"Nabiki Tendo! I must know, who is the impudent wastrel who this very morning hounded my darling Akane and interfered with the trial to determine the worthiness of suitors for the heart of my beloved? Who is the man that hides within the concealing coat and hood? I will pay any price for the information."

Nabiki carefully weighed the potentials for mischief against profit before answering.

"Fifty thousand yen."

"D-did I say any price? Such a sum for information..." He paused and shook his head. "Done."

She quickly counted and pocketed the money before continuing.

"Well, Ranma-kun's staying at our house for a while-"

"WHAT!? Under the same roof as Akane!?"

"Kuno-chan, if you don't quiet down you'll miss out. Anyway, there was a little misunderstood arrangement between our fathers. Daddy thought Ranma-kun was supposed to marry one of us."

"WHAT!? Engaged to-"

A hand clamped down on Kuno's shoulder as Ranma, who'd entered at some point, loomed up behind him.

"You're overreacting, Upperclassman... Kuno, was it? Like Nabiki said, Tendo-dono misunderstood the nature of the agreement between our families. My relationship to Akane is no more than that of a teacher and his student, and I will be impinging on the Tendo's hospitality for only as long as it takes to locate suitable living space for myself within the district. Speaking of which... I trust your take this morning was sufficient, Nabiki?"

"Mmyah... your share. Don't blow it all in one place, Ranma-kun." Nabiki answerd, tossing the wad of bills Kuno had handed to her. Ranma easily plucked it out of the air and tucked it away, nodding.

"Guess I'll take a walk then... The instructor expected me to stand out in the hall and wait for him to let me back in, if you can believe it."

"Actually, Ranma-kun... that's a pretty standard punishment."

"Hmph. I can see that I haven't missed much, then. Punishing delinquents by forcing them to spend less time in class... wonder who came up with that bright idea."

Ranma shrugged and opened the door to leave.

"Hold! I do not fully understand the situation... But you claim to be uninterested in the fair Akane, and will vacate the Tendo domicile upon locating alternate quarters?"

"Hmm... somebody doesn't listen well. But in short, yes."

"I... see. To claim indifference to the beauty of the fierce Tigress that is Akane Tendo… It is a near-unforgivable offense. Even so! The Kuno are merciful and beneficient... this once, and this once only, I shall allow the insult pass. Also, the Kuno are generous. I promise you this, Saotome… the entirety of my resources shall be devoted immediately to facilitating your removal from Akane's private residence!"

Ranma arched an eyebrow.

"Generous indeed. However, the Saotome have not fallen near so far as to accept the charity of strangers. Do not believe it unappreciated, but consider my pride, Kuno-sempai."

"Of… of course." Kuno said, suitably chastised. "I retract the offer."

Ranma nodded and opened the door, then paused a moment in thought.

"Actually, Kuno-sempai... there is one small favor I would ask of you. If we could speak in private...?"

Kuno nodded and stood, the teacher not bothering to even glance up or pause in his droning lecture. Nabiki's attempt to follow, on the other hand, was blocked with a stub of chalk to the forehead.

"Miss Tendo, thank you for volunteering to read the next passage aloud."

"I... but-! Tch."

The next passage took several minutes to read through, and as she sat down there was a chime over the school intercom.

"All students, please report immediately to the school auditorium. Repeat, all students report to the school auditorium for a motivational speech."

"Motivational speech?" Nabiki mumbled under her breath as the students all rose and obediently filed out of the classroom. Curious. The last time something like this had happened....

She smirked, sensing the potential for profit with a new situation.

xxx

"Hmm... a large crowd. Would you say that that's enough, Kuno-sempai?"

"Indeed. Most, if not all of the school seems to have gathered."

"Right. Time to get started, then..."

Ranma coughed into the microphone, silencing all idle chatter.

"Do I have everyone's full and undivided attention? Good, good. Now, it has come to my attention that there is a daily battle over my new student's affections. As her sensei I must say... It makes me absolutely sick!"

He slammed his hand into the podium for emphasis.

"Sick! Sick sick sick! I am feverishly and violently ill at the audacity of you half-trained simpletons! Listen now and listen well, for I will no longer tolerate this offense against the honor of my student... should you wish to challenge for her affections..."

He slammed the podium again, to interrupt the growls of discontent that had begun to erupt from the male portion of the student body..

"Then TRAIN! Train and train and train until your body gives out and you cannot move! Train in the mountains, wrestling wild boars! Train by the sea, against the crashing waves! Train in the wilderness and in the city alike! If you would challenge my student, then nothing else would do!"

A roaring howl of masculine approval at the challenge drowned out the cry of sudden dismay Akane let out.

"I... I SEE!" Kuno yelled, grabbing the mike away. "Saotome is correct! Akane Tendo! By this time next week, I swear that the Furinkan Kendo Club and myself will be twice... nay, THRICE as powerful as before! AhHAHAHAHA! Kendo Club, attend me!"

"Ranma you... you... You complete and utter BASTARD!"

"That's Bastard-Sensei to you, student! MaHAhahaha! Hm... is that the time? Well in anycase, enjoy your schooling, Akane."

"You... you... you... Gragh! I'll KILL you!"

Ranma casually paralyzed Akane's arms before ambling out of the auditorium.

xxx

Lightning crackled in the clouds overhead as Ranma looked up from beneath his hood.

"Yeah, yeah... I get it. Time for the change."

He lowered his hood and waited, and was rewarded after a moment as water poured down and he shifted. Then he flipped the hood back up and continued on, ignoring the way it had shifted slightly to better fit his new form.

"Now... how to go about finding something suitable? Let's see.. Ah. 'That' will do."

"Hey... Hey, little girl! What do you think you're doing? You can't come in, this is a-urk!"

Ranma had casually jabbed the bouncer in the stomach and continued into the dimly lit bar as he crumpled to his knees.

"Hey. Bartender. A bottle of your best."

"Oh. And do you have any I.D. on you?"

Ranma slapped a five thousand yen note on the counter and the bartender nodded, tucking it into his apron.

"Will that be all, miss Red Hood?"

"For now."

Ranma settled into a corner table. Now the only thing left to do was to wait for the inevitable disturbance that would be caused by her mere presence. As calculated, she was accosted before she even managed to pour the first cup.

"Hey there girlie. This isn't the place for someone as cute as you. There's some really, heh, rough characters that frequent this place. It's just not safe, if you know what I mean. But come over and sit at my table, heh. I'll-uh.."

The bruiser trailed off as Ranma stood and smirked.

"Maaa... so you're the tough guy around here. Good. Now I know who to deal with. Tell me... where would I go to find a pit fight in this area?"

She was answered with a stupid sounding 'guffaw'.

"Pit fight? Cute little girlie like you? You gotta be kidding me... uh?"

Ranma lifted the man by his throat and hurled him bodily across the room.

"'Cute little girlie', eh? Let's see how cute I am when I beat you so hard you vomit up your own liver, dirtbag!"

"Ah... ah.... AAAH! Strong... unbelievably strong!"

"You better believe it. Now, tell me... while I'm still feeling slightly merciful."

"I'll tell! I'll tell! The nearest location I know of is..."

xxx

"Tch. I suppose I should have known that I'd have to walk a ways. Still... the next district over seems a bit much." Ranma sighed. "Still, my ammo supply is limited, so it's either walk or bank on not running into anything that I wouldn't want to hit. Hmm... and here we are."

Ranma knocked on the door of what appeared to be a warehouse. After a minute, a gravely voice called out from within.

"What's the password?"

"Password, huh? Let's try 'If you don't let me in, I'll make the short remainder of your life a living hell.' Does that work as a password for you?"

"Tch. Troublesome young whippersnappers. I'd like to see what you think you can do to me from the other side of that door, brat!"

Ranma fired a shot, and there was a moment of silence as he and the doorkeeper quietly observed the hole it had punched through it.

"Hmm... it seems someone didn't think to bulletproof this place. Let's try this again. This time, my password is 'I still have the rest of a clip loaded. How confident are you about dodging them all?'"

"Hmm... yes... Please, come right in."

Ranma ignored the mumbled diatribe about gun-wielding problem-children as the door opened, and he stepped through, into a dark hallway.

"With as unnaturally violent as you seem to be, you'll be wanting the door at the very end of the hall."

Ranma grunted and continued on. After a moment, the old man snickered under his breath.

"Hmm... or maybe the one at the very end is the one for veterans. Pity. An obvious amateur like her... well it'll certainly teach her to shoot at innocent old men."

The vindictive gatekeeper cackled again as he slid the door closed.

Meanwhile, Ranma had stepped into an enormous room filled largely with people in suits and large, shirtless men covered with scars and tatoos, both in unusual places.

"Maa... at first I was suspicious, but it looks like he sent me to the right room after all. Big bucks. Fun fights. No Pops around to blow it all for me. Heh."

"Is that... Bonnie? Why, Bonnie! What an unexpected pleasure for our paths to cross here, of all places."

Ranma glanced to the side. Unlike the majority of the suit-wearers in the room, the one that had just addressed her was remarkably non-greasy and his suit seemed tailored to fit correctly.

"Hm? We met?"

"Ah, dear me. Don't tell me you've forgotten the name of your supplier, Kouta Shuutaro! And after always coming through for you, even on those most unique of orders. I can still only imagine what purpose or beastie some of your special bullets could be put to."

Ah... so they had met. Or rather, the man was an acquaintance of the drowned girl This could be a good thing, or a terrible one, depending on just how the dice fell.

"Although... you've certainly been out of touch for quite some time, Bonnie. Ever since a mark actually eluded you in the chinese wilderness, I hear."

"There... were complications." Ranma grudgingly offered after a slight hesitation.

"Must have been some complications to keep you, B.B. Hood of all people, from completing a contract. But, ah... this likely isn't the place for such discussions. Tell me, what brings you to a place like this?"

"... If you must know, I'm here to compete."

"Oh! Are you quite sure? I'm afraid that there are some restrictions on these matches that you may not be used to. Firearms are prohibited, for a start..."

"That won't be a problem." Kouta arched an eyebrow at the interjection, but shrugged it off.

"Hm... perhaps things have changed. However, you also need a sponsor to be allowed to compete. Hm.... Hahaha. Don't worry... I'll happily act as your sponsor, for oh... a fifteen percent share."

"Five."

"My, my... not even a moment of hesitation. But even for old friends, I can only go so far. Ten."

"Done. And use this to make bets on me." Ranma said, handing over twenty thousand yen of his remaining funds.

"Ho. But of course. Now, your first opponent..."

xxx

"It's her, alright. I know that face... it haunts my nightmares."

"But how? Gone for so long... Rumor had it that she was dead. She had to have been dead to go so long without hunting. To just show up, and in a place like this..."

"True, there are a great many oddities. Also, her main ability before was in her armaments... that was well known. The best odds for one of her marks was to quickly press a close range assault, then flee. It's how I got away, although she didn't seem to be after me specifically. Now, however..."

"Yes... so strong. It's horrifying. None of those men would be a match for us, but she tears through them as easily as we would."

"What do we do... what do we do?"

"No choice. We wait for her to tire, then strike after she leaves. Such a threat... Ha! And if we're the ones to end her, we'll be heroes!"

"If we screw up... we'll be dead."

"True. But on the other hand, when will another opportunity like this arrive?"

xxx

"Hm, Bonnie. I must say I am impressed... your take, minus my cut." Kouta handed over a fat envelope. "And also, I slipped in a card with my current locale of business. Do drop by sometime. I'll be eagerly awaiting your arrival."

Ranma tucked away the money and quietly left, intending to change back on the way to the Tendo place. It wasn't long, though, before he sensed a presence tracking him, and he turned off into an abandoned construction site.

"... So. Come out then... I can tell you're there. No point in trying to hide."

"I see-"

"Then we'll just-"

"-Have to kill you quickly!"

Two oni dropped into the area, every inch the image. Ridiculously overmuscled, furry loincloth, horns, fangs, and clubs- the works. In unison they lifted those spiked clubs and rushed forward, bellowing.

Roughly five and a half seconds later, the oni were left in a crumpled pile.

"Crap, we-"

"-Gambled it all, and-"

There was a long, drawn silence as they prepared for their inevitable fate. After a few minutes, they cracked their eyes open.

"Where'd she...?"

xxx

"Man... so pathetic. I almost feel sorry for those losers."

Ranma paid for some tea in a paper cup and walked a short way before pouring it over his head and tossing the cup aside.

"Meh... almost. Anyone that attacks me out of nowhere like that deserves anything they get. For a moment, I thought it was that Amazon again... that would have been a hassle and a half. Now... the Tendo place is..."

"Ah! It's so cute... Charlemagne! Give me my Charlemagne!"

Ranma frowned at the insistent tug on his hood. Attempting to ignore the distraction, he began a swift walk.

"Charlemagne! Give me my Charlemagne!"

The walk became a run as Ranma darted through crowds and between traffic to escape the annoyance.

"Charlemagne! Give me my Charlemagne! Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme!"

Unsuccessfully.

"Hey, brat! Go AWAY!"

"Ah... such a rude man has taken my Charlemagne!"

"It's my coat!"

"I challenge you! When I win, you'll give me my Charlemagne!"

"Nothing doing. Besides, you never said what I would get if I won."

".... The event will be pair figure skating! I, Azusa Shiratori- Where are you going with my Charlemagne!?"

"I'm not interested!"

"Charlemagne! Charlemagne! Give me my-"

Ranma turned around and poked Azusa in the forehead.

"You know what? Wait here. I'll be back in a sec..."

Azusa, now thoroughly confused at the deviations from standard operating procedure, complied. Ranma nodded and stepped into a nearby shop. After a moment, he exited with a small parcel.

"Now, I'll tell you what. If you stop bugging me about my coat, I'll give you... this!"

Ranma dramatically withdrew a china dolly in a very pink dress from the parcel. In a way, it resembled Azusa herself.

A long moment passed as Azusa processed this turn of events, then-

"Francois! Francois is so cute!"

"Heh. Problem solved." Ranma smirked, walking away.

xxx

"Of course, I also assumed that you'd go home or something."

"Nii-sama! Buy this for me!"

"No. Be satisfied with the dolly. And I'm not your brother."

Ranma was by now deeply regretting his momentary lapse into diplomacy. He definitely should have followed his first impulse, and just knocked the brat out.

"Oh my... a guest, Ranma-kun?"

"A tagalong. At this point I'm hoping that if I ignore her long enough, she'll go away."

"Nii-sama's being a meanie, Francois..."

There was a soft rumble.

"Ah... I'm hungry. Nii-sama-"

"No. No, no no. Find your own food, it's not my-"

"Oh my! Please come in miss, a friend of Ranma's is as good as family."

"Ka... Kasu... mi..." Ranma groaned out.

"I'll prepare an extra place for Ranma's friend. Excuse me."

Ranma twitched. Then his expression lightened as Akane turned the corner, in an obviously vile mood, grown viler as she noted his presence.

"You.... What are you doing here?"

"Oho. My student has a lamentably short memory, it seems. We're occupying your spare room, if you've forgotten."

Akane just growled, apparently in no mood to hear reason.

"Hmm... looks like it's time for the next lesson. Come, Akane... attack me from whatever direction you wish."

"Fine by me! Raaagh!"

"Take this. Strike of the Gorgon!"

Ranma seemed to drift past Akane's wild blows.

"Ha... 'Gorgon', huh? It doesn't seem like your attack does anything... eh?"

"Au contraire, my foolish student. Listen closely... don't you feel any different?"

Akane paused. Now that it was mentioned... her hair felt heavier. Her eyes widened and she paled.

"Hohoho... I see you've realized the terror of the Gorgon Strike. Taking an opportunity to strike fear into the heart of one's opponent, by rapidly braiding live snakes into their hair!"

The snakes began hissing noisily as they started to come out of their daze, thrashing to escape.

"KYAAAAH!"

"Heh. It's all part of your training."

"Ranma-san, dinner."

"Ah, it's so yummy!"

"Hey... Don't start without me!"

"Get them off mee!"

xxx

A.N.

Plot has begun to move again... enough to try to run away on me. Ah well... things are starting to heat up a little. The problem, I think, will be keeping from bringing too many characters into the mix all at once.

In any case, working on picking out Ryoga's curse. Will probably be either the original piglet, or some sort of huge, vicious, monster of a boar. Depends on a great many factors, really.

As for what Ranma did to Shampoo... that remains a secret. Although I will say that it wasn't permamently damaging... in a physical sense, at least. It may well have mortally wounded her pride.