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A Ranma 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 5: All Dreams Must End

Ranma stood on a rocky promontory, staring out across the ocean. The coast around him was rather more battered than it had been a few hours ago, the result of an extended bout of training, experimentation, and stress relief.

He'd spent some thirty minutes trying to figure out just what was happening with Ukyo, before finally deciding that this was probably another situation where it would be better to wait and let her tell him herself when she was ready. With that settled, he'd decided to put his new abilities through their paces. It had been the work of an instant to locate an island hundreds of miles away from any people (he was definitely beginning to appreciate his scrying ability more now), and the work of another to teleport into the ocean and swim to shore.

Once he was there, with nobody around to witness and ask awkward questions, Ranma had really cut loose. He'd started out with standard kata, except it wasn't his own body flowing through the motions, but rather a Ranma-shaped construct of water. With his physical self settled down into a meditative posture and all his will focused on the doppelganger, he'd been able to get it to move with almost as much grace as his own flesh. And he'd found that if he just focused on speed or power, he could actually go higher than his body's limits. Much higher. Control suffered at those extreme levels, but Ranma was confident he could eventually correct this.

Next, he'd called forth a few thousand more gallons and gathered them around himself, in a rather more impressive — at least, in his humble opinion — version of one of Happosai's techniques. He'd formed a ridiculously larger version of himself out of the water; Ranma was on the inside, well protected by his elemental shielding, and able to move the massive watery shell as if it were his own body. Sure, it had been rather slow and clumsy on this first attempt, but practice should fix that too.

He'd let the waters fall away from himself then, and moved into kata using his own body. However, at the same time he was pulling waves forward out of the ocean, sending them streaming forward and around him, now pushing him along to gain extra force behind a charging strike, now cascading into a surge of sparkling white foam to blind his opponent, now blasting in an arc that would slam into someone who'd tried the most obvious dodge for the kick he'd just executed.

This held his interest for quite awhile, since there was so much variety to the tricks he could pull off. In fact, Ranma hadn't yet exhausted all his ideas when he paused an hour later. The reason he stopped was that the damage to the beach was beginning to reach noticeable levels. He contemplated this for a few minutes, then set off along the shoreline. A few minutes' brisk walking took him within sight of a place where the shore rose into a twenty-foot cliff. The pigtailed boy stopped and stood there, focusing, focusing…

At a point several dozen meters out from the base of the cliff, the water began to churn, then convulse… and then, with a furious roar, it lifted, bent, and shot forward. It came as a corkscrewing maelstrom of fury, created by all of Ranma's knowledge and experience with the Hiryuu Shouten Ha and powered by every last iota of will and elemental energy he could bring to bear.

The roaring, whirling horizontal column of water slammed into the cliff. It chewed through the stone like so much sand, blasting away a massive section in the blink of an eye. Ranma disengaged the technique then, and just stood for awhile, silently contemplating the damage; reflecting on the measure of the abilities that had been granted to him.

Somehow, it didn't seem nearly so unbalanced now, when he contemplated his power versus Ukyo's. Sure, she got way more spiritual stuff than he did, but that was just the way it was. Darkness seemed to be more spiritual than physical; Water was just the opposite. And maybe that was how it should be.

He stared out across the ocean, thinking back on all the new tricks and techniques he now had at his command and feeling a sense of peace that he'd seldom enjoyed. His curse was gone. It had been replaced by abilities that would surely help solve some of the rest of his woes. And the last vestiges of the resentment he'd never allowed himself to face, the annoyance that someone his age was so much stronger than him, had finally slipped unnoticed into oblivion. All in all, the Saotome heir was feeling pretty good about things just now.

Ranma stood outside Ukyo's bedroom door, feeling more than a little bit disgruntled.

He'd stayed on the island awhile longer, practicing, trying new things. Eventually, wondering whether Ukyo might not be ready to talk now, he'd formed another scrying puddle and checked up on her. No change — she'd still been in her bedroom, a mixture of rueful shock and contemplation on her face. However, something else had grabbed Ranma's attention then… namely, the clock on her dresser that read 7:42. Obviously his best friend had lost track of time. She still had enough to get ready and make it to Furinkan, but it would be close.

It was at that point that he'd realized one annoying limitation of his powers. Sure, he could shift across unimaginable distances in the blink of an eye, but only into a body of water at least large enough to cover his own body. And there was nothing like that at Ucchan's Okonomiyaki, no equivalent of the bedroom Ukyo kept conveniently dark all the time.

He made the best of a bad situation by teleporting into the Nerima canal at the point where it ran closest to Ucchan's, then running for her place at top speed, hoping and praying that nobody would observe him doing this. And then, after taking that risk to get back in time to shake Ukyo out of her daze, after knocking on her door and reminding her about school, only to be told in no uncertain terms that as far as his host was concerned Furinkan could kiss her spatula… Well, it left Ranma feeling a little put-upon and underappreciated.

The Saotome heir soothed his ruffled feathers by spending the next several minutes scrying out everyone he didn't want to know where he was, and confirming that none of them were near enough to have seen him en route back to Ucchan's. There was Kaede, pushing herself determinedly through a set of exercises much like the ones he'd done not so very long ago, building up her lower-body speed…

Kaori was on her way to Furinkan. Ranma winced at the sight; in this unguarded moment, unhappiness was writ plain across her face. Unhappiness that the track record showed was almost certainly his fault. He reminded himself that no matter how nice a break it was for him personally, he couldn't afford to take too much time relaxing at Ucchan's. He needed to face his problems down once and for all….

Genma was in panda form, in a local park. He'd set up a sign that read "Chuushinteki Park Panda Petting Zoo — Admission One Pork Bun", and was doing a brisk business with the preschool crowd. Ranma was severely tempted to head on over there and whip up a hot rain shower, but he didn't want to be responsible for traumatizing a bunch of little kids for life. Let the old man have his fun for a bit longer.

Cologne and Shampoo were found inside the Nekohanten, Shampoo intently studying a large shiatsu chart, Cologne giving equal attention to what appeared to be a soap opera.

Soun was sweeping the Tendo outer yard, while Kasumi was cleaning up after breakfast.

Akane and Nabiki walked to school together for a change, one girl showing no emotions to speak of, the other not looking much happier than had Kaori.

Happosai was somewhere in Honshu, running gleefully along in front of a horde of outraged females, his ill-gotten gains slung over his shoulders. All at once the old pervert jerked to a stop, all the merriment draining away from his face as he stared off into the distance, apparently at something not in Ranma's field of vision. Then the girls caught up with him, and he had other things on his mind.

Ryoga was still in North America, though he'd wandered even farther afield than last time. The sun was red and hung low in the sky, and the shadows would have been long had there been anything to cast a shadow. Such was not the case, however; Ryoga was in the middle of the flattest plain Ranma had ever seen. The only thing breaking the monotony was the stream beside which the lost boy was setting up his camp.

He chose his moment well, slipping quietly out of the stream while Ryoga was inside his tent sliding the last few bars of the framework into place. Consequently, when Ryoga exited the now-stable structure, it was quite a shock to find he was no longer alone. Ranma stood roughly ten paces away, staring sternly down at his rival, backlit by the setting sun for extra dramatic emphasis. Of course, this made it rather more difficult for Ryoga to see the pigtailed boy's stony expression, but one can't have everything.

"Ranma?" Ryoga asked hesitantly, squinting forward and trying to determine whether he was really seeing what he thought he was. On the one hand, it did look like Ranma. On the other, this was the last place he'd expect to run across his foe. "What are you doing in Okinawa?"

Only the fact that he was here to confront Ryoga about nearly killing Kaede kept Ranma from facefaulting. Still, he was momentarily rendered speechless.

Meanwhile, the initial shock was wearing off for the lost boy. His startled expression shifted into a scowl. "It is you! Never mind how you got here, Ranma. I'm gonna make you pay for hurting Akane like that!" His umbrella was inconveniently located several feet away. Deciding not to bother with it, he charged.

That was more than enough to shake Ranma from the remains of his discomfiture. He took a few quick steps forward to meet Ryoga, dodging the other boy's strike. As this was their first fight since Ranma took his speed training to the next level, Ryoga was nowhere near ready for his rival's increased quickness. Ranma had all the opportunity he needed to shift to one side and launch his own attack. Ryoga had already braked to a stop and was turning to strike again — which played perfectly into Ranma's hands. The Saotome heir twisted, then whipped his leg around in the strongest roundhouse kick he could manage. The strike connected without much force, though; Ryoga was standing too close for there to have been any real momentum built up just yet. Which was exactly as planned.

Ranma fed every last bit of strength he had into the attack (it was nice not to have to worry about straining his muscles or tearing a ligament), pushing past the sudden added drag. His move picked Ryoga up and swept him along, sending him flying as if shot from a sling. The pigtailed teen was careful to angle the direction downward, knowing that if he gave his opponent too much air time, the other boy would easily recover in time to control his fall. Instead, Ryoga slammed into the ground just five feet away from Ranma and continued going, plowing along for another five feet before coming to rest in a crumpled heap, with a mound of earth three times his own mass piled up behind him.

Ryoga actually took a few seconds to shake that one off, before climbing back to his feet with a growl of renewed determination. "Damn you, Ranma!" he roared, on seeing no sign of his nemesis. "How dare you run away again?!"

"Excuse me?" Ranma retorted sardonically, from his position some five feet behind Ryoga. "I'm right here, pig boy. Come and get me."

The lost boy whirled, and prepared to do just that… then froze at the sight before him. Ranma was standing up straight, but his head came only to the level of Ryoga's waist. The reason for this was simple — he was standing waist-deep in the stream beside which Ryoga had camped. The pack that Ranma had been wearing when he arrived was still slung across his back, but now it hung flat and empty. Its contents rested in Ranma's hand: a large sealed wooden cask, marked in big bold black lettering that Ryoga could read even at this distance and in this failing light.

He stared at the cask labeled "Nannichuan" at least as intently as a starving man would a nine-course French dinner placed just out of his reach. "Is… is that…" he struggled to get the words out.

"I got your cure right here, Ryoga," Ranma said curtly. Technically it was true, even though the cask was just something he'd picked up at a bathhouse, filled with ordinary water, and labeled himself. "No tricks. No catches. No more games or lies or stupid things that look like they're gonna help us but end up bein' so much hot air."

"GIVE IT HERE!!" The tortured cry rang out over miles and miles of prairie.

"Not yet," Ranma retorted. "You've got to promise me something first."

With a great deal of effort, Ryoga held back his instinctive response to this. "And what's that?" he managed to say, in a strangled sort of voice that would have sent many Nerima residents running for the hills.

Ranma's reply came in tones of quiet reason, which contrasted nicely. "Promise you'll listen to everything I got to say before you attack me again."

Ryoga blinked. "That's all?" Ranma nodded. "Not, 'Promise not to attack me'? Just listen to your stupid excuses before I do?"

The Saotome heir growled, and cocked one fist menacingly over the cask. Ryoga began frantically waving his hands and shouting pleas for mercy. "Listen up, Ryoga," Ranma yelled. "You think I'm out here for my health?! This is a hell of a lot more serious than you seem to think! Now are you gonna promise? Or do I give some fish a life-changing experience?!"

"I promise!!" Ryoga shouted frantically.

In that instant the Saotome heir focused, reaching out toward the sense of wrongness emanating from Ryoga. He'd been able to feel the power of water in the other boy ever since he got here… but it was perverted somehow, mixed with something with which it never should have been… with a mental twist, he severed the connection, only just holding back a smile of satisfaction as the unnatural sensation finally disappeared.

Unaware of the fact that the whole charade was now completely unnecessary, Ryoga continued to plead. "I'll listen to whatever you've got to say!! Just please, please, PLEASE GIVE IT HERE!!"

Resisting with some difficulty the urge to toss the cask toward Ryoga, Ranma moved forward and handed his cargo over. "Here ya go, bacon boy. Heh… guess I'm not gonna be able to call you that much longer, huh?"

His question went both unanswered and unnoticed. Ryoga was staring at the cask as if he held the Holy Grail in his hands. Closing his eyes and saying a silent prayer, the lost boy raised the cask over his head and shattered it with one swift blow.

The water inside cascaded down over him, leaving him wet… and otherwise unchanged. For a long moment he stood there trembling. And then, with a yell, he whirled and charged.

Ranma gave Ryoga some five minutes to stand in the stream and laugh maniacally. Eventually, though, he forcefully cleared his throat, calling the other's attention to himself. "You ready to listen now, Ryoga?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever." Truth be told, Ryoga doubted he would be able to give Ranma the pounding he deserved for his heartless actions toward Akane anyway. At least not tonight; he was just in too good a mood now. The lost boy climbed out of the stream, heading over to his backpack and pulling out a towel. "Go on."

"Okay." Ranma took a deep breath, marshalling his thoughts. "Ryoga, about—"

"Hey, where'd you get Nannichuan water anyway?" Ryoga demanded, interrupting him.

Ranma frowned, then decided a technique from one of his favorite anime would work nicely here. He shifted his face into an annoying grin. "Now that… is a secret!"

"Not you too," Ryoga grumbled under his breath. "I hate it when I run into that stupid priest."

For Ranma's peace of mind, it was probably just as well that he didn't quite catch that. "Listen, Ryoga, I got to talk to you about something serious. I mean real serious. I mean more serious than your cure or mine."

Ryoga blinked. Ranma blowing off his rival's cure was one thing, but saying this meant more than his own? "Okay, I'm listening."

"I'd like you to tell me just what happened a couple of days ago. With Kaede," he added for clarification.

The lost boy frowned, his good mood dimming. So he'd heard about that fight already, had he? Chances were Ranma knew about his latest ace in the hole, then. Why couldn't he ever get the break he deserved? Still, considering that he was currently damp from cold water that hadn't washed away his human form, the thought held rather less angst than it usually did. "What's to tell? You must know about it already. I got into a fight with that new fiancée of yours."

"I know that," Ranma growled. "Already heard one side of it. Now I want to hear yours."

Ryoga just gestured helplessly. "What's to say?" Mentally, he continued, 'No way am I gonna let you trick me into giving out ALL the details of my new move, Ranma!'

"Okay. Let's start simple. Who won?"

"I did," Ryoga asserted. "I had her down for the count." He frowned. "No matter what she told you, that's how it was. The fight was over." It was annoying enough that Kaede had beaten him so easily the first time… no way was he going to let anyone cast doubt on his comeback victory.

"How could she have told me anything else?" Ranma inquired. "I mean, if you really knocked all the fight out of her, how could there be any question about who won?"

Ryoga squirmed a little, but decided this was a better question than just how he'd taken Kaede down. "Umm… well, the thing is… Ukyo kinda caught the tail end of the fight. She ran forward and interfered."

Ranma's eyebrows climbed toward his hairline in surprise. How exactly had Ryoga managed to work out that what had happened next had been Ukyo's doing? There were many things that the lost boy was not, and one of them was perceptive. "Interfered how?"

After squirming a little more, Ryoga admitted, "Well… you know how it is… I mean, it kinda looks bad when a guy fights a girl… and Ukyo wasn't there to see that she started it anyway…."

"Would you get to the point?!" Ranma demanded.

"Look, Miss Okonomiyaki-Obsession was gonna splash me in broad daylight, in front of a hundred people!" Ryoga shouted back. "So I took off. That's what I meant."

Ranma spent a few more moments blinking in surprise. "You thought she was gonna trigger your curse?"

"Thought nothing, it was plain as day! You'd understand if you had a real curse, Ranma. You would've run too!!"

"I guess having it revealed in front of everybody like that would be pretty scary," Ranma mused.

"Yeah, terrify—" Ryoga caught himself. "Shut up! Like you'd've done any better in my place!"

"Prob'ly not," Ranma admitted. "I guess if I'd been there instead of you and the same thing had happened to me, I probably woulda run too." Given that he knew what Ukyo had really done to cause Ryoga's terror, admitting that didn't come particularly hard.

"Yeah… well," the lost boy said, his ruffled feathers settling.

Ranma waited a few moments, then continued. "Okay. I got it. Ucchan ran up, you ran off so she wouldn't take you down the cheap way." He frowned, not that Ryoga could see this all that well in the fading light. "What I really wanna talk about is what happened next."

"What happened next?" Ryoga echoed.

"Yeah." Ranma's voice sharpened, and grew cold enough that Ryoga shivered involuntarily. "The part where Ucchan checked Kaede for a pulse, and didn't find one. The part where she gave her CPR, which is the only reason I've still got as many fiancées now as I did the day before your fight."

A long moment of frozen silence, then Ryoga burst to his feet. "You're lying!!"

"No way. No how. Your technique shut her heart down. You woulda killed her, Ryoga," Ranma said in the coldest tone he could manage. "I swear on my honor as a martial artist. I ain't lyin' or stretchin' the truth or nothing. If Ucchan hadn't've been there, Kaede would be dead now. Her blood would be on your hands."

"But I… I didn't…" Ryoga searched frantically for the words. "I didn't hit her with anything that bad!"

"That ain't how I heard it," Ranma countered remorselessly. "What I heard sounded like you used some kinda twist on the Shi Shi Hokodan, set up to shoot into her when she got too close to you."

Ryoga gritted his teeth. "Yeah, that is pretty much what I did. But do you think that was the first time I ever pulled the move off, Ranma? Not even close! I'd gotten it to work a long time before I had that second fight with Kaede, and I'd used it to win three matches! And none of those guys took any real damage!!" He was shouting now, desperation in his voice. "It just took all the fight out of them. Hell, this version is even less powerful than the usual Shi Shi Hokodan!!"

"Yeah, well, it was powerful enough to take all the fight out of Kaede, forever," Ranma said flatly.

The lost boy held tensely silent for the next little while, his thoughts racing in circles of desperation and confusion. Ranma sat there and watched him, content to let the other boy work things through for himself for now.

Several long minutes passed… and then Ryoga seemed to sag, sinking back down to the ground. "Maybe it was because of that technique she had," he half-whispered, more to himself than to Ranma. "Maybe that was what caused it."


"Yeah, the first time I fought her, she broke my normal Shi Shi Hokodan and drained power out of it to boost herself," Ryoga explained absently. "That was what gave me the idea to work this new move out. But maybe being able to do that makes her more vulnerable to something like this."

"Maybe so," his rival acknowledged. "Well, lucky you, Ryoga. She told me how to do that trick too. Guess you got a real good weapon now, if you wanna fight me again. Heck, you could finally make good on that 'Ranma, prepare to die!' thing."

"Shut up!" It was more a tortured plea than an indignant demand. "You think I wanted this, Ranma?! I never meant to go that far!!" Even if she had whipped a cutting edge a micrometer away from breaking the skin of his neck.

The Saotome heir shrugged. "Guess you better not use that technique then, huh? Or at least have the sense to talk to the old ghoul about it first, see if it's safe or not."

"Maybe I'll do that," Ryoga said quietly. Or then again, maybe he'd just bury this technique in the deepest, blackest depths of his unconsciousness, and try to forget what he'd apparently come so close to doing.

Silence fell again, lasting for several more minutes. At last, with the air of one really in need of a change of subject, Ryoga spoke up. "Really though, Ranma. Where'd you get the Nannichuan?"

Ranma frowned. "I already told ya, I'm not saying. It's not important anyway." He figured he'd probably have to let everyone in on his new abilities eventually, but there was no way in the world he was letting that secret slip out anytime soon.

Ryoga acquired a matching frown. "Wait a minute… did Shampoo give it to you?!"

"Huh? Where'd that come from?" the other boy responded, too surprised to deny it outright.

"I knew it!" Ryoga growled. "This was her way of paying you back for favoring her while you treat Akane like crap!!"

"Excuse me?" Ranma's tone dipped back toward glacial levels. "You wanna repeat that, P-chan?"

"DON'T CALL me… P-chan…." Ryoga's protest ran out of steam as the reminder of his broken curse sank in. He tried to pull himself together, tried to recapture the righteous anger that Ranma deserved for his heartless actions. "She told me, Ranma! Akane told me how you as good as slapped her in the face! How you wouldn't even let her stand up for herself to someone who'd humiliated her in her own home!"

Ranma heaved a long and weary sigh. "Oh. Really. She told you that, did she?"

"Yes, she did!"

"Told you how she went over to the Cat Café to give Shampoo a formal challenge? How Shampoo asked me if Akane was ready to fight her for real? How Shampoo said that if Akane was, that's how she'd fight her? For real?"

"Ummm… some of that…" It was funny, but until this moment Ryoga hadn't really given much thought to that angle. That Akane had been going to pick a fight… no, issue a formal challenge to Shampoo. As much as the lost boy encouraged the love of his life regarding her martial arts skills whenever he got the chance, he knew that Akane was nowhere near the level she'd need to be to take on Shampoo for real.

But with that thought, he recovered his balance. "She told me the important part, Ranma! She would've won that fight, and you cheated her out of it!"

"Interesting use of 'cheated' there, Porky," Ranma muttered, wondering how badly Ryoga would've taken it if he had ever deliberately used his rival's curse to win one of their serious matches. Louder, he continued, "Yeah? You think so? Did Akane happen ta clue you in that Shampoo's learned the Amaguriken now?"

"No, but what's that got to do with anything?!"

Ranma shrugged. "Gee, I dunno. You think maybe… just maybe… she might've managed to block Akane's shot with a bonbori? The tomboy'd only get that one moment of surprise, you know."

Ryoga could find nothing to say. After a moment Ranma filled the silence himself. "And what if she had pulled it off? You forget what happens when an Amazon gets defeated by an outsider girl?"

Another rather more awkward silence. Ranma opted not to end this one, waiting instead to see what Ryoga's reaction would be.

"Damn you, Ranma!" the lost boy eventually exploded. "This is all your fault! This stuff happens to Akane over and over and over again! You never treat her right, you hurt her time and time again, you put her in danger and complain about how she can't keep up with you! You should've cleaned up this mess a long time ago!!"

Amazed that Ryoga had managed to hit at least one nail on the head in that diatribe, Ranma just replied soberly, "Yeah, well, if you run across a time machine so I can go back and fix all the mistakes I made, be sure an' tell me about it."

"I'm serious!" Ryoga shouted. "This isn't some stupid joke, Ranma!"

"No duh, pork brain," the Saotome heir replied acerbically. "Why d'you think I came all the way out here with that cask for you? I'm trying to deal with my problems once and for all.

"But if you think that's easy, then you're living in a dream world." Ranma glared through the gloom. "You think you got all the answers, Ryoga? Then you tell me… what should I do next?"

"Stop insulting and hurting Akane!"

"SPECIFICS, you moron!!" Ranma took several deep breaths. "Don't tell me not to do something. Tell me what I need to do. How would you…" he cut that sentence off, amending it to a version that would be more helpful, "how do you think I should solve the fiancée stuff?"

Now Ryoga was well and truly on the horns of a dilemma. Had Ranma just asked him how he would act if he were in Ranma's place, the answer would have been easy enough not even to require conscious thought. But he just couldn't tell Ranma to dump all the other girls and be a caring faithful doting fiancé to Akane!

While his rival was still struggling in silence, Ranma spoke again. "Ain't as easy as ya thought, is it?" He didn't wait for a response. "I'll tell you what I'm gonna do, at least as far as the Tendos go. Akane's broken the engagement for the last time. I don't care if that is the only promise the old man meant to keep. As far as I'm concerned, it's gone. Over. Finished. Kaput. Akane and me ain't nothing to each other any more."

"You can't do that." Ryoga felt as if the words were being pulled out of him by heavy, brutal machinery. Each one cost him effort greater than throwing a Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan, but they came nonetheless. "Not yet. She… she isn't ready for that… not with the way she acted, not with the things she said…"

"Too freakin' bad," Ranma said coldly. "I know you think I'm the scum of the earth and Akane can do no wrong, Ryoga. But that's not the world I live in. And I'm not going back there. Not anymore."

"I promised I'd listen to everything you had to say." Ryoga's tone could have ground through granite. "Are you finished yet?"

"Not quite yet," Ranma replied. "Just one more thing."

"Go on."

The pigtailed boy heaved another long, weary sigh. "Ryoga. Half the time I get Akane mad at me, I don't even know what I did wrong. The other half, I don't understand how it coulda mattered that much to her. It's the same old thing, over and over again. You say I just keep on hurting her? You say it's all my fault? Well, maybe so, but if I don't know any better, how the hell am I supposed to fix it?!"

"How can you not know any better?!" Ryoga demanded, using indignation to cover the fact that he had no clue how to answer the question.

"That isn't any kind of answer, Ryoga. Far as I can see, there's just one way out, and it's the one I'm taking. Get out now, maybe… maybe hurt Akane one last time by dumping her. Seems to me like that's better than keeping on hurting her until she finally tells me to go and don't change her mind afterward."

Ryoga was silent for a long time, at last giving a supremely reluctant, "Maybe."

"Maybe nothing. I'll be doing the tomboy a favor. Clearing out of the way and making room for somebody on the same page as her," Ranma said rather more cheerfully. "Somebody who can eat her toxic food, somebody who don't mind how uncute she is, somebody who's strong and slow and bad-tempered to boot… sounds like a match made in heaven, right, P-chan?"

That decided it. If Ranma was making stupid jokes, then he must've finished saying everything Ryoga had promised to listen to. And whether or not Ranma was ultimately doing the right thing here, Ryoga still owed him one for hurting Akane anyway. The lost boy surged to his feet, with a battle-cry of "Don't call me P-CHAN!!"

'What am I going to do?'

The question echoed through Ukyo's mind, over and over again. Nor was it the only one; the chef's consciousness was filled with a cacophony of fragmented thoughts, whirling emotions… and resurrected dreams.

Just about everything she'd done over the past couple of months, all the plans she'd laid, the course she'd charted and followed to the best of her abilities, all of it had been based around one central truth: that her time with Ranma was limited. That she only had so much, and no more, of a window of opportunity to be with him. That he might stay with her for a time, might listen to her and let her help him… but sooner or later she'd have to let go, because he was never, ever going to love her like she loved him.

A 'central truth' that could suddenly no longer be trusted at all.

"This just isn't fair!!" she lamented. "I never actually told him… never came right out and said I'd been made to believe he'd never love me. And now… what's he going to think?"

It was a fair question. While Ranma wasn't exactly the suspicious sort, Ukyo thought this scenario would likely strain even his ability to trust. 'Let's see… I know I didn't tell you this before you got your own power-up, Ranma honey, but the main reason I actually broke our engagement was cause the Dark told me there was no chance you'd ever love me. Except this scroll I suggested you look for says that was probably a lie. So now that you're living with me and we're the only two people we know who've got this kind of power, you wanna take the engagement back up?'

Ridiculous coincidences happened all the time in Nerima, but even to a veteran of the craziness like Ukyo, this one felt over the top.

'I could just… not say anything,' she thought hesitantly. 'Just keep quiet. That way, if anything happens, it'll happen honestly. And if nothing happens, I won't be any worse off than I was before…'

She considered the thought for all of ten seconds, before a stray memory tickled her mind, a memory of her sleeping guest and the only thing that had held her back from giving him a kiss. The chef grimaced, remembering that she couldn't afford any more self-deception. If there was any chance that her dreams might come true after all, there was no way she was going to be able to hold back from pursuing them. She was a seventeen-year-old girl, not some monk who'd learned iron restraint through decades of meditation under an icy waterfall.

Which raised another nasty issue. Ukyo knew — or had known — that despite what any outsider would have thought, bringing Ranma here to live with her had been an innocent act. However, the revelation of this morning had shattered that fact, leaving only a confusing tangle of uncertainty. Would Ranma still want to stay here? Should he? Was it even fair, given that she now wanted back into the game, for her to keep an advantage like having him live with her?

Ukyo dismissed that last objection almost as soon as it arrived. Ranma had spent more than a year living under the same roof as Akane, the least deserving of anyone in the fiancée scramble in her humble opinion. Any semblance of fairness about this competition had long ago been flushed down the toilet.

But the more important questions still remained. She'd offered this sanctuary to Ranma in good faith, as a sort of neutral ground, a place where he could stay without that decision making any sort of impact on the choices he had to make. And suddenly that wasn't going to be true anymore… at least, she hoped not.

But then again, Ukyo reminded herself sadly, this could all be a moot point. She knew she'd been lied to during her transformation, but there was no guarantee that this had been a lie. The visions of the future if nothing was done — Ranma dying, Ranma suiciding, Ranma chained as an Amazon slave — had hurt just as much. Those could have been the deception and the other nothing but truth. She might make her offer, only to have him dismiss it… and her… one last time.

The thought hurt like a demon clawing away at her from the inside out. But at least, Ukyo thought as bravely as she could, it would finally be settled.

With that, the chef let out a long, drawn-out sigh, and got to her feet. It was time and past to quit stewing in her room like this. She headed out into the hallway and down the stairs, intending to soothe her nerves with a nice round of the Art of the Okonomiyaki.

As luck would have it, Kaede arrived at the front door just in time to meet Ukyo's gaze through the window.

Ukyo's jaw dropped in shock, the other girl's inquiring, entreating look not yet registering in her mind. What on earth was Kaede doing here?

The chef finally recovered her balance when the other girl grimaced and knocked loudly. She hurried over and opened the door, making a mental note to point out to Ranma that he hadn't locked it when he left. "Can I help you?" she asked, remembering just in time that as far as the other girl was concerned Ukyo shouldn't know her name.

"Um… You're Ukyo Kuonji, right?"

Ukyo nodded. "That's me. And you…?"

"Kaede Hayashibara." Kaede fidgeted. "Ah… could I come in?"

Now, Ukyo was hardly enthusiastic about that idea. Ranma wasn't here at the moment; it would actually have been safer if he was. That way she could just have done her usual thing and introduced him as "Cousin Takeshi". However, with her houseguest off who-knew-where and due back who-knew-when, the situation was a good bit trickier than that. If Kaede should still be there when he decided to come dashing back home… Well, Ukyo for one was nowhere near ready to have their cover blown just yet.

On the other hand, saving someone's life gives you a certain measure of responsibility toward them. Ukyo couldn't quite bring herself to blow this off, especially since the vulnerable look in Kaede's eyes made it seem likely that she'd come to talk about just that. The chef compromised with a quick excuse. "Actually, it's not as clean in here as I'd like for visitors, sugar." Technically true — she didn't want any of Ranma's acquaintances visiting while his stuff was cluttering up her guest bedroom. "If you want to talk, we could go for a quick walk or something."

Kaede shook her head ruefully. "I can't. Been doing some hard training this morning; it was all I could do to walk over here. I really need to sit down. Don't worry about how messy it is, I promise I couldn't care less."

Ukyo bit her lip, seeing no way out. "Well… okay."

She turned, and Kaede followed her into the restaurant. Kaede took a few seconds to glance puzzledly around the room — which seemed quite tidy enough to her — before deciding that restaurant operators probably had to go by a different standard of "clean" than ordinary people. She sank onto a stool with a grateful sigh. "That's better. I should have taken a taxi over here."

"So… what'd you want to talk about?" Ukyo asked, seating herself as well and doing her best not to appear nervous.

"Can't you guess?" Kaede blinked. "That was you the other day, who helped me after the fight with that bastard Hibiki, wasn't it?"

As tempting as it was to reply in the negative and get Kaede out of there quickly, Ukyo suspected this would likely cause more problems down the road. "Yeah, it was," she replied, "but how'd you know? I mean, you were unconscious the whole time."

Kaede shrugged. "I asked around. Wasn't too hard to find someone who'd seen the fight and knew who you were and where I could find you."

"Mm," Ukyo replied noncommittally.

The other girl paused, trying to decide what to say next. At last, she continued, "The people I talked to said you gave me CPR, Ukyo. Was that… are you sure…" she took a deep breath, "…did I really need it? I mean, did I really have no pulse? Had my heart actually stopped beating?"

"Afraid so," Ukyo said, as kindly as she could. "Just for the few seconds it took me to get over to you and start you going again, though."

"So that's how it is," Kaede said. She fell silent, brooding. Ukyo shifted her weight nervously, feeling more and more anxious for this little encounter to end. When Kaede spoke up again, the chef nearly bounced an inch off her seat.

Fortunately, Kaede wasn't looking directly at her, and didn't notice. "So, you saw the end of the fight. Do you know just what Hibiki did to me?"

Ukyo opted not to give the full story. "I think it was some kind of chi thing." She shrugged helplessly. "I've never had that kind of training myself."

Kaede frowned a frown of disappointment. She'd hoped to be able to clear things up quickly and easily, but evidently her luck wasn't going to be that good. "Crud. Well, let me ask you something else. You've been around here awhile, right?" The restaurant didn't have any of the aura of gleaming newness she would have expected if its proprietor had only been here for a few months. And it certainly hadn't been hard to find someone who knew who Ukyo was and where to find her. "I mean, would you say you know Ryoga Hibiki pretty well?"

Ukyo shrugged. "I guess. Probably as much as anybody other than Ranma."

"Well… Then tell me what you think about all this. I mean, if it weren't for you, Hibiki would have…" She held back a shudder. "…would have killed me. It wasn't like I was threatening him with anything worse than a knockout blow, either. He knew that was what I was going to do next, and his counter stops my heart!" She gave herself a few moments to breathe deeply and push past the emotion, before saying, "What kind of guy is this Ryoga anyway? Was what happened an accident, do you think? Or do I need to make damn sure he doesn't ever pull something like that again?"

"What exactly do you mean by that?" Ukyo said slowly, her anxiety at the thought of Ranma's return suddenly getting pushed to the back burner.

Kaede stared the other girl straight in the eyes. "What do you think? Even if I never fought him again, that wouldn't make things safe. Hibiki says he's Ranma's greatest rival — and there's no way in hell I'm going to risk my fiancé's life, no way I'll let that bastard do to Ranma whatever it was he did to me. If it wasn't an accident, something that he lost control of… if he did just what he meant to do… I'll fight him one more time. One last time."

"You mean you'd kill him?!" Ukyo demanded, aghast. A fleeting vision of blasting Kaede with Fear in order to save Ryoga's neck danced through her mind.

"No, not kill," Kaede hastened to clarify. "Just… disable."

"I think I'm going to need a little more detail than that!"

Kaede grimaced, wishing she could've avoided putting this into words. "It's… There's one shiatsu technique I know that I've never used yet. Never, ever wanted to. It'd turn most of his voluntary muscles against themselves, cramping and spasming until they tore. It would take years of therapy to even walk again after that, and he'd never be any threat in a fight."

Ukyo's mouth opened and closed several times, before she managed to find words again. "And that's what you're asking me if I think you should do?! That's… that's…"

"It's what?!" Kaede demanded, desperation in her eyes and in her voice. "What else am I supposed to do?! If this guy's showed his true colors now, if he really is a killer… and not for self-defense either, like I already told you… then I've got a responsibility here. I can't let it happen again. Not to Ranma or to some innocent shmoe I've never met."

Ukyo chewed her lower lip, agreeing in principle, but fairly certain that such drastic measures were not needed. It was more than a little unnerving to hear Kaede talking so bluntly about being willing to go that far. "I don't think that's how it is, Kaede. Pretty sure Ryoga didn't mean to kill you."

Indebted to Ukyo though she was, Kaede couldn't just take this statement at face value, couldn't ignore the chance that the chef might be shying away from contributing toward Ryoga's judgment. Perhaps she would rather lie than take any part of that kind of responsibility. "You sure about that?" Kaede asked dubiously.

"Yeah," the other girl replied. "Mind you, I didn't get a really good look at the scene, but I remember that Ryoga was gloating at you about his comeback victory. It sure looked like he thought you were still in a condition to hear him."

"Really." Kaede favored her host with a piercing stare. "So why'd you run up when you did, then, if you didn't have any good reason to think Ryoga might really have hurt me?"

Ukyo had already begun thinking frantically as soon as 'why'd you run up' had registered. "Well… the thing is, Kaede… I've fought Ryoga before." A very long time ago, but she had. "He's used to fighting Ranma, who you may or may not know is a totally kick-butt fighter. Incredibly strong and fast and skilled. The kind of effort Ryoga has to put out to fight Ranma… Well, fighting someone else that hard, he could end up hurting them by accident. That's what I was worried about. That and the fact that he's got this nasty habit of wandering off into some godforsaken corner of the wilderness and coming back with a new technique to try and beat Ranma with. So he could have been trying something brand-new on you. I mean, it was nothing I'd ever seen him use before."

Kaede mulled over that thought for a bit. "Makes sense. Guess it could have been an accident, at that. Maybe I need to talk to him before I do anything else."

"And anyway, there's other, better ways of dealing with the situation than crippling him," Ukyo retorted. "Even if it turned out that he was trying to kill you."

"And what would those be?"

"Amazon shiatsu techniques. Shampoo knows this nice trick called the Xi Fang Gao that lets her wash whatever memories she wants to right out of your hair."

After grumbling under her breath for several moments about unfair advantages, Kaede said, "Well, that's good to know. I guess."

"I'd say so. Nice to know you had some option other than utterly destroying him, I mean," Ukyo said acerbically.

"Yeah, yeah, take it easy on that already," Kaede retorted, waving one hand dismissively. "You think I liked the thought? Hell, no! Besides, I could've done something a lot worse."

"Like what?"

"Like tell my dad the whole story of what happened, if I thought Ryoga really meant it." Kaede stared soberly ahead. "We wouldn't have to worry about him anymore after that, that's for sure."

There was a long, awkward pause. Kaede ended it, saying, "Well, I'm feeling a bit more rested now. Probably should start on my way back home. Thanks for the advice, Ukyo."

"No problem," Ukyo replied, getting up to walk Kaede to the door. "Glad I could help."

"Yeah, you helped me quite a lot," Kaede joked. Then her eyes widened, and she smacked herself on the forehead. "Oh, yeah, there was one other thing I came here to say."

"Which is…?"

"That I'm in your debt." There had been many serious things said here this morning, but Kaede spoke this last more soberly and with greater significance than anything that had gone before. "You saved my life, Kuonji. When you tell me how… I'll repay the debt."

Ukyo allowed herself a slight smile. "I'll give it some thought," she promised. "Wouldn't want to leave something like that hanging over your head."

Ten minutes after Kaede had left, Ranma returned. Ukyo heaved a long, relieved sigh that the near miss had been just that, and not a catastrophe. "Never thought I'd say this, Ranchan, but I'm glad you waited this long to come back."

"What, you think I wanted Kaede to find me here?"

"Uh… wha? How'd you…?!"

Ranma shrugged. "I take back what I said about gettin' gypped. Scrying's a heck of a lot more useful than I thought it was going to be. For instance, I can check up on all the nutcases and make sure none of them are too near before I jump back to Nerima."

Ukyo resisted the urge to smack herself with her own spatula. "Why didn't I think of that?"

"Eh, why should you have?" Ranma said dismissively. "I mean, that would mean I'm actually stopping and thinking things through, instead of just blundering along and making stupid mistakes. Ain't something you've seen me do a lot, right?"

His best friend chewed her lower lip unhappily. She'd actually meant the question to be 'why didn't I think of using that as a precaution', not 'why didn't I think you would have thought of something like that by yourself'. "Ranma… that isn't… I mean, you shouldn't dump on yourself like that…" Then she blinked, realizing that though his words had sounded rather bitter, he didn't seem to be feeling anything nearly that dark. "Hey… are you just fishing for sympathy or something, sugar? You aren't exactly suffering there, far as I can tell."

"Just facing the facts, Ukyo," he replied. "Way I'm looking at it, I've got a second chance now. I've gotta make good use of it. And that means not ignoring the mistakes I made, and for sure not keeping on making 'em."

"Right." Ukyo swallowed, suddenly nervous. "Ah… I might be able to help you. With Kaede, I mean. If you want out of that engagement."

"Yeah?" Ranma said, interested. His best idea so far for that one had been to slip Kaede several more techniques over the course of the next few weeks, and then get with her dad and lay everything out on the table. That Genma had never meant to keep his word. That Ranma just wasn't going to let a choice like this be made for him. That he was trying to clean up his old man's mess, and that he'd done his best to repay the 'dowry' that had been given to seal his and Kaede's engagement.

But if Ukyo had an idea that wouldn't take the better part of a month to bring off, and wouldn't involve meeting regularly with Kaede without letting her know where he was staying, he was all ears. "What've you got in mind?"

"It was partly why she came by this morning, Ranchan. To tell me that she would repay the debt she owed me. You know, for saving her life." Ukyo gave a nervous grin. "I could call it in on your behalf, tell her she has to let go of the engagement."

"Hmmm…" Ranma hm'd. It did have the advantage of a quick resolution. On the other hand… "Wouldn't that kinda blow our cover, though? I mean, why the heck should you be asking that if you weren't gonna have anymore to do with me? Kinda seems to me like that's a real good way to get everyone we know camping out on the doorstop, thinking maybe you really do know where I am."

"Well, I didn't mean we should do it right away," Ukyo equivocated, inwardly cursing herself. She could almost feel her good sense and native intelligence draining away, departing in the wake of her vanished objectivity. No wonder so many hare-brained schemes had been hatched and botched around here. "Just something to keep up our sleeves unless we need it."

"Yeah, I guess. That sounds good. Thanks, Ucchan."

She licked dry lips. "N-no problem." Ukyo paused, trying to work her way through a sudden spasm of nerves. Knowing that she couldn't just keep quiet about the things she'd learned this morning. Understanding that she owed it to Ranma, to tell him how she still felt. To admit that hope had sprung back from the ashes, clamoring to life more strongly than ever. No matter how scary it felt, she had to do it. She took a deep breath, then opened her mouth, ready to get it all out at once.

"So, Ranma. Where'd you go off to this morning, anyway?"

Ukyo cursed her cowardly vocal chords.

"Couple of different places, actually," he replied. "First, I found a deserted island and tried to find out just what I could do with an ocean at my back."

"How'd that go?"

"Pretty darn good, if I do say so myself." Ranma gave a satisfied grin. "I bet I could take down either of the old geezers if I needed to. At least once I get a bit more practice with some of the stronger tricks I came up with."

"You mean Happosai and Cologne?" Ukyo hazarded a guess. "You really think you could handle them now?"

"Yeah, that's right." Ranma remained oblivious to the worried look on his best friend's face. "Then I—"

"Ranma, I don't think that's a good idea," Ukyo interrupted. "I mean, at least not the old woman."

He blinked, surprised at the outburst. "Why not?"

"It's just… Well, let me put it this way. Early on after I got my powers, I thought I'd try and get some inside info from the Cat Café. Just an idea of whether they were brewing any trouble." Ukyo's brow wrinkled as the memory resurfaced. "I… I felt something. Don't know what it was… it wasn't Dark, but it was sure powerful. Anyway, I didn't dare get close. And this was in a dream, not even the real world!"

Ranma turned that thought over in his mind for a little while. "Probably some kind of defenses they've got set up there," he reasoned, remembering the strange nature of the Cat Café, the labyrinth underneath the building and the mystic urn that had been there before ever Cologne or Shampoo had set foot in the place. "Okay, I'll be sure not to pick a fight with her on her home turf." Which pretty much went without saying anyway… if such a battle were to occur, he'd want the Nerima canal, if not the Sea of Japan itself, right at hand.

"Anyway," he continued, "I got in some good practice there. That's where I was until I came back and told you about school."

"School. Right." Ukyo let out an unladylike snort. "I'm not saying I don't appreciate the thought, but still. How could you possibly think I might've been ready to head on off to Furinkan after what happened this morning?"

"Uh… Ucchan? What did happen this morning?" Ranma asked cautiously, even as the girl realized her mistake.

"I… I…" She spoke the words with difficulty, her mouth and throat suddenly bone dry. The moisture was apparently being rerouted, in order to allow her to break out in a massive cold sweat. Ukyo tried to find the words, tried as hard as she could. But she just could not summon enough will to push past the fear. Sighing in defeat, she said, "I'm still not ready to talk, sugar. Sorry."

His first impulse was to let it drop. Since following those impulses had gotten him into trouble more often than not, Ranma wondered if he ought to push it. He settled for asking, "Well… just tell me if it was something bad or not. I mean, are you okay?"

She smiled at him, a genuine expression containing such relief and thankfulness that Ranma couldn't help but feel he'd gotten it right. "Yeah, Ranchan. I'm okay. It wasn't something bad… not really. Just something big, and I haven't gotten a good grip on it yet." Changing the subject, she asked, "So where'd you go after that?"

"Oh, yeah." Ranma gave a smile of his own. "Figured I'd better deal with Ryoga before he really did put someone six feet under. So I 'ported on out to where he was, and laid it all on the line for him. Told him what he'd almost done, cured his curse, and said I wasn't gonna get in his way with Akane anymore. So that's one problem that I hope really is solved." He took note of the way Ukyo's eyes were bulging out from their sockets. "Uh… something wrong?"

"You… you told him?! Everything?! All about our powers?!"

"Course not," Ranma said, a little affronted at the question. "What kinda idiot do you take me for, Ucchan?"

"Then how'd you cure his curse? Hand him a barrel full of normal water and tell him it was Nannichuan?!" Ukyo blinked. "Hey, wait a minute. That actually would work, wouldn't it."

"Would work, did work," Ranma confirmed. "He did kinda wonder where I got the water, but as far as I'm concerned, P-chan can just live with that until I'm ready for everyone to find out the truth."

"I guess he must have been pretty thrilled," the chef mused. "At least now maybe he'll have the decency to quit attacking you all the time."

"Heh. You kiddin', Ucchan? It held him for awhile, but I eventually had to kick his butt across the prairie all the way to Manitoba." It had come as something of a relief, too, after the distasteful way he'd absolutely crawled to Ryoga while the conversation had touched on Akane. That bit of humiliation had been hard enough to swallow once; Ranma wasn't about to mention it again to Ukyo. "Nah, I'm sure Pork-Bun'll still be good for plenty of challenge matches."

"But… but…" Ukyo gaped, a rather helpless look in her eyes. "Then what did you accomplish anyway?!"

Ranma ticked the points off. "Well… One, I found out that move he used on Kaede had already won three fights for him, without seriously hurting anyone. So we know it was just an accident. Two, now that he knows, he won't risk using it again. Three, I've cancelled any debt I owe him for him getting cursed. Four, I've taken away just about every reason he's got to really get ticked at me. I ain't stopping him from going after Akane, and I gave him the cure he wanted so much. Only thing he's got left against me is that I'm a better martial artist." The pigtailed teen shrugged. "The way I figure it, that'll mean he keeps on challenging me. We'll always be rivals. But we've been allies too, when it was important, and that oughta come a lot more easily now." Then he grinned. "Truth be told, I'd kinda miss the fights."

Ukyo threw her hands up into the air, turned, and walked over toward the grill, muttering something under her breath about machismo and testosterone.

Every so often, Noriko's attention would seem to wander. Her part of the conversation would dwindle to the occasional "Hmm" and "Really?" Her gaze would drift, scanning restlessly through the other pedestrians on the road, tracking down side-alleys, or just sharpening to an interested stare as she regarded some utterly innocuous building.

When her friend answered her question as to how her family was doing with the phrase "You don't say," Kaori finally noticed. She cleared her throat loudly and peremptorily, dragging Noriko's attention back to the immediate present.

"Sorry about that," she offered. "Did I miss something?"

Kaori waved her hand, dismissing as irrelevant any concern for Noriko's family's well-being. "Never mind. What's the matter, Noriko?"

"Nothing's the matter, exactly…" the other girl replied. "I'm just wondering when all the crazy stuff is going to start up."

Kaori gave her friend a flat stare. "I met you at the Nerima train station less than twenty minutes ago. We haven't even walked a mile yet. I know I've been complaining about the chaos in my letters to everyone, but it's not that bad. You may not see anything bizarre the whole time you're here."

Noriko attempted, with no real success, to conceal her disappointment. "What about at Furinkan?" she queried. "I'm only going to be here a couple of days. It hasn't calmed down any since my cousin left, has it? I'm going to eat lunch with you there, at the very least." The girl absently fingered her long, black hair. "Aren't we going to be fighting off lobsters and luaunatics and trained wild boars with electric razors tied to their snouts?"

Once again, the Daikoku daughter reflected on her friend's grim, even morbid tastes. Honestly, with the way the girl sought out thrills and intrigue, it was a wonder she'd made it this far without stumbling into any major catastrophes. It was an even bigger wonder that her parents had let her go off by herself, even to visit a good friend who'd been missing her.

However Noriko had managed to get their permission, she was glad — it was good to see her friend again. Kaori certainly didn't like the idea of disappointing her. Nonetheless, the brunette wasn't able to muster up any real regret as she answered, "I'm afraid not. Things have really quieted down at the school lately. I think the principal took something he couldn't bounce back from." She went on to explain the latest rumor, that both Kuno children were sequestered in the deepest recesses of a secure psychiatric ward. Kaori didn't know how much she trusted this story (the rumor mill was largely run by Nabiki Tendo, after all), but it would explain the quiet, subdued, dispirited way the Furinkan headmaster behaved these days.

"That's just so wrong!" Noriko protested. She had particularly been looking forward to watching one of Tatewaki's psychotic rants. Dang it, why couldn't her parents have sent her to Furinkan back when she'd first asked? Now it looked like it was too late! Once again, she'd missed all the fun! Sometimes, Noriko muttered under her breath, she couldn't help but feel as if someone else had cut in front of her when they were handing out luck, and grabbed the entire share that should've gone to her.

Ukyo glanced over at 'Cousin Takeshi', wondering if she'd put too much pepper into the okonomiyaki he was carrying. That had been quite a sneeze.

"Look on the bright side," Kaori said matter-of-factly. "Your parents will probably be happier that Furinkan's calmed down."

Noriko shrugged. "Well, it's not like they know I'm here." As Kaori's jaw dropped, she explained further. "I left a note on my bed saying that I'd heard about a temple that supposedly had a magic sword that grants wishes, and I was going to go find it."

Well, that explained how Noriko had handled the issue of permission. For a moment, Kaori tried to fight off grim visions of what would happen if Noriko's parents ever found out where she'd really gone, and wanted to have words with their daughter's friend. Presumably one of the reasons Noriko never got in real trouble was the fact that her father had the general build and disposition of a grizzly bear, and her mother was the former assassin he'd tamed.

With some effort, she pushed the thought aside. Considering some of the stunts her friend had pulled in the past, there was no reason for them not to believe the excuse she'd left. It was exactly the sort of adventure that would call to Noriko, sending her off rushing blithely in where wise men would fear to tread, coming unscathed through situations that would have blown up in anyone else's face, and returning complaining bitterly of the way real excitement always stayed half a step ahead of her.

"And now you're telling me this place isn't as exciting as everybody makes it out to be," Noriko complained. She let out a long-suffering sigh, and forcibly turned her thoughts away from the injustice in her life. "Well, never mind me and the way reality constantly lets me down. How are you doing?"

"I…" Kaori echoed her friend's sigh. "I've been better."

"Lonely, sad, missing your friends… well, cheer up! I'm here to chase those blues… away…" Noriko let the sentence die unfinished, as she took a good look at her friend's unguarded face. This didn't look like some middling little depression to be shooed away with silliness. Hesitantly, she said, "What is it, Kaori? What's wrong?"

As luck would have it — Noriko's luck, anyway — there was a vacant bench quite near the two of them. Kaori headed over and sat down, followed closely by her friend. The Daikoku daughter was silent for a time, marshalling her thoughts, trying to decide where to begin and how much of this she really wanted to talk about out in public.

"I am lonely," she said at last. "I do miss all you guys. It's been months, Noriko! Months since I came here, and since then I've only been able to get in a few quick visits with all my friends back home. You're only going to be here a couple of days!"

"I can stay longer," Noriko offered. "My parents probably won't start putting my picture on the milk cartons until I've been gone for a week."

Kaori didn't really hear her. "And what do I have to show for it, huh?! Nothing!" she cried. Then, calming a bit, she opted for a bit more honesty. "Well, not much, at least." She'd now worked to the point of being able to jump half a story higher than her previous limit, which was nice, but not nearly nice enough.

"What about Ranma?" Noriko asked hesitantly. "How have things gone with him?"

"Ranma. Hah." Kaori gave a bitter laugh. "Can't ask the easy questions, can you Noriko?"

"What's the cube root of eight?" Noriko's attempt to interject some humor fell rather flat. She gave a faltering grin, then said, "If you'd rather not talk about it…."

"Thanks, that sounds good. I think I would rather sit here and watch you slowly perish from curiosity," Kaori retorted.

"Well, it would beat dying from boredom, anyway," Noriko muttered.

That line actually did earn her a small chuckle. It felt good to have her friend here, ready to offer her sympathy and commiseration and advice. "Ranma," the brunette said contemplatively. "I just don't know, Noriko. I'm really not sure where we stand.

"I've made some progress, at least. We've spent time together, done fun stuff; I've helped him, he's helped me. I've done my best to show him he's got something a whole lot better waiting for him than those scum at the Tendo dojo."

Noriko heard the undisguised rancor in her friend's voice, and sorrowfully crossed the second place off her mental list of must-see Nerima chaos hot-spots. If Kaori thought they were that bad, she wouldn't dishonor her friend by visiting them. Not when the whole reason she was in Nerima in the first place was to cheer up Kaori.

Unaware that she'd just handed her friend yet another narrow escape, the Daikoku daughter continued. "I just don't know. Don't know where I stand. That hurts."

"Maybe you should talk to him then?" Noriko hazarded. It felt more than a little strange to be offering that advice — Kaori was one of the most take-charge people she knew. For her to be hesitating like this… Well, Noriko wasn't quite positive yet what it meant, but whatever it was, it was big. "C'mon, you can do it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Just think of him like one of the guys back at the old school."

Kaori made a face. "Would that be the ones who'd get down on their knees just to ask me for the time of day? Or the ones who resent it that a mere girl can wipe the floor with them?"

"Well, which one is he more like?"

"Neither of the above. That's… he's… Ranma's just in a class by himself. He is shy, sometimes, and not very sure of himself. Tries to cover it up, but I know I've seen it. But he'd never crawl like those wimps." Kaori gave an amused sniff. "As to the other ones, he can wipe the floor with me."

And that didn't bother her friend? "You really do like him, don't you."

"Yes," Kaori said quietly, looking down at her shoes. "I really do.

"At first I didn't know whether I would, you know. When I came here, it was about what I needed to do — I needed to redeem our honor, I needed to rescue him, to get him away from the abuse he was suffering under. Needed to do these things. But now… more and more, I just want to spend time with him. To talk to him. To get his sympathy after I had a hard fight." Kaori paused, then said simply, "To be with him."

"Can't you tell him that?" Noriko couldn't imagine any guy not melting upon hearing such a romantic declaration from such a wonderful, talented, beautiful girl as her friend. Of course, at sixteen years old, Noriko had yet to really come to grips with the difference between the way women's and men's brains work.

"No, I can't!" Kaori's frustrated cry shook the heavens, or at least gave her friend a nasty shock. "He finally did leave the Tendos behind. Left them for good, or at least that's what I hope. Took his pack, brushed their dirt off his kung-fu slippers, and made a break for it. And he didn't come to me!"

Noriko felt an icy tremor of fear for her friend worm its way up her gut toward her chest. "Where did he go?" she asked hesitantly. "Was there someone else?"

"I don't know. There's several people he could have gone to," Kaori explained. "But he didn't. He's just gone, disappeared, vanished into thin air. I don't know where he is or what he's up to. Don't know whether he left for good or just took a training trip to clear his head. Don't know when, or if, he'll be back. And it hurts," she said quietly. "The not knowing. It hurts that he didn't come to me, even if it was just to say goodbye."

"I'm sorry," Noriko murmured, patting her friend sympathetically on the back. Privately she decided that if this Ranma didn't start acting a little more like a proper fiancé to Kaori, she might have to do something about it. 'Accidentally' letting slip to her parents that Ranma Saotome was the one who'd gotten her that forged passport and ticket to Iran last year… that could work.

Nabiki inhaled, taking a long, appreciative sniff. Kasumi's cooking shouldn't smell that good, she thought ruefully, not when she was this hungry and there yet remained forty-five minutes until dinner would be ready.

She looked down at the manga in her hands, trying to lose herself in the story. After a few minutes, she gave this up as a lost cause. She needed something a lot more engrossing than that to take her mind off what was happening in the kitchen. Nabiki looked around the living room, searching for inspiration.

The middle Tendo wasn't the only one present; Akane was there as well, seated some little distance away from Nabiki, apparently engrossed in the television. At least, she was looking in its general direction and clearly wasn't paying attention to anything else going on around her.

However, given that the program currently on was a horror show, and Akane wasn't showing any signs of the muted terror she usually wore when watching such fare, Nabiki concluded that her little sister wasn't really paying the program any attention either. She leaned to the side, getting a better view of Akane's profile. Yep, that clinched it — her face wore an expression about as closed as ever it got, but Nabiki was still able to see a brooding unhappiness behind it.

This should serve as plenty of a distraction, Nabiki decided. She got up, fetched the remote, wandered back to her seat, picked her manga up again, and idly pressed one button on the television control, doubling the volume in an instant.

Akane nearly jumped out of her skin as a terrifying shriek echoed through the room. Her eyes darted from corner to corner, trying to find the source of the sound, realizing a moment later that it had come from the television. She blanched as she finally noticed just what sort of program she'd been staring at. That scream had been the last protest the girl in the negligee would ever make; the vampire's fangs were already in her neck, and she hung limp in his grasp as the life drained from her. The youngest Tendo shuddered, and quickly lunged across the room to turn off the set.

She took a few deep breaths, getting her heart rate back to a more pleasant pace, then glanced sourly over at Nabiki. "What was that for?"

Nabiki looked up, giving her sister an oh-so-innocent stare. "What was what for?"

"Why'd you turn it up so loud?!"

"I didn't. I hit the mute button. I didn't think you were really watching it, and the noise was bothering me," Nabiki explained.

Akane gave her a blank stare. Why on earth would Nabiki say something that dumb? "No, you didn't," she protested, too confused to be irritated at the moment. "You turned it way up!"

"Excuse me?" Nabiki arched an eyebrow. "I don't hear any noise coming from the TV. Do you?"

"Nabiiikiiiii…" Akane growled, beginning to suspect some fun was being had at her expense.

"Well, what else would you call it? I hit the button, and the television went silent."

"That's just because I turned it off!"

"Don't be ridiculous, Akane. The facts are totally on my side here," Nabiki said airily. "I didn't make a mistake. You know it, I know it, stop trying to tell me something we both know isn't right."

Akane just growled and turned, preparing to stomp off to her room.

Before she had taken the first step, Nabiki spoke again. And this time, every hint of teasing mischief was gone from her voice. The tone alone stopped Akane and held her in her tracks, even before the meaning of Nabiki's words registered.

"The laws of the Amazon tribe are as follows," Nabiki's voice cracked like a whip, and stung nearly as badly. "In the event that an Amazon is defeated by a female outsider, the Amazon must give the Kiss of Death and kill without delay."

Slowly, Akane turned back around, to find her sister giving her an intense stare. "What did you say, Nabiki?" she asked, the words coming with a curious breathless quality, as if she couldn't quite believe what she had heard.

"You heard me," Nabiki retorted coldly. She stood up, looking Akane in the eye. "It's time to quit sulking, Akane."


"What else do you call it? 'That Ranma, he's such a jerk! He wouldn't let me fight Shampoo, even though she said this time she'd be ready to seriously hurt me! Wouldn't let me pull off a cheap win that would really make her mad! Wouldn't let me beat her in front of an Amazon elder, so she had to follow up on her law afterward! Wouldn't let me STICK MY DAMNED HEAD INTO A LION'S MOUTH!!' " Somewhere in there, Nabiki's control had slipped. She hadn't meant to take the 'distraction' this far, but suddenly she couldn't hold back any longer. It was time and past to pound some sense into her younger sister's skull. "DAMN IT, AKANE, HE DID THE ONLY THING HE COULD DO!"

"Since when do you care?!" Akane demanded, her face contorting. "Are you gonna take his side over mine too, Nabiki?! I know everybody else does, but I thought my family would stick by me, at least…."

The sheer cluelessness and selective hearing inherent in that response literally took Nabiki's breath away. Several seconds passed before she could find will and words to reply. "Are you even listening to me? Or to yourself?! I was worried about you!"

"Then leave me alone! Stop yelling at me! Stop bringing this back up!" Akane pleaded.

"No. This has gone on long enough. I'm not letting you keep on hiding your head in the sand, Akane." Nabiki pinned Akane with the strongest stare she could muster, attempting through sheer force of will to keep her sister here, listening, instead of turning away again in denial. "Ranma did what he needed to do. That's a fact, and you need to face it."

"You don't have any right to tell me that! You weren't even there, Nabiki! You don't know what happened. You can't tell me Ranma was right and I was wrong and that's the end of it!"

"Wrong, wrong, wrong… and wrong. I was there, little sister. I left the house while you were still arguing with Daddy. I got to the Cat Café even before you did."

"Yeah, I'm sure, just like you pressed the 'mute' button," Akane countered.

Without another word, Nabiki turned, and marched over to the cabinet that stored the videotapes. She rummaged in it for a second, eventually removing a plain, unmarked tape. She popped this into the VCR, switched the television back on, and turned to give her sister an expectant look.

Akane stared, her face growing paler than it had during the horror movie. The screen now was showing a scene that — to her, at least — was even worse. Judging from the angle, Nabiki must have been on a nearby balcony, scrunched down low to give her a closer shot. The bird's eye view was all too clear, showing a Chinese girl with long purple hair pummeling a post with kicks. Just for a fraction of an instant, the girl paused, her eyes tracking off down the alley. Akane caught herself on the very verge of darting forward and smashing the TV, to wipe away the look of amused contempt that had flitted across the Amazon's face.

She settled for darting forward and turning the set off. "Fine, Nabiki," she said bitterly, "you were there. One more person to watch me getting treated like I'm worthless. Now we've even got a videotape, to keep the memory alive."

"The videotape was to be used as evidence, if Shampoo really did try to hurt you," Nabiki retorted. "Anyway, now you know I know what I'm talking about."

"Fine. Can I go now?"

"No, you can't!" Nabiki snapped. "Not yet! You threw Ranma out on his butt for what he did, and you've been moping and sulking ever since. I think it's time to grow up and admit you were wrong, Akane!"

"Nabiki. Please," Akane said, hating the catch in her voice. "Please just leave me alone. Why are you doing this to me anyway?"

For a long moment the middle Tendo held tense, as if unsure how to respond… and then, ever so slightly, she relaxed. In tones of frustration rather than outright censure, Nabiki replied, "Because you made a mistake. A big one. A bad one. And you haven't even admitted it. Sis, learning from your mistakes so you don't make them again is the single most important part of growing up. And it kills me to see you don't seem willing to do that."

"Well, excuse me for not being as smart as you, Nabiki!" Akane had held out quite a long time, but the tears were beginning to fall now. "Maybe sometimes it's hard to learn a lesson! It's hard… And, and all you can do is th-throw Ranma back in my f-face…"

The middle Tendo mentally castigated herself for pushing this too far. Tentatively she reached out and put one hand on Akane's shoulder. "Listen, Akane," she said, as kindly as she could. "This isn't about Ranma, not really. It's about you and your choices. That's all I was trying to say."

Akane sniffled a few more times, and blinked away several more tears, but managed to limit it to that. "Then why…?"

Nabiki gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze, then let go. "I'm sorry, little sister. I've already said too much. Just… just think about things for yourself, okay?"

The youngest Tendo nodded, turned, and walked away. 'That's what I've been TRYING to do, Nabiki…' she thought with a sort of grumbling sadness.

"I'm proud of you, Nabiki."

The middle Tendo jumped, and spun around. She'd given Akane time to get upstairs and sequester herself in her room, and had been about to head off toward her own. Her snack stash was currently empty, but hopefully at least in there the smell of the cooking dinner would be less distracting.

However, Kasumi apparently had other ideas. The eldest Tendo daughter stood in the doorway of the kitchen, looking toward her younger sister with a careworn smile. She turned, gestured for Nabiki to follow her, and headed back into the kitchen. A little reluctantly, Nabiki followed, silently determining to grab a quick early bite or five when Kasumi wasn't looking.

Once they were safe in her sanctum sanctorum, Kasumi spoke again, louder than her original soft call. "Thank you, Nabiki. I really think little sister needed to hear that." And it was nice to see someone other than herself taking a bit of the burden of responsibility and guidance onto their shoulders.

"Do you think she paid any attention at all?" Nabiki asked dubiously. "I mean, besides just enough to put on her 'poor little me' act again?"

"I hope so," Kasumi said with a sigh. After a pause, she continued, changing the subject a little. "Have… have you heard anything more about where Ranma might be?"

"Nope. Nothing," Nabiki said, grimacing sourly. On seeing the disappointed look her sister didn't even try to hide, she asked, "You miss him that much, Kasumi?"

"It's… well… the house just doesn't seem right without him around," Kasumi explained. "Can't you feel it too? It's like some of the life has gone, like a candle blown out when we still need its light."

"Don't let Akane hear you say that," Nabiki said.

Kasumi frowned. "Akane is a very sweet girl, but you hit the nail right on the head when you were talking to her. She still acts very much like a child. We can't afford to let her make these kinds of decisions for us. As soon as you find Ranma again, I'm going to tell him it's all right to come back. If Akane has a problem with that, I'll speak to her and make her see reason."

"Better you than me, Sis. Better you than Daddy, too," Nabiki said dryly. "I'm sure he'd be very grateful to you if you handled this for him."

In the hallway outside, from which position he'd caught most of the short conversation, Soun nodded his head in involuntary agreement. It was looking more and more like Genma's idea had been a good one….

With a muted swoosh of displaced air, Ranma slipped in through the window. It was rather disconcerting to find Ukyo waiting for him beyond it; Furinkan's last class had only just ended, and she should still be on her way back, not already here. And waiting in his bedroom like this… well, Ranma was just glad she'd been sitting down a good ways away from the window. As usual he'd traveled back from the canal at top speed, to minimize the chances of being observed by anyone in the neighborhood, and if she'd been situated five feet to her right there would have been a rather embarrassing collision. "Yo, Ucchan. Back kinda early from Furinkan, aren't ya?"

"I cut out early."

"What for? Want to get a head start on opening the restaurant this afternoon?"

"Nah." Ukyo grimaced, theatrically massaging one shoulder. "I got tired of teachers sending me out to the hall for bucket duty, just because I wasn't paying attention. Guess I wasn't ready to go back today after all."

So she still wasn't really recovered from whatever had shocked her the previous morning. Ranma tried to think of a subtle way to bring the question back up.

Before he could come up with anything, Ukyo spoke again. "So what've you been up to today?"

He shrugged. "Training… working on mixing my powers in with Anything Goes… it's coming along pretty good, if I do say so myself."

'And you could have still been out there… doing what you wanted to do… except it's time for the restaurant to open…' Ukyo turned that thought over in her head for a few moments, before taking a deep breath. Now more than ever, she was convinced she needed to do this. "Ranma… I think we need to talk."

The pigtailed boy tensed, ever so slightly. "About what?"

"It's just… this…" She made a vague gesture, attempting with one wave of the hand to indicate the small size of the room she'd stuck him with, and the fact that he'd just cut short on a session of doing what he wanted to do to come back here and let her surround him with the illusion of a waiter's uniform. "I should have said this awhile back, and I'm sorry I waited this long."

The chef braced herself. She'd come up with this as a way to ease into talking about just why'd she'd reacted as she did after learning the truth of her powers — or to save herself some awkwardness by proving that it wouldn't be necessary. How Ranma reacted to this next offer… Well, it would decide either the next step, or the last one. This wasn't as scary as just bursting out with a full-fledged confession would have been, but it was plenty difficult nonetheless. However, it had to be done, so Ukyo scraped together all her courage and said, "I… I never really asked you. What you wanted. And, and the one time you said something about getting out on your own, I shot you down."

Ranma made a tiny noise, perhaps in protest, perhaps wanting to say something. She overrode him without really noticing. "I mean, I basically just grabbed you and brought you here when you were really down on your luck, when you had nowhere else to go… Stuck you in this crowded little restaurant, where we have to keep ducking and covering and hoping nobody's gonna find out… I just… I mean, I never asked. But I'm telling you now. If you want to leave, it's okay."

Silence fell. Ukyo was trembling, and her eyes were tightly shut as she waited for him to respond, one way or another.

When Ranma's answer finally came, his voice sounded as distant as sakura blossoms settling on Mount Fuji. "Maybe you got a point, Ukyo," he said. "Guess I can pretty much go anywhere I want, now. No need to stay here, right?"

She swore she felt her heart contract, becoming a cold lifeless lump in her breast. 'Damn it, it should not hurt this much,' Ukyo thought bitterly. She'd already gone through this once, after all. This final confirmation should not have brought so much pain. Reality apparently didn't agree; the agony was fresh, sharp, driving her toward another breakdown. A breakdown that she absolutely would NOT inflict on Ranma. With a mental twist, Ukyo engaged her powers, sucking away all the pain, the heartache, the despair… all the darkness that had wanted to choke her.

With a shock, her eyes flew open. With her own distractions out of the way, something was suddenly clear. Something that her anxiety had completely kept her from noticing before. "Hold it, Ranma," she said in a voice of steel.

Ranma froze in the act of slipping a shirt into his backpack. He held motionless for a moment, then turned around. "What?" His face was expressionless, as controlled as his voice.

To Ukyo, that mask was worthless. "How come you're hurting there?"

"Don't know what you're talking about," he muttered, suddenly not meeting her gaze.

"Bullshit! In case you've forgotten, I can sense any kind of darkness. And right now, you are feeling hurt… betrayed… there's even some fear there?!" Ukyo scooted forward close enough to get right in his face, and gave him a glare. "What the hell's going on here, you jackass?! When I force myself through something like that to try and help you, you aren't supposed to take it like this!"

"Whaddaya mean, help me?!" he demanded. "By kicking me out?! Look, you don't want me here, fine. I'll go. Thanks for all you've done for me, Ukyo, you got me back on track and I guess there's no good reason to stick around imposin' on you any more."

"STOP RIGHT THERE!! That is not what I said!" Ukyo paused, wondering whether she ought to eliminate the pain Ranma was feeling, so that maybe the idiot could start thinking straight again. Deciding to hold off a little longer, she continued, "I told you, you could go if YOU wanted to. How'd you get me wanting you to go out of that?!"

"Sure sounded like that was what you were getting at," Ranma grumbled. Again, though the mask didn't do a very good job of hiding his actual feelings — Ukyo could feel the darkness beginning to lift.

"Well, someone needs to get his hearing checked then," she retorted. "Ranma honey, the reason I brought this up is because I hadn't asked you what you wanted!"

"You didn't ask this time either," Ranma pointed out.

"I believe the question was kind of implied, sugar, when I said you could leave if you wanted to." Ukyo paused, then let out a sigh. "But you're right. I guess I did kind of blow this, if you misunderstood me that badly. So let me set the record straight. No, I wasn't trying to get rid of you. I like having you here, Ranma. I'd never ask you to leave, and I'd never want to ask you to leave.

"So what do you want?"

For a moment, Ranma looked like he was trying to decide what to say in response… then he gave her a cocky grin (it was a good bit weaker than usual, but it was real), turned away from her and began removing the stuff he'd packed. Behind his back, Ukyo pulled down one eyelid and stuck out her tongue.

She was looking innocent again when he turned back around, though. "Remember, sugar, this is as good as saying you don't mind me working you into the ground in the afternoons and evenings."

Ranma snorted. "As if that measly little bit of work is gonna affect me. Ucchan, you're talking to a guy who worked as a waitress in the Cat Café. Ain't nothing you could do that'd come even close to being as hard on me as that was."

"Except kick you out," Ukyo said softly. He didn't flinch, but she felt a spike of pain anyway. "Tell me something, Ranma. You've spent so much time traveling with nobody but Genma." Ukyo didn't need to actually say "and no company at all would have been better than that", her tone did it for her. "Why would the thought of leaving here hurt you so much?"

What she was hoping he would say was that it was the thought of leaving her that had hurt. On some level, Ukyo realized this was unlikely, but hope — one emotion that she couldn't do much about without actually projecting despair — was interfering a bit with her ability to remain rationally detached.

Ranma hesitated a long time. This wasn't going to be easy to say… but he figured he probably owed it to her. Besides, he and Ucchan were already keeping plenty of each other's secrets; it wasn't like she was gonna blab about this to anybody else. "It's just… that's just it," he said at last. "I have spent so much of my life without other people around who cared about me. Just Pop, and he sure don't seem like he's too interested in tracking me down now." He gulped. "I just don't want to be alone, Ucchan."

Another long moment of silence, as Ukyo turned his words over in her mind. It felt rather like she'd just been handed an important piece of a puzzle, and was now twisting it around, moving through the last few contortions prior to fitting it into place… and revealing something that had been obscured for too long. "Is that why you did what you did with Shampoo, do you think? I mean, that stuff that the Dark threw in my face, the time when you were going chasing after her in that tux."

Ranma considered this. "Maybe. Could be. I dunno." He shrugged. "That was prob'ly part of it, at least.

"But I can tell you for sure, it's why I cared for Akane as much as I did." The Saotome heir let out a long, ragged sigh. "Ain't something I'm too proud of, to tell ya the truth. I get to look back over all my life an' the lives of those around me, and one of the biggest things I have to face is I was lying to myself. I did care about Akane, a lot more than I ever let on. But do you know why?"

"Because she was always there?"

"Bingo. She was there. Only things that looked like taking her away, it was all stuff that it was my duty as a martial artist to fight anyway. Kirin… Toma…" Ranma grimaced. "I got into some of my best fights over her. All that stuff… it made it easy to forget about the bad times, you know?"

"So that's how it was, huh?" Ukyo asked sympathetically. Truth be told, she had halfway suspected it at times, but never had she ascribed this much importance to the issue. When those suspicions had arisen, she'd usually dismissed them with the thought that spending so much time around Akane would eventually cause Ranma to tire of her abuse and leave by his own choice. Here, now, hearing him spell it out for her… just how much it had meant to him, to always have someone there, someone who he knew wasn't going anywhere, someone he knew he wouldn't be taken away from… Ukyo suspected that if she wasn't still shielding herself from dark emotions, she'd be feeling an intense desire to go pound one Akane Tendo flatter than an okonomiyaki. "I wondered, sometimes."

"Well, now you know." Ranma heaved another sigh. "Let me tell you something, Ucchan. I know I didn't suffer anything like what you did, when I got my Water power-up, but it wasn't much fun to see all the mistakes I've made." His voice dropping to a near-whisper, he said, "And I'm thinking now that one of the biggest was the way I remembered all the good times with Akane, and forgot all the bad. Seein' the whole thing spread out before me like that… all those things I'd forgotten, it hit really hard."

"You aren't going back to her, are you? Not ever." Ukyo even managed to say that without a hint of gloating triumph.

"No way. I wouldn't mind saving Akane's butt if she gets kidnapped by another prince or something, but that's all I'm up for."

"If you're really, really sure of that—"

"Oh, yeah."

"Then maybe you ought to go tell that to Mr. Tendo? Lay it out for him that you're not going to go along with your idiot father's stupid plans?"

Ranma shrugged. "Way I figure it, the Tendos are the last people I oughta be worrying about. If I did do that, Nabiki'd have the news all over Nerima the very next day that I was in town. So no, I think I'll save them for later."

"You could write a letter," Ukyo offered. "Post it from Hokkaido or something."

He blinked. "Now there's an idea. Thanks, Ucchan."

"You're welcome."

"So what was the deal yesterday morning, anyway?"

Ranma had asked the question so casually that Ukyo almost answered without even thinking. She caught herself on the very verge. "Where'd that come from all of a sudden?!"

"Eh, just curious. You know, you just dragged something pretty heavy out of me a few minutes ago…"

"Blackmailer. No, wait, that's not the word," she corrected herself. "Um… manipulator?"

"Hey, do I look like Nabiki?!" Ranma asked indignantly.

Ukyo reached out and playfully bounced the back of her hand off his chest. "I think Nabiki'd have a pretty bad day if she woke up with a build like this, so, no."

"Hmm… that'd be kinda funny," Ranma mused, lost in thought. "Maybe not Nabiki, but next time someone like Pantyhose gives me grief, I could skip out to Jusenkyo, get water from one of the real debilitating springs, and douse 'em. Wouldn't make it permanent or nothing, just give 'em a good lesson."

"Hey, you'd probably get the same effect by dumping a hundred gallons of ordinary water on whoever," the chef said. "Didn't you tell me Ryoga's curse felt really, really wrong to you somehow?" Given that fact, she didn't much care for the thought of him putting himself in harm's way at the very source of all that wrongness.

"Yeah, I guess. So why did you freak out when you read that scroll, Ucchan?"

Ukyo rolled her eyes at his persistence, and then paused, trying to decide how to respond. Her reluctance to answer his question was not due to fear; she was still blocking that, and frankly expected to continue doing this for quite some time. No, she was simply unsure as to whether this was really the time to explain. After all, they'd just come out of a long, important discussion, when Ranma had laid something bare for her that hadn't been easy at all. Just because the jackass was pushing now, didn't mean he was ready to have something this important dropped on him so soon after that…

At last she said, "Ranma, I think I've already hinted that this is big. I don't think now is the right time to talk about it. I mean, less than twenty minutes ago you were putting stuff in your pack cause you thought I wanted you to leave. I'd rather give us both some time to cool down and relax before I talk about this. So why don't you go do some more training or something else that you'll enjoy, and I'll tell you tonight."

The pigtailed boy allowed himself rather a peculiar grimace, then vanished. Ukyo thought back over her last few words. "You know, that might not have been the best way to set his mind at ease," she allowed. "Oh, well."

"Ranma, I'm guessing you must have read my scrolls by now, right? I mean, the ones that talk about Darkness, and how lies are a big part of it…" Ukyo broke off. "No, that's no good. I don't want him thinking I'd ever lie to him. Umm… Ranma, you read the scroll and how it talked about Darkness, right? How it lies to you… ahem, how it lied to me…" The chef fell silent again, before letting out a long, frustrated sigh. "This sucks!" she complained. "I'm not nervous. I'm not afraid. Why the heck can't I string ten coherent sentences together?!"

The universe didn't answer. Perhaps it was deriving too much amusement from watching her stumble her way through an attempt to rehearse her explanation, and didn't want the spectacle to end. Ukyo checked the time — she had actually spent forty-five minutes on these rambling, halfway-coherent trial runs! She hadn't specified an exact time to talk to Ranma tonight, but she didn't expect him to stay away too much longer. With a curious sense that she ought to be panicking, if only she wasn't feeding her fear to the Dark, Ukyo began yet another attempt to work out a decent, convincing, non-threatening way to tell Ranma she was still hoping to be with him. Praying that she could somehow work out all the right words in time. It was nearly a quarter to six now — as curious as Ranma had been about this, surely he wouldn't wait much longer.

Only because she was holding motionless herself, her senses straining for any hint of his arrival, did Ukyo hear Ranma's return. There — the whisper of his entry through the window. There — the slight creak of that annoying patch of flooring just outside his door. There — a series of near-soundless footfalls she felt rather than heard, as he came slowly and quietly down the stairs. He entered the main room of the restaurant, and met Ukyo's gaze.

She held that pose for a long silent moment, then turned to stare at the clock that read 11:30.

"Uh, you did mean that you weren't gonna open the restaurant today, when you told me to take off for the afternoon. Right?" Ranma asked hopefully.

"Actually, yes. I did mean that. I thought you were dying of curiosity to ask me something?" Ukyo had eventually decided to allow herself at least a little irritation. Love, hope, and all that mushy stuff notwithstanding, she wasn't about to turn herself into a doormat. "What the heck took you so long, you jackass?!"

He let out a long, quiet sigh. "I… I had to do some thinking of my own. Lot on my mind, you know?"

Ukyo blinked. "Um… no?" She hastened to qualify. "I mean, I know you've still got some pretty tangled problems sitting in front of you, Ranma honey, but I don't see any one thing that would've gotten you deep in thought this particular afternoon. Was it something from our talk earlier?"

"Not really. Well, a little, but that came after." Ranma cleared his throat nervously. "Um… well… I didn't spend the whole time thinking. Did what you said, actually; spent the first few hours training. The thinking stuff over… that kinda came later…"

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"I think we'd better." The Saotome heir gulped a couple of times, then walked over to the sink. He opened the faucet long enough to collect sufficient water for a scrying puddle, headed back to where Ukyo was seated at the long counter, and spread the water out before her. "I didn't actually mean to keep this secret or nothing, Ucchan. It just didn't come up before now." The waters shifted, discarding the vision of the countertop beneath them, focusing instead on a rock concert where hundreds of screaming teens competed with the band's loudspeakers to see who could generate the most volume.

Ukyo blinked, leaning her head down toward the water. "No way… I can actually hear them! It's real faint, but it's there! I thought you could just show images?"

"Nope. Sounds get conducted too, just real, real quiet. But no matter how quiet it is, it's clear to me. Cause the words passed through the water, I guess."

The chef snorted, glancing down at the scene still pictured below her. "Yeah, right, like there's any words there. Just a bunch of people yelling their fool heads off."

"Um…" Ranma took several precautionary steps back. "I was kinda talking about… other times. Other words. Like…" a few more steps, without even realizing he'd done it, "…late this afternoon, when I was checking here to see if it was okay to come back?" His voice ended on a note that wouldn't have sounded too inappropriate in his late, unlamented cursed form.

From curiosity through blank incomprehension to refusal to understand. Then, the slow dawn of realization, forcing its way through the ignorance she tried to cling to. Finally, the full-blown horror of the situation, standing before her as naked truth.

Ranma took the last few steps backward that brought him up against a wall. Every time he'd seen Ukyo get embarrassed beyond a certain point, he'd gotten reflexively pounded. Judging from the look of things now, well, it was looking like a good thing that Water empowerment included super-healing.

His expectations would go unfulfilled, though. Ukyo was literally frozen, caught in the grip of an emotion that was just too strong to be expressed through any action. All she could do was sit there in an incoherent stupor, radiating nearly enough heat to cook an okonomiyaki off her own skin. Embarrassment was a few shades too far away from true Darkness for her to be able to shred it, not that she was capable of that kind of clarity of thought anyway at the moment.

After a few minutes of silence had passed, Ranma wondered whether he ought to go back over there and wave his hand in front of Ukyo's eyes or something. He decided to play it safe, resorting to words to try to break her from her stupor. "Didn't mean to spy on you or nothin', Ucchan. It's just… I checked in at just the right moment to hear something pretty damn big. By the time it occurred to me that I probably shouldn't be doing this, I'd already heard the whole thing." Ranma opted not to mention that that had been after half an hour of listening, and the conviction that he ought to quit eavesdropping had only come after he was certain he'd heard all the important stuff.

"Y-you heard?" Ukyo squeaked, regaining a tiny bit of conscious motor control.

"Yeah. That's… that's why I took so long getting back. Had to think about all that stuff."

Ukyo licked dry lips, and closed her eyes. "What'd you… decide?"

"It's… I mean, there's…" Ranma scrabbled desperately for his own pre-rehearsed speech, grasping only bits and pieces of it. "There's still so much trying to come crushing down on me, Ukyo. I mean… all the engagements… all my old man's broken promises… I'm sick and tired of being told what to do, ain't gonna let those decisions be made for me anymore… I mean, what I'm trying to say here is, it's my life, and I'm not gonna let other people tell me how I have to live it…"

She let out a long, quivering sigh. "I… I understand, Ranma."

"No, I, I don't think you do. Lemme finish, okay?" It was Ranma's turn to try and get some moisture in his mouth. "I… I'm breaking all the engagements, Ucchan. Or not really breaking them, ending them. That ain't what I want now anyway, and, and you know that. I mean, we talked about it some, that first day after you let me come here. I'm not ready for that kind of stuff. But…

"But it's not as scary as it was, you know?" And now that he was this far along in the conversation, the fear of what he was saying was lessening too. He dared to step forward away from the wall, closing half the distance between himself and his best friend. "When I was getting my own power, I saw so much stuff, Ucchan. My whole life, pieces of other people's where they'd touched me or I'd touched them. Even a few bits from people's lives who I'd never met, but who had a big impact on other people I had. All… all that stuff I saw, so much life, so many people who were happy, or sad, some who had somebody to love, some who were all alone…" He took a deep breath. "I'm still not ready yet, but it ain't nearly as scary as it was before.

"And I got to thinking about all that this afternoon, and on into the night… and then it hit me. Something so simple, I almost missed it. Like you said, it was from what we talked about today. Reason why my feelings for Akane lasted so long. She was always there, I was always with her. I knew that, knew what it had meant for me — what it had done to me. And when you asked me if I wanted to leave, I still said I'd rather stay."

"Ranma…" Ukyo made a few false starts, before managing to get the next few words out. "Are you saying…?"

"I… I don't want a fiancée right now, Ukyo. It ain't the right time, and when it is it'll be my choice. Not because of something my old man did or said. I don't… I'm not ready for a fiancée…" he paused, determined that his voice wouldn't shake when he said these next words, "…but I think I'd kind of like to have a girlfriend."

"I, I'd like that too," she half-whispered. Then she looked up, met his eyes, smiled shakily. "Th-that was an offer, just s-so you know."

"I…" he took a deep breath. "I thought it was you accepting the one I made, Ucchan."

"That, that too." Ukyo's smile shone through the dimness of the restaurant. Her eyes were shining too, and she raised one trembling hand and wiped at them. "Count on it, Ranchan. I t-told you already… I'll never leave unless you ask me to go."

The minutes ticked by, and Kaede's anticipation wound itself ever tighter. She diverted as much attention as she could to the task of alternately tightening and then loosening various muscle groups, which would at least keep her physically relaxed. It didn't do much for her mental tension, though; that particular exercise was one she'd known for nearly a decade, and it just didn't take too much thought to perform anymore.

Thus leaving her mind free for other, weightier concerns.

With some effort, she refrained from grinding her teeth together. Yesterday she had made another attempt to get in touch with Ranma. She had left late in the morning, knowing that this would mean she'd get to the Tendo dojo while her fiancé still had several hours to spend at school. By this time, Kaede considered the thought of waiting those hours before he returned to be a small price to pay. They weren't going to put her off this time, she'd sworn to herself.

Nor had they tried, or rather, Kasumi hadn't tried. She had been the one to answer the door, and when she'd heard Kaede's request to wait here for Ranma, the Tendo homemaker had told her quite a lot of things she didn't want to hear. Kaede hadn't wanted to believe it, had desperately tried not to believe it, but there was just something about the older girl that made it impossible to think she might be lying.

She'd stayed at the Tendo place for nearly half an hour after that, waiting grimly for Akane to come back. It had been a while since the last time she'd defeated the heir to a dojo, after all. And although she'd never actually taken a sign and destroyed it after her victory, well, there had to be a first time for everything.

Fortunately for what was left of the harmony of the Tendo household, Kaede eventually cooled off enough to realize that if she did do this, the self-disgust she'd feel afterward would far outweigh whatever temporary satisfaction she would have gotten. Not to mention what her father would say if he learned she had deliberately thrashed someone so far below her and shattered her school. No, that wasn't a good idea at all, Kaede had eventually realized, better to find some other outlet to serve as a channel for her anger. Which had brought her here, now, standing in this vacant lot and waiting.

And then the relative quiet of the morning air was broken. The bright, cheerful jingling of a bicycle bell sounded, coming rather incongruously from some ninety feet above her. Kaede whipped around and looked up, disbelief pushing aside determination. Shampoo had just rocketed into the sky, apparently from the top of a five-story building. The Japanese girl watched, dumbfounded, as the Amazon shot through the air, angling down and forward, in a path that looked like it would slam her into the face of another building. However, she twisted at the last second, bringing just the wheels of the bike in line with the wall and riding straight down it. When she was just one story away from splattering against the ground, she turned and pulled up on the handlebars, changing the angle of her descent and bringing the front wheel away from the building. The rear wheel hit an outcropping windowsill, which broke away. Of rather more importance, though, the bump transformed most of Shampoo's velocity from vertical to horizontal. She shot out from the building, passing clear from one side of the empty lot to the other before touching down next to a wall. Shampoo hopped off the bicycle, pulled a chain and padlock out of the box on the handlebars, and carefully secured the bike against theft.

Somehow, that last note only increased the sense of unreality. Kaede just stood there, blinking, her mind struggling to get back in gear, for nearly a minute.

Shampoo smirked. The mental battle was just as important as the physical one, Great-Grandmother had taught her. It was certainly true that the only time she'd lost a formal match, it had been after seriously underestimating her opponent. Shampoo didn't think there was much chance of getting Kaede to underestimate her, not anymore anyway, but psyching her out… well, that was perhaps even more satisfying.

Still, the entertainment value of watching her opponent gape at her could only hold for so long. "Anytime you is ready, Kaede," she called, after having crossed roughly half the distance separating her from the other girl. "If that mean you want to put off for another ten day, just say so."

"Ah… no." Mentally replaying that response, Kaede felt a sudden sharp surge of annoyance. "You should be so lucky!" she said, rather more spiritedly. "No, Shampoo, I don't think I need that much time. So, are we agreed? Kiss of Death won't apply for this fight?"

"I will not be giving you Kiss of Death," Shampoo agreed.

The really annoying thing, Kaede reflected, was that she couldn't be sure whether that had been a taunt or just a result of Shampoo's less-than-complete grasp of Japanese. Nevertheless, she reminded herself, it didn't really matter. She already had plenty to pay the Amazon back for.

The subtle signs of her opponent readying herself for mayhem didn't escape Shampoo. Kaede's narrowed eyes, her knuckles clenched around the tonfa she'd just drawn, the battle aura burning around her… if the Amazon didn't know any better, she'd think Kaede was really angry or something. Like there was something more on the table for this battle than just a chance to prove herself.

Well, Shampoo thought with a mental shrug, she'd know soon enough, when she saw how Kaede took her upcoming defeat.

Her opponent was already moving, coming in slowly but inexorably, a tonfa gripped in each hand. For the moment, Shampoo opted not to pull out any weapons of her own. She waited motionless, tensing, letting Kaede cross the distance… and then, with a yell, she exploded forward, running toward Kaede as quickly as she could, spinning into a kick that would have given the Japanese girl a nasty headache if it had landed.

Kaede simultaneously leaned backward and bent her knees, letting Shampoo's kick miss her by an inch. In the same motion she counterattacked, bringing one tonfa up and around in the opposite direction, smacking forcefully into Shampoo's leg as it slipped past her. Kaede winced as she felt the sting of the contact, transferred back along her weapon and into her palm.

The attack didn't really hurt Shampoo, but it did compromise her balance. She wobbled, ever so slightly; Kaede seized the opening and spun to the side, launching a kick of her own. Hers connected, striking the Amazon's hip squarely and knocking her the rest of the way off-balance. Shampoo twisted in midair, though, landing on her feet with knees bent nearly double and then springing forward again. Somewhere in there — Kaede wasn't certain exactly where — she had also brought one bonbori to hand. Kaede dodged, striking out at the weapon as hard as she could, trying to knock it from Shampoo's grasp. The ball of the weapon gave a muted *clong*, but Shampoo's grip didn't waver at all.

Kaede snarled a mental curse. Shampoo might not have been affected by that attack, but her own hand was stinging badly — enough to warn her that she'd probably lose her grip if she tried another attack too soon. The Amazon was already turning again, coming around to face her, leading with a bonbori strike that Kaede knew better than to try to block. The Japanese girl backpedaled desperately, needing to buy herself a few seconds of recovery time.

Instead of pressing the attack, Shampoo hesitated, wondering whether she should return the bonbori to storage. Pulling it out had been more an instinctive act than anything else; it wasn't like she'd seen an opening that it would help her take advantage of. And given the fact that her opponent appeared to be even faster now than in their last fight, the slowdown factor of her maces made them seem like they'd be more hindrance than help against this particular rival.

Then again, the weapons did give her more options than she had when fighting empty-handed. Shampoo decided to stick with using just one of them. She began to move again, approaching Kaede with her body angled to present as narrow a profile as possible. Her empty left hand led the way before her, and her right held the bonbori back along her body. Her unburdened hand should be fast enough to at least slow down any attack before it reached her body, Kaede noted grimly, leaving her opponent able to disperse the rest of it with the mace and then counterattack.

As the last of the distance between them vanished, Kaede struck. Those few seconds had let her recover most of the feeling in her hand, but she wasn't quite ready yet to push too hard. And so she opted for an attack at about half her current top speed, bringing both tonfa forward in an attack aimed to smash Shampoo's forward wrist from both sides at once. Hopefully the unorthodox attack would be enough to catch the Chinese girl off guard.

However, Shampoo's pose had been something of a ruse. She wasn't all that worried about defense, certainly not against random blows to the torso. And so as soon as Kaede had begun moving to attack, the Amazon was moving as well, pulling back hard with her left shoulder and arm, hauling her leading hand back toward her, using that force to rotate her guarded side forward. This left her facing straight ahead, and almost completely open to blows to the body… and it also brought her bonbori shooting forward quite forcefully.

Only the fact that Kaede's attack had been directed at a point forward of the Amazon's body saved her. She barely managed to change her angle, bringing the tonfa together in an X pattern, not so much 'blocking' as 'intercepting' Shampoo's blow. She tensed the muscles of her upper body while slightly relaxing those of her hips and legs, which caused the blow to skid her backwards without actually harming her.

As Shampoo's movement reached its natural full extension and her momentum died away, Kaede launched her next attack, pressing forward again and trying for a one-two strike to the Amazon's head. Shampoo dropped the bonbori and brought her arms up, catching the blows on her forearms. In the next instant she shifted all her weight to one foot and hopped backwards to open some distance between herself and Kaede. As soon as there was space enough, her other foot came up in a snap kick… aimed not at Kaede directly, but rather at the bonbori that was still dropping through the air. Her kick caught the ball of the mace and sent the weapon flying toward Kaede. She didn't have quite as much control as she needed, though, and instead of the heavy ball striking Kaede, the Japanese girl was just clipped by the handle.

Now it was time for some real speed, Kaede decided. She blazed forward and to the side, curving in and slamming a blow directly into Shampoo's left elbow — which told her that under the Amazon's long-sleeved shirt was something giving additional protection at that joint — then bouncing another off her knee. Then she was behind the Chinese girl, but couldn't attack for the moment; Shampoo was already diving away from her, tucking and rolling forward to retrieve the bonbori.

Kaede darted forward as well, intending to get there at the same time and nail her opponent in that window of opportunity. Unfortunately for her, she didn't know where Ryoga had learned one of his techniques from their last fight.

As Shampoo rolled, she snaked one hand out to the side and employed the Bakusai Tenketsu. The explosion triggered behind her and in front of Kaede, lending an extra bit of speed to Shampoo's roll and, rather more importantly, knocking Kaede backward and off her feet. Shampoo caught up her bonbori in her right hand, came back up in one smooth motion that brought her to a half-crouch while at the same time whirling her around to face her opponent. She stood the rest of the way up, and gave Kaede a bloodthirsty grin. "Not bad so far, Kaede. But must try harder."

The Japanese girl spared an instant to check herself for damage. A few bruises seemed to be the extent of it; fate or chance had at least spared her any bleeding cuts this time. Better than it could have been, but that was cold comfort indeed. "How the hell many special techniques do you have?!" she roared, letting all her frustration out at once.

"Amazons have fought and learned for three thousand years, Kaede. What you see from Shampoo is only tip of iceberg." It was back to the mental game for the moment. "Great-Grandmother could level city block if have good reason to."

The flame of Kaede's resolve weakened, then dimmed. This was flying directly in the face of one of the hardest, most painful lessons she'd ever learned, one part of her mind argued. Only a fool seeks fights far out of her league. An apprentice has no place issuing a serious challenge to a grandmaster. So what if Shampoo was roughly the same age as Kaede herself? That didn't change the fact that the other girl had been given an incredible number of advantages, advantages that had certainly never been offered to Kaede.

The spark flickered, guttering low. 'Maybe I should give up, for a while at least,' Kaede thought glumly. Better to go to Ranma again, and get more training….

And then in an instant memory returned, and the flame roared again, higher than ever.

Shampoo blinked, caught slightly off-guard by her opponent's response. Kaede's face had twisted, she'd let out a wordless growl, then dropped both her tonfa, and was now racing forward with her hands outstretched as if to strangle her lavender-haired foe. The Amazon stepped forward as if to meet her, then jumped, going airborne in an arc that would take her just far enough over Kaede's head to bounce the bonbori off her noggin.

So far in this fight, Kaede had not used the full extent of the lower-body speed she'd worked so hard recently to gain. That changed now as she twisted, skipping one pace to the side and then bouncing some six feet into the air herself. The move brought her up on Shampoo's left side, which was nearly wide open after the Amazon had committed to the bonbori attack.

Kaede didn't waste the opportunity. Even as she left the ground, her right hand was closing on a weapon as well. She brought the sai up and around in a gleaming flash of silver, attempting to do what she'd done when fighting Ryoga and cut away the material protecting the Amazon's elbow, then launch a debilitating shiatsu strike.

Ryoga didn't know the Amaguriken. Ryoga's 'protection' had just been some loose cloth that prevented Kaede from seeing where to land the attack. Shampoo, on the other hand, was fast enough to at least try to avoid the move, and she had protected her elbows by wrapping them with a couple of scarves she'd borrowed from Cologne. They were made from the same lightweight, non-constrictive, and extremely durable material as the Matriarch's robe (Shampoo had been told they were woven from spider's silk, but she was pretty sure her Great-Grandmother had been having some fun at her expense. Even an infant could pull apart a cobweb, after all). And so, with these differences in the two battles, it is perhaps not surprising that the end result was different as well.

The sai caught and slipped, and as Shampoo yanked her elbow back the blade sliced a deep cut along her forearm.

Kaede froze at the sudden surge of blood, forgetting that she was in midair. She came down in a completely uncontrolled landing, and it was only sheer luck that saved her from receiving her own nasty wound from the sai. She scrambled back to her feet, all grace and elegance gone from her movements, and stared in horror. "I… I didn't… that wasn't…"

Shampoo had touched down now as well, landing about seven feet away. She gave Kaede one long, cold, considering glance, then turned her attention to her arm. She ripped off the sleeves from her outfit (making sure to leave the scarves in place for continued protection), pulled a jar of salve out of… somewhere, and quickly bandaged the wound. That done, she turned back to face Kaede.

Before the Chinese girl could say or do anything more, Kaede whirled. The flow of battle had brought them near the wall that bounded one side of their battleground. At the apex of her turn, Kaede released her weapon, sending it flying away with force enough to sink the blade quite far into the wall. There would be no retrieving that, at least not on her own strength. Choking down the nasty awareness that her opponent was probably strong enough to pull it out one-handed, Kaede turned back to face Shampoo. "That was a mistake. I lost control. It won't happen again." It was as close as she could come to pleading for mercy.

It was a response Shampoo could respect. Unfortunately, as Ranma could testify, the respect of a Chinese Amazon is not always entirely a good thing.

Her bonbori disappeared, as a smirk replaced her hard, cold expression. "Then let Shampoo give you better example! Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken!!"

Kaede just stared, unable to fathom what Shampoo hoped to accomplish. The Amazon had dropped to one knee, and was now apparently pummeling the earth… Wait a minute, she wasn't punching it; her strikes were connecting with just one fingertip….

The Delayed Blast Breaking Point was quite a bit harder to do than the standard version, but as Cologne had promised, the versatility more than made up for that. Shampoo had just primed four square feet of ground to explode, giving herself seven heartbeats of a grace period after the final strike to the ground. One tiny disconnected part of her mind counted them, as she flowed into the next part of her plan.

One — she shifted position, pulling back from the imminent blast zone, and calling up all the strength she could muster….

Two and Three and Four — rocking back so that she was resting on the balls of her feet, her legs bent nearly double to keep her low to the ground, while at the same time producing both her bonbori….

Five and Six — the calm before the storm, as she continued to build energy within herself….

Seven — the bonbori, now glowing, twitching into the first motion of the arc that would bring them together….

The earth erupted, sending a massive cloud of dirt and debris shooting up and out. Later, the Amazon would learn that she'd actually wasted quite a bit of strength by invoking the full Amaguriken; she'd primed a vast multitude of breaking points, so many that nearly three-quarters of them had interfered with each other and not detonated at all. She could have gotten the same basic effect at a fraction of the effort. But that would be a lesson for later; there was certainly no time for such considerations now. An instant later, just delayed enough to hide the action from Kaede's view, her maces smacked together and released her final attack. The energy roared forward, blasting into and through the cloud.

And revealed a second lesson Shampoo would learn from this particular battle. The cloud of dirt was chock full of agitated chi — a bit of Shampoo's own, left over from the Amaguriken, and quite a large amount from the natural disruptions caused by the Breaking Point technique. Shampoo had thought that the billowing dust would just serve as a screen to hide her real attack from Kaede's sight. However, when the nearly pure chi of that attack encountered the overabundant ambient chi in the cloud, the effect went quite a bit beyond what the lavender-haired girl had intended.

For one awful, chaotic instant, the air seemed to tear itself apart. Shampoo was quite a bit closer to the reaction than Kaede; it was fortunate for her that the majority of the energy was still directed away from her, due to the vector of her final attack. Even the backwash of the explosion, though, was enough to knock her off her feet. She rolled five feet backward before coming to a stop, then gingerly stood upright and surveyed the results of her combo. The ground actually appeared to be in better shape than it should have; the damage from triggering all those Breaking Points seemed to have been flattened down by the force of the explosion, a smooth depression replacing the torn, broken ground.

That wasn't Shampoo's biggest concern just then, though. Of rather more importance was Kaede, lying some fifteen feet away from where she'd been when Shampoo started her chained techniques. The girl was lying on her side, facing away from Shampoo, and didn't seem to be moving at all.

Fighting a feeling of dread, the Amazon hurried over. The last thing she wanted was for Ranma to get back and find out she'd accidentally killed one of the competition — let alone the only one of them she could really respect. "Kaede!! Kaede, is you okay?!"

She came up next to her fallen opponent, noting with further fear that Kaede seemed to have landed in a really, really awkward bunched-up sort of position. That she should remain in a pose so obviously unnatural and uncomfortable… Well, the best Shampoo was hoping for at this point was unconsciousness.

She certainly wasn't expecting the girl to shoot up from the ground and strike out at her.

Kaede pushed aside all thoughts of caution, all awareness of just how badly that could have gone had she not begun dodging back and to the side as soon as she recognized the signs of the 'tap the ground and make it blow up' trick. She focused, this time sacrificing speed for power, striking Shampoo hard in her shoulder. Kaede wasn't exactly trying to do damage with the attack (she figured she'd pushed her luck far enough with the sai mishap), but rather knock the Amazon off-balance. In that respect, it succeeded quite nicely.

Shampoo slipped, and would have fallen… but a second strike from Kaede transformed the motion of her fall into a spin. Another strike, and another, and another, each increasing the speed of the Amazon's rotation, until she was just a pinkish purplish blur. By this time Kaede was down on one knee, in order to keep Shampoo's hair from flying into her eyes, pushing herself to the limit to keep up the high-speed strikes at what was, for her, nearly full strength.

As she felt her reserves sinking toward exhaustion, Kaede pulled back. Shampoo spun through fifteen more complete revolutions before falling flat on her stomach. She lay there, her arms akimbo, her hair a tangled snarl, her chin against the earth the only thing keeping her head upright, her eyes spinning through comical whirls and loop-the-loops.

Not that Kaede had attention to spare for such details. She moved forward, as quickly as she could with the strength she had remaining, and pressed one fingertip against the back of the Amazon's neck. Once, twice, each time with more than enough force to trigger the Instant Unconsciousness pressure point.

The fact that the first strike fell six millimeters to the left of that point, and the second fell six millimeters to the right, was by Kaede's choice. The gesture was all that was needed now. Kaede took several more deep, heaving breaths, and then said, "The match… is… mine."

"So, Great-Granddaughter," Cologne said inscrutably. "How did the match go?"

For a long moment, Shampoo just stared back at her great-grandmother. Letting the elder get a really good look at her. Giving the Matriarch every opportunity to take in her disheveled state, her hair that looked like a miniature hurricane had blown through it, her dirty and torn clothes, and the bloody bandage wrapped around one arm. "I no want to talk about it," she said eventually, swallowing the response that she'd really wanted to make.

"So she did manage to defeat you this time."

Cologne had spoken in a matter-of-fact tone, not showing any surprise at this outcome, no outraged censure that Shampoo, an Amazon, had dared to lose to an outsider. In that instant, Shampoo felt certain she would rather have had that shock and shame. "She not beat with skill! She out-sneak Shampoo!!"

"Temper, temper," the Matriarch advised her great-granddaughter. "Your Japanese is slipping, Shampoo. You have learned better than this."

Shampoo took several deep, ragged breaths, slowly regaining her temper and composure. "She pretended to be disable by my big attack. When I go over to check and make sure she not dead, she get in sneak attack."

"Ah, well, such is life. We learn more from our defeats than our victories anyway, as a general rule." Cologne glanced at the bandage on her youngest descendant's arm. She could smell the faint tang of a particularly useful Amazon herbal ointment. "A good thing that you thought to bring flesh-knit salve with you to this match. Son-in-law would be jealous if you had a more impressive scar than any he carries."

Shampoo snorted fiercely. "Brought stupid medicine for her, not for me! Just in case she get hurt. Was not supposed to need it myself!"

"Well, that would have been a nice gesture," Cologne murmured. "A sop to her pride, anyway. She might have been pushing far beyond where she should go, but at least she wouldn't scar herself doing it."

The younger Amazon heaved a long, exasperated sigh. "<Great-Grandmother, my head hurts something fierce. I nearly threw up twice while I was walking back. And I just remembered I left my bike back at the lot. Can you please just say what you mean straight out?!>"

Cologne decided that with Shampoo's current mood, it would be better to wait until later to drive home the lesson about not underestimating opponents. "Child, I just want you to take a step back and look at yourself," Cologne said half-kindly, half-exasperatedly. "Have you learned any lessons from this defeat?"


"And there was nothing else at stake. Correct? She agreed to waive the Kiss of Death, didn't she?"

"Yes." The reminder of how much worse things could have been went a long way toward soothing Shampoo's feelings.

"And since you had the right medicine with you, you won't even bear a scar from this battle." Cologne gave her great-granddaughter a reassuring look. "This is not the sort of defeat to get bent out of shape over."

"I suppose." That didn't mean she had to like it, though.

"Speaking of scars… how exactly did you receive that wound?" The Matriarch hesitated just for a fraction of an instant, then asked, "Was it deliberate on her part?"

"No. She try cut away shirt sleeve to open me up to same attack she use last time. Meant to fill arm full of pins and needles, not cut it open. Blade just slipped when it hit," Shampoo rolled her eyes, "spider's silk scarf."

"If you're certain that's true…."

Shampoo nodded. "Is so. We talk for little while after battle." It had been a real pain in the neck, too; as soon as her head had stopped spinning enough to permit thought, pride had forced her to put on as good a face as she could manage. Still, it was some small comfort that Kaede believed her to have been completely recovered even before they finished their short conversation. And the other girl had left before she did, so she hadn't been around to see Shampoo forget her bike and leave on foot. "She apologize for mistake, tell Shampoo to keep weapon what do it." Kaede had made a very strange face, too, the Amazon remembered, when Shampoo had taken her up on the offer and retrieved the embedded blade.

She produced the weapon and held it out to Cologne, letting the Matriarch evaluate its quality and see that that hadn't been just a meaningless token gesture. Even after having been planted in a wall and then jerked out, the sai was in good enough shape for any Amazon to carry it into battle. Cologne made an approving sort of noise and handed it back. "Then you accepted her apology?"

"Mm-hm. Both of them."

Cologne's eyebrows lifted slightly. "Both apologies? What was the second one for?"

Shampoo snorted, remembering back to the battle's aftermath. "Was reason she so determined, fight so hard this time. Had go to Tendo place yesterday to catch Ranma, and finally learned that he not there. Was blaming us for him being gone."

"Well, at least half the responsibility does lie with us, you know," Cologne said reasonably.

"Yes, but she not thinking straight! Thinking Ranma might be really gone for good! With thought of that, and that it would be Shampoo's fault, it was why she picked today for our next match. Was why she fought so hard." Shampoo gave another, louder, more annoyed snort. "Was probably how she manage to pull off win… OW!" She gave her Great-Grandmother a betrayed look, while rubbing her head. "Why you swat me?!"

"Don't underestimate your opponents, Shampoo! I thought you said you'd learned a lesson from this day's events?"

'<Yeah, don't tell Great-Grandmother anything she doesn't want to hear,>' Shampoo thought sarcastically. Aloud, she said, "Yes, I did, Kaede too. Told her she not thinking straight, told her Ranma is not type to solve problems by running away for good. Told her everyone who care for him is here, is for sure he come back before too much longer. When I lay it all out for her like that, she see for own self, and apologize for getting so mad."

Privately, Cologne decided that would secure Kaede's position as far and away the most reasonable of Ranma's pursuers, her own great-granddaughter most definitely included. Now more than ever, she was glad the girl had waited until this late in the game to show up. "Very well. Perhaps you should go get some rest now, Shampoo. Unless there was something else you wanted to ask?" she added in a tone heavy with meaning.

Shampoo blinked. "Umm… no? Rest sound pretty good right now."

Cologne let her go. There would be time enough later to discuss the wild surge of chi she'd sensed. Even from all these many blocks away, she had caught distinctive hints of Shampoo's own life force, which eliminated the possibility that it had been some random high-powered martial artist engaged in a match of her own. No, it had definitely been Shampoo who didn't seem to realize that she'd lost control of an attack strong enough to rip through four feet of solid steel. Her great-granddaughter didn't know it yet, but she'd just crossed a line that meant it was time to start receiving some real chi training. Letting the matter slide would be much too dangerous, and in direct violation of Amazon law to boot.

Still, the Matriarch thought sourly, the timing was rather unfortunate. The city was far too cramped, too crowded, too full of easily broken things for the kind of training Shampoo would shortly be undergoing. They were going to have to take a training trip to the woods on the outskirts of Nerima. It wasn't going to be easy to watch for Ranma's return from that vantage point, and it might prove impossible to make sure they were the first to greet him when he did return to Nerima… A fact that would certainly not escape Shampoo's notice. Cologne suppressed a sigh at the thought of the world-class sulk she would likely have to endure over the next couple of days. She was getting too old for this.

"So, what do you think, Ucchan?"

Aside from Ranma's voice, the silence was unbroken by any human sounds. The stars glittered overhead, with a crystalline clarity greater than they ever got in Tokyo. The two of them sat on the slope of a mountain, not terribly high up (though it was still chilly enough that Ukyo had thickened the darkness around them to serve as insulation), with stone at their back, to their left, and to their right. Sometime in ages past, a random geologic event had scooped a huge arc out of this mountain and the land below, giving birth to a deep, pure, extremely cold lake. The outlying stone of the mountain hugged the lake for nearly three-quarters of its circumference, and the remaining stretch of water butted up against the edge of several miles of dense forest. It might not have been THE most remote spot in all of India, but it was probably at least in the top ten.

Ranma still remembered the days he and Genma had spent struggling though the forest below, Ranma growing more and more irate at his father's refusal to admit he didn't have a clue where they were. He had been hot, tired, dirty, and extremely irritated when they'd finally broken through the tree line and come within sight of the lake. Yes, the memory was quite vivid, especially the part where he'd dived in and found the water temperature to be hovering only a few degrees away from ice. Ranma didn't think he'd ever forget that, no matter how hard he tried.

Tossing Genma in afterward had been rather fun, though.

He didn't really give Ukyo time to answer the question, following it up with, "I mean, I know this hasn't been a normal kind of date, exactly. I just wanted to do something different. Something that'd surprise you." 'Something I understand.' "So… what'd you… was it okay? We've still got time—"

"Shhh, Ranma," Ukyo said, taking pity on him. "You're ruining the atmosphere." Ever so smoothly, she shifted her weight, sliding just a little closer to him, then a little closer yet, finally reaching the point where she could comfortably lean to the side and rest her head on his shoulder. Ranma tensed slightly, but almost as quickly forced himself to relax. The posture wasn't really threatening, after all, in fact with the way Ukyo was balancing her weight it would be almost impossible to shift into something more intimate. And anyway this was Ucchan, he reminded himself, she'd never come near Shampoo's… eagerness.

Still, this was a little bit uncomfortable… not too bad, but his arm was feeling rather awkward, pinched a bit by the unfamiliar weight leaning in on his shoulder. A few seconds later, the light bulb went off (so to speak), and he gingerly slid his arm up, back, and over, curving carefully around Ukyo as well.

The action alleviated one sort of stress, at least, though it probably created just as much as it relieved. This was just about the limit he felt ready to handle right now, at least as far as taking the initiative went. His heart wasn't racing, exactly, but it had definitely picked up the pace a bit, and his muscles were showing an unfortunate inclination to tense and tremble.

They sat there in silence, Ranma letting his attention roam from the sky around to the mountainside surrounding them to the reflection of the moon in the dark, still water below. Gradually, the nervous tension faded. This wasn't scary… not really. 'Heck, I think maybe I could even get to like it…'

When Ukyo felt the last of his fear fade away, it was all she could do not to pull out a couple of victory fans and start waving them around, which would certainly have spoiled the mood. She refrained, therefore, just resting there, content in the knowledge that here, now, she had Ranma all to herself, and it was by his own choice.

Eventually, she answered, "It was the best first date in the history of the universe, Ranchan." Oh, sure, a purist might argue whether this could really be considered a first date, since they had gone out before… but since those had all ended in disaster in one way or another, they didn't count.

Ranma couldn't help swelling a bit on hearing that. Still, though the reassurance was nice by itself, he decided it would also be nice to understand it a little better. This hadn't been much like a normal date, after all. "Really? That good, huh? Even without any flowers, or dinner, or a movie? Not even a walk in some romantic park under the cherry blossoms?"

Ukyo snorted lightly. "What, you mean the same old stuff everyone does? No way, sugar. This was a hundred times better. I'd trade a dozen bouquets of roses for each stop on our trip tonight."

"Really? You mean that?"

"Absolutely. Why so surprised, Ranma honey?" Ukyo asked. "Just why did you decide on doing this for our date anyway?"

"I just thought it'd be a good thing. Go back, show you some of the places I remember best. Tell you about the good times and the bad."

And that was just what he'd done. He had spent most of a day remembering, thinking back over his long journey with Genma. Going over the highlights, reliving the long times on the road and the destinations they'd sought out. He'd taken Ukyo to many of these places, skipping the two of them across quite a large stretch of Asia, showing her a great variety of sights. They had passed through cities more crowded than Nerima ever got, and through remote stretches of wilderness where perhaps no foot had trod since Ranma's last passage through. He showed her temples hidden deep in mountain valleys, and training grounds both famous and forgotten. And at each stop, Ranma had talked about what had happened here, why he remembered it, why he'd felt like this memento from his journey was worth showing to her.

It had been quite easy to talk to her, when just about everything he was saying had to do with martial arts in one way or another. Not until this last stop, with the two of them sitting in silence, did Ranma think back and really see that. Not exactly your typical girl's idea of a hot date, he suspected.

"And you were right," Ukyo said firmly, responding to his words, not his thoughts. "It was a really good thing to do. Tonight means a lot to me, Ranchan. All that time that… that I had thought we were gonna have together. That Genma didn't let me in on. It's like you gave some of that back to me tonight. That's why I said it was the best date ever."

"I'm glad," he said. After a bit, honesty prompted him to add, "I guess we both got lucky. I mean, I hoped this was a pretty good idea, but I didn't know it'd mean this much to you. I was almost a little worried, cause this wasn't really a romantic evening or nothin'."

Ukyo blinked. He didn't think this was romantic? She supposed it was just another one of those inexplicable quirks of the male psyche. "Ranma honey, I don't need flowers or a dance at a fancy dinner club. I mean, those things are nice, sometimes, I guess, but that's not all that important really."

"What is important?" Ranma asked, hoping against hope that it'd be something he could actually understand.


'Okay, I was kind of hoping for more than a one-word answer.' Aloud, he repeated, "Sharing? What do you mean?"

Deciding a bit reluctantly that she needed to look him in the eyes for this, Ukyo pulled out of the embrace, shifted around, and met his gaze. "Just what I said. Sharing your life, sharing the good and the bad. That's the important stuff, in a marriage or in a friendship. And how much you're willing to share of yourself… that's how much you care about whoever."

Ranma mulled that over for awhile. "Where'd you learn this, Ukyo?" he asked. "It seems pretty deep."

Ukyo looked away, raising her eyes to regard the moon. It was nearly full. With a little imagination, she could see an old man's face there… kind of appropriate, in a way. "It's from several talks my dad had with me," she answered. "About a year before I came to Nerima. To tell you the truth, I didn't listen… I mean, I listened, but I didn't really take it in, you know? He didn't come out and say so, but I knew what he was trying to do was get me to let go of all this, forget about you and your dad. That wasn't something I was ever gonna do, so I basically just let his talks wash past me. But some of it stuck, I guess."

"Is it… do you think that's right? That that's really what matters the most?" her best friend asked, a rather plaintive note in his voice. Was it really that simple?

"I, I think so." Ukyo was blushing now, though he couldn't see it. "I mean… I've had dreams, sometimes. Just… thoughts about the future, how I hoped it would go. And… and sometimes in those you'd do something romantic… but that was just, like, garnish on the okonomiyaki. A nice little something extra. What really mattered was that we were together. And we were happy.

"I'm not trying to pressure you, Ranma," she hastened to reassure him, still not looking around. "Just answering your question best I know how. I really do believe what I told you."

He let out a long breath, feeling as if some sort of tension that he'd never really known he carried was leaving him as well. "Okay, Ucchan. I guess I can do that, or at least I can try. Just remember, I may still screw up on the 'doing stuff' part. Like that time after Ryoga."

"Huh?" Ukyo turned back to face him, a quizzical look plain to see even in this light. "The time after Ryoga?"

"Yeah, you know." Ranma shifted uncomfortably. "When you got him out of the way so you could haul Kaede's bacon out of the fire. And you were real sad afterward, because of what you thought you might'a done to him. I still wish I'd known something better to do then than just hold you like that. That's what I was trying to say, that I'll do the best I can, but sometimes it— hey!!"

Ukyo had just formed a battle spatula out of solid Darkness and bopped him with it. Not hard enough to hurt, but definitely enough to get his attention "Ranma you dummy, I cannot believe you just said that! Do you honestly think you didn't do a good enough job then?!"

"Uh… no?" This said in a tone of voice that indicated he sensed it was the wrong answer, but didn't have a clue why.

"Well, that's just crazy! There is absolutely nothing you could have done better. Nothing you could've said to calm me down or cheer me up—hell, shape I was in, I wouldn't have heard a single word of it. What I needed, you gave me… yourself, there, not, not running away from me when I felt like I was dirty through and through. Holding me that close." Ukyo blinked away several tears. "Like I said, sharing with me. Just being there. It was enough, and it… it was the best thing you could have done."

"Huh." Ranma fell silent. Ukyo took a few minutes to compose herself. At the end of that time, she took another good look at her best friend's face. He was still deep in thought, but he didn't seem to be struggling so much to get a handle on these revelations. He had a contemplative look on his face, rather than the dumbfounded expression that had been there shortly before.

"Yen for your thoughts, sugar?" she said at last.

"Eh? Oh… I was just thinking," Ranma said softly. "Thinking back over tonight, and the last couple of weeks. It's… it's strange, y'know? I've gotten some stuff right, the kind of stuff that I've had so much trouble with before. Things I thought I'd done wrong, and now you're telling me I got 'em perfect, or close enough." He exhaled, letting the air out in a long, slow, deep breath. "That never happened with Akane."

"Ranma, do me a favor." Ukyo had made herself a promise — that during this date, she wouldn't use any of her mind-influencing abilities. Her relationship with Ranma had to stand or fall on its own strength, not depend on her ability to drain away negative emotions. Not from Ranma, not even from herself. And so, now, her eyes burned in the darkness. "Never, ever compare me with her."

There were any number of things Soun Tendo would rather be doing just now. It was a bright, sunny morning, with a delicious breeze blowing, the kind of morning where sweeping the yard was a delight, not a chore. That would be much better than this. Or perhaps sitting at the shogi table, facing off against his old friend Genma, each of them amiably trying to out-cheat the other. He would enjoy that quite a lot, just now. Relaxing in the furo, reading the paper, going for a walk… any of these things would have been heaven, compared to what he'd been coerced into doing.

He ducked and sidestepped, letting Akane's kick swish harmlessly by.

Akane followed up on the attack with a charging flurry of punches. Soun backpedaled, moving just enough faster than his daughter that by the time her punches reached him overextension had robbed them of most of their force. This tactic enabled him to let several of them slip through his guard without actually taking any damage. "Careful, Akane!" he protested. "I'm not as durable as I used to be."

"Come on, Dad!" his daughter yelled. "Fight me back!"

A suggestion which was promptly vetoed by two prime directives — Soun's fatherly instincts, and his sense of self-preservation. Yes, there were plenty of holes in his youngest daughter's offensive… but if he struck into one of them, he'd either have to hit her hard enough to incapacitate her (an absolutely unthinkable act), or just strike with a touch to point out the gap in her defenses. This option would, unfortunately, leave him wide open to her counterattack, and Soun knew from first-hand experience that Akane wouldn't pull her punches in that scenario. No, this was definitely a no-win situation. The best he could hope for was a draw, and so he played a defensive game, waiting until the sparring round had continued for long enough that he could plead exhaustion and beg off.

"Akane, sweetie, when was the last time you saw me out here practicing?" Soun pleaded, dodging another couple of attacks. Akane was off-balance after the failed gambit, wide open for a few seconds — just long enough for her father to fake a stumble and then recover before she could try to take advantage of it. "I'm not the martial artist I used to be. I can't just jump right back in." He jumped backward, avoiding her sweep.

"Well, one of us needs to be ready to defend the dojo!" Akane retorted, coming in for another attack. She was beginning to breathe heavily, a fact that irked her to no end. The others made this 'talking while you're fighting' thing look so easy! "What if Shampoo… comes back for another try?!"

"She won't," Soun said, jinking out of the way of Akane's high punch. "You know she was just trying to cause trouble between you and Ranma."

"So what…" Akane broke off her offensive, and began slowly circling her father. This let her keep talking while still recovering her wind. "…what makes you think she'll quit now?"

Soun just gave his daughter a nonplused sort of look. "Er, well, the fact that he's gone? Why do you think she'd bother to come back?"

"Don't you think she might?" Akane's face twisted. "After you and Mr. Saotome get Ranma back here?!" And with that she ceased the circling, and charged forward at full speed and power.

Soun knew better than to try to block one of his daughter's full-strength punches. Desperately he swung to the side, giving a gentle nudge that forced her off-balance. Not enough to actually send her to the ground, just enough that she had to spend several seconds recovering her center. He used that time to retreat to the center of the dojo. "What are you talking about, Akane?"

"I saw you!" Akane yelled, moving in again. "Saw you and Mr. Saotome together in the street, yesterday afternoon!" She moved in again, launching a feint and keeping the real attack in reserve for when her father would dodge to the side. However, to her incredible frustration, Soun opted to backpedal instead of sidestepping. "You were talking about getting Ranma back here, weren't you?! Forcing both of us back into that stupid engagement without even ASKING ME!!"

'Modified Crouch of the Wild Tiger,' Soun thought, twisting partially out of the way of her incoming haymaker, pushing out one arm to deflect it the rest of the way, 'misjudging' the angle and letting the force of her blow knock him to the floor in a defenseless position. Akane might be angry, but she wouldn't just charge in and strike him while he was down—he hoped. Sure enough, even through her anger, she pulled back, giving him the chance to get to his feet.

He didn't take it. "Akane, listen to me," he said calmly, looking up at her. "That wasn't what Genma and I were talking about."

"Go on, Dad. Tell me another," she said bitterly.

"It's not!" her father protested. "I…" he sighed. "I'm sorry. I was wrong. We were wrong, Genma and I. That's one of the things we've been talking about. That we shouldn't have pushed the engagement between you and Ranma." He gave her a reassuring smile. "Both of us have agreed to call it off." And he was quite glad they'd gotten that settled when they did, Soun mused, thinking back to the letter he'd received today. Things said in the heat of the moment were one thing, but for Ranma to sit down and calmly write such a message this long after the fact, to state so flatly that he wasn't going to take up the engagement to Akane ever again… Well, Soun was just thankful that he and Genma had already decided on their new course of action. He hated to think how hard that letter would have hit him otherwise.

Akane was silent, almost as if she didn't know how to react to her father's words. For nearly a minute, she just stood there, staring at him. Even after all that had happened, she hadn't really expected him to give in like this, not to go that far… "Wait a minute, Dad," she said, suspicion suddenly rising in her voice. "This is just a trick, isn't it? I bet you think if you just drop it I'll decide to take Ranma back myself."

Soun shook his head firmly. "No, Akane. I know better than that. And… and I'm sorry. Sorry for all the trouble I've caused you, by pushing you into something you really didn't want. I won't do that again." He stood up. "Genma and I are agreed. The engagement between you and Ranma has been dissolved for good."

"Oh," Akane replied. It was all she could think to say.

Seizing the opportunity, Soun made his way over to the door. "It was a nice workout, daughter, but I'd better head back now. If I don't get a good hot soak in the furo quickly, I'll be aching for a week." With no further ado, he slipped out the door. Once out of her line of sight, he headed across the yard at a pace brisk enough to send Kasumi's laundry snapping and fluttering behind him.

Akane just stood there, silent, trying to come to terms with this. After a long, uncertain span of time, she broke out of her daze, at least enough to decide she wanted some fresh air. Slowly, still more than halfway lost in thought, she headed over to the door herself and pulled it open. And blinked.

Ryoga blinked too. The hand that had been poised to knock on the door hung purposelessly in the air. "A-Akane? What are you doing in Kansai?"

Somehow, that question sucked the unreal quality right out of the situation. One last blink, and then all Akane's surprise was gone. "Hi, Ryoga," she said. "You're in our back yard. Not Kansai."

"Oh. Really?" Ryoga laughed nervously, another familiar sight. "Umm… that's a nice surprise. Oh!" He removed his backpack, set it on the ground and began to rummage through it. "I've got a souvenir for you." He pulled out a box wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.

"Thanks." Akane opened it up, to find some strange lumps that appeared to be vaguely organic in nature. "What are they?"

"Tulip bulbs," he said. The displays of the flowers had been truly beautiful, and he would dearly have liked to get her a huge bouquet of them… but much as he hated it, the flowers would probably have died well before he could have gotten them to her. Maybe someday he could take Akane to that theme park, if he could ever find it again, show her all the quaint windmills and dikes and buy her all the tulips she could carry.

"You mean, these are like seeds?" Akane asked dubiously. They didn't look like any seed she'd ever seen.

"That's right. They should still be good. The lady told me that they keep for a really long time." It had been a pain figuring out what she was trying to say, too… his Dutch wasn't all that great. Ryoga admired dedication and realism as much as the next man, but he privately thought that park had been taking it a little far.

"Well, thank you, Ryoga. I'll get Kasumi to plant them," she said.

"Ha ha! You're welcome, Akane!" Ryoga said, suddenly looking rather stiff and nervous again.

This was a fairly frequent occurrence when the lost boy showed up, so Akane didn't pay it any mind. Just another one of those odd quirks that so many people around here had, she figured, like Mousse and his habit of keeping his glasses up on his forehead, or the way Ukyo viewed most things through a sort of okonomiyaki-based filter. "So… could I get by? I'm through in here," she said.

"Oh! Right!" Ryoga moved stiffly to one side, looking for all the world like his knees had suddenly frozen up on him. Akane passed through the doorway and out into the yard, wandered over to the koi pond, and sat down beside it. Mechanically, Ryoga followed; she could almost hear a creak as he seated himself a little ways away.

"So… it's been awhile since I've seen you," she said eventually. "What's new?"

Ryoga's mouth was open, the words were actually rising up in his mouth… at the very last second, and with a sense of absolute horror, he stopped himself from saying, "Finally got a cure for my curse!" What actually came out was a strangled squawk that he did his best to disguise as a cough. "Um… well… wandering around… but that's enough about me!! What about you, Akane?!"

"I… I…" Akane looked away, staring down and forward into the water. Water that had been so often displaced by a particular pigtailed projectile. "Lots of things, Ryoga. And lots of those things hurt. I'd rather not talk about them right now."

"I, I understand. I'm really sorry about Shampoo, you know. She had no right to do that!"

And now Akane was staring at him, wide-eyed. "H-how'd you know?!"

'OhcrapRanmathisisALLYOURFAULT!!' Ryoga searched desperately for an answer, eventually finding it in the previous reflexive mental complaint. "I… I ran into Ranma. In Hokkaido. Heard the story from him."

"From Ranma? He told it to you like that?" Akane couldn't believe it. "Told you that he didn't agree with what Shampoo did?!"

"Um… no," Ryoga replied. "I kinda had to piece together what really happened for myself, after I listened to what he said."

"Oh." That was a good bit more believable, the youngest Tendo thought, her gaze dropping to rest on the water again.

The silence stretched. Eventually, Akane spoke up again. "Dad just told me he and Mr. Saotome finally called the engagement off."

"Th-they did?!"

"Uh-huh. At least, I think he really meant it."

Ryoga gulped, trying to work some moisture into his throat. "A-are you happy? How'd that… make you feel?"

"I just don't know," she confessed. "I don't… I don't even know how I was feeling before Dad told me that! I mean, I did miss him… a little… maybe… but part of me felt like I ought to be missing him a lot more! I mean, he, he really helped me some times, saving me from Kirin, and Toma. But… but… but I never felt like I mattered, like I was good enough! Not when he was around! And I sure didn't feel like he felt that either, almost ever! I…" She let out a long, ragged sigh. "I just don't know how to feel."

Ryoga was silent for a long time, struggling, trying to decide what to say next. There was something she deserved to know… something she needed to know… but he wasn't sure that now was the right time. Still — he sneaked a long, sideways glance at her — she didn't seem like she was really hurting on the inside. Not really, not deep down where it counted. All he could really see was confusion.

And he owed it to her to clear that confusion up.

The lost boy took a deep breath. "Akane… that wasn't the only news I got from Ranma, when I met him in Hokkaido. He…" another deep breath, "…he's cured his curse. With Nannichuan water. That he got… from Shampoo."

Akane froze. There was no other word to describe it.

Ryoga let several minutes pass before clearing his throat loudly. When that had no effect, he spoke up. "Akane?"

"Ryoga." She still wasn't looking at him. The words emerged without any other hint of animation; she was still frozen, as if the statue of a pretty young girl sat there, rather than a creation of flesh and blood. "I… I need to think… I think I need to be alone… Could you go inside for awhile?"

"All right," Ryoga said, deciding to find Kasumi, tell her this news as well, and ask her whether he'd gone too far. This response — or lack thereof — was worrying him. "I'll see you later."

Much later, Akane thought distantly, watching him wander past the house and out the back gate. Somehow, just now, she couldn't quite bring herself to care.

Ukyo braced herself, letting the waves crash and break over her. One tiny corner of her mind noted that they were coming with rather less force than she had expected. Perhaps Ranma was intentionally blunting them, that corner mused, or perhaps it was just another example of things being larger in memory than in reality.

She let the water swirl over and around her for another minute, then slowly clambered out of the ocean and onto the rocky coast. Ranma was already there, seated, waiting for her, perfectly dry and looking as fresh as if he'd just woken up from the best night's sleep of his life.

"You know, that's really not fair," she grumbled, as she sat down next to him.

Ranma ignored the remark for the moment, concentrating on the water that still clung to her, reaching out to it, forcing it to flow out and away, carrying with it all the salt and grime that had been there as well. When he was finished, Ukyo was as clean as if she'd just come from a marathon session at a public bath. "What's not fair?" he queried, once he could spare the attention.

"We spent an hour this morning sparring in the friggin' Gobi desert, Ranchan. You should not look as fresh as a daisy."

Ranma frowned. "Hey, there's only one of us here who's supposed to get compared to a flower, and it sure ain't me."

She giggled tiredly. "Thanks, I think. Just don't say anything about Black-Eyed Susans, okay?"

"Uh, okay." Ranma turned the last sentence over in his mind a couple of times, eventually giving up on making sense of it. "Anyway, why's it unfair? You've got your skills, and I got mine."

'What's that supposed to… oh. He must mean he's got experience fighting in the desert.' Ukyo grimaced. "I can't believe that idiot Genma… well, I can, I guess, I just don't want to. Did he take you to a desert to train on purpose, or did he just get the two of you lost there?"

Another remark that didn't make much sense. It was true that he and Genma had traveled through the outskirts of a desert a few years back, but Ranma wasn't sure how Ukyo had deduced that, or why she would have brought it up now. "It was actually a short cut," he returned.

"A short cut. Right." Ukyo shook her head. "Well, at least you learned how to fight for an hour under the desert sun without getting wiped out. Is it some kind of chi trick or something? I remember you were sweating pretty heavily there towards the end."

Now it made sense. "If you noticed that, didn't ya also notice me slowing down and not hitting so hard, or jumping around almost any?"

"Yeah, I did. Thanks for taking it easy on me when I started to run low."

Ranma hesitated just for an instant, then yielded to temptation. Despite the glaring heat and light, and utter lack of moisture at their battleground (he'd chosen it for those very qualities, after all, so that their new abilities wouldn't interfere with the sparring session), he'd had a lot of fun with Ukyo this morning. It had brought back pleasant memories of their rough-and-tumble days as kids, sparring and running around and having a blast. Furthermore, his mind reasoned, back then she'd thought he knew she was a girl, and she hadn't minded a bit not getting treated delicately, like Pop had always said girls should. And so now he bopped her lightly on the head, getting a tiny bit of payback for the treatment he'd occasionally received for making a dumb remark.

"What was that for?!" Ukyo wanted to know.

"I was plenty tired too, out in the desert," Ranma explained. "It's just that once we were back here, my water healing kicked in. That's what I meant about different skills." He'd rehydrated her, too, once she was in the ocean, but restoring the water she'd lost had been all he could do to help her recover.

"Oh. Right." She let out a long breath, then closed her eyes and leaned back, letting her body continue regaining its strength.

Amiable silence fell, lasting some few minutes. At the end of that time, Ukyo opened her eyes again. "Feeling better?" Ranma asked.

"Yeah," she replied. "I'm not wiped out anymore, at least. It's more of a good kind of tired, now."

"So no second thoughts yet, huh?" Ranma asked, half teasingly, half seriously. "Still so hot on sharing stuff?"

"Yep," Ukyo affirmed cheerfully. "You get me out in the fresh air sweating my butt off as we push on together with martial arts, and then I'll cook us up enough okonomiyaki afterward to replace all the calories we burned. Sounds like a pretty good package deal to me."

Ranma grinned. "Now you're talkin'!"

Still, though, he wasn't quite ready yet for that meal. They had eaten breakfast less than two hours ago, after all. The pigtailed teen leaned back and relaxed, letting the sun warm him for a moment, then calling a puff of spray from the ocean to settle on him in a refreshing mist, then repeating the process a few more times for good measure. After awhile he just sat there, relaxing, contemplating the scene before him. It looked so different in daylight…

"Hey, Ucchan?"

"Hmmmm?" With a start, Ukyo awoke from a light doze. "What is it?" she yawned.

"Just wondering something. You remember that one dream you sent me, way back when? It was right after Mousse's last stand," he clarified. "You brought us here, and afterward you'd said there was a reason for it, but it wasn't that you were wanting to swim. I was just wondering what that was?"

"Oh. It just… felt right," she replied, a little reluctantly. "This beach has a lot of memories for me, Ranchan. I… I spent a lot of time here, training, after you and Genma left. Lot of dark, hurting times… but I at least managed to work out some of the pain through the years." She shrugged. "Guess that's why it seemed appropriate — cause I was going to help you work through a really bad hurt too."

"So that's it," Ranma mused. "Kinda like we've come full circle now, though. I mean, here we are… you ain't on this beach by yourself anymore… today's gonna be a better memory, right?"

Ukyo smiled fiercely. "You got that right, sugar."

Ranma lapsed into silence again, thinking about what she'd said. After a bit, these thoughts led him to others…

Glancing over, he saw that Ukyo was once more drowsing. "C'mon, Ucchan," he chided her. "Up and at 'em. You've got a restaurant to open in another hour and a half."

She forced her eyes open again, over their indignant protests. "Mmmmm." The chef gave a long, languorous stretch, nowhere near alert enough to notice the way Ranma's eyes widened or the way he jerked his head around a couple of seconds later. "Talk to me, okay?" she said through a yawn. "Or I'll just fall asleep again."

'Let's see… something that'll get her mind going enough to keep her awake…' Something that would get his mind off that last image, that would allow him to forget that Ukyo no longer wore her chest binding except to Furinkan… oh yeah, the question he had been going to ask her should work. "Okay. What do you think I should do next?"

Ukyo blinked, concentrated, dragged a few more of her mental faculties back on-line. "What's that? What to do next?"

"Yeah. You know." Although he suspected it was probably safe to do so, Ranma hadn't yet turned back to face her. He stared forward, out toward the sea, past the crashing waves to the calmer water farther away. "You know I sent that letter to the Tendos already, telling 'em I'm never gonna let them hitch me to Akane again."

"Yeah. They've probably gotten it by now," Ukyo mused, counting back to the day he'd put the letter in the mail. "Why don't you check?"

"Sure." The next wave towered rather higher than its predecessors, running up the beach just far enough to spend itself a few inches from their feet. As it did so, a small portion broke free, flowing farther in all defiance of gravity, puddling between Ranma and Ukyo. Ranma concentrated, and suddenly the image of the letter he'd written filled the pool. "Looks like it did make it to the Tendos," he said, recognizing from the background that the missive was resting on a table in Soun's room. "And…" the image shifted, finding and centering on the Tendo patriarch, "…he ain't crying his eyes out. Which is frankly a lot better luck than I expected."

"Doesn't look all panicked or desperate or angry either," Ukyo noted. "Not even as if he's all that surprised, really. Maybe I was wrong after all."

"Wrong about what?"

"Back when I told you that if you waited a week and went back to the Tendos, everything could pretty much go back to the way it was before."

Ranma snorted. "Like I'd've wanted that anyway. No thank you, Ucchan. Still…" He looked thoughtfully down into the water again. "He really don't seem bent out of shape at all. It'd be nice if after all this stuff is done and settled, I could still be friends with them."

Ukyo gave him a strange look, which went unnoticed. "You can still say that? After all the junk they dumped on you, after the way they just stood by and didn't do jack to help you out?"

"That's not really true," he protested. "Kasumi did help me, sometimes. In fact, she'd been doing that more often these days." He made a contemplative sort of sound. "Wonder if maybe she knew I was getting near the end of my rope."

"Hmm. I never saw any of that," Ukyo confessed. "She always seemed really sweet to me, sure, but I never saw her actually step forward or try to make a difference or anything."

"It was kinda rare," Ranma admitted. "But she did sometimes. Heck, even Nabiki could have her moments. And Akane…" he sighed. "I'd give a lot to have just had her as a friend. If Mr. Tendo finally wised up enough to forget the stupid engagement, that's good. It's only about a year and half later than he should've."

"They've been a part of your life for a long time," Ukyo allowed. "Guess I can see why you wouldn't want to just walk away forever." Even though she personally would have been more than happy to follow that course.

"Yeah," he said. "And it's the same thing for Shampoo. Heck, even Kaori and Kaede, and I haven't known them near as long. I'd give so much to keep them all as friends, but that ain't the F-word they're interested in."

"Are you sure? I agree, that's obviously true for Shampoo. But maybe it'll be different for Kaori and Kaede? I mean, like you said, they haven't been around all that long. Heck, Kaori even gave up once before! You sure you couldn't just sit down and talk to them about this, tell them what you just told me?"

Ranma gave her a Look. "And when did I suddenly get all good at talking to girls and persuading them to do something they don't want to?"

"Um… well… you haven't been doing so bad talking to one girl today, you know," Ukyo said, trying to look on the bright side.

"'Cept she completely misunderstood me a little earlier in this conversation," Ranma pointed out. "Just cause you don't get bent outta shape when that happens, doesn't mean I'd be so lucky with anyone else."

Ukyo resisted the urge to go for a glomp. "Still. Have you ever really tried, Ranma? I understand what you're saying about it probably not being that easy. But I think it could still be the right thing to do even if it doesn't work."

He favored her with an extremely dubious stare. "Run that by me again. Even if it doesn't work it's still a good idea?"

"It could be," Ukyo amended. "It's just… think about it this way, Ranchan. What're things like right now?"

"It's kind of a stalemate," he answered. "For now, everything's on hold. And as soon as I go back and do something, that'll all be over."

"But doing nothing isn't an option either. I mean, not forever anyway. Sooner or later you've got to get back in the action, right?"

"Yeah," he confirmed, "but I was kinda hoping that I could hold off until I had ideas on how to deal with everything. I wanted to hit 'em all at once, you know? Move in fast, take 'em all down before they knew what was happening." That way he could take advantage of the offer she'd made, and let Ucchan call in her debt to Kaede. If he'd taken care of everything else by then, it wouldn't matter anymore if that solution blew their cover.

Ukyo considered that for a few moments. "Sounds like a good idea in theory, sugar. But it's already been two weeks. How much longer can you really afford to wait?" She hesitated, then said, "Think about how they're feeling, after you just dropped off the map. I know I'd rather hear the truth one way or another than just a long, long stretch of silence. And even if that doesn't work, even if you don't convince them, it'd still get the ball rolling again. No more stalemate. No more leaving everyone's lives on hold."

Ranma suppressed a sigh, remembering a time not too long past when he'd scryed out Kaori and had seen unhappiness fairly radiating from her. "I guess you're right," he allowed unenthusiastically. "Who do you think I should talk to first?"


"No way."

Ukyo blinked, surprised at the adamant tone of his refusal. "Why not Shampoo? She's the one with the biggest stake there, Ranma, been around the longest, chased you the hardest. And think about how she'll feel if you go to the other two and tell them you're not interested, and she finds out about it before you go tell her the same thing? She'll think you're dumping everyone else to be with her, and then when you tell her 'no' she'll be devastated."

Ranma grimaced, not particularly wanting to admit that he hadn't even considered that angle. "Well… for one thing, she and the old ghoul ain't even in town right now. They're off on a training journey. Remember, I keep track of all the usual nutcases so I don't run into them when I have to get out on the streets back home."

"You could've told me that, you know."

"It slipped my mind," he admitted. "So if I was gonna go fess up to Kaori and Kaede, she wouldn't hear about it too soon after all. And truth be told, I'd rather have a little more practice with my powers under my belt before I go up against Three Thousand Years of Amazon Law. Cause I don't see her granny just sitting back and taking this quietly. I mean, I think I could take her now, but with another week of practicing it'd be practically a sure thing."

Ukyo opted not to respond to that last statement. "Well… hmm. If you want my advice, I'd suggest talking to Kaori first, then. After all, she gave up once before. She's probably the better choice to start with, instead of Kaede."

"You're prob'ly right." Ranma fell silent, trying to imagine how the conversation would go, casting about for the best, clearest, firmest, most sensitive way to get it across that he wasn't going to honor the 'promise' made by his father.

"And look on the bright side, Ranchan. If you come across as all insensitive and stuff, she might even be glad to get out of the engagement," Ukyo said hopefully.

'I dunno, that didn't work at all when I tried it on you…' Ranma thought. Of course, he still wasn't sure who had been fooling whom that time; his performance during the affair of her secret sauce had suffered quite a bit due to his utter lack of acting skills. He just wasn't all that good at showing himself as something he wasn't.

Still, it felt as if there was some kind of idea there on how to deal with Kaori, not one focused on him, not trying to show him as something other than he was or wasn't… it felt like it went further back…

Slowly, a smile spread across his face. "Maybe, Ucchan. It's worth a shot, right?"

'No time like the present.'

'Might as well get it over with.'

'Run, Think, Attack. That's how it goes. Ain't gonna be like my old man, and just stop at step one.'

These thoughts and other, similar ones echoed through Ranma's mind as he moved purposefully through the streets. The litany was meant to instill confidence, determination, and a burning sense of righteous surety, to convince himself that he was doing the right thing, and that this was the right time to do it.

It wasn't exactly succeeding at all counts. But he was at least managing to stick to his decision, to go now and confront Kaori.

He'd let Ukyo make her own way back to the restaurant. She would be opening in another hour's time; he hoped to have this matter wrapped up quickly enough to get back there with good news before she did. He wasn't counting on it, didn't really think it was likely, but at least he could hope. And really, wasn't there reason to hope? he asked himself, trying to psyche himself further up, trying to get a little enthusiasm for his task. If he played his cards right, he might finally solve one problem, and maybe he could even keep a friend afterward. Wasn't that opportunity worth a little excitement? After all, in these last few weeks he really had had some significant good fortune, a lot more than had ever come his way before. Was it that impossible to believe that his luck might finally be changing for good?

"Ranma, m'boy! It's been quite a while, hasn't it?"

The pigtailed teen froze, let slip a few silent curses against whatever kami had apparently been offended by his attempt at optimism, gave himself a mental boot to the head for not bothering to scry for possible interference, then slowly turned. Sure enough, there beside him stood the Grandmaster of the School of Anything Goes, the least welcome guest the Tendo household had ever known, the single greatest lecher in all of Japan… Happosai. "Yo, gramps. Sure has." This said in a tone that left no doubt whatsoever that however long it had been, hadn't been long enough. "Where's your big bag of stolen lingerie? Don't tell me you're finally gettin' respectable in your old age."

Happosai waved one hand dismissively. "Don't be absurd. I already stopped by Soun's place and put all my newest beauties in my collection where they belong." He paused, giving Ranma a shrewd, sidelong glance. "The atmosphere around that dump wasn't all that pleasant, let me tell you."

"Akane's cooking this early in the day?!" The Saotome heir knew objectively that that wasn't any concern of his any longer, but he couldn't quite control the reflexive clenching of his gut.

"No, no, nothing like that." If that had been the case, he certainly wouldn't have stuck around for the hours it had taken to properly store his newest acquisitions. "I meant something a little deeper, more significant."

By now Ranma had resumed walking again. "Yeah, well, ain't my problem no more, whatever you're talking about."

"But that's just it," Happosai replied, ambling along beside him. "That's exactly what I'm talking about. I could tell by the feel of the place that you and Genma hadn't been there for weeks." He paused, waiting for Ranma's response. The pigtailed teen just shrugged, and kept on walking.

"Don't you have anything to say for yourself?" Happosai snapped.

"Didn't the Tendos say enough…?" Ranma let the sentence trail off, struck by a sudden odd note. It had been less than half an hour since he scryed out Soun, and the older man hadn't shown any signs of the disappointment that ought to have been there. Happosai had been gone for months on his latest little jaunt; surely the fact that he'd finally returned should have sent Soun to the depths of despair. What was going on?

"I didn't bother talking to any of them," Happosai answered his unspoken question as well as the one Ranma had partially uttered. "Figured it was more important to go straight to my heir and find out for myself what was going on."

Ranma snorted, a sound loud and bitter enough to encompass all the grief Happosai had caused him since his arrival in Nerima. "Whatever, gramps." Substituting that word for the string of epithets that he'd really wanted to use took most of the self-restraint he had available. "Go ask my old man, if you can dig him up. I'm busy right now, trying to clean up the mess he left for me."

"I'm serious, Ranma," Happosai replied quietly. "I need to talk with you now."

"And I'm serious too, you old goat!" This was not the time for this stupid reunion, Ranma snarled mentally. Not when he was finally trying to settle things with Kaori! He didn't need any more interruptions, certainly not from this disreputable old fool who still somehow seemed to be laboring under the delusion that he had anything worth Ranma's time. "Go buy the latest developments from Nabiki or something. I ain't got time right now."

"Is that right? Don't have time for your master, eh? Why don't you just skip away then, Ranma m'boy? Jump halfway across town into the canal, or halfway across the world into the ocean?"

There was a very long, very tense, very ominous moment of silence. At last, with a sort of gulping gasp, Ranma broke it. "What did you say?"

"You heard me." Happosai wasn't even bothering to look at him now. He had stopped a half pace further along from the point where Ranma stood frozen in his tracks. The ancient grandmaster had just retrieved his pipe from within the confines of his outfit, and was now tamping tobacco down into it. Once he had it lit, he took a long drag, then said, "Come along, boy, this isn't something to discuss in the middle of the street." With that, he began walking again, strolling along at a carefree pace.

Ranma continued motionless for some little time. What to do? What choice did he have? Should he go now, hear what Happosai had to say? Should he teleport away, get to a phone, and call and warn Ukyo? But if Happosai knew about him, surely he knew about her as well… and if he left, the ancient lecher might just head over to Ucchan's Okonomiyaki in search of a secondary target. At the speed the freak moved, Ranma knew Happosai could be there quicker than he himself could even find a telephone…

The Anything Goes Grandmaster had covered nearly a block's distance before Ranma lurched into motion again, hurrying reluctantly along behind the old man.

It didn't take long to catch up to him. "Listen, you old freak…" Ranma began, then paused, uncertain just how to continue.

Happosai turned, shot him a glare. "I thought I said this isn't something to talk about in the middle of the street. Is that somehow too complicated for you to understand?"

Ranma gritted his teeth. "What I was gonna say is, let's move a little faster, huh? It ain't exactly good for anybody's image to be seen walkin' on the street in broad daylight with the likes of you."

"Very well, boy, why don't I just tell you where I'm going. I thought the soccer field at Furinkan would be a private enough place for this discussion."

The Saotome heir hesitated, then nodded, reluctantly conceding the point. It was the general consensus among the student body that the five-day-a-week class schedule was the only good thing to come out of the principal's Hawaii fixation. Nobody went to Furinkan when they didn't have to; the place was as dead as a mausoleum on the weekends. Barring Ryoga stumbling in on them or something, there should be no chance of anyone else overhearing. And it wasn't even out of his way, not that he supposed his so-called 'master' cared about that.

"Fine, I'll meet ya there." He leaped, making his way to the rooftops, and headed toward the school.

It was a little annoying to find Happosai there waiting for him already, but at this point Ranma was past caring.

"Took you long enough," the ancient lecher commented, breathing out a long stream of smoke.

Well, almost past caring.

"Look, master," Ranma found new reserves of sarcasm and tapped them all, pouring every last bit he could muster into that word, "I really was in the middle of something important. Not just to me, either. There's a beautiful young girl's happiness at stake here, and while we stick around and talk she's stuck in a hole, not knowing where to turn or what to do. Is this really more important than me helping her out?"

"Well, I don't know, Ranma." His words had piqued Happosai's interest, at least. "What girl, and what were you going to do for her?"

"You don't know her. It's a new fiancée, another one of my old man's dumb promises. And I was gonna talk to her and make her see her honor really ain't on the line here, and tell her that I'm not letting Pops ruin my life or hers or anybody else's."

Happosai took another drag on his pipe, and concealed his mounting anger. So on top of everything else, it looked like this young pup was actually seriously thinking for himself and trying to work his way through his problems… and if he'd found the guts to leave the Tendos for good, then he might even manage the rest of it. Which was a full one hundred eighty degrees away from Happosai's own plans for him.

Ranma had the most potential he'd seen in over a hundred years. Happosai knew the boy was proud of his skills, proud of his status as the heir to the Saotome Anything Goes School… but he was quite certain Ranma didn't spend much time considering his status as Happosai's own heir. After all, he'd never trained the boy, never indicated that he took it seriously. But to Happosai, it was… or had been… a very serious matter indeed. He had been determined not to let someone of this caliber slip by, adamant that he would be the one who ultimately shaped Ranma's development as a martial artist. And he would do it on his own terms.

Due to the boy's stubborn pride, that meant letting him break, and picking up the pieces afterward.

The presence of the Amazons had complicated things, of course, and was a significant reason Happosai hadn't often taken a personal hand in driving the boy along to that breaking point. After all, when he sealed Ranma's strength his old flame Cologne had taught her 'son-in-law' another Amazon secret and helped him recover, and had asked nothing at all in return. Later, after all the furor had died down, Happosai had realized just how badly all that could have backfired on him. Only Ranma's stubborn nature and lack of experience in thinking things through had brought the boy through that episode without the status quo being significantly altered. Happosai had never again tried anything that drastic, content generally to watch and wait until his heir broke down on his own.

Fortunately, at least from Happi's perspective, he didn't really need to intervene personally at all. Even the trip he'd just taken (in which he'd sought out a couple more of Ranma's fiancées and arranged for them to learn of the Saotome heir's whereabouts) had been more of a pleasure jaunt than a task that needed doing. There was already more than enough chaos and strife in the boy's life, and the stubbornness and arrogance that Genma had instilled in him, the qualities that currently made him so unsuitable as a student, also made it very difficult for him to reach out to others for help or even acknowledge that he might need to. The Anything Goes grandmaster didn't really need to drive Ranma along to destruction, not when he was drifting down that road of his own free clueless will.

And so Happi had mainly just stood back and watched, only taking a personal hand in things a few times, when he saw a really good opportunity, or when the boy had gotten on his nerves really badly, or when he really felt like it. He'd watched and waited, knowing that his time would come soon enough. And then, then the real training would begin. Would have begun. No, hearing that Ranma might finally be striking out and standing up for himself, might finally be learning from and abandoning his mistakes, was not an experience the Grandmaster of the Anything Goes School had expected to have waiting for him when he returned.

But then again, Happosai reminded himself, that was then, and this was now. And there were worse surprises than Ranma growing up.

"She'll still be there this afternoon," Happosai responded evenly, not letting any of these feelings show through to his face. "This is a little more important." He fell silent again, leaving a gap in the conversation for Ranma to fill.

"Standing around an' staring at each other's more important than me talking to Kaori?" Ranma asked sarcastically after a few moments of silence had passed.

Happosai felt just a little bit more of his composure slip away. "I'm trying to decide how much to tell you."

"How about the whole thing?"

'Not a chance.' Happosai paused a bit longer, partially considering where to begin, partially hoping that Ranma still might start blurting out stuff on his own if given a chance.

The ancient lecher's patience ended well before this could happen. "All right, let me start by asking you something. We've known each other for awhile now, Ranma. How many things do you think I take seriously?"

Well, that was an easy question. "Women's underwear." Ranma wasn't sure he wanted to know how that tied in to his recent Water empowerment.

Happosai snorted. "That's it? That's all you think I care about?" Ranma just shrugged, and Happosai snorted again. "If you don't even see that I'm serious about enjoying life, then you're an even bigger fool than Genma."

"I thought I covered that bit with my answer," Ranma retorted.

The ancient lecher waved his pipe dismissively. "That's just one part of it. Anyway, there are other things too. The Anything Goes School I founded is important as well." Ranma gave him a dubious look, but didn't comment. Which was just as well, since Happosai was certainly not ready to admit to the steps he had taken and had planned to take in order to further said school. "These days, that's about it," he continued. "When I was younger, more things seemed important. I'm sure you understand that."

Ranma blinked, not having expected anything that insightful from this particular individual. "I guess." After a second's reflection, though, he wasn't sure how much he bought the idea that Happosai had been that different in his youth. After all, during that business with the Nanban mirror, he'd seen Happosai not much older than Ranma's own current age, and as far as he could tell the only real difference between that Happosai and this one was fewer wrinkles, more hair, and a vast gap in skill.

As if sensing those thoughts, Happosai spoke again. "I've had my share of causes and concerns in my younger days, Ranma. Most of them, well, now that I'm older and wiser I look back and realize they didn't matter nearly as much as I thought.

"Most of them. But not all."

The Saotome heir did his best to ignore the cold prickling running down the back of his neck. With that last sentence, Happosai's gaze had sharpened and hardened beyond belief. "Yeah? Go on," Ranma said, speaking with a little difficulty due to the sudden lack of moisture in his throat.

"It was about one hundred and fifty years ago," Happosai replied. "A couple of sorcerers stumbled over a secret that was much too big for them to handle. They didn't see it that way, of course."

"What secret?"

For another long moment, Happosai hesitated, wondering whether to tell the truth or whip up a plausible lie. On the one hand, the truth behind this matter was just about the best-kept secret of creation that he'd ever learned. Letting a seventeen-year-old kid in on it rubbed him the wrong way, just a little. On the other, there wasn't really anything Ranma could do with this knowledge; telling him wouldn't pose any actual risk.

Deciding that he didn't feel like putting forth the effort necessary to craft a believable lie, Happosai replied, "They located and made contact with one of the pillars."

"Pillars?" Ranma prompted, wishing the old fart wouldn't keep making these vague, ominous statements and then pausing after them. "What's that supposed to mean?"

" 'Pillar' is the term used for some incredibly powerful spirits. Each one stands for a particular piece of existence." Happosai waved one hand in a rough circle, indicating the sky and the ground. "Such as the elements. Earth and air and fire and water and light and darkness. The pillar you saw represents those, and various things tied to them, as I'm sure you already figured out."

"Yeah, yeah, that ain't exactly a revelation, gramps. What're the other pillars?" Ranma asked.

"I believe Craft is one of them. It's the spirit of orderly rational thought, creative genius, the arts, the sciences, basically all the skills we learn and practice and build on."

"Huh," Ranma said, considering that, wondering for a moment just how far he could take the Art if he could ever track down that particular entity. "What're the others?"

"I don't know them all, boy, and what makes you think I'd tell you if I did?" Happosai snorted. "I'd lived through more than a hundred years of seeking knowledge and wisdom before I learned these secrets. And you want me to just hand it all over to you?! Bah! Kids these days."

"Gee, that's funny," Ranma retorted. "I kinda thought I remembered you telling me to come out here so you could tell me this stuff."

"I'll tell you what's important for you," Happosai snapped back. "The pillars exist, and that's all they're supposed to do. Each one acts like an anchor, so to speak, grounding the things it stands for firmly in the real world. Giving hard boundaries and rules to the concepts. Their existence does that, they don't have to take any actions to keep things going properly or anything, it's not like that old myth of Fate as three women weaving threads into a tapestry."

"So their job is just to sit around? That sounds boring," Ranma commented.

Happosai pounced on the opening. "Boring for a human, yes, of course. But the pillars aren't human, they don't think like we do, they don't understand us, we don't understand them. Surely you saw this for yourself?" Ranma nodded. "And yet two fools with more skill than wisdom to use it managed to contact one. Managed to strike some kind of bargain with it that neither side really understood."

Now he was beginning to feel the stirrings of real fear. "What bargain?" Ranma asked.

"People would come before the Elemental pillar, and it would give them whatever power it decided would fit them best."

A long moment of silence passed, as Ranma waited for the other shoe to drop. Eventually, he said, "That's it?"

"What else do you need, Ranma?"

"Oh, I don't know, how about AN EXPLANATION THAT ACTUALLY MAKES SENSE!!" Ranma paused a minute, breathing heavily, then said, "If you got something important to say, say it. Otherwise I'm out of here."

Happosai fixed him with another diamond-edged glare, noting, with more than a little anger, that this one had rather less effect. "That would be Genma's influence, I suppose," he snapped. "Not thinking things through, or even bothering to try. What did you have to give up, to get your Water powers?"

"Nothing," Ranma replied, confusion taking the barest edge off his irritation.

"Nothing at all? My, my. All that power, and you didn't work for it at all. Didn't struggle, didn't learn lessons about restraint, just got it all dumped right onto you free of charge?" Happosai concentrated, summoning his battle aura, then let it surge up into a Ranma-sized version of himself. This let him appear to look the Anything Goes heir straight in the eyes as he said, "What do you think would happen if one of your rivals had gotten this power, instead of yourself? Think you'd enjoy facing a Tatewaki Kuno who could turn himself into living Fire?!"

Ranma fought off a full-body shudder. Glad that he might finally be getting through to his heir, Happosai released the technique and spoke again. "And even then, it's different for you and your friends. You're all martial artists, you train, you sacrifice, you are already more powerful than normal people think it's possible to be. How do you think a normal boy or girl or man or woman would react to this? Someone who's trudged their way through life, resenting the way there's always outside forces pushing them around, people or principles that they'd like to get out from under, but have never been able to? Ordinary people who haven't ever had the courage to learn to fight, and suddenly all this wonderful new power gets dropped on them out of the blue?

"I'll tell you what happens. It may take a little while, but sooner or later they decide the only rules that apply to them any longer are the ones they want to apply. And after that, you'd better hope that they've got the sweet and gentle disposition of our dear little Kasumi, because their own character is the only thing going to hold them back anymore."

"Okay, maybe I can see that," Ranma replied grudgingly. The idea of Hiroshi or Daisuke with this kind of power wasn't nearly as bad as Kuno, but it was nonetheless a very scary thought. "Is that what you wanted to tell me? Don't let anyone else in on this? I wasn't going to."

"Glad to hear it," Happosai stated flatly. Actually, though, he wasn't glad at all. He'd hoped for a much more favorable response than this. Ranma should have admitted the error of his ways already! He should have apologized for this terrible mistake he'd made! He should be asking now how he could make amends, a question Happi would be only too happy to answer!

However, it seemed as if the truth hadn't been enough to get the boy to that point. Time to try the other method, the lie that had succeeded in turning a few of those old elementally-empowereds against their fellows. "That's only one piece of the picture, though."

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"It goes back to what I said about what the pillars should and shouldn't do. They were never meant to take an active role like this. If something doesn't understand humans, how can it possibly not cause problems if it messes around with them?"

Ranma frowned. "Look, are you tryin' to say there's something wrong with me?"

"Exactly!" Happosai retorted. "I thought you were a better martial artist than this, Ranma! I thought you at least understood that balance is important. And you've thrown yours away, or at least you let it get taken away, and you don't even care!"

"Balance?" True, just now he was feeling unbalanced, but that certainly wasn't the fault of his elemental empowerment. "What're you talking about, you senile old coot?"

"I'm getting pretty tired of your lip, boy," Happosai warned. Ordinarily this warning would have been delivered with a bit of physical emphasis. However, as long as there remained a possibility of getting Ranma's willing cooperation, it was worth restraining himself. "Can't you think for yourself? Can't you even try?! Surely you understand that this power you got only covers a few aspects of life. Those few things have been strengthened and built up within you so far that your center is all out of whack! And you just rushed on into it!" Tears sprang into his eyes. "How could you do it, Ranma? Fate had dumped a blessing on you beyond other men's wildest dreams! And you just throw it away, throw away your female side and all the strength and harmony and beauty that you'd had given to you!!" Happosai pulled out a hanky and blew his nose. "This so-called 'gift' destroyed the real gift you'd been given at Jusenkyo, and that right there should've made it clear just how wrong it is!"

Ranma heaved one long, weary sigh of disgust. This from a perverted old freak of nature who had to glomp women in order to survive. Like he was gonna believe anything about balance from somebody whose yin and yang were that messed up. "That's it. I've heard enough. See you later, or better yet, never." He reached out, focused, and invoked the particular mental twist that would shift him to the Nerima canal.

Nothing happened.

After a few moments of blank shock, he tried again. Still nothing. Again… again…

"Are you ready to listen now?" Happosai asked, in a low, dangerous tone.

Slowly, Ranma's eyes tracked around, to fasten on the ancient grandmaster. "What'd you do?" he whispered.

"I'm blocking your power. Think of it as an illustration of what I was just talking about. You're unbalanced; all I have to do is use my aura to push yours a little further out of whack, and suddenly you can't use any of those lovely little tricks that I'm sure you've already started to depend on."

'Damn. Looks like I owe Ucchan an apology,' Ranma thought, struggling through his shock with some difficulty. "And you think putting me down like that's gonna make me believe you? Just cause you know some technique I don't?! Forget it, gramps, one thing Pop did teach me was that might don't equal right!"

"You're citing that fool Genma now?! I suppose it fits, since you're just running your mouth and not using your mind."

"I heard you and I understood what you were saying!" Ranma yelled. "And it's a bunch of crap! Jusenkyo curses are some kind of gift?! Oh, no, not everybody's, just mine, cause it gave me a hot curvy little body for you to glomp on.

"You got it dead backwards, you old freak, and I know that for a fact. Jusenkyo's the curse. The power I got now is the gift. I tracked down Ryoga and cured his curse too, and you know what? I could feel the disgusting thing, feel Water in him mixed with something that should never have been there!!"

"That was Fire," Happosai replied evenly. In point of fact, he was only guessing at that, based on what he'd experienced of the various elemental powers one hundred and fifty years ago, but he spoke as confidently as if he knew his words were true. "And you just proved my point all over again. Jusenkyo — Fire and Water, balanced. In harmony. Harmony that's so far from where you are now that you cannot accept it."

"Tell it to Ryoga, or Shampoo," Ranma countered. "One splash of water and they lose everything they've worked for all their life! Oh, wait, that's not true for Ryoga no more, is it? Nope, he got cured… by my Water powers." He grimaced. "Just quit wasting your time and mine, gramps, you ain't gonna convince me 'bout any of this. Not when I haven't seen you be right even once in all the time I've known ya."

"Haven't seen…?" Happosai spluttered. "You miserable little punk! This world would be nothing like it is today without me! Without me and my friends, because we stood up and fought this… this abomination that you embraced! And you dare to stand there and look down on me? On my comrades who died fighting to wipe out this power, and keep the world stable?!"

"Died? It went that far?" Ranma choked out, his entire body tensing, subconsciously preparing for flight. "You killed people just for doing what I did?"

"And what have you done so far?" Happosai countered. "I felt you scry me out. You said you cured Ryoga's curse. Anything else? Anything selfish, pushing other people down to lift yourself up?"

"No!" Ranma snarled.

"Then no, we didn't kill people for doing what you did," Happosai replied. He let Ranma start to relax before continuing, "We did it to protect the future. To keep a level playing field, like I already said, to prevent there being some 'master race' that would set themselves up above everyone else without even trying."

"And that's what you think I am? Gonna try and kill me too?!"

"Don't be ridiculous, boy." If Happosai had had his pipe handy, he would have taken a long pull, then blown a smoke ring. As it was, he had to settle for a mild tone of voice in order to push Ranma back from the nerve-jangling edge of readiness. "I can't say I'm happy that the heir to the Anything Goes School has thrown away a gift that a real man would kill to have, but that's your problem. Not mine. All I care about is the future, and protecting it from what apparently could still happen."

A frown crossed his face again, and the mild tone shifted into a growl. He wasn't looking directly at Ranma, though, and the signs of anger were directed elsewhere as well. "We thought we'd gotten them all, dammit. Every last one of those accursed keys. But I guess one slipped our notice somehow." And, a nagging little voice whispered in the back of his mind, if one, why not two? Or three? Happi didn't want to think about it, didn't want to consider the fact that this last unexpected resurgence of a threat he'd thought long dead might not be the last at all.

Forcing his mind away from such gloomy thoughts, he focused on Ranma again. "All I want from you is the key, boy. The scepter you used to go to the pillar entity. And don't try to pass off some fake, I know exactly what it looks like. About this long," he gestured, "carved with runes, and made out of wood." Wood from a tree rooted in the earth, reaching up to the air, cloaked in the night and bathed in the light of day, nourished by rain, and brought down by lightning. Even after all these decades, the details were still there, all the memories from the greatest and most terrible series of battles he'd lived through, the legacy of a time when he and other masters had stood up and said, This will not be the path the world takes, it was all coming back now, stronger than ever.

"The key," Ranma repeated unenthusiastically. "You want me to fetch that stick — the thing that opens the door to that kinda power — and give it to you."

"That's right. They aren't easy to destroy, but I still remember how." Still more than halfway lost in his memories, Happosai missed the odd note with which his heir apparent had spoken.

After a long pause, Ranma replied, "Well, guess I'll be going then."

"Excuse me?" That got Happi's attention. "Going? I don't think so."

Ranma frowned. "Uh, didn't you just tell me to get the rod and bring it to you? I'm not carrying it on me, you know!"

The ancient lecher snorted. "I'm quite well aware of that, Ranma. But you're still linked to it, ever since you used it. Just concentrate on the key and call it to yourself. It'll come."

Ranma hesitated for a long moment, then said, "I don't believe you."

"Don't believe me? You don't have to believe me, you little punk, just give it a try! It'll come when you call."

"That's not what I meant." Ranma took a deep breath, resigning himself to the fact that he wasn't going to get out of here without a fight. "I mean, I'm not sure I believe you're gonna destroy it at all. You just said a lot of stuff about how bad it is to get power without earning it, but I ain't forgotten where Akane got her Super Soba noodles. No way am I gonna turn something like that over to the likes of you."

The cold realization of what the boy was implying had frozen Happosai in shock for several seconds. After that faded, memories of the friends he'd outlived, who'd fallen in the battles a century and a half ago, had choked him into immobility. And so Ranma was able to get his entire speech out, and even stand there staring at the motionless Happosai, clearly surprised at the ancient lecher's lack of response.

That surprise turned to shock and pain a second later. Happosai went from frozen stillness to blurring motion, whipping out his pipe, backing up the strike with chi, and smashing his heir to the ground with two broken ribs.

Ranma gasped, nearly fainted, unable for the moment to cope with the speed with which things had changed. That suited Happosai just fine. The ancient grandmaster jumped forward, landing on Ranma's chest, controlling his landing enough to send waves of agony lancing up from Ranma's ribs without actually doing further damage. "I'm through playing nice, boy. I meant everything I said. I told you I was going to destroy the key, and I am. I told you how serious this matter is to me. Not my fault you didn't listen or learn. If you want to do it the hard way, that's just fine."

The Saotome heir didn't say anything in response, just brought his right hand smashing around with all the strength and speed he could manage, driving in a blow that should have knocked Happosai far away from him. The grandmaster wasn't caught off-guard, though; he hopped up and to the side, landing beside Ranma just after the boy's hand streaked through the air where he had been. Happosai struck out with his pipe, catching Ranma's wrist and twisting, sending the pigtailed teen flying instead.

He'd taken some care to ensure that Ranma would land on his unwounded side, care that actually backfired. Ranma was able to gain control of his flight at the last second, twisting and landing on his feet. For an instant the Saotome heir considered his options. Happosai's throw had carried him toward the school, away from freedom; the Grandmaster of the Anything Goes School was between him and the clear shot to safety beyond Furinkan's walls.

That instant was all he needed to decide. He turned and ran, as hard and fast as he could. He was through the window and inside the school before Happosai could recover from his shock. Cursing under his breath at this latest development, and more than halfway suspecting Cologne had trained the boy to this new speed just to spite him, Happosai followed.

Once inside, Ranma slowed down only enough to avoid leaving an obvious trail. He rocketed through classrooms and corridors, up one flight of stairs and down two others. Blocking all awareness of pain and focusing everything he had to run at this speed without jarring his ribs, he ran, hoping he'd lost Happosai but not willing to bet on it, desperate to make it through the school to the relative safety of the open world beyond. There — up ahead, he could see daylight! The door at the end of the hallway stood open, giving him a clear view of the second-story window that was his ticket to freedom. Abandoning any thought of stealth or caution, Ranma sped up to maximum.

And then in an instant the light was gone, as Happosai, from his position one floor below, sent his battle aura arcing upward in a massive blade that sheared through the corridor thirty feet in front of Ranma, collapsing the doorway ahead of him into rubble. Ranma skidded to a stop, turned (catching a glimpse of Happosai's shrunken form leaping up through the new hole in the floor), and barreled desperately back the way he'd come.

Happosai pursued, moving even more quickly than Ranma could manage. Sensing the narrowing of his lead, Ranma turned, rebounding off one wall to give him the sudden change of direction he needed to make a ninety-degree shift. He smashed through another door, finding himself in the middle of a classroom. Only then, when it was too late to do anything about it, did he realize that there was no other door out of this room…

The Anything Goes Grandmaster paused in the outer corridor. He could feel his reluctant heir's aura quite clearly from the room before him. As long as Ranma wasn't running, Happi didn't particularly feel the need to run in after him. After all, Ranma was still well within range of the aura technique that was blocking his Water abilities. The ancient lecher had had thirty very unpleasant seconds at the beginning of this chase, when that hadn't been true; Ranma had been free and clear and could have teleported to the other side of the world if he'd felt like it. Happosai was just glad the boy apparently hadn't been paying enough attention then to notice his broken ribs had healed, or to realize that this meant he'd momentarily slipped his leash.

"Ranma!" he called out. No response, other than he thought he sensed Ranma pressing farther against the far wall. "Give it up, boy, I know you're there. Just give me the key, and you're free to go." When no answer came, he moved forward, and spoke again. "I'm serious. You know you can't fight me for real. Save yourself some pain, and quit being such a stubborn fool."


Had he been facing almost anybody else, Ranma would never have done what he did next. But this was Happosai, the freak who'd survived ten years without food, water, or light, who'd been blown up, bashed, slammed, smashed, force-fed medicine prepared by Akane, and sealed in a spirit-warded box less than one foot square and floated across the ocean. Ranma seriously doubted anything he could do would kill the old lech. And so with no further hesitation, and with no remorse at all, he darted forward, grabbed one desk in each hand, charged them with chi, and threw them as hard as he could. They smashed through the large window just to the side of the door, made a sharp turn in accordance with the spin and energy he'd set on them, and slammed into Happosai. Ranma, meanwhile, was running again, through the convenient hole his tactic had left in the window, out into the corridor and down it as fast as he could.


He didn't get far.

The bombs exploded in a starburst pattern around him, none striking him directly with its full force, instead blasting him from all directions at once and stunning him. His momentum kept him going for ten more feet, though this was spent tumbling along the floor rather than running on top of it.

Happosai stalked over toward his fallen heir. The grandmaster had concentrated all his aura around himself at the last minute, warding off what would surely otherwise have been a very painful impact. This had necessitated dropping his block on Ranma's elemental abilities. The fact that the little punk had forced him to gamble like that, had successfully bought himself an opportunity in which he could have fled (even if the boy hadn't grabbed it), grated quite harshly against Happosai. He was the Master here, and this snot-nosed little brat was going to acknowledge it!

The ancient lecher let his battle aura bleed into the visible spectrum, surrounding himself with an unearthly glow. In the dim light of the corridor, he looked like a demon crawled up from the pits of hell. Once Ranma's eyes focused enough to track his motion, Happosai pulled out a large, not-yet-lit Happodaikarin. "Hand over the rod, Ranma, or the next one goes down your shorts."


The scream of fury was just warning enough to spare Happosai's life. Desperately, without conscious thought, he shot away in a random evasive pattern. One mini-spatula formed of solid Darkness did clip his shoulder, but the wound was insignificantly small. The rest of them just ripped through air, wood, tile, steel, and concrete.

Ukyo paused, torn between pressing the attack and checking up on Ranma. As Happosai rebounded off two walls and came to rest some thirty feet down the corridor, staring at her in horrified realization, she made the decision. The freak was no immediate threat; she needed to check and see whether Ranma was okay. Zipping over to his side, Ukyo bent down over him, while still keeping one eye on Happosai. "Ranchan, are you all right?!"

"U-Ucchan?! What the heck are you doing here?!" Ranma gasped. He sat up, reaching out one hand to touch her arm as if unsure whether to believe the evidence of his eyes.

"Sensed a massive glut of Lust and Anger right smack dab in the direction of the path you'd taken toward Kaori's," Ukyo responded. "So I came out here to check, and I'm damn glad I did! Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I…" Ranma blinked, suddenly realizing that all his aches and pains were gone, and each of his ribs was firmly in one piece. "Hey, my ribs aren't broken no more!"

"Your…" Ukyo whirled, staring at Happosai with absolute fury. "I should have ripped your mind apart with despair, you bastard!!"

"May the kami burn your soul to ash!" Happosai had found his voice again. "You're already pulling in new converts, Ranma?! Already dragging others into things that were never meant for humans?!"

"Don't be stupid!" Ukyo retorted. "I gave it to him, not the other way around!!"

The emphatic nature of her response didn't really make much sense to Ranma, but he put off wondering about it until later (and later, he would learn that Ukyo was just reacting poorly to the thought of him deliberately setting her up for as much pain as she'd endured in her empowerment). "What's it matter anyway, you old freak?"

Any response Happosai might have been about to make was drowned out by Ukyo's sudden cry. "What the…? What's happened?! I can't attack!"

"He's prob'ly blocking your powers," her best friend explained, glaring down towards Happosai. "Did that to me, earlier." He raised his voice for the next sentence. "But you can't do it to both of us at once, can ya?!" More a rhetorical question than anything else; now that he was paying attention, he realized that he could once again sense the presence of water nearby, lying quiescent in lines and pipes all around him. With a mental twist, those bonds were broken; the sound of shredding metal resounded from every direction, and then came the rushing waters. They surged into the corridor, parting around Ranma and Ukyo (more for her benefit than his) and lashing forward toward Happosai.

Ranma had never taken any kind of pleasure in bullying those weaker than himself. But seeing Happosai's face twist in abject terror, followed by the ancient lecher bolting away at a speed too great for either of the teens to make out more than a blur, was quite satisfactory.

Ukyo let out a sigh of relief as she suddenly was able to sense the darkness around her again. "So what the hell was all that about, Ranchan?" she asked.

"Tell you later," Ranma said. "Let's just get out of here for now."


Happosai's roar drowned out Ukyo's shriek. He'd used his Dimensional Warp technique to double back and get in position, and then dropped one chi technique to engage another. He appeared out of thin air two paces behind Ukyo, a red glow already swirling around him that reached out to wrap her in a burning shell of pain.

"LET HER GO!!" Ranma screamed, calling up the waters around himself, invoking a trick he'd never expected to use offensively, surrounding himself with a whirling swirling cascade of watery blades. They were solid enough to cut through steel like butter, he knew, they should give pause even to the Demon Master Happosai.

Said Demon Master just skipped around behind Ukyo before Ranma could charge, pressing up as close to her as he could without disrupting the containment technique. She wasn't screaming now, but the tremors wracking her body and the torturous expression twisted across her face made it plain that she was still in agony. "Stand down, boy!!" the ancient grandmaster snarled. "If you strike me down, I swear to you I'll take her with me!"

Ranma stumbled, his motion arrested before it could really begin. His face twisted into a grimace nearly as pained as Ukyo's. "Damn you, old man. I said let her go!!" This time it was more a plea than a command.

"You know what I want, Ranma. I don't care about you or her. All I care about is getting rid of the means to let other people make your mistake. Call it here." Happosai paused, then, with the air of one graciously granting a favor to an undeserving supplicant, said, "If you still don't feel like trusting me, destroy the key yourself. That's all I want."

For nearly five seconds, Ranma was too full of fury to respond. Why the hell hadn't the old freak said that at the very beginning?! But the stakes were too high here and now for him to really give way to these emotions. Choking them back, he answered, "I don't know how!"

"For you, it's a heck of a lot easier than for me. Just cut the thing in two with a blade of water or something. It's not proof against magic, certainly not its own magic."

"And then you'll let Ucchan go?"

Happosai snorted. "I'll let you both go. How many times do I have to say it before it sinks in, Ranma? Without the key, there's no real threat here, no open door for heaven only knows how many people to grab power they don't deserve and aren't ready for."

Ranma, meanwhile, hadn't listened past the first sentence. In the stress of the moment it was rather hard to concentrate, and Happosai's continued blathering certainly didn't help, but after a few seconds of mental fumbling he managed to get results. The rod solidified in his hand. Quickly, still half afraid Happosai might make a grab for it, he focused on one blade of water and sent it arcing down, cutting the artifact cleanly in half.

The red light around Ukyo winked out.

A wave of weakness dropped him to his knees, as the water surrounding him crashed lifeless to the floor.

Ukyo screamed, convulsed, and went limp.

"What… what did you…" Ranma struggled to get the words out, struggled to force his tumbling, stumbling thoughts back into coherence. It felt like something had just been ripped out of his soul…

"I'm afraid that's an unavoidable side-effect of destroying one of these things," Happosai said, finally letting out a long sigh of relief. "Anyone who used that particular one to go to the pillar loses the power they gained. There's no more conduit for the elemental energy to flow from the spirit to the human." He glanced interestedly at Ukyo. "She's lucky it happened now, and not a couple of months down the line," the ancient lecher remarked. "The longer afterward this happens, the more dependent she would have been on that inflowing power. If it was enough to make her faint now, in another month or two it would have killed her."

"You bastard!" Ranma choked out, beginning to feel his strength and focus returning. "You didn't know it wouldn't! Didn't know how long it'd been for her!!"

Happosai just shrugged. "Didn't know, didn't care. Don't expect me to shed any tears over that, or to feel guilty." And he didn't, but some ancient curdled scrap of compassion, or remorse, or maybe just fair play, prompted him to add a little more information. He could have left them to discover it themselves, but spending the effort to give a little more explanation didn't really cost him anything. "Anyway, Ranma, the flip side of that is that she'll still keep some of her powers. They'll be weaker than they were before, and there'll likely be some things she's lost entirely, but it's not like I took everything away from her." Happosai pulled out his pipe, and began to fill it with tobacco. "You on the other hand… well, I doubt you'll keep more than a few scraps and shreds of your abilities." He shot Ranma a serious glance. "Now, if you don't mind, I need to know how she got her hands on that thing in the first place. Are there more?"

"I don't know for sure," Ranma replied bitterly. He had moved to Ukyo's side, and checked her pulse. It was strong and steady, but from this vantage point he was able to make out the signs of damage left by Happosai's aura trick. Ukyo's skin was red, inflamed, actually appearing sunburned in some areas of delicate tissue. "She got it at the Cursed Antique Shop. There wasn't even any instructions on what it was or how to use it. She had to go by what the geezer who owned the place remembered from some old scroll."

"So this key probably was the last one," Happosai said with a sigh of relief. And it almost surely was an old one they'd missed, not something created since the purge. "That's good to hear." He rolled his eyes. "Cursed Antique Shop… with a name like that she should've had enough sense to stay out of there. You need to keep her on a shorter leash, Ranma m'boy."

On hearing that, the last vestiges of Ranma's restraint vanished. With all he had left, he darted forward, striking in the hardest blow he could manage, aimed directly at Happosai's wrinkled throat. So the old freak didn't care about who he hurt, so long as he got his way?! Didn't care about who he killed?! Then it was time to get rid of this threat, time to rid the world of something a hell of a lot worse than the power he seemed to hate so much!

Happosai just spun his pipe in an impossibly fast circle, forming a shield that stopped Ranma's punch cold, then tossed him back. He smashed against a wall and dropped forward, landing half-sprawled over Ukyo.

The ancient lecher regarded him evenly for a moment, and then smiled. It wasn't a nice smile, either. "Well, well. You may be worth something as my heir after all, someday."

And then he was gone. Ranma just knelt there for several long moments, fighting the urge to collapse, and pretending that the water running down his face was the result of his long-vanished shield.

He carried her back to the restaurant, uncaring who might see. As if sensing the return to the familiar place, Ukyo stirred in his arms as he entered the lane outside Ucchan's. She groaned as he opened the door. And once they were inside, with the door swinging shut behind them, her eyes fluttered open. "Ranchan, what… what happened?" she asked, in a hoarse choked whisper.

"Shhh. Just lie still, okay?" Ranma asked. He hurried up the stairs, still moving as quickly as he could without jarring her, made his way into her room, and set her down on her bedroll. "How're you feeling, Ucchan?"

"Like crap," she replied. "I ache all over, I'm tired — heck, I feel like I just swam through twenty yards of quicksand. What happened? The last thing that made any sense was you saying we needed to get out of there, and then… I don't remember anything but pain."

"It was Happosai." Ranma spat the name. Ukyo blinked, surprised at the sheer level of hatred seething within her best friend. This was even darker than the desperate depression he'd carried that night she revealed herself to him. "Came outta nowhere and used you as a hostage."

"Hostage for what?" She was already dreading the answer.

Ranma hesitated, not sure he wanted to get into that just now. "Umm… Ucchan, you sure I shouldn't get Dr. Tofu for you? How bad do you feel, anyway?"

"No, I don't need the doctor," Ukyo replied, fixing him with a weary frown. She might be tired, but she wasn't too tired to recognize a clumsy evasion when she saw one. "What happened next with Happosai, Ranma?"

He let out a long, careworn sigh. "It… that whole thing was about our powers, Ucchan. He told me he an' a bunch of his perverted friends did their best to wipe out all this stuff, a hundred and fifty years ago. They destroyed the rods that let people go to that spirit and get powered up, and killed some or all of the ones that'd already done it." With even more bitterness creeping into his tone, he continued, "And the old perv somehow recognized when I scryed on him, sensed that there was someone out there with the Water powers that he'd thought were gone for good. That's why he came back. That's why he fought. He told me he wanted the rod, wanted to destroy it, to get rid of that one last one."

Ukyo blinked. Now that Ranma had brought up the rod, a vague memory of Happosai mentioning it did resurface. He'd been saying something about that, hadn't he, as she approached under cover of Darkness. The threat he'd made after that had driven the earlier demand right out of Ukyo's mind. She gulped. "Did… did you give it to him?"

"I destroyed it. After that, he let us go." The bitterness was stronger than ever, as he remembered how helpless he'd been, how it had been Happosai's choice to let him and Ukyo go, a choice he couldn't have influenced at all in any way other than what he'd done, obeying the ancient perverted grandmaster.

Several moments passed in silence. During that time, several emotions flitted across Ukyo's face. Surprise at first, followed swiftly by relief — the thought of Happosai getting his hands on that artifact had made her stomach feel like it was turning inside out. This faded into compassion, as she realized that despite the fact that Ranma honey had apparently saved both their butts, he was still feeling terrible about losing to the lech. Determination came next, as she focused to draw off the worst of that pain. Consternation then, shading into fear, as she realized something.

"R- Ranchan. I can't… I'm not…" Ukyo gulped, pushing down her fear with willpower rather than elemental power, then said, "I'm having some trouble getting rid of the hurt you're feeling."

Ranma bowed his head. He'd noticed a lessening of the dark emotions tearing at him… but it had been happening rather less swiftly than it had in the past. "That… that's the rest of what I got to tell you. Damn bastard didn't tell me this until after I'd done what he wanted, but the rod wasn't just a one-shot thing to take us to the spirit. After that, it was the gate that let elemental power keep flowing back from there to us. And when I destroyed it…" He gulped, blinking hard, squeezing a couple of tears out to run down his cheeks.

"So my powers are dying?" Ukyo whispered. "Just running on whatever little bit I had stored, and when that's gone, it's gone forever?"

"No, that ain't what the freak said. He told me the longer it's been since you got your power, the more of it you'll keep, the more stuff you'll still be able to do on your own. Said you'd probably lose some things and others would be weaker, though." He hadn't opened his eyes yet, not brave enough to see how she took this.

After a moment of straining silence, during which Ukyo tried and failed to shift across the darkened room, tried and failed to form so much as a mini-spatula out of solid Darkness, the chef's composure broke. With the last bit of conscious control she had left, she lunged forward, tightened her arms around Ranma, buried her face in his chest, and began to sob.

Automatically, his arms came up and around her. His physical reflexes remembered what to do, how to act in this situation. Inwardly, though, Ranma was nowhere near certain that this was the right response. What right did he have to stay here? What right did he have to her forgiveness? Wasn't she crying because of his failure?

'No,' the cold realization surged up from the pit of his gut, 'it ain't my fault at all. No reason for me to pull back. It was Happosai, his choice, his stupid vendetta, he was the one who hurt Ucchan and could've killed her. He's the one who's gonna pay for this someday. It's not my fault.'

That let at least a little of his pain fade away. With a silent sigh, he shifted his weight, easing the both of them into a slightly more comfortable position, and resolved to offer his girlfriend as much comfort as he could.

Truth be told, part of him wished he could let go like this too. Only one week! Ukyo had given him the greatest gift he'd ever received, and he was only allowed to keep it one damn week!

Still, he reminded himself, absently stroking Ukyo's hair while forcing down the anger and bitterness, deferring it until such time as she might be able to destroy it for good, things hadn't gone absolutely as badly as they might have. He'd never seen Happosai that serious before, or that viciously ruthless. An outside observer would probably say he'd gotten off lucky; perhaps once the pain and the immediacy were gone, Ranma might even agree. He'd had his Water powers stripped away, but that was the only permanent damage that had been done.

There were worse things to lose.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Five down, one to go (in the fic that was originally planned to be three chapters long o_o). Thanks to Nemesis_Zero, Ed Simons, and Zorknot for prereading.

Chapter 6
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