Title: Tanbo (2/4)

Author: Matthias (Solarsenshi@gmx.de)

Beta: Ayrki (probably)

Status: Alpha

Category: Action/Adventure, Romance, AU

Rating: PG-13 to R

Pairings: Ranma/Xian Pu (for those of you who don't get it, that's Shampoo)

Timeline: Heavily AU, just prior to Canon Ranma, Prelude story to a Ranma/SM-Crossover (in progress)

Summary: The tale of two lonely souls and how one of Genma's little mistakes could have greatly impacted on the course of his son's life, this time for good though, or is it?

Distribution: Ranma and SailorMoon Crossover Challenge & Archive (), MSD (www.catstrio.de), Rakhal (www.rakhal.com), ff.net (www.fanfiction.net), Mediaminer (www.mediaminer.org), Shoujo Ai archive (www.shoujoai.com), others might follow. If you want to post it, just tell me where and I would be more than pleased. Newest version (even those that have just slight corrections) will always be on MSD, my personal archive.

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ belongs to Rumiko Takahashi, Ranko Saotome (though not the name but the character) belongs to me as does my imagination, the plot for this story etc.

Story Disclaimer: Tanbo©2003 by Matthias Engel

Special Note: Dialogues in are always in the native language opposed to the viewer. Meaning if it is Ranma's POV and there is a dialogue in that means this is spoken in Mandarin,

(Ranma)

I grumbled unintelligible things under my breath as I walked behind the old gnome. The sun had yet to rise a noticeable distance over the horizon and that said clearly that it was early. Too early. After yesterday I had for once really not complained to sleep a bit longer than sunrise. Of course the old woman had other plans and insisted that my training would start today and right now. Only the sliver of hope her offer had given me kept me from outright ignoring the gnome.

After our conversation yesterday and the outrageous revelations about that marriage setup from Oyaji it had taken me some time to reassure a distraught Amazon that for whatever inane reason ever I had NOT gotten it in my head to just leave her on the road as soon as I found a cure. Heck, I wasn't my father. He would certainly pull a stunt like that and I was yet waiting for him to show up and try smuggle me out of the village. I believed myself to be a lot better than the idiot. Which, mind you, was not that hard to achieve.

After that had been taken care of and Xian Pu assured that I would honor her claim first and foremost whatever may happen, the next problem was already standing in line. Apparently by now the rumors had spread enough and morphed into truly hideous versions among the rest of the Amazon. Things like Xian Pu supposedly drugging me in order to follow along or her even losing the match on purpose so that she could have me with the rest just show… And those were the milder tales spun from the shocking news of the much envied Tribal Champion taking a female Airen. Of course no one knew about the curse aspect since we all seemed to agree this was better so for now, and after yesterday I was sure that would fuel the fire only further.

I had to fight a dozen challengers in one hour before I finally took refugee in the house and didn't come out again until now. Poor Xian Pu had a hard time calming me down. Yes, I was angry. Not so much about being harassed and accused over and over again. However, I was mad that my… wife's own tribal sister would be so unbelievable jealous. Some things I had heard had almost made me lose my cool and actually doing more than necessary to ward off the challengers. I had really wanted to give them a piece of my mind.

That anger was not really based on the fact that I started to actually like Xian Pu. No, the Amazon girl certainly was cute and nice. I was used to taunts, crude remarks and all that stuff from Oyaji but someone like her didn't deserve it. She had set herself up for this despite knowing what it would to do her reputation to take care of me. I could just see her as a more cheerful, happy girl, yet circumstances had failed to give both of us nothing but masks society had forced us to wear. I had seen glimpses of it at our first night and it galled me that I might even be the cause why Xian Pu was so solemn since these one day and a half that I knew her. Therefore that made me even more pissed that someone, ANYONE would think ill of her. Of course this didn't mean I love her or something…

Geez, could you go anymore in denial mode? Actually that was one thing more I failed to do since falling into that pool. I didn't seem to be able to hide anymore from my problems, how my life had turned out up to this point. I saw it all, the whole, bitter truth, and could not turn away and shrug it off as I usually did. Try as I might, I just couldn't. And Xian Pu… Maybe I really did care about her already. Even if it was only on a compassionate basis right now, in my current state she could probably manage to bring me to my knees and declare my undying love for her or something… Man, this was embarrassing.

A soft squeeze of my hand reminded me that I wasn't alone out in the early morning air, trotting behind the old woman. No, Xian Pu was there as well and that worried look she sent my way made me sick. I just couldn't stand it. For some reason it seemed horrible out of place. Squeezing back I tried my best try at a convincing expression that would make her drop the worry. "I'm alright, really," I mumbled exasperated and a little bit anxious to see a different emotion from the Amazon. As much as I appreciated her efforts, this was gnawing on my resolve and it wouldn't be good to have a mental meltdown right here. Ack, I would rather drown myself in that damned pool again.

Xian Pu seemed to consider for a moment, then, to my utter bewilderment, a small, yet happy smile lit up her face. Despite my surprise, it was quickly turning into a pleasant one. That was much better. I didn't want any guilt or overdone notions of comfort. I wanted to be myself again, cure or not. Maybe that training stuff would give me some other things to concentrate on. The Amazon for some truly mysterious reason kept smiling all the way to our destination but I didn't complain.

Tanbo

Part 2: Phoenix of Dawn

A Ranma ½ Alterverse Fic

Loosely based on the work of Rumiko Takahashi

Concept by Matthias Engel

(Xian Pu)

Being an early riser myself I had no problem with accompanying my Airen to her first training lesson. I think she had no real idea what she was getting into. Ranma had told me some of the methods her father – who was still snoring away like the fat fool that I had no hard time believing he was – used to train him. While some of them were simply sick and cruel, nothing was like a hard drill from Great-grandmother when the Elder decided her student was worthy. Ranma was in for a surprise and from personal experience I knew the first weeks would be the hardest. She would bring you to your limits in every lesson and until you got comfortable with her pace, you would have a hard time resting.

Yesterday had been an emotional roller coaster and more than once I had wished we could have just stayed with the slow sparring from the morning. It had cost me all my resolve to not falter but the revelations of Ranma's father had deeply unbalanced me. This morning, for a horrible long moment I had actually feared my Airen was gone to this fiancée of hers… his back in Japan. Of course, I knew that was stupid and Ranma had made it more than clear that she fully intended to honor our laws. It troubled me slightly that in the span of barely more than a day and a half I had already developed such strong feelings about my Airen. There was something in Ranma though, then you managed to look past all the walls that she had placed around herself and that must have rearranged themselves upon receiving the curse, that the boy-turned-girl was a very special person. And I had seen it, in her eyes after the battle that day, when I made my decision. For a brief moment I had managed to glance at what my Airen truly was. And I longed to see it mirrored on the outside because somehow I knew I'd truly regret it if Ranma wouldn't be in my life.

Focusing back on the action further in the middle of the enclosed mountain area, I watched quietly as Ranma and Elder Kho Lon were talking… alright, it was more like Great-grandmother giving my Airen some sort of command. Training all my life with the elder women I wasn't one to question her when she advised me to stay here and that proved to be a good thing. I had witnessed my Airen's skill before but it seemed what she shared with me were glimpses, only a fraction of her full capabilities. Ranma seemed to blur and for the first time ever since I could remember there was something akin to surprise in the Elder's face. Elder Kho Lon wasn't easily surprised, especially not by someone's else fighting skills.

The cane whirled to deflect a punch I was barely able to see. Only my rigorous training allowed me to follow the motions although I doubted that I could match them. The "spar" was brief, five maybe six seconds. Yet, I had never seen someone going toe to toe with Great-grandmother. Not like that.

I was being called over when the Elder put a stop to the exchange and therefore could not only see but also hear her being impressed. "Very good, Ranma. You managed to almost top me at half my power." My Airen blinked, as did I, before a disbelieving expression crossed her features. "No way! That wasn't half your power." Elder Kho Lon just smiled in that unnerving manner and I made a mental note not to annoy her anymore in future training sessions. What was she using in our spars. One percent? I had never managed to beat her…

Not further commenting on our shared disbelief, Great-grandmother moved over to a formation of rocks and indicated with her staff for us to follow. "Yet, you are nowhere near your full abilities yet. Your handling of chi is nothing more than average, weak even for one of your caliber and you could move much faster with the right training. That can be trained though and we will train." Standing next to a single rock, she continued: "First though, I would like to see how quickly you learn. Watch."

I had realized already what the Elder was going to do and therefore wasn't surprised, instead I watched my Airen's reaction while Great-grandmother showed her one of the Amazon secret techniques. It was amazing to see how Ranma's face completely shifted in the fraction of a moment from mildly interested and still somewhat shocked and dumbfounded to deeply concentrated and analyzing. I could clearly see in her eyes what could only simply be described as the mind of a warrior working as the sound of a shattered boulder reached my ears.

"This is the Bakusei Tenketsu or Breaking Point technique. Everything in this world has a weak point. A point that when touched can crumble the entire structure." Elder Kho Lon looked at Ranma quizzically. "Are you willing to try?"

And Ranma did try. Walking over to another boulder, she seemed to concentrate for a moment, intensely staring at the piece of stone. Then, to both mine and Great-grandmother's utter shock, jammed his forefinger into the boulder which promptly exploded upon contact.

"Masaka…" I heard Elder Kho Lon whisper in Japanese for what reason ever but I think I could imagine the meaning of the word without really comprehending it now. It had taken me months, MONTHS, to learn the Breaking Point and I had carried the marks of the torturous training for even longer than the training itself had transpired. And my Airen… just picked it up…

Wow…

Ranma glanced around at us and blinked. "Nani? What did I do? Wasn't that correct?" Elder Kho Lon coughed and managed to somehow recover quicker than I thought was possible under this circumstances. I was still rooted to the spot. "Quite… tremendous, young Ranma. Are you always picking up on other techniques so quickly?" My Airen thought for a moment. "That depends. I really don't have anybody to compare with since Oyaji was only teaching me and didn't learn anything himself so… That Bakusei Tenketsu thing was easy though. Just a matter of concentration and trusting your spiritual senses for the strike. I don't really see why this should be so spectacular. Sure it could be helpful in a battle once in a while and probably to get yourself out of a trap but…"

Was she just criticizing one of our most secret techniques? I looked over at Great-grandmother who seemed to be mildly amused. "Indeed. The technique in itself is not that spectacular. It is more the training for it that is the actual benefit." Of course Ranma had to ask what that contained of. Then Elder Kho Lon told her, she paled slightly and all of a sudden turned her head sharply in my direction. There was a question that I could give the answer to immediately.

"Is true Xian Pu learn Bakusei Tenketsu at age of seven."

"SEVEN?!?"

After my Airen was through ranting at Great-grandmother I wore a proud smile at her concern about my welfare.

(Ranma)

The sun was slowly beginning to set as I dragged myself along the path back to the Matriarch's place. My whole body ached and I never, ever thought that something could get to me like that. I really had to revaluate my earlier thoughts. Training was usually something I was good at, yes. This though wasn't training. Not at all. This was torture. And if the old hag wouldn't have made clear that she would only help me find a cure when I passed her training I would have told her exactly what I was thinking about such… training.

The point was, I had no idea what that old, shriveled fossil of a warrior intended to achieve with her methods. I was used to some crazy notions from Oyaji but even he hadn't gone quite that far. I was fed up and if I wasn't so dead tired, I would have ranted all the way back from the Council building. What exactly happened? The oh so great War Master had the nerve to let me play service girl! All day! Alone! For the whole building! And three different, big meetings! What the fuck was she thinking!

In my current state it was a miracle I managed to avoid the arrow aimed at my head as I did. "Great," I muttered as an Amazon with chestnut-colored hair tied into a loose bun jumped down from a nearby building, "just what I need." I was in no condition to fight. I knew that. And if yesterday's routine had been any indication I was sure that it would result in just that.

"Stand tall and proud, bad excuse for a warrior," the other Amazon demanded in surprisingly fluent Japanese. I straightened, just a little, a brief spark of anger flaring through my body. "Who are you calling a bad excuse? I would like to see you 'stand tall and proud' after one day with the old hag." Admitted that wasn't the smartest thing to say and I was more than a little suspicious when the Amazon simply snarled at me but otherwise didn't move. "I would be proud to be trained by the Matriarch, you should be too."

"I'd like to see you trying and then saying the same thing afterwards," I shot back, getting the nagging sense that the Amazon wasn't really out here to fight. Otherwise I wasn't sure whether to be glad about it or not. Word duels were not actually my strong point… more my weakest. The Amazon in question looked at me critically for a moment and I tried for all it was worth not to look like I would fall any moment and snore right there on the ground. That's what I wanted to do actually.

"Maybe so," the other girl, she could hardly be much older than me and Xian Pu, finally said, relaxing her posture. I didn't do so right away… not that my stance looked impressing to begin with. "You have backbone, I give you that. Anyone else with your condition probably would be a mental wreck already. Nothing worthy of a warrior anymore."

I wasn't quite sure how to take that. As a compliment or an insult. Then her words began to really sink in and I double-blinked. "Wait a minute, you…" There was no way she could know. Kho Lon had made it quite clear that my condition should stay a secret to the other Amazons, at least until she had informed the rest of the Council – which I knew since I was there hadn't happened today. The Amazon cocked her head. "Now, we wouldn't want to blurt it around the whole village, right? Let us just say… I know a lot of things others don't."

Now thoroughly confused I, for once, wisely shut my mouth and chose to ask Xian Pu later about the girl. I could tell she was quite a formidable warrior but there was something disturbingly different about her as well. I began to doubt her difference from the rest of the Amazons here with her next words. "I still don't get it why are you willing to go along with this tramp. She's just going to tie you down once you find a cure."

A familiar annoyance and anger began to stir inside of me as I met the Amazon's look of distain with a heated one of my own. "No way! Xian Pu isn't like that. She is nice and friendly and has done nothing but take care of me! It's not like I have a choice anyway." The other girl snorted. "Right. So you are only going along because you have no idea what else to do. Where's your pride in this?" As I said, verbal arguments were not my strong point. "That's not what I mean! I can't believe all of you think about Xian Pu like a cold-hearted bitch. I bet none of you have ever taken the time to really get to know her. You would be surprised, I tell you."

"So, you are not going to just run off when you have a cure?" The question was pointed but albeit any of the earlier accusation or sharpness. It hit home though. What would I do if I ever got cured. I still wasn't sure what I felt about the Amazon. I liked her, a lot maybe. She had made quite clear that her, err… concept of comfort would in no way be binding and I believed her. Essentially though, the question was only left with one answer. The only honorably one. Even if I wouldn't be happy with it, yesterday had made it quite clear that there wasn't another option.

"No," I answered simply and proceeded to ignore and just walk right past the Amazon. The girl in question stepped aside and I caught a smile on her face that made me pause. It was neither relieved, nor really sad. Something in-between. Nostalgic, melancholic maybe. I wished once again that I was better at this things. The Amazon gave me a nod.

"Good." And with that she turned and walked away but not before turning back one last time. "Oh, and watch out for Mu Tsu, I hear he'll be back in town soon and he is quite… devoted to your wife." With that she was gone. I hadn't even learned her name and that last statement made me twitch for some reason. That smelled like trouble and I had developed a nose for that in a decade with Oyaji around. For now though I was still too tired and confused by the other Amazon's attitude to think about it any further.

Grudgingly I resumed my walk, barely making it back.

(Xian Pu)

The moon stood high over Joketsuzoku but sleep was hard to come. It had taken not that long to get a beyond exhausted Ranma into bed. She had been almost out of it arriving on our front porch. I had warned her that training with Great-grandmother wouldn't be a hike in the mountains or something comparably easy. What exactly my Airen had been put through I hadn't been able to learn. But Ranma had related his encounter with Lhi Li. That had somewhat thrown me off balance. I hadn't seen her in the village for a few days and wasn't even quite sure if she had been at the tournament. Actually I never really SAW her these days. That was the sad thing because I wished we could have at least stayed friends…

There had been… history between us. Not of the rival kind, more of the romantic kind. It had been brief, childish and mostly fueled by teenage hormones. Or so we had been told. Both Elder Kho Lon and Lhi Li's family had disapproved of the match. Not because we were both Amazons but our statuses in the tribe were to different. Lhi Li was an exceptional warrior, no doubt there. But much like mother she had dedicated herself more to the art of healing and her own passion of dancing. Lhi Li was often frowned upon because she refused violence if not totally necessary and would even go as far as turn down a challenge.

Ultimately Kho Lon had all but forbidden me to see her again because she was a bad influence. Don't get me wrong I respect my Elder for her teachings and I was sure that being a Matriarch often calls for very hard decisions once in awhile. Until now though that was one issue I had never forgiven her for. Nowadays I often caught Lhi Li watching me from afar. Maybe it was her way of making sure I was happy. That she had obviously approved of Ranma so quickly was something I wasn't quite sure what to make of.

Taking one last look outside, I let loose a heavy sigh and slipped back into bed. With the way Great-grandmother tended to challenge you the better your skill was, it was unlikely that we could get much time for ourselves. Of course once Ranma was through learning the Amaguriken – which I suppose was what Elder Kho Lon had in mind first –, training methods would change a little. Hopefully my Airen could hold up that incredible learning curve she had shown this morning with the Bakusei Tenketsu.

Smiling fondly, I looked down at the sleeping redhead. Even with the distractions I had managed to provide the two days we had been together the nightmares had still been there and it didn't take a genius to figure out what they were about. Tonight though my Airen was much too spent to even think about dreaming anything at all. Her hair was ruffled and she hadn't been able to take a bath either (A/N: What, I'm not speaking about a super-modern furo here, but they are not THAT reclusive). Still, one could hardly believe all this was just a curse. In a way it seemed perfectly natural. The gleaming, red hair the soft but very much defined curves – not to mention the more intimate areas –, the graceful yet powerful body… Some might call it a shame, I called it a blessing. Albeit what my Airen might think, it would be even more a waste to not cherish the gift provided to her. No male usually got to know what it meant to be a girl. Of course, the happiness of my Airen was the first thing on my mind, however, I would definitely try to make her more comfortable with this form. And that not only physical.

Once again I wondered why I was so determined about that. Why I would try to stand up against every possible difficulty of the situation. I couldn't quite explain. It was a mutual mix of compassion and growing feelings. I hadn't been in love for a long time… Never actually since Lhi Li. Most of this was of course Mu Tsu's fault – another problem that would have to be dealt with soon – but Ranma had just this certain… thing about her that made me try that little extra bit harder, that made me want to defy the impossible and make this work. I just KNEW that I had to succeed and let this feelings grow. Maybe this was the only chance I would ever get for a working, approved relationship that was based on feelings from both sides. And for that to work I would have to have some more time with my Airen. Something I had to insist on with Great-grandmother. Training surely was a valuable distraction but personal experience taught me that this only served to temporally shut away your emotions.

"Sleep well," I said, gently stroking through the mass of red hair. "Tomorrow will be a busy day." More like a few busy weeks, possible months. Hopefully the effort would be worth it… No the effort had to be worth it. I didn't feel like being alone any longer, not after that chance had been offered to me. Ranma and I were meant for each other. I could feel it in every cell of my being. And as closed up as I had been recently, this was something I could trust my heart on. There was a clarity that could just not be defied, not pushed back or decided as a weakness. Because if it was a weakness… why did I feel like I would actually go through with a death threat to anyone who threatened Ranma and our relationship?

It was true after all, as it seemed, time did not matter to the heart. What had at first been anger and confusion and then a mutual compassion had almost turned overnight into fondness and a love I just could not deny anymore. It did not really matter to me that I only knew her cursed form. The body was not really what was important. For that brief moment at the challenge log I had seen right into her heart, yes, her soul maybe, if that was even possible. And beyond all this loneliness, frustration and other emotional shields that the redhead had built up over the years, there lay a beauty and brilliance that every human – men or women alike – would kill for to claim their own and would be more than humbled to have as their partner. I had this chance and I was no going to let it slip through my hands.

Ranma turned in her sleep and mumbled something that I wasn't able to make out quite clearly but even so, I could see the beginning of a nightmare. So much to too exhausted to dream… A sigh came from my lips as I drew the redhead closer, making out words distinctively sounding like "Cats… No more…" I blinked at that, not quite understanding. Surely I had misheard. The fear accompanying the broken words was impossible to associate with something as harmless as cats. Unless… I tried to recall one of Great-grandmother's teachings about sealed techniques and shook my head. No way.

Placing a kiss on my Airen's forehead I tried my best to soothe her and Ranma actually settled down after awhile. For a moment I could have sworn that I heard a soft purr coming from her. That, of course, was ridiculous.

(Ranma)

Almost four days had passed since the first day of training and the evening encounter with Lhi Li. Ironically this had turned out to be one of the better parts. The Amazon had somehow managed to accidentally cross paths with me more often – and only when I was not with Xian Pu – and we had talked quite a bit. She never really let much about herself slip, often only listened. She was often there when I was working and it helped distract me somewhat. I asked Xian Pu a couple of times about her but only got curt and evasive answers. It didn't feel like they had some kind of family feud or something. With the readiness Xian Pu had accepted a girl as her wife in the first place, I wouldn't have been surprised if they had some kind of history along those lines. I hadn't pressed the issue though, too glad to get some quiet time with either one of them.

So I found myself out on the outskirts of the village, away from most of the turmoil, relaxing and thinking about how the last days had progressed. Training had been rough and slowly I had begun to accept the torture as this. Xian Pu hadn't been overly surprised when I told her in detail what I was forced to do under orders of that old gnome. Some of Lhi Li's comments had also served to make me think. The casual approval of how well I managed to handle all the tableware and dishes without slipping once, the slight marvel at the reaction speed if I got close to the first. The final straw had been this morning when I realized something else. Ever since I started training Oyaji hadn't been able to snack one bite from my plate. I always had taken this behavior sort of like speed training. As many faults as he might had and whatever his true reasons, his maxim to see everything as training for the part held true somewhat. Before I started working like a dog for the Elder the food fights had always been sort of even. Now, I didn't even have to really pay attention anymore.

All this lead up to a simple, yet astonishing realization. My speed, at least that of my hands, had dramatically increased. What I at first saw as quite unbelievable was not too farfetched anymore. With a bit more of this I might even really pick those chestnuts from the fire without burning myself in the process. Maybe I even could already…

I perked up as my senses tingled suddenly, warning me about the arrival of a slightly stronger-than-average chi. Vaulting myself out of my lying position to my feet, carefully making sure to not misjudge the different balance provided by the different body. That was one thing Xian Pu taught me between Kho Lon's training and the rare alone time we got and I was more than grateful for that. I turned around, dropping into a light defensive stand, prepared for anything, any crazy Amazon either out to tell me how much she appreciated my associated with Xian Pu or telling me on no uncertain points that I could have made a better choice… Okay, it wasn't that bad. But that attitude towards their champion really pissed me off at times. Aside from Lhi Li and maybe the two twins who had departed yesterday for a longer journey no one had bothered to actually talk to me or Xian Pu. And quite frankly I had no desire to let my day off stained by another one of those encounters…

As it was I was a little bit more surprised to find no Amazon there. Well, at least not a female one. The guy was clad in long, white robes with long, a little unruly hair. To that he whore a set of heavy, thick glasses. And he didn't look very friendly either. Letting caution rule my motions for a moment, I tightened my guard. I had the sneaking suspicion that I already knew who the guy was. Being warned of and lamented over him from two different sides was enough to figure it out.

"Saotome Ranma, I presume?" Tense muscles, hands hidden, obviously in preparation of a quick, pre-emptive strike, chi definitely laced with anger. Yup. Had to be him. I didn't move one bit as I met his gaze – or what could be defined that way with the glasses. "And you would be Mu Tsu, wouldn't you?"

(Xian Pu)

Whistling a soft tune I sat beside the lake doing some of the chores for the day. It was widely misinterpreted by the outside world that here in the village men would do everything in and around the house while the women were the leaders and fighters. That might be the general theme of our society but that did neither mean that men were mistreated and unhappy, nor did it mean that we were totally unable for matters of housekeeping. Great-grandmother had taught me since I was little that I should learn to be independent in everything, even those that others might see as unfitting for a warrior of my status. The proud were only fools when they failed to acknowledge that you could pass down the chores you didn't like onto those lower than you. That was an attitude that would ensure your downfall so much earlier.

Of course, the fact that there had been no male up to now in the Matriarch's house was also adding to the matter and I didn't want to burden Ranma with something he must be totally unfamiliar with right now. What she needed was to built up her spirit, and training with Great-grandmother certainly seemed to do this. She seemed to be a lot better compared to the first night she came home totally exhausted. It appeared that the young Martial Artist had finally picked up on the benefits of her training. The general mood still was not really cheerful but she was getting there, as it seemed. Training seemed to take her mind off her problems and I did my best to divert her attention when she returned home.

I could tell Elder Kho Lon was pleased with her quick progress, that's basically why she had gotten the day off. Alright… The fact that there were no official meetings in the Council Hall today was another thing. I knew Great-grandmother was finally bringing my Airen's case before the Council – or at least I highly assumed that – and didn't want Ranma around for that.

One way or another. I was glad to have more than a few hours with her. Ranma had gone out to reflect on some things – mainly her training I supposed – but she would be back by noon. So we had the whole afternoon together and I planned to make it a worthwhile one, maybe a nice picnic and a good sparring – after all that's what we both enjoyed – up in the mountains would be nice. I liked the solitude of the Bakyhala range and that was exactly what we needed. Some quiet time alone, away from the ugly whispers and rumors that I knew aggravated my Airen more than it touched me. I had built a resistance over the years, still I could not deny that it hurt.

Sometimes in those lonely hours I had longed for a friend, a compassionate soul, anyone who could truly understand me. I think I found that someone that day after the tournament. It was a fated meeting, I knew, someone had heard my silent wishes and sent me Ranma this day. That's why I knew that I couldn't throw it away. Ranma might be the only chance I've got and she was sharing my feelings. Deep down we were similar, kindred. We COULD end our loneliness, together…

Right. First you have to get her out of this misery state and make her comfortable with the curse because if I think what Great-grandmother has in mind about the cure she will have to live with it. One way or another. Sighing, I pushed away the depressing and melancholic thoughts, finishing with the last set of clothing. Taking it out from the small river running besides the village – the spring was somewhere up in the mountains, I was about to rise, when I felt a familiar presence approach.

Startled at the person who I saw running up to me from the village, I must have looked rather stupid just sitting there. Lhi Li had never really faced me directly again since that day… I knew she and Ranma crossed paths a few times already and that my Airen was developing a liking – strictly platonic of course – to the girl. That had me hoping that maybe it would bring us closer – as friends at least – again. I wanted that, desperately. However, this was a bit sudden and as I finally caught up with the worry in the other girl's face, I knew this was about Ranma. Anything short of the Musk Empire launching an all-out attack on us – which I'm sure I would have noticed – wouldn't bring her of all people looking for me.

"Xian Pu, come quickly…" She paused, panting. After taking a few breaths, she was finally able to continue: "It's, it's Mu Tsu. He is back earlier than we thought…" I did not need to know more. Of course he must have heard of what happened at the tournament already. It was the topic of the village ever since. And of course the idiot would rush right up to confront my Airen, seeing a serious threat to his devotion…

Yeah, sure. Devotion. More like obsession. An obsession that had driven many possible suitors and/or friends away. I did not really blame everything on him but the fool's possessiveness had certainly contributed to the situation. He had taken it VERY badly when I was with Lhi Li and almost went about outright killing her once. That was about the day I thought I finally lost my childhood friend in earnest and left was only the blind shell of obsession. I did care for Mu Tsu in a way… But not as he might like it.

Needing no further word, I placed the basket full with clothing on the ground, nodded to Lhi Li who returned the gesture with a hesitant but serious smile. A minute later I was already on my way, picking up the chi of two of the few people I could call close already from afar, I hoped I wasn't too late to prevent any permanent damage.

(Ranma)

"Hey, now wait a minute!"

As if that was of any use at all. The guy was as deaf as he was blind. Probably even more so. As soon as I confirmed my name he was on me without asking further question. Not questioning that whatever he heard – rumors tended to escalate – was true or demanding anything. I had not really believed Lhi Li when she said he had even tried to kill someone who got to close to Xian Pu once. Now it became painfully clear that she had most likely spoken out of own experience. Oh well. It was not as if he could hit me.

Granted the guy was quick, probably even quicker than I had been before arriving here. However, the training from the Old Ghoul really began to leave its marks and the female body might lack in a bit of strength but that was outweighed by a much more useful increase in speed and agility. Therefore Mu Tsu had yet to connect with a single attack. Not that it slowed him down any.

Dodging a chain and swaying to the side to avoid this ridiculous "swan fist" – really disgusting – I wondered once again how the hell he managed to hide all the stuff in his robe without being rooted to the ground. Another feint was equally foreseen and countered as I decided that my opponent would not tire out any time soon. So it was best to go into the offense. Bending slightly I let Mu Tsu's leg pass me and moved in with a speed that brought an astonished look on my opponent's face. Unleashing three different combos in the span of a few moments even surprised me a bit and the Amazon warrior stumbled back, nearly tumbling over in pain. But not beaten yet.

That was quicker than I thought. He hadn't even time to react… That really got to me. I knew I was good but pride put aside I also knew that I wasn't that good. That brief skill test from the Elder at the beginning of my training, I had gone all out then and had hardly been able to move THAT fast. This was a magnificent development and I yearned to put this to a more thorough test.

As if he heard me Mu Tsu provided me with just that test. "No way. Nobody will take away and hurt my Xian Pu anymore! Die, Saotome! CHIITAN CHUAN!" I blinked at first at the name but when he really started to throw eggs at me that exploded upon contact I was a bit more weary. Barely avoiding the first wave with just a few scratches, I let instincts take other and ignite a Bakusei Tenketsu to shield myself in a blast of exploding earth which also provided me with the opportunity to reposition myself. Closing my eyes briefly I drew upon my inner chi and snapping them open was prepared for the next wave.

"KACHU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!" Even through the thick glasses I could see Mu Tsu's eyes practically bugging out as I picked every single egg out of mid-air and returned them to him before they could explode in my hands. This was rather similar to the task Elder Kho Lon had set me to achieve and with the rate I picked up the eggs and did not miss a single one, I was pretty sure that I could pull that task off too now. I understood now that the technique was not only a matter of speed but also one of the spirit, of adding your chi and putting all your heart into it. There was just so much speed a human being could manage to achieve on his own, every higher levels had to be fueled by your chi. That much I knew already. But that heighten sense of awareness was new. I even felt much more in tune with myself now.

"What?" Mu Tsu managed to exclaim before his own egg bombs exploded all around him, flinging him through the air in a wide arc. I allowed myself a small smirk, after all I had barely touched him in the whole fight. Deciding to finish this quickly, I made a jump over the dust of the explosions and before my opponent even landed roughly from his self-inflicted ordeal I came down with a knee smashing into his belly. He let out a gurgling noise as we hit the ground and I had my fist drawn back…

Again it was one of those moments. Before Jusenkyo I would have simply punched the fool senseless and let Xian Pu or her Great-grandmother deal with him. I didn't do that now. I still hadn't quite figured out the reason. If it wasn't so ridiculous I would say that the curse had inflicted me with a latent gift of empathy. However, as I said, that was ridiculous. Nonetheless since Jusenkyo I had gained a much better insight of other people's behavior. Why they did it, what motivated them and that sort of thing. Maybe it had just been my pride and high confidence preventing me from paying more mind to other people's motives. Maybe it had been Oyaji's influence… Maybe none of this.

However, this was one of those moments and I could not deny that I felt strangely detached as I lowered my fist and stared deeply into the Amazon warrior's eyes. His glasses had come off in the fall but he still seemed to be able to focus. Or maybe it was my intense gaze that made him focus. "Did you think for one moment that you might hurt Xian Pu even more when you succeeded in killing me." The words were not whispered, instead spoken quietly but clearly. I could sense a small audience watching us already. Under which Xian Pu had arrived just now as well.

Mu Tsu opened his mouth to say something in return, then closed it again as his face slightly paled. "But… You… She… You can't… We are…" There was so much in the other man's eyes that I would normally not have been able to pick up. I pulled back and looked up to meet my wife's eyes for a brief exchange that confirmed everything I needed to know right now. "She DOES love you, Mu Tsu." The other man brightened immediately but I was quick to add my next words. "As a friend. A friend that she dearly needs. Do you know why that is?" Again Mu Tsu went for an answer but nothing came out. I knew he was debating with himself. Trying to work himself out of the labyrinth of an illusion he had built inside his mind. "Listen to your heart, Mu Tsu. If you don't see the truth now, that friend will also be lost to her."

Kuso, I sounded corny as hell. Oyaji would probably go nuts. But on a basic level I could even understand where all this came from. I knew it from my own life. As much as I Xian Pu wanted nothing more than to have someone there that she could talk to, relate to. Someone her age that was not there to teach or challenge her. Ever since Ukyo I didn't have such a friend. And I missed it. Badly. What if my old buddy suddenly turned out to be a girl and would one day come wanting to marry me and not see that all I ever wanted was being friends? It would crush me, I was sure of that.

There was a strained silence in which everyone seemed to hold their breath. Finally Mu Tsu blinked and I could see comprehension dawning in his eyes, comprehension followed by a painful realization. Standing up quietly I offered him my hand and to my mild surprise he took the offer with a trembling yet strong grip. As soon as he was up, Mu Tsu averted his gaze, briefly glancing in Xian Pu's direction who was by now totally stunned at the new development.

His shoulders were slumped and all in all appearing just like I must have been at the tournament a few days ago when Xian Pu had threatened to kill me. After almost a minute passed he looked up at me. "You are the better warrior, Saotome, and… the better person apparently. Take care of Xian Pu, I know you will. As a friend, if I can still call myself that, I ask you to take care of her." And with that he turned and walked away. I could see Xian Pu hesitating, taking a step after him but Kho Lon who was at her side quietly held her cane in front of her and shook her head. He needed time now. That was for sure.

I glanced up at one of the roofs, smiling in the direction where I was almost certain Lhi Li was hiding. The Amazon briefly showed herself with a smile of approval and then bounded off into the distance.

"Well," I commented after awhile, "that went better than I expected."

(Xian Pu)

It was two days after the Mu Tsu incident that we found each other up here in the Bakyhala mountains finally having this picnic. Ranma and I had picked our spot high up in fresh, clear mountain air that granted a lovely view over the land below, including my village. The event that had been planned two days earlier had been cancelled since the confrontation left all participants a little emotional torn. I was totally stunned by my Airen's course of action. Nobody, including me, had ever managed to pierce through his stubbornness and wall of self-perception. I had understood the dilemma on a basic level but since I was the object of illusion it was virtually impossible to make him see. It was amazing and quite frankly I was proud of Ranma for her to crack that shell and make Mu Tsu finally see the truth. However, it wasn't that surprising after all if you recalled that my Airen was ten years virtually with no other friend than the art – his father not counting.

The confrontation left not only Mu Tsu's heart scarred but apparently also tore open a few old ones in Ranma's. I had not seen her for the rest of the day and when she finally returned, she seemed to act like nothing was wrong. Yes sure, it was all an act, but by that time I had been too worried to think straight and was a little pissed. The next day Ranma had probably been begging for forgiveness which really made me feel rather shitty, after all it was me who should have known that she needed some space after this. I had finally given in to her demands that she wanted to make it up to me but only under the condition that we would both enjoy ourselves. Secretly I had been smiling a little at her obvious concern. I knew, as with so many things, instinctually that was not something she would normally to do anyone. Which was also a point why I didn't let my joy show openly. The demure attitude was a reaction from the curse obviously. As nice as it was, it wasn't really Ranma speaking… well, not totally.

"Hey, why so gloomy. Wasn't it you who said that we BOTH enjoy ourselves?" Ranma's voice snapped me out of my trance and I glanced up with a smile for my Airen. "You are right. It's just… I…" I trailed of, not quite realizing that I had slipped back to Mandarin. Which of course didn't mean Ranma hadn't understood a word. We both had made an effort to learn the other's language better. It was sort of a silent agreement. And Ranma proved that his eidetic memory – as Elder Kho Lon called it – was not only helpful to pick up new techniques quicker. It was just a matter of wanting to learn… I chuckled mentally, that was something I could easily refer to. I hated education lessons too, and with Great-Grandmother you just couldn't get away from them…

"Just what?" my Airen asked back in his native language. We had often slipped into this routine since both of us seemed to understand the other's native tongue better than speaking it. "Oh, it's just... I… I wanted to thank you for what you did." It was true, I never properly expressed my gratitude for the way she had handled Mu Tsu, understanding instinctively that despite everything I didn't want the fool dead or hurt severely.

Of course Ranma being Ranma, albeit all the qualities she had shown in handling the blind fool, was still rather clueless at times. "Eh? What do you mean?" Like now. I sighed then giggled slightly which caused my companion to be even more confused and to look a bit hurt. Suddenly snapping back to serious again I stared up at the mountain tops. "Thank you for understanding. About Mu Tsu."

"Oh." There was a silence following and after awhile I looked ahead again when I felt a hand resting on my shoulder. Ranma stood, slightly bowed forward over me, a little sweat from training the Dragon – at least the motions for now – for the past half an hour was still glistering all over my Airen's beautiful face and shimmering red hair. All of that paled though in comparison when our eyes locked. Just like that day of the tournament, the day I had spared the cursed young man's life, the day I fell in love with this lonely soul that was just like me.

The realization and clarity came as quite a bit of a shock. Yes, I had fallen for her that moment. I had already been totally lost then. It made sense after all. I was so dead set on executing my revenge that nothing short of a cosmic miracle could have stopped me to follow through with the killing blow… A cosmic miracle or just simple love. It didn't matter really that we barely knew each other. Time wasn't the important factor for love. Time didn't matter for the heart. It wasn't important if boy or girl. It were those eyes – eyes that were said to be the mirror of one's soul – that had captured me from that very moment without any chance of ever releasing that hold again.

"Ranma…" I whispered, aware that there were tears forming in the corner of my eyes. The redhead looked a little uncomfortable with the sudden emotional turmoil directed at her that was for sure. To her credit she didn't pull back. Not even when I reached out to pull the slender yet powerful girl down against me. She let out a small squeal of surprise though which was caught of quickly by a heated kiss. After a short time of half-hearted struggling my Airen melted into the contact which continued for quite some time.

Finally I pulled back, to gaze at Ranma who was totally flustered and unable to form a coherent sound or move from her awkward position in my lap. Not that I minded. I reached up to brush through some red strands and then settled my hand on her left cheek to cup her face gently. "What are you doing to me?" I whispered amazed at the reaction my whole being suddenly showed. It was not only my body, but my heart and spirit danced with a joy I had not known since Mother left. Scars that I thought I would carry forever on my soul seemed to heal… No, I truly couldn't grasp all that the young cursed boy/girl did to me. The one thing was and remained clear now though. "Aishiteru," I whispered the words in her native tongue.

"Xian Pu…" Ranma shifted a little uncomfortable. She was about to say something in return but I placed a finger on her lips, hushing her effectively. "Don't. You are not ready yet. I don't expect you to answer to that right now." I wanted. My heart yearned to hear those words returned. But it was better this way. Ranma wasn't ready yet. And she wasn't quite herself again. As much as I wanted to hear her speak those words, I wanted it to be the real Ranma, free of the mantle of sadness and shame the curse had put around her. I wanted it to come from the heart, not just because she felt it necessary.

I was a little surprised to have Ranma lean forward to actually fall into an embrace. Usually it was me who had to initialize those things. Those simple gestures most of the time weren't speaking much about love. They were comfort, a safe harbor for my Airen to run away from her misery. This time something felt different though. "Arigato." I blinked, surprised and confused at the same time. I was about to ask what she was thanking ME for but Ranma was already explaining. "You know, the thing with Mu Tsu. I still don't know how I did it, usually I just screw such things up. I thought it had something to do with the curse. Maybe that is true. But a lot of it is your doing. Compared to what you did and still do for me here, helping your friend see the truth is a small thing. You are right, I'm not ready yet to say those words. Demo, I… I just want to thank you for being here… for me." A single tear slipped past the redhead's closed eyelids and even so close it was a strain to make out the last whispered words. "No one ever did."

I was at a loss of what to do, completely stunned by the honest and touching words from the girl in my arms. However, somehow I knew that this moment didn't need any further words as I simply continued holding my Airen for awhile. The moment had been a seminal one, one of honest declarations, feelings shared and discovered. And I had felt that a real hope was built today. The glimmer that had begun a few days ago had evolved into a tiny star now. A star of hope for both of our futures. A shared future. One that might not be so lonely anymore.

(Genma)

Who would have thought. Me, Saotome Genma trapped in a village of females who pretended to be warriors. Hah, what a ridiculous thought. I looked sheepishly around but chided me right away for the silly notion. They couldn't read minds or something. Not to mention that nobody saw me cloaked in the Yamasenken. I dreaded to use this hellish technique again but there was no other way. This had to end right now. By now I was sure Ranma had gotten to his senses and if not… Well, the so-called "training" under the shriveled old woman that reminded me too much of a certain someone for my liking had obviously taken its toll on him. He would either be too weak or too easy to influence to not see reason.

It was a real shame. After all this years I had spent on making him a splendid heir to our school, fulfilling my part of the promise the boy got it into his head that he rather wanted to stay here with this – admittedly caring and at least adequate skilled – Amazon. Of course this was nothing personal against the girl and I probably would have even approved had the other thing not stood. I had promised Tendo-kun after all. Not too mention that living here amidst a society ruled by woman for longer than necessary compared to a nice, cozy dojo was just…

Anyway. The boy would come to his senses or I would have to make him. He would thank me later. That much was for sure. After all I, as his father, should know what was best for him. And then we could finally return to Tokyo, join the schools and everything would be fine. Heck, with Ranma safely married I could finally see Nodoka-chan again without that godforsaken promise over our heads…

Kuso. Who was I fooling with that? Not even myself. My only son was a girl. Permanent. And the only chance for a cure obviously lay here but that would require him to stay faithful to the Amazon and… A real mess. How could the boy do something like that to me? Why couldn't he be more thankful and appreciate what his old man did for him? Why had I been so stupid to push him back in this cursed pool.

Matte… That wasn't my… Hell, it WAS my fault. I couldn't even deny it myself. Not this time. For once there was no way of an escape with minimum loss. And I had managed to screw it all up. Now I could never go back to Nodoka or honor the promise with Tendo. I would forever be stuck here. There was no way to satisfy the two most important promises in my life.

Shaking my head I rounded another corner finally spotting Ranma sitting on the front porch of the actually quite spacious house. It was dark, nearing midnight. Perfect. I knew that he and the Amazon had had a bit of a misunderstanding after Ranma vanished for awhile. Perfect opportunity. We could be out before someone even knew the boy wasn't in his room and then… then… No! I shouldn't think about that. There surely would be another way of curing his condition.

I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I had for a moment not kept a close eye on my surroundings and realized too late that I had relaxed my hold on the Yamasenken for a tiny moment. In that moment the redhead had moved with a speed I was totally incapable of comprehending. "Forget it, Oyaji." Pain suddenly exploded all over my body as hundreds of blows smashed into me in the space of a few seconds. I tried to bring up my guard but the motions were too quick. "Other than you I hold my promises. And I made one to Xian Pu that YOU won't make me break. This is my life and I intend to longer led it be ruled by your idiocy. Not. Anymore." As the final right look landed and I sailed through the sky soon after, I marveled at the irony of the statement because it was so frighteningly true. The one promise that I had sacrificed anything else for and the other one that I HAD to hold I could not fulfill and that just because Ranma wanted to fulfill his. In an odd sense I was a little proud. But only a little.

Looking down I searched for a soft landing spot but came up empty. "Err, this is going to hurt…"

A few days later (Ranma)

"Really, I don't believe the idiot. Trying to sneak in our room and snatch me!" The statement was more one of humor than of anger. That had been about the, um… thirty-fifth's attempt of Oyaji to get me out of the village unseen. He was growing impatient and relentless, being trapped here with all the women around him. Of course he wouldn't be treated well, even if nobody knew of the curse situation, the fool never stopped to realize what I had awhile ago already. Society's prejudices that Amazons would mistreat their men was only true when you deserved it. I had seen many men here that were obviously quite happy with their lives here and had nothing to complain about.

Of course that wasn't the real reason why the panda fool wanted out of here. Since finishing the Amaguriken training I had spent much more time with Xian Pu. Elder Kho Lon was now training us at the same time deeper in the art of chi manipulation and how to extract that power to use it for battle purpose. It was a good convenience that she had planned that for her heir anyway. And I could not deny that after that day in the mountains I felt more and more comfortable with the Amazon around. Not only out of comfort reasons alone anymore. No, I was beginning to fall for her. Plain and simple. I might not be ready to totally accept that yet but even thinking of her as my wife by their laws didn't automatically fluster me anymore.

"Yes, I mean. Even if he could get you two out, there would be a search party on you in no time." Xian Pu stopped in her step and turned towards me, a serious look suddenly on her face that I had learned to recognize in the past days. "I am glad you feel that you have to stay. I know what she was talking about. It had just been four days ago when Oyaji – on Elder Kho Lon's inquiry actually – had begun teaching me the Forbidden Saotome Style that he had created and sealed because they became too dangerous. Surprisingly he agreed but soon I found out that he only wanted to show me the Yamasenken to slip out unnoticed. I had told him point blank that I wasn't planning on leaving here anytime soon. After Jusenkyo I had had finally enough. Ten years I had let him push me around and went along with all his stupid ideas. Not anymore. Not with this. Not because of the curse. I couldn't do it because of Xian Pu, that would surely break her heart.

Closing the distance between us with a step, I gently reached out to touch her arm, making her look at me. It was a gift I had come to cherish. The ability for us to communicate with our eyes alone. For some reason there were never many words needed to let the other knew what they felt. I could try as much as I wanted, I wasn't able to emotionally shield myself from her. Too much had been shared already. "I don't feel that I have to stay. I want to stay." My Chinese had become more fluent. It really was a matter of putting your heart into it. I could learn a language like a Martial Arts technique.

Xian Pu reached up with her hand to touch my cheek and I relished in the feeling of the familiar warmth, beginning to spread through my body. Until now I had no idea if something would have come out of this moment. But of course, life couldn't just stop throwing its problems on me for a single moment of happiness. No, that would have been too much to ask.

"Saotome Ranma!" A voice suddenly bellowed through the silence of the early morning village which snapped both of us out of the trance we had been in. "I know you are here! Come out and fight me!" I blinked, trying to locate the source of the definitely male voice. It was some distance away, somewhere from the main entrance. I looked at Xian Pu and upon her nod, we both took to the roofs and raced in the direction where I could take up an easily identifiable tingle of anger chi. A lot of anger and depression. Hmm, whoever could that be? Mu Tsu was out of the question. No one had spotted him since the day of our confrontation and I had the feeling that any harsh feelings between us were extinguished then. So who else could it be?

(Xian Pu)

Quickly making our way to the main entrance of the village Ranma and I soon found out the origin of the idiot that had interrupted our moment… Err, I mean issued a quite obvious challenge to my Airen for what reason ever. Crouching low on one of the higher roofs we had a good view on the figure standing INSIDE the gates that were apparently pushed open. Granted, we had not the most steadfast material here but anyone crafty enough to push their way through the heavy gates had to be given more than just a passing thought. And where were the guards? I didn't spot any which either meant the intruder had disposed of them, they had been slacking off or either had no intentions to make a move.

The latter became more and more believable. Of course it could be because most of my sisters still didn't appreciate my Airen… or better my Airen with me, which might lead to believe that they had merely let the intruder pass out of their own animosity. That was a lot more farfetched though when anyone might have thought. An Amazon wouldn't abuse a position. Especially not a guard position. Looking at the figure in the middle of the entrance area though I think even I might have considered getting help before engaging a fight…

The "figure" was only remotely human-like. What was before our very ideas was more like a creature out of legends, a horrible and twisted demon being from ancient myth. If someone did not consider the history and the proximity to certain mythical places of the area when this was almost believable. As it was what I saw only threw me for a moment before I realized that what I had here was just an unlucky – although incredible stupid – human being.

"Jusenkyo Curses mixed," I whispered to Ranma who stared a little bewildered at the creature. What I could make out from here was already a great variety. The lower half was entirely composed of four legs, obviously of a bull or a similar creature, giving him – I assumed – the impression of a minotaur. The rest did add to the effect. The upper body was human but covered in a variation of skin, some sort of armor and fur. His head was bald but actually had two bull horns sticking out of it and I would really not be surprised to see fangs – which was impossible to make out from here. What was really striking where the wings. I could not quite determine from what they might be but they didn't look like they could actually carry all the weight for long. If they could do it at all.

"Saotome!" the figure bellowed again. It was a deep and rumbling voice. And anyone less than a warrior of our status it might have actually shaken to the core. So I just felt the tiniest bit uncomfortable. "Come here and stop being a coward! Face my wrath like a man!" The redhead flinched just the tiniest bit but I caught it. What was more worrying was the expression on her face though. A stubbornness I knew too well. No true warrior would take mocking like that lightly.

"Any idea who that is?" I asked, eying the intruder with concern. He seemed ready to tear through the whole village to find my Airen if it was necessary. Ranma shook her head. "Not the tiniest bit. So twisted as the guy is. I would be surprised if ANYONE could recognize him." Casting another glance downward she shrugged. "Oh well. Stay here, I see what the baka wants," she said and was gone before I could stop her. For a moment I considered getting Great-grandmother but my worry won that inner debate fast. Ranma might need help and surely someone would have informed the Elder by now or she probably knew already.

So I watched with apprehension the happenings below.

(Ranma)

Dropping back down to ground level, I focused my chi much like Elder Kho Lon and Oyaji had taught me, trying to calm my nerves. It wasn't like I was afraid or nothing. However, with all those curses apparently blended together I would rather have this settled peacefully than facing whoever that was directly. Yet, judged from his whole stance and the sickly black-green chi that reminded me too much of myself lately. I had not much hope for a quick and peaceful resolution. This wasn't Mu Tsu. This was someone with a grudge against me for whatever reason that seemed to be more deeply anchored when the Amazon's blind love.

"Yo, buddy, I'm here. So what do you want?" I addressed the… being a little cocky, not wanting to show my concern about facing such a creature in battle. The distorted man glared at me with flashing eyes of silver – wolf eyes maybe – and snorted. "Right. Hiding behind a woman. That's just like him…" A spark of anger flared at me at the accusation and I forced myself not to rush in with an unplanned attack.

Forcing down my emotions for the moment with the Soul of Ice that I had been practicing, I replied calmly: "Look. I know those are obviously blend-in curses, so you can't be that dumb. I AM Saotome Ranma. So get over it and tell me what you want already." The man stared at me for awhile, obviously trying to find out if I was lying. I was a little taken aback at the cruel smile slowing creeping into his face and the mocking laughter and chuckles erupting like a deep rumbling sound. "You… Ha ha, that's just too good. You are a GIRL!!! Aha ha ha…" A Raishu Dan sailed centimeters over his head and exploded against one of the gate posts as I momentarily lost my temper.

Calm. Calm and patient, I reminded myself. Right now I really wished I had practiced this more. "Who. ARE. You?" I managed to get out between gritted teeth. In an instant the facial expression on the stranger's face shifted from amused to one of boiling anger so intense that I forgot my own for the moment. His fists were clenched and his eyes drawn together to slits. "You… don't… REMEMBER?!? After all what I've been through. After all the damage you have done to my life, you simply don't even remember me?" I took a step back as his green chi became almost obsidian black. I had barely any time to react. One moment the figure was standing in the middle of the entrance area and seething in anger, the next he had cupped his hands together, a swirling ball of green and black chi forming there… "Ah, kuso…" I mumbled, preparing for a quick jump as I calculated the attacks possible range and course… Course. I glanced over my shoulder and surely saw Xian Pu down from her surveillance place, Elder Kho Lon next to her. Somewhere up the rooftops I spotted Lhi Li… Great, got to stop him somehow or someone will get…

"SHI SHI HOUKODAN!" Well, that much for stopping the baka. My eyes opened wide, not in fear but in concern for the few people I actually cared about. There was hardly a choice left as the massive beam of chi barreled in my direction. Calling up all my reserves I spun to face the blast, arms raised in a desperate attempt to lessen the damage…

(Xian Pu)

"AIREN!"

It was only due to Great-grandmother holding me back that I didn't give into the sudden impulse in a dumb and vain attempt to do ANYTHING. So I could only watch in abject horror as the chi blast impacted with the in comparison fragile looking redhead with a loud boom. I had to shield my eyes, not from the exploding dark chi but from the strong gust of wind following the impact. Everything and everyone was silent for awhile as the dust began to settle and the remains fizzled out. Slowly the shadowy figure of a human being sporting a pigtail could be made out and as the air further cleared there was no doubting anymore that it was indeed Ranma. Bruised, slightly charred but very much alive, standing and… angry. And I mean not just angry. I mean ANGRY.

I let go of the breath I had been holding for the infinite-seeming few seconds between impact and the emerging of my Airen as Great-grandmother commented, "Amazing…" but then trailed off as one trained in chi manipulation – even one only beginning to – could see the faint orange-red glow that slowly whisked out of existence like a barrier that had taken the most of the damage. But that was impossible. Surely it was her aura reacting to her emotions… right? Because if not… Well, I didn't really want to further follow that train of thought.

"Alright, buddy," Ranma snarled, lowering his arms and glaring at the monstrosity that would just be another human being with a splash of hot water. Said being actually flinched a little from the intensity. "We'll take that outside. NOW!" Before her opponent could as much as react Ranma was already in his face, crossing the remaining distance like a blur and unleashing an Amaguriken at speed that – I could clearly see – even impressed Elder Kho Lon. The bestiality half-staggered, half-flew backwards from the concentrated punches but surprisingly seemed rather unimpressed. Regaining footing just outside of the main gates it dug its massive four feet in the ground and reared back to leash out with his massive wings. However, Ranma was already out of range, letting out not more than a slight grunt as one of the wings scratched her slightly before coming up in a guarded defenses stance parallel to the village walls.

Great-grandmother, I and the small group of Amazons that had gathered to watch the battle with interest moved to follow but this time we made sure not to be in any position to get Ranma into trouble again. I had glimpsed some very approving reactions when my Airen had taken the blast that would have come right in our direction. And as much animosity that might still be there. Every Amazon would admire skill when they saw it and would not actively interfere with a duel. Ranma didn't know it but she had obviously gained herself a debt with a few ones right there. And THIS usually was a good thing.

Both combaters had not moved from their positions, silently daring the other to make the first move. Finally Ranma let out an exasperated sigh that could be heard from our position. "Fine, I give up. Who are you and what right do you have to barge in here and get innocents involved in whatever grudge you have with me?" she called out, not relaxing her guard the slightest bit. The hybrid's – since that is what he technically was now – expression darkened visibly at his opponent's obvious failed attempts to recognize him. I wondered how my Airen could not recognize someone that dangerous and with such a big grudge against her. But I was about to find out surely.

"That's just so like you. First you run out of our duel and now you even forget my name!" At Ranma's stupefied expression I could already smell the delusions, having been around Mu Tsu far too long not to see the signs when someone had a very vivid, egocentric imagination. Ranma muttered something that I couldn't catch from my position and the cursed male straightened up to all his pompous height. "It's me Saotome. Hibiki Ryoga."

The confusion didn't leave my Airen's face right away but when realization dawned in her eyes coupled with a rising chuckle. "Ryoga! Man, whatever happened to you, old buddy?" I cringed, being much too aware that even with her "Mu Tsu de-illusionist" status my Airen still had the habit of… how do the outsiders say it, putting her foot in her mouth at more times when she liked herself.

"SHUT UP!" the creature that once was Hibiki Ryougo roared and stopped on the ground with his massive hint legs sending a weak pulse over the ground. "This is all YOUR fault!" Ranma cocked her head, obviously unimpressed by his opponent's display of unrestrained fury. "Oh, how so, old friend? I think if anyone has the right to be angry here it's me. After all you nearly got some people care about injured, not to mention part of their home leveled."

"SHUT UP!" the Hibiki boy roared, tingles of green and black chi forming around him again. As he launched into his obviously flawed tale of how my Airen had managed to utterly destroy his life by stealing his bread – I barely contained the laughter at that –, running out of their duel – which I thought hard to believe – and eventually getting him cursed by luring him to Jusenkyo and other such nonsense, I could literally feel my Airen's emotions. There was that slight twitch she began to develop, the haunted look in her eyes warring with a bobbling volcanic heat of anger waiting to be released and not to mention the very concerning fact that with every word, every accusation her aura began to shift, growing thicker and darker. From sickly green until it became almost an obsidian black that was MUCH darker and thicker as her opponent's and even more worrying when her state upon arriving here.

Every onlooker took more than one cautious step backwards but I remained rooted to the ground, captivated by the swirling pool of blue eyes that I could catch even over this distance, seeing the cauldron of feelings bubbling and battling each other. I wasn't quite sure who I was more worried about my Airen or the fool who was pouring out his delusional soul.

But when the cursed male for the nth-time accused my Airen that she had no idea how it felt like, that she was still human and would not scare people… I swear the whole village could have heard the snap as whatever restrained the stored emotional trauma of the redhead cracked and finally broke. Then, THEN I really felt sorry for the Hibiki boy. Just a tiny bit…

(Ranma)

"You made my life a living hell, Ranma! You have no idea through what hell I had to go!" My face twitched ever so slightly at the words, images of several days ago forcing their way to the surface. They never were very far below, just in reach, ready to haunt me at any given moment. Just like now as the boy I had at one point considered as the closest friend I had since Ukyo launched into his abstruse tale.

"Day after day when we were in school you stole MY bread. Not enough you even mocked me countless times about it. As it wasn't enough when I finally arrived at our appointed duel after traveling through deserts, arctic wastelands and dangerous jungles alike YOU WERE NOT THERE!" After three days, yes. I remembered. I had waited three days. For Ryoga to arrive in his own backyard. Up to here the whole thing was even amusing to a point. Really. I was well aware of the boy's legendary direction problem. That's why I waited three days before we had to finally move on to China. I actually wanted to wait even though I was near the boiling point of impatience the third day but Oyaji had dragged me along. I could feel the slightest bit of annoyance drawing out a bit of anger from the lost boy's ridiculous accusation but refused to react to the statement, more interested in how he happened to get all those curses.

"And then, THEN," Ryogo continued through gritted teeth and with the sort of hard breathing that suited his animalistic appearance just fine, "I found out there you are." A dramatic pause. "I wish I never had. I wish I never had followed you to China as you surely had planned me too, to this cursed place! See what you did to me, you coward! This humiliation, this perversity! People are scared of me, I can't even ask someone for directions this way because they run screaming! I have been hunted by at least eight different people thinking I was either a demon, a monster or just a fine prize for their collection! And it's all your fault, Ranma!"

I could feel it now. The beginning of a slow rumble at the start of Ryoga's tirade had turned into an uproar of rolling thunder barreling its way closer and closer to the surface. I could feel the tendrils of green and black, the concerning waves of extreme negative and dangerous chi but I didn't care. Not now, not at all. Memories flashed before my eyes. Memories of the first time breaking the surface as a girl. Memories of learning about the locked curse after the second submerge. The hollowness and emptiness as I realized that my last glimmer of hope had obviously been thrashed when I had to bail out Oyaji once again.

"You have no idea what I had to go through. YOU at least still can be human! You have no idea what this agony feels like! You…" Ryoga stopped mid-sentence when my head snapped up and my eyes locked on his cursed ones. I imagined they must have looked like the very mother of a storm was brewing there and that is what felt like. Pain, depression, loneliness, humiliation, shattered pride and dreams, loathing and an all-out consuming fury had finally penetrated the thin layer of protection that had kept them in since that day. They had been pushed back a little over the last days. Ignored and somewhat eased. But never gone. Never really not threatening to burst forward at any moment. And that moment had come. Now. Here. Inevitable.

"Ryoga," I spoke in a voice that was near a whisper but yet as clear if I had shouted it from atop the mountains. A voice that any other point would have even shaken me to my bones. "You are still the same overgrown child as before." As expected the Lost Boy immediately went to retort, an angry scowl passing over his inhuman features but he never managed more than opening his mouth. "You come here and accuse me of being responsible for your misery? You tell me that I stole your bread and ran out on our duel when all I did was being a bit quicker at the usual lunch brawls and even shared it with you, when all I did was getting you to school and home EVERY FREAKING DAY because you wouldn't find it on your own, when all I did was waiting THREE FUCKING DAYS for you to arrive IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD."

My voice had only slowly risen but the intensity of my emotional turmoil surely had tripled. I let it all come. Not at the least concerned with my own health or that of anyone or anything around me. By now tiny almost electrical discharges of chi crawled and sparked over my skin as waves of emotions traveled down into my palms.

"And if that isn't enough. You were stupid enough to follow me to Jusenkyo and tell me it was my fault that you fell into half the pools available?" I was amazed at that point how level I could hold my voice but it was near the cracking point. "You tell me I have no idea how that feels like? You tell me I am better off because I'm still human all the time? I tell you something, Ryoga, OLD buddy…"

The guide's words began ringing in my ears as I let every last ounce of devastation and terror that I felt that moment and still did rush out of from wherever it came. I couldn't stop anymore. I didn't want to stop anymore. It HAD TO come out. Everything. "At least you still can be YOURSELF half the time! You tell me, you have it bad? Try living as the total opposite you have been raised for in over ten years WITHOUT A WAY TO CHANGE BACK! You stupid baka are coming here, demanding revenge from your self-inflicted stupidity, almost trash an entire village with your delusions and want to blame ME?!?"

At this point my voice dropped back to the low, chilling whisper again: "Ryoga, you really are a pitiful creature. Do you see me moping around, unleashing my anger at anything in sight? Hell, I even HAVE someone to blame for. But do you see me complaining? No, because I deal with my problems and not go around accusing people. No, Ryoga…"

Ryoga had not moved at all since I begun, various degree of his own anger flashing in his face and his own chi rising at the same time. But it was half-hearted, not even a sliver compared to the power coursing through me right now. And he looked FRIGHTENED now. His eyes were wide with shock and a dawning realization turning into horror as I cupped my hands the darkish chi crackling, twisting and GROWLING like a predator just waiting to be unleashed on its helpless prey. But for me it was more. For me it was all the negativity that was stored up since Jusenkyo and even further before. It was all that I hated about my life, that I hated to endure and put up with every day traveling with Oyaji, it was the humiliation and destructiveness of getting stuck in this body. It was, plain and simple, alive.

You have ABSOULTELY NO IDEA what this feels like!"

It wanted to be free and gone from its containment.

I felt like I would burst any moment as I drew back with my cupped hands much like Ryoga had before. The enormous gathering of chi was unbearable to control.

And I was much to happy to oblige its wishes.

"SHI SHI HOUKODAN!"

The echo as my frantic opponent called out his own attack was drowned out by the thunderous roar I let loose with my own version. The beam of thick blackness only remotely sporting traces of green in it was at least four times bigger in height and width than Ryoga's and overpowered his like an insect trying to wrestle with an elephant. I felt the rush of emotions as they filtered out of my very core like a cascade, a river that broke through a dam, finally released and free to follow its natural flow. If a thunderbolt had struck right between us I hardly believed it would have been heard as the chi blast crashed into Ryoga, practically swallowing him completely for a moment before lifting the enormous figure despite all his struggles from his feet and flinging him through the air into a near formation of rocks, bringing those to collapse on top of him.

As the last bit of chi drained away from my body, not only a thick silence had settled over the area – to a point that even nature itself was obviously holding her breath – but also a sense of deep calm, a lasting refreshing and welcoming sense of serenity settled in my heart. Right there all that dark emotions that I had put into the chi blast had been. It was strange but at the same time somewhat logical. Ryoga always was someone who let depression rule his life. Every challenge, every little thing that didn't go his way was viewed as the epitome of the very life crisis. He always had found a way to direct his anger and own problems at others, never able to see his own flaws. And therefore this chi attack – wherever the baka had managed to pick it up – was totally suited for him. He never really run out of this emotions.

In my case, however, I usually mastered the occasional bump in the road, the next stupidity thrown as a so-called "challenge" from Oyaji in my way with all the confidence that I had ever felt before Jusenkyo. That had been taken away then and all the loneliness and aggravation that had been build up over the years had mixed with fury and loathing. Unlike Ryoga I had kept it in, even to a point where I would have chosen my own death over the very close possibility of madness. All of this, all this negative chi, had been brought out by Ryoga and released in one great eruption so strong that it didn't leave anything behind anymore.

When I thought about the curse right now I still felt repulsion and a distaste at the concept and Oyaji but it didn't feel horribly anymore. And that was mostly thanks to Xian Pu I realized with a bit of surprise. She had never given me the feeling of being anything less than myself. She hadn't reminded me once that I was not what I had been born as. For her I was merely myself. The person behind the gender. A broken person maybe, but the person, not the gender. I had known it all along. The lengths she had gone just too cure my soul, not my curse. That wall of darkness and negative emotions I had subconsciously build and piled up around me had prevented me from REALLY seeing it. Now everything was bathed in a crystal clarity that was nothing short of refreshing.

The sound of rocks being pushed apart brought me back to reality, the sudden calmness never leaving me though. To my mild astonishment Ryoga was already pushing his way out of his rocky "grave". Alright with that built and all the layers of protection the curses had to provide I had been sure that he wouldn't really been dead or something. In the back of my conscious I had known that he was going to survive it. A sorry fool he might be but I didn't wish him death. No, he wasn't dead. Just badly scarred, his skin and fur almost to the point of blackening from the energy of the chi blast, one eye was swollen red and one of that horns was almost broken off, hanging a little limply off to the side, the wings looked nearly crushed by the sudden weight of the burial.

"I'll… never… forgive you…!" the pitiful creature that was even further away from resembling a human being pressed out. I could only shake my head, not even bothering to take a proper fighting stance. "You are pathetic, Ryoga. Still the same dumb blockhead as before."

Of course that statement only helped to deepen the unrestrained fury but that was just what I wanted. I was tired of this. I had the suspicion that in his cursed form Ryoga could go several rounds, much longer than any normal human being should. Even though I was not afraid of that, with all the training I had endured the last days, the baka had drawn out enough hatred and anger for one day. At a level I was almost thankful for it. Still you never knew what he could destroy in his blind rage, so I better should put a stop to this. Not to mention that this was a perfect opportunity for a real test…

Clearing my mind, I found it amazingly easy to access the Soul of Ice as Ryoga lunged forward with a snarl of anger. With my mind clear of any such notions for the first time in a very long time I slowly began to draw my opponent in the appropriate pattern.

(Xian Pu)

"Airen…" I whispered the word this time, still unmoving, still rooted solely to the one spot I had been spending the whole time on. A trickle of fear that I stubbornly refused to admit to as anything more than rightful concern had settled somewhere deep inside of me and my heart ached at the soul-shattering cry of release that called out the chi blast. It was like the death cry of a deity. Bone-chilling and frighteningly unearthly. There was so much pain. So much bare, unprotected pain… I had seen it in her eyes time and time again but seeing it manifest in such a terrible force…

No, it wasn't the power that had concerned me, not even the possible lethal consequences for the other cursed male, not even possible backlashes. What really scared me for several, terrible long seconds was the fear that the dark emotions had not only been unleashed in the enormous chi blast but also had taken over and most likely destroyed Ranma's sanity. For that infinite, shocking moment I feared for her very life.

But… When the volcanic eruption had died down what I saw in the blue eyes of my Airen clearly – even over the distance – was nothing short of stunning. The deep serenity, the utter relieve as if all the heavy weight of her fate had just been taken from her shoulders was filling me with a warmth I could not quite define. Her aura was totally clear of any traces even coming near to a depression green. There was even the slightest trickle of red.

When moments later her opponent had yet again risen and was ready to resume the battle my concern had faded into the barely noticeable areas. There was that certain… gleam in the redhead's eyes. That twinkle when you know you had the upper head, when you knew you would win, that sort of expression that spoke of how much you ENJOYED the fight.

As Ranma's aura sprung up into a deep, cold blue to meet Ryoga's fiery, angry one my only concern was a slight worry. "Is she ready for this," I asked Great-grandmother without taking my eyes from the form of my Airen who weaved around her opponent's attacks with an almost mocking ease, drawing him with every step deeper into the spiral. It was aggravating Ryoga even further, that was clearly obvious. He tried to constantly hit Ranma with anything possible. His massive head, the slightly torn wings, the remaining healthy horn or simply a vain attempt of running his foe over, nothing seemed to even come remotely close to touch my Airen as she stayed just the necessary bit out of reach with Amaguriken-fueled reaction speed.

"Oh, Son-in-law knows what he is doing. From what I saw he has the basics down and the Soul of Ice is… perfect." I nodded, agreeing silently on the subject. The release of chi had obviously carried away all the blockades and so Ranma was able to even break that last barrier to access the cold chi technique that she never had seemed to really master before. There was no trace of even a tiny spark.

"Fight back damn it!" Ryoga let loose with a cross between a bellow and roar as he swung his fist blindly at Ranma who was now only a few steps away from completing the spiral. I had finally moved, stepping closer to the wall, bracing myself for the inevitable while most of the other Amazons had already scrambled for cover, knowing very well what was coming.

"You know, Ryoga, I think I even have to thank you," I could hear my Airen's voice over the roar of clashing chi as the two combatants arrived in the center of the spiral. "I really feel better now." Her opponent was too far gone to let go of his anger, even when confusion crossed his features. And so he was doomed.

"HIRYU SHOTEN HA!"

The redhead thrust her fist upwards but the blow didn't even manage to strike her opponent in his jaw as it would have otherwise as the cold and hot chi finally merged and erupted outwards into an enormous tornado that ascended up to the heavens as the very incarnation of an angry dragon. I had seen the technique before, several times. I had witnessed Great-grandmother demonstrated to the youngest the wonders and power of Amazon law, I had seen it used in real battles before… However, the sheer amount of chi involved in this confrontation was actually frightening to a point. And so, it was no real surprise that the foundation of the village began to rattle and the very earth to shake as the Dragon finally manifested.

Ryoga by now barely was a blur, tossed around in high speed winds that threatened to pull him apart in every direction at once. His wings were even less beneficial as they were before and at one point actually ripped apart – which had to hurt like hell I could imagine. The scream that had began to escape from his lips as the wind picked him up could not be heard over the roaring anymore.

I had a hard time staying upright but my training allowed me to withstand the lashing wind that was generated by the enormous spiral in the middle of the field in front of the village and it was over more quickly than I had suspected. As the storm began to subside the near-shredded figure in the air stayed there for awhile before crashing down like a stone, causing a middle-sized crater upon impact. My main focus was on Ranma though. The redheaded Martial Artist stood in the center, the eye of the storm with her arm and fist still raised to the sky in a… yes, you could actually say relaxed pose. Unyielding and not wavering the slightest, completely still. You could have mistaken her for the statue of a victorious Amazon posing. I couldn't tear my eyes away and even had to force myself to move. I knew it wasn't long before the stress and exhaustion from the battle settled in, now that the adrenalin was gone. She could appear as tough as she wanted, my Airen was only human herself… Though after that performance there could be other opinions…

I reached Ranma just at the moment her knees gave way underneath her, allowing me to catch her just in time. While I lowered the girl carefully to the ground, not minding her clinging reflexively to me, I noticed that a few tremors shook her otherwise limb body. Probably aftereffects from the overexertion of her chi reserves. "Airen, alright?" I asked rather rhetorically, sticking to still rather broken Japanese to make it a little easier for the girl after that ordeal. Her gaze directed at me was a little unsettling and I wondered what was going through her mind right now. From what I caught from the verbal exchange he had considered this Ryoga as close a friend as one could make while constantly traveling. It must have hurt.

However, that look was not quite about pain. I think the very ability to feel that had been completely drained for the moment through the chi blast. No, Ranma's eyes were soft and laced with a certain understanding that I wasn't quite sure what to make off. Looking down where I had gripped her hand, I could see my Airen squeezing my own slightly before catching my eyes again. "Arigato." The puzzlement must have shown in my face since I wasn't sure what exactly she was thanking me for. Before I could ask the question though the answer was already given. "For being yourself and… for loving ME."

For a moment I wasn't quite sure whether to laugh or cry. Finally I settled for a hopefully reassuring and thankful smile. Brushing through some, now unruly, red hair I whispered: "Always. But only for you."

(Ranma)

The minutes went by as the sun slowly rose over the mountain tops surrounding the small secluded village lying peaceful in slumber of pre-dawn. Funny. That somehow reminded of the first morning I spent up here. On the roof of the house I had called home for the last weeks. It had been weeks already. Weeks of training, training and dealing. Dealing with the horrible truth of the fate that had befallen me. Was it really that horrible? I truly didn't KNOW anymore. Sure, it hurt. Sure, it robbed me off what I really was. Or did it? Everything was much clearer this morning. However, this clarity also made it more confusing. Pretty pathetic, right?

One thing was foremost on my mind. Xian Pu. The lavender-haired Amazon that had so sacrificially taken me in and showed nothing but care and compassion for me ever since. With her I never REALLY felt like I was some stranger, some twisted mirror impersonating all that was me but the body. I never really felt like I even had to be what I was all my life. Strong. Manly. Proud. Confident. A fine example of Martial Artist… without a friend. She had been this friend. Unconditional and patient. And for the first time since leaving home and Okaasan – which I had only the vague memories of a child of – I felt loved. I felt important. Not the Martial Artist. Not my skill. Not my superiority. ME.

And had I ever paid it back?

If I never fell into that pool I might have never met her. If I never fell into this pool twice I might have never KNOWN her. After all it would have been temporary. Nothing Saotome Ranma couldn't master, right? Had I staid and awaited the killing blow that day? No. I would probably have given in and run as Oyaji had tried to. And the realization of this. Of what life would have turned out then, without the smiling, cheerful and infectious girl in my life… It made me shudder just to think about it. At least I would have lost the chance of the best friend I had since Ucchan, at best… The at best became more and more reality, yet I was not QUITE ready to admit to it myself. I knew she wanted me to but she wanted me also to be true to myself. That's not always easy with a life such as mine.

Ryoga had left, probably gotten himself lost several times trying to find a way back to Jusenkyo – which according to Elder Kho Lon was magically nearly impossible once you were cursed. Of course I had tried talking to him when he came to. The anger was far gone by then and as I said just before igniting the Dragon. In an ironic way I was even thankful for him showing up when he did. He provided me with just the way and opportunity to for once in my life let go of the pent-up emotions. It had felt so terribly good. Still did.

Ryoga hadn't spared me much more than a glance, a few mumbled words that were supposed to resemble anger and then had dragged himself up and away, grudgingly swearing he would find a way for revenge. I wanted to pity him, I wanted to just ignore it and shrug it of as a hopeless case… Just that… I had really once considered him a friend. A friend I had sacrificed much of my time for and that for the life of me I just couldn't understand anymore.

"Thinking doesn't make it easier, doesn't it?" I turned my head slightly, not all surprised, actually rather welcoming the arm over my shoulders and the girl sliding next to me. Another funny thing. A few weeks ago the very idea of having a girl so close to me and actually enjoying the feeling would have been mind-boggling for me. It was not like I was as shy as say… Ryoga. But in my opinion my life didn't have time for girls, romance and stuff in it yet. I had viewed the prospect as a distraction from the Art. And now. Now I was sitting on a rooftop AS a girl with another comfortingly snuggled up next to me and I was enjoying it. Not even that but I had found it fascinatingly astonishing that her mere presence could even sharpen my focus much more than any meditation or any training method. Oyaji would have been disgusted for sure but THAT was only one more point why I just had to enjoy it.

I didn't say anything, feeling completely at ease for once as I let my head rest against her shoulder, a soft morning breeze carrying the smell of dew washing over us. Xian Pu wouldn't think any less of me. Oyaji might say such actions were a weakness but I had learned otherwise in the last weeks. There was nothing wrong with letting go once in awhile. If you didn't the stress could consume you. And here, with her, I felt safe. Safe, understood and loved. Nobody would see or know and to her it didn't matter.

"When Mu Tsu almost managed to… kill… Lhi Li…" Xian Pu's voice faltered slightly then continued softly, "I felt like I lost a part of me. It might not be the same as with Ryoga and you since we knew each other ever since we were little but I can understand, really. I am glad you made him see that." She trailed off as my eyes rested on hers. She had never talked about Lhi Li or openly admitted anything about that time. There was a lot of dulled pain and heartache in her voice but her eyes spoke enough only if you couldn't hear it.

"Yeah," I snorted, not really wanting to, but unable to stop myself, "a shame I couldn't do something for myself just ONCE." A tiny smile crept into my Amazon wife's face which I found a little unnerving since I didn't think it was quite appropriate. "But you did. Yesterday you DID." Her gaze was intense and I felt myself swallowing a sudden lump in my throat.  Yes, I did, didn't I. I had finally managed to rebel against the one thing that I had never dared to before. Against myself. Myself and all the dark aspect I had simply allowed to be there because I was afraid to face them. And as I already stated. It felt good.

Reacting on instinct alone I first broke out in a broad grin, then leaned up boldly to kiss Xian Pu briefly on the lips. "Arigato. What would I do without you, hmm?" I felt myself actually enjoying the mischievous feeling that spread through me upon her rather stunned and flustered expression. I knew, of course, that this had been the first time I had initiated any sort of romantic contact.

My eyes twinkled a little as I stood up and smiled down at her. "Ready for some sparring?"

(Xian Pu)

It was like a ritual of sorts. Morning sparring I mean. Even in the days where Ranma had undergone the Amaguriken training we had regularly done that. For one who had it drilled into him since six that girls were weak and an honorable man wouldn't fight them to do that, I can tell that I felt quite honored. I knew she was holding back and that it was more training for me than for her but at the same time I think it was her way of expressing gratitude, her way of showing the feelings she had kept inside for so long. There was so much one could read in body language, especially in the emotional twister that was a good spar or battle. You always showed something. Control, anger, determination, calm… Whatever it was even though you ought to keep your emotions in check in a way you were terrible unguarded in other ways. At least for one who knew what to look for.

I moved my head to the left at the last moment, anticipating the feint and countering with an open-palm strike that Ranma managed to block with astonishing speed, somehow managing to reverse her sudden grip in the blink of an eye to throw me over. Anticipating the move I readjusted my feet and instead slid forward between, bringing my feet up quickly around her neck and pulling fast, flipping her over and myself on top of her, effectively pinning the redhead to the ground.

I grinned down at her, a little smugness showing. And there was a sparkle in her eyes I hadn't seen before yesterday. A gleam of excitement that marked the true joy of a fight. I was startled for a brief but devastating moment by the dazzling smile sent my way and found myself sailing through the air a moment later.

Flipping over I managed to land on my feet and spinning around to face the girl immediately. I barely had a moment to bring up my guard as a half-hearted Amaguriken kept me busy for several seconds before the barrage finally subsided… just to receive a kick that nearly swept away my legs had I not jumped at the last possible moment. I was totally baffled when Ranma shot up from her position barely finishing the leg sweep, meeting me in mid-air. Surprised as I was it was me this time that found herself pinned down by a grinning redhead.

I made no immediate move to get her off me, instead watching the sheer happiness sparkling in the blue eyes, the unrestrained feelings not afraid to be seen, the silent laughter and quiet amusement – not maliciously – at my vain attempts to get the upper hand. The unguarded and honest gratitude boring into my heart and leaving a warmth there that burned away all the years of loneliness. Goodness, she was BEAUTIFUL. I knew there was a male face and body hiding underneath but that really wasn't an issue right now. This wasn't about male or female but about the natural beauty that came from inside. There was NO way that her male form would lack this quality.

"I love you," I breathed out with a sudden need to just kiss her and I did just that. The spar all but forgotten for a single moment as I put everything I just felt into the contact. The joy of seeing my Airen so ALIVE. As the kiss drew on I got a sudden mischievous thought. Slowly I worked my hands free from their entrapment, preparing just for the right moment to…

I blinked as Ranma pulled away, her face slightly flushed but not at all distracted. As proof she had just caught my wrists again and looked down at me with a smug smile. "Going anywhere so soon?" Again she caught me off guard, just like before on the roof, leaning in to give me another light kiss before finally standing up. For a long moment I didn't even notice the outstretched hand and the gentleness in the redhead's features as she looked down at me.

Blinking several times I managed to bring my suddenly alarming high heart rate under control, taking the offered hand and – with a hidden smile – tugged on it with enough force to bring Ranma off-balance once more. But again she was that tad bit quicker and instead pulled me up with sudden strength, flat against her slightly smaller form. As our eyes locked and we didn't move for a few moments I suddenly realized something else about our morning ritual. It was subtle. But it seemed we had added a certain amount of flirting…

Several days later

The confrontation of Ranma and Ryoga had been the newest top topic of the rumor mill around the village. There only had been a handful actually present and stories varied from ridiculous exaggeration to equally understatements. One thing was for sure though. Ranma had earned herself a huge amount of respect. That lead to most of my tribal sisters thinking twice before making a comment about me or us in general. Of course all good had a downside somewhere and so challenges had actually increased instead of decreased. It seemed my Airen – despite of no one knowing her true gender – was quite wanted all of a sudden…

A few days ago that development would have been a course of concern. Not that I actually thought someone could beat her but… Well, that wouldn't have stopped me from worrying. However, her words after the battle had calmed my fears and made it once and for all clear that I DID love her. Whether or not the feelings were returned, her gratitude for a moment had been soothing to my lonely soul. Someone was thankful for ME, being there and caring. The fact that it was Ranma was only serving to make me feel that much better about it.

"Here you are." I didn't jump when the soft, familiar voice spoke from behind me but turned in the embrace suddenly enfolding me from behind. The redheaded girl slid down next to me against the outer wall around the village and I didn't hesitate to snuggle closer. It had become a natural thing and wasn't solely comfort anymore but quickly turning into genuine affection from both sides. For the moment it didn't really matter that Ranma had yet to voice a declaration. Her actions as of late made me confident though that it was merely a matter of time now. What had begun as a compassionate relationship had developed into something bigger and my Airen was no fool not to notice.

"Sorry, I needed to get out for awhile." Usually by now we would be well in our morning sparring session. Ranma's father had once or twice tried to butt in, thinking that the part was his right… After a few beatings from both of us he quickly relented. To be honest the fat male had obviously given in to his fate after Ranma had trashed him royally after another attempt to escape his "prison" – or whatever the idiot might think of my village.

"No problem. I need to clear my mind anyway for later," Ranma replied, switching to Mandarin. She had become much better in my language than I in hers. But it didn't seem to bother her. After all not all Amazons even understood Japanese therefore this way it was better anyway. "Are you going to tell me what you are doing up there one day?" I asked. It was the same routine every morning since the Ryoga incident and Ranma's mastering of the Dragon. Great-grandmother had all but acknowledged that at her current level she couldn't teach my Airen anything more but that she wasn't ready for obtaining the cure yet. I actually had a good idea what the cure was about and what it involved but was sworn to secrecy over the whole matter. Therefore Great-grandmother's advise was simple. Perfecting the skills my Airen had learned and that she did. Venturing out into the mountains every morning at dawn for several hours.

"You'll see soon," Ranma said and leaned to kiss me softly before standing up. "I think I'm almost on the verge of a breakthrough." And with that she was already gone while I still touched my lips with what surely had to be a rather silly smile plastered on my face.

(Ranma)

Breaking out of the rhythm at the last possible second I released the thrashing elements from the slightly but critically important off-balance position. As if on cue a sharp wind began to rise and pulled me up into the air. Compared to the treatment Ryoga had gotten though this was a gentle breeze, a not even for an average person dangerous wind. That was first due to my unwillingness to hurt my training partner and second due to said training partner's rather low anger chi that was laced with no intention whatsoever to cause lethal harm – an essential part for a successful Dragon. We had found a way past that luckily.

Concentrating on the task I focused all my concentration into totally clearing my mind, suppressing any usage of my own chi in the process. Then I brought my hands back, cupped in a position similar for a chi blast. Reaching out with my senses I let myself become one with the onslaught of massive, if not gigantic, chi around me and taped into it. The whole thing took barely a few seconds from start to finish but that was okay. If I managed this quick now, in a real battle it could be very beneficial and most likely life-saving.

For a moment I struggled to control the chaotic chi of heat and cold that I kept pulling in as the swirling focus link in form of a slowly growing sphere tried to continuously lash out. Being faced with the full power of a nearly – or so Elder Kho Lon had said – Perfect Shi Shi Houkodan and still alive, this was child's play compared to the physical and mental strain. Although a real battle use might as well come close.

Grunting slightly in annoyance at the stubborn chi I finally stabilized the link. Waiting for just the right moment, that being right above the eye of the tiny tornado I let the gathered chi ball go, pointing it downward. As expected the backlash worked like a boost and soon I found myself traveling down the spiral's center with reckless speed and all the gathered chi following in a concentrated beam of pure chi formed into one – admittedly rather thin – blast. The rocky surface shook slightly as the chi blast struck its target and I swayed to the left at the last moment to avoid a frontal collision as a temporary thick cloud enveloped my training partner.

For a moment I had to struggle for breath. The exertion was not really straining but the loss of own chi involved in even igniting just such a small spiral was… not pleasant. And I had to keep my own levels suppressed at the same time as accessing the Soul of Ice. Glancing over at the girl on the ground, panting heavily I thought I was probably much better off than my training partner. Not that she would admit weakness openly. She was an Amazon despite many contradicting traits and such would never do that in a situation of battle. As much as I wouldn't, I guess.

"You alright, Lily?" I asked my mutual if rather unexpected training partner concerned. I had chosen to alter the pronunciation on her name in fashion most outsiders would do if not exposed to the native language day by day. There really was not much of a difference and I liked to think of that as sort of a nickname for the girl I had come to consider as a friend.

"Yeah sure. Did it work? Did you get everything?" I broke into a broad smile, nodding vigorously as I helped her to a standing position. "It was merely a matter of forcing the connection between the focus and the rest too much, I guess." I shrugged and then grinned with amusement. "Boy. will the Old Ghoul be surprised if she sees this." Lhi Li nodded with a gentle smile. She really had a calm and warm nature and even though she could very well develop a fighter spirit as proudly as any Amazon if necessary she was not much of a warrior. Her movements were much more graceful and adapted for dancing and lacked the purpose and subtlety of readiness for an immediate attack at any moment. I suppose though she could give anyone a run for their money in points of agility. I had to know after sparring with her for a few days straight.

"Well, I'm sure the Elder will be impressed. I doubt anyone ever came up with a counter for the Dragon in such a… unsuspecting manner," she commented, staring at me strangely for a moment. "You seem awfully cheery this morning though. More when I ever saw you. Anything particular happened that you want to tell me?" I blushed at the inquiring gaze, laced with mischievous amusement. That's one of the many things you had to put up with her. A ridiculous amount of teasing. Yet I knew most of the question going into this direction were concern for Xian Pu.

I turned away, trying to hide the coloring and looked down onto the land below. "Don't forget that most of the technique was your idea." Which was true. The initial prospect had been brought up by her as we discussed possible ways of "perfecting" my skills as Elder Kho Lon had called it. Blinking shortly I gave a sigh that was not really weary or depressed. "And yes, I feel a lot better actually. I… I thought a lot lately and I think… I think I'm ready." There wasn't really a point in elaborating further, Lhi Li knew exactly what I was talking about. So as I turned around to gauge her reaction I had trouble keeping my balance in what Xian Pu had explained was simply known as the truly terribly Amazon technique. The dreaded Amazon Glomp.

"This is wonderful. I'm so happy. Domo arigato… 'Neechan." I was not much surprised but a little startled as the fierceness and manner of her reaction. I guess at a level I had always thought that I was, after all, a rival to Lhi Li. Yet she never acted like it. I think for her, she and Xian Pu were history and all she wanted now was for my Amazon wife to be happy. Her approval was something I valued even in the days when I was totally unsure of that marriage thing.

She called me 'Neesan too. Despite being taller and emotional much more stable and mature than me, Lhi Li WAS younger. And there had been a genuine affection developing between us that I could not deny but… 'NEESAN? It wasn't really the female implications in the statement but the prospect of something having me called sibling with a certain amount of… admiration? Woah… That was something I had to get used to. If it helped bringing her and Xian Pu closer again – on a platonic basis – it would surely be worth it. And having someone think of me as such close relation was… warming to put it nicely.

Before I could really comment I felt Lhi Li suddenly stiffen and squeezing just a tiny bit more before stepping back, her face stricken and if I hadn't thought it to be ridiculous actually white like a ghost. "Nani? Lily, you okay?" She just pointed over my shoulder in response, her mouth obviously battling her inability to vocalize what had happened. My danger senses flaring with a decade worth of training I whirled around to on first glance spot nothing out of the ordinary as my eyes scanned for possible dangers. However, when I looked down onto the land below again I could SWEAR that I saw a tiny white sphere floating in the lower air, getting closer to the village. And I could feel it too. Very, VERY clearly. TOO clearly.

"Herb," Lhi Li behind me finally breathed out in a whispered hiss, swaying between fear and an – for her – uncommon anger. I needed a moment for the single word to make sense but Elder Kho Lon had told me about the surrounding area and its inhabitants as well as the natural enemies of the Amazons. And the Elder was out to look for just such a trail of them that had been discovered recently. The Council obviously was worried about an attack. Apparently the Matriarch had been outsmarted... but that meant…

"Kuso." A second later we were both in motion.

(Xian Pu)

Whistling I actually felt myself not minding the usual daily chores. After that morning I was now almost certain that Ranma was about to "say the words". We had been getting so close and even more affectionate ever since the Ryoga incident that the redhead's feelings had been made more than just a little clearer. I could not suppress the smile at these thoughts and the happy tune springing from my lips. Quite frankly I had no intention to do so. By now I just couldn't grasp the concept of going to my old life without the presence of my Airen beside me.

Not stopping at what I was doing – mainly fixing some of the damage the roof had acquired in one of the standard challenge matches – I acknowledged the presence pretending to subtly creep up behind me with one curt statement and a not-at-all-suppressed smirk. "What Panda want?" I must admit to be a tad bit surprised. That was about the first time my Airen's father had approached ME. Usually he tended to just vanish during the day – probably sulking somewhere about the unfairness and misery of his fate and in the process avoiding possible work. I swear Great-grandmother was on the verge of throwing him out but I think she just got more satisfaction of having Genma watch his son/daughter's defiance, stubbornly refusing to leave.

"So…" The man stopped himself for a moment, obviously debating with himself if whatever he was up to was a good idea. Inwardly I tensed though I didn't envision much of a challenge. What came next nearly caused me to drop the hammer I was holding and that might have ended painful. "Do you love my son?" The question was straight-forward, for once not laced with the usual cowardice. It was apparent though that asking the question was obviously hard on the man.

Slowly I turned around, finally recovering from the shock, and focused on the bald man with his usual bandana, trimmed glasses and gi. I was a little shocked at finding my gaze returned by a steady, unwavering one that seemed to bore directly through me. Refusing to admit intimidation I swallowed the lump that had been building in my throat. This wasn't Saotome Genma, coward father, trouble maker and all in all an insult to humanity. No, this was Saotome Genma, father of his son Ranma. Plain and simple.

"Why want to know?" I asked, needing no reason to express my feelings for Ranma but curious about the sudden change in the man's demeanor. "For all Xian Pu know, Xian Pu just obstacle for Panda father's own plans with Ranma. But Ranma not like that, Ranma own person, make own decisions. She know that now." I met the intense look with an equal sternness, refusing to lose the battle of wills.

Finally Genma dropped his gaze to the ground in defeat. "That was exactly what I feared… and hoped for." I think the double blink must have been heard at the other end of the village. "It is true that it was always my dream to reunite the Anything Goes Schools and I am disappointed that this will most likely not come to pass anymore but… He looked up at me and I was glad that I was leaning against the wall already. Short of Ranma I had rarely seen such a conflict of emotions playing upon a human being's features. "I realize that I have never been a very good father, socially at least. Due to my upbringing I just never could be that. All I could do was teach Ranma and hope he turned out better than I…" A very thin smile briefly gleamed in the morning light. "I am… a little proud of him."

For several moments I really didn't know what to say. Unfortunately I never had the time to do so or answer his initial question – although I suppose that really was a mood point – as the ground shook viciously for a moment. My danger senses flared like a volcano had just erupted over the village and I was in motion a moment later. Surprisingly, or maybe not so, Ranma's father was right next to me, his features suddenly hardened and for the first time I really saw the mask of a seasoned warrior settle over his features.

Not questioning the sudden odd behavior of the other male I made quick work of locating the powerful chi source. Directing our run over to the entrance area I felt a sudden feeling of dread overcome me as I tried to make out just why the chi pattern felt so disturbingly familiar.

Arriving in the wide entrance area that still sported some traces from Ryoga's pre-emptive chi blast against Ranma I felt my blood run cold as I skidded to a sudden stop. I noted the other two unfamiliar arrivals but my gaze was fixated on the third one. It was hard to make out the gender of the human with the multi-colored hair that stood proudly between the two others, clad in a variety of impressive armor and the long cloak you had to get a closer look to know that you dealt with a woman. A woman with about much the same problem as my Airen's although acquired through different means.

"Who is that?" I was startled out of my shocked state by the quiet and calculating voice next to me. Without looking at Genma who surely was just trying to not shiver while gauging the robed figure's chi levels I whispered, "That's Herb." Having heard the stories as well as Ranma had I wasn't really surprised when I detected the sudden urge to turn tail and hide in the male's aura. The Amazon and Musk had been arch enemies for ages but actual war or similar clashes had never transpired for several centuries now. That was mostly because of the sharply decreasing number of offspring. The Musk were basically more powerful than the average Amazon but their number was low and we often had the advantage of tactical minds and a fair amount of magic to assist us in the past. A full-fledged war would not be beneficial for both sides and might result in both of our lineages to be eradicated. Therefore a silent peace treaty existed between the Amazons and the Musk Dynasty for longer than Great-grandmother lived.

And that is why she was so troubled when numerous reports from Amazons outside the village had indicated that there "was something going on". A bit of ominous hints there, a few Musk showing up in Amazon territory here and there. The quantity of the reports had worried the Council and finally after the Ryoga incident – when Ranma didn't need immediate attention anymore – the Matriarch had set out to investigate herself. This was a tactical mistake that might cost us dearly, I realized with a growing terror. Elder Kho Lon and Herb had had several encounters in the past and from all Amazons I doubted that anyone short of the Matriarch was able to stand up to the prince who's chi capacities were rumored to be nearly infinite.

Genma who was dead set on getting away by now suddenly halted and I froze once again as the prince leveled a bone-chilling look directly in our… or better my direction. Totally ignoring the bodies of some of my fallen tribal sisters the man-turned-woman stepped forward and a cruel smile played upon her lips.

"Now, if that isn't the Old Nanny's little brat. My, you have grown… Get her!" I was mildly surprised when Ranma's father suddenly stepped forward to intercept the two charging Musk but his efforts were rather wasted as he was unprepared for the formidable teamwork of animalistic-enhanced speed and strength. I suffered much the same fate, feeling rather inadequate against the duo even as the Tribal Champion. I was just too shocked to actually focus enough.

I thrashed against the steel-like grip of the taller Musk to no avail. Disgustingly the pervert even seemed to pay an almost child-like attention to my breasts before Herb ordered him into his place. I had probably preferred the fool's ministrations over being shoved into the prince's waiting arms. "Now, now," the Musk Prince chuckled obviously quite amused by my squirming. "Isn't that a nice catch?" I tried to claw and bite at him in frustration but was rather unsuccessful at that.

"But, Herb-sama. Weren't we going to look for the Kaisuifuu?" The smaller one of his companions said as the rest of the gathered Amazons watched on in fear of what was to happen. I could not really blame them. Herb chuckled. "Sure. And the little brat here will just be the right way to find what we are looking for and… I'm sure Granny will throw a fit if I take her with me. I'm sure she'll make a wonderful breeding mate for a prince like me." As the heir of the Musk Dynasty leaned closer to my ear, I felt a shiver run down my spine and a sudden fear grip my heart. An image of Ranma flashed briefly before my eyes. One of the redhead heartbroken and lonely, another one of her dying in a foolish attempt of battling Herb… I'm sorry, Ranma… "Wouldn't you like that," Herb whispered in my ear in a way that expressed quiet clear her actual distaste and how much it would enjoy him to see me suffering.

"KIJIN RAISHU DAN!"

Neither Herb, his henchmen or I ever really realized how quick everything had happened. One moment I was held captive by one of the most dangerous individuals walking Earth, the next two vacuum blades hissed with astonishing precision through the air. I registered a slight grunt from the cursed prince and felt his grip loosen. Just on cue someone had grabbed and carried me out of harm's way. For a moment I thought it was Ranma but the speed and graceful agility just didn't even match my Airen. I caught sight of familiar chestnut hair and smiled in relief.

My attention was again diverted as my Airen's voice rose clearly from a background position as she stepped forward, the crowd of Amazon's parting and then backing up. Herb shouted something, a little enraged but not yet having lost her cool. Ranma glared at the Musk Prince and I gasped as I saw the aura around her that was practically afire in blazing reddish-gold. "I am Saotome Ranma, Heir of the Saotome Mutsabeto Kakuto Ryu. You might want to know that the woman you just tried to abduct against her will is my wife and I intend on keeping it that way." My heart warmed at the redhead's words but I couldn't deny that I was a little scared for her. That was Herb after all we were speaking about. She had absolutely no idea what she was getting into.

Herb for her part seemed to be mildly amused while the two other Musk moved to intercept my Airen and quirked an eyebrow. He was just about to make a comment but was getting no further than "Wife, eh?" or something like that as his amusement suddenly turned to shock. My Airen's aura literally exploded around her in an impressive demonstration of confidence chi that was making her eruption at Ryoga seem tiny in comparison.

"Yes, exactly, and I care for her a lot! I, Saotome Ranma, hereby challenge you! MOKO TAKABISHA!"

(Kho Lon)

Yet another false trail that had nothing at all to do with the others. They were random, they were insignificant taken alone and they would usually only be viewed as a minor incident not worth investigating. If it just wasn't so damn much and obvious. I had never imagined that the Musk would make a move that soon. The proud dynasty had not only decreased in numbers but in pure-blooded descendants as well. The only ones with a long line of animal ancestry that was worth mentioning were Herb and his two henchmen as far as my knowledge went.

Of course Herb alone was powerful enough to be a serious threat to the Joketsuzoku. The Prince of the Musk was from a long line of rulers that had pure dragon blood mixed into their genes which gave them an insane high supply of chi that safe for Saffron couldn't be rivaled by anyone on Earth to my knowledge so far. Yet he had made no move until now ever since ascending to the throne. That was mostly due to his own personal quest that held an almost ironic similarity to my Great-granddaughter's Airen. Therefore I doubted that the Musk would make a move before their leader hadn't cured himself. I wasn't even sure if his men knew. Probably not, seeing as prideful as the male was.

And as to curing himself. Well, I knew where the Kaisuifuu was now and Herb knew that attacking my people would bring him nothing. A stray thought entered my mind and I looked back the way I came. Nah, he wouldn't do that. I shook my head but just to be careful reached out with my senses to check for a familiar pattern. I almost fell from my cane when I found exactly what I was looking and hoping for not to find.

Letting lose a cascade of curses that would have been mind-boggling for anyone of my fellow Amazons to hear from my mouth I stood there in the middle of the path, chastening myself for that incredible foolishness. "Well," I said with a heavy sigh, "at least Son-in-law should be training now. I swear the boy would just get himself into trouble and probably the whole village leveled in the process." A sudden flare of chi from a different source attracted my attention and I felt like slapping my forehead. "On the other hand," I grumbled, swearing to myself if the boy survived that I would give him a piece of my mind. Granted he was extremely talented and in a few years could surpass any of us but he had little to no respect for his betters.

"I better get moving," I decided and set into motion. An uninvolved onlooker would deem it impossible to even attempt to get back in time. The way would take a normal human being at least two days back to the village and it had taken me three with careful tracking. Again an uninvolved onlooker would also deem it impossible for an old woman long past the age of a normal lifespan to suddenly blur into motion and speeding down the path she had just come from as nothing more as a gust of wind for the untrained eye.

I just hoped I could get back in time and have enough reserves to prevent permanent damage. If Herb as much as wanted to he could level the village in a few minutes. Ranma might be able to hold his interest for several more but with all the high hopes I had into the boy that was the most I gave him.

Of course, as things tended to go with Saotome Ranma involved, I probably was to be thoroughly surprised.

(Ranma)

A numbing fear I had never felt before had begun to set in as I raced side by side with Lhi Li – who had no problems keeping up – down the mountain path and towards the village. The history behind the Musk and the numerous warnings about their prince were ringing in my ears but the strong, overwhelming surge of concern at the fact that Xian Pu was down there, in immediate reach, unprotected was much more stronger. Elder Kho Lon had been gone for days and even when I admitted to her superior skill I did not think she was able to be back in time. None of the other Amazons came close to standing a chance against the Musk Prince, Xian Pu was their champion and I had seen the fear in her eyes when Kho Lon had taught me about the Musk during our studies. I knew it was foolish. Deep down I knew that logically I had no chance of beating Herb in terms of power. That didn't really seem to matter though.

Coming close to the entrance my trained eyes spotted the blasted gate, several Amazons scattered around the ground in varying states of distress and the crowd that had gathered. I snatched a pretty good look at the figures in the circle of wary Amazons that obviously despite all their reputation were hesitant to attack and what I saw let my blood boil. Xian Pu was held by one of the strange men that bore obvious animal characteristics and fondled rather obviously.

I saw red. I could feel a surge of chi travel through me as I watched the man shove my wife into his leader's arms. I considered my options through gritted teeth but when I heard Herb's words as we came in hearing range I just couldn't take it anymore. Glancing briefly back to Lhi Li, I saw she had already moved. Our eyes for a moment briefly met and a plan was made in a fashion only possible between two warriors.

Bringing my hands forward and away in practically unrecognizable speed I was rewarded by the familiar hiss of vacuum forming as two chi blades shot through the air and struck the Prince in one shoulder while the other barely missed his head. That was enough though for the cursed man to let go of Xian Pu. In the blink of an eye Lhi Li had dove past him and carried Xian Pu off to the side.

Anger by now had crested into a vivid flame but I didn't let it consume me. I wasn't Ryoga. Through the training of the last several days I had discovered that I couldn't bring about even a decent Shi Shi Houkodan anymore. Unlike Ryoga my surge of depression and anger had been a temporary thing, something so alien to my personality it had simply persisted to be let out at that one moment. I had tried a few times to recreate the situation but through the clarity that one-time use had brought felt that I was much too calm and… yes, actually happy right now to bring about that much dark chi again.

Instead now I grasped onto another very familiar emotion that I hadn't felt since Jusenkyo and for once felt it responding in quantity and quality. I had meant what I told Lhi Li. My decision had been made. Maybe it had been made for a long time already but after the breakthrough at the fight with Ryoga I could finally see and admit to it. A life without Xian Pu at my side. A life without that caring, strong-willed Amazon that I had come to trust as I had never done with anyone before had become unthinkable. I… I DID love her. Now I just had to tell her and I would. I swear that I would.

"I am Saotome Ranma, Heir of the Saotome Mutsabeto Kakuto Ryu. You might want to know that the woman you just tried to abduct against her will is my wife and I intend on keeping it that way." Every word was spoken with the utmost truth and what in recent years often has been a shield for my own loneliness began returning tenfold and this time without any pretense, without any form of hiding behind it from the truth. I would have to fight Herb, I would win and I would survive to keep my promises. An incredible warmth began to encompass my heart and spread into my spirit. Drawing the dark chi necessary for the Shi Shi Houkodan had been cold and painful. Compared to that I almost felt a sense of serenity as the power built up higher and higher.

Herb looked at me obviously not very impressed. The Amazons before me had stepped aside with a mixture of awe and fear. "Wife, eh…?" The cloaked prince never had a chance to finish whatever surely mocking comment he had in mind. By now my confidence had reached its peak and the only thought I allowed in my mind was that I had to win this fight… No, that I WOULD win this fight. Not only for me. Not only for Xian Pu. But for both of us.

As I called out my challenge and brought my hands together to draw upon the raw chi around me, I noted with a little bit of satisfaction that I was actually looking forward to this. If the stories were right about Herb's skill this would be the best battle I ever had. And I intended to win. Which pretty much meant that my fighting spirit had fully returned.

"MOKO TAKABISHA!" I roared, bringing my cupped hands and the gathered chi ball forward as a lance of reddish-golden chi spiraled through the air, throwing the other two Musk to the side. Herb's eyes that had momentarily went wide narrowed as the chi blast headed his way. But I wasn't overly-surprised nor did I stand to wait for him to deflect the blast with a chi shield. It was actually him who was surprised as I managed to blindside him, flowing into a wild, unpredictable pattern of attacks that flowed from Yamasenken to Umisenken to Amazon Style mixing with my own moves. With a certain smugness I watched as the prince had a hard time to keep up which kept him totally on the defense. And that was exactly how I wanted it.

Dropping down I pretended to sweep his legs as he caught one of my legs after a spin kick. Anticipating that the cursed man wouldn't fall for the feint I brought my leg up just as the grip on my other started to loosen and smashed both into his belly. Okay, actually hers but I really didn't care about that right now.

Herb stumbled back in surprise as I turned my momentum into another spin kick that he wasn't able to block this time. Landing on my feet I whirled around and once again called forth a Moko Takabisha that Herb was only able to weakly block. Trying to press my advantage I sped after his half-falling form but was caught by surprise as Herb shifted his course suddenly and shot forward right past me in a maneuver virtually impossible for a human being.

Kuso, forgot he can fly or something like that. Caution overruled the urge to pursue as I flipped forward several times to avoid any possible attack. That proved to be a healthy thing because moments later to chi beams that had reflected from the ground in an impossible angle collided where I had stood a moment before. Turning the last flip into hundred-eighty degree turn, I came resting on my feet, taking a few deep breaths from the exchange. Herb had already come to rest several feet away and for all the pressing I had done he didn't even seem to be overly winded. This wasn't good. Not good at all.

(Xian Pu)

The crowd – including the other two Musk – looked on in a apt fascination as the two cursed man traded blows with a speed and power not usually encountered around here. Not even here in the village. This was a clash of two epic warriors. Both with their own special status. The problem was, I could clearly see that Ranma was terribly outclassed. She had pushed Herb back on the defense with the initial assault but now in their brief pause it became apparent that my Airen had been more winded from that than Herb was even remotely wounded.

"That was quite entertaining," Herb remarked, regarding the redhead with a bit more… respect. Well, as close as it could get to that with the arrogant prince. "What was the name again? Saotome? I heard rumors that the little brat had gotten herself someone recently but I had never imagined a little girl like you." Ranma snarled at the accusation and I felt a pang of anger rise inside of me as well but suppressed it for the moment.

"You are one to talk, Herb-chan…" I couldn't help the snicker and obviously several others around them couldn't either. The crowd quickly went silent again as Herb expressed her opinion of that. "Shut up you! At least once I found a cure the brat is going to learn what a real man is capable of." I really wanted to smash him at this point and Lhi Li had to restrain me from following threw with that urge.

Ranma, opposite to what would have happened before Ryoga where she would probably have reacted badly at being reminded of her cursed state, merely shrugged. "I bet I beat you to it." At that Herb looked thoroughly confused. My Airen just snorted and began to subtly shift her stance. "Really, for all your supposed greatness you haven't figured it out by now? You are not the only one with that problem of yours present." It took awhile for realization to set in. Several murmurs arose around us as the secret was revealed but I could tell it wasn't really bothering Ranma. The redhead had simply waited for the surprise to set in and momentarily distract Herb. In a flash she had closed the distance again and was laying into the Musk Prince(ss) again.

However, as impressive as my Airen was all her attacks seemed to do minimal to no damage to the leader of the Musk and seemed to only amuse him. Ranma was quickly tiring and that showed when Herb suddenly came around with a hard fist to her chin lifting the redhead partly from the ground and then switching from defense to a devastating offense in a flash. Ranma barely had time to adjust to the sudden whirlwind of attacks and more than one slipped past her defense. In no more than barely one or two minutes she was already breathing hard, sporting a nasty cut over the right eye, her shirt was slightly torn and you could tell that she had received a hit to the ribs as well that was bothering her. Herb connected another with his heavy boots across my Airen's face and I had to watch with dawning horror as she crashed into the wall of a nearby house.

"Airen!" I moved in a desperate attempt to do SOMETHING but was held back by a strong grip on my shoulder. I turned a glare at Lhi Li who just shook her head and indicated in the direction where Ranma had went down with her chin. The sight of the petite redhead actually spitting some blood was heart-wrenching but she was already struggling to get up again. "Leave him be. It's his fight, his challenge. You do trust him, do you?" I nodded numbly, torn between reason and emotion. "Then do so. Ranma… cares for you, he'll come out of this alright." I nodded again but my eyes were glued on the figure of my Airen weakly but stubbornly getting to her feet. So much like me, I mused. Lhi Li was right. I had to believe in her. Besides, it WAS her challenge. If someone interfered now it would be worse than death. Ranma was as much prideful as any Amazon would be and I understood that very well. As much as it hurt to see her like that I had to respect her – definitely foolish – decision to challenge Herb.

Come on, Ranma. Teach that arrogant jerk a lesson, I prayed.

(Ranma)

Kuso, that hurt. My face burned like hell from that last kick and I had the suspicion that something broke. One of my ribs obviously had taken severe damage and it was getting harder to breathe. My vision was clouding and it was hard to see through the haze of numbing pain. And that one punch to my gut had nearly paralyzed me. I tasted blood on my lips and spat it out. No internal damage… yet. But if that kept up it was only a matter of time.

Come on, Saotome, you won't let yourself get thrashed by this freak, will you? I struggled to my feet, shaking my head in a vain attempt to clear it. My danger senses flared and it was the only thing that saved me as I instantly threw myself to the right, ignoring the protest of my body. Something flashed past me that looked remarkably like knifes, little chi blades maybe. One brushed against my left shoulder and I let out a painful scream as the hot energy penetrated flesh upon contact. Coming down in a roll and barely managing to stay in the kneeling position I looked back to where I had stood moments before. The little chi blades had left HOLES in the wall as they just cut right through it. Oh shit.

I had to do something. And I had to do it fast. Herb was quicker, stronger and had much more reserves than I did. There was no way I could beat him in a regular way. Not to mention that my body was on the verge of collapse. My mind worked overtime, straining against the fogginess that came with the renewed pain. I had an idea already what I could do. However, I wasn't sure if I was ready. Up to now I had succeeded with this once, on a much lower level and the protesting signals my body was sending me wouldn't help the matter either.

Oh well. It is not as if I have a choice. There really wasn't anything I could do at this point to beat the prince hand-to-hand. Alright, time to set this plan into motion. "That all you can do," I pressed through clenched teeth as I pushed myself up to meet my opponent with what hopefully was a confident gaze. "Really, I expected a little more from the… Princess of the Musk." There was a noticeable twitch in the other cursed man's face but I had to admire his remarkable control because he refused to give into blind rage, knowing full well that rage only made a warrior more vulnerable.

"I admire your endurance, Saotome, but you can barely stand. Whatever could push you onward further. Admit defeat and I might spare you." I fought against the pain as I took a stance once again that was purely for defense, I wouldn't need anything else. "Come on, you are a smart man. Surely it must disgust you to live with a society that is dominated by women. You are a talented warrior, why don't you come with me, I am sure together we can acquire a cure for you as well."

My aura flickered briefly as I fought down the anger and solely continued the build-up of the Soul of Ice as I gritted my teeth. "I have something that is worth living for here." My eyes briefly flickered over to Xian Pu who watched the whole exchange with worried eyes and surely only one step from jumping in-between us in a foolish attempt to stop the fight. My eyes softened momentarily as I sent her a reassuring smile and I felt my resolve harden as it was answered by one of trust.

Herb had followed my gaze and now let out a disgusted snort. "Her? Oh really what could the manipulative brat possible give you?" Tightening on my control I relied on something that came as second nature to me from ten years of training. Raising an eyebrow I replied in a mocking voice, "What? Are you by any chance jealous, Herb-chan. Could it be that no girl wants to be with another girl that really is a man? Are you envious, Herb-chan, that I have her and will have a cure while you will have to continue to rule your people as a…" I paused searching for the words, "…oh so adorable and CUTE little Princess?"

All the while I had watched as the man-turned-woman began to slowly lose control of his calm as I continued to mock his cursed state. I really had an advantage here now because I understood perfectly well what he was feeling, what his state meant to him. Unlike Herb though I felt no unease anymore to speak about it. I had, so to say, come to terms with my curse. I really had to thank Ryoga again the next time he happened to stumble over me.

Suddenly I let my voice become deeper and dead serious. "I have no intention of leaving, Herb. And if you must know. Xian Pu is reason enough for me to stay. She gave me shelter and compassion when all I wanted to do was die out of shame. She stayed with me and offered me comfort when all I wanted to do was sink into misery. She was the friend I did not have for all my life and she offered me her unconditional love without wanting anything in return. She has provided me with a home and a life that I could actually enjoy, a possible family and friends. For the first time in my life I feel accepted by at least a few people, I feel understood. I don't expect you know how that is… Hime-chan. And that is why I can't… That is why I WILL NOT lose! Come and try to get me but if you want to get to Xian Pu or any of her sister you first have to go through me, loser!"

I could hear the murmurs all around me as a silent determination began to settle in and fuel me. I knew now I could pull this off, I knew I would win. Whispers of approval reached my ears and some of the Amazons even cheered and slowly, reluctantly it became apparent that one battle had already been won today. The battle of acceptance for Xian Pu and me. What had begun as a rising respect after the Mu Tsu and Ryoga incident had reached its peak. Now I just had to win this fight, especially with the new support. There was NO WAY I could lose now. Absolutely no way.

"Very well, Saotome. Now you made this personal. I shall show you what I am really capable of and afterwards I will take a great delight in teaching your beloved Amazon a few lessons." Herb tried to hold his voice steady but you could hear the seething tone in his voice from a long distance. And I had even not yet finished with him. Taunting was something I had done for nearly a decade in every fight with Oyaji. If I wanted someone angry, I could get someone angry.

I made a beckoning gesture while faking a yawn, not at all impressed by his threats. "Over my dead body, Hime-chan." And Herb charged. Having already so deeply settled into the Soul of Ice I could concentrate everything into fueling my motions with my remaining chi, tuning my body to really inhuman levels to avoid Herb's anger-fueled attacks. As I weaved around the enraged Musk Prince, despite all my efforts his attacks coming dangerously close to connecting, I began to slowly lead him into the spiral all the while Elder Kho Lon's words present in my mind. Herb has managed to find ways to counter the Hiryu Shoten Ha which is why it is practically ineffective against him. I had asked the Elder why not to use the Dragon against him if he was so much stronger. After all that was what the technique was originally designed for. Of course it made sense – and even more so now – that such a capable fighter would devise a defense against this. Exactly how he managed to turn the Hiryu Shoten Ha against the caster was not exactly known. But that didn't matter really.

If you hadn't looked closely one wouldn't have seen the tiny gleam of triumph in the crimson red eyes that spoke clearly of his dragon bloodline. I saw it though. Herb had allowed the rage to come and intensify with every word, every taunt I threw his way but in the back of his mind he was already preparing a counter… Which was exactly what I wanted.

I had a promise to fulfill. I had to tell Xian Pu of my decision and I had to be alive. Just a little more. I just had to ignore the strain a little more. Pushing the pain a little further back I tightened my cold chi around the almost unbearable aches as we neared the center of the spiral. Now came the tricky part. I could not hesitate one moment, I could not make one mistake. This fight would be over after this, one way or another.

As I stepped into the center of the spiral, noticing that the crowd had backed up a large distance, I could see a smile of smug anticipation form on Herb's face. That smile though quickly gave way to confusion as my momentum – obviously by accident – carried me past the center point. Waiting for the just the right moment until a baffled Herb passed over the center and froze for just that tiny, crucial moment – any counter absent from his mind, I allowed myself a truly terrifying grin that left no room to argue that doom was about to come for my opponent.

"HIRYU SHOTEN HA, REVISED!"

I thrust my fist into the sky and immediately a tornado this part of China surely had not seen before sprang into existence. Herb stared in stunned wonder as the trashing winds picked me up and I had to fight with every ounce of control left inside to keep my voluntary flight steady. Fortunately I had picked just the right point and moment to enter the spiral again. Ever so slowly I edged myself forward in the violent winds that were much more powerful than Ryoga ought to have experienced.

"HIRYU…"

Opening my spiritual shields I winced and bit my lip as I was assaulted by a magnitude of chi that was threatening to tear me apart just from touching it. My body was afire with searing pain as I began taping into the mixture of hot and cold chi all around me just as I had done this morning. I ignored the flashing red emergency signals my body was sending me as the pure energy washed over opened wounds as best as I could.

"KOURIN…"

Chi in quantity and quality began to flow through me that it was actually unhealthy for a human being. My body was ready to burst but I kept taping into the link, refusing to give in, refusing to admit defeat. Saotome Ranma never loses. Almost there now. The winds had carried me like a whirlpool towards the center of the spiral. It still wasn't enough chi though. Just a little more.

Another bolt of pain raced through me as I tried to pull even more of the untamed energy inside of me. Xian Pu. A picture of the smiling Amazon flashed briefly through my mind and I desperately held onto it. A spark of… something suddenly stirred inside of me and pushed away the numbing aches of my physical self. And then the link with the outside chi totally snapped into place and all I felt was an overwhelming calm as the purest kind of life energy rushed through me, filled every cell of my being. It felt like I died and had been reborn in the same fraction of a moment. So calm and peaceful…

Herb below stared up at me as I let the chi sphere between my hands built and the slack-jawed and horrified expression on his face as I began my descent was worth all the pain. Really.

"DAN!"

(Xian Pu)

I could feel my heart hammering during Ranma's honest confession and I felt more than one pair of eyes directed towards me. Not in envy or extreme jealousy but in a new if reluctant sense of approval and pride, a little remorse maybe as several of my sister's hearts were touched by my Airen's words. Then some began to cheer I felt like I was bursting from joy. In one – totally foolish and selfless – act of bravery Ranma had managed what no man – cursed or not – had done before. They were looking up to him. To this quiet yet energetic, confident yet calculating strength. This was not just admiration, this was a pride that only true warriors could feel. A pride of having someone like the redhead in their rows willing to fight for them. And all of them must have realized that she was mine. In this statement was so much more than the absence of envy. There was an acknowledgment of the deepest kind.

Herb, as far as the Amazons went, was a feared legend. Someone you just not stand up to and risk your life against, maybe not even for a loved one. I had seen the terror in the eyes of these normally fearless warriors when I arrived here. And then there was Ranma. Bravely stepping up to the cursed prince in a struggle he could not possibly win. She did it for herself but also because of a debt she felt owing us… owing ME. This was the kind of dedication that made the difference between a good warrior and an excellent one.

My awareness snapped back to the fight as I saw Herb about ready to bring hell upon my Airen who in turn stood her ground with a deep calm and a freezing blue aura. Puzzlement set in at this but I had the presence of mind to take the proper steps of caution. "Everyone back!" It was not really necessary since most of the onlookers had already realized what was going on. This time the village will take damage, I thought with a slight frown. However, I was thoroughly confused at my Airen's tactics. We had both been there when Great-granddaughter told us about Herb. The prince knew the Dragon. Why would she use it…

"Is he sure he knows what he's doing?" I looked down startled at the familiar old voice. Unnoticed Great-grandmother had appeared next to us and was following Ranma's attempts to draw Herb into a spiral with narrowed eyes. "That fool. All he will succeed in is destroying the village and himself." As Elder Kho Lon moved forward I was a little bit surprised at myself when I held up a hand in front of her. The older woman turned a surprised but sharp gaze at me but for once in my young life I wasn't going to budge. Ranma had not against Herb so I would not here. Lhi Li was right, this was Ranma's fight. Interference was not permitted. I shook my head slowly and sadly, fixing Great-grandmother with a stare of defiance that in any other situation would have earned me a severe punishment. This time though the Matriarch's eyes softened and after briefly closing them she turned back to the fight without another word.

"Don't worry," Lhi Li suddenly said. "I think I know what he's up to." Three sets of eyes – Ranma's father was still present – glanced at her. Out in the battlefield Ranma and Herb had almost neared the center of the spiral. The other Amazon simply smiled. "Oh, just look. You'll see." After awhile she added in a whisper that I barely even caught, "Hopefully he can pull it off."

I had no time to think about this further as Ranma to the surprise of anyone passed the center of the spiral and called out the Hiryu Shoten Ha a bit too late. A gasp of horror threatened to escape my lips but I felt Lhi Li squeeze my hand gently as she looked up. With a numbing dread I followed her gaze and what I saw caused me to inhale sharply. Ranma… was RIDING the storm. The pattern seemed uncontrollable at first glance, the usual helplessness of someone caught in the chi storm. However, if you watched clearly you could see that the redhead had caught the currents in a way that would slowly carry her directly to the center where Herb was trapped… trapped…

"HIRYU…"

Oh… OH.

"KOURIN…"

"Masaka…" I mumbled, involuntary mimicking Great-grandmother at the first day of Ranma's training. I could see the strain on Ranma's face as the surely extraordinary pain from the many wounds was assaulted by the chi. I squinted my eyes and confirmed that there really was a sphere forming between my Airen's hands. And then realization fully set in what exactly was going on.

Ranma had reached the central opening of the tornado now. The Eye of the Storm. Her face was scrunched up in deep concentration and deep lines showed that she was ready to explode from the exhaustion and the pain assaulting her senses. Just a little more, I urged, trying to practically WILL Ranma's success in harnessing the energies around her into existence. There was an unexpected… jolt as something brushed against my aura. Even from so far away and even that I never really felt it in this way before, I just KNEW that it was Ranma reaching out for support. Reacting on instinct, not really aware of what I was doing, I responded by mentally grasping for her spirit and sending calming and soothing energy along.

Up on the whirlwind Ranma seemed to suddenly relax and that smile she sent down Herb's way. I couldn't see the Prince concealed by the raging winds but I was sure that at least now he would be the one to feel fear.

"DAN!"

And with a murdering scream that let anyone's heart stop for a moment Ranma let the chi ball go as a thick beam of pure whiteness barreled down the center towards the ground and the trapped Herb. Everyone stared in fascination as the beam didn't seem to just leave the redhead's hands but stayed there like a steady stream of… sunlight focused through a mirror for lack of a better description. With a last roar of defiance the chi storm began to crumble inwardly following Ranma down on her way through the center as a wave of pure energy channeled through the insane girl's hand that sought to defy nature.

The sound of collision that followed could be described as nothing short of a sonic boom. The ground shook violently and there was such a backlash that everyone was blown from their feet. A few minor explosion rocked the area a few times as aftershocks but then everything was silent.

(Ranma)

I felt like the very world was collapsing around me as I came down as the center of the tornado. The whole thing must have taken mere moments, a few seconds at best, but it felt like a small eternity. The roar of the elements around me, trashing violently, bucking against and finally admitting defeat to the treatment. The chi rushing through me in sheer endless quality, a steady stream that would not stop until it found an outlet. And that outlet was Herb, I was just the conductor.

And the Prince knew it. Oh, how he knew it. His position didn't allow him evasion. He was trapped, caught like the animal in the hunter's cage. The chi channeling by now had the nice side effect that the storm had really turned into pure chi as it rushed out through my hands. It was like either facing the bullet from the front or risking death tearing through electrical-charged bars. Not really a choice there. The shield that the cursed prince had thrown up in a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable was quickly crumbling to dust under the constant assault and by the time I was almost upon him was already crushed.

Still I could see the stubbornness in his eyes as he stood tall in a defying manner, not willing to accept defeat. Oh well. Everyone his own. It was time to finish this. "I told you, I called over the rumbling sound of the chi dome collapsing behind me. "Saotome Ranma doesn't lose." I had my fist drawn back and in a last act of truly amazing – even to me, mind you – willpower gathered as much chi in it as I could hold. When I let it fly Herb's block never really had the sliver of a chance. Oh, he met the punch and for a timeless moment we even held the pose but as the remaining chi washed over us I pressed onwards, totally unaffected by the cresting wave of power. Herb's cry of pain as the punch caught him despite all his defenses right in the stomach was lost in the crescendo of explosions and aftershocks.

Then the smoke cleared we stood there for a moment as if totally unaffected by the onslaught, my fist still buried in my opponent's abandon. Herb lifted his torn and severely burned face to meet my gaze for a moment. "Seems… that you won." And then his last bit of chi defenses winked out and he was pushed backwards. Another small explosion rocked the area as the chi of my strike exploded. Herb crashed to the ground unmoving but surely not dead. As much as I despised him as a human I acknowledged him as a warrior. I had been prepared to do what was necessary but with that enormous amounts of chi to his disposal I would have been surprised if he hadn't survived.

One way or another, it was done. I had won. A warm feeling of relief and joy rushed through me but I didn't allow myself to clearly think again yet. Holding onto the last ounce of control with a steel-like mental grip I caught the eyes of the other two Musk in my gaze who had hung back just like the other Amazons. There was anger there and the readiness to avenge their leader on the spot but there was also fear. A deep, respectful fear at the boy-turned-girl who had brought down their mighty prince.

I nudged my head in the direction of the fallen Musk leader with one clear gesture and let my eyes flash for emphasis with the last spark of chi present in my otherwise drained body. Only willpower that I could not quite believe was even my own anymore let me still stand. Thankfully there was only a small hesitation as the two Musk warriors moved forward cautiously to retrieve the fallen form of their prince, grumbling curses all the way and out the village. None really made a move to stop them.

NOW it is really done. Just one more thing to do, I thought as I finally let my control slip and collapse to the ground.

(Xian Pu)

The crowd parted silently as the two Musk carried a defeated and thoroughly beaten Herb out of the village. There was no real need to hinder them. It was not in our nature to take prisoners and trying to keep the Musk Prince restrained was only calling for trouble. Also judging by his physical state it would take him awhile to heal his body, much more his spirit from such a devastating defeat. No, Herb wouldn't cause trouble anytime soon.

Those thoughts were only on the edge of my awareness though. My gaze was fixed on the form of my Airen, standing there absolutely still until the trio was out of sight. I had already moved, anticipating that only her stubbornness held her on both feet. However, that gaze she had nailed the two Musk with. I think even I would have run. Now though the danger was gone and reality slowly began to set it…

More like rushed in. As if someone had snapped their fingers to break the spell that held my Airen upright, Ranma practically dropped like a stone just as I reached her. Gently lowering her form to the ground I smiled down at her with shameless tears, trying to express all my worries, pride and love at the same time. The redhead looked almost deathly pale and tired beyond description. How she could manage even the simple task of holding her eyes open or reaching up with her hand to touch my cheek I did not know. But it did not matter. It did not matter at all.

The soft and loving gaze melted my heart right there. Eyes as clear as the sky settled onto mine and I felt my throat tighten as they shifted to a unyielding seriousness burning right into my soul. There was a long silence as we just continued to stare at each other in that manner that was truly amazing and not to describe with such simple means as words. I could feel the eyes of the onlookers locked on us, a respectful distance away, but paid them no mind. There was nothing that mattered right now other than the deep penetrating stare that held an unspoken truth and confession.

When the words finally came it was barely a whisper but yet echoed as loudly in my mind and heart alike as the declaration of a god. "Wo ai ni… Airen." I was forced to choke back the lump in my throat as my heart threatened to jump right there and I could not move under this serious yet soft and loving gaze. She meant it. She said it. She… LOVES… ME! was about the only thing that rang in my mind and heart like an infinite echo.

A silent tear slid down my face but I didn't move to wipe it away. The feeling of belonging settling deep into my innermost self was simply to wonderful to be disturbed by dumb concepts like pride and reputation. I didn't really believe that anybody present would deny my right of emotion right now. "I love you too," I choked out my voice thick with emotion as I reached out to brush through red hair and clutch the hand on my cheek. For a moment I felt my mild annoyance as I noticed that Ranma had already slipped into unconsciousness but a fond smile quickly overrode that. "Baka, you absolutely had to make this dramatic, did you?" I commented sniffling a little.

At last wiping my face clear with one hand as best as I could I picked up the limb form of my – now really established – Airen, making sure that her breathing was regular. As I turned around I stopped briefly to glance at Lhi Li with a thankful nod which the girl returned with a kind smile. "Xian Pu," Great-grandmother spoke up and I could see that through the calm mask of the Matriarch there was a deep fondness and pride towards me and Ranma. I regarded her with a slightly impatient look. After all I wanted Ranma in bed and comfortably resting  "When he comes to, tell Son-in-law as soon as he is rested you set out to acquire his cure."

As I turned and walked away, followed by a rising cheer from my Amazon sisters I could only marvel at the impression the so innocent looking redhead had left on everyone. The shouts around us varied but there was a common theme. After today, Ranma had been accepted as their personal champion – which she technically was after defeating and bonding with me anyway. The fact that she was actually male didn't matter to them and as far as I knew that had never happened in Amazon history before.

If you listened really carefully I was sure you could HEAR the proud smile splitting my face as I carried my Airen away to a more than well-earned rest.

END Part 2

Author's Notes

Err, woah… We are finished? You sure, Maia? Don't want to add anything else? No? Really?

*SIGH*

Man, this part just didn't want to be finished. I swear it steadfastly refused to be finished. Really how did I deserve this? No really, it's not that I'm complaining but somewhere along the way I wondered if I would drop dead before finishing this part. There was just always a bit more to write, a bit more to express, a bit more to add… Alright I should have known better than to assume that three battle scenes plus focusing on a building relationship would be easy and quick to do but still…

Oh to hell with it. I want to finish this. Back to the notes for the story.

For all who are reading with no knowledge of the actual Anime/Manga (I know that's possible with AU since I did it myself). The Bakusei Tenketsu training requires the trainee to be bound with only one hand and forefinger outstretched. Bound as he/she is the trainee will be hurled full-force and speed at a massive boulder (or was it the other way round?) until he/she picks up on the technique and manages to shatter it properly. After Ryoga was put through the training even the Amaguriken was barely able to hurt him since his body was quite steeled from the training.

Lhi Li is my own character. She is one of this (annoying) original characters that are only meant for one scene and then somehow get stuck because you like them too much. I hope you like her too. She will probably only be in this part but nevertheless, you never know when and where she might show up later.

I have found several different sources that say how the Moko Takabisha and Shi Shi Houkodan are colored. I have never seen them myself. So I tried to make it a bit of a cross between the varying color descriptions I got.

My version on the Hiryu Kourin Dan probably is a bit different from the original. To be honest I'm not even sure of the name for the counter version but that is what I found quite often. Anyway, just keep in mind that it is AU and Ranma might develop things a little different.

I know that I probably won't please anyone with my Anti-Musk view in this part (and quite frankly for the rest of the series). First, always keep in mind that this is AU and not everything up to this point HAS TO happen as it did (and really it won't). Second, Herb (not counting Mint and Lime who didn't take that great of a role in this part) is the only character in the story that I only knew through online sources and fanfics, so please be a little gentle with me if I did some mistakes here and there in description of appearance etc. but he/she was totally necessary to appear. Third from what I gathered from my resources even in canon history, true intentions and actually resources of the Musk Dynasty was rather vague. What we learned is that the Musk and the Amazons obviously don't like it each other. I just took that a step up. The free will of the author, you can call it. :) If you are a true Ranma otaku and really want to correct fatal errors please feel free to do mail me and explain it to me in a reasonable manner.

That's all that really needs to be explained… I hope. One can never know with such a long part but all of you know how to reach me. Now I hope I didn't leave too many mistakes behind and that all in all this part is worth the long time it took writing. In my personal opinion I'm not totally satisfied with some of the earlier scenes but maybe that is just me, and on the other hand there are scenes that I am quite proud of. Make up your own mind and be sure to tell me. I am REALLY anxious to see how this part turned out in the mind of the reader. So leave your feedback either in my inbox or wherever you find this.

Ja ne, yours

Matthias