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A Ranma ½ story
by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: the Ranmaverse characters owned by Rumiko Takahashi, and all that obligatory stuff.

This story based on the anime, not the manga. I’ve heard differing accounts as to how much time Japanese students get for summer vacation, so let me just state that for the purposes of this fic Furinkan’s break is six weeks long.

As before, words in [brackets] indicate spoken English.

Chapter 13: Homeward and Beyond

It was a beautiful summer morning. A light breeze blew, carrying with it the scent of youth and freedom. The sun had risen above the horizon, but depending on where you were in Nerima, it might or might not be visible. Some areas were lit by the clear morning light, but the taller buildings still cast long shadows over much of the district.

Akane wasn’t bothering to keep track of the number of times she’d passed from sunlight to shade and back. She had more important things on her mind, like keeping the bounding black-and-white furball ahead of her in sight.

They’d been at this for thirty minutes now, roof-hopping all over Nerima. Before Ranma and Genma had come, Akane would have laughed at someone who told her something like this was possible. Laughed, or gotten annoyed at them, thinking they were making fun of her.

That was then, and this was now. Not only did Akane know things were possible that she’d never dreamed of, she could actually do many of them herself. The Tendo heir could feel the stress of the exercise all through her body, but it was a good kind of strain. Not the gasping complaints of muscles forced to move far beyond their limits, but a pleasant tiredness which promised next time she’d be able to go just a little farther, run just a little faster, leap just a little higher.

Akane still wasn’t sure why Genma had suddenly decided to intensify her training over the past month. The youngest Tendo wished he’d picked his timing a little better. Spending almost all her free time in frantic pursuit of the Art hadn’t helped her with her studies, not one bit. If Genma had started training her this seriously as soon as she got over her post-Oni blues, then eased up on her for the end-of-year exams, her grades would have been a good bit better.

But she wasn’t really that unhappy about it. The rush of freedom as she sped over the rooftops, leaping three stories without significant effort, was worth a lot more to her than she’d paid for it. So what if she was probably going to end up with the Japanese equivalent of C+ in a couple of her classes! THIS was what she really wanted!

Genma wasn’t obvious about it, but he kept track of Akane out of the corner of his eye, watching more closely than a panda ought to have been able to when separated by three city blocks’ distance. He’d had to promise Soun up, down, sideways, and back-to-front that he wouldn’t let Akane endanger herself by pushing too far past the boundaries of her strength before the Tendo patriarch would let him up the intensity of her training to this level. He’d been a bit amused at his friend’s overprotectiveness. As if a martial arts master like Genma Saotome didn’t know you had to treat girls delicately with the Art if you didn’t want them to break!

But the elder Saotome would admit, to himself at least, that he’d been pleasantly surprised by Akane’s drive and eagerness to learn. He hadn’t even had to use insults and humiliations to motivate her to give as much as he asked of her! Of course, he wasn’t training her at the level he’d demanded of Ranma, but it was still quite a surprise to Genma to see how willing Akane was.

If the thought crossed his mind that perhaps he could have approached Ranma’s training in a different manner, it didn’t stay long.

After another twenty minutes had passed, Genma’s trained senses caught the subtle transition as Akane’s reserves ran low. He let her continue for another two minutes, pushing herself through sheer force of will, before calling an end to the exercise. The elder Saotome was conscious of a grim feeling of satisfaction as he thought back over the progress his student had made over the past month. A few more days, and she’d be ready.

“Hey, Ryoga, check it out!”

Ryoga looked up from the book he was reading (‘Indecision: Beat It Through Self-Hypnosis!’) to find Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo had just entered the room. All three wore big smiles, but in Ranma’s case his entire body practically radiated glee. The Saotome heir held up an envelope, then flicked his fingers, sending the papers sailing gracefully through the air to land in Ryoga’s open book. He took them, closed the volume, set it where the others couldn’t make out the title, and opened the envelope. Inside were…

“Our itinerary and our tickets,” Kodachi said happily. “Our flight out of Japan leaves in four days. Of course, we can’t fly directly to our final destination. We’ll need to travel by train, then bus, and then on foot for a day, but we should arrive at Joketsuzoku no later than a week from tomorrow.”

Shampoo gave a lusty sigh of pleasure. “Will be so good to get back home, see family and familiar mountains.” She smiled a smile as innocent as Kasumi’s. “Also looking forward to pounding stupid cousin Xiao Yu into ground.”

“Never gonna be a girl again… never gonna be a girl again… sing it with me, Ryoga!” Ranma said with a grin.

The former lost boy forced a smile. “I’ll finally be cured of the pig!”

“Ryoga…” Kodachi asked in a puzzled tone of voice, “you don’t seem nearly as happy as I expected. Is something wrong?”

The forced smile collapsed. “I…” Truth be told, Ryoga couldn’t think of even one reason not to tell them. It was probably too much to hope for, that they might have any constructive advice to offer. But he would be happy enough if he managed to get a small measure of relief by unburdening himself on his friends. “Sure, I’ll be glad to lose the curse. But it’s not the biggest problem I’ve got anymore, not by a long shot.”

“Huh?” The search for the Sakuras had kept Ranma from hearing more than the occasional detail about what had been happening in Ryoga’s life over the past month. “What problem?”

“Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung and Ukyo! Ranma, I’d give ANYthing to have had your problems this last month instead of my own!” Ryoga exclaimed. “All YOU had to do was skip school, go running all around Tokyo with Kodachi and Shampoo, beat up a few lunatics, and rescue some kidnapped girls. I’ve been stuck watching Ukyo and the twins snap and snarl at each other, and pull harder and harder on me. I can’t pick either side without hurting somebody I care about! And I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up! I already feel lower than dirt for not telling Ukyo yet that I’m going to spend summer break with them in the Amazon village.” He let loose a ragged, desperate sigh. “I know it’s going to hurt her. The longer I go without telling her, the worse it’ll be. But I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.”

A long silence fell in the room. At last Shampoo broke it. “So they manage to get you after all,” she said in a tone that spoke of stunned wonderment more than anything else. “All this time, Shampoo try to prepare cousins for when they lose out, try to make it so they not hurt like me when Tatewaki turn away. But I never think they manage to win.”

Technically this wasn’t true, of course; there had been one occasion when Shampoo thought she saw Ryoga sneaking out to spend the night with Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. But after she’d realized just how stupid that assumption had been, the embarrassment she’d felt had actually reinforced her earlier belief that they were fighting a losing battle. Because of this, it was more of a shock now to hear Ryoga’s confession than it would have been without that previous misunderstanding.

“You’re making it sound like I’ve chosen them over Ukyo, Shampoo,” Ryoga said plaintively. “But that’s just it! I can’t make this kind of choice!”

Shampoo met Ryoga’s gaze squarely. “That what Ryoga say, but it not what it look like to me. Maybe you not admit it, maybe not even see it for truth, but with what you say about feelings you already have for cousins, summer trip is commitment. You do this, Ryoga, go home with Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, meet parents and spend month with them, not see Ucchan all that time, you have made choice. Maybe take long time for truth to come out, but is certain.”

‘Is she right?’ he thought with dismay. ‘Am I letting circumstances make the decision for me? Damn it all!’

If, somewhere deep within him there was a small spark of resentment toward Shampoo for pointing this out and forcing him to make a conscious choice, Ryoga wasn’t willing to recognize it. It would only have made him feel worse anyway.

Aloud, he said desperately, “So what should I do?! Stay here and let you guys bring back a barrel of Nannichuan for me like you’re already doing for Ranma’s father?”

“It seems to me like that would be making a decision too,” Kodachi said reluctantly. “I mean, in effect you’d be telling Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to go away and leave you alone for a month, so you could spend the time with Ukyo. That wouldn’t exactly preserve the status quo either, if you take my meaning.”

Ryoga did, all too well. He buried his head in his hands with a groan. “I can’t handle this.”

“Hey, chill out!” Ranma protested. “It’s not as bad as all that.”

Slowly, Ryoga looked up. The look in his eyes would have made a lesser man back away. “Not bad? Not BAD?!”

“Nope. So what if you’re not ready to decide? We’ll just bring Ucchan along with us.” Ranma was actually glad to have an excuse to do so. Back when Cologne had first suggested the idea of this summer trip to them, Ranma had wanted to include Ukyo. The Matriarch had said that it would be better not to bring her, though, as her business was still in the process of getting established. Leaving for a month would cost Ukyo far more than it would the rest of them.

Ranma still thought that was probably true, but if the alternative was losing Ryoga, he suspected Ucchan would be willing to make the sacrifice. “I’m sure Mr. Kuno would be willing to pay her way too.” Kodachi, who had her father wrapped around her little finger to a degree of which most daughters could only dream, nodded agreement.

Ryoga sighed bitterly. “Yeah, that might work. IF Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and the Matriarch would let it happen. Why don’t I just wish for the moon while I’m at it.”

Kodachi shook her head decisively. “No, it really isn’t as hopeless as that. Remember Cologne gave you a year to make your decision. Well, since leaving Ukyo behind when you travel to Joketsuzoku would be as good as a commitment, she can’t force you to do so.”

“Huh. YOU want to be the one to tell her that?”

“Actually, yes. Ranma-kun, Shampoo, and I will break the news to Cologne and the twins. You go invite Ucchan to come along.”

When she put it like that, the former lost boy found himself believing it could actually happen. The thought did cross his mind that they were all rather assuming that Ukyo would agree to come. He tried to imagine her declining, choosing instead to let him go off with the Amazons for a month.

Ryoga then passed to more serious thoughts. It didn’t take much insight to see a number of potential disasters that could occur with the proposed alteration to their summer plans. Ukyo in close proximity to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung as they traveled… Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung clashing with Ukyo when they were on their home turf… there were so many ways this could devolve into catastrophe that he didn’t even bother to count them all.

On the other hand, he wouldn’t have to make his decision yet. Ryoga smiled back at Kodachi. “Sounds like a plan. Thanks.”

Ranma sensed Shampoo’s mental turmoil through the Heart Link even before the Amazon’s dragging steps could cause her to fall behind the other two. It wasn’t exactly hard to figure out why she was feeling this way, but for Kodachi’s benefit he spoke out loud. “It’s a pain, isn’t it, Sham-chan?”

Shampoo looked up and smiled at him. For understanding what she was feeling, and for trying to make her feel better. And she did now, at least a little. “Yes, Airen.”

Kodachi sighed. “I know what you mean. It isn’t right, that Ucchan should have to suffer like this.”

The Amazon slowly shook her head. “This time, Kodachi, you do not understand.” When the other girl blinked in surprise, Shampoo continued. “Why you only consider Ucchan’s feelings, not Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung’s?”

“Well, really, I can’t say I think much of their claim or their tactics,” Kodachi responded. “Ryoga never chose to defeat them. And when it happened by accident, they tricked him into thinking it was something more.”

“This ain’t about Amazon laws, Dachi-chan,” Ranma replied.

“That right,” Shampoo agreed. “They love Ryoga for true. And he admit he have feelings for them also. What right we have to support Ucchan over them?”

“Who said we’re doing that? What we’re doing is giving the choice to Ryoga. Which is as it should be! I don’t see that insisting Ukyo come along with us to China is anything like saying Ryoga should choose her instead of your cousins.”

“But that still how you feel, yes?” Shampoo didn’t wait for an answer. “I willing to admit it, even though it hurts. All this time I take for granted Ryoga choose Ucchan. And during that time, when I think cousins fighting losing battle, those thoughts not hurt near so much as now, when I know he has caring for both and think about how somebody going to lose big.”

“Shampoo, that’s only natural,” the White Rose said reassuringly. “Remember how Ukyo was betrayed by Genma. It’s certainly no crime to want her to have some good fortune, to balance that out.”

“That what I tell self, Kodachi. But when I use as reason to say her feelings matter more than Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, I go too far.”

“An’ I did, too,” Ranma admitted. “First thing I did, when I heard from Ryoga about him getting the Kiss of Marriage, was offer to go with him and help him weasel out of it. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung never did me any harm, but I was ready to stab them in the back without a second thought.” He sighed. “I don’t wanna do that anymore. But I sure as heck can’t turn my back on Ucchan either! Especially not after she kept the Gambling King creep off my neck and set herself up for all that trouble!”

“What we trying to say is, it hard to get used to, hard to know what to do about it, that Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung have just as strong tie to Ryoga as Ukyo. That they just as likely to be ones what he end up with.” Shampoo sighed. “Maybe more likely,” she said morosely. “He was ready to go with them, leave Ucchan behind for month until Shampoo point out long-term consequences.”

“Shampoo, are you suggesting we should do anything other than what we agreed to?” Kodachi’s tone made it clear that she, for one, was not open to leaving Ukyo behind after all.

“No, that not what Shampoo mean. Not that simple. We need to do this, but need to do it because it right thing to do. Not because we support Ukyo over Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Kodachi allowed.

Ranma examined her closely, with his eyes and through their link. “But you’re not convinced,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

The White Rose shook her head. “I resent the way they have twisted their laws to make Ryoga think he has some obligation to them. Whatever he may feel for them now, the fact remains that they established their claim under false pretenses.”

“You say that like it’s more important than what he feels for them now, Dachi-chan,” Ranma said gently. “Do you really think that?”

They stood in silence for a while, before Kodachi reluctantly answered, “No. But Ranma-sama, I don’t want to see Ucchan get hurt!”

“Me neither,” her boyfriend agreed wholeheartedly. He let out a mirthless laugh. “Ryoga was right. Heck if I wouldn’t rather deal with another bunch’a kidnappers than something like this.”

“But all we can do is try best to do what right, and keep anybody from get hurt more than they have to,” Shampoo sighed.

The timing worked out pretty well for Ryoga. Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo had gotten back with the airline tickets just after lunch. As a result, the former lost boy’s arrival at Ukyo’s coincided with the post-lunch-rush slack time. There was nobody but the chef herself in the dining room as he came through the door.

Ukyo beamed at him. “Hey, Ryoga, how’s it going?”

He smiled back, not having to force the expression this time. There was a part of his mind that was worrying what would happen once Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung learned of the addition to the summer plans, but mostly he was still riding the high of his relief at not yet being forced to the point of no return. “Pretty good,” he said. “Ukyo, could you close the shop for awhile? I’ve got a surprise for you.”

She gave him a quizzical look, then stepped to the door, rolled up and removed her banner, and flipped the sign that hung from the doorknob. “A good kind of surprise?”

“Pretty good,” he said. “You didn’t have any special plans for this summer, right?”

“Nope. I’ve sure been looking forward to having more free time without school to keep me busy.” Ukyo looked away, but kept her gaze on him out of the corner of her eye. ‘Is he about to invite me to go on vacation with him or something?’ she thought hopefully.

“Well, how’d you like to come with me and Ranma and everybody on a trip? I know it’s short notice, but the Kunos will pick up your tab. You don’t have to worry about plane tickets or anything like that— they’ll take care of it.”

“P-plane tickets?!” Ukyo had been imagining a weekend at a hot springs resort, or something similar. Sometimes she forgot that Kodachi was filthy stinking rich. “What kind of a vacation are we talking about here, exactly?”

Ryoga braced himself. “We’re going to spend a month in China, at the Amazon village.”

After a few moments, Ukyo found her voice. “Is this a joke?!”

He shook his head. “No. Our plane leaves in four days.”

“Ryoga…” Ukyo clutched at her forehead. “You’re asking me to spend my whole summer surrounded by Amazons?! Why don’t I just knock myself out, seal myself in a box, put wrapping paper and a tag that says ‘to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, do not open ‘til Christmas’ on it, and dump myself in the basement of the Nekohanten?! I’d rather go five rounds with Ranchan when he didn’t know I was a girl and thought I’d really tried to hurt Kodachi!”

“Come on, Ukyo, it won’t be that bad! You’re making it sound like Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung are gonna ask around for people to give you a hard time, and everyone in the village will jump to it. That’s really pretty silly if you stop and think about it.”

She grimaced. “Ryoga, this doesn’t sound like any kind of fun. Why couldn’t you guys have picked some other spot to go for your vacation?”

“Like where? The whole point of this trip is to cure me and Ranma of our curses. There aren’t all that many places we could go to do that,” Ryoga pointed out.

‘Dang, I didn’t even think about that.’ This would have been the perfect opportunity for Ukyo to rattle off a list of half a dozen places that had the power to break curses or grant wishes. Unfortunately, she didn’t know of any of them. The chef frowned. “Couldn’t they just bring back a jug of water from the Spring of Drowned Man for you or something?”

“Cologne already tried,” Ryoga said. He was a little hurt that she’d imply he ought to stay behind like that, but he could understand her point of view. “Last time she came back from China, she didn’t just bring Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung with her. She also had a big barrel of Nannichuan for me and Ranma.” He sighed. “It didn’t even make it out of the Nerima airport.”

That pretty much put paid to the last of Ukyo’s objections. ‘Well, I can understand that he wouldn’t want to miss this chance. Heck, I don’t want him to miss his chance for a cure! But did it have to happen like this?!’ The chef indulged in a sigh of her own, closing her eyes and massaging her temples. ‘At least I don’t have to let those little witches have him all to themselves for the summer.’ Ukyo already knew she was going to accept Ryoga’s invitation. That didn’t mean she had to like it.

Her silence was beginning to worry the former lost boy. “Ukyo?” he said hesitantly. “I know this isn’t your idea of the perfect summer getaway. But I’d really like for you to come.”

Ukyo opened her eyes. “Oh, I’m coming all right,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “There’s no way in heaven or hell that I’d let those two little… I mean, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung have a full solid month to drive you crazy. I’m just trying to psyche myself up to face the next few weeks, that’s all.”

“I promise it won’t be that bad, Ukyo,” Ryoga said. “Remember, you’ll have Ranma, and Kodachi, and Shampoo as well as me to be there for you.”

“Yeah, that’s true.” Ukyo hummed a few bars of ‘I get by with a little help from my friends’.

The same timing that had benefited Ryoga also worked in the favor of Ranma and company. There were very few customers at the Nekohanten when they arrived. In addition, the delay caused by their conversation on the way here meant that they just missed Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, who had left on a round of deliveries.

If asked, Ranma would have admitted that not all the coincidences in his life were bad. Just most of them.

“Great-Grandmother, we need to talk,” Shampoo said, after the greetings had been exchanged.

“About what, child?” Cologne asked mildly. From the amount of turmoil she sensed in their auras, she was fairly confident this was something important, but there was no point in getting worked up until she’d heard the details.

“About trip to China.” Shampoo took a deep breath. “We buy tickets today, Ranma, Kodachi, Shampoo, Ryoga already have theirs, and here are other three for Great-Grandmother, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung.” She held out the items in question. Cologne took them and slipped them into a pocket in the interior of her robe. “But we going out again to airline office after this, pick up one more ticket. For Ukyo.”

The Matriarch stiffened ever so imperceptibly, then said, “Shampoo, you seem to be forgetting something. This restaurant is just a hobby of mine, a headquarters while I stay in Japan to help you and your sister Amazons. We operate at a net loss most weeks. Just because you’ve seen me close shop whenever I wish and spend as much time away as I like doesn’t mean Miss Kuonji can afford to do the same. Her business is in a crucial state of growth right now, and if she leaves for a month she’ll cost herself hundreds of thousands of yen in the long run.”

“Great-Grandmother know very well there are things more important than yen,” Shampoo returned.

Ranma spoke up, his patience for the indirect approach already exhausted. “Like Ucchan not getting left out in the cold, when Ryoga cares just as much for her as he does for the twins. It ain’t fair to leave her behind, and it ain’t gonna happen either.”

So. It was out in the open. Cologne’s eyes narrowed as she swept her gaze from Ranma, to Shampoo, and finally to Kodachi. The White Rose seemed the most adamant of the three, which was only natural… she was the only one without memories of being raised by Cologne. But Ranma and even Shampoo were steadfast enough that Cologne didn’t think she’d be able to overpower them through sheer force of will.

And the Matriarch would frankly have been disappointed in the youngsters if things had been otherwise. Nonetheless, this time the strength of their spirits was less of a pleasure to the ancient Amazon than usual. Spirit combined with the idealism of youth can sometimes blind people to reality, making things harder than they have to be.

Because Cologne understood that, and because loyalty to one’s friends was a virtue highly valued by the Amazon tribe, she spoke gently. “Are you so sure that this would be in her best interests?”

“I am quite certain Ukyo would cast her restaurant away entirely if that was what it took not to lose Ryoga,” Kodachi replied.

Cologne waved her hand irritatedly. “This isn’t about the monetary issue anymore. Although what I said was true, I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that it was just a smokescreen to cover the heart of the matter.

“I believe it will be for the best to end this matter now, not let it drag on and on. Better for the child to accept defeat and move on, instead of clinging to a vain hope and hurting more in the end. Better for Ryoga to have a month to spend with Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung without anyone else getting in the way of their relationship.”

“So now Ucchan is ‘getting in the way of their relationship’?! How can you treat the matter as if it’s that simple?!” Kodachi demanded. “Ryoga knew her before ever the twins entered his life!”

“Indeed. Ukyo Kuonji had time to spend with Ryoga without any interference from Ling-Ling or Lung-Lung. And yet they don’t deserve the same consideration?”

Kodachi flushed, uncomfortably aware that she’d just lost ground in the debate. If she countered by saying that Ukyo had only known Ryoga a few days before the Amazon twins first met him, then she’d be undercutting her first objection.

Ranma sighed. “Look, Granny,” he said, not disrespectfully, but not hesitantly either. “I’m gonna ask YOU a question. I know you know if Ucchan doesn’t come with us, Ryoga’s choice is as good as made. Do you think she doesn’t deserve a chance?”

Cologne sighed right back at him. “Son-in-law, it’s not that simple… No, I’m sorry, I misspoke. It IS simple, but you’re looking at it from the wrong angle.

“The basic problem here is that none of you realize Ryoga has already as good as made his choice. Our agreement was that he take a year to get to know Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung; if… and only if… at the end of that time he had determined he would never be able to love them, I would set a quest for him to win freedom from the law. That isn’t going to happen. It may take some time, and it may be a painful process, but in the end, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung will have their husband. If you know Ryoga as well as you should, surely you must see his honor will prevent him from leaving them to face the consequences of failure.”

Shampoo flinched, suddenly not knowing what to say. If Ryoga truly did care for Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, and though she was still trying to get used to the idea she didn’t really doubt it, then there wasn’t any way he was going to reject them. Not when the penalties of Amazon law were at stake. Shampoo wasn’t familiar with the details of quests to put oneself outside the marriage laws, but she knew her great-grandmother well enough to be certain that Cologne would keep her word. Ryoga would only have been offered that chance if he truly didn’t care for her cousins.

Though she didn’t know them nearly as well as Shampoo or Ranma, Kodachi was also aware of the severity with which tribal laws could strike. However, there were many nuances she didn’t understand or even know existed. “Elder, that isn’t going to work! We haven’t forgotten that YOU manipulated Ryoga into agreeing to that deal by deceiving him! If he had known there wasn’t really any measure of validity to the Kisses of Marriage he received, he never would have done so!”

Cologne frowned. “Deceiving him? No validity?” she said in a low, dangerous tone. “And where exactly did you get that idea?”

Ranma didn’t flinch. “C’mon, Ryoga told me point-blank that you didn’t make any kind of official decision as the Matriarch. You didn’t issue a formal ruling or nothin’.”

This did quench most of the Matriarch’s rising anger, though she was left with a good bit of irritation. However, this was directed toward the person who hadn’t spoken on this subject yet. “Shampoo, would you please explain why Ranma’s deduction is flawed?”

“Huh?” Shampoo hadn’t expected this question. “Is flawed? What you mean?”

Her great-grandmother took several deep breaths. “Child, I know you have never been particularly interested in the Law, but that is no excuse for a mistake like this. Do you truly know so little about the marriage statutes?”

“Great-Grandmother, I not know what you talking!” the lavender-haired girl protested. “Shampoo remember very well! When Amazon is defeated, but there question about whether was fair defeat, is matter for Elders to decide, work out problem and decide what is path to take. There many, many laws to cover different kind of situations, like group defeat law what you use piece of back when Shampoo not know whether Ranma or Tatewaki was rightful Airen!”

“Is that so, Great-Granddaughter? Every time an Amazon is beaten and there might be some question about the defeat, she must take the matter to the Council of Elders?”

“Yes, unless she…” Shampoo’s eyes widened. She let out a stunned “Aiyah.”

Kodachi looked from Shampoo’s face to Ranma’s. Both were registering dismay. “What is it? What’s wrong?!”

Ranma gulped. “What Shampoo just described… that’s what happens when an Amazon gets defeated unfairly. She lodges a protest with the Council of Elders and they work through what happened, to decide whether she really has to marry the guy, or fight a rematch, or just blow him off.

“Except that only happens when she doesn’t want to marry him. If she gives the Kiss of Marriage willingly, it’s settled right then and there.”

“But… but…” Kodachi gaped like a fish out of water. Then, recovering a bit of poise, she turned to face the Matriarch. “But that isn’t the situation here! Ryoga didn’t use some underhanded trick to beat them. He never CHOSE to defeat them at all!”

“Child, I’m afraid the Law doesn’t make those kinds of provisions for mind-control. It explicitly states that if there is some question about the validity of her defeat, an Amazon has the right to request judgment from the Council. But if she accepts the defeat as valid, all questions are settled with the Kiss of Marriage.”

Silence fell. The customers in the dining area pricked up their ears, waiting for the next development. The White Rose was the next to speak, as she attempted to drag the conversation back to what she viewed as the heart of the matter. “This shouldn’t be about the Law,” she said forcefully.

“The Law exists. The consequences are real. And not you, nor Ranma, nor I have any power to change those facts.”

“I’m not sure I believe you’re telling the whole truth here, Elder.” Kodachi glanced to Ranma and Shampoo, wishing they’d come out of their shock and resume backing her up. “If matters were truly so cut and dried, why did you offer as much as you did to Ryoga?”

“What exactly are you asking here, Kodachi?” Cologne asked pointedly. “Why did I give him time to gradually grow used to his situation? Why did I secure an agreement from him to give Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung an honest chance? Why did I acknowledge that for his marriage to work, he would have to accept it? Or perhaps why did I tell him that if he found he could never love the twins, I would offer him a chance to leave without hurting them more than absolutely necessary?”

Kodachi bit her lip. She didn’t know what else to say at this point.

Ranma spoke up then. “I owe you an apology, Granny, for thinking you shafted Ryoga back then. I didn’t think things through. I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted,” Cologne returned gracefully.

“But…” Ranma took a deep breath. “I understand what you’re saying. But I still think Ucchan should come with us.”

“I assume you’re going to explain your reasoning?”

“Yeah, I am.” He met her gaze unflinchingly. “Everything you said checks out. It don’t look like there’s any way for a happy ending here. But you know what? I ain’t about to give up fighting for one anyway. That’s just not who Ranma Saotome is.

“Tell me something, Elder. Way back when Sham-chan was still chasin’ Tatewaki, did you ever think things would turn out like this?”

“I don’t claim to be prescient,” Cologne returned. “No, I never would have guessed it.”

“So we’ve already got one happy ending that none of us were expecting.” Shampoo took Ranma’s hand and gave it a grateful squeeze. He smiled at her, then returned his attention to Cologne. “Just cause you or I or anybody can’t see a way outta this mess, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And I’m gonna keep hoping for it, and looking for it, until I know there’s no chance left!!”

The dining room erupted in a shower of applause. Everyone in the kitchen jumped, suddenly realizing that they weren’t exactly in the midst of privacy. More customers had come in while the four had been talking, and the dining room was nearly half-filled. And every last soul in there was hanging on every word the martial artists exchanged.

Cologne jumped to the counter of the window that connected the kitchen to the dining area, and let her battle aura swell menacingly. Once the last panicked eavesdropper had fled screaming into the street, she turned back to face the others. “Ranma, I must say I admire your attitude. Nonetheless, I don’t think you’ve thought this through enough. Given that Ryoga is NOT going to cast Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung aside, don’t you think that bringing Ukyo along on this trip will just make it harder in the long run for her to let go?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I ain’t good at that kinda stuff anyway. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe she’ll learn to get along with Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, and them with her, and the problem will go away.” Cologne successfully held back a snort of derision. Even if his youthful idealism was misplaced, she still had no desire to heap scorn on him for it. He continued. “Maybe if she spends time in the village, and meets more of your people who aren’t out to get her, she might get more respect for your laws, and then even if she does lose out it wouldn’t hurt so much.”

Cologne blinked. “For someone who’s not ‘good at that kinda stuff’ you just made a pretty convincing argument, son-in-law.” She considered for a moment, holding up one hand imperiously for silence when Kodachi would have said something else. “Very well,” she said at last. “Ukyo Kuonji may accompany us and shelter among our people. I will convince Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to go along with this peacefully, and to refrain from starting any trouble. And it will be the responsibility of you three to make sure she returns the favor, and doesn’t transgress against our ways.”

Considering what they had to look forward to, the next few days ought to have seemed to pass much more slowly than they did. However, enough minor things happened to keep everyone busy. Ryoga finally succeeded in seeing through the Dance of the Hidden Chameleon. Ukyo spent a good bit of time working on her defensive combat skills. Ranma had to defeat Usagi after she challenged him to a rematch. Kodachi received word that she’d won a million yen sweepstakes prize, but would forfeit it unless she skipped the trip to be present to receive the check in person. That thought had been worth a good laugh.

It was the morning of their departure, now, and everyone who was traveling had gathered at the Kuno mansion. Kodachi was conscious of a slight feeling of uneasiness as she noted the tension between Ukyo, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung. The chef was sitting on a chair not far away from Ryoga’s left side, whereas Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were on a couch to his right. Ryoga himself was standing, talking with Ranma.

“So how’d the rematch with Usagi go, yesterday?”

Ranma shook his head. “That is one chick who should definitely have been born an Amazon,” he said frankly. “You’d think that this time, when she wasn’t mad at me or nothin’, she’d have eased up a bit in the fight. But she gave it every bit of what she had, pushed so hard that I ended up winning when she ran outta strength and collapsed.” He gave an aggravated sigh. “I am SO glad Cologne made her promise not to chase after me. After the fight, when I gave her a hand getting up from the floor and back on her feet, she was giving me the look. I’d almost be willing to bet that if Cologne hadn’t been watching, she would’ve tried the ‘Wo de Airen… Wo ai ni!’ routine.”

“Wait a minute,” Ryoga protested. “I thought Shampoo settled that when she told her you already had Kodachi.”

The pig-tailed boy gave his friend an incredulous look. “You honestly think she didn’t pick up on the Amazon multi-marriage customs after seeing how Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were goin’ after you together?”

Ryoga laughed sheepishly. “Guess I just didn’t think about that. It’s not like she’s around all that often, you know. I haven’t even met the girl yet.”

Ranma almost pointed out that that was probably for the best, considering that Usagi apparently wanted a strong fighter for a boyfriend, couldn’t have Ranma, and Ryoga already had more than enough girl troubles as it was. However, the Saotome heir had just barely enough tact to realize this probably wouldn’t be a good thing to say within earshot of Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and Ucchan.

What he said instead was, “She wanted to come along with us, but her father said no way was he gonna let her skip the family summer trip to go off to China with a bunch of people he’d never met.” He had felt kind of sorry for Usagi, when she’d explained that to Cologne, but couldn’t find any actual regret that the Sailor Moon look-alike wouldn’t be joining them. Things were going to be difficult enough, with the situation with Ryoga, the twins, and Ukyo, without adding someone that volatile into the mixture. “Not like that stopped her from asking the Matriarch to bring her along anyway. Said that since she’d just lost to me, it was obvious she needed more training, and what did her old man know about the path of the warrior anyway?”

“If it weren’t for the trouble she would likely have caused, I might well have brought her along. It’s a pleasure to teach a pupil with that much drive to learn,” Cologne said, walking over to join them. “Though I would have secured her father’s permission first. I don’t have any intention of opening myself up to kidnap charges. However, after thinking it over I decided it would be best to leave her behind this once. She can visit Joketsuzoku some other time.”

Cologne shifted her gaze from Ryoga to Ranma. “Don’t be surprised, son-in-law, if she challenges you again as soon as you get back. Before we left, I consoled her by showing her the Amaguriken and instructing her in how to train for it. I’m certain she’ll have mastered it by the time we return.”

“As good as she is, I bet it won’t even take her half that time,” Ranma said with a frown. “You DID get her to promise not to use it on anybody that makes a Sailor Moon remark, right?”

The Matriarch froze for a moment, then spoke briskly. “If I don’t meet you before the plane leaves, look for me to catch up somewhere along the way to the village.” And with that, she was gone.

Ling-Ling got up and walked over. “Where Great-Grandmother go in such hurry?”

“There was something she forgot to tell Usagi,” Ryoga said dryly.

“Is near time to leave. When she be back?” the cherry-haired girl asked.

“I don’t know. She said if she couldn’t meet us at the airport, she’d catch up somewhere on the way.” Ryoga shrugged. “I guess it all depends on how fast she can track down Usagi.”

Behind him, the door swung open.

Cologne was fast, but she wasn’t that fast. A number of people entered the room then, but the Matriarch wasn’t among them.

Godai and Hitome were the first through the doorway. Hitome gave Ranma a sympathetic look, while Godai presented an inscrutable mask of calmness. Behind them came two people no one in the room would have expected… Genma and Akane. Each clad in a gi.

The elder Saotome’s expression of quiet control nearly matched Godai’s. Akane seemed to be striving for the same effect, but nervousness warring with excitement and determination were clearly visible on her face.

Not that Ranma gave her more than a cursory look before returning his attention to his father. That one glance was all he’d needed to determine what was going on here. “So. That’s how it is, huh, old man?”

Genma nodded solemnly. “Indeed. Akane is here to challenge you, boy.”

His son sighed. “Well, Pop, at least I gotta give you a little credit. This is more creative than I thought you’d be. I figured if you learned about the Amazon laws you’d just come TELL me I had to take Akane too. Getting her to challenge me is at least better than that.” He fixed Genma with a glare. “How’d you find out, anyway? Was it Nabiki?”

“What does it matter how I found out, boy?” Genma asked.

“Because Tatewaki swore Nabiki to secrecy, that’s why!”

“I see. Well, it wasn’t her. Or him.”

“Good.” Ranma cranked up the intensity of his stare. “Then who?!”

“Why do you care, anyway?!” Genma snapped back.

“Cause I know I ain’t never gonna have a normal life, but I’d still rather not have it spread all over Furinkan that Amazon laws let a guy marry more than one girl! Now cough it up, old man, how’d you find out?! Does everybody know already?!”

There was silence in the room for the next minute. At last Akane spoke in a sort of frozen calm. “Mr. Saotome? Is there something you didn’t tell me?”

Genma didn’t even hear her. His mouth was gaping open and closed like that of a fish cast onto dry land. “Boy, what are you talking about?!” he managed at last, too off-balance to bluff any further.

Ranma blinked, beginning to get a bad feeling in the pit of his gut. “Why exactly did you bring Akane here to challenge me?” he asked.

“Because I’ve been training her in Anything Goes, and I wanted to show her just how far she’s come along.” Genma swallowed the next pre-rehearsed part of his speech. There were more important matters to go into now. “What did you think was the reason?!”

“Ah heh heh… forget I said anything. Okay?!”

“No, Ranma, I don’t think so.” This was Akane. “What did you mean, about Amazon laws letting you have more than one wife?” She looked around the room with deepening suspicion, counting the relative number of guys versus girls present. “And why would Mr. Saotome think you’d go along with that, anyway?!”

“Look, Akane, it ain’t any of your business. You wanted to spar, right? C’mon, let’s go to one of the training halls!” Akane didn’t budge, just fixed Ranma with a determined stare.

Kodachi sighed, then walked over and laid her hand on Ranma’s arm. “Ranma-sama… let it go. It’s not fair to Shampoo, anyway, to keep hiding this,” she said.

Ranma had actually been feeling that for a while now, since shortly after his first kiss with Shampoo. If it had just been the three of them that were affected, he wouldn’t still be bothering to hide the truth, but there was another side to the matter. “What about fairness to Principal Fujima, Dachi-chan? Remember what he said about how much trouble it’d cause at Furinkan, if the truth got out?”

The White Rose waved her free hand airily. “Pish-tosh. I feel certain he was exaggerating. Furinkan is already so chaotic, I don’t really think it could get worse.”

“I…” Ranma sighed. “What the heck.” Turning back to face Akane, he braced himself— it still wasn’t easy to say something like this. But it wasn’t so hard as it once would have been. “Akane, I love Kodachi. I love Shampoo. Amazon law lets multiple women share the same guy, so I don’t have to choose between them or hurt anybody.”

The youngest Tendo blanched. “And… And you thought I was here to challenge you… like if an Amazon loses a fight, she has to marry the guy that beat her?! Ranma… you… you… I was right about you the first time! You really are a pervert!!”

“And you’re an uncute tomboy,” Ranma said flatly, “but at least it looks like you’ve gotten better at the Art since I left.” The change was subtle, but as a premier martial artist he was able to read the little ways in which Akane moved with more control and grace. She still wouldn’t be anything like a challenge, not with the way he’d improved since leaving the Tendos, but she was way beyond the level she’d been at then.

“That’s right!” Genma pushed his way past the whirling confusion filling his thoughts, latching back onto the plan as he’d rehearsed it. “Akane has trained hard to get to where she is. When she defeats you, boy, she’ll understand just how far she’s come better than anything I could say to her.”

“Excuse me?” Some things are too ridiculous even to laugh at. The only emotional reaction Ranma had to this was blank disbelief. “You think she’s gonna beat me, old man?! Have you lost what feeble wits you used ta have?!”

“Bah. Pride goes before a fall, Ranma. While you’ve been living it up in the lap of luxury, lazing around, getting soft, and forgetting the Art while you let your girlfriend support you, Akane has been training harder than she ever has before.” Genma’s glasses gleamed. “And she WILL beat you, you foolish, lazy boy.”

The elder Saotome was particularly proud of this plan. Without him around to ensure Ranma kept to the proper level of discipline, his son had undoubtedly let his training slide. Genma had worked too hard, for too long, pushing and forcing Ranma toward the greatness he could see was within the boy’s reach, to let him slack off now. That was why he had trained Akane so diligently over the last month. To lose to her would surely be more than Ranma’s pride could bear. He’d accept Genma back as his sensei, and never let his training lapse again.

“Foolish? Lazy?” Ranma gritted through his teeth. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, his jaw was clenched, and a murderous scowl lit his face like a thundercloud. “Getting soft?! Leeching off Dachi-chan?! Let’s get one thing straight, old man!” He shot forward so fast that for a moment, there seemed to be two pigtailed martial artists present. The afterimage faded as Ranma spoke again, his father’s gi clutched in both hands. “I am NOT you! Not some lazy old fool who sits around on his fat butt all day, doing just what he can’t get out of! That’s not who I am, and it never will be. I’m Ranma Saotome, and I’m the best damn martial artist in this room!”

“Is good for Ranma that Great-Grandmother leave awhile back, right, big sister Shampoo?” Lung-Lung remarked.

Ranma overheard, and, recognizing the justice in the remark, forced himself to calm down. “I’m though takin’ the insults and garbage from you, old man. I’ll fight you myself. Then we’ll see who’s soft and lazy!”

“Are you ignoring Akane’s challenge then, boy? Have you already forgotten such a basic part of the Anything Goes school?! All challenges must be answered!”

“I remember,” he growled, “but she ain’t given one yet. YOU said that’s what she was here for, but she didn’t say it herself. An’ since I already challenged you, that one comes first.”

Genma inclined his head. “Very well, Ranma, I suppose Akane will have to wait until you heal up from the beating I’ll be giving you. It’ll only make her victory easier, though, as she’ll have more time to train while you’re flat on your back.”

Of course Genma wouldn’t really thrash Ranma that thoroughly, but the madder he was now the worse he’d do in their fight. The elder Saotome held back a sigh of resignation at seeing his son’s reaction to the words. It seemed as if Ranma had completely forgotten the basic principle of using insults to make one’s opponent lose their center and attack without control. Well, his upcoming loss would drive the lesson home again.

Under other circumstances, Ukyo would definitely have been upset at the way Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung immediately slipped to either side of Ryoga as everyone walked to the nearest training room. She didn’t give it more than a token glower this time, though, as she was more focused on anger toward Genma. Watching this was going to be fun.

By the time they’d reached their destination, Genma’s fighting expertise had begun to make itself heard over the stifling of his preconceptions. Ranma wasn’t moving with the awkward gait of a martial artist who’d let his training get rusty. His battle aura was present, and it was very strong, but not with the wild burning evidenced by lack of control. Genma had thought otherwise, at first, back when the insults were flying, but now that he’d had a little time to look more closely, he realized that he’d jumped to the wrong conclusion on first seeing his son putting out more energy than ever before.

As they entered the hall, Genma spared a moment to look around. The room was broad and spacious, with a high ceiling and plenty of room to maneuver around. On the other hand, it was also bare, uniform in its freedom from obstacle or hindrance. In Genma’s opinion, this setup was a good place to start, but you weren’t really training in Anything Goes unless there was some sort of variety present to contend with. If Ranma had kept up his training, but forgotten the basic adaptability that lay at the core of Anything Goes, then as far as his father was concerned it would be worse than just slacking off.

He didn’t realize just how many training halls there were at the Kuno mansion, of course.

Everyone else lined up along one wall as Ranma and Genma proceeded to the center of the room. Ranma took a basic stance from traditional Kempo rather than one of the Anything Goes variants. Genma frowned at the sight, but didn’t say anything about his son’s sloppy form.

“Begin!” cried Kodachi.

Genma made the first move, exploding forward with a high/low attack combination, against which Ranma’s chosen stance had almost no defense.

One moment his target was standing there waiting for him, the next he was gone. Genma felt a light stinging in his lower ribs— the only evidence of Ranma’s counterattack. He certainly hadn’t seen it.

“Too predictable,” Ranma said tauntingly from ten feet behind Genma, then resumed his original stance. The expression on his face made it clear this was a deliberate insult.

Genma hid his surprise. When he’d attacked, he had halfway expected his son was using a feint. He had thought he’d been prepared to counter whatever the boy would try. His face set like stone, he advanced again, but slowly, his own defenses more solidly in place.

Again Ranma shot forward. Genma halted his forward momentum and shifted completely into defense. It didn’t seem to help much… for every blow he blocked, another two got through. But his son was striking with just enough strength to make the blows sting, not to do any real damage.

As Genma realized that, he dropped the pointless defense and counterattacked. His left fist shot out, a powerful sweeping blow that clipped Ranma’s shoulder. The younger Saotome staggered, losing the rhythm of his attacks. Genma was quick to take advantage of the opening, surging forward with a flurry of punches.

However, Ranma wasn’t about to let one miscalculation decide the fight. Instead of trying to regain his balance while staying on his feet, he turned his stumble into a controlled fall, pivoting and swinging one leg too quickly to be seen. Genma crashed to the floor. By the time he’d gotten back on his feet, Ranma was several yards away, back in his original stance, with the same mocking expression on his face.

“Too slow,” Ranma pronounced.

Genma’s face twisted in rage. He raced forward, only to stumble to a halt three paces later. His face shifted from fury to shock. “Look! A hundred yen coin!” he yelled, pointing off to one side of Ranma.

The younger Saotome gaped in disbelief. Did his worthless old man really think that was gonna— Oof!

Genma proved his son wasn’t the only Saotome who could move faster than should be possible. Ranma’s dropped jaw and incredulous stare were all the cue he needed to blast forward and slam a hard punch into his son’s gut. Ranma was knocked completely off his feet. He twisted before he could hit the ground, though, turning the energy of his fall into a roll that shot him away at a greater velocity than Genma had used in his charge.

When he’d gained enough distance, Ranma jumped back to his feet… to find Genma hadn’t even bothered to press the attack. Instead, his father was standing in the same basic Kempo stance Ranma had been using.

“Too easily distracted,” Genma said disgustedly.

The pigtailed martial artist gritted his teeth. “That one was free, old man. You better enjoy it, cause you ain’t gonna get any more.”

“Talk is cheap,” Genma returned. He shifted, as if preparing to charge… then, with a loud kiai, lifted his foot and slammed it down in a chi-enhanced stomp. The end of a floorboard slammed down beneath his foot, with its far end rising directly under his son. Ranma was catapulted into the air.

The ceiling was high, but not several stories high. By rights he ought to have slammed into it, then crashed to the ground. However, Ranma twisted in midair, putting himself perpendicular to the ceiling, head pointed toward the floor, catching his feet under him and then pushing off, shooting down toward Genma with the power and fury of a diving hawk.

Genma dodged to one side, putting just enough distance to keep himself out of arm’s reach, ready to launch his own attack in the momentary window of opportunity he’d have when Ranma shot helplessly by.

He didn’t expect his son to whip a gymnastics club out of his shirt. The added reach was just enough for Ranma to tag his father in the ribs with the ball of the weapon. Hard.

Genma doubled up, wheezing and choking. Ranma somersaulted away, burning off the extra momentum, regained his feet, and turned back to face him. An expression of disgust crossed his face at the sight before him. “Give it up, old man. I know good and darn well I didn’t hit you that hard.”

His father didn’t respond, except to clutch harder at his side and sink to one knee. Ranma hesitated, as if unsure of himself… then pulled out a second club and threw the both of them straight at his father’s head.

Genma blocked both strikes, suddenly free from the need to clutch at his side. “Oh, what an ungrateful son I’ve raised,” he wailed to the heavens, his voice remarkably free from any strain or pain. “To attack his wounded father when he was down.”

Ranma just shook his head, then made a gesture to Kodachi. She blinked, not having expected him to use a Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics signal. But of course Ranma-sama knew them as well as she did. The motion had been a request of a teammate in the ring to her second, to pass her a ribbon. Kodachi produced hers and tossed it to her boyfriend.

“Hey old man, if you’re gonna complain about something, how about the fact that I’m using *gasp* WEAPONS!!” Ranma charged forward, spinning the ribbon in the pattern Kodachi would use for a Horizontal Shear. He couldn’t pull off an effect like that, of course, but that wasn’t what he was trying for. That particular form needed only a slight infusion of chi to turn the ribbon into an overwhelming whirlwind of force, so long as your target was close enough for the weapon to actually connect. Which Genma was. Temporarily.

The force of the attack sent the older Saotome shooting backward, tumbling completely out of control. Ranma himself was a bit surprised at the result. He hadn’t expected quite THAT strong a reaction. Deciding it was probably just his old man hamming it up again, he pushed forward, striking quick, light blows with the ribbon.

While it was true that Anything Goes didn’t scorn the use of weapons so much as dependence on them, Genma was still pretty angry at this point. That fall had hurt, and the blasted ribbon STUNG, especially when it lashed against his ear or nose! He growled, focusing his chi. It wasn’t easy to manage two separate effects at once, but he’d need to boost his speed for this to work.

Whatever else was true about him, Genma was a talented and highly skilled martial artist. His hand moved faster and with more precision than the darting end of Ranma’s weapon, as he lashed out with his own attack. “CLOTHRAZOR FIST!!”

Kodachi winced to see her ribbon explode in tatters of useless thread. It wasn’t like she didn’t have replacements, but there was a reason she’d been carrying that one: it was her favorite. Oh, well. Perhaps Genma would use that attack against Ranma’s shirt if the battle lasted much longer.

“All, right, boy, I’m through holding back for your sake!” Genma snapped.

“Like that’s gonna make a difference or something!” his son retorted. The two held motionless for a few more seconds, then, as if on some signal apparent only to the two of them, each shot forward in an attack.

Akane stared in awe for the next several minutes. Later, other emotions would make themselves known, but for now she was caught up in the sheer wonder of the sight before her. Ranma and Genma shot around the room at an insane speed, bouncing off walls and the ceiling at least as often as they touched down on the floor. Blows were delivered, blocked, and dodged far too quickly for the youngest Tendo to keep track of them all. She’d known that Mr. Saotome was good, and that he’d never gone full out when he sparred with her, but the sight of the stocky man moving with THIS much grace, speed, and power… It was just unreal.

And yet, for all Genma’s skill and ferocity, it was clear that the younger combatant had the advantage. Akane could tell that Ranma was undermatched in power; the battle was taking place at too high a level for her to judge who had the greater skill; but it was obvious that Ranma’s speed outstripped his father’s by a significant measure.

Even now it looked like he was playing with Genma, slipping through the older martial artist’s attacks and defenses to strike only glancing blows and teasing pokes. And yet the expression on Ranma’s face was of intense focus, not the taunting Akane would have expected to accompany a tactic like that.

She didn’t think about shiatsu, of course.

One last pass, one last strike by Ranma that broke through his father’s guard… and Genma felt his entire body seize up. Ranma had timed his attack perfectly; the sudden disability occurred just after Genma landed from a jump. Consequently, though he tumbled to the ground and impacted painfully, the experience wasn’t nearly as dangerous as an uncontrolled fall from midair would have been.

“Strike of the constrictor,” Ranma said curtly, naming the attack that Shampoo had used on Kodachi at their first meeting so long ago. He walked over to his father’s side and bent down next to him. “Good night, Pop. Look me up again when you’ve learned how to do something other than dump garbage on me.” One last poke of a fingertip, this one against Genma’s Instant Unconsciousness point.

A moment of stillness hung in the air, quiet except for a long, drawn-out sigh from Ranma. Then Shampoo burst out with a loud cheer and bounded over to her Airen, giving him a fierce hug. If Kodachi and Ranma didn’t think it was worth hiding his relationship to her any more, there was NO WAY she was going to hold back on giving him the congratulations he deserved. Not after a brilliant performance like that.

Kodachi wasn’t far behind Shampoo, though her intent was more to offer comfort than congratulations. She knew this confrontation had hurt Ranma, hurt him and left him disappointed that his father thought so little of him. The Amazon shifted to one side, to make room for her sister in the hug.

Akane did her best not to scowl at the pervert. Perverts. Whatever. She glanced away, only to find her eyes stopping on Ryoga… and on Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, on either side of him, each resting a hand on his arm and their heads on his shoulders. That Ryoga was sweating like crazy and not particularly comfortable escaped Akane’s notice completely. All she saw was that he wasn’t pulling away. The youngest Tendo jerked her eyes away again, finding some dubious measure of safety in regarding Godai and Hitome. Though Akane found herself wondering, a little hysterically, whether the Kuno patriarch might just have left the rest of HIS harem in some other part of the Kuno mansion.

The battle hadn’t taken all that long, but it had still delayed them past the time they’d intended to leave for the airport. The scurrying bustle as the various teens gathered up their luggage was almost more frantic than the duel that had just ended. Quick goodbyes were said, and then the limousines pulled away, leaving Godai, Hitome, and Akane standing behind, watching them go.

After the last car was out of sight, the Kuno parents turned and went back inside. Akane tagged along, feeling rather awkward. She hadn’t particularly wanted to watch everybody leave, but it would have been worse to just sit behind in the room where Genma’s unconscious form had been laid on a couch. Hitome led the group back there.

“How long will he be asleep, dear?” she asked.

Godai walked over and gave Genma a quick, searching examination. “It could be anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour and a half.”

“That wasn’t very considerate of Ranma, to knock Genma out like that,” Hitome remarked mildly. “Akane is stuck here until he wakes up.”

“It’s not as bad as it could have been,” Godai argued. “That first attack he used would have left Genma paralyzed for several hours. By following up with the Instant Unconsciousness attack, Ranma overrode that. Genma may be a little stiff when he wakes up, but he’ll be able to move under his own power.”

“Hmm. Then I suppose he did as well as he could. And he did need to finish the fight quickly, so they could all leave for the airport.” Hitome turned to Akane and smiled. “Would you like some company until your sensei comes to?”

“Um… that’d be nice, Mrs. Kuno,” Akane said politely, though she still felt awkward and out of place.

Hitome summoned a servant, who shortly reappeared with tea for three. As the three in question seated themselves at a table, Hitome noticed her guest wasn’t really feeling at ease. This didn’t surprise her. She knew there was no love lost between her daughter and Akane, which would hardly help the girl be comfortable taking tea with Kodachi’s parents.

However, the Kuno matriarch wasn’t one to allow her daughter’s opinion of someone to decide her own. She knew the teenage years were hard. She understood very well that after how things had gone with Ranma, Kodachi and Akane would likely never be good friends. But that was no reason for Hitome not to treat Akane kindly now.

It should be mentioned here that Kodachi had never seen fit to inform her parents about her close encounter with Akane’s bedroom window.

Since Hitome had no desire to see Akane uncomfortable, she attempted to draw out her guest with friendly chitchat. Over the course of a few minutes, she realized that something else seemed to be bothering the girl, something deeper than just a little social awkwardness.

“Miss Tendo, is something wrong?” Godai asked frankly. “You’re acting as moody as a dragon that thinks it’s lost something from its horde, but can’t be sure.”

“W-what? I… I mean…” Akane was more than a little flustered by the odd comment, but tried to regain her balance. “It’s nothing important.”

“Dear, if you’re feeling bad, that isn’t ‘nothing important’,” Hitome said gently. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to talk about it?”

“I… I don’t think I should,” Akane muttered, coloring with embarrassment. “Could we talk about something else?”

Hitome took a sip of her tea, keeping her eyes on her young guest, then asked calmly, “Does it bother you, the way Ranma is being unfaithful to my daughter?”

“What?! I… Yes! No! Oh, I don’t know!!” Akane burst out. “What bothers me the most is that JERK just ASSUMED I was trying to get a piece of him too! Like I don’t have any more self-respect than that, like he’s such a wonderful prize that why wouldn’t I be willing to share him with two other girls?! That’s what really makes me mad about this!”

“That wasn’t how it seemed to me,” Godai replied. “I didn’t see Ranma imply anything at all about you. What I saw was him accusing his father of hatching a plan to force the two of you together.”

“You think Ranma just thought Mr. Saotome was tricking me into losing, so we’d have to get married?” Akane chewed her lower lip while she considered his words. She had thought that herself, or near enough, when Ranma made his comment about Amazon laws. Maybe he had just been thinking about his father and not her…

The Kuno matriarch watched as a number of emotions chased themselves across Akane’s face. From the irritation she’d started with, to thoughtfulness as she considered Godai’s comment, to a brief moment of calmness as she decided she agreed with it. But the youngest Tendo’s expression almost immediately shifted into melancholy after that.

Hitome wasn’t positive she knew why, but she could make a good guess. “I’ve gotten to know Ranma fairly well, Akane, over the time he’s stayed in our home. He’s still a little rough around the edges, but he’s kind and honorable and caring. I’m certain he didn’t mean to imply those things about you that you said.”

“I guess you’re probably right,” Akane said. Her expression of sadness didn’t change, which strengthened Hitome’s suspicion.

“And even if he had thought that you wanted to be with him too, that wouldn’t have meant any insult to you.” Hitome spoke briskly now. “Ranma did not come easily or lightly to where he is now. He had a hard time accepting his feelings for Shampoo, because he felt like he was betraying Kodachi. I honestly think he hurt more than she did, because of that.”

“Mrs. Kuno… doesn’t it bother you?! Or you, Mr. Kuno?!” She knew the question couldn’t even remotely be considered polite, but then again, her hosts had brought this up. “I mean, the Amazon laws may say this is okay, but we’re in Japan! Doesn’t it matter how Ranma SAYS he loves Kodachi, but doesn’t mind dishonoring her at all?”

Godai shrugged. “Miss Tendo, you may or may not know this already, but my wife and I regularly travel all over the world. To be perfectly honest, the two of us don’t view Japanese culture as the be-all and end-all of perfection. How common is it for men to marry women for whom they feel nothing, for monetary or other reasons, and then take on a mistress who will receive their real affections? Ranma at least is not guilty of hypocrisy. He truly does love Kodachi and Shampoo both.”

“It did indeed bother me when I first learned that Ranma meant to have Shampoo as well as my daughter,” Hitome admitted, “but not because I was worried about dishonor. I thought she would be heartbroken at finding Ranma didn’t love only her.

“But I was wrong. I underestimated my dear little Kodachi’s strength of character. She and Shampoo had become close friends before ever Shampoo realized she’d fallen in love with Ranma. When Ranma found he returned those feelings, Kodachi was willing to accept the Amazon way over the Japanese.” Hitome smiled. “I am proud of my daughter for the decision she made. And I don’t believe for one moment that any shame should attach to her, or Shampoo, for both loving Ranma and being willing to share him.”

She paused, then said meaningfully, “And I wouldn’t think it was shameful for someone else to wonder if she might want in as well.”

“Hey! Are you saying I…” Akane’s protest ran out of energy before she could even fully form it. She held her peace for a moment, then said, reluctantly, “All right. I admit I did think about it. Just for a second, maybe. But I DON’T want it! I DON’T want to play third string all my life! I want somebody to want ME, not to be just one of a crowd!”

Hitome regarded the girl closely, and found she believed her. Apparently her suspicion as to the cause of Akane’s melancholia had been wrong. The Kuno matriarch felt a moment’s relief at this. Whatever the problem was, at least it wasn’t Akane wanting something she wasn’t going to be able to have. But what could it be?

“Then it was something else bothering you. Is it disappointment, Miss Tendo?” Godai nodded toward the recumbent Genma. “At seeing Ranma’s actual skill level after his father filled your head with promises and expectations, leading you to believe you’d be able to beat him?”

That wasn’t the main source of her unhappiness, but it was a contributing factor. Slowly, Akane nodded. “Yes, I… I am disappointed. Guess it was stupid of me to think that, huh.”

“Not at all,” Godai said briskly. “You believed what he told you. It was Genma Saotome’s stupidity to underestimate his son as he did.” He winked at her. “From what Ranma said, it’s obvious you’ve been learning a lot since he left your home. Lessons are where you find them, Miss Tendo, and the one you should take home with you today is this: don’t listen to Genma Saotome unless he’s giving you actual martial arts instruction.”

Akane giggled. “Thank you, sensei.”

Godai put on his best stoic face of wisdom, stood up, bowed to her, and sat back down with a smile. “You’re welcome.”

The youngest Tendo did feel better now. Tatewaki and Kodachi sure were lucky to have caring and understanding parents like this, she thought. Akane hesitated for a minute, wondering whether to bring up the thing that was bothering her the most.

Still uncertain, but thinking maybe she could ease into it, she said, “I never heard anything about this trip to China. Why didn’t you guys go? Or Tatewaki and Nabiki?”

“My son didn’t feel as if he had the right, after the way he treated Shampoo,” Hitome said. She turned and regarded her husband with an arch look. “As for the two of us… well, I’d have liked to go…”

“Nine years ago I passed through the Amazon lands,” Godai said. “While I managed to get out without tripping over the marriage laws, going back would be pushing my luck a little too far.”

“Was that when you were looking for a cure for your daughter?” Akane had heard the general story from Nabiki, but not many details.

“That’s right.” The elder Kuno hesitated. Akane’s good humor of a few minutes past had faded into unhappiness again. This time he had no idea what could be the cause. Had he said something wrong?

Akane looked down at the empty teacup in her hands. “And now she’s off on her own adventures. Along with everybody else. Except me.”

Hitome’s eyes widened as she put the pieces together. She reached out and gently patted Akane’s hand.

The youngest Tendo smiled at the gesture, but there was sadness in her expression. “A whole lot has happened since the Saotomes came to Nerima. Some of it’s good,” thinking of her new skills, “and some of it hurt a lot,” remembering Ryoga-Oni. “That’s just the stuff I was there for. And I know there’s a lot I haven’t heard about: exciting things and adventures that didn’t have anything to do with me. And that’s how it’s going to keep on going, isn’t it?”

Akane sighed. “That’s what really hurts the most,” she said morosely. “Things could have been different. I could have made them different. I could have been Ranma’s friend, or even Ryoga’s maybe. That’d be a lot better than trying to be a love interest when they’ve both got multiple girls for that already. And I could have been going with them now, going off to China to see things most everybody else wouldn’t even dream of.

“Instead, I’m stuck here. I guess I shouldn’t complain… I mean, I’ve got Mr. Saotome to train me, so what does it matter that I don’t get a chance to learn secret Amazon techniques? But I still wish things had turned out differently. I wish I could have adventures too.”

“This one’s in your court, dear,” Hitome said dryly.

Akane looked up with a questioning expression. Godai stretched his right arm out in front of him on the table, and slowly removed the bracer he wore from wrist to elbow. Akane stared in shock at the sight that was revealed. A long, jagged scar traced its way along two thirds of his lower arm. It ended some centimeters above his wrist, but not in a normal termination. The upper end of the scar tapered off as one would expect, but the lower end halted abruptly, as if cut short by a knife.

Godai placed his left forefinger at the top of the mark. “I received this when I was searching for a cure for my daughter, in a land VERY far away.” He traced his finger down the scar, continuing past the point where it ended. “It used to be longer.” His forefinger was resting on the third knuckle of his hand. “Until I lost the hand a year later. Magic allowed it to be regenerated, but my traveling companions from that time still call me their equivalent of Lefty.”

After staring at the limb and blinking for a bit, Akane asked, “Why haven’t you told this to hospitals and stuff?! I bet there’s other people who’d like to grow a hand back!”

“I can’t really go into details, Miss Tendo. But what was used to heal me is not something that can be made available to the public.” At least not in this world. “I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for that.”

Godai fell silent, while Akane chewed his words over. At last, she said, tentatively, “Did it… hurt?”

“It was excruciating,” Godai said matter-of-factly. “I thought I was going to die. If not for the friends fighting at my side, I would have.” The Kuno patriarch wasn’t one for false bravado.

He also wasn’t one for false modesty. In the same matter-of-fact tone, he continued, “But I don’t regret it, or any of the other scars I carry, or the times I was in danger. It was worth it all, to finally come back home to see my little Dachi-chan smile after she was cured.”

There were other things he’d accomplished on his journey, many things of which he was proud. They weren’t necessary for the point he was trying to make here, though, so he didn’t bother to mention them. “I showed you this so that you’d understand what adventures truly are. They’re dangerous and painful. Though they offer great rewards that you couldn’t otherwise attain, they take you through places no one would willingly visit in order to earn them. And they always… always…” Godai paused, watching as Akane hung on his words, “…make one late for dinner.”

Akane hadn’t read ‘The Hobbit’, so she didn’t facefault at that. She just gave him an odd look.

“I don’t suppose that this trip to Joketsuzoku will carry any particular risk,” Hitome said seriously, “but already Ranma and his friends have had a brush with death. Shampoo would have died in the mountains, fighting against Ryoga’s dark side, if things had turned out just a little differently. Adventures aren’t all fun and games, dear.”

“I didn’t think they were,” Akane protested. Then justice forced her to add, “But I wasn’t thinking about that time, either.”

“It’s better to see things as they really are, not as you imagine them to be,” Godai said, replacing the bracer. “I’m not saying it’s not possible to have adventure without the serious risks. If you’re careful, you can often find opportunities like that. But there’s always the chance, when you’re out there, that something you didn’t know about is going to bite you in the… Ahem… will take you by surprise.”

“Kind of like this trip?” Akane asked. “Whenever Ranma’s around, there’s a chance things will go crazy. It probably won’t happen, but you can’t be absolutely sure Kodachi won’t come back with a Jusenkyo curse of her own. Is that the kind of thing you mean?”

“Well, I’d like to think she’d have the good sense to jump in the Nyannichuan before it came to that,” Godai said. “But yes, you get the idea.” He fixed her with a challenging stare. “Are you still so sure adventure is something you want in your life, Miss Tendo?”

Akane was quiet as she thought. Was she being foolish? With what she already had, her new skills and her determination to keep improving them, with her friends and her family, DID she really want anything else? Or was it just a stupid case of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence?

Not an easy question to answer. Akane thought back to the time Hitome had mentioned, when she’d been kidnapped. She had heard some details of the rescue from Nabiki, who had gotten them from Tatewaki. Akane didn’t know everything that had happened, but she knew enough to see that occasion had been everything Godai had said for those who’d gone after her, exciting and terrifying, with a goal that could only be achieved by Ranma and company putting their lives on the line. And the price they’d paid almost had been that high.

To rescue her. Akane knew Ranma and Kodachi didn’t much like her, and Shampoo presumably felt the same way after the Martial Arts Take-Out Race. Tatewaki didn’t DISlike her, but his affections were for another Tendo daughter. Of the five who’d gone after her, only Ryoga might have had a personal reason to do so.

But they ALL had gone, all five of them, because Akane was in trouble and couldn’t save herself. That thought still rankled a little (after all it was a martial artist’s duty to protect the weak; she wasn’t supposed to need protecting herself), but it wasn’t really important right now. The point was, there had been a need, and they, as martial artists, had answered it with courage, and skill, and determination. And had triumphed.

And she wanted that. She knew it now, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Akane looked the elder Kuno in the eyes, and said, “Yes.”

He smiled gravely back at her. “Then make your own. Don’t waste time thinking about what might have been. Don’t depend on others to give you opportunities. Only YOU know what type of life you want to lead. So go forth and live it.”

Akane took a deep breath. “Thanks, Mr. Kuno. I think I will.” She smiled at him. “Any practical tips for a beginner like me?”

Godai held up the first finger of his left hand. “Don’t court danger just for the sake of a thrill.” He raised the forefinger of his right hand. “Don’t hold back from necessary risks, out of timidity.” He lowered both fingers, folding his hands together and setting them on the table in front of him. “The most important thing of all is the middle road, between those two and between all other extremes: to know yourself, know your limits, know what you want. If you know yourself, you don’t have to take chances to prove anything. If you know yourself, you’re less likely to get in over your head. If you know yourself, you can make a better job at the beginning of judging whether you even want to start walking down a road at all.”

After mulling over that for a few moments, Akane asked, “It isn’t easy, is it?”

“No, Miss Tendo, it’s not. But it’s worth doing.”

This time it was Akane who stood, and executed a formal bow. There wasn’t any hint of a joke to hers, though. “Thank you very much.”

The conversation paused then, as each was unsure of where to take it next. Fortunately, Genma chose that moment to groan, and sit up.

Nothing was said between the two of them, as Akane and Genma walked back to the Tendo residence. They were each busy with their own thoughts.

Akane was trying out Godai’s advice. Her thoughts were caught up in attempting to do what he had said, thinking back over her life, examining herself, trying to understand just who she was, where she came from, where she was now, and what she wanted.

She’d done something like this before, in the aftermath of her abduction by Ryoga-Oni. It had served her well then, and Akane was confident it would serve her well now.

It was when they were roughly halfway home that one particular set of memories rose to the top of her mind. About thirty steps back, Akane had decided that even if she wasn’t going to China, she also wasn’t going to let this summer slip tamely by. This was a chance she wasn’t about to waste!

Of course, that left her with the question of what to do. She’d been mulling over the possibility of a training trip, and wondering where to go. And then some hazy memories came into the light, memories from when she was just a little girl. Akane wasn’t sure how much they could be trusted by now. She knew she had been lost in the woods. There had been a boy, too, hadn’t there… a boy who protected her, gave her something… a whistle, to keep the animals away…

Akane concentrated, trying to remember further. Were the shadowy memories of giant and fanciful creatures real, or just a child’s dream? Had there really been a boy at all, or had she imagined him and his whistle? She wasn’t, couldn’t be, sure of the answers. But she was certain of one thing. In Ryugenzawa, she’d had experiences that were truly hers, not borrowed off someone else. And maybe it was time to go back and see what else might be waiting for her there.

The stiffness hadn’t really left him yet. His muscles protested with each stride. Genma could have taken shorter steps and set a more relaxed pace, and he wouldn’t have felt any of this ache. But the elder Saotome chose not to do that, instead striding along more energetically than he would have if he were in top form, accepting the discomfort as penance for his recent miscalculation.

When Genma had first awakened in the Kuno mansion, he had felt equal parts pride and chagrin. On the one hand it was embarrassing, losing to the boy after underestimating him so badly. On the other, obviously Genma had succeeded beyond what he had hoped for. Even without his father’s guiding hand, it was clear Ranma had continued traveling the path of a true martial artist. Pride at the skill the boy had shown had risen in Genma then, though it wasn’t an emotion that the elder Saotome really knew how to express.

When Godai began to speak, that pride swelled further. The elder Kuno described Ranma’s activities, how he continued to train both to improve his existing skills and to add new ones to his repertoire. Genma had pretty much guessed that already, after the way the battle had gone between Ranma and himself, but it was still nice to hear.

Then Godai revealed that Ranma had also been training others, that under the boy’s guidance both the Kuno children and others as well had increased markedly in skill. This was surprising, and an even greater source of pride to Genma. After all, if being a student of the Art was honorable, then the role of sensei carried even greater honor. To hear that his son had progressed to that point, even without Genma there to direct him… clearly he’d done a better job of training Ranma than even he knew!

This was when Godai’s voice had hardened, as he related a conversation he had had with Ranma. It had occurred shortly after the battle with the Oni, when Ryoga was still in the depths of depression over how things had gone afterward. Godai had congratulated Ranma on how he was helping Ryoga to improve his skill and cope with his grief at one and the same time. He had asked whether Ranma had any previous teaching experience.

Genma’s face hardened just a little more as the next part of Godai’s story echoed through his mind. According to the Kuno patriarch, Ranma had laughed harshly, and said no, not really, but he was able to do a pretty good job by asking himself what his worthless old man would do, then taking a different course.

The elder Saotome had tried to interrupt then, but Godai had overridden his protests. In a tone of mounting cold fury, he had proceeded to rip Genma up one side and down the other for the way he’d treated his son. And today, said Godai, was the final straw. For the disrespect he had shown to Ranma, for the pain he had caused the boy, Genma would no longer ever be welcome in the Kuno home.

The bald martial artist had responded with bluster, at first, protesting that he had only come here to see Ranma, not in any way to impose upon them. They had no right to keep him and his son apart. Godai had responded with a question, asking curtly when had been the last time that Ranma sought his father out.

Genma had still been searching for a response when several ninja materialized and escorted him off the grounds.

As he walked now, Genma tried to convince himself that the Kuno patriarch hadn’t known what he was talking about. Okay, maybe he had misjudged his son a little, but who had been responsible for setting him on the path to greatness? Genma. Who had taught him from the earliest age, and shaped the foundation of who he was? Genma. Who had given his all to bring Ranma to where he was now? Genma.

Perhaps he had made a mistake today, but really that was the least important part of what had occurred at the Kuno mansion. What truly mattered was how Ranma had triumphed, which in its own way was Genma’s triumph too. The boy might still be a little angry, but surely he’d see that for himself soon enough. Surely the effort of helping others grow in the Art would eventually leave him with a true appreciation for all his father had done for him.

Genma concentrated on those thoughts, and eventually managed to bury the quiet nagging fear that perhaps Ranma really didn’t want him in his life at all anymore.

It might have been summer, but here in the mountains the air was crisp and cool. Except for what they carried with them, Ranma and company had left the last remnants of civilization behind two days ago. From where they were now, they couldn’t even see the village at the foot of the mountains where they’d bid the bus goodbye. Twists and turns of the trail had hidden it completely from view.

As everyone rounded the bend, Shampoo called a halt. By virtue of necessity, she had taken the leader’s position; they were getting close to Amazon territory, and it would be a lot better if the first person the border scouts saw in this group of high-powered martial artists was one of their own. Cologne hadn’t yet caught up with everyone else, so this duty fell to the next most senior Amazon present.

The lavender-haired girl was a bit annoyed at her great-grandmother’s continuing non-presence. It wasn’t like she couldn’t guide everyone to Joketsuzoku easily enough by herself, but constantly wondering when the Matriarch was going to pop up was beginning to grate on her nerves. Plus they’d deliberately traveled more slowly than they’d originally planned, just to make it easier for Cologne to rejoin them.

Still, the current scene was just too beautiful for irritation. It was the middle of the morning. The sun was shining brightly. There were no clouds to be seen anywhere in the sky, which was that particular shade of blue you only get in the Bayankhala mountains in summer mornings when you’re with good friends, and you’ve been spending many months in a strange land, but now you’re going back to the village where you lived the first sixteen years of your life.

This was probably the only time ever when Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung would take more enjoyment than Ryoga in being in a natural setting. That’s not to say he didn’t feel great about being in the mountains rather than a city, but the twins’ appreciation had that extra ‘on my way home’ edge which his lacked.

Of course, their husband was also feeling the ‘soon I’m gonna be cured of my curse’ euphoria, and that was a good bit more intense than Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung’s homecoming happiness.

With the last turn of the trail, the rocky walls around them opened up, revealing a panoramic view of the land on the other side of the mountain. Everyone took a deep breath, drinking in the crisp mountain air along with the sight before them.

They could almost see Jusenkyo from here. The valley of cursed springs was a sort of misty dimness, way off to one side. Ryoga and Ranma stared toward it with expressions of mingled anger, hope, disgust, and desire. “Jusenkyo,” Ranma muttered in his best Rambo impression. [“I’m comin’ for you.”]

Shampoo, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung were more interested in the view directly before them. They could see almost all of their home village. A good portion of the cultivated fields in the surrounding lands were visible as well. Each girl let out a sigh. Even if not all the memories were good, which was certainly true for Shampoo, it was still a relief to know the Amazon nation was there, not changing as so much else had in their lives.

Kodachi and Ukyo divided their attention pretty much equally among the various sights, taking in the view of the village, straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of bamboo poles rising out of the far-off mist, looking around at the foothills below them, the mountains to either side, and the river that sparkled in the middle distance. “What a beautiful view,” Kodachi said.

“You’re too kind, child,” Cologne cackled. “It’s been well over two hundred years since that was true, I’m afraid.”

Everyone else jumped, wondering how they had managed to overlook the Matriarch. She was sitting on a large boulder a few feet down the trail. “Is about time you catch up with us, Great-Grandmother,” Shampoo said reprovingly.

“Yeah, if we hadn’t slowed down, we would’a gotten to Joketsuzoku way before you. Starting to feel your age or something, Granny?” Ranma teased.

Cologne snorted. “I made it there last evening, and set everything up for your arrival today. Just so you know, I passed you lazy layabouts two nights ago. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, drowsing the night away while a poor, feeble old woman keeps on going.”

Ryoga snorted, remembering her performance against the Gambling King. “Poor, feeble old woman?” he asked, shading his eyes theatrically with one hand and peering hither, thither, and yon. “Where?”

The Matriarch laughed appreciatively. Jumping atop her staff, she set off, pogoing down the mountain trail ahead of everyone. Which just goes to show, even three-hundred-plus-year-old mistresses of ancient skill and lore sometimes can’t resist the temptation to show off.

Akane didn’t really need a rest break, but she felt like it was an appropriate time to stop anyway. She wasn’t planning to wait for very long, so she didn’t bother to take off her pack. The youngest Tendo stood there for a few minutes, looking out over the forest before her.

She wondered again what she would find there, and how much of what she thought she remembered was true. Absently, she reached up and fingered the object that dangled from a string around her neck. A simple whistle, carved from horn.

It had been buried deep among other relics of her childhood. She thought it was the one she remembered from her time in Ryugenzawa, but there wasn’t any way to be sure. This whistle might have been something she owned long before getting lost in the forest; the memory of the boy giving one to her could even have been a child’s fantasy about a toy that was already hers.

Akane looked down at the instrument, her brow crinkling in thought. She hoped it wasn’t like that. She hoped at least something of the excitement and wonder she remembered had been true. She hoped Ryugenzawa wasn’t just going to turn out to be another stretch of forest like any other. She hoped she was going to have some real adventures here.

Because if not, she’d have to go through a lot of unpleasantness for nothing. Akane knew she was going to be in quite a bit of trouble when she got back home, after the way she’d spent a few days talking to Genma about training trips to the mountains, then left one morning before even Kasumi was awake. The ruse had been necessary in order to be able to go on this trip by herself, but she didn’t think her father was going to appreciate her steps toward independence. And she was sure Mr. Saotome wasn’t going to be happy about getting sent off on a wild goose chase after her. No, Akane was confident that the first few days after she got back home weren’t going to be much fun. But it would be worth it, if this trip turned out as she hoped it would.

Deciding that she’d stood in thought for long enough, Akane started walking toward the woods again. She paused after taking only a few steps, though, and on a whimsical impulse lifted the whistle to her lips. The heir to the Tendo School of Anything Goes blew as hard as she could, for luck.

A loud crashing sound could be heard from some distance into the forest. Treetops swayed back and forth, tracing the path of something very, very large moving in the opposite direction of Akane at a fairly high rate of speed. The girl just stood there for some minutes longer, before slowly walking forward again.

Two thoughts were running through her mind just then, namely ‘I guess I can probably quit worrying about being bored’, and ‘I wish I hadn’t watched Jurassic Park with Yuka and Sayuri’.

With their destination in sight, everyone felt a new surge of energy. They sped up a bit more, though not to the point of carelessness. This was a steep mountain trail, after all, more often than not with sheer cliffs to one side or the other.

Of course, there was one teenager present for whom that caused no concern. After watching Cologne bounce merrily along for several minutes, Kodachi could no longer resist the urge to show off as well. With a careless, “See you in a little while,” she took a short cut, stepping blithely over the edge of a particularly large drop. Not until she heard the panicked screams behind her did she realize that Ucchan and the twins had never seen her use her Rotary Ribbon technique.

And so it was, as the party left the mountains behind and entered the village of the Chinese Amazons, that a penitent Kodachi was carrying not only her own backpack, but also Ukyo’s, Ling-Ling’s, and Lung-Lung’s to boot. And reflecting that even a power-up as nice as hers could sometimes be more trouble than it was worth.

As Cologne had indicated, they were expected. No official notice was taken of their arrival just yet; there would be a celebration feast in the evening for that purpose. However, far more people than usual were moving through the streets, ostensibly busy with errands that just happened to bring them near the visitors. And of course, children were staring openly and whispering among themselves.

They made their way to a large house about halfway between the outer perimeter and the center of the village. This was the home of the Matriarch, the single largest residence in the tribe. The size was both a mark of status and a matter of practicality, since the various treasures that belonged to the Amazon nation as a whole, rather than to individual families, were kept here. And of course Cologne had accumulated a number of her own possessions over the centuries.

Even with several rooms used for storage, though, the building was still large enough to house everyone who needed a place to stay. Ranma and Ryoga would share a bedroom, as would Shampoo, Ukyo, and Kodachi. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were going back to their old room in their parents’ home. The twins weren’t all that happy about leaving their Airen under the same roof as Ukyo, but neither one of them had the guts to tell a mother who hadn’t seen them in months that they would rather stay somewhere other than with her.

Kodachi was the first through the door and the first to set down her backpacks. Carrying that much weight had begun to strain even her. “Ukyo, I suppose it could have been my imagination, but during the last mile or so it seemed your backpack was heavier than everyone else’s put together. What on earth did you bring with you?”

Ukyo winced. “Um… er… hey, it’s not like I could just forget my Art for a whole month, right? So, actually, I kinda packed my mini-grill, two spare tanks of propane, and enough replacement parts to fix just about anything that might break.”

The White Rose looked from Ukyo, to the one-foot-by-one-foot-by-two-feet backpack on the floor, then back to the chef.

“It’s one of my family’s secret techniques,” Ukyo said apologetically. “But if you were actually feeling the extra weight, I must’ve disrupted the balance when I gave you the pack. Sorry about that, sugar.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Kodachi said. “It wasn’t TOO much of a strain.” Yielding to a sudden naughty impulse, she placed her hands at the small of her back and leaned backward, stretching the muscles and incidentally giving Ranma a good view of the way the move tightened the fabric across her top.

Ranma had been about to ask Cologne something, but this drove it right out of his mind. It was left to Shampoo to say, “Great-Grandmother? Where is Aunt Rouge?”

Before Cologne could respond, there was a brilliant flash of light and a loud *BANG!* All the youths jumped in surprise. Ukyo, who was still a little shell-shocked from seeing Kodachi plunge over the edge of an eighty-foot drop, grabbed tightly onto Ryoga’s arm for reassurance. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung gave her a dirty look.

Pinkish-red smoke billowed out from the point of the explosion. It cleared a moment later, to reveal a striking woman of indeterminate age. She seemed to be in her early thirties, with bright green eyes and brown hair with burnt orange highlights. “Hello, everyone,” the mystery woman said cheerfully. “It’s nice to finally meet some of you. And I’m certainly glad to see you again, Shampoo, Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung.”

“Everybody, this is Aunt Rouge,” Shampoo explained. “Great-Grandmother’s heir to be next Matriarch.”

“Well, she’s got the melodrama part of the role down pat,” Ryoga muttered. He’d bitten his tongue in surprise, and was slightly annoyed.

Rouge’s eyes focused on him. Her smile widened, and took on a certain inscrutable quality. “Ryoga Hibiki, I presume?”

He gave an awkward bow. “That’s me.”

“Well, I can certainly see why my nieces are interested,” she remarked cheerfully. “By the way, Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, your mother wanted me to send the three of you on to your home as soon as you arrived. Why don’t you take your Airen over there now?”

The twins thanked her with identical grateful grins, then turned to Ryoga. “Is okay, Airen? We no want to keep Mother waiting after she not see us for months.”

“Um… ah… okay…” Ryoga said helplessly as he was herded out the door.

Shampoo watched them go, then glanced back to Ukyo and the expression of helpless unhappiness on her face. The lavender-haired girl sighed. “I need to go too,” she said. “Have business with other cousin. I see you at welcome feast tonight, okay?”

“Go do what you must, Shampoo,” her aunt said. “I’ll keep everyone else company for this afternoon.”

As the door closed behind Shampoo, Rouge turned to face Cologne with an apologetic smile. “You might want to go check with a few members of the Council, Great-Grandmother. It seems that once they learned that the actual Matriarch would be returning, suddenly there were a number of petitions that just HAD to have your personal attention.”

“Isn’t that the way it always goes,” Cologne sighed. “At least I didn’t give much advance warning of my return. They won’t have had time to pile up too much of that sort of nonsense.”

Rouge kept an innocent expression on her face until the Matriarch was well away. “Actually, I told them a month ago that she would be coming back now,” she eventually said, giving the three remaining teenagers a conspiratorial wink. “That’s what she gets for sticking me with all these administrative duties while she kicks back and relaxes in Japan.”

Considering the nature of the situation he was in, it was no wonder that Ryoga was rather nervous at the prospect of meeting Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung’s parents. Not that he would actually run away, or try to duck out of it, but the pace he set was noticeably slower than the speed with which he’d walked up the mountain the day before.

The girls didn’t really mind the leisurely pace. Walking through the streets of home beside their husband felt very nice indeed. Though they were a little disconcerted when, halfway to their destination, he stopped and just stood still for a few minutes.

“Airen? Is something matter?” Ling-Ling asked.

Ryoga gulped. “Ling-Ling… I know there’s a lot I don’t know about the Amazons. And maybe some of the things I thought I knew were wrong?”

“Why you bring this up now?” Lung-Lung queried.

“It’s just… look, you guys are pretty isolationist, right? I mean, most of your people don’t get out into the outside world, I thought. And you don’t have all the machines and junk that modern Japanese people couldn’t live without.”

“That more or less right, Ryoga. We know some about bigger world, know lot of what out there, just choose not to take it into us. We have proud history to live up to, after all. Not even electricity in our homes. Tribe has no use for things what make you weak and soft,” Ling-Ling said, still a little puzzled why he was asking about this. “Only real modern technology in village is indoor plumbing, and not even everybody have that.”

“That’s what I thought.” Ryoga pointed off to one side. “So what the heck is a suit of POWER ARMOR doing here?!”

The twins’ eyes followed his finger, to rest on the object in question. A moment later, they broke out in a fit of giggles. “We sure to tell Hong Wa you think he do good work, Airen.”

“S-somebody here MADE THAT?!”

Lung-Lung HAD been about to get her laughter under control, but his reaction blew that away. With a valiant effort, Ling-Ling managed to succeed where her sister had failed, fighting down her mirth and answering, “Yes, Airen. Hong Wa is best artisan in village at large work. And statue is his best piece of all.”

Ryoga blinked. “That’s a statue?”

“Mm-hm. Made of stone and wood and glass and metal and clay.” Ling-Ling patted him cheerfully on the arm. “No worry, Airen, it not come to life and start stomping around, destroy village.”

“Dang, but it looks realistic,” Ryoga muttered in embarrassment. “Wait a minute. If that’s a statue, what’d he use for a model?!”

“Pictures from Japanese comic,” Lung-Lung said with a shrug. “His wife is big manga fan. Lung-Lung hear he use her favorite as source of inspiration.”

“What you think he use?” Ling-Ling asked curiously. “It not like such things really exist, right, Airen?”

This left Ryoga with a bit of a quandary. Several months before arriving at Jusenkyo, he’d somehow made his way into a facility with VERY functional versions of that statue. The people in charge of the base hadn’t been amused at all by his presence. Ryoga had promised not to tell anybody about them if they just let him go, but this hadn’t seemed to cut any ice. He’d spent an unpleasant ten minutes dodging explosions and energy beams, eventually losing his pursuit by the cunning strategy of turning a corner and finding himself hip-deep in a swamp.

Ryoga could have spent some time telling them the story, and more time convincing them that he wasn’t pulling their legs, but decided not to delay any further. After all, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung’s parents were waiting for them. He settled for laughing sheepishly and saying, “Suppose you’ve got a point there, Ling-Ling.”

The three of them began walking slowly again. “So I guess he made that for his wife, since she liked those kinds of stories, huh?”

“That right,” Ling-Ling confirmed. “She was not his wife then, though. Was actually betrothal gift of Hong Wa to then-girlfriend Talcum.”

“Betrothal gift?” Ryoga asked, his instincts for avoiding potentially dangerous topics failing him once again.

Ling-Ling nodded enthusiastically. “When non-warrior man asks woman to be wife, he work hard with own hands, create gift for her what he put all his love and heart into. Is very romantic custom, yes?”

“Is not necessary for when marriage happen because of he beat her in combat, but is still very sweet when man do anyway.” Lung-Lung batted her eyes at Ryoga. “Hint, hint.”

How he would have responded must remain a mystery, for at that moment came a sharp sound like the cracking of a sheet of ice. Cologne stepped out from behind a wall, an expression of cold displeasure very plain on her face. Her throat hurt from having cleared it so forcefully, which lent a raspy quality to her voice that only made her sound more fearful. “Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, I have told you not to push him, but you seem bound and determined to ignore my words.” She turned the full force of her glare on each girl in turn. They both shrank back, each wanting to hide behind Ryoga or at least take his arm for reassurance, but neither daring to. “As your parents wished to see you as soon as possible, we will not speak further of this here. I will see the two of you later.”

Ryoga glanced to either side of him. The sight of Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung ashen-faced and trembling was enough to spur him to action. “Didn’t we go through this once before?” he growled at Cologne before she could turn away. “Just let it go, granny.”

This time, he didn’t falter as the Matriarch gave him a long, silent, appraising stare. Eventually she said, “Would you care to elaborate on that?”

“You heard me,” he said. “You think you’re doing me some kind of favor here? Watching you rip into them hurts a lot worse than just getting teased a little, you know. So back off and let me handle it!”

Cologne bounced to the top of her staff, leaning forward and looking him in the eye. “You think you can, sonny boy?”

“No,” he said flatly. “I probably will screw up. But it’s my business. Not yours. Not your place to interfere. I appreciate the help you’ve given me, elder, but you’ve got to stop coming down so hard on them.”

For another long moment, there was silence. Then, Cologne relaxed a little, and gave Ryoga a wide smile. This did cause him to flinch back. “Very well, son-in-law, but don’t expect me to just leave you without any advice or counsel. My family is too important to me. However, that’s all I’ll offer from now on. No more harsh words or orders, and no punishment if they step out of line.”

She leaped back to the ground, and began walking away. Over her shoulder she called back, “I hope you can handle it, Ryoga.”

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung breathed twin sighs of relief. “Thank you, Airen,” Ling-Ling said. She frowned in the direction the Matriarch had taken. “She not have to make it sound like that,” the cherry-haired girl complained. “Like she only one holding us back from walking all over you. We not do that. All we want is be good wives to you.”

Eventually Ling-Ling would learn that this time, the Matriarch had acted as she did in order to spur Ryoga on to defend her and her sister. When that happened, the redhead would feel quite guilty for her immediate reaction. But for now, she was just plain annoyed.

“Yeah,” said Lung-Lung, though Ryoga thought she didn’t sound quite as certain as her sister. A moment later, that impression was confirmed as she spoke again. “Ryoga? We know there much difference between Amazon way and Japanese. We not mean to make you too, too uncomfortable. Did we?”

“A little, yeah,” he admitted.

Lung-Lung brightened. “Oh, a little is okay. Great-Grandmother say, is how things supposed to go between mans and womans, because each is always little bit of mystery to other. So long as not too bad, is no problem.”

Ryoga’s head was still spinning as he entered the door of the twins’ parents’ home. At that point, the need to actually focus on what was happening allowed him to push the mental turmoil off to one corner of his mind. He listened to Ling-Ling introduce her parents, then bowed to them. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said nervously. “I’m Ryoga Hibiki.”

Their father, a brown-haired man of medium height and build, gave Ryoga a critical stare, before smiling and bowing. Da Bus turned to his daughters and spoke in Mandarin. “Father is pleased to meet you too, Airen,” Ling-Ling translated. “He looking forward to get to know you.”

“He doesn’t speak Japanese?” Ryoga asked, trying for the Stupid Question of the Chapter award.

“No, neither father nor mother do,” Lung-Lung admitted.

“Okay, this is going to be awkward,” he muttered under his breath.

Da Bus gave Ryoga another smile, then turned back to face his daughters. His face shifting into a challenging mask of parental authority, he barked another sentence. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung began to protest, but both parents overrode them. Lung-Lung frowned rebelliously, but turned back to face her Airen. “Father say he want see right now how bad our fighting skills get rusty while we in Japan,” she said reluctantly. “We have to go spar with him now. Mother say she stay here with you, keep you company and get to know you.”

“What? How’s she gonna do that if she can’t even speak Japanese?!” Ryoga asked helplessly.

“I not know,” Lung-Lung answered. The lime-haired girl heaved a sigh. “Lung-Lung think is one of those times when parents think it their job to embarrass daughters.”

The girls followed their father out of the building, leaving Ryoga facing their mother, Li Na. She was short and slightly built, only an inch taller than her daughters who presumably still had some growing to do, with red hair and eyes about the same color as Kodachi’s. There was a slightly odd cast to her facial features, though Ryoga would have been hard-pressed to describe it more exactly than that.

Li Na smiled at him, then walked over and seated herself at the nearby table. She gestured for him to take the seat across from her. As Ryoga did so, Li Na picked up a sheet of parchment with an elaborate line drawing like a dozen tattered spider webs overlaid. Giving it a strange, wistful glance, she gripped it firmly with both hands, and tore it in half.

“So, Ryoga, it’s nice to meet you,” she said in flawless Japanese.

“H-huh?! I thought… I mean, your daughter said you didn’t speak my language,” Ryoga said bewilderedly.

“Translation rune,” Li Na said, gesturing toward the torn parchment. Ryoga noticed that the drawing on each piece was very slowly disappearing, the outer fringes of the ink fading into invisibility. “The effect will last for an hour.”

“Wow, that’s convenient,” he said.

“Not when you consider my sister Rouge spent twenty hours over a period of four days to create two of these for me,” Li Na said dryly. “I hope you appreciate how I set myself up to owe her a huge favor, young man.”

“Uh, yes, thanks.” Ryoga paused, at a loss for words. Considering how much this one hour of clear communication had cost, he didn’t want to waste any of it, but he honestly had no idea what to say next.

Fortunately, Li Na was seldom at a loss for words. “I know you haven’t seen much of our village yet, but what do you think so far?”

“It’s nice,” Ryoga said, grateful to be given a cue. “I really like the view of the mountains.”

“Not bothered by the primitive conditions or anything?”

“Not me. I’ve spent a lot of my time camping out. I may have lived in a mansion for the last few months, but there’s still a part of me that thinks four walls, a roof, and someone else there with me is luxury,” he said thoughtfully. “I think I always will feel like that.”

“My daughters said something like that in one of their infrequent letters,” Li Na replied. “That you’d spent a lot of time alone, on the road. They thought you’d be able to appreciate their home a lot more than many people.”

Ryoga shrugged. “Don’t really know about how other people would feel. But I like it so far.”

“Yes, it does kind of grow on you…” Li Na said softly, her eyes not focused on Ryoga for the moment. After a bit, she pulled herself together. “And how about Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, hmmm?” she asked, pretending to ignore the way Ryoga suddenly began to sweat. “It didn’t take many letters for me to get a good idea of how they felt for you. What do you think about them?”

“Um… ah…” Ryoga desperately sniffed the air. “Is that smoke?! Somebody’s house must be on fire! We’ve got to go help!” He started to rise, then made the mistake of making eye contact with Li Na. His legs folded, collapsing him back in his chair.

Li Na kept up the piercing stare for a bit longer, then allowed her face to relax. “Ryoga, calm down, will you? I’ve heard more than just my daughters’ version of the story. Cologne sent word back to me as well. I know you’re in a difficult position. That’s why I wanted to get a chance to talk to you privately. Tell me how you really feel.”

Ryoga gave a long, drawn-out sigh. After a while, he said, “I like them. I care for them. I honestly can’t say more than that. Not that I love them. Not that I don’t love them. I feel like I’m caught in a whirlwind, getting pulled around and around. And I just don’t know where or how I’ll end up.

“I don’t know how much Cologne told you. But there’s someone else, someone I knew before I met your daughters. I care about her, too, and just thinking about going to her and telling her we can’t be together, that I’ve chosen Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung…” Ryoga shuddered. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to hear this.”

“Don’t want to hear the truth?” Li Na asked sardonically. Besides, she’d heard it all already from Rouge. Thanks to the auguries her sister had cast, Li Na probably understood Ryoga’s feelings even better than he did himself. “Let’s get one thing straight right now. What I want for my daughters is for them to be happy. If you’re not ready to go to them and tell them you’ve chosen them, wholeheartedly, no regrets, then marriage isn’t part of the picture yet.”

“No joke,” Ryoga muttered. “I’m only sixteen! I’m not ready for something like that!”

“So what are you ready for?” Li Na challenged him. “What do you want, Ryoga Hibiki?”

“What do I want,” he repeated softly, then sat in silence, considering. At last, he looked up, and said, “What I want is to get out of this mess without hurting anybody I care about. Not Ling-Ling, not Lung-Lung, not Ukyo.”

“I notice you didn’t mention yourself in that list,” Li Na pointed out.

Ryoga snorted. “By now I’d walk barefoot over a mile of broken glass if it somehow fixed things without hurting Ukyo or your daughters.”

“Thanks for that lovely image,” Li Na replied sarcastically. Then her expression softened, and she spoke in as sympathetic a tone she could manage. “And what if there just isn’t a way, Ryoga? What would you do if you HAD to reject somebody? Would you take the path that caused the least hurt overall?”

He didn’t want to respond, as if doing so was somehow giving up on a perfect solution. But Li Na’s eyes held his, not letting him go without giving an answer. And what was he supposed to say, anyway? ‘No, if I can’t find a way to work everything out perfectly, I’m not going to worry about how much damage I do’? At last, he said reluctantly, “If there’s really no other way… Yes, I’d do whatever I could to cause as little pain as possible.” He hedged by adding, “But I don’t even know what that is.”

“Don’t worry, Ryoga. When the time comes, you’ll know.” Li Na patted him on the shoulder.

“Not that I’m giving up on everything working out,” Ryoga continued.

Li Na nodded encouragingly. ‘You were right, Rouge,’ she thought to herself. ‘He’ll make a wonderful husband for my daughters when he’s ready.’

Ranma laughed, Ukyo blinked, and Kodachi just gave Rouge a long evaluating look. Eventually the White Rose said, “If you’re the heir to the Matriarchy, there’s a question I’d like to ask. Have you learned some lessons Cologne didn’t mean to teach?”

Rouge chuckled. “I suppose you could say that.”

“Eh, Cologne knew what she was getting into when she made you her heir,” Ranma said. “Least that’s what Shampoo thinks.”

“Ah yes, the Heart Link.” The Amazon matron led the three teens over to a table, directing them to take a seat. She sat down across from Ranma, and smiled to take the sting out of her next words. “You do know that’s supposed to be a deep, dark secret, right, nephew-in-law? Once you start going around the village and meeting people, you need to be careful not to let it slip how familiar you already are with them.”

“Huh? What’re you talking about?” Ukyo asked bewilderedly.

“Good one, Auntie,” Ranma chided. “I hadn’t told Ucchan those details, but I guess that just flew out the window, huh?”

Rouge grimaced. “Oh well. Never said I don’t make mistakes.”

Taking the Amazon’s reaction as permission, Kodachi turned to Ukyo. “We’re sorry we never told you about this before, Ukyo, but it concerns a secret technique of the Amazon Elders. The Heart Link is more or less what it sounds: a spiritual tie between two people’s souls. Some months ago, Shampoo was critically injured and would have died, had her great-grandmother not Linked Ranma-kun and myself, and in the process transferred all my excess chi to him, then performed the technique again to tie him to Shampoo. The infusion of energy saved her life, and left the three of us bound together.

“As for Rouge’s warning to Ranma just now… in the forging of the Link, Ranma and I each relived each other’s memories. And then the same occurred for him and Shampoo. So he is already as familiar with the home, culture, and laws of the Amazons as Shampoo is herself. But since the Heart Link is a secret technique, he needs to be careful not to reveal this familiarity, because otherwise he will face some difficult questions.”

“Huh.” Ukyo turned the revelations over in her mind for a few moments. There had to be more to the story than the ultra-abbreviated version she’d just heard, but maybe it would be best to wait for Shampoo to get back before asking for the whole thing. But there were a few questions that she just had to ask now. “I guess this is permanent, right?” When Kodachi and Ranma nodded, she asked suspiciously, “Did Cologne tell you that before she linked you?”

“Er, no,” Kodachi admitted. “But there really wasn’t time. It was rather a crucial situation, with Shampoo lying broken on the ground before us, her breath rasping shallowly, her consciousness already fled and her life soon to follow—”

“Hey, hey, HEY!!” Ranma shouted, trying to fight off a fit of the shudders. “Could we talk about something else, please?! That’s kinda just about the worst few minutes of my LIFE you’re rehashing there, Dachi-chan!”

Okay,’ Ukyo thought. ‘New plan. Wait until Ranma and Shampoo both aren’t here, then ask Kodachi to tell the full story.’

“I’m sorry,” the White Rose apologized. “I was just trying to say there was a reason that Cologne did what she did.” This last was uttered in a tone heavy with meaning. Said meaning being that she hoped Ukyo would consider that the Matriarch might have had a similarly good reason for acting as she did in the matter of Ryoga, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung.

Wonder whether she’s still trying to convince herself of that,’ Ukyo mused, noting the odd tone in which Kodachi had spoken. Laying that question aside for one that wouldn’t be impolite, she turned back to Ranma. “So you got all Shampoo’s memories and she got yours? How come she’s still learning to speak Japanese, then?”

“It’s kinda hard to explain,” Ranma admitted. “She can speak Japanese just as good as me, if she concentrates on my memories and uses them to filter the words through. An’ I can speak Mandarin if I do the same thing. Understanding it is even easier. Don’t really have to do anything special for that, which I admit seems kind of odd.”

“The Heart Link is a sealed technique. The last time it was performed was many hundreds of years ago,” Rouge said. “There’s still some things we don’t really understand about it.”

“Well, that was nice and ominous,” Ukyo said, feeling uncomfortable now. Talking about sealed techniques and forbidden secrets was beginning to make her queasy. After all, the last time she did that, ignoring the warnings and telling Ryoga about her family’s secret history, less than a week later he’d received Kisses of Marriage from Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. “How about we change the subject?”

“That’s probably a good idea, Ukyo,” Rouge allowed. “What would you like to talk about?”

“What was the deal with that entrance you pulled? I mean, were you just trying to get our attention?”

“It’s part of the whole ‘mystique of the Matriarch’ thing,” Rouge said cheerfully. “And I was hoping I might catch Great-Grandmother off-guard as well. That didn’t happen, though.”

“ ‘Great-Grandmother’?” Ukyo frowned. “Wait a minute. If you’re Shampoo’s aunt, and the old lady is her great-grandmother, wouldn’t that just make her your grandma?” She made a wry face. “Or are you just saying you think she’s a ‘great’ grandmother?”

Ranma and Kodachi stifled groans. Rouge shook her head. “ ‘Great-Grandmother’ is more a term of affection and respect. She’s a lot farther back than that. You did know she’s over three hundred years old, right?”

“Get outta town,” Ukyo said dismissively. “I know she looks like something somebody pulled out of a crypt and dusted off a bit, but no WAY is she…” She stopped as she realized Ranma was nodding his head. “A-are you serious, Ranchan? But how?!”

“Really high-order chi manipulation,” he answered. “Get good enough at controlling your chi, learn the right technique, and you can extend your life by a few centuries.”

“But only if you’re the lucky one person in ten thousand born with that kind of talent for chi manipulation,” Kodachi amended. “Most people don’t even come close to that kind of potential.”

“It’s not nearly that rare among the Amazons, though,” Rouge said. “That’s what three thousand years of breeding for strength and fighting potential will do for you. These days it’s even a requirement for a place in the Council of Elders.”

“So I guess that means you’ve got it too, huh.” Ukyo gave Rouge a long appraising look. “I gotta admit, you’re pretty good at hiding it. As far as I can see, you look like the weakest fighter in this room, not the strongest.”

“Oh, I’m not much of a fighter at all,” the Matriarch-in-training admitted cheerfully. “I discovered very early on that I had other, more important talents.”

“More important to an Amazon than fighting?” Kodachi said incredulously. She punched Ranma in the arm. “You, sir, have obviously not told me everything I need to know.”

“Hey, what’s life without a few surprises, Dachi-chan?” Ranma said with a grin.

Kodachi stuck her tongue out at her boyfriend, then turned back to face Shampoo’s aunt. “And what talents would those be?”

Rouge held up one hand. The air around the teenagers seemed to shiver, becoming dry and prickly. Arcs of electricity crawled up the Amazon’s arm to coalesce into a ball in her palm. “Magic,” she said simply.

Ukyo gave a long, low whistle. “Guess something like that would make up for not being able to pull off a flying dragon kick.”

“Indeed, Ukyo.” Rouge flexed her fingers a few times, making the lightning ball pulse up and down. Then, without warning, she tossed it to the chef. “Catch!”

“AHHH!” Ukyo shrieked, instinctively complying. She frantically juggled the ball from hand to hand. Then, recovering slightly, she tossed it away as hard as she could. The sphere landed in a corner of the room and detonated with a loud crackle. Sheets of electricity crawled over the walls and floor, then faded away.

Rouge winced, looking at the scorched floor and charred walls. “Child, that wouldn’t have hurt you. I just wanted to show you something.”

“Show me WHAT, that Amazons think scaring house-guests to death is funny?!” Ukyo snapped, still trying to get her heart rate under control.

“No, not that at all. I’m sorry. I really did mean for this to be a pleasant surprise.” Rouge produced another ball, turning this time to face the other girl present. “Please catch this, Kodachi. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt you.”

She gently lobbed the orb of energy to Kodachi. The White Rose cupped her hands beneath it, catching it gingerly… but it winked out as soon as it touched her. She blinked in surprise. “Why did that happen?”

“You have no potential for magic,” Rouge said. “But that isn’t the case for you, Ukyo. You have a very strong talent. That’s what I meant by a pleasant surprise. And I wouldn’t mind giving you a lesson or two, while you’re here.”

Ranma frowned. “How come Ucchan’s ball exploded like that, when it just disappeared for Dachi?”

“Ukyo expected the ball to explode. She poured power into it without even realizing what she was doing,” Rouge said ruefully. “I didn’t expect that, let me tell you.”

“Well… sorry,” Ukyo said half-reluctantly. “Maybe I will take you up on that offer. Let me think about it for a while.”

“It amazes me how much arcane lore and esoteric techniques the Amazons have at their disposal,” Kodachi said. “I suppose that’s another thing that piles up over three thousand years of history.”

“Indeed.” A thought occurred to Rouge. “And speaking of that, we have a great deal to thank you for, Kodachi.”

“Me?” Kodachi said blankly. “What did I do?”

“Do you remember that wretched lecher, Happosai?”

The gymnast winced, and nodded. Even if it had been justified and unintentional, she still felt guilty about what she’d done to him. Rouge continued, “He passed through our village a long time ago, when he and Cologne were just a little older than you are now. And when he left, he stole as many of our treasures as he could get his grubby hands on. Without your aid, Great-Grandmother might never have recovered them. And for one in particular, I wanted to thank you personally.”

Rouge got up and walked quickly to another room, returning a moment later with a small, ornate chest. She set it on the table, then sat back down. “This sat empty for longer than all four of us put together have been alive,” she said. “But not any more. Go ahead and open it.”

Kodachi did so, lifting the lid to reveal a silk-swaddled object. She removed it, then carefully unwrapped the cloth to reveal… a rather tacky-looking hand mirror.

Ranma stared at the artifact, trying to find some mention of it in Shampoo’s memories. No luck. Eventually he said, “So does this thing have some kinda secret power or something? It sure doesn’t look like anything special.”

“It’s one of the greatest treasures of the Amazons,” Rouge said seriously. “The Nanban mirror.

“Think of a time and place you’d like to visit, allow a tear to fall on its surface, and the magic of the mirror will take you there. I’ve used it to keep in touch with Great-Grandmother while she was in Japan. Much more convenient than hiking over the mountains to get to a telephone, let me assure you.”

Kodachi gulped a few times, looking down at the object in her hands. At last she found her voice. “When you said, think of a time and place… do you mean this mirror can actually transport someone into the past?!”

Rouge nodded an affirmation, then took note of the horrified expression on Kodachi’s face. “Is something wrong?”

“Well, yes! How can you let something that dangerous exist? Some fool or madman could get their hands on it a thousand years from now and completely alter history!” Kodachi tensed, wondering whether she ought to smash the glass herself. On the one hand, it would neatly remove a terrible threat. On the other, she’d probably never make it away from Joketsuzoku alive.

Unaware of just how much was riding on her answer, Rouge spoke reassuringly. “Don’t worry, dear, that can’t actually happen. The mirror only lets you observe. No rewriting history allowed.”

Kodachi relaxed slightly. “You’re certain about that?”

“Quite,” Rouge responded. “History is like a great wheel of stone, massive beyond all belief, with reality like a field of velvet. Time rolls forward, impressing an indentation in the surface of what is. The mirror can take you back to a previous point on the track, but it doesn’t have the power to alter the path that’s already been laid down.”

“But that’s…” Ukyo groped for words, knowing there was something fundamentally wrong with that but not sure exactly what. Then she realized what was bothering her. “But that’s like saying there’s no choice at all. I mean, if we go back and can’t change anything cause the track is already laid down, the same thing’s gotta be true for the people around us who lived then! It isn’t their past, it’s the present, but they have to just slug on and follow destiny?! We’re all just going through the motions that’re already set down in stone for us?! I don’t believe that. I won’t.”

“No, that isn’t what I’m saying.” Rouge sighed. “Okay, brace yourselves, because we’re about to get deep into theory here.”

Ranma got up, walked quickly into another room, and came back with a plate of dim sum. “Ready when you are, Auntie,” he said, picking up one and raising it toward his mouth.

Rouge plucked it out of his hand, and set it on the table before her. Focusing her will on it, she altered the shape of the dumpling, making it more wheel-like. She set it upright and began rolling it along, leaving a trail of grease and dimly glowing purple light. “This represents Now, the Eternal Moment,” she said. “When the wheel of What Has Been is coming into contact with the ground of What Will Be. Here, at the cusp, is where decisions can be made. Where the path of the wheel is decided.”

She turned the dumpling a few times, so that its course was a zigzag rather than a straight line. “It’s not following a path that’s been set out already. The path is created by the Moment. And so Here and Now we can change the world, but we can’t use the mirror to go back and alter what once was. Not in any significant way, I mean. The wheel has already passed that time by.”

“I don’t understand,” Kodachi said, frustration evident in her voice. Hearing this was making her head hurt. She wasn’t sure why, but it felt like what Rouge was saying was only a piece of a greater whole, the sounds entering her ears while unspoken words pushed directly at the back of her mind, clamoring and crying, needing to be understood. The feeling was intensely annoying. “If we go back, wouldn’t it be Now where and when we were then?”

Ranma finished one dim sum and picked up another. If this was making Dachi-chan’s head hurt, he knew better than to pay too much attention or try to understand it.

“No,” Rouge said. “You need to understand that Time as we know it is just a piece of Paratime. The moment Now is an absolute, regardless of your position in the timestream. If you go back before Now, all you can make is inconsequential changes. You might visit your own great-great-great-grandmother, bring her a basket of fruit and alter what she had for lunch on a given day. But if she were going to go out to meet the man she would eventually marry, you wouldn’t be able to stop her no matter how hard you tried. Actually, the timestream itself would kick you out before you could do anything significant. You would bounce off the walls of the rut that the wheel has already left behind, so to speak. You’d wind up right back where and when you were when you used the mirror.”

“So there’s no way at all to change the past, but we can still make our own choices in the present, huh?” Ukyo said skeptically. Sounded like a wishful thinking theory to her. More likely whoever made the Banana mirror or whatever it was called just put a ‘you can’t change history with this thing’ clause into the spell. Kodachi frowned too, still unsure what was bothering her.

“Well, technically that’s not true,” Rouge admitted slowly. “Theoretically, it is possible to undo what has been done. It’s not nearly so simple as inserting yourself into the past, though. Changing things like that isn’t an option, but if you could affect the Eternal Moment, halt the wheel entirely and force it to run backward, that method… and only that method… could take the whole world back to a time gone by, with the chance to choose a new path entirely.”

“And the mirror’s just not powerful enough to do that?” Ranma asked, spotting his chance to contribute to the conversation without actually having to swallow an entire Metaphysics 101 course in one gulp.

“Not by several billion orders of magnitude,” Rouge said wryly. “And Kodachi dear, you needn’t worry about some fool or madman in the future gaining the power to do this. It’s so astronomically improbable that you’d be far better off worrying about a comet blasting into the earth and reducing it to rubble.”

Kodachi chewed her lower lip. “I don’t know about that… I mean, it seems to me that as time goes by, people become more and more obsessed with power. Who knows what the generators of the twenty-third century will be like? What if some techno-sorcerer comes up with a way to slave the output of a municipal power plant to his spell?”

“Wouldn’t work,” Rouge said reassuringly. “What I’ve told you is a large fraction of all we know of the theory. Now with that as your reference, think of an aborigine from a tribe with no contact with the outside world. She watches birds fly through the air, and she realizes that it’s their wings that allow them to do so. In this she understands about as much of the practical science of aerodynamics as we do of temporal metatheory. And she’d have just as much luck building a jet airplane as a human mage would bending absolute Time to her will.”

“Aren’t you mixing your metaphors there a little?” Ukyo pointed out. “I mean, there’s a lot more than just knowing aerodynamics that goes into building a jet. You gotta have steel, and fuel, and really bad food for during the flight, and a lot of other stuff too.”

“My point exactly,” Rouge said with a satisfied look. “We’re getting back into theory now, but don’t worry, Ranma, it’s almost over. Because the Eternal Moment is in a way timeless, whereas we humans are bound firmly to time, a human can touch it but not manipulate it.

“No matter how strong a human might be, she would still need the power and essence of some sort of timeless entity in order to actually affect Time itself. That could be considered the materials issue in the jet plane construction analogy, Ukyo.”

“What’s to stop some powerful entity like that from doing it, then?” Kodachi asked. “Are we just counting on the fact that they would already have done it if they wanted to?”

“No. They simply cannot. Such creatures cannot survive a direct contact with the Eternal Moment. They are immortal because Time doesn’t touch them.” Rouge shrugged. “Besides, the entity’s position outside of Time would make it impossible to know exactly what it would need to do. The ever-changing nature of the Eternal Moment means that only a human, positioned within the flow of time, would be able to figure out exactly how it needed to be manipulated. For some timeless spirit to try would be like trying to open a crate using a crowbar that was shipped inside the box.

“So you see, it would have to be the work of a human… and here we reach the last, most impossible hurdle of all. Assuming someone somehow found a source of all the practical knowledge she would need to successfully warp time, she would be shattered by it like a porcelain doll beneath one of Shampoo’s bonbori. All we know is just a drop of water in the river, just enough to let us dimly see how much is out there that we don’t know. No mortal mind could survive that burden intact.”

“Hmmm…” Somewhere in Rouge’s last few sentences, the annoying clamor at the back of her mind had subsided. Kodachi decided it had probably just been worry that someone might one day succeed in unraveling the timeline. And now that she knew just how unrealistic that thought really was, she could stop worrying. Hence the relief she felt after Rouge had finished her explanation. “I suppose there really isn’t much cause for concern then. It won’t ever happen. Thank you, Rouge.”

“Yeah, thanks for the lecture. I was really wishing I was back in school,” Ranma said sarcastically, a little disgruntled over the last crack Rouge had shot his way. “Shampoo doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

Ranma’s lavender-haired love-interest moved purposefully through the streets. The temptation was there to walk slowly, to take her time and look around, to refamiliarize herself with the village after the long months spent in Japan. She ignored it. Shampoo didn’t think it likely that the other Amazons were going to be all that happy to see the undefeated Champion come back, and she wasn’t in the mood to deal with cold stares and the cold shoulder.

Time enough for that later, when she could show Kodachi and particularly Ranma around the village. She had heard from Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung that when word got back of her first failure with Tatewaki, the main response among the other Amazons had been a sort of satisfied consensus that the high-and-mighty Shampoo had had it coming.

Learning that had hurt. Shampoo was just glad the twins hadn’t let that slip out until well after the truth of the Heart Link had been revealed. It would have been much more painful, otherwise. But with the news coming when it did, her main reaction had been a determination to one day show everyone just what kind of man did think she was worth loving. Let all those petty, jealous girls turn green from envy! They couldn’t beat her in a fight, and there was no way in the world they’d ever find a man as good as her Airen!

By her ancestors, if she had to put up with hostility, she was going to EARN it!

Her quick, determined strides carried her to her destination in very little time. Shampoo stopped just outside the door of the household of her aunt Jasmine, took a moment to school her face into an impassive mask, and knocked loudly.

No response. She knocked again, even more forcefully this time.

Across the street, the front door of a different house swung open, revealing a tall blonde girl. “<Hello? Is somebody there?>”

Shampoo heard the question in the background, but didn’t pay it any attention, not having any reason to think it had anything to do with her. The nameless girl looked around, frowned, stepped back inside, and started to close her door.

Her impassive mask was beginning to slip a bit now. Shampoo gave the door in front of her one last series of thumps, making absolutely sure that this time there was no way her knocking could go unnoticed. A few loose tiles dropped from the roof, but that was the only response from the house.

The lavender-haired girl gave a frustrated sigh. “<I can’t believe Aunt Jasmine isn’t home at least,>” she muttered as she turned to go. “<She almost never gets out of the house.>”

“<You just missed her. She and her husband are meeting with the parents of the groom this afternoon, to discuss your cousin’s upcoming marriage.>”

Shampoo blinked, then turned a bit more. The words had come from another Amazon crossing the street toward her. The blonde girl wasn’t someone Shampoo had ever had much contact with, but it wasn’t hard to remember her name. “<What was that, Edelweiss?>”

“<I said your aunt and uncle are meeting with Xiao Yu’s fiancé’s parents this afternoon, to discuss the marriage. They should be back in a few hours.>”

“<Oh.>” Shampoo gave the other girl a strange look. “<Is there some reason you don’t want to say Mousse’s name?>”

Edelweiss’s jaw dropped. “<Y-you knew?! Xiao Yu wanted it kept a secret as long as possible, so you didn’t try to interfere. She was worried if you found out time was running out for you, that you’d reverse the Xi Fang Gao before she could marry him.>”

Shampoo just stood there for an uncertain amount of time, as the words sunk in. Then…

…Edelweiss was treated to the sight of the Champion of the Amazons down on her knees, holding her sides, laughing hard enough to knock a few more tiles loose from the roof above her.

Eventually, Shampoo got her mirth under control. “<Wow, Edelweiss, I never knew you had a sense of humor like that. Thanks. But seriously, what was the reason?>”

“<Um… I was serious, Shampoo.>” Edelweiss took one look at the ‘yeah, right’ expression on Shampoo’s face, and continued, “<Really! Xiao Yu really did say that! But maybe it was a joke on her part?>”

“<Guess that makes sense,>” Shampoo said, though now there was a slight doubt nagging at the back of her mind. Namely… given that Xiao Yu was crazy enough to want Mousse in the first place, would thinking she might have to worry about Shampoo stealing him back really be all that much worse? Well, it didn’t really matter now. “<Anyway, she’s the one I’m really looking for. Is Xiao Yu at the marriage meeting as well?>”

“<No…>” Edelweiss hesitated, unsure as to what she ought to do, but eventually continued, “<She and Mousse are probably at their favorite date spot.>” She went on to give directions to said location.

Shampoo thanked her and walked off. Or perhaps ‘stalked’ would be a better word, Edelweiss mused. She briefly considered following along and watching what transpired, but then thought better of it. Judging from the gleam in Shampoo’s eyes, it wouldn’t be a good idea to risk getting caught up in whatever was going to happen next.

Mousse’s eyesight was just as bad as ever, and anyway he was looking at the river in front of him rather than the girl at his side. He still didn’t miss her shiver, though, since he had his arm around her. “<Delayed reaction?>” he asked, pulling her a little closer to him.

“<Hmmm? What was that, Mousse?>” she asked absently.

“<I felt you shiver just now. Were you thinking about what your mother is going to say this evening?>”

“<Don’t be silly, Airen. I love Mom to death, but she’s got a real blind spot where you’re concerned.>” She gave him a quick kiss as apology for the choice of words, then continued. “<I’ll just tune her out if she starts ranting and raving, then pay attention again when she says when the wedding will be.>”

Mousse shook his head in wonder. “<I can’t believe it doesn’t bother you at all, that she…>” he gulped, trying to get the sentence out without actually letting it trigger any memories, “<…she caught us in bed last night.>”

“<Well, believe it or not, it’s still true.>” Xiao Yu gave him an impish smile. “<If you want to spend a few minutes telling me how brave I am and how much you admire it, I wouldn’t mind a bit.>”

A few minutes later, more or less, Mousse broke off in mid-compliment. Xiao Yu had just shivered again. “<That’s the second time you did that, darling. Are you cold?>”

“<No,>” she said hesitantly. “<I’m not really sure what it was. Just felt like there was some vague but horrible doom, creeping closer and closer.>”

“<Well, well, cousin. I never knew you were clairvoyant.>”

The familiar voice had come from only a few feet behind them, speaking in a velvet purr that practically dripped menace. Xiao Yu and Mousse leaped to their feet and spun around to face the speaker. Or at least they tried to. But since they had been holding hands, and neglected to let go, what actually happened was the two of them knocked their foreheads together, then fell flat on their faces.

Shampoo shook her head disgustedly. ‘<Aiyah. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother. She’s punishing herself worse than I ever could.>’

With a groan, the young couple picked themselves up and successfully turned to face the newcomer. Xiao Yu’s face set like stone. “<Well, Shampoo. What do you want?>”

The other Amazon’s gaze flickered from her cousin to Mousse, then back again. “<Is that any way to greet a family member you haven’t seen in months, Xiao Yu?>”

A battle aura began to flicker around Xiao Yu. “<If it was anyone other than a family member who was trying to steal my love back, cousin, I’d already have a sword in my hands!>”

Shampoo hadn’t really expected to maintain her air of cool reproach for the entire confrontation, but she also hadn’t thought she would lose it this quickly. “<I don’t believe this! What kind of an idiot are you?!>”

“<Not enough of an idiot to let you get your claws back in Mousse! I knew if I didn’t move quickly, you’d eventually come and drag him back. Well, guess what, Shampoo, you missed your chance! You threw him away and I’m not letting you play any more games with him. Mousse is mine now. He’s got someone who really does love him. We’re getting married as soon as possible and there’s nothing you can do about it!!>”

“<WHAT THE HELL MAKES YOU THINK I WANT TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT?!>” Shampoo screamed. She took a deep breath, then continued in a marginally more controlled tone, “<Far be it from lowly little me to break up two people who are obviously so perfect for each other. I mean, he’s blind as a bat, and if you really think I want to try and take him away from you, you must be too.>”

Mousse frowned at this, but held his peace. He hadn’t much cared for the remark about his eyesight. That didn’t mean he was willing to snarl at Shampoo about it, though, not after all the grief he’d given her over the years. And then there was the fact that, as angry as Shampoo was, it might not be a good idea to take an active part in this confrontation. No sense sticking his head in a hornets’ nest, after all.

“<You really expect me to believe you aren’t here to take him back?!>” Xiao Yu’s eyes narrowed. “<Then show me you mean it. Shut up, go away, and leave us alone.>”

“<Oh, I will. I will.>” Shampoo’s voice was back to the velvet purr of death. “<After I do what I came here for, cousin.>” Her face twisted. “<All you had to do was tell me you wanted him,> she continued in the same menacing tone. “<I’d have given him to you in a heartbeat. I never wanted Mousse to be anything but a friend, and if I knew how you felt I’d have pushed him toward you until he had to accept it.

“<But what did you do, Xiao Yu? Instead of letting Mousse know you were interested, you teased him and made fun of him. You challenged me over and over, and got more and more hostile each time you lost. I just thought you were acting like everybody else, pouting like spoiled children when they couldn’t beat me.>”

“<How dare you!!>” Xiao Yu’s face was pale with fury. “<Do you know what it felt like, watching him fall all over you no matter how badly you treated him?! Do you know how much it hurt, when he never even noticed me?!>”

“<No, I don’t! But I do know this… you deserved every single minute of it, and more! It happened because you let it happen. How about you, Xiao Yu, do you even care that he frightened other men away from me? Do you know how alone I’ve been?! I had to go to JAPAN to find people who accepted me for who I was!>”

“<And you’re blaming me for that?!>”

“<It damn well is partly your fault,>” Shampoo growled back. “<Everyone’s always resented me for my skill. I didn’t like it, but at least I had my family there to support me. Or so I thought. And then you start acting just like all the rest. Did it even ONCE cross your mind that what you were saying then was I couldn’t even trust my own blood kin?!

“<Ever since then there’s been a nagging little whisper in the back of my mind, wondering just when Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were going to turn on me too. And they didn’t deserve that. They’ve never done anything but support me. And I wish to heaven they were the only cousins I had!>”

At this, Xiao Yu did flinch. But she recovered quickly. “<Don’t try to make out like it’s all my fault, Shampoo! You sure didn’t ever ask me why I was challenging you!>”

Shampoo’s face flushed beet red. “<Do the words, ‘I’ll prove I’m better than you’ ring any bells in your selective memory, cousin?>”

A worse flinch this time. “<That time… I meant… that was for Mousse. I wanted to prove myself for him, so he’d notice me for once.>”

“<Just shut up.>” Shampoo shook her head disgustedly. “<I don’t want to hear any more out of you.>” She pulled out her bonbori and assumed a fighting stance. “<This is for all the pain I went through, because you wouldn’t just come out and say what you wanted. I challenge you, Xiao Yu.>”


A sense of self-preservation had kept Mousse well back from the exchange between the two girls. But this was enough to get him moving. He strode forward, stopping between Shampoo and Xiao Yu. “<I won’t let you do it, Shampoo.>”

Shampoo bit back her instinctive response. She looked at him silently for a long moment, then said, “<You know, it’s actually nice to see you stand up to me instead of curling up into a little ball. That frown looks a whole lot better than the pleading looks you used to give me. I’m glad the Xi Fang Gao worked this well, Mousse, and I’m glad you finally grew a spine. Now GET OUT OF MY WAY!>”

His expression didn’t change. “<I said no. I won’t let you hurt her. Don’t make me stop you.>”

“<Threats now, Mousse?>” Shampoo glared fiercely at him. “<You owe me too, you know. Even more than she does. All those years when you never listened and never worried about what I wanted. Well, you can pay some of that debt now, by not sticking your nose into my personal business.>”

Mousse heaved a ragged sigh. She certainly knew how to fight dirty. “<I… I can’t deny it. I do owe you. But if you think that’s going to make me just step aside and let you fight the woman I love, then I guess you don’t know me very well at all.>”

All the fire seemed to go out of Shampoo at once. She sagged, and her bonbori dropped from her hands. “<I really can’t convince you, can I? And it’s not like I can just go through you. After all, you won our last fight, didn’t you?>”

Xiao Yu had been content to stay behind Mousse for the last little while, enjoying a warm fuzzy glow as she watched him defy Shampoo for her sake. At this, though, she snapped back to reality. Surely he couldn’t…

Mousse relaxed. “<I’m sorry about that, Shampoo. But I couldn’t just stand by and—”

“<Mousse, what do you think you’re doing?! Don’t fall for her tricks!>” Xiao Yu cried, clutching his arm.

“<Huh? What…?”> Mousse asked, his train of thought effectively derailed. He half-turned to face the girl at his side.

Quicker than thought, Shampoo whipped out a long hollow tube and raised it to her lips. A powerful exhalation sent a dart flying through the air to lodge itself in Mousse’s shoulder. He staggered, then slumped to the ground, falling rapidly toward unconsciousness. The last thing he heard for some time was Shampoo’s curtly uttered, “<THAT was for HOW you won our fight, Mousse. And no, I didn’t really think you’d let honor make you do something you didn’t want.>”

“<Mousse!>” Xiao Yu shrieked as his eyes closed, falling to her knees beside him and frantically checking his vital signs.

“<Oh, come ON, Xiao Yu, do you really think I’d kill him? He’ll wake up in a few hours.>” Shampoo tossed the tube off into the bushes, and picked up her bonbori. She assumed a ready stance again. “<And he’ll be feeling a lot better then than you will.>”

Xiao Yu carefully pulled Mousse some distance away from the soon-to-be battleground, then produced her own weapon and charged.

A party thrown by Amazons is a party that lasts well into the night, so it wasn’t until midmorning the next day that everyone set out for Jusenkyo. Even so, there were still several aching heads among the group.

Kodachi’s head wasn’t hurting, of course, but nonetheless something seemed to be bothering her. Ranma noticed after the group had traveled about a mile. “Something wrong, Dachi-chan?”

“Well… it’s just…” she sighed. “Maybe it was my imagination,” spoken in a tone that indicated she didn’t believe it for a second, “but last night, as the party wore on, it seemed as if more and more people were staring at me. I did hope that things might be different here. I mean, I even saw some other people at the party with white hair. I don’t know why I should still stand out.”

Shampoo shook her head in disbelief, then winced as her skull protested the motion. “If you no want to attract attention, Kodachi, why you have five mugs of festival mead?”

The White Rose blinked in surprise. “What are you talking about? That fruit punch drink?”

“Fruit punch she say,” Ling-Ling muttered. She and her sister had only managed one mug each and were still feeling the effects.

“That ‘fruit punch’ was a LOT stronger than sake, Dachi,” Ranma explained.

“And you drink five mugs like they nothing. Of course you get attention for that. But most of it was stares of respect,” Shampoo said.

“Oops. Why didn’t someone tell me?” Kodachi asked plaintively.

“How could you not know by the taste?” Ukyo countered.

“Oh, never mind.”

A little farther up the trail, Li Na, Rouge, and Cologne were engaged in their own conversation. “<I still it’s ridiculous to take so many people to Jusenkyo,>” Cologne grumbled. “<We three may all be agreed that the current ruling to keep the place secret from the tribe as a whole is foolish, but we are still bound by it. Such a large group disappearing for the day is bound to raise questions.>”

Li Na shrugged. “<So who would you have left behind, Great-Grandmother? Kodachi and Shampoo want to be there to see Ranma get cured. My daughters are determined to share the moment with Ryoga, and since he’ll eventually be my son-in-law I want to as well. It would be needlessly cruel to leave Ukyo behind. We need Rouge in case the guide is elsewhere, so we’ll have someone who can find the Nannichuan. That really just leaves you.>”

“<True, true.>” Cologne shot an unpleasant glance toward Rouge, who looked off into the distance, whistling innocently. “<But it seems a rather large pile of requests and petitions just for me have accumulated over the last month. If you think I’m going to miss my chance to put that aside for a day, you must have had as much to drink last night as Kodachi.>”

It was the middle of the afternoon by the time they reached Jusenkyo. Everyone stopped and just stood still for a few minutes, regarding the sight before them. The warm summer sunlight sparkled off the various pools of water. The bamboo poles stood invitingly tall and straight, as if crying out to any passing martial artist to try their skill at balancing. There was a sense of drowsy calmness in the air, and all in all the Valley of Cursed Springs seemed beautiful and welcoming. Amazing how deceiving looks could be, Ukyo mused.

As if echoing her thought, Rouge spoke up. “Everyone, remember that this place is dangerous. A few of these springs carry curses that can’t be overridden by the Nannichuan or Nyannichuan. Keep on your guard and stay away from the water.”

Ranma snorted. “Ya really think you needed to tell us that?”

“Better safe than sorry,” she replied.

They skirted around the springs, making their way to the Jusenkyo guide’s hut. On arriving there, they found he was indeed absent. “Time for me to do my stuff,” Rouge said, walking inside. The others waited outside for her, as the building was too small for everyone to fit inside comfortably. A few minutes later, she emerged, with a large sheet of paper rolled up in her hand. “Found it.”

“Found what?” Shampoo asked.

“The map that labels each spring with its curse.”

Ukyo rolled her eyes. “So much for having to use magic to find the Spring of Drowned Man if the guide wasn’t here.”

“Well, locating the map amounted to the same thing,” Rouge said. “You have no idea how cluttered that place is.”

Not much else was said as the group threaded their way through the various springs. There was a feeling of mounting tension in the air. Ranma and Ryoga felt it most keenly, of course, but all the others recognized the sensation as well. Each step they took was bringing them a bit closer to the end of an era.

They reached their goal at last. Everyone else stopped well back from the water’s edge, leaving Ranma and Ryoga to slowly continue forward. “Seems like just yesterday I was popping up out of another one of these,” Ranma said with a grimace. “Funny to look at this one now, and think that Jusenkyo is finally gonna undo the damage Jusenkyo did in the first place.”

“I know what you mean,” Ryoga said. He gave Ranma a mock scowl. “Feels like just yesterday for me, too, when a redheaded jerk of a girl knocked me into the Spring of Drowned Pig.”

“Yeah, yeah, P-chan, give it a rest al— WHAT’S THAT?!” Ranma shouted, pivoting and pointing off to one side of Ryoga.

“What?! Where?!” The former lost boy turned, seeing only empty terrain and bamboo poles. “I don’t see any—”

Without warning, a foot impacted on his hip, throwing him into the air. Ryoga windmilled his arms helplessly, as if that was going to do any good. His flight was brief, though, and before he really had time to even realize it, he’d left one element behind for immersion in another.

The water twisted and spun around him. Ryoga felt the same dizzy shifting that he’d experienced once before. Trying not to panic, he surged desperately up and toward the light, breaking the surface of the water with a gasp. “Ranma, you jerk! What’d you do that for?!” he cried.

And then, it dawned on him. He had SPOKEN, not squealed or roared or chirped or barked. He was standing in waist-deep water… COLD water… and he was still balancing on two legs, his clothes still in place and fitting properly. Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and Ukyo were giving him big encouraging smiles.

He was in the Nannichuan. And he’d never, ever, EVER turn into a pig again.

Ranma gave him a cocky grin. “Figured since I was the one who bumped ya into the first spring, I ought to make up for it by knocking you into the one that cured you.”

Ryoga snorted in exasperation. Then he put on his best expression of deceptive innocence. “Oh. Okay. Well, could you give me a hand getting out, here?”

The Saotome heir smiled resignedly. “Sure,” he said, taking Ryoga’s hand, not even bothering to brace himself against the sudden pull that would send him into the drink.

After a couple of seconds, Ryoga frowned and said, “So are you gonna pull me out or what?”

“Um, yeah, sure,” a still-dry-and-now-extremely-puzzled Ranma replied. He hauled Ryoga out without further ado. “I was kinda expecting you to pull me in, though.”

“Would I do a thing like that?” Ryoga asked. “Besides, this is your big moment, right Ranma? Kodachi and Shampoo are waiting for you.” He put one hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Congratulations… you’ll finally be a whole man for them.” THAT was when he shoved out, sending Ranma flying headfirst into the Nannichuan. And he just LAUGHED when some of the spray hit him, with no transformatory effect at all.

Ranma was a little more prepared than Ryoga had been, of course, and before he even broke the surface of the water he had one hand on his chest. Nothing there that shouldn’t be, after immersion. He smiled, no, grinned in delight, got his feet beneath him, and stood up. Facing everybody, with a gleam of triumph in his eye, he shouted, “All RIGHT! I’m one hundred percent guy again!!” His eyes sought out Kodachi and Shampoo, wanting to share the moment of glory with them.

Hang on. Something was wrong… where were…

He distinctly felt his heart skip a beat as he finally located them. They were standing just where they had been before he took his plunge, Kodachi next to Ukyo and Shampoo next to the White Rose, with Cologne standing to the other side of her great-granddaughter.

Kodachi’s hair was still the same snow-white color he knew so well, but Shampoo’s had darkened to a deep burgundy shade. Both of them were standing several inches taller, much more obviously muscular, and both of them were undeniably male.

The next quarter hour passed in a sort of blur to the various teens. Cologne, Rouge, and Li Na managed to get everyone back to the dubious safety of the guide’s hut without anyone falling into another spring. Once they arrived, Cologne and Rouge ushered the three nearly-catatonic teenagers inside. The Matriarch spun her staff and whipped up a wind that blew enough of the clutter out of the way for them to sit down on a bench. And then she and Rouge went to work.

It didn’t take long before they knew what had happened. A quick application of hot chi to a panful of water, followed by application of that water to Shampoo-kun and Kodachi-kun, and then the three were all back in their birth forms. The changes kick-started the teenagers’ mental processes again, though it was still another minute or two before they could really think coherently.

When Cologne judged they had reached that point, she spoke softly. “I’m sure you have already guessed this, but it appears that Jusenkyo curses propagate along the Heart Link. I am sorry.”

“You’re sorry,” Ranma repeated. “You’re sorry.” With an effort, he swallowed the hysteria that was rising toward the surface, choked it back down as hard as he could. Turning to Rouge, he asked desperately, “Is there any way to stop that from happening?”

She slowly shook her head. “There’s nothing I can do. And I don’t think there’s anybody else who could help you either. The Heart Link is an Amazon technique, after all… we may not fully understand its intricacies, but there’s nobody else who knows anything about it at all. I’m sorry, Ranma, but there’s just no way to use Jusenkyo to leave all three of you uncursed.”

Ranma trembled, his fists balling up in helpless rage and sorrow. Kodachi and Shampoo each put a hand on one of his shoulders. Before either of them could say anything, Rouge continued. “There is one spring that could eliminate most of your problems, though.”

“What that?” Shampoo asked, trying to be hopeful, but doubting in her heart that Jusenkyo would relent at this point.

“A spring that would leave each of you in your true sexes all the time, no matter what temperature of water you might encounter. There wouldn’t usually be any visible effects at all when you were splashed. There would be a small portion of the time when that wouldn’t be true, and you couldn’t go out in public then, but you might think it less of a problem than what you’re currently facing.”

“That sounds almost too good to be true,” Ranma said suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”

“Not such a bad catch, if you’re trustworthy. As I believe you are,” Rouge said seriously. “The spring is sealed because there’s too much potential for chaos if it weren’t. But you three are capable of handling the power it would give you.”

“Fine, okay. What spring?”

“The Spring of Drowned Weretiger,” Rouge answered.

Kodachi and Shampoo both had been pressed up against Ranma for the last minute or so, both for his comfort and for their own. Synchronized shudders nearly shook the three of them off the bench on which they sat. “No,” they said at once, more implacable in their refusal than the stone of the Bayankhala mountains.

Rouge blinked, not having expected that response. Cologne drew her back, and whispered, “Cat-Fist,” in her ear.

The mage blanched. ‘<Well, scratch that idea,>’ she thought.

Ranma choked down his reaction to physically becoming part cat. “Is there any other spring that’d do the same kinda thing?” he asked desperately. “Leave us all pretty much human an’ the right sex too?”

It was almost physically painful for Rouge to shake her head, and watch his reaction. Ranma slumped, his arms tightening around Kodachi and Shampoo, pulling them close to himself. They sat like that for a long moment.

Eventually he raised his head again, and gave a bone-weary sigh. “Then I guess I need ya to get that map out again, Auntie, cause it’s been a while and I don’t think I know which one is the Nyannichuan any more.”

Rouge started to say that she’d left it outside, with Li Na, but before she could even open her mouth Shampoo was speaking. “Airen? Is you sure?”

He turned to face her, speaking gently. “That’s a silly question, Sham-chan.” Ranma slid off the bench, turning so he could face both girls at once. So quietly that none of the teens realized it, Cologne and Rouge slipped out the door.

Deliberately blanking from his mind the thought that Cologne and Rouge were watching, Ranma reached out to tenderly touch each girl’s cheek. “Do you know how bad I felt, that first horrible moment when I saw you two, standing there in shock? I didn’t even recognize ya at first! The two most beautiful girls I know, an’ Jusenkyo took that away. Well, I’ll be DAMNED if I won’t take it right back from those stupid pools!”

“Ranma-sama…” Kodachi choked out, reaching out herself and laying her hand on his arm.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay. We’re gonna go back out there, and I’ll get in the spring, and then things’ll be back like… like they were.”

She sniffled in response. Neither she nor Shampoo could manage any words just then. Tears traced silvery lines down both girls’ cheeks.

“Don’t cry for me,” Ranma said, fighting back tears of his own. “It’s not so bad. I mean, I’m kinda used to the curse and all by now.”

“Oh, you idiot,” Kodachi choked, smiling through her sadness. “I won’t cry because you turn into a girl, Ranma-sama. It doesn’t matter to me. You’re still the best man I know, the man I love.”

“And same goes for Shampoo, too,” the Amazon said. “We will cry for you, because you is hurting, but you should not be. We never, ever, EVER love you less because of curse. If anything, Airen, we love you more, because you not even think of taking cure at our cost.”

“You better believe I wouldn’t do that to ya,” Ranma replied. He leaned forward, as did Kodachi and Shampoo, each giving and receiving comfort as best they could.

After a while, the door opened, and the three exited the hut again. Ranma looked around, seeing pity and sympathy on all the faces around him, especially Ryoga’s. There was a long, awkward moment of silence, which the Saotome heir eventually broke with a sigh. “Let’s get moving,” he said. “I got business with one other spring while we’re here.”

This time there was no particular feeling of tension, just a sort of leaden dullness that hung in the air. As they neared the spring and stopped, Ranma kept right on walking, not pausing or hesitating as he stepped into the waters of the Nyannichuan. A moment later, she broke the surface, glanced resignedly down at her chest, allowed herself one last sigh of disgust, then climbed out. Kodachi and Shampoo were right there waiting, one with hot water, the other holding a towel. Ranma-chan made use of both, and the group began walking back toward the guide’s hut to return the things they’d borrowed.

Li Na walked over to Ryoga’s side, pulling out and activating the second translation rune she’d mentioned to him the previous day. “This visit hasn’t turned out nearly as well as we hoped,” she said sadly. “At least we were able to use Jusenkyo to solve your problem, though.”

Ryoga snorted. “Yeah. Of course, Jusenkyo caused the problem in the first place. Guess I should be happy just to break even, though, huh?”

Li Na put one arm across Ryoga’s shoulders in a companionable gesture. “That isn’t really what I meant.”

Then… focus the chi to boost strength… pivot on one leg… the right arm swings forward while the left comes around to redirect the sudden momentum… once again Ryoga found himself flying through the air. Once again he splashed down in a spring before he could recover enough to begin to react. Once again the sensation of twisting and shifting crawled over him. Once again he reared out of the water, more than a little annoyed at what had just been done to him.

“What was THAT for?!” “What was THAT for?!”

Ryoga stiffened, and turned, and stared. He wasn’t the only one standing in the pool of water. And yet, on the other hand, he was the only one standing in the pool of water.

“Spring of Drowned Twins,” Li Na said, with just a touch of smugness. It felt good to be able to end on a positive note. “Terrible tragic story of boy who not have to break anybody’s heart.”


To be continued.

Author’s notes: Ah, the long dramatic buildup of tragic inevitability, as it becomes more and more clear that Ukyo must lose out to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung… and then seven measly paragraphs at the end of a fifty-page chapter change everything.

When I originally plotted Chapter 7 (the one in which Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung first show up and begin pursuing Ryoga, in case you’ve forgotten), the intent was to have Ukyo win the final battle with the twins. She would receive a Kiss of Death and not run, thus gaining entry into the Amazon tribe and using that to nullify Ling-Ling’s and Lung-Lung’s hopes to win Ryoga for themselves. This would really have been the only feasible way to resolve things quickly, and at the time I was planning to have Chapter 8 be the last one. However, by the time I actually began writing Chapter 7, two things had become apparent. One, I was going to continue the fic much farther than I’d originally planned. Two, I didn’t have the heart to treat Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung as harshly as I had their ‘big sister Shampoo.’ And so it doesn’t come easily, but they do eventually achieve what they long for. Without breaking Ukyo’s heart in the process.

Ryoga-Ukyo is one of the most common conventions for Ranma fanfics, as is Nabiki-Tatewaki. I hope that in this story I’ve shown that even such widely used ideas can still be given a fresh, creative spin.

Speaking of Ukyo, were you surprised at how little learning about her strong magical talent seemed to impact her? Remember that she already knew magic was tied into her family’s bloodline. And when Rouge offered to give her lessons in magecraft, I’m afraid she was pretty suspicious that this was mainly a ploy to get her out of the way while the twins spent as much time with Ryoga as they wanted.

By the way, those familiar with the manga probably know there’s already a character named Rouge. But it was such an appropriate Amazon name that I couldn’t resist using it. Besides, this story is based on the anime, which means anything that only appears in the manga I’m treating as optional, probably not to be included at all.

One other point that might not have been explained sufficiently clearly in the story: when Ranma thinks Genma has brought Akane to fight him in an attempt to get the two of them together under Amazon law, that’s not to say that is a correct application of the marriage statutes. Ranma thinks his father is misinterpreting things. Note that Akane makes the same misinterpretation of the defeat-in-combat law just a little later.

Another mistake that should be mentioned here… Chapter 8 established clearly that the plan of the original Black Rose, though for the most part effective, was far from perfect. Here we see another flaw in it. She was forced to guess at what her father’s personality would be like, with his mind not shattered by the tragic death of his wife, and failed to fully take into account the determination he would have to see his little girl healed. The long and short of this is Godai is much more willing to take risks than the original Kodachi thought he would be. She didn’t want him risking his life on the journey that would eventually take him to Elminster, but that happened quite a number of times. However, he doesn’t regret having endangered himself, as stated in this chapter, and if the new Kodachi knew all the things he accomplished in his travels, neither would she.

One last thing before I go… I know the confrontation scene between Shampoo and Xiao Yu seems harsh. To anybody who’s disappointed in Shampoo for not simply taking the high road and forgiving her cousin, I’m sorry. It’s not my intention to portray any of the characters as saints. They still have failings, and here’s one of Shampoo’s. At the same time, though, I tried to show just how deeply Shampoo had been hurt by her cousin. If anyone didn’t pick up on that, let me clarify here: in Shampoo’s eyes, her cousin did nothing short of betraying her. And it hurt her worse than any three other experiences of rejection she ever had in her village.

Thanks to Jim Bader, Gregg Sharpe, and James Merritt for prereading. Next time: another round of adjustments and resolutions.

Chapter 14
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