Author's Note: The characters and setting herein- with the exception of one or two O.C.'s of my own design- are the property of Rumiko Takahashi. I find that the further I progress with this story, the longer it seems to take to crank out the next installment. Pray forgive this humble author for any excessive delays. And now…

Ranma ½: The Truth and the Tempest

Chapter 23: A Shift in the Wind

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An excerpt from the writings of Shoichi Yamashira, seer and historian of Hunter Clan Yamashira, written in the early years of the Meiji era, roughly 1869:

I have foreseen many hard times for our people. In ages past, the Demon Hunters were far stronger and more unified than today. One by one, our clans have fallen from the path- or worse, killed off by our ancient spirit foes. The sealing of Japan's borders and restriction on spiritual diversity imposed by the Tokugawas was only one step, but one that signaled the beginning of the real decline. These occurrences, plus the horrific losses we suffered- not at the hands of demons, but of our fellow humans, when some of our young were pulled into military service at the Battle of Seki ga Hara- prompted two of our finest warrior clans to abandon the path and the Code in disgust, and thus fade into the background.

Other clans have since renounced their blood in similar fashion- the miko traditions of Ikeda clan, or the renowned archer clan of Fukazawa- but the loss of their gift was secondary to the two clans lost so long ago. When Junichiro Sagara, the Black Stallion, and his comrade-in-arms Kenzo Saito, the Wild Tiger, both laid down their swords and vanished into obscurity, the Hunters lost their greatest warriors in over a thousand years.

Many more hard times lie ahead for us. The lost clans will thin and branch out; their history fade into myth and fable. Much time will pass and many losses will be suffered, and our numbers will dwindle even more. But I have foreseen a glimmer of hope.

The Tiger and the Stallion's blood may sleep for now, their clan blades locked away in our libraries- but I believe that it will not vanish into darkness. I have seen it myself. The Demons will try their best to cut down our ranks. There will come a time when chaos will run like a river. When that time comes, lost blood shall arise again. The scions of Sagara and Saito will come into their power.

One youth will overcome the icy grip of death. One will challenge the very gods. They will be the heirs to the two lost clans. The Tiger and the Stallion will awaken once more. And their union shall overcome the darkness, to confront the chaos at its source.

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"So that's where it came from," Akane murmured quietly as she sat on the training floor, arms behind her head as she warmed up and stretched out her muscles. Several minutes had passed since Shingen had shown them the swords and told them the salient points of the blades' legacies. He hadn't related all the details of Shoichi Yamashira's vision, only those relating to their ancestors; the fact that their mothers' clans once shared a common bond had shaken both of them up a good deal. She glanced towards the bunk room where the case containing the swords now rested. "I never thought I'd wake up and find myself part of another family legacy in addition to our dojo."

Ranma nodded as he sat next to her, stretching his legs out via a very uncomfortable-looking split. "I know the feeling, but with all the other things that got heaped on me over the past year or so, this didn't really surprise me as much as I thought it might."

"What didn't surprise you, the origin of our blood or the other thing?" She didn't vocalize it, but silently wondered to herself about the 'other thing'. It's just so weird… is it some sort of fluke that I have an ancestor who fought alongside his? Or is it karma… or destiny? And if it is destiny, does that mean… were he and I meant to find each other all this time?

"The origin, Akane; I sure as hell knew I didn't get this from my old man," he replied with an almost forced chuckle. I gotta admit, though… it is kinda weird if you think about it. I mean, our mothers' clans having a warrior's bond centuries ago, and nobody knows anything about it? Doesn't make a lot of sense to me… He breathed out a sigh and rolled into a standing position, swinging his arms loosely for a moment- or as loosely as he could with the weights on his wrists. Mom did say something about hearing bedtime stories about this sorta thing… I wonder how she'd take it if she knew it was family history she was hearing.

Akane snickered slightly at his comment. "Yeah, I suppose if you did get it from your dad he would've pawned that clan sword before you ever saw it- well, if he'd known about it anyways," she quipped. The comment broke Ranma's contemplation and he guffawed, prompting another laugh from Akane.

"Yeah, ya got that right; old fart didn't hesitate to try an' pawn that tournament award from the Saotome family grave," he said in a slightly bitter tone. "An' then he finds out the thing got pawned by a previous Saotome…" he added with a chuckle.

"Kami, the look on his face must've been priceless," Akane giggled, pushing the thoughts of their Hunter heritage out of her mind for the moment. She took a calming breath and stood up, testing the weights on her arms and legs. "Hmm… that's weird…"

"Huh? What's weird, 'kane?"

Akane lifted her forearm up and down a few times. "I could almost swear this thing feels heavier than it did yesterday," she said, looking up at Ranma. "Do yours feel weird, or is it just me?"

Ranma frowned. "Actually… I don't think it's just you, they do feel kinda hefty today." He flexed his own arm a few times. "Maybe it's just our muscles shoutin' at us for wearin' these things all night."

Akane jumped up and down a few times; there was definitely a little more effort required than before. "This doesn't make any sense; the weights don't look any bigger."

"That's because they aren't any bigger," Shingen piped up from where he stood at the table across the room. "Those are progressive training weights, crafted long ago by the magic of a clan priest; the weights grow denser- and thus heavier- the longer you train. The faster you get used to the weights, the faster the weight increases. By my own experience with those, each weight should have reached five pounds by now for a combined total of twenty pounds of weight on each of you."

Akane blinked. "Magic leg weights? You never mentioned that…"

"Didn't seem important at the time," Shingen replied with a shrug. "Now, I've got some touch-up work to do here; you'd better start the aura exercise without me." He turned his attention back to the Purge wards resting on the table. One was nearly complete, while the second was little more than a few lines of ink. He dipped a brush in a nearby ink pot and began scribing tiny, intricate patterns on each strip of parchment.

"Yeah, maybe we oughta get started, Akane; we tried this yesterday just before the Link exercise an' you know it didn't work too well," said Ranma.

"Of course it didn't work well, Ranma, I'm not used to switching battle aura on and off like you are- especially when I'm not fighting."

"Bein' used to it's got nothing to do with it. One, you were trying too hard an' thinking about it too much, and two, when ya did get your aura to flare, it's 'cause you were getting angry with the whole thing. Remember what I said about that? Lose your cool and ya lose the fight?"

Akane sighed and nodded. The two of them had spent a few minutes after their balance pole exercise working on her battle aura manifestation- something Shingen had told them would be key to upcoming ki manipulation training. Success had been very limited- partly due to fatigue, partly due to how little time they actually spent on it, and mostly because of Akane's impatience and no small amount of over-eagerness. Several times Ranma had told her not to think about it so much, but all it did was make her angry at herself for not being able to call up more than a flicker of ki at a time. Of course, once the anger kicked in, so did the aura. But that's not the way I want to do it, Akane thought as she stretched her arms out once more. I don't want to have to get angry just to get my aura up, I'll just get mad all the time if I keep doing that. "You're right… I just feel like I'm dropping behind again, that's all. I wish I could do it as easily as you do."

"Hey, I think you're forgettin' something- remember how long it took me to do some of the things I do?" Ranma replied with a smirk. "Took me ages to come up with the Moko Takabisha, an' don't forget the Amaguriken took me a week. These things take time, Akane. Ya can't just flip it on like a light switch." He stretched his neck out and took a deep breath. "C'mon, let's try it again."

"Okay," Akane replied, taking a breath of her own and letting her arms hang loose. She closed her eyes and gradually began pushing worries to the back of her mind, taking slow, measured breaths. She pried her focus away from her surroundings and tried to feel the ebb and flow of her own aura, but doubt began cropping up in her mind as it subtly evaded her grasp. It's not working. I can't do this unless I'm in a fight or if I'm angry. She could feel tension beginning to build up in her shoulders… and all at once, the tension left as she felt something she wasn't expecting. She felt Ranma's arms gently slip around her waist, felt him gingerly pull her into an embrace from behind.

"Maybe we need to try this a different way," he said softly, nuzzling her neck ever so slightly. A warm sensation washed over Akane and she leaned back against him, pressing her back against his chest. The remaining tension in her joints seemed to evaporate. Any more of this, she thought, and I think I'm gonna melt…

"Don't think about trying to grab hold of your ki, Acchan," he was saying. "Don't try and force it. Just relax… let your mind go… don't think about it, just let it happen."

Akane nodded, keeping her eyes closed. "Maybe we should've used this method last night," she murmured. A mild flush crept over her face; it felt like liquid fire was beginning to flow through her veins. Her breathing evened out and her shoulders dropped slightly. Feels so warm… Visions of their shared dream began to flash through her mind and she felt the fire begin to burn hotter still.

"Let it flow through you, Akane… around you, over you…" He slowly moved his hands, brushing up from her waist to her shoulders, then down her arms, until his hands came to rest on her forearms. "Now find something in your heart ya can focus on… a feeling, something positive you can hold onto and not let go… something that fuels the fire inside… let it flow, too. Feel it, breathe it… let the negative fade away…" His hands reversed direction, brushing back up her arms to her shoulders, down her back, until they reached her waist once again, then repeated the cycle.

Kami, this is too much, Akane thought to herself. I feel like my whole body's on fire; he keeps this up and I might lose control and wind up jumping him right here and now…no, bad girl, bad Akane, can't think like that in the middle of training… She blushed madly, shaking that thought off and filing it away for future reference; this, however, did nothing to take her mind off the fact that his words and his close proximity were making her blood boil. She took in a series of measured breaths, letting the warmth surround her, flowing along her body in a steady rhythm; she could almost feel it pulsing in time with her heart, pounding as it was.

"Akane… open your eyes." At his words, Akane took in a short breath and cracked her eyes open ever so slightly. The warmth from his touch and her own rapidly raging emotions continued to play havoc with her mind for a few seconds; she blinked once, refocusing her irises… and an instant later, both eyes widened as she realized her entire body was wreathed in a vibrant red aura that was blazing as bright as a bonfire.

Akane's mouth hung open for a second before breaking into a massive smile. "I… I did it?" she gasped. "I did! I actually did it!" She spun around in Ranma's arms and planted a massive kiss on him, which he was more than happy to accept.

"Ya see? I knew you could do it, you just needed to stop thinkin' about it and do it!" said Ranma proudly. "I gotta admit, though… whatever feeling you focused on musta been damn powerful; that aura ya produced must've been your biggest yet!"

Akane blushed again, though it was hardly noticeable against the light of the aura she was still generating. "Well, let me give you a little hint, Ranma," she giggled before pulling him into another tight embrace. Once more their lips locked together, and this time Ranma's own aura erupted in full force, mixing with hers and bathing the room in an orange-gold light for about a minute.

This is it, thought Akane, not caring whether Ranma heard her thoughts through an Astral Link or not. This is what I can hold on to; I didn't want and don't have to get angry anymore to tap into ki. All I need is this feeling… I just wish I hadn't fought it for so long; I guess I never knew how strong it was until I stopped denying it! She hugged him tighter before reluctantly breaking the kiss and gazing into his eyes. I love you so much, Ranma…

I love you too, Akane… more than you'll ever know.

She had to smirk at that. We'll see about that, baka, she thought to him with a wink.

"Very impressive, Akane." Shingen's voice brought the two out of their reverie; they blinked a few times and slowly let go of one another as the taller man crossed the training floor. "That was quite an aura you managed to manifest, especially considering your lack of training in that area. I'm assuming that this was an emotion-based aura you produced?"

"Um… yeah," said Akane, sporting an awkward look. "Ranma said something a while back about ki feeding into and off of emotional energy, and since I'd felt a lot tougher and stronger when I got angry, well…" She shrugged.

"Yeah, that's how Ryoga gets his Shishi Hokodan to work; he pumps all his depression into his ki and BOOM." Ranma scratched the back of his head. "Same thing with my Moko Takabisha, except I usually use something else…"

"Probably confidence or determination, judging by the look and power of your attacks," Shingen remarked offhand.

"Yeah… how'd you guess that?" Akane asked.

"You're forgetting, I've been in this business for twenty years," Shingen replied. "After watching you fight at least twice, I was able to get a fairly decent read on you and deduce you were using a positive emotion behind your aura techniques." He straightened his bandanna out. "Personally, I think emotion-based ki is a risk, but positive emotion at least doesn't burden your spirit the way negative emotions do."

Akane nodded, remembering how the Shishi Hokodan would drain Ryoga to the point of collapse if he poured too much into it- or how after some of her own rages, she would feel withdrawn or sick, sometimes wanting nothing more than to go to her room and brood. Just then a thought hit her. "Shingen, if you don't mind me asking, I noticed one or two of your moves pack a hell of a punch… what emotion do you use?"

"I don't."

At the sight of their eyes bugging out, he continued. "Every emotion can be countered, one way or another. Anger can be soothed, a happy person made sad. If anything, to me, emotion-based ki attacks are a liability." He paused. "About the only safe one for me is determination, I guess… devotion to the cause, the Code. Anything else, I try to steer away from."

"You mean you don't use any emotion at all?" Ranma asked.

"Most of the time. But it takes years of practice," Shingen replied before stretching his arms out. "We can talk about that some other time; for now, let's move on to the next step." He stepped across the room and took several shinai off a wall rack, then produced two lengths of black cloth from his jacket pocket. "Before we do, though, I want to see you both flare your auras once more."

Ranma nodded, taking a deep breath as an orange-gold aura flowed from his body. Akane took a hesitant breath, let it out- and before she knew it, her own newly crimson aura had flared up again. "Wow… that was so much easier than before," she said.

"See, now that ya know you can do it, you prob'ly won't have to fight to do it anymore," said Ranma with a wink. Akane smiled and nodded.

"Good, now keep sustaining your ki while I prepare the next step," said Shingen. The two of them nodded, taking measured breaths and letting their facial muscles relax. A moment later, they blinked in surprise as Shingen approached them in turn and blindfolded them with the black cloth. Akane's aura flickered slightly as she wondered what was next- and a second later she felt the hilt of a shinai being pressed into her hand.

"Keep reaching out with your aura," came Shingen's voice. "Let it guide you. Let it feel for you." It sounded like he was walking to the far end of the room. There was a clack- another shinai being taken down. Then his footsteps, closer and closer. "For this exercise, your auras will be your eyes, plus any other senses you care. You can't always rely on physical sight in battle- and once you become used to the blindfolds, your ki should take hold of your senses and hone them as sharp as swords. When you've achieved that, with practice you'll be able to take the next step- the art of seeing through illusions via the physical and the Astral at the same time."

Ranma nodded to himself. "Yer talking about that thing you used to see that invisible imp," he said. "Kami no Shisen."

"That's right, my friend. The Eyes of God," Shingen replied. "Now, concentrate and… defend yourselves." The footsteps quickened, the two teens flinched as they felt the rush of air…

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Shampoo opened her eyes. Sunlight was streaming through her window, prompting her to squint and lift a hand to shade herself. Did… did I fall asleep? she thought as she blinked the last vestiges of drowsiness away. I was just going to rest for few minutes, then go downstairs again… aiya, great-grandmother will be upset…

She heaved a sigh and pulled herself into a sitting position, resting her chin on her hand. I guess Shampoo more tired than thought I was, she pondered. Then again… it not that often an Amazon warrior lose what I did.

He would have been pride of the tribe- the strongest male around, and could have been mine… he should have been mine. She looked down at the bedspread glumly. But he not want me, and I guess I just not want to see that he no want Shampoo. No fall for my charms, no matter what. Back home, any man would have dropped to feet and begged for such attention… and I… I force it on someone who no want to be forced…

She wrung her hands slightly and a tear escaped one eye. "Is no good to mope in bed all day," she whispered to herself. "What done, is done. Ranma make choice, earn Right. Not airen any longer… but at very least, maybe a friend…" She trailed off as something next to her bed caught her eye. Turning her head, she noticed she wasn't alone in the room.

Mousse was seated next to the bed, his glasses resting on the night table beside him. His hands were folded on his lap, and his eyes were closed- apparently in meditation, but Shampoo quickly realized that he was asleep when a soft snore escaped him. He was leaning forward slightly, rocking back and forth with each breath he took. For a moment, Shampoo stared at him, wondering how he could be so brazen as to wander into her room, but this thought quickly left her as she realized he wasn't in a position that suggested lewd behavior. In fact, with his glasses off he wouldn't have been able to see her anyway. It was almost like…

"Xian pu…" he mumbled in his native Mandarin, causing her to start a bit. "Please be well… I know I'm little more than a half-blind fool to you… but if you need anything… I'm right here…" His head tilted to one side and he fell back to his own sleep.

Shampoo said nothing, but looked at him long and hard- not the scornful looks she would give him in the café, but really looking at him. Looking at the blind, lovesick duck-boy who paid her all the attention that she had so wanted from Ranma… who had fought Ranma and others numerous times to try and prove himself to her… who had weathered so much abuse from her and still stuck by her side, and who, at one point, had gone so far as to rescue her from Toma's bird-man servant, overcoming injuries that by all counts should have paralyzed him… A rush of emotion she didn't understand welled up in her heart, and she found that she just couldn't stop looking at him.

"He kept watch over you all night long, child. He's a very devoted boy- a few flaws here and there aside."

Shampoo blinked, turning her head towards the voice on the other side of her bed. "Oh… great-grandmother, I no hear you come in!"

Cologne smiled. "I came to see how you were faring after last night," she said, shuffling across the bedspread. "Are you feeling better?"

Shampoo paused for a moment, then nodded. "Shampoo think so… just feel run-down last night, is all." She shook her head slightly and pushed herself out of bed. She stretched once or twice, then cast another look at the still-snoozing Mousse. "Why he stay here all night? Stupid Mousse… he no need do that…" Cologne looked sharply at her, but softened when she saw that she wasn't rebuking him or putting on the airs she normally did. In fact, she almost looked concerned.

"He was worried about you, child," she said. "As was I. He just wanted to make sure you were well."

Shampoo nodded, fingering the warding pendant around her neck absently. "I know, great-grandmother… but still not reason to sleep in chair all night…" She blinked, then shook herself, feigning indifference as she straightened her rumpled clothes. "Anyway, no is important now; is almost time for restaurant to open, yes?"

Cologne bit back a chuckle. "Yes, I suppose we'd best get started," she said, picking up her cane and hopping across the room. "You'd better get yourself cleaned up first, while I go set up in the kitchen. I think we can let the boy sleep a while longer."

Shampoo nodded as the diminutive elder pogoed her way down the stairs. She grabbed a towel and headed to the washroom for a quick shower- pausing for a moment at the door to look at Mousse one last time. She blinked once, then allowed a soft smile to cross her face. Maybe he not such a stupid boy after all… She shrugged, then turned and left the room, leaving the myopic martial artist to his sleep.

As she left the room, she failed to notice something just outside the window.

A gray six-fingered hand gripped the window frame delicately as its owner peered inside, its vibrant green eyes focusing on the purple-haired girl traipsing out the door.

Hmm… so she bears one of the Master's marks as well, the imp thought to itself with a malicious grin. The boy, too… and both carry the presence of our kind. Its brow furrowed as its black wings fluttered, keeping it steady against the building. Our brethren's influence is muted, likely the work of a Hunter dog. Still, an obstacle easily remedied… let us see…

One at a time would be more fun, drag it out a bit… and hers is ripe for release, unlike his…

Yes. Soon enough, you will become our plaything, girl. The game must run its course.

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Genma snorted. His eyelids flickered briefly, cracked open, then slowly shut themselves again. He felt like he'd gotten drunk the hard way- suck on the sake bottle's cap while hitting himself on the head with said bottle. A yawn escaped him as he rolled his head from side to side… and at that moment, he remembered what had happened the previous evening.

Eyes, wide open. Teeth, clenched in fear. Hair, would have turned white if he had any left. Bladder- on the verge of emptying.

"I'm a dead man!" he squeaked. "WhatamIgonnado, whatamIgonnado… Gotta go, gotta get out of here until No-chan cools down… IF she cools down… oh gods, why didn't I burn that blasted Neko-ken manual…" He was so caught up in his ranting and panicking that it took him at least a minute to notice some things. One, he was lying on the floor where he had fainted the previous night. Two, the clock was reading 11:15 AM. Three, there was a rather bizarre-looking trinket bound around his ankle, a plastic box of some sort held by nylon straps and a keyed lock. Four, there was a note pinned to his gi. Genma stared at the note for a second then grabbed it off his chest, flipping it open.

Good morning, Mr. Saotome. If you're reading this, you've just woken up and are probably looking for a way to escape Auntie Nodoka's wrath… which, given the circumstances, is not something to look forward to. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I can't allow you to just scurry off like the old lech Happosai might- at least not until you've also settled things with the rest of us as well. So… allow me to introduce you to the Nabiki Tendo method of settling debts. Unless you decide to stick it out, be a MAN and stay in town until the issue is settled, that handy little gadget on your ankle stays on.

Don't worry, it's nothing too devious- just a modified 'training collar' I picked up weeks ago at a pet shop; I was planning to use it to keep Shampoo out of the house and minimize the property damage… long story short, I'd advise you not to step outside the dojo unless you happen to like electric shocks.

Auntie doesn't know about this yet; I just figured I'd help her along a bit, especially considering the bill for dojo repairs and food that you've racked up during your stay with us. I've been tolerant up to a point, but I'm afraid your bill is now overdue- in more ways than one.

Seeing as how you've most likely slept through breakfast, I'll see you at lunch. Pleasure doing business with you. -Nabiki

Genma paled and began to shake. "A SHOCK collar?" he sputtered. "She… she c-cant be serious! That girl wouldn't dare… it's just a bluff, a stupid bluff, that's all it is…" He stared at the box on his ankle and tried to pry it off nervously, but the strap wouldn't budge. He took a few deep breaths, then paused and looked at the device with a more scornful air. "She's just playing a practical joke or something, trying to make me panic…" He nodded to himself vigorously, then scrambled out of the room and up to his bedroom. He quickly grabbed some loose clothes and stuffed them in his backpack, then snuck down the stairs as quietly as possible. "Can't risk the front gate, someone might see me," he mumbled before stepping out onto the back porch and running for the estate wall.

One foot away from the wall, he realized Nabiki wasn't joking.

His first clue being the rather obvious electric shock that ripped through his body, making his eyes bug out and prompting him to dance across the back lawn like a circus clown. This, of course, brought him near another section of estate wall- and thus another section of buried wire- that shocked him again and caused him to flop rather ungracefully into the nearest natural obstacle, which happened to be the koi pond.

"Ah, ah, ah, Mr. Saotome. You ought to know by now that bluff isn't in my dictionary." A smug-looking Nabiki sauntered into the room and made her way unhurriedly to the porch. "And besides, you know Auntie would be very unhappy if you left, so why don't you just stay put and…" She trailed off, her eyes widening and her mouth dropping open as she gazed at the koi pond's occupant. Soun and Kasumi quickly joined her, attracted by the sudden yelp Genma had given out. Kasumi started, one hand flying to her mouth. Soun's eyes were the size of saucers and his jaw had hit the floor.

"Oh, my… I guess all that thrashing about during the Purge did do something," Kasumi whispered.

"Holy moly," Nabiki groaned, shaking her head. "Talk about getting bit by karma."

Soun's jaw re-engaged, but he said nothing; he just closed his eyes and shook his head. I guess it just didn't want to leave completely, Saotome… and with all that squirming you did, I'm afraid this time you really did bring it on yourself.

A low moan escaped Genma just as he glanced down, noticed that he once again had the body of a panda- slightly charbroiled from the shock collar- and fainted again.

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"Don't just flail around, Akane, let your aura do the work for you."

"Easy for you to say, Shingen, I've never done this before," Akane growled, lifting her shinai back into a battle stance. "This stupid blindfold itches, too…" She stopped in mid-sentence and backed away two steps as she felt someone move into her personal space. She heard the footsteps and felt a flicker in the air around her, and suddenly brought her shinai up in a high block, then two low blocks. She felt and heard the clack of the incoming weapon as it was deflected twice, but the third strike got through her defense and left a stinging mark on her leg. Akane whistled through her teeth; they'd been at the exercise for several hours and the bruises were beginning to add up.

"It's no good, I still can't do this…" she sighed, her aura wavering.

"Hey, don't talk like that, 'kane," Ranma said from her left. "Ya blocked twice that time, didn't you? Compared to how you were doin' two hours ago I think you're doin' pretty damn well." He stopped talking, and Akane both heard and felt his movement as Shingen darted in and struck four times; from the sound of bamboo impacting and the rush of air, she could tell he'd blocked all four strikes. Akane relaxed slightly, and this time she felt a tingle as his aura brushed against hers.

Maybe there is something to this, she thought. I can't 'see' anything, but I'm starting to feel things a bit better… Her attention snapped back into focus as Shingen approached her again; she could tell it was him by the heavier footsteps and the coolness of his aura. He's coming in for two low attacks, then a high one… Her shinai flashed forward, knocking aside the two strikes to her midsection and then swinging up to deflect the head shot. The head shot glanced off her weapon and suddenly she was on the floor, rubbing her shin; he had swung down and tagged her leg at the last second.

"Better, Akane," said Shingen. "Don't stop now, we've still got fifteen more minutes to go." Akane sighed in mock-exasperation and stood up again, tightening her blindfold. "Remember to stretch out with your feelings; let go your conscious self, and act on instinct."

Akane groaned; it wasn't hard to notice the theatrical air he had just put on. "Oh, right… and let's not forget, a Hunter can feel the Force flowing through him," she replied sarcastically, prompting a pair of laughs. "I swear, one more Star Wars joke out of you, Shingen, and I'll clobber you."

"Then go ahead and do it," he said sternly. "This time when I attack, don't just defend; hit me!" Akane felt him moving again, and raised her shinai as the duel resumed.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time Nabiki finished a few errands and knocked on the door of the Saotome family estate with a highly amused smile on her face. A few moments later, the door opened and Nabiki's smile faltered. Nodoka had a sour look on her face, a combination of regret and indecision with some simmering anger thrown in for good measure. Her face brightened up some, though, when she saw who was at the door.

"Nabiki? I wasn't expecting to see you this afternoon; please, come in."

"Thanks, Auntie," Nabiki replied, kicking off her shoes as she stepped inside. "I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop in to see how you were doing… plus, there's a few things I thought you might want to know." The two of them made their way to the tearoom and sat down at the table. "You feeling any better?"

Nodoka shook her head. "I'm afraid not, dear. This whole accursed mess is still a little much for me to bear right now… and what's worse, I'm not sure I know what to do about it. I just can't believe the man I married would do something so… so despicable in the name of the Art, and to my own son, no less… I'm not sure I even know who Genma Saotome is anymore, Nabiki." An errant tear escaped her eye. "If only I'd been there, I could have kept that fat fool in line, maybe had a chance to see my boy grow up. But I wasn't… and my son suffered because of it."

Nabiki swallowed hard, noting a look of ice glaze over Nodoka's eyes. "Um… sorry we didn't say anything about it sooner…"

"I'm not blaming you, dear," said Nodoka in a softer tone. "He's the one I'm blaming." A pause, then a long breath. "But… that aside, I just don't know what I should do now. For all the stupid, stupid things he's done, I can't help but wonder if he wasn't corrupted or compelled in some way… that maybe the man he used to be is still somewhere inside." Another pause, then the look of ice reappeared. "On top of which, I'm not sure I want him to take the easy way of restoring what honor the Saotomes have left."

Nabiki blinked. "Does that mean you're not thinking of making him commit Seppuku?"

"I won't deny, the thought did cross my mind… but as much as he's afraid of my sword, I'm afraid it would be too good for him." Nodoka wiped her eyes. "What I want is to teach him a hard and fast lesson… something he won't forget or weasel out of, and maybe something that can repair the stain on our honor." And perhaps somewhere along the way, he might remember the man he used to be.

Nabiki nodded slowly, quickly sporting a grin like the Cheshire Cat. "Well, Auntie, I think I might be able to help you in that regard; Mr. Saotome owes us a hefty chunk as well, you know." She cracked her knuckles and produced a small black notebook. "I jotted down a little 'let-the-punishment-fit-the-crime' dossier a long time ago- actually, before him and Ranma ever came to town- and I've got a few ideas in here… and because of the circumstances, I'll share them with you for free."

Nodoka quirked an eyebrow at her last words, but nodded and smiled slightly.

"Oh, and in regards to those things I was going to tell you… I think you'll get a kick out of this…"

By the time Nabiki finished relating the details of the shock collar and the fact that Genma was apparently still cursed, Nodoka was actually laughing.

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Shampoo snapped the kickstand of her bike down and carried an empty delivery box into the Neko Hanten. "Delivery is finished, great-grandmother," she said, wiping a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Is more business yet?"

"No, it's still fairly slow, child," Cologne called back from the kitchen. "We probably won't get that many more orders for a few hours yet, when the dinner crowd comes in." She hopped over to the counter, giving Shampoo a cursory look as she finished straightening her hair. "I hope you haven't been pushing yourself too hard, dear."

"Great-grandmother worry too much," Shampoo replied, rolling her eyes slightly. "Already tell you, was just tired last night. Shampoo feel much better now."

Cologne frowned. "You're not just telling me this so I'll get off your back, are you?"

"Not lie! Shampoo feel just fine." She nodded her head vigorously, but failed to hide a look of regret that passed over her face. "Just fine…"

That girl… stubborn as ever and won't admit she still has some attachment to the boy. Cologne nodded slowly. "Very well… if you say so. But if you do start feeling run-down like you were last night, I want you to take it easy, understood?"

"Yes, great-grandmother," Shampoo replied in a slightly petulant tone. Cologne nodded and hopped back into the kitchen. The purple-haired delivery girl folded her arms and crossed to a vacant booth, near the door. She plopped down in the booth and rested her chin on her hands.

Of course Shampoo not all right, she thought as she sulked. Too, too confused is more like it… so much time spent on one man, then lose man, and then what? Is no fair… She let one hand fall on the table and drummed her fingers. I prettiest and strongest girl in town… but this not good enough for Ranma. I know, I know… his ways different from ours. Shampoo make bad first impression, too, when tried to kill girl-type Ranma. And he not want to be forced into love… he say so… but Shampoo no listen, keep up chase because he so handsome… strong… and because of Law…

She let out a long sigh. He now free of law, so what that leave Shampoo? Friendship? Aiya, friend is nice but airen is better… no, must accept it, Ranma is Akane's airen now, not Shampoo's… so why my heart so heavy? She blinked once and stared at the tabletop. And why… why I keep thinking of Mousse all day? What so great about blind boy who… who watch over Shampoo when worn out… or… or fought on floating island to save from bird-man… or…

She barely noticed a gust of air waft through the open front doors of the Neko Hanten. Nor did she notice the short gray-skinned beast materialize directly behind her, a sneer set on its misshapen face. She only noticed a flicker of movement in her hair, which she brushed off absently, thinking it was a fly.

Then it happened- a sharp pain that stabbed across her eyes for an instant. She gasped and lurched forward, clutching her head in her hands and uttering a low, strangled moan. For a few seconds, her eyes were slammed shut tight as pulses of fire raced across her forehead and down her scalp. There was a clatter as the warding pendant given to her by Shingen dropped to the floor, its cord neatly severed in two.

"Child? Is something wrong out there?"

"N-no, great-grandmother… j-just… leg cramp, is all," Shampoo replied, her voice slowly growing calm as the pain faded away. She took in a deep breath and sat up straight, slowly opening her eyes.

Each iris was shimmering with a blood-red hue, with vertically slitted pupils akin to those of a cat. She blinked once, and a cold smile emerged on her face.

Ranma is mine. Must find him. Tendo girl is just simple obstacle… and obstacles are for killing.

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Nobody heard the snickering of the imp just outside the Neko Hanten as it launched itself into the air and disappeared over the rooftops of Nerima. The game begins anew, my Master.

To Be Continued.

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Author's Note 7/5/05: I apologize for the length of time it took to crank this out; as it happens, life was not very kind to me recently. Extra-heavy work loads plus a family crisis pushed my writing back considerably; as it is, I may be putting myself on a new timetable. Expect a wait period of 2-3 weeks between installments from now on, it's the only way I can keep my imagination going at a decent clip and still have time to relax a bit.

For those who are curious or don't know, the Battle of Seki ga Hara took place in 1603 and established Ieyasu Tokugawa as shogun of Japan. Outside commerce and trade with other nations was forbidden by said shogunate, and wasn't truly resumed until the Meiji Restoration. And, as one reviewer pointed out last time, the family names of Sagara and Saito belonged to real people in or prior to the Meiji era… perhaps distant relations to our favorite duo? That's up to you.

As for Genma still being stuck with the curse- yes, he flopped around on the casting circle enough to disrupt the Purge, an act which- as has been stated- carries the possible consequence of remaining cursed for life. The demon may be out, but Ranma ½ without the panda just doesn't feel right. Heh.

Dragon Man 180: Taro, Rouge and Kiima may or may not come up in this chronicle. Some of my knowledge of them is fragmented- but if I mentioned much more I'd give the plot away. As for experimenting in the dreamscape with Ranma-chan… no comment.

heart dragon: Glad you loved it, sorry about the delay.

Borg rabbit: What can I say, it's a drama/romance so of course there's gonna be waff. Whether or not Nodoka can awaken any aspect of her blood is yet to be seen. Sorry to hear about your troubles in Houston; take care.

Ezpired doughnuts: Glad you liked the dream; I'd wanted to write that for a while now.

Luna12: In my defense, while Akane did appear to be a bit weepy, she had just relived the Phoenix Mountain ordeal not only from her point of view, but Ranma's as well, and that's something liable to shake even the toughest tomboy- suddenly feeling all the anguish and despair that he had felt, instead of just her own. Still, I'll try to keep it under consideration. Glad you liked the descriptions and the prophecy.

Kayemsi: I felt the confrontation was going to happen at one point or another; Genma couldn't just escape his lies forever, right? Thanks for your support.

Priestess Kohana: Wow. Thank you for your kind words, and again I apologize for the delay in posting.

Ryu-kanjin: Thanks, I try to work fast but life happens.

Lerris: Thank you.

Reader: I appreciate your advice, and while it has been a little clean in parts, I'm working on getting it back to dramatic with a hint of foreboding. Hopefully this chapter has some of each.

Taro MD: I'm honored by your compliment and only hope I'm deserving of it. I try my best with this story and am glad it is appreciated. As for what Nodoka will do now… if she and Nabiki team up, the possibilities are endless…

Fotoguy: I always figured there had to be a decent side of Genma at one point, albeit the influence of the old lech probably ruined it over time. Side-story? Possibly, but I don't see myself writing it. I'm sorry I haven't reviewed your work lately; got up to chapter 16 and it's getting pretty intense. I'll post an actual review in a day or so.

Nuclear death frog: I wasn't aware that the injection of some Japanese here and there was such a big deal; I merely wanted to spice up the dialogue a bit. If it offends, I'll tone it down some.

Misakichi1: Glad you liked it; I always wanted him to get the nerve to actually ask her 'the question', and now he has.

The-shadow002: Thanks, glad you liked the dream sequence. As for the swords, they'll have to wait a little while longer.

Carnath: You were right in your hunch about Genma- but as you noticed, he didn't get far.

Hashiba42: Thank you, I hope you enjoyed this update.

Wonderbee31: Those were points that I felt should have been resolved by the end of the series, but never really were. Our duo needed to patch things up and talk, and the same could be said for Ranma's folks… though it likely won't be as easy for them.

Accan: Glad you liked it.

Mike: Thanks, and I'm sorry if the wait was a bit long. At least I don't update once every 3 months.

Thank you all for your time and reviews. Next chapter: the 'game' resumes as an Amazon goes on the prowl. Until next time.

-Neon Ronin