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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.

This chapter takes place concurrently with Chapter 11.

Chapter 12: Two Roads Diverged

'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood…'
—From 'The Road Not Taken' by Robert Frost

Ryoga ducked and spun, in one smooth motion evading both the croquet ball that whizzed overhead and the smoking Erlenmeyer flask that tumbled end over end through the air beside him. He kicked out, smashing the head off the mallet that Shinji had pulled back to swing at Koga. The croquet captain turned on his new assailant, a look of outrage on his face, and Ryoga dashed past him, snatching Koga's retaliatory vial of ether out of midair and waving it under the chemistry club leader's nose. As an afterthought, a backfist sent Shinji into dreamland as well, hot on the heels of his arch-nemesis. Ryoga wondered whether they'd continue their fight there.

He looked around for another target, only to find that all the combatants were down and out. As Ryoga had only taken out about a couple of the fighters before getting to their leaders, this surprised him. It was also a bit disappointing. The fight hadn't lasted much more than a minute, and the former lost boy could frankly have used more of an opportunity to unwind.

Ukyo looked around, her attitude mirroring Ryoga's as she found there were no more idiots to flatten with her spatula. A bit of guilt assailed her as she took in the extremely battered and twisted look of her former opponents. Compared to the students she'd handled, Ryoga's victims looked like they were just enjoying a few minutes of peaceful rest. The chef realized, with some chagrin, that it had been a mistake to imagine Ling-Ling in place of the croquet players and Lung-Lung instead of the chemistry enthusiasts.

"Thank you, Miss Kuonji, Mr. Hibiki. The two of you are excused from tonight's homework assignment," Mr. Takamura said, popping up from his place of refuge behind his desk. The sensei glanced around the classroom, noting that the speed of their reaction had actually prevented any desks or chairs from being destroyed. "Make that this week's worth of homework. And now, if everyone would return to their seats, we can resume the lesson."

One of the students who'd been cowering at the back of the room frowned, and raised his hand. "Shouldn't somebody take the fallen to the nurse's office?"

"No," the teacher said flatly.

Not even the thought that he would have end-of-the-year exams in a month's time was enough to keep Ryoga's mind on his schoolwork that morning. Nearly a week had passed since the encounter with Yokehi, and its fateful conclusion. Nothing important had happened since then; in fact he almost hadn't seen the twins at all, only glimpsing them a couple of times as they were making deliveries. But the calm hadn't settled Ryoga's nerves. Quite the opposite, in fact… each day that slipped by without anything happening seemed to leave him more and more tightly wound.

Nothing significant had passed between him and Ukyo, either. They still walked to school, talking of inconsequential things. Ryoga still joined the chef for lunch, while she cranked out okonomiyaki after okonomiyaki for their fellow students. On the day after Yokehi's defeat, the former lost boy had told Ukyo of the deal the Matriarch had struck with him, concerning his tie to the twins, but since then the closest either had come to discussing the situation was a casual remark, made by Ukyo a few days later, that Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung seemed a lot less interested in spending time with their 'husband' than most newlyweds.

It had actually hurt, a little, when he heard that. Ryoga still wasn't sure whether the pang had come from bruised ego, at thinking the twins could have lost interest so fast once they thought they'd won, or something deeper. Thinking things over, he had concluded that the former would be better… if Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung really HAD just had a crush, which they were now over, he'd much rather deal with a wound to his pride than to his heart.

Still, the former lost boy couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't going to be that easy. He wasn't Ranma, after all, to have everything in his life fall neatly and tidily into place. Ryoga thought gloomily to himself that a much more likely outcome would be the twins losing interest, him trying anyway to fulfill his agreement to spend time with them, and alienating Ukyo that way.

A jab to his arm roused him from these grim meditations. Ryoga looked over, to meet Ukyo's concerned gaze. "You okay, sugar? You look like you just swallowed a green persimmon okonomiyaki," she whispered.

"Green persimmons?" Ryoga muttered back. That was one thing he'd never run across in his travels.

"Yeah, persimmons are really, really bitter before they ripen. You looked like you had a bellyful of something that bad or worse. Are you feeling all right?"

Ryoga didn't say anything back for a few seconds, just looked at her. Then he smiled, and replied, "It wasn't anything important, Ukyo. Just some stress I didn't get to work out in our fight earlier."

Ukyo sniffed. "Yeah, those guys really aren't much of a challenge anymore, are they? Guess we just make too good a team, Ryoga-kun."

He started to say something in response, then caught the teacher's eye. The sensei's message, 'I'll let you and Kuonji get away with a fair amount because you minimize the damage Shinji and Koga do, but don't push it', was received loud and clear. Ukyo turned to see what had caught Ryoga's attention, and received a similarly eloquent stare. The chef returned her attention to scholastic matters.

Ryoga attempted to do so as well, but his unruly mind refused to focus on the properties of non-congruent triangles. His thoughts kept trying to return to his situation. Not wanting to slide back into the angst that Ukyo had dispelled, Ryoga forced himself to concentrate on something else. Something more diverting than mathematical minutia, but not actually connected to his girl troubles.

Specifically, the feeling he'd been having for several days now. At various times, he had gotten the distinct sensation of being watched. He wasn't sure whether it was just his imagination or not. There hadn't yet been anything to confirm or refute his suspicion. Once he'd even gone so far as to duck down a side alley and double back, trying to catch a glimpse of anyone stalking him, but to no avail.

And so Ryoga sat back in his desk, pretending to pay attention to the lecture, and tried to convince himself it was just a trick of his mind. After all, he'd been under a lot of stress lately. He'd been expecting the twins to be all over him now that they had a legitimate excuse, yet the opposite had occurred. That would be enough to make anyone jump at shadows, he told himself. Then he realized, with a flash of irritation, that he was right back where he'd tried to avoid going. Namely, considering the rather complicated situation Yokehi's stupid mind-control spell had left him in.

Once again, Ryoga forced his thoughts away from affairs of the heart, and concentrated on the memories of when he'd felt like he was being stalked. Once again, his mind drifted almost immediately back to the twins and their strange absence. He became more and more irate as that pattern repeated itself.

This went on for quite some time. Eventually, Ryoga was forced to conclude that he just wasn't getting anywhere with this. From training, the former lost boy knew that there were two ways to get past a barrier. Sometimes you had to pound against it for a long time, until little by little you'd worn it away to nothingness.

That approach didn't seem to be working very well just now, and so he tried the other… put the problem out of your mind and wait for a blazing moment of inspiration, a breakthrough that would come all at once. Ryoga deliberately blanked his mind, forcing out all thoughts. It wasn't easy, but he managed it in the end. He'd enjoyed fifteen minutes of much-needed calmness when the lunch bell rang.

Ukyo watched, with some surprise, as Ryoga sat bolt upright, a stunned expression on his face. The chef concluded he must have just lost track of time and was startled to hear the bell. "You awake now, Ryoga?"

He nodded absently, not really paying attention to her. Ukyo continued speaking. "Well, are you just going to sit there, or are you going to come join me for lunch?"

"Um…" With some effort, Ryoga pushed aside the thought that had crashed in on him with the ringing of the bell. "Lunch sounds good."

Several minutes later, Ukyo looked down at her grill in frustration. It stubbornly refused to turn on. "What's wrong with this thing?!" she muttered angrily, then gave a sigh of frustration. It didn't really matter what the specific problem was… she'd already ruled out every possibility that she could have fixed on the spot. Repairs would have to wait until she got it home. Raising her voice, the chef called out, "Sorry, folks, it looks like you're out of luck. My grill's busted." With a collective groan, the crowd of students waiting in line dispersed.

"Guess I won't be able to fix you a shrimp deluxe today, Ryoga-kun," the chef said once they were alone.

"Don't worry about it. What're you gonna do for lunch?" he asked her.

"Well, I'm not too hungry… I guess I could just get a little something from the school lunch lady…" Ukyo said reluctantly. Meanwhile, she was focusing every shred of her willpower into the thought, 'or you could offer to share some of your lunch with me…'

"Is no need. Ryoga give you his lunch and eat ours instead!"

By now, Ukyo had almost gotten used to spinning around to find Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had popped up out of nowhere. That didn't mean she'd learned to like it. After counting to ten, the chef said, "I've got a better idea. Seeing as how you two aren't students here, why don't you get the heck off school grounds right now?!"

Ling-Ling sniffed, then turned to Ryoga. "We work hard to make new special recipe ramen, Airen. Please join us for lunch?"

"Can leave own lunch with spatula girl so she not go hungry. At least, she not go hungry if she able to eat anything other than okonomiyaki."

Ryoga hesitated for a moment, then concluded going along with that was pretty much his best option. He definitely needed to talk to the Amazons, and joining them for lunch would give him the opportunity. Plus, Ukyo provided food for him all the time; it felt good to get a chance to return the favor. "Well… okay. Here, Ukyo." He handed his lunch to her. "It's a heck of a lot better than anything you can buy at Furinkan."

"Thanks, Ryoga-kun." Ukyo stepped close to him to take it, then didn't back away. She turned to face the twins. "So where did you want to eat lunch anyway? Right here is okay with me, but there's some nicer places down the field a ways."

Lung-Lung gave her a flat stare. "Where spatula girl eat lunch no matter to us. But it not going to be where we eat."

"Is that right?" Ukyo replied softly. "I like how you just proclaim that, without even asking Ryoga for his opinion. But then, that's pretty much how you two work all the time, isn't it?"

Ling-Ling tore her gaze away from Ryoga, and began giving Ukyo the Stare of Death. Since her sister had just taken over for her, Lung-Lung was able to turn back to face Ryoga. She handed him a large metal box. "Here, Airen, is ramen for three. We wait over there," she gestured off to a group of trees, "for you join us. For ONLY you join us." The twins turned on their heels and strode off to the area indicated, seating themselves just out of sight.

This day was turning out much worse than most Mondays, Ryoga thought sourly, looking down at the box in his hands, then back up to the clump of trees. Then he sighed, braced himself, and said, "Listen, Ukyo, I really do need to talk to them. I'll see you back in class, okay?"

There was a moment of silence. Then, just as Ryoga was beginning to fear the worst, he heard Ukyo say brightly, "No problem, Ryoga. Thanks for the lunch. I guess I'll see you later, then."

This surprised him, to say the least. He'd expected at least a little resentment, but Ukyo's tone hadn't sounded angry at all. He turned around, but she was already walking quickly in the opposite direction. The former lost boy stood puzzled for a minute, then decided he ought to be thankful when something actually turned out better than it could have. He turned and hurried off after the twins.

Once she was sure she was out of Ryoga's visual range, Ukyo found a large boulder and demonstrated that if you're mad enough, and you have a big enough spatula, you don't NEED the Bakusai Tenketsu to shatter stone.

On the other side of the trees, Ryoga found the twins had spread out a blanket on the ground, and had arranged on it a vase of flowers, a large pot of tea, three glasses, and three empty bowls. They were already sitting down. He noticed that the things on the blanket were so placed that the only spot left for him was directly between the two of them.

Both girls favored him with big smiles as he sat down in the only place he could. Lung-Lung took the ramen back from him and ladled it into the bowls, while Ling-Ling poured the tea.

Some time later, Ryoga pushed back his empty bowl. The food had been good enough to temporarily take his mind off his primary concern. "That was great. You said it was a new recipe?"

"That right. Well, sort of. Is same basic recipe, but with new ingredient." Lung-Lung gave him a sultry smile. "We add Passion Spice to ramen. Secret Amazon aph… aphro… aphrodisiac." The green-haired girl was mildly proud she managed to remember the word. "Give much strength and stamina. Enough for many hour of fun."

Ryoga turned pale and began to sweat as Ling-Ling traced a finger seductively up his arm. "Can feel it working, Airen?"

"A-a-antidote! Give me the antidote!!" he choked, trembling like Ranma in the presence of a cat.

Both twins burst into a fit of giggles. "We just joking, Ryoga! There no such thing as Passion Spice!"

Ryoga desperately struggled for control. "This isn't funny! Did you or didn't you put something weird in there?!"

"No. Only way this ramen affect you feelings is make you happy eat something so delicious."

He forced himself to calmness. Ryoga carefully and thoroughly examined his own emotions, eventually concluding that no, he wasn't currently being swept up in a raging river of hormone-drenched desire to have his wedding night right then and there. He wiped the sweat from his brow. "Okay, that was some stress I didn't need."

Ling-Ling frowned, and looked down. "Airen, you should have know we not really do that to you," she said quietly.

Guilt assailed him. Ryoga tried to maintain his air of righteous indignation, but Ling-Ling's hurt pose killed it. He sighed. "I'm sorry. I guess you're right."

"That right. We not do that out here where anybody maybe walk by." The cherry-haired girl looked up, and grinned at him. "Better be careful what you eat at Nekohanten, though."

Lung-Lung giggled, then patted the suddenly-sweating-again Ryoga on the shoulder. "No worry, we say truth when say there no such thing as Passion Spice. Ling-Ling just teasing you."

He just closed his eyes and took deep, calming breaths for almost a minute. At the end of that time, Ryoga had recovered at least a measure of poise, and had also remembered there was something he needed to talk to them about. He decided to ease into it. "So it really was a different recipe. Have you been practicing it for the last week? Is that why I almost haven't seen you at all since… that night?"

"Not really. Sure, learn new recipe take time, and it not like we have much free time anyway, but that not why we no can come around like want to."

Ryoga paused, inserting the missing words and working out what Ling-Ling had just said. "Wait a minute. What do you mean, you wanted to but you couldn't? There wasn't anything to keep you from visiting me. Heck, you've got a better excuse now than you ever did before!"

Lung-Lung sighed. "Great-Grandmother say no, we need let Ryoga make next move. She say you need time get used to changes in life, and maybe get mad if you think we push you too hard."

"We want come spend time with you, but she stop us. Today first chance we get to be with you, since Great-Grandmother off training Sailor Moon girl." Ling-Ling gave him a nervous smile. "By the way, Airen, you not let slip to her we meet you for lunch today, okay?"

"Yeah, whatever." The revelation of Cologne's edict had only strengthened his suspicions. "You wanted to be near me, but the Matriarch said you had to stay away so I wouldn't feel crowded. Did she maybe say it was okay to use the Dance of the Hidden Chameleon to have the first part without the second?"

The twins blinked synchronously. "What you talking, Ryoga?"

"For the last several days, I've been getting the feeling that there's somebody stalking me, sneaking around and watching me. But I haven't been able to see anyone doing anything like that." Ryoga gave the twins his best approximation of a steely-eyed stare of challenge. "It's almost like there was somebody invisible following me around."

Puzzlement changed to dawning comprehension as they realized just what he was asking. Lung-Lung put on a thoughtful expression. "When is last time you feel like somebody watching you?"

"Yesterday on my way home from school."

"You not get feeling while you take bath at night?"

"Um, no…"

"Then this not us you sensing."

Ryoga put his head in his hands. "Listen, this is serious. I am asking you, point blank, have you been using the Dance of the Hidden Chameleon to follow me around?!"

"We serious too," Ling-Ling shot back. "Well, mostly. Not serious when hint we watch you in bathroom, but when we say we not one what you feel, we tell truth. Only use Dance of Hidden Chameleon once in past five days. Was last night, and not take us anywhere near you."

'Oh, that's real good, sis,' her twin thought exasperatedly. 'What if he asks what we used it for? I don't want to admit we sabotaged the spatula girl's grill so we could fix lunch for him today!'

"Really?" Ryoga wasn't completely convinced yet, but he was getting there. "What did…"

"Why you not believe us, Airen?" Lung-Lung cut in quickly, before he could get the question out. She put on her best expression of hurt innocence determined to redeem itself. "We prove we not ones you sense."

"How are you going to do that?"

'That's what I'd like to know,' Ling-Ling thought. She kept quiet, resolving to follow her sister's lead.

"We teach you see through Dance of Hidden Chameleon. That way Ryoga know we not use to spy on you."

"Really? I can learn not to be affected by it?"

Lung-Lung shrugged. "Not know till try, but Lung-Lung think so. Part of training make us not be controlled by music even if somebody else play. Also, ones what have no talent for instrument music and is very, very stubborn usually not be affected either. So should no be impossible for you to learn. Just maybe take time."

"So how we do this?" Ling-Ling queried.

"Have Ryoga focus on thought that we is here, try to see us while we use Dance." That would keep him occupied for the rest of the lunch hour, and prevent any awkward questions about their activities of the night before. "Airen, we going to move around while playing, because that make harder to keep disguise. Try to find us. But no fair put hands over ears."

Ryoga tried mightily, but not once in the remainder of the lunch break was he able to catch so much as a glimpse of either twin… not even when Ling-Ling sneaked his wallet away from him, rifled through it and removed a certain item, and slid the slightly lighter billfold back into his pocket.

Even though he never managed to see through their illusions, by the time lunch was over Ryoga was pretty much convinced it wasn't the twins he'd been sensing. If it had been, surely they wouldn't have been so eager to train him to see through their trick, or to remind him that he could just close his ears and not be affected.

That, of course, led him back to the question he'd been considering before remembering the twins' stealth technique… had there really been anything at all, or was it just his imagination, brought on by expecting his Amazon admirers to be all over him? Ryoga spent the rest of the school day going back over his memories, trying to work it out, but never did reach a satisfactory conclusion. The only thing he managed to accomplish via his preoccupation was to overlook the fact that Ukyo seemed rather annoyed.

The former lost boy wasn't the only one ignoring the afternoon's lessons. Ukyo paid them not the slightest heed, as she was too busy thinking back over recent events. After Ryoga had told her of the 'bargain' the Matriarch had made with him concerning the Kisses of Marriage he'd received, Ukyo had grumpily resigned herself to a year of the twins showing up more often and making even more of a nuisance of themselves. Having Ryoga be forced to turn away from her to spend time with them instead had NOT factored into her expectations of what the future was going to hold.

At least, not after the morning when he'd told her just what had passed between Cologne and himself. The chef generally didn't like to think back on the hours just after Yokehi's defeat, when she had thought Ryoga actually was going to be forced into marrying Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. The pain she'd felt then was nothing she wanted to remember. Plus, whenever those thoughts did cross her mind, it quickly became a struggle not to track down the duo and squash them flat for trying to take advantage of poor Ryoga-kun.

Just like they had today. Ukyo was actually a bit proud of her restraint. The temptation to play a round of twinball, using her spatula as the bat, had been nearly overwhelming. She'd worked out most of her anger by finding a huge rock and reducing it to rubble, but she was still quite miffed. 'Blast those little witches anyway', the chef grumbled to herself. 'I might've known they'd twist poor Ryoga-kun's sense of honor and obligation like that. Ooohh, just you wait. I'll get my revenge with him tonight.'

With that, Ukyo paused, and ran the last thought back through her mind. Her frustration was subsumed by embarrassment as she realized just what that had sounded like. She spent an entire class period blushing and fiddling nervously with a throwing spatula.

The school day ended, eventually, and Ukyo and Ryoga left the building together. The chef had spent the last hour of the day thinking about what she was going to ask him. Or more accurately, she'd spent a few seconds thinking about asking, and the rest of the time daydreaming about how things would go once he'd said yes. And now, as five attempts to get the words out resulted in false starts that ended in false coughs, Ukyo was coming to realize that she should have spent just a little more time on the 'psyche herself up' stage.

The chef looked away to try to collect herself. She gulped, then thought furiously, 'Just say it, you jackass!' Ukyo screwed all her courage to the sticking place, then quickly turned back to face Ryoga before it could desert her. She opened her mouth

"Here you go, Ukyo." While his companion was looking the other way, Ryoga had been fumbling in his backpack. Having found what he sought, he turned back just in time to meet her gaze. The former lost boy handed her a throat drop. "That's a pretty nasty cough you have there."

Ukyo sighed as she felt her courage trickle away. "Thanks, sugar," she said, and popped the lozenge into her mouth. 'Okay, maybe I just need to ease my way into this instead of trying to bust out all at once.'

A few seconds of thought provided her with an approach that might work. "So, how'd things go at lunch? I hope the kids didn't get too out-of-hand."

Ryoga laughed nervously. "No, not too bad, I didn't even see them for the last half of the break," he replied quickly. Something told him it might be better not to mention 'Passion Spice'.

"Come again?" Ukyo said quizzically. "You mean they left early?"

"No, they were trying to train me to see through the invisibility technique they use."

Even as Ryoga spoke those words, some sense of a thing forgotten or overlooked was nagging at him. As Ukyo's expression changed to alarm, and she choked, "I- invisibility technique?! Those little menaces can pull off something like that?!", the former lost boy realized it was. It had been in dubious taste at best to reveal something like that to the twins' chief rival.

He put his head in his hands. "Um, do you think you could forget I said that? Please?"

She looked at him like he'd grown a second head. "Excuse me?! Forget those two could be standing four feet behind me right now with a trident pointed at my unprotected back?!"

"Actually, your spatula is covering most of your back," Ryoga pointed out.

"Oh, that makes it a lot better," the chef returned sarcastically. "Just great. Now I'm never going to feel safe again until those little witches give up and go back to China."

"Ukyo, I really don't think they're as bad as you're making them out to be," he protested. "Heck, when you first fought them, you were back in school the next day but Ling-Ling was flat on her back for several days while her ankle healed. I know you guys don't like each other much, but they've never really hurt you, have they?"

She gave him an incredulous stare. "Sugar, do you honestly expect me to believe they 'aren't that bad'?!" With an effort, Ukyo reminded herself that he hadn't been there to see Lung-Lung's trident against her throat.

With an effort, Ryoga held back a reminder that the only time the twins had seriously threatened her had been under extreme provocation, and Lung-Lung had proved then that she was just putting up a fierce front. "Well, I have spent more time around them than you have… I think they just bluff a lot. They might've nearly given me a heart attack at lunch, but that's as close as I think they'd come to seriously hurting somebody."

"What did they do to nearly give you a heart attack?"

If Ryoga had known the Cat’s Got Your Tongue shiatsu point, he probably would have applied it to himself right then and there. As it was, he sighed, braced himself, and gave a sketchy outline of the Passion Spice incident.

"And these are the girls you think I'm being too hard on?" Ukyo muttered incredulously. Once again, the chef was conscious of a strong desire to head to the Nekohanten and use her spatula on something other than a boulder.

She choked it back. Better to put that anger to a more constructive use. "Ryoga-kun, you've had a pretty rough day so far, haven't you?"

He blinked, not having expected the change of subject. "I've definitely had better ones," he admitted.

"Well, then," Ukyo responded briskly. "What you and I need is something to take our minds off the stress we've had today. And I saw yesterday that there's an amusement park that's having a special 'Midnight Madness' deal this week. You want to go tonight?"

He considered that. "Well… okay. What time?"

"Meet me at my place at two in the morning."

Ryoga's jaw dropped, and dangled like a broken window shade. "T- two in the morning?! I thought you said it was Midnight Madness!"

Ukyo shrugged. "Yeah, but it doesn't open until two. I guess they're operating on a different time zone or something. C'mon, sugar, it'll be fun. Splitting your sleep like that shouldn't be a big deal for a martial artist as good as you."

"I guess not." They had just reached the point where his walk home diverged from hers. "Okay, I'll see you at two A.M."

"Great!" Ukyo's anger at the twins had given her enough focus to ask him without wimping out, or even seeming like it was a big deal, but now that anger had been forgotten. Accordingly, her attempt to say, "It's a date!" emerged as a strangled cough as her vocal chords froze up.

Ryoga turned back to face her, and tossed her another lozenge. "Give me a call if your cough gets worse. I don't want you to get sick or anything."

Many hours later, a scratching at the door of her restaurant drew Ukyo's attention. She opened it to reveal a small black piglet with a fierce scowl on its face. She shook her head. "Jusenkyo strikes again, huh, sugar?" Ukyo carried him to the bathroom and turned on the hot water tap, then left to go hunt down Ryoga's clothes.

Once the change had been triggered, Ryoga turned off the water and sat back with a morose sigh. "Stupid curse," he muttered, wondering just what the odds were of a fire hydrant randomly shooting out one blast like that. The night didn't seem to be starting out very well. 'But that was just Jusenkyo junk. It doesn't mean anything. It's not some kind of omen, like I shouldn't be doing this,' he thought, trying to convince himself.

After all, he'd never promised the Matriarch that he wouldn't do anything with any girls other than Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. 'Besides, she said herself she didn't want me to feel like I was being pushed into something against my will. And from what they said at lunch, it's obvious she meant it. So stop feeling guilty already!' Ryoga said to himself. 'Nobody even said this was a date. Just a fun time when two friends get together to let off some stress.'

'Stress? So why is Ukyo stressed at the twins going after you, if she and you are just friends?' a rebellious little voice responded.

'Shut up! I don't need any backtalk from myself!'

'Oh, that's a real good argument. You know I'm right. You're breaking your word if you do this.'

'The heck I am! I said I'd give Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung a CHANCE, not ignore every other girl in the world! I've got every right to do this!'

'Traitor. Is this how you keep your promises?'

The argument continued for several more minutes before Ryoga finally stamped down on the nagging whisper. 'This is stupid. Everything's going to be fine. Ukyo and I'll just go, hang out, and have a good time. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing to worry about.' And speaking of Ukyo, what the heck was taking her so long anyway?

As if triggered by the thought, there came a knock at the door. "Hey, Ryoga-kun?" Ukyo called from the other side. "Where'd you leave your clothes anyway? I can't find a trace of them."

He blinked. "What do you mean, you can't find them? They were just down the street from your front door. You should've seen them as soon as you went outside!"

"Well, something must've happened to them. Cause there's a big wet spot there, but that's all."

Ryoga sat blankly for a minute or two. 'If Lung-Lung shows up wearing my pants tomorrow, there's gonna be hell to pay,' he eventually thought to himself. 'But I doubt it was them. They wouldn't want to leave me naked in Ukyo's home.' That last thought shredded his composure like a Ginsu knife through cabbage. The situation wasn't quite appropriate for a nosebleed, but he did feel suddenly lightheaded.

"Ryoga?" Ukyo was starting to get a little concerned. He should have answered by now. "You okay in there?"

"FINE!" he forced out, his voice cracking. "I'm fine, except I'm stuck here with no clothes." He laughed nervously. "What the heck are we gonna do?!"

The door cracked open, just enough for Ukyo's arm to reach in. She was holding a Furinkan boy's uniform. "See if this fits."

Ryoga stared at the uniform. To his relieved eyes, it seemed to be limned in a golden light, with faint strains of heavenly music playing in the background. Then, collecting his wits, he took it and dressed quickly. It wasn't too bad a fit. The top was almost a perfect match, since it had been sized for an Ukyo who wore a chest binding. The pants were a bit tight, but Ryoga was too thankful to complain.

He left the bathroom, to find Ukyo waiting in the hall. "Thanks, Ukyo. Lucky thing you had this."

"Y- yeah," the chef managed.

Ryoga gave her a concerned look. "Are you sure you're okay? You were coughing a lot this afternoon, and you look kinda feverish now. And your voice just sounded a bit raspy too."

Ukyo laughed nervously. She gulped a few times, managing to work some moisture back into her throat, then said, "It's nothing, sugar. My throat was a little dry, that's all." 'Oh, MAN, those pants are just tight enough…'

"Anyway, thanks for the uniform. This'll keep me decent long enough to get back to the Kuno place and get some of my own clothes."

"NO!" Ukyo exclaimed. Ryoga started at the vehemence of her protest. She calmed herself, and said, "I mean, that'll take too long, don't you think? We're already a bit late."

"But what am I going to do about shoes? I don't need them for a trip back home, but I can't just go barefoot to the amusement park!"

"Don't worry, I've got some sandals that're big enough for you," Ukyo responded. "C'mon, let's go already!"

"Oh, all right." Ryoga grimaced. "I hope I don't get too many people staring at me."

Ukyo slung her spatula into place at her back as she and her companion made for the door. "Tell you what, sugar, if anybody does, I'll flatten them." 'Especially if it's a girl.'

The amusement park in question was far enough away that they had to take the train. On the way to the station, Ryoga felt the by-now-familiar sensation of being watched. It passed quickly, though, and he put it out of his mind. Really, the idea was absurd anyway, he thought. No reasonable person would be up this late for such a stupid purpose.

Once they were inside the park, Ukyo paused and took a long, leisurely look around. A fair number of people had come out to enjoy the night. Not enough to make the park seem crowded, but not few enough that it felt deserted either. The colorful lights of the stands and rides cast interesting shadows against the cloudy night sky. The festive music of the carnival lent a bright and energetic air, though it was played somewhat softly out of respect to the hour. The overall effect, to Ukyo at least, was of a romantic mixture of peace, magic, and mystery.

She sighed. "Isn't this great, Ryoga-kun?"


The chef turned, to see Ryoga hastily swallow a mouthful of cotton candy. She rolled her eyes. "Jeez, typical guy. Go right for the food and ignore the atmosphere completely."

"So you don't want this?" Ryoga asked, holding up the second coneful of spun sugar he'd purchased for her.

Ukyo punched him lightly on the arm, then took the offering. "I didn't say that."

The two walked along, silent for the next few minutes as they finished their treats. At length, Ryoga asked, "What would you like to do first?"

Ukyo shrugged. "I don't know. Let's just walk for a while, and see what there is to see."

This proved to be a good suggestion, as the next corner they turned put them in the area that housed the various sideshow exhibits. The two spent an entertaining quarter-hour walking along and pointing out the outrageous claims posted on the signs of the booths. They didn't actually go into any of them… seeing a ridiculously faked spectacle would have taken some of the fun out of it. As Ryoga put it, "A girl who turns into a tiger? Yeah, right. Only if they've been to Jusenkyo lately."

Within the tent, Miao Yin paced back and forth in her most dramatic stalk. She listened with only half an ear to the barker's spiel. As he reached the appropriate point, she spun on her heel, turning so that her back was to the audience. In the same motion, she doffed the cloak that was her only garment, spinning it so that the hidden interior pockets sent a fine spray of cold water shooting forth over her before the onlookers could catch more than a glimpse of her unclothed form.

"Oh, and what about that one? A girl who can 'spin the spirits of air and fire into beautiful visions of wonder', whatever that's supposed to mean." Ukyo frowned. "Come to think of it, most of these booths are about girls in one way or another, aren't they?" The realization took a good bit of her enjoyment away.

"You're right," Ryoga said, puzzled. "I wonder why that is?"

His companion gave him a searching sidelong glance, then smiled. "Probably because most guys aren't too honorable to pay a few yen and watch a pretty girl strut her stuff." Ukyo still didn't like the thought, but her spirits had quickly picked back up. It felt pretty good to be here with a guy who was an exception to that rule.

Ryoga stared. "You don't really think that's it, do you?" he asked, almost plaintively.

"'Fraid so, sugar." Ukyo turned to look back at the booth she'd pointed out. "That one probably means they've got some kinda incense burning to fill the place with smoke and dim light, and the girl does a striptease."

Inside the booth in question, Sakura let her awareness of the world around her fall partially away. She reached deeply into herself. Engaging her talent, she wove illusionary worlds in the darkness of the tent, taking an extra bit of pleasure in the squeals of delight from one little girl when a tiny, brilliantly glowing dragon landed on her hand.

Ryoga sighed. "C'mon, let's go somewhere else." They made their way out of the sideshow area, to find themselves in the section that housed the games of skill and chance. "This is more like it," he said. "Let's try to win some stuff, Ukyo."

"Fine by me, but we shouldn't waste too much money. I hear these games are rigged like the sails of a trireme."

He shrugged. "I've heard that too. But I bet our skills are enough to make up for it. It's worth a shot at least, right?" Without waiting for an answer, Ryoga strode over to what is perhaps the archetypal carnival game, the 'test of strength' in which the player swings a hammer as hard as he can and hits a lever on a fulcrum, sending a weight up a pole to (hopefully) ring the bell at the top.

Ryoga glanced at the sign. 500 yen for a set of three swings, with the quality of the prize you won depending on how many times you rung the bell. He set a five hundred yen coin down and began to focus his chi.

"You from Nerima, kid?" the barker asked him. Ryoga's concentration dissolved into surprise.

"Er, yes, I am," he answered. "Why?"

The barker gestured toward another sign, partially hidden by stuffed animals. It read, 'Absolutely NO martial artists from Nerima allowed to compete. ~The management'

Ryoga's jaw dropped. He pulled himself together with an effort, and turned back to face the game operator. "You have GOT to be kidding."

The man shrugged helplessly. "Sorry, kid, but I don't make the rules. Tell you what, though." He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I'll let you have a go for free. You won't win anything, but you will get a chance to impress that cutie you're with." He winked at Ryoga. "And that's the real important thing here, right?"

This left Ryoga a little too flustered to focus properly, and his first swing failed to send the weight very high at all. That annoyed him enough that the next two rang the bell loud and clear.

A few minutes of looking around quickly confirmed that all the games that required skill rather than luck carried the same 'No martial artists from Nerima' sign. Ukyo briefly considered telling one of the operators that she was an okonomiyaki chef from Kyoto, and then cleaning him out, but decided against it. "So, what do you want to do now, Ryoga-kun?"

"Well, we've already eaten, and I've seen enough of the sideshow exhibits, and the games are a total bust…" Ryoga grimaced at that last statement. "That pretty much just leaves the rides, I guess."

"Sounds good to me." They began making their way over to that section of the park. "You have any preference for our first ride?" Ukyo asked as they came within sight of the nearest ones.

"No, not really. You pick."

"You don't have to ask me twice!" she said excitedly. "I've heard of one here that's supposed to give a real thrill. Come on, let's go!" She headed purposefully toward the ride in question, Ryoga following close behind.

The duo reached their goal. Ukyo smiled. "Great, the line isn't too long." She moved to join it, realizing a moment later that Ryoga hadn't come with her. She turned back with a puzzled expression on her face. "Yo, sugar, you coming?"

Ryoga looked sourly over Ukyo's shoulder, watching as a log-shaped carriage full of screaming teens shot down a flume. Their speed was broken by a huge wave that shot over the log, drenching them to the bone. "Gee, Ukyo, what could be more fun that me getting splashed with cold water in front of a whole bunch of people."

Ukyo blinked, then turned back to look at the ride as if seeing it for the first time. Sheepishly, the chef moved out of line and walked back to his side. "Heh heh. Sorry about that. I guess I wasn't really thinking."

'Stupid curse,' Ryoga mentally growled. Forcing his mind away from gloomy thoughts, he suggested, "There are some roller coasters over there."

"Let's check them out, then," Ukyo said cheerfully. Despite her carefree tone, the chef was feeling a little annoyed. The sequence of one problem after another was beginning to grate on her nerves. 'Is it too much to ask that one part of this date go off smoothly?' she growled to herself. 'With my luck, the coaster will probably break down and leave me and Ryoga stuck at the top of the highest loop.' She blinked. 'Hey, wait a minute, that wouldn't be so bad…'

Ryoga glanced at Ukyo, once again wondering whether she was feeling all right. Her eyes were glazed and her cheeks were flushed. 'I hope Ukyo isn't getting sick. I'd hate to find out she was and I kept her out running around when she should've been in bed.'

Sometimes, letting yourself get distracted is the worst mistake you can make. It leaves you open to attacks that otherwise would never have touched you. It snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.

Other times, it doesn't matter at all. Like now. If Ryoga had been paying attention, he'd have seen a girl walking stiffly toward him, an angry scowl on her face. He might have dodged the slap she leveled at him, instead of being caught totally off-guard. But even if he had, the eventual outcome of the confrontation wouldn't have changed at all.

Ukyo was jarred from her fantasy (involving a roller coaster carriage that was both rather roomier than normal and, inexplicably, only occupied by the two of them) by the strident sound of flesh on flesh. She blinked, and turned to see a rather bizarre sight.

A girl in a pretty dress, with long, curly black hair, blue eyes partially obscured by glasses, and slightly dusky skin, was standing in front of Ryoga. She was glaring fiercely at him, and her hand was still in the post-follow-through position. An angry red welt on Ryoga's face made it clear that the former lost boy had just received the slap of a lifetime.

Ryoga just stared in shock. "What was that for?" he asked blankly.

"How can you ask me that, you womanizing jerk!" she snarled back. "So it's true. Everything my friends heard about you is true. You really DO sneak around and date a bunch of girls all at the same time. You… you miserable…" The nameless girl's anger crumpled suddenly, and she sank down to her knees and began to cry.

"Y-you were the f-f-first boy to tell me… tell me I w-was cute. I… I thought y-you really c-c-cared for me." She put her face in her hands and sobbed for a full minute.

Fighting a sense of unreality, Ryoga finally spoke again. "Um, miss? I think you've mistaken me for someone else. I've never seen you before in my— "

"DON'T YOU DARE!!" the girl screamed, seeming to find new anger. "Don't you DARE pull this 'I don't know you' thing, Ryoga Hibiki! You may have fooled me, but I won't let you hurt this girl too!" The girl turned to Ukyo. "Please, y-you have to believe me. H-He's just using you…" the last of her rage was swamped again by rising despair, "… like he used me…" She said the last in a shamed whisper, and began to cry again.

Ryoga was beyond responding at this point, too shell-shocked to do more than stand and gape in disbelief. Ukyo was nearly as bad, but she managed to scrape together enough composure to start forward, intending to lay a hand on the girl's shoulder. Whether it would have been a comforting gesture or a clenching grip of iron followed by a demand for more information, not even she could have said.

However, as Ukyo took her first step, the girl shot back to her feet. With a cry of despair, she turned and raced off into the night.

By the time the chef recovered enough to follow, it was far too late. She turned back to stare at Ryoga. A long moment of silence passed. Off in the distance, an owl hooted.

Eventually, Ukyo spoke. "Well, Ryoga? I'm waiting to hear your side of the story," she said grimly.

Ryoga blinked, seeming to come out of a daze. "M-My side? What story?! I've got no idea what just happened here! I've never seen that girl before in my life!"

"You've never seen that girl… who knew your name. Not just your first name, but your family name too." The thought had crossed Ukyo's mind that this was some sort of carnival scam, and that the girl had learned Ryoga's name by following them and listening, but since she'd never spoken his full name that idea hadn't lasted very long.

"That's right. I don't have a clue who she is." Ryoga swallowed hard. "You've got to believe me!"

Ukyo just stared at him in silence for a long moment. At last, she sighed, and said flatly, "I don't know what to believe." On that note, she turned and walked away.

Six thirty A.M.
Ukyo's Okonomiyaki.

The proprietor's bedroom.

Ukyo had been there for nearly two and a half hours. Sleep wouldn't come, driven away by the struggle with her turbulent emotions. The conflict had been exhausting, even as it drove her further and further from slumber. But now, finally, she had managed to attain a measure of peace. Ukyo now stood (or reclined, since she was in her bed at the moment) firm again, believing in Ryoga. Something about the encounter had increasingly rubbed her the wrong way, as she'd forced herself to think back over it, and the chef was convinced by now that the girl had been lying or mistaken.

How 'mistaken' might be the case was something she was still working on. Ukyo was tempted just to let it go and assume the girl had been deliberately trying to deceive her, out of some mysterious wish to hurt Ryoga. However, remembering ten years spent in bitter but misplaced anger toward Ranma, she choked back the impulse and did her level best to give the girl the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, that required there to be some doubt in the first place. Ukyo was still looking, but so far she hadn't found any. 'Okay, let's just think this through,' the chef thought to herself. Had the mystery girl lied, or did she make a mistake?

'What kind of mistake would explain something like this? She knew who Ryoga was, which rules out mistaken identity. Maybe they used to go to the same school, and he randomly complimented her once and she built some huge fantasy about the two of them as a couple after that? Some off-hand remark he doesn't even remember? That would explain how Ryoga can think he never met her.' Ukyo pondered that thought for a little while, then discarded it. Nobody would take one measly little remark and shape their whole life around it like that.

And besides, the girl had clearly accused Ryoga of 'using' her. There was just no way that fit with the idea of a secret crush which the girl had thought of as something more. Ukyo attempted to picture Ryoga, the guy who had wondered why the sideshow attractions had mostly featured girls, doing something like that. She failed utterly.

'Okay, I guess that pretty much rules out a mistake. The little witch had some kind of grudge against Ryoga, or she was working with somebody who does, and did all that just to hurt him,' she thought. Now that that was settled, Ukyo felt quite a relief. She'd done her best to be open-minded and fair, and not condemn somebody without evidence, but there really wasn't any other possibility, was there? That girl HAD to have been lying through her teeth.

'Tomorrow I'll get with Ryoga-kun and tell him what I figured out,' the chef thought, ignoring the fact that 'today' was the word she should have used. 'And I'll do something extra nice for him too, to make up for leaving him in the lurch like that.' She felt quite a bit of guilt well up in her at the reminder. 'Dang, I wish I hadn't done that. It just… didn't help when that girl said her bit about Ryoga being the first guy to call her cute. Made it sound like he'd just used her and moved on to me, to do the same thing. But I should've known better.'

Ukyo yawned, finally beginning to feel a bit sleepy. 'Wonder what her reason was for wanting to attack Ryoga-kun. Was it was her grudge or somebody else's?' she mused. 'And was she trying specifically to break us up, or just generally hurt him? Kinda seemed like the first one, but what for? It's not like she could want him for herself… she'd have no chance at all after doing something like that…'

With that, Ukyo sat bolt-upright in bed. "Could it be…" her teeth ground together for a while, before she at last gritted out, "…I think I'm gonna have to have a chat with a couple of Amazon little girls tomorrow."

After silently fuming for a bit more, Ukyo yawned again. "But I'll worry about that later," she mumbled. 'Man, I need to get some sleep. What time is it anyway?'

She glanced over at her clock… just in time for the alarm to go off. Ukyo stared in shock at the display, then slammed her palm down on the unfortunate device, muttered, "Furinkan can kiss my spatula," and pulled the covers over her head.

Eight fifteen A.M.
Ukyo's Okonomiyaki.

Well, technically, the lane outside, rather than the restaurant itself.

Ryoga stood before the door of Ukyo's place, not sure he should be here. He didn't know whether the chef would even want to see him this morning, let alone walk with him to school. Ryoga had seriously considered avoiding the issue, but in the end he'd decided not to run away. And so he gathered his courage, and knocked at the door.

There was no answer. He waited a few minutes, then knocked again. Still nothing. Ryoga's shoulders slumped a little, and he turned and began walking away.

He'd reached the area of the sidewalk where he'd been splashed the previous night, not really noticing that the fire hydrant that had done so was no longer present, when he heard a door open. "Hey, Ryoga!" Ukyo called from behind him.

He stopped, gulped a few times, then turned. Ukyo was smiling at him. The chef's hair was mussed up, and her eyes were bloodshot, with dark bags under them, but the expression on her face more than made up for that as far as he was concerned. He hurried back.

Taking a deep breath, Ryoga prepared to stammer words of apology and innocence. However, Ukyo beat him to the punch. "Listen, sugar, I'm really sorry about going off last night. It was late, and I was kinda tired, and I just don't think I was thinking straight. I thought about it some more last night, after I got home, and I'm pretty sure that girl was lying. I bet she was just trying to make some trouble for you, that's all."

"Huh?" This possibility hadn't occurred to Ryoga. He'd been too busy struggling with another one. "You think so? But Ukyo, I seriously never have seen her before! Why would she want to hurt me? And how could she know my name?"

Ukyo shrugged. "Could be something you did to somebody else. Maybe you beat her brother in a fight. Or it could be somebody completely unrelated to her has a grudge against you, and just got her to help out."

"Maybe," Ryoga said. "I hope it is that."

Even through the haze of weariness, Ukyo noted his expression and tone of voice seemed rather odd. "Why don't you come inside, anyway? This is getting a little silly, just talking in the doorway like this." When they were both seated at a table in the restaurant, she spoke again. "So what else could it be? Why would you hope that's what it is?"

Ryoga looked down at his hands, which had clenched into fists. "It's just… she really seemed angry at me. And what she said… I'd done… I'd never treat a girl like that. " He stared at Ukyo, with desperation evident in his eyes. "But… my Oni side wouldn't even have thought twice about it. And I don't know how long it ran around free before it kidnapped Akane." He'd always assumed that the dream he'd had, of returning to Jusenkyo, had happened simultaneously with the Oni doing so and being reborn, but last night Ryoga had been forced to realize that there was no proof whatsoever that it had happened like that.

Ukyo let out a long, low whistle. "Oh, no. I hope that isn't it." Apparently there WAS at least one way the girl could have been mistaken instead of lying. Then she frowned. "Wait a minute. Didn't you say, when you guys fought the Oni it had fangs and claws and stuff?"

"Yeah, but it could also create illusions," Ryoga said, thinking back to the image of Ranma-chan in a frilly little sundress. "Nothing to say it couldn't have disguised itself as human."

His companion placed a hand on his shoulder. "I hope not, sugar. I hope not."

They sat in silence for a while, before Ryoga gave a long sigh. "Thanks for believing me, Ukyo. I need to get going— class will be starting soon." Judging by the fact that Ukyo was still in a houserobe, he was fairly confident in guessing, "You're not going to Furinkan today, are you?"

"Nope. I'm too tired. But I'll see you this afternoon, okay?"

"Yeah, I'll come by." For a moment, Ryoga was seriously tempted just to head back to the Kuno place and crash, but since he'd skipped several days of school not long back, he manfully resisted the urge. "See you then." He slipped out of the door, just a little too tired to realize his lunch was still sitting on the floor of the restaurant where he'd set it down.

As Ryoga made his way toward Furinkan, he was feeling a good bit better. Ukyo wasn't angry with him, and it was possible that this had nothing to do with his dark side. One piece of certain good news, and one reason to hope.

Still, the former lost boy was conscious of a deep pit of angst in the center of his gut. Hopefully Ukyo's theory was correct, and the girl had been lying through her teeth about being used by a Ryoga Hibiki, but the fact still remained that she might have been telling only the truth. The thought left a very bitter taste in Ryoga's mouth.

"I hope not, though," he muttered as he neared the school. "Bad enough all the crap that Oni put me through when it was part of me. It's not fair that it could have hurt even more people." He thought back again to the evening before, doing his best to remember the encounter dispassionately. Ryoga tried to decide whether there had been anything in the mystery girl's demeanor that might have betrayed dishonesty. Unfortunately, he had just been too off-balance then to remember subtle details now. "Heck," Ryoga muttered gloomily as he neared the school, walking past a number of slower students, "I'm not even sure I'd recognize her if I walked past her on the street in broad daylight."

A hard tap on his shoulder drew him from his thoughts. Ryoga blinked, then turned around to find himself face-to-face with the girl who'd been filling his thoughts.

"Jeez, Hibiki, when I go to the trouble of waiting for you here, the least you could do is not walk past me without noticing," she sneered at him.

"S-sorry," Ryoga replied automatically. "What did you want?"

She turned and walked away, motioning for Ryoga to follow. He did so, and some minutes later the two had moved out of sight of both Furinkan and the students straggling into the school. Once they were alone, the girl stopped, and fixed Ryoga with a stare of disdain.

"I was serious when I said I'd never seen you before in my life," Ryoga began nervously.

The girl cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Save it. Like I'd have gone out with a jerk like you anyway." She stepped forward, scowling and pushing her forefinger into Ryoga's chest. He stepped back reflexively; she moved forward into his personal space again. "I… want you… to leave my Ukyo alone." Each pause corresponded to a jab from her finger. "You got it, Hibiki? Ukyo deserves someone a lot better than a butt-ugly guy like you."

'This is a dream. That's it, a dream. I must've finally fallen asleep and now I'm dreaming this. Or maybe I haven't even woken up yet to go to the fair with Ukyo,' Ryoga thought. 'Man, I hope this isn't an omen of how our evening is going to go.' He closed his eyes, letting his thoughts scatter like leaves in the wind. It was just easier than dealing with the unreality of this situation.

The girl was saying something, but Ryoga didn't bother to listen. Her words blew past him, somehow triggering another girl's voice, rising up from the depths of his memories… "She comes on to me just like Mousse came on to Shampoo— without any encouragement, and ignoring the times I've flattened her with my spatula…"

Ryoga's eyes snapped open, to fix the girl in front of him with a deceptively mild gaze. Under the clear light of morning, her curly black hair was obviously a wig. And now he knew whom the disguise had been for. "I'm sorry, Tsubasa. I missed that last part. Could you repeat it?"

"I said, if you know what's good for you, you'll give Ukyo the 'just friends' speech and leave her to someone that can… appreciate…" Tsubasa's voice trailed off into a quiver at the sight of Ryoga's rising battle aura.

Ryoga waited until he was sure he could control himself before responding. "I could make excuses for you if you'd just been fooled by Ukyo's cross-dressing. When I first heard about you, I thought that was all it was, a girl with a crush on a 'guy' that she didn't know well enough. I even felt SORRY for you!" he snarled, making it sound like he'd agonized over poor Tsubasa's hypothetical misunderstanding for hours. This would be a major exaggeration, but it was true that he'd felt a moment's pang of sympathy before the ongoing confrontation between the twins and Ukyo had swept unimportant thoughts aside.

"You lied last night, trying to make me look like some kind of monster. You ruined our evening, and all because you're too STUPID to see Ukyo doesn't want you!" Ryoga's fists clenched tightly. "If you weren't a girl, I'd be giving you the beating of your life right now. You're lucky I don't hit girls, no matter what. But you better believe Ukyo is gonna hear who that REALLY was last night!"

With that ultimatum, Tsubasa seemed to find some reserves of backbone. "I'm warning you. Stay away from my Ukyo. Or I'll shred your rep to the whole school, not just her."

Ryoga laughed cynically. "Oh, yeah? All Ukyo has to do is tell everybody about you, and they'll know better than to believe any lies you come up with."

That statement made it painfully obvious that Ryoga didn't really understand how gossip and rumor worked. Tsubasa could have enlightened him, but it wasn't necessary. "So who said anything about lies?"

The former lost boy blinked, wondering just what that was supposed to mean. Before he could ask, a cascade of water poured down from an open window above him, drenching him while missing his antagonist completely.

Tsubasa stared in surprise. "Well, this is where I was going to pull out my water pistol, but I guess I don't need to now." She seemed to pull herself together. "Either you stay away from Ukyo, or the whole school gets to meet the REAL Ryoga Hibiki. Your choice, bacon boy." She gave Ryoga-piglet a very unpleasant smile. "I'll let you have an hour to think it over."

Ryoga sat on a bench in the classic 'thinker' pose, this once not taking any solace at all from the trees and grass around him. He'd come to the park to ponder the latest turn of events. But he might just as well have gone to a construction site for all the good his surroundings were doing him. Some types of turmoil are just too deep to be alleviated by a little natural beauty.

Three-quarters of his hour had passed by now. After a lot of long and hard thought, Ryoga had made his decision. It hurt, and it didn't seem honorable, but he was just going to have to go and have a talk with Ukyo. He wasn't looking forward to it at all. Sometimes, though, you simply have to bite the bullet and do something you'd rather not.

"I never thought I'd sink so low," Ryoga mumbled, trying to summon the will to get up and get moving toward Ukyo's. "I can't believe I'm going wimp out, and ask Ukyo to do this." But there wasn't really an alternative, was there? He HAD to get Ukyo to fight Tsubasa. He couldn't bring himself to beat up a girl, even one as malicious as this one, but Ukyo clearly had no problem with doing so. "I just hope she'll be able to get Tsubasa to back off."

Ryoga glanced at his watch, realizing that Tsubasa's deadline was swiftly drawing near. He needed to talk to Ukyo before that happened. With a sigh, he got to his feet.

"Hey! Ryoga!"

The lost boy blinked. That had sounded like… "Ukyo?" he asked, startled to see the chef appear out of the brush. "What're you doing here?"

Ukyo gave him a half-exasperated look. She held up his lunch. "You left this at my place. I went to drop it off at Furinkan, but they said you weren't there. I figured you decided to give school a miss and went back to the Kuno place. So I was headed for there. Just got lucky that I decided to take a shortcut through this park."

Ryoga gave her a strange look. "You thought I went back to the Kuno mansion, so you were going there to give me my lunch?"

"Well, yeah, I didn't want you to… go hungry…" Ukyo's voice trailed off. She unholstered her mega-spatula and smacked herself in the face with it. "This is what happens when you try to function on too little sleep, idiot," she muttered to herself through a faceful of steel.

The former lost boy glanced back at his watch. "Listen, Ukyo, I need to talk to you. I ran into that girl again this morning. That's why I'm not at school." Ryoga paused, remembering that he'd just as soon not admit to having overheard the conversation in which Ukyo had spoken of Tsubasa to the twins. "Last night wasn't about me," he said carefully. "She told me to stay away from you. She even acted like SHE wanted to be the one going out with you." Ukyo wasn't the only one functioning on too little sleep; Ryoga didn't even realize what he'd just admitted. But then again, the significance also slipped by his companion. "Does the name Tsubasa mean anything to you?"

"Ts-Tsubasa… Kurenai?!" There was an audible clicking sound as everything fell into place for Ukyo. The click had actually been caused by her teeth snapping together, but it was still a nice bit of synchronicity. "It… that was Tsubasa?!"

"Yeah," Ryoga said sourly, "and she somehow found out about my curse, too." If he hadn't been so tired, he might have made the connection between that and the recurrent feeling of being watched over the past week. Or maybe not, since he still didn't know about Tsubasa's penchant for disguises. "And she said if I don't keep away from you, she'll tell the whole school about it."

"That… miserable… little… pervert…" Ukyo ground out. She was standing ramrod straight, her fists clenched at her side, her battle aura visible nearly six inches away from her body.

Ryoga gulped, suddenly wondering whether things might not be about to get out of control. He made a mental note never to get Ukyo that angry with him. "Um, yeah, well, anyway, I was kinda wondering whether you could maybe keep her from doing that…"

Ukyo took several deep breaths. Her hands unclenched, and her battle aura diminished somewhat. "I'd love to, but Tsubasa never does seem to get a clue when I'm the one doing the beating. Why don't you?"

"I can't hit a girl for real!" Ryoga protested. "I'd LIKE to make an exception, but I just can't! Not even for someone like that!"

Ukyo's lips curled into a grim smile that sent shivers up and down Ryoga's spine. "I think you may change your mind when I tell you the truth about Tsubasa," she purred. Then, over Ryoga's shoulder, she caught a glimpse of an approaching figure. "Well, speak of the devil and he arrives. Ryoga honey, just wait for my signal. You'll know what to do."

"Wh-what?! Hey, get back here!" Too late. Ukyo had vanished into the brush. Before Ryoga could follow, Tsubasa had entered the clearing and was striding over toward him.

" 'Wait for my signal'? 'You'll know what to do'? What the heck was Ukyo talking about?" Ryoga muttered under his breath as he turned to face the newcomer. He noticed she was openly carrying a water pistol this time.

Tsubasa stopped a few feet away, weapon at the ready. "Well? Are you gonna leave Ukyo aloUlp!"

Three mini-spatulas had suddenly flown out from Ukyo's position of concealment. The first cleaved through Tsubasa's water pistol. The second and third slashed the front and back of the dress she was wearing.

There was a long moment of silence as the material fell away from Tsubasa's chest, leaving it bare to the world. The sight of the smooth, decidedly MALE expanse hit Ryoga like a proverbial ton of bricks. He and his antagonist both stood there, in shock.

Tsubasa was the first to recover. He ‘eeped’, gathered up the torn material, and raced away, in the process losing both the black wig and the glasses he'd been wearing. Ryoga blinked, but didn't otherwise react.

The bushes rustled, then Ukyo stood beside him. The chef had a frankly disappointed look in her eyes. "Sugar, are you just going to let him get away like that?" No response. Ukyo waved a hand in front of Ryoga's face, noting that his eyes only vaguely tracked the motion. She sighed. "Oh well, I guess there's nothing to stop Tsubasa from heading to Furinkan and spilling his guts about your secret."

The last word had scarcely left her mouth before Ryoga was gone. Ukyo winced at the sight of the tree he'd knocked down, then glanced at her arm in surprise. "Dang," she muttered, "I've never seen a battle aura that big. It actually burned off all the hairs."

Nabiki and Tsubasa had very, very little in common, but they did share one trait: although neither was a martial artist, both kept themselves in good shape. Of course, in Nabiki's case this was done by actual, intentional exercises, Yoga and the like, whereas it was more or less an accident for Tsubasa. Many of the disguises he used required flexibility that would have made Dhalsim envious. Not to mention that moving around with all that extra weight necessarily built up his muscle tone.

In fact, Tsubasa was probably in the best shape of any non-martial-artist currently in Nerima. He was even fitter than a few of the martial artists themselves (especially the practitioners of Martial Arts Hypochondria). This, combined with the fact that he'd gotten a good bit more sleep than Ryoga the previous night, was why he was still in one piece.

The chase had lasted for thirty minutes now. Tsubasa didn't bother to check back over his shoulder to see whether Ryoga was still after him; the incoherent cries of rage made it all too clear that he hadn't yet managed to lose his pursuer. Tsubasa once again mentally cursed himself for an idiot. Just because Ryoga hadn't immediately pursued him out of the park had been no good reason to stop and try to effect repairs on his dress. If he'd just kept going, he could have had an insurmountable lead.

As it was, he'd managed to keep only about half a block ahead of disaster. And now, Tsubasa's reserves were beginning to run low. 'It's not fair!' he thought, angling his flight through an outdoor dining area shared by a number of cafés. 'Everybody hates me because I'm beautiful!' He jumped over a table without breaking stride, and a few seconds later heard a resounding crash as Ryoga plowed straight through it.

That sparked an idea. Over the last week, as Tsubasa had followed Ryoga around in disguise, taking the measure of his competition (after chancing to overhear a couple of Ryoga's classmates talking about how cute a couple he and Ukyo made), the transvestite had had ample opportunity to see how often water seemed to seek Ryoga out. So now, if he were to jump a table with drinks resting on it, and Ryoga were to crash through the obstacle, said liquid would inevitably trigger the boy's bizarre transformation and remove his threat potential. Tsubasa smiled, proud of how brains and beauty were about to triumph over brawn and butt-ugliness. Only then did he realize that he and Ryoga had already left the café area far behind.

The two were now running along a residential street, with no convenient sources of water anywhere in sight. The transvestite felt a stitch forming in his side, and realized that he was quickly nearing the end of his strength. He didn't know that Ryoga was pretty much in the same boat (though the fact that the former lost boy now lacked the breath to yell as he ran should have clued the cross-dresser in). Tsubasa began to panic. He needed something— anything— that could help him get away.

Ukyo's unwanted admirer had a number of negative qualities, but he wasn't really that bad a guy. Only under extreme duress (such as now) would he stoop to the tactic he now used. Up ahead, he caught sight of a couple of delivery girls walking away from a house, and ran directly at them. With the last of his strength, Tsubasa jumped over the startled duo, put on a new burst of speed, tried not to feel guilty as he heard a crash and thud behind him, and raced down a side alley. Halfway down its length, he collapsed, and spent the next half hour recovering from his brush with death.

Ryoga had been focused on his quarry to the exclusion of all else. He didn't catch sight of the girls in his path until Tsubasa jumped over them. Desperately, he tried to swerve to one side. But he was tired, and his reactions were much slower than usual, and anyway Ling-Ling had dived left while her sister dashed to the right. The twins' maneuver would have completely avoided collision had Ryoga just held to his original course. But as it was, he slammed into Ling-Ling, knocking the both of them to the ground. He barely managed to twist and take the brunt of the fall himself. The impact, coming on top of too little sleep, too much stress, and way too much recent exertion, knocked all the wind out of Ryoga. He lay there, stunned, with Ling-Ling on top of him.

Lung-Lung sighed slightly. If Ryoga had dodged the other way, that would be her instead of her sister. Oh well, there'd be other opportunities.

Ryoga tried desperately to recover his senses. In the split second in which impact had become unavoidable, he'd known he was going to hit the pavement pretty hard. But he hadn't expected the world to go dark, or to suddenly have trouble breathing.

"Airen? Is you okay?" The former lost boy dimly recognized Ling-Ling's voice. The words had seemed to come from far away, as if the cherry-haired girl were speaking to him across some sort of veil. At that thought, a surge of fear briefly lent him new strength, and Ryoga sat bolt upright. His head spun. He was finding it a bit easier to breathe, but everything remained dark. He fought down an urge to cry "Where on earth am I now?!"

Ling-Ling sat up from the pavement, where she'd landed after Ryoga's movement had catapulted her from him. Maybe lying across her husband's chest hadn't been such a good idea after all. She reached over and pulled her ramen delivery box off his head, over which it had landed in their fall.

Ryoga blinked as the darkness was replaced by sunlight. His eyes focused on Ling-Ling, rubbing her shoulder and eyeing him somewhat crossly. "Airen too strong for my own good."

"Are you okay?"

Ling-Ling did a couple of tentative stretching exercises. "Ling-Ling think so." She got to her feet.

Ryoga followed suit. His head didn't seem to be spinning anymore, though he was feeling like he might keel over from exhaustion at any moment. "Thank goodness. I'm really sorry about running you down like that."

A hurt-sounding sniff from behind him drew his attention to Lung-Lung. She was sitting on the ground, clutching her ankle. "You no worry about me, Airen?" she asked pitifully.

"Huh?! B-But I didn't run into you!"

"No, but sister's delivery box go flying. Hit me, make me fall down and hurt ankle, then bounce back and land on your head," Lung-Lung said, sweating slightly. That story had sounded a lot more believable in her head than it did coming out of her mouth.

Ryoga was way too tired to notice. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize. Can you walk?"

Lung-Lung carefully put some weight on her ankle, then winced. "Not hurt too bad, probably be okay by tomorrow, but no want try to walk on it now." She gave Ryoga her best pleading puppy-dog eyes expression. "Airen maybe carry Lung-Lung back to Nekohanten?"

"<Do you think you could shovel it on just a LITTLE more thickly, sis?>" Ling-Ling asked sourly. SHE was the one who really HAD been knocked down, after all.

"Carry you?" This was a bit too much even for Ryoga, generally clueless about women and currently too tired to think straight. "Are you sure you just hurt one ankle? Not both? And maybe you wrenched a knee or two?"

Lung-Lung sighed, sweating more than ever but determined to salvage something. "Just ankle. Okay, Lung-Lung admit she no need be carry, but Airen no can blame me for trying. If just give me shoulder to lean on, that would be enough."

That was much more reasonable, Ryoga thought. "Okay, here." He took her hand, hoisted her up, and angled her so she could divide her weight between her 'good' leg and him.

And he promptly fell over, carrying the green-haired girl with him to the ground. Slight as the Amazon was, her extra weight was just too much for him to support in his current state of exhaustion.

"Ow, ow, ow!" Lung-Lung whimpered, clutching an ankle that actually WAS slightly twisted now. The poetic justice of the situation utterly failed to impress itself on her.

For a moment, Cologne wasn't sure she believed her eyes. Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and Ryoga had just limped through the back door of the Nekohanten in a truly unlikely procession. Ling-Ling had Ryoga's arm slung across her shoulders. Ryoga in turn was supporting Lung-Lung. Lung-Lung was using one of her sister's staves as a makeshift cane. Ryoga was shuffling along with his knees bent in order to bring his shoulders low enough to line up with the young Amazons' lesser height. Ling-Ling was obviously straining her strength to the very limit in order to help support her Airen.

Cologne watched as the three disentangled themselves and sat down, somehow without having anyone fall on his or her face. She absently flicked her wrist, sending her staff whirling out of the kitchen and soaring across the dining room to strike the sign on the front window, switching it from 'Open' to 'Closed'. The staff angled away to knock the phone off its hook, thus putting an end to any further delivery orders that might have been placed, then returned to her hand.

It was still early, so there weren't many people in the restaurant yet. Consequently, the applause from the dining room, though energetic, wasn't too loud to talk over. "Ryoga. A pleasure to see you again. May I ask what happened?"

Ryoga scowled tiredly as he finally remembered Tsubasa. "I was chasing after somebody. He dodged around the twins, and I ran into them. Ling-Ling's all right, but Lung-Lung hurt her ankle. So I helped her get back here."

"It looked to me like it was more a case of the three of you managing to stay upright only because you couldn't agree on which direction to fall," the Matriarch responded dryly. "What about you, boy? Are YOU injured?"

"No, I'm fine. Just exhausted."

"I see," the Matriarch responded. Well, if he was that tired, his guard should be down. Time to find out if a certain suspicion of hers was correct. "Would you like something to eat? Perhaps a bowl of ramen like the twins brought you yesterday?"

"Yeah, that'd be good," Ryoga answered absently. He felt Ling-Ling stiffen beside him, and realized what he'd just said. "Wait! Yesterday? What're you talking about? What makes you think they came by and had lunch with me at school yesterday?!"

Lung-Lung shook her head. "<That's his idea of a convincing denial?>" she muttered.

"Call it a hunch," the Matriarch answered him, her gaze flickering away from Ryoga to rest on each twin in turn. Both visibly wilted.

To Ryoga, already mentally kicking himself for letting that slip, the sight was more than he could stand. "Listen…" He paused, realizing he either didn't know or couldn't remember how to address Cologne by whatever her proper title was. "Hey, Ling-Ling, what do I call the old fossil if I want to be polite?" he whispered. Cologne, whose hearing was a good bit sharper than Ryoga realized, successfully held back a chuckle.

"Say, 'honored elder'," Ling-Ling whispered back.

"Right. Thanks." Raising his voice, Ryoga started again. "Listen, honored elder, they told me you said not to come visit me until I made the next move, because you didn't want me to feel crowded. I appreciate the thought and all, and I know you might be unhappy that they disobeyed the first chance they got," Ling-Ling punched him in the side as subtly as she could, "but I don't want you to yell at them or punish them for coming to see me."

"And why should I not?" Cologne hopped onto her staff, which enabled her to look down at Ryoga. A glance at Ling-Ling sent her scurrying from his side to Lung-Lung's. "They ignored my express judgment. My instructions were given for your benefit, young man, and they disregarded them to do what they wanted to do. What would you say in their defense?"

Watching the twins flinch more and more painfully with each sentence didn't feel particularly good. In fact, it hurt quite a bit more than he was prepared for. Ryoga pushed those thoughts aside. "Listen, you told them to wait for me to make the next move. But I thought THEY would be the ones doing that, and I was waiting too. So as far as I'm concerned, it was YOUR mistake. I didn't know you were expecting me to do anything different."

Cologne gave him a long, inscrutable look. 'Clearly I underestimated the effect of the boy's background,' she thought to herself at last. 'The meaning of our agreement should have been perfectly clear. Even Ranma couldn't possibly have misunderstood, had it been him in Ryoga's place.' Which just goes to show, even in a universe where the two have no quarrel, there will come a point when Cologne underestimates Ranma "Very well, son-in-law," she said at last. "I'll say no more to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung on this matter. And now it seems we should work out just what is expected of you, per your agreement."

It was Friday and lunch had arrived, meaning the weekend was nearly at hand. Furthermore, summer break was now only three weeks away. This should have been enough to brighten any student's (or teacher's) spirits. And indeed, there was a general air of excitement among the various inmates of Furinkan.

However, it was taking all of Ukyo Kuonji's restraint to keep the fake, sugary smile on her face.

' 'When business at the restaurant isn't too rushed and they have time, the Matriarch will let them come eat lunch with me' he says,' Ukyo thought, remembering what Ryoga had told her of the additional details Cologne had hammered out with him concerning his tie to the twins. 'And then they show up EVERY SINGLE DAY since then! Who do those Amazons think they're fooling anyway?! The only one of them worth anything is Shampoo.' She silently fumed as Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung approached, bearing a picnic lunch for three. 'Is it too much to ask to eat lunch with Ryoga once this week?!'

"Nihao, Airen," Ling-Ling said cheerfully. "You ready for too, too delicious lunch?"

Ryoga held back a sigh. Who did Ukyo think she was fooling with that smile? He could feel the heat from her battle aura from where he was standing. At least Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung weren't rubbing her nose in their recent gains… in fact, they were ignoring the chef completely. That that might be its own form of taunting didn't occur to him. "Yeah, okay."

"We go to usual spot, then?" Without really waiting for an answer, Lung-Lung led the way off toward the trees.

They reached their destination, and Ryoga watched as Ling-Ling spread out the blanket and set down the various picnic elements. He was becoming conscious of a disturbing trend… for the last three days, the twins had brought more and more dishes with them. Today it was dim sum and potstickers, in several different flavors. Each of which came in its own basket. It was nice to have a variety to choose from, but the downside was there was less room than ever on the blanket. 'Man, if they keep bringing more things like this, they're gonna end up sitting in my lap as we eat,' he thought to himself. 'Not that it would bother them any.'

He was getting better. But he hadn't realized that, as far as the twins were concerned, that was the POINT, rather than a not-unwelcome side effect. Ryoga still had quite a ways to go.

Lung-Lung frowned slightly as she sneaked another glance at her husband's face. He was eating mechanically, without any real evidence of enjoyment. He'd been gloomy when they first showed up, but she had hoped that lunch would raise his spirits. Evidently not, though. "Airen, what is wrong?"

The former lost boy hesitated before responding. This wasn't a question that he was prepared to answer fully. Somehow, he just couldn't see anything good coming from an admission that seeing Ukyo become increasingly more unhappy with each passing lunch was making him feel like a heel. Fortunately (in a manner of speaking, at least), something else had gone wrong today, something which he could safely tell the twins.

Ryoga heaved a deep sigh. "I lost something really important to me. Just noticed this morning it wasn't in my wallet. I don't know where I lost it, or how long it's been missing."

"What you lose?" Ling-Ling asked.

"A photo. The only one I've got with me and both my parents in it." Ryoga's fist clenched. "It's been so long since I got to see either of them, let alone both at the same time. And now I can't find the only reminder I have. The very LAST thing I would have wanted to lose, and it's gone."

Ling-Ling laughed nervously, causing Ryoga to shoot a hurt frown in her direction. She'd been meaning to suggest it was probably just lying around somewhere at home and make a joke about how typically messy a teenage guy's bedroom was, but her airen's expression froze the words before they could leave her lips. She hung her head, fished around in a pocket, and withdrew a small golden object. The young Amazon held it out to him.

In a sort of frozen calm, Ryoga took the offering. It was the photograph in question, sealed inside a heart-shaped picture frame. "And where did you get this?" he asked.

"Take from wallet on Monday lunch, when use Dance of Hidden Chameleon." Ling-Ling paused, trying to find the right words of apology. She didn't want to blurt out anything that would ruin Ryoga's upcoming surprise, after all.

The hesitation proved to be a mistake. Ryoga carefully opened the frame, carefully returned the photo to its place in his wallet, then spoke. "Ukyo was absolutely right about you, wasn't she? You don't care one bit about how I feel, or how anybody else feels. You just do whatever you want, and think that's okay."

"That not true!" Lung-Lung burst out angrily. It was unfortunate that the mention of Ukyo roused her temper that strongly, because Ryoga, unfamiliar though he was with some emotions, was no stranger to anger. And that was what he saw now, an angry girl with no trace of guilt or remorse to be seen.

"Isn't it?!" he countered. "How can you sit there and say that? Maybe you've forgotten what you're using right now to hold your bangs back, Lung-Lung? You two take whatever you feel like. My bandana, my shirt, my right to make my own choices, and now this. Well, you went too far this time!"

The lime-haired girl flinched at his tone, her anger dying back down. "Airen, we just want something to have when you not around," she said miserably. She was referring to the bandana, not the photograph, but there wasn't any way for him to deduce that. Ryoga's expression didn't soften even slightly.

Ling-Ling gulped for breath. She didn't care about spoiling the surprise anymore. Let him find out now… she just couldn't bear to see that look of coldness in her Airen's eyes. She opened her mouth, and tried to speak, but a sob rose up instead. With the last of her self-control, she forced it back, shot to her feet, and raced away.

Lung-Lung felt the remaining traces of her composure beginning to fracture as well. With the departure of her sister, she knew she didn't have the strength to hold back her emotions either. She wrenched the bandana off her forehead, dropped it at Ryoga's feet, and fled after Ling-Ling.

It was a long time before he could muster the energy to pick it up. "Damn it all anyway," Ryoga eventually muttered bitterly. The twins hadn't been fast enough to keep him from seeing the tears in their eyes. "I didn't mean for you to take it like that."

Sunset found Ryoga on top of the Kuno mansion. He'd gone to a few parks, but hadn't found even the slightest comfort there. He hadn't really expected Ranma's habit to bring solace either, and so far his expectations had been confirmed. The former lost boy held an object in each hand, automatically shifting his gaze from one to the other every so often, but not really seeing either the photograph frame or the long-lost bandana.

"Is this how you keep your promises, Ryoga?"

The question lashed out at him like a whip. He flinched, and spun around to find Cologne standing behind him, staff in hand. Her aura was tightly banked, but still present. It was plain to see that she was very, very unhappy.

Which made two of them, Ryoga thought. Though his emotions were different from those of the Matriarch, they were no less dark. "No," he said. "This is how I screw up. This is how, even without a damned Oni soul tied to me, I manage to hurt people I don't want to."

"Don't WANT to?!" Cologne snapped. "Nobody forced you to treat Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung so harshly."

"No. Nobody did." Ryoga didn't try to meet her gaze. "Just my own stupidity. I didn't want to hurt them like that. I sure as hell didn't want to send them off in tears. And if I could do it over again, you better believe I'd handle things differently.

"But elder," here he did manage to find a bit of backbone, "they get some of the blame, too. Heck, all they had to do was ASK, and I'd have had copies made of that photograph for them. I know I overreacted. But they're the ones who took my most precious possession without even asking. Something needed to be said." He sighed bitterly. "I wanted them to admit they were wrong, and apologize. That's all I was trying to say. I just wish I hadn't blown it like I did."

Incredibly, Cologne's gaze hardened further. "There was a very good reason they did not ask before they took the photograph," the Matriarch returned. "Would it have cost you so much to give them the chance to explain?"

With that, Ryoga remembered a basic truth of reality. It's always possible for things to get worse. "W-What?! Why couldn't they ask?"

Cologne reached into her robe, and removed a three-inch oval of tiger's eye. "Do you remember this, boy?"

"Yeah, Shampoo used it to find Akane."

"In order to use the magic of this stone, you cannot simply think of a person's identity. You must have a reasonably clear mental picture of them as well. If Shampoo had never met Akane, the only way she could have located her would be if she had a photograph to aid her."

After a few seconds of non-comprehension, her meaning hit him like the kick of a mule to his gut. "My… my parents…"

"That is correct." The Matriarch eased up a fraction on the severity of her manner. She was still unhappy with him, but it didn't look like Ryoga could take much more harshness. "Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung asked me to seek out your parents, to see if it might be practical to go to them rather than waiting for them to come to us. They wanted it to be a surprise for you, boy."

Ryoga didn't respond verbally. He just closed his eyes and hung his head. Cologne regarded him closely, and began to reconsider the approach she'd been taking. From what the twins had told her, she'd been expecting to find Ryoga still angry and cold toward them. But he hadn't been like that at all, really, now that she thought back over the past few minutes. And though she'd known her revelation would have an impact on him, she hadn't been prepared for this level of sorrow and self-disgust.

After a few minutes of silence, the Matriarch spoke again. "Ryoga." She said his name calmly, even sympathetically. He didn't look up. She repeated herself, and received the same lack of response. Cologne was sorely tempted to swat him with her staff, but refrained, holding her peace for another few minutes.

Eventually Ryoga did open his eyes, and meet her gaze again. Cologne blinked in alarm. It had become painfully obvious he was taking this harder than she'd expected, but she still hadn't thought to see hopelessness like that. "What am I going to do?" he asked her.

"I would have thought that an apology was called for," she answered dryly. "Did you really need my help to figure that out?"

"An apology? That's not enough!" Ryoga protested bitterly. "That doesn't even begin to make up for this!"

Once again, Cologne thought back to Ryoga's background, and how much of his life had been spent alone, a stranger to aspects of social interaction that most people take for granted. She sighed, mentally chastising herself for coming down on him so harshly. Once again, she reminded herself of how badly she had failed with Tatewaki. "Boy, listen to me. Mistakes happen. That's just part of life.

"Are you thinking that Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung will never forgive you for this? That's nonsense. All they really want is for you to go to them and tell them you're not angry with them. That's what had them in tears, the thought that you might never forgive them, or give them another chance."

This didn't seem to make him feel any better. "Forgive them?! Another chance?! What're you talking about, granny? This isn't their fault at all! It's all mine!"

"Really?" Cologne returned. "Tell me, Ryoga, this afternoon… did you tell Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to leave, that you never wanted to see them again?"

"O-of course not!"

"So in fact, they overreacted when they ran off instead of explaining themselves you. Do you see, boy… you weren't the only one guilty of a misunderstanding today, were you?"

Ryoga just stared at her for a minute. "Didn't we start this conversation with you furious at me for what I did? And now you're saying it's okay?!"

"I'm not saying you reacted properly," the Matriarch snapped back. "Just that not all the blame falls on you. Did they even try to explain themselves?"

"No. All Lung-Lung said was they wanted something to remember me by when I wasn't around."

"She said that, did she?" Cologne was less than amused. "So not only did they NOT try to explain, they actually lied about their motivations." She sighed. "They were trying to preserve the surprise for you, but that was their mistake. They should have just told you the truth. And besides," she reached out and picked up the empty frame, where it lay beside him on the rooftop, "they should have sneaked the photograph back into your possession before you missed it. Then this whole situation would have been avoided."

"Yeah, I wish they'd done that," Ryoga said. He got to his feet. "Thanks, granny. Guess I better go talk to them, huh?"

It had been a rhetorical question, but Cologne answered anyway. "No. Sit down, boy, I'm not through talking to you."

Reluctantly, Ryoga did as he was told. "Could you make this quick? I'd like to get going!"

Cologne gave him an intimidating stare. "I need to speak with them before you do. And I want you to wait until tomorrow before you apologize to them."

"What?! Can't I just do it tonight after you see them?"

"No, Ryoga." The Matriarch cranked up the intensity of her gaze. "Now, why don't I see if I can guess what's going through your mind right now?

"Despite what I've said, you still feel that most of the blame falls on you. You're disgusted with yourself at how insensitive you were toward Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. You plan to go to them, tell them how sorry you are and beg for them to forgive you. And if they ask some ridiculous act from you as compensation, you'll agree to it in a heartbeat. At least as long as it doesn't go against your honor. Am I right?" Cologne poked him with her stick, but gently. And not on a shiatsu point. "If they asked you to purchase every orchid in a two-mile radius around the Nekohanten for them, would you do it?"

Ryoga winced. "You don't really think they'll go that far, do you? The Kunos give me a nice allowance, which is really generous considering I'm just a guest in their home, but that would leave me flat broke for the next two weeks!"

Cologne sighed. "It was just a hypothetical situation, boy, but you'd do it if they asked. Wouldn't you?"

He reluctantly nodded, then frowned. "Hey, is that why you wanted to talk to them before I did? So you could give them ideas? Ow!" This last was said as Cologne swatted him with her staff, not particularly gently this time.

"No, sonny boy, I want to help them understand your perspective, just as I've done with you for theirs." Cologne paused, considering what to say next. "And there's more that needs to be said about that.

"Even if you had been totally in the wrong here, it would be a mistake to crawl back to them on your belly and plead for forgiveness. That isn't what they want, Ryoga." It might be what they thought they wanted— Cologne wasn't sure— but if so she didn't intend to allow the twins to continue in that delusion. "Why did they first fall for you, anyway?"

Ryoga waited long enough to be sure the Matriarch wasn't going to answer her own question, then replied, "I got into a fight with them, and I was winning."

"They were first impressed with the way you leaped to their defense against the boys you thought were threatening them, but you're mostly correct. You stood up to them, and showed them the measure of your strength, and skill, and spirit. Do you see where I'm going with this, boy?"

"Haven't got a clue," Ryoga admitted.

Cologne's fingers tightened slightly around her staff, but that was all the frustration she allowed herself to show. "Let me put this another way. As Amazons, what do you think Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung expect of their husband?"

The former lost boy frowned hard as he thought about that, taking into account how he'd seen Shampoo act toward Ranma. "I don't really know," he admitted helplessly at last. "I mean, I understand some things, like they want to spend time with me, and they enjoy doing stuff for me, like bringing lunch and…" he winced, "and trying to find my parents. But I don't know what you're trying to get at, elder."

The Matriarch sighed. "Let me be a little more blunt. Do they expect you to become subservient to them? Is that what you think the role of an Amazon husband is?"

Ryoga gave her a blank stare of surprise. "No. Why would I?"

"You'd be amazed at how many outsiders do think exactly that," Cologne said darkly. "As soon as you mention the word 'Amazon', they picture some ridiculous scenario of weak-willed, broken men with no fighting spirit whatsoever."

"But that doesn't make any sense at all. Why would you marry men who beat you in combat if you wanted husbands without any will of their own?"

"I'm glad it seems so clear to you, Ryoga," the Matriarch purred. "Now, when you go to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung tomorrow, are you still planning to abase yourself and beg their forgiveness?"

It was almost a full minute before Ryoga could respond. Somehow, he just hadn't been able to make the connection when it was HIS situation he was considering. At last he said, "No. I won't do it like that. But I was wrong, elder, and I AM going to own up to it."

Cologne grinned. "Glad to hear it, sonny boy. Just don't let them get off scot-free, either. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung want a husband they can respect, not a human doormat."

The first, faint notes became audible as Ryoga neared the treeline. He stopped just on the other side, remembering back to the first time he'd been in this position. The music he was hearing now had only one thing in common with the first piece he'd heard Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung play, and that was the power it held to touch the listener's heart.

That morning, the twins' melodies had been lively and energetic, enchanting and uplifting all at once. Here and now, just the opposite was true. The strains whispered of loneliness and sorrow. Ryoga listened for a moment, then, his resolve strengthened further than ever, pushed his way through the trees. He hadn't meant to hurt them in the first place, and there was no way he was going to let them keep feeling the emotions that music evoked in him.

The young Amazons let the last notes of their melody fade away as Ryoga walked up to them. Lung-Lung set down her flute. "Nihao, Ryoga," she said quietly.

"Hey," he responded awkwardly, then wasn't sure what to say next. The annoyance he'd been feeling all morning toward Cologne spiked briefly. It would be a heck of a lot easier just to get down on his knees and beg for their forgiveness!

"Airen." Ling-Ling's voice shook Ryoga back to awareness, to find the twins had prostrated themselves before him. "We very, very sorry for what we do. You please forgive us?"

"What?! No! … I mean, yes! … I mean… Arggh!" Ryoga smacked himself on the forehead, then got down on his knees in front of them and placed a hand on each twin's shoulder. "Please, get up," he said. "I came here to apologize to you. You don't owe me anything."

"That not true," Ling-Ling said quietly. The girls sat up, but their faces were still cast toward the ground. "Meant to get photo back to you soon after take, but keep forgetting. Then no tell Airen why we take in first place. We make big mistake. We sorry."

"Yeah?" Ryoga countered bitterly. "Well, at least you didn't lose your temper and yell at somebody for doing the nicest thing that anyone's done for you in months. Please, Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, forgive me. I'm sorry too."

Lung-Lung took a deep breath, then looked up with a hesitant smile. "Then if Ryoga accept our apology, we accept yours," she said. "Now come best part of argument time."

"What's that?" he asked, puzzled.

Lung-Lung's smile shifted from timid to sultry. "Part where make up afterward." She began to lean toward him

"That's right, I almost forgot!" Ryoga smacked himself on the forehead again, then reached up and removed the bandana. He held it out to Lung-Lung. "Here." He laughed nervously. "After all this time, it doesn't feel natural to wear it anymore, anyway."

The Amazon took the bandana and tied it back into her own hair. Her hands trembled a little during the task. "Thank you, Airen," she said in a curiously choked voice.

Fortunately, before Ryoga could notice the tears in her eyes, get the wrong idea, and start feeling like a heel for making her cry again, Ling-Ling spoke up. "You do something make me feel better too?"

"Like what?" he asked. Really, he should have known better.

The cherry-haired girl's eyes widened and grew incredibly sparkly. "Ling-Ling always dream of get flowers from man she love. You maybe buy all orchids in two mile radius around Nekohanten for me?"

Ryoga's facefault narrowly missed hitting Lung-Lung.

Both twins erupted into giggles. Ling-Ling patted the prostrate teen on his shoulder. "Just kidding, Airen. Great-Grandmother told us ask you that if we want see you react funny."

He picked himself up and spat out a few blades of grass. "Hah, hah, hah. That old ghoul is just one laugh after another," Ryoga growled, thinking back to when he'd woken up, with the first sight he'd seen being the message that said where to meet the twins this morning. Where the heck had Cologne managed to find a papier-mâché horse's head anyway?

Ling-Ling continued speaking. "She also say we can have afternoon off, to go with you and see movie. If you want."

Ryoga didn't have to consider long before answering. "Sure. What movie?" he asked, bracing himself for some romantic chick flick. Sitting through something like that wouldn't be much fun, but at least it would get rid of the residual guilt he was still feeling.

Lung-Lung grinned. "Is new John Woo action movie open few days ago. We really looking forward to watch it. Even better if can go with you."

"So much for getting rid of the rest of my guilt," Ryoga muttered under his breath. Louder, he said, "You sure you wouldn't rather catch some kind of romance film?"

"No, that more big sister Shampoo's idea of date," Lung-Lung said. "We rather see something where it not matter if we not understand all the dialogue."

Ling-Ling took in the angle of the sun with a disappointed pout. "Need to get back to Nekohanten for morning shift, Airen," she said. "But we see you at two o'clock, okay?"

"Okay, yeah, I'll see you then." The three got to their feet and went their separate ways. Not until nearly ten minutes had passed did Ryoga suddenly stop in his tracks and stammer, "W-wait a minute. D-Did Lung-Lung say this was a d-d-date?!"

The next several hours saw Ryoga grow increasingly uneasy, as both Ranma and Tatewaki were nowhere to be found. The former was out patrolling through greater Tokyo with Kodachi and Shampoo, while the latter was mopping the floor with his opposition at a kendo tournament. Eventually Ryoga had to face the ugly truth… he was going to go into this, his first date ever, with no advice at all from his more experienced comrades.

Striving mightily, the former lost boy managed to dredge up some dim memories that might help him, of a conversation overheard during one of his earlier infrequent stints at school. Of course, the kid who'd been doing the talking had been describing his American cousin's prom night, but this was one of the details Ryoga had forgotten over time.

Arriving at the Nekohanten, Ryoga took a deep breath, then knocked on the door (receiving a few strange looks from passersby in the process). No response.

He knocked again, louder this time. A few seconds later, the door opened. He gulped, then quickly whipped two boxes from behind his back. "Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, these are for… you?" Only then did it dawn on him that he was face to face with several complete strangers.

The girl in front gave him an odd stare. "Do you mind?" she eventually said, as Ryoga continued unmoving. "We'd like to get out of the restaurant sometime today."

Ryoga grinned sheepishly and moved aside. His timing was perfect— just then, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, who had turned toward the door to see what the problem was, realized their Airen had arrived. The twins dashed forward, scattering the unfortunate souls still in the doorway like leaves in the wind.

"Oh, to be young and foolish again," Cologne muttered resignedly, regarding the four dazed teenagers sprawled around the entryway to the restaurant. Not likely they'd become repeat customers. Oh well, if the cash reserves got too low she'd just inform the Yakuza that it was time for another payment on their life insurance policy.

In the lane outside, Ryoga grinned nervously and held a package out to each twin. "Here, it's not much, but if I bought all of them in two miles there wouldn't be any left for other people, right?"

Ling-Ling felt her breath catch as she unwrapped a single, beautiful orchid. "Is lovely, Airen." Beside her, Lung-Lung reacted much the same way. Simultaneously, the Amazons breathed in the fragrance of their flowers, then looked at Ryoga with shining eyes.

As the moments slipped by, he felt himself becoming more and more uneasy. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung just seemed content to stand there, holding their gifts and smiling at him. Ryoga wasn't even sure their eyes were focused. "Are you ready to get going?" No response. "Ling-Ling? Lung-Lung?"

The girls blinked their way back to reality. "Okay, let us just put in water, then we go," Lung-Lung said.

"Put them in water?" Ryoga asked. "Aren't you going to wear them?"

Ling-Ling, who'd never heard of a corsage, gave him a surprised look. "How we supposed to do that?"

"I don't know," he was forced to admit. "I thought it was one of those things all girls knew."

"All Japanese girls, maybe," Lung-Lung muttered as she examined her orchid. How was she supposed to wear it, anyway? It wasn't like there was a handy pin to use in attaching it to her shirt.

Eventually, with the aid of some ribbons, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung worked out a way to affix the flowers to the fronts of their jumpsuits. The three set off toward the nearest movie theater.

Three-quarters of the way to their destination, there was a busy street that they had to cross. Ryoga wasn't surprised that the Amazons took the opportunity to each take one of his arms. Nor was he surprised that they didn't let go afterwards. Nope, the only thing that surprised him was that they had waited so long to do it.

Not until they actually reached the theater did Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung let go, and even then it was only so that everybody could get out money to purchase their tickets. Ryoga stepped forward while the twins were still digging in their pockets.

The ticket lady spoke before he could. "Oh, that's so cute. I bet I know which movie you three are going to see."

Ryoga wondered how it could be so obvious. "Really?"

"Mm-hm." She glanced at the orchids Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were wearing, then beamed at him. "Rainbow Brite and the Flower Princess. Am I right?"

A stunned silence fell over the three. Mistaking that as amazement at her powers of observation and deduction, the ticket lady continued speaking. "And what a nice boy you are, taking your little sisters to see it."

Ryoga took a quick step forward. This nearly pressed him flat against the glass of the ticket window, but at least he was no longer in danger of roasting in the twins' sudden battle auras. "Actually, I'd like three for Hong Kong Bullet Dance."

The lady frowned in dismay. "Oh, no, that film isn't appropriate at all for children. I'm sorry, but I can't—"

All that could be seen of Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung was a blur. Each girl produced her weapon and shot forward, the wood of their polearms ripping easily through the glass and concrete of the ticket window on either side of Ryoga. "WE NOT CHILDREN!!" Ling-Ling screamed in the ticket seller's face. "AND FOR SURE WE NOT HIS SISTERS!! NOW IS YOU GOING TO GIVE TICKETS TO HONG KONG BULLET DANCE OR NOT?!"

The unfortunate lady tore three tickets off the appropriate reel, offered them to Ling-Ling with a trembling hand, and then promptly fainted.

Two hours later, Ryoga, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung walked out of the theater. On seeing them again, the ticket lady dived under the counter, which was almost the only thing left intact in the ruins of her window. There was a long, awkward pause. At last Lung-Lung spoke up. "Thank you for coming to see movie with us, Airen."

"Yeah, we had great time with you." Ling-Ling sighed. "Just wish stupid ticket woman keep remarks about children to own self. That part was no fun."

Lung-Lung elbowed her sister, reminding her of what the two of them had discussed in the ladies' room. Ling-Ling glared back at her, then continued. "And we sorry we lose temper like that."

Ryoga shrugged. "You don't have to apologize to me. I wasn't much happier, especially when she called you my sisters. She should've just kept her remarks to herself."

"Then you not mad at us?" Lung-Lung asked in a tremulous little voice, her eyes wide and hopeful and afraid all at once. Mostly an act, of course, but Ryoga fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

"No! No, I'm not mad! Don't be silly, Lung-Lung. Besides, I used to cause a lot more property damage than you two did in my fights with Ranma. So don't feel bad."

The young Amazons gave him big smiles, then each latched onto one of his arms. The three walked off, heading back to the Nekohanten.

After five minutes had passed, in which she hadn't heard anything more from them, the unfortunate ticket lady dared to poke her head back up from her place of concealment. "I really hope Tetsuro's transfer out of Nerima goes through soon," she muttered.

This morning, the music filling the park was just about as far from sad and gloomy as it possibly could be. The Dance of the Great Fire Dragon couldn't be performed with just flutes, but anybody walking by within earshot might well have felt the urge to dance a few steps at the sheer exuberance of the twins' melodies.

It wasn't always this enjoyable. After all, the Amazons were ultimately doing this as training in their chosen fighting style; even when they personally weren't feeling bad, some of the songs they practiced weren't nearly so pleasant as today's. They'd even brought along a boom-box once, and performed the Dance of the Screaming Lemur. They hadn't really needed to hone those skills, but the twins had been getting tired of all the people who'd begun stopping by to listen in on them. Only Ryoga was allowed to do that. Of course, before they'd performed that particular Dance they had made very sure that their Airen wasn't anywhere nearby.

Today, however, only sounds of happiness and contentment echoed through the park. Ryoga had come by, told them that school had been cancelled for the day due to a gas leak, and listened to them play for nearly an hour. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung couldn't have been happier that he got the chance to do so. Later, the duo would seriously consider an act of sabotage at Furinkan so that their Airen would be able to come back again the next day, but for now they were just letting their emotions soar on wings of music.

Time passed, but the energy behind their playing didn't waver. In fact, it grew stronger and stronger instead of fading away. Two hours after Ryoga's departure, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were deeper than ever in the act of creation, spinning out new harmonies on sheer instinct, each girl keeping pace effortlessly with the other as the lead shifted back and forth between them. They had lost all track of time, all awareness of the world around them. Even the thought of Ryoga had left them now; the euphoria his visit had sparked was still with them, but now it was being sustained by their music instead.

They didn't know it, but the Amazons were caught up in the same creative process that had produced all the other special pieces of music that were the backbone of their chosen style. The melody swelled, stronger and more intense with each passing moment, as they moved toward a single, perfect moment of epiphany… One that would give birth to an entirely new Dance. A new song, with new powers, created out of the twins' most fervent desires and the happiness they'd brought into this session because of Ryoga's earlier visit. They didn't realize this, in fact they were well beyond the boundaries of conscious thought, but Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were only about ten minutes away from creating a song whose music would kick the libido of a listener into overdrive.

Considering the amount of trouble they would have caused with something like that up their sleeves, perhaps it's for the best that they were interrupted just then.

A squealing cry echoed through the park, ripping through the glorious harmonics like a rusty buzz saw through the Mona Lisa. "Philippe! Anne-Marie! You're so CUTE!"

Ling-Ling's concentration shattered. She blinked and gasped like a diver coming up for air. Her head spun as she tried to recover from the sudden wrenching loss of the creative fugue. Breaking from the flow at that point had been just as traumatic as if she'd been awakened from sleepwalking, both for her and for her sister. The two Amazons were left disoriented and confused, easy prey for Azusa Shiratori to zip by on her rollerblades, snatch the flutes out of their hands, and race off.

Five minutes later, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung staggered out of the park. It had taken them that long to regain enough equilibrium to interact with the world again. Their fury at Azusa had helped them focus; without that they would still have been on the grass trying to recover.

"<Big sister Shampoo should have squashed that thief when she had the chance,>" growled Lung-Lung. By the time they'd been able to walk without falling down every three steps, both girls had remembered the story their cousin had told them of her early encounter with the Golden Pair. "<You think she knows where that klepto's house is?>"

Ling-Ling shrugged. "<I bet a lot of people do, with as big a nuisance as she's got to be. Why should we wait for big sister to get back? I say we just start asking around now.>"

"<Good idea,>" her sister agreed. "<But let's wait a little longer. My head is still kind of woozy.>"

"<Yeah, mine too,>" Ling-Ling admitted. "<I've never felt like that before when we were practicing, Lung-Lung. Do you think…?>"

"<Yes,>" Lung-Lung said bitterly, thinking back to the account they had read, left by one of the long-departed Amazons who'd pioneered their style, which had described what it felt like to create the special songs. "<I think we were about to come up with a technique of our own. And then that witch ruined it.>"

"<That's what I thought, too,>" Ling-Ling sighed. "<If we had succeeded, we could've dedicated the song to Ryoga. I think it was cause we started out so happy to see him that we got that far into the music.>"

"<You're probably right. And we still will,>" Lung-Lung said determinedly. "<Sooner or later we'll manage it again, and not get interrupted. When we've got our own Dance, we can name it after Ryoga. At least if it doesn't turn out to be some sort of terrible, vicious attack technique.>"

"<I don't think it would have been,>" mused Ling-Ling. "<I was feeling too good while we played for something like that.>"

By now the twins had reached an open area with several tables and chairs scattered around, with a yattai parked at the far side. There was quite a crowd surrounding it. Noticing this, Ling-Ling poked her sister in the arm. "<I'm still feeling a little dizzy, Lung-Lung. You want to get something at that cart? With that many people, the food has to be good.>"

Lung-Lung stared at the crowd. "<But it doesn't look like they're actually getting food there. More like they're standing around watching something.>"

Ling-Ling took another look, and realized that was true. Furthermore, many of the people standing near the cart were trying to suppress laughter. And she was almost sure that she heard faint traces of some sort of commotion from the center of the crowd. Now curious, both Amazons walked over and slid through the onlookers, stopping dead once they got a clear view of what was on the other side.

"Jean-Claude! *Ooof* Jean-Claude! *Grunt* Be a good boy and come with little Azusa!" The heir of Shiratori Martial Arts Kleptomania had a death-grip on one corner of the cart, and was doing her level best to drag it along with her. As she was still wearing her rollerblades, and the wheels of the yattai were currently locked in place, all she was accomplishing was to slip, slide, and look even sillier than usual.

"You crazy little girl! What do you think you're doing?! My insurance doesn't cover some nutcase giving herself a hernia because she thought she could drag my business off bare-handed!" A small man in a large apron was waving his arms excitedly, trying to get rid of the screwball without actually using brute force. "Shoo! Shoo! Go smoke your hallucinogens somewhere else!"

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung watched for a few more seconds, identical unpleasant grins slowly spreading across their faces. Then the two walked forward. Lung-Lung tapped the vendor on his shoulder, interrupting a tirade against the incompetence of whatever asylum had let this lunatic escape. "Excuse," she said sweetly as the man turned to face her, "Would like some help dealing with stupid thief girl?"

"If you think you can," the vendor said dubiously.

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung stepped forward. Azusa stopped tugging on the yattai and turned to face them, almost as if she had enough sense to be cautious. "What do you want?"

"You give back flutes now, or get lots of pain," Ling-Ling snapped. "Even more than you is already going to get."

"No! Philippe and Anne-Marie are going home with me!" She stuck out her tongue, then started tugging on the cart again. "Just like Jean-Claude, as soon as he stops being so stubborn."

The twins found themselves at a bit of an impasse. Snarl and threaten though they might, they weren't quite prepared to just step forward and start thrashing the girl. Besides, they were gaijin and their target wasn't… actually doing anything would just be asking for trouble with this many witnesses. Ling-Ling glanced at her sister. Lung-Lung understood the message, and pulled out her trident (which tends to work much better than a staff for intimidation purposes). She noticed Azusa's eyes immediately riveted on the weapon. Good. "Is you deaf or stupid or both?!" the lime-haired girl shouted. "Give back now!"

"Nicollette! Nicollette! Come to little Azusa!"

Typical Japanese politeness notwithstanding, by now most of the onlookers had stopped trying to hold back their laughter. It was just too comical to see the two Chinese girls standing in an unbelieving stupor, while Azusa cooed and cuddled the spearhead that she'd effortlessly plucked from the haft of Lung-Lung's weapon.

"Thanks so much for your help," the vendor said disparagingly to the twins. He turned back to face Azusa. "Little girl, please go away. I've got a business to run here. If you just promise to leave quietly, I'll give you a free order of octopus puffs."

Azusa paused, seeming to consider that. "Well, I don't like octopus puffs that much, but Daddy loves them…"

"So you'll do it then?" the vendor asked pathetically.

Azusa beamed cutely at him. "Nope! When Azusa takes Jean-Claude home, Daddy can have ALL the octopus puffs Jean-Claude is carrying!"

At this point, there was only one onlooker in the crowd who wasn't laughing out loud. He had been watching for several minutes now, not sure as to just what was happening. But with this, Kyunnosuke had made his mind up. This scene was just too ridiculous to really be happening. It had to be that bane of all right-thinking people's existence… performance art!

He strode forward, a scowl on his face. "Stop!" he said in a tone so commanding that it broke the twins from their daze. As one they whirled to face him. "How dare you villains practice your vile perversions in the full view of all these innocent people!" Ever since his accidental run-in with Ranma's classmate Usagi Tokiro three weeks previously, Kyunnosuke had been reading way too much Sailor Moon manga, and it showed now in his speech. "In the name of…" he barely stopped himself from saying 'the moon', "…common decency, I'll punish you!"

It would have galled Kyunnosuke to the bone to know that to the onlookers, he had just identified himself as part of the entertainment. However, he wasn't going to be put into a position to realize this.

By now the twins' patience was just about exhausted. "Shut up you stupid talking!" "Stay out of this! It our business!"

"I don't think so! I'll never rest so long as a single performance artist remains in Japan!" The boy pulled a pair of nunchaku from their resting place at his belt, and began spinning them as he stalked toward the closest target— the Amazon twins. "But if you start running now, I'll let you go and deal with these others instead."

Kyunnosuke didn't really have any intention of beating up some defenseless little girls. He figured he'd just scare them off and thrash the man. It was somewhat disconcerting, then, to see that the duo weren't taking the opportunity to flee. They were just glaring at him more fiercely than ever. He mentally sighed, and forced himself to scowl even more darkly in response. Apparently it was going to take more extreme measures to bluff them into running. He might end up looking like some kind of heel to the rest of the crowd of onlookers, but Kyunnosuke was firmly convinced that someday they'd thank him for standing up and combating the evils of performance art. "I mean it!" he snarled. "Don't think I'll hold back, just because you're children! Get running now if you don't want to get the spanking you deserve!"

It's possible, if he had complete knowledge of the Amazons' lives and personalities, and if he'd been given several days to work on it, that he could have come up with something to say that would have made them angrier than this did. Possible, but unlikely.

With a collective snarl of rage, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung dashed forward. Lung-Lung knocked the nunchaku away, then joined her sister in pummeling Kyunnosuke mercilessly. He didn't even maintain consciousness long enough to let them blunt the edge of their anger.

They were far past the point of caution or discretion now. As the unfortunate bane of performance art crashed to the ground, the Amazons turned again and started toward Azusa… or rather, where Azusa had been.

A ditz she might be, but even Azusa Shiratori had survival instincts. With a quickly-whispered "Jean-Claude, little Azusa will be back for you later," she had skated away as Ling-Ling's staff made its first contact with Kyunnosuke's head.

On the surface, it would seem an act of unparalleled stupidity for Azusa to stop two blocks later and get herself a glass of iced lemonade (it wasn't cute lemonade, so money actually changed hands in the transaction). She was just finishing the drink when Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung turned a corner several blocks away, saw her, and began running forward at top speed.

However, Azusa was still wearing her rollerblades, and no matter how angry the twins were, they hadn't had the kind of speed training that would have let them overcome that advantage. The youngest Shiratori sped away again, deliberately keeping her pace down just enough that she wouldn't outdistance the Amazons completely. This was one of the advanced techniques of Shiratori Martial Arts Kleptomania… when someone's angry enough to chase you to the ragged point of exhaustion, let them, then go back once they collapse and see if they're carrying anything else interesting (or, in Azusa's case, cute). And so she stayed within the twins' sight range, even as they raced up one street and down the next, through alleys and byways and even one shopping mall.

If Ranma or perhaps Ryoga had been involved in the chase, it no doubt would have gathered additional participants as it progressed. However, neither was, and as Azusa skated merrily out of Nerima and into the streets of greater Tokyo, only Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were following her.

The twins were still furious, but they were running on the last of their energy now. Five more minutes of this, and they'd be completely spent. Lung-Lung sensed herself nearing the end of her endurance. With a mental snarl, she tried to draw on more, tried to push herself beyond her limits, unwilling to let the thief girl get away like this. Through sheer force of will, she managed to speed up a bit.

Azusa glanced back over her shoulder as she sensed the narrowing of the gap that separated her from her pursuers. Her momentary uneasiness vanished as she saw the twins were nearly at the end of their strength. But they wouldn't be quite exhausted enough to approach safely, if they gave up now. Best to give them a little more motivation to keep running. She turned around to face them completely, not seeming to have any difficulty at all skating backwards without reducing her speed, and stuck out her tongue at the Amazons. As their anger rose even further, she gave a mocking wave and spun back around to face forward again.

And saw a boy standing stock-still, two feet in front of her.

Not a chance in the world for her to avoid him at this pace. Azusa slammed into him, sending the both of them barreling to the ground. She felt a moment of shocked indignation as he twisted out from under her, instead of acting as a true gentleman should and taking all the impact on himself. Then she hit the pavement.

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung felt a new rush of energy surge through them as their enemy slammed into the ground. They were still thirty feet behind her as she staggered to her feet and started skating off, but one of the wheels had been damaged on Azusa's right rollerblade and she was no longer capable of the speed she needed. Later, the twins would feel a good bit of guilt for trampling the boy who'd stopped Azusa, but for now such thoughts were forgotten. They caught her two blocks later, and the only thing that saved Azusa from the beating she deserved was the fact that the twins were two tired to do much more than retrieve their flutes and warn her that the next time they saw her, they'd thrash her to within an inch of her life.

Several minutes later, Ken staggered to his feet. It had happened so fast, he hadn't had a chance to invoke his Dark Armor. He hadn't even gotten more than a glimpse of any of the girls who'd run him down. "Just great," he growled to himself weakly. "Losing to Ranma was bad enough. But I can't believe I just got demolished by a bunch of little kids." Marshalling his strength, and pushing his embarrassment aside, he hobbled off to make his report to Sakura.

Azusa didn't show her face in Tokyo for quite some time after that. If asked, she would have denied indignantly that Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had anything to do with this. It was just that there were so many cute things in safer… ahem… other parts of Japan.

Over the next few days, the young Amazons prowled around Nerima rather more than usual, keeping an eye out for the youngest Shiratori. This was doomed to failure, of course, and on Saturday they found something else that infuriated them almost as much as Azusa had.

Cologne felt their anger even before they opened the door of the restaurant. She gave the twins a quick visual once-over as they made their way into the kitchen. They didn't look exhausted or disheveled, so they hadn't lost a fight or had an accident. "What's wrong, you two?"

"Is spatula girl again," Ling-Ling grated through clenched teeth. "We on our way back when see her. Catch sight of her with Airen off in distance. We follow for while, make sure they no see us, and watch." Though they had continued their attempts to teach Ryoga to see through the Dance of the Hidden Chameleon, so far he had yet to accomplish it. This had worked in the Amazons' favor today.

"They go for long walk, end up at nice restaurant where they eat lunch." Lung-Lung was clearly in no better a mood than her sister. "They not get too close anytime we watch, but she try couple of times. Ryoga not take bait, though." Remembering that, she calmed down a bit. "He not respond to any of spatula girl's come-on tricks."

"Is right," Ling-Ling agreed, her temper improving a bit as well. "Is not like with us at all, where he get nervous and fluster and too shy to respond. He just pretend like he not notice with her. Only thing Airen could have do better would be tell her outright to leave him alone, he only want to be friends."

"And it not likely he have heart enough to hurt her like that anyway," Lung-Lung said, remembering the talk Cologne had had with them about Ryoga's feelings and motivations. "Lung-Lung understand Ryoga not willing to hurt girl by choice, but wish he make exception just this once."

The Matriarch was silent for a long moment, mulling over what to say in response to this. During her previous discussions with Ryoga, she had not brought up the subject of Ukyo. By the time he finally defeated the twins and received the Kiss of Marriage, Cologne had seen enough to agree wholeheartedly with Shampoo's earlier assessment— that what he wanted, most of all, was just for someone to love and accept him. She'd felt that if only Ryoga gave Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung an honest chance, their open and uninhibited affection would secure them the place they longed for in his heart.

Hearing that the Kuonji girl seemed determined to fight along the same lines wasn't particularly pleasant, though Cologne was still confident that the twins would eventually be victorious; after all, they had a tie of honor as well as of love. There was only one way Ryoga could honorably forsake Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, and the Matriarch knew very well that when the year she'd given him was up there was no way he would be able to say he'd determined he was never going to love them. Ryoga might not have admitted it to himself yet, but if she went to him tomorrow and forced him to the point of honesty, she knew he already wouldn't be able to reject them like that.

Cologne seriously considered doing so. Perhaps it would be better to go ahead and get it over with. After all, even though Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung would inevitably win because their honor was at stake and Ukyo's was not (plus, if push came to shove, Ryoga would surely rather hurt one girl than two), it might well require a long and drawn-out fight that would leave deep emotional scars on one or more of the combatants. And certainly the prize in question would be hurt by such a struggle.

The Matriarch felt a momentary surge of exasperation toward Shampoo. To hear her great-granddaughter talk, this Kuonji girl was a good and honorable sort. But Shampoo had told her friend of the Amazon laws. And if the chef had any intention of honoring them, or of respecting the situation Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were in, she certainly hadn't shown it yet.

Still, Cologne reminded herself, it wouldn't be that unreasonable of Ukyo to think she had most of a year left before the issue was decided. Taken in that light, the chef's actions didn't really lack integrity. She was just fighting for what she wanted, a sentiment any Amazon, really any woman at all, could certainly sympathize with. It was just that Ukyo hadn't yet realized this particular battle wasn't one she could honorably win.

And so, the Matriarch temporarily shelved the idea of going to Ryoga and forcing the issue. Time enough for that later, should things start to get out of hand. If possible, it would be much better to find a less painful way to remove his other admirer from the picture. And fortunately, a bit of thought brought one to mind that might work very well.

Returning her thoughts to the immediate present, the ancient Amazon was just in time to see the twins heading through the back door into the alley behind the restaurant. "And where do you think you're going?"

Lung-Lung turned back. "We get good idea while Great-Grandmother busy meditating. Go find big sister Shampoo, ask her to use Xi Fang Gao on spatula girl like Ranma use on stupid Mousse, make her forget she want be anything more than just friend to Airen."

"Don't be silly, Lung-Lung, you know Shampoo considers Ukyo a good friend. She'd never use the Xi Fang Gao on her," Cologne answered. "Come back in here, you two. I've got a better idea."

Reluctantly, because the idea of having Ukyo forget to be a nuisance seemed VERY attractive just then, the twins complied. "What idea, Great-Grandmother?" Ling-Ling asked. "Is you sure Shampoo no would help?"

"Quite sure, and don't go asking me to do it instead. Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo all alike would be upset if I did, and only a fool would stir up their ire."

In another part of Tokyo, a tall boy sneezed. It happened at a particularly awkward moment of the kata he was performing, causing him lose his grip on his giant paintbrush.

"And like I said, I have a better idea." Cologne paused for a moment, giving the twins an inscrutable look. "Tell me," she said at last, "Is Ryoga the perfect man?"

Ling-Ling stifled a groan. When Great-Grandmother asked a seemingly irrelevant question, it could only mean one thing… that she was once again going to lead them down the twisting, convoluted pathways that were her thought processes. The cherry-haired girl could frankly do without these kinds of lessons. But she knew better than to complain; last time she had, Cologne had had her translate sixty pages of Machiavelli from Japanese to Mandarin. She carefully considered her answer. "Is no such thing as perfect man."

"Then what sort of man would have to come along, to make you forsake him?" the Matriarch continued.

"We not ever!" snapped Ling-Ling. Some questions didn't need careful consideration.

"Would have to be man what know Xi Fang Gao," Lung-Lung said, flashing a smirk at her sister. Ling-Ling stuck out her tongue in response.

Cologne stood silent. Eventually, Ling-Ling spoke up. "Is you not going to ask another question, Great-Grandmother?"

"What I've said so far should be more than enough for you to work out the solution for yourselves," the Matriarch answered, her grip beginning to shift subtly on her staff.

Recognizing an imminent encounter with the stick's business end, Ling-Ling's thoughts sped up frantically. "You think we need find man what make spatula girl forget about Airen, and chase him instead?"

"Very good, child." Cologne smiled broadly at the redhead. Anyone who hadn't grown up around the Matriarch probably would have preferred the swat to that sight. "And in fact, I have one in mind who should fit the bill nicely."

"Is someone we know?" Lung-Lung asked, thinking of some of the males back in the village. Though bringing someone all the way from home just for this seemed like an awful lot of trouble.

"I doubt it," the Matriarch responded. "I haven't actually met him, but I heard of him when I was in greater Tokyo awhile back. A talented martial artist and cook alike, who combines both those disciplines into one art. He goes by the business name of the Crepe King."

"If you never meet him, can you still use Eye of Bastet to find him?" Ling-Ling asked.

"No, I'm afraid I've no idea what he looks like. But I'm willing to give you two a little more free time than usual, so you can search for him yourselves."

"But Great-Grandmother, we already busy looking for stupid thief girl! No have time for try find someone else too!" Lung-Lung protested.

Cologne's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "You're still looking for her? Why haven't you just waited for her at her house?"

A long moment of silence. Eventually Lung-Lung answered sheepishly, "We no think of it."

Cologne pogoed off, returning a moment later with two copies of Machiavelli's book, 'The Prince'. Ling-Ling didn't bother to suppress her groan this time. "Forty pages from each of you."

Several days later, as the sun began its descent from noon's zenith, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung sat down in a café for a quick lunch. Both girls were quiet for several minutes, except to place their orders. Eventually, though, Lung-Lung broke the silence. "<I don't know if I should feel guilty or proud.>"

"<I know what you mean,> Ling-Ling replied morosely. "<We lied through our teeth to big sister Shampoo about why Great-Grandmother gave us the day to explore the city. But if we hadn't, Ranma still wouldn't have kissed her yet.>"

"<Yeah.>" Lung-Lung sighed, then decided to try to lighten the mood with a joke. "<Tell you what. I was the one who lied to her. You were the one who said what Ranma needed to hear to get his act together. So how about I feel guilty, and you feel proud?>"

Ling-Ling brightened. "<Works for me. Thanks, sis.>"

As Lung-Lung debated whether to hit her sister with her hand or her trident, the waitress brought them their orders. This distracted the lime-haired girl enough that Ling-Ling got off unscathed.

The redhead in question didn't maintain her cheerfulness for very long, though. By the time she'd finished her soup, she was looking downcast again. "<I don't like this, Lung-Lung,>" Ling-Ling said. "<I hate not trusting big sister Shampoo. How come she can't take our side instead of the spatula girl's?>"

Lung-Lung frowned. "<Yeah, I know. The worst thing is we don't KNOW she wouldn't. Maybe if we told her we were trying to keep Ukyo away from Ryoga, she'd help us. But after what Great-Grandmother said, it's just too risky to trust her.>"

"<Stupid Heart Link,>" Ling-Ling grumbled. Cologne had eventually decided that keeping the remaining details of the Heart Link from the twins would be a mistake, given what they already knew, and had told them the whole story. The Matriarch hadn't been a bit surprised when they spent the next seventy-two hours begging her to Link them to Ryoga. "<Just because Ukyo was Ranma's friend when they were kids shouldn't force big sister Shampoo to be so loyal to her now.>"

"Is just one more thing to hold against spatula girl," Lung-Lung said, returning to Japanese as a nagging internal voice, sounding a lot like Cologne, reminded her that she still needed plenty of work before she could speak her husband's language fluently.

"Pardon me, young lady."

The voice had come from the table next to theirs, or rather from the man seated there. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had noticed him when they'd come in. It would have been fairly hard not to— not that many people go around dressed up like the king from a deck of playing cards. If the girls hadn't been distracted by the events of their morning, they probably would have spent a bit of time covertly observing the strange man, and wondering whether he was on his way to a costume party or just a native strayed from Nerima. But as it was, they'd simply ignored him.

Hard to do that now, though, as he had turned his chair around to face them. "My Mandarin is quite rusty, but I believe I heard you mention the name Ukyo. Would that be Ukyo Kuonji?"

Ling-Ling nodded. "Why you ask?"

"I knew an Ukyo Kuonji many years ago, when she was just a little girl. Is your Ukyo around sixteen or seventeen years old, and perhaps interested in okonomiyaki?"

Lung-Lung managed to shake her way free of the grimace that had developed at hearing the chef referred to as 'their' Ukyo. "Uh-huh, with long brown hair and spatula fetish. Sound like same person to you?"

"Almost certainly. Ah, but where are my manners?" The man leaned forward, performing an odd sort of half-bow without getting up from his chair. "Vegas Presley, at your service. More commonly known as the Gambling King."

'<Gambling King?>' Ling-Ling thought to herself. '<Why couldn't we run into the Crepe King instead?! I don't think this one will do very well for what Great-Grandmother suggested.>' Though a wide grin did spread across her face as she imagined the stupid spatula girl paired up with this overweight old clown.

Like her sister, Lung-Lung had noted the similarity between their quarry's name and this man's. "You say Gambling King? Does you know of Crepe King, maybe?"

"I might," the King replied guardedly, wondering whether this was a serious question or the set-up line for a joke at his expense. If the latter, he might just have to challenge these girls to a game of high-stakes, cutthroat Old Maid. "Why do you ask?"

"Is man we look for. Skilled martial artist and good cook too. You maybe can help us find?" Lung-Lung answered hopefully.

Okay, probably not a joke, at least not on him. Most likely someone else had played one on these girls, sending them on a wild goose chase after an imaginary person. Crepe King, indeed!

The Gambling King cleared his throat. "Well, now, how about we exchange information on a quid pro quo basis, hmm?" Seeing the blank looks on the Amazons' faces, the King reminded himself that he was speaking to a couple of young girls whose primary language wasn't Japanese. "I mean, you tell me where to find Ukyo Kuonji, and I'll tell you what I know about the man you're looking for."

Lung-Lung gave him a big smile. "Would have tell you anyway. We glad to make exchange like that. Good thing we meet here today, yes?" She gave him Ukyo's address and directions on how to get there. "Now what you know about Crepe King?"

"Sorry," the King said. His long years of practice at cheating children out of their allowances kept him from feeling any remorse. "I've never heard of him before you mentioned him to me just now."

The emptiness of the dining area at Ukyo's Okonomiyaki was a little frustrating to the proprietor. The sky had begun clouding up half an hour ago, and no customers had arrived since then. Ukyo sighed as she heard a grumble of thunder from the late afternoon skies. "Sounds like a storm coming." She moved from behind her grill to a point that gave a clearer view through the window. The clouds had darkened considerably. Ukyo concluded it was highly unlikely that she'd be getting any more customers tonight. "I don't like to close early, but…" she shrugged, "oh well…"

The chef had just begun to roll up the banner that signified her restaurant was open for business when her trained senses gave a warning tingle. She tensed, then called out, "Who's there?! Show yourself!"

Across the street, a menacing shadow moved behind a telephone pole. Ukyo sent a fistful of throwing spatulas flying towards the motion. They didn't connect with their target, lodging instead in the post and the wall behind it. The mystery figure launched an attack at the same time, sending five of his own projectiles winging straight at the chef.

Ukyo, stretching her skills to the limit, reached out and caught them all in one smooth motion. Then, as she realized just what she was holding in her hand, she felt her battle-readiness dissolve into confusion. She'd just been attacked with playing cards?

"You lose, Ukyo Kuonji." The figure stepped forward, becoming more distinct as he left the deeper shadows. He held up five cards of his own. "You have one pair, whereas I hold a royal straight flush."

"No! It's you! I can't believe I've dodged you all these years, only to fail now. How could this happen to me?!" Ukyo cried.

"Don't flatter yourself," the Gambling King replied. "I've only been looking for you for the past few months."

The chef blinked. "Huh?! What're you talking about?"

The King frowned in puzzlement. "What do you mean by that?"

"You really WERE looking for me? Why? And who are you, anyway?!"

From a frown, to a fallen jaw. "W-What?! Then why did you say…?"

"Oh, that 'No! It's you!' stuff?" Ukyo shrugged. "That was a line from a movie I saw yesterday." The character who'd spoken those lines had been completely mistaken about who she was talking to, with the result that that unfortunate person had been utterly confused. After the movie, Ryoga had remarked to Ukyo that if Tsubasa ever showed up again, in a different disguise, he'd try that line and see what reaction it got. "I was just trying to throw you off-balance."

He gave a snort of annoyance. "I see. But what I DON'T understand is how you could have forgotten me, the Gambling King!" A huge fork of lightning split the sky directly overhead, followed immediately by an enormous crash of thunder.

Once the ringing in his ears had died away, the King spoke again. "Granted, you were only a ragged little urchin when we last met. But I would have liked to think you'd at least remember how you and your friend Ranma Saotome tied me up and threw me in the river."

Ukyo had been staring at him intently since he'd made his introduction (except for a moment spent blinking the spots out of her eyes after the lightning). Now she spoke. "YOU'RE the Gambling King?! Of course I remember him. You. Whatever." She eyed him more closely yet, eventually picking out the resemblance to the figure of her memories of ten years past. "You look a lot different without your hat." The King winced. "And didn't you used to wear your beard in ringlets?"

"Yes, well, if you'd seen me yesterday morning you probably would have recognized me then. But I had a bit of an accident at lunch, and lost the hat. And I haven't managed to get all the syrup out of my beard yet, so the ringlets will just have to wait another day."

"Yeah, well, I'd get a new hat ASAP. That bald spot isn't a pretty sight." Ukyo frowned. "Hey, what did you mean you've been looking for me for the last few months?"

"Well, to be honest, I'm more concerned with your partner in crime, Ranma. I knew if I found you, he wouldn't be far away." The King had started out looking for Ranma Saotome directly, but the reaction he'd gotten from storekeepers and fathers who'd encountered Genma Saotome had quickly motivated him to change his approach.

"What do you want with Ranchan?" Ukyo demanded.

"That is a matter of honor between myself, Ranma, and the owners of the Tendo Dojo."

"What?" Ukyo stared blankly for a second, then thought back. Searching her memories of that long-ago time, when she and Ranchan had stood together against the man who was cheating all the neighborhood children out of their allowances.

Then she remembered… she'd been beaten by the King, and had gone crying to Ranma, saying she wanted revenge. Ranma had come to her aid. Well, sort of. He'd lost all his money too, and all the clothes he was wearing except for his underpants. Then, when the King tried to shoo him off, saying he had nothing left to gamble, Ranchan had said something about a dojo he was going to inherit one day. He'd scribbled a promise to give that to the King, and used it as his collateral in one last game of Old Maid. A game he'd lost just as quickly as he had all the others.

It was shortly after then that she and Ranma had discovered the King's 'special' deck, which consisted of all jokers. They'd tied him up while he was asleep, retrieved all their stuff, and sent him on his merry way. But it would be just like the clueless little kid Ranchan had been to have forgotten to get that promissory note back, Ukyo thought. "You gonna try to claim the Tendo Dojo from Ranma now?"

"I dislike that word, 'try'," the King responded, holding up the paper Ukyo remembered. There were a couple of grease spots on it, but all in all it had survived the Amazon twins' ire mostly unscathed. "This makes it pretty cut and dried. But you had the basic idea right."

"Hate to break it to you, jackass, but Ranchan's got no claim on that dojo." Ukyo's expression showed remarkably little regret at being the bearer of bad news. "It was supposed to be the dowry in an arranged marriage. And he got out of that. No marriage, means no dowry, means no dojo. That promise isn't worth the paper it's scribbled on."

The King glared at Ukyo, trying to decide whether she was telling the truth or lying to cover for her friend. After a few seconds, he decided she was being honest. If it were a bluff, surely as good a gambler as he would have seen through it. "Then the boy will simply have to make good on his debt in some other way."

"Jeez, you're stubborn," Ukyo complained. For a moment, the chef debated sending him to the Kuno mansion, then calling ahead and telling them to let the dogs loose on the King when he showed up. There were two problems with that, though. One, she knew Ranma had a lot on his mind right now, with the search for the missing girls and all. It didn't seem like a very friendly thing to do, pushing this loser off on Ranchan when she could have just dealt with him herself. And two, the Kunos didn't have any dogs.

"I merely want what's mine," the King replied. "Now, if you would please tell me where I might find Ranma Saotome, I'll be on my way."

Ukyo chewed her lower lip indecisively for a bit, then spoke. "Well, it's like this. Ranchan is my oldest friend, and he's kinda busy right now. Doing something pretty important, too, and I don't think he needs any distractions."

"Young lady, I will not be put off by you. This is a debt of honor!"

The chef gave a disgusted snort. "Honor? That's rich, coming from you, you jerk. It may've been ten years, but I haven't forgotten the special deck of cards Ranchan and I found in your stuff."

The King's eyes narrowed. "You have no proof whatsoever that I used those cards in any of my games with you or Ranma."

Ukyo shrugged. "Guess that's true. But I'm still not telling you where Ranchan is."

He glowered at her, but decided there wasn't any need to drag this out further. Now that he had a general location for Ranma, it shouldn't be too hard to locate someone else who knew his quarry. "In that case, I will take my leave of you."

"Hold it." Ukyo's tone stopped the King before he'd taken three steps. He turned back to face her. "I never said I wouldn't help you at all, you know."

"Then why don't you say what you mean." It was getting late, and his patience was running low.

"Like I said before, Ranchan's a good friend of mine, and he's doing something important. I've been kinda wanting to join him, but I just don't have the free time." Between attending school, running her restaurant, and giving Ryoga some peace from the Amazon nuisances in his life, Ukyo's time was pretty much taken care of. She might have liked to go exploring through greater Tokyo, but there hadn't been a realistic way for her to do so. "But at least I can help him here.

"I can tell you right now, Ranma isn't going to pay you anything over that stupid note." Ukyo rolled her eyes at the King. "It was signed by a six-year-old, not even witnessed, promising to give you something that he wasn't ever going to have anyway. The only thing you're gonna do if you take that stupid piece of paper to Ranchan is waste your time and his. And I don't want that."

"Miss Kuonji, unless you have some sort of offer to make, I really must be going." The Gambling King hoped she did. It was looking less and less like Ranma's promise was going to be the ticket to Easy Street he'd been counting on.

"Okay, okay already." Ukyo took a deep breath. "I really don't want Ranchan to have to put up with any more trouble right now, so I'm willing to gamble with you. If I win, you give up that note and go away without causing any trouble for him. If I lose, you still do that, but you get my family's okonomiyaki cart. What do you say?"

He'd been hoping for more than this. The King laughed derisively. "What sort of terms are those?! Why should I give up Ranma's promise even if I win?"

"Because you're never going to collect on it," Ukyo said seriously. "The only thing you can do with that is make some trouble. I'm giving you a chance to actually turn a profit here."

"With your family's cart. You offer me something that's already mine," he scoffed. "Have you forgotten that you already gambled that away to me, back when you were six?"

"So why didn't you try to claim it tonight, huh?"

"It was a gesture of kindness and generosity on my part."

Ukyo frowned. "Hey, remember it's still cloudy out there. I don't want this place struck by lightning."

The King drew himself up to his full height. "Are you implying that I'm being less than honest with you?!"

"No, I'm calling you a liar to your ugly face," Ukyo replied. "You know I had no right to gamble with that thing when I was a little girl. It was going to be my dowry, which means my dad was the only one who had the right to dispose of it. But I'm old enough now to make my own decisions with it."

Her adversary held silent for a few moments, then conceded, "I suppose you have a point. Your offer is intriguing, Miss Kuonji, but I don't think it's quite generous enough. How about this restaurant instead of your yattai? After all, you're asking me to give up a claim to a dojo. That's a bit more valuable than a rickety little cart."

Ukyo shrugged. "Sorry, but I rent this place, I don't own it." She didn't feel any particular guilt about lying to a liar. "The yattai is the best I can do."

The King turned away. "I'm sorry, but I think I'll speak with Ranma instead."

She sighed. "Well, okay. I guess this way won't be too bad either." Ukyo slung her combat spatula into place at her back and followed the King outside.

He gave her an odd look, which intensified as she turned back and locked the door of her restaurant. "What exactly are you doing?"

"Changed my mind. I'm going to take you to Ranchan after all. Might as well get this over with as soon as possible, right?" Ukyo gave the King a playful punch on his shoulder. As he winced and rubbed the area, she gave him a sunny smile. "It'll be just like old times. Me and Ranchan beating the snot out of you, tying you up, and throwing you in the nearest river. Of course, this time I've got a bigger spatula, and Ranchan's a lot stronger too. Bet it'll take you way more than ten years to come back next time."

The King took a long look at Ukyo's smile. The sweetness had been completely gone by the word 'tying', and now it resembled the grin of a tiger. Eventually he cleared his throat, and said, "You know, suddenly I am in the mood for a game of chance."

Sweetness back in place, Ukyo unlocked the door again. "Thought you'd see it my way," she said cheerfully.

Ukyo looked down in disgust at the card in her hand. The Joker grinned sadistically back at her as the King discarded the last of his cards. "You lose, Ukyo Kuonji."

The chef sighed. "Looks that way," she replied. Taking a piece of paper, she wrote a quick transfer of ownership for her family's okonomiyaki cart. "A promise is a promise, King. Now give me Ranchan's note."

"You first," he replied suspiciously.

Ukyo rolled her eyes so forcefully that her opponent halfway expected them to stick in the back of her skull. "Here, you pathetic paranoid." The paper changed hands. The King gave a smile of satisfaction, then handed her Ranma's note. Ukyo struck a match and quickly reduced it to ash. "A pleasure doing business with you, King."

The cheerfulness with which she spoke aroused a nameless fear in her listener. "Well and good. Now, where is the yattai?"

Ukyo's smile just grew wider. "Don't have a clue," she said smugly.


"You remember Genma Saotome? Ranchan's dad? He and my dad arranged a marriage between the two of us, with the cart as my dowry. And then the Saotomes left with the cart, but not me. I didn't even see Ranchan for ten years after that. When I finally caught up with them, they'd left it behind a long ways back."

The King's mouth opened and closed a few times. At last he choked out, "And this is the boy you describe as one of your best friends?!"

Ukyo shrugged. "Ranchan never knew anything about the engagement. He and his dad were drifters, you know. When they left he just thought it was time to move on. And his worthless old man told him the yattai was a going-away present!" The chef took a few deep breaths. No matter how good a friend one Saotome might be, remembering that incident was always going to bring anger at the other.

She got her temper under control, even managing to smile again as she reminded herself that she'd just put this troublemaker off onto Genma. "He's the one you'll have to talk to about the cart. I don't have a clue where it is."

With a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, the King realized he'd been had. From his own memories of Genma, plus the tales he'd heard when trying to track down Ranma, he knew this was exactly the sort of trick the elder Saotome would pull. "Miss Kuonji, I am very disappointed in you. Offering a stake that isn't even yours. At least when Ranma did that, he was an ignorant child. Have you no shame?"

"Hold it right there, you jackass!" Ukyo was well and truly angry now. "I didn't ask Genma to steal my family's property! And if you get it back from him, it's yours free and clear. That promise is good! I'll even tell you where to find Genma, since Ranchan finally left that loser in the ditch. But don't pull this wounded innocence crap with me, or I'll pound you flat as an okonomiyaki!"

Ukyo wasn't the only one angry. For a swindler to be swindled is to add insult to injury. The King didn't respond in obvious temper, though, merely getting up and giving a clipped, "I'll be leaving now."

The chef started to ask whether he wanted Genma's whereabouts or not, then decided not to bother. But as the King neared the doorway, some nameless suspicion did prompt a different question. "Hey! How'd you find me, anyway?"

The King wasn't sure why he bothered, but he answered her nonetheless. "I learned from someone who knew you. Two Chinese girls, one with red hair, the other with green."

While it didn't particularly surprise Ukyo that there was yet another fight between Shinji, Koga, and their lackeys the next morning, it was a bit odd to hear each side screaming names like 'traitor' and 'backstabber' at the other. And they fought each other even more fiercely than usual, too, paying no attention at all to her and Ryoga. This made for the shortest skirmish so far.

Ukyo wondered, off and on through the rest of the school day, just what had been the reason for the deviation. As she and Ryoga were leaving Furinkan, though, they learned from one of their classmates that the previous day Shinji had approached Koga under a flag of truce, proposing that this morning, the two of them only pretend to start a fight. Then, when she and Ryoga moved to contain it, the supposed antagonists would join forces and crush them. Koga had agreed. But each fully intended to betray the other when crunch time came, with the net result that in the actual battle, less attention was paid to Ukyo and Ryoga even than usual, rather than the two of them being overwhelmed.

When Ukyo heard all this, she nearly hurt herself laughing. Not at the way the two sides had shot each other in the foot— that was worth a few chuckles at most. But hearing that those losers actually thought they could take her and Ryoga honey just by working together… Ukyo's sides were still aching as she bid Ryoga good-bye and made her way back to her restaurant.

It was just as well she'd had such a good laugh earlier, because it was the last one she'd have for quite some time.

As Ukyo neared her restaurant, she noticed an unusually large number of children milling around. Some were going the same direction as she was, running ahead excitedly and turning down the lane that would take Ukyo home. Others were trudging away, more often than not with tears in their eyes, which made the chef wonder uneasily just what was going on. Then she turned the corner, and found her answer.

Blankets were spread out all along the sidewalk, with various games of chance set up along them. Ukyo's old friend the Gambling King skipped through the maze with practiced ease, operating first a roulette wheel, then a game of dice, then performing a quick guess-which-cup-has-the-ball trick. His beard was re-styled, and he had indeed found a replacement hat. Children milled about everywhere, excited and laughing as their allowances melted away.

Ukyo stared, aghast, for almost a minute. Then she started forward, forcing her way through the crowd of kids to end up in front of the King. "What the heck is this?!" she demanded.

The King met her outrage with an impassive stare. "I'm a bit low on funds. And the other day, someone cheated me out of some very valuable property. I'm attempting to recoup my losses. Now, did you wish to place a bet?"

Ukyo's eyes narrowed. "Very funny. And you just happened to choose this lane to set up your den of deceit."

"It's a prime location," the King said. "A nice neighborhood, within easy walking distance for a great many children. Also, I have an idea that the proprietor of one of the businesses along this street might be willing to contribute a small sum… say, three hundred thousand yen… in order to help me get back on my feet and moving along."

Ukyo stepped forward, getting right in the King's face, and snarled back, "I already gave you my family's yattai. Don't think I don't know you cheated last night. I went into that game knowing I was going to lose. And I'm not about to give you one single crummy yen more. You want to get your hands on some real money? Then go show that stupid paper to Genma Saotome and tell him to cough up the cart!"

"Miss Kuonji, I'm going to be frank with you. Genma Saotome is a highly skilled martial artist, with very little in the way of honor and a long history of doing what he wants, then skipping off before the police can catch him. I'd rather take my chances with you, thank you very much." The King gestured up and down the street. "I don't think your restaurant is going to do very well while I'm here. Three hundred thousand yen against going out of business? Seems like a simple decision to me."

Ukyo's bared teeth could no longer even remotely be considered a smile. "Tell you what, King. I've got a counteroffer for you. Why don't you pack up this junk and get the hell outta here, and I won't smash your little ring to kingdom come."

"I have every right to be here," he replied stiffly. "If you assault my person or my property, I'll notify the authorities."

"The authorities?! This is Nerima, where the strong rule by right of arms and no policeman would dare cross one of the martial artists!" Ukyo grimaced at the words, wishing she hadn't chosen such corny ones in the heat of the moment. Still, the threat should do the trick. The stories that went around outside Nerima made the district seem even worse than it really was. You couldn't really assault a non-martial artist and get away with no attention from the police, but only someone who'd lived here would know that. The King wouldn't have any idea how badly she'd just exaggerated.

"Miss Kuonji, I lived in this district for two years. I know very well that that's an exaggeration. The police leave you alone so long as you only beat up each other. But if you harm me, you step over a big, black line that I don't think you want to cross." The King folded his arms and glared back at her. "Now, unless you wish to place a bet, or make a donation, I think you should leave. Go sit in your empty restaurant and wait for the customers who won't show up. You'll know where to find me when you're ready to do business."

"Oh, yeah? Well, the joke's on you, King. I make the best okonomiyaki in Tokyo. My regulars aren't going to let a little thing like this keep them away." Ukyo turned on her heel, and strode over to her restaurant. She unlocked the door, then unfurled the banner. It snapped and fluttered defiantly in a sudden breeze as she walked inside.

After thirty minutes had passed, with no customers, Ukyo's spirits were beginning to sag. After an hour, she had reached a level of unhappiness for which Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were usually necessary. Moving out from behind the grill, she began to polish tables that didn't need polishing, while keeping an eye on the crowd outside. There were still plenty of children, with new ones arriving to take the place of those who wandered off sad and empty-pocketed.

Then Ukyo saw a sight that lifted her spirits considerably. Two of her regulars, Mr. and Mrs. Hamabusa, were coming along the lane. Sure, it was only a couple of customers, but it would show that jackass the Gambling King that he couldn't keep people away from the best okonomiyaki in Japan! She knew she ought to get back behind the grill and get ready for them to come in, but she just had to watch this.

Through the partially-open window, Ukyo saw the couple pause and stare at the circus in front of her restaurant. After watching for a moment, Mr. Hamabusa approached the King. Straining her ears, Ukyo just barely managed to make out the exchange between them.

"What is this?!" Jin demanded. "How can you swindle these children out of their allowances like this?!"

The King shrugged. "No-one is forcing them to gamble. We're just making some entertainment available to them. Most children don't like okonomiyaki, so this way Ukyo's can provide something for every member of the family."

"You're… with Ukyo's?!"

The King gave them a particularly greasy smile. "Why don't you and your lovely wife step inside and try some of our delicious okonomiyaki?"

Jin turned and directed a stare filled with disgust at the restaurant. The angle of the sunlight reflecting off the window made it impossible for him to see Ukyo, standing frozen in horror on the other side. "No thank you, I think we'll be going." He and Moemi headed away at a brisk pace.

Ukyo remained in place for fully five minutes, her jaw hanging agape. She continued to breathe, and to blink regularly, but aside from that she might as well have been a statue.

Eventually she regained conscious motor functions. Extracting her hands with some difficulty from the grooves her clenching grip had left in the windowsill, Ukyo strode over to the wall, picked up her spatula, and began walking toward the door again. This time, she was going to pound the King so hard he'd NEVER dare show his face around her again! Consequences or no consequences!

One of the biggest ironies in the Ukyo-Amazon twins feud occurred then. Ukyo was furious, her anger blisteringly hot at the King's outrageous stunt. If Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung hadn't been involved in his appearance, she would have gone out there, crushed him flat, and then had to deal with civil charges and a lawsuit. But as it was, part of Ukyo's anger was diverted toward the Amazons, and this lack of focus allowed her to stop with her hand on the door and reconsider. The twins would never know that they'd done their rival a huge favor, which for their peace of mind was probably just as well.

"Okay, let's think this through," Ukyo muttered to herself after having drawn several deep, ragged breaths. "Probably shouldn't traumatize a bunch of little kids by beating that <expletives deleted> senseless in front of them. But I can't let him do this to me either. And I'm darn well not gonna let those little witches get away with setting me up like this. Need to find some way to deal with all of them at the same time."

That evening, the Kunos and assorted friends of the family ate dinner at a nice restaurant Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo had recently discovered. When they returned, Ryoga found he had a guest waiting for him.

"Ukyo, is something wrong?" he asked. It didn't take a lot of perception to see the chef was pretty worked up.

"Ryoga-kun… something bad has happened." Ukyo proceeded to tell him the whole story. Her and Ranma's early history with the King, then his return the previous day (though she left out the twins' involvement), and finally the King's actions today and the threat to her restaurant. "If this keeps up, I won't have a restaurant much longer, Ryoga," she said, putting just the right touch of desperation in her tone. "I can't handle this on my own."

"I'll help you," he said. It was a good comment, supportive without admitting that he didn't have a clue how he was going to go about doing this.

"Thanks, sugar, I was really hoping you'd say that." Ukyo gave a relieved sigh. 'It's kinda fun, playing the damsel in distress role,' she thought.

"So what do you think we should do?" Ryoga asked.

"Actually, there's another problem." With some difficulty, Ukyo held back the grim smile that wanted to curve across her lips. "We can deal with the King, but if we don't get to the root of the matter, something else will just pop up a little later. That's what I'm counting on you for most of all."

"What do you mean, the root of the matter?"

"I mean how that jackass managed to find me again, after all this time." Ukyo looked Ryoga dead in the eyes. "When I asked him, he told me two Chinese girls told him where I was. One with red hair, the other with green. I need you to get them off my back, sugar. I'm sure you and I can get rid of the Gambling King, but I can't handle too many more sneak attacks like this."

Ryoga would have been the first to admit that he walked more slowly to the Nekohanten than he might have. Memories of the last time he'd confronted Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung over something, and of how well that had turned out, warred with his concern for Ukyo. By the time he'd reached his destination, the former lost boy had decided the only thing he could do was ask Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung for their side of the story, and hope against hope that the situation wouldn't blow up in his face.

Ling-Ling greeted him at the doorway. "Nihao, Airen. You is late." Lung-Lung waved to him from her position inside the restaurant.

He blinked, only then remembering that he had already had plans to come over that night, to have the Matriarch search for his parents again with the Eye of Bastet. "Sorry about that. I got delayed leaving the Kuno place."

Ling-Ling took a good look at his face. "Is something wrong?" Without waiting for an answer, she hustled him inside the restaurant and into a chair, then sat down beside him. Lung-Lung joined them.

"Um… er… ah… well…" Ryoga pulled himself together. "Do you remember someone who calls himself the Gambling King?"

Both girls grimaced. "We do," Lung-Lung growled. "He play trick on us other day."

"What did he do?"

"He ask us where to find spatula girl. Would have tell him for nothing, but he make us think he going to do us favor in return, then after we tell he not give us nothing at all."

Ryoga gave them a long, hard look. Or rather, two such looks, one to each girl, as they were sitting on opposite sides of him and any attempt to look them both in the eye at once would have required several mirrors. "How did he know you knew where she was? And just why would you have told him for nothing?"

"Why we not tell him when he ask?" Lung-Lung countered. "He say he know her from long time ago, want to see her again. Would be unkind not to tell him."

Ryoga took a deep breath. "Well, he's causing Ukyo a lot of trouble right now, even threatening to put her out of business if she doesn't pay him a lot of money. She wanted me to make sure you didn't deliberately set him on her."

"We did not," Ling-Ling growled. "Spatula girl not even think straight. When stupid card king man talk to us, he say he know her from when she little girl. How she think we find out about her misspent youth to track down this guy and send him to her?"

"Guess she just didn't think of that. I'm glad she was wrong," Ryoga said, brightening. So it was just another coincidence, like when Tsubasa heard from the twins where to find Ukyo. For a moment he wondered idly just how many disreputable characters the chef had in her past, and whether they'd all run into Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. Then he remembered they hadn't answered one of his other questions. "You didn't say how the King knew to ask you where Ukyo was."

"He overhear us complaining about her," Lung-Lung admitted reluctantly. She hoped that wouldn't make them look too bad to their husband.

Considering the number of times Ryoga had heard Ukyo complain about the Amazons, he could easily believe that. The last little doubts disappeared. "Okay. I'm glad that's how it was, instead of what Ukyo thought. She was worried that after we deal with the King, you two would just stir up more trouble."

Lung-Lung smiled back at him, feeling relief at seeing their Airen wasn't unhappy with them, and happiness that this time he'd asked them for their side instead of accusing them. "We not do that." Then her smile faded a bit as one clause in his last sentence drew her attention. "What you mean, you deal with the King?"

"I told you how much trouble he was causing for her," Ryoga replied. "She asked for my help getting rid of him."

"That ridiculous, Airen!" Ling-Ling protested. "Remember, we have fought her. She more than strong enough to crush stupid card king man on her own!"

Ryoga sighed. "Look, not all problems can be solved by beating them into submission. Ukyo and I are going to try to come up with something that'll get rid of the King without having anybody thrown in jail for hurting a non-martial-artist."

"Stupid Japanese laws," Ling-Ling huffed. "If somebody try hurt you, should have right to defend yourself. And destroy somebody's business sure sound like hurt to me. In home village, we not put up with junk like that one minute."

The former lost boy wasn't sure how to respond to that. As he mulled over Ling-Ling's statement, Lung-Lung spoke up. "Just like spatula girl try hurt us tonight. But we show we better than her. We not attack back. Will even help you get rid of stupid card king, Airen."

"Whoa, back up there. What do you mean, Ukyo tried to hurt you?" Ryoga asked with a frown.

Lung-Lung didn't back down. "Is not obvious? She must have know we could not know about her child-time. Is no way we could have know about card king, to find and set him on her. But she make it sound like that anyway, so Airen would no like us."

Ryoga winced. Everything WAS going to blow up in his face. He could almost hear the bomb ticking. Nevertheless, he forced himself to say, "I don't think that's right. At least, Ukyo really did seem to believe you deliberately sent the King."

"And we all know spatula girl is not that stupid," Ling-Ling countered. "Would have to be to think that it our fault."

He summoned up every ounce of his fortitude. "No, not really. She would just have to be eager to believe the worst of you. Which she is. The same as you are of her."

There was a long moment of silence. At last, Ling-Ling sighed slightly. "Maybe you is right, Airen," she conceded grudgingly. "Maybe she just not have enough time to think things through and realize it could not be our fault."

Ryoga surreptitiously wiped the sweat off his brow. Lung-Lung spoke up. "Anyway, offer is still good. We will help you get rid of card king."

"Are you sure you want to?" Ryoga asked. "I mean, not attacking Ukyo is one thing. But I never thought I'd see you actually help her."

Ling-Ling shrugged. "Airen still have much to learn about us. Is Amazon way to help enemy, if they strong and formidable like spatula girl."

"That's really the Amazon way, huh?" Ryoga asked, more than a little skeptically.

"That right," Lung-Lung said cheerfully. She winked at him. "It put enemy off-balance, and make easy to finish her off later."

Ryoga surprised himself by actually laughing at that.

The last school day of the week passed uneventfully. The classes were spent in review for the upcoming end-of-year exams, which was just as well. Neither Ryoga nor Ukyo was in any shape to concentrate on new material or sudden crises. Ukyo was too busy worrying about the situation with the Gambling King, and Ryoga was too busy worrying about how Ukyo would react when he finally got around to telling her the twins were going to help get rid of her adversary. The former lost boy knew he was an idiot for not getting that out of the way in the morning as he and Ukyo had walked to school. But she had been grumpy enough after he'd told her that the twins hadn't really been at fault. He just hadn't had the nerve to also reveal the Amazons would be joining them this afternoon.

As he and Ukyo left Furinkan and began walking toward her place, Ryoga was very aware that time was running out. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had said they'd meet the two just outside the lane where the King had set up camp, and the former lost boy didn't think it would be a good idea to let the meeting happen without warning Ukyo ahead of time. He started thinking desperately, trying to come up with some way to ease into the revelation.

Ukyo supplied him a cue. "So, Ryoga, do you have any idea of what we're gonna do about the Gambling King?"

Ryoga breathed a sigh of relief, then said quickly, "No, but Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung told me they had a sure-fire plan to get rid of him without getting into any trouble at all."

After a few seconds, he realized Ukyo was no longer at his side. She'd stopped dead in her tracks several paces back. Ryoga stopped as well, and turned to face her. She gave him a controlled stare. "Tell me you didn't just imply that the kids are going to be joining us, Ryoga-kun."

Ryoga laughed nervously. "Sorry I forgot to mention it this morning. But hey, if it gets the King off your back, it's all to the good, right?"

" 'To the good,' he says," Ukyo muttered sarcastically. 'Let's see, if they DO manage to get rid of the Gambling King, they look good to Ryoga and I owe them a favor. If they don't, at least they tried, and I still have the jerk driving away my customers. I just love lose-lose situations.' She took several deep breaths, then started walking again. Ryoga fell in beside her.

Nothing more was said until they reached the entrance to the lane. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung weren't there. "Well, that's just great," Ukyo groused. "How long are we supposed to wait for them?"

Ryoga frowned. "I don't know. They said they'd be here to meet us." He sighed. "How about we wait here, and try to think up some way to deal with the King on our own. If Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung don't show up by the time we've got a plan, we can try to take him on ourselves."

"Sounds good to me." Ukyo brightened. "I've got it! We'll put out a contract on him with the Yakuza. There, that didn't take long. Let's go, Ryoga." The boy in question stared at her. Ukyo sighed. "Come on, sugar, it was a joke. You know, try to lighten the mood and all?"

He did laugh, then, partly out of relief. Before either of them could come up with a more serious suggestion, a scampering noise from several rooftops over drew their attention. The running footsteps drew nearer, and then Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung dropped down to join them.

The twins were panting hard. "Sorry we late… Airen…" Lung-Lung gasped. She took a minute to get her breathing under control, then explained. "Great-Grandmother send us on one last delivery before she close restaurant. Should no have take long, but we get lost trying to find."

"No problem," Ryoga said. "We only just got here ourselves."

"We glad you not have to wait long. And this not take long, either. We get rid of stupid card king man no problem," Ling-Ling said with a grin.

"So how do you plan to do that, exactly?" Ukyo asked skeptically.

"Just watch," Lung-Lung said shortly. "Let's go."

The twins led the way, turning down the lane and coming into view of the Gambling King's operation. They stopped so suddenly that Ryoga nearly ran into Lung-Lung.

She didn't even notice. Both Amazons were staring at the scene in front of them with dismay. Eventually, Ling-Ling turned back to face Ryoga. "Airen, why you no tell us he taking advantage of children?" she demanded.

"What difference does it make?" he answered bewilderedly.

"Make all the difference in the world!" Ling-Ling said. "We plan to use one of special techniques, Dance of Screaming Lemur." She pulled out a huge, fiercely carved and painted wooden mask. It showed a snarling monkey-demon's face, and was nearly as big as her entire body. "Play music what make anyone who hear it very, very afraid, and wear these as focus. Card king man would run screaming like little kid. But we no can use that with all these children around. Would give them nightmares for many, many weeks!"

"When were you going to warn me to get out of earshot?" asked Ryoga.

"No worry, Airen, we bring earplugs for you," Lung-Lung reassured him.

"And what about me?!" Ukyo demanded.

Ling-Ling shrugged. "Can no build house without cutting down tree," she said. "Sometime sacrifice is needed, no matter how much it hurt. And we only have one pair earplugs."

"Thanks for your concern," Ukyo said sarcastically, "but I think maybe Ryoga-kun and I'll be better off taking care of this ourselves. Why don't you go see if your great-granny has any more chores for you to do."

"We say we help get rid of stupid gambling man and we keep word," Ling-Ling returned. "Come on, Lung-Lung. We go talk to him."

They made their way through the crowds of children, to where the King had just finished a game of Old Maid. He looked up at them, doing his best not to let his nervousness show. He wasn't at all sure that the threat of police action would dissuade these two from violence. "Yes? What is it?"

"You is going to leave," Lung-Lung said flatly. "We not really care about spatula girl, but give our word we help get rid of you. And we not happy at all to see you taking money from these kids."

"I'm providing entertainment for them, and even the chance to win more money than they'd get in a month's worth of allowances," the King returned. "And I'm not leaving until Ukyo Kuonji reimburses me for the sum I previously mentioned to her."

Ling-Ling smiled sweetly at him. "Want to bet?"

"Is that a threat?"

"No, is challenge." Ling-Ling pulled out a couple of thousand-yen bills. "I bet this against you going away, setting up somewhere else and not bothering spatula girl any more."

For a moment, the Gambling King hesitated, as if he were going to refuse, or at least protest about the pitifully small amount she was wagering. Then, remembering his treatment at the hands of this girl and her sister, his expression hardened. "Agreed."

Several minutes later, Ling-Ling looked down with disgust on the Joker in her hand. "Again," she growled, pulling out another thousand yen.

After four hours, Ukyo was trying not to be in a good mood. She reminded herself that the Gambling King was still rooted in place outside her restaurant, and that anyway it was low to laugh at the misfortunes of others, even troublesome little witches like Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. But she couldn't help it. It had just been too much fun, watching first one girl, then the other lose all her money, rush back to the Nekohanten for more (which was safe to do because Cologne was elsewhere at the time), and repeat the process. Whether it was Old Maid, Go Fish, or any other game, the most either Amazon ever achieved was a draw.

At last, neither Ling-Ling nor Lung-Lung had any money left, and the petty cash store back in their restaurant was empty as well. They glared at the King with a stare that seemed to Ryoga ought to burn a hole straight through the man. "Thank you for a most enjoyable afternoon," the King said genially. "Not to mention profitable."

As he looked at the obnoxious smirk on the Gambling King's face, Ryoga found himself strongly tempted to resort to the Amazon way of dealing with people like this. But he choked back the urge to pound the jerk, instead walking forward and gently moving Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to either side of him. "My turn," he said, pulling out five thousand yen. "I'm challenging you to a game of blackjack."

"Hold it, Ryoga!" Watching the twins get fleeced was one thing, but Ukyo wasn't about to let Ryoga throw his money away. "Haven't you figured out yet why he always wins?"

"Yeah, because he plays kids' games like Old Maid. That's why I challenged him to a real game," Ryoga said.

Ukyo rolled her eyes. "Not exactly, sugar. The ugly truth is, if it looks like he's going to lose, he cheats. Oh sure, sometimes he'll settle for a draw, just so he doesn't get busted, but there's no way you're going to win."

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung gaped at this. The lime-haired girl was the first to recover. She stomped forward, interposing herself between Ryoga and Ukyo. "Is true?!" she demanded. "Why spatula girl no say something before?!"

Ukyo just gave her the 'I can't believe you asked a question that stupid' look.

Ryoga chewed his lip pensively. Then he turned back to the Gambling King. "Is that true? DO you cheat?"

"Of course not," the man lied indignantly.

"So all the times you've won, it's because of your skill at cards, not because you were the one dealing them?"

"That is true."

The former lost boy smiled grimly. "Then I'm sure you won't mind if I deal the cards for our game."

There was a long pause. Then the Gambling King responded, "I don't recall agreeing to play against you in the first place, boy. It's been a long day and I'm tired. I don't think I'm in the mood for any more serious challenges.

"But I'll make you a counteroffer." The King picked up a deck of cards, shuffling through it without looking in an impressive display of legerdemain. He drew two cards out of the deck, holding them up so Ryoga could see their values. "I hold here the Ace of Spades and a Joker." He shuffled the two over and over until no one could have kept track of which was which, then set them face-down on the table before him. "You put down that five thousand yen as your stake, and pick a card. If you pick the Ace, I'll pack up and leave. Pick the Joker, and I'm five thousand yen richer."

It was actually the first honest challenge the King had offered all day. He hadn't done anything underhanded, such as substituting in a second Joker while shuffling. The cards lying facedown on the table in front of him were the same two he'd held up to show Ryoga. The King didn't particularly mind the fact that he might actually lose this challenge, as the way he'd worded his offer really only meant that if Ryoga picked the Ace, he would leave for the night. Which he was planning to do right after this anyway. "Well, boy, you've heard my offer. What do you say? Do you have the guts to take me up on it? Be a man, and make your choice."

Ryoga gave the Gambling King a very odd look, put his money back in his pocket, then reached out and turned over first one card, then the other. "What exactly are you trying to pull, anyway? That's not an Ace and a Joker."

The King looked down in surprise at the cards on the table. Then he checked the deck from which he'd drawn them, confirming that, yes, the Ace of Spades and both Jokers were still present there. He glanced down again, at the Queen of Spades and the Two of Hearts that rested face-up before him, and gave a weak laugh. "I don't know how that happened. I suppose I must be more tired than I thought. I'll see you tomorrow."

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung stood facing resolutely forward. The morning light gleamed in their eyes and glinted off their skin. Their faces were set like flint, fairly radiating determination and resolve as they stared forward into the ascending sun.

"Ling-Ling? Lung-Lung? What are you doing? Ukyo's is this way," Ryoga said.

The Amazons gave a collective sigh, then turned back to face him. "Is you happy, Airen? You just ruin our dramatic moment."

Ryoga let the comment slide, knowing full well the futility of trying to understand girls. He started walking, the Amazons falling in beside him. After a few minutes, he asked hesitantly, "So did your great-grandmother give you a hard time after I left last night, about losing all the petty cash in the restaurant?"

Lung-Lung smiled. "No. She say it was worth it to see we learning strategy."

"What do you mean, strategy?"

This time, the lime-haired girl actually giggled. "How we ask you to come back with us last night, be there when we tell her what we do. She not willing to tear bleeding strips out of our hide in front of husband for try our hardest to help him, after all."

Ryoga's head was starting to hurt. "You mean, the Matriarch knew you were trying to manipulate her into not punishing you, and that made her happy enough not to punish you?!"

"Mm-hm." Ling-Ling winked at him. "Because we do good job. Great-Grandmother say it very, very important to make good plans. Ling-Ling think it is because both she and big sister Shampoo mess things up so bad with Tatewaki."

"Hmmm. Speaking of strategy, I don't suppose she had any sneaky suggestions on how to get rid of the King?" he asked hopefully.

Ling-Ling gave him a triumphant smile, then pulled a piece of paper out of a pocket. "Look at this."

He took it and unrolled it, then nearly dropped the paper as he realized what it was. "Wh-what're you doing with the deed to the Nekohanten?!"

"Will use that as stakes for bet today, while Airen, sister Lung-Lung, and spatula girl keep watch on King. With such high price at stake, is for sure his hands shake. You have to catch him when he cheat."

Ryoga stared at her, aghast. "I don't believe this! How can you risk that much so calmly?!"

Lung-Lung shrugged. "So what if we lose? Whole reason for restaurant in first place was to have base of operations for Great-Grandmother to help big sister Shampoo. Is no big deal if lose that particular place. Would just get other one if Great-Grandmother decide she still need be here for us. It not like she would have to make decision quickly, after all. Not with plans we have for summer."

Normally mention of said plans was more than enough to bring Ryoga's spirits up dramatically, but this time there was just too much of an immediate concern. "But… even still… I don't know if I'm up to this," he confessed. "I watched him cheat against you two all yesterday afternoon, and I never realized it was happening. Why can't your granny come along too? I bet she'd have better luck than the rest of us put together at catching that jerk!"

"Great-Grandmother would smack you on the head for imply she use luck instead of skill," Lung-Lung warned with a smile. Neither she nor her sister seemed to be feeling any of the tension that was churning through their Airen. "And she going to be busy today, training big sister Shampoo with new shiatsu points."

"But…" Ryoga's protest was cut off as Ling-Ling put a hand over his mouth.

"Airen worry too much," she said. She trailed her finger down his neck, then shifted her grip to his arm. Lung-Lung took the other.

'Maybe I do. Like right now I'm worrying about how Ukyo is going to react when we walk up to her place like this,' Ryoga thought. He couldn't quite find the willingness to speak the thought aloud, though, or to disengage from the Amazons.

Fortunately for their Airen's peace of mind, the twins let go on their own when the three were a few blocks away from Ukyo's. It was just as well, for a minute later they found the chef waiting for them in the lane.

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung might not have been holding onto Ryoga, but they were still walking closer to him than Ukyo liked. "Good morning, Ryoga." The smile she offered him vanished as she looked away to the Amazons. "Oh. You two again."

"If spatula girl no see us till just now, maybe she need glasses. Ling-Ling know good eye doctor on other side of Tokyo. If you leave now, could get to his place before it close today," Ling-Ling said sweetly.

"Ling-Ling, why don't you tell Ukyo about the new plan," Ryoga said, breaking in before tensions could rise any farther.

The redhead did so. Ukyo's face wore a look of blank shock by the time she'd finished. "You'd risk that much for this?!"

"That right," Lung-Lung said cheerfully, meeting Ukyo's gaze. "Amazons not do things by half measures, especially not fight against enemy. Gambling King be very, very sorry he go up against us."

"Is he here yet, Ukyo?" Ryoga asked.

Turning her gaze back to him (though she'd never have admitted she was glad of the excuse to look away from Lung-Lung), Ukyo said, "Yeah, he just got here a little while ago. Probably still setting things up."

"Then let us finish this." Ling-Ling led the way as the group turned down the lane. True enough, the King was still spreading out blankets and gambling paraphernalia.

He looked up as they drew next to him. "I haven't opened just yet."

Ling-Ling gave a sugary smile, then with a flourish set the deed down on the table in front of him. His eyes widened as he read it. "I not want to wait," she said. "This is stake for new game of Old Maid."

"Well, you certainly are bold. I like that in a vict— ahem, opponent." The King grinned back at her, with all the warmth of a shark. "What stake of mine do you wish?"

"Like I say yesterday, you lose, you go away and not bother spatula girl anymore. Can set up somewhere else if you like. If you win, you get deed to Nekohanten, and make it you new gambling place. You not bother spatula girl in that case either."

"Hmmm. That sounds acceptable, but if I lose I'm going to need some proof that this was a genuine deed rather than a forgery." Of course, the King had no intention of losing.

"Can take to present owner when that happen. She will confirm," Ling-Ling said. "Now, deal the cards."

The battle was long and arduous. For a grueling forty-five minutes the two combatants struggled. More and more children showed up, chattering and kibitzing as the Joker made its way from one hand back to the other over and over. Though Ukyo caught a blurring motion in the King's fingers several times, neither she nor either of the other observers was able to actually catch the King in the act of cheating. On the other hand, Ling-Ling had finally figured out that if she held the Joker a little higher than the other cards, the King would inevitably take it when it was his turn to draw from her hand. And so the long weary morning wore on.

Nothing can last forever, of course. Sooner or later one of them had to make a mistake. The strain from such a long streak of brilliant cheating could have made the King's fingers slip at a crucial moment. The onlookers' vigilance might have lapsed, allowing the King to pull off a more extravagant trick. But what actually happened was that Ling-Ling, her impatience beginning to get the better of her, raised the Joker too obviously high in her hand… and the King took another card.

With that advantage, the game swiftly drew to a close, leaving the Amazon holding the fatal card. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you," the King said cheerfully, standing up and stretching the kinks out of his legs. "I think I'd like to go look over my newest acquisition now." He quickly bundled up his various supplies, folding them into an amazingly small packet that fit into his suitcase, and walked away.

Ryoga just stood there, a look of devastation on his face, feeling about two inches tall. Ukyo had trusted him to help her deal with the Gambling King, and he'd been no help to her at all. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had trusted him to help them in this most crucial battle, and he'd failed them completely, losing them their home. He wasn't sure he could bear the sight of their faces, but he turned anyway, to try and comfort them in their loss.

Lung-Lung faced the crowd of children and gave a shrill whistle. "Listen up, kids! You want to see something funny, come to Nekohanten with us right now!"

On hearing that, the pieces clicked into place for Ryoga. "This is part of the plan too, isn't it?" he demanded. "Your great-granny is about to chew him up and spit him out. You knew you weren't really going to lose anything. Why didn't you tell me the truth?!"

Ling-Ling sighed forlornly. "Because we hope it not needed. We wanted to beat him on our own, not have to rely on Great-Grandmother always. We not tell Airen rest of plan so you watch stupid card king man as close as you can, to catch him cheating. Would have tell you afterward if we win. But it not work out. Will have to let Great-Grandmother get us out of trouble instead."

The disappointment in her tone and posture shattered any annoyance Ryoga might otherwise have felt. "Don't feel bad, Ling-Ling," he said earnestly. "It was a good plan. It wasn't your fault he was such a good cheater."

'Damn, she's good,' Ukyo thought sourly as Ling-Ling perked up under her Airen's comforting words.

Because the Gambling King didn't know the shortest route to the Nekohanten, whereas Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung did, he and the crowd reached the restaurant at the same time. "Why exactly are you here?" he asked the Amazons suspiciously.

"We live… lived… here. Need to pack up personal belongings," Lung-Lung said. "Ryoga is here to comfort us in hard time. Children want to gamble once you get set up in new place. I think spatula girl is just along for the ride."

'This better be some kind of payback the old mummy dishes out to him, to make up for me having to put up with this much junk,' Ukyo thought darkly.

"I see," the King said, not moved in the slightest by Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung's supposed homelessness, and walked into the restaurant. Everyone else followed him.

Cologne was standing on a table, using her stick to designate various points on a large shiatsu chart to Shampoo, who was standing next to her. For just a second, her gaze rested on the King, shrewd and implacable… and then a remarkable transformation seemed to take place. Her eyelids drooped, her wrinkles deepened, and her whole posture seemed to shift from controlled to frail. As everyone who'd just come in from the bright outdoors was still waiting for their vision to adjust, the only one to see this was Shampoo. "Dearie me, Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, what's all the commotion?"

Ryoga's jaw nearly hit the floor at hearing that quavering, age-weakened voice proceeding from the Matriarch. However, he was standing behind the Gambling King, so the other couldn't see his expression.

"We sorry, Great-Grandmother," Ling-Ling said. "We lose restaurant in game of cards. Remember we tell you about game we going to play this morning?"

Cologne blinked several times, as if struggling to understand. "But child, how could you lose the restaurant when I have the deed right… here…" she began patting through her robes absently, becoming more and more agitated as the search didn't reveal what she was looking for. "The deed! Where is it?!"

"G-Great-Grandmother, you give to me this morning. Is his property now," Lung-Lung said tremulously.

The King held up the paper. Cologne leaned forward, peering at the paper. "Oh, there it is! I was afraid it was lost again."

Shampoo turned away, her shoulders beginning to tremble as if she were fighting sobs. In point of fact, she was trying to keep from bursting out laughing. By concentrating on Ranma's memories of how he'd felt after his little dip in the Nyannichuan, she was able to regain her composure.

"It not missing. It his. We lose to him," Ling-Ling choked out, looking down in shame.

"You… played cards with him, and lost the deed?" Cologne asked vaguely. "But child, where will we live? This is our home." She looked from Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to the deed, then around the dining room of the restaurant, her gaze shifting from target to target for almost a minute. At last she said, "Shampoo, please open the safe on the wall."

The lavender-haired girl did so, to reveal a huge cache of jewelry. Her great-grandmother pointed with one trembling hand toward the treasure trove, looking back to the King. "Would you let me try and win our home back? I can put up my heirloom jewelry against the deed."

"Do you know how to play cards?" the Gambling King asked.

"I'm afraid I'm a little rusty. Could you go over the rules again?" Cologne asked politely.

He sighed. "Do you take me for a fool, old woman? I know how this story goes. The harmless little old lady who doesn't even know how to play sits down with the card shark, and takes him for everything he's got… even the clothes on his back. No thank you."

Cologne straightened up, the vitality rushing back into her as if by magic. There was a look of irritation in her eyes that boded ill for her adversary. "Then you refuse my challenge?"

"That's right. I do."

"Shampoo, pay close attention." Cologne's staff shot out, slicing away the cloth covering the King's right shoulder, then stabbing at three points located very close together. "That is the Never Say Die shiatsu strike. One afflicted becomes completely incapable of refusing a challenge." She turned back to face the King. "I challenge you to a game of blackjack. I'll offer ten yen as my stake, versus the deed to this restaurant as yours."

"Agreed!" the King shouted. His eyes were all wild and terrible, his brow wrinkled and wet with sweat, but he could no more stop himself than he could lift Mt Fuji on his back. Shampoo made appropriate noises of awe and appreciation at the sight of her great-grandmother's technique, and began searching through Ranma's memories. If his father had repeatedly used this on him in his childhood and the effect had stuck, it would explain a lot.

Cologne didn't cheat, though even she would have been hard-pressed to do so while at the same time blocking the King's attempted trickery. Nevertheless, it didn't take long before she had won back the deed, all the yen that the twins had lost the previous day, her opponent's gambling equipment and his clothes (though she left those in place for the time being), and a promise from the King not to show his face in Nerima for the next five years. She smiled toothily at him, nearly making the poor fool lose control of his bodily functions. "Let's see now. I really don't think you have much left worth gambling for, do you?"

The Gambling King didn't respond. He was busy trying to convince himself that this was all just a bad dream.

The Matriarch continued. "But I could use your services for the remainder of this day. I'm teaching various shiatsu techniques to my great-granddaughter, and it would be ever so helpful to have a live target for her to practice on. Of course, if she fumbles the strikes, it could cause unpleasant side effects, but I'm sure you're brave enough to risk that. Aren't you?"

"Are you out of your mind?! Just let me out of this hell-hole!" the King shouted.

"I challenge you to a game of seven card draw. I'll give you TWENTY yen if you win, but if I do, you're Shampoo's practice dummy for the day."

"Agreed!" The word escaped despite the King's best efforts to hold it back. How much longer was this nightmare going to last?!

Most of the rest of the day. It was late afternoon when Cologne finally pronounced the lesson done, raising a huge groan from all the children. They had had a great time watching the silly man do silly things all day long.

Cologne didn't particularly want the Gambling King's clothes… after all, they were in near tatters from the swatches she'd cut away to make the shiatsu training go more smoothly… but there was a form to be observed. And so, as the King trudged wearily toward the door of the Nekohanten, he was wearing nothing but a large barrel.

"Oh, that's right, I almost forgot," Cologne cackled. She leaped over to the table nearest the King, then struck with her staff. The tip impacted against the nape of the Gambling King's neck. "That was the Walk, Don't Run point, Shampoo. For the next thirty minutes he won't be able to move at any pace greater than a slow walk."

"Can I go now?" the King all but snarled.

"Don't get an attitude with me, sonny boy," Cologne snapped back, all good humor gone from her expression. "I don't much care for someone who makes a living by cheating children out of their allowances." She raised her voice, turning back to face the audience. "That's right, the reason he always won when he played against you was that he was cheating."

Recognizing her cue, Shampoo walked into the kitchen, returning a moment later with several crates of eggs. "These are for whoever want to take a shot at stupid cheating man," she said with a smile. "But wait until you outside before you start to throw them."

"Thanks for helping me today, sugar."

It was the evening of the following day. Business at Ukyo's had taken a while to pick back up, but word of the huge discount she was offering for the weekend had eventually brought the customers back. And when they arrived, they learned the reason for the special was to 'celebrate the downfall of the Gambling King.' Ukyo figured that within a week, word would have reached pretty much everybody who'd been duped into thinking she was responsible for the King's predations. Once they knew she was innocent, she'd have all her regulars back. Some of them might even be remorseful enough over not having given her a chance to explain that they'd come more frequently than before. The thought that the King might eventually be responsible for her business doing better put a big smile on Ukyo's face.

Ryoga had helped her with the crowds for most of the day (which had also added to the smile). The hard work made him feel better about how little he'd done to help her with the actual crisis. Still, he was glad to see the last customers ambling out the door. "You're welcome, Ukyo. It was the least I could do."

"What do you mean, the least you could do?"

He shrugged sheepishly. "Well, I sure didn't do much to actually help get rid of that Gambling King creep, did I?"

Ukyo sighed. "Don't tell me you're feeling bad about that?" At his nod, she continued. "Ryoga honey, you jackass, without you he'd still be out there. I'm the one who was really useless in getting rid of him."

"What're you talking about?" Ryoga asked incredulously. "I didn't do anything!"

"Really, sugar?" Ukyo asked. "Then let me ask you a question. When the Amazons got involved, do you think they were trying to do something nice for me, or to impress you?"

Ryoga chewed the thought over in silence. The answer was obvious even to him; it was the implications that Ukyo seemed to be driving at that weren't quite so clear-cut. At last he said, "So even though I personally didn't do anything I should still feel better, because Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung wouldn't have gotten rid of him without me?"

"You got it, Ryoga-kun. Nice to see the kids were useful for once, at least," Ukyo said.

He sighed. "Ukyo, just once, could you let a chance to say something bad about them go by without taking it?!"

If Ryoga had known how much would change because of that one question, he'd never have had the guts to open his mouth.

A portentous quiet fell over the restaurant. Echoes of Ryoga's request seemed to rebound in the stillness. Ukyo swallowed, trying to remove a sudden feeling of tightness in her throat. 'Ryoga defending them?' she thought. 'No, get a hold of yourself, stupid, it doesn't mean anything like that!' Aloud she said, "What do you mean by that?"

Already beginning to regret saying anything, but not seeing any way out of it now, he forged on. "Maybe they didn't do it because they wanted to help you. But they got rid of the Gambling King before he could do too much damage to your business. Couldn't you feel just a little grateful? At least enough to not bad-mouth them in front of me?"

Another few gulps on Ukyo's part. Why did it feel like suddenly, everything was changing? She countered with, "Why should you care what I say about them?"

Ryoga was silent for a few moments. At last he said, "Because it hurts, getting pulled like this. I know how you feel about them, but they are my friends at least. I'm not asking you to like them. But could you do your complaining about them when I'm not around?"

Ukyo looked down at her hands, distantly surprised to see how tightly clenched they were. 'Maybe it is time for something different, though. Let's try the truth.' At last she said, "Ryoga, I'm scared."

He blinked. That didn't seem to fit with the conversation they'd been having at all.

Before he could ask what she meant, Ukyo continued. "I used to think they were just a nuisance. Not something to take seriously, even if they did beat me once. I was sure that if we went head-to-head again, I could take them. In any kind of fight.

"But now… I don't know. I haven't seen them lose yet. They want the Gambling King gone *Poof!* He's outta here. They want you… well, hey, they're Amazons and Amazons stick together, right? They give you an illegitimate Kiss of Marriage and their granny tricks you into agreeing to it. With that dried-up old crone backing them up, I'm not sure I can win anymore. If there really is a fight, I mean, and push comes to shove. I'm scared, and it hurts. I guess that's why I talk bad about them sometimes."

"Ukyo… this isn't… I don't…" Ryoga's voice trailed off as he realized he had no idea what he was trying to say.

The chef got up from where she was sitting. Placing one hand on Ryoga's shoulder, she pulled him up from his seat and guided him to the door. They stopped there, and Ukyo looked Ryoga dead in the eyes.

"Neither one of us has ever said anything, Ryoga-kun. It's always been there, for me, in the background and between the lines. So I'm going to say it now. I know you're not free, and there's still most of a year left before you will be, but when you are… I want to be the one with you."

"I… I…" Ryoga couldn't find any words. He felt himself falling… sinking down into the blue-green sea depths of Ukyo's eyes.

And then the contact was broken as the chef leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him.

He was stiff at first, not responding, and Ukyo felt her heart skip a beat. Then he relaxed, and, ever so hesitantly, his arms went up and around her back. They stood there for a full minute, with no more words to speak, no promises to offer that had not already been given.

At last, Ukyo ended the embrace. She stepped back, taking another good look at his face. She wasn't sure what she'd find there… would it be the frustration of one whose passion can't be expressed until most of another year has passed? Would it be the pity of a friend who was about to give bad news to someone who'd hoped for so much more?

What she saw was a Ryoga too dazed for any conscious thought.

If she had affected him that much, then Ukyo was willing to consign the 'just friends' fear to its final grave. With a smile now securely in place she reached behind him, opened the door, and gently but firmly guided him through it. "Good night, Ryoga honey."

Ryoga was dimly aware when the door opened, but he didn't let it distract him from his kata. He continued through the forms, pushing himself as hard as he ever had, striving to move just a little faster, with a bit more power than before.

If nothing else, the mental turmoil he'd been experiencing lately had been an excellent motivation to go further with the Art. In training, when he strove against the ragged edges of his limits, every breath searing his lungs and every muscle protesting at the rigors with which he drove them, there were moments when he could forget, and just be.

Not often over the past three days, but they had been there occasionally.

Tatewaki waited for Ryoga to stop. After a few moments, he cleared his throat loudly. When that produced no response either, he called out, "Ryoga!"

Reluctantly, the former lost boy came to a halt. "What is it?" he asked between deep breaths.

Kuno gave him a broad smile. "We just received a phone call from my sister. They found the kidnapped girls safe and sound, set them and their families free, and, to quote her words, 'thrashed the vermin who were responsible for their abduction to within an inch of their pitiful lives'."

Ryoga smiled wanly in return. "That's great. I knew they'd come through for the Sakuras."

"And the Matriarch is throwing a celebratory party at the Nekohanten tonight. We're all invited."

"We are?" Ryoga considered that, then shook his head. "I don't think I'll be going. Unlike some lucky skunks, I didn't get excused from the end-of-year exams. I need to study tonight."

"Really." After saying that, Kuno just stood in silence for a bit, regarding the other with a careful scrutiny.

"Is something wrong, Tatewaki?" Ryoga asked uncomfortably, after the silence had stretched for more than a minute.

"I'm not sure," he answered. "Ryoga, for the past several days, I've noticed you have seemed preoccupied and troubled. I had thought it was just that you were worried over the kidnapped girls. But my news does not seem to have lifted any of the weight from your shoulders."

'Great,' Ryoga thought to himself, 'on top of everything else now I can feel guilty about worrying for myself instead of the people who were REALLY in trouble.' Aloud, he said, "Sure, I'm glad the girls are safe and all. It's just… I've got some problems of my own."

"Are you that worried about the end-of-year exams?" Kuno asked incredulously.

"Of course not! I'm talking about the… the situation… I mean…" Ryoga exhaled loudly, still finding it hard to believe that HE had gotten into a predicament like this, "Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung, and what's going to happen with my future."

Tatewaki blinked. There must have been developments he hadn't heard about on that front. Not that this was surprising… he and Nabiki both had paid rather less attention to the outside world than usual over the last month, and what little concern Kuno had spared had mostly gone to Ranma's search for the missing girls. "The last I heard, you would have to wait a year until the Matriarch would give you a quest to perform, that you might be free of their snares. What has changed?"

"Nothing. Everything." Ryoga gave an exasperated sigh. "You think I should just not worry about it for the next year?"

"That seems like the most sensible thing to me," Tatewaki admitted. "You can't do anything to free yourself until then anyway."

"I can't do that." Ryoga looked down. "I thought I could, but I was wrong. I can't just let it slide. I need to know what to do before things get any worse."

Tatewaki considered him for a bit. "Ryoga," he said at last, "are you seriously considering going through with it? Taking the both of them as your wives?"

The incredulity with which Kuno had spoken bothered Ryoga for some reason. "Is it that hard for you to believe? Even after you saw Ranma's choice?"

"That's completely different! Unless they used the Heart Link on you and I never heard of it?"

"No, no Heart Link. No magic. Just caring for me and wanting to be with me." Ryoga gave the kendoist a determined look. "Whatever else I may or may not feel for them, they're my friends. And I don't want to hurt them."

Kuno paused, then his expression hardened. "Ryoga," he said as authoritatively as he could manage, "that isn't enough. You can't build a life with someone based on pity, on 'not wanting to hurt them'."

"Hey!" Ryoga was more than willing to listen to advice, but he wanted it delivered with sympathy, not a side order of scorn.

The other continued, overriding his protest. "It sounds to me like you're just too gutless to tell it to them like it is. The truth does hurt sometimes, but the longer you let it lie, the worse it hurts when it finally comes out."

"It's not that simple, dammit!" Ryoga felt his temper beginning to slip away from him. With a valiant effort, he drew it back in.

"I think it is EXACTLY that simple," Kuno continued inexorably. "You don't have the courage to tell Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to their faces that you don't love them, you won't love them, and they'd be better off if they started looking for another man now. Instead of wasting the next eleven months hoping for something that isn't going to happen.

"I realize it's hard. Remember, I've been where you are." Kuno laid a hand on Ryoga's shoulder. "I've had my share of Amazon troubles. If you like, I'll go to them for you. I can tell them bluntly that you'd never be able to love a couple of pathetic manipulative little nuisances like them."

At this point Kuno pulled his hand back from Ryoga's shoulder.

He wasn't quite quick enough.

Ryoga's hand shot out, grabbing Kuno by the wrist. "Don't. Call. Them. That."

Tatewaki did his best not to flinch. He could distinctly feel the bones in his wrist grating together. "Ryoga, if you apply any more pressure I'll be wearing a cast and a sling for the next little while," he said as calmly as he could.

The former lost boy growled, then let go of his hand and turned away. Tatewaki massaged his wrist gingerly, then called out, "You're welcome!" before Ryoga could make it to the door.

"Tatewaki, I am NOT in the mood for this," he warned. "What the HELL am I supposed to be thanking you for?!"

"For making you face your true feelings," Kuno said quietly. "Now you can stop worrying about whether you feel more for them than friendship and pity."

Ryoga counted to ten, while reminding himself that the other had meant well. "Thanks for the thought," he said at last, "but I'd already worked that much out for myself."

"What?! Then why…" Kuno stopped as the obvious occurred to him. "Does this have something to do with Ukyo?"

"Yes!" The tortured syllable burst from Ryoga's lips like the opening shot of a volley of cannon fire. "It's the same damn thing with her! She's my friend, wants to be more, and heaven help me, part of me wants that too! Just like the other part wants to be closer to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung! I'm caught in the middle and I can't fall for either side any further than I already have because the other is pulling too hard!"

'I wish he'd said that BEFORE I nearly lost my hand at the wrist,' Kuno thought irritably. He considered his response, then, reluctantly, said, "I never thought I'd suggest this, but you know Amazon law does allow a man to take more wives than just two…"

"That's not an option," Ryoga declared emphatically. "Ukyo will never, EVER get along with Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. And the feeling is mutual on their side." He sighed forlornly. "Besides, even if they were all really good friends, I just don't think I could handle it. I mean, I can barely get my mind around the thought of both Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. I couldn't handle three. No way. Not a chance."

"Is that why you haven't asked Ranma for his advice on this? Because he would just say 'all of the above'?"

Ryoga frowned. "I don't think you're giving him enough credit there, Kuno. I'm pretty sure he'd understand. I just haven't asked him because he's been busy with the hunt for the Sakuras.

"And anyway, what could he do? He doesn't have the experience he needs to help me. He didn't have to make a choice like I do. But you did." Ryoga paused, giving the kendoist a hopeful look. "I don't suppose you could give me some advice? Now that you know the real problem, I mean."

"Because I already came through a trial like this one?" Ryoga nodded. Tatewaki continued reluctantly, "I don't think so. My situation was different. I loved Nabiki before Shampoo ever came into my life. She never had a chance to get a foothold in my heart. But yours is actually divided between Ukyo and the Amazons.

"I made my decision for love, but if what you say is true, that isn't an option for you…" Kuno let the sentence trail off as his words sparked a new train of thought. At last he said, "I may have a solution for you. Or at least a new way of looking at the problem."

"Let's hear it, then!"

"If the scales are balanced too finely when you look into your heart, then you have to look elsewhere to find that which shall tip them." Kuno paused. "Tell me now and tell me truly, could you love either Ukyo or the Amazon twins? If the choice were already made, could you go on to love your chosen partner or partners?"

"I… I… I…" Ryoga gulped, then, in a faltering voice, choked out, "yes."

"Then let your honor be your guide." Kuno placed a hand (the one that wasn't hurting) on Ryoga's shoulder. In genuine sympathy this time, rather than an obnoxious false cheer. "If I remember correctly the details of your agreement with the Matriarch, you would take a year to get to know Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. And she would set you a quest to free yourself at the end of that time, but only if you had determined you would never be able to love them. That not being the case, the Kiss of Marriage stands. By your agreement and your honor."

"But… but what about Ukyo?!"

"Ryoga… is she an honorable person?"


"Then let her accept the dictates of honor as the cause of your actions, and settle for friendship with you."

"I…" Ryoga sighed. "I don't know. I don't know if I can do that. Remember what happened when she was a little girl? I don't know what would happen if she got rejected again. And I don't want to have to find out.

"That's the other side of the story, isn't it? Who'll get hurt worse if I don't pick them? And I think it may be Ukyo. By a landslide."

Tatewaki sighed. "I don't know what else to say. And I need to get going, anyway… I was supposed to meet Nabiki at her house two minutes ago. I don't know if I've helped any, Ryoga. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. At least you've given me some other things to think about," Ryoga said. "Thanks."

Tatewaki left the room. Ryoga continued to ponder over the points the other had raised. Honor DID seem to say he should go ahead and choose Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. Maybe he could tell Ukyo that he'd made the choice he did because honor had forced him to it. Maybe that would lessen the hurt the chef would experience as a result.

The trouble was, he didn't think he could bring himself to actually go through with it.

"There has to be a better way," Ryoga said to himself, more out of desperation than because he really believed it. "There just has to!"


To be continued.

Author's notes: Many indeed are the fanfics that make use of 'Passion Spice'. There are so many that you'd think there actually was such a thing in the anime or manga. But this is not the case. The scene with Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung teasing Ryoga with this was my way of poking a little fun at the fics that represent Shampoo as constantly sneaking love potions and such into Ranma's food. She does it ONCE, people. See Wade Tritschler's Shampoo page for more on this and other myths, if you're interested. You can get there through the Altered Destinies page: http://www.altered-destinies.com

It seems to be a law of the Ranmaverse that any disguise, no matter how transparent, will deceive completely whoever is intended to be fooled, until some third party points it out (I read that in someone else's fic, can't remember whose, though). Since Tsubasa's black wig, glasses, etc are intended to fool Ukyo, Ryoga is able to see through them despite his naturally low perceptiveness.

It may seem inconsistent that Ukyo is able to use the threat of force to persuade the Gambling King not to go pester Ranma, when the same method doesn't even faze him when she tells him to leave her alone. Here's two possible explanations, and you can take your pick of whichever one you want to believe: 1) he's more afraid of the Ukyo-Ranma duo than Ukyo alone. 2) after Ukyo scams him out of Ranma's promissory note, and before he sets up camp in the lane outside her place, he slips a bribe to a policeman, to have him standing by out of sight to serve as a witness if the chef assaults him.

Thanks to Jim Bader and Gregg Sharp for prereading. Next time: either Ryoga resolves his romantic difficulties… or he develops a chi attack based on indecision.

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

Chapter 13
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