Disclaimer: I don't own and didn't create Ranma ½ or any of these characters.
Timeframe: This is set several months after the end of the manga, but I only mention some events in passing and will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.
Revisions: Yes, I do go back and edit previous chapters a fair bit, so if you're rereading a chapter and it seems a bit different, that will be why. I will change wordings, expand or delete sections, change the slant of a scene, fix characterisations, but I won't change anything to the point that it is required to read the latest version of a chapter to understand a new one. All major plot points will remain intact.
Chapter One: Of Curses and Men
A lone figure trudged wearily through the streets, a huge backpack strapped to his shoulders and a large glass bottle cradled protectively in his arms. He had been wandering for several days, but finally, against all odds, he had made it to Nerima. All he had to do now was find his way to the Tendou Dojo which, for Ryouga Hibiki, was much easier said than done.
The boy stopped and looked around, trying to find some landmark that was familiar. If only all the streets didn't look the same, he thought to himself. It was as if someone kept moving the dojo, or the streets, or Tokyo itself; some grand practical joke the universe was playing on the lost boy.
Ryouga adjusted the backpack, attempting to give his aching shoulders some relief. He double-checked the stopper on the bottle for what seemed like the thousandth time since he found it. The liquid inside was far too precious to risk losing even a single drop; it would be the end to all of his suffering.
Ryouga had just started to walk again when he noticed a young woman coming towards him. She was a couple of years older than him, with long dark hair tied in a ponytail which hung over one shoulder and an expression of perfect calm on her face.
"Good afternoon, Ryouga," the woman said. "Back from your trip already?"
"Hello Kasumi. Yes, I just arrived back."
"That's very nice to hear." Kasumi gave a beatific smile. "Do you need me to take you to the dojo? Ranma and Akane have just arrived home from school."
"Thank you," Ryouga said, bowing politely. "That is, if it's not any trouble."
"Don't be silly!" she said gently, laughing. "It's no trouble at all. It isn't far."
As it turned out, the entrance to the dojo had been just around the corner all along. Kasumi escorted Ryouga to the gate, and then left, explaining that she had errands to run before dinner. He walked up to the front door and knocked.
The door was opened by a black-haired boy of Ryouga's age and height.
"Hey Ryouga, man!" the boy said, his handsome face breaking into a grin. "Long time, no see! Come on in."
"Hello Ranma." Ryouga stepped into the entryway, kicked of his shoes, and then shrugged the backpack off his shoulders and placed it onto the ground. Beside it, he carefully placed the bottle. Ranma gave it a curious look.
The two boys sat together in the living room, chatting. Not that Ryouga would have admitted it, but Ranma was the closest thing he had to a friend. They had started out as bitter enemies, fighting over bread, curses, martial arts superiority and the love of a girl, but the past year had mellowed their relationship into something closer to friendly rivals.
"…and Kunou's been reciting love sonnets in honour of 'the beauteous pigtailed girl' in front of the school every morning – that wore thin fast! – and that nut-job principal came up with yet another stupid haircut policy … and then there was that Martial Arts Synchronised Swimming contest … I won, of course… and then Kodachi made up a batch of cookies for me with something called… starts with v… she said it was for guys ... well, anyway, luckily the rest of the guys at school got them… knowing Kodachi they were probably poison or somethin'… but that's about it. Just the usual stuff, really. How 'bout you?"
"Just the usual," Ryouga replied, "…wandering… training. I've been trying to get back to Akari's farm for two weeks."
Akari wasn't Akane, but she was kind and sweet and, to his eternal surprise, actually liked his pig curse. And most importantly of all, she wasn't Ranma's fiancée. He had given up on Akane after she'd nearly given her life to save Ranma all those months ago in China. It was then he'd known for certain where her heart lay; there was no way she'd have done the same for him.
Ryouga caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. A slightly older, somewhat effeminate boy with short dark hair, wearing a scaled vest and pantyhose sash, had hopped up onto the wall on the far side of the koi pond, apparently searching for something. He paused briefly, idly fingering one of the longer tendrils of hair that hung from in front of each of his ears. Apparently, he couldn't see what he was looking for; a scowl darkened his delicate features and he hopped off the wall out of sight again.
"What's he doing here?" he hissed to Ranma quietly.
"Oh yeah, and Pantyhose Tarou's been in Nerima the last couple of days too," Ranma added, as if continuing from his previous story.
"He's after Happousai again." Ranma laughed. "Of course, the old freak keeps givin' him the slip, though. Thinks it's all great fun."
"So he's got another plan to get his name changed?"
"Yeah, prob'ly. Dunno what it is, though. I don't ask and he don't tell. And he didn't come in here and gloat about his plan like he did that other time. Jerk!" Ranma gave a dismissive snort. "At least he don't have any Jusenkyou water this time. I don't even wanna think about a world with two old freaks in! Or two of him… yuck!"
Ryouga cleared his throat, deciding it was time to broach the subject he had come to discuss. "Actually Ranma, there's a reason I'm here. I need to talk to you about something."
"Is this about that bottle?"
"Yes. It's a cure."
"A cure?!" Ranma repeated, his voice rising excitedly. "You mean Spring of Drowned Man? Where'd you get it?"
The pigtailed boy bounced to his feet and then bounded over to the entryway. Ryouga rushed after him.
"Shhh, Akane might hear." Ryouga held a finger his lips, waiting for Ranma to quiet down.
"You mean you don't wanna talk to Akane this time?" Ranma grinned.
"Shut up, Ranma!" Ryouga growled, cuffing the other boy lightly over the head. "Let's go somewhere quiet and I'll tell you everything."
Ryouga followed Ranma to the dojo, the bottle tucked firmly under one arm. Once there, he turned to Ranma and began to talk.
"About a week ago I was lost in the mountains, when I stumbled across an old shrine. The old man there told me how the site for the temple had been chosen because of the sacred spring that flowed through the caves beneath."
"Spring of Drowned Man? Here in Japan?" Ranma interrupted.
"No, it's not Spring of Drowned Man," Ryouga continued. "But the old man believed it could cure our curses. The water from that spring is supposed to be able to get rid of any illness, magic or curse. The only thing is-"
"Come back here, old man!"
The two boys turned to the door in time to see a tiny old man come bursting through the door at a surprising speed. He was being closely pursued by a growling Pantyhose Tarou.
Happousai ducked between the two boys, cackling with glee. With a flick of his pipe, he knocked the glass bottle out of Ryouga's hands, sending it flying in a high arc towards his pursuer.
Ranma and Ryouga cried out in unison, diving to catch the bottle. Ranma, slightly in front, ran full-tilt into Tarou and they crashed to the floor together. Ryouga tripped over Ranma's leg and landed in a sprawled heap on top of the other boys. He flipped himself over in time to see the bottle descending rapidly towards them.
"Get off me, fem-boy!!!" Tarou snarled from beneath him.
It was only then that Ryouga heard the fizzing sound coming from something on the floor beside them.
Tarou opened his eyes groggily. For some reason, he was laying face-down on the floor of the dojo. He sat up slowly, trying to clear his head. He'd been chasing Happousai… then those two idiots had tripped over him… and then he'd been hit in the face by one of the old freak's Happoudaikarins. No wonder he was still feeling dazed; those things sure did pack a punch.
He worked his way to his feet slowly, carefully avoiding the pieces of glass scattered on the floor. Pig-boy had been carrying a glass bottle, and the old freak had knocked it out of his hands; it must have smashed open. He looked down at the floor, noticing for the first time that he was standing in a large puddle of water.
Beginning to feel uneasy, he studied his outstretched hands. They were wet. So were his arms. Anxiously, he ran his hands through his hair, over his back and chest; all were wet and cold. There should have been enough water to trigger his curse. Why hadn't he changed? He bent down and wet his hands in the puddle at his feet, then smeared the water over his arms. Nothing happened. His heartbeat began to quicken.
What had been in that bottle? He tried to reconstruct the scene in his mind. Fem-boy and pig-boy had been talking intently. Pig-boy had been cradling the bottle protectively in his arms, like it was something precious. Like it was a cure.
He sniffed his hands. Whatever it was, it smelt like plain water, and tasted like plain water. Of course, that didn't mean a great deal: the springs at Jusenkyou appeared to be plain water, that is, until you splashed yourself with one.
This was not good. Unlike the other two, he liked his curse. He liked his super-strong body, the ability to terrify others, the knowledge that he could win just about any fight with a splash of cold water.
Stupid pig-boy! Splashing him with... what, exactly? His curse wasn't supposed to be able to be cured. He had proved that himself when he splashed himself with the Spring of Drowned Octopus to increase the already considerable power of his cursed form by adding tentacles. In fact, he had long suspected that any attempt to cure their curses with the Spring of Drowned Man would have resulted in pig-boy and fem-boy's cursed bodies changing to a grotesque hybrid of their current cursed forms and their real bodies. He chuckled. There were few things he wouldn't give to see their faces if that happened.
The sky rumbled ominously outside. A storm was coming.
"That idiot had better know how to get this reversed!" Tarou muttered to himself, angrily. Of course, how willing the aforementioned idiot would be to talk was another matter. Not that that it would be a problem if he wasn't; Tarou had no qualms in using more persuasive methods if he needed to. Even without his powerful cursed form, he still felt confident enough to tackle the likes of pig-boy – and fem-boy too, if he interfered. He stepped outside, following the sounds of maniacal laughter he could hear coming from the street, and chuckled to himself quietly as he cracked his knuckles.
The thunder rumbled again. It began to rain.
An enraged bovine bellow echoed through the streets of Nerima. Akane, sitting at her desk in her bedroom, looked up from her homework and out the window to see a monstrous, winged minotaur-like creature with tentacles along its back – Tarou's cursed form – in the street outside the house. He seemed to be having problems controlling his body. His eel tail was lashing around wildly and his tentacles were thrashing around in different directions at once, as though he were dazed or confused.
'Maybe he and Ranma had a fight', she wondered, 'It looks like Ranma won'. Of course he had, she reprimanded herself. Ranma always won. Sometimes he had a few setbacks, but he always won eventually.
She certainly wasn't sorry to see the back of Pantyhose Tarou though. There was something about Tarou that made her uncomfortable; he was polite enough – to her, if nobody else – but he was arrogant and aloof, and his eyes glittered dangerously even when he smiled.
Upon hearing the plaintive noise, Akane immediately flew up out of her chair and raced down the stairs to the living room, where a small, wet, black piglet sat on the tatami floor.
"P-Chan! You're soaking wet!" she cried happily, reaching for the little pig. "Have you lost your collar?" P-Chan eyed her nervously, and backed away several steps. "What's wrong, baby? Come here", she cooed. Eventually, he allowed himself to be picked up, and was rewarded with a kiss on the snout. Clutching the little piglet tightly to her chest for warmth, she carried him back upstairs to her room. There was another couple of hours before dinner would be ready; hopefully she could finish her homework by then.
"Akane. Dinner's ready!" Kasumi called from downstairs.
"Be right down," Akane called, packing up her school books. She glanced down at P-Chan, to find that he had fallen asleep on her lap. She gently moved him to her bed, and went downstairs to the living room where dinner was waiting.
Her family and Genma Saotome were clustered around the table, eagerly waiting.
"Where's Ranma?" she asked, kneeling by the table.
"I haven't seen Ranma since he came home from school." answered Kasumi, daintily placing steaming bowls of rice and curry on the table. "Ryouga was looking for you two. Maybe they're off together, they're such good friends."
"Ryouga? When did he arrive?"
"Just after I left to go buy some groceries. You didn't see him?"
"No," Akane said. She paused, thinking. "I did hear some noises coming from the dojo earlier. Maybe they're just out training."
"That'll be good for the boy," Genma managed between mouthfuls. "That Ryouga's a strong fighter. Keeps Ranma on his toes."
That doesn't answer where they are now though, Akane thought. "I think I'll go check in the dojo," she added aloud.
She headed out to the dojo, barely missing her father announcing loudly to the family, "So good to see my little girl worrying about her fiancé!"
The dojo was dark and quiet, but Akane checked inside to be sure. It was entirely empty, except for a large scorch mark and a huge number of different sized shards of glass lying in a damp patch in the middle of the floor. She walked over and picked up a piece; it looked like it had come from a large bottle.
"Great, more repair bills. You'd think that they'd clean up the mess… or at least hang around to help." she muttered angrily. Still, it wasn't like Ranma to go missing around dinner time though. "Stupid Ranma. Making me worry like this."
What was that business with Tarou though? Was he responsible? She thought back to when she had seen Tarou-monster earlier. No, she hadn't seen Ranma or Ryouga with him, but he had looked injured. There weren't many people in Nerima who could hurt Pantyhose Tarou's cursed form: Ranma and Happousai came to mind, and Cologne – although she tended to keep to herself these days. She hadn't seen Happousai all day, but he had been making himself scarce since Tarou arrived.
Akane headed back into the house to slip on a pair of shoes, and then walked out onto the streets where she had seen Tarou last.
A telephone pole lay on its side, broken at about chest height. Caused by Tarou? Maybe. A little further, someone had poked a series of holes into the concrete…with their finger, apparently. Ryouga, then. She had seen Ryouga gouging out chunks of concrete with his finger before when he was happy, which admittedly wasn't often. Further along, she found a large hole in the concrete, and several scraps of yellow and black cloth on the ground. She picked one of them up and studied it closely. It was Ryouga's bandana. It had been shredded.
Heart beginning to race with fear, Akane picked up the bandana and ran further up the street. Nothing. Ryouga had apparently only gotten so far before something had attacked him. That would have been Tarou. But what had happened after that, and where was Ranma?
"Ranma!" she shouted. She cupped her hands around her mouth for extra volume. "Ranma! Ryouga!"
She ran back to the house, in time to see Kasumi invite in a cloaked and hooded figure that had been waiting at the front door. As Akane neared, she noticed the pantyhose sash around his neck.
"You!" she hissed. "What have you done to Ranma?"
"Akane! Be nice to our guests," Kasumi chided gently.
Tarou pushed back the hood from his face and turned to face Akane, one of those thin lipped, insincere smiles on his face. "Your sister has very kindly offered to let me wait here until he returns," he said in his languid tenor voice. "I am looking for him as well."
Akane returned his gaze coolly. The Chinese boy appeared to have chosen his words carefully; he was at least trying to be polite. She did her best for force a smile in return, for Kasumi's sake, and then waited until he and her sister had gone before picking up the phone.
"Dr Tofu? Its Akane … I was wondering whether you had seen Ranma or Ryouga this afternoon … No? … It's just that I think they were in a fight and I thought … No? … Yes, I'm sure you're right … Yes, I'm sure everything will be fine. Thank you. Goodbye."
No luck there either. Damn Ranma! He shouldn't just run off like this without telling anybody. Akane sighed. "I hope he's okay."
Tarou was seated in the Tendou's living room, still wrapped in his cloak. He had expected the youngest daughter to follow him in and starting demanding explanations, but she had stomped off upstairs. A good thing, he decided, since it was far more convenient to wait for that crossdresser and his porcine friend here, and the family might be less hospitable if they thought he was responsible for their absence.
Not that they were particularly hospitable to begin with. With the exception of the eldest daughter who was busily clearing the table like the good little housewife that she was, he had been received with a mixture of suspicion and dislike barely concealed beneath a veneer of forced politeness. Even that older dark-haired woman who he'd never seen before, the one who he'd considered almost attractive – until he'd noticed the striking resemblance to fem-boy's cursed form, that is.
It didn't matter, really. The social niceties had never meant a great deal to him, and forced politeness was good; it meant that they were afraid of him… afraid of his cursed form, no doubt. Yet another reason why he couldn't let anyone else know what had happened.
He almost missed the small black shape walking around the outside hallway in the direction of the bathroom: pig-boy had finally shown up. Tarou waited until the little pig was out of sight, and then stood up to follow. With any luck, he could corner the little idiot in the bathroom and then find out what he needed to know.
As he approached the bathroom, he could hear the sound of the bathtub being filled within.
"P-Chan! Where are you?" Akane was walking down the hallway, searching for... the piglet?
"P-Chan?" he enquired, his eyebrow raised.
"My pet pig. I thought he would be down here." She turned to him with a suspicious glare. "Where is Ranma? And what did you do to Ryouga?"
Interesting. Apparently she didn't realise that pig-boy's cursed form and this P-Chan were one and the same. "As I said before," he answered, "I have no idea where he is. I am waiting for him myself. As for your little friend… I just know he'll be around somewhere." He fought the urge to chuckle; he was just too clever sometimes!
She opened her hand, showing him a tattered scrap of yellow and black cloth. "I found this on the street. It's Ryouga's." she said, her voice now hardening angrily. "I saw you flying away from the spot where I found it. Don't try and tell me you weren't involved."
He snorted contemptuously. The little brat was starting to get annoying. "Listen, you know how strong I am in my cursed body. If I had fought those two, do you think they could have gotten very far afterwards?" He heard the slightly dangerous edge his voice had acquired and took a moment to calm himself. This girl was intriguingly unafraid of him, despite everything that he'd done to her. "I saw the damage in the street, same as you," he said, as reassuringly as he was able. "I'm sure they will be back soon."
She obviously didn't believe him, but turned abruptly and left in a huff, stomping loudly down the corridor. He waited until she had gone, then silently opened the door to the outer bathroom and entered.
Tarou waited until the splash that indicated that the occupant had jumped into the bath. He slid open the door to see a human figure emerge spluttering from the water. It was Ranma Saotome.
Ranma spun around and stared up at him, his blue eyes wide with shock.
"What the hell is going on?" Ranma yelled. He leapt out of the tub. "How did I end up as P-Chan?!"
Tarou simply sniggered in reply. Ranma scowled. Ignoring him, Tarou answered breezily, "You should ask your idiot friend. That's what I was trying to do."
"And you thought I was him." Ranma's eyes narrowed quizzically. "Hang on. How did you know somethin' was wrong?"
Tarou paused, thinking quickly. "Your fiancé told me that she saw me – my cursed form, that is – outside earlier today."
"I saw the same thing. It wasn't me."
"Oh gods," Ranma groaned, "you haven't been playin' with that twins water again, have you?"
"Now there's a thought," Tarou smirked. "With two of me I could take over the world!"
"Yes, how did those magnetic back pads go?" Ranma quipped, grinning broadly. "That was funny! I wish I'd seen your face when you found out!"
Tarou felt his face grow warm. "Shut up, fem-boy!"
"Don't call me that, Pantyhose Tarou!" Ranma lunged forward and seized Tarou's cloak in his fists. He froze, looking his adversary up and down curiously. "Since when did you wear this cloak indoors?"
Tarou scowled, suppressing the urge to fidget under the unwanted attention.
With a sudden look of realisation, Ranma smiled. "And didn't you used to be taller than me?"
Tarou hesitated. Fem-boy would find out sooner or later, given his own problem. With a growl, he tossed his cloak aside, revealing his own female body.
Ranma struggled to suppress a chuckle and failed. All those times the arrogant creep had called him crossdresser and fem-boy, all of those insults and slights against his manliness, and now he had the girl curse! He burst out laughing. Tarou glared down at him with his fists clenched tightly, shaking with rage and his cheeks flushed crimson. Ranma staggered backwards, his hands clasped to his aching sides, fresh howls of laughter escaping from his lips every time he caught sight of the indignant expression on the other boy's face. It took several minutes before he managed to calm himself down to the stage where he could look at Tarou without collapsing into giggles again.
Examining the fuming Pantyhose Tarou more closely, Ranma could see that the Chinese boy had a less dramatic transition to girl-hood than his own. Unlike Ranma's own tiny, buxom female form, girl-type Tarou had a lean, shapely figure which stood as nearly as tall as his male body. His voice was perhaps slightly higher pitched than normal but not enough to have been noticeable. The most striking lack of change was in his face; other than a slight softening around his jaw line and chin, it was identical, and yet it still looked like a perfectly feminine face. Not that Tarou had been particularly masculine to begin with, he reflected.
"It's not that bad," Ranma offered cheekily. "You can hardly tell the difference. In fact, you make a pretty good girl… almost as cute as me!" He dodged the punch that had been swung at his head, sniggering loudly. "The freak might even lend you some of his collection if you ask nicely!"
With an inarticulate snarl, Tarou launched himself at Ranma, knocking him backwards into the tub. He tripped on Ranma's flailing feet; his momentum causing him to plummet forward on top of the other boy.
All sound was muffled as Ranma was shoved underwater, pressed to the bottom of the tub by the Chinese boy's weight. The weight lifted from him, but a hand pushed down on his chest, prevented him from rising. Angrily, he swiped at the hand but it did not move. He heard a muffled voice; Tarou was leaning over him, speaking roughly. The pressure was then lifted from his chest, and he sat up, coughing up the water he had swallowed.
"What'd you do that for, you jerk?!" he yelled, roughly shoving Tarou away from him and thumping him over the head with a clenched fist.
Tarou folded his arms and levelled a glare at Ranma, so vicious that the pigtailed boy was momentarily surprised that the tiles behind him didn't start to smoulder.
"What happened?" he growled. "What was in that bottle?"
Ranma blinked, trying to reorient his brain back to the original conversation. "I dunno. Ryouga said it was a cure. It must have broken open when the freak's Happoudaikarin exploded."
"I figured that much out for myself," Tarou said, somehow managing to look both pleased with himself and irritated at the same time. "He didn't say anything else?"
"No. He was about to when you and the freak came in." Ranma leaned back against the bathtub, thinking. "So, I got Ryouga's curse, you got mine and-"
"-your moron friend has mine, yes," Tarou cut in gruffly.
"But how? It must have been that water!"
"We need to find Ryouga! It was his water."
"Didn't I already say that, pig-boy?"
Ranma slammed his fist into the water, angrily. "Hey! I got a name! Ranma Saotome, remember? Unless you want me to call you fem-boy or something?" The scowl he received in response indicated that the other boy was unimpressed. Grinning spitefully, he added "If the pantyhose fit..."
Another fist, this one too fast to dodge, impacted with the side of his head. Rubbing the sore spot, he said more calmly, "We ain't gonna get anywhere if we can't stop fighting. My name's Ranma not… fem-boy or pig-boy or crossdresser or any of those other things."
Ranma heard a grunt in response. He doubted that it indicated agreement but at least it hadn't been another fist.
He climbed out of the bathtub and wrapped a towel around his waist, considering his options. The water hadn't been a cure… or was it? Maybe it just had to be used a special way. Maybe that's what Ryouga had been about to tell him.
"I should pop outside, see if I can find him," Ranma murmured, more to himself than the other boy.
Tarou chuckled. "That could take a while. He was flying away when I saw him."
Ranma felt the blood drain from his face. He hadn't spent much time in pig form, but he had no intention of staying that way. He knew from past experience how big a weakness in battle it could be; he had to get rid of it. And now the person with the worst sense of direction on the planet, the only one who knew how to get him back to normal, had gone missing. Obviously, the first step was to find him, but then what? If the water was a cure, then the two of them could use it. As for Tarou, at least without his beast form he wouldn't be busting down the house every time he got angry. Definitely a win-win situation.
But what if it wasn't a cure? What if the water had worked the way it was supposed to? Could it be reversed? Tarou had the girl curse; did that mean he'd need to be there, too? Briefly, he wondered whether he could leave Tarou in Nerima while he found and brought back Ryouga on his own, but rejected the idea quickly. The Chinese boy was about as trustworthy as the old freak; no doubt he'd come up with some scheme of his own that'd leave Ranma trapped with the piglet curse.
No, it'd be much safer to have Tarou with him, and if he had to not insult the jerk as much as he would have liked to make it work, then that's what he'd have to do.
"If Ryouga is flying, there's no point looking for him at night," he said casually. "We should leave early in the morning. If we leave it too late there's no telling where he could end up."
"We?" Tarou sneered, his customary smirk returning. "I work alone. Why would I need you to come along?"
"Hey! It ain't like I wanna spend time with you either!"
"Good. That's settled then."
Damn, Ranma cursed inwardly, that hadn't been as easy as he'd thought. He was supposed to be convincing Tarou that they needed to work together, not giving the jerk an excuse to leave him behind. He decided to try again. "What are you gonna do, then?"
"Find him, and once he tells me where he got that water and what it does, figure out a way of reversing it," Tarou explained slowly, as though he were speaking to a child.
Ranma resisted the urge to thump him... barely. "What about a cure?"
"I'm not interested in a cure. I want my body back."
"Afraid you won't win any fights without your cursed form?" Ranma grinned. He received a nasty glare in response. Apparently, he'd just hit a nerve. "Anyway, you'll need me to reverse it. You've got my curse."
"He has mine." Tarou chuckled nastily. "You never know, he might prefer turning into a girl to a pig."
Ryouga probably would, Ranma reflected, but it was not something he was about to admit to the other boy, in case he did decide to search for Ryouga on his own. "And what if it does need all three of us to reverse it?" Tarou didn't have a response to that, so Ranma pressed on. "I know Ryouga. He's damn near impossible to find. And he's going to be really angry when we do find him. I was the one who knocked him into the Spring of Drowned Piglet and he's still gets cut up about it. Kept picking fights with me for ages, saying things like 'Because of you I've seen hell'. Trust me, he ain't gonna be happy to see you."
"It was his own fault," Tarou interjected.
"Ryouga don't always think too clearly when he's angry. It's your curse he got – and he won't like it." Probably, Ranma added silently.
"I can handle him." Tarou raised an eyebrow nonchalantly. "He's no match for me."
"He's very strong – stronger than me – in his normal body." Ranma winced inwardly. He had never liked admitting that anyone was better than him at anything; even knowing it was true didn't make it any easier. "Add the strength from that monster body... And he's really tough. You need to hit him a bunch of times for him to even feel it. But if I'm there, I can talk to him. He'll listen to me." Okay, so listening to him wasn't exactly one of Ryouga's strong points, Ranma reflected, but Tarou didn't need to know that right now.
"What makes you think he'll listen?"
"Like I said, I know Ryouga. He'll listen. We've been through a lot together."
Tarou gave a single, stiff nod. "Fine. We'll try it your way. Just don't think I'm going to wait for you if you get left behind."
Ranma brightened. It might not have been a ringing affirmative, but Tarou had given in easier than he had expected. "You can stay upstairs with me and Pop." At least that way, the Chinese boy would be less likely to sneak off on his own. Ranma held out a towel, adding "Kasumi can find you something to wear for tonight. Your clothes are soaked, and I ain't sleeping with you naked."
He left the bathroom, trying to work out how much to tell Akane.
It was pitch black and his wings were aching. He had no idea where he was, but at least he wasn't over the city any more. He couldn't bear to hear the screams, to see those people running in terror. Akari – or Akane – mustn't see him like this. If either of them looked at him like those people had… his poor heart…he'd be better off dead!
No. He couldn't keep going like this. He needed to find a place to hide, to think. He flew lower, looking for a place to land, hoping he hadn't flown out over the ocean.
Trees! He was still over land!
He dropped out of the sky, landing in a small clearing near some rocks. Trembling, he curled himself up as tight as he could into a foetal position, replaying the events of the last couple of hours over and over in his mind until he eventually fell asleep.
Ranma awoke to the customary snores of his father on his left. He sat up, blinking the remnants of sleep from his eyes. It was still dark – just before dawn at a guess. Tarou was already awake; he was sitting in a half-lotus position on his futon with a bored expression on his face.
"Didn't sleep much, huh?" Ranma asked.
"I'm surprised anyone here gets any sleep with the noise he makes."
"Pop? Yeah, you sort of get used to it after a while," Ranma chuckled, pulling on his black pants and favourite red shirt.
Working quickly, he dug out his and his father's backpacks and stuffed in several changes of clothes. He headed downstairs, where he found the tent and camping equipment from previous training trips. As he entered the kitchen, a broad smile spread across his face: Kasumi had kindly left some food and cooking supplies packaged on the kitchen table, which he packed away carefully. Nearby, she had left two carefully wrapped rice balls.
Tarou entered the kitchen with his cloak slung over his arm, having changed back into his own clothes. Ranma offered him the remaining rice ball, having already wolfed down his own.
"Shall we go?" Ranma asked. Tarou deftly caught the backpack that had been tossed to him. After a quick check that everything was in place, the two boys headed out into the dawn.
Revision History: Spelling / grammar fixes, minor rewording, and some new paragraphs in the bathroom scene to explain Ranma's motives and feelings a little better.