Lost Library Email Form Lost Library Mailing List
Lost Library Home Page
A Ranma ½ story
by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

Chapter 15: Growing Pains

“<There she is!>”

“<Don’t let her get away!>”

Ranma-chan cursed, tucked, and rolled, in that order, as a set of bolos whipped through the air inches above her. She shot back to her feet and started running again. ‘Man, this sucks,’ she thought disgustedly. ‘I almost made it, too. Managed not to get splashed except when I was safe in the Matriarch’s home for this whole month, but it couldn’t last, could it? Oh, no, the day before we’re gonna leave my luck just HAS to run out.

She wasn’t even sure where the water had come from. One minute Ranma had been dry, walking along feeling relatively carefree. There hadn’t been anyone else on the street at all; the other Amazons seemed finally to have given up on chasing him, and so there had been no problems with walking along openly and by himself. The next thing he knew, water had come out of nowhere, and only a few seconds later a large group of girls had turned a corner and come face to face with her. After one look at the expressions spreading across their faces Ranma-chan had turned and bolted, trying not to listen to the cries of “<That’s the honorless dog of an outsider who defeated Shampoo last year!>” “<What the hell is she doing back here?!>” “<Probably come to steal our treasures or poison our water supply for revenge!>” “<GET HER!!>”

That had been five minutes ago. Under better circumstances, Ranma-chan would already have outdistanced her pursuers, but the current situation was a bit more complicated. If she ran through the streets, other Amazons would see her and try to cut her off. Taking to the rooftops mainly eliminated this problem, but replaced it with one that was only slightly less troublesome, given that most of the buildings in the Amazon village had a type of tiled roof that couldn’t handle someone running at full speed across it. Fleeing via rooftop could still be done, but it was cutting Ranma-chan’s speed considerably.

In the front of the pack of girls racing through the streets below, Balm growled in frustration. Why hadn’t Shampoo dealt with this girl as the Law dictated? What was the redhead doing, running around free, with so little respect for Amazon prowess that she dared even to sneak back here? Well, if the so-called Champion didn’t have what it took to deal with one irritating little outsider, Balm would be more than happy to show SHE suffered from no such failing!

She used that thought to focus herself, drawing deeply on her energy reserves. Without slacking pace, the girl reached behind her and brought another set of bolos forward. This particular weapon was by far the heaviest she carried, with weights half again as large as the ball of a standard bonbori, strung on a lightweight metal chain rather than the cord that would have inevitably snapped.

Beside her, Li Rin’s eyes widened in shock. “<Hang on, Balm. We can’t just kill her!>” There was no way the petite redhead would be able to survive a hit from the ‘Bonecrusher’, as Balm affectionately called her ultimate weapon. “<The Elders would tear a strip six inches wide out of ALL our hides if you do that! We need to find out just why she’s here, and whether she’s already done any sabotage.>”

Balm spared a fraction of an instant to glance disdainfully at the girl beside her, as she began to spin the weapon. “<Still thinking in just three dimensions, Li Rin?>”

“<JUST three dimensions?>” Li Rin snapped back. “<How many others are there exactly?>”

With a smirk, the first girl loosed her weapon. “<At least one more. Why don’t you try a little foresight for once?>”

Balm’s meaning became clear as the bolos shot up and away, racing not toward Ranma-chan but rather to the rooftop toward which she had just leaped. The weapon impacted first, smashing down and plowing through the tiles that lined the roof, shattering them and leaving Ranma-chan no good place to land.

While the Saotome heir was exceptionally skilled at midair maneuvering, there were limits. Given the size of the affected area, only the Rotary Ribbon or some similar technique would have allowed her to avoid the treacherous expanse of broken tile. As it was, Ranma-chan landed directly on two unattached pieces and shot forward, zooming off the edge of the house before she could regain control.

She impacted hard, but bounced back to her feet almost immediately. A sharp pain shot through her upper leg, making it clear that she’d pulled a muscle. Inconvenient, but it would heal in a matter of seconds if she didn’t move on it. And since Amazons had formed a ring even before she landed, and were now hedging her in with drawn weapons and grim expressions, she figured she might as well wait for them to move before she did.

After ten seconds, the pain had faded noticeably and Ranma-chan was beginning to relax. After forty-five, it was gone completely, and she allowed herself a cocky grin. After a minute and a half, the grin had been replaced by a grimace of impatience. “Don’t ya think there’s enough of you to handle little old me? Whatcha waitin’ for, anyway?”

“That would be me, outsider girl.”

At the sound of the dry voice behind her, thinned with age but underscored with authority and strength, Ranma-chan whirled. Sure enough, an Amazon Elder was standing there, regarding her through half-closed eyes. The redhead breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

“<Foolish girl, you know not what peril you face!>” one of the girls said with a nasty smirk, noticing Ranma-chan’s reaction and thinking it was because the outsider thought she was looking at a harmless old woman.

“<Prepare to fall before Amazon might!>”

“<Honored Elder Ton Fa is going to leave you crying like a little boy!>”

“<Time for you to learn some respect, dishonorable one!>”

Ranma-chan frowned, then turned her attention back to the Elder. “Do ya think you could call off the cheerleaders already?”

“I suggest you do your best to ignore the distraction and prepare yourself, girl. The penalties for trespassing in Amazon lands are severe. I’m afraid you’re not going to enjoy this.”

“H-hold on a second!” Ranma-chan squeaked, then gulped and lowered her voice. “I ain’t trespassing and the damage on that house isn’t my fault. You know who I really am, so let’s cut the crud, send those trigger-happy girls away, and get me some hot water!”

“Do you recall a girl named Lotion? From your own memories of this trip, not Shampoo’s,” the Elder returned in an equally quiet voice.

“What the heck’s that got to do with anything?” the Saotome heir asked bewilderedly.

“So you don’t remember. Hardly surprising. After all, you’ve turned down so many girls during your stay here, what were the feelings of one more? My great-granddaughter was most disappointed at not even being given a chance,” Ton Fa remarked conversationally, as she drew a pair of ornate war fans out of the interior of her robe.

Ranma-chan braced herself. This didn’t look like it was going to be any fun at all.

Anger at the injustice of it all. Frustration at her inability to rise to the challenge. Disgust at the poor showing she’d put forth. Her emotions were plain to see on her face, even though she said nothing, her lips tightly closed, rejecting the impulse to rail against her failure.

“Is not that bad,” Shampoo said consolingly as Kodachi continued to glare at her first attempt at sculpture. “No worse than first time I tried to paint like you do.”

The White Rose sighed, letting the tension flow out of her. “I suppose you’re right. Really, I don’t know why I’m letting it get me so upset.”

Shampoo wondered as well, but before she could say anything, the sounds of a commotion reached her ears. She walked over to the window and stuck her head outside. “Aiyah. Is very strange, Kodachi,” she called back. “Is many girls in street outside the front door.” She couldn’t actually see the entranceway, due to the angle from which she was looking, but there were Amazons crowding the street in both directions, facing toward the door and muttering amongst themselves.

“That’s odd,” Kodachi said, after removing the clay-smeared apron she’d been wearing and taking a look for herself. “Let’s go downstairs and see what’s happening.”

They did so, catching a glimpse of the front door swinging shut as they came down. Faintly Shampoo made out the words of whomever had just left, addressing all the girls in the street. “<Everybody head on home. The Matriarch will handle matters from this point on.>” Wondering all the more what was going on, she followed Kodachi down the last few steps, only then reaching a point where she could see the gift Ton Fa had left behind.

Kodachi blinked, then zipped over to Ranma-chan. “Ranma-sama! Are you all right?!”

The redhead grunted and mumbled unintelligibly. Given the gag stuffed into her mouth, there really wasn’t anything else she could do. Kodachi began looking over the confusing tangle of ropes and knots with which Ranma-chan had been tied up into a neat little package, trying to find a good starting point for the untying. It was truly an intricate mesh, she noted, both impressed and annoyed at the expertise displayed. The ropes were quite snug against Ranma-chan’s skin, not so much so as to cut off the flow of blood, but too tight to be able to use a blade to sever the bonds without risking her fiancé’s hide.

“What’s going on here?” Rouge asked, striding into the room. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of Ranma-chan. A quick gesture from the mage transformed the bonds from sturdy hemp to dry withered grass, which posed somewhat less of a problem. Ranma-chan tugged an arm free and removed the gag while Kodachi pulled away the remains of the rope.

“Thanks, Auntie, Dachi-chan,” the redhead said with a sigh. She flashed Shampoo a smile of gratitude as the lavender-haired girl stepped over and handed her a kettle of hot water.

“You’re welcome, nephew-in-law. So what happened to you just now?”

Ranma grimaced. “Don’t wanna talk about it. Man, I am so ready to get back home it’s not even funny.”

“You really looking forward that much to go back to Furinkan?” Shampoo asked innocently.

Another grimace. “You just had to bring that up, didn’tcha, Sham-chan?”

“Hmm. If Ranma want, I could happen to mention to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung that if somebody was to sabotage school building, like knock out some of its supports or something, would give them few more weeks to spend lots more time with Ryu while workmen repair the building,” Shampoo suggested.

Rouge coughed loudly. “Shampoo, I don’t think my sister Li Na would be too happy at the thought of her niece encouraging her daughters in acts of vandalism. Do you take my meaning?”

The Amazon blanched. “Sorry, Airen. Next time I wait ‘til we alone before make some offer like that,” she whispered.

The remains of the day passed uneventfully, as did the night. Ranma had been planning to sneak out, wake up Jin To one last time, and tell him how much Kodachi liked the ring, but since whatever streak of luck had been keeping him from accidental transformations had apparently ended, he decided not to risk it.

They left the village in the same way they’d first entered, with no official notice being taken of their passage. Among the Chinese Amazons, it wasn’t considered proper to celebrate farewells. Ranma felt a number of wistful stares pressing against the back of his neck as the group made their way through the village, but that was all.

Everyone was fairly quiet as they made their way through the fields and hills, and began the ascent up toward the mountains. They were all busy with their various thoughts.

There was a definite spring in Ukyo’s step. She was really looking forward to sweeping the dust out of her restaurant and opening the place up again. The thought of not having to worry about sneak attacks — or even direct attacks — from Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung anymore was quite nice. Heck, she was even ready to get back to Furinkan and kick a few chemistry and croquet butts with her official boyfriend at her side.

If Ukyo was happy, Ryoga was bordering on ecstatic. Their path was beginning to rise now, the land shifting from foothills to actual mountains. The village of the Joketsuzoku was well behind them, and HE’D MADE IT OUT SAFELY! He hadn’t accidentally defeated anyone! None of the Amazons had found out how good a fighter he was! His girl troubles could have been kicked into overdrive, but instead they’d been solved! As soon as he could make his way to a novelty store, Ryoga was going to put on a party hat, throw confetti, and wave victory fans until he was blue in the face.

Ryu was thinking back over all the changes that had taken place in his life lately. Occasionally he would glance around, smiling a little as his gaze fell on Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to either side of him, or his brother walking along next to Ukyo a little ways off, or his parents hand-in-hand toward the front of the group. He wasn’t as euphoric as Ryoga, but on the whole, he was feeling quite happy, with only one nagging worry in the back of his mind. Namely, if things had gotten this crazy in China, what kind of supreme chaos was going to erupt once they were back in Nerima?

Beside him, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were working their way through some introspection. Earlier, they had been trying to force themselves to face the idea of returning to Japan, leaving their familiar mountains and countryside again, surrounding themselves once more with concrete and metal and the teeming masses of an unfamiliar people. Each girl had been surprised to find that the thought hadn’t been nearly as repugnant as she had expected. Eventually they would realize that they were largely riding the high of relief at no longer getting stuck with other people’s chores, but for now they were walking along in quiet thought, wondering just how much the last few months had changed them.

Kozue glanced over at her husband. Ichiro was still stumbling along in a daze, a blank grin on his face. Even with their half-oni directionlessness currently suppressed by Jusenkyo’s kiss, it was clear that without her grip on his hand the Hibiki patriarch would have wandered off long before now. Kozue shook her head, mildly annoyed at herself. She should have waited until they’d gotten settled back in Japan before telling him the news. Idly she wondered just how Ryoga and Ryu were going to react when they learned that each of them was going to become a brother without the intervention of the Spring of Drowned Twins.

Cologne’s lips were curved in a broad smile as she walked along. The Matriarch was enjoying the quiet beauty around her, and particularly the fact that here and now there was no one requesting her guidance on some trivial little matter that they could have easily handled themselves. It had actually taken her until late the previous evening to finally clear out the backlog that Rouge had arranged to have waiting for her. Thinking back to that little ploy by her great-granddaughter only caused the smile to broaden; Rouge was coming along nicely, showing a devious mind and an independent streak that would serve her well when she became the official Matriarch. And she would need both those qualities shortly, when she discovered that this time Cologne had taken the Nanban mirror with her. Payback, the Matriarch mused with satisfaction, could be quite enjoyable.

Unlike the rest of the people in the group, Ranma was dealing with some angst. Specifically, he was trying to imagine what would happen when he made it back to Nerima and confronted Genma again. How exactly did he hope things would go anyway, he wondered. What would be the best way to handle the situation? Would the Earth Slash be enough to impress his old man, maybe even make him proud? Did Genma care enough to let his son’s accomplishments affect him like that at all? Ranma wasn’t sure, and thinking about those doubts hurt. But glancing to either side of him dulled the pain considerably, and reminded him that even if it turned out that Genma ultimately didn’t care, he would still have a family. Both those with him now, and those waiting back in the Kuno mansion.

Kodachi and Shampoo were basically just floating along in a happy pink haze, the White Rose regarding the gleam of sunlight off the ring on her finger, the Amazon purring with contentment at the feel of the large squarish package slung next to her backpack.

Let’s let them have their moment, folks, it won’t be this peaceful much longer.

As if by unspoken consent, everyone came to a halt. They had just reached the place where the Matriarch had met them one month prior, high in the mountains. A few more steps and the rock walls would close around them again, blocking out all sight of the lands they were leaving behind. The various travelers turned around and stood in silence, taking a long last look at the valley of the Chinese Amazons.

“Yen for Airen’s thoughts,” Ling-Ling said at last.

Turning from his view of the countryside below, Ryu gave her a smile. “I was thinking about how much has changed over this last month.”

“Yeah, no joke,” Ukyo joined the conversation. “Seems like just about everything’s different now, doesn’t it?” She gave a sidelong glance over toward Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo. “Well, maybe not everything.”

“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean, Ucchan?” Ranma was a little annoyed at his oldest friend’s attitude, considering how much time he’d spent working on what he planned to say and psyching himself up for his proposals. He’d never have been able to pull that kind of stuff off when he first came to Nerima, and was pretty darn proud of the ways he’d changed since then.

Ukyo, not being able to read minds, just snorted. “You kidding me, Ranchan? Anybody could’ve seen what happened with you three coming a mile away.” She conveniently forgot the shock it had been when Ryoga first explained the truth about Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo to her. “This wasn’t a change; it was just making something official.”

Shampoo gave Ukyo a strange look. “You think Ranma has no changed over last month?” Then she smirked, quickly pulling forward, unwrapping, and holding up the mahogany panel carved with her likeness. “I must have forget to show this to you. Is not beautiful? Ranma made with own hands, taught himself to carve in between developing powerful new technique.”

“Okay, okay, I stand corrected,” Ukyo laughed, holding up her hands in mock surrender. “I was just thinking about the proposal, not the other stuff.”

“There were other things that happened this month. Nothing nearly as important, of course,” Kodachi said with a smile. “But all the small things add up as well. I’ve read a great deal, and traveled to exotic locations with my parents, but this is the first time I’ve ever had such a level of immersion into another culture. It certainly is a mind-broadening experience.”

That struck a deep chord in a certain okonomiyaki chef. “You’re right. We’ve all changed this last month,” she agreed. “And all for the better, I think.”

“I’m certainly not going to argue with that,” Ryoga said fervently.

“Me neither,” Lung-Lung said cheerfully, looping her arm through Ryu’s and pressing against his side. “Changes is very, very nice.”

“But I wonder who’s changed the most,” Ranma said thoughtfully. “I mean, it’d be Ryoga hands down, except with two of them now you kinda gotta figure that only half of it applies to each of them.”

“Well, not like I’m bragging or anything, but I think it would be me,” Ukyo said modestly, buffing her nails against the front of her outfit and then summoning a corona of energy around her hand. The development of her mystic talent wasn’t the only reason for her statement, but she didn’t quite think she ought to add, “I came here thinking all Amazons were scum, and look how much better I’ve learned.”

“But Ranma come up with a strong new technique, and learn a skill completely not related to martial arts, and make too romantic proposal without stuttering or false start or anything, AND get Kodachi’s super power through Heart Link too. Shampoo’s vote still goes to him.”

‘Super power?’ Kodachi thought, trying not to laugh out loud at a sudden mental image of herself in a ridiculous ‘Magical Girl’ outfit.

“Ah, youth, always thinking of themselves. What about all the changes I’ve undergone in these last few weeks?” Cologne asked.

A long moment of silence followed.

“Just kidding,” the Matriarch cackled. “I’d like to think that I’m old enough to put all that self-discovery and redefining yourself angst and nonsense behind me.”

I’d like to think you’re old enough not to cause trouble, Granny.   Too bad that ain’t true,” Ranma gibed.

“Watch it, son-in-law,” Cologne returned, grinning a grin that gave several people a case of the creeping horrors. “Or I’ll do something that makes it obvious you are indeed the one who’s been changed the most during this trip. The full-body cat tongue might be amusing.”

“NOOO thanks,” Ranma responded, backpedaling and holding up his hands in a warding sign.

Kodachi giggled. No matter how much some things changed, others stayed the same. When so much else shifted and rearranged itself, it was nice to have that stability. Even if all the recent changes had been good ones.

He stood on the rocky shore, looking out over the water. The grayness of the sky above him was reflected in the steel surface of the lake. Rain fell in light sprinkles, dimpling the water, collecting in the boy’s hair and trickling down the back of his neck. At another time, in another life, the sensation might have been irritating. But here and now, Shinnosuke didn’t even notice it.

Nor was he really seeing the lake before him; at least, not as it was then. In his mind’s eye, he viewed the waters as they had been ten days past, lying still and quiet in the depths of a cavern. The passage from the outer world was a short one, far too short to block the normal sounds from the surrounding forest. Yet as the three of them had stood there, those sounds had fallen into silence.

For a moment, the stillness held… and then the waters thrashed and convulsed. That had been their cue to run, and run they had, hoping to draw their pursuer after them onto dry land where it would be much less dangerous. Instead, the rock behind them had shattered, water from beneath surging skyward, throwing spray into the air that shone like diamonds. Another memory followed in grim counterpoint, of the duller gleam of sunlight against dark green scales.

The images fractured, becoming only glimpses, distorted by the frantic pace of events and the rush of adrenaline that had flowed through him. His grandfather in a dress. Akane, vibrant and alive as she soared into the air. The roar of the Yamato no Orochi as its heads struck and wove around each other, tearing the rocky floor as if it were tissue paper, trying to catch the figures moving swiftly among them. There had been one taunting the monster, racing along as live bait, and two others who struck various heads as hard as they could, keeping it off-balance and confused. And all three kept half an eye peeled for a hint of luminescent, brighter green — the moss that was their only hope to finally cure the wound Shinnosuke had borne for more than a decade.

He stood there now, looking out over the waters of the new lake, and the rain plastered his thin shirt against the unmarked flesh of his back. Shinnosuke stood, and watched, and remembered. His memory had eventually healed itself once he was no longer living from minute to minute, sustained only by the Water of Life. That seemed more curse than blessing, now, as the memories sped inexorably onward. The increasingly-frantic search as they failed to find any trace of the moss on the monster. The one moment of sheer blind panic when the true bulk of the Orochi emerged, tearing thousands of tons of stone aside without even noticing, howling in fury and hunger. The desperate scramble for a now-revealed patch of moss, followed by the even more desperate scramble to get away.

And then… the smaller head that had come rocketing out of nowhere… the maw gaping wide, roaring like a freight train from hell… his desperate blow, struck with all the force he could muster, but not enough, not enough to prevent the bright shower of blood… Shinnosuke screwed his eyes shut, balling up his fists at his side, and trembled for long moments.

At last he opened his eyes again, and once again he wasn’t seeing the water in front of him. This time he stared forward, as if piercing the surface with his gaze, to look on what hid in the depths. “You can’t sleep forever,” he whispered, his voice throbbing with emotion. “Sooner or later, you’ll come up again. And I’ll be waiting.”

He received no answer, neither from the waters nor from what they concealed. Nature seldom takes direct notice of individuals, no matter how strong their feelings of grief and rage might be. And here in Ryugenzawa, Nature held more sway than just about anywhere else in Japan. Shinnosuke knew this on some level, knew how small he was compared to the Orochi, but it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t let it matter. For what the dragon had done to her, it would pay.

“You’re getting awfully wet, Shinnosuke.” The voice came from behind him.

“I hadn’t noticed,” he replied truthfully. Then he spun, fear evident on his face. “You shouldn’t be out in this!”

Akane frowned at him from beneath a large umbrella. “Don’t try to change the subject. You were standing there feeling guilty again, weren’t you?”

“Akane, please! Let’s go inside. You don’t want to risk getting chilled, or getting your bandage wet, do you?!”

The youngest Tendo rolled her eyes. “Shinnosuke, this is kind of sweet, but it’s pretty stupid too. I took a measly six-inch cut on my arm… not even deep enough to really hurt the muscle… and you keep acting like the Orochi ate me for lunch! GET OVER IT, ALREADY!!”

“You’re absolutely right, I shouldn’t be standing out here in this rain, let’s go inside quickly, okay?!”

“Right,” Akane sighed, but a half smile curved across her lips. She motioned him to come share the shelter of the umbrella. They walked along in silence for a little while, Akane marshalling her thoughts, Shinnosuke doing his best to put feelings of guilt aside and enjoy the moment.

“Where’s Grandfather?” he asked after they’d sat down inside the shelter of the house. The rain had picked up in force during their walk back. It beat a steady tempo against the rooftop now, and Shinnosuke didn’t think his grandfather would enjoy getting caught in such weather.

“He’s gone to town to pick up some supplies,” Akane answered. He had left the umbrella for her to use, and he wouldn’t even have needed to go in the first place if she hadn’t been here.   Akane’s appetite was nowhere near a match for a Saotome’s, but three people inevitably depleted the food stores faster than just two. These thoughts made Akane feel a little guilty, as she pictured the old man trudging along with only a raincoat to shield him from the elements. But the feelings of guilt didn’t last too long, as she reminded herself of what else her presence in this home had meant.

Shinnosuke frowned, looking off into the distance as if he could see his grandfather through the walls of the house and the surrounding forest. “I hope he remembers to get more first-aid supplies,” he said.

Akane frowned herself. “Maybe he’ll bring back one of those big winding bandages, so I can tie it over your mouth.”

Her companion winced. “No, don’t do that. I couldn’t eat any of your wonderful cooking if you did.” It still amazed him how she melted whenever he complimented her cooking, and how his insides would turn to goo when she smiled because of him.

“Shinnosuke, I don’t understand you sometimes,” Akane said fondly. “How can someone be such a big idiot and still know how to say just the right thing?”

“I don’t know,” Shinnosuke admitted. “Akane, something I still don’t understand is why it bothers you, that I feel guilty about… about what happened to you.”

“Because you’re acting like it’s some great tragedy that was all your fault! What does that say about me, huh?!” Akane leaned forward, holding her bandaged arm forward in challenge. “I can handle this, Shinnosuke. I’m a martial artist, and this is NOTHING! And it wasn’t your responsibility anyway to protect me. I was the one who got tagged by the Orochi. If it’s anybody’s fault, it’s mine. If you say it was yours, because you couldn’t protect me, that’s as good as saying you want me to sit on a shelf like a pretty little doll, so I won’t get broken.”

Akane was breathing quickly now, her pulse racing. Not out of anger, which surprised her a little. She felt determination, not rage. Shinnosuke would hear her and understand what she was saying. She wanted him to see, needed him to understand her.

“Is that what you think?” Shinnosuke asked, a little sadly. “That’s not right, Akane. I wouldn’t ever treat you like that.”

“Really?” Akane challenged him. “Then look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t think it’s your fault.”

He sighed. “It’s not that simple. Why were you fighting the Orochi in the first place?”

“To help you. You know that! Why…” Akane stopped, and considered the answer she’d just given.

“That’s right, Akane. Never mind anything about protecting you during the battle. That’s not the point.” Shinnosuke fixed her with an intent stare. “The point is, if it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have been there in the first place. You AND Grandfather. Both of you put your lives at risk, and for what?” His face twisted in sorrow. “So I could get rid of a stupid scar on my back! That’s all! You didn’t even know my memory would get better. I saw how surprised Grandfather was at that. So don’t tell me not to feel guilty, that someone I care about risked her life and got hurt, could have gotten killed, for such a little thing for me.”

“So that’s it,” Akane breathed, covering her mouth with one hand. “Oh, Shinnosuke, I didn’t understand you.” She sat up straighter then, feeling an even greater rush of determination than a few minutes back. “There’s something I need to tell you. Something your grandfather told me this morning, and I’ve been trying to think of a good way to get around to it now.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s… Look; you remember when I first said I wanted to help you get rid of that wound on your back? How I felt guilty because it was all my fault to begin with, and your grandfather said there might be something we could do about it?”

“I remember,” Shinnosuke said, frowning again. His grandfather had come right out with the insane scheme of luring the Orochi into daylight and fighting it, in the hopes of finding some miracle moss that grew on it and was the source of the Water of Life. He had been aghast at the idea, but there hadn’t been any way to change either Akane’s or his grandfather’s mind, though Kami knew he’d tried. But they had been determined to do this thing for him.

Akane took a deep breath. “There was something he wasn’t telling either of us, Shinnosuke. Something about why he was willing to take a risk like that. Something he told me today, and wanted me to tell you. I wasn’t sure what he meant, when he said it would help you stop moping around. It didn’t seem like that at all, when he told me. But I guess he understood just why you were feeling guilty better than I did.”

She held up her bandaged arm again. “I didn’t get hurt just trying to get rid of a scar on your back, Shinnosuke. I mean, I didn’t know there was any other reason, and I didn’t need any other reason to help you. But there was one. Your grandfather didn’t tell us because he didn’t want us to get worried or distracted.

“But the truth is… you were dying.

“You don’t remember them, but you would have these fainting spells. You’d pass out, and your heart would start beating slower and slower, and the same thing with your breathing. The Water of Life would be the only thing that could bring you back, and the springs that produce it had started to run low. Your grandfather told me he thinks it was because the Orochi was beginning to wake up. If we hadn’t done what we did, he doesn’t think any of the springs would have lasted another year. Which means you wouldn’t have either.”

For the last few sentences, Shinnosuke had sat as if turned to stone. Silence fell as Akane finished her revelation. It hung in the air for several long moments. At last, he gulped, and gasped out, “Are you serious?!”

Akane nodded solemnly. “He promised me on his family name that it was true.” She gave him a smile then. “That make you feel any better? I didn’t get hurt for nothing. I was fighting for something that was worth a lot.”

“I… this…” Shinnosuke shook his head as if dizzy. “I don’t know what to say.”

Akane punched him lightly with her unhurt arm. “Say you’ll stop beating yourself up over this, idiot.”

Shinnosuke looked at her then, really looked for the first time since the battle with the Orochi. This time he could look past the bandage without wincing, or at least without suffering a queasy feeling of guilt and shame when he saw it. He looked beyond the wound and into her eyes, seeing the strength and tenderness that were there now, and remembering the triumph that had shone forth a week and a half ago, with the three of them safely back on shore, as his grandfather had gently taken the swatch of moss from her hand. She hadn’t dropped it even when the dragon’s fang had scored her flesh.

The memory was still a little painful, but the worst of the sting was gone now. Shinnosuke wasn’t a prideful sort, but he believed his life had meaning and worth. And he knew Akane believed that, too.

Maybe it even had meaning and worth to her. He hoped that it might. That he might. Shinnosuke knew it wasn’t the right moment to ask a question like that, but he felt like that time might not be too far off. For now, though, he just smiled, and said, “I will. I promise.”

Many miles away and many days later, a door opened.

This wasn’t particularly unusual; doors opened and closed all the time in the Kuno mansion. In fact, this particular door saw more use than many, as it opened into one of the most comfortable recreation rooms in the household. Large windows dominated one wall. The grounds immediately outside held several large trees and other assorted flora, which provided a pleasing view while still letting in enough sunlight to give the room a bright, cheerful air. There were a number of plush, comfortable chairs and couches in a rough semicircle facing the aforementioned windows, with the occasional end table supporting lamps for the evening hours. It was arguably the single best room in the Kuno mansion for kicking back and relaxing with a book, magazine, or handheld electronic gaming system, and it saw frequent use.

As has already been implied, it was also not unusual that after the door leading into this room had swung open, someone passed through it. This was the standard operating procedure. Nonetheless, Tatewaki was quite surprised to witness this sequence of events.

“Saotome?” he asked, not exactly shocked, but definitely nonplussed. “What are you doing here? I had not thought any of you were due back for another three days.” He caught a glimpse of Ukyo and Ryoga through the open doorway, confirming that the pigtailed martial artist wasn’t the only one to have returned.

Ranma shrugged, and sat down on a nearby couch. “We left the Amazon village a couple of days sooner than we’d originally planned to. Then we ran into some weirdness in the mountains. None of us really felt like dealing with any more crazy stuff just then, so we hurried back faster than we’d been planning to.”

Kuno gave him a frankly incredulous look. “You hurried back to Nerima in order to find respite from bizarre events?”

“Nah, just to get back to where we expect to find the random insanity,” Ranma explained.

“Well, that at least makes sense…” Kuno’s voice trailed off and his eyes bugged out. After staring over Ranma’s shoulder for a few moments and gulping periodically, he said, “Er, Ranma? Did I just see Hibiki walk past in the outer corridor with the Amazon twins at his sides?”

Ranma shrugged. “I don’t know. Did you?” Did Kuno think he had eyes in the back of his head or something?

“It appeared to be so. But I had thought I saw him walking along with Ukyo just a minute before.”

“You probably did. Oh, yeah,” Ranma said a little belatedly, as the door at the far end of the room opened, and Ryoga, Ukyo, Ryu, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung entered, having deposited their luggage elsewhere. Tatewaki gave an enhanced encore of the eyes-bugging-out routine as Ranma continued, “He found a solution to his girl troubles.”

“I… see.” Kuno felt the sudden need to sit down. Which was problematic, as he was already seated. After a bit, the mental fog thinned enough that he was able to turn to the nearest Hibiki boy, sitting now on a couch with Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung on either side of him, and ask, “What happened to you?!”

Ryu shrugged, playing it cool. “Spring of Drowned Twins. Terrible tragic story of boy who not have to break anybody’s heart, as Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung’s mom said after she knocked me into it.”

“Airen goes by name of Ryu now,” Ling-Ling added.

“And this doesn’t bother you, either of you?”

“Are you kidding?!” Ryoga asked. “You remember what I said just before school let out, right? Well, this is like the ONLY way things could have worked out without anybody getting hurt. I don’t think I’m EVER gonna be able to pay Li Na back for doing this.”

“That okay, Ryoga,” Ling-Ling reassured him, then leaned her head against Ryu’s shoulder. Tatewaki noted with surprise that the tattooed Hibiki boy only looked a little nervous. “Your brother can be one to pay back debt to Mother, by treat her daughters right.”

“Yeah, that sound good to me,” Lung-Lung chimed in, her head claiming its rightful place on Ryu’s other shoulder.

Not sure that he’d be ready for the answer, but unable to stop himself, Kuno asked, “And did anything else of import happen during this trip?”

“I discovered that I’m really the long-lost heiress to a magical kingdom of wisdom and truth, with powers far beyond mortal ken!” Ukyo proclaimed, surrounding herself with a golden corona of arcane force.

“Nice battle aura,” Tatewaki said with a laugh. “Seriously, did anything else crazy happen?”

Ukyo sighed as her joke fell flat. “Actually, that wasn’t a battle aura. I got magic lessons from Shampoo’s aunt. The princess thing was a joke, though.”

“Really? Well, you could run quite an advertising campaign for your restaurant now,” Kuno replied with a smile. “Eat at Ukyo’s — our okonomiyaki are so good, you’ll swear it’s magic!”

“Brother dear, an advertising executive you aren’t.” Kodachi entered the room and seated herself next to Ranma. “So how has your summer vacation gone?”

“Pleasantly. Mainly uneventfully. Though there was a bit of friction with the heir to Martial Arts Tea Ceremony, or some such nonsense. He wanted to pick out his own bride rather than having her chosen for him, and thought it would be a good idea to ride up on horseback and kidnap Nabiki.”

“I suppose he learned the folly of that idea rather quickly,” Kodachi remarked.

“Not so quickly as I would have preferred,” her brother answered with a growl. As if in response to his mood, the sky outside began to cloud up. “I wasn’t there when the atrocity took place. By the time I learned of it and came to her rescue, she had already been forced to endure lessons in that ridiculous excuse for a martial art from a shriveled-up crone with a worse attitude than Shampoo’s great-grandmother ever had.”

“Nabiki… martial arts… Nope, I just don’t see it,” Ranma commented, shaking his head. For that matter, Nabiki and tea ceremony was a pretty hard picture to grasp as well.

“She certainly wasn’t enjoying herself when I arrived,” Kuno said, growling all the more at the memory of Nabiki in a ‘training kimono’ that forced her to remain cramped in a seated position with her arms at her sides, while balancing a basin of ice-cold green tea atop her head to ‘promote balance and poise.’

“Was it a mighty battle in which the noble warrior struggled fiercely and long, triumphing over his foes at last to rescue the fair damsel in distress?” Kodachi asked. “Or did you just blast them with something of Father’s?”

“You’re never going to let me forget that time, are you?” Tatewaki replied with a grimace. “Anyway, neither of the above. I used the Heaven and Earth Cut, but modified to do property damage while leaving living targets unaffected.” He shook his head, forcibly discarding the unpleasant memories. “Other than that, my summer has been nice and sedate. Oh, and it’s going to be longer than we had expected.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Ranma asked.

“Well, I don’t have all the details yet, but apparently there has been some structural damage done to the main building at Furinkan. Some of the supports were knocked out, I believe. In any case, the school remains closed for at least the next three weeks, so the workmen can repair the damage.”

“Why Ranma look at us like that?” Lung-Lung queried.

“No reason,” he replied, resolving to ask Shampoo a question or two once they had a moment of privacy, and wondering idly just what was taking her so long.

For the fifteenth time, Shampoo moved her betrothal gift to a new location. Finding the one perfect spot to display it was proving unexpectedly challenging.

“An extra three weeks of vacation? Well, that is a pleasant surprise,” Kodachi said happily. “Not the best thing I’ve heard all summer, but still quite nice.”

“What would that best be?” Tatewaki asked quizzically.

The White Rose rolled her eyes. “Brother dear, considering how recently you asked someone a certain question, you are being singularly unobservant.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” he protested, ignoring the giggles from Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung.

Rather than waste any more words, Kodachi leaned forward, extending one hand before her. At just that moment, a single beam of sunlight broke through the clouds outside, falling through the window to illuminate the ring upon her finger.

“Nice effect, Ukyo,” Ryoga whispered.

“Hush, Ryoga honey, you’ll make me lose my concentration,” she whispered back.

“Ah, is that…?” Kuno didn’t bother to finish what would have been a pretty stupid question. He grinned broadly and said, “Congratulations! Congratulations to both of you! Mother and Father will certainly be pleased to know you’ll finally become an official member of our family, Ranma!”

“Thanks, man.” Ranma grinned himself. “I’m looking forward to seeing their expressions too. It kind of surprised me when I heard they were gone on some trip. I’d have thought they’d want to be sure they were here when we got back.”

Kodachi explained before her brother could. She’d gotten a few more details from the servants than Ranma had heard, which was why she had been delayed. “Apparently some friend of Father’s came by and asked for his help, Ranma-kun.”

“Huh. So your mom and dad went off to battle the forces of darkness with your dad’s old adventuring companions or something? I hope they’re okay.”

Tatewaki rolled his eyes. Apparently his sister’s love of dramatic fantasy had rubbed off on Ranma more than he’d realized. “No, it’s nothing like that. I was gone on a date with Nabiki at the time, but Sasuke informed me that it was a high-stakes business opportunity. It would be lost unless Father was willing to quickly step in and serve as the guarantor on a loan. The only risk involved was financial. If it were otherwise, you don’t think he would have brought Mother along with him, now do you?”

Why the hell didn’t I let Go-kun talk me out of this?!’ Hitome thought frantically, ducking as a scimitar whizzed over her head. As the Drow warrior recovered and struck again, she caught the blade in crossed gymnastics clubs. With a twist of her wrists, she disarmed the dark elf, then struck for a knockout blow. Her enemy dodged backward, reaching toward the long dagger in his belt… and then collapsed lifeless to the cavern floor as Godai spared an instant from the three-way battle he was fighting to launch a vacuum blade from his sword, neatly removing his wife’s foe’s head.

Hitome glanced around, but found no immediate opportunity to rejoin the fighting. The good guys were clearly winning; even as the Kuno matriarch looked for an opponent, she saw another of the priestesses of Lloth fall, unable to maintain her personal shield under a hail of crossbow fire. The oppressive atmosphere of despair and fear lightened just a little more, and the lightning bolts coming from the wizards on the side of the Light Elves seemed a bit stronger and brighter.

A quick eddy in the flow of combat opened a clear shot for her. She spun a hula hoop through a few revolutions to give it power, steeled her soul, and sent it flying to cleave a drider in half at the waist. Hitome knew she was going to have nightmares about this for some time to come, and resolved that as soon as all this was over and done, she was going to spend a LOT of time apologizing to her husband for not taking him at his word. He had begged her not to join the strike force, but after she had forced him to admit that she was a more competent fighter than most of their Elven allies, she would let nothing dissuade her. After all, her husband had made it through two years of adventure. With him at her side, how terrible could this mission really be?

Well, Hitome thought with one tiny detached corner of her mind, as three wizards targeted a huge stalagmite with fireball spells and sent it smashing down into the rear ranks of the Drow, now she understood the answer to that question. At least a little bit better.

“Well, good to hear they’re not in trouble or anything. We had to fight these stupid homicidal little bean-bun-looking guys on our way back from Amazon lands,” Ranma said. “I still don’t know what that was about. Cologne eventually splashed ’em all with water from the Spring of Drowned Priest. And that was mild compared to some of the other stuff that went on in China.” Taking that as a cue, Ryoga and Ryu went on to inform Tatewaki of the return of their parents, who were now out with Cologne looking for an apartment, and then to describe the ordeal of constantly making sure none of the Amazons caught on to the fact that they were actually strong fighters.

Ranma one-upped them by telling what it had been like to deal with Amazons who did know just how good he was. Descriptions of the cultural experiences and interesting sights were supplied by Kodachi, who hadn’t had to spend most of the visit either hiding or fighting. Ukyo performed a few more magic tricks. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung took the opportunity to vent their frustrations over all the chores they’d wound up doing. And a pleasant time was had by all.

“Well, now I know for sure we’re back in Nerima,” Ranma-chan griped later that day.

“Seem to be making up for lost time,” Shampoo complained, tilting her head back and running her hands through her hair. Water cascaded to the ground.

“I thought it was a particularly elegant touch how, once it became obvious that my ribbon was spinning too quickly to allow any rain to reach us, a lightning bolt struck that fire hydrant,” Kodachi said with a sniff. The three began walking along again toward the Tendo household.

“At least Ranma not drop casket of Nannichuan when we get hit by spray. Would have been bad,” Shampoo said with a shudder.

“No joke. All I got to say is, Pop better appreciate this.” With that, Ranma-chan fell silent, brooding over the upcoming encounter. She still wasn’t sure how she wanted to approach it, or even what she was going to say. All the thinking the pigtailed martial artist had done so far had wandered in circles, never coming to any real resolution or conclusion. Some things you just had to wing your way through.   Hopefully once she got to the Tendo home, things would flow a bit more easily.

“Gone?” Ranma-chan asked blankly. “Gone…? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, HE’S GONE?!”

Nabiki frowned. “Isn’t that supposed to be my line?” She received three odd stares for this. “Look, Ranma, I’d have thought Tachi would have told you already. Didn’t he send you here to help out with Akane?”

“Akane? Nabiki, I got no clue what you’re talking about. Where’s my old man, anyway?”

Nabiki rolled her eyes and gave an indulgent sigh. “Come on in, this is too long to tell just standing in the hallway like this.” The three followed her inside. It felt a little strange to Ranma-chan to return here after so long, but she didn’t bother to focus on it. A quick detour through the kitchen for hot water put Ranma back in his preferred form, and then the four seated themselves in the living room.

“So what trouble Akane get herself in this time, that we need to help with?” Shampoo asked. “And what that have to do with Ranma’s father?”

“Short version: Akane snuck off by herself on a training trip, or some martial artist thingie like that.” Nabiki smirked as she noticed Ranma actually winced at the words ‘martial artist thingie’. “We think she went to the mountains, but that’s just a guess. And needless to say, Daddy is not too happy about his youngest baby girl being all by herself in the harsh, cruel world. So he sent Mr. Saotome off to track her down and bring her back safely. That was a month ago.”

“You don’t seem too concerned,” Kodachi noted, wondering why this would be the case. Had Nabiki finally become blasé about her younger sister’s tendency to get in over her head?

Nabiki shrugged. “The little sneak took my cell phone when she left. Every few days she calls home, to tell us she’s having a good time and not to worry, she’s fine. I guess that’s why Tachi didn’t remember to mention it to you; it really is no big deal. But Daddy is apparently incapable of seeing it like that, so I’d appreciate it if you could do your little ‘find the missing person’ trick again, Shampoo.”

“Okay, sure, that not problem, but why you not just trace the phone calls?”

“Technology’s just not there yet to do that for a cell phone,” Nabiki explained. “Maybe in a year or two.”

While Shampoo was trying to think of the perfect way to contrast the weakness of technology against three thousand years of Amazon glory and tradition (as represented by the Eye of Bastet), Kodachi spoke up. “Wouldn’t the battery have run down on a cellular phone by now, if Akane really were off in the mountains with no way to recharge it?”

Nabiki blinked in surprise. “I can’t believe I missed that,” she said at last. “Well, guess Mr. Saotome’s been wasting his time for the last few weeks. Better him than me.”

“So Pop’s just been searching the mountains? How would he know to come back if Akane made it home on her own?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’ll check back before too much longer. I mean, school would have been starting next week, if it weren’t for those idiots Shinji and Koga nearly destroying the building .”

Kodachi arched an eyebrow. “Excuse me? Did you say the damage to the school was caused by the chemistry-croquet clan war?”

“Yeah, that’s what I heard,” Nabiki confirmed, wondering why Shampoo was sticking out her tongue at Ranma. “Koga arranged to meet in the basement there with Shinji last week, as it was kind of neutral ground and he supposedly wanted to negotiate a truce. But it turned out to be an ambush… by both sides at once, no less. And since both sides have recruited new members over the summer, this time their fight got big enough to seriously damage the place.”

“Same ol’ Nerima,” Ranma commented. “We’re getting off the subject here, Nabiki. So basically we got no idea where Pop is or when he’ll come back, since it’s a pretty safe bet he ain’t gonna find Akane where he’s looking.”

“That not such a big deal, Airen. Can use Eye of Bastet to find him too, and go get him after we fetch Akane.”

Ranma blinked. “Uh… good point.”

“Or we could let him keep searching the mountains awhile longer,” Kodachi mused. “Getting fresh air and plenty of exercise… behaving responsibly rather than freeloading off your father, Nabiki…”

Said Tendo girl’s head was now bobbing eagerly up and down, her eyes wide and sparkly, with a mischievous smirk on her face. Ranma hesitated for a moment, then said, “Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to do it that way. At least for a little while longer. Can I just leave this here for him, in case he comes back on his own?”

“What is it, anyway?” the middle Tendo asked, referring to the small barrel of which he’d spoken.

“Nannichuan for Pop,” Ranma answered. “Make sure it doesn’t get busted or spilled or nothing, okay, Nabiki? And tell him it was from me when he gets back, so he can cure his curse.”

Nabiki gave him an odd look. “If the Spring of Drowned Man really does work like that, why didn’t you use it yourself, Ranma-CHAN?”

“That was an unkind question,” Kodachi snapped, frowning at her sister-in-law-to-be. “When Ranma-kun immersed himself in the spring, Shampoo and I received Nannichuan curses through the Heart Link. Our fiancé is far too noble to sacrifice our well-being for his, so he re-entered the Nyannichuan to restore the status quo.”

“Oh. Sorry about that, Ranma.” Nabiki had the grace to wince and look sheepish.

“No problem,” Ranma said, narrowing his eyes and giving her a predatory grin. It might not have been that big a deal, but he still felt like getting a bit of his own back. “So, you said you’d pay Sham-chan ten thousand yen to use her magic and find Akane, right?”

Nabiki blinked, then said, “Sure, that’s fine.” Ranma just had time to feel the slightest pang of disappointment at the uncontested victory before she continued, “And my fee for storing something as dangerous as cursed Jusenkyo water for an unspecified amount of time comes to… let’s see… I think ten thousand yen sounds about right.”

It was getting on toward evening now, but they decided to press on to the Nekohanten and make use of the Eye of Bastet anyway. As luck would have it, they found Cologne was absent, presumably still out apartment hunting with the Hibiki parents. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were still at the Kuno mansion with Ryu. The only one to greet the three of them was the ill-omened chest, sitting there closed tightly and seeming to sneer.

Not that Ranma or Kodachi were really paying it any attention yet. “C’mon, Dachi-chan, I’m telling you I should be the one to open it!”

“And why is that exactly, Ranma-kun?”

“So far we’ve had to open this thing twice when Cologne wasn’t around. Once I did it, and got away with no trouble at all. Once Shampoo did, and got knocked unconscious for half a day. Just going by the pattern we’ve already seen, it’s more likely not to cause any trouble if I’m the one to open it, instead of you. The odds are in my favor,” Ranma explained.

Kodachi frowned at him, not taken in for a moment. “At least be honest, dear. You’re doing this because you simply cannot stomach the thought of me opening a chest we know to be trapped.”

“Well, there is that too,” her fiancé admitted. “Now that I got your healing ability, why should you have to risk yourself?”

“So I should allow you to do so instead? I think not. Remember, Ranma, you may have received the same empowerment as me recently, but there is still a significant difference between our levels of power. I have lived with this condition for half my life. As greatly as your chi levels have been raised, you KNOW mine are still quite a bit higher. That means it’s less of a risk if I am the one to open the chest.”

“Look, Dachi, we’re not really talking about a risk anyway, are we? I mean, we know what the trap does. It shoots a dart with a knockout drug into whoever opens the stupid thing. That’s not what I call a risk. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a challenge.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Simple.” Ranma gave her his most charming cocky grin. “I wanna see just how good I really am. Good enough to catch the dart as it shoots out, before it hits me, maybe?”

For a moment Kodachi’s resolve wavered, then a new thought struck her. “Well and good, Ranma dear, but what if the Matriarch has since upgraded the trap on the chest?”

“Why would she do that?”

“Because after Shampoo had opened it without permission, we knew what type of trap to expect.”

Ranma shook his head. “Remember, Ling-Ling had already tripped the trap once, and the old girl didn’t change it after that.”

“True. But I’m still uneasy. Why don’t we lift the lid with a long stick? That way, if the trap has not been altered, it won’t be a problem. And if it’s something else, I’ll still have more time to react with distance between myself and the chest.”

“I musta blinked somewhere in there, Dachi-chan, cause I missed the point where it got decided it’d be you who held that long stick.”

At this point Shampoo reached out and lightly bopped each of them on the head. “How much longer you going to keep up silly lover’s quarrel anyway? I already got Eye of Bastet.”

“Honored Elder? Are you all right?” Kozue asked worriedly. The Matriarch’s eyes had widened suddenly, she’d mumbled something in Chinese that hadn’t sounded too polite, and then she had just seemed to zone out. While the landlord’s spiel had been boring, the Hibiki matron didn’t think it was quite that bad.

“I’m fine, child,” Cologne said shortly, coming out of the trance. Once again she had sensed someone tampering with her chest of valuables, and had cast her awareness back to the Nekohanten. The Matriarch wasn’t sure how it had happened, but apparently this time Shampoo had opened it without suffering the effects of the trap… even though Cologne had recently upgraded it from a dart to a device that would fill the room with sleeping gas powerful enough to affect Kodachi. Needless to say, the ancient Amazon was not too happy at this latest turn of events.

Meanwhile, the landlord was still blathering away at Ichiro about the many fine features of the apartment suite they were inspecting. It was just his bad luck to find himself the focus of the Matriarch’s suddenly-sour mood. Cologne caught his eye with a glare. When the man gasped, paled, and stumbled backward, she said flatly, “The color of the carpet clashes slightly with the wallpaper, the view out of the southern windows is mediocre at best, and the general setup is rather flimsy considering the Hibiki family and friends are mostly high-caliber martial artists. You’re going to let them have these rooms for fifty thousand yen a month.”

“Y-yes, ma’am,” the hapless landlord said meekly. Cologne gave him a curt nod, then turned her thoughts back to the matter of Shampoo and the supposed-to-be-off-limits chest of treasures. What action, besides upgrading the trap again, should she take? And how had her great-granddaughter managed to open the chest without mishap anyway?

Incredulously, Ranma and Kodachi turned and saw the chest sitting wide open. It now had a sullen look to it, as if disappointed at not getting to knock anyone unconscious this time. “Sham-chan, what’d you do that for?!” Ranma demanded. “There’s two people here who got special protection from junk like that. If not me, it definitely shoulda been Dachi who opened the thing. You didn’t need to risk yourself!”

The Amazon shrugged. “Wasn’t really a risk. Stupid ‘Eyes of the Cat’ thing kick in again, Airen. I able to see which carvings on chest need to be push in what order, to turn off trap.”

“Still sounds risky to me,” he protested. The White Rose chimed in with her own agreement.

“To Shampoo, it seem less risky than have you two argue for next hour over who open chest, and have Great-Grandmother come back to find we about to go through her private stuff without permission again,” Shampoo said pointedly. Inaccurately too, of course.

On that note, Ranma and Kodachi exchanged rueful glances and shut up. Shampoo settled down with the Eye of Bastet, closing her eyes and invoking the magic of the jewel.

Now that her sister had mentioned it, Kodachi found herself more than a little nervous at the thought of Cologne suddenly returning and catching them red-handed. Was it really such a good idea, to have done this without waiting for the Matriarch to return? After all, Nabiki had said Kasumi had received a telephone call from her sister just the previous day, again saying that she was fine, she was enjoying herself, her martial arts studies were progressing nicely, and not to worry about her. Surely if Akane had made it this long without getting into trouble, they could have afforded to put off locating her for a few more hours…

“Shampoo not believe it!” the Amazon exclaimed, her eyes flying open, an expression of shocked disbelief clear on her face.

The White Rose jumped. “What?! What is it?! Is Akane in some dire peril?!” she demanded.

Shampoo shook her head, the disbelief still plain to see. “No. At least, maybe not. Probably not. She look like she very happy where she was.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Ranma asked.

“I tell you in a little bit. Need to use Eye again,” Shampoo replied. She closed her eyes again. Ranma and Kodachi waited once more, with a good bit more trepidation than before.

After a while, the Amazon gave a relieved sigh, opened her eyes, and set down the jewel. “Okay, can confirm Akane is not in trouble. She is actually going to start back to Nerima tomorrow. Will probably get here in next few days.”

“Where’s she been all this time?” Ranma asked. “And what was the deal earlier, with you jumping like that?”

Shampoo glared at the Eye of Bastet, as if what had happened were its fault. “Is stupid trend that Shampoo really getting tired of. I not tell this before, because I not want to worry anybody at time and later it not matter, but first time when I use this thing, find Akane after Ryoga’s Oni half had take her, when I find was exact moment when he lean in and kiss her.” Now that she had said this, Ranma did remember seeing that scene during the forming of the Heart Link. “And you both know what happen when I use second time, and look for Mousse. Well, same kind of thing happen AGAIN just now!”

“Don’t tell me you caught that uncute tomboy in the sack with somebody?!” Ranma exclaimed, his mind refusing to seriously consider the thought.

“No, but she and some boy were kissing. Not really hot and heavy kiss, but serious enough.”

“So had they stopped, when you checked in the second time?” Kodachi asked.

“Mm-hm,” Shampoo confirmed. “That when I hear she soon to leave for Nerima. Boy was saying how much he would miss her, and Akane say she miss him more. My teeth start to hurt from all the sugary sweetness.”

“Well, we can reassure the Tendos at least, I suppose. No need to spoil Akane’s surprise by mentioning anything else.”

“Yeah. That’s so weird, though, Sham-chan. Each time you’ve found somebody with the Eye of Bastet, you’ve caught them in some kind of compromising situation. Even for our lives, that seems too crazy.”

“Shampoo agree.” The Amazon glared all the more sharply at the Eye of Bastet. “Stupid jewel trying to make me feel like voyeur or something.”

Suddenly Ranma chuckled. “Y’know… You better not ever use that thing to look for your granny.”

A couple of days later, Ryoga opened the door to Ukyo’s and stepped through. He paused for a moment, inhaling appreciatively. A customer had just placed an order at the grill, and the sizzle and wonderful smells of cooking okonomiyaki were thick in the air. Ryoga’s stomach rumbled in anticipation.

Ukyo gave him a bright smile as he threaded his way through the tables and sat down at the counter, in the seat nearest to her position. “What’ll it be, sugar?” she asked.

“One shrimp deluxe and one vegetarian special,” he replied.

“Coming right up!” With her usual flair, Ukyo whipped out the delicacies and passed them over to Ryoga, pocketing his twenty yen and watching with satisfaction as he dug in.

A quick glance around her restaurant threatened to diminish her smile, though. The man she’d been serving as Ryoga entered had taken his order to go. He had left now, and there were only a few other people scattered around. Granted, her place was never packed at this hour of the afternoon, but there had been a time when it would have been a good bit busier than this.

That time was in the days prior to Ukyo having taken a month off. Business had been scarce at best since she reopened. Ukyo was hoping it wouldn’t take too much longer for things to pick back up; each day like this felt like a personal insult to her mastery of the art of the okonomiyaki.

Those thoughts were really only in the back of her mind just now, though. The chef’s primary concern had been to evaluate the status of the rest of the customers. To her practiced eye, it seemed as if none of them were likely to want anything else in the next few minutes. And so she quickly whipped up a house special for herself, eating along with Ryoga in companionable silence.

After they’d both finished, Ukyo spoke up again. “So how’s it going, Ryoga honey?” Noting how he flinched at the question, she frowned slightly. “Is something wrong?”

“Um… I was kind of feeling bad about how few customers you’ve got in here right now,” he admitted.

“You sure that’s it?” Ukyo asked skeptically. “You were looking more like you were feeling guilty than anything else.”

“Well, yeah!” Ryoga answered, puzzled as to why he wouldn’t be. “I mean, you were doing a lot more business before we went to China, weren’t you?”

“Rub it in, why don’t you,” Ukyo said, then felt bad as he flinched once more. “Sorry, sugar, I didn’t mean to sound so upset.”

“Well, you should be,” Ryoga replied. “You know something, Ukyo? After I invited you to come with us to China, Cologne warned me this was going to happen. Said your restaurant was at a point where if you just dropped it for a month, you’d have lost a lot of business when we got back. She told me that, but I just blew it off, thinking that she was trying to do Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung a favor.   Because it would be better for me if you came along, I didn’t really think about what would happen for you. I’m sorry.”

“Cut it out, will you? You’re embarrassing me.” Ukyo gave a half-exasperated, half-amused sigh, understanding now the reason for his guilty look. “Listen, Ryoga, you still did the right thing. If you hadn’t invited me along, if I hadn’t been there in China with you, there is no way Li Na would’ve done her little trick with the Spring of Drowned Twins. It would have been just you, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung for a month.” The amusement was gone now from her face and voice. She looked down, and said quietly, “I would have lost for sure.”

“Well, that didn’t happen, so cheer up, okay?” Ryoga responded awkwardly. That had reassured him somewhat, but he still felt a little guilty.

The chef looked up, smiling again. Although, also again, her smile became a bit strained as she glanced around to find they were now the only two in the restaurant. What few customers had been present had left over the last few minutes, and her view of the street didn’t show anybody else that seemed to be headed her way. “Tell you what, Ryoga honey. I think closing down for a little while and going on a walk with you would cheer me up a lot,” she said. Thereby illustrating nicely that seeing the future was NOT one of the lessons Rouge had taught her.

As they began walking away from the restaurant, Ukyo became more and more puzzled. “That’s weird,” she finally muttered under her breath.

“What’s weird?” Ryoga asked.

“Look around.” Ukyo made a sweeping gesture, indicating the street before and behind them. They were almost the only pedestrians to be seen. “Where’s everybody else, anyway? A month ago, there was a lot more traffic on this lane. And much as it hurts my ego to admit it, they weren’t all there just to get the best okonomiyaki in Japan. What’s happened to all the people who just use this lane to get from point A to point B?”

Ryoga scratched his head in the stereotypical gesture of cluelessness. “I don’t know.” Then he ruined the impression by making an intelligent comment. “Maybe there’s some work being done on the street up ahead of us. If it’s blocked off, that would explain it.”

“Wouldn’t you have seen that when you were on your way over?” Ukyo asked. If Ryoga had come here from the Kuno mansion, they ought now to be retracing the path he’d taken. Which meant they wouldn’t see anything he hadn’t already seen.

Ryoga gestured in the opposite direction from the way they were walking. “I came up that end of the street. There wasn’t anything there.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Ukyo said, mildly annoyed at herself. “You’re staying with your parents in that apartment now, not in the Kuno mansion.”

“Yeah. It feels a little strange,” he said. “We’re finally together again as a family, but not in our old house. It’s a nice apartment and all, but I guess it’ll take a while longer before it will really feel like home.”

“How can you guys afford that place, anyway?” Ukyo asked curiously. “It’s not like your family’s got a lot of regular income, right?”

“Well, actually, we are pretty well off. Back in his younger days, Dad got lost in a series of caves once, and found this massive pile of gold and jewels. He packed out as much of it as he could carry in one trip.” It went without saying that Ichiro had never managed to find his way back again. “And of course as strong as he was, that was a lot.”

“Whoa. So you’ve got this big pile of treasure sitting in the basement in your house, or something?”

“Nah, Dad eventually found somebody who gave a good price for the stuff and didn’t ask questions. I think they just kept a few of the nicest pieces of jewelry for Mom, but all the rest got traded and the money deposited in a bank.” Ryoga laughed sheepishly. “And up until now, it’s mostly just sat there and piled up interest, since we spent so much time lost.”

“That’s good to know. That your dad isn’t gonna have to turn into a salaryman to support his family, I mean.” Though truth be told, Ukyo was just a tad envious now. She and her father had never exactly been dirt poor, but they had had their share of lean times. Especially in the months immediately after Genma had stolen their yattai. There had been occasions where Ukyo had wistfully pondered what it must be like to have more money than you knew what to do with. “Hey, did you ever buy anything really expensive, just because you wanted to?”

“By the time I was old enough to legally get a debit card or something, I never managed to catch up with Mom or Dad long enough for them to get that set up with the bank,” Ryoga said.

“That’s kinda harsh. No big sums of cash for a birthday present, either?” As soon as the question had left her lips, Ukyo clamped her mouth shut and looked stricken. Who knew how many birthdays he’d spent alone? “Oh, no. I’m sorry, Ryoga honey. I didn’t mean…”

The former lost boy heaved a sigh. “Okay, you caught me,” he said guiltily. He hadn’t wanted to admit this, but he wasn’t willing to lie and he’d exhausted his skill at the verbal dodge. “I did get a huge check for my fifteenth birthday from Mom and Dad.”

“So what’s up with the long face?” his companion asked.

“I blew the whole thing on a depleted-uranium battle umbrella.”

Ukyo was still giggling as they reached the spot where the lane originated, branching off a larger thoroughfare. Ryoga looked around, glad to be able to change the subject. “Well, there’s nothing blocking the road now. Doesn’t look like there might have been anything there earlier, either.”

“Yeah, that’s true, but look over there.” Ukyo pointed a few blocks down, where another lane split away from the main road, running more or less parallel to the one on which her restaurant was located. “Everybody seems to be going down that street for some reason.”

“You want to check it out?” Ryoga asked. The chef nodded her assent, and the two of them headed for the lane.

‘Note to self: never say anything insulting about okonomiyaki when Ukyo’s around.’

It was probably an unnecessary thought, as Ryoga would hardly have been inclined to do something like that anyway, but better safe than sorry. The former lost boy watched the scene before him continue to unfold, feeling more and more nervous.

They hadn’t walked very far down the lane before catching sight of a crowd of people clustered around a large, open-air truck. A handsome young man in his early twenties stood behind the counter in said truck. He wore a white chef’s suit and was currently whipping out a variety of crepes with a flair and élan that Ryoga had previously only seen when Ukyo cooked. Unsurprisingly, much of the crowd of customers was composed of giggling schoolgirls with starry eyes and blushing cheeks. However, there were enough boys and adults present, even at this hour when most people were still at work, to make it clear that the vendor’s success was based on more than just his looks.

In fact, as they got closer, Ukyo had recognized a few people in the crowd who had been regular customers at her place before the trip to China. She had already been simmering with annoyance, feeling as if her rightful territory was being encroached upon, and the realization that HER regulars were simpering up to this crepe creep just turned the heat up a few more notches.

They hadn’t really intended to approach the counter, but suddenly the Brownian motion of the crowd had swept them there anyway. Ryoga had unexpectedly felt a bit of long-forgotten jealousy surge back as the man, who’d identified himself as the Crepe King during a round of smooth talk to the previous customers, turned his oh-so-charming smile on Ukyo and asked what she wanted. That jealousy had been utterly pointless, of course; Ukyo informed the vendor in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t here to order anything. Because, the chef snapped, she was the proprietor of Ukyo’s Okonomiyaki, a place just three streets over that served real food.

The King’s smile had shifted subtly, and he replied that he knew the place. In fact, he’d briefly considered setting up on the same street when he arrived in Nerima. But he had decided he didn’t want his business hurt by such close proximity to a dingy, dusty, unpopular, hole-in-the-wall little joint.

This had prompted a fairly impressive facial twitch on Ukyo’s part, along with a statement that the King should be thanking his ancestors that the ‘joint’ had been closed for the past month due to its proprietor being away. Had things been otherwise, Ukyo stated categorically, there wouldn’t have been any flock of poor, deprived souls crowding around this pathetic little fly-by-night operation, desperate for the meanest substitute since they hadn’t yet realized their preferred chef had returned.

That was when the Crepe King had begun musing about the possible ill-effects that might occur from eating too much okonomiyaki. Would one have to consume four in order to begin suffering from delusions, or would three be enough? Maybe just two would do for a scrawny little girl whose head hadn’t been screwed on too tightly to begin with.

As far as Ryoga could tell, Ukyo didn’t even notice the personal part of that insult. The slight to the foundation stone of her family’s Art left her standing ramrod straight, battle aura visible even to the non-martial-artists. Unsurprisingly, everyone with any sense of self-preservation pulled well back, dragging their friends with them, giving Ukyo plenty of room.

There was a long moment of silence before Ukyo regained enough self-control to speak. “I think I’ve had just about enough of you. That’s the problem with living in Nerima — it’s full of nutcases with delusions of adequacy. People who think waaaaay too much of themselves.” She pasted a sugary, utterly fake smile on her face. “People like you, jackass. You wouldn’t have had ONE customer if I hadn’t been gone when you arrived.” While not in the way Ukyo meant it, that statement was technically true.

He just shook his head, with a disdainful smile of his own. “You can trash talk me all you want, but it doesn’t make any difference. When everything’s said and done, you’re still just second best… if that. I came to Nerima because people from here were asking for me by name, trying to hunt me down and get me here. Can you say the same thing? I didn’t think so.”

A scornful laugh answered his disdainful smile. “You really expect me to believe that? You know, maybe you were on the right track when you were talking about delusions earlier. I bet something like that really could happen to someone who works with crap… oh, I mean crepes… for too long.”

That remark managed to make its way under the Crepe King’s skin. “It’s the truth, you little brat!” Recovering his equanimity, he requested that Ryoga, who was still standing next to Ukyo, move back a few steps. The former lost boy complied, uncovering a poster that was affixed to the side of the truck, indicating that the price of a crepe was fifty percent lower for girls with green or red hair.

The Crepe King noted with satisfaction that the girl suddenly seemed to lose her sense of righteous surety. “Th-that… Is that for…?” she stammered.

“My way of saying thanks to them, whoever they are. I never caught up with them, just heard the sad, sad story… two girls were so starved for quality food that they had to go right out of Nerima in search of me. Well, I’m here now, and it certainly was a good business move on my part. And I’m not about to let some little pancake-pusher wannabe chef mess with me.” The Crepe King sneered at Ukyo. “Now why don’t you move along, girlie. Unlike some people, I’ve got customers to satisfy.”

“I’ll go,” Ukyo said grimly, coming out of her trance, “but believe me, I’ll be back. Just got something else to deal with first. Ryoga honey, let’s go.”

“No. Not yet.” When Ukyo had been radiating barely-suppressed fury, Ryoga had had the good sense not to get between her and the target of her ire. But now there wasn’t any such problem. He stepped forward and looked the Crepe King dead in the eye. “I’ve got something to say to this loser first.”

“And what’s that?” the loser in question asked condescendingly.

“Nobody talks to, or about, Ukyo like that,” he replied, in a tone more thick with menace than anything Ryoga-Oni had managed in his brief stay. “You’re damn well going to apologize right now.”

“Or else what, kid? You’ll make me sorry?”

Ryoga held up his hand, palm facing upward. He concentrated… determination… strength of will…

A ball of pure chi formed in the palm of his hand. Ryoga locked eyes with the Crepe King. “Something like that.”

“Ryoga, no!”

Ukyo’s cry distracted him, breaking his tenuous grasp on the power of the Kikotsu Bakuha. The chi dispersed harmlessly, the Crepe King began breathing again, and Ryoga turned to Ukyo with a plaintive look on his face. “What? Why not, Ukyo? I can’t let him get away with all that junk he just said about you!”

“That’s really sweet, Ryoga-kun.” Ukyo was clearly now in a better mood than she had been immediately after the Crepe King’s little revelation. “But that’s not what you’re going to be doing.”

“It isn’t? I mean, of course it isn’t. Um… then why did you stop me?”

“You’re not letting him get away with anything, sugar.” Ukyo gave him the fierce grin of a tiger out for blood. Since Ryoga had never trained in the Cat Fist, this didn’t particularly bother him. “You’re leaving him for me.” She linked her arm through his, and led the way as the two began to walk off. Ryoga cast a dark glance back toward the Crepe King, and Ukyo smiled. “You can have the remains after I’m finished with him, Ryoga honey, if you don’t think he’s been punished enough.

“But for now…” Her gaze shifted off into the distance, as she turned to face the general direction of the Nekohanten, “first things first.”

It is said that fortune favors the bold. It is also well-known that there exists such a thing as dumb luck. So it would stand to reason that those both bold AND dumb might well have more than their fair share of good fortune, although it might all be used up in simply keeping them alive through the situations into which the aforementioned traits would lead them.

Azusa Shiratori was feeling oddly tense as she glided along the street. She wasn’t sure why, but it felt like someone was behind her, watching her with hostile intent. While this wasn’t exactly a sensation she’d never experienced before, this was the first time it had happened when there was nobody present to do the staring.

Another quick, sweeping glance behind, then around her turned up the same results as before. There were only a few people on the street, and they were all ahead of her, going the same direction she was. And none of the buildings behind her now had even been in sight when she first began feeling the stares. Azusa wasn’t really concerned, therefore, deciding that she was probably just feeling uneasy because she hadn’t yet rescued anything cute today. There was nothing appealing to be seen here, either. She began skating a little faster, though still not moving at much more than walking pace.

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung cursed mentally. They certainly couldn’t spare the breath to do so out loud, as that would have disrupted the Dance of the Hidden Chameleon. It wasn’t easy to move this quickly while still maintaining the technique, but there was no way they were going to let the stupid thief girl get away again. Not after she’d stolen their chance to create a technique of their very own. Their anger gave them the strength to match Azusa’s speed and even go a little faster, while still maintaining their stealth shield. Just let them get close enough undetected, and their clueless opponent’s rollerblades wouldn’t make any difference at all…

They were forty feet away now… thirty-seven… thirty-four…

‘Hey, there they are!’ Ryoga realized suddenly, as he and Ukyo walked out of a side alleyway some little distance behind the twins. ‘Guess we won’t need to go all the way to the Nekohanten after all.’ He raised his voice and shouted “Ling-Ling! Lung-Lung! Over here!”

The sudden cry disrupted their concentration completely. The twins stumbled to a halt, reflexively looking around for their Airen (for of course they couldn’t tell Ryoga’s voice from Ryu’s). And of course Azusa looked behind her as well for the source of the shout, saw the two girls she least wanted to see, gulped, turned back around, and zipped away at top speed. Dumb luck triumphs over skill and focus once again.

The young Amazons watched her go with expressions of sick disgust, then turned around to face Ryoga and Ukyo. “This better be good, Ryoga,” Ling-Ling said with a grimace.

Their reaction surprised the former lost boy, who hadn’t yet realized they had been using their stealth technique. “Huh? What’s wrong?”

“You see that girl who run away on stupid skates?” Lung-Lung asked bitterly. “We using Dance of Hidden Chameleon to catch up with her. She take something very, very important from us. Deserve to get beat good for it, but we never manage to do yet.”

“What’d she take?” Ryoga asked.

“Back before China, we is practicing in park, yes? Get really deep into music, so deep we about to come up with own special technique. We would have create own Dance. Would have been first time it happen in five generations, and would have been us who do. But stupid thief girl come by, grab flutes away, and race off.” Lung-Lung’s shoulders slumped. “We try many time since then to get back to that state, but so far it not happen. That is what thief girl take from us. That is what she will pay for.”

“Oh. Crud. I’m sorry, Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung.”

Both Amazons sighed. “Oh well. We get Airen to take us out to date to make up for disappointment. Stupid thief girl can not get lucky forever anyway.”

By now Ukyo had more or less recovered from the shock of seeing the twins suddenly appear out of thin air. “Anyway, there was something I needed to ask you two. Ryoga honey and I were on our way to the Nekohanten to find you.”

‘<I wish you’d taken a different route there,>‘ Ling-Ling thought, but didn’t bother to say it out loud.

Ukyo paused, considering how to broach the subject of the Crepe King. When she’d first heard just who was responsible for him showing up in Nerima, she had been furious, ready to rip into the twins. At LEAST verbally, and possibly not stopping there depending on their reaction. Old habits died hard.

But the way Ryoga honey had leapt to her defense had improved her mood considerably. She’d reminded herself that whatever the kids had done, they’d done before the truce was declared. And so she had already been fairly composed before encountering them here, having rejected the thought of lashing out at them without first asking calmly for an explanation.

Plus, seeing them appear out of thin air had been an uncomfortable reminder of the techniques they could bring to bear if pushed. Ukyo had no desire to spend the next few weeks suffering from nightmares.

Consequently, when she spoke it was in a mild, non-accusatory tone. “You ever hear of someone called the Crepe King?” Their response was a little puzzling. The twins blinked in surprise, a reaction pronounced enough that it was clear they knew the name, but they didn’t seem to feel any guilt.

“Never meet him, but have heard of him,” Ling-Ling said. “Why you ask?”

“Because he’s set up shop a few streets over from my place, and is drawing off my customers,” Ukyo responded shortly. “Would you happen to know anything about that?”

Lung-Lung briefly considered dissembling further, but decided it would be counterproductive. There was no reason for the spatula girl to have come to them with questions if she didn’t know something about their search for the Crepe King. “Maybe. This happen about two month ago, spatu— sorry, Ukyo. Great-Grandmother suggest to us that good way to get you less interested in Ryoga would be get somebody else here who better match for you. She had hear of Crepe King, that he good martial artist and good cook, who fight and cook with same style. Much like you, yes? So we spend some time in Tokyo and look for him. But never find.”

“You thought that… that… that arrogant JACKASS would be a good match for me?!” Luckily, Ukyo’s incredulity prevented her from losing her temper.

Ling-Ling frowned. “Is he not good person? Remember, none of us ever meet.”

Ukyo took long, deep breaths, trying to view the situation objectively. Ryoga was able to do this more easily, of course, due to his friendship with the Amazons. “No, he’s not,” the former lost boy replied. “In fact, he’s a real jerk. If attitude and rudeness were skill, he might be able to take on your great-grandmother.” That was obviously an exaggeration, but it helped the twins get the idea.

“Oh. We sorry, Ukyo,” Ling-Ling said. “If we know he really such bad person, would not have tried to find him. He obviously no good for what we wanted for him.”

“Why he here anyway?” Lung-Lung asked. “Is somehow our fault?”

“Yeah,” Ukyo said. “You may never have found him, but he eventually heard there were these two girls from Nerima looking for him. So he came here and set up shop.”

“Must not have been doing very good in old place,” Ling-Ling commented, “if just two girls look for him is enough to get him to move. Or maybe, since he have such bad attitude, could be he had made enemies at old place and was getting ready to move along soon anyway.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me one bit,” Ryoga said.

“Anyway, we did not do this to cause you more trouble, Ukyo,” Lung-Lung said. “No worry, we go right now and pound stupid Crepe King, run him out of town.” That would strengthen their truce, make them look good to their Airen when he found out, and nicely get rid of their residual frustration over Azusa’s narrow escape. An all-around positive situation as far as the twins were concerned.

However, Ukyo shook her head. “I appreciate the thought, but I’m the one whose business has suffered and who’s been insulted. I need to be the one to deal with him. Assuming he doesn’t skip out of town tonight after the way Ryoga honey scared him spitless.”

“What you do?” Lung-Lung queried.

“Just gave him a little glimpse of the Kikotsu Bakuha,” Ryoga replied modestly. “Mr. Supposedly A Martial Artist Crepe King looked like he was going to pass out, just from the sight of a ball of chi.”

“Aiyah! Ryoga manage that much of technique already?! We no hear this from Airen!” Ling-Ling exclaimed.

“Have you seen him since he and I had our training session this morning?” Ryoga asked. “We both managed it then. That was the first time either of us got that far with it.”

“No, we have not. Need to go find him right now and celebrate!” The Amazons turned to go, but then a thought struck Lung-Lung. “When you going to pound stupid Crepe King, Ukyo?”

“I’m thinking tomorrow morning.”

“Well, let us know details. We come with Airen, watch the slaughter.”

That sentiment turned out to be a common one. Early the next morning, Ukyo made her way to the Kuno mansion and used one of the spacious training halls for a warm-up session. An hour later, when she left to confront the Crepe King, she was accompanied by Ryoga, Ryu, Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, Ranma, Kodachi, Shampoo, Nabiki, and Tatewaki.

“I still can’t believe I’m walking all this way just to watch one of these fights,” Nabiki remarked as they turned onto the street that would take them to the lane where the Crepe King had set up. “It’s not like there’ll be enough people there yet to get a betting pool set up.”

“What were you doing over at the Kuno place so early in the morning anyway?” Ryoga asked. Nabiki had already been there when he and Ryu had arrived, and they’d only been a couple of minutes behind Ukyo. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung hadn’t gotten to the mansion until another three quarters of an hour had passed.

Nabiki regarded him with an arch look. “Feeling braver than usual this morning, are we? Normally you wouldn’t have the guts to ask a girl why she might have been over at her fiancé’s house so early in the morning.”

Kodachi giggled at the response to this statement. The sweatdrop, the flush, the stumble as he caught Nabiki’s meaning… honestly, she would have thought her brother had more self-possession than that.

Ryoga, on the other hand, just gave Nabiki a look that made it clear the innuendo had passed him by. “Um, I don’t get it.”

“Ahem. What Nabiki isn’t trying to say,” Kuno shot his fiancée a dry glance, “is that she arrived early because she was so eager to witness the upcoming spectacle. After all, given that she has recently determined to train herself in the path of a true martial artist, this will serve as valuable instruction.”

Where had he gotten such a strange idea as that, Nabiki wondered. “Tachi? Are you feeling okay?”

“Of course, ’Biki-chan.” Kuno struck an overly melodramatic pose. “Though a little remorseful. Truly I have not fulfilled my duties to you as fully as I should, or you would have come to me for training rather than going behind my back.” He sighed mournfully. “That you would seek such a ridiculous discipline as Martial Arts Tea Ceremony over the elegance and power of Kendo cuts me to the quick as well.”

Nabiki made a revolted face. “Hah hah. If I never see that loser Sentaro or his dried-up old female relations again, it’ll be just fine by me.”

“So when are you gonna start training for real, Nabiki?” Ranma asked with a grin. “I gotta admit, I think it’s a good idea. Considering how crazy this place can get, well, anybody should know how to defend themselves.”

“Not you too,” Nabiki groaned.

“Hmmm. Seeing as we will be sisters-in-law, I would be only too happy to spar with you, Nabiki. Brother dear would probably be a little too soft-hearted to really press you hard enough for maximum improvement in your skill.”

“Shampoo too, sneaky girl,” the Amazon said, doing her best to match the kind of smirk she’d seen Nabiki use in the past. “I have trained in path of the warrior since old enough to take first steps. Have learned many lessons through blood and sweat and tears. I would be glad to pass my experience on to you.”

Nabiki let her lower lip start quivering, while her eyes widened and began to glisten with unshed tears. She trembled, then whirled around and grabbed hold of Tatewaki as if desperate for reassurance. “Tachi, everyone’s threatening me,” she said tremulously. “Y-you’ll protect me, won’t you?”

“There, there, little woman,” Kuno said magnanimously, putting his arms around her and giving her a comforting pat on the back. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”

The middle Tendo pulled back and eyed him dangerously. “Okay, I left myself open for that one, Tachi dear. But remember… I’ve got a long memory, and it won’t be much of a honeymoon if you’re sleeping on the couch.”

“Not much of honeymoon for either of them,” Ling-Ling commented.

“Lung-Lung think it would just turn out to be crowded couch,” her sister replied.

“Enough of the comedy sketch, already!” This was Ukyo. “Some of us are trying to get psyched up to squash insulting creeps who’re threatening our restaurants. Save the witty banter for AFTER the fight.”

“Don’tcha mean, after the massacre?” Ranma had watched most of Ukyo’s earlier practice session. When he saw that her battle aura was doing nearly as much damage to the floor as her weapon was to the practice dummies, he’d begun feeling a little sorry for this Crepe King. But only a little.

Ukyo gave him a stare she’d received several times in the past from Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. “What’d I just say about the jokes, Ranchan? Keep it up and no okonomiyaki for you afterwards.”

“Okay, okay!” Ranma held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Jeez, Ucchan, if I didn’t know any better I’d think you were nervous or something.”

“I…” Ukyo sighed. “I guess I am, a little. I mean, this is going to be a challenge match, right? And I haven’t had such a good record with those.”

Ranma just shrugged. “So what? I mean, losing to me is no big deal. And the way I heard it, you almost did beat Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. They just caught you off-guard with a trick.” He continued speaking, oblivious to the glares the young Amazons were sending his way. “You’re gonna win this fight with no problem.”

“Yeah,” Ryoga said, “third time’s the charm. And remember, this guy’s probably all talk anyway. Remember how scared he was when I threatened him just a little? No REAL martial artist would have been that freaked out.”

Ukyo smiled. “Y’know, you’re right. He did look like he was about to crepe his pants, didn’t he?”

Everyone else groaned. “I thought you said you didn’t want any witty banter,” Kuno protested.

“And what in that last statement seemed witty to you, Tachi dear?” Nabiki enquired.

“ANYway, thanks for cheering me up,” Ukyo said. “That jerk isn’t going to know what hit him!” They were now approaching the head of the lane on which the Crepe King had set up his business, so there wouldn’t be much longer to wait. ‘Just a couple more minutes to get there, and then a few more for the obligatory smack-talking, and then that creep is going down,’ the chef thought.

“Of course, this is all assuming the worm didn’t flee last night under the cover of darkness,” Kodachi remarked. “It would be a bit of a let down if, after all this build-up, we find that he is indeed gone without a trace.”

“One let-down, coming right up,” Ryu announced, jogging up to the group in time to hear Kodachi’s remark. He’d gone on ahead of everyone a few minutes back, so that he’d have a chance to clear out any customers that might have been queued up in front of the Crepe King’s truck. “Sorry guys, it looks like he did run like a yellow-bellied coward. His truck’s nowhere to be seen.”

“No way!” Ukyo protested. Nervous she might have originally been at the idea of the upcoming match, but even then she had been determined to make the jerk pay for his insults. And that desire had only gotten stronger over the last few minutes. “He’s really gone?!”

“See for yourself.” By now the entire group had reached the lane. They hurried down it and found only one sign that the Crepe King had ever haunted this location: a poster affixed to a nearby wall, stating that he had relocated.

There was a long moment of silence, before Ukyo finally let out a frustrated sigh. “Well, that wasn’t very satisfying, but a victory is a victory, I guess. Come on, everyone, okonomiyaki’s on me.”

It was a little disconcerting when they found out just where the Crepe King had moved to.

Specifically, he had set up shop about thirty feet away from Ukyo’s restaurant.

The entire group came to halt and stood for a while, contemplating this new development. Eventually Shampoo asked the question that was on everyone’s minds. “How you not notice this earlier today, Ukyo?”

This kick-started Ukyo’s mental processes again. “The jackass wasn’t there when I left for your place this morning. He must’ve moved in after that.”

“Well, it looks like we’ll get to see some justice served after all,” Ryoga said with a menacing smile. “Let’s go show him what we think of his little tactic.”

“Right,” Ukyo growled, as the situation before her finally sunk in. She paused one more second to glower at the truck, then strode briskly over, followed closely by everyone else.

The Crepe King had seen them long before this, of course, as right now there were no customers to distract him. To his credit, he didn’t show any sign of feeling nervous at seeing this many high-caliber martial artists who were apparently here to support Ukyo. But it was a struggle to keep that emotion hidden.

“You think you’re real cute, don’t you,” Ukyo said flatly as she reached the truck. “Setting up just a few doors down from my ‘dingy, dusty, unpopular, hole-in-the-wall little joint’.”

“I just felt sorry for the people who might have been eating at your place because they didn’t know they had better choices available,” the Crepe King sneered back. “And you know what? As early as it is, I’ve still had several customers come by. Which is more than I can say for you.”

Ukyo gave him a strange look, then turned and shaded her eyes, squinting towards her restaurant. “Yep,” she said at last, “the ‘closed’ sign IS still hanging on my door. And there haven’t been any customers, you say? Imagine that.”

“Well, at least you had the right idea when you didn’t bother opening today,” her adversary responded.

The chef shrugged. “Don’t normally open this early anyway, plus today I was busy warming up for something a little rougher than slinging okonomiyaki. I gotta admit, I was disappointed when I got over to your old spot. Looked like you’d slithered away with your tail between your legs. And I had really been looking forward to teaching you some manners.” She flashed him a hard, grim smile. “Guess I should even thank you for setting up here, where I’d run into you again. Just out of curiosity, why didn’t you put your new location on the poster you left in your old place? When we found it, we thought you’d just vanished without a trace so I couldn’t find you again.”

The Crepe King blinked, then smacked his forehead. “Knew I forgot something,” he muttered disgustedly. No wonder business had been sparse so far this morning.

“Jeez, isn’t that enough smack-talking already, Ukyo? C’mon, let’s get on with it!” Ranma called from the sidelines. He’d been expecting to chow down on some of Ukyo’s finest okonomiyaki as soon as they got here. Failing that, watching a fight was always interesting, but the repartee wasn’t doing much for him.

“Hold your horses!” Ukyo retorted over her shoulder. She turned back to face the Crepe King. “He does have a point, though. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner MY customers won’t have to look at your ugly face anymore. Crepe King, I challenge you!”

“Fine with me, girlie. We’ll see just whose cooking comes out on top!”

Ukyo gave him that hard, grim smile again. “I don’t think I said it was a cooking contest, sugar. Your fighting style against mine, first to K.O. or submission.” After all the insults that had flown between them, she wanted something a little more painful for him than just being forced to admit her food was better.

“I see. All that stuff about your cooking was just so much hot air, wasn’t it? You’re too scared to face me in a real test of skill.” The Crepe King poured every ounce of derision and condescension that he could muster into his tone. Twenty-four hours prior, he would have dismissed chi attacks as the stuff of Street Fighter games, nothing more. This girl’s boyfriend’s demonstration had shattered those comforting illusions completely, and the King didn’t remember her reacting as if it had been any big deal. No, he definitely wanted to keep this confrontation on a nonviolent level if he could do it without sacrificing his pride.

Ukyo glared fiercely in response to this, before shifting her expression into a lopsided smile. “Well, I guess I could go with that. You whip up some crepes, I’ll cook some okonomiyaki, we’ll pass our stuff around to everyone who’s here, and let them vote on who’s the better chef. Loser leaves town.”

The Crepe King looked up and down the lane. A few people had showed up to watch the street theater, but these impartial members of the audience were far outnumbered by the friends Ukyo had brought with her. Accepting those terms was as good as throwing in the towel and walking away without a fight.

He seriously considered doing just that, but his pride wouldn’t quite let it happen. “Fine,” he snarled at last, “I’ll accept that first challenge you gave me. Your skill against mine. And don’t go crying home to mommy, little girl, when I give you the spanking you deserve.”

“Now she know how it feel,” Ling-Ling muttered, not entirely unsympathetically, as Ukyo turned purple with fury.

“Be right back,” Ukyo ground out. “Ryoga honey, give me a hand.” She led him over to her restaurant and then inside; a few minutes later, they exited again, each lugging a couple of padded posts and some ropes. Another couple of trips inside were enough to fetch the rest of the components, which Ukyo quickly assembled into a fighting ring in the middle of the road. She took her place in one corner and called, “I’m ready whenever you are, loser.”

Not ten minutes had passed since the Crepe King had declined Ukyo’s version of a cooking challenge. Yet in those few minutes that had elapsed, a crowd of onlookers had formed, seemingly out of thin air. He gave them all a disgusted glance from where he stood now, in the corner of the ring opposite Ukyo, then turned to face his opponent. “Anytime, girlie.”

Declining to comment, Ukyo slowly began spinning her combat spatula in a defensive pattern. The Crepe King tensed as the massive weapon began to move more and more quickly. He didn’t think the angle at which she was moving it would let her suddenly release it to shoot toward him, but he wasn’t quite sure. Deciding that it would be better not to give the initiative to his opponent, he slipped one hand inside his chef’s outfit, reaching for a few of the ‘special’ crepes…

With a fierce scream, Ukyo exerted every bit of force she could muster, changing the angle of her combat spatula’s path to send it crashing into the floor. It sliced easily through the padding and shattered the wooden boards beneath, sending a cloud of splinters and fluff into the air. Through this smokescreen, Ukyo launched a fistful of throwing spatulas.

The Crepe King recognized his danger with just barely enough time to respond. Getting out of the way wasn’t an option. Ranma could have snatched all the spatulas out of the air, but the King was nowhere near that skilled. Instead, he blocked with the only thing he had that was large enough to serve as a shield.

Ukyo grimaced to see her opponent stop her projectiles with what looked to be a giant, unrolled crepe. She freed her own oversized cooking item and darted forward.

The Crepe King spared an instant to glance at his makeshift shield, confirming that what would have been a Golden Crepe of Death was now useless. Ukyo’s spatulas had lodged deeply within it; if he tried to use this one as it was intended, to wrap his opponent and then explode, chances were excellent that it would fail in some way. And so he tossed it at Ukyo, not to entrap her but just to slow her down a bit while he jumped over her head to a safer corner of the ring.

She swung her giant spatula, knocking the damaged crepe aside, trying to nail the King with it in midair. However, to one who didn’t know how to use such a thing, the massive pseudo-pastry was extremely awkward. It came nowhere near the Crepe King, instead tumbling through the air to land next to the door of Ukyo’s Okonomiyaki.

Where it exploded.

Perhaps a quick digression is in order here, to discuss the Crepe King’s final attack in more detail. The Golden Crepe of Death is a crepe in name and general appearance only. It certainly isn’t edible, given the fact that the ‘whipped cream’ filling is made from C-4 explosive and the ‘pastry’ is composed of highly durable synthetic compounds. The extreme strength of that material is necessary to prevent one entrapped from freeing themselves before the explosive can go off.

And this explains why the Crepe King used an explosive as powerful as C-4 in the attack. A weaker one wouldn’t be able to shred the outer crepe; all the force would be spent inside, on the martial artist trapped there. Ironically enough, less powerful explosives would be far more likely to cripple or kill the target of the attack.

Of course, there was also the minor detail that the crepe needed to be folded properly, in order to correctly shape the charge. It had taken quite a bit of research and experimentation on the Crepe King’s part to achieve the perfect design. When the Golden Crepe of Death was folded into the correct configuration, most of the energy of the explosion would be used up in destroying the crepe, only a relatively little remaining to damage the victim of the attack. Of course, that ‘relatively little’ amount would be enough to knock just about anyone unconscious.

It might seem dangerous and irresponsible of the Crepe King to use an attack that could conceivably rip his opponent to shreds if something went wrong. As the crepes were engineered not to explode without having been folded first, he would have denied this with an arrogant smirk and a rude comment. However, the fact remains that here and now, the damage from Ukyo’s mini-spatulas caused that safeguard to fail. And so, when the C-4 detonated, it did so without being muffled at all by an enshrouding blanket of damage-resistant fibers.

The blast from behind her sent Ukyo whirling around, her face ashen as she took in the sight before her. “No… My restaurant…” The windows were broken, the front door was a charred, gaping hole, and tables and chairs inside had scattered like leaves in the wind. All thoughts of the fight were momentarily lost from her mind.

“Mistake,” the Crepe King said reprovingly, as he whipped out the second Golden Crepe of Death he’d been carrying.

“Ukyo!” “Ucchan!” “Look out!” These and various other cries of warning came much too late, as Ukyo spun around, only to find herself wrapped in the twin of the pastry that had assaulted her restaurant.

“Just so you know, girlie…” the Crepe King smirked, feeling a serious surge of relief at his quick victory, “…this has been the least challenging match I’ve ever fought.”

The trapped chef looked down at the pastry around her, then reared her head back and screamed in rage, her hair actually flying up with the fury of her response. And then there WAS an explosion, quite a powerful one, as Ukyo’s battle aura surged out, shattering the crepe and freeing her.

Ranma frowned. “Seems so familiar, somehow,” he muttered. “Like I’ve seen all this before.”

“Of course it does, silly,” Kodachi said. “Remember when we were watching those Tenchi OAV episodes last night? This is just like when Ryoko broke free of Kagato’s hourglass trap.”

“Oh yeah, that’s what I was remembering. Thanks, Dachi-chan.”

“You just pushed me WAY too far,” Ukyo said in a deathly quiet tone. Her battle aura flashed blindingly bright, as she called on the powers Rouge had taught her to access. As the surge of magic combined with the chi energy she was already pumping out, most of the onlookers had to shield their eyes or look away.

A swarm of glowing mini-spatulas flew towards the Crepe King. He desperately threw out chi-charged paper serving cones to block, but many of the spatulas sheared right through these without slowing. The ones that didn’t flew off to the sides, speeding even faster as their paths curved again, bringing them back in line with the Crepe King. He was hit from all directions at once, twitching and jerking spasmodically as the projectiles released their payload of concentrated electrical magic into him.

A light breeze began to blow, thinning the haze of smoke coming from both Ukyo’s restaurant and the scorched Crepe King. She stood still and sneered at him, giving him the chance to climb back to his feet. As he did so, the breeze strengthened. And as the Crepe King launched a desperate counteroffensive, pulling out all the crepes loaded with nasty surprises that he was carrying and throwing them at Ukyo, the wind began to howl. The crepes flew right back at their creator, dumping spiders, snakes, flame canisters, and exploding pellets onto him.

After the smoke had cleared again, the Crepe King’s battered form was sprawled along the floor of the ring. He was twitching feebly, and still technically conscious. Which, frankly, suited Ukyo just fine.

The chef paused, looking at him for a long moment. At last she said, “So you thought throwing exploding crepes around was funny, did you, jackass? Well, HERE! LET ME SHOW YOU WHAT IT FEELS LIKE!!”

Most of what was left of the padding on the ring floor ripped up at this point, winging forward and wrapping around the hapless Crepe King and pulling him upright, rendering him far more helpless than Ukyo had been. His eyes, dazed and pleading, met hers.

Ignoring his pathetic nonverbal attempt to beg for mercy, Ukyo spoke quietly. “One loser to go.”

The cloth and padding that had wrapped the King suddenly unrolled, sending him spinning in place like a top. As he slammed into a corner post and fell to his knees, head spinning, almost unable to focus on anything, the glowing pseudo-crepe soared through the air and over to his truck. Ukyo was generous — when the explosion came, it was in the open-air food-preparation area of the vehicle, which didn’t breach the gas tank or even leave the truck inoperable. But it would be a long time before any more crepes would be served from there.

It was anybody’s guess whether the Crepe King was really capable of realizing what had just happened. Ukyo didn’t give it much time to sink in, either. “Good night,” she hissed, lobbing a sleep spell his way. He collapsed at last into the relative mercy of unconsciousness.

Silence fell, holding sway for a long moment over the street. Then the cheers of “Ukyo! Ukyo! Ukyo!” began. The chef stepped from the remains of the ring, preparing to bow.

Ryoga barely managed to catch her as her knees buckled. “Th-thanks, sugar,” she managed, her voice coming in labored gasps now. “I had… had a feeling I was pushing it… a little with that last couple of attacks…”

“No joke,” Shampoo said reprovingly. “You use very much of energy up, Ucchan. Should have been able to tell you were running low before it come to this. You really need to rest now.” She cast a pained glance at Ukyo’s restaurant. “Come back with us to Kuno place, okay? Tatewaki and Nabiki, you please get police or whoever here to protect restaurant. Ryoga, you help Ukyo walk.”

Ryoga gulped, then said, “I-I’ve got a better idea.” He gently scooped Ukyo up, carrying her with ease as the martial artists began to walk away.

All right,’ Ukyo thought, settling back into his arms with a smile, ‘this part worked out even better than I’d hoped.

“Wonder what that is,” Akane said to herself as she noticed a plume of smoke off in the distance. She hesitated for a moment, debating whether or not to take to the rooftops and go investigate. When the smoke thinned in the breeze and all but vanished, she decided it was probably just some typical Nerima weirdness and not actually someone’s house on fire, and continued on her way.

She had made good time on her trip back from Ryugenzawa; spending the month as Shinnosuke’s guest had left her with more funds than she’d originally expected to have remaining. She had been able to afford all the bullet train rides she needed. Akane was looking forward to finally seeing her family again, although she suspected the first few hours back home might not be much fun. Which, at least subconsciously, was the reason she was now walking along the streets of Nerima, not speeding over the rooftops.

Akane told herself that the reason for taking the slower route was so she could get used to the city again. It was quite a change of pace from the solitude and abundant presence of nature at Ryugenzawa. She stopped for a few minutes to watch a brawl between two young men (blinking and rubbing her eyes when she realized one of them wasn’t casting a shadow).   Some little distance from Akane, a girl stood next to a horse that seemed to be frozen in some kind of force field, calling soft encouragements to whichever of the boys was named ‘Ken’.

When the shadowless boy manifested some kind of darkness attack and began wiping the floor with his opponent, while shouting that nobody tries to kidnap his friends, Akane decided there wasn’t any need to get involved. Although she now considered herself a dedicated adventuress, it looked like justice was already being served here. Consequently, she began walking toward home again.

Nothing further happened to delay her, though Akane almost succumbed to the temptation to stop off at an ice cream parlor. She’d missed some things more than others during her stay in the wilds of Ryugenzawa. But she valiantly resisted this impulse, taking a deep breath and picking up the pace as she fought the sweet siren song coming from the dessert shop.

“That actually felt harder than facing the Orochi,” Akane muttered once she’d left temptation behind her. She wiped a fair quantity of sweat from her brow.

A few minutes later she came within sight of the Tendo home. Her father was standing in the yard, sweeping it clean. Akane took a deep breath, released it, took another, then ran forward.

“Hi, Dad! I’m back! I missed you guys a lot, did you miss me?” she asked, projecting as cheerful and chirpy an image as she could, on the theory that this might make it harder for her father to be upset with her.

As Soun caught sight of his wayward daughter, the broom went flying. “A-A-Akane! My precious little baby girl is home at last!!” He grabbed Akane in a hug, fortunately not connecting with the wounded portion of her arm, and proceeded to let loose with the waterworks.

Just as Akane’s vision was beginning to fade from the bone-crushing embrace, Kasumi came to her rescue. The Tendo homemaker had been in the back of the house when she heard a crash; hurrying to the source of the sound, she found that a broom had come flying through a window. On going outside to investigate, she caught sight of her little sister, back at last from her adventure and apparently none the worse for wear (aside from turning purple from Father’s overenthusiastic response). “Oh, my!” she exclaimed, hurrying over and pulling back one of Soun’s arms so she could join the hug.

Akane took deep breaths for a few seconds, then hugged Kasumi and Soun back. “It’s really good to see you guys again,” she said at last, pulling back a little. “I’m sorry I just took off like that, but it was something I needed to do. You understand, right, Dad? How could I call myself a martial artist if I didn’t have the guts to go on a training trip?”

For a long moment, Soun struggled to be stern. But that quality had been largely beaten out of him during his early training with Happosai, and the loss of his beloved wife had crippled most of what remained. Threats to his precious daughters could still raise the ghost of the iron-willed young man he’d once been, but that didn’t mean he was capable of turning that strength of will on them. Giving up the feeble attempt, and resolving to ask Kasumi to have words with Akane when he wasn’t around, Soun said at last, “Akane, you should have discussed it with me first. But never mind that! This is a joyous occasion!” His eyes teared up again. “I’m so glad you’re home safely!”

“Me too.” Even though she had begun missing Shinnosuke well before arriving at the Nerima train station. Better not think about that, Akane chided herself. It would be a long time before her next school break. “Hey, where’s Nabiki? She’s not at school, is she? I didn’t think Furinkan would have started yet, but I could have lost count of the days.”

“Oh, no, you still have a few weeks until it reopens,” Kasumi reassured her. “The school was damaged in an explosion or something, and it’s being repaired. The reason Nabiki isn’t here is that she and Tatewaki eloped a few days ago.”

“W-What?!” Akane cried, shocked. The last she’d heard, Nabiki had wanted to wait until after graduation to get married!

“W-What?!” Soun exclaimed, horrified. “M-my little Nabiki has eloped? Without even inviting me to the wedding?! WAAAAHHHHH!”

Kasumi sighed in light exasperation. “Father, I was playing a joke on Akane. Remember that Nabiki was with us at the dinner table last night?”

Soun’s tears switched off, and he adopted perhaps the most sheepish face he’d ever worn. “Um, now that you mention it, yes.”

Crud,’ Akane thought ruefully, ‘she got me again.’ Kasumi didn’t play practical jokes often, but so far whenever she had whichever sister was the target would inevitably fall for the prank. Akane swore to herself, again, that NEXT time she would see through her big sister. Seeking a change of subject, she asked, “Can we go inside now? I’d really like to take off this backpack.”

Once they were inside, Soun glanced sheepishly at the broken glass on the floor, then began sweeping it up with the convenient broom. Meanwhile, Akane went upstairs to deposit her pack in her bedroom. It was a little puzzling to her when Kasumi followed along, even shutting the bedroom door behind her. “Um, did you want something, big sister?”

Kasumi’s smile melted away, replaced by a look of mixed worry and sternness. “Akane, when I hugged you earlier, I felt something very much like a large bandage on your arm. Is there something you’d like to tell me?”

Akane flinched. So much for keeping it secret by just wearing long-sleeved blouses. “Um, it’s really no big deal, Kasumi,” she said weakly, knowing that wasn’t going to cut it, but trying anyway. Kasumi’s expression didn’t change one iota, and Akane’s resistance crumpled. “I got a cut on my arm during my trip. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell Daddy about it, at least not until it’s finished healing.”

“Let me see it,” Kasumi said in tones that brooked no argument. Meekly, her youngest sister slipped out of the blouse and unwound the bandage. Kasumi winced at the sight revealed. There was no sign of infection, and the wound was in fact quite close to being healed… but there would always be a scar clearly visible there. Whatever had cut Akane, it had left a ragged wound, not the clean incision of a blade or sharp rock edge. “Oh, little sister. What happened to you?”

“I saved somebody’s life, that’s all,” Akane replied, feeling slightly cross at another overreaction. “Being a martial artist means you have to take risks, Kasumi. This doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you.”

“How did you save someone’s life?” Kasumi asked, still not happy at the sight of the wound but willing to accept Akane’s argument for now. “Where were you, anyway? Mr. Saotome is still looking for you in the mountains.”

Akane winced. “Um, well, I didn’t actually go to the mountains. I went to Ryugenzawa. Remember how we had that family trip there, so long ago? I kinda wanted to go back, and see what there was for me there.”

“Oh, did you? Are there really any monsters in the forest, like the tourist brochures say?” Kasumi’s smile made it clear that this was a joke.

Akane met her eyes. “Yes, there are, Kasumi.” The older girl blinked. “There’s giant animals, and traps to keep them from getting outside the forest. There’s even an eight-headed dragon that sleeps in a lake. It’s because of that that there’s all those other things.

“And there’s also a family there, an old man and his grandson, who act as caretakers of the place. Shinnosuke, that’s the boy, he… I met him before, when I was lost there on the family trip, he saved me…”

Kasumi pushed aside thoughts of monsters and braced herself. Judging from Akane’s last few words, the blush on her cheeks, and the way she was looking down at the floor while twisting her fingers together nervously, the eldest Tendo daughter suddenly had a pretty clear idea where this was going.

Yes, little sister has it bad,’ Kasumi thought to herself half an hour later. So far the eldest Tendo daughter had heard quite a lot about Shinnosuke, whereas she’d practically had to drag details of anything else out of her sister. When Akane would rather talk about a boy than an epic battle in which her martial arts skills had led her to a stunning victory, it was clear that she had fallen and fallen hard. Aloud, Kasumi said, “He sounds like a very nice boy, Akane. It’s too bad he can’t come visit you.”

“I know… Hey!” Akane brightened as a thought struck her. “You said school wasn’t going to start for an extra few weeks, right? We could all go down there and visit him! You’d all like him, and I know he’d like to meet you!”

Doing so made her feel as if she were kicking a puppy, but Kasumi forced herself to say, “Akane, I don’t think Father is ready to find out that his ‘precious baby girl’ has picked up a serious boyfriend. He’s taken this month really hard… give him some time to get over that before you spring anything else on him. All right?”

Akane deflated as her sister’s words sunk in. “All right, Kasumi,” she said reluctantly, “but he may figure it out before too long anyway. I’m going to be talking to Shinnosuke on the phone a lot, after all.”

“Well, I wouldn’t worry about that until Father actually does notice,” Kasumi said sweetly. She was too kind to give words to the rest of thought, ‘which might even happen after a year or so.

Perhaps Akane picked it up anyway through some sort of sisterly telepathy, because her expression cleared and she nodded. “Okay.” Then she remembered something else. “Say, Kasumi, you don’t think Nabiki will mind that I left her cell phone with Shinnosuke, do you? Their house is too remote to get normal phone service.”

Kasumi winced. “Well, Akane, I don’t suppose Nabiki will be too harsh on you, but I doubt she’ll just let something like that slide. At the very least she’s going to force you to take over the payments on the phone plan.”

“I was hoping she’d just be happy for me, since I finally found a good guy for myself,” Akane confessed.

“I think you would have had to catch her within a few days of Tatewaki’s proposal, if you wanted to find our Nabiki in that romantic a mood,” Kasumi replied.

“You’re probably right,” Akane sighed. She rummaged in her pack, eventually pulling out several odd pieces of a dark green, glossy material. “Maybe she can help me get a good price for these dragon scales, and I can square things by giving a bit extra on her commission.”

Ranma leaned back against the rooftop of the Kuno mansion. It was the first time he had done this since the return from China, coming up here at night and regarding the sky. The stars shone only faintly, their presence dimmed by the backwash of light from the city. Ranma didn’t really mind, though… although the last month had been plenty stressful in its own way, the beauty and unspoiled nature of the Amazon village had refreshed him on a deep inner level. He’d been missing that.

Thoughts of his recent sojourn away from modern industrial Japan made him consider someone else in a similar situation. “Wonder what Pop’s doing right now,” Ranma said quietly to himself. “Heh… the old fool’s probably in panda form, chowing down on bamboo. How’s he think he’s gonna find Akane anyway? Is he just gonna wander through the mountains like a Hibiki, hoping to stumble onto her?

“That’d be just like him. Stupid old man.” Ranma wiped some dust or something out of his eyes. “Kinda impressive, though, that he’s tryin’ this hard to find Akane. Sure didn’t do that to get back to me, once I left the Tendos behind…”

The dust content of the wind was apparently increasing. Ranma wiped his eyes again, then turned to face the other way and concentrated on other thoughts. ‘I wonder how the cleanup’s going at Ucchan’s place. Man, I can’t believe that jerk trashed it so bad. And the worst thing was he didn’t even mean to! Ucchan oughta have asked Shampoo to use the Xi Fang Gao on that scumbag, make him forget anything he ever knew about fighting. Moron uses an attack that powerful and doesn’t even bother to keep it under control… Heck, maybe I’ll track him down and give him the works myself one of these days.

Ranma smiled slightly, his memory shifting to a scene from the late morning, after Ukyo had recovered most of her energy and they’d gone back to inspect the damage. ‘That was pretty funny, when Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung got into an argument with Dachi about who’s gonna be the one to pay all the expenses of gettin’ Ukyo’s up and running again. Never thought we’d see the day when the twins were so insistent about helping Ucchan out. Guess they really felt like their honor was on the line, cause of getting the Crepe King here.’ He chuckled. ‘Of course, it’s easy to be generous with someone else’s money. I wonder what Great-Grandmother’s gonna say when she finds out they signed away a huge chunk of her cash.

While there were some elements of unpleasantness in contemplating that thought, it nonetheless left Ranma with the warm fuzzy comfort that he wasn’t the one in such a situation. He turned back around to catch the wind in his face again. The dust seemed to have all blown past now. He closed his eyes and relaxed, letting the breeze flow around him.

Ranma wasn’t certain how long he lay like that, enjoying the sensation of peace. When he opened his eyes again, he was just in time to see a trail of light crawling across the heavens, barely visible through the glow from Nerima. “A shooting star? Cool! I wish… I wish…”

The star had vanished before he could find any way to complete the thought. Ranma just sat there, staring into the sky where it had been and blinking occasionally. At last, he admitted, “I don’t know what I want.”

“What was that, Ranma?” The call came from below. Ranma blinked, then scooted over to the edge of the roof and looked down. Either Ryoga or Ryu, he couldn’t tell in this light, was standing below. Apparently the breeze had carried enough of his words for the other to hear something.

“Hey. Nothing much, man. Just talking to myself.”

“If you’re that desperate for company, I guess I’ll have to hang around for a while.” The Hibiki boy tensed and jumped to the rooftop, landing a few feet from Ranma and allowing him to make out the dragons coiling along the other’s forearms.

“Gee, thanks, Ryu. I am sooo honored,” he retorted with a sarcastic grin. “Taking time out of your busy schedule and all. Even though Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung are probably looking out their bedroom window right now, just wishing a certain someone would come sneaking up the trellis and pay them a visit.”

“Actually,” Ryu said, “right now they’re probably too sore to even get out of bed.”

“What?! You sly dog! Man, I didn’t think you had it in you!” Ranma exclaimed, more than a little shocked. Yes, it is entirely possible for someone to see an innuendo when it doesn’t involve himself, and be completely oblivious when it does.

“What’re you talking about?” Ryu asked. “How is it my fault their great-granny ran them into the ground in a training session?”

“Oh, heh heh, never mind. I was thinking of something else. Was this some kinda punishment for throwing her money around without asking?”

“Kind of. Well, yes and no. There’s a big tournament coming up in a month, and first prize is enough yen to pay for all the repairs to Ukyo’s and still have some left over. Cologne has told the twins that they’re going to train their hardest to win that.”

Ranma frowned. “Way I heard the story, it was her idea to get the Crepe King here, not theirs. She oughta be willing to carry some of the burden.”

Ryu hesitated, wondering what to say. When he had made that same argument to Cologne, the ancient Amazon had sworn him to secrecy, then informed him that she was going to allow Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to keep the entirety of any prize they managed to win. The Matriarch was just using this situation to encourage them to think before acting, as well as motivating them to train harder. “Maybe you should tell that to her, when Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung aren’t around to hear you,” he replied at last.

“Or you could, when they ARE around, so they know their Airen is watching out for them,” Ranma retorted.

“I already did bring it up, and we need to change the subject, okay? So where are Kodachi and Shampoo right now?”

Ranma blinked, then let it go. He concentrated on the Heart Link. From Kodachi, he felt a frustrated annoyance mixed with determination. The same basic feeling of determination was present in Shampoo, and tinged slightly with satisfaction. “Practicing arts and crafts,” he replied. “Sham-chan had kinda let her painting practice slide for a while, but ever since I gave her her betrothal gift, she’s been enthusiastic about it again. Dachi-chan’s still working on getting the hang of sculpting.”

Ryu rolled his eyes. “‘Still’, you say. As if it might have been reasonable for her to learn it in the short little bit of time she’s been trying.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be that surprising if she had, right? I mean, it took me most of a month to get good enough at carving to make Sham-chan’s portrait, but I had to figure it out all by myself, with just the painting experience I got from Dachi-chan’s memories to help me. She actually had some of the best artisans in the Amazon village show her sculpting techniques. Wouldn’t’ve surprised me if she started turning out really good statues with just a little practice.”

“Just like how you can pick up new martial arts moves so quickly, right?”

“Yeah, more or less.”

Ryu shook his head slowly. “Ranma, I don’t see how you haven’t figured this out for yourself. Heck, getting the memories from two other people should’ve clued you in. But the way you learn so quickly is not something just anybody could do if they put their mind to it. It’s a gift, something you were born with. You really ought to recognize that one of these days. Sometimes I think you don’t see just how lucky you really are.”

“Hey, whoa! You’re talking to a guy who proposed to and was accepted by the two best girls in the world less than two weeks ago! I know darn well just how lucky I am! If anything, you’re the one who needs to get a clue about how good he’s got it now!” Which statement should make it clear that Ranma hadn’t spent much time with either Hibiki brother over the past month. He had yet to get over the impression of despair and confusion that he’d received from Ryoga prior to the trip.

“Nope. You’re wrong.” Ryu was smiling now. “I do know how good I’ve got it. I got out of the biggest dilemma in the world without hurting Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung or Ukyo. Heck, I didn’t even lose anyone! Ukyo’s still my friend, and Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung…” he laughed, a little nervously, a little embarrassedly, but there was warmth there under it all, “…well, I can’t say I’m going to be ready to walk down the aisle with them anytime soon, but I… I am glad things are like they are. I like being with them, and I especially like it that they like being with me. And the… the other stuff… that’ll come in its time.

“And as if that wasn’t enough, my family is together again. It’s even bigger than it ever was. I’ve got all the benefits of a brother without the sibling rivalry, and another little brother or sister on the way. My parents won’t get lost anymore, except maybe once in a blue moon if there’s an accident with hot water. We really will be a family from now on.

“No, Ranma,” he finished, with determination shining forth, “you don’t need to tell me how lucky I am. I know it.”

“Yeah. Guess you do at that,” Ranma said, looking off into the distance. For a long moment he was silent, then asked, “Ryu? What’d you feel like back in the Amazon village, when you first saw your mom and dad again?”

“I think I pinched myself something like fifty times. I could hardly believe I wasn’t dreaming. It felt like I was.” In fact, he hadn’t even noticed when Ling-Ling murmured, “That look like fun,” and gave him a pinch of her own in a rather personal area. “It had to be the best surprise of my life.”

“Sounds like you were really glad to see them. Like I didn’t already know that, of course.” Ranma sighed. “Wish I knew how it feels.”

Ryu frowned in puzzlement, wondering just what his friend meant. A moment’s thought, and his face shifted into somber realization. “Are you thinking about your father?”

“Got it in one.” Ranma looked off into the distance, where the edges of mountaintops would have been visible had there been daylight. “I left the Tendos, he stayed. Next few months after that, I see him every now and then, when he’s trying to pull that must-marry-a-Tendo crap even though Dachi got me out of all his promises. Except for one time, when I had to deal with that stupid Kaori chick. Really nice hearing how he traded me off when I was just a baby for rice, pickles, and a fish.

“After that, Dachi-chan takes down the old lech, and Pop shuts up about the stupid marry-a-Tendo business. Hell, he even said he’d be proud to call her his daughter! And when’s the next time I see him? Huh? Months later, when he comes back to the Kuno place, pulling Akane along, callin’ me a lazy freeloader and sayin’ he’s trained her to kick my butt!”

Ranma let out a shuddering sigh. “And now he’s gone into the mountains searching for her. Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually kinda proud that he hasn’t given up yet and come slinking home. But I’d feel a lot better about it if he’d ever showed that kinda concern for me.”

Silence fell for a while. Eventually, hesitantly, Ryu said, “Then you need to tell him that.”

“It ain’t easy, you know? Especially when he’s not here,” Ranma pointed out.

Ryu shot the argument down. “Don’t give me that. Shampoo can find him any time you ask her to. Remember? And unlike with MY parents, er, how they used to be, you don’t have to worry about him being in Sapporo one evening and Saskatchewan the next morning!”

Ranma sighed. “Look, he’s the one who needs to make the next move. Before we left for China, I told him that I wanted to talk to him again about stuff.”

“If I remember correctly, what you said was, ‘Look me up again when you’ve learned how to do something other than dump garbage on me.’ And then you knocked him unconscious.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right. What’s your point?”

“Never mind.” Ryu wondered whether Tatewaki would be doing better if it were him having this conversation with Ranma. The kendoist was the one whose family had always been stable and functional. “I just think things might go better if you didn’t decide it had to be him to come to you.” A thought struck him then. “Besides, you were wrong about something you said just a little while back.”

“What’s that?” Ranma asked guardedly.

“When you said you didn’t see Genma between him giving up on you marrying a Tendo and just before we left for China. There was one time we saw him. Remember?” Not bothering to give Ranma time to search his memory, Ryu continued, “We ran into him when you, Kodachi, Shampoo, Ukyo, and I were going out to have some fun. And they had fun, all right… the girls beat him senseless and stuffed him in a trash can, and all we did was stand back and watch.”

“He had it coming for the way he treated Ucchan,” Ranma protested, but it was a weak effort. Ryu didn’t bother to respond. After a few seconds of tense silence, the Saotome heir sighed loudly. “Maybe you got a point, Ryu. Okay, guess I will ask Sham-chan to use the Eye of Bastet again tomorrow.”

“I really think it’s for the best,” Ryu said, a little awkwardly.

“Guess we’ll see,” Ranma said quietly, looking off into the distance once more. After a while, during which Ryu began to fidget uncomfortably, he spoke up again. “Thanks for the company. By the way, why’d you come over this late, anyhow?”

Ryu laughed sheepishly in the trademark Hibiki fashion. “Ah… well… here.” He pulled a folded piece of paper from his back pocket and handed it to Ranma.

After opening it and skimming the contents, Ranma looked back at his companion. “This is a joke, right?”

“Nope. It’s the real thing.”

“A challenge letter.” Ranma glanced down at the paper again, as if to make sure it hadn’t morphed into a page of math homework or something. “Exactly why are you doing this, Ryu?”

The other shrugged. “Isn’t challenging someone who’s farther along than you the best way to get better?”

“Then why a formal challenge like this? I’ll spar with you anytime you want!”

“I know that.” Ryu met Ranma’s puzzled stare with a serious look. “And if you did, you’d hold back like crazy. I know you won’t go all out even in a formal challenge, but you will fight harder than you would if it was just a sparring session. That’s the fight I want, even if I can’t win.”

“Well, if you’re sure…”

“I am.”

“Then I accept.”

The breeze gusted a little higher, ruffling their hair. Crickets chirped in the background.

“You do realize that the date you’ve set this thing for is going to keep me from going after Pop, right? At least for the next three days.”

Ryu smacked himself on the forehead in disgust.

The breakfast table seemed rather desolate the next morning. The lack of a Hibiki still felt strange, Hitome and Godai had yet to return, and Kodachi was absent as well. “Where’s Dachi-chan?” Ranma wondered aloud after the three who were present had waited for several minutes.

That was Sasuke’s cue to pop up from under the floorboards, causing Ranma to jump, Shampoo to fall out of her chair, and Tatewaki to roll his eyes. “The young mistress remains in her studio, practicing the basics of sculpture, master Ranma. She left instructions that she did not wish to be disturbed until she comes out on her own.”

“Aw man, not this again,” Ranma sighed.

“What you mean, Airen?” Shampoo asked. “And what little ninja mean by ‘remains’ in studio? She was still there when I leave last night… did she spend whole night there?”

“Most likely,” Kuno replied, as he served himself from the various dishes on the table. On hearing Sasuke’s message, he’d known there was no point in waiting for his sister. “Remember that she can go without sleep more or less indefinitely.”

“She did this before, Sham-chan, back when she was about thirteen. She’d gotten serious about learning how to do watercolor painting, and she spent something like seventy-two hours straight practicing it. She didn’t stop until she felt like she’d made enough progress. So we might not see her for a while.”

“Actually, if ’Biki-chan were here I’d place a bet that my sister will emerge before the afternoon is well advanced. When she was thirteen she didn’t have a fiancé whose company she would miss,” Kuno said dryly.

“Good point,” Shampoo said, snickering as Ranma blushed a little. Conversation flagged as everyone turned their attention to their food.

A little while later, when they had more or less eaten their fill, Ranma spoke up again. “Hey, Sham-chan, you wanna go visit your granny this morning while Dachi’s working the sculpting bug out of her system?”

“Sure, Airen. What is reason you ask?”

He looked down at his plate. “Last night… Ryu came over while you and Dachi were both working in the studio. We talked for a while, and he wound up convincing me I need to go ahead, track my old man down, and talk to him. Waiting for him to come to me is just making this harder. So I was thinking we could go, borrow the Eye of Bastet, and at least check things out, find out where he is now and make sure the old fool hasn’t gotten himself into any trouble.”

“If Ranma sure about that, then is fine with me,” Shampoo responded after a slight hesitation. “Can go find him this morning, come back, and start making up backpacks for trip into mountains to fetch him.”

He shook his head. “Not unless it turns out Pop’s in trouble or something. I’ve got a challenge match with Ryu in a couple of days. That was why he came by in the first place last night.”

Shampoo blinked. “For real? He make real challenge to you? Is glutton for punishment or something?”

“Nah, he just said he wanted a fight where I wouldn’t hold back as much as I would in a sparring session. Said it didn’t matter if he couldn’t win, that was the kinda fight he wanted, to help him get better by going against someone better than he was.”

“Still seem strange to me,” Shampoo said. “If just about getting better, Shampoo would think he would rather train than make formal challenge.” Then she shrugged. “Is probably because Ryu have too much pent-up energy, after spending month in home village and having to keep his true skill secret. Bet he is really anxious for good fight.”

“Y’know, I bet that’s it.” Ranma chuckled wryly. “If I could’ve, I’d have been glad to share some of my challenge matches with him and his brother during that trip.”

“Most of matches you have then, you fight to win as fast as possible. Probably should not do that with Ryu, it not give him time to get the kind of fight he want,” Shampoo said thoughtfully. “You want to spar with me after we get back from Nekohanten? Will help Ranma to get in right mindset for challenge match with friend.”

“Sure, Sham-chan. Thanks for thinking of that.” Ranma pushed back his chair and stood up. “You ready to go now?”

“Man, Cologne sure wasn’t kidding back before we left for China, when she said that stuff about this place being just a hobby for her and she closes whenever she feels like it,” Ranma muttered a bit later. They had arrived at the Nekohanten to find the restaurant closed for the day and, on entering, had confirmed that nobody was there. “I’d’ve thought for sure she’d be here this early in the morning.”

“Oh well,” Shampoo said. She took a hesitant step toward the staircase that led to the room where Cologne’s chest of valuables waited.

“What’s the matter?” Ranma asked as she stopped.

“Is just… Shampoo beginning to feel a little guilty about all the times we go behind Great-Grandmother’s back. Is not like last time or this time is any big crisis.”

Ranma frowned thoughtfully. “You know… you’re right. It’s not very respectful, is it? Why don’t we just come back later? We’re not gonna be leaving until after my match with Ryu, after all. We got plenty of time between now and then to track Pop down.”

“You sure? Earlier you say you want to do this now so to make sure father is not in trouble or anything.”

“Eh, he can take care of himself.” In the bright morning sunlight with Shampoo by his side, it was a lot easier not to worry. “Remember, it ain’t like he could starve or freeze or nothin’. One splash of water and he’s got all the bamboo he can eat lying around, and a big fuzzy coat to keep him warm.”

Shampoo giggled. “Is good point. How about this? I leave Great-Grandmother a note, so she know to call us as soon as she get back here, and we go back home.”

“Sounds good to me.” Ranma wandered over to a window and peered out, looking up at the sky and speculating idly about the chances of it remaining clear and sunny. There weren’t any clouds to be seen right now, but that didn’t always count for much in Nerima.

Shampoo dug out a pad of paper and a pencil, wrote a quick message to Cologne, and went over to leave it on the main counter where the Matriarch would be certain to see it once she returned. “Hmmm?” she said in surprise.

“What’s that?” Ranma asked. He turned around to see his Amazon fiancée was now holding a second note, with a rather large sweatdrop visible on her forehead.

“Is from Great-Grandmother,” Shampoo said nervously, walking over and passing the note to Ranma.

The note read as follows: ‘I have taken Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to Chuushinteki Park for training. I can be found there if anyone needs to speak to me, such as perhaps my great-granddaughter might have come by to borrow something from my chest of treasures and was considering just opening the chest herself since I’m not here, which would be a most unwise decision on her part. Do you take my meaning, Shampoo?

After Ranma finished scanning the note, there was silence for a few minutes. At last he said, “Wanna head to the park, Sham-chan? Or would you rather go back to the Kuno place, spar for a while, call back later and come over when we know your granny’s here, and pretend we never saw this note?”

“Which would Shampoo rather do? Second choice. Which is smarter one to take, considering just what Great-Grandmother write here? Probably first one.”

“Well, if you’re gonna be reasonable about it…” Ranma grumbled. They left the restaurant and headed for the park.

Ling-Ling maintained control as best she could, taking deep measured breaths and holding herself in a ready stance. What she really wanted to do was collapse on the ground and gasp for air. Her sister was in much the same state as they continued to prowl slowly through the park, senses straining for a hint of the Matriarch’s presence. Ling-Ling knew that if Great-Grandmother was going to test their defenses on this pass, then that hint wouldn’t come until the proverbial last second, when she and her sister would have only just enough time to brace themselves. Or rather, they would have what Cologne considered should be only just enough time.

Lung-Lung forced herself to concentrate through the buzz of weariness in her head. ‘<It’ll all be worth it in a few weeks,>’ she thought, allowing herself a slight distraction in an attempt to raise morale. ‘<Great-Grandmother’s pushing you this hard to make you get better as fast as possible. Sure, it feels like hell now, but think how much better you’ll be when it’s all over.>’

Cologne watched from a position of concealment inside a treetop, her aura aligned with the tree’s life-force to hide her presence. She waited, giving the twins a bit longer to recover, and considering her next move. The dual-sided training method she was using this morning was one of the best general ones she knew. It helped improve the trainee’s offense, defense, reaction time, and commitment to a course of action.

Either Cologne would move in with lightning speed, forcing the young Amazons completely on the defensive, or she would make her presence obvious and give Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung the chance to attack. In the latter case, if she judged their efforts adequate she would simply hold a defensive posture for a few minutes, then disappear and let them recover for the next round. If their attack wasn’t up to par, Cologne would go on the offensive and not worry about whether she was moving at a speed they could actually counter.

‘<Defenses again this pass,>’ Cologne decided. Just as she was preparing to spring forward, launch another furious volley of staff strikes at the absolute maximum speed they could handle, and disappear back into the trees when they were on the verge of collapse, the Matriarch noticed something. She relaxed and smiled. ‘<Well, well… this could prove amusing.>’

The burning in Ling-Ling’s lungs had nearly faded now, and her pulse was approaching normal levels. ‘<That must mean it’s just about time for Great-Grandmother to strike again.>’ The cherry-haired girl focused even more sharply. If the Matriarch gave them the offensive, they had to attack very quickly indeed for her to be satisfied with their response.

A loud, obvious rustling came from the nearby bushes. It was all the warning they needed. “KIIIIYAAAA!” Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung shouted, rocketing forward and striking with all the speed and skill they could muster.

“We really sorry, big sister Shampoo, Ranma,” Ling-Ling said mournfully.

“So much for coming to park being smarter choice,” Shampoo muttered, holding a wet cloth to the large bump on her head. She tried not to feel jealous as she noted the swelling had already subsided for her Airen, and reminded herself that she’d eventually get the same power-up.

“They did know I was training you two,” the Matriarch said heartlessly. “They should have been better prepared.”

Ranma bit back an annoyed comment. “Well, anyway, we got your note. How’d you know we were gonna need to borrow the Eye of Bastet again?”

Perhaps she secretly did feel a little bit of sympathy for him, or perhaps she just didn’t want to bother with the ‘mysterious Elder’ impression. Cologne answered, “I didn’t know, son-in-law. I left that note just in case someone needed to know where I was.”

“So why’d you put all that stuff in there about not opening the chest, then?” Ranma asked. Shampoo glared at him, as she would have preferred not to get into that if it could be avoided.

“As a warning,” Cologne said flatly, turning her gaze from Ranma to Shampoo, and then back to him. “I’m not certain how you managed to avoid the trap on the chest last time, but you will not do so again. And I assure you, I have upgraded it to something that you’ll wish to avoid at all costs.”

“Which is?” Ranma prompted.

A hard, grim smile from the Matriarch. “Why, son-in-law, I’m not going to say. Just remember… curiosity killed the cat.” Ranma flinched at that, but not nearly as badly as he would have had she given the details. Should an unauthorized person tamper with the chest now, the trap would send a spray of Instant Maonichuan water through the room.

“Oh, great,” he muttered. “Well, could we pretty please borrow the Eye of Bastet, so I can find my old man?”

So that was what they wanted. Cologne’s expression softened ever so slightly, and she decided to ignore the uppity tone of his request. “Very well, Ranma.” She reached inside her robe and pulled out a rune-scribed triangle of glazed pottery. “Press this against the chest while you lift the lid, and the trap will not activate.”

Tatewaki’s prediction turned out to be right on the mark. After using the Eye of Bastet, locking the chest again, and returning the runic key to Cologne, Ranma and Shampoo returned home to find Kodachi waiting for them in the doorway of the main greeting room.

“Shampoo thought so,” the Amazon said, with just a hint of teasing mischief in her voice.

“Thought what?” Kodachi asked, confused by the apparent non sequitur.

“When Ranma tell me about how you work on painting for three days straight, back when you was thirteen, Tatewaki say he didn’t think you would be able to stay so long this time. He think you would miss Airen, give up, and come out long before then. And I thought so too.”

The White Rose gave a small, mysterious smile and stepped backwards out of the doorway, motioning wordlessly for them to follow her.

The room looked much as it had two hours prior, when Ranma and Shampoo had passed through it. Aside from Kodachi’s presence, there was really only one difference… the north wall was now dominated by a large panel of marble, carved to resemble a waterfall cascading down a rocky slope. The attention to detail was incredible, even to the point of distinguishing foam on the water. Kodachi walked over to it and made an elaborate, sweeping bow, waiting for their responses.

“Water. Why does it always have to be water?” This was Ranma.

“I thought you was working with clay, not stone.” This was Shampoo.

Kodachi blinked, straightened up, and sent a hurt gaze their way. Then she got a good look at their faces and relaxed, giggling a little at the poleaxed, dumbfounded expressions of shock. “So do you like it?”

“You… you really make this, Kodachi? How?!”

“Once I made a certain breakthrough, it, ahem, flowed fairly quickly.”

Ranma was still a little too surprised to notice the pun. Who says shock is always a bad thing? “What breakthrough? Shampoo’s right, you’ve been working with clay up until last night. How’d that experience help any with carving…” He gestured helplessly toward the masterpiece. “…this?!”

Kodachi shrugged. “It didn’t, actually, at least not in any meaningful way. That isn’t the kind of breakthrough I was talking about. What actually happened was, I had the thought to try and blend in something with which I was already familiar. It helped tremendously. Observe.” She winked at him, pulled out her ribbon, charged it with chi, and sent it lashing toward the base of the statue. Ranma and Shampoo blinked as the darting edge of cloth effortlessly carved the signature ‘Kodachi Saotome’ into the base of a boulder.

“Whoa. That is just plain awesome, Dachi-chan,” Ranma said. “I am really impressed.”

“Thank you, Ranma-sama,” she replied softly.

Shampoo began unobtrusively edging backward toward the door, ready to give them privacy if it looked like they wanted it.

Then Kodachi sighed, and said in a more pragmatic tone, “Of course, the technique is only effective on a rigid medium. My efforts to work with clay remain abysmal failures. But I’m going to let that slide for now.”

“Sounds good to me,” Ranma responded. “Can’t say I was really happy about the thought of not seeing you for a few days.”

“Ha. I have been missing you after just one night’s absence,” Kodachi said playfully.

“So you not normally spend nights apart from Ranma?” Shampoo asked oh-so-innocently.

“Ack! That’s not what I meant!” Kodachi protested, blushing furiously. “I meant… twelve hours apart from Ranma… just that they happened to be nighttime hours when we’re not normally awake… Eep! I mean…” She sought a quick change of subject. “So what did you two do this morning?”

“Stopped by the Nekohanten,” Ranma said, fighting his own blush, and doing his best to ignore Shampoo’s snickering. “The Matriarch wasn’t there, so we went an’ tracked her down to get permission to borrow the Eye of Bastet.”

“Whatever for? To seek out your father?”

“Yeah.” By now Shampoo had forgotten her amusement, and Kodachi her embarrassment. Ranma continued, “Like I told Shampoo this morning, Ryu came by last night, and we talked for a while. He convinced me that I needed to go ahead and be the one to take the next step. We don’t… we don’t even know Pop ever would.”

“I think he would seek you out, Ranma dear,” Kodachi said reassuringly, “if nothing else to thank you for the Nannichuan. Still, who knows how much longer it would take, since he has no way of knowing his search for Akane is a lost cause.”

A thought occurred to her then. She hesitated for a moment, then bravely asked, “Shampoo? Ah… this time, when you used the Eye of Bastet… well, you know there’s been a certain unpleasant trend… did you have any, er, trouble finding Genma?”

Shampoo made a truly disgusted face. “When I find him, he was taking bath in mountain stream. No clothes at all. Shampoo think she scarred for life.”

“Very funny,” the White Rose returned, a reproving smile on her face. “I don’t think the sight of a bathing panda would scar anyone.”

“Grrr. You not supposed to see through joke,” Shampoo complained. “That really was what happen, anyway, so if not for Jusenkyo, trend would still be going.”

“How deep was he in the mountains? Will it take very long for us to reach him?” There was an unmistakable lack of enthusiasm in Kodachi’s last question.

“Not too far. We could get to where he is now with just couple days of travel.”

“Well and good.” Kodachi sighed. “Might as well get it over with, I suppose. Shall we go pack?”

Ranma shook his head. “Can’t. I’ve got a challenge match with Ryu the day after tomorrow. Since Pop’s not in trouble or nothin’, I’m not about to skip out on a fight to go look for him. He can wait until after that’s settled.”

Kodachi appeared relieved. “That’s good to hear. I’m glad we’ll have a few more days to relax. I’m in no mood for another trip just now.”

“What’s that about a trip?” Ukyo asked, walking into the room.

“Hey, Ucchan. I didn’t know you were over here,” Ranma said. “We’re gonna go into the mountains and bring back my old man.”

“You sure you want to do that, Ranchan? I know I wouldn’t want to get out and go trekking through the wilderness again real soon. It’s time to enjoy the comforts of home for a while.”

Ranma shrugged. “That’s what Dachi was saying when you came in. And I pretty much feel the same way. But we need to get Pop back here.”

Ukyo gave him a look that indicated she thought he was an idiot but was too nice to say it out loud. “Well… Hey, I know! There’s something in one of the scrolls Rouge copied for me about contacting somebody in their dreams. How about I do that and tell Genma to haul his own sorry butt back here? That way he gets back sooner and you guys don’t have to go to any trouble.”

“Sound good to me,” Shampoo said gratefully. “But is you sure you can do this, if you never try before?”

Ukyo shrugged. “If I can’t get it to work you won’t have lost anything. You weren’t going to go after him until after your match with Ryu anyway, right?”

“Yep. Thanks a lot, Ucchan. I really appreciate this.”

“Hey, I’m glad for the chance myself. Gives me incentive to learn a new skill, and helps me take my mind off the mess back at my restaurant.”

“How is the cleanup coming, anyway?” Kodachi asked.

“Actually, that part’s finished. Ryoga honey and Ryu helped me get that done today, and we bought some new tables and chairs. All that’s left now is the actual repairs — fix the door, replace the windows, and put down new tilework around the entrance.”

“I still wish I could have helped you with the cost of all this,” Kodachi said, a slightly dissatisfied look on her face. “After all, what are ridiculously wealthy friends for?”

Ranma spent most of the next couple of days preparing for his match with Ryu. When the other had first made his challenge, the Saotome heir hadn’t expected to put this much effort into it. Shampoo’s point had been well taken, though; Ranma didn’t want this to be a farce where he blew his opponent away with speed the other couldn’t touch. Not only would that be an insult to his friend, and of no real help in honing Ryu’s skills, the victory wouldn’t mean anything either.

He and Shampoo had spoken more of this that morning, explaining the situation to Kodachi and asking for her thoughts. She hadn’t hesitated a moment before pulling the solution out of her hat. What was needed, Kodachi decided, was for Ranma to completely refrain from using chi to boost his speed. That was the single greatest advantage he had over all the other young martial artists in Nerima; if he should forego it, the battle ought to be challenging for both Ryu and Ranma alike.

An easy thing to say, not so easy to do. It had been a very long time since Ranma had first studied his fiancée’s advanced chi-manipulation scrolls. In all the time since then, he had practiced the speed-increasing path wholeheartedly. By now it took conscious effort not to invoke that mindset in a fight. Or, looking at it another way, not doing so was a challenge, and Ranma never turned away from those.

However, it didn’t take long to discover an unpleasant truth: he had come to rely on his enhanced speed more than he should have. The first sparring match under the new system, in which he tried to go against both Shampoo and Kodachi at once, made that crystal clear.

A true martial artist should not depend on ANY one thing to bring him to victory, whether that be a weapon or a single facet of the Art. Ranma reflected moodily on this most basic truth of Anything Goes as he lay on the floor of the training hall, bound to immobility in Kodachi’s ribbon.

Shampoo idly played with the Dragon’s Whisker that bound his pigtail. “Could Ranma repeat what he say five minutes ago, about still fighting us both at same time? Oh, you can not, mouth is tied up too.” She slipped from her seated position on Ranma’s back, moving to kneel beside him, and began untangling the ribbon.

“Yeah, yeah, no need to rub it in, Sham-chan,” Ranma grumbled once he could speak again. “Point taken. I haven’t kept my basic skills as balanced as they need to be.”

“It seems Ryu has actually done you a favor with this challenge,” Kodachi remarked. She could clearly sense annoyance on Ranma’s part, directed toward himself, and a determination to remedy the hole he’d allowed to develop in his form.

“Guess you’re right. I’ll thank him after the match. But for now,” Ranma stood up, flexed, and assumed a ready stance, “we’ve got work to do.”

The remainder of his practice bouts, alternating between Shampoo and Kodachi as the opponent, were both grueling and challenging. In point of fact, Ranma even lost a few. But there were no more humiliating defeats after that first one, and by the end of the second day, he felt he was ready to give Ryu the kind of fight his friend would want.

The next morning, they met in a park midway between the Kuno mansion and the Hibikis’ new apartment. Unlike Ukyo’s challenge match, there would not be many spectators for this fight. Ryoga and Ukyo were meeting with a contractor to discuss the repair job at her restaurant. Ichiro and Kozue were at the courthouse dealing with legal matters relating to their long absence. Nabiki was still asleep; Tatewaki was arranging for a romantic flower delivery to be there to surprise her when she got up. Cologne was occupied with her own affairs. This time, the only witnesses would be the girls closest to the two combatants.

The match was set quite early in the day. Shampoo had been a little irritated when she first heard that, but now she found herself glad of it. It was the most beautiful morning she had seen yet in Japan. A soft breeze murmured through the foliage around them. The clean scent of growing things, mixed with the subtle fragrance of flowers, filled the air. Birdsong trilled in the background.   Sunlight sparkled in the water dripping from Ryu’s head.

Ranma stared, looking almost as if his eyes would pop out of his skull. “No way. I walked over here without getting splashed, but you, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung are soaked through?!”

“Well, thanks for leaving me holding the bucket!” Ryu complained jokingly.

“Yeah, thanks a lot,” Ling-Ling chimed in with a smile. “See Airen in wet clothing is not so good as no clothes at all, but is still fun.”

Ryu made a strangled sound somewhere between “Ack!”, “Ulp!”, and “Argh!”. “Ling-Ling, you’re gonna destroy my concentration!”

“Okay, sorry. If you lose fight will be my fault. I be sure to make it up to you if that happen,” Ling-Ling promised, a mischievous gleam in her eyes.

By now Ranma was laughing audibly at Ryu’s discomfiture, as was Shampoo (Kodachi had, with difficulty, limited her response to a smirk). Annoyance at this allowed the former lost boy to shrug off his embarrassment. “Anytime you want to get this match going would be just fine by me, Ranma.”

“Wait,” the White Rose interjected, “surely you don’t want to fight in those dripping wet clothes.” Lung-Lung grinned even more broadly and opened her mouth; before the lime-haired girl could say, “WE not want him to fight in them,” Kodachi continued, “Brace yourself and I’ll generate a strong enough wind to dry you of the worst of it.”

Ryu did so. Kodachi turned her gaze to the Amazon twins. “No offense, but I think the two of you are too lightweight to stand up to this.”

“We not want to sit in soaked-wet clothes either,” Lung-Lung protested. “Airen, you let us hold onto arms to brace ourselves?”

“Ah… heh heh… sure…” Ryu nervously extended his arms to either side of him. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung took hold, but to his relieved disappointment they didn’t use the opportunity to tease him further.

After a few minutes of a low-powered Horizontal Shear, Ryu’s clothes were left only a little damp. His hair was also sticking out in wild spikes, but he ignored that. “Thanks, Kodachi,” he said. “So are you ready, Ranma?”

“You got it.”

“Okay. End point of the battle… obviously, if someone’s unconscious or yields, they lose. And just to make things interesting…” He made a circular motion with one hand. “If anybody goes outside the ring of trees around this clearing, that’ll also end the fight in the other guy’s favor.”

Ranma glanced around the clearing. It was about the size of the smallest practice hall in the Kuno mansion. The new restriction would be something to keep in mind, but with the training he’d been doing recently he didn’t think it would really be a problem. “Good thing I wasn’t planning on using the Saotome Secret Attack,” he commented, amusing Shampoo and Kodachi and confusing everyone else. “Okay, you’re on.”

Kodachi, Shampoo, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung retreated to various gaps in the treeline, and the battle was joined.

Ryu made the first move, closing quickly and coming in high with a power strike to Ranma’s torso. Ranma absorbed the punch on his forearm, wincing at the pain from the heavy impact. Ryu winced at the sight of a bruise that vanished almost as quickly as it formed. ‘Nothing like being outclassed,’ he thought grumpily, and launched another flurry of punches.

Had he but known, Ranma was thinking something similar. Whether it was because the former lost boy had significantly increased in skill while Ranma wasn’t paying attention, or just due to his determination to put forth a good showing in this fight, Ryu was moving at a speed greater than Ranma could match without tapping his chi. As his opponent pressed the attack, Ranma began to give ground, retreating slowly in an outward-expanding spiral. This would give him plenty of time before he got too close to the boundary line, time enough for Ryu to slow down or get careless. He concentrated on defense, not trying any of his own attacks just yet.

After a few minutes of this, Ryu caught on to what was happening. He knew good and darn well that he’d never be able to outlast his opponent, given recent developments. And so he hesitated just for a second, gave a tremendous kiai, and then exploded forward in a fierce series of punches and kicks. Ranma was forced to abandon the angular retreat. He fell back in a straight line, dodging what blows he could without resorting to chi-enhanced speed, and blocking the rest.

As he neared the edge of the trees, he changed tactics. Ryu had just launched a hard punch toward his shoulder. Ranma shifted his weight, put out one hand as if to block, then let the force of the attack push him aside. Before Ryu could recover from his attack, the pigtailed martial artist launched one of his own. His spin kick just grazed his opponent’s side, though, as the other boy continued to press forward away from him, rather than whirling as Ranma had anticipated.

The Saotome heir blinked as Ryu increased in speed, despite the fact that he was only ten feet from the treeline and closing fast. Given the loss condition Ryu himself had set out only a few minutes back, Ranma was at a loss as to just how to respond here. He quickly decided against running after his opponent, instead drawing back a few steps and assuming a loose defensive stance.

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung grinned, thinking back to the day before, when they had come to this clearing with Ryu and formulated various strategies. Lung-Lung in particular was looking forward to seeing her husband put this tactic to use. She hoped it would be as effective in reality as it had been in her mind’s eye.

By this time it seemed obvious Ryu couldn’t stop in time to avoid stumbling out of the clearing, unless he ran headlong into a tree. This looked to Ranma like it just might happen, too… the largest, sturdiest tree in the area stood directly in the path of Ryu’s headlong flight. His first clue that this wasn’t an accident came when Ryu changed his run to a jump, bouncing off the trunk, altering his direction nearly by one hundred eighty degrees, and landing on a branch. Without pausing, Ryu leaped again, going higher and causing Ranma to lose him in the foliage. And then, with a loud crackling sound, Ryu soared free, but Ranma still couldn’t see him — he was backlit perfectly by the early morning sun. Just as Lung-Lung had planned.

Before Ranma could do the smart thing (namely, race to one side of the clearing, bounce off another tree, and take to the air as well), Ryu struck. Somewhere between leaving the ground and leaving the tree, he had apparently acquired a fistful of streaming cloth. As he reached the apex of his leap, he began to spin the bandanas, charged them with chi, and let them fly.

On the one hand, Ranma certainly wasn’t expecting an assault like this. After all, it had been so very long since Ryu… Ryoga… whoever… had used that technique in battle. The unexpected nature of the attack, coupled with the difficulty in seeing it coming through the bright light, left him standing flat-footed as the projectiles stormed down around him.

On the other hand, it had been a long time since Ryu had used that kind of attack. And even back when he had, he’d mostly thrown one bandana at a time. The former lost boy had practiced this maneuver yesterday, with a limited measure of success. He had managed to change the attack so that the bandanas struck with bludgeoning rather than cutting force, but he had been unable to precisely control the spread of the attack. Sometimes the bandanas would all stay on target. More often, they would spread out in a broader pattern. This would make dodging harder, but would basically ensure that no more than two or three of the missiles would actually connect.

And this was what happened now. The bandanas spread apart as they flew. Only two of them hit Ranma, blasting into his right shoulder and left thigh before he realized what was happening. The others smacked into the ground around him. Ranma stumbled back, trying to get some space between himself and Ryu, and barely managed to avoid tripping on a patch of torn-up earth.

Ryu landed from his jump and charged forward. He’d seen Ranma limp backwards, and didn’t have any intention of giving his opponent the time he needed to recover. Ranma blocked the first couple of strikes as best he could, but he was hampered quite a bit by the torn ligament in his shoulder. Sensing the advantage, Ryu braced himself, discarded any thought of defense, and threw everything he had into the assault, landing first one blow into Ranma’s side, then connecting with a kick to his hurt leg.

Kodachi bit her lip and fought the urge to nail Ryu with a gymnastics club to the head. Beside her, Shampoo thought darkly about the ‘friendly sparring match’ that she had expected to see. Just because their fiancé could soak up all this damage with no real repercussions, that didn’t make it much easier to watch.

Ranma gritted his teeth. At this point not even boosting his speed would make much of a difference — that last blow to the leg had really cut his mobility. ‘I can’t believe this!’ he thought, with a mixture of desperation, disgust, and disbelief. ‘All this from him just catching me off guard once… Got it!

A smile curved across Ryu’s face as his last series of attacks opened a massive hole in Ranma’s defense. He launched his most powerful haymaker yet, directly into Ranma’s stomach. No way could he stop this one, Ryu thought triumphantly.

Nor did Ranma try. And Ryu was completely unprepared for the head-butt that slammed him even as his punch connected.

The former lost boy’s head snapped back, his vision swimming in blurs of black and red. He fell to his knees. Ranma was knocked completely off his feet, rolling backwards a few paces before coming to rest nearly in the center of the clearing. Despite the fire in his gut, he pulled himself immediately back to one knee, making it obvious he hadn’t ever lost consciousness.

“Airen! Snap out of it! Ranma still in fight!” Ling-Ling called desperately from the sidelines, as their husband continued to hold his head and groan.

“You can do it! Please, Ryu!” Lung-Lung echoed her.

Their cries helped Ryu focus. As his head cleared, and the pain faded to ignorable levels, he got shakily back to his feet.

“Pretty impressive,” Ranma said, standing now. He waited, letting the last of the pain fade away as his most recent gift from Kodachi did its thing.

“Same to you,” Ryu returned steadily. He was pretty certain that Ranma was fully healed by now, which was more than he could say for himself, but there was no way he was giving up yet. Still, he had no desire to repeat that last exchange. Instead of rushing to the attack again, he assumed a defensive stance. Let Ranma come to him.

Although he faced Ryu with as cocky a grin as ever, Ranma knew that he had come within a hairsbreadth of losing the fight. He had left himself open to get an opportunity for a power attack of his own, but had very nearly blacked out under the combination of Ryu’s blow and the inevitable pain of his own counterstrike.

Closing with Ryu and trading blows again didn’t seem like the best of ideas. He was still determined not to use his true speed in the fight. Ranma assumed his own defensive stance and began to consider strategy while he had the chance.

Ten minutes later, Shampoo finally yelled, “Will one of you please make attack already?!”

“Hey, we are fighting,” Ranma called back. “You just haven’t seen this kinda style yet, Sham-chan. It’s Endurance-Fu, the school with the longest challenge matches of them all. An ancient and terrible martial art that seeks perfection through havin’ a high boredom threshold.”

“Not to mention good bladder control,” Ryu added, rising to the challenge of the comic interlude.

Kodachi rolled her eyes. “I wonder why I’ve never seen such a match televised or advertised.”

Lung-Lung tried to think of a witty comment of her own, but was coming up empty. A low rumble in the background turned her focus to other matters. “Did you just hear thunder, Airen?” she called encouragingly. “Keep on with stand-off, and soon rain will give you advantage.”

Ranma growled, risking a glance upwards. The sun still shone directly overhead, but the surrounding trees kept him from seeing very far away. “Okay, okay, intermission’s over, boys and girls.” Without warning, he leaped backward, landing twenty feet away in the midst of Ryu’s discarded bandanas. He bent down and picked them up.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Ryu muttered. He took a quick glance around the clearing to orient himself, then raced over to another tree. A quick jump into the lower branches brought him to another cache of items he and the twins had secured the day before. Ryu landed back on the ground, armed this time with a pair of short staves, each of which was about the length of his long-abandoned battle umbrella.

“Y’know, some people might think it was a cheap trick, if the guy who picked out where the fight would take place hid a buncha stuff there before the battle to help himself,” Ranma remarked.

“But I bet none of those people practice a martial art called Anything Goes,” Ryu returned. Ranma snorted, but couldn’t find any good comeback to that. He began stalking forward slowly, one bandana in his right hand, the others all gathered in his left.

This was Ryu’s cue to charge the staves with chi and start whipping them up and down, back and forth, in a defensive pattern. Ranma began spinning the bandana in his right hand. And then… he focused his chi… poured it into the cloth in a very special configuration… he grinned, suddenly not even caring that he was in the middle of a fight, feeling the rush of satisfaction and joy that comes when you develop something new, something all your own…


The bandana flew from his fingers, glowing with the energy he’d infused. It struck the ground a few feet from Ryu… and the chi dispersed, and the breaking points were triggered, and the explosion blew Ryu completely off his feet.

“Dang… little too powerful,” Ranma muttered. As Ryu scrambled back toward a standing position, he charged and threw another bandana, and then another, and another, putting about two thirds the energy into these missiles as he’d used on his first attempt. The explosions knocked Ryu around further, momentarily raising a huge cloud of dust that hid him from sight.

Ranma paused in his attack, letting this settle. It did so, revealing the Hibiki boy dazed and covered with dirt, coughing and choking and on his knees once more. His shirt was torn in one place, a smear of red caking dust to the cloth.

Ranma blinked, coming off the rush of creating a new technique. “I…” He let the remaining bandanas fall to the ground. “Aw, crap. I’m sorry, Ryu. I didn’t mean to go that far.”

After another few seconds of hacking, Ryu forced out, “Don’t… *cough* don’t apologize.” He struggled back to his feet, glanced down at the staves he’d dropped in the first explosion. Then he deliberately turned and walked a few steps away from them, taking deep breaths all the while. Once he was confident he could speak clearly, Ryu said, “I told you this was the kind of fight I wanted, Ranma. Where I’d go against someone who was better than me, where I’d throw everything I had at you and push myself to my limits.” He stared into Ranma’s eyes, determination burning in his gaze. “Don’t you dare apologize for this. Win or lose… it doesn’t matter, in the end. What matters is that I will be stronger from this.”

“You and me both, Ryu,” Ranma said. “I’ll tell you what I mean later, but for now, I’m just gonna say… thanks.”

Ryu nodded. His face was set like flint. “Then let’s finish this. And remember… no hard feelings.”

Ranma nodded. “Right, man. No hard feelings.”

“Right.” They stood there, framed one instant longer in perfect stillness, and then…

…Ryu shot his hands forward in the classic Street Fighter stance. “HA DO KEN!!”

Had he shouted anything other than that, well, nearly anything, or just kept silent, things might have turned out differently. But as it was, Ranma was caught totally off-guard by the sight of his friend apparently forgetting the difference between reality and a video game. The Anything-Goes heir simply was not prepared for the blast of chi that shot forward from Ryu’s outstretched palms, smashed into him, and sent him flying.

A minute earlier, when Ryu had gotten back to his feet and taken those steps away from his weapons, it hadn’t been obvious that he was deliberately maneuvering to a specific location. It had just seemed coincidental that his movements had lined him up with Ranma directly between him and the nearest break in the tree wall. And so there were no obstacles now to impede the pigtailed boy’s flight. When he crashed to the ground, dazed, confused, and feeling like the world had just turned upside down, he was well outside the clearing.

Explanations were given, and congratulations were grudgingly offered, and a rematch was scheduled. Ryu, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung headed for the Nekohanten, the young Amazons grafted onto his arms and practically glowing with pride.

The mood was somewhat less pleasant as Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo made their way back toward the Kuno mansion. No-one said anything for at least ten minutes.

Eventually, though, Ranma broke the silence. “One of these days, Sham-chan, I am going to give your great-granny a boot to the head.”

“Now Airen, that not fair. She has right to teach techniques to other persons than you. Is not very nice that she keep secret from us, but…” That was where Shampoo’s family loyalty could no longer fight off her aggravation. “Oh, forget it. I with you, Ranma. Great-Grandmother going to pay for this.”

“Frankly, I’m a good bit angrier at Ryu.” Kodachi all but bit the words off. “All that high and noble speech about not caring whether he won or lost, and all of it just a smokescreen to lower your guard as he prepared his attack. I hate it when people use such dishonorable tactics.”

Seeing his fiancée that angry actually helped Ranma lose some of his aggravation. “Well, I wouldn’t say it was that dishonorable, Dachi-chan,” he said half-heartedly. “Actually, that isn’t even really what he did say, is it? Wasn’t it something more like, what really mattered was getting stronger from the battle? And now that I think about it, back when he first made the challenge, he said he wanted to fight me even if he couldn’t win. NOT that he didn’t think he could.”

“I’m in no mood to be reasonable, Ranma dear,” Kodachi warned him.

“Yeah,” Shampoo agreed. “Ryu will pay for this. Maybe I go to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, tell them that Ryu tell me he is too shy to ask them outright but would really like them to join him in bath some night.”

“WHOA!” Ranma cried out. “That’d hurt them too, y’know.”

“Okay, something else,” Shampoo snapped. “He going to pay for throwing such dangerous attack around. Super power or no super power, you is not immortal, Airen. Get hit with big chi-blast like that could have hurt you bad. Is not right at all for match between friends.”

Ranma shook his head. “It looked a lot worse than it was, Sham-chan. See — my shirt isn’t burned or torn up or nothing where the thing hit. I’m the one who really was careless, when I adapted the Bakusai Tenketsu like that. I coulda really hurt him.” By now a good bit of his aggravation had faded, at least temporarily. What remained was mostly focused on himself, for freezing in disbelief at the sight of Ryu’s final attack. ‘Still can’t believe him, pulling that ‘Ha Do Ken’ trick, though,’ Ranma thought ruefully, thinking back to Ryu’s explanation of his newest move.

“Of course it’s not really called the Ha Do Ken,” Ryu explained. Sheepishness and triumph made an odd mixture on his face. “The real name is Kikotsu Bakuha.”

“Kikotsu…” Kodachi repeated.

“…Bakuha?” Shampoo finished.

“Yeah. A pure chi attack. Um, I guess you probably figured that out already though,” Ryu said. Ranma nodded curtly.

“Is technique Great-Grandmother tell about to Airen and Ryoga while we in home village,” Lung-Lung said. “She also tell us be sure and warn you, Ranma, that is not safe for you to learn.”

“What?! Whaddaya mean I can’t learn it?!” While there were ways to get Ranma’s ire up faster than suggesting he couldn’t do something related to martial arts, these were few and far between (insult one of his fiancées, threaten one of his fiancées, hurt one of his fiancées… that was pretty much it).

“We not say that. Is that it would be too dangerous, now that you have same super high chi as Kodachi have. You try use this, you might as well call it Kamehameha.”

Ranma glanced at Ryu’s hair, still sticking up in wild spikes and tufts, and forbore to comment.

“Anyway, the technique works by focusing on one emotion,” the former lost boy said. “Feel it through and through, use it to pull in power, and then let it go in one blast of energy… that’s pretty much it.”

“An emotion? I suppose you mean determination?” Kodachi asked. That was really the only thing that would fit with the name.

“Exactly. Determination and strength of will.” Ryu chuckled. “And I needed all the practice I could get, to be strong enough to yell something else instead of the real technique name.”

“Yeah, that was a pretty funny trick,” Ranma said flatly.

“Hey, as I recall, you said you wanted me to show you a Ha Do Ken. I was just doing what you asked.”

They walked in silence for a few more minutes. At last Kodachi let out a long, aggrieved sigh. “All right, I’ll be honest. The real reason I’m upset is how much damage you took in that fight, Ranma-sama. It hurt… it hurt so badly to watch him knock you around like that…”

“Was not much fun for me either,” Shampoo said. “Was time there when it seemed like he was really out for blood. I almost have flashbacks to your memories of fighting old Oni-soul Ryoga.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Ranma said firmly. “I guess it coulda looked like it to you guys, but remember I was the one in the middle of things. Yeah, he hit pretty hard, but not as much as he could’ve done if he went all out. Remember, Dachi, he did the same kinda thing as me when you lent him those scrolls, focused all his potential into just one area of chi-manipulation. ’Cept, he learned to boost his strength. You remember when he nailed me in the stomach, right?” Twin growls assured him that they had not forgotten. Ranma hurriedly continued, “Well, if he’d hit me as hard as he could’ve, massive chi healing or no massive chi healing, I woulda been coughing up blood. At least.”

“That mental picture does surprisingly little to comfort me,” Kodachi informed him.

Ranma sighed. “Listen. I’m the one who nearly hurt him. I’m the one who whipped out a brand-new, untried, and frankly too-powerful technique in the middle of the fight. Don’t be angry at Ryu, okay?”

Shampoo gave him a long, considering look. “Ranma say that as if you not upset he won.”

“I’m not.” Before his fiancées could do more than snort in disbelief, he continued, “I’m upset that I lost. There’s a HUGE difference.”

The girls tried to swallow their giggles at that. But it was too late — the atmosphere of gloom and resentment had been dispelled. They continued the rest of the way home in better spirits.

“All the same, though,” Ranma remarked suddenly, as they neared the Kuno mansion, “I don’t think I’m gonna tell Pop about today’s match.”

A sneeze echoed through the quiet morning air.

Wearily, irritably, Genma shook his head. If he were coming down with a cold, there wasn’t much he could do about it now. The older martial artist turned his attention back to the fire, or more precisely the trout cooking over it.

Once the fish were done, he removed them from the flames, gently peeling back the blistered outer skin and exposing the tender flesh underneath. Genma ate slowly, making the meal last, stripping every last edible shred of meat from the skeletons of the trout. He tried not to remember that this was the last day he would be following the stream. He tried not to think about bamboo.

Of course, that made it all but impossible to think of anything else. Genma suspected he’d eaten three or four times his combined bodies’ weight’s worth of the blasted stuff over the last month. Traveling in his cursed form had made the going easier, and a panda’s heightened sense of smell could theoretically have made the difference between finding Akane and missing her by a few hundred feet. But that was cold comfort; he had yet to find the first trace of the missing Tendo daughter, and he had begun to loathe both the taste of bamboo and the feel of wet fur. Silently Genma promised himself, for the thirteen hundredth time, that once he got back to Nerima he was never going to spend time in this damnable cursed form again.

The current repetition of the promise was made with a greater sense of anticipation than the others had been, though. This morning had brought him to the point of decision. Genma was going back.

It wasn’t the continued hardship of his trek through the wilds that had decided him. Genma didn’t enjoy this, not even a little bit, but he would suffer more than this for the sake of his friendship with Soun. The other’s daughter, his student, was lost. Genma wouldn’t let discomfort keep him from the search when he might be the only thing standing between her and a long, grisly death from exposure.

Akane leaned back in the furo, luxuriating in the spacious expanse of near-steaming water. There definitely were some things she’d missed more than others during her stay at Ryugenzawa.

No, Genma would not have set his face toward Nerima, except for the dreams.

The night before last had been the worst experience he could remember in his entire life. At least, of the things that didn’t have anything to do with the Master, or Jusenkyo, or Ranma’s occasional accidents with the Cat Fist, or the time he’d been suckered into fighting an infestation of rat demons when Ranma was too young to help, or that business with Azusa Shiratori, or… well, it had been bad.

He’d been exhausted after a hard day’s worth of searching, tired enough that no dreams should have troubled him. But for the first time in a month, nightmares had disturbed his sleep. They had gripped him and held him fast, choking him in blackness and shame, murmuring that he wasn’t fooling anyone, he wasn’t searching for Akane here, he was hiding from her failure to find her. He hadn’t made the slightest difference, the voices whispered, and was just making a fool of himself with this pointless, stubborn folly.

The tone of the voices changed then, and they had roared at him. Go back, Akane has already returned, there’s nothing for you here. Fool, not to consider the thought that she might return on her own. Idiot, not to keep in touch with Soun. Return to Nerima, and don’t waste any more time like this.

He had awoken that morning feeling more fatigued than before he’d gone to bed. His head had throbbed, and the bright morning sunlight had been oppressive, faded, and dull. Trees seemed to jeer at him, whispering the messages from his dreams again and again and again.

Genma had taken on panda form, and covered four square miles of harsh, broken, mountainous terrain that day. He still hadn’t found any sign of Akane.

The next night, for all his exhaustion, a dream had come again.

He stood in a featureless grey expanse. Nothing before, nothing behind, nothing beside. And then, between one instant and the next, that changed.

Ukyo stood and regarded him quietly for a few moments, before speaking. “I’ll admit I’m a little impressed, Genma. Thought you’d fold like a wet paper bag under last night’s program. I guess you really are determined to find Akane.”

“What is this?!” he had demanded, recovering a bit of his self-possession.

His visitor snorted. “This is me, using magic to contact you in your dreams, like I did last night,” for a moment she looked a little guilty, “and telling you Akane’s already back home. She didn’t even go to the mountains in the first place, you jackass. She just said that stuff before she left so you wouldn’t look where she did go. Now quit wasting time and haul your sorry panda carcass back to Nerima.”

And there the dream had ended. This time, when Genma awoke, he was willing to accept that it had been more than just the workings of his own slumbering mind. He caught, cooked, and consumed breakfast, gathered up his gear, and set out for home, with one thought uppermost in his mind.

That business with the okonomiyaki cart was the worst bargain I ever made.


To be continued.

Author’s notes: Lest anyone think I don’t like Ukyo, or that I’m trying to portray her as a spiteful, vindictive witch, let me say that’s not so. She’s just in a difficult time right now, still in the process of redefining who she is after some major upheavals in her life. This does not happen in the original series, where to a great extent all the main characters’ lives are interlocked in spinning circles, unable to really grow until some form of resolution is made to the various conflicts.

I have not taken that route here. The characters are free to grow and change. The whole ‘Ukyo-working-out-her-frustrations-on-Genma’ theme is a necessary part of this, as I see it. She’s endured ten years of insecurity, loneliness, and hurt, which she now identifies as never having been Ranma’s fault at all, only his father’s. Has she inflicted as much pain on Genma yet, as she suffered over the years? Not even remotely close. Does that mean she’s going to keep tormenting him? No. I think she’s now ready to move beyond that.

While it might be more satisfying to have explained all this through actual narrative, writing more sections that focus on Ukyo considering these things and making a deliberate decision to let it go and forsake any more bouts of Genma-bashing, instead of just explaining it in these Author’s Notes, some things must be cut. I’d never finish this beast if I went into the utmost level of detail for everything in the story.

On a similar note, sharp-eyed people familiar with the anime might be a little confused by the occasional references to tables in Ukyo’s, as her restaurant in the original series does not have any. This is because, for whatever reason, this time around she found a different building up for grabs and opened her restaurant there instead.

While we’re on the subject of things different from the anime… obviously without Ranma or Ryoga present, as well as Shinnosuke not yet on the brink of death, events in Ryugenzawa would proceed differently. For one thing, Akane wasn’t nearly such a picture of gentle sweetness and light to Shinnosuke (remember, she doesn’t know he was dying), which explains why he hadn’t yet told her he loved her before the events of this chapter. For another, with so few people to help, and with time not yet being critical, much more effort was put into planning the assault on the Orochi (including use of the horned mongoose whistle, which Akane had shown to Shinnosuke’s grandfather).

One last note of acknowledgement: the opening scene was inspired by an email from Essex, who pointed out that there hadn’t been much random splashing going on during the trip to Joketsuzoku. He also asked whether Shampoo and Kodachi would now become water magnets. My response: yes, but rarely. My take on this is when a Jusenkyo victim is in their cursed form, they will only occasionally draw water to seek them out. Since Kodachi and Shampoo are always in their cursed forms (Nyannichuan, remember?), and for that matter so are Ryu and Ryoga, their splashings will be a good bit less frequent than Ranma’s.

Next time: Genma keeps his promise.

Comments? Criticism? Email me at aondehafka@hotmail.com

Kikotsu Bakuha: roughly translates to ‘determined soul’s blast’ (I hope)

Kirekuzu (from Bakusai Tenketsu Kirekuzu): scraps of cloth

Chapter 16
Layout, design, & site revisions © 2005

Webmaster: Larry F
Last revision: January 7, 2006

Old Gray Wolf