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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 4: Dreams Come As They May

He blinked. The sight before him didn't alter. Her hand was still on his left arm; with his right, he reached up and rubbed his eyes. Still no change. It was Ukyo, with no hint about her now of any darkness blacker than the night. She was dressed in her usual okonomiyaki outfit, typical white bow in her hair, looking about the same as he remembered her. Except that this time she wasn't gripped by fury or sorrow.

"Ucchan… what… how…?" The whisper was all he could manage.

"Can I give you the short answer for now?" When Ranma nodded hesitantly, Ukyo continued in a dry, self-deprecating tone. "Most everybody around here has had magic bite them in the butt. A couple of months ago, my turn finally came up."

It was hardly an informative reply, but Ukyo hadn't really been trying to answer his question. She'd mainly just hoped that the humor would help him recover from his shock. When he simply blinked and continued to stare at her with a look of desperate incomprehension, Ukyo sighed again. "Ranchan… I know this is kind of jolting. Especially coming on top of the day you had." She took a deep breath, then gave him as warm and reassuring a smile as she could manage. "But you don't have to get a handle on this all at once! I'm here for you. You're not alone, and you don't have nowhere to go." She grimaced at the verbal stumble, realizing again that she was a bit more nervous in this moment of truth than she had hoped to be. "I mean, there's a free room in my restaurant. No strings attached. You don't have to crawl under a bridge for the night or anything."

The chef fell silent, watching him for a reaction. She gave one last reassuring squeeze of his arm, and then let her hand drop. Ranma took several deep breaths, obviously struggling for composure… and then, with a great deal of effort, he pushed everything aside, for the moment simply accepting that things had changed. Thinking about the alterations would come later; for now, he would just focus on the moment. What he really needed tonight was peace, quiet, shelter, and sleep, and Ukyo had just offered a place where all these things could be obtained. "Okay," he said. "Can we go there now?"

"Thought you'd never ask," she replied, her nervousness diminishing somewhat. The familiar darkness appeared again, spreading out from her (but no longer hiding her identity from his sight) and surrounding them both. For an instant, it was just the two of them, inches apart in an endless, lightless void…

And then the shadow receded. Instead of moonlight, wind, and the vast expanses of the sky, Ranma now saw walls and a ceiling around him. It was much darker in the restaurant; he could barely make out the shape of the long counter where Ukyo performed her Art.

She got to her feet and offered her hand to Ranma. Absently he took it, and let her pull him up as well. Ukyo held the contact just a second or two longer than was really necessary, which is to say nowhere near as long as she would have liked. "You know where the spare bedroom is, Ranchan." He did remember, from the time he'd stayed over here after Soun had thrown him out during the affair with the Gambling King. "I already set out a futon."

"Thanks." Unsure of what else to do or say, Ranma hesitated for a moment, then turned and started toward the stairs, moving cautiously through the dimness.

He'd only taken a few steps when he stopped, and turned back to face her. "Um…"

"Yes, Ranma?"

"Ah… could you…" He was having some trouble putting his request into words.


"Could you maybe… make sure I don't have any dreams tonight?"

There was a long moment of silence. At last, Ukyo said quietly, "I wasn't planning on showing up there again without asking you first."

"Huh?" Ranma blinked. "That ain't the kind of dreams I meant. I just… I don't wanna have to remember the stuff that happened today."

"Oh. Right." Even through his fatigue, Ranma noticed the brightening of Ukyo's tone. "Sure thing, sugar. I'll make sure you get a nice, relaxing, dreamless night's sleep."

"Thanks." He turned again and resumed his careful pace toward the stairs. Not until he reached them did something else occur to him.

Turning, he squinted through the dimness to where he thought Ukyo was still standing. "Ucchan?"

"What is it?"

Ranma jumped; her voice had come from upstairs. Convenient for Ukyo these new abilities might be, but they were going to take some serious getting used to. It took him several moments to remember what he'd been about to say. "Ah… We left my backpack back at the Tower."

"Oh… shoot!" The exasperated tone and the unmistakable sound of a stamped foot made him feel better. Whatever had happened to Ukyo, at least it hadn't completely swallowed up the friend he knew.

True to Ukyo's word, no dreams disturbed his slumber that night. When Ranma awoke, late the next morning, he was refreshed, relaxed, and incredibly confused. This wasn't his usual bedroom. Where was he?

He spent several seconds staring around the room, eventually matching the pattern of his surroundings against the memory of the time he'd sought refuge here during the difficulty with the Gambling King. The realization that he was in Ukyo's spare bedroom brought one last moment of puzzlement… and then, all at once, the floodgates of memory opened. Ranma's breath exhaled in a hard, involuntary *whuff* as the events of the previous day rushed back through his mind, hitting with nearly the impact of one of Ryoga's punches.

Ranma wasn't sure how long he sat there, mind whirling through painful recollections of change and loss, and dizzying paths of questions without answers. He was here because the Tendos had thrown him out… but all he'd done was keep Akane safe like he was supposed to… he was here, at Ucchan's Okonomiyaki, when Ukyo herself had said he wasn't supposed to come back unless he was ready to honor their engagement… but last night she'd brought him here herself, and said there were no strings attached… and even though she'd told him to go away she hadn't stayed away from him, it had been her in those dreams all this time…

The dizziness seemed to be overwhelming the pain; no surprise, as Ranma had known plenty of frustration and loss in his life and had lots of experience pushing it away to the back of his mind. However, never before had one of his friends turned out to be some kind of supernatural entity. Coming to terms with that development was a little harder. Consideration of this felt better than thinking about what had happened with the Tendos, though, so Ranma concentrated on thoughts of Ukyo.

Just what had happened to her anyway? How long had she been like this? After some thought, Ranma managed to pull forth a murky memory of the previous night. He'd been pretty out of it at the time, all but floored by the recent revelation, but he vaguely remembered Ukyo saying something about having a run-in with magic two months ago.

The thought of that specific time span triggered another thought. It took a fair bit of effort since he didn't have a calendar handy, but Ranma eventually worked out that that would mean whatever Ukyo had been referring to would have happened just before she broke down that first time, when he'd told her about Kaori. It didn't take much insight to suspect a connection.

Further thoughts on the matter were tabled for the present, however, overridden by a sudden sharp protest from his stomach. The growl reminded him in no uncertain terms that he'd only eaten one meal the previous day, and it hadn't been supper. With his thoughts pulled back to the here and now, Ranma realized that he could smell something quite delicious, something he hadn't smelled in too long. The odor of cooking okonomiyaki was wafting up from the restaurant below.

"Figured that'd wake him up," Ukyo muttered with a slight smile. The first okonomiyaki wasn't even done yet before the sound of footsteps came from the floor above. That one had only been a smaller portion intended for herself — despite what she'd said, she hadn't really been that confident that Ranma was ready to get up yet. He'd had a very hard day yesterday, after all.

She listened with half an ear as she spread the makings of several oversized deluxe okonomiyaki on the grill for her guest, doing her best to stay calm and collected. With all the butterflies cavorting through her innards, it wasn't easy.

Judging from the sounds from upstairs, Ranma might have felt the same way. His stride started out quick and decisive, but after only a few steps the tempo changed, becoming slower and more tentative. He made his way out onto the stairs, and then, after descending the first couple, he stopped dead, then turned and fled back into his room. Ukyo blinked. Even as hard as he'd been hit by the events of yesterday, she wouldn't have thought it would destroy Ranma's confidence to this extent. Her own nervousness diminished, replaced by a wave of sympathy, sorrow, and determination to help her Ranchan in this time of grief.

Safely back in the privacy of his room, Ranma gathered up and slipped on the shirt and pants he could only barely remember removing the previous night. He was hungry, and he had questions that needed answers, but he wasn't about to head down to face Ukyo in just a T-shirt and boxers.

Now looking a bit more presentable, the pigtailed teen left the room once more. His pace continued slower than usual as he made his way downstairs, trying to hold on to Ukyo's comforting words of the night before, but all too aware that the last two times he'd been in this restaurant, he'd seen his oldest friend seriously hurting because of him. The memories surfaced again, memories of her outstretched hand and downcast face, the tears that had fallen and her demand for payment for his okonomiyaki. All these tugged at him, making him feel as if he were treading over very thin ice indeed.

The okonomiyaki she'd cooked for him were cooling on plates as he finally made his way into the main room of the restaurant. Ukyo had already consumed the one she'd made for herself, and was now preparing another. Ranma paused in the doorway, taking a good long look at the friend he'd thought he had lost. She looked up from the grill, gesturing wordlessly toward the plates and giving him a quick smile. It wasn't a carefree happy grin or anything like it — her eyes were clouded with hesitance, sympathy, the memory of pain; a mixture of too many emotions to list, far too many for such an untroubled expression to have been anything other than a lie — but there was honest warmth there, and tenderness, and it comforted him.

Still, he felt like he ought to be a little cautious. "Um, thanks, Ukyo. I should warn ya, I don't have twenty-one hundred yen on me."

The smile faded, which amazingly enough was the first clue he had that what he'd said hadn't been a sensitive statement designed to show consideration toward her.

"That's okay, Ranma," she said quietly. "That stuff doesn't stand anymore."

Ranma just nodded, hesitantly crossed the remaining distance, sat down in his old seat right before the grill, and began to eat. As he started on the third okonomiyaki, Ukyo began cooking a couple more, which she passed over to him as he finished the one he was working on. Ranma accepted these with a smile and a sense of relief; he was still hungry, but despite what she'd said, he wasn't feeling certain yet about asking for more.

The process repeated itself, with Ukyo cooking two more okonomiyaki as Ranma worked on the pair she'd just given him, and then repeated itself again, and again, and…

Ranma eventually shook his way free from a sort of waking dream, realizing that he was stuffed to the gills and Ukyo was still cooking another two specials. "Um, Ucchan? I'm kinda full here."

"I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to say something," she said teasingly. "Ye gods, Ranchan, the only time I've seen you eat more food in one sitting was when I had that cooking contest with Shampoo and Akane and Kodachi." A shadow flickered briefly across her face as she uttered the last name. She turned back to the grill, removing the two just-finished portions to plates for her own consumption.

"I wouldn't've asked you to cook this much," Ranma said, looking away as well, for the moment finding the plate before him an easier resting place for his gaze.

"Maybe that's why I did it without being asked," Ukyo responded between bites.

He was still trying to figure that one out by the time she finished. Ukyo looked over at him again, with an air of expectancy now. After a long pause, she prompted, "You know, Ranchan, I did tell you last night that from now on it's okay to ask questions."

"Okay, right. Questions," Ranma said nervously. He glanced around the room as if searching for inspiration. "I got my first one."

"Yes…?" Ukyo asked after a moment.

"Did you ever go back and get my backpack from the Tokyo Tower last night?"

For this, he was treated to perhaps the most sarcastic look Ukyo had ever sent his way. "No, I thought I'd leave all your worldly possessions sitting in the street for some bum to carry off. Course I did, Ranchan. And I dropped it off in your room afterward. Didn't you see it this morning?"


"Well, now we've both asked one stupid question," Ukyo said, wry humor replacing the sarcasm. "Your turn to try for a better one."

"Okay." Ranma took a deep breath. "How about this… What's happened to you?"

"That's more like it." The chef fell silent, marshalling her thoughts. At last she said, "I think I told you last night that it all started two months ago. But it was actually more like two months and two weeks…"

"Shoot," Ukyo muttered as the first fat drops of water splattered to the ground around her. "Why couldn't this stupid rain have held off another couple of hours?" Due to one thing or another—nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual hectic pace of life in Nerima—she'd been putting off a trip to the market, and by now she was running critically low on several key sauce ingredients. If her restaurant was going to open tomorrow, she had to go shopping today. And so she had hurried home, dropped off her books, thrown on a quick change of clothes, grabbed her shopping list, and set off toward the market.

She hadn't quite liked the look of the clouds, but the quantity of purchases she was going to have to make meant that she wasn't going to have a free hand to hold an umbrella on her way back from the market. So Ukyo had put her luck to the test, with the usual result. The clouds had waited until she'd walked a fair distance away from her restaurant… just long enough that she had reached an area with no sign of shelter. And now the rain was beginning, coming down in those fat preliminary drops that indicate a true downpour is only moments away.

Ukyo recognized this quite handily, and, muttering something unladylike under her breath, charged off at top speed. Just as the sky opened, she came upon a shop with an open door. The place looked like a gloomy little clutter-filled cave, but in that moment, as she zipped through the doorway inches ahead of a solid curtain of rain, Ukyo found nothing to complain about.

Nonetheless, her first glance over the disorderly shelves and alcoves didn't leave her particularly interested in this shop's contents. If there was any cooking gear here, it was well and truly hidden. She turned back and regarded the rain sheeting down in the street. "Hope Ranma-honey's not out in this," she mused. "But knowing his luck, I wouldn't bet against it."

Ranma blinked. "Hey, I think I remember that day. Last time I saw Kodachi. She chased me through that stupid downpour for almost half an hour, tryin' to nail me with her ribbon."

Ukyo's musings were interrupted by the sound of a throat clearing behind her. She turned, to find an older man seated behind a desk some little ways off. He had just put down a newspaper and was regarding her with an irascible stare. "Young lady, this shop is for customers, not for idle people to just come in out of the rain."

"C'mon, you wouldn't send me back out into that, would you?" Ukyo asked, giving him her best "cute" look.

"I'm not saying you have to buy anything, but you could at least browse the shelves! Who knows what sort of rare and wonderful treasure you might find here? You'll never know unless you look!"

Ukyo rolled her eyes, but decided to humor the guy, especially since the rain didn't look like it was going to stop anytime soon. She turned away from the doorway and made her way deeper into the shop. Something was nagging at the back of her mind, though, and she'd only taken a few steps before she stopped, and glanced over toward the proprietor. The lighting in the shop was conspicuous by its absence; this plus the man's position behind the desk made it rather difficult to get a good look at him, but eventually Ukyo realized what she'd been trying to remember. "Hey, wait a minute. I know you. You're the jackass who sold that goon Kuno his stupid phoenix egg, aren't you?"

The man looked up from his paper, raising his bushy eyebrows high enough to nearly touch his knit maroon skullcap. " 'Jackass'? You know, girl, it's awfully wet out there."

Ukyo raised her hands in a placating gesture. "Sorry, sorry, it's just a habit. I even call my fiancé that sometimes." She turned back toward the nearest shelf and began looking over its contents, picking up and fiddling with several objects in order to show her intense interest in his inventory.

When she touched a twisted, polished branch of driftwood, only to have purple sparks fly and all her hair stand straight up, Ukyo decided that maybe she ought to think this through a little more.

The proprietor dropped his newspaper and nearly fell out of his chair as Ukyo zipped through the intervening space, leaned over his desk, and fixed him with the brightest-eyed sparkly look of youthful enthusiasm he'd ever seen. The fact that her hair was still rising vertically took something away from the effect, though. "Hey, are you trying to tell me that phoenix egg wasn't the only 'special' item you've got here?" she asked eagerly.

The man glanced up at her hair. "I believe that has been implied. This is the Cursed Antique Shop, after all. What kind of fraud would I be if all that image was built around just one item? Especially something as silly as the egg… I mean, that phoenix legend is just plain ridiculous. Nobody in his right mind would believe in it!"

The chef rolled her eyes again, but refrained from commenting on that particular statement. "Well, great. Glad to hear it. Say, I'm in the market for something kind of special… maybe you could help me out?"

"Be glad to." Especially as she was the first customer he'd had all day. "What were you looking for, young lady?"

Ukyo didn't really hear the question. She'd already drifted off into a pleasant little daydream of presenting Ranma with the cure to his curse, and how happy he'd be after she solved that problem for him, and how much fun they'd have going out to celebrate afterward, and…

"AHEM!" She blinked her way back to reality to find the proprietor giving her an impatient look. "What exactly were you looking for?"

"Oh. Right. Something to cure curses. Jusenkyo curses specifically." Ukyo paused, remembering a not-so-funny story Ranma had told her once, about a date with Shampoo and a bogus one-time cure. "And I don't mean any stupid cure that only works for a little while and then quits. I need something that'll kick a curse's butt for good."

"I'm sorry, Miss. I don't have anything like that. I don't carry curse cures, not even temporary ones."

She frowned, and thought hard. "Okay, nothing that'll specifically cure a curse. How about something more general? Got anything that grants wishes?"

Ukyo broke from the flow of narrative, giving an exaggerated shudder at the memory. "I kid you not, Ranchan, the next thing he did was try to sell me a monkey's paw."

"I DON'T THINK SO!!" She barely resisted the urge to unsling her battle spatula and pound the living daylights out of him. The chef had never expected to feel this grateful to her English teacher.

"Well, that's the only wish-granting object I've got here." Some gaijin tourist had bought the Cube of Chaos a couple of months back. The proprietor rather enjoyed being one of the few people who really understood how Quebec had become the fifty-first of the United States. "If you tell me the details of the curse, maybe I can find an item that would work around it."

"Never heard of Jusenkyo, huh?" Ukyo asked, somehow managing to make it sound like anyone who had any pretense of worldliness and sophistication should know exactly what the name of the Cursed Springs implied. "It's a water-based curse. Any time a friend of mine gets hit with cold water, he gets stuck in the body of a girl. He has to splash himself with hot water to change back."

The proprietor stared at her for several moments. "Ah, I do think I have something that could help your young man," he said at last. "Got it right here, in fact." He turned, bent down, extracted one volume from a stack of books on a lower shelf, and handed it over to Ukyo.

She paused again, brooding over the memory. "What was it, Ucchan?" Ranma asked after several silent seconds had passed. "Some kind of cursed spellbook?"

"Nope," she said, grimacing. "Just a stupid joke, that's all."

Ukyo stared blankly down at the translated-to-Japanese copy of "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and it's all small stuff)". "What's this for?"

"Have your friend read it. Maybe it'll help him put a silly little condition like that into perspective."

The rain was pouring down more thickly than ever outside, and even less light was coming through the windows. Nevertheless, it was suddenly a bit brighter inside the shop, as Ukyo's rising battle aura cast an eerie glow. In a sort of reverse-DBZ effect, the chi burning out from her finally eliminated the last remnant of the magic holding her hair up; it settled back into place even as Ukyo's power output increased. "Listen here, jackass," she growled, taking a step forward, and then another when her target began edging away. "My Ranchan has to deal with more stress than any man ought to suffer. He's got psychos who want to date him or kill him, depending on which body he's in. He's got one so-called fiancée from the backwaters of China who turns into the stuff of his worst nightmares, and another who's a damn dominatrix-in-training. His old man pushes every broken promise he ever made off onto Ranma honey's shoulders to deal with, and believe-you-me Genma's broken a lot of promises. He's got guys who want to pound him for 'stealing' the girls they're interested in, never mind whether Ranma even wants those girls in the first place." This litany of her fiancé's problems was actually starting to depress Ukyo, so she cut it short. "My point is, the poor guy needs all the stress-reducing I can give him. So screw the stupid book, and either help me or tell me you can't!!"

The proprietor gulped. By now he was backed against a wall, with Ukyo's nose less than six inches from his own. He was sweating profusely, and not just from the heat emanating from her battle aura. "Ah… let me think… water magic… that rings some kind of bell…" Ukyo didn't back away, but her aura began dying down, which allowed him to think a little more clearly. "Okay, I've got it." He slipped to one side, disappearing off into the shelves.

A few minutes later he returned, carrying a long narrow box of about the dimensions necessary to hold a wakizashi. He passed this to Ukyo, who opened it carefully. Inside was a short scepter made from mahogany. The wood had darkened further with age, and into it was carved angular runic letterings in a language Ukyo had never seen before. "What is this?" she asked.

He resisted the temptation to preface his explanation with "I'm not saying I believe in the darn thing, mind you." This could be a hard sale, and he didn't want to antagonize her. "If I remember correctly, this thing is supposed to allow you to contact a very powerful elemental spirit. Or something like that. Maybe you could ask it to break your boyfriend's curse."

Ukyo gingerly ran one finger along the scepter. "Why do you think that would work?"

The proprietor shrugged. "Elemental… water… maybe it could fix things so that only hot water would splash him by accident? Anyway, this is the only thing I can think of that might help you."

She chewed her lower lip. "Well, I guess I can give it a shot. How does the magic work?"

"I'm afraid I don't know," he replied apologetically. "The scroll that came with this thing was ancient when I was a little boy. It disintegrated a long time ago." Specifically, it had disintegrated when he tried to read it, which had been a pretty traumatic event for a nine-year-old who hadn't been supposed to be messing around with "special" items in the inventory. As far as he was concerned, his customer should count herself lucky that he even remembered as much as he did of what it had said. He opted not to mention this, though.

"Is that right?" Ukyo said sourly, giving him a flat stare. "So what you're saying is, as far as we know, this stick might not even be magical."

The proprietor took it from her fingers, and slammed it against the edge of his desk as hard as he could. The Formica of the desk cracked, the wood of the scepter didn't. "I wouldn't say that, young lady."

"You could be right," she agreed. Ukyo accepted the artifact back, and began turning it over idly in her hands while considering things. Perhaps she would be able to figure out how to get it to work. She didn't have all that much free time, but for something like this, she could make the time to hit the library and look for a match for the letters carved into the wood. If worse came to worst and all other avenues failed, maybe she could ask Shampoo's great-grandmother for help. She'd rather not share Ranma's gratitude with anyone else, especially not Shampoo… but there was a lot of truth in that old saying about half a loaf. "Okay, I guess I'll take a chance on this. How much you want for it?"

"Only five million yen."

Somehow, she wasn't surprised. Ukyo unholstered her battle spatula and took a few practice swings to limber up her muscles. "Y'know, you tried this same thing during that deal with the Phoenix. Do you enjoy making people beat you up so you'll lower your price?"

The proprietor gave Ukyo a careful glance, determining that she was nowhere near as agitated as she had been earlier. Satisfied that she would probably be reasonable now, he coughed, and indicated the one piece of modern technology present in his store — a security camera. "Young lady, if you beat me senseless in my own shop, I'll haul your hide in front of a magistrate."

Ukyo frowned, surprised at this turn of events. When she'd asked Ranma for the earlier details of what had happened before she got involved in the affair of Kuno's phoenix, he'd mentioned this guy folded like a wet paper bag under just a little violence, reducing a price of one million yen to one hundred. 'Probably that was just because he WANTED to get rid of the phoenix or something,' she thought grumpily. Aloud, she said, "Listen, I don't have that much money. And who are you trying to kid anyway? Nobody's gonna shell out that kind of yen for something they don't even know how to use."

"You might be right," he allowed. "Okay, one million yen."

"Try a hundred thousand," Ukyo said flatly.

"Nine hundred thousand."

"One hundred thousand."

"Eight hundred."

"Sold!" Ukyo said cheerfully, pulling out eight hundred yen.

"I meant eight hundred THOUSAND, girl."

"Okay, let me spell this out for you. My last name isn't Kuno. I've got my own restaurant, which is how I can afford to go as high as one hundred thousand for this. But that's it. No more. The buck stops here."

"That's just not adequate. How can you possibly expect to buy a piece of real magic for such a ridiculously small sum?"

Ukyo spared a moment for wondering how much Shampoo had spent on her Red Thread of Fate, before replying, "Look. This stick isn't doing you any good here, is it? You haven't had anybody want to buy it in all this time, have you? I think a hundred thousand yen is very reasonable."

"Not a chance."

Inspiration struck. "Well, how about you just let me rent it? I mean, you can't argue that it's doing nothing for you here. Let me take it, try to figure out how it works. If I can do that, and it cures Ranma honey's curse, then I'll pay you the hundred thousand, and I'll give you the stick back, and I'll tell you how to work it. Nothing but profit for you."

The proprietor's face twisted into a wistful, what-might-have-been expression. "That sounds like an excellent deal, except for one problem. Using an item of powerful magic generally gets you into trouble if you're not its true owner. At the very least, it usually doesn't work out how you want it to. I'm sorry, but I can't just rent this out without warning you of that." Of course, now that he'd warned Ukyo, if she still wanted to go through with the deal he wouldn't hesitate for a moment.

"Blast it!" Ukyo snapped, glaring down at the rod, and then back to the proprietor. She took several deep breaths to calm herself and aid the creative-thinking process, then said, "Look. How about this? You sell me the thing free and clear. I pay you seventy-five thousand for it… and I'll give you a lifetime free lunch pass to Ucchan's Okonomiyaki."

He stared at her. "That's your restaurant?!" He'd never actually been there himself, but at least once a week his wife picked up an order to go for their lunch. A beatific grin creased his face. "Sold!"

Ranma frowned, a piece of his mind offended at a loser like that old guy mooching so much food off his friend. "Won't that cost you too much in the long run, Ucchan?"

Ukyo shrugged. "Nah, if it gets to be too much of a problem, I'll just relocate and change the name."

She spent awhile longer puttering around the shop, examining the inventory with a much more respectful attitude while waiting for the rain to stop. Ukyo would long remember the irony of seeing genuine magical items interspersed with junky little knick-knacks — although sometimes the genuine magical items looked exactly like junky little knick-knacks themselves. She wasn't sure whether that lessened or increased the irony. Eventually, though, the rain slackened and ceased, and Ukyo made her way back to her restaurant, preferring to get her newest acquisition to relative safety before resuming her interrupted trip to the market.

On returning, a glance at the clock informed her that she wasn't going to have time to get to the market, buy everything she needed, and still be able to open in time for the dinner rush. "Stupid rain. Oh well, maybe it'll be worth it," Ukyo muttered, looking down at the box containing her purchase. She opened it and took the scepter into her hands, turning it over and over and inspecting it closely. "If this thing can really help me find a cure for Ranma honey, it'll be worth a lot more than I've paid for it.

"Wish I knew how it works, though." The chef made a series of experimental motions with the scepter, which was meant to be a string of mystical gestures. To an observer it would have appeared rather more like she was attempting to conduct an invisible orchestra of lunatics. "Too bad I can't just wave this thing around and say, 'Rod, do your stuff!' "

An indescribable jolt of sensation blasted out from the scepter. Ukyo would have dropped it, except that her hand had gone temporarily numb, her fingers frozen around the artifact. The air before her rippled, distorted, and stabilized into a circular field roughly six feet in diameter. Ukyo stood there, mouth gaping open, staring at the effect for quite some time. It was as if a hole had been torn in midair; Ukyo, examining it, sensed that this was a tunnel, a gate, a passage to another place.

All that could be seen in the boundaries of the field was a formless grayness. She stared at this and knew, somehow, as if the knowledge were creeping up from her still-frozen fingers, that that wasn't what the destination on the other side really looked like. If she should step forward and walk through, she would find herself Somewhere Else, not Nowhere.

After taking several deep breaths, and pushing her fear and uncertainty to the back of her mind, Ukyo did just that.

Ranma frowned at her. "Jeez, Ucchan, that wasn't real bright. You just went right ahead into who-knows-what kind of magical trouble? Without even calling somebody to tell them what you were doing?"

Ukyo gave him a Look. "Put a sock in it, sugar. I was doing it for a cure for your curse. If it'd been you there, you'd've run through that portal fast enough to leave a trail of smoke."

Somewhere Else seemed rather rocky, and dark, and empty.

Ukyo stumbled as the light disappeared, and the floor changed from smooth regularity to a stony, uneven surface. She caught herself before she could fall, and spent the next minute or so staring around, waiting for her eyes to adjust and trying to get an idea of where she was.

It seemed to be a natural passageway cutting through the living rock. The path twisted away before her, making a sharp turn and vanishing from sight. There was almost no light, but Ukyo was able to make out that the floor and the walls were of unpolished, uncut, untouched stone. She knelt down and placed her hand against the ground before her. She couldn't feel anything to suggest other people had ever walked this way, at least not in numbers enough to have smoothed a passage before her. She could hear nothing except the whisper of her own breath; when she held this and strained her ears she could barely make out the thud and rush of her pulse. No other sound broke the stillness. Ukyo stamped down hard on thoughts of tombs and burial.

She turned around, and the sight of the portal still hanging there behind her reassured her quite a bit. It was glowing slightly, which Ukyo realized was the source of the faint illumination. After a few moments of silent debate, the chef turned away from it and began to carefully walk down the tunnel. She might have liked to return home and fetch a lantern before trying this again, but she had a strong suspicion that the portal would close behind her once she made her return trip, and who knew whether it would open again? After all, the stick clutched between her still-numb fingers might have a limited number of uses. It would be just like her luck — Ranchan's too, come to think of it — if she did go back only to discover she'd used up the last of its magic.

Even moving as slowly and carefully as she was, it didn't take her long to get to the part where the tunnel made a sharp turn. Now that she had reached it, she found that the angle was much sharper than she had thought, and the walls were coming rather closer together than had previously been the case. It wasn't narrow enough yet to hinder her passage; even with her spatula in place on her back, neither edge of the weapon would quite be touching the walls. But the diminishing space and the fading of the last of the light brought new feelings of apprehension and uncertainty rising in Ukyo's heart.

She stood there for quite some time. Eventually, though, she reminded herself of what she was doing, why she was here. This was for Ranchan. What did she think she was doing, shrinking back from helping him with his biggest problem? Cowering back like a little kid scared of the dark? With an impatient sound of disgust, Ukyo began moving again, feeling her way forward as she passed beyond the reach of the feeble light. The tunnel twisted, then twisted again…

…And then the walls opened up. Ukyo had been moving slowly, but now she stopped dead, staring forward with far more shock and wonder than she had felt when the portal first opened.

She was standing at the very edge of a massive open space. There was light again, or something like it… it illuminated the room before her, though it didn't penetrate into the tunnel from which she'd just exited. The light emanated from a point not far away from Ukyo. And in that point…

Ukyo paused. "I don't think I'm gonna be able to do justice with words to what I saw there, Ranchan. It was the spirit the old geezer had said the rod would let me contact. It's… it was like…" she struggled for words "…like I was looking at it, but it wasn't really there; at least not all of it. All I could see was just glimpses and pieces, and even then I get the feeling my eyes were translating it into stuff I could kind of understand, not seeing it as it really was."

A wheel of fire hung in the air, spinning and roaring with the fury of a thousand sunstorms…

In the next instant, the glow of the fire was swallowed by the blinding glory of a light so bright Ukyo felt like it should have stricken her blind…

The wind howled, and the waves of the ocean surged and fell…

Fire again, hiding in a womb of earth, burning in darkness at the heart of the world…

Rain fell in twisting, violent sheets, water and air struggling for dominance…

A waterfall lay frozen in ice, and light glinted off the edges with brilliance enough to dazzle the onlooker…

Fire crackled through a forest, reducing deadwood to ash, returning it to the earth from which it had come…

The sun sank below the far horizon, light departing slowly and reluctantly, as darkness came creeping forth out of hollows and corners…

Ukyo felt as if she were a pinball, her awareness being bounced from one vista to the next. Earth and fire and dark and water and air and water and dark and light and air and fire and water and dark and then, with a gasp and a jolt, she found herself staring up into the very heart of the force before her. She was closer now, with the mouth of the tunnel some little distance behind her; apparently she'd walked half the original distance separating her from the other without even realizing it, drawn forward like a moth to a flame. Glints and fragments of such things as she'd already seen continued to play about on the edges, but here, from her new perspective, they weren't really noticeable. Ukyo's focus rested instead in the center of the entity, a sight beyond words or even understanding, a tumultuous whole greater than the sum of the parts she'd already glimpsed. She could feel it staring at her, an awareness before which she trembled.

Emanating forth from this terrible eye came a clear, unmistakable response. Ukyo staggered back with the force of the emotion. In that instant, beyond any words or explanation, she knew that she had been regarded, weighed, judged, measured… and found utterly, completely inadequate. In that instant, she was no longer the young woman who had trained hard enough to master both her family's Arts… no longer the chef who owned and operated her own restaurant while still keeping her grades up… no longer the fiancée who supported Ranma even as there was no one to support her. All these things were stripped away, and Ukyo was again the little girl who'd been abandoned by her best friend and fiancé, hiding her misery as best she could while the other children whispered speculations about why'd she get dumped like that, what was wrong with her, why wasn't she good enough.

Some wounds never fully heal, no matter how much time may pass. Scars and memories remain. But while scars may be ugly, they also are marks of a survivor, and a bone that was broken may heal stronger than before.

It took everything she had, but Ukyo struggled free of the choking despair. She strode forward, defiantly, staring into the heart of the other with an incandescent gaze, daring it to repeat its pronouncement. "Damn you, you have no right to say that! Unworthy?! Not good enough?! SHOW ME!!" she screamed, trembling with the force of her white-hot rage. "PROVE IT!! Show me just what's so goddamned inadequate about me! IF YOU CAN!!"

"Ucchan…" Ranma whispered. He didn't know what else to say. Ukyo wasn't looking at him, and hadn't been for quite some time. Occasionally, tears would slide down her cheeks, but her voice had held steady so far. She was silent now, a pained silence that Ranma didn't want to continue, but didn't know how to fill. He gulped a few times, then said, "You don't haveta tell me this stuff."

"Yes, I do," she returned. "You want to know, don't you?"

"Not if it's gonna make you cry! Not if it hurts you more!"

Ukyo sighed, then turned back to face him. "Ranma, this is the first time I've said anything about any of this, to anybody. I need to get it all out." She forced a grin. "You need to stop being such a chicken, anyway."

"Chicken?!" Ranma squawked. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean you're scared of a woman's tears." Ukyo blinked the last one out of her eyes, then pinned Ranma's gaze with her own. "Pain is a part of life, Ranchan. You've got to accept that."

"Being a martial artist means I'm supposed to protect people from getting hurt," Ranma said. "Not hurt 'em myself."

"Oh, so if my arm got wrenched out of its socket, you wouldn't reset it for me?"

"That's different!"

Ukyo gave him a sad look. "It's only different as long as you won't see it for what it is. Listen, sugar, I need to talk about this. You need to know what all happened. If it bothers you that much to see me drop a few measly tears, then close your eyes."

Ranma was silent for a few moments, then shook his head ever so slightly. "So what happened next, Ucchan? What'd the thing say to you?"

"That's the billion-yen question, isn't it? What did it say to me? Nothing, Ranchan — never once did that thing 'say' anything. And there's a real good reason for that, but I didn't understand it just then. That spirit…" Ukyo paused for a moment, considering how best to explain this, before continuing. "Obviously it wasn't human. But I was still expecting it to think like humans do, and it didn't. That wasn't how it worked. When it stared at me and put out that sense of thinking I was inadequate, I thought it meant it like a person would. And I was wrong."

"You were? It didn't mean it like that?" Ranma said, a frown creasing his brow. "Wait a minute. Just how else can you mean something like that?"

Ukyo shrugged. "Simple enough. It didn't mean I wasn't a good enough person. It meant I was human… only human. Nothing more. A powerless, clueless little creature, bumbling through the world without any understanding of it. And when I stepped forward and made my little speech, it didn't understand me any more than I had understood it. The way the spirit saw things, I was accepting its offer… An offer I didn't even realize was there."

Ranma considered that. "Is that when you got… changed?"

The shadows began to shift and coil around Ukyo again. "Yep. Earth and air and fire and water and darkness and light. Elemental magic. I got given power over darkness."

In an instant the other was moving, no longer whirling about in the air above her, but now descending toward her in a rush. Ukyo barely had time to flinch before everything changed.

She hung motionless, suspended in a void. Fear and courage alike drained out of her, along with her anger, the remnants of her pain, and everything else. Ukyo felt herself being emptied, poured out like a glass, the contents of her soul laid bare. As before when she had sensed the judgment of inadequacy, here she could feel the regard of the other once more, scrutinizing her, categorizing her, judging her far more thoroughly than she had been before. However, empty as she was for the moment, this didn't particularly bother her.

Ukyo had no idea how long this lasted. She had no way to mark the passage of time, nor was she even capable of caring. It might have been moments, it might have been years. When the change came, though, it came swiftly indeed.

Before, she had been emptied. Now, in the reverse of that, all her cares and thoughts and hopes and dreams and memories were surging back into her, each as fresh and forceful as it had been when it first became part of her. The pain of abandonment was there again, sharper even than it had been back in the cavern. The uncertain happiness that came when Ranma pushed aside ten years of thinking she'd been a boy, looked at the girl she really was, and called her cute. The triumph of cooking a perfectly-prepared okonomiyaki. The shock when she first lost to the Crepe King. The fierce satisfaction of her comeback victory. All the joys and sorrows of her life, condensed into one searing burst of restoration, poured back into her in an instant, accompanied by new knowledge. She didn't have time to process it now, but she had just been given some understanding of what was happening, glimmers and partial glimpses of insight that had come from the one changing her.

Around her, the emptiness of the void cracked, collapsed, and was replaced by darkness.

"What happened next is hard to describe, Ranchan. It was like… I was still me, but I'd left my shape behind… or maybe just lost the rules that say you have to have a shape. I flowed like water, I was as thin as a gust of air. I was everywhere in the world where there was shadow. Faint ones under the early morning sun that almost weren't there at all. Thick ones that had lain for years in closed-up houses. Deep caves that hadn't know light ever, where hundreds of years ago water had seeped through the rock and dissolved it and carried it away, and left only darkness behind. There, where the darkness was stronger, I could feel the echoes of how it had happened.

"The deeper and stronger and older the shadow, the stronger I felt like I was." Ukyo spared a moment for a digression. "You ever heard of the Marianas trench?" When he shook his head, she explained, "It's a really, really deep trench in the ocean floor. Deepest place in the whole ocean. Bottom of that sucker is actually harsher and less hospitable than outer space, Ranchan. No light ever reaches there, and the pressure would crumple anything man-made like so much tinfoil. But as my spirit passed through there, I felt strong enough to turn cartwheels through the water. If I'd had a body, anyway. Like I could swing my spatula and tear a hole in the face of the world.

"That was the fun part." Ukyo fell silent.

After waiting for her to continue, Ranma prompted, "Fun part? What happened next?" In a pathetically weak attempt at humor, he added, "Or shouldn't I ask?"

"You might as well ask, because I'm going to tell you." Ukyo decided it was time for another digression. Hopefully it would help make this next part come easier. "The thing is, Ranchan, this power's kind of divided into two sides. You've seen 'em both already, but you probably don't get what I'm talking about. Do you?"

"Lemme guess," Ranma said, thinking hard. "Um… stuff that's real and stuff that isn't?" When Ukyo blinked and gave him a questioning stare, he elaborated. "Like, when you teleport around and beat the crap out of a couple of muggers. That's real. But when you send me dreams and stuff like that, well, it's not real. Not really. Right?"

"Actually, sugar, you're on the right track," Ukyo said with a smile, "but your thinking's a little off. It's not whether or not something's real… it's whether I'm touching the physical world, or using some kind of spiritual ability."

"Spirit?" he echoed, then paused, considering. "Huh. Maybe that would be better than saying those dreams weren't real. I mean, I always felt a lot better after I had one." He gave Ukyo a bit of a challenging look. "Guess it's just that I'm still kind of in the habit of thinking they weren't real."

"You figured that out, huh? That I put something in them that kept you from realizing they weren't just ordinary dreams?"

"Yeah," Ranma said quietly. "I felt it real clear in that last one, where it finally ripped itself to pieces."

"Are you angry?" Ukyo met his gaze unflinchingly. "Are you mad that I did something like that, and didn't even ask you first?"

"I dunno," Ranma said. "I guess I just want to know why. Why'd you do it like this? Why didn't you let me see those weren't just ordinary dreams?"

"Because the whole point of this was to help you out, Ranchan. I wanted to help you lose some of your stress. It'd kinda defeat the point if you were spending your daylight hours worrying about the new batch of weirdness that was popping up in your life."

"Okay." That answer hadn't made all that much sense to him. He hoped it would after he'd gotten a few more pieces of the puzzle. "Then let me ask you this…" Ranma took a deep breath, then demanded, "Why'd you do it this way in the first place?! Why all the stupid secrecy? You wanted to help me out, then why'd you throw me out and tell me not to come back?! That hurt, Ucchan. It'd be one thing if you really meant all that stuff, but you didn't really leave me alone, you just pretended like you did. So tell me. Why'd you do it like this?"

Ukyo looked away. The darkness surrounding her grew a little deeper, a little more noticeable. "To answer that, I need to get back to what happened next. The not-so-fun part that came after me skipping through shadows all around the world.

"That first part… that was when I got my physical powers, Ranma." She turned back to face him, blinking new tears away. "The spiritual part came next, and it was the closest thing to Hell that I'll ever live through."

Her jaunt around the world ended in a deep cave. Ukyo only had a second of wonder to sense the barest echoes from a night that had lain there since the creation of the world… and then the cave was gone, and she hung motionless once again in the void. However, it was different this time, shot through with darkness in some indescribable way. Ukyo felt as if there were two realities here, the darkness and the emptiness, each overlaying the other. She knew without a shadow of a doubt which one she'd prefer, but if there was any way for her to affect her surroundings, she couldn't find it.

A voice interrupted her thoughts. It came harshly, discordantly. It wasn't that the words had been spoken in a harsh tone; it was rather that the speech itself didn't fit. Such a mundane means of communication was as out of place here as if someone had grafted a spark plug into the living wood of a bonsai. In the back of her mind, in the fragmentary understanding she'd gained from her earlier contact with the elemental force changing her, Ukyo sensed that this voice wasn't really part of the process. It was instead the equivalent of a recording, something left by a mortal, someone who thought as she did, to give a little extra clarity to what was happening.

For all the sense of discord, the words themselves were clear enough: "One who would gain power over darkness must face the dark night of the soul."

"The dark night of the soul? What'd that mean?" Ranma asked, unsure whether he really wanted to know.

"Simple." Ukyo squeezed her eyes shut, displacing a few more tears. "Dreams. Dark emotions. That's not just a figure of speech, Ranchan. Think back to those times you were hurting. All that anger and fear and sorrow and betrayal and hurt. You remember how you couldn't hide it anymore, in those dreams? How you couldn't choke it back and pretend you weren't feeling it? How you had to let it out, and then once you had let it out, it was gone?"

"Yeah," he said. "Is that what you had happen next? It wasn't that bad, for me."

Ukyo gave him a sad smile. "I was drawing it out of you and neutralizing it, Ranchan. That's only half of what happened to me. Actually, less than half. All the stuff I had stored up in me was shoved up to the surface, and it wasn't pulled out and destroyed.

"All the junk I'd pushed away, or that I'd forgiven and forgotten… BOOM! It was all back, all at once. All the bad, with none of the good mixed in. And then…" Ukyo took a gulping breath, "…then it got worse. Stuff that I really hadn't seen before. Not just what I hadn't let myself see, but things that had gone on when I wasn't around."

"Like what?" Ranma whispered. The words emerged almost against his will. He had a very strong suspicion that he wasn't going to like whatever was coming next.

Ukyo stretched out her hand, laying it flat in the air above the countertop. A ragged wisp of shadow, faint and ephemeral, streamed down, forming the ghost of the screen she'd used once before to show him something out of the past. "I can't do sound, Ranma. But maybe you can recognize this scene anyway."

Inside the screen Ranma saw himself, clad in a tuxedo and carrying a bunch of roses. Ukyo was there as well, confronting him with a challenging scowl. Ranma watched as the miniature pigtailed boy leaned forward, put his hands on Ukyo's shoulders, and asked her something. Ukyo's anger faded in an instant; she looked away, fidgeting nervously, struggling with her response.

He knew now what he was seeing. Ranma rejected the impulse to close his eyes. Echoing back from the corner of his mind came the words he'd spoken then, and the words she'd said in reply.

"Ukyo, this is very important." He'd paused then, so he could look into her eyes for a silent moment. And then, he'd asked, "Do you love me?"

"Ranma… I… I… O-of course I l-lo-love you…" Ukyo had barely been able to get the words out, her emotion fighting its way through her shyness. The embarrassment had caught her up a second later, and, demanding to know how he could make her say something like that, she'd slapped him silly and run off in a cloud of dust.

But this scene didn't fade with the removal of Ukyo from the picture. Ranma watched, feeling a sick heaviness weighing down his heart, as the little tuxedo-clad boy got back to his feet, chuckling maniacally at the reassurance that he hadn't lost his power over women, and then hurried off to seek the same response from Shampoo.

The image winked out. Ranma didn't even try to meet Ukyo's eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

Her words sounded as if they were coming from far away. "I'm sorry too. Sorry I built so many dreams on top of a foundation that wasn't really there. Sorry I didn't see how things really were. I'm sorry I fell in love with someone who doesn't love me."

"Ucchan… I care… it's just, not like that…"

"Don't kid either of us, sugar." Suddenly there was an edge in Ukyo's voice. "You never even tried. It's just like you said that night after you came by and told me about Kaori. You remember then, Ranma? How you went off to that park and practiced and told your protests to the night wind?"

"You were there?"

"I was strong enough to tell you to leave." The edge was gone again, replaced by weariness. "Not strong enough not to follow you and see how you would take it.

"And I guess I did. How'd you put it, again? 'I'm not ready for this stuff'; 'I just keep going on and hoping things will work out'."

"Is that some kinda crime?" Ranma asked bitterly. "Is any of this my fault? Did I ask for it?"

"No, Ranchan, it's not your fault." At least, not all of it. "And it's unfair as hell that you got it all dumped in your lap. I'm sorry. And I'll do everything I can to help you deal with it."

"Like you helped me that night?" he replied, hating himself but unable to stop the words. "When you threw me out and told me to get lost?"

"Don't you get it?!" Ukyo exclaimed desperately. "Do you really not understand what happened then? What I meant, why I said what I did, what it meant today when I said that stuff didn't stand anymore?! I told you to go. Said don't come back unless you wanted to honor our engagement. You didn't. And last night I said you could come back here, that it was okay, no strings attached."

"Ukyo, if you're tryin' to say something, just spit it out already," Ranma said tiredly.

She closed her eyes and hung her head. She'd known this was going to hurt, but she hadn't expected it to be this painful. Was he being deliberately dense? Okay, maybe she had failed him a little, with that damned relapse when he came by her place after the date with Shampoo. Maybe she had reacted incredibly stupidly, clinging for a few moments to a hope she knew was dead. But she'd made up for that failure! She'd left subconscious hints of this truth in various dreams… he should have already realized it for himself. There should be no need for her to drain these final dregs of pain!

But apparently he did need her to spell it out for him, and so she answered, "I was letting go. You want it put in words, all nice and official? Fine. I renounce our engagement, Ranma. I finally saw how things really are, got it shoved in my face with no more room for wishful thinking or stupid, foolish hopes. As far as I'm concerned, you're free. One less honor chain hung around your neck."

Silence fell. Ranma turned this new development over in his mind, wondering why he didn't feel even a little relief. "Then what are we?" he eventually asked, quietly, and with more than a little fear.

Ukyo sighed. "Friends. Nothing more, nothing less."

The last of the morning had slipped away while Ukyo told her story, and it was now early afternoon. In sharp contrast to the stormy day of her tale, the air outside the restaurant was balmy, the sky free of clouds. The sun overhead shone brightly.

To Ranma, currently seated on top of Ukyo's roof, it felt inappropriate as hell.

"I'm sorry, Ucchan." She wasn't here with him, at least not as far as Ranma could see. He didn't really have anything like a good idea of the extent of her powers yet. Maybe she'd hear this, or maybe not. He didn't care either way. Right now, he was just trying to collect his scattered thoughts. "Didn't understand what you meant. Guess that's no surprise, though… I haven't understood a lot of things."

Ranma thought back to that moment when he'd thrown what she'd done in her face, when he'd made that crack about helping him by kicking him out. For a few short moments, it had all seemed to make sense… or at least a kind of sense. Ukyo had all these new abilities. She could see and do and understand stuff she'd never been able to before. So she was fixing things up to go the way she wanted them.

She'd taken herself away while he was in a really rough patch. She didn't give up spending time with him, but he hadn't realized — hadn't been allowed to realize — that his oldest friend was still with him, still thinking about him. Still there for him. She'd watched and waited, keeping tabs on what was going on in his life, keeping a low profile as things got worse and worse with Akane… peering into his soul and knowing he was missing her, even as he did his best to keep his mind off it… and then, when he'd hit the bottom, she'd stepped in to tell him it was okay, he wasn't alone, she was ready to be with him again.

He'd had to ignore a few minor details to fit everything into this picture, but Ranma had plenty of experience not thinking things through fully. In matters not related to martial arts, only if something was as obvious as a mallet to the head did he usually grasp it without effort.

The significance of Ukyo's final explanation seemed about that obvious.

His strategy of waiting and hoping that his problems would resolve themselves seemed to finally be working. He'd gotten perhaps the most die-hard of his fiancées to give up, to finally let go of all hope of getting what she wanted. Not only that, he still got to keep her as a friend… a friend who was offering him a place to stay and food to eat, and the benefit of her newly-acquired supernatural powers to help him solve his problems. And asking nothing in return anymore.

It was almost funny, really. He'd never thought success would feel like his heart was being cut out of his chest.

"How the hell have I screwed up this badly?" he whispered, resisting the urge to pound his fist into the rooftop beside him. That'd be a real nice touch — let out his stress, damage Ucchan's restaurant. "I just… I didn't know what to do. I wanted things to get better! Not keep on sinking further and further down the toilet!"

He clenched his eyes shut. 'Guess I really am as stupid as Akane always said. It's not like things just got real bad all of a sudden. They've been screwed up ever since Jusenkyo. I've had problems left and right ever since I got to Nerima, and I only managed to solve a few of 'em.' He gave a snort as he remembered that the engagement to Kaori was a problem he'd thought he solved, all those months ago. 'Each time I did get rid of something, it wasn't by keeping my head down and hoping it'd go away. Anytime I did that, it just let whatever it was drag on and on. But did I learn anything?' A louder, bitterer snort. Aloud, he muttered, "Hell, no. I just kept on doing what wasn't working. Real good there, Ranma. Real smart."

It hadn't just dragged him down; anyone too close got burned as well. Kaori hadn't spent a whole lot of time around him, but she'd received her fair measure of grief. His lie about just which body was the real him had sent Shampoo fleeing home in tears, only to return with a Jusenkyo curse. It certainly hadn't kept her from being stuck here in Japan, lonely. He still felt like a heel when he thought back to that rooftop discussion, and remembered that he'd never even suspected this. Akane had spent so much time angry, either because of something he'd done, or something someone else had done for him. At least Kaede hadn't endured any real trouble yet, which was one small bright spot… one bright spot that felt very small indeed, insignificant even, when his thoughts turned to the last of the fiancée brigade.

He'd never really let himself think about what Ukyo had lost, what his father's action had cost her. The theft of the yattai had to have been a serious financial blow to her family. Follow this up with ten years of hiding who she really was… Could she have had any real friends during that time? With the secret she had to keep? Now that he was actually considering such things, he doubted it. And yet, even after all that, she'd been ready to forgive him. Had satisfied herself with her "revenge" against Genma… a beating less painful than many Ranma himself had inflicted on his old man.

She'd taken the path of temperance and forgiveness, and what had it gotten her? Things she'd said two months ago came back to him now, clearer and more painful than ever. What Ukyo had here, she'd worked hard to achieve. The chef had made a place in Nerima for herself by sheer hard work and determination, and how much had she had to sacrifice to do that? How much time could she possibly have for the things she wanted to do for herself, when she had school and her restaurant to run? And who had ever supported her?

He could only think of one time when he'd really come to her aid. He wasn't even sure he and Akane hadn't done more harm than good, though, in that affair with the Crepe King. Contrast this to what Ukyo had done for him, such as giving him free food anytime he asked… and putting everything on hold to help him when Happosai had sealed his strength… and providing a place for him when the Tendos threw him out during the affair with the Gambling King… well, maybe that last one wasn't such a big deal, given her feelings for him (cue mental wince and hurried shift to next thought). But she'd also let the Tendos themselves stay, after they'd had their own rash of losses to the King and just come to her restaurant and let themselves in. She hadn't exactly been happy about it, and she had tried to get them out of there… by helping Ranma himself train to take down the Gambling King so they'd get back their dojo and the lost pieces of their home.

Ranma spared a minute to contrast this to the Tendos' behavior during the affair with Ukyo's secret sauce, and the efforts they had made to get rid of her, before pushing those memories away again. His own behavior during that time was nothing he cared to think about just now.

And things had come at last to the final bitter extent. She'd lost so much already… and now she'd even had her humanity taken away from her. And how had it happened? Had she been messing around with a magical artifact that'd let her control him? No. Had she ticked off some kind of mystical prince? No again. She'd been looking for a cure for his gods-damned curse. And instead she got given power she'd never asked for, and a boatload of pain that she'd never, ever have wanted. That he'd never, ever have wanted for her.

"I'm sorry, Ucchan," he whispered again. "So sorry. It shoulda been me. You shoulda come to me with that stupid stick and let me be the one who took the hit. You sure didn't deserve this. Not any of it." She got dark knives of pain tearing holes in her soul… and what did he get? What was his part of this bargain? He got his oldest friend still firmly in his corner, asking less in return than before, more determined than ever to help him out, and stronger than ever to be able to do so. If there was any justice, there had better be some good come for Ukyo out of this whole debacle.

The trouble was, he'd seen precious damn little justice in his life, or in the lives of his friends.

'Guess this is where I need to learn something, though,' Ranma thought grimly. 'Can't just expect justice or an even break. You've got to work for it. I'VE got to work for it. I'm not gonna just blow this off, this time. I damn well will find some way to make things better for Ucchan.' He sighed. 'And everyone else too, or at least as many as I can.'

Here, with the old established patterns of his life finally pulled down and ruined, Ranma could admit that he had screwed up, and that it was time for a change. Unfortunately, that was the extent of his new-found clarity. He knew he had to do something different. What that something might be, he wasn't sure yet.

But just because he didn't have an answer now, that didn't mean he wouldn't find one. Now that he was actually facing some of these issues, rather than ducking his head under the sand, Ranma found that at least he had an idea of what his immediate next step should be. He usually had the most success in life when he viewed things through the paradigm of martial arts… and in a fight when you don't seem to have any winning option, it's time for the Saotome Final Attack. Get some distance between yourself and the battle, come up with a new plan, and then attack again when you're ready.

The best part was he was already doing this, thanks to Ukyo's provision. He was out of the battlefield, and given the way she'd acted in the previous two months hopefully no-one would think to look for him here. He had the necessary distance separating himself from the conflict, and he even had someone with abilities he couldn't match to help him come up with a plan.

Ranma allowed himself one tiny, guarded smile. It would be enough. It had to be enough.

Feeling a good bit better now, he got to his feet and began to perform a slow, tight kata. There wasn't all that much room on the rooftop, but that was okay. He might not be in the depths of despair anymore, but he was nowhere near ready for any exuberant, gravity-defying leaps and bounds.

Still, he thought absently, it might be nice to have another one of those fly-the-heck-away-from-Nerima dreams tonight. He'd have to remember to ask Ucchan about that. It would feel a little strange to see her there without her disguise, but like she'd told him herself, sooner or later change must come.

That thought triggered another. He spared a brief moment to wonder what was going on elsewhere in Nerima, and what other sorts of changes might be taking place.

The two soon-to-be-combatants stood in a vacant lot, separated from each other by roughly half its length. For the moment neither carried visible weapons, though that could and probably would change before too long. The bright sunlight streamed down around them, raising brilliant highlights in the long lavender hair of one girl. To the other, whose hair wouldn't glow like that even if she were bombarded with large amounts of radiation, it was just one more of her opponent's annoying, unfair advantages.

After a long moment of brooding silence, Kaede spoke. "Is there any kind of special form to follow?"

"What you mean?"

"I mean, for the fight." Kaede put on her best challenging look. "For the agreement that after I kick your butt, you won't give me a Kiss of Death."

Shampoo allowed herself an amused sniff. "No. We just agree beforehand that it will not apply. You say you want that, Shampoo more than happy to go by it too. Law of Kiss of Death does not count for match we is about to have."

"Glad to hear it." Kaede assumed a ready stance, staring into Shampoo's eyes. "Anytime you're ready, China girl."

"Shampoo always ready for good fight." The Amazon smirked at her opponent. "You going to give me one, Kaede? You no do so good in last match, and that was not that long ago. You sure you ready for this?"

Kaede began stalking forward. "Guess we'll find out," she retorted.

Shampoo let her come. Underneath the carefree mocking attitude, she was experiencing a bit of uncertainty. Like she had said, it hadn't been very long since the battle in which she had utterly squashed this member of the competition. From what she had seen so far of Kaede, she was willing to give the other girl the benefit of a doubt… but if it turned out that she was pulling an Akane, and challenging Shampoo again when she was nowhere near ready, the Amazon was going to be very, very disappointed.

By now Kaede had crossed most of the intervening distance separating herself from her opponent. Rather than continue coming straight in, she changed the angle of her course. Shampoo began moving as well, and the two circled each other for a few moments.

The Amazon made the first move. Abandoning the circular sidling, she darted forward with a yell, then jumped into the air just before she could close within striking distance. Unlike in the challenge to Akane, this leap was angled to carry her a fair distance behind Kaede. However, as Shampoo passed overhead, she shot one fist down, intending to bounce a low-powered — for her, anyway — strike off her opponent's skull.

Kaede hadn't really expected this sort of tactic, but she wasn't caught too much by surprise. She hesitated just for an instant as Shampoo made her initial leap, and then the Japanese girl dropped low and rolled quickly to one side, quickly enough that she would have dodged any weapon her opponent might have seen fit to pull out and throw while she was out of Kaede's line of sight.

It had been an unnecessary precaution, though. Shampoo's fist moved through empty air, but her weapons were all still stowed away. The Amazon twisted, reorienting herself in midair so that when she landed she was still facing Kaede, then darted forward again. This time she elected to remain on the ground, launching a testing series of punches at roughly three-quarters her current top speed.

Kaede blocked the first few, wincing from the force of the impact. Shampoo was also holding back in terms of power, striking at less than half strength. But the Amazon was built for power; Kaede's slight form would never be able to match her for sheer brute force. Shampoo frowned as she felt her opponent's guard beginning to crumble. This was just plain stupid. The girl wasn't even trying to deflect the strikes instead of blocking them. Clearly Kaede had overestimated herself badly, despite Shampoo's hopes to the con—

Through the ache, Kaede smiled. Shampoo had just slowed down in order to throw a stronger punch, which was what she had been waiting for. She slipped to one side and called on all her new speed, one hand blurring from visibility, striking the nerve cluster in her opponent's elbow with the attack she'd meant to use in their first battle.

Shampoo's eyes widened at the sudden dramatic increase in speed, and at the way her entire arm had suddenly become unresponsive. It wasn't numb, though; instead, the acute sensation of pins and needles flooded through her limb, a distraction worse than pain would have been. This threw her off-balance for a critical moment, just enough for her to see but be unable to stop her opponent's next move, a high kick which slammed directly into her jaw.

The impact knocked Shampoo backwards, but she remained on her feet. Seeking to capitalize on her advantage, Kaede pushed forward, twisting for a stronger roundhouse kick while her opponent would still be disoriented and dizzy from the last attack. Unfortunately for the Japanese girl, her previous kick hadn't been nearly strong enough to really affect someone who'd trained to learn the Bakusai Tenketsu. Especially not someone who'd been doing extra endurance training lately, driven by the desire to really impress her husband once the time came for Cologne's offer to train the two of them together.

Kaede didn't have time for more than a blink of dismay, noting an instant after she'd committed to her follow-up attack… an instant too late… that Shampoo's eyes were still hard and focused. The Amazon's good hand shot out and caught her incoming roundhouse kick, closing around her ankle in a grip of iron. Shampoo pivoted, tossing Kaede through the air, getting some distance between them again. Quickly, while she had the chance, she began tapping a sequence of shiatsu points that would increase the flow of chi through the limb. She knew that would speed up recovery from whatever effect Kaede had used; the question was whether it would speed said recovery enough to be useful. If this effect was one that naturally lasted hours, well, cutting that time in half would be nice, but not nearly nice enough.

As she landed from her impromptu flight, Kaede caught sight of Shampoo's attempt to undo the effects of her strike. Knowing that if she couldn't even keep that advantage this fight was as good as lost, she quickly pulled out her tonfa, commended her soul to God, and shot forward at the absolute maximum speed she could manage.

Shampoo cursed in Mandarin, abandoning the healing technique before she could finish hitting all the points, and pulling out a bonbori. She gave ground, backing away from Kaede's charge while using the mace's longer reach to keep her opponent at bay. It was annoying to recognize that the other girl was now actually a little faster than she was. As long as she kept backing away, she could maintain her defense, but retreating like this was something Shampoo didn't particularly like to do.

This kept up for nearly a minute. Kaede herded Shampoo backwards, attempting to pin her against the wall that formed the boundary of their battleground. Unfortunately, when Shampoo reached the wall, Kaede misjudged which direction the Chinese girl would turn. Shampoo twisted like an eel, darting to one side in the split second when Kaede's anticipation was focused in the other direction, changing the path of her retreat by ninety degrees. This left the two fighters moving parallel to the wall; as the path of Shampoo's retreat took her nearer and nearer the corner, Kaede's spirits rose higher and higher. Keeping up this level of speed was beginning to drain her reserves, but that was okay… no way would Shampoo be able to avoid her for much longer…

As she sensed the approach of the trap, Shampoo met Kaede's gaze, closing one eye in a wink… and shifted her defense in rather an unexpected way. She didn't even try to block the incoming tonfa strike, shooting her bonbori forward instead to knock Kaede's empty hand aside. Kaede's weapon slammed into her a split second later. However, since she had been expecting it, Shampoo was able to basically ignore the blunt impact, releasing her grip on her bonbori and then swinging the fist that was now inside Kaede's guard. She landed a solid blow, striking the Japanese girl's jaw with force enough to bounce her off the wall beside her.

Kaede didn't completely lose consciousness, but she was definitely out of commission for several seconds. When the mists cleared away from her vision, she found herself still on her feet, with the rough surface of the wall behind her. Shampoo was standing several yards away, not even looking at Kaede as she resumed the aborted healing technique. Kaede tensed, trying to prepare herself for one last effort… and then she sagged. Her head was still spinning, she'd spent at least two thirds of her strength, Shampoo was just too far away for her to cross the intervening distance before the Amazon could react, and the only weapon she still had on her was the sai strapped to her left leg. Kaede really didn't want to think about what would likely happen if she pulled that out and charged.

She blinked, suddenly realizing that there was one additional impediment. She was currently immobile, held upright by something other than her own strength. Glancing down at herself brought the answer—she was pinned to the wall behind her by a bunch of forks. The tines of the utensils pierced through her clothing, lodging in the stone behind her. A few experimental twists and tugs revealed not the slightest give to any of them.

Since Kaede had no intention of tearing her way free by sheer brute force (mainly because she was all but certain she couldn't), she swallowed her pride and called out, "Shampoo! Could you please let me loose already?!"

Shampoo looked up from her still-unresponsive arm. "How long this take to wear off, anyway?"

Kaede grumbled something under her breath, then replied, "I don't know. It all depends on how strong you are."

"Well, if Shampoo not able to work dinner shift tonight, will tell Great-Grandmother to take it out of your hide." Kaede didn't exactly turn pale, but she did gulp involuntarily, which gave Shampoo a bit of satisfaction. She was getting quite tired of this stupid pins-and-needles sensation. Of course if Cologne were to punish anyone it would be Shampoo herself for her carelessness, and anyway the Cat Café was closed for now, but Kaede didn't need to know that.

"Okay, fine. Are you just going to leave me stuck here, so she knows where to find me?!" Kaede demanded.

"Do you give up? Agree that fight is over, and Shampoo won?"

The other girl heaved a sigh. "Yeah, you win this round. Don't get used to it, though… it's not gonna be like this forever."

Shampoo shrugged, walked forward, and began pulling the forks out of the wall. "Hey, at least you did give good fight," she said in a tone of obvious respect that improved Kaede's mood a fair bit. "As good as if had real Amazon sister here. Is okay for Shampoo to get used to that?"

She had respected his privacy, though it had been a bit of a struggle. So when Ukyo heard Ranma returning from the rooftop, slipping through an open window to enter the guest bedroom, she wasn't sure what to expect. She hadn't thought he would take her story this hard. Probably blaming himself, she thought moodily, even though what had happened had been her choice from beginning to end.

As he came down the stairs and joined her in the main room of the restaurant, Ukyo was glad to see that his spirits had picked up quite a bit. She gave a smile of her own, though it was one tinged with bittersweetness. It had surprised her when Ranma hadn't seemed gladdened or even relieved at her final declaration during their previous conversation… after all, she had been shown quite clearly that there was no hope of her dream of marriage to him ever coming true. He must just have needed some time for her message to sink in.

"Feeling better?" she asked.

Ranma nodded, walking over toward her. Rather than her usual spot behind the grill, Ukyo was seated on one of the stools on its opposite side. He sat down next to her. "A little better," he elaborated.

"I'm glad." A little better would do for now. Ukyo knew there was no way to quickly and easily solve all the problems in her best friend's life.

He took a deep breath. "So could ya pick up where you left off, Ucchan? I need to hear more about what's happened to you." Ranma attempted to smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. "Hope none of the rest of it was anywhere near that bad."

"No, it wasn't." Ukyo thought back over all that had happened since that moment when darkness was woven through her soul. There was still an awful lot to tell him. "You got any specific questions, Ranchan? Anything in particular you were wondering?"

"Uh, okay. How about telling me what all you can do? I bet there's a lot more than what I've seen so far."

"Not really," Ukyo replied. "You have seen pretty much all my powers. But I probably do need to explain them a little more thoroughly." Ranma gave her an expectant, "go on" sort of look, and she continued. "Guess I'll start with the thing I like the best." The dark aura appeared around her again. "When someone's hurting, when they're really angry, when they're miserable, when they're feeling worthless, when they're lonely… I can pull those dark emotions out of them and get rid of them, Ranchan."

She looked down, not meeting his gaze for the moment. "Too often, people will just push those things to the back of their minds, not really dealing with them. And that's really, really bad in the long run. It's not exactly the same thing as if I was healing their spirits — I have a feeling that's a Light-based power — but I can pull the bad stuff out of them so they can hopefully start to heal on their own."

"That does sound pretty cool," Ranma agreed, thinking of it in terms of a doctor removing bits of dirt and gravel from a wound. Then he frowned as something else occurred to him. "Wait a minute. You don't, like, take that junk out of them and carry it yourself, do you?"

"Hell, no!" Ukyo exclaimed, her eyes widening dramatically, as if the question had scared the living daylights out of her. "I wouldn't even be here today if that's how it worked!!"

"Why not?"

His question fell into a sudden, awkward silence. Ukyo mentally kicked herself for overreacting. Still, she had been planning to tell him sooner or later. This was probably as good a way to lead into it as any. After marshalling her thoughts, she spoke one word, three quiet syllables that nevertheless seemed to echo through the room. "Kodachi."

Ranma blinked. "What about her?" he asked, his stomach tightening.

Ukyo opted not to answer with words just yet. Instead, she turned to lean over the counter, stretching out one hand and forming another shadow screen.

The scene depicted within showed a small, plain room. There was a cot along one wall. The only other furniture consisted of a utilitarian desk and a chair. There were several books piled at one corner of the desk, and the chair held something as well — a girl in her mid-to-late teens sat there, looking down at another book spread open on the desk before her. The image held static only for an instant, then zoomed in and began a slow rotation centered around the girl.

Ukyo had generated this scene in response to a question about Kodachi. This fact was the only thing that enabled him to instantly recognize the Black Rose in the girl seated there. Her hair was unbound, streaming down her back in gentle waves. Instead of a form-fitting leotard, she wore unflattering white garments that seemed vaguely reminiscent of hospital garb. These changes were trivial, though, compared to the look on her face.

Gone was the usual challenging stare, the haughty expression, the wild look of being ready at any instant to pull off some outrageous and perhaps cruel antic. This girl seemed both calm and peaceful… as peaceful as ever he'd seen Kasumi. On the other hand, Kodachi was focusing on the book below her with a concentration that he hadn't often observed in the eldest Tendo daughter.

Ranma stared at the scene, then turned to look at Ukyo. "Is this happening right now?"

She shook her head. "I can only show memories like this. It's from last week." She sighed. "I check up on her from time to time."

"She really is in a mental hospital, isn't she." He'd realized why those clothes resembled medical garb. "Kuno was just bein' his usual stupid self when he said he'd looked into it and found out that wasn't true."

The scene winked out as Ukyo shrugged. "He did look into it. He did find her. He couldn't accept finding someone so different from the sister he remembered… someone who could stare him in the eye with no hint of recognizing who he was."

"And you did that to her?" Ranma asked. It was a rhetorical question. Even he could see that Ukyo's reactions indicated she felt both responsibility and remorse. He wasn't sure yet why she should feel the second one, but she probably had a good reason. Still, Kodachi didn't seem unhappy, which was more than he could say for Ucchan. Because he didn't want that second part to stay true, Ranma continued before his friend could say anything. "She seems a lot nicer now."

"Nicer, happier, better off…" Ukyo shrugged. "Yeah, I think so too." She looked down. "I did want that. But I didn't mean for it to happen like this."

Ranma waited, and after a few moments of silence, his companion continued. "Before I sent you any dreams, before I saved that girl… there was Kodachi. Figured I'd deal with her and let that be the first time I used these powers to make a difference."

"Did ya mean to do something other than what you did?" Ranma asked. "What did you do anyway?"

"I wanted to help her. Wanted to do what I just told you about a little while ago — draw out and shred the darkness that was weighing her down. But insanity's not the same thing as a flash of anger or a fit of depression. Kodachi's darkness ran clear through her mind. I tried to pull it out and get rid of it, and leave her free." Ukyo chuckled mirthlessly. "Technically, it worked. I just didn't realize it would leave her like this. She's nothing but a ghost of what she used to be."

Ranma looked down at the empty air, still seeing the vision in his mind's eye. "How bad off is she?" he asked. "It didn't look like you reduced her to a vegetable or nothing."

"Nope. Tabula rasa." Ukyo didn't wait for Ranma's expression to shift into a look of confusion. "One of the doctors who examined her used that term. It means 'blank slate'. She's forgotten… no, not forgotten. Even with amnesia you can sometimes get your memories back. It's gone, Ranchan. Everything except some basic skills, like language and toilet training. But everything else, the stuff she'll need to know to live on her own and interact with other people, to have a normal life, she has to relearn it."

'Or learn it in the first place,' Ranma thought to himself. "So that's what's happening now? The doctors are teaching her that stuff?" Ukyo nodded. "How's it going? Do they think she'll be able to make it on her own eventually?"

"Yeah. Kodachi's smart. Probably smarter than any of us." The chef snorted, remembering the I.Q. test she'd watched the doctors administer to their patient. Ukyo had worked on the questions and conundrums as well, in silence, and it was rather annoying that the girl whose mind she'd wiped had outperformed her by a wide margin. "They think she'll make a full recovery. At least… well, maybe 'recovery' isn't the right word, since she won't be the same as she was before.

"What I meant is, they think she'll be as functional as any normal person. A year from now, probably the only thing left in her from this will be her new personality. They expect she'll be quiet and shy for the rest of her life."

"That's a heck of an improvement over the old Kodachi." Ranma gave Ukyo a tentative smile. "You know, just about everything you've said sounds like an improvement. Even the memory loss. She won't have to remember throwin' razor hoops around, or drugging people, or any of the rest of it."

"Yeah. Like I said, she is better off now. Probably better off in every way."

"Right. So why the long face, Ucchan?" he demanded. "Why're you feeling guilty about this?! Heck, if somebody came up ta me and told me to make a decision, have this happen to Kodachi or leave her like she was, I know which choice I'd pick. Wouldn't spend any sleepless nights trying to decide, that's for sure."

"It's not that simple, Ranchan." Ukyo looked away. "It's not really about Kodachi, at least not just her."

After waiting a few moments for Ukyo to say what it was really about, Ranma prompted, "What do you mean?"

"I mean, this isn't what I meant to do!" she burst out. "Never mind whether it worked out for the best. Don't you get it?! I've got these powers, and the very first time I try to use them, I get something that wasn't what I was trying for. Something permanent, that I can't undo, that nobody can undo! What if it had been bad for Kodachi?! What then?!"

"I don't know," he admitted. "But it didn't happen. Ucchan, you shouldn't—"

"Don't say that!!" she yelled. "Don't give me what you gave Shampoo, about not wasting your time looking at the past. Not looking at things I didn't want to is what ripped a hole in my heart in the first place! Not seeing things as they really are can kill you, Ranma! Or make you wish you were dead!!"

She ran out of energy then, lapsing into relative silence broken only by her own deep, heaving breaths. After a few moments, Ukyo felt strong enough to focus on him again… and almost immediately wished she hadn't. Ranma had half-turned in his seat, looking away from her, but she could still see that his eyes were hooded with pain. The chef grimaced bitterly, running the last few minutes back through her mind. "Sorry. I didn't mean to yell like that. I'm not mad at you. It just… it hurts like fire, that I've got all this power, and I don't dare to use it like I really want."

Encouraged by the fact that he was now looking at her again, a quizzical look beginning to displace the pain, Ukyo continued. "That was the first real coherent thought I had, once I got back from my little trip beyond the boundaries of the world. That maybe I'd just had my soul seared and burned on a hot grill, but at least some good was gonna come of it. At least I'd be able to help you like I couldn't have before."

"Why'd you think I needed that much help?" Ranma asked.

"Oh, I don't know," Ukyo said, trying for sarcasm but only achieving bitterness. "Maybe it was the glimpses of possible futures I got shown in that whole 'dark night of the soul' thing. One where you decided seppuku was the easy way out. Another where Akane cracked your skull open in a really nasty fit of temper. That's the kind of stuff I saw, Ranchan. Before then I'd never realized just how bad things were getting here. I'm ashamed of that. And I'll help you, the best I can do. It just hurts that I can't do everything I'd like to."

"What do you wish you could do, Ucchan? Wave your hand and solve all my problems for me?" Ranma asked, with the barest hint of a frown. While part of him thought that sounded nice, his pride — beaten and battered though it was from recent events — rejected the thought. Help would be one thing, but helplessness was something he'd never embrace.

She stared soberly back at him. "I'd like to. But even at the very beginning, that isn't what I was planning to do. My first idea was to fix up Kodachi, then go to you and explain everything, and show you the new and improved Black Rose to back up my claims. So you'd know that I really did have the power to make a difference, to help you out. And then we'd work together to solve those problems. That was the plan."

"And you changed plans, when that very first thing didn't go right for you." He was still a little confused as to why she'd switched over to the dreams, but decided to save that question for later.

"It hit me really hard, Ranchan. I already told you that. I might be more powerful than before, but I was nowhere near as in-control as I thought I was going to be." She dropped her gaze. "Like when you dropped that Kaori bomb on me and I blew up. I don't think I made this real clear earlier, but I hadn't been planning on doing it that way. I knew I needed to end our engagement, but I wanted to find a less painful way of doing it. You just caught me when I was weak and hurting. I'm sorry."

"'S'okay," Ranma muttered. "You got nothing to apologize for, Ucchan."

"Doesn't make me less sorry. Sorry about that, about things in general, sorry I can't help you as much as I first thought I could."

"You warned me about Mousse." The thought blazed forth in a sudden flash of clarity. "Even though you wanted to just deal with him yourself. That was what I felt, back in that dream. You coulda handled him just like you did those muggers, but you let me take care of my own problem with a little help."

She smiled back at him, a proud, sad, weary expression. "Do you think I did the right thing, Ranchan?"

"Yeah." He said it quietly, with no special attempt made to seem sincere. To Ukyo, that quiet response was all the more convincing for its matter-of-factness; some of the weariness eased out of her expression. "Thanks, Ucchan," Ranma continued, and a little more vanished. Hoping to wipe out the rest, and maybe make some inroads on the sadness as well, her best friend forced a grin. "Hey, where were ya when I needed help with Kuno? He actually managed to draw blood on me. Once he gets out of the loony bin, he's gonna brag about that for the rest of his life!"

Ukyo snorted. "Golly gee, can you forgive me? I wish I could've done more. But you see, there's this problem… the brighter the light is in a place, the weaker my powers are there. I barely managed to detect that stupid sword inside Kuno's bokken in the first place; it was all I could do to blunt the edge as much as I did. If it weren't for the darkness inside that shell, between the wood and the metal, I couldn't even have done that."

Humor forgotten, Ranma spent the next several seconds gaping at Ukyo. "You mean… you did…?"

She rolled her eyes. "Well, duh, Ranchan. You pressed your arm straight down against the edge of a katana, for crying out loud. A katana belonging to Mr. Tatewaki Samurai-Wannabe Kuno. That thing would've cut clear to your bone if I'd been out sick that day."

"I'm glad you weren't," Ranma said quietly, recovering at least a little of his balance. "I'm glad you were there, looking out for me."

Ryoga had no idea where he was, but that was nothing unusual. Nor was the fact that he currently stood less than a foot off the ground, his humanity temporarily washed away by water he hadn't even seen coming. He was depressed, angry, brooding over his latest defeat, thinking about how he might finally triumph over Ranma… Again, nothing out of the ordinary.

Except that for once the "latest defeat" hadn't been handed to him by his pigtailed rival. Ryoga was doing his best to keep this pushed to the back of his mind. He had no real desire to think back to the specifics of that battle, or the ease with which the newest Nerima nutcase had taken him out. Ryoga kept the memories at bay as best he could, concentrating on the important stuff. Namely, that the fight — and what was worse, the hateful contempt that girl had shown for Akane — was all Ranma's fault. Whoever the newcomer was, she wouldn't even be here if it weren't for that womanizing jerk. Did Ranma care, though? Did he have even a shred of decency in his heart, to feel remorse over the trouble and dishonor he caused over and over and over again for Akane? Or for Ryoga himself? The boy-turned-pig snorted at the thought. He'd bet every one of his bandanas against it.

Well, if there was any justice, Ranma would pay. Ryoga wasn't quite ready yet, but soon he would have the means needed to finally pay his rival back for all his crimes, to finally earn the victory he deserved. Ryoga thought back to the source of his recent inspiration, and gave a grunting whuffle that was the best approximation his cursed form could make to a dire, ominous laugh. He could almost picture it now… himself walking forward, tall and proud; the mystery girl's face taking on an expression of stunned horror mixed with awe as he dropped Ranma's twisted, bruised, unconscious, defeated form before her and thanked her for the lesson she had taught him… Akane would be there too, thankful to finally be free of Ranma's perversion, thankful too to know who she could really depend on… heck, not just Akane, but the whole Tendo family… he could see it so clearly, even gentle Kasumi facing Ranma with a dark frown, then turning away to regard Ryoga himself with gratitude and relief…

Ryoga blinked as reality suddenly intruded on his fantasy. The world was spinning! The ground was falling away beneath his trotters! He squealed, reflexively struggling, then realized a moment later that he'd just been picked up. Looking up and identifying the perpetrator, he relaxed into relieved amiability.

Kasumi stared down at the little black piglet with an expression of gratitude and relief. "I don't know why you wander off so often, P-chan, but I'm glad you came back just now." She walked back toward the house, grateful that the evening dusk hadn't quite been dark enough yet to prevent her from seeing her sister's pet wandering in the street outside. "Akane will be glad to see you."

That was more than enough to wipe all thoughts of angst and anger from Ryoga's mind. He closed his eyes, savoring rather different emotions now. As a result, he didn't see Soun or Nabiki as Kasumi carried him into the house. Not that it likely would have made a difference if he had; Ryoga could be as clueless as Ranma about many things, and he probably wouldn't have seen anything worth noticing in Soun's drawn, tired expression. As for Nabiki, she was wearing her usual mask, which flickered only for an instant as she sent a sharp gaze Ryoga's way.

"Is Akane still upstairs?" Kasumi asked. Nabiki grunted, which Kasumi understood to be a "yes". The eldest Tendo daughter headed to the second floor hallway and knocked on her sister's bedroom door. After receiving no response, she knocked again, a little more forcefully, and called out, "Akane?"

"What is it, Kasumi?" Akane's voice came from the other side of the door, tense and strained. Ryoga opened his eyes, startled at the tone she'd used. Akane certainly hadn't sounded happy. Surely that would change, though, when she saw the reason Kasumi was here.

"I found something of yours. Can I come in?"

"I guess so." Akane's reply came with an utter lack of enthusiasm. Kasumi opened the door and entered the bedroom, with Ryoga's gaze seeking out Akane even before the door had swung fully open. She was seated on her bed, working with her weights. She'd evidently been putting quite a bit of effort into it, as she was sweaty and flushed from the exertion. The look on her face made it clear that her workout hadn't been affording her any real relief or satisfaction. That changed, though, when she saw what her sister was carrying. "P-chan! Did he show up just now, Kasumi?"

"That's right. I thought you'd be happy to see him." Kasumi walked over to the bed and passed the porcine parcel over to her younger sibling.

Akane dropped the barbells and gathered him into her arms. "Thanks, big sister."

"You're welcome, Akane." Kasumi hesitated, as if wondering whether to say something else, then bid her sister goodbye and headed out of the room.

"I'm glad you're back, baby," Akane said softly, settling the piglet into her lap. She began to gently scratch him along his spine. Ryoga grunted in appreciation. "I wish you'd gotten back sooner. But at least you're here now."

Akane's hand faltered, ever so slightly. Ryoga didn't notice. "You always do seem to show up when I need a friend, P-chan. You pulled me out of the water after that idiot Ranma almost got me drowned after the fight with the Golden Pair… you were there at Ryugenzawa when I almost got eaten by a dragon… you were there on Toma's island too…"

By now Ryoga was fighting an urge to fidget. He still wasn't sure how Akane could have seen her pet turn up in some of those places and not start to suspect the truth. Hoping to take her mind away from these trips down memory lane, he turned on her lap, gave a playful squeal, and bumped his head against her other arm. Akane obliged by scratching his head as well. Both her hands were beginning to tremble now, strongly enough that Ryoga did notice an odd quality in the familiar sensations.

"I'm glad you're here now…" Akane said again, interrupting the sentence with a curious gulping sound. "P-chan, I'm… I'm so…" Another gulp, or rather a series of them. "Things are r-really bad right now." A single drop of water splashed against the piglet's back. He looked up, eyes widening in helpless, surprised dismay, to see tears flooding Akane's eyes. "It's Ranma. It's, it's always R-Ranma. Why c-can't he ever be n-nice to me, P-chan?! Why… Why does h-he always p-put those other, other g-girls ahead of m-m-me?!"

Ryoga watched, feeling more helpless than ever, as the dam broke. The familiar safeguard would serve no longer; the anger could no longer shield her from the pain. Akane held him tightly and cried hot tears mixed of equal parts anger and misery. It took a long time for the storm to pass, twilight deepening into true night before she eventually cried herself out.

She didn't seem to be feeling much better, though. Slowly, haltingly, Akane told her pet what had happened lately, pausing every so often to sniffle and wipe at her reddened eyes. Ryoga's eyes were red, too, by the time she'd finished, though in his case this was due to something rather different from tears.

Ranma closed his eyes, savoring the feeling of the wind in his hair. It was a rather windy night; the air rushed past him with nearly enough vigor that he could almost imagine he was already soaring through the night sky. Could almost forget that he was currently still awake, and earthbound, and leaning his head out the window of Ukyo's darkened guest bedroom.

For awhile he just stood there, not really thinking about anything, relaxing and enjoying the peaceful moment. It had been a very long day. He chuckled a little, as that thought ran through his mind. This day had to have set some kind of record for him. He'd never processed this much information in this short a time in his life.

He and Ukyo had taken a break for the rest of the afternoon, then spent most of the evening talking again. Ranma had been curious to know whether she'd done anything else to help him out that he didn't know about yet. He'd even guessed that she was responsible for his quick recovery after his fight with Mousse, but Ukyo had denied this. Her theory was that when Ranma called on all his chi, he must have burned most of the paralysis powder out of his system. Ranma made a mental note to confirm it one of these days, with the aid of someone not actually out for his blood.

As it turned out, her sabotage of Kuno's sword was the only other action she'd taken on his behalf that he hadn't already known anything about. The dreams had been far and away her biggest point of intervention. She'd used them in conjunction with her favorite ability, to drain away negative emotions that were building up too high in him; at the same time, though, she had forced him to face those emotions, and to take some hard looks at the circumstances of his life. Ranma felt like he understood now, at least a little better, and though the memories of not being allowed to ask questions were still a little irksome, he could see Ukyo's point. If he had figured out too much too soon, it would have just made things more complicated.

And they were already plenty complicated enough. A shadow rested on Ranma's face for a moment, as he let his thoughts drift away from Ukyo and the refuge she'd offered him here. There were still plenty of problems waiting for him in Nerima… and Ukyo had made it crystal clear that though she'd help him to the absolute best of her ability, her powers weren't anywhere near enough to solve said problems quickly and easily.

He deliberately turned his thoughts away from those matters, focusing for now on the more detailed explanations Ukyo had given him regarding her abilities. In dreams, she could do just about anything she wanted… but only if it involved some other aspect of her power (such as when she had extracted and eliminated his pain) or was intimately tied to the dream itself (such as his compulsion to not view her visitations as anything other than normal dreams) would it endure into the waking world.

There was something of a way around that, though, Ukyo had told him… if she fashioned a dream whose environment matched the real world, the two would synchronize and overlap. She could move through that, or carry someone through it, and still reach through it to reality. That was what she had done on the night they had seen Mousse in the forest, and also on the earlier night when she'd saved that unknown girl. It was fortunate in the extreme that Ukyo had chosen that particular time to experiment with that ability, had sensed the girl's fear and followed along to guard her.

His oldest friend could observe and touch the world from that state, but not actually step into it. For teleporting herself, she needed to be awake, and she could only step into somewhere with fairly deep shadow. The quality of light where she was teleporting from didn't make a difference, though, unless she was taking someone along with her — such as their trip from the Tokyo Tower the previous night.

She could also summon an aura of elemental darkness that could be as solid or as ephemeral as she wished, though the strength and effectiveness of it would lessen quickly as surrounding light levels increased. The shadowy screens she'd used to display scenes out of memory were an application of that, as of course was the familiar mask she'd worn in his dreams.

When Ukyo had finished her explanation, Ranma was forced to agree with her… none of that sounded like it could directly solve all his problems. At least, not in any way he or she would consider acceptable. Sure, Ucchan could send the other girls terrible nightmares of him turning out to be an awful husband, she could torment them in their sleep until their collective nerve broke and everyone quit pulling so hard on him… but Ranma would endure a hundred days like yesterday rather than ask her to do something like that.

Still, he mused, as he pulled back inside the room and shut the window, if he played his cards right they might be able to deal with Shampoo. Ranma hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about a particular revelation that Kaede had made, but the fact that the Kiss of Death need not apply if the Amazon and her opponent agreed to this beforehand was burned indelibly into his mind. It would take a good bit more planning, but maybe he could get Ucchan to challenge Shampoo with himself as the prize. If the fight took place at night, Ukyo wouldn't have any trouble at all subduing the Amazon. He knew better than to think Cologne wouldn't still want him to marry Shampoo, but if he could take Amazon law out of the equation and give Shampoo an honorable way out, it might take a lot of the pressure off.

He didn't have any ideas yet about Kaori or Kaede, and thinking about Akane hurt too much. But it was a start, quite a good start really. Ranma allowed himself a small, guarded smile.

The expression stayed, growing wider and more genuine as he stripped down to T-shirt and boxers and stretched out on his bedroll. He was looking forward to this dream. It might not be a real escape from the chaos of Nerima, but while it lasted Ranma intended to enjoy it to the max.

As he sank down into slumber, Ranma's fading thoughts drifted back to Ucchan, and how she had seemed both surprised and pleased this evening, when he'd wanted the two of them to fly away in another dream. His best friend had had plenty of her own pain this day; Ranma knew that, and wasn't proud of it. But he was proud of the tender, happy smile she'd given when he made that request, and of how much better he'd obviously made her feel.

"Ranchan?" No response. She spoke a little louder. "Hey, Ranchan, wake up!" Ukyo frowned, and reached out to grab his shoulder. Whatever subconscious defense mechanism allowed him to evade attacks in his sleep clearly didn't consider this a threat; Ukyo made contact and gave him a mild shaking, achieving exactly no result. Ranma's breathing remained deep, even, and regular, showing no signs that his slumber was being disturbed in the slightest.

Ukyo rolled her eyes, then pulled back and settled down into something vaguely resembling a meditative posture. She closed her eyes, reaching out with her abilities to grasp at Ranma's slumbering soul. It was rather harder than usual, since he wasn't currently dreaming. The bright sunlight leaking through the window didn't help either. Still, she managed it quickly enough.

Ranma found himself standing on a flat gray surface, under a flat grey sky. The utter uniformity was broken only by the sight of Ukyo before him. "Hey, Ucchan, what's up with this?" he asked, puzzled. The dream they'd shared the previous night had ended several hours earlier, but from Ranma's perspective this was nowhere near apparent. To him, it was as if they had one moment been sitting atop a mountain in North America watching the last of the night slip away before the oncoming dawn, and then the next they were here. Rather a drop in quality in his opinion.

"Ranchan, it's already past seven back in the real world," Ukyo replied. "And it's Monday morning, which means school."

Ranma flinched. "Y'know, I think maybe I'd better give that a miss for awhile. Uh… that okay with you?" Asking her permission like that felt awkward, grating rather harshly against his pride, but it seemed like a necessary evil. Akane had never been happy when she thought he was slacking off, and neither had Kaori, for that matter… he sure couldn't afford to get Ucchan mad at him right now.

"You don't have to ask my permission, silly," Ukyo said. "Besides, I agree one hundred percent. It's not a good idea for you to go back there just now."

"Great. Thanks." He grinned, glad for the support and reprieve. "What about you? Are you gonna go?"

"Well, that is why I bothered to get back into your dreams right now," Ukyo said with amused exasperation. "I tried to wake you up to tell you that I was about to leave, and that was a total bust."

"Do you really have to go, Ucchan?" Ranma asked.

"Unless you want people to start suspecting you might have come here, yeah, I think I'd better."

"Crud. Guess you're right. Okay, I'll see you later on this afterno— wait!!" Ukyo blinked, startled at the sudden urgency in Ranma's tone. "What about breakfast?!"

His oldest friend rolled her eyes mightily. "I left you a big stack of okonomiyaki in the fridge, Ranma. See you this afternoon, okay?" She turned her attention away from him and toward the unraveling of the dream, then turned back as she remembered something else. "Wait, there is one other thing. I can't stay closed forever. I'm gonna have to open up the restaurant again tomorrow. Maybe even this evening."

"I hear ya," he said quietly, his mood deflating. He hadn't even considered that issue yet. 'One of these days,' Ranma thought grimly, 'I will manage to be something more than just a burden on her.' Aloud, he said, "I'll make myself scarce while you're open or something."

"Don't be silly, you jackass. That's not what I want."

He blinked. "But… we don't want anybody to know I'm here… so…?"

Ukyo gave him a wink. "Don't worry. I've got a clever plan." She gave him just a second to look dubious and concerned at her choice of words, and then she dispersed the dream. Ranma fell back into silent slumber, and Ukyo opened her eyes in the real world.

She stared down at his slumbering form. "You big dummy," she said softly. "Like I was really trying to get rid of you for the day or something. Ranchan, I don't think you understand anything.

"But that's okay… I'll help you… I didn't understand anything either, for the longest time…" Ukyo blinked, finding that somehow, quite a bit of the distance separating her face from Ranma's seemed to have vanished. He hadn't moved; he was still sound asleep. It would be so easy…

Her last words echoed back through her mind, knowledge and memories closing around her again. Deliberately, Ukyo turned away, a soft smile no longer framing her lips. "I didn't think it would be this hard."

Akemi tensed. Beside her, fellow employee, Sakura, blinked in surprise at the reaction. "Something wrong, Akemi?" she muttered, following the other girl's line of sight. As far as she could tell, her coworker was staring at the man who'd just walked into the bar. Sakura gave him a quick visual once-over. A bit taller than usual, with long black hair, a well-groomed mustache, lean build, a smooth, flowing gait that made her suspect he wasn't wearing that brown gi as a fashion statement… it was nobody she'd seen before, but then again, she'd only started working at this bar last week. "Is that guy trouble?"

A few more seconds passed, then Akemi relaxed. "No, not him. Decent enough guy, better than most you'll see in here, actually. He comes here pretty regular with a friend. But every now and then there'll be this little old geezer with them…" Akemi broke off, giving a whole-body shudder of disgust. "Thank the kami he's not here now."

"That bad, huh?"

"Worse." Akemi changed the subject slightly, wanting only to forget about Happosai. "I'm surprised to see Fu Manchu here come in all by himself, though. And with that long face… Wonder if something happened to his buddy."

"Not if it's a stocky bald guy who also wears a gi to a bar," Sakura commented, referring to the man who'd just walked through the door and was now heading purposefully toward Soun's table. "That who you're talking about?"

"Bingo," Akemi said, brightening. When they didn't have their nightmarish Master with them, the two were quite good customers… not grabby with the serving girls, not the kind who liked starting fights — and the one time a fight did start they had cleared it up incredibly quickly and with a minimum of damage — and prone to ordering truly impressive quantities of alcohol. They didn't tip very well, of course, but one can't have everything.

From the two men's expressions — glum on the taller, grim on the larger — it seemed unlikely that they suspected one of the prettiest serving girls in this establishment was looking their way and thinking favorable thoughts. "It's good to see you again, Saotome," said the man in the brown gi, as his companion joined him at his table.

"Same to you, Tendo." Genma half-turned and caught the attention of a passing girl. He and Soun placed their orders. Nothing more was said between them until the first beers had arrived at their table and each had taken a long pull. In Genma's case over half his drink disappeared in that first draught. He wiped the foam from his mouth, then said, "It seems like it's been a long time."

"It certainly does," Soun agreed. He took another swallow, then said, "The house doesn't feel the same without you and Ranma around to liven things up."

"It doesn't feel better, I hope," Genma said acerbically. "Were the peace and quiet worth it?" With another long series of gulps he drained his beer, and signaled for another one.

"You certainly are a kidder, Saotome," Soun said morosely, his expression showing no amusement at the comment. "Peace? Not a bit of it. Watching my little Akane walk around all choked up in anger and… and hurt…" His eyes teared up. In an attempt to divert his thoughts, Soun gulped down the last of his beer and asked, "What about Ranma? How's the boy taking this?"

The elder Saotome sighed. "I don't know. He hasn't caught up with me yet."

"You mean you haven't seen him since Saturday?" Soun asked with a frown.

"That's right." Genma took a pull on his replacement drink.

"Maybe you should try searching for him, instead of waiting for him to come to you."

"I'm not waiting for him to come to me."

Soun's brow wrinkled. Usually things didn't stop making sense until several drinks farther along. "What do you mean?"

"Ranma can take care of himself," Genma replied. "Under most circumstances. I'm keeping my attention on the one threat he can't handle."

It still wasn't making much sense. The Tendo patriarch glanced down at his beer, wondering if the management had radically upped the alcohol level. Since the price hadn't been jacked radically higher, he supposed not. "I still don't understand, Saotome."

"I've been keeping a close eye on the Cat Café. Making sure Ranma doesn't get trapped in their clutches, right now… when he's vulnerable."

Soun winced, hearing a note in the last three words that made him quite uncomfortable. "So how goes it? No sign of Ranma being dragged kicking and screaming into the depths, I take it?"

"No." The same note as before was still in Genma's tone, stronger than ever. "No sign of him heading there of his own free will, either, since he has nowhere to go after his real home threw him and his father out."

Soun looked down into his beer. "I'm sorry, Saotome." His voice barely cleared a whisper. "You know I didn't want to do it."

The bar was nothing like brightly lit. Nevertheless, Genma's glasses managed to catch what light there was and gleam brightly enough to hide his eyes. "Tendo, there needs to be a limit." Soun didn't say anything, and after a minute Genma continued. "I'll admit that Ranma still has things to learn about how to treat a wife. Or even a fiancée. But I'm not going to let my boy take all the blame this time.

"What he did was right. He kept Akane safe and sound, just like a good fiancé should. He protected her, as was his duty as a martial artist and a man. And what did he get for it? What did we get for it, Soun? Thrown out on the street!"

"It's only for a little while!" Soun said desperately. "Just until Akane calms down and sees reason!"

"Are you so sure she wouldn't calm down faster and see reason better with Ranma there to help her?" Genma retorted.

Soun shook his head. "You haven't seen her. My little girl tries to put on a good face, but it's just not true. I can still feel how bad she's feeling, even when she's not showing it… even when she's not breaking things, or, or crying on her bed…" Soun desperately grabbed his latest refill and drained the whole of it in one long drink, only barely managing to keep from bursting into tears himself.

Genma sighed, and picked up a new beer of his own. "This wasn't what I wanted," he muttered into the glass. And it wasn't. Shampoo's challenge should have made things better between Ranma and his fiancée! Akane should have let Ranma train her! If this meant so much to her, she ought to have been willing to put up with the harsh style of training that had done such good for his boy. This whole mess should have brought the two closer together.

Ranma had been willing, too, Genma thought darkly. True, his son could have pushed harder, but Genma knew where the real blame lay this time. While he might usually take Akane's side over Ranma's whenever the two had a dispute, that was largely to help Ranma get an idea of the kind of behavior he needed to learn before he got married. Genma knew that his son wasn't always in the wrong. Especially not now. But that didn't change anything… definitely didn't change the fact that Genma was out on the street, wearing himself to the bone keeping a decent surveillance over the Amazons without letting them detect him in return.

"Maybe it's time to start thinking about some changes," he said under his breath.

Ranma was relaxing on the rooftop when Ukyo returned from school. The first notice he got of her arrival was the sound of the front door closing rather forcefully behind her. He slipped back through the window into his room, and walked over and opened his door. He was just in time to catch a glimpse of Ukyo's back as she stalked into her own room. Ranma blinked a few times, then zipped downstairs at his best speed.

A few minutes later, after she'd finished changing into more comfortable, casual clothing, Ukyo joined him in the main room of the restaurant. Ranma was already seated on the long row of stools; Ukyo moved around behind the counter and headed toward the grill. As she moved into place across from him, Ranma spoke up. "Ucchan? What's wrong?"

"Huh?" Ukyo appeared surprised at the question. "What do you mean?"

"Well…" Ranma paused, giving her an evaluating sort of look. His oldest friend didn't look to be in nearly the mood he'd seemed to sense a few minutes ago. "Just… you seemed kind of upset when you first came in. Did I imagine it?"

She snorted, turned on the grill, and began setting out the fixings for okonomiyaki. "Nah, but it wasn't any big deal. Just something on my way back from school that got me pretty hot under the collar, that's all." Putting that matter aside for the moment, Ukyo said, "So how was your day, Ranma?" A sheepish note entered her tone. "I hope you didn't go too hungry. Didn't dawn on me 'til after lunch that I'd only left enough okonomiyaki for your breakfast."

Ranma made a dismissive gesture. "Don't worry about it, Ucchan. I cooked some more for myself. Sure they weren't near as good as you'd've done, but I didn't starve. Don't cook any now unless you wanted to eat 'em yourself."

Ukyo blinked, then looked down at the grill, confirming that it was in the same spotless condition she'd left it this morning. As if protesting the action, Ranma said, "Hey, what's the matter? Don't you think I know enough to clean up after myself?" He didn't see a need to tell her that said cleanup had been forgot— Ahem, deferred until thirty minutes ago. Or that he'd raced downstairs to give the grill a few dozen more wipes on seeing her original bad temper.

"Just thinking you did a better job this time than when you tried keeping my place open for me during that business with the Crepe King," Ukyo replied with a smile. She turned the grill off again and returned the okonomiyaki ingredients to their storage places. "Thanks, sugar."

"Yeah, well, that time wasn't all my fault. Me and Akane…" Ranma's own answering smile weakened, faded, and died. His tone was a lot quieter as he finished, "…we never really got the whole division of labor thing settled."

An awkward moment of silence stretched between the two. Ranma eventually broke it. "So, anyway. How'd school go?"

Ukyo shrugged. "Same old same old. Boring as hell and twice as annoying."

"Uh… did anybody… you know, say anything about me?"

"Not too much. A few people asked Akane where you were, and she said she didn't know."

"That's it, huh. Nobody bothered to ask any more than that?" 'Nobody missed me any more than that?'

"Well, Ranma, it's not like you haven't missed plenty of days when you had challenge matches, or had training to do, or Genma needed you to take the fall for something he'd done…" Ukyo shrugged. "Don't suppose anybody will really start paying attention until you don't show up for a few more days. And that's only if Nabiki doesn't put out some rumor to keep people thinking they know what's going on."

That didn't exactly fill him with a sense of carefree relief, but it did make a certain amount of sense. "Tell me once she does, okay?"

"Sure thing, sugar."

"Thanks." Ranma hesitated, then asked, "So what happened to you on your way home?"

"Oh, that." Ukyo shook her head, though not as if refusing to answer Ranma's question. It was rather a gesture of remembered disgust and disbelief. "Nothing happened, exactly. At least not to me. It was just something I saw."

"Which is…?" he prompted.

"Your father and Soun Tendo, drunk as a couple of skunks, waltzing away from a bar." Ukyo gritted her teeth. "That fat panda bastard doesn't even worry about you, I guess. Doesn't wonder at all where you are or how you're doing. No, he'd rather get back with his good buddy Soun and drink the day away."

"Huh. Big surprise there. Not." Ranma didn't even feel like it was worth frowning over hearing that. "You do anything to show him the error of his ways?"

"Nope, Ranchan, not today. If I had, I wouldn't've still been so ticked off when I got back here." Ukyo glowered in silence for a moment. "It's just too bad Soun was there and a fire hydrant wasn't. I'd have dearly loved to splash him, call the zoo, and let them pick up Mr. Panda while he's too drunk to do anything about it."

Despite himself, Ranma gave a snicker. "You coulda just followed them until Pop and Mr. Tendo went their separate ways, and done it then."

"Yeah, but I didn't want to keep you waiting, Ranchan."

"If the only other choice is passing up an opportunity like that, go ahead. Make me wait."

Ukyo laughed herself. "Okay, will do." Then she sobered. "But seriously, today I really shouldn't have. Because seeing your father reminded me of something. Something really important."

"What's that?"

"It was one thing in particular that spirit showed me. Probably the single clearest thing I got from it, actually. It came after I finished getting changed, which is probably why it was easier to understand what the thing was trying to communicate."

"Makes sense," Ranma commented. "What'd it say? Something about what you were supposed to do next?"

"Not really. Well, kind of. Okay, yes and no." Ukyo smiled slightly at him. "It showed me a vision of you, Ranchan."

Ranma blinked, not exactly reassured by this. "Uh… me?"

"That's right. Anyway, what I saw then was an image of you coming before it yourself, and getting your own helping of elemental power."

"WHAT?!" Ranma exclaimed. "Why would I wanna do that?!"

"Cause the type you'd get is water," Ukyo replied. "And it'd have this nice little side-effect of breaking your Jusenkyo curse."

She halfway expected him to start racing around the restaurant looking for the scepter as soon as she finished the sentence. Instead, Ranma just sat there. It wasn't a case of being too stunned to react, either… his brow was wrinkled, and the muscles of his neck and shoulders had tensed up. He was giving the thought much more consideration than Ukyo had expected, and he didn't look anything like as pleased as she'd thought he would. "What's wrong, Ranchan? Aren't you even a little bit happy to hear that?" she eventually asked, a rather plaintive note in her voice.

"I… I dunno." Ranma swallowed. "I mean, I want a cure to my curse. More than… more than just about anything. But… I'm not sure… this price sounds like it'd be too high."

"Too high?" Ukyo asked blankly. Then, as enlightenment broke forth, she said, "Ranchan, I said it would be water. Not darkness. You wouldn't need to go through the nightmare I did."

"That's not it," he said quietly. "I… I just don't think I'm ready to pay that kinda price. Don't wanna give up my humanity just to get rid of this—"

"EXCUSE ME?!" In an instant Ukyo was in a combat-ready pose, battle spatula in one hand, the other grabbing a fistful of Ranma's shirt and hauling him toward her. She glared at him more fiercely than she'd done since her arrival in Nerima. "Would you care to explain that little comment, Ranma?!"

For his part, Ranma just stared helplessly at the vision of restrained fury before him. "What'd I say?" he managed.

"How the hell can you even ask that?!" Ukyo demanded. "You just said I wasn't even human anymore, you jackass!!"

"Are you?" Ranma did the only thing he could think of, which was blunder on forward. "I mean, you fly, and teleport, and mess around with people's minds and dreams and souls… what else do you call it?!"

Only because Ukyo was now deliberately draining away her own anger did she refrain from smacking him one. Instead, she let Ranma go; as he pulled back she shot her free hand forward, poking her index finger rather forcefully into his chest. "I call those abilities, Ranma!! How about you?! What would you call somebody that can summon a tornado, or shoot energy beams from his hands? Or shapechange into a girl?!" He flinched rather badly at that last one, which allowed Ukyo's temper to finish dying down. She fell silent.

Ranma emulated her for quite a long time. He sat there, thinking over what she'd said. At last, none too sure that what he was doing was the right thing, but unable to keep quiet, he said, "Okay, that's a good point. But still… Ucchan, are you sure? How do you know?"

"I just do," Ukyo said quietly, unhappily. So much for an apology. "I know it as clear as you know you're human. I learned a lot of stuff that changed me, and I got given power. But I'm still Ukyo Kuonji, a human being." She stared sharply at him. "If nothing else, there's the fact that this power won't pass on to my kids. I know that too. Don't remember any exact moment when the spirit told it to me, but it's right in there with all the rest of the stuff that got added to my instincts." She took a deep breath. "That convincing enough for you, Ranma? I can still have children. All this power doesn't mean jack as far as that goes."

"Okay, okay," Ranma said sullenly. It was clear that Ukyo thought he should feel guilty, and he couldn't see where he was anything like that much in the wrong. So what if he had pushed it a little? If Ukyo had been deceiving herself over this issue, wouldn't it have been better to point this out to her? Wasn't that the kind of stuff she'd been beating him over the head about in his dreams? "Jeez, it was just a question. You shoulda just started out with that kids thing."

"No, it wasn't a question," Ukyo replied quietly. "You didn't ask. You assumed that. Didn't you?"

To that, he could find no good answer. "Um… I… Okay, I was wrong! Sorry, already! Why's it such a big deal, Ukyo?!"

"Why's it such a big deal? That you just assumed something about me — something like that — and didn't ask me what the truth was?" Ukyo turned up the intensity of her gaze. "How'd you feel whenever that happened to you, Ranma? Did it bother you when Akane called you stupid, or a pervert, or a jerk? Over and over and over again, just running with what she chose to believe, not letting you tell her what the truth really was?!"

Ranma didn't answer at all for a while. At last he muttered, "I'm starting to wonder whether she was right about some of it."

That little statement did an excellent job of ending his status as the target of her unhappiness. "Don't you say that," Ukyo said, performing a tight emotional one-eighty. "Don't you dare. You just haven't learned this stuff yet because of how you grew up. On the road with Genma as your father, what else could have happened?! Ranma, you've made your mistakes, but considering what you've got going against you, you've done a great job. You've just got some more catch-up work to do, that's all."

Another long period of silence, though this one was rather less painful than the last. "I hope you're right, Ukyo," he said at last. "Sorry about this latest screw-up. It's a good thing I've got somebody to help me with these things, huh?"

"I hope so. I can't promise that I'll get it perfect," Ukyo returned quietly. "I shouldn't have blown up at you just now. But I'll do the best I can." She forced a smile. "Be a good student and learn quick, okay? I'm not always going to be around to help you."

'Boring as hell and twice as annoying.' The remark she'd made to Ranma two days ago bobbled up from the depths of Ukyo's unconsciousness. If anything, she decided, that had been an understatement. The hours spent at Furinkan had never exactly flown by (except during the occasional lapse into frantic Hawaiian-themed insanity when Principal Kuno pulled another scheme). But now they seemed to crawl past at a pace that would leave snails yawning.

The problem was, Ukyo had almost no reason to be here. Not anymore. She was still coming to terms with what had happened to her, the way she'd been changed, and what it would all mean, but she knew that any chance of having an ordinary life — which had admittedly been pretty small to begin with — had finally been shot to hell and gone. She wasn't going to be living a life where she'd need the kind of education offered at Furinkan. She didn't know yet just what shape her future would take after this, but that much, along with the fact that okonomiyaki was still a vital part of her, was certain.

It was ironic, really. There was only one real reason why she stayed here now, and that was Ranma. Or rather, it was to serve as camouflage for Ranma. If she had suddenly started skipping school immediately after he was kicked out of the Tendo household, Ukyo suspected there would be plenty of people who would put two and two together. And that wouldn't do at all, for his sake.

Still, it was hard. She'd rather be there with him. She'd rather spend this time talking to him, helping him adjust, easing out the pain and hurt she knew he still carried from the events of the weekend. Every minute she spent shut up in Furinkan, every minute that she could have enjoyed with Ranma, every minute that ticked remorselessly past, slipping away forever, felt like a small nail being driven through her soul.

When you know you won't be spending the rest of your life with the one you love, you want to take full advantage of what time you do have.

Ukyo let out a long sigh, and tried to think of other things. The school day and week were only halfway over. It was lunchtime now, and she was sitting under a tree a fair distance removed from everyone else. Suited her just fine, she thought. Maybe in a couple of weeks, when it wouldn't look so suspicious, she could shake the dust of this place off her heels for good. There was nothing and no one here any longer that she'd miss at all.

"Afternoon, Ukyo."

The girl in question looked up, to find Nabiki Tendo staring coolly down at her. 'What perfect timing,' she thought sourly. "You want something?"

"I heard you closed your restaurant a couple of days ago. I have to say, that's a shame." She paused, evaluating Ukyo's reaction. The girl was just looking at her. Nabiki couldn't say she saw anything in Ukyo's eyes other than the same sort of irritated, unhappy tiredness that had been there these past two months. Still, the coincidence seemed just a little too suspicious to her. "Why did you close, exactly?"

"Family business. And I really don't see how it's any of yours, Nabiki. You never ate at my place."

Nabiki shrugged. "I suppose I'm just curious. After all, there are a lot of students here who will miss eating at Ucchan's." She put just the barest hint of emphasis on the word, and took note of the fact that Ukyo didn't visibly react. "I don't suppose you could tell me when, or if, you're going to be opening again?"

Ukyo just gave her an odd look. "Not as on top of the ball as usual, are we, Nabiki?" she asked, allowing a mocking note to enter her tone. "I reopened yesterday. Don't have any plans to close down again anytime soon, either."

The middle Tendo blinked, which was as much reaction as she'd allow herself to show. "You did?"

"Yep." Ukyo leaned back against the tree, deliberately looking off into the middle distance. It was a pretty clear gesture of dismissal.

Under other circumstances, Nabiki might have complied. However, she had the distinct sensation that she'd come out second best in the encounter so far. That was not acceptable. There was no way in heaven or earth that she was going to lose a battle of wits with the likes of a member of the Saotome fiancée brigade.

And then there was the question of why Ukyo should have made it into such a battle in the first place. Without an answer to that question, Nabiki wasn't about to let go of her suspicions that Ukyo might know something about how Ranma seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

Deliberately, she knelt down and seated herself across from Ukyo. The chef turned her attention back to her guest, looking more annoyed than ever. "What now?"

"Just had a few more things I was wondering. I thought I'd take the opportunity to ask you now," Nabiki returned, in a careless, of-course-it's-just-idle-curiosity tone of voice.

"Like what?"

"Like… why are you still here?" A less experienced player might have switched to a piercing tone for this question and accompanied it with an intense scrutinizing look. Nabiki, however, kept her voice light and unconcerned. "After all, your whole reason for coming to Nerima in the first place was Ranma. And now you've given up on him. Right? What's keeping you here, in the insanity capital of Japan? Heck, I'd just like to know why you're still putting up with Furinkan." It was Nabiki's turn to look away into the middle distance, though she kept Ukyo in her peripheral vision. "I know if I'd been Ranma's fiancée and I finally gave up on him, I'd make it a clean break. I sure wouldn't want to stick around and keep on being reminded of what I'd never really had a chance at getting."

Silence followed Nabiki's final statement, one of those throbbing, pulsing silences like you get on a summer afternoon when dark clouds are boiling overhead, just before the storm breaks in fury. Except this one was a bit more ominous. Nabiki turned her attention back to Ukyo, and felt a sudden queasy worm of fear begin crawling through her gut. There was anger in the other girl's eyes like she'd never seen before. Silently berating herself for going too far, Nabiki got back to her feet, as nonchalantly as she could without sacrificing speed. "Just something to think about, Ukyo," she said casually. "There's really no reason for you to stay around here and put up with the kind of crap this place heaps on us, right? Well, see you." She turned, and began to walk quickly away. Quickly, but not quickly enough.

Ukyo shot to her feet, took two blazing steps forward, and clutched Nabiki's shoulder in a grip the other girl had no chance whatsoever of breaking. She refrained from squeezing hard enough to hurt, though. Nabiki thought she was so smart, did she? Believed she could push people around and twist them however she liked for her own amusement and profit? Well, as far as Ukyo was concerned it was time for some payback. In a coin that would really hurt the middle Tendo.

All this had happened in roughly the blink of an eye. Ukyo spun Nabiki around and gave her a particularly dark, grim stare. "Contrary to what you seem to think, I am not stupid. You've never had a lot of trouble pushing me around, cause you were always hitting me where I was weak. Namely, Ranma. Well, you know what, upperclassman? That's not true anymore. I meant it when I broke my engagement to him."

"I don't remember saying you didn't, or asking whether it was true," Nabiki remarked coolly. "Why exactly are you bringing this up?"

"You are so full of it," Ukyo returned. "Guess what, Nabiki. You aren't the only one who can put two and two together. I may not spend my time hanging around Ranma anymore or trying to make nice to him," a blatant lie that she spoke with no difficulty whatsoever, "but I still noticed that he hasn't been at school so far this week. And that Akane's been in one of her moods the whole time.

"And now you're here trying to pump me for information. Jeez, you must really think I'm stupid," Ukyo said disgustedly. "You must really not have a high opinion of me at all, if you thought I wouldn't catch on to what you're trying to do. Something's up with Ranma, and you want to find out if I know anything about it."

"You're jumping to conclusions," Nabiki said, trying to keep her composure while at the same time attempting to formulate the best possible lie for explaining Ranma's continued absence.

"Am I really?" Ukyo said sarcastically. "You know what? I don't really give a damn, Nabiki. Not about what's going on, anyway. I just want to be left alone. And since you'd rather come and try and drag me back into this again, and wouldn't leave me alone… since you figured it'd be fun to push on the most painful memories of my life…" she shrugged. "This is where you get yours."

Nabiki tensed. In spinning her around, Ukyo had sacrificed some of the stability of her grasp. As soon as the chef shifted her weight to throw the first punch, she would do her best to twist out of this hold and run for relative safety… huh?

Ukyo hadn't tensed, hadn't attacked at all. Instead, she'd turned her head to one side. Locating her quarry, she lifted her voice and called out, "Yo! Kaori! Over here!!"

Nabiki did her best to twist out of Ukyo's hold. However, the chef was more than ready for that development, and simply increased the force she was using, maintaining her grip with ease.

Meanwhile, the Martial Arts Takeout girl in question was trotting over, an expression of guarded surprise on her face as she regarded the scene before her. Some guy she vaguely recognized from her class had Nabiki Tendo in what looked like a rather unpleasant bind. Kaori began mentally tensing herself for battle. She might have little liking for the older girl, but there was no way she was going to let some boy molest her. Then again, the boy had been the one to call to her, not Nabiki… and come to think of it, his voice hadn't sounded quite right… had it?

As Kaori approached to within a few feet, Ukyo put an end to her confusion. "Hey, Kaori. We've never talked, but I bet you've heard of me. I'm Ukyo Kuonji, the girl who used to be Ranma's fiancée."

Kaori blinked a few times, and resisted the urge to ask why she was dressed in a boy's uniform. "Why did you call me over here?"

"Cause Miss Tendo has something she doesn't want to tell you. Isn't that right, Nabiki?" Ukyo gave Nabiki a flat smile, then turned back to Kaori. "She as good as admitted to me there's something going on with Ranma. I don't know what it is, and frankly I don't care." Another blatant lie, or rather a pair of them. Ukyo would feel mildly disturbed later at how easily they had come. For now, though she had more important concerns. "But I figure you do want to know, right?"

"That's right," Kaori said, the remaining traces of confusion fading away from her expression. She stared stonily at Nabiki. "So just what is happening with Ranma?"

That was Ukyo's cue to let go. The middle Tendo put one hand to her shoulder and began to rub it, turning to glare at Ukyo. The chef just returned the glare, then began walking away.

Over her shoulder she called back, "Oh, and Kaori. Don't just believe whatever she tells you, even if it sounds good." She snorted. "Especially if it sounds good. Go find Akane and ask her the same thing."

It was raining in Nerima.

Not that this was all that uncommon, of course. It was a bit unusual, though, that this time none of the various Jusenkyo-cursed individuals had been caught in it. Ryoga was wandering through the wilds of greater Tokyo. Shampoo was safe and sound in the Cat Café. Genma wasn't nearly so comfortable, but he had arranged a dry nest on top of a building a few streets away from the Amazon stronghold. And Ranma was standing in Ukyo's guest bedroom, looking out the window, gazing moodily at the rain. It was nighttime, now, with full darkness having fallen a little while ago. From his position he could make out the glow of a streetlight, and the flashing needles of water as they lanced into and then out of the light.

It felt good, but strange, to be serving okonomiyaki in Ucchan's restaurant. Strange to walk around and take orders and smile at the customers, and know that they couldn't see who he really was. Ukyo had cloaked his whole body in an illusion, and introduced him as her cousin Takeshi. It felt particularly strange when he happened to catch a glimpse of himself in a reflective surface… or rather, catch a glimpse of his altered appearance. "Takeshi" stood about the same height as Ranma did, but his build was a bit heavier, his hair was died blonde and cut short, and his facial features were nothing like Ranma's own. In addition to all this, his apparent age was in the early twenties.

Those occasional moments of startlement were a bit annoying, as was the rasp in his throat occasioned by disguising his voice. Ukyo couldn't do that for him, unfortunately; in fact, it was a strain for her just to maintain his full-body illusion for the hours her restaurant was open. Something else that bothered him a little. Not too much, though — strain or not, Ukyo had made it clear that she would much rather have him there to help out.

On the whole, he was glad of that. He had offered to get out of the way while Ucchan's was open to the public… but when Ukyo had reassured him that she hadn't been trying to ask him to do that, it had made him feel pretty good. The Tendos might have thrown him out, but that didn't mean everybody was going to abandon him, or only want him around at times when it was convenient for them.

Of course, that type of reassurance only went so far; Ranma might still have found it a little frustrating, staying cooped up in the restaurant all day… but for one simple fact. Anytime he wanted, he and Ukyo could spend the night going wherever the fancy took them. That freedom was more than enough to eliminate any restlessness he might otherwise have felt. As far as he was concerned, Ranma was glad for the chance to work. He wasn't earning a whole lot of money, but every little bit helped. And his presence was helping Ukyo do a better business. He didn't know whether he was fully paying his own way, but at least he wasn't just freeloading off his best friend.

The Saotome heir stood there and stared out into the rain, and considered how far he'd come. It was still hard, this thinking things through, and considering the full ramifications his actions would have on others. It wasn't the kind of thing that had figured prominently in his upbringing. But he was learning. Learning a lot of things he'd never fully appreciated before. Like Ukyo had told him, sooner or later change must come.

On that note, Ranma turned his thoughts to another question, one that had been lurking in the back of his mind for the past three days. Namely, the choice Ukyo had lain before him, of receiving his own dose of elemental power. Of finally losing his curse. Of getting a bunch of new abilities handed over to him, all at once. Of more irrevocable changes in his life.

It felt a little strange, to be actually thinking this through. After all, whenever a potential cure had come up in the past, he'd always grabbed at the chance, doing his best to shove aside all obstacles between himself and that shining, glorious, elusive prize. And now he had what looked like the best chance of all, one that didn't have difficulties to overcome before granting him his cure, and instead of rushing on ahead with it he was standing here trying to make up his mind?

But like he'd told Ukyo already, the cost of this particular cure might be too high.

Power didn't come without a price. He wasn't sure just when he'd learned that, but somewhere along the road he'd been walking all his life, the knowledge had seeped into his bones. Sure, like Ukyo had said, he could do things that ordinary people would call superhuman… but he'd paid for those abilities with blood, sweat, and tears. That wasn't always fun, but it seemed a lot safer than this kind of power. Something that came quickly and easily, where you didn't know what the price would be until you were paying it.

It helped, knowing that he wouldn't really be giving up his humanity if he did take the plunge. On the other hand, said knowledge only went so far in comforting him. Still human or not, still himself or not, Ranma knew that something like this was bound to change him greatly. As if hearing her story weren't enough, the time he spent with Ukyo had made that abundantly clear.

She was calmer now, and quieter. On the whole she seemed fairly happy to be with him, but Ranma, now that he was paying attention, was seeing more and more clearly that there was a sadness behind it… or perhaps intermingled with it. Even when she was there with him, when they talked and he managed not to say the wrong thing, when she was smiling at him, she was still carrying pain from what had happened to her, from all the things she'd seen and experienced.

Ranma wasn't a coward. But the thought of opening himself up to something like that did scare him, a little.

He stared out into the rain, allowing the direction of his thoughts to drift a bit. It really wasn't fair, not at all. As far as he could see, the only thing Ukyo had received for herself from her abilities was pain. Did she have regrets, he wondered? Would he regret it, if he made the choice to follow her?

The Saotome heir frowned. He felt like there was something important there, related to the whole idea of whether or not his oldest friend regretted her action. Would Ukyo still go through with it again, if she could make the choice over? Did she feel cheated, that she'd received these powers that only let her help others, and not herself?

And with that, he had his answer. Or at least, as much of it as mattered.

Perhaps Ucchan did feel cheated. Frankly, he felt like she had been. But whether or not she did, Ranma was suddenly sure she wouldn't give this up if she had the chance. Wouldn't throw away the changes she had made for the better, just for comfort for herself. Pain or no pain, she had to think this was for the best. If she didn't, she wouldn't even have offered him the chance to take that road himself.

Somehow, that made the whole idea seem a lot less scary, a lot more appealing. Maybe he should do this. All he'd really be doing was following down a trail his best friend had already blazed. Kinda like when they were kids, except it'd been the reverse then — Ranma himself had been the leader, and Ucchan had been the one running after him. Heck, he thought in a sudden flash of not-too-enjoyable insight, that had lasted way beyond their childhood. She'd been following him all this time… at least, up until two months ago…

That realization seemed to make him uncomfortable, somehow. Ranma decided it was probably a natural feeling of remorse at what Ukyo had gone through because of him, and pushed it away. Ucchan had spent most of her life running after him, in one way or another… maybe it would be fitting if he followed her this one time. Kinda even the score a little, or something.

And she wouldn't be so much stronger than him anymore, either. Not that Ranma was really concerned about that fact. Nope, the little imp that had growled at the back of his mind when Akane ate the Super Soba and tossed him around like a rag doll, that nagging discontentment, that driving need to fix the situation… that was all in the past. He wasn't about to resent the fact that Ukyo had skipped so far ahead of him in terms of sheer power.

Or at least, under the circumstances he wasn't ready to admit to such resentment. Not even to himself.

Deciding that he'd had enough introspection for the moment, the Saotome heir deliberately forced his thoughts to stillness. There was no need to make the decision tonight, after all. No need to rush into more big changes just yet. He stood there and stared out into the rain, not really noticing that for once the water didn't seem so threatening.

She moved slowly and steadily through the streets. Her path did not take her through the market, which was just as well. Many people there knew her by name, and they would certainly have stopped her, asking if everything was all right, feeling a terrible sense of wrongness at the sight of Kasumi Tendo without a smile.

It felt wrong to Kasumi herself. But that particular bit of wrongness was just one note out of an entire discordant symphony, so she didn't really pay it that much mind.

The eldest Tendo daughter had a great deal of practice weathering disharmonious, even tumultuous, events. She'd usually managed to remain on the sidelines, but occasionally the drama and chaos that seemed to swirl around Ranma had swept her into its mainstream. As a general rule she had smiled throughout it all, keeping her calm. The others might rush about in worry and furor, but Kasumi had seen these things happen over and over, and really they were quite simple. A crisis would arise, and then it would recede. If trouble came, Ranma and his friends would find a way either to ride it out or smash through it. Ranma and Akane might quarrel, and say hurtful things… but whenever Akane was kidnapped, threatened, or endangered, her fiancé would always come through for her, and at the end of the day everything would be back to the way it was.

It was beginning to dawn on her that repeated stress will eventually erode any rock.

Today was Friday, nearly a week from the day when the Saotomes had taken leave of their home. Kasumi knew her father still saw Genma, had seen him twice this week at least. But of Ranma there had been no sign whatsoever. He hadn't shown up at school. He hadn't been glimpsed in his usual haunts. Nabiki had, with some effort, confirmed that he wasn't with Kaede. Her sister was also quite certain that he hadn't gone either to Ukyo or Kaori… which left one other likely alternative. And so, at Nabiki's request, Kasumi was on her way to the Cat Café for a late afternoon meal.

It was quite past the usual lunch hour; she shouldn't have any trouble at all finding Cologne without much to keep her busy. Nabiki had suggested that that was probably the best way to handle things — engage the old woman in friendly conversation over the course of her meal, Shampoo too if she was there, and see if anything slipped loose regarding Ranma. Or if she could detect any sign of his presence in the restaurant.

Kasumi tried to focus on her task, tried to distract herself with thoughts of her exciting upcoming role of deception and intrigue. But her mind balked, returning again and again to thoughts of Ranma, of how he must be feeling now, having been thrown out on his own, without even his father there to be with him. Of the expression he'd worn, in that one final moment, before turning and walking away. Of how he had been hurt, and how she had stood idly by and let it happen, not wanting this to come to pass, yet not fighting it. As had Father. As had Nabiki.

In the back of her mind, a tiny flame was burning. In a normal person, it would have been considered so small as to be insignificant. In Kasumi, though, this could not be said to be true. It was only the faintest wisp of feeling, but any measure of anger whatsoever in the eldest Tendo daughter was almost completely unheard of. It had been many years, certainly, since Kasumi had felt such an emotion even this strongly. Which was perhaps why it had taken her this long to recognize just what she was feeling.

But she was angry, just a little. Angry that Akane should have made such a decision as this for all of them, angry at how her little sister had carried the rest of the family along on the tide of her temper. It wasn't right. Hurt or not, Akane had behaved badly. They had all behaved badly.

Kasumi nodded firmly, newfound determination helping to put her in a better mood. She would make it up to Ranma. She wasn't sure how, exactly, or when she would get the chance. But if she should find him at the Cat Café, she would immediately go to him and tell him to come home. Akane would simply have to learn that her wishes weren't always going to come true.

On that note, Kasumi looked up, finding herself on the threshold of the restaurant that was her destination. Sure enough, as she glanced through the front windows, she saw that there were no other customers inside. She nodded again, and walked decisively through the front door.

"Good day, Miss Tendo." Cologne's dry voice greeted her. Someone else might have been a little disconcerted at the response, given the fact that the old woman was in the kitchen with no line of sight between herself and her newly-arrived guest. However, Kasumi didn't notice, as she was too busy dealing with a sudden spasm of nerves. Here she was, in the veritable lion's den, come to carry out the daring role of a spy, and she had absolutely no idea how to go about doing this.

"We were just about to close," Cologne continued, bouncing to the window that connected the dining area to the kitchen so she could make eye-contact with her guest. "Actually, I suppose you could say we are closed." Which would explain why all the chairs had been pulled neatly up under the tables, and why there were no place settings visible. "But never mind that. Sit down, sit down. I could do with a little friendly conversation."

Kasumi seated herself as instructed, pulling back a chair from the table closest to Cologne's perch. "Is Shampoo not here to keep you company, Grandmother?" she asked politely, proud of her sudden inspiration. If Shampoo wasn't here, where was she? Spending time with Ranma, perhaps?

"She's around back, training," Cologne replied.

"By herself?" Kasumi inquired. "Wouldn't her training go better if she had someone to help her?"

Cologne waved one hand airily. "Only up to a point, child. My great-granddaughter is far enough along that it would be an insult for me to constantly be looking over her shoulder."

Kasumi didn't frown, but she did mentally sigh. She couldn't tell if her real question had been deliberately deflected or not.

While she was still considering what to say next, the Matriarch spoke again. "Did you want something to eat, Miss Tendo?"

"Yes, please," Kasumi said, thankful to have the immediate heat taken off her. A second later she added, "If it's not too much trouble."

"No trouble at all," Cologne said genially. "What would you like?"

She considered briefly, deciding on a dish that was one of her favorites yet not too difficult to prepare. "I'd like an order of seven-flavor ramen. If you don't mind."

"Coming right up." Cologne returned to the kitchen, and a few moments later various quick, efficient noises emanated forth from the room. In what seemed a surprisingly short time the Matriarch was back at the dividing counter, extending her staff forward toward Kasumi. The eldest Tendo daughter carefully took the tray that was balanced on the end of it, settled it down on the table before her, spread the napkin across her lap, and began to eat.

Cologne waited until Kasumi had finished most of her ramen, contenting herself with the occasional moment of idle chitchat. Then, when the girl was taking a large swallow of ramen broth, she remarked, "Ranma isn't here, by the way."

It had been a little mean, the ancient Amazon later conceded privately, to provoke someone as sweet and innocent as Kasumi into doing such a tremendous spit-take. But at her age she needed all the novelty and new experiences she could get.

Kasumi coughed and choked, somehow managing to do so in a polite, understated way. Once she could speak again, she said, "W-what do you mean, Grandmother?"

"That is why you're here, of course." Cologne didn't even pretend that there might be some uncertainty about this. "Ranma has disappeared, and you have come to see whether he might be found here."

Feeling decidedly dejected at her utter failure as a mistress of intrigue, Kasumi nodded.

"Was it your own idea, child?" This was the part over which Cologne felt some uncertainty. Had Genma finally lost patience with his own surveillance, and pushed the job onto Kasumi's shoulders?

"No," the younger woman replied. "Nabiki asked me to come."

"Is that right?" Cologne replied. "Is she losing her touch? Surely she didn't think I wouldn't see through this…" The Matriarch held thoughtfully silent for some little while, then suddenly let loose a cackle. "Perhaps she thought you would lull my suspicions and keep me occupied, so that some friend of hers a little more experienced in sneakery could slip in unnoticed and search the place."

"Stupid girl, what you think you do here? Try to break in, in broad daylight?!" Shampoo gave Manami a good shaking. The other girl's choice of entry points had been very poor indeed, as had been her luck — when she first arrived, she hadn't seen Shampoo at all. The Chinese girl had been training some little distance down the alley, around a bend and out of sight. However, as soon as Manami began working to open one of the rear windows, the Amazon's current kata had carried her back toward the restaurant and a clear view of the would-be intruder. "Is very stupid idea to try to steal from Amazons!"

Manami stared in mute terror at the lavender-haired girl, who was now holding her pinned against a wall with just one arm. All Manami's strength expended at once hadn't even budged the Amazon's grip. Her life wasn't flashing before her eyes, but she expected this process to begin at any moment. 'Next time, Nabiki, do your own damn dirty work.'

"Oh my, I don't think Nabiki would do something like that," Kasumi replied.

Cologne let out another cackle. "You'd be surprised. Excuse me, child, I need to attend to something. I'll be right back."

The Matriarch headed around to the rear of the restaurant, and earned Manami's undying gratitude by instructing Shampoo to let her go with a warning. She returned to find Kasumi wiping up the last traces of her recent accident. "Thank you, Miss Tendo. I hope you weren't too startled at what I said."

Kasumi was much too polite to comment on that statement. "You said Ranma isn't here. Do you know where he is?"

"Not with any degree of accuracy, I'm afraid," Cologne admitted, not looking particularly troubled by this lack of knowledge.

"What do you mean?"

The Matriarch held silent for a few moments, before remarking slowly, "Why do you ask, exactly?"

Kasumi blinked, unsure as to how to answer the question. "Because I want to know where he is."

"Again, why?" Cologne let the question hang in the air for only an instant, before pressing forward. "What would you say to him, if he were here now?" Her voice sharpened. "Did you merely discover some laundry of his that had been overlooked, that you wish to give to him?"

"No," Kasumi replied quietly, not meeting the old woman's gaze. "That's not it. I would say I'm sorry for what we did last Saturday. I would tell him it's all right to come back home."

The Matriarch's voice sharpened further. "And do you really expect me to go along with this plan? As far as I'm concerned, child, leaving your house behind is the best thing that Son-in-law could have done."

"That's… that's not right…" Kasumi protested.

"Indeed? Why not?" Cologne countered. This once she spoke with no trace of her usual 'mostly harmless little old woman' mask, instead letting the full strength and authority of her position and her three hundred years shine through. "Why should he not leave the place that has set burden after burden on top of him, and never praised him or thanked him for his efforts? Why should he not abandon those who abandoned him? Tell me, Kasumi Tendo, why on earth should I look with favor on any attempt by any of you at seeking Ranma out again?"

Kasumi flinched at each question, trying not to think back to the things Kaori had said when she confronted Soun not very long ago. For quite a long time, she could find no words. At last, though, in a small voice she said, "Because Ranma needs to know that we're sorry. That I'm sorry. That I won't let this happen again."

It was Cologne's turn to sit in silence, considering her response. At last she said, "Nothing is going to be the same again, child. Remember that, and hold to the last words you spoke to me."

"I will," the young woman replied, quietly still, but more confidently now.

"Then I will say that when he left your home, Ranma fled beyond the reaches of Nerima itself. And I am all but certain he hasn't come back yet." The restaurant was now open only for lunch, and would remain on that schedule until the additional help Cologne had requested should arrive from China. This gave her plenty of free time in the evenings to get out and get some fresh air, while traveling a wide circuit through Nerima. So far she had yet to sense Ranma's presence anywhere within reach of her considerable senses.

"That far?" Kasumi whispered sadly.

"Perhaps even farther. However, we need to let him be, child," the Matriarch replied. "I felt the turmoil in his spirit, even across the distance that separated us. The choice to seek others out needs to be his, and his alone." Cologne smiled. "Unless the boy takes too long, of course. But I think we'd best give him another week, at least."

'I should have done this yesterday,' Kaede thought grumpily, eyeing her fellow pedestrians with a jaundiced eye. It was Saturday afternoon and there were several students visible in the crowds, taking advantage of the freedom from school. 'Ranma probably WON'T be there now. I should have just gone over yesterday afternoon and waited for him to come back after school. That way I know I would have caught him.'

Of course, it hadn't been until yesterday evening that she'd decided she needed to do this. Kaede had tried calling Ranma several times this week, wanting to set plans for another get-together, but each time the phone had been picked up by someone else. Twice it had been Nabiki's voice that answered, informing her that Ranma wasn't in at the moment and promising to inform him that she'd called. Despite these promises no return call had yet come, at least not when Kaede or her father were there to catch it.

She'd tried again two days ago, and this time Soun Tendo had been the one to pick up. He'd given the same basic reply as Nabiki, but Kaede had seemed to hear something a little off in his tone. At the time she'd just put it down to a natural distaste for talking to his daughter's competition.

She still thought that was basically the case, but by now she also suspected the Tendos weren't leaving it at that. Yesterday evening she'd tried one more time to get her fiancé on the phone. It had been Akane who picked up this time; no sooner had Kaede asked politely to speak to Ranma than her ears were ringing from the crash of the Tendo telephone receiver back onto its base.

Kaede was now nearly certain that despite what Nabiki had said, her calls hadn't been relayed to Ranma. A dirty trick, and one she had no intention of letting slide. But for now, the most important thing to do was find and talk to her fiancé face-to-face, let him know that she'd like to spend some more time with him.

As far as she was concerned, she'd already let this slide too long. Further delays were nothing she particularly wanted. However, when Ryoga Hibiki dropped out of the sky and slammed into the pavement half a pace in front of her, generating a shockwave that actually knocked her off her feet, delay became more or less unavoidable.

The sheer surprise left Kaede more stunned than anything; it was several seconds before she could recover enough of her wits to roll back to her feet and assume a combat stance. She then spent a few more seconds blinking, as the sight before her registered. Ryoga's move had not been an attack; the boy was busily gathering up some things that had been jarred loose from his backpack in the fall, and as far as Kaede could tell he hadn't even noticed her yet. Disbelievingly, Kaede's eyes tracked upward, following the path she thought Ryoga's descent must have taken, and came to rest on an open window.

She shook her head, turning her attention back to Ryoga. On the one hand, she didn't want to waste more time before seeing Ranma. On the other, this jerk had nearly squashed her… what to do, what to do…

The issue resolved itself as Ryoga closed his backpack again, got to his feet, turned to wander off in a random direction, and saw Kaede. "You!" he said angrily.

That reaction, coming from the idiot who'd come within a hairsbreadth of flattening her, decided things. After all, it was highly possible that she'd have to wait for Ranma at the Tendo house until evening anyway. She could spare the time for this. "Yeah, Hibiki, it's me. Now apologize!"

"Apologize for what?!" Ryoga demanded.

"Gee, I don't know. Being too stupid to live? Making me stare at that ugly face of yours?" Kaede glared at Ryoga, matching the ferocity of his expression. "How about almost crushing me, you moron!!"

"That is not my fault!" he protested. "Blame the idiot who built a fire escape door and didn't put a fire escape outside it."

Kaede rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Then just apologize for being too stupid to live."

Ryoga growled, only just fighting off the temptation to give this girl some payback. "I don't have time for this. I've got to find Akane." He cursed the fates that had given him such a poor sense of direction. His own suffering was bad enough, but how could they take him away from Akane in her time of need?! It just wasn't fair!

"And you can't even spare the seconds it would take to blab a few insincere words of apology?" Kaede pulled out her tonfa and began to idly spin it around in her grip. "I think I'm going to insist, Hibiki."

Ryoga was about to make a disgusted sort of noise, turn, and walk away… when something occurred to him. "Fine," he returned. As much as he hated to admit it, doing it this way probably would get him to Akane faster. He'd give this girl the fight she wanted, and after he'd won he'd make her lead him to the Tendo household. "Just a minute." He set his backpack and umbrella down against a nearby wall, then removed seven bandanas from his forehead and tied them around his neck, not particularly wanting this girl to get another cheap victory. Once finished with this, he assumed a ready stance, then realized there was one other element missing. "Oh, one more thing. What was your name, anyway?"

"Kaede. Kaede Hayashibara. And I don't care how many bandanas you're wearing, Hibiki… I'm still gonna kick your butt."

"Hah. Like you could even kick hard enough for me to feel it." With the obligatory pre-fight posturing out of the way, Ryoga charged.

He didn't even see the tonfa strike coming. Kaede sidestepped and whipped her hand around in a blindingly fast blow, impacting on his forehead and snapping his head backward. She had returned to speed training after her frustrating last battle with Shampoo, and was now able to pull a bag and a half of chestnuts from the fire without burning herself. She was waiting until she could do two bags before challenging Shampoo again, but her current speed should be more than enough for this fight.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Ryoga had already been concentrating on ignoring any blows from his opponent. He hadn't expected this one, but it still didn't hurt nearly as much as it could have. He recovered his equilibrium quickly, and moved to attack again.

Of course, this time Kaede wasn't surprised by his durability. She was already launching her own follow-up attack, spinning her hands to draw Ryoga's attention and make him think the blow would come from them, then in the next instant dropping low and sweeping his legs out from under him.

As he fell, Ryoga made a grab for her ankle. His fingers brushed it, but he couldn't get a grip. Kaede jumped backward to safety, choking back a few choice obscenities. The Amaguriken training hadn't done much for her leg speed, a fact that had almost cost her dearly. Let this guy get a good hold on her, and the fight was as good as lost unless she resorted to sticking her sai in him. Not something she had any intention of doing unless it looked like he seriously meant to critically injure her.

Ryoga was now back on his feet, backing away quickly while removing several more bandanas from his forehead. Kaede opted not to press the attack just yet. She just stood there, making an insulting "come on" gesture with her free hand. Ryoga launched the missiles with a wild yell; Kaede dodged to one side and struck them out of the air with her tonfa. This allowed her to gauge the force behind the attack, and realize that it wouldn't have been too terribly damaging even if the bandanas had connected. Which frankly came as something of a relief.

For her opponent, of course, the exchange hadn't been a relief or anything like it. Ryoga considered throwing a few more, a good bit harder than before. If she tried the same trick again, she might lose her grip on the tonfa entirely. On the other hand, this might not be a good thing — if she was still carrying that damn blade she'd had in their last battle, this could force her to pull it out again. And if she didn't try and knock the projectiles out of the air, there was a good chance the greater force would carry them to hit and harm one of the onlookers standing back and watching the fight. Ryoga might sometimes forget about such concerns in the heat of battle with Ranma, but here and now he wasn't quite that far gone.

"What're you waiting for, Hibiki? I'm not gonna fall asleep and just give you the victory, you know," Kaede called insultingly. She blinked in surprise as Ryoga suddenly grinned, and moved forward to attack again.

"You sure about that?" he taunted back, striking with a powerful blow that Kaede knew better than to try to block. She dodged it instead, giving ground; Ryoga pressed the attack. "I think it could happen. I think maybe — just maybe — I could outlast you." Another series of punches that Kaede had to dodge. "Maybe I could get a really easy win that way. What do you think, Kaede?"

"That you're full of it!" the girl in question snarled, seizing the opportunity afforded by a gap in Ryoga's defenses. She darted forward, pivoted and launched absolutely the most powerful kick she could manage. It would have torn a hole in a car door. Against Ryoga, well, at least he actually felt it.

The strike knocked him backward, right off his feet. He was upright again in an instant, though, growling in wordless fury, disdaining to show that he'd felt any pain from the blow. To Kaede, who knew she'd be lucky to pull off one more power strike like that without cutting her own mobility, it was a most unwelcome sight indeed.

She played a defensive game for the next few minutes, retreating, deflecting his strikes the few times it was safe to do so, dodging the others. At the end of this time, Kaede could feel her energy reserves beginning to wane, just a little. She was nowhere near out of fighting strength, and her performance hadn't suffered yet… but if this should continue much longer, she would start to slow down. And that would be bad.

Ryoga, meanwhile, was nowhere near running out of stamina. Patience, on the other hand… "Will you quit running away! Stand and face me like a man!!" he shouted.

"How'm I supposed to do that, exactly?" Kaede retorted sarcastically. But she did halt in her retreat, pushing forward again, leading with her tonfa as if to strike him right between the eyes.

Ryoga just blocked the strike, letting it bounce harmlessly off his arm. He didn't even see the follow-up attack coming.

Kaede struck with all the speed and precision she could manage, pulling out her sai and spinning it, slicing through the cloth of Ryoga's shirt, leaving a nice big wide-open gap around his elbow. In the next instant she continued the spin of the weapon, bringing it around and driving one of the blunt blade-guard prongs directly into a certain spot. One that had up until now been guarded by his long-sleeved garment.

Ryoga stumbled and nearly fell, shocked beyond words at the sudden loss of motor control in his arm, and at the incredibly annoying pins-and-needles sensation. He staggered backward, using his remaining hand to try and massage some life back into his disabled arm. "What the hell did you do?!"

His opponent snorted. "I'm not some lame old one-trick pony, you know. There's other shiatsu points beside the one on the neck." She smiled mockingly at his awkward attempts to restore functionality to his arm. It was pretty clear that her opponent wasn't ambidextrous. "Don't bother, Hibiki. It takes at least an hour to wear off."

"Grrr. Just try that again!!" Ryoga hollered.

"You know what? I think I will." Kaede charged again.

As soon as she moved, Ryoga reacted, dropping to one knee, trusting in Kaede's momentum to bring her within range. His remaining hand shot outward and downward, index finger outstretched. "BAKUSAI TENKETSU!"

The explosion didn't even faze Ryoga; Kaede fared somewhat less well. She was nearly at ground zero when Ryoga executed the move, as close as he was himself. The blast took her right off her feet, sending her crashing to the ground. She barely managed at the last second to control her fall, rolling to one side, coming back to her knees, then rising shakily to stand. She coughed, trying to clear from her lungs the dust she'd inhaled in the explosion. The coughs sent pain shooting through her chest… no big surprise, considering the force with which some of those flying bits of pavement had struck her. Blood was running down one arm from a cut on her forearm, threatening to compromise her grip on her tonfa. All in all, Kaede was not happy with the result of that exchange.

"No, really. Try again," Ryoga invited.

"You son of a bitch," she growled hatefully. "That's your idea of an appropriate attack? Fine, Hibiki. I'll play just as dirty as you." And with that, she charged again, ignoring the lingering pain, ignoring too any notions of conserving her strength, racing forward at the greatest speed she could manage.

Of the crowd of onlookers watching this fight, only a few students from Furinkan, veteran spectators of a thousand challenge matches, managed to catch all the details of what happened next. Kaede blazed forward, coming in on Ryoga's disabled side. He, meanwhile, was already striking downward for another Breaking Point attack. His finger was still a few inches from the ground, though, when Kaede passed beside him. There was an arcing flash of silver, sunlight glinting against metal… and then Kaede was behind him, twisting and skipping into the air, her feet bracing against Ryoga's back even as he unleashed the Bakusai Tenketsu… she pushed off, flipping away to safety while forcing Ryoga down even closer than usual to the blast of his attack. Surprise from this caused his eyes to bug open involuntarily, and it was only his good luck that he didn't get more than dust in them.

Kaede let him recover, watching with a fair amount of satisfaction as he coughed and choked and wiped the streaming tears from his eyes. "That's check, Hibiki," she said once he'd recovered enough to pay attention. "You wanna concede now, or do I really have to go for checkmate?"

"What're you talking ab—" Ryoga's sentence cut off abruptly, as he noticed something lying on the ground before him. Specifically, the bandanas he'd tied to guard his neck at the beginning of the fight. The knots were still in place, but the cloth itself had been cleanly sliced through. By Kaede's sai, he had no doubt.

"That's right," she retorted, seeing that the gravity of the situation was now clear to him. "You can't stop me, not with your arm out of commission. Just go ahead and yield, and give me the damned apology already. Unless you want me to put you down for the count."

'Not again… I can't believe I'm going to lose again like this…' Ryoga didn't even try and fight the despair. He'd intended to save this for Ranma, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Hopefully, after this he'd still be able to find Ranma before Kaede did, and thrash him before his rude, arrogant, lucky jerk of a fiancée spoiled Ryoga's upcoming surprise. He concentrated, embracing the all-too-familiar emotions of sorrow and despair…

Kaede allowed herself one split second to look disgusted. She could feel her opponent charging up for another one of those disgusting depression-based chi attacks. So he wanted to end it the same way the last fight had ended, huh? Very well, she would oblige. Kaede dashed forward, ready for this dance to end.

As Ryoga had expected, she chose to approach on the side of his disabled arm. He didn't try to resist, just knelt there and let her race in for the kill.

The last stragglers of the lunch crowd had departed not long back. Ucchan's Okonomiyaki was now closed for the afternoon. Ucchan herself had departed on a trip to the market, to restock on some supplies. Ranma remained behind, cleaning up after the departed crowd. Of course, this was Ranma Saotome after all, and the methods he was using for this tended toward the unorthodox. Specifically, he was practicing towards mastery of Kaori's technique, extending his chi as best he could into his mop, then sending it flying across the floor. It hadn't been too hard to duplicate Ryoga's old "throw the umbrella so it circles back to me" trick, and he was now working on making the mop traverse a figure eight.

Shortly before he would have achieved success in this endeavor, though, Ranma was distracted. A loud *thump* came from upstairs, causing his head to jerk around and his eyes to stare up as if his vision could pierce the ceiling. That had sounded like it came from Ukyo's room…

Just for a second, his throat went dry. Was this one of the fiancée brigade, sneaking in here to check for signs of his presence? The residual shadows Ukyo had woven through the walls of her restaurant only protected him from long-range detection, such as Cologne, Happosai, or possibly Genma might try. With his best friend gone, there was nothing standing between him and discovery, should someone get close enough to make visual contact.

Ranma focused tightly on his sense of hearing, trying to determine if there was really somebody up there. Maybe he'd get lucky, and it would just have been Ukyo's spare combat spatula falling over or something. He listened, listened closely. He could make out no obvious sounds of movement, but there seemed to be something… something just below the edge of hearing at his current distance. Ranma frowned grimly, and began creeping silently toward the stairs. If it was another person, he'd better get his stuff packed up and make his temporary escape while they were still trying to pretend they weren't there.

By the time his foot was on the first stair, Ranma was certain the sound wasn't in his imagination. By the fifth one, he could hear clearly enough to identify it and begin moving less cautiously and more quickly. On the eighth, at which point he broke into a run, it was obvious that this was no intruder. It was Ukyo, sobbing as if her heart were about to break.

He shot through her door, finding her curled up in the middle of the floor, crying her eyes out, shaking with the force of her misery. And there for a moment Ranma stopped, feeling the coldest sense of helplessness that he could ever remember experiencing. His best friend was suffering. He had no idea why. He had no idea at all what to do about it.

When he moved, it was more the result of long-ingrained training than any real conscious decision. In a crisis, any action at all was better than inaction. Even if you have no idea what to do, do something anyway. Genma might never have put it into words like that, but the lesson had been given and received. Ranma knew he had to do something, and here and now running away wasn't an option; instead, trembling and hesitant and damning himself for not having any real idea of how to handle this, he slowly edged forward, bent down on one knee, and put a hand on Ukyo's shoulder. "Umm…. Ucchan?"

It actually wouldn't have surprised him if she had jerked away. After all, the last two times he'd seen her in tears, it had been directly because of him… there was a dark nagging worry at the back of his mind that this episode might well be his fault too, somehow. But Ukyo didn't pull back from the contact.

Nor did she respond by grabbing onto him desperately and holding on for dear life, which would have been Ranma's second guess. She barely reacted at all, in fact; she seemed to be leaning slightly into his touch, but Ranma wasn't even sure whether that was real or his imagination.

He eased himself the rest of the way onto the floor and shifted closer, feeling more helpless than ever. "Hey… c- c'mon, Ucchan… don't do this…" Hesitantly, he put his free hand on her other shoulder. And now it was clear, she knew he was there. A shudder passed through her body, and just for a moment, there was a break in Ukyo's sobbing. She looked up, meeting Ranma's gaze for an agonized eternal instant. The sight of her tear-stained face, misery writ plain across it, brought tears into his own eyes. It was an image he would never, ever forget.

And then Ukyo's control broke again, and she leaned forward into his chest, wailing and sobbing in the throes of fresh grief. Her arms went around his chest, but loosely, almost as if she were afraid to touch him too tightly. Ranma's own arms came around and down, his hands meeting behind her back. He held her there, letting her cry herself out, for a very long time. He held her, silently hoping for her to recover, wishing he could have prevented this, wishing he knew something better to do than just sit here and let her cry. A real man, whispered a voice sounding rather like Genma's, would know how to handle this situation… but Ranma himself had not a clue. And so he just sat there, trying to offer her what pitiful comfort his silent presence could, her misery and his helplessness forming twin burdens that ensured Ukyo wouldn't be the only one suffering here.

Needless to say, Ucchan's did not open for business that evening. She did eventually cry herself out; by the time she did, she was exhausted. Ranma's shirt was ruined, too, but that was the least of his worries.

He helped her get cleaned up, and then settled her onto her futon. Even as little action as that came as a relief; at least he could do something. Even if Ukyo herself had had to indicate that she wanted these things. She was stretched out now along the bedroll, still wearing the okonomiyaki outfit she'd had on all day. Thanks to Ranma, it was much less tearstained than it might have been.

He knelt by her side, wanting to know what had brought this on, but afraid to ask. He'd had a lot of time to think about this, while she was bawling into his chest, and it had eventually occurred to him that it might be better to let her tell him whatever the details were in her own time. If he brought it up before she was ready, who knew what would happen… he might even set her off on another storm of crying. And at this point, Ranma would rather go ten rounds with the Ghost Cat than risk that again. Better just to wait until she felt ready to tell him herself.

"So, Ranchan." Ukyo gave him the weary ghost of a smile. "Guess you'd like to know what this was all about, huh?"

"Yeah," he replied. "What happened, Ucchan?"

There was a long moment of silence, as Ukyo marshaled her thoughts, and steeled her soul to face the memory. "I was nearly to the market," she said at last. Ranma had to strain to hear her. "And then I heard the sounds of a fight. Almost didn't stop… but then I figured I'd better pay some attention, in case it was something going down that we needed to know about.

"I headed toward it. There was a crowd of people, gathered around, watching. I pushed through until I could see. It was…" she shuddered, "it was Ryoga. Fighting Kaede. She had him on the ropes, too. He was down on his knees, one arm hanging loose. He was charging up for a Shi Shi Hokodan, I thought… thought that's what I felt. The darkness of the stuff that damn attack uses. The depression and the despair, I could feel it building up. Thought he was gonna try and shoot that off at Kaede.

"Must've been what she thought too. She ran forward on his bad side, like she was gonna dodge around and get behind him." Ukyo found the spirit to give a slight huffy sniff at the memory. "Fine for her, not so great for everyone else. I didn't think letting him fire off a shot into the crowd was such a hot idea, so I ran over to where I could stop it. That kinda power wouldn't hurt me any. But… but Ryoga…" she gulped, "he'd changed the move. He didn't shoot it off. Instead he, he charged his aura… and when she got too close, all that crap… all that hopelessness and despair and killing chi… discharged into her at once. He shoved it all straight into her spirit."

"What happened?" Ranma asked, hoping it wouldn't be as bad as it had sounded.

Ukyo stared back at him with a haunted gaze. "The shock stopped her heart, Ranma."

He nearly felt his own stop. Certainly it seemed to skip a beat or two. "Kaede… she's… she's dead?!"

His oldest friend shook her head. "No. It was close. So close. But I was able to drain all that darkness out of her, just like I told you how I could. After that… there wasn't really any physical damage done. It was an attack directly against her spirit. CPR got her heart going again, and then she was okay."

"Thank the kami," Ranma breathed. After a few more moments, something occurred to him. "Wait a minute… if you saved her, then what were you so sad about?"

For a long moment, Ukyo didn't answer. At last she said, "My power let me get a good idea of just how hard this had hit her, even before I got over to her and didn't get a pulse. But that jackass Ryoga… he didn't have a clue how powerful his attack was…" Ukyo broke off then, gulped, and amended, "At least, I really hope he didn't. Because he was holding her up with his good hand and gloating about his stupid comeback win."

"Jeez, typical stupid pig-boy. You shoulda spatula'd him into the next time zone, Ucchan," Ranma said disgustedly.

"I did something a lot worse than that, Ranma," she replied hollowly. "He'd just really hurt someone. Someone only I could help. And he was in the way, and I couldn't help her with him standing there gloating his goddamn head off and telling a corpse that she shouldn't have pushed him like that. So I got him out of the way."

That hadn't sounded good. "What'd you do?" Ranma asked, in a tone not far removed from a whisper.

"There's one thing I can do that I didn't tell you about, Ranchan." Ukyo's response came with no greater strength. "I tried not to think about it myself, tried to ignore it. At the very beginning I made myself a promise that I'd never use that power, and after that I just pretended it didn't exist. That's why I didn't tell you anything about that one last ability.

"What I did…" she looked up, met his gaze. There were tears in her eyes again. "It's the flipside of the power I like best. K-kinda ironic, huh, Ranchan? I can draw that crap out of people… or I can do just what Ryoga did, and pour it in.

"That's what I did to him. He was in the way. There was no time to think. So I gave him a nice b-big heaping shitload of fear. He dropped Kaede and ran away as fast as he could. I did w-what I told you, hauled her back outta the grave, told somebody to get her to a clinic just to be safe. I left, got out of sight, teleported back here. You know the rest."

Ranma had gone quite a long time without saying anything stupid. His next comment was probably inevitable. "Uh, yeah, I guess… but I sure don't see why you were cryin' like that."

Tired though she was, Ukyo could still manage bitter self-disgusted sarcasm. "Oh no, I only broke one of the strongest promises I had left. Didn't hesitate a minute. Didn't stop to think that all I had to do was splash him, and then the idiot wouldn't've been any trouble at all." She closed her eyes, as if unwilling to face the matter any longer. "Didn't even care what I was doing to him."

"Huh? I don't get it…" Ranma was still groping around, trying to find enlightenment. A broken promise… sure that was worth a lot of pain, but not the absolute agony Ucchan had been suffering this afternoon. "I still don't get why you're so bummed out about this. It ain't like you really did to him what he did to Kaede."

"Didn't I?" Ukyo replied, opening her eyes again to gaze at him with a lifeless, hopeless expression.

"Well, yeah!" Ranma protested. "I mean, P-chan would've killed Kaede if you hadn't'a been there. All you did was make him run away."

"You don't get it, Ranma," she replied quietly. "Yeah, of course the immediate result wasn't the same. Ryoga used despair on Kaede, I hit him with fear. Doesn't mean my attack hurt him less."

"If it didn't kill him outright, I don't see how—"

"WILL YOU JUST TAKE MY DAMN WORD FOR—" With a gulp, Ukyo cut herself off. This was going directly against the last promise she had remaining. She wasn't going to treat Ranma like she'd seen him being treated. "I'm sorry, Ranma. I'm just… this really hurts."

"It's okay, Ucchan," he said quietly. "I didn't… I'm just trying to help you feel better."

"Thanks for the thought," she replied. "But there's no point in closing my eyes to stuff I don't wanna see.

"So I'll go ahead and spell it out. Yeah, Ryoga ran off. Maybe he just kept running until the fear wore off. Or maybe it crushed his mind completely. He could be huddled in a ditch somewhere, with nothing left for him but mindless terror." Ukyo let out a long, trembling sigh. "Heck, he could already be dead, if he ran into some cold water. I just don't know."

"Damn," Ranma muttered. "Could… could you look for him? Like when you found Mousse?"

"I'll try, Ranma," she replied wearily. "I'm going to try. But it's not like I've got any kind of special find-the-person powers. Only reason I noticed Mousse was cause he was all off by his lonesome, putting out so much hatred and jealousy. Kinda made him stand out from all the trees, y'know. But if he'd been in the city, I'd've had to come really, really close to pick him out of the background. Same thing for Ryoga… if he's in Nerima at all, looking for him is gonna be like trying to find a piece of straw in a haystack.

"And we both know that's a pretty big 'if' anyway. God only knows where Ryoga's gotten himself to by now. I hope he's okay. But I don't know, and I'm probably not going to find out before it's too late to do anything about it."

He stared out his window, into the silent predawn darkness. Sleep hadn't come, which perhaps wasn't all that surprising. And so he stood and stared out beyond the restaurant. Wondering where Ukyo's consciousness was right now. Was she roaming through Nerima? Had she gone farther afield? Would she have any luck finding Ryoga? Was his rival okay?

Would Ucchan be okay?

Thinking about Ryoga was painful, but at the same time it wasn't the worst of his concerns right now. Maybe P-chan was dead. Maybe he'd lost his mind. Ranma hoped not, hoped like anything that Ryoga had eventually thrown off Ukyo's desperate strike with no real harm done except to the walls the lost boy had undoubtedly plowed through in his panic-driven flight to escape. But the pigtailed martial artist remembered back to the vivid word-picture Ukyo had painted, of Ryoga holding up Kaede's dying body and gloating about his victory… and he was certain that, no matter how things turned out, Ukyo hadn't gone too far in doing what she did.

The events of the afternoon had made it pretty clear that his oldest friend didn't see it that way, though. And Ranma was now doing his best not to think about what would happen if she did find Ryoga, and it turned out her worst fears were true.

Of course, specifically trying not to think of something makes it all but impossible to completely free your mind of such considerations. They continued to skitter around the edges of Ranma's consciousness, nibbling and gnawing away at what little calmness he'd managed to fake. Glimpses kept popping up in his mind's eye, images of Ukyo in even greater misery than she had been this afternoon, her face frozen in shock, horror, and ultimate despair as she stumbled over P-chan's squashed corpse. He was scared of what would follow if that happened.

And he was angry. Had there been no other reason at all to care, Ranma would still have fervently hoped Ryoga was alive and well, so he could have the pleasure of kicking his butt from here to China and back. He had nearly killed Kaede. He might've broken Ukyo's heart the rest of the way. Ranma was sure his rival didn't mean any of this to happen… but that didn't mean he wasn't going to exact payment in bleeding strips of Ryoga's hide anyway. Or at least thrash the living crud out of him until Bacon Breath would've rather gone with the bleeding-hide-strips option.

Thoughts of dire vengeance against Ryoga had kept his mind distracted for a while, but they could only hold his attention for so long. Ranma wasn't really the sort to hold grudges, after all, and before too long the cold, fearful thoughts of what might be were back.

Again the Saotome heir felt the urge to open the window, race out into the Nerima night, and begin looking for Ryoga himself. Or maybe just run at full tilt across the rooftops, pushing himself to the utmost, leaving all this mess behind for awhile. He'd given this some serious thought as soon as he'd first retired to his room for the night, and had discarded the idea. It might feel better for him to get out and do something, even something pointless, rather than just waiting… but if Ucchan found Ryoga, one way or the other, she'd come straight back here after doing anything she needed to do. If the lost boy turned out to be okay, Ranma figured Ukyo would want to tell him as soon as possible. And if the reverse was true… well, he was trying his hardest not to think about that. But he knew that if it turned out like that, he absolutely had to be here to help Ucchan deal with it.

Ranma's mouth twisted in a bitter grimace. Even if he did as pathetic a job as he'd done this afternoon.

It still hurt. He wasn't sure the pain had eased at all since then. Ranma hated how helpless he'd been, how he hadn't known any of the right things to say or do. It had always been pretty easy with Akane — she got kidnapped, he'd go rescue her. She got to feeling a little down, he'd figure out a way to cheer her up. If she got too angry, he could let her pound on him and relieve some stress. None of which experience was helping him now.

At the moment, he was trying to work his way past that, concentrating on things he might say to Ukyo in the morning if she didn't find Ryoga at all. Ranma knew, without any doubt in his mind, that she shouldn't be hurting this much. Not when she'd saved Kaede's life. She did what she did, and Kaede lived where she might otherwise have died. Would certainly have died if Ukyo hadn't been there. To him, that made other questions irrelevant; broken promise or not, whatever the fate of Ryoga, it was obvious to him that his best friend had done the right thing.

He wanted to show her, wanted to tell her, wanted to open her eyes so she saw that she'd done what she needed to do. Wanted to make her stop hurting. But he didn't even know how — if something is so obvious that you don't understand how someone can't see it, how do you convince them? Especially when you can barely make your way through an extended conversation without ending up saying something stupid?

Ranma had never been proud of that little fact, but he'd generally not let it bother him too much either. Here and now, though, that blissful unconcern was light-years away. Ucchan had done so much for him, hell, not just him but for a lot of other people too. She'd given and given, like she'd said so long ago. And now she needed help from him, and he just stood here, staring out the damn window with no clue as to what to do. Knowing that he was out of his league here… and hating it. And hating all the more that there was no way to… change…

A decision was made.

Most of Ukyo's abilities were significantly easier to use in low or nonexistent levels of ambient light. Had that not been the case, or had the incident occurred at night, she could have just formed a tentacle of solid shadow, grabbed Ryoga, and flung him toward the horizon in order to get him away from Kaede. But the bright, direct sunlight that was shining at the time had rendered that impossible — she'd have fainted from exertion before even lifting him off the ground if she had tried to summon such tangible darkness.

Though it wasn't affected nearly as strongly, dreamwalking suffered from similar limitations, which was one reason she didn't check up on Kodachi more often. The fluorescent lights in the girl's room made it rather a strain to touch the waking world, even though all Ukyo was doing was looking in.

And it was even more of a strain to try to overcome direct sunlight. Nevertheless, it was almost a quarter past seven when Ukyo finally gave up the search for Ryoga. The last of her strength exhausted, she collapsed into a deep, thankfully dreamless sleep, and didn't get up until well into the afternoon.

Needless to say, by the time she was finally up and about, Ranma was all but climbing the walls from frustration and worry.

The chef padded slowly down the stairs, still rubbing the weariness from her eyes, and uncomfortably aware of how messy her hair was. The normal evening procedure was for Ukyo to teleport herself and Ranma to a public baths several islands over, which eliminated the need to maintain a disguise on her best friend. No one but Ryoga could possibly run into them there, and the lost boy all by himself would be no big deal.

However, for obvious reasons, that trip to the baths hadn't happened last night. Ukyo felt dirty, and hated it. Taking a bath wouldn't have gotten rid of the feeling completely, but at least it would have helped.

She headed downstairs, stepped out of the stairwell into the main room, stopped, and spent a few seconds blinking in surprise. Ukyo might personally be feeling in need of some cleanup, but the same could not be said of the room before her. Never mind eating off the floor, the place was clean enough to serve as an operating room.

"Hey, Ucchan," Ranma said quietly, anxiously searching her face for any sign that his extended efforts at cleaning the place had helped get her feeling better. It had been the only thing he'd been able to think of doing that might help, while he waited and waited for her to get up. "How're you feeling?"

Ukyo returned her attention to more immediate matters. "Okay, I guess," she said quietly, in a tone that didn't really bolster confidence in the truth of her reply. "Thanks for doing such a good job cleaning up, Ranchan."

"Anytime," he said. "Uh… no luck with Ryoga, huh?"

She shook her head. "No. I'll try again tonight, I guess."

"What about the restaurant?" Ranma asked. "You gonna open for the evening?"

Ukyo was silent for quite a while, contemplating this. At last she said, "No, I guess not. But I won't push myself too hard looking for Ryoga tonight, and I'll open up normal schedule again tomorrow. If that's okay with you, sugar?"

"Yeah, that'd be good," Ranma said. "It's not like you oughta lose money or nothin', cause of having to save someone's life."

She gave him a small smile. "Wonder if Kaede'll come by once we're open, and chew me out for interfering in her fight?"

Ranma frowned. "She better not!"

"I was joking, sugar," Ukyo said. But she did feel better now, hearing him defend her like that.

Silence fell, stretching for a minute or two. Ranma tried to think up a good way to bring up a certain topic, with no success. At last he just said, "Hey, Ucchan. Where'd you put that rod thingy?"

"Rod thingy?" Ukyo repeated quizzically. "You mean what I got at the Cursed Antique Shop?"

"Yeah, that." Ranma cleared his throat. "Um… I've been thinking… and I do wanna take you up on that offer you made. If it's still good?"

"Sure, Ranma," she replied, still in a rather curious tone. "Why wouldn't it be?"

"Well, you know… yesterday… and you weren't all that happy about how you ended up using your powers… I was kinda worried you were gonna change your mind about letting me in for something like that."

"I wouldn't do that to you," she said. "Wouldn't insult you like that. You've seen all the stuff that's gone down. You know what you're doing. It's your decision to make… not mine.

"But for the record, I do think you're making the right one." Ukyo forced a smile. "Sure this hurts… but I still believe I've done a lot more good than harm with my own abilities. I'm sure you will too." The smile acquired a more genuine cast. "And I know how much you want to get rid of your curse."

"You got that right," Ranma replied with feeling. It was the one problem he absolutely knew he could solve at this point… and he had hopes that the solution might help him in other areas too. "So, can we do this now? Since you're not gonna open the place today anyway, I mean."

"Sure thing, sugar." Ukyo headed back upstairs, returning a short while later with the artifact in question. She held it out to him, saying solemnly, "I give this to you free and clear, Ranma. From this moment on, it's your property, to do with whatever you want."

Ranma frowned, and didn't take it from her. "Hey, Ucchan, you paid through the nose for this. I just need to borrow it; I wasn't asking you to give it to OUCH!"

Ukyo had taken advantage of the rod's indestructibility to bop her friend on the head with it. "Excuse me, but are you perhaps forgetting something? The reason why I bought it outright in the first place, instead of renting it from the geezer?"

"Oh, yeah," he said sheepishly. "Well, okay. If you're sure you wanna do this."

"Absolutely," Ukyo replied, passing the rod over.

Ranma turned it over in his hands, examining the script curiously. Like Ukyo, he could find no memory of ever seeing that particular lettering before. Which, the Saotome heir privately acknowledged, didn't mean too much. This could be modern-day Arabic for all he knew.

Abandoning these thoughts for more practical ones, Ranma took a one-handed grip on the artifact and extended it out before him. "Okay, do what you're supposed to."

Ukyo stared in dismay as nothing happened. "What the hell… No!!"

Ranma jumped, surprised by her outburst. "What was that for?"

She stared disbelievingly at him. "Uh, Ranchan… didn't you notice?! The stupid rod didn't work!"

He stared right back at her, in even more confusion. "What're you talking about?" The Saotome heir gestured with his unfrozen hand, apparently toward empty air. "The portal's right there."

"I can't see it," she confessed, which at least cleared things a little up for Ranma.

"Huh. You think this thing can only be used once by any one person?" he speculated.

"That or only the person who just used it can see the portal." Ukyo chewed her lip, considering her options. "Okay, hold onto my hand. Maybe you can pull me through with you."

"Um. Are you sure that's a good idea, Ucchan?" Ranma asked. Her earlier attempt to drive home her point about true ownership of the artifact had apparently knocked even more sense into his head than she'd intended. "Sounds like that might be tryin' to use this thing in a way we're not supposed to. Who knows what could happen."

"But… but…" Ukyo let her protest die. Heaving a sigh, she admitted, "You're right. We better not risk it. Damn it all anyway."

"Hey, it's no big deal," Ranma said, trying to comfort her. "You don't really wanna go back there anyway, right? Not with the kind of memories you got from your last trip, I mean."

"Yeah, but still. I didn't want you to have to go it alone, Ranchan." Ukyo attempted a smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. "But I guess there's some things in life that have to be that way."

"Don't worry. I'll be fine," he said, as confidently as he could manage. Quickly, determined not to show any hesitation, he turned, stepped forward, and vanished from her sight.

Waiting was the hardest part, thought Ukyo for roughly the six hundredth time. Ironically enough, though she wasn't really conscious of this, she was now rather disappointed in the thorough cleaning Ranma had given her restaurant. Had he left the place a mess, she would have something to do, rather than just sitting here and waiting. She wasn't about to leave and head for the public baths, not when Ranma could come back at any moment.

"I wonder what it'll be like for him," Ukyo muttered, trying to distract herself. "Wonder what it's like, getting water powers. No way in hell it can hurt like mine did." She wondered, as she had wondered before, just what criteria the spirit used in choosing which empowerment to bestow on those who came before it. Was it based on what it observed in them? Their memories, their pasts, who they were? What did that say about her, she tried not to wonder, that it had chosen to give her Darkness?

It wasn't the first time such thoughts had crossed her mind. She tried not to let it get to her, though, reminding herself that the spirit had decided from her memories that Ranma's corresponding element would be Water. That seemed like a pretty big argument against it being based on who they were deep down inside; more likely it was just decided by what sorts of things had happened to them. Ukyo wasn't exactly thrilled by all the pain and unhappiness she'd endured in her life… but it had happened, and though she had her scars, she'd never been crushed for good.

She wondered, too, what effect Ranma's empowerment would have on him. How would he be changed? Would he be at all? What would he see, or experience, as power over water was tied into his soul? She was certain it wouldn't be as painful as her experience had been, but it probably would be as profound.

"Heh. I wonder if he'll walk out of there and tell me he realized he's put way too much into martial arts, and he's gonna give it up." Ukyo chuckled. "Yeah, right. As if. I learned a long time ago, that's not Ranma. It never will be. He might learn some new stuff in there, and maybe he'll change somehow or other… but he'll still be Ranchan. Just like I'm still me."

She chuckled again, but there was a certain hint of bitterness behind the laughter. "Still me," she said softly. "Maybe even more myself than I was before."

During her own change, Ukyo had been bombarded with a myriad selection of painful insights, some of which had hit harder than others. One in particular arose to the top of her mind now, one that had been quite painful indeed. The sight had been a glimpse of herself, an image, an idea, a reflection… showing a hollow girl basing far too much of her identity, of who she was, on one thing: her status as Ranma's fiancée. Letting something that depended on someone else define her, give her a sense of self-worth. Well, despite where Ranma was currently living, Ukyo knew she had corrected that failing at least.

"It's funny, though," she whispered, her mind not really on the portal for this moment, yet speaking so quietly as if her subconscious didn't want to risk any chance the words might carry across the void to Ranma's ears. "I see all that, I see my own mistakes, and the things Ranma's done. I get it shoved right in my face, get the knowledge shot right into my soul that there's no chance he'll ever love me." She raised her hand, wiped away a single rebellious tear. "And I still love the jackass. As much as I ever did. Love him enough to bring him here and do all this, knowing that it's all friendship to him, and that's all it ever will be." Loved him enough to step forward out of the shadows and show Ranma just who it was who'd been helping him, rather than continue to hide her identity, because he needed to know that he hadn't been abandoned.

"Why couldn't it have worked out some other way?" Ukyo whispered, wiping her eyes again. Why couldn't the trauma of what she'd seen have finally laid her love for him to rest, and left just friendship? That would have been so much less painful. 'Heh. That's probably why, right there. Had to 'face the dark night of the soul', after all. Leaving the pain behind couldn't have been on the program, I guess.'

She hoped she could manage it someday, though. Hoped she could move past him, at least enough to find love somewhere else. Hoped she wouldn't spend the rest of her life alone.

Ukyo was distracted from these cheerful thoughts by the sudden re-emergence of her best friend into the restaurant. As she had done, he staggered forth, pale and hollow-eyed, looking as if he'd passed through a dozen emotional wringers at once. Also as had been the case for her, his hand unfroze and he reflexively dropped the rod, which (Ukyo assumed) triggered the vanishing of the portal behind him.

All this had happened in only a second. Ukyo was already on her feet, hurrying over to Ranma's side, taking a gentle hold on his shoulder and steadying him. "Easy, sugar. How you feeling?"

Ranma just looked at her, as if trying to gather his scattered thoughts. Appropriate enough, since that was exactly what he was doing. "Ucchan…" suddenly a smile broke forth, and he said, "Ryoga's okay."

Ukyo blinked. "Ah… huh?" With some effort, she hitched her jaw up, and said, "R-really?" He nodded. "So… how'd you know?"

He seemed a little steadier now, a bit of color returning to his face. "Because I saw him." For a second his eyes were elsewhere, his gaze haunted. "I saw a lot of things. Can't remember it all. There was just too much. But the important stuff… I kept most of it. I think."

"What was it like for you?" Ukyo asked curiously. "What do you mean, you saw a lot of things? What things? What kind of power did you get, anyway? I mean, I know it's water, but what all can you do? And could you give me a little more detail than just 'Ryoga's okay'?"

Ranma endured the spate of questions as best he could; when Ukyo paused for breath, he said, "Please, Ucchan… not now, okay? I just… I need some time before I talk about all this. It's way too close right now."

"O-okay, Ranma," Ukyo replied. She hesitated, then asked, with mounting dread, "It… it really wasn't like my time was… right? I mean, you didn't get hurt like me. Did you?!" Damn it, he'd better not have been!!

He shook his head, weary, but wanting to reassure her. "Nah. Not like that. It's just… it was so big… so much…" Words failed him, and he picked back up with the previous thought. "I really just want to go lie down for awhile."

"All right," Ukyo said. She smiled at him, as brightly as she could. "Thanks for telling me about Ryoga, sugar. You need any help getting up to your room?"

"I… yeah, that'd be good."

With Ukyo's assistance, the stairs proved no difficulty, even in Ranma's weary, unbalanced condition. She set out the bedroll for him and got him situated comfortably on it. "As soon as you feel like talking, I'll be there for you," she said, and turned to go.

"Wait, please." His voice stopped her before she'd taken even one step.

"What is it?" Ukyo asked, turning back to face him, a little bit of worry creeping back into her eyes at the tone he'd used.

Ranma took a deep breath. He hadn't wanted to talk at all about this yet… but this needed to be said. "I… I can't remember it all, Ucchan. But I can remember that it just went on and on and on. So much, all around me… different things, different people… but I was just seeing them. I was alone. Felt like it was forever.

"So could you… could you just sit here, with me? Not talk or nothin'. I'm not ready. But I really don't wanna be alone right now."

"Of course, Ranma," she said quietly. "I'll stay. As long as you want me here."

Thanks to the havoc that had been played with both their internal clocks, four A.M. the next morning saw the both of them wide awake and talking.

Ukyo eyed her best friend askance. "Aren't you getting tired of that yet?"

"Nope," Ranma replied with a smile. Cold water continued to shower down on him, then slide off, cycle back into the air above him, and fall again. He sat there, grinning like a madman, spinning the water around and around, splashing himself continuously, and leaving his form completely unchanged.

Meanwhile, Ukyo was standing on the opposite side of the counter preparing some hot tea, against the inevitable moment when Ranma's endeavors would leave him chilled and needing something to warm him up. Once the beverage was ready, she poured herself a cup and turned back to face him. "You want some tea, Ranchan?"

Ranma took one last second to let all the water splash down on him at once, then gathered it all into a sphere and set it casually on the countertop. Ukyo blinked, a little surprised — and a little annoyed at herself for being surprised — to see that his hair and clothes were suddenly perfectly dry. Nor did he seem all that cold, come to think of it. "Sure, thanks."

The chef poured a cup for him, then spent a few moments regarding the ball of water sitting on top of her counter and resisting the urge to poke it with her finger. Having that thing destabilize, spill everywhere, and short out her grill did not sound like a good plan.

"So, Ranma," she said, once he'd finished his tea. "Just what kind of powers did you get?" She grinned, jerking her head in the direction of the watery globe. "Besides the obvious, I mean."

"Let's see…" Ranma said. "One thing was a lot like something else you can do, Ucchan. I can teleport into water."

"Do you still need to breathe, if you're completely underwater?" she asked curiously.

"Nope," Ranma confirmed. "So the next time I need to use the Saotome Secret Technique, I'll be able to do a real good job pulling it off."

Ukyo giggled. "Guess I better not challenge you to a game of tag, huh?"

He smiled back. "Yeah, well… that's the way it's been ever since we were kids, huh, Ucchan?"

Given that it was pitch-black outside and the restaurant was only dimly lit, Ukyo had no trouble forming a tendril of shadow behind him to give him a light smack on the back of his head. "Says you," she replied, sticking out her tongue. "So what else can you do?"

"Well, I heal really, really fast." A contemplative look crossed Ranma's face. "I ain't planning to do any experimenting on that any time soon… but I kinda feel like I can recover from anything. Anything that doesn't kill me, I mean. Like, I could even maybe regrow a finger, or a hand, or an arm…"

"I'd just as soon you not put that to the test," Ukyo said in a brisk, businesslike tone.

"You and me both," he reassured her. "It's weird, though. I can feel it… that I'll heal so fast, but I don't think I've got any kind of power to heal other people at all."

"Hmmm. That doesn't sound so weird to me, Ranchan," Ukyo said after a few moments of contemplative silence. "I mean… it's like water just flowing back together, right? You've been changed to have a special connection to water. But other people don't. That's why you can heal yourself and not anybody else."

"Makes sense," Ranma allowed. "Kinda does fit with the thing I can do for other people, too."

"What's that?"

"Break Jusenkyo curses," he said with a smile.

The chef's eyes widened. "Really? It wasn't just your own curse this was gonna cure?"

"Yeah, that's how it is. Pig-boy'll be happy, anyway." Ranma snickered suddenly. "Dunno whether Pop is gonna give three rousing cheers, though. I bet the old man will kinda miss that panda body."

Ukyo gave a loud, carefree laugh of her own. "You know what? I bet at least once when there's trouble he'll splash himself, curl up, and start playing with a ball… and not remember until it's too late that he's still a human."

Ranma guffawed. "Oh man, that's perfect! I bet you're right!" The two friends spent some few moments chuckling over the mental image, before Ranma returned to the main subject. "That's pretty much all my physical abilities, Ucchan."

"So what'd you get for your spiritual ones?"

He made a face. "Gypped is what I got."

Ukyo blinked. "Huh?"

"You know all that cool stuff you can do? Moving through dreams and draining painful junk outta people?" Ranma asked, opting not to remind her of the other ability. "Well, I got just one power. One. That's it."

"Well, what is it, Ranma?" Ukyo asked half-exasperatedly.

He gestured, and the water ball collapsed, spreading out along the countertop. Ukyo eyed it nervously, but the leading edge stopped well before reaching her grill. "If I wanna see something, I can call up a picture of it in water. Like, maybe I was worried about how Ryoga was doing…" Ranma said, focusing his will.

In an instant the water was glowing quite strongly, due to the fact that the sun was shining brightly in the scene now reflected within it. Ukyo stared at the image of Ryoga, a little wavering and watery due to the nature of the viewing medium. He was standing next to a campfire over which a large animal corpse was roasting, and dusting his hands off with a look of irritation on his face. At the edge of the scene, a battered-looking grizzly bear slunk away.

"Is this really where Ryoga is right now, Ranchan?" she asked dubiously.

"Yep. Saotome's honor," he replied. "I'm not even gonna bother tryin' to figure out how he ended up on the other side of the stupid Pacific ocean. But that's where he is, all right. And I guess you can see for yourself that he ain't lost his mind to fear or nothing."

"Yep, I did kinda pick up on that," Ukyo said dryly. The bear had looked like it even outweighed Genma's cursed form. "Hey! Can you do that for Kaede?"

"Sure," Ranma replied. "Uh… why?"

Ukyo rolled her eyes. "Ranma, did you forget what happened to her yesterday?! I just want to make sure she's all right."

He frowned. "Didn't you tell me she wasn't hurt physically, though? I mean, why wouldn't she be okay?"

His best friend heaved a long, wondering sigh. "Jeez, sugar, I do not understand how you can be such an optimist after the kind of life you've had," she said frankly. "I sure can't say the same thing for myself."

Ranma didn't quite know what to say in response to this, so he answered via action rather than words. The scene within the pool darkened to nearly pitch-black, which for one reason or another posed no problem to either teen in making out what lay within. Kaede lay on her bedroll, breathing easily and deeply. "Well, looks like Kaede's fine, Ucchan," he replied. "That's her bedroom, not a hospital or nothing."

With some difficulty, Ukyo refrained from scowling at his easy recognition of where Kaede was. With a mental sigh, she reminded herself of just why she didn't have a right to get ruffled feathers over such concerns. "Thanks, Ranma," she said, rather unenthusiastically. "So… what other kind of things can you look for?"

He shrugged, and the picture faded from the pool of water. "Pretty much anything. All I have to do is think about something and ask the water to show it."

"What about stuff that doesn't exist?" Ukyo wondered.

"Well, in that case nothing'll happen," Ranma explained. "I won't see anything if there's nothing to see."

"So, in other words, it's possible that somewhere in this world there's something that'll actually explain the stuff that's happened to us, in real detail… and you can find it if it does exist?!" his oldest friend asked excitedly.

Ranma's eyes widened in utter shock, and for several seconds he could find nothing to say. At last, he admitted hollowly, "Y'know, I never even thought of that."

She waved her hand airily. "Well, you've only been awake for a few hours since you got these powers in the first place, sugar. I wouldn't say that's anything to feel bad about."

He didn't seem completely reassured by her words. "Maybe. I dunno, Ucchan. It feels kinda bad to me."

"C'mon, Ranchan, cut yourself some slack here," Ukyo protested. "Why should that bother you?"

He was silent for nearly a minute. Eventually, he replied, "It's cause of what that voice said to me."


"You know… for you it was that stuff about the 'dark night of the soul', or whatever."

"Oh, yeah, that." Ukyo eyed him curiously, wondering if he was feeling ready to talk about the spiritual side of his empowerment. For that matter, he had yet even to describe the physical side to her, though she assumed it would be like hers had been, only substituting water for darkness. "What did it say?"

" 'This world was called forth out of water and water is woven all throughout it still. One who would receive power over water must be able to see clearly, to be able to take in great truths and big pictures.' And I haven't seen all that clearly, have I? I mean, I know I want to understand more about this stuff… but I didn't even think about scrying for it."

" 'Scrying'?" Ukyo repeated.

"That's what this is called, I think," Ranma said, turning his attention back to the pool of water. "Anyway, just give me a second, and I'll see if I can come up with… Yeah! Looks like we're in luck."

Another scene of near-total darkness had formed within the puddle. The view was centered on a close-up shot of some folders, standing upright in a long shelf of similar items.

"Hmmm… pretty dark there," Ukyo said unnecessarily. "I could step right in and get those things if I knew where it was. Can you tell?"

"It's pretty close, I think. Hang on," Ranma replied, concentrating. The view panned back, making it clear they were looking at the interior of a library. The scene continued to shift, moving through the stacks of books, speeding through the library at large, quickly finding its way outside.

"Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Library," Ukyo said with satisfaction. "Great. Okay, could you put it back to show me the row that has those things?"

He complied. Ukyo closed her eyes, concentrating, feeling her way toward the appropriate section of darkness… and then she was gone from the restaurant, appearing instead in the scene before Ranma, hurrying down the aisle, grabbing the batch of files, and then vanishing and reappearing beside him, already opening the first folder and confirming that it contained a series of scrolls describing empowerment with elemental Air.

"That went pretty well," she said with satisfaction, quickly finding and passing him the folder referring to Water. "Still think you got gypped, Ranma?"

"I just think it's a good thing I've got you, Ucchan," he said absently, his attention already turning toward the information in his hands.

Ranma had made his way through a good two-thirds of the information in his file, without learning anything really useful. Mostly this seemed to be designed to prepare someone to undergo the process he'd already passed through. Not all that helpful after the fact. In addition, only some of the information was practical at all; other parts tended toward the uselessly philosophical. ' 'Water is the essence of fluidity and adaptability.' Well, gee, that's really helpful. Or it would've been if Pop hadn't drilled those things into me all my life already.'

The latest thing he'd found was confirmation of Ukyo's theory as to why he could heal himself but not others, which would doubtless make her feel all nice and clever, but didn't really help him any. 'Hope Ucchan's having more luck with her stuff. This's just been a waste of time for me… hang on,' Ranma read the next part, and gave a satisfied smile at finally finding some real information. The text had just confirmed his hunch that his powers meant he could regenerate from any normal wound that didn't kill him.

That had been the last paragraph in the section detailing physical abilities. Oddly enough, there had been no mention of Jusenkyo curses in the document; he supposed whoever wrote it just hadn't known about them. Ranma turned the page, and began to read about the spiritual aspect of Water empowerment. He didn't get very far, though, one sentence in particular grasping his attention and holding him, the scroll and its words forgotten for now.

'As a stone dropped into a lake, so shall be the initiate,' he read. 'Such a stone creates waves, spreading outward, touching the shore, reflecting back upon themselves, breaking into thousands and thousands of tumbling fragmented ripples. Even so is man, dropped into the world, touching the lives of others, who in their turn touch countless many more. So shall the initiate see his life, and the effects he has had, all the choices he has made and those of the ones close to him. So shall he view the fullness of his life, and yet shall he be cushioned as with water, protected from breaking under the strain of such a great revelation.'

The language was much more poetical than Ranma himself would have used. But it captured the feeling very well indeed, sending his memories ranging back to that seemingly endless time, as various images and memories and insights broke and scattered around him, exactly like waves intersecting with one another and shattering.

He couldn't remember all of what he'd seen there. But Ranma had tried to hold onto what had seemed most important, and for the most part, he thought he'd managed it. Certainly he'd found many, many new things to think about, important pieces of his situation that he'd never quite managed to see before.

His musings were interrupted by a sudden loud sound. Ranma blinked, looking up from the paper before him, turning his attention over to Ukyo. She was pale, staring at him with her eyes open wider than he could ever remember seeing. "Ucchan?" he asked, mentally identifying the sound she'd made as a gasp. "Is something wrong?"

Ukyo's eyes flicked back to the paper on the counter before her, scanning across the text as if she couldn't believe what they were telling her. Now starting to feel rather anxious, Ranma got up and hurried around the counter. "Ucchan?" he repeated, putting one hand on her shoulder.

His best friend jumped, though she didn't exactly pull away. With visible effort, she tore her eyes away from the scroll, looking back to him. "Ranma… I… I…" She gulped, struggling for utterance, then squeaked, "I can't talk about this right now!!"

In an instant she was gone, teleporting away. Ranma, more bewildered and worried than ever, quickly formed another scrying puddle. It was some relief to find that she had just retreated to her bedroom, and more relief to take a good long look at her face and see that she didn't look to be hurt. More shocked and unbalanced than anything else.

He turned his attention to the portion of the scroll that Ukyo had been staring at, finding it to be her equivalent of what he'd been reading — an account of the spiritual side of elemental empowerment. Ranma began to read it, noting idly that it was written in a different handwriting and in a different style than had been his own document.

'Know that the darkness will scour your soul,' he read. 'You will know pain… whatever the greatest pain that could be for you, it will be laid upon you. You will be lied to, and even as the lies come you will believe to the utmost depths of your being that they are true. No measure of preparation or foreknowledge can shield you from this… all such warnings are forgotten in the moment, that the pain of the lies believed might strike to the very depths of your soul. This warning that you read now will serve only for afterward, once you have made it through to the other side, that you should remember again that lies, deceptions, and hopelessness are the worst part of Darkness, and cast them off from yourself.'

Ranma broke from his reading, feeling another spasm of remorse and sorrow wash over him at the thought of Ucchan enduring something like that for him. Especially with no warning whatsoever, like these stupid scrolls were apparently supposed to provide. Pushing away the discomfort, he turned his attention back to the paper and reread that last paragraph.

He had the feeling that there was something important here, if only he could grasp it…


To be continued.

Author's notes: Ooh, metaphysical. Lots of twists and turns in this fic, huh? Even the people who have good reason to think they're on top of everything can still get the foundations kicked out from under them. Thanks to everyone at the Refuge who gave C&C.

Chapter 5
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