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A Ranma ½ story
by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. This story based on the anime, not the manga.

Chapter 6: Dawn's Uncertain Light

He lay on his futon, eyes wide open in the darkness. Sleep refused to come, all the more frustrating since Ukyo would be meeting him in his dreams as soon as he did manage to leave the waking world behind. Over the course of the past several days, they'd established that that was one power she'd retained nearly untouched. Ukyo could still form any sort of dream she wanted, she could synchronize it with the real world to see what was happening there, and in dreams her power to shred dark emotions was as strong as ever. Outside the waking world, her abilities remained at nearly pre-Happosai levels.

The name danced across his mind, a snarl curved over his lips, and Ranma was farther from sleep than ever.

It was three days now since the confrontation with the ancient grandmaster. Ranma and Ukyo had spent the entirety of Sunday, the day after that disastrous battle, recovering physically and emotionally from the ordeal. They certainly hadn't finished the job in that one day, nor did Ranma have any illusions that either of them was really recovered even now, but at least they were capable of acting again.

The first real act Ukyo took was to contact Furinkan and officially withdraw from classes. As she put it to Ranma, "This business with Happosai was the last straw, Ranchan. I will stand before kings and kami and swear that I've endured ten times more crap in my seventeen years than should be spread across a whole lifetime. I'm not taking any more from Furinkan or its inmates."

Under other circumstances, Ranma might have worried, at least a little, that this act might lead to suspicion concerning his whereabouts. After all, Ukyo herself had pointed that possibility out to him some time earlier. But that was before Happosai struck, before the two of them skated so close to destruction. Before his girlfriend, his oldest friend, nearly lost everything for daring to try to help him take control of his own life.

He no longer had it in him to care who discovered what. Let them find out, and try to start the old familiar song again! Anyone who did would learn very quickly that he was calling a different tune from now on. As far as Ranma was concerned, anything before three days ago might as well have been in another lifetime. That grim afternoon had seen the finalization of changes which had begun earlier, but it had also been a turning point all by itself.

'If the freak were here right now, I really would break his neck.'

There wasn't even an extraordinary amount of bitterness associated with the thought anymore. He and Ukyo had had several 'drain the dregs of darkness away' sessions over the last few days, times when they'd sat down or flown in dreams and she'd taken away the latest recurrences of rage, hatred, and sorrow. Each time afterward those feelings had been a little slower to come back, and had been a bit less powerful. After all, knowing how flimsy they ultimately were in his life — remembering that they could and would be destroyed by Ukyo's will — meant they didn't ultimately matter so much.

What did matter was determination, comprehension, and acceptance of the lessons he'd had shoved so brutally in his face.

Happosai was only a part of that, albeit a large (so to speak) and ugly one. Probably — no, make that almost surely — the worst and most virulent symptom of the underlying problem, he was the one that Ranma would go furthest in combating. ' 'Anything Goes', all right,' the Saotome heir thought grimly. 'If… when I get the chance, I can't afford to hold back. He showed just how far he's gonna go, to make sure I don't step out of line. Showed he didn't give a damn about who he hurt. Who he could've… killed…'

Abandoning the fruitless position on the futon, he got quickly and silently to his feet, and hurried down the hall. Cracking open the door to Ukyo's room, he took a long, reassuring look at her. She was resting peacefully under the covers of her own futon, a faintly impatient expression on her face. Ranma puzzled over that for a moment, before realizing that she might well be getting tired of waiting for him to fall asleep. Since the logical next step on the chef's part would be to wake up and come see if he needed her waking-world company, Ranma eased the door shut again and slipped back to his room before he could be caught peeking.

Seeing her, even for that brief moment, had been reassuring. At least a little. She wasn't dead; the damned lech didn't kill or maim her. But there was nothing to say that the Anything Goes Grandmaster wouldn't sink to such depths the next time he wanted something bad enough, the next occasion in which he was determined to bend Ranma to his will. 'I'll kill him before I let it happen again,' Ranma thought grimly. 'Before I even risk it happening again. Be doing the whole world a favor as big as the old freak pretended he did, when he slaughtered all those other poor people who went ahead of Ucchan and me.'

He would go that far in a heartbeat, sending Happosai to his final rest without a shred of remorse, but Ranma knew very well that wouldn't fix the ultimate root of the troubles in his life.

He'd seen the pattern over and over again. Ranma wasn't proud that he hadn't really realized it, hadn't more than vaguely recognized the injustice while still living with the Tendos. Certainly he'd never sat down and thought about how many times it had happened before. Ukyo's messages to him, back when she'd been hiding her face in the darkness of his dreams, had started nudging him toward understanding, but not until his empowerment had he really seen. It had been blisteringly obvious then as he witnessed his whole life flashing back and forth before him, ripples and wavecrests, scattered images and coherent passages, the things he'd seen coming again in order and out of it, taking forever and yet over in a timeless heartbeat, glimpses not just of his past but also those of others who had featured significantly in his history, or himself in theirs.

Time and time again, he'd seen it. Watched as other people made the decisions for him as they thought best (best for him, sometimes, best for them far more often). In terms of frequency, Soun, Genma, and Akane were the worst offenders, though nothing they'd ever done (save possibly the Nekoken) had matched Happosai's worst excesses. The Amazons were by no means guiltless in this regard, though Ranma had also been forced to face the fact that if she had wanted to Cologne could easily have taken him to China by force. Still, there were numerous occasions when Cologne, Shampoo, or both had gone well beyond the boundaries of decent persuasion in trying to get him to see things their way.

Kaori and Kaede weren't so bad, but then they'd also been around for a much shorter total time. And he had seen enough hints of the same underlying theme there to be reasonably confident that it would've likely become a problem with them as well, had Ukyo not taken shelter from the rain when and where she did those three months back.

The core problem in his life was that other people wanted to run it, felt they had the right to make his decisions for him, and all too often didn't care who got hurt in the process.

Even when they weren't that ruthless, disaster could easily strike. He'd watched again as the rushing waters showed Akane take matters into her own hands following his mother's first visit to the Tendo home, deciding she knew best and telling Nodoka that her son would meet her that weekend. Ranma hadn't fought it, had gone along with it, had pretty much agreed with her at the time… but the fact remained that it hadn't been his decision. There had actually been some relief, that someone else had charted the course for him and all he had to do was follow it.

Another silent snarl in the darkness. Never again. No more. He was through letting other people make those decisions — hell, he was even through letting them think they knew what was best! Ranma Saotome was leading his own life from now on, and the only people who he was gonna trust to have at his side were those who proved they believed in that new path he was taking!

"Can't sleep, huh, Ranchan?"

He blinked, refocusing his eyes on reality rather than the future, finding that Ukyo had joined him in the room. "No, haven't been able to drop off yet. Got a lot on my mind, I guess." His girlfriend was wearing a modest set of pajamas, but Ranma resolutely kept his eyes on her face anyway. He didn't need any dangerous distractions at this point.

"Do you want to forget about this, then?" Ukyo asked.

"What, forget about meetin' up with you in a dream tonight? No way. What I want is to forget about all this junk and finally get to sleep," Ranma groused.

"Well, maybe I can help with that." She knelt down next to him. "Here, sugar, let me give you a neck-rub."

"Ah… that's… I'm not so…" Ranma's nervous babbling switched off like a light, as Ukyo pressed his Instant Unconsciousness point.

"Next time maybe you'll think to do that yourself, jackass," she remarked to the room at large, amusement warring with exasperation, her eyes carefully fixed on the window as she settled him down on his bedroll. "Better that than sticking me in a situation like this. There's only so much temptation I can shrug off."

"Gee, Ucchan, that was the best neck-rub I ever had," Ranma said sarcastically. "So incredibly relaxing. How do you do it?"

"Ancient secrets born from two hundred years of Martial Arts Okonomiyaki history," Ukyo replied. "Hmm. That doesn't sound all that impressive, does it? Guess I shouldn't try to steal Shampoo's granny's lines."

Ranma made a face. "Speaking of the Amazons, I wonder when they're gonna get back into town."

"Can't be far enough in the future for me," Ukyo replied. Then she blinked. "What's wrong, Ranchan? Why're you shaking your head like that?"

"Because… because I can't keep putting this stuff off." He took a deep breath, despite the fact that this was a dream and there was technically no need for that whatsoever. "I gotta deal with all the remaining problems. Kaori… Kaede… I ain't saying I know just what to do there, or how I'm gonna handle it… but if worst comes to worst the most I can do is hurt their feelings. Not something I'd be proud of or want to see happen, but it wouldn't smash anybody's life. I can handle Pop, and Mr. Tendo ain't got nothing to hold over my head anymore — he already threw me out, and that's the one and only thing that old coward could've done to hurt me.

"The only people left with any real threat potential are Happosai," the word escaped with enough venom to cause Ukyo to drain his anger, "and the Amazons. Not saying they're in his class or anything like it. But they do have the potential to be. At least, Cologne is powerful enough that if she seriously started trying to call the shots in my life, it'd be hell to fight it.

"So that's why I'm wondering. I need to talk to them, or maybe just her. Probably would be good to leave Shampoo out of it for a little while longer. But I need to sit down and have a good, long talk with the old ghoul."

"Maybe you can get some concessions from them, Ranchan. After all, Mousse has been dishonorable since day one, and they never did jack about it. They just let him go on and on, and in the end he nearly managed to bring off the sickest cheap trick I've seen in my life. As far as I'm concerned, they owe you a lot over that. More than they'll ever manage to pay back." Ukyo brooded for a few moments, then added, "Tell her that and see what she says."

"I definitely am planning to bring up Mousse when I talk to her," Ranma confirmed quietly.

Silence stretched for about a subjective minute before the pigtailed boy spoke again. "Anyway, enough of that stuff for now. You ready to get back to looking for the freak?"

"Huh?" Ukyo blinked, obviously startled out of some deep concentration. "What'd you say, Ranchan?"

"Are we ready to go?" he repeated. These last two nights' dreams might have been more work than play, since Ukyo attuned them to the real world and the teens spent them searching for a glut of Lust big enough to mark Happosai's whereabouts, but that didn't mean Ranma didn't still enjoy the "flying around Japan with Ucchan" part.

"Just a second," her attention wavered again, fading away from him, her eyes dimming as if she looked into some far distant vista. Then her gaze sharpened once more. "Okay, I was able to touch Shampoo's dreams lightly enough not to leave any traces. They're coming back tomorrow."

"What? Oh. Okay. Tomorrow, huh? That soon. Great," Ranma said. "C'mon, Ucchan, let's get outta here now."

Tap, tap, tap. Hop, skip, jump.

The rhythms of the two paces didn't come close to matching. Cologne's pogoing progress was steady and even, whereas Shampoo's was broken, the sequence between each two steps differing from the one before. Nonetheless the two Amazons moved forward at the same overall speed, with Cologne following a couple of yards behind her great-granddaughter. The Matriarch smiled fondly at her youngest descendant's exuberance, knowing that Shampoo's face still carried the same expression of proud, happy determination that she'd worn for most of two days now.

They'd spent a week in the mountains, the Matriarch cautioning, teaching, prodding, and hinting, Shampoo sweating and pushing herself hard in directions she'd never really understood existed before. The first thing she'd learned was a sloppy, imprecise, inefficient technique that drained her almost immediately while decimating the area in and around her target. Not a move ever to be used in battle, this was done to impress upon her the gravity of the lessons that would follow, to give her a sense of sober understanding of just how much damage she was really going to be able to do, both to an opponent and to herself.

That had taken two days. The rest of the time had been devoted to control and non-combat uses of chi. Shampoo's skipping pace now was merely further practice of one particular training technique, the one that had most intrigued her and that had taken the longest to earn a breakthrough. The hop — recovering from the previous step. The skip — building up for that upcoming jump. And the jump itself — only a foot into the air, merely a tiny fraction of the height she could leap at maximum… but as she descended she slowed her fall by burning chi, sending her drifting to earth at roughly half the normal speed.

The train station wasn't far from the Cat Café, but Cologne knew her great-granddaughter would have to push herself very hard indeed to maintain this all the way back home. Her chi reserves still had decades of growing to do before she would reach their full potential. Still, as Shampoo practiced this and the other training techniques she'd been shown, those reserves would expand along with her control. '<If Son-in-law doesn't hurry up and get his rear back here, he's going to find he's been knocked out of his vaunted position in first place,>' the ancient Amazon thought wryly.

A thought which reminded her that it had been a week since they were last in these parts; Ranma was likely already back in Nerima. Or at least Cologne hoped the boy had made his return by now. If not, if after all this time he was still seeking life's answers elsewhere, then it would be time to go after him.

They were now only a few blocks away from the Cat Café. Shampoo was beginning to show the strain of her exercise, the hop and skip lasting just a hair longer each time, and her face showing more determination than pleasure. Cologne closed her eyes, allowing her reflexes to carry her bouncing along without breaking pace, and engaged other senses. She touched the delicate web of energies that existed everywhere in the world, ignoring the ten thousand random impulses that had nothing to do with her quarry, seeking, searching…

Her eyes snapped open. "Like father, like son," she muttered with a relieved chuckle.

'Huh. This is panda fur,' Ranma realized. There was only a very small amount of it, but after the life he'd lived for the past year and more, he was quite familiar with the substance. 'Wonder if he was up here for something.'

"Up here" was a rooftop several streets over from the Nerima outpost of Chinese Amazon territory. Ranma's position afforded him the same excellent spying options it had provided to his father. From this height it was easy to catch sight of Cologne and Shampoo off in the distance and maintain a discreet surveillance on them. He wondered why Shampoo was moving at such a strange tempo; maybe she'd injured her ankle in training or something?

He hoped not, since that would make it a lot harder to catch Cologne alone. This confrontation was going to be difficult enough without Shampoo's presence as well.

Ranma remained where he was, maintaining his vigil over the restaurant. Thirty minutes later, he received the answer to at least one question — there was nothing wrong with Shampoo's ankles. The Amazon exited the building, climbed aboard her bicycle, and zipped away. He shook his head in mild bemusement, and reflected that if Shampoo ever wanted to make some extra cash she could do a heck of a job endorsing some bike line. Watching the Amazon blur from her innocuous street-level starting position onto a fencetop, then making her way over the roofs from there… Well, it would beat any commercial he'd ever seen, that was for sure.

Not that this was any time to get lost in such random thoughts, Ranma chided himself; this looked like the opportunity he'd been waiting for. He focused his awareness back on the immediate present. Was anybody else around? Kaori wasn't about to pop out into the street below him, was she? Had Kaede decided to come by and ask Shampoo for another match? Was Genma even now en route back to this spot, assuming those few wisps of panda fur really did mean he'd been here? At least he was reasonably sure Happosai wasn't anywhere nearby. He and Ucchan had all but assured that the lech wasn't even on this island any more.

After another minute of checking, Ranma decided the coast was as clear as he could ask for. He tensed, muscles clenching for the leap that would propel him into space and toward his destination…

"Well, well, son-in-law. It's been a long time."

At the sound of the dry voice, coming without warning from just behind him, Ranma tried to jump, whirl, and facefault all at the same time. He really only managed the last one.

Three centuries of skill and martial discipline gave Cologne enough strength to refrain from laughing at the sight. But she did burn the picture into her brain, to be taken out again the next time she needed a good cackle.

"Dammit, don't sneak up on me like that, ghoul!" Ranma demanded, scrambling back to his feet, coming the rest of the way around to face her, and getting his heart rate back under control. "How the hell did you know I was up here anyway?!"

"Oh, let an old woman keep one or two secrets," the Matriarch responded. "I will say that it might have been harder. Your father used this very spot for more than a week, spying on us, waiting for you, thinking his own presence went unnoticed. I suppose that after the two of you lost your old lodgings, he thought you would head for a place where you are more than welcome."

Ranma opted not to respond to the bait, certainly not with an explanation of where he did go. "Whatever. Listen, Granny — we need to talk."

"Very well. I'm listening."

"Yeah? Well, thanks for that. I'm sure you've got plenty to say. I don't have so much. Just the one big thing." Ranma pinned Cologne with the hardest, fiercest gaze he could muster. It would have been nice if she'd responded in some way, even with so much as a blink, but the Matriarch simply continued regarding him with the same hooded, neutral stare. "An' that is that I am through letting other people make the big decisions in my life!"

"Is that so?" Cologne said calmly.

"It is."

"Then I'd be interested in learning whatever happened to you so recently. There are tinges of something strange in your aura, along with signs of terrible turmoil. Those happened within the last few days, and from the look of things you were hurt then about as badly as you were by Miss Tendo's betrayal."

"It ain't important," Ranma growled, then realized that giving a little bit of information might actually help him here. "But I will say that what happened had to do with someone who didn't like me makin' my own choices. Who didn't care how much damage he did gettin' me back to what he thought I should do."

Happosai most likely, the Matriarch decided. After Akane's actions, there were very few individuals remaining who could deal out that kind of hurt to her reluctant son-in-law by themselves. As Ranma's father, Genma could probably manage it, but if Ranma had even seen him while the Amazons were away then surely this encounter would already have developed along different lines.

Aloud, she said, "Well, I can certainly understand how that would get under your skin. Some things never get much easier to bear, do they?"

Ranma refused to be drawn into the verbal dance. "You understand what I'm saying here, don't you?" he demanded. "I'm making my own choices in my life. Where I go, how I live, who I'm with. I ain't gonna marry Shampoo on your say-so. I don't care how many thousands of years of Amazon history are at stake here!"

"No, I don't suppose you do." Cologne allowed her voice to tighten ever so subtly, a harsh note becoming just barely detectable. "Of course, I have to wonder just how much moral ground you have to stand on, when you lash out at me like that. It was the Tendos, three of them at least, who have done the most of what you've been complaining about. Over and over and over again, you found yourself doing what they wanted, what they demanded of you. Even when you left them, it wasn't your own initiative, it was them throwing you out. And why did they do it? Because you dared to do something that Akane Tendo couldn't stomach. And because you were there, a target they could affect, whereas they had no real ability to strike back at Shampoo.

"Have I missed anything in this account, Son-in-law?"

"No, you did a real good job of throwing my mistakes in my face," Ranma snapped back. "An' that's what they are, and I'm not gonna keep on making them."

"Oh, I haven't even begun to list all your mistakes, boy," Cologne said, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "And I don't think you want me running down a play-by-play list of them anyway.

"Do you think that you can just write them all off? Perhaps you're seeing the act of leaving the Tendos as a fresh, new start. That's certainly a good way to look at it, but you cannot simply shrug your shoulders and erase all the things that have gone before. The actions you yourself have taken."

"Like what?!" Ranma snarled. "I've told you over and over again that I ain't gonna abide by that stupid law of yours!"

"There was one time you didn't." Cologne drew on her chi, fed it into her voice until the roof beneath them thrummed at the power of her words. Despite himself Ranma staggered a few steps backward. "My great-granddaughter chanced upon a cursed brooch that made her love for you turn to hatred, and you were desperate to reverse that." She barked a short, humorless laugh that cracked glass in twenty windows. "You even issued what cannot possibly be considered anything other than a formal Amazon marriage challenge — and defeated her."

By now he was on his knees, terrified realization surging through him like a wave breaking and curling through his guts, leaving his muscles feeling as if they had been turned to unmanipulable water. The roaring in his ears diminished the Matriarch's voice, making it sound as if coming from far away, but somehow didn't obscure any of what she said.

Cologne continued relentlessly. "You have many fiancées, but they were all arranged by your father. You have one wife, by nobody's actions other than your own. You reached out your hand and brazenly took all my great-granddaughter's honor and future, her heart, her very life, into your palm. The only reason I have not been more forceful about dealing with this matter is that you never really realized what you'd done.

"But the time for pretense is over, Son-in-law. You have created these circumstances yourself. The consequences are real, they cannot be ignored or wished away. If you forsake my great-granddaughter now, it becomes a question of whose future will be sacrificed to atone for the dishonor — yours, or hers. I think you can guess which choice I will make, if I'm forced to it."

The Matriarch paused then, giving him a minute of silence to recover. At the end of that time she spoke again, in a much less imposing voice. "I'm not trying to tell you to be at the church tomorrow at nine o'clock sharp to formalize your marriage. Just spend time with her, ask her what she's been up to these last few weeks. She has a lot to tell you, she is very proud of the things she's waiting to show you, and hopes you will be proud too."

Another minute passed before Ranma found his voice again. "This… I can't… it's too much, too fast…"

Cologne heaved a sigh. "Well, I suggest you start walking through life with your eyes open wider, Son-in-law. None of what I told you is anything like a new development.

"Fine, go sit under a bridge or on top of a skyscraper or something and think things over. After you've done that…" the Matriarch's voice sharpened again, ever so slightly, "you'd better speak to your father." She rattled off the address of a nearby hotel. "That's where he's staying. I'm sure he's anxious to talk to you after these weeks apart."

Ranma just stared at her for several long moments. The way she'd said it made it obvious that she had some sort of stake in whatever Genma would have to say, and then there was the fact that despite having been gone for a week and just now returned to Nerima, she still apparently knew that he hadn't seen his father yet. "Should I be even more scared now?" he managed to ask.

"Of course not," Cologne returned. "When have I ever done anything that didn't work out for your favor in the end?"

Genma tensed, ignoring the bead of sweat that trickled down one cheek, commanding his muscles to hold on the very edge of readiness. It had been a long time since he'd faced a challenge like this. In the old days on the road with Soun and the Master such circumstances had been far more common, but that was a long, long time ago. Still, the old skill and power lingered, Genma assured himself. They had to. Otherwise… no, he could do it. He would do it!

The Master of Saotome Anything Goes took one last long, deep breath, then launched his attack. His left hand came swooping forward, knocking the sake bottle into the air, sending the still-sealed container tumbling end-over-end. His other hand shot forward at just the right moment, slicing through the neck of the bottle with utmost precision. The blow also eliminated most of the bottle's spin, leaving just enough to tip half the quantity of sake into several waiting glasses without spilling a drop. Genma's left hand arced out once more and caught the half-emptied bottle, returning it to his side for his own consumption. The awestricken salarymen erupted into a fit of pleasantly buzzed applause and ponied up the yen they'd bet against this dark horse being able to follow through on his boast.

Genma took a long drink from the bottle and let out a sigh. This wasn't so bad an interlude, but he was getting ready for things to get moving again. It was a pain having to go out at night and wander around the less savory areas until someone tried to mug him, then shake them down for enough cash to cover the next few nights at the hotel. Such things ought to be beneath a martial artist of his dignity, along with the parlor trick he'd just pulled off to earn enough drinking funds for the afternoon.

'Surely it won't be too much longer,' he thought, trying to convince himself. 'Just how long does the boy plan to sulk anyway? I'm tired of this, tired of living in a hotel instead of a home. Tired of having to make an effort to meet with Tendo. I can understand that Ranma probably isn't looking forward to returning there yet, but he needs to come back and listen to his father's words of wisdom. He needs to let me tell him things aren't as bad as he thought.'

"Hey, old man." The words, quiet though they were, derailed Genma's train of thought as effectively as an unexpected ten-ton boulder across railroad tracks. He whirled around to find the very object of his thoughts standing just a few feet away, regarding him with an obviously troubled expression.

"Ranma!" he exclaimed. Genma got to his feet and stepped away from the bar with alacrity enough to surprise his heir, especially since the elder Saotome did so with no further attention to his drink. "Ha, good to see you again, son. I knew you wouldn't stay away much longer. No, let's not talk now," he continued, pre-empting Ranma's attempt to rejoin the conversation, "this isn't the place for that. Come on, let's go up to my room." Might as well get the packing done and check out as soon as they'd finished talking, after all.

True to Genma's request, Ranma kept quiet as the two of them left the bar and ascended through the hotel to the elder Saotome's room. Genma said nothing either, instead taking the time to mentally polish the things he was shortly going to have to say.

As the door swung shut behind them, he forced himself to spit out the worst of it. "Ranma… I'm sorry. For all this time that you were right and I was wrong."

This was enough of a surprise to temporarily make Ranma forget the trepidation lurking at the back of his mind. "Right and wrong about what, Pop?"

"About Akane," his father growled, "and her suitability as a fiancée." The older man let out a sigh. "I hope you can believe me, boy. Neither Soun or I wanted it to come to this. We honestly thought we were doing you a favor, that the match would be a good one. I know the two of you had your problems, but that's true for any couple. We were so caught up in the idea of honoring our promise and uniting the schools that we didn't let ourselves see things as anything more than typical lovers' spats."

"So it took you gettin' tossed out along with me before ya finally saw that, huh."

Genma inclined his head, not even trying to hide his rueful expression. "Yes, actually, that was a good part of it. Anyone who can get so angry at one person that they have to hurt multiple people to make up for it… that was enough to get it through even my thick head. Like I said, boy, I'm sorry. Tendo and I both are. You did your duty as a true martial artist, protecting Akane even in spite of herself. They should have been thanking you, not kicking the both of us out. It isn't going to happen again, Tendo and I both promise you that."

Ranma stared long and hard at his father. All the rest of the message had made sense, even if he hadn't expected to hear such words from his father. But that last sentence didn't seem to fit, somehow. Why would his father have mentioned Soun at all then, let alone with the emphasis he'd given? "You did say that the engagement to Akane is over and done with forever, right?"

His father nodded. "Yes, that's right. Things are going to be much better now, you can be sure of that."

"So you've finally given up on that whole 'unite the schools' thing?"

Genma blinked. "What? No, boy, don't be ridiculous. We've switched the engagement over to Kasumi." He chuckled. "Never let it be said Genma Saotome doesn't learn from his mistakes!"

That in itself was almost a mistake big enough to earn him a quick backfist from his son. However Ranma was just a little too puzzled at something else for his temper to really flare up. Was this what Cologne had wanted him to hear? That his father was still trying to make decisions like this for him? He could see how the Matriarch might think that would make him more amenable to the course she wanted him to take (to follow through on, one frightened piece of his mind reminded him), but that idea didn't seem to fit all that well with how their conversation had ended.

Before he could think up a way to bring the conversation round to the Amazons, Genma spoke again. "And that's not all, boy. I've done you one better than that. I had a talk with the old Amazon just before she took Shampoo off on a training trip." It had actually been Cologne who initiated things, but Genma didn't see a need to share any more of the credit for the good news he was about to give his son than he had to. "We talked about honor, and obligations, and opportunities, and cleaning up this tangled mess without anyone getting any more hurt."

"…And she's okay with you an' Soun trying to hitch me to Kasumi?" Ranma asked, still trying to figure out just what the heck was going on here.

"Yes, she is. Perhaps you didn't know this, Ranma, but under Amazon culture it's all right for a man to have several wives. According to the old woman, that's common for really exceptional men with lots of skill and strength and potential. She said that after the things Akane has done neither she nor Shampoo would accept her as a co-wife to you, but they have no problem with a sweet, gentle girl like Kasumi Tendo." Genma gave a satisfied grin. "How about that, boy? Starting to think a little better of your old man now, eh? I know Soun and I screwed up with Akane, but I've fixed things for you now! You get a wonderfully kind and supportive girl in one hand, and in the other a partner who opens the doors for you to get all the Amazon training you want! And both of them are excellent cooks to boot!" By now Genma's eyes were shining so brightly that there was no chance in the world for him to notice his son's expression. "What do you say to that, Ranma? Things aren't looking so grim anymore, are they?!"

"Pop, lemme ask you something." Ranma spoke sweetly, gently, in a tone that would've set off warning bells if Genma had been a little more alert. "Do you really think Kasumi deserves to get pushed into something like that?"

"Who said anything about pushing? Soun talked to her. He assured me she's perfectly willing to go along with it."

"What?! I… huh. And you think… Shampoo…" Ranma's protest ground to a complete halt. He had been going to bring up the threat Shampoo could pose to his proposed new fiancée, except that the idea of the Amazon (or anyone who knew Kasumi well) threatening the eldest Tendo daughter really was too absurd to contemplate. "You think she won't put up a fight?"

"Cologne didn't seem to think so," Genma answered with a shrug. "Why should she? She's been raised from birth to believe this sort of thing is okay. Of course she'd fight against sharing her husband with someone who mistreats him, but you and I both know Kasumi is as far from that as it's possible to get."

Silence fell. Ranma was struggling to find words of his own, words that would break a hole in the walls he could feel closing in around him. Part of him was angry — furious! — that his father and the old ghoul were still trying to set his future in stone like this. But another part refused to respond in anger, the part of him that had been touched the deepest by his father's words of apology, that clearly saw Genma was trying to do the right thing, what he honestly saw as best for his son. Beating some sense into his father just wasn't an option at this point. He needed to find a way to convince the old man that this plan wasn't the way to go about doing things.

"And there's something else, too," Genma said. He hadn't talked this over with Cologne, but it wasn't as if the old Amazon could reasonably protest, after all. Not when she had already okayed the inclusion of Kasumi — a girl about as un-Amazonian as it was possible to be — in her son-in-law's marriage. "There's no need to limit things to just Shampoo and Kasumi, is there? Kaori and Kaede both have plenty to offer as well. Heck, even Ukyo if she learned Akane threw her engagement away and changed her mind."

"You cannot seriously think they're all going to go along with this!" Ranma yelled.

"Actually, I don't." Genma was clearly even more satisfied at this, which made no sense whatsoever to his son. "But think about it, boy. What does it mean that we'll be giving them the chance, and they are the ones turning it down?"

"That they — unlike some people I could name — are thinking straight?"

"Wrong!" Genma wasn't annoyed at his son's slowness on the uptake; it had taken three days for this particular silver lining to occur to him, after all. "It goes back to what I said before, about learning from my mistakes. I know it hasn't been easy, being stuck in such a mess of honor-ties to all these different girls. But don't you see? If we're ready to keep our part of the bargain, and they are the ones who refuse to take part in the Amazon poly-marriage, then you get off scot-free without so much as a stain on your honor!"

The sensation of walls closing in was stronger now, with the added suspicion that a roof was swiftly descending too. Ranma took a few shuddering gasps of breath, trying to fight it, trying to find some way out of this crazy waking nightmare.

"Is something wrong, boy?" Genma inquired, puzzled at the look he'd finally paid enough attention to notice on his son's face. "I thought you'd be happy." Then he thought back over the number of days he had spent thinking through all this. "Is this just a little too much too fast?" he asked sympathetically. "Don't worry about it. Take the time you need to think about it. You'll see for yourself soon enough that this is the best thing that could have happened for us."

"Best thing? You think that, Pop? Nothing could be better?" Ranma's voice rasped.

"Of course," Genma reassured him. "You get great food, loving wives, advanced Amazon training, and you don't lose a shred of your honor!" For once Genma was glad his son put such a ridiculous emphasis on that last quality. Usually it worked against the boy, but now it would be in his favor, helping him see all the more clearly just what a tremendous gift his father had arranged for him. "What could be better than all that?"

Ranma turned and marched over to his father's pack. Sure enough, at least one habit from Genma's long years of travel on the road hadn't deserted him — there was a flask full of water secured there. He picked it up, unstoppered it, dumped the contents over his head, and turned back to stare his father in the eye. "How about freedom?" he asked quietly.

"We're home, Kasumi," Akane called as she and Nabiki stepped out of their shoes. They entered the house to find Kasumi was right there to greet them, as she was currently sweeping the front hallway.

"Welcome home, Akane, Nabiki." The eldest Tendo daughter smiled kindly at her sisters. Her expression dimmed slightly as she took note of the obvious dissatisfied looks on their faces. "Did you have a bad day at school?"

"Bad half-day, you mean?" Nabiki quipped. "Not really. It's just that the stupid repair crews are too good at their job. Today was the last day we got out early for them to work. Tomorrow classes go back to the normal full-day schedule."

"I see." Kasumi sent an oddly hesitant, speculative glance toward her youngest sister, before speaking to Nabiki again. "Did they ever find out anything more definite about the damage done to the school?"

"They didn't; I did." Nabiki fired off her own hesitant look, although this one was directed toward Kasumi, as if she was wondering whether her older sister really ought to have brought this up now. "Happosai was there for sure. There were scraps that had to have come from his Happo Fire Bombs. As to who else was involved… Well, I haven't seen any evidence of Breaking Point-type explosions, so probably not Ryoga. I never found any dried-up ramen or broken chopsticks, so it almost surely wasn't Kaori." A pity, too, Nabiki thought coldly. She would have liked to think of that Daikoku witch on the wrong side of one of Happosai's pleasure jaunts. "And of course the Amazons were out of town at the time, so—"

"Oh, for goodness' sake. Stop talking around the thing like I'm going to explode!" Akane exploded. "It was Ranma fighting Grandfather Happosai. You know it. I know it. The teachers are lucky any of the building is still standing." The youngest Tendo gave each sister a reproving look. "I'm not going to fall all to pieces if someone mentions that jerk's name. You don't have to treat me like I'm made out of glass or something."

"Oh, Akane, you make your father so happy!" Said girl's breath was forced out of her in a whoosh as Soun appeared out of nowhere and gave her a huge hug. "I've been waiting for you to get over this for so long now! It broke my poor heart to see you moping around and depressed." Soun let up on the pressure and pulled back enough to look Akane in the eyes. "You're really all better now? Truly over your anger and hurt? The thought of Ranma really doesn't pain you any more?"

"I… Yes," Akane responded, not entirely truthfully. It did still hurt, especially when she wasn't able to avoid thinking of the fact that Ranma had gotten his curse cured by Shampoo. But she was tired of letting it matter, tired of letting that jerk control her life. Let her sisters talk about Ranma Saotome if they wanted to! Akane Tendo wasn't about to shed any more tears on someone that was nothing more now than a piece of the dead past!

"I'm so glad to hear it," Soun gushed. "Then I can finally make this announcement." Ignoring or missing the concerned look and the warning grimace his two older daughters suddenly developed, the Tendo patriarch pushed on. "It's about what Genma and I really were talking about, those times when you thought we were planning to get you and Ranma back together."

"You better have meant it when you said that wasn't what you were planning," Akane broke in, her tone suddenly as sharp as a razor.

"Of course I meant it," Soun said, caught between indignant and sorrowful that his precious little girl apparently thought he might lie to her. "We were planning something completely different."

"Daddy, I really don't think—" Nabiki started.

"Planning what?" Akane demanded, fighting a sudden chill.

"Since the engagement between you and Ranma was such a mistake, we moved it," Soun replied. "Kasumi will be Ranma's Tendo fiancée from now on."

"WHAT?!" Akane screeched. Her mouth gaped open and closed for several seconds after that before she found words again. "Daddy, NO! You can't do this again! Ranma's a jerk and a pervert and an honorless womanizing bastard! He can't be trusted farther than Kasumi can throw his dad — how can you tell her she has to marry him? I'm not going to let you do this!"

"Akane, that's enough!" Very little could have shaken Akane out of her shocked anger at her father just then, but these words managed to do it. Her head whipped around, shock completely displacing anger as she stared at Kasumi. Her oldest sister was actually frowning… no, glaring at her!

"You're not going to let him?" Kasumi demanded. "What makes you think you can make that decision? Don't you have any respect for your family at all anymore, Akane? It was bad enough when you told Ranma he had to go. We shouldn't ever have let you do that. But we did, and we all had a part of hurting poor Ranma then. I'm not going to let it happen again! He is quite welcome back here, and when he comes back you aren't going to tell him any of these awful, wrong things you seem to believe so much!"

"K-Kasumi?" Akane gasped. "That's not… I'm trying to defend you!"

"No, you're not! You're trying to take something away from me. You haven't even asked how I feel about this!"

"How you feel? Wait. Did… did you already know about this?"

"Yes, I did. Daddy and I talked about it and I agreed to give this a chance." The glare was long gone now from Kasumi's face, but her gaze was still quite determined. "You're wrong about Ranma. I don't understand how you can still think such horrible things about him, after all the times he's risked himself to save you."

"That's just a martial artist's duty!" Akane snapped back. "It doesn't mean anything. He always treated me like dirt, calling me names and running around behind my back with those other girls! He'll do the same thing to you, Kasumi… I just don't want that… don't want you to have to wonder when your so-called 'fiancé' is sneaking around your back with Shampoo or something…"

"That's one thing she won't ever have to worry ab—" Soun cut off his reassurance with a gulp, his eyes going wide and panicked and no longer looking at Akane, staring rather at some point over her shoulder.

The response was strange enough that Akane reacted quickly, whirling around just in time to prevent Nabiki from hiding the sign she'd been holding up. " 'Daddy, for Kami-Sama's sake, don't tell her about Shampoo now!' " Akane read. "What's that supposed to mean?!"

"Um… well…" Soun was sweating bullets now, his rising anxiety obvious enough to clue Akane in that whatever this was, it was big.

Kasumi sighed. "Daddy, Nabiki… go away. I'll handle the rest of this talk."

Once her hair had quit blowing in the wind raised by Soun's and Nabiki's exit, Akane spoke up. "Well, Kasumi? What is it?"

"Come on up to my room. All right, little sister?"


Akane winced a bare second after the scream escaped her lips. She'd really put too much into that protest; it felt like she'd strained her vocal chords.

Kasumi rubbed at her ears, helping the ringing to subside, and stared mournfully at the crack that had shot across the frame of her most treasured family photograph. "Akane, nobody is forcing me to do this," she chided gently. "I agreed to it of my own choice."

"I don't believe you! This… this is some stupid trick, like Shampoo did on me with that shampoo! She made me forget Ranma, she's making you forget to stick up for yourself!"

"They were already gone on a training trip before Mr. Saotome even told Father about this. I don't even think they're back from it yet."

"But… but… how?" Akane asked, her voice cracking painfully. "How can you… can you agree to…" She couldn't even manage to get the words out.

"Akane, do you have any idea just how many men in Japan have a mistress? And for most of our history it wasn't even as hidden as that. Many men have had more than one wife at the same time. Just because the modern day Western World values may frown on it is no reason to act as if our heritage is suddenly shameful or wrong."

"Heritage is one thing, but this is something different!"

"How?" Kasumi asked simply. "How is it different?"

"It… it just is… It's because it isn't your idea!" Akane exclaimed as she found inspiration. "This is Shampoo's stupid plot!"

"Don't be silly, Akane. Shampoo wouldn't have suggested this. It was her great-grandmother who first brought it up with Mr. Saotome."

"What the heck kind of difference is that supposed to make?"

"Honoring one's elders and respecting their wisdom, for one thing," Kasumi said soberly. "This compromise will satisfy our family's honor, the honor of the Saotomes, and Shampoo's honor as well. If someone had sat me down in a room and told me to come up with an idea that would do that, I don't know if I could have succeeded. But this will, and I respect and honor them for that."

"But is that enough? Enough for you to sacrifice yourself like this?!"

"Little sister, try and think back to what I just told you about a man having more than one wife. It's only a sacrifice if you think it is. And I don't."

A long moment of silence stretched between the two sisters. Akane broke it at last, saying in a small voice, "I don't understand you, Kasumi."

Kasumi chewed her lower lip in uncharacteristic indecision before responding, "Akane… do you really understand anyone? I mean, do you really understand that other people see things differently than you do, that things that seem one way to you might be completely different to others? That the things you heard when Ranma talked might not have been the things he was trying to say?"

Akane frowned bitterly, and brushed the accusation aside. "Look, Kasumi, I'm just trying to help you here. If you do this, sooner or later Ranma will hurt you. I don't want to see that happen! Promise… at least promise me you won't let Daddy make you marry him as soon as he gets back!"

"Don't worry about that. It isn't even certain that we will marry," Kasumi replied.

"Huh? B-but…"

"Akane, I believe that Ranma is a much better person than you've ever given him credit for. I know he has rough edges, and I hope I'll be able to help him get rid of them. But despite those things, he is strong, and honorable, he looks out for other people. He would rather accept pain himself than let someone else get hurt. He has all these good qualities, things that I think would be very good in a husband." Kasumi paused then, to let her words sink in, before continuing. "But it's also true that sometimes, two people are just plain incompatible. Only time and trying will tell that for sure between me and Ranma. So that is what I'm going to do, Akane, take that time and try to work things out with Ranma. And with Shampoo."

"You know how he is around her," Akane said tightly. She was aware that she was fighting a losing battle here, but she wasn't about to give up. "Even if some of this other stuff you've said is right, you can't ignore that. He'll just hang around you out of duty and save all his real feelings for her."

"I don't believe that either," Kasumi retorted, feeling the beginnings of a headache. "Little sister, you really need to try and see the positive side of this."

"Positive side! How can you say that, Kasumi? What positive side?!"

"Do you mean other than what I already said about everyone's honor being satisfied?" Akane nodded impatiently and Kasumi continued. "There won't be any real conflicts anymore. The Amazons will be our allies, not antagonists. Remember that, Akane — some of the trouble that has come down on this family, we've only escaped with their help. Ranma told me once that if Shampoo hadn't been there to help him, he might not have been able to get through to Prince Kirin in time to rescue you. They've been there when their strength and knowledge were needed… but it was only for Ranma's sake. After this, that won't be true anymore.

"Shampoo will literally be family. It isn't just Ranma who can learn exciting new Amazon techniques after that, Akane. Wouldn't you like some of that training yourself?"

"You have got to be kidding me!" Akane protested. "Learn? From Shampoo? After the way she treated me?! I don't think so! No matter what happens, she's never going to be family as far as I'm concerned."

"I expect better than that of you, little sister." The youngest Tendo flinched again as Kasumi mustered up another glare, this one colder and harder than before. "If this does happen, it won't happen anytime very soon. You can take time to get over these feelings. But I will not accept my sister hating someone for refusing to fight her."

"It's… it's not just that…" A thousand thoughts whirled through Akane's head, a mélange of unwelcome images. Memories of all the times Shampoo had shown her up, sometimes deliberately, many others without even trying or noticing, mixed in with freshly-painful thoughts of Ranma. But she couldn't bring herself to utter any of this, couldn't even find the words. "Kasumi… I'm telling you, this is a mistake… please, promise me you'll think about what I've said…"

"Of course I'll think about it. But you have to promise me the same thing." Kasumi smiled again at her little sister, hoping against hope that maybe this time the lessons really would sink in. That Akane wouldn't discard this promise as easily as the last important one Kasumi had extracted from her.

With a grunt of mingled exertion and frustration, Ranma leaped. This was no typical roof-hopping bounce, either; right now he wasn't about to settle for something as simple as that. He needed something challenging enough to take at least some of his attention away from recent developments. And so he stretched himself to the limit, exploding in a mighty jump that sent him four stories in the air, bouncing off the side of a building that stood half again as high as that, arcing higher in a new jump ninety degrees away from his original course. Another wall-bounce reversed that previous change of direction, and allowed him to touch down on the roof of the first building.

From this vantage point he could almost see the Cat Café. Ranma grimaced, reminded again of the trial toward which he was heading. 'I don't think she's gonna take this even as well as Pop did,' he thought gloomily. 'Damn it all, old man… would it have been too much to ask for you to back me up for once?'

He sighed. 'I wasn't even able to convince Pop that I've got a right to do this. Maybe he didn't keep on saying it, but I could tell he still thought he'd done the right thing.' It had even looked like Genma was hurt by his son's refusal to accept or acknowledge that, although Ranma wasn't ready to give that impression full credit. His old man was a master of sneaky tricks, bluffs, misdirection, and the like. And Genma had certainly sent plenty of pain his way over the years. No, his father's disappointment and potentially hurt feelings weren't anywhere near the most important things here.

'Pop's never in his life let honor push him into something he wasn't happy about,' Ranma thought grimly. 'At least, I sure never saw it. So why can't he see? Why can't he open his eyes and think about what this would do to me? Honor's not enough to make two people happy… or three or four or however the hell many fiancées I got out there,' he added with a mental growl. 'I'm not gonna settle for that kind of marriage. Not for anybody's idea of honor, not for any number of stupid promises he made and didn't intend to keep.'

He leaped again, his course carrying him unerringly toward the Cat Café, his body moving almost at cross-purposes to his mind. 'But if I couldn't even convince him, what chance do I have with Cologne? That stuff she said… about what'll happen if I don't at least go with Shampoo…' He clamped down hard on the thought, trying not to dwell on it for now. Trying not to remember that though he could bring himself to disregard his father's promises, there were some things that he could never accept.

That there were some prices he couldn't pay for freedom.

Cologne intercepted him when he was still several blocks away, descending out of the sky at an angle that almost suggested she'd flown in with her staff taking the place of the more traditional broomstick. Ranma let the gathered tension bleed out of his legs, discarding the energy that had been gathered for his next jump. Not quite all of it was willing to go, though… a significant portion of the tense readiness just migrated up to his chest. For a long moment neither spoke, simply regarding each other in the warm, deceptively calm afternoon sunlight.

"Hey, Granny," Ranma finally said. "I talked to Pop, just like you said."

"Well and good, Son-in-law. But you didn't do something else I suggested," Cologne returned. "You haven't taken any serious time to think over any of this. Go away and come back in a day or so."

"No. I've been thinking things over for the past three weeks," Ranma declared. "I know I didn't see everything I needed to. And that ain't changed yet. I don't have all the information I need, so wasting another day thinking doesn't sound like a good idea anymore."

"What more do you really need to hear?" the Matriarch wanted to know.

"You said if I don't marry Shampoo, then that dishonor means one of us doesn't have a future anymore. Or at least that's what you made it sound like. But you didn't give any specifics, Granny, you just pulled out another vague ominous warning that didn't really tell me anything concrete. That ain't good enough anymore."

"I told you something very concrete," Cologne countered. "I pointed out exactly what you did when Shampoo bore the Reversal Jewel. Exactly what you were saying when you issued and won that challenge."

Ranma glared. "That's not what I'm asking about."

"Why, exactly, do you need anything more?" Cologne fired back a glare significantly stronger than Ranma's. "I believe I mentioned one other concrete thing, Son-in-law… that I didn't expect you to formalize your marriage to my great-granddaughter within the immediate future. That I did expect you to spend time with her and get to know her better. I'll ask again: what more do you need to hear?"

The Saotome heir took a deep breath, drawing on all the courage and determination he could muster. "Right or wrong, no matter what you expect, I'm not gonna have anything to do with Shampoo until you answer my question. I'm through fumbling around in the dark screwing up, old ghoul. You told me yourself to walk forward with my eyes open."

"Very well. You have brought this on yourself, Ranma, in more ways than one." Cologne paused, then spoke again, her voice sharp enough to shave through stone. "You've eaten meals lovingly prepared by Shampoo for you dozens and dozens of times, availing yourself of our hospitality with only an occasional word of absentminded thanks. You've come to me for aid numerous times when facing a challenge. You knew that we would always be there when you needed us, whether it was aiding you in a quest for a cure, standing at your side against a dangerous foe, or helping you grow as a warrior.

"Where would you be now, without our aid? Remember when you learned the Hiryu Shoten Ha? Do you recall just what had happened then, the crisis and how it was resolved? You barely even thanked me for the secret I entrusted to you, and you said not a word for applying the cure after we recovered the last piece of the chart. That's how it's been, over and over again, you have simply accepted these things as if they were your due and your right.

"For a family member, that is perfectly acceptable, even if it is rather rude. But for someone who is not family to claim such things as though he were…" Cologne let her voice trail off. "Do I really need to go any further, Son-in-law?"

"Yes," Ranma forced out. His eyes were shut, and he was trembling slightly. Nonetheless he forced himself to stick with this. "I do need to hear it all."

"Very well. For someone to take such liberties, to use an Amazon so heartlessly and then discard her when he has no more need or desire for the resources she represents, that is an insult beyond forgiveness. In effect, you would be declaring to all the world that my great-granddaughter was worthless in and of herself, only valuable for what you could wring from her. To give an insult like that… her only choice would be to kill you to redress it, or end her own life. Because sparing you would be saying that she agreed with what your actions had said.

"That, of course, is only when we consider Shampoo herself. As the head of Shampoo's family and one who has been involved in these matters, I can choose to take matters into my own hands. That is what I meant when I said I would not allow my great-granddaughter's future to be sacrificed for your sake. Your death would be swift and painless, at least.

"Have I answered your question sufficiently… Son-in-law?"

Relative silence greeted her, broken only by Ranma's gasping breaths. The pigtailed teen was on his knees, his eyes clenched tightly shut. There weren't actually any tears trickling down his cheeks, but the Matriarch suspected that was more a testament to Ranma's willpower than his equanimity. Cologne waited a few moments, then spoke more kindly. "There really was no need to go to such painful lengths just now. Next time, maybe you'll be a little more ready to take my word for something. I'll leave you alone to consider these things for now."

She turned and vaulted to the top of her staff. But before she could take her first pogoing leap, Ranma found control and strength and breath enough to utter one word.


For the first time in Neriman memory, Cologne actually lost her balance sufficiently to tumble from the top of her staff. She caught herself almost immediately, whirling in midair, catching hold of the base of the weapon, bringing it into a ready position as she landed. "What did you say, boy?" she hissed.

"You heard me." Ranma stared bleakly back at her, and the Matriarch could clearly see despair in his eyes. But he spoke clearly and calmly, seeming to find some odd form of strength in the middle of that pit of hopelessness. "You know good and damn well that I didn't mean it. That what you said is true. That I didn't ever think of all that help you were giving me as coming from family to family. That I didn't even stop to consider honor or what it would mean when I challenged Shampoo that time. You know that I haven't even come close to the standard you say I should've kept to all this time, Granny. But you're also saying it'll all be okay if I put that crap behind me and go to Shampoo for real?"

Cologne gaped at him, her initial fury forgotten. "Do you have some sort of problem with that? That I should help you realize you were making a mistake and forgive you for it?!"

"It ain't like that would erase the fact that I did make those mistakes."

The Matriarch opted not to respond at first, fixing a calm, evaluating stare on Ranma for several moments of silence. "You're not making the right distinction here, Son-in-law," she said at last. "Remember what I said earlier today? The reason we're having this conversation now, rather than a year ago, is that you never really understood what was happening. Certainly it was a mistake, but it was not the same thing as the actions I described earlier. You were acting thoughtlessly, not heartlessly."

"And that's any better?"

Cologne decided that was as good a cue as any to bop him over the head. She did so lightly, though, just enough to punctuate the fact that he'd asked an extraordinarily stupid question. "Of course it is. Ranma, look at me, and think of all the 'mummy' or 'old ghoul' jokes you have made. I have seen three centuries pass, and you have not yet reached your eighteenth birthday. Childhood is a time to make mistakes and grow from them, and whether you like it or not I can clearly see you haven't completely left that time behind yet. Not you, not my Shampoo, not almost any of the people who are caught up in this whirl of chaos, challenges, and dreams. You all still have growing to do. It's part of why our people usually marry so young — it means wife and husband can grow together more easily, can have something stable to stand on in the middle of adolescent changes."

"Well, damn. I guess you got all the answers, huh Granny?" The fact that Ranma showed no signs yet of having been comforted or reassured by her words was beginning to worry Cologne. "All you ever really had to do was play this trump card, and there'd be no way out for me. Right? I chained myself down and tied off all the loose ends of my future without even realizing I was doing it. No way could I argue with you anymore, once I knew what would happen to Shampoo if I did fight my way free."

"I'm beginning to lose my patience here," Cologne said in a warning tone that did a fine job of masking the increasing concern she was feeling. "What on earth do you think you have to complain about? Tell me what is so horribly objectionable in the future you have earned, if it's not too much to ask. Enlighten me as to what is so bad about a loving wife who can stand by your side as an equal in the Art you live for, and a family who can teach you things you will never learn anywhere else in the world. Give me one good reason why you don't think this is something to celebrate, Son-in-law."

Ranma stared back at her, no longer really affected by the Matriarch's gimlet gaze. "As soon as I go along with this, BOOM! That's the last real choice I get to make, isn't it? Once I really am family, that means I'm part of Three Thousand Years of Amazon Law. And if I ever step out of line, I get pushed right back into it or taken down for the count. Just like Mousse."

Cologne let out a sigh of relief, which did manage to dilute Ranma's bitterness with a bit of confusion. She had wondered whether her great-granddaughter's husband was really going to be able to understand the disciplinary action she'd taken. After all, Ranma himself was far too forgiving at times, allowing himself to become the victim of others' repeated abuses, unwilling to face any conflict that wasn't grounded in martial arts. He hadn't even been able to stomach the responsibility of preventing his rival Ryoga from using his cursed form to sleep in Akane's bed.

"I'm certain I didn't hear that right," the ancient Amazon said kindly. "You and I both know you would never stoop to such dishonorable lengths as Mousse did. Right?"

"That ain't what I'm saying here. It's the principal of the thing! You took everything away from him, Granny. Didn't even give him a chance to defend himself, from what Shampoo told me!"

"That's not true at all," Cologne replied. "Neither of the things you said, actually. I certainly did give him a chance to defend himself; what I did not do was allow him to lie to me. He stood or fell based on the truth of his actions and his motivations. Perhaps Shampoo didn't tell you what the last question I asked him was?" When Ranma shook his head, the Matriarch continued, "It was whether he would make another attempt on your life if given the chance. And his answer was 'Yes'."

"But… still, you…"

"Took everything away from him? Not hardly, sonny-boy. Only death would have done that. What I did was remove his ability to be a warrior, since he had completely and utterly proved that he could not be trusted with such power.

"I will admit that my judgment ended Mousse's old life. Any of my fellow elders would have done the same or worse, I promise you that. And since I doubt you really understand how important that statement is, let me explain it a little further.

"For the past year and more, I have put up with Mousse and his disrespect, his half-hearted assistance, the insults he muttered thinking I was unable to hear, the times in which his interference has made my great-granddaughter's own honor-bound course more difficult. The boy even threatened customers for daring to show interest and appreciation for Shampoo, something that he did back in the village as well. The rest of the Council of Elders know very well that enduring Mousse's presence as I have would be a strain on anyone's tolerance or patience.

"That being said, those on the Council who would prefer to see the Matriarchy pass from my family would certainly not miss an opportunity such as misuse of my authority. I had to be certain beyond any doubt that the actions I took could be justified, lest I undermine my own great-granddaughter back home who currently holds the role of Matriarch-in-training."

"Wait a minute," Ranma broke in. "I thought Shampoo was supposed to be your heir."

"Heir to the Matriarchy? Of course not, boy. Don't be absurd. She doesn't have anything like the mentality or temperament for it. Shampoo is a Warrior, which is what makes her such a fitting match for you."

"So all the other old ghouls will agree with what you did, even the ones that don't really like you. Fine. That just means what happened really was about Amazon law, not you, and far as I can remember that was what I was complaining about in the first place."

"Yes, yes, and you also babbled something about destroying Mousse's life. That certainly isn't true; he simply cannot be a fighter anymore. While that is the most highly respected caste among the Amazons, healers are only slightly less revered. Mousse can still follow that path. In fact, the most recent letter I received from my great-granddaughter back home indicates that he has already begun training for such."

Cologne paused, in order to pin Ranma with a meaning-filled stare. "So that is that. I think I'd like to hear you admit it now, that you were wrong to think Mousse had been treated too harshly."

"Just because you maybe didn't do as much as I thought ain't no reason to admit that!" Ranma protested. "Like it or not, you still took away a huge chunk of his free will."

"I fail to see how… Oh, there was one other thing I probably should have mentioned," Cologne admitted, smiling as she administered the coup-de-grace. "Mousse could have refused to abide by this judgment. All he had to do was appear before the Council of Elders and swear to that. The Xi Fang Gao would have been undone, and his strength unsealed.

"That refusal would have its own consequences, of course; he would have forfeited his place in the tribe. He would be given three days to leave our lands, and at the end of that time any Amazon who saw him would know him for a blood enemy and treat him accordingly." The Matriarch paused to consider the effects of her revelation on Ranma. "He had that choice, and he made it as seemed best to him. There are rules for living in any society, boy. Surely you know that. Your own land of Japan has a fine and glorious tradition," she spoke the words quite sourly indeed, "of demanding those who have dishonored themselves to pay for it by taking their own lives — at times for terrifyingly trivial reasons. Do you catch my drift, Ranma son of Nodoka?" He grimaced at the reminder, though not as bitterly as Cologne had expected. "If you can accept that, how can you possibly argue with my actions regarding Mousse? Just because he didn't have enough honor even to admit how thoroughly he dishonored himself?"

"Okay, okay!" Ranma shouted. "Fine. You were right an' I was wrong. Guess I better get used to that, since it looks like it's gonna be par for the course from now on. Seein' as how my whole life's been pinned down in the pattern you want."

"I'm still waiting for you to tell me just what's so terrible about that pattern," Cologne retorted, "especially since it was you yourself who really nailed it down. Give me one good reason why you aren't willing to do what I asked. Why for now you won't put aside questions about all the rest of your life, and just spend time with my great-granddaughter. Date her and get to know her and build a life with her slowly, at your own pace."

"Ain't you forgettin' Kasumi in that outline?" Ranma wanted to know.

"That's your business completely. My agreement with Genma is that he will acknowledge Shampoo's marriage to you as long as I do the same for Kasumi. That doesn't mean I have any reason to try and push you into taking her as a second wife, any more than Genma would push for Shampoo."

"Well, you got better than your money's worth from Pop. He was pushing Shampoo just as hard as Kasumi."

Cologne blinked, then smiled. "Then he did so merely because he believed in the match, Son-in-law. I certainly didn't require it of him. And you know, although your father has made his share of mistakes, perhaps this is one time you should give him a little credit? Think about it, after all. Shampoo and Kasumi can support you in different ways, each of them bringing different skills to the household. The two of them would complement each other nicely as companions in your life.

"But as I said before, the matter of Kasumi Tendo is your choice. This is hardly the terrible scenario you were thinking about, now is it? All that's really happening is that you're working out the consequences of choices you already made. They certainly haven't set every aspect of your future in stone. You still have plenty of choices to make in your life, plenty of freedom to determine its direction." Cologne noted with satisfaction that this last speech had wiped away most of the darkness in her reluctant son-in-law's eyes. He still was registering some fear, but it was nowhere near as bad as it had been.

Ranma took a deep breath. "Okay… about that, about choices and stuff… Pop said something like that too, said that… that we could solve more honor problems, if maybe one of the other girls wanted in on that whole 'Amazon marriages let a whole buncha girls grab the same guy' thing…"

The Matriarch frowned. "He said that, did he? Well, your boneheaded father just used up most of the credit he earned by supporting Shampoo more than I expected. Perhaps it slipped Genma's notice, but including other girls affects your other wives as greatly as it does yourself. Shampoo was willing to accept Kasumi after only a few days of persuasion from me. Kaede Hayashibara might possibly be an option as well. But I suggest you forget any idea you had of including your other suitors in this arrangement, Son-in-law… as things are now, you'd have to ask me to break out Xi Fang Gao techniques that are fifty years beyond Shampoo's level in order to make something like that work."

"So that's it." Ranma's countenance had fallen again, hope dying far more quickly than it had been reborn. "That's my choice. Shampoo, or Shampoo and Kasumi, or maybe Shampoo an' Kasumi and/or Kaede. No other options that don't involve either killing Shampoo, which I'd never do, or myself."

A cold, hard, evaluating silence followed on the heels of his words. Cologne stared at Ranma, her gaze probing mercilessly, her eyes glinting as if they strove to pierce the veil of his flesh and stare directly into the pigtailed teen's soul. At last she spoke, in a tone that carried more intensity than she had yet used in this conversation. "There is a possible way out, Son-in-law. One way in which you might earn an honorable end to your tie to Shampoo, one that would not end in anyone's death or destruction.

"Even telling you this much is more of a concession than I really ought to have made. I'm doing it because your reaction so far does not make sense. You have exactly one chance now to convince me I should tell you more, should provide this opportunity for you. And let me warn you ahead of time — saying that you don't love Shampoo isn't even close to a good enough reason. You've never tried to get to know her, never given love a chance to truly bloom in your own life. Without even trying that, I see no reason to make such provision for you. Still, I will give you the chance to prove me wrong. State your case, and make it good."

Ranma closed his eyes, clamping down hard on the sudden mingled surge of hope and fear. This was harder than the last real battle he'd fought against Cologne, the stakes were just as high, and the Cat Fist wouldn't save him now. He had to do this on his own, using the skills that were among his weakest.

He opened his eyes once more, and looked up into the sky, staring with intensity enough to cause Cologne to glance up as well. There were a few puffy clouds to be seen, but other than that nothing marred the blue of the heavens. "Don't really look like rain up there, does it, Granny?" Ranma said quietly. "And there aren't any taller buildings near this one we're on top of, so nobody's gonna dump their used washwater on me outta the blue. Right now there's no chance at all of my Jusenkyo curse getting triggered."

Some of Cologne's wrinkles smoothed themselves out, as she suddenly saw where he was probably going with this. Of course Shampoo's curse must still seem to Ranma to be a huge stumbling block. As soon as he came out and admitted it, she would be more than happy to inform him that once Shampoo was no longer in violation of Amazon law, once she had landed her lawful husband, the both of them would be given their cures as a wedding present.

"And I mean no chance," Ranma continued, his voice picking up speed. "Not even if one of those firefighting planes flew overhead an' the pilot hit the wrong button, and dumped his payload all over us."

"True, since those planes usually carry chemicals, not water. Get to the point already, Son-in-law."

"Just hang in there a few more seconds, Granny. I'll be right back." And with that Ranma moved. Cologne's gaze tracked him as he leaped from the rooftop to the street below, grabbed a bowl from a passing goldfish vendor, flicked the fish out of it into one of the man's other bowls, then upended the one he'd snagged over his head.

He jumped back to the rooftop, ignoring the vendor's angry shouts and brandished fist. "I can't deny that you and Shampoo have given me a hell of a lot," he said quietly. "But you ain't the only ones—"

"Where have you been these past three weeks?!" Cologne snarled, cutting him off and invoking the technique she'd used earlier in the day, infusing her voice with chi enough to shake the air around them. "It begins to make sense now. Someone seized the opportunity when you were hurt, when we allowed you space to make your own choice. She handed you a cure, encouraged you to stay with her hidden from everyone else, drove her claws well and truly into your soul? Is that more or less how it happened, Son-in-law?"

"No, it's not!" Ranma yelled. "Damn you, you got no clue what she had to go through to do this for me! You talk about the choices you will let me make, but Ucchan didn't ask anything out of me! She gave me a cure, and a gift, and the right to decide for myself about how to live my life. Well, the gift didn't last too long before your old pal Happosai came along an' shattered it. You wanna take a page out of his book, ghoul? Gonna take away another thing she had to go through hell to get for me?!"

"I suggest you curb your tongue, boy," the Matriarch warned, glaring bitterly at him. "I've said it over and over again, reminded you I don't know how many times that what's happening now is the result of your own actions. If you can't even admit that except when it suits your purposes, can only acknowledge your debt when it isn't a question of paying it, then we're getting into some very dangerous territory."

"You asked me a question and I answered it," Ranma retorted, refusing to be cowed any longer. "You wanted to know why I might wanna make some other future than the one with Shampoo." He took a deep breath, let it out again, then said, "I do owe you. If it weren't for Ucchan, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. I'd be off giving Shampoo the chance…" his voice faltered, "the chance she deserves… but you said yourself it's a question of either-or, Granny. I can't abandon Ucchan anymore, at least not for anything short of somebody's whole future being at stake."

"Can't you?" Cologne asked after a long pause. "We shall see. I'm still not sure I should go any further with this. Frankly, I don't think now is the time. If you want me to tell you how to earn your freedom from Amazon marriage law without actually honoring your marriage, you need to prove your desire for Miss Kuonji is really that strong and enduring. That it is more than just obligation, since you've already shown you have no problems weaseling out of those.

"This isn't just a question of Shampoo and Ukyo, after all. Kaede Hayashibara, Kaori Daikoku, Kasumi Tendo… with the agreement I gave Genma, I can't say anything about that last one. But if you want a chance to walk away from my great-granddaughter, then you must first end things with Kaede and Kaori. Feel free to ask Ukyo for her help; in fact, I insist on it. I will be watching, to see how the two of you manage such a trial. If you do it and do it well, then I'll reveal the path you can take to free yourself from the marriage law.

"One more thing." Cologne paused for emphasis before saying, "Have you spent all this time with her? Did you even leave Nerima at all?"

"I was only gone for less than a day," Ranma replied. "Yeah, I've been with her."

"Then instruct Miss Kuonji to remove whatever countermeasure blocked you from my senses when you were in her restaurant."

"You don't have to worry about that." He bit the words out. "It's been gone ever since Happosai nearly killed her."

Ranma picked up a stone from the pile beside him. He concentrated a moment, applying the technique he'd learned from Kaori and charging the rock with chi, then sent it flying forward to skip along the surface of the water. The missile's path changed direction by ninety degrees the first time it struck, leaving it skipping along parallel to the canal's course rather than heading toward the far bank. The stone sailed along for quite a respectable distance, far farther than it could have gone had it held to its original direction, before losing velocity and sinking out of sight.

He was seated underneath the bridge, as near to the center of the short tunnel as he could manage. It didn't provide anything like full shelter from the light spilling in at either end. The shadows were thin, attenuated, powerless, and the water flowed calmly through its channel. It might manage to raise a temporary protest when there was a big enough storm, but that didn't change the ultimate truth — that it had been tamed. Controlled.

He grabbed another, larger rock. "I," the word was a growl barely discernable as speech, "will not," the words coming clearer and quicker now, "let this happen," anger burning bright, hot, and fierce, "to me!"

The pigtailed teen threw the rock with all the strength he could muster, straight into the center of the water. It kicked up a huge volley of spray, splashing everywhere. He reached out, tried to sense it, tried to alter even the path of one single droplet through will alone.

If he succeeded, there was no sign of it.

Once more he tried, heaving the largest rock at hand, this time with his eyes closed and his hand left outstretched, palm up, trying his best to sense the water at all. It had been so clear once; the fluid had almost felt like part of him, something that was as integral as an arm or a leg and could be manipulated as easily. Now, he wasn't sure he had any of that awareness anymore. It felt more like he was remembering how it once would have been, instead of retaining even a little of the gift Ukyo had given him.

Still he tried, closing his eyes and attempting to feel the shower from his latest throw, trying to guide any of the spray, even a single drop, into his outstretched palm. Of course, one or two droplets landing there wouldn't have proved anything, since that much could easily have flown on such a trajectory by chance.

The fact that no water at all touched his skin seemed to prove something quite clearly.

Ranma opened his eyes, stared at his dry palm for several long moments, then closed them again with a sigh. "Guess I shouldn't have listened to the freak even that much. No scraps, no fragments, no nothing. Nothin' at all left of the best gift anyone ever gave me," he muttered sadly, angrily, and incorrectly.

He sat there in silence, trying to push past that thought, reaching for the determination he needed. This didn't really change things, after all. What difference would it have made if he'd still had enough power to affect a measly few milliliters of water? What help would that have been in facing the trials ahead of him? None at all, that's what. His situation wouldn't have been improved one iota. This didn't mean anything, not really. It sure didn't make him any less able to fight the battles he was facing. He was Ranma Saotome, and this was important, and he wasn't going to lose!

Ranma's eyes opened wide in recognition. His level of angst and anger shouldn't have dropped this quickly.

Sure enough, Ukyo was standing a little ways down the tunnel, looking at him with a troubled expression. "Hey, Ucchan," he said quietly.

"Hey yourself." She walked over and sat down next to him, saying nothing else, looking expectantly at him as if waiting for him to say more. Before he could decide how to proceed, she ran out of patience. "I was kind of hoping you… you wouldn't be this down after talking to the old ghoul." She gulped, then asked, "How'd it go?"

Silence stretched for another long moment, before Ranma looked away. "Okay. Good news-bad news time. I'll start with the good news. There's some way of getting out of Amazon marriage law without messin' up Shampoo's or my life anymore. Cologne told me that once I tell Kaori an' Kaede that I ain't going through with their engagements, she'll tell me what it is." He took a deep breath. "She knows about you and isn't protesting. Never made anything like a threat to you. In fact she told me that you and I needed to work together on this."

"That is good news," Ukyo agreed cautiously. In fact it sounded like better than just plain "good" news to her. Ever since the lessening of her powers, it had become inevitable that sooner or later other people would find out that Ranma was staying with her. That the Matriarch knew this and not only wasn't protesting, but was actually requesting Ukyo aid Ranma in winning freedom from Shampoo… She thought about this, then contrasted it with the mood Ranma had been in when she arrived. Bracing herself, Ukyo asked, "What's the bad?"

For another long interval he was silent, trying to figure out some way, any way to say it without it being such a blow to Ukyo. At last he gave up. If there were such words, they were beyond his ability in this moment. Grimacing, Ranma forced himself just to spit it out. "If… if we can't win through this… I'm gonna have to marry Shampoo."

"What exactly did she say to you, that you think you can't fight any more than that?" Ukyo asked in a tone Death himself might have envied. "Or should I ask, what did she do?"

"She didn't do anything. She just reminded me of something you already had, the single thing I'm most ashamed of. That when Shampoo was under the curse of the Reversal Jewel and I wanted her to be nice to me again, I even went so far as to fight—" he cut himself off. "No, it's worse than that. I challenged her and flat-out told her that according to her law she had to marry a guy who defeated her in battle, an' then I did just that.

"That… that's what she reminded me about… told me that after all the stuff I've done, all the times I've gone to them for help and free food and whatever, if I just throw Shampoo away then it's either me or her who dies to make up for the dishonor."

Ranma drew his knees up to his chest and curved his arms around them, eyes still tightly closed. "You know how I saw all that stuff from my life when I was getting my Water empowerment, Ucchan? You remember how I told you I wasn't able to hold onto all of it, but I kept the most important stuff? I thought that was all the hard lessons I was gonna have to learn anytime soon. For damn sure I was wrong about that. This hurts… hurts so much… and I never saw it comin'."

"What hard lessons did you learn back then, Ranma?" Ukyo demanded. She only just managed to keep from going further, from lashing out with her own hurt. There was no way he'd endured the kind of pain she did to earn this rebirth, this shot at a new life. Ukyo had thought her own agony was an acceptable price to pay to give her beloved Ranchan a chance at a better life. Hearing him talk now about letting the Amazons force him into marriage with Shampoo made her feel like pure molten Darkness was bubbling up in her soul.

Not really aware that his girlfriend was teetering on a knife's edge, fighting to keep from scourging him with words as painful as anything Cologne had said, Ranma explained. "I saw the mistakes I'd made, and that Pop had made. I had to face the fact that the Saotome family honor has been dead for a long time, and that I've made my own fair share of mistakes too. Like letting Ryoga sleep in Akane's bed as P-chan. I didn't try near hard enough to stop that, and it's not the only time I've made a dishonorable mistake. I can't do anything to fix that, there's no way I can 'honorably' resolve all the stuff in my life. Not without seppuku, anyway, and I refuse to throw my life away. So all I can do is try and do what's right from now on, not worry about honor or agreements made for me by Pop.

"That's why I told you what I did, back when I said I was ending the engagements, and… and that I'd like to try something real with you…" Ranma took a deep, shuddering breath. "I can say 'screw honor, I'm only going to do what I think is right', but that don't get me out of Amazon trouble. I've used Shampoo an' her granny for my own selfish benefit time and time again, almost never giving anything back, and by their laws if I just walk away from her after that then either they have to kill me for sayin' she's worthless, or she has to die for agreeing to it."

That little revelation displaced a significant portion of Ukyo's hurt, replacing it with desperation. "But… that can't… there must be a way out!"

"I already told you there is. Cologne's gonna tell me about it, remember?" Ranma reminded her. Ukyo smacked her forehead and muttered "Pay better attention, idiot!" under her breath. "As soon as we deal with Kaori and Kaede. That is," he took another deep breath, "she said if we do a good job of ending things with the other two girls, she'll tell me what I can do to get out of marrying Shampoo without hurting her." He looked away, eyes not really focused as he stared off into the distance. "Or at least without destroying her life."

"She'll only tell you what you can do if she decides she's satisfied with how you ended things with those other two?! Y'know, Ranma, that seems awfully fishy if you ask me. It ain't exactly like you can try again if she said your first attempt wasn't good enough!" Ukyo declared. "This sounds like a trick to me."

"If you got any ideas on how to handle this any better, I'm all ears. It ain't exactly like we can beat the truth out of her," Ranma said sarcastically. Ukyo grimaced, recognizing the essential truth of those words. And now that the Amazons were back within the safety of the Cat Café and whatever safeguards lurked there, she didn't dare try touching Cologne's dreams to see for herself.

"And anyway," he continued, "I think we can trust her. She may have tricked me a couple of times in the past, but she's never outright told me something that wasn't true. She did say that she'd tell us what to do if we did a good enough job with Kaori and Kaede. I think…" he swallowed nervously. "I think she's mainly trying to figure out how serious I am about stickin' with you. Because I had to tell her that was why I didn't want to do what she said."

"You'd think the old mummy would be a little more reasonable, then," Ukyo growled, fighting an unexpected surge of embarrassment. "It's not that hard to understand that you might rather date one girl than go ahead and immediately marry another."

"That's not what she was telling me to do," Ranma responded quietly. "What she told me she expected me to do with Shampoo is basically what we're doing. Dating, getting to know each other better, not going too fast…" He closed his eyes. "I have never treated her how she deserves, and even now I'm fighting for the privilege of keepin' on doing that. And as long as I can fight I'll keep on trying, trying to get out of doing what I honorably should. If… if you're gonna stick with me, Ucchan, you better understand that. I'm not anywhere near as perfect as I once thought I was. Got a whole lot more of Pop in me than I ever wanted to admit."

"Well, if I was a saint, I'd bite my lip, struggle for a few moments, then bravely tell you that instead of all this you first ought to try what Cologne said. Spend as much time with Shampoo as you do with me, see if you might decide you'd rather go with her. But I'm not going to say anything like that," Ukyo said.

Ranma turned and looked at her. All he could see was the back of her head, as she had turned away to face towards the opposite end of the tunnel. For a moment he wondered whether that had really been a back-handed offer to let him do just that, made in the only way she could bring herself to do, or whether it truly was Ukyo lamenting, as he had, that she couldn't find the heart to do what she felt like she really ought to.

Either way it didn't matter. He shrugged. "So you're doing the same thing I am. What you want to."

"I… guess so…" Ukyo said, trembling as she turned back to face him. "If there's any chance… as long as you want me, I'll fight through hell itself to be with you, honor and obligation be damned…"

"I do want you," Ranma whispered, unable to find breath enough to proclaim it more firmly.

He was fairly sure, afterward, that she was the one who made the first move. But it didn't matter much, not later, certainly not in that moment. Ranma closed his eyes and leaned into the kiss, thoughts dissolving with one last coherent phrase, 'Honor and obligation be damned indeed.'

'This is really going to hurt,' Akane thought bitterly.

The thought had been lurking at the back of her mind ever since she'd set out on her current task. She had tried to deny it, tried to push it away, tried to ignore it — none of those attempts had been successful. The cold awareness stayed, weighing her down and slowing her to half her normal speed. If she'd been in a good mood, she might already have been at the Cat Café by now.

Well, she didn't think she'd be enjoying a good mood anytime soon. But maybe if she faced these thoughts squarely, she could at least recapture the determination she'd had at first, back when she'd decided to do this. Akane walked over to a nearby bench and sat down, grimacing as she forced herself to envision just what she was walking toward.

'I wonder how long this whole thing started. How long they were all planning for him to walk away from me and go to her,' she thought. 'A while, probably. It couldn't have been quick or easy for Shampoo to get his cure. And this training trip they just got back from… yeah, right, I'm so sure. More like a chance for Shampoo to get out of town and meet up with Ranma. I bet the two of them had a lot of real intense workouts during this week.

'And he has to have come back with them now… that's why all this stuff is happening, why her grandmother got Daddy and Mr. Saotome to go along with this. She wouldn't have done that yet if he wasn't going to be around to go through with his part. He's got to be there, staying at the Cat Café all nice and warm and cozy with Shampoo…'

The thoughts hurt like a knife through her chest, and frankly they were weakening her resolve rather than strengthening it. Nonetheless Akane didn't push them away. Rather, she forced herself to face them in their whole horrible measure, suffering yet more pain that was the fault of her faithless former fiancé… and then, when she could feel herself wavering, quivering on the very edge of getting up and running back home and letting all the rest of this junk pass her by, she called up a picture of Kasumi.

Sweet, gentle, innocent Kasumi, who'd done so much for her family. Who'd been there for her time and time again, who'd looked out for her little sister with a grace and a kindness that Mother hadn't been able to stay and give. Kasumi, who had taught Akane so many lessons that their father couldn't. Kasumi, who was too innocent for her own good. Kasumi, who was too willing to see the good in people and turn an oblivious eye to the bad. Kasumi, who would surely end up hurt just as much as her little sister had been, if that little sister didn't step forward and defend her now.

"I won't let it happen," Akane whispered fiercely, her resolve strengthening once more. "Won't let Kasumi get hurt. Ranma's already got Shampoo; that can damn well be enough for him. And I'll tell him that to his face no matter what kind of new garbage Shampoo has to dump on me."

It was enough to get her on her feet again and moving ever closer to the Cat Café, though it didn't silence all her doubts and trepidation. She was sure that was where Ranma was staying. However, that did not necessarily mean that he would be there when she arrived. If Ranma should be out and Shampoo still there to greet her (not that Akane thought this was very likely, but she knew better than to trust her luck), then the encounter waiting for her would likely be as pointless as it would be painful. Talking to Ranma might accomplish something. An encounter with Shampoo would be an exercise in bitter futility.

'Or maybe not,' Akane thought, her pace slowing again as a new thought struck her. 'Maybe talking to Shampoo would work too.' After all, even as high-and-mighty as she was, as much as the lavender-haired girl acted as if everyone else was nothing compared to her, there had been plenty of times when she'd gone out of her way to show her wifely skills to Ranma. Times when she'd done her best to present herself as the best he could possibly ask for in a marriage partner. Shampoo knew something at least of the Japanese ideal in a wife, she'd shown that clearly, and it was equally clear that she didn't want Ranma thinking other girls might have more to offer in that arena than she did.

'But she has to know she can never beat Kasumi like that. All I have to do is point that out to her, and she'll get too jealous to even think about letting Ranma go after Kasumi too.' Akane turned the idea over and over in her head, trying to find some flaw in it. None were apparent. As jealous as Shampoo was, as eager as she was to control Ranma, surely the Amazon wouldn't risk him really getting close to someone like Kasumi. Sooner or later even as big an idiot as Ranma would have to stop, take a good long look at what he had, and make a few comparisons of relative worth. As soon as that happened, Shampoo would be lucky to retain even half of Ranma's affection and attention. Akane was sure that the Amazon wouldn't be willing to accept that.

'Would she try and stop it at Kasumi's end, rather than Ranma's? This wouldn't put big sister in danger, would it?' That was a thought that Akane considered carefully, or at least tried to. It wasn't very easy to do so; she kept hitting some sort of mental block whenever she tried to imagine Shampoo really getting tough with Kasumi. The very concept was unthinkable. 'No, she won't. Heck, she can't. Kasumi's not a fighter, she won't be fighting Shampoo and she isn't an obstacle either. Not really, not in the way that matters. No, if I can get through to Shampoo's jealousy she'll do the right thing and take it all out on Ranma.'

It was a good plan, Akane decided, and began walking forward a little more quickly. It still didn't remove all unpleasantness from the thought of her upcoming confrontation, but it felt better than her previous idea had. Her initial goal had just been to talk to Ranma and do whatever it took to get him to give up on the idea of sinking his claws into her sister. Akane had been uneasily aware that the only effective way she could clearly see to do that would be to hurt him some more, hurt him enough that he couldn't even stomach the thought of her as a sister-in-law. Despite how much pain he'd caused her, how he'd never really and truly cared for her, Akane wasn't sure she could go that far. She had just been hoping that further inspiration would present itself in the moment of truth.

Well, this inspiration had come well before the moment of truth, and the youngest Tendo was grateful. Playing on Shampoo's jealousy was a much better idea. Even if it would require her to talk to the one person she'd give the most to never, ever encounter again in her life.

Akane had walked another two blocks' distance, reminding herself that this was for Kasumi and doing her best to push away all the remaining unhappiness at facing Shampoo, when another inspiration struck. Did she really need to do this in person? Was it truly necessary to get right in Shampoo's face and spell out all the ways Kasumi was better than her? Shampoo had to already be aware of these issues, at least subconsciously. She might be going along with this idea for now, but she couldn't be enthusiastic about it. There wasn't any need to be as blunt as Akane had been planning. If some other girl, one of Ranma's other suitors, came along and stirred up Shampoo's catty nature, Akane was sure it would be enough to cause a general revolt. The lavender-haired girl would be telling Ranma that he was hers and hers alone before the dust of Kaori's departure had even settled!

Akane blinked. 'Why Kaori?' she thought, wondering why the vague thought of "some other girl" had crystallized so completely in so little time. But the answer wasn't long in coming. Ukyo had been hurt enough by Ranma Saotome in the past, and she was finally free. No way was Akane going to be the one to encourage her to step back into that tangled web of pain. Kodachi was long gone, and she didn't know where Kaede lived. But since she'd followed Ranma that one time, to see whether he really was going to Kaori's place for a study date rather than off to a movie or whatever, she knew just where the Martial Arts Takeout girl was staying. It would be easy enough to go over there, explain things to Kaori, and get her worked up enough to send Shampoo's possessiveness level through the roof.

"Well, well. Looks like I don't have so far to go as I thought."

On hearing that, Akane blinked, turned, stared, and realized things were apparently going to be even easier than she'd thought. Kaori herself was standing not far away, at the point where a lane branched off the road Akane had been walking along. "Why can't I get this lucky when it really matters," the youngest Tendo grumbled to herself.

"I'm glad to see you here, Akane," Kaori continued, stalking forward. The tone of her voice and the cold expression on her face didn't mesh well with the words. Nonetheless she had meant them; the things she had to say to Akane would work better here, out in the open, rather than in the Tendo home. Having her sisters and father listening in would have made it a good bit harder for Akane to react to Kaori's message as the Daikoku daughter desired. "I've got something to say to you."

"What's that?" Akane asked, beginning to reevaluate her initial impression that this meeting was a fortunate one. Kaori was dressed in the same uniform she'd worn during the Takeout Race so long ago. She was carrying what looked like a delivery of ramen. Akane supposed it was possible that the other girl had acquired a part-time job and had been carrying that to a paying customer… but the youngest Tendo suspected it was far more likely that these noodles were intended for combat rather than consumption.

"I heard something very interesting yesterday from some of the girls at school," Kaori hissed back, her eyes narrowing. "They said you'd done this before! Gotten really angry at Ranma, broken the engagement, and then when you'd decided he had suffered enough, you were gracious enough to take him back! Let me clue you in, Miss Tendo—" she whipped out a single chopstick and sent it ripping through the takeout box, the chi-infused wood slicing cleanly through metal, letting the pieces of the container fall away and leaving the bowl of ramen resting safely in her hand, "it's not happening again!"

"You, you think that…" Akane's voice trailed off as a vision came out of nowhere, of Ranma saying he was sorry and that he'd finally told Shampoo to make tracks for China, of asking her to please let things go back to how they had been…

She shook her head, trying to dislodge the curiously persistent image. "No… No!" she muttered.

"No?" Kaori inquired sweetly. "No, you're not going to do that? No, you're not going to hurt Ranma even more?" Suddenly she was holding a second chopstick, and both implements were deep within the broth and noodles, swirling the strands into a coherent rope that lashed out and shattered pavement five feet away from Akane. The girl jumped, flinching and stumbling backwards as whatever distracting thought she'd been viewing finally vanished. "No, you're not going to force me to come by and destroy your family's school of the Art?"

"What did you say?!" Akane demanded, belatedly drawing into a ready stance.

"You heard me! I'm not letting Ranma be hurt by you or your family anymore!" Especially not since it had been Akane's own sister causing the suffering which Kaori had mentioned earlier. "You're going to make me a promise on all your honor, Akane. A promise to break your engagement to Ranma for real this time, and never take it up again."

"And what if I don't?" Akane snarled, too angry at the very idea of a demand being made of her to really consider just what she was protesting.

Kaori's eyes narrowed into an even more malevolent glare. She flicked the noodles back into their bowl, produced three more chopsticks to go with the pair she already held, and threw the five of them in a spread that landed in a rough circle around Akane. Each strip of wood sank nearly half its own length into the concrete before its payload of chi was expended. "You couldn't take me on the best day of your life, Akane," she warned. "If you refuse to make that promise, you want to know what I'll do?" She smiled. "I won't attack you here. I won't insult you or threaten you. I'll turn around, and walk away.

"And tomorrow, or the next day, you'll receive a challenge letter in the mail. And on the day that letter specifies, I'll come to your home, and I'll fight you when there's no too-generous-for-his-own-good guy around to jump in and save you, and after it's all over I'll take your dojo's sign and grind it to sawdust while your whole family watches." Kaori took three quick steps forward, not quite enough to enter Akane's personal space, but still more than enough to up the discomfort level. "And if I'm still feeling as angry in our fight as I am now, then I'll make very sure to hurt you as much as I know you've hurt my fiancé in the past."

With that Kaori pulled back, just enough to let her get a better look at Akane and judge the effect of her words. The other girl was trembling, pale, her fists clenched, her eyes screwed tightly shut. Her posture still vaguely resembled the defensive stance she'd taken earlier, but there was neither control nor discipline evident there now. She didn't look to be on the verge of charging into an all-out attack, but Kaori held ready anyway, mentally prepared to dodge, engage the Daikoku Secure Delivery, and retreat while her soon-to-be-for-real opponent was held in stasis.

"Do you know how tired I am of this?" That certainly wasn't an answer Kaori had expected. Akane's posture hadn't changed, and her eyes were still clenched closed. "I don't care what you said. This isn't about me. It's never about me! It's always about Ranma! You're here, treating me like I'm nothing, just like how every other girl who wants him does. Pushing and shoving and thinking only what she wants matters. I'm the one who has to be uncute, the kitchen destroyer, the tomboy, the violent girl, the joke," her eyes snapped open and she glared back at Kaori as fiercely as the other girl had, "the one whose life gets turned upside down and shaken around and taken away from her. Nobody ever asks me what I want, what I think, whether I like having all this stupid craziness come out of nowhere and land on me.

"That's what Ranma has been for me," she continued. Despite herself Kaori took a step back at the sheer bitterness she heard in the other girl's words. "I haven't been able to say I was really in control of my life for more than a year now. And it's his fault! You think I want that back?! Want to go right back to the fire that burned me over and over again?! Dream on, Kaori. I want Ranma out of my life and out of the lives of my family. We've been hurt enough. You want him, you're more than welcome to him. Right now I wouldn't lift a finger to keep you from hurting yourself like that. As far as I can tell, you deserve it."

Kaori checked her initial impulse, holding back from the attack that it would have been so easy to make. She forced Akane's words to the back of her mind, reaching out instead for a memory, one of breathlessness and wind and a view of the city spread out before her, of warm sunlight and blue sky and a redhead who hadn't held any grudges for Kaori's earlier mistaken mistreatment. Other memories followed, thoughts of lessons given and received, of simple companionship and the times she'd brought a smile to her fiancé's face.

She focused her attention again on the present, and the girl standing a few feet away from her. "By rights I could thrash the living daylights out of you for saying all that, Akane, but I don't have the heart." Nor did she think she even had the words to explain just what she'd meant by that, not to herself, certainly not to Akane. "Just give me the promise I asked for. If you really feel that way, it shouldn't be any hardship."

"F-fine. You've got it," Akane retorted, speaking through a lump in her throat that she assured herself was just anger. "You're too late anyway. Mr. Saotome decided he didn't want Ranma marrying me after all. He talked to the Amazons and fixed it up to support Shampoo instead. If you want him, you'd better go face her down for him. N-not me."

As soon as he was through the door, Tetsuro Daikoku stopped dead. He took a long, deep, evaluating sniff of the air within the apartment. The grimace that spread across his face made it obvious that he was none too pleased with the results.

Moving more slowly now, he crossed the living room floor and made his way into the kitchen. The source of the faint acrid chemical tang was revealed here; the sink and its adjoining counters had been retrofitted into a compact chemistry workspace. Kaori was there, dressed in the appropriate protective gear, both hands rock-steady as her right dripped the correct components into a large batch of misfortune cookies, while the left applied the perfectly-warped chi field that rendered the cookies safe to carry, as safe as the chopsticks and noodles that were the mainstay of their style. For all their devastating potential, the misfortune cookies wouldn't detonate until primed with another application of chi.

That didn't mean he was particularly happy to see his daughter brewing up the things, though.

He waited patiently until she'd finished, pulling off her safety goggles and turning around to face him. "Hello, Father," she said. "I didn't expect you for awhile yet."

"I finished my business a lot quicker than I thought I would." Tetsuro wrinkled his nose. "I would have rather come back to an apartment that smelled nicer than this."

Kaori blinked. "I didn't think the smell from making these was strong enough to bother anybody."

"That's not what I'm talking about," her father replied quietly. "Kaori dear, you know that a Master of our school develops the Chef's Sixth Sense."

The brunette stared back at him dubiously. Her father had always claimed that his level of mastery had allowed his nose to become super-sensitive, perceiving hidden things as strong scents, and there had indeed been times when he'd seemed to pick up on things he couldn't normally have known. On the other hand, the memory was still green in Kaori's mind of the night her father had dropped a million yen in a casino, swearing all the while that he could smell the laws of chance just about to bend in his favor.

"Well, what did you think you smelled, Father?" she asked, giving him the benefit of her doubt.

"Anger. Hurt. Two things I really don't want my little girl feeling," Tetsuro answered. "Kaori, what's wrong? Who did you bake those cookies for?"

Kaori held rigidly silent for several moments, then replied, "I went to confront Akane Tendo, to tell her what would happen if she tried to take Ranma back once more. And she told me that Shampoo has secured his father's support, and that Ranma is staying with her now! That he has been for the past week and more!"

"And you're going to go challenge her," Tetsuro surmised, looking at the cookies with a jaundiced eye. That many could conceivably level a building the size of the Cat Café, although such a level of destruction would require careful placement by a demolitions expert.

"That's right!"


Kaori's mouth opened and closed fruitlessly for some little while. Eventually, she managed to ask, "What do you mean, why?"

Tetsuro grimaced, and looked away, not particularly wanting to watch his little girl's eyes as he said this next part. "Sweetie, what do you think I mean? What does it say about him, about how things are, if he's been staying there? That he hasn't even bothered to come by and say hello to you?"

He dared a glance back toward his daughter. She was turned away, her face hidden as she stared down at the batch of misfortune cookies. "You know that sometimes there comes a time to cut your losses and walk away, Kaori. How much farther do things have to go before you decide that time is now? I don't want my little girl to suffer needlessly."

"And you think if I leave now that won't happen?" Kaori growled. "How can you even ask me that, Father? What if we did leave now, pack up and go home without even seeing Ranma again? I'd never know what happened, whether he was all right, whether he even had a choice in what happened to him! Maybe you've forgotten what happened back when I first fought Shampoo, what she showed then about how she treats my fiancé. But I haven't."

"No, I haven't forgotten," Tetsuro retorted. "You told me he dived between the two of you, taking a strong attack that Shampoo had just launched toward you. I don't see how that becomes some terrible indictment of how she treats him."

Kaori made a disgusted sound. "Oh, that's right, I didn't tell you the really infuriating part, did I? Didn't tell you just what started my fight with her in the first place." She hadn't wanted to remember it at the time. "I saw the two of them together, coming back from what Shampoo said was a date anyway. Ranma tried to bid her a civil good night, and she grabbed him and kissed him. Just took what she wanted from him!"

Tetsuro decided there probably wasn't any point in drawing a parallel to the tactics Kaori herself had used in their first visit to Nerima. It doubtless wouldn't do anything to settle his daughter's mood. He did begin humming the tune to 'A Kiss is Just a Kiss', before realizing that the song was probably too old for his daughter to recognize. "All right, I suppose that didn't make a very good impression. But let's put aside any questions about the Amazons for now. I want you to think about something else, Kaori, tell me this. All the anger and hurt you're feeling now, the worry and the loneliness I've seen in you, all the friends and everything else from our old life that we had to leave behind to come here…" He took a deep breath, then gently asked, "Is it worth it? Is he worth it?"

Silence fell, lasting for a full minute. Eventually, Kaori admitted, "I don't know. I… I know what I want, Father, but I don't… I don't know how much more I'm willing to pay for some of it…

"He's special. More special than I could ever have understood from our first time here. And I, I want things to go back to what they were! I want to spend more time with him, hang out, learn from him, help him learn new things too! I don't want to lose, and I don't want to fail my fiancé again!

"That, that's the real issue there." She took a deep breath. "Maybe I could give up on the first part, but it's irrelevant. Never mind any other questions for now. There's no way I could live with myself if I walked away and found out later that because I did he wound up back where he was when we came. I'm not leaving until I know he won't fall victim to the same old troubles that have hurt him so much. It's why we came back, remember?!"

"I remember," Tetsuro answered her. "It's just that I'm having a little trouble making the leap from that," he waved his hand aimlessly, as if to indicate all their hopes and good intentions, "to this." Pointing now straight at the counter-full of high explosives.

"It's something I have to do." Kaori's tone brooked no room for argument. "I won't take this lying down, I won't give up and roll over and go quietly into the night. No matter what happens, Shampoo is going to know she was in a fight."

Kaede checked her watch for the twentieth time. Still ten minutes to go.

She made a sound that was part grunt, part sigh, leaned back against the rock, and closed her eyes. She concentrated on the remaining sensations: the sound of the wind in the trees, the warmth of the few beams of morning sunlight that snaked through the cover to strike her, the solidity of the stone at her back. All of that put together wasn't enough to truly distract her from thoughts of what was to come, but at least it helped a little.

The breeze died momentarily, leaving the clearing still and silent. With her eyes closed, Kaede could almost hear the sound of her own heartbeat. Even more clearly, though, she could hear a voice out of memory, a scant few handfuls of words from the previous night. Nothing momentous in and of themselves, but carrying the certain promise of change.

Her fiancé had finally returned. And he'd asked to meet her here, in the place where they'd had their first real, deep conversation. The place where they'd first truly connected.

Kaede only hoped this meeting would go as well as that one had. Ranma hadn't spoken for long on the phone, hadn't said anything more than that he was back in town, but his tone had told her more than his words might have been intended to. She had heard weariness and hurt there, and had once more had to forcibly restrain herself from going over and laying down some retribution on the Tendos. Having Akane break the engagement was one thing, a thing that Kaede didn't suppose had ultimately bothered him all that much, but being thrown out of the place he'd lived in for over a year must have been far more painful. Ranma had taken this long to come back, and was still hurting as far as she had been able to tell from that brief contact. 'I'll do my best to make you feel better, Ranma,' she thought. 'Just give me the chance to. You don't have to go it alone.'

"Hey, Kaede," Ranma said quietly.

The girl's eyes shot open, and she jumped to her feet. "Not bad," she said after gulping once or twice. "I never even heard you come up. Pretty sneaky."

He shrugged. "Force of habit, I guess. So… it's been a while. How've you been?"

"I've had plenty of ups and downs these past three weeks," Kaede replied. For a moment she wondered where to start. Her training, her defeat and then victory over her greatest competitor, the times she'd spent missing him, the times she'd spent hoping desperately that Shampoo had known what she was talking about and that Ranma would be back soon. So much to tell him… but that wasn't really the right way to start things out, was it? "But I'm not the one who got so much crap dumped on him that he had to take a trip to clear his head. Tell me about you, Ranma. How… how are you? How have you been doing?"

"Like you said. Ups and downs," he answered quietly. "But… come on, Kaede. I asked about you because I wanted to know. What's been going on?"

"Well, okay." Best to start with the thing she could tell him most easily, and work her way up to the 'I really missed you' part. "Biggest and best news — I beat Shampoo! Took her down fair and square, even though she pulled out even more stupid high-powered special techniques that I need to learn better counters for. It was a close fight," Kaede said modestly. "But when the dust settled, I was the one still standing!"

"When was this?"

"Let me think…" Kaede concentrated. "A week and two days ago." A thought which reminded her of something else, something that made the timing of her fiancé's return even better. "In fact, she and her grandmother left on a training trip right after that. She's probably got some new tricks up her sleeve now, and it was hard enough to beat her the last time." Kaede turned slightly away, continuing to watch Ranma out of the corner of her eye. "If someone wanted to help me train to stay even with her, like for instance someone who's my age, the best at the Art that I've ever seen for that age, someone who's helped me before and I'm really thankful for it, someone I am very happy to see again…" At this point Kaede realized she'd lost the thread of her sentence, and just started another one. "I'd really be grateful."

"You want that?" One part of him was ready to jump at the offer. If he helped her enough, that would surely offset what his father had done to secure this engagement. However, another more practical part of him suspected it wasn't going to be that easy. She probably wasn't going to be in the mood to hang around him for training once she heard what he had come here to say. And then there was the fact that depending on what Cologne said he might not even be able to stick around in Nerima. "I'd be glad to help you if you want. But I'm… I'm not sure I'm gonna be able to."

"Huh? Why not?"

He took a deep breath. This was the best opening approach he and Ukyo had been able to come up with. It hadn't taken much discussion to decide against using Kaede's acknowledged honor-debt to Ukyo to get the other girl to give up. Neither teen had thought such a tactic would likely win many points with the Matriarch. No, anything like a command or demand could only be considered as an absolute last resort.

That didn't mean that talking about honor was out of the question, though. In fact it was the key to it all, or at least for the argument he would open with. Hopefully it would be enough. "How much do you know about what happened when I left the Tendos? What happened, why it happened?"

Kaede snorted. "I know they kicked you out because you wouldn't let Akane-the-novice fight Shampoo-the-freakin'-warrior-princess. Pretty pathetic behavior for a family that's supposed to care so much about the Art."

"It ain't really all that worse than other stuff they've done. And they're not the only offenders around here, you know." Ranma heaved a sigh. "I'm sure it's easy for you to rag on Mr. Tendo for what he did. But tell me something, Kaede. Have you ever really stopped and thought about what my old man did to you? And to the other girls? I know he gave you this cock an' bull story about what he meant by it all. I'm asking you now to forget that, cause he was lying through his teeth, and really stop and think about where I am. About what all his promises have really done for me."

"Seems to me that you aren't in too bad a place," Kaede said, trying and failing to completely hide the sudden note of uncertainty. "Yeah, it's still kind of tangled, but things are clearing up. There's only two fiancées that Genma arranged left in the race. Like he said, the ones who didn't have what it takes have dropped out. For that matter, you could almost say the same thing about Kaori. She quit and left for I don't know how long before changing her mind and coming back for another try. Seems to me that ought to count pretty heavily against her."

"Okay, let me try and be a little more blunt about this," Ranma said, closing his eyes. "My father made promises that he knew couldn't all be kept. He took the stuff the other girls' fathers offered as dowries. Your family might not have been any worse off after your dad taught my dad those moves, but that don't change the fact that he did it for a promise that my old man didn't really mean.

"It was sort of the same thing with Kaori. And with Ucchan it's a hell of a lot worse than that. He took their yattai, their family business, as her dowry, he agreed to take her along with us on our journey, and took off with the cart and left her by the side of the road when her father wasn't around to do anything about it."

A long, cold silence followed these words. At last, with some difficulty, Kaede broke it. "I… I never heard that…"

"Well, now you know. Your father told you how good my dad was at the Art. He is that," 'when he's not being a lazy bum, anyway,' "but you need to wake up and see the rest of it. He's done everything he can to make me the best at the Art he could manage, and to get what he thought would be a good life for us." Ranma's eyes shot open, staring directly into Kaede's. "If honor got in the way of that, he tossed it aside without a second thought. He lied, and cheated, and stole, and did whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. And I swear to you, Kaede, he did the same thing to you. Ever since we got to Nerima he's been pushing me to marry Akane so I can carry on the Anything Goes School using the Tendo Dojo. Now that she's finally managed to get it through his head that she ain't an acceptable choice, he's just switched over to her sister Kasumi as the Tendo fiancée to push."

"Are you here to tell me you're going along with that?" Kaede asked, in a voice that sounded to Ranma like it should have come from a girl ten years younger.

He shook his head in quick negation. "No. I'm through letting him mess things up for me. I'm making my own choices from now on."

"So… so what you're saying…" The words came with some difficulty, Kaede speaking through a sudden bout of deep, heaving breaths for air. "Are… are you working up to telling me… telling me you're going to decide for yourself, without worrying about what your father wants?"

"That's part of it, yeah." He paused, wishing to heaven for some kind of inspiration, to help him bridge the gap from general to specific as gently as possible.

Before he could think of what to say next, Kaede was speaking again, the words coming slow at first but then picking up speed. "Okay… I understand how you feel about that. But how much does that really change, Ranma? The Tendos are still out. Ukyo's still out. It really just leaves you where you were before, right? I don't need you to be my official honor-bound fiancé to still want to be with you."


"Nothing's really changed because of this, right? You're still going to go with whoever's best for you. That's no different. I'm not afraid to fight for that, to show you that should be me. I, I told you before, the person you are is just what I've always hoped for and wanted. You're exactly who I hoped you would be. Even if your father didn't mean the engagement for real, it did enough by letting us meet."

"Kaede!" This time he managed to cut through her now-frantic speech. She gulped, fell silent, stared at him expectantly and fearfully. Unable to bear that sight, he looked away. "I'm sorry," he said, the words barely above the level of a whisper. "I can't."

A long moment of silence followed, broken by a muffled choking gulp of sound. Ranma wisely kept his eyes averted. "Y-you can't, huh?" he heard Kaede gasp. "Can't… can't even try? Can't even imagine th-that you might want to stay with me?"

Ranma doubted the wisest man in the world would know how to respond to that. He certainly couldn't find the words just now. Kaede continued speaking, her voice clearly wavering on the ragged edge of control. "Then who, Ranma? C-can you tell me that?!" Not a question he'd wanted to answer, but maybe it would help. However, before he could speak, Kaede carried on, eliminating the misconception her previous words had raised. "Who, if not you? Wh-who in this world is ever going to be able to l-love a girl like me?"

From the sound of things she was moving away from tears now, but the pain was, if anything, sinking deeper and deeper into her. "I know… know I'm not pretty. Not much of a homemaker. Don't 'have what it takes', as one guy so kindly put it back when I still attended school. I'm a pretty pathetic failure as far as the damned Japanese feminine ideal goes. I-I never wanted to be that, never cared about being all sweet and demure and cute and domestic. I followed the thing I really love, the Art my father showed me. He supported me all the way, never even hinted that he would have rather had a son to pass his teachings on to. Even our marriage w-was supposed to be equal partners who could help each other walk down that road.

"And… if you can't… if someone like you, who loves the Art too and wants to stay on that road all your life, if you don't think what I've got to offer is worth having…" Fresh sobs rose up and choked her for a moment. "W-what chance do I have of ever f-finding a good guy who w-w-wants me?"

"DAMMIT, POP, WHY DID YOU SET ME UP FOR THIS?!" The scream didn't make Ranma feel much better, but it at least broke his paralysis. He forced himself to turn again and look steadily at Kaede. The sight of her wide-eyed, tear-stained, trembling face would haunt him for a long time to come. "Listen, Kaede, that ain't it! There's nothing wrong with you!"

He was rewarded by a sudden glare of vicious hostility. "S-spare me your pity and your lies, Ranma. Y-you can't seriously expect me to, to believe…" The glare faded into a sudden look of hurt understanding. Kaede looked down at the ground. "Wait. I bet… bet there is one thing wrong w-with me. I got here too late. That, that's what you're trying to say, isn't it?"

A hundred different thoughts whirled through Ranma's head as he tried to decide how to answer that. It was true that Kaede hadn't showed up until after Ucchan had made that fateful visit to the Cursed Antique Shop. What if she had arrived in Nerima a year earlier than she did? How would things be different?

Since there was absolutely no way at all to answer that question, his response to hers seemed obvious. "Yeah," he whispered. "I'm sorry, Kaede."

"I'm s-sorry too." She fell silent, obviously struggling over the next thing she had to say. At last she was able to get it out. "Shampoo is one lucky girl."

"What?!" Ranma gasped, caught a little too off-balance by that comment, since it ultimately couldn't have been more wrong. He might have been giving Kaede the truth he owed her, but that didn't change the fact that this confrontation was also part of his fight not to marry Shampoo.

"Who else?" Kaede demanded, looking him in the eye again, now with a new measure of desperate intensity. "Everything you've said sounds like you're t-talking about her. Not worrying about your father's promises, not g-giving me a chance because I got here t-too late… if not her, who?!"

Ranma opened his mouth to reply — and then paused, struck by a sudden awareness. 'Each time I say this, it comes a little easier, makes it seem a little more real. When did I decide it was okay to do this? To tell everyone that I already have chosen Ucchan?'

Then he pushed the question aside. It didn't matter much, did it? Here and now, the least he owed Kaede was the truth. "The one I've known for the longest time," he replied, mentally wincing as he realized, too late, that what that had implied wasn't exactly true. Their childhood together certainly hadn't been the deciding factor. "Ukyo."

"Ukyo?! Her?! The one who…" Kaede's voice trailed off before she could finish the question. 'The one who abandoned you?!' she wanted to ask. 'The girl who gave up before any other one did?! That chef who only cares enough for the Art to give it what time she has left over from school and running a restaurant?!'

But she didn't have any right to ask these questions, did she now, Kaede thought bitterly.

Without another word she got to her feet and began walking away. When she reached the treeline she spoke again, letting the words carry back over her shoulder rather than turning to face him. "Tell Kuonji that as far as I'm concerned, my debt to her is paid in full."

'When am I going to tell him?' Genma asked himself, staring into his glass as if the answer were hidden within the beer suds. 'How am I going to do this? What am I going to say?' He sneaked a glance over to the side, where Soun was polishing off the last of his current glass. Two days had passed since the reunion with his son, two days in which Genma had tried and failed to find the nerve to contact Soun and explain that Ranma was back in town and their dreams were dust. They had already had plans to meet today at their old familiar watering hole. Genma knew that he was going to have to break the news sometime during this visit. It wasn't something that he could let slide any longer. The only question was, should he do this while Soun was still sober, wait for his friend to get partway into his cups, or hold off until the man was three sheets to the wind?

Waiting until Soun was completely soused seemed pretty attractive, except for one thing. If pushed too far, Tendo was one of the most unpredictable drunks in the history of mankind. The memory wasn't crystal clear (thankfully), due to his own state of considerable inebriation at the time it was formed, but Genma had once seen his friend summon a Demon Head large enough to rip a new skylight in the ceiling of the establishment where they had been slaking their thirst. Which was even more impressive considering that bar had been located in a basement.

The thought of repeating the mistake those poor, unlamented bar toughs had made all those years ago was none too appealing. Mind made up, Genma took a deep breath, and turned to face his friend.

"Soun and Genma, disciples of Demon Master! At last I find you!"

Mumbling obscenities under his breath, Genma shifted to face the direction from which the shout had come. Soun did likewise, substituting a nervous gulp for the profanity. Standing in the door of the bar, backlit dramatically by the evening sun, stood a… well, a figure. It was a little too backlit for them to make out anything more.

Said figure stood haughtily still for one moment longer, then strode forward. On entering the lower light level of the bar proper, the newcomer was revealed to be a Chinese man a fingerbreadth shorter than Genma, with a paunch that rivaled the Saotome master's own. He stalked over to their table, stood bristling with indignation for a moment, then demanded, "Remember Yi Min? Yi Min, humble owner of Jade Horse Restaurant? Where you two come and order huge deluxe all-the-works meal for yourselves and Demon Master you train under, then skip out of town before paying? Well?!"

"Er, sorry, I'm afraid not," Soun admitted nervously. "That happened too many times for any particular instances to stick in the mind." The only times he really remembered were the ones where he'd used his daughters as collateral, like that Chardin fellow.

"Maybe this refresh your memory!" The man slammed an old, worn piece of paper down on the table. Looking closely at it, Genma realized it was the bill from that long ago incident. Furthermore, the amount of said bill, while a not inconsiderable sum for rural China of twenty years ago, was frankly not enough to concern him now. The punks who'd made the mistake of trying to mug Genma Saotome last night had been loaded with more yen than they could possibly have known what to do with.

Since he was shortly going to be giving his friend such bad news, Genma figured that this once he could do something he normally avoided like the plague. "All right, all right, no need to burst a blood vessel. I'll pay the thing."

"Ah, good. With age come wisdom, also decency, honesty, integrity, baldness, and forty pound or so. Of course other thing come with age too." Yi Min smiled broadly and turned the paper over. At the sight of the sum written on the other side, Genma's eyes bugged out wide enough to nudge his glasses forward. "Twenty year interest compounded continuously, expense of find you two, including costs of fighting and misleading others who want first shot at you, cost of living increase, tariff, fee, surcharge, sales tax, escrow, and miscellaneous expense."

Genma blanched, began sweating profusely, and scanned the room for the nearest exit. Better to grab Tendo and run, head for home, hide, and let Ranma deal w— the train of thought derailed as he gave a mental curse. The reflexive urge vanished as quickly as it had arisen, shredded by the unwelcome realization that that wasn't an option anymore. He didn't have a home to run to. His son had told him to his face that he didn't want anything to do with the wonderful deal Genma had worked out for him. The dream he'd held for so long was nothing but ashes now, and he still had to break the news to his best friend in the world, and this little excrescence dared to crawl in here and make ridiculous demands like this when there were real problems that he had to try and work through…

With a growl that could have come straight from his cursed form, Genma flipped the paper back over. "I'll pay this one," he said, glaring at Yi Min with more spirit than Soun could remember seeing in his friend since their reunion on that rainy day so long ago. "Don't even think about trying to gouge me for more. This really isn't a good time."

"So! You choose way of pain." Yi Min backed up half the distance to the door. "Say hello to miscellaneous expense! Ninjas, attack!"

And every other drinker in the establishment shot to his feet in a whirl of facemasks, black cloth, and discarded disguises.

If there had been even five more ninjas present, things would have gone differently. But Yi Min had been working on a budget, and during his search for the defaulting duo he had heard plenty of stories of them running from danger, or kowtowing their way out of it. And of course he'd had no way of knowing what sort of kicks in the teeth Genma had been enduring from life recently, he couldn't have foreseen that his timing frankly could not have been worse. He'd never heard anything to suggest Genma Saotome might find the backbone to give a wordless snarl and charge forward into his hired goons, knocking two of them unconscious before the rest could even begin to react.

Soun was caught nearly as much by surprise as everyone else. It took him even longer to react than it did the ninjas. At last, though, seeing that his friend had already narrowed the odds sufficiently that joining in didn't pose much threat to himself and did offer an excellent opportunity to work off recent stress, he leaped into the fray as well.

The ninjas didn't last long after that. Not five minutes later the last black-pajamaed figure was sleeping peacefully, and Yi Min had been forcefully ejected through the front door of the bar, his bill and the original sum of yen rolled up into a sheaf of paper that Genma had fitted neatly into the restaurateur's left nostril. The two Masters of Anything Goes were back at their original table, waiting for the serving girls to get up the nerve to reappear and resume service.

"Ah, that was a nice little workout," Soun said meditatively. "It brings to mind the good times we shared on the road, so long ago."

"All three of them," Genma chuckled. Usually Happosai stirred up enough ire that if a force caught up with them, it was too large or too female for his two disciples to handle it as handily as they had this one.

"The smooth places were awfully few and far between, weren't they?" Soun paused thoughtfully, then snagged a bottle of sake off a table whose original ninja occupant wouldn't be needing it anymore. Disdaining one of the dinky little glasses or saucers the liquid was meant to be served in, he took a long pull directly from the bottle. "You know, Saotome, perhaps you and I should take another trip before long. Earn ourselves some more peaceful, pleasant memories of the road."

Genma raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Are you serious, Tendo? With things as they are now?"

"Well, not exactly as they are now," Soun clarified. "I meant once your son gets back and the first shock of things is settled with him and my dear Kasumi. It might…" He gave a melancholy sigh, took another swig of sake, then continued, "Might be better for us to get out of the way. At least at first. We've done our part by fixing our past mistakes and setting things up for Ranma to be with Kasumi and Shampoo. I think it might be the best thing we could do, to step back and let them have some space to sort things out for themselves now."

"Where'd you get an idea like that?"

"It was something Akane told me. She said that she hated how much she felt like I was pushing her toward Ranma. I'm not saying that had anything to do with them not working out," Soun hastened to clarify. "But since it really did bother my little girl, I'd as soon not repeat my mistake with Kasumi. And she's certainly grown-up enough to make her own way in something like this without her old father looking over her shoulder all the time.

"Anyway, that's my idea. We should take a nice little training trip to let them sort things out. They'll probably thank us for it. And if they do run into troubles that they can't solve without our wisdom and guidance, why, then after we get back and help them they'll be grateful for that too, and more thankful for our help in the future."

Genma broke out in a cold sweat. That his friend was being so philosophical might well mean that he was farther under the alcohol's influence than the elder Saotome had realized. Perhaps Tendo had downed a couple of extra bottles of sake in the interval between Genma starting the fight and Soun joining it. Best to break the news to him now, before things got any worse.

Deciding just to spit it out, he blurted, "Tendo, Ranma is back in town."

And then he spent the next several seconds wiping off the sake Soun had spit over his face.

Finishing up with his coughing at about the same time Genma completed his ablutions, the Tendo patriarch demanded hoarsely, "H-he is? When?! Where?! Why?!"

'What you really ought to have asked is 'Who',' Genma thought sourly. Aloud, he said, "I talked to him the other day. Old friend… brace yourself." Unable to meet the other's eyes any longer, Genma dropped his gaze to the table before him. "I told him about what you and I agreed. Told him all about the wonderful provision we'd made for him. And he turned me down flat, Tendo. Said there was no way he was going along with it."

"Saotome…" The words came in a warning growl that quickly prompted Genma to further speech.

"It's not my fault, Soun! It's not either of our faults! You have no idea how much things have changed in the weeks since we had to leave. He was given the cure to his curse!"

That little tidbit of information was enough to shock Soun right out of his rising anger that anyone might consider his dear sweet Kasumi to be not good enough. "He… what?!" Had Akane ever communicated the misconception she'd been given by Ryoga, things would have gone rather differently. But she hadn't; neither Soun, nor Kasumi, nor yet Nabiki had had any knowledge of the loss of Jusenkyo's hold over their one-time houseguest. Soun's mouth gaped open and closed for several moments, before he found breath to ask, "How?"

"Ukyo, apparently," Genma said, taking a drink from the bottle of sake he'd retrieved while Soun was gaping. "He didn't come right out and say it, but reading between the lines from what he told me it was obvious that the only reason she gave up was because she thought she didn't have a chance. And then when Akane kicked us out of your home and Miss Kuonji managed to get her hands on a curse cure at about the same time, well, the timing couldn't have been better for her." He took another gulp of the rice wine. "Couldn't have been worse for us."

Soun was silent for a while, considering his response to this. Eventually he said, "Saotome, you and I both know that's not good enough. No matter what she did for him since then, it doesn't change the fact that she renounced her engagement to him. Our agreement still stands."

"You want to be the one to tell the boy that?" Genma asked bitterly. His bottle was empty now. He remedied this by walking over to another table and grabbing a replacement. "You and I both know that's not good enough at this point."

"At this point? What point? Why not?!" Soun demanded. "What are you trying to say?"

"Just relaying what my son threw back in my face," Genma replied. "Remember that damned Red Thread of Fate Shampoo nearly used to snare the boy? Remember how determined he was to go through with marrying her?" When his old friend nodded reluctantly, he continued, "And do you remember what we did about it?"

"I gave Akane a pair of scissors and told her that the thread should be cut by no one's hand but hers," Soun retorted feebly.

Genma snorted fiercely enough to vibrate the empty bottles on their table. "There's no point in trying to weasel out of this, Soun. Neither one of us has the guts or the backbone to stand up to the boy if he's that determined about something. He didn't seem to realize it then, but he knows it now. Rubbed my nose in it quite well at our little get-together."

Ranma had also brought up another time then, the occasion when Natsume and Kurumi had taken up residence at the Tendo homestead, after Akane had run off in tears and Soun had slung Ranma out on his ear. Genma had tracked down his son and done his best to guide Ranma toward the kind of training he felt the boy needed to manage a comeback win. During that conversation he'd warned Ranma that if he broke his engagement to Akane then the two of them had nowhere to go. He hadn't meant this to be an admission to Ranma that if he were truly determined to do so then Genma couldn't stop him. He hadn't even realized that his words had been such an admission until two days ago, when Ranma had pointed it out to him in a tone of solid steel.

On the whole, Genma decided he'd just as soon not tell Soun about that time. The first incident — in which both of them were equally culpable — was enough to make the point. He didn't know what had managed to bring these two damning incidents back to his son's mind at the worst possible time, or what had helped Ranma see the significance that had never quite dawned on Genma himself. But whatever it was, he'd cursed it up, down, sideways, and back-to-front.

"That… that…" Soun struggled for words for a few moments more, before finding them. "All right, I understand that. We've made mistakes. But that doesn't mean we have to keep on making them! You need to take charge of the situation, Saotome! This agreement is for the good of our schools, our families, and the Amazons as well! The three of us together would be a force to shake the heavens and the earth!" Or at least a formal alliance with the Amazons would be enough to finally rid them of the Master — the single biggest reason Soun had agreed to this deal. "You can't let your son throw something like that away! If he won't go along with it when you ask him, then you need to tell him!"

"Soun, listen to me," Genma pleaded quietly. "I'm willing to push my son exactly as far as you would one of your daughters. I'm just as willing to risk truly alienating him as you would be with Kasumi or Akane. How about that? Did you ever sit down with Akane in the early days of the engagement when I wasn't looking, and tell her that if she didn't go along with it you'd disown her?"

"O-of course not, Saotome!" Soun cried, jerking backward, tears reflexively gathering in his eyes at the thought of taking such a terrible line with one of his precious little girls.

"Then you think I'd be willing to do it?"

Soun's answer was a long time in coming, and when it did arrive it was spoken in none-too-certain tones. "You always were better at deceit than I was, my friend… no, you couldn't make such a threat and mean it, but maybe you could make Ranma think you mean it…?"

"I didn't ask you whether you thought I could disown my son," Genma said harshly. "I asked whether you thought I could risk the last of his respect and affection by pushing him that hard. He's all I have left, Soun." And now a dim gleam of fear peaked through Genma's eyes and trembled at the back of the words he spoke. "I've given my life to raise him to be the best martial artist I could, to fulfill our dream of joining the schools. Jusenkyo took away my chance to go back to my wife. Even now that Ranma's cured, it's still not safe as long as I bear my own curse. One splash of water, one sight of 'Mr. Panda', the truth all comes out and it's hello afterlife.

"I can't risk that, and I can't risk losing him. I've pushed it as far as I can, Tendo, probably even farther than I should. I didn't forbid him to see Ukyo, but I told him I wouldn't support it either. I'll even cave in on that if he comes back and pushes me for it. There's nothing else I can do."

Soun stared bleakly at his oldest friend, then shifted his gaze to his own bottle of sake. "In vino veritas," he muttered bitterly. "There's nothing either of us can do."

Ukyo slipped through the fathomless currents like a minnow through a midnight stream, twisting and turning, instinctively homing in on her target. As she neared her goal disparate fragments of sensation entered her awareness — a ghost of still air against her cheek, the smell of dust, one glimpse of a shadow far less profound than that of the medium through which she flew. And then she was out of whatever greater darkness held all the slumbering dreams of humanity, and into the specific dream she'd sought.

The chef stood in the yard of a large house, with a dojo off to one side. Ukyo blinked, not having expected this. Kaede was having a dream of the Tendo household? Maybe tonight's program was going to be some dark fantasy of vengeance.

Almost immediately, though, she realized her error. The house before her did resemble the Tendo homestead, but there were many more differences than similarities. Ukyo concentrated, reaching with her awareness out toward Kaede's dreaming unconsciousness, touching lightly as she made the direct connection, searching for answers. A minute later her suspicion was confirmed. The building before her was modeled after the other girl's childhood home, which had also been a large house with a private dojo. Kaede hadn't seen that home in many years, though, and so in constructing this dream her subconscious mind had simply filled in the gaps with details drawn from more recent memories. Inside the house, there was no trace of the Tendos at all.

Ukyo sighed. 'I would've rather seen her dreaming about beating the crap out of Akane.'

She stood there in place at the front door for what seemed several long moments, hesitating, trying to decide whether she should enter. She knew roughly what she would find inside. The deeper, more direct dreamtouch she'd just used had been at least somewhat informative. However, that method hadn't conveyed as much detail as she could get from opening up the door and going inside, and given what she had found over the last couple of nights Ukyo suspected she needed to see that level of detail now.

With a thought she broke the lock on the door. She pushed it open, then spared one more second to surround herself with the idea of clean, pure air. The shell held as she walked inside, pushing aside the cloud of dust her entrance had raised.

The first thing she noticed, once inside the structure, was the rather disquieting fact that Kaede wasn't here. Ukyo had already been aware that the majority of Kaede's dreamself was currently working out in the dojo, but she'd expected at least a fragment of the girl's awareness to remain here. A normal dream was centered around the dreamer, after all. What was such a detailed building doing here, without any part of Kaede anywhere inside it? The only thing she could think of was that this building was important enough, or represented something important enough, that even though Kaede was elsewhere her awareness of its existence was enough to sustain it this clearly.

From the instincts she'd gained and everything she had learned over the past three months, Ukyo knew a dream of this level of clarity and coherence had to be founded on something very important to the dreamer, some idea rooted deeply within her mind. Not at all a good sign, if this one carried the same themes as the ones she'd witnessed in Kaede's mind over the previous two nights.

Pushing aside those thoughts for now, Ukyo walked further into the house. The living room, like the entryway, was disused and dusty, showing no sign of the life that would have justified its name. There was no furniture either, just an empty, barren expanse of floor. She pushed on to the kitchen, and found what was almost a sadder sight. This room was clean, at least, and carried the awareness that someone came here and made use of it… but instead of all the pots and pans and spices and stores one would expect to find in a kitchen, there was only the absolute bare minimum, and all of this was contained in a worn travel pack leaning next to the sink.

To a chef of Ukyo's caliber, this sight was even more depressing than the entryway and living room. She hurried back through them, passed into a hallway that seemed more like the barest distilled essence of "connecting space" than a piece of architecture, and then entered the master bedroom. Another sight much like the kitchen, this too showed no dust and not much of anything else. A single futon, large enough for one person but by no means big enough to share, was rolled up in one corner. That was the sum total of the room's contents.

She barely even came to a complete stop within the room before turning and leaving again. More and more Ukyo was regretting coming in here, and feeling the temptation to leave the cold, empty house behind. All she had really come here to do was see how Kaede was doing and give her what help she could, right? What was she doing wasting time in this wasteland?

The chef nearly managed to convince herself of that, nearly decided she'd seen all that she needed to see. She actually did make it all the way back to the living room before coming to an unhappy stop. She'd come here because she knew this would show her important pieces of what Kaede was thinking and feeling. Yes, all she'd seen so far had been depressing and had fit only too well with what Ukyo had been afraid she'd find. But turning tail now without investigating the boarded-over door that lurked at the end of the hallway was just plain cowardice.

Much more slowly than she'd been moving a few seconds ago, Ukyo returned to the hallway, made her way down it, and stopped before the sealed door. With a moment's concentration she removed the nails that held the barring boards to the doorframe and walls, pulled away the boards themselves, and swung the door open. She then stopped, blinking in surprise. The room inside was large, much larger than any other in the house, and contained both furniture and furnishings, bright colors and decorations and a pleasant atmosphere.

Ukyo took a step inside, mentally tallying up the room's contents with ever-increasing puzzlement. A crib, a playpen, baby toys. Beds of increasingly larger dimensions, though all of them were sized for children. Playthings appropriate to boys, to girls, to toddlers and kindergarteners and grade-school children. There wasn't too much provision for any one age group, but the combination of them all created an impression of life five hundred-fold greater than all the other rooms in the house put together.

She took several steps further in, confusion only growing. Why had this room been boarded off? Since there was no answer to be seen, Ukyo stretched out her other senses, trying to understand…

A relative split-second later she was outside the house, the nursery door was nailed shut again, and the front door was securely locked. 'Damn, that hurt,' Ukyo thought miserably, wiping her tears away, too shaken for the moment to eradicate her own pain. She couldn't be harmed in a dream, but what she had sensed there had been terribly painful nonetheless.

It hadn't been something so simple as emptiness. No, what she had felt exceeded that feeble concept as far as the former fullness of her power had been beyond a shadow cast by the ten o'clock sun. What had lurked in that room was the boiled-down, distilled, absolute essence of empty unfulfillment. The toys and furnishings had been a mockery, because the ones they were intended for would never — could never — be there. That room had been a future and an ending, a memorial to what could never, ever be, the ultimate expression of Kaede's grief at a part of life that was irredeemably out of reach.

Pulling herself back into focus, Ukyo walked grimly over to the dojo where she could still sense Kaede, not bothering with such niceties as knocking on the door. The shortest path was straight ahead and through the wall, and that was the one she took. Only on the other side did she pause again, silently and invisibly regarding the scene before her.

Contrary to what she had expected, Kaede wasn't exactly practicing. Instead, the girl was participating in a long string of challenges. Someone would appear at the entrance to the dojo, stride forward and enter combat with Kaede, and lose. The opponents were by no means matched in quality; some gave her a hard fight, whereas others had their heads handed to them in no time flat. Their responses on losing covered a broad spectrum as well, with some bowing in obvious respect, others in equally obvious disdain. Anger, fear, sorrow, a few instances of honest thanks for such a fight — all these responses and more came as Ukyo stood and watched, patient in investigation one last time tonight.

Eventually, though, her patience waned. There seemed no end to the challengers coming through the doorway. She watched as the latest entered, then exerted her own will upon the dream, shutting off this aspect of it. Kaede finished her last opponent and stood waiting expectantly, her posture stiff and her stance tight and controlled, only her eyes and the thoughts she suppressed showing more than a desire for another fight. Ukyo waited as well, looking for the right moment to step forward with further change to the dream. The best point to do that would be when its current form began to fall apart, which ought to happen as soon as Kaede realized the next challenger wouldn't be coming through the door.

The next challenger stepped through the door, and Ukyo learned that it is possible to facefault even in dreams.

'How the heck did that happen?! I crushed that part of the dream… oh.' Now it made sense. This wasn't just another in the string of random challengers. The new arrival was none other than Ranma Saotome, larger than life, sporting a cockier grin than she'd seen him wear anytime in the recent past. He reached the center of the dojo floor, bowed to Kaede and received her bow in return, and combat was joined.

'Yep, this certainly isn't like it was before.' Kaede was fighting at an entirely new level now, significantly above what she'd used when Ukyo was watching earlier. However, her opponent was as far beyond her as her current effort would have been over the lowest of those dojo fodder. He was the wind and the rain and the lightning, directing the entire course of their battle, flowing around her and striking through her defense with ease. And through it all he wore that cheerful, challenging, happy grin that Kaede had apparently committed to memory as thoroughly as had Ukyo herself.

The end came quickly, as Ranma dissolved the last of her defense, leaving her aching, battered, and gasping for breath, but also unhurt. Still smiling he reached out and extended a hand, helping his downed foe back to her feet. He gave her a swift pat on the back, following up with one last encouraging smile backed up by a wink.

And then he was gone, never again to return.

Ukyo felt the change, sensed it as clear as midnight, knew that this departure was the signal that the dream was about to get much, much worse. Recognizing her cue, she concentrated, shredding the structure and surroundings in an instant, leaving Kaede and herself standing on more or less nothing. At the same time she pulled Kaede's mind farther down into the somnolent state she'd used in touching Ranma's earliest dreams, and drew out and destroyed all the darkness currently weighing on the other girl's soul.

She would have felt much better about doing so if this hadn't been the third night in a row she'd repeated the process. Removing Kaede's pain and fears and loneliness didn't seem to be providing more than a few hours of relief. At times like these she really wished she could do something more direct to heal mental damage. Damn Happosai anyway for the destruction of the rod, she thought bitterly. The fires of elemental empowerment had been a forge that strengthened both her and Ranma, allowing her to do all she had for him without hope of his love, giving him the courage to face up to what had to have been the ugliest truths in his life. If she could have given that choice to Kaede as well, Ukyo was sure the change would have afforded the other girl enough confidence to put this loss behind her and press on.

Thanks to Happosai, though, all she could do was try her best with what resources remained to her. ~Kaede.~ The girl so addressed looked around curiously, or as curiously as she could with a head full of spiritual cotton. Where had that voice come from? Oh, that must be it, the billowing cloud of darkness. She bowed politely.

~Kaede, this is the third time in a row I've seen you dreaming about some pretty terrible things.~ She paused, weaving a thread into Kaede's mind that ensured she wouldn't even subconsciously remember that little confession on waking. ~What's worse, each dream is stronger and hurts more than the last. Why are you so sure that no one will ever love you?~

"Because I'm not what any good guy wants," Kaede answered calmly. "I'm a fighter. I'm strong. I'm not cute, I don't cook or keep house, and I don't back down for anybody. I'm a Martial Artist, and until I caught up with Ranma I thought I was about as good for my age as it was possible to be. And when he proved me wrong, that just made me push farther on with the Art.

"That's who I am. And if Ranma Saotome, my fiancé, who really is as good as I thought I was, would rather have a cheerful little homemaker Martial Hobbyist like Ukyo Kuonji than me, then how can I believe there will ever be anyone I want who will want me back?"

A response was a long time in coming. Kaede waited patiently, not that she had much choice given that Ukyo was now the one controlling this dream. At last the shadow-shrouded chef replied, ~Kaede, you're making a mistake. Other people have overcome bigger odds and worse hurt than you, and gone on to get what they hoped for. If you don't believe me, you should go talk to Ukyo.~ This last suggestion was made with an extra mental twist, to make sure that it, and it alone, would be consciously remembered in the morning.

"No thanks." Ukyo blinked, nearly losing her grip on the "shred all dark emotions as quickly as they arise in Kaede" part of the dream. That would have been one heck of a surge of bitterness. "Kuonji gave me my life back, and then she took away all my hopes and dreams. I never want to see her face again as long as I live."

It was Monday. School was in session. Kaori wasn't there.

The Daikoku daughter lay in her bed, distracting herself from numerous thoughts with a Tenchi Muyo manga. She was definitely not thinking about the homework she was missing. The brunette was also ignoring as best she could the background ache from various portions of her body, especially her left arm and right leg. None of the bones were actually broken, but the limbs were swaddled in enough bandages that a casual observer would probably have guessed otherwise.

Today was the first time in four days that she'd had the apartment to herself. Tetsuro, while cheerfully blasé about the minor scrapes and bruises inherent in seriously studying their family's style of the Art, did not handle it well when his only daughter came home with injuries of this magnitude. He'd spent so much time hovering over her that Kaori had seriously begun to wonder whether she could make an extremely late-night phone call and set up some sort of bogus business emergency in their holdings in Hokkaido.

However, her father's overprotective doting streak seemed to have subsided, at least to tolerable levels. After asking only three times whether she was sure she'd be okay by herself, he'd left her to begin taking care of the business affairs that had piled up over the last few days. Kaori was glad to have her first real waking stretch of peace and quiet.

It had been a long time since she'd read this manga. It was good to laugh, and good to divert her attention from grim reality, even if the story did have more parallels to her situation than really seemed reasonable. Still, these were just two-dimensional characters, ink on a page and nothing more. There was no reason to let it bother her, no point in reading more into this than was there. No need for a shiver to crawl up and down her spine at the sight of Ryoko's energy blasts exploding around Ayeka's shield.

Kaori closed and threw the manga across the room in one convulsive movement, then staggered out of bed toward her Azumanga Daioh stash.

Halfway there, she stopped. Had that been a knock at the front door? The sound came again, clearer now that she was listening rather than limping. Someone was undoubtedly knocking nearby, but it didn't quite sound as if it were coming from the front door. Kaori frowned, then shrugged. If her father had been expecting someone, he would have told her. While she might want a distraction from certain thoughts, that didn't mean she felt like throwing away the first stretch of solitude she'd had in three days. Ignoring the knocking, she retrieved the new manga and turned back toward her bed.

"Yo! Kaori!" The voice was faint, but recognizable. As she realized this, the comics slipped out of Kaori's nerveless fingers. That was Ranma calling for entry!

No time now for hesitation. She grabbed the crutch that let her move at a more reasonable speed and hurried from her room. On entering the living room, she realized why the knocking had sounded a bit strange — her fiancé was on the balcony, looking in through the glass doors, wincing at the sight of her bedraggled appearance, and turning guiltily away.

"You're a bit late, Ranma," Kaori said acerbically once she had the door open. "If you'd deigned to stop by last week, I wouldn't be looking like an extra from 'Bride of the Mummy'." She saw him flinch again, more painfully than before, and bowed her head in apology. "I'm sorry, I didn't really mean that. Obviously I'm not happy about this," she gestured at herself with her working arm, "but it's not your fault."

"What happened?" asked Ranma, despite the fact that he knew exactly what had happened. This was the reason he'd talked first to Kaede, despite having had a better-developed plan for approaching Kaori. Even now he would rather have waited a few more days and let Kaori heal more before having this conversation. But if that meant risking something else come up like what had happened to the Martial Arts Takeout girl… No. It was time for as many endings as he could manage. Before someone really did get crippled or killed.

"I… fought Shampoo." Kaori turned, partly in order to head over to the couch and get off her feet, partly because she didn't want to look him in the eyes just now. 'I still can't believe I just took Akane's word as gospel like that,' she thought bitterly. 'Went over to the Cat Café looking for some kind of battle to end all battles.' She shivered. 'Damn well nearly got just that.'

"She beat you this bad just for challenging her?" Ranma prompted, kneeling down beside the couch.

"No," Kaori said tightly. "I don't want to talk about it." Didn't want to talk or think about it, didn't want to remember calling Shampoo out, the exchange of insults, the groundless accusations she'd made. Didn't wish to recall the beginning of the fight, when her Amazon adversary had opened with some sort of chi trick designed to aid her in anticipating her opponent's moves, diffusing her aura out before her for nearly fifty feet. Kaori had absolutely no desire to remember the moment of abject terror when she'd realized that said, aura, weak though it was, had apparently been powerful enough. Every single misfortune cookie she'd been carrying was primed and ready to explode at the first jolt.

She knew if she closed her eyes she could live it all again, as clearly and terribly as if it were happening once more. Realizing that Shampoo was already moving in for an attack, one that would leave the both of them little more than a bloody mist hanging over random gobbets of flesh. Screaming in absolute panic for Shampoo to stop, not to strike. Nearly falling to her knees in relief as the Amazon did just that, then surfing a new wave of terror as she realized that if she had so fallen, she would never have gotten up again. Explaining to Shampoo as best she could through chattering teeth what had happened. The bitterness of watching the girl retreat faster than she could believe, jumping three stories to safety in a single bound. The thirty grueling minutes she'd spent carefully easing each explosive out of its carrying space, desperately regretting that the original locking field couldn't be reestablished after the explosives were armed. Gently setting the final deadly delicacy on the street, then running away as best she could with both legs shaking like reeds in the wind, and finally detonating the pile of cookies with her tenth thrown chopstick. Her arm had been trembling too strongly for her first nine attempts to strike their target.

Shampoo had rejoined her then, and gotten a more complete and coherent explanation. The Amazon then proceeded to rip Kaede up one side and down the other for such a stupid, irresponsible attack, lashing out both verbally and physically. Much of the harangue was delivered in Mandarin, Shampoo evidently not finding her command of Japanese to be suitable for this occasion. But her Japanese was good enough for her to make it clear that the beating she'd administered was downright merciful compared to what she would have gotten for making such a mistake as that.

All in all, it wasn't an experience Kaori was interested in relating to her fiancé.

"So where have you been?" she asked, hoping to get away from this topic. "I went and challenged her in the first place because Akane told me that was where you were staying."

"Huh?!" That, at least, was news to the Saotome heir. Ukyo must have missed the memory of that miscommunication when she'd checked in on Kaori's dreams these last few nights. "Akane thought I was stayin' with the Amazons?"

"At least she said she did." Kaori brooded darkly for a moment or two, wondering again whether it had been a set-up or an honest mistake on Akane's part. Once again she reluctantly concluded that it was probably the latter.

"And that's why you went an' fought Shampoo on Thursday." 'Man, this sucks. I thought at least the Tendos wouldn't cause me any more problems.'

"That's right." Kaori wasn't quite alert enough to catch the significance of Ranma knowing the exact date of her fight. She was too busy concentrating on the questions she had for him, the questions he seemed to be avoiding. "And from the way she reacted I think I believe her when she said she still hadn't seen you yet. Just like I haven't until now. Ranma… where have you been?!"

"I…" Ranma took a deep breath. He'd hoped for a better lead-in than this to what he wanted to say, but Kaori apparently wasn't going to be so obliging. He'd just have to wing it. "I've been trying to get a handle on all the junk in my life. Getting some distance, taking a good hard look at just how messed-up things have gotten. No more dodging the issue or keepin' my eyes shut.

"So… yeah. I need to talk to you about the engagement, Kaori."

The brunette closed her eyes and braced herself. 'If nothing else, at least I think I can say I've helped him get past some of the junk he was stuck in when I got here.' Aloud, she said, "Go on, Ranma."

"Okay. It's just… Kaori, you know what happened, right? You an' I were just babies. My dad was lost in the wilderness, out of food, me crying with hunger. And then he found you and your dad, who had plenty of food. And what did your father do?" Ranma didn't quite realize that his voice had hardened noticeably. "What price did he ask for his help? For my dad, who was starving, to hand over his son in exchange for those fish, rice, and pickles.

"Your old man drove a pretty good bargain anyway. Being able to make deals like that, well, I guess it's no wonder you guys are so ri—"

"HOW DARE YOU!!" Kaori's eyes were wide open now, and she glared at Ranma with enough force to send him to his feet staggering backward. "How dare you say something like that! Yes, my father met a man who'd taken his baby son into the wilderness, and yes, both of them were hungry because the man hadn't brought enough food. Do you know what my father thought when he saw that? Just what any decent man would think! That he needed to get you the hell away from someone foolish enough to risk your life like that!

"My father is a good and honorable man! It's not his fault it took sixteen years to track you down. He was still intent on taking you into our family and giving you something better, he was ready to honor his word, in spite of the fact that that same honorless idiot had all those years to raise you his way. If my father did anything wrong, then maybe still opening our doors to you was it!"

There was more she could have said, but Kaori ended her tirade here as she got a good look at Ranma's face. His skin was pale as parchment, his jaw was tightly clenched, and his entire body was trembling. The grimace he wore was one of pain rather than anger. All in all, he looked about like she suspected she had after Shampoo finished with her, minus the actual bruises.

It took him some little while to collect himself enough to respond. "I'm sorry," he managed to say. "That's… I didn't… dammit all anyway, I guess I should've known this wasn't going to work." The despair in that last sentence was nearly thick enough to cut.

"What wasn't going to work?" Kaori asked sharply, not ready yet to go fully off the boil, but holding back from any more attacks.

"This… all this…" he gulped, continuing with, "I just once wanted… hoped I could keep even one friend after this…" But apparently he'd botched this attempt as badly as he had the previous one with Kaede. The only hope he had left was that Cologne would decide to give him a passing grade, considering how thoroughly he'd crushed any chances of either girl deciding she still wanted to pursue him.

Kaori wasn't sure she'd heard that right. "You wanted us to stay friends, so you thought you'd break our engagement by calling my father a dishonorable old opportunist?!"

Ranma managed a parody of a smile. "It made more sense when I was just thinkin' about Pop."

In a less emotionally-charged atmosphere, Kaori might have laughed at that, but as it was, it seemed more sad than funny. At any rate, she found that her anger was now pretty much gone. She marshaled her thoughts and said, "Ranma, never mind excuses or anything like that. Please let's just be honest now. I," she paused, searching for courage, then continued, "I'll start.

"I have… I've enjoyed spending time with you. Some of the school stuff was boring for me, I know more of it was for you. But even then we were together, helping each other. And we've done more of that too, and had more fun, that day when I chased you over the roofs is one of my best memories in years. I-I like being with you. Our time together has just made me more sure that I wanted more, wanted to help you more, wanted to share more with you. It… made me glad I had you as my fiancé."

Silence greeted her confession. Ranma was too busy staring at her to say anything. It seemed to him as if he were looking both at Kaori and through her, as though she were a window and through her he could see those scenes she'd just referenced, the times they'd struggled with homework, or aided one another in training. Just for a second, it was as if he could see other scenes extending out beyond those, a glimpse of a life that he could have lived. A life more ordinary than the path he now walked, but not any less appealing for that.

The long wistful moment stretched and stretched. And then it was gone.

"I… like you said, I've enjoyed those times, Kaori. But… but they don't feel like something between fiancées," Ranma said, as gently as he could without sacrificing honesty. "It just seemed like two friends. That's what I hoped I could still keep." He sighed. "That's what I've been looking for this whole time, I think. All you girls seem so sure you were ready for more, knew what you wanted. I don't understand that."

"I can only speak for myself, Ranma. But what I knew… I knew I liked being with you and wanted to see where the two of us might go together." Hesitating, suspecting it was probably pointless but unwilling to give up without asking, Kaori continued, "Are you sure that isn't what you want? Do you think that love strikes either all at once like lightning, or not at all? Because that's not true. And I… I can't think of anything more terrible than to throw something away because you don't realize what it might grow into."

"That was a mistake I'd already made before you came back here." He said this quietly, nearly whispering. "It ain't about throwing anything away anymore. It's about trying to clean up all the mess that's left."

"If… if you're trying to tell me that there's someone else, please just say it straight out." Kaori's wavering gaze suddenly hardened into a glare. "And you'd damn well better not say anybody named Tendo!"

"Heh. No, I cut my ties to them for good. I'm picking someone who supports me. Who listens to me. Who believes in me. Who'll turn her life upside down for me without a second thought." Ranma gave a lopsided, bitter smile. "Doesn't seem fair that there's more than one girl that that's true for, does it? I sure as hell didn't want to hurt anybody like I have to, but—"

"I came back here for two reasons, Ranma," Kaori interrupted. "To be your fiancée, and to help you get out of the trouble I'd learned you were in." The trouble to which she'd previously abandoned him. The brunette sighed, and said, "If I have to choose between those two, I'll go with the second one. I don't think I've done nearly as much to help you as I meant to. If… if letting you go makes up for that, then maybe that's how it should be."

"Don't sell yourself short, Kaori," he replied. "The stuff you taught me about chi let me win a real important fight. I was paralyzed, down on my knees, but thanks to you I was still able to lash out that way and knock the guy out. Before… before he could do what he meant to do, which was kill me."

"What?!" the Daikoku daughter demanded, eyes widening in shock. "You… who was this? When was this?!"

"Mousse, and a while back. And I never even told you or thanked you until now." Ranma sighed. "Kaori, a long time ago I told Shampoo I wished you hadn't come back to Nerima, that I didn't need the trouble." The pain and regret with which he spoke those words took most of their sting away. "I'm ashamed of that. I owe you a lot, and I wish I could do a better job of paying you back."

"Just… just make sure you're happy, and that you're with someone you can trust." Kaori smiled sadly at him. "Just out of curiosity, who did you choose? Is it Ukyo?"

"What?! H-how the heck did you…" Regaining a bit of composure as he remembered that this wasn't exactly a secret anymore, Ranma said, "Ah, yeah. But Kaori, how on earth did you figure that?!"

"I guessed. Figured that whoever it was, there had to be stuff going on between you and her that nobody else knew about. That pretty much eliminated Shampoo, and it would explain why Kuonji withdrew from Furinkan last week. And how she knew to bust Nabiki's lies for me that one time. I never got to know her, but at least I can agree she's a better choice than some others." Kaori gave him a half-hearted glare. "Although I can't say it does my pride any good. I mean, that you'd rather have someone who does such a good job disguising herself as a boy."

Ranma laughed nervously. "She… ah… she doesn't really do that any longer."

Kaori noted the signs of embarrassment, particularly the goofy smile on her former fiancé's flushed face, and reached an inescapable conclusion — it was time for her to have a little more peace, quiet, and solitude.

"Nervous, Ucchan?"

"Not really. How about you?"


"So now we're both lying through our teeth."


"Even… even with everything we've done, I still don't feel like I'm ready for this."

"You coulda just let me do it on my own, you know."

"No way, Ranchan. I told you I'm gonna be there when you need me. No more wimping out, now or ever."

"I know." They'd just rounded the last corner and come within sight of the Cat Café. "But I'd still feel better if you weren't sticking your face in the fire with me like this. The old ghoul didn't mention anything in that phone call about you coming with me."

Ukyo gave him a piercing stare. "And how do you think I would feel if I didn't, Ranchan? Yeah, I was nervous walking along in broad daylight with you like this, even if most everybody who'd care already knows. Yeah, the thought of going in there and facing down the old woman is even scarier. But we're doing it together. I don't give a burnt moldy okonomiyaki if she didn't mention me when she called and told you to come over. I couldn't bear to let you go off alone for this. If I was hiding back at our place while you went off to face danger alone, I'd be feeling ten thousand times worse than this!"

Ranma dredged up a reasonably cocky grin. "Well, I couldn't do that to you, now could I? Come on, Ucchan, let's get this over with."

The two of them steeled themselves and entered the restaurant, Ranma instinctively pushing a half-step ahead of Ukyo. If any trouble was lurking in the entryway waiting for them, it would have to go through him first.

The restaurant was apparently empty of trouble, at least for now. Cologne was waiting for them at a table in the middle of the room. The Matriarch was standing atop its far edge, staring inscrutably toward both newcomers. Ranma noted that her usual stick was nowhere to be seen, and wondered whether that might be taken as a good sign.

"Sit down, if you please," the Matriarch requested, gesturing toward the two chairs situated at the other side of the table.

Ranma and Ukyo did as requested. "This really gonna take that long, Granny?" Ranma asked once he was seated. "Ucchan and I need to get back to her place before too long if we're gonna open for lunch."

"Subtle as ever, I see," Cologne retorted, glaring back at him. "I think you both know this is a little more important than such frivolous things."

"Whatever. I did what you told me to do. Went to Kaori an' Kaede and shot their hopes down. Told them how things really were, that I was going with Ucchan and not them. Now are ya gonna— OOOF!"

Ukyo gave him a half reproving, half remorseful look, withdrew the hand that had dealt the punch to Ranma's gut, and turned to address Cologne. "Listen, you know he gets rude when he's nervous. I'll try to do a little better than he was managing." She took a deep breath. Ranma glowered and resisted the urge to launch a retaliatory tickle strike. "If… if you really have been watching, you know Ranchan did just what he said. Just what you asked him to do. He went to two girls who were dead set on being his fiancées, talked to them and really got through to them, convinced them to give up. And he did it for me."

"I believe he did it after I instructed him to," Cologne observed.

"Yeah, whatever," Ranma said disgustedly, blocking Ukyo's next jab to his gut. "Seems to me like I remember going to you first, cause I figured you an' Shampoo were the worst threat," another couple of strikes deflected, "and telling you what was what. So don't act like I wasn't going to do this to Kaori and Kaede if you hadn't've told me to."

"And after all that you still don't seem ready to offer any respect?" Cologne clicked her tongue at him, as a governess might at an unusually dimwitted child. "If I were the suspicious type, I might think you were deliberately provoking me, probably in some sort of half-witted scheme to make yourself seem less appealing as a husband for Shampoo."

"Urk!" Ranma replied, seeming suddenly to have trouble breathing.

Ukyo gave him an entirely reproving stare, then turned her attention back to the Matriarch. "You know how important this is to him. To me. Please just tell us what we need to do to get rid of Ranma-honey's obligation and give Shampoo back her freedom."

"It's not quite that simple, Miss Kuonji," Cologne retorted. "The agreement was that I would tell him those details of the Law if I was satisfied with the job he did of ending things with those other two girls."

"And are you?!" This was Ranma, all but snarling the question.

"Are you?" Cologne echoed, shooting the question back with less anger but no less intensity. "You tell me. Are you happy with the results you achieved? Are you satisfied? If you truly are set on Miss Kuonji then you would have had to do this regardless of any requests from me. Do you believe you did it and did it well?"

Before Ranma could say anything in response, Ukyo reached out and placed her hand on his arm. Glancing over, taking in the sight of her worried, fearful gaze, he forced himself to back down. "I asked you first. Please just stop tryin' to jerk me around like this," Ranma said quietly.

"You still don't understand, do you? Why do you think I asked that question? I haven't made all my decisions yet. I need to hear your answer before I can render my judgment." Cologne favored him with a harsh glare. "Is honesty too much for me to ask for? Remember whose choices have brought us to this point."

"All right. All right." That was all he could manage for quite some time. Honesty? It hurt to admit it, but it did seem like a lot for her to ask for, at least considering what that would require him to say. But all the other choices — run and sacrifice this chance to resolve things, lie and inevitably get caught, fight and probably lose as badly as he and Ucchan had against Happosai — were even worse. "No, I ain't happy about it," Ranma admitted in a voice not far from a whisper. "Things were okay with Kaori. I mean, yeah, I hurt her feelings, but it wasn't no terrible crushing blow. But Kaede…"

He grimaced, screwing his eyes shut, taking only the smallest measure of comfort from the arm Ukyo stretched along his back. "This is something she's counted on for the last ten years. Taking it away was like, like I kicked out a support pillar in her life." He opened his eyes again, staring desperately back at Cologne. "I couldn't've done it any better, though! She was gonna get hurt like that no matter what I did! No matter how I told it to her! It's just… it's not fair that she thinks without me she's doomed to be alone…"

The Matriarch held silent for more than a minute after this, letting Ukyo draw him more fully into a comforting embrace. Once it looked like he was ready for the conversation to continue, she heaved a long sigh and said, "Congratulations, boy. You pass."

Ranma found no words just then. Ukyo inclined her head and said as respectfully and gratefully as she could, "Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet, child. All he's earned so far is an explanation of the real test. It will be nothing like as easy as this last one. But before that…" Cologne's gaze softened farther than it had yet during this encounter. "Like you, I regret what has been done to Miss Hayashibara. Like you, I agree that she deserves better. And I have an idea on how to make things better for her." She paused, taking note of the way Ranma perked up and stared hopefully at her. "In fact, that idea doesn't even really need your participation. But I believe it would go a lot smoother if you were there to help. Are you interested?"

"Tell me more," Ranma said firmly.

"Tell us both more," Ukyo echoed just as strongly. "Can't say I've been happy about knowing the girl whose life I saved now hates my guts."

Kaede moved grimly through the streets, limned in a bloody halo by the red sun of evening. The citizens of Nerima, veteran spectators of a thousand displays of destruction, hurried instinctively out of her way. Her teeth were clenched together, her hands were balled into fists, and the lines of her posture reminded more than one onlooker of a prowling tiger. Her eyes gleamed with the light of anticipated mayhem.

In addition to her now-standard sai and tonfa combo, Kaede carried one other item besides the clothes on her back: a challenge letter, neatly scripted, written only in haiku and signed with the kanji for 'cherry blossom'. As she stalked along, Kaede wondered whether this was some challenger out of her past wanting a rematch, or if it really would be someone new. Prior to Nerima she had only faced a scant handful of female challengers, and she was almost positive she'd never fought anyone named Sakura before. On the other hand, if this name were an alias, it might very well be that worm Kenji waiting for her at the appointed place.

Kaede gave a bloodthirsty grin. She hoped that was it, actually. Thanks to the recent shattering of her dreams she had a lot of anger to work out, and if it really were Kenji waiting to battle her then she would have no qualms at all about beating him to a therapeutic bloody pulp. Any guy who deliberately dressed like a girl in order to trick his male opponents into fighting below their level deserved a few power kicks below the belt.

She reached the park specified in the letter. Kaede retrieved and opened the missive, refreshing her memory as to just where she was supposed to find her mysterious opponent. Ah, yes, there it was:

Thirty paces in,

A sharp right and eighty more,

I wait past the trees.

Kaede gave yet another snort, the seventh she'd uttered since first realizing the whole letter was scribed in haiku. 'Someone's got too much time on his or her hands,' she observed, then gave a silent snarl as that thought triggered another. Forcefully pushing aside the remembrance that Ranma's decision meant she herself now had a lot more free time than she'd wanted, Kaede moved further into the park, following the instructions as best she could.

It wasn't too hard to find the clearing where her challenger awaited. 'Damn, not Kenji after all,' she grumbled. 'Least not unless he's had some serious hormone treatments.'

Even in the gloom beneath the trees, the figure standing there waiting for her could only have been mistaken for male by a blind man. It was a girl Kaede was certain she'd never encountered before, about an inch taller than her with a head of brutally short-cropped blonde hair. She wore loose-fitting cotton pants that weren't quite loose enough to hide the development of the muscles in her legs. Her arms, which were bare to the shoulder, showed equal signs of serious power training. Above the waist she wore a simple leather harness, which Kaede noted constrained a bosom even more impressive than Shampoo's.

However, no thought of rubbing this girl's attributes in her Amazon rival's face crossed Kaede's mind. For the first time in years, she was looking at a girl who would certainly lose to her in a beauty contest. Aside from the unflattering haircut, the cherry blossom tattooed on her right cheek, and what seemed to be permanent scowl-lines on her brow, the girl bore several harsh scars in plain sight. One licked down her left cheek in a straight line. The arcing edge of another, worse scar extended out along her bare midriff. But the worst one by far curved directly across her throat, a mark of damage that made Kaede wonder whether her opponent would have to resort to the written word again to explain the reason for this challenge.

Sakura gave a clipped bow, produced another sheet of paper, and walked over. Kaede accepted the missive, scanning it to find — without much surprise — yet another haiku.

Kaede. Betrayed by Genma,
I'm here for revenge.

"Revenge?!" Kaede snapped. "Revenge on me?! Listen, flower child, Genma damn well betrayed me too. If you want a fight I'll be glad to give you one, but let's get that straight right now."

The other girl shook her head, looking a little frustrated. She pulled out another sheet of paper, this one blank, and slowly, with obvious effort, composed a reply.

Revenge on Genma.
I need your aid, but I do
Not think you'll give it.

She then pulled out a prewritten page.

I challenge you now,
That after I win the fight,
You shall aid my cause.

"Why don't you tell me what you want from me first," Kaede said suspiciously. "Better yet, would it be possible for me to get the whole story here?"

Apparently this question had been anticipated.

Genma and Yumi,
My mother, agreed that his
Son and I should wed.

He then broke his word.
Ran in the night, with Ranma
And our honor blade.

That was twelve years past.
I have trained, and sought him out.
Last year, I found him.

That is why I'm scarred.
That is why I write, not speak.
I could not beat him.

Facing him head-on
Is foolish. I need an edge.
His son will be that.

I need you to lead
Ranma into a trap. That
Will chain Genma's hands.

"Let me get this straight," Kaede growled. "You want me to betray Ranma, leading him somewhere so that you can capture him and use him against Genma?! Allow me to clue you in, Sakura; I'm not interested in chucking away my honor to help you settle your score!"

The other girl apparently didn't have a ready answer for this. Kaede waited impatiently through the minutes it took her to compose and write her reply.

So you think I'm wrong?
Walk away then, but know this.
I'll still hunt Ranma.

He's Genma's weak point.
The best chance I have, and so
I won't just give up.

But if you fight me
On the terms I gave you, then
You can give your own.

She then pulled out another prewritten page.

If I win our fight,
You will do as I have asked,
Lead Ranma to me.

If you defeat me,
I will give my word not to
Use Ranma like this.

After passing this page over to Kaede, Sakura let her hands fall and took several steps back. She waited calmly, watching as the other girl considered her options.

'I'm not going to betray Ranma, no matter what.' That was the quickest and easiest conclusion for Kaede to draw. She might be hurt that he didn't want her, but not hurt enough to forget the good times they had shared, and especially how he'd helped her deal with her initial losing streak. No, doing what Sakura wanted was out of the question.

That decision didn't answer all questions, though. Namely, Kaede wasn't sure what response she did need to make to Sakura's suggestion. Should she turn tail and run, find Ranma as quick as she could, and warn him about this girl and her agenda? Or maybe… Kaede suppressed the urge to grin fiendishly, and said, "All right. You've got yourself a challenge, Sakura. If I win, you agree not to involve Ranma at all in your fight with Genma. And if I lose, I'll lead Ranma into a trap that you designate." 'After I tell him everything that's going on, so he knows just how to catch you in your own stupid ambush.'

Not bothering to write out a response, Sakura gave a curt nod and drew herself into a ready stance. Kaede assumed her own, and the two girls began warily circling one another.

After a few seconds, Sakura moved in on the attack — a powerful lunging punch that to Kaede seemed painfully slow. The other girl's form was rather poor as well. It was with virtually no effort that Kaede sidestepped, grabbed the outstretched limb, and flipped the other girl. 'Jeez, she's supposed to have been training for twelve years to revenge her family's honor, and this is the best she can do? No wonder she's so desperate.' Despite her opponent's initial poor showing, Kaede didn't press the attack, choosing instead to back up and watch. It was at least possible that Sakura was deliberately fighting below her level to lull Kaede into a false sense of security.

One thing at least Sakura apparently had no qualms about showing. The girl bounced back up from an impact that would certainly have left Kaede dazed, seeming no worse for wear. It was evident that she had endurance to go along with her strength. Kaede just smirked, more reassured by the sight than anything else. She'd taken down plenty of fighters who relied heavily on strength and stamina.

Sakura approached again, not quite as quickly as before. One hand was held out a little ways before her with the other remaining close to her chest. Kaede noted the posture and decided that her opponent was hoping to get a grappling hold on her. That would likely end the fight pretty quickly.

Kaede decided that she didn't particularly want to go to close quarters just now, and also that it would be a good idea to learn whether Sakura was hiding any real speed. She darted away at an angle, reaching a patch of exposed gravel and gathering up a handful of pebbles. Sakura was running now, or what apparently passed as running for her. Kaede found no real difficulty in retreating away from the girl while pelting her with the stones, now bouncing one off her ear, now striking her chest, now sending a larger rock to land right where Sakura's advancing foot would land. None of the other hits seemed to have done much more than anger the girl, but this last one sent her foot flying, her balance not just lost, but eradicated as the larger girl fell flat on her face.

"You wanna go ahead and concede now?" Kaede asked irritably. She'd been hoping for a real fight, or failing that a battle where she could enjoy beating the snot out of her foe. But with this girl's history, she didn't have the heart to do that.

Sakura bared her teeth in a silent snarl, her hand clawing down into the ground beside her, pulling up a clot of earth the size of her fist and flinging it toward Kaede. The other girl didn't have too much difficulty in dodging, but the wind of the missile's passage clued her in that had that hit it would really have hurt.

"Okay, whatever," Kaede grumbled, letting her remaining stones fall to the ground as Sakura got back to her feet. This time it was the brown-haired girl who moved in on the attack, darting in before her opponent had quite set herself. Her hands moved like weaving serpents, attracting attention and indicating that the attack would be a punch, strike, or something similar. Instead, though, Kaede dropped low at the last second, striking out with a kick at the other girl's knee.

Given the generally poor showing Sakura had put forth so far, it was a bit of a shock to Kaede that her ploy failed utterly. Sakura, declining to be fooled at all, pivoted and bent her forward knee just enough that Kaede's blow whistled past it. This time she had moved with a bit more speed than she'd yet shown, although it was nothing compared to Kaede's own upper limits. And so even as the larger girl followed up with a counterstrike, bending down in a powerful blow that would have smashed her into the ground, Kaede was twisting into her own new attack. She caught the descending hand and used that as the leverage she needed to curl up and bring her knee crashing into her opponent's forehead.

The blow snapped Sakura's head back but didn't accomplish much else. Kaede hadn't really expected otherwise, since her position hadn't allowed for much leverage or strength. All she'd really needed was the disruption. And so in that precious second when Sakura's guard was completely down she pivoted again, coming back to her feet while the other girl's arm was still in her grasp, then stabbed her finger down into just the right nerve cluster.

"Ready to give up now?" Kaede queried, jumping a few feet back.

Sakura retreated as well, staring defiance at her foe. She held up her other, working hand as a look of determined concentration replaced her glare. When the appendage began to glow noticeably, Kaede backed farther up and prepared to invoke her chi-blast countermeasure.

It came as something of a surprise when Sakura instead clamped her hand around her stricken elbow. The chi she'd gathered crackled up and down the limb, looking almost like an electrical discharge. A grimace of serious pain spread across her face, and the arm convulsed. Then her hand opened and closed, she forced a smile back into place, and drew both arms back into a defensive stance.

"And that's supposed to prove what, exactly?" Kaede wanted to know. "Didn't take much of my resources to nail you there, you know. How many more times can you pull that trick off?"

What she'd expected by way of response, Kaede wasn't sure. It certainly wasn't for Sakura to turn and rush away, disappearing into the trees.

"H-hey. HEY!!" she shouted, recovering somewhat. "Nobody said you could run away like that! Get back here!" On the very verge of charging into the brush after her quarry, Kaede hesitated. Sakura hadn't vanished, exactly; she could still clearly sense the other girl's presence holding steady a few feet removed from the clearing. Nor, judging from the amount of rustling in the brush, did she seem to be trying to hide her location.

Just as Kaede decided that the other girl was probably raiding a weapons cache she'd secured here earlier and that she'd better abandon this position in the clearing, Sakura returned. Kaede's suspicions were proven wrong; the blonde hadn't picked up any new equipment. Instead, she'd taken advantage of the moment's privacy to rip away the cloth of her pants below the knees and wrap that around her elbows. Kaede shook her head. "Stubborn and resourceful, I'll give you that much," she muttered. Drawing her tonfa, she proclaimed more loudly, "Okay, no more Miss Nice Girl!"

With that she moved in on the attack again, coming in high and hard with her weapon. Sakura took the first couple of blows on her forearm with some difficulty; the cloth she'd bound around her joint was limiting her mobility a bit, and she'd already been woefully overmatched in that arena anyway. As if sensing this, she abandoned the defense, striking toward Kaede with a powerful one-two combo. Kaede dodged both strikes, dropping the tonfa as she evaded the first and grabbing Sakura's arm as the second blow missed, twisting with her whole body into a throw that slammed Sakura into the ground with a dislocated shoulder.

Kaede grabbed her tonfa and scooted back again. "Anytime you want to call this quits would be just fine by me," she offered. Sakura ignored her, coming back to her knees, reaching out with her good hand and bracing her other arm, then dropping again in a controlled fall that managed to pop the joint back into place. After another fierce grimace of pain, she got back to her feet and prepared to attack again.

This time Kaede's offensive caught her completely by surprise. She had circled around behind her foe during the blonde's last maneuver, and now moved in at the absolute fastest speed she could manage, grabbing Sakura's just-reset arm and flipping her again, this time angling the girl to land facedown on the ground. In the same motion she brought her free hand blazing down, striking a pressure point in each of Sakura's legs, ironically enough in areas that had previously been covered by cloth. The effect was more or less identical to her earlier elbow strike.

Kaede pulled back yet again, silent for a moment as she puzzled over an odd, out-of-place sensation. It had felt almost like something had brushed past her as she flipped Sakura, or rather more like the wind of something's passage had done so. There was nothing to be seen that could have created such a sensation, though. It must just have been an errant breeze.

Shrugging off the distraction, she stared stonily forward as Sakura managed to flop around to face her. "Give. Up. Now." It was not a suggestion, nor was it a request. "I'm feeling like some kind of stinking pathetic bully here. You aren't gonna beat me, and you aren't gonna beat Genma. I'm sorry about that, but it doesn't change the facts," she declared. "Do you yield?"

Sakura glared back at her, then hung her head and tapped the ground twice in a signal of submission. Using her arms to brace herself she swung her legs forward, leaving her sitting with them out in front of her. She then repeated the chi trick she'd shown earlier, freeing up first her right leg, then her left. Each time the technique was performed with obvious and increasing difficulty and pain. She stood wobblingly to her feet, pulled out one last prewritten haiku, and handed it to Kaede.

You fought well, Kaede.
Seems Ranma is safe from me.

"Thanks," Kaede said shortly, feeling none too happy at the sight of her former foe's battered, pain-ridden state. "I'm sorry about all that."

"I sorry too," the girl replied quietly, in tones Kaede knew all too well.

The illusion of a muscular scarred Japanese blonde wavered and vanished, leaving behind the sight of a muscular purple-haired Chinese Amazon. Kaede, still frozen in shock, couldn't recover anywhere near quickly enough to prevent Shampoo from stepping forward and tenderly kissing her cheek.

"Sorry," Shampoo regretted, stepping backward. "Law is clear, Kaede. No other choice but Kiss of Death."

That got Kaede moving again. The Japanese girl blurred, unleashing the most powerful kick she could manage, catching Shampoo in the gut and flinging her back a good fifteen paces. "How dare you do this!" Kaede raged. "I thought you were better than that, Shampoo! You think I'm gonna let you pull this crap now?! Think again! If you try to make good on this, then so help me, I'll break you. The Finishing Touch will rip your muscles apart and leave you nothing but a broken shell of a traitorous Amazon bitch!!"

"That will be quite enough of that, I believe." The dry voice came from directly behind her. Kaede spun to find Cologne balanced on top of her stick, staring inscrutably back at her. "Congratulations, Miss Hayashibara. You just passed a test that Ranma Saotome failed miserably."

"Hey!" the boy in question protested, popping out of the trees. "That's completely different and you know it!"

"W-what? What the hell is going on here?!" Kaede demanded. 'And how didn't I sense them?!'

"I'll let Ranma explain that to you," Cologne replied, pogoing past Kaede in one giant bound that brought her over to Shampoo. She settled down beside her great-granddaughter and began examining her.

"Am okay, Great-Grandmother," Shampoo said. She got to her feet. Kaede noticed the Amazon seemed unwilling to look toward her, or perhaps it was toward Ranma. He had now crossed most of the distance separating him from Kaede. "No expect such easy fight from me again, Kaede," the lavender-haired girl continued. "Any other time Shampoo will not have to hold back from old familiar fighting style to keep you from recognize."

"I don't understand any of this!" Kaede complained to the onlookers, the earth, the heavens, and anyone else who might be watching.

"Is not too hard to understand." And now Shampoo did look around, fixing Ranma with a look that held such pain, sorrow, longing, and betrayal that he very quickly broke eye contact. "Unlike some people, you getting some of what you wanted."

"<Remember that nothing is set in stone yet, great-granddaughter,>" Cologne said, as gently as she could. "Come on, let's go."

"Those were some pretty smooth moves, Kaede," Ranma said at last, breaking a silence that had stretched for quite some time.

Kaede snorted. She'd waited this long for an explanation, and that was what he wanted to talk about? "Forget the stupid fight, Ranma. I mean, forget my performance. I want to know exactly what happened here. I just got given the freakin' Kiss of Death!" The strident tone she'd used for that last complaint deserted her then, as she followed up with a tentative, "Didn't I?"

"You got given a test," Ranma said shortly. "Turns out that's what the Kiss of Death really is. When the outsider woman gets it, how she responds is the real kicker. If she stands her ground and shows she ain't a coward, she ain't an outsider no more. Congrats, Kaede, you're now Shampoo's sister for real and a bona-fide Amazon, as far as they're all concerned."

'I'm… an Amazon?' Kaede stood blinking, trying to fit her mind around this most unexpected of answers. She was vaguely aware that Ranma's lips were still moving; presumably he was still continuing with his explanation, though whatever he was saying failed to make it past the ruckus of her own tumbling, stumbling thoughts.

'This is what the Kiss of Death really is? That… that actually makes sense. Makes it a good test, as long as the outsider doesn't know the truth.' That thought, at least, was easy to understand, and it helped her regain just a bit of mental balance. 'But this… here… what really happened? How could Shampoo disguise herself like that?' No sooner had Kaede considered that question than an answer popped into her mind. She'd once before fought someone who knew a chi technique for shrouding himself in an illusion. Shampoo must have learned yet another new Amazon secret during her recent training trip! No, make that two, what with the recovery trick she'd pulled! For a moment Kaede nearly felt the old grumbling anger start up again, the sense of injustice at how many advantages her arch-rival's heritage gave her — and then, with a mental jolt, she remembered just what news was responsible for her standing here stunned like this.

'I'm an Amazon too, now? But… is this right? After all, Shampoo basically threw the fight. She said it herself, she wasn't fighting nearly as well as she could have, to keep me from knowing who I was really going up against. She kept her mouth shut, kept a good enough lid on her real skill that I didn't catch any hint of 'Sakura's' true abilities. She,' and with this new thought Kaede grimaced rather painfully, 'she let me kick her around like that. Heck, I knocked her arm out of joint! She just let me do it, let me hand out as much pain as I felt like giving to somebody I thought was trying to backstab Ranma…'

'She did all that so I could become an Amazon too…?'

Kaede stood there for quite some time longer, lost in thought. Somewhere in there, it having become apparent even to him that she wasn't listening, Ranma had stopped talking. He stood in silence as well, waiting for her to give some indication that she was paying attention again.

Eventually the brunette's eyes focused, and she met Ranma's gaze. "That's… that's sure not something I expected when I got out of bed this morning, Ranma." Nor, come to think of it, had she even expected to see him at all. "Hey, why are you here anyway? What does any of this have to do with you?"

"I'm still your friend, Kaede. Or at least I'd like to be," he said quietly. "This seems like the best way I could help you out, make up for… well, you know."

"What I meant was, isn't this Amazon business? Why didn't the old woman just explain it to me, instead of getting you involved?" Kaede hesitated, then said, "This is… this is hard, Ranma. Seeing you again, so soon after you shot me down… the Amazon thing is keeping me from really hurting right now, but I'd still rather that the elder had been here."

Ranma flinched to hear that, but stood his ground. "Kaede, that's why I wanted to help you out like this! Cologne thought it would be better too, for me to talk to you now. Cause of what you told me, what was really hurting you, that you were scared you'd never find any guy who'd want to be with you…"

"How the hell does that have anything to do with me becoming an Amazon?!" she demanded.

"What do you think? Yeah, as far as Japanese guys go you're probably dead right. Most guys around here would be scared of a girl who could kick their ass without breaking a sweat, and wouldn't be too turned on by how you don't dress up or curl your hair or do your nails or nothing. I'm sure it would be kinda hard to find lots of guys most places I've been that'd see you as a good choice for a girlfriend.

"But that stuff don't apply at all back in Amazon territory," Ranma continued. "You're basically prime marriage material from what Cologne told me. Going there guarantees you'll have a chance at guys who think you're hot stuff."

"Is that right," Kaede said neutrally. Maybe it was at least possible, maybe she could find some hope here. Maybe she wouldn't have even the beginnings of a nightmare of loneliness tonight. But frankly such concerns as going to China in search of a husband seemed a little too far off to be focused on now.

"Yeah. Don't get me wrong, I'm not tryin' to say it's just exactly everything you wanted," Ranma clarified. "From what the ghoul said, there ain't any guy there who can come close to matchin' me in a fight." His tone made it blindingly obvious that he'd known this long before the Matriarch told him so. "You'll have to get your challenges and your kicks out of fighting with your new sisters."

"Yeah, like with Shampoo. I sure wouldn't have expected her to go this far to get me into her family," the brunette said quietly.

"Eh, I bet she'd've gone farther than that to get someone as good as you into her tribe," Ranma replied. Then, remembering one of the other important parts that Kaede probably hadn't been paying enough attention to hear earlier, he spoke again. "But listen, Kaede, you ain't locked in. Earning your place like you have means you do have choices, you don't have to take them up on full-blown tribal membership. If you want, you can just be an honored ally instead. That don't get you nearly as many benefits, but you ain't under their law either. You can visit their lands anytime, but you can't settle down for good. If you already respected Shampoo and would've helped her if she needed it, then taking that option don't cost you anything at all, Kaede. Her granny swore that to me."

"Why the heck are you putting so much emphasis on that part?" Kaede wanted to know. "No way am I going to throw this chance away without finding out a whole lot more about it."

Ranma gave her a relieved smile. "That's good to hear. It's just… I'm glad I can make up for letting you down, even if just a little." He sighed. "I sure as hell never wanted to be put in a place like I was in, where any choice at all hurt lots of people. Has this made up for some of it, Kaede?"

"Not that I'm trying to be a bitch, but what exactly did you do here?" Kaede wanted to know. "Besides explaining things to me now."

"Cologne decided to do this based on information she got from me," Ranma replied. "And she thought you would have an easier time hearing all this stuff from me than from her."

"Easier?" Kaede asked, giving him a sharp glance. "I don't know about that." Then she sighed. "But… maybe better… yeah, I guess I am glad I could talk to you again, hear you say you were still caring about me, still looking out for me as much as you could…"

"And now you got plenty of chances to find somebody who'll be able to do more than I can," Ranma said.

"Look, thanks for the bit of hope, but if it's all the same to you I'd rather not keep harping on that point," Kaede retorted. "Not this soon, anyway. It's just… it hasn't even been a week yet…"

No need to ask what she was referring to there. "Right, okay, yeah. Never mind the whole guy situation. Think about the training!" Ranma exclaimed. "You love the Art, Kaede? You wanna go as far with it as you can? They've got stuff you won't learn anywhere else… it's all there, open to you now, the only thing holding you back is you yourself…"

Kaede shot him a shrewd glance, piercing even in the dimness of the light. "Sounds like someone might be regretting losing out on that for himself?"

"Every choice costs something," Ranma answered quietly, and sadly. Then, mindful of the fact that Ukyo was patrolling through the trees ensuring no random eavesdroppers learned Amazon secrets, he hastened to add, "I've made the choice I wanted, though."

"No regrets?"

"I regret the people I hurt, and the mistakes I made, and the opportunities I let slip by me," Ranma replied. "Doing what I can to make up for that now, with you, with the Amazons."

"Are you saying this also helped get you out of your deal with Shampoo?" Kaede asked. Shampoo's reaction earlier seemed to make it clear that he had somehow arranged to escape that tie. "They think I'm good enough that your getting me in the tribe makes up for you not joining?"

"I don't know," Ranma said, squashing the response his pride wanted to make. "I've got some kind of ordeal or something I've gotta go through before I can get rid of Shampoo's and my obligation. I'm going over to their restaurant after this, so Cologne can tell me just what it is." He shrugged. "So yeah, it may turn out that this was part of that. But I really just did it because I wanted to make up for lettin' you down, and set things up to be better for you."

"Thanks, Ranma," Kaede murmured, speaking with difficulty through a lump in her throat. "This… it… it really does help." She got to her feet. "Guess I should let you go talk to them, huh?" 'And get out of here before I break down completely.' Apparently enough of the confusion of learning of her sudden new status had faded, and there was now not enough remaining to block her residual pain. In fact, seeing him this concerned for her and yet out of reach, understanding again just how good a man she'd lost out on, was bringing the pain sharply back regardless of any palliative measures he'd taken.

"Yeah. Oh, just one other thing. It's only gonna be Cologne talking to me," Ranma said, trying not to remember one particular event of yesterday, specifically the confrontation with Shampoo when she finally learned all that had happened and that was still scheduled to take place. "She wanted me to tell you, Shampoo will be at the Fujisama Ice Cream Temple for the next hour. If you wanna go talk to her."

"M-maybe." 'Will you please just go before I break down completely…?' Kaede blinked, feeling a sudden, inexplicable lessening of the pain she was feeling. "Maybe I will talk to her. So anyway, good luck to you, Ranma."

"Thanks." He turned, heading for the trees, disappearing into their shadow. Kaede turned to leave as well, then stopped as Ranma's last words floated back to her out of the darkness. "Kaede, one other thing. Ucchan had just as much to do with this as I did. If it weren't for her, this whole deal would've had to wait until the other Amazons Cologne sent for get here, so you could fight one of them without knowing what was happening. Ucchan's the one you should thank for getting any hope back this soon."

"Kuonji did… how?" Kaede whispered, staring back the way Ranma had gone. But there was nothing to be seen save the darkness under the trees, and the wind through their leaves was her only answer.

"Judging by your expression, things went better with Kaede this time."

Ranma inclined his head. "Yeah, Granny, she seemed to be doing a lot better." He and Ukyo had just sat down at the same table they'd used the last time they talked to the Matriarch. He paused a moment, struggling with what he had to say next, then continued, "Thanks. Thanks for helpin' her out, giving her something more hopeful to look forward to. And for letting us be part of it."

"You're welcome." Cologne didn't even bother to hide her satisfaction. "She'll make a fine addition to the tribe." And bringing in such a talented new warrior would restore most, if not all, of the face she and Shampoo had lost by taking this much time to resolve things with Ranma. "Or a fine ally," she said, not that she thought it likely Kaede would settle for the lesser honor. It did make for a convenient bridge into what she had to say next, though.

"That is what you'll be fighting for, if you haven't already guessed," the Matriarch continued. "The test I'm giving you will allow you to become a formal ally of the Amazons, just as I described Kaede's option to you yesterday. You will no longer be counted as an outsider under the Law, which means Shampoo's Kiss of Marriage is rendered null and void. You will be free from all penalties normally associated with being an outsider, nor will you be bound by the laws that govern our people themselves."

"Okay, okay. You already pretty much explained all this stuff yesterday," Ranma said impatiently. "Let's hear something new, like what the test is, or why you wanted to wait until after the stuff with Kaede to describe it to us."

"For the record, it's what you have to do," Cologne replied, sparing a glance toward Ukyo. "Though if she so chooses, Miss Kuonji will be able to help you."

"I made that choice a long time ago, Cologne," Ukyo said firmly. "Just tell us what'll set Shampoo free, and we'll get right on it."

"Very well. For your request, Ranma, the reason I didn't tell you anything earlier was for your benefit. You wanted to help your former fiancée past her heartbreak and fear of loneliness. Very commendable sentiments, and I didn't want them to cost you anything." Cologne paused, wondering whether he would interject something at this point. Seeing the pigtailed teen hold quiet and wait for her to continue, she said, "There is a form that I must follow in giving you this task. That is a matter of Law, not something I can dance around. And part of that form is a time limit, which begins as soon as I have set the task for you. That's why I said this discussion should wait until after you'd done what you could for Kaede Hayashibara."

Ranma made a grunt of acknowledgement and agreement, clearly waiting for her to get down to the heart of the matter. "Traditionally there are several forms this test I'm setting for you could take," Cologne continued. "All of them center around proving yourself, proving your worth and your value."

"Didn't I already do that just by beating Shampoo?" Ranma wanted to know.

"That's more about bloodline than anything else," the ancient Amazon replied. "You prove your strength, you show that children fathered by you will be an asset to the future of the village. But if you want to be an ally, rather than one of us, then what does that say about the future? Perhaps your children will be friendly to our people as well, or perhaps not. In any case they would have to pass their own trials to be counted worthy as formal allies.

"Does this make more sense now, boy? With this test, you're trying to show that you're so good, such a strong, dependable, worthy ally that the very thought of having you on our side for just the span of your years is enough to make up for the loss to future generations."

"I suppose that makes sense," Ukyo interjected, seeing from Ranma's expression that he more or less agreed. "Let me guess, this is something that almost never happens."

"You are correct." Cologne shrugged. "But then, that was pretty much a given, wasn't it? Considering the secretive nature of our people and the severely limited contact we have had with the outside world."

"Is it really all that limited?" Ranma wanted to know. "Kaede had heard of you. And come to think of it, there was even a TV documentary I saw a piece of once."

"That just goes to show how things are changing," Cologne answered, "and frankly it's one of the hardest tasks I've juggled in my role as Matriarch. It's my belief that we need to allow more open contact with the outside world, but this must be done without endangering our culture or the strengths that have stood us through three thousand years."

"Is that part of why you came here yourself, when Shampoo came back the second time?" Ukyo asked. "Ranchan never did explain that very well when he was telling me about what happened before I got here. Why the leader of the whole tribe would drop everything, come here, and stay here this long. It's not like you've spent every minute of your time here scheming to get him for Shampoo. Surely you could've done a lot more than you did."

Cologne fixed Ukyo with a stare intense enough to rock her back in her chair. "Please refrain from mentioning that little inspiration around Shampoo, Miss Kuonji. She's hurt enough at facing the loss of the man she loves. Hearing that much of my time here has been spent on something completely unrelated to her pursuit of him… Well, let's just say now is definitely not the time for her to finally make that discovery."

"Our lips are sealed," Ukyo hastened to assure the Matriarch. "Right, Ranchan?"

"Right. Of course, if someone I could mention would quit draggin' her heels and actually tell us what we are supposed to do, it'd be a lot easier to avoid doing the stuff we aren't."

Cologne bopped him on the head, then turned back to face Ukyo. "I expect you to get him better trained than this over the course of your journeys, Miss Kuonji."

"Journeys? Excuse me, could you please be a little more specific about that?" Ukyo asked, as politely as she could while suppressing the urge to bop the old crone right back.

"Very well. I was trying to lead up to it gently, but never mind. Let's give three cheers for the impatience of youth and just spit it out." Cologne paused one second longer for emphasis, then said, "You must find Happosai and take back the remainder of the magical items he stole from us. You have one year and one day to accomplish this, starting now."

"C-couldn't you try something a little less harsh than that?!" Ukyo gasped, one hand suddenly clutching Ranma as if that support was the only thing keeping her upright. "How about just finding some artifacts to replace them?!"

The Matriarch snorted. "Oh, yes, that would do such a wonderful job of proving his worth, when Ranma headed over to the Cursed Antique Shop, bought a few trinkets, and came back here in less than an hour. That would really prove to my fellow Elders that he deserves the break I've given him. Please don't insult my intelligence, Miss Kuonji."

"But… Happosai, he…" Ukyo gulped. "We've had some serious problems with him," she confessed. "And I mean way-worse-than-the-Hiryu-Shoten-Ha problems."

"I am aware of that. Ranma told me Happosai was nearly responsible for your death."

Ukyo took a moment to glare at Ranma for forgetting to mention this to her, then turned back to resume the argument. Ranma forestalled her by reaching out and laying his hand over her arm. "Granny, do you realize what you're asking?" he said.

"I suppose I'll overlook the fact that 'asking' isn't the right word," Cologne retorted. "Yes, I'm quite well aware.

"I'm asking you to defy the Grandmaster of your School. To show that you count the friendship and alliance of the Amazons as more important than those ties. This is probably the least of your concerns, though, given your history with him.

"I'm asking you to leave these familiar grounds, to take everything that was settled and cast it to the winds. To go forth and face a greater challenge than you've ever done in Nerima: making your own way forward, choosing your fights rather than letting them come to you.

"I'm asking you to knowingly seek out and confront an enemy who is stronger, more skilled, more experienced, and more depraved than you are. To face him down and take from him what he stole from others, artifacts that he could use in ways that no decent person would want.

"I'm asking you to chase him down to earth, to pursue him, and to keep him away from Nerima. As you know, there are other Amazons on their way here, and unlike Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung's visits, they will be staying here for quite a long time. Given Happi's history with our people, he needs to be elsewhere." Cologne's eyes narrowed into a piercing glare. "If the Amazon tribe as a whole learns that Happosai can be found here, you will have the entire Council of Elders down on your town in a heartbeat. The young girls that he enraged then, that you yourself saw being humiliated, are the shriveled up grandmasters of today who would gladly call the debt due with interest accrued over three centuries.

"I'm asking you to make up for all the times you've used us in the past, to do something grand and selfless enough to atone for the hurt you've caused my Shampoo.

"I'm asking you to prove you deserve the special treatment you've demanded."

After waiting a few seconds to see whether the Matriarch was finally finished, Ranma grumbled, "I would've preferred a simple 'Yes'."

Cologne let out an appreciative cackle. "Oh, I will miss you, Son—… sonny-boy." Grin fading, she continued, "I will miss you if you go. You have heard the challenge, Ranma Saotome. Refuse it or fail it, and by the Law you remain as Shampoo's honor-bound husband. And if you continue as you have before, then things will end as badly as I warned you. Tell me now — do you accept the test I have set before you?"

Turning away from her, Ranma fixed his eyes squarely on Ukyo's. "Ucchan, this—"

"You'd better not be getting any bright ideas about accepting this for yourself and sneaking off without me," Ukyo warned. "I… I do wish it could've been something less risky than this. But if this is what we have to do to get you free, then I'm gonna be right beside you all the way."

"Heh. Not like I could sneak off anyway. Seein' as how one of us has a serious tracking advantage, and it ain't me." Ranma paused for another long moment, staring wordlessly into her face, trying to read the emotions there. It still wasn't something he was particularly good at. But the determination there was plain for even his eyes to see, along with other things, emotions that had been there for a very long time, and were no longer nearly as frightening as they once were.

"All right," he said, turning back to Cologne. He took a deep breath, then repeated himself. "All right. You got yourself a deal."

"Very well." From somewhere inside her robe, Cologne produced a thin lacquered box, of roughly the dimensions necessary to hold a large sheaf of papers. "This box contains all the aid I am prepared to give you." She opened it, producing — oddly enough — a large sheaf of papers. Peeling the first eight off the stack, she handed them over to Ranma. "These describe the remaining artifacts Happi stole."

"There's only two things listed here," Ranma said after flipping through the pages. Two of them bore detailed sketches, and the rest of the pages appeared to be lore concerning the items.


"Not that I'm complaining about only having to get two things back, but you did kinda make it sound like the freak had taken a lot more stuff than this."

"He did, or have you forgotten? He stole all the lingerie of an entire generation of Amazon maidens." Cologne frowned at the memory. Even though she personally didn't hate Happosai for the antics of his misspent youth, the recollection still rankled. "Frankly, as far as I've ever been able to tell, he just grabbed what artifacts he did like a magpie taking something shiny, with no clue as to their potential."

Ukyo glanced at the pages she'd slipped out of Ranma's hands. 'A lump of tiger's eye and a coral-and-amber necklace.' And from the stories Ranchan had told her, the other times the old lech had busted out with an Amazon artifact it had been a mirror and a bracelet. 'Magpie sounds about right. He should've dressed up like that instead of a flying squirrel.'

"Okay, thanks. What else is there?"

Cologne handed over most of the rest of the pages. Only a few remained in her hand as she said, "These papers record knowledge that isn't really an Amazon secret. It's something I learned in my youth, when I took my own journeys throughout the world. It is knowledge of chi, specifically its male and female principles." Cologne's voice tightened, drawing Ranma's attention completely away from the papers. With her eyes boring into his she warned, "And if you succeed in your quest, it is the last secret I will ever freely give to you."

"What kind of stuff is in here?" Ukyo asked after deciding the awkward moment had stretched long enough. "It's too thick just to describe a single technique."

"I already said it was more than that. What I have given the two of you are basic, underlying principles. Building blocks that you can use in a number of ways. Two of those ways are also described in detail there, a technique for each of you. For Ranma, the man, an attack similar in some ways to one he already knows. For you, the woman, a defense against those attacks and others as well. The Yang Bolt and the Yin Shroud.

"Understand this, the both of you." The intensity was back in Cologne's voice, though for a different reason this time. "I already said this wasn't an ancient Amazon secret. Such knowledge as this can be found in other corners of the world. I can assure you that Happosai knows these principles, because he draws his strength and longevity from a perversion of them. It's why he spends so much time in contact with female flesh. Miss Kuonji, you will need to master the Yin Shroud, in order to provide balance for Ranma as he learns his own lesson. But never, ever invoke it in battle with Happosai. He'll drain your power and boost himself to ridiculous levels of speed and strength.

"Conversely, Ranma, if you can blast Happi with a Yang Bolt, you will knock the fight right out of him." Cologne stared soberly into his eyes. "If you use too much energy, you could very likely kill him. Be aware of that."

Ranma smiled grimly. "Thanks for the info, Granny. And…" the grimness faded, replaced by wistfulness, "thanks for these last lessons."

"Please use them wisely, and well," the Matriarch replied quietly. Then, returning to a more normal level of vitality, she held out the last few papers. These, however, were presented to Ukyo. "Since I was quite sure you wouldn't want him to leave on this journey without you, I took the liberty of having these drawn up."

"For me?" Ukyo accepted the papers and flipped through them, her initial curious look soon replaced by shock and outrage. "This… this… this is ridiculous!"

"What?!" Ranma asked, craning his neck around to read the papers over Ukyo's shoulder. These last few sheets were no records of martial or arcane lore. He frowned in confusion at the sight of the incomprehensible legalese. "What's it say?"

"You gotta be kidding me!" Ukyo declared, paying him not the slightest heed. "My restaurant's worth at least thirty percent more than you're offering here!"

"Of course you could get a better price," Cologne said equably, "if you sought out just the right buyer, and drove negotiations along with your typical determination. If spending the months that would take seems like a better choice to you, by all means feel free to shred that document."

"This is low," Ukyo declared, glowering back at Cologne but making no move to proceed with the proposed shredding.

The ancient Amazon just returned a smile. "Would you rather I withdraw the offer? Or were you planning to leave with Ranma without selling your restaurant? If you can afford the property taxes on an empty building, and you don't need any extra money for your journey, then just tell me you're not interested in selling."

"Wait, she's offering to buy your place?" Ranma stared at Ukyo, then Cologne, back and forth and back again. The thought wasn't that strange, since Ukyo had used it as a bargaining chip on his behalf before. Not to mention she had that yattai. No, this deal wouldn't require Ucchan to give up okonomiyaki, so it didn't particularly bother him. However, the thought of his girlfriend getting shafted certainly did. "Are you tryin' to gouge her over the price, Granny?"

"No, I'm not. Ucchan's Okonomiyaki without Ukyo herself is nothing but a body with its heart cut out. The value of the place with her gone is merely its location plus whatever fond memories people have of eating there in the past. Frankly, all things considered, I think my price is more than fair."

" 'All things considered' my butt," Ukyo grumbled. "All things including the fact that you knew I was gonna have to leave town right away for who knows how long. And including the fact that you set that situation up yourself!"

"Don't be ridiculous, Miss Kuonji, and don't insult any of us. It's your choice to stand beside him in this trial. As for my own part, I believe I mentioned that there were only certain types of challenges that the Law allows me to give Ranma. All but one of them would require him to leave Nerima for months or more."

"And what is that one exception?" Ranma asked, more out of morbid curiosity than any thought that it was something he'd rather have done. No way would Cologne have brought it up if she thought there was any chance he might go for it.

"Quite simple, really. Defeat me in one-on-one combat."

"Heh. I think I'd rather go up against the freak armed with this, thanks." Ranma patted the stack of papers she'd last handed him, then turned to Ukyo. "Hey, Ucchan, come on. Don't let this get you down," he said, none too pleased at the dark thundercloud of a look still spread across her face. "You don't have to take that offer. We can try to get a better one. Heck, Kaori's dad owns a whole chain of restaurants. I bet he'd be interested in maybe expanding into Nerima."

"Maybe." Ukyo chewed her lower lip for several seconds, her gaze shifting from the papers in her grip to those resting on the tabletop beneath Ranma's hand. "Why exactly are you doing this anyway?" she asked Cologne. "What good does buying my restaurant do you?"

"It has to do with what I told you about establishing more contact with the outside world, and what I said yesterday about having more Amazons coming to Nerima," Cologne answered. "This restaurant alone is too small for all the newcomers." It would still be more than a month before they would arrive, as the decision had been made to wait until after the yearly Tournament before setting out. A fact which would give her time to find other arrangements if Ukyo proved unwilling to sell. "Yours would serve admirably as a second base of operations."

"…All right," Ukyo said after a long moment of silent contemplation. "I guess you've got yourself a deal."

"Hold on!" Ranma protested. "You shouldn't haveta give up your restaurant like that, Ucchan. Not without getting a price you're happy about, I mean!"

"But getting a price like that could take months. And then I wouldn't be happy anyway," Ukyo countered. "That would be a lot worse than this."

"We could still take a coupla days. See how interested Kaori's dad might be."

Ukyo shook her head firmly. "No." She deliberately reached out and flicked one finger against the papers lying forgotten under his hand. "I'll accept Cologne's offer of payment."

"I… okay," Ranma said quietly. After a long moment of silence, he turned back to face the Matriarch. "After Ucchan signs these, is there anything more we need to do tonight?"

"She won't be signing tonight. The transaction needs to be officially witnessed and other bureaucratic details taken care of as well. That's all a task for tomorrow."

"Then is there anything else Ucchan and I need to do here now?"

Cologne shook her head. "No, boy. I've nothing further to tell you, or ask of you."

"Then… thanks." Ranma stood up and bowed deeply. "Thanks for giving us this chance and this help. And all the other times you've helped me, even when I didn't tell you I was grateful. I'll make it up this time, Granny. I promise."

Ranma moved slowly through the streets of Nerima, very much aware that he wouldn't be doing so for much longer. The sun had just passed noon's zenith. Hopefully Ukyo had finished her business with Cologne by now; if not, surely it wouldn't be much longer. He'd done everything he'd wanted to do this morning, and was now ready to meet up with her.

As if in answer to his hopes, the door to what had been Ucchan's Okonomiyaki stood open to his approach, welcoming him one last time. Through the door he glimpsed Ukyo, moving slowly through the room as if lost in thought. He hurried inside and greeted her. "Hey, Ucchan. You got everything done?"

"Yeah. Ownership has been transferred to Cologne and I deposited her check. Packed up all my personal stuff, and put what we're not taking with us in storage. Cologne said she'd come by later on today and clean out the perishables." Ukyo looked away, her gaze tracking around the room that had seen so much of her time and effort. "All I really had left to do was say goodbye."

"I'll miss the place too," Ranma said quietly. "Even though I stayed here for such a short time. Ucchan…" he sighed. "I'm sorry to be costing you so much."

Ukyo formed the illusion of a battle spatula and bopped him over the head with it. Much less painful for him, just as therapeutic for her. "I'm not sure how much clearer I can say it, Ranma. You have to know by now that I'd go farther than this to be with you."

"I know. And I ain't saying you should feel any other way," he assured her. "Just that I wish it wasn't necessary. That you didn't have to give up so much for me."

"Oh. Okay." She smiled at him. "You're worth it, Ranma-honey. This way I can show you how much I mean that."

"Thanks," Ranma managed, knowing that the word was completely and utterly inadequate. Taking a deep breath and mustering his courage, he stepped over and gave her a quick hug and kiss.

They stood quietly for a few moments after the embrace ended, with varying degrees of blush staining their cheeks. Ukyo was the first to recover speech. "So, are we ready to go? Did you finish saying your goodbyes?"

He nodded, his smile fading. "Kaori and Kaede were both pretty easy. Kaori's moving back to her old neighborhood. She made me promise that if we're ever in Hokkaido we need to stop by and say hi."

"Sounds good to me. What about Kaede? She planning to stick around, head off to China, what?"

"She's pretty much decided to go with joining the tribe. For now she says she'll stay here, meet the new Amazons when they arrive, help them get settled. She'll probably wait on visiting the village until someone she knows can go with her." The serious look he'd been wearing since Ukyo had asked her first question darkened further, into sadness. "Which Shampoo can't do until I've settled things with her."

"Did you talk to her?" Ukyo asked, laying a sympathetic hand on his arm.

"Real briefly. I don't want to talk about it. Let's just say it was as painful as the last time I saw her, and let it go at that."

"That bad, huh. Listen, Ranchan, there was one non-business thing I talked about with Cologne. Told her a little more about what I could do, and offered to help Shampoo like I have other people, giving her peaceful pain-free nights at least. She thanked me and agreed that it would be a good thing. And said I didn't need to worry about the defenses in the Cat Café causing me any trouble."

"I'm glad. Thanks, Ucchan."

"It's the least I can do," Ukyo murmured, 'seeing as how I'm taking away everything she ever wanted.' Pushing on to better thoughts, she asked, "So what about everybody else?"

"Everybody else who?" Ranma asked, giving her a questioning look. "You didn't think I was going by the Tendos or nothing, did you?"

"It wouldn't hurt," Ukyo replied, playing devil's advocate. "After all, Akane and Nabiki are off at Furinkan just now. The only people there are Kasumi and Mr. Tendo, you could tell her a proper goodbye and rip him a new one for all the garbage he dumped on you."

"Nah. You know I'm not the vengeful sort, Ucchan. With the old freak being the exception that proves the rule," Ranma said darkly. "I may send Kasumi a letter or something, but for now I just want to get out without them causing any more trouble."

"Guess I can understand that. Aaaaand?" Ukyo prompted. "What about your father, Ranma?" She chewed her lower lip worriedly. "You weren't planning to leave without seeing him, were you?"

"Nope. But I figured you oughta be there for that, Ucchan."

The chef let out a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness."

Ranma gave her a strange look. "Would it really have bothered you if I didn't? I know you don't much like him."

"No, but that doesn't mean I didn't think you'd want to talk to him," Ukyo answered. "Then let that be our last piece of business here in Nerima. That hotel where he's staying is on the way to the train station anyway, so let's go ahead and get our packs, turn the lights out and lock the doors."

"Okay." He waited, though, taking his own long last look around the room as Ukyo disappeared up the stairs, recalling fond memories of friendship and free food. Then, reminding himself that the true source of all those memories would be right beside him on the upcoming journey, Ranma strode to his own backpack.

A few minutes later they stood again in the lane outside the building. Ukyo closed and locked the door for the last time. Ranma heaved a long, nostalgic sigh. Genma dropped to the street before them, giving both teens a nasty shock.

However unpleasant the surprise had been for them, though, the expression on the elder Saotome's face indicated he was feeling far less sanguine. Genma's eyes were wide, his face was pale, he was sweating profusely and gasping for air, and he trembled enough to give the front of his gi a certain resemblance to a bowl full of jelly. "Merciful kami, it was true!" he gasped, apparently addressing said spirits rather than either teenager. This impression was strengthened as he clapped his hands and bowed in a quick prayer of thanks. Then, straightening up, he took a quick step forward and stared desperately into his son's eyes. "Ranma, don't go! Not now, not like this! Don't cast your poor father to the wayside!!"

"What? Pop, get a hold of yourself," Ranma suggested. "You make it sound like I'm taking the first step of the rest of my life or something." Noting the fact that this only seemed to make Genma more anxious and unhappy, Ranma ran those words back through his mind. Giving himself a mental slap on the forehead, he amended, "I mean, you don't think I was gonna skip town for good without telling you, did you?"

"That's exactly what I'm afraid of!" Nor were those fears assuaged in the slightest yet. "Some gracious kami warned me, Ranma! Sent me a terrible dream last night, of you and Ukyo leaving, running away and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't catch up! By the time I saw you again ten years had passed, you had a houseful of children, and you barely even remembered your poor old father!"

Ranma shot Ukyo an ironic glance. She looked off into the distance, whistling innocently.

"And then I came by this morning and found you weren't here, and your things were packed up ready for the road. I've been waiting for you two to come out ever since then." Genma gulped, trying to find the right words. "Ranma, I'm sorry. You were right, I shouldn't have opposed you choosing her. Here and now I give you my blessing. Now, you wouldn't hold a few little mistakes against me, would you? You wouldn't really cast me out of your life, right?"

"Jeez, old man, get a grip. This ain't gonna be any ten-year trip," Ranma explained. "Cologne told me what I have to do to get free from Shampoo. I gotta track down the old freak and get back some stuff he stole from her tribe. Don't tell me you want to come along for something like that," he added, knowing just how well able his father was to stand up to Happosai.

"Yes, I do," Genma said instantly, with fervor enough that Ranma's jaw nearly hit the ground.

Recovering the power of speech, the pigtailed teen said, "Didn't you hear me, Pop? I said I'm gonna go fight Happosai! You don't seriously expect me to believe you want in on that?"

Genma hesitated, trying to decide how to answer. "I… I don't know, Ranma. I won't lie to you — I don't know if I could bring myself to face him like that." But all hesitation and uncertainty were gone from his voice as he spoke his next words. "But I certainly do want to come with you!" Seeing Ranma's continued dubious stare, he swallowed a little more pride, felt fear creep a little higher, and managed to say, "Son, you… you're all I have…"

"That… No, that's not true," Ranma replied. Seeing even worse pain twist across his father's features, he hastened to add, "You don't get what I'm saying! I got a real good reason for wanting you to stay here while I go off with Ucchan!" This time he gave himself a real slap to the forehead. "Okay, that didn't come out right. Pop… take a good deep breath, calm down, and listen to what I have to say. By the time I'm done, I guarantee you're gonna agree that it's best if you stay here."

Genma took the deep breath, and managed at least a better imitation of calmness. "All right. What do you mean?"

"First things first. I'm only gonna be gone for a year. That's how much time I have to do what the old ghoul asked," Ranma explained. "One way or another, I'll be back then. Maybe sooner, maybe a lot sooner if we can track the freak down fast enough."

"And do you really think you can defeat him?!" Genma burst out, the specter of abandonment displaced for the moment by fears of a different sort of loss. "Boy, you've fought the Master enough times to understand how powerful he really is. What makes you think you can succeed where a drum of dynamite and a boulder full of wards failed?"

"The ghoul gave me a technique that'll hit him in his weak spot," Ranma reassured his father. "Let's keep on subject here, old man. I was trying to tell you why you need to stay here instead of coming with us."

"Very well, I'm listening." 'Please don't just say you don't want me around anymore.'

"It's what I said earlier, about me not being all you have. There's your friendship with Mr. Tendo and his family. People who did plenty to tick me off, but who I still care about. Even Akane, uncute tomboy that she is. I got no interest in making them suffer for their mistakes." Ranma stared hard into his father's uncomprehending eyes. "C'mon, old man, put the pieces together. You know good and darn well Akane ain't really a martial artist. As far as mastery goes, her father's a one-trick pony, and that Demon Head won't solve all his problems.

"Leaving their place was one thing. I still could've jumped in and helped if some new nutcase decided to kidnap Akane. Or if some other crazy mess happened there. Being with Ucchan wouldn't've stopped me from doing a martial artist's duty to protect those who needed it. But I have to leave Nerima now, probably even Japan. And I sure won't be back in anything less than a month. You think the Tendos will be okay for that much time? How long is it gonna take for the next random weirdness that they can't handle by themselves to land on their heads?"

"Nothing like that ever happened in all the years before we arrived here, you know."

This simple, undeniable fact rendered Ranma literally speechless. "Do you think all the crazy things that've happened to them have been your fault?" Ukyo wondered, having at last found a good point to join the conversation.

"No, that ain't true," Ranma managed to say. "Ryugenzawa! Toma's island! The Phoenix Egg! Natsume an' Kurumi! There's plenty of stuff that would've or could've happened even without us staying there." As if finding strength in that undeniable fact, Ranma spoke more firmly now. "And all of it would've been a heck of a lot worse without me there to fight. Do you understand what I'm saying here, old man?" He fixed Genma with a challenging stare. "I have to leave. If you come with me, your old friend's family is easy prey for the next disaster. Whatever happens will be on both our heads. You for coming with me, me for letting you do it."

"It's… that's… I don't…" Clearly Genma was having trouble finding an answer.

"Pop. Please." Ranma spoke with some difficulty. "I don't love Akane, but I don't wanna think about some jerk grabbing her and forcing her to marry him either." With that out of the way, his words came more easily, and more firmly. "I am asking you to take responsibility here. Be the friend that Mr. Tendo needs, that his whole family need. Deal with the stuff you always foisted off on me. Do something that you and I can really, honestly respect."

Genma closed his eyes, no longer able to meet his son's unyielding stare. He took a couple of deep, heaving, ragged breaths. "Very well, Ranma. I'll do this for you, I'll take care of things here so you can do what you need. No prince will force himself on Akane or the other girls. No dojo destroyer will make off with Tendo's sign. No demonic forces will use the basement as a beachhead for their invasion."

"I wouldn't tempt fate by saying something like that last one out loud," Ukyo mused.

Judging from Genma's expression, he found himself in agreement. "Anyway, I guess you were right. There is good reason for me not to come with you. But… please, call once in a while, will you? Or write? Or both?"

"I will," Ranma promised. "And I'll be back before you know it."

"I hope so, boy. I hope so."

With nothing further to say at the moment, both Saotome males just stood there in awkward silence. Ukyo decided to end it. "Well, since this is goodbye for awhile, and since you already offered your blessing to Ranchan and me, there's something I personally would like from you."

"What's that?" Genma asked warily.

"Just something you've never yet given me," she answered. "An apology for the ten years of crap you dumped on me, all the time together you cheated me and Ranma out of."

Making an odd sound that neither teen was quite able to identify as a suppressed snort, Genma quickly dropped into the Crouch of the Wild Tiger. "I'm sorry, Ukyo Kuonji, sorry indeed. I'm very, very sorry I engaged you and Ranma and then ran off with your dowry."

Ukyo glared down at him, not missing the significance of the wording. 'Right,' she thought, 'it's nightmares again for you tonight, jackass.'

Genma got back to his feet, and returned his attention to his son. "In any case, go with my blessing, Ranma. Do what you need to. Do what your father never managed to do." He paused, staring at Ranma with an odd mixture of fear and hope. "Do you really think what the old woman gave you will be enough to let you take on the Master?"

"I sure hope so," Ranma said. "And it fits with stuff we've already seen. The old freak sure didn't handle it well when we exposed him to men's underwear. A chi attack infused with purified yang energy oughta be straight-up poison to him."

The older man blinked. "That does sound reasonable. I'll have to thank her for passing such secrets into the Anything Goes School."

"One other thing you should talk to her about. There's a buncha new Amazons coming out here before too much longer. You should see if Cologne would be willing to get them to bring some Nannichuan water with them."

Genma stared, shock writ plain across his face. "They are? They could! When are they coming?!"

Ranma shrugged. "I don't know. She said it would be a while before they get here, but she wasn't any more specific than that."

'Then hopefully they haven't left yet… there could still be time to do what he says, get the old woman to send a letter before they leave for Japan… but for all I know time could be running out right now…' Genma's eyes focused on his son again. "Thank you, boy. I'm proud of you, have a good trip, stay safe, never slack off in your training, and don't forget to write. Now, if you'll excuse me…" And with that he was gone in a cloud of dust, the thought of finally eliminating the last chance for Nodoka ever to learn about Jusenkyo giving wings to his feet.

"Well, that was anticlimactic," Ranma stated.

"Hey, at least he got his head out of his hindquarters long enough to say he was proud of you," Ukyo responded. "That's a better goodbye memory than I would've expected from him. You should be happy, sugar."

"Heh. Maybe you're right," he allowed. "Come on, Ucchan, let's move out."

"You got it." Ukyo reached over and looped her arm through his. After they'd taken a few steps, she spoke again. "You know, Ranchan…"


"We are taking the first steps of the rest of our lives."

He snorted. "Duly noted. Let's just make sure we're happy with where we end up."

"And that we're happy getting there," Ukyo said firmly. "The journey's as important as the destination, right?"

"Right," he agreed, looking at her with an open, heartfelt smile. "But for now, at least, I think that part will take care of itself."


Author's notes:

If there's one thing this story has taught me, it is this: when you've only got one chapter written of a planned multi-chapter story, never announce how many chapters it will take to complete. Other authors may be able to pull it off, but my ability to estimate length of story is far too unreliable. This tale was intended to end after three chapters, for crying out loud!

And yes, lest anyone wonder, Nocturne is complete. It was always planned to end with Ranma and Ukyo leaving Nerima on a quest to deal with the stubbornest and trickiest of his obligations. That truly is how I see Ranma's tie to Shampoo, for the various reasons that I have outlined throughout this fic. And for other reasons, many of which are also mentioned in this story, I believe Shampoo is the girl with whom Ranma would have his best chance at mutual happiness.

But that is not to say that he couldn't build a happy, fulfilling life with another fiancée instead. Nor should anyone think that I believe Ukyo would have to change as drastically as she did in this story in order to end up with him. But I do believe that the Nerima paradigm needs to change, and one good way to do that is to do it dramatically, the players breaking it before it breaks them. Ukyo's elemental empowerment was a tool to that end (along with allowing me to polish certain writing skills that before this I'd rarely used), as well as showing how much I believe she would sacrifice for her Ranchan.

This seems like a good time to mention that many of the ideas in this story, particularly characterization points, were influenced by or borrowed from the story Mamono Hunter Ukyou. Fans of Ukyo and the Ranma-Ukyo matchup should definitely give that story a try.

Speaking of characters and characterization, I had not originally budgeted for Happosai's presence in this story. He's a hard character for me to include in any large way in serious stories, due to two facts. One, he's powerful enough to unbalance things easily if he so chooses. Two, unlike Cologne he doesn't have much of an understandable agenda. What was he really thinking during the Hiryu Shoten Ha arc? Why would he use such a terrible technique on Ranma for crossing him this time when there are plenty of similar occasions where he does nothing of the sort? Heck, he didn't do anything remotely that nasty to Soun and Genma, and this is after they sealed him in a cave for a decade!

Still, I'm pretty satisfied with the way things worked out. As the time came to begin work on chapter five, I was feeling more and more certain that I didn't want to contribute another super-powered Ranma fic to the pile. And so we get to see a little bit of Happosai's history and a few clearer glimpses as to just why Soun and Genma are so afraid of him, and Ranma gets another reason to stand up and fight those who would make his choices for him.

So what now? Is this my cue to start up on the sequel? Afraid not. I do intend to write one, but not anytime in the near future. There are other ideas that have been waiting and waiting for their chance to be written. This story, at least, I wanted to end without everything being wrapped up all nice and neat, so the readers can imagine for themselves what might come next.

Thanks to Nemesis Zero, Zorknot, and Ed Simons for prereading. Thanks to everybody who's sent encouraging email for Nocturne. Hope you liked this last chapter, and I'll see you next story.

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