Side by Side
By M. Zephyr

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is a trademark of Rumiko Takahashi and VIZ Communications, and its characters have been borrowed without permission. This story was written for non-commercial purposes only.

Ranma x Akane. Sequel to Togetherness. Alternate universe story in which Ranma and Akane are cursed to change into duplicates of one another.

Chapter 14. Neko Fallout

Nabiki ran out the school gate with the unwieldy bag of catnip thumping hard against her shoulder, then stopped with dismay as she realized that her sister Akane, and Ranma, were already completely out of sight. She looked up and down the street, gnawing at her lower lip in worry. There was not so much as a tiny flash of their red shirts to be seen.

On the other hand there was an elderly man standing nearby, staring into space, with an expression of complete shock and amazement. Nabiki ran up to him, her bow little more than a jerk up and down.

"Hey! Uh ... pardon me. Did you see two teenagers come this way, both of them dressed in red shirts and black pants? Moving really fast?"

The man turned his head slowly to face her, then spluttered, "They jumped up on the fence as if it were nothing. They just jumped up there and kept running. On the fence."

Seeing that he was about to expand on this theme, Nabiki interrupted quickly. "Did you see which way they went?" she demanded.

He considered the question before nodding slowly. "Yes, I saw. They turned down the street over there." He pointed. "At the end of the block."

Nabiki looked in the indicated direction, turned back, and gave a slight incline which might have been intended as a bow. She took off again, running as fast as she could.

Those who knew Nabiki, even those who knew her well, would have been surprised at the turn of speed she could manage when she put her mind to it, and would have been even more surprised at her stamina. She carefully cultivated a facade of indolence, hiding how well she kept herself in shape, out of the habit of restricting information until it could be used most profitably.

She wasn't thinking about such things at the moment, however. Her whole attention was giving to tracking down her sister, wondering what had happened to her, why she was acting so strange. Had that idiot Kuno done this to her? What had that fool been doing at the school anyway? She forced the question out of her mind. She couldn't afford to be distracted, not with the trail growing cold. She had to find Akane and make sure her sister wasn't hurt again.

Nabiki stayed on Akane's and Ranma's trail by following the accounts of people who had witnessed them in passing. There was a problem, though. The two younger teens were traveling more quickly than Nabiki could run, even if she didn't have to stop and ask questions. But the witnesses only stared after the pair for so long before continuing on about their own business. As block after block fell behind her, it grew harder to find pedestrians who had seen the two and who knew which way they had gone. Nabiki was rapidly running out of time in her pursuit.

Two small children holding the hands of their frenzied mother both turned and pointed down a nearby alley when asked about a boy and a girl wearing red shirts and black pants. Nabiki thanked them and ran into the alley, stopping to look around quickly as she emerged at the other end. She paused a little longer on realizing that she was staring at the Ono Clinic, barely more than a stone's throw down the road on the other side of the street.

Nabiki perfunctorily asked a few passing people about Akane and Ranma, receiving shrugs in reply. She bit her lip briefly before deciding to take the time to look in the clinic. After all, it was a destination of sorts, a place where Akane might feel safe, even in her current condition. Maybe she had been heading there all along. Maybe Akane had realized on some level that she needed medical help and come looking for it. In any case, Nabiki decided it was worth checking.

Clutching these thoughts as straws of comfort, she hurriedly entered the clinic, calling out Tofu's name before the door finished closing behind her. He emerged from the back, startled to see Nabiki Tendo looking, if not quite distraught, at least unsettled and out of breath.

"What's wrong?" he asked, stepping quickly forward and looking her over with a show of professional concern. "Are you injured? Ill?"

Nabiki shook her head. "Not me. Ranma and Akane. Have you seen them?"

The doctor gave his own negative head shake. "Should I have? Is one of them hurt?"

Nabiki sighed heavily, sagging with disappointment. She resisted the temptation to pull at her hair. "I'd hoped they were here. I lost their trail up the street."

Tofu relaxed, his face stretching into a smile. "You lost them? You mean they ran off and left you behind. Well, Nabiki, I'm afraid you'll have to take your game ..."

"It's not a game!" she snapped angrily. "This is serious. They seem to think they're cats. No!" She held up a hand, forestalling the interruption forming on his lips. "Let me tell you what I know first. Okay?"

The middle Tendo sister rapidly outlined recent events; the discovery of Ranma's fear of cats, how he and Akane had been trapped in a room with a number of cats, how when they emerged they had done a great deal of damage, appearing to be able to cut things with their bare hands. She described their behavior, climbing a tree, ignoring her, hissing at Ranma's father, and Genma's description of Ranma sometimes retreating into catlike behavior.

"Which doesn't explain why Akane's behaving the same way," Nabiki finished.

Tofu tapped his chin, making a thoughtful sound to indicate that he understood the problem but had nothing to suggest. He didn't care to speculate in the absence of observation. "And you think they're around here somewhere?" he asked, returning to the reason she was here.

Nabiki nodded wearily. "They ran off, very fast. I was able to track them for a bit, from people who saw them pass by. They seemed to be heading this way, and like I said, I lost the trail near here. And your clinic is someplace that Akane, at least, knows fairly well."

Tofu murmured his agreement. "Well, let's have a look around. I haven't seen them, but I suppose they might have slipped in."

The two missing teenagers obviously weren't in the waiting room where they currently stood. A quick examination of the examination rooms, Tofu's office, the receptionist's office, the file room, the restroom and the supply closet turned up nothing. Tofu opened the back door, but no one was in evidence in the alley behind. He turned his gaze thoughtfully to the windows above.

"Come along," Tofu told the girl beside him. He stepped outside and made his way around the corner to the staircase on the side of the building. Mounting the steps quickly, he tested the door to the apartment above the clinic, finding it securely shut. The windows to either side also appeared to be closed.

"Should we check the windows on the other sides?" Nabiki asked.

"Not just yet," Tofu replied, considering the next flight of stairs. "Let's go the rest of the way up first." He started up the stairs rapidly, leaving the girl to follow or not as she would.

"The roof?" Nabiki asked, then shrugged as this was obviously his destination. Tofu was already at the top of the stairs and really, it seemed as likely a place as anywhere else.

When her head emerged above the edge, Nabiki stopped in surprise. The entire roof was covered in leaves, dozens of different species of plants evident at a glance.

"What is this?" she asked.

"My garden," the doctor replied distractedly. "Many of the herbal remedies I prescribe aren't available at the local apothecary, you know. Where did you think I get the ingredients?"

"Never thought about it, I suppose," Nabiki admitted, finally joining him on the roof.

Much to Nabiki's relief, it didn't take them long to find the missing pair. Ranma and Akane were lying on a bed of some species of moss, underneath a table upon which other plants were growing in long trays. Akane was on her side, curled up with her face tucked under one arm. Ranma lay wrapped around her, his nose buried in her neck.

Unable to resist the cute image they presented, Nabiki pulled out a camera and snapped a picture. She justified the shot to herself with the promise that no one else would see it, other than Kasumi, and possibly Akane and Ranma as well. Provided she could feel confident that they wouldn't go nuts on her.

Putting the camera away, she studied the two closely, amusement subsiding. "They seem ... more comfortable with each other," she said thoughtfully. "You think we're seeing how they really feel, underneath? Or is it just because of ... whatever happened to them?"

"Hard to say," Tofu replied distractedly. He was examining the flow of chi in their bodies, looking for signs of any obvious gross disruptions. That something was affecting their chi was immediately evident, but their life force appeared still to be fundamentally human, which was definitely a relief.

While in this perceptive mode, the doctor again noticed the red string he had spotted on a previous occasion. It still ran between the smallest fingers of the left hands of each of the two youngsters. Except that the word "string" was now a misnomer. A word such as "yarn" or "twine" suggested itself instead. Looking closer, he perceived the presence of a curious thread of gold running along its length. He was deeply puzzled, wondering what this might portend.

While Doctor Tofu was occupied with his examination, Nabiki was trying to deal with the situation. She bent down to crawl under the table, but Ranma lifted his head and growled at her. It wasn't a particularly threatening growl - it involved no baring of teeth - but she backed up hastily all the same. Regaining her feet, she suddenly realized that she'd given way to Ranma, not a precedent she wanted to encourage. Rather than let him think he'd gotten the better of her, Nabiki put her hands on her hips and gave the boy her best glare, pretending that she'd meant to retreat. He just settled his head back down, ignoring her.

Feeling aggrieved and out of sorts, Nabiki released some stress by commenting snarkily, "I suppose we should be thankful that they both still have their pants on." Doctor Tofu didn't answer, which just made her feel all the more that the situation was out of her control. She didn't like that one little bit. She remembered that she still had the catnip with her and it occurred to her that she could use this to entice them out from under the table.

Setting the bag down at her feet, she untied it and extracted some of the catnip, crushing it between her fingers. Nabiki waved her hand toward the two under the table. Both heads came up with alacrity, sniffing the air with interest.

"What was that?" Tofu inquired, returning to awareness and replaying her recent comment. "Their pants?" He ran a hand through his hair. "Yes, I suppose we should be thankful for that. I can't know yet how much awareness they have, or how much their current mental processes match the animal-like behavior you described . It would be unfortunate if they lost all social inhibitions and acted as one might expect of two animals. I doubt you're ready to be an aunt, yet."

As he spoke, Ranma and Akane were getting up from their prone positions onto all fours. Belatedly, Tofu noticed what Nabiki was doing. "What is that? Ah, Nabiki-chan, that isn't catnip, is it?"

She looked up at him. "Yeah. I thought it might get them out from under the table."

Tofu took a deep breath, wincing in concern. "Bring them out, yes. Plus get them intoxicated, and who knows what else. Weren't you just worrying about them keeping their pants on?"

Nabiki turned around in sudden alarm as she felt the bag leave her possession, to find Ranma and Akane pawing at its contents. They were rubbing their faces in it, while making happy little meows and purring sounds. "Oh! Oh, ah ... um ... so what should we do?"

The doctor studied the pair for several seconds. The two teens batted at the bag, spreading the catnip over the roof around them. He smiled and shrugged, suggesting, "Why don't we try an old home remedy for bringing someone back to himself?"

Tofu walked over to a hose he used for the garden and turned on the tap, filling a pail which sat nearby. On turning around he saw the two catlike teens stop rolling in the catnip and bound up to their feet. They sniffed at each other's faces, rubbing their cheeks together. Then Akane aimed a playful swipe at Ranma's nose, before she took off running on all fours. Ranma gave chase, close behind.

They circled the roof a couple of times, knocking over several plants. Timing his move carefully, Tofu threw the water in the pail at the pair. It caught both Ranma and Akane full in the face. They reared back, startled, and switched genders.

Slowly, in stages, the two cursed teens stood up. They looked around themselves, their expressions showing disorientation and confusion.

Tofu set the pail down, his eyes on his patients. "Do you know where you are?" he asked gently.

"I don't ... This can't be ... your clinic, can it?" Akane asked, in a dubious baritone.

"Yes it is," he told her with a smile. "Welcome to my rooftop garden. Do you remember how you got here?"

Akane lifted a hand to her head. "I ... Yes. No. It ... I was a cat? No, that's not possible. ... It's like a dream. I seem to remember. Some of it. But what I remember is impossible. Ranma ... you were there. What ... happened to me? To us?"

The doctor turned to the girl, reminding himself that the boy to whom he'd just spoken was Akane, and this was Ranma. "How about you?"

Ranma, looking troubled, crossed his arms over his breasts. "Like Akane said. It's ... weird. Like part of me was there. But I didn't really know who I was. A dream, yeah." He shook his head, saying, almost to himself, "Not like before."

"Before?" Tofu prompted.

"It's happened to me before," Ranma confessed. "But I was never able to remember anything. This time ..." He shook his head again.

Nabiki pulled out her phone to call Kasumi, in order to reassure her elder sister that the pair appeared to be all right. While she did that, Doctor Tofu herded the distracted teens toward the stairs, suggesting in a professionally calm and soothing voice, "Why don't we go inside so that I can examine the two of you in comfort? Mine, if not yours. You can tell me the rest there."

Down in the examination room, Tofu provided hot water to reverse their curses, then took his time looking over his two patients. Neither was aware that his examination was more than merely physical. They were still too confused to notice his eyes go out of focus as he studied their auras. The young doctor was relieved to find that their chi had settled back into fully human patterns, the disruptions he'd observed up on the roof gone as if they'd never existed. The red yarn was still present, however, and the gold thread within it as well, both as vibrant as before.

"You both appear to be as remarkably healthy as ever," Tofu told them. "However ..." He cast an eye over their abstracted attitudes. "Perhaps you'd like to rest for a while before we discuss the matter?"

"Yes, please," Akane whispered and Ranma nodded his agreement. Tofu suggested that they lie down on the two examination tables, Akane on the one in the middle of the room, and Ranma on the bed against the wall. He left them there, assuring the two teens that he would be back in a while, and herding the protesting Nabiki out in front of him.

When it became clear to Nabiki that Tofu had no intention of letting her disturb his patients, she grumpily decided to make the best of the delay and return to school. It had occurred to her that all three of them had left their school bags behind. Extracting a promise from Tofu that he would wait for her before interrogating the two, Nabiki hurried off.

Akane, listening to the argument, heard Nabiki leave and then the sound of another door shutting, which she assumed was Doctor Tofu going into his office. She called out softly, "Ranma?"

He responded with an interrogative "Hmm?".

Akane took that as encouragement to continue. "Is that what the neko-ken is like? That you told me about in China?"

He sighed and rolled over on his elbow to face her. "Dunno. Like I told the doc, I've never been able to remember anything before. This time I could. At least some of it. But it does seem a lot like a dream."

"Yeah," Akane agreed. "It was like ... I was acting like ... it was like there was something telling me how I should act. Not telling me. Controlling me. Well, not that, either. I don't know how to say it. But I was still me. Except, I didn't know who I was."

Ranma chuckled. "That came out pretty confused. But I know what you mean." Lying back down, he put his hands behind his head, gazing at the ceiling. "Aren't we supposed to be resting?"

"Mm-hmm," she admitted, still looking his way and thinking hard.

A minute passed in silence.

"Ranma?" Akane called again.

"Rest," he said.

"I don't really need to," she told him. "I feel fine. I'm just trying to think things through. Do you think it was because of China?"

"Do I think what was because of China?" he asked, curious.

"Dummy. The reason I went into the neko-ken too. At least I guess I did. Do you remember the time that cat scared you in China? While I was in your head?"

"Oh. Yeah," Ranma said, remembering now. "Do you really think you might have picked up the neko-ken from me because of that?"

"I think so," Akane declared slowly. "When I saw the cat that time, with your eyes, it looked strange. Like a monster. When I saw the cats today, they looked the same way. It was pretty scary. Um, downright terrifying, really."

Ranma flipped over, resting his chin on the backs of his hands. "You're probably right then. Monsters, yeah. That's a pretty fair description of how they look to me."

"It's probably not a one time thing, then," sighed Akane.

"Guess not," agreed Ranma.

Silence reigned again. Akane thought over the now dreamlike conviction she had possessed, that she had felt Ranma's presence in her mind. That holding on to that presence had helped her to resist being pulled down into some dark, unaware state. She remembered how she had seemed to commune with him as she ran. The shared feeling between them that they would not be left in peace at the place identified as "home." Then the image of the clinic arising as a place where she might feel safe, and a sense of agreement which followed.

It seemed so vague and, well, like a dream. Surely it was only her imagination that she had been sensing things from Ranma in her mind. Nothing so concrete as words, perhaps, but ... no. No. It was just a silly idea. She certainly wasn't going to ask Ranma about it and sound like a fool.

Hesitantly, feeling ridiculous, telling herself she really was a fool, she tried to touch Ranma inside her mind. Tried to find that contact she half remembered feeling. Tried to sense him. Tried to get him to sense her.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Akane gave up in disgust, calling herself an idiot.

Over on his own bed, Ranma was privately telling himself he was an idiot for trying to reach Akane with his thoughts. Of course it had only been his imagination. Thinking that he had felt Akane, that holding to her had somehow kept him from sinking into mindlessness, was just foolishness.

By the time Tofu and Nabiki returned, Ranma was as ready as he was likely to get to talk about it. He started by telling the doctor, as carefully as he could, the training he had received from his father for the neko-ken. He also described what he could remember of previous incidents. Tofu confined himself to a grimace and an unhappy shake of his head. Nabiki's opinions were hidden behind the cool mask she wore.

Akane took up the story when Ranma fell silent. "I don't know why, but one of our classmates decided to set up this elaborate trap for Ranma. He left a note in Ranma's locker, supposedly from me, saying that I needed his help in the gym."

"That's not what it said," Ranma protested, interrupting her narrative. "It said you were being held hostage."

"That's not important," Akane replied, irritated. She turned her shoulder to him, focusing on Tofu. "The important thing is that I was at the locker with Ranma and I knew I hadn't sent the note. So I went with him, and the stupid trap caught me instead of Ranma. I ended up in a room under the stage, and it was filled with cats. I think, no, I'm certain that they were just ordinary cats. But they looked ... like demons. They were ... really, really scary. I tried to get away, but there was nowhere to go."

Ranma snorted with disgust then said, "I heard her scream, so I jumped in." He chose not to mention that the way he remembered it, he was already jumping by the time she screamed. After all, that didn't make any sense, so going cat afterward was probably just screwing with his head - he'd probably jumped the instant Akane screamed. Ranma added, "Of course, as soon as I got down there, I was stuck in the room with the cats too. And, um, neither of us could get away."

"And from what you said of the neko-ken," Tofu concluded, "if you can't escape the fear, you come to believe that you're a cat? And that's what happened today?"

"To me, yeah," Ranma said. "But why Akane?"

Akane's earlier suggestion that it happened because of seeing the cat in China seemed pretty feeble to Ranma. Puzzled and not stopping to think, he turned to her and asked, "Your dad never trained you in the neko-ken, did he?"

Akane shook her head, and Nabiki added a scornful, "He's not that stupid."

Ignoring the older girl, Ranma asked Akane, "You weren't afraid of cats before?"

Akane shook her head again. "No. I was never afraid of cats before Ch... uh, before I met you."

"Well, there is the curse you passed on to her," Nabiki suggested uncertainly, "when you kissed her and woke her from the coma. Maybe this is just another part of that? I mean, we don't know why she got your Jusenkyo curse, so ..." She shook her head. "And then there was the other stuff you could do. Both of you reduced a tree to wood shavings!"

"That much, at least, I think I can explain," Tofu said. "When I examined you on the roof, I detected some unusual alterations in the chi flowing through your bodies. It was still mostly as one would expect for a human, but ... there were some unique differences. I suspect those differences explain this ability to carve things up. There were probably other differences as well."

"Smell," Akane said instantly. "In the dream ... well, of course it wasn't a dream, but anyway, I could smell things a lot better than normal. I mean, my nose worked better, or something."

"So what happened next?" Tofu inquired. "What do you remember after you succumbed to the fear?"

Akane looked at Ranma. Ranma looked at Akane. Akane frowned. "I ... I don't know. I don't think I remember anything at first. It was like ... it was like I was asleep in my own head. But then I ... it felt like a dream. It didn't seem real, and I don't remember everything, but I seem to remember some of it."

Her frown deepened. "It was like when Ranma started teaching me to float. I kept sinking. Then pulling myself back up. It was hard to stay above the surface, aware of what was happening. Almost like something was trying to pull me under."

Ranma glanced her way, eyebrows raised. "That's a pretty good description of how it was for me. In fact, it's a lot better than I could've tried to put it. The strange thing is, the times before, I never felt anything like that stuff. I never remembered anything."

Tofu nodded. "What do you remember? About what you did?"

Both teens sat there in thought. Ranma finally shook his head and answered, "Not much. Next thing I remember is being in a tree. Were we in a tree?"

"Yep," confirmed Nabiki. "Though I wouldn't call it a tree any longer. Not after you two finished shredding it."

Akane winced. "I seem to remember that. I think I was unhappy about something. Or someone."

"That would be Uncle Saotome," Nabiki said. Akane winced again, as Nabiki cheerfully added, "He'll live though. He wasn't bleeding that badly. Unfortunately." The last word was muttered under her breath.

Ranma nodded. "Wouldn't be the first time he got scratched up when I was in that state. Pretty much what he deserves, if you ask me. I think we ran off after that."

Nabiki gave her own nod. Tofu asked, "Any idea why, or how, you ended up on the roof of my clinic?"

Akane hesitantly suggested, "I seem to remember running toward someplace ... safe? That's how I think I thought of it, anyway. I wanted to be somewhere we - I - would be left alone. I guess Ranma followed me."

"Why the roof?" Nabiki wondered aloud.

"I think the roof was my idea," Ranma put in. "Something about being more comfortable higher up."

"Okaaay," she replied. "Now for the sixty-four million yen question. Why were you in the position in which we found you?"

Doctor Tofu frowned at the older girl. "I don't think we really need to know about that. It's not polite to tease."

"Wh-wh-what position were we in?" Akane asked, red-faced and stammering. Her eyes were wide in something like horror. Ranma did a better job of hiding his reaction, but his face was also blazing.

"Nothing very risqué," Tofu reassured them. "You were just lying down beside each other, under a table." A severe glance from the man made Nabiki swallow her next sentence, striving to appear contrite.

"Which brings us up to the present," the doctor concluded briskly. "I splashed you with water and your Jusenkyo curses activated. Either the shock of an unexpected wetting or the curse on its own, or a combination of the two, brought you both back to normal."

"So what do we tell the rest of the family?" Nabiki asked worriedly, addressing Doctor Tofu more than the other two. "Do you really think it was what I said earlier? That Akane somehow ... caught this neko-ken thing, the same time she got the curse from Ranma? Like they were both some kind of disease?"

"At least I didn't catch his dragon's whisker thing." Akane muttered.

"What was that?" Tofu asked her, distracted.

Akane looked down, shaking her head. "Nothing important."

Tofu gazed at her a moment longer before turning back to Nabiki. He shrugged and said, "Honestly, I don't know. Your explanation is as good as any for now, I suppose. Or at least no worse."

He didn't feel ready, yet, to discuss the bond he observed between the two teenagers, even though he thought it might be related to the fact that Akane shared Ranma's curse and the neko-ken. For one thing, he had no idea whether that bond was the cause of those two conditions, or whether it was itself another symptom of something yet unknown. In any event, Tofu strongly felt that the young couple were already sufficiently troubled by the pressure their fathers were bringing to bear on them, trying to push them together. There was no need to provide them with additional worries.

Akane and Ranma, on the other hand, were convinced that the shared neko-ken, like the curse, arose from the experience of shared consciousness in China. Akane was further convinced that the episode with the cat in China had done it, although Ranma had his doubts. Like Tofu, they preferred to keep their opinions secret and let Nabiki's suggestion stand as the official explanation. No matter how little it truly explained.

Nabiki now turned to her sister and potential brother-in-law with a smirk. "You realize, don't you, our fathers are going to see this new development as a sure sign that the two of you are meant to be together. I know you don't want us putting pressure on you, but I have to admit, I'm having trouble not seeing it that way myself."

Both of them made faces at her. Akane then turned to Doctor Tofu and inquired, "Is there anything else you need to know? Or need to tell us? Because if you want to know the truth, I'd like to go home, bury my face in my pillow, and freak out for a while."

"We have martial arts practice this afternoon," Ranma reminded her.

"Even after all this?" Akane protested.

"Of course," he said, sounding scandalized at the implication of canceling practice, almost as if she had suggested defying a law of nature. "Besides, that'll take your mind off everything. Lots better than hiding alone in your room!"

Akane shrugged, agreeing that he had a point, though exhibiting little enthusiasm.

Tofu smiled and told them, "I think that's all for now. I'll see what I can do about digging up more information on the neko-ken. Who knows, there may be literature out there on the subject of curing it, or at the very least, other side effects we need to watch out for. In the meantime I'd, uh, suggest avoiding cats."

Ranma snorted. "Believe me, I try."

Akane grimaced, saying, "I suppose I'd better try from now on as well."

With that, the three younger people stood and exchanged bows with the doctor, then left.

Kasumi met the three of them at the door, hugging Akane fiercely and then holding her at arms length to examine her younger sister and convince herself that the girl was all right. She then demanded that they tell her what had happened. In the middle of the explanation the two fathers arrived, Genma walking slowly with his skin a patchwork of Band-Aids, leaning on Soun. They of course also wanted to know about the events Genma hadn't seen, requiring Ranma, Akane and Nabiki to start over again from the beginning.

When they reached the part about being trapped under the stage, and informed everyone that they didn't remember the next part very well other then believing themselves to be cats, Soun interrupted. "You thought you were cats?" he inquired in disbelief.

"Er, yes," Ranma replied briefly. "So anyway, I guess that we managed to break out ..."

"By thinking you were cats?" Soun asked, struggling to understand.

"Uh huh," Ranma answered, rolling his eyes upward. "The next thing I knew we were in a tree and ..."

"Because you thought you were a cat," Soun stated heavily, to clarify the point.

"Yes, daddy," Akane said this time, seeing that Ranma was getting fed up with the interruptions. "We thought we were cats."

"You thought you were a cat, too, daughter?"

"Yes, daddy." There was a touch of exasperation in the answer.


Genma cleared his throat. "That's, ah, the way the neko-ken works, as it turned out. The practitioner thinks he, or apparently she, is a cat, and fights with a cat's ferocity. Ranma is very nearly unbeatable in that state ... if he could only remember who he's supposed to be fighting." He gave his son a dirty look, since he was suffering a considerable amount of stinging pain from his various cuts.

Soun turned to his old friend, the very picture of perplexity. "But you taught that technique to Ranma. Why did Akane think that she was a cat?"

Genma shrugged, having no clue. Nabiki answered with the possibility they had discussed earlier at the clinic, hoping to settle her father somewhat by invoking medical authority. "Akane and Ranma ran off after cutting up Uncle Saotome. They ended up at the Ono Clinic. Doctor Tofu thinks that this neko-ken thing was probably transferred to Akane from Ranma at the same time as the Jusenkyo curse. At the hospital that day. When he kissed her." She smirked as the two younger teens blushed.

"Does Doctor Tofu think he's a cat?" Soun asked.

Everyone else rolled their eyes this time. "No, father," Nabiki said patiently. "But he was at the clinic and observed their behavior, before helping to bring them back to themselves. He didn't seem too alarmed."

"So let me see if I have this straight," Soun Tendo was saying. Ranma eyed him hopefully "The neko-ken training made you afraid of cats. And if you become too frightened, you believe you are a cat."

"Yes," Ranma replied wearily, yet happy that the man seemed to have it at last.

"But why does it happen to my daughter?"

Akane barely kept herself from screaming in frustration, while Ranma slapped his palm over his face. "We - don't - know, dad," she told him one more time. "Like Nabiki said, we think it has something to do with the magic that gave me a Jusenkyo curse. When Ranma woke me from my coma. This neko-ken thing must be some type of curse as well, and it got transferred to me also."

Soun shook his head in confusion, failing to understand. "But that was because Ranma's curse made him look like you. This cat business has nothing to do with you."

Nabiki opened her mouth, then closed it again. She realized she couldn't think of a different way to phrase it which would make any more sense.

Genma, already irritable due to his injuries, had had enough. He spoke witheringly. "Look, Tendo, does the how really matter? Forget about how. It's obviously fate. Your daughter shares this little issue with my son, and I'd say that's just one more sign that they belong together. It's obvious that they're meant to get married."

"Would you just shut up about all that marriage crap?" Ranma demanded, picking up a pitcher off the table and dumping the contents all over his father. "It ain't fate. The neko-ken is just a martial arts technique, or maybe some kind of magic, or maybe something that affects our chi. But whatever it is, it ain't fate."

Soun wished he had a cigarette. They always helped him think more clearly, but somehow he'd already lost the pack he'd only just bought that morning. "Now don't be hasty, son. The fact that the two of you share this must mean something, and ..." He nodded his head slowly. "I'm inclined to agree with your father about what it means."

Soun stood up and began to pace, his bare feet making not a whisper of sound on the tatami mats. He was silent for a minute or two, before muttering, "Yes, yes. Clearly they were meant to share everything." He was silent for another minute before he paused, thumb and forefinger of one hand twisting the end of his mustache.

"All right, let me see if I have this straight now." He ignored the collective groans. "Ranma has this ... this cat thing because his father trained him in a technique called the neko-ken. Which didn't turn out as expected, because my old pal Saotome neglected to read the next page." He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Genma, who tried to chuckle nervously, although it emerged from the bear's mouth as sort of a cough.

"Thought I'd forgot that bit, didn't you," Soun said softly. He then went on, addressing the entire room. "Now my darling Akane has caught this cat thing because Ranma had it, and he kissed her, and they are fated to share everything, good or bad. If Ranma hadn't had it, then Akane wouldn't either." He stopped speaking and nodded decisively, then turned and left the room so abruptly that those who remained could almost hear the sound of the air filling the space where he'd stood.

Before anyone could move, or even recover from their surprise, he returned - carrying a naginata in both hands. A small gleam of light glittered murderously over the sharpened blade at its end. In a voice of calm reason, he addressed his old friend. "Now, Saotome-kun, I'd like to discuss with you your decision to train Ranma in this technique. And the intermittent insanity it causes, which my Akane now shares."

Genma's eyes widened with terror, backing up hastily. The Band-Aid covered panda bear held up a sign, which read, "Come on, Tendo. Let's not be hasty."

"I have no intention of being hasty," Soun answered grimly, advancing. "I intend to carve you into panda steaks quite slowly and deliberately."

The bear back-pedaled toward the open shoji while the other man kept pace. With each step the two moved a little more quickly. As soon as Genma's foot struck the engawa, he spun and ran, Soun hot on his heels. A moment later the pair disappeared from view.

Several minutes of silence ensued, broken finally by Kasumi.

"So. When one of you is in this neko-ken state, how can we help?" she asked in a practical tone.

"Invest in an oversized scratching post?" Nabiki suggested with a grin. Kasumi quelled her with a glance, and the middle sister gave a shrug, half apology, half dismissive.

Ignoring the short-haired girl, Ranma offered, "Every other time I've freaked out like that, when I came back to normal I seemed to be waking up. Because I was asleep. I mean, I must've fallen asleep, and when I woke up, I was me again."

Kasumi gave a small frown. "Waiting for you to fall asleep hardly seems ideal."

Speaking more seriously this time, Nabiki volunteered the suggestion, "Doctor Tofu got them out of it by dousing them with water."

Kasumi's expression grew thoughtful, as she considered this. "And it worked?" she inquired.

"Yep," replied Nabiki cheerfully. "Triggered their curses of course, but they were human again. Tofu wasn't sure if it was the shock of getting soaked, or the activation of the curses, but whichever it was it did the trick."

The oldest sister turned toward the boy on her left. "Hmm. Ranma-kun, have you ever entered this neko-ken state while you were in female form?"

Ranma's scowl had slowly been growing deeper, expressing his frustration with a subject he didn't enjoy discussing at the best of times. Standing, he announced in a brittle voice, "If you'll excuse us, Akane and I still got our training to do." He turned toward the youngest sister. "C'mon. I'll meet you out in the dojo."

Akane rose from her seat, tired of the conversation as well, and more than eager to move on to her martial arts training and put the uncomfortable topic behind her. Her sisters watched her leave with troubled expressions.

Then Nabiki turned to Kasumi, while pulling a camera out of her bag, and began to describe things she had left out while the fathers were present.

Ranma was distracted as he entered the changing room, his thoughts taken up by rehashing the afternoon's events. He'd been able to push it out of his mind while he'd been training Akane, but now his mind began gnawing at it again. Were there going to be any new surprises coming from the time they'd spent together in China? First their shared curses, then the neko-ken. What would be next? He recalled Akane's mutter about the dragon's whisker, in the clinic, and a reluctant smile touched his lips. It was a darn good thing they didn't share that one, since they had only one dragon's whisker to control the thing.

Pulling off his shirt, the young man turned his eyes toward the ceiling, toward Akane's bedroom. She'd be there now, having bathed before him. How had she, or her spirit, come to be in his head during those two memorable weeks, leaving these links between them? Was there really some Fate which had drawn them together? He shook his head, sighing over the futility of asking such questions.

He dumped his clothes into the laundry, then slid open the door to the inner room, and stepped inside, bathing supplies in hand. Walking quickly over to the stool, Ranma failed to notice that he left the door ajar, and further failed to notice the small shape which slid bonelessly through the narrow opening. Seating himself, he poured a pail of water over his head, transforming into a girl.

With the soap worked to a lather, Ranma was preparing to wash himself when he heard a small sound from behind, a sound which made him stiffen in apprehension. Trembling, he slowly turned, seeking the source of the noise. Another "meow" emerged from the creature's throat at the same moment his eyes filled with the sight of the cat which had followed him into the room. Yelping in horror, Ranma jumped up, knocking the stool aside and running to the opposite side of the furo. The cat chased him, calling out with a loud, demanding cry, terrifying him even further.

Upstairs in her room, dressed once more in black slacks and a white Chinese shirt, Akane's head shot up, eyes startled. Fear. Terrible fear. But why? There was nothing here, nothing to be afraid of. Irrationally, she wondered if Ranma was all right. Akane hesitated for several long seconds, telling herself she was being foolish, but then decided there was no harm in checking on Ranma. She'd see that he was fine and that would be that.

Her feet sped down the stairs, a ghostly - possibly only imagined - terror pulling her forward at an increasing rate. She never even once thought about her destination, instinct drawing her onward.

Akane ran into the changing room. Without a moment's hesitation, not even considering what she might see or Ranma's probable reaction, she yanked open the door to the inner room. Then she caught sight of her own face, frozen in a rictus of fear, as Ranma backed against the side of the furo. Akane froze herself, trembling, her eyes taking in the cat facing Ranma, its back to her. The cat jumped, straight at Ranma.

Attempting to scramble backward, he only succeeded in tripping over the furo's side. He fell into the water with an enormous splash. The cat, already in midair and unable to turn aside, fell in with him. When it vanished from view, Akane tried to calm her racing heart so that she could go find her father, or Ranma's. One of the men would be needed to remove the animal before Ranma went into the neko-ken again.

Before she could move, Ranma surged upward out of the water, his chest showing that he was clearly male. Luckily he stopped halfway, the lower regions still submerged. A moment later another figure shot up out of the water. Her chest, as bare as Ranma's, established her female gender beyond any doubt. Several seconds passed in shock, long enough for the girl to smile, before Ranma and Akane simultaneously identified her.

"Sham... Shampoo?" Ranma asked nervously, trying to confirm that his eyes were not playing tricks. He suddenly remembered what the Chinese girl had come to do last time and his gaze snapped up to meet Akane's, aware in that moment of her presence. He recognized the narrowing of Akane's eyes and as she took a step forward, he gave a quick, sharp chop of his hand off to the side. Puzzled, but still angry, Akane paused.

Meanwhile, pleased with the recognition, Shampoo's smile grew even wider. Throwing herself forward, she sang out a joyful "Nihao, airen!" and wrapped both arms around the boy in a tight hug.

That was too much for Akane. Her temper boiled over, and she started forward again. Ranma caught her eye and waved her away, moving his lips in exaggerated if silent enunciation over Shampoo's back, telling Akane to get out.

Akane did stop, her eyes wide with pain and amazement, unable to believe that he wanted her to leave him alone to cuddle with that Chinese hussy. Her expression narrowed dangerously, her lips drawing back in a snarl, her hands clenching into fists of rage.

Ranma looked up at the ceiling, praying for strength. Catching her gaze again, he began to signal, rapidly moving his hand back and forth - pointing at Akane, then pointing at himself, then holding up one finger, over and over.

At last Akane got it. Shampoo still didn't know they were two people, and Ranma didn't want her to know. She almost went in to pull the tramp off Ranma anyway, but he shook his head at her again. Akane decided that if that was what he wanted, then she wanted nothing to do with him anyway. With one final glare at her putative fiancé - and did she have a word or two in mind to say the next time they were alone together - the Japanese girl stepped back behind the door, out of sight. She went no further, though, and listened carefully.

Not having the slightest clue as to the thoughts with which Akane was currently entertaining herself, Ranma heaved a sigh of relief that she had decided to act rationally. He then looked down uncomfortably at the nude girl wrapped around him, keeping his eyes squarely on her face, trying to figure out how to free himself of her grip. Squirming really didn't help, bringing parts of his body that weren't normally so evident into contact with parts of her body that were not ... He tried to hold himself stiffly aloof. Stiff, yeah, that he could manage. Embarrassed by the gallant reflex, he stammered nervously, "So, uh, Shampoo. I thought you went back to China."

The purple-haired Amazon raised her face from his chest to smile at him sunnily. "Shampoo remember. Give airen Kiss of Marriage. So come back, reach Tokyo last night. Now we go home and have big ceremony, yes?" Her lips turned down in a small frown. "But one thing. Is name Ranma? Or Akane?" She tilted her head, looking at him quizzically. "Or maybe airen call himself Ranma when girl, and Akane when boy, yes?"

In the next room, Akane almost fell to the floor in surprise, managing to catch herself barely in time.

Ranma thought fast. "Actually, you have it backwards. I use the name Ranma when I'm a boy, and Akane when I'm a girl."

Shampoo frowned more deeply. "That not sound right. Shampoo certain she hear you called Akane as boy." Then she shrugged, and hugged him tightly again, pressing her cheek against his hard chest. "No matter. Boy now. Name is Ranma. Ranma is Shampoo's airen. Wo ai ni." With this last sentence, she squeezed. Hard.

As the air rushed from his lungs, Ranma strove for freedom once more, desperation giving him strength. He finally got the girl's arms far enough apart to escaped her grip, sliding quickly to the other side of the tub. He hesitated to leap out, however, given his nudity and the question of what to do next. Stand there in front of Shampoo? Run into the outer room where Akane waited? Where the hell was his towel, anyway?

Ranma was growing more and more nervous about the entire situation, especially given the way the nude Amazon was looking at him. Like he was a chunk of beef, and she was starving. Knowing that Akane was standing right outside the door, listening, didn't help any either. How did he end up in situations like this? For that matter, her mentioning the Kiss of Marriage wasn't calming his nerves any. What was with people trying to get him married? On the other hand, that reminded him ...

"Look, Shampoo," he began, taking a deep breath. "I distinctly remember that we told you - I have a fiancée. You didn't forget, did you?"

"Amazon law clear, Shampoo give Kiss of Marriage. Airen must marry Shampoo." She smiled, a grin so catlike that Ranma felt his nerves go even more taut. "Shampoo soon make airen forget other girls."

Outside in the changing room, Akane heard a low, quiet growl. After a moment, she realized with surprise that it was coming from her own throat.

Ranma had no idea what to say in the face of such a statement. So instead he asked, "Why were you a cat?"

The Chinese girl's smile shifted into a pout. "Shampoo have curse now, too." The smile returned to her face, although it trembled slightly. "That make us perfect couple, yes? Both have curse. Both understand."

The young man in the tab with her waved one hand slowly, back and forth, "Um ... ah ... 'perfect' - not the word I'd use." He finally spotted his towel, on the floor beyond Shampoo. "Let's discuss it later," he suggested, then leaped above her.

Shampoo's eyes went wide, startled, as she took in the view passing overhead. Craning her head back to look, she forgot to pay attention to the rest of her, and her rump slid along the bottom of the furo away from the wall. She slipped underwater with a squeak of dismay.

Ranma grabbed his towel and flung it around his waist, tying it off in an instant. He ran out the door to confront a scowling Akane, ducked past her before she could decide whether or not to hit him, and grabbed two yukata. He slipped his arms into one, dodged Akane again, and tossed the other through the open door, which he then slid shut. Grabbing Akane's hand, he pulled the sputtering girl out of the changing room into the hallway.

"Let go of me!" Akane finally spat out, tugging her hand free.

"Is any of this my fault?" he demanded, his voice rising as his own anger and frustration kicked in.

Akane merely glared.

"We gotta hide!" he insisted hurriedly. "Remember what she wants to do to us in our girl form? We can talk about this after we get away!"

He grabbed her hand again, yanking Akane down the hall with him. She didn't fight him this time, but was clearly unhappy. They stopped at the kitchen door.

Speaking rapidly to Kasumi's back, Ranma said, "Shampoo's back. She's in the furoba. Akane and I have to hide. Try to get rid of her." Then he sped off, pulling Akane behind him.

Kasumi spun around and stared in surprise at the empty doorway. Surely she couldn't have heard correctly? The young woman carefully put down the knife she was holding, rinsed her hands, then walked down the hallway. Just ahead of her a door opened and a head peeked out, purple tresses trailing behind, the countenance puzzled.

"Shampoo," Kasumi said faintly. "What a surprise. We all thought you were in China."

"Shampoo come back," the Amazon girl said with determination. "Remember give Ranma Kiss of Marriage. Where is airen?"

"I'm sorry, but he just left," the older girl replied, carefully not stipulating whether he had left the house or the hallway. For that matter, and for all she knew, Ranma might have left the house after he ran off. She only hoped he would remember to hide Akane as well, like he'd said in those few brief words.

Shampoo wasn't sure whether to pout or frown. Why was her airen always running away from her? Not that she didn't understand back when she was trying to kill her ... him. But why would he run away now? They'd had the opportunity for a wonderful private moment a few minutes ago, and it was quite irritating to have him take off like that.

Worse, based on previous experience, it would take much too long to track him down again. She'd already taken a long time to get here, and she had to be back at the subway station at the appointed hour to meet her father and great-grandmother. With a heavy sigh the young woman discarded the thought of finding Ranma again today, and said, "Thank you. Tell airen Shampoo see him later. Bye bye." With a wave she walked away.

Kasumi held up her hand and gave a tentative wave to the retreating figure. "Er, yes. Good-bye."

Ranma didn't stop running until he reached the top of the flight of stairs just inside the grounds of the shrine he had chosen as their hiding place. Now that he could hope they were safe, he felt that he deserved a rest. Turning to the right, he ambled over to a quiet corner which was out of sight of the street below. Not that he expected it to stay quiet for long. Akane followed close behind, simmering and close to an eruption.

The boy turned and said, "Okay, we should be safe enough for the moment. Go ahead and get whatever it is off your chest."

"Don't pretend you don't know what I'm mad about," Akane replied grimly. "You were embracing a naked girl in our furo!"

"It ain't like I did it on purpose!" he responded, a trifle hotly.

"Oh, right! I could see how hard you were trying to get away!" The dark-haired girl's voice was drowning in sarcasm.

"She had a grip like steel!" Ranma protested. "I broke free as soon as I could, but it wasn't easy!" He paused, then added. "And I had to wait till you were out of sight. Who knows what she would have done if she'd seen you? She might try to carry out that Kiss of Death thing!"

"I can take care of myself!" Akane yelled.

"Maybe you can and maybe you can't," Ranma responded doubtfully. "But Shampoo seems pretty serious about the 'death' part of that Kiss of Death thing. Until we're sure that she ain't gonna try to kill you, I don't want to take any chances! Dying's a bit more serious than getting some bruises, you know!"

"So you want me to just stay out of sight while you cuddle and hug your Chinese girlfriend, huh?!" she demanded.

Ranma, just about at the end of his temper, went on the attack. "Hey, you're the one who let her give you that Kiss of Marriage, remember? If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be stuck with this!"

Akane opened her mouth but then closed it again, unable to think of a rejoinder. Frustrated, her arm swung from the side, fingers extended and palm forward, prepared to give Ranma a slap which would lift him off his feet.

Only to have her swing interrupted as Ranma caught her wrist in an iron grip. Before she could strike with her other hand, that one was captured as well. Akane looked up to realize that a bare handful of centimeters separated them, their arms held out to the sides. She fancied she could feel his hot breath on her cheek. Hastily, the two of them backed away from one another.

Akane looked down, face rosy. "Yeah, well that ... that doesn't excuse you trying to make out with her."

Ranma almost growled. "I wasn't ... dammit, I thought you knew me better than that. She grabbed me, not the other way around. And we can stand here arguing about it all day if you want to, but that ain't gonna change nothing. The question is, what do we do about it? How do we get her to call off this Kiss of Marriage crap?"

The young woman eyed her alleged fiancé dubiously, but then decided to give the question some serious thought. "Well, she called off the Kiss of Death when she found out you weren't a girl. Do you think I can get out of the Kiss of Marriage by showing her I'm not really a boy?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. If she believes us. The question is, will she? Or will she think it's just a trick? What if she decides we're lying and that she gave me the marriage kiss and you the death kiss? What if she decides she can carry both promises out by marrying me and killing you? Seems kind of chancy, don't you think?"

Akane frowned. "How should I know? Okay, I gave you my idea. Let's hear yours then."

Ranma leaned against the wall and studied the clouds for a couple of minutes. "Seems to me it's just too dangerous to let Shampoo know about you. Not when we don't know what she might do. Marrying ... well, I don't wanna marry her, but it ain't like trying to kill me. If I just avoid her as much as I can, and tell her 'no' often enough, she's got to give up eventually." He paused before adding, "I hope."

Akane's gaze was skeptical. "Do you really think there's any chance of that working?"

The young man standing there wouldn't meet her eye. "It's the only thing I can think of. Except for telling her about you, and that's just too big a risk. And ain't you the one who didn't want anyone to know Shampoo kissed you? Now you want to tell everyone?"

Akane looked uncomfortable. "I didn't. Don't. I just don't think that hoping she'll give up is going to work either. But I can't think of anything else, except for silly things like running away from home."

"Wouldn't work anyway," Ranma replied morosely. "She'd just track us down again." He kicked at a rock. "And why the hell'd she have to get cursed to turn into a damned cat? I mean, out of all the pools at Jusenkyo, why a cat? Almost makes me believe that Fate really does have it in for us."

Akane turned and leaned her back against the wall beside Ranma. She let out a tired sigh. "When do you think it'll be safe to go home?"

"Never?" he answered hesitantly. Ranma snorted over his own response, then clarified, "At least, not until Shampoo goes back to China. But I suppose we're gonna have to risk it. It'll be time for dinner soon."

For a moment, Akane was nonplussed by his decision. How could he think of food at a time like this? Then his stomach gave a loud rumble, as if answering the question, and she chuckled weakly. "You and your stomach. It's going to be the death of you someday. Well, you're just going to have to wait a while before eating, baka."

Nothing more happened that night, although both teens felt a sense of unreality as they went through their usual routine, waiting for the axe to fall. Their dreams were filled with images of marrying a purple-haired Chinese girl in an elaborate ceremony, only to have her turn them into a girl with a splash of water at the end, followed by divorcing their head from their shoulders with a sword.

The sense of playing a part continued the next morning. When the teacher walked in for first period, they both chimed out, along with all the other students in their homeroom, "Good morning, sensei." As they did everyday. And just as usual, he responded, "Good morning." But then the procedure changed. Their teacher turned and looked first at Akane, then Ranma, saying, "Tendo-san, Saotome-kun, Principal Watanabe would like to speak to the two of you in his office. Please report to him immediately."

While their classmates stared, and one or two snickered, Akane and Ranma closed their books and stood up in mild embarrassment. They left the room together, walking down the hall slowly, wondering whether they were in trouble and, if so, how much.

"What ... What do you think this is about? Yesterday?" Akane asked nervously. "That wasn't our fault."

Ranma shrugged, and answered. "My guess? Probably about us tearing up the gym and destroying that tree. I suppose he wouldn't be too thrilled about that."

Akane swallowed, then grimaced. "I bet you're right. I remember how unhappy he was with Hibiki when his umbrella chopped down a tree. Back when that jerk first showed up. And that was just a little one. So I suppose he would be upset with us if we, uh, damaged one as bad as Nabiki said." She looked off into the distance. "You know, I've never been in any serious trouble before. At school. Nothing that would get me worse than holding buckets. Should my stomach feel this sick?"

"You get used to it," Ranma replied nonchalantly. "Not that it was usually my fault, but guys like Ryoga used to pick fights with me a lot at school. I've spent my share of time facing principals across their desks. But they've never done anything to me that comes close to some of the training pop made me do. I guarantee you we'll survive whatever's in store for us."

Remembering the so-called training which was responsible for the trouble they were in, Akane hunched her shoulders up to her ears, muttering, "You are so comforting, Ranma Saotome." She stopped in front of the office door. "I suppose there's no use in putting this off."

"Nope," Ranma said cheerfully. He pushed open the door.

One of the secretaries immediately ushered the two students into the principal's office, closing the door behind them. They stepped forward, stopping and standing at attention in front of the desk. Watanabe finished typing something on his keyboard before turning and regarding the two teenagers, placing his elbows on the desk and steepling his fingers together.

"I have already spoken with the basketball coach and members of the team, a few other witnesses, Gosunkugi-kun, his parents, and the police," the principal began. "I have also been in contact with an attorney representing Tatewaki Kuno, who has sought to soften his client's position by offering to have the family pay for the damage to the stage and gymnasium floor. Although I was at first inclined to lay the blame elsewhere, the testimony so far indicates that the pair of you are responsible for most of the damage, including the destruction of a tree behind the gym which was planted when this school was first built. I would now like to hear what you have to say for yourselves."

Akane's legs trembled at the report of the damage, particularly to the stage and gym, certain that she was about to be expelled. Ranma took the matter more philosophically. "It wasn't exactly our fault, sir, even if we did do it. Akane and I have a, um, condition I guess you'd say. Kuno and Gosunkugi set it off. We weren't really aware of what we were doing."

The man behind the desk narrowed his eyes. "What sort of 'condition'? Are you trying to tell me the two of you were temporarily insane or something? When you did all of that? And if so, could you please explain why I shouldn't consider you to be too dangerous to have here in my school?"

Akane's chin started trembling, and Ranma suddenly became aware of how worried she was. He glanced her way and whispered, "Hey. Buck up. It'll be all right."

Watanabe also seemed to take notice at the same time. "You may take a seat, Tendo-san. Saotome-kun can explain."

Akane nodded and stepped backward, sitting in one of the chairs against the wall. She breathed deeply, hoping that Ranma could manage to explain in a way that would let them stay in school. The problem was, the thought of Ranma trying to explain caused her to grow even more worried.

Ranma proceeded to explain about the neko-ken training, and what he was like when he was in that state. He also described the idea the family had accepted for the time being, that Akane had somehow gained this odd problem at the same time as the curse. Unfortunately, the description of chi claws which could rip up gym floors and shred entire trees did nothing to set the principal's mind at ease.

Seeing the man's face harden and fearing what that might mean, Akane took another deep breath and gasped out, "Please, Principal Watanabe!" When he looked her way, she took a couple of more deep breaths and tried to find words to make a better impression.

"It ... It's, uh, not something that's likely to happen again. Ranma's encountered cats before, and this hasn't happened. It only seems to happen when we can't get away, like when we were stuck under the stage because of what Kuno and Gosunkugi-kun did. Any other time, if we saw a cat, we'd just run away."

"Still ..." the man said suggestively.

"And we didn't hurt any people, did we?" Akane went on, then faltered. "I mean, not badly. I guess we did scratch up Ranma's father, but he was the one responsible for the neko-ken in the first place."

"Kuno Tatewaki also suffered numerous scratches," the principal informed her. "Not that I intend to waste too much grief on that particular young man, particularly as he violated his probation in order to receive those injuries." He paused. "I'll admit that you don't appear to have injured any innocents. This time. But it's still worrisome." He drummed his fingers on the desk, thinking.

Finally he sighed. "I admit to having a soft spot for the two of you, and I don't want to penalize you for something which isn't your fault. In fact, we'll forget about the tree. This time, anyway. But I do need to think about the safety of the other students. So here's what I'll do.

"There's a psychiatrist who visits this school every Friday to counsel students. So she'll be here tomorrow. I want you two to collect your assignments and go home today. Tomorrow you'll report directly to her as soon as you get in. If she says you're safe, you can return to classes. If she says you need to be evaluated by someone else, you'll have to do that. If the final decision is that it's not safe to have you here ... well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. I suppose we could work out something involving home schooling or the like. But ... I truly hope it doesn't come to that."

"So we get the rest of the day off?" Ranma asked for confirmation, his voice happy. "Gee, and you were afraid we'd get punished," he chortled to Akane, failing to note the horrified expression on her face as she gazed at him.

Watanabe put a hand over his face. "Collect your assignments from your teachers first, Saotome-kun."

Akane spoke up, her worry still present but under considerably more control. "You said you spoke to the police. Do you know what they've done concerning Kuno?"

The principal nodded. "Yes. He's back in jail for violating his probation. I don't have any high hopes that he'll remain there for any huge length of time, but the prosecutor in charge of his case thinks it likely that he and Kuno's attorney will come to a compromise of about a month. I'll let you know what they decide, since I've asked them to keep me informed."

He looked toward his computer, then back again. "Oh, and as for Gosunkugi-kun, he's on in-school suspension until Monday. I'm unsure of how much of this he went along with willingly, and how much he was pressured by young Kuno. But I have informed his parents that if there are any future incidents of this magnitude, that I may have no choice but to expel him." He paused, but then continued. "One more thing. I expect the two of you to allow the school to handle this. You will not seek retribution against Gosunkugi-kun personally. I trust that's clear."

"Yes sir," Akane replied dutifully. Ranma looked faintly rebellious, but didn't contradict her answer.

"All right, then, you can both leave. But I expect you to study and not treat this as a vacation. And if your parents have any questions for me, naturally they can call."

Akane stood up and bowed. Reminded of his courtesies, Ranma bowed as well. The principal nodded and the two teens left the room.

After everyone else left the house that morning, Kasumi finally had some peace and quiet in which to think. Life had certainly become a lot more exciting since the Saotome father and son showed up, and on balance she felt that she approved. After all, their arrival had been necessary for Akane to awaken from her coma, and Nabiki had definitely changed for the better since then. For that matter, both Akane and their father seemed happier these days.

Of course, there were - challenges - as well. At the moment she couldn't see how the situation with Shampoo was to be resolved, and had decided to be patient and await further developments on that front. This business with the neko-ken was actually worrying her more just at the moment. Almost, she found herself wishing that her father had caught Uncle Saotome yesterday before his ire had cooled.

Kasumi sighed, and repeated the calming mantra she had been using ever since her mother's untimely illness and death. What was done was done, and it was useless to waste worry over how her sister had come to suffer from this neko-ken. They would simply have to learn to live with it. The young woman would have to make sure to keep stray cats off of the property in future, and to avoid any other situations where either Akane or Ranma might encounter such. The two younger teens would need to avoid places such as the fish market in Ginza. In truth, it shouldn't cause much in the way of additional problems.

The young woman frowned. There was still one element in what Nabiki had told her which was of some concern. Told her in private, after the younger two had gone off yesterday. Although Nabiki had treated the photograph with amusement, it had troubled Kasumi slightly on first seeing it and hearing the tale, and the more she thought on it, the more bothered she became. Well, not bothered, perhaps. But it did bear thinking about. The problem was, even if this neko-ken wasn't likely to happen, that didn't mean it could absolutely be prevented. And if it did ... well, in that case, it was necessary to consider all of the consequences. And much though she might prefer to hope for the best in all things, she would not fool herself by indulging in wishful thinking.

So, there was really only one thing to be done, wasn't there? Nor was there any sense in putting it off. As unlikely as it was for an incident such as yesterday's to be repeated, unlikely things could and did happen. Putting off unpleasant tasks merely meant running the risk that you were too late when you got to them. Mind made up, the young woman walked over to the telephone, checked the number in the book, and dialed.

A voice on the other end answered. "Hello. This is Dr. Koshino's office."

The rest of Thursday passed quietly enough - no running around thinking they were cats, no murderously violent Chinese Amazons, and Genma had been so unnerved by Soun's response to the situation that he was tiptoeing around behaving himself quietly for once. It helped that Soun had found one of his missing packs of cigarettes on the hall table.

On Friday, Akane and Ranma went to school as usual, but instead of going to homeroom class they reported to the office to meet with the psychiatrist. They had to wait a little while, until Principal Watanabe finished speaking with her, but then they were asked in. First both together, then one at a time, after which she gave them a set of tests to do. It was well after lunch when she finally finished checking through the tests and called the two students back in together to discuss the preliminary findings.

"I must admit, this has been one of the most bizarre cases I've ever dealt with," the woman sitting across from them said.

"But we will be able to stay in school, right?" Akane said hopefully, asking for confirmation.

"Yes, as I already told you," the psychiatrist assured her. "The people I called and talked to after lunch all agree, you're only dangerous to someone attacking you. I intend to advise Principal Watanabe that you should not present a significant risk to the other students." She shook her head, still amazed over everything she had learned that day. "I wish I could suggest something to help you overcome your phobia, but desensitization training seems far too dangerous under the circumstances."

Ranma snorted. "Force us to be around cats? Yeah. Real bad idea."

The woman sighed. "As I said. In any case, it's too late to return to class today. But you may expect to attend as normal on Monday. And good luck to both of you."

"Thank you," Akane said. She stood up, and Ranma joined her as they left the office.

"I suppose you're happy about that," Ranma commented out in the hall.

Akane frowned. "Yes. And you should be too. School's important."

The boy sighed. "Yeah, yeah. C'mon, let's get home. I have to train with my pop. I don't know why it had to take her all day just to decide we could stay in school."

Akane grabbed his hand and pulled him up a staircase. "Because she had to make calls to find people who had heard of the neko-ken, and then call those people to get the information she needed. You're just mad 'cause you were bored while you were waiting. I told you to bring your homework to work on."

Ranma ignored this. "Where are we going? She said we didn't have to go to class."

"Of course not," the girl pulling him replied. "The bell's going to ring in ten minutes. But we need to get our assignments."

"Aw, crud. That means more homework."

"I told you to work on it," Akane repeated. Ranma stuck out his tongue at her.

A short time later they were on their way home, walking along the top of the fence. Akane was in front, and Ranma was urging her to go faster. "Hurry up, would you? I wanna get home and beat up on my pop."

"You can't," she told him.

"Huh? Why not? I like beating up the old man."

Akane tried to appear disapproving, but a chuckle escaped her. "I know you do. Not today, though. Remember this morning? Kasumi said she wanted us to go downtown with her."

"Oh yeah," Ranma said, snapping his fingers. "Why? Where're we going?"

"We were both there, Ranma," she said peevishly. "Why ask me? She didn't say."

"Well, maybe she only needs you to go with her," the young man suggested. "You're her sister. No need for me to butt in while the two of you are shopping or whatever."

"Kasumi asked you to go, so you're going. End of discussion."

"But ..."

"End of discussion," Akane emphasized. "You want me to move faster, I'll move faster, but you're going downtown with us." The girl took off running along the fence.

Grumbling to himself over the prospect of shopping with the two girls, Ranma took off running behind her.

"Wait a minute!" Ranma complained. "This isn't a store. The sign says it's a medical center. Why're we here?!"

Akane also wore a confused expression, but Kasumi remained unperturbed. "We're here because I made an appointment for the two of you to see a doctor. We're expected shortly. Now let's go in."

"But I'm not sick!" Ranma protested. "And if I was, I'd go to Doc Tofu."

The older girl set her hands on her hips. "The appointment isn't because you're sick. Please go in. Now!"

"Um, Kasumi?" Akane asked tentatively, stepping around her sister and through the open door. "What is the appointment for? I don't know of any reason I need to see a doctor."

"It will be easier to explain when we get there," Kasumi insisted.

"Well, when did you make this appointment?" Ranma demanded. "Why didn't you tell us about it?"

"I only made it yesterday," she responded. "I explained that it was something of an emergency, and the doctor agreed to make time to see you today. I'll explain when we get there. Please trust me."

"But I'm not sick!" Ranma repeated.

Kasumi sighed. "Ranma-kun, are you scared to talk to a doctor?"

The boy huffed. "Of course I ain't scared." Face twisting as if he smelled something bad, he stated, "Okay, fine. Let's just get this over with."

The three finally entered the building, Ranma scowling and Akane still confused. Kasumi led them straight over to an elevator, and together they rode up to the sixth floor. They turned left down a carpeted hallway, and eventually approached a door.

On reading the nameplate on the door, Akane stopped in shock. "Kasumi ... oneechan ... why are we here? Most of all, why is Ranma here? You ... you can't ..."

Ranma studied the sign which was obviously bothering Akane so much. "Dr. Koshino? What's gyn-e-co-lo-gy?"

"I'll explain inside," Kasumi told him, hoping she could get him shut in a room where she could stand in front of the door while she explained. "We're here because of some issues related to your neko-ken problem. To try to make sure that nothing unfortunate occurs."

Akane's look of confusion returned. Ranma seemed enlightened. "Oh. We already saw someone about that at school. She agreed we won't hurt anyone who don't deserve it."

Kasumi decided not to contradict this assumption. "Nonetheless, please come in with me. For my sake?"

Ranma shrugged, pushed open the door, and walked inside. Kasumi made a gesture toward the door, then, when that didn't work, took hold of Akane's arm just above the elbow and gently persuaded her younger sister to follow. The door closed softly behind them.

Half an hour was spent waiting. Akane sat tensely, rigid, trying to figure out why she was there, and even more strangely why Ranma was there, yet afraid to ask. Kasumi sat calmly, reading a magazine. Ranma twiddled his thumbs, bored, wondering idly why all of the other patients were women. At long last the nurse who appeared regularly at the door to call people in came and said, "Akane Tendo and Ranma Saotome?"

A few minutes later, people throughout the medical center looked up, startled, at a baritone scream of "What?!"

Inside the room, Kasumi kept her back to the door, while the doctor leaned against the window, amused, and Akane sat very still in a chair, deeply embarrassed. Ranma's back was plastered to a wall, and he was looking around wild-eyed.

"I ain't a girl! Why'm I here?!" the young man demanded in horror.

"Have you forgotten your curse, Ranma-kun?" Kasumi inquired gently.

"But I don't plan to use my girl parts!" Ranma pointed out at the top of his voice. "So there ain't no damned need to check them!"

"Ranma's right," Akane said, far more quietly but with determination. "I don't know what you're thinking, but I'm not planning to do anything anytime soon that ... well, I'm just not."

Doctor Koshino smiled faintly and pushed her glasses up her nose. "If it helps, I'm not planning to do an internal exam. For either of you. I plan to draw some blood, but that's it. Perhaps if you allowed your sister to explain?"

Akane turned toward her older sister. Ranma did so as well, and the depth of his unease was shown by the fact that he glared at the older girl.

Kasumi cleared her throat. "Did Nabiki tell you what you were doing when she found you? Before you woke up from the neko-ken state?"

Akane frowned. "Doctor Tofu said we were lying down beside each other."

"Wrapped intimately around each other is how Nabiki put it to me," Kasumi told Akane, carefully not mentioning the photograph their sister had shown her.

Both of the younger teens blushed deeply on hearing this.

"I've been worrying about it ever since," Kasumi continued. "What if this happens again? What if you aren't discovered as quickly next time? Nabiki said you were both acting like cats. It occurs to me that cats - animals - don't have the same concept of appropriate behavior as people."

"Nothing like that will happen," Akane whispered. "I promise."

"But didn't you say that you didn't remember who you were?" Kasumi insisted. "If you can't remember yourself, how do you know you'll remember that promise?"

Ranma looked back and forth between the two sisters. "What are you two talking about?"

"What she is suggesting," the doctor explained clinically, "is that while in an altered mental state, you and Akane Tendo demonstrated an attraction toward one another. A physical, potentially sexual attraction." Ignoring his spluttering denial, she added, "Our concern is that if it happens again, you might ignore your human inhibitions and follow animal instincts instead. Meaning that the two of you might engage in sexual intercourse."

Akane's cheeks grew even more red. Ranma looked like someone had whacked him in the face with a two by four. "Ain't no way!" he shouted.

"But how can you be certain, Ranma-kun?" Kasumi asked softly.

"I'm sure!" Ranma declared while trying to back through the wall. "No way I'll do that just 'cause ... 'cause ... I think I'm a cat."

Akane, eyes closed, hands clenched in fists, striving for control, hoarsely proclaim, "What he said."

"And if you're wrong?" the doctor asked Akane coolly. "Are you willing to risk that you might end up pregnant?" She turned to Ranma. "Are you willing to risk that you might end up pregnant, if what Kasumi Tendo told me about your curses is true? Especially if a fairly simple precaution can avoid the risk?"

"Me? Pregnant?" Ranma squeaked.

"Yes. You, pregnant," the doctor confirmed. "If you're in your cursed forms at the time, and you're wrong about what you will or won't do."

"What precaution?" Akane whispered, wondering if maybe, just maybe, there might be a tiny chance it really could happen.

"Oral contraceptives," Doctor Koshino answered. "It's just a pill you take, every day, in your female form." She gave them both a long look. "Curiously enough, I've heard of Jusenkyo before, although the woman in question turned into a horse so the cases were hardly parallel. In any event, I will need to see your curses demonstrated, as I must do blood tests in both your normal and cursed forms. According to my discussion with the doctor who treated that case I mentioned - the woman with the horse curse - the hormones in your blood should change magically with the curse just like all of your tissues, which is why I think there's a good chance that the pills will work as long as you're female when you take them. We will need followup blood tests to check on that, of course."

Akane turned toward her sister, eyebrows rising into her hairline. "You want me to take the pill?"

Kasumi glanced away uncomfortably. "I wouldn't exactly say I want that. But it seems like a good idea under the circumstances."

Ranma, trying to present a less nervous appearance, said, "Hey, Akane, you know, if it's just a pill they want you to take, what could it hurt?"

The doctor gave him a smile. "I want you to take it as well, Saotome-kun. Once a day, while you're in your female form."

"Me?" Ranma was all nerves again. "But I can't get pregnant! I'm a guy!"

"That seems not to be true when you get wet, or so I'm given to understand," she reminded him. "And as you said, it's just a pill. Isn't that better than taking the risk, however small, that I might have to face you in this room one day and tell you that you're pregnant?"

The argument continued for some time, although Akane surrendered fairly soon under pressure from her sister. Ranma finally folded when it was suggested that he lacked the sense to take a simple precaution which Akane was willing to use. The doctor drew blood from both teens in both genders, and informed Kasumi that she could pick up the prescriptions on Monday, provided the lab results showed what she expected to find. Akane and Ranma were both very quiet as they left the building with Kasumi. However Ranma, in particular, was fidgeting badly.

The older girl turned to the two younger teens and asked, "What do you say to going and getting some ice cream?"

Ranma shook his head. "You and Akane can if you want. I'm going for a run. I'll see you back at the house." With that he leapt to the roof of a nearby building, and disappeared across the rooftops.

Akane stared after him enviously. "Someday I'm going to be able to do that, too," she remarked.

"I'm sure you will," Kasumi agreed. "Now let's decide what flavor we should get? Chocolate? Fudge ripple? Chocolate chip? All three, maybe?"

Akane smiled for the first time since arriving at the medical center. "I vote for the last," she said, licking her lips in anticipation.

The roofs were a blur under Ranma's feet. He was finally regaining his calm. The idea that they expected him to take a pill to prevent ... well, it just didn't bear thinking about. He and Akane weren't like that. Not even in their regular forms, and definitely not with him as the girl! He tried to put it out of his mind again, focusing on the act of leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

The young man became aware of a blur in the distance, approaching rapidly. He continued toward it, curious. As they came together, his eye caught an attempted strike, and he dodged by instinct, swinging his legs up and around. Had that been a person, swinging a stick at him? He landed on the roof underneath, spinning around, raising his hands in a guard position.

He was facing a ... an old woman, perhaps? Balanced on a stick taller than herself. "Who are you?" he demanded, irritably.

The withered old face cracked into a grin. "You're not bad ... son-in-law."

"Son-in-law?" Ranma repeated, stupefied. "Wait, what?"

The old crone laughed. "We'll meet again," she told him confidently. Then she bounced away across the rooftops, vanishing in seconds.

"What the hell?" Ranma asked of no one in particular.

Author's note:

I apologize for taking so terribly long to get around to posting this chapter, especially since my pre-reader finished her part of the work back in December. Unfortunately, it's been taking me a lot longer to recover than I might like. I'm back at my job full-time and so forth, but I'm still a long way short of 100% of where I used to be. Plus, I think some of my medication may be damping my creative enthusiasm.

But fear not, I have not quit, and plan to go on writing. On the other hand, fear if you must, for the rate at which I produce chapters will probably continue to be abysmal, at least for a time.

Related sites on the web: Please visit my profile page for information on upcoming chapters or stories, by clicking on my name at the top of this chapter. My profile also has links to my web site, LiveJournal site and forum. The web site contains the official versions of my stories. The LiveJournal site provides updates on what I am working upon at any given time. The forum is a place to discuss my stories or Ranma 1/2 in general.