo had made the challenge, so she would meet it accordingly. She turned, and strode toward the house, her battle aura scorching the grass as she went.

Shampoo stood in the center of the dojo and waited. Genma, Soun, and Kasumi sat a fair distance away, by the doorway through which Akane would enter. Soun alternated between glaring furiously at the lavender-haired girl and casting anxious glances toward the house. Genma's face was a mask of bitter stoicism. Kasumi was the most composed of the three, but even she was clearly worried.

Cologne rested against the far wall, with her eyes half-lidded and a look of distant unconcern on her face. To all appearances the Matriarch was paying almost no attention to the scene before her. Neither Soun nor Genma thought that at all likely. Interestingly enough, however, Shampoo knew that this once appearances weren't deceiving. Her great-grandmother's attention was fixed elsewhere, for reasons that were every bit as important as Shampoo's own role in this drama.

It didn't take long for Akane to appear. She was as angry as before, but her temper was running cold now. Shampoo didn't plan to let that last very long.

"I'm here," the youngest Tendo declared. "Is this the part where you say whoever loses has to give up on Ranma?"

"This have nothing to do with Ranma," Shampoo lied coldly.

"Good," said Nabiki, appearing in the doorway through which Akane had just entered. The middle Tendo hurried into the dojo, settled down next to Mr. Saotome, and flipped the lens cap off the video camera she'd fetched. "It must just be a coincidence that you waited until he wasn't here to make this challenge. I'm sure you won't mind a bit if I record your little performance and play it back for him. So he can see Akane's mistakes and help her work on them, of course." On that note, she hit the 'record' button.

Shampoo stood frozen, and though she tried to keep any hint of expression off her face, the sudden shift to a blank mask was plenty revealing in its own way. Several moments ticked by, as the Amazon furiously considered this development. At last she said, "If Akane not embarrassed to get her pathetic skills on tape, Shampoo not mind either." She produced her bonbori and assumed a ready stance. "Fight is to knock-out or submission. You ready, Akane Tendo?"

Akane nodded curtly, and assumed her own stance. Kasumi took a deep breath — since Nabiki was busy, it fell to her to give the signal. Pushing aside her worry, she announced, "Then… begin!"

Aside from both girls tensing slightly, there was no immediate response. Once it was clear that Akane wasn't going to rush in blindly, Shampoo gave another irritating smirk. "You leave first move to Shampoo? Okay, I not waste your time." She drew back… one step… another… another. And then the Amazon exploded forward, racing toward Akane with the power and fury of a freight train.

Akane barely had time to flinch, suddenly reminded of what had happened after her first defeat by Natsume and Kurumi, when she had challenged Shampoo and Ukyo at the same time. Before she could recover the Amazon was upon her, swinging one bonbori toward her head. Desperately Akane blocked, successfully deflecting the mace. Before she could even think about counterattacking, the other one swept toward her gut. Blocking this one came harder, but she managed to shove it aside and down so that it only brushed past her hip.

The combination of her poor start and her awkward defense compromised her balance, as Shampoo had intended. The Amazon was already moving, circling toward Akane's other side. She ducked and whipped one leg out in a move that knocked her opponent's legs completely out from under her. Akane fell, landing flat on her rear.

The Amazon took one step backward and several to the side, dropped her guard entirely, and gave her downed foe the haughtiest, most supercilious look of disgusted superiority she could manage. "You even more pathetic than last time, Shampoo think."

The taunt did its work — Akane saw red. She gave a kiai of fury, shot back to her feet, and surged forward, sending the hardest, fastest, strongest punch she could manage rocketing directly toward her enemy.

Since this was exactly what she had been angling for, Shampoo was nowhere near being caught by surprise. Just for a second, the mocking expression disappeared entirely as she dropped into absolute focus and called on all the speed and control she had. Rotating and stepping quickly to one side partially removed her from the path of Akane's incoming haymaker; simultaneously she brought one bonbori down, angled just perfectly that when Akane hit it her punch was deflected without any damage done to her hand.

Kasumi felt a surge of hope for Akane's chances as the force of her blow tore Shampoo's weapon right from her grasp. Then hope turned to fear as the mace rocketed through the air, apparently on a collision course with her middle sister.

Nabiki froze, unable to react quickly enough to danger actually coming her way. Beside her, Genma tensed… but it only took an instant for his trained senses to calculate that the weapon wasn't really going to hit the girl after all. No need to push himself to the effort necessary to stop it.

Only a second later he realized that, while the weapon wasn't going to hit Nabiki, her video camera was directly in its path. And by that time it was too late — the bonbori knocked the camera right out of Nabiki's grip, smashing it to uselessness. The middle Tendo stared queasily down at her empty, unscathed hands, and gulped several times.

"You best person Shampoo know at breaking stuff, Akane," the Amazon said sarcastically. She tossed away her remaining bonbori to land next to Cologne. "Here, I get rid of this so you not accidentally destroy more of own family's property."

"Shut up!!" Akane screamed, charging in again.

Shampoo wasn't there. In a move reminiscent of her first fight with Akane, the Amazon vaulted over her opponent's head, although this time she didn't whip out a bottle of memory-altering shampoo. Akane stumbled as her target vanished, then whirled around to find the Amazon was just staring at her with that damned mocking sneer.

"Would say nice try, but is too big lie even to work as sarcasm," Shampoo said. She forced more disgust into her voice. "Is this really your idea of what martial artist is?"

Akane attacked again, holding nothing back, trying desperately to get in one good hit. She'd make the Amazon pay for this, for not taking her seriously! She would! She would!

She wouldn't.

Shampoo didn't bother to get out of the way this time, merely drew on her greater speed and pushed all of Akane's blows aside. She let this continue for a couple of minutes, giving her opponent time to wear herself down, preserving her own strength by using just enough force to deflect each attack. At the end of this time she allowed herself a conspicuous yawn.

"I not Ranma, you know," she remarked conversationally, knocking away a kick. "I not let you win. I not give you nothing you not earn." She poured on a little more speed, and snaked a blow of her own through Akane's futile barrage… a slap that struck the youngest Tendo across the right cheek, just hard enough to smart. Akane flinched, recovered, and resumed the attack. After blocking a few more punches, Shampoo grabbed an incoming kick and snatched Akane right off her feet, tossing her so that she spun in midair. In the brief instant that Akane's head was level with Shampoo's torso, the Amazon slapped her twice. Again, the force of each blow was carefully measured to serve as an insult rather than an attempt to harm. Akane only just managed to control her fall; she hit the ground, and this time she didn't immediately get back up. Shampoo's expression didn't soften as she stared down at the other girl. "You earn this, Akane Tendo."

"No, I didn't," Akane returned, blinking aside tears of rage and pain. She got back to her feet. She knew now who was going to win this match, but she'd be damned if she gave up while she had any strength left. "Just shut up and fight."

Shampoo sniffed. "Again she tell someone else what to do. Just like always. Respect me! Give me what I want! Get out of my way!" She leveled a glare of contempt on her opponent. "You insult Shampoo, and many other people too, when you call self martial artist." She deflected Akane's new flurry of punches. "You think you get away with whatever you like. This where you learn you is wrong."

Desperately Akane tried to block out the words. Her breathing was harsh and labored now, partially from the emotional turmoil, but mainly from the effort she'd put forth. She was nearing the end of her reserves. With a scream of defiance, she put everything she had left into a thrust kick.

Shampoo stopped it cold.

Seeing the flash of despair cross Akane's face nearly threatened Shampoo's own resolve. She knew this wasn't fair. She was the product of three thousand years of breeding for strength and fighting prowess… Of course she was stronger than the other girl. She'd teased Akane about this before, but rubbing her face in it in a situation like this was different.

But there were other, important reasons why she was doing this. Shampoo hardened her heart and pushed out, releasing Akane's foot and forcing her to take several stumbling steps backward to avoid falling.

Cologne's eyes snapped open, and she turned her full attention to the scene immediately before her. "Enough, Great-Granddaughter. Quit playing with her."

Shampoo inclined her head, understanding the real message. Time was running out — the Matriarch had sensed Ranma's approach. Having him hear about what she was doing was one thing, but actually letting him watch her crush Akane like this would be a serious mistake. The last thing she wanted was to engage his sympathy and protective instincts toward Akane, and if he should witness the girl's humiliation first-hand there was all too good a chance that that would happen.

Her pigtailed husband would still be several blocks away, though, so Shampoo had time to finish this properly. "This is lesson to you, Akane Tendo. You is not martial artist. You is just spoiled child. Shampoo hope you learn it good and change… but I not bet on it." And with that she blasted forward, ignored Akane's feeble attempt at defense, grabbed the other girl's shoulder, half-spun her, and tagged the appropriate shiatsu point on the back of her neck.

Akane collapsed into the relative mercy of unconsciousness. Shampoo didn't let her drop to the floor, but instead carefully laid her out along it. Then she straightened back to her feet and sent a hard look toward the man who had named this girl as fit to be his school's heir. "So much for Tendo school of Anything Goes."

Soun ignored her, choosing instead to rush over to his prostrate daughter with a wail of "Akaaaannneee!" Cologne gave him one glance of disgust, then pogoed over to Shampoo's side. "Let us be on our way, Shampoo."

The lavender-haired Amazon refrained from meeting anyone else's eyes as she collected her bonbori and left the dojo, not particularly wanting to see any more stares of hatred sent her way. She would have been surprised if she had made eye-contact with Nabiki, because the middle Tendo's expression had been one of uncertainty and consideration rather than antipathy. And Kasumi was too caught up in concern for her youngest sister to pay any attention at all to the departing Amazons.

Only Genma stared darkly at the lavender-haired girl, but even that didn't qualify as hatred. There was anger and a tired bitterness present, to be sure, but mixed with that was the tiniest flicker of grudging respect… and even a little hope.

Ranma walked along, still disappointed at how the afternoon had turned out. He'd gone all the way to the inn where the Hayashibaras were staying, only to be met in the outer yard by a remorseful Kaede. When she'd agreed to this day and time for getting together, she had forgotten that the schedule clashed with her plan to attend a local tournament in which her father was competing. She had apologized to Ranma for skipping out on him, but had explained that being there to cheer her father on was very important to her.

He'd actually considered inviting himself to come along… watching serious tournaments was a good way to get ideas for new techniques. It had been a long time since he'd done that, too. Most of the tournaments that were held in Nerima were goofy things that only sort of qualified as martial arts.

But after a brief struggle, he'd just arranged the time for his rain-check with Kaede, and told her goodbye. He personally thought it was stupid and unfair that he had been getting in trouble at home for spending time working on the Art, even if it was with other girls… but stupidity and unfairness didn't keep the trouble from manifesting. He wasn't about to back down when the chance came to be taught powerful new chi techniques, but spending an entire evening with Kaede just to watch a tournament, when he'd said he'd probably only be gone for a few hours, felt like pushing things a little too far.

And so he was heading back to the Tendo homestead now, disappointed in how the afternoon had gone, and frustrated that others' expectations were keeping him from something that he'd have kind of liked to do.

"Nihao, Ranma!" The cheery cry interrupted his silent grumbling. He blinked, realizing that Shampoo had just appeared around a corner some little distance ahead of him. She gave him a wave and picked up the pace a little as she approached.

"Hey, Shampoo. You on your way back from a delivery?" Ranma asked as she reached his side.

"Something like that," the Amazon agreed. He utterly failed to notice the forced quality of her cheerfulness. "Big, important delivery." Before he could ask anything more, Shampoo's tone changed, becoming much more serious. "Airen… just want you to know something…"

"Uh, what?"

"Want to remind you, there are people who not treat you like garbage. Who not blame you for what other people do." Shampoo allowed a little bit of yearning affection to show in her eyes. "When you ready for that, when you tired of what you usually get, remember Shampoo, okay?" With that, she turned, and trotted away.

Ranma stood there and watched her go. "Okay, that was weird," he muttered under his breath once she was out of sight.

Cologne caught up with her great-granddaughter a few moments later. "You handled that nicely, Shampoo. It would have been easier for us both to avoid him, but this way you have planted the seed now, rather than waiting until later. And you did it with both sincerity and restraint. Well done."

A Soun Tendo Demon Head attack made for a pretty terrible greeting, Ranma decided later.

His immediate response, however, was to flatten backward against the wall, squeaking and gibbering in terror. He had only taken a few steps into the house when Soun came racing downstairs, his features already swelling and distorting into the worst manifestation of rage Ranma had ever seen. The Tendo patriarch roared and howled at him, and the only phrase Ranma actually managed to make out was the final, "IS THAT CLEAR, SON?!"

Relative silence fell then, broken by Soun's pants and Ranma's gasps. Just as the Saotome heir almost began to feel ready to try asking a question, the lingering look of anger faded away from Soun's features. With fresh tears welling up in his eyes, he wailed, "Akaaaannneee!" and hurried back the way he had come.

"Akane?" Ranma muttered, feeling the stirrings of a fear different from the one Mr. Tendo's technique caused. "Something happen to her?"

Before he could follow in Soun's wake, Genma appeared next to him. "I wouldn't go up there just yet, boy. You don't want to set him off again. Akane needs her peace and quiet."

"Akane… What? Pop, what happened?!"

Genma met his son's gaze, privately gladdened at seeing the worry there, but only allowing himself to show sternness. He had an opportunity here that he wasn't about to waste. "How many times, Ranma? How many times have I told you that you need to do something about all these girls who keep interfering in your engagement to Akane? Maybe now you'll listen to me."

"WHAT HAPPENED?!" Ranma yelled, grabbing his father's gi and pulling the older man toward him.

Genma tried not to sweat. He hadn't quite expected this level of response. Still, for the message he was trying to get across now, he couldn't afford to show fear. "Shampoo came by here and challenged Akane to a fight. It's all because you weren't here to protect your fiancée! She needed you, Ranma, and you weren't there for her. If you had been, Akane wouldn't be lying unconscious in her room now!"

Ranma let go. By the time Genma's feet hit the ground, he was halfway up the stairs.

Akane's door was already open. Ranma raced through, pausing at the sight of his fiancée stretched out on top of her bed, still in her gi and dead to the world. Unconsciousness had softened the expression on her face, though there was still a hint of a frown to be seen there.

He zipped over to the bed, not even realizing that he had body-checked Soun out of the way, and began checking her for injuries as best he could. No bandages, bloody or otherwise. No lumps on her head. No dislocated limbs, no sprained wrists or ankles. No visible bruises. Ranma calmed slightly, and regained enough self-possession to realize that making a more thorough investigation — which would require removing some of Akane's clothing — would be a really bad idea.

Instead, he turned to face Kasumi. The eldest Tendo daughter was standing at the foot of Akane's bed, which seemed a little odd… the position didn't really let her care for her sister very well. On the other hand, her placing had been admirably suited to comfort her father, at least until Ranma had knocked him aside. "Kasumi, how's Akane? Is she okay?! Is the doc on his way over here?!"

"Oh, no, Ranma," Kasumi reassured him. "There's no need for that. Akane's fine."

"You sure?" Ranma asked. "I mean, she's unconscious here!"

"I know, but that's just because Shampoo used that little 'tap on the back of the neck' trick. The terms of the match were unconsciousness or surrender, and, well, Akane never has been very good at backing down."

Ranma mulled that over, a nameless suspicion beginning to form. He decided he needed to get a better handle on just what had happened in this so-called 'fight'. "Kasumi, you saw the match, right?"

"That's right."

"Did Shampoo actually hit Akane? Aside from that, I mean."

"She slapped her a few times. That was all."

Surprised, Ranma turned back and examined Akane again. "She's not bruised, Kasumi. Her cheeks ain't even pink."

"They weren't very hard slaps," Kasumi clarified.

"And was there anything else? Any death threats? Any pressure point attacks? Any weird Amazon techniques that looked like something else? She didn't use the Xi Fang Gao again, did she?"

"I don't remember her using the Xi Fang Gao," Kasumi said. "She just blocked Akane's attacks, let her wear herself down, and then used the pressure point to knock her out."

"Right. I see." Ranma turned and glared at Soun. After all that build-up, the fact that Akane was just taking a Shampoo-induced nap bothered him far less than it would have if Soun or Genma had met him at the door and calmly explained what had actually happened. "Jeez, what is it with you and my old man? Making me think something terrible had happened."

"How can you say that," Soun wailed. "This is terrible! My poor little baby girl was beaten unconscious! That terrible Amazon insulted her and all but spit in her face, and then knocked her out without any mercy at all."

"Insulted?" Ranma turned back to Kasumi, as the more likely source of semi-trustworthy information.

"Yes," she confirmed. "Shampoo had some very harsh criticism for Akane. She said her skills were pathetic and that she had no right to call herself a martial artist, and that she shouldn't do it anymore until she was willing to grow up and change."

"She said all that, and she gave Akane an object lesson about how much work she needed to do, and she ended the match without hurting her? She didn't try and say whoever won this fight got to keep me or nothin', did she?" Given the Amazon's attitude when he ran into her, that seemed pretty unlikely.

"That's right," Kasumi replied.

Ranma heaved a sigh. Shampoo's words now made more sense… at least, the part about an important delivery did. 'One measly little lesson about how far Akane still has to go, and everybody falls all to pieces.' As far as he was concerned, it was actually Genma who came off looking the worst here. ' Stupid old man. This is the same stuff he's used with me! Sure he was never that harsh, but with me he'd never have needed to be.'

"So what do you plan to do about it, Ranma?"

The pigtailed boy turned at the query, to find Nabiki standing in the doorway. "Whaddaya mean, Nabiki?"

"What do you mean, what do I mean? What… do… you… plan… to… do… about… it?"

"I don't see why I gotta do anything," Ranma said with a frown.

Quickly Nabiki stepped forward, getting right in her father's face before the Demon Head could really begin to manifest. "Cut it out, Daddy!" she snapped, quietly but with absolute firmness. "Akane needs her rest, remember?" Soun's chi attack collapsed along with his outrage, as fresh tears began to gather in his eyes. Nabiki turned back to face Ranma. "You may not see why you ought to do anything, Ranma, but I can assure you," she jerked her head in the direction of her father and rolled her eyes, "there are those who are going to want some sort of action on your part."

Somehow, he didn't doubt it. "What am I supposed to do?" Ranma complained. "Get on Shampoo's case for making a challenge? You live in a dojo, for cryin' out loud! She had the right to do that!" He blinked, then asked, "Did she take the sign?"

Nabiki shook her head. "She did make the challenge specifically to Akane as the heir to the Tendo school of Anything Goes, though. Does that mean she can come back later and claim the sign?"

"Nah. Well, I mean, she'd have to make a new challenge for that, which wouldn't be much of a problem." Ranma ignored the increase in Soun's tears. "But if she didn't take it this time or say anything about it, I don't expect she's got any interest in doing that." And considering how often Cologne went on about Amazon glory and honor and tradition, he didn't really think winning a sign from a dojo with no students would be something they'd consider much of a status symbol.

"I hope you're right," Nabiki said, casting another glance Soun's way. Kasumi was at his side patting his shoulder sympathetically. "I can tell you right now, we absolutely do not need anything else piled on top of us. Things are going to be bad enough around here when Akane wakes up." She had some hope that Akane would learn a lesson from the day's events, but Nabiki was too familiar with her little sister to expect said lesson to be accepted quickly. There were going to be some rough times ahead even if Shampoo never showed her face around here again.

The sight of Ranma (who had clearly left behind any resentment he might have had about what had happened after their date), followed by praise from Cologne, had left Shampoo smiling. However, that expression didn't even last for the remainder of the walk back to the Cat Café. Cologne noted the shift in her great-granddaughter's humor, but said nothing until they had actually reached her destination. "Wait a moment, Shampoo," she said before her youngest descendent could open the door. "Follow me. I have something I'd like to show you."

Shampoo maintained a respectful, puzzled silence as she followed her great-grandmother around to the alley behind the Cat Café. Cologne gestured toward one section of wall opposite the restaurant. "Approach the wall and strike it. One clean punch, as hard and focused as you can manage."

If anything, the instructions left Shampoo more puzzled. What did the Matriarch mean by this? Slowly she moved toward the wall, considering possibilities, wondering whether this was some kind of test. As she reached her position and began to focus, a potential solution crossed her mind. She quickly bounced to the top of the wall, checking to see that the other side was clear. Satisfied, she dropped back to her prior position, focused all her strength, and shot her fist forward with a loud yell.

The blow actually did a good bit less damage than she was capable of. Even without using the Breaking Point technique, Shampoo (along with many other inhabitants of Nerima) would have had little trouble reducing much of the wall to rubble with one smashing, twisting blow. But that wasn't what her great-grandmother had requested. Her strike went cleanly through the stone leaving a hole just her fist's own size, as when a pine-needle is driven by the wind of a tornado through a telephone pole. The stone formerly occupying that area shot forth at high speed, smashing into the far wall and leaving a noticeable gouge. Shampoo withdrew her fist and turned to regard her great-grandmother, hoping for a smile of praise.

She had to settle for an inscrutable look. "What do you suppose the reason was that I asked you to do this, Shampoo?"

"Was test? If other person had been on other side, could have been hurt or killed. You want to see if I remember to think of consequences before acting?" That was something Cologne had been drilling her hard about of late.

The Matriarch smiled at her. "Actually, no, but I am very pleased nonetheless to see that you considered that."

Shampoo inclined her head modestly, then asked, "Then what was reason, Great-Grandmother?"

"An illustration. Not a perfect one, but it will serve." Cologne paused, before saying, "I just instructed you to punch a stone wall with all the strength you had. What would have happened had I done so when you were eight years old?"

The lavender-haired girl winced at the thought. "Break every bone in hand."

"Yes. It would have been a completely inappropriate task for you at that time. I would never have asked it of you." Cologne cranked up the intensity of her stare. "Although there have been plenty of times over the years when I laid other, more attainable, but still unpleasant challenges before you. Lessons that left you a stronger person, but the learning of which was hard."

Shampoo nodded, still unsure where this was going. "So you know that, eh?" Cologne asked acerbically. "Then why do I sense you moping and remorseful about what you did today?! I told you before, no matter how much it hurt Akane Tendo, it will almost surely benefit her in the long run! To shrink back from helping another with a hard lesson is most unbecoming in an Amazon, Great-Granddaughter!"

Her eyes wide now with understanding, Shampoo hastened to explain. "Is not that, Great-Grandmother. I not feel any guilt or shame for teach Akane lesson. She have it coming for long time now."

"I see." Cologne heard the sincerity in her voice, which surprised her — she'd apparently misjudged her youngest descendent completely. Additional questioning was definitely in order. "Come, let's go inside and discuss this further."

She led her great-granddaughter into the restaurant. Once the two of them were seated at a table, she spoke again. "Just what is it that troubles you?"

"Is what you remind me of, before we knock on Tendo back door. That nothing will ever be same again after this." Shampoo looked down. "Help her in long run or not, Akane never forgive this. She was never good friend, but she have help me sometimes, and I have help her. We have stood together in past. But Shampoo not think that ever happen again."

The Matriarch's eyes softened. "I understand, Shampoo. But remember, she would never have forgiven you anyway, once she lost Ranma to you."

Shampoo made a sound halfway between a snort and a sigh. "But if that what ended things, would have Ranma right here with me, to comfort me. Way things are now, I have to stay away, leave him alone for next way too long. That also does not help my mood any."

"Patience is a virtue." Cold comfort, Cologne knew. "It is necessary that you not seek Ranma out over the next few days. If he should come here, well, that's a different story. But you need to leave him alone while the Tendos and his father rage at him and demand that he do something about you."

"I know Great-Grandmother say that, but it not make sense! I not want to leave Ranma alone while stupid fathers talk poison about me! Not want to let them walk over him and yell at him and blame him for what I do! Want to be there for Ranma now, show him who really care for him, help him not have so hard time!"

"I know that, child." Cologne paused for emphasis. She hadn't explained several important details of the plan to Shampoo, but now seemed like a good time. Putting all the intensity into her tone that she could muster, she said, "But for Ranma's sake, that would be a horrible error in judgment."

Shampoo rocked backward as if struck, coming close to actually falling from her chair. "What… what you mean, Great-Grandmother?!" she croaked.

Having delivered a bold statement that came as a great shock, Cologne felt it was now time for a seemingly-irrelevant digression. It might annoy her youngest descendent, but Shampoo would probably rather be annoyed than depressed anyway. "As you know, in my younger days I traveled all over the world."

"Was very impressive sight watching pyramids be built?" Shampoo was more annoyed at the digression than Cologne had expected. The elder opted to respond with a cackle rather than a swat.

"That's a story for another day. I was going to tell you about something I encountered in the Creole swamps of Northern America. There are chefs there that cook all sorts of slimy swamp critters — snails, eels, alligators, frogs. Bullfrog's legs in particular are quite the delicacy in those parts.

"There are a number of ways to prepare them. One of these requires the whole frog be boiled… alive."

Shampoo winced and tried not to picture it. Cologne noted her reaction and smiled inscrutably. "It's not quite as bad as you're thinking, Great-Granddaughter. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will either jump out, or struggle so much that the meat is ruined anyway. No, the chefs are more subtle than that. They place a frog in a pot of cold water, and turn the heat up under it, slowly, gradually. The frog just keeps swimming, never realizes what is happening… until it is too late."

"What was point of gruesome story?" Shampoo wanted to know.

"It's quite simple." Cologne cranked her gaze back up to maximum intensity. "What we are doing is just the reverse of what those Cajun chefs do. Ranma is the frog, and his typical life is the pot of water. It has been heating for quite some time… but not quickly enough for him to realize that what is happening will ultimately destroy him.

"But things are changing now. We'll likely need to prod them again after awhile, but I promise you, Shampoo, Son-in-law will find life at the Tendos becoming too hot for him to take. It will happen relatively quickly, quickly enough that he will leave before he is broken under the strain."

"That is why you not want me to go there, to be with him right now, to help him in hard time?"

"Yes." Cologne's eyes glittered. "For all our sakes, it is time for this damnable status quo to end."

Silence fell, as Shampoo mulled over these new thoughts. She had to admit, it comforted her a little now that she could put it into perspective. It was just like a particularly hard training exercise — Ranma might endure some pain as a direct result of her actions, pain that she couldn't immediately help to ease — but it would be of the kind that makes one stronger in the end.

There was one other thing that was bothering her, though. "What about other girls, Great-Grandmother? Understand how this will finally get rid of Akane and whole rest of Tendo family. But what about new arrivals? Kaede and take-out girl? Even spatula girl Ukyo might try get back in race if she learn Ranma leave the Tendos for good!"

"Do not concern yourself with them, Shampoo. Ultimately, it will come down to one simple question… who has given the most to Ranma? Who is able to give him the most?"

"Is two questions," Shampoo pointed out.

"But only one answer." Cologne smiled back. "Your husband is a warrior, Shampoo, with all that that entails. Can you truly see him languishing his life away in a restaurant, or wasting his gift pent up in a dojo, teaching the crudest basics of the Art to half-interested youngsters?"

Shampoo shook her head violently. "Would be too, too big waste! Ranma never throw life away like that!"

"Not once he finally quits hiding his head in the sand and faces the realities before him," Cologne agreed. "Which of his admirers can walk down the paths to mastery beside him? The only one beside yourself who can match his drive and dedication is the Hayashibara girl, and she came onto the scene too late."

"You sure Kaede will not be problem?" Shampoo asked. Hesitantly, she continued, "I do not think I could give to her what Akane get. Even in one short time, she earn more of Shampoo's respect than any Japanese girl ever do."

"I agree that she is worthy of respect. Had she come earlier, she would likely have been a serious threat. But consider all that we have given to Son-in-law. Were it not for us, he would still be shorn of his strength after Happi's little trick with the Ultimate Weakness point. I am certain the boy doesn't really realize just how much of his improvement can be laid directly at our feet… but the time is coming soon for me to subtly make him aware of it."

"Great-Grandmother, you not want to put him through more training like when you teach Amaguriken!" Shampoo said emphatically. "Was something we talked about during date. Get more stressful training like that dumped on him would not make him look at Amazons with favor! Ow!"

This time, Cologne hadn't held back from the swat. "Don't teach Granny to suck eggs, Shampoo. I will offer some lesser technique that can be taught without much stress, and I will offer it to him free and clear, no strings attached, telling him that it's our way of making up to him for the increased tension he is under in the Tendo household. In fact…" her eyes narrowed, "…perhaps I will offer to teach him alongside yourself. Would you like to learn something new, Great-Granddaughter? Something that you could share with your husband?"

Shampoo clapped her hands excitedly. "Is good! Thank you, Great-Grandmother!" With every bit of her more usual bubbly good humor in evidence once again, she got up and headed outside. If she was going to be training with Ranma soon, Shampoo knew she needed every edge she could get.

"Such enthusiasm," Cologne said with a chuckle as her youngest descendent left the building. "I'm glad to see you happy, Shampoo." And she was; glad to see her great-granddaughter happy at the thought of progressing further in the Art, glad all the more that Shampoo had forgotten her remorse at the rift separating her from one of the few people here who had been something of a friend…

After musing on that for a little while, she murmured, "Perhaps it may be time for some further changes as well…"

"Shampoo, would you like to go out with me?… No, she never says yes when I ask her like that."

"Shampoo, I've got tickets to the movies. Is there anything you'd like to see?… No, wait, the last time I did that she took both the tickets and gave the other one to Ranma."

"Shampoo, how about going with me to a new restaurant I found? It'll be nice to try something different!… No, if I sound like I might be criticizing the old mummy's cooking, she'll just splash me and stuff me in that cage."

"Shampoo, you've been in such a good mood since yesterday. We should go out and celebrate!"

Mousse considered that line, looking at it from every angle. It seemed promising. This choice of words would show Shampoo that he cared enough about her to take note of her feelings, it would let her decide where they should go, and it would leave a nice opening for her to explain just why she was in such a good mood.

He'd spent most of the previous afternoon running errands for Cologne, and when he'd returned he had found Shampoo especially cheerful. Only the imminence of the dinner rush, which had ended up lasting longer than usual, had kept Mousse from asking the love of his life out on a date right then and there. He'd gone to bed hoping her good mood would last for at least one more day, and so far his luck seemed to be holding.

It was early afternoon now. Cologne and Mousse were the only two people currently in the Cat Café; dine-in customers had been sparse today, but delivery orders had come at an usually frequent pace. In fact, Shampoo had just left on another round of deliveries, packing four separate orders on her bike. Mousse hoped these would be the last, since as far as he was concerned he'd already had to wait too long to make his offer.

He heard the tap-tapping of the Matriarch's approach, and quickly resumed wiping the tabletop. It didn't really need it, but not looking busy would just be asking for trouble.

"Enough, Mousse. Let it go for now. I need to talk to you about something else."

The novelty of being told not to work by Cologne when he was on the clock nearly floored the Chinese boy. Collecting his scattered wits, he realized this was probably just the prelude to another round of errands that the old woman would 'request' he undertake for her. "Yes? What is it?" He did his very best not to sound impatient or upset, but blast it all! He didn't want any more delays while Shampoo was in such a good mood, probably secretly just waiting for him to notice and ask her about it!

Cologne regarded him through half-lidded eyes. "You have complained about something many times in the past… and I have now decided that, this once, you are correct."

Mousse blinked, a joyful grin spreading across his features. "Then you've finally realized just how wrong that scum Ranma Saotome is for my beloved Shampoo?!"

The Matriarch allowed herself one weary sigh. It sounded like the whisper of air that stirs in an ancient cavern when the mountain atop it groans and settles. "No, Mousse. A different complaint you have made." A slight edge entering into her voice, she continued, "There have been so many, I don't suppose it's any wonder you'd guess wrongly which one I meant."

The half-blind boy responded to that remark with as respectful and humble a silence as he could manage. Cologne resumed speaking. "I was referring to your opinion that running this restaurant is simply too big a burden for just the three of us."

"Y-you're going to hire more help?" Mousse uttered the words as if in a dream, a blissful dream in which several faceless Japanese (girls of course, not guys — they had no right to such proximity to his goddess) took over Shampoo's delivery duties and aided in waiting tables, leaving plenty of slack time for himself and his darling.

"Hire? Don't be ridiculous, boy." With a flick of Cologne's wrist, an envelope materialized in one hand. She extended this toward Mousse. "There are several Amazons in your generation who would benefit from traveling abroad. You are to take this back to our village, and deliver it to the Matriarch-in-training, that she might choose the ones who she thinks are most ready and send them to join us here."

Mechanically Mousse reached out to take the document. As his fingers closed about the paper, he seemed to break free of his daze. "What?! Why make me do this?! What's stopping you from sending it the usual way?!"

"Are my motivations really any concern of yours?" Cologne asked mildly. Too mildly, but Mousse was in no fit shape to stop and analyze subtle cues.

No, he was too caught up in his outrage at this development. "I won't go! You're just trying to get me out of here, so you can start shoving Shampoo even harder at that coward Ranma! And now you're even getting more Amazons here to help you force this stupid plan along! Forget it, I'm not going!!"

Silence fell. Cologne let it stretch for a bit, then, in the same casual conversational tone as before, she remarked, "Open the letter and read what it says, Mousse."

He did so, his outrage already beginning to fade in the face of the Matriarch's measured response. As it subsided, the merest trickle of cold fear began to work its way down his backbone. He pushed it aside as he focused on the wording of the missive.

Mousse skimmed past Cologne's greeting to her great-granddaughter, past the polite wishes that this letter would find the Matriarch-in-training in good health, read over the instructions that she would select several Amazons Shampoo's own age who were friendly with her and send them along with a chaperone, glanced over the list of suggested names… and then froze as he read the concluding paragraph.

"That is correct, boy." Somehow, Cologne's mild tone made it worse. "As of now, my patience is officially at an end. You came here without permission. You have continued as you did in our village, threatening those who show an interest in Shampoo. You have done your best to disrupt her lawful marriage to Ranma Saotome, and this despite the clear wishes of Shampoo herself. You have pressed your luck time and time again… and now it has run out."

The words of the letter's conclusion, in which Cologne instructed her protégé that until further notice Mousse was explicitly denied permission to leave Amazon lands, swam dizzyingly before his mind's eye. A voice he didn't really recognize as his own croaked, "You can't… can't do this…"

"Interesting words from a child of a lesser family to the Matriarch of the tribe," Cologne said evenly. She abandoned the mild tone then, and her words cracked like a whip. "Choose your response carefully now, boy, for what you say and do in this next moment reflects upon all your family!"

Mousse paled until his face nearly matched his robes. For Cologne to say that… He would risk anything, defy any odds, face any danger to himself for the sake of his future with Shampoo… but when the Matriarch involved his family, that changed things. For certain crimes in Amazon society, though the punishment might stop with the perpetrator, the shame and stigma didn't… and how convenient that an Elder had the power to judge when such a violation had occurred…

Cologne spoke again, each word driving into him now as nails in a coffin lid. "You will leave Nerima today. You will not seek out Ranma Saotome, nor Shampoo. Their affairs are their own, boy; you should have seen that for yourself a long time ago. And I will brook no more interference from you."

Just for a moment Mousse closed his eyes, picturing the damned dried-up old crone's body broken on the floor, crushed under countless weights, cut and pierced and finally out of his way. But just picturing it changed nothing, and he knew what his chances were of actually bringing about such an outcome: exactly zero. He would not shame his entire family by making so stupid a mistake.

This time, he couldn't even speak the words out loud. Cologne had to settle for a whispered, "The Matriarch's will be done."

It was with an utter lack of surprise that Ranma found himself atop the Tokyo Tower, with his surroundings tinged with the unmistakable ethereal quality that signified another dream.

He wasn't surprised, because by now he was pretty sure he'd gotten these things figured out — they were some kind of stress-relief technique he'd subconsciously come up with. After a series of stressful days, or one really bad one, he could almost be sure that he'd experience a night of escape, which would burn off enough of the strain to leave him in a better mood again the next morning.

The way the last few days had gone, tonight's dream had its work cut out for it.

Ranma figured he understood Shampoo's reasons for doing what she did, and he basically approved. The tomboy needed a wake-up call like that! If she was gonna call herself a martial artist, she really should live up to it. And even putting that aside, just look at all the times she got kidnapped! He still remembered how it had been when he finally fought his way through to Kirin, the leader of the Seven Lucky Gods martial artists. Akane had been standing there all meek and submissive, dolled-up in a wedding outfit, not putting up any fight at all. Sure he saved her bacon, but what if he'd been delayed? Heck, what if that whole mess had happened when he was off on a two-week training trip?!

He knew what Soun's answer to that would be. The Tendo patriarch had made it abundantly clear that he was now holding Ranma personally responsible for keeping his baby girl safe, twenty-four/seven. Any training trip he took had darn well better be planned for two, as far as Soun was concerned… and he didn't mean Ranma and Genma.

Speaking of which, his father wasn't being quite so obnoxious, but Genma's response was plenty annoying in its own way. The Saotome elder's point of insistence was that Ranma had to get serious about training Akane. As far as Genma was concerned, the main import of Shampoo's challenge was that it had shown just how badly Akane needed further training. And who better to guide her along the harsh path of martial righteousness than her honor-bound fiancé?

However, Akane had made it abundantly clear that she didn't agree.

Ever since she woke up, the youngest Tendo had spent most of her free time in the dojo or the yard, training. It had been with an almost physical sense of pain that Ranma had observed her doing the same old exercises as before. It wasn't a total waste of time — she was throwing much more of herself into the routines than usual, and she was spending more effort on kata than on punching and kicking stationary objects — but it was nowhere near the kind of training she needed for optimal improvement.

But when he had tried to do what Genma wanted, approaching her in the dojo and pointing this out to her, she had unceremoniously thrown him out before he could even get to an offer to help her. Akane had stared at him with a cold fury that he'd never seen in her before, and told him to his face that she didn't want him around now. That this was her affair, and she didn't need his 'damned so-called help'.

Hearing that certainly hadn't improved Ranma's mood any. When Genma blew off Akane's declaration, ordering his son to get back in there and force her to let him aid her, it only made things worse. And this evening, when Soun and Genma both cornered him and started going on again about how he needed to get rid of the Amazons once and for all, something finally snapped. For once finding a serious measure of backbone in the face of the duo's expectations, he'd yelled back that from all he'd heard so far, Shampoo had had every right to do what she did, and that they were both hypocrites if they had a problem with it.

He hadn't been aware that Akane was within earshot. Nor had he even seen the punch coming.

Which brought him to where he was now, staring up at the night sky and really looking forward to getting away.

~They're really putting you through the wringer, aren't they?~ He felt sympathy resonating through the words, with perhaps a hint of sorrow behind them. Turning, Ranma found his enigmatic companion had apparently slipped up on him unnoticed.

"No joke," he grumbled. "I am so ready to get out of here, it's not even funny."

~Glad I can help, then.~ His wings formed, and Ranma took to the air. ~Your choice, Ranma. Would you rather explore the sky or the sea?~

He'd already considered it, and had his answer ready. "Tonight I'd like to fly. I wanna feel myself getting away from here as fast as possible."

Unspoken was his desire to do this without resorting to a teleport shift, but his companion sensed it anyway. The darkness shot forward, taking the lead. As Ranma moved instinctively to follow, the other began climbing swiftly. ~Then let's GO!~

A few thousand feet later, they broke into the jet stream, at which point Ranma found himself more than satisfied with the speed of his departure. They flew in silence for a peaceful, timeless interval, at times with the earth visible far below them in drastically reduced miniature, at others riding above the topmost levels of massive cloudbanks, skimming and twisting around the fancifully-shaped cumulus peaks.

Eventually, though, a more purposeful air settled onto Ranma's companion. The other took the lead once more, and began a gradual descent. Ranma sensed a change in the quality of the dream, but didn't pay it much mind. The rush of flight had left him at peace, free for the moment of curiosity or concern.

They were over the ocean now, moving with speed enough that the waves blurred beneath them, and continuing to lose altitude. Ranma wondered vaguely whether this was about to transition into an underwater episode after all, and decided he wouldn't really mind. It was pretty difficult to tell with any precision, but this dream already seemed to have lasted as long as any of them ever did. He'd gotten in enough flying that if his companion wanted to swim again, he wouldn't object.

However, that was not the case. Up ahead there was a darker mass rising up from the water; they had come upon land once again. Ranma recognized the silhouette of Mt. Fuji, and realized they were returning to Japan. As their speed lessened and they sank lower, traveling over mountains and hills and forests, he began to feel a glimmer of dissatisfaction. Somehow, he could sense that they were heading directly toward Nerima. He might have to go back there when he woke up, but Ranma felt like this time should be spent apart from such things.

However, the lights of Tokyo were not yet upon them when the pair landed. They came to rest in the midst of a forest. Ranma glanced around, wondering just why they were here, and what would happen now… and through the trees he caught a glimpse of something strange. It had been white, but at the same time there had been a hint of darkness, some sort of darkness as noticeable as his companion, yet fundamentally different. Fundamentally repulsive.

~Go, Ranma. You need to see this.~

The words almost seemed hesitant, as if the other wasn't quite sure of the instructions. Ranma paused, and sent a querying look toward what seemed to be the general center of his personal patch of sentient shadow; when no more response was forthcoming, he turned and slipped through the trees.

A few steps brought him to the edge of a clearing. Ranma stopped on the edge of this and stared, although doing so made him feel a sick churning in his gut.

The glimpse of white was understandable now… it had been Mousse's robes. There was a bitter grimace on the Chinese boy's face, but Ranma didn't notice. His brow was wet with sweat, and his robes clung to his back, but Ranma didn't see. In fact, he barely paid enough attention to realize Mousse had a sword in either hand, or that he was striking alternating blows against a makeshift post crudely fashioned to resemble the Saotome heir.

Ranma's attention was riveted instead on the shadowy haze that seethed around Mousse, roiling and boiling and turbulent. But those qualities served only as the barest, most marginal of similarities between the sight before him and the appearance of his mysterious, faithful companion; whereas Ranma's guide was an intense blackness that seemed like a hole in the fabric of the universe, the shadows around Mousse were faint, nearly invisible, noticeable only because they seemed to radiate a repulsive feeling of wrongness.

~I'm letting you see with my vision, Ranma.~ He turned toward the voice, no longer wanting to see Mousse or his abominable aura, preferring a more comforting sort of darkness. ~I told you before, things change. All too often we can't stop it. All we can do is go forward, and cope with changes as best we can.~ The barest hint of hesitancy came through again on those words, and Ranma sensed the other's attention shift from himself to Mousse. Inexplicably, just for a moment he felt an awful tension in the air…

…Then his companion's attention turned back to himself. ~What you saw was the ugliness of his emotional state. The darkness in his heart, Ranma. The anger. The poisoned jealousy. The hatred. The will to kill.~

The world around him shifted and tumbled. Ranma sat up with a gasp.

Morning sunlight streamed through his window. He glanced around, orienting himself, then slowly sank back down onto his futon. His companion's parting whisper still echoed in his mind.

~He means to finish you this time, Ranma. Don't let your guard down… I refuse to lose you like this.~

In a quiet corner of a park in Nerima, a bonfire was burning merrily. A girl knelt beside it, staring contemplatively down into the flames, caring not a whit about the numerous city ordinances she was breaking. After a bit, Kaede's attention switched from the fire to the package of chestnuts she held in one hand. Slowly and steadily, she reached over with her free hand and tore open the packet. Another few moments of silent contemplation passed, broken at last by a muttered oath of "All or nothing", followed by a quick series of deep breaths.

Kaede tossed the chestnuts into the flames, paused for a few seconds, brought herself into utmost focus… and then gave a scream of defiance as her hands lashed out, blurring from visibility as she gathered nut after nut from the fire. She could feel the heat building against her hands, the effect only mitigated somewhat by the momentary withdrawals back into cooler air… but then, the last nut was in her grasp and she was pulling free of the flames, her hands still unsinged (except for a mild scorching on her palms from direct contact with the hot nutshells).

She knelt there, head bowed, with her eyes glittering and a fierce smile on her face. Kaede had followed Ranma's suggestion for training in this, working her way forward one chestnut at a time. After a few days of intense training, she realized something… each subsequent nut was coming more easily than the one before it. She still wasn't sure exactly how she was doing it, but she had clearly crossed whatever mysterious boundary had allowed her to use her own chi to boost her speed.

Prior to this morning, Kaede's best record had been four short of the number that had been in this package. But just now, as she had stared down into the flames, she'd found herself unwilling to pay even lip service to prudence. All the nuts had gone into the flames, and all the nuts had come out again. And their meat was the only flesh that had been cooked in the process.

"I don't believe this!" The agonized wail came from several feet off to one side, causing Kaede to jump. "Why can't I ever get where I'm going?! How could I get this lost?!"

Kaede craned her neck around, looking for the speaker. She identified him easily enough — a muscular, travel-worn boy with an umbrella and a backpack, looking up at the heavens with an expression of mingled woe, frustration, and anger. Before she could say anything, the boy continued his tirade. "I was just trying to get back to Akane! How the hell did I wind up in China?!"

Ranma's newest fiancée blinked. "Excuse me? Run that by me again. What on earth makes you think you're in China?"

Her words seemed to startle him. The boy stared at her for several seconds before pulling himself together. "Ah… isn't that where I am? The Bayankhala mountain range?" Kaede shook her head. "Aren't you an Amazon?"

"WHAT?!" Kaede screeched, shooting to her feet. "Where'd you come up with that?!"

Ryoga gestured haplessly toward the fire. "Um, well, training for the Amaguriken…?" He let the words trail off.

Kaede snorted. "Do I look Chinese to you?"

"Well, no," he admitted. Or sound Chinese either; it had been quite a surprise when she'd first replied to him in his own language. "So I'm still in Japan?" he asked hopefully.

"Yes, you're still in Japan," she confirmed, rolling her eyes. "Last time I checked, it wasn't exactly possible to walk to China from here."

"You'd be surprised," Ryoga muttered sullenly.

"So how'd you know about the Amaguriken?" Kaede asked. "Who are you, anyway?"

Ryoga began to sweat. "Ah… I'm Ryoga Hibiki." He opted not to admit that he'd learned the details from Akane shortly after the Bakusai Tenketsu training, when she told her wayward P-chan about the big things that had happened since the last time he disappeared. "And my greatest rival uses that move."

Kaede stared at him. "Your greatest rival is Shampoo? Wow, you must really believe in the equality of women."

"Not Shampoo!" Ryoga squawked. "I'm talking about Ranma! Ranma Saotome!"

At which point Kaede could no longer hold in her laughter. "Ha! Gotcha!" she said, between snickers. "That's who I figured you meant. Same thing with me, except he's my fiancé, not my rival."

"Ha, ha. Very fun—" The lost boy froze as her words registered. "Excuse me… did you say Ranma is your fiancé?!"

"Yeah, that's right."

Ryoga stood trembling for a moment, then reared his head back and yelled to the sky, "Curse you, Ranma! How many more girls do you want?! How dare you insult Akane like this?!"

"Excuse me?" his companion said sharply. "What exactly is your problem?"

"My problem?!" Ryoga repeated incredulously. "My problem is that every time I think Ranma can't sink any lower, he goes and surprises me! He's got a great fiancée like Akane, a wonderful person, someone a hundred, no, a thousand times better than he deserves… and all that scumbag can do is treat her like dirt and go chasing after other girls!"

Kaede glared at him. "For someone who's supposed to be Ranma's 'greatest rival', you sure as hell don't know much about him, do you? It's his dad's fault that there's so many girls chasing him!"

The lost boy gave a snort of utter disdain. "Yeah, sure. If he was a real man, he would've thrown you all away instead of leading you on and insulting Akane!"

"Listen, Hibiki, I think maybe you need a wake-up call. If some delicate little flower like Akane Tendo is what you want in a girl, then fine. More power to you. But a guy like Ranma shouldn't be weighted down with a ball and chain like her!"

"Excuse me?" Ryoga said, calmly and quietly. Ever so casually, he let his umbrella drop to the ground and slipped out of his backpack. "What are you trying to say about Akane, exactly?"

Kaede paused, taking a good long look at him. Despite Ryoga's calm façade, she could clearly see smoldering anger in his eyes. 'Seems like this bozo's got a crush on her. Well, well. Looks like I've got a chance to try out my new training.' If he was a rival of Ranma's, he ought to be good for a decent fight… at least, after she'd given him the proper motivation.

"I'm trying to say that as far as I can tell, she's nothing but a joke. She's supposed to be the heir to a school, for crying out loud! The level she's at now, I could've beaten her five years ago!" Kaede saw the anger rising higher in Ryoga's eyes, and responded with a mocking grin. "You think Ranma should've given everyone else the push so he could kiss up to a silly little princess like her? Do you even know the guy you said was your greatest rival?! I think you've got as much to learn as Miss Tendo does about being a real martial artist!"

Ryoga's fingers twitched, and only with some effort did he stop himself from reaching for his umbrella. He wasn't about to let this girl get away with what she'd said, but that would be going too far. Instead, he drew himself into an empty-handed ready position. "Normally I don't fight girls… but this time, I think I'll make an exception!"

Kaede rolled her eyes as he charged, sidestepping casually. "Jeez, you wearing cement shoes or something, Hibiki? I've seen turtles with a better rate of speed."

The lost boy stopped and spun around. He didn't immediately charge again, though, instead focusing an intense scrutiny on Kaede. "What, have I got something on my nose?" she asked sarcastically.

Eventually Ryoga shook his head. This sure felt familiar — him charging, his target getting out of the way and insulting him at the same time — but there was just no way this could actually be a disguised Ranma-chan. The similarities in behavior must just be due to his rival rubbing off on this girl. Which doubtless explained why she was so ready to insult Akane, and blow her off too! Not only did Ranma mistreat Akane — not to mention Ryoga himself — the jerk was even corrupting his harem to do the same thing!

Thinking about his foe's crimes brought Ryoga's fighting spirit back to a boil. He hadn't been using anything like his full speed when he first charged, preferring to spend at least a little time at the beginning of the fight feeling out this new opponent. Time to change that. "For Akane!" he yelled, and raced forward again, much more quickly.

Kaede dodged again, with no more effort than before; the increased speed was more than offset by the warning Ryoga's battle-cry had afforded her. The lost boy shot past, already skidding toward a stop. Before he could recover, Kaede took the opportunity to dart in and drive a high, hard kick into his upper back.

Ryoga stumbled forward. Kaede stumbled backward. Both recovered at about the same time. Ryoga turned back to face her, smirking a little at the gaping shock on Kaede's face. "What the hell are you made of?!" she demanded.

He didn't bother answering, reaching up instead and removing several bandanas from his forehead. She boggled again at this new twist, only barely managing to recover and dodge as Ryoga sent them hurtling her way.

Out of the corner of her eye, Kaede noticed one of the bandanas snap through a thick tree branch. Ryoga had actually thrown the missiles with a good bit less force than he was capable of; the branch had been both dead and rotten. But his opponent wasn't able to make out those details. For someone who 'normally didn't fight girls', this Ryoga sure didn't seem to be holding back from the power attacks. "Okay, tough guy, you want to play dirty?!" she snarled, whipping out her sai and tonfa. "Fine, I can do that!"

Ryoga took several steps backward. The tonfa he couldn't care less about, but he didn't think his Bakusai Tenketsu-granted toughness would protect him from a cutting edge. 'I didn't want it to go this far,' he thought unhappily. 'I can't believe this has gotten out of control so quickly. What kind of a martial artist am I?'

Kaede noted with satisfaction that her opponent's attention was fixed entirely on the sai. She wasn't quite ready to actually attack with it, but to use it as a distraction and then beat her foe silly with her tonfa seemed like an excellent plan… She blinked, suddenly recognizing the distinct sensation that was building up in the air…

"SHI SHI HOKODAN!" Ryoga released the angst he'd gathered in one powerful blast, much weaker than the Perfect form of the move, but significantly stronger than Ranma had used when he faced Kaede.

Recognition of the condensing chi had come almost too late. Only Kaede's newly-enhanced speed allowed her to drop the sai and tonfa and shoot her hands forward, employing her countertechnique. She absorbed as much of the chi as she could, leaving the rest to scatter in coruscating sparks. Before they could even begin to fade, Kaede reached down and grabbed her weapons from midair, returned the sai to its sheath, and came rocketing forward.

The recent speed-enhancing training she had undergone showed dramatically now. Not even her fiancé in female form could have matched Kaede's velocity. She closed the distance to Ryoga in the blink of an eye, and whirled around and around him, striking out with the tonfa and landing dozens and dozens of blows in the space of each second. His enhanced endurance kept him from being knocked unconscious, but by the time Kaede's boost ran out, he was stunned and reeling and badly punch-drunk, aching as if he'd body-surfed down a mountainside in an avalanche.

"Damn, that sucked," Kaede said, making a revolted face. "You actually use chi like that? You're one sick puppy, Hibiki. I feel like I just took a bath in toxic sludge or something."

"Dammit… I will not lose… like this…" Brave words, but his body didn't seem to want to cooperate. Ryoga's right knee chose that moment to give out, the effect of one of Kaede's previous shiatsu strikes finally making itself felt. There was a roaring behind his ears, the world was beginning to spin in dizzying circles, and the faintest traces of darkness were creeping in at the edges of his vision.

Ryoga didn't try to fight the sensations, embracing them instead. 'I… I'm going to lose… I've failed you, Akane… how can I even call myself a man if I can't stand up for you…' A picture of the girl of his dreams rose in his mind's eye, Akane crying, devastated, alone, with no one to protect her or care for her…

The distinct sensation of chi pooling and gathering about her foe came again, immensely stronger than before. Kaede hid her fear under a piercing glare, which Ryoga was too caught up in his misery to see. "Oh no, you don't!!" she snarled, racing forward as fast as she could and jamming a finger into his Instant Unconsciousness pressure point. The lost boy collapsed, and the gathering chi dispersed harmlessly, and Kaede sank tremblingly to the ground beside him.

She let out a long sigh of relief. Incongruously, her thoughts drifted back to something Shampoo had said, how it had always been Ranma who got the strong, determined rivals. "Damn, I guess she knew what she was talking about." Deciding that she didn't really want to be here when Ryoga awakened, Kaede got back to her feet, headed over to kick dirt into her fire, and walked briskly away.

It didn't take her too long to recover her equilibrium, though… this was hardly the first dangerous opponent she'd bested. By the time she'd made it out of the park, Kaede was mainly experiencing satisfaction at her triumph. She even found herself looking forward all the more to her upcoming meeting with Ranma in a few days, and anticipating his response when she oh-so-casually happened to mention her latest victory to him.

The afternoon sun was sinking low, its face already hidden by tall buildings, when Ranma bid Kaede goodbye. His mind was filled with thoughts of the new technique she'd shared with him. She'd gone pretty deep into theory, and the things she had talked about hadn't really meshed well with the stuff he'd recently learned from Kaori; since he was still working to master that, Ranma had decided to just commit this new bit of lore to memory and put it aside for the moment. He'd come back to it once he'd mastered the Daikoku Secure Delivery.

His teachers at Furinkan would have been envious if they could have known the effort Ranma was putting into memorizing these instructions. His preoccupation was such that he'd covered almost four blocks' distance before the nagging sense at the back of his mind managed to make itself felt.

Even as had been the case on the day he met Kaede, Ranma sensed that someone was watching him, the feeling stronger and less pleasant than had happened anytime in the recent past. He slowed down as he realized this, but didn't quite come to a complete stop. As surreptitiously as he could, the pigtailed martial artist glanced around. No sight of anyone suspicious… but then, there were so many people on the street, it was hard to see for any distance.

He sped back up to his typical walking pace. The sensation stayed with him, growing neither weaker nor stronger over the next two blocks. At the end of this time, Ranma was beginning to get rather annoyed. He changed his course, angling toward a part of town where there was generally less traffic in the lanes. The sensation faded, but didn't disappear; this plus the fact that he still couldn't detect his stalker made him suspect the other had just increased the distance between them.

After a few moments of silent debate, the Saotome heir changed his course yet again. Ten minutes of leisurely walking brought him to the edge of a park. He made his way into this, stopping once he reached a wide open area out of sight of passersby in the surrounding streets. If his pursuer had been waiting for Ranma to reach some empty place that would serve as a good battlefield, he or she ought to seize this opportunity.

Only a few minutes passed before Mousse stalked forward out of a patch of trees.

"What took you so long?" Ranma asked sardonically. "I felt you starin' down the back of my neck thirty minutes ago."

"You're right," Mousse said quietly. "I did take too long. Way too long." He pulled a long, wickedly-curved scimitar out of one sleeve and began a slow, measured advance. "I should have done this months ago."

"That's it?" Ranma snorted, eyeing the Chinese boy with disdain. "Just show up an' move in for the attack? No stupid speeches about just what I did to tick you off? No posturing about how Shampoo'll love you after this? No honorable challenge, even?"

"Like you're worth it," Mousse rasped. He was twenty feet away now.

Ranma's eyes narrowed, then his hands snapped forward. "MOKO TAKABISHA!"

Mousse was caught totally flat-footed. The chi ball smacked into him and knocked him to the ground. Ranma had deliberately thrown a particularly weak blast, though, so it didn't do much more than that. He didn't even lose his grip on the sword.

Ranma stared coldly at his opponent as the other got back to his feet. "This is it, Mousse," he promised. "I have had it up to here with your crap. You put away that goddamn sword and walk away now, or I tell the old ghoul that I'll take Shampoo on five dates, her choice, anywhere she wants to go… after they send you back home for good."

In response to this, Mousse simply laughed bitterly. "Too late," he choked out, and then raced forward, sword coming up for a smashing overhead blow.

Ranma tensed, not fooled for a moment by the act. At first glance, this appeared to be almost the direct opposite of Mousse's usual style of tricks and misdirection. But his battle-honed senses hadn't missed the fact that his foe's other hand was concealed within one long sleeve. And so he wasn't surprised at all when Mousse released the sword when he was still eight feet away from Ranma, in a clumsy throw that the pigtailed boy didn't even need to dodge. However, Ranma was already moving, coming forward and circling to one side in order to take himself out of alignment with the weapon Mousse had just pulled out with his other hand…

The Saotome heir only had time for one blink of incomprehension before Mousse depressed the button on the miniature boom-box. And then, as the air was filled with the yowls and screeches of angry cats, he didn't have time for anything but mindless panic.

The terrible noise ended as quickly as it had begun. Ranma's recovery, however, was nowhere near so instantaneous. He pushed his way through a thick fog of disorientation, struggling to refocus on his surroundings. It was only with a serious effort that he even managed to force his eyes open again.

Everything seemed much taller, somehow. Mousse was only a few feet away, looming over him like a giant, staring down with a horrible mixture of triumph, hatred, and anticipation. The sight sent a thrill of fear rushing through him… but where instinct should have sent him leaping backward, he failed to do more than slightly tense his muscles.

Simply shifting his head enough to glance down and realize that he was on his knees took an inordinate amount of effort. At the same time, he realized that he couldn't feel them, nor any other part of his body. With another tremendous effort, he forced his head up again, just in time to see Mousse slip one hand into the interior of his robe.

"Step one was paralysis powder, if you're wondering," Mousse said conversationally, idly toying with something still concealed within his sleeve. "Pretty impressive that you managed to land on your knees and keep your balance like that. I think it actually suits you pretty well, Saotome. Are you ready for step two?" He paused to relish the moment, then whipped out the water pistol and pulled the trigger.

"This would be a lot easier if you had a real curse, you know. Nobody'd even blink if a duck with a broken neck turned up in a ditch." Rage seethed audibly through that last sentence. Mousse forced himself to calm down, turning a thin smile on Ranma-chan as he spoke again. "But I did think of a way around that. I should even thank you, for never telling that psycho gymnast who the redhead she hates really is." He produced one last item from the interior of his robes. Ranma-chan's eyes widened at the sight of the gymnastics ribbon, the full impact of Mousse's words and intent finally hitting her. "Step three pays for all. Goodbye and good riddance, Saotome!"

Mousse stepped forward, the ribbon pulled tight between his hands. He had no real familiarity with the weapon, certainly not enough to choke Ranma-chan from a distance, but with his hated foe safely paralyzed, what difference did it make?

At least from Mousse's perspective, it was a pity that the half-blind boy had forgotten how dangerous and inventive Ranma could be when pushed into a corner. It was an even greater pity that he didn't — couldn't — know about the lessons in chi control that the Saotome heir had learned from Kaori recently.

Ranma-chan focused, desperately calling on her chi, remembering that it was an extension of her life force and a part of every bit of her — not simply something that had to be channeled through her hands. She called upon everything she had… all her anger and fear and desperation and will to survive, summoning power, imagining the energy building within her and then blossoming outward…

Mousse caught only the barest glimpse of a glow before the chi bloomed forth from Ranma-chan's torso, expanding outward away from her in a barely-controlled hemispherical blast. The energy slammed into him, lifted him clear off his feet, and sent him flying like a rag doll. He crashed unmoving to the ground.

Meanwhile, Ranma-chan was struggling to retain consciousness. She'd known she was putting a lot into that desperately-improvised attack, and now, with blackness hovering at the edges of her vision, she was paying the toll. Desperately she clung to awareness, staring at Mousse's downed form. He seemed no closer to recovery by the time she finally lost the battle, which left her with a little bit of hope to cling to as she slipped into the silent depths.

An uncertain time later, Ranma-chan opened her eyes again. Shadows were lying thick across the ground, but the sight of the sky above made it clear that night hadn't fully fallen yet. Slowly and carefully, she got back to her feet. She consulted the watch she was carrying in one pocket, realizing with quite a lot of surprise that less than twenty minutes had passed since she fell unconscious. She still felt weak from the chi drain, but she couldn't detect any remaining stiffness from the paralysis powder.

Mousse didn't seem to be recovering nearly as quickly. At least, he was still lying where he had fallen. Ranma-chan cautiously approached, confirming that he was still breathing, and that he didn't seem critically injured. She hesitated for a moment, wondering whether she should tie him up, then decided not to bother. Quickly, and with anger smoldering hot within her, Ranma-chan left the park.

She stopped at the first phone booth she saw, and placed a call to the Cat Café.

Five hours ago, he'd done quite a good job of pushing everything to the back of his mind after the confrontation with Mousse. None of the Tendos had even noticed anything different in his manner. But here and now, things were different.

The wind was cold around him. The roar of the ocean was harsh and cacophonous, painful to hear. He knelt in much the same position as he had those hours ago, except that this time his head was downcast, his eyes were shut tightly, and his fists were clenched. Ranma was too far back for any of the ocean's spray to reach him, but saltwater glistened on his face anyway.

On finding himself here, the first realization had been pleasure, as he realized that he was dreaming. The second had been surprise — this one was starting out in a completely different area. Rather than some part of Tokyo, he stood on some unfamiliar seashore, where waves broke against a rocky coast. Those realizations had only taken a split second… and then, like a swiftly-rising tide, Ranma had felt something dark welling up within him. The barriers he'd erected after Mousse's latest gambit, the walls that held back his reactions, had crumbled in an instant, leaving him on his knees, trembling with the repressed pain and rage and terror.

~Don't hold it back.~

He wasn't. He couldn't. Ranma didn't even acknowledge the voice, just knelt there and shook with the force of his grief.

Even though he hadn't really heard the communication, though, something changed with the words. Several more subjective minutes passed before he was able to recognize it… but the dark emotions were seeping out of him, disappearing much more swiftly and completely than should be possible, as if they were being forcibly condensed and carried away in his tears.

Eventually, the last traces of hurt were gone. Ranma drew a shuddering breath and opened his eyes. It was with no surprise that he saw the familiar dark cloud not far off, hovering where the water met the sand.

~Are you feeling better now?~

"I…" He paused, considering. "I feel empty." The slightest of smiles appeared on his face. "That's a lot better than I was feeling."

~But it's not a good place to stop.~ A clear sense of beckoning emanated forth from the other. ~Like I said before, it's your choice whether we swim or fly. Whichever one appeals more to you.~

Ranma barely managed to swallow his initial response, which would have been "You sure about that?" He had no intention of throwing this opportunity away with a careless question. Instead, he said, "Huh. You know, it occurs to me that you might have kind of a preference. Seein' as how we're here at the seashore."

~There was a reason I brought you here,~ his companion confirmed, ~but that's not it. I mean it, Ranma. Your choice entirely.~

Sincerity had resonated through those words. Ranma found himself convinced, although it didn't actually matter. "Well, I think I'd rather swim tonight anyway."

What followed seemed to stretch much longer than any dream he could remember. Had he been in the mood for analysis and careful deduction, Ranma might have speculated that this was directly proportional to the stress he'd endured in the preceding day. However, such concerns were the last thing on his mind.

He lost himself in the sheer enjoyment and wonder of the experience, exploring coral reefs (glad that the general lack of light didn't keep him from clearly seeing the vivid colors), following a pod of dolphins for awhile and grinning at their playful antics, and just generally reveling in an environment so new and different from the everyday norm of his life.

Eventually, there came a point when Ranma was content to just hang motionless deep in the water, closing his eyes and feeling the slow, steady, muted pulse of the waves far above him. In the midst of the calmness, he remembered something overlooked. "Thank you."

~For what, exactly?~

He was in too good a mood to be annoyed, even at the reminder that it was only himself who couldn't ask questions. "For the warning about Mousse."

~It shouldn't have been necessary.~

Ranma's eyes shot open. He had heard real pain in that sentence, and anger… the first time he'd ever sensed such emotions from his companion. He opened his mouth, but before he could ask "What do you mean?" the other was pulling away, diving swiftly. ~Follow me, Ranma.~

He did so, moving through the water now with a speed that he knew could never be matched in the waking world. Ranma headed ever deeper, following on the heels (so to speak) of the billowing shadow.

~That's far enough.~ They were very deep now, in waters where no light had shone in mortal memory. Ranma could still see his companion, though; the other stood out just as clearly in this deeper (but still mundane) darkness as against a common night sky. Two long tendrils extended from the main cloud, arcing and joining into a sort of frame. ~Look closely.~

Within the frame images were forming, coalescing into a nighttime view of an empty alleyway. Just as Ranma began wondering what the point of this could possibly be, a girl entered into the view. She was dressed nicely, in clothes fit for a nightclub or perhaps a particularly high-quality karaoke bar. The nervous expression on her face, however, didn't seem quite so attractive. She was clearly not at her ease moving through this locale. This was perfectly understandable, though… the way she moved made it clear to Ranma that this was no fighter.

He watched as she continued down the alley. The scene moved to keep track of her, showing her hesitancy and growing anxiety as she came upon an intersection with another narrow little street. The girl stood shifting her weight from one foot to the next, peering down the different paths available. It was clear that she was lost and trying not to admit it to herself, and equally clear that she didn't like the looks of any of the choices available to her. Eventually she picked a path and hurried down it; this time, the scene held static as the girl passed from view. A few moments later, and with a sense of inevitability, two figures came up from one of the paths she hadn't taken and hurried down the one she had.

"I don't want to see this," Ranma whispered, his good mood vanished like dew under the scorching noonday sun.

~Don't you?~

The scene jumped, centering around the girl again, terrified, her back against a wall, not even able to plead. She just shook her head in mute denial. The thugs weren't bothering to hurry now, just casually closing the distance toward her with identical grins on their faces.

Behind them, the dimness of the alley suddenly darkened further.

Strands of a familiar absolute blackness whipped forth, curling around the would-be predators' arms and legs above and below the elbow and knee, and then flexing. Said limbs flexed along with them, bending in ways for which they definitely were not intended. After one look at the expressions on the faces of the hunters-turned-prey, Ranma decided he was just as this vision didn't include sound. No need to actually listen to the screams that might have ruptured his eardrums.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this new development only heightened the girl's terror. She didn't have long to suffer, though… the scene gave a twisting lurch, and when it reformed, she was standing in a much nicer neighborhood, within sight of a brightly-lit apartment complex. No sign remained of either the thugs who had threatened her or the one who had dealt with them. She gaped, staring every which way, trying to recover her equilibrium. And then, pulling herself together, the nameless girl raced ahead into the lobby.

The visions faded, and the 'screen' dispersed. "What—" Ranma stopped himself. "I don't understand what that has to do with Mousse."

~I know, Ranma. But you will. For now, just remember what you saw… and remember also that things aren't always as bad as they seem.~

The next day had passed uneventfully, for which Ranma was grateful.

It was evening now. He lay on his back on the Tendo rooftop, feeling the breeze gust past him. The Saotome heir stared up into the sky, idly trying to pinpoint the emergence of the first star of night. There yet remained some fading red hues above him, but they had mostly been replaced by purples shading toward true darkness. Were it not for the lights of the surrounding city, he probably would already have been able to make out a few early stars.

He wasn't really focusing too much attention on this endeavor, though. For the most part, he was content to lie here and let his dinner digest, enjoying the peace and quiet and momentary freedom from jealous rivals coming within a hairsbreadth of actually killing him. Ranma leaned back with his head in his hands, savoring this moment of tranquility, and trying to ignore the fact that he could clearly feel someone watching him.

Ten minutes passed, and then ten more. True dusk had fallen when she made her move.

The first flicker of motion sent him rising smoothly toward his feet. Despite the speed of his reaction, though, she was on the rooftop with him before Ranma was really prepared — clearing the wall with one blurring jump, bouncing into a tree with her second, and landing about five feet away from him just as he finished standing up. She paused there, staring intently toward him in the dimness.

"Hey, Shampoo," Ranma said, relaxing a little. "Didn't expect to see you around here anytime soon."

The Amazon didn't say anything or move closer, just stood there regarding him, her eyes seeming oddly bright in the general lack of light. "You okay?" Ranma asked.

She shook her head. "No. Am not." Shampoo gulped. "But came here to ask you that, Airen, not have you ask me. Please tell Shampoo you is all right."

"Yeah, I'm fine." Ranma hesitated before asking awkwardly, "What's wrong with you?"

"What is wrong?!" Shampoo kept her voice down, so as not to alert anyone in the house below, but the intensity came through clearly. "What you think, Ranma?! Mousse try to kill you yesterday!"

"Ain't the first time," he pointed out.

"But is first time he come so close."

Ranma nodded his head, silently acknowledging the point. "Yeah, I guess. So how'd you know that anyway? I didn't exactly go into a lotta detail on the phone."

"Great-Grandmother…" Shampoo paused. "She get details from Mousse. Use variation on Xi Fang Gao, make him forget to do anything but answer questions full and true when someone ask." The Amazon shook her head as if trying to dislodge the memories. It had been one of the worst evenings she'd ever spent in Nerima, placing only a very close second to the night when she'd first witnessed Ranma's Jusenkyo transformation.

She'd sat there in silence, feeling colder and colder as Mousse's emotionless voice described his actions. How he had departed Japan on a ship bound for China, waited until he was certain the Matriarch was convinced that he was indeed obeying her orders, then triggered his curse and flown back to the mainland. How he had hidden far enough from Nerima to avoid detection, practicing, planning, eventually settling on his course of action. How he had used Ranma's ailurophobia to provide himself one perfect opening. How he had intended to finish her beloved in such a way that no suspicion would ever fall upon himself.

"I'm kinda surprised she was so gentle when she questioned him," Ranma said quietly. "She really sounded unhappy when I told her just why I was calling." This last was a serious understatement. As soon as Ranma-chan had mentioned Mousse's name, the Matriarch's tone had dipped into sub-arctic temperatures, becoming a mixture of dire fury only just contained within a layer of iron-hard ice. Ranma-chan had intended to use the phone call as an opportunity to ask the Matriarch to send Mousse away for good, but Cologne's response had driven those thoughts right from the redhead's mind. She had quickly given the bare details of where to find Mousse, confirmed that she'd left him there unconscious after a fight, and hung up. Even now, a day later, the memory of the ancient Amazon's voice sent a chill down his backbone.

"She save that for afterward," Shampoo whispered. She sat down, half-turning to face the general direction of the Chinese mainland. "You should know, Airen, she had already tell him to leave. Had sent him back to village, to get better help here. Told him he could no longer stay around and try to interfere with you and me."

Ranma blinked. 'So that's what he meant…' He sat down as well, still facing Shampoo. "So… What'd she do after she learned what really happened?" He was more than half-afraid to hear, but if there was any chance Mousse might be free to plan another attempt, he wanted to know now.

Shampoo didn't answer, just drew her knees up toward her chest. She closed her eyes and rested her chin on them. "Shampoo?" Ranma asked, a little louder, a little more hesitantly. "What did she do to Mousse?"

The Amazon drew a deep breath, and replied, "She break him."

Ranma's throat and mouth were suddenly too dry for him to say anything. In any case, Shampoo didn't let the silence stretch long before continuing. "Use Ultimate Weakness attack she say old pervert Happosai once use on you, Airen. For rest of life he no can even pick up most of usual weapons. That was start.

"Next step was Xi Fang Gao. Not weak harmless little thing like I do to Akane, either. She take all his knowledge of fighting, all his techniques, all ability to focus chi, even basic will to fight and instinct for defend self, she seal these for good and for all. Mousse will never be able to learn any part of the path of the warrior ever again. Until end of his days he will be more harmless than too, too nice girl Kasumi.

"Then she trigger his curse, put him in cage, and mail him back to village. Send letter too, so Matriarch-in-training knows just what happen."

"Goddamn," Ranma whispered hollowly. "That's… that's…"

"Is what?" Shampoo's head came up with a start, and she whirled to face him. "Is too harsh?! Too big punishment?!"

"Seems like it," he muttered, looking away and fighting a feeling of guilt. He'd wanted Mousse out of his hair for good… Well, he'd gotten that, all right.

Shampoo whipped her head from side to side in violent negation. "No, Ranma. Is not too big! What would you do, if you had enemy that was too good for you to beat? Would even think about walking up behind him in street and shoot him in back?"

"Of course not!"

"How that any different from what Mousse do? With his eyesight, might have been exactly same thing happen. He point gun, he pull trigger, he miss, you turn and take him down. Same result that way as now; you here, unhurt, but could have been killed. By man who throw away all honor, who spit in face of Law and of Matriarch's decision too — because it not what he want!"

The anger and pain were rising in Shampoo's tone, though she remained enough self-possession to keep her volume down. "He never, ever care about anything else than that, than what he want! For sure not Shampoo, who he say he love. Not what best for me. Not what I want. Not who I love. He betray everything to do this, and that include Shampoo too." Her anger collapsed then, and she whispered, "So sorry, Airen. Shampoo so sorry."

"Sorry for what?" She didn't quite seem to be on the verge of tears, which was a little reassuring. However, the Saotome heir was still plenty confused by Shampoo's sudden change of tone.

"Why you think Mousse stay here so long? Why Great-Grandmother not send him away long time ago?" Shampoo hung her head. "She ask me, not long after he come back second time and want to stay. She want to know what Shampoo think. She say, would be convenient to have him help in restaurant, and he would serve as different kind of challenge for Ranma than most of others, would be good to help you grow as warrior. But he also keep trying to interfere with you and me, try for something he had no right to. Choice was left up to Shampoo, Great-Grandmother say."

"So why did you let him stay?"

A long moment of silence. "Was lonely," Shampoo whispered. "Mousse stupid and annoying sometimes. But he was also friend from when Shampoo was small, and was familiar piece of home in unfamiliar land. Never cared for him as more than friend, but Shampoo did have that kind of care for him, and was glad sometimes to have him around. And so because of that we let him stay and throw everything away, destroy own life and almost destroy you too."

Ranma winced, understanding a little better now, and sympathizing with the pain in her voice. Deliberately he pushed aside thoughts of lost friends, and concentrated on his response. He ought to be able to make Shampoo feel better at least, hopefully without resorting to offering a date. He didn't even want to think about how well that would go over with the Tendos right now.

Eventually he said, "And what if you'd told him right away to go? What if that'd just made him try something like this right then and there? Mousse has been here for a long time now, and you know what? He ain't gotten nearly as much better during that time as I have. If he'd tried some desperation sneak attack back then, when there wasn't such a big gap between him and me, he mighta pulled it off. How'd you be feeling then?"

Shampoo just flinched at the mental picture. Ranma pressed his advantage. "It's just plain stupid to think about stuff like this, and beat yourself up over what you did or didn't do. You don't know things wouldn't'a been a hundred times worse if you'd done things different with Mousse. It's just a waste of time to look behind you like that."

Silence fell again, as thoughtfulness replaced some of his companion's sorrow. That other emotion was still there, though, when she said, "Is that really what Ranma believe?"

"Yeah. Doesn't it make sense to you? What kinda martial artist spends all his time looking behind him… er, her?"

"Would be fool to spend all time like that," Shampoo agreed quietly. "But not to do at all? Seems to Shampoo that that would make someone who keep on repeating past mistakes."

Ranma fidgeted, quickly growing uncomfortable under the intensity of Shampoo's regard. "Just what is that supposed to mean?"

Deliberately, the lavender-haired girl looked away from him, turning her gaze downward to rest on the Tendo homestead beneath her. "Never mind, Airen." She got to her feet, and he followed suit. Resisting the sudden urge to try for a hug, she turned and headed toward the edge of the rooftop.

On reaching this she paused, and called back over her shoulder, "Just want you to remember… there nobody now at Cat Café who would not welcome you, to see you there."

"You sure took your time." Nabiki gave her houseguest a critical stare. It was late afternoon now, and it had been early afternoon when Kasumi had sent him off to the market with a list of purchases that shouldn't have taken more than an hour to acquire.

Ranma barely acknowledged her words, just giving a vague grunt, not even pausing in his stride. Nabiki's critical stare changed to a searching, penetrating gaze. He was walking slowly, but not moving as if he'd been hurt. The look on his face made it clear that there was something big on his mind. Well, if he'd gotten himself trapped into yet another date, she didn't want to hear about it just now. One problem at a time.

Before he could leave the room, she strode briskly over and stopped in front of him. "Kasumi waited for those groceries this long," she said, indicating the bags he was carrying, "she can wait a little more. I need to talk to you now."

"I don't wanna talk, okay, Nabiki?" Ranma stepped to one side. The middle Tendo moved in concert, continuing to block his path. "Look, sorry I took so long. I was just thinking about stuff, not off bein' a pervert or whatever stupid thing Akane would say!"

Nabiki snorted. "As if the number of opportunities you've passed up didn't prove that already. I don't care what took you so long, Ranma. I'm more concerned about what happened while you were gone."

The serious nature of her tone got through to Ranma. He heaved one tired sigh, then asked, "What're you talking about?"

"In another impressive display of timing, Miss Kaori Daikoku came by with a proposal while you were gone. She was kind," Nabiki's voice twisted as she spoke the word, "enough to offer Daddy quite a large sum of money to officially release your engagement."

Ranma blinked, for the moment feeling only surprise that someone actually tried something so rational. "And…?"

"And he turned her down, of course," Nabiki said in a tone as dry as the desert sands. "Explained that the engagement was a matter of honor."

"And…?" Ranma repeated with a growl. He'd been in no mood to begin with to have anything else dumped on him, and his patience was wearing thin indeed.

"And that was when she said that he had no right to talk about honor, with the horrible way you're being treated here. She didn't hold back on saying just what she thought of him, and Akane, and all the Tendos even unto the fourth generation." The sharp, cold gleam in Nabiki's eyes belied her flippant tone. "Daddy is rather unhappy about this little encounter. Do you remember what I told you last week, Saotome? About how this family didn't need any more trouble piled on top of Shampoo's little lesson?"

He nodded, wincing as the reminder sparked another, particularly unpleasant connection. "What about Akane? How'd she take this?" He almost hesitated to ask the question.

"The one bright spot. She's still out in the dojo, venting her frustrations. She didn't know you left and she doesn't know Kaori came over. And I think it had better stay that way."

"No joke," Ranma muttered.

"So, even though this could have been worse, we sure didn't need it in the first place." Nabiki paused and looked expectantly at him.

He resisted the urge to shrug, since he was still carrying several bags of groceries. "Okay, fine. What's that got to do with me?"

"Take a line through Daddy's response to Shampoo's latest escapade," Nabiki snapped.

Ranma nodded his head wisely. "I got ya. It's time to add one more girl to the list of people Ranma's supposed to tell to get the hell outta town. Is that right?" Before Nabiki could respond, he glared and said, "Take a line through Shampoo yourself. I ain't telling anybody what they have to do. Number one, like it'd do any good, or accomplish anything beside gettin' me in more trouble. Number two, I get enough of that myself; if I hate it, why should I spread it around to other people?"

He zipped around Nabiki at a pace she couldn't even dream of matching, and strode toward the kitchen. "You got a problem with Kaori? You deal with it."

It had been a good exit line, but when Ranma reached the kitchen and presented the groceries to Kasumi, he found his resolve beginning to weaken. The eldest Tendo daughter thanked him politely, but her usual smile was absent and she seemed rather low-spirited. Ranma silently resolved to speak to Kaori during their next study session. He needed to clue her in that there was definitely one Tendo who hadn't deserved any of the hard words she'd had for the family.

He helped Kasumi put away the groceries that she wouldn't be using to prepare dinner, then gathered the bags and deposited them in the trash. Before walking away, though, he hesitated, then plucked a crumpled sheet of newspaper out of one of the bags. He carried it with him as he went back outside and leapt to the top of the roof. However, no sooner had he set it down and spread it out than a sudden gust of wind caught the paper and sent it sailing away.

For a moment Ranma tensed, hesitating on the verge of pursuing the paper… but then he let it go, sinking down to a more comfortable position on the rooftop. He'd already all but memorized the important details from the sheet anyway.

'Had I already seen it?' The newspaper had been almost two weeks old. No reason to think that he hadn't caught a glimpse of the thing before today, possibly even on the day it had been published. Just because he didn't remember it didn't prove anything. It had been a really hectic two weeks, after all, and little things like that he probably wouldn't remember. At least not consciously.

Ranma mused on this for quite a while, but reached no definite conclusion… except that he certainly wouldn't be forgetting the newspaper again anytime soon. Or rather, he wouldn't be forgetting one story that had appeared on it.

The report had only merited a few lines. They hadn't included anything nearly as strange as Nerima was capable of when it really got down to business. Just a brief mention of possible vigilante action, as exemplified by two known criminals turning up outside a police station with each limb broken in two places.

Ranma looked down, nodding slightly. This was more what he would have expected — the dream was beginning as they usually did. He was in familiar territory, standing on the observation deck of the Tokyo Tower. The city was spread out before him, although no light shone there. Usually that didn't happen until at least a little time had passed.

Perhaps that was what was causing this nagging sense of discomfiture, Ranma mused. Something seemed off, but he couldn't place his finger on it. Was it the absence of light below him? Was there something he had forgotten? Perhaps it was just that he could sense the earth's pull was now dramatically weaker. It was still there, too far removed to reach him though still detectable if he concentrated… but Ranma suspected that if he left the Tower and returned to terra firma, tonight he would be able to jump at nearly his normal height.

Not that he had any intention of doing that, of course.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ranma noted a singular point of darker night form in the air off to one side, then billow outward into the typical form of his companion. He turned to face the other, dismissing the faint feeling of oddness. "Yo. Nice to see you."

~You too, Ranma.~ A sense of hesitancy came along with the words; after a pause, his companion continued. ~When I brought you to the seaside, you thought it was because I wanted us to swim. That wasn't true then, but tonight I would like for us to fly. Do you mind?~

"Nah, no problem," Ranma said magnanimously. The wings formed around him, and he took flight. "That was actually what I wanted to do too."

~I'm glad.~

Nothing more was said for quite some time. Eventually, though, a faint frown creased Ranma's brow. The sense of something discordant was still with him, not growing any stronger, but the persistence of the irritation was becoming harder to ignore. Remembering that this had happened once before, after his fight with Tatewaki, Ranma heaved a mental sigh. Apparently there was some pain or something he had to face lurking in the back of his mind again. He braced himself and reached toward it.

However, to his surprise, there was nothing there to be found. He tried again, concentrating harder, deliberately thinking back over everything that had occurred since his last dream. There hadn't been anything particularly big… had there…?

~Ranma.~ The word from his companion drew his thoughts back from such contemplation. ~Have you considered what I showed you, the last time we were together? Do you have any idea what it might have had to do with Mousse? Why I said my warning shouldn't have been necessary?~

"Not a clue," the Saotome heir replied, his attention already turning back inward. The nagging feeling was suddenly much stronger and clearer… he was almost sure of it, there was something he had forgotten…

~Next question. You saw what almost happened, what would have happened in that alley. Who was at fault, Ranma? Who was to blame?~

He barely paid the query any mind, concentrating instead on unraveling his private puzzle. "Those muggers, of course," he answered absently.

~Last question.~ Intensity spiked through the next words, intensity enough to snap Ranma fully out of his distraction. ~What did that foolish girl think would happen to her, when she chose to walk alone through Tokyo back alleys at night?~

"Hey!" Ranma protested, the words coming as an instinctive reaction rather than a considered response. "Are you sayin' she would've deserved what she almost got? Huh?!" Only an instant later, an instant too late, did he realize what he'd just done.

~Questions again, Ranma?~ The thought carried an unmistakable tone of reproof. He flinched, cursing mentally, and braced himself for the shock of awakening. However, the distant stars remained above him, softly highlighting the deeper darkness of the sky; the rushing wind maintained its caress. ~This time, I'll let it slide. This is too important to leave until another day.~

~Of course she didn't deserve what would have happened. But that doesn't change the fact that she made a foolish choice.~

Silence fell, a thick, intense silence that Ranma felt unwilling to break. He turned his companion's words over in his mind, wonder just what conclusion he was supposed to draw. Maybe the girl had made a stupid choice. That sure as heck didn't take any blame off the guys who would've hurt her, but maybe it did put some on her shoulders too. He still didn't see what that had to do with Mousse.

Without warning, his companion broke into a steep dive. After a moment of surprise, Ranma followed suit. They were over a forest now, stooping toward a break in the trees. As Ranma descended past the treetops, he caught the faint gleam of starlight on water ahead.

A small pond was waiting for him. He landed at the water's edge, noting that his companion was hovering several yards farther along the little shore, one tendril of darkness extending into the water. ~Look closely, Ranma~ A faint note of irony entered the other's words. ~Perhaps you will find enlightenment.~

Obediently, wondering where this was going, he leaned forward and regarded the surface of the water. The stars were visible there just for the briefest of seconds… and then the waters shifted, becoming a larger version of the screen he'd viewed several nights before.

Images danced across the viewing surface. A panda slammed a sign into a red-haired girl, knocking her unconscious, then picked her up and carried her toward his desired destination. Three sisters stared in shock at the girl-turned-boy, then the two older girls pushed their younger sibling forward as a sacrifice to allow their own escape. That youngest girl, now with an angry scowl on her face, brought a table crashing down on her unwanted fiancé.

The visions cascaded, faster and faster. Ranma fought a sickening sensation of vertigo, wanting to look away, just wanting to put all this annoyance and frustration and pain behind him where it belonged. Akane scowling as he backed away from an offered plate of 'home cooking'. Ukyo with a look of mild sympathy and cheerful interest, dumping alternating hot and cold water over him. Shampoo chasing her redheaded quarry through the wilds of China. Kaede clashing with the Amazon over just who had the right to him. Mousse striking at him with twin blades protruding from his sleeves. Nabiki selling risqué photos to Kuno of his 'pigtailed goddess'. Cologne bouncing her around the Cat Café when she made her first try for the Phoenix Pill. Ryoga's Shi Shi Hokodan blast plowing into him for the first time. Soun and Genma splashing him, tearing half her clothes off, then pushing her through a doorway to cheer up a weakened, disheartened Happosai.

He closed his eyes, but it didn't stop the flood. Ukyo held her hand out, demanding payment for his okonomiyaki as tears fell to the floor beneath her. Shampoo popped a love potion pill into his unguarded mouth. Kaori choked her with a Ramen Round-up Noodle Noose. The Tendos formed a more-or-less united front, demanding he pretend to already be married to Akane so that Ukyo would go back to her restaurant. Sasuke handed him a string of fish sausages, just as he began to notice the yowls arising from the surrounding dimness. She tackled Akane out of the way of Kurumi's incoming attack, only to be yelled at for the save. Ryoga charged him with one outstretched finger, neither of them truly understanding the Bakusai Tenketsu yet. Mousse stalked toward her, ribbon stretched tight between his hands. Prince Toma blasted him with illusory, but still painful fire. Kirin threw her unceremoniously off his ship while it was several hundred feet up in the air.

Over and over the scenes of his life sped past him. Ranma could feel them whipping past him like blasts of wind-borne sand, tearing at him, pummeling him…

And then it ended. Simple darkness returned. Slowly, cautiously, he opened one eye, then its twin, and stood shakily back to his feet. His companion remained in the same position as before, save that the other was no longer touching the surface of the water. Only stars shone now in the pond's surface.

The peace didn't last long, though.

~I can finally see, and I've seen it all so clearly, in the thoughts you push away and the memories you try to forget. That girl's not the only victim around here.~ The world trembled with the force of the words, and with the grief behind them. ~Like her, you let it happen to you. You didn't know how to fight these kinds of battles.~ Ranma staggered, his hands clenching around his head. He had the feeling one gets when there is a sudden change in air pressure… except this was on the very inside of himself, all through his body, and it was much stronger. ~I saved her, and she was only someone I stumbled across by chance.~ The pressure was building, building… ~And you, Ranma?! You… you're… After all this, I'll be DAMNED if I don't at least manage to help you!!~

Ranma gave an involuntary cry of shock, as he felt a tearing sensation deep inside him. It was nothing physical, nothing intrinsically a part of him — this was rather the destruction of things that had been imposed from without. Tools that had outlived their usefulness and needed to be discarded.

The first to go was the veil over a recent memory. In an instant, he remembered the story he'd read this afternoon, the account of the 'potential vigilante action' and the criminals who'd come up against something they couldn't handle. It had passed out of his mind as he'd fallen asleep, and not been allowed to resurface until now.

Following quickly in the wake of this realization came a swift draining sensation. Each subsequent dream had seen him more aware and alert, but there had always been a significant measure of somnolent torpor remaining, clouding his thoughts and maintaining the dreamlike quality of the episodes. Here and now Ranma could feel this departing, leaving him as fully functional as if he were truly awake, his thoughts operating at maximum clarity.

The final mental shroud shredded almost immediately thereafter, and he was free at last of the compulsion to never realize these were more than simple dreams.

~As I said before, Ranma.~ The intensity was gone for the moment; the words came quietly, and sadly. ~These dreams are my gift to you. A time of freedom, with nobody to abuse you or put you down or demand things from you. A time when I can show you important things. A time where I can draw off some of the poison that has been building up in your life.~

Ranma gazed headlong into the turbulent blackness before him, and could only whisper, "What are you?"

This time, there was no reprieve. In an instant, he found himself back in his bedroom, staring desperately into an unyielding wall.

It was just as well that dawn had already been painting the sky when Ranma awakened, because he got no more sleep that night. He tossed and turned for roughly half an hour, then recognized the futility of this and retreated to the roof for some serious thought.

The pigtailed martial artist sat there, his thoughts running in frantic circles, trying fruitlessly to solve a puzzle with too many missing pieces. The sun rose in the sky and he remained where he was. Breakfast came and went, with no notice taken by Ranma. Akane exited the house and headed into the dojo, and he paid her no attention. Only when she left it again, an hour later, did the vague thought cross his mind that some practice in the Art might help settle his whirling thoughts. He jumped down from the roof, removed several posts from the storage area where such things were kept, set them up in the yard, and began trying to lose himself in training.


He didn't even respond to the cry at first, except for a silent grimace. Trust his old man to come butting in when he already had too much on his mind. Ranma spun into another high kick, targeting the top of one post, only just managing to save himself from a fall when Genma shot across the yard and caught his foot in one hand.

"Cut it out, Pop! I'm busy!" he snarled.

"There's no time for that, boy!" Genma retorted.

Ranma blinked. No time for training? Coming from Genma, that could only mean one thing… another attempt to push him and Akane together.

Unaware of the cynical thoughts running through his son's head, Genma elaborated. "Akane just said she's going to the Cat Café to challenge Shampoo to a rematch!"

"You've got to be kidding me," Ranma deadpanned.

"I'm afraid not. Now COME ON!" Genma released his son's foot and half-turned back toward the house, his body language clearly stating his desire to rush away.

"Hold it, old man. So Akane's gonna go pick a fight with Shampoo. What the heck do ya want me to do about it?"

"Stop her, of course! Talk some sense into her, promise her you'll train her so she can put up a better fight, or tell her your honor says you have to get rid of the Amazons yourself. I don't care what you do, just get in there and keep her from making this mistake!"

"Okay, I guess I asked the wrong question." Ranma gave his father a tired glare. "Why should I even get involved?"

"Ranma, you know as well as I do that Akane is years below Shampoo's level!" Genma roared. "If you don't protect her, who knows how badly that Amazon will thrash her this time!"

"As far as I can tell, Shampoo's just about proved she ain't gonna hurt anybody too bad. Maybe if Akane actually gets her butt kicked, she'll learn a lesson this time!"

Silence fell, as Genma stared at his son. Disbelief was the first emotion evident on his face, but it quickly began shifting toward cold anger. "I taught you better than that, boy," he eventually growled. "The duty of a martial artist is to protect the weak. How dare you just blow this situation off, and let Akane walk away into what could be real danger?!

"Could be? Maybe? Give it a rest, old man! You even saw the last fight yourself. If Shampoo wanted Akane hurt, she'd've been hurt then. This is just gonna be another stupid joke of a match, and I don't see any need to waste my time with it!"

"Last time, there were witnesses, in case you're forgetting! Are you going to play games with your fiancée's life, just because you don't feel like making a little effort?! I've never seen anything to make me so confident in your judgment as you seem to be, Ranma!" Genma's eyes narrowed. "You have no right to call yourself a martial artist if you turn away now. If things turn out all right, fine. But you'd better be there to make sure they do!"

For a long moment Ranma held silent, anger churning in the back of his mind. The forefront, however, was examining Genma's charge, pushing the insults and such aside, and considering the core of it. At last, reluctantly, he decided that the old man could be right this time. Genma's overall track record might be pretty poor, but when it came to martial arts, his father hit the nail on the head fairly often. And this seemed more related to martial arts than anything else. The pigtailed teen sighed, and said, "Okay, fine. I'll tag along an' make sure Shampoo doesn't take Akane's head off her shoulders. Happy, Pop?"

Judging from the relieved expression that broke out on Genma's face and the way he raced off toward the house, it was clear that he was, if not completely happy, at least much closer to it than he had been. Ranma trudged in his wake, already uncomfortably aware that Akane wasn't too likely to share this viewpoint.

"Yo! Akane! Wait up!"

She paid the call no heed, neither turning her head nor slackening her pace. Not until he raced up and stopped in front of her did she react, and even then it was only to step around him. "Will you stop and listen to me?!" Ranma demanded.

"No," Akane said shortly, controlled anger vibrating in the monosyllable. She continued walking.

Ranma followed, coming up beside her. "Akane, this ain't a good idea! You're nowhere near ready to fight Shampoo for real."

"Just shut up," she said tightly, looking straight ahead and picking up her pace a little. "I'm sick of you treating me like my skills don't matter."

"Akane, you don't have any skills that're gonna matter if you try and take on Shampoo! Look at me, for cryin' out loud! Did I ever challenge the old ghoul or the freak 'cept when I absolutely had to?!"

Akane's mouth thinned further, and she bit back her instinctive reply. "I said shut up. I don't have time to get in a stupid fight with you now, Ranma. I sent the challenge letter three days ago, saying I'd be there today at noon. And it's pretty close to that now. So just leave me alone. This is none of your business anyway."

"Tell that to our fathers," he muttered under his breath, not loud enough for her to hear. Soun had already been in full-blown 'tower of tears' mode when Ranma entered, and Akane was already gone, departed while he was talking to Genma. Kasumi had relayed this information to him, along with the rather unnecessary message that Soun expected him to catch up to Akane and keep her safe. Well, he hadn't had any real hope that he'd succeed in talking his fiancée out of this, but at least he could tell Mr. Tendo he'd tried. He fell silent, and Akane ignored him for the rest of the walk to the Cat Café.

Finding the restaurant deserted, a 'temporarily closed for business' sign present on the door, might reasonably have been expected to inspire relief in Ranma and rage in Akane. However, since the rhythmic thuds of flesh against wood were resonating from the alley behind the restaurant, it was fairly obvious that Shampoo at least hadn't skipped out on the challenge. Akane strode around toward the source of the sounds, finding the Amazon practicing a routine of quick medium-powered kicks.

She stood there for a few moments, waiting less and less patiently for Shampoo to acknowledge her presence, but determined not to say anything unless the Amazon ignored her past the stroke of noon. That was still some five minutes off.

Shampoo spun into one last flurry of kicks, then turned with a cheery smile. "Nihao, Ranma! You come to take Shampoo on date?"

Akane trembled, only with greatest effort swallowing the outburst that rose to her lips. In a tightly-controlled voice, she said, "Excuse me, Shampoo. Did you maybe not get a letter I sent three days ago?"

The other girl nodded absently. "Got good laugh, too. Thanks, Akane, was funny joke. So what about it, Ranma? Where you want to go?"

"Enough, Great-Granddaughter." Ranma whirled, to find Cologne balanced atop her staff not five feet behind him. The Matriarch gestured toward Akane, who was trembling with fury, her face an alarming shade of red. "Take a good look at her, and remember what we spoke of. You might as well be attacking her physically."

Shampoo inclined her head, her expression sobering. "Sorry, Great-Grandmother." She turned to face Akane, and her face hardened further. "Shampoo did get letter, Akane Tendo. You should not have sent. Among Amazons, is considered disgrace to treat someone too far below you as if they real opponent. Our last fight show for sure that how you is to me. So Shampoo not going to fight you now."

This didn't seem to lessen Akane's anger any. "WHAT DID YOU SAY?!"

The Amazon shrugged. "Said Shampoo would not fight you. Challenge declined. No lessons today. Go home and break more bricks."

"You… you don't have any right to do this!" Akane blinked aside tears of anger. "You said all that stuff about how you were a real martial artist and I wasn't, and now you're refusing a challenge?! I trained hard this week, Shampoo. You're a coward if you refuse to fight me!"

The lavender-haired girl just sighed. "Ranma, did she eat Super Soba noodles, or get some other magic power-up?" Ranma shook his head. "There no other way you get good enough in week to give me even little challenge, Akane."

"Even if you believe that, it still doesn't let you just blow me off. And it's not true anyway! I'm going to pay you back for treating me like garbage!"

Shampoo's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Treat you like garbage? I think not. That would be if I had beat you to bloody pulp and leave you on curbside for big truck to take away." She spoke louder, overriding Akane's incipient protest. "What Shampoo do is treat you like child you are. Come back in few years, Akane… maybe by then you grow up some!"

Akane turned away, unable for the moment to look at Shampoo's face any further. "Tell her, Ranma," she said, her voice heavy with warning. "Tell her I trained hard. Tell her I'm ready to fight her for real."

"For real?!" Shampoo demanded, before Ranma could say anything, or even push past the cold foreboding that had settled into his chest. "You even know what that mean, Akane Tendo? Means Shampoo would strike hard, strike fast, treat you as if you could really be dangerous opponent. Would take whatever opening there was to put you down, and not care if that mean put-out joints or broken bones. And you tell Ranma to tell Shampoo to fight you like that?!" Anger was hot in her voice now. "Okay, fine. Maybe Shampoo wrong. I am willing to listen to husband tell me if is so. Ranma, on you honor, you tell Shampoo… Is Akane ready to be good challenge to me?"

Shampoo paused, looking Akane up and down, disgust plain on her face. "If you say she is not, there will be no challenge today. Decision will stand. If you say she is, Shampoo will fight her — for real."

Ranma closed his eyes and just stood there, an indescribably weary feeling replacing the cold foreboding of a few seconds prior. "Dunno whether you were right or wrong, Pop," he muttered under his breath. "What would've happened if I weren't here?" A pointless question, he realized. For better or for worse, he was here, and his duty was clear.

He opened his eyes again, and met Shampoo's gaze. "Give it a rest, Shampoo. You know good and darn well she ain't ready to fight you. You didn't need me to tell you that."

Shampoo inclined her head, the harsh cast of her features softening. "Of course not. But Shampoo had already prove this to Akane, and she no listen. Maybe she listen to you."

Ranma just sighed in response, scraped together what nerve he had remaining, and turned back toward Akane. "Okay, you heard it, Akane. Let's just go… home…" His voice trailed off as the sight before him registered.

He'd pretty much been expecting anger greater than he'd ever seen before. There was no hint of it, though — the anger would come later. For now, there was nothing to be seen on Akane's face but an ocean of sheer, raw hurt. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she stared at him for a silent eternity… and then she whirled, and ran away as fast as she could.

The pigtailed teen tensed, but couldn't quite bring himself to run after her. What little understanding he had of such personal matters was screaming emphatically that now was not the time for Akane to see his face again.

Cologne seemed to concur. "You're free to stay here if you like, son-in-law, or head elsewhere. But I suggest most strongly that you not return to the Tendo household for the next several hours. At the very least."

Akane stood now in the front yard of her home, still clad in the gi she'd worn for most of the day, and backed by her sisters and her father. Genma was nowhere to be seen, but his son had stopped in the lane outside, regarding his welcoming committee with a neutral expression. Akane stood there and stared back at him, her eyes free from tears for the moment. It had taken hours for her to regain this much control. And now, as she stood staring into Ranma's face, she felt it all trying to drain away, felt the tears wanting to well up again.

But for the moment, the anger was strong enough to sustain her. "Did you and Shampoo have a nice time?" she demanded in a voice she didn't really recognize as hers.

Ranma was too tired to flinch. "I left right after you did, Akane. I stayed away, got some lunch, and did some training… by myself… so you could maybe get in a better mood."

"I don't believe you," Akane retorted bitterly, hating the tremble she felt in her voice. "You just did what you always do — insult me and treat me like I'm worthless and go dancing off to embarrass me behind my back."

"Bullshit." He said it in the same tired tone as before. "Yeah, I did what I always do. I protected you."

"Protected me?! Protected me?!" she nearly screamed. In one convulsive movement she reached inside her gi, withdrew something, and threw it straight for his face as hard as she could. That his hand automatically snapped up and caught the missile only made her feel worse. "I DIDN'T NEED YOUR STUPID PROTECTION!! JUST ONCE, I WANTED TO WIN, AND I WAS GOING TO WIN! AND YOU TOOK THAT AWAY FROM ME WITH YOUR GODDAMNED ATTITUDE!!"

As if in a dream, Ranma lowered his hand and stared down at the water pistol. He was still trying to process this information when Soun spoke up.

"Ranma, your backpack is there, next to the gate." The Tendo patriarch spoke only with difficulty, trying to communicate by the look in his eyes that he was grateful Ranma had arranged for his little girl's safety, that he didn't want to do this, that as far as he was concerned it was just a temporary measure until the Wrath of Akane should die down. Still in that same gruff, reluctant voice he continued, "Genma has already left. He said to tell you he'd catch up with you in a few days."

"So that's it, then?" the Saotome heir half-whispered. "Just like that? 'Ranma, leave now and never return'?"

"That's right." Akane spoke with even more difficulty than had her father, desperately choking back the fresh sobs that were trying to rise up within her. There was no way in hell she'd let him see her break down now. "Get out of here! GO!! I never want to see your face again!!"

For one moment longer he stared at her, then shifted his gaze to the others. Soun, unhappy but not protesting his daughter's edict. Nabiki, emotionless mask fully in place. Kasumi, clearly sorrowful, but equally clearly unwilling to intervene. He paused for several long seconds, staring at each of them in turn.

And then he gathered up his backpack, turned, and walked away.

Ranma never would remember the subsequent hours clearly. He knew he had trudged automatically through the streets, moving without any thought of a destination, but could only recall occasional fragments of memory. In some he would be passing down wide thoroughfares, only just paying attention enough to avoid the cars. In others he wound his way through narrow alleys, once to pause in bitter laughter as a couple of punks started toward him, visibly thought better of it, and left hurriedly.

Time passed. Fewer and fewer people were around him, even on the main streets. The light dimmed, as afternoon sank through evening to nightfall. Ranma walked on, not even realizing it when his pace finally began increasing. From a walk, to a trot, to a dead run.

And then he stopped, and looked up at the sight before him.

The sun had slipped below the far horizon some time ago. It had been hidden by tall buildings for an even longer time. The dying of the light didn't bother him, though, especially not now as he looked up through the shades of night and regarded the Tokyo Tower.

Ranma was tired and he was hurting, but a casual onlooker would never have known it from the way he leaped from girder to girder, rising ever higher almost more quickly than the eye could follow. He reached the observation deck and stared desperately around, scanning first the sky and then the ground below him. Nothing — as far as he could see, he was alone.

For the moment, he was far past caring about reason and rationality. He shut his eyes and fell to his knees, clutching at the memory of a crumpled page of newspaper. "Are you there?!" Ranma screamed, hoarsely, desperately. "If this is real… if you're real… please, show yourself…"

~Silly. Open your eyes. I'm here.~

The words had come in gentle, soothing overtones of kindness. Ranma's eyes slammed open, to find that he was indeed no longer alone. The darkness boiled and twisted, its leading edge only inches away from him this time. The other was smaller now, with less than half its usual radius; the topmost edge of darkness extended less than a foot above Ranma's current kneeling height. Whether that was due to this meeting occurring in the waking world, or just to enable the visitor to come closer to him, Ranma neither knew nor cared.

~I'm here,~ his companion repeated reassuringly. ~You're not alone.~

"Not alone… Right…" he gave another bitter laugh. "Guess the Tendos would be pretty ticked off if they saw, huh?"

Silence was his only answer, a silence filled with increasing tension. It broke as Ranma exploded with a snarling cry of "Why?! Why could I never do good enough, why couldn't any of 'em ever look at my side of things?! I did just what Mr. Tendo said, kept his 'precious baby girl' safe an' sound. Just like I have I don't even know how many times anymore! Risked my life for her, over an' over, and what do I get? Thrown out on the street 'cause Akane wanted Shampoo to fight her for real and I wouldn't let it happen!

"Just tell me why!" He stared desperately at the other, silent before him, in this instant holding nearly motionless. "If you've got so many answers, just tell me… tell me what I was supposed to do… Just… tell me… WHY THE HELL DOESN'T SHE LISTEN TO ME?!"

If the response had been spoken aloud, he would have had to strain to hear it. The mental 'voice' felt like more of a whisper. ~If you wait a week and then go back, I don't think the Tendos will turn you away.~

Ranma boggled, his sense of disbelief and discomfiture plain to see. "What kinda answer is that?"

~Is what happened today really so hard for you to understand?~ The words came stronger and more clearly now, with pain quite evident behind them. ~You told Akane something she didn't want to hear, and instead of listening to what you were trying to say, she threw a tantrum. How many times have you seen that happen?~

"So this… this's just more of the same? Wait awhile, and Akane'll cool off again, and things go back to the usual routine?" Ranma glared. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?!"

~Not particularly, no.~

"Good. Because it sure as hell doesn't! I'm sick of all that crap, tired of waiting and toughing it out and hoping things are someday gonna get better… when… when they never will…"

~THAT'S NOT TRUE!!~ It was the most emphatic response he could remember hearing his companion make. ~Even if you can't do it on your own, that doesn't make things hopeless. I'll help you, Ranma. As much as you want, for as long as you want. I'll never leave you unless you tell me to go.~

"Do… do you really mean it?" He drew a shuddering breath, and managed to push away most of the tightness in his chest. "Will you really stay with me?"


The reassurance touched him, gave him strength. His lips quirked into a very, very weak smile. "Even if I ask questions?"

It had been a joke, but the reply could not have been more serious. ~If you're not ready for the answers now, you never will be.~

Ranma took a deep breath to steady himself. And then he asked, "Who are you?"

His answer came without words. The cloud of darkness began to move, swirling like water as it pours down a drain. The shadow shrank, the far end drawing near, the whole pulling in upon itself, collapsing from indistinct amorphous mass to a darkened, kneeling, clearly human, clearly female silhouette. And then the obscuring shield disappeared altogether.

Ranma stared, his face going pale as milk, a sudden roaring in his ears. For a moment, a different sort of blackness hovered on the edges of his vision. Quickly she reached out and placed her hand on his arm. The warmth of the contact strengthened him, helped him past that first moment of absolute shock.

They sat there for an uncertain length of time, a moonlit tableau of two motionless figures. One trying desperately to adjust to this revelation, staring into her eyes as if searching for he knew not what. The other waiting quietly, her hand still on his arm, bereft now of all her shields and secrecy, hoping only to receive the unconditional acceptance that she had offered.

At last, Ranma stirred. Hesitantly, disbelievingly, he whispered, "Ucchan?"


To be continued.

Author's notes: This chapter dedicated to everyone who had a hard time believing Ukyo would just abandon Ranma like that. Thanks to everyone at the Refuge who gave C&C.

Chapter 4
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