Fragile Clay - Volume 1
Disclaimer: For those concerned.... yadda yadda yadda.... characters are property of Rumiko Takahashi.... yadda yadda yadda.... Blah blah, yakity shmakity. You get the idea. Any weirdo's I attempt to introduce are property of my own genre of insanity, so don't steal em', Kay?

*Author's Note: Okay, this was a brainer for me. I had to get "AWAY" from Venus Connection, I had been recently revising the story, and although I was not finished, I felt I needed a break from the Story-line. I will not bring in more than one new character... if even that. This story concentrates on the Understated, Unappreciated, Fabulously Nice, but forgotten characters. Yup, it's a Ranma/Hiroshi/Daisuke story. Actually, more a Ranma/Hiroshi story. I've always felt that Her "Lordship of Ranma 1/2: The Irrepressible Rumiko" had done these two an injustice (Moreso towards Hiroshi). She left them superficial, the cannon fodder of the Ranmaverse. They were "The Guys" and that's it... don'tcha feel just a little peeved? I mean, these are practically Ranma's best friends. Oh well, Here's to you, Hiroshi!

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Ranma 1/2

Fragile Clay

A story Written by Story-Weaver

(Fragile Clay, the Poem-by Marcus Phillips)


Rise, awaken from bitter ashes,

Thrust upon this mortal coil,

Up in heaven, Icarus crashes,

Into cruel besotten soil.

Formless mass... Eternal still...

Wating for a dreamer's touch.

Spoiled soul by Pandora's ill,

Wishing that it were not such.

Path is hammered, tooth and nail,

Might we yet change the course ordained?

Shape takes form, of beauty pale,

A fae's cruel touch, in matter's plain.

Form is tainted, folded wrong,

Changing shape from Angel's tears.

Voice confused at misplaced song,

Love misplaced, confirming fears.

Strove towards light, and found an errant,

Showed the road, yet it is long.

Angel's voice shows his Love apparent,

Could it be, line chosen wrong?

A man... yet so defined is odd,

To chose a path between two fates,

Could this yet be an act of God?

Has this path been chosen... Late?


Icy raindrops fell from the clouded sky, soaking the streets of Nerima with the tears of angels. Never had been a more peaceful night... never more serene and lovely. The rain spattered on the stone road, the gentle trickling of what seemed like silver touched every ear as the soft water droplets landed on each rooftop.

A yell broke through the calm, and then the smash of a mighty hammer striking stone. Two young girls ran down the street from the Tendo Dojo, one a beautiful red haired blossom of a woman dressed in Chinese slacks and a red vest, the other garbed in a sky-blue dress with shortcropped black hair. It was the latter which wielded the hammer, flailing it angrily at the young red-head.

"RANMA NO BAAAKAAAA!" Akane yelled as she chased after Ranma-chan. Ranma was keeping barely out of reach. Ranma dodged and leaped, desperately avoiding the huge mallet her iinazuke swung. Akane whispered a prayer that something slow her fiancee down so she might righteously whack him one.

Ranma ran through a puddle... and slipped, straining to catch her balance, she stopped running. Akane's hammer connected with the red-haired girl's head, throwing her into the stone wall. Akane "Hmphed" satisfied, and walked back towards the Dojo with a smile on her face.

Suddenly, a man's shout rang through the night. It was a familiar voice to Ranma, and if everything would stop spinning she would bunt her enemy into the atmosphere.

"RANMAAAA! PREPARE TO DIE!" Ryouga ran at Ranma, as she peeled herself off the wall. Ryouga punched eight times, each time missing Ranma by a hair. Ryouga was strong, Ranma knew not to let the Lost Boy touch her... and Ranma was fast as a girl, which began to get on Ryouga's nerves as she dodged all his strikes.

Ranma's vision cleared, and she looked at Ryouga, trying to control her laughter. Ryouga had an insane color of blue for hair, obviously a side effect from Shampoo's 'Cure'. Unfortunately, Ranma couldn't hold her mirth in.

The girl pointed as Ryouga paused, "Ry..Ha... BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Ryouga's face turned a bright shade of red.

Ryouga was angry with Ranma, moreso since Ranma said she didn't want Shampoo's 'Cure' and had offered it to him, the effect was not what he had hoped, he had been cured for only a day, then his hair changed color.

All the problems in his life were Ranma's fault, and now this embarrassing situation to top it all off.

"This is all your fault Ranma! Once again you've humiliated me! We finish this, Ranma! NOW!" Ryouga kicked at Ranma, catching her lightly in the stomach, and causing her to stop laughing.

Ranma took a defensive stance, ready for battle, "Gimme a break, Ryouga! It's not like I TOLD you to put yourself in Shampoo's 'Cure'... I knew it wouldn't work, Why the heck did you chance it? Hehe.... I was wondering why you were wearing that hat at Dinner..." Ranma dodged several more kicks, two low and one high... Ryouga held his umbrella like a lifeline, opened and protecting him from the change brought on by the cool Nerima rain.

Ranma had always wondered how the hell he could lift the thing, it was heavier than lead.

"All the pain I've had to endure... all the suffering I've had to overcome... is all-you're- FAULT! I tried the 'Cure' to get an upper hand! One day, Ranma, I'll make your life a living-BWEEEE!" Ryouga's ranting was cut short as Ranma kicked his umbrella out of his hand. Ryouga melted away into the small form of a blue piglet.

"Saying something, P-chan?" Ranma chuckled as Ryouga glared daggers from his little piggy eyes. Ranma laughed harder when she realized that P-Chan was blue.

"See you in a week, ya porker," Ranma muttered as she ran back to the dojo, laughing at Ryouga all the way.

Ryouga squealed and tried to follow. *Come back here-! Huhn? Which way did Ranma go? Geez... not again* Ryouga started in one direction... looking vainly for hot water.

========Back at the Dojo....

Nabiki sat, reading her balance books. She quickly scribbled something down on her notepad then looked over at her father and Mr. Saotome. They were busy playing Shogi, while Kasumi cleared the table.

"Hey Kasumi... could I bother you for a cup of tea?" Nabiki stopped her writing and looked up at her sister.

"Why, of course Nabiki! You need only ask," Kasumi always had a steady smile, and a cheery attitude. Sometimes it was contagious. Even after Ranma's usual bout with Akane's cooking, Nabiki felt slightly better. Kasumi walked back to the kitchen, carrying the dinner plates with the deadly food with her.

Nabiki growled as she thought of the repairs she would have to pay for. Ranma had run through the door this time, not bothering to open it to escape, and Akane had smashed several things in her mindless flailing.

Not to mention when Ryouga had confronted Ranma about Akane's cooking... again... and Ranma had booted Ryouga through the ceiling. Nabiki was beginning to get irritated... sure Ranma helped with the finances, with Nabiki always selling pictures to Kuno, but Nabiki was beginning to wonder if Ranma was _Destroying_ more than he _Contributed_ to the household.

Kasumi returned with a teacup, a saucer, and a kettle. She set these on the table, Nabiki mumbled a thank you to her sister as she went back to her writing and figuring. Kasumi obligingly smiled and replied, "Anytime, Nabiki! I'll be in the Kitchen if you, Father, or Mr. Saotome need anything!" Kasumi hustled back into the kitchen.

Nabiki wondered if anything could faze Kasumi... if nothing had with Ranma here, then nothing ever would. Everywhere Ranma went, utter chaos and insanity seemed to follow. Nabiki couldn't complain, she had made money from practically everything Ranma did.

It had just gotten to the point where _Nabiki_ was beginning to have trouble counting up the repairs. The _last_ hole in the ceiling hadn't been repaired since Ranma had booted Happosai out of her room.

*Speaking of Ranma...* Nabiki thought as she looked up at the soaked figure staring at the now absent door.

"Next time, use the knob," Nabiki was not happy, but she put on her best poker-face and tried to relax.

Ranma's face lit up as she saw the kettle, and she rushed over to the table, Nabiki lifted the kettle before Ranma could get to it. Ranma gave Nabiki a scowl.

"1,000 yen, Ranma," Nabiki smiled. Ranma glared.

"WHAT?! You gotta be KIDDIN' ME?!" Ranma tried snatching the Kettle from Nabiki, and became frustrated at the fact that she just couldn't seem to.

"All right, 1,500. Point one, this is my tea... Point two, never argue with me," Nabiki smiled as Ranma rummaged through her pockets with a grumble.

After a few moments of Counting, Ranma took the money out of her wallet and dropped it on Nabiki's notepad. Nabiki smiled and dropped the kettle.

Ranma hastily snatched it out of the air and poured it over her head. Ranma's form changed shape, growing taller, broader in the shoulders, his chest shrunk flat. Nabiki had always thought that the change was interesting... Ranma looked remarkably like Ranma-Chan, yet infinitely different. *Maybe I'll find out exactly what causes the change some day and market it...* Nabiki smiled at her own thought.

"One of these day's, Nabiki..." Ranma's masculine voice threatened.

"You'll be out of money. I know," Ranma scowled as Nabiki chuckled.

"Look Soun! The lawn is on fire!" Genma suddenly yelled, pointing out to the Koi pond in mock fear.

Soun jumped up and started running around screaming 'We're all going to die!' at the top of his lungs. Genma snatched several of the Shogi playing pieces and put them in his pocket.

Soun paused as he looked out at the pouring rain, "Hey! It's not on fire! It's soaking wet! Wh-wh-what?!" Soun stammered as he looked down at the board.

Genma smiled with his eyes closed, "Your Move, Tendo!" Soun, a bit flustered sat down and stared at the board.

Ranma shook his head, having watched the whole thing. "Another day at the wonderful Tendo Dojo, Goodnight Nabiki," Ranma began to walk upstairs.

"2,500 for the key to your room," Nabiki piped. Ranma gave Nabiki a startled look, and then an angry one.

"Or... you COULD sleep with Happosai. I'm sure Genma wouldn't mind more room to himself," Nabiki smiled as Ranma shambled over and dropped the money in her hand. She gave him the key, a wide grin on her face. He stared at her with sheer contempt.

"I hate you," Ranma muttered as he walked upstairs.

"I'm glad I've made an impression," Nabiki whispered under her breath. Nabiki crossed out her previous calculations and began again. *I guess tonight wasn't so bad after all...*

========To Ranma's room

Ranma stumbled into his room, falling on the futon. *Sheesh, getting beaten up by Akane can really make a man tired* Ranma thought to himself. *Jus' lucky I didn't get poisoned tonight, I would be up all night Dyin'...*

Ranma lay there for an hour, slowly drifting off to sleep when a soft voice snapped him back into the waking world. "Ranma?" Akane's voice always caused Ranma some discomfort... he wasn't sure how he felt about her, but he felt strongly.

"Are you okay?" Akane asked, a bit of unsurety in her voice.

"Yeah, I 'spose. It's not like I ate nothin'," Ranma always found himself saying his mind instead of just thinking it. It had always been a problem for him to control his mouth, it's not like he wanted to hurt Akane.

Akane fumed, her face changing from concern to a similar look Ranma had given Nabiki. She suddenly pulled out that hammer again. She began to emphasize her words...


Managing to dodge the last few blows. "If you WEREN'T such a kawaiikune TOMBOY I WOULD!" Something snapped in Akane, and she paused in her hammering.

Ranma winced, prepared for another attack, and unprepared for what would happen next.

The hammer dropped from Akane's nerveless fingers as she smiled. It wasn't the dropping hammer which unnerved Ranma as it thumped against the ground, but the strange sorrowful expression on Akane's face.

"Ranma. We are no longer engaged. I renounce it, and I wish I had never met you," Akane walked out of the room with a sad smile. Ranma stood in shocked disbelief.

"Akane?" Ranma muttered to himself, trying to fathom what had just happened... and failed.

"Akane!? Akane! I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! I'm sorry! Hit me some more!" Ranma cried as he tried to follow Akane, he found her door slammed in his face.

Ranma was aware of a figure standing behind him, so he looked over his shoulder, and saw Kasumi, "Oh my, Ranma, what happened?" Kasumi stood at her door in her PJ's, looking with concern at Ranma's haggard form.

"She... She renounced me... the fiancee thing...," Ranma looked at Kasumi a moment, then got an angry look on his face.

Kasumi walked over and put a hand on Ranma's shoulder, calming the boy a bit. Many people didn't understand the strange power Kasumi seemed to wield, but it sometimes seemed she could calm the world with her gentle voice and soft touch.

"Now Ranma, she's done this before, You know that! Just let her calm down, then everything will be fine," Kasumi's smile seemed to affect Ranma, and one appeared on his face after a moment. No matter how much Ranma tried, he would always smile when Kasumi did.

"(Sigh) I guess you're right, Kasumi... but I really didn't do anything this time... she just got this distant, calm look on her face," Ranma's smile disappeared with uncertainty as he recalled the shocked realization which seemed to play over Akane's face, then the anger seemed to melt to sorrow. It was as if she didn't like a choice which had been given to her.

"I'm sure she's just... thinking right now, Ranma. Don't you worry, everything will turn out all right, it always does!" Kasumi laughed a little then walked back to her room.

Ranma looked after her for a second, unsure why Kasumi could keep a cool head... especially after all that had happened since he had come to the dojo. His constant fights, the weirdos who always showed up, but most of all, His iinazukes.

Ranma looked back at Akane's door, knocking lightly.

"Go away, Ranma. I'm not talking to you," Akane's voice had a chillingly calm tone to it. Ranma walked back to his room, but couldn't shake the feeling that Akane was genuinely angry this time. Ranma's thoughts were eased by the sweet oblivion of a dreamless sleep.

* * * * * *

The next morning followed the norm, except that Akane said nothing at all to Ranma. Kasumi looked worriedly at her sister as she set the table, then replaced her worried expression with a smile.

Ranma saw Kasumi trying to speak with Akane before they left for school, and she seemed to be getting through to her for a minute. Ranma felt hope... which plummeted when Akane fell into silent, angry mode again.

Ranma hopped up onto the fence and began walking, looking over at Akane every few minutes.

"C'mon Akane... throw me in the water, hit me, call me a Baka, do SOMETHING!" Ranma pleaded, and Akane gave him a glare that would freeze the Bahamas.

Ranma flinched, and continued walking in silence.

*I don't get it... what'd I do wrong? It's not like I said anything that I hadn't said before. Why is she so angry?* The wind picked up a bit, softly blowing Ranma's hair in the wind, Akane seemed to be thinking to herself. Ranma stopped, and stared at her for a moment.

Akane stopped. She looked back at Ranma, turned around and approached the fence.

"Akane... Whatever I did, I'm sorry," Ranma sincerely meant it, Akane looked at him sadly for a moment, then anger flashed in her eyes and she pushed Ranma.

Ranma twirled his arms, trying to keep his balance, but eventually fell into the water on the other side of the fence.

Ranma-chan swam to the surface, looking up at Akane with a hurt expression. Akane flinched, then turned and walked away. Ranma-chan pulled herself out of the water and jumped down onto the sidewalk. Akane seemed a fair distance away, and Ranma was now angry herself. *Fine, sulk if you want! You ain't gettin' no more sympathy from me!* Ranma stayed a fair distance away from Akane, grumbling to herself about how stupid Akane was acting.

As usual, Kuno was standing at the doors to the school, Bokken in hand.

"Ahhh, the early morning dove of my heart. Akane Tendo, so we meet again... perhaps today will be the day we shall date. What is this? Hath the lecherous Saotome finally lifted his spell on you, and let you come here without aid of his misbegotten hand?" Akane glared up at Kuno, causing the Kendoist to flinch, right before the hammer connected with his head and sent him flying into the tree. Ranma watched this in amazement.

"Leave me alone, Kuno. I mean it this time," Akane pointed her hammer at Kuno as she said this, then walked into the school.

Ranma approached Kuno, looking down at the Kendoist. "I think Akane made a rather _Blunt_ point, Kuno. She seems pretty angry, I would do what she say's,"

Kuno looks up at Ranma, then jumps to his feet.

"Hath that wretched Saotome done something to turn her heart as black as his?! I shall search out the devil and right this wrong! But first... My Pig Tailed-Girl, Would you Date with-*SMACK!*" Kuno crumpled once more beneath the tree.

Ranma had thought that hitting Kuno would make her feel better. It didn't. Usually Kuno was an outlet for her own pent up frustrations, with the iinazukes and all. It was just the fact that the event's of the previous night had left some frustration Ranma couldn't get rid of.

Ranma looked down at Kuno and sighed, then she walked into the school after Akane.

Ranma caught up slightly and saw Akane already opening the door to Miss Tanaka's room. Ranma groaned at the thought of more Contemporary literature, but decided that it was best to suffer through dry text than stay home and let Chaos take it's course.

Miss Tanaka was surprised to see Ranma early for class, as well as Akane, and she blinked to make sure she was seeing correctly. The teacher mentioned something about, "There may be hope for you two yet! Since you both are so early to class, You may leave five minutes early!" Miss Tanaka added a very Kasumi-like smile to the end. Akane murmured something about "Staying the whole class," which Ranma barely made out.

He'd be damned if HE was gonna be saddled with extra time just because Akane was angry. Although she enjoyed Miss Tanaka's class, Ranma couldn't help but think Miss Tanaka was partially oblivious to the events around her. Ranma couldn't blame her, Ranma herself hadn't been in Nerima that long, but she wished she was _COMPLETELY_ oblivious to everything that went on. All in all, though, Tanaka was a fairly nice teacher.

"Thanks, Miss Tanaka. That'll gimme some time to change back," Ranma shot Akane an accusatory glance, and Miss Tanaka laughed uneasily, like she always did when Ranma mentioned the curse. *Oblivious...* Ranma thought to herself. Akane glared at Ranma for a moment before she sat down.

Ranma seated herself in the corner, as far away from Akane as possible. She threw her backpack on the ground and opened it up. Rummaging around, she got out a pencil and paper. She began scribbling on the paper, sketching things like Kunou with a hollow head, Nabiki devouring the world, Akane burning Ranma-chan with her dragon-breath and smashing her with a rather large hammer.

"Ohiyo, Bud!" Came a familiar voice. Ranma-chan looked up at Daisuke, a wide grin was displayed across her friend's face, she was forced to smile at her friend until she noticed a big bruise around his eye. The smile melted under a tint of rage.

"Daisuke! What the hell happened to your face?!" Ranma was genuinely shocked... Daisuke, to his memory, had never been in a fight before. True, he was fit because of various sports he "Suddenly" took a liking to, but he was far from violently competitive.

"Kuno and I got into an argument about Shakespeare, I told him it was a load of bull. I tell ya, I heard from somewhere that those stories are a bunch of hogwash, I bet old Will didn't even write them himself!" Daisuke chuckled at his own remark. Ranma had to smile again, even though it was a strained smile... Daisuke's laughter was intensely contagious.

"I take it you told Kuno what you thought?" Ranma looked again at her friends eye, a bit angry that Kuno would dare pick on a friend of his. Of course, Ranma had also dealt Daisuke a few blows, but none on such a degree. Just friendly punches in the arm or such. Ranma couldn't help but think Kuno was pressing his luck.

"Uhm... Yeah. He ranted and raved, like he usually does, and then- Pow! He socks me one right in the face. We got into a scuffle right then and there, I had to go have my arm fixed, Kuno almost crushed it!" Daisuke held his arm up, showing Ranma it was in a sling, as well as a cast. Several things were written on the cast, as is usual with most casts.

Ranma scolded herself for not noticing his arm before, but reminded herself that she usually met Daisuke eye to eye as a girl, and that Daisuke's face was too commanding to look away from. *He should get into debate... or Drama...* Ranma strayed. She brought her mind back to the current subject after a moment.

"... So the doctor said, 'You should be able to go back to school in a couple of days. You do need some rest though,' Like hell I do. He thought I should stay home till next week!" Daisuke had an offended look on his face when he mentioned this. Then again, Daisuke was easily offended. Ranma sighed, she sometimes felt sorry for Daisuke. Although Ranma was more into the physical world than her friend, Daisuke couldn't seem to stop verbally sparring with people.

There was a lot of people around school that sat at Daisuke's table during lunch, just for the fact that they, "Wanted to see what would come out of his mouth!" and most of the student body had gotten used to Daisuke's blunt honesty. Obviously, Kuno was not one of these people.

Ranma thought for a moment, recalling that she hadn't seen Daisuke in a while, and now realizing why.

"I was wonderin' why I hadn't seen you in the past week," Ranma mentioned. Ranma looked around the room, several more people had come in. One being Hiroshi.

Oddly enough, though, Hiroshi was also sitting alone, and on the other side of the room. Hiroshi was upset... Ranma could tell by the slump of his shoulders, the shuffling of his footsteps.

"Hey! Cool sketches! Is that supposed to be Akane?" Daisuke pointed at the dragon-Akane, Ranma turned a bit red. Daisuke laughed for a moment.

"I take it you guy's had another fight?" Daisuke suggested with a sympathetic tone.

"Yeah... she seems pretty angry about somethin'," Ranma looked over at Akane, who was busy writing in her notebook. A moment later, a familiar Okonomiyaki chef entered the room.

"Hiya, Ranchan!" Ukyou plopped down beside Ranma. Looking at her Fiancee carefully, she produced an uneasy, nervous smile. Ranma failed to catch this.

"Hey, Ukyou, take a look at this! I think it's supposed to be you!" Daisuke snatched a paper from Ranma's desk, Ranma tried grabbing it away from Daisuke, but his friend quickly handed it to Ukyou. "Dang it, Daisuke! Why can't you mind your own-"

"This is good, Ranchan! You really do like my cooking!" Ukyou looked down at the paper. It pictured Ukyou handing Ranma a plate of Okonomiyaki, and a small heart was portrayed above Ranma's and Ukyou's head.

"Yeah...," Ranma rubbed the back of her neck in embarrassment.

Miss Tanaka wrote the 'Assignment of the Day' on the board then sat down at her desk. Most of the people, Daisuke included, turned and pulled out their notebooks.

Ranma whispered at Ukyou, "Ucchan... Akane seems pretty angry with me today, I don't know what I did..." Ukyou considered Ranma for a moment with a concerned look, then took his hand.

"Ranchan... I want to talk to you about something...," Ukyou had a determined look on her face, which was wasted on Ranma.

"... I didn't even do anything wrong! I mean, nothing that would make her...,"

Ukyou tried again, "I need to ask you something, Ranchan!" yet again Ranma ignored Ukyou.

"... I mean, I haven't said an unkind word to her since last night, and she still acts like..." Ranma felt Ukyou squeeze her hand impatiently.

"Huhn? What Ucchan?" Ranma gave her attention to Ukyou, Ukyou had a slightly annoyed look on her face.

"Ranchan... I want you to come to the Diner tonight, there is someone I want you to-" Ranma's eyes widened as he looked at Ukyou before he cut her off.

"No! I-I can't! I don't want Akane getting even more angry with me! I mean, she might be a Kawaiikune Tomboy sometimes, but that doesn't mean I should purposely make her angry..." Ukyou stared at Ranma with pleading eyes. Ranma felt very badly about this... but Ranma was sure Akane would get mad if she went to Ukyou' s tonight.

"Ranchan... please, you don't know how important-,"

"No... I'm sorry, not tonight! I-I gotta figure out why Akane's so angry before I come over, and I have a feeling she won't tell me straight out," Ukyou gave Ranma an angry look, then stood up. *He didn't listen to a word I said...* ran through Ukyou's mind.

"Fine, RanMA. When you're done thinking, I'll be waiting," Ukyou walked over and sat down behind Akane, Ranma was shocked and stunned again.

"Ya'know, Ranma... it's not smart getting all your Fiancees angry like that," Daisuke had turned around in his seat and was looking back at Ranma. "You know that old saying? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned... or at least I think that's it..." Daisuke began puzzling out if he was right or not, not quite sure.

Ranma looked over at Ukyou and Akane, not sure what he had done to offend either of them. *Ukyou usually is so open and honest with me, and she always listens to what I have to say... what'd I do?* Ranma blinks and then looks over at Hiroshi. *Funny, I thought I saw something... Huh?* Ranma see's Hiroshi fiddling around with a key hanging from his neck, the reflection from the sun glinting off the metal.

"Hey Daisuke, why is Hiroshi sittin' on the other side of the room?" Ranma poked his friend in the back when he didn't answer, Daisuke looked back at Ranma.

"How the heck am I supposed to know?! I've been gone for a week!"

"Daisuke, stand outside," Miss Tanaka piped. Daisuke groaned.

"Thanks a lot, Ranma!" Daisuke gave his friend a grin, showing Ranma he wasn't entirely angry with him. Ranma was a bit relieved by this, but she still was confused as to why Ukyou and Akane were so distant all of a sudden.

Ukyou & Akane

"Akane-chan, Ranma is a jackass," Ukyou murmured as she sat behind her friend. *He didn't even care that I had something to ask...* it upset Ukyou, usually Ranma was more perceptive to her needs, as she was to his.

Akane looked back at Ukyou with an unnervingly calm attitude, a cold sadness in her eyes. Ukyou flinched. *Maybe Ranchan was right...*

"You only now figured that out?" Akane went back to her work. Ukyou stared at Akane for a second, *Hmmm... she is acting funny. I can see why Ranma is concerned.*

"Akane?" Ukyou whispered.

"What?!" Akane practically snapped back, there was the familiar fiery anger in her voice, but now it seemed as if she wasn't trying to reign it in.

"What's wrong? You seem awfully angry... was it something Ranchan did?" Ukyou wondered what Ranma could do to cause such a reaction, Akane seemed... different.

"Nothing. He-Did-Nothing! I'm sick of him and his petty excuses, insults, and childish behavior! You can have him for all I care!" Akane was now standing while yelling. All the students were looking at her oddly. Miss Tanaka was flabbergasted. Ukyou was both shocked and frightened, she got the feeling that Akane was about to hit her.

"Akane, never have you ever acted so irresponsibly! Stand outside for the rest of class with Daisuke!" Miss Tanaka had an adamantly furious look on her face. Akane fell back into the cool-calm attitude and strode out the door.

Murmurs began among the class after the door shut.

"What was that all about?"

"Something about Ranma, again..."

"I've never seen Akane act like that..."

"Kinda a turn on..."

"Hey! I heard Akane and Ranma Broke up!" everyone stared at the student who made this comment. He seemed to melt back down into his chair, trying to disappear from all those gazes.

Ukyou looked over at Ranma, who was covering her face with her hands. Ukyou got the feeling that her Ranchan had never been more embarrassed in all his life. But... she had to ask that question.

"Ranchan... is.... is what he said true?" Ukyou paused, afraid of the answer, yet at the same time excited.

Ranma nodded her head in reply. All the men in the room jumped up, screaming, "Yatta!" simultaneously. Miss Tanaka sent all of them out to stand in the hallway.

Oddly enough, though, Ranma looked over at Hiroshi... who was the only man still in the room. His hands seemed to be covering his face... and were those tears?

*Hiroshi doesn't cry... what the heck is goin' on today?!* Ranma looked back up at the blackboard, deciding if she should finish, or if she should find out what was going on.

She sighed and switched to a clean sheet of paper. She flipped her book open and started on the assignment. After several minutes, her mind was in overdrive, the words came to her like second nature.

Ranma's writing was interrupted by a nudge in the ribs.

A girl with black hair and brown eyes handed him a note from Ukyou.

Ranma unfolded it, a curious expression on her face.

"Ranchan. Sorry. Come to Diner Tonight, Please?"

Ranma sighed... well if Akane was mad at him, he could at least oblige Ukyou. *Besides, it's not like me and Akane are engaged anymore...*. Ranma looked up at Ukyou, seeing her equally as busy as Ranma had been. Ranma shoved the note into her pocket and went back to writing.

The assignment was to answer various questions about the Contemporary American author which they had been reading about for the last few weeks. Some guy Ranma had never heard of, James Orwell.

Ranma had enjoyed both the Animal House story and the 1984 story... though she agreed with herself that the 1984 tale really creeped her out. *They could be watching... they could be anywhere... they could be in that poster... Neh? Poster?!* Ranma flung herself at the poster, clobbering Tsubasa with her fists.

"RANMA!" Miss Tanaka yelled, bringing Ranma back to her senses. "What are you doing?!"

"Sorry, Tanaka-Sensei, but Tsubasa does not attend High School Here. He has been harassing Ukyou," Ranma stood back up, dropping Tsubasa to the ground with a thump.

"U...kyooou...." Tsubasa groaned. The Okonomiyaki chef picked up Tsubasa.

Miss Tanaka looked at the oddly dressed boy, "He? This is a boy? Oh dear..." Miss Tanaka fainted.

"Ranma! You should know that Miss Tanaka can't handle crossdressers!" Ukyou threw Tsubasa out the closed window, and he plummeted into a series of bushes.

"S...sorry," Ranma stuttered. Ukyou knelt down and tried waking the English teacher up. After a moment, Tanaka sat bolt upright.

"Wha... What happened?" Tanaka muttered as she looked around.

"You fainted, Tanaka-Sensei," Ranma rubbed the back of her neck nervously as she said this.

"Ahh... well, back to work students! Everything's all right!" Miss Tanaka went back to her desk, completely oblivious to the broken window-pane.

Ranma sat back down in her seat, and finished her assignment on 1984. When she looked back up at the clock, there was fifteen minutes left in class. She sighed and stood up, *Might as well find out now...* Ranma thought to herself as she walked over to the desk on Hiroshi's right. She sat down quietly next to a glum looking Hiroshi, a reflective brooding seemed to be in his attitude.

She and Hiroshi had been friends for a while now, and she had come to realize when something was bothering him. Not that the way he was acting tried to hide the fact that he was troubled.

"Yo, Hiroshi! You seem pretty distant today, Somethin' up?" Ranma had a silly smile on her face, the way Hiroshi looked there HAD to be something wrong. Sometimes Ranma saw this mood in Ryouga... but it was always when Ryouga thought he wasn't being watched.

"I... I don't want to talk about it Ranma... I guess I'm just having a bad day," Hiroshi fingered the key again, it was a bright blue key of antique design. A glimmer of excitement and thought passed over Hiroshi's face as he stared at the key. Ranma wondered what made it so special.

She _DID_ however identify with Hiroshi... especially after the happenings of the previous day.

"I know watcha mean... Akane seems pretty angry at me for somethin'. She called off our wedding," Ranma fell into her own depression after those words left her mouth. She was startled when she realized that the recent events had gotten to her.

"Hasn't she done that before? I mean repeatedly before?" Hiroshi had a faint smile on his face, one that seemed forced. This caused Ranma to flinch. *I've never seen him like this, usually Hiroshi has a smile for the world, regardless of all the bad things that happen*.

"Yeah... she had. But, she's been actin' funny since last night," Ranma scratched her head as she looked at Hiroshi. *What could I have done? It seems like all my friends are either angry at me, hurt, or sad for some reason. Talk about a bad week*.

"C'mon, something's gotta be wrong. You're usually happy go lucky! I'm your friend, you know..." Ranma patted Hiroshi on the back, which only got a ragged sigh from her friend.

"Okay... Mihoko dumped me...," Hiroshi wiped a stray tear from his face.

"Sorry, man... I know how much she meant to you. You'll get over her, though. Be optimistic! I mean, you're life couldn't get worse than mine... right?" Ranma tried comforting Hiroshi with her words, but they didn't seem to help. Ranma felt bad for her friend... she was going through relationship problems as well.

"Ranma... jus' leave me alone for right now. No offense, I just want to think," Ranma looked at Hiroshi, then back up at the clock. It was five minutes till the bell would ring.

Ranma's mind conflicted. Should she stay and find out what's wrong with her friend? Or should she leave and go get some hot water? In the end, Ranma didn't have to decide. Hiroshi asked her to leave him alone again. A bit hurt and a bit concerned, Ranma stood up, grabbed her books, and left the room.

Out in the hall, all the boys had been knocked unconscious and tossed around... except Daisuke. Akane seemed to be gone.

"What the hell-?"

"Well, all the guys said something about Akane being available and started asking her out and other such things. Akane never answered any of them, she just whacked em' with that mallet of hers. Fortunately, I don't have a death wish," Daisuke chuckled a bit.

"Where'd she go?" Ranma asked, not seeing Akane at either end of the hallway.

"I guess she went home... in tears," The last words were a reluctant admission from Daisuke. Ranma eyes widened, and she grabbed Daisuke by the shirt lifting him up. Not easy, considering he was taller.

"What-Did-You-Say?!" Ranma asked, her voice quivering in anger and fear.

Daisuke had a calm, sad look on his face, which caused Ranma to flinch. It reminded her too much of how Akane looked when she had called off the engagement.

"I will tell you, Ranma, if you put me down," Ranma realized what she was doing, and quickly dropped Daisuke.

Daisuke brushed himself off with his one good arm, then spoke, "I told her this. 'You shouldn't be so harsh on Ranma, I admit he can be a handful sometimes, but he's also a great friend,' and she said, 'Daisuke... I've lived with him for several months now. Our relationship has never changed, he insults me day in and day out, and I get angry... I don't want a relationship like that, I never did,' And then she ran off crying. If you ask me, Ranma, she was telling the Gods honest truth. I stood there for a moment, playing those words over in my mind. I'm not sure what I could have said to make her think otherwise... if Hiroshi had been out here..." Daisuke trailed off, looking around at all the guys who were unconscious.

Daisuke had a point, he might be great with mental battles, as well as verbally sparring with the best. But when it came to the natural and basic elements of life, Hiroshi surpassed him on both counts.

Ranma dropped to her knees, stunned by Daisuke's words. Had she lost Akane? Was it her fault? True, she had been somewhat cruel in their relationship, always insulting Akane's looks and her cooking... but she had never thought that it could drive away the woman she loved.

They had fallen into a routine, she had been sure it was something they both enjoyed. Ranma made a comment, Akane whacked her/him one.

No matter how much her mind thought about it, Ranma could not see what had gone wrong that night. What had happened differently to produce such a reaction? She didn't understand... she wished she did.

"Ranma, did you get out early for a reason?" Daisuke's words snapped Ranma out of her reverie, and she stood back up. Hot water seemed to be the least of her worries at the moment, and she found she cared more about Akane than getting back to being a man. *When did that happen?* Ranma thought.

"Uh... thanks for your help Daisuke," Ranma said to her friend, in a solemn tone of voice. Daisuke looked at her with a smile.

"Anytime, bud. Good luck with Akane, and I'll see _You_ at lunch," Daisuke chuckled, which raised Ranma's spirit's a bit. *He really _does_ have a contagious laugh* Ranma thought, as she walked away with a smile.

========To storage room

Ranma poured the kettle of hot water over her head, feeling the change spread over her body. It always caused Ranma to shudder, the way it felt to change from man to woman, knowing that he was no longer what he was born as. It unnerved him and caused more problems in his life than he could count.

Ranma sighed as he looked down at his now masculine body. Why did it bother him so much? *It could have been much worse...* Ranma thought, recalling Ryouga's words. Ranma didn't know exactly why he hated the fact he turned into a girl. True, his Father's promise to his Mother might have something to do with it, but there was something that unsettled him each time he changed.

Yet, over some time Ranma had gotten used to his cursed form. It didn't seem so much of a curse, nowadays. In fact, in some situations it had helped him out. Like when he needed more speed, it was just a splash away.

Ranma looked up at the clock, sighing gently to himself. *Two minutes till class, guess I'd better run...* Ranma slid open the door and started running back into the school. He paused in his haste when he saw someone out of the corner of his eye. Stopping suddenly, he looked to where he thought he had seen...

Hiroshi was leaning up against a tree, an immensely sad expression on his face. He nonchalantly tossed the key he carried up in the air, and caught it. He considered the key a moment and then nodded. He began to walk away from the school, and Ranma watched as he disappeared down the road.

Then the bell rang, and Ranma cursed himself. He began running as fast as he could to Hinako's classroom. *Did I have to be late for _Her_ class?! Ranma, you are definitely a Baka...*

* * * * * *

After some scolding by Hinako, as well as problems in his other classes, Ranma let out a relieved breath when the bell rang for lunch. Everyone leapt up and ran for the door. Ranma sat for a moment thinking, he hadn't had time to do that since last night.

It had been a horrible day for Ranma, starting with Akane's attitude, followed by Ukyou getting angry with him, and then there was Hiroshi.

*What was with Hiroshi? And what the heck is that key he was carryin' for?* Ranma remembered the look on Hiroshi's face when they had been talking in Tanaka's class, and the look he had when he had been standing outside.

He understood how Hiroshi felt, he had seen Mihoko and him together more than once. They looked well together, and Hiroshi seemed ten times happier than usual in her presence.

Ranma could also understand how depressed it made Hiroshi to be dumped by a girl... Ranma had felt that way for the entire day. Yet, he'd never seen Hiroshi so down on luck...

Then something clicked, he hadn't seen Hiroshi since he had changed back to a man. He remembered him considering that key, and wondered again what the key opened.

Mr. Umoto passed his hands in front of Ranma's face. "Are you all right, Ranma? Don't you know it's lunch-time?" Mr. Umoto was a small, rotund man in his mid-forties. He was balding and wore glasses that reminded Ranma of Mousse.

Ranma blinked when he realized what Mr. Umoto had said. "Uh, sorry, my mind was kinda elsewhere," Ranma laughed nervously. Mr. Umoto smiled.

"When is it not, Saotome? Just remember your homework on Monday and I won't hassle you," Mr. Umoto left the room, Ranma followed in stride, going as quickly as possible to the lunch-room.

He shook his mind off Hiroshi and recalled the rest of the day... it had started bad from the first moment he had sat down in Miss Tanaka's room.

He had managed to get his assignment in that class done, only to find he had forgotten his math notebook back at the Dojo, as well as the fact that there was a math test that day.

Then there was science, which he almost started the teacher on fire when he had been trying to get the Bunsen burner to work.

Then there was Phys. ed., which he usually had no problem with. Unfortunately, some of the men in the locker room had rigged the showers to cold water, and laughed when Ranma screamed and ran around looking for clothes.

She had beat up practically everyone in the locker room for that stunt. Of course, she had to attend the girls P.E. class that day, which actually wasn't so bad.

She had fun playing baseball with some of Akane's friends, who she had asked if Akane had mentioned anything. Akane had, and they were very sympathetic to Ranma, but basically said what Akane had. That Ranma should have stopped picking at her while she had been ahead.

The girls were nice enough, though, to bring Ranma some hot water after class. He had learned that being a girl had another advantage... girls were not so cruel to their friends, and many of Akane's friends also considered Ranma as a friend.

Ranma sighed as he pushed the cafeteria doors open.

He looked around until he saw Akane, and slowly walked up to the table. "Akane? Could I talk to you?" Ranma said, his voice quivered uneasily.

Akane looked up at Ranma with fire in her eyes. "What do you want to say to me Ranma?" Akane's voice contradicted her eyes, as it was serene and calm as it could ever be.

"Prithee, Saotome, why dost you spar words with my Date? Do you wish to enscorcell her once more with thine evil spell?! I will not let such an insult take place!" Ranma wheeled around, dropping into an offensive stance as he saw Kuno Tatewake. Ranma began his attack with a punch, as Kuno's words sunk in.

Kuno caught Ranma's fist in his hand, Ranma's face was frozen in shock. Had Kuno said that Akane...?

"Ahh, I see you hesitate... As I am an honorable fellow, I shall not attack you for this day, for I have promised fair Tendo Akane that I twould not harm you in any malicious way," Ranma dropped his fist, and took a step back. He couldn't believe his ears, Kuno was going out with Akane!

"Akane? Did... Did you tell Kuno that you would go out with him?" Ranma bit his lip as he looked at Akane. The fire had left her eyes, and they were filled with an unimaginable sorrow.

"Of course fair maiden hath chosen me to-!" Kuno paused when Akane stood up, Akane held up her hand for Kuno to stop, which he did obligingly.

"Yes, Ranma. I told Kuno I would go out on a date with him, but only one, Kuno-sama," Akane said menacingly to Kuno. Ranma couldn't believe what he was hearing. In stunned silence he walked away from Akane's table. Akane stared after him for a moment then sat back down. Kuno glared at Ranma as he walked away, but sat down next to Akane after a moment.

What had gone wrong... *It must be my fault, It always is...* Ranma couldn't understand what he had done though. No matter how much he thought about it, he didn't see how Akane could suddenly hate him so much.

He bought his lunch and sat down at his usual table.

"Hey Ranma! Good form in the locker-room, buddy!" One of the guys yelled. Half the cafeteria laughed. Ranma turned a bright shade of red. He was angry beyond belief, but as a martial artist he could not attack someone weaker than he was. He desperately wanted to kill the guy who had yelled.

Everyone stopped laughing when Daisuke flew through the air, landing on Ranma's lunch.

Daisuke looked up at Ranma with a wide grin. Ranma looked down at Daisuke with a stunned look on his face.

Daisuke stood up on the table and spoke loudly, "Hey! Kuno-Sempai! Thanks for proving you could kick the farthest of any Ass!" The entire lunch room broke into laughter, Ranma chuckled slightly. He couldn't seem to shake his humiliation or anger though, he wished Ukyou would talk to him, but she seemed just as angry as Akane was.

Then he thought of Hiroshi, his second outlet. Hiroshi was great at listening to people and solving problems... but Ranma hadn't seen him since that morning.

Daisuke jumped off the table, and sat next to Ranma. "Hey beautiful! Why so glum chum?" Daisuke grinned. Ranma blinked for a moment, then realized she had been splashed with several liquids when Daisuke had landed, including a milk-shake. Ranma growled in anger at Kuno... then looked over at Daisuke.

"Don't call me beautiful. You wanna know why I'm angry Daisuke?!" Ranma paused, and brought his voice level down to a respectable level.

"Well, I forgot my math-notebook on test day, I almost set Mister Muroto on fire, I was seen as a female completely naked in front of half the guy's in school-"

"And such nice tits they were!" Said one guy, before Daisuke pegged him with a brick, who knows where he got that from. Everyone had started laughing until the guy had been pegged. They all shut up as soon as they saw the look on Daisuke's face, one of malicious intent. Daisuke was a protector of Ranma, so to speak. Though Ranma could normally take any of the men in the school on by herself, Ranma was quite reluctant to attack those weaker than she was. That's why Daisuke put those weaklings through hell for comments like that.

Daisuke knew Ranma's problem, he also knew Ranma didn't need these type of problem's in his life. Daisuke felt that no man should have to live through a change like that, much less Ranma.

Daisuke had learned, after some observation, two things about Ranma. One, he was as insecure about his masculinity as most girls were about their looks. And two, he was partially homophobic.

He didn't exactly hate guys, but some of the things that the guys did to him made Ranma despise men. It also made Daisuke despise them.

"Thanks, and then... to top it all off... Akane's going out with Kuno!" Several of the men's eyes widened when they heard this, and several of them began to sob.

"Our only chance... ruined by Kuno-sempai!" One man yelled. Whispers began to travel around the cafeteria, and Daisuke looked at Ranma with understanding.

"Wow... what a sucky day. This almost adds up to how Hiroshi feels about what happened with Mihoko," Daisuke vainly tried wiping himself off, only smearing stains into his clothing. He brought out a paper sack and reached in, pulling out five sandwiches and two sodas.

He handed Ranma three of the sandwiches and one of the sodas, murmuring an apology about Ranma's lunch. He served the offer with his wide grin, making Ranma chuckle at the contrast with his healing black eye.

"How did you know you'd land in my lunch?" Ranma asked, as she looked over at the mess on the table. Daisuke laughed a bit, making several other people laugh.

"Well, Kuno-sempai might not be the best of fighters, but his accuracy is among the best in the school's," Several people nodded their heads while chuckling, Daisuke just tapped his forefinger on his temple.

Ranma shook her head, laughing a bit herself. Then she blinked... *How did Daisuke know about Mihoko?* Ranma looked up at her friend with suspicion. Daisuke was drumming his fingers on the table, as if he was waiting for something. He slowly ate his sandwich while he looked around the table, smiling and saying hello to people.

"What do you know about Mihoko?" Ranma finally asked, after debating whether or not that was what Daisuke was waiting for. Daisuke frowned as he looked at Ranma. Conflict was written clearly in Daisuke's eyes, his mind warring over whether he should tell what he knew or not. Flickers of concern and unsurety passed along his face as he thought.

Ranma waited for Daisuke to make up his mind.

"Ranma. I take it Hiroshi was reluctant to talk to you today?" Daisuke put his hand on his forehead while his elbow leaned against the table.

Ranma remembered how unreceptive Hiroshi had been to her questions, the only thing Hiroshi would tell Ranma was that Mihoko had broken up with him. "You could say he didn't want to talk to me... but he did tell me Mihoko had dumped him. I wonder why? They seemed happy together..." Ranma remembered Hiroshi and Mihoko walking in the park, remembered them eating lunch together, remembered them at the movies. They seemed like the perfect match.

"Well, Mihoko was not satisfied with Hiroshi... she told him there was another man, Ranma," Daisuke looked at Ranma, thinking that she would get the gist. She didn't.

"That... Harlot! Who the heck is this guy?! I'm gonna beat the crap outta him!" Ranma looked around the table, seeing several nervous guys try and hide from his burning gaze. She was angry that someone would lead one of her friends on like that, and then dump him for some two-bit macho jerk.

Ranma was startled when Daisuke began laughing. She looked angrily at Daisuke, which jerked her friend back into serious mode.

"Ranma, I think if you beat yourself up you'd be very angry with yourself," Daisuke frowned after he made the comment, seeing Ranma face fault.

"You mean... ME?!" Ranma panicked. He was the cause of Hiroshi's suffering... He had made Hiroshi's girlfriend dump him.

"Sorry Ranma... She told Hiroshi that, 'Ranma is the only Man for me!'" Daisuke's imitation of Mihoko was terrible, causing everyone at the table to laugh. Everyone, that is, except Ranma.

Ranma couldn't handle it, her depression was getting the best of her... throwing her down into an endless pit of sorrow. She had been the cause of Hiroshi's pain, she had been the Cause of Akane's suffering, she had been the cause of Ukyou's anger, she had been the cause of driving Akane to Kuno...

Daisuke stopped laughing when Ranma dropped her food and ran out the school doors. Daisuke couldn't help but feel he had just caused his friend to have a nervous breakdown. He would have gone after her... if he had known where she had gone.

======== Outside the school, on the Road back to the Dojo.

Ranma ran, she heard Hiroshi's words that morning, and saw his face full of sorrow... She remembered Akane's face, and those dreaded words when she had called off the engagement... She saw Kuno's face as he announced Akane's date... She heard all the men laughing at her naked body... She saw the Nyannichuan rushing up to meet her.

She closed her eyes, trying to keep back the tears, and collapsed into someone's strong arms. The tears overwhelmed her. All her fault... everything that had gone wrong in her life was her fault, she was even partially responsible for Ryouga's problems. She had begun to hate herself.

She didn't realize she had fallen into someone's arms, or that they had wrapped their arms around her. She noticed when she felt someone patting her on the back.

She blinked her tears away, letting her senses explore. Whoever held her was definitely a man, but he didn't seem attracted to her... she would know if he was. His presence seemed familiar, and she realized who it was when he spoke.

"What's wrong, Ranma?" Hiroshi's voice was calm and thoughtful, just like she remembered Hiroshi to be.

Hiroshi let Ranma go, knowing she would feel uncomfortable in his arms. Ranma did look a bit shocked, as she looked around nervously, making sure nobody had seen. She sighed as she realized nobody but Hiroshi and her were on the street.

"N-Nothing Hiroshi. Sorry about running into you," Ranma noticed her friend smelled of wet earth, and saw his arms were covered in what looked like mud. She looked at herself, confirming that she too was now dirty.

Ranma looked back at Hiroshi, wiping her eyes as she wondered something.

"Hiroshi... where have you been? You disappeared after Miss Tanaka's class," Hiroshi looked at her for a second, then brushed a strand of his wavy hair out of his face.

"Damn where I've been, what could make you cry?" Hiroshi walked past Ranma, who was a bit red-faced and slightly angry. Hiroshi turned on a hose and washed his arms off.

"I was not crying..." Ranma lied, knowing that she had been bawling her head off.

"My shirt say's otherwise, it was soaked by you for five minutes," Hiroshi took his shirt off, wringing it dry. Hiroshi had never seen someone with so many tears, and this was one of his friends. "Now tell me, Ranma, who caused you to do this? Run from school and start weeping like there was no tomorrow," Hiroshi jerked his shirt back on, and then turned the hose off.

Ranma flinched. *I was crying for five straight minutes?* Ranma fiddled with her fingers, then decided to be straight with Hiroshi.

"Daisuke did it... but not on purpose. I've had a bad day, Akane is going out with Kuno, Ukyou is mad at me, I almost torched Mister Muroto, I left my math-notebook at home when there was a test today, and- and-," Ranma felt somehow nervous about the last thing. She didn't know why.

"Well?" Hiroshi asked. Ranma looked at Hiroshi again. His face was slightly smudged with dirt.

"The guys wrigged the showers... and all of em' saw me... the whole school... they were laughin'...," Ranma muddled out. Hiroshi blinked for a moment. Ranma noticed where she was now, she was back at Hiroshi's house... not but two blocks from the Dojo.

"I see. And what did Daisuke do?" Hiroshi folded his arms, waiting for Ranma to answer. He had a thoughtful look on his face, as if he were sizing up Ranma's problems.

Ranma fidgeted again, but finally managed to speak, "He told me that Mihoko dumped you 'cuza me," Ranma looked at the ground as she said this, then looked up at Hiroshi.

Hiroshi was frowning, but he didn't seem all that upset to Ranma's surprise.

"Hm. I take it your mind overloaded, after everything you've gone through today... must have been a slap in the face, all that happening at the same time," Hiroshi walked back by Ranma and up the trail which led to his house.

Hiroshi's house was twice as large as the Tendo's, and was one of those houses which was just great to look at. It even had a large pond in the back yard.

Ranma blinked then followed Hiroshi.

"I'll get you some hot water, then we'll talk," Hiroshi walked up to the front door, and ran into it.

He shook his head to stop the world from spinning and then tried turning the knob.

He looked slightly angry, but he composed himself and softly knocked on the door.

"Kaehmi, open the door," Hiroshi said in a sweet tone of voice. Ranma chuckled. Hiroshi smiled and winked at Ranma, causing Ranma to kick him in the shin. Hiroshi grunted with pain, but otherwise said nothing. A moment later, someone answered via a intercom placed next to the door.

"Uh uh, Mama said no girl's in the house," A small girl's voice echoed from the small black box.

"Ranma's not a girl, Kaehmi, he's a friend of mine," Hiroshi banged a bit harder on the door. Ranma looked a bit offended at the girl's words, but decided that the little girl didn't know any better. Besides, she sounded positively cute.

"Who's Kaehmi?" Ranma asked Hiroshi. Her friend turned to her with a grin.

"Kaehmi's my Kawaii little niece... which can be a pain in the butt when she figures out how to lock Uncle-Hiro-chan's door!" The little girl could be heard laughing through the intercom box. Ranma smiled despite herself. *Cute kid, reminds me of me...*

"Here, let me try talking to her," Ranma pushed Hiroshi out of the way, going into ultracute mode in the process. Hiroshi looked at Ranma and shrugged, not exactly sure what his friend had in mind.

"Kaehmi-chan, you're a nice little girl, aren't you?" Ranma's voice dripped sugar. Hiroshi began laughing before Ranma kicked him in his shin... hard this time. Then he started 'Owching' as he hopped around.

"Uh huh, I'm a Kawaii nice little princess! Momma say's so!" The little girl's voice was equally as cute, causing Hiroshi to chuckle through his pain at the similarity.

"Well, since you're such a kawaii lil' girl, do you like candy?" Ranma smiled, Hiroshi stared, then began laughing again. Which earned him another blow to the leg, his other one this time, he started doing a funny jig which could make Soun laugh.

"Yeah, Miss Ranma! I like chocolate 'specially! So does Ralph!" Ranma blinked then looked up at Hiroshi with a questioning glance. Hiroshi paused for a moment to answer Ranma's unasked question.

"Ralph is Memeko's dog, and Memeko is my Oniichan," Ranma stared at Hiroshi for a second. He smiled a wide grin while she just stared.

"You never told me you had a sister!" Ranma yelled, then she lowered her voice.

"She just moved back in, Ranma!" Hiroshi tapped his foot, impatiently waiting for Ranma to convince his Niece to open the door. Ranma 'Hmphed' and then turned back to the intercom system.

"Tell you what, Kaehmi-chan, if you let Hiro-chan and Ran-chan in the house, Auntie Ranma will give you some candy, Kay?" Ranma flinched when she said Auntie, Hiroshi noticed.

Hiroshi knew of Ranma's problems from Daisuke. Daisuke was great at observing things, and had observed Ranma's adverse reaction to anything that questioned her Manliness, or when she was set upon by men. The latter was much worse than the former.

By then, though, Hiroshi and Daisuke had come to a point of reconciliation with Ranma. She was one of the guy's to them.

A moment later the door opened, and a small girl with reddish-brown hair and green eyes stepped out. She was dressed in a frilly green spring-dress, and was _very_ Kawaii.

Ranma smiled and then opened her backpack. After a moment she pulled out a candy-bar, and handed it to Kaehmi.

"Gee, Arigato Auntie-Ranma!" Kaehmi smiled a kawaii smile. Hiroshi noticed that Ranma hadn't flinched when Kaehmi had called her 'Auntie-Ranma', but in fact smiled.

"Well handled, child. You're very good with children... do you have any?" Ranma's face froze, the blood draining from it rapidly from those words.

She blinked and looked at who spoke, still not over the shock of the thought that had run through her head.

A tall woman dressed in a black gi looked back at Ranma, her eyes were a stunning green, her hair was a luxurious brown, and her face had a statuesque beauty to it.

" I- I- I d-d-don't have... chil-dren," Ranma's speech was broken with a tint of fear, Hiroshi had seen his friends attitude change when Memeko had mentioned children, and was not surprised.

Memeko laughed and offered her hand, "You don't have to be so nervous, child. Forgive my inane question, I am Memeko, Hiroshi's sister," Ranma blinked and smiled uneasily. She was aware that she had shaken the woman's hand, but after that her nightmare caught up with her.

Ranma's mind was still stuck on a nightmare she had had. There had been a point where Tofu's mother had come to see who would bear the best children to her son, and had found 'Ranko' had the best child-bearing hips.

For weeks after, Ranma had had nightmares of being pregnant, of going into labor and of marrying men. It had caused her much mental trauma.

Ranma blinked as she realized she was now sitting in a living room, well furnished and very beautiful in decoration.

Memeko, Hiroshi's sister sat across from Ranma, sipping on a cup of tea.

*How did I get in here?* Ranma wondered. After a moment, she remembered being dragged in by Hiroshi after she had mentally phased from his Sister's comment.

"I see you are back with the rest of us, Ranma. Forgive me for my casual ignorance, if I had realized you would become lost in thought at my question I would not have asked. Pardon, but why did you seem so shocked about the topic? Are you unable to have children? Or does the thought scare you?" Ranma shuddered again at the mention of the idea.

"I... I don't know if I could... I mean... yes, it- it does scare me," Ranma stuttered out. She never had liked to give the idea much thought, it made her nervous and jumpy.

She jumped when Kaehmi ran into the room, and Kaehmi leaped onto her mother's lap.

"Ralph said to say Arigato, Auntie-Ranma! I want to too!" Memeko wrapped her arms around Kaehmi, looking down at her child she kissed her on the forehead.

Hiroshi walked in, which caused Ranma to jump. He held a tea kettle out to Ranma, while he looked menacingly at his sister.

"I told you not to bother him, Memeko. You know very damn well Ranma is a man!" Ranma flinched when she saw the wry smile pass across Memeko's lips. Ranma narrowed her eyes, fueling the fire in her mind.

"You... You knew?" Ranma's anger was rising, the woman had known and had still bothered Ranma with those questions.

"Of course I knew, why would I... Oh my, you thought I was referring to child birth?" Ranma flinched again at the question, then let her anger drop. The grotesque image clung to her, though, like white on rice.

Then her curiosity piqued as Memeko looked at Hiroshi, conflict seemed to pass between them, and then Memeko spoke.

"Little Brother, could you take Kaehmi upstairs to her room? I would like to talk to this... Ranma of yours," Hiroshi glared at his sister, then let his anger melt away as if it were a snowstorm in the summer heat. He smiled then and picked Kaehmi up, then left the kettle on the table in front of Ranma. Hiroshi had always prided himself on his ability to put on a happy face in threatening situations, so this did not surprise Ranma

Ranma took a moment to notice her surroundings, Memeko sat on a lavish couch of dark purple, Ranma sat on a love-seat of the same color. A small coffee table sat between the two, which had the kettle sitting on it of course. The table had been placed so the sun from the window to Ranma's right would shine directly upon it, and the curtains were a light blue. Various other decorations adorned the walls, family pictures among other things, and several plants hung from the ceiling.

Ranma reached for the kettle, but Memeko grabbed it before she could.

"Hey! Gimme that!" Ranma had stood up, angry that the woman would do such a thing. After everything she had been through today, she wasn't about to put up with a simple woman's B.S.

Memeko considered the girl in front of her for a moment, then handed Ranma the kettle. Ranma glared at her then dumped the contents over her, feeling the change coarse over her body, the shifting of muscle, the shrinking of breasts.

Memeko blinked and then smiled at Ranma. "I can see that you are a fabulous example in either form, Ranma," Memeko complemented Ranma with a smile, which didn't lighten Ranma's mood at all.

"Can it, why were you askin' me all those questions?!" Ranma was angry both at the fact that she had asked the questions, and that she had been oblivious to their underlying meaning. *I am a man...* Ranma reminded himself, just for the sake of doing so. The image stuck in his mind argued with that, though. Ranma resisted a shudder.

Memeko stood up. She took several steps to the window, which provided for a beautiful view of Hiroshi's huge back yard, complete with large pond. "Hiroshi's talked about you ever since I got here, he's said that wherever Ranma is, action soon follows. I prefer to think you start it yourself," Memeko looked at one of the potted plants sitting on the window sill. The window was actually quite large, about six feet by six feet, the plants added a nice, relaxed, feel to the room.

"Are you sayin' that I get into fights for no good reason?!" Ranma was starting not to like Memeko, she seemed... different from Hiroshi.

"Forgive me... but is that truly what you think I said?" Memeko had a strangely calm and observant look about her, which Ranma only now took notice of. It reminded Ranma of his mother, except without the katana. She ran her hands through her hair as she stood in the sunlight, making it seem as if she was washing herself with the beautiful rays.

Ranma shook off the odd uneasiness he felt, and looked out at the back yard. It really was a nice place Hiroshi had, the lawn was neatly trimmed, and flowers of all sorts grew around the pond. It made Ranma feel... peaceful.

"You sleep at the Tendo's, Ranma?" Memeko snapped Ranma out of his deep thought as she crossed his line of sight and sat back down on the couch, crossing her legs and placing her hand in her lap.

Ranma looked at her oddly, then nodded slowly, unsure of where she was going with this.

"My Brother told me you had a terrible falling out with Tendo Akane... and that you were Iinazukes. I trust that the rest of your day was not at all pleasant?" Memeko leaned back, stretching her arms along the back of the couch. Ranma blinked, and then wondered exactly how she had known. Then he felt angry that she would bring up Akane, after what had recently happened. Ranma, with a very angry expression and a set jaw, nodded an affirmative to Memeko.

Memeko stood and walked over to the love-seat, she gently sat down beside Ranma, crossing her legs again.

"Tell me Ranma... do you like being female?" Ranma looked at Memeko in surprise and confusion. He thought about it for a moment, thinking about all the times his female half had been his only chance in fights, and it had also been useful in other circumstances.

*... It's useful sometimes, but do I really like being a girl? Not to my knowledge, it's just kinda annoying. I guess I don't hate being a girl, I mean more speed, free food, and I can jump higher... I guess it's okay sometimes...* Ranma ran his answer through his mind, then spoke.

"I don't exactly hate being a girl sometimes, but it can become annoying, I mean being born a guy and all," Memeko listened to Ranma's words, seeming to take it all in stride. Hiroshi's sister seemed to be considering him now, and deciding what she thought.

"I understand. Do you have any friends that change forms?" Memeko looked back out the window, she seemed to be giving Ranma time to think... which unsettled the boy. He really didn't get much time to contemplate.

He did, however, find Memeko's question quite odd. Why would she want to know if anyone else was cursed? Was she plotting something? Ranma blinked and looked at the woman again... she didn't seem like the type that had background plans for everything, like Nabiki was. In fact, she seemed like the type who would be more openly honest than anything else.

Which made Ranma wonder where exactly she was going with this.

"Uhh... yes. There are a few, Why?" Ranma looked around again, and suddenly wondered where Hiroshi was. *He could be having trouble getting his niece to sleep, you dummy...* Ranma said to himself.

"Tell me... what is the difference between a curse and a blessing?" Memeko turned her eyes away from the window and looked Ranma dead in the eyes. Her eyes seemed to see through Ranma as if he were transparent. Ranma felt as though his naked soul was bared to her examination.

Ranma thought about it, figuring several things. It practically depended on how you looked at the situation, and what you believed. *Take pop for example...* Ranma's father used his Panda's form for several reasons. One, it was much stronger, as well as the fact that it couldn't be toppled easily, which made it a prime form for sheer force in the martial arts. Another was the fact that he seemed to get more food and eat more when he was in Panda form. The last was the fact that not a lot of people bugged him when he was in panda-form... he couldn't talk being the basic reason. Not a lot of people have conversations with Panda's.

Ranma gulped... he had just realized something. Shampoo used her cat form too. She could cling to things better with it, as well as the fact that if she was angry with Ranma... she would just change and run after him.

*Waitasec...* Ryouga also used his form more often than not. He was not likely to be lost while as P-Chan, basically because Akane kept him under tight wraps... *Wraps indeed...* That was another thing he used his form for... Akane thought he was the coolest thing since sliced bread when he was P-Chan. He was also damn fast in piggy form, much more so than usual. The last thing Ryouga exploited his form for was spying... he was practically invisible when he was P-Chan... who knows what Ryouga had seen while living at the dojo... and when people thought that they were alone.

Come to think of it, Ranma got the feeling Ryouga should be thanking him. The only thing Ryouga complained about was that he was afraid someone might eat him.

*Mousse too?!* Mousse used his cursed form more than anyone. He used it to fly, he also used it to spy like Ryouga. Whenever Mousse wanted to get somewhere quick, he would just change. *It's funny though... when Mousse changes back, he's still wearing his clothes with all those things up the sleeves... weird.*

Mousse also acted quite harmless in "Ducky" form. He'd just quack and act like any other duck, unless there was something important at hand.

Ranma's heart plummeted. His friends had better forms than his! True the speed was a benefit, but he was also weaker when a girl. And free food wasn't as much of a plus as flying through the air, and Ranma couldn't spy very well at all.

Memeko was still looking at him, waiting for a question it seemed... or an answer.

She stopped waiting, "Jusenkyo happened for a reason, Ranma. Remember, your Yin is as much a part of you as your Yang... if you hate your female half, don't you hate yourself a little?" Ranma looked at her in shock, then got quite angry. Ranma had put most of his energy into finding a cure for the curse, as well as fending off all the strange beings and people that seemed to be after him... and here this woman was telling him that it was Foolish!!!

"You got no idea what it's like, Memeko! Every day wonderin' when you're gonna change. Every day spent steering clear of water... and that doesn't even work! How do you think it is, being a girl half the time when you were born a guy?!?!" Ranma was fuming. He was surprised at how much _Gall_ the woman had to confront him like this... he was more angry than surprised, though. He recalled the Nyannichuan rushing up to meet him... the nightmare had begun with the splash of a pool, and suddenly Ranma's life was in eternal torment.

"No, I don't know what it's like. But now I'm _SURE_ you don't either," Ranma's eyes widened in amazement... then his mind became utterly confused. He wasn't sure what she meant, but he _WAS_ sure he was offended by the insult.

"'Scuse?! I'm a girl half the time, I got a much better idea than most guy's!" Ranma stared at the calm Memeko, who had a slightly impatient flicker in her eyes. Ranma was more than a little angry, he had realized his form was much less a benefit than his friend's forms, and then Memeko was questioning his experience!

"No, you don't. You've cut yourself off... You have to be 'The Man!' so much that you've never learned to deal with women. By making yourself so completely oblivious to true femininity and gentleness, you've become less of a man than most," Ranma stood up and faced her, then he lifted her up by her gi. She had a calm serene look on her face while she dangled inches off the ground, but Ranma was definitely angry. Memeko had just flat out said that Ranma was less than a man!

"Take that back!!!" Ranma had heard the rest, but it all fell from his mind when Memeko had questioned his manhood. Memeko's calm air seemed to enshroud her and protect her from Ranma's anger as she considered his demand.

"No, I don't think I will. You are afraid of what the Change means, you are afraid that it will change you. Do you know, Ranma... that you can't escape it? It will change you... and if you're not willing to face that... then it will force you to. If you can't face it, then you are no man," Memeko smiled a very Kasumi-like smile... the oddly out of place emotion written on her face phazed Ranma. Memeko's words finally penetrated and he dropped her, taking a step back.

"Wh... What do you mean?" Ranma asked, fear written slightly on his words, "What do you mean, the curse'll force me?" Ranma realized he was backing up and stopped, he stood stock still, then straightened to where he was standing in one place.

"I don't know that much about Jusenkyo... but I do know this, Ranma sama. These things happen for a reason, and magic has a way of changing people... willingly or not," Memeko walked from the living room, leaving a very stunned Ranma. He replayed Memeko's words over and over in his mind, finally grasping a hint of meaning from them.

She wasn't trying to insult him... she had tried to tell him something the rest of his friends learned a long time ago. The lesson, unfortunately, had gone over his head.

*...Is she tryin' to say I turn into a girl for a reason?* Ranma couldn't fathom it. He turned the thoughts over and over in his mind, till he finally caught something. *Ryouga... Mousse... Shampoo... Pop... even Herb, they all learned something from their curse... I've tried to avoid that. Is that what Memeko was saying?* Ranma's hackles rised a bit at the thought, finding it offensive and rude. He walked after Memeko, finding her in the kitchen.

Ranma opened his mouth to speak, but before he could Memeko interjected.

"Catch," Several kitchen ingredients started flying at Ranma, he caught most of them, but two things connected with his head. He looked down to see two bottles, one of garlic salt and one of aregano.

Ranma looked back up at Memeko in puzzlement. "What the heck was that for?!" Ranma had meant to ask Memeko what she had meant by her previously obscure phrase, but hadn't gotten the chance when Memeko had started throwing Ingredients at him.

"Do you wish to learn from me, Ranma-sama?" Memeko's lips turned up in a smile. *This is going to be fun...*

"Why the heck would I want to?! I can already cook," Ranma put the ingredients back on the counter and started to walk to the front door.

"I was not speaking of only cooking," Memeko's voice was barely tangible, but Ranma seemed to hear it fairly well. Memeko had been waiting for a challenge to arrive, something she could focus all her talents on... Ranma seemed to be the right choice. She had heard about the boy from Hiroshi more than once over the past few weeks. Yet, she had never thought the opportunity would arise that she would be able to meet him.

"What? Do you know martial arts er' somethin?" Ranma turned around and looked at Memeko. *Guess I should give her the benefit of the doubt... but I ain't stayin' long.*

"Yes. My Father grew up with Tendo Soun, but he taught me his own style of Anything-Goes. It relies on the basic fact that the best way to fight is to fight without fighting," Ranma blinked at Memeko's words. They were confusing to say the least. Yet, if she could teach him anything he didn't already know...

"I guess so. When do we start?" Memeko looked at him for a moment after Ranma had spoken, and then started chopping vegetables for lunch. Ranma waited for his answer, but none ever came. He was a bit riled, but he refused to let himself stand there and wait for an answer.

"Fine. If you won't answer, where's Hiroshi?" Ranma got the feeling Memeko had been listening, and that she didn't have an answer to his previous question, but he was sure she knew where her brother was.

Ranma was wondering that himself. Hiroshi couldn't be upstairs, it was too silent, which would mean Kaehmi was asleep. Ranma liked the little girl, she seemed innocent and playful... Something Ranma had ceased to be on his sixth birthday.

Ranma flinched at the memory... as it flooded back to him.

Genma looked down at his son. He had been proud on the day he had been born... Genma had been very hopeful for his son. He had great expectations for his little Ranma.

Genma watched as Ranma played with a colorful ball, such innocence sometimes made Genma uneasy.

"Dear, how is Ranma doing? Dinner will be done in a moment," Nodoka's voice was alway's a pleasure to listen to. That was one of the many reasons Genma had married her.

"He's doing fine, Honey. I would like to talk to you about something after dinner, if you aren't too busy," Genma pulled out the paper he had kept well hidden for the past five years. He looked at it once more... considering. *Hmmm... if I don't do it now, he'll never learn... besides, I started at his age. Just seems right.* Genma pulled out the ink pad. He carefully opened it and pressed his thumb on the surface, getting it wet with ink. He pressed his thumb on the paper, then looked at his son.

Ranma was playing with Nodoka's cat, stroking it's fur and laughing at how furry the thing was. His laughter was one of peace, Ranma had a happy life, living with his parents. He practically enjoyed everything, including the presence of other people. He socialized adeptly with the other children, and all of the other children seemed to like him very much.

Genma looked again at the cat, he had always despised the filthy hairball, it was always clawing the furniture and ripping up his best shirts. Besides, cats were the pets of girls. Any real man owned a dog.

"Ranma, son, Come over here for a moment," Ranma looked up at his Otoosan, laughter and happiness filled his eyes as he rushed over and jumped on Genma's lap.

"Yes, Otoosan?" Ranma looked at the paper his father had. He liked paper, it was fun to draw on, and it made a neat crinkly sound.

Genma noticed his interest, and put the ink-pad in front of Ranma. "Would you like to put your hand-print on the paper, Ranma?" Genma smiled down at his son. Ranma's eyes lit up when he heard this.

"Really? I won't get in trouble? Mama doesn't like me playing with ink," Ranma looked over at the kitchen, wondering when dinner would be done.

"No, Ranma! It's perfectly fine. Just put your hand there, okay?" Genma pointed to a piece of the paper which was largely blank. Ranma beamed as he stuck his hand in the ink and splatted his hand across the empty spot. Genma smiled. *Now, all I have to do is talk to Nodoka...*

Ranma blinked again, as he came back to the real world. He realized Memeko had answered, but his mind had been on something else... a very unpleasant memory. He had thought he had forgotten... he had hoped he had. He sighed a weary breath then spoke.

"What was that, again?" Ranma smiled uneasily, embarrassed that he would have to ask again. Fortunately, Memeko was more than kind to ablige, and she paused in her work to answer him.

"I said he's in the vault. Go down the hallway, into the second door on the left. Climb down the ladder there and walk down the hallway... there will be a large door which should be unlocked and open," Memeko went back to her cooking, giving Ranma only a second glance before concentrating completely on the kitchen.

Ranma looked at Memeko, thinking that Hiroshi's sister was a bit odd, though not too bad. Yet she had insulted Ranma several times that day, and questioned his manhood, albeit though not on purpose. Ranma simply shrugged and walked down the hall, making sure he had gotten the directions right.

He found the room, just like Memeko had said, and climbed down the ladder. The hallway was damp in places, and several times Ranma got caught in a stream of water falling from cracks in the ceiling. He cursed as he felt the change, a bit slower than usual, but the change nonetheless.

* * * * * *

Hiroshi looked at the statue he had been working on, he criticized it carefully, trying to find any flaw in it. He caught a slight imperfection, hard for anyone to see, and chipped away at the statue with his chisel.

Hiroshi had remembered the time he had first come down here, his Father had brought him. He remembered his Father fondly, and a sad smile stretched slowly over his face. His Mother and Father had moved away recently... and although Memeko was the best sister a guy could have, Hiroshi missed his parents.

Hiroshi finished chipping away at the statue and took a step back to admire his work. Under normal circumstances, he would never have carved the thing... but the Kuno's payed vivid amounts of cash.

Hiroshi found himself shuddering when he looked at the stone visage of Kuno Tatewake. He had done himself some justice... it was so lifelike it caused people to shudder.

*Of course, it could be that this place is a damp, cold, wet pit of a place, Hiroshi.* He said to himself. The truth of the matter was, the humidity was very high in the Vault, and the temperature was approximately 40 degrees Farenheit. Somewhat cool.

Hiroshi sighed... his anger and frustration always seemed to leave when he came down to the Vault. His mind was eased by the act of creating, and he loved what he created... whether it be clay, granite, or marble... he always enjoyed finding the form to fit the shape.

Hiroshi frowned as he looked over at a white tablecloth, covering up a statue he had been working on. He walked over to it, a heavy breath in his lungs, and drew the sheet aside.

He smiled as he stared up at the stone likeness of Mihoko. He had loved her... more than most would have. *But that is me... you see? How can I not love such wonderful people? Everyone has their own spirit... hidden away from the rest of the world. If only I could see them... If only they could see me...* Hiroshi let out a shuddering sigh, and then wiped a tear from his face. He looked back up at the statue, it towered a good two feet above him. *Well... Mihoko is gone. I can't say I blame Ranma... that would be unfair. He's not the one who always get's chicks to fall for him... it's usually their own fault. Then why am I trying to convince myself I'm still angry?* Hiroshi thought about that, then laughed. He found his heart was not as heavy as it had been when Mihoko had called him. *Actually, that was kinda cruel... over the phone and such. Didn't even have the courage to tell me to my face.* Hiroshi told himself it would most likely be best to scrap the statue. Use the stone for a smaller cutting, and destroy this visage of Mihoko.

"Dammit!" Came a female voice from the doorway. Hiroshi's eyes widened and he threw the sheet back over the statue, and wheeled around. He saw a familiar red-head, who seemed more than a bit angry.

"R-Ranma! What are you doing here?! This is... this is my place..." Hiroshi felt a bit betrayed... but he couldn't just throw his friend out. Ranma hadn't known what she was doing coming down here.

"Dammit! I go through all that trouble to find hot water... then I start lookin' for you, and what happens?! I end up a girl 'cuz you can't find someplace dry to hang out!" Ranma looked down at herself, mumbling curses about her curse.

"Shutup, Ranma! You're not even supposed to be down here! This is my place..." Hiroshi walked up to his friend. He desperately wanted Ranma to go... the one reason Hiroshi came down to the Vault was to be alone. To cool his anger, calm his depression, dismiss his sadness, and conquer his loneliness. His carving allowed him to relax his mind, and let the worries of life slip away from his memory.

"What is this place anyway? GAH! KUNO!" Ranma jumped and dropped into a defensive stance before she realized that Kuno wasn't moving. She relaxed and walked over to the statue, knocking on it with her knuckle.

"Do you... like it Ranma?" Hiroshi asked, afraid of the critisism from his best friend. Hiroshi had never liked people who critisized other peoples work, it always made the artist feel bad.

Hiroshi watched as Ranma's face changed from a silent wonder, to a smile, then Ranma began laughing hysterically.

"You... you think it's funny? I worked for three months on that thing!!!" Hiroshi was fuming, and Ranma paused long enough to wheeze out an answer.

"N-No!!! It's that... Kuno.... as dense as a rock! BWAHAHAHAHA!" Ranma keeled over, laughing as hard as she could.

Hiroshi thought for a moment, then started laughing himself when he caught the dramatic irony. They both ended up on the ground, straining for a breath whenever possible.

After about ten minutes of laughing, they managed to sit up, Ranma wiped the tears off her face.

"I don't think I've ever laughed so hard in my life!" She looked around the room as she stood up. There were small figurines and ornaments of all shapes and sizes, some of people Ranma didn't recognize, but many of people Ranma had seen regularly at school. Of course, some of them looked younger in a few of the figurines or statues, as if they had been made several years ago. The room was quite large, about twice the size of the pond, and had several supporting stone columns holding the roof up.

Hiroshi watched as Ranma examined his work, some of the things he had made years ago made Ranma smile in recognition of a younger Kasumi, or a younger Gosunkugi. Some of the newer things caused Ranma to either smile, emit a chuckle, or get an odd, sad look in her eyes.

"These are good, Hiroshi. Why didn't you tell anyone you were an artist?" Ranma looked back at her friend. She questioned whether she knew Hiroshi or not, if he had been hiding something like this who knows what he hadn't told Ranma.

"Everyone's an artist, for we paint our lives with tears, laughter, sorrow, and happiness. What a brilliant collage it makes," Hiroshi smiled at his own thought, and then pulled out a pad of paper and a pencil, quickly scribbling down his words.

"Well, gee, aren't we the poetic one. Seriously, Hiroshi, how come you never told me or Daisuke you liked things like this?" Ranma waved her hand around at the various masterpieces, and finally pointed at the Statue-Kuno with a smile.

"Ranma... do you have anywhere you can really be alone? Somewhere where you can-" Ranma begins speaking with Hiroshi, and there words are synchronous.

"-Be left to your thoughts. Where the world just seem's to melt away under the stray peace you have finally conquered, and you have a moment to live life, not fear it..."

They both fell silent. Ranma grinning just as widely as Hiroshi.

"Yeah... the roof at the Dojo. It's the only place that I can get away from Akane and all the insanity that seems to follow me, are ya saying that this place is kind of your own private shrine?" Ranma looked around at the statues, a new meaning dawning on her. She had invaded his personal space, she had entered without asking first.

Hiroshi's silence was an answer enough for Ranma, She began to walk back to the large door. She wasn't supposed to be in the Vault, nobody but Hiroshi was supposed to be down there. Ranma thought she understood.

"Wait!" Ranma stopped in mid-stride, somewhat shocked at the voice who commanded her to halt. Hiroshi had asked her to stop? *Oh well, might as well oblige.*

"Yeah?" Ranma said, turning around to face Hiroshi. Strangely enough, Hiroshi had a faint smile on his face.

"You can stay Ranma. I mean, you obviously came down here to ask me something. The least I could do is listen, and besides... it's kind of dreary down here. It feels damp, depressing, and not to mention boring being alone down here. Besides, it's not so bad talking to you. Now if Daisuke had come down here..."

They both looked at eachother and started to laugh.

"Daisuke would have driven me insane! Admit it Ranma, Daisuke talks to much," Hiroshi slapped Ranma nicely on the back, while he chuckled.

"Normally I would tend to... ahh hell! He's alway's been wordy, but sometimes it's good to hear ol' Daisuke's opinion on things. Don't worry, I'll be long in my grave till Daisuke finds out about this place! I mean, he would probably try to throw a party down here er' somethin!" Ranma looked around, visualizing the people all hanging around the statues, drinking beer and listening to loud music. She started laughing again, when she was done she looked back at Hiroshi.

"Ranma... since you do know about this place... theres a rule I have always tried to keep while down here. Basically... while you're down here, tell no lies to yourself or anyone else, which would most likely be me or Memeko,"

"Memeko comes down here?" Ranma asked. Ranma hadn't hit it off with the woman, she was too odd and obscure with Ranma. But her daughter was very Kawaii, and Ranma didn't really mind the little girl.

"Yeah... she brings me food when I forget to eat. I can get lost in my work sometimes..." Hiroshi unconciously looked over at the covered statue of his ex-girlfriend... thinking about how much time he had wasted on bringing her likeness into the stone... the stone had bothered Hiroshi. It seemed like the stone had wanted to be something else... some form Hiroshi had not yet seen. Maybe he wouldn't scrap the statue, maybe he would continue until he found what Shape the Form wanted.

"I've always wondered why you would disappear from school for a few days, I mean I knew you weren't lost, that's Ryouga's job. I guess you care a lot about these statues, huh?" Hiroshi walked past Ranma, to a cube of Clay he had bought the day before. He was always either buying stone from various places, or buying huge cubes of clay. He found the clay more manageable basically because the clay seemed to demand a form more than the Stone did. Usually stone was fine the way it was, no matter how unhappy the spirit inside... but it still wished to be formed from the shapeless mass. Clay was just more mallable.

"Yes... I do. Would you like to join me, this evening? It's great for stress," Hiroshi looked down at the clay, then considered Ranma. Ranma most likely had never carved or shaped in her life, so clay would be an easier task. If Ranma messed up, all she had to do was start over with the clay.

The process was much harder with stone, because stone was not easily shaped.

Ranma looked at the clay with unsurety written on her face. She was sure she couldn't do Hiroshi justice, he was just so much better than her at this type of thing.

"Come here Ranma, give me your hand..." Hiroshi offered his hand out to the girl, all the while staring intently at the clay. Ranma looked back at the door and then back at Hiroshi. She shook her head with a sigh and offered her hand.

Hiroshi pressed her hand to the clay, getting it filthy. The moist air in the room had worked to make the clay wet. Ranma experimentally pushed on the clay, and it moved quite easily.

Hiroshi looked at the clay, then back at Ranma. He looked back at the clay. He saw Ranma poke the clay, and then push some of it.

"Here, Ranma, you work on that and I'll start on another block. You can tell me what's bugging you," Hiroshi moved to one of the other blocks of clay he had bought, looking at it carefully he began to push and pull, reshaping the clay itself.

"Well... Ahhh... The thing is... I needed to ask you, are you angry about what happened with Mihoko?" Ranma tensed, unsure of Hiroshi's answer. She didn't want her friend to be angry with her, but she felt that he had been. *Who wouldn't be angry?*

Hiroshi thought about the question, never halting in his endevour. True, Mihoko had meant much to him... but she was just another person he would have to get over. It _HAD_ hurt more when he had learned she had fallen for Ranma, but now that he reflected with a clear mind, he felt silly about the way he had acted. Truth be told, he wasn't angry with Ranma at all.

"No Ranma. It wasn't your fault. You just seem to attract trouble, and I'll be damned if I'm going to hate my best friend 'cause of something some girl did. I'll get over her, that's the way life works," Ranma was surprised at Hiroshi's response, to say the least. She paused and looked at him for a moment, then went back to her work.

"Ack! Damn this stuff is messy! Don'tcha ever get a cold from being wet all the time, Hiroshi?" Ranma tried wiping her hands on her vest, only succeeding in getting it even dirtier. Ranma couldn't understand how any normal person could stand the humidity and temperature in the room. She, of course, didn't get colds. Her fit physique and martial arts training somehow fended off illness.

"Nope. I'm immune to colds, Flu's, and Pneumonia. It's a genetic thing, which I'm sure Daisuke could explain," Hiroshi smiled as he thought of Daisuke. Hiroshi and Daisuke had grown up together, and had known eachother ever since the first grade. Daisuke was always taking things apart, and analyzing all the answers adults gave him, then asking more questions.

Hiroshi had been content to watch Daisuke in his pursuits of knowledge, learning a bit on the way. Hiroshi felt more relaxed in his own world of fantasy and art-work. Hiroshi remembered that the first toy to actually grasp his attention had been a lump of clay his uncle had given him. He was fascinated by the prospect that it could be anything that the shaper wanted.

Later, Hiroshi found that he could start to work on something, and not know what it was until he was finished... as if the clay itself had given his mind a shape to work on.

"Hey Hiroshi, You hear about Makari and Keiko?" Ranma seemed to be intent upon the clay, but glanced up at Hiroshi when she spoke.

"Nah... so what's Makari gotten into this time?" Hiroshi smiled to think what the large man could have done to get into trouble.

"Actually, he was the guy that stopped it. Yoruma was picking on Keiko almost to the point where she was crying, and Makari just stepped in and tossed Yaruma aside like he wasn't nothin," Ranma frowned at the clay for a moment. *What am I making?* Ranma had no idea why the block of clay, which was both taller and wider than her, kept her attention.

"A big guy like Makari? I feel sorry for Yaruma," Hiroshi was feeling... better. His angst was almost completely gone, and he was having fun with his friend. What more could one ask?

"Yeah, especially since Makari threw him into Kodachi, who was visiting her Brother!" Ranma and Hiroshi laughed, imagining exactly what had happened to Yaruma.

"Hey, didja hear about Hushiro and Kinaka?" Hiroshi began shaving sections of clay off with his hand while he spoke.

"Yeah, someone told me about that. Principle Kuno wasn't happy that they trashed the math department, as well as putting that stink-bomb in his son's locker!" Ranma grinned as she recalled the several days where everyone had steered clear of Kuno... for an entirely different reason. His Kendo outfit had wreaked of rotten fish for three days. Ranma saw what Hiroshi was doing, and started mimicking... after about fifteen minutes of normal talk, Ranma felt quite a bit more relieved. *Huh... must be therapeutic...* Ranma thought as she held a ball of clay in her hand.

Then Ranma got an idea.

Hefting the lump of clay in her hands, Ranma turned to Hiroshi. "Yo, Hiroshi!" When her friend looked at her she caught him square in the face. Ranma laughed, and Hiroshi grinned as he brought his own ball of clay to bear, and launched it at Ranma.

This continued for hours on end, they both spoke of some of the things bothering them, some of the events happening in school that week, and most of the time they were either playing around or molding the clay. Through the course of it all, Ranma had forgotten about her terrible day and about Akane.

At one point, Hiroshi was calmly working on his clay, shaping it and thinking. The room had been silent for the last half hour, and Hiroshi looked over at Ranma, then back down at the clay. He was thinking about how much he missed his Mother and Father. *Maybe I should visit them, someday...*

Then Hiroshi looked again at Ranma. Hiroshi sighed a weary breath as he stared at his friend. She had fallen asleep in the chair, and had fallen forward so her face was planted in the clay. Hiroshi looked at his wristwatch, seeing that it was 2:38 a.m.

He stood and strode to the wash bucket next to the door and rinsed his arms off. He hung his black apron on the hanger inlaid on the wall.

He walked over to Ranma's inert form, looking down at his friend. She had had a rough day, and Hiroshi couldn't blame her if she was tired. *In fact I'm pretty tired myself...* Hiroshi yawned to accompany the thought.

He carefully pulled Ranma back, letting her fall into his arms. *Ranma is so slight as a girl... she's even smaller than Memeko.* Hiroshi felt sorry for his friend... her life and been tough on her, and it didn't seem to be getting any better. Maybe if he were to help, Ranma could patch up her torn existence.

*Maybe I'll try tomorrow...* Hiroshi looked down at Ranma as the girl let out a soft sigh and snuggled closer to Hiroshi. He smiled a bit, thinking about when he had put Kaehmi to bed, and finding a similararity between the two. Hiroshi walked out of the Vault, and saw the glow of a lamp waiting for him. He avoided the leaks in the ceiling and walked to the soft illumination. As he approached, he could see his sister waiting at the bottom of the ladder.

"Been down here a while, haven't you?" Memeko looked at Ranma with a bit of compassion. She adjusted the ladder so that Hiroshi could walk up it like stairs, and then went up herself, lamp in hand.

Hiroshi was either too tired, or unconcerned to answer his Sister's unimportant questions. He tightened his grip on Ranma and carefully walked up the ladder/stairs.

"...mhmmmm... Akane..." Hiroshi unconciously stroked Ranma's head, putting her back to sleep. Her hair felt... like silk. Red silk.

Hiroshi took Ranma to his room. Posters adorned the walls, as well as drawings. Flowers sat on a vase on Hiroshi's desk, memento's from Mihoko... and his bed was large and soft.

He carefully sat Ranma upright on his bed. Ranma's eyes were barely opened, verifying that she was, indeed, three-quarters asleep.

"...Hnnnn... Form tainted... Folded wrong..." Ranma muttered. Hiroshi left the room and came back moments later with a pair of PJ's, those of which had once belonged to his sister. Little fish and bubbles were printed all over the sky blue PJ's.

He pulled Ranma's filthy red chinese shirt off. He looked at it for a moment, then threw it into the dirty clothes bin. He quickly pulled the PJ's top over Ranma's head, and slid it over the rest of her voluptuous figure. He pulled Ranma's chinese slippers off and put them beside the bed. Ranma fell back asleep, plopping down onto the soft bed. Hiroshi pulled her pants off, and slid the PJ bottoms on, then threw the chinese slacks into the dirty clothes. His mind was running through how he could help Ranma. He turned away, and at the door looked back at his friend, lying peacefully on the bed.

"Guess it's the couch tonight, Hiroshi," He murmured to himself as he closed the door.

Ranma dreamt sweet dreams of clay and dancing the katas she had been taught. Ranma began to wonder where all the clay came from, and why it seemed to be trying to trap him.

In the dirty clothes bin, within the pocket of some chinese slacks, sits a piece of paper which could have changed the course of Ranma's life.

"Ranchan. Sorry. Come to Diner Tonight, Please?"

* * * * * *

Ranma stirred in bed. Her dreams melted away, forming into a new shape. Ranma was silently walking down a glowing path, the starlit sky seemed to surround her. She saw a tree and unconciously climbed into it. She looked out over the world, a peaceful rain spattered on the leaves.

Strangely she was not afraid of the water, and looking down she saw that she was indeed female. She looked back out over what now appeared to be water, and she was floating by on a raft. There were images filling her mind as she stared up at the starlit sky.

She saw Akane and the male Ranma. Akane was digging a pit, and Ranma was gazing at it with exaltation. After a moment, Ranma kissed Akane on the cheek and jumped into the hole. Akane started filling the hole in, all the while with tears in her eyes.

Ranma stirred again in bed, slightly uncomfortable with the image being offered. Then she relaxed, and she felt like she was sitting in the tree again.

She was watching a beautiful procession with all her friends and family... as Ranma waited at an altar. Akane was suddenly there with him, and they were wed. Mousse, Shampoo, Kuno, Cologne, and Kodachi all disappeared. Ryouga stood by Akari, offering her a peach.

Soun and Genma were dancing a waltz together, and Nodoka was quietly demolishing a marble obelisk.

Ranma and Akane walked toward the sun, their feet crunching loudly over marble chips. The sun turned black, and then it was night again.

Ranma saw her mother cleaving her in two while a silent Panda watched. Suddenly their was two Ranma's, and both fought eachother... then one seemed to engulf the other...

The image changed. Ranma saw Daisuke staring at a blackboard, and finally he wrote- RANMA=^_^- and something after it Ranma couldn't understand.

Ranma saw herself sitting at a dining table, holding crushed rose petals in her hand. Suddenly they turned to glass and cut her deeply when she clenched her fists.

Blood fell onto the bare ground and a garden sprang up. She saw two children playing in the flowers, one reminded her of Hiroshi, the other of herself. They were pretending martial arts, when suddenly a dark shadow rose over them.

A man with a mask asked if a small porcelain figurine was Ranko's, referring to the little girl.

The image shifted again. A green landscape with high hills surrounded an older Ranma, her hair unbound. She wore a dress of white, the sun reflected off of it with a glare.

Ryouga and Akane stood to her left, Nodoka and a man masked with a porcelain facemask to her right. They all looked down on an enormous palace, sparkling in the beautiful day.

Suddenly Ranma was not in the tree, she was walking down the glowing path again. But now she was surrounded by the hilly landscape, and she came to a fork in the road. Down one way was a man with a similar mask. The other held Akane and a long sought answer. Then the man took off his mask... and Ranma made a choice.

========To Hiroshi's room.

Sunlight shone into the room, illuminating the white walls and causing Ranma to squint her eyes shut. She unconciously put the pillow over her head, shading her sensitive eyes from the blinding sunlight. She drifted back to sleep for several hours. When she rolled back over, the sunlight hit her eyes again and she opened one a bit.

She sighed heavily as she sat up. She looked around, and then snapped her eyes open.

She was in someone elses bed... *Comfortable... yes... but not mine!*... She looked around the room. Various posters of Anime characters adorned the room, as well as pictures of Daisuke, Hiroshi, and Ranma. There were also pictures of people Ranma had never seen before, as well as drawings that were at Ranma's level.

Ranma placed her hand to her face, feeling a grainy residue rub off. *Dried clay?* Ranma slowly remembered the events of the previous day, some with more woe than others.

*Wow... I really musta been tired to fall asleep here.* Ranma couldn't recall when she had last slept in a bed as soft as the one she lay in.

She stretched and threw the blankets aside, noticing that she was wearing PJ's. The PJ's were cute, with small fishes and bubbles printed all over them, and Ranma chuckled a little, then frowned. *Where's my clothes?* She looked around, but didn't see her chinese slacks or vest anywhere. *And how'd I get into... these?* Ranma thought for a moment, and then concluded that someone must have changed her into the PJ's and taken her clothes for wash.

She stretched again and stood up, noticing she was also barefoot. She plodded out of the room and looked around. She appeared to be on the second floor, so she went down the hallway looking for the bathroom. After several minutes, she found a restroom.

She walked in and closed the door behind her. Walking over to the mirror she looked at herself. *Oy... I've had better day's.* Her hair was a mess, and clay flakes had hardened into her bangs. Her face was also covered with a slight amount of clay.

She turned on the cold water and quickly washed her face, and then the ends of her bangs to clean the clay off.

She looked back up at the mirror, and after verifying that she looked much better, proceeded to untie her hair.

Ranma finished then froze as she saw the door open. She turned around and saw Hiroshi standing shirtless with a towel flung over his shoulder.

"Ranma? sorry I didn't know you were awake," Hiroshi gave Ranma only a cursory glance, and opened the door to the bath. He turned on the faucet and began letting the tub fill.

Ranma shook herself out of her mild surprise and began brushing her hair... when she was finished it had grown to about the middle of her back. *Dang it!* She quickly tied the dragon's whisker back around her hair, and it suddenly stopped growing.

The Dragon's Whisker had worn off a while back, and had usually never effected Ranma's female half... recently she had had a relapse in her cursed form, for some odd reason..

Cologne had said that it was due to one of the concoctions that Shampoo had brought her in another attempt to seduce Ranma, the old crone did however give Ranma some special Shampoo that would deal with the relapse until it had passed.

"I'll be downstairs helping Memeko with Kaehmi, If you want you can have first dibs on the bath-?" Hiroshi looked up as he opened the door, shock written on his face.

"Ranma... your- your hair..." Hiroshi pointed at his friend in mock disbelief.

Ranma groaned, then threw the hairbrush at Hiroshi.

"I'll tell you at breakfast, you baka!" Hiroshi dodged the brush and rushed out the door, closing it behind him. Ranma "Hmphed" and pulled her PJ's off, throwing them in the basket. She grabbed a towel, slid open the Bath door, hung the towel on the wall and slowly stepped into the tub. She felt the change spread over her, the ever so slight tingling sensation causing her body to itch for a split second, and the shifting of body parts... and then she was a he.

"'Bout time... sheesh." Ranma relaxed in the Tub, thinking about the previous day and some of the things Hiroshi had talked about.

Ranma had always felt that Hiroshi and Daisuke had had much easier lives than he would ever lead... but he had found out from Hiroshi that even though they might not be powerful martial artists, they had their problems just like everybody else.

Hiroshi talked about being dumped by girls before, Ranma had told him that sometimes he had thought he would feel better off dumped. Hiroshi told Ranma that his life really wasn't so bad, Ranma just seemed to think it was so.

They had discussed some of the craziness inherent in Ranma's life, Ranma told Hiroshi some humorous tales of Ryouga, Shampoo, and Kuno.

Hiroshi found the Kuno stories more amusing, possibly because Hiroshi knew a lot more about Kuno than he did about Shampoo or Ryouga.

Most of the time was spent in silence, or talking about serious matters... which Ranma felt he had talked overly much about. Hiroshi had known he had problems... *But did you have to tell him about Mom?!* Ranma scolded himself.

Hiroshi had recited some poetry he had written, and Ranma listened intently. Hiroshi wasn't a half bad poet, and he didn't take it to extremes like Kuno usually did. In fact, most of his poetry was glorifying the simple things in life. Rainbows, trees, sunlight, rain.

Ranma noted that being in the presence of Hiroshi had a calming effect. He wasn't sure if it was Hiroshi's confident attitude, or his simplistic view of life itself. Both were rather nice thoughts... if he could look at life the way Hiroshi did he most likely wouldn't be as stressed as often.

Ranma sighed and proceded to wash his now long hair. After he had washed himself clean of the clay and grime, he stood up and left the tub, snatching the towel and wrapping it around himself.

A knock sounded on the door. "Hey Ranma, you done yet?" Hiroshi stood impatiently tapping his foot on the other side of the door.

"Yeah, I'll be out in a second!" Ranma grumbled at his friends impatience, then put the PJ's back on. Unfortunately, they were a bit tight and small. *Gonna have to find my clothes, or borrow some from Hiroshi.* Ranma opened the door.

Hiroshi Blinked and looked at Ranma for a moment, then stifled a laugh. "Th- That doesn't fit you as a guy..."

Ranma punched Hiroshi roughly in the arm with a grin. "Surprised you noticed, Baka," Ranma walked by Hiroshi in search of his clothes.

The smell of breakfast wafted to Ranma's nose, and his search changed to that of food when his stomach grumbled.

He walked into the kitchen, and Memeko glanced at him, flipping something in a frying pan.

She smiled as she saw what Ranma was wearing, and Ranma turned red. "Looking for your clothes, I assume?" Memeko flipped whatever was in the pan again with a flick of her wrist.

"Uh... yeah, I smelled the food while I was and decided to come down," Ranma looked at a plate, stacked high with pancakes. Another was piled with bacon, and yet another had eggs on it.

"My husband was a westerner... taught me how to cook some of the dishes, it's actually very good. I assumed you have a appetite like Hiroshi, so I'm sure there's enough for all," Memeko flipped the pancake into the air again, and it landed on the plate along with the rest of them.

"Uhm... thanks. About my clothes..." Ranma scratched the back of his head as he sat down.

Memeko had a strained look on her face, and she paused for a moment before she pulled out a bundle of clothes.

"Well... the thing is... it was Hiroshi's turn to do the laundry... and, I mean he really is no good..." Memeko showed him the vest and slacks, now of a size that would most likely fit Kaehmi.

Ranma stood up, and ran back up to the bathroom. The door was locked. Ranma banged on the door.

"HIROSHI!!! WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA SHRINKING MY FAVORITE OUTFIT!?!" Ranma was furious, someone tapped him on the shoulder. Ranma jumped in startlement. *How could someone sneak up and me not notice them?*

"Huh?" Ranma turned around to see a dripping Hiroshi holding a towel around himself.

"Did you want something, Ranma?" Hiroshi seemed calm and introspective, his usual self.

"You SHRANK my FAVORITE OUTFIT!!!" Ranma said, raising his hands above his head as he yelled... which I might add made him look quite silly in the PJ's.

Hiroshi blinked then looked down at the ground... "Sorry, Ranma... It's just I'm no good with washing clothes... once I turned half my wardrobe pink!" Ranma glared at Hiroshi, his friends eyes were staring at the ground, and Hiroshi's cheeks were a bright red.

"Hrrrnnn... Dammit Hiroshi, why can't anyone ever stay mad at you?!?" Ranma slapped his friend on his bare back, making Hiroshi emit a slight grunt.

"If you please... I would like to get dressed. You can borrow some of my clothes for today, just until you get back to the Dojo. I am _Really_ sorry," Hiroshi walked back to his room, and after a moment brought Ranma a casual white shirt, some jeans and a belt.

Ranma accepted the clothes and walked back into the bathroom to change.

========To Hiroshi's Kitchen

Ranma and Hiroshi ate at a ferocious rate, shoveling food into their mouths like they had been through a sudden famine. Neither of them actually appeared to be starving. Both reached for the last pancake, and Ranma hit Hiroshi on the head... hard.

Hiroshi fell back, dazed, and Ranma engulfed the pancake. After a moment, Ranma noticed Hiroshi lying on the floor.

"That... Hurt Ranma..." Hiroshi tried to sit up, his head still reeling.

"Hehehe... sorry. I forgot where I was. Me and Pop usually fight over the last scrap of food, it's kinda a tradition," Ranma helped Hiroshi stand, Hiroshi continued to sway.

"Mama... where's Auntie Ranma?" A familiar child's voice questioned from the Kitchen entryway. Ranma, Hiroshi, and Memeko all looked over at Kaehmi.... who was hugging a small stuffed dragon. She was dressed in PJ's with teddy-bears on them.

"She went out for a while, Little one... She'll be back either later today, or maybe tomorrow," Memeko smiled at her child, who was rubbing her eyes clear of sleep.

"You promise?" Kaehmi asked as she walked up to the table and sat down, opposite Ranma.

"I promise," Ranma said to the little girl. The girl looked up at him in puzzlement, then smiled as she pointed.

"You're Uncle Hiro-Chan's friend! I saw you on his wall when we were playing hide-and-go-seek! Do you know Ranma?" Kaehmi asked, as Memeko sat a plate in front of her. The plate had a pancake(Which Memeko had salvaged) and two pieces of bacon, of Which Kaehmi slowly started eating.

Hiroshi, Ranma, and Memeko all laughed a bit at the girl's question. "You could say I know her," Ranma said, winking at Hiroshi.

Someone wrapped on the window. Everyone looked at the visitor and groaned loudly.

Daisuke had his face pressed up against the window, a wide grin spread out over it.

"Should we let him in?" Ranma asked loudly, Daisuke nodded(Apparently he had heard).

"NO!" Everyone piped, and Daisuke made a mock-sad face. Kaehmi started laughing, and then everyone joined in.

"How about you two go outside and take Daisuke to town. Then he won't be in my hair while I try and clean," Memeko poured Kaehmi a glass of milk while she spoke.

"Gee... I don't know, I mean it's Daisuke..." Hiroshi laughed when Daisuke made an offended face. "Nah, we'll go with him. Be back around lunch-time, Sis!" Hiroshi stood up and walked to the door, Ranma soon followed.

When they opened the door, Daisuke was waiting for them. "Gimme a break, 'Roshi, Ranma get's to eat Memeko's fabulous cooking and I get the slump?!" Daisuke grinned while he spoke, showing that he wasn't truly offended.

"C'mon, you're here practically half the week. Besides, you annoy my sister," Hiroshi began walking with his hands in his pockets.

"Really? Well she is a great cook... what do you think Ranma?" Daisuke nudged Ranma in the shoulder, making Ranma grunt slightly.

"Actually, Hiroshi, you're Sis is a great cook! I mean she probably couldn't cook Okonomiyaki... like... ucchan... oh man..." Ranma broke into a run for his friends Okonomiyaki Shop. Hiroshi and Daisuke were vainly trying to keep up as Ranma disappeared up the road.

"What was all that about?" Daisuke scratched his head as Hiroshi spoke.

"Beats me."

========To Ucchan's

Ranma Slowed down as he approached the Restaurant, seeing a familiar girl outside Standing by Ucchan. *What's Akane doing here?* Ranma slowly walked up to his two Iinazuke.

Ukyou's eyes were very red, and Akane had an angry look on her face. Akane was the first to see Ranma standing in front of her.

"Ranma!!! Where were you last night!?!" Akane sounded simply furious, Ukyou looked up at Ranma with plain hurt in her eyes.

"I...I... I forgot, It's just that... what I mean is...," Ranma struggled for some explanation, tried grasping for some straw to hold onto. He found none.

"How... _COULD YOU_ Ranchan?!? I needed you here last night... it was so important..." Ukyou stifled some tears and walked back into the shop. Akane reached a hand out to her, wanting to help, knowing she couldn't.

"Ranma. I will give you one minute to explain yourself," Fire blazed in Akane's eyes, making Ranma feel like an ant confronted with an impassable obstacle.

"I... Yesterday... so many things... I had to... had to get away... Ran from... I'm sorry," Ranma's choppy excuse only angered Akane even more, and she launched Ranma into the sky with her mallet.

Ranma landed in the Koi pond at the Tendo Dojo. *Should've figured...* She stood up, shaking the water out of her long hair as she refastened her belt.

"Well Ranma... you've finally screwed up this time. I admit, I never thought you could be such a jerk," Ryouga hefted his umbrella in his hand. "After all this time Ranma, I didn't have to ruin your life... you did it all yourself!" Ryouga's laughter tore at Ranma, and she began attacking him. Ryouga dodged several of the blows and brought his umbrella down on Ranma's head. Ryouga smashed Ranma with several of his punches...

"Ai Ran!!!!" A female voice echoed as it sailed through the air, Shampoo's feet connected with Ryouga's face, sending the Lost-Boy flying back into the carp pond.

"Wo Da Ai Ran! Now we no have to worry about Spatula-Girl or Violent Tomboy Akane any more! We be together forever!" Shampoo hugged Ranma with no little amount of affection.

"Sh-Shampoo! What are you doing here?!" Ranma struggled to get free of the Amazon death grip of love.

"Shampoo hear you dump other fiancee's! Shampoo oh so happy Ranma chose her!" Ranma blushed and tried to escape some more.

"Ranma! I'll never allow you to Marry Shampoo! You- You- You pig!"

"Bweee!" Ryouga squeeled while Mousse tried squeezing the life out of the small blue piglet.

"Mousse idiot! That no Ranma!" Shampoo let Ranma go, and Mousse adjusted his glasses to see Ranma jumping onto the Tendo's roof.

"You'll not escape me so easily, Saotome!" Mousse jumped after Ranma, with Shampoo following trying to smash Mousse with her Bonbori.

"What'd I do to deserve this!" Ranma yelled as she jumped from rooftop to rooftop.

"Die Ranma!" Mousse cried, as he flung chains at Ranma, effectively pulling her down off the roof as Mousse tripped and fell into a swimming pool.

Ranma landed on a soft lawn, her gaze was drawn up to the house she had landed in front of.

"The Kuno Mansion," was written in Kanji, and Ranma groaned.

Shampoo, in the back yard of the Mansion, was trying to beat a wet duck half to death.

"Forsooth, could the winds of fate have smiled upon my dismall depression? To bring me that which my heart longs for in such a way! Oh My Love!" Kuno snatched up a severely bound Ranma and walked back into the house.

"Kuno put me down!" Ranma screamed, flailing her feet and trying to free herself from Mousse's chains.

Kuno ignored her, "Ahh, to think that you would gift me with your presence! And in such an odd fashion! Have no fear, for your woo's are not wasted on a cold heart... and yet... I cannot decide whom I love more! The fair Tendo Akane, or thee my mysterious Pig-Tailed girl!"

Kuno paused, apparently deep in thought, "THERE IS NOT ENOUGH LOVE FOR BOTH!" Ranma managed to wriggle free of the chains and escape Kuno's treacherous claws. She ran out into the back yard of the Kuno residence, with a infatuated Tatewake hot on her heels.

"Wo Da Ai Ran!" Shampoo yelled, Wrapping her arms around Ranma once more.

"Ranma Saotome, DIIIEEE!!!" A wet Ryouga flew through the air, bringing his fists down where Ranma had been, and causing a huge piece of earth to explode, leaving a crater.

"You No Hurt Ai Ran!" Shampoo yelled, as she started hitting Ryouga with her Bonbori. Ryouga started to parry with his umbrella, and occasionally struck back at Shampoo.

A duck started flying around Ryouga's head, causing him much distraction from the battle.

"Die FOUL RED WITCH!" Echoed a feminine voice as Kodachi ran out of the Kuno Mansion and straight for Ranma.

"Insanity.. Complete INSANITY!" Ranma muttered as she jumped over Kodachi. Kodachi wheeled around and started Attacking Ranma with her clubs.

"NO! Don't hurt my Goddess!" Kuno pulled out his Boken and started slashing his sister, causing her to pause in her attack and start assaulting her brother.

There was a muffled *Splash!* and suddenly there was a purple cat clinging to Ranma lovingly.

"YAAAAAHHHH!!!!" Ranma ran out of the Kuno estate, with an angry Ryouga, Mousse, Kuno, and Kodachi on her tail.

She managed to get back to the Tendo Dojo, flinging the cat off along the way.

"You Will Die RANMA!" Ryouga Cried.

"You shall not see the light of another day, Red Witch!" Kodachi cackled.

"I will not let you hurt my Beloved Goddess!" Kuno chortled.

"QUACK!" Mousse Quacked.

"Ranma!' Happosai cried, as the old man latched onto Ranma's ample bosom.

"GET OFFA ME YA HENTAI!!!" Ranma flung Happosai into the Dojo wall as he ran into the house.

Genma picked Ranma up as she ran into the house. "Ranma, be a man and face your enemy head on," So Genma threw Ranma back outside, and quickly closed the door, turning back to the Shogi board. "Your Move Tendou," He said, staring back at the board and blinking as to WHY he had just lost another two pieces!

Ranma blinked at the door, then slowly turned around, looking at all the people that had been chasing her. Ryouga was gritting his teeth, his hands clenched in fists, Kodachi was laughing maniacally as she waved that Ribbon of hers around, Kuno was spouting poetry for his beloved pig tailed girl, and Shampoo was clawing a very abused duck.

"...eep..." Ranma managed to get out before he was mobbed by Ryouga and Kodachi... fairly soon Kuno engaged Kodachi and Ryouga was the only one fighting a very tired Ranma.

"Well... If that's the way you're gonna be about it, sonny..." Happosai suddenly reappeared, then pulled out a rather large Happodaikarin.

Ranma and the rest gulped right before he threw it.

========Back to Ucchan's(About when Ranma flew off)

Daisuke and Hiroshi both showed up at the front doors, where a furious looking Akane was pacing back and forth.

"Huff...Huff...Huff... Did you see Ranma?" Daisuke asked, looking around.

"The Baka had to catch a flight, the insensitive jerk," Akane glared at Daisuke, and Diasuke smiled, and Akane's mood seemed to lighten a bit.

"You didn't... hit him did you?" Hiroshi asked, Daisuke groaned and gave Hiroshi a matter of fact look.

"And what if I did? He was being an insensitive jerk, He was supposed to be here last night... where did the Baka go?!" Akane looked down at the ground, her face red and her gaze furious.

"Uhm... Daisuke. Could you, like, go inside for a sec?" Hiroshi patted Daisuke on the shoulder.

"Why does it feel like there's going to be a nuclear blast?" Daisuke muttered as he walked into Ucchan's. Hiroshi leaned up against the wall, and Akane stared at him quizzically.

"Sorry... it was my fault he wasn't here last night. I had no idea he had a prior obligation, but it looked like he really needed to cheer up," Hiroshi looked up at the blue sky, and Akane's gaze started to burn again.

"It was... your fault? What do you mean?!" Akane felt a little foolish, not having listened to what little Ranma had said.

"To explain, let me tell you something. You might love Ranma, in fact I'm fairly sure you do... and I completely understand your side of the story when you called off the engagement-"

"He... told you about that?" Akane asked, letting herself relax in near shock.

Hiroshi gave Akane a flat look, "Akane, the entire _SCHOOL_ knows about that. It's not like you kept it a secret, going out with Kuno and all," Hiroshi looked back up at the sky, as Akane began to fume again.

"It's not like that... I'm going out with Kuno only _ONE_ time! I'm going to tell him I'm not interested, and try to tell him about Ranma..." Akane looked thoughtful and maybe even a little sad.

"That's a start. Try helping Ranma, instead of constantly hurting him. Do you know what Ranma and I were doing last night?" Hiroshi looked at Akane's eyes.

Akane's mind whirled at the possibility, and she turned quite red, "You mean... you... and she..."

Hiroshi's mind clicked into the sexual implications of his question, "NO! No, how could you _THINK_ such a thing?! We were making clay statues... which I might add are not finished... but do you want to know something? When Ranma was down there, just relaxing and having fun, there was something in those eyes I had never seen before. Maybe it was a bit of happiness, maybe it was just a weary joyfullness... but whatever it was, Ranma hadn't felt it in a very long time," Hiroshi looked back up at the sky, leaving Akane a bit stunned.

"Ranma's life has been hard on him, Akane... how would you feel if you had never really known your mother? If you had been ripped away from her at Ranma's young age?" Hiroshi shut his mouth abruptly, realizing that he might have said too much.

"What? He never told me how old he was when Genma took him training..." Akane found herself thinking about her own mother, and exactly how she would feel if she had never really known her.

"Five. He was five. You had at least three years on him, three years more than he did. Do you know how hard it is for him to struggle through each day? Do you know how tired he really is? Daisuke and I have seen day's where the only thing he wants to do is sleep... sleep through all the troubles he once said. It ain't easy being Ranma, so give my Friend some slack!" Hiroshi stood back up, and walked into Ucchan's.

Akane watched him walk into Ukyou's, thinking about everything he had to say, wondering if it wasn't something she had heard already.

========In Ucchan's

Daisuke quietly ate his Okonomiyaki, noticing that it was a bit off for Ukyou's usual skills. He wasn't sure what was bugging Ukyou, but he knew it was something significant... basically from the deduction that Ukyou was _Crying_.

It was times like these that Daisuke wished he had Hiroshi's skills at Human Relations, Daisuke had never had much luck with women. *Still... I guess someone's gotta talk to her.*

"Hey, Ukyou... wanna talk about it?" Daisuke murmured in a low voice, he wasn't sure if Ukyou had heard, but after a moment she turned around to look at Daisuke.

"I know I might not have answers worth your time... but maybe you could just tell me what's bugging you," Daisuke poked his Okonomiyaki, waiting for a response.

"*Snif*... I don't know... It's just that, well My Mother was here last night... it was very important that Ranma be here! Why wasn't he here..." Ukyou's eyes clouded up again. This time she managed to hold back the tears.

"C'mon, Ukyou, it can't be really that bad. I mean... how often has Ranma been able to go anywhere without the threat of death-by-fiancee-or would-be-fiancee hovering over his head?" Daisuke smiled a bit and looked up at Ukyou. Ukyou tried to hide a smile, remembering the many times she had also hit Ranma with her spatula.

"I... I guess you have a point... but where was he?!" Ukyou's tone took on a more angry quality.

"There's this theory I have, which of course I stole from somewhere, that states 'Any given object's molecular structure is given only to so much strain, as the more organic creatures are more complex and therefore prone to more strain on the molecular bonds' my own addition to this hypothesis is that, under too much strain we all go flying off our rocker... and... eh... well I kinda caused Ranma to do that yesterday," Daisuke watched to see if Ukyou had understood him. She seemed puzzled for a moment, and then realization seemed to dawn on her.

"Do you mean that Ranchan had a bad day, and after all the bad things piled up... the straw broke the camels back?" Ukyou felt a bit of distaste using that specific cliche, but it was accurate for the purpose.

Daisuke seemed to nod for a second, "Yeah.... I suppose that could be the layman's term for it. Besides, I saw Ranma this morning over at Hiroshi's, I suppose he crashed there to get away from the insanity," Daisuke kind of shrugged, and Ukyou thought a moment, and then got an angry look on her face.

"Are you saying that Ranma was hiding from me?!"

Daisuke opened his mouth to argue the point, but wasn't sure what to say. *Geez... without fail, every time I try to help, they take it the wrong way...*

"No, I don't think that's what Daisuke meant," Hiroshi walked into the restaurant, saving Daisuke an embarrassing situation. *ThankyouHiroshi ThankyouHiroshi-ThankyouHiroshi...* Daisuke chanted in his mind.

"That's what it sounded like to me!!!" Ukyou put her hands on her hips and glared at Hiroshi. Hiroshi simply sat down and looked at Ukyou for a moment before speaking.

"Ranma ran from school because he had a nervous breakdown. He ran into me, told me what had happened, and I offered him some hot water. He met my Sister and my Niece... he ended up in my own private sanctuary, and we started carving clay statues. I'm afraid he forgot all about the entire day and enjoyed himself... in fact, his not showing up was most likely my fault," Ukyou looked at Hiroshi's light brown eyes, and wondered what he had meant by what he had said.

"How is it your fault?" Ukyou leaned against the counter, listening intently to Hiroshi.

"I... suppose I encouraged him to stay. He seemed very distraught Ukyou, in fact I think he needs a break like that more often," Hiroshi rubbed his hands together nervously.

"Ranchan knows he can come to me if he needs to relax!" Ukyou said in an offended tone.

"Actually, Ukyou, I think Hiroshi has a point," Akane stood at the door, her arms folded behind her.

"What do you mean he has a point, Akane?!" Ukyou hadn't quite grasped the concept that Hiroshi had silently implied.

"He means he can't talk to you anymore... not like he used to Ukyou. The day you admitted your love for him was the day you joined all the complications of his life... is that what you meant, 'Roshi?" Akane sat down beside Ranma's friend as Hiroshi nodded his head.

"Ukyou... to tell you the truth, I think what Akane did the other night... added to all the things that have built up over time... He's a bit scared. Ranma feels he has no control over his life, and you know something? I think he's right. Last night, when we were working on our statues, Ranma seemed more at peace than I have ever seen him," Hiroshi recalled the previous night, the conversation, the soul-searching, the happiness which he had shared with his friend.

"I... I never knew... poor Ranchan..." Ukyou's eyes clouded up again, and she could feel the tears begin to well up within her.

"-Yet So tortured are the Blessed, for their Pain could be our Bliss, and our Blind-Folded heart see's only what it Wish..." Hiroshi smiled at his own thought, and then pulled out his notepad and pencil, quickly writing it down.

"Ah, Shutup, 'Roshi! Quit showing off! ...damned notepad... stupid luck with women..." Daisuke mumbled, and everyone laughed.

"Fine! Do any of you know The Basic Mechanics of the Chaos Theory?!" Everyone scratched their heads and looked at eachother, shrugging. Then they all began laughing again.

"Well I guess I've one-upped you on that, at least!" Daisuke joined in their mirth.

======== To the Tendo Dojo

Kasumi finished bandaging Ranma's wounds and closed the first-aid kit. Ryouga, Shampoo, and Mousse all had similar bandages. Happosai sat quietly with a smug expression as he smoked his pipe.

"Ranma, It was not wise to invoke the Master's wrath!" Genma stood at the exit to the back yard, arms crossed and eyes half shut.

"Yes, My boy, if the Master had truly been angry, you could have been seriously injured!" Soun stood by Genma with the same stance and solemn mood.

"Quit callin' him that! He's no martial arts Master!!! He's Happosai!" Ranma lept up as she spoke, pointing down at the offended old coot as she insulted him.

Soun and Genma hugged eachother when they saw the glare from Happosai's beady little eyes.

"Ai Lan right, he no Master, only aged and decrepit pervert!" Shampoo leaped up and latched onto Ranma defensively, as if she was expecting an attack from the Lecherous old man.

Ranma winced in pain, "GET OFFA ME!!!" Ranma wrenched himself from Shampoo's clutches, looking back at his iinazuke. She had a disturbed and confused look on her face... usual for Shampoo.

"That... That hurts. Sorry," Ranma rubbed the back of her head as she looked at the floor.

"No need be, I forgive Ai Lan! Hiya, we be married tomorrow!" Shampoo bounded off as Mousse stood.

The half-blind martial artist lifted Nabiki up, "You'll pay, Ranma! For stealing my Shampoo from me! Oh... Shampoo! We meet tomorrow... at noon," Nabiki conked Mousse on the head with her calculator.

"Ranma's over their, you bat-brained idiot," Nabiki sat back down as Mousse put his glasses on, Mousse glared at Nabiki for a moment, and then turned his gaze to Ranma. He lifted a finger and pointed.

"My challenge still stands, Ranma. I hope you'll be a man and accept it!" Mousse ran out the door after Shampoo.

" 'I hope you'll be a man...' oh, he'll get his for that comment!" Ranma steamed.

"Ranma... You have insulted my experience for the last time, boy! Now you will face the wrath you have brought on yourself!" Happosai's eyes were glowing a bright red, and Ranma turned to him with an angry glare.

"I ain't got time for this, ya old coot!" Ranma turned to go to the bathroom, and fell over... a fiery pain shearing through her shoulder. *Remember what 'Roshi told you...* echoed through Ranma's mind.

Soun began weaping, Genma turned his back in resignation.

"Never underestimate your elders, boy," Ranma forced herself to stand up at Happosai's words. She spun around to face him.

The aged martial artist flinched when he saw the look in Ranma's eyes. Serenity. *Eh?!?! When did that get there?* Happosai began building up his chi, and after a moment, the old man recognized a glint of fear in Ranma's eyes.

The glint suddenly vanished in what appeared to be strict concentration, and a peace fell over Ranma's features, a relaxing of her muscles caused Happosai to strike.

The fierce flames of chi-fire licked at Ranma, a fire hot enough to melt a dragons skin... yet for the life of Happosai, he couldn't understand why Ranma had not been harmed.

The force seemed to bend around her, as if there were some other force protecting Ranma. Ranma's calm only increased.

"Oh?! Then take _THIS_ Ranma!!!" Happosai began concentrating intensely on his chi, focusing everything he had into it.

Ranma smiled as Happosai's chi winked out and he fell to the ground unconcious.

Everyone stared at Ranma in amazement, Genma and Soun had a shocked look on their faces.

"How... How did you..." Genma stammered, looking down at Happosai with wonder in his eyes.

"Simple... I fixed it in my mind that nothing could harm me, and surrounded myself with my own chi. I kept that in place by holding onto the thought of serenity, and I relaxed... I convinced myself that the pervert couldn't touch me with his chi," Ranma smiled and then collapsed herself.

Ryouga twitched on the ground along with Ranma, having been caught in Happosai's initial blast.

"Ra-...-Nmaaa...." Ryouga wheezed.

Genma picked his son-turned-daughter up and carried her upstairs. "You deserve a rest Ranma," He muttered as he opened the door to their room.

"Naah, I'm not tired. I can... still... zzzzz" Ranma fell asleep in her Father's arms, and Genma gently sat her down on her futon.

"Rest well, you need your energy for tomorrow Son," Genma walked to the door, looking back once with pride at his Son.

* * * * * *

Ryouga woke up battered bruised. He sat up with a loud groan and looked around. He saw he was in Ranma's room, and that he was lying on Genma's futon. His head throbbed with an unsteady beat, yet the only thing he could recall was a cold blue fire engulfing him, and then darkness.

He stood, finding himself not entirely stable as he wobbled on his feet. He looked down at Ranma, his Rival seemed to be in a blissful rest, Ryouga could see the happy smile on her face.

"Ranma... once again I've been harmed by _Your_ foolishness!" Ryouga threw off his pack and rummaged around in it. *Ahhh, Tent, Flashlight, blow torch, 500 feet of rope, weather balloons, Hitler's brain... hmmm... really should get rid of that, starting to smell... AHA!* Ryouga pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen. He quickly scratched out a message and stuffed it into Ranma's hand.

Ryouga threw his backpack on and walked out the door. *Hmmm... now which way was out?* The Lost boy chose a direction and began walking... he ended up in the bathroom.

Ryouga turned back around and left the bathroom. Five minutes later he was in Ranma's room again. He growled and left once more. He ended up in the back yard this time. *Well... at least I got outside.* Ryouga looked around, then jumped onto the roof of the Dojo. He looked around, then lept to a new building.

After several minutes, he managed to leave the area that the Tendo's lived in, finding himself several blocks away.

He thought back, to the first time he had met Ranma... His Rival had gracefully leaped over the rest of the crowd, clutching the last of the bread. Ryouga had looked up in awe at the graceful sight... before Ranma landed on his head.

*It's a funny thing about my head. It seems to attract all sorts of projectiles...* Ryouga dwelled on the thought for a moment, and finally found that he was unable to count how many times his head had been used for target practice, or even a stepping stone. Most of the time by Ranma.

He resumed his original thought, forgetting his path like he does so many times, and lost his way. He recalled the steady Routine Ranma and he had fallen into that fateful day, the snatching of the bread by Ranma, the ongoing fights, and the final victor walked away with the bread. Ranma.

Then there had been news, Ranma was leaving. Ryouga had never really had a friend before... but Ranma came close. He challenged Ranma to a duel... a final parting fight before forever they were split. Ryouga's heart had sunk when he had arrived home to find Ranma had already left.

He had vowed to get even with Ranma, that he would chase him to the ends of the earth and make him pay for leaving that duel of honor. He had found him... years later.

*How long have I wasted? How long has this rivalry been going on? I never meant it to be this way... but Dammit. It's Ranma's fault he left... my only friend left without even saying goodbye.* Ryouga's heart sank. He had never really had any friends to relate to, nobody who could understand him. Not even Ranma fully understood.

Ryouga didn't have friends for a reason... he was always getting lost, so any long term relationships could never develop between him and other children his age. There was that, and the fact he was a Hibiki. A martial artist by trade. Many of the normal children feared him and his awesome power. The others saw him as an idol, to be worshipped for his strength. Nobody saw him as Ryouga. Not even Ranma.

*He should have understood... he should have seen how we were alike. He was alone as well, with only his Father for company, and that's not saying much. He was a martial artist, I was a martial artist.* Ryouga shook his head as Raindrops slowly started to fall from the greying sky... he pulled out his umbrella, unfurling it to protect him from the change.

*So I followed him. I became stronger for it, and if he had completed our duel when I next met him... I would have thanked him for the adventure. But then he did it... the one thing I couldn't forgive... the Curse.* Ryouga gritted his fanged teeth as he remembered. His body melting into the small black form... he could feel the difference.

And Ranma had said that Ryouga was lucky. *He doesn't have to worry about being eaten... he doesn't have to worry about being stuck a man in a pig's body... like Herb and his damned Chiisuiton.* Ryouga recalled the horror he had felt when he realized that he was stuck a pig... he recalled the anguished quacking that Mousse had emitted when they had both realized the mistake.

*What's his problem anyways?! He has three beautiful women who care for him deeply, and he's complaining about a curse like that?! The arrogant snot!* Ryouga's teeth grinded, making a squeeking noise.

Finally there was Akane. Ryouga's heart sank when he remembered who she dreamt of at night... the almost intangible whispers of "Ranma" still rang in his ears. He could love her so much better than Ranma... Ranma who was too prideful to take his curse in stride, accept it as fate and be done with it.

Ryouga had done that. He had realized that his curse had been a direct product of his stubborn effort to fight Ranma... yet that did not diminish Ranma's responsability for his plight. Ranma had knocked him into the pool, did the man feel no guilt?

*Ranma... tomorrow we will finish this. Once and for all.* Ryouga blinked, and then looked around. He was in the middle of a forest... on a cloudy night... where he couldn't see the stars. *Dammit.*

======== To Nekohanten

Shampoo burst into the restaurant with a bundle of energy as thunder boomed in the distance, and it began to rain. Cologne stared at her great great-granddaughter with a bit of curiosity. Shampoo was obviously very happy... but at what, Cologne couldn't tell. *Let us narrow, then...*

Cologne recalled how many times her Grandaughter had acted thus, finding that there were only two times. Shampoo acted in this way either when she defeated a very difficult foe, or Ranma did something that surprised and excited her. Cologne chose the latter.

"Well now, what did Son-In-Law do this time, Shampoo?" Cologne was busy opening shop, and after a moment, Shampoo calmed down enough to sit.

"Ranma not engaged with Tomboy... and got Spatula girl angry alot!" Shampoo beamed with happiness.

Cologne frowned. She had witnessed multiple times when Akane had simply called off the wedding. Ukyou, on the other hand, was a bit of a surprise. Not much of one, but just a bit. After all, she had blasted Ranma into things with that Spatula more often than not.

"Perhaps your excitement is a bit premature, Granddaughter. After all, Tendo Akane has done this sort of thing before. Miss Kuonji is a bit of a surprise, but Ranma has called her anger on him many times as well. Let me talk to son in law-"

"That won't be necessary, Old Hag. If Ranma has an engagement with Shampoo, I shall crush him... I will show who is the better man!" Surprisingly, Mousse was holding Cologne. He was not wearing glasses, either. Cologne wondered how he had gotten into the restaurant without her hearing, or seeing him.

"Mousse? How did you see me without... those idiot-eyes of yours?" Shampoo giggled at the crude joke. Mousse shot her an angry look.

"I've been training... it's not perfect yet, but it will have to do. Implementation of the keener senses!" Mousse dropped Cologne with a laugh, and Cologne whacked his shins with the stick.

"Mousse, you'll never beat Ranma! You are outclassed. Give up, you're not worthy of Shampoo anyways!" Cologne crossed her arms.

Mousse gave a scornful look at Cologne, and then a sad look filled his eyes when he looked up at Shampoo. *Ne? Mousse's eyes... so beautiful. Why I not notice before? What I saying?!* Shampoo jerked her eyes away from Mousse's. Her would-be-lover stared for a moment, and then looked back at Cologne.

Determination was clear in his voice, yet it shook with half-controlled grief, "I Have to _TRY_," Mousse turned his back on Cologne and began walking to the door.

"You're a fool, you blind Idiot, if you ever think you will marry my Granddaughter," Cologne narrowed her eyes in contempt and loathing at Mousse.

Mousse looked back, and threw down his glasses, shattering them into crystal shards. Shampoo caught the look of utter depression in Mousse's eyes and drew in an involuntary breath.

"Can't even Fools have wishes?" Mousse dwelled at the doorstep before producing an umbrella from his sleeves, lighting flashed as he opened the door... and strode out into the rain.

Shampoo took several steps, reaching out a hand to the disappearing Mousse, before Colognes staff stopped her.

"What do you think you're doing?! Let the fool fail... he will fail you know. He has never been worthy of anything in his life. He is a shame to the Joketsuzoku tribe... let him be humiliated," Colognes words didn't completely reach Shampoo.

"Tell me, Hibichan... Why Mousse so serious?! He sound like... He sound like he never see Shampoo again... he sound like he afraid he lose Shampoo forever..." Shampoo's eyes threatened to stream forth tears, but the prideful amazon kept them back. *How one night be so happy... and so sad? Why Shampoo no feel like being happy with Ranma anymore...? ...Mousse...*

Cologne felt bile rise in her throat as she saw her Granddaughter's reaction. She softened her heart a bit, remembering what it was like to love.

"If Mousse loses tomorrow, he will be shamed in his own eyes. He will leave mankind, and wander till his death," Cologne said the last words like a death sentence.

After a pause, she began again, "Mousse knows that you are closer to marriage than ever before... Soon you will marry Ranma, and all will be well. Forget Mousse, he is a fool of no importance," Cologne's firm tone returned as she spoke of marriage. Shampoo started crying, no sobs, just tears.

"What if... What if Shampoo no want Ranma? What if Shampoo go with M-"

"Say it and you are no blood of mine."

"I Want-"

"Say it and YOU ARE _NO_ BLOOD OF MINE!!!" Cologne's voice nearly wavered, the loud tone reverberating through the building. Shampoo shook with tears, and started sobbing. Cologne saw this with anger. She began to speak, a recitation that she had spoken to Shampoo a dozen times.

"The Laws of the tribe are all, The Laws of the Tribe cannot be argued. The Laws dictate our lives, order our minds, focus our thoughts... and preserve our kind. There is no exception, there is no compromise... the laws are what make us Strong. We will be strong. Weakness is not tolerated, and the weak are not fit to pass on their line. Those who are weak and can no longer prove themselves shall walk the walk of the endless, till their time comes to the end of that path. We are Joketsuzoku, the last tribe of Amazons. In order to survive, the law must be followed. Those disobeying the law will be killed-" Shampoo flinched at the words and stopped crying, stark pain and anger written in her eyes as Cologne silently continued, both speaking, and setting up for businesss.

"-Those who oppose the Law will be persuaded or die, Those who refuse the law shall have it pressed upon them, for the betterment of the Tribe. Those who interfere with the law are subject to death, or a likeness thereof. Those who continue to interfere are subject to lobotomy of memory. Those who cannot find the law in their hearts will be shown the true way with the talents of the Amazon. Those who cannot suffer our wrath are not worthy of Honor. Those who interfere in our Honor are subject to our wrath..." Cologne rattled on, for fifteen minutes. Cologne had been young when she had memorized the text of law, and she knew the fine details. Cologne ignored the looks Shampoo was giving her, acting completely oblivious to her Grandchild's feelings. *What is best for us, I will have. Her feelings will not interfere with the arrangement... or else...*

Cologne threw Shampoo her apron, as customers started arriving. "Get to work, Shampoo," She said in a tone of most serious meaning.

Shampoo stared at Cologne for a moment... then put her apron on. "Yes Hibichan," And she began, yet Shampoo could not help but pause every once in a while and look out into the rain... at what might have been a better choice.

======== To Ucchan's.

"- And I said to him, 'That _IS_ my face!' " Everyone laughed at Daisuke's joke, and the grinning boy flashed a look at Ukyou, winking his eye.

Ukyou laughed harder as she stared at his mostly-healed black eye. Several people came in to the store and sat in a booth.

"Well, another day another dollar... Thanks Daisuke, Hiroshi," Ukyou grasped Daisuke's hand for a moment, and then walked over to the first booth with people.

"Daisuke... I suppose I know why Ranma hangs around you two-" Akane was cut off by Daisuke.

"Naturally, it's my stunning personality... almost blinds the poor boy..." Hiroshi and Daisuke clapped eachother on the back and started laughing at Daisuke's comment.

Several of the people in the booth laughed along with the two boys, and Ukyou smiled again as she returned.

"Seriously. You two are great friends... I wish some of my friends were as caring as you two were," Akane smiled when Daisuke blushed, and Hiroshi produced a soft smile.

"C'mon, Akane. You've _GOTTA_ have some friends that are as kind and caring as we are!" Hiroshi looked at Akane as he spoke. He thought about the deep conversations that Ranma and he had had down in the Vault.

"Not really... I mean nobody that I can really talk to. There is P Chan-" Akane paused in her speech when Hiroshi began rolling around on the ground laughing.

"What? Was it something I said?" Akane looked a bit offended that Hiroshi would act so... oddly.

"NO! Ha..No.. it's just... well I guess I was just recalling how much your pet pig hates Ranma," Hiroshi smiled and picked himself back up off the ground, seating himself back on the stool he had originally been sitting in.

Akane glared evilly at Hiroshi, "I would hate Ranma too if he was constantly picking on me!"

Daisuke smiled, "What? You mean he doesn't already? Hmmm... I guess 'KawaiiKune' and 'Tomboy' don't count?"

Hiroshi chuckled while Akane turned red, after a moment of silence, Hiroshi turned to Akane. "To be a bit on the practical side, Akane. You Love Ranma... at least I think you do. Maybe it's Ranma's way of telling the pig he likes him... but think of this. If something always scratched you and bit you and made your life a living hell... would you be nice to it?"

Daisuke considered what was left of his Okonomiyaki, and stabbed it with his fork. "Good point, 'Roshi... never thought of that. So whadda ya say, Akane?" Daisuke stuffed the remainders of his Okonomiyaki into his mouth.

"I...Uh..." Akane looked up at Hiroshi, seeing the glimmer of triumph in the boy's eyes. "I uh... I suppose not... Sorry," Akane looked out the door and saw a familiar white-robed Amazon walking through the rain.

"What's Mousse doing out in weather like this? Shouldn't he be at Nekohanten?" Hiroshi and Daisuke both looked at eachother then back out the door.

"Beats us, maybe I should find out," Hiroshi was a bit curious himself... Mousse usually was a regular at the Cat Cafe, fawning over his illustrious Shampoo. What he was doing out in the rain on a work day was something Hiroshi wanted to know.

"I'll go with you," Akane stood by Hiroshi as Hiroshi walked to the doors. They both looked back at Daisuke.

"Hey. you must be insane if you think I'm going out in weather like this. What do you think I am, the third stooge?" Daisuke turned around and was about to order another Okonomiyaki, when Akane and Hiroshi lifted him up and dragged him kicking and screaming out of Ucchan's.

"Wasn't that Daisuke?" One of the patrons asked.

"Yup... that boy should be committed," The customers went back to eating their food.

======== Outside, in the Rain.

Mousse walked slowly away from the Nekohanten, never daring to look back. *You've done it this time, you blind fool... Why couldn't you have let things go on the way they were?* *Because... I would lose Shampoo.* *You're a fool to think that you could ever beat Ranma... and without your glasses!* *No... I can't beat Ranma. Even fools can have wishes... Even the meek have their dreams... Shampoo...*

Mousse looked up at the rain, wondering if he should have ever tried gaining her love. He recalled when they had first met... something had jumped in his heart, a fire had begun to burn... which no matter how hard he tried, would never cease to burn.

"Mousse! What are you doing out in the pouring rain?!" Mousse blinked for a moment as he looked at the blurry figure, then he recognized the voice, and the smell of her perfume.

"I can't stay at Nekohanten anymore, Akane. I have challenged Ranma to a final battle tomorrow," Mousse strained his eyes as he saw two more blurs enter his vision. Judging by the height of the other two blurs, they were men... but their smell and aura's Mousse didn't recognize.

"Who are you two?" Mousse asked, pointing at the intangible blurs.

"I'm Hiroshi, and this is Daisuke," The blur on the right said. "We're some of Ranma's friends," The other blur moved slighty, and Mousse thought that it had nodded.

"Why do you want to fight Ranma again? I mean, you can't possibly beat him... It's not that you're bad Mousse, it's that Ranma is just a touch better." Akane paused as she saw grief in Mousse's beautiful blue eyes.

Then his words caught up with her completely, "What do you mean _FINAL_ battle?! You make it sound like your leaving!" Akane looked over at Daisuke, who was shrugging his shoulders. Hiroshi seemed to be in thought.

"I... am. I know I cannot beat Ranma... when I lose this battle... I am- I am going to die," Mousse stumbled over the last few words, uncomfortable about the implications.

"What?! You- You can't! Do you know how many friends you'll hurt if you... do you know how Shampoo will feel?!" Akane was straining her voice, trying to keep it level without any wavering of sorrow.

"It is the Amazon law. 'Those who can no longer Prove themselves shall walk the walk of the Endless, till they come to the end of that path' I am sorry. It is the way things are," Mousse began walking again, Akane was tired, angry, and had had about enough of everyone's bull-crap. She stormed off in the other direction.

Hiroshi snapped out of his thought, realizing a question needed to be asked.

"Mousse. What if you win?" Daisuke looked at Hiroshi as Mousse stopped and turned around to look.

Hiroshi's eyes connected with Mousses, and he Knew. Mousse wasn't going to win... not because of his glasses, not because Ranma was better... but because he wanted to die. He wanted to die without Shampoo... because Cologne would never allow such a union.

Mousse began walking again.

"Hiroshi... I suppose we're going to go help our bud out, Ne?" Daisuke slapped his friend on the shoulder.

"Daisuke, if things go unchanged... Ranma might not ever get over Mousse's death. He'll feel responsible for the rest of his life. We've gotta somehow make him lose," Hiroshi took in a deep breath, realizing the task ahead.

"Easy for you to say... all I'm worried about is not getting a cold, you Baka!" Daisuke walked back toward his own house, passing Ucchan's on the way.

"No... Daisuke. It's not easy for me to say," Hiroshi began walking to the Tendo Dojo, dwelling on the previous night.

Ranma had mentioned Ukyou to him many times before... and he had also mentioned that things had... changed when he had found out about Genma's promise to Ukyou's father.

All in all, Ranma had told Hiroshi some things he had _NEVER_ told anyone. Like how hard it was for people to understand him. Hiroshi thought he understood... but did he really?

What really bothered Hiroshi, though, is that Ranma had trouble throwing fights. He would flat out refuse to do it, which made Hiroshi's job a whole lot harder.

* * * * * *

Ranma woke up, a sleeping Panda lay by her. She rubbed her eyes and sat up, finding herself still bandaged and still wearing Hiroshi's clothes. She tore away the bandages and checked herself for lasting marks. The clothes she had borrowed were now mostly dry.

*Actually, they fit decent in both my forms...* Ranma stood up and looked out the window, groaning as she realized she had slept through the whole day. The stars lit up the dark night from the sky as Ranma stared peacefully out at them. She plucked at the drying shirt she was wearing, it had been soaked hours ago but it was still a bit wet.

She sighed and jumped out the window. *Never really gone out at night... can't very well get back to sleep.*

Ranma left the Tendo's residence then jumped up onto the fence, she began walking, nowhere in particular, as her shadow was sillouhetted on the cement ground by the full moons bright light.

The night was quiet, peaceful. No bike-bells, no death threats, no hammer's whizzing by. Ranma took a deep breath of the night air and cartwheeled on the fence, keeping perfect balance as she landed on her feet and began walking again.

She leaped off the fence as she approached the park, walking gently on the soft ground she tucked her hands in the pockets of the jeans. *These clothes are actually pretty comfortable... they seem to fit the contour of-* Ranma cut the thought off, and looked around at the serenity surrounding her.

"So, Tofu, how'r things going with... well, ya'know," Came Hiroshi's familiar voice.

"If I could only say what I felt... I could save myself from those embarrassing situations!" Ranma heard Tofu's laugh, something like a soft bell ringing with triumphant strength.

She wondered what Hiroshi and Tofu were doing out here, so she trailed their voices, trying her best to be quiet.

She saw both of them Sitting under a tree near a beautiful pond, watching the fish leap.

Tofu saw her first, "Oh, why, hello Ranma. Sleepless, I assume?" Tofu smiled at Ranma as she stepped out of the shadow's.

"How'd you know it was me?" Ranma folded her arms across her chest and looked at the Doctor.

"You have a very distinct... Presence, Ranma," Hiroshi answered, and the two men chuckled. Tofu picked up a rock and threw it at the pool. The doctor was dressed in casual wear, rather than his usual gi. Jeans and shirt, much like what Ranma was wearing herself.

Ranma watched as the rock bounced, skipped, and finally fell into the surface of the pool. She saw the statue of Kunou Hiroshi had been working on toward the other side of the pool.

"Thirteen, Gomen. I'll throw it harder next time," Tofu made a motion with his hand to have Ranma sit. She did so after a moments hesitation.

"To answer your earlier question... yeah. I had this chi fight with Happosai, kinda drained me this morning... so I went to sleep and woke up about an hour ago, what are you two doing here?" Ranma looked out at the pool as a fish broke the surface, then disappeared beneath the rippling waters.

Tofu looked at Ranma a moment, "Well, Memeko and I graduated the same year. I used to frequent the house. When Memeko moved away, I still visited... got to know Hiroshi. It's somewhat of a tradition for me and him to come out here every Sunday and enjoy, and I had to help move Kuno," Tofu smiled as he stared up at the stars.

"A perfect night. Cloudless, rainless, and peaceful... though Rainy nights are beautiful in their own way," Hiroshi threw another rock.

Ranma sniffed at Hiroshi's rain comment, "Yeah, what's so beautiful about a dreary, rainy night? Besides, all you do is get wet," Ranma found herself looking up at the stars, similarly drawn like Tofu had been.

"Ranma, you should go see Hiroshi here on a rainy night. I felt like you did about them till he showed me what he meant... he's quite adept at those type of things, you know," Tofu threw another rock, and Ranma counted fifteen.

"Getting better, I see Mister Doctor!" Hiroshi nudged Tofu with his elbow.

"Arigato, Nature-Boy!" Tofu nudged back.

"What's so fun about watching a buncha rocks fall into the water?" Ranma picked up a rock experimentally, and threw it. It skipped three times, then plunked into the surface.

Tofu and Hiroshi chuckled at Ranma's inane comment.

"The beauty of the wind is that you cannot see it, yet it's gentle caress sometimes calms ones soul," Hiroshi smiled, yet did not pull out his pad and paper.

"What Hiroshi is trying to say, Ranma, is that you're looking too hard for a competition. You're trying to find a _Reason_ for everything. We're throwing rocks, Ranma, because we like the beautiful ripples that they make in the water. It reminds me of Daisuke's Chaos Theory he's always babbling about," Tofu smiled, and threw another rock.

Ranma shrugged, picked up a rock and threw it. It plunked into the surface without one skip.

"Whadda ya mean? And how the heck do you two do that?!" Ranma watched as Hiroshi threw a small pebble. Twenty.

"Yatta! That was nice, Hiro-sama," Tofu handed Ranma a smaller pebble with an encouraging smile, "Daisuke is always talking about the fact that the most minor thing can affect the world. I suppose that means there really is no chaos, and that everything has a certain order. Why, even all the things that happen to you Ranma!" Tofu almost laughed, but stopped himself when Ranma gave an offended look his way. "Gomen, I didn't mean to trouble you. As for the rocks... you are trying too hard. Don't try competing with us, just enjoy yourself!" Tofu threw another rock, it skipped ten times. Tofu smiled and watched the ripples.

There was a silence as they all threw stones, it seemed like forever just sitting there at the edge of the waters.

Ranma found her mind relaxing again, the stresses seeming to melt away. The stars sparkled as she stopped throwing stones and stared at the sky. After several moments, Hiroshi and Tofu did the same.

Ranma gazed up at the stars, marvelling in the beauty of the night as she basked in the moonlight.

Hiroshi's gaze was likewise drawn to the same patch of starlight, as he revelled in the sheer natural beauty of the sky.

Tofu tore his gaze from the stars to look at Ranma, and then at Hiroshi. They both seemed immensely intent on the sky, as if it provided some answers. He sighed as he went back to his stargazing, these were the most relaxing times he had. He liked spending time with friends, it reminded him there was still life other than the clinic.

Ranma, Hiroshi, and Tofu stared as two shooting stars suddenly blazed through the sky and crossed paths, then disappeared.

The three of them sat up and looked at one another. "Is that supposed to mean something?" Hiroshi asked the doctor.

Tofu shrugged, then tried offering his insight, "Well, it could mean a variety of different things. Change, peace, happiness. The most popular, I believe, would be the-

"-Starcrossed lovers," Ranma finished for Tofu, a confused and thoughtful look on her face.

"Maybe it means me and Akane'll get back together," Ranma lay back down and stared at the sky.

Tofu and Hiroshi looked at eachother. Tofu threw another stone at the pool, skipping it fifteen times once more.

Hiroshi thought to himself about Ranma's explanation... and found he didn't agree. He was sure that the implications meant a sort of change... something that caused his heart to sink into his stomach, he didn't know why... but something was going to happen that wasn't good in some context... someone would likely get hurt.

He concentrated, and slowly forced the feeling to leave him... letting the calm fall back over him.

"Tell me, Ranma, why you think you were born," Tofu suddenly asked. Ranma blinked and then sat up. *What brought _THAT_ on?* She wondered, looking over at the Doctor.

"Uh... what do ya mean, Doc?" Ranma stood and then sat back down indian style. Hiroshi also looked at the Doctor in confusion.

Tofu smiled a bit uneasily, "Well, the thing is, I've always wondered. I mean, not specifically about you, but about anyone in your own unique perspective," Tofu pushed his glasses up as he blinked.

"I guess you mean the curse... it seems like there's an awful lot of people askin' about that recently, You and Memeko...," Ranma stood up and walked closer to the edge of the water. There was a long and uncomfortable pause.

Hiroshi looked over at Tofu, arching his brow and scratching his chest in the process. Tofu looked over at Hiroshi after a moment, then turned his gaze back to Ranma.

Ranma looked out over the water... everything had changed that day. She stepped into the pool, just enough to get her ankles wet. *Water... something so harmless...* Ranma looked down at her reflection in the pool. *_HER_ Reflection.* Ranma felt the hollowness of depression strike her, and felt sorrow well up in her heart.

She pushed it down, into that little box where she kept those emotions... where she made sure that they couldn't hurt her..._HIM_.

Water. And what was so bad? So he turned into a girl... he'd gotten used to it. It just... bugged him somehow. As if...

As if the curse had been given for an express reason Ranma hadn't fathomed yet. Did Tofu mean when _HE_ was born, or when he had become she?

Ranma turned herself around, facing Tofu and Hiroshi.

"I apologize, Ranma. I shouldn't have asked," Tofu looked up at the young man. Since he had come, Tofu's life had been far from dull. Before? It had been routine, occasional visits from Akane about something or other, the usual housecalls, normal life. Ranma seemed to bring the world with him...her...him.

"No... It's alright. I don't really got an answer, right now... it's something I've been thinking about since yesterday. Someone told me that... these things happen for a reason. If that's true, then I don't know the reason," Ranma stepped back out of the water and quietly sat back down next to Hiroshi.

"I got a question, Doc. It's about the curse, I guess... I've been wondering. Why water?! Why not... why not phases of the moon?! Or Excitement?! Why not when I lose my temper?! Why did it have to be _WATER_!!!" Ranma's voice echoed through the night. Her chest heaved up and down with her frustration.

Tofu adjusted his glasses again, took a deep breath, and answered as best he could, "Water. It is the beginning of all life, for the human body is made up mostly of water. True, displaced throughout the body, but nonetheless, we are largely water. Perhaps the curses react to some chemical in the bloodstream, or maybe it adjusts the DNA. I'm not sure, Ranma. Maybe it's magic... Maybe it's fate... Maybe it cannot be explained... Maybe it is a matter of belief, or an act of God," Tofu looked over at Ranma, who's eyes were glassy, as if she was about to cry. Tofu blinked, realizing that Ranma had problems. Maybe more than he could handle.

"Doc, eh, maybe you should go... I know Ranma wouldn't want you to see...," Hiroshi whispered in the doctor's ear. Tofu nodded, as he looked down at his watch.

He silently stood up and left the presence of the two, mumbling something about tending to the clinic before he slept.

Ranma gritted her teeth, clenched her fists, barely holding her feelings in. She realized Tofu had left, had shut her eyes so that he couldn't see her struggle.

She melted into sobs when a soft hand rested on her shoulder. Hiroshi patted his friend on the back.

When she had gained her strength back, she looked up at Hiroshi, wiping her eyes. "Oh, how manly of you Ranma... you're crying like a girl!" Ranma snidely said to herself. She felt the dark depression in her soul grow a bit.

"Ranma. If I were you... I wouldn't complain... 'There is no judge betwixt these trees, these pools, these rocks, these stars. Only thee and I, and tears are words which even gods can understand'. Why do you fight to keep all that in?" Hiroshi stopped patting Ranma on the back.

Ranma rubbed her eyes, having a vague thought that Hiroshi couldn't understand, would never understand how she felt. How it was to feel... Unnatural. A freak, changing was not the way of natural things...

"I want to tell you, 'Roshi. I Really do... but you wouldn't understand. No, wait. Let me speak. You couldn't understand... Akane sometimes say's she knows how I feel, and I know for a fact she's lying through her teeth. I'm a _Man_ 'Roshi... I was raised to be a man... and suddenly, it's ripped away? I look at that pool, and something turns inside me... knowing that I can never touch water without fearing it. Something I took for so much granted has turned into a horrible nightmare. An'- An' sometimes I feel like it's slipping away... my manhood. Every time I dream, I have nightmares about accepting my... other form. Jus' like now... I don't cry, men don't cry... I had to be strong, to keep from crying, to keep from showing them all I was weak. I had to be strong, I had to make my Pop proud of me, I had to show Akane I was worthy, I had to show Mom..."

Ranma's eyes clouded up again, "My Mom... never knows it's me. She just comes and go's, this hurt expression on her face... It rips, 'Roshi. It tears like hell! I want to tell her that it's me, that it's her Ranma... and she never knows. I can't tell her, and so I force it down. Swallow the pain, consume the grief, store the despair. It ain't suppose'ta come out in front of people... I try so hard, and so many people make me feel... things. I dunno. Jus' look at me 'Roshi! Can't you see what I am?! Not a man... never a man...," Ranma is wracked again by sobs, yet she refuses to turn to Hiroshi for a shoulder to cry on. Hiroshi moves so that he is opposite Ranma, and she begins to turn so he can't see her cry, but he grabs her wrist.

She stops weeping, a bit of anger flaring in her eyes.

Hiroshi stared into the deep blue orbs of her eyes, the beautiful floating spheres of Ranma's soul. He saw what he needed... he saw through the fascade Ranma had put on for everyone. He saw _HIM_ and he saw _HER_.

There was no difference.

"Ranma. Listen to _me_. _You_ are not a man. _You_ are not a woman. You are not the girl you appear to be. Ranma, I look at you and I see a beautiful soul. You're afraid of what the curse means, of the implications it might present in the future. You don't have to be a man, just be yourself. Damn your father, and damn whatever anyone else thinks you should be, if you can't be yourself... then I would rather not know you. You've shown me who _YOU_ are, not some flimsy script-written character in an Anime cartoon show. I can't stand seeing the people you love hurt you so much, it makes my-" Hiroshi paused in his speech, then began again.

"It's not right. You shouldn't hurt because you feel that you have to be someone you are not... Ranma, be Ranma," Hiroshi stood and sat against the tree, looking out over the waters of the pool.

He had almost said something... of which he wasn't sure. An implication, it tore through Hiroshi's mind like a whip. He wasn't sure why he _would_ have said it, only that it would have been true. Hiroshi had felt Ranma's pain, seeing his friend hurt like this... had moved something in him.

He was unusually sympathetic for most people, understanding their moods and their feelings... but until now, nothing had ever touched so deeply. Nothing had ever reflected onto his own emotions. *Ranma has problems... so many. Sh... He should never have had to hide them... She... He should have told his Father and Akane how S...He felt about being pressured into being someone She wasn't.* Hiroshi dwelled a moment. *_HE_ Wasn't... what's wrong with me?*

"'Roshi... thank you. I feel a bit better... but it's just hard for me to... to... show what I feel to people. I hate crying... 'specially in front of... well guy's. Ryouga makes fun of me, and Pop keeps sayin' stuff like, 'Be a man Ranma, quit crying!' and other stuff. You.... you're different. I dunno... it's like, it doesn't matter to you. It's like, you... understand," Ranma looked down at the ground, somewhat embarrassed at saying this to one of her guy friends. Heck, they usually spoke about nonsense stuff, which girls were best looking, what who did at school, sometimes discussed teachers, nonsense. None of it really mattered... *Why didn't I know before?* Ranma looked over at Hiroshi, who was staring at the pool.

"You're... welcome Ranma," Hiroshi stood up and walked to the waters edge, looking down at his reflection. He was glad he could help his friend, Ranma wasn't usually so... open and honest. Something had changed... he wasn't sure what... should he be frightened?

Hiroshi shook off the thoughts and jumped into the water with a splash, and an "EEP!" from Ranma.

"What're you doing?! You'll catch a... oh yeah. Forgot, you don't catch colds."

Hiroshi nodded. "Come in, Ranma,"

Ranma shook her head vehemently, then shot Hiroshi an angry look, "I just told you... I... I'm afraid of water... what if-"

"You're not going to change, Ranma, what could a little water hurt?" Hiroshi smiled with his winning grin.

"Yeah, right. Do you know that's _EXACTLY_ what Pop said at Jusenkyo?" Ranma took a small step toward the water, shivering slightly at the thought of immersion.

She had never... never gotten over it. The change, that is. Water scared her... she didn't know when it had happened, she hadn't enjoyed a good swim in... two years. Ever since Genma had turned it into a training exercise. She had somewhat enjoyed that... but then there was Jusenkyo.

Never again would she look at water the same way.

"Heh... uh... besides...I... I, uh, don't want to get your clothes soaked," Ranma's excuse sounded a bit bad, even to her own ears.

"Yeah... Riiight," Hiroshi splashed Ranma from a distance, getting her effectively wet. She scowled at him and tried wringing the shirt dry.

"I told ya, 'Roshi, I- I can't," Ranma looked at Hiroshi enviously, watching him float in the water without a care in the world.

Hiroshi looked back to Ranma, seeing his friend cross her arms nervously and start to take a step back. He sighed and shook his head. Hiroshi slowly stepped out of the water, until he was about knee deep.

"Ranma. The water can't hurt you... it might make you feel uncomfortable being... _SURROUNDED_ by it, but... C'mon. Give it a chance, if you don't try you'll never get over... this," Hiroshi sat down in the water, his shirt plastered to his chest.

Ranma looked nervously at the water again, and approached it for a third time. She once again walked in till about ankle deep.

She shuddered when she saw her reflection, and then Hiroshi splashed her again, soaking her completely.

"Ooh... You'll get it now!" Ranma leaped in after Hiroshi, who was laughing and swimming away from his friend.

Ranma caught up with him, dunking his head in water. Hiroshi splashed her again and they repeated.

After several moments, Ranma found terror gripping her, and she stopped moving. She floated in one place for several moments before Hiroshi noticed the game had halted.

"Ranma? What's wrong?" Hiroshi swam over by her, seeing her move away a bit uncomfortably.

Ranma swam to the end of the pool again, feeling a coldness seeping into her. "Sorry, Hiroshi... I'm just... it's just that I'm afraid. I was enjoying myself, and suddenly I was struck with fear that I would... would.. be different. More than I am already," Ranma looked at the water she was sitting in, quietly trailing her finger across the surface.

Hiroshi sighed and dragged himself out of the water, the cold night air made him shiver as he sat next to Ranma.

It seemed like they just sat there, for an entire hour, they stared at the water.

"That's okay, Ranma. The point is you tried. One day, I'm sure you'll get over your aquaphobia. I'm sorry," Hiroshi stood up and took his shirt off, he began wringing it dry.

"One more thing. Mousse and the fight tomorrow," Hiroshi put his shirt back on.

Ranma stood up out of the water and proceeded to do the same thing.

"Yeah, what about it?" Ranma twisted her shirt, and then shook it dry. Hiroshi noticed after a moment that she wasn't wearing a bra and blushed slightly.

"Well, the thing is Mousse doesn't want to win," Hiroshi rubbed the back of his head, he tried to keep his eyes away from Ranma till she put her shirt back on. *Doesn't He have any modesty?*

Ranma paused in her wringing and looked at Hiroshi. "Whadda ya mean, he doesn't want to win?!" Ranma clenched her fists unconciously.

"He knows he doesn't stand a chance, I think he said something about finally dying... I'm _sure_ he said that this would be his final fight. He feels he can't win with you and Cologne always coming between him and Shampoo, so he's finally decided to end his misery I guess," Hiroshi shrugged as Ranma stared dumbfounded at Hiroshi. Her eye twitched a bit, and then she closed them. She put her shirt back on.

"Whadda ya want me to do about it?! It's... It's Mousses head. It's not like... like he'd actually... actually throw a fight. Not Mousse," Ranma slumped back down on the ground, as if her knees had suddenly given out. *Not Mousse... he's too strong for that... he _CAN'T_ die, tha's jus' stupid. He's too strong to let himself...* Ranma's words felt hollow in the recollection of Amazon laws. Immovable, unwavering, and ultimately futile to fight.

"I don't know, Ranma. He seemed like he didn't have a hope in the world... I have no idea what you should do... I know you can't throw the fight. That's not how you are, but I do know that tomorrow, Mousse's final fate will be decided," Hiroshi paused to look back up at the sky.

"I guess I should be getting back... I have to rest for tomorrow... oh, sorry 'bout the clothes. I'll bring 'em by tomorrow evening after the fight," Ranma forced herself to stand and begin walking. Hiroshi, to her surpise, walked along with her.

After several moments, she asked him a question, "Are you following me?" Hiroshi looked up at Ranma, a smile on his face.

"Yes. I thought it best to see you home, besides, I don't have much to do back at home myself. I take it Nabiki will be selling tickets again? I mean for the fight tomorrow," Hiroshi watched as Ranma jumped up onto the fence, leaving him on the ground alone.

"I s'pose. I mean, she takes advantage of practically everything I do anyways. So you're gonna come and watch me fight?" Ranma smiled down at her friend. She shivered in the cold night air.

"Hmmm... you say it's at noon? During lunch?" Hiroshi thought about it, and decided it might be nice to relax and watch another battle between Ranma and Mousse.

"I guess, jus' so long as you promise I won't get hit this time. And that you _WON'T_ use me as a shield!" Hiroshi laughed with Ranma.

During several of the previous battles, including the one with Hinako Sensei, Hiroshi had been caught in the cross-fire of attacks. Not because Ranma had meant to get him involved, but simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Don't worry, I think that'll be the least of your worries. Well, here we are, I'll see ya tomorrow Hiroshi...," Ranma jumped off the fence and walked toward the dojo. After a moment she looked back, and saw that Hiroshi had left.

She sat down on the steps for a moment, thinking to herself. She sensed something had changed between Hiroshi and herself, but she wasn't sure what. The past two days spent in Hiroshi's presence had given Ranma a new outlook on life, and Hiroshi was just pleasant to be around.

Then there was his sister and his niece. Ranma could come to like Memeko, if he tried to. As for the little girl, Ranma simply couldn't hate her. She was a sweet little girl with a cheery disposition, hopefully she would keep that smile and that air of happiness wrapped around her tightly.

Ranma shivered in her cold wet clothes. She turned her thoughts back to Hiroshi, and began wondering why she had told him as much as she had. She had told him some things that she hadn't even told Akane... personal things.

*It's just that... he seems to draw it out of people. He'll just be sitting there, and being quiet, and you'll want to fill the soundless void with somethin'. He's great at listening...* Ranma shook her head. Hiroshi was really a true friend.

He sometimes reminded Ranma of Ucchan and he before the Yaitai incident. Carefree, happy, and simply enjoying life.

Ranma sighed and stood up, she turned and opened the door to the Tendo's house, walking in quietly.

She snuck through the darkness, carefully through the dining room.

A light switched on. Ranma paused and turned her face to see Akane waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

"Uh... Hi Akane. Fancy seeing you here! Hehehe..." Ranma stood rubbing the back of her head.

"Ranma... where have you been?" Akane saw the wet clothes Ranma was wearing, not usually the clothes he wore. She narrowed her eyes.

"And who's clothes are you wearing?!" Akane clenched her fists.

"Uh... well, Hiroshi lent me some clothes this morning... I was... Hey! Why should you care?!" Ranma clenched her own fists.

"I don't! I came to see if you were all right when I heard about your fight, and you were gone! I don't even know why I worried!" Akane swiftly spun around and started walking upstairs. She had ended her date with Kuno for nothing.

"A.. Akane? You were worried? 'Bout me? I- I'm sorry," Ranma looked down at the floor. Akane paused, looking back at Ranma. She saw sincerety in Ranma's features... she sat down on the stairs.

"Ranma. Could we... could you just sit and listen for a moment?" Akane found her anger draining away. She had never had the courage to actually sit and talk with Ranma... she wasn't sure if Ranma would accept.

Ranma looked at Akane, pulling on her wet t-shirt while she thought. After a moment she sat down next to Akane. "Go ahead, I'm listening," Ranma dreaded what he was about to hear, figuring it was the usual Akane spiel.

"I'm sorry. About everything. Hitting you, insulting you, sometimes even... hurting you. Ranma," Akane took the red-headed girls hand in her own, "When I first met you, I thought that it would be nice... having another girl who understood how I felt... who liked martial arts. We were friends for such a short time before..." Akane paused and looked into Ranma's patient eyes. "And so there was another boy in my life, an egotistical, self centered, prideful boy. Ranma... sometimes I wished I had never known you as a guy," Ranma flinched visibly, her hand tightening a bit in Akane's grasp. "But then I realize what I would have missed. I... hit you, Ranma, because I'm mad you took my friend away. She became someone else, vanished altogether. I realized that if I had never met you I would never have felt... how I feel about you. I-" Akane paused looking away for a moment. Ranma put her hand on Akane's shoulder.

"I've never known anyone like you, and I probably never will again. I called off the engagement for a reason. You make me... do things Ranma. Things I don't like, I hit you when I should be telling you how I feel... and you insult me and I hit you harder. Sometimes, I'm afraid that I might hit you too hard, that I might go too far one day. I don't want to lose you...," Akane looked back at Ranma, who was smiling softly with sad eyes.

"I'm sorry too, Akane. If I had known, I would have tried to be your friend...It's just that... I don't know how to handle my change. I don't know how to be a girl, and sometimes it scares me. Like Herb and his damn Chiisuiton... that I might actually have to live with this... forever," Ranma withdrew her hand from Akane's, shocking the Tendo girl.

"And then... I have nightmares. It's not only the nightmares, but I sometimes-" Ranma cut herself off, staring into nothing for a second, a sad and frightened look in her eyes.

"I sometimes wish for it. I sometimes wonder how it would be... and that scares me. It tells me that I could slip away at any moment, and begin accepting... my other form," Ranma shook slightly at the thought.

"Ranma? You couldn't mean that you-"

Ranma stood abruptly, and walked to the door to the Koi pond, "Dammit, yes Akane! Sometimes I wonder what it would be like, settling down... finally ridding myself of these fiancee's, choosing a... a.... a.... a different life instead of... of .... I... I'm... sorry. You must think I'm some stupid Baka," Ranma looked out at the moon as she leaned against the wall. Moments flashed in her mind of times when she had a single twinge of reconciliation. Once, during the Full-Body-Cat tongue, and again with... Herb's damn Chiisuiton. Several more times, when his Mother had gotten that prideful, happy, loving glimmer in her eyes when Ranma did _something_ like a lady should.

Then Ranma would remind himself, he was a man. He had been raised that way, and born that way. A small part of him felt...


A long silence insued, wherein Akane stood and walked over to the door and just... was there. She looked up at the stars with Ranma.

After another long moment, Akane wrapped her arms around Ranma.

"No, Ranma. It... it scares me too. I never knew. I guess I really don't understand, but I don't want to lose you... Baka or not," Ranma sighed after Akane's statement.

"For once... someone actually tells me the truth. Akane, I don't want to lose you either. I think I... I l... you, Akane," Ranma took in a deep breath, as if she had just said something dreadful.

Akane blinked and unwrapped herself from around Ranma, "Ranma? do you mean that?" a warmth spread over Akane as the words penetrated to her soul. There was still a touch of sadness, though, that Ranma hadn't said it... as a man.

"Yeah... but listen. I do love you, I really do, but I can't go through with this... this thing till I get over some of these... problems. And please... don't tell Pop or Mister Tendo that I admitted my feelings, cause then I'll deny it and it'll hurt you. I don't wanna hurt you Akane... when I hurt you, I feel your pain," Ranma looked back at Akane, a somewhat relieved look on the red-head's face.

"I guess I can see your point of it Ranma. We... we'll probably lapse back into our usual selves in the morning. You'll say something, and I'll hit you. You'll pick on P-chan, and I'll hit you. You'll insult my cooking... and well, you get the idea," Akane and Ranma laughed lightly.

Akane looked at Ranma, noticing her hair was much longer than usual.

"Gonna cut your hair before the fight?" Akane suddenly had a twinge of jealousy as she spoke those words to Ranma, remembering her own hair had been about that long.

Ranma blinked and her hand went to her hair. She looked thoughtful a moment and then grinned, "Heh, I completely forgot about that! I guess I should... maybe tomorrow morning before school Kasumi could help me. Would you... ask her for me Akane?" Ranma rubbed the back of her head and looked at the ground.

"I guess, Ranma," Akane yawned, "Boy, am I tired. You should be getting some sleep, you have a long day tomorrow," Akane walked back up the stairs. Ranma watched her go, a sense of peace fell over her heart as she realized how much Akane meant to her.

She sighed and sat down on the back doorstep, watching the fish leap from the water.

After five-minutes, she was quite asleep.

* * * * * *

"C'mon Shin-Chan! Momma and Papa will be angry if we're not back by lunch-time!" The small, red-headed girl yelled as she jumped from rock to rock. Her brother was struggling with his balance as he leapt across the River, in pursuit of his Sister.

"Wait up, Ran-Chan! You know I'm not as good as you are!" Shinnosuke strained to keep his balance, while his sister lept effortlessly from rock to rock, till she got to the other side.

"C'mon! I'm hungry! You know if we don't get back, Mama and Gran'pa are gonna eat it all! Not to mention Papa!" The girl started running through a meadow, and stopped after a moment, impatiently waiting for her brother.

Shinnosuke tapped his Sister Ranko on the shoulder, causing the little girl to jump into the air about five feet.

"Don't do that!!!" Ranko yelled after she landed. "You know I hate to be snuck up on!"

"Gomen... I guess I take after Pop... he always _could_ sneak up on Mama," Shinnosuke leapt away when his sister came at him with a flying kick, and he dropped into a defensive stance, his arms folded behind him.

"Not again..." Ranko began a flurry of wild punches and kicks, all of which Shinnosuke seemed to evade or block.

A shadow fell over the two six year-olds, and they halted in their play to look up at the odd man which had suddenly appeared.

It was a man in a porcelain mask, which seemed to reflect all the colors of the rainbow in it's surface. The eyes were empty, and the man was dressed in a torn and tattered cloak.

"Hello, Children. What are you doing?" The man's voice was a hollow echo, as if he were locked inside a vast chamber.

Ranko hid behind her brother, who put his hands up in an offensive position. "We were jus' playin, tha's all. We're not suppos'ta talk to strange guys like you," Shinnosuke and Ranko took a step back as the man in the mask stepped forward. The mask was painted in the traditional Drama way, the face was not smiling, but had a smug expression written across it. The features were a sharp contrast... making it seem more a mockery of joy than true joy itself. The eyes... were so empty.

"Well then... I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is GrimAesir Darkon. I'm an old friend of Ranma's," The man threw his cloak behind his back, revealing worn clothes, yet beautiful nonetheless. The blinding difference of colors was reminescent of gypsy garb. Yet, the clothing itself was of very fine make, sewn of linen and silk.

The masked man held out his hands, one had a rose in it, the other had a tin soldier.

"Go ahead... take them," The masked man murmured. Ranko hesitantly looked at the rose, reaching out her delicate hand. Shinnosuke stopped her before she could touch it.

"We don't need none of your things... and how do you know Mama? She told us about some masked guy once..." Shinnosuke's pupils shrank as he remembered the horrible story, and he cried out in fear as the man took off his mask.

"Revenge be sweet in ecstacy, for the blood of the children shall pave our road..." GrimAesir approached the children, and the dream grew dark.

Ranma heard the screams of two beautiful children in her mind...

* * * * * *

Ranma screamed as she awoke with a start... she found herself in a cold sweat staring at the Koi Pond.

The dream... it was important... *I- I've gotta hang on to...* But by then it was a faded memory... she knew it was important, that it answered about ten questions she had asked herself. She knew who those children were... but she couldn't remember.

She knew that she would hurt if the two children were... she didn't know why.

"Oh my, Ranma, are you all right?" Kasumi surprised Ranma, and she jumped to her feet. Kasumi was still in her PJ's, with a slightly concerned look on her face. She stood at the bottom of the stairs looking intently at Ranma.

"Oh, hey Kasumi... nah, I'm okay. Jus' a bad dream, that's all... somethin' about kids...," Ranma recognized the children from an earlier dream... he remembered their names. Ranko and Shinnosuke.

"Well, if you want to talk about it, I'm here. Oh, Akane told me you wanted to cut your hair?" Kasumi smiled at Ranma, with a slight tilt to her head.

Ranma once again touched her hair, and nodded. "Yeah, I forgot about it yesterday. Couldja maybe make it short again? I mean how it was before?" Ranma tugged a bit at the Dragons whisker which was tying her hair back.

Kasumi smiled and disappeared into the bathroom hallway. After several moments, she came back with scissors and a comb.

"Maybe we should go into the kitchen, Ranma. It'll make it easier to clean up!" Ranma nodded at Kasumi's comment, her mind still a bit on the odd dream.

So Kasumi and Ranma ended up in the kitchen, after some short preperations by Kasumi, Ranma sat quietly while Kasumi cut her hair.

Moments passed before anyone spoke, "So it must have been a terrible dream to make you scream like that, Ranma," Kasumi snipped idly as she spoke.

"I... I screamed?" Ranma didn't recall having screamed, but something had definitely shocked her awake. Something about the two children... they had screamed, she was sure of it. A sadness and fear welled up within her, one which she couldn't quite understand. One which caused her to think again on the two names, Ranko and Shinnosuke.

"Why yes, Ranma. I'm surprised that I was the only one to wake up, but then again it is quite early, and Father usually doesn't wake till the paper arrives. You said you had a bad dream? Do you want to talk about it, Ranma?" Kasumi continued snipping, and had carried her hair cutting to the top of Ranma's head.

"Well... I don't know. It had something to do with... with two children. Ranko and Shinnosuke, Ranko looked like a younger version of my girlform, and Shinnosuke... he reminded me of Hiroshi. I dunno, I think they were closely related... but I don't know what it means. There was this man... with a mask. I think he-" Suddenly Grief and Hatred flared in Ranma's soul, and she still didn't know why.

"I... I think he... he... he hurt the children. Something's.... something's wrong, Kasumi. Those children... that dream... I usually don't dream...," Kasumi stopped cutting for a moment, looking at Ranma worriedly.

*A girl, Ranko, A boy, Shinnosuke. The boy reminded Ranma of Hiroshi? They were... could they have been? No, Ranma would never, not with a man...* Kasumi hesitantly began snipping again.

After another few moments of silence, Kasumi brushed Ranma off, and was finished. "An odd dream, Ranma. I'm sure you'll be fine," Kasumi added a smile as Ranma stood up, and yanked on her familiar pig-tail.

"Hey, Thanks Kasumi. I mean, for listenin' and the haircut," Ranma could have sworn there was a nervous glint in Kasumi's eyes, as if Ranma had said something to trouble her.

"Is something wrong?" Ranma asked, brushing herself off.

*Maybe. No, he wouldn't. Not Ranma... but what if? What _IF_? I have to make sure...* Kasumi continued her smile, and answered, "Why whatever do you mean, Ranma?" Ranma looked at her once more, and then walked back out into the dining area. *But... he's so different like that. Does he know how he looks as a girl?* Kasumi worriedly began making breakfast.

* * * * * *

Hiroshi waited in the Nekohanten patiently for Cologne. He had come here for a reason, something that had been nagging at him for the past two days.

*"Everyone say's 'Ranma, we understand' But how could they? I wish... somebody understood... jus' one person...,"* Hiroshi had recalled Ranma's confession in the Vault, those exact same words.

Hiroshi squirmed nervously, why was he here? Did he expect to actually go through with something like this? Maybe. He had to know, though. He had to know what Ranma meant.

"Yes, boy? How can I help you?" Cologne was a wrinkled up old hag who hobbled around on a large stick. Hiroshi looked over at the aged amazon ruler, and wrung his hands nervously.

"Well... I'm one of Ranma's friends. I- I came concerning an item... what I mean is, I'm trying to ask you about it... and the thing I want to know... Um... maybe if I ate first?" Cologne glared at Hiroshi a moment, and then called for Shampoo. After a quick dialogue in Chinese, Shampoo bustled off to the kitchen. Cologne seated herself across from Hiroshi.

"Shampoo is bringing some Chow Mein. Now which item are you referring to, Boy?" Cologne narrowed her eyes, studying Hiroshi with a critical gaze.

"The Amulet of Disdain," Hiroshi blurted the name out without hesitation, as if he had been waiting for this particular question. He rubbed his hands together as he broke out into a cold sweat.

Cologne flinched at the mention of the artifact... she knew she had it in her chest of magical items... the question for her was, how did Hiroshi know?

"Forgive, but what would make you think I would have something like... _THAT_?" Cologne took another evaluation of the boy. He didn't seem to have any martial arts, but his aura was incredibly strong... Cologne almost had to squint her eyes to make out the boy. *As strong as Son-In-Law... Hmmm...*

Shampoo returned with the food, she murmured a hello to Hiroshi and disappeared into the back. Hiroshi experimentally poked the noodles, and then began eating.

"Well... my friend Daisuke has been interested in finding a cure for Ranma... he's not as dedicated as Ranma is, and he really hasn't come across any leads. Only a handful of practically useless or cursed items... one being the Amulet. I would be... interested in taking it off your hands. That is... of course... if you have no use for it. I- I- I'm willing to pay for it..." Hiroshi grew silent and began eating his Chow Mein with a ferocious appetite. Cologne wasn't sure what to think of the boy.

Yet she was curious about one thing, "Why would you want an Item that shares the bond of a curse?" Hiroshi shuddered a bit at her words.

*You shouldn't have come. This was a stupid Idea, what could you possibly be thinking?!* *That Ranma is my friend... that he feels so isolated... that nobody understands. Not even his cursed friends.* *Yeah, right, a likely story. Why the hell are you willing to curse yourself?! That's just stupid, Hiroshi. It was Ranma's fault he got cursed.* *No, it wasn't. It was _NEVER_ his fault... he needs me. To understand... to see his perspective. I will not let a Friend down, and I will do whatever it takes.* The other voice suddenly grew silent and distant.

"I want it... to understand," Cologne blinked as she heard the boys answer. Never in her life had she ever heard of someone willing to commit to such an act. On top of that, the moment Hiroshi had answered, his aura seemed to flare brightly, causing Colognes eyes to be blurred for a moment.

*Why would this... Boy... want to willingly be cursed? What madness has gotten into his mind?* Yet as Cologne thought this, she saw there was no madness. In fact, there was a bit of grief, a touch of reconciliation, and more than a healthy helping of Determination.

"Boy, since you are so foolish to take a drastic course of action, I will sell it to you for 125,000 yen," Cologne smiled to herself, sure that the boy could not pay so much for something as silly as this.

"Is that all? I won't take it for so little. Here's half of what I have," Hiroshi upended a bag of diamonds, emeralds, and ruby's on the table. Cologne blinked. Cologne blinked again. Cologne blinked again, to make sure she wasn't hallucinating.

"How... did you get all... this?" Cologne looked at the gems, they were all of a near perfect cut.

"My Uncle owns a corporation of his own, and my Brother in Law was a rich Scottish westerner," Hiroshi looked down at the gems, thinking that maybe he _HAD_ payed too much for the trinket. Yet how much was it worth to him? He was practically buying his own doom. He reached out to take the gems back.

With a swipe of Cologne's arm, the gems vanished. In the other hand Cologne held an amulet of Dragon-scale broken into two seperate pieces, each on their own chain.

"May this foolishness be your last, Boy," Hiroshi looked at the amulet, as Cologne dropped it on the table. After a moment, his arm snaked out to get it... his hand was visibly shaking. He lifted the surprisingly heavy amulets and tucked it into his pocket.

"My name, Cologne, is Hiroshi," Hiroshi stood and left the restaurant. Cologne stared after him for a moment, wondering if she should revere the boy, or scoff at his idiocy. *Or _is it_ idiocy?*

======== To Hiroshi.

Hiroshi walked aimlessly down the street, wondering if what he had done was right. The thought occured to him that it was not too late, that he could simply discard the amulet and forget about it. The stronger voice won out, telling him to stay his course... that he would learn from this.

He found himself standing in front of the Tendo Dojo, the light seamed to stream down and shine directly upon the roof of the Tendo's house.

Hiroshi sighed as he looked up at the sky, pure blue and cloudless. *Of course, in Nerima, in fifteen minutes it could be raining!* Hiroshi smiled as he recalled his years in Nerima. The only home he had ever known.

Hiroshi walked up the path to the front door, and wrapped lightly upon it.

Shuffling could be heard from inside, and after several minutes, Tendo Kasumi slid the door open with a cheerful smile.

Kasumi paused in her usual greeting, seeing a somewhat familiar face. After several moments of Hiroshi grinning and saying "Hi" four times, Kasumi broke out into a grin of recognition.

"Why, Hello Hiroshi! I haven't seen you since you were eight!" Kasumi offered Hiroshi to come in, and Hiroshi accepted. Of course, not until after Kasumi had insisted.

"How have you been? How is Memeko?" Kasumi smiled as she remembered her friend from years ago, whom she had grown so fond of.

"Actually, Memeko moved back in recently. I'm sure she'll stop by some time... She has a darling daughter named Kaehmi whom I'm sure you'll love to meet," Hiroshi smiled himself as he recalled the many days he had spent in companionship with his niece.

"That would be nice. Oh, I almost forgot... you and Ranma are friends now, aren't you?" Kasumi's smile seemed a bit forced, but not overly much. Hiroshi, however, was a bit unnerved at this point.

"Uhm... yeah.... that's kind of what I came by for... I got a good luck charm for the fight to give him," As soon as the word "Him" had left Hiroshi's mouth, Kasumi seemed to relax.

"Of course! He's out back with his Father, they're doing their usual morning exercise!" A splash could be heard from the back, and Kasumi smiled a warm smile. She motioned for Hiroshi to come into the dining room, and asked him if he would stay for breakfast. After some prodding from Kasumi, he finally agreed.

Akane came down in her school uniform, a bookbag held in her arms.

"Hiroshi, how nice to see you here. Come to visit Ranma?" Akane beamed as she mentioned Ranma's name, as if she knew something terribly secret that excited her.

Hiroshi smiled, "Yes, actually. I want to wish him luck on today's fight, and give him something,"

Akane noted that Hiroshi tensed when he mentioned giving something to Ranma. She also noticed him blush slightly. *What?!* Akane calmed herself before her anger could jump to conclusions again.

A panda walked into the dining room, holding up a sign which said, "Food please?"

Tendo Soun sat idly reading the paper next to the shogi board. The Panda sat down across from him and soon the two were involved in a game.

"*Blub!* Hey! Did I say I was finished with you, Old man!" Ranma lifted herself out of the pond and walked in. She stood behind the panda, and began wacking it with a broom.

"C'mon! We ain't finished yet, you lazy slob!" The Panda turned around and lifted his Son/Daughter up by the scruff of her neck, Ranma flailed trying to free herself from the Panda.

Panda held up a sign saying, "Leave the nice Panda in peace, or Panda might get Rabid!" Soun rearranged the pieces behind the Panda's back.

Nabiki walked down right as Kasumi told everyone breakfast was finished. With a blinding blur Ranma and the Panda were at the table. Soun moved from the Shogi board to the table a bit slower than Genma and his Son.

After a vigorous eating, Hiroshi witnessed something he had only heard about. Ranma and Panda broke into a martial arts duel over the last piece of food. After a flurry of punches and kicks, Ranma came up the winner. Panda produced a sign saying, "Be nice to the cute Panda, feed the starving animal!"

"Go suck on some bamboo, Pop!" Ranma replied as she sat back down, shoving the food into her mouth.

Hiroshi laughed, bringing him to Ranma's attention. "You're right Ranma, it _DOES_ seem nonsensically silly!" Hiroshi couldn't stop laughing. After several moments of thought, Akane started laughing, then Nabiki, then Kasumi. Even Soun started in.

Ranma was a shade of bright red. Panda produced a sign, "Who's silly?!"

By the time Hiroshi was done laughing, everyone had left the table to prepare for school except Ranma, who was disturbingly silent. Panda and Soun were in a different world altogether as they played Shogi.

"Were you here for a reason, 'Roshi?" Ranma asked in a cool, calm tone. Hiroshi cleared his throat, realizing that he might have offended Ranma with his laughing. Rubbing the back of his neck, Hiroshi nervously pulled out the amulet(s) from his pocket.

Kasumi, unknown to everyone, was still watching the two. Her worried expression returned when she saw Hiroshi offer Ranma something that glittered in the sunlight.

"I came by to wish you luck... and give you this," Ranma took the half amulet with an expression of confusion and curiosity.

"That's... nice. What is it?" Ranma felt a strange energy pour through her body, filling her with a strange sensation.

"It's a..." Hiroshi paused, unsure if he should tell Ranma the truth. "It's a... good luck charm," Hiroshi smiled and put his half of the Amulet around his neck.

Ranma considered her half for a moment, "Well, gee, thanks Hiroshi. Uh... where'd you get it?" Ranma stared at Hiroshi with a curious expression as she placed it around her neck, tucking the half-scale gently into her shirt.

"" Hiroshi's word was barely audible, but Ranma seemed to hear. Her eyes grew wide and she tried yanking the chain off from around her neck.

"Ranma! Listen! It... it can't hurt you! Cologne sold it to me because she had no use for it!"

"Yeah, and I'm supposed to believe that! How the heck do I get this thing off!!!" Ranma tried yanking on the chain, and even pulling it carefully up from around her neck. The chain seemed to be smaller now that it was around her neck.

Hiroshi looked down with sadness, "I guess this means you don't trust me," Ranma's fingers went numb around the chain.

She looked over at her friend, who had a hurt and depressed look on his face. She felt bad... there was a tightening in her heart.

"I'm... I'm sorry Hiroshi. It's jus' that... well Cologne usually uses these type of things to get to me. You know, cursed things," Ranma considered the amulet again, it felt cool against her skin, but there was a slight charge of energy she could feel course through her body.

"It is cursed. But not on your side of things," Hiroshi sounded more depressed than before, as if he had made a choice he shouldn't have.

Ranma let the Amulet drop back into her shirt, unsure whether she should fear the thing or just ignore it. She was sure, however, that she was very worried about Hiroshi. "'Roshi, what did you do?!" Ranma's tone was angry, but there was a waver of fear in it also.

Hiroshi saw hurt in Ranma's eyes, as if he had done something he shouldn't have. Panda and Soun were now watching. Kasumi let her hand go to her mouth in a faint bit of realization.

Hiroshi didn't speak. After several moments, Ranma realized they were being watched and blushed deeply. She stood up and whispered in Hiroshi's ear to follow her.

Ranma and Hiroshi walked into the back yard, closing the door behind them.

"Hiroshi, tell me what you did... you... Baka..." Ranma felt genuine worry for Hiroshi, almost as much as Akane. *He's my best friend. He shouldn't be going around doing damn foolish things!*

Hiroshi flinched at the word, but then wrote off the insult as a coping strategy.

"Why don't I show you?" With that Hiroshi jumped into the Koi pond.

Ranma's eyes widened in realization, she stared at the surface waiting for something to emerge.

After several moments, A girl sputtered to the surface. She had reddish hair, and Hiroshi's soft brown eyes, but of a lighter and brighter hue.

She was dressed in Hiroshi's shirt and pants, and was as beautiful as any of Ranma's iinazukes.

"Ohyo-gozaimusu, Ranma-Chan," The voice was chillingly feminine, and Ranma stared at Hiroshi in disbelief. Unconciously, she did what so many others had to her, she poked Hiroshi's breasts.

Hiroshi didn't take offense, however, but simply smiled and looked at Ranma with understanding. "They're Real, Ranma-Chan. I... see what you mean. It feels... odd. The balance is all off," Hiroshi smiled encouragingly.

Ranma looked at Hiroshi in wonder, and then her wonder melted away into anger... not at Hiroshi, but at herself for ever putting the idea into his head. Unfortunately, Hiroshi was the one to suffer for it.

"You... BAKA! You think that this was the _RIGHT_ thing to do?! How could you be so stupid, You Kawaiikun... You Kawaii...," She couldn't say it. It wasnt' true. Hiroshi was very attractive as a girl, Ranma noted.

"Saying something, Ranma? I guess I should apologize... I didn't ask your permission or anything... you must hate me...," Hiroshi looked down at the ground with a sad expression.

Ranma's heart hurt, Hiroshi had done this for her and all she could do was criticize him for it. She touched between her breasts, where the amulet sat quietly. It seemed to throb energy all the more.

"No Hiroshi... I guess I jus' wasn't prepared for this. I mean, I've met other people with the same curse, like Herb. But.... nobody was willing to take the curse themselves. Why, Hiroshi?" Ranma looked again at her friend, noticing that there really wasn't much difference in the eyes. *He has beautiful eyes...* Ranma was shocked at the thought, a bit of fear struck her.

"Because..." Another phrase surfaced in Hiroshi's head, but it didn't make sense to say. He didn't feel that way about Ranma... did he?

"Because you're my friend, and you seemed so alone. I mean, there's so many other people who have been cursed, but they don't see your side of it. I wanted to understand... and I thought you needed someone to... Sorry, maybe I was wrong," Hiroshi walked to the dojo door, and was about to open it.

"Wait!" Ranma cried out. She didn't know why, but a sudden fear gripped her when Hiroshi was going to leave. As if she would once again be alone.

Hiroshi paused and looked back at Ranma. "Yeah?"

Ranma and Hiroshi locked eyes for a moment, and both seemed to understand eachother for just an instant. "Thanks, 'Roshi. Want to go up and change back?" Ranma asked, considering a bath herself.

Hiroshi looked down at his new body, he cupped his breasts in his hands, and seemed to be considering them for a moment. Ranma looked at him oddly, and then realized she had felt the same way about her body when she first changed.

It had been... awkward. The balance wasn't right, flesh was distributed to odd places... and... other things... were missing.

A chill travelled up Ranma's spine when she realized she was comfortable in this female body, in fact she had been spending more and more time in it recently.

Hiroshi looked back up at Ranma with a forced smile. "Nah, I think I'll go to school like this today... only thing is, I don't have a... you know," Hiroshi blushed deeply, and Ranma found that it made Hiroshi look even _Cuter_. She shook the thought off, telling herself that this was Hiroshi... not some girl. Surprisingly, it worked.

"A uniform? *Sigh* follow me, Akane can lend you one."

"Ranma?" Hiroshi muttered as they slid the door aside. Genma and Soun tumbled out onto the lawn.

Hiroshi and Ranma looked at them, then began laughing.

"Yeah, Hiroshi?" Ranma asked after a moment.

"Thanks," Ranma's heart seemed to warm at his friends words.

======== On the Way to School...

Ranma walked the fence, as Akane and Hiroshi talked quietly on the sidewalk. Ranma found himself looking more and more at the female Hiroshi. Akane had helped him put make-up on, with a bit of an objection from Hiroshi. Hiroshi now wore one of Akane's blue school uniforms, which seemed as tight on Hiroshi's curvaceaous form as it was on Ranma's.

Why had his friend done such a thing? He had said that it was because he wanted to understand how Ranma felt. Maybe it could be true, but Ranma wasn't sure. While he had spent much more time around Hiroshi he had discovered... something he hadn't felt in a long time. He wasn't sure what it was, but it seemed the more he was around Hiroshi, the stronger it got.

It almost reminded him of something else. *But that's jus' stupid.* Ranma reconciled himself to say.

"Hey Ranma!" Akane yelled, and Ranma halted, realizing they had stopped several feet back.

"Yeah, Akane?" Ranma smiled down at Akane, who smiled back obligingly.

"Hiro-Chan needs a different name if she's gonna come to school with us you Baka! Got any idea's?" Akane looked over at Hiroshi, who was blushing profusely under Ranma's scrutiny.

Ranma kept finding himself looking at Hiroshi's.... more ample features.

Hiroshi noticed where Ranma was looking and blushed even more, before turning slightly angry. "Quit peeping my breasts, you perv!" Hiroshi found that he wanted to hit Ranma, and wondered why.

"I was not!" Ranma denied.

"Ranma... I will not have you looking at her like that. Besides! She's your friend! Have you no dignity?!" Akane seemed to be getting angry as well, and Ranma saw another crisis situation coming on.

"I wasn't! Hey, you asked my opinion! Can't you wait till I answer?!" Akane seemed to calm at Ranma's words, and Hiroshi rubbed his head, unsure of what had come over him.

*Must be Hormones, I'm not used to these Female hormones.* Hiroshi absently thought. After Hiroshi thought about it... it was almost flattering to have Ranma ogle her.

"Uhm... how about... Amiko?" Ranma asked a bit unsure. Akane looked at Hiroshi, who simply smiled in reply.

"That's nice, Ranma. I think that'll work for now, Thanks again," Hiroshi fluttered her eyes unconciously, causing Ranma to flinch at the obviously feminine action.

They began running to school, seeing as they had lost a bit of time. They ran through gates, and Ranma and Akane paused.

Amiko kept running, despite noticing her friends had stopped, until she ran into a familiar Kendoist.

"Ah, what beauty clutches at my heart, nigh this early morn? And yet, to compare my finely chiseled features, I twould not be at all alarmed at such forwardness. Tell me, what is your name? Ah, forgive me, I forget it is common courtesy to provide ones own title before inquiring of thine own. I am Kuno Tatewake, Blue Thunder of Furinken High! Page twenty-three, line four," Ranma and Akane began laughing as Amiko stepped back away from the lustful Kuno (*Note: Kuno was speaking of the Yearbook.)

"Lay off it Kuno, she's not interested," Ranma said as Amiko stepped behind Ranma and Akane.

Amiko whispered into Akane's ear, "Was he just coming on to me?" Akane smiled and nodded her head.

"What is this, Saotome?! Have I not stirred daunt in your foul heart, that you should not be at peace with the wondrous prizes of Tendo Akane and the Beauteous Pig-Tailed Goddess?! Have your megalomaniacal cravings not stopped with those two fair blossoms?! Must you begin to enslave yet another ray of sunlight in your dismal cloud of treachery?!" Kuno was turning posatively red with anger. No really, he was red.

Akane looked between Ranma and Kuno, then back at Kuno in astonishment as electricity began shooting off the Kendoists outfit.

Amiko tugged on Ranma's shirt, "Uhm... Ranma... I think you've just pissed Kuno off...," Ranma just stepped forward, ignoring Amiko's words.

Akane put a hand on Ranma's shoulder, "Ranma, I've never seen Kuno so angry before, maybe you should let this one go," Akane looked at Kuno. She heard the cracking of a tooth as Kuno clenched his jaw tighter. Flames suddenly ignited around the Kendoist.

"Gimme a break Akane, the day I can't take Kuno in a fight is the day I become a girl-" Ranma's words were cut off as Kuno, in a flash of movement, began striking.

Ranma began blocking with his Tenshin Amaguri-Ken as quickly as he could, but ten, twenty, thirty attacks seemed to pass through.

He felt the crack of a rib, the tearing of flesh, the snapping of an armbone. He heard Akane scream, yet she was held back by Amiko.

"DIE..." Kuno's words echoed in Ranma's mind, as he saw the fire burning behind the Kendoist's eyes. Kuno had lost it, he had kept all his pent up frustration inside, and suddenly exploded. Ranma felt partially at fault, he had tormented Kuno since the day he had met him.

Ranma did the only thing he could. he raised his fist to the air and cried, "HIRYUU SHOTEN-HA!!!" Kuno was thrown up into the most powerful tornado Ranma could muster, and flew off into the Horizon.

Akane rushed over to Ranma. Ranma kept himself standing, even though he knew his arm and rib had been broken, as well as the bleeding gash in his side which he held his hand over.

"Ranma! Are you okay?" Akane hadn't seen Kuno strike Ranma, the Kendoist had been like... like a blue bolt of lightning.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Why, do you care?" Ranma grinned sheepishly through the pain. His acting was good enough to fool Akane.

"No, you Baka! You could have gotten seriously-"

"I think he was," Amiko touched Ranma's broken arm, which caused Ranma to grunt in pain, letting out one small tear.

Akane looked at Ranma's swelling arm, and then at his hand clutched to his side, which was stained with crimson. "Ranma... No Baka...." Akane wanted to pull her hammer out, to beat him for being so senselessly stupid. *That would make things worse...* The bell rang. Ranma began walking into the school.

"Hey! You can't go to school like... like that! You need to see a doctor!" Akane yelled at Ranma.

"Gimme a break, Akane. I've had... *UGH*... I've had worse than this," Ranma lied through his teeth. *How the hell did Kuno get so FAST?! How did he... that really hurt...*

"Ranma... I agree with Akane. Seeing as how this fight was all about me, I think it would be most appropriate if I took you to Tofu, besides, they won't miss me for just one day," Hiroshi's winning smile seemed more... alluring to Ranma with Hiroshi as a girl. Akane's words seemed a bit more rational when Amiko said it.

"Fine... but I'm gonna fight Mousse today!!!" Akane scowled at Ranma and opened her mouth to speak. Amiko beat her to it.

"I wouldn't try to stop you, Ranma. You don't have to prove anything to me," Ranma grinned at the positive response, while Amiko shot Akane a warning glance.

Akane looked at Amiko in puzzlement. *What, does she want Ranma to kill himself?!* yet... she knew Amiko, and she wouldn't try to hurt her friends.

"C'mon, Ranma," Amiko walked back towards Tofu's with Ranma. Akane's fiancee stole a look back at her before she walked into the school.

======== To Ranma/Amiko

Amiko walked in front of Ranma, a bit sullen and angry. "Well now, should I call you Ranko?" She said mockingly.

Ranma looked at Amiko in mock disbelief, which quickly switched to rage. "Why?" He said with a somewhat strained calm to his voice.

"Because you said, and I quote, 'The Day I can't take Kuno is the day I become a girl'. By the looks of things, Kuno was far less hurt than you were," Amiko looked over at Ranma with genuine worry. Ranma was looking up at the sky, apparently ignoring Amiko.

"I'm sorry... are you alright?" Amiko put her hand on Ranma's shoulder, understanding that his pride might have been a little hurt.

"Yeah, well, I guess. I mean, it's not like I was just completely embarrased in front of Akane and you, it's not like I meant to say that!" Ranma was a bit red, and he was shaking in frustration.

Amiko kicked him in the shin, "Oh yeah. You and your angst about not being a man. 'Oh I'm Ranma the great, Oh I have to prove that I can beat up anyone who comes along!' And you don't even think about what _Could_ have happened! You don't even _THINK_ about how Akane would feel... How I-" Amiko stopped herself, trying to understand why she had just nearly said something she didn't quite agree with. "How I would feel about losing my best friend!"

Ranma noticed that Amiko's eyes were clouded over, and suddenly realized what really could have happened. He also realized he had wrote off Kuno's anger as unimportant. He flashbacked to what Akane had said to him once... *Never underestimate Kuno, he's better than he looks.* He realized that today proved Akane's point.

Ranma considered Amiko's words, there had been a pause in there... hopefully Amiko was not questioning their friendship, as Ranma feared.

They walked in silence for the rest of the way to Tofu's.

Amiko knocked on the door lightly. A moment later Panda opened it.

"Yo, Pop. I kinda need Tofu's help," Ranma grinned sheepishly at the Panda. Panda grumbled and went off to find the doctor.

Amiko and Ranma entered and sat down. Moments passed again in silence.

"I'm gonna fight Mousse, ya'know," Ranma muttered as Amiko and he looked opposite directions.

"Ranma, why would I want to stop you? When Akane tries she gets insulted, and you do it anyways. I just don't want to see a good friend get hurt," Amiko remembered all the times they had hung out together. Just the guys and Ranma. She ran her hands across her breasts again, and then down between her legs. *So different. I understand...* She finished the thought out loud, "...Ranma," Amiko muttered aloud, in a thoughtful, soft tone.

"Yeah?" Ranma looked over at Amiko, whose hands rested in her lap as she stared at the ground.

"It feels so different. The sensations the... feelings. And... other things are odd. It's kinda freaky... does it scare you? I mean... some of the sensations... I'm afraid I might start liking this shape," Amiko squished her breasts together with her hands, emphasizing the word shape. She felt a wild surge of sexual pleasure, which caused her to shudder in fear.

"..." Ranma looked at Amiko with fear in his eyes, the fear was from seeing himself, wondering the same thing...

Ranma put his hand on Amiko's shoulder, and then lowered it and picked up her hand, cupping it in his own.

"Yes. Every... every day. It never seems to disappear, the urge to be a girl... I sometimes wonder if that's part of the curse," Amiko looked Ranma directly in the eyes. There was some sort of understanding passing between them, and both their hands unconciously went to the Amulet's around their necks.

Ranma dropped Amiko's hand quickly as Tofu appeared.

'Uh, hi Doc... I kinda got injured," Ranma blushed with embarrasment.

"My, Ranma, I've been seeing an awful lot of you lately... who's this girl?" Tofu looked over at Amiko, and Amiko smiled a sly smile.

Ranma rubbed the back of his head with his good hand, "Well... ahhh... I guess you could say... it's Hiroshi Doc," Tofu blinked, and then looked closer at the girl as he adjusted his glasses.

"I suppose I shouldn't ask, but I'm sure it had something to do with Ranma... and you don't seem too perturbed so I assume it was willing. Now then, Ranma..." Tofu examined Ranma, finding Boken bruises on various limbs of his body. Tofu frowned.

"It appears you got Tatewake a bit angry. He's usually a level-headed baka, but this seems more like a strike of uncontrolled violence, especially this one-" Tofu poked Ranma in the rib, sending pain shooting through the martial artists body.

"Heheh... How did you know it was Kuno?" Ranma asked, at first a bit surprised, but his tone quickly changed to one of acceptance.

Tofu looked Ranma in the eye and spoke, as he examined the rest of his wounds. "To be frank, a Boken wound is quite distinguishable from the average martial arts wound. More cylindrical and concentrated, like this here," Tofu ran his finger tenderly across a bar shaped bruise on Ranma's shoulder. "That combined with the fact that Kuno's style is in the exceptional category gave me my answer. Kuno's speed also adds in, as we can see that his Bokken strikes have an added... oomph, which causes abbrations and contusions to the flesh, such as here and here," Tofu pointed to a nasty looking purple bruise on Ranma's chest and then to a viscious, shredded looking wound near Ranma's hip.

Amiko whistled, obviously impressed.

"I would say, in my honest opinion Ranma, that until now Kuno has been holding back against you. The question is, why?" Tofu voiced his question rhetorically, as he began bandaging Ranma's wounds.

Ranma looked at the places Tofu motioned toward, and found several wounds he didn't realize he had. *Geez! When Kuno's viscious he go's all out!*

Tofu began with the gaping hole in Ranma's side.

The door to the Clinic opened, and Daisuke stepped in. He saw Ranma and grinned.

"Well well well, it appears that our local man of invincibility has suddenly got a dose of reality, reducing his rapidly surging id from the bowels of the atmosphere-" Ranma cut Daisuke off.

"Dai... if you're gonna be funny, talk in japanese! Not the lame science mumbo jumbo...," Ranma sometimes couldn't stand Daisuke.

Tofu seemed to be laughing at the joke, however. Amiko chuckled slightly.

"So, Daisuke, why are you here?" Amiko directed the question to her friend, and Daisuke looked at her.

He looked some more.

He gazed at her ample features, causing her to get quite angry. Suddenly, from somewhere a hammer appeared, and Amiko suddenly whacked Daisuke in the head.

"OW! Hey, whadja do that for?! And who the heck are you?!" Daisuke rubbed his bruised scalp tenderly with his good hand.

Tofu decided to answer Daisuke while he was bandaging Ranma's rib. "This, Daisuke, is your old buddy Hiroshi. She hit you because she, as a man, doesn't like being ogled. As for Ranma, he got in a fight with Kuno. Now, why are you here?" Tofu checked Ranma's forearm, finding the bone not too badly damaged he set it back in place with an added scream and scowl from Ranma. Tofu quickly finished with Ranma's forearm and moved on to the minor wounds.

"Oh, I'm here to get my cast removed. Uh... sorry 'Roshi... could you... uh... tell me... why you are... ya know...," Daisuke rubbed the back of his head as he looked away from Amiko.

Amiko groaned, "Later, Dai... I'll explain everything this afternoon. Maybe even Ranma could come and we could hang out at your place," Amiko smiled.

Ranma looked at Amiko in stark amazement. Daisuke's house was a living deathtrap! And Amiko had just practically asked to come over!

Daisuke also noticed this, "Uh... you... do you know what you jus' said, 'Roshi?" Daisuke looked at Tofu as the doctor bandaged Ranma's abdomen, causing a grunt from Ranma.

Amiko glared unyieldingly at Daisuke, "Yeah, I do! Don'tcha think that my Sis could use a break for a day? Heck! Since she's been here, there hasn't been a night when you or Ranma haven't been over there! Actually, it's been mostly you," Amiko crossed her arms and stood up, finding herself the same height as Daisuke now.

Daisuke grinned with pride.

"Ow! Hey! Cut! That! OUT!" Ranma yelled, as Tofu's hands flew with incredible spead, bandaging and applying disinfectant to all the wounds with an adept accuracy. Tofu then stood, as Ranma finished his complaining.

"Cut what out?" Tofu asked. Ranma prepared a witty retort, but found he couldn't remember exactly what had hurt.

"How the heck do you do that?!" Ranma asked, standing up. Tofu smiled. Daisuke and Amiko looked at eachother with grins plastered across their face.

"It's my job to make the pain as painless as possible, I'm sorry for any discomfort Ranma," Tofu put the unused bandages and disinfectant back in their proper place in his shelves.

Ranma tested out his arm, finding that it didn't hurt half as bad as before, and he lept up into an offensive stance, feeling only a slight jolt of pain in his side. *Nothin' I can't handle!*

Amiko whispered something to Daisuke, and Daisuke got an offended look. Not unusual for Daisuke.

"You've _GOTTA_ be kiddin' me!" Daisuke looked at Ranma incredulously. "You can't tell me that you're actually going to fight that Mousse guy in that condition?!" Daisuke surveyed Ranma, finding that Ranma appeared to be unfazed by his wounds.

"I've never backed down in a fight, and I'm not about to start! So if you're thinkin' about stoppin' me, Daisuke, think again!" Daisuke noticed again how much Ranma towered over him. A full head. *Feh... if he was a girl right now we'd be looking eye-to-eye.*

Amiko rolled her eyes and shook her head.

Tofu, having caught the conversation spoke up once more, "I know you'll probably do what you think is best, Ranma, but I simply cannot condone fighting in your current status. You most likely would win, but it's also more likely that you could get seriously injured," Tofu adjusted his glasses as Ranma walked toward the door.

"Hey, I've already heard enough about throwing the fight. I've never given it a second thought, and I'm not going to start now," Ranma walked out the door.

Daisuke looked after his friend, shaking his head as he sat down in one of the patient seats.

Amiko also looked after Ranma, a bit more worried than anything else. She looked back at Tofu, who seemed to be considering his flighty patient.

"Ranma, Ranma, Ranma, one of these days, you're going to end up with a problem that won't be solved by fighting, something which you'll have to come to terms with. Hopefully, Hiroshi, you and Daisuke will be there to help him through," Tofu smiled as he turned his attention to Daisuke.

Amiko considered the doctors words, and then left to pursue Ranma.

* * * * * *

Ranma drummed his fingers unconciously on the desk, as he considered the last few days in his mind. His eyes were somehow unconciously drawn to Akane, who he found was looking at him.

Instead of turning away, they smiled as their eyes connected. An unfamiliar warmth was revealed in Akane's smile, which startled Ranma. Ranma was more startled to find that his own smile was much like hers.

Then there was a cautious frown, and a touch of worry in his Fiancee's eyes caused him some discomfort. Her gaze turned from Ranma out to the Baseball field, where she assumed Mousse was waiting.

Ranma followed her gaze to find himself looking out the window to the Baseball field. A hint of guilt touched Ranma as he considered what Akane might be thinking about. *Nah... she can't be worried about the fight... Can she?*

Akane thought about Mousse's words, and she thought about all the times she had met the Chinese boy. Mousse had never really been as straightforwardly violent as the rest in Nerima. He let everyone know how he felt, he never tried to deceive anyone(with the exception of his martial arts style), and he had always been kind and understanding to anyone who would listen to his tale of woe.

She didn't want to see him hurt, in any way. She also knew that Ranma would die before he threw a fight, it just wasn't in Ranma to go off half cocked into a battle. She hoped everything would turn out better than she thought... knowing that it was a hollow hope.

Something tragic was destined to happen, this she knew.

"Hiya, Akane-Chan," Ukyou sat next to Akane, a quiet demeanor to her usual cheery self. Akane looked at her with concern. Ukyou opened her mouth several times to speak, but closed it when tears had nearly overcome her.

Akane knew she wanted to say something... something important. She knew Ukyou would eventually get around to speaking, in that respect both her and Ranma were alike.

Yet, waiting for such things was almost like watching a tornado as it slowly wound it's way toward you. Complicated and vexing.

Finally, Ukyou spoke, "Akane-Chan..." Her voice was full of half controlled sorrow, "... I had brought my Mother here to see Ranma, to show her he was a worthy reason for staying in Nerima..."

Akane bristled at the reason, yet calmed herself with the fact that whatever Ukyou was trying to say, it was definitely important to her. As a friend, it was Akane's duty to listen without making rude comments and insults.

"... But..." Several tears streamed down Ukyou's face, and there was a long pause before she spoke again, "... Ranma never came... and Mama said- No, Told me that I must come home. That I... I had to close up shop and go home to her so she could find me a better man," Ukyou covered her mouth with her hand, as she tried holding back the tears.

On the one part, Akane felt relieved. On the other... Ukyou's tears hurt Akane more than her own. It seemed like Ukyou _DID_ care for Ranma, and the fact that she must leave was tearing her up.

Akane placed her arms around Ukyou and gently patted her on the back while she cried.

Several of the people in the class watched, unsure of what had happened. The Teacher concentrated on ignoring the noise.

After a minute or so, Ukyou wiped her eyes and sat back up. "Sorry, Akane... I don't usually break down into tears... It's just that... all the friends I've made. And Ranchan..." Her eyes clouded again. This time, to Akane's relief, the cook didn't break down into a bawling heap.

Akane felt torn between two sides. She couldn't decide which hurt worse, Ukyou's heartfelt tears of remorse, or the fact that she had just moments ago felt relieved at her leaving.

She had never really hated Ukyou, actually far from it. The girl was so warm and outgoing to her friends, and even to Akane, who was a rival. Akane could not remember a time when Ukyou had been directly violent, hateful, or angry at her. It sometimes made Akane feel guilty, recalling all the times when she had accused Ranma of things involving both Ukyou and Shampoo.

She wanted to say something, to comfort her friend/erstwhile rival, so she did as Ranma did, and muttered the first thing coming to her mind.

"Have you told Ranma?" Akane blinked at the question, wondering again if that had come from her, and then questioning why she would ask such a _stupid_ question.

Ukyou sniffed lightly, and wiped the tears from her eyes, "No... I didn't want to worry him, with the fight and all... though I'm not so sure he would be too worried...," Ukyou's eyes started to tear again at the remembrance of all the stolen glances, the few soft words, the occasionally shared laughter...

Between him and Akane. Always, between Ranma and Akane. She felt as though they walked among the stars, while she was chained in misery below.

"Ukyou?! How could you say such a thing?! Ranma cares deeply about what happens to you! And... I care too," It took a moment for Akane to realize what she had said, but when she did, her eyes grew wide.

It was no lie. None of it. Ranma would be heartbroken if Ukyou left without telling him, even moreso if he knew that she was in... this condition.

If anything, Ranma couldn't stand to see girls get hurt. *Its funny, he's so sensitive about _That_ and he can't even understand us, even though he IS a girl half the time.*

Ukyou looked at Akane's eyes, and found no falsity in her heart. Akane _did_ care... but why?

Ukyou began to remember. Times she had conversed with Akane, times they had spent defending Ranma. She remembered Toma's island, and how hard they had all worked together to cure Ranma from Herb's damned Chiisuiton.

*Could Akane and I be...* Ukyou's heart seemed to pause at the thought,

*...Friends?* She had to ask. She had to know...

"Akane... do you think of me as a... are we... are we... Friends?" The last word was so low that Akane almost missed it. Akane smiled, feeling a warmth not all so different from what she felt for Ranma, but more like what Ukyou described.

"Yeah, I guess we are. Look, Ukyou... if you are really that adverse to leaving, why not stay?" Akane grasped Ukyou's hand in hers, and gave a supportive squeeze.

Ukyou blanched at the suggestion. "Akane-Chan... my Mother said I must go... I just can't go against her word," Ukyou had never conceived of such a thing.

"Why?" Was Akane's simple answer.

And you know what, Ukyou had no answer to the question. *Could I possibly?* and with a look toward Akane, Ukyou knew she would have to at least try.

To Hiroshi/Amiko

*So this is what it's like... not so unpleasant... just... what's the word? Weird... Unnatural... Frightening? Definitely.* She felt another gaze, crawling up and down her body. _Her_ body. _Her_ wide child-bearing hips, _Her_ silken soft skin, _Her_ firm ample bosom. Yet... they were his too.

Hiroshi could not bring himself to hate the person he was. He couldn't hate Amiko, because Amiko was him... just a different aspect of him.

*Yet is this beauty so foreign? I am beautiful... no question. It's so much easier for me to find beauty in anything than it is for Ranma to find it in himself. Still, I think I'm closer to understanding.*

Understanding. The feeling drove him on, yet it also scared Hiroshi. He had had only one episode where he had wondered what it would be like, being stuck a girl forever.

Yet, when Ranma had described it, it had been a constant thought ever since he had fallen into the Nyannichuan.

And he had also said the thought had been getting more emphatic as time progressed, as things went wrong in his life, as things like Herb and his damn Chiisuiton. The way Ranma had initially described the feeling...

Ranma was a lot more frightened than Hiroshi was. Hiroshi could see it in his eyes. He had continued to see it as Ranma fought desperately to stay who he was, who he had been before Jusenkyo.

Hiroshi supposed it had worked, to a point. But by doing that to himself, Ranma had closed off an entirely different part of himself to everyone, including himself.

His gentle compassion, his confused thoughtfulness, his serene smile. None of these Hiroshi had ever seen before Ranma's nervous break down.

*Perhaps...* Amiko thought to herself, *Perhaps Ranma's fear will diminish when he begins to see life in everything again, instead of fear in all directions.*

And Amiko's glance looked back at a thoughtful Ranma, a smile creeping to her lips as she saw a side of him she had never noticed before.

Instead of the proffesional readiness Ranma carried about, his walking since two days ago and been a bit more relaxed. Not like he had let down his guard, but like he had actually found a patch of happiness in his torn existence.

*With a little help, things might just turn out alright...* Amiko didn't notice the tense position of deep contemplation written all over Ranma's body as he considered the past few days.

To Ranma

Ranma looked over at Ukyou, who had been silent for most of the day. She had hardly glanced at him since the first class, as if she was either angry, or sad. *Must be sad, that wasn't a wail of anger...* Ranma thought absently, recalling Ukyou's crying form just moments before. The events of the past two days had... changed him somewhat. Perhaps they had changed everyone in a way which Ranma didn't understand.

Ranma had had problems in his life, much more so since he came to Nerima. The past few days, however, had shown that he had not entirely gotten used to them.

That didn't bother him, however, it was the odd fact that things seemed to be reconciling themselves in an odd manner. Ukyou seemed more distant and lonely, and Shampoo... well she just hadn't been there to bug him this morning like she usually was.

A strange sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach disturbed Ranma, and he had the eerie premonition that in the coming month, strange things would happen. Things that might change the course of everyone's life, and he got the feeling that some of those changes wouldn't be welcomed by the denizens of Nerima.

More likely, they wouldn't be welcomed by him.

* * * * * *

A crowd had gathered. Ranma looked around at how many people had come, quite a few of them holding ticket stubs for Nabiki's betting tables.

He had to smile, Nabiki would make a fortune today. It seems everyone, including some of the students from Hebereke and Kolkoz High had come out to witness this "Final" battle between Mousse and Ranma. Ranma's eyes scanned the audience, finding Akane. Ukyou sat next to her and Hiroshi, now back in male form, accompanied with Daisuke both waving flags which read "Go Ranma!".

Cologne and Shampoo stood away from the battelfield, on the opposite side from the bleachers. He could tell Cologne was speaking, and it appeared she was reciting something just out of his hearing range. Shampoo had a heated look to her, and occasionally she would flash an angry glare at Cologne behind her back.

Every gaze got angrier, hurt and sorrow started to accompany the anger, and the anger manifested into hate. Cologne didn't appear to notice, but Ranma knew she had to. He could _feel_ the heated aura around Shampoo.

The crowd grew silent as Mousse stepped onto the field. Mousse wore no concealing robe, only a black tank top, chinese slacks, and his slippers.

The most disturbing, though, is that he wasn't wearing glasses. Ranma looked nervously from Mousse to Akane, then tested his wounds. They didn't hurt as much as they did at first, a compliment to his quick healing strategy's... but they were still there. He would have to be careful not to agrevate them.

His eyes came back up to connect with Mousse's blue eyes. A moment of shock hit Ranma before he fell back into his battle-ready stance. Hiroshi had been right. There was a broken look of defeat behind Mousse's mask of calm, a shattered apprehensive soul stared back from Mousse's almost lifeless eyes. His hope had vanished, that ever constant flicker Ranma had noticed since the day they had met... His dreams had crumbled to an epitome of dust upon the wind.

And Ranma found himself saying the unspeakable, "Mousse. We don't have to fight, not anymore," Ranma kept his gaze locked with Mousse's as Akane and the rest looked at eachother in confusion.

Had _Ranma_ just said what they thought he had? Hiroshi smiled.

"Those Amazons who can no longer prove themselves are disgraced, Ranma, we must walk the walk eternal, till our dying day... turning away food... water... hospitality... until the end," Mousse tore his gaze away, and looked at Shampoo, he saw something there which had never been before, then he saw Cologne, a silent barrier to fate.

"There is no other way. Gomen Nasai, Ranma, and Sayonara. We will not meet again after this fight," Mousse's voice nearly broke near the end, but stayed surprisingly steady.

Mousse launched into his attack, coming in swiftly with a punch, batted aside by Ranma, and Mousse followed through with a sweeping kick, Ranma countered with a leap into the air as he vaulted back on his hands to avoid the kick.

Mousse closed the distance and struck with his fists, block, block, block, connect, and he leaped away as Ranma winced.

The blow had come very close to his injured rib, but he had twisted just enough that Mousse had missed his target.

Ranma leaped toward Mousse with a cross-kick, and Mousse stepped deftly back to avoid the blow.

Mousse used his evasion tactic to drop down and launch a sweeping kick, then springboarded himself back into the air with a flying roundhouse.

The fight went on, with many people in awe as the oddly silent dance went on between the two.

Ranma connected with several telling blows toward Mousse, but Mousse also had his share of attacks, and they both seemed to be tiring.

To Hi&Dai

Daisuke paused and looked over at Hiroshi, who seemed to be sketching something. He looked over his friends shoulder at the oddly realistic drawing which portrayed Ranma and Mousse locked in the incongruous dance

Daisuke blinked, looking from the unfortunate initiators of the battle back to the paper. It was lifelike, down to the look of defeat in Mousse's eyes and the sheer mask of determination and concentration mixed with a faint tint of fear and pain in Ranma's deep blue eyes.

He looked at Hiroshi who continued sketching... with his eyes locked intently on the battle.

Did he even know what he was drawing?

To The Battle

Several more minutes passed, as Ranma began connecting with more and more of his attacks, and Mousse started to look tired. His body seemed to be catching up with what his soul felt.

Ranma faltered for a moment, just a split second.

Akane noticed.

Hiroshi noticed.

Cologne noticed, and blinked... pausing in her recitation of Amazon law.

Mousse used the moment to throw a kick through Ranma's defense... at his rib.

And Ranma held back a yowl of pain.


Hiroshi stood up, a look of terror and concern written on his taught features.

Cologne had to cover her eyes at the brilliant flare of Aura emanating from the bleachers, after a moment she looked over at where it had come from.


Akane leaped to her feet as she saw Ranma drop to one knee. Mousse paused, a confused look on his face.

Akane knew her aura was burning brightly, but something behind her completely drowned it out.

An aura of a fiery hue.


Cologne was shocked. The odd boy calling himself Hiroshi was glowing with an intensity that startled her.

She had only seen son-in-law with that bright of an aura, but that was when he was straining himself beyond the limits.

Who was this boy?


Daisuke could almost see a pulsating energy around his friend, before it winked out, and a calm look came over Hiroshi.

The fear, however, was still there.


The two fighters paused when a brilliant flare of chi drew their attentions to the bleachers.

Perplexity was featured on Ranma's face, and Mousse looked back at his fallen opponent. The brilliant flare died.

*Did that just come from...? Nah, couldn't have been, he doesn't know anything about martial arts...Hnnn!*

Ranma forced himself back up onto his feet, a sharp pain throbbing in his side. he concentrated and pushed the stabbing agony to the back of his mind.

The fight began again. The flurry of fists and legs began to quicken, regardless of Ranma's injury, and the dance seemed like it would burn itself out.


Lightning quick, endlessly graceful, a parouet of delicacy. Hiroshi watched with an intense fascination, and a glimmer of wonder shone in his eyes. This was an art undreamed of. His mind seemed to absorb every motion, and it seemed to become slower for him, till it seemed like Ranma was moving at a moderate pace for every movement, every attack, every elegant strike and block.

A wild fury of inexplicable passion flickered in Ranma's eyes as he reached his point of balance. It took a while, but after that wait... Ranma became a part of the art, he was not moving, he was being moved, and the fire of joy burned inside his soul.

Hiroshi felt similarly moved... he wanted to start doing the motions Ranma was following, he wanted to become part of the art.

He almost did, before he recalled where he was.

The fighting seemed to have stopped for a moment. A look of reconsiliation on Mousse's face, and a look of sadness on Ranma's.

Hiroshi felt Ranma's sadness... and it hurt.


Ranma stopped. Mousse and he faced eachother from their starting points, the next attack would end it.

Something dripped on Ranma's head, and he looked up. Icy raindrops began falling from the sky. *Oh, great...*

Mousse launched himself at Ranma, and Ranma retaliated the best he could, caught of guard as he was slammed into the ground from a shoulder throw. Ranma managed to use the momentum to twist free and leap into the air, where Mousse met... her.

Ranma didn't hesitate, as she ended their last battle with how she had ended their first.

"Tenshin Amaguriken!" And Mousse drifted to the ground... defeated. Ranma noticed that her injury's didn't hurt as much, and while she was looking down, noticed she was now female.

The blood drained from her face.

Everybody else.

The blood drained from their face as they watched Mousse drift to the ground.


He didn't change. There was no duck, there was only Mousse. Ranma's mind locked, and her knees buckled.

She looked at Mousse, and then back at herself. Shifting between the two several times. The rain stopped a moment later, but threatened to return any moment as the dark clouds hung over the sky.

*He didn't change...* Ran through her mind over and over again. She didn't understand. She _couldn't_ understand.

And the seering fire shot through her side once again... not as bad as before, because she had lost mass.

She touched her hand to her side, bringing it back with a wet, crimson stain. *B-B-B-Blood?*

Akane was standing by her, lifting her back to her feet, asking if she was okay.

To Hi&Dai

Hiroshi wanted to go down to Ranma, but something held him back. He looked down, and found he was now very female. He saw Cologne leap onto the battlefield and he burst into action.

Daisuke looked over at his now female friend as she shuffled through her backpack, and quickly produced a thermos.

She poured it over herself and Daisuke witnessed the change. *So different structures... yet such similar looks...*

Hiroshi began to sift through the standing crowd and walk off the bleachers. Daisuke wanted to yell "Wait!" but Hiroshi was a bit fast for him. Daisuke shook his head and looked back at the battelfield. There seemed to be something going on.


Ranma snapped out of his revery to see Cologne land on the battlefield, facing Mousse.

"As is Amazon law, Mousse, I judge the right to either banish you from civilization," A cold smile fell over Cologne's face as she paused, "Or execute you outright," Whispers spread through the crowd.

Mousse looked at the ground dejectedly, "Do what you must, Cologne."

Cologne approached Mousse, Ranma's mouth wanted to say something as it opened and closed, but she stared on, speechless.

Akane looked on, with an air of dread settling into her bones.

"I excercise the choice of execution, so that your meddling will never... even by chance... bother anyone ever again," Cologne's words sounded as if she were speaking more of what Mousse had done to _Her_ than what he had done to anyone else.

She raised her staff, and began to bring it down on Mousse's skull, the boy unflinchingly waited for his fate.

"NO!!! NO HURT MOUSSE!" Shampoo suddenly threw herself between her great grandmother's staff and the doomed boy.

Cologne paused, an irritated look flashing across her face. "Shampoo, you will move now. The law is very clear on such matters, and Mousse's fate has been decided,"

"No, you no hurt Mousse, is not right!" Shampoo held her arms around Mousse, as the boy averted his eyes.

"Shampoo, do as she says," Mousse murmured. Shampoo looked at Mousse in pain, as emotion poured from her gaze.

His eyes turned back, and their gaze connected. His features softened, melted.

"Now see, Shampoo, he doesn't want you to protect him. He has chosen death over you, and he is a coward to top it off. Step aside, girl," Cologne raised her staff once more, expecting her grandaughter to shy out of the way.

"No, I defy you, great-grandmother," Cologne nearly dropped her staff, Ranma's eyes grew wide, and the rest of the crowd stared in amazement.

"What?" Cologne asked, clearly shocked. Her grand-daaghter hadn't used her own name in a sentence, but had instead said "I". And she had defied her. Cologne's eyes narrowed in contempt, "What did you say, girl?"

"I say I defy you, Mousse you no kill. Mousse Ai Ran..." Mousse almost weeped for joy at Shampoo's words, and Cologne's rage began building.

"Say that again and you are no blood of mine," Cologne was willing to forgive the girls impetuous nature once, but her patience was quickly wearing thin.

"I Love Mousse, not Ranma," Shampoo's words seemed to echo in silence. Everyone had heard Shampoo's words. Everyone... even Ranma. Even Akane.

Cologne turned away from her grand-daughter. "You are a stranger to me. You are not an Amazon of the Joketsuzoku tribe, you are an outsider. If ever you should set foot in the village again, you will not see the light of another day..." Cologne began to approach Ranma, her battle aura blazing brightly, and getting brighter by every step.

"It is my judgment that you, Ranma Saotome of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial arts is responsible for Shampoo's death. By Amazon law, you are to die as well," Cologne continued walking toward Ranma, and Akane appeared in front of her Fiancee, in a battle ready stance.

"A-Akane, you don't need to protect me, I can take her..." Ranma whispered, but Akane payed no attention.

"If you want to get at Ranma, you'll have to go through me," Akane spoke loud enough that everyone could hear her.

Cologne smiled evilly, "Really, girl, you're not even as good as your Iinazuke... do you think you would stand even a one minute battle against a three-hundred year old Amazon? If you are so eager to die, then I will _aid_ you!" Cologne's staff swung at a frightening speed.

And a blur caught the end.

That blur, was Hiroshi.

Ranma looked at her friend in awe. *Did he just... catch that?*

He yanked the staff out of Cologne's startled grasp.

"Gomen Nasai, Cologne-Chan.... but if you are going to hurt Ranma... whether physically or emotionally, you will have to obliterate me from existence first. Nobody hurts a friend of mine without severe repercussions," He twirled the staff between two of his fingers, as he stared Cologne dead in the eyes.

Cologne flinched as she saw the aura he was emitting, a dangerous aura of sheer intended violence... much like hers. About as powerful, as well.

She considered taking the boy on, he obviously had no martial arts training, but she wasn't sure exactly what he _did_ know, so she took a cautious step back.

He saw this, and handed her staff back to her. Cologne muttered a thank-you through clenched teeth, and stepped away from Hiroshi.

Ranma looked between Cologne and her friend, trying to decide why Cologne didn't simply wipe the floor with Hiroshi... he was far less experienced at Martial arts than Ranma was. She couldn't understand why Hiroshi was still standing. Akane was likewise stunned.

Their attention was turned back to Cologne, as she held the staff in front of her.

"You have disgraced my family, and denied the Amazon law, Shampoo. _You_, Ranma, have time and time again broken our tradition when refusing the law of marriage. If it had not been for _You're_ brash arrogance, the events of this evening would never have transpired. I damn you, I damn all of you. May the darkness be gentle in his judgment, and may _you_ know suffering from this, Ranma!" Colognes' hands tightened around the staff she held out in front of her, and the two-thousand year old Amazon artifact snapped in two, as thunder and lightning clapped from above... a moment later, Cologne vanished in a fiery blaze, and the staff clattered to the ground.

Mousse stood, and gently pushed Shampoo out of his arms. He looked into her eyes, a silent thank-you passed between them. "We can never go home, Shampoo... why did you do it?"

Shampoo placed a hand on Mousse's cheek, "Because I Love you, not like Ranma, I never know how much you mean... once on Toma's island, when you fight bird-man... and then were unconcious, I know. I know for long time what you feel, but never believe till it almost too late. Mousse... I no want Grandmother to control me any more, I want be free... you always support me in decision, except for Ranma. You make good husband," Shampoo smiled.

Ranma looked at the two, a small twinge of jealousy running through her mind, but it was accompanied by a greater relief. Shampoo seemed happy in her choice, so Ranma was happy for her. She was right, also, Mousse would be the best husband for Shampoo that he could be.

"Ranma, you Baka! You could have gotten yourself killed! Don't think I didn't notice when you started bleeding! Oh, geeze... you're bleeding..." Akane looked at the wound, as Ranma winced in pain at her touch.

"Ah, it's not so bad. I've gotten worse from you," Ranma wanted to add an insult, but due to her condition she thought it would be best to stay out of _that_ particular source of injury.

Hiroshi had walked away from his friends and picked up the two pieces of staff lying on the ground. He looked at them, a faint hint of foreboding flickered in his heart.

"Yo! Hiroshi!" Ranma walked away from Akane before she could finish examining her wounds.

Hiroshi turned around and looked down at Ranma. *Why the heck did you do a fool thing like jumping in front of Cologne?* He wondered to himself. He also wondered why she backed down, and why he had had a panic attack when Cologne had threatened his friend.

"Yeah, Ranma?" Hiroshi looked down at the two pieces of staff in his hands.

Ranma rubbed the back of her head, "Well... I guess I should, ya'know,... thank you for... well... ah... stopping Cologne... I have no idea how you did it... she seemed like she was about to kill Akane," Ranma felt blood rush to her face in a blush. She felt embarrassed thanking Hiroshi for stopping Cologne, but felt it was the right thing to do.

"Don't mention it, Ranma. I couldn't stand the thought of you beeing hurt by anything Cologne did... or would do... Akane's death would have destroyed you, and I couldn't bare to see that happen," Hiroshi smiled uneasily. It was the truth, but he wasn't sure why he had said it in that way.

Ranma looked at him oddly, wondering exactly what he meant by that. It sounded like... *You're just imagining things, Ranma. Hiroshi doesn't think of you like that.* So she brushed the thoughts aside and plastered a smile across her cute face. "Yeah, well thanks anyway. You're a great friend, 'Roshi!" Ranma turned and walked back to Akane. The fight was over.

Nabiki later got a picture of the three "Victor's" of the battle together. After some arguing between Ranma/Akana and Ranma/Nabiki, they decided to take the picture.

* * * * * *

Hiroshi was the last to leave, as he watched everyone go. Daisuke had asked if he could talk to Hiroshi, seeing as how he had been silent for the past two days since the fight. After Dai had left, Hiroshi had begun walking from the school cafeteria back to his house.

Hiroshi thought of Ranma, and how worried he had been Mousse would finish _Ranma_ off instead of the other way around.

He couldn't bear to lose a friend like Ranma. *Friend...*

That's what she was, wasn't she? Ranma's words seemed to bite more than they should have... in fact, they should never have bothered Hiroshi. *"You're a great friend, 'Roshi!"* echoed in his mind.

They were friends, they had been for about six months now. *Why do those words... hurt?* They hurt. That was the word, Ranma's words hurt.

But... why? Ranma hadn't meant them in a snide way, she had meant them wholeheartedly as what they were.

They were friends. And something bothered Hiroshi.

*Friends... and that's all we'll be.* Ranma had inadvertantly ruined a bit of his life with Mihoko.

And Ranma was still happy. In fact, more happy than ever since Shampoo announced her Marriage to Mousse. *She's happy, while I have to struggle through... nobody to love.... nobody to love me, and _She_ has all these women flocking around her!*

The worst of it was that he had been helping her... yet he couldn't be jealous. When she felt happy, he had a similar feeling. He was helping a friend, and he was making his own depression more prominent as he did. Yet, to see that smile, made him feel better. Sometimes it seemed all the depression was worth seeing Ranma's dreary countenance lighten for just a moment.

Ranma rarely had time to be happy, but the past several days Hiroshi had shown her how it was to live life. She still needed to see some of the beautiful things and places Hiroshi showed up regularly at, but all in due time.

*Maybe Ranma can enjoy life after all, she just needs a little guidance. I'm glad I can make her so happy.* And Hiroshi stopped. He ran his thoughts through his mind again, pinning down specific gender describing words that had passed through his mind. *Her..She... She... Her... what's wrong with me?* Hiroshi recalled that he had been thinking of Ranma more and more often as a girl. For the past four days, Ranma had shown up three times at his house. Eager to finish the clay statues she had started. And for hours into the night, they would talk, debate, philosophize.

Hiroshi found he had walked all the way into his house, and was standing at the ladder to the vault. He climbed down, realizing there was a lot of confusion in his thoughts. He couldn't understand why Ranma had become a girl in his mind, except for the fact that when Ranma was around him, almost seven-out-of-eight times he was a girl. Even in school it seemed that way.

He also noticed he was a girl more frequently also. But, unknown to Ranma, Hiroshi could remove the necklace, as he did before walking down the dripping hallway. He just preferred to wear it all the time, except when down in the vault. If he was going to know how Ranma felt during the curse, he was going to have to wear it everywhere else.

He smiled as he slipped on his apron, and pocketed the amulet. He picked up his chisel and drew the sheet aside.

He looked down at the now featureless face of Mihoko, and struck a telling blow to the statue, knocking the head off. He looked at the headless statue, now as tall as he was, and began chipping away at the features.

Shape to form, form to shape. So began the cycle, an unknown image formed in Hiroshi's mind of the statues final depiction.

"Goodbye, Mihoko, let's see what this rock is hiding," And Hiroshi smiled.

* * End Volume One * *

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