Dream of the Earthbound

A Ranma ½ fanfic by Aondehafka

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


Side Story: Three Sheets to the Wind


Late morning sunlight gleamed down on the two Saotome men as they walked through the streets of Nerima. From the looks on their faces, a casual observer would have characterized both of them as 'thoughtful'—though if said observer was familiar with the tenets of Anything Goes, he might have added that this was just his best guess.

The hypothetical spectator would have been correct. Both Ranma and Genma had plenty on their minds as they walked along. As they came within sight of their destination, Ranma suddenly gave a nod and stopped.

"Don't think I'm not grateful for yesterday, Pop," he said slowly. "Because I am."

"Huh?" Genma said, halting as well. "Where'd that come from, all of a sudden?"

Ranma shrugged. "Heck, I probably should've said it yesterday. I hadn't thought up a good excuse for why I was so tired, and it wouldn't have been good idea to have Akane see that and find out about the fight with Mousse. You fixed that though, leavin' me at Tofu's to rest while you put Akane through the Training Session from Hell. I gotta admit, I didn't expect you to go that far, wiping her out enough that nobody other than Mom even noticed me last night."

"Glad to hear you're grateful," Genma grumbled. "That was harder than I ever meant or wanted to push her. And I'm sure you saw those pitiful kicked-puppy looks Soun kept sending my way."

"Until Akane caught him at it and wanted to make sure he wasn't trying to guilt-trip you out of training her as hard as it took." Ranma shook his head, still mildly disoriented at the memory. "...I guess I oughta say thanks for that, too. Her skills still need plenty of work, but for attitude I think you really managed to do it, Pop. You have turned her into a martial artist."

"And now that matters to you?" Genma asked, giving his son a sideways glance.

"Whattaya mean, 'now'? You think I liked busting my butt to rescue Akane from all that junk she should've been able to handle herself? You think I liked worrying somethin' would happen to her when I wasn't around to save the day? It never once felt good to hear her say 'I'm a martial artist too!' and know she honestly thought that's how it was. But if she says it now I can just grin, slap her on the back, an' say 'Congratulations!' You oughta know that would count as good news to me, Pop. Why'd you even ask?"

"Why don't we save that until we're inside and sitting down." Genma turned to face the building in front of them and took a few steps closer. When he didn't hear Ranma move to follow, he stopped and turned back again. "What's the hold-up, Boy?"

"Like I was saying, before someone got me all side-tracked..." Ranma cleared his throat, his gaze tracking up and away from Genma to examine the building. From the outside, at least, the bar seemed like a pretty high-quality place. "I'm grateful, Pop. But that only goes so far, and letting you get me into a drinking contest ain't gonna happen."

Genma blinked. "A drinking contest? Why would I want to do that?"

"Probably so once I was smashed and you were just mellow you could challenge me to spar," Ranma shot back.

The elder Saotome didn't wince, but it was a near thing. Only the fact that he hadn't been planning that specifically for today let him keep his face straight. "You wound me, Ranma," he said solemnly. "As if your own father would stoop to such tricks."

Ranma snorted. "The heck you wouldn't. You know, I heard most of that stuff you told Mom today, to get her all happy about the idea of us sneaking off for a father-son celebration."

"I knew you were listening in," Genma replied. "I figured if you had a problem with it, you'd stick your head in and derail the whole thing."

"Like how? Mom was already kinda happy about the idea by the time I figured out what you were saying, and that meant it was too late for me to do anything. And all the rest of that stuff you fed her just made her happier." Happy enough that she wound up pressing a huge wad of yen onto Genma to pay for the celebration.

"Bah, if that's what you think then you need to spend more time around your mother," Genma declared. "You think it was too late that early? Just because I'd gotten her happy at the idea and thinking it would be a manly thing, for us to celebrate you beating Mousse? If you didn't want to come here with me you should have made your own suggestion to Nodoka, convinced her your idea would be an even manlier way to celebrate your win. That would have gotten you out of this easily."

The younger Saotome frowned. It wasn't like his father to actually give Ranma advice on how to defeat him. Other people, yes, but not Genma himself... yet now that the old man had pointed this possibility out, he couldn't find a flaw in it. "And you're telling me this why?"

"To help you know how to deal with your mother, of course," Genma said. He looked away. "After all, you're saying you didn't want to come here today, but you did it for her sake."

After a long moment of silence, Ranma spoke. Choosing his words carefully, he said, "I'm not sure I'd go that far, Pop. All I was trying to say is, you're not gonna get me flying three sheets to the wind." He smirked and continued, "On the other hand, I might not mind dragging your pickled panda butt back home."

Genma shrugged. "That'd probably make her even prouder, if she thought you drank me under the table. Just make sure you have one cup of sake before you leave, so Nodoka can smell it on you. You can stick with Long Island Iced Tea until then," he added, still looking away and keeping his voice as casual as possible.

"Good. Just so we're clear on this," Ranma said, walking forward and catching up with Genma. The two of them passed through the door and into the bar.

Once inside the pigtailed teen paused, taking a long look around. Years had passed since the last time Genma took him to a bar. There'd been many such trips when he was younger and Genma was training in Anything Goes Drunken Fu, but he'd finally figured out how to get out of them when he was thirteen. It hadn't taken much whining and declaring that he was too old enough to drink to get barred from any more visits.

Of course, he might not have bothered if the dives they'd frequented back then had been as nice as this one. His first glance gave him that classy 'bigger on the inside than the outside' impression. The public area was one room, outfitted in some dark, sturdy wood. The room itself was rectangular, though walls jutted forth here and there which formed semi-private alcoves. Several large paintings adorned the walls, all of which showed landscapes or cityscapes locked in the grip of winter. Tables dotted the whole of the room, spaced generously far apart and lighted by lamps. No two were exactly alike, Ranma saw as he continued taking in his surroundings. In fact, he could spot styles from all over the world, perhaps not surprising since the bartender was obviously a gaijin.

This was easily the classiest joint Genma had ever dragged him to... so much so that he was beginning to feel a bit guilty. Maybe he shouldn't have assumed the old man was planning to spend just a little of that huge bankroll and pocket the rest.

He returned his attention to Genma, who hadn't stopped when he did. The elder Saotome had made his way across the room to the long bar and engaged the man behind it in conversation. As if to deal the deathblow to his son's old theory, he handed over what looked to Ranma like the whole wad of yen. It wasn't easy to be certain at this distance, of course, but he could at least tell that if Genma had held back anything, it was little more than pocket change.

'On the other hand, he could be settling an old tab,' Ranma reflected as he hurried across to catch up with Genma. "What gives, Pop?" he said as he did so. "Last time I checked, it wasn't normal to pay in advance, especially not that much in advance."

Before Genma could say anything, the barman answered. "Nothing normal about this place, boy," he rumbled, drawing Ranma's gaze back to him. It was a man with at least thirty years, eight inches, and ninety pounds on Genma, with a similar build of burly strength obscured by a protective layer of fat. The man's eyes were brown, his hair a grizzled grey-black, and his nose the reddest Ranma had ever seen. He spoke Japanese with an accent, much less pronounced than Shampoo's but still noticeable, and the Russian flavoring quickly established to Ranma that his guess of the other's nationality had been correct. "This is best bar for martial artists in all Japan, which should mean is best in the whole world. Is matter of honor for you to give money in advance; I will deduct cost of services rendered, and give back the rest when time comes for you to go."

Ranma managed not to take a step backwards from the sheer power of the alcohol fumes wafting to him on the man's breath, but it was a very near thing. "Uh... yeah," he said doubtfully. There had to be something here he wasn't getting; no way would Genma simply let that much yen slip through his fingers. Maybe his father knew that when it came time to settle up, he'd be able to lead the guy into believing he had more yen coming back to him than he really did. Or maybe there was somebody else who kept the process honest and error-free, somebody who wasn't currently pickled to the gills. He didn't spot a likely candidate for this role as Genma led him off to a table in one of the alcoves, though he did see the bartender pop the top on a bottle of brandy and half-empty the thing in one long series of gulps.

"You sure about this, Pop?" he asked as they settled down. "Sure you didn't just kiss all that cash goodbye? He says it's a matter of honor to let him handle it... well, that's all well an' good, but how much honor does it take to balance out being that drunk?"

"Bah. You wouldn't ask such a foolish question if you'd ever been here before, Ranma." Genma blinked. "Come to think of it, I suppose I'm a little relieved at that."

"What, you think I would've been sneaking around behind your back, getting up to things you wouldn't want me to and going places you'd never want me going without you watching my back?" Ranma asked, somehow managing to make it sound like a serious question. Still, he didn't wait for an answer. "So what is it I'm not seeing about this place?"

"Not the place, the person." Genma nodded toward the bartender. "That's Pyotr Kareshev, the Legendary Drunken Master."

"So... what? He's got a high tolerance?" Ranma asked as he watched Pyotr finish off the bottle of brandy. "Okay, great, but how far can that go?"

Genma hesitated for an instant, considering and discarding the impulse to indulge in his more usual theatrics. "Ranma, don't be an idiot," he said briskly. "You ought to realize what it means to call someone a 'Master'. I taught you better than that."

Ranma gave his father a hooded stare. "Maybe you did, but that was before Nerima. Before the Master of Martial Arts Shogi, the Master of Martial Arts Calligraphy, the Master of Martial Arts Topiary, the—"

"Yes, well, my point is that it would be a very bad idea to lump Pyotr in with those losers," Genma said. Three tables away, Shujako, the Master of Martial Arts Topiary, frowned but said nothing. He could recognize at least a few losing prospects when he saw them, and getting drawn into another match with an Anything Goes fighter certainly qualified. "He honed his skills through years of toil and sweat and ever-greater bouts of binge-drinking where he managed to always keep riding the ragged edge of control, until he reached the ultimate level of mastery. Alcohol can't even touch him anymore—no matter how much he drinks, it won't affect his mind or body."

"If it don't affect him, why does he keep knocking back the stuff like that?" Ranma asked as Pyotr drew and drained a huge mug of beer.

"Well, mastery has its price. I said drinking doesn't hurt him; I didn't say anything about not drinking."

"Right," Ranma said, rolling his eyes. "Still waiting to hear how this is better than Martial Arts Shogi, Pop."

"Watch and learn, Boy," Genma said, pointing to the bar. One of the men seated at it had just finished off the last of his drink, and was blearily waving Pyotr over. "Watch and learn."

"Okay," Ranma said, tuning out distractions to focus on the scene. It was difficult without knowing the right Air trick yet, but even across this distance he managed to hear the customer call for another bottle of sake. At least, that was what he thought the man had asked for. He was already so drunk that Ranma might not have been certain even if he'd been standing next to the guy to listen.

Pyotr shook his head. "Last call for you, Ichiro. You are way over the line."

"Awww, c'monn Pyoshr, I dun wanna g'home yet. Be a pal an' shober me up, okay?"

"Is third time today. Sober-up fee has climb to forty thousand yen."

"Thassss okay," slurred the heir to Martial Arts Accounting. "I s- still gotta bouta hundred thousand yen to blow. P- please?"


In the blink of an eye a glow sprang up around Pyotr, then just as quickly vanished. The next instant the formerly-sloshed customer shot to his feet and streaked to the door of the men's room, moving with no trace of stagger or stumble. He reappeared several minutes later, looking very relieved and utterly clear-headed, and resumed his old seat at the bar.

"His mastery lets him wipe out the effects of alcohol on anyone nearby," Genma explained. "That's not very frightening, of course, but the other side of it is awesome indeed, and it's why this place doesn't need a bouncer. Even though Pyotr can't get drunk himself, his body and spirit sense just how wasted he ought to be, and he can project as much of that as he wants into someone who gives him grief." He took off his glasses and polished them for a moment. "Or customers who like getting buzzed but don't care for the taste of alcohol."

"That is awesome," Ranma agreed, eyeing the man with new respect. "He developed this all on his own?"

"That's the story."

"Then if it's not some ancient secret perfected over a thousand years, there's gotta be lots of room for improvement. It'd be even better if it could be fixed to work without a ten-gallon-a-day habit," Ranma mused. "Wonder if I should talk to him about that."

Although he had meant the words at least half-seriously, Ranma was still disconcerted to see Pyotr turn and look straight at him, grin widely, leave the bar, and stride over to their table. "I might be willing to make deal," the man said. "Greta! Marta! Umira!" Ranma's shock was compounded as three very attractive girls appeared, seemingly out of thin air. One was blonde, the other two were brunettes, and all three were buxom enough to give adult Hinako a run for her money. They wore wide, welcoming smiles and black dresses accessorized with aprons and nametags.

"My lovely granddaughters," Pyotr explained, seeing his guest's surprise. "You not notice before? Is okay, to not be noticed by customers who do not want distraction is integral part of the life of Martial Arts Barmaid, just like not bothering customers before they are ready to order. I decide long ago that secrets of Drunken Mastery are to be pass down to family only, but any of my girls would make good wife for some lucky man..."

One corner of Ranma's mind calmly meditated on all the horrible, horrible things he was going to do to Genma for bringing him here. The rest scrambled for a way to get out of this without making things worse. Point out that the girls were all older than him, by what looked like a range of two to five years? No, with his luck it would come out sounding like an insult and he'd wind up dead drunk faster than he could say 'formaldehyde'. Remind Pyotr that he didn't know a thing about the guy he was ready to welcome into the family? No, that was no good either; the bar was right in the middle of Nerima, and that meant Pyotr had to at least have heard of Ranma Saotome. Wait a minute...

"Ah, thank you for honoring me with your offer, but I can't do that to your granddaughters," Ranma said as politely and earnestly as he could. "I couldn't drag such beautiful flowers into my crazy excuse for a life. If you need to know what I'm talking about, I can tell you a few stories." Wasn't that supposed to be one of the big draws of bars anyway, to pour your troubles into a sympathetic ear and thereby get some relief? That would be a heck of a lot better than what was actually happening.

Pyotr's grin widened further. He gave a deep belly laugh, following it up with a slap to Ranma's back. "Ha ha! Not bad, young one. It was only joke, of course. I know by heart all the mad stories of the life of Ranma Saotome. Good fun to listen to, but I would not wish such foolishness and grief on my precious little girls. And I know too that you already have your share of troubles with women; I would not heap more on your tender young head."

'I liked it better when I just thought he had to have heard of me,' Ranma grumbled to himself. He'd always suspected that there were people who viewed his life as a source of entertainment, but he'd thought they were confined to Furinkan. Finding out how right and wrong he'd been wasn't much fun. He wondered whether it might not be better to have a few glasses of sake, rather than something as innocent as iced tea.

"And anyway you do not want to learn this," Pyotr continued. "Happosai would bring down such wrath as you have never seen. He thinks my Mastery is an abomination unto all that is good and right with the world. Maybe he even would kick you out of Anything Goes."

Ranma made a disgusted face. Somehow he could picture it all too clearly, even though the heart of the style was supposed to be taking and refining anything and everything useful that the competition had to offer. "Oh well, forget I said anything. Thanks anyway."

"Yes, thanks for looking out for my boy," Genma added.

Pyotr's smile gained a faintly humorous quality, which Ranma completely missed. "Da," he said, inclining his head and retreating back to the bar.

Marta and Umira faded away from view as well, but Greta remained in place. "Are you ready to order?" she asked with only a hint of an accent, and a friendly but utterly non-flirtatious smile.

"A bottle of hot sake for me," Genma replied. "Your grandfather knows my brand."

"Do you serve... uh, what was it, Long Island Iced Tea?" Ranma asked. Hopefully Genma hadn't been joking and they really did have non-alcoholic drinks here.

"Yes, we do. Shall I start you off with a glass or a pitcher?"

"A glass," Ranma answered. As the girl smiled, nodded, and walked away he concentrated on watching the delivery process. Sure enough—not only did Greta not fade from visibility, he could also see her sisters as they made their rounds.

"I know she's pretty, Boy, but you might not want to stare like that," Genma rumbled.

"I wasn't—!" Ranma bit down on the reflexive protest. "You know what? I'm gonna have to ask why not. She is pretty, and she ain't about to jump me with the least little bit of encouragement, and there's none of the usual gang around to take it the wrong way. Why the heck should I be scared to even notice she looked good?"

Genma backpedaled, realizing he'd made a tactical error. He wasn't ready to start the serious discussion just yet... or rather, Ranma wasn't ready. "I just thought it might not be a good habit to get into," he placated.

"Hmm. Guess I can't argue with that," his son allowed, settling his ruffled feathers.

Greta was already on her way back from the bar, so neither Saotome said anything more as she crossed the remaining distance, set down their drinks, and headed off again. Ranma picked up his glass and gave it a speculative look. American-style iced tea was something he hadn't had in a long time; he'd come to enjoy it when he and Genma visited Texas on their training journey, but it was still pretty hard to think of as 'tea'.

He took a gulp. Not bad, he decided, even though it wasn't much like the varieties he'd encountered before. But leaving familiar stuff behind to experience new things was itself pretty familiar by now.

He took another, longer drink, then turned his attention back to Genma. The elder Saotome was taking it slow, savoring what Ranma guessed was better sake than his old man was used to. "This seems like a pretty nice place, Pop," he said, after another swallow that left his glass half empty. "You come here a lot?"

"I'm afraid not," Genma said. "It's way too expensive to come as much as I'd like. Not only is it the classiest tavern in town, the Master never comes here." The elder Saotome gave a wry grin. "I think it disturbs him to look at Pyotr and remember what can happen if you drink too much."

Ranma shook his head. "Geez, that's sad. Actually bein' scared of not being able to get wasted anymore... if that's what alcohol will do for you, I'm in no hurry to try it." He took another long drink from his glass. "Maybe I could just spill a little sake on my shirt before we leave."

"Maybe," Genma said with a faint smile. 'Or you could chug a whole bottleful of this stuff. It smells and tastes the same, without any of that pesky alcohol to dull your wits while you're talking to your only son.'

A few moments passed in silence as Genma sipped another cupful of sake and Ranma finished his drink. This time it was Marta who popped up beside the table, collecting his glass and confirming that he was ready for a refill.

"So this is the kind of service we get from bein' waited on by Martial Arts Barmaids," Ranma mused a few minutes later. Genma was still on his first bottle of sake, but one of the girls had stopped by anyway, not to ask him if he wanted another drink but to reheat his current one with a quick burst of hot chi. Since then Ranma had been watching the girls as they circulated through the room, keeping every customer that wasn't seated at the long bar in perfect comfort. It was a pleasant sight, and although he wasn't remotely regretting that Pyotr's offer had just been a joke, watching it was still making him feel very mellow.

"Kinda makes ya wish more of the kooky styles in this town focused on something like that," he continued. Ranma gestured expansively with his glass, three-quarters empty and fading fast. "Martial Arts Tea Ceremony? Feh. I'd trade that for something like Martial Arts Baking in a heartbeat."

"Actually there is a school of Martial Arts Baking," Genma said, deciding he'd better head this off at the pass. "And you better not throw around comments like that in a bar full of martial artists. The heir to the school is only six years older than you, but she's large enough to make two of Pyotr. You might not like what happens if word gets back to her that the hotshot Ranma Saotome was speaking so highly of her family school."

"Got it," Ranma said, nodding agreeably. At another time he might have been irritated at the reminder of the kind of deals Genma had pulled in the past, but now it was just nice to see the old man had learned his lesson. Not only that, but Genma was even helping him keep from making similar mistakes. "Hey, how'd you know all that anyway?"

Genma fought off a full-body shudder. "I'd need to drink a lot more than this before I told that story, Boy," he said before chugging the rest of his bottle.

"So go ahead an' get another. Heck, we both need a refill." Ranma tossed back the final swallows in his glass. This time the nearest barmaid didn't even bother to ask; she just turned up at their table with a smile and a loaded tray. "They just keep getting better and better," Ranma said approvingly after she'd ghosted away. "Hey, Pop, you dropped off all our cash at the front, but what about tips an' stuff like that?"

"You're not supposed to tip them. It's part of the charm of the place, that you get high-quality service without having to pay extra for it." Genma was silent for a moment, wondering whether he ought to be glad or worried that these girls had Ranma showing such approval. On one hand, they weren't Tendos, which was a bad thing... but on the other, this could mean he'd been more worried than necessary over the matter of Shampoo. He hoped that was the case, since it didn't look like Mousse was going to be able to run much interference after all.

"Huh. Still, it'd be nice to say thanks somehow. Ain't every day that I dodge that kind of bullet," Ranma remarked. "Already got all the fiancées I want, that's for sure. Seein' something like this happen... it makes me feel better, like I might be getting closer to solving that problem for real." He pondered a minute. "Maybe the next time some jerk blows into town to challenge me, I could point him to this place after I kick the crud out of him."

"Hmmm," Genma said, hiding a grimace by draining his cup. "Can't say I've noticed you working toward anything like that, Ranma."

Ranma grinned cheekily back at him. "You ain't the best in the world at noticin' stuff, Old Man."

"I might be better than you think," Genma warned. He was about to speak further about this, but Ranma didn't give him the chance.

"Hah!" Ranma looked away from his father, turning his gaze toward a guy in his mid-twenties on the far side of the room. The young man in question had been trying to keep himself inconspicuous ever since the Saotomes arrived—not the easiest task, considering the large travel sack beside him, stuffed to overflowing with rolls and bundles of various sizes and types of paper. "Yo, Takeru!" he called.

Very, very reluctantly, Takeru looked round. "Yes, Ranma? What is it?"

"Mind if I bum a few sheets of paper off ya?" He paused, distracted momentarily. 'Am I really borrowing it, though?' After all, as soon as Takeru agreed Ranma would be repaying him with a glimpse of something he'd never seen before, something that could inspire the guy to reach for new heights of the Art. Come to think of it, Takeru might already have done that since their last encounter; he could have a few new tricks of his own to share. Ranma grinned, and said, "We could fight another rematch over it if ya want."

The heir to Martial Arts Origami shook his head vehemently. "That won't be necessary; one was quite enough for me. Take what you like." His eyes only widened slightly when a sudden wind ripped three sheets loose from his highest-quality pad and floated them over to the Saotomes' table. Takeru nodded to Ranma's call of thanks, carefully returned his attention to his drink, and hoped the overpowered freak of nature wouldn't take any further notice of him.

Meanwhile, Genma's eyes had widened drastically. "How exactly did you do that, Ranma?"

"Wouldn't you like to know," Ranma said cheerfully. He squelched the little voice whispering from the back of his mind that actually Genma probably wouldn't. He was tired of keeping all this stuff a secret, and if the price of giving himself more peace of mind was stealing that peace from his father, well, that was perfectly in line with the principles of Anything Goes.

It had been a while since he'd used Martial Arts Origami, but the skills were still right there within easy reach. He barely glanced at the paper as he folded it into an elaborate, perfectly-proportioned falcon. He'd captured it in the very moment of leaving the earth behind—wings spread wide, one foot still just touching the ground while the other retracted toward the tucked-in-for-flight position. Once finished, he picked the bird up and flicked his wrist, sending it winging through the air to land perched on the very edge of an empty sake bottle Umira had just picked up. 'Take that, no tipping policy!'

"You're saying you learned this from the time you spent in your cursed form?" Genma tried, hoping against hope that this was all there was to it.

"Nope! Spending time as a falcon does make the Air style easier to learn," Ranma said. "An' it means I can fight for real like that, without havin' to claw someone all to pieces. But the style was made by humans, for humans." He picked up the second sheet of paper in one hand and stretched his other out flat over the table, engaging the Buzzing Fist at the greatest power level he could manage. He dropped the paper into the rippling air, and both Saotomes watched as it was reduced to confetti. "Couldn't do something like that in my falcon form," he commented.

Genma said nothing in reply. A whimsical desire to stretch the drama of the moment led Ranma to turn back to his drink. Besides, he didn't want to neglect it too long. The ice would melt and water down the enjoyment factor.

His father still hadn't said anything by the time he'd satisfied his immediate thirst, a fact which was beginning to get a little puzzling. "Whatsa matter, Pop? Too impressed to say anything?"

"Hardly," Genma growled. "I'm just waiting for you to show me whatever else you had in mind."

"Huh?" Ranma blinked. "How'd you figure I had something else?"

"You pulled three sheets over here," his father pointed out.

"Right. Heh, keep that up and maybe I won't be able to say you suck at noticin' stuff after all," Ranma quipped. Now that he knew Genma was deliberately waiting on him, he turned back to his drink for a few dramatic swallows more.

"Go ahead, Son. Take your time," Genma said, his tone gentle but still patronizing if one were listening at all closely.

'Aw, man, it's no fun if he's not getting impatient or nothing,' Ranma thought. "Actually, Pop, this last one was more for me than you." He gave his father one last smirk, then turned all his focus onto the paper before him and the air surrounding it. Slowly the sheet rose from the table, then began to fold and crease in response to the invisible forces washing over it. Ranma found it even harder than he'd expected to use the skills of Martial Arts Origami via the Wind Strike, but he stuck it out, pushing against the challenge and his own limitations.

Genma stared, his mouth drawing into an ever-tighter, ever-grimmer line as the paper twisted and turned, its final form becoming clearer and clearer. By the time his son was finished, both Saotomes' expressions metaphorically mirrored each other—in the way a mirror image reverses what it's showing. Ranma wore a soft smile as he stared at the proud, curvy, graceful figure clearly recognizable as Shampoo. Genma's own gaze was cold and fearful.

He managed to get his face and voice under control, or at least enough control that Ranma in his current condition wouldn't notice anything wrong. "Why did you say this was for you, not me?"

"Cause I'd already showed ya the Wind Strike," Ranma explained. "This was a challenge for me, to see if I was good enough with it to pull off something like this."

The elder Saotome fought off an urge to grab the figure and drop it on the tray of a passing barmaid. "I was more impressed by the other move. At least this one makes a decent parlor trick, I suppose."

Ranma rolled his eyes. "Just when I start developin' a little respect for you, ya have to open your mouth and blow it," he exaggerated. He shook his head. "For your information, Pop, this move halfway made the difference between life an' death in my fight with Mousse."

"Halfway?" Genma queried, reminding himself that he needed to keep the conversation light and seemingly-harmless. Ranma was a lot more open now, thanks to the alcohol he hadn't even realized he was drinking, but that didn't magically turn his son into a combination of open book and doormat. He couldn't afford to project any negative emotions. "What exactly do you mean?"

"Well, don't pass this on to Shampoo or nothin', but I kinda screwed up," Ranma said conspiratorially. "I coulda smashed Mousse in no time flat with this stuff. Knowing that made me a little overconfident. If I'd gone into that battle without the Air style to back me up, I woulda fought it totally different, an' maybe not got hurt at all." He frowned. "On the other hand, that woulda needed me to come down on him hard an' fast, not taking any time to talk to him about what was what. He'd prob'ly still be chasin' after Shampoo and kidding himself he had a chance with her. Even with the beating I took from those stupid bombs, this way was better. At least, if it finishes off that crap."

This time Genma couldn't hide his grimace. Fortunately, at least from one point of view, Ranma chose that moment to look down at his origami masterpiece and thus didn't see him. Genma decided that for now it was probably a good idea to shelve the topic of the Amazons (and regardless of whether it was a good idea, he really, really wanted to do it). "Getting back to something you said earlier..."

"Huh?" Ranma said, not paying much attention. He was more interested just then in a different question: did he want his next refill to be another individual glass, or should he just have them leave a pitcher? If it was the pitcher, he'd get a chance to find out whether the girls could project cold chi as well as hot to refresh customers' drinks. If they could, maybe he could send them off to Cologne to learn the Hiryu Shoten Ha or something. That sounded like a good plan—get extra credit from the Kareshevs and the Amazons, for introducing them to each other.

'Then again, if they really hit it off and Pyotr decides to relocate to the Amazon village...' Ranma took a good, long look around the bar full of martial artists and imagined them all learning whose fault it was that they'd lost this place for good. Suddenly listening to whatever his father was saying sounded like a much better idea.

"Are you ready to listen now, Ranma?" Genma said dryly.

Ranma nodded. "Yeah, that's prob'ly better than getting every customer here howling for my blood."

"Uh... undoubtedly," his father answered, hoping that had just been alcohol-induced randomness. "Anyway, I wanted to get back to what you were saying earlier, about Akane."

"What, you want to hear me say it again? Eh, why not," Ranma said amiably. "As far as I can tell you're doing a great job with her, Pop. I never would've thought you could take her so far so quickly. I appreciate it." He shook his head. "Wish Mr. Tendo could say the same thing. But I guess if he could, Akane wouldn't have had so far to go in the first place."

"I... I am glad to hear you say that, Ranma," Genma said carefully. "But I'm a little confused, too."

Ranma blinked. "What's there to be confused about?"

"Well, if you want to see her get better, why didn't you go along with your part of my plan?" Genma asked. "You know the training I'm giving Akane doesn't focus much on her basic skills. I'm dealing with other areas because that's the way I can help her best." He paused to give Ranma as authoritative a stare as he could manage. "I wanted you to be the one working with her for the basics."

Ranma shrugged and looked away. "I tried. Didn't go over any better than it ever did, the times I tried that in the past. Or at least, not better enough."

"What do you mean, not better enough? Your fiancée needs your help, Boy! Don't you think it's about time you tried a little harder to give it to her?"

"No, I don't!" Ranma snapped back, still not meeting Genma's gaze. "An' I'd rather talk about something else, if you don't mind!"

Genma took a few deep breaths, reminding himself once again that this conversation had to be kept light and open. Still, he needed to know why the boy wasn't even a little willing to give Akane the help he said he wanted her to get.

He took a long drink of sake, using it as a shield while he covertly studied Ranma. The boy was frowning moodily into his glass, which wasn't so good. Still, for the moment he wasn't paying any attention to Genma, and that at least was what his father needed. Genma casually set his cup down and refilled it, while his free hand dangled down out of Ranma's line of sight. He shot one significant glance toward the long bar, making sure that Pyotr was watching, then tossed down the new shot of sake while making a quick bunch of signals.


Marta frowned thoughtfully and crossed the distance to the bar. It was supposed to be the barmaids' job to take care of customers seated at the tables, but that certainly hadn't looked like a signal to any of them. "Grandpapa, was that customer asking you for something that he should be getting from us?"

Pyotr smiled. "No, Marta. Genma Saotome needs to have a serious talk with his son, so he brought him to bar to loosen his tongue with the spirits, and he brought him to this bar so that I would keep him from get more than just a little over the edge." He chuckled. "I do not think the boy even knows his drink has alcohol in it. It took barely half his first glass to get him to where Genma wants him. Or wanted him, at least; he just signal to me to let the boy go a little further."

Marta's eyes widened then narrowed as she looked from the cute, clueless, innocent boy to the shifty old reprobate who'd been so quick to tell him that tipping was a no-no. "Is that so. And since his father is drinking the alcohol-free sake, there's no chance at all of a level playing field. Grandpapa, would you do me a favor?" she asked, turning her sweetest, most endearing look on her grandfather.

Pyotr, a grizzled veteran of battles such as this, merely looked dubiously back at her. "Not if it mean cheating Genma out of the service he is paying for."

"I wouldn't ask that, anymore than I'd ask you to stop faking that silly accent," Marta said, smiling as she sensed the increasing chance of victory. "What I wanted was..."


By the time Genma returned his attention to Ranma, his son was smiling again, moodiness seemingly forgotten. A good sign, Genma thought with relief, blissful in his ignorance that Ranma's discontentment had melted away on noticing the origami figurine again.

Despite Ranma's recovering his good spirits, Genma still waited a little longer before reopening the conversation. At first he was pondering the best way to proceed, then he was waiting for Ranma to return from the men's room. At last, when he felt ready, he asked quietly, "Can you tell me why, Ranma?"

"Huh? Why what?"

"Why you don't think you should help Akane with the biggest problem I haven't been working on." Genma shook his head, which left him feeling momentarily dizzy at how incomprehensible his one and only son was being. "I was counting on you, Boy. I'd do my part, you'd tie up the loose ends, and together we'd get Akane to where she needs to be. You say that matters to you. You say you're glad to see me working with her. But, but you won't get involved too? Just sit back and watch? You... you wound me, Ranma. I really do mean it this time." He clamped his mouth shut against the desire to say more, to spill all the hidden fears and hopes that had driven him down this road.

'Sake must be getting to the old man,' Ranma mused. Genma's normal tolerance was a lot better than the measly one-and-a-half bottles he'd put away so far, but then again his father didn't usually get the high-quality stuff. Maybe it was stronger or something. That at least would explain the honest hurt he was sure he'd heard in his father's voice. He hesitated a moment longer, pride struggling against the emotions raised by Genma's wounded, bewildered expression.

A moment before Ranma found his voice, Genma spoke again. "Why are you glad? You said you're happy I put so much into working with her, that I brought her so far. Are, are you just happy that all those hours were hours I wasn't getting in your way?"

"No!" Ranma said forcefully. Before he knew it he'd shot one hand across the table to clasp his father's arm. "It ain't like that, Pop! I... I was proud of ya. Happy to get a chance to feel that way again, to see you could put that kinda effort out for somebody other than me. Glad to see you could bring Akane to where she needed to be, 'specially cause if you'd just tried the same stuff you did with me she'd've bailed for sure. Seein' you do something for somebody other than me, givin' her what she needed an' doing such a good job of it... it makes me proud of you. Maybe even the proudest I've ever been."

"R- Really?" Genma asked. "That's what I hoped for. One big thing I was counting on. One thing I wanted to get out of all this, some respect from my only son. But..." He blinked owlishly at Ranma. "You already are? Even though Akane hasn't defeated Shampoo yet?"

Ranma stared, then let his hand drop and gave a bark of laughter. "Mwahaha! Akane beat Shampoo? Not in a million years. Just cause you turned her into a martial artist for real, don't make up for sixteen years' head start. An' it sure don't bridge the gap that opened up when Cologne decided to teach Shampoo the Air style." He shook his head. "You don't need to pull off some impossible thing like that to get me proud of ya, Pop. Just keep on doin' what you're doin'."

"But... you say that, but what I'm doing was counting on you to do your part too." Genma fought off a new feeling of dizziness, this time from the way the conversation kept moving in circles. Or maybe not circles, he thought; they were making some kind of progress at least. Maybe it was spirals. He snorted, shook his head, and tried to push away thoughts of Amazons and their techniques.


"What do you mean, why? Akane is your fiancée. When she needs help from you, you shouldn't have to ask me why you ought to give it to her!"

Ranma was silent for awhile, staring down at the glass in his hands. At last, though, his jaw clenched and he looked Genma straight in the eyes. "I already told you. I tried. I couldn't get through to her. You wanna blame me for that?"

"Not really," Genma answered. And he didn't. He just wanted Ranma to fix the mistake.

"You sure, Pop? Cause this one time it might be the right thing to do. I dunno what it is, but Akane needs something in a teacher that I can't give her. That don't seem to be true for you training her, though. That's why I'm keeping out of it from now on no matter what you say." He paused for a minute to drink the rest of his tea, then continued. "You're the one who knows what Akane needs and how to get her there. Like I already said, seein' you do all this makes me as proud of you as I've ever been. You don't need me trying something that doesn't even help anyway." He shot his father a sharp glance. "An' Akane don't need that either. She's finally learning for real, an' she don't need any training setbacks because her sensei wanted to work that stupid engagement crud into the mix."

"I wish you wouldn't talk like that about my dream, Boy," Genma muttered into his cup.

"Too bad, Old Man," Ranma said remorselessly. "I know you an' Mr. Tendo think the sun rises an' sets on that one dumb promise, but for cryin' out loud wake up! It wouldn't do nothing to make Anything Goes stronger. In fact it'd be like chaining it down, cause it'd take away opportunities for me and Akane to bring new stuff into the style. Right now all you should be focusing on is getting her to that point, where she's good enough to do the whole 'analyze your opponent's style and take the best stuff' bit."

"Is that what you're doing with the Amazons lately? Picking up new and greater secrets to work into Anything Goes?"

"Kinda," Ranma said uncomfortably. He shrugged and took a drink from his glass, then did a double-take as he remembered it had been empty a minute ago. Never mind noticing whatever barmaid had been here; he hadn't even seen the refill happen! 'Maybe I oughta borrow another couple sheets of paper off Takeru and make something for each of the girls.'

"What do you mean, 'kinda'?" Genma asked.

Ranma squirmed. "Well, I mean, I'm learning new things, which does make those things part of Anything Goes. But..." He hesitated, then rejected the impulse to dodge the issue. "But... no, that ain't all I'm doing." Genma might not have used that exact wording, but Ranma had heard what his father meant. "And it's not like Shampoo's my opponent anyway."

"Then what is she, Ranma?" his father countered.

Ranma took a few deep breaths for courage, then started with the easiest. "She's my sensei," he said. "I dunno whether Cologne meant for me to learn this stuff all along, but she's only actually teaching it to Shampoo. It was her call to pass it on to me, an' the old ghoul said that meant it was gonna be Shampoo's job to train me. So far she's taught me two techniques outta the Air style, an' she ain't got mad or jealous or nothing when I was better than her at modifying and improving them. She was just proud of me.

"More than my sensei, she's my friend," he continued, edging nearer to the line his father wasn't going to want him to cross. "She's gotta be the one person I've got the most in common with, the one I've shared the most stuff with. She's helped me to understand just how much of the junk that's gone on for so long needs to change, and also helped me make those changes by doing some of her own." He paused, then acknowledged, "Of course a lot of that was what she hoped for herself, when she pushed so hard to break some of the old, stupid patterns around here. I'm not ignoring that, an' I'm not denying that she's made mistakes doing it. But if she forgives me for all the times that was true for me, how can I not do the same back to her?"

"You might want to keep in mind how much grief you've gotten over the past year, Boy. Sometimes you should hold a grudge. Or at least remember what mistakes were made."

"Y'know, Pop, you might not be the best person to give me advice like that. Not with as worried as you were lookin' earlier," Ranma said. "You sure acted like it mattered to you, whether or not I respect you an' care about you. That wasn't just another Saotome Desperation Technique, was it?"

Genma's shoulders sagged visibly, and he shook his head. "Not unless telling the truth is only a last resort," he mumbled.

'In other words, yes,' Ranma thought. But at least it wasn't one of the bad techniques. Pushing aside jokes at his father's expense, he said gently, "Maybe the real lesson is, don't hold the other person's mistakes against them when they're trying to learn better. Cheer up, Pop. Even if I just go by that, you're still okay."

Genma just had time to brighten up, but not to say anything before his son continued, "You and Shampoo both. Heck, it even applies to Kodachi, and Akane, at least as far as the Art goes, and Ucchan too if she'd been making any big mistakes lately. There's even a chance for Ryoga and Mousse. Things really are changing for good around here. Shampoo kicked it all off, and what she did was enough to make me see how much we needed some change. If it wasn't for her we wouldn't even be here right now, me bein' able to say I'm proud of what you've accomplished. You oughta thank her one of these days."

"I'd be glad to thank her for her efforts as your sensei and your friend," Genma pronounced with what was truly impressive subtlety, given his condition and personal limits.

"Right. I didn't finish answering that question, did I," Ranma replied. He paused a moment longer to wrestle the last vestiges of prudence into submission, then said, "She's my fiancée. And... and it wasn't exactly what I was tryin' to accomplish... but she's the only one that happened cause of what I did, not a certain someone else who's lucky he's workin' to do better nowadays."

"Ranma..." his father rumbled, a warning like the first audible growls of an awakening volcano.

"Hope you ain't trying to impress me there, Pop," Ranma said, smirking back at him. Akane made better threats in her sleep. If his father was smashed enough to think that might scare him, then he had nothing to worry about. "And don't forget what ya told me," he nodded toward the long bar, "about why this place don't need a bouncer."

Irritably, and with considerable difficulty, Genma pushed aside the first dozen responses that came to mind. 'Gotta remember, don't show anger, don't show fear. They can smell fear. Wait, that's predators, not the boy. Probably.' He shook his head, which seemed to help clear it. "Remember what I said about being careful what you say here?" he chided. "The whole place is full of martial artists. Anything you say about a martial artist who's not here right now, is pretty damn likely to get back to them anyway. What d'you think would happen if the Amazons heard you saying that fiancée line?"

Ranma stared steadily back. "Honestly, Pop? Nothing. I don't think Cologne would do anything, 'cept maybe give me a grin and a cackle. Not exactly pleasant but nothing to freak out about. After yesterday I don't think Mousse would do anything other than just glare a little harder. And Shampoo..." He shrugged, then flashed a not-so-nice grin at his father. "She'd just take it in her stride. I mean, I already told her told her to her face it was okay to introduce herself to Mom as my wife..."

He'd mainly said this just to see how Genma would react, and he wasn't disappointed. His father let out a great wheezing gasp for breath, clutched at his chest with one hand, desperately grabbed his sake with the other, and chugged the rest of the bottle in one go.

"Have you lost your mind?" Genma half-demanded, half-pled. "Boy, you're playing games with your entire future here!"

"An' it's just supposed to be parents who do that, not the kids themselves?" Ranma shot back, his obnoxious grin still in place but strained a little now. It was hard not to let his honest surprise and pleasure shine through it; he'd never imagined Genma would react this well to his ploy. He'd halfway expected an explosion better than Akane's, not this mild response. It almost looked like his father was trusting him to ultimately make his own decisions! "It is my future, y'know."

Genma didn't say anything in immediate reply, instead taking several deep breaths to calm down and focus. "Seriously, now. You're just pulling my chain here, aren't you? Shampoo didn't really say anything like that to Nodoka."

Ranma frowned. "Actually that's true, Pop, but... how could ya tell?"

"Because of what your mother has and hasn't said to me when we're alone. I know very well that she's met Shampoo, and if that Amazon had called herself your wife I'd certainly have heard of that too." Genma sighed. "Look, Ranma, I know this isn't easy on either of us. But... but I did want for us to talk seriously now." Well, he'd at least wanted serious answers from Ranma, and so far he seemed to be doing best at getting them by being mostly honest too. "If Shampoo did face up to Nodoka like that, do you know what your mother would do?"

"No," the younger Saotome admitted, his frown deepening. "What?"

"I don't know either," Genma said solemnly.

"So much for serious," Ranma muttered, then took another few gulps of his drink.

"I'm being serious!" Genma shot back. "Boy, your mother is a complicated woman of strong will and even stronger opinions. I know how to press some of her buttons, like that excellent advice I gave you earlier today. But actually having a gaijin introduce herself as your wife, completely ignoring the honor-pledge to the Tendos...?" He shrugged helplessly. "There's no way in the world to know how she'd take it or what she thought was the right thing to do. That's what I meant about 'playing with your future', even more than your joke about saying something so foolish to Shampoo."

Ranma stared steadily back. "That part was for real, Old Man," he said, waiting just long enough that Genma had already swallowed his latest gulp of sake. He might or might not round off this afternoon with a little spilled alcohol for the sake of appearances, but he wasn't about to get that alcohol by way of a fatherly spit-take.

"Ranma, I know Shampoo didn't say that," Genma growled.

"So that makes me a liar?" Ranma growled right back. "Did it cross your mind that maybe she didn't take me up on my offer? Huh? Did ya stop to think that maybe Shampoo thought 'fiancée' was what she wanted to say anyway?"

"I guess it would be understandable," Genma said, backpedaling once again, recognizing the necessity but not happy about it. He took a moment to remind himself of what Ranma had already said, about feeling proud of him for the things he'd done right lately. It didn't settle every fear raised by this latest revelation, but it did provide a powerful counterbalance. "After all, I've heard her call herself your fiancée, not push for more."

Ranma thought back to the conversation he'd had with Shampoo after that first meeting between the Amazon and his mother, and the reasons she'd given for her choice. Smiling softly once more as his gaze drifted down to the origami maiden, he said, "Yeah. Somewhere along the way she figured out that thinking things through and working for what you want was the way to go." He tossed back another few swigs of tea. "Wish everyone around here had learned that as good as she did."

Genma heaved a long and weary sigh, massaged his temples for a moment, and decided to lay most of his cards on the table. "Ranma, if you're trying to say you've decided none of the other girls can stack up to Shampoo, just spit it out," he demanded, his voice heavy-laden with worry, unhappiness, and disapproval.

It would have been a better idea to keep the emotions out of it. Particularly that last one.

His son's eyes narrowed and seemed to flash. "What if I did say that, Old Man?" he snapped, his tone hard and sharp enough to cut through all the burden his father was once again laying on him. "What'd you do then, huh? Stand up as tall an' straight as you could, and ask the heavens what you did to deserve such a disappointment of a son? Try to drag things back to how they used to be, when I just did whatever you said? Would you push as hard as you could to get what you want, never mind what it costs ya or whether there's a better way than just bulldozing straight ahead?" Ranma paused, scraping together every shred of determination and righteous anger he could find, then lashed out with his final questions. "Would you shrug and say 'my way or the highway', and wash your hands of me? Kick me out of the family for daring to make my own choice with my life? Would ya—"

"NO!" Genma burst out, silencing the blitz of questions before they could get any more painful. That one exclamation seemed to take all the strength he had left. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and halting. "That isn't... isn't what I was trying to say. Really it's just the opposite. If... I didn't... I wouldn't have asked you that question, if I couldn't bear to hear the answer.

"So please... please don't ask anything else like what you were. I can't, can't bear that. Don't want to think you'd think I might think like that. I've given my whole life to raise you to be a better man than me... No matter what, I couldn't bear to lose you... I—"

It was Ranma's turn to break in before listening got any more painful. "Pop, that's enough," he said gently. "I... I'm sorry too. I didn't really think that. Heck, I knew ya wouldn't turn your back on me for something like this. It's just... the way you said it... I was just trying to finally get past all that 'because I said so' crap, not hurt you... Ah, hell. I'm just sorry, that's all. But I'm still glad that when I asked those questions, I wasn't askin' them for real."

"Then... then will you listen to what I think?" Genma asked.

"Yeah, if you'll say the same thing back to me."

"Of course. Th—"

"Y'know," Ranma said as a thought struck him, not even realizing he'd interrupted, "this is kinda like what I already did with Mousse an' Ryoga. Had to face them down, get past the old stupid stuff that's been around for way too long. That's pretty much what we're doing now, huh Pop? And I made some mistakes with how I handled it with both those guys, just like now, but it was less mistakes with Mousse than with Ryoga, just like it's been less mistakes with you than with Mousse. Ya think that's a good sign? Plus the fact that there's no way I coulda sat down with either of them and talked about stuff like this."

Genma blinked, surprised at the digression. The idea of signaling Pyotr to sober Ranma up a bit crossed his mind, but he decided to hold off on that. Ranma's temper had flared awhile back, true, but he'd calmed down amazingly quickly and was looking pretty mellow now. And there wasn't any danger of the boy being so far gone that he wouldn't remember any of the progress they were making tomorrow; if that were true there'd have been a much larger change in his speech patterns, not the rambling and the bit of roughening that Genma thought he'd noticed.

"Yeah, could be a good sign," he allowed, then moved to put the conversation back on track. "Gettin' back to—"

"You know, Mousse wasn't the only person Cologne an' I talked about two days ago," Ranma confided. "Took me a while, but I eventually remembered to ask about Kodachi too. She made it to Amazon territory okay an' has settled down there to learn whatever they've got to teach her. Cologne says that she's got one of the Elders working with her, an' that things look real hopeful." He looked off into the distance, as if to see all the way to China. "Six months ago I never woulda thought I'd say this, but I'm glad I met Kodachi Kuno... not for me, but for her. In the end, I gave her the help she needed from me. That makes up for all the pain an' then some."

"Your mother would be proud," Genma hazarded, not knowing whether it was true or not. He'd had no clue that anything had happened with the Kuno girl, and Ranma's ramblings were awfully vague. It was also worrying that it sounded like Ranma had gotten Kodachi to go to Amazon lands. Then again, he didn't want to be with Kodachi; perhaps him sending her to the Joketsuzoku should be reassuring. In any case, if Ranma really had given the girl some kind of critical help, Nodoka doubtless would be proud... at least once she got over the disappointment of her son sending away a rich, beautiful young noblewoman. "Could you—"

"And what about Mom, anyway? Like you said, she's got a lot of opinions an' she ain't afraid to act on 'em." Ranma gave his father a frank, manly stare. "You know what? My original plan was to just use a balloon full of Instant Falcon water on Mousse, but after Mom pushed that pack of Lucky Stallion Extra-Larges on me I figured maybe I could at least get some use out of it. I tried to use those instead of the balloons, but every dang one of them had tiny little holes punched all through it. Safe sex my ass," he grumbled. "So did Mom inspire you to develop the Saotome Desperation Techniques, or did that part of you rub off on her?"

"Probably that second one," Genma mused. "But anyway—"

"It ain't real easy, figuring out how to deal with her agenda. I'm willing to bet she'd just 'solve' this whole engagement mess by sayin' everyone got to share me, an' whoever wasn't willin' to put up with that would get kicked out of the running for good. Heck, I guess if I was ready to grab Shampoo and let that be that, I could just get Mom to go ahead an' do that, an' make it look like that sounded just fine to me. I dunno whether Shampoo'd be willing to share me out with anybody else, but with how she reacted to Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung that one time, she's at least the one who could fake it the best and longest. That'd be one way out of all this, I guess, if I didn't mind losin' Ucchan and Akane for good and all even as friends." Ranma gave a humorless chuckle. "Not exactly the future I wanta build, you know?"

"No, I don't know," Genma pointed out. If he had known that, he wouldn't have needed to ask. "But..." He paused, waiting for the inevitable interruption.

"But what?" Ranma asked after a few seconds had gone by.

"But I'm glad to hear it. Ranma..." Another hesitation, longer this time as Genma tried to think of what he needed and wanted to say. Nothing fancy or clever was coming to mind. At last he abandoned any hopes of winning Ranma over through sheer eloquent brilliance, and just said, "I don't think you should marry Shampoo."

Ranma's expression went from contemplative to scowling in the blink of an eye. He stared his father in the eye, opened his mouth... and then slowly closed it again. Genma kept quiet as well, studying his son as carefully as he could. Ranma was clearly thinking hard about what he wanted to say next; the elder Saotome was certain of that much at least. He tried and failed to shake the impression that his son was just trying to think of the best way to blow him off.

"Look, Pop," Ranma said at last. "More than anything else, I want ya to listen to me say one thing. I want you to take it to heart, an' not give me any grief over it or step over the line I'm about to draw. Okay?" he said, his voice as firm as ever Genma had heard it.

The elder Saotome braced himself and said, "All right." If that was how it was going to be, at least he'd know. At least he wouldn't blunder into something that would push his boy away for good.

"Good. Then here's what I want to say to you." Ranma heaved a sigh, and when he exhaled the remainder of his ire seemed to go with it. "I am seventeen years old. An' it's only the last year where I've had any real, serious exposure to girls at all. I ain't ready to talk about marriage yet, not to Shampoo, not to anybody! I know I'm not normal, and even ignoring Mom's 'man among men' thing, I wouldn't want to be. But there are some good things about being normal, some things that those kinda guys and girls do better than me and all the rest of the people involved in my life, and heck! Anything Goes is supposed to be about taking the best stuff from whatever you run into, right?"

"I... can't say I'm following you, Son," Genma admitted. "What are you talking about? Taking what?"

"Simple," Ranma fired back. "The idea of not jumping straight from not knowing how to deal with girls at all, to bein' married to one. That's not the way to do it. Even if honor was enough to keep the marriage itself together, it ain't enough to make it happy, or, or anything of what it ought to be. I'm not gonna hurt my wife or myself like that. That's not the future I'm gonna make for my family, Old Man, not with Shampoo, not with anyone."

He heaved a long sigh. "How come everybody's always thought I'm ready for that anyway?" he asked plaintively, his eyes not focused on Genma for the moment. "I'm only seventeen. I oughta be learning this stuff at least a little safely, not have everybody expect me to charge on ahead like I already knew it all. I don't. I'm not ready to make those kinds of choices."

"Hmm," Genma said. "So what you're saying here is, you want to date and do all that usual teenage romance stuff? And that's all for now?"

"Yeah... I guess..." Ranma said hesitantly. Then, more strongly, "That's right."

"And..." 'I'll drag an admission out of the boy even if it kills me.' Genma blinked. 'I mean, him.' "And would Shampoo be your first choice for partner in that dance?"

"Yes." He said it quietly, but Genma didn't hear any hesitation at all (and he'd certainly listened hard enough for it). "Can't say that's how it'll be for good and all, but yeah... that is what I want." 'As close as I can get, as far as she and I can go together, without me blinking and suddenly choices for the rest of my life are over and done with before I was ready to make them with my eyes wide open.' He wasn't quite buzzed enough to say that last part out loud, though.

"So what are you going to do, Boy?" the elder Saotome said wearily. "If you do start dating her, you might as well be saying you want to throw away the other engagements and the girls that go with them. Because that's what will happen."

"That's not what's gonna happen," Ranma said determinedly. "I ain't throwing away Ucchan or Akane or anybody. And I think you're wrong anyway, Pop. If I was gonna stand up tall and shout to the heavens that Shampoo was all I wanted for the rest of my life and damn everyone else's feelings, then yeah—I could see Ucchan being hurt enough to leave, maybe for good." He grimaced painfully, shaking his head to deny the thought. "And Akane could be that mad. But that ain't where I am. I already said I'm not ready to make any rest-of-my-life choices yet. That means not deliberately an' not by default either."

"You'd better have a plan then," Genma said, staring down into his glass. "Take it from me, just sitting around and hoping things will go your way isn't going to cut the mustard."

"That's not what I've been doing," Ranma protested. It had been a knee-jerk response, but a few seconds after uttering it he blinked, seeming to be struck by the words. "It really isn't," he said, the words emerging slowly, contemplatively. "What I've been doing with Shampoo is going along with what she wants, or at least as much of it as I thought was a good idea. And... and I've done the same thing with Ucchan! I joined the Astronomy Club with her, I've helped her train a few times, I cut class with her just the other day... heck, you could almost say I haven't shown any favoritism to Shampoo over Ucchan at all!"

"Uh-huh," Genma said, his dry tone a contrast all the sake he'd drunk.

Ranma deflated noticeably. "Well... prob'ly shouldn't go that far. But... but if she wants something, she needs ta say so. We can go on from there."

"And what about Akane?" Genma wanted to know.

Ranma shrugged. "Ask me again on the day she ever asks for somethin' for herself," he said steadily. "Instead of just trying to keep me away from whoever. But seriously, Pop. You'll be a lot better off if you finally let go of that dumb promise you an' Mr. Tendo made." He finished off the rest of his glass, then stood up to make a return visit to the men's room. He turned to go, then said over his shoulder, "Because as far as I can tell, the only good that ever came out of it was getting us here for when the Tendos needed us. Me to save Akane's butt, and now you to get her to where I don't have to."


"Hey, buddy. You think you could pick up the pace a little?"

Genma looked up, startled out of contemplating the amber depths of his drink. "What was that?"

"You've been here thirty minutes now and you're still nursing your first beer." The bartender—a thin, weedy little man who contrasted as sharply to Pyotr Kareshev as did Pyotr's tavern to this dive—gestured up and down the long bar. Every seat was filled, and there were people standing nearby waiting for places to open there rather than sit down at the last few open tables. It wouldn't take an observer long to figure out why this might be. The lone serving girl working the tables seemed to have recognized long ago that there was no way to give timely service to everyone, and so she approached equality from the other direction. There were people seated out there who'd been nursing their same drink for thirty minutes, but in no case was this by their own choice.

"These seats up front are in kind of high demand, you know?" the man continued. "If you're not gonna drink any faster than that, I'll have to ask you to move back to the back. Or rather, not me. Tatsu'll be the one doing the asking." He nodded toward the bouncer. Here at least there was some similarity to the last bar he'd visited, Genma saw. This man was as tall and heavily muscled as Pyotr, though that was where the resemblance ended. He lacked the Russian's padding or air of general goodwill.

Genma was also certain that he could flatten this man quicker than he could finish his beer.

It was therefore without much concern that he turned back to face the bartender. He'd never been to this particular bar before, and was beginning to regret whatever whim of fate had made him select it as tonight's destination. Still, maybe he should give the man another chance. "Actually I was waiting for a quiet moment, when I could talk about my problems to someone," he hinted. "Maybe get some advice, maybe just some relief."

"Right," the nameless bartender said, nodding decisively. "Tatsu!"

The bouncer didn't hurry over, opting instead to stride across the room with grim inevitability. This was fortunate, because it gave Genma time enough to decide that yes, he was irritated, but no, he wasn't irritated enough to demolish the place in a barroom brawl. He reminded himself that he'd come all this way, leaving Nerima well behind, because he hadn't wanted to deal with any craziness tonight. And therefore he didn't need or want to start any himself.

Nevertheless, he wasn't quite ready to let this go entirely. As Tatsu passed the last table between himself and Genma, the Saotome master got up and turned calmly around to face him.

Tatsu had already slowed to an amble, since it looked like this patron was going to be reasonable after all. Thus, when Genma's form shimmered and seemed to morph into a spectral panda twice as large as Tatsu himself, the bouncer stumbled but didn't quite fall on his face. The retreat he beat was much faster than his advance had been.

"Oh shit." The bartender's voice, choked and tiny though it was, echoed through the sudden tense silence. "You're from Nerima, ain't you."

"That's right," Genma growled. The panda image was just an aura projection and didn't affect his ability to speak, but he still felt obliged to use a harsh, guttural tone reminiscent of his late cursed form. "This place isn't worth my time. Be glad it's not worth my effort either." He turned and strode toward the door, a process made easier by the wide-open clear path that appeared immediately. The door even swung open just before he reached it, though this was due to someone outside on his way in.

"Well, well, if it isn't Genma!" Happosai proclaimed, staring wide-eyed up at the chi panda towering (and cowering) over him. "I didn't expect to run into you here."

The image of the panda wavered and fuzzed for a moment, as if viewed on the screen of a television that was about to faint. Then, in the blink of an eye, the panda turned, dashed away to the side, and dove headfirst through the large glass window facing the street.

Happosai tracked the motion out of the corner of his eye, but he didn't move to follow. In fact, he didn't even turn his head, instead just standing and staring up into the space where the panda had been.

The tableau remained frozen for several long seconds. Finally, Happi rolled his eyes and said, "I'm impressed, Genma. Now why don't you quit before you make me change my mind?"

With a morose sigh, Genma faded into view. "I hoped you wouldn't see through that," he muttered.

"You've manage to cobble together a half-assed version of my Dimensional Warp technique. Like I said, impressive, but you're hardly up to my level with the move. And that distraction... well, again, nicely done, especially breaking the window with your aura alone. But you're a Saotome, Genma—I expect distractions from you. I know you too well to fall for something like this, and you ought to know me too."

"What you really mean is, I needed there to be a few pretty girls here to help distract you," Genma grumbled.

"Exactly!" Happosai crowed. "Genma m'boy, I can see all the effort I put into that last training trip has paid off! When I let you and Soun slink home with your tails behind your legs, I expected you'd just laze around and lose whatever little bit of shape I'd managed to pound you into. And instead you kept pushing yourself, long and hard enough to learn such a difficult new technique all by yourself? And now you're even showing me a little backbone?"

"I'm sorry, Master! Please forgive me, Master!" Genma shouted, falling immediately into the Crouch of the Wild Tiger. Pride, dignity, and respect were all well and good, but if it was a choice between sacrificing them or risking Happosai getting serious about training him again... well, that wasn't even a choice at all.

"You're only looking more and more ready for some real Anything Goes," Happosai warned.

As quickly as he'd fallen to the floor he left it again, shooting up to stand tall and straight and vibrating with tension. Possibilities danced through his mind, as he frantically tried to decide just how stupid a mistake he'd have to make to derail this train of terror.

Before Genma could decide between 'attack the Master head-on' and 'flirt with the serving wench', Happosai spoke again. "However, I'm in no hurry for something like that. I only just got back to Tokyo, haven't even made it to Nerima yet. So why don't we have a seat at one of these tables, and you can tell me about what's been going on lately."

"Huh? Here?" Genma repeated, blinking his way back to the immediate present. "This place isn't worth it, Master. Let's go somewhere else." Hopefully that would give him a chance to escape, but even if it didn't at least he'd be suffering in a higher-quality bar.

"No way," Happosai said, his expression mellow. "I like this place."

"Um," Genma said intelligently. "Ah. Hm. Are you sure the place didn't change owners while you were gone?"

The Anything Goes Grandmaster shrugged. "Don't know, don't care. It's the same guy behind the bar, and that's all I need. Now come on." He turned and ambled toward a distant table. After a few seconds he called out, "Hey, Kenta! Have a Master's Special Number Three waiting at table seventeen by the time I get there!"

Genma watched in sudden understanding as the bartender and serving girl sprang into frantic action. The tray full of perfectly-mixed drinks was sitting on the table well before Happosai got there, along with a barstool high enough to give him easy access to the tabletop. 'It figures that the Master's idea of a good place is where he's the only one getting this kind of service,' he thought, shaking his head. He sat down at the table, then put in an order for another beer.

Happosai let loose a disgusted snort. "Forget that!" he called, intercepting Kenta in mid-dive toward the beer tap. Turning back to his sometime-student, the ancient lecher said, "I spent a lot of time training these bozos. We're not letting them get away with an easy little order like that!"

Genma blinked. "But... I wanted a beer."

"Too bad," Happi said. "Here, try one of these." He flicked his pipe against one of the more colorful drinks arranged on the tray, sending it arcing across the table to land in front of Genma. Not a drop was spilled, though the bright, festive umbrella did spin out of the glass and come to rest perched jauntily behind Genma's left ear.

The elder Saotome looked down at the glass. He could almost see the shimmer of the alcohol fumes rising out of it. Nothing he couldn't handle, of course... but what was true for one drink would most definitely not be true for five. On the other hand, when Happosai was in a good enough mood to press a drink on you, you really didn't want to spoil that mood. He took a long, deep drink, scraped up a grin, and resolved to stretch the rest of the glass as long as he could.

"Ahhhh!" Happosai, by contrast, had already drained one tumbler dry. "Nice to see Kenta hasn't lost his touch, even with me being gone for awhile. So tell me, Genma—anything interesting happen while I was away?" The ancient lecher grinned widely. "Any new high-spirited cuties turn up in town to chase after your boy?"

"Not that I've noticed," Genma said slowly, trying to drag the answering process out as long as his drink. It had been quite a shock, seeing the Demon Master pop up out of nowhere, and Genma had the distinct impression that it hadn't completely worn off yet. He'd only just now recovered enough to see more than the immediate, right-in-front-of-him reality. For instance, the Master couldn't possibly have any idea how big the answer to his casual question was going to be. And, Genma remembered with slowly dawning horror, he wasn't much going to like some of what he was about to hear.

Or rather, wasn't about to hear. "But something like that could have happened," Genma hurriedly continued. "For all I know the boy could have picked up another five suitors or more. He left a little while ago on a training journey, just snuck out in the night with barely even a note to tell us what he was up to!"

The Saotome master sighed theatrically. "Of course Shampoo and Ukyo ran away after him as soon as they heard about it. It didn't take Soun long to get Akane to go after him too, but I guess that took the last of his spirit. With both of them gone he's collapsed into a shell of his former self. He doesn't have the energy to train, or come drinking with me tonight, or anything." Genma paused for a moment, partly to fabricate more details, partly to suppress a snort. As pathetic as the excuse he'd given for Soun's absence was, the truth was even worse.

"And it's not just Soun feeling that down," he continued. "I never thought I'd see a day when Kasumi's cooking didn't satisfy, but that's just what's happening. You can taste her depression and loneliness for Ranma and Akane in every noodle. It's getting harder and harder to choke it down without showing her how bad it is. Even the food at a pathetic dive like this would be better," he said, raising his voice enough to be sure Kenta would hear. It was the only way immediately available to work off a bit of stress, or at least the only way that didn't involve slamming down enough alcohol to also wash away any chance of this gambit working.

"It's almost like Tendo's home is a miniature little picture of all Nerima," Genma confided. "Because it feels like the whole town's down in the dumps. Nobody seems to take any joy in life anymore; they just drift along going through the motions. It's like the entire ward had its heart ripped out when Ranma and all the girls left." He heaved another sigh, one even longer, deeper, and sadder than before. "I've tried to distract myself by training hard, but sometimes I just have to get away from it all. That's why I was here tonight, Master."

"And I guess that's why Shampoo answered when I phoned in a delivery for the Cat Café twenty minutes ago," Happosai replied.

The Master's tone and expression had been so mildly agreeable that Genma actually nodded and said, "Yes, exactly," before the meaning of the words hit him. When it did, he gave a flinch that sent the umbrella flying and nearly did the same thing to his glasses and headkerchief. "Um..."

"You know, Genma," Happi continued in that same light, agreeable tone, "there was a time when I went around picking up as many moxibustion techniques as I could. I mean, if I was going to use my pipe as a weapon, I might as well do it with style, right? I learned a lot more than just that Ultimate Weakness mark I burned into Ranma's back." He pinned Genma with a warning glare. "One of 'em makes the victim answer any question you give him, completely and truthfully. That's the worst part of it, but the fact that it's applied to your ingrate of a student's tongue probably isn't much better."

"I'm sorry Master! Please forgive me! I was just trying to keep you away from Nerima because you really won't like what's going on there now! My wife is living with us at Tendo's, Ranma and Akane aren't getting along nearly well enough anymore, the boy's gotten much too close to Shampoo instead and there's no sign of that stopping anytime soon, Shampoo turns into a falcon now instead of a cat, the Amazons cured my curse entirely and let Ranma swap his for a falcon too, the reason I've gotten stronger was to impress Ranma and also because I've been giving Akane advanced training, and Tendo's not here with me tonight because he took Akane out for ice cream to try and bribe her into giving up on training for real!" Genma ran out of words and breath at the same time.

"Your first story was better," Happosai noted, pulling out his pipe and giving it a few ominous twirls.

Genma blanched and clamped his mouth shut, trying desperately to figure out how to proclaim his innocence without giving Happosai an opening.

'Oh, right.' Out came the signs.

Happosai just frowned, then sent his pipe spinning through the air. It snagged a glass of beer out of a nearby drinker's hand and arced back to him, the purloined drink somehow resting steady atop the disk formed by the whirling pipe. "If you're going to pull that shtick you might as well be a panda for real," he grumbled, then threw the fluid into Genma's face. He wasn't about to waste one of his own drinks on this—plus he wasn't sure they contained enough water to actually trigger the change—but the watered-down beer this joint served its lesser customers would certainly suffice.

Certainly should have sufficed, the Grandmaster mentally corrected, his eyes bugging out at the sight of an utterly untransformed Genma. "Izanami's intestines!" he exclaimed, an oath that hadn't been heard in Japan for over two hundred years. "You really did cure your curse?!"

"Not me. Like I said, Shampoo and her great-grandmother did," Genma replied, laying a little necessary groundwork. He only had one idea left that might divert the Master's wrath, but that was a fate worth almost anything to avoid.

Still, better to make sure of one thing first. "Master, if you called in your order twenty minutes ago, does that mean Shampoo will be here any minute now?"

"Afraid not," Happosai said regretfully. "I figured I'd been away long enough that I didn't need to put much effort into disguising my voice, but I was wrong. That little spitfire let me get the whole order out, then sweet as you please told me that it'd be waiting for me nice and hot in one of the lower circles of hell. Then she hung up." And if Happosai was any judge, the Cat Café would be needing not only a new phone, but a new whatever-the-old-phone-had-been-sitting-on too.

"I'm sorry, Master." Genma could say that with genuine feeling, since it sounded like if Happosai's ploy had succeeded he would have been delayed enough that his student would have missed him. Or avoided him, anyway.

"Eh, you win some, you lose some. Now, getting back to more important matters..." Happosai's eyes narrowed. "How much of the rest of that spiel was true? Is little Nodoka honestly back for good?"

"Yes, Master."

"Guess that's the reason you haven't dropped any pounds even though you've been training harder." Happosai well remembered the rhapsodies his student had sung, back in the days before his refreshing little decade-plus nap. It had quickly gotten old, listening to Genma alternately praise Nodoka's cooking and lament the fact that he was away from it. "Shampoo's ditched that cat curse, you say?"

"Yes, Master."

"So Cologne finally got tired of her great-granddaughter fighting with that much of a handicap. Can't say I'm surprised." Happosai paused, pinning Genma with a beady-eyed stare. "And you also said something about Ranma swapping out his curse like that too?"

Genma sweated, gulped, and managed to say, "No, Master." With the initial, biggest part out of the way, the rest came easier. "Or at least, that's not what I meant. Yes, he did, but it's not like the boy's responsible for it or anything. It was that old woman's plot all along, with Shampoo as her cat's-paw. Without any of his older, wiser... um, elders here to look out for him, he was easy prey."

"I see." Happosai was quiet for a very long time, partly because this was a matter which needed deep consideration, partly because he enjoyed watching Genma sweat.

The tension stretched and stretched, and finally Genma could take it no longer. "You there! Kenta!" he snapped. "Bring me a Master's Special Number Two and three beers!"

"Yes, Sir!" Kenta blurred into action. In what seemed like the blink of an eye there was a second, full tray of exotic drinks at the Anything Goes table, which Genma ignored completely as he gulped down a beer. This brand was significantly higher quality than his first had been, but it was still low enough on the alcoholometer that he could finish all three without dulling the keen edge of his wits. And with the Master in front of him pondering the utter loss of Ranma-chan, Genma needed all the wits he could get.

"Ah, the Master's Special Number Two," Happi said, breaking his silence. "An excellent choice, Genma. Try the blue drink."

Genma whimpered. He'd only called for the Special so that Happosai wouldn't gripe about the easy order accompanying it. However, the Master's tone had left utterly no wiggle room. He tried the blue drink.

"Not bad, eh, Genma m'boy?" Happosai said a minute later, after his student had, under Happi's watchful eye, emptied the glass.

"What's in it, Master? I counted blueberries, and the deep ocean under a cloudless summer sky, and the kick of a mule, and..." Genma's eyes widened and he shook his head violently. 'Just one glass got me rambling like that? Bloody hell!' he thought, attempting by sheer force of will and skill and terror to clear his head. It actually seemed to work pretty well.

"Not a bad guess," Happi agreed. "That green one is watermelons, and lovely young ladies playing on the beach, and the warm gentle breeze of spring that carries you so gently off to bliss that you'd never guess it was one-sixty proof. Try it next."

A new spike of panic shunted enough adrenaline into Genma's system to push aside the last of the blue drink. "Ah, Master, I ordered the Special more for you than for me." He wasn't sure when it had happened, but Happosai had already emptied all the drinks on his own tray. In fact, Genma realized, even the two beers that he hadn't touched were now gone, two glasses sitting forlornly next to the one he'd drained himself.

"I'm not in the mood for watermelon," Happosai replied. "Or anything in a Number Two Special. No, it's all yours, Genma. Think of it as a reward, for how hard you've worked lately." He paused for a moment, watching as Genma lifted the tumbler toward his lips. After the Saotome master had taken a few gulps, Happosai continued, "And consolation too, for how you're losing your son to the Chinese Amazons."

"GHHLARRRKLH!!" That was the sound of Genma trying to exclaim a protest while he was already busy swallowing some very potent alcohol. He jerked, spasming like a hooked fish, and managed to send the rest of his drink flying without getting any onto Happosai. The ancient lecher couldn't decide if it had been deliberate or not. In any case he was too busy laughing to put much thought into it.

"Th- that wasn't funny, Master," Genma finally managed to say, his voice as plaintive as it could be with his throat still recovering.

"Says you," Happosai shot back. "Anyway, that was a lot less painful than what could've happened to you. I mean, if I felt like telling Cologne you were trying to get Ranma out of trouble by pinning it all on her." He wouldn't be surprised if she'd let Ranma get away with something like that, in the interests of snagging a son-in-law, but Genma probably wouldn't be treated so gently.

Genma's face twisted, and to the amazement of Happosai he grabbed and downed one of his remaining drinks in a single motion. "Less painful? Hearing something like that? I'd rather the old crone work me over like a punching bag," he said bitterly. "That'd be a lot better than hearing someone joke about Ranma walking away from me for good."

"Actually I was joking about them stealing him away," Happosai pointed out. "And it was a joke, Genma. If Cologne wanted to do that, she'd have been pushing toward it from the start, twisting and prying until she had the boy thinking you were the scum of the earth and the only way to save himself was make a fresh, clean start. The kami know you've given her plenty of ammo to work with." Now that was some Anything Goes style reassurance, he thought to himself.

"Really?" Genma snapped back, his face flushing as his latest drink did its work. "That's... that's not what the boy said. He told me he's proud of me. Of how I'm learning better, and doing better. Of making Akane into an Anything Goes martial artist for real." The flush faded, and he heaved a long sigh. "Of letting him make his own choice... Choices! I meant choices!"

Happosai wondered for a moment just why Genma had been so eager to make that correction. Well, if it was important, he'd drag it out of his student eventually. He supposed the smart money was on it tying back to what Genma had said earlier, about Ranma getting along much better with Shampoo than Akane these days. "So if Ranma said all that, why'd you take it so hard when I joked about him leaving?"

Genma's brow furrowed as he tried to concentrate, but that last drink had pushed him just a little too far over the line. "Ah... I'm not sure," he admitted helplessly. He hadn't been able to answer Happosai's question, but the effort of dredging through his muddled thoughts had at least pulled up a question of his own. "Um, Master? You, you're not taking this like I thought you would..."

"And how did you think I was going to take it, eh?" Happosai wanted to know.

His student shrugged, swaying in his seat. "I dunno. Thought you'd be at least a little pissed, at my boy finally dropping that damned girl curse."

Happosai delayed his answer for a few moments, instead lighting his pipe and taking a long drag. "Who says I'm not?" he said at last, blowing a long stream of smoke which billowed into the form of a very shapely pigtailed girl, then slowly faded away. Happosai didn't say anything until the last trace had vanished. When it did, he heaved a sigh that should have been too big for his body and said, "Of course I'm unhappy. And one of these days I'm going to kick that punk's butt from one side of Tokyo to the other, to express my views on the subject. But that doesn't mean I'm going to run off and do it right now. Not when so much has been happening here while I was gone. No, I'm staying right here and listening to you give me a few more details."

Genma looked down at his Master's Special Number Two. "I bet I could slam down those last two drinks and pass out," he pondered, unfortunately not realizing that he'd said the words out loud.

Then he blinked, trying to get rid of the sudden blur in the center of his vision. As quickly as it had come, it was gone... and the contents of those last two tumblers with it.

"Anything Goes version of the Parlay du Fois Gras," Happosai said. At a nearby table, two men fell slowly out of their chairs to land on the floor—joining the four others who'd previously received Happosai's Number Three bounty—snoring and smiling and much, much happier than they would be in the morning. "You've had enough for now."

"You... you mean, enough that you can pry anything you want outta me?" Genma grumbled.

"You can still think that clearly? Okay, maybe not enough after all," Happosai retorted, glancing toward the long bar.

"Don't bother," Genma said, following it up with a long, lugubrious sigh. "Go on. Ask whatever you want to know. Rather not make you push any more."

"Good." Happosai sank into a meditative posture, considering where to start while keeping an unobtrusive eye on his student. He wouldn't put it past this new Genma to pretend to be more drunk than he actually was, then bolt when it looked like his Master's attention was sufficiently distracted.

Genma did nothing of the sort, though, and after a minute Happosai concluded that he truly was that far under the influence. Shaking off the tiniest pang of disappointment, Happosai said, "You told me Nodoka is living with you now. How'd that happen, anyway?"

"Nabiki," Genma said simply. "Not sure why. She just called Nodoka an' said, 'Come on over! Ranma's ready and waiting to meet ya! No more red-headed girls here, nope, nosirree! Jus' make sure you're too busy with your boy to pay any attention to Genma, so you don't notice him turn into Mr. Panda.' "

"You mean you hadn't cured your own curse by the time little Nodoka came back? Even though Ranma had already lost his curse, and the Amazons had a cure for you too?" Happosai shook his head. "What were you holding out for, anyway? Somebody with the kind of magic to cure you by separating your selves, so there'd always be one Genma who could sit around on his furry butt doing nothing?"

"No," Genma grumbled. "For your information, I was holdin' out for winter, when Ranma an' Akane an' I would take a trip back to Jusenkyo. Get my own cure, or maybe a curse to match the boy's. Either way wouldn't be racking up more debt to the old woman or her too too cute li'l granddaughter." He heaved a sigh. "That's the first plan, anyway. More stuff happened, an' then Ranma was gettin' Shampoo to call in some Drowned Man water for Ryoga, with more left over for me."

"You say that like it isn't a good thing," Happosai observed.

"It's not!" Genma exclaimed. "At least, not then. Wasn't any kind of hurry like that. I was gonna spill my share of it when the time came to use it. After all, the boy's had so many cures slip through his fingers, who'd've thought it wasn't just me paying those dues too? It woulda kept that nice winter trip going and not stuck me in any worse debt to them. But then Tendo an' me come running home to find Nodoka got there ahead of us." He heaved a sigh deep enough to vibrate the table. "So much for no kind of hurry," he said morosely.

"So how long has it been since Nodoka joined you at Tendo's place anyway?" Happosai wanted to know. "Just a few days ago, or long enough it's safe to say that since you've kept your neck this long it's probably sticking around for good?"

Genma's brow furrowed as he tried to parse that last sentence. After a few moments he gave up, in favor of answering Happosai's original question before the Master became... impatient. "Um, she's been here awhile now. Lessee... a month, I think, maybe a little more."

"And she's getting along with everyone? Not disappointed in Ranma, is she? Or even with you?"

"Absolu'ly not!" Genma proclaimed proudly. "Ranma an' I did a damn good job making sure she never found out anything she couldn't afford to hear." Then he slumped. "The boy also did a real good job of making her happy with all the girls chasing after him. Too bad her idea of making it better is to have all of 'em catch him too."

"Well, at least your wife's got good taste in some areas," Happosai remarked with a smirk.

"Mm-hm," Genma said, a dreamy look in his eyes as he let himself be distracted by thoughts of Nodoka's cooking. The small corner of his mind still alert enough to realize that wasn't what the Master had meant, was also alert enough to welcome the distraction anyway.

Mildly disturbed by the sight of his drooling student, Happosai rapped his pipe against the table. It made a noise like a thunderclap, though no visible damage was done except to Genma's blissful distraction. "Focus, Genma. I'm not through talking here."

Genma blinked. "Um, sorry, what was the question I missed?"

"I said, Akane can't be happy about that," Happosai lied through his teeth. "About Nodoka wanting all the pretty ladies to have a piece of her son. Does that have anything to do with you training her seriously?"

"Maybe," Genma allowed after a few seconds of thought. "That's gotta be helping her keep motivated. But it's not why she wanted the training in the first place. That was before Nodoka." He paused, licking his lips, then said, "Master? All this talking is pretty thirsty work. Could I at least have one more beer?"

"Eh, sure," Happosai said generously. "Kenta! We want another three beers and a Master's Special Number Nine!"

"Thanks, Master," Genma said. Then he blinked. "Um... just which one of us is paying for all this?"

"We're not," Happosai said with a shrug. "I was already feeling generous one day about six months ago, and then that turned out to be the first day that Kenta really managed the kind of service I'd been training him for. Put me in a good enough mood to tell him how to hook up with a few special interest groups. They pay him triple his expenses for all the time he keeps me here, distracted and out of their hair."

Happosai took a swig out of one of his newly-arrived drinks, then gave Genma a shrewd look. "And speaking of distractions, and people who are out of hair, I can't help but feel you're trying to distract me from asking about you training Akane."

He'd expected a guilty flinch, and was mildly surprised when it didn't come. Genma was silent for a long time, sipping at his beer. "No, tha's not right," he said morosely, when he'd halfway emptied his glass. "I mean, I wasn't tryin' to hide anything from you in particular. It's just... I didn't want to think about this now. Me, personally, I mean. Didn't want to think about it."

"Tough. Why not?" Happosai prodded. "Exactly what was it you didn't want to think about?"

A few more seconds passed in silence... and then it was as if a floodgate opened. Happosai sat there in growing astonishment, listening to Genma relate a surprisingly coherent web of confusion, hopes, uncertainty, pride, deception, and triumph at least halfway Pyrrhic. Even adjusting for his student's tendency toward self-centeredness, Happosai was forced to admit one thing: it was a very impressive tangle Genma had gotten himself into.

"So that's the whole of it, then?" he said at last, just to make sure.

"Think so, yeah," Genma said. "Um... I said the part about Akane managing some real control over her aura, right?"


"And I told you that Ranma was proud, even without him knowin' how far I'm trying to take Akane?"


"I said the part about how I started this whole thing for that, didn' I? For Ranma, to make him proud of me? But somewhere along the way I started caring a lot about doin' it right for Akane's sake too?"

"Yes, Genma," Happosai said, his patience beginning to wear thin. "Are you going to repeat everything all over again now?"

"Um... just trying to make sure I didn' leave nothing out, Master," Genma said, not wanting to admit that as quickly as he'd revealed each point in his original wandering account, it had passed equally quickly out of his mind. The whole of the situation was simply too complex for his current condition; he could just about keep one copy of it in his head at the moment, but not a bunch of tags for all the plot points to tell him what he'd already told the Master.

"Tell you what. I'll ask you a few questions, see if that jogs any more details loose." Happosai paused for a few thoughtful drags on his pipe, then said, "Just how much progress has she made in controlling her aura?"

"She can keep it up an' out while she's moving around attackin' or defendin', strong enough to make it damned hard to connect through it with a shiatsu hit," Genma said. "Course, she's not so good at her burn rate yet. Right now it only takes half an hour to empty her reserves, even though I got them aboutta thousand percent better than they were three months ago."

"But she'll learn that control while practicing the trick you've already managed to teach her," Happosai said. "And the ones you've still got up your sleeve." When Genma's head wobbled in a movement that seemed to be trying to be 'yes' and 'no' at the same time, Happi moved on to his next question. "And now that it's way, waaayyyy too late, you're starting to have some second thoughts about all this? Something about how Ranma will react? I'll admit I didn't quite follow that bit of the story." He snorted. "It might have been because you sucked at explaining it."

"Sorry, Master. It's... complicated. Not even sure I understand it myself." Genma heaved a sigh. "You 'member what I said before, right? About makin' Ranma proud of me, of makin' him want to learn from me again, when he saw what I did with someone as weak as Akane?"

"Yes. It was surprisingly well-thought-out, Genma. I doubt you came up with this plan in a bar," Happosai sniped. "I'm still not sure why you're doubting it now." Perhaps simply because it was a good plan, the ancient lecher mused.

"It's... it's like I said. I was gonna get Akane to where she could get one surprise win in, blow Shampoo away. Hah. Blow away," Genma repeated bitterly. "That woulda been impressive, all right. Would've shown my boy that his old man still had a few good tricks left to teach him."

Deciding that the situation warranted one of his rare acts of charity, Happosai sighed and said plainly, "Genma, I'm sure it still will. I know you're worried about Ranma ditching Akane in favor of a girl who'll give him some, but just because your son's finally showing good sense doesn't mean he'll flip out if you give Akane a chance for one sneaky win against Shampoo."

"She won't win," Genma said glumly. "I'm sure of it. She can pull out all the stops, maybe put up a halfway decent fight. But unless she throws everything into a knockout blow in that first second of the fight when Shampoo's surprised to see Akane usin' her chi, she's got no chance. I can't train her fast enough to get ahead. I prob'ly can't even train her fast enough to teach her that much true Anything Goes, to make her settle for the cheap quick KO."

"Genma, I'm just not following you here. Why would aura techniques only be enough if she struck in that one second when Shampoo was shocked to see them?" Happi put on a stare so menacing that it would have been over-the-top had his student been sober. "There's something you're not telling me," he said in a similar tone of voice. "I suggest you fix that."

"Ah... ah..." Genma gabbled, trying desperately to figure out where the problem was. "Ah... ah... Air style! I didn' mention the Air Style!!" When Happosai blinked and gave an involuntary nod, Genma's heart receded at least slightly out of his throat. "I dunno how much the old ghoul's taught her yet, but she's the one passing it on to Ranma. And he's already got two incredible moves down!"

Happosai blinked several more times. "Yeah, that's a pretty big piece you left out of your original picture, Genma m'boy. Are you telling me Cologne's handing out one of the elemental styles?!"

"To Shampoo," Genma said, having calmed the rest of the way down to glum. "And she's teaching my son." He heaved a long and weary sigh. "So much for showing Ranma that I'm still the best one for him to come an' learn from."

"Genma..." Happosai said, not merely gently for him, but gently for a normal person. The incongruity was enough to send Genma's head jerking up from its slump to stare at the Grandmaster. "That's not what you were trying to show him. You wanted him to know you still had worthwhile things to teach, not that you were the one and only person to go to. Anything Goes, remember?"

"I... I guess..." Genma said uncertainly.

"Good!" the ancient lecher said briskly, all traces of gentleness forgotten. "Because that little bit of soft treatment I just handed you cost every bit of the credit you've earned lately! It'll be a long, long time before you earn another one like that from me!"

To Genma, even that was good news of a sort. It sounded like the Master had just said there were ways to earn his favor that weren't morally reprehensible. If there had ever been any sign of that before now, his disciples must have missed it while blinking.

Determined not to push his luck, the elder Saotome asked cautiously, "So you don't wanna hear anything more from me now?"

"Hmmm. No, I'm still curious," Happosai replied. "For one thing, I'm still not following why you'd have second thoughts about training Akane. So she won't beat Shampoo. So what? You said it yourself—you started out just wanting to teach her one big impressive move to make Ranma proud of you, but you actually got something better than that. He's already proud of what you've done, filling the holes in her fundamentals. You also said you were proud of that yourself, as well as proud of getting her ready for the advanced stuff. So where exactly are the second thoughts coming in?"

Genma shrugged helplessly, and took a deep gulp from the last beer remaining on the table. "It's complicated," he said again. "I mean, Akane first came to me for trainin' cause she wanted to beat Shampoo for real. An' I told her she'd be able to. Up until jus' a little while ago, when Ranma told me that stuff about the Air style, I still thought I could make good on that."

Happosai stared at his student, his expression shifting from disbelief to mild disgust. "Don't tell me you're having a fit of conscience, Genma! Don't tell me you can't suck it up and use a good old-fashioned false pretense to keep your student pushing forward and making real progress!"

"Okay, I won't," Genma said, his plaintive tone making it clear that this was nonetheless the case.

"Oh, well, I'm glad that's not it then. What is the problem?" Happosai said sadistically.

Genma just whimpered and screwed his eyes shut.

"Don't give me that pathetic pose!" Happosai snapped. "I heard exactly what you were saying! You found the perfect lever to get your student pushing herself hard enough for real, remarkable growth, and just because it turns out to depend on a lie suddenly you're getting all lily-livered and chicken-hearted about using it? What the hell is wrong with you?!" He paused, calming down as he reminded himself that despite this little failure Genma was still doing a lot better now than he used to. In a milder tone he continued, "Seriously, Genma, I trained you better than that. Hell, you have trained Ranma better than that too. What's the problem now?"

"Ah, Master... she... that is..." Genma scraped together his courage, and said, "Of course I'm treating Akane's training different. She's a girl! And, and everybody knows you've got to treat girls more gently than guys... I know how you trained me, an' how I trained my boy, but I can't just repeat that same stuff now. Tomboy or no tomboy I gotta do things different..."

It slowly dawned on the Anything Goes Grandmaster that—despite Genma's handicaps of being less intelligent than a focused, centered Happosai and fairly drunk to boot—his disciple had managed to win this round. It was true that girls would need much more delicate treatment than boys in something as fierce as Anything Goes; that was one reason Happi had never taken a female student. Possibly this particular instance was one place where such a student should receive the same treatment as a male, but it certainly wasn't something that could be safely assumed. Genma was right to think it needed careful thought, and he, Happosai, had been wrong.

As the ancient lecher toyed with the thought of bouncing his disciple around the room like a beach ball, Genma sighed and spoke again. "That's not the only problem, either. Okay, let's say it's wrong to let her keep thinking she's got a chance. It'd be just as wrong or wronger to quit training her at all! Ranma's proud, I'm proud, Akane's getting to where she needs to be. I can't cut out on that now! And..." His voice faltering, he continued, "and if I tell her... if I tell her what Ranma told me, about the training Shampoo's getting, what she can do... I could do that. I could tell her, and that way I could convince her to fight the right way. To strike all at once while Shampoo's picking her jaw up off the floor at Akane Tendo able to manage something like this. But... but Ranma..."

It wasn't too hard for Happosai to follow this aborted train of thought. 'Yeah, if he's got real feelings for Shampoo, that probably would piss him the hell off,' he conceded. 'In fact, I can't believe Genma's even considering it.' After mulling over that for a few moments, he said, "Genma, it almost sounds like you're thinking about risking Ranma's goodwill because you don't want to lose what you've gained from Akane. Am I hearing you right? Is that how far you've come with her as your student? Would you really go that much farther?"

Genma's answer was a long, low, hollow groan that seemed to rise from the very soles of his feet. "I don' want that. There's gotta be a way," he mumbled. "Gotta be a way to squirm between those two rocky hard places." His beady, bloodshot eyes suddenly riveted on Happosai. "Master, please! Please help me! I'm not good enough to wiggle my way through this. Is there any way? Any advanced Anything Goes principle to help out a poor, struggling, good-hearted father and sensei here?"

"Give me a minute to think about it," Happosai said, conveniently overlooking the statement he'd made not ten minutes past about his disciple not getting any more soft, tender treatment. After all, if he spun this right, perhaps he could bring Genma farther down the true path of Anything Goes.

Several minutes passed in quiet thought. Happosai considered and discarded four ideas before the one true, perfect plan hit him like a blaze of lightning. "I've got it!" he cried, jumping up to stand on the table and puff his chest out with pride. "The solution to everything. The problems you were wondering about just now and the ones you told me about earlier to boot!"

"R- Really, Master?" Genma said, sober enough to be skeptical, drunk enough to hope anyway.

"Absolutely!" Happosai proclaimed. "I just had to think outside the box a little. You know, that kind of no-limits strategy that Anything Goes is supposed to be all about."

"That's why you're still the Grandmaster, even though Ranma kicked your butt a few times," Genma said, the alcohol muddling him just enough to let the comment register as flattery.

"I'll overlook that little remark for now," Happosai said generously. "Anyway, Genma, like I said it's very simple." He held out one hand and began ticking points off using his fingers. "Nowadays Ranma is getting along much better with Shampoo than Akane. Nodoka thinks it's manly for one guy to seduce a bunch of girls. Akane will never, ever agree to share Ranma with Shampoo; there's just too much bad blood. She's nowhere near ready to tell Ranma she wants him, or trust him, or put out for him, or any of that good stuff, but she at least cares enough to seethe with jealousy. Which is the biggest part of why she's so determined to beat Shampoo in a fight." He paused, giving Genma a meaningful look. "I could go on, but I'm getting bored here. Have you seen the solution yet?"

"Don't have a clue," Genma admitted. "You... you wouldn't joke with me, would you Master? Not about something like this."

"Certainly not about something like this!" Happi reassured him. "What you need to do is perfectly simple, and it sounds like you've already made a good start you can build on." He indulged in one last dramatic pause, taking a drag on his pipe and puffing out a cloud of smoke. This time Genma didn't watch the shape it formed, which for his peace of mind was probably just as well.

"Seduce her, Genma," the Grandmaster said bluntly. "Take Akane as a mistress. Unless you've completely screwed up with all the stuff you've been telling me, that's a heck of a lot likelier to work than getting her and Ranma back together. You might have to spin it a little for Nodoka, but I bet all you'd have to do is say you were freeing up space for someone who really loved Ranma and she'd be thrilled. Not to mention proud of you.

"Ranma would be irritated, I'm sure, but that wouldn't last much longer than it took him to realize the leash was off for good. He'd even thank you eventually, I'd wager. And on the off chance that he still cares too much for Akane to let her go, you'd find out really quickly this way. Hell, I'd even be willing to buy you some insurance—I'll draw the boy off, let him chase me across the city and 'catch' me, give him a beat-down like he's never had in his life, and then while he's too out of it to lie I'll find out how he feels about Shampoo versus Akane.

"Getting back to that subject, this would give you all the leverage you need to motivate Akane to train without focusing on beating Shampoo. And as for Akane as Akane, not just your student... well, just think about it! She'll be a tough nut to crack, but oh so worth it!" Happosai paused to wipe away a strand of drool with a convenient napkin.

"Master, you can't be serious!" Genma shouted, finally finding his voice. "I... I couldn't ever... there's no way I could...!"

"Of course not, by yourself," Happosai said, waving his pipe airily as if to dismiss the problem as quickly as he'd acknowledged it. "But fear not! I'm here to help you, Genma m'boy. Like I already said I would, by checking first to make sure you didn't misread everything with your son. Once that coast is clear I can give you a few coaching sessions, a few pieces of hard-earned wisdom... and..." He closed one eye, giving the single scariest wink that had ever been seen in this bar. "And a few extra-special moxibustion treatments, to get the both of you hot enough to seal the deal!"

Genma stood up with such speed and force that his chair rocketed backwards to shatter against the far wall. "NOW YOU SEE ME, NOW YOU DON'T!!" he screamed, his aura blazing momentarily around him.

The few remaining patrons that hadn't been openly staring at the Anything Goes table abandoned their pretense now, joining the rest in watching with wide-eyed interest. They were mildly disappointed at the sight of the portly man-turned-panda dashing through the window he'd already broken; most had hoped for a hole to be knocked in a wall this time.

Happosai, by contrast, just shook his head, being careful to keep one eye on a spot of apparently empty air throughout the process. After a few seconds had ticked by, he said, "Genma, I can still feel the traces of the aura cloaking you there, even if you did get them slightly less obvious this time." Then he frowned. "And I'm impressed that you're managing to make them even less obvious, but it's time to—" The ancient lecher cut himself off, eyes widening, and sent a spike of his own aura surging forward into the fading traces of Genma's cloaking field.

"Son of a snake-oil salesman!" Happi blurted as his offensive utterly failed to reveal a cowering Genma. "He actually reversed the trick! He dumped a bunch of hidden aura there and ran out while I kept my eyes on the invisible decoy! How the hell did he manage something like that, as drunk as he was?!" he demanded of the heavens at large.

"Fear is a powerful motivator," Kenta murmured behind the counter, unfortunately not quite quietly enough.


The Chariot of the Storm was not a technique designed for stealth. But then again, Cologne had broken more important rules than that one lately.

The air whispered and hummed around her, held tightly under the Matriarch's control. The tiny vortex, only large enough to carry her, held her aloft at nearly two thousand feet. She had sailed up, up, and away from the Cat Café rooftop twenty minutes ago, and ridden the winds out of Nerima itself. Greater Tokyo sprawled beneath her now, and Cologne took a moment to reflect on the sight. It didn't look any more peaceful than Nerima did from this vantage point... or rather, Nerima looked no less tranquil.

The thought of deceptive appearances brought her thoughts back to a sheet of paper, folded safely in one of the subspace pockets of her robe. On the surface, the paper appeared perfectly innocent: a request for her company this evening at a certain Tokyo bar. The first disturbing sign wasn't what was there, but what wasn't: the sender's name. Even when Cologne turned the full force of her scrutiny against it the wording hadn't seemed all that ominous. But a certain turn of phrase here, a tell-tale sentence structure there, had shown subtle but unmistakable signs.

The letter had been written by a martial artist. There wasn't quite enough evidence for her to conclude it was effectively a challenge letter, but there certainly wasn't enough to discount that possibility either. There were precious few people in the world who could face her on an even footing, but the tier of those who might think they had a chance if they could lure her in and take her by surprise was significantly larger (especially since Cologne wasn't ruling out those who were wrong in thinking that).

' Of course, it might all be perfectly innocent, ' she speculated. ' It could be someone who's heard of me and is thinking about begging a few lessons, but wants to meet me first and get more information. ' The Matriarch rolled her eyes. ' After all, as long as I've been here I haven't seen any newcomer act even half that sensibly. Surely that means we're due. '

It would be nice if she were on her way to meet some clear-headed prospective student who would show her the respect her skills demanded, who'd be ready and open and receptive to learning. It would be satisfying to find some worthy pupil she could teach without having to consider ten thousand different ways it might eventually cause trouble for her long-term plans. It would be a positively wonderful explanation for the letter, a marvelous surprise. Cologne wouldn't have considered it for a moment if the meeting had been set in Nerima.

Even without that, though, she thought it far more probable that she was heading into a trap. The Matriarch ran a few of the likelier suspects through her mind. ' It could be Fang Zhang, ' Cologne thought half-heartedly. ' His last challenge was only twelve years ago, but he doesn't usually wait longer than twenty. ' She hoped it wasn't a challenge from Fang, as that would mean she'd already wasted significant time, effort, and thought. Fang Zhang—or 'Fuzzy' as she'd thought of him ever since learning enough English to reduce his name to its initials—was living proof that one could get good enough at martial arts to dramatically lengthen a lifespan without necessarily being good at martial arts.

' Then again, it might not be a trap or challenge at all, ' she mused. ' Or at least whoever sent it might not think so. I swear, if this is Jade Lotus trying one more time to convince me to bend the rules and let one of her no-talent grandchildren into the tribe as a Warrior without passing the Warrior's tests... ' For a moment Cologne fantasized about telling 'Jade Lotus', a.k.a. Kikuko Sakuraba, that she would consider it if one of the woman's grandsons—all of whom were kind, handsome, and as utterly unwarlike as the woman herself and the rest of her brood—managed to seduce one Akane Tendo. As always, she discarded the notion. There were much better ways to deal with the difficulties posed by Akane than putting Ranma in that kind of competition.

On the whole, the Matriarch was finding the idea of a true, life-or-death struggle looking better and better. ' It could be that fool of a half-Oni Lin. Since the first sixteen times I squashed her weren't enough to get through to her, I don't see why number seventeen eight months ago would have done the trick. ' Admittedly the letter wasn't in Lin's handwriting and all her other challenges had been more straightforward than this... but each time the half-Oni had made some minor or major change in her tactics. This could just be the next ploy in the long, long line.

On the other hand, Cologne thought hopefully, it could be someone she'd never even heard of before, much less had a history with. ' Perhaps those fools on the Nerima town council finally noticed how much property I've purchased over the last year. ' She had done most of the buying through middlemen, but she hadn't gone farther than that to hide her identity. ' If they did finally notice, then they might also figure out that I'm seriously considering founding a true Joketsuzoku outpost in Nerima. ' It was a small step from there to the councilmen blowing their next ten years' budget to hire someone they thought might be able to run her out of town. Yes, that series of possibilities all held together logically enough... if she ignored the fact that the council members were, by and large, on a mental par with Soun Tendo.

She was nearly at her destination now. The Matriarch dropped her speculations and released her hold on the Air technique, utilizing another to float silently down to a perfect one-point landing on the rooftop next door. She'd made sure to arrive a few minutes early, which gave her time to study the place. Knowing that a true challenge for her might be waiting inside, Cologne restricted herself to passive observation. Actively using her chi senses to probe the interior would certainly have given her more information on the general public therein, but if a Master or Grandmaster was lurking inside and keeping himself hidden, she'd be giving more away than she'd get.

Even limiting herself that way, Cologne was able to gather plenty of information on what could become her first real battleground in months. The Matriarch quickly found herself hoping it wouldn't be. The bar was dingy and low-quality, set in an equally poor neighborhood. The large window that faced the street had recently been replaced, but bore no signs of having been washed in the week since that happened. A sign in that window warned potential customers that if they chose to come here, they needed to be ready for anything. Nevertheless, the bar was full of customers, and despite the unpleasant environment, they seemed to be harmless salarymen and mostly-harmless laborers. If there were any Yakuza or other seriously corrupted types in there, Cologne couldn't sense them.

She'd picked up no trace of any Master or Grandmaster, though that didn't necessarily rule them out. On the other hand, she had eliminated Fuzzy and Jade Lotus as possibilities, and there were one or two low-level martial artists who might possibly fit the first scenario she'd considered. It was therefore with a cautious smile on her face that Cologne dropped down to street level, opened the door, and entered the bar.

The bartender took one look at her, let out a screech like the wail of the damned, and fainted dead away.

' Well, that's not a good sign, ' she thought, shifting into 'serious threat assessment' mode. An equally poor sign was the way every customer in the bar was staring at her. None of them showed the horror that the bartender had so briefly evidenced, but all were wary at least. Despite the level of reaction, none of them showed any true recognition of her, which further puzzled Cologne. It was as if they'd simply cued in on her extreme age and utter lack of the debilitation that said age usually brought.

That first moment of open staring had passed now. People were turning back to their drinks, keeping only as much of their focus on her as they could without being obvious about it. The serving girl, moving as quickly as anyone present had ever seen, marched back behind the long bar and slapped the weedy little man awake, hissing "No way in hell am I handling this by myself!" into his ear. And, Cologne noticed, the crowd even seemed to be inviting her to sit down. Space was opening up around an empty table, one that had already had a larger gap around it than usual. Even as she watched, the average distance separating tables was reduced by a good six inches, in order to shunt all the surplus space into the gap around this one. Cologne couldn't help but notice that this table was different from all the others in another way: it had a stool pulled up next to it that was the perfect height for someone her age.

The situation was drawing her nerves tight with tension. Nevertheless, she decided to play along just a bit longer. Slowly but steadily, she walked over to the stool, giving no hint that she was anything other than perfectly at her ease. She reached the stool and used her staff to nudge it slightly away from the table, for simplicity of mounting.

She just had time to recognize the presence of slightly more weight than the stool itself could account for. Then Happosai was popping into existence atop it from out of thin air, grinning widely at her with a cheery, leery, "Hello, hot stuff!"

And Cologne—Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku, Grandmaster of Amazonian Wu Shu, three-hundred-year-old veteran of battles that would have left her 'son-in-law' a gibbering mess—squealed like a little girl, forgot all discipline, and swung her staff with pure feminine instinct.


"I still say you had no business hitting me that hard," Happosai grumbled, rubbing the large knot on his head. A cool breeze flowed into the room through the new Happi-sized hole in the wall, which helped ease the pain.

"I still say you should have dodged," Cologne snapped back. She was seated now on a second stool, across from the Anything Goes Grandmaster.

"How could I?" he returned. "I wasn't actually looking at you. Couldn't be, not if I wanted to say that 'hot stuff' line with a straight face."

Cologne's grip tightened around her staff, but she opted not to take it further than that. The bar might be full of fools, but she didn't want any of them on her conscience if they wound up as collateral damage. She wasn't going to be the one to start a fight. And, general obnoxiousness aside, it didn't look like Happosai intended to do so either. "So why did you invite me here anyway?" She pulled out the letter. "This wasn't meant to be a challenge at all, was it?"

"Of course not!" he scoffed. Then he grinned. "But we can have a drinking contest if you like, Cologne. Loser pays the tab." Since Kenta would get paid triple anyway, that extra income should help settle his ruffled feathers. And Happosai had no intention of losing.

Cologne returned a level stare. "Didn't the last time you got drunk end up with you stuck in a cave for more than ten years?"

"Of course not!"

The Matriarch sighed. "Happi, there's nobody here to posture for. I know it's an old person's prerogative to remember the past more fondly than it actually happened, but there are limits."

Happosai snorted. "That's not what I meant, you fossilized old stick-in-the-mud. I've been drunk plenty of times since I got out of that cave."

"Right. What was I thinking?" she muttered. "Anyway, no thank you. I suspect we've got more important things to deal with, things we should both be at our best and brightest for." She snorted. "Or at least, I should. Feel free to get wasted if you like."

"Kenta!" Happosai called. "Bring me a Master's Special Number Twenty-Eight!" Getting Genma drunk enough to spill answers freely had been child's play. If he could accomplish the same thing with Cologne... well, that would be a victory Happosai would carry down through however many centuries he had left, wrapping it around him like a warm, satisfying blanket. If his version of the Parlay du Fois Gras was enough to pull that off, he thought with a mental chortle, then it would be worth all the pain and strain Ranma had endured to learn the technique.

A few moments later, Cologne stared in shock and awe at the spectacle that was the Master's Special Number Twenty-Eight. The table groaned beneath the weight of the tray and its contents. Not even Happosai could possibly slug down that much alcohol and remain conscious; the Matriarch was sure of it. The fumes alone were potent enough that she thought she felt a faint buzz. She reached into the pocket that stored various medical and preventative items, pulled out a herbal-infused cloth facemask, and affixed it, missing Happosai's wince as she did so.

"I'm a little curious about this bar, Happi," she said, deciding that if he wasn't ready to get down to brass tacks then she might as well satisfy her own curiosity. "The place is frankly a dump, and yet it's full of customers. And relatively decent, honest customers at that." She paused, staring at his tray of drinks with a jaundiced eye. "I was also going to ask why you came here, but that doesn't seem like such a hard question anymore."

"Hey, I'll have you know it took plenty of blood, sweat, and tears to get that punk Kenta trained well enough for this kind of service," he shot back.

Cologne didn't bother to ask who had shed those bodily fluids. "Why go to that much effort?" the Matriarch asked instead. She turned and peered at Kenta for a few moments, feeling mildly guilty at the distress her scrutiny was obviously causing the man. "Did you think you saw some hidden depths to him? He doesn't look like much of a diamond in the rough to me."

"Nah, it was just a whim," the Anything Goes Grandmaster answered. He'd pulled out and lit his pipe while Cologne's attentions were away, and now took a few puffs on it. "It was a pain to pound competence into somebody who was such a stranger to it. Still, after putting up with Soun and Genma this was nothing."

Cologne noticed that whatever vile blend of tobacco Happosai was smoking was much more powerful than normal. The smoke was beginning to corrode her face mask. She was silent for a few moments, considering what to do, and trying not to picture what his lungs must look like. At length, she bled the barest fraction of her aura into the space surrounding her head, synchronized it with the air, and created a shield against foreign substances. In the past, she'd always been as leery of showing her real capabilities to Happosai as he was to her, but things were different now. This encounter was going to have to clear the air between them, in more ways than one.

Happosai held back a sigh of disappointment, recognizing the time to abandon a failed plan. Oh, well, he probably didn't need an advantage like a drunken adversary in this meeting anyway. Cologne was reasonable most of the time, whereas he almost never was; that meant that when he decided to be reasonable it inevitably gave him a big advantage because the reasonable folks didn't want to ruin the unexpectedly smooth road. "Anyway, didn't you ask why there were so many people here? That's also because of me," he bragged. "Since he's got me for a patron, Kenta can afford to keep his prices rock-bottom. The dinginess of the place and the usual poor service aren't about to stop people from coming, not when they only pay a quarter of what they usually would." By making sure the bar was always filled to capacity, Kenta made the maximum profit possible on Happosai's triple-the-expenses payoff visits. Happi also suspected that the bartender felt safer with so many other people between him and his most illustrious client.

"And I suppose at least some of the regulars come to watch the occasional show," Cologne theorized.

"Yep." Happosai lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "There's even a couple of wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears, little-kid-in-water-wings-splashing-around-in-the-shallow-end excuses for martial artists that hang out here. Hah, you should have seen how big one guy's eyes got the first time he saw me in action. He had no idea what kind of stuff a real Master could pull off. Sooner or later one of them is bound to work up the guts to ask me for a few pointers. It'd be a good joke on Ranma to drop a new Anything Goes student on him a few years from now, someone trained by me to challenge him for his unofficial place as heir to the school."

"It would be a joke, all right," Cologne mused, envisioning how powerful Ranma would be in another few years. "I'm not so sure who the joke would be on, though."

"Now why would you say that?" he asked innocently. "C'mon, you know as well as I do that Ranma's been mostly reactive since he settled down at Tendo's. The new stuff he's learned, he learned because there was something staring him right in the face that called for it."

"Actually, you're wrong," she replied. "That's only true for his special techniques. The Amaguriken, the Hiryu Shoten Ha, the Moko Takabisha... all of them happened like that, while he mainly just focused on basic training." Then she narrowed her eyes. "But Ranma is right on the threshold of a transition. He's hovering at the very line between two zones, hasn't quite left behind the point where focusing on the basics of physical control is better than cramming in as many special techniques as possible. You know that as well as I do."

"No, I know that's what you think," he riposted. "Me, I figured months ago that it was time for him to sink his teeth into his first real chi technique. And I'm not talking about some glorified basic hand-to-hand move either; I mean something with a lot of power, with plenty of room for development and revision, good for using against just one person or several at a time." He winked at her.

Cologne declined to consider the possibility that she'd been manipulated into teaching Ranma the Hiryu Shoten Ha. 'If he's telling any truth at all there, it probably just meant that he had some idea of his own, some test he'd give Ranma before undoing the Ultimate Weakness Moxibustion. Ha, the old fool was likely taking a leaf out of my book, copying the tactic I led off with when I first got here.' At least, she hoped that was it.

"In any case, none of that goes against my original point," she said briskly. "A few years from now, Ranma will certainly be too strong for someone with just those few years of real training to get any kind of win at all."

"You think so?" Happosai asked, even more innocently than he'd posed his last question. "Even if I found someone with a real affinity for the element of Earth, and focused everything on getting him as good with that style as I could?"

"And that sounds like our cue to get serious," she said.

"Yeah, probably," he admitted, sounding disappointed at the prospect.

Cologne didn't know whether this emotion was real or not, unlike his earlier 'innocence'. A normal person certainly wouldn't have minded the conversation turning to the very point for which he had called the meeting, but Happosai was anything but normal.

Before she could say anything, he was speaking again. "I suppose Shampoo told you a week ago that I was back in town. Right?"

"Not exactly," she answered. "She told me you called to place an order, but she also said you almost didn't bother to disguise your voice at all." The Matriarch snorted. "She was certain you'd been making a prank call from Kyoto or wherever." Shampoo had been making progress in learning not to believe something just because she wanted it to be true, but there was still plenty of room for improvement on that front. "I wasn't so optimistic, of course. But I'll admit I was surprised not to see any sign of you in the days that passed since then. I was almost starting to think she might have been right."

"Nah. I've been in Nerima the whole time, laying low and getting a good look at how much everything's changed lately. Can't say I'm happy about a lot of it," the ancient lecher said ruefully. "But at least there's some good mixed in with the bad."

'What? No temper tantrum about the loss of Ranma's girl form? I know he likes to be unpredictable when it really counts, but... Well, no sense in providing him too easy an opening.' Cologne said nothing, merely looked expectantly at him and waited for him to go on.

"Aren't you going to ask me how I kept anyone from noticing me for so long?" Happosai said with a pout. "Or what ticked me off, or what I thought was good news?"

'I might have known he wouldn't cooperate that easily.' "I assumed you stayed hidden with the technique you so graciously demonstrated to me earlier," Cologne returned. "It's a very impressive concealment technique, Happi, I'll give you that. And I'm even more impressed that Son-in-law hasn't suffered a rash of unexplained freak accidents this week."

"It doesn't work that way," he explained. "When you're cloaked like that, you can't attack, or really interact with the world at all. It disrupts the effect."

"Hmmm." Her eyes narrowed. "Sounds like a technique you developed just to let you peek in the public baths."

"Wrong!" he proclaimed. It had actually been his old buddy Chingensai who developed it for that. Although Happosai had gladly taken Chingensai's basic Now You See Me, Now You Don't and refined it further to create his Dimensional Warp.

"...And that's all you're going to say about that, I take it?" Cologne asked after a few moments of silence.

"Well, maybe not," Happosai allowed. "Off and on over the past week, I've been working on a revision to it. A version that still leaves you cloaked to normal sight and gives a little protection against chi senses, while letting you split your aura for attacks or distraction effects or whatever."

"Mmmm. Why are you telling me this?" she asked. "We've never been enemies, but we've certainly never been on the 'sharing secrets' level either."

"Not the 'sharing secrets of the Art' level, you mean," Happosai said with a leer that brought back unsettled memories of their first encounter all those centuries ago.

'You want to play rough? Okay, you old fool, we'll play rough.' Cologne forced a simper. "Oh, Happi, you're trying to impress me! I thought you saved that for the younger, less experienced girls!" Her coquettish giggle turned seamlessly into a cackle at the ancient lecher's reaction. It wasn't everyday you saw someone stagger backward when they were sitting down.

From his new spot on the floor, Happosai let out a grumbling string of oaths. He set his stool upright once more, jumped back to the top, grabbed the most potent drink on his mostly-untouched tray, and slammed it down in one go. "Okay, I'll be serious if you will. What I was getting at is, I didn't just decide out of the blue to modify the technique like that. I had inspiration."

"Inspiration? From who?"

"From Genma, believe it or not. He's already developed that on his own," Happosai admitted. "I could have just made him teach it to me instead of figuring it out from the two times he used it to try and get away," no need to admit that the second time had been successful, "but the way I see it, that would have made things more complicated than you want them to be."

"Than I want them to be?" Cologne echoed. "I'm not following you, Happi."

"It's why I asked you to meet me here," the Anything Goes Grandmaster explained. "I wanted to make a deal with you." He paused for dramatic effect, as well as to let the old biddy get any sarcastic comments about deals with the devil off her chest.

Feeling mildly gratified when she didn't take advantage of the opening, he continued, "I've been doing a lot of thinking this week, while I watched everything that was going on. If this was just another scramble between the girls who are after Ranma's hide, and other body parts, I'd be glad to jump in and have fun with it. But..." He sighed. "But with Nodoka in the picture... well, that changes things. You know what's at stake there as well as I do. Even if Genma hadn't made that dumb-ass promise, there'd still be the question of a mother's love and pride and acceptance in her only child. As much fun as it would be to bounce back into the action and ride herd on that little punk, kick him around town every day for a month for getting rid of his old curse, I just can't find it in my heart to do that. Can't risk destroying what Nodoka and Ranma and even Genma are trying to build back up."

"All of that sounds good so far, Happi," Cologne said, her voice kindly but firm. "And I'm glad to hear it. But I haven't heard anything yet that needs a bargain between you and me."

"What, you thought that meant I couldn't do anything at all?" Happosai snorted. "Get real, Cologne. There's a reason I showed you how stealthy I can be, and told you that right now I'm interested in learning to do it even better. It'd be great training, to head back into town and keep my hand in the chaos, without letting Nodoka get a clue that I was there running roughshod over her precious little boy." He grinned nastily for a moment, then smoothed his features into his best 'reasonable' look. "But I'm willing to let that go. I'll leave Nerima and stay away for a couple of years, and not come back until things are pretty much settled in Ranma's life. Whatever choices he wants to make, I won't interfere or even be watching to see what they are. I'm sure you can see how helpful that would be for your own agenda." When the Matriarch nodded involuntarily, he grinned again and continued, "You just have to make it worth my while."

"Go on," she said, closing her eyes and bracing herself.

"Every bra and pair of panties you and Shampoo own, and triple that amount imported from the cuties back at the Amazon village." Lechery practically dripped from every syllable that oozed past Happosai's quivering lips.

Cologne shook with a shudder that nearly knocked her off her stool. Still with her eyes screwed shut, she forced two words through tight lips. "All right."


The Matriarch's eyes shot open. Happosai was rolling around in gales of laughter, though he barely retained enough control to remain on top of the stool. After a few frozen moments of shock, she put on her best glare of death. "You weren't serious at all, were you."

"I... ha ha... I was about... woo hoo hoo... about my side of the bargain." He got the last of his mirth under control. "But for yours, I'm gonna need something more serious than that."

Cologne hesitated for a moment, teetering between continuing a course she'd followed for so long and abruptly ending it. The words, "You mean, promise to keep on keeping quiet to my fellow Amazon Elders about your continued survival, so that they don't hunt you down and execute you?" rose at least three inches up from the pit of her gut toward her lips. But then she swallowed them, reminding herself that Happosai probably couldn't help being irritating. So far in this encounter he had still been more reasonable than she'd seen from him in ages. She didn't want to ruin that.

"Go on," she said at last, her tone as mild as ever it had been when addressing him.

"It's simple enough," Happosai said with a shrug and a gulp from a mildly luminescent drink. "I'm agreeing not to screw around with your hopes for Ranma. You have to promise me the same thing, for Genma."

"For Genma?" Cologne's eyebrows shot toward her hairline. "Are you planning to start seriously training him again?"

"Yeah, that's right." He paused for emphasis. "I will be. You've already got one Saotome eating out of your wrinkly little hand, sucking down an elemental style. You and Ranma can do what you want together, but Genma is my disciple. That's why I'm making this deal with you."

"An offer I can't refuse, hmm?" Cologne muttered. She was silent for quite some time, considering the implications. "I've spent a lot of time lately, thinking about the changes Genma is going through and what the ramifications would be. I'll admit this one caught me by surprise, though." The Matriarch shook her head ruefully, no longer surprised by the way Nerima could serve up completely unexpected developments at any given moment. She spared a second to be thankful that she had never made Nabiki's mistake and deluded herself that she was in ultimate control of everything around her. "Let me get something straight here, though. You already said that for your part of the bargain, you'll stay completely out of the picture for a few years. Whatever you're planning with Genma, you won't be making a move on it until then, correct?"

"Yeah, probably," Happosai answered. "I haven't one hundred percent decided yet. I might give him a call from time to time, have him drag his carcass out of town so I can catch up with him." Or maybe not. What he saw no reason to tell Cologne was that he was planning to ask Chingensai to keep an eye on Genma and report his progress to Happosai. It wasn't like that would violate the spirit of his no-interference-with-Ranma agreement with the old crone, he reasoned; Chinny was just as fond of the ladies as Happi was, but the Ninja Grandmaster had always been focused more toward voyeurism than active duty. This had shaped his whole philosophy of the Art as well, leading to someone who basically wouldn't cause you any trouble if you didn't first trouble him. Happosai had always found it mildly sad, but it was fortunate for him now.

"And during those catch-up visits, you might also spend a little time giving him ideas on training Akane?" Cologne murmured, deciding to play one of her cards. "He's already teaching her advanced techniques, as you may have noticed. He was even beginning to feel a little conflicted about it. And yet, somehow, all that conflict and indecision vanished a week ago like that red drink down your gullet. I can't help noticing the timing involved, and thinking that it wasn't a coincidence."

"You're right about that," Happosai said, his expression darkening ever so faintly toward a frown. "We ran into each other in this very bar, in fact, and had a lot of catching up to do. That's why I snuck back to Nerima in the first place, instead of jumping in to make the big splash I'd been planning. I heard from Genma then about how he was training Akane, as well as how he was starting to have his doubts."

"And you resolved those doubts? I'm surprised, Happi. I'd never have expected Genma to listen to you on a question like that."

"Whaddaya mean, a question like that?" he protested. "Anything Goes is my school! Why shouldn't that punk listen to me?"

Cologne snorted. "Because it wasn't just a matter of training or the Art, you degenerate gnome. There was a serious moral question there, or even more than one I suppose. After all, not only is Genma training Akane in techniques more advanced than any he ever gave his own son, he's also basically giving significant power to someone who isn't, ultimately, trustworthy enough to receive it yet."

"Pshaw!" Happosai waved away both those concerns. "Neither of those were bothering him. He was feeling bad about lying to Akane, leading her along through this training with the promise that she'd be able to beat your little great-granddaughter. I got him over that easily enough."

"How, exactly?" Cologne asked, curious and vaguely apprehensive.

"Not exactly how I wanted," he admitted. "I gave that idiot the perfect solution, told him that if he seduced Akane and took her as a mistress everything would work out fine. That bipolar excuse for a conscience he's got wouldn't hear anything of it, though, wouldn't even thank me for how I was going to help him make it a reality! No, that idiot just ran screaming, and after that he decided his 'noble sacrifice' in defying his Master for Akane's sake more than balanced out any guilt from lying to her about passing Shampoo!" The Anything Goes Grandmaster shook his head. Whenever he thought about that situation, he always felt a little dizzy. Disappointment and satisfaction at Genma's reaction twisted and coiled through each other so convolutedly that Happi couldn't decide which was stronger.

'That was his idea on how to resolve things?! It might have worked, but still...' Cologne muttered an old Swahilian wives' proverb under her breath about the foibles of men.

Happosai considered asking for a translation, then decided her tone had told him all he needed to know. "So the long and short of it is, Genma's doing better now than he ever has before. As far as Anything Goes, I mean. Heck, from what he mumbled about letting Ranma make his own choice, he might be doing better as a father too." He probably wasn't telling Cologne anything she didn't already know, but hearing it again now would only make it plainer to the old girl that she needed to take him up on his offer. This was the best chance she and her great-granddaughter had ever had, after all; they really didn't need any chaotic factors jumping in to stir the mixture. "Seems like he's not so tied up in that promise he and Tendo made anymore."

Cologne considered her response for longer than Happosai had expected. After a good thirty seconds had passed, he cleared his throat, then said, "Did you honestly not know that already?"

"Oh, I knew it all right," she replied. "Just wondering if I ought to share a particular piece of information with you in return."

The fact that she'd said it like that meant that she'd already decided to do so. Happosai knew this, but played along anyway. "What? Huh? What is it? Tell me tell me tell me!" he pleaded, bouncing up and down on his seat.

"All right already! Settle down!" Cologne snapped. Trust Happi to ruin the drama of the moment. She paused for a few seconds longer, reclaiming as much of it as she could, then said, "Are you familiar with a magical principle called the One Oath of the Forsworn?"

He blinked. "Ah, no. Can't say that I am."

"Good. It's unpleasant stuff," she replied. "What it boils down to is this. Take one person who habitually makes promises he doesn't intend to keep and breaks them as soon as it's convenient. Then have him make one true promise, one that he would give his all to fulfill. And finally, let that promise be one that can easily be twisted to run counter to the natural harmony of the universe, one with a good chance to bring chaos, pain, and disorder if it's kept. When that happens, dark forces empower that promise, backing it up, twisting fate in an effort to bring it to their kind of fulfillment—a fulfillment that inevitably leads to pain and destruction for everyone involved. And the one who made the promise always, always receives the worst of it."

It was Happosai's turn to sit quietly and think things over. "Waaaait a second," he said, spotting the catch. "You just said all that, but you didn't actually say that was what's been happening here. You just let me think it." He shook his head, giving her a reproving smile. "You needed to tailor your story a little better if you wanted to fool me. Genma might be slippery, but he's not bad enough to call up something heavy-duty like that."

"No more is Soun Tendo," Cologne said evenly. "But together, with their promise to unite their families no matter what, they just barely qualified. Make no mistake, Happi, the effect I described was a very real part of life in this town until recently. I'd become suspicious," no need to mention that her suspicions hadn't been anywhere near this clear or specific, "and asked one of the mages in my family back home to investigate. Two months ago, I received word that she'd identified it and broken it."

The Anything Goes Grandmaster frowned. He knew Cologne wasn't above deceiving people, but unlike himself, she avoided outright lies. "I guess it would explain some of the things I've seen around here," he mused. "Hell, it's even a little reassuring. Maybe some of the ludicrous mistakes the kids have made weren't their fault, if their weak little minds were being pushed around by something like that. If it's that powerful, you and me and Chingensai are likely the only ones around here who could see through it or fight it off."

Cologne gave him a blood-curdlingly triumphant grin. "You think you weren't affected? I can remember at least three times when something like this would be the least embarrassing explanation for the mistakes you made."

Happosai's mouth dropped open to dangle in shock. He hitched it back shut, preparing to ask just what she thought she was talking about... when a little voice at the back of his head informed him that it would be much less embarrassing to figure it out for himself, rather than have Cologne proclaim it. He gritted his teeth and sped his brain up as fast as it would go, focusing everything on this unexpected train of thought.

A few silent moments later, he spoke again. "Yeah, yeah, enough about me already. What about you?" he challenged.

Cologne's grin just got wider and more smug. "My great-granddaughter told me that she hadn't found any times when this damnable curse swayed me."

Happosai snorted. "And I suppose it was all part of your plan, that time with the Red Thread of Fate? The way I heard it, you stopped Ukyo from going into the church to separate Ranma from Shampoo, but you didn't do a thing about Akane."

The Matriarch's mouth gaped even wider than had Happosai's, and she was silent at least as long. Finally she recovered enough to mutter something under her breath about children being too flattering to their heads of family, grabbed one of the drinks off Happosai's tray, and slugged it down.

"And I heard something about a couple of little Amazon visitors, too," Happosai continued innocently. "What were their names? Ling-Lung or something—"

"You've made your point!" Cologne snapped. "In any case, we ought to get back to the subject of our bargain. I don't have a problem with dropping the contingency plans I'd made, to get Genma an Amazon bride or two a few years down the line."

"Actually I might not care about that at all," Happosai said. "Ask me again when you're ready to do it. What I need from you is a promise not to sink your claws into him now, not to drag him into your idea of training while I'm gone. Anything Goes is all about learning from the situations you find yourself in and the challenges you encounter, but if someone's too much stronger than you are she can make you learn on her terms instead of yours. And that's not what's going to happen here. I want to see how Genma does for himself, to know if I can take him to the next level of Anything Goes. If some other Grandmaster sticks her hand in, throwing her own ingredients into the stew and stirring at her idea of a good pace, that'll ruin everything."

"I'll admit that the idea of training Genma has crossed my mind once or twice in the year I've been here, but it's never gotten farther than just the 'idea' stage." Cologne shrugged. "I certainly don't have a problem with that promise." She was tempted to say, "So, do we have a deal?", but knew that things hadn't quite been threshed out far enough yet. And if the issue she hadn't brought up occurred to Happosai later and was sufficiently troubling, she knew that he wouldn't have any problems breaking his word.

After all, there was more than one reason she'd warned him about the One Oath of the Forsworn. He'd avoided it for three hundred years and more; it would be a shame to see him dragged down to hell someday by good intentions.

Reminding herself that when they finalized this deal, his part needed to be less formal than a true promise, Cologne continued. "But I wonder, Happi. Have you really thought this through?"

The ancient lecher rolled his eyes. "Which one of us was it again, who'd had a week to think about this stuff? Which one was just now hearing it for the first time?"

"Which one of us is talking so blithely about giving up training the best student we've ever seen?" she countered.

"See, that's one of the big differences between you and me," he stated calmly. "You look at Ranma's sheer, raw, shining talent and it makes you drool at the thought of helping him develop it. Me, I barely give a rat's ass."

"You're going to have to do a better job explaining it than that, if you want me to believe you," she pronounced. "No matter how straight a face you said it with. The most talented and dedicated student of the Art that I've ever encountered is a part of your very own school—you can't seriously expect me to believe you don't care."

"That's not what I said. I said I don't care about training him myself," the Anything Goes Grandmaster explained. "Genma already got him as far along as he needs to be; Ranma is growing on his own and contributing stuff to the school already. I don't need to take a direct hand in his development. Any more than I ever did. Feel free to keep feeding him high-level techniques and whatnot." That was the kind of strengthening Anything Goes would receive from Ranma Saotome. As far as the philosophical side of it went, Ranma was all but a lost cause—good at a few points, hopeless at the rest. Genma was far more promising in that arena. Not that he felt like going into that much detail with his explanation.

Cologne started to reply, then checked herself. Happosai had just begun gulping down a white drink that smelled of coconut milk and spiced rum, and she didn't want him spitting any of it onto her when he heard her next comment. She never had cared for coconut.

Once he'd set down the empty tumbler with a satisfied sigh, she said, "I'll be glad to do that, and to leave Genma alone like you wanted. But I'm surprised, Happi. I would have thought you'd be at least a little worried about losing Ranma out of your Anything Goes style."

He just took the statement in stride. "Bah. Ranma will never turn his back on Anything Goes; that's one of the few things Genma really did right. The boy will just take the best of what you've got to offer and work it into the style. And if you can't see that, maybe you're finally getting senile."

The Matriarch whipped out her staff and bonked him on the head. "I was talking about you and what you'd believe, not Ranma. Faith in others is more my sort of thing than yours, you old reprobate."

"Maybe so," he said quietly. "But even someone like me can have a little faith in someone like him." Then, louder, "But if you ever tell anyone I said that, I'll steal your underwear and sell it over the Internet!"

Cologne made a disgusted face. "Are we done here?"

"Heck no!" Happosai shot back. He gestured to the tray before him, still ninety percent full and all the drinks still icy cold. "Maybe you thought I didn't notice, but you've been kind enough to keep everything chilled for me this whole time. That means you have a responsibility to help me finish it off!"

The Matriarch rolled her eyes, but picked up one drink and began to sip it. "All right, but don't expect me to pace you. Some of us have to go to work in the morning."

"Yeah, right," he said, clearly blowing her off.

"Happosai, if you've been watching for a week you must know how many factors I'm juggling right now. Ranma's progressing faster on the relationship front than his ability to admit to progress; Shampoo is smelling the sweet scent of victory and barely restraining herself from charging off in five different directions at once; Mousse is grimly hanging on to pride, dignity, and courage while he does years' worth of overdue growing up; Genma's walking the fine line between 'father' and 'sensei'; Ukyo is forcing herself to consider things in a way she never has before; and Nabiki is clinging ever more desperately to the illusion that she and she alone will decide how it all ends." Cologne heaved an aggrieved, exaggerated sigh. "And that little synopsis is maybe half of everything that's on my mind. If you think that's not work, you've got another think coming."

"All the better then, for you to take a moment to kick back and relax," Happosai countered. "But if you don't mind me saying one last serious thing..."


"The technique you used to keep all these drinks nice and cold..."

"Yes, yes, the North Wind. What about it?"

Happosai grinned. "Make sure you teach it to Ranma just like that. Show that uptight kid that Mastery is good for more than just the battlefield."


Even with his glasses on and no drinks yet served, the world was a blur. But at least people were recognizable as people, the long bar was easily distinguished from the pool tables off to the side, and Mousse was sure the guy serving the drinks was someone he'd never seen before. In fact, he'd almost expected that last one. It was his first daylight trip to this tavern since his return to Japan, but he'd paid a couple of night-time visits. The guy working that shift had been new too. Mousse suspected that Pyotr Kareshev was the only one strong enough to operate a bar in Nerima over the long term.

This place wasn't as nice as Pyotr's, but it was better than average and the prices were more in line with what he was willing to pay. Granted, he wasn't hard up for yen anymore. He was making his own way now, rather than hanging on like grim death to the pittance of a job Cologne had grudgingly offered him... and that meant that he had significantly more money available. But old habits died hard.

Squinting, Mousse made out a few more details. There was a nice block of open seats over toward the right of the bar, and a straightforward path to them through the smaller tables in the central floor area. He made his way over without mishap, sat down at the bar, and tried to feel hopeful. After all, this was the best place he'd ever found in Japan for receiving sympathy and conversation. As long as he didn't think too hard about that fact, it was at least a little encouraging.

Like any conscientious beer-slinger, the man behind the counter didn't let Mousse sit in silence for long. He strolled over with a courteous, "Good day to you."

The man's voice was low and resonant, reminding Mousse of the one—admittedly memorable—meeting he'd had with Pyotr. He wondered for an instant whether this was a relative of the expatriate Russian's, then discarded the idea. The man facing him appeared large and bulky, to be sure... but his skin was as dark as mahogany and he wore an Afro nearly the size of Mousse's torso. He was clad in black silk robes, which sparked another thought in the Chinese boy's mind: this man was certainly no relation to Pyotr, but he might be some kind of Master in his own right. If so, maybe he'd have the guts to stick with the job for however long Mousse was going to remain in this town.

That could be either a good thing or a bad thing, of course, but so far the guy seemed decent enough. "And to you," Mousse said with a nod. "Are you new here?"

"Just recently started," rumbled the man. "You must be one of the veteran customers."

That wasn't exactly true, Mousse knew. It was true that this was the bar he came to consistently, but although the word 'consistent' could apply to his visits, the same wasn't true of 'frequent'. Nevertheless, he didn't feel like getting into that much of an explanation. "You could say that."

"In that case, your first five rounds are on me," the man said generously.

Mousse blinked. "What? I... thanks, but I don't need that." Not when he was carrying enough yen to pay his way at the number one Nerima watering hole if he'd wanted... or have dinner at the swankiest restaurant in town with Sham—he cut the thought off with grim determination. Not yet. Not while he was still sober.

"I insist," the man said. "It's a gesture I've made to all the regulars so far when I meet them, to ease the pain of losing your previous host."

That was a point, Mousse supposed. He hadn't come here simply to drink himself into momentary forgetfulness; he'd wanted company and even some advice, and the man who'd last held this shift would have been good for both of them. Maybe this guy would prove to be just as good, but maybe he wouldn't; if he did work out, Mousse could always make up the difference on his tab by supersizing the tip. "Well, thanks. Thanks a lot," he said quietly. "I'd like a glass of whatever beer's on tap."

"Unfortunately, we're out of beer," the man said apologetically. "There were a lot of first-time-back regulars earlier today."

Mousse stared blankly into the inky blur that he supposed was the man's face. "It's four thirty in the afternoon, and you mean to tell me your little policy made you already run out of beer? And you just work here, right? You don't own the place?"

"That's right."

It actually felt good, to be distracted from his own problems for a bit. Mousse pulled out one of his wallets, emptied it onto the bar, and said, in a tone that brooked no alternative, "Take it. You're gonna need this a lot more than me."

"Well, all right," the man said, reaching out and taking the money. Mousse wasn't sure, but he thought the man stashed it somewhere in the massive frizzball on top of his head. "But I can tell you right now, you're going to get more than the first five rounds free."

"Well, that depends on what I order, doesn't it?" Mousse shot back with a smirk. "Why don't you start me off with some s..." His voice trailed off as he realized he wasn't in the mood for sake, or anything inherently Japanese. "With something exotic," he finished. "But no tequila."

"One creme de minth, coming right up." A minute later, Mousse was sipping the oddly sweet drink, certainly as exotic as he could have wished.

"How is it?" the nameless bartender asked a few moments later, returning from serving other customers.

"Nice and different," he replied. "What country does it come from?"

"Ah, Paraguay I believe," the man said, hesitating so slightly that Mousse missed it.

"Well, that's certainly far enough away." Mousse leaned back and drained the rest of the drink.

"Would you like another? Or maybe something from China this time?"

"No, give me something different. Something else exotic. But no tequila."

"Rum and Coke it is." The bartender turned away, reaching toward a tall bottle of brown glass. He stopped dead when a dagger impacted the wall a few inches away. "What the hel—I mean, what was that for?" the man said over his shoulder, the inquiry starting out as a yell in a higher-pitched voice before sinking back to his controlled basso tone.

"Maybe you're better at this than I thought," Mousse gritted through his teeth. "I've been trying to put on a good face and all, but maybe you're good enough to see I'm hurting here. But that damn well doesn't mean I want you to hook me up with some cocaine!"

"How about Coca-Cola?" the man shot back, his voice strained.

Outside, a gust of wind blew papers down the empty street. Crickets chirped. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog barked.

"Uh... that is... Yes, very well," Mousse said after a few moments, scraping together as much dignity as he could manage. "That would be fine." ' Damn it all, I should have learned Cantonese as my third language, not English. '

The drink was mixed and delivered. Mousse chose to sip it more slowly than the last; the taste was just as different from anything he was familiar with, but it wasn't as easy to decide whether he liked this one or not. Plus, focusing on that made it easier to push the last little faux pas out of mind.

"So do you want to talk about it?" the bartender said cautiously ten minutes later.

By now Mousse had halfway finished his drink, and had come to the conclusion that he liked it in moderation. It was sort of like his visits to this bar, he thought, the alcohol beginning to have the faintest relaxing effect. It was good to take a swig from the drink every few minutes, just like it was good to come here every so often to have time all his own. Even if he did spend much of it talking about a different Amazon entirely...

"Talk about it?" he echoed. "I... I did come here for that, I guess. But now... I'm not sure." He glanced down into his glass, but didn't lift it to his lips yet.

"I can get you something else to drink, if that one's not what you're looking for."

Mousse shook his head, sighed, and said, "What the hell. It's about a girl. Of course. It's always about a girl, isn't it?" He hadn't deliberately pitched his voice to carry throughout the bar, or in any other way indicated that he was asking the room at large. Nevertheless, everyone who heard him nodded sagely. "And... and what you said... it's like someone said that to her. Because I'm not the one she's looking for, and she got someone else." He hung his head, stared into his drink once more, then leaned back to take a gulp of it. "Chased him for just a year before she caught him," he said bitterly. "And that was in a place she didn't understand at all at first. We grew up together, no culture clash or anything, but for me to her fourteen years wasn't enough."

"If that's how long you've held to this dream..." the bartender said hesitantly, "if it's that important to you... should you be giving up on it now?"

"What else can I do?" Mousse lamented. "I've done everything I can for her. I've fought for her, I've bent over backward for her, I've done everything I've ever been able to think of doing. Except defeat Ranma 'Charmed Life' Saotome." He gave a bitter, hacking laugh. "Even that I almost managed a couple of times. But he always squeaked by, usually because of something he got from Shampoo herself."

"And for something as weak as that she thinks he's a better man than you?" The bartender seemed to have real trouble getting the words out, which Mousse thought was a nice bit of sympathy. "Because, er, because he had more advantages than you did? Doesn't sound too admirable of her to me. Maybe you should tell her that."

"She'd never listen, or at least not care," Mousse said, his voice hollow and his eyes closed. "All she cares about is that he's strong and pretty and wins all his fights, no matter how dirty he has to play to do it."

"Well if it doesn't bother her when he plays dirty, shouldn't that mean you can afford to go farther too? If that's even possible, I mean."

Those last few words were growled so softly that Mousse didn't pay them much attention. "I've gone as far as I can," he said, the words tinged with despair. "It hasn't done any good. It just meant they both push back harder, throwing it more and more in my face that she loves him. Him, and not me. And I... I can't take it any more. Can't take how much it hurts to keep on hoping and telling myself there's a chance, even though she says... Even though she's said she doesn't want me. Over and over again."

"Look, you need to understand. People can change. Sometimes they change right under your nose, when you're too blind to see it happening. And if you want something, you have to fight for it! You can't just sit around, hoping it will fall into your lap!"

"There is something I'd like right now," Mousse said, his voice becoming edged with frost. He slammed down the last of his Rum and Coke, then said, "Another drink. And a little more sympathy, and less advice."

"Coming right up," the bartender said, his voice lower and more growl-like than ever.

Even with his eyesight, Mousse noticed that the bartender was apparently ignoring other customers to serve this drink as quickly as possible. It must be the man's idea of an apology. Accepting the glass with a nod and the barest hint of a bleak smile, he took a sip... and promptly spewed it straight into the man's broad gut.

"What was that for?!" the bartender exclaimed, his voice once more the indignant baritone that had slipped out during the Coca-Cola confusion.

"Damn it, I said no tequila!" Mousse choked out.

"Tequila?! Do you see a worm in this bottle?" the man demanded, holding it an inch from Mousse's nose. "Well, do you?!"

At this distance, he was able to focus clearly enough to see that no, there was no worm in the bottle... and yes, the label clearly said 'Tequila' anyway. Mousse pointed this out, his words cold, clipped, and pointed.

"Ah... heh heh... I would say drinks are on the house, but you already knew that," the man said, righteous indignation fully subsumed now by nervous apology. "Sorry about that. I'm impressed you can pick out the drink so easily by its taste."

" It only takes one time swallowing the worm to scar you for life, " Mousse muttered in his own tongue. Returning to Japanese, he said, "Well, when one sense isn't so great," he tapped his glasses meaningfully, "the rest get stronger to make up for it."

"You ought to tell yours to kick into higher gear, then," grumbled a man several seats farther down the bar. He was one of those who'd been waiting on a refill while the bartender focused so much attention on this one customer, and had frankly reached his limit. "You haven't realized yet that that's Genma Saotome in black shoe-polish and a wig."

With a cry of "Urk!" the man across from him stiffened like a stone, which gave Mousse all the opportunity he needed. After recovering from his own moment of shocked stillness, the half-blind boy grabbed the glass of tequila and threw it into his genial host's face. Sure enough, the liquid carried away the dark hues that had stained the man's skin, except for the area around his eyes which had been shielded by his glasses. One corner of Mousse's mind noted the amusing similarity to a panda's mask, and had a brief chuckle. Another realized that whatever Genma had actually used, it had come off too easily to be simple shoe polish.

The remaining 99.8 percent of his psyche found a rather different focus. "H- how dare you!" Mousse spat. "I expect this kind of stuff from your son, Saotome. Couldn't you just leave tormenting me to him?!"

"Tormenting you?" Genma growled. There was a note in his voice that Mousse had never heard from the older man before... but as the Chinese boy didn't pay enough attention to voices, he didn't notice. "By giving you free drinks? By telling you not to give up on your dreams? By defeating the martial artist who just bought this place, so that he'd let me play this little charade? You ought to be grateful!"

"G-grateful?! For the tequila?!" Mousse shot back.

"That wasn't my fault," Genma blustered. "There was no worm in that bottle. That's like the gold standard trademark of tequila. They shouldn't make it without that."

"I beg to differ," Mousse spat, his fingers twitching to launch an attack at the fat fool. "And my dreams... telling me to keep on dreaming them... I didn't come here to have some scumbag manipulate me into hurting myself even more! I wanted to talk about my problems, not have them get even worse!"

"How is it a problem, if you say losing Shampoo is killing you inside, and I tell you you shouldn't give up on her yet?"

"She's already gone!" Mousse yelled back at him. "I'm not losing her, I'm just trying... trying to swallow the truth that I never had her in the first place! And I damn well don't need some honorless bastard pretending to listen and give good advice, when he's just trying to get something for himself!"

"I'm making allowances for you, boy, but I advise you not to push it." The note from before was back in Genma's voice, stronger than ever. "I was listening to you, and I think it was great advice. I want to see you pull off an upset win and ride off into the sunset with Shampoo. What the hell difference does it make in that picture, if I'm more worried about my son than you?"

"You're right, I'm sorry, I should have realized that this time it was the stupidity talking, not the honorlessness."

A dim battle aura flickered to life around Genma. He choked it back with difficulty. "If you don't think there's any hope, then why are you still here?" he grated out. "Shouldn't you have taken yourself," 'and your own damn stupidity and honorlessness,' "back to China for good already?"

"Probably," Mousse said bitterly. "But I'm not going yet. Shampoo may not want me, but that doesn't mean she doesn't need me. If I can watch out for her, protect her, give her what help I can... that makes it worth it, how much it hurts to stay here so I can keep an eye on her and your damnable son."

"If you insult my boy one more time, you're not walking out of here under your own power," Genma said, his voice as ominous as the quiet before a storm. "I stood there and swallowed all that garbage you spewed earlier, and I'm beginning to think that was a mistake. I knew you were blind in more ways than one, but I never quite realized how far it went."

"Pfaugh!" Mousse spat. The insult against his vision almost didn't sting at all, compared to all the other hurts he'd endured. "For your information, when I use an Instant Falcon powder I can see perfectly. It's just the story of my life, I guess, that the only way to do that is with a Jusenkyo curse... the same curse that my beloved Shampoo bears... and that she gave that scumsucking Ranma... and that her ghoul of a grandmother said I can't have for real unless I go somewhere else and abandon Shampoo... and... and..." So much for thoughts of his visual impairment not hurting, Mousse thought bitterly.

"It's not an insult if it's the truth, Mr. Panda," he said, pushing that particular turmoil aside. This wasn't about him; it was about Shampoo and Ranma. "If this had all happened six months ago, there's no way in hell your precious son wouldn't have broken Shampoo's heart. The one and only hope I've got that he won't do that now, is that the old mummy has had enough time to beat him into submission. Without something like that, he'd just use her to get what he wanted, and throw her away when he was done."

Genma's fists clenched. His pulse raced. The blood thundered in his ears, seeming to carry with it whispers of past encounters with his son—times when he'd pushed matters of honor onto Ranma, knowing that his son would deal with them... times when the boy had fought with all he had, not just for Akane but for whatever girl needed rescuing or protecting... a time not long ago at all, when he and his son had sat down in a different bar and Ranma had told him that he wouldn't marry any girl until he knew he was ready for it, knew he wouldn't end up hurting her by his decision...

It took several seconds for him to find his voice, and when he did it was nearly choked with fury. "Part of the plan to work with you was to keep you from trying any more of your damned backstabbing against my boy," he ground out. "But I think maybe there's a better way to achieve that."

And then he moved. His hands were merely a blur as he grabbed up the abandoned tequila bottle, smashed away the bottle's neck with a knife-edge strike, and threw the remaining drink into Mousse's face.

Most of the patrons made a quick and speedy exit. The few hardy souls that remained were very surprised; Mousse didn't move at all for several moments. When he did, it was just to pull a succession of handkerchiefs from his sleeve and use them to wipe his face and glasses. "You know, Mr. Saotome, I probably should thank you," he said conversationally.

Genma blinked, anger and battle-readiness ebbing, replaced by a flood tide of puzzlement. "Eh? Thank me?"

"Of course." Mousse nodded earnestly. "Your advice sucked and so did your service, but you're at least going to help me burn off some stress." Only then did he launch his first attack, a padded weight on the end of a chain smacking directly into Genma's chest and sending him skidding backward.

With superhuman effort the elder Saotome recovered nearly instantly, stopping himself before he could impact with the wall that held the liquor bottles. 'Never thought I'd be grateful for that part of the Master's training,' he thought grimly. Happosai had made his disciples steal food and drink for him more times than either Soun or Genma could count, but they could count the number of times those thefts hadn't involved running from an angry mob. In fact, they could count those times on the fingers of one foot. Those chase scenes had always been made worse by knowing just how painfully Happosai would express his displeasure if either of them broke a single bottle of sake.

Well, the Master wasn't around to carp about wasted booze now, and his agreement with the guy who owned this place was slanted far into Genma's favor. "Take this! Bar Battle Bottle Barrage!" Genma shouted, grabbing and flinging a dozen varieties of alcohol at Mousse.

The Chinese boy was darting backwards even as Genma reached for the ammunition. He winced at the elder Saotome's improvised attack name, but that wasn't enough to distract him from his defense. He'd already dropped the chain that had launched his first attack, and now he pulled out another, one with a medium steel weight at the end rather than the bulky padded affair that had struck Genma. Mousse produced just enough of the chain that he could spin it in a wide circle in front of him, shielding himself from the incoming rain of missiles.

The tactic kept any of the glass from hitting him, even after the bottles shattered against his shield. Unfortunately, Mousse hadn't quite thought the matter all the way through, and ended up soaked in fifty thousand yen's worth of alcohol. "D- dammit," he sputtered. "The tequila was bad enough! I don't need someone as incompetent as you trying to teach me the sake-ken!"

Genma's face twisted. "Saotome clan special attack! GREAT FIREBALL!"

"NOOOO!!" Mousse screamed, sarcasm and composure gone in an instant... which was about how long he'd last in his current state, if so much as a spark landed on him. The door was too far off and there were too many tables in the way. Instead, Mousse spun and charged for the window. No time even to launch a spread of chains in front of him to break the glass ahead of time; he'd have to do a midair somersaulting twist while shielding his face with his sleeves, to keep the shattering glass from cutting him!


Or the glass could turn out to be shatterproof. That would work too, Mousse thought woozily.

The sound of Genma's incredibly obnoxious laughter shoved him back toward clear-headedness. "Now who's incompetent, boy?" the Saotome Master taunted. "Although I admit I made a mistake of my own just now, miscalling my attack like that." Genma waited just that extra second that made the follow-up even more annoying, then said, "It should have been, Saotome clan special attack: Fake Out!"

"Die!" Mouse yelled, eschewing witty banter. Thirty-odd chains shot toward Genma, carrying a variety of piercing, bludgeoning, and slashing implements.

The elder Saotome merely dropped behind the long bar, allowing it to shield him. This was perhaps the second highest quality bar in Nerima (hence the shatterproof window), and the wood of the fixture shrugged off Mousse's offensive with little more than knicks, dents, and scratches.

Of course, there were chains that had been aimed too high to be stopped by the bar; if that weren't true, Genma wouldn't even have needed to duck. Those chains and their implements of pain continued unimpeded to strike the back wall, shattering numerous bottles in the process. An instant later Mousse pulled back on the chains, jerking just hard enough to free the ones stuck in the wall. The move sent them dropping to tangle around the bulky shape of Genma Saotome, which he could still sense cowering there.

He sensed it, too, an instant later, when the chain-tangled bulky shape melted away like a sandcastle under a storm.

"Saotome special attack: Cheap Shot!" The words and the blow came out of nowhere, a fist in his back sending Mousse rocketing away to smash into a table. Genma winced. 'I have got to come up with a better name for it than that. Maybe White Snake Reliable Fist or something.'

"W- what the hell?!" Mousse exclaimed, picking himself up and turning to face his adversary.

"You may call yourself the Master of Hidden Weapons, boy, but that doesn't mean you can stand up to a real Master," Genma proclaimed grandiosely.

"Just try that again!" Mousse yelled, focusing as carefully on the slippery Saotome as he could. ' Wait a minute... his hands are still black, his robes are still black, and he's still got that ridiculous wig... but his whole face is clean. When did he wipe off the black circles that were left under his glasses? '

Instinct saved him, instinct and years of experience with not trusting his eyes. Mousse dived to one side, launching a single thrown dagger at the form of Genma Saotome. It shimmered and dispersed even as another Genma, this one still wearing the mark of the panda, slammed through the empty air Mousse had so recently vacated. Genma growled, and darted to the side as fast as he could, getting out of Mousse's field of vision while the Chinese boy was still off-balance. There was only a second while Genma was completely out of view... but by the time Mousse located him again, the only Genma Saotome to be seen was the one with the wholly-clean face.

"Nice try, but I know it's not you," Mousse seethed, keeping one eye on the image anyway while trying to locate the real Genma. At the same time, he was attempting to run down a nagging feeling of familiarity. Something about the elder Saotome's trick was tickling the back of his mind, but this was no time to devote too much attention to the problem.

"And what makes you say that?"

The words were clear enough, and the figure's lips had moved during the speech, but it felt to Mousse as if the sounds had originated from some point further away. "Ha. As if I'd tell you!" he shot back, trying to make it look like he was completely focused on the visible Genma.

"It's the face, Saotome," called one of the four remaining bystanders. "Yeah, that drink washed off the black stuff, but it didn't get the part that was under your glasses."

"Shut up!" Mousse yelled, forgetting Genma entirely as he whirled to face the speaker. "Stay out of this!"

"Hey, I helped you earlier by pointing out that it was Genma in the first place. I'm just evening the score." Plus, with Genma having abandoned his pose as bartender, the man had been able to snag five bottles of high-quality liquor for himself at no charge.

"An opening!" Mousse spun frantically back around to see Genma running toward him, still clean-faced. Another thrown knife made this image, too, vanish as if it had never been. Almost as quickly another Genma appeared a little to one side, closer to him and charging forward—and this one's face was still black as soot under his glasses.

Mousse was still scrambling to recover from his last attack. He found himself wishing he'd thrown the knife blind, rather than (just in case) taking the time to aim the strike at a nonvital area. There was no time at all for such niceties of targetting now. It was all he could do to pull off a Fist of the White Swan at the very last second.

He'd been ready for the elder Saotome to block the move. He'd been ready, willing, and eager for it to catch Genma off guard and knock the stuffing out of him. He certainly had not been ready for the strike to once again cause the image of Genma to vanish after the briefest instant of resistance.

The pool cue smashing into him from behind sent Mousse staggering forward once more. However, the blow had fallen in the middle of his back, the very place where Genma had landed his earlier cheap shot... and after the second, failed attack Mousse had used one of his own new tricks, materializing a wide patch of interlocked chains there under his robes. Because of this, he took much less damage from the blow than Genma had intended.

'Knew I should have gone for a head shot. I'm too soft-hearted for my own good,' Genma thought, cloaking himself once more in his Now You See Me, Now You Don't—Saotome Style technique.

"Stop it with the cheap tricks already!" Mousse demanded. "Face me like a man!!"

Whereas his son might have been at least a little sore at the insult, Genma just gaped for a moment. He wasn't stunned enough to loosen his hold on the technique, though. "You're complaining to me about fighting with tricks?"

"Shut up and die!" Mousse began flinging projectiles with wild abandon, spraying the entire bar with them. In deference to three out of the four remaining spectators, he limited his assault to harmless bean-bags. As soon as one of those bounced off apparently empty air, he'd follow up with something a bit more pointed...

Unfortunately for the Chinese boy, Genma managed to take cover behind a pool table before the trick could reveal him.

Unfortunately for Genma, Mousse concluded that his foe must have done something like that. He lobbed a few extra missiles into the mix and screwed his eyes shut.

The flash bombs went off all at once. The ones Mousse had dropped behind the bar accomplished nothing, as did most of the ones behind the pool tables. But the one three inches from Genma blinded him as nicely as Mousse could have hoped.

The yelp from behind the table drew his attention. With that as his cue and his eyes open once more, Mousse was able to make out the black-clad shape that was Genma's crouching form, just visible through the gap underneath the table. With a yell of his own, Mousse darted forward and upward, landing on the table and throwing down a spray of thinly-padded chained weights.

However, his approach proved to be a tactical error. Had he just run around the table to launch his attack, the fight might have ended then and there. As it was, Genma took the hits, but Mousse wasn't able to tangle him in the chains as he'd intended. The still-blinded Saotome had shifted his pose in the instant he felt Mousse land on the table, bracing himself as he straightened up from the ninety-degree angle bend that had kept his Afro below table level. In the next instant Genma surged to his feet, toppling the table and sending Mousse flying even as the chains pounded into him. Both fighters came out of the exchange with a few painful bruises, but nothing worse.

"Not bad, Mousse," Genma rumbled, his vision clearing. "If you always fought like that, I wouldn't have a problem with you challenging my boy." He gave a theatrical sigh. "But since I can't trust you not to go for his throat, I'm still going to have to crush you. Just like a good father should."

"I wouldn't push it if I were you, Saotome," Mousse warned. Despite the tone of his words he was moving away from the Anything Goes fighter, rather than toward him. "I'm trying not to blame you for everything Ranma's done, because if anyone tried to pin the mistakes I've made on my mother I'd bury them. But there's a big difference between Ranma and me, so you need to back off... or just shut up entirely! HYYAAAH!" And with that, he launched another volley of missiles, to the naked eye identical to the bean bags from before.

Genma learned the difference the hard way. As the first bag left Mousse's grasp each of his hands was fastening around a pool cue. By the time the missiles drew near, Genma's defense was ready. Swinging the cues like oversized jo sticks, he smashed each and every bag out of the air, trying to angle them back toward Mousse. Not until he'd dealt with the last bag did his focus clear enough to realize something important: each one he'd hit had ripped wide open and dropped a payload of ball bearings onto the ground. The space between himself and his opponent was now as treacherous as oil over ice.

"What's the matter, Saotome? Aren't you going to charge in for another sneak attack?" Mousse gloated.

For a moment Genma tensed, preparing for a floor-to-wall-to-ceiling-to-target triangle jump. Then, with difficulty, he pushed the temptation aside. It would be much more satisfying to beat this upstart at his own game... and the fights he'd witnessed between Akane and the heir of Good Old Days Martial Arts should give him just the trick he needed. Instead, he moved over to the nearest upright pool table, being careful to slide his feet along the floor in case of errant bb's. "I don't think so," he answered, reaching out and taking hold of the eight ball, then tossing it into the air. "The action's been fast and furious so far." The cue ball joined its black brother, the two orbs spinning in a circle maintained by Genma's free hand. "I could use a few minutes' break from the action. Maybe a little juggling to lighten the mood." Another ball joined the action, and then another, and now Genma needed both hands to support the four spinning, flashing spheres.

He noted Mousse's silence with grim satisfaction. The Chinese boy was staring at the whirl of the balls, his attention fully focused. The same thing was true of every spectator, although Genma didn't spare more than a glimpse to confirm this. Most of his attention was fixated on the pattern of the balls as he shifted them from air to hand to hand to air. Do it right, and when he finally launched them...

"Saotome Anything Goes Special Attack! Billiard Ball Blitzkrieg!"

The spectators gasped in disbelief, as the four balls that Genma had thrown seemingly transformed into an endless stream of flying faux-ivory. The swarm of balls shot across the space between the two combatants, to all appearances enough to bury Mousse alive, let alone defeat him.

And then they gaped all the wider. Mousse sprouted long metal talons from each hand, swung each weapon once, twice—and just that easily, the illusion was shattered. The image of a thousand flying spheres vanished, replaced by three balls deflected onto the floor, and a fourth flying back to nearly smack Genma in the forehead. Only a last-second duck saved him, the ball vanishing into the depths of his Afro.

Mousse ignored the impression that the ball hadn't exited out the other side. "What was that supposed to be? Did you seriously think I couldn't deal with four measly balls thrown at me?"

Genma groaned, then smacked himself upside the head. "Right," he muttered. "Poor vision would screw that up, wouldn't it?" Akane had realized the trick almost too late in her second fight with the Good Old Days heir, had nearly been caught by the technique a second time because she stood there and watched enough of the setup to be partially affected by the illusion. Still, that was a less embarrassing blunder than he'd just made.

"Tell you what," Mousse seethed. "You stop making fun of my damn glasses, and I won't mention your hair, or your belly, or your freeloading, or your excuse for a son, or the fact that you've never... accomplished... anything..." His voice trailed off as he caught sight of the battle aura burning around Genma. Even without his glasses, this one would have been visible. Not a good sign, Mousse recognized.

"You want serious, you little brat?" Genma said quietly. "You want real? You want me to think back to what it felt like, watching that last fight between you and my boy, watching him try to talk to you while you did your damned best to kill him?" His voice had steadily mounted in power and anger over the last sentence, and it was with a shout that he continued, "Fine! This time, for real!"

In the blink of an eye, two massive pandas peeled themselves off Genma, one to the right and one to the left, and charged toward Mousse in a pincer attack. Two more duplicates, these of his human form, vaulted backward behind other pool tables and began grabbing and throwing balls, half of them flung straight at Mousse, the rest tossed lightly onto the table sheltering Genma. The Saotome Master grabbed those as quickly as they came, firing them toward the Hidden Weapons fighter with all the speed, force, and precision he could manage—which was significantly greater than the throws of the aura-Genmas.

Undoubtedly there was something in Mousse's bag of tricks that could have handled an assault like this. But he would have needed a lot more time, warning, and cool-headedness to find it.

He deflected the true Genma's first five missiles. Then the clones' attacks were raining in as well, and he couldn't stop everything; in trying, he left himself open for several full-power shots to land. Realizing through the haze of pain that pure defense wasn't feasible, he dropped what was left of his guard, his arms coming up and forward to launch every last chain he could manage.

As the pandas reached him just then, that turned out to be zero.

The chi-pandas were only semisolid—hence their lack of difficulty with the ball bearings—but in a way that was even worse. They still hit with devastating force, and then they shattered and washed over him, knocking him flat. Genma had fueled this attack with every negative emotion the last three months had ever provoked in him, and in a spiritual sense, it was like Mousse was buried under a flood of burning bile. He very nearly lost control of the chi warp that hid his massive stores of weapons and equipment and whatnot, and burned a terrible portion of his remaining strength reestablishing his hold over it before it could destabilize all at once. It was damned impressive, Mousse thought bitterly, since under normal circumstances he could be knocked unconscious without so much as a twinge in the stability of the warp.

The Chinese boy could hear Genma's harsh panting from the other side of the room. ' At least it took a lot out of him, to pull off something like that. ' Not much consolation, since the attack had most definitely ended the fight, but it was all Mousse could find.

"Go home, boy," Genma said, his breathing now under control. His tone was quiet, even sad, but at the same time as firm as steel. "You've outstayed your welcome in this town. It was a mistake to try and work with you, even if I was mainly trying to look out for my son and figure out how deep his feelings for Shampoo really are. It was a mistake, and I'm fixing it now."

"Splitting Cat Hairs."

Genma blinked. "What?"

"That's what I was trying to think of. What your attack reminded me of. What it basically was, at least at the end. The Splitting Cat Hairs technique."

The Saotome Master scratched at his head, willing for the moment to swallow the diversion. From the difficulty with which Mousse was pulling himself to his feet, the teen wasn't trying to buy time to recover for one last attack. Even if he was, Mousse certainly didn't have enough left for an attack that would threaten Genma. He'd burned a lot of his own strength just then, but he still had enough left to finish this if it needed to be finished. "Why does that matter?" he asked.

"What did I say, earlier? About what my only hope was that... that Ranma wouldn't end up breaking Shampoo's heart?"

Genma frowned. "I don't remember exactly, just that it was stupid and pointless, an insult to a better man than y—" He paused, sighed, and said, "Than either of us."

Mousse knew just as well as Genma that the older man had enough fight left to take him the rest of the way down. Consequently, he swallowed the retort that came to mind. It didn't matter anyway, he reminded himself. "I said that the only chance was if Cologne's had enough time to work on him, to get him around to her way of thinking."

"Actually you said 'beat him into submission'," Genma remembered.

"That was just wishful thinking. She doesn't need to use such crude methods as that, to get people moving the way she wants." Squinting, Mousse did his best to read Genma's expression and body language. As he'd expected, the man showed little confidence in what he was hearing. "Just look at you, Mr. Saotome! Look at how you won our fight just now! You showed me better than I could possibly have expected. It's not just Ranma, it's his whole family! The old mummy's got all of you right where she wants you!"

"Let me see if I've got this straight," Genma said after a long, long pause. "Because I beat you with a variation of the Splitting Cat Hairs, which is an Amazon technique, you're confident that everything is going just exactly the way Cologne wants. That she's moved us around to where she wants us, like pieces on a shogi board. You think that's proof enough that Ranma won't be allowed to mistreat Shampoo."

"No," Mousse said. "I know it's enough."

Genma's pause was even longer this time, long enough for Mousse to give him a long, studying look, open his mouth as if to say something else, decide he didn't want to carry the conversation any further, turn, and head for the door. ' There's no need to drag this out any more, ' he thought. 'I've said my piece, not to mention lost another damn fight to a Saotome. I just want out of here. '

For his part, Genma was pondering what Mousse had said, plus other thoughts that had been sparked by it. He hadn't taken long to consider and dismiss the idea Mousse had been so certain of. 'It probably makes the boy feel better, if he can say losing Shampoo was inevitable because Cologne can't be beaten,' he thought, wincing as he substituted Happosai for the Matriarch and recalled various parallels from his own life. 'And I suppose it's a short trip from seeing her awesome combat skills to thinking she's unstoppable at every turn.' That, at least, was one place where Genma hadn't preceded in Mousse's footsteps; Cologne was respectable in more than just the battlefield, but Happosai was a far cry from it. No, the old woman might have a plan, and it might be a damn good one... but they weren't all just puppets dancing to her tune.

'I know the boy has trouble seeing things clearly, jumps to wrong conclusions and holds tightly to them, but even with his track record...' Genma sighed. 'It's sad. Splitting Cat Hairs is a legendary technique, known about in at least one place that had never heard of the Amazons. I worked my butt off to be able to do what I can now, and it certainly wasn't because Cologne goaded me into it or helped me. It was just Anything Goes at its finest, taking the best of what you find and making it your own...'

Something about that thought seemed to spark a deeper, more important idea. Genma reached out for it, grasping at the fluidly elusive thought, losing it to distraction as he noticed Mousse trudging out of the bar. He did nothing to stop him. Anything Goes was also about not revealing stuff you didn't need to reveal, and he couldn't see one good reason to shake the boy out of his illusions. After all, they were enough to convince Mousse that he didn't need to fight Ranma anymore, and after today Genma was convinced that was a good thing. Whatever happened from here on, however things went between his son and the boy's Amazon fiancée, better if Mousse just stayed out of it entirely.

The thought of Ranma and Shampoo triggered the emergence of the idea he'd earlier grasped at in vain. Genma sucked in a breath as it hit him all at once. "Anything Goes," he muttered, too stirred to limit himself to silent thought. "It is all about taking the best things for yourself, out of whatever comes your way. And... and even if it doesn't seem to me like Shampoo herself qualifies... doesn't that have to be Ranma's choice in the end? Don't I have to trust him for that?"

He stood there for a few moments more, swiftly recognizing that this wasn't something to be decided quickly or easily. A jump put him back behind the bar, several careful grabs stored as many bottles of high-quality booze in his Afro as he could manage, and then Genma headed out the door to find a quiet spot, finally take off the ridiculous-but-useful wig, and do some serious thinking.


Author's notes

I'm sorry for how long this took. You've all heard the 'real life got in the way' song and dance before, so I won't repeat that age-old chorus. Additionally, I've been writing this story for years now, with only the slightest of breaks to pump out a couple of quick one-shots while I basically just let all my other ideas slide. That's beginning to wear me down, I think. I'm not abandoning this story or even putting it on hiatus, but from now on I'm not devoting one hundred percent of my creative energy to it. If any of you are familiar with the anime Rozen Maiden, you might be interested to know that a continuation fic for that series will shortly be making its appearance here.

For those of you who missed his episode, Chingensai was a tiny old Ninja Grandmaster encountered by Genma and Soun during the original series. They were impressed by his Now You See Me, Now You Don't 'invisibility' technique and slaved away in training under him to learn it. What they were eventually taught was tricks to use the environment to hide yourself, which they attempted to use against Happosai (Genma hiding behind a canvas backdrop painted to look just like the surrounding area, Soun tunneling through the ground with a hand trowel). Neither of these attempts impressed the Demon Master at all, who whipped out his own invisibility technique—the Happo Dimensional Warp. As he explains it, the move functions by synchronizing your aura to the environment around you in such a way as to become indistinguishable from said environment.

It's also revealed that Happosai and Chingensai are old training buddies. As you can see, in this story I took the liberty of saying that Happosai developed his Dimensional Warp from Chingensai's original technique—though since one manipulates the environment to hide you whereas the other manipulates yourself to fit the environment, I think the name change was certainly justified. I also think it's safe to assume that Chingensai's ability to hide by manipulating the environment might be just a little more impressive than what was demonstrated by Soun and Genma... Regardless, though, Genma really shouldn't be using 'Now You See Me, Now You Don't' to refer to his revision, as it is ultimately a modification of Happosai's method of concealment.

Speaking of Genma and his techniques, readers familiar with the manga might have noticed a reference to Genma 'developing' a technique that he already does have in that source material. The White Snake Reliable Fist is one of the Umisenken techniques, from what I understand. But in the anime the Umisenken and Yamasenken don't exist, so it's fair game (and funny too, at least to me) to show Genma actually sort of in the process of developing the Umisenken. Don't expect too much more on that front, though... this piece focused so heavily on Genma in part because he isn't scheduled to get much screen time in the remaining pieces of the story.

It should be reasonably clear to the readers whether Mousse is right or wrong, in the assumption he makes at the end of the last scene. If not, it will definitely be obvious after chapter 10. The real issue that the readers should ponder is not whether he was right, but what it says about him that on at least some level he now wants to believe Ranma won't end up hurting Shampoo. I would have liked to raise that question within the context of the story rather than spelling it out here, but it felt a little too insightful for Genma Saotome (even this 'new and improved' Genma).

Thanks to NemesisZero and Ed Simons for prereading. Thanks also to Ed for permission to refer to his character Keiki Oishii, the heir to the school of Martial Arts Baking. A couple of ideas for the 'Ranma and Genma in the bar' scene were inspired by NemoBlank's story Lord of Chaos. To anyone who was disappointed that this piece of the story had only one scene involving Ranma, and that one with him only interacting with his father rather than certain other cast members—that's why it was a side story, not chapter 10.