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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.

The characters from Slayers are owned by Hajime Kanazaka and Rui Araizumi, and the Forgotten Realms belong to Wizards of the Coast.

Chapter 10:  Roses and Thorns

"Hey, Ryoga, we're friends, right?"

Ryoga blinked, wondering where that had come from. He was walking to Furinkan with Ukyo, as he usually did these days. "Um, sure, Ukyo. Why'd you have to ask?"

Ukyo ignored the question. "And… well… friends tell each other stuff, right? I mean, if something was going on, and I felt like I had to tell somebody or bust, I could trust you, couldn't I?"

Ryoga gave her a searching glance. Admittedly he was no expert on girls or their moods, but it looked like Ukyo was feeling apprehensive. She was chewing on her lower lip, and her brow was wrinkled with what sure looked like a worried frown to him. "Of course you could," Ryoga answered staunchly.

"Good." In a flash the worried look dropped off Ukyo's face, and she fixed him with a gaze that was more like chilled steel than anything else. "Then you wanna tell me what's been going on lately?"

The sudden shift caught Ryoga completely off-guard. "Ah… huh?" he asked intelligently.

The chef gave an exasperated sigh. "Come on, Ryoga-kun, I'm not blind. It's obvious that something big has happened." Now the apprehensive look was starting to reappear. "I've noticed… every time I've seen you around Shampoo this past week, you've been staring at her an awful lot. And a couple of days ago you were completely out of it, you weren't paying attention to anything going on around you. That wouldn't have anything to do with Shampoo being out sick then, would it?"

"Out sick?" Then Ryoga remembered that was the excuse Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo had used to get out of class in order to be present for the fight with Mousse. "Ah… I guess you could say that…" he temporized, trying to come up with a good cover story that wouldn't blow the others' secret.

Ukyo looked away, so he wouldn't see the pain in her eyes. 'Always just a friend, never anything more,' she thought bitterly. Aloud, she said, "I see. Can't say I blame you, Ryoga. She really is a knockout, isn't she?"

Ryoga scratched his head. "Ukyo, I got lost somewhere in this conversation," he admitted. "What are you talking about?"

The chef gulped, rallied her courage, and turned back to face him. "Are you or are you not trying to get up the guts to tell Shampoo how you really feel about her?"

"Um… I'm pretty sure Shampoo already knows I'm her friend…" At that point, Ukyo's actual meaning got through to Ryoga. A huge drop of sweat appeared on his forehead. "Wait a minute… you thought I was… for Shampoo?!"

"Well, why not?" Ukyo wouldn't have believed her mood could improve this quickly. But then again, she also hadn't thought Ryoga would find the very idea of himself and Shampoo as a couple impossible to swallow. "I mean, she is pretty darn sexy. And you wouldn't have to worry about those little punk cousins of hers getting in the way. Not if you were… going after her, I mean. So why wouldn't you?"

"Me and Shampoo?! Ukyo, that's completely ridiculous!"

Ukyo was almost fully reassured now. In fact, she was starting to enjoy this. Ryoga was so far off balance, it was all she could do to hold in a fit of the giggles. But that didn't mean she was going to let up on him just yet. "Give me one good reason why, sugar."

Just how far off balance was Ryoga? Well, his response to her request should serve as a good indication.

"Because Ranma would squash me flatter than one of your okonomiyaki."

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Ryoga got the feeling that he'd have done better to think that one through first. Heck, even 'Because Shampoo wants to see you and me get together' would have been less of an indiscretion. A bit late for second thoughts now, though.

Ukyo just stared at him. At last she shook her head. "No, you can't possibly mean what I thought you meant…" She fell silent, and her eyes widened almost to the point of displacing her nose. After gulping a few times, she asked, in a tiny voice, "Ryoga? Does what you just said… have anything to do with Amazon customs? Like, the same custom that's letting those two little runts chase you together instead of squabbling over you?"

The former lost boy heaved a deep sigh. Not much point in holding back now… the cat was well and truly out of the bag. "If you mean the Amazon law that lets a guy marry more than one girl… yeah."

"I think I need to sit down," Ukyo said faintly. Putting action to words, she seated herself on a nearby bench.

Ryoga joined her. "I just found out about it last week," he admitted. "Can't say I've gotten used to it yet, either."

"So that's why you've been staring at her so often…" Ukyo thought back to the times she'd caught Ryoga at that, and realized that it hadn't just been Shampoo he'd been looking at, it had been Ranma and Kodachi as well. And come to think of it, they hadn't been in school either that day when Shampoo had supposedly been out sick… the chef gulped, trying to banish the images that suddenly sprang to mind as to what the three had likely been up to on Monday.

"And that's why I was so far out of it on Monday," Ryoga continued. "I wanted to be with them, but we had that big English test. I didn't think I should cut class. Should've known better, though, I wasn't able to concentrate at all."

"Y- you wanted to… be with them?! Ryoga… that's… that's…"

The former lost boy blinked. "Oh, yeah, of course you don't know what happened then. Ranma had a challenge match with Mousse, over Shampoo." He grinned sheepishly. "I was kinda wrong when I told you that Mousse beating Shampoo before didn't have anything to do with Amazon marriage customs."

Ukyo bit her tongue, and decided that as soon as Ryoga was out of sight she'd kick herself. Hard. "So he was her husband until Ranchan beat him up on Monday? Poor Shampoo."

"Nah, it wasn't that bad. Ranma challenged him for Shampoo a couple of weeks ago, right after Mousse defeated her. Remember I told you about that one? Until that challenge was resolved, Mousse couldn't have claimed her. Ranma beat him then, which was when I finally learned what was going on. Mousse challenged him to a rematch. That was the fight they had on Monday."

"And Ranma did win, right?"

Ryoga snorted. "You have to ask? Of course he won. From what I heard, Mousse managed to put up a pretty good fight, but Ranma still took him down."

"Hmmm." Ukyo looked off into the distance. "You think that's gonna settle it? Did Mousse challenge Ranchan to another rematch?"

"No. He isn't going to cause any more trouble for them. Ranma made sure of that."

Mousse stood on the edge of the shore at evening, and looked out over the water. It was a cloudy day, but there was no wind. The ocean lay flat in the stillness, its dull surface unmarred by the presence of boats, waves, or diving gulls. The water was at rest, calm, colorless, and empty.

It almost reminded him of himself.

Closing his eyes, Mousse thought back to that one last moment of blinding rage, when he'd seen Ranma hold up the formula for memory erasure. Even as he'd fallen into unconsciousness, he'd been railing against his opponent, and swearing with all the strength of his will that he'd defeat the Xi Fang Gao, that he would NOT forget Shampoo.

And he hadn't. But then, that hadn't been Ranma's goal anyway.

When he'd come back to consciousness, he'd felt… different. Somehow tired, and in some way… less… than he'd been before. The Matriarch had been waiting for his revival, and had explained to him just what Saotome had done.

Ranma hadn't erased his memory of Shampoo, she told him. He'd figured that Mousse's strength of will would eventually throw that off, especially if he were surrounded by reminders of Shampoo. And that would certainly be the case whether Mousse stayed in Nerima or went back home. So Ranma decided to turn Mousse's will to his own ends.

And what he'd sealed was every trace of Mousse's love and desire for Shampoo.

He could still see her face, just as clearly in his mind's eye as ever he had. Her features were still as lovely as ever. Mousse concentrated on the familiar fantasy, then deliberately altered the mental image, to Shampoo standing hand-in-hand with Ranma, to Shampoo kneeling beside Ranma in an Amazon marriage ceremony, to Shampoo presenting Ranma with their firstborn child.

And none of those images roused even the slightest spark of emotion in Mousse. Not love, not longing, not rage, not devastation. Just a sort of disinterest, as if he were contemplating something on another world, something that had no power to touch him, that had nothing at all to do with him.

Mousse returned his attention to the ocean. This time he imagined a sailboat on the water, one of those fancy models with a high-powered engine that could take the place of, or even outperform, the sails. He imagined that boat lying becalmed, the sails hanging flat in the absence of wind, and the engine off-line because it had burned the last of its fuel. The boat would just drift along, moving aimlessly with the currents of the ocean. It was a good metaphor, the best he could think of for his own life.

Up until now, he'd never even realized just how much of his existence was caught up in his dreams of Shampoo. No matter how hard the going got, thoughts of his goal were enough to carry him along. He'd told Kodachi that he would suffer as much as he had to, to make his dream come true, and suffer he had. Only just now was he starting to realize how much.

Mousse considered the sailboat analogy again, viewing his past through that paradigm. Shampoo had been friendly to him, once. That could be considered the wind, the force that had started him along the course he'd followed for so long. But the wind had shifted, Shampoo hadn't taken well to his advances. Mousse had already set his course, though, and once the wind was no longer favorable he'd simply engaged his engines. His stubbornness and obsession. They'd allowed him to hold true to the course he'd chosen, even as the winds blew harder and harder against him.

But the engines had quieted, now, and they would not restart. Mousse knew that for certain. It was the way he wanted it, after all.

Some thoughts of Shampoo did still have the power to invoke emotions in him. When he thought of the past, how he'd treated her, how she'd treated him, feelings of anger and disgust directed toward himself surged forth. He could see now, at least in a metaphorical sense, and what he saw of himself sickened him. A blind, obsessed fool, unable to see what was clearly truth, unwilling to accept anything that ran counter to his will. But he wasn't blind anymore. Ranma had taken away all the old, comforting illusions, stripped them away and left him to face the harsh light of reality.

And so Ranma had won for good, Mousse thought tiredly. Even if someone were to offer to wash his hair with 119 shampoo, he wouldn't accept. He would not go back to being what he once was. He gave one long last look at the seascape before him, then turned and began making his way back toward the harbor. His ship wouldn't leave for another hour at least, but he'd had enough isolation for now.

Mousse relaxed as he walked along, deliberately emptying his mind of all thoughts, both of the benighted past and the uncertain future. He would return to China, to his village, though he didn't know yet whether he'd find what he was looking for there. But at least it would do for a beginning, with his family there to help him search for what he wanted so much.

A place to stand.

While Mousse was staring out over the water, Kodachi was at home, strolling through the gardens. After a few minutes of aimless walking, enjoying the sight and scent of growing things, she caught a glimpse of motion from the rose area. She turned, and made her way in that direction, intending to say hello to her mother. However, on passing through the hedge wall that separated the rose boudoir from the rest of the garden, Kodachi was quite surprised to find it was actually Shampoo in Hitome's sanctum sanctorum.

"Nihao," the Amazon said, turning her gaze from one of the rosebushes and giving Kodachi a wan smile.

"Nihao yourself," Kodachi said, regarding Shampoo with a puzzled look. "What's wrong?"

Shampoo didn't answer directly, instead turning back to face the rosebush she'd been inspecting. She reached out and gently touched one of the snow-white blooms. "This rose like nothing Shampoo ever see before."

"Yes. Mother developed that particular strain. She started with the lightest-colored roses she could find, and worked her way to this." Kodachi walked over and knelt down beside the bush, smelling deeply of one of the larger blooms. "A rose of purest white, with a beautiful scent, which she created for me. Even with her horticultural skill, it took her many years to perfect. It was my eighth birthday present," she said softly, remembering. "She brought me out here and showed me the bushes, and told me that she'd worked for years to make the roses just right. Just for me."

"Is because of this you name yourself White Rose, back when Ranma first meet you, yes?"

"Well, partly," Kodachi said, a little embarrassed. "I quit using that nickname when I left the St Hebereke team, though. I didn't expect it would follow me as thoroughly as it has."

"Why? Why you stop using other name?"

"I guess… the best thing I could say is that I just wanted to feel that my own name was good enough." Kodachi groped for words. "When I first met Ranma-kun, and introduced myself to him, I told him the reason I called myself the White Rose was because the captaincy of the St Hebereke team required such a nom de guerre. That was true, but it was also true that without even realizing it I had begun thinking about that identity as a shield, something to protect me from the pain when others would reject me out of hand. But then I met someone who didn't, who wanted to be close to the real me. After that, I didn't want to feel like I was hiding behind some mask."

Shampoo wasn't quite sure she understood the point Kodachi was trying to make. "That silly, Kodachi. Should not feel like other name not good enough. Was based on gift from your mother, yes? She made this rose just for you, worked very, very hard and created a new special thing for you because she love you. Should be proud to call self White Rose."

Kodachi's brow wrinkled in thought. "I didn't think about it like that," she admitted at last. "Perhaps I will take that name up again someday, now that I can say for sure it wouldn't be something to hide behind."

Shampoo looked back at the rosebush, running one finger idly along a stem. Once again Kodachi was conscious of her friend's strange melancholia. "Besides, Mother still needs to do a little more work on the rose before I can truly justify naming myself after it," she said in an overly-serious tone.

"What you mean?"

"Well, look at it," Kodachi answered. "The variant Mother developed has no thorns at all. I mean, I'm sweet but I'm not THAT sweet."

Shampoo snickered at that. "Shampoo think you have point. Maybe it needs to have small thorns. Bet Ranma would no agree, though. He would say rose is perfect likeness right now." Kodachi blushed, and the Amazon laughed again.

After a minute or two of companionable silence, Kodachi asked again, "So what were you thinking about, when you looked so downcast earlier?"

Shampoo sighed. "Kodachi… would say this rose is best present you ever get?"

The White Rose frowned in puzzlement, but gave it serious thought. "The absolute best present… no." This was clearly not the response Shampoo had anticipated; the lavender-haired one turned to face her with an expression of startlement. And unless Kodachi was mistaken, there was more than a bit of indignation in there as well. She continued, "The rose is third, I'd say. The gift from my father meant more, when he left all his comforts and tracked down a cure for me."

"Ohhh," Shampoo said, the annoyance vanishing from her face. "Should have think of that." Then her expression turned puzzled again. "But what is second best gift?"

"Wrong, wrong, wrong," Kodachi teased her. "The cure was the second best. You ought to have guessed that."

"Then what you…" Shampoo stopped as the obvious answer dawned on her. "Of course. Ranma."

"Indeed. I still don't know what's bothering you, Shampoo, but take heart. That which I consider the most precious gift I will ever receive… Ranma's love… is yours, too." The White Rose gave her friend an inquiring stare. "Doesn't that make you feel better?"

Shampoo smiled. "Is so." She sat quietly for another minute, then spoke up again. "What you say, tell me about how mother worked to make this rose for you, Shampoo already know from Ranma's memories. Also know this is mother's special place, just like secret room full of magic stuff behind hidden tunnel in cellar is father's. That why I come here now."

"You wanted to feel as if you were close to Mother?" Kodachi hazarded a guess.

"Want to imagine that someday I will be." Shampoo sighed. "You already hear about Shampoo's mother. And we both know Ranma's no is here no more. But you still have both parents, is only one of us who do. I hope that someday they come to accept me as daughter too. At least hope they no hate me forever."

"Hate you?! Come now, that isn't right! My parents don't hate you!"

"Maybe father not. But can really say you no see how mother not want to be around me? How awkward she act when I there?"

"Well, yes, I have," Kodachi was forced to admit. "But I'm sure she doesn't HATE you! Besides… haven't you noticed that it's not just you? She's seemed the same way to me, too. I think… I think she may be disappointed in me… she may disapprove of the choice I've made…"

"Please, stop!"

At that anguished plea, both girls whirled to find Hitome standing off to one side. The pain on Kuno matriarch's face showed she'd been cut to the heart. She hurried over and sat down near the girls. "You're wrong, both of you are wrong! I know I've been distant, and… and maybe a bit cold. But it was because I was feeling so terrible about how I failed you, Kodachi dear! It was my guilt, not anything you did!"

"G- guilt, Mother?" Kodachi asked faintly. "What do you mean, you failed me?"

Hitome turned to face Shampoo, and for a second her distress was replaced by a brisk, matter-of-fact tone. "Please don't take any of what I'm about to say to my daughter personally, Shampoo." Then she turned back to Kodachi, and the pain reappeared. "Where were your father and I when Shampoo first showed up and caused so much trouble for Tatewaki? Malaysia! Where were we when you children put your lives on the line in battle with an Oni? Madagascar! And where were we when you discovered that Ranma didn't love only you anymore? Montana! So many times when we should have been there for you, and instead we were off traveling to some exotic location!"

Kodachi decided not to mention that in two of those three instances, they'd been glad the elder Kunos hadn't gotten back until after things were more or less settled. "Father's love of travel is a basic part of who he is. Should I resent that, when he was incurably infected with wanderlust during his journeys to find a cure for me? And you and he have never left either Tachi or myself alone when we wanted you to stay here, or when we wanted to go along on whatever trip was planned. In case you've forgotten, that was true of all three of the times you mentioned just now. Are you blaming yourself for not being able to see the future?"

"I'm blaming myself for not being there when you needed me!"

Kodachi took a moment to study her mother before responding. "Mother, let's get down to the heart of the matter. Do you wish you had been here, so that you might have prevented the Heart Link? Do you wish you could have kept me from the necessity of sharing Ranma's love?"

Hitome reluctantly nodded, wishing that her daughter hadn't been quite so blunt about it while Shampoo was sitting right there with them. "You shouldn't have to make such a sacrifice, Dachi. A parent's job is to watch out for their children and keep them from getting hurt like that!"

"Do you see me crying? I admit the idea took some getting used to. But I have let go of my resentment." Kodachi fixed her mother with a challenging stare. "As far as I'm concerned, Shampoo is my sister. Maybe not by blood, but the bond is still that strong. And among the Amazons, good sisters always share with each other."

Hitome mulled over that for a few minutes, then asked hesitantly, "Are you certain, then, daughter? Are you truly not unhappy at how things have worked out?"

Kodachi took a moment to think back. She pictured Shampoo's face when the Amazon had first woken from unconsciousness thinking she'd become Mousse's wife. She remembered the experience of touching Ranma's soul and living his memories. She concentrated on the Heart Link, reaching out to sense Ranma, and was rather amused to realize he was lurking in the bushes listening to everything that was being said. Then she brought her attention back to her surroundings, and answered firmly, "Mother, I am HAPPY with the way things stand now."

Hitome regarded her daughter closely for a moment, then breathed a sigh of relief and folded her into a hug. "I'm sorry you thought I was unhappy with you, dear. I'm not. I'm proud of you, for accepting this and not letting it come between you and Ranma, or resenting Shampoo for it." She turned and faced the Amazon. "Please, don't think that I dislike you or wish you had never come into our lives, Shampoo. It's just that I want my children to be happy."

"Is okay. Shampoo understand that. Would even have understand if you do hate me." The Amazon gave the elder Kuno a big smile. "Am glad I was wrong about that."

"Sometimes it's better to be wrong," Hitome agreed. "As I was, for thinking my dear little Kodachi had to be miserable with the way things have worked out." She paused, took a deep breath, then continued. "Shampoo, I know that your life has been hard, that it seems like you have suffered in some of the same ways as Ranma has. For a long time now I have been glad to be there to support him, and I dearly look forward to the day when I can do so officially as his mother."

Kodachi fought down the urge to turn and direct a sultry look toward Ranma's hidden vantage point.

Hitome continued speaking. "I wasn't expecting to add any more daughters to my family. Well, other than Nabiki, of course. I can't say I've gotten used to the idea yet. But if you'll give me the time to adjust, I'll see if I can't learn to be a mother to you, too."

A couple of days passed, and the school week neared its end. Though she'd adjusted somewhat to what she'd learned in the last few days, Ukyo was still finding it difficult not to stare at Ranma, Shampoo, or Kodachi when she saw them at Furinkan. Plus, while the chef wasn't much of a gossip, having to keep something THIS big to herself was still a bit of a strain. At least she could discuss it with Ryoga as they walked to school.

Ah, there he was now. "Good morning, Ryoga. So, when d'you think Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo are gonna stop hiding what's really going on?"

Ryoga paused, wondering how high that ranked on the 'top 100 strangest conversation openers ever'. "I don't think they plan to at all," he replied. "At least not while they're still in school. Can you imagine what the rumor mill would say if they got ahold of something like that?"

Ukyo shrugged. "Like it would be any crazier than some of the stuff that's already going around? I know for a fact there's several students who think Ranchan is a girl disguised as a guy, although I guess that one could've happened from somebody getting a glimpse of his curse."

"Probably so." A thought occurred to Ryoga, and he paled. "Has anyone said I'm really a pig disguised as a guy?!"

Ukyo rolled her eyes. "Oh, yeah, that would really be an easy story to swallow. I can just see somebody jumping to that conclusion, after you disappear and a little black pig shows up near where you were," she answered sarcastically.

"Well, you never know," Ryoga protested. "These guys will believe anything. A long time ago, Kodachi's brother, Tatewaki, began challenging a girl named Akane Tendo to spar in the mornings before class. All he wanted was to help her get to be a better fighter, but somehow the rumor got out that he liked her, and was challenging her because anybody who wanted to date her had to beat her in combat first. That just goes to show you what kind of nonsense Furinkan students will swallow."

"Really? Was this before or after Shampoo came onto the scene?"

"Before. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, you must admit it sounds an awful lot like Amazon customs."

"Huh." Ryoga blinked. "Guess you're right— it actually would make sense if they'd gotten that idea from Shampoo." The former lost boy shrugged. "But this was way before she got here. They made up that crazy story all on their own."

"Oh. Well, I shouldn't be surprised. That's not even the funkiest thing I've heard through the grapevine. The other day I met some nutcase who was SURE Kodachi was a vampire," Ukyo said gravely. "Just because she's got pale skin and violet eyes."

Ryoga stared. "And what about when she goes out in direct sunlight without crumbling into a little pile of dust?"

Ukyo grimaced. "I asked that too." She gave him a serious look. "Ryoga, I'm going to give you an opportunity I didn't get, and let you take the question back."

He blinked again. "Why? Will I not like the answer, or something?"

"You got it, sugar."

For a long moment, curiosity struggled with discretion in Ryoga's mind. At last he braced himself and said, "Go ahead and tell me, Ukyo. I'm a man. I can take it."

"Don't say I didn't warn you." Ukyo paused for dramatic emphasis, or maybe to give Ryoga a few more seconds to change his mind. Then she said, "Sunblock. Lots and lots of sunblock."

Ryoga walked along quietly for a few moments, then said calmly, "I don't think I've ever looked forward to graduation as much as I am right now." Ukyo laughed at that.

"Seriously, Ukyo!" They had just rounded a corner and come within sight of Furinkan. Ryoga gestured passionately at the building. "This place is a nuthouse! Sometimes I worry that if I stay there too long I'll wind up as crazy as those idiots Shinji and Koga!"

Ukyo thought about pointing out that with his curse and his Oni heritage he was already well over even the Furinkan average for strangeness, and thus probably not at risk for any further departure from the norm, but decided to spare Ryoga's feelings. Besides, his rant had given her a better idea anyway. "Well, we wouldn't want that to happen, now would we, sugar? And you know, I wasn't really looking forward to class that much anyway. Why don't you and I give it a miss today?"

"Well, I don't know…" Ryoga's uncertain response was interrupted as Shinji suddenly stormed past them through the school gates. The youth was sporting a radical new mix of hair colors that would have looked out of place on even a Chinese Amazon. Both Ryoga and Ukyo heard the croquet captain growling and muttering under his breath, though the only words they could make out were 'Koga' and 'justifiable homicide'.

Ukyo and Ryoga sweated, then turned back to face each other. "Right. Why should Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo be the only ones who skip when they feel like it? Let's go," Ryoga said briskly.

Several minutes' passage found the two of them in one of the local parks. Ryoga took a deep breath, enjoying the fresh air. How the air managed to be fresh, considering how near they were to downtown Tokyo, was a mystery that didn't occur to him; if it had, he might have reflected that living in Nerima had its pros as well as its cons.

Ryoga wasn't really in the mood for deep insightful thoughts just then. He looked around with a big smile on his face. "You had the right idea, Ukyo. This is more like it. A nice peaceful day, with none of the craziness we'd have to put up with if we were back at Furinkan." He glanced over at Ukyo, who hadn't heard a word of this. The chef's attention was fixed on something behind Ryoga's back.

"Excuse me."

The former lost boy turned, and stared. The speaker looked like he was a couple of years older than Ryoga. He was tall, even taller than Tatewaki, with blond hair and blue armor, an empty scabbard at his side and a naked blue-green iridescent blade slung across his back. He seemed uncomfortable, and more than a little out of his depth. "We're looking for a friend of ours. Her name's Lina Inverse. She's about this tall," he gestured in the region of his upper chest, "with reddish orange hair and violet eyes. Oh, and she's a bit flat-chested, too. Actually, make that REALLY flat-chested. But… she's also kinda cute…" For a moment the earnest look in the blond man's eyes was replaced by pain. Recovering, he asked hopefully, "Do you know anyone like that?"

Ryoga mutely shook his head in negation. The swordsman looked at him closely. "Are you sure? I forgot to mention that she likes to throw fireballs around when she's upset. That ring any bells?" he asked, now more desperate than hopeful.

The swordsman's companion spoke up. "Gourry, that's enough. This isn't the right world either. If it were, he would have been able to help us."

Gourry turned and faced the other, a man whose hood and garments almost hid the fact that his skin was blue and composed partly of stone. "But what about the spell, Zelgadis?! You said it pointed right to this guy, as if he'd met Lina before! Heck, you even said that it was registering so strongly that she was probably a big part of his life!"

Zelgadis bowed his head, sorry now that he'd gotten his comrade's hopes up that far. "Remember what I told you about analogues, Gourry? I warned you it might just mean he'd met someone who was this world's version of Lina, or even somebody who was closely related to that person." He gestured at Ukyo. "For all we know, this young lady could be the analogue. In any case, there's no point in staying here any longer. We shouldn't put more of a strain than we have to on Amelia and Sylphiel. Even as strong as they are, keeping the portal open and a stream of magic flowing to me takes a lot out of them."

Gourry sighed, and seemed to sag. "Okay," he said quietly. To Ryoga, "Sorry to bother you." Zelgadis hesitantly placed one hand sympathetically on Gourry's shoulder, then made a mystic gesture with the other. The glowing ball of light bobbing along several feet behind him expanded into a doorway. The two turned, and walked through the portal. It closed behind them, vanishing without a trace.

Ryoga just stood there for a few minutes longer, then sat down on a park bench. Ukyo joined him. "My reality check bounced," he complained.

Ukyo shrugged. "Hey, it could've been worse," she replied. "From some of the stuff I've heard from you guys, if Ranchan had been here those weirdoes probably would've wanted to fight him. I'd say you got off easy, sugar."

Thinking back over some of the stories he'd heard from Ranma and Kodachi, Ryoga brightened. "Well, when you put it that way…" He looked over at Ukyo, scrutinizing her carefully. "You know, it really impresses me that you don't get any more weirded out by all the stuff that goes on around here. I've been here a lot longer and I still have problems with it."

"Yeah, well… sometimes it's a pain, but sometimes… sometimes I kinda like it At least it isn't boring."

"Me, I think I'd like a chance to try boring, one of these days. You may think so too, after you've been here awhile longer."

"Maybe. But Ryoga-kun, you gotta realize where I'm coming from here. I spent a decade denying who I really was, obsessed with getting vengeance on Ranma for something he didn't even do! Even as crazy as this place is, it's a whole lot better than that."

Ryoga breathed in deeply, then slowly let the air back out. Perhaps this time his subconscious at least took note of how mysteriously smog-free it was. "You know what? You're right. And I ought to look at it like that too. My life IS a lot better now than it used to be." He looked off into the distance. "In fact, there's only one thing I really want to change right now."

"The way those two half-pint Amazons refuse to get a clue?"

He shook his head. "My parents. Remember what I told you about how my family get lost all the time? Well, not me anymore, but my mother and father still do. I'm hoping that when they eventually show up here Shampoo's great-grandmother will be able to do something about that."

"You miss them, huh, sugar?" she asked sympathetically. "How long has it been since you saw them?"

"For my mother, about a month and a half. For my father, it's been almost three quarters of a year. And I only got a few days with each of them then. I just hope things won't be like that forever." Ryoga frowned thoughtfully. "What about you, Ukyo? How're things with your family? I remember you've told us some things about your clan history, but you didn't say much about personal stuff."

It was Ukyo's turn to look off into the distance. "Actually, Ryoga-kun, I kinda envy you a little. At least you've got a chance that your family will eventually be able to get together again. My mother died when I was about a year old. I never even got to know her."

Ryoga gulped. "I'm sorry, Ukyo. I didn't mean—"

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. "It's not like you offended me or nothing, sugar. I don't mind talking about it. At least, not with you." She gave him a sidelong glance and was mildly disappointed to realize the significance of that last statement hadn't registered with him. Disappointed, but not surprised. "Anyway, my dad had to raise me by himself. And maybe you already guessed, what with Ranchan not knowing I was a girl back then, but he didn't really know how to do that. It wasn't like he tried to make into his son or nothing, it's just… all he could teach me was what he knew, y'know?"

"What did he think, when you renounced your femininity for revenge on Ranma?"

Ukyo was quiet for a few moments before responding. "I'm not sure. We never really talked about it. Right at the beginning he asked me if I was sure this was what I wanted. I said it was, told him how the other girls were all teasing me at school. He didn't try to argue with me, or tell me whether he thought it was a good idea or a bad one. Just enrolled me in a new school and helped me work out a stricter training schedule." The chef laughed at that, one of those dry, humorless laughs. "Fat lot of good that last part did, at least when I fought Ranchan. But then, my old man's no Genma Saotome. Thank the kami for that."

"What does he think about the way things are now?"

"Er… well…" Ukyo wiped a large bead of sweat off her forehead. "I actually kinda… haven't told him yet…"

Ryoga just stared at her for a few minutes. At last, he responded, "You've quit pretending to be a guy. You've given up on vengeance against Ranma. You've beaten the one who was really responsible for the dishonor to a pulp. Don't you think your dad might want to know some of that?!"

"Well… eventually, yeah…" Ukyo tried frantically to come up with a way of getting herself off the conversational hook without admitting she was waiting until she could introduce her new boyfriend to her father at the same time. "Thing is, Ryoga, I'm not sure whether he'd be happy with me letting Ranchan go scot-free. So I'm waiting and keeping quiet. Eventually he's gonna get worried enough about not hearing from me to come down in person and check on me. I figure if I wait till then, he'll be glad enough to see I'm doing okay that he won't be upset about Ranma or nothing."

Ryoga reflected on how long it had been since he'd seen his father, and how glad he'd be if he should happen to run into him unexpectedly, and how much he'd appreciate the chance to spend some time with him without worrying the old man would disappear the minute they were out of each other's sight. The former lost boy thought about these things, and decided he didn't much like Ukyo's little plan. But since he had no idea of how to say that tactfully, he decided to change the subject. "What about any other family? You're an only child, right? What about uncles, or cousins, or anyone else?"

"Well, an aunt and uncle I never knew before showed up a few months ago, along with their kids. Their oldest son was the guy you rescued from the 'street gang'. Actually, their arrival was part of why I came here now. With them around, I didn't need to help Dad out in the restaurant any more. And I was ready to try and make it on my own." Ryoga, as one who'd been forced to make it on his own far too often, thought a bit sourly that some people didn't know when they had it good. Ukyo continued speaking, oblivious to his attitude. "But the only other family I really knew growing up was my great-uncle and my great-grandfather."

"What're they like? I never knew any of my relatives, other than Mom and Dad."

"I don't remember much of Great-Granddad. Just that he was totally into the okonomiyaki martial arts. My great-uncle, though…" Ukyo was quiet for a few moments as she thought about how to continue. At last, she replied, "He's the strangest mix you ever saw of somebody living in the past and looking to the future."

Ryoga blinked. "How exactly do you pull that off?" he wondered.

"Well, you start by being really into clan history," Ukyo mused. "Mix in the knowledge that a lot of the most important things in Japanese history didn't make it into the textbooks because nobody would believe them. And then you throw in the certainty that the Kuonji family is destined for great things in the future, that our tasks aren't done yet."

"What do you mean, your tasks aren't done yet? What tasks?"

The chef gulped. "Did I say that? Ah heh heh… I meant our GLORY DAYS aren't done yet! Yep, that's definitely what I meant to say. Actually, that's what I did say. You just misheard me, is all."

Ryoga just looked at her. After enduring his stare for a few seconds, Ukyo felt her resolution crumble. "Oh, heck, it's not like I've got any reason to worry about the stupid legend anyway," she grumbled (squashing the impulse to look nervously over her shoulder to make sure her great-uncle wasn't standing behind her). She took a deep breath. "You remember what I already told you about my clan's history, right?"

"That the Kuonjis as they are today were formed six hundred years ago, from the union between a ninja clan and a family of okonomiyaki chefs? That for a long time, you were assassins who used your cooking skills to hide the family's darker side?"

Ukyo nodded. "And after the ninja duties died out, we began practicing the okonomiyaki martial arts openly. That's what I told you guys, but I left out a lot of the more important stuff."

"Like what?"

She hesitated before responding. Old habits died hard. Then she frowned at herself, and said, "Well, the ninja duties… didn't exactly die out. Not as such. What happened was they got replaced by other ones. We were given several tasks, by one of the kami no less, and were charged to keep them absolutely secret until they'd all been accomplished. Supposedly if anybody talks before then to somebody not connected to the clan, they'll be punished by the spirits, or fate, or something like that. Uncle Toshi wasn't too clear on it… you know how grown-ups are when they're trying to scare kids into being good. Ominous and vague. Anyway, I figure that part could just be something somebody made up in the past to help keep the whole thing secret."

"Still, I don't want to get you in any trouble," Ryoga said uncomfortably. "Why don't we talk about something else?"

Ukyo shrugged. "Just admitting what I have means I've already crossed the line. Telling you more wouldn't make a difference. Don't worry, Ryoga. The tasks WERE all completed. My dad told me that himself. I think Uncle Toshi just wants to think they aren't. I mean, if there's still stuff that only we can do, then that makes us important. Means he can be proud of what we're going to do, not just what we've done."

"Well… what were the tasks, then?" Ryoga asked. Reluctantly, because he still didn't like the idea of getting her in trouble, but was too curious now to let the matter slide.

"There were four of them," Ukyo began.

"Four? Not three?" he interrupted, surprised.

"This is reality, not fantasy literature, Ryoga-kun," she pointed out. "The easiest one was to guard a treasure until the one who gave us the tasks came for it again. We finished that one after only a hundred years. Kind of a shame… the family history has it that the treasure was a sapphire as big as your head, and if you looked into it you could see light swirling around inside it. I'd have liked to see it… supposedly when the kami or whatever he was took it back, he said it was the seed for a new universe, that it was finally ready to sprout and he was gonna go plant it in the Ethereal Void. Or something like that."

"Other worlds, huh… I guess that's what those two guys were going on about earlier. I wonder how many there are," Ryoga mused.

"I guess there's some things we'll never know," Ukyo answered. "Anyway, like I said, that was the easiest of the four tasks. Nobody even tried to take the jewel from us, according to family history. But the rest of the tasks were a lot harder."

"So what were the others?"

"Well, the hardest was to 'oppose the Rakshasa'. They're, er, they WERE a race of evil-spirit-type things with a lot of dangerous powers. They really got off on torturing and slaughtering anybody weaker than themselves. What's worse is they could change their shapes, and were really, really cunning. They liked to get into positions of power and then try and stir up war." Ukyo shuddered— as a little girl, the stories her great-uncle told her about the Rakshasa had always scared her spitless. "We were given a bunch of special powers to help fight them. Magic was tied right into our bloodline, and we got training in how to use it. But I don't know a lot of that. Uncle Toshi taught me a few things, but my old man stopped him. He said it wasn't right for a kid to have to shoulder that kind of burden now that the Rakshasa were gone."

"They're all gone? You sure about that? I mean, you said they could change their shapes. What if they're in hiding, just biding their time and gathering their strength?"

Ukyo shook her head. "Nope, the last of them were wiped out in my great-great-grandfather's time. Here, I'll show you." The chef held her hand out, palm up. A look of concentration furrowed her brow, and she chanted a string of words in a cadence completely unlike any language Ryoga had ever heard before. He stared at her palm, not certain what to expect.

He certainly didn't expect for nothing whatsoever to happen. Ukyo relaxed, and let her arm fall back to her side. "That WOULD have created a glowing light pointing toward the nearest Rakshasa, even if it were disguised and on the other side of the world."

"Well, that was pretty anticlimactic," the former lost boy commented, "but I guess nothing is better than something."

"Yep. Another task was kinda like the one with the Rakshasa. But it was a little bit uglier… at least, it feels like that to me…"

"What was that one?"

"We had to wipe out one particular bloodline. Everybody descended from one particular guy… our clan hunted them down and either killed them, or made sure they never had any kids. I don't know what the whole story was there, Ryoga-kun. Our family never did learn it. But the legends say that when these guys were cornered, they often fought back with some kinda blood magic. Something really ugly." She shrugged. "My guess is, the guy who they descended from made a pact with a demon, so all his kids would have power. Or maybe he even WAS a demon, and that's why the line had to die out."

Ryoga wondered for a moment just what she meant by 'made sure they never had any kids', then decided he'd rather not ask. Which was a shame, as the answer (an item for which one of the softer-hearted Kuonjis had bargained with a dragon, which inflicted magical sterility) would have been much less unpleasant than the possibilities his mind suggested.

"And then the last task. Well, not last, exactly, it was actually the second one we completed. There was this one piece of treasure, a necklace that gave whoever wore it great power, but also slowly twisted them to evil. We had to track it down and destroy it." Ukyo looked down at the ground. "One of my ancestors gave her life to do that," she said quietly. "She knew what it would cost her. When the tasks were given, we were warned that when the necklace was smashed, it would cause a huge explosion of death energy. I'm talking miles long and wide, Ryoga-kun. The Kuonji who finally tracked down the necklace took it and traveled to the farthest wastes of Siberia, so there wouldn't be too much collateral damage when she set it off. She died there, alone, far away from anybody she knew."

Ryoga blinked. "You mean… that was Siberia?"

"Huh? What're you talking about?"

"Oh… I was just thinking out loud." Ryoga put one hand behind his head, and gave an embarrassed laugh. "Back when I was following Ranma, before Jusenkyo, I wandered through this huge, cold, barren plain. And there was a scar miles long and wide, where nothing grew and no animals would go. Gave me a pretty bad feeling too." He forbore to mention that at the time he'd just gotten angrier at Ranma for putting him through this misery, and stubbornly walked straight through the blight. It was the longest straight line Ryoga had ever walked up to that point.

"You followed Ranma to China by way of Siberia?!"

Another nervous, embarrassed laugh. "Actually, at the time I thought I was still in Japan. I did think it seemed awfully cold for that time of year."

Ukyo slowly shook her head. "Sugar, I think I'm beginning to see why you'd like to give boring a try."

The rest of that day wasn't boring, exactly, but nothing exciting happened to Ryoga. Which frankly suited him just fine.

Especially after he heard Ranma's story about how HIS day had gone.

"Man, you picked the perfect day to cut class, Ryoga," Ranma informed him late that afternoon. "There was a brawl in your classroom bigger than any they've had before. We heard the explosions all the way on the other side of the building."

Ryoga grinned. "So did the noise keep you from getting your beauty sleep, or something?"

"What the heck's that supposed to mean?" Ranma asked irritably. Beauty sleep was for girls, not guys. If Ryoga needed to be reminded of that, well, there were plenty of ways to work pig references into the conversation.

"Just that you look like you're pretty worn out. Now if you were in MY classroom, that would make sense. What happened to you?"

Ranma snorted. "You remember how, back when you enrolled at Furinkan, we tried to get you in our class, but it was too full? Well, that changed a couple of days ago. The Sakura triplets left. At least, I guess they're gone for good. 'Cause we got a new student today."

"Let me guess. Somebody more like Koga than Kasumi."

The Saotome heir nodded. "Got it in one. A girl with a chip on her shoulder as big as any Akane ever had." He covertly watched Ryoga's reaction to the dropped name, and was encouraged to see the other didn't even flinch. He'd have to tell Shampoo, since she'd been the one who suggested this method of gauging just how far the former lost boy had progressed in getting over his first love. "Like it's my fault she's got long blond hair and is named Usagi Tokiro? I mean, come on, anybody is gonna make a Sailor Moon remark or two. She needs to learn to chill out about it."

"What'd you do, call her Meatball Head?"

"No, all I did was ask her if the artist who drew that silly little girls' manga was a friend of her family or something." Ranma shook his head ruefully. "It was a serious question, too! I mean, obviously she was born way before the first Sailor Moon issue came out. So either she WANTS to look like that Usagi, in which case she shouldn't've minded my asking, or else the character was based on her. Saying she just happens to be a clone of the main character seems like a little too much of a coincidence."

Ryoga choked on his drink. After coughing for a bit, he asked incredulously, "You can sit there, after some of the stuff you've seen, and say there's ANY coincidence too big to believe in?!"

"Um… well…" It was Ranma's turn to cough. "Anyway, she didn't much like me askin'. Turns out she's a kickboxer, and a pretty darn good one, too. I spent most of my lunch break fightin' her. Finally lost my patience and spun her around until she got dizzy enough to pass out."

"Why not just knock her out by hitting her Instant Unconsciousness point?"

"She was wearing this stupid scarf thing around her neck. It was thick enough to block shiatsu attacks." Ranma grimaced. "She didn't show up in class for two hours after that, which I personally wish had been more like two years."

"What happened when she did get back?"

Ranma hesitated, but then decided 1) Ryoga was bound to find out sooner or later, and 2) if he dodged the issue now and let Ryoga hear it from somebody else, he'd only get teased worse. "Well… turns out she's the kinda girl who really, really hates it when she thinks a guy is lookin' down on her or something… when she thought I fought her like an equal, it kinda… made her get a crush on me… and she started comin' on to me almost as bad as Shampoo first did with Tatewaki…"

"Um… you're not gonna try and add her to the harem too, are you?" Ryoga asked nervously.

Ranma scowled at him, a little surprised at how good an actor Ryoga was turning out to be. He almost looked like he'd really meant the question seriously. "Hardy har har. Laugh it up while you can, P-chan, 'cause I told her I wasn't available but I knew a guy named Ryoga Hibiki who was just as good at fighting girls as I was."

The blood drained from Ryoga's face. "Please say you're not serious," he pleaded.

"Of course I'm joking! Actually, I didn't even get a chance to talk to her. Shampoo grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and dragged her off somewhere private. Told Bunny-girl nobody hit on her sister's boyfriend, and beat the stuffing out of her."

"On her sister's boyfriend. Convenient excuse. Still, I'm surprised Shampoo reacted that badly." Ryoga wouldn't have thought the Amazon would be so callous.

Ranma shrugged. "It's not as bad as I made it sound— she didn't do it to be a bully or nothin'. It was more like a challenge match than anything else. And after she took down Sailor Moon, Shampoo told her she had a lot of spirit and would make a good Amazon. So now Usagi is gonna get training from the Matriarch, and in exchange for that she doesn't chase me or make any trouble at school."

"Well, all's well that ends well, I guess," Ryoga said philosophically. It was easy to be philosophical when it hadn't been HIS rough day.

"Yeah. Hey, I already asked Dachi and Shampoo, on the way home from school, but you wanna get Ucchan and the bunch of us do something tomorrow?"

Ryoga shook his head regretfully. "No, I can't this weekend. I'm going to go to my house, to see if there's any sign of Mom or Dad having been by there lately. Mr. Kuno gave me some money for the train, but even with that to speed things up, I'll still be gone until Sunday."

"Oh. Well, maybe you'll get lucky and even catch one of your parents there."

The former lost boy opened his mouth to respond. Then, as a thought occurred to him, he changed what he was about to say. "Yeah, right, Ranma. My parents are only ever home for a few days at a time. You think I'd just happen to run into them like that? That would be one REALLY BIG, UNBELIEVABLE COINCIDENCE." He almost shouted the last four words, just in case whoever or whatever was responsible for the typical chaos in their lives wasn't listening quite closely enough.

Ryoga set out early the next morning. It was a nice day, sunny and mild, with a light breeze blowing. There was a certain indefinable sense of vitality in the air— salarymen on their way to work felt their hangovers miraculously diminish; housewives found themselves lingering in the market, spending an extra few minutes bargaining rather than returning home quickly; students trudged to school with a greater measure of resentment at not having the day off. Ryoga himself felt restless, anxious in a way he didn't quite understand.

The feeling grew as a pair of birds flew past him, twisting and spinning in an air ballet. Ryoga paused, and watched them, feeling a vague longing rise up within him. Then, as the birds passed out of sight, he sighed, dropping his gaze back to ground level to resume his walk.

The sight of the lane he was in gave him pause, though. Not that there was anything unusual about it; his surroundings could have been a backdrop from any large Japanese city. If one ignored the language in which the signs were printed, there wasn't even anything to dictate the street's country of origin. Although it certainly wasn't always the case in Nerima, there was nothing special to see here, nothing out of the ordinary to grab the attention.

And yet Ryoga looked around as if seeing something not readily apparent, regarding his surroundings with more and more distaste. A casual observer would have wondered why, unless the casual observer were Principal Fujima or someone else with powerful telepathic abilities. But the fact was, Ryoga was feeling as if the buildings were crowding him, both leaning in to pin him between them while at the same time standing unnaturally tall and straight, to block out the sun and the sight of the sky. The former lost boy took a deep breath, then closed his eyes, reaching for his center of calmness.

'What the heck's wrong with me?' he wondered. No sooner had he asked that question than the answer came. For so many years, he'd so often wandered through forests, steppes, jungles, deserts, plains, caves, veldt, swamps, prairies, tundra, hills, mountains, and even once a bizarre area full of tar pits. True, there had also been plenty of times when his wanderings had taken him through cities, towns, and villages, but the fact remained that much of his earlier life had been spent on his own, just about as close to Nature as it was possible to be. Ryoga wasn't missing the 'on his own' part, but with quite a sharp pang he realized that if he didn't get to some greenery soon, he was going to go stir-crazy.

Fortunately for the former lost boy, there was a park nearby. He made his way directly there and sat down on a bench, letting out a contented sigh. Already he felt better. True, being in an artificial arboretum like this was only a palliative. This wouldn't be nearly enough to satisfy him for any great length of time, any more than had the time he'd spent with Ukyo the day before in another park. But Ryoga felt content now. Let tomorrow take care of itself. Or, looking at things from a more practical viewpoint, after he'd gone home and seen whether there was any sign of either parent, he could take some time to walk through the woods nearby. Heck, maybe he'd even send word to the Kunos that he wouldn't be back for a few days, and then hike back rather than taking the train.

The more Ryoga considered that last thought, the better it sounded. He knew for a fact that there'd be plenty of camping supplies at his house, so that wouldn't be a concern. His decision made, the former lost boy leaned back on his bench and heaved another contented sigh, resting his eyes on a nearby wall of trees.

Then Ryoga blinked. Admittedly he was feeling a lot better about being close to a facsimile of nature, but he didn't think it was enough of a relief to cause him to hallucinate a score of background music. But beyond a shadow of a doubt, he was hearing something. He concentrated. Some sort of wind instrument, he thought. Ryoga wasn't certain, but it sounded as if there were two players, their melodies now winding around each other, now speeding along side-by-side. There was a bounce and an exuberance about it that reminded him of the birds from earlier.

He wasn't sure where the tune was coming from. He thought there were two musicians rather than one, but he wasn't positive. However, there was one thing about the melody that Ryoga knew with absolute rock-hard certainty.

It was the most hauntingly beautiful music he'd heard in his life.

He rose to his feet, and with all the stealth at his command he crept over to the tree line. As he neared it, the music grew louder, indicating without a doubt that the source of the harmonics was on the other side, not too far away. Ryoga slowly began working his way through the trees, not letting a single twig snap beneath his feet, not even bending a branch.

Just as he reached the edge of the thicket, and bent to one knee, preparing to lie prone and look out through the thinner brush at ground level, something occurred to Ryoga. I.e., appearances notwithstanding, he was in a city, not a forest. He was approaching a person, or people, not some timid woodland creatures that would bolt at the first sight or scent of him. Smacking himself on the forehead, he straightened up and walked out of the trees. And saw the musicians. And stopped dead, his jaw hanging open so far that a bird could easily have flown through the opening (though no doubt it would have regretted doing so almost immediately).

They were facing away from him, away and to one side. He couldn't see much of their profiles, but was able to get a pretty good look at the instruments they were playing. Twin silver flutes, one part of his mind noted. At least they looked like flutes, though much less elaborate than normal. Perhaps they were based on a more primitive style, Ryoga thought to himself. Certainly the instruments looked old.

The former lost boy gulped, and pushed the random thoughts out of his mind. They hadn't seen him yet, but who knew how long that would last. He needed to get going now! He needed to make his escape while the window of opportunity was still open! He needed… he needed to… Ryoga sighed, and quietly sat down. Who was he kidding? That music was just too darn enjoyable for him to run off in the middle of the song. He could wait until they finished, saw him, and started chasing him again. But in the meantime, he was just going to sit here and enjoy himself. A smile, containing equal parts appreciation and wonder, curved his lips. Who knew Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were so talented?

The music continued for several more minutes, before fading away with one last trilling cascade of notes. Ryoga sighed, as one awakening from a dream. The twins still hadn't turned, and there was no way they could see him with their current positioning. He hoped that if he stayed still, they might not notice him and start up another piece.

"Nihao, Ryoga," Ling-Ling said, quietly, but with a hint of amusement. Her posture hadn't changed an inch.

Ryoga facefaulted. "Ah… huh?! H- how'd you know I was here?" he mumbled through a mouthful of grass.

Ling-Ling forced the mischief out of her grin, transforming it into a big welcoming smile. She turned to face him. "Silly Ryoga. Is basic lesson for warrior… strong fighter like you has to have learn already. More important than see with eyes or hear with ears is feel with heart. We feel you nearby."

'<And it didn't hurt that we could see your reflection in our flutes,>' Lung-Lung thought wryly. Aloud, she said, "You like music?"

"Y- yeah," Ryoga admitted. "It was beautiful."

He would have been prepared to swear that their smiles could not possibly have gotten even bigger, but at this they did. "You want hear other one?" Lung-Lung asked eagerly.

About ten minutes later, they set down their flutes. Ryoga shook his head in wonderment. "That was just amazing. You're the best I ever heard. I wouldn't have thought anyone could do so much with a couple of simple flutes."

"Thank you," Ling-Ling barely managed to stop herself from adding an 'Airen'. '<Keep it cool, remember how big sister Shampoo chewed you out for taking his shirt after he fainted, remember how she said it really freaked him out,>' she reminded herself. She idly wondered just how he'd react if he found out that garment was now her favorite sleeping gown.

"Lung-Lung hope that not insult to instrument." The smile on the lime-haired girl's features reassured Ryoga that she was only kidding. "These belong to great-great-great-great-grandmother. Is family treasure."

"She must have really been good if she could play two flutes at once," Ryoga remarked.

Lung-Lung burst into a fit of giggles. "Not at same time, silly! Keep one in case other get lost or broken. But she take such good care that never happen either one. Both still good condition as many hundred year ago, when first crafted."

"Is true these not have many, many different complicated buttons and settings like modern flute." Ling-Ling shrugged. "But that not best way to play anyway."

"I don't understand what you mean," Ryoga said. "What other way is there to play a flute than blowing air into it?"

"That not what Ling-Ling talk about." The cherry-haired girl frowned as she tried to work out how to express her point in Japanese. "Mean whole… philosophy of music. Can maybe know a lot about music, can read book with picture of instrument, can know 'blow this hard and cover this hole and get this note to play on flute', but that not really help. Is not right way to learn. If try like that, never be able to do any more than play like parrot. Only be able to echo what somebody else already come up with. Could maybe sound nice, but music not have no power."

Lung-Lung took over. "Right way make music start with listening, finding songs in own heart. Then have to learn to let out. That what we do. Flute is… is just door. One of two doors. Open it, open door in heart, let music flow out. That how we give real beauty for you to hear."

"Wow. That's deep," he replied. "Makes it sound like a perfect kata, when you're in the middle of your center of awareness, and your mind and body work together just right."

"Mind and body and heart," Lung-Lung corrected him.

"Yeah, that's true," Ryoga accepted the correction. "Mind and body and heart."

The three sat quietly for a moment, before Ryoga spoke up again. "I bet it takes a lot of time, practicing to be so good. How can you do that, get in martial arts training, and still find time to work in the restaurant too?"

"Is not easy," Ling-Ling answered frankly. "But Great-Grandmother let us have time off for practice if really need it. We is Amazons, after all."

Ryoga didn't mention that he'd prefer to forget that. "Okay, I can see why she wouldn't want you to lose your fighting edge. But what does that have to do with the music?"

The twins' reaction to the question startled him. Both took deep breaths, then fixed him with piercing stares. "Music is part of fighting style," Lung-Lung said fiercely, almost as if daring him to contradict her.

Although more than a little startled by their reaction, Ryoga decided he'd ask about it later. For now, there was a more interesting question. "Really? How does that work?"

They gave him one more moment of combined scrutiny, then seemed to relax a bit. "Remember what you just say, Ryoga? You say what we say sound to you like perfect kata, when heart and body and mind all work together. Well, you more right than you know. When make music like that, is possible touch other people heart and body and mind with music. With right training, can do many different things."

"Ah. Like making Ukyo dance around instead of fighting you, so you could toast her with the Dance of the Great Fire Dragon," Ryoga said, as understanding dawned. "But I thought you used a boom-box in that attack, not that you played the music yourselves."

The twins flinched, as if he'd shouted a curse at them. Ryoga blinked. "Did I say something wrong?"

Lung-Lung raised her head, and looked challengingly at Ryoga. "Is all sorts of different records of music written down in village, each for different effect. But all has one thing in common… just close up ears and effect disappear. Is because of this most Amazons not respect that type fighting no more. We not get much respect either, because we use it."

"What does that have to do with using a boom-box?" Ryoga asked.

Ling-Ling spoke up, ignoring the interruption. "There still few older Amazons who respect this style. Is one who see gift for music in us, teach us what we tell you, about let music flow from heart. Have to do that to make music with power enough to make opponent do what you want. We only two in village what interested to learn."

"But problem is no can do most techniques with just two people," Lung-Lung explained. "Dance of Fire Dragon take seven different instrument at same time! We only able do few weak songs by own selves. This other reason why nobody in village our age think style any good."

"We no give up, though," Ling-Ling pronounced. "Tell Mother about what problem is, she help us come up with solution." She pulled a cassette tape out of thin air. "We play one of seven instrument together, record that part. Then play back tape in background while play next instrument live, make new tape. Repeat until tape have all seven instruments, each play by both us at same time. Is very good idea Mother have, though sure was a lot of work."

"We take tape to elder what teach us style," Lung-Lung said quietly. Ryoga hoped they weren't going to continue switching back and forth like this… his neck was beginning to hurt from constantly turning his attention from one girl to the other. "Want her be so proud of us, for take style and make more powerful. But that not what happen. She say we make mockery of proud piece of Amazon history, she want nothing more to do with us."

"Aw, heck. I'm sorry," Ryoga said awkwardly. He swallowed, then said, "I don't know if it helps any, but I think you two were the ones with the right idea. You took a weakness and figured out a way to eliminate it. Whoever that elder was, she shouldn't've treated you like that."

"What you think about rest of village?" Ling-Ling queried. "About people our age say we stupid for use technique so easy to defeat? Is they right for say we no should waste time like this?"

"No, they're wrong too," Ryoga said firmly. "In fact, I'd even say they're idiots. Your training lets you make the most beautiful music I've heard in my entire life. It would be worth it just for that, as far as I'm concerned. And being able to use it in your fighting style is just icing on the cake."

"What cake have do with it?"

The former lost boy groaned mentally. "I mean, it's like adding an extra bonus on top of what you already have."

"We glad you feel that way." Lung-Lung grinned at him. "You want not see one of special techniques, Ryoga?"

"Huh? Run that by me again. What do you mean, 'not see'?"

The twins exchanged mischievous glances, then raised their flutes to their lips. They began to play in unison, an oddly stilted melody that started out loud but quickly began to sink toward silence. Then Ryoga blinked and rubbed his eyes… the twins' outlines were wavering and fading with the music! Even as he stared, the last strains of music disappeared. Simultaneously, the images of the twins vanished into thin air.

Ryoga sat, stunned. An invisibility technique?! He looked at the ground, attempting to track them by the bending of the grass, but couldn't make out any place where it was noticeable. It didn't even look as if the grass were bent where they had been sitting up till now.

"Put hands over ears," whispered the wind.

Automatically, he complied, and suddenly the twins were there again. Or more accurately they were there still— they yet remained where they'd been seated the whole time, and they were still playing their flutes vigorously. Ryoga removed his hands from his ears, and the music was audible then, but almost immediately it and the twins began to fade once more. However, at that point the duo stopped playing.

"Was Dance of Hidden Chameleon," Lung-Lung said. "Only hear music on unconscious level, make whoever listen not be aware of whoever play."

"That's amazing," Ryoga said in awe. "Thanks for showing me."

Ling-Ling smiled. "Thank YOU, Ai-" she broke off coughing before the last word could fully emerge from her lips.

"You okay?" he asked worriedly. The young Amazon's false cough had caused some saliva to go down the wrong pipe, forcing her to begin choking and hacking in earnest. Ling-Ling managed to get herself under control at last, and thought sourly that after Ryoga finally let himself be caught, she was going to address him solely as 'Airen' for a solid month.

Meanwhile, Lung-Lung was regarding the angle of the sun with an expression of disappointment. "Is almost time go back to restaurant," she said.

"Don't you want to go?" Ryoga asked. He hadn't thought the duo were unhappy with life at the Nekohanten. Although even Ranma might have rolled his eyes at the former lost boy's inability to figure out why the twins might not want to leave just then.

However, sometimes the obvious answer isn't the right one. Or at least not the only one. "Is just we get tired spend so much time cooped up in city," Lung-Lung answered. "That why we always come here for practice music."

"So you can have some trees and grass and bushes around, instead of just buildings and cars and streets and whatnot?" Ryoga asked.

"That right. Is you surprised? Home village not like this. Is really beautiful in Bayankhala Mountains, Ryoga. So many different types beauty there." Lung-Lung sighed in melancholy. "Both us miss sometimes."

"No kidding. I do too," Ryoga said. "Well, not that I miss the Bayankhala mountains particularly, it's just nature in general."

"Why that? Ling-Ling thought most Japanese grow up surrounded by city."

Ryoga snorted. "Not me. I've wandered farther in my life than both of you put together and doubled. I've walked up mountains, across deserts, through forests, and beside rivers. I've spent a lot more time on my own outdoors than I have in cities or with other people. That's why I came by this park today, actually. I felt like I had to go somewhere with trees and stuff."

"Some of that sound like lots of fun to Lung-Lung. Not the 'on Ryoga's own' though." Lung-Lung smiled at him. "Bet you have many, many stories of travels. You want tell some?" It had occurred to her that spending quality time with their soon-to-be Airen would probably be an acceptable excuse for coming back to the restaurant late.

Ryoga checked the angle of the sun. He was actually wearing a perfectly good wristwatch at the moment, but after telling the twins how much time he'd spent roughing it, it just seemed a little too anticlimactic to consult the timepiece instead of using the natural method. "Nah, I can't right now. I've got a train to catch." He got back to his feet. "Thanks for letting me listen to you play," he said sincerely. He was also pretty grateful they hadn't used the occasion to do anything outrageous, to try and catch themselves an Airen. Maybe Shampoo had finally gotten through to them.

"Any time Ryoga want hear, can come to this spot early in morning. We happy let you listen to music of our hearts."

The twins were a little disappointed that their next practice went without an audience. But then Ling-Ling heard from Shampoo that Ryoga was gone and not expected back until the middle of the week. The next few days seemed to pass far more slowly than ones in which they didn't see Ryoga but still knew he was nearby.

"<I'm glad Ryoga will be back soon, but I still wish we'd asked just why he had a train to catch,>" Lung-Lung said wistfully as she and her sister made their way back from a delivery. "<It would have been so nice to go with him, see his home, and hike back with him.>"

"<Yeah…>" Ling-Ling sighed, ignoring for the moment the voice of common sense which told her that perhaps that would have been too aggressive. Since Ryoga wasn't around to actually get spooked, there wasn't any harm in indulging in a little fantasy, right? "<It would have been even nicer to 'sprain my ankle' on the way back, so he had to carry me.>"

Lung-Lung blinked, then her eyes too filled with sparkles as she imagined herself making use of that ruse. At this point neither Amazon was really watching where she was going, and the only real question was which twin would collide with something first, and what it would be.

As it turned out, it was Lung-Lung who walked into a streetlight.


Lung-Lung sat up, rubbing her head, then froze. "<Ling-Ling, I think you'd better get me to Great-Grandmother fast. I must've really hit my head bad… I thought that streetlight complained when I ran into it.>"

Her twin dropped her empty delivery box and whipped out her staff. "<It did,>" she said. "<Get back!>" Neither Amazon had forgotten the experience they'd had the first time they went looking for Ryoga. Opening the lid of a dumpster and having a scaled, fanged monster almost as big as you are explode out at you tends to leave persistent memories. And if dumpsters weren't safe, then why should they trust a talking streetlight? Lung-Lung rolled backward, shot to her feet, and pulled out her trident. Both girls tensed, preparing to dash forward in a coordinated attack…

…all things considered, it was fortunate that Tsubasa chose that moment to lose the disguise.

The twins blinked as what looked to be a pretty girl with a large bump on her head squirmed out of the streetlight. After its occupant was clear, it folded up into a heap on the curb. The young Amazons relaxed a little, but only a little. They weren't ready to trust that this apparent form of a human girl wasn't just another façade.

"That hurt, you know," Tsubasa said plaintively.

"Why you disguise like that?" Ling-Ling demanded.

"I was waiting for somebody to come by."

Lung-Lung relaxed a little more, and looked around. A fair number of people had stopped walking, and were watching the exchange with interest. "Silly girl. Hide in disguise and attack from back is good tactic, but maybe should choose less crowded street. Not want witnesses."

"Th- that's not it at all!" Tsubasa said indignantly. "I wasn't preparing for an attack! I just wanted to surprise my dear, dear Ukyo!"

Ling-Ling blinked. "You say… dear, dear Ukyo?" she queried.

Tsubasa nodded eagerly. "Do you know my darling Ukyo?"

"Know someone with that name, but not same person you is talking about. Ukyo we know is girl, not boy."

Tsubasa giggled. "That's right. Ukyo Kuonji, the mistress of okonomiyaki… and my heart. Do you know where I can find her?"

Mechanically, Ling-Ling gave the address of Ukyo's Okonomiyaki. Tsubasa thanked them breathlessly, dashed into a nearby flower shop, came back out again, and hurried off in the direction of Ukyo's.

A long moment of silence was broken by Ling-Ling. "<Well, that was a lucky meeting for us, don't you think?"

"<What do you…>" Slowly, Lung-Lung's bewildered expression shifted into a smile that mirrored her sister's. "<Right. I think we need to talk to a certain perverted spatula girl about just who would make the best choice for Ryoga.>"

Today had been a bad day for Ukyo Kuonji.

It had started off with mild disappointment— Ukyo had hoped Ryoga would get back the previous night. She'd waited for him this morning, willing him to show up and walk with her to Furinkan, but had eventually been forced to give this up as a lost cause. She'd then had to run full-tilt in order not to be late for class. This in turn had left her a bit tired, and as a result she had been caught off-guard when yet another flare-up occurred between the chemistry and croquet cliques. Ukyo hadn't actually been hurt, but she'd spent most of the day in the nurse's office waiting for the pretty colors to fade away after one of Koga's cocktails landed too near her.

She had been on a slow boil already when school finally let out. Watching Ranma go off with Kodachi and Shampoo, then walking back to her place alone hadn't made her any angrier, but it had sure mixed a fair amount of depression into her mood. The loneliness had quickly vanished, however, on finding Tsubasa Kurenai waiting outside her place, dressed in the corniest disguise yet— a huge bouquet of flowers.

"Has this been one miserable day or what," Ukyo muttered to herself as she polished the grill halfheartedly. "Damn it all, I didn't think that jackass would find me here." She sighed. "At least Ryoga will be back soon. Maybe if HE beats the snot out of Tsubasa, the idiot will get a clue and leave me alone." Ukyo didn't have any real hope that the beating she'd administered this afternoon would have any lasting impact on her unwanted suitor. After all, none of the previous pummelings had done any long-term good.

The opening of the door drew her attention away from the grill and her thoughts. Hoping it was Ryoga, sure at least that Tsubasa wouldn't have regained consciousness yet, the chef looked up with the beginning of a smile. This quickly vanished at the sight of Ling-Ling, standing in the doorway with an expression that was half smirk, half sneer.

"What do you want?" Ukyo demanded.

"Want talk to spatula pervert. No can do now… Lung-Lung need be there too, but is off on delivery. Meet in park in fifteen minute." Ling-Ling turned to go, then clarified, "Park closest to here," and strode out.

There was silence in the restaurant for several minutes, except for the sound of Ukyo's teeth grinding together, and the barely audible hiss as her battle aura singed the wood of the countertop. At last she muttered, "Kiss of Death or no Kiss of Death, this time I'm not gonna take any crap from them."

It wasn't the same park as before. Even if it had been, the scene wouldn't have been identical to the last time… the wear and tear of Nerima life had necessitated a great deal of landscaping in that park since Ukyo's previous confrontation with the twins. So while there was a good bit of similarity now between that time and the current scene, with the chef and the Amazons facing off against each other in a clearing in a park, there were also significant differences.

For one thing, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had learned some battles are better won with words rather than swords. And the twins figured they now knew just what buttons to push to force their opponent off-balance and out of the race. It shouldn't be too hard now to make HER angry enough to attack THEM. And that would only make Ryoga feel sorry for them and dislike the spatula girl, right?

Ukyo glared at the twins, wondering why they didn't have any weapons visible. Not that that meant anything in particular, as she distinctly remembered seeing them produce polearms out of nowhere during their previous fight. "I'm here. What do you want now?!"

"We have interesting meeting today," Ling-Ling began.

"Sickening, too," Lung-Lung chimed in.

"Meet girl who hide in fake streetlight, wait for love of her life come by, so could surprise her."

"Girl say she wait for dear, dear Ukyo. Ask if we know."

"Ling-Ling say no, only Ukyo we know is girl, not boy."

"That when pervert disguise girl say she talk about girl Ukyo, not boy."

"She say you 'mistress of okonomiyaki and her heart'."

Ukyo's hands clenched until the knuckles whitened. Then she whipped her combat spatula off her back. "Then it was you two little…" with an effort she swallowed the word she'd been about to say, substituting 'Amazons', "… who told Tsubasa where to find me?!"

"That right. We not want stand in way of true love."

"Even if is sick, twisted, perverted true love."

"I don't believe this," Ukyo muttered, as her anger began to be subsumed by a sense of unreality. She reholstered the spatula, leaving both hands free to massage her temples.

"Better believe it!" Ling-Ling wasn't sure why the chef's temper suddenly seemed to be dying down. Weren't they being insulting enough?! Hmmm. Time to pull out the big guns, so to speak. She forced as much disgust into her voice as she could. "Ryoga deserve someone what appreciate what good man he is. Not twisted pervert what like mans and womans both. So we tell you now, leave Ryoga alone or he find out just what kind sick person you really is." There— that should be enough to put their opponent into a blind rage.

It was odd, Ukyo thought. The anger seemed to be completely gone now. All that was left was a sort of tiredness. "You two really are pathetic, you know that?" she asked in a conversational tone of voice. "How can anyone so short be such big hypocrites?"

Lung-Lung's eyes narrowed at the height remark, but she let it slide for the moment. "What you mean hypocrite?" she hissed.

"What do you think I mean?" Ukyo asked, still in a reasonable tone of voice. "You say that somebody who likes girls as well as guys isn't good enough for Ryoga? Then where do you two think you get off going after him?

"Oh, but let's get something straight first. I don't love Tsubasa. I don't like Tsubasa. If Tsubasa were to be run over by a cement truck tomorrow, I wouldn't shed one tear. That jerk is nobody I want in my life. 'She' comes on to me just like Mousse came on to Shampoo— without any encouragement, and ignoring the times I've flattened 'her' with my spatula. But you just assume right off the bat that 'she' is telling you the truth. You can't wait to believe something bad about me, so you jump right on it when Tsubasa gives you a chance. That's pretty pathetic, you know.

"And that brings me back to you two." Suddenly the reasonable tone was lost in a new flare of temper. "You dared to call ME sick for something I wasn't even going to do?! When the TWO of you… SISTERS… are planning to go to bed with Ryoga AT THE SAME TIME?! That's the most DISGUSTING thing I've heard in—"

Ukyo didn't finish the sentence. This didn't happen easily— there was a LOT more she'd intended to say on this subject. But the words suddenly weren't willing to come.

Perhaps this was because the point of Lung-Lung's trident was now tickling the skin at the base of her throat.

"You take back now," Lung-Lung half-choked, half-snarled.

Ukyo gulped, then wished she hadn't. It had brought home even further just what was currently pressing against her larynx. She hadn't even seen the lime-haired girl move; Lung-Lung had produced her weapon and crossed five feet of distance in considerably less than the blink of an eye. Ukyo's own eyes widened even further as she took a good, long look at how furious the other was. The young Amazon was trembling, though her hands were steady, with a look of naked hatred writ plain across her face. Her battle aura was dancing brightly, burning hot enough that Ukyo would have known its presence even if blindfolded.

Ling-Ling didn't look much happier, though she had refrained from pulling out her weapon. Then again, that could just be due to the fact that a staff has less intimidation power than the point of a trident. Her face was flushed, matching her hair, her fists were clenched, and she was also sporting an intense battle aura. "You hear her! Take back NOW!!"

Ukyo's vision shifted back from Ling-Ling to Lung-Lung. She looked into the younger girl's eyes, and couldn't look away. The mixture of hatred, rage, and bloodlust in the Amazon's stare held her gaze like a serpent's would a bird's. That and the spear at her throat combined to hold Ukyo frozen in actual fear of her life, unable to respond.

A long moment of silence dragged by. Eventually Lung-Lung realized that the chef wasn't going to say anything, though the Amazon was too angry to perceive the reason for Ukyo's silence. Her glare intensified even further, she gritted her teeth, and every muscle in her body tensed…

… and she pulled the trident back, spat on the ground at Ukyo's feet, turned, and walked away.

Ukyo dazedly put one hand to her throat, and swallowed hard several times. Ling-Ling gave her the kind of glare normally reserved for murderers, neo-Nazis, and people who cut in front of you on the freeway. "You dare say that then not even apologize. We never ever forgive you this, spatula girl."

"So… you're saying that's NOT what you're planning to do?" Ukyo's brain hadn't quite reestablished connection with her mouth yet.

This time it was Ling-Ling's turn to have her anger simmer down into disgust. "You is truly pathetic. You say we bad for believe about you what other girl tell us? But nobody tell you this about us. You come up with by own self. And if ask big sister Shampoo or Ranma or anybody, would have find out you wrong long time ago.

"No, we not take Ryoga to bed together." Ling-Ling's face grimaced in disgust at giving voice to the thought. "We is sisters, we is close, but NOT like that!"

"Then why the hell are you both chasing him?!" Ukyo demanded. Apparently it was to be her day for stupid questions.

Ling-Ling just gave her an incredulous stare. "Ryoga good, strong, kind man like both us want have. Lung-Lung love him. I love him. Why I mind share husband with own sister? This way we keep close over years, not grow apart with separate family." Her expression hardened again. "Just because we want stay together, not mean we THAT together."

"Whatever." Ukyo did feel a bit ashamed now. The vehemence of their reaction had convinced her that they weren't lying about this. For a moment words of apology hung on her lips, but then the remembered sensations of helpless fear and a needle-sharp point against her throat combined to make her swallow them. The little witches had more than gotten their own back with that, as far as she was concerned. The chef turned and began walking away.

"Spatula girl!"

Ukyo stopped, counted to ten, and turned back to face Ling-Ling. "Yes?" she gritted through her teeth.

"This not over," Ling-Ling said quietly, with deadly menace. "No do anything now, because Ryoga maybe not like. But when he finally choose us and love us, we meet you again. We beat you to inch of life for what you do here today."

"When Ryoga-kun picks you two little kids over me?" Ukyo laughed bitterly. "Fine. I'll look for you then, just as soon as hell freezes over." Realizing that was the best exit line she could reasonably hope for, she turned again and strode away. Ling-Ling stared murderously at her back, then walked off as well.

Ryoga, concealed in some large bushes nearby, from which vantage point he'd witnessed almost all of the conversation, held his head in his hands and wondered feebly what he'd done to deserve such a complicated life.

Ukyo, the twins, and Ryoga weren't the only unhappy people in Nerima just then.

With the utmost of care, he eased his way from shadow to shadow, senses straining to make sure no one was watching. A familiar taste of bitterness was in the back of his throat… it shouldn't be like this. He should have been bounding along, without a care in the world, snatching his treasures with gleeful abandon, in the certain knowledge that if anyone DID see him they wouldn't be able to do anything about it. Just like he'd done for so long.

But that was then. And this was now. And Happosai crept along, forced to resort to stealth as he lifted women's undergarments from the clotheslines where they hung to dry.

It shouldn't be like this. The thought resounded through his mind each time he picked up a new silky darling, each time he tried and failed to draw more than the barest trickle of chi from it. He was only just managing to draw in more chi than he was expending in this endeavor. He couldn't even keep the poor little captives after liberating them, either, couldn't even spare the strength to carry the sackful of lingerie twice his own size that he should have had by now.

He'd been at this for hours. Slink along, make sure nobody saw him, drain as much chi as he could, move on to the next target. And now, as the sun sank toward the horizon, Happosai's reserves were just about as full as they could get these days. Just a little longer, to wait for the cover of darkness, and he'd make his move.

The founder of Anything Goes had only recently come back to Nerima. He'd been gone for a long time, searching the world for some way to recover from the damage that cutie of Ranma's had inadvertently done to him. The ancient lecher winced as he remembered that day yet again. His greatest humiliation, when he'd been brought low by a mere slip of a girl. It wouldn't have been so bad, he grumbled to himself for roughly the four thousandth time, if she'd intended to take him down. You didn't live more that three hundred years of the kind of life Happy had led without making a few mortal enemies. But that sweet little girl hadn't even MEANT to hurt him. The indignity of it still rankled. If he'd been beaten by someone out for his blood who was better than him, or even just luckier, that would have been much more tolerable than this… accident.

(Happosai told himself this, but it wouldn't really have made him feel any better if he had learned the truth… that in the dying end of a future that no longer would come to be, his eventual effortless defeat had been one of the Black Rose's main reasons for setting things up so that she'd end up a living chi-battery.)

That day had marked the single greatest obstacle he had ever had to overcome. To have his mastery, built over centuries of dedicated, single-minded lechery, kicked down into ruins in one afternoon… it would have crushed a lesser man, he thought to himself with grim pride. But not the Master of the Anything Goes School! True, there had been a bad few days when he'd tried to exert his will over Soun and Genma like always, only to have those worms turn and thrash him like he'd always done to them. And it had been really, really bad when he'd woken up from his near-coma and the first sight he'd seen had been Cologne's face. That had almost sent him into a relapse. But she'd tagged a few pressure points, forcing him to stay awake, and had shaken him down until she'd recovered ALL of the little mementos he'd taken with him from her village so long ago.

Thinking back to those indignities, he swore again to himself that Soun, Genma, and Cologne would pay. Nothing too harsh on the Matriarch, of course… he still had a soft spot in his heart for the first girl he'd loved. If he were to be absolutely honest with himself, he'd admit she was the ONLY girl he'd ever truly loved. But absolute self-honesty was something Happosai could afford about as well as a fish could afford an hour in a tanning bed. So he just contented himself with the thought that he'd do something obnoxious and irritating to the old girl, but stop short of making any real trouble. Soun and Genma, though, those two were going to pay and pay dearly.

And Ranma… there was one little punk who was going to learn just who was the pupil and who was the Master. Happosai wasn't about to let someone of that caliber slip by without leaving his mark on the boy's training. He'd never be able to call himself a martial artist again if he did that.

Yes, there was a lot Happosai still had to do… once he managed to restore himself to pre-Kodachi conditions. And he hoped, oh, how he hoped, that he'd finally found a way to do that.

The months he'd spent in his search flashed back through his mind. He'd traveled all over the world, trying to find something, anything that would repair the damage that sweet little girl had unwittingly done. Trail after trail had come to a dead end. He'd followed rumor after rumor. Most had turned out to have some basis in fact, but hadn't had the power to help him. He'd located a legendary fountain of curing, but it had turned out that its waters' enchantment was for the removal of curses only. As much as this might have meant to Ranma, to Happosai it was so much wasted effort.

Most of the other trails had ended like this as well, though a few of the ones that had sounded most promising had turned out to be nothing more than hot air. The worst disappointment of all had been the most recent one, rumors of a mythical pair of sacred panties that were supposedly set in the forehead of an idol in the deepest jungles of Brazil… on hearing that tale, Happosai had been sure that one touch of those babies would restore him to top form. But the tale had eventually turned to be just a vicious lie (in fact, it was a story that Cologne had spread, to help keep him away from Nerima, but Happosai didn't know this).

When that one had let him down, the ancient lecher had begun to feel the first creeping threads of despair sliding into his resolve. But then word had come back from Japan, from his old buddy Chingensai, and he'd felt hope blossom again within him.

Ironically enough, his friend had found the source of this hope in Nerima. Somehow Happosai wasn't surprised that after trotting all over the globe, he might find what he needed right where he'd started out. A mystical brassiere, worn by a woman who'd been a powerful sorceress, held prisoner (at least, to Happosai's way of thinking) in a local antique shop. Those were all the details Chingensai had had for him, but it was enough. Surely just a few seconds with that baby would put him back at the top of his game! At least, he hoped so. Hoped with all his perverted little heart.

There was still some time before he could safely act. Though waiting was torture, Happosai forced himself to hold off. He didn't dare make his move on the antique shop until full night had fallen. And so he took a deep breath and set off again, continuing along the railings and balconies of the streets of Nerima, paying his version of respect to the silky darlings that danced in the evening breeze. He might not be able to pull in any more chi, but he could still touch them and dream. And this would keep him occupied until it was safe to get down to the real business of the evening.

Genma inhaled deeply, an expression of rapture on his face. "Ahhh, Tendo, I don't think anyone can cook as well as Kasumi can."

"Indeed," Soun replied gravely. "Truly she is a blessing to us all."

"And I think that sukiyaki is the dish she does best," Genma continued solemnly, then inhaled with even more gusto. Soun's moustache and hair stirred slightly in the breeze. "I can't wait to get started."

"Well, Saotome, it'll still be cooking for a little while longer, and besides we need to wait for Nabiki to get back before we eat."

"Too true, Tendo, too true. What on earth is keeping that girl anyway? Doesn't she KNOW we're having sukiyaki tonight?"

Akane spoke up. "I think she was going to go somewhere with Kuno after school was over. Wouldn't surprise me if she called and said they'd decided to get dinner together."

"Really?" Genma asked eagerly. Akane could almost see the thought, 'More for me!' dancing through his mind. She frowned a little. He was a good martial artist, and she could respect him for that, and she was grateful for how he'd helped her improve, but once you'd said that you'd said just about everything positive she knew to say about Genma Saotome.

Well, that and he'd raised a boy like Ranma. Akane traced a melancholy finger in circles along the floor, then willed the moodiness away. One missed opportunity was NOT the end of the world, she reminded herself.

The youngest Tendo returned her attention to the world around her. Genma was still going on about how great Kasumi's cooking was, she noticed with another small frown. Considering the accident she'd had in Home Ec today, this wasn't really something she wanted to hear just now. Now how could she get a small measure of revenge?

"I'll go see if Kasumi needs any help with the sukiyaki," Akane chirped.

Genma paled in quite a gratifying manner. "N- n- no! You mustn't!!"

"Why not?"

"Umm… well…" Genma thought frantically. "As your sensei, I forbid it! True mastery in the Art can only come when the Art is your true focus! Cooking would distract you from your pursuit of mastery, Akane, and so I must say that your place is NOT in the kitchen!!"

"And besides, it would be more helpful if you went out and looked for Nabiki," Soun interjected.

'Hey, that WOULD get me out of listening to Mr. Saotome for a while.' "Sure, Dad."

However, even as the two men were wiping the sweat from their respective brows, the front door opened and Nabiki came strolling in. "Hey, everybody." She took a deep breath. "Mmmm… sukiyaki by Kasumi. A little piece of heaven on earth."

"We were beginning to wonder if you were even going to be joining us," her father said.

"As if I'd miss dinner tonight?" Nabiki asked ironically. "Perish the thought. But I did see something interesting on my way home. That's why I'm a little late."

"Really? What was that?" Genma asked absently, most of his attention divided between the kitchen and Akane. It wouldn't be long now; he just had to keep her out of there for a little longer.

"The old lech, Happosai, sneaking around and molesting whatever bras and panties he could find hanging out in the open."

Genma's head snapped around so quickly that only his martial arts training saved him from whiplash. Soun was already looking at his daughter, which was a good thing… if he'd done the same thing, his hair might have caught fire due to air friction. "The Master… is back?!"

"That's right," Nabiki answered in a bored tone of voice. "Slinking along and doing his best not to be seen, so I'm pretty sure he still hasn't recovered yet."

"Nabiki, dear… where exactly did you see him?" Nabiki gave the address of the street where she'd observed the diminutive pervert. Soun thanked her, then turned to Genma. "Well, old friend, I think you know what must be done now."

"Mm-hmm," Genma nodded, pushing his glasses into just the right position for the light of sunset to glance off them in a particularly determined gleam. "Let's go, Tendo."

Akane blinked. Hard. She would have thought Mr. Saotome would've agonized at least a little before abandoning the sukiyaki.

"Me and my big mouth," Nabiki grumbled forty-five minutes later. The two men hadn't made it back yet, and the odor emanating from Kasumi's kitchen was causing her stomach to send near-continuous 'what's the hold-up?!' messages to her brain. If she'd known she was in for a wait like this she'd have let Tachi buy her that third ice-cream sundae.

"Kasumi, do we really have to wait any longer?!" This was Akane. "Dad and Mr. Saotome could be gone for hours. They wouldn't want us to wait that long!"

Kasumi poked her head out of the kitchen. "I'm terribly sorry, little sister, but it just wouldn't be right to start without them. They could be in the lane outside right now, and how would Father feel if he came in five minutes after we stopped waiting for him?"

"At worst he'd burst into a flood of tears, and I think by now we can all cope with that," Nabiki muttered under her breath. Coming to a decision, she stood up. "I'm going to go find them, and ask Daddy if it's okay if we start without him. Coming, Akane?"

"Huh? Why should I…?" Before she could finish the question, it dawned on Akane that her only other alternative was to stay in the house and be slowly driven crazy by the odor of sukiyaki that she couldn't get at. "Right you are, Nabiki. Let's go."

Kasumi waited until she heard the front door close behind her sisters, then quickly 'taste-tested' a small bowlful of the main dish. After all, it simply wouldn't do to let dinner overcook.

Meanwhile, Ryoga was nearly back at the Kuno mansion. He'd stayed in the park for quite a long time, wondering what, if anything, he should do in response to this afternoon's events. Inspiration had not been forthcoming, though, and hunger had eventually sent him moving toward home again.

He encountered Tatewaki in the lane outside the mansion. "Ah. Good day, Ryoga. I'm afraid you, I, and the servants are the only ones here this evening. Everyone else had plans to go to a new five-star restaurant that just opened in central Tokyo."

Ryoga thought back to the kind of table manners his former rival used to have, and imagined that Ranma in a five-star restaurant. The mental picture was amusing enough to bring a smile to his face. "No big deal. I'm sure we can find something in one of the larders."

"Well, you can, if you like. I'm not very hungry right now," Kuno admitted.

Perhaps eagerness to take his mind off his own life's complications made Ryoga pay more attention to the other. Tatewaki seemed to be in rather a bad mood. His mouth was twisted in what looked like disgust to the former lost boy. "Hard day?" he asked sympathetically, as the two of them entered the house.

"Not… exactly," the kendoist responded. He hesitated, then, his thought processes bearing a remarkable similarity to Ranma's of a few days prior, he decided that he might as well tell Ryoga himself, now. "It was actually quite good, up until fairly late in the afternoon. There was something I wanted to do, something I had planned to do… but I am afraid I 'chickened out'."

"What was that?" Ryoga asked sympathetically.

Instead of answering verbally, Tatewaki responded by removing a small box from one pocket. Ryoga looked curiously at it. "So, what is it?"

Tatewaki gave him an odd glance, then reminded himself that Ryoga had grown up with even less exposure to civilization than had Ranma. With a wry look, he lifted the lid of the box.

Ryoga's jaw dropped at the sight of the ring inside. "HOLY…" His eyes tripled their size. "You were gonna propose to Nabiki?!"

"That was the plan," Kuno growled, clearly disgusted at himself. "But I was unable to screw my courage to the sticking place." He sighed. "And I really wanted to do it today, too… this is the one-year anniversary of the day I first realized my feelings for her."

"Well, the day's not over yet," Ryoga said, more out of a sense that he ought to say something rather than as a serious suggestion that Tatewaki should really go find Nabiki again at this late hour.

"Rather late, though, don't you think?" Tatewaki responded. "No, this day's excitement is over and done."

Happosai paused, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness. The interior of the antique shop was quite cluttered, and lit only by moonlight. Still, it didn't take long for his trained senses to pick out his target. It was a plain, unadorned box on a table some distance away, but the vibrations coming from that baby made it clear to him that there was silky treasure inside.

Almost shaking with eagerness, the ancient lecher made his way over to the table. Just as he reached for the box, though, the lights came on. Blinking to clear the stars from his eyes, Happosai whirled to face a most unpleasant sight.

His two ungrateful pupils, Soun and Genma, were standing in the door of the shop, and their expressions… Happosai thought he'd never seen such unpleasant mixtures of malice, grim anticipation, and the promise of pain. Actually, this was true… he'd never seen such looks before. But Soun and Genma had. And it sure did feel good to direct a stare at Happosai that they'd received from him too many times to count.

A long moment of silence was broken as Genma cracked his knuckles. "Well, well, Tendo. It looks like we've caught a burglar."

Soun nodded gravely. "As public-spirited citizens and martial artists, it is our duty to punish such miscreants."

Happosai rallied his courage, hopping backward to rest one hand on the box. "Stay back!" he snarled. "Do you know what this is?! It's a bra, a very special bra that was worn by a great sorceress! One touch of this baby and I'll be back again, as good as I ever was! And then you boys will really find out what happens when you cross your Master!"

Soun and Genma paused, clearly taken aback. They turned to face each other, seeming to hold a long conversation in just a few changes of facial expression. Then…

"Forgive us, Master!!"

Happosai blinked as the two prostrated themselves on the ground before him, employing a modified version of Genma's Crouch of the Wild Tiger. "You two really are pathetic," he muttered, wiping sweat off his brow. Still, no need to look a heaven-sent gift horse in the mouth. He turned, reaching for the lock on the box…

And his two former pupils sprang, their not-at-all-submissive expressions no longer hidden by their posture.

"Nabiki, next time you see Happosai, how about you wait until AFTER dinner to tell Daddy?" Akane grumbled. They'd been looking for the two fathers for twenty minutes now with no luck.

"I was thinking the same thing," Nabiki replied. "Listen, Akane, what would you think about going back home, telling Kasumi we found Daddy and he said it was okay to eat without him, then just leaving a note on the front door so that when he comes in he knows not to say anything different?"

Akane was giving this serious thought when the crash of breaking glass drew their attention. Before they could take off running, a small blur desperately clutching a box shot past them, trailing slivers of windowpane. "Sorry, girls, can't stop now!" Happosai shouted in passing.

Before he could get out of sight, Genma and Soun came into view, hot on his trail and running at top speed. Both Tendo girls blinked at the sight of their father with a battle aura. "Come back, Master! We haven't finished showing you our appreciation for training us!!"

Akane and Nabiki blinked again as the two older martial artists blazed past them, then took off running in their wake.

Ukyo smiled at the last customers as they left. It was still a little earlier than she liked to close, but the chance that Ryoga might have made it back to the Kuno place had decided her. She picked up her mega-spatula and set off.

As Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung neared the Kuno mansion, they hid their weapons, pulled out their flutes, and began the Dance of the Hidden Chameleon. Perhaps it would have been quicker to simply call on the phone, ask to speak to Shampoo, then find out from her whether Ryoga was back yet, but this way was more fun.

Kodachi gave Ranma an odd glance. Just what was so interesting about that waiter two tables over who was serving crepes flambé? Granted, the first time anyone saw that dish presented it was a trifle unsettling, what with the open flames and all, but that didn't explain anything… Ranma-sama was quite familiar with this dessert already. For pity's sake, she'd even prepared it for him once! So why was he staring so intently?

Shampoo waved one hand in front of Ranma's face. "Airen? What is wrong?"

Ranma blinked, then, as the flames were extinguished, he looked away sheepishly. "Um… well… it's gonna sound nuts, but I've been getting the strongest feeling that something crazy is about to happen. I was worried that guy might trip and spill that, or something."

Kodachi patted him on the shoulder. "Well, I'm glad he didn't. You can be a hero some other time, Ranma-kun. For now, I'd just like a peaceful dinner."

"Yeah, me too, but you know how it is with our lives. Crazy stuff happens whether we want it or not."

"Is so, but most in Nerima, yes? And we is not there now. Ranma need to relax."

With an effort, the Saotome heir did so. Still, he couldn't help but wonder whether the fact that they weren't in Nerima was really going to make that much of a difference.

With a tremendous effort of will, Happosai engaged his Dimensional Warp technique. It was a desperate move, since it used up all the rest of the strength he had to spare, but it bought him enough time to hide in a shrubbery.

'Blast those ingrates!' he thought bitterly. They'd not been shaken from his trail… it had been all he could do to stay ahead of them long enough to make it to this park. But he'd succeeded— here there were enough hiding places to keep Soun and Genma from finding him for the few critical seconds he needed.

Forcing himself to calmness, Happosai carefully manipulated the tumblers of the box's lock, blocking out the nearby sounds of Genma and Soun checking trees and other potential places of concealment.

A prickling along the backs of their necks roused them from their search. Instinctively they turned and looked straight at Happosai's bolthole. Their eyes widened and their jaws dropped as the glowing figure of a beautiful woman in a kimono suddenly reared up, floating in the air above the bushes. Happosai's neck was clenched in one spectral hand, and she was regarding him with an expression that was most unpleasant.

Soun and Genma gaped. Happosai choked. The apparition gritted her teeth. Eventually the last named broke the silence. "I suppose I owe you some small debt for awakening me, you miserable little troll. So, for that, I'll let you live. But I don't think I want to see any more of you tonight." Winding up like a pitcher on the mound, which was interesting considering that she had died before the invention of baseball, the sorceress threw Happosai as hard as she could. He vanished into the night sky, and she turned back to face the two men, wiping her hands as if trying to shed some unpleasant residue.

"Oh… oh my!" she whispered, raising one hand to her mouth as she got a good look at them. Or rather, at one of them.

With the prospect of vengeance against Happosai denied, replaced by the prospect of facing a supernatural entity, especially a supernatural entity that was giving him THAT sort of look, Genma suddenly realized that he and Soun ought to be at home eating sukiyaki right now, not rambling around in a park. "Well, thank you kindly ma'am, for disposing of that pest. Come on Tendo, let's go home. You too, girls." This last said absently to Akane and Nabiki, who'd finally caught up just now.

The specter gave a laugh that managed to be both alluring and frightening at the same time. "You always did play hard to get, my love. But no more of these games. It's been a long, lonely time since we last met."

As she began to float nearer to him, Genma's brain was split between trying to find a way to escape and trying to figure out just what this delusional creature meant. Since he had no way of knowing that he was almost the spitting image of a distant ancestor of his, who'd had quite a passionate romance with the lady in question, the latter of his two goals was pretty much unattainable.

The sight of a fountain broke Genma's mental deadlock. Of course! Turn into a panda, and she'd want nothing more to do with him. At least, not unless she was really, really kinky… Pushing that thought from his mind with a shudder of disgust, Genma turned and ran toward the water.

He'd managed only three steps when a kimono sleeve snaked out, wrapped around him, and dragged him back. "Now, now, is that any way to greet your little Yokehi, darling?" she asked him seductively.

"Please! You've got the wrong person! I've never seen you before in my life!!" Genma protested. It was just his bad luck that Tenma, his ancestor, had often used that very line in one of the games he'd played with Yokehi.

She smiled and supplied her corresponding line. " 'Well, then, it seems I need to refresh your memory!' " This followed by a very energetic kiss.

It was too much for Genma (who had, after all, been away from his wife for thirteen years, and anyway where do you think Ranma got his nervousness around women?). He passed out. About a minute later, Yokehi noticed and broke the clinch. "Oh, fie. I should have known all those years apart would have drained some of your stamina. Well, we'll just have to remedy that with some… one-on-one training."

Soun frowned. "Madam, I must ask you to unhand my friend. You have mistaken him for someone else."

Yokehi ignored him, lifting Genma into a fireman's carry and beginning to glide off. Soun's frown deepened and he purposefully walked over and stopped in front of her. "Madam, I said…"

Both Akane and Nabiki clearly saw the ghost's eyes shimmer, becoming something inhuman for just a second. She hissed, then lashed out with a sleeve of her kimono, catching Soun completely by surprise and knocking him backwards into a tree. He slumped to the ground, out cold.

"DAD!" Akane raced over to her fallen father. A quick check reassured her that he wasn't seriously hurt. That taken care of, she turned to face Yokehi. "How dare you hurt my father and try to kidnap Mr. Saotome?! I'm not going to let you get away with that!"

Yokehi gave her a disdainful look, ignoring the other girl racing off at top speed. She turned her attention to her passenger, and with a mild sense of disappointment realized that there was no way he'd be waking up again anytime soon. Oh well. At least it meant she could afford time to play with this annoying little child.

Nabiki ran. "Akane," pant, "has got to stop," gasp, "tangling with," pant, "supernatural evil." As during the last time in which her younger sister's fate was on the line, her destination was the Kuno mansion. Although this time she didn't run over anyone on her way there. "At least today," gasp, "the Kuno parents", wheeze, "aren't away", pant, "on some trip."

Tatewaki had just put the ring box back into his pocket when Nabiki blasted through the door behind him. He and Ryoga both jumped. 'I've heard of feminine intuition, but this is ridiculous!' Ryoga marveled.

"'Biki-chan?! What is it?" Kuno managed to get out.

"Akane. In park. Fighting ghost." Nabiki took a deep breath. "Does your father have any ghost-busting stuff?"

"I'm not sure. And he and Mother are in Tokyo, eating dinner with Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo," Kuno said. A look of sheer disbelief flooded Nabiki's face. Before that could shift into something more unpleasant, he quickly added, "But Ryoga and I should be able to handle a ghost, particularly with your sister's help. Let's go, Ryoga." He grabbed a bokken from a nearby stand.

The three of them turned, and headed back outside quickly. A little too quickly, in fact— Nabiki ran headlong into Ukyo. "Ouch!" The chef rubbed her forehead, while Tatewaki helped his girlfriend back to her feet. "Where are you guys going in such a hurry, Ryoga-kun?"

"There's a ghost fighting my sister, and we don't really have time for small talk!" Nabiki interjected. "Come on, we need to get moving!"

"Okay, count me in too!" Not only was Ryoga back, but now she had an opportunity to stand by his side in battle! 'This day might have sucked up 'til now, but things are definitely looking up!' Ukyo thought cheerfully.

"We help too!"

"That right! No let innocent girl get hurt!"

As everyone else spun around and stared to find Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung behind them, putting away their flutes and pulling out their weapons, Ukyo just held her head in her hands. 'Dammit, I knew better than to say something like that out loud, but can't I even THINK it?!'

Akane dodged frantically, skipping to one side so that the lash of Yokehi's unnaturally elongated kimono sleeve just missed her. With a loud kiai, she launched herself forward in a flying kick. This attack didn't work any better than the last one she'd tried; Yokehi simply fazed into immateriality and allowed Akane to pass harmlessly through her. Fighting a ghost sucked, the youngest Tendo thought. So far, the match had been a standoff. Akane's skill was enough to keep Yokehi from connecting with any attacks, but the witch's ability to fade was rendering Akane's offensives just as fruitless.

Yokehi was becoming more and more irate. True, she could simply grab her man and levitate away, and her opponent wouldn't be able to do anything about it, but by now she was too upset. How DARE this child evade her best attacks! Yokehi gritted her teeth and unleashed a furious combo of strikes with her sleeves.

Akane desperately spun and twisted, dodging sometimes by only the barest of margins, unable to get the time to launch a counterattack of her own. But Yokehi couldn't quite manage to pin her down. Eventually the barrage ended, leaving one extremely winded sorceress panting for air.

"You're going to regret attacking my father!" Akane announced boldly, doing her best to hide her internal worries. The newest move she'd learned from Mr. Saotome might be enough to end this, if she could get it to work properly. Since he'd only showed it to her two days ago, though, that was a pretty big 'if'.

The ghost stared murderously at Akane as she moved into a new stance. Martial arts weren't really Yokehi's strong suit, but it seemed like the girl had deliberately just discarded all her possibilities for defense. "Oh, please. That old fool is just stunned. He'll wake up in a few hours with nothing more than a headache." Yokehi's eyes narrowed. "And the same goes for you!!" She struck hard and fast, directly at Akane.

Akane braced herself, hoping like crazy that this would work. As the sleeve lashed out at her, she punched forward in her own attack. "CLOTHRAZOR FIST!"

To Yokehi's stunned horror, the end of her sleeve exploded into a cloud of loose thread as Akane's strike connected, shattering the ghost's attack completely. The destruction didn't stop there, either… the cloth of her kimono's sleeve continued unraveling. By the time Yokehi was able to focus her power and stop the process, her right arm was bare to the shoulder.

"Take that!" Akane shouted, almost glowing with pride. So what if the original form of the move had been developed by Happosai as a way of lifting women's undergarments without bothering to remove their outer clothing? As far as she was concerned Mr. Saotome had redeemed it when he made this modified version. Although it would be a long time before Akane was strong enough to use it as Genma had said it was intended, to destroy an opponent's light body armor… the silk of a kimono was all she could manage with just two days of practice under her belt.

Yokehi stared down at her newly-bare arm in shock, which slowly gave way to fury. She turned back to face Akane, and held her arm up as if in a salute.

Akane blinked. That was one realistic-looking tattoo of a snake that covered most of the witch's arm, but surely she was imagining things when she thought she'd seen it… move?!

This time there was no room for doubt. The image of a snake coiled around Yokehi's arm slithered and twisted… and the sorceress's human form melted away.

As the assorted martial artists neared the park where Nabiki had left her sister, a loud scream of terror split the air. The group managed to pour on a little more speed, racing through the trees to a clear area. At which point they stopped dead, needing a few seconds to adjust to the sight of the serpentine ghost hanging menacingly in the air above Akane.

The youngest Tendo was backed against a tree, too scared even to dodge to either side. Akane had always been frightened by supernatural horrors. This time around, thanks to the encounter with Ryoga-Oni, her fear had grown until it could almost be classified a phobia. There hadn't been any problem as long as Yokehi seemed human, but Akane had become terrified almost beyond coherent thought once the sorceress had grown fangs, scales, and a tail.

The screeching sound as the newcomers ground to a halt drew Yokehi's attention. She turned to face them. Once Akane's vision was no longer filled with that terrifying visage, she felt herself unfreeze. Looking over to see what had attracted the ghost's attention, seeing that the cavalry had arrived, lifted Akane's heart in a surge of hope. With a desperate burst of speed, she pushed away from the tree and raced past the transformed Yokehi to stand with the rest of the teenagers. And if the position she took up was behind Tatewaki, well, Akane had already fought valiantly this evening and her reserves were frankly beginning to run low.

Tatewaki braced himself as he took in the scene… an inhuman horror hanging in the air… Akane showing a great deal of pure terror… her father and Ranma's both on the ground, unmoving, some distance away (too far away for him to make out the fact that they were both still breathing easily)… his face hardened like stone. "Vile spawn of hell, we shall send you back from whence you came!!"

Yokehi gave a theatrical yawn. "This routine is getting pretty dull. I've already been threatened tonight by someone who couldn't back up her promises. I think…" her eyes glowed, and she smiled as she made eye-contact with first Tatewaki, then Ryoga, "… I think I'm ready for a different sort of entertainment now."

Their steadfast expressions faded into blank looks. Tatewaki and Ryoga's attack postures relaxed, and they each began walking casually toward Yokehi.

"Hey, Ryoga, what do you think you're doing?!" Ukyo demanded. Already the two had crossed half the distance between the rest of the group and their target. At that, they stopped, and turned back to face the girls, assuming fighting stances once again at Yokehi's silent command. The ghost in question floated higher into the air, coiling up on top of a tree and conjuring up a bucket of popcorn.

"Make it an interesting fight, boys!" she called out, then began to munch.

Nabiki froze like a deer caught in the headlights as Tatewaki shot forward in an attack. She just had the barest moment to realize that, as she was the closest to her boyfriend, SHE was the one toward whom Tachi was racing with bokken upraised…

Then the moment was gone as the kendoist flinched, his attack trajectory curving toward Ukyo instead. Nabiki stood and shook for a few seconds as a general melee broke out, quickly developing into two running battles: Kuno vs. Ukyo and Akane, and, by default, Ryoga against the twins. Then, coming to her senses again, Nabiki examined her options. Let's see, she could 1.) try to get involved in the fight, and get squashed by Ryoga, or 2.) try to confront Yokehi herself and get squashed by the sorceress.

The middle Tendo didn't need much time to consider before taking option 3.): run like a rabbit.

With a sigh of satisfaction, Ranma leaned back in his chair, the last bites of dessert now gone from his plate. "Well, Dachi, looks like my feeling was wrong. Was this evening nice and peaceful enough for ya?"

"Indeed," the White Rose answered with a smile. "If only they all were this tranquil."

By the time Yokehi had worked her way to the bottom of her tub of popcorn, the battle was all but resolved. The short girl with green hair had been the first to fall; from the poor showing she put forth, either she wasn't very skilled with that trident, or she was unwilling to go all out with it against her opponent. In any case, it had only taken a minute for that heavily muscled young man to break through her defense, ignoring the staff strikes of a girl with red hair that had to be the other's sister, and knock the green-haired girl unconscious. Without support from her sister, the red-haired girl had been forced totally on the defensive. She'd held out longer than the sorceress had expected, but eventually made the mistake of blocking when she should have dodged. Yokehi's slave's fist had punched straight through her staff and kept on going to send her after her sister, into unconsciousness.

The other half of the battle had been a much closer match— the girl with the odd weapon was very, very good. She and Yokehi's former opponent had worked together well, the weapon-user blocking or redirecting the bokken strikes with her giant spatula while the other girl attacked whenever she could find an opening. The young man had taken several hits this way, but since the girl who was handling the offensive side of things was running low on energy he was still in good shape. Still, Yokehi thought the battle could easily go either way… if it weren't for the fact that her other new plaything was now free to join in the fun.

A glimpse of motion drew her attention away from the now-desperate defensive action being fought by the girls against her puppets. Once again the shorthaired girl had come running back… but this time she wasn't followed by any further reinforcements. Yokehi frowned. The girl was carrying a bulging sack. The witch paused, unsure what was happening, then sent the quicker of her two slaves a mental imperative to shift his target to the new arrival. Her mouth dropped open in surprise when he completely ignored the command.

Nabiki gasped and panted for breath, but forced herself to keep moving. She reached into the sack, grabbed hold of its contents, and withdrew the Orb of Amalthea.

A blast of rainbow light filled the clearing. Then, just as suddenly, it was gone, and Kuno and Ryoga stood blinking, their minds their own again.

Neither Akane nor Ukyo had seen the Orb in action before, so they were even more stunned than the two boys. This was a good thing, for if the girls had recovered more quickly, Tatewaki and Ryoga might have been knocked unconscious before they could make it clear that they were no longer under Yokehi's yoke.

Ryoga whirled back to face the scaly sorceress. "You'll pay for this!" he snarled, and began to move forward.

A hand on his shoulder stopped him. He looked back, impatient. "What is it, Kuno?!" he growled.

"This thing is too dangerous an opponent for us to just rush in blindly," the kendoist replied. "Remember what happened when we fought your Oni side?"

Ryoga could have done without the reminder, but conceded that the other had a point. "Then what do you think we should do?"

Kuno's expression shifted, becoming a fearful sight indeed. "I'll finish this. Once and for all. Get back!"

The tone of command sent Ryoga back to the others without even pausing for thought. Kuno took a deep breath, and drew himself into absolute focus. 'Biki-chan, Akane, Ryoga, the two older men (he hoped fervently that they yet lived), Ukyo, the unconscious twins— all designated as allies. "Prepare yourself," tensing his legs and touching the tip of his bokken to the ground below, "this is it!"

He leaped, rising like an angel departing the earth,


his bokken traversing a one-eighty degree arc, ending with the point high above his head,


and now he was falling again, his weapon glowing as it tore through the air,


the arc reversed, the blade stabbing back into the ground as he landed,


and the world went white.

It was the most awesome and awful experience Ryoga had yet experienced in a lifetime filled with strangeness. The glare of pure chi, so concentrated as to be visible, filled his eyes. Energy screamed over, around, and even under him in a storm of power. At any second he expected to be blown away like a gnat in the flame of a blowtorch, but somehow that second never came. The tempest roared past him, yet left him untouched.

And then, it was over. Ryoga blinked, more than a little surprised to still be alive. Glancing around, it seemed everyone was all right. Difficult to believe with the magnitude of the force that had just been unleashed. But there were Nabiki, Ukyo, and Akane, dazed but unharmed, and the twins, groaning and sitting up now.

Of Yokehi, there was no sign at all.

Ryoga turned his attention back to Tatewaki. "What… How did…" His half-formed questions faded away as Kuno's knees buckled. Ryoga barely managed to catch the taller boy.

"Thank you," Tatewaki mumbled. "Attack… very draining…"

Recovering her presence of mind, Nabiki hurried over to his side. "Tachi? Are you okay?!" she asked in a voice that was trying hard not to be choked with dread.

"Fine, 'Biki-chan," he reassured her, speaking into her hair as she grabbed him in a tight hug. "Just a little worn out."

With an effort, Akane managed to force her mouth closed. "Next time Mr. Saotome tells me using weapons is for weaklings I'm going to ask him to spar with Kuno," she muttered.

Meanwhile, Ukyo had hurried over to the two bodies that yet lay prone on the ground. To her great relief, and great disappointment, she found they were both basically in good shape. The larger of the two was even snoring enthusiastically. She resisted the urge to squash him flat again. "Maybe a sleep spell?" she muttered, then raised her voice. "Hey, Ryoga, give me a hand over here!"

Ryoga began walking over to her, but stopped as a touch fell simultaneously on each of his shoulders. He turned, to find Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung regarding him with triumphant expressions.

He could have run. He could have protested. But something, some sense that this was inevitable and had been for a long time now, held him still as first Lung-Lung, then Ling-Ling stepped forward and gave him the Kiss of Marriage.

Nabiki and Tatewaki walked along in companionable silence. Akane had gone on ahead to fetch a wagon or something that would enable her to drag the two unconscious men back to the Tendo home; Ryoga, his self-proclaimed new wives, and Ukyo had left for the Nekohanten. It was just the two of them now, walking slowly along under the stars, pausing often.

"I wanted to thank you for not splitting me in half back there, Tachi," Nabiki finally said playfully during the latest rest break.

Her boyfriend flinched at the reminder. "Please, don't speak of such things. It was terrible, 'Biki-chan. I was like a passenger in the back seat of my own mind, with that thing's will driving me along. Only when its desires put you in danger did I have the strength to overpower them."

"And it was one of the sweetest things I've seen in a long time," she said, stepping in front of him. She gave him her best smile, then leaned in for a kiss.

An uncertain amount of time later, they both came up for air. Nabiki eyed her boyfriend closely. He'd recovered at least a little from the drain of his finishing attack, but he still looked pretty close to exhaustion. Better not risk another kiss like that… it just might send him the rest of the way into unconsciousness.

Kuno's knees were feeling rather weak again. Glancing around, he located a bench and seated himself. Nabiki joined him, and gave a long, drawn-out stretch. "This has been one long day."

"It has, yes," he agreed absently, seeming to look for words. After a pause, he continued. "Ironically enough, earlier this evening I made some remark to Ryoga about how the significant events of the day were already over and done with."

Nabiki laughed. "Well, obviously you don't have the gift of prophecy, Tachi. What were you talking about with Ryoga when you made that oh-so-insightful remark?"

Tatewaki smiled, recognizing the cue line. "He told me that the day wasn't over yet, after I informed him that there was something I had really wanted to do this afternoon." In his pocket, his hand closed over a small, velvet-lined box.

Ranma sat on the rooftop of the Kuno mansion, alternately looking up into the stars and down at the street below. He'd been doing this for quite a while now, and was beginning to wonder if his vigil was going to be for nothing.

Just as he was almost ready to give up, he caught sight of Ryoga, turning the corner of the lane and walking slowly toward the mansion. Ranma prepared to call out to the other, but then it became unnecessary. As if by instinct, Ryoga looked up and caught sight of the pigtailed martial artist on the rooftop. The former lost boy hesitated for a second, then took a running jump, landing lightly next to his comrade in arms.

"Hey, Ryoga. You look like you've had better days," Ranma said sympathetically.

Ryoga laughed faintly. "Oh, yeah. You could say that. Do you know, I actually hurried yesterday and this morning, so that I'd get back into Nerima today. I could've taken my time, gotten here tomorrow instead, and my life would be a WHOLE lot simpler right now." The former lost boy then gave Ranma a puzzled glance. "Um… I guess you heard from Tatewaki what happened, right?"

"No, he's not back yet," Ranma answered. "But Shampoo got a phone call from the twins earlier this evening, sayin' you'd beaten them in combat and gotten the Kiss of Marriage." He frowned. "So what's the whole story there? Why'd you fight them? You had to know what would happen."

"Yeah, well, I didn't have much choice. I was under the control of a ghost at the time." Ryoga went on to give a more complete account of the evening.

Ranma smacked his fist into his palm. "So THAT'S why I kept feelin' like something crazy was about to happen during dinner! Boy, what a relief. I thought my danger sense was turning unreliable or something."

"Well, gee, Ranma, I'm glad I could take that load off your mind," Ryoga said sarcastically.

"Oh, um, sorry about that." Ranma paused. "But hey, if you weren't in control of your actions, I'd say you've got some wiggle room to get out of the Kiss."

"Guess again," Ryoga answered. "We went to the Nekohanten and talked to the Matriarch. That's what Ukyo said, and Cologne just shot her down flat."

"Huh? She did?!"

"Yeah. Said that even if I had been mind-controlled, it was still my strength and skill that defeated Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, so the Kiss was valid."

Ranma's brow wrinkled. "When she said that… did she say it was her judgment as the Matriarch? Did she bring her authority into it at all, or did she just say, 'No, the Kiss stands'?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, it seems to me like this is a question of tribal law. For her to make an official decision, she'd have to SAY it was an official decision. And I bet she didn't do anything like that, did she?"

Ryoga considered. "No, she didn't," he said at last.

Ranma completely missed the way that this hadn't made Ryoga seem even slightly relieved. "Great! Okay, it may be a little unfair to the twins, but tomorrow I'll go with ya and talk to her about getting you off the hook…" At this point, Ranma was surprised to see Ryoga shaking his head in negation. "What's wrong?"

"It's too late for that." Ryoga looked up into the stars. "I guess maybe you're right, and she was pulling a fast one on me, Ranma. I don't know, though, maybe she didn't look at it like that. Anyway, after a lot of… discussion… mostly between the twins and Ukyo, she took me to a room off all by myself. No Ukyo, no Ling-Ling or Lung-Lung. Just her and me. And she asked me to tell the truth, on all my honor, whether I cared at all about the twins, or if I was absolutely sure I could never make a life with them."

After a long moment of silence, Ranma responded, "So what did you say?"

"The truth."

Although he had a pretty good idea now of where this was going, Ranma asked sharply, "Which was?"

Ryoga sighed. "Yes, and no, respectively. She just nodded, like she knew what I was gonna say even before she asked the question. She told me they already knew about my little visit to Jusenkyo, that she'd told them as soon as she found out who they were going after, and it didn't matter to them— they still wanted me, curse or no curse.

"Then she offered me a deal. I take this next year, give Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung an honest chance, date them and get to know them, and see if I don't come to love them. At the end of the year, if I've done my best and it doesn't look like anything's ever gonna grow between us, then she'll give me the same chance she gave Tatewaki, and set me some kind of quest to prove myself above the marriage laws."

Ranma gave a long, low whistle. After a while, he asked, "And what about Ucchan?"

"Damn it, Ranma!" Ryoga lost his temper for the second time tonight. Of course, the first time had been against Yokehi, so it didn't really count. "Don't I even get a choice?! That's all I want, not for different people to keep pushing me at whatever girl they think I should go after! I don't KNOW, okay?! Maybe I'll date her too, if she still wants to after this. I never have done that yet, and maybe now I won't even get the chance. It sure didn't feel good to see how hurt she was tonight!" In fact, it had felt like someone was slowly tearing his heart. Ryoga's sudden flare of temper died down. "I just don't know."

"Well, okay, I can understand that," Ranma said dryly. "Of course, what I was asking was how she reacted to all this stuff."

"Oh." Ryoga gulped a few times. "Um, sorry."

"No problem, buddy. I know you're under a lot of stress right now." Ranma thought back to the aftermath of Mousse's marriage challenge to Shampoo. "Boy, do I ever."

"Yeah, I guess you would at that," Ryoga said, with a grim smile.

There was silence for some little while, before Ryoga spoke again. "Ranma, like I said before, Tatewaki ended up taking out that monster with one shot. How the heck did he learn such a powerful technique?!"

Ranma grinned. "Don't tell Dachi I told you this, okay?" Ryoga nodded his assent. "It started back when they were thirteen and fourteen years old. Dachi was just beginning to get really good at focusing chi into weapons and stuff, and after she cut through one of Tatewaki's bokken with her ribbon he started learning too."

"Yeah, I can see where that might be some incentive," Ryoga commented dryly.

"Well, there was this one video game Tatewaki had, called Grandia. One of those fantasy adventure type games where the characters get stronger an' learn new stuff as the game goes on. One of the girls in the game had this one move where she basically set her whip on fire for an extra-strong attack. When Dachi saw that, she decided it looked pretty cool, and she worked and worked until she figured out how to do the same thing with her ribbon."

"Whoa. How come I've never seen her use that attack?"

"Cause it basically turns her target into a little pile of charcoal," Ranma answered. "Anyway, once she'd mastered it, she rubbed it in her brother's face for weeks, teased him and told him he could never take a made-up technique and make it real like that."

"I think I see where this is going," Ryoga said.

"Probably so. The Heaven and Earth Cut was the strongest attack of the strongest character in the game… it took Tatewaki almost a year to figure out how to emulate it." Ranma gave a grin that mixed his own wry amusement with embarrassment borrowed from someone else's memories. "And when he finally did, Dachi was stuck doing his chores for two solid months 'cause she bet he was just pullin' her leg when he told her."

Ryoga laughed. "So how does it work?"

Ranma paused, wondering where to begin. "Well, you know that just about everything in nature radiates chi, but different types of it?"

"Of course I do."

"And it's not all neat and tidy, either, the different kinds of chi sort of cling together in graduated layers, but not parallel or nothin'." Ranma brightened as a good analogy occurred to him. "Think of a deck of cards that's been dropped on the floor, then picked up and just kinda haphazardly shoved back together. That's what the different layers of chi are like, especially in the air above us. There's wind-based chi, and chi from sunlight, and rain, and residual from lightning even if there hasn't been a thunderstorm in a while, and some other kinds too.

"Anyway, the Heaven and Earth Cut works by channeling your own life energy into a sword, drawing chi up from the earth into it, then jumping up and using the charge you've already collected to force the different planes of chi in the air to line up. Like if the cards suddenly straightened out into a neat and tidy deck again. Pulling them into a more efficient form frees up a HUGE amount of power, which comes trailing back after you as you come down from the jump. It explodes out through your sword or whatever as soon as the tip touches the ground again. Because you're still focusing your own strength into the sword, you can direct the energy, change it to a form that won't harm inanimate objects, an' also make sure it doesn't hurt anybody you don't want it to hurt. But whoever takes the full force of the attack is basically not coming back."

Ryoga wiped some sweat from his brow. "I wonder why he didn't use that attack when we fought… when we rescued Akane a couple of months ago."

"The attack takes a lot of strength and really, REALLY intense concentration. And we'd had a ten-hour hike to get to Akane. No way could he have been in good enough shape to pull off a Heaven and Earth Cut after just a couple hours of rest," Ranma said. Then he frowned. "And he's gotta be just about worn out now. What the heck's keeping him?"

Nabiki's suspicion had proven accurate— one more kiss HAD been enough to knock her boyfr… fiancé unconscious.


To be continued.

Author's notes: I'd like to take a moment to talk about the twins' confrontation with Ukyo. Specifically, some of the remarks they made to her. Did you think them offensive? You should… the twins were trying their absolute best to BE offensive. They were attacking where they thought they saw a vulnerability in their opponent, sure that Ukyo would react in a rage and do something she'd later regret. That being said, the READERS should NOT be offended by that conversation. Unless you've grown really fond of Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, and are now indignant to see me having them stoop to this level, I suppose… but remember— they're only fourteen years old. Maybe more mature in some ways than the typical fourteen-year-old, but they still have a lot of growing up to do.

Did you think that the last half of this chapter was too hard on Ukyo? Maybe she should have asked herself whether there might still be Rakshasa alive on other worlds before she discounted the warning not to talk about her family's tasks prior to their completion… And speaking of that, did anybody have trouble swallowing the idea that the canonical Ukyo might have such a secret background? If she was willing to tell Ryoga in this story, wouldn't she have originally told her Ranma honey? Not necessarily— the reason she was willing to open up about this to Ryoga was to indirectly console him with the fact that he isn't the only one with a weird family history. Ranma's situation is completely different, so she uses different tactics when she's going after him *cough*freefood*cough*.

Speaking of people acting differently from canon, is anybody having trouble believing Ryoga would ever act this thoughtful? Canonical Ryoga wouldn't. I freely admit that. But, using the framework I've developed for this story, canonical Ryoga still has an Oni soul chained to his humanity. So you should expect radical differences in my version of Ryoga, since the Oni has been expunged.

Concerning a statement Ukyo made to Ryoga after the departure of Gourry and Zelgadis, that if Ranma had been there they probably would have wanted to fight him… don't think that I've been chronicling all the crazy stuff that goes on in this world. Ranma has still had his fair share of unwanted challengers (like Copycat Ken, who was MUCH less of an annoyance this time around), but I just haven't been detailing those encounters. In subsequent chapters I may flesh that theme out a bit more; maybe someone will come back for revenge or something.

Anybody out there wonder why Zelgadis was using a spell to track down somebody who knew Lina, rather than just trying to look for her directly? Well, the REAL reason was so I could have a funny moment with Ryoga learning why it's best not to say something like "This is more like it. A nice peaceful day, with none of the craziness we'd have to put up with if we were back at Furinkan." But if you want a justification, I guess at some point after all the events of the Slayers series, but before the accident that tossed her from her world into the Ranmaverse, Lina was experimenting with a new spell and it misfired, altering her aura and leaving her undetectable to magic. So Zelgadis has to resort to looking for people who know Lina.

While we're on the subject of Lina, credit must go to Bruce Munro for his idea that she helped her daughters develop the Dance of the Great Fire Dragon, and for pointing out that although Cologne said the Dance had been around for many hundreds of years, boom-boxes haven't. Thanks, Bruce!

And another thing about secret Amazon techniques… in the original series, Shampoo's use of the Xi Fang Gao blocked Akane's intellectual memory of Ranma but NOT her emotional memory. So where do I get off using it for the exact opposite in this chapter? Well, I think I'll go with saying the Xi Fang Gao can block any one type of memory at a time— you just have to hit the shiatsu points on the scalp in a different order, if you'd rather seal emotional memory. By the way, it was Cologne who suggested that Ranma take this tactic with Mousse. See, she did eventually come through with that help she promised in chapter 8.

Speaking of special techniques in general, don't think I'm giving Genma too much credit when I say he developed something like the Clothrazor Fist. If you haven't ever heard of the Umisenken or Yamasenken, you don't really understand Genma's talent for martial arts. I've read a lot of fics that downplay his skill, and it's easy to see where the authors got their ideas (Crouch of the Wild Tiger, the 'techniques' Ranma used when trying to cure Ryoga of his power tattoo). But in all honesty, the panda is GOOD. Remember that Ranma wasn't the only one who swam from Japan to China. All that being said, I do feel that I should mention that the REAL use of the Clothrazor Fist was NOT what Genma told Akane. He developed it to be used when fighting a dangerous opponent while there are women present. One successful strike and your foe will be forced to hide or run for the nearest change of clothing, while you make your getaway.

Anyone who hasn't seen the third season of the anime is probably wondering just what the deal is with Tsubasa. I could explain here, but these Author's notes are already too long. Go watch the 'Dharma Chameleon' episode. ^_^

One last rambling word of explanation… in the teaser section of last chapter's Author's Notes, I said that this chapter could have had a Dragonlance title. Perhaps some of you who are familiar with Weis and Hickman's novels have already made the connection, but for everyone else: the first novel in their Legends trilogy has the title 'Time of the Twins'. But I decided instead to go with a title that was a little more representative of the fact that, in this chapter, things run pretty smoothly for Ranma, Kodachi, Shampoo, Nabiki, and Tatewaki, but are rather more bittersweet for Ryoga, Ukyo, the twins, and Mousse.

For this, the longest chapter yet (and the longest there likely will be), I had the help of several prereaders. Thanks go to Jim Bader, Gregg Sharpe, Larry F, Wade Tritschler, and Kevin Smith. Next time: the remains of the year.

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

Chapter 11
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