Ranma 1/2 - Tiger Claw (part 6)

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TIGER CLAW: A Ranma 1/2 fanfic - by Madamhydra@aol.com
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Part 6: DARKENING HEARTS (part II)
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Disclaimer

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 I follow 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

( ) and / / - 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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Part 6#:
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Dan Xin knew Cologne was watching her. In turn, Cologne knew that Dan Xin was perfectly aware of being watched. They continued their little mind game throughout the night and into the morning. Despite the Amazon Elder's best efforts, Dan Xin's only activity appeared to be frequent phone conversations. Some of these conversations appeared innocent enough, but other discussions were obviously in some sort of prearranged code.

It was soon after one such coded call that Cologne sensed several people stalking her. She drew herself up straight and said, "Come out. Enough of this foolishness."

Six people, dressed in black, emerged from cover and surrounded the old Amazon. They were all masked and heavily armed with various bladed weapons. One of them said, "You're pretty eager to die, old crone."

Cologne chuckled ominously. "Aren't you the arrogant little pup? But I have business to attend to and I'm not in the mood to play with children."

"What do you mean, 'Play with children?'" The speaker hissed angrily. "Let me assure you that we're quite serious."

Another masked figure snarled, "Deadly serious!" while whirling his blades in a threatening display.

Cologne coolly surveyed her opponents. They displayed a considerable degree of skill, but it was also obvious to her expert eye that they were all young and painfully inexperienced. She sniffed and said scornfully, "Is this the best Dan Xin can do? No, let me guess. She agreed to hire you only if you proved your skill by defeating me. Is that it?"

"Shut up!"

"You fools! She's just using you as fodder...."

"HIYYAAAAA!!!" The six masked people pounced on the old woman, blades flashing.

A few seconds later, Cologne sat perched on her walking stick. Without so much as a glance at the unconscious attackers lying on the ground, she peered around angrily, but to no avail. The fools had been no real challenge, but they had served their purpose all too well.

Dan Xin was gone.

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"The hour is almost up and we still haven't seen any trace of Mousse!"

Ranma pushed his hand through his hair. "You're right. I guess we should head for the Neko-hanten. Maybe Shampoo's had better luck."

They were only a block away from the restaurant when Ranma abruptly froze in mid-step. Akane said, "What's wrong?"

At that moment, a petite, black-haired woman stepped out from an alleyway. With the crane-crested sword on her back and the snugly fitting red leather outfit, it could be none other than the infamous Dan Xin.

"Ranma Saotome. So you're the pretty boy who's been causing my silly little cousin so much trouble." Surprisingly, Dan Xin's Japanese turned out to be excellent. Aside from the leather costume -- outrageous for the way it clung to her well-developed figure, not for its lack of coverage -- she looked harmless and innocent enough. But the malicious gleam in her eyes and the mockery in her voice belied her cute looks. This was a woman who shouldn't be taken lightly.

Ranma edged in front of Akane and said, "Yeah. So what?"

Dan Xin noticed his protective gesture and smirked slightly. "And what do we have here? So this is the fabled Akane Tendo. Is she the reason you've been playing so hard to get?"

If the casual bystanders had been expecting Ranma's usual incoherent denials about 'that tomboy', they were in for a surprise. Instead, he said evenly, "It's none of your damn business. And you can cut out that cute act. I know you've got no interest in helping Shampoo."

Dan Xin smiled nastily. "Oh, I see that my cousin's already been telling tales about me. Envy is a terrible thing, isn't it? Oh well, in that case, we can get down to business."

"Business?" Ranma said warily.

Dan Xin took a few deliberate steps toward Ranma and Akane. After several years of living in close proximity to various high-powered martial artists, the bystanders in the area knew the warning signs. They prudently fled or retreated to a safe distance.

The ex-Amazon said lazily, "I've heard a lot about you. You're supposed to be quite good... for a male, that is. But I'm curious to see how good."

Ranma said angrily, "I'm not interested in fighting you or playing your stupid games. So quit making such a pain of yourself and go home."

"But that's so boring." She snapped her fingers and two more women stepped out of the alleyway. They were tall and graceful. The strong physical resemblance between the two women probably meant that they were related. One held a three-section staff while the other was equipped with a wicked looking spear.

Dan Xin pointed in Ranma's direction and said, "Ladies. Give the boy a workout."

The two women smiled viciously and advanced, the spearwoman moving to Ranma's right and the other woman edging to his left.

With a firm, but gentle shove, Ranma nudged Akane out of the way as he warily watched the women's approach.

"Ranma...," Akane started to protest, but there was an odd intensity in his eyes that made her fall silent and back away.

With no warning, the two women launched a perfectly coordinated attack. Unfortunately, an easy leap took their target well out of reach.

Landing several yards away, Ranma said, "This is all a big waste of time. I've got more important things to do."

The spearwoman's only response was to slash at his midsection, but Ranma easily slid away from the blow even as he ducked to let the swinging end of the three-section staff sweep just above his head.

At first, Akane was a bit concerned, but after the first few exchanges, she found herself relaxing. The two women were very good and clearly had a lot of practice fighting together as a team. However, as the fight continued, it became apparent that Ranma had the two women hopelessly outclassed in both the speed and skill department as shown by the effortless way he evaded their attacks.

Akane thought, (It's like fighting a wisp of smoke. I hate it when he does that! No matter how hard you try, you can't hit him!)

The scowls on the women's faces told Akane that they found Ranma's refusal to take offensive action just as aggravating as she did. However, the youngest Tendo found herself frowning as she watched Ranma weave away from a wicked staff swing.

(What's wrong with this fight?) Akane wondered. A few seconds later, she realized what was bothering her.

(I know... he's way too quiet! Ranma's usually boasting or trying to taunt his opponent into doing something stupid. But this time, he's barely said a thing during the fight!)

And there was something else strange about this particular battle. Most people wouldn't have noticed, but she was intimately familiar with Ranma's fighting style and technique. Something had changed. There was an uncanny precision and fluidity to Ranma's movements that she had never seen before. Considering Ranma's usual level of skill, that was saying a lot.

Absorbed in watching the fight, it took Akane a few seconds to notice that she was no longer standing alone. With a nervous start, she realized Dan Xin was standing right beside her. The ex-Amazon looked rather displeased as she watched the one-sided battle.

The two female challengers finally backed off a bit as they tried to catch their breath. Despite their repeated efforts, they hadn't even succeeded in forcing Ranma into blocking any of their attacks.

The spearwoman muttered, "Not... bad. But don't get... cocky, boy."

Ranma didn't bother to answer. His only response was a faint, quirky grin.

(The jerk's actually enjoying himself! He's just playing with them!) fumed Akane.

She suddenly noticed some movement in the alleyway behind Ranma. Squinting slightly, she was horrified to realize that there was another figure lurking in the shadows. The figure tensed and crouched, as if preparing to launch a sneak attack.

Akane stepped forward and started to shout, "Ra...." Her warning was abruptly cut short as her neck encountered the razor sharp edge of Dan Xin's sword. She felt a sharp sting and something wet trickled down her throat.

Dan Xin briefly glanced away from the fight in order to give Akane a mocking look. "Hush, now. We don't want to...."

The hidden attacker lunged out of the alleyway.

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Ranma WAS enjoying himself. There was a crazy sense of exhilaration racing through his blood. The fact that his opponents were trying their best to seriously injure or kill him didn't do a single thing to spoil his enjoyment. In fact, their deadly intentions only made the whole game more exciting.

....then he heard the rasp of drawn steel....

....and caught the scent of Akane's blood....

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No threats. No warning.

There was just a dark blur of motion. Akane felt a rush of air, then she heard a loud thud mixed with a barely audible cracking sound, followed by a startled cry of pain as Dan Xin went flying into the air. The ex-Amazon slammed into a nearby brick wall with enough force to shake the adjacent building and to send little fragments of broken brick pattering to the ground.

At the exact same moment, there was a crash as all three of Dan Xin's fighters collided as their target seemed to vanish right before their eyes. The three women ended up in a stunned heap on the pavement.

There was dead silence as Ranma -- now standing only a few feet away from Akane -- gracefully finished up his roundhouse kick.

Stunned, Akane could only gape at him. Gradually, the murmurs of the bystanders finally registered.

"Wow! Did you see that?"

"See what!? I didn't even see him move!"

"I don't believe it! Ranma actually hit a girl!?"

Sprawled on the ground, Dan Xin wiped a trickle of blood from her chin. As she mentally berated herself for her carelessness, the ex-Amazon glared furiously at Ranma and snarled, "You little bastard! You'll pay for that!"

"Touch Akane again and I'll break every bone in your body." Ranma's voice was calm, almost conversational.

"Don't make threats you can't possibly keep!" With a sharp hiss of pain, the ex-Amazon staggered to her feet. Tossing her hair out of her face, she lifted her sword, then suddenly glanced over her shoulder.

"Damn that old bitch!" Dan Xin slammed her sword back into its scabbard. With a curt snap of her wrist, she sent her fighters on their way. Before leaving the scene herself, Dan Xin purred ominously, "Enjoy this little victory while you can, Saotome." With a grace only slightly hampered by her injuries, Dan Xin jumped to a nearby rooftop and disappeared from sight.

Ranma impassively watched the Amazon outcast vanish. As Akane struggled to find something to say to him, Ranma gently grabbed her chin and pushed her head back in order to get a better look at the shallow cut on her neck. He wiped away the few blood drops with his thumb and silently stared at the small reddish smear on his fingertips.

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Akane didn't quite know how to react. No matter how she tried to deny it, there was something terribly romantic... and flattering... about having a guy willing to fight for you. On the other hand, her pride as a martial artist was badly stung. She hated the implication that she couldn't take care of herself.

(But it's true. Half the time, I can't. Ranma's always rescuing me, getting me out of trouble....) And that hurt.

It had taken Akane a surprisingly long time to accept the unpleasant truth that there was no way on earth that she would ever come close to Ranma's level.

(I kept hoping that something would happen and that I would miraculously improve. I'd daydream of becoming this terrific martial artist overnight... then he'd have to stop calling me clumsy and slow. He'd have to respect me then.... What an idiot! I've been a martial artist for most of my life. I should have known better. The only real way to improve is lots of hard work... and training.)

(I may never be as good as Ranma, but I'll be damned if I'm going to be a WORSE martial artist than his other so-called fiancees!)

After coming back from Mount Phoenix, she had set out to improve her fighting skill with her typical combination of enthusiasm and stubbornness. For the first few weeks, she had relentlessly pestered Ranma into training her. All that effort had gotten her absolutely nowhere and her frustration had made her almost impossible to live with.

It had taken some chance comments by Cologne, of all people, and a long conversation with Dr. Tofu to make her realize what part of the problem was.

Ranma was not the best of teachers. He was TOO good. It wasn't that he lacked the patience, but with his ability to pick up new techniques practically overnight, he had a hard time adjusting to the slower learning speeds of other people.

(Okay, so it occasionally takes me a while to learn certain moves....)

Dr. Tofu had tactfully suggested that she find another teacher... one who was more used to dealing with student of her skill level.

Her father had been pretty much out of the question. He had stopped teaching long ago and ever since Genma Saotome showed up.... Fortunately, Dr. Tofu located an old school friend who lived nearby and ran a reputable training dojo.

Nabiki knew, of course. She had needed her older sister's help in order to pay for the lessons, even though the fees were very modest. Nabiki had smirked knowingly, but that was about it.

Ranma's reaction had been... peculiar. It couldn't have taken him very long to figure out that she was now training at another dojo. Instead of calling her a quitter or taunting her about not being a good enough student, he had said... absolutely nothing. At first her feelings were badly hurt.

(I thought he might have been glad that I stopped pestering him... I really wondered if he just didn't care about me.)

But when he made an determined effort to be a little nicer to her, she had gradually realized that he definitely DID care about her.
Whatever reasons Ranma had for keeping his mouth shut on the subject, it definitely wasn't because of a lack of feeling on his part.

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Akane's introspective mood was abruptly broken when Ranma stepped back and said irritably, "How could you let a kook like Dan Xin get so close to you?"

She blinked, then sputtered in fury, "What do you mean by that!? YOU were the one playing stupid games with those women!"

"What the hell does THAT have to do with you nearly getting your throat cut!?"

The anger was a relief. As long as she was angry, she wouldn't have to think about what had just happened. Akane shouted, "Oh, so I suppose now you're going to call me 'stupid' and 'clumsy' for letting Dan Xin sneak up on me...!"

But her anger fizzed as Ranma grabbed her shoulders and said, "You're NOT stupid... or clumsy!" He shook his head. "I just want you to be more careful. Can't you get it through your head? I don't want to see you hurt."

He abruptly let go of her. As he turned to look at the dent Dan Xin had made in the brick wall, he absently licked Akane's blood from his finger. A second later, Ranma muttered, "You're lucky, you know. Considering what Shampoo told us about her cousin, I wouldn't put it past Dan Xin to do something nasty like put poison on that stupid sword of hers."

Busy staring at her feet, Akane nodded wordlessly. As she tried to find something to say, Cologne suddenly hopped into the street. The Amazon elder eyed the damaged wall and said, "By any chance, did a young woman in a red...."

Ranma tossed his head irritably and muttered, "Yeah, we've just had a run-in with Dan Xin."

"You know of her?"

"Shampoo warned us about her cousin when she showed up at Ukyo's restaurant. She was looking for Mousse."

"No need to worry about the fool boy. I know exactly where he is." Cologne's eyes narrowed slightly. "Did she actually attack you?"

"Not me. She got some of her female goons to do her dirty work for her."

"But they attacked you on her orders, correct? Hmmmm. Interesting." The old woman thought, (It might be stretching a point, but it might be enough for my purposes. Although she didn't participate in the actual attack on Ranma, she did order it done.)

"But she cut Akane's neck with that sword of hers," Ranma added.

Cologne hopped up on her staff to get a better look at the shallow wound.

Akane edged away from the old woman. "I'm fine... really. It's just like a paper cut."

The Elder snorted. "You forget who you're dealing with. Dan Xin's been known to coat her blades with all sorts of unpleasant substances. Come to the restaurant, child. I want to get a better look at it."

Ranma calmly said, "Dan Xin didn't do anything nasty this time."

The Elder gave him a sharp look. (How does he know that?)

"But I really need to talk to you, Cologne."

As the old Amazon led the way back to the Neko-hanten, she thought, (Now isn't that interesting? He called me by name. Not 'old ghoul' or 'dried up mummy'.... My, he must be worried about something.)

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Shampoo was waiting for them at the restaurant. When she saw her great grandmother escorting Ranma and Akane inside, the Amazon girl paled and tensed slightly.

(What has that girl been up to?) Cologne wondered. Aloud, she merely said, "Shampoo, bring me some water and a clean cloth! And don't forget the green bottle on the top right-hand shelf."

She turned to Akane and said, "Sit, child. Now Ranma, what's on your mind?"

Ranma glanced at Akane. Before the youngest Tendo could say a word, Cologne said crisply to her, "You stay quiet. I can't examine this wound properly if your throat's bobbing about."

The pig-tailed young man raked his hands through his hair and said, "Well, it all started yesterday morning when Mom, Ukyo, Shampoo, AND Kodachi all showed up at the front door."

Cologne glanced sharply at Shampoo. The girl shrugged. "Shampoo not only one to get message."

Ranma said, "That was just the beginning. And after that... things got... nasty."

Her hands busy cleaning Akane's neck, the Amazon Elder chuckled, "That's no surprise."

His voice unusually somber, Ranma said quietly, "No. I mean REALLY nasty. Kuno and Ryoga showed up with some loony idea that there was another secret wedding planned for Akane and me. I told them that I had no idea what they were babbling about. That didn't stop them from challenging me to a duel... two-on-one."

"Really? Both of them together?"

As Cologne finished by dabbing some clear liquid on Akane's throat, Ranma nodded, then looked away. He whispered, "I nearly killed them."

Her hands froze for a second, then Cologne said, "Tell me more."

Ranma declined to say anything so Akane took up the story. Over the next hour, she and Shampoo took turns explaining about Kuno and Ryoga's transformations into giant tigers, the ensuing battle, Ranma's mysterious cat-shaped battle aura... everything.

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When the story finished up with their visit to Ukyo's restaurant, the old Amazon let out a long, rattling breath. Turning to Shampoo, she snapped, "Why didn't you tell me this yesterday!?"

Shampoo flushed angrily. "I tried, but you were too busy to listen to me!"

"Watch that tongue of yours, girl!" But Cologne had to admit that it really wasn't Shampoo's fault. She HAD been too wrapped up in Dan Xin and her own personal agenda to pay attention. Shaking her head, Cologne sighed and muttered, "Never mind, Shampoo."

Akane leaned forward and said, "Cologne, I remember you once said that you'd fought against someone who used the Neko-ken, right?"

"Not... exactly. It would be more correct to say that I 'encountered' someone who used the Cat-fist. Few people know of the Neko-ken, but it's no great secret. There are plenty of rumors and legends about it... IF you know where to look. But actually seeing it used... well, that's an entirely different matter. I have only encountered it once before meeting Ranma and that was well over a hundred years ago. " She glanced at Ranma's turned back. "Although the woman didn't show the same level of expertise in the Neko-ken as son-in-law here, defeating her in battle would have been exceedingly difficult."

"Is that why you gave up the Phoenix pill so easily?" Akane asked.

Cologne chuckled dryly. "Girl, part of being a warrior is knowing how to pick your battles carefully... something you youngsters have yet to learn."

"Oh...."

The old woman shook her head, "I probably know as much about the Neko-ken as anyone living, but I've never heard of anything like this cat-shaped battle aura before. And this disruption of chi in the boys' bodies... there ARE ways of doing such things. Those techniques are among the darkest of martial arts techniques because of their deadliness. It says a great deal about Tofu's skill that he managed to keep both Kuno and Ryoga alive."

Ranma spun around. In a harsh voice, he said, "Maybe YOU know something about those techniques, but I certainly DON'T!"

Cologne said, "Calm down, boy. Panicking won't do you any good. Obviously, we must find out exactly what's going on. Ignorance can easily have serious, perhaps fatal, consequences. First things first. After I take a look at you, I'll speak to Tofu. I also need to examine Ryoga and Kuno so I can get a better understanding of what's occurred. Now, is there anything else I should know?"

"Yeah," Ranma muttered. He glanced at Akane who picked up the basin of water and dumped it over his head.

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Shampoo gaped in shock as she stared at Ranma-chan's new, more mature form. Even Cologne looked visibly startled. After a long moment, Shampoo cautiously approached, avoiding the puddles of cold water on the floor. She stared into Ranma-chan's face and poked at the young woman's breasts as if trying to confirm that Ranma had actually changed into a female form.

In a resigned voice, Ranma-chan said, "Shampoo, what the hell are you doing?"

"What happen to red hair!? You no girl anymore. You young woman!" the Amazon girl said in amazement.

Ranma-chan shrugged. "If I knew that.... It just... happened."

The Amazon Elder frowned. "Jusenkyo curses don't just 'change' unless... it's possible IF you've been doused with more Jusenkyo water."

Both Akane and Ranma-chan mutely shook their heads. Akane said, "We only found out about this... change... when Happosai splashed Ranma with a vase of water. But I don't think Happosai's responsible. He looked just as surprised as any of us! And it couldn't be the water in the vase because Kasumi said that she had changed that water just before dinner."

"Hmmm. As you well know, it takes extremely potent magic to affect Jusenkyo curses. And magic like that rarely happens by random chance."

(Especially something like this. There's something too precise... too deliberate... about the shift. Why do I get a feeling that this is no accident?)

Ranma-chan muttered, "I'm just glad I can still change back into a guy!"

"Ah, so that part of the curse has not changed. Shampoo?"

A quick splash of hot water and Ranma was soon back in his normal male form.

Cologne hopped back onto her stick and slowly circled Ranma, watching him closely. Next, she reached out and put a wrinkled hand on certain points of his body. Finally, she moved back and shook her head.

(Strange. I can't detect anything unnatural or wrong about Ranma's aura. There IS a change, but it's definitely not damage. His chi seems to have gotten stronger, more... vibrant.)

Aloud, the Elder murmured, "Well, this is a pretty problem. I have no convenient answers for you, son-in-law, but perhaps I will be able come up with something. As for you, you must take care not to use the Neko-ken again and avoid contact with cats."

"That's easy for you to say...," he muttered.

Cologne continued, "What occurred yesterday may be a singular event, brought on by an unique combination of circumstances. Then again, perhaps not."

Shampoo took a deep breath and said in a firm, even voice. "Great grandmother, I need to discuss something with you. In private."

"This better be important, Shampoo."

"It's very important, honored Elder."

Cologne nodded curtly, then turned back to Ranma and Akane. "I have some private matters to discuss with Shampoo. If you would excuse us?"

Ranma and Akane exchanged glances, then he shrugged. "Sure."

"Then before you go on your way, perhaps you could do me a favor and bring Mousse back to the Neko-hanten."

"No problem. Where is he?" said Ranma.

"On the roof of the grocery store near the park. Mousse is a bit tied up."

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Part 6#:
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After Ranma and Akane departed on their errand, Cologne scowled at her great granddaughter. Shampoo looked like a warrior facing certain death.

"Well? Hurry up, girl. This problem with your husband-to-be requires my immediate attention."

"That's just it, honored great grandmother." Shampoo took a few deep breathes, then said in a rush, "I no longer have any intention of marrying Ranma."

Cologne's eyes narrowed ominously. "Say what, Shampoo? Did I hear you correctly?"

"Yes."

"Don't be an idiot, girl! I don't know what put this fool notion in your head but do you have any idea of the consequences of making that statement?"

"Yes, I know," came Shampoo's flat reply.

"Does this have something to do with what happened to the boy yesterday?"

The Amazon girl nodded curtly.

"Don't tell me you're afraid of him! Or has living in this land of weaklings made you a coward, Shampoo? If we can control this new ability of his... if others can learn it.... Don't you realize how valuable Ranma and his bloodline could be? Think of what he could do for our village!"

Cologne thought angrily, (The fool girl's going to ruin my plan to get rid of Dan Xin once and for all! If Shampoo forswears her rights to wed Ranma, he can't be considered a member of the tribe. Dan Xin's attack on him won't qualify as a crime under Amazon law.)

Shampoo turned pale with suppressed emotion and a familiar expression of stubbornness appeared on her face. "I'm more concerned with what Ranma might do TO our village!" She stamped her foot angrily. "Don't you see, great grandmother? Ranma's made his decision. He wants Akane and he'll do ANYTHING it takes to keep her! Nothing that you or I can do will ever change his mind!"

As the old woman continued to stare sternly at Shampoo, she wondered, (Such determination in the girl's voice. But why?)

Seeing Cologne apparently unmoved by her words, Shampoo thought despairingly, (She doesn't understand. She wasn't THERE. She didn't see the expression in his eyes....)

"Great granddaughter, do you realize that you're deliberately flouting centuries of Amazon custom and law? Are you willing to face permanent exile -- possibly death! -- in order to stand by this foolish whim of yours?"

Shampoo forced herself to meet Cologne's stern gaze. "It's no whim. And as for the consequences... I'll deal with them as they come."

Cologne sighed wearily. "Why, Shampoo? Explain this to me. Give me a reason -- just one good reason -- that I can put before the Council of Elders to excuse this outrageous breach of custom."

Shampoo closed her eyes briefly before saying, "The reason that I gave you is the only reason I have. That and a feeling...."

"A feeling!?"

The Amazon girl rubbed her arms as if fighting off a chill. "Yes. It's a feeling of... foreboding. If something or someone tries to interfere between Ranma and Akane...." She shifted uncomfortably. "That's all."

Cologne gazed thoughtfully at her great granddaughter before saying, "Very well. If you are willing to accept the consequences, then I am not going to force the issue. But the consequences start now. Take your things and leave this place."

Shampoo gasped but said nothing.

"You have chosen to cast aside Amazon custom and Amazon law. Thus, you have no claim to the protection and hospitality of any member of the tribe."

Shampoo lowered her head. Her shoulders sagged and her chin quivered as she bit her lip. For a moment, Cologne hoped the girl would give up her defiance. However, the Elder couldn't help but feel a bittersweet surge of pride at Shampoo's determination as she watched the girl clench her teeth and lift her head proudly.

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Moving quickly among the rooftops of Nerima, it took Ranma and Akane only a few minutes to reach the grocery story. Looking around, she said, "Well, this is the place. But I don't see Mousse anywhere."

Ranma cocked his head slightly as he listened intently.

"Ranma...."

"I heard something. From over there."

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As Cologne had said, Mousse was all tied up. Literally.

That morning, he had left the Neko-hanten with no particular destination or purpose in mind. Perhaps there was a half-formed idea of finding Dan Xin... or perhaps not. Unfortunately, he had encountered Cologne first. With no warning, the old ghoul had him transformed into duck-form and bound in the blink of an eye. He had spent the last several hours stuck on a hot rooftop, completely immobilized and unable to utter so much as a squawk.

Suddenly, he heard someone jump onto the roof. He wiggled frantically, hoping that somebody would find and untie him.

Akane's voice said, "Where? Are you sure?"

To his shock, Mousse heard Ranma answer Akane's question.

"He's right here."

(Ranma!?) Mousse remembered all too clearly the last time he had seen Ranma Saotome. It had been an unforgettable sight and one that would haunt his nightmares for days to come.

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"Good grief!" muttered Akane. All she could see was a duck-sized bundle of clothes tightly wound with chains. A few white tail feathers protruded from one end of the bundle.

Ranma pulled some of the chains loose and freed Muu-Muu's head.

"You okay?"

The duck could only stare at Ranma with an air of total bewilderment, his beak hanging open.

(He's acting... normal!)

Considering that he had last seen his rival -- no, make that former rival -- running around on all fours, covered in blood and snarling like some sort of rabid beast, the sight and sound of a perfectly coherent and rational Ranma was more than a little shocking.

"Aren't you going take the rest of that stuff off of him?" asked Akane.

"Nope." Ranma tucked the still bundled-up Muu-Muu under one arm. "Not until we get back to the restaurant. Maybe Shampoo or Cologne can pound some sense into him before he does something really stupid."

The duck let out an indignant squawk and barely managed to restrain himself from nipping.

Ranma muttered, "Sorry, man. Shampoo's been frantic. She's been kinda worried about you."

(Really!?)

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They returned to the Neko-hanten just in time to see a despondent Shampoo stepping out of her bedroom with a suitcase in hand. Dumping Muu-Muu on a table, Ranma worriedly said, "What's wrong?"

Cologne said sternly, "Shampoo is just leaving."

"Leaving!"

(Leaving!) Muu-Muu silently echoed.

"Yes. She has informed me of her decision to forego her right -- and duty -- to marry you. Since she has chosen to flout Amazon law, she has no place here."

Akane glared at Cologne and muttered something about crazy Amazon traditions. But as she watched a subdued Shampoo preparing to leave, Akane silently wondered, (So where is she going now? Does she have anywhere else to go?)

The same question was apparently bothering Ranma. He quietly said, "Shampoo, do you have some place to stay?"

The Amazon girl shrugged. "Not yet, but Shampoo find place soon."

Ranma seemed to find Shampoo's answer rather troubling. He flicked a quick glance at Akane, but said nothing.

The youngest Tendo daughter found herself feeling sorry for the other girl. (Come on. There's got to be some place where she could stay....) However, she couldn't think of a location right off the top of her head, except for the obvious one... the Tendo dojo.

(But... but what if all of this is just a plot to get Shampoo closer to Ranma?) Akane bit her lip uncertainly. (On the other hand, Nabiki seems to think that Shampoo really is giving up on Ranma. And I don't see any reason for Nabiki to lie about something like that. And Shampoo hasn't tried to glomp him or anything like that....)

(Damn it. I hope I'm not making a big mistake here,) thought Akane. She took a deep breath, then said, "Then why don't you stay with us... for a little while, at least?"

The Amazon looked startled by the offer. "But... Shampoo turn into cat...."

Akane said, "Oh... right. I suppose you could stay at Ukyo's place...." Her voice faltered as Shampoo winced visibly.

(Darn. I totally forgot. Nabiki said that Shampoo and Ukyo had a nasty confrontation yesterday.)

"In that case, you don't have much of a choice except to stay with us. Unless Ranma...." Akane glanced over in his direction.

He shrugged neutrally and said, "I don't have a problem with Shampoo staying. I guess we'll just have to be careful. Besides, Akane's right. You need a place to stay, at least for a few days until you come up with something better."

"Thanks," murmured Shampoo. She didn't look back at her great grandmother as she and Akane left the Neko-hanten.

As the two girls waited outside the restaurant for Ranma, Akane leaned over to Shampoo and said sharply, "Listen, Shampoo. I'm sorry that Cologne threw you out and I don't mind offering you a place to stay, but if this is some sort of kooky scheme to snuggle up to Ranma, I'll...."

The Amazon replied, "Word of honor, Akane." With exquisite care, she said very carefully in grammatically correct Japanese, "I will not try to cause any more trouble between you and Ranma. He has made his choice. I accept that choice. I will not interfere."

"Shampoo... I...," stuttered Akane, taken aback by the almost grim determination in Shampoo's face. "If you're talking about what happened yesterday morning.... That wasn't...." In somewhat disbelieving tones, she added, "You're serious."

"Deadly serious."

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

Just as Ranma was about to follow the two girls out the door, Cologne quietly said, "I also thank you."

"Huh?"

"It's good to know that Shampoo won't be alone." She gave him a somber look. "Dan Xin is still out there."

"I know. But I should tell you that Dan Xin really has it in for me now. She apparently thinks I humiliated her in public or something. If Shampoo sticks around me, she's liable to become a target."

"Perhaps, but Shampoo and Dan Xin already hate each other deeply. Staying with you and the Tendos would not put Shampoo in any greater danger than if she stayed here with me. She may even be in less danger, considering the past history between myself and Dan Xin."

Ranma frowned and said accusingly, "You know Dan Xin's hanging around with her goons, but you went ahead and threw Shampoo out into the street anyway, didn't you?"

"Custom is a hard and demanding mistress," Cologne calmly stated.

His eyes narrowed. "It's a test, isn't it? This whole damn thing is a test for Shampoo. You're trying to figure out just how determined she is. You want to see just how far she's willing to go with her decision. Don't you realize she could get seriously hurt or maybe even die!?"

Cologne's voice was harsh and unyielding. "Even though she claims to be willing to deal with the consequences, Shampoo is still young and inexperienced. I want to make certain that she knows the cost of defying our traditions while there was still time for her to change her mind. Depending on how the Council views her decision, death could easily be one of those consequences."

"You knew Akane would offer her a place to stay."

"I wasn't certain, but it was very likely. Akane can be a fool at times and she lacks self-control, but the girl also has a generous nature. However, while having Shampoo stay at the dojo has its advantages, it's also not without its hazards. Her Jusenkyo curse...."

He nodded grimly. "It's a problem, but I'm willing to take the risk. This may be a part of some complicated scheme of yours, but it doesn't matter. Like you said, Dan Xin's still out there and I don't want Shampoo getting hurt. After what happened yesterday, I'm sure Shampoo won't be doing something stupid like chasing me around in her cat-form. And if worst comes to worst... Akane's there."

"Very well. I'll get in touch as soon as I find any useful information. One last thing."

"Yeah?"

"Shampoo claims that you've made your decision. Is that true?"

There was a long silence, then the young man gave the Amazon Elder a polite bow of the head before leaving her alone with Muu-Muu. To Cologne, Ranma's silence was more eloquent than any grand declaration of love.

"Hmph. Perhaps the girl's not such a fool after all."

At first, she had been inclined to dismiss Shampoo's decision as a mere over-reaction to Ranma's feral behavior of the day before. Now she wasn't so certain. It occurred to the Elder that Shampoo might have had a perfectly legitimate reason for her actions, even though the girl's explanation left much to be desired.

It had been one of the great disappointments in Cologne's life that practically none of her descendants had inherited her more arcane gifts, but the old woman thought, (I wonder... is it possible that the incident with Kuno and Ryoga has awakened some power in Shampoo? It's not unheard of.)

(Power calls to power. If Shampoo sensed something, then her decision to give up on Ranma might be excusable....)

There was definitely something going on with that young man aside from the incredibly quick physical recovery, the increased aggressiveness of his cat-state, and the new aspects of the Neko-ken. Ranma's agility and dexterity had always been exceptional, but now there was a languid, almost feline grace in his movements. Also, he had always had a very well-developed sense of his surroundings, but now this 'situational awareness' seemed significantly more acute than before.

(The way he seems to notice everything around him.... How on earth could he be certain that Akane wasn't poisoned by Dan Xin's blade? Can it be that he's somehow retained some of the Neko-ken's abilities even after he awakened from his cat-state? If that's the case, he'd make a truly formidable opponent.)

And there was another thing that caught Cologne's attention. (How very interesting that he figured out my intention to test Shampoo so quickly. Ranma's no fool, but his abilities have always been more in the realm of combat tactics, not intrigue. That's always been Nabiki's strength, not his.)

"What a puzzle you've become, boy."

With a faint sigh, Cologne turned to deal with Muu-Muu. A quick snap of her wrist and the duck rolled free of the chains and clothes. He shook his feathers into order, then glared furiously at the old woman.

SQUAWK!

Cologne calmly smacked Muu-Muu on the head with her stick before heading off for some hot water.

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

Back in human form, the first thing out of Mousse's mouth was, "How could you cast Shampoo out like that, especially with the bitch Dan Xin lurking around!"

"Shut up, boy. You know the laws as well as I do. And I know you're not deaf. You heard what I told Ranma."

"But...."

"And you should remember that you have no lawful basis for a vendetta against Dan Xin. She defeated your mother in fair trial-by-combat. Challenge Dan Xin to mortal combat if you like, but you do so strictly as one martial artist against another martial artist."

Mousse scowled and adjusted his glasses. As he turned in the general direction of the Neko-hanten's front door, Cologne whacked him again with her stick.

"If you're headed for the Tendo dojo, you're more fool than I thought... which is saying a good deal. After what happened yesterday, Ranma's bound to view your presence at his home most unfavorably."

"You... you know what happened yesterday!?"

"The events involving Kuno and Ryoga? Yes, indeed."

"And you're letting Shampoo stay there with that lunatic!?"

Cologne cackled softly. "Oh, I'm beginning to suspect that the Tendo dojo is probably the safest possible place for Shampoo to be."

**********************************************************************
Part 6#:
**********************************************************************

Two young women in Nerima were nursing assorted bruises and making plans while another woman was working to keep her schemes moving....

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

Dan Xin gritted her teeth in pain as she gingerly probed her ribs.

"Damn that Saotome!"

Things had not gone well for the ex-Amazon. For one thing, Ranma Saotome had turned out to be a much better martial artist than she had anticipated... so good that three of her best fighters couldn't even touch him.

She could almost hear her subordinates snickering at her for being caught so easily off-guard by Ranma's sudden attack. It only made her loathe the young man even more.

(Oh, he'll pay... and pay dearly!)

Her phone buzzed loudly. She flipped it open and snarled, "What!?"

Her employer murmured, "My, aren't we testy today? I just wanted to tell you that I've finally managed to track down the most likely location of the Shadow Scroll."

"Where is it?" Dan Xin sat up abruptly, ignoring the grinding pain in her ribs.

"The information I gathered indicates that the Scroll's hidden inside an old training manual... something to do with a martial arts technique called the 'Cat-fist'. The book used to belong to a shrine at the very northern tip of Honshu, but it apparently disappeared after Genma Saotome visited the shrine with his son."

"Ah ha!"

"The elder Saotome has a reputation for 'borrowing' things that don't belong to him. It's most likely he's the thief."

"Saotome, hm? And he's now living at the Tendo dojo...."

"Exactly." Her employer's voice became somewhat uneasy. "You do remember my warning about Akane Tendo, right?"

Dan Xin snarled silently even as she spoke in a very soothing voice. "Oh, absolutely." But even as she spoke, the former Amazon pressed her fingers hard into her side. The pain was excruciating, but she wanted it that way. Every bit of her suffering was Saotome's fault. She would return that pain a hundred times over.

Dan Xin smiled evilly. She purred, "Don't worry about it. I'll have the Shadow Scroll in no time."

"Well, that's why I'm paying you this absurd amount of money. I expect results."

The former Amazon chuckled. She said, "Just leave the details to me. You won't be disappointed," then hung up.

On the other side of town, Yonoko put her phone away. A malevolent smile appeared on her lips as she murmured, "Oh, I'm counting on it."

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

Kodachi staggered out of bed and muttered, "Damn that little tramp! I'll teach her to interfere with me, the Black Rose!" As she tried to rub the pain out of her neck, she shouted, "Sasuke!"

With a blur, the little ninja appeared. "Yes, Mistress Kodachi?"

"Get the car. I'm going to Mt. Iwate."

Sasuke gaped at Kodachi. "Excuse me?"

She glared at him and snarled, "You heard me! And get in touch with this horticulturist and tell this person I want to see them immediately!" Kodachi flung a piece of paper in the little ninja's face.

"Hurry up! I want to leave within the hour."

"Y-yes, mistress."

As she packed some clothes -- just in case -- Kodachi started to smile as she imagined Ranma's reaction to the pure, concentrated essence of fresh Umbra roses.

Bloodcurdling laughter was soon echoing through the hallways of the Kuno mansion.

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

"I quit! I can't deal with this anymore!"

"Please, I'll double your pay, triple it!"

"Ugh! Do you know what it's like having that old lech around?"

"Five times your original fee. And I'll throw in a bonus. Consider it combat pay."

"Well... All right. But just how much longer do we have to put up with him?"

"Less than 24 hours."

There was a pained sigh from the other end of the phone line. "Five times, huh? Oh, all right."

Yonoko hung up the phone. Unlike the case with Dan Xin, she didn't begrudge those models the extra money. Not one bit. They deserved it for putting up with Happosai for so long.

**********************************************************************
Part 6#:
**********************************************************************

Back in the Tendo house, Nabiki entered the kitchen to find Kasumi happily humming as she prepared dinner. Suddenly, Nabiki noticed a white towel on the countertop moving all on its own. As she stepped closer to get a better look, a small black cat peeked out from underneath the towel. It blinked big, smoky-blue eyes at her and meowed cheerfully.

"Kasumi! What are you doing with a cat in the house!?"

"The poor thing fell into the koi pond."

"Oh great. You KNOW how Ranma's going to react if he sees this little furball."

"But I couldn't just leave him in the water, Nabiki. The koi were so unhappy. They were harassing him."

"Is that ALL you can worry about? A kitty-cat getting molested by some fish? Kasumi...." Nabiki buried her face in her hands.

"And the poor thing was cold and wet...," Kasumi continued.

Her sister rolled her eyes and thought, (Why do I even bother?)

Nabiki snatched the cat up by the scruff of its neck and headed for the kitchen door. Instead of complaining about the rough treatment, it purred loudly. Normally, Nabiki Tendo was not very susceptible to cuteness, but this time, she somehow couldn't quite bring herself to throw the little beast out of the house... at least, not right away.

"Oh, all right, Kasumi! You win. Just make sure you get the furball out of here before Ranma comes back, okay?"

The little feline made a little chirping noise and gnawed playfully on Nabiki's hand.

**********************************************************************
Part 6#:
**********************************************************************

A worried trio returned to the Tendo compound late that afternoon.

Shampoo was saddened by her banishment from the Neko-hanten. It wasn't an unexpected decision on Cologne's part, but it had still been a shock when it actually happened. Perhaps she'd been foolishly hoping for some miracle to save her from the trouble of actually defying her great grandmother. The only good thing was that Cologne had not seemed all that angry. Instead, the Amazon Elder had looked resigned, thoughtful... and tired.

As for Akane, she kept thinking about Ranma's fight with Dan Xin and her goons. The battle had been normal enough at first, with Ranma effortlessly dodging the women's attacks. But as soon as the renegade Amazon had pulled out her sword, everything had changed. Ranma's response had been instant and devastating.

(I've never seen him move so fast before! One second, he's over thirty or forty feet away. The next instant, he's right next to me and BEHIND Dan Xin. He didn't go for the sword... he actually kicked her in the ribs! And he wasn't holding back... I HEARD her ribs snap. If Cologne hadn't been around... if Dan Xin hadn't run away... who knows how much further he would've gone....)

Right off the top of her head, Akane couldn't remember a time where Ranma had deliberately struck a woman in combat with a serious intent to injure... a normal human woman, that is.

(Rouge doesn't count. She's some weird three-headed demon half the time....)

Akane wasn't sure what bothered her the most -- the fact that Ranma had actually struck Dan Xin or the fact that he didn't seem to care that he had really tried to hurt the ex-Amazon.

(It's like his behavior from yesterday morning is somehow carrying over, even though he's no longer in his cat-mode. That's never happened before.)

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

Akane was wrong in assuming that Ranma was not bothered by his attack on Dan Xin. He was worried all right... worried because he didn't feel more upset.

/ Why be upset? /

/ Dan Xin hurt Akane. /

/ I stopped her. /

/ It's as simple as that.... /

....and he still couldn't quite shake the odd, tantalizing sense of freedom that lingered at the edges of his mind.

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

They made their way to the kitchen where Kasumi was busy cooking dinner. Wiping her hands on a towel, the eldest Tendo daughter murmured, "You're back. How are your parents doing, Ranma?"

He shrugged, "They're okay. Dr. Tofu says that Pop should be able to leave the hospital in a day or two. Mom probably needs to stay a little while longer until her lungs get a bit stronger. The last thing she needs is to catch a cold or pneumonia on top of all that smoke inhalation."

"Oh dear."

Akane said, "Kasumi, Shampoo's going to be staying with us for a little while."

Kasumi didn't bother to ask the reason why, but simply skipped to more practical matters. "How nice. But where will you sleep? Happosai's gone at the moment, but I really don't think you should use that room...."

"Uh, maybe Shampoo sleep in dojo?" the Amazon suggested tentatively.

"I don't mind sharing my bedroom, Shampoo. That is, if you don't mind sleeping on the floor," Akane said.

"Shampoo not want to impose...," she said in a subdued voice.

Before Akane could argue further, Kasumi said, "Ranma, could you take one of the spare futons out to the dojo?"

"Sure thing."

After he left the kitchen, Akane said in a worried voice, "Are you're feeling okay, Shampoo?"

"Shampoo is a little upset, but it okay. Shampoo deal with it." She shrugged, but it was clear that she was feeling very depressed.

"I was going to take a bath, but if you need talk...."

The Amazon girl smiled faintly. "Is good idea to talk, but no big hurry. Shampoo wait after Akane's bath."

"Okay, see you later."

As Akane headed off to the bathroom, Nabiki wandered into the kitchen and said, "What's up?"

Kasumi smiled pleasantly and said, "Isn't it nice? Shampoo's going to staying with us for the next several days."

Observing the unhappy look on the Amazon girl's face, Nabiki refrained from her usual comments about freeloaders. "So what happened, Shampoo?"

The girl sighed wearily. "Shampoo tell great grandmother that Shampoo no longer want to marry Ranma. Great grandmother throw Shampoo out of Neko-hanten."

"Hmmm." Nabiki started, then glanced around quickly. "Is Ranma back, too?"

Kasumi has gone back to washing vegetables in the sink. "Yes. He's moving a futon out to the dojo for Shampoo."

"Uh, Kasumi, you DID remember to get rid of that cat, right?"

"Of course, Nabiki. I put the poor thing out into the street and closed the gate."

Shampoo cocked her head slightly. "Cat?"

"Yeah. Kasumi rescued this little cat from the koi pond. Cute little furball, but after what happened yesterday, I didn't want Ranma to come home and...."

"Aiyah! Bad thing if Ranma see cat so soon after Neko-ken!"

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

After dumping the futon and some sheets in a corner of the dojo, Ranma walked outside and sat down on the dojo's steps.

(That crazy Dan Xin. That look in her eyes. She's not finished by a long shot. I wonder what she'll do next.)

He shook his head. (And what up with Shampoo? What made her change her mind about trying to marry me so suddenly? I can't figure it out. It's sort of nice that I don't have to worry about her glomping me all the time and getting Akane mad, but I just don't get it. What could have possibly made her flat-out defy Cologne, of all people, and chuck aside all those centuries of that wacky Amazon tradition? I mean, it's good for me and Akane, but I hope she doesn't get into serious trouble over this. It's bad enough having to worry about this Dan Xin character. Cologne said something about death. Does that mean that the Amazons are going to come gunning for Shampoo?)

He got up and dusted his pants. (Maybe I should just ask her. I should probably also ask her a few more questions about Dan Xin. I'm sure she has a better idea what her cousin's capable of.)

Ranma had only taken a step or two toward the dojo's door when he abruptly froze. His skin crawled as he heard a familiar evil chuckle behind him.

(Oh man, not him. Not now. I can't deal with this....)

He slowly turned around to see the slim male figure standing in the Tendos' yard. "Oh hell. Not you again."

Tarou gave him a malicious grin. "What's the problem, fem-boy? You don't look happy to see me."

"I'm not. Damn it, just go away and leave me alone!"

Tarou snorted. "You're going to have to try a lot harder than that."

Ranma muttered, "What the hell do you want, Pantyhose?"

The young man with the unfortunate name smiled dangerously. One could almost see him putting a mark on some mental scoreboard. "I'm looking for Happosai, of course."

Ranma shrugged, "The last time I saw him, he was headed for downtown Tokyo by air express. So why don't you follow his example and buzz off!"

Tarou folded his arms and smirked. "Why should I waste my time chasing him all over town? He always comes back here. I think I'll just settle down and wait for him to return."

"Like hell you will!" Ranma stalked down the steps toward the most infuriating of his rivals. Stopping a few steps away, he snarled, "Listen. I've had a REALLY lousy day so far! I've found out that my parents were nearly killed in a house fire, I've had Kodachi Kuno pawing all over me, Akane and I have been attacked by the goons of some crazy ex-Amazon, and I won't even begin to describe what happened to me YESTERDAY! And now YOU show up. Why is it that every time I see you, I end up getting the crap beat out of me...!"

Tarou shrugged. "Like that's my fault?"

"Of course it's your fault! You're always coming up with some kooky scheme to force Happosai to change your stupid name. And if it's not that, you're always managing to get me tangled up in fights with YOUR enemies! I've got enough problems of my own! I don't need to deal with yours as well!"

"Heh. I have a very simple solution to most of your problems. The next time someone challenges you, give up."

"Like hell I will!"

With a contemptuous stare, Tarou said, "You can't have it both ways, fem-boy. You want the reputation, you're going to have to fight to keep it... if you can. So don't whine to me about having too much trouble in your life."

The longer Tarou stood there in the Tendos' yard, the more irritated Ranma felt. This was his home. Tarou didn't belong here.

"Fine. A lot of my trouble is my own fault. But that doesn't mean I should have to deal with YOUR shit as well. Why can't you get it through your head? That old pervert is never, NEVER going to change your name. Just give it up and leave us out of it!"

Tarou smiled nastily. "Fine. Just hand over the little bastard and I'll be glad to leave you alone... for now."

"Have you been listening to a DAMN thing I've said, Pantyhose? He's NOT here! So quit bugging me! You better leave me alone or you're going to get HURT!"

Tarou looked totally unimpressed. "Oh, is that supposed to scare me, fem-boy?"

Ranma felt his hands curling slightly as he came steadily closer to losing his temper. He whispered ominously, "It should. It really should."

Tarou cocked his head slightly. "Hmm. Pretty good try. A nicely understated tone of menace and all that. So... what is a crossdressing idiot like you trying to hide?"

"You JERK! I'm not trying to hide anythin....!" Ranma's voice abruptly trailed off as he went totally rigid.

Tarou raised an eyebrow as he watched the color drain from Ranma's face and his eyes widen in horror. Unsure whether Ranma's fear was genuine or just some sort of bizarre sneak trick, Tarou quickly glanced around. Nothing.

Meow

With growing fascination, Tarou watched Ranma look down at his feet... ever so slowly. Following his gaze, all he saw was a small, fuzzy black cat enthusiastically rubbing itself against Ranma's bare ankles.

"GYAAHHHHH!!!!"

Ranma's terrified scream made Tarou reflexively take up a defensive stance. The pig-tailed young man leapt away from the feline and cowered against the dojo wall, shaking like a leaf.

Meow?

The little feline gazed curiously at Ranma with its big blue eyes, then took a step in his direction.

"N-n-noooo!!!"

"What the....?" Tarou reached down and picked up the small black cat by the scruff of the neck. The cat objected strenuously to this treatment, hissing and snarling ferociously.

"T-t-t-take it away!"

Tarou snickered as he ignored the cat's frantic struggles. "Don't tell me you're afraid of this little fuzzball? Oh, this is TRULY pathetic." He held up the cat and took a step in Ranma's direction. The terrified martial artist flattened himself even more against the dojo wall as he watched the howling, flailing cat coming ever closer.

"S-s-s-stop it!!!"

Tarou tossed his head back and really started to laugh.

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

"GYAAHHHHH!!!!"

The women in the kitchen all stiffened as they hear the masculine scream of terror through the open window. Nabiki muttered, "What the hell...?" She flung open the kitchen door and ran out, followed closely by Shampoo. The sight that met their eyes chilled their blood.

....Ranma cowering against the dojo wall....

....Tarou advancing with cat in hand, laughing....

"Shampoo! Get Akane! NOW!!!" Nabiki shouted.

"Right!" The Amazon bolted back into the house and raced to the bathroom.

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

Akane had been half asleep in the tub when something woke her out of her doze. It sounded like a muffled shout from outside... or was it just her imagination? She was just about to stand up when Shampoo burst into the inner bathroom.

Akane sputtered, "Shampoo! What do you think....?"

Shampoo grabbed Akane's arms and hauled her out of the tub. Thrusting a bathrobe at Akane with one hand, she grabbed Akane's wrist in the other and started to drag her toward the hallway.

"Come NOW!"

"What's....?"

The Amazon looked totally frantic. "Tarou here! He scaring Ranma with cat!!!"

Akane gaped, then babbled, "Tarou's here! A cat!? Oh no...!"

"YES! Akane come NOW!"

Akane dashed into the hallway, only half dressed in the bathrobe. Glancing around frantically, she shrieked, "Where are they!? Shampoo! Where!?"

"This way!" Shampoo shoved Akane in the direction of the dojo.

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

Ranma's first instinct upon seeing the cat was to run as far and as fast as possible, but then he heard Tarou's mocking laughter... laughter which triggered a cascade of fury through his body. It wasn't a blind berserker's rage, but rather a cold, calculating fury that burned in the very depths of his soul.

He knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted to feel Tarou's bones snapping between his teeth... he wanted to sink his claws into raw flesh... he wanted to feel his rival's hot blood trickling down his throat....

Torn between the desperate urge to flee and the overwhelming desire to rip his despised rival apart, Ranma collapsed onto the floor, clutching at his head and trembling.

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

"Tarou, stop it! Leave him alone!"

He turned at Nabiki's anxious shout. "And why should I do that?" he said in a bored, disinterested voice.

"Damn it! You have no idea what you're doing to him!" Nabiki quickly stepped between Tarou and the whimpering heap that was Ranma.

"And what exactly is that, Nabiki?"

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

A part of Ranma idly wondered if minotaurs had their own flavor. Or would they taste just like beef? Would Tarou's tentacles taste like the rest of him or would they really taste like octopus? Perhaps the wings would have the favor of chicken....

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

Nabiki whirled around as soon as Ranma started to make gagging noises.

(What the hell's going on? This is a hell of a lot worse than his usual panic attack. Where are you, Akane!?)

The back door burst open as Akane -- dressed only in a half-open bathrobe -- and Shampoo ran out into the yard. Akane headed straight for Ranma while the Amazon rushed over to stand beside Nabiki, forming a living wall between Tarou and Ranma.

"Ranma? Ranma!?" Akane cried frantically. Getting no response, she gave Tarou a furious stare, then grabbed her fiance's shoulders and started to drag him to the dojo door.

Although he acted as coolly as usual, Tarou was rather startled by the sheer intensity of Ranma's reaction and the girls' frantic response. He automatically hid his surprise by making a taunting comment.

"So where's your backbone, fem-boy? Now you need GIRLS to save your butt from the nasty old pussycat?"

To her horror, Akane sensed Ranma stiffen and start to pull away from her grasp. Even worse, she felt -- rather than heard -- him growl.

"SHAMPOO!!! GET OVER HERE!!!" shrieked Akane.

The Amazon whirled, ran over to Ranma, and grabbed a hold of his feet. With Shampoo's help, Akane quickly carted Ranma into the dojo like an oversized piece of baggage. The door slammed shut behind them.

As Tarou watched the entire scene with an air of bemusement, Nabiki took the opportunity to snatch the cat out of his grasp. As soon as the little feline was in Nabiki's hands, it immediately stopped struggling. The cat curled up in her arms where it panted and trembled. Stroking the cat, Nabiki coldly watched Tarou.

With an air of nonchalance, Tarou said, "Well, no wonder fem-boy isn't interested in marrying the cat-girl."

"Don't even try it."

Tarou smirked slightly. "Don't try what?"

"Don't even THINK of trying to take advantage of Ranma's cat phobia."

"Why not?" He folded his arms and gave Nabiki an insolent stare.

"Because the consequences can be serious... deadly serious. I mean it."

"So what happens?"

As she absently rubbed the black cat's ears, Nabiki said, "Considering that you're one of Ranma's worst enemies, surely you don't expect me to babble about his weak points."

Tarou sighed. "How much, Nabiki?"

Her eyes narrowed ominously as the little feline in her arms flattened its ears and hissed at Tarou. "What do you mean by that?"

"Come on, Nabiki Tendo. How much are you charging for this little secret?"

"You can't afford my price," she replied in a steely voice.

He shrugged. "Fine, but you can hardly expect me to ignore such an obvious tactical advantage without good reason. And if you won't tell me, then I guess that I'll just have to find out for myself."

"Tarou, I'm warning you...."

With an irritated glance, he drawled, "Warning me of what?"

"The situation here has changed... drastically." She heaved a weary sigh. "Listen, yesterday Ranma came damn close to killing Ryoga and Kuno."

Tarou raised an eyebrow. "What happened? Did pig-boy finally manage to really piss the crossdresser off? That's no big surprise. It was inevitable. But thanks for the warning."

"Tarou! Listen to me. You try a stunt like this again and you could end up DEAD... and I am NOT exaggerating!" The little black cat butted its head against Nabiki's chin and uttered soft, cooing noises, as if trying to comfort her.

He gazed thoughtfully at Nabiki's grim expression. Usually, the middle Tendo daughter enjoyed playing mind games. But this time, he had an uncomfortable feeling that she wasn't dropping provocative hints for the sheer fun of it. She seemed very serious indeed.

(Perhaps she's not exaggerating or lying. This thing with Ranma that she keeps hinting about... it could explain why Happosai didn't go after that mysterious document himself. Why that sneak old bastard!)

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As soon as they entered the dojo, the two girls dumped Ranma on the floor. Shampoo quickly closed the doors while Akane grabbed Ranma's face and forced him to look at her. Gazing into his blank, blue-gray eyes, she could see both fear and a frightening amount of hostility. He hadn't slipped into his cat persona yet, but it was close... very, very close.

"Ranma! Please, look at me!"

He reached up and his hands tightened around hers as she held his head. Akane could tell that he was aware of her, but that wasn't enough. He wasn't calming down. Every so often, Ranma would try to turn his head or pull away, but she refused to let go of him. At the moment, there was only one place he would be interested in going... only one person he would be interested in going AFTER....

(I don't know if Tarou's capable of handling Ranma's regular Neko-ken... but I really doubt that even Tarou's monster form is capable of surviving the same sort of attacks that Ranma used yesterday against Ryoga and Kuno.)

"Shampoo?" she said softly.

The Amazon girl had kept her distance from Ranma and Akane. She didn't want to do anything which might set Ranma off or distract Akane from her efforts to reach him.

"Yes?" Shampoo whispered back.

"Get me some cold water."

"Akane, you sure?"

"He knows me, but... I'm still losing him. Maybe changing into his girl-form will be enough to snap him back to normal."

"Shampoo suppose we got no choice." However, she sounded understandably unhappy with the idea.

"Please be careful, okay? If you can't find a closed container, ask Kasumi to bring the water in."

"Right." Shampoo rose to her feet and walked toward the main house and the kitchen. All her movements were slow and steady. It apparently worked because Ranma paid no attention to her departure.

A few minutes later, she returned with a securely lidded kettle. "What you want Shampoo to do?"

Akane tried to ease one hand free, but Ranma refused to let go of her. She took a deep breath and said, "You're going to have to do it, Shampoo."

"Okay. Akane ready?"

The youngest Tendo daughter nodded.

Gingerly holding the open kettle, Shampoo flung the water away from her and all over Akane and Ranma. As the cold water splashed all over the two of them, Akane stared in fascination at her close-up view of Ranma's transformation into his new female form.

She could see the subtle shifting of bone and the smoothing of features that transformed a handsome young man's face into the face of an equally beautiful young woman. But the hair and the eyes... especially the eyes... remained unchanged. Ranma-chan's eyes were now the exact same mutable blue-gray as the male Ranma's eyes. But for the first time, Akane could see hidden depths in those eyes... a complexity that enticed and begged for exploration....

Those beguiling eyes suddenly blinked. Ranma-chan released her grip on Akane's hands and slowly shook her head in confusion.

"What the...?"

"Ranma? Are you all right?" Akane dazedly whispered.

Rubbing her forehead, Ranma-chan muttered, "Yeah. I... I think so." She frowned, then pounded her fist on the wet floor. "Shit!"

"What's... wrong?"

"Tarou!" Ranma-chan's shoulders suddenly sagged. "Oh great! Now he knows all about my fear of cats!"

It took a moment for Akane to shake off her bemusement and for the implications to sink in. She turned pale and muttered, "Oh no...."

"'Oh no' is right. You can bet he's...." Ranma-chan stopped, then said, "Uh... Akane?"

"Yes?"

She stared at Akane and slowly turned beet red. The hastily donned bathrobe gaped open both above and below the loosely tied belt, exposing most of Akane's breasts AND her lower body nearly up to her bellybutton. Hastily turning her back, Ranma-chan muttered, "Don't tell me you were running around in front of Tarou dressed like that!?"

"Dressed like what...?" Akane glanced down and blushed furiously. She quickly tucked her legs together and pulled the robe closed.

(Good grief! I didn't even noticed! I was so upset, if Shampoo hadn't given me the bathrobe...!)

Her face flaming with embarrassment, Akane smacked Ranma-chan on the back of the head... but not too hard.

"What did you do that for?" Ranma-chan complained.

"Why didn't you warn me!?" Akane wasn't really feeling angry. It was more habit than anything else.

"Warn you? I only just noticed!"

"Oh sure...."

"Do you think.... Oh, never mind. That can wait. I think we need to worry about Tarou first," Ranma-chan said quietly. She looked at Akane. "I need to talk to him."

"Ranma, are you sure that's a good idea?"

"I've got to somehow convince him not to try something like this again."

Akane sighed, "All right. But let me go out first and make sure that cat's gone."

Ranma-chan twitched nervously. "Fine. You do that."

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The door to the dojo suddenly slid open. The conversation between Tarou and Nabiki came to a grinding halt as Akane, her bathrobe now modestly closed, stepped out of the dojo.

"Akane, is Ranma...?" asked a worried Nabiki.

"He's okay. But he wants to talk to Tarou." Her eyes noticed the small, fluffy black cat happily curled up in Nabiki's arms. "Oh no. Don't tell me that this little creature caused all the trouble."

"That's right. Tell Ranma to wait until I come back." Nabiki ran into the house. A few minutes later, she reappeared without the cat.

"What did you do with it?"

"Tucked it inside an empty laundry hamper and weighted down the lid. It's not going anywhere."

Akane nodded. "All right, I'll tell Ranma."

During this conversation, Tarou glanced at his fingernails and managed to look utterly bored.

A low female voice said, "You could have gotten yourself killed, you idiot."

"That's what Nabiki keeps telling me, fem-...." Tarou's voice choked off as a beautiful, black-haired young WOMAN emerged from the shadows of the dojo's interior. Gone was the bouncy, annoyingly cute red-haired girl. Ranma's female form was now as close in appearance to the male Ranma as humanly possible -- hair and eye color, height, age -- while still remaining female... a stunningly beautiful female at that. Tarou was more than a little unnerved to realize that he could barely keep himself from staring at Ranma-chan's perfectly proportioned breasts which the clinging wet tank-top did absolutely nothing to hide.

"What the hell happened to YOU!?" Tarou snapped.

None of the others could recall ever seeing Tarou looking so visibly rattled.

Nabiki said sarcastically, "I told you that things have changed around here. But did you believe me? No...."

"Cut it out, Nabiki," muttered Ranma-chan.

"ACHOOO!"

The pig-tailed young woman turned to look behind her and noticed Akane sniffling loudly. She said, "Hey. Maybe you should go inside and change."

"I'm all right...." Akane sneezed loudly again. "I don't think I should leave you alone with HIM." She gave Tarou an angry look.

Tarou used his usual abrasive manner in order to cover the uneasiness he felt. He smirked and said "If you think that fem-boy here can't talk to me without you holding his hand, then by all means stick around."

Ranma-chan started to turn back in Tarou's direction. Akane hastily grabbed her arm and hissed, "Ranma!"

She patted Akane's hand. "Take it easy. I'll be fine as long as Pantyhose here doesn't do anything STUPID."

Nabiki said, "Sis, the last thing we need is for you to get sick, okay?"

"All right, all right. I'll be RIGHT back." Akane turned and stalked back into the house.

Tarou said, "So... what happened? Did the old pervert hit you with some Jusenkyo water? What is it this time? Spring of the drowned...." His voice suddenly stopped.

(Hold it a minute! With the fem-boy looking like... like....) Tarou's thoughts trailed off incoherently as his gaze involuntarily wandered back to the vicinity of Ranma-chan's chest. It took him a second to get his thoughts back on track. (....looking like THAT, why isn't Happosai all over him?)

"Nope."

"No?"

"That's what I said, okay? I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with Jusenkyo. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine."

"You seem to be taking this rather well. Or have you just gotten used to the idea of being a crossdresser for the rest of your life?"

"Listen. Being called 'fem-boy' or 'crossdresser' is the least of my problems now."

Tarou gave Ranma-chan a sly grin. "In that case, I suppose I'll just have to figure out a new name for you. How about 'scaredy-cat'?"

"Don't push your luck, Pantyhose," Ranma-chan said in a flat voice.

Standing inconspicuously off to the side beside Shampoo, Nabiki bit her lip and suppressed the urge to laugh as she watched Ranma-chan absently pull off her tee-shirt. As Shampoo opened her mouth, Nabiki quickly make a hushing gesture.

Tarou narrowed his eyes and snapped, "What do you think you're DOING?"

Ranma-chan started to wring the water from her shirt. "What do you THINK I'm doing? I'm soaking wet, if you haven't noticed."

Tarou couldn't help but notice the moisture gleaming on her bare flesh. The damp tee-shirt had left nothing to the imagination, but now that her shirt was off, he could see... everything. He felt a bead of sweat slide down his neck.

In a low, furious voice, Tarou snarled, "I don't know what your game is, but if you think you're going to...."

Ranma-chan jumped to her feet, apparently unaware that she was totally naked above the waist. Flinging her still wet tee-shirt to the ground in disgust, she put her hands on her hips and glared at Tarou.

"What is your problem, Pantyhose? Will you just cool it!? I'm not going to eat you!"

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(end of Part 6)

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Author's Notes:

Tentatively scheduled in Part 7 of Tiger Claw...

....a tense dinner at the Tendos....

....a few more suspicious accidents....

....Kuno gets some visitors....

....another restless night for everyone....

^_-

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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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