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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 9:  The Fortunes of War

The three of them walked slowly along the canal, eventually stopping near one of the bridges.  Shampoo bent down, picked up a stone, and sent it skipping along the surface of the water.  She felt a moment of strange satisfaction when it clonked a passing duck on the head.

“Good shot,” remarked Ling-Ling.

“Was imagining it was Mousse, for some reason,” Shampoo replied.

Lung-Lung squinted at the duck.  “Hmmm.  He do wear white, and use lots of bird-name attacks, and brain is probably about same size.”

They sat down and watched the light of the sunset dance on the water for a few moments, then Ling-Ling spoke up.  “Big sister Shampoo… you think Ranma can win?”

Shampoo turned and just stared at her cousin.  Ling-Ling, not knowing quite what to make of her expression, continued.  “<I mean, Mousse was tricky enough to beat you.  I just… I don’t want you to be chained to someone like him.>”

Shampoo slowly shook her head.  “No worry.  Ranma will win.”

“You very confident,” Lung-Lung said doubtfully.

“Shampoo have good reason.  Know Ranma very well by now.”  She smiled briefly at the thought of just how well she knew him.  “Always, when he have to win, he does.  That why I give such strange look to Ling-Ling just now.  You ask if Ranma can win.  Question what Shampoo would ask is if it even possible Ranma not to win.”

“Lung-Lung hope you right.”  The lime-haired girl sighed.  “Big sister?” she continued in a less-than-confident voice.


“Will maybe be harder fight than you expect.  Harder than should have be.”

Shampoo looked her cousin in the eye.  “What you mean, Lung-Lung?”

Ling-Ling gulped.  “Was idea Ling-Ling have.  We tell Mousse Ranma never yet beat you in combat, other than one time in village.  We want him think win Ranma will be too, too easy, so he make mistake and lose.  But what happen was he get more mad, that Ranma never beat you but say he too weak to be husband to you.”

“So you think Mousse going to give his all in fight now?”  The twins nodded, and Shampoo shrugged.  “Shampoo think he would have anyway.  It no make difference.  Mousse at his best not good enough to beat Ranma.”

Ling-Ling looked away.  “He win last fight,” she said softly.

“And is last fight he win,” Shampoo said in a tone of absolute conviction.  “Shampoo have every confidence Ranma not make my mistake, not go easy on Mousse.”

Ranma sat calmly, folded in a lotus position.  His eyes were closed, and there was an expression of peace on his face.

Kodachi watched closely, trying to find a point in the cycle of his breathing when his focus would waver slightly.  After a minute she gave up.  “Now!” she exclaimed.

In an instant, Ranma surged to his feet and shot forward as if out of a cannon.  He covered the distance to his target before the White Rose had even finished her single syllable.  With a roaring cry, Ranma lashed out with both fists, striking too quickly for the eye to follow and yet holding perfectly to the intended pattern of his attack.

His first blow struck the head clean off the practice dummy.  His next smashed through the lower ribcage area.  His third and fourth, struck almost simultaneously, blasted through the shoulders.  He finished the attack with a sweep that shattered the pole supporting the dummy (or what was left of it, anyway).

Kodachi eyed the splintered wreckage, then the grim look on Ranma’s face.  “I’d say you have a winning strategy, Ranma-kun.  Strike hard, strike fast, don’t give him time to use any of his tricks.”  She pursed her lips.  “However, unless you mean to TRULY ensure he never bothers Shampoo again, I suggest that in your fight you don’t hit him quite THAT hard.”

Ranma sighed, then walked over next to her, and the two sat down together.  “I hate him, Dachi,” he said quietly.  Unspoken, but felt by the both of them, was the implication that she hadn’t been joking.  If he really cut loose, Mousse wouldn’t fair much better than the other dummy had.

The White Rose placed a sympathetic hand on his arm.  “Well, it’ll be over soon enough.  You’ll defeat him with ease, I’m certain.  After that, he’ll have no way to ever regain an honorable claim on Shampoo.”

“And then what?” Ranma asked, with more than a hint of bitter sadness in his tone.

Kodachi waited a moment, expecting him to say more.  When it became apparent that he was waiting for her, she replied, “Then things get back to normal.”

“Normal.  Huh.”  Ranma placed his hand over hers, then turned to meet her gaze.  “Normal for me, I guess.”  Kodachi’s eyes widened as she saw/felt a surge of raw pain rise behind his own.  “Thanks to me, Ucchan lost her dowry an’ had a miserable childhood.  I got Ryoga a Jusenkyo curse.  I set Shampoo up for a broken heart with Tatewaki.  I even managed to hurt Akane’s feelings when I left, or at least that’s what Nabiki says.”  His voice nearly cracked then.  “Everybody I ever get close to I wind up hurting.  I never wanted that to happen to you, Dachi-chan.  But I guess I shoulda known I couldn’t keep it from happening forever.”

“Ranma-kun, that’s ridiculous…” she started to reply.

“Don’t!”  Ranma stared at her in desperation.  “Don’t lie or make out like it ain’t anything important!  I can feel you, y’know.  I can see when you put up a good front, but it’s just hiding the pain inside!”

Kodachi sat quietly for a moment, trying to find her way to a response.  At last, she said slowly, “All right, Ranma, I suppose you have a point.  No lies, then, no evasions.  Yes, it hurts.  And I have been putting on a mask, at least a little.  But let there be no such veil between us.  I want you to deliberately look into my soul, Ranma-sama, and feel how I’m hurting now.”

Ranma shuddered, nodded, braced himself.  He reached out, sensing the true depth of hurt in her.  After a minute he disengaged.

As he shuddered and wiped the tears from his eyes, Kodachi eyed him narrowly.  She sighed a slight sigh of exasperation- he’d obviously missed the point so far.  “What exactly did you learn from that experience?”

“That I’m a pathetic excuse for a man who can’t even keep from breaking his own girlfriend’s heart?”

Kodachi thumped him lightly on the nose.  “Wrong answer.”

That did serve to distract Ranma from his remorse.  “Huh?!”

“Ranma, dear… apparently you’ve forgotten a conversation we had not long ago.”

Ranma gave her a confused look.  “Um, sorry… I’ve kinda had a lot on my mind recently?”

“I know, so let me refresh your memory.  You, me, the rooftop of Furinkan.”  Kodachi arched one eyebrow.  “You had almost gotten up the courage to kiss me.  Don’t think I don’t intend to collect on that some day soon, by the way.  But we were interrupted by a moment of empathy between you and Shampoo, in which you felt how lonely she was.

“You were blaming yourself then, as I recall.  You felt terrible about how Shampoo was hurting, particularly that it was partially your doing.  And I reminded you that sometimes pain is necessary for one’s personal growth.”  Kodachi grimaced slightly as she remembered her point at the time had been that Shampoo wouldn’t hurt forever, that she’d grow from the experience and eventually find whatever man was right for her.  Well, that had happened, all right.

“Hurt is not the same thing as harm, Ranma-kun.  Yes, the idea that I will have to share you with Shampoo does hurt.  Even as you just felt from me.”  She stared into his eyes, and cranked the intensity of her gaze up to its maximum.  “It hurts… but the pain I’m feeling because of you is about one-twentieth the pain you’re feeling, because you think you’re harming me.

“That was what I wanted you to realize, when I told you to use the Link to sense the depth of my feelings.  But all you did was obsess about the fact that you had caused me some slight pain.”

“Slight?!” Ranma protested.

“Yes, slight!” Kodachi answered emphatically.  “Ranma-kun… I admit that I’m putting on a brave face of acceptance.  But in time it will be no mask, no charade.  Already I’m beginning to adjust.  I will adapt to this, as will you and Shampoo.  You need to let go of your shame.  You have not betrayed me, or done anything to cause me needless hurt.  Consider what I would have felt, what we all would have felt, had Shampoo fallen in the battle with the Oni.”

Ranma shuddered, then said almost reluctantly, “Well… I guess you’re right.  That woulda been worse than this.”  But his tone made it clear that that only went so far to dispelling the pain.  Might-have-beens were by nature less forceful than the immediate present.

‘Good enough for a start’, Kodachi thought.  After all, if it was going to take her time to get over her pain, she could hardly expect Ranma to let go of his instantaneously.  Aloud, she said,  “I told this to my brother already…  I consider the way things are to be a price worth paying, when it buys Shampoo’s life.  And so that is really what I meant, when I said that after Mousse is defeated things will get back to normal.  It may not be precisely as it was before, but it’s not so terrible, is it?”

“Y- YOU’RE askin’ ME?!  I ain’t the one having to make a sacrifice here!” Ranma protested.

“No?  You consider the pain and abuse you’re heaping on yourself to be no sacrifice?  Really, Ranma-sama, if that’s your idea of fun you could have just stayed engaged to Akane.”

Ranma closed his mouth with an effort.  He just stared at her in wonder for a few moments, then asked, “How can you do it?  How can you just accept this, an’ worry more about how I’m hurting than how much you are?”

Kodachi’s lips quirked into a smile.  “Because I love you, you gallant, wonderful idiot.”

Ranma trembled then, as he looked at her.  No words would come, though he would have given much to know just what to say back, to touch her heart as she’d just touched his.  ‘I love you too’ just didn’t seem to be enough.

Perhaps, a voice whispered in his mind’s ear, it isn’t a time for words after all.

Kodachi felt her heart begin to beat like a bass drum as Ranma slid around to face her directly, took her left hand in his right, then slipped his free arm around her shoulders.  Slowly they began to lean toward each other…

Their faces were less than an inch apart when the door opened.  Tatewaki walked in, glancing around as if searching for something.  Then, as the sight before him registered, he gulped and fled, all thoughts of his misplaced book gone from his mind.

A long moment of awkward silence was broken by the White Rose’s growl.  “My brother is a dead man when next we spar.”  She sighed, then started to say something else… and Ranma moved.

Technically speaking, it wasn’t a very good kiss.  A professional like Mikado Sanzenin probably would have given it a four out of ten at best.  After all, neither of them had any real experience with such things.  Neither had ever trained in Martial Arts Making Out.  The only thing either of them really knew was that this was what you did with someone you loved, to show them how you felt.

The Sanzenin scoring system be damned.  It was enough.

Back at the canal, Shampoo blinked, then focused her attention on Ling-Ling again.  “Sorry, Shampoo not paying attention.  What was you saying?”

Ling-Ling started to pout at being ignored, then let it go as she gave her ‘big sister’ a close look.  Something had obviously just raised Shampoo’s spirits by quite a large margin.  “Big sister Shampoo, why you smiling now?”

“Something just happen.  Shampoo not sure what, but Ranma not hurting near so much anymore.”

Lung-Lung gave her a long look, then shook her head.  “<It still seems so weird, hearing you talk about being able to feel what he does.>”

“<I don’t think it’s weird, just different,>” her twin disagreed.  “<And I bet it would be neat, to be able to do that with Ryoga.  Maybe we should ask Great-Grandmother to set that up for us.>”

Shampoo sweated big-time.  She had told some things about the Heart Link to the twins before she’d learned there was a reason not to, but she was now trying to honor the Matriarch’s wishes that the details be kept as secret as possible.  Best not to let them get their hearts too set on the idea of a Link to Ryoga.  “<I don’t think that’s a good idea.  Remember what I said about how shy he is?  I really think that would be just a little too pushy.>”

Ling-Ling sighed.  “<I guess you’re right.>”  After a moment of silence, she continued.  “<So why was Ranma hurting before this, anyway?  You’re sure he’ll beat Mousse with no problem, right?  What’s he got to be sad over?  He’s going to be getting the best woman in the village for his wife!>”

Shampoo gave the younger Amazon an inscrutable look.  “<Haven’t you figured out yet that the Japanese have a hard time with some of our customs?>”

Lung-Lung frowned.  “<No joke.  I know not everyone is cut out to be a warrior, but come on!  How can these people have any pride in themselves when there’s not a single decent female fighter on this island?!>”

Shampoo arched one eyebrow, deliberately mimicking Kodachi.  “<Not one decent female fighter?!  You’ve certainly forgotten Ukyo pretty quickly!>”

The twins gave identical grimaces.  “<Well, we were TRYING to.  Thanks for spoiling that,>” Lung-Lung said wryly.

“<And besides, Kodachi could kick all three of our butts at the same time,>” Shampoo continued.

Ling-Ling rolled her eyes, sure that she was being put on.  “<Riiight.  But anyway, that’s only two out of who knows how many.  You sure weren’t joking, back when you talked to us about winning Ryoga, when you said the Japanese didn’t care about strength in their women.>”

“<And what does that have to do with Ranma hurting anyway?>” Lung-Lung queried.

Shampoo blinked, then remembered where she’d been going with this.  “<It doesn’t.  That wasn’t the custom I was talking about.>”  She drew her knees up to her chest, and turned back to look out over the water.  “<It’s the one-husband-one-wife situation.>”  For a moment, she felt the typical Amazon disdain for outsiders and their short-sighted ways… then, with a start, remembered the real reason the custom had been adopted among her people.  This left her with a distinctly odd sensation of disorientation.  With a mental shrug, she returned her attention to the conversation at hand.  “<Ranma didn’t grow up thinking it would be okay to love two women and want to take them both as his wives.  But then it snuck up on him anyway.  A bit of his problem is he felt it was wrong in general, to want us both, but mostly he’s been tearing himself up inside because his choice did hurt Kodachi.>”

“<Why should it, though?  I mean, you’re her best friend, right?>”

“<What difference does that make, if she grew up thinking there were some things you just don’t share?>”

“<Well… I GUESS I can see your point… kind of…>” Ling-Ling said almost reluctantly.  “<Do you think she’s going to be okay with this?>”

“<Yes, I do.>”  Shampoo knew SHE couldn’t deny Ranma something he needed.  And Kodachi certainly didn’t love Ranma less than the Amazon did.  “<And I’m not going to make any moves on him until I’m sure she doesn’t have a problem with my doing it.>”

Lung-Lung grimaced.  “<Where’s the fun in that?!  You’ll have a husband you can’t do anything with for who knows how long!>”

Shampoo shrugged.  “<Good things are worth waiting for.>”  It was a lot easier to say that now that she knew her waiting wouldn’t go unrewarded.

“<I guess…>”  Lung-Lung brooded for a bit, then brightened.  “<Well, at least it won’t be like that for us.  I mean, Ryoga might have a bit of trouble swallowing the idea of marrying us both, but at least he won’t have to worry about his first wife feeling hurt that she’s not his only one..>”

“<Hmmm…>”  Shampoo was more than a little sad to see they weren’t even considering the possibility that they might lose to Ukyo.  She still wanted to spare her cousins as much pain as she could, when the inevitable happened.  “<I think you two are being too confident.  Remember what I said about how shy he is?  What’ll you do if he simply cannot accept the thought of two wives?  Would either of you be willing to give him up to the other?>”

“<I wouldn’t ask her to!>”  “<Me neither!>”

Shampoo gave an exasperated sigh.  “<Then what would you do?>”

The twins paused for thought.  After a few minutes, Ling-Ling grinned.  “<We’d just have to make the right choice for him.  If he picked Lung-Lung, I’d dye my hair green and the two of us would switch off, trading places every few days until we both got pregnant.  Then he’d have to accept us both!>”

“<Yeah, good idea!>” Lung-Lung said enthusiastically.

For no apparent reason, Ryoga shivered.  It had felt as if something with a lot of legs, and made out of ice, had just crawled down the back of his neck.  Which was odd, considering that he was currently soaking in a hot bath.

Shampoo gaped for a minute or two, then felt a moment’s pity for Ryoga.  He wasn’t going to have an easy time discouraging his younger suitors, that was for sure.  She thought about saying something else, but decided there wasn’t much chance they’d listen at this point.

Thinking of people who didn’t listen to things they didn’t want to hear made her consider another visitor from her village, and reminded her that she still needed to talk to him…

A quick stop at the Nekohanten gave her Mousse’s location.  Fifteen minutes of walking took her to his camp, in the forests just outside the city.  As Shampoo approached, she heard the shnnk and thock of metal impacting on wood.  The last few steps brought the scene into view- Mousse was practicing an attack sequence, striking with blades that protruded forth from his sleeves.  His target was a log standing on one end, roughly as tall as Ranma.

Shampoo cleared her throat to attract his attention.  Mousse spun around.  His glasses slipped down on his nose in the process, and he absently pushed them back into place.  Shampoo flinched as the blade on his arm came within inches of removing him from the picture for good.  As he peered through the dusk and got a good look at the new arrival, Mousse’s expression broke out into a wide smile.  “<Shampoo!  I- I’m glad to see you.>”

Silently Shampoo doubted that would be the case in a few minutes.  She walked into the clearing, and sat down on a large rock.  Since her perch had just enough room for one person, Mousse had to settle for seating himself near her.  “Shampoo hear match with Ranma is set for two days from today.”

Mousse frowned as he thought of his challenger.  “That’s right,” he said angrily.  “When he challenged me, that worm Saotome set the date of the fight as far in the future as the law would let him, just to make me wait even longer.”

Shampoo slowly shook her head.  “That not true, Mousse.  He need give you time to heal, that mean four days at least.  And we already miss several days of school because of you so Ranma think is better to have fight on Saturday anyway.  It just work out like that.”

Mousse snorted, clearly unconvinced, but didn’t say anything in response.  After a minute or two, he spoke up hesitantly.  “You know, Shampoo, there doesn’t need to be a fight at all.”

That was actually the gist of what Shampoo had come to say, but she suspected that Mousse was coming at an angle quite different from hers.  “What you mean?”

“Come on!  You know what I’m talking about!” Mousse groaned.  “He has no right to challenge me for you if you say he can’t!”

Shampoo sighed.  “Then he have every right to challenge you.”

“Shampoo…”  The Amazon in question was surprised to see what looked like a genuine display of spirit on Mousse’s part as he stared at her.  In the past his backbone had always been only slightly less firm than a wet noodle around her.  But here Mousse was actually managing to look like he expected her to give way to him!  “What more do I have to do?!  I beat you.  That ought to be enough!”

“Enough for what?” Shampoo asked evenly.

“Enough for you to respect me!  Enough for you to admit you care about me!  Enough for you to be my wife now, and not keep putting up more hoops for me to jump through!”

His first statement had actually caused Shampoo to begin to feel some sympathy for him.  As the best fighter her age in a village that prized the way of the warrior above all others, one thing she’d always had was respect.  Sometimes it was all she had, but it had always been there…  at least until she came to Japan.  Tatewaki might respect her now, Shampoo wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter.  When she’d wanted it most it hadn’t been there.  And it was true- she didn’t have any respect for Mousse.  After all, he’d never really done anything to earn such from her.  But she could see how the lack might have hurt anyway, and she could feel pity for him.

However, such feelings curled up and died a quick death with Mousse’s second and third statements.

“<Respect, Mousse?!  You want to earn my respect?!  My heart?!  Beating me in combat isn’t nearly enough for that anymore!>” she hissed.  “<You won with a cheap trick.  Don’t expect me to go all starry-eyed and treat you like Razor reborn, just because I made a stupid mistake in our fight!>”

It was more than enough to blow out the flame of Mousse’s spirit, but his stubbornness was made of sterner stuff.  “<Then tell me.  Tell me what would make you respect me,>” he said bitterly.

Shampoo calmed down again.  She just looked at him for a moment, then asked slowly, “<Yield your claim to Ranma.  Give me to the one I really love.>”

Mousse’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly for several seconds.  Then, finding his voice, he squawked, “<What?!  I’m supposed to win your heart by giving you up to someone else?!>”

“That not question Mousse ask,” Shampoo said, deliberately in Japanese.  “Mousse ask what do to earn my respect.  I answer.”

Mousse seemed to struggle for a few minutes.  Then he looked away, and spoke quietly.  “<Do you know why I’m here, staying in this forest, instead of at the Matriarch’s restaurant?>”

Shampoo blinked.  “<Umm… because Great-Grandmother would throw you out so hard you bounced five times if you showed your face there?>”

“<Come on, Shampoo.  You know the law better than that.  Foreign places owned by anyone of the Joketsuzoku are designated as safe havens for any member of the tribe who needs a place to stay.  She couldn’t throw me out, at least not unless I’d insulted her, or broken some law, or left home without permission.  I could demand she provide a place for me.>”  He frowned off into the twilight for a minute, then continued.  “<But I’m not going to do that kind of thing anymore.>

“<I had a long talk with my mother, after I learned how you weren’t tied to anybody anymore, yet the Matriarch hadn’t bothered to tell me or rescind her order to keep me in the village.  I wanted to know just what I was doing wrong, why your great-grandmother was dead set against me being your husband.>”  Mousse sighed.  “<I didn’t want to hear what she told me.  But I had to accept that she knew what she was talking about.  She said that I’d just been expecting you to give your love to me, that I’d just been demanding it rather than work for it.  That I’d been saying you should be my wife just because that was the way I wanted things to be.>

“<She told me that I’d never become your husband if you didn’t respect me.  She said that I’d have to win that before I could win you.  I told her I’d been trying to do that for years, that’s why I mastered the Hidden Weapons style.  I said she was wrong, that I’d never just expect you to marry me because I wanted it.  She told me I was trying to win you on my terms instead of yours, which basically amounted to the same thing.  She pointed out that no matter how many of the other villagers I defeated, I still hadn’t even tried to take you on.  But how could I?!>”  Now Mousse turned back to look at Shampoo.  “<How could I risk hurting you?!>”

“<How many of your opponents have you killed, Mousse?  Or crippled?>”  Shampoo already knew the answer to this question, or at least she hoped she did.

“<None.  What’s your point?>”

“<…Oh, never mind.  So how did you get up the courage to finally challenge me?>”

“<That was my mother’s advice.  We worked for a long time, planning out attacks that wouldn’t be dangerous but could still defeat you.  And it worked.  I’m sorry it took me so long, but I’ve proved my strength to you now.  Isn’t that enough?!>” Mousse demanded.

“<Mousse…>” she sighed, considering what to say.  Several thoughts ran through her mind.

‘<You don’t respect me.  You don’t respect my warrior’s heart enough to treat me as an equal.  Ranma at least was willing to trust me when I asked, trust his life to my skill.>

‘<You don’t care about what I want.  You scared off all the boys of the village, because you couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else with me.>

‘<You haven’t even considered that I have a life here, or that you’re trying to rip it apart.  The only thing that matters is if you can get what you want.>

All that and more.  All valid objections, all reasons that she didn’t love him and never would have.  But what she actually said was, “<You’re too late, Mousse.  I love Ranma.  I have for a while now.  You want me to respect you?  Then do something really hard.  Give up on what you want, so I can have what my heart longs for.  Because you can have my respect, if you do that, but you’ll never have my love.>”

Mousse stiffened, holding motionless as stone, then said, “<I won’t accept that.  I won’t give you up to some weak, unworthy outsider!>”

Shampoo sent a glare his way that should have ignited the air between them.  Much of its effect was wasted, though, since Mousse’s vision was hardly 20-20 even with his glasses, and the light was pretty much gone by now.  “What give you right talk about Ranma that way?!”

“Why shouldn’t I?!  Your cousins told me he’s never beaten you in battle, except once when he was in disguise and you were tired out from a whole day of fighting.  How DARE he say I’m too weak to be worthy of you when he hasn’t even defeated you for real?!”

Shampoo snorted.  “You misunderstand.  What Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung mean is Ranma never make formal challenge since then.  He wipe floor with me plenty times when we spar.”

Mousse shrugged.  “You know practice fights don’t count under the law.  And even if he’s better than I think he is, even if ‘weak’ doesn’t fit, he’s still not worthy of you.  Not compared to me.

“I’ve loved you since we were little kids.  All I’ve ever wanted was to be with you forever.  Compared to me, he has no right to you!  I’d give up anything, do anything to be with you!  I’d even die for you, Shampoo!”

Shampoo got up, walked over to the log that had served as his practice dummy.  She bent down and picked up one of the many wood chips lying on the ground at the log’s base.  “<Or kill for me,>” she said coldly.

“<He made the challenge under our laws,>” Mousse said with equal grimness.  “<If he can’t handle the consequences, there’s still plenty of time for him to back out.>”

“<Ranma never backs out.  Of course, he doesn’t lose either, so I guess there’s no real need for me to say this.  But I will anyway.>”  Shampoo’s gaze was like cold iron.  “<You said so far you’ve never maimed or killed anyone.  If you break that record with Ranma, I will kill you.>”

Mousse paled.  “<Y- you don’t mean that.>”

Shampoo turned, and walked away.  Over her shoulder she said, “Mousse better believe Shampoo do.”

At school the next day, Ukyo noticed that Ryoga didn’t seem to be all that focused on their lessons.  It looked to her like he was concentrating on something else entirely.  As the lunch bell rang, she decided to ask what was going on.

Ryoga blinked, then seemed to come back down to earth.  “Um, well, it’s gonna sound strange, I know, but I’ve just been off-balance all day long.  I think I’ve been waiting for something crazy to happen.”

“Come on, Ryoga-kun.”  Ukyo was finding it easier to say the endearing attachment, though she was still a long way away from tossing –sama’s around like Kodachi did.  “I know this place is as nutty as a squirrel convention, but we can’t have chaos EVERY day!”

“Exactly.  What happened yesterday?  Or the day before, or the day before that?”

“Hmmm…”  Ukyo considered, then had to admit, “Well, nothing that I can think of.  It has been pretty quiet these past few days.  Even those jackasses in our class have been keeping their war on the back burner.”

“That’s just my point.  The biggest thing going on now is some guy named Mousse from Shampoo’s past has shown up and started bothering her again.  Even won a fight with her last week.”

Ukyo’s face grew concerned.  “Wait a minute, sugar.  What does that mean for Shampoo, with those laws about getting defeated in combat?”

“Nothing, that’s just for outsiders.  It doesn’t mean anything if a guy from her own tribe beats her,” Ryoga reassured the chef, demonstrating the extensive depths of his familiarity with Amazon lore.  “But I guess she’s not the champion of her village anymore.  Kind of a shame, especially considering how Ranma and Kodachi skipped school for two days with her to help her train for that fight.”

“Well, at least she’s not stuck with some husband she didn’t want.  What’s this Mousse doing now to bother her?  Rubbing her nose in his win?”

“I’m not sure.  It could be.”  Ryoga shrugged.  “Whatever it is, it’s got Ranma plenty mad.  Kodachi’s seemed upset too, these last few days.  And Ranma’s got a challenge match set up this Saturday with Mousse.”

“And you don’t think the stuff that’s going on there is crazy enough for Nerima?” Ukyo asked, returning to the original subject.

“Well, no.  Some guy shows up, makes a nuisance of himself, gets beaten up by Ranma.  Ho hum.  What’s the big deal?” Ryoga asked, demonstrating the extensive depths of his awareness of the current developments in the lives of Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo.

Ukyo smirked at him.  “Well, for starters… what if this Saturday is just the beginning?  What if after Ranchan wins, this Mousse guy decides everything in his life is Ranma’s fault, and begins some huge vengeance quest?” she asked teasingly.

Ryoga’s face fell.  “That isn’t very funny, Ukyo.”

Ukyo sighed, her smile fading.  “Come on, sugar, you need to lighten up about that.  Things worked out for the best, didn’t they?”

“I guess.”  The former lost boy decided a change of subject was in order.  Besides, he was curious- the chef had led the two of them to an out-of-the-way corner of the school grounds.  Usually by now Ukyo would have set up her porta-grill in the thick of things and begun whipping out okonomiyaki for the other students.  “Why aren’t you practicing your Art today?”

Ukyo grimaced.  “I think I’ve been putting that little grill through too much.  Some part wore out yesterday, and I haven’t had time to get a replacement.  So I guess the kids have to suffer through one lunch without real food.”  She smiled again.  “Kinda nice to take a break every once in a while anyway, you know?  Cooking up enough okonomiyaki to satisfy the masses is fine for my bank account, but today I think I’d really rather have a peaceful, quiet lunch.”

Ryoga gulped and looked around.  After a few minutes he let out a long relieved breath.  “Well, if anything crazy was going to happen today, surely it wouldn’t’ve missed that cue.  I guess we’re okay.”

“Nihao, bandana boy!”

Ryoga and Ukyo spun around, and gaped to see that Ling-Ling and Lung Lung were standing not five feet behind them.  Since the nearest cover in that direction was five hundred yards away, and it had been just slightly over twelve seconds since Ryoga had finished scanning the area, this was somewhat unexpected.  The twins had big smiles on their faces, and were carrying take-out boxes from the Nekohanten in place of their usual weapons.

Ukyo recovered from her surprise first.  “You two AGAIN?!  Where’d you come from, anyway?”

Lung-Lung tore her gaze away from Ryoga.  She looked at Ukyo, then down at the take-out box in her hands, then back to the chef.  “We come from restaurant.  Bring these,” she said, speaking slowly and carefully, as if to a child.

Ukyo gritted her teeth.  “Then shouldn’t you go deliver them?  Please, don’t let us keep you!”

Lung-Lung shrugged.  “That why we here.”  She turned back to face Ryoga, her big smile reappearing.  “Lunches is for you and spatula girl.”

“For me?  Why?” Ryoga asked.  Then he realized that had to be one of the dumbest questions he’d ever asked.  No doubt they’d say something like “Is duty of wife to provide delicious meal for husband.”

Ling-Ling bowed her head.  “We talk to big sister Shampoo.  She say we play too, too rough.”

“We sorry,” Lung-Lung said.  “We no want scare or hurt nobody.”

“So we practice hard, learn how to make Great-Grandmother special recipe for delicious ramen.”  Ling-Ling’s gaze shifted to Ukyo for a moment, and her voice was less than friendly as she made the next statement.  “Had plenty time to practice while wait for ankle get better.”

Lung-Lung sighed.  “Japan much strange, hard to get used to.  Nothing like home village at all.  We no fit in good here, take time to learn better.  But we trying.”

“So we bring these as apology.  Is one for Ryoga,” Ling-Ling handed her box to the bemused boy, “and one for spatula girl.”  Lung-Lung held hers out to the chef, turning so that her posture prevented Ryoga from seeing her face.

Ukyo’s annoyance at the continuing ‘spatula girl’ moniker was almost enough to distract her from the hint of a smirk on the lime-haired girl’s features.  Almost.  The chef took the box, noting the slight gleam of light in Lung-Lung’s eyes brightened perceptibly as she did so.

Meanwhile, Ryoga was inhaling deeply, enjoying the medley of aromas rising from his box.  “Smells great.  Well, Ukyo, I guess it would be impolite to refuse.”  And since they’d brought Ukyo a lunch too, this couldn’t be part of some scheme to catch themselves an Airen.  “Let’s eat.”

Her hand on his arm stopped him.  “Wait a minute, sugar,” the chef said.  “How about trading boxes with me?”  She watched the twins closely, and felt a surge of triumph as looks of dismay passed swiftly across their faces (unnoticed by Ryoga, of course).

“What for?”

“Well… let’s just say I’m sure the box you’re holding has a delicious lunch, but I’m not so confident about mine.”

Now the looks of dismay were back, and plain for all to see.  Ling-Ling found her voice first.  “What that supposed to mean?!”

“Oh, come on!  I saw right through your little trick.”  Ukyo hefted her box.  “So what’s in here?  Two pounds of habañero pepper extract?  Sleeping powder?”  She glared at them.  “Something that’ll make my hair turn some ungodly color?”

“Stupid spatula girl!  Lunch is perfectly okay!” Lung-Lung bristled.

“Really.  Then I’m sure you won’t mind if Ryoga-kun and I switch.”  With that, Ukyo deftly lifted Ryoga’s box from his grasp, replacing it with her own.

The twins sweated.  “We mind!!”  “We mind lots!”

“Oh, so you admit you tampered with mine then?”  Ukyo smirked, enjoying the taste of victory.

“We not admit nothing!” Ling-Ling snapped.  She continued, her tone shifting from angry to hurt.  “Use just as much care in your lunch as in Ryoga’s.  Should taste just as good, for sure not have no trick ingredients or nothing.  Was just peace offering, try make up for get off on wrong start.  But we see you not interested.  No worry, we not bother stupid untrusting spatula girl again by do something nice.”

The twins turned, and walked away.  “Hey… wait…” Ryoga protested weakly.  They didn’t respond except to pick up their pace, quickly vanishing around a corner.  He sighed, then looked down at the box in his hands.  “Don’t you think that was a little harsh, Ukyo?”

The chef shrugged.  She was a bit uneasy that the twins had left without retrieving the lunch they’d offered her, but she wasn’t about to show it.  “Whatever.  Like I said, I really wouldn’t eat that if I were you.”

Ryoga just continued to stare at the box for a full minute.  At last he frowned, and said, “No, I think I’d better.  They don’t deserve for me to think the worst of them without any reason.”  Quickly, before his resolve could waver, he opened the box and gulped down the ramen.

After a while, it became apparent that nothing bad was happening.  “I think maybe you should apologize to them,” Ryoga suggested reluctantly.

“When hell freezes over!” Ukyo snapped.  She sighed, then set her still-untouched ramen to the side.

“Aren’t you going to eat that?”

“No, I don’t think so.  I don’t have much of an appetite anymore.”

“Well, I don’t want it to go to waste.  Here, let me have it.”  Ukyo passed the box to Ryoga, and he began to take care of its contents.

Ukyo watched him, halfheartedly wondering if the real trick had been in Ryoga’s lunch, and those little Amazon nuisances had meant for her to switch with him… that thought triggered another, and she sat bolt upright, smacking her fist into her palm for emphasis.  “That’s it!!”

Ryoga choked, her sudden exclamation startling him and making some of the ramen go down the wrong pipe.  He coughed for a bit, then asked, “What?!  What’s wrong?!”

“Nothing’s WRONG, exactly.  I just realized what those devious little sneaks’ plan was.  Of course they didn’t need to put anything in either of the lunches.  They just needed to make me THINK they did, so I’d look bad when I accused them!”

Ryoga gave Ukyo a strange sidelong glance.  “Don’t you think you’re reaching a little there?”

“Of course not.  It makes perfect sense!  They get to look like poor little oppressed girls that nobody gives a fair chance to, and I get to look like some kind of ogre.”  The chef gritted her teeth.  ‘Well, I admit it was a clever plan.  But this isn’t over yet,’ she thought darkly.

Ryoga sighed.  “Listen, Ukyo, I really think you’re imagining things.  I know Shampoo pretty well by now, and I don’t think that ‘subtle’ is a strong point for Amazon girls.”

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung slowly made their way back to the Nekohanten.  By the time they reached it, the Matriarch had returned as well.

“<Well done, you two.  You performed admirably.  From what I could see after you left, your future Airen was feeling sympathetic toward you and a bit annoyed at the Kuonji girl’s attitude.>”

The twins broke out into big grins.  Then it had been worth it!  “<Thank you, Great-Grandmother, for helping us come up with that plan!>”  “<Yeah, thanks a lot!>”

The rest of the week passed quietly enough.  Even though she had complete confidence in Ranma’s victory, Shampoo had to admit that it was still a comfort to sit in on his practice sessions.  Watching dummies bite the dust in less than fifteen seconds just gave her a warm fuzzy glow inside, especially after Ranma started draping white sheets around them like robes and drawing glasses on the face.

Mousse remained at his camp, training nearly constantly for the upcoming fight.  Had Shampoo returned to speak with him again, she would have been pleased to see him practicing with blunt weapons rather than bladed ones.  The Chinese boy was still focusing on melee rather than ranged attacks; he figured Ranma wouldn’t be expecting that after witnessing the tactics he’d used against Shampoo.  Plus, it would be more satisfying to give Saotome an up-close-and-personal beating.

After swearing her to secrecy, Tatewaki revealed the latest developments to Nabiki.  The middle Tendo spent the better part of an evening quietly giving thanks that nowadays her life and Tachi’s only touched the fringes of the maelstrom of chaos that had Ranma Saotome at its center.  She even found it in her heart to pity Shampoo- Nabiki didn’t think the Amazon really appreciated what she was letting herself in for.

Dawn followed dusk… the wheel in the sky kept on turning… and then, inevitably, Saturday arrived.

The breakfast table was where Ryoga finally began to clue in to the fact that something was up.  Not just Ranma, but also Kodachi and Shampoo were tense with expectation.  The former lost boy was a little puzzled at this… just what was the big deal anyway?  He didn’t remember his one-time rival ever being this keyed-up before a fight, not even on the night before the Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics match so long ago.

“Ranma, what’s got you so uptight this morning?” he finally asked.

Ranma just stared at Ryoga for a minute, then replied, “Um, you do remember that today’s the day I’m fighting Mousse, right?”

Ryoga shrugged.  “So what?  You think he’s gonna be able to beat you?  Yeah, right.  You know the first time you fight someone for real you always catch them by surprise with your speed.  I just wish Nabiki were taking bets on this fight… I could use a little extra cash.”

The heir to the Saotome School gave a grin then.  “Well, can’t say I disagree with you.”  He looked at Ryoga, calmly eating his miso, and felt a moment’s gratitude.  It was nice to see Ryoga was so confident in him, acting as if Ranma’s victory was such a foregone conclusion that what was at stake didn’t matter at all.  “So, you gonna come and watch the fight?”

Ryoga shrugged.  “Sure, why not.  I could use a good laugh or two.”  Besides, he considered Shampoo a pretty good friend.  Watching some jerk who’d been bothering her get what was coming to him sounded like a good way to spend the morning.

Not much else was said as the four youths finished breakfast, then made their way to the park.  Kodachi distracted herself from her tension by wondering why the city council never seemed to object to the constant challenge matches.  After all, the frequent battles more often than not left buildings damaged, trees uprooted, and grass trampled out of existence.  She would have been quite amused had she known the truth.  The council was composed almost completely of middle-aged out-of-shape fanboy-types who got a vicarious thrill out of the high level of martial arts mastery that was displayed in Nerima on a regular basis.

Although, if she’d known the ENTIRE truth (namely, that one council member had a secret stash of red Chinese silk shirts and black pants, and another occasionally practiced ribbon strikes while dressed up in a leotard embroidered with white roses), she’d have been somewhat less than amused.

This time, Mousse had made it to the battleground early (although he wasn’t the first to arrive-  Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and the Matriarch were there already).  This time, there was no hesitation or trepidation visible in his expression.  He stood at one end of the clearing, looking resolutely ahead, with his glasses pushed up on his forehead so Saotome would be able to clearly see the look of disdain in his eyes.  He did wonder why he was hearing an occasional snicker from the twins.

As Ranma walked into the clearing, he groaned.  The Master of Hidden Weapons was doing a good job of trying to stare down a tree.  Still, Ranma didn’t think his opponent was likely to win that contest.

Any more than Mousse was going to win the one that had brought everyone here.

“Hey!  Duck-boy!  I’m over here!”

Mousse spun at the sound, and more by accident than design his glasses slipped into place over his nose.  He adjusted them, then sneered, “Trying to sneak up on me, Saotome?  And who are you calling Duck-boy?!”

Ranma just closed his eyes, visibly counting to ten.  And why had that name sprung to mind anyway?  He shrugged it off.  “Whatever.  Are you ready for this?”

Mousse inclined his head.  “I am.”  A battle aura began to glow faintly around him.  “I won’t let you have Shampoo.”  The aura grew brighter.  “I won’t let you take her away from me!”  Brighter yet.  “She’s my bride, Saotome!  Not yours!!”

Ryoga’s facefault shook the earth.

Everyone in the clearing gave him a confused glance.  Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung hurried to his side, gently picked him up and began checking him for injuries.  As their future Airen was still too dazed to resist, they were able to take quite a few liberties, the subconscious memory of which would cause Ryoga to wake up in a cold sweat for many nights to come.  It was just too bad Shampoo wasn’t paying them any attention- she might at least have stopped Ling-Ling from claiming his shirt as a souvenir.

“Give it up, bird brain,” Ranma said coldly.  He drew himself into a ready stance, then turned to face the Matriarch.  “<Honored Elder, please bear witness as I challenge Mousse for the hand of the one who would not be his wife.>”  That was the wording Shampoo had suggested he use.

Mousse gritted his teeth and balled his fists, but didn’t say anything.  Cologne smiled inscrutably.  “Certainly, son-in-law.”  Mousse and Ryoga both twitched, one from fury, one from shock.  “What shall be the endpoint of this fight?”

“Same as when Mousse fought Shampoo.  First to unconsciousness or to give up loses.”  Ranma looked over to the White Rose.  “Dachi?  You wanna give the signal?”

“Certainly,” she agreed.  Ranma turned back to face Mousse.  Kodachi took a deep breath, then shouted, “Begin!”

It was the most anticlimactic battle that had been seen in years.

Mousse didn’t even have time to realize what was happening.  The Saotome heir had decided the previous night that he couldn’t afford to win by beating Mousse unconscious.  There was too good a chance he might slip and do permanent damage.  And so Ranma blasted forward at full speed, swept Mousse’s legs out from under him, struck him lightly on the shoulder as he fell, then, as Mousse spun one hundred eighty degrees, tapped his opponent’s Instant Unconsciousness shiatsu point.

A long moment of silence was broken by Cologne’s chuckle.  “Most impressive, Ranma.  Well done indeed.”

Ling-Ling looked up, tearing her eyes away from Ryoga’s bare chest.  “Huh?”  She blinked, then her jaw fell as she saw Mousse was already down for the count.  She poked her sister, who reacted similarly.  The twins felt more than a little disappointed to realize the battle had begun and ended while their attentions were engaged elsewhere.

Some time later, Ryoga sat on a couch in the Kuno mansion.  His head was spinning, and he was trying feebly to grasp who he was, where he was, and how he’d come to be here.  The first two fell into place without too much trouble, but the best answer he could find for the last one was a few hazy memories of stumbling back here in a daze, guided by Ranma.  Well, two and a half out of three wasn’t that bad, he decided as his head cleared some more.  That left him way ahead of most philosophers who’d taken on those questions.

With the preliminary issues settled, Ryoga advanced to another, more difficult one.  He remembered hearing Mousse say something to the effect that the fight between the Chinese boy and Ranma was over who would get to marry Shampoo.  He remembered falling forward and slamming his face into the ground.  The trouble was, which of those events had come first?

On the one hand, hitting his head would neatly explain how he might have hallucinated Ranma challenging Mousse for Shampoo’s hand in marriage.  Just for the sake of argument, Ryoga briefly tried to imagine that what he thought he’d heard had been real, that Ranma really had been fighting to win Shampoo for himself.  That mental picture broke down as soon as he could form it… the reaction he seemed to remember from Kodachi was absolutely inconceivable.  Furious anger from her he could believe in, or, more likely, bitter tears and absolute devastation.  NOT just standing there looking mildly tense.   No, it had to have been a trauma-induced delusion.

However, there were some flaws with that idea as well.  If he assumed the blow to his head had caused the vision, that left him with the question as to what had caused the blow to his head.  And for that matter… Ryoga frowned, then ran his fingers over his scalp.  There wasn’t any particular sore place to be found.  He glanced at a clock, and ruled out the possibility of having been unconscious for hours.  The former lost boy knew that any knock on his noggin sufficient to cause hallucination would have had to leave some traces behind.  And there were none.

Ryoga groaned as his head began to hurt, not because of any hit he’d taken, but from the effort of trying to figure out what had happened.  Okay, start at the beginning.  He thought he remembered witnessing the prelude of a match in which Ranma was challenging Mousse for Shampoo’s hand in marriage, and the shock of that had sent him right out of connection with the world…

… hold on a minute…  sure, Mousse had been blustering and laying claim to Shampoo… but RANMA hadn’t!  Ryoga thought over that for a few minutes, before a light bulb went off in his head.  Of course!  That explained everything!

Now that he thought back, he realized Shampoo had never actually said that the law about women of her tribe yielding themselves in marriage to victorious guys only applied to outsiders!  Sure, whenever she’d mentioned the law it had always been in the context of men from outside the tribe, but maybe that was just because there were no guys from her tribe around.  Until now, anyway.

Ryoga followed the thought to its logical conclusion.  Then that would mean this Mousse jerk had deliberately tried to force Shampoo to be his wife!  That must be why he had fought her last week!  And of course Ranma and Kodachi wouldn’t let a good friend get victimized like that… not when they could prevent it with a simple ruse!  Ranma would challenge Mousse, beat him as many times as it took until the scum gave up and went home, and then he and Shampoo quit pretending to be fiancées.  And that explained why Kodachi wasn’t any more upset at Ranma’s actions.  She knew she wasn’t REALLY losing him.

The former lost boy heaved a sigh of relief, though it was tinged with just a hint of melancholy.  He didn’t think it was going to be all that much fun for Shampoo, pretending to be something she truly wanted to be but wasn’t.  And the longer it took to get rid of Mousse, the worse it would be for her… Ryoga’s jaw clenched with a sudden resolve.  He’d just have to help Ranma and the others make things miserable for this jerk, to get him out of the picture as soon as possible.

Now that that had been settled to his satisfaction, Ryoga turned his attention to a less pressing but more personal question.  Namely… what had happened to his shirt?

As if summoned by the thought, Kodachi walked into the room, carrying one of his spare shirts.  She tossed it to him.  “Here you go, Ryoga.”

The former lost boy quickly shrugged on the garment.  “Thanks, Kodachi.  Um, you wouldn’t happen to know how I lost the one I was wearing, would you?”

“I think it happened after you fainted, when Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were giving you,” Kodachi coughed into her hand, looking off to one side, “first aid.  But I wasn’t really paying attention.”  She sighed, and sat down in a chair.  “Ryoga… no one thought to tell you what was going on, did they?”

“You mean about Mousse defeating Shampoo so he’d become her husband?  And of course Ranma can’t let that happen?  No, nobody did.  But I figured things out for myself just now.”

“I see.  I’m sorry, Ryoga.  I just assumed someone else had told you.”

He shrugged.  “Don’t worry about it.  I should’ve asked why Mousse had challenged Shampoo.”  Ryoga frowned darkly at the thought.  “That jerk.  How dare he try and make Shampoo’s life miserable?  Good thing she’s got someone like Ranma to be there for her.”

“Er… yes,” Kodachi agreed half-heartedly.

“Still, I do wish I’d found out sooner what was going on.  Shampoo’s my friend too, you know.  I’d like to be a part of this too,” Ryoga continued.

“Y- you would?” the White Rose asked faintly.

“Of course!  And believe me, I’m not going to just sit back and let you guys do it all by yourselves.”  Ryoga smacked his fist into his palm.  “Together, we’ll all show that Mousse jerk just why he can’t have Shampoo!”

“HOLD IT!  Time out!!”  Kodachi just stared at Ryoga for almost a minute after her outburst, then hesitantly asked, “Ryoga… just exactly what did you figure out about why Ranma was challenging Mousse?”

Now Ryoga was confused again.  “Ummm… by Amazon law, Mousse could claim Shampoo as his wife when he defeated her, right?”  He waited for Kodachi to nod before continuing.  “Ranma challenged Mousse to get him to give Shampoo up.”  Kodachi nodded again.  “After Ranma won, Mousse lost his claim on Shampoo to him.”  Another nod.  “So now Ranma and Shampoo pretend to be a happy couple until Mousse does give up and go home.  And I’ll be glad to help make things miserable for that jerk so he leaves sooner…”  Ryoga’s voice trailed off as he realized Kodachi was now shaking her head in negation.  “Uh, where’d I go wrong?”

Kodachi sighed.  “Ryoga, you must swear to keep secret what I’m about to tell you.  All right?”

Hesitantly, Ryoga nodded.  She paused for another minute, trying to come up with a good way of breaking the truth gently to Ryoga.  At the end of that time it dawned on her that there was no particular need or reason to break things gently.  “Very well then.  Here’s the short version.  Although the Matriarch originally implied otherwise, the Heart Link is permanent.  And an inevitable side effect is that a man and a woman Linked together will grow to love one another.”  She hesitated for a few seconds, then concluded, “Ranma was quite serious when he challenged Mousse for Shampoo’s hand.”

“I see.”  Ryoga nodded solemnly, then pinched himself as hard as he could.  “Yeoww!”

Kodachi smiled wryly.  “No, it’s not a dream.”

“But then… then what… I mean… you and Ranma… and Shampoo…  What’s going to happen now?!” Ryoga managed to get out.

“Things continue much as they were before, I suppose.”  Kodachi shrugged.  “Except now Ranma can be honest with himself about what he’s really feeling.  And Shampoo doesn’t have to wonder whether she’ll ever find someone she can love that will love her back.”

“And… and you?” Ryoga asked.

“And I… will simply have to adjust.”

Ryoga regarded Kodachi closely.  She was looking ahead, but her eyes were unfocused.  It was clear that her thoughts were elsewhere.  “That doesn’t seem fair,” he said quietly.

She exhaled loudly, a gusty puff of air, then, unexpectedly, gave him a small smile.  “Perhaps not.  But… it’s not as if Ranma-sama loves me less because of this.  The disadvantages are really just in my own mind, aren’t they?  And there are some very concrete advantages to the way things have worked out.”

“Really?  What?”

“Shampoo’s continued existence, for one thing.”

“Heh.  Guess that’s a pretty good point.”

“And even aside from that…” Kodachi searched for the right words.  “Life is full of tradeoffs, Ryoga.  Without the Heart Link, it would have been just him and me.  Shampoo would still be nothing more than a friend to him.  I wouldn’t have to get used to the idea of sharing my future husband.

“And I would only be able to come so close to him, and no closer.”

“I don’t understand,” Ryoga admitted.

“I know.  You can’t know what it’s like,” Kodachi said softly, looking off into the distance again.  “To be able to feel how much he loves me.  When we first were linked, when I saw all his memories, saw myself through his eyes and how much he cared for me… I could not give that up, Ryoga.  It is worth it, to share him with Shampoo, for that alone.

“And so I have two reasons to accept the way things are… Shampoo’s rescue from death, and the connection to Ranma-sama.  Either alone would be sufficient to justify the way things are.  To receive both… I don’t think the price is unfair.  Not really.”

“Well… I’m glad you’re taking this so well…”  They both sat quietly for a while.  Ryoga tried to come to terms with what he’d just heard.  Eventually he said, “I always knew Ranma was overconfident, but this…”  He shook his head in wonderment.  “Wanting two girlfriends at the same time.  He’s got guts, all right.”

Kodachi grinned mischievously.  “Now, Ryoga, don’t sell yourself short.  You have Ranma beaten in that department, or have you forgotten?”  She smiled even more broadly at the sight of his bewildered expression.  “Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, AND Ukyo.  Even Ranma-kun never had three girls after him at the same time.  If anyone in this house is a ladies’ man, it’s you.”

“HEY!  That’s not… I mean, I don’t… Those kids are the ones doing the chasing, not me!” he protested.

“Methinks thou doth protest too much,” Kodachi quipped.  “Besides, those two are hardly children.  They’re of marriageable age under Joketsuzoku law.  Now you just need to teach them to get along with Ukyo and you’ll be set.”

“THAT’S NOT FUNNY!” Ryoga squawked.

“Well, I thought it was,” Kodachi giggled.  Then she sobered.  “But seriously, Ryoga, make sure you don’t hurt their feelings too badly when you let them down, all right?  Remember what it was like when you lost your first love.”

Ryoga sighed.  “You know I can’t stand to hurt girls,” he replied.  “I’ll do the best I can for them.”

The rest of the day passed quietly.  Ranma was mildly surprised not to hear from Mousse, but he decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The next morning, Shampoo pointed out that with all the recent mess with Mousse, they hadn’t been able to spend much time relaxing lately.  In particular they hadn’t had any time to hang out with Ukyo.  Ranma agreed that needed to change, and suggested that the three of them plus Ryoga head on over to her restaurant and see if she wanted to do something.  Kodachi lightly remarked that with the chef along too it would almost be like a double date.

Shampoo didn’t say anything to that, but her smile was like a sunrise.  Ranma smiled too, although his reaction was tinged with a little bit of nervousness.  Still, he was mainly relieved to see that things were smoothing out.

Ryoga just laughed nervously.  And remembered the dream he’d had the night before, and the roles Ukyo and the twins had played in it.  And wished Kodachi had kept her big mouth shut the previous day.

Some thirty minutes later they arrived at Ukyo’s.  It would have been much quicker, except first Ryoga was drenched when a cyclist rode through a puddle, and then, a few blocks later, Ranma carelessly walked into the wake of a water pistol war some children were waging.

By the time they reached their destination, Kodachi was halfway expecting the sky to cloud up and begin pouring rain.  But it was still clear and sunny, and she dared to hope the unwanted transformations were finished for the day.

Shampoo looked through the window of the restaurant.  “Shampoo no see Ucchan inside,” the Amazon said.  “Is time she should be starting set up stuff, yes?”

Ranma shrugged, and knocked on the door, which swung slightly open at the first tap.  He blinked, then opened it and stepped inside.

A shriek and a crash sent the others racing in after him… only to stumble over the prone bodies of Ranma-chan and Ukyo.  The two girls managed to avoid falling into the puddle left by Ukyo’s pail of sudsy water, spilled when Ranma had tripped over her.  Needless to say, Ryoga wasn’t so lucky.

After those who needed it had gotten cleaned up, and the proposal to go out and do something fun was put before her, Ukyo accepted gladly.  The five of them left and began slowly walking down the street.  “So, Ucchan, you got anything in particular you wanna do?” Ranma asked.

Ukyo shrugged.  “Nah, not really.  What about you guys?”

No one else had any burning desire for some particular activity either.  Kodachi spoke up.  “In that case, why don’t we just head toward central Tokyo. I’m sure something fun will turn up.”

It had taken Genma a ridiculous amount of time to jimmy open the lock on Azusa’s cage with one of his claws.  Lockpicking was one larcenous skill he’d never mastered.  But eventually he’d succeeded.  One quick change and one not-so-quick raid on the Shiratori refrigerator later, grumpy, dirty, tired, and incredibly sick of being a panda, he was stalking through the streets back to the Tendo Dojo.

It was just his bad luck that his path intersected with the one taken by Ranma and company… as irony would have it, not five minutes after Kodachi had made her last statement.

Ukyo regarded the sight before her with awe.  “I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it for myself.”

Shampoo shrugged, but there was a proud smile on her face.  “Is possible fit things into too-small spaces if know how.  Amazon secrets.”  She bounced one of her bonbori off the trashcan.  Genma, stuffed inside with the rest of the garbage, moaned faintly.

“Hmmm… was it necessary for us to beat him so thoroughly in order to loosen him up, so that he would fit into its confines?” Kodachi asked.

“No, that part just for fun,” Shampoo answered.  The three girls shared a good laugh at that.

Ranma and Ryoga, standing well back, sweated.  “On that note, buddy, I think I’ll share a quote Dachi heard from her brother once,” Ranma said.

“What’s that?” Ryoga asked faintly, still a little green after the sheer carnage he’d witnessed.

“ ‘The female of the species is more deadly than the male’.”

Some time later, Genma limped back into the Tendo Dojo.  There were mixed reactions at finally seeing him again.  Soun of course was overjoyed that his friend had escaped whatever danger had ensnared him.  Akane was glad too, since she had mastered her latest special technique several days ago and was eager to learn another.  Kasumi gave her usual smile, though it seemed slightly strained.  Nabiki was definitely less than enthusiastic to see him return, but she decided to look on the bright side- at least this way her father wouldn’t be borderline hysterical all the time anymore.

And all three girls wished that Genma had found time to take a bath BEFORE coming back home.

“I tell you, it was a nightmare, Tendo,” Genma shuddered.  “Some psychotic girl thought I’d make a great panda-skin rug and locked me in a cage in her room.  If her mother hadn’t given me bamboo and water while she was at school, I don’t know if I would have survived.”

“Well, I thought you were looking quite fit and trim,” Soun laughed.

Genma gave his friend a wounded look, but Soun was in too good a humor at Genma’s return to even notice.  “It’s no laughing matter,” he protested weakly.  He shivered again, thinking back to his tenure in Azusa’s cage, and in particular the nightmare it had been when she was at home.  Genma didn’t think he’d ever be able to hear French names again without suffering flashbacks.

Nabiki’s nose wrinkled further.  She pulled out a bottle of perfume and began applying it liberally.  “Where’d you get that, Nabiki?” Akane asked.

“Tachi gave it to me.  It’s called Chantelle.”  Genma flinched as if someone had kicked him in the gut.  “What do you think?”

“Um, I think you’re putting it on to mask a certain other smell.  Right?”  Out of the corner of her eye, Akane saw Genma looked like he was about to break down and cry.  Well, if it hurt his feelings to hear that, tough.  He was hurting her nose pretty badly.

“Right you are.”  Nabiki grimaced, waving her hand in front of her nose.  “But it doesn’t seem to be helping.  Kasumi, do you think you could… suggest… Mr Saotome take a bath?”

Kasumi turned and just stared at her younger sister.

“Umm… Kasumi?”

“Nabiki…”  The middle Tendo was shocked nearly out of her mind when Kasumi actually GROWLED at her.  “… did you just say you want Mr Saotome to go and wash off all that filth… IN MY FURO?!”

Akane’s jaw dropped.  Kasumi knew how to do the Demon Head?!

“Sorry, my mistake!!” Nabiki squeaked.  She turned, fished out a wad of yen, and tossed it to her father.  “Daddy, I’m treating you and Mr Saotome to an entire day’s worth of luxury at the public baths.  Please… take your time.”

It was early evening as Ranma and company left Ukyo at her restaurant and headed back toward home.  The rest of their day out had been enjoyably uneventful.  No more random transformations, no encounters with martial artists spoiling for a fight, no hint of trouble anywhere.  It made for a nice change of pace, especially since things had been even more chaotic than usual lately.

And so, when they arrived back at the Kuno mansion, and Ranma found Tatewaki waiting outside for him, holding out what was obviously a challenge letter, he was perhaps more annoyed than he would normally have been.

“You missed him by only half an hour or so,” Kuno said gravely.  “That Mousse fellow came by with intent to challenge you for a rematch for Shampoo’s hand.”

Ranma read through the challenge letter, then clenched his fist, crumpling it.  “Guess I better go give him his answer then,” he growled.  “Shampoo, you know where he’s staying, right?”

“That right.”  The Amazon was glaring at the note as if she would rather it were Mousse’s neck clenched in her Airen’s fist.  “Shampoo take you to his campsite.”

“Thanks.”  Ranma turned to the others.  “This shouldn’t take long.”

“Ranma-kun… wait.”

“Huh?  What is it, Dachi?”

Kodachi hesitated, wondering whether there was any point to the request she was about to make.  Deciding that even if there wasn’t she wouldn’t feel right if she didn’t try, she continued.  “Why don’t you let me take your answer to him instead.”

“Um… why?” Ranma asked, puzzled.

“I want to try to reason with him.  After all, even leaving aside the question of the Heart Link, isn’t it true that Mousse no longer has a right to make this challenge?  Since you aren’t part of the tribe and he is, I mean.”

Shampoo shrugged.  “Is so, but like I say before, should no expect that to stop him.  For Mousse, what matter is what Mousse want.”

“Even so, I’d like to try to argue him out of this.  Besides, what date and time did he specify for the match, Ranma?”

“Noon on Monday, a week from tomorrow.”  Ranma frowned.  “That jerk, I bet he deliberately picked a time that’ll make us miss class.”

Tatewaki gave him a wry look.  “And since when does that prospect break your heart?”

The Saotome heir snorted.  “It’s the principle of the thing.”

“And we’ve certainly missed enough class as it is, thanks to him.  I’d like to resolve this now, if possible.”  Kodachi frowned.  “It’s time to move on past this ridiculous obsession of his anyway.”

“Indeed.  This Mousse character is truly blind, in more ways than one.  How can anyone receive the kind of rejection he has and still delude himself into thinking he has a chance?” Kuno mused.

“So, that’s why I asked, Ranma-kun,” Kodachi continued.  “It may only be a slim chance, that I’ll be able to make him see reason, but what can it hurt?  And I’d prefer not to drag things out for another week if it can be avoided.”

Ranma shrugged.  “Well, if you want to try, go for it.  Then, after he doesn’t listen to a word you say, tell him I’ll be there for the match.”

“Ranma, you should try to keep a positive attitude,” Ryoga said.

“Shampoo have that.  Shampoo positive Kodachi is wasting her time.”  The Amazon turned to Kodachi.  “You want go now?”

“Well, actually, Shampoo, I was thinking it might be better just to go by myself.  Didn’t you already try talking sense into him?  And it didn’t do any good.  I thought it might have more impact if I told him you were so disgusted at his stubbornness that you weren’t even willing to come see him.”

“Is worth a shot.”  Shampoo gave the White Rose directions to Mousse’s campsite.  Kodachi left, and the rest made their way inside.

As the others started to walk off toward their different rooms, Tatewaki spoke up.  “Shampoo, wait.”  She turned back to face him, an inquiring expression on her face.  “There was something I wanted to tell you.”

“What that?”

Kuno’s brow wrinkled thoughtfully as he tried to decide on the best way to begin.  “Well… concerning this situation with Mousse… if it had to happen at all, I’m glad it happened now, and not several months ago.”

“Shampoo glad too.  Look how much trouble he cause.  If come sooner, would maybe have been even lot worse.”  Who knew?  Given his track record of keeping guys away from her, he might even have managed to prevent the Heart Link from ever happening, Shampoo thought with a mental shudder.  Then she tried not to feel guilty.

“Maybe, but that isn’t really what I meant.”  Kuno looked away.  “Had he come back when you were still… pursuing me, I probably would have encouraged him in his suit.  Perhaps even tried to help him.  And I’m sorry, Shampoo.  You wouldn’t have deserved that.”

Shampoo just looked at him for a few moments.  At last she said, “So you no think Sham- I was just like Mousse, after you like he after me?”

“No.  It wasn’t that bad.”  Almost, but not quite.  However, Kuno knew where to draw the line between tact and thoughtlessness.  Besides, it wasn’t like Shampoo had had a free choice in the matter.  “And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry I didn’t try to understand your situation as I should have.  I didn’t want to treat you so coldly, but I thought it would be for the best, to get you to give up quickly.”

“Still, it hurt very much,” Shampoo said quietly.

“I know.  I… have many regrets.”  He regretted not listening to his sister when she told him not to actually defeat Shampoo, back in the ice cream shop so long ago.  He regretted not trying to understand Shampoo’s situation.  Most of all, he regretted the resentment he’d held toward the Amazon… he wasn’t proud of how he’d handled things with her, and for a quite a while afterward he had been angry at her for putting him in such a position.  That had been mostly on a subconscious level; he hadn’t even been aware of it until fairly recently.  “I’m sorry.  I have been for a while.”

“So why didn’t ya say something sooner?” Ranma asked.

Tatewaki jumped.  “Saotome, I thought you’d left with Ryoga.  This was meant to be more or less a private conversation.”

Shampoo shrugged.  “Is not like it not important to Ranma.  Besides, he has all Shampoo memories of that time.  Maybe do good for him to hear this as well.”

“Well… anyway… as to why I didn’t say anything until now…”  The collar of his shirt seemed to be chafing Kuno’s neck.  He tugged at it as if trying to loosen it.  “I… that is… I didn’t want to give you anything that might encourage you… I didn’t want you to start chasing me again…”  His voice had been getting lower and lower, and they basically had to read his lips to get the last sentence.

Shampoo blinked.  For s second, it looked like her face was starting to rearrange itself into a new expression, then she forced her features back to neutrality.  “So you want to spare Shampoo further hurt?”

“Yes, more or less.”

“And even back when Shampoo first chase you, what you do was try to do what you think best for me?”

“That’s right, though my judgment frankly stunk.”

“So is truth, you never really hate me, and no wish evil, even though Shampoo cause you much trouble?”

“Yes.  I was angry, sometimes, but I never hated you.”

In a flash the neutrality disappeared.  Shampoo’s eyes grew wide and sparkly, and a big grin split her face.  “Wo de Airen… WO AI NI!!”

Tatewaki’s face turned the sickly gray of wet ashes, his eyes even wider than Shampoo’s.  He stumbled back in horror, raising his arms in a futile attempt to ward off the incoming glomp…

… and then realized that Shampoo was on her knees, holding her stomach with one arm, pounding the floor with the other, laughing so hard it looked like even odds on whether or not she’d be able to maintain consciousness.  Ranma was laughing every bit as hard, though with the support of the wall at his back he’d managed to remain on his feet.

Kuno wiped the sweat off his brow.  “Ho ho and ha ha.  Very funny.”

“Oh man… your face…” Ranma wheezed between guffaws.  “Where’s Nabiki… with a camera… when you need her?”

After another few minutes of hilarity, Shampoo managed to regain her composure.  “That why you wait so long?  You worried if you give Shampoo slightest bit of kindness, I might forget everything else and start chase you again?  Not until you learn truth about Heart Link you think is safe to apologize?”

“Er… well, yes…”  Kuno’s collar seemed to be giving him some trouble again.

“Hmmph.  You have big ego, Tatewaki.  But Shampoo accept apology anyway.”  The Amazon smirked at him.  “Besides, you should no have worry- Shampoo no want settle for second best.  You good warrior, but Ranma is better.  He have you beat with ego too.”

“Come on, Shampoo, don’t rag the poor guy… HEY!  Whaddaya mean by that last crack?!”

Shampoo stuck her tongue out at him.  “Is rhetorical question, yes?”

Ranma groaned theatrically, turning to face Tatewaki.  “Thanks a LOT, buddy.  Now you got her in a playful mood.”

This time, Mousse wasn’t practicing.  He was just sitting there, looking off into space.  Kodachi told herself this might be a good sign.  She approached and cleared her throat.

Mousse looked up.  “You?  Where’s Saotome?  Didn’t he even think enough of me to answer in person?” he asked angrily.

Kodachi felt her hopes, not that high to begin with, sink a little lower.  “I asked him to let me come, and give you his answer for him.”

“Well, go ahead,” Mousse said.

“First, I have a question for you,” the White Rose replied, seating herself.  “Mousse… according to the Matriarch, you have no right to make this challenge.  For pity’s sake, Shampoo hasn’t even given you permission!  What exactly do you think you’re going to accomplish?”

“What do you care?!” he snapped.  “Just give me his answer, and go away!”

“No.  Not until you answer me.  Tell me how you think you’re going to get around the law.”

Mousse glared at her.  “All right, fine, I will.  I know even if I defeat him, by the law he’d still be her Airen.  But if I do prove myself stronger, she could still pick me.  It would mean some dishonor for her, but not too much.”

Kodachi just stared at him for a minute.  “Let me see if I have this straight,” she said at last in a stunned tone of voice.  “If you defeat Ranma, and do it soundly enough to prove that you’re a much better fighter than him, then Shampoo could forsake him and choose you, and only suffer the loss of some of her honor for the choice she made.”  Mousse nodded.  “And you honestly think this is going to happen?!”

He gave her an even harsher glare, then looked away.  “It’s the only chance I’ve got,” he muttered.

She opened her mouth, then changed her mind about what she had been going to say.  “Mousse… Ranma-kun would have come, to give you his answer himself.  But I asked him to let me do it instead.  Because I wanted to try to talk to you first.

“Please, give up now.  No good can possibly come of this.  You’re holding onto illusions, you’re hoping for something that has no chance of happening.  You aren’t going to defeat Ranma.  Even if you did, Shampoo would still stay with him.”

“What do you know?!” he snapped.  “What gives you the right to speak for her like that?!”

The sheer gall of that statement nearly made Kodachi go for her ribbon.  Exercising iron restraint, she limited herself to a verbal response.  “Do you see her here?!  No!  I just got directions from her instead.  She was so disgusted with your stubborn refusal to accept reality that she didn’t even want to see you!”

Mousse flinched visibly, as if she’d plunged a dagger into him.  “I could have lived the rest of my life without hearing that,” he said bitterly.

“Could, yes.  Should, no,” she said forcefully.

“Look, you’ve said your piece.  Just go ahead and tell me he agreed to the fight, and get out of here.”

“You stubborn idiot!  What does it take to make you face reality?!  This is pointless, Mousse.  All you’re doing now is wasting our time and hurting yourself!”

“Oh, well, let me just apologize for the inconvenience!” he sneered.  “And I’ll suffer as much as I have to, to make my dream come true!”

“Will you?!  Will you throw away everything you have, in pursuit of the impossible?!  It would be different if she cared for you, but she doesn’t.  You’re imagining something that just isn’t going to happen.  Don’t you think there must come a time to cut your losses and start anew?”  She was pleading now.  “Mousse, there is only so much in this world that we can change to suit ourselves.  Not all dreams come true.  I’m sorry that’s so, but it is.  And your dream of Shampoo as your wife is one such.”

“SHUT UP!  I’m sick of hearing this!  If it had to be someone feeding me this crap, at least it should be Saotome and not you!  You should be helping me!!”

“Helping you?  What on earth do you mean by that?”

“What do you think?!”  Mousse fixed her with a piercing stare.  Well, it would have been piercing had his glasses not completely hidden his eyes.  “Do you WANT to share Ranma with her?!  You ought to work with me!  Then you could have him all to yourself, and I could have my beloved Shampoo, and everybody would be happy!”

In later days, Kodachi would think back to this moment, to Mousse’s words and the expression of unreasoning obsession on his face, and realize that this was where she let go of the last of her resentment at the way things had turned out.  At the moment, though, she wasn’t really capable of introspection.  She was too dumbfounded even to respond.

Mousse continued.  “Don’t tell me it doesn’t worry you,” he said.  “Don’t tell me you haven’t even thought that if things don’t change, you could wind up a distant second to Shampoo in Saotome’s heart.  Is that what you want?”

By now, Kodachi had recovered somewhat.  It was lucky for Mousse that all she felt capable of was speech.  “That will never happen.”  For a second she seriously considered explaining the depths of the Heart Link to him.  After all, SHE had never promised Cologne not to say anything.  But then she abandoned the idea as unworthy of her.  “I know Ranma-kun better than that.”

“Do you.  Do you really.”  Mousse found he believed her, certain from the tone of her voice that she was speaking from rock-hard certainty.  “So he loves you that much, does he?   I wonder… if…”

“ ‘If’ what?” Kodachi asked.

“Saotome has taken the woman I love,” Mousse said slowly.  Kodachi found she didn’t quite like the expression on his face.  “I wonder what would happen… if I did the same to him.  If you know him so well, what do you think he’d say, if you didn’t come back tonight?  Do you think he’d still show for our match, if he knew his absence would see you safely back to him?”

“Is that a threat?!” the White Rose snarled.  For just a second, Mousse had the oddest impression that she ought to have black hair…

… then her expression relaxed.  For the duration of this conversation, Kodachi had been sitting on the same rock that had earlier been Shampoo’s perch.  She now slid off and knelt down next to it, placing one palm on its surface.  “Mousse… I think there’s something you should see.”  She concentrated, then poured chi into the rock in almost the same configuration she’d use for a Blast Ball.

The boulder disintegrated.

Mousse’s jaw dropped.  Kodachi stood up, and spoke quietly.  “For your sake, Mousse, I’m going to assume that little game plan was idle speculation on your part, and not tell Ranma-kun.  But since you asked me a question, I suppose I should answer it.

“If you were to try such a stunt…” she sniffed, looking down at the pile of dust at her feet, “… and if by some freakish mischance you were to succeed in imprisoning me, you might well not live to regret it, after Ranma heard the news.

“Like I said before, I wanted to try to talk some sense into you before giving you Ranma-kun’s answer.  But I know when I’m wasting my time.  He agrees to the match.”  Kodachi hesitated for a second.  Ranma hadn’t told her to add this next part, but she knew him well enough to be confident it was true.  “Don’t expect him to go so easy on you, this time.”

On returning to her home, Kodachi sought Ranma out and gave him an edited version of how things had progressed.  True to her word, she left out Mousse’s less-than-inspired idea of kidnapping her.  She did tell Ranma that she’d warned Mousse not to expect much in the way of mercy.

Ranma grunted.  “Did that make any difference to him?”

She sighed forlornly.  “No.  I wish he’d just give up on this.  Not only for our sake, but for his own as well.”

Ranma slowly shook his head.  “I don’t think he can.  He’s just too obsessed with Shampoo.  He ain’t strong enough to let go.”

“Ranma-kun?  Do you… have to fight him?” she asked hesitantly.

He shrugged.  “What other choice do I have?”

“Well… as I was walking back, I remembered something that I think we all forgot.  The Matriarch promised she’d give us whatever aid we needed.  Now that you’ve beaten him officially, and the Heart Link need not enter into her reasons for doing so, why shouldn’t she just send Mousse back home?”

Ranma was quiet for quite a long time as he turned that thought over in his mind.  At last, he said, “No, I don’t think that’s gonna cut it anymore.  I don’t think he’d obey that order.  Even if he did, it wouldn’t really settle things.  He’d still be out there, bitter, obsessed with her, maybe just waiting to pop up again when we don’t expect it.”

“But do you think defeating him again next week is going to change that?” Kodachi asked, reasonably enough.

Ranma gave a grim smile.  “Yeah.  I promise you this, Dachi-chan.  After I get through with him, he ain’t ever gonna bother Shampoo again.”

Kodachi found herself remembering that declaration the next week, as she, Ranma, and Shampoo made their way to the vacant lot where Mousse had designated the match would take place.  She thought to herself that the weather certainly was doing a good job of building dramatic tension.

The day was preternaturally still- there was no wind at all.  The sky was completely devoid of clouds, and the sunlight was almost painfully bright.  The fierce light seemed to leave everything with a harder edge than normal.

As they walked toward the lot, Shampoo was trying to enjoy the fact that soon she wouldn’t need to worry about Mousse ever again.  But, as pleasant as the thought was, she kept getting distracted from it by the ripple and flow of Ranma’s muscles.

Like I said, the fierce light seemed to leave EVERYTHING with a harder edge than normal.

They arrived at the lot to find Cologne waiting for them.  The twins came racing up a few minutes later; their errand had taken longer than they’d expected.  And then everyone was there except for the one who’d called them all out.

About a quarter of an hour later, Kodachi turned to the Matriarch.  “It’s past noon,” she pointed out.  “Doesn’t that mean he’s lost by default?”

“If Ranma so chooses, yes, he could declare himself the victor,” Cologne replied.

Ranma grunted.  “No.  I’ll wait for him.”  The twins gave him looks of mixed incredulity and outrage.  The vehemence of their reaction would have puzzled Ranma, if he’d noticed it.  But he was looking off into the distance.

And ten minutes later, his vigil was rewarded.

As Mousse approached, and entered the lot, he received quite a number of shocked stares.  His robes were wrinkled and smeared with resin and leaves.  His hair was sticking out at strange angles, due to the sap in it.  “Sorry I’m late,” he gritted through his teeth.  “Somebody booby-trapped my campsite this morning.  When I stepped out of my tent, I had the joy of getting pinned underneath two falling trees.  And whenever I got close to squirming free, another would fall on top of the pile.” Ling-Ling casually plucked a leaf out of her hair.  Lung-Lung clasped her hands behind her back, so that the sap still adhering to them wouldn’t be noticed.  Both twins looked off into the wild blue yonder, whistling a carefree tune.  Kodachi echoed Ryoga’s earlier thoughts on Amazon girls and subtlety.

“Well, I guess the generous thing for me to do now would be to tell you it’s okay to wait till later to have the fight, when you’re rested and all.”  Ranma snorted.  “Too bad I ain’t going to.”

“I don’t recall asking you for charity,” Mousse sneered back.  “I’ll beat you just the way I am now.”  He turned to the Matriarch.  “For this fight, the endpoint is going to be a little different.  The loser will be the first to leave this lot.  However that happens… fleeing… knock out… or death.”

‘Or if one of you should lose his glasses and stumble out blindly?’ the Matriarch thought.  However, she was generous enough not to say it aloud.

Mousse walked to the far end of the lot and took up a ready stance.  “Matriarch, if you would give the signal to begin, once everyone else has left the area?”  The various girls (and one who had once been a girl, a long, long, loooonnnnng time ago) vacated the lot.

For just a moment, time seemed to stand still as the two antagonists stared at each other.  Ranma noted that Mousse was far enough away that even moving at top speed wouldn’t be enough to get him within reach of his enemy before the other could react.  But he hadn’t been planning to try the same trick again anyway.

Cologne watched the two calmly, waiting for something to mar the perfect tableau before she would announce the signal to begin.  A leaf blowing between them… that would be the perfect sign, she thought.  It had an artistic elegance that appealed to her.

Too bad there was no wind.

After a few minutes had passed, both Ranma and Mousse were beginning to get a little impatient.  Both felt a desire to bounce something heavy off the Matriarch’s head, but neither was willing to look away from his opponent, lest Cologne pick that very moment to give the signal.

Cologne was becoming more and more frustrated as well.  By her ancestors, this fight was NOT going to start without a proper omen!

At Furinkan, in an unused upper classroom, Koga and the rest of the chemistry club were spending Monday lunch as they always did, trying to find a formula to turn lead into gold (they were waiting for success in this endeavor before officially changing their name to the Alchemy club.  They felt, rightly or wrongly, that waiting till then would mean fewer jokes at their expense).

On the grounds below, Shinji kept his eyes glued to his watch.  Five… four… three…

Koga reached for the sodium hydrochloride, not noticing that the liquid in the flask seemed slightly off-color, or that it was the only bottle whose label was crisp and new…

… two… one…

A massive boom rocked throughout Nerima.  Cologne blinked, grinned, then shouted, “Begin!”

Ranma tensed, waiting for his opponent to make the first move…

And while this wasn’t the worst thing he could have done, it wasn’t a particularly good idea either.

From the depths of his robe, Mousse produced a bulging pouch.  Closing his eyes, he threw it forward as hard as he could.  The flash bomb traveled less than a third of the distance to Ranma before slamming into the ground and detonating, but it was powerful enough that the heir to the Saotome School was still temporarily blinded.

The ugly truth of his situation dawned on Ranma almost immediately.  He was sightless, quite a distance away from an opponent who mostly relied on ranged attacks.  He tensed, then jumped straight up as hard as he could.  Hopefully this would throw Mousse’s aim off until he could get his sight back…

Ranma landed from his leap just as his eyes cleared.  He was surprised to see Mousse still standing where he’d been at the beginning.  There was no sign that he’d even launched any attacks while Ranma’s vision was missing in action.

Mousse had, however, taken the opportunity to put on a gas mask.

Ranma began to get a bad feeling about this.  A quick frantic look around revealed no trace of noxious vapors, but that didn’t mean anything.  It could be invisible, or Mousse might just not have launched the attack yet.  Ranma didn’t particularly want to give him a chance to, and began stalking forward, ready to blaze into top speed if Mousse even so much as slipped a hand into his robe.

It was at that moment that a light breeze began to blow from Mousse to Ranma.

Shampoo stared in dismay as Ranma began to choke and gag.  Anything that Ranma was smelling she should have detected as well, with the way the wind was blowing.  That she didn’t had to mean…

‘Oh, man, it must be the guy version of that stink-solution that only affects men or women!’  Ranma thought desperately, trying to bring to mind the particulars of that Amazon trick.  Such as how long it lasted.  Choking and gagging as he was, he didn’t have enough breath to hold for long enough to rush Mousse.

The Chinese boy in question regarded his foe with grim delight.  The only drawback to this plan was the need to wear the gas mask.  It prevented him from taunting his opponent.  Deciding that he could do that after his victory, Mousse pulled out a handful of small globes and tossed them at Ranma.

By sheer luck his attack missed, the target choosing that minute to jump backward and into clearer air.  But the blast as the bomblets struck was close enough to Ranma to knock him off-balance in the air.  He landed awkwardly, and Mousse launched another set of explosives, advancing so that Ranma was unable to get completely out of range of the smell.

Kodachi’s hands were clenched convulsively as she watched her boyfriend scramble and dodge around the lot, trying to get some breathing room.  Mousse pursued relentlessly, and it was all Ranma could do to weave his way through the fiery onslaught without receiving more than a minor singeing.

And then, Mousse ran out of fireworks.  Ranma, who’d managed to get upwind, gasped and panted, wondering why his opponent had let up.  Just another minute or two, and he’d be recovered enough to try and get close enough to finish this.

Sometimes, a minute or two might as well be an eternity.

Mousse had been standing perfectly still, his hands hidden in his sleeves, his triumphant smile hidden by his gas mask.  He now unfolded his arms, revealing and throwing several small pouches toward Ranma.  His opponent jumped, getting five feet away before the projectiles landed.  As they exploded, launching a cloud of concentrated anti-male stench solution, that was revealed as being not nearly far enough.

More by reflex than by conscious choice, Ranma shot backward,  landing nearly at the edge of the lot.  He’d been knocked more than halfway to unconsciousness from the sudden assault on his sense of smell.  The frantic worry he felt from Shampoo and Kodachi helped snap him back to reality, though.  He looked up, to see Mousse begin throwing the pouches with abandon.  However, this time none were aimed at Ranma.  With a terrible chill, he realized that Mousse had already rendered nearly a third of the lot untenable for himself.  And the half-blind boy didn’t seem to be running out of pouches.

Desperation caused Ranma’s tactical planning abilities to kick into overdrive.  He looked around, seeking something, ANYthing that could help him turn the tide…

Ling-Ling blinked as Ranma frantically shrugged off his shirt.  “<He’s got a good body, but I think Ryoga’s is better.  Don’t you?>”  Her twin nodded, also wondering just what Ranma was up to.  Maybe he was going to try to wrap his shirt over his mouth, to filter the smell?  But without soaking the cloth in the proper mixture, that wouldn’t work.

Of course, Ranma knew that just as well as Lung-Lung did.  He knelt down, scooped a double handful of dirt into his garment, then twisted the shirt, put as big a chi charge as he could manage into it, spun it like a bolo, and let the unorthodox missile fly.

The onlookers stared in amazement as Ranma’s impromptu projectile soared into the nearby street… and smashed into a fire hydrant.  The ruined hydrant shot out a spray of water at incredible speed, which blasted into the totally unprepared Mousse and sent him flying clear out of the lot.

Ranma, who had braced himself, fully expecting that his Jusenkyo curse would cause the water to hit HIM, thus rendering Mousse’s stink attack null and void, was caught off-guard by this.  He stared blankly for a moment, then pulled himself together.  Stalking forward, the pig-tailed martial artist stopped next to his foe, who had been smashed against a nearby building.  Ranma was sincerely glad that the force of the water had washed off the stink powder from his opponent.

Mousse pulled off the gas mask, and glared murderously at him.  “This… isn’t over yet… Saotome…” he gritted out.

“Wrong,” Ranma said coldly.  “It ends here and now.”

The last sight Mousse saw before the darkness claimed him was a small green bottle, labeled 110.


To be continued.

Author’s notes: I’m assessing a fine on anyone who seriously expected Ranma to kill Mousse.  If that’s you, donate ten dollars to the nearest branch of the Audubon society (that’s a group dedicated to the appreciation and preservation of birds ^_^).

Seriously, though, this is the last chapter I’ll spend belaboring the unhealthy nature of Mousse’s obsession with Shampoo.  Like Kodachi said, it’s time to move on past it.  And if, perchance, anyone reading this is a <shudder> fan of the Shampoo-Mousse matchup, may I direct you to Wade Tritschler’s anti-Shampoo-Mousse page?  The link is http://derekloffin.anifics.com/moandsh.htm .  And one original series reference that he doesn’t make there, that I think should be made, is this.  At the end of the second movie, Nihao My Concubine, when Mousse gives his all to rescue Shampoo from the birdman, what does he say, when he’s only about half-conscious after his victory?  Why, it’s “Shampoo… is… MY bride…”  NOT “I won’t let you hurt Shampoo…”  If ever you wanted a true example of his attitude toward her, that’s it right there.

If you’re a fan of Mousse… you probably shouldn’t be reading this if you like him the way he is.  But if you want to see things work out better for him than they do in the original series, well, so do I.  I just have no qualms about putting the characters through painful situations in order to force them to personal growth.  As Kodachi said, “Hurt is not the same thing as harm.”

Thanks to Jim Bader for C&C.  Next time:  The chapter that could have had a Dragonlance title.

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

Chapter 10
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