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A Ranma ½ fanfic
by Aondehafka

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

Chapter 11: Cherry Blossom Blues

One of life’s few constants is change. This is true as one moves through time or space, or both; things that are a simple, unremarkable fact of everyday life in Zimbabwe are so far outside the scope of a typical day in Manitoba, Canada, that in many ways those two locales might as well be separated by a world-wall.  Similarly, an inhabitant of New York in 1812 would not likely fit in well if suddenly shifted into the New York of 2012.

And yet, even with change so prevalent, there remain some underlying themes, deep thrummings of a common pulse, which unite people in small but pervasive ways. One such theme applies to students the world over-- namely, upon receiving a summons to the principal’s office, the youth, whether boy or girl, whether Asian or Caucasian, will feel a quick thrill of dread, and will walk slowly and reluctantly to their destination, either wracking the brain in an attempt to fathom just WHY this has happened or (for those who know darn well why) mentally polishing the alibi.

“Why are you walking so slowly, Ranma-kun?” Kodachi asked curiously.  She knew very well that it took much more to scare her man than a measly little summons to the principal’s office.

Okay, so there’s an exception to every rule.

Ranma gave her a wry grin. “You mean you’re in a hurry to get back to class? Gee, Dachi-chan, maybe I SHOULD speed up. We wouldn’t want to miss any more of that lecture on the history of Greek philosophical thought than we have to.”  Kodachi giggled as he deliberately slowed his pace even further.

Shampoo glanced from Ranma to Kodachi, then back again.  She frowned slightly at their carelessness.  “Is both you not bothered by meet with Principal Fujima?”

Ranma shrugged. “Nope.  What’s to be worried about?”  Looking at Shampoo and invoking the empathic link between them, he was surprised to find the Amazon actually was feeling a bit of anxiety. “Come on, Shampoo, don’t tell me you really ARE nervous?!”

She gave a reluctant nod.  “Even as boring as last class was, I rather be there than get called to Principal Fujima.”

Kodachi blinked in mild surprise. She wouldn’t have expected Shampoo of all people to be intimidated by a visit to the principal’s office. Especially considering the only real reason Shampoo was at Furinkan at all was to be with her Airen and sworn sister. “Don’t worry, Shampoo. It isn’t as if we’ve done anything to get us in trouble, after all.”

“And besides, the only reason this school is still standing is cause the Kunos donate so much yen to it. Ain’t no way they’re gonna come down hard on Dachi, Tatewaki, or anybody important to either of them.” Ranma gave the Amazon a reassuring smile. “So you don’t have to worry.”

Shampoo gave the both of them strange stares.  “What is you talking about?”

It was Ranma’s turn to blink. “We were sayin’ there’s no reason to worry-- there’s no way we’re in serious trouble.”

“Silly Ranma. You think that why I not want see Principal Fujima? Shampoo could not care less about stupid school rules.  Besides, I already know what you say, why they not really give us hard time anyway.”

“Then why were you feeling anxious?” Kodachi asked.

The Amazon shrugged. “Is just… Principal Fujima always gives Shampoo the creeps.  He looks like he look straight through you, see all of what is inside you. Makes me uneasy.”  She gave Ranma a seductive smile.  “There only one man Shampoo want have no secrets from, after all.”

This statement did what ten visits to the principal wouldn’t have been able to do, causing Ranma’s heart to lurch in a sudden surge of nerves.  Nonetheless, he gave her a smile back, while thinking privately that it was unfair-- he’d finally gotten over most of his shyness around Kodachi, and that OUGHT to mean he wouldn’t be nervous with Shampoo EITHER!  Too bad emotions don’t always respond to logic.

The White Rose glanced swiftly up and down the hall, and was reassured to find that they were still the only ones present.  It wouldn’t take much of Shampoo acting like that while others were watching before a certain secret would be secret no more.  She took Ranma’s arm.  “Well, I can’t say I’ve ever noticed anything particularly disquieting about the man, but I’m sure we can rely on Ranma to protect us. “She looked up at Ranma through lowered eyelashes.  “Right, Ranma-sama?”

Shampoo sighed. “Kodachi, I is proud warrior of Joketsuzoku. To hide behind man is not Amazon way. “Then she grinned.  “Of course, we not in Amazon lands right now…” That said, she latched onto Ranma’s other arm.

Needless to say, the upcoming meeting was rather far from everyone’s minds for the remainder of the walk. They reached their destination, fortunately without any inconvenient witnesses.  A little regretfully, each girl let go.  Then Kodachi quickly grabbed Ranma again when it looked like he was about to fall over.

Ranma wiped the sweat from his brow with one shaky hand.  “Look, guys, it ain’t like I didn’t enjoy that, but if we wanna keep this secret we better not do that kinda stuff here.”

“Oh, all right, Airen,” Shampoo pouted. “You take Shampoo to date soon to make up for having to keep my distance at school?”

“Sure,” he responded. Gathering the rest of his composure, Ranma opened the door and the three went into the principal’s secretary’s room. She buzzed her superior on the intercom, sending the news that the students whose presence he’d requested had finally shown up.

Principal Fujima sat at his desk, staring down at three pieces of paper.  His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was rumpled. He’d not gotten much sleep the night before, waking up at two in the morning and spending the interval until dawn mulling over the dream that had aroused him.  This accounted for his red eyes and for the general aura of weariness that hung over him. As for his hair, it pretty much always looked like that.

He’d been staring at the papers for quite a long time, though not really seeing them. They were remarkably similar, each a letter stating that a particular student was transferring to another school. They all seemed perfectly legitimate. Fujima had had no reason to doubt their veracity.

After all, the Sakuras had shown up at the same time, had been assigned to the same class, had formed a fast friendship with one another.  If circumstances had so arranged themselves that one of the girls had to leave, Fujima would have expected the other two to follow her if at all possible. So when the letters came, and the Sakura triplets (as everybody thought of them, no matter how they complained that they WEREN’T related to each other) didn’t show up, Fujima thought no more of the matter.

Until eight hours past, when one of his rare precognitive dreams roused him from slumber in the dead of night, with the certain knowledge that they hadn’t left… they’d been taken.

“Whoever said ignorance is bliss knew what he was talking about,” Fujima muttered sourly. And the worst thing of all was knowing just enough to know how little you knew.  His dream had been annoyingly short on helpful details… it was all well and good to know that the girls weren’t in actual physical danger, but he would have far rather known just where they were being held against their will, or who was doing it.

But dreams come as they may, the principal thought with a long-familiar sense of irritation. All he knew was the three girls and their families were being held captive somewhere in Tokyo, and they weren’t in any danger, though there was a plan to exploit them in some way. Another person might have thrown his hands up in despair at the difficulty of making any sort of difference with such scanty information, but Fujima liked to think that his tour of duty as the principal of Furinkan High School had made him a better problem-solver than that.

His intercom buzzed, and his secretary announced the arrival of Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo. Fujima allowed himself a long, grim smile before schooling his features back to sternness and asking that the three be sent in.

Kodachi noted, with a bit of puzzlement, that the principal’s office had seen a few changes since the last time she was here.  When she’d arranged for the transfer of Shampoo, Ryoga, and herself to Furinkan, there had been only one extra chair in the room, a fairly comfortable one seated away from the desk at a bit of an angle.  The setup seemed designed to help put whoever sat there at ease, since the principal would be subtly letting go of some of his authority by not having the desk act as so much of a barrier between himself and the visitor. Kodachi had also noted that while the chair was old, it didn’t seem very worn, and had speculated (correctly) that most students called to the principal’s office were not invited to take a seat.

This time, though, there were three chairs, sitting side by side in front of the principal’s desk. As he directed them to sit down, she began to feel even more curious than before.  Just why had they been called here?  If they were in trouble, they ought to be standing, not sitting in chairs that must have been brought in just for them. But if they weren’t here for any sort of disciplinary action, why was Principal Fujima regarding them with such a stony look?

After a moment of silence, which he spent eyeing the three students, Fujima spoke up. “Not even a second’s worth of hesitation. You, Ranma, take your seat in the middle chair, Kodachi on your right, Shampoo on your left.”

“Uh… is there something wrong with that? I mean, you did tell us to sit down,” Ranma said, reasonably enough, or so he thought.

“Wrong?  Well, I don’t know, Saotome.  Why don’t YOU tell ME whether it wouldn’t have seemed more natural for you… a young man with a steady girlfriend… to take one of the end seats, with Miss Kuno next to you in the middle seat, and Shampoo at the other end.”

“…Goodness, sir, was this supposed to be some sort of psychological test?” Kodachi asked, doing her best to make it sound as if the idea were absurd.  What actually happened was that the question came out sounding remarkably guilty.

“No, not a test. Just an illustration.”  The principal leaned forward, forming a steeple of his fingers as he placed his hands together.  “I’m going to put all my cards on the table. Even if there’s only a month left in the school year, I seriously doubt you three are going to be able to keep a lid on your little secret for that long.  Walking down the hall with both of them holding onto you, Ranma… could you possibly have been less discreet?”

“Hey!  I check to make sure nobody watching before I take Ranma’s arm…” Shampoo’s protest dwindled away into sheepish silence as it occurred to her that, unless the principal really was a mind-reader, there must have been at least one witness.

“Look, I don’t see what business it is of yours!” Ranma protested.  Off-balance he might have been, but his fighting instincts were still functioning.  Switching tactics quickly was a basic tenet of Anything Goes, after all.  If denial won’t work, use some other method. “It ain’t like we’re in violation of school rules or nothin’!”

Principal Fujima whipped out a copy of the student handbook, opened it to a page near the back, and passed it to Ranma. A huge drop of sweat appeared on his forehead as he read, “ ‘In the interest of maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships, a student with a steady girlfriend or boyfriend may not date other individuals at the same time.’  What the heck kinda nutty rule is this?!”

‘One I put in the rulebook a few weeks ago, just in case I ever needed leverage over the three of you,’ Fujima didn’t say.

With some effort, Kodachi forced her jaw to do something other than gape in disbelief. “Sir, with all due respect, don’t you think you might better spend your time by targeting those students whose conduct actually causes problems here?  I’m certain our friends Ryoga and Ukyo would appreciate some intervention in their classroom. Why focus on us when we aren’t causing any harm?”

Fujima chuckled, though he didn’t sound particularly amused.  “Miss Kuno, you are one of the brightest students at this school. But perhaps in this case you’re a little too close to the situation to view it clearly.  So let me invite you to consider, just for a moment, what will likely happen once the general female populace of this school learns that just because you and Ranma are an item doesn’t prevent him from dating other girls as well.”

“Hold on there!” Ranma protested. “Ain’t no WAY anybody else is welcome to come butting in on us!”

“You’re a two-woman kind of guy, is that it?” Fujima replied, laying the sarcasm on extra thickly. “Do you seriously expect anyone to believe that? Without at least hoping they might have a chance too, or trying to find out for themselves?”

Ranma didn’t say anything; his silence was response enough.  The principal continued.  “And that’s not even the worst of it.  Once word leaks out that in Shampoo’s culture it’s acceptable for a man to have multiple wives, do you have any IDEA how much pressure the boys are going to mount in order to get a student exchange program going between Furinkan and the Chinese Amazons?”

“Then you get some of Shampoo’s sisters here, weak boys hit on them, they pound weak boys into ground, boys not cause no more trouble.  Problem solved,” Shampoo said.

“As if that approach ever worked for Miss Tendo?”  Fujima sighed. “No, I think we’d do better to find another solution to this problem.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Kodachi queried, maintaining a measure of skeptical reserve. She hoped she wouldn’t have to hold the matter of her family’s regular donations to the school over the principal’s head in order to get him off their backs.

“What would you say, if I proposed that instead of spending this last month attending classes, the three of you work on a special project?  Then you wouldn’t be around for any inconvenient secrets to leak out to the student body. And this way you could work together, on your own schedule, doing something that I think will interest all of you. If you succeed, you all receive top marks for this year.”

Kodachi’s skeptical reserve melted like a snowdrift in the Sahara.  She should have known he wouldn’t really get tough with her. “What sort of special project?!”

Ranma held onto a bit of wariness. In his life, only a very few things that seemed too good to be true hadn’t turned out to have some hidden price tag. On the other hand, those few things had ALL come since his arrival in Nerima, so he allowed himself to be guardedly optimistic about this offer.

Fujima opened a desk drawer, withdrew three pieces of paper, and passed one of them to each teenager. “Read these.”  They complied, then looked back at him with questioning expressions.

“They seem perfectly legitimate, don’t they?” Fujima asked quietly.  “I certainly didn’t suspect otherwise, when I received them. “After a moment’s pause, he continued. “But those letters weren't written by the parents of the girls in question, and the story they tell is an outright lie. The Sakura triplets and their families have been taken somewhere and are being held against their will. And I want you three to find them.”

Kodachi was the first to find her voice. “Is this some sort of joke, sir?”

“No, Miss Kuno, I'm quite serious.”

“Really.”  Ranma packed a week’s supply of skepticism into the word. “There’s been a mass kidnapping, and instead of reporting it to the police, you come and ask for our help. Oh, yeah, that makes perfect sense. Sir.”

Fujima sighed. “Saotome, I’ve already told you everything I know about what’s happened.  I don’t know where they are, I don’t know who’s taken them or why, I don’t have even a shred of evidence that could be taken to the authorities. As absurd as it sounds, you three are the best hope I have of rescuing those girls.”

“Perhaps we might be a little more willing to believe this if you told us how you learned of the girls’ plight,” Kodachi suggested.

He’d been hoping nobody would ask that, but Fujima had known it wasn’t a very realistic hope. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. All I can say is that the source of my information can’t offer any more than I’ve already told you.  Except for one thing I didn’t mention-- the girls aren’t in immediate danger.  You can take the time you need to locate and free them.”

Ranma gave Kodachi a glance. She clearly understood the message: ‘You’re the one whose family keeps this place from going under, YOU tell him that’s not good enough.’ Returning her attention to the principal, the White Rose frowned.  “Principal Fujima, that simply isn’t good enough.  You need to do a lot better than that if you want us to take this seriously.”

“Very well, I will. Here are two reasons for you to accept what I’m telling you is true,” Fujima snapped back.  “First, how can you take the chance that it isn’t? You are the only hope for those girls, the only ones I have any influence with who are talented and resourceful enough to possibly rescue them. If you turn your backs on them now, whatever happens… however they are exploited and abused… is on your heads.

“And, if that reasoning isn’t enough to convince you that I’m serious about this…”Fujima took a deep breath, then said, “Miss Kuno, your family’s donations have made a huge difference to this institution. Furinkan owes the Kuno clan an immense debt of gratitude, which I doubt we’ll ever be able to repay.

“That being said… if you turn down the task I’ve set before you, I will expel the three of you.”

A long moment of silence was broken by Shampoo.  “That convince me. What about you two?”

Elsewhere, another meeting was taking place.  Instead of an office, the setting was a conference room.  A number of comfortable chairs were seated around a large, circular mahogany table.  The carpeting was thick and luxurious, and the walls were tasteful paneled oak. The overall impression of the room was that of power and influence, though there were two jarring notes. The first was that several of the attendees were clearly not full-blooded Japanese.  The second was that the figures seated at the table were dressed in casual, comfortable clothes rather than formal business attire.

However, the second of these seemingly incongruous facts had a simple explanation.  Namely, the whole POINT of this secret society was to make the world a more comfortable place for those seated at the table. As far as they were concerned, there was no room for three piece suits or neckties in their personal vision of the future. Most of the room’s inhabitants had to maintain legitimate jobs as a smokescreen, and they wore the usual sort of garb required then, but for these meetings there was only one person clad in something even slightly professional.

And that was just because it was a very comfortable lab coat.

The man wearing that coat, one Dr Yoshimitsu, cleared his throat and called the meeting to order. “Gentlemen, I am pleased to report that we have had a breakthrough, far sooner than the most optimistic models predicted.”

“What, already?!”

“It’s been less than a month!”

“Are you sure?”

“Which of them was it?”

As the hubbub died down, Dr Yoshimitsu continued. “It was the Fourth Child. Granted, it was an involuntary act rather than a conscious one.  She doesn’t even remember it.  But I believe we can safely say that the new program will bring results much, much more quickly than the years we had to invest in the First Child.”

One of the others at the table frowned slightly.  “Personally, Yoshimitsu, I’m glad it wasn’t a conscious act.  Let’s not lose sight of what could happen if the development of the newly-acquired girls’ abilities outpaces the controls the First Child has in place on them.”

Dr Yoshimitsu refrained from rolling his eyes with a mighty effort of will.  “Klewang?  Did you even read the memo I sent to everyone, describing the process the girls would be undergoing?”

“That so-called ‘memo’ was two hundred pages thick!  Some of us have to keep up our outside jobs to provide funding for this operation, you know!”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no.’ Regarding your concern, don’t worry. ALL the controls are already in place. The First Child saw to that before we even began the process of awakening their psionic potential.”

“Oh, really? But if the controls are fully entrenched, how did one of the girls take an unconscious action?  Aren’t uncontrolled abilities potentially as dangerous as abilities that WE aren’t the ones controlling?”

“That brings me to my next point… the nature of the breakthrough.  As you know…”  Dr Yoshimitsu blinked as a thought occurred to him.  “Um, gentlemen, when I prepared these remarks, it was with the impression that you all had read my memo and were familiar with the details of the approach we were taking.  How many of you actually did read it?”

A roomful of averted eyes and embarrassed coughs answered his question.  “Right,” he sighed, “I guess this talk is going to run a little longer than I had expected.

“As you know, sixteen years ago the Project successfully generated seven viable infant clones of the original subject. We have recently re-acquired three of them, and one we raised ourselves… the First Child. Most of what we now know, we learned from watching her and helping her develop her potential.  In particular, we learned that the additional children will be able to surpass the First Child in specific areas, but only if we encourage growth in those areas rather than a general development.  Our goal is to create a team where the First Child is the ringleader, the generalist with a full spectrum of abilities, with the others having limited but finely-honed powers.

“For this purpose, we need to know what each girl’s natural strengths are.  The First Child has therefore placed the controls, as I already stated, and is monitoring the others while using her own abilities to encourage the development of her sisters’ potential.  And you are quite right, Klewang, many of the powers we would like to see them develop are not ones that should be encouraged to run wild. The controls are in place and will prevent this; they will NOT prevent the First Child from sensing the psionic surge and understanding what would have happened.  We can then adjust the appropriate girl’s training program accordingly.

“But there are certain effects that we don’t mind happening at random.  The controls don’t block these, and in fact we wouldn’t want them to. It was an ability like this that the Fourth Child demonstrated.  To be specific, she had a precognitive dream.  One far sharper and clearer than any the First Child has ever had, which only proves the point I made earlier about specialization along one’s natural strengths as opposed to generalization.”

“A precognitive dream?” Just about everyone at the table had brightened considerably at this news.  That had been one of the main talents they had been hoping for, especially if the girl could learn to consciously control her ability. “I don’t suppose she got a glimpse of the state of the international stock exchange one month from today?”

At this, Dr Yoshimitsu’s expression became rather more grave.  “I’m afraid not, but she DID see something quite crucial to the success of our project.”

His tone and the look on his face caused the celebratory mood to lose a lot of its energy. “And what was this?” the man seated next to Dr Yoshimitsu asked.

Instead of answering directly, the scientist opened a folder and laid three drawings on the table in front of him. Sketches done in charcoal, each of a different teenager.

Dr Yoshimitsu opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by a groan from the one who’d been responsible for acquiring the three new girls.  “Doctor, I recognize those kids.  Hate to break it to you, but one of our new girls has a massive crush on that boy.  I’m sure she does have some, ahem, intense dreams about him, but I doubt they qualify as precognitive.”

“It’s the Second Child, not the Fourth, with the crush you mentioned,” Dr Yoshimitsu responded. “And anyway, the only reason we know about this was the First Child was monitoring the girl.  She stated unequivocally that this was a true instance of psionic activity, and drew these from the images she saw in the other’s dream.”

“So what do Ranma Saotome, Kodachi Kuno, and the Amazon Shampoo have to do with us?”

The doctor looked slowly around the room, making sure he had everyone’s undivided attention, before responding. “If we don’t do something to distract them, they will eventually uncover our operation and destroy it.”

A man seated across the table, who hadn’t yet spoken, now gave Yoshimitsu a curious look. “Why do you say ‘distract’?” he asked coldly. “If these children really pose a threat to us, don’t you think we might do better to consider a more reliable means of keeping them out of the picture?”

Just about everyone at the table stared at him incredulously.  “What?!  Don’t tell me you’re ALL too squeamish to…”  Suddenly he blinked, as certain names that had been previously mentioned finally registered. “Wait a minute… did you say that’s… Ranma Saotome and Kodachi Kuno?!”  A round of nods.  “So! What kind of distraction do you have in mind, Dr Yoshimitsu?” he asked briskly.

Another two drawings joined the three already on the table.  “These individuals were also present in the Fourth Child’s dream. Both of them have grudges against Saotome, and would be only too glad to fight him again.  The First Child suggested we engage them for that very purpose, and even volunteered to work as our liaison to make sure they never get an idea of what’s really going on here.

“From what she saw in the dream, she guaranteed that she’ll be able to ensure these two keep Saotome and the girls from causing any trouble for us.”

There was undeniably an extra spring in Shampoo’s step as she, Ranma, and Kodachi left Furinkan and began walking back toward the Kuno mansion.  No more boring classes, no more need to keep up a ‘just friends’ façade that had been proving harder and harder, and the chance to have an adventure! Today was turning out far better than most Mondays, Shampoo thought to herself.

“Anybody have a suggestion about what we oughtta do now?” Ranma asked, frowning pensively. “I can’t say I got any bright ideas myself.”

“Well, is too early for lunch,” Shampoo remarked, giving Ranma a playful smile.  “So Shampoo think is best we get started right away on looking for captured girls.”

Ranma stuck his tongue out at her. “Gee, Shampoo, good call. But I don’t suppose you could say just HOW we’re supposed to do that?  I mean, there’s an awful lot of room in Tokyo for them to be hidden in.”

The Amazon grinned. “Just like there was lot of room in Japan for Ryoga’s Oni soul to hide Akane in?  That make no difference to us.  We go to Nekohanten, borrow Eye of Bastet from Great-Grandmother, find lost girls with that.  Maybe even get this whole mess wrap up today, and have rest of month for own selves.”

“That sounds like a good idea to me,” Kodachi agreed.  The three shifted their course, making for the restaurant.

When they arrived, however, they found that only Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were there. “Where is Great-Grandmother?”

“She take day off, to train new Sailor Moon girl,” Ling-Ling answered absently, paying most of her attention to the ramen bubbling on the stove in front of her.

“Wait a minute… I thought the reason Usagi wasn’t in class was that she was sick today,” Kodachi said.

“No, yesterday Great-Grandmother ask if she serious about training, test her and say if she is, need to prove by skip school today to get extra practice in.  Rabbit girl show up bright and early this morning, and leave with Great-Grandmother.”

“Do you know what time she’ll be back?” Ranma asked.

“Ling-Ling think late evening… Great-Grandmother say we not going to open restaurant today.”

“Then why are ya cooking up some ramen this early in the day?”

“We trying master new recipe. Want to have just right for lunch with Airen,” Lung-Lung said.  The tone of self-satisfied happiness with which she’d spoken the last word might well have sparked a fight if Ukyo had been within earshot.

“Oh well, we not really need Great-Grandmother for this anyway.”  With that, Shampoo led the other two up the stairs to the sleeping quarters. The twins stared in shock at them, the ramen completely forgotten.

Oblivious to the rather large misunderstanding that was currently taking place one floor below them, the three made their way into Cologne’s room.  As Shampoo knelt down in front of the Matriarch’s chest of treasures, Ranma spoke up.  “Wait a minute, Shampoo, we know there’s no trap on the chest, but shouldn’t we still wait for your great-grandmother to get back?  Last time you used that jewel, it basically wiped you out.”

Shampoo paused with one hand on the lid of the trunk, and looked back over her shoulder. “No need, Airen.  Great-Grandmother tell me secret of using jewel right way not long ago. No danger this time of using up all my strength.  Is no reason wait for her to get back before we do this.”

With that, the Amazon turned back to the chest, and lifted the lid.  There was an audible *click*.  Simultaneously, a dart shot out and buried its tip in her shoulder. Shampoo stared in shock, then muttered, “Shampoo really wish Great-Grandmother would make up her mind…” before collapsing into a heap on the ground.

Ranma’s panicked cry of “Shampoo!!” brought the younger Amazons racing up the stairs at breakneck speed. As Ling-Ling reached the door of the room, though, it suddenly occurred to her that the pig-tailed boy might just have been caught off-guard when their cousin made her move on him. The cherry-haired girl tried to come to a screeching halt, but Lung-Lung, who was behind her and not expecting this, slammed into her at full speed.  The two ended up tumbling into the room in a tangled heap.

Ling-Ling groaned and shook her head, then took in the scene in front of her.  She didn’t know whether to be relieved or not that it wasn’t what she’d expected.  “What happen to big sister Shampoo?!”

“She opened the Matriarch’s chest and was hit by a poisoned dart!” Kodachi said, while desperately checking Shampoo’s vital signs.  They seemed stable, but who knew how long that would last?!  “Get out of the way!  We need to get her to medical attention as soon as possible!”

“No, not worry. Trap not fatal one,” Lung-Lung said, breathing a sigh of relief.  “You say she open Great-Grandmother’s chest without ask?  Why she do stupid thing like that?”  Ling-Ling glared and smacked Lung-Lung on the head, who just grinned unrepentantly back at her.

“Are you sure she ain’t in any danger?” Ranma asked desperately.

“Ask Ling-Ling,” Lung-Lung said with a smirk that earned her another swat.

“Is so,” the cherry-haired Amazon grumbled.  “Trap just use sleeping potion, make whoever hit by dart sleep for many, many hours. Big sister Shampoo wake up tomorrow by noon.”

“Maybe sooner,” Lung-Lung chimed in. “That how long it take for effect to wear off Ling-Ling when SHE try open chest, but big sister Shampoo is stronger, maybe throw off effects faster.”

‘Well, that’s a relief,’ Kodachi thought, wiping sweat from her brow.  ‘But I suppose that just blew away any chance of making a difference today in the matter of our unfortunate classmates.’

The red light of sunset was glimmering outside when she sensed their approach.  Sakura gulped.  Clairvoyant abilities notwithstanding, she hadn’t foreseen that she would be anywhere near this nervous.  She took a deep breath, reaching for calmness, blocking out the thought that these two were part of the mysterious and terrifying outside world she’d never so much as touched. She focused instead on the images of herself interacting with them that she’d seen in her sister’s dream. ‘Just stick to what you remember seeing yourself do, and it’ll be okay,’ she thought.

A knock at the door threatened to shatter her fragile composure, but she forced away the new surge of anxiety. “Come in,” she called, mildly surprised that her voice didn’t crack.

The door opened, and in stepped two young men.  Sakura regarded them closely.  Her stare was open enough that a normal person might have considered it rude, but neither of these two could remotely be considered normal, and both were accustomed to receiving looks like that.

As well they might be. One was tall for a Japanese, though not exceptionally so.  He had black hair, which was about the most normal element of his appearance. His green eyes were much less usual. Above the waist, he was clad in a loose, paint-spattered garment.  It was an artist’s smock, though Sakura didn’t have enough experience to recognize it as such. Below this he wore trousers, also stained, though only with black ink rather than the multicolored pigments that adorned his shirt.  He wore a beret at a slightly rakish angle.  His mouth was framed by a small waxed moustache and a scraggly goatee. Slung along his back were a number of bundles, as well as a gigantic paintbrush almost as long as he was tall.

The other didn’t catch the eye nearly as emphatically as his companion.  In fact, at first glance he seemed rather nondescript. The only thing obviously unusual about him was his hair; it was gray, rather than black or brown, even though the young man appeared to be in his mid-to-late teens.  His eyes were gray as well, and his clothing was as drab as the other’s was colorful.

On a closer examination, though, there was an air of secrecy about him, a sense of things hidden beneath layers of concealment.  A normal person, on being around him for any length of time, would become more and more uneasy, torn between a desire to get away and a morbid curiosity as to just what was causing this feeling of unease.  He’d become quite familiar with this reaction by now, and even derived a measure of bitter amusement at watching for the precise moment that it dawned on whoever was currently near him that he wasn’t casting a shadow.

Both young men saw nothing unusual in the intense scrutiny with which Sakura regarded them. Neither thought it remotely likely that she would seem reassured by the results, yet this was what happened. They were just like she’d seen in her sister’s dream, Sakura thought with a sense of relief.  And so, since she’d already seen this meeting play out, it wasn’t so hard now to relax a little and let things proceed.

“Good evening, mademoiselle,” the boy with the beret spoke.  “I received a telephone call this afternoon.  Someone who declined to identify himself stated that an old enemy of mine was causing trouble for him, and asked for my help. I was to come here for further details.”

The other boy stirred restlessly and gave him an odd glance.  “With a getup like that, shouldn’t you be using an annoying French accent?”

“Yes, but I never could get the hang of that,” the first speaker confessed.  “My attempts at a French accent make me sound like a buffoon.”

The gray-haired boy gave him a frankly incredulous look, as if wondering how the other could miss the fact that his choice of clothing made him LOOK like a buffoon, but decided not to pursue the subject.  He turned back to Sakura.  “Same thing here. Somebody called me, told me Ranma Saotome was causing a lot of trouble for him, and said he really needed my help. “He broke his eye-contact with Sakura to give one last sidelong glance at the other boy, then returned his gaze to her. She made a much more attractive sight, after all.  “Although they didn’t say anything about someone else getting involved. Care to fill in the holes?”

“I… there’s only so much I can tell you,” Sakura replied quietly.  She looked down at her hands, fingers twisted together in her lap, not realizing just how shy and vulnerable her posture made her appear. “My employers are engaged in an operation which is being threatened by Ranma and two friends of his. One, Kodachi Kuno, you have both met. The other is a Chinese girl named Shampoo. You’ll know her when you see her because she has red eyes and lavender hair that reaches below her waist. Plus, she’s always with the other two.

“The three of them are a serious threat to a business project of ours.  That’s why you were contacted.  Both of you have suffered at Ranma’s hands in the past. We want to ask you to fight him again, to distract him from threatening us.  But please, I beg you, whether or not you decide to help us, don’t tell Ranma about this meeting.  He’d beat our location out of you without a moment’s hesitation if he could.”

Sakura fell silent then. Both young men regarded her in contemplative silence.  As the quiet stretched on and on, she began to worry.  Had it really taken this long for them to respond, in the dream she’d witnessed?  Surely they should have said something by now.  Had she somehow botched her part?  Had she… had she already missed her chance to make the future take the branch she so desperately needed?

Just as Sakura felt like the silence would shatter her heart, the shorter boy spoke. “All right.  I’ll help you.”

“As will I,” the other was quick to add.  “Please, tell us more of what you need us to do.”

The last fading light of sunset had not yet vanished from the sky.  The two young men were now walking slowly through the streets of Tokyo. The gray-haired one was the first to break the silence.  “If we’re going to work together, there’s something I’d like to ask you.”

“What would that be?”

Grey eyes met green in a challenging stare.  “Just why did you agree? That had to be the vaguest story I’ve heard in my life.  Doesn’t it bother you to think you might’ve just signed up for a tour of duty with the Yakuza?”

The taller boy drew himself to his full height in a huff.  “Insolent cur! How dare you accuse that lovely young lady of such heinous associations?!  I will admit that I could wish for more complete information regarding her employers, or this mysterious agenda which Saotome apparently threatens, but I am fully prepared to stake my life and my honor on the virtue of that gentle girl!”

“Gee, then it must’ve bothered you when she asked me to be the one who reports our progress to her,” the gray-haired boy said bitingly.

Curiously enough, the other deflated at this, rather than becoming more insulted.  “No, actually that was for the best.  Such a fragile, delicate flower she was, a shy and demure angel, one utterly unfit for the harsh realities of this world. At least, so she seemed to me. And I cannot afford to repeatedly expose myself to that picture of innocent beauty.  My heart is for another, who is not yet free to return my affection. I must not waver in my devotion to her.”

They walked on quietly for a few more minutes, while the shorter boy tried to decide whether he’d be able to depend on this overly-romantic dreamer at all.  Before he could come to any conclusions, the other spoke again. “What of you?  Have you no poetry in your soul, that you would suspect that fair girl of such darkness?  And if not, have you no honor, that you would still be willing to ally yourself with Yakuza or the like?”

“In case you forgot, we aren’t getting paid for this,” he snapped.  “So don’t cop an attitude, like I’m selling myself or something. Like she said, Ranma and I fought before. I owe him for a lot, and I intend to settle the debt.  And just for your information, I’m quite sure that Sakura girl doesn’t mean us any harm.” Fujima himself couldn’t have been any more certain, though the principal would have been able to discern a lot more than just that the girl hadn’t been concealing any ill-intent.  “That doesn’t mean her employers are so innocent.”

“Well, be that way if you wish. I prefer to see beauty and truth in the world around me.”

“You do that then,” the gray boy replied softly, and sadly.  “At least one of us won’t be so busy staring into the light that he forgets what kind of stuff hides in the darkness.”

Even as Lung-Lung had suggested might happen, Shampoo threw off the dart’s effects much more quickly than Ling-Ling had. If the younger Amazon had been there when her cousin awakened, she would have been more than a little annoyed… the lavender-haired girl woke up feeling quite refreshed and alert, with none of the grogginess from which Ling-Ling had suffered. On the other hand, this happened at one-thirty in the morning, so Shampoo didn’t get off completely free from inconvenience.

Finding herself in her own familiar bed at the Kuno mansion was a welcome experience. She had fallen into the blackness of unconsciousness with an unpleasant worry that the dart might have been laced with something worse than a sleeping potion.  She was more than happy to find those worries had been groundless… there were many things she still wanted to do in her life.

Shampoo tossed and turned for a few minutes, but quickly realized it was a wasted effort. There was no way she’d get back to sleep tonight; she was feeling much too alert.  What to do now? The idea of heading back to the Nekohanten and taking another crack at the Matriarch’s chest flitted idly through her mind, but was quickly discarded.  She wasn’t that desperate for sleep, thank you very much.

Another idea, that of making her way to Ranma’s room, waking him up, and seeing where things went from there, was discarded almost as quickly, if a great deal more reluctantly. She knew he wasn’t ready for that yet, at least not with her.  Besides, first dibs most definitely belonged to Kodachi, and the Amazon was certain her sister hadn’t claimed them yet.

That left exercise of a different sort.  Shampoo changed into some training clothes, picked up her bonbori, and slipped out into the hall.

This wasn’t her first late-night training session.  She’d been in Japan long enough to become used to the place, by and large, but there were still times when she woke up in the middle of the night, tense with the sensation of being in some place where she didn’t really fit. The sheer luxury of the Kuno mansion didn’t help either, contrasting so sharply with the Spartan conditions Shampoo had known for almost all of her life.  Her face still flushed whenever she remembered first waking up to the buzzing of an alarm clock. The Kunos could afford to replace the clock, the nightstand on which it had stood, and the door through which she’d smashed both of them, but still…

The late-night episodes of sleeplessness weren’t very frequent, but when they occurred Shampoo had found that a good, strenuous workout would put her back at ease.  This time, as she sneaked through the darkened halls toward the nearest training room, she was a good bit more relaxed than she had been the first time she’d done this.  Back then, she’d been as nervous as a cat, more than halfway expecting to have someone discover her, assume she was trying to sneak into Tatewaki’s room, and throw her out for good.

Those days of uncertainty were gone now, and though the Amazon used every bit of skill she had to creep along soundlessly, it was just out of consideration, to avoid waking anyone else up. She’d covered about half the distance to her destination when that stealth paid off in an unexpected way.

Hearing a faint sound where there should have been only quiet, Shampoo suddenly froze. She listened intently for a few seconds, then ducked back into a side corridor.  Without a doubt, there was somebody sneaking down the very hallway she’d been moving through seconds before.  Her grip tightened around the hafts of her bonbori.  This was one burglar who was going to rue the day he targeted her hosts! The barely audible steps drew nearer and nearer.  Shampoo tensed, preparing to spring…

… then remained frozen motionless for quite a long time after Ryoga had passed on his way.

Eventually the Amazon shook herself out of her shock.  It was unbelievable! Barely a week had elapsed since Ryoga had beaten her cousins and received the Kiss of Marriage. She would have been prepared to wager every material possession she’d gained since coming to Japan that it would take her cousins a lot longer than this to work through his shyness.  But apparently she’d been wrong.  Where else could he be sneaking off this late at night? She was certain she’d heard the opening and closing of the front door, which pretty much ruled out the possibility that he might just be making a raid on one of the larders.

Shampoo sighed a little.  It was true she was happy for her cousins, but she couldn’t help but wish things had turned out better for Ucchan. At least with the way things were it wouldn’t be too hard for Ryoga to let the other girl down easy. He pretty much had no choice but to date Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, and Ukyo knew this.  He could start by pretending not to enjoy it, then slowly let his true feelings come out.  It wouldn’t be one massive crushing blow that way, but it would be just as effective. Surely Ukyo would give up long before the year was out, the Amazon thought.  Or better yet, maybe the chef would make peace with her cousins, so Ryoga wouldn’t have to forsake anybody.

There’s just something about the small hours of the morning.  Even if one is wide awake rather than half-asleep, the most ridiculous thoughts seem credible then.

Eventually Shampoo remembered that she had been meaning to get in some training.  She set out again, her mind still dwelling on Ryoga’s unexpected boldness. And truth be told, there was more than a hint of jealousy there too.  Her cousins were two years younger than her. It didn’t seem fair that she had to wait this long when they got to be with their husband right away.  And really, if Kodachi would just go ahead and break Ranma in, surely that would increase her Airen’s boldness with her too.

The Amazon turned that thought over in her mind for a few moments before giving a devilish grin. She turned on her heel and made her way back along the way she’d come, though headed for a different destination than her own room.

Normally it took quite a lot to wake Ranma up.  Being doused with a pail of cold water could do it, although that had never happened in his stay at the Kuno place.  The smell of breakfast cooking would rouse him without fail.  Threats and attacks, however, were more likely to be ignored and avoided with a subconscious roll to the side.

Introducing a subtle change into his environment had just about no chance of waking Ranma suddenly. But slowly, gradually, his subconscious mind became aware that something just wasn’t right.  At three-thirty in the morning, Ranma blearily opened his eyes and sat up, wondering just what had awakened him.

At least, that was his intention. The warm weight snuggled across his chest prevented him from carrying out the second of the agenda items.

Ranma’s gaze focused. His mouth instantly went as dry as the Gobi desert. His higher-order thought processes, which had just begun to come on-line, shut right back down. His heart gave such a thunderous crash that by rights it ought to have awakened Kodachi as well, but she just murmured softly and snuggled a bit closer.

That was the only discernable motion in the room for quite some time.  Eventually, however, Ranma felt his heart resume beating. His eyes shrunk almost back to normal size, and he regained the ability to blink.  Anything beyond that, though, was still beyond his reach. Especially, he was incapable of looking away.

The moon was hanging low in the sky, and its light was shining freely through the window. Ranma knew he didn’t have any words of his own that could possibly do justice to the wonder of the sight before him. Kodachi was wearing a fairly modest nightgown, which was probably the only reason he was still conscious. But this did nothing to hide her face, or the long, slender arm that was stretched out to leave her hand resting less than a finger’s width from caressing his face.  Her skin seemed to glow from within, with a beauty that would make alabaster and ivory seem dull.  Her hair was a limpid cloud of moonlight.  As if of its own volition, one of his hands reached out and gently stroked her unbound tresses.  She murmured again, too softly for him to make out whatever it was she’d said over the pounding of his own heart.

Ranma never was certain how much time slipped by like this.  Nothing lasts forever, of course, and eventually a cloud passed over the moon. The change in light levels was extreme enough that for just a second, he couldn’t see anything.  Acting on instinct, he shut his eyes, and tried to take deep calming breaths. The ‘deep’ part worked okay, but since each one was making him more and more aware that his girlfriend was sleeping with his chest as her pillow, ‘calming’ was a total bust.

The moon had come back out now… the reflection of its glow from Kodachi was obvious even through his tightly-closed eyelids.  He felt tempted, so tempted, to open them again and look once more, but his instincts were screaming that if he did whatever happened next would depend on her self-control, not his.  And one of her last memories prior to the Heart Link informed him that if she woke up now, she’d probably think she was still dreaming, and self-control wouldn’t even enter into the picture.

No,’ Ranma thought to himself with every shred of determination he could muster, ‘I won’t take advantage of her like that.  Bad enough I already sleepwalked inta her bedroom or something.’  Forcing himself to think about that wasn’t very pleasant, but at least the guilt helped him focus.  Slowly, and with a flexibility that many a ballet dancer would have envied, he managed to slide out from under Kodachi and then out of the bed without waking her.  She did mutter what sounded like a slight protest, but Ranma held firm in his resolve. No way was he gonna compromise Dachi-chan’s honor! He breathed a deep sigh of relief (at least, he told himself it was relief) as he slipped through the door into the hallway.  Now he just had to sneak back to his room, tie himself to one of the bedposts, and toss and turn for the rest of the night.

Right about then he realized he’d just come out of his own room, not Kodachi’s.

His only reaction at first was just to whimper.  How many shocks was he supposed to endure tonight?!  He didn’t think he could take much more of this.

Ranma considered his options. 1) Go somewhere else for the rest of the night. Let Kodachi wake up by herself in his bedroom… that one was quickly discarded.  2) Go back in there, wake her up in such a way that she knew she wasn’t dreaming, and let her make her own way back to her bedroom… he considered that for a minute before reluctantly concluding he didn’t have the finesse to pull it off.  “Hey, Dachi-chan, wake up.  You’re in my bed, and I can’t sleep.”  No, that option wouldn't work either.  3) Go back in, pick her up as gently as he knew how, and hope like crazy he could get her back to her own bed without waking her or passing out himself from stress. 4) Since he could sense that Shampoo was awake now, he could go get her, tell her what had happened, and ask her to help.

“Right.  Plan number three it is,” Ranma muttered grimly, summoning up all the fortitude he had remaining.  It might be risky, but it was his best option. Shampoo’s idea of help in a situation like this would probably be to toss him back in the room and barricade the door behind him.

At the breakfast table the next morning, Shampoo noticed that Ranma seemed quite tired, although Kodachi didn’t. That was one thing she really, really envied the other girl, the Amazon thought. It must be nice to be able to go completely without sleep if you needed to.

Keeping quiet until they were out of the house was rather a challenge, but Shampoo managed it. She didn’t say anything until they were walking toward the Nekohanten.  “Ranma look exhausted. What is the matter? Not get enough sleep last night?” she asked innocently.

Ranma jumped like the sidewalk had suddenly become red-hot.  “Ahh… well, actually… No!  I had a really hard time falling asleep last night.  I was, y’know, worried about you.  Even if the twins said that dart was harmless, it still felt really bad seein’ how still you looked.”  This was even the truth, as far as it went.

Nice try,’ Shampoo thought to herself. She cast a sidelong glance at Kodachi, and blinked.  Hard. The White Rose wasn’t blushing at all, or giving any indications that something had changed. Granted, Shampoo didn’t know her quite as thoroughly as she knew Ranma, but the Amazon was certain that if what should have happened had happened, Kodachi would be showing obvious signs of it.

So what had gone wrong? There was no way Ranma could possibly have done what she did, and carried Kodachi the distance between their rooms without waking her. Shampoo had hit a series of sleep pressure points on Kodachi, repeating the strike every half minute so the effect wouldn’t wear off too soon, but before she left Ranma's room she had tagged a different set of points, which would bolster Kodachi’s natural resistance to shiatsu manipulation.  Given the White Rose’s already formidable resistance, that effect probably hadn’t worn off even now. It was completely unbelievable that Ranma could possibly have taken her back to her room without waking her up.

“Ranma-kun, are you forgetting the sleep wards in your bathroom’s medicine cabinet?” Kodachi chided her boyfriend gently.  “My father went to a great deal of trouble to make enough for everyone to have an adequate supply. Magical sleep is a lot safer than using drugs, after all.  Next time you can’t drop off, just use one of those.  That’s what I did last night.”

“Oh, yeah, I did forget all about them. “A thought occurred to Ranma. “Uh, they don’t have any… side-effects or nothin’, right?”

“Like what?”

“Um, well, sleepwalking, or weird dreams, or not being able to get to sleep the next night, or sleepwalking,” Ranma answered.

“No, they’ll just give you a peaceful eight hours of unbroken slumber,” Kodachi reassured him.

“No suppose father has ward what cure headache?” Shampoo asked grumpily.  Blast it all, she should have barricaded the door!

“I'm afraid not. Why were you banging your head against that wall anyway?”

This time, the twins weren’t the only ones to greet them when they reached the Nekohanten. The Matriarch was also there. “Well, now, Shampoo, did you learn a lesson about patience yesterday?”

Shampoo’s jaw dropped. How in the world could Great-Grandmother possibly know about her attempt to speed things up between Ranma and Kodachi?!

Cologne frowned in puzzlement at the unexpected reaction.  “I’m referring to your opening my chest without asking… again.”

“Oh, Shampoo wondered what you meant, Great-Grandmother.”  Her great-granddaughter wiped sweat off her brow.  “Why you no tell me you put trap on chest after I open before?”

“Because I thought that this would serve as a better lesson.  ‘A burned child fears the fire’, after all.  When you need something from my private collection, ASK first.”

“No worry, Great-Grandmother, I learn lesson now.”  ‘If need something of Great-Grandmother’s, and she not around, get Kodachi to open chest.’

“Anyway, could you please fetch the Eye of Bastet for us?” Ranma asked.  “There’s kinda a lot riding on us, and we really need it.”

Cologne gave a mysterious smile and opened one wrinkled hand.  In her palm was the jewel in question.  Kodachi blinked. “Um, Ranma-kun? Did you mention to either of the twins that that was what we came for yesterday?”

“I was just going to ask you the same thing, Dachi.”  He turned back to the Matriarch.  “Do I even want to know how you knew that was what we wanted?”

Cologne just maintained the mysterious smile.  “Never mind, son-in-law. I have my ways. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung decided it was in their best interests not to spoil the moment. Therefore, they kept quiet about the fact that just before Ranma and the others had come in, Cologne had been using the Eye to try to locate their Airen’s parents.

The ancient one passed the jewel to Shampoo, then continued speaking.  “But I would like to know just what you need it for. Why don’t you tell me while my great-granddaughter makes use of it?”

Shampoo settled down into a meditative position.  Although she’d learned the secret of using the Eye properly from the Matriarch, she hadn’t actually practiced with it.  Her reassurances of the day before to Ranma notwithstanding, she was a little nervous now that the time came to act.  Still, there was no reason for this, she told herself.  Great-Grandmother would pull her out of the trance if something started to go wrong.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, focusing her awareness on the jewel in her hands. The amber cloud formed again in her mind, with flashes of energy far off in every direction.  This time, though, Shampoo knew what to do. It wasn’t time yet to try to find the ones she was looking for. Instead, she picked what seemed to be the closest arc of energy, and concentrated on it. Even as the Matriarch had described, the flow strengthened, stabilized, and began moving toward her apparent position. It continued to grow as it drew nearer to her. The others began moving in as well, drawn by the gravity (for want of a better word) of the largest.

By now, Shampoo had forgotten her earlier nervousness.  This was as easy as Great-Grandmother had said!  At least, once you knew what you were doing.  The energy flares were all around her now, and with ridiculous ease she stopped their advance and began weaving them together into a seamless screen of brilliance.  Once it completely encapsulated her, she withdrew her will from the energy. Shampoo didn’t have a body just now, so she couldn’t give a big grin.  But she felt like doing so; the power didn’t even flicker, but held perfectly stable, ready to show her the ones she needed to find.  She pictured the Sakura triplets in her mind’s eye, then sent forth her wish that she be shown their current whereabouts.

And nothing whatsoever happened.

Not having a body at the moment also meant she couldn’t blink in surprise.  She had to settle for a moment of blank non-comprehension. Perhaps she hadn’t been clear enough in picturing the girls?  Shampoo didn't know the triplets all that well, after all.  She ignored the nagging voice that whispered she had managed to find Akane, with whom she’d been much less familiar, and concentrated on building a crystal-clear mental image of the three girls.  When she was satisfied that it was as good as she could possibly manage, she sent it out again into the viewing matrix. Again, nothing.  The energy still hung there,  perfectly stable, perfectly unresponsive.

Now Shampoo was beginning to get angry.  What was wrong with this stupid thing?!  Great-Grandmother had said that this was the easiest part of all.  Once the matrix was formed, just send out a desire to see whoever you were looking for.  Why wouldn’t it work?! Perhaps she’d made some subtle mistake that created a defective viewing window.  Or maybe the girls were screened against scrying magic.

Shampoo considered that. If it were the case, how would she know? Maybe she should try looking for someone else. If that worked, then she’d know she hadn’t made a mistake, and would just have to ask Great-Grandmother what was going wrong.  Let’s see… whom should she look for?

“… He told us they weren’t in any real danger, and we could take the time we needed, but of course we don’t want to leave them in captivity any longer than we have to,” Kodachi said, finishing up their explanation of why they needed the Eye.

“Interesting.  Is there something special about these three classmates of yours, that someone would go to such trouble to abduct them in secrecy?”

“Well, they’re supposedly not related to each other, but they look absolutely identical. Like triplets separated at birth, which is basically what everybody at school thinks happened.  Don’t know why that would make anybody want to kidnap them, though,” Ranma answered.

Cologne was wondering how best to gently break it to him that there were those who’d pay a fortune for three well-trained identical ‘servant’ girls when the import of what he’d just said got through to her.  She sighed, and turned back to rouse her great-granddaughter from her trance.

Before she could do this, however, Shampoo’s eyes shot wide open in shock.  She let out an earsplitting “AIYAH!!” that made everybody jump. As if by magic, the water from Lung-Lung’s glass shot halfway across the room to drench Ranma, though not a droplet landed on anybody else.

“Shampoo!  Is something wrong?!” Ranma-chan asked anxiously.” Did you find the girls? Are they in trouble?!”

The Amazon shook her head in negation.  Kodachi noticed that she seemed quite dazed.  “No, Shampoo could no find Sakuras, Ranma.  Jewel would not show them to me.  So Shampoo wonder if she make mistake, try to find someone else to see if using magic the right way.  That time it work just fine.”  She gulped.  “Shampoo just not prepared for what she see.”

“What that?” Ling-Ling asked, curious even though she knew it might be someone she’d never met or even heard of.

“Was…”  Shampoo paused, pinched herself hard, reassuring herself that this was actually happening, then spoke again, “… was Mousse. Want make sure he not throw off Xi Fang Gao or come back to Japan. “She laughed, the kind of laugh that comes when you absolutely do NOT believe what you’ve just seen. “For sure we no need worry about that anymore. When I see Mousse, he in bed with cousin Xiao Yu.”

Lung-Lung really should have known better than to pour herself another glass of ice water. When she heard her cousin’s statement, she facefaulted, as did her sister and Ranma-chan.  Once again, water flew through the air.  Once again, it unerringly targeted the only person present with a Jusenkyo curse.

Kodachi looked around in surprise. “I don’t understand why everyone is reacting like this.  If Mousse has forgotten all his love for you, why shouldn’t he find someone else?”

“Because Xiao Yu treat him coldly all the time.  She make fun of him for way he chase me, for glasses, for hairstyle, for fighting style, really for just about everything.  Is last person in whole world what Shampoo would think he end up with. No, wait, next to last.  Was forgetting about own self.”

“Maybe Mousse use love potion on cousin?” Ling-Ling suggested faintly.  “Xi Fang Gao no make him forget what she do. Could be this is revenge.”

Of those who actually knew Xiao Yu, only Cologne hadn’t seemed surprised by Shampoo’s revelation. “Or it could be that now that he isn’t chasing someone else and ignoring her, perhaps she felt like it was time to let her true feelings be known,” the Matriarch suggested in a tone as dry as the desert sands.  “Shampoo, you know how very bitter she was toward you.  Did it never occur to you that it might have been over something other than not being able to beat you in combat?”

Shampoo shook her head mutely, an expression of even greater shock in place now.  “So all this time, you say reason Xiao Yu so angry with Shampoo and Mousse is because Mousse chase Shampoo, not her?”  Cologne nodded.  Slowly, the lavender-haired girl’s expression faded back to neutrality. “Is strange to find out now, after so long. So now cousin not have reason to be angry with me no more.  When I see her again,” suddenly Shampoo’s expression twisted into maniacal rage, “I BEAT HER TO DEATH WITH OWN LEG!!  She could have tell me truth long ago and I ECSTATIC to give Mousse to her! But NO, stupid cousin have to keep truth to self and let EVERYBODY suffer!  When Shampoo get hands on her, she be too sore for MONTH to take Mousse to bed!!”

Kodachi cleared her throat loudly. “That’s all well and good, but right now we need to concentrate on our classmates.  You said you were unable to find them?”

“That right. “Shampoo heaved a deep sigh, attempting to calm down and focus on the more immediate concerns.  “Not sure why.”

“I’m afraid the Eye of Bastet isn’t going to be any help to you,” Cologne said regretfully. “Its magic allows you to find any person, but you must focus on that one person in order to do this. If these three girls are as identical as Ranma says, there’s no way for the Eye to single one of them out. I’m very sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything here that can help you find your classmates.”

Ranma would have liked to remain at the Nekohanten to plot their next move.  He knew very well just how crafty Cologne was, and felt like they could use any help they could get now.  But since the restaurant had been closed the previous day, the Matriarch wanted to open early this morning.  The three of them left, Shampoo still looking a bit dazed from her unexpected discovery, and began rambling aimlessly through the streets of Nerima.

Everyone was quiet for a while. Eventually, hoping to distract herself from the morning’s shock, Shampoo broke the silence. “Well, since my idea to use Eye of Bastet no work, we need new plan.  Is Ranma’s turn to come up with idea.”

“Huh?  Why me?!”

‘<Because I’m still annoyed with you for not cooperating last night.>’  “Because Shampoo say so,” she answered with a smirk.

Ranma rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Shampoo, that made it perfectly clear.”

Kodachi giggled. “Well, really, I think it’s pretty obvious what we need to do now.  Principal Fujima said the reason he couldn’t go to the authorities was that he didn’t have any evidence. So what we need to do is hire some private detectives and have them investigate. If we’re lucky, it won’t take long to find a lead on the girls’ location.  At the very least, no matter how well covered-up this kidnapping was, eventually they’ll manage to turn up some evidence of wrongdoing.  We could take it to the police then.”

Ranma frowned slightly. “Yeah, I guess that’s our best bet,” he said. But his tone indicated he wasn’t too happy about it.

“Ranma-kun?  What’s wrong?”

“Well… it just doesn’t seem right to sit back an’ let other people do all the work like that. Of course, I can’t say I got any idea of how we could help, though…”  That admission made him even less happy.  Sitting on the sidelines was one of the things he was poorest at.

Neither the White Rose nor the Amazon really knew what to say in response to this.  Both turned the thought over in their minds as they walked along, and realized they agreed with Ranma’s assessment.  It just wouldn’t feel right to goof off and take an extended vacation when the reason they’d been let out of school was to find some helpless, innocent captives.

Shampoo brightened as an idea occurred to her.

Kodachi smiled as a thought struck her mind.

Ranma smacked his fist into his palm and gave a cocky grin.

All three started to speak at once, causing a verbal traffic jam.  Just another of the minor quirks that come with having your soul directly connected to someone else’s.

Eventually Ranma claimed the floor. “What I was thinkin’ was that we don’t just have to do nothin’.  Even if we don’t really know where to start looking, Principal Fujima did say they were in Tokyo. So maybe we oughtta just start roamin’ around at random.  Seems to me that with all the craziness that pops up in our life, there’s a good chance we’ll just stumble across those jerks that kidnapped the Sakuras. May take awhile, but at least we’d be trying to make a difference.  And we’d get to explore Tokyo and do new stuff together.  If we stay far enough away from Nerima, we wouldn’t have to worry about anybody who knows us seein’ us and figuring out the truth about Shampoo.”

“That exactly what Shampoo was going to say.”

“And I as well. Great minds think alike, it seems,” Kodachi said. Then another thought occurred to her. It wasn’t quite as pleasant, but now that she’d thought of it, she couldn’t in good conscience keep silent. “Perhaps we should invite Ryoga at least to come along in the afternoons.  It seems like he tends to draw trouble too. Having him with us might increase our chances of stumbling onto these lawbreakers.”

Shampoo frowned slightly. It would be much more fun if it were just them and Ranma, but she supposed her sister had a point. And anyway, they’d still have the mornings for themselves. Still, the Amazon would have preferred to have the afternoons as well.

Ranma had just opened his mouth to say something when the sound of running caught his attention. He and the girls turned to look, and stared. A figure in a torn dress was racing at top speed along the lane.  Although this person was desperately trying to hold up the tattered top of the dress with one arm, enough of the torso still showed to make it painfully obvious that this was a guy, not a girl.  He had long flowing brown hair, which snapped and crackled behind in the wind of his passage. Ravening behind him, bellowing roars of incoherent rage, glowing with an intense battle aura, came Ryoga. The duo shot past Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo, continued down the lane, and passed out of sight.

“Y’know, Dachi, that was a good idea, but I think Ryoga’s already got enough on his plate. Let’s not give the poor guy anything more to worry about,” Ranma said briskly.

Nobody had really expected for their strategy to pay off immediately.  Especially not Ranma.  In his experience, things just didn’t work that smoothly where he was concerned.  However, he also hadn’t expected for a whole week to pass without anything odd happening while he and the girls were patrolling throughout Tokyo. He hadn’t even been randomly splashed more than a handful of times.  The pigtailed martial artist should have been grateful for the peace, but it was actually starting to fray his nerves.  Didn’t it just figure that the one time they actually wanted to find some trouble, it completely avoided them?

Kodachi was unusually out of sorts this morning as well.  This was due to an oversight on her part, which she’d discovered the previous day. Since the White Rose was the most familiar with dealing with underlings, not to mention that it was her family’s funds that would be paying their fees, it had fallen to her to deal with actually hiring the detectives.  She had thought she’d done a good job, too.  Weeding out the people with talent from those who basically had no clue how to do anything other than check for Burakumin ancestry, then negotiating reasonable fees (her allowance didn’t stretch THAT far, after all) had left her with the satisfaction of a job well done.

Unfortunately, she had made a slight error, and had neglected to inform any of the detectives that he wasn’t the only one being hired for this job.  Yesterday she had finally discovered that the glowing leads each investigator had been reporting to her had come from getting wind of one or another of the others’ interests in these families.  According to Kodachi’s calculations, each detective was now thoroughly investigating one or more of his fellow investigators, and no attention was being paid to any real clues that might be out there.  Of course, it could still turn out that one of the people she’d hired had actually been involved in the kidnapping, but somehow the White Rose doubted it.

Shampoo didn’t quite have her usual air of sunny optimism today either.  She had woken up feeling impatient, eager to resolve matters quickly. She’d tried to tell herself that there was no need to hurry, that they knew the Sakuras weren’t in any danger, but that had brought an uncomfortable realization… namely, that they only had Fujima’s word for that.  And when it came down to it, the Amazon had to admit to herself that she didn’t really trust the man.  Quite aside from his refusal to reveal his source of information, there was just something about him that set her teeth on edge.

The three were walking along in silence, Ranma trying to convince himself that it was crazy to be upset about a whole week of peace, Kodachi reflecting moodily that the yen she’d shelled out had so far been completely wasted, Shampoo wondering whether or not she ought to track down Fujima and shake him until he spilled his guts about the source of his information.  It was the first time since they’d started these patrols that none of them were thinking about their task, or hoping to stumble across someone involved in the crime.

You know what that means, right?

To the casual eye, Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo seemed to be the only people on the street. Only the closest of scrutiny would have revealed the presence of one other person… a young man with gray hair and eyes, standing under the awning of a shop that hadn’t yet opened for business. Though he wasn’t hiding behind any solid object, he seemed to disappear into the shadow cast by the overhang, fading like the night’s dreams under the noonday sun.

This wasn’t the first time he’d watched these three.  He’d trailed them several times over the past few days.  It had frustrated him to no end that he’d not been able to get close enough to overhear them… whenever he’d tried, the girl with the purple hair had started to become uneasy, and he’d realized that if he got too close, she’d see him, shadows or no shadows.

He’d concluded that he wasn’t getting anywhere just following them, and would need to take a more direct approach soon. And somehow, this moment seemed to be the perfect one.  He stepped out from under the awning, becoming completely visible, and waited for them to approach.

The gray boy felt his pulse begin to race as Ranma drew nearer.  Of course the girls were there as well, but he frankly didn’t much care about them.  It had been Ranma who defeated him so easily, Ranma who had brought him to where he was now, Ranma with whom he yearned to fight again, Ranma who would fall this time.

Ranma who’d just walked right past him without paying him the slightest attention.

The gray boy gaped for a moment, then recovered.  “Hey! Saotome!  What do you think you’re doing, walking past me like I’m not even there?!” he shouted.

Ranma blinked at the cry of anger, then whirled around in a defensive stance.  Shampoo and Kodachi took up supporting positions at his sides. A long moment of silence hung like crystal over the street.  A sudden breeze sprang up, ruffling the teenagers’ hair.

The silence was broken as Ranma’s wary expression shifted into confusion.  “Do I know you?”

“What?”  His challenger didn’t seem to be expecting this. “What do you mean, ‘Do I know  you’?!  Take a good look, Saotome!”  Ranma did so. “Do you know me now?” Ranma shook his head in negation. “I don’t believe this!  You destroyed me and you don’t even remember?!” This was NOT how the meeting was supposed to go.

Shampoo gave an exasperated sigh, then darted into a nearby café.  Kodachi’s eyes followed her in a puzzled glance, then she returned her attention to the boy in front of them.  She concentrated, trying to find a scene from either her memories or Ranma’s that would explain this boy’s grudge.  He did seem vaguely familiar, now that she came to think of it.

Her concentration was broken as Shampoo returned to the street, her arms full of bread. “We no have time for silly boy with silly old grudge against Ranma.  Here, take this and go away.”  She tossed the bread at the other boy, who reflexively caught it.  He was looking a lot less angry now.  Complete confusion does tend to have that effect.

“Um, Shampoo, that didn’t work when I tried it with Ryoga, and he’s the only guy I ever had a bread feud with,” Ranma pointed out.

“Well, Shampoo thought it worth a shot.” The Amazon put on her best ‘cute’ look. She gave the mystery challenger a big smile.  “You accept this as peace offering and not cause trouble, okay?”

The gray boy gave one last incredulous look at the bread in his arms, then tossed the loaves off to one side. They all landed unerringly in a garbage can. “I don’t have a clue what that was about, but it doesn’t matter.  Ranma Saotome, I challenge you to a rematch!”

“Rematch?!  I don’t even remember you!!” Ranma shouted irately. “Who the heck are ya anyway?!”

A gasp from Kodachi. “Copycat Ken?!  Is that you?”

Ranma turned and gave her a strange glance.  “No, Dachi, of course it isn’t.  That Ken guy didn’t give off any aura at all, cause of that weird disguise trick he had. This guy is definitely radiating fighting spirit.”

“But Ranma dear, look at his face. It’s just the same as Ken’s was, other than when he was using all those disguises during your fight with him. Except his eyes and hair weren’t gray then.”

Ranma turned back and eyed the challenger closely.  “You sure, Dachi? I know you got a better memory for detail like that than I do.  You really think this is Copycat Ken?”

The other boy gritted his teeth. “Let me settle the issue,” he growled. “Yes, I’m Ken. Not ‘Copycat’ any longer.  Thanks to you, Saotome, I lost that part of myself forever.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ranma asked.

Ken laughed bitterly. “No, you didn’t even know, did you? For our match, I tried copying the most powerful fighters I’d encountered, I switched disguises five times, I even copied you! But no matter what, I couldn’t take you down, or even stop you from getting through my guard with your own attacks!”  As the memory rose up again, his anger began burning even hotter.  His battle aura began to grow as well, becoming visible as a faint gray haze, twisting and shifting around him.

“Do you know what you did to me?! Afterwards, I realized what I should have done in the first place.  I knew you wouldn’t be able to go all out against the person you cared about most, so I used my family’s heirloom kerchief to copy her instead!” He pointed at Kodachi, who blinked in surprise, then blushed. “But you must’ve done so much damage to it in our fight that it couldn’t take another transformation. It disintegrated!” He was shouting now. “That had been in our family for eight generations! Do you know what it felt like to see it turn to dust?!”

“Um, Ken, wait a minute.” Kodachi spoke up hesitantly. “My brother told us about you, when you first sent that challenge to Ranma.  He said your modus operandi was to copy other martial artists’ techniques and use those to defeat the very ones who relied on them.  He also told us you had something that helped you do this, that duplicated the potential and at least part of the skill of your target and lent it to you.  Is that the kerchief you’re talking about?”

“Yes, it is!” Suddenly the anger drained away, to be replaced by sadness. “It was. Like I said, it was a family heirloom. My father gave it to me, and someday I should have given it to my son.  But thanks to him,” he directed a harsh glare at Ranma, “that’ll never happen now.”

“Actually, Ken, I don’t think it was Ranma’s fault.”  Kodachi took a deep breath, then began letting her own battle aura build. “You attempted to copy me.”  She was glowing noticeably now.  “Your kerchief would have tried to duplicate my potential.” They had to shield their eyes as the brilliance of her aura continued to build.  “I rather doubt it could handle that level of power.” She noticed a faint smell of smoke, and realized that she had almost reached the point of igniting her own clothes. With a mental twist, she drew her aura back in all at once. The sudden, dramatic change made the perfect illustration as she finished quietly, “I am the reason your heirloom destroyed itself.  Not Ranma.”

Ken stared at her in blank shock. If the thought of challenging her instead passed through his mind, it was quickly discarded. Regaining a measure of composure, he spoke again. “It doesn’t matter. This has gone far beyond the kerchief anyway. That’s nothing compared to the real reason I’m challenging him!”  He turned back to face the target of his ire.

Shampoo heaved another exasperated sigh.  “Shampoo hope you not about to shout, ‘Ranma, because of you I’ve seen hell!’ At least use original line.”

Ken, who had been about to say something quite like that, began to wish he’d picked a time to confront Ranma when he was by himself, not surrounded by these interfering girls. “Look, stay out of this. This is a man-to-man fight between the two of us!” he snapped in the general direction of Kodachi and Shampoo.

“You think he half-Oni too? Maybe Ryoga have cousin or something,” Shampoo remarked to Kodachi.

Ranma just rolled his eyes. “Great, somebody else who’s blamin’ all his problems on me when it ain’t my fault,” he groaned. Then his gaze snapped back.  He fixed Ken with a stare like a laser beam. “You break Kodachi’s arm and I’ll rip your head off.”

Ken was now certain that he should have waited until Ranma was alone before asking for this rematch. “Do you people realize just how much of this conversation hasn’t made any sense at all?!  Why the hell would I break her arm?” he shouted. “She’s the only one who HASN’T been acting like a lunatic!!”

“Is you including yourself in that statement?” Shampoo asked with a smirk.

Ken just put his head in his hands and counted to ten.  Twice. After this was finished, he spoke with a sort of frozen calm.  “Ranma, I challenged you to a fight.  Are you trying to win by talking me to death?  Or maybe getting my blood pressure so high that I keel over from a stroke?”

“Look, if you want a fight, I’ll give you a fight,” Ranma said exasperatedly.  He moved into a ready stance in the middle of the street. Ken took up a stance of his own, and the girls moved back to the sidelines.

“This no should take long,” Shampoo commented.

“Indeed.  What can Ken possibly hope to accomplish?” Kodachi wondered. “In the past, his fighting style depended on copying whatever technique his opponent relied upon. I think that was partly why he fell so easily to Ranma-sama, who doesn’t depend on any particular attack.  And if Ken can no longer even copy others to use their special moves, I doubt he’ll last five minutes.”

“That’s what you think, rosebud!” Ken called back.

Ranma frowned, but didn’t really see anything offensive in the appellation.  Now, if Ken had made some sort of albino joke, there’d already be blood on the street…  anyway, if this guy was so eager for a fight, he ought to BE fighting, not exchanging remarks with the spectators.  “Yo, I thought you were the one who wanted to quit talking and start fighting.”

Ken smiled grimly. “Darn right.  I’ve been through a lot to get ready to face you again, Saotome. Time to find out just which one of us is the better martial artist.”

Kodachi blinked. “Is it just me, or is the ambient light level dropping?”

It wasn’t just her. The brightness of the morning sunlight was indeed fading, falling into shadow.  Before Ranma could recover from his surprise, the lane had seemingly passed into dusk.  From the way Ken’s aura was once again hissing and roiling with streamers of darkness, Ranma was fairly certain he knew who was causing this. “Nice trick,” he commented casually.” It might even scare me, if I was ten years old.”

Ken didn’t respond, just stood there with a smirk on his face.  Ranma slowly began advancing toward him, wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.  As he got near enough, he suddenly dropped the cautious act and blazed forward at top speed. Darting to one side of Ken, Ranma struck out with a blow to the other’s solar plexus.  At the speed he was going, this would knock the wind and possibly even the fight out of his opponent.

However, as his fist reached its target, the image of Ken dispersed.  Ranma, who’d expected there to be some resistance to his strike, was thrown off balance.  He stumbled, and a kick slammed into his lower back, sending him to the ground. He rolled frantically and shot back to his feet, trying to locate his opponent.

The dim light showed only an empty lane. Ranma jumped, spinning through a three-sixty degree arc in midair, but the scan revealed no trace of his foe. He landed, straining his senses to the maximum, trying to get warning of any incoming attack.

A chuckle resounded through the lane.  “What’s wrong, Ranma?” the disembodied voice of Ken whispered through the air. Ranma couldn’t tell where it was coming from. “Can’t figure out where I am?” An image of Ken suddenly appeared twenty feet in front of him.  “Maybe I’ve already left, and I’m laughing at you for staying here by yourself.” Before Ranma could move, not that he’d been intending to charge forward anyway, it faded and another took its place ten feet away on Ranma’s left side.  “Maybe I’m hiding, waiting for you to exhaust yourself punching at shadows before I take you down.” The new image faded as well. “Or maybe…”

“… Maybe I’m right behind you!”

This shout had clearly come from directly behind him.  Ranma executed a back kick with every bit of speed he had in him. Again, his attack struck only air.  Again, the same wasn’t true of his opponent’s strike. This time, it was a punch that hit Ranma, smashing into his jaw from directly in front of him.

Ranma stumbled back, fighting a moment’s disorientation.  A random flash of empathy from the Heart Link distracted him further, allowing his opponent to connect with a few more strikes.

He barely felt them. The glimpse he’d received of the girls’ emotions just then claimed most of his attention.  From Kodachi, a measure of anger, that this dog should fight so unfairly, mixed with an odd balance of concern and faith. She fully expected him to pull out victory yet, but at the same time she was worried that he’d be hurt badly. This didn’t surprise Ranma even slightly… he knew just how fragile Kodachi thought the world was.  As if anybody but her would break into pieces from anything more than the slightest tap.

Shampoo’s emotions were less mixed, and much less expected.  There was a bit of worry there, but she wasn’t nearly as concerned as Kodachi. In fact, the Amazon was feeling almost pure disbelief.

That hit him much harder than Kodachi’s worry.  Had his performance really sucked that bad in this fight, that Shampoo couldn’t even believe her eyes? That was NOT acceptable! He was Ranma Saotome, of the Saotome school of Anything Goes Martial Arts!  He had beaten every challenge he’d ever faced, and he wasn’t about to lose this fight!

Ranma’s anger, determination, and rush of fighting spirit ignited his battle aura nearly to the maximum. It wasn’t as bright as Kodachi’s blinding glory had been, but it would still have been enough to read by at midnight.

And it was enough to pierce the shadows around Ken, who’d just circled in front of Ranma for another attack.

For just a split second, Ken froze, his eyes wide in shock as he felt his protection dissipate. The stunned expression that spread across his face was enough to clue Ranma in that this was no false image. He closed the distance and unleashed a barrage of strikes at maximum speed.  The attacks unerringly smashed along a series of vulnerable spots on his opponent’s torso, and ended with a spectacular kick to the head. Ken crashed backward, out like a light. The shadows fled, and once again the late morning sun shone brightly in the lane.

Some minutes later, a passerby would have seen the entertaining spectacle of Ranma complaining that he was fine while Kodachi and Shampoo ignored his protests and checked him thoroughly for injuries.  Ranma groaned, but he didn’t object too strenuously.  Having both girls fuss over him like this was actually kinda nice.

Shampoo gave one last look at the bruise on his jaw, then nodded her head, agreeing with his last statement that he was all right.  “Ranma do seem okay.” Her expression changed to irate. “Airen, why you let him hit you like that?! Was you trying to lull him into false sense of security or something?”

Both Ranma and Kodachi gave her incredulous stares.  “What?   What Shampoo say?”

“Shampoo, do you mean to say you could see Ken as he fought with Ranma?” Kodachi asked.

Shampoo nodded in confusion. “You could not?”

“Nope, not me,” Ranma answered. “I’m guessing not you either, right, Dachi-chan?”

“That’s right. As far as I could tell, he had disappeared completely into the shadows.  I wonder why Shampoo was unaffected by that technique,” Kodachi said pensively.

“I not have any idea,” the Amazon replied.

Ranma pondered for a moment, then let it go.  He walked over to Ken’s still-unconscious form and gave him a quick once-over. Satisfied that the other would be fine, he and the girls set off again.  After walking in silence for a few minutes, he gave a soft chuckle.  “Y’know, I actually feel better now.  I was starting to get really frustrated because nothing strange had been happening all this time.”

“This encounter certainly brought an end to that trend,” Kodachi replied.  “But it’s too bad we couldn’t have run into someone connected with the Sakura triplets’ kidnappers instead.”

Sakura’s eyes widened at the vision of suffering in front of her.  This meeting wasn’t one of the ones she’d seen in her sister’s dream, and she was completely unprepared for the sight before her. It looked like it was taking all of Ken’s remaining strength to keep from falling flat on his face.  He limped over from the doorway and collapsed into a chair near her. “I’m here to make a progress report. Went up against Ranma this morning.”

She couldn’t even speak at first, still too stunned as she mentally added up his injuries. Bruises all along his torso, a couple of really nasty ones on his head, a twisted ankle, a sprained wrist, and she was almost sure that was a hairline fracture in his right collarbone. “R- Ranma… did this to you?!” she whispered in a tone of horror.

“Well, no,” Ken admitted. “Not exactly.”  As the disorientation began to clear, he realized that it would have been a lot better to wait and make this report when he wasn’t in such obviously bad shape.  That way he could have gotten away with omitting certain unimportant details. Oh, well, he could take a little humiliation. He’d endured much worse, after all.

“Like I said, I fought Ranma this morning. I’m sure he doesn’t suspect anything-- I made it seem like I’d just caught up with him to have a rematch.  We fought, he caught me off-guard, I lost. He knocked me out with a few good hits.   That’s all, though, he didn’t really do that much. I woke up pretty quickly, so quickly I was still kinda dizzy from his last shot.  Should’ve waited until my head cleared, but I wanted to make my report right away.”

 “You shouldn’t have done that,” Sakura whispered, looking down in remorse.  “You should have gotten medical attention first.  As hurt as you are…”

“Hey, like I was saying, I wasn’t anywhere near this bad off after the fight with Saotome,” Ken growled. “Just wasn’t paying enough attention to what was going on around me, and I got in an accident a couple of blocks later.  Nothing to say it wouldn’t have happened anyway if I’d been heading toward a doctor’s office instead.” He wasn’t sure what to say, but felt the need to reassure the girl in front of him. She’d looked like she was blaming herself for some reason. That was absurd. Coming here to make his report first was his choice, and had nothing to do with Sakura.  Ken completely ignored the little voice questioning whether the reason he’d hurried straight here from his fight with Ranma might be the hope that his battered condition would get him some sympathy from her.

“What kind of accident?” Sakura asked.  Hearing that had made her feel a lot better.  An accident was far preferable to thinking she’d set him up to be half-killed by Ranma.

Ken started to answer, then lost his nerve.  “If it’s all right with you, I’d rather not say.”

Sakura blinked, unsure why the boy in front of her was suddenly radiating such a level of embarrassment. Oh, well. If it was important, she’d eventually find out.

She realized that she was stalling. There was something she needed to do, and lack of self-confidence notwithstanding, she needed to do it now. Sakura took a deep breath and gathered her courage.  “You can make your report later.  Sit still. “Abruptly, she got up, walked around her desk and over to Ken, and knelt down beside him.

“Excuse me? What are you doing?” Ken asked, more than a little confused. The girl was trembling, which was easy to tell since she’d just placed her hands along his right shoulder. What did she think she… was…

Cool numbness was replacing the pain, spreading out from Sakura’s touch to wash over the rest of his body. Ken didn’t really have time to recover from his surprise before the anesthetic effect spread completely through him, blanketing his thoughts with a fluffy pillow of blissful unconcern.

An uncertain amount of time passed.  Eventually, Ken struggled back to awareness.  He was still in his chair, but Sakura was no longer kneeling next to him. She was sitting in the chair she’d been in when he first staggered in.  Ken noticed faint traces of red around her mouth, and legends of vampires and their special powers surged into his mind.  He nearly began to panic.  He was still feeling weak, far too weak to defend himself, too weak even to raise a hand to his neck and check for damage.

Sakura was still drained from stretching her psychokinetic healing abilities to the limit. As a result, she didn’t sense the fear rising in Ken. In fact, she didn’t even realize he had woken up yet.  Hopefully he wouldn’t for another few minutes, she thought.  She hadn’t realized at first just how much energy she’d used up.

Ken blinked as the girl bent down. He heard the sound of a desk drawer opening, then Sakura straightened up, holding a large dish. She lifted the lid and transferred another massive serving of cherry cheesecake to the plate Ken hadn’t even noticed in front of her.

As she finished her second helping, Sakura noticed Ken shift in his seat.  She blushed.  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s rude to eat in front of others, but using my healing ability that much leaves me with really low blood sugar.  I tried to finish before you woke up.”

Ken could feel his own strength returning now.  The relief at that, the realization that he wasn’t on the menu, and the pleasant discovery that he was no longer in the slightest pain, put him in a much more playful mood than was usual.  “That way you wouldn’t have to offer me any, huh?  I understand.”

Sakura was far too inexperienced to realize he was joking.  She flinched, and said miserably, “Well, I only have one plate… and one fork…”

“Hey, ease up, I was kidding.” Ken sighed mentally. It figured that as soon as he met somebody as different as he was, who might not be frightened by his altered state, he pushed her away with his personality instead.  “Thank you for healing me.”

“You’re welcome,” Sakura murmured, blushing now.

A long moment of awkward silence fell.  Eventually Ken cleared his throat.  “Well, anyway, I suppose I should make my report.  I’ve been trailing Ranma over the past week. I’d hoped I could get close enough to overhear him talking with his girlfriends, but whenever I tried that purple-haired girl got uneasy. That’s the first important thing I found out.  She’s gotta be way more perceptive than a normal person.”

Sakura’s brow wrinkled in puzzlement. It sounded like Ken had said Ranma was romantically involved with both Shampoo and Kodachi. That didn’t fit at all with the memories she’d glimpsed from her sisters.  She must have just misunderstood him.

“And the other chick, Kodachi…” Ken shook his head.  “She scares me,” he admitted frankly.  “Before I fought Ranma, she let her own battle aura out.  It was too bright even to look at.  She’s got more power than anybody has a right to have.”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” she said.  “What do you mean, battle aura?”

“This.”  Ken summoned his, noting that Sakura didn’t even flinch at the sight of the shadows shifting and coiling around him.  She just seemed interested.  “It’s a sign of a person’s strength.  You can see it when somebody with a lot of power is really mad, or in the grip of some other intense emotion.  Skilled martial artists can summon it consciously, like Kodachi did. Hers was radiating enough power to rip a hole all the way through this building.”

“Oh.”  Sakura hesitated, then asked, “What about Ranma?”

“Ah, yes. Ranma.”  Ken laughed mirthlessly.  “He’s even faster than he was the first time we fought, which I wouldn’t have believed possible. He shrugged off several decent attacks like they were nothing.  He got through my guard for only a couple of seconds, but it was enough to take me out completely. It’s Paintbrush Boy’s turn to go up against him next, and all I can say is I hope he doesn’t go in thinking he’s bound to win cause he’s got righteousness and truth on his side.”

“DOES he have righteousness and truth on his side?” Sakura queried.

“He thinks so.” Ken shrugged.  “Personally, I think he’s in desperate need of a wake-up call.”

The attack narrowly missed Ranma as he leaped straight up into the air.  Twisting in ways that made several onlookers wonder if this kid’s skeleton was made of rubber, he shifted in midair from perpendicular to parallel with the street below him.  Kicking out against a nearby wall bought him enough velocity to shoot backward out of immediate danger. Ranma landed, and tensely surveyed the scene before him.

Kodachi and Shampoo looked down at themselves in shock.  This was the first time EVER that Ranma had managed to dodge incoming cold water and they hadn’t. The girls just stood, stunned, for nearly a minute.

“Hey, you two just gonna stand there and let those kids keep using you for target practice?! C’mon already!” Ranma called. They shook themselves out of their dazes.

Kodachi gathered up the sodden remains of her dignity and whirred into a series of backflips, ending at Ranma’s side. Her maneuver had the additional bonus of flinging away most of her excess water, leaving her damp rather than drenched.  She glared at the children and their Super Soakers who’d ambushed the three of them, as if daring the little ragamuffins to advance.

“Thanks, Dachi-chan,” the love of her life commented dryly.  Ranma-chan’s tone was the only thing dry about her, thanks to the water shed by the White Rose.

Meanwhile, Shampoo produced her bonbori, put on the most hideous scowling expression she could muster, and began stalking forward.  Maybe it was too late to salvage her dignity, but at least she could scare the children into behaving better in the future.  She advanced like grim death, a specter that would haunt these kids for years. Let them learn the consequences of turning their water weapons against a Chinese Amazon!

The streams lessened, then ceased, as one by one the guns fell silent.  Shampoo stopped next to the gaggle of children, holding her bonbori in a menacing position.  “That was not very polite.  What you say now?” she demanded.

What seemed to be the leader, a boy of perhaps ten, looked tremulously up at her. His lower lip quivered as he gulped, and answered, “Ummm… how about… OPEN FIRE!!”

Shampoo was caught totally off-guard as every child suddenly began blasting away again, with her as their sole target. She stumbled back, dropping her weapons and falling gracelessly on her bottom.

The children dashed away, giggling furiously.  Their target rose back to her feet, as bedraggled as a wet cat, and sent an intense glare after them. For a moment she considered at least running down that snot-nosed little punk who’d given the order, and gifting him with the spanking of his life, but she let it go.

Shampoo retrieved her bonbori and walked back to the others.  “Next time we see them, Shampoo do more than bluff,” she growled. Then she blinked.  “Airen?  I thought you dodge that water.”

“Chalk it up to friendly fire,” Ranma-chan groaned.

Kodachi punched her playfully on the arm. “Now, Ranma-kun, if we have to get wet, so should you.  Share and share alike.”

Ranma-chan gave the White Rose a deceptively innocent smile.  “I’ll keep that in mind the next time I get splashed and you guys dodge,” she promised cheerfully.

A quick side-trip to a nearby shop got them reasonably dry and put Ranma back in his natural form. The three diligently resumed their patrol through the streets of Tokyo.  They were intent on their task.  They were determined to see justice done.  They were as focused as hawks, watching for the slightest clue that might mean the difference between victory and defeat.

“I still can’t believe you managed to dodge that water and we didn’t, Ranma-kun. It’s always been the other way around.”

They were completely ignoring the author’s attempts to set a mood.

“Yeah, I know, Dachi,” Ranma answered. “Only thing I can think of is, I’ve pretty much been on edge for the last couple of days now. It’s been a week since that Ken guy showed up, and nothing crazy has happened in all that time.  I’ve been keeping myself as alert as possible, tryin’ to be aware of everything around me.”  He sighed.  “We still got time, but I wanted this to be finished already.”

“I, too.” Shampoo frowned slightly.  “Like you say, is surprising we not have more crazy things happen while we’re searching like this.  Only run-in with shadow boy.  Shampoo wonder if that meeting use up all our… um… allowance of strangeness.”

“If that’s so, he’s gonna have a lot to answer for.  Maybe if he hadn’t been there, we would’ve run into something instead that woulda actually helped us find the girls,” Ranma growled.

“Perhaps so.” Kodachi made a dissatisfied face. “I still can’t believe that none of our detectives have turned up any leads yet.  At least when they were investigating each other there was the illusion of progress. I really do hope it doesn’t end up all falling on our shoulders.”  She sighed. “Especially since things are going so slowly. It’s almost gotten to the point where I’d be glad to have some ridiculous coincidence happen, just to reassure myself that they still do.  That there is a chance our current course of action might eventually succeed.”

The three turned the corner even as she said this, and nearly ran into Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. Only an adroit zig by Ling-Ling, counter-pointed with a timely zag by Ranma, prevented a massive pile-up. Had either twin been carrying a glass of water, collision would have been unavoidable.

“Well, Dachi, ask and ye shall receive,” Ranma commented.  He turned to the twins.  “What’re you two doing out here?  This is way too far out for the restaurant to deliver, isn’t it?”

“We just exploring,” Ling-Ling said quickly.  Too quickly. “Great-Grandmother give us day off.”

Shampoo frowned. Something was definitely wrong with that reply. “Really?  Why she do that?  Shampoo understand if you get day off to train, but that not look like what you do to me.”

Ling-Ling grimaced, obviously trying to decide what to say in response.  Shampoo began tapping her foot impatiently, and frowning. Her cousins could say it was none of her business if they wanted to, but they’d better not lie to her!

Lung-Lung looked down. “Is her idea of way to cheer us up, because things go so slow with Airen,” she muttered.  “We know need to take it easy, but it hurt he not even comfortable with give us hug yet.”

Shampoo’s irritation crumbled, leaving her feeling terrible.  Not only had she obviously jumped to a really ridiculous conclusion awhile back, now she’d gone and brought up a painful subject, hurting her cousins when they were trying to cheer themselves up.  This day wasn’t turning out very well, the Amazon thought sadly. Hopefully it wouldn’t get any worse.

“<You’re lucky to have an Airen who’s not afraid to care for you, big sister.  Is Ranma a good kisser?>” Ling-Ling asked.

“H- Hey! What kinda question is that?!” Ranma sputtered.

Ling-Ling did a double-take. “Oh, sorry, Ling-Ling forgot Ranma speak our language.”

Shampoo managed to recover her composure, at least mostly.  “That not matter to discuss out in middle of street,” she said. “Ask Shampoo later.”

Lung-Lung eyed her closely. “Big sister Shampoo, what wrong?  You no look happy.”

“Is nothing,” Shampoo replied, casting desperately around for something to change the subject.

But it wasn’t nothing. It hurt that Ranma hadn’t offered that to her yet. She knew she could initiate, and he would go along with it, but this one thing she needed her Airen to give her because he wanted it.  Wanted it enough to make the first move.

Like Lung-Lung, Ranma could also see the look in Shampoo’s eyes which branded her answer a lie. A quick glimpse through the Heart Link laid her feelings bare to his perception.  Ranma felt his own heart clench as he understood something he hadn’t before.

Dammit, there’s no excuse for this! I know better than anybody else how affectionate Shampoo is.  I shoulda realized how she felt before now.  Shoulda been doing a better job of showing her how I felt. I gotta make it right.’ Ranma paled and began to tremble, but resolution stiffened his spine.  “<Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, we need privacy.  Now.>”

The twins gave him a confused look. The intensity of his gaze quickly got them moving.  ‘Two down,’ Ranma thought without much satisfaction as they vanished into the flow of traffic. Not much he could do about all the other people walking along on the street.

Steeling himself, and focusing on Shampoo’s questioning expression, Ranma spoke hesitantly. “Shampoo…  I… I’m sorry.  I haven’t been giving you as much affection as you need.  I haven’t given you as much as you deserve.” He gulped.  “Heck, I haven’t given you as much as I have for you, and that’s really stupid. But you know me, feelings and stuff ain’t the easiest thing to deal with, and I can be an idiot sometimes, but at least I hope you’re okay with that cause you’re gonna have to live with it the rest of your life, and…”

That last statement actually helped galvanize him.  As the realization of what he’d just said dawned on Ranma, it completely washed away the thought that he was in the middle of the street, in full view of numerous passersby. It demolished his fear of what he was about to do as well… his most basic instincts took over, as some portion of him realized that speaking was getting him deeper in trouble than anything else he could possibly do.  Far better to use his lips for something else.

Kodachi smiled as she watched Ranma desperately grab Shampoo in a grip of iron and kiss her with everything he had. “Right in the middle of the street, too,” she murmured appreciatively.  “Don’t think I’m ever going to let you get out of showing public affection after this, Ranma-sama.”

To Shampoo, it felt like the moment would last forever, as if time itself had stopped. She could feel Ranma through their link, feel tenderness and affection and concern and remorse and a deep desire to please her and make her feel loved.  All this and more (a little fear, but not too much, and it quickly vanished) radiating out from his heart to hers.  She lost herself in that as much as the kiss and embrace.

After an eternity, all too soon, it ended.  Ranma pulled back a little, though he still kept his arms around her. “I shoulda done that a long time ago.”

Shampoo nodded solemnly, though her smile could NOT have been wider.  “Is so.  But Ranma do now.” She blinked tears out of her eyes. “Thank you, Airen.” He pulled her close again, though this time limiting himself to the embrace.

“Well, that answer question for sure,” Ling-Ling commented from her position behind Kodachi.

The White Rose jumped, and spun around. “I thought you two left,” she said inanely.

“Ranma say go away, he want privacy.”  Lung-Lung shrugged. “If he say to whole street instead of just us, maybe we even listen.”

“Probably not, though,” Ling-Ling admitted. “But we no would have let him see we still here.”

Kodachi snorted. “Well, anyway, what question were you talking about?”

“Ling-Ling ask big sister Shampoo whether Ranma good kisser.  From what we see, question answered no doubt.”

“Hey!” After letting go of Shampoo, a little reluctantly on both their parts, Ranma had noticed the twins.  “I thought you guys left.”

“So Ranma make mistake. Happen to best of us,” Lung-Lung said.

Ranma growled. Kodachi laid a placating hand on his arm. “Now Ranma-kun, if you wanted privacy you should at least have taken Shampoo down a side alley.  But you were brave enough to kiss her in full view of everybody. I’m glad to see how happy you just made her. I know you are as well, far more so than I.”

He blushed, but nodded. “And I’m proud of you for not worrying about the petty opinions of others,” Kodachi continued.  “Very proud.  So proud I almost can’t find any words at all.  But there is one other thing I did want to say.” She paused, and the gleam in her eyes was very bright. “MY turn!!”

Shampoo gave an appreciative whistle as her sworn sister grabbed their man in an embrace every bit as passionate as the one the Amazon had just enjoyed.  The twins walked up next to her.  “Big sister Shampoo, was that you first kiss from Ranma?” Lung-Lung queried.

Shampoo nodded, still a little breathless.  “Yes. Remember what Shampoo tell you awhile back, about good things worth waiting for?”  The twins nodded.  “Shampoo can definitely say from first-hand experience is true.”

“<Still, you shouldn’t have had to wait so long.  I’m glad I could help get him moving a little faster,>” Ling-Ling said thoughtfully. Then she grinned. “<When Ranma’s paying attention again and can hear me say it, do you want me to ask how good a lover he is?>”

Not everybody who had witnessed the beginning of these antics had stopped to watch.  But enough people did that the flow of traffic was slowed down, which had caused sufficient of a crowd to form that others were now drifting over to see what everyone else was looking at.  Shampoo didn’t notice, being too caught up in the thoughts Ling-Ling had just sparked.  Neither did Ranma nor Kodachi, for obvious reasons.

The twins did, and momentarily considered trying to get everybody moving again, but quickly realized the crowd had already grown too large.  The only way they could scatter this many people would be to use the Dance of the Screaming Lemur, and that would affect Ranma, Kodachi, and big sister Shampoo as well.  Plus, they’d left that cassette in the Nekohanten anyway.

Lung-Lung frowned. She’d be the first to admit she still didn’t understand the Japanese, but she’d learned enough to suspect neither Ranma nor Kodachi would be happy, when they finally broke their kiss, to realize they’d attracted a crowd of this size.  It was just too bad there wasn’t any way to disperse everyone before that happened.


The scream was still resonating in the air as a whirring began to sound.  The crowd gave a collective shriek and dispersed, the former spectators running for cover as a sudden inkstorm began flinging ebony droplets all along the lane. None came close to the Amazons, though this was just a fortunate accident.  There was really only one person here whom the speaker had been determined not to hit with his attack.

Ranma and Kodachi broke the clinch, much sooner than either had wanted, and turned to face the source of the disturbance. The street was mostly empty now (if you didn’t count the ink-spots everywhere), and it was obvious who had cried out.

Kodachi’s expression shifted from outrage to pain as she got a good look at the speaker. “Pierre.  Why did it have to be Pierre?”

Ling-Ling gave the newcomer a frankly incredulous stare.  Taking in his ink-stained pants, his paint-smeared shirt, his beret, his facial hair, his giant paintbrush, and his expression of enraged disbelief. “Big sister Shampoo, you know this clown?”

“Sort of, yes. I never meet him before, but know him from Ranma’s memories in Heart Link.”  Shampoo sighed. “Is sad story, happen back when Shampoo was still chasing Tatewaki.  Kodachi put some of her paintings on display in museum.”  The Amazon frowned, temporarily distracted as she remembered the name of the exhibit to which Kodachi had been asked to contribute was ‘Martial Artists Aren’t All Uncultured Barbarians.’  Neither her sister nor her Airen had been amused when they attended the opening and discovered this.

“This boy also paint, and put his work in museum.  He good too, better overall than Kodachi even.  He met her and fell hard for her, saw her as perfect girl for him because they have much in common. But she already loved Ranma and rather have him, like that not obvious.  He challenged Ranma to fight, which Airen win.”

“What paintbrush boy’s name?” Ling-Ling asked.

Shampoo shrugged helplessly. “I no can pronounce.”

“It’s Pierre. Pierre DuMaupoissant, the self-proclaimed Master of Martial Art,” Kodachi said sadly.  “After he lost the fight, he vowed he’d wait for me to come to my senses and realize he made a much better choice for me than Ranma-sama.”

“Sound like he one what need come to his senses,” Lung-Lung commented.

Kodachi nodded. “At least he didn’t stick around and make a continuing nuisance of himself.  I had hoped he’d gotten over this and moved on with his life.”

Meanwhile, Pierre and Ranma hadn’t been standing idly by, waiting for the explanatory side dialogue to conclude before starting their own confrontation.  Pierre HAD paused for nearly a quarter of a minute, but that was because he was struggling to master the emotions that were raging within him. At last, after attaining a tenuous grip on his temper, he spoke.  “Saotome, I’m not quite sure I can believe my eyes.  Correct me if I’m wrong, you enemy of women, but did I or did I not just see you kiss another girl and then sully the lovely Kodachi with your vile touch not a minute later?!”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure more than a minute passed between the kisses, so, yeah, you’re wrong,” Ranma retorted.

Pierre’s knuckles whitened as his hands clenched more tightly around the haft of his weapon. “You two-timing cur,” he hissed, too angry to bother with the fact that it’s supposed to be impossible to hiss a sentence without an ‘s’ in it.  “You have someone like Kodachi and you dare seek the arms of another woman as well?! Ranma Saotome, for this you die!!”

Ranma opened his mouth to point out that the first kiss had taken place in full view of Kodachi, but Pierre had already moved forward in an attack.  Spinning his paintbrush like a bo, the Master of Martial Art charged forward. Ranma blocked the initial flurry of swipes, recognizing the basic pattern of the attack from his last match against Pierre.  Three… two… one…

As Pierre whipped his weapon into the final move of the sequence, Ranma dropped to his knees. The blow to his head would have been easily blocked, but doing so would have caused the brush to shoot a load of ink directly into his face.  He’d had enough of that the first time he faced Pierre.  As the bristles of the brush passed harmlessly through the air, Ranma launched an attack of his own.

Since the last blow was meant to be blocked, it hadn’t been made with anywhere near Pierre’s full strength. Because he wasn’t fully committed, the artist managed to shift the bottom of the paintbrush’s handle to block Ranma’s counterattack.  The speed of the pigtailed boy’s straight punch was too much for his awkward defense, though, and Pierre lost his hold on his weapon.  It flew off to one side, too far away to be retrieved at the moment. The Master of Martial Art backpedaled, knowing full well that he was at a distinct disadvantage in close-quarter combat.  He reached behind him, to one of the pouches slung on his back.

Ranma tensed, recognizing an attack was imminent, wondering just how weird this one would be. Judging by the number of different types of supplies Pierre carried, Ranma was all but certain he hadn’t seen every technique in the artist’s arsenal during their first battle.  And the ones he had experienced, like Still Life and Watercolor Wash, had been so bizarre that it was difficult to counter them. Particularly Ranma hoped Pierre wasn’t about to unleash his Abstract Expressionism technique.

“Martial Art special attack: Pointalism!!”  Pierre’s hand whipped forward, launching a number of pen-shaped darts at Ranma, who heaved a quick sigh of relief.  Needle-sharp tips or no needle-sharp tips, this was nothing that was any trouble to him.  His hands became a blur as he caught them all, then dropped them to the pavement at his feet.

Pierre blanched. Nobody ought to be able to move that fast.

Ranma glared at him. It probably wouldn’t stop the fight, but he ought at least to clue this moron in that he hadn’t done anything Kodachi didn’t approve of.  “Hey, Pierre, the reason you’re fightin’ me is cause you ain’t happy about how things are going between me and Dachi-chan, right?”

The other’s face twisted in new fury. “You dare to take that tone after what you’ve done?!  After how you’ve betrayed her?!”  A battle aura began swirling around him, multicolored rather than a uniform hue. “You will pay for your crimes against Kodachi, you blackguard!”  He reached behind him again, pulling out a large empty painting frame, complete with hanging wire attached.  Pierre twisted it sharply, causing it to fold into an oversized pair of baroque nunchaku. He began spinning them, watching for Ranma to focus on that motion.  As soon as that happened, he’d launch the real attack, and--

Pierre’s thoughts were cut off as a ribbon snaked out and sliced cleanly through the wire connecting the shafts of wood. The one he hadn’t been holding spun off to one side and shattered a storefront window. The White Rose winced, then focused on more important things.  “Pierre, stop this at once!” she demanded.  “How dare you attempt to punish Ranma when there was no crime committed?” She did her best not to let any of her sympathy for him to slip into her voice.  Even though it might be more painful for him now, far better for her to do whatever it took to make him give up.

At this, his fury at Ranma faltered, replaced by blank astonishment.  “N- no crime?  How can you say that?! He admitted to kissing another girl right before he did the same to you!  Didn’t you hear him?!”

Kodachi gave him a puzzled look. “I SAW it happen. If you were watching, didn’t you notice me?”

“There… there must have been someone standing in the way, that prevented my seeing you then,” he choked out. He swallowed several times, trying to rid himself of the feeling of something hard and jagged in his throat, then asked, “How?  How can you be so calm about it?  He just betrayed you in full view of the world, and you shrug it off as if it doesn’t even matter?!”

Kodachi glared at him. “It’s hardly a betrayal if it was done with my full approval.”  She sighed. “Pierre, when you left, several months ago, you said you would wait for me to tire of Ranma and come to you. I told you then not to waste your time like that, and I’m telling you again now.”  She braced herself.  Even though it was for his own good, it was still hard for her to speak so harshly as this.  “It is none of your concern what Ranma does, with me or with another. You are not part of my life.  Nor will you be.  Ranma is, now and forever, a part of me as vital and intimate as my own heart. That place is his, and will never be yielded to another. If you wish to do something for me, then I ask only one thing of you: forget me and move on with your own life.”

At first, she thought he wasn’t going to respond at all.  He just stood there, head downcast, as still as a statue.  Then he began to tremble ever so slightly. Looking up, his eyes met Kodachi’s squarely. The pain and desperation there made the White Rose feel even worse, but she steeled her soul and met his gaze unflinchingly, giving him nothing of what he’d hoped to find.

After a full minute, something seemed to pass out of Pierre.  His shoulders sagged, and he broke eye contact.  Without a word, he walked over and retrieved his giant paintbrush, slinging it into its place at his back.  He began to walk away, but his steps slowed and then stopped before he could pass down the side alley he’d been aiming for.

Pierre’s hands clenched, and he turned around, looking not at Kodachi but rather to Ranma. “Damn you,” he choked.  “You have someone like her and you can’t even stay faithful to her, and still she’d rather have you than someone who’d worship her for the masterpiece she is.  I’ll never forgive you nor forget this, Ranma Saotome.  We will face each other again in combat, and may the gods have mercy on your soul then.  Because I won’t.”


The shadows were lengthening toward sunset as Ranma and Kodachi exited the Kuno mansion. It was several days since Ranma’s abortive battle with Pierre. It was also the first day since the disappointment with the Eye of Bastet that they hadn’t spent any time patrolling through greater Tokyo in search of the Sakuras. When Cologne said it was time for Shampoo to spend a day training with her, none of the three had been foolhardy enough to protest.

Kodachi sneaked a glance at Ranma as they walked along in companionable silence.  She could feel something was bothering him. She almost asked him what the matter was, then decided to try something else.  The thought that eventually she would be able to use the Heart Link to speak mind-to-mind with Ranma had intrigued her ever since she learned of it, and now she chose to concentrate, focusing on the Link, attempting by empathy alone to determine just what was on Ranma’s mind.

This level of detail was still too much for her to handle… the Link wouldn’t deepen to that extent for a few more years. But Kodachi did manage to pull in one random thought, one crystal-clear memory.  It had nothing to do with why Ranma was feeling a bit depressed right now, but her achievement was pretty overwhelming nonetheless.

Ranma started in surprise as Kodachi walked face-first into a telephone pole.  Unlike the White Rose, he took a more direct route to finding out just what had prompted her distraction.  “Dachi-chan?  What just happened?”

Kodachi blinked her way back to reality. Her eyes met Ranma’s concerned gaze. She blushed so furiously that for just a moment, the ‘Red Rose’ would have been more appropriate. “N- nothing!” she squeaked, getting up hastily and brushing herself off.

Her boyfriend frowned. “Oh, really.  Do ya think you could possibly have been less convincing with that denial, Dachi?”

She laughed nervously. “Seriously, Ranma-sama, it’s nothing important.”

“Okay, now I KNOW there’s something goin’ on.  You don’t usually pull out the ‘-sama’ unless I’m in trouble or I just managed to do something romantic.”  Ranma made an elaborate show of looking around.  “Nope, no crazed challengers trying to smash me into the ground. And I think I woulda noticed if I pulled off something mushy.”

Kodachi sighed, though a smile tugged at her lips.  “You asked for this. I felt through the Heart Link that you were feeling downcast, and I thought I’d try and get an idea of the specific reason.  I don’t think I managed to do that, but I did get a glimpse of a recent memory of yours.”

“What memory?” Ranma asked, ignoring the voice that whispered maybe he ought to quit while he was ahead.

“Well, it was a dream,” Kodachi responded, the blush rising again.  Though the memory had seemed surprisingly clear. Still, it couldn’t have really happened. She was certain that she wouldn’t have slept through Ranma waking up and finding her in his bed.

On hearing that, Ranma froze and began babbling.  “Um… ahh… I didn’t…”

Seeing his embarrassment helped Kodachi ignore hers.  She reached out and patted his cheek.  “I know you didn’t. Really, Ranma-sama, it was a bit disappointing to see that you dream of finding me in your bed and then behaving like a perfect gentleman.”

This would have been the perfect time for Ranma to reveal that that had been no dream. He might even have done so, if his vocal chords hadn’t been temporarily frozen.  Along with the rest of his higher-order functions.

‘Well, I’ve certainly managed to distract him from whatever was bothering him,’ Kodachi mused. But that wasn’t really what she’d intended to do. At least not until she’d found out what the problem was.  She swallowed the next teasing remark that had risen to mind, and waited for Ranma to regain his composure.

Eventually he did so, at least enough to speak again.  “Ah heh heh… listen, Dachi-chan… about that…”

“It’s all right, Ranma,” she said, giving him a warm smile.  The White Rose barely choked back a reassurance that that was nothing compared to some of the dreams she’d had about him.  Something told her that wouldn’t go very far in helping put him back at his ease.

“But…” Ranma hesitated, trying to decide how best to explain that it hadn’t been a dream. Then something dawned on  him.  Namely, if he did reveal that, it would only complicate the situation further. Ranma wisely shut his mouth.

They walked in silence for another few minutes, then Kodachi spoke up.  “So what was bothering you, before?”

He didn’t answer right away. Kodachi quickened her pace and moved in front of him, forcing him to stop.  “It’s stupid,” Ranma muttered, looking away.

“Very well, I’m forewarned. Now tell me,” she said. “Even if it is something ridiculous, it still matters to me that you’re unhappy.”  A thought crossed her mind, and she said hesitantly, “Is it Pierre? All that nonsense he babbled about you ‘betraying’ me?  Because if it is…”

“No, it’s not that. Believe you me, Dachi, when he started goin’ off about that, I focused as hard on the Link as I could, and I couldn’t feel any hurt or resentment in you.”  Ranma gave her a smile.  “Thanks for that, by the way,” he said awkwardly.

She smiled back. “You’re welcome.”

A long moment of silence fell. At last Ranma sighed, and spoke again. “Dachi?  Where are we headed right now?”

The White Rose gave him a puzzled look, then realized he was trying to ease his way into whatever he was going to tell her.  “To the Nekohanten, to meet up with Shampoo.”

“And why did she stay there the whole day?”

“Because her great-grandmother wanted to spend the day training her.”  Shampoo had received a great deal of shiatsu training from Cologne in the last couple of months.  Though in the past she had mainly focused on power-based attacks, with a few pressure-point techniques as backup, the Matriarch had convinced her to change that. After all, Kodachi provided more than enough sheer power for Team Ranma.  The skills Shampoo was learning now would let her contribute a finesse that the other two didn’t have.

“That’s… that’s just it.” Ranma should have known this wouldn’t make it any easier to come out with what was bothering him. “Shampoo’s off spending time with her great-grandmother, getting trained and learning cool new techniques.”  His fists clenched, and a look of anger appeared on his face. “And where’s my old man? Sittin’ on his lazy butt at the Tendo place, not even caring anymore about how far I’ve come!”

Kodachi blinked. She hadn’t expected this.  “Ranma?  Don’t you think it’s better that he stays out of your life?”

He sighed. “I dunno.  I mean, yeah, my life was hell before I got here and met you, Dachi. Thanks to my old man, I never got to have a home or a long-term friend.  The only reason I can remember what my mother’s face looked like is cause you painted that picture for me after the Heart Link. All thanks to Pop and his training trip from hell.

“But it did make me into a great martial artist.  My old man did manage to do that at least.  If he hadn’t, if I didn’t turn out so good at the Art, it’d be like all that was pointless. All the crud I put up with woulda been for nothing.”

“But you did turn out as you did,” Kodachi pointed out, not sure what Ranma was driving at.

“That’s right. I may not have a lot to be proud of from my time with Pop, but I do have that.  He did manage to do something right.”  Ranma’s face hardened. “But what did it mean to him? Anything?  I’ve come a long way since I left the Tendos, and a lot of that’s thanks to you, Dachi-chan.  I’m a lot better martial artist now than I was then. Does it matter to him at all? If he doesn’t care, why the HELL did he drag me all over the place and subject me to that much torture-disguised-as-trainin’ in the first place?  If he does care, where is he now?”

Kodachi bit her lip, not wanting to give voice to the suspicion that rose up within her then. Hearing it would only make Ranma more unhappy.

“Was it all just so I could inherit the stupid Tendo dojo, and once I was good enough for that he didn’t care anymore?!” Ranma continued.  “Was he just planning to do nothing and let me support him by running it? Is he thinking now he can just sit back and eventually live the good life off the Kuno fortune, so who cares if I keep up with the Art or not?!”

Obviously there hadn’t been any point in keeping quiet about her suspicion, Kodachi thought.

Ranma sighed morosely, not even realizing that he’d just made another accidental admission of lifelong commitment. “I ain’t saying I want him to show up and start tryin’ to call all the shots in my life again. But I do miss the old panda. Just a little bit.  And it hurts to think he may not miss me.”

The White Rose found herself at a loss for words.  On the one hand, she wanted to comfort Ranma.  On the other, she felt like the situation most probably was as he’d just described. She might wish otherwise, for Ranma’s sake, but it wasn’t like her wishes could change reality.

Was there anything at all she could say to make him feel better? It would do no good whatsoever to dream up some alternate explanation for Genma’s behavior. Ranma would feel the lack of conviction for sure. Anything she said now had better be something she believed, or she would just be wasting her breath…

Kodachi brightened. “Actually, Ranma, I can think of at least one other possible explanation.”

Ranma gave her a skeptical look, but he could feel her sincerity.  “Really?  What’s that?”

“He’s probably just too scared, after the beating we gave him over his treatment of Ucchan.”

Ranma considered that. He knew good and darn well that his old man was a coward in many ways.  That was something he’d come to terms with a long time ago.  “Maybe that is it.  I’d rather it was.”

Kodachi mentally patted herself on the back.  Ranma was feeling better now.  Perhaps it would eventually turn out that their first guess was the correct one, but she’d worry about that when it happened.  At least, even if worst came to worst, Ranma wouldn’t have to face it alone. She smiled warmly at him, then took his hand in her own.

They walked along in silence again. A few minutes later, they turned the final corner and came in sight of the Nekohanten. Both paused for a moment, taking in the sight before them. It wasn’t like they hadn’t seen the lane in front of the restaurant many times before, but the scene was a bit different this time.  Specifically, a portly man with a blond beard styled in ringlets, wearing nothing but a barrel on his body and a gloomy expression on his face, was trudging slowly away. A gaggle of children followed behind, pelting him with eggs.

Ranma and Kodachi exchanged glances, then the former shrugged.  “Same ol’ Nerima,” he said as the two entered the restaurant.

By now, most of the fun had gone out of patrolling Tokyo.  The sense of time slipping by was weighing heavily on all three of them. Each teenager was grimly conscious that their grace period might have already expired.  Fujima had only said the triplets were in no immediate danger, after all, and that had been three weeks ago now.

Their investigators were still scratching away at the blank wall that was the disappearance of the Sakuras and their families.  Kodachi couldn’t decide which was worse… hearing nothing but silence, which was the case now, or receiving regular reports of no progress, which had been the case until she told the detectives not to seek her out again unless they had something positive to tell her.  Neither was the least bit enjoyable.

And still the three made their rounds, concentrating now on the less reputable sections of the city, hoping that would increase the odds of finding their quarry. On the other hand, Ranma thought sourly, it would also probably increase the chance of running into somebody else from his past with a score to settle.

They’d been silent for most of this morning.  Only a few words had been spoken, mostly when they were debating which route to take. Eventually Kodachi decided to try to lighten the mood.  “Well, it’s been another week since the last vengeance-driven blast from the past showed up. Tell me, Ranma-kun, who do you think will be challenging you today?”

Ranma groaned. “Don’t say that, please.  That ain’t the kinda ridiculous coincidence we need. If something crazy is gonna happen, at least let it be something that helps us stumble onto the Sakuras.”

“That what I hope too,” Shampoo said. “We is running out of time. Only one more week before school lets out. If we don’t find triplet girls by then, will have to throw out own summer plans and instead stay here to keep looking.” Not a thought that was even slightly palatable to any of them.  The Amazon frowned thoughtfully.  “If we find nothing in next few days, I going to confront Fujima and ask him for more information.”

“ ‘Ask’? ” Ranma queried with a half-hearted grin.

Shampoo gave a smile of her own. “With shiatsu points Great-Grandmother teach me this week, will not need to do more than that.” The Amazon sniffed.  “Though would be nice to get rid of some stress by pound stupid secretive principal.  You is lucky, Ranma. At least with shadow boy and paintbrush boy, you get to fight them and let off steam.  Shampoo feel like she sealed-up bottle with pressure build up and up, with no way to let out.”

“Do you think it would have been better, Shampoo, if both Pierre and Ken had attacked Ranma together? That way you could have fought at his side, and worked off some of your stress in that manner,” Kodachi said absently.

“That would have been better, yes.” Shampoo gave Kodachi a questioning look. “What about you, though? You would not want to fight too? Shampoo know you is frustrated also.”

“Yes,” Kodachi admitted, “but in the circumstances I don’t think I’ll be able to get involved. I feel too sorry for Pierre to actually fight against him. Besides, the three of us against the two of them would be completely unfair.  It’s best if you and Ranma-kun just handle this yourselves.”

The questioning look hadn’t gone away, though it was present for a different reason now. “Kodachi, I know my Japanese still not great, but it sure sound like you use wrong…” Shampoo struggled for the word, “… wrong tense there. Like we actually about to have fight, not just hypothetical idea.”

The White Rose put on her best ironic expression and pointed down the street.

And there they were, both Ken and Pierre, awaiting the approach of Ranma and the girls. The two boys seemed equally tightly focused on the upcoming meeting, though it showed itself differently in their different stances. Ken lounged against a wall, and only his eyes betrayed the tension that his languid posture denied. Pierre stood ramrod straight, in the center of the lane, with cold fury evident in every inch of his bearing.

Ranma froze, holding motionless for several heartbeats, then strode forward, his own anger fairly radiating off him. Shampoo hurried to catch up. Kodachi walked along more slowly, and seated herself at a convenient bench.  It should be far enough back to keep her outside the zone of the upcoming battle, but it was still close enough that she could nail Ken with a gymnastics club if she needed to.  No reason to let Shampoo have ALL the fun, after all.

The heir to the Anything Goes school stopped when he was about five feet away from Ken. “I’m only gonna say this once,” he gritted out. “Get out of here.  Now!  We got something important to do and I’m sick an’ tired of you jerks running into us and keepin’ us from it!”

Ken’s insouciant smirk just got a little wider, though his eyes stayed hard and focused. “Something important?  Only thing I see is you skipping school to take your girlfriends on a tour of greater Tokyo.  Forgive me if I don’t think that’s quite as important as you do. Or is there something I’m missing?”

Ranma opened his mouth to respond, but Pierre beat him to the verbal punch.  “Don’t bother,” he snarled.  “There’s no more need for words, you vermin. I don’t care what you’re here for. I don’t care what you want.  Here and now, Saotome, is where you pay for your crimes.” His aura began to blaze, throwing different shafts of colors in different directions.  He pulled his weapon from its harness at his back, and moved into a ready position.  “This time, YOU learn what it feels like to lose!!”

Kodachi had the oddest impression that, just for a minute, Ken was far angrier at his partner than at Ranma. Why would that be, she wondered? Was it just because Pierre’s tirade had kept Ranma-sama from answering Ken’s question?  But why should he care about their reasons for not being in school? Perhaps the gray boy was simply allergic to other people’s melodrama.

“I don’t think so,” Ranma snorted as he moved into a defensive stance.  Shampoo took one of her own, facing Ken, who shot one last baleful glare at Pierre before stepping away from the wall.  Both duos began sidling around, each martial artist seeking a better position before the punches actually started to fly. “You ain’t got nothing to teach me, Picasso.”

“Picasso?  Not yet, Saotome.  You’ll look like one of his versions of the human figure by the time I’ve finished with you, though,” Pierre promised.  Ranma wondered just what the heck that was supposed to mean. His only real familiarity with the fine arts came from Kodachi’s memories, and while she knew the artist’s name she wasn’t at all familiar with Picasso’s style.

Pierre spared one instant for a glance to the side.  Good, they’d put enough distance between themselves and the other two soon-to-be-combatants that he wouldn’t catch his semi-ally in the wake of this attack. “Instead of Picasso, how about… Durer! Martial Art special attack:  Woodcut!!”

The Master of Martial Art slammed the point of his paintbrush into the ground, freeing his hands for the technique. He reached behind him and began producing a seemingly-endless stream of sharp-edged wooden blocks, hurling them at Ranma as fast as he could bring them to hand.

Ranma lashed out with his fists and feet, blurring into top speed in a credible impression of a blender. He took several cuts on his hands before he realized just HOW sharp that wood was.  Shifting tactics with the speed that was such a part of Anything Goes, he grabbed the next two blocks out of midair, taking care not to grasp them along their edges, and used them instead of his flesh to counter the remaining projectiles.

The Master of Martial Art almost faltered in his attack, dismayed again to see the extent of his foe’s speed. Then his resolve stiffened, as he realized Ranma’s defense forced him to move with much greater velocity and precision than Pierre’s attack required.  The artist just had to aim at Ranma’s general body, but the pigtailed-boy had to precisely target each block.  Pierre could see that Ranma wasn’t going to run out of stamina before he ran out of woodcuts, but the attack was bound to deplete his opponent’s energy reserves much further than it would his own.

Shampoo regarded the boy in front of her. She didn’t expect this fight to be too hard… as soon as he tried his ‘hide in shadows’ trick on her, she’d have him right where she wanted him.  In fact, the Amazon realized, winning that way would be too easy. She wanted a real fight. Let’s see… maybe if she insulted him enough, that would spur him into attacking straightforwardly.

“Is pretty pathetic both of you gang up on Ranma at the same time,” Shampoo said conversationally as she and Ken maneuvered their way away from Ranma and Pierre. “If you no have courage to face stronger opponent by own self, you should no call yourself a martial artist. Of course, that pretty much go without saying. Is silly invisibility trick the only thing you got?”

Ken just shrugged. “Gee, I’m sooo sorry my technique didn’t impress you. And it wasn’t like I was really fighting dirty today.  I was pretty sure one of you girls would jump in to help Ranma when I showed up with an ‘ally’.” The arrogant smile he’d worn earlier returned to his face.  “Actually, I was afraid it would be Kodachi who I’d end up fighting. Facing you instead is a big relief, let me tell you.”

Shampoo’s face flushed beet red. Knowing Kodachi was better than her was one thing. She could even admit it with no problem.  But to have someone say the White Rose was the only one of Ranma’s girls that made a credible opponent… her battle aura sprang up, and she whipped out her bonbori. The Amazon dashed forward. She was way too cute to really seem like a charging bull, but there was a little bit of a resemblance.

Ken’s smile had faded away like the morning dew when Shampoo produced the weapons. That he hadn’t counted on. Those things might look silly, but they also looked pretty darn heavy. The plan, ‘block Shampoo’s attacks then strike through the holes that her anger would have left in her defense’, was quickly amended to ‘get the heck out of her way and think of something else.’

A quick dash to one side left Shampoo’s maces swinging through empty air.  Ken put enough distance between himself and the Amazon to be safe, then concentrated.  “Hey, Shampoo, since you don’t think much of my ‘silly invisibility trick’, let’s see how well you do against it!”  His battle aura sprang to life, and the lane fell quickly toward shadow. “Now you see me… now you don’t!”

Kodachi did her best to keep a straight face.  Ken might have just dropped from her field of vision, but the same limitation didn’t apply to Shampoo. The poor fool would never know what hit him.

The sudden loss of light made it somewhat more difficult for Ranma to smash the remaining woodcuts out of the air.  However, as Pierre only had ten left at that point, it wasn’t more than a minor inconvenience.

The stream of missiles ended at last. Ranma dropped the two he’d used, not even noticing that they, like all the other blocks, were engraved with an image of him lying on the ground in defeat.  “Is that the best you got, man?”

“I’m just getting warmed up!” Pierre snarled, grabbing his brush and beginning to spin it. He advanced on his opponent in an attack sequence that was becoming all too familiar to the Saotome heir.

‘I don’t believe this loser!’ Ranma thought as he blocked and dodged.  ‘Sure, this shoot-ink-into-the-other-guy’s-face attack worked the first time he tried it on me, but I already showed him it wasn’t gonna happen again.  I wouldn’t’ve thought even Pierre would be stupid enough to try it another time…’

The sequence had now progressed to the culminating move.  Ranma frowned, then disengaged, jumping backward instead of using the same tactic he’d employed before.  This proved to be a wise decision.  Even as Pierre whipped the brush toward where Ranma’s head had been a scant second earlier, the artist pivoted with the swing and shot one leg out in a powerful kick. A kick that no doubt would have been most unpleasant to someone who’d tried to duck the brush stroke instead of blocking it.

Shampoo put on her best frustrated face as the shadows fell over the lane.  In point of fact, she could see Ken perfectly clearly, but she didn’t want him to know that.  Yet.

“Still think this is a silly trick?” The Amazon was mildly surprised… even though she knew where Ken was, it was still impossible to detect any direction in the echoing voice that spoke now.  Apparently whatever protection was over her eyes didn’t extend to her ears. “Don’t think I’m going to go any easier on you just because you’re a girl.”  Ken was quite close now, approaching at an oblique angle, but his voice still seemed as far away as ever.

“That insult to my Amazon ancestors!” Shampoo cried, no longer having to pretend to be annoyed. She whipped her head around, ostensibly trying to catch a glimpse of her opponent, while letting her peripheral vision keep tabs on his progress.

“Sorry.  I’m not the most polite guy around.”  He was quite close now.  “I even hit girls!”

That last cry hadn’t been directionless. It had seemed to come from right in front of her, which was ninety degrees away from Ken’s current position. With a smirk, Shampoo whirled to the attack, ignoring the distraction, spinning and driving straight for her opponent.

He didn’t even flinch, just dodged and lashed out in his own offensive.  Shampoo, who’d been sure she’d catch him off guard, was the one whose attack faltered.  She’d compensated for his expected moment of shock, and without that present, she left herself wide open.  There wasn’t even a chance to raise her defenses before Ken’s strikes landed.

Ken jumped back, another insufferably irritating smirk on his face.  “Gotcha.”  With a leaden *clunk*, the severed balls of her bonbori maces dropped to the ground. Shampoo was left holding the splintered remains of the hafts.  She entertained a brief fantasy of impaling this boy on one of them, then chucked them to the side.

The Amazon produced an evil smile of her own.  “You already know Shampoo can see you even in shadows, hmm?  Do good job of tricking me.  Too bad you waste your one chance for decisive blow. You think without bonbori, I no can fight?” She shook her head dismissively. “Should have picked your target better, shadow boy. You not deceive me like that again.”

He snorted, and suddenly the shadows dissipated, returning the area to its normal light level. “Hey, Shampoo, you asked me a question earlier, and I never did answer.”

“What that?” Shampoo asked, tensing her legs for one of the aerial attacks she’d learned from Ranma.

“About whether the Shadow Shroud was the only thing I had up my sleeve.”  Ken’s aura sprang to life again, appearing first as a light gray haze, then darkening quickly until he was encased in a solid ebony sheath. “It’s not.”

“Nice try,” Ranma said, then shifted onto the offensive.

Pierre was forced back, spinning his primary weapon desperately as he attempted to block the furious hail of blows. Some he was only able to deflect, and ended up taking the hits on his shoulders and in his lower ribs, but the partial blocks robbed Ranma’s punches of much of their force. The pigtailed marital artist realized this, and forced himself to move even faster.

His opponent couldn’t handle this new level of speed.  First one, then two, then half a dozen punches slipped completely through his guard. Pierre could feel himself beginning to lose focus as Ranma’s fist smashed his jaw.  With desperate strength, he concentrated on the injustice of all he’d lost to this vermin, the chance he should have had but never received. The rush of fury snapped him back into full awareness of the fight, a surge of adrenaline temporarily blocking the pain. If he was going to have any chance at all, he had to break out of this defensive stance…

Ranma saw the new fire rise in his opponent’s eyes.  He didn’t let up, knowing that the fight could be won right here and now if he crushed this resurgence of Pierre’s fighting spirit.  He poured a little more strength into his next punch, slamming it directly into a vulnerable spot on his enemy’s upper torso, one he hadn’t targeted yet.

He distinctly felt something squash beneath the blow.  Crimson streams exploded out Pierre’s chest, drenching Ranma’s arm from fist to elbow, staining his shirt a darker red.  Ranma froze in stunned horror.  “No…” he whispered.

For someone who’d just taken such a terrible injury, Pierre still seemed to be awfully energetic. His counterattack slammed the base of his brush into Ranma’s chin, then jabbed into the Saotome heir’s gut in almost the same motion.  Two more devastating thrusts followed, one to each shoulder, and then came the long-awaited launch of ink from the brush’s bristles into Ranma’s face.

Shampoo let the tension ease out of her legs.  Aerial attacks were impressive, and she was pretty good at them, but she didn’t want to commit to something like that until she had the measure of Ken’s new trick.

“What’s the matter? Afraid of the dark?”  She might not be able to see his face, but Ken’s tone made Shampoo all but certain he was grinning that insufferable grin again.

He was advancing on her now, not quickly, but not hesitantly either.  Shampoo frowned as she realized the deliberate pace was a deliberate attempt to psych her out.  “Hey Ken, Shampoo know how you train for that technique.”

That did stop him. Ken froze in his tracks, and Shampoo was almost sure the darkness around him thinned a bit.  “Y- you do?!”

“Mm-hm.”  Shampoo lowered her voice, though she was all but certain Ranma wouldn’t catch her next words even if she shouted.  Ken strained to hear her speak.  “Somebody tie you up and drop you into pit then close the lid. Now YOU so scared of the dark you turn into it.”

Fortunately for Kodachi, she was paying far more attention to Ranma’s battle than Shampoo’s (naturally enough), and didn’t hear this.  If she had, she would undoubtedly have facefaulted.  Just as Ken did.  Of course, even if the White Rose had done so, nobody would have dashed forward and used the Bakusai Tenketsu right next to her prone form.

Shampoo’s opponent wasn’t so fortunate. The explosion tossed him almost his own height into the air.  He crashed back to the ground, skidded along for a bit, then came to rest against a streetlight.  Ken picked himself up and made an elaborate show of dusting himself off. The process looked rather strange, since he was still just a featureless black shadow.

“Not bad at all, Shampoo,” he said. “But not good enough, either.”

The tide of battle can turn on small things.  In this case, it was the fact that Ranma’s eyes were still closed reflexively after the blow to his stomach.  The ink didn’t immediately get into them… if it had, chances were very slim that he would have been able to recover before Pierre got enough of his wind back to finish the fight.

As it was, Ranma was in pretty bad shape. His shoulders were on fire, as was his stomach, and he’d nearly opened his eyes before realizing just what that feeling of liquid on his face meant.  He could hear Pierre panting, getting his strength back after that desperate offensive.  Ranma’s own reserves were starting to get low, though he still had more than the Master of Martial Art. That wouldn’t make much of a difference if Pierre launched another all-out offensive like that last one while he was still blind, though.

Taking a bit of a chance, the pigtailed martial artist leaped backward as high and hard as he could. Unlike the battle with Mousse, this time he didn’t need to worry about accidentally going out of bounds. Ranma pulled off his shirt, ignoring the protests from his shoulders; they weren’t hurting quite so badly anymore anyway. He turned it inside out and wiped as much of the ink off his face as he could.  A small corner of his mind noted that whatever the red stuff on the outside was, it definitely didn’t have the smell of blood.

Ranma’s visage was still quite black after that, but at least all the loose ink had been removed. It would be safe to open his eyes again. Good thing, too…  at that precise moment the arc of his desperate jump slammed him backward into the building behind him, which caused his eyes to bug out involuntarily. Kodachi winced as she saw her boyfriend hang suspended against the wall for a few seconds, then slowly slide down it. At least the impression he’d left at the point of impact wasn’t nearly as deep as when he’d fought the Golden Pair.

Shampoo groaned mentally. So the black stuff WAS some kind of armor. She dashed forward, catching Ken off guard and slamming several punches and a kick into his torso. Her attack knocked him backwards, but Shampoo didn’t press the offensive.  Instead she paused to consider the results of her experiment.  The darkness had dramatically reduced the strength of her blows, but she had clearly felt the cloth of Ken’s shirt beneath her fists… it was more like a protective layer of dense water than solid metal.

Still, even if it wasn’t solid, it had definitely absorbed almost all of the force from her blows. She might have knocked Ken backward, but the Amazon knew she hadn’t really hurt him.  The stupid shield covered him all over too, Shampoo thought sourly. What she needed was some way to get through it… some method that wouldn’t fail just because Ken’s protection took away the force of the attack…

Shiatsu would be perfect, except for one minor detail.  Shampoo was good, but she knew she wasn’t good enough to hit a point when she couldn’t even see her opponent through the shroud of darkness around him. What else could she try?

Her thoughts were interrupted as Ken attacked.  His style now was mostly offense, which only made sense.  Shampoo was relieved to find that his actual level of attacking prowess was a good bit below hers.  Blocking his attacks while still slipping in a few of her own wasn’t that hard. Hers connected, his didn’t. But for all that, both were having about the same effect on their opponent:  none at all.

“You really are pretty good,” Ken said seriously.  Apparently he’d decided to drop the taunts.  “But you can’t win. Not against my Dark Armor. It doesn’t draw on my own energy reserves. In fact, it even lends me extra strength, more than just my natural physical limits.  You’re a good fighter, but you’re just going to wear yourself out. And then, after Ranma finishes off Pierre, he’ll have to face me.”

Ken’s voice had hardened again as he spoke of her Airen, Shampoo noted.  She also noted that he’d been able to keep up the tempo of his attacks while saying all that, and yet it hadn’t left him even slight short of breath. She shifted to pure defense for a moment.  “Why you” block an incoming palm strike “so angry” dodge the follow-up spinning kick “with Ranma?”

“It’s none of your business,” Ken said, picking up the pace further.

Suddenly an inspiration struck Shampoo like a bolt of lightning.  She grabbed Ken’s incoming punch, twisted, and threw him hard over her shoulder.  He landed a good ten feet away, and bounced for another five, coming to rest right where Shampoo wanted him.  The Amazon smiled, then pivoted and kicked the fire hydrant next to her, her foot slicing through the metal with ease.  The resultant stream of water shot out to douse Ken completely.

“I’m touched that you were worried about me, Saotome,” Pierre sneered, gesturing to the gory mess on his chest. “But I think I can stand to lose a little red paint.”

He was putting on a good face, but the Master of Martial Art realized that the battle was not going to last much longer. He was down to the last twenty percent of his reserves, at best.  He wasn’t sure how much Ranma had left… he didn’t like to admit it, but his foe had already shrugged off an amount of damage that would have left Pierre completely out of the fight.

But there was no way in heaven or earth that he was just going to back down and concede. Besides, Ranma could be on his last legs and just putting up a good front too.  Even if he wasn’t, Pierre hoped one more serious onslaught would take out the pigtailed pig.

It was time to toss the dice.

Ranma tensed as Pierre’s battle aura began swirling fiercely again.  “Should’ve known I wasn’t gonna get outta this without him pulling off at least one of his kooky special techniques,” Ranma grumbled to himself. The Woodcut attack hadn’t been nearly weird enough to meet that requirement.

Pierre concentrated, calling on even more of his chi, shaping as much as he could spare into the desired configuration.  “Martial Art special technique…” his innate honesty about the art prevented him from calling it an attack “… CHIAROSCURO!!”

To Ranma, it was as if a brilliant, blinding light mingled with absolute darkness suddenly burst forth. All color disappeared, leaving only tone and shade.  Then even that was gone. Where there was light, there was absolute white.  Where there was shadow, there was ebon darkness.

Ranma took a step backward, wanting to get a bit more distance between himself and Pierre, trying to adapt to this bizarre new look.  He nearly fell over in sudden disorientation… as he moved, his perspective inevitably shifted a little, causing some shadows to fall out of view and new objects to become shaded.  The dramatic shifts of black and white were just too much to cope with. He flinched and stumbled; the speed of his motion only made the shifting worse.  Ranma fell to his knees, closed his eyes, and tried not to heave up his breakfast.

Ken rolled out of the stream, still cloaked in darkness, and, as far as Shampoo could tell, still unchanged. That seemed to deal a pretty big blow to her theory that, like Ryoga, he’d somehow wound up Jusenkyo-cursed and blaming Ranma for it.  Maybe he’d fallen into the Spring of Drowned Girl, though?

Her opponent was staring at the ruined hydrant, though, due to the night that covered him black as the pit from pole to pole, this wasn’t exactly obvious. “Don’t you people even care what you damage in your fights?” he demanded indignantly.  His voice was completely unchanged.  “What if there’s a fire in one of these shops later on today?!”

“What it take to put you down?!” Shampoo demanded angrily.

“More than you’ve got, like I already said.”  Ken began stalking toward her again.  Somehow, his matter-of-fact tone made it worse.  It was obvious that this was no taunt.  He was completely serious, absolutely confident that she didn’t matter, that she couldn’t even touch him.

Shampoo felt a switch flip in her brain. She began to glow with an intense battle aura.  “We see about that.” She leaped back and to the side, and picked up the hafts of her bonbori.  “We see…”  she began stalking toward Ken, matching his pace and gait exactly  “… right here…”  her battle aura had built to truly impressive strength now  “… and now!”  it shifted, wrapping around her no longer, instead splitting into two intense pulsing spheres of energy that sprang forth from the handles of her maces…

Ken faltered as he noticed the apparent resurrection of her weapons, and started to back away. Too little, too late.  In another time and another place, Shampoo would have used this attack to punish Mon Lon, one of the Seven Lucky Gods martial artists, and a woman who’d dared to nearly kill her Airen.  Here and now, the stakes weren’t quite so high, and the damage to her weapons made the technique a lot harder to use, but it was just as effective.

With a furious scream, Shampoo brought the spheres together at an angle.  As they met, all the energy was released in one titanic wave. It roared forward, slamming into Ken, shredding his shield like so much wet toilet paper, replacing that darkness with the black of unconsciousness.  Shampoo fell to her knees, exhausted but triumphant.

Ranma kept his eyes closed, a small part of his mind wondering why Pierre bothered to lob ink into his opponent’s face if he had a technique like this.  He concentrated, trying to find his equilibrium again, trying to achieve the focus he would need if he was going to be fighting blind.

Pierre swayed and nearly fell after the sudden expenditure of energy.  His technique created a field around Ranma that warped light, and would persist as long as Pierre was concentrating on it, but the initial chi drain from the move took most of what he had left.  He gritted his teeth, fought off the surge of weariness, and launched himself forward.  This would have been the perfect opportunity to stay back and nail Ranma with the Printing Press attack, but he just didn’t have the strength to pull off another special technique. His trusty main weapon would have to suffice.

The sound of his opponent’s approach set Ranma’s pulse to racing.  It was obvious Pierre wasn’t in the least discomfited by his own technique, not that Ranma had expected him to be.  He oriented on the sound.  One way or another, it would end here and now.

Pierre was surprised to see Ranma rise up, eyes still closed, and charge to meet him. He snarled, and began his attack. Spinning the brush as quickly as he could, the Master of Martial Art launched a series of thrusts and jabs.

His opponent heard the whistle of the brush as it streaked through the air.  He barely had time to brace himself before the end slammed into him. Once, twice, a dozen times… but Pierre was nearly on the verge of exhaustion, and the strikes just weren’t powerful enough to stop Ranma.  It hurt, but he fought through the pain.

The pigtailed martial artist launched a kick of his own.  It didn’t connect, but it did force Pierre to break the rhythm of his assault. Ranma didn’t give him a chance to recover; he pushed forward, hands reaching out blindly, grasping the weapon. With a roaring cry of fury, the Saotome heir called on his own dwindling reserves.  In a burst of strength, he pivoted, whipping the paintbrush around. The drag made it obvious that Pierre hadn’t let go.

This suited Ranma just fine. Another rotation, more energy expended, and then Ranma released his hold.  He couldn’t see, but the whistle of Pierre’s flight, stopping abruptly with a loud *crunch*, painted a pretty clear picture anyway.

Ranma held himself tensely, listening as hard as he could.  After a quarter-minute of hearing no motion from his downed foe, he opened one eye just a bit. The sight of normal light and color was very welcome then.  Almost as welcome as the sight of Pierre’s unconscious body, sprawled out against a wall.

As soon as she was certain Pierre was down for the count, Kodachi zipped over to Ranma’s side, pulling him gently but firmly into a reclining posture on the ground. “Don’t worry about me, Dach-- mmmph!!”

She gave him a mock glare. “Machismo is all well and good in its place, Ranma-kun, but right now I am not willing to listen to any silly protests of yours. You WILL lie back and let me make sure you haven’t sustained any serious injuries.”

Ranma rolled his eyes, then fished out the handkerchief she’d stuffed in his mouth. “What I was gonna SAY was, check Shampoo first. I’m fi-- mmmph!!”  Apparently Kodachi carried more than one handkerchief.

“I don’t think Ken even managed to land a blow on her, Ranma dear.  And right now she’s walking up behind you, not looking battered or bruised at all.  Which is more than I can say for you.  Now lie still.”

He didn’t comply, of course. Discarding the second handkerchief, Ranma twisted until he could see Shampoo.  She did seem okay, but then again he knew she’d be about as reluctant as he was to show weakness after a fight.  Plus, Ranma’s current position relative to her meant the only way he could see her was by turning his head until she appeared, upside down, in his field of vision.  It wasn’t the best posture for determining whether she was okay or just faking it. “Shampoo?  You okay?”

Shampoo relieved his neck strain by walking around and kneeling down at his side, opposite Kodachi. “Yes, Shampoo fine.” She swallowed hard as she got a good look at Ranma. There was an awful lot of red…“Airen?  Is… is you hands okay?” she choked out.

“That’s red paint, Shampoo,” Kodachi said in a comforting tone of voice.  “Pierre had some sort of false blood packet strapped to his torso, to distract Ranma when it burst.”

Shampoo’s jaw closed with an audible click. She got up and strode over to Pierre’s prone form, turned him onto his stomach, ripped the various pouches and then the very shirt off his back, and tagged a number of shiatsu points. She walked back to Ranma’s side, a vindictive grin on her face, though after that burst of irritated energy she was feeling even more weary.

“What did you just do?” Ranma asked.

“Use technique Great-Grandmother develop after trip to Central America.”  The Amazon smirked even more broadly.  “Let’s just say stupid paintbrush boy not spend much time far away from toilet for next week.”

Kodachi winced. “I doubt Ken realized, as that massive blast of energy took him down, that he was getting off lightly.”

Ranma sat up at that. “Massive blast of energy? Wha-- mmmph!!”

Kodachi pushed him back down. “I’m not through checking you out yet, Ranma dear.”

“I neither,” Shampoo said innocently. “Is lots more fun since Ranma lose shirt in battle, right, Kodachi?”

“That’s right,” the White Rose agreed absentmindedly, then blushed.  “I mean…”

“ANYway, what massive blast was Dachi talkin’ about?” Ranma asked, wisely not attempting to sit up again.

“You see any of Shampoo’s fight with shadow boy, Airen?”  When Ranma shook his head in negation, Shampoo continued.  “He hide like when he fight you, but somehow he know Shampoo can see him anyway. So when I attack and expect to catch him off-guard, he one what surprise me.  Break heads off bonbori.  Then he use new shadow trick, completely cover self with blackness that act like armor.  I can hit but not with any force.”  She frowned as she remembered Ken’s attitude.  “All through fight he act like I nobody worth respect as opponent. Well, he learn different. I use Paired Weapons Golden Bird Holy Flower Dragon Tooth Glory Strike to break shadow shield and knock him out.”

“How the heck did ya do that if he’d already broken your bonbori?” Ranma asked.

“Had to focus power through handles only. Take way more of Shampoo’s strength that way, but at least it work.”

Kodachi decided she’d wait until later to ask for details about this Paired Weapons Golden Bird Holy Flower Dragon Tooth Glory Strike.  She was satisfied by now that there was nothing wrong with her boyfriend that a day of rest wouldn’t cure.  Shampoo was putting up a good front, but Kodachi thought she looked pretty tired too. It was time to head for home.

Make that almost time, she thought as she noticed one of the downed boys begin to groan and stir.

Ken sat up, holding his head in one hand, trying to blink away the dizziness.  “Hope Sakura can help me out again,” he muttered. Ranma and company were too far away to hear this, or things might have gone very differently.

The White Rose strode forward, grabbed Ken by the front of his shirt, and lifted him until his eyes were level with hers.  “Ken, do you remember what Ranma said to you, before this little fracas began? That we were engaged in something important?”

“Yeah.  I figure he meant the three of you were getting in quality time together.  Somewhere nobody who knew you would catch on to the fact that the three of you weren’t ‘just friends’.” Ken was still a little too dazed to realize that he wasn’t in a good position for smarting off.

Another person might have slapped him around in this situation.  Kodachi settled for giving him a glare as cutting as the edge of her namesake.  “Some girls in our class at school have been kidnapped.  I have hired detectives to look for them, but Ranma, Shampoo, and myself are doing our part to search as well.  We may be their only hope for rescue.  And if you get in our way again, then you can forget fairness… the three of us TOGETHER will CRUSH you!!”

She tossed him back to the ground, though not hard enough to really hurt him.  “We’d better not see either of you again. Tell Pierre the same when he awakens,” she commanded, then strode back to Ranma and Shampoo.  The three of them walked off, Kodachi supporting Ranma on one side, Shampoo on the other being held up by him as much as she was holding him up.

As the whirling in his head settled to manageable levels, the gray boy gingerly got to his feet, reflecting sourly that he’d had to pay a lot higher price than he’d wanted. But at least he’d gotten the beginnings of his answer.

Ken stumbled and nearly fell, barely catching himself with his free hand, barely managing not to drop the package he was carrying.  He gathered the remnants of his strength, then resumed walking.

The door opened as he approached. Ken blinked, then staggered through it. He blinked again to see Sakura was sitting behind her desk, not standing at the door. She was looking even more pale and anxious than was usual. He turned around, only to see the door swing shut of its own accord.  He fought down his own sudden surge of anxiety and sat down.

“Did you fight Ranma again?” Sakura asked.  It felt a little stupid to be asking a question to which she already knew the answer, but this was the last of the meetings she’d seen in her sister’s dream. Those memories were her lifeline now, the only ray of light that might see her through the darkness ahead. There was no way she was going to deviate from what she’d seen herself do and risk derailing everything.

“Yes and no,” Ken answered. “Pierre and I went up against him together. It wound up as Pierre versus Ranma, with me fighting Shampoo.  She trashed me pretty good, too.  I was hoping you might, ah, show me that healing trick again.”

“Um, I-- I’d really like to, but I don’t have anything sweet to eat right now.  And you’re hurt even worse than you were before. I’d pass out if I tried to heal that without anything to strengthen me,” Sakura replied.  Her eyes were fixed on the package in his lap as she said this.

Ken smirked through his exhaustion. “Here you go.” He unwrapped the cherry cheesecake he’d brought her, then set it on her desk.  Sakura cut herself a slice… considering just how much energy she was going to have to expend in healing him, it was better to prepare ahead of time. “I guess you got over your reluctance to eat all by yourself, huh?” he teased her.

She shook her head while continuing to gulp down the dessert.  A desk drawer slid open.  Another plate and fork floated out; a large slice of the cheesecake detached itself and slid onto the plate, which then drifted over to Ken. Sakura deliberately focused on the cake. She could feel the nervous fear beginning to rise in him again, and it hurt, but at least she didn’t have to see it.

Ken took a couple of deep breaths, deliberately pushing away his trepidation, and began to eat. By the time he’d finished his portion, Sakura had devoured both her first slice and a subsequent smaller one. “Thank you for bringing that,” she said timidly. “Can you wait just a little before I heal you? I need some time for the sugar to work its way into my bloodstream.”

Ken shrugged. “Yeah, no problem.  I’ve had lots worse than this.”

“Would you…” Sakura bit her lip, then continued, “would you tell me about it?”

He looked at her for a long moment, wondering why she’d asked.  Eventually he decided it didn’t matter… considering what he’d be saying to her later, she probably needed to hear this anyway. “Do you know what it’s like to lose everything? To have something that’s the center of your world taken away from you?  You know I had a grudge against Ranma, but I bet you didn’t know the details. So here it is.  I challenged him to a fight, and he won. That’s when I started on my walk through hell.

“If all that had happened was that I lost, it wouldn’t have been any big deal.  I’d have just gone away, at most maybe trained a while then come back for a rematch.  But when Ranma beat me, he took something from me, a family treasure that was the whole basis for our fighting style.  He destroyed it, or at least I thought it was his fault.  An eight-generation family tradition died because he defeated me.

“Can you understand that, Sakura? I lost the biggest part of who I was then. I was devastated. I wanted to demand a rematch right then and there. I wanted to fight him and defeat him as easily as he’d beaten me.  I wanted to pay him back ten times over, to crush him and make him feel the agony I’d suffered.  And it only made it worse that there was no way I could do it. He’d been stronger than me to begin with, and now… now I was nothing.”

Ken looked down at the floor. “I seriously considered killing him. I could have done it… it wouldn’t even be that hard.  Just would’ve had to attack without any warning or mercy when he was looking the other way. I hate to admit it, but the thing that really stopped me was pride.  I wanted to beat him openly, and make him admit I was the better fighter. I wanted to crush his fighting spirit, just as he’d destroyed my family’s fighting style.  And so I left, and started looking for someone who could train me in a more powerful style than Anything Goes.

“And he found me.”

Sakura watched, trembling in sympathetic pain, as Ken shuddered.  He looked up and met her gaze, and even through his weariness his eyes were burning with a desperate intensity.  “If you ever meet a man named Masa Kiri, and he offers you something… ANYthing… just decline as politely as you can and get the hell outta there. But walk, don’t run. You really, really don’t want to offend him.

“He told me he could train me in a style that was much more powerful than Anything Goes. Saotome, as good as he is, still just relies on punches and kicks.  Physical attacks, even if he does use his chi to boost them.  What Kiri promised me was a whole new level of mastery, where you used your spirit directly.

“As you may have guessed, from seeing my aura and that I don’t cast a shadow, this style is based on darkness.” Ken sighed bitterly. “I should have known then,” he muttered. “As soon as he told me those details, I should have backed down and gone somewhere else.  But I was too stupid, and too stubborn.

“Tell me, Sakura… are you afraid of the dark?”

Sakura jumped. He hadn’t said that in her memories. Hopefully it didn’t mean anything, but the fear rose up anyway, fear that this meeting might be turning away from the direction she needed it to take.  “N- no,” she managed. “It’s just the absence of light. Nothing to be scared of.”

Ironically enough, she was speaking the truth then.  The dark wasn’t one of the things that frightened her.  But Ken heard the fear in her voice, and figured she was just putting up a good front.  “You should be,” he said quietly.  “Just the absence of light?  Sorry, girl, it isn’t that innocent.

“You’re right when you say it’s an ‘absence.’  The absence of hope-- despair.  The absence of humility-- pride.  The absence of friendship-- loneliness.  The absence of love-- dispassion.  I can go on and on, but let me sum up.  The absence of all fellow feeling for others and concern for humanity-- amorality. The darkness in our hearts keeps us apart, batters us and twists us into things that rend, ruin, and kill one another without a second thought.”

Sakura was trembling now, though she wasn’t as afraid as she had been.  The conversation had moved back into an area she’d seen before. Now she was just afraid of the world Ken was describing.  “Is… is it really that bad out there?” she choked out.

“Of course not,” he said matter-of-factly.  “That’s a worst-case scenario, of what happens to a person when the darkness consumes them completely.  That’s where you get serial killers, and genocidal dictators, and telephone solicitors.” She didn’t laugh at the joke (actually, she hadn’t realized it was a joke), but at least it made Ken feel a little better. Taking what had happened to him too seriously hurt so much.  “And that’s the whole basis of the style Kiri taught me.”  He heaved a deep sigh, his physical exhaustion underscored by a deep weariness of the soul.  “Or maybe I should say, the style he infected me with.

“One week.” He laughed bitterly.  “Saotome has trained for most of his life, and it only took a week to learn the style that would have let me beat him. Kiri showed me some meditative exercises that prepared me, and then, just seven days after I met him, he tore my soul out of my body and dropped the both of us into the Shadowed Abyss.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Ken admitted, struggling for composure as he fought the memories. “I can’t be sure whether it was an actual other world, or just a state of mind.  All I can say was, it was dark.  No light whatsoever, except what you brought with you.  And there was none at all from Kiri.  Just mine, and it was feeble and failing.

“I could feel him beside me, at first, but then he disengaged.  I was all alone.  I don’t know how long it lasted, but after a while… the darkness started…” he gulped, wiping the sweat from his brow, “started moving around me. It was subtle, at first, but I began to feel it swirling against me, pulling me to move with it, to flow in time with its motion…

“I didn’t know what else to do. Kiri hadn’t given me any real idea of what to expect.  But before we started he had grinned at me, not very pleasantly either, and said, ‘Go with the flow.’  So I figured there really wasn’t anything else to do.  I choked back my fear and opened myself up.”

Ken stopped then, and held silent for a long time.  Sakura looked on his ashen face, and felt her heart twist painfully. Seeing images of herself interacting with him hadn’t come anywhere near preparing her for what it would feel like to actually experience the moment.  “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

Perhaps he heard her, perhaps not. His face didn’t show any break from the pain, but he did begin speaking again.  “In that moment, the dark reflected my true image back at me. I saw myself.  Every comforting illusion was stripped away. I saw the truth of who I was, saw the full extent of my pride and resentment and self-centeredness and capacity for evil. I was hit head-on by the pitiful weakness of the meager bit of light within me, and forced to see just how little of my heart it actually filled.  That’s what had to happen-- to get power from the darkness, you have to understand it.

“You have to give yourself to it.

“That’s what I was supposed to do. I saw myself, and it nearly destroyed me. To understand just how vile I really was, all the little comforting ‘I’m not so bad’ lies I’d told myself blasted into nothingness in an instant, should have broken me. I’d reached the bottom, and the only place to go… was further down.  Because I could see I’d never be able to get rid of what was in me.  No matter how I tried to fight it, there’d ALWAYS be darkness in my heart, just because I was human.

“So why fight it? I could embrace the night, and all those feelings of revulsion and sorrow would go away.  I could be just as dark and nasty as I wanted and never feel a twinge of conscience.  And if I gave myself over, the darkness would give back.  Power enough to break Ranma without any trouble at all.

“I don’t know where I found the strength to say no.  Maybe I’d slacked off too much on the meditations Kiri had showed me. Maybe he just made a mistake, thinking I was ready when I wasn’t.”  Ken laughed bitterly. “Or maybe he expected me to do what I did, and turn away at that time.  Maybe he thought it would be more entertaining if I did refuse. I don’t know. I don’t even know how I did it, but I broke contact and pulled all the way back into the real world, back into my own body again.”

He paused, shuddering. “Kiri just looked at me, and said I was a fool for turning away.  He said that now that I knew just how dark my soul really was, I’d never be able to bear it. Eventually I’d return to the darkness, when I couldn’t bear staying in the light any more. He warned me that I’d already been changed. One look in a mirror convinced me of that. He said I’d never find anyone to accept me or support me or care for me now.  Far better just to turn back and complete the descent.

“I wanted to kill him,” he said quietly.  “It was far worse than any rage I felt toward Ranma.  Saotome hadn’t meant to hurt me, and even though his actions were what set me on the path that led me to that moment, it hadn’t been his fault. It had been my choice, and Masa Kiri’s to lead me down that road.  I wanted to kill him slowly, roasting him over an open fire, or maybe skinning him alive.

“But my survival instincts were still working, and instead I thanked him for what he’d shown me, and walked away.”

“That must have been hard,” Sakura whispered.  “How long ago was this?”

Ken shrugged. “Several months… I don’t keep track of the time. It’s not like I want to remember it, after all. Even if it is burned so deep I’ll never be able to really forget it.

“For most of the time since then, I’ve been fighting, one way or another.  The hardest thing to do was accept two things. One, that the darkness in me will always be there. Two, that that doesn’t mean I can’t reach for the light anyway.”

“But aren’t those two things opposites?”

“Yeah.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?” He laughed, more ironically than bitterly this time. “But most of the big important stuff in life plays by its own rules, and doesn’t bother with how much sense it makes to us. Anyway, that’s where I am now. Because of what happened to me, I’ve got some low-level darkness-based powers, but all the really nasty stuff is still out of reach.  And that’s the way it’s going to stay.  I’ve fought hard, harder than any battle against another opponent, fought myself and gained a place of balance.  I may be able to walk on the edge of darkness, but I will use that power only as an honorable martial artist should.  To improve myself and to defend the weak.”

There was silence for several minutes then.  Ken felt as if he were a wet towel and someone had twisted him, wringing him dry. In the past few months, he’d told his story to several priests and monks, searching for enlightenment that could help him fight his way back from the abyss.   This was the first time he’d opened up to someone his own age rather than a wizened old holy man, though.  Ironically enough, the bone-deep exhaustion and persistent pain from his battle with Shampoo had actually made it easier to drop his guard and tell Sakura all that. Somehow there was a greater feeling of catharsis this time than there’d ever been before.

He risked a glance at Sakura, hoping not to find revulsion or fear.  What he found was an empty desk.  Ken blinked, then realized she was right next to him, crying gently.

“I’m sorry,” she whimpered, “so sorry you had to hurt like that.  I can’t… I can’t take away that pain, but let me heal you as much as I can.”

When Ken came to, he found his benefactor behind her desk again, and the cherry cheesecake more than half gone. “Quite an appetite,” he said.

She actually made a rude face at him, the most spirited act Ken had yet witnessed from her. Sakura pointed wordlessly to the side of his chair, where a huge slice of the dessert waited for him.  The fact that it was floating in midair was still a little disconcerting, but somehow it didn’t really bother Ken anymore. He dug in, surprised to discover his appetite had returned with a vengeance during the course of his healing. After he finished, he looked up, to find that Sakura’s playfulness had been replaced by melancholy.

“I’m sorry, Ken. This time it was all my fault you got hurt.” The whisper carried so much pain that Ken actually felt irritated.

“So what?! Girl, are you forgetting what I just got through describing to you?! Getting beaten by Shampoo was NOTHING!”

“Nothing?!  Ken, do, do you even realize how badly hurt you were?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, I do.  When I fought Shampoo, I used a technique that formed armor out of my own spirit.  When she broke through that, it didn’t actually affect my soul, but it did feed back the damage all through my body.  It would’ve taken me at least a month to recover if it weren’t for you. But like I already said, that was nothing compared to what I’ve already gone through.  So don’t feel bad, Sakura.”

“I-I’ll try not to,” she said tremulously.

Meanwhile, Ken had realized that his choice of words could have been better.  It was time to move the conversation from the past to the present, and it might end up hurting her quite a bit.  But sometimes you just had to pay the price and move on.

At least he could ease his way into it.  “Do you understand now, why I fought Ranma?  It wasn’t because I wanted revenge.”  Although he did still harbor a little bitterness toward the Saotome heir for his unwitting part in Ken’s brush with destruction.  “I wanted to see if I could beat him.  If the balance I’d fought for, and the new abilities I’d gone through so much to get, would be enough to let me come back and defeat him. If I was good enough to take on the best and come out on top.”

“But you didn’t even get to fight him. Is Shampoo better than he is?”

Ken shrugged. “I doubt it, though who knows if he can do the trick she used to take me out.  It’s not important anymore.”  He turned away slightly and looked down, keeping her in his sight only through the corner of his eye. “I’m not going to challenge him again, or try to delay him any more for you.”

Sakura took a deep breath. “And why is that?” Her voice only shook once during the sentence.

“After the fight, Kodachi chewed me out royally.  Said she and Ranma and Shampoo were looking for some kidnapped girls, and Pierre and I were keeping them from that.”  Ken turned back to face her directly.  His voice becoming quieter and more tightly controlled with each sentence, he continued. “You told me Ranma and his girls were threatening your employers’ project.  I want to know what that project is.  And I want to know NOW!”

Sakura squeaked and jumped in dismay as the shadows in the room suddenly reared to life. Ken could dimly sense the flow of electricity throughout the surrounding area.  He formed the darkness into blades that sheared through those flows, ripping wires and conduits, destroying any monitoring devices that might have been present. In retrospect, it might have been smarter to do that BEFORE making his last few statements, but the point was academic. There hadn’t been any bugs present, other than a cicada in one corner.

Ken’s action also destroyed the lights in the room, leaving them in pitch blackness. It was appropriate, he felt. “I’m grateful for how you’ve healed me, twice now, and for the concern you’ve showed me.  But today, when I told you what happened to me, I did warn you that I use my skills to defend the innocent.

“That’s the reason I agreed to help you in the beginning.  Unlike that lamebrain Pierre, I realized something was fishy. I shadowed Ranma, trying to overhear him talking with Kodachi and Shampoo, trying to figure out what was really happening. There’s no way I’m going to be a party to a kidnapping. So tell me now what’s going on, Sakura.”

She struggled to regain her composure. He hadn’t reacted like this in her sister’s dream either, but now wasn’t the time to wonder why, or to give in to the terror that she might have already lost. “I… I don’t know where to start, Ken. Will you listen to the whole story before you pass judgment on me?”

Ken didn’t let the pleading note in her voice soften him.  “Yeah, but you better be straight with me.”

“I will.” Sakura gulped.  She paused for another minute, searching for the words. And then they began to flow.

“You know what it’s like to lose yourself, Ken.  At least that’s what you said.  But I can tell you something worse is when you don’t have a self to lose. That’s what I am.  Nothing.  A tool. I wasn’t born because I had a mother and father that wanted somebody to love, I was made in a laboratory, cloned from someone that could not have been completely human.  I didn’t grow up with parents to hold me and love me and tell me what life was about or what I might want to do with mine. I was raised for one purpose only, and it was obedience to the people who made me.

“They’ve molded me like a lump of clay. They’ve pruned me like a bonsai. I can tell you this and hope you understand, but I don’t even know what those words mean.  I’ve never seen ‘clay’ or a ‘bonsai’, whatever those are, I only know those words because I saw myself telling you this in a vision of the future. A vision that was my only hope that things will ever change.

“I’m not the only clone they made. There were six others. Somehow they lost them when they were still infants. My sisters got adopted and lived normal lives, never even knowing what they were. But the men who made us found three of them recently, and they took them and brought them here and told me to train them and control them so that we can all be one big weapon for them, because my sisters are just like me, born with powers most people wouldn’t ever believe in. That was when I saw the dream I told you about, that showed the only way we could all escape.”

“Hold on, there,” Ken pleaded, fighting a nasty sensation of being in over his head. He could sense dishonesty when someone tried to lie to him, and there’d been none in her; this was for real. “I need to catch my balance.” Obediently, Sakura sat quietly for the next ten minutes while he struggled to process what he’d just heard. Eventually, when Ken felt like he could cope with more, he spoke again.  “You’ve lived all your life as their mindless little tool, and suddenly you’re fighting back now? What gives?”

“It was the others. The three girls they finally found again.” Sakura took a deep breath, fighting back the tears.  “They brought my sisters here and locked them up, made me go into their minds and seal most of their abilities, because they hadn’t lived their whole lives knowing that they were nothing but tools with no will or worth of their own. I did it, I didn’t even think of refusing, but touching their minds was like having my own open up and turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly. Even if I only saw bits and pieces of their memories, it was the close contact with their personalities that changed me. I could see things I’d never even glimpsed before, I could want things and hope for things and pray that my life wouldn’t always be empty and worthless and spent by others for their goals knowing that I didn’t have my own dreams because they’d taken them all away from me before I even knew what dreams were.

“I didn’t seal the power to have visions of the future, and one of my sisters has a really strong talent for that, I’ve been touching their minds with my own power every day and every night, pushing their own abilities up from the darkness toward the top of their minds where they can actually use them once they’ve been trained to do only what they’re told.  I saw a dream, one of my sisters dreamed of a way we could all be free, all I had to do was lie to the people who made me and controlled everything about me for all my life. I did it but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, told them they should get you and Pierre to try and hold off Ranma and Kodachi and Shampoo when I was really counting on you to be the one to rescue me from them.”

Ken gulped. In over his head was too mild a description. There was no way he could refuse, either; turning his back on this would betray everything he’d fought to hold onto… he might as well not even have struggled free of the Shadowed Abyss in the first place if he said no to Sakura now.  He would help her, even if it cost his life.

At least he’d keep his soul. Stained though it was, he was a saint compared to whoever had done this to her.  He took a deep breath.  “O-okay.  Which ones of them do you need me to kill?”

“What?!”  Sakura was wide-eyed now in shock.  “That’s not what I’m asking!”

He frowned. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you just say you’ve got a lot more than the stuff you already showed me? Powers far beyond what a normal person could imagine?”

“Yes, that’s right. The first part for sure, at least. I only have my sisters as an example of what ‘normal’ is.”

“So it stands to reason you could easily free yourself if it weren’t for your captors. That’s why I figured you needed me. Somebody they don’t know to guard against. Somebody who can take them out before they learn better. Just tell me what kind of abilities they have that I need to watch out for, and I’ll take care of it.”

“Ken.”  Her voice came as softly as snowflakes settling on the water. “You didn’t listen to me. If they told me to step in front of a train, I would do it. If they had told me to kill Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo, the three of them would be dead now if it proved to be within my power.  I can barely muster the strength of will to act on my own, I can’t disobey a direct order. That’s what they made of me over sixteen years, and just seeing how different my sisters are doesn’t mean I can become like them overnight.  If ever.

“I’m not asking you to kill for me. I’m asking you to accept me, to take their place as the one who gives me my orders. I can choose, I can do that much, I can decide to give myself to you instead of them if you go against them. I can trust you not to turn me into a weapon or exploit me. Please.”

She got up from her desk, moving through the darkness without the slightest hesitation. The gloom affected Ken just as little; he could see her clearly, even unto the tears that slid down her cheeks. “I’m nothing.  Without someone to protect me and show me how to change, I always will be. It’s how they wanted me, and I didn’t know how to fight it or even to think I should. You’re my only chance, someone as different as I am, somebody who doesn’t really fit into the world, but you’re strong where I’m weak and you can protect me and maybe teach me to fight back, to be something other than just a puppet.”  She knelt down at his side.  “Please.”

Ken looked down at the girl beside him. Her tears were flowing freely now, dropping to the carpet below in a series of whispers. His own eyes were far from dry as he choked out, “How could they do this to you?”  He slid out of the chair, knelt beside her, and hesitantly put his arms around the sobbing First Child.

The next morning saw a fairly cozy scene at the Kuno mansion.  Shampoo had mostly recovered the energy she’d expended in her fight the previous day.  Ranma claimed to be back in top form as well, though both girls took that with a grain of salt… he might heal quickly, but it wasn’t like he was in Kodachi’s class. A vote of two against one had resulted in the three of them staying home that day.

And so it was that they were sitting on a couch, watching a Jackie Chan movie.  As the star flipped through an open third story window, kicked out against the wall to sail across an alleyway, grabbed the fire escape of the building opposite the one he’d come from to break his momentum, then dropped into the sidecar of a passing motorcycle, Shampoo winced like she was in the dentist’s chair watching the drill approach.  “What’s the matter, Shampoo?” Ranma asked. “I thought that was a pretty slick piece of cinematography myself.”

“I think so too, Airen, but I not looking forward to end of movie, where it show accidents what happened during filming.”

Kodachi turned slightly green. “I think we can just skip that part, actually.” Now they knew why the making of this particular movie had taken a year and a half.

However, it was to prove a moot point. A loud knocking at the door sounded; Tatewaki waited until he heard his sister call “Come in!” before opening it. Fearless scion of a noble lineage with the blood of a hundred lion-hearted samurai though he might be, there was no way he was going to risk walking in and interrupting her and Ranma again.

Kuno walked into the room, a large sheet of paper folded in his hand.  “The three of you have a visitor,” he said.

“Really?  Where is he then?”

“Waiting in the hallway.” Tatewaki was clearly puzzled as to why this should be, but as a Nerima veteran he knew better than to expect everything to make sense. “He gave me this to give to you before he comes in himself.”

“Well, let us see.” Shampoo stretched out her hand to receive the paper. She sat back and unfolded it across Ranma’s lap, her intention being to use that as an excuse to press just a bit closer to him.  That aim was forgotten though, along with everything else, as she and the other two stared down at what the Amazon’s act had revealed.

It was a charcoal drawing, done in a very realistic style.  Four identical girls, three of whom stood close together and wore expressions of fear. The remaining one was off to one side, looking sad and lost.

Ranma tore his gaze away from the picture of his missing classmates.  “Tatewaki, who… who brought this?!”

Recognizing his cue, Ken stepped through the doorway behind the kendoist.  “We need to talk.”

The passage of several hours brought Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo to a series of buildings on the far side of Tokyo. As the three of them followed Ken and Sakura ever deeper into the complex, the Amazon became more and more frustrated.  This place was supposed to be a sinister lair of heartless, twisted villains bent on world supremacy. She could understand why the exterior would need to seem innocent, but they’d worked their way quite far inside by now.  It shouldn’t still look like a standard office building!  Where were the laser turrets, the biohazard warning signs, the twittering chitters of mutants who’d been created in failed experiments and were now living in the ventilation system?!

Ranma was finding it hard to stay focused.  Things couldn’t have been easier so far, which might very well mean that fate was saving up all the difficulty to throw at them at once.  They couldn’t afford to let their guard down, but it was difficult to concentrate on that.  For some reason, he kept getting distracted by the random thought that Shampoo had been watching too many low-budget sci-fi movies lately.

After thirty minutes of unlocked doors, with no sign yet of any traps or even an alarm system, Kodachi lost her patience.  “Ken, how far do we have to go before we encounter some opposition?!”

He shrugged helplessly. “Don’t ask me. I’ve never been in here before.” He turned to the girl who hadn’t moved more than a foot from his side in all this time.  “Sakura?”

She blushed slightly. “I’m not sure what you’re asking. What do you mean?”

“C’mon!  Where’s the guards, the defenses?  How much further do we have to go before we get to whatever you needed our help for?”  Ranma cracked his knuckles. “I’m really looking forward to beating the snot out of the scum who’ve done this to you girls. Just hope whoever’s guarding the others is somebody I can go all out against, not a complete pushover.”

“Oh.  Oh, dear,” Sakura said.  “Um, I don’t think I told you everything I should have.”

There was a long, long moment of silence. At last Kodachi broke it. “And what, pray tell, did you leave out?” the White Rose asked, as calmly as she could.

“We didn’t need your help to get my sisters out of here,” Sakura explained.  “They aren’t guarded, just kept behind locked doors. I could open those telekinetically without any problem.”

Ranma clenched his fists. “Then why’d you bring us here?” If this was a trap, he swore Ken at least wouldn’t be getting out alive.

The First Child blinked. “My sisters have been kept in isolation, to help wear down their spirits.  I thought it would be better for them if the first people they saw when they were rescued was somebody they knew.”

There was a long, long moment of silence.  Eventually Shampoo turned and gave Ken a flat stare.  “You say we needed to help fight group of madmans what plan to use our classmates to take over the world.  That quite a spin you put on what we really being asked to do, shadow boy.”

“So I was wrong when I assumed I understood what Sakura was asking for,” Ken growled back. “Let me just bow down and smack my head against the floor a hundred and eight times in apology.”

Sakura gulped, gathered her courage, and spoke up again.  “If… if you really want to hurt somebody, all the ringleaders are meeting right now. They have been for the whole day, because it’s the quarterly status update.  I was just planning to ask Ken to get the police here after we got out with my sisters, but if you’d rather deal with them yourselves, go ahead.”

“But first we need to get the girls out of here.  Let’s quit yakking already and get moving again,” Ken said, striding onward. The others followed suit.

“Hey, what about the girls’ parents?” Ranma asked a minute later.  “Why didn’t you just rescue them first, then let them be there when you let the other Sakuras out?  I ain’t saying I didn’t want to help, but if you’d done that you wouldn’t even need us.”

“Well, d-doesn’t the same thing apply to them?” Sakura asked bewilderedly.  “Shouldn’t they see somebody they know when we rescue them? That’s why I thought you three should get my sisters first, and let them be the first thing their mothers and fathers see.”

Kodachi was now beginning to understand just how inexperienced this girl really was. Ken’s explanation hadn’t conveyed the half of it. “Have their parents been separated and kept in isolation as well?” she asked gently.

“No, they’re together. Why?”

“Well, then they probably aren’t nearly as distraught as their daughters are, correct?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And while it is a good idea to have someone your sisters know waiting for them when we let them out, I really think they’d rather see their parents first, instead of just some random classmates.”

Sakura shook her head. “Oh, no, that’s not true. At least one of them is always daydreaming of Ranma coming to rescue her.”

Ranma choked. “Wh-what?!”

Kodachi and Shampoo traded glances, then swiftly moved in to stand in front of Ranma. “Ranma dear, you are familiar with the phrase, ‘Two is company, and three’s a crowd,’ aren’t you?”

“Because Ranma already have the two of us. Is not good idea to think about bumping that number up to three, Airen.”

Ranma gave them both a look of sheer disbelief.  “C’mon, you don’t seriously think I’d be crazy enough to want ANOTHER girlfriend, do you?!”

Kodachi smiled and patted his cheek. “Just don’t give way to any sudden temptations, Ranma-sama.”

“Speak for own self, Kodachi. Ranma can give in to whatever temptation he likes with Shampoo.”

“Will you three knock it off already?!” Ken growled.  “We’ve got some innocent people to rescue here.  Sakura, I think Kodachi had a good point. Is there any reason for us not to get your sisters’ parents first, and then rescue them?”

“W-well, we’re only about fifteen feet away from my sisters, and their parents are on the far side of the compound,” Sakura offered timidly.

“Right,” Ken nodded. “That sounds like a pretty good reason to me. Let’s go.”

Another few steps took the group around a corner.  They all paused, though in Sakura’s case it was just because everyone else had stopped. The four who hadn’t been here before stared at the sheer size of the vault doors set in the wall before them. There were six of them, each resembling something that would have been more appropriate in Fort Knox.  At last, something that looked sufficiently grim and technological, Shampoo thought to herself.

Sakura shifted impatiently. “Are you ready for me to open them?”

“Yeah… wait!” A thought had struck Ranma.  “Could ya let the one with the crush on me out last? I think it’d be better if she had her sisters to distract her.”

However, as soon as he’d said the first word, Sakura had turned her attention inward. Focusing her power, she reached out to the seals that kept the doors in place.  A moment’s concentration to vibrate certain moving parts, and metallic dust trickled down from what once had been three state-of-the-art locking mechanisms. The doors slid open almost anticlimactically, without any dramatic whoosh of air or reluctant groan of metal.

In a room much more comfortable than the three which had just been unsealed, Dr Yoshimitsu was giving his portion of the status report.  “So far we have seen significant progress in the development of the potential of the Third Child and the Fourth.  The Third Child’s primary area of strength is pyrokinesis. Once she’s fully trained and the blocks are removed, she should be able to reduce a train car to slag in under a minute.”

Sakura began to tremble as the door moved. So they’d finally come for her; whoever had thrown her in here was ready for whatever unspeakable things they had planned.  Her fists clenched. She hated this feeling of helplessness. If only there were some way she could fight back…

“As you recall, the Fourth Child was the first to show any progress, with a dream of the future. She seems to be tied to time in other ways as well, with the potential ability to speed up or slow down its progress in a limited area. She can be even more destructive than the Third Child on a smaller scale, by causing temporal fields of differing polarity to affect the same object.  In addition, her power will eventually allow her to infiltrate any area with ease, simply by moving between seconds.”

As the door slid wider, Sakura tensed. This might be her only opportunity to escape.  Maybe the element of surprise would give her a fighting chance.  She had to run as fast as she could…

“Unfortunately, the Second Child still shows no trace of suppressed psionic activity.  But I remain confident it is only a matter of time.”

The door opened fully enough for Sakura to see who was waiting on the other side. There were actually five people there, but she only had eyes for one.  The one she’d imagined coming for her so many times… she knew better than to think this was really happening now.  It was just another dream, but she might as well enjoy it while it lasted. This was the part where he’d walk forward and take her into his arms and tell her he felt just like she did…

Yoshimitsu had been one hundred percent correct.  The Second Child was just as powerfully talented as all the others.  The reason she’d shown no trace of this, even after the First Child had begun probing her to awaken her powers, was due to the nature of her primary talent.  Specifically, this was a form of mental/emotional control.  Since she’d been kept in isolation, there had been no opportunity for her ability to engage.  But here and now, the sight of Ranma right in front of her triggered a massive psionic-powered wish for him to love her.

For just a minute, Ranma’s instincts screamed ‘DANGER!’  He never would know the real reason for this.

Sakura walked through the open door, trembling with fear and rage and defiance.  Sakura raced out of her cell as fast as she could, but collided with Ken and knocked the both of them to the floor.  Sakura stumbled forth, belatedly realizing that the reason Ranma wasn’t alone or coming on to her was because this was no dream.

No massive blast of flame. No temporal distortion. No new guest at the Kuno mansion. No-one had told Sakura to remove the seals from her sisters’ abilities, after all.

Calming the girls down took quite a while, especially since Sakura had sprained her ankle in her fall and there was no source of sugar nearby.  Ranma had to search for a good fifteen minutes before he found a vending machine that had candy bars.  He didn’t particularly mind getting a break from the covert glances Sakura kept shooting his way, though.

Eventually Sakura was healed, and the girls were reunited with their parents.  Sakura gave Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo directions to the room where the cabal were holding their meeting, then she and Ken left with her sisters and their families, to get them to a place of safety and begin explaining the whole incredible story.

The three remaining teens made their way to their destination, battle auras glowing just a little brighter with each step.  When they reached the door, Ranma paused to crack his knuckles.  His grim smile loudly proclaimed, ‘It’s Showtime.’ The Anything Goes heir opened the door, just in time to hear a man in a lab coat say, “Then if there are no further agenda items, this meeting is adjourned.”

Kodachi would always feel vaguely dissatisfied with that battle in later years.  A martial artist who used her skills to beat up the weak was without honor, or so she’d always felt.  And the fact was, these conspirators proved to be just about as weak and unskilled at fighting as it was possible to be. She didn’t regret thrashing the living daylights out of them, not after what they’d done, but she would have felt better if they’d been able to offer at least a little resistance.

In the interest of not turning anyone’s stomach, a detailed description of the beat-down will not be given here.  Suffice it to say, a few minutes after Ranma had opened the door, Shampoo looked around the room, brushed her hands off, and remarked disgustedly that either Ling-Ling or Lung-Lung by herself, unarmed, could have taken all these weaklings at once.

One of the few people still conscious spoke up.  “Is it too late to offer you a place at our side if you’d join us instead of fighting against us?”

The White Rose sniffed disdainfully. “As if we would sully ourselves by allying with scum such as you.  Perhaps you don’t care who you hurt as long as you get what you want, but none of us are like that.”

“And really, did you losers honestly think you had a chance to pull this off?” Ranma shook his head. “I mean, even if you did find all the Sakuras an’ get them fully trained, there’s still no way you could’ve managed to take over the world!!”

Yoshimitsu gaped at him. The scientist’s mouth flopped open and closed for several long moments.  At last he said incredulously, “You thought we wanted to rule the world?! What kind of idiots do you take us for?! We just wanted to make enough money that we could each buy our own Caribbean island and live in luxury for the rest of our lives!”

Kodachi blinked. “Once again we find that Ken didn’t ask Sakura enough questions,” she muttered, while rolling her eyes.  Then her gaze snapped back to Yoshimitsu.  She smiled sweetly and said, “I believe this is the part where you say, ‘And I’d have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!’ ”

As the last police cruiser pulled away, Shampoo waved cutely after it.  The Amazon heaved a huge sigh of relief and contentment as the vehicles pulled out of sight.  “Victory belong to us!”

“Yes indeed,” Kodachi said with a smile. “I confess I was worried for a while that we wouldn’t finish this soon enough, but it seems we squeaked in under the deadline.”

“Yeah,” Ranma said. He wore a huge grin of his own. “Just a few more days till Ryoga gets outta class, and then…”  Impossibly, his smile got even wider.  “Man, I can’t wait.”

“Shampoo bet Ryoga feel the same way,” the Amazon said.

“No doubt. Even with all the anticipation, though, I suspect time hasn’t seemed to go too slowly for him this past month,” the White Rose said with an ironic smile.  “I wonder whether he’s had it easier or harder than we have?”


To be continued.

Author’s notes: And so I prove conclusively that you can’t trust me when I say a given chapter is the longest there likely will be.

For those of you who aren’t that familiar with Japanese language and culture, here’s a couple of tidbits. ‘Sakura’ means ‘cherry blossom’, hence the chapter title.  A ‘kodachi’ is a type of sword, which explains the reference to the edge of her namesake. And as for Burakumin ancestry… read ‘Poison’, by Susan Doenime, at http://www.thekeep.org/~mike/transp.html

It’s way past time for me to make mention of a certain fact.  I should have revealed it in Chapter 1, if not the very prologue. Kodachi, though an albino, has the same violet eyes she had in the original series.  This time around, she was born with red eyes, but when she gained her power-up from Elminster, they shifted back to purple. This is the one bit of vanity the Black Rose permitted herself when she was setting up the new her.

Another power-up-related quirk… some may wonder why Kodachi’s battle aura could have ignited her clothes, when in the original series that never happens to Cologne and Happosai no matter how much power they pump out.  This is because their control is much, much greater than Kodachi’s; she really doesn’t know how to do anything with her battle aura other than generate it. Her focus is on weapons techniques, like I already said.

And speaking of weapons techniques, if you’ve read A Cold Wind Blows you’re already familiar with the basic premise of the Golden Bird Holy Flower Dragon Tooth Glory Strike (“concentrate all battle aura into weapon for one critical attack”).The Paired Weapons incarnation splits the power between two weapons, which causes it to be less tightly focused and therefore much less powerful.  Which means a skilled martial artist is almost sure to survive a hit from it.

Those of you who are familiar with the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion will probably have noted some elements of that series worked their way into this chapter. I thought about having one of the conspirators turn out to be the creator of NGE, using his experiences with this group as inspiration, but I eventually decided not to slander any more real-life artists (I probably pushed my luck as far as I ought to in Chapter 2…)

Thanks to Jim Bader and Gregg Sharp for prereading.  Next time: certain scenes of this chapter actually make sense, once we see just what’s been happening with Ryoga, Ukyo, and the twins during this past month.

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

Chapter 12
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