Ranma 1/2 - Tiger Claw (part 1)

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TIGER CLAW
Part 1: NO MORE PUSSYFOOTING AROUND
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A Ranma 1/2 fanfic by Madamhydra@aol.com

All rights and privileges to Ranma 1/2 belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Viz Communications, Inc., and associated parties. The characters of her series are used without her permission for the purpose of entertainment only. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original characters are the creation of the author. All copyright privileges to these characters are reserved for the author.

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IMPORTANT NOTE:

This is a continuation/ALTERNATE REALITY fanfic. While the story follows the manga (and video) continuity to just after Mount Phoenix (volume 38), the subsequent wedding ceremony (and the related bombing by Shampoo and Ukyo) does NOT occur. In this story, a different incident involving the planned wedding took place.

Only a limited number of the main characters have actually SEEN the Neko-ken (the Tendos, Genma, Shampoo, Cologne, Gosunkugi or Sasuke, and Kuno), although others may have heard rumors about it.

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Text Conventions

( ) - thoughts

- sound fx

" " - Chinese

Curse forms are denoted by appropriate suffixes (-chan, -neko, -panda, etc.) except for Ryoga (P-chan) and Mousse (Muu-Muu).

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[The present....]

Standing just a few meters from the entrance to the Tendo compound, Nabiki saw Mousse running down the street toward her. It had already been a profitable morning. Now she sensed another money-making opportunity. Nabiki briskly stepped through the gate to fetch her camcorder... and stopped dead in her tracks as she struggled to take in the scene before her.

Blood was everywhere, lying in puddles and splattered all over the entranceway. Deep claw marks scarred the stone walkway and nearby walls. To one side, Ukyo stood over a nude, familiar-looking man lying sprawled face down on the ground. He was still and unmoving, pinned under the shattered remains of a large tree. In her hands, Ukyo anxiously clutched what looked like a torn piece of striped blue cloth.

Ryoga's naked and bloodied body lay on the walkway, surrounded by the shredded remains of a yellow tiger skin. A very subdued Shampoo knelt beside him. Mrs. Saotome was only a few steps away, clutching a familiar katana in her hands. Kodachi stood off to the side. She stared at nothing in particular, apparently oblivious to and unmoved by her surroundings.

"...."

Nabiki opened her mouth but found she couldn't get out a single word. For a stupefied second, she wondered if Ranma's fiancees and/or the sword-wielding Mrs. Saotome had been responsible for all the bloodshed. Then she caught sight of her white-faced sister.

"N-N-Nabiki!" stammered Akane.

Lurking just behind her was Ranma, crouched in his familiar four-footed Neko-ken stance. He ignored Nabiki. Instead, his attention was totally fixed on Ryoga.

Losing her usual icy self-control, Nabiki blurted out the first thing that popped into her mind.

"Akane, what the hell set him off THIS time!?"

Raising her voice was not the wisest thing for Nabiki to do. It had the unfortunate effect of catching Ranma's attention. He suddenly snapped his head around. Now he was staring at HER. She flinched when she saw the fresh blood smeared on his face and the fierce, predatory gleam in his blue-gray eyes.

(What the hell...?)

Ranma's eyes suddenly narrowed and he bared his teeth ever so slightly. An ominous growl rumbled forth from his throat, then he lunged at her.

As Nabiki frantically backed up, her only thought was, (Oh shit...!)

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Part 1a: Cat's-Paws
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[The night before....]

A beautiful, russet-haired sorceress named Yonoko was busily preparing for her upcoming battle. After two years of constant surveillance and planning, she was finally ready.

She glanced through her operatives' reports to confirm the delivery of all the messages. One for the fathers and one for the old pervert, to prevent any interference. Four messages, one for each woman, to sow chaos and confusion. And now for the target....

Yonoko pulled out a recent photo of Ranma Saotome and smiled slightly in appreciation. The picture had been taken just a few days ago by her source inside the Tendo Dojo. It showed Saotome standing in the courtyard, one arm thrown up in a block. His body was perfectly poised to either defend or attack. Even though she only had a profile view of his face, she could sense the intense focus, the unusual strength of both mind and body. Her fingers slowly trailed over the photo. She traced the broad shoulders and the strong, sleek lines of the chest and arm muscles exposed by his tank top. In less than two years, since his arrival in Nerima, Saotome had changed from a mere boy into quite a handsome and formidable young man.

(If only....)

Yonoko sighed and shook her head to clear the wistful fantasies from her brain. Pulling out a strip of paper inscribed with mystical script, she focused her power and uttered a soft phrase. The paper vanished in a puff of smoke. Yonoko then inspected her altered appearance in the mirror and grinned dangerously. Picking up two tiger skin belts lying on a nearby table, she murmured, "Now to round up the two challengers. Get ready, boys. The Tiger Lily is coming to pay you a visit."

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It was midnight in a forested mountain area, not too far from Nerima. Ryoga Hibiki stared into his campfire, brooding about the overwhelming injustice of the world. After the incredible disasters surrounding the announcement of a Saotome-Tendo wedding nine months ago, Ryoga had finally given up on Akane. Instead, he had chosen to devote his attentions to Akari. However, as weeks and months passed, it hadn't been enough for him.

Oh, Akari was pleasant, understanding, and certainly affectionate. More importantly, his Jusenkyo curse didn't bother her. He liked her a good deal, but his 'liking' for Akari was only a pale shadow compared to his burning passion for Akane Tendo. He had firmly intended to leave Nerima and the people there far behind him. However, he eventually ended up spending more and more time back at the Tendo dojo and in Akane's arms.

And it seemed that even sweet-tempered Akari had her limits. Faced with Akari's tearful demand that he pick either her or Akane Tendo, he had chosen Akane.

Ryoga muttered aloud, "And when I finally get back to Nerima, what happens? Ranma runs me over and grinds my face into the dirt. Like he always does!"

He had naturally retaliated. However, his opponent had gone straight for his weak spot, as usual. A quick splash of cold water and instant victory for Ranma. After all, what could harmless little P-chan do? Ranma's absent-minded attitude during yesterday's fight made the incident even more infuriating.

He shook his fist in the air. "How dare he mock me like that! When I get back to Nerima, I'll show him that he can't ignore Ryoga Hibiki!"

But for now, all Ryoga could do was sit by his lonely campfire. He was hopelessly lost, as usual. That was annoying enough, but in the last couple of months, his utter lack of direction had become a true source of torment.

It was all because Akane was starting to act as if she actually liked Ranma. He could only hope that it was a temporary phase that would soon go away.

(After all, a terrific girl like Akane could never really lov... care about a rude, insensitive pervert like Ranma, right?)

However, a single nightmarish vision continued to haunt him. He could just imagine himself staggering back into Nerima after long months of wanderings, only to find Ranma and Akane married. Then Ranma would laugh and whisper something into Akane's ear about P-chan....

A soft, sultry woman's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Ryoga Hibiki."

He stiffened in surprise. (Huh!? How did she sneak up on me?) He quickly looked around and caught a flicker of motion overhead in a nearby tree. He leapt back from his campfire and his simmering meal. Away from the glare of the firelight, he saw the shadowy form of a woman perched on a low branch. Ryoga couldn't make out her face but he could tell that she was on the small side and had a curvaceous figure. A stray wind gust sent long strands of bright red hair floating in the breeze.

"Who the hell are you?"

"Perhaps a friend.... You have a rival called Ranma Saotome?"

"What about him?" Ryoga muttered sullenly.

"I know that he's a superb fighter. He has the woman you want. And you're at his mercy regarding your secret identity as a little black pig called P-chan." She seemed to float, not jump, down from the branch and landed a few steps away from him.

Ryoga's eyes bulged in surprise. "You... you know about that? How...?"

She chuckled softly. "I have my sources. You've had very little success against Ranma, haven't you? Oh, you've occasionally come close to beating him in combat. You may have actually won once or twice. But fighting doesn't help, does it? No matter what you do, he still ends up with the real prize, every time. Isn't that right?"

"Grrrr." It was true. No matter what Ryoga did, Ranma always ended up with Akane.

The fluttering of the woman's long red hair suddenly caused an angry suspicion to seep into Ryoga's usually dense brain. Red hair. Short. Big breasts. Surely it could only be....

"RANMA! I've had enough of your STUPID disguises!" He grabbed his ever-present kettle of hot water and dumped it all over the woman.

She stayed a woman. A very wet, very ANGRY woman.

WHACK!!!

"You fool! What did you do that for!?" She slapped him again for good measure.

Faced with a beautiful, enraged woman clad in a wet and now nearly transparent gown, Ryoga did what came naturally. He had a nosebleed.

"Uhhh...uhhhh.... It was an honest mistake! Ranma's always trying to trick me by disguising himself.... It's all his fault!"

"Isn't it always?" The woman glared at Ryoga, then waved off his babbled apologies. She suddenly shed her 'mysterious lady' pose and gave him a cold, hard stare. "That's not important now. Let's get down to business."

Ryoga shivered a bit. Now she reminded him unpleasantly of Nabiki Tendo on the prowl for a REAL big deal....

"You want to defeat Ranma Saotome, once and for all. And you want Akane Tendo for yourself, correct?"

Ryoga mutely nodded.

"I want Ranma Saotome punished for his crimes against me."

He blinked and asked, "What did he do to you?"

"That's none of your business. Suffice it to say that I want him to suffer, all right? I want to see him humbled and broken! And the best way to do that is to make sure he's totally humiliated in combat AND also loses his precious fiancee."

"I...I...see."

"There's no way that I can do either of those things myself. However, I can help YOU to do them."

"How?"

"With this." She held up a wide belt in her hands.

"It looks like...."

"...tiger skin, yes. Saotome's strong points is his speed and dexterity. With this belt, the agility and speed of the tiger can be yours. Combine those abilities with your superior strength, and he won't stand a chance."

She smiled wickedly at Ryoga and added, "The belt will also help you in another way. You know about Saotome's little cat problem?"

Ryoga scratched his head. Thought a bit. "Oh yeah, Ranma's always freaking out when he sees a cat. He usually ends up cowering or runs off screaming." He smirked. "It's pretty pathetic, but kinda funny, too."

The woman gave him a sinister smile. "I'm sure it is. Anyway, this belt will give you the aura of a cat. You'll be able to dominate and defeat Ranma completely."

Ryoga hesitated briefly, then suddenly grinned. He could just imagine himself standing triumphant over a battered Ranma. Saotome would be grovelling in abject terror. Akane would be looking on in complete disgust.

He thought dreamily, (Oh, Akane, I'll finally be able to show you what a pathetic coward Ranma really is. He doesn't deserve to be your fiancee.) He then pictured Akane booting Ranma far, far, far away. And then she would rush over to embrace HIM.

Ryoga eagerly grabbed the tiger skin belt and asked, "How does it work?".

"All you have to do is wear it in your next fight with him. Tomorrow morning at the Tendo home."

He blinked. "Why tomorrow morning?"

The red-haired woman smiled grimly. "Oh, didn't you know? Saotome's planning to secretly marry Akane tomorrow."

"HE'S WHAT!?!?!?! Why...why that miserable, conniving bastard!" Ryoga smashed an innocent nearby tree into splinters. "He probably bullied her into this wedding, too. And I'm sure those two old fools they call 'fathers' helped!" He then turned to face the direction directly opposite of Nerima and prepared to march off that instant in the true 'victory or death' spirit.

The woman whipped out a pail of cold water and dumped it over Ryoga's head. She then pulled P-chan from the pile of loose clothes. Holding him up, she gave him a good shaking.

"Where do you think you're going!? If you try to get to Nerima by yourself, you won't arrive until after the honeymoon's long over. Your precious Akane will probably be two months pregnant by then!"

P-chan went rigid. Blood gushed from his nose as he pictured a naked Ranma and Akane lewdly cavorting in a tacky honeymoon suite.

(NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!) he silently screamed. Then he fainted.

The woman stared at the limp piglet in mild disgust. "Hmmm. I think I overdid it. I guess the reports weren't exaggerating about Hibiki's hypersensitivity about females." She went to refill her bucket.

P-chan slowly revived after the woman repeatedly dunked him in cold water. He dazedly wondered, (What...what was it...about Akane? Pregnant? That means, she... she and Ranma... they had to... they were... oh, nooooo....) Everything started to go black again.

When the woman saw P-chan passing out again, she smacked him none too gently across the muzzle. "Get a grip on yourself, you idiot! How are you going to help Akane if you keep fainting like that?"

P-chan blinked huge, tear-filled eyes at her, then uttered a pathetic squeal.

The woman sighed. "Now listen to me. It hasn't happened YET. It won't happen IF you do what I say!" She held a braided black and red cord in front of his face. "See this? Tie this around your wrist. It will guide you to wherever Ranma Saotome is. Now, are you prepared to stay awake and listen to my plan?"

The little piglet slowly nodded his head. "Bweeeee...."

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[That same night at the Kuno family mansion....]

Kuno awoke to the sound of a soft rustle in his room. He grabbed the bokken lying beside him, then sprang from his bed with a roar.

"Who dares invade the chambers of Tatewaki Kuno, he who is known as Blue Thunder!?" A distant rumble echoed in the night.

There was a soft, frightened yelp, followed by a long silence. Finally, a meek yet sultry woman's voice whispered, "A lady in dire need of help."

In the moonlight from the open window, Kuno could see the shadowy form of a young woman. She was petite and undeniably gorgeous. Long, red tresses cascaded down to her waist. He blinked and whispered hopefully, "Pig-tailed girl?"

His mysterious visitor sadly shook her head. "No, I am not the woman you love. But I am trying to aid her and others in their quest for freedom."

"Freedom? You... you don't mean... from that foul sorcerer and enslaver of women, Ranma Saotome!?"

The woman nodded, sniffling pathetically. "Just so. I have come to beg your aid! You are my only hope! All others have turned away from the plight of these poor females, content to allow your beloved pig-tailed girl to languish in vile bondage to the dark Saotome -- deprived of her very identity and name!"

She sagged to her knees and uttered a heartbreaking sob. "And what of the brave Akane Tendo, who hates him and curses him for the foul villain he is, yet still cannot free herself from his evil grasp?"

Kuno dropped his bokken and grabbed her hands. "Speak on, fair maiden. Please, how may I help my two loves! I implore you!"

"Saotome..." she shuddered before continuing in a faint whisper. "...is planning to secretly wed Akane Tendo tomorrow morning...."

Kuno froze in shock. Recognizing the signs of an imminent explosion of rage, the woman clung to his hands and hastily tried to finish her little speech.

"...and intends to use both Akane Tendo and the pig-tailed girl immediately thereafter in foul acts beyond description to satisfy his vile lusts...."

"WHAT!?!?!?" Slight flickers of reddish energy began to drift off Kuno's body. "Saotome! You fiend! Not just one but both. And at the same time! I would rend your curst heart from your maggot-riddled flesh before I would allow my loves to suffer such lecherous tortures at your hands! Saotome, prepare to DIIEEEE!!!" He swept up his bokken and lunged for the open window.

The young woman grabbed Kuno with amazing strength and hauled him back into the room. "NO! You must not do it that way, noble sir! Do you not understand? He is the only one who knows where the pig-tailed girl is! If you kill Saotome before the wedding, YOU WILL NEVER SEE YOUR BELOVED PIG-TAILED GIRL AGAIN! She will be bound to the darkness for all eternity!"

Kuno stared at her for a long moment before her words slowly oozed into his brain. "Say... again...."

Satisfied that Kuno was actually listening to her, the woman relaxed her grip slightly. However, taking no chances, she poked him on a pressure point that left him frozen in place.

"Noble lord, you must challenge the evil Saotome AT the wedding ceremony, not before! Only then will he summon the pig-tailed girl forth from her imprisonment so he may gloat and taunt her with the terrible fate that awaits her."

Kuno gurgled in incoherent rage.

"And for all your great skill, you cannot defeat him unaided!" She held up a tiger skin belt and shoved it into his hands. "The evil Saotome fears cats beyond all reason. Rest assured that this belt will evoke that terrible fear in him. Wear it into battle and he SHALL cringe before your righteous glory like a mindless beast."

Even in his seething fury, Kuno hesitated as he frowned at the belt in his hands. In low, strangled tones, he reluctantly whispered, "But...but a true warrior... does not rely on arcane... trickery to overcome his opponents...."

The woman slowly pulled back from him and sobbed, "So... you ARE no better than any of the others! I thought you were strong enough to do whatever was necessary to save your loves. But I was WRONG! Your pride is more important to you than the women you claim to love so much!" She slapped him hard. "Yes, let them suffer degradation and unspeakable misery at Saotome's hands! What do you care? I hope that you survive your battle with him so that you can see for yourself what you've... you've... wrought with your stupid pride."

She broke off with a heart-wrenching cry, grabbed the belt from Kuno's hands and turned to leave. A step away from the window, she heard Kuno's anguished voice shout, "No! Forgive my momentary weakness! Please, I beg you! You are quite right, Saotome must die by fair means or foul! Nothing else matters!"

As she stood with her back to the still paralyzed Kuno, a bone-chilling grin of satisfaction momentarily touched the woman's lips. The faint grin was instantly replaced by a timid smile as she turned to face him.

She gently touched his reddened cheek where she had struck him and murmured, "Please...please forgive me. It's been such a struggle.... Saotome is so powerful, so vicious.... I had nowhere else to turn and when I thought you didn't care...." She pulled out a delicate silk handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.

Placing the tiger skin belt back into Kuno's hands, she moved toward the window. "I'm very sorry about your current immobility but I was desperate to keep you from premature action. You will recover full motion in a few hours, my hero. There will be ample time to prepare for your duel. Remember, noble Kuno. At the wedding ceremony at 10 AM at the Tendo dojo and not a moment before. Otherwise, both Akane Tendo and the pig-tailed girl will be lost to you FOREVER!" She then slipped out the window and disappeared like a wisp of smoke.

Kuno forced his fingers to close around the furred belt. "Yes...yes...tomorrow.... Tomorrow morning, Ranma Saotome! I shall SMITE your filthy presence from this earth! DEATH! DEATH TO RANMA SAOTOME!!!"

In the Tendo house, Ranma sneezed loudly in his sleep.

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Part 1b: Setting the Stage
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Early the next morning, Yonoko took up her position in a building near the Tendo home. The room she occupied was an interesting combination of high-tech electronics and ancient magic. Television monitors nestled side-by-side with brittle parchment scrolls and books of arcane lore. Taking advantage of a few free moments, she called one of her surveillance teams to verify the current location of a certain panty-stealing pervert. Fortunately, all signs indicated that the old man would be happily occupied for next few hours.

"Good. But warn me immediately if Happosai heads back toward Nerima."

The sorceress then placed the tools of her art on the table. Two hand-sized cat figurines. A long silver pin. A small straw doll that had a few black hairs and a scrap of bright red cloth sticking out of it. An assortment of magic wards written on paper strips.

Her preparations complete, she turned her eyes to the closed circuit monitor and waited.

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At 8 AM, Sasuke went to wake his master. He opened the door to Kuno's bedroom, took a quick peek inside, and cringed. Kuno sat cross-legged on the floor with a tiger-patterned belt around his waist and an unsheathed katana in his lap. The light from the incredibly intense red aura dancing around his body only accentuated the expression of pure hatred and utter determination on Kuno's face.

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A young lady in Nerima was putting the finishing touches to her appearance. Finally satisfied, she set off for an eagerly anticipated meeting with the love of her life.

Two other young ladies in Nerima were making similar preparations.

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A mature but elegant-looking woman left her house. In her arms, she carried a long, thin bundle.

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Following the tug of the braided cord around his wrist, Ryoga soon found himself in the vicinity of Nerima and the Tendo dojo. He patted the tiger skin belt around his waist and cracked his knuckles. "Ranma, victory will be mine at last!"

In a much more dreamy voice, he added, "Oh, Akane, soon Ranma will never be able to hurt you again.... And then, maybe, I'll be able to tell you what's in my poor heart of glass."

The braided cord urged him toward the left. Ryoga eagerly headed in that direction, a decidedly nasty grin of anticipation on his face.

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After her usual early morning jog, Akane went upstairs to change her clothes. Instead of entering her room, she wandered over to the small window at the end of the hall. She closed her eyes and luxuriated in the bright morning sunshine and the cool breeze coming through the open window.

"Spring break's been really nice so far. I hope this weather lasts."

Movement below caught her eye. She leaned forward slightly to see Ranma just finishing up an intricate tai chi exercise behind the dojo. He paused to take a few deep breaths, then stepped indoors. He soon emerged with a wooden staff. He stood still a moment with his eyes closed, then began a slow and elegant kata with the staff.

As Akane watched his graceful movements, she recalled the first time she had ever seen him performing something so slow or formal. It had been quite a surprise -- and a revelation -- to her. With Ranma's usual impatience and his incredible competitive streak, tai chi or stylized forms didn't seem to fit him at all.

However, she had eventually realized just how important these things were to him. Like the times he spent alone on the roof or under his favorite bridge, those techniques were his refugee, a small island of calm in a hectic life. When something really bothered him or after particularly bitter arguments, Ranma could often be found quietly working through a series of complicated kata.

He paused briefly to hold a crane stance before flowing into another complicated series of staff strikes.

(So what's bothering him now? Ranma and I haven't had any really serious fights for a while. Well, except for the usual stuff about my cooking or P-chan but even those have been pretty minor.)

She frowned slightly. At first, the fighting and bickering had been an easy, comfortable way of keeping Ranma at a distance. But the constant arguing had gotten old and tiring. A lot of times, she ended up feeling a bit guilty for over-reacting. The guilt only made Akane more annoyed at him, which made them fight even more. And so it went, on and on.

But suddenly things changed.

Her thoughts drifted back to the events of that fall, as it had so many times before. Back to that single, unforgettable moment on Mount Phoenix....

He had wanted to tell her that he loved her. When he thought she was dead, Ranma cried and actually said that he loved her.

Her hand tightened on the windowsill.

(If Ryoga and the others hadn't shown up and completely broken the mood, I would have.... Oh, I don't know WHAT I would have done. But I didn't even get the chance!)

And ever since the return to Nerima, the idiot had acted as if the whole confession had never happened. Whenever she tried to talk about it, Ranma always managed to avoid the topic somehow -- either by making her mad or by running off.

(But... at least he hasn't DENIED saying it. I guess that's something.)

Akane sighed wistfully. On a couple of occasions, she could have sworn that Ranma had been just about to admit his feelings to her. However, something had always interfered.

(Someone's always butting in! His fiancees, the other guys, our parents, just to name a few! How do they expect us to make any decisions if they never leave us alone long enough to figure this mess out?)

Of course, things weren't perfect. They still argued a lot. He still called her a violent tomboy. And he just would NOT quit with the stupid remarks about her cooking. The window sill creaked under her white-knuckled grip and she forced herself to relax before she tore it out of the wall.

(But I've got to admit that he's really been trying to be nice to me.) It had taken some time but it finally occurred to her that Ranma had stopped using those annoying 'uncute' and 'unsexy' insults of his.

Akane stared pensively down at her hands. In a way, she had always hated those insults most of all and now... now she wasn't sure what to make of their absence.

(Does that mean that Ranma's starting to find me... cute?) She felt herself blush at the prospect of being Ranma's 'cute fiancee'.

(...instead of Ukyo....)

Her gaze returned almost involuntarily to Ranma. She couldn't help admiring how his body carried him effortlessly and precisely through every movement. She never would have admitted it aloud but the annoying boy/girl who had arrived at the Tendos' house, slung over a panda's shoulder, had definitely changed. A lot. Nearly two years of growth, combined with constant fighting and training, had given Ranma a special combination of strength, skill, and grace that no other martial artist could match.

Akane sighed quietly. She couldn't deny that Ranma was good-looking, maybe even... handsome.

A creak of a stair startled her, then she heard Kasumi's voice from downstairs.

"Father, didn't the message say that you're supposed to meet Councilman Motatsu at 10 o'clock?"

On the stairway, Soun Tendo replied, "Oh no! I completely forgot that he wanted to discuss the panty thefts ... again! Arrgghh! Saotome, you aren't leaving me alone to deal with this! He's your master, too!" There was the sound of rapidly receding footsteps.

Kasumi called up the stairs. "Akane?"

"Yes, Kasumi?"

"I'm going out to do some shopping. Do you want anything?"

"No. Thanks, anyway."

Akane walked back to the stairs. She saw her father dash out the door, dragging a VERY reluctant Mr. Saotome along. Kasumi gave her a little wave and followed them out in a much more sedate fashion.

She breathed a faint sigh of relief. The last thing she wanted was to have her father catch his daughter spying on Ranma. It might give him the stupid idea that she was 'drooling' over her fiance.

Akane grimaced. (That makes me sound like Kodachi. Ick!)

(Truthfully, Dad and Mr. Saotome happily would use the smallest excuse to drag us in front of the altar. Again.)

She flushed but this time it was with anger. She remembered the first try at a Saotome-Tendo wedding all too well. Her father and Mr. Saotome, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to hold a secret wedding right after Mount Phoenix.

It had been an indescribable disaster.

(Secret wedding, what a joke! That wedding must have been the most publicized SECRET in the history of Nerima! It's a miracle that Ranma and I managed to survive all the trouble those stupid wedding plans caused. And in Ranma's case, it was WAY too close.... I'd never seen Dr. Tofu so mad!)

However, in spite of all the turmoil, nothing had really changed for the two of them. He STILL had two extra fiancees. Kodachi was STILL after him. Ryoga, Kuno, and Mousse were STILL constantly fighting with him for all sorts of crazy reasons.

(Unless something really major happens, a wedding's totally out of the question right now. Even eloping wouldn't help. The same mess would still be waiting for us....) Her thoughts ground to a sudden halt.

(Why am I thinking about weddings? I'm in no rush to get married! Let's face it, Ranma's no prize! He's rude and insensitive. He's such a troublemaker. He makes P-chan's table manners look good. And he's always letting those other girls hang all over him!)

But Akane's anger soon fizzed out. Ranma had a few good points. He took his honor very seriously. He didn't hold grudges. He didn't like hurting people. He'd help almost anybody -- it didn't matter if the person had tried to kill him or if the person was a nasty pervert like Happosai. He did NOT give up.

And Akane KNEW that Ranma could be remarkably kind.

(Okay, so he's got a lot of good points....)

"Which makes the times when he acts like a stupid, arrogant jerk even more infuriating! What's wrong with him?" She flung up her hands. "Is he TRYING to drive me crazy!?"

There was one last thing about Ranma that always lingered in Akane's mind, even in her most angry moments. She didn't exactly know what to call it but deep in her heart, she knew how rare it was.

Supporting her, protecting her, fighting for her -- whatever it took, whenever she had needed him, Ranma had always been there for her....

And what had she ever done to deserve that?

Akane's musings were interrupted by a knock on the front door.

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Behind the dojo, Ranma steadily worked his way through the complicated kata, letting the rhythm of the movements calm his mind.

Block. Feint. Block. Strike. Parry.

It had taken a lot of yelling and more than one battle, but he had managed to get his father off his back for a few days.

(I really needed the time to think about a few things.)

His eighteenth birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks. Senior year was fast approaching. And although he would have died before admitting it, he dreaded the thought of going through another year of total craziness -- the craziness that passed for his life in Nerima. However, it was the stupid mess involving Ukyo, Shampoo, and Kodachi that really bothered him.

(It's a no-win situation. If things don't change, somebody's going to get seriously hurt. And if things do change, somebody's STILL going to get hurt!) He bit his lip. (And I'm not just talking about hurt feelings!)

Ranma wasn't too worried for himself. He really worried about Akane, though. Shampoo and Kodachi had already gone after her in a serious way more than once. And Ukyo... well, Ukyo was a dear friend but a girl who dedicated over ten years of her life to revenge wasn't exactly the forgiving type.

He reluctantly admitted to himself that he couldn't put anything pass Ukyo. It had been a shock to find out that she had been one of the many people dosing him with weird magic potions after the news of his and Akane's 'secret' wedding hit the streets of Nerima. He EXPECTED Shampoo and Kodachi to try sneaky tricks like love potions. But Ukyo? Ranma had always considered her to be 'safe'. It had hurt to find out differently....

He put too much force into his next strike and nearly botched the next move.

(Gotta calm down. Focus....)

Ranma couldn't exactly remember when he had decided that the only fiancee he wanted -- that he had ever wanted -- was Akane.

(I mean, we argue a lot. She clobbers me for no reason. She blames me for stuff that ain't my fault. She hardly ever listens to me. She calls me a pervert....)

He broke his form long enough to sigh deeply.

(But when we're not fighting... When we're working together... When she's laughing or smiling... It just feels SO right.)

(And how does Akane feel about me? Does she...really care? She's gotten herself into real danger helping me....)

(...but she's the type who would do it for just about anybody. She'd probably do the same thing for a stray dog,) a cynical inner voice countered.

(And I've kinda got the feeling that she's been trying to control that crazy temper of hers....)

(...or are you just getting used to her pounding and yelling at you all the time?) Ranma's cynical side snidely asked.

(Care.... No, that's not the right question. It's all about... love. Does she LOVE me?)

(...how can she love you when your own mother...,) his inner voice whispered nastily before Ranma brutally squelched that train of thought.

He sighed again and muttered, "But it really doesn't matter how Akane feels, does it?"

He wanted...no, NEEDED to protect Akane. He really hated to hurt her in any way. He missed her when she wasn't around. And he simply could NOT tolerate even the possibility of losing her. Ranma's thoughts skittered wildly away from those horrible moments at Mount Phoenix when Akane had been lying there so still in his arms.... He shook his head violently.

(Enough about Akane! She's not the problem here. It was the other three that I've gotta to worry about...especially Ukyo. What am I gonna do about Ukyo?)

------------------

Akane opened the door to see Mrs. Saotome standing on the porch, her ever-present katana on her arms. She sometimes wondered why Mrs. Saotome persisted in carrying the sword around. After all, she'd already decided that Ranma was 'manly', even with his Jusenkyo curse.

"Auntie Saotome!" Akane greeted her cheerfully.

Nodoka smiled at her. "Hello, Akane. Where are Ranma and my husband?"

"Uh, Ranma? He's still doing his morning workout. I think Mr. Saotome went out with my father to some sort of meeting."

Nodoka pulled out a note. "How very strange. Ranma should have been expecting me. After all, he's the one who asked me to come here for a formal meeting."

"Meeting?"

"Regarding his engagement."

"Engagement?" Akane felt a strong twinge of anger. (Why didn't that jerk mention anything to me? I'm his fiancee!)

At that moment, Ukyo arrived at the Tendos' front door. She had obviously taken great care in dressing that morning. Unlike her usual masculine garb, the chef wore a nicely tailored dress and high heels.

"Mrs. Saotome! I hope I'm not too early."

Nodoka looked startled. "Early? For what?"

"For our meeting, right? Ranma sent me a message saying that you wanted to discuss our engagement."

"But Ukyo, I didn't ask Ranma to send you any such message."

"But...." Looking around in confusion, Ukyo noticed Akane standing in the doorway in her T-shirt and shorts. "Uh, what are you doing here?"

Akane acidly replied, "I LIVE here, remember?"

Shampoo stalked through the front gate. For once, she was wearing a tasteful silk dress -- one that didn't look as if it had been painted on her body.

Akane scowled. (Oh great. Now Shampoo.)

"What is Akane and stupid spatula girl doing here? This suppose to be private meeting with mother-in-law."

"Now wait a minute, you Chinese hussy...."

"Who you call hussy, spatula girl!?"

"Ho ho ho ho ho!" A familiar eerie laugh filled the air. A few black rose petals drifted in the breeze as Kodachi regally strolled into the Tendo compound. She gave Mrs. Saotome an elegant bow.

"Mrs. Saotome, it's such a pleasure to see you again! Our last meeting was so brief but I'm sure you remember me, Kodachi Kuno, otherwise known as the Black Rose of St. Hebereke High School." She uttered a coy giggle. "I'm so glad to finally have the opportunity to become better acquainted with the gracious mother of my darling, darling Ranma."

She then noticed Ukyo, Shampoo, and Akane who were all angrily staring at her. "What are you little tarts doing here? How dare you intrude on a private meeting?"

Akane gritted her teeth. "As I said before, I LIVE here."

"Hey! It's a private meeting, all right, but it's MY meeting, not yours! Butt out!"

Kodachi whipped out a piece of paper. "My darling Ranma specifically asked me to come here to meet his mother and discuss our engagement!"

Ukyo yanked out a piece of paper of her own and snarled, "Well, I've got one too!"

Akane marched out the house and confronted Kodachi, "And what do you mean by 'our engagement'?"

"Husband send message that he want Shampoo to meet his mother." The Amazon scowled angrily at a now familiar-looking piece of stationary.

In unison, Kodachi, Ukyo, and Akane turned on Shampoo and shouted, "HE'S NOT YOUR HUSBAND!"

"Yes he is! Amazon law say so!"

"Do you want to know where you can stick your Amazon law!?" Ukyo snapped.

"There's no way I will allow some half-witted barbarian harlot to lay claim to my dear Ranma!"

"Spatula girl and crazy girl want to fight for Ranma, they got it!" Shampoo smirked and went into a combat stance.

Ukyo pulled out her throwing spatulas. "You asked for it, you bimbo!"

With her ribbon twirling, Kodachi giggled and said, "Nobody crosses the Black Rose! Suffer and learn, fools!"

Nodoka coughed and firmly said, "Excuse me, girls. Why don't we try to settle this in a more lady-like fashion?" Akane quietly fumed in the background as the other three women instantly assumed a more demure attitude.

"Sorry, Mrs. Saotome..."

"Please forgive my unseemly behavior...."

"Shampoo apologize...."

"Now, girls, about those notes...?"

--------------

Back at the Neko-hanten, an irate Muu-muu was clutching a throwing knife in his bill. He'd just spent the past hour struggling to loosen the latch on his cage. Before departing for the Tendo dojo, Shampoo had taken the precaution of locking him up to prevent interference. However, Muu-muu had no intention of letting his beloved Shampoo sneak off to some sort of secret meeting with Ranma.

(I don't know what you're up to, Saotome, but I'm not going to let you touch Shampoo!)

The latch gradually started to move....

--------------

Just as he had completed the kata, Ranma heard a faint commotion near the front of the house. Naturally curious, he decided to investigate. Ranma had no idea of the trouble awaiting him. Then again, his usually fine-tuned sense of danger never had much luck with his fiancees.

He carelessly jogged around the dojo and hopped up onto the walkway fence, only to freeze in surprise when he saw his four fiancees -- both real and self-appointed. The girls were engaged in a fierce but excruciatingly polite argument while his mother looked on, a slight frown on her face. Ranma felt chills run down his spine as they all turned to stare up at him.

(Oh great! All the problem women in my life. Mom included.)

His instincts told him to run for it. He actually took a step back when Nodoka caught sight of him and said, "Ranma, could you come here for a moment?"

He sighed, straightened his shoulders, and hopped down off the fence. (Why do I have the feeling that things are about to get REALLY ugly?)

His mother gave her son a stern look and thrust several pieces of paper at him. "Can you please explain these notes?"

He stared at the four messages. They were all basically the same, each inviting the addressee to a 10 AM meeting at the Tendo house to discuss the matter of his engagement. He looked up to see everyone, especially Akane, glaring furiously at him.

He held his hands up as if trying to fend a physical assault. "Hey! Don't look at me! I didn't have anything to do with this!"

"Ranma honey, you'd better be telling the truth or else you're going to get HURT."

"Husband no lie about this?"

"Darling! How could you have possibly forgotten such an important event?"

"Ranma, are you... absolutely sure?" his mother asked in a firm voice as she absently picked at the strings holding the wrappings on her sword. Akane saw him flinch at his mother's question.

He stared at his mother for a long moment. With surprising surge of bitterness, he thought, (Why is Mom on my case so much? What did _I_ do to make her believe that I'd lie about something this serious? I'm not like Pop!)

After his mother had learned about and accepted his Jusenkyo curse, he had been so happy... for a while. Then it had started....

(And I thought it was bad when I was pretending to be Ranko! She pounces on every little thing that she considers 'unmanly' or dishonorable. The slightest mistake, the smallest slip-up.... It's like she's LOOKING for an excuse to change her mind and use that stupid sword of hers!)

Things had only gotten worse after his mother's house had been rebuilt after it had been nearly being destroyed by his rampaging fiancees. His mother had moved out of the Tendos' home immediately after the house was finished. Ranma and his father had not. It didn't take a mind-reader to figure out that his mom had NOT been pleased.

In response to his mother's question, Ranma leaned forward slightly and said very emphatically, "Yeah, I'm sure. I didn't write those notes and I don't know anything about them. OKAY?" It was bordering on outright rudeness but he couldn't help it. He had enough trouble just trying to hide his hurt feelings.

Suddenly, behind him, Ranma heard an all too familiar voice yelling, "SAO-TO-ME!!!!"

**********************************************************************
Part 1c: Murder, Madness, & Mayhem
**********************************************************************

Ranma spun around to face Kuno. The upperclassman stood in the gateway, literally glowing with rage. The steel blade of his unsheathed katana glittered in the sunlight.

Eyes widening in surprise, Ranma thought, (Oh man, he looks totally pissed off! I've NEVER seen Kuno this mad before. He really means business, this time. That's no wooden bokken he's waving around!)

"Saotome, today you die. You have tormented Akane Tendo and the pig-tailed girl for too long. Your evil reign ends now!" Kuno proclaimed in fearsomely solemn tones. In other circumstances, Kuno's pompous little speech would have been rather funny. But something about Kuno's attitude took all the humor out of his words.

With his customary bravado, Ranma snapped, "Man, are you're still going on about that? Well, I'm ready for anything you can dish out!"

(Just great. All my fiancees are ready to pound me, my mom thinks I'm a liar, and Kuno's out for blood. What else can go....)

"Ranma, prepare to DIE!" For once, Ryoga didn't land on top of Kuno as he jumped over the wall.

(...wrong? Shit! WHEN will I learn to stop asking stupid questions like that?)

"What now, Ryoga!? Didn't suffer enough yesterday, pig boy?"

"Shut up, Ranma! What you do to me is one thing, but there's no WAY that I'm going to let you force Akane into another damn wedding!"

At the same time, Kuno shouted, "I forbid it! Do you hear me, Saotome? I ABSOLUTELY forbid it! How dare you defile the sacred rite of matrimony to gratify your base lusts!"

Ranma blinked, then blurted out, "Wedding!? Matrimony!?"

The four fiancees and his mother said in ominous tones, "RRANMMAA!!!!"

Ranma turned around to face the angry women. "Hey, don't look at me! I DON'T KNOW NOTHING ABOUT NO WEDDING!!!"

He snarled to himself, (Pop, if this was one of your stupid ideas, I'm gonna kill you!)

--------------

In her hiding place, Yonoko held a hand over each cat figurine and softly whispered a single word.

--------------

The skin on the back of Ranma's neck prickled -- a sure sign of danger. He cursed himself for taking his attention off Kuno and Ryoga for even a second. Ranma immediately spun back around to face them. He took an belligerent step forward and said, "Okay, that's it! I've had enough of both of you and your stupid challenges! Which of you guys wants to be the first to get trashed?"

(Come on, come on. Go for it. If I can get these guys arguing as usual....)

Kuno and Ryoga didn't even bother to look at each other, but instead took a simultaneous step forward. Ranma frowned and readied himself for their joint attack.

--------------

Yonoko took a firm grip on the long silver pin. She suddenly stabbed downward, pinning two of the magic wards to the straw doll with a single, vicious stroke.

--------------

Ranma abruptly clutched his head as a storm of sickening cat-related images tore through his mind.

"AGGGHHHH!"

As he stared at Kuno and Ryoga, a horribly familiar sensation of pure terror flooded his body. There was something WRONG about them -- their posture, their movements, everything.... He slowly began to back away. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Ranma's face and he started to make soft, whimpering noises. Kuno and Ryoga both looked grimly satisfied with Ranma's reaction as they continued their menacing approach.

"C-c-caa...caaaa...caaaatt...."

His sudden cry, followed by Ranma's obvious state of terror, jolted Akane and the other fiancees out of their anger.

"Ran-chan? What's wrong?" Ukyo asked in bewilderment.

"A cat? Huh?" Akane quickly scanned the area. Finding nothing, she shook her head in bewilderment. "Ranma, get a grip on yourself! There are no cats here!"

He lifted a badly shaking hand and pointed in Kuno and Ryoga's direction. Ryoga simply smirked while Kuno grinned in savage pleasure. The upperclassman gloated, "That's right, writhe in fear, you craven worm!"

Nodoka frowned at what she considered a blatant display of cowardice. In sharp, scolding tones, she said, "Ranma! This is most unseemly behavior for a martial artist!"

"C-c-c-cattt...." Ranma seemed incapable of saying anything else as horrifying memories -- memories of glowing, hungry eyes, of sharp teeth and sharper claws -- completely took control of both mind and senses.

--------------

Yonoko watched the scene unfolding in the Tendo compound and smiled in somewhat malicious amusement. Two years of careful observation had given her the opportunity to pinpoint Saotome's every strength and weakness. Now all that effort would pay off.

Leaving the straw doll to do its dark work, she lifted her hands. In response to her gestures, wisps of arcane energy began to swirl around each of the cat figurines on the table.

--------------

As the women watched in utter disbelief, Ryoga and Kuno suddenly collapsed to the ground, writhing and screaming. Their bodies started to warp and swell. Clothes split away from bulging muscles. Bare skin sprouted fur. Their faces lengthened into muzzles full of long, gleaming teeth. Human limbs became paws tipped with knife-like claws. The screams deepened into low, bestial roars.

The transformations were appallingly quick. Within a few seconds, Kuno was now a huge blue tiger with black markings while Ryoga had changed into a slightly smaller, but more heavily built, yellow and black tiger. Their eyes seemed to glow with an eerie green fire. Saliva dripped from their gaping jaws as they slowly stalked forward.

A strangled scream tore its way out of Ranma's throat as he frantically scrambled backward until he was cowering up against his fiancees and his mother. It was if his worst fears had been spun into material form, then magnified a hundredfold. The cats were coming for HIM and he knew it.

"No no nononono...!"

The blue tiger uttered a vicious, hissing snarl. At the sound, Ranma cried out in pain before abruptly collapsing onto the porch. As Akane knelt down and held his shoulders, Nodoka frantically asked, "What's wrong with him?"

"I...I don't know!"

Akane frantically thought, (I know Ranma's afraid of cats but this.... Something's terribly wrong about all this! What's going on!?) She could see him flinch with every snarl or growl the tigers made. As she watched helplessly, he curled up into a tight ball, covering his ears with his hands in an effort to shut out the sounds of the tigers.

"S-s-stop... get off...leave me alone...stop...hurts...!"

Ukyo shivered as she heard Ranma's low whimpers and moans of anguish. She then glared furiously at the tigers.

"Leave him alone, you damn monsters! HIYAA!" She leapt forward and hurled a handful of her razor-sharp throwing spatulas directly at the tigers.

The spatulas simply bounced off the creatures' thick fur.

As Ukyo swore in frustration, Kodachi knocked her aside and snapped, "Stupid wench, get out of my way!"

"Hey! Watch it!" Ukyo frantically ducked as the metal-edged ribbon whipped through the air just above her head. Kodachi's weapon struck the blue tiger. That beast had been her brother Tatewaki just a few minutes before, but ties of blood had never stopped the Kuno siblings from attempting to inflict severe bodily harm on each other. Ukyo could tell that Kodachi was not holding anything back. However, despite Kodachi's best efforts, the slashing ribbon had just as little effect as Ukyo's spatulas.

The tigers ignored the girls' futile attacks. Their attention was clearly focused on Ranma alone.

Shampoo yanked one of her hair ornaments loose and threw it with all her Amazon strength at the blue tiger's head. The ornament sank deep into the eye socket, causing the tiger to roar in pain -- a sound that made Ranma cringe even more.

Her shout of triumph faded into a hiss of dismay as Shampoo watched the ornament pop loose, and the tiger's eye heal almost instantly. The blue tiger then resumed its leisurely but inexorable advance, just a step behind its companion.

Ukyo started to back away from the tigers. In a tense voice, she said, "I think we're in big trouble." She then glared briefly at Shampoo. "Where are those damn maces you're always waving around?"

"Stupid spatula girl! Shampoo here for private talk, not duel! Not polite to carry big weapon around even if talk is with mother-in-law!" The Amazon was also retreating. "Shampoo ask same thing about you and stupid big spatula!"

Ukyo muttered to herself, "What a great time for both of us to pick up some manners. I should know better after hanging around Ran-chan all this time!"

The exact same thought ran through both Ukyo's and Shampoo's minds. (And I'm NEVER going to get caught unarmed like this again. NEVER! I don't care what that stupid book on etiquette says!)

Ukyo then said in a much more conciliatory voice, "What do you say to a... uh, strategic retreat?" She pointed over her shoulder toward the front door of the Tendo house.

Shampoo nodded abruptly. "We no can fight monsters unarmed. When inside, head for dojo and grab weapons."

"Gotcha."

Kodachi joined the two of them in their slow retreat. "I'm quite in accordance. What are you fools waiting for?"

--------------

The directional microphones picked up the girls' conversation perfectly. Yonoko murmured, "Now, now... I can't have you running off prematurely, ladies."

She closed her eyes and chanted briefly. A small transparent cube appeared between her hands. Yonoko suddenly clapped her hands together and the cube vanished in a flash of light.

--------------

Akane had come up with the same idea as Ukyo and Shampoo. Leaving Ranma in his mother's hands, she started to struggle with the front door. Ukyo moved up behind her and tensely asked, "Akane, what's the holdup? We've got to get away from those things!"

Akane snarled, "I'm trying! The door won't open!"

"What do you mean, it won't open?" Ukyo jerked the door handle but the front door refused to move. "Damn! Shampoo!"

Shampoo dragged her gaze away from the stalking beasts. "What now?"

"See if you can get this door open!"

"Violent girl pick fine time to lock us out of house!"

"It's not locked! It just won't open!" Akane protested.

"Stupid Akane!" The Amazon yanked, then pounded on the door. It refused to budge no matter how hard she tried.

Akane bit her lip. (With Shampoo's strength, she could easily smash a hole right through the wall. She's done it plenty of times before. This stupid front door should be no problem!)

"Is no good!"

"What's going on here?" Kodachi hissed anxiously.

"Maybe we can just edge along the wall...." Ukyo tried to step off the right side of the porch but found a very unpleasant surprise.

"Shit! There's something blocking the way!" Ukyo pounded her fists on an invisible wall at the edge of the porch.

"What!?" Akane tried the other side of the porch and found the same sort of invisible barrier.

Shampoo looked upward, a grim expression on her face. She pulled her other hair ornament free and flung it straight up. Instead of punching through the roof of the porch, it ricocheted in mid-air and landed at her feet. The girls soon found out that the front edge of the porch -- the side closest to the approaching tigers -- was the only side not blocked off by invisible barriers.

"We're trapped but good!" Ukyo growled.

Shampoo bent down to gently touch Ranma's quivering body, then looked up at Akane in confusion. "Why he no change? Why no Cat-fist?"

"I don't know!" Akane pointed at the tigers. "But I'm guessing that whatever changed Ryoga and Kuno also has something to do with Ranma's condition."

--------------

Yonoko glanced at the two magic wards pinned to the straw doll. The first one was a straightforward fear spell. Its purpose was obvious and simple. The second magic ward was originally intended to prevent insanity. However, this time, its sole purpose was to prevent Saotome from escaping into his cat-personality prematurely. Only after his terror become truly and utterly unbearable would he be able to escape into the Neko-ken.

The cruel elegance of the spell, the subtle twisting of a protective object into an excruciatingly painful weapon -- those were the signatures of Ebon's handiwork.

....as Saotome would soon learn for himself.

--------------

By now, everyone huddled together on the front porch, boxed in with nowhere to go. The tigers, now only six or seven meters away, completely blocked the only path of escape. With a grim expression on her face, Nodoka stood up, unsheathed her sword, and advanced forward. However, before she could step off the porch, Shampoo put her hand on Nodoka's wrist and brought her to a stop.

"Please, is better for Shampoo to fight. Shampoo is Amazon warrior."

Nodoka frowned. "Child, it's my duty to...."

"Shampoo has duty, too, to protect husband." For once, the other fiancees chose not to argue with her. While Nodoka hesitated, the Amazon girl urgently added, "Also, Shampoo best fighter here. Is only one strong enough to hurt monsters." It was no idle boast, but just a simple statement of fact.

Nodoka looked at her, then glanced at the other girls and the unconscious Ranma. Then Ranma's mother silently offered Shampoo the Saotome family sword.

The Amazon looked a little startled but then gave Nodoka a quick bow before taking the weapon. As Shampoo tested the sword's superb balance, Kodachi angrily hissed, "Why you conniving little tramp!"

Shampoo gave Kodachi a chilly stare of contempt, then ignored her as she spoke to Akane and Ukyo. "Move Ranma when Shampoo attack."

Akane said, "You can't! Kuno and Ryoga... remember what happened earlier! Those creatures aren't normal animals. That sword isn't going to stop them!"

"Heh." Shampoo tossed her head. "Shampoo not stupid. Shampoo distract tigers, not fight. Beside, no one else good enough or strong enough to do job."

"Damn it! You may be a pretty good fighter but even you won't last five seconds against those things!" Ukyo argued.

"Then it is honorable way to die, yes? Just make sure you no mess up your part."

The eyes of the three girls met in unspoken agreement. Ukyo and Akane moved next to Ranma. Shampoo took a deep breath, then stepped off the porch to confront the tigers.

--------------

The creatures' musky scent, the rasp of their claws on the paving stones, their hungry noises -- everything about the monsters plunged Ranma deeper and deeper into an old, pain-wracked nightmare. But this time, there seemed to be no escape. There was no comforting oblivion to take away the fear that was slowly devouring both mind and soul.

He could sense them moving closer and closer. They were coming for him...and for her. Amid the overwhelming terror and pain that held his mind in a steely grip, Ranma began to feel a fierce, burning rage. He would be DAMNED before he would let anyone or anything take away what he had wanted... and needed... for so long. A home, a sense of belonging... and her.

For the first time in his life, he didn't try to escape or run away from the fear. Instead, Ranma willingly reached into the nightmare and embraced it, searching for the power to keep what was his and his alone.

--------------

Yonoko watched without surprise as the paper wards pinned to the straw doll suddenly fluttered. Their movements soon became more and more violent. Suddenly, the wards and the straw doll went up in a bright flash of flame. Only a small puddle of molten silver and flecks of black ash remained.

"Now comes the interesting part."

--------------

Akane, Ukyo, and Nodoka gasped as Ranma suddenly rolled to his hands and knees. His lowered head and his hair hid the expression in his eyes but Akane could hear the low, throbbing growl coming from his throat. Hands curled as he pulled his bare feet under him in a familiar stance. The low growl increased in volume to become a deep roar of challenge.

Shampoo whirled around at the sound, then flung herself aside as Ranma leapt off the porch. He landed on the walkway only a few feet away from the two strange males. They dared to take what was HIS.

They would die for it.

He bared his teeth and hissed viciously, one hand raking at the air. In response, the tigers laid back their ears and snarled back.

Akane shuddered. She had seen Ranma in the Neko-ken before, but she had never seen him quite like this. On past occasions, he had certainly been ferocious, but it had always been -- or had quickly become -- a playful sort of ferocity. This time, it was brutally obvious that Ranma was NOT feeling the least bit playful.

This time, if Ranma was feeling anything, it was primal rage.

Nodoka grasped Akane's shoulder in a white-knuckled grip and said in a strangled voice, "What's wrong? Why is Ranma acting like... like some sort of animal?"

Ukyo gulped and sounded a bit sick. "Is THAT the... Neko-ken?"

Akane nodded distractedly. "Yes... I think."

"What the hell do you mean by that!?"

Ranma's mother demanded, "What are you talking about?"

Without looking away from Ranma, Akane hastily explained. "Ranma has a terrible phobia of cats, all because some crazy martial arts training his father put him through. When his fear of cats becomes overwhelming, he starts acting like a cat. He also uses this extremely dangerous martial art called the Neko-ken. It's also known as the Cat-fist."

She paused, then added softly, "But something's wrong this time."

Shampoo murmured. "Shampoo notice it too. Ranma-cat different this time. Much darker, nastier...."

The women watched in horrified fascination as Ranma and the tigers slowly circled each other. The opponents watched each other with predatory intensity, searching for any signs of weakness.

Akane and Shampoo hurriedly grabbed Ukyo as she tried to step forward. She said, "Let me go! We've got to help him. He can't handle those two huge monsters by himself!"

It seemed to be a sadly uneven battle -- a single human against two tigers who each easily outweighed Ranma by four to five times. However, both Akane and Shampoo knew that mere physical size was not the deciding factor in a fight like this.

Akane frantically shook her head. "NO! It's way too dangerous!"

Ukyo snarled, "Hey, Akane! If you're SCARED...."

Akane snapped, "Yes, I AM scared! For you! Do you have ANY idea what a Neko-ken strike can do? In this state, Ranma can rip through steel and rock like paper! Can you imagine what even an accidental blow would do to a human body!?"

"Ranma would never...!"

"No, of course he wouldn't if he was in his right mind. But he's NOT! Ranma's gone berserk with rage right now. There's no telling what he will or won't do. And who knows what's going on with Kuno and Ryoga! If Shampoo didn't stand a chance against them with a sword, what's going to happen to you?"

"Akane right! Best stay out of way...unless spatula girl WANT to end up like chopped cabbage!"

The blue tiger that had once been Tatewaki Kuno attacked first. It lunged for Ranma's throat. Ranma leapt aside effortlessly and slashed back. His hand never touched his opponent, but a huge gash opened along the blue tiger's belly. Any normal animal would have been instantly gutted. However, before the women's horrified eyes, the near bloodless wound closed and faded away.

The other tiger, formerly Ryoga, moved in with unnatural speed. Ranma jumped over it, then used the Neko-ken to shred mercilessly at the yellow tiger's exposed back. The huge beast howled in pain but the enormous wounds again quickly disappeared.

The pattern repeated itself, time and again. Ranma and the tigers engaged in an incredibly swift and lethal dance. Ranma used his superior speed and agility to maximum advantage. He constantly dodged in and out, using the Neko-ken to slash and tear relentlessly at his opponents as he evaded their attempts to use their superior mass to grapple to bring him down.

In spite of repeatedly hitting his opponents, Ranma's attacks ultimately had no effect. Any wounds suffered by the tigers healed instantly, no matter how severe.

Dragging her eyes away from the battle, Akane took a hasty look around her. Strangely, Shampoo had a somewhat wistful and pensive expression on her face, as if she was perceiving something both undesired but also undeniable. Nodoka was grimly stoic. Ukyo looked horrified at what she saw. And Kodachi....

Totally fixated on Ranma's every movement, Kodachi was almost panting with sheer excitement.

Akane shuddered. She couldn't even begin to guess what was on the gymnast's mind.

---------------------

Yonoko was sweating but she was nowhere near her limits. No matter how much physical damage Saotome inflicted, she could easily maintain the regeneration spell on the tigers. That spell was the only thing keeping them intact and functioning in the face of his ferocious Neko-ken attacks.

However, the ability to rip through most physical objects actually represented only a fraction of the Neko-ken's power. And in this fight, that minor ability would not be nearly enough. Only the true power of the Neko-ken would win this battle. She and Ebon had made very sure of that. If Saotome couldn't access and master the true Neko-ken, the two tigers would eventually kill him and everyone else at the Tendo home.

She shrugged. In that case, Saotome's death would be small loss. A powerful entity such as Ebon of the Shadows had no use for failures.

However, if Saotome succeeded in using the greater Neko-ken, he would then become much more valuable. And much more useful.

---------------------

The deadlock in the fight suddenly broke. The two tigers launched a concerted attack that finally allowed them to get a grip on their elusive opponent. The yellow tiger hooked its claws into Ranma's left shoulder as the blue tiger sank its fangs deep into his right hip. They started to yank in opposite directions in an effort to tear Ranma apart. Literally.

"NO!" Akane took an involuntary step forward. Shampoo let loose a stream of Chinese obscenities.

Screaming in both rage and pain, Ranma managed to pull free. But his freedom did not come cheap. He ended up badly aggravating his injuries as he tore himself away from his opponents. Gasping for air, he managed to put some distance between himself and the tigers. But they had no intention of giving him any time to recover. Even as he licked at his wounds, they moved in for the kill.

Ukyo couldn't take it anymore. "That does it! I don't care HOW dangerous it is to butt in on this cat fight!"

---------------------

As the tigers drew blood, Yonoko stiffened in anticipation but nothing else happened. She frowned, then snapped her fingers. How careless of her. She had forgotten one very important thing about Saotome.

It was danger to OTHERS, not himself, which often brought out the very best in Ranma Saotome.

(So let's give him four good reasons to push himself a little harder.)

---------------------

The yellow tiger suddenly abandoned the battle with Ranma. It seemed to have new prey on its mind. It turned and headed directly for Akane and the others.

Ukyo swore bitterly. "Shit! I guess it's now our turn."

Shampoo readied Nodoka's sword while Ukyo pulled out the last of her throwing spatulas. Akane gave the door one last hopeless heave, then took up a defensive stance in front of Nodoka. Shampoo had to shove a bemused Kodachi out of her way as the girls spread out on the porch, trying to give each other fighting room.

As the tigers advanced, Akane shouted, "Ryoga, stop it! RYOGA!"

Her earlier shouts during the fighting had been ignored, but this time, her words actually managed to reach the yellow tiger. It suddenly froze in mid-step. The greenish glow slowly faded from the tiger's eyes.

Ukyo took a startled breath. She whispered, "Come on, Akane! Keep talking!"

Akane nodded. "Ryoga. Fight it! I know you can! You can beat it. Please!"

The tiger stared at Akane, shifting its weight back and forth, as if struggling to decide whether to move forward or retreat. It uttered a low growl of confusion.

---------------------

Yonoko frowned slightly but she seemed more wistful than displeased by the yellow beast's reluctance.

"That Tendo girl's very lucky to have not one, but TWO young men so deeply in love with her."

She sighed. "But, unfortunately, true love does not always conquer all. Back to your task, Hibiki."

With a look of fierce concentration on her face, Yonoko sketched a symbol in green fire in the air above one of the cat figurines. The fiery symbol slowly descended, draping the figurine like a glowing cloak.

---------------------

The yellow tiger that had been Ryoga Hibiki suddenly threw its head up and screamed. When it lowered its head, the greenish glow in its eyes was as bright as ever.

Akane shouted, "NOOO!!!" She had been so close to getting through to him....

Ranma's head jerked around when he heard the desperation and panic in Akane's voice. The others were also shouting but Akane's voice was the only one that mattered. He instantly lunged for the yellow tiger.

The blue tiger took ruthless advantage of Ranma's distraction. It pounced, plunging its massive claws deep into his back. Ranma's struggles soon forced the blue tiger to bring all its weight to bear in an effort to subdue its thrashing victim. Blood began to ooze from beneath Ranma's body as his furious efforts to escape only caused the tiger's claws to tear even deeper.

"RANMA!!!" Akane and Nodoka both screamed.

Horrified as it was to see Ranma mauled by the blue tiger, the women had their own tiger problem to worry about. The yellow tiger crouched slightly.

Everyone jumped as Ranma abruptly let loose a shriek of indescribable fury. Even the yellow tiger snapped its head around to look. Nearby glass panes shattered. The blue tiger was flung aside as a shimmering aura of violet-blue-black energy suddenly coalesced around Ranma's body.

---------------------

Yonoko's eyes gleamed with triumph. She exultantly whispered, "Oh yes!"

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Part 1d: A Taste of Things to Come
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Akane and the others stared in shock as the dark battle aura stabilized into the semi-transparent form of a huge predatory cat. Using the battle aura as an extension of his own body, Ranma casually swatted the charging blue tiger aside, sending it flying amid a spray of blood. The blue beast slammed into a nearby tree with such force that the sturdy tree trunk snapped. The leafy top of the tree slowly toppled to the ground and landed on the tiger's limp body with a lazy WHOMP .

---------------------

As the blue tiger hit the tree, one of the cat figurines on the table exploded. Broken shards went flying. Yonoko gasped in pain as the spells binding Tatewaki Kuno suddenly snapped, but she refused to be distracted.

---------------------

Ranma then pounced on the startled yellow tiger, digging the aura's front 'paws' into the creature's flanks. The tiger desperately tried to shake Ranma off its back. When that tactic failed, it twisted around and tried to sink its teeth and claws into the battle aura surrounding the young man.

Ranma responded by slashing at the yellow tiger's face with a front 'paw' as he simultaneously raked the tiger's underbelly with his hind 'paws'. Blood flew as Ranma's first blow peeled away nearly half the yellow tiger's face. This time, there was no instant healing for the creature's injuries.

Blinded in one eye, the tiger screamed in agony as it wrenched itself free of Ranma's grasp. It weakly staggered to its feet. Dark red blood poured from the gaping wounds on its face and belly. Paralyzed both by the sheer power of the battle aura and by Ranma's terrible ferocity, the women could only watch as he began to rip the tiger apart. Slowly.

---------------------

Yonoko gritted her teeth. "Unbelievable!"

The actual physical damage Saotome inflicted was nothing compared to the non-physical damage he was doing. Somehow, his attacks were disrupting the magical spells binding Hibiki as well as wreaking havoc on his opponent's lifeforce. The regeneration spell had been the first to go.

(So why am I even trying to keep Hibiki going?)

Saotome had manifested the greater powers of the Neko-ken. That was all that was important. But an irresistible curiosity made her continue the struggle. Yonoko wanted to see just how far she could go.

Finally, Ranma's merciless onslaught was simply too much for Yonoko. As she sagged to the floor, her body trembling with exhaustion, she released the spells binding Ryoga Hibiki to her will. The remaining cat figurine abruptly crumbled into dust.

No matter how tired she felt, Yonoko was very pleased. She had accomplished what she had set out to do and Saotome had far exceeded her expectations.

"Well, Ebon. He's all yours."

---------------------

Down in the Tendo compound, the yellow tiger suddenly uttered an agonized groan before collapsing into a bloody heap of fur.

Ranma warily watched for a renewed attack from either opponent. When it became clear that neither tiger was capable of even moving, the eerie blackish battle aura wavered and dissipated. He snarled softly in triumph and moved in to finish off the yellow tiger.

Akane suddenly lunged forward but Ukyo grabbed her. "Akane! What are you doing?"

"I've got to stop him!"

Ukyo said accusingly, "Weren't you the one telling us that he's too dangerous to mess around with? And now you turn around and...."

Akane was beyond tact at the moment. All she cared about was stopping Ranma from doing something that he would consider unforgivable. She wasn't interested in her own safety, nor did she have the energy to spare Ukyo's feelings.

She snapped irritably, "Hey, I don't care what you think, Ukyo! All I know is that I've GOT to stop him! Self-defense is one thing but killing Ryoga now would be cold-blooded murder! And if you don't understand THAT, you don't understand Ranma at all!"

She twisted herself free of Ukyo's grasp, then quickly stepped across the scarred flagstones until she stood only a few feet away from him.

"R-r-ran...?" Akane coughed, then tried again. "Ranma?"

Hovering over the yellow tiger, Ranma merely uttered a distracted growl. He didn't bother looking at her.

"Ranma, please!"

He ignored her.

Akane edged closer, then carefully put her hand on his back. When he didn't object to the contact, she put her other hand on his unwounded shoulder. She applied a gentle tug, trying to urge him away from Ryoga. However, Akane immediately realized that despite his injuries, Ranma was still very strong. Actually, he was much stronger than she had ever remembered. There would be no budging him by force.

(He's so focused on the kill.... How can I possibly get through to him?)

She saw him prepare to sink his teeth into the tiger's throat. Before she could think about it, Akane shoved her hand in front of Ranma's face in an effort to stop him. Ranma immediately froze in mid-bite when he felt her fingers in his mouth.

Shampoo hissed softly, "Stupid Akane! What you do?"

"P-p-putting my hand in the tiger's jaws...?" Akane's voice wavered just a little bit.

Ranma glanced sideways at her, without moving or lifting his head. She felt him apply just a bit of pressure. It could have been a warning -- or a test -- but it wasn't enough to break the skin. Akane gasped but refused to move her hand. Knowing that words meant nothing to him, Akane did her best to make her voice both firm and soothing.

"No, Ranma. You don't want to do this. Leave him alone. Please."

She leaned closer, trying to ignore the smell of fresh blood. Akane murmured into his ear, "There's no need to hurt him any more. You've won. Ranma. Please stop it."

A long, still minute passed, then Ranma released his grip on her hand. As he reluctantly backed away from Ryoga, he briefly brushed his cheek against her, leaving a bloody smear on her legs. However, instead of snuggling against her as he usually did in his cat-mode, Ranma chose to crouch at her feet, alert for new challengers or new dangers.

When the other fiancees and Nodoka saw Akane successfully make contact with Ranma, they took a few tentative steps forward. Ranma did not appreciate the intrusion. His eyes narrowed and he hissed a soft warning.

Nodoka turned pale as her son gave her a cold, wary stare. Whatever lay between her and Ranma -- love, fear, whatever -- she knew that she meant nothing to the creature now staring out of her son's eyes. Ukyo also looked very upset by Ranma's hostile reaction. In sharp contrast to the chef, Shampoo seemed more resigned than surprised by his behavior.

Akane awkwardly tried to ease the distress she saw in Nodoka's eyes. "Mrs. Saotome, he...."

Nodoka made an abrupt gesture, cutting off Akane's explanation. Unwilling to face the pain and grief in Nodoka's eyes, Akane looked away. She muttered, "Could ... could you guys check on Ryoga and Kuno? I'm sort of occupied...."

She gazed down worriedly at Ranma. The rage was pretty much gone but he wasn't calm. With her hand on his shoulder, Akane could still feel the tension in his body.

(What's wrong? He seems to be waiting for something....)

After returning the Saotome sword to Nodoka, Shampoo carefully edged past Akane and Ranma to take a look at the yellow tiger. She stiffened in surprise, then ripped open the tiger's fur with a sudden jerk, exposing Ryoga's naked body. His injuries looked relatively mild when compared to the terrible wounds inflicted on his tiger form, but there was no doubt that he was severely injured.

"He ... lost boy still alive! And not so badly hurt!"

Ukyo blinked and muttered, "That means ... Kuno." She nudged Kodachi hard. When she failed to get any reaction, Ukyo hastily moved toward the fallen tree. After a brief delay as she cleared tree branches, Ukyo yelled, "The same thing over here! But we need an ambulance now!"

Akane heaved a deep sigh of relief. (I was afraid I was going to have to tell Ranma that he.... Kuno's can be such a pest but he doesn't deserve to die! And thank goodness Ryoga's not TOO badly hurt.)

At that moment, Nabiki walked into the compound.

---------------------

[Back to the present....]

As Nabiki frantically retreated from Ranma's charge, she heard a familiar male voice shout, "Ranma! I won't let you touch Shampoo!"

An instant later, Mousse plowed into Nabiki from behind.

Akane and the Amazon acted in unison. Akane somehow managed to throw herself in front of Ranma, shouting, "NO!" At the same time, Shampoo lunged toward Nabiki and Mousse.

With inhuman speed, Ranma easily dodged around Akane. However, her interference bought Shampoo just enough time. Shoving Nabiki aside with one hand, the Amazon grabbed Mousse and heaved him into the street. She then blocked the gateway with her own body, then closed her eyes and braced herself for impact.

Fortunately for Shampoo, Ranma seemed disinclined to pursue Mousse off the Tendo property. She cautiously looked down to see Ranma crouching a few feet away, growling softly. Akane quickly knelt down beside him, holding him in her arms and murmuring softly.

Akane desperately wanted to check on Nabiki, but she knew that keeping Ranma calm had to be her main concern. Mrs. Saotome or one of the other girls could take care of her sister but no one else was remotely capable of dealing with Ranma right now. Thankfully, aside from the dazed look on her face, Nabiki looked all right. Ranma, on the other hand....

Rolling to his feet, Mousse yelled in Chinese, "Shampoo! Why...!?"

Shampoo turned around but continued to block the gateway. She shouted, "Mousse, stay back! Ranma's too angry now to let another male into his territory!"

Ukyo shouted, "Shampoo, what the hell's going on!? What are you jabbering about?"

Shampoo gave her a quick glance and said in her usual broken Japanese, "Shampoo tell Mousse that Ranma no want other males in territory."

"'Territory'? What do you mean, 'territory'!?" Mousse and the others asked together.

Shampoo sighed and said, "Ranma act like male cat. Male cat no like other rival males on territory!" She turned back to Mousse and putting as much female authority as she could in her voice, she sternly said, "Mousse, go back to the restaurant!"

"Shampoo, I'm not going to leave you alone with that... that beast!"

As if in response to Mousse's words, Ranma bared his teeth and hissed nastily. Mousse couldn't prevent himself from flinching at the blatant threat.

"Stupid Mousse! If you challenge him now, YOU...WILL...DIE." Shampoo said flatly. In quieter tones, she said, "Go back to the Neko-hanten and great grandmother. I'll... be along later."

He hesitated.

"PLEASE."

Mousse looked extremely reluctant to go but something in Shampoo's manner finally persuaded him. He gave Ranma one last wary look before leaving.

As she watched Mousse depart, Ukyo asked, "What's all this garbage about rival males, huh?"

Shampoo shrugged and simply repeated what she had said before. "Ranma-cat no like male intruders on territory."

"You're still not making any sense!" The chef glared at the Amazon.

Akane added, "And Ranma's never acted like this before!"

Shampoo looked at Akane and said, "This different from other challenges, other fights. Kuno and lost boy try to take EVERYTHING away from Ranma-cat. Life, home...." She stopped abruptly and grimaced slightly. Finally, she continued in the faintest of whispers.

"....and mate...."

Akane's mouth dropped open in shock.

Ukyo shook her head violently and blurted out, "That's crazy! Ran-chan doesn't think of Akane as his...his...."

Shampoo said flatly, "Human Ranma maybe not know right now. But cat-side know for sure."

Ukyo slowly shook her head and said quietly, "No. NO. You're WRONG, Shampoo. I don't know what's going on but that..." Ukyo pointed at the young man crouching beside Akane.

"...that... creature... is NOT Ran-chan. It may be his body but THAT is not him at all."

Akane looked up sharply and said softly, "Ukyo, I can understand why you're so... upset but please believe me. This IS Ranma. The Ranma we know is in here... somewhere." She gently stroked Ranma's back as he started to clean his face and hands with precise licks of his tongue.

In a surprisingly harsh and bitter voice, Ukyo said, "Yes. I'm sure you'd like to believe that." She looked as if she might have said much more, but chose to keep any additional thoughts to herself.

Turning away from Akane, she said coolly, "I think I'll keep an eye on Kuno until the ambulance arrives."

---------------------

Nabiki lay on her back, trying to recover from a staggering physical shock and also an equally impressive mental one.

She had always considered Ranma's cat-side to be amusing or annoying. Sometimes it was both. But now, Nabiki knew that she had been wrong. Very, very wrong.

(It's not a joke. Not anymore.)

She had always thought of Ranma as a bit of a buffoon, someone strong but not too bright. Someone easily manipulated. It wasn't that she didn't like Ranma. She DID like him. However, she had never really... respected him.

How stupid could she be?

(You respect a gun. You respect a bomb. Why didn't it ever occur to me that Ranma could be just as dangerous?)

She answered her own question. (Because I've been relying way too much on Ranma's good nature, that's why. Because I expect him to hold back, no matter how badly I treat him.)

After all, Ranma put up with Akane's constant physical and verbal abuse, her own schemes, and their fathers' persistent meddling. He might have resented the way the Tendos and his own father treated him, but he didn't really DO anything about it. Ranma almost never retaliated. Instead, he simply endured. Furthermore, any resentment he might have felt certainly didn't stop him from doing his utmost to protect everyone, even at the possible cost of his own life.

However, the carnage Nabiki had just seen forcibly reminded her that Ranma was a very powerful, very highly skilled martial artist -- one who wouldn't have any problems taking out the entire Tendo household. And if he really wanted to, he could probably level a good portion of Nerima.

Considering what Ranma had been through in the last two years, it was a minor miracle that something like that hadn't already happened.

Nabiki felt more than a little guilty. She may not have been directly responsible for a lot of Ranma's problems. But she hadn't helped -- at least, not nearly as much as she could have. Instead of making things easier for him, she had often made things worse just to milk the maximum profit out of a situation. Sometimes she made things worse for the sheer amusement value. Like the time she had sold the information about Akane's and Ranma's secret wedding to half the people in Nerima....

Well, the games were over.

(I don't what happened here but I have to find out. If Ranma's out of control, if something's pushed him over the edge, we're all in serious trouble. For our sake... for Ranma's sake... I've got do my best to sort this mess out. Somehow. I owe him that much.)

She reluctantly added, (And if worst comes to worst, I need to be ready for that, too.)

Nabiki saw Shampoo standing over her. The Amazon looked a bit worried.

"So sorry Shampoo throw so hard. Was emergency."

"Ugghhhh..."

---------------------

Finally emerging from her trance, Kodachi started to walk toward Akane and Ranma. There was a strange smile on her face.

"Oh, Ranma darling! You were... truly MAGNIFICENT. Such power, such strength!" Kodachi was almost purring herself.

"So...dominant."

Akane felt Ranma go utterly still. Seriously alarmed, she attempted to warn Kodachi off. "Stay back! You're upsetting him!"

The younger Kuno sibling didn't bother to reply but moved even closer. Her eyes glittered with feverish excitement.

Akane could sense the anger building in Ranma. It was a cold anger, quite unlike his hot-blooded rage at Kuno and Ryoga -- and possibly even more dangerous.

"Hey! Stupid crazy girl! What you think you do?" Shampoo shouted as she helped Nabiki to her feet.

"Kodachi! What's wrong with you? You're only making him mad. Back off!" Akane stepped between Ranma and Kodachi.

The Black Rose did not appreciate the favor. "How DARE you interfere!? Stand aside, you cretinous whore!"

Akane flushed at the insult but tried her best to ignore it. Sneaking a quick peek at Ranma, she could see his eyes narrowing. His muscles tensed. Those were NOT good signs.

"Kodachi, this isn't the time or the place for your crazy games. You could get seriously hurt!"

"You should be worrying about yourself, you gutter tramp! I'll make you suffer for your presumption!" Kodachi whipped out her ribbon and started to twirl it.

Ranma snarled ominously. Akane clutched at his shoulders in an effort to keep him from going after Kodachi.

"Keep you hands off of him, you slut! He's MINE!" Kodachi shrieked.

As she pulled the ribbon back to strike, Nodoka quickly stepped forward and grabbed Kodachi by the arm. In very firm, authoritative tones, she said, "DON'T."

Kodachi glared at Nodoka who sternly returned her gaze.

While Kodachi and Nodoka were engaged in their own private staring contest, Akane concentrated on Ranma. Her control, if she even call it that, was very fragile. If he really wanted to attack someone, nobody could stop him.

(I've got snap Ranma out of this before anything else happens. Who knows how he'll react to Father or Mr. Saotome? Ranma has enough problems with his father when he's in the 'normal' Neko-ken but the way he is NOW.... And if Happosai shows up!?) She didn't want to think about what might happen.

"Nabiki?"

There was a faint groan. "Yeah, Akane?"

"Are you all right?"

"Uh-huh. I've felt better, though."

"Can you handle things here? I've got do something about Ranma."

Nabiki waved her sister off. "Sure. The last thing we need is for Ranma to go running amuck. Again."

Akane gently coaxed him around the corner of the house. Fortunately, he seemed content to follow. At the sight of the koi pond, she hesitated briefly.

(Should I push him into the water and hope that making him change into a girl will snap him back to normal? No, better not. If he's this bad, there's no guarantee that it'll work. And the last thing I want to do is upset or startle him. That was no bluff. He was really going to kill Ryoga! If he runs off, there's no telling what he might do if provoked! If Ranma seriously hurts or kills someone, he'll never forgive himself.) Visions of tanto blades and great puddles of blood came all too vividly to mind.

Once inside the house, Ranma dashed down the hall and bounded up the stairs. Akane chased after him.

"Ranma, wait!"

As she passed the front door, she heard a familiar voice outside saying, "Oh my!"

Akane grabbed the door handle and pulled. It moved easily.

(No problem opening it NOW, of course!)

Everyone outside jumped when Akane abruptly flung the front door open. In a rush, she said, "Kasumi, Nabiki, make sure everyone stays downstairs until I say it's okay, all right?" With those words, she turned and dashed up the stairs. Akane followed the trail of bloody prints to her bedroom. Inside, Ranma tensely prowled back and forth.

Akane closed her door, then after a brief hesitation, locked it. She wearily sat on the floor and called to him softly.

"Ranma? Come here. Come on. No one wants to fight with you. Here, Ranma." She repeated her coaxing and cooing a few more times before he approached. With a little gentle pressure, Akane finally managed to get Ranma to lie down beside her with his head in her lap. When her hand brushed against a blood-encrusted spot on his hip, she suddenly remembered that Ranma had been badly hurt by his opponents.

(I completely forgot!) However, Akane's eyes widened in disbelief as she pulled his clothes aside to get a closer look at his injuries.

(What!? They're... they're almost gone!) Indeed, the bone-deep gashes were now only faint reddish lines. She struggled to stay calm.

(I know Ranma's a fast healer but... but this is impossible!) She hastily checked Ranma's other wounds and found the same thing. Except for the rips in his clothes and the blood, there was hardly any signs that he had been hurt.

As Akane sat on the floor of her room struggling to make sense of recent events, she numbly continued to stroke Ranma's fine black hair. She was greatly relieved when Ranma gradually began to relax. She was even happier to hear him purring.

She whispered to herself, "Just this morning, I was hoping for something to change. Well, they say you should be careful of what you wish for, because you just might get it."

Oh yes, things had most definitely changed and NOT for the better. The only good thing that happened was Shampoo's apparent change of heart. But everything else.... Kuno and Ryoga were both injured. How badly, she didn't know. Kodachi's obsession with Ranma looked like it had gotten worse and more twisted, if that was possible. Ukyo seemed to be unable -- or unwilling -- to deal with Ranma's cat-side and the Neko-ken. Ranma's mother also appeared to have real problems accepting Ranma's present condition.

Looking down at him, she gazed into Ranma's drowsy, half-opened eyes. He looked back with a cat's cool, inscrutable gaze.

She whispered softly, "Oh, Ranma. I know you're in there, somewhere. Come back. Come back to me. I need to know that you're okay. You're really worrying me, you idiot." The last words came out more like a caress than an insult. As if sensing her distress, Ranma uttered a soft, soothing croon and rubbed his cheek against her leg.

Akane patiently waited. In the distance, she could hear the wail of ambulance sirens come, stop, and go. A little while longer, she could another sort of wail. It was the familiar cry of her father who was undoubtedly bemoaning all the property damage.

Many minutes passed before Ranma finally stirred. He murmured "Akane...," wrapped his arms around her waist, nuzzled his face against her stomach, and fell asleep.

In the sanctuary of Akane's arms, Ranma enjoyed his last few moments of innocence and peace.

(End of Part 1)

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Author's Notes:

Part 2 - The morning mayhem's is finished but who will pick up the pieces?

^_-

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-----------------------------------------
CREDITS:

Additional inspiration from:

    "The Whisper" by Queensryche
    WEREWOLF: THE APOCALYPSE (and associated materials) by White Wolf Publishing, Inc.;
    TIGER CLAWS, copyrighted 1991 by Tiger Claws Production, Ltd.;
    THE HIGHROAD TRILOGY series by Alis A. Rasmussen;
    USHIO & TORA, copyrighted 1992 & 1993 by Kazuhiro
    Fujita/Shogakukan;
    REJAR by Dara Joy.

Additional fanfic mentions: ^_^

    "Hearts of Ice" by Krista Perry and "Nekophobia" by David Eddy for starting my obsessive interest in the neko-stuff.

Many thanks to my pre-readers, for their suggestions, critiques, and support. ^_^

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madamhydra@aol.com /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/:E

http://www.geocities.com/madamhydra/
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