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A Ranma ½ fanfic
by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: the Ranmaverse characters owned by Rumiko Takahashi, and all that obligatory stuff.  This story based on the anime, not the manga. 

Chapter 5:  Sleight of Hand and Twist of Fate

Ryoga stumbled back into the clearing, and his last hopes were dashed.  His campfire was still burning merrily.  His tent was still intact.  His stash of food still hung unmolested from a high tree branch.  A casual observer would, at first glance, think everything appeared to be in order at the campsite.

A second glance, and some basic arithmetic, though, and the hypothetical observer would have realized there were two tents, and only one Hibiki present.

Ryoga seated himself moodily on a log, and tossed a few sticks onto the fire.  He cursed himself for seventeen kinds of an idiot.  How stupid could one person be?  His mother had said she’d go fetch some more water for the stew he was preparing, and he’d just grunted an agreement.  Not until a critical two minutes had passed had the significance of that statement dawned on him.  And now, a full hour of searching later, he was pretty certain he wouldn’t be seeing his mother again anytime soon.  She could be anywhere by now.

Kozue Hibiki looked around, noting the complete absence of forest with a familiar sinking feeling.  Noticing a swarthy man in a large hat watching her with mild astonishment, she walked up to him and asked, “Excuse me, could you direct me back to the forest?  Or even point me in the direction of Tokyo?”

The man made a gesture of helpless apology.  “Lo siento, señora.  No comprendo.”

Ryoga sat and stared into the campfire for quite a while.  “Should I have told her?” he eventually whispered.  “How can I, though?  I don’t really understand it myself.  And how do you tell your mother that she’s half-demon?”  The flames gave him no answer, not that he’d expected one.  “I had to wait more than two months at home before she showed up.  All that time I tried to plan how I’d tell her and Dad.”  He laughed bitterly.  “And I didn’t get a single good idea.  It just seemed a lot easier to let that Amazon elder explain it.”

The former lost boy sighed, and consoled himself with the knowledge that he’d told his mother that the person they were going to see was to be found in Nerima, at the Nekohanten.  Sooner or later, then, she’d show up there.  Probably she’d walk through the door and ask Shampoo for directions to Tokyo, he thought wryly.  It was the sort of thing he’d done for so many years, after all.

It would be interesting to see who got to Nerima first, his mother or his father.  Ryoga had actually expected to wait much longer at his home before either of them would show up.  His mother’s quick (for a Hibiki) arrival had been a pleasant surprise.  Ryoga’s happiness at seeing her again had only made it that much harder to face the thought of telling her what he’d learned of his family’s heritage.

So, in the end, he’d taken the easier path of telling her that he’d learned how not to get lost anymore, and that the person who might be able to help her do the same was waiting in Nerima.  They’d left roughly seventy notes containing this information scattered throughout the Hibiki house, where his father would be sure to find them once he made his way home, and Ryoga and his mother set out for the Nekohanten.

And they’d made it almost to Nerima before his mother wandered off.  Just one more day’s travel would have put them in the city.  It had taken unceasing vigilance on his part to get them this far, and Ryoga once again cursed his idiocy in focusing too much of his attention on preparing dinner.  As if triggered by the thought, his stomach gave an insistent growl.  Ryoga sighed, but wallowing in one’s own self-pity was easier without distractions.  He got up, and looked sourly at the charred mess that was all that remained of what would have been a tasty stew, if he hadn’t left the pot over the fire for well over an hour.  Ryoga snorted and wondered aloud if anyone anywhere had ever prepared a worse meal.

Passing by outside Akane’s room, Kasumi heard the distinct sound of a sneeze.  ‘Oh my, I hope little sister isn’t coming down with a cold.’

Not really being in the mood to spend much more effort cooking, Ryoga settled for rice and some dried beef jerky.  Then it was time for what had become his standard evening routine.  This consisted of a grueling four hours’ worth of kata, as Ryoga was still a little disgusted with himself at the way he’d let his skills degenerate after his last, terrible fight with Ranma.  During those months, he’d tried to practice only once or twice, each time quickly breaking it off as visions of a wounded Kodachi had risen up to torment him.

The former lost boy knew it was quite possible he would have given up on martial arts entirely if it hadn’t been for that incident two weeks before his mother had returned.  He’d been taking a shortcut back from the market, only to find a group of bullies ganging up on one boy.  He got there just as they separated the kid from his weapon and tossed it onto a nearby fire escape.   Ryoga had taken out two of the five from behind, before they knew he was there.  He’d told their former target to stay back and let him handle the other three, but this proved to be a mistake.  Ryoga’s strength and endurance were a far cry from what they had once been, and his fighting style pretty much depended on those qualities.  It hurt to admit that he’d been getting beaten up by some punk kids who had to be a year or two younger than him.

But their former target had slipped past them while they were busy with him, and retrieved his weapon from where the others had thrown it.  Ryoga still wondered a little about that.  He supposed he had no room to talk, having used a battle umbrella as his main weapon, but that kid’s choice was just too weird.  The former lost boy knew he’d never look at a spatula in quite the same way again.

The incident had been a definite blow to his pride, what with needing to be saved by the thirteen-year-old boy he’d been trying to rescue, but it had also given him a much-needed wake-up call.  He could practice martial arts again, without seeing Kodachi’s blood on his hands now.  Just so long as he didn’t forget his honor.

By the time Ryoga had finished the last kata, it was time for bed.  He piled enough wood on the fire to make sure it would last throughout the night, and retired to his tent.

His sleep was sound at first.  But sometime after midnight, a light breeze began to blow.  The normal night sounds of forest life fell silent.  The leaves in the nearby trees hissed as the wind slipped through them, sounding like whispers out of a tomb.  Anyone present would have been hard-pressed to describe just what was causing it, but there was a definite feeling of wrongness in the air.

In his tent, Ryoga began tossing and turning, muttering words at first too soft to be understood.  Then…

“No… no… NO!!!”

Gasping and panting, Ryoga sat bolt upright from his sleeping bag.  His heart was pounding far harder than it had during the most strenuous of the evening’s kata.  But already the dream was fading; already he could only remember a few random glimpses of it… of where his dream self had returned.


And for the life of him, he couldn’t understand the feeling of dark elation that had surged through his dream.

Ranma and Kodachi walked along, enjoying the hustle and bustle of the fair.  Kodachi had nearly finished the pastry she was eating, not letting the gruesome name detract from her enjoyment.  It was beyond her why anyone would WANT to imagine they were eating an elephant’s ear.  Ranma was only halfway done with his funnel cake, but it should be mentioned that he’d already consumed a sausage sandwich, a roast chicken on a stick, and three green tea ice cream floats.  How in the world could he eat so much and not gain weight in either body, the White Rose wondered.  Perhaps the nourishment was split between his forms. Then she grinned mischievously and decided the next time Ranma downed that much food in female mode, she might have to make a remark about ‘eating for two.’

By the time both had finished their desserts, their walk had taken them from the food vendors to the game booths.  Ranma shaded his eyes from the afternoon sun with his free hand, and looked around at the various array of prizes available at the different games.  “See anything you like, Dachi?” he asked.

Although Kodachi didn’t care all that much about stuffed animals per se, the idea of Ranma winning one as a gift to her was quite heartwarming.  And if she knew her boyfriend, the tougher the challenge was, the more he’d enjoy it when he handed her the prize.  Looking around, she quickly crossed off from consideration those games which were more random than skilled in nature, or easily rigged.

This actually left a surprisingly small number of booths from which to choose.  But she saw one that should fit the bill- a game which required the player to toss rings so that they landed around bottlenecks.  The booth offered a number of different sizes of plush animals; presumably the more rings one landed on a given try, the larger the prize.  And there was one animal which was much larger than the rest.  In fact, it was just about the biggest prize she could see at ANY booth.  “That one,” Kodachi said, pointing at the huge tiger.  She was looking at the prize rather than Ranma’s face, so she missed seeing the way his smile crumbled a little at the edges.

The pig-tailed martial artist took a deep breath, looked away from the plush doll, and stepped up to the counter.  “What do I have to do to win that one?” he asked, gesturing toward it without looking.

“Good to see someone so confident in his abilities,” the barker replied cheerfully.  “The way it works, son, is you get ten rings for five hundred yen.  Get four of them on different bottles, or two on the same one, and you get yer choice of one of the smallest prizes.  Get seven on different bottles, or four on the same one, and you win a bigger one.  Get all ten on bottles, or seven on the same one, and you get one of the next-to-biggest ones.  But if you want the big boy there, you’re gonna have to land all ten rings on the same bottleneck.”  He gave Ranma a wink.  “Gonna try yer luck winning something for the lovely lady?”

Ranma, still not looking at the prize he was ostensibly hoping to win, slapped down five hundred yen coins and gave his cockiest grin.  “Hey, I’m Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes school of martial arts, and this ain’t gonna be about luck.”  He accepted his ten rings, and almost casually sent them winging out to all land on the same bottle.  The barker’s jaw dropped, but he rallied and handed Ranma his prize with a sickly smile.  As Ranma and Kodachi walked away, Ranma being careful to think of what he was holding as nothing more than a collection of stuffing and plush, they heard him mutter, “I shoulda listened to Jin when he warned me about Nerima.”

A few minutes later, Kodachi was mentally kicking herself.  It very quickly became apparent that there wasn’t much else they could do at the fair while one of them was stuck carrying something as big as her T-chan.  The only logical recourse, therefore, was to return home, and come back to the fair the next day.  Not that she minded getting two dates for the price of one.  The pair set out toward home.

Midway back, they encountered Shampoo, who was on her way to the market.  “Aiyah, that one big doll,” the Amazon remarked.  “Is present you give to your Airen, Kodachi?”

This amused both her friends, Kodachi somewhat more than Ranma.  “Uh, no, you got it backwards,” he answered.  “I won it for her at the fair.”

“Then why she not carry?”

As recently as two months prior to this time, Ranma would have made some remark about how that was a guy’s responsibility.  Kodachi had been gently leading him away from those old patterns, though, and was having some success in countering Genma’s influence.  It helped that Ranma still didn’t interact with his father on a frequent basis.

Of course, he still FELT like it was his responsibility as a guy to carry the heavy loads, and stuff like that.  He just knew better than to say it in an insulting way.  Sometimes.  “Well, the point was it was a gift.  I mean, I was doing something nice for her by winning it, an’ it’s a nice thing to do to carry it for her, so there you go.”

“Shampoo glad.  For minute there I almost think it Japanese male sexist thinking.  Like she too weak to do for own self or something.”  She gave a smirk at the way Ranma seemed to suddenly find great interest in a patch of open sky somewhere off to his left, then bid them good-bye.

“Guess you’re right about her getting’ back her old spirit,” Ranma said as they walked away.  Kodachi had seen more of the Amazon than he had in the two weeks since the showdown between Tatewaki and Cologne.

Kodachi looked pensively back in the direction her friend had gone.  “Yes, but she still has a way to go.  That was a good face she put up just now, Ranma-kun, but she certainly didn’t remain with us long.  Have you noticed how she seems to stay away when we’re together?”  The White Rose sighed.  “I can understand why she wouldn’t want to be around couples just now, but I hope she gets over that soon.”

Akane sat in the dojo, and tried to find the calm center she needed for her kata.  It was a difficult one, which Mr Saotome had only just showed her two days before, and so far she had yet to make it all the way through flawlessly.  She’d tried a few times tonight, but her performances had been worse than the attempt she’d made after first being shown the form.

She tried to decide what was disrupting her concentration so badly tonight.  With a feeling of surprise, she decided at least part of it was the quiet.  The stillness and calmness of the dojo seemed to be preventing those sensations from taking root in her.

Then Akane sighed.  Maybe it wasn’t what was in the dojo after all.  Maybe it was what she’d seen at the fair in the local park that afternoon.  Ranma and Kodachi, walking along hand-in-hand.  Ranma not doing or saying anything to make his date angry, and in fact winning that huge prize for her so effortlessly.  Akane thought back to the smile she’d seen on Kodachi’s face, and felt a familiar twist of bitterness in her stomach.  “That could have been me,” she whispered.

The old, familiar debate threatened to start up again in her mind.  One voice would argue that Ranma was a jerk and a pervert, that he’d chosen Kodachi because she was rich and would let him get away with anything.  That voice had been the stronger at first, but by now the other one, the one that whispered he’d picked the White Rose because she believed in him and trusted him, was nearly as insistent most of the time.

However, Akane was in no mood for internal arguments tonight.  Besides, what good did it do?  ‘Things happen, good and bad, and it’s not like I can go back and change the past.  I should just get on with my life.’  Really, everything was for the best anyway.  After all, whenever anyone came in contact with Ranma, their life ended up getting turned upside down, right?  Nabiki got given a case of amnesia, and almost had her boyfriend stolen by a gaijin.  Kasumi… poor Kasumi nearly had her whole life ruined by one miserable trip to the beach with Ranma.  Akane fingered her own short hair.  She still didn’t really like the style.  One more upheaval that was ultimately Ranma’s fault.  Yes, she was better off without him in her life.  She could use the peace and quiet.

As if in response to the thought, the far wall of the dojo exploded.  Curiously, the debris halted in midair before it could reach the stunned Akane, then dropped to the ground.  A dark figure, wrapped in a crackling shroud of energy, stepped through the hole.  He smiled.  “Hello, Akane.”  Had Akane not been scared out of her mind, she would have heard real affection in the greeting.  But the more obvious hunger in his eyes had temporarily frozen her mind.  “It’s good to see you again.”

One thought cycled through Nabiki’s mind like a mantra.  She had to get to the Kuno mansion and get Tachi’s father’s help.

The first part was accomplished fairly easily.  She might not be a martial artist, but she kept herself in good shape.  Running the distance to her boyfriend’s home wasn’t any trouble at all, especially considering the sheer quantities of adrenaline flooding her system at the moment.  She ran over several people without even noticing.

Unfortunately, upon arriving she was informed that Godai and Hitome had left on a weeklong trip.  This revelation left her with the distinct sensation of running at full speed into a brick wall.

“Gone?” Nabiki asked blankly.  “Gone?… WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE’S GONE?!”

The familiar voice, coupled with the unfamiliar note of panic and hysteria, brought Tatewaki onto the scene at a dead run.  Close behind were Ranma and Kodachi.  Nabiki saw him, quit shaking the terrified servant, and pulled herself together with a tremendous effort of will.  She drew a shuddering breath.  “Tachi, some… thing has kidnapped my sister.  Magic was clearly involved.  I need to know if you can help.”

“What?”  Kuno fought off a sense of disorientation.  “Please, tell me what happened.”

“There’s no time for that kinda stuff!  We’ve gotta go rescue her!”  Ranma turned to Nabiki.  “Which way did whatever it was take her?!”

“I don’t know!”  Nabiki grimaced, and blinked back some tears.  “I heard a crash, and a scream.  I got to the dojo just in time to see them vanishing.  It was like… there was some kind of hole in the air.  It closed up behind them.”

“Um… what was Kasumi doing in the dojo?” Ranma asked.

“Not Kasumi, you numbskull, Akane!”  Nabiki turned back to her boyfriend.  “I couldn’t get a good look at whatever took her, just some big figure glowing black.  I don’t know where to look or what to do…”  The sensation of helplessness threatened to overwhelm her.  “Do you know of anything of your father’s that might help?”

Meanwhile, Ranma was looking bewilderedly at Kodachi.  “I thought in all those stories it was the pure, sweet, innocent princess-type that gets taken by evil monsters,” he whispered to her.

The White Rose frowned.  “You’re quite right,” she whispered back.  After all, she’d read dozens and dozens of such stories over the years.  “I suppose it must just be a particularly inept villain.  Or perhaps one with a heavy streak of masochism.”  She returned her attention to the main conversation.  Kodachi was even more familiar than Tatewaki with her father’s collection of magical artifacts.  If there was anything there that could help in the present situation, she was unaware of it.  A glance at her brother’s face told her that he was faring no better.

“No, ’Biki-chan… I don’t know what to do.”  Tatewaki spread his arms in a gesture of helplessness.

“We’re going to have to go to the Nekohanten and beg a favor from the Matriarch.”  Kodachi spoke with all the determination she could muster, intending to override any reluctance from Nabiki or her brother.  “Remember the way she uncovered what had happened to Ryoga.  It’s obvious she has some mystic lore… at least there’s a chance she might know what to do now.  Ranma and I will go and ask for her help.”

“And leave us here to wait for you to get back?  Screw that!”  Nabiki turned to Kuno.  “We’re coming too, right Tachi?”

“Of course.”  Pausing only to grab a bokken, Tatewaki made for the door.  “Come, there’s no time to waste.”

Ryoga groaned, again, but it seemed as if the world was just about stabilized.  His head still hurt, although the imprint on his face from the bricks had mostly faded.  He grimaced disgustedly.  Ryoga knew he’d lost a lot of strength and endurance, but to be run over by a non-martial-artist girl like Nabiki was just about more than he could stand.  Maybe he should up his training routine to six hours.

The former lost boy continued on his way to the Nekohanten.  Walking several city blocks without losing his way was still enough to bring his spirits up a bit.  He intended to leave word with Cologne about his mother’s and father’s eventual arrival, just in case by some miraculous chance one should show up this evening, then go on to the Kuno mansion.  Ryoga was sincerely grateful to the Kuno parents for giving him that standing invitation.

He was almost to the restaurant when the main group caught up with him.  Seeing the look of constrained sick anxiety on Nabiki’s face, Ryoga quickly forgot his grudge at the accidental trampling.  “What’s wrong?” he asked. 

“Some manner of dark creature has kidnapped Akane,” replied Kuno.  “They disappeared by magic.  We go to ask the Matriarch for her help in locating them.”

Ryoga paled.  Even though Akane had made her feelings toward him abundantly clear, he still cared for her.  Not another word was spoken until the group had reached the Nekohanten.

“Gone?” Nabiki asked blankly.  “Gone?… WHAT DO YOU MEAN SHE’S GONE?!”

Shampoo backed nervously away from the girl before her.  “Great-Grandmother go on trip, look for special herbs what only grow in Japan.  She come back next week.”

Nabiki would have liked to grab the Amazon and shake her, but possessed enough of a survival instinct to refrain.  She slumped in despair.  “My little sister’s been kidnapped by a demon or something, and the only people who could help are on [expletive deleted] vacations!”

Shampoo’s eyes grew wide at this.  “What you say?  Kidnapped by demon?”  Kodachi related the full story.  The Amazon gulped, seeming to struggle with a decision.  Then she said,  “Shampoo no can promise, but maybe can help.”  Turning, the Amazon led the way to the room she shared with Cologne.  In one corner stood a large trunk.  Shampoo indicated this, and said, “Is where Great-Grandmother keep treasures and magic items.  Is one she get back from demon master Happosai, jewel that let you see far away.  Shampoo willing try to use it to find girl.”

About a minute later, Nabiki broke the silence.  “Well?!  Aren’t you going to open it?!”

“No rush Shampoo!” the Amazon snapped back.  “Stuff in chest is priceless.  Is maybe trap to protect.  Shampoo trying remember if Great-Grandmother do anything special when she open.”  Unfortunately, she’d never really paid attention.

Ranma bit his lip, looking uncharacteristically nervous… then dashed forward, grabbed the stunned Amazon, tossed her back behind everyone else, opened the chest, and jumped back at full speed.

“<What the hell was that for?!>” an irate and quite shaken-up Shampoo demanded of him, slipping into her native tongue due to the emotional shock.

Ranma let out a deep sigh of relief.  “Looks like it wasn’t trapped, after all.”

Deep in the mountains, Cologne looked up from gathering herbs.  Someone had just opened the chest which held her most valuable items.  With a start, she realized that the nagging feeling of having forgotten something she’d been experiencing for the last two days was due to the fact that she hadn’t reset the trap on it.  The Matriarch bit off an oath, hoping it was just idle curiosity on Shampoo’s part and not the act of a thief.  She quickly settled into a lotus position and cast her mind back toward Nerima, using the blood relationship between herself and Shampoo as a guide.

Back in Nerima, the frost in both Shampoo’s and Kodachi’s gazes registered on Ranma.  “What?” he asked.

“Why Ranma do that?” Shampoo asked in a tone like velvet sliding over a knife blade.  If it was more of his male sexist thinking, she swore she’d teach him to respect women of the Amazon tribe!

“Simple.  You’re the only one who can use this jewel, so we can’t afford to have you hurt tryin’ to open the chest.  I figured with my speed, I might be able to avoid the trap if there was one.  That made me the best choice to open it.”  Shampoo’s expression softened quite a bit at this, but Kodachi’s only warmed up slightly.

“Well, Ranma-kun, I give you excellent marks for the first conclusion, and abysmal ones for the second.”  Kodachi stepped forward so that less than six inches separated her nose from his.  “Of a certainty we could not afford to have Shampoo incapacitated, but don’t you think perhaps it would have been better to have the chest opened by someone who would recover instantly from whatever trap might have been present?”

“Ah… heh heh…” To say Ranma now looked sheepish would have been like saying Soun tended to be emotional.  I.e., a BIG understatement.  “I kinda… forgot.”

“You forgot?  You FORGOT?!”  The frost of the White Rose’s annoyance suddenly melted into wide-eyed wonder.  “You… forgot.”

As Ranma, considering the hearts-and-flowers gaze his girlfriend was turning his way, was deciding once again he’d never understand girls, and Kodachi was reflecting that she could pretty much be certain now that even on a subconscious level he wasn’t freaked out by her ability, Shampoo walked up to the chest and began searching through it.  The others noted with varying degrees of unease that the pile of discarded items growing beside the chest contained several items much too large to fit within its apparent confines.  “<Stupid chaotic extradimensional expansion effect,>” Shampoo muttered.  The chest had only been shaken a little from Ranma’s hyper-fast lifting of the lid, but all the small items, like the jewel she was looking for, had inevitably settled to the bottom.

Eventually, though, she found was she was looking for… a three-inch oval of tiger’s eye, with a line of tiny runes scribed along the lesser equator.  The Amazon settled down and concentrated, bringing to mind the image of the shorthaired girl who’d been so hostile to her during the Martial Arts Take-Out race.

Back in the mountains, Cologne’s eyes snapped open as her connection to Shampoo was suddenly broken.  She’d not be able to observe her great-granddaughter again until she had finished working the magic.  But what worried the Matriarch was that she hadn’t ever instructed Shampoo in the use of the gem, besides simply telling her what it did.

Cologne could think of two potential reasons for her great-granddaughter’s action.  One, that Shampoo had studied her scrolls of magic on the sly, and had learned how to use this device.  If this were the case, the Matriarch would be annoyed, but also a little proud of her great-granddaughter for accomplishing something so difficult while managing to keep it a secret.

The other, much less desirable possibility, was that Shampoo didn’t know what she was doing.  Cologne knew her great-granddaughter had been changing, becoming less impulsive, but she still feared that this was the more likely of the two explanations.  Shampoo might be acting on a whim, or she might have a genuine need to locate someone, but without the proper training use of the gem could be disastrous.  Shampoo could wind up depleting her life-force dangerously, in a worst-case scenario even fatally, low.  Cologne re-entered the meditative trance, waiting for the moment when she could locate Shampoo again, hoping her great-granddaughter had at least some idea of how to use the artifact.

Shampoo struggled with all her might to bring the magic of the Eye of Bastet to bear.  Her eyes were closed, but instead of darkness or mental imagery she perceived a roiling cloud of amber mist, shot through with the occasional flash of energy.   Not knowing what else to do, she sought to move beyond it and find Akane through sheer force of will.

A tiny piece of her mind asked why she was doing this.  Shampoo considered the question, sensed what the answer was, and told the nagging voice to shut up, this was no time for distractions.  She strove against the amber cloud, noting that the energy bolts were becoming more frequent and getting closer to her apparent position.  She concentrated, ignoring the sensation of some sort of tiredness that she’d never experienced before.  The cloud convulsed.  The next volley of energy crashed in on her…

…Then the glare left her vision and she saw.

As  Nabiki was leaving Ryoga in her dust…

The rip in the air closed behind them.  He set her down gently, more amused than anything else by the fear in her expression.  That would be gone soon enough…

Akane began to back away, not registering the replacement of the dojo by an outdoor setting, not really even capable of rational thought as she tried to cope with the sight of her abductor.  She stopped as she felt her back flatten against the face of a cliff, and whimpered a little.

“Come on, Akane,” he said, and Akane flinched again at the sight of the oversized fangs, “where’s the girl I fell in love with?  The girl who had so much fire in her heart?”  He reached and touched her cheek with a gentle, if clawed, finger… then slowly began trailing his hand south.  Down her neck, and showing no signs of stopping…  Akane temporarily overcame her fear.

“Pervert!”  She slapped him with all her considerable strength.  He just grinned at this, a hungrier smile than ever.  Akane felt her brief flare of anger sizzle out, leaving fear once again the dominant emotion in her mind.

“That’s more like it,” he said.  “You don’t know how special you are, Akane.  So gentle when you want to be, but with rage enough to match an Oni.  And I should know.”

“Please.”  With a massive effort, Akane recovered some measure of self-control.  “Please don’t do this.”

“Don’t do what?”  He leaned in closer, his eyes burning.  “What don’t you want me to do?” he asked, his voice a throaty whisper.

“Whatever it is you dragged me here for!”  Something about the situation was nagging at her.  Maybe it was the way he didn’t seem angry or bitter.  Probably just hiding it, Akane thought.  She gulped, and continued.  “I’m sorry for how I hurt you.  But you hurt me first! I- ” she stopped in confusion as his laughter cut her off.  For the life of her she couldn’t understand what was so funny about what she’d just said.

“Akane, don’t apologize,” he said once he could talk again.  “If you hadn’t done what you did, I never would have been freed.  You had every right to hate what I once was… a weak, pitiful little boy who couldn’t even tell you how much he loved you, who deceived you just to be near you.  But I’m not that weakling anymore.”

“No… you’re a monster!”  Akane nearly passed out as her tendency to act or speak without thinking got the better of her.  She crossed her hands over her mouth and turned as white as a snowdrift.  However, he didn’t seem to mind.  After nearly a minute, in which he did nothing threatening, Akane swallowed, and asked, “Ryoga… what’s happened to you?!”

It was an apt question.  He was still recognizable as the boy who’d fought Ranma, who’d given her an unwanted haircut, who’d trained her in Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics, but there were also vast differences.  This Ryoga stood at least six inches taller, and was even more muscular. He had claws on his fingers, and his fangs were much more pronounced than before.  His eyes were emerald green and seemed to catch the light at odd moments… or perhaps to glow with their own inner fire.  His skin had a definite tinge of gold to it.  The dark battle aura that had prevented Nabiki from recognizing him was still present, though much less pronounced at the moment.  He still wore a black-and-yellow bandana, but the stripes had been replaced by runes at which Akane couldn’t seem to bring herself to look directly.  All in all, he looked like something out of the kind of movie the youngest Tendo usually avoided like the plague.

“Like I said… freedom.”  He gestured to a nearby boulder.  Hesitantly, Akane sat down on it, then eep’d as Ryoga seated himself in midair.  “The pathetic version of me you knew is dead, Akane.  Ryoga Hibiki was born with two souls, one human, one Oni.  Thanks to some traumatic events, we eventually separated.  Without you it never would have happened, and that’s why I said not to apologize.”  Ryoga-Oni looked away and smiled a different smile for a moment, a much more evil grin than any he’d used on her.  “Wouldn’t have happened without Ranma, either.  I may even let him live, after I beat the living daylights out of him.  Depends on how good he is at begging.” 

He looked back to Akane, and his expression grew less dark.  “He forced my soul out of my body.  I was left a spirit without refuge, wandering unseen.  I looked a long time, searching out places with secret knowledge, trying to discover how to gain a body again.  You want to hear the biggest irony of all?  When I finally found a way, it was through the place that had once been my greatest sorrow.  Jusenkyo.  Spring of drowned Oni.  I merged with the waters, and was given flesh again.”  The massive stone shelf that covered the spring had proven no barrier to his spirit form, and had shattered with a single blow afterward.

As Akane tried to take this in, Ryoga-Oni got up and walked over to the cliff.  He reached into a hole and removed a glass flask filled with water.  Akane suddenly had a VERY bad feeling about this.  “W-what’s that?” she asked, hoping against hope that her intuition was wrong.

“My gift to you,” he replied.  “Water from the spring that gave my life back to me.  Do you think you’ve really lived up to now?  You don’t even know the beginning of what you can have, what heights you’ll reach.  For a human, you’re strong and skilled.  But can you even dream of doing this?”  He reached down with his free hand, picked up a rock, and crushed it to dust.  “Or this?”  He levitated three feet into the air.  “As an Oni, you’ll realize your old life was a joke.  Just like I did.”

“No.  NO!  Stay away from me!!”  Akane tried to jump to her feet and take off running.  Unfortunately her legs wouldn’t obey her.  “Please!  I don’t want this!!”

He smiled.  “Don’t you?”  Ryoga-Oni landed and walked up to her, kneeling down to look her in the eye.  “Don’t you?” he whispered, looking through her eyes into her soul.  “Don’t you want to show Ranma just how great a fool he was to throw you away?  You can make him feel a hundred times over all the pain he caused you.  You can steal his heart and let him live the rest of his life knowing he’ll never touch yours.”  Ryoga-Oni was a little surprised to note that that didn’t appeal to her nearly as much as he’d expected.  He tried another angle.

“Remember how skilled Ranma is?  You’ll be able to go as far beyond him as he is beyond Kasumi.  Don’t you want to show Kodachi what you’re really capable of?  You can challenge her to a match and defeat her in front of all Nerima. You can make her grovel like a dog at your feet.”  Ah, that was more like it.  That struck a deep chord in her.  He could feel a part of her begin to want what he was offering.

Akane could feel the same thing, and bitter shame rose up to war with the sudden rush of desire.  “No,” she whispered, then drew a shuddering breath and said more firmly, “No.  I will not do that.”

Ryoga-Oni shrugged.  “Your choice, of course, but I think you may change your mind after you change.”

“NO!  Please, Ryoga…” Akane didn’t try to stop the tears now.  Ordinarily, she would have hated the thought of crying to get what she wanted.  But this was no ordinary situation.  “Please don’t do this.  You said you loved me!  Don’t…” she found her voice would no longer obey her.

“Never doubt it.  But remember, I’ve been human.  Close enough, anyway.  I understand how scared you are.  Even with the fire that burns in you, there’s still that stain of human weakness and fear that all the anger in the world can’t ever really burn away.”  Ryoga-Oni grinned.  “So we’ll wash it away instead.  You’ll thank me later.”

Akane couldn’t move, could only blink the tears out of her eyes.  Ryoga-Oni gestured, and she floated into the air.  He held the flask of cursed water up.  It began to glow, brighter and brighter.  “I’m not going to stick you with a Jusenkyo curse, Akane.  I’m focusing my own magic through this.  The spell will take a while to work, but when you wake up, you’ll be completely Oni.”  The spell was now fully formed, the flask glowing as brightly as a lantern.  But he wasn’t quite ready to release it.  Stepping forward, Ryoga-Oni looked Akane in the eyes… then kissed her.  “Sleep well, and dream of your new birthright,” he whispered.  Akane’s eyes closed as the sleep enchantment took effect.

Ryoga-Oni stepped back, and took a long last look at the old Akane.  He wanted to remember this moment forever.  Then he released his hold on the spell of transformation.  The flask shattered, the water inside flashing to magical plasma which streamed forth to surround Akane in a sparkling red cloud of energy.

Immediately a bright blue glow emanated forth from her, trying to push back the red.  Ryoga noted the sheer power of her battle aura, manifested now by her unconscious will to resist, and was impressed yet again by her strength.  He’d known the spell would have to work its way through her natural resistance, but hadn’t really thought it would take more than eight hours or so.  Instead, it looked as if she’d be able to hold out for almost two days.  Ryoga-Oni didn’t want to wait that long, and considered focusing his will to directly break her resistance.  For a moment, Akane’s fate hung in terrible balance.  But then he decided that breaking her will wouldn’t be a good way to start their future life together, and resigned himself to patience.

For just a moment, he had the oddest sensation of being watched.  Then it passed.

Back in the Nekohanten, Shampoo opened her eyes and stood up.  Then she sat down again abruptly, as a wave of dizziness threatened to push her into unconsciousness.  “Shampoo find her,” she said woozily.  “In mountains not too far away.  We…” her voice trailed off as the blackness rose up and swallowed her.

Cologne breathed a curse as she witnessed her great-granddaughter’s collapse.  She quickly shifted her spirit back into her body.  Judging from the little Shampoo had said before falling unconscious, her youngest relative had been searching for her.  There must be some emergency back in Nerima which required the Matriarch’s personal attention.

If nothing else, she would need to make sure her great-granddaughter did nothing to drain her life force farther.  Her chi energies were already at a very low ebb.  Not even bothering to gather the drying bundles of herbs spread out on the rock before her, Cologne began heading back for Nerima as quickly as she could.  She kept her senses wide open… she’d take a direct route back, and anyone coming out in search of her would be sure to come close enough for her to detect them.

Of course, the Matriarch had no idea that Akane was also present in the mountains, quite far from her current position.

Four hours later, Shampoo struggled back to consciousness.  The first sight she saw was Ranma’s face, wearing an expression of concern mixed with relief.  “Shampoo’s awake!” he called to the others.  They quickly threw down their cards and got to their feet.

“Shampoo, you can take us to Akane, right?  You said you knew where she was.  Come on, let’s get going!”  Tatewaki’s idea to soothe Nabiki’s nerves with the poker marathon had been only partially successful.  Throwing herself into the game had kept her from degenerating completely into nervous anxiety, and had resulted in Ranma losing all his chips twelve times over in three hours and eventually quitting in disgust, but she was still on edge from the hated sensation of helplessness.  Having absolutely no control over a situation was something Nabiki tended to handle nearly as badly as Ranma did close encounters of the feline kind.

The Amazon sat up blearily, regarded the girl in front of her, then tapped a series of shiatsu points.  Nabiki collapsed into dreamless slumber that would last for twenty-four hours.  “That better,” Shampoo muttered.  Before Tatewaki could recover and begin snarling at her, she said, “Must get to Akane quickly.  Demon cast some magic on her.  Shampoo not know how much time we have.”  Indicating Nabiki, she said, “Is too too dangerous let her come with us.  But Shampoo think she no let us leave behind.”

For a long moment, Tatewaki’s face reflected indecision, then he relaxed and almost reluctantly nodded.  “A good point.”  He picked up Nabiki and gently arranged her on the bed just vacated by the Amazon.  “Let us be off.”

The next ten hours were some of the most miserable ones Ranma had had in a long time.  This was because they were spent walking first through a forest, then through hills, then finally up the first slopes of a mountain, without a single rest break.  By the time they reached the ridge top, with his stomach informing him that right now he should have been sitting at the breakfast table, Ranma was grumbling to himself that this was almost as bad as the time his father had gotten hold of a poorly-translated Russian military manual and tried to teach his son the dreaded Forced March technique.

Of course, Ranma should have been thanking Genma for the mistake.  Due to his previous experience he’d been able to hold up much better than most of the others.  Shampoo informed everyone else that they were quite close to where she’d seen Akane, and stated flatly that she would need to rest for at least a while before she could even think about fighting supernatural evil.  Tatewaki and Ryoga were forced to agree- both were nearly at their limits, sustained only by pride and desperation, respectively.  Kodachi, on the other hand, still looked as fresh as a newly bloomed rose.  However, she was more than ready to take a break from the envious glances being shot her way.

Ryoga sank down against a boulder, trying to fight the urge to race off over the ridge.  His stomach still felt like it had compacted to the size of a tennis ball.  This sensation had been with him ever since Shampoo had related just what she’d seen of Akane’s abductor.  After what she’d witnessed, it hadn’t been hard for everyone to draw the conclusion that the Matriarch hadn’t been quite right about the former lost boy’s Oni side causing no more trouble.  Ryoga sat, his face set like the stone of the boulder at his back, and swore that even if it cost his life, he would defeat that part of himself he’d come to despise so much.  Just as soon as he’d rested a little, he’d be ready to take on a dozen Oni if need be.  Just… a little… rest…

Tatewaki settled into a meditative position, and tried to ignore the guilt he was feeling.  There was no way Nabiki could have kept up with the pace they’d set, he told himself.  And if she had been awake now, she would only have been fretting herself into a state of emotional collapse worthy of her father…  Tatewaki’s eyes snapped open and he bit off a curse.  In their hurry, no one had thought to send word to the Tendos that a rescue party was underway!  Well, he’d rectify that.  Kuno whipped out his cell phone and placed a call to his home, instructing one of the servants to send the message of hope to the Tendo household.  This gave him a little relief, and he closed his eyes again, seeking the perfect meditative state that would… prepare his mind…

Shampoo curled up in a hollow between two boulders, intending to take a quick catnap.  She was worried about the unfamiliar feeling of exhaustion…  it was completely different from the kind left by a good eight-hour workout.  She had brought the Eye of Bastet with her, just in case Akane should not be present when they reached the valley where Shampoo had originally located her, but desperately hoped she wouldn’t need to invoke it again.  That one use had left her… so very… tired…

Ranma sank to the ground with a grateful sigh.  Just because he COULD walk for eighteen hours straight without taking a break, didn’t mean he wanted to.  Now that his mind wasn’t taken up by the march, he let his thoughts roam back to the objective.  It seemed somehow… appropriate… that Akane had been kidnapped.  He wondered why.  Maybe it was because it was an Oni that had taken her… figured that violent uncute tomboy would have… admirer like that…

Kodachi looked around as everyone fell asleep.  ‘I’ll give them forty-five minutes,’ she decided.  The White Rose was glad she could draw directly on her excess chi for new energy.  She didn’t feel at all tired.  Still, it was rather a strain to do so for so long, and so she went back to normal mode.  Glancing down at Ranma, who was already well out of the waking world, she let herself entertain a brief guilty thought of snuggling down in his arms.  No way would he awaken… she closed her eyes to better enjoy the fantasy…

Nearly four hours prior to Kodachi slipping into REM slumber, Cologne arrived at the Nekohanten.  The Matriarch was less than thrilled to find no one was home.  She’d been somewhat uneasy at not encountering anyone in the nine hours it had taken her to make her way back.  Cologne had deliberately made the last half of the journey at a slower pace than she liked, just to ensure she didn’t miss whoever would be coming out in search of her.  Not encountering anyone had led her to assume Shampoo hadn’t yet recovered to the point where she could lead others to her great-grandmother.  Her youngest descendant’s absence from the Nekohanten was a pretty big blow to this theory, though she might be at a clinic resting from her collapse.  Cologne settled down to once again search for Shampoo via the astral plane.

A moment later, and she muttered an oath.  Shampoo and the others were heading toward the mountains, but their path wasn’t leading toward where she’d been when she’d first sensed the opening of the chest.  At this point, the Matriarch decided it was time to stop making assumptions and running off with insufficient data.  She calculated the direction of the path the group was taking, then sent her thoughts ranging on ahead.  On out of the foothills and into the mountains…

Cologne’s eyes snapped open and she snarled a string of curses that nearly blistered the varnish off the nearby tables.  Those children were heading for a direct confrontation with an Oni!  She was conscious of a strange feeling of familiarity, but hadn’t been able to make out any details since the demon’s aura was creating interference and the gem that would have allowed her to bypass that was currently in Shampoo’s belt pouch.  The Matriarch fought down a feeling of hopelessness.  Shampoo and the others would reach the Oni in little more than four hours at their current pace, and it would take her nearly seven hours to get there.  Still, all she could do was try, and hope for a miracle.

The Matriarch took stock of herself.  She’d depleted only a little of her reserves in her journey back, but without the Eye of Bastet the astral searches were far more exhausting.  She was nearly as spent as she’d been after the fight with Tatewaki.  There was no choice at all… she hurriedly retrieved one of her most priceless potions, one which would completely revitalize the drinker, and gulped it down.  Cursing the need to use that resource, as the recipe had been lost a decade ago, the Matriarch set out once more.  She set the fastest pace she could sustain without draining herself again, and swore that if all she could do was avenge Shampoo, then that Oni’s suffering would be legend until the end of time.

Kodachi awoke to a tickling sensation along her forearm.  She opened her eyes, and looked over to see a small rock lizard crawling up toward her shoulder.  Some girls would have shrieked and thrown a fit, but the White Rose was made of sterner stuff.  She reached over and brushed it off, then closed her eyes again, gave a wide yawn, and snuggled a bit closer to Ranma.

At this point a little klaxon began ringing in the back of her mind.  What was she doing next to Ranma?  A possible explanation was supplied (current-situation = dream-state ==> wake-Ranma-up-and-get-to-more-interesting-part-of-dream), but then the voice of reason pointed out that her bed was considerably softer than wherever she was currently lying.  And even with her eyes closed the light was quite strong.

The White Rose managed to shake most of the cobwebs of sleep out of her mind.  She opened her eyes and got up, and the realization of just what had occurred slammed into her.  A quick glance at her watch showed they’d slept for more than two hours.  Kodachi bit her lip.  This was not good.  She might not be overly fond of Akane, but she’d never meant to jeopardize the rescue attempt like this.  A massive bout of shame rocked her.  They had to get moving right now!

“EVERYBODY WAKE UP!!” she shrieked at the top of her lungs, realizing a minute too late that her sense of good judgment hadn’t quite woken all the way up yet.  Shampoo went from lying curled up to crouching on top of a boulder, holding a bonbori and scanning frantically for the threat with sleep-blurred eyes.  Kuno and Ryoga both leaped to their feet as well… unfortunately one or both had apparently shifted position in their sleep, and they ended up ramming their heads together.  Ranma just muttered incoherently and rolled over.

“What?!  What is it?!”  The angle of the sun registered on Ryoga, and, understandably, he panicked.  “Akane!  We’ve got to save Akane!  WAKE UP!!” he screamed, grabbing Ranma and shaking him.  After his head hit the rock behind him for the third time, the pig-tailed martial artist finally struggled back to consciousness.  Kodachi glared daggers at Ryoga and checked her boyfriend’s scalp for signs of damage.

“Ohhh, man,” Ranma groaned.  “This is nowhere near as nice as how I usually wake up back home, Dachi.”

For no apparent reason, this seemed to really annoy Shampoo.  “We no want to hear perverted details,” the Amazon snarled.  “Need to get to Akane fast!”

The group set off at top speed, Ranma wondering what was perverted about the access tube connecting his room to the kitchen.  The smell of breakfast cooking was the best alarm clock he’d ever had…  his stomach gave a growl and he quickly pushed thoughts of food out of his mind.  Down through one valley and up the far slope they went, then over a long stretch of broken stone.  As they neared the edge of this, Shampoo motioned for quiet.  They were approaching the edge of the valley where she’d located Akane.  Looking down, the Amazon gave a nod to the others… the figure glowing red was the girl they’d come to save.

And the figure glowing black was the one they’d have to go through to do it.

Where a human learns about magic through careful study, and invents new spells through painstaking experimentation, an Oni’s powers are instinctive.  They learn to use them as naturally as mortal children discover hand-eye coordination.  Taken through this viewpoint, Ryoga-Oni was suffering from a severe case of arrested development.  He was only just now beginning to get dim glimpses of powers that should have been second nature long ago.  And so it was that he completely missed the approach of the crew from Nerima until they entered the valley to engage him.

Even then, he didn’t bother to react to their presence (the daydream of his coming life with Akane was too pleasant to end before he really needed to) until they’d left the slope and were coming along the valley floor.  Then he opened his eyes and stood up, sneering at the fools who would dare oppose him.  Tatewaki.  Some girl with purple hair.  His old rival, Ranma… He snarled at the pig-tailed boy, and wondered briefly to see the other without his white shadow, but the main target of Ryoga-Oni’s ire was the one in front.  His old, hated human self.  The symbol of the weakling he’d once been.  The part of what he once was that had been responsible for losing Akane.

Ryoga regarded the figure in front of him.  So that was what he’d have looked like if he’d been born fully Oni.  The former lost boy wished for an elephant gun.  Not that he’d grant that monster a clean death.  A shot to each shoulder and knee, and one to the gut, that seemed like a good way to pay back this dark side of himself.  The personification of the monster he’d once been.  The part of what he once was that had been responsible for hurting Akane.

“What have you done to her?!” demanded Ryoga.  It was taking all he had to refrain from launching himself at the hateful enemy standing before him.  ‘Stick to the plan,’ he told himself, forcing down his bloodlust.

“Just given her more than you ever could.  Just lifted her beyond the accident of birth.”  Ryoga-Oni smiled, a much less pleasant expression than he’d ever direct toward Akane.  “She’ll be the Oni she should have been when she wakes up.  And anyone who laughed at her, or didn’t take her seriously, is going to be in for a Hell of a time.”  He turned his gaze to Ranma.  “Better tell that ghost girlfriend of yours to watch out.  Where is she, anyway?”  He snickered, and created an illusion of a hyper-kawaii Ranma-chan in a frilly little sundress.  “ Did she finally leave you for a real man?”

Now it was Ranma who had to choke down the urge to leap forward and get medieval on the Oni.  But then a glimpse of motion on the cliff edge above and behind his enemy caught his eye.  Ranma developed a smile that managed to rival Ryoga-Oni’s for sheer menace.  “She’s closer than you think,” he said.

It wasn’t nearly warning enough.  Kodachi poured all the chi she could into a gymnastics club and sent it flying straight for the demon’s back.  The club actually left a glowing trail behind it as it streaked through the air, then burst against its target in a massive explosion.  Ryoga-Oni was flattened against the ground.  His battle aura instantly lost about sixty percent of its intensity.  Kodachi sent another club his way, but the Oni’s survival instinct kicked in and he rolled frantically to one side.  The blast from the club as it hit the dirt kicked up a huge cloud of dust, momentarily obscuring the scene.

Surging to his feet, Ryoga-Oni whipped off a bandanna and threw it at Kodachi with all his might.  He snarled as she dodged effortlessly.  Ranma and the others were beginning to close the distance to him, and Kodachi was readying another club.  Desperately, he threw another bandanna, but aimed at the cliff face just below her feet.  The missile struck with enough force to cause a minor avalanche, which carried the White Rose down the cliff to land half-buried in a pile of rubble at the base.

“KODACHI!!” Ranma screamed.  It was as if history were repeating itself.  A red haze filtered over his vision, and he shot forward and began to pummel Ryoga-Oni with blows that would have been instantly fatal to a human.  The other tried to counter, or at least block, but Ranma wove his attacks around those efforts without even seeming to try.  The Oni realized with a dull sense of unreality that he was losing.  Losing the fight, and would lose his life if he didn’t find a way to turn the tide.  He engaged his flight ability, pulling up into the air about fifteen feet above the ground, and tried to bring his thoughts back into focus.

Ranma grinned like a demon, and prepared to launch himself after his enemy.  Midair combat was a specialty of the Saotome Anything Goes School, after all.  But then, just as he was ready to take to the air and end the battle, he saw Kodachi pull herself out of the rubble and brush the dust off her.  Keeping one eye on the hovering Oni, Ranma rushed back to her.  “You okay, Dachi?” he asked anxiously.

“I’m fine, Ranma-kun,” she reassured him.  Ranma felt the berserk edge leave him.  A wave of fatigue swept over him in its wake, but he choked it down.

Meanwhile, Ryoga, Tatewaki, and Shampoo had caught up with the other two, having been left behind initially as Ranma ran forward at limit-breaking speed.  The group spread out, and began slowly stalking toward their target, who was hanging somewhat lower in the air now.

Ryoga-Oni frantically considered his options.  His link to the spell working on Akane made any major use of magic impossible.  He was fairly certain it was too late to try rational discussion.  Desperately, he scanned his enemies, looking for any sign of weakness.  They were all pretty tired, but any three of them, or any two that didn’t include his human half, would still be able to finish him off.  He suspected that either Ranma or Kodachi might be able to do it unaided.  With a mounting sense of panic, Ryoga-Oni realized he might not survive this fight.  The sheer stress cleared his mind of the rest of the disorientation from the hits he’d taken, and allowed him to see one last, desperate hope.

He dropped to the ground.  “Come on then,” he taunted.  “Better hurry, though, the spell on Akane has almost finished.  Just another ten minutes or so.”  This was an outright lie, of course- there was still well over a day before it would be complete.  But the others didn’t know this.  They rushed forward, intending to overwhelm Ryoga-Oni with numbers as quickly as possible.  They were tired, and unused to fighting as a group, which was all that saved him.  The Oni dodged and twisted, retreating constantly and not attempting any counterstrikes.

Shampoo tried to concentrate through the buzz of weariness in her head.  Why wasn’t their enemy attacking?  Was he trying to wear them out?  The way she felt, it might easily work against her, but Kodachi’s strength basically regenerated as fast as she could spend it.  Perhaps the Oni didn’t know that… and didn’t he realize that he was retreating in a spiral, not a circle?  They’d catch him in another minute and it would be all over…  The Amazon blinked.  Why was the thought of a spiral setting off a warning in her mind?

“End of the line!”  Ryoga shouted, pushing forward as his dark reflection hit the center.  The anger he was feeling now was as intense as any he’d ever carried while the Oni soul was still a part of him.  It felt like he was burning up, so intense was his fury.  Ranma nearly matched him for strength of anger, and the rest weren’t far behind.  Even Kodachi was quite willing to spill Oni blood.

Ryoga-Oni smiled.  “HIRYU SHOTEN HA!”  He loosed the cold chi he’d gathered, and desperately flung himself backward.

Less than two miles away, Cologne felt the distinctive surge of the Amazon chi technique.  She threw caution to the winds and increased her speed to maximum.

The screaming wind swept up the five teenagers like feathers.  Kodachi desperately tried to counter the spin with her ribbon, but for the first time she faced an ‘enemy’ with a far greater amount of chi than she possessed.  As Ranma was swept by her, she tried to reach him, but the capricious winds threw them apart.  She tried to ride them, tried to finesse her way back to him, and as a result didn’t sense Ryoga until she collided with him.  The former lost boy was knocked unconscious- he’d already been close to it from the turbulence.  Kodachi grabbed hold of him, then snagged her brother as he passed by.  She peered frantically through the roaring chaos, trying to spot when and where Ranma or Shampoo would swing near her…

At which point the tornado, unstable to begin with due to having been formed with far more hot than cold chi, shuddered and dispersed.

Ranma stared in horror as the White Rose was flung in the opposite direction from himself, far too quickly for there to be any chance to get back to her.  He could only pray her Rotary Ribbon technique would be enough to protect herself, Tatewaki, and Ryoga.

Of course, he had no such ability.  Twisting desperately, Ranma tried to determine someplace to land that might not be too damaging.  He was still rising, due to his exit trajectory from the tornado, and was dangerously high.  Before he could locate anything, his attention was snagged by the purple blur off to his left.  Shampoo!  She’d gone even higher than him, but was beginning to fall now.  Angling his flight with every ounce of skill he could muster, Ranma managed to intercept her.  The last of his upward momentum was cancelled out by the velocity of her descent.  It was better than nothing, he thought dryly.

Shampoo groaned and shook her head.  She’d been temporarily rendered unconscious by the air pressure in the tornado.  The jolt as Ranma caught her brought her most of the way back to wakefulness, then the increasing rush of wind against her face finished the job.

Ranma twisted and fought the air currents, using every trick he knew to slow their fall.  Trouble was, he was nearly certain it wasn’t going to be enough.  He cursed the fact that they were over rocky ground, and especially that he hadn’t been able to learn the toughening aspect of the Bakusai Tenketsu technique.

As if reading his mind, Shampoo twisted until her mouth was right next to his ear.  “Ranma!  Let Shampoo take fall.  Use Bakusai Tenketsu training to absorb damage!” she shouted.  Ranma barely managed to make out the words over the rush of the wind.

It was the hardest decision he’d ever had to make.  To just hold back, and let a girl take what his mind was screaming would have to be a fatal fall.  Or to take that fall himself, KNOWING it would kill him, but hoping he could cushion her enough to let her live.

The Amazon could clearly see the indecision in his eyes.  “Please trust Shampoo!” she screamed.  The ground was coming up awfully quickly…

His nod felt like it took all his remaining strength.  With all the willpower he had, he forced himself to relax and go limp.

Shampoo twisted so she was underneath, and concentrated with all her might on toughening herself against the coming impact.  Ranma caught a glimpse of pure terror in her eyes as her chi responded… at less than half normal strength.

And the ground rose up to meet them.

Ryoga-Oni cursed bitterly as he saw Kodachi begin spinning her ribbon, slowing her fall.  He should have remembered that technique from the time she’d faced Ranma-chan, so long ago.  Then he looked closer.  It seemed she was being pushed to her absolute limit, holding onto Ryoga and Tatewaki while one arm was occupied with spinning the ribbon.  She didn’t seem able to direct her descent, just slow it to a level that wouldn’t be dangerous.  The Oni smiled grimly, and removed a bandanna from his forehead.  Just a little more, and she’d drift low enough to be within range.  He’d send this one through her throat…

At this point a sense that had only just begun to develop screamed “DANGER!”  He turned, and saw a greenish blur rocketing toward him.

The battle between the Amazon Matriarch and the Demon was not one that would ever be made into an epic saga.  The main reason was it was too short for anything other than a limerick or haiku.  Cologne was still moving at speeds Ryoga-Oni couldn’t even imagine, let alone match, as she whipped out a blade carved from rowan wood and sliced a rune into his chest.  A green flare of energy surrounded him, encasing the Oni in a prison from which he could not escape.  Off in the distance, the red haze around Akane cleared, and she slumped to the ground, still fast asleep.  Cologne spared the barest fraction of an instant to confirm that Kodachi and her passengers would land safely, then shot off in search of her great-granddaughter.

Shampoo drew a breath. 

From the way the rib fragment shifted within her lung, she judged she had less than two hundred such remaining.

The pain was there, not as bad as she’d expected.  It helped that she couldn’t feel anything below her waist.  She’d hurt much worse than this during training sometimes.  Perhaps it was some sort of ‘no pain, no gain,’ thing, she thought muzzily.  There was no way she’d bounce back from this, after all.  No gain, so not so much pain.  A small gentleness for one who hadn’t had much of that in her life.

“You idiot,” Ranma choked out, looking down through tear-filled eyes at his dying friend.  “How could you do this to me?!  You said you wouldn’t get hurt!”

“Sorry, Ranma,” she whispered.  Talking louder than that was beyond her.  “Strength not come when Shampoo need.  Just too tired…”

“DON’T!!” he cried as her eyes began to drift shut.  “Hang on, Shampoo!  You’re gonna be okay!”

She smiled a little at this, a bittersweet smile.  “You is right, Ranma.  Just not how you think.  This not what Shampoo wanted, but was maybe only way to win.”

Cologne was too drained for an astral search.  Instead she raced to the top of the cliff, hoping it would be possible to locate her great-granddaughter from that vantage point.  Her eyes widened in dread as she saw Shampoo’s broken form, breathing only with difficulty, with Ranma crouched over her in tears.

At that moment the Matriarch’s face was a sight more terrible than anything Ryoga-Oni could match.  The ancient Amazon turned, and sped back down the cliff.

“Win?!  What’re you talking about?”

“What Shampoo want so much, she never have.”  The Amazon stifled a gasp as a much stronger wave of pain hit her for a second.  “Shampoo love Tatewaki first, have hope maybe things change.  Maybe Shampoo not be so alone.  But he never give Shampoo chance.  He never even once smile at me, Ranma.  By time he win free, Shampoo not have any love for him anyway.”

She looked at him intently.  “Shampoo always want… what she no can have…”  Her eyes began to drift shut again.  “Strong man, no be afraid of Shampoo, who would care for her… promise you no forget me, Ranma… Airen…”

“Shampoo?  What’re you saying…  Hey!  Stay with me now!” he said desperately.

She forced her eyes to focus on him.  Wanting him to understand.  “Is good way for Amazon to go… save man she love… please make Kodachi… happy… please tell her… she sister Shampoo wish she could have…”

“No…” Kodachi whispered in dread.  The Matriarch hadn’t said a word, just dragged her here at a speed that nearly dislocated the arm the elder was holding onto.  She knelt down and picked up Shampoo’s free hand.  Ranma was holding the other, tears streaming down his face.  Shampoo was still breathing shallowly, but her eyes were closed and it was clear she was nearly through the Final Doorway.

“We have no time for grief,” Cologne said in a tone only slightly less intense than a laser beam.  “We must act quickly to prevent her death.”

This got through to Ranma.  He turned desperately to face her.  “How?” he demanded, echoed by Kodachi.

Cologne turned to the White Rose.  She spoke rapidly but concisely.  “Your chi surplus is the only thing that can save her.  I will use an Amazon technique known as the Heart Link, which will join first your soul to Ranma’s, then his to Shampoo’s.  In the first link, I will transfer as much energy as you can spare to him, then pass it from him to Shampoo.  She’ll heal just as you would.”

“Very well.” Kodachi knew she didn’t have time to hesitate, even though it did occur to her to wonder why the elder didn’t just link her directly to Shampoo.  “What must we do?”

“Join hands.”  They did so.  Cologne gathered her concentration, thanking the Creator that this technique required almost no chi expenditure on her part.  “I will forge the link and guide the chi transfer.

“All you have to do… is hang on.”


One moment he was looking into Kodachi’s eyes…

…The next he was looking out through them.

Then he was swept into a maelstrom of completely unfamiliar thoughts and emotions.  All vision faded, and Ranma was conscious of nothing but spiritual turbulence.  The whirling chaos spun him round and round, like a bottle in a raging sea, or a teenaged martial artist in a tornado.  Out of the formless grayness, fragments of light began to glimmer.  Ranma caught glimpses of them, but not enough to make out any real sense of what they represented.  Then the tumult subsided, and the brightness flared up…

And Kodachi’s life flashed before his eyes.

The White Rose would have gasped in wonder, had she still had a mouth.  She was reliving Ranma’s life!  All the memories he had, all the things that had gone into forming the man she loved, she was experiencing them now as a passenger in his train of thought!  The earliest memories were vague and muddled, not really much more than images.

There was his mother!  Kodachi recognized, somehow, that this memory had been cherished for a long time, and Ranma had clung to it as hard as he could.  But over time it had faded and was no longer available to his conscious mind.  Kodachi burned the image into her own memory, determined to hold onto it.  Someday soon, she’d paint a very special portrait for Ranma.


Ranma/Kodachi looked on as Hitome Kuno practiced Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics.  Mother was so graceful, so elegant.  She moved through the air like a bird.  Ranma/Kodachi felt a fierce longing to do the same thing, to flow like water, to make the ribbon dance like it was alive, to spin the hoop so fast it blurred in the air and sliced through the practice dummies!  He/She watched as Hitome spun over and under the uneven bars, striking out with her ribbon on each pass between them to hit a different target.  His/Her mother practiced for two hours, and for all that time Ranma/Kodachi watched, entranced.  He/She knew without a doubt that he/she had to learn this.  Surely Mother would teach him/her!


It wasn’t fair!  Tachi got to start learning Kendo from Father right now, but Mother and Father both said that Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics could only be practiced by big girls, that he/she wouldn’t be able to start learning until he/she was at least twenty!  For a moment, Ranma’s immersion into Kodachi’s memories was interrupted as he realized what a little girl hadn’t- that this was a dodge, to allow her time to realize for herself that a hemophiliac couldn’t do such things.  Ranma’s sadness mirrored that five-year-old’s own, and the tide of memories submerged him again.


Pop had said he was gonna teach her/him a new technique today!  A really neat technique that would make her/him a great martial artist real fast!  Kodachi/Ranma couldn’t wait to get on with it.  Pop always said she/he was gonna be the best martial artist in the world someday.  Kodachi/Ranma thought that sounded great.  Maybe once she/he was the best, she/he wouldn’t have to move around all the time to learn new stuff.  She/He was tired of leaving friends behind…  Maybe this Cat Fist training would make her/him the best right now!  But why the heck was Pop wrapping her/him in fish sausages?


Kodachi/Ranma pleaded not to be put back in The Pit.  Begged not to go back to the hungry darkness, where the yowls of the starving cats drowned out her/his own cries of pain and screams of terror.  Pop just told her/him to face it like a man, and to get down there and learn the Cat Fist.  Kodachi/Ranma tried to hold back the scream that wanted to burst forth, but it leaked out as a whimper anyway as Genma pushed her/him forward into Cat Hell.  The fear mounted, reaching higher and higher… Kodachi partially disconnected as Ranma’s mind snapped into the Cat for the first time.  This was a safety feature of the Heart Link- allowing understanding without duplicating mental damage.  As the episode passed, she sank back into the flow of memory.


Ranma/Kodachi raced at breakneck speed up and down the stairs.  He/She had stumbled halfway up the first time, and had been terrified by the fall.  But the pain went away right away!  The bruise just vanished like magic! Ranma/Kodachi reached the top of the staircase, and spun around and around in a pirouette.  Then he/she glanced at a window and saw it was a bright sunny day outside.  He/she grinned, giggled, and ran outside to spend the next four hours under sunlight that wouldn’t burn him/her anymore.  He/She was exhausted by the time evening fell, which was just as well.  Mother had said that with his/her special gift, he/she would be able to start learning Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics now!  And soon he/she would be going to school like a normal little girl!  If Ranma/Kodachi hadn’t been so tired, he/she would never have been able to get to sleep.  He/She was too excited.


After a few weeks of school, Ranma/Kodachi was ready to go back to learning at home.  Nobody wanted to play with him/her!  They all just teased him/her, calling him/her ghost, chalk-face, and worse!  That was the ones who weren’t too scared to even come near him/her.  A lot of the other children really seemed to think he/she was a monster just because he/she healed so fast.  Mother told him/her things would get better as he/she got older, that the other children were just too young to understand that being different wasn’t bad.  Father made him/her smile with tales of others who had been misunderstood but went on to find happiness for themselves.  The dragon girl who married a prince became his/her favorite story.  He/She certainly knew how Sarissa must have felt.  So alone, just wanting someone to look past the outside and see who he/she really was.


At first it was great to stay in one place, and sleep in a real bed, but Kodachi/Ranma was getting a little worried.  It had been two weeks since she’d/he’d seen Pop.  Sensei had said Pop wanted her/him to learn a new way to fight, and wanted her/him to stay here for a while.  Kodachi/Ranma hadn’t been too worried at first, but in the ten years of her/his life she/he had never been away from Pop this long.  And the other day she’d/he’d overheard Sensei talking to someone else, saying something about she/he would make a great Pit fighter someday.  Kodachi/Ranma knew she/he was gonna be a great fighter, but she/he thought she’d/he’d heard something bad somewhere about the Pit.


Pop had finally shown up.  But he told her/him that Sensei was a bad man, that he’d stolen her/him to train to do bad things for other bad men.  They had to get away!  Pop didn’t know Sensei was in the next room.  Sensei had come out and tried to kill Pop!  Kodachi/Ranma had never seen Pop fight so hard.  He’d taken Sensei out with a technique he’d never shown his son, then said they had to run and run fast.  Kodachi/Ranma concentrated on running, so she/he wouldn’t have to think about the blood on the floor under Sensei.


It wasn’t quite extinguished yet.  This would be the fourth school he/she attended, St Hebereke’s school for girls.  He/She had never yet managed to win anything like general acceptance at the others.  But this time would be different!  Ranma/Kodachi swore it!  He/She had chosen St Hebereke after learning their Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics team had been undefeated for the last few years.  He/She had trained with Mother for the last seven years, and knew without a trace of hubris that he/she was a champion.  Surely the girls of the Gymnastics team, at least, would warm up to him/her after they learned that.


How dare these cheaters call themselves martial artists!  They won their matches not by skill, but by ambushes and skullduggery!  They struck from the shadows and rendered their opponents unable to compete before the matches, then won by default!  Ranma/Kodachi wished that he/she had taken the time to learn a little more about the school than just that they were undefeated.  It had only taken one session of watching the team practice for Ranma/Kodachi to realize that he/she was far more skilled than any of these pretenders.  So much for hoping to find common ground here.  Ranma/Kodachi made a vow.  He/She was through trying to win acceptance from those who proved they didn’t deserve his/her friendship.  These gymnasts would learn to play fair, if not from personal morals then through fear of his/her wrath!  And perhaps some of those who’d been hurt in the past by these honorless harridans would be grateful enough at the change to give the new team captain a chance.


How was she/he supposed to react?  Pop had said they were gonna go stay with some old friends of his.  Said the Tendos even had their own dojo.  Kodachi/Ranma agreed that would be nice, but the first priority should be going back to China to get a cure for their curses!  Except that Shampoo was there, and the Amazon had shown she could pretty much track her/him at will through China.  But then, less than a mile away from the Tendo place, Pop sprung the news of a fiancée on her/him!  What kind of girl would want a fiancé that was only half a man?  She/He couldn’t deal with this now!  She/He HAD to get back to China and find a cure.


The Tendo girls’ reactions had been everything she’d/he’d expected.  Disgust.  Rejection.  She’d/He’d had a little hope, when the youngest had been friendly at first, even offering to be friends.  But then Akane had said she was just glad she/he wasn’t a boy.  And then had come those blasted bath encounters!  Kodachi/Ranma knew she/he was a freak- she/he didn’t need to have it rubbed in her/his face.  She/He would have left then, if there had been anywhere to go.  But Pop was determined to stay, and she/he couldn’t quite get the desperation to leave the old man behind.  He might not be much, but he was all she/he had.


The other schools had quickly learned that St Hebereke’s team had a new captain.  Unfortunately, they all seemed to conclude the way to get him/her to stop the sneak attacks was to give him/her a taste of his/her team’s own medicine.  That he/she might have already changed team policy didn’t seem to occur to anyone.  After the first couple of fights, Ranma/Kodachi gave serious consideration to just standing still and letting the next attackers beat him/her as much as they liked.  But he/she couldn’t find the willingness to just take abuse like that.  Not to mention how much it hurt when others saw him/her heal instantly and looked at him/her like he/she was a freak of nature.  When would he/she ever find someone who’d judge him/her fairly?


He/She looked up into the face of his/her rescuer, and saw nothing but concern in his eyes.  Not even the slightest tinge of revulsion.  And he was holding him/her quite tightly, not as if he/she was something with which to minimize contact.  Ranma/Kodachi looked up into his hypnotic blue eyes, and felt a sense of rightness that he/she would have been hard-pressed to explain.  Had he/she believed in reincarnation, he/she might have decided they were lovers in a previous life.  They talked for a while, Ranma/Kodachi learning that the girl he/she had met the previous day was related to him.  Kodachi thought the two must have had wonderful parents to be so freely accepting.  Ranma temporarily lost his immersion in her stream of consciousness, unable to take the ‘wonderful parents’ idea in stride.

Not much left now to see.  Each lived the past several months again.  Events they’d shared were revisited through the other’s eyes.  Ranma watched, feeling more than ever like an intruder, as Kodachi’s affection and attraction to him deepened quickly into love.  Kodachi’s spirit smiled, as she witnessed Ranma’s own heart go out to her, shyly and clumsily, but definitely hers.  She felt a moment’s gratitude to Cologne.  Who knew how long it would have taken either of them to take that last step of admission without this bridge?  She could feel herself changing, her soul and Ranma’s both shifting to fit together like pieces of a puzzle.  It was a wonderful feeling, comforting in a way she’d never experienced.  The growing sense of completion was so overwhelming that his last memories didn’t even register on her at first.

Cologne ended the direct fusion. Ranma and Kodachi both blinked and gasped like divers coming up for air.  The White Rose nearly fell over.  Her chi reserves were almost completely drained.  But already they were refilling as she absorbed new energy from the earth beneath and the air around her.

Ranma was vaguely conscious of a massive surge of energy within him, just waiting to be released.  He looked to Kodachi, and their eyes met again.  He wanted to say something.  He felt like there was no need for words.  He wanted to stay here and look into her eyes forever.  He wanted to hold her tightly to him.  Before any of the impulses could win out, Cologne grabbed his hand and placed it over Shampoo’s.  “Brace yourself, sonny boy,” she said.  Ranma didn’t really have time to register the advice before the world shifted and went dark.

The blackness was replaced just for a minute by a glimpse of her own broken form.  Then everything was dark again, but Shampoo knew she was no longer unconscious.  This must be death… the Amazon felt cheated.  Wasn’t her life supposed to pass before her?  Not that there was all that much she wanted to see again.  Maybe this whirling dimness with flashes of light was better than reliving all that pain.  And then the sense of motion faded, even as the light crashed in on her…

Ranma felt a minute of sheer panic as he realized that apparently he was about to live yet another person’s life all the way through.  He wasn’t sure he could take this… he knew, on some deep instinctive level, that the first Heart Link had changed him, more so than just by showing him Kodachi’s life.  But this was the only way to save Shampoo…  He forced himself to calmness.  If this was what it took to save her, Ranma Saotome would do it.  No way would he let a girl die to save his life!

His thoughts broke off as the earliest images from Shampoo’s memory began to cascade around him.  Her father, leading her through the first steps of her people’s fighting style.  The gift from her mother of the heirloom hairpieces.  Her father’s face as he tried to explain to his daughter that she wouldn’t be able to see her mother again.


Shampoo/Ranma ran just a little faster, reached out her/his hand, and slapped her/his friend on the shoulder.  “Tag!  You’re it, Ucchan!”  She/He turned and ran, but not as fast as she/he could.  It was no fun if her/his friend couldn’t ever catch her/him.  Shampoo/Ranma was glad her/him and Pop had stayed here so long.  Ucchan was a great buddy.  And his dad made the best okonomiyaki in the world!  Maybe they’d stay here a long time.  After all, with the free meals they were eating better than they had in a long time.


Shampoo/Ranma forced down the feelings of loneliness.  Pop said that to be the best martial artist in the world, she/he would hafta learn not to need other people.  Pop said Ucchan understood that.  That’s why the other boy had run after them, waving goodbye.  That’s why they’d been given the yattai.  Pop said she’d/he’d be lettin’ Ucchan down if she/he was sad.  So Shampoo/Ranma gritted her/his small teeth and looked off down the road.  The road that never seemed to let go of her/him for long.


Ranma/Shampoo didn’t understand what was going on.  He/She didn’t know who this man was, or why he was so angry with Father.  And he/she didn’t care.  His/Her mother had died in childbirth.  This other man had no right to say Father had killed her!  Ranma/Shampoo felt the tears run down his/her cheeks at the look of pain and fury on his/her father’s face.  How dare he hurt Father like that!  Ranma/Shampoo knew that Father would make this stranger pay.


Ranma/Shampoo sat in shock, trying not to remember.  Father had fought his challenger more fiercely than Ranma/Shampoo had ever seen.  The other couldn’t even land a single blow.  Father beat him until he couldn’t stand or fight anymore.  He deserved it for what he’d said, Ranma/Shampoo was certain.   But then… but then… Ranma/Shampoo began to tremble as the memory remorselessly progressed.  The challenger glowed black… and his whole body exploded.  And Father… was…


Shampoo/Ranma gulped, and tried not to be so nervous.  Last time Pop said she/he was gonna learn a special technique, it was the C- Ca- Cat Fist.  After that, Pop promised there wouldn’t be any more that bad, but she/he was still a little scared.  Still, Pop had just said this technique would help her/him with her/his running speed and balance.  Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad.


She/He WOULD do this!  At least it wasn’t like the C- C- other training.  Running over a break-away balsa wood floor fast enough that she/he didn’t fall through onto the hard dirt below wasn’t that bad.  But why did the stupid floor always hafta break underneath her/him just as she/he got almost to the edge?!  Pop was disgusted, saying he might as well go out and buy a dress for her/him if she/he was going to act like a weak little girl.  Shampoo momentarily broke free of the immersion effect at this, just long enough to wonder why the heck RANMA’S life should be flashing before her eyes.  And how could he believe the garbage his father was feeding him about girls being weak?!


Ranma/Shampoo panted and grinned, his/her bonbori resting against his/her opponent’s throat.  That was more symbolic than anything else- it was just a sparring match, after all.  But it was the first one he’d/she’d had with a real opponent.  And he’d/she’d won!  Against a girl two years older than himself/herself!  Ranma/Shampoo closed his/her eyes and said a quick prayer to Father’s spirit, sure he’d be proud of him/her.  It hadn’t been easy, but he/she didn’t regret asking Great-Grandmother to raise him/her and train him/her to be the best warrior he/she could be.


How dare Li Rin say he/she cheated!  Just because he/she knew a technique the other girl didn’t.  Ranma/Shampoo told the older girl in no uncertain terms that her technique was sloppy and she should be grateful to Ranma/Shampoo for pointing this out.  But Li Rin just challenged him/her to a rematch.  It was a harder fight this time, but he/she still won.  And then Li Rin’s sister Ti Lon challenged her, to avenge her sister.  And then her friend Perfume after that…  Ranma/Shampoo frowned.  If all the girls in his/her age group had to challenge him/her and lose before they accepted he/she was the best, then fine!  He/She would NOT let Father down!


Here was somebody who Shampoo/Ranma could identify with.  A boy with a desire to be a great martial artist.  A guy who didn’t have much of a home life.  Someone who spent a lot of his time on the road.  Of course, there were pretty big differences in Ryoga’s situation and her/his own.  The way the other boy got lost all the time was kinda a mix of sad, funny, and pathetic.  And Shampoo/Ranma at least had a father around all the time… she/he wasn’t sure if she/he was better or worse off than Ryoga in that respect.


So what if she/he usually caught the last piece of bread before Ryoga could?  Why was Hibiki getting’ so mad anyway?!  Didn’t the way Shampoo/Ranma walked the other to school make up for that?  The lost boy would never be able to attend consistently if it weren’t for her/him.  So why the big fuss over a few pieces of bread?  At least if Ryoga wanted to fight about it, he shoulda showed up by now! 


Stupid Mousse!  He was nearly blind without his glasses, but he was too proud to wear them most of the time!  Ranma/Shampoo was so tired of him proclaiming his love for him/her to farm animals and fixtures of the landscape!  He/She was sick to death of the blind idiot always being there whenever he/she turned around!  He’d/She’d almost had a glimmer of hope for Mousse when he vowed to become a strong fighter for him/her.  Maybe Mousse would learn independence and become something more than an object of pity.  But no, even though he managed to become quite a decent fighter with his Hidden Weapons style, he still curled up into a spineless little ball around him/her!  What did it take to get it through the fool’s head that he/she NEEDED someone he/she could respect?!


He/She had thought it was bad when Mousse was just proclaiming his love for him/her.  He/She hadn’t had a clue just how bad it was going to get.  The clueless, spineless, obsessed WEAKLING had somehow managed to intimidate all the other boys in the village into staying away from him/her!  Ranma/Shampoo stared into his/her great-grandmother’s mirror.  He/She knew he/she was one of the most beautiful girls in the village.  He/She was undefeated in combat.  He/She was a descendent of the Matriarch, even if he/she wasn’t in line to inherit the role of leadership.  Wasn’t he/she worth enough for a decent man to risk Mousse’s wrath?


What was the big deal about this place, anyway?  Just a bunch of bamboo poles sticking up out of some springs.  Even if the water weren’t there to cushion your fall, it wasn’t nearly a big enough drop to faze a trained martial artist.  Shampoo/Ranma snorted.  This place wasn’t going to be any big impact on her/his training.  She/He launched herself/himself into the air after the old man, not paying any attention to the ramblings of the guide.


This could not be happening.  This could NOT be happening!  When she’d/he’d kicked Pop into that spring, a giant Panda had come sailing back out!  The guide started wailing something about curses that turned people into whatever drowned in the spring.  Shampoo/Ranma was NOT in any shape to handle a sudden assault at that point, but Pop had to go and knock her/him down anyway!  And into the spring of drowned g- g- girl… Shampoo/Ranma felt as if all the times Pop had spurred her/him on to new efforts by threatening to buy her/him a dress were coming to hideous life.


How dare this outsider woman!  She and her pet panda had just gorged themselves on HIS/HER prize!  The reward for his/her first official tournament win!  Ranma/Shampoo had looked forward to this moment for years, when he/she would officially become the Champion.  And now this disrespectful little foreigner had ruined it.  And the nerve of her!  She didn’t even apologize when told what she’d done, just challenged Ranma/Shampoo over the meal.  Ranma/Shampoo decided he/she would teach this impudent one to respect women of the Amazon tribe.


It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  He’d/She’d been in a state of shock at being knocked so easily off the challenge log.  Clearly the outsider was a warrior of unbelievable skill!  Ranma/Shampoo had felt a momentary pang at not being the best anymore, but then realized that after the red-haired girl passed the final test and became a new sister, she’d be the first girl his/her age not to resent Ranma/Shampoo.  He/She had seen a chance for a real friend… only to watch that turn to ash as the girl revealed herself to be a coward.  Ranma/Shampoo had lost so much more than his/her undefeated status and his/her title as Champion.


Shampoo/Ranma called herself/himself seventeen different kinds of an idiot.  There was NO reason to be afraid!  Kodachi had flat out TOLD her/him that she wanted them to be more than friends.  Okay, she hadn’t known who she was telling this to at the time, but what difference did it make?  After a couple of weeks of settling in to life with the Kuno family, Shampoo/Ranma had gathered every scrap of courage she/he could, and managed to ask the White Rose out on a real, honest-to-Kami d-d-date.  She’d accepted in a heartbeat, which was encouraging, but now Shampoo/Ranma was facing the fact that she/he had absolutely NO idea how she/he was supposed to behave for the evening.


She/He had felt so awkward at first, but Kodachi had made it clear that she didn’t expect her/him to become some kinda different person for the night.  She/He managed to relax after that, and the evening was a lot of fun.  First dinner at a nice restaurant (but not one so fancy that she/he felt out of place), then a movie they’d both wanted to see, then ice cream afterward.  For old times’ sake they went to the same dessert shop where they’d first started getting to know each other.  The irony of the accidental splashing on their way there returning her/him to the same female form she’d/he’d worn that first time wasn’t lost on either of them.  But somehow even that didn’t spoil things.

As before, so again.  The degree of submersion lessened as they began reliving the last few months, somewhat like a roller coaster ride slows down as it reaches the end of the line.  Ranma watched as Shampoo found real friendship for the first time ever.  First Kodachi, then himself… he saw when those feelings began to change, even as she remained unaware.  When she finally did realize it, he experienced her sorrow, as tentative queries didn’t reveal much hope Kodachi might be willing to accept the Amazon multiple wives custom.  Nor did she see any indication that there was room in his heart for another.

Shampoo saw Ranma’s initial fear of her become replaced by sympathy, and then affection.  At first tentative, but as she proved she wasn’t the killer he’d first feared, it deepened to real friendship.  Regret stronger than any she’d ever felt before washed over her.  She knew him now, better than he knew himself, and she knew how much he was going to be hurt by letting her die to save himself.  At least that’s how she knew he would see it.  Even as the last memories passed before her, she wished that there was some way things could be made better.

And then she gasped, and opened her eyes.

Had it really happened that quickly?  The White Rose was stunned.  Ranma had shuddered, his eyes snapping shut… then a few seconds later, Shampoo’s wounds closed and they both opened their eyes again.  Difficult to believe that such a profound experience had taken so little time.  Kodachi noted that apparently it had taken every bit of the chi she’d donated to bring her friend back.  Shampoo was whole again, but she looked to be on the ragged edge of exhaustion.  So, for that matter, did Ranma.  In fact, even as she watched, the shocked expressions faded off their faces and they collapsed into a more normal manner of unconsciousness.

Kodachi felt the last few memories she’d picked out of Ranma’s mind rise up and begin clamoring for her attention, but as Cologne turned to face her, an indescribably weary expression on her face, she choked them back down.  “Child, I am very near my limit, and I still have to attend to that Oni.  There are some things you need to hear before I go off and sleep for a week.  Until the Heart Link wears off, you will need to spend a large portion of your time near Ranma.   Spend too much time apart, and both you and he will begin to feel rapidly escalating feelings of unease and anxiety.”  Exhausted as she was, the Elder still managed a grin.  “Even more so than usual.  When apart, you will be able to sense each other’s general location and current emotions.  You’ll know the Heart Link has run its course when you can no longer do that.  And everything I’ve said is the case for you and Ranma, is also true for him and my great-granddaughter.

“And now, if you’ll excuse me…” the Matriarch smiled grimly.  “I have an Oni to deal with.”


To be continued.

Author’s notes: Another long chapter.  Can you believe I originally intended to include a visit from Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung?  Oh well, they’ll just have to wait.

Some might wonder, if Cologne can seek out Shampoo through astral searching, why in the original series did she sometimes ask Ranma for his help in locating her great-granddaughter.  The reason is simple- this time around, she learned the trick through use of the Eye of Bastet, which previously was never recovered from Happosai.

How the heck did Ryoga-Oni learn the Hiryu Shoten Ha?  When he slunk as a spirit through the Amazon village looking for lore that would help him find a body again, of course.  By the way, remember in a previous chapter the Matriarch stated that normal Oni have weaknesses that can be easily exploited.  Her trick with the rowan blade reflected that, not any spellcasting on her part.  Nabiki could do the same thing, if she knew the pattern of the rune and had a sharp piece of rowan wood handy (and providing the Oni stood still, of course).  It’s not my intention to portray Cologne as some type of secret archmage.  And most of the stuff in that chest isn’t magical, just valuable.

For the record, the instance in Ranma’s memory of being taken by some sort of organized crime syndicate to be trained as a Pit fighter was NOT the result of Genma selling his son.  Genma has enough sense not to cross people like that if he can help it.  ‘Sensei’ just saw the two practicing, recognized Ranma’s talent, figured a vagrant like Genma wouldn’t be able to get his kid back, and spirited Ranma off when the opportunity presented itself.  Another comment on the memory revelations:  Hitome does NOT use a razor hoop.  Those were an invention of the Black Rose, patterned after a dim memory of her mother’s secret technique for hoop power strikes.  Finally, memories gained from a previous Heart Link are not accessible to the ‘partner’ in subsequent Heart Links.  Shampoo doesn’t get hit with two lifetimes’ worth of memories (that honor is reserved for Ranma- remember, he’s always the one who has to win the hardest part of the fight).

If you’re curious, a more complete account of Shampoo’s father’s death can be found in my first fanfic, A Cold Wind Blows, (and yes, I’m aware that in the manga he’s very much alive.  See disclaimer).  Next time:  Okonomiyaki is a dish best served cold.  Oh, wait, that’s revenge.  Okonomiyaki should be served piping hot.  And you need to take care to cook it just long enough that the middle is done but the edges are crispy without being burnt.  And it’s not just a crime but a SIN to use any sauce other than my family’s secret recipe, sugar.

Comments?  Criticism?  E-mail me at aondehafka@hotmail.com

Chapter 6
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