A/N:

Well here it is and only a couple of weeks overdue.

I've been so busy lately that I haven't had the time to dedicate to writing the next chapter; so as of when this chapter goes live I still haven't started chapter 34. I only have this week and one more left of class time so one way or another I'll be back to writing properly soon I hope.

Anyway, here it is, the next installment of Tabula Rasa

Chapter 33

The Beginning of the End Pt 3

Never Alone

It was a perfect, beautiful spring day.

The sky was a brilliant blue canvas without a single cloud around to sully the relaxing warmth of the sun that blanketed all of Nerima. Birds sung and danced in the sky as mating season began and the air was populated with a myriad of scents carried by a gentle breeze. Genma lounged on the back porch, gazing skyward with a deep satisfied look as he basked in the rejuvenating rays of the sun and Nodoka hung washing on the line, humming a soothing melody as she did. He wished everyday could be as relaxing as this one was. It was awfully tempting to just lay down and snooze... or maybe that was just the panda in him...

It had been quite since Ranma and the others had left over a week ago. Inwardly, he sighed. He had wanted to go with them, the prospect of a fighting style designed to beat Happosai was too great to resist. He wanted to see it with his own eyes, but it had been hard enough convincing Nodoka to let Ranma have the time off school so she could go. Frankly he thought she was entirely too stubborn about this whole school thing... not that he would ever dare say that to her though. She would probably take his head off in a single clean slash of her damn sword.

He shuddered at the thought of her rage...

…... then he smirked; Ryoga had no idea what he was in for...

No, it was probably for the best that he hadn't gone. Or so he kept telling himself. At least he got to enjoy relaxing days like this and Nodoka's cooking while Ranma and the others had to rough it in the middle of no where and live on camp food. He didn't miss that last past one bit. Even still, he wished them luck in in their search, hoping they found what they needed...

More importantly, he hoped Ranma found what she was looking for out there...

The hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood on end, as a rock of unease formed in the pit of his stomach. Genma glanced around with a frown, to find Happosai standing at the far end of the wooden walkway.

'What do you want?' he demanded through wearily clenched teeth.

Happosai tried to sound insulted. 'How is that anyway to speak to your old Master?'

'You're not my Master anymore, you saw to that!' Genma hissed.

Happosai grinned viciously. 'I seem to remember a time when you begged and begged like a pathetic little whelp to make you and Soun my disciples.'

Genma snapped. 'That was the biggest mistake of my life.'

The old man chortled. 'I always did like you best you know. You had more of a spine than that weakling Soun. At least in the beginning. Then you became just as much of a coward as your best friend. How you ever managed to catch a wife I will never know. You're a complete waste of space.'

Genma lunged at the old freak, but the little old man hopped easily out of the way, laughing like a little child. 'You're too fat and slow to ever be a threat to me, Saotome.'

'What do you want you ugly little imp!' Genma snarled.

Happosai huffed indignantly. 'I just wanted to make sure neither you or the Tendo's are still claiming to be part of my school,' suddenly his a gaze turned dark. 'And, I want to know where Ranma's ran off to with Cologne...'

Genma tried not to react, covering his surprise with a frown. 'I have no idea where Cologne is you old goat, but Ranma wanted some time away to train with the other girls and Ryoga and Mousse. Perhaps Cologne decided to tag along like she does,' he smirked at the suspicious, paranoid old man. 'What's wrong? Scared Cologne might be trying to kill you?'

Happosai's dark glare deepened dangerously; without warning he punched Genma in the stomach. Genma doubled over as the wind rushed out of him in a massive whoosh. Happosai slammed Genma's head down and grounded it against the wooden boards of the walkway.

'Do not play games with me Genma!' he hissed venomously. 'I know you know where Cologne is. You would do well to tel-'

Without warning a broom smashed down on the little troll's head, catching him off guard as he scrambled away. He looked up to find Nodoka standing over them with a furious look blazing in her eyes and a broom clenched in her hands.

'Nodoka my dear,' he greeted her happily as he switched to his senile old man act. 'I didn't see you there. Lovely day isn't it?'

Nodoka's eyes narrowed dangerously. 'You are not welcome in my house, troll. Leave now before I get really angry.'

Happosai laughed and waved her anger dismissively. 'Its been far too long since we last saw each other my dear. You've gotten even more beautiful with age.'

Suddenly he disappeared in the blink of an eye; a second later Nodoka screamed, her whole body convulsing as Happosai reappeared behind her, fondling her ass with a gleeful chuckle and rubbing his face against her. With an enraged roar she reached around to rip him free, but this time he was faster. He slipped away from her and hopped out of reach as she whipped the broom around to strike him again. Happosai landed several feet away, laughing the whole time.

He grinned warningly at Genma. 'This isn't over.'

Then he was gone, scampering off like the rat he was.

Nodoka stood there, eye twitching in uncontrollable fury as the broom snapped in half in her white knuckled grip.

'I hate that man!'

~oOo~

Everyone was silent.

Everyone except Ranma.

The red head was doubled over holding her stomach laughing as the others stared in shock at the equally bewildered girl-Ryoga before them. The girl stared at her own hands in silent, wide eyed confusion as she shook her head in disbelief. The girl before them wasn't quite as tall as the male Ryoga, but was easily taller than the other four girls present. Her black hair was slightly longer and even thicker than usual, and her eyes were much wider and a much brighter, brilliant green in the same way that Ranma's were bigger and brighter as girls... Then, abruptly her pants fell to her ankles, her modesty kept only by her oversized mustard yellow top that looked more like a nightshirt on the girl's smaller frame.

No one knew what to say or do as they stared at her; it was as if their ability to think her been walled off. Finally though, Akane shook herself free of the shock and smacked Ranma across the back of the head, nearly knocking her flat on her ass.

'What the hell Akane!' the red head cried as she grabbed at her head.

'This isn't a laughing matter! Show some heart!' Akane snapped, before she turned to Ryoga and approached her gently. 'Are you ok?'

Ryoga screamed as she stared at her hands, startling Akane backwards.

'I'm a girl!' she shrieked, shaking like a leaf. Her eyes widened in alarm and she yanked open her baggy pants and screamed again as the color drained from her face in horror. She was trembling violently now, patting down her own body like it might somehow magically make everything ok. Then her hands found her breasts and she froze, her nose starting to bleed like a running faucet .

Ranma couldn't help but snort another laugh.

'Ok, that's enough, before you die from blood lost.' She approached the girl and grabbed her face, forcing her to look her in the eye. Without a word, she removed one of the girl's many, many bandana's and pinched the girl's nose with it. Still looking her in the eyes she added. 'You need to calm down, and breath ok? Just focus on me, and breath.'

Ryoga was on the verge of hyper ventilating, nearly as white as a ghost and shaking bad. Ranma felt like she was trying to calm down a terrified child. She felt for her, but at the same time she couldn't help but be amused by the confused terror in the girl's eyes. Slowly but surely though, Girl Ryoga managed to regain control of her breathing; it did nothing to stop her from shaking though.

'There we go, that's better,' she told her soothingly. 'Now, how about you tell us what happened? Do you remember?'

Ryoga stammered. 'I-I-I don't...' she paused, grasping at her own throat in shock at the sound of her own voice.

'Hey, hey, stay with me. Focus,' Ranma snapped her fingers at her.

Ryoga hesitated, staring with wide eyes before nodding slowly. 'I don't k-k-know, what happened. I was... I was running, trying to find a way to the surface... I think I ended up running back down the walkway though... and then I was swept up by the Hiryu Shoten Ha, and I remember being thrown around. I couldn't stop myself, I could barely breath. It felt like my lungs were frozen and on fire at the same time. I kept getting hit by things flying about... and then I slammed into a mass of a water... then nothing... I didn't realize anything was different until I got up from under the rubble and... and noticed these!' she pointed at her breasts in a shrill panic.

'Ok, I think you need to sit down for a second,' Ranma told her and guided her to one of the rocks as Ryoga held her head, bunching her hair between her fingers, trying to make sense of what was happening.

Ukyo frowned and turned to Ranma. 'Were you this freaked out when you transformed the first time?'

'Not exactly,' the red head scratched sheepishly at her cheek. 'I remember being pissed and shouting at the Jusenkyo Guide and accusing him of having something to do with it and then threatening to rip his head off if he didn't fix it. It took Pops awhile to calm me down and subdue me...'

All around them, some of the women started to stir with faint aching groans. Ranma had to admit she was impressed; she could have swore they would be out for hours after that attack. Maybe they weren't as third rate as she first thought...

'We should get going before they all come to,' Ukyo said as she glanced around. 'I don't think they're gonna be too happy to see their home destroyed.'

'Don't worry,' Ranma waved her off dismissively. 'They weren't that tough and I'm still good to go a few more rounds.'

Ukyo shook her head with a half laugh. 'Be that as it may Sugar, sticking around here any longer is just asking for trouble, especially with Cologne still out for the count. So we should get out of here while we can.'

'Fine,' Ranma sighed reluctantly.

She turned back to Ryoga, but the girl was still in shock, doubled over with her head almost between her knees and hands covering her eyes. Ryoga definitely wasn't handling this too well. Amused as she was outwardly, she felt a stabbing of concern at the back of her mind. She needed to get Ryoga some hot water soon, if just to give her some relief from this.

Then she frowned as a thought crossed her mind. 'Tetsuya, what's going on? I thought most curses stacked on top of each other. Why isn't Ryoga a pig girl?'

'Ranma!' Akane scolded in dismay. 'How can you be so damn insensitive about all of this?'

Ranma cocked an eye brow and rested her hands on her hips. 'Ok, lets do a recap here. When Ukyo found out about my curse, she used me as her own personal plaything just for her amusement. When Shampoo found out, she couldn't decide whether or not to kill me. And, when you found out, you accused me of being a pervert. So how about you jump off that high horse of yours and cut me some slack here miss high and mighty.'

All three girls shifted sheepishly.

'Besides,' the red head continued. 'Its a fair question.'

Tetsuya shared her frown. 'No, you're right. Typically the curses stack and in this case, yeah there should be some merging of forms, but that's dealing with normal springs. The springs here don't fall under the usual rules though. Those of my bloodline can literally sense the magic energy that makes the power of the springs possible; it saturates the body so much that we can almost taste it. What I'm sensing from Ryoga and what I sensed from the springs earlier is... its weird... it feels similar to one of those idiotic instant, single use curses that people keep making and selling.'

Ryoga perked up at that, snapping her head up as hope filled her eyes.

'I only said it feels similar, not that its exactly the same,' Tetsuya was quick to crush the hope. 'Don't get too excited just yet.'

Ryoga looked disheartened, emotion welling behind her eyes; suddenly she reached her limit and jumped to her feet and snapped. 'I can't stay a girl damn it!'

A deathly silence followed the girl's outburst, and she looked around to find Ranma, Akane, Ukyo and Shampoo all glaring darkly at her with cold eyes shooting straight through her... like she was being impaled with a bunch of swords...

She swallowed nervously. 'Not that there's anything wrong with that...'

Tetsuya chuckled lightly. 'I wouldn't panic just yet. I think I know what's wrong but we should leave this place and find a source of water as far from here as possible so I can test my theory. Saotome, try to keep to her calm until there's something to panic about.'

'Wait, what's there to panic about!?' Ryoga demanded frantically.

The Guardian shrugged. 'If I'm wrong, your pig curse is gone and this is your new cursed form... or something went catastrophically wrong and it could have overtaken your male form and you'll still have the pig curse too.'

Ryoga grabbed at her heart and made a choking sound in wild panic even as Ranma struggled with her, shooting Tetsuya a "thanks a lot" sort of look.

He rolled his eyes. 'However, that last one is extremely unlikely. I don't think you have anything to worry about.'

With that he turned and started walking off towards the path leading down the mountain. The others followed after him, eager to leave the place after everything they had all been through. Ranma though hung back with Ryoga, glaring after Tetsuya for being such an ass; he had to know that would freak Ryoga out. The damn idiot, what was he thinking?

She made Ryoga look at her. 'Try to stay positive till we know whats going on ok? For all we know this is nothing Besides look on the bright side.' Ryoga frowned at her, puzzled. Ranma grinned. 'At least you didn't turn into some grotesque half human half pig monster.'

She laughed as Ryoga gave her a dirty look.

~oOo~

The shrine was full of people, out enjoying the wonderful spring day. The air was fresh and invigorating, and families taking advantage of the fantastic weather. Miko's were busy greeting visitors and flogging off souvenirs and love charms on tourists and impressionable and hopeful young schoolgirls looking for true love with a little mystical intervention from the kami. Genma watched them all in weary silence, thinking back on old times that seemed a million years ago. So many decisions he wished he could go back and change; but, then he wondered how differently things may have turned out if he did and there were just some things he wouldn't change for any reason.

'Genma.'

He glanced up to find Soun standing there.

'He's back,' Genma replied simply.

Soun joined him on the bench seat as Genma filled him in on what happened, about Happosai's unannounced visit. To his credit, Soun didn't seem quite as startled as by this revelation as he thought he would be, but Genma could still see the alarm in his old friend's eyes, no matter how hard he tried to hide it.

He sighed. 'We both knew it was only a matter of time before the old bastard showed his face again, even before we found about this whole business with the...' he hesitated and glanced around paranoidly; the old freak could be watching them right now and they would never know it. His jaw tightened. 'You know.'

Soun nodded stiffly.

Genma smirked with amusement. 'Nodoka's ready to hunt him down and slit him open, he's riled her up that much.'

That brought a grin to Soun's face.

'That would certainly save a lot of time.'

Just as quickly though, Genma turned serious, shaking his head. 'I wish I had never heard of Happosai. It has brought us nothing but trouble, not to mention our children...'

Soun calmly took a long drag on his cigarette, and exhaled a cloud of smoke. 'You know, as much as we may despise the old man, without him we would never have likely became as strong as we are in the arts. We would never have been able to pass on that strength to our children either. We may not like it, but we do have him to thank for that...'

'Was it worth it though?' Genma sighed. 'Was it worth being plagued with him in our lives? We'll never know if we could have gotten to where we are now without him, or would we have just been like every other martial artists out there?.'

'Its useless to wonder about things that don't matter now. We can't change what we did, so there's no point wondering what could have been and focus on what we can do now,' Soun explained reasonably.

'Oh I know what we have to do now, but you're not going to like it' Genma replied calmly, earning a suspicious frown from his friend. 'We have to go see, him...'

Soun blinked blankly in confusion for a few seconds, then suddenly his eyes widened with realization and he groaned. 'In case you've forgotten, the last time we dealt with him, things didn't turn out all too well for us.'

'We'll just have to hope he see's reason this time,' Genma shrugged, but seeing that Soun still wasn't convinced he added. 'We have to try.'

Soun sighed reluctantly...

…...before nodding...

~oOo~

Ryoga felt like a raw nerve.

In the hours that followed, it felt like days past by them in a whirl as they made their way through the forest, eager to put as much distance between them and the temple as possible. They walked in silence, the events of the day still fresh in their weary minds. It was getting late in the day and the already dark, dank forest was getting darker and colder. They had only stopped once, when Cologne had finally come around and they stopped long enough for her to get her bearings and catch her up on what had happened. To say she was furious about what happened was an understatement, but unlike Shampoo her fury was a silent one and altogether more terrifying.

The women were fortunate she had been unconscious the entire time...

For Ryoga the journey was torturous.

She had barely said two words since they left, except to vainly assure them she was fine, when she was anything but, and they knew it. Her head was a storm, her thoughts whirling out of control despite her best attempts to focus on the here and now. It had gotten so bad that she had started to wander away from the group in a daze a couple of times, leaving Ranma to watch her at all times. Inwardly she was trying to make sense of it all, trying to straighten out what had happened, but her memory was still as fractured as when she had related what she remembered before. Worse was silently stewing over the terrifying possibilities that Tetsuya had listed earlier. Hell, she couldn't even look down at her own body without nearly having a nose bleed or panic attack at the moment.

She didn't know how Ranma did it everyday...

Ryoga felt like she had been stuffed inside someone else's body, one that was way too small to contain all of her. It felt like there was no room and everything was pressing in on her, squeezing the air out of her lungs! Had Ranma experienced the same sense of claustrophobia when she first transformed? Even more, everything was different. Taste, sound, touch, smell, even sight. It was all different, but not in any way she could even begin to explain to herself, much less anyone else.

It just was.

Of course the biggest difference was the way her body felt, and she didn't mean it felt different to touch. No, it was in a way that a fighter, any true fighter knew their body on mental level, knew what it was capable of and how far it could be pushed. She could sense the difference in her body's potential; it went without saying that she wasn't as strong as she was in her male form, but she was still willing to bet that with the exception of Cologne, she was still the strongest of the group. What's more, she felt faster. Certainly not as fast as Ranma, but she did feel faster. Her whole body felt so light too, like if she made one wrong step she might accidentally bounce away.

Did Ranma go through all of this, she wondered? Had the red head been so overwhelmed by these differences in the beginning? No, she shook her head slightly, she couldn't compare herself to her, after all Ranma had her extreme adaptability to help her through this. But, even Herb though seemed confident enough in his female form. Ryoga didn't know how they did it, she felt like she was about to lose it... and walking around in clothes multiple sizes too big didn't help.

She had tried rolling her sleeves up, but after they unrolled for the tenth time she just gave up, while the collar continued to try and slide off her now far too slender shoulders. Her pants were nearly as bad, pulled up almost under her obtrusive boobs with her belt wrapped twice around her slim waist and tied so tight it felt like it was cutting into her suddenly soft flesh. She was too scared to adjust it though, afraid of touching her boobs and triggering another nose bleed.

It felt like she was wearing a damn clown costume!

She glanced up suddenly, staring at the back of Ranma's head; she wondered suspiciously how she planned on tormenting her about all of this...

It was nearly night when they finally came across a river.

'This should be far enough away temple,' Tetsuya decided, sounding as weary as the rest of them 'We should set up camp and recover our energy.'

'What if they come looking for us?' Akane asked

Ranma shrugged. 'I think they're gonna have more to worry about than coming after us, but if the do we'll kick their butts again. Won't hurt to be on guard though.'

'You're right,' Tetsuya nodded wearily. 'I must apologize for taking you all there. I had no idea they had become so unhinged...'

Ryoga cleared her throat impatiently.

'You forgetting about something?' she demanded shrilly, before flushing brightly and clamping her mouth shut at the high pitch ring of her girly sounding voice.

Tetsuya looked at her, looking deliberately blank. 'Oh, yes... You. You'll have to wait a little while longer, we need to get a fire started and heat some water first.'

Ryoga felt her eye tick as he turned his back on her in a dismissive manner and wonder on down to the river with a couple of containers. She grounded her teeth in aggravation and squeezed her fists hard till her knuckles turned bone white; She was about ready to beat the crap out of him when Ranma grabbed her arm and pulled her away forcibly before she could do anything stupid. Instead she turned her attention to helping to set up camp, trying to take her mind off it all at least for a short while anyway. Unfortunately there wasn't much to set up. Ranma's Hiryu Shoten Ha had destroyed most of their supplies. They only had a three of their original seven tents left, so they went up in no time.

It wasn't long before Tetsuya had a fire going and set up a tri frame and hung the metal can over the dancing, crackling frames. For Ryoga the wait was moments of pure purgatory that made every second feel like an eternity; made worse by Tetsuya's infuriating determination not to be rushed before he was read. She wanted to take one of the logs she had helped – helped! - drag in to place around the fire and beat him to death with it!

But then she wouldn't get answers...

Finally though, after bringing the water to a boil and then setting it aside to cool for a few minutes, Tetsuya was ready.

He beckoned her to sit down as the others gathered around curiously; Ryoga felt like a side show attraction under their scrutinizing gazes. Without much ceremony, Tetsuya poured the hot water over her head. In the blink of an eye the world shifted and clothes suddenly fit properly again. Ryoga blinked slowly, swallowing nervously, heart pounding and too scared to look down. Shaking hands hesitantly patted at hips and chest, and were rewarded with a hard solidly packed body. Ryoga snapped his eyes down and laughed excitedly as he jumped to his feet.

'I'm a guy again!' he gasped loudly, praying inwardly that he hadn't just passed out back at the temple from shock and wasn't dreaming. He pinched himself for good measure and was met with a sharp sting, making him laugh again... before looking around to find Ranma giving him a frosty look that froze him in place abruptly; suddenly he felt very guilty. 'Uh...I mean...'

Before he could think of what to say, Tetsuya dumped the other container over him. In a flash everything changed again. The world grew, clothes became baggy and muscles and flesh softened slightly. Ryoga blinked in wide sparkling emerald eyed shock as she glanced down at the disturbingly alien sight of her own breasts.

'Hmmm, just as I thought,' Tetsuya said in calm thoughtfulness.

Ryoga whirled on him in a fury. 'What was that for?!'

The Guardian shrugged nonchalantly. 'I needed to test my theory so I knew what I was dealing with. This was the only way to do it.'

'Well boil some more water damn it!' she ordered through clenched teeth.

'No,' he replied simply.

Ryoga felt her blood pressure rise dramatically. 'What do you mean, no?! That wasn't a request you jerk!'

'You are more than welcome to heat your own water, but I'm not your butler and you'll be doing so at your own risk Hibiki...' he replied with an aggravatingly calm demeanor, before pinning her with a serious look. 'That is, unless you don't want to know what's wrong with you first...?'

Ryoga felt her anger fizzle and stopped short of storming off to collect more water when she saw the seriousness in his eyes. She faltered, suddenly unsure what to do, even as the others watched on in silence wondering what was going to happen next, like they were watching some kind of soap opera.

'Please explain yourself Mr Kawahara,' Cologne asked him wearily from the other side of the fire.

'Well, for starters the good news is that this curse is only temporary,' he explained, causing Ryoga's eyes to light up with relief. 'The bad news is that it could easily become permanent if Hibiki isn't careful.'

And like that Ryoga felt like she had been gut punched.

'Uh, what do you mean?' Akane asked, sparing Ryoga a sympathetic look.

Tetsuya sat back on of the logs, staring thoughtfully.

'Jusenkyo magic is very powerful, but its also volatile and sometimes it can be unpredictable,' he started as he picked up a stick and started to stoke the fire absently. 'the ancestors of those women were messing with forces they didn't understand or respect. The springs they created are not true springs. Their power is more than the water or the soil its saturated and when they moved both here to their artificial springs at the temple, the magic was corrupted.'

Cologne stared curiously. 'In what way?'

'Well the obvious corruption is that the curses are no longer permanent, they're only temporary. I'm sure in the beginning the curses worked the same way true springs do, but over time the magic started to degrade. Most likely they've never noticed because by the time they've "fulfilled their duty" to the community, they use the Nyannichuan to remove the Nannichuan.'

'What about their male children though that they bathe in the Nyannichuan?' Ukyo asked. 'Wouldn't their curses run out if that was the case?'

'I'm willing to bet that those pipes that were coming out of the Nyannichuan are connected to their water wells and primitive shower and their baths. Small amounts of water from the spring are pumped into both sources and over time the magic saturates into their bodies and makes their curse permanent, or close enough anyway. It might also explain why they have a higher female birthrate now,' he explained, before returning his gaze to Ryoga. 'Which brings us back to you and your problem Hibiki, which is much more complicated.'

Ryoga gulped uneasily. 'What do you mean?'

'Well you had something none of them already had,' he replied cryptically.

She blinked blankly and looked to the others for help, but they were just as in the dark as she was. A frown creased her brow as she tried to think, receiving an eye roll and a shake of the head from Tetsuya. Ryoga had no idea what the hell he was talking about... but Ranma did.

'A cursed form,' the red head answered calmly, her eyes having lost some of their edge to them compared to before. 'Ryoga, already had a cursed form before being hit with the Nyannichuan water.'

Tetsuya looked at her with genuine surprise. 'Very good Saotome, I'm impressed. You're right, Ryoga already had a true cursed form. Jusenkyo transformations is an ancient magic and when they occur there is a surge of that magical energy in the body that triggers the change. Until you come into contact with water that magic lays dormant. When Ryoga was hit with the Nyannichuan water, the corrupted magic combined with the already present magic and currently its suppressing the pig form. What's more whenever Ryoga transforms the corrupted magic gets replenished bit by bit by the pure magic. I could sense it when I poured the hot and cold water over her head.'

'But, if the corrupted energy run's out I'll go back to the way I was before I got drenched by the Nyannichuan?' Ryoga asked hesitantly.

'Yes, that is correct, b-'

Ryoga cut him off with a huge sigh of relief.

'But!' Tetsuya added loud enough to get her attention. 'To ensure that that happens you're going to need to stay this way for several days until the corrupted magic leaves your system completely.'

Ryoga's eyes widened dramatically, balking at the prospect of spending several days like this. She was already a frayed nerve away from feeling like she was going to have a heart attack. If she stayed like this for several days she was going to lose whatever was left of her sanity.

'Why!?' she demanded in a panic. 'I just have to keep from changing repeatedly so why can't I just wait it out as a guy instead?

'But you wont,' Tetsuya shook his head with forced patience. 'Look, you know as well as I do that avoiding water when you really need to is impossible when it comes to any form of Jusenkyo. If you change back into your natural form, think about all the water you'll have to avoid; rain, canteens, rivers and the kami only knows what else. If you remain in this state you'll only have to avoid hot water, which is much easier to control in the middle of no where... but if you want to risk being stuck with this curse than by all means, change back... At least it would be a step up from changing into a pig...'

Ryoga blinked, staring long and hard as she tried to think of a way out of this mess, some clever excuse. She took a little too long though and got a swift smack across the back of the head from an irritated Ranma.

'Useless dolt!' Ranma hissed irritably. 'It won't kill you to spend a couple of days like this so you'll just have to grin and bear it!'

'That's easy for you to say!' Ryoga snapped before she could stop herself.

Ranma's eyes narrowed dangerously as Ukyo laughed. 'Did you place a large bet against yourself, Sugar?'

'Ranma and Tetsuya are right,' Cologne nodded in agreement, much to Ryoga's dismay, which caused the old woman's eyes to narrow darkly. 'If you think you'll have such a hard time staying away from hot water, I could always use the Full Body Cat Tongue, on you?'

Ryoga shuddered at the thought of that; she nodded reluctantly. 'Th-That wont be, necessary...'

'Good,' Cologne replied ominously. 'Make sure it stays that way.' She then turned to the others and said. 'You should all go and clean up. Its been a long day and you all look like you could use a wash. After we'll see about something to eat.'

That caused Ryoga to jolt with a nervous start as she looked at the other girls, her hands flying to her nose on reflex as the images flashed into her mind unbidden at the thought of bathing, not only with the others, but in her new cursed body. Her body started to tremble almost immediately.

'You are absolutely hopeless,' Ranma shook her head at her. Without a word she went to her pack and retrieved some towels and other items, before announcing. 'I'll take Ryoga a bit further up stream to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn't pass out and drown.'

Ryoga's eyes flew wide with panic, but before she could protest Ranma snatched up her wrist and dragged her off.

~oOo~

'You can't just run off whenever you feel like it!'

Genma sighed under his breath as Nodoka threw her hands up in frustration at him, but he continued to pack his bag regardless. There was no point in even trying to lie to her, even if he wanted to; she could see through his bullshit easier than anyone else, even Ranma. He was still certain she had always known who "Ranko and Mr Panda" really were and had just been waiting for them to slip up. No, in this case falling back on his old bag of tricks was only going to make things worse.

'And who's going to fix the dojo while you're gone?' she continued. 'You've been promising to do it for days!'

'I wouldn't be going if I didn't have to Nodoka, believe me its the last thing I want to do at the moment but I have to. Besides, I'm only going to be gone for a couple of days at most, then I'll be back so you can boss me around all day.'

He flashed a good natured joking grin at her.

Nodoka pouted sourly, an expression he remembered all too well from their younger days whenever he did something to irritate her; it made her look like a teenager all over again, and absolutely adorable.

'This has to do with Happosai showing up earlier doesn't it?' she replied irritably. 'You two always go running off whenever he's involved.'

Genma fell silent as he closed the bag.

'Yes, this has to do with the old man,' he admitted with a weary sigh. 'But, as much as I enjoy traveling, I'm getting too old to be able to do this all the time and I'm only going because there's someone both Soun and I need to speak to... And, if everything goes according to plan it'll go a long way towards helping Ranma and the others to defeat Happosai, maybe even spare them having to fight him at all if we're lucky...'

Nodoka's expression soften slightly, before she sighed in defeat.

'Fine! If it'll help Ranma I can't very well stop you can I?' she told him calmly, before jabbing him in the chest with a finger. 'But this is the last time you go running off without warning, you understand? These last minute trips need to stop. You need to set a better example for Ranma so her grades don't suffer anymore.'

Genma smiled and pulled her close, kissing her.

When they pulled apart he said. 'I'm the luckiest man in the world to have you Nodoka.'

Her cheeks flushed brightly, and punched him hard in the shoulder.

'That's for embarrassing me with your flattery... now go, before I change my mind and make you stay,' she told him.

He chuckled and gave her another peck on the cheek, before grabbing up his bag and slinging a strap over one shoulder and headed for the door.

'I'll be back before you know it.'

~oOo~

'Stop acting like a child and get in the damn water!'

Ranma stood waist deep in the water with a towel wrapped around her and her hands on her hips... and was rapidly losing her patience. Ryoga stood on the bank, dressed the same way, but she clutched at the edge of the towel like it might suddenly get torn away and expose her body beneath. Any other time it would have been cute, watching her stand there with her knees bent together, looking shyer than usual, it was adorable really; but it lost its appeal after the first fifteen minutes.

'Ryoga, if you don't get your bubble butt in the water now I'm gonna come over there and drag you in here by your damn hair!'

Ryoga shot her a look of mixed panic and frustration, biting her lower lip as she tried to figure out if she was bluffing or not; Ranma cocked an eye brow at her, daring her to just try and challenge her already dwindling patience. Except for the cacophonous drone of forest life all around them, blue and green orbs locked in an intense stare off... then Ryoga's shoulders sagged in defeat and she timidly wading out into the water, though not before taking one last nervous look around for imagined lurkers that might be watching.

Ranma could only shake her head in utter disbelief; silently, she prayed to the kami that she wasn't anywhere near as bad as this the first time she had to wash in cold water. All she really remembered from back then was a paranoid feeling that someone was going to pop out of nowhere and accuse her of doing something perverted. She had never given a damn about anyone seeing her naked though, after all back then it hadn't really been her body... at least that's what she had thought at the time, so what did she care? Certainly the first time had been weird, but she was sure she had never acted this moronically over the whole thing.

Or had she just become that jaded?

However, Ranma couldn't help but scowl in annoyance. Not only was Ryoga that much taller than her in female form, but she had a greater figure too, and she was bustier! Not that she wanted bigger boobs herself, but even still it ticked her off on some level, like she was losing some kind of competition. It didn't help either that Ryoga looked so freakin adorable, it hurt; the guys at Furinkan would go insane over her!

When Ryoga finally made it to her, Ranma bopped her over the head with an annoyed scowl.

'Oww!' she cried, grabbing at her head. 'What was that for?!'

'For making me stand here waiting for nearly half and hour!' the red head snapped lightly. 'Now turn around and crouch down... unless you want me to smack you again and I promise the next time it won't be on the head...'

Ryoga pouted at the threat but she did as she was told and knelt down, the water closing over her narrow shoulders and around her delicate looking neck. Despite her annoyance Ranma cracked a slight smile at Ryoga's shyness. Then she reached over and grabbed the shallow bucket floating near by with a bar soap inside it, filled it and then dumped the water over the unsuspecting "girl's" head. Ryoga spluttered from the sudden dousing and glared back over her shoulder. Ranma simply soaped her hands up and roughly worked it into the thick dirty mucked up hair.

She screwed her face up at the knotted mess. 'When did you last was your hair?'

Ryoga was quiet for a moment in thought. 'I went to a bath house a day before Tetsuya and his cronies showed up...'

The red head recoiled in disgust before she could stop herself.

'Ryoga that was over a week ago!'

'I've been washing in streams and rivers that we've camped near,' Ryoga added defensively. '…... I just haven't bothered with my hair...'

That didn't help much.

Ok, granted she wasn't much better back when she was still a guy. There had been days while she was growing up that they didn't have access to proper baths or showers, but even her pops insisted on basic washes even if it meant using a bucket and a wash cloth. As a kid she never really got the big deal with washing everyday but she at least accepted that it was the thing to do. Since being turned into a girl permanently though, her mother had successfully conditioned her to take her personal hygiene a lot more seriously than she had as a guy... though that hadn't exactly been hard after her mother insisted on explaining in horrifying detail about some of the hygiene issues women could suffer from if they didn't take care of themselves properly.

Needless to say was very careful about washing herself now...

Just thinking about that talk made her shudder and gag.

Ryoga flinched away from her in alarm. 'You alright?'

'Stop squirming,' Ranma twisted her head back to the front again; she sure as hell wasn't having that talk with Ryoga... she'd probably kill her with shock...

Without ceremony she forced the girl's head under water and rinsed the soap out before letting her up to breathe. Never in a billion years would she have pictured the scenario playing out; being in a relationship with Ryoga after being trapped in her female form and suddenly finding herself having to help her him wash up because her himself had been turned into a girl as well, if only temporary. She had made piece with the idea hat her life was always going to be weird... but this took the cake...

'I'm taking pity on you tonight,' she warned firmly. 'But, I'm not helping you do this tomorrow you understand? So you had better get over this quick.'

Ryoga sighed softly before replying quietly. 'I know... this is just a bit overwhelming at the moment...'

'Oh boo hoo,' she rolled her eyes as she undid her pig tail and slipped under the water for a second, before coming back up and started working the soap into her hair. It felt like weeks since she'd had a good scrub she was covered in that much dust and grime after that big battle; she would have preferred a hot bath to soak in though.

'You've had more time to get used to all this,' the other girl grumbled, louder than she meant to and received a warning glare. 'I just mean I feel like all my senses are being overloaded. Everything is so different. I'm trying to process it all but I've only had a few hours. You've had, what? Two years almost? So I'm sorry if I'm having a hard time getting used to all this.'

Ranma sighed wearily; Ryoga was right. She didn't have to like it, but Ryoga was right. Having lived with her own curse for so long and since being trapped in her female form, it was easy for her to ignore the fact that Ryoga was dealing with this all for the first time. She couldn't help that her attitude irritated her so much though, but taking it out on Ryoga wasn't going to change things.

'Did you go through this, back then?' the "girl" asked hesitantly.

She nodded slowly. 'Yes, I did.'

'How did you deal with it?'

Ranma grinned slightly. 'I beat the crap out of my pops till I felt better.'

And with that she dunked her foamy head under the surface and rinsed her thick crimson mane till the soap was gone and her hair was completely drenched all the way through. When she surfaced she flipped the mass of hair behind her head and brushed a few stubborn locks out of her eyes, sighing with relief. When she turned though Ryoga still wore the same troubled expression on her face.

Maybe it was time to show some sympathy...

'Look, I know things seem different but you just need to try and concentrate on one thing at a time and you'll get used to it eventually,' she explained gently. 'For me I had troubled dealing with how different things seemed to look; it really threw off my balance for a while till I got used to it.'

Ryoga nodded, understanding. 'Its the way things smell for me... my nose feels like its on fire...'

Ranma thought for a moment, looking around for something appropriate. Then she spotted the soap and snatched it from the bucket and startled the girl by sticking the bar of soap under her nose.

'Here,' she said. 'Focus on the different scents you get from this and only this. Block out everything else, all your other senses and just concentrate on what your nose is telling you and tell me how differently it smells from when you're a guy. You just have to learn to control your own senses by slowing them down so you can make sense of what you're experiencing.'

The black haired girl looked at her skeptically...

'Come on,' Ranma urged insistently. 'What have you got to lose?'

With a bit of reluctance Ryoga took the soap and sniffed lightly at it. She shook her head and shrugged. 'It smells like flowers and soap...'

Ranma sighed patiently. 'Take a deeper sniff and really focus on what you're smelling, you dolt... and close your eyes too, so you're not looking at it!'

Ryoga frowned slightly and winced as she took a deep whiff. 'All the different scents are burning through my nose!' she wined, before getting a stern look from the red head. The girl grumbled helplessly. 'I can smell...uh, lavender maybe... I'm not really sure how it smells different. Maybe sweeter somehow...'

'Good,' Ranma smiled encouragingly. 'Focus on that scent and take it in slowly. Give you sense of smell time to adjust to the smell. Make sure you keep your eyes closed though so you're not overwhelmed by how things look as well.'

'What about sound, taste and touch?'

Ranma snorted. 'How about we focus on one thing at a time? But, if you want to focus on sound, take your pick. There's the sounds of insects and other forest life, or you can focus on the sound of my voice if you want. As for taste, well there's not much I can do about that unless you want me to make you eat the bar of soap. I don't recommend it though... as for touch...' she grinned cheekily and pressed herself against Ryoga's back suddenly and gently ran her finger along the girls neck and whispered in her ear. 'That I can help with...'

Then she lightly chewed on her earlobe; Ryoga squealed in high pitched alarm and surged forward, tripped and flopped into the water with flailing arms. Ranma was thrown back, laughing loudly from the pit of her stomach. Ryoga spluttered and splashed around like fish trying to get back into deeper water, before she managed to find her feet and whirled around in red faced embarrassment, which only served to make Ranma laugh even harder.

'What did you do that for?' she demanded.

Ranma grinned mischievously. 'Aren't you forgetting something?'

'What?!'

Ranma held up a towel... one that wasn't her own. Ryoga frowned and looked down, and realized she was standing there in her birthday suit. Ryoga squealed again and dropped into the water up to her chin, her face glowing scarlet.

'Give it back!' Ryoga shrieked even as she scooted forward...

Only for Ranma to swim further out into the river laughing. 'No, no, no. I think I might get out and take your clothes back to camp with me though.'

Ryoga's eyes became large saucers of panic.

The black haired girl lunged through the water, but Ranma was faster and easily glided out of the way with a hooting laugh. Ryoga lunged again, and again she was too slow as the red head kept a comfortable distance between them.

'Come on!' Ryoga snapped pitifully. 'Give it back!'

She made for another lunge but this time Ranma ducked under the water and disappeared from sight. Ryoga frantically flailed her arm about through the dark liquid for her, while using the other to cover herself, frowning in desperate frustration. She whirled back and forth in alarm as more and more seconds passed by.

'Ranma!' she whispered harshly, trying not to draw any attention to herself as she kept feeling around for her. 'This isn't funny!'

Without warning, Ranma surfaced in front of her and abruptly kissed her. Ryoga was paralyzed to the spot, her eyes widening in shock as the red head pressed her lips to her own. Her heart thundered in her chest like an exploding drum, mesmerized by the softness of Ranma's lips against the softness of her own. Thoughts swirled uncontrollably through her head as she blinked rapidly. Suddenly she was melting into the kiss, her arms going slack at her sides.

Then, just as abruptly Ranma darted away and threw the sopping wet stolen towel over Ryoga's head, laughing at the girl's bewildered expression.

Ranma looked at her teasingly. 'My oh my, you are a naughty, naughty pervert aren't you?'

'What?!' Ryoga spluttered. 'You kissed me!'

Ranma grinned widely. 'Ah, but you kissed me back.'

She laughed again at the look of pure confusion; she loved it!

~o~

A little while later, after they had washed each others back's, Ranma floated quietly on the river and stared at the twinkling stars as Ryoga sat close by wrapped once more in the flimsy comfort of her towel. They were going to have to go back to the camp soon, she knew that but she wasn't quite ready yet, having finally found a moment to relax and collect her thoughts; and she figured Ryoga could use the quiet as well while they had it. That was a slight warmth to the running water that threatened to carry her off it was so damn nice.

'I'm sorry,' Ryoga apologized suddenly in a small voice. 'For being such an ass about all of this... I shou-'

'It's ok,' Ranma offered a sincere smile. 'I understand perfectly really. Besides, if our situations had been reversed I probably would have said a lot of the same things so I can't judge you for that. Its shocking, I get that I do.'

'Even still... I'm sorry,' the other girl replied.

Ranma bit her lower lip slightly; she knew she should tell her what Tetsuya told her the other day. Ryoga deserved to know the truth as well... but it wasn't the time or place to talk about that, after everything they had been through today, fighting those insane women and escaping from that place... she didn't even want to think about any of that stuff at the moment.

She just wanted to float and relax...

But then she couldn't help but grin. 'Do you remember what you said when you first found out about my curse?'

'Uh...' Ryoga sounded unsure of what to say.

'Whining about your misery, with such an adorable figure!' she added in a sing song tone, grinning at the uncomfortable look that suddenly flashed across the girl's face. Ranma laughed. 'Bet you're regretting that now aren't you? Karma's a creative little bitch isn't it?'

'Ha, ha,' the other girl replied dryly. 'Laugh it up.'

'Oh, I will.'

Ryoga blushed slightly and stared down at the water self consciously; Ranma couldn't believe how friggin adorable that made her look. Keeping Ryoga off balanced had never been all that hard, but this was a whole new level of fun. Besides, it wasn't like this opportunity was ever going to present itself again, so she was going to make the best of it while she could.

'That wasn't the first time I saw your cursed form either...' Ryoga murmured almost inaudibly...

Ranma glanced sideways at her, blinking in thought; suddenly a light bulb switched on and guilt stabbed at her insides.

'Oh... yeah, that day... at the springs...'

But Ryoga smiled somewhat bashfully. 'Back then, before I knew who the "Girl with the Panda" was, I only saw her for a few seconds, but I... uh, I th-thought, she was the most stunning and beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life...'

Ranma suddenly sunk in alarm, arms and legs flailing wildly as tried to find her footing only to slip on the loose mud. Finally she managed to get to her feet and stared at Ryoga in wide eyed surprise, unsure she had heard right. Ryoga smiled though without looking at her, lost in thought with her own cheeks rosy pink...

'For those few seconds, it felt like a life time. She looked so powerful, so wild and incredible. I had never seen a girl like her before and promised that, once I had my revenge I would go back and search for her...' then she frowned lightly. 'Then, I found out you and she were the same person... I thought the kami were playing a cruel joke on me. I was so angry when I realized the truth, that I had been dreaming of someone that I vowed to kill... Now though...' she turned finally to look Ranma in the eye with a smile.

'Now that all this has happened, I look fondly on that moment now... that moment I met the "Panda Girl"...'

Ranma's eyes were wide and her lips formed a small "o" of shock. Her mouth was moving but no sound came out; she didn't know what to say as she stared back at the girl. Suddenly her face felt like it was going to catch fire and she sank into the water and turned away slightly to hide her face, hoping the water didn't steam around her.

'I-i-is that so?' she stammered.

The silence was thick between them. Ranma felt Ryoga's fingers intertwine with her own, and squeeze it gently; before either of them could say anything else though, Akane appeared at the bank of the river.

'Come on, you two are gonna catch a cold!' she shouted to them.

Startled, Ranma abruptly pulled her hand free and hurried out of the water...

~oOo~

The camp was blanketed in a weary silence.

The gang was sitting around the roaring camp fire, all of them exhausted after the day they'd had. They were tired and the meager meal they had put together had barely filled them, let alone satisfied them. Ranma glanced at Ryoga curiously, their little moment in the river still fresh in her mind. It threatened to warm her cheeks with another fiery blush as she thought about the sincerity she saw and hear in Ryoga's face and voice. The girl's eyes were glued to her feet though, self conscious of every movement she made and trying not to be the center of attention.

Everyone was too tired to really notice though.

Ranma remembered what that was like though, from when she was first cursed and only a few months ago when she had waken up to discover that she was trapped forever; with the events of the day rapidly catching up to her she just couldn't find the energy to offer her any comfort...

'Well this trip has been a great big waste of time...' Ukyo declared with a heavy sigh.

Cologne nodded slightly. 'Indeed.'

Tetsuya frowned. 'I'll definitely be correcting the information in the archives about the temple and their practices...'

Maybe it was the tiredness, but Ranma couldn't help but laugh; followed by the others. The laugh was a chain reaction, that started with the red head and rippled out to the others. It wasn't a loud one, but it felt good regardless. They all needed it. It set them at ease and and it lightened the mood for all of them. When the laugh had ran its course the silence returned, but it wasn't nearly as heavy as it had been.

'We still need to figure out a way to defeat Happosai,' Mousse pointed out.

That immediately brought the group back down with the seemingly momentous task hanging over their heads. In all the chaos to escape, they hadn't given that little freak of nature a second thought. Now the idea of having to fight him was back at the forefront of their minds... if she wasn't feeling so tired, Ranma would smacked the blind idiot up the back of the head.

'I know of no other way to beat him,' Tetsuya admitted calmly.

'Then we'll just have to simply fight,' Ranma added, glancing around at them all seriously. 'And keep fighting, till we win.'

Akane nodded with a sudden cheeriness. 'We'll figure something out. We always do, no matter who we're up against.'

Ranma nodded; although she wasn't entirely sure she believed it at the moment, but she could at least pretend to for the time being. Akane was right though, they always did figure something out. She just wondered if that would be enough to defeat the likes of Happosai. It was a mute point though. They couldn't beat him, not while he had the jewel at least and hell would freeze over before he let anyone take it from him. If they could figure out a way of getting away from him then maybe they would stand a chance, but that was a big maybe...

All of a sudden she yawned, long and loudly in exhaustion, blinking through heavy lidded eyes as she triggered a round of yawns amongst the others.

Cologne smiled slightly at them. 'Perhaps this is a conversation best left for clearer minds? Its been a long day and we could all use some much needed rest.'

Yawning again Ranma and the others just nodded, far too tired to argue. With all the shambling enthusiasm of a bunch of zombies, they got up and headed for the tent; except for Ranma. She paused to glance curiously at the old woman when she made no move to get up. There was something off about her. She looked weary, more so than the rest of them, and if at all possible, older... like all three hundred plus years of her life were suddenly weighing down on her. After being drugged the way she had Ranma couldn't blame her for being...off.

'You ok, Cologne?' she asked worriedly.

Cologne just offered a tired smile though. 'I'm fine child, truly. I appreciate your concern though... Now, hurry along and get some sleep.'

Ranma nodded slightly and headed off to the tent.

With there only being three tents left, she was sharing with Ukyo, Akane and Ryoga, while Shampoo and Cologne got the second tent. The third tent was Tetsuya's two man tent, which with his considerable size was practically a one man. Mousse was left to camp under the stars.

Ranma crawled inside the tent and practically face flopped against the hard ground, letting the exhaustion reach through her body and try to drag her off to the dreamland. She barely even moved as Akane and Ukyo joined her and made themselves comfortable alongside her. Eventually she rolled over and found Ryoga standing at the tent flaps hesitantly.

She couldn't help but sigh in exasperation. 'What's wrong now?'

'Uh... maybe I should sleep somewhere else...'

Ranma rolled her eyes.

Ryoga, really?' Ukyo replied patiently. 'It's not like we're sleeping naked or anything.'

Ranma smirked teasingly. 'Yeah Ryoga... Besides, its just us girls right?'

Ryoga frowned at that as the three of them laughed.

'Look,' Ranma added calmly with a slight smile of amusement. 'Nothing is wrong, and so long as you keep your hands to yourself, there's not going to be a problem. We're all exhausted and its been a long day and you can either sleep in here where its warm and relatively comfortable... or you can sleep out there and risk Mousse mistaking you for Shampoo while he's dreaming... it's your choice...'

Ryoga stared at her for the longest time in a thick silence... before finally buckling and crawling inside the tent with them. She nervously wrapped a blanket around herself till she looked cocooned within it.

Ranma patted her on the ass.

'Good girl.' the red head turned over on her side . 'Goodnight...'

And like that, she was asleep almost as soon as her eyes were closed...

~oOo~

For Ryoga, sleep did not come easily that night, and when it did she was plagued with nightmares of being trapped in her girl form, pursued by hordes of degenerate teenage boys. That had her tossing and turning in cocoon. It didn't help either that she formed a buffer between Ranma and Akane's violent sleeping limbs that would whip out without warning; the young Tendo to make matters worse, was a sprawler... laying there all stretched out like she was home alone in her bed...

When morning finally came though, despite the horrid night Ryoga woke feeling strangely refreshed and recharged.

The black haired girl laid there and rubbed her eyes, as she blinked with waking grogginess. It took her a couple of seconds to remember where she was. It took a few seconds more before she remembered she was still in her girl form, which caused her brow to crease in a slight frown... on the bright side however, she didn't feel quite as freaked out as she had when she went to sleep. She was still feeling off balanced by the whole thing, but she felt a little better at least.

Maybe she could get through this without having a nervous break down...

Ryoga sighed inwardly at the bright light filtering through the tent, and turned her head to either side; she was alone. The other must have already woken and decided to let her sleep a while longer. She couldn't keep laying around though...

Wearily she sat up and let the blanket fall away from her as she stretched her arms over her head... that's when Ryoga looked down, and nearly screamed.

She was naked!

Well, almost... she was still wearing her boxers at least but the tunic and trousers she had gone to sleep in were gone.

Her bag!

She whirled around to her bag and all but tore it open in her panic and practically dived into the clothes within. Within seconds she pulled out another tunic with a wide grin... which turned to a frown of dismay; it had a massive rip across the chest. She threw it aside and pulled out another one. It too was ripped to shreds. Her extra pants weren't much better. The only clothes untouched were a couple of singlets and a few pairs of boxers and socks. Ryoga blinked in confusion as she rested back on her knees... why were her clothes in rui-

Her shoulders sagged suddenly and she smacked her forehead at the obvious answer; the Hiryu Shoten Ha! The bag, in the same condition as her clothes with rents and tears all over it had protected her from the brunt of the debris that had been thrown around inside that monster.

The girl swore under her breath.

After a few minutes of trying to think of another way, she was forced to retrieve one of her yellow singlets, from the bag. Like the tunic though it was incredibly big when she slipped it on, and revealed way too much. Finally though she relented, and creating two bunching the excess length of the singlet, she tied it off in front of her, revealing her perfectly flat, well toned stomach.

Someone was going to pay for this!

As soon as she stepped out of the tent though, she was assaulted with teasing wolf whistles from both Ranma and Ukyo.

'Stop that!' she snapped desperately, which only served to encourage them more. 'What did you do with my clothes!'

Ranma blinked at her blankly for a second, before replying off handedly. 'Oh, that! I burned them.'

'What!?' Ryoga nearly choked. 'Why would you do that?!'

The red head nearly fell over laughing. 'I'm joking! Geez Ryoga, would you relax a little? They're hanging over there with all the other clothes that needed washing. They were filthy and reeked. Its a wonder you didn't kill us in our sleep with that stench. Just be thankful we left you with your boxers. It'll be a while before they're dry though.'

Ryoga felt her eye twitch as she frowned helplessly at the girl.

'You're such an easy mark,' Tetsuya shook his head in disbelief at her from across the camp fire, causing her to shift her glare to him.

Ukyo chuckled as she got up from the log and grabbed her hand. 'Come on sweetie, I think I have some spare clothes you can borrow till your clothes are dry... unless you wanna walk around like that all day?'

Ryoga glared helplessly at the deeply amused red head who stuck her tongue out playfully; with a huff she spun on her heel and hurried after the chef before she fell into Ranma's childish games. She muttered a string of nonsensical curses under her breath though, certain that Ranma had concocted this whole situation to mess with her. She pushed it aside and followed Ukyo into the tent where the okonomiyaki expert was already rifling through her bad; inwardly she sighed. The last thing she wanted was to wear girl's clothes but she wasn't going to prance about looking the way she was all day.

Within seconds the chef produced a pair of black pants with a triumphant grin. 'Here you go, Sugar.'

Ryoga nodded her thanks as she accepted the piece of clothing. She frowned at them for a second though, before letting her shoulders sag in reluctant defeat and started to pull them on.

'You're not going to be very comfortable wearing those over your boxes,' Ukyo added.

'It's ok, it only temporary,' she replied as she pulled them up her legs and over her protruding butt, wriggling them into place causing her breasts to jiggle. Ryoga sighed miserably. 'I wish I could do something about these though!'

Ukyo laughed. 'I have a spare bandage you can use,' she offered, which only made Ryoga blink blankly at her; Ukyo shook her head patiently without losing her grin. 'To bind your breasts... It'll keep them out of the way and you won't have to worry about giving yourself a nosebleed. If I had the time and resources I could probably even make you look like a guy, or have you forgotten about how we first met?'

Ryoga flushed brightly at the memory of Ranma exposing Ukyo's bandaged over breasts... Binding didn't sound too bad though; at least she didn't recommend wearing a bra. That probably would have caused her to die from blood lost if she was forced to wear womens underwear.

How Ranma did it she would never know.

'That sounds perfect,' she replied gratefully.

Ukyo quickly retrieved the extra bandage, while Ryoga shyly untied and removed her singlet. 'Since this is the first time you've had to deal with this I'll do the first binding for you, so you know how its supposed to feel when its done right so you can do it yourself next time. So pay attention because I won't be doing it again.'

'I understand,' Ryoga nodded softly. 'Thank you.'

'Gawd, its ridiculous how adorable you look when you're nervous in that form. I could just eat you up' Ukyo chuckled. 'Turn around sweetie.'

Ryoga blushed brightly at that, but did as she was told. Her bones nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt the bandage abruptly press against her breasts, although not nearly as much when Ukyo paused to adjust them before continuing, though not without causing Ryoga to gasp at the alien sensation of having her breasts touched by another person. Her face felt so hot it could melt! She forced it out of her head though and tried to focus on how the chef was wrapping the bandages around her. It wasn't easy though; she wasn't comfortable being touched in this body, and she was especially uncomfortable about having her breasts grabbed. Ukyo treated the whole situation without a care though, like the cold detachment of a doctor.

That made it a little easier on her.

'So how are you feeling this morning?' Ukyo asked calmly as she worked.

She shrugged ever so slightly. 'Better than yesterday I guess. Last night I felt like everything was falling apart and I couldn't do anything to stop it... kinda like when you're holding sand and it doesn't matter how tightly you keep your fingers together, it still slips through them. I suppose that sounds stupid and over dramatic, but last night trying to deal with this was hard. Now that I've had time to rest and absorb it, it doesn't feel quite so bad... Actually I feel kind of embarrassed about the way I reacted...'

Ukyo snorted. 'Yeah, you really didn't handle it too well, Honey. But I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. I think if I got knocked unconscious and woke up with a penis I'd be in a bit of shock too.'

'All Tetsuya's talks about maybe being stuck this way didn't help either,' Ryoga sighed. 'I mean, it's taken me this long to accept my pig curse... I'm not sure I could handle being stuck this way for the res-gack!'

Ryoga choked out a strangled yelp as Ukyo suddenly pulled the bandages brutally tight with surprising strength. She gasped for breath, struggling to regulate her breathing, until the chef finally eased up on the pressure and let it loosen enough for her to breath normally again. Ryoga looked back at her in annoyance, only to falter under the gaze of Ukyo's dead serious, steely eyes.

'Be careful talking like that,' Ukyo warned coolly. 'Ranma has made great strides in moving on and putting the pieces back together, but we both know it hasn't been easy for her to let go of certain aspects of herself so she could do that. Make no mistake though, hearing you talk like that and being constantly reminded that you get to go back to normal is hurting her on some level. You get to go back, she doesn't. So please, stop rubbing salt in that old wound. I know you didn't ask for this and it sucks that it had to happen to you of all people but you need to look at the larger picture and if you care about her as much as you do, you'll stop complaining. Is that too much to ask?'

The tent fell silent as Ryoga hung her head contritely; Ukyo was right, like she usually was. It wasn't that she meant to be insensitive, she had seen first hand how hard the last few months had been on Ranma, since finding out she was stuck as a girl... she had experienced first hand the red head's wrath and she would never forget that. It was hard though, remembering the Ranma that was compared to the person she had become. It wasn't that Ranma had changed into a completely different person though. She was still the same wild, arrogantly over confident person Ryoga had ever known. No, she was still the same old Ranma, minus the egotistical petty pride and drive to prove she was the manliest of them all... in fact sometimes she thought Ranma seemed happier...

Ryoga admired her more than she could ever say; she was only on her second day as a girl and she still couldn't fathom the sheer force of will it must have taken Ranma to pick herself up and make the best of an unfair situation. For that she thought Ranma deserved a medal.

She kept flashing back to the fact that Tetsuya had offered Ranma a way out though... and it seemed – her behavior the night before and back in the caves to the contrary – that she still hadn't decided yet what choice to make... what if she accepted the offer...?

'I'm not saying this to make you feel bad,' Ukyo added quickly. 'I'm just telling you so you don't accidentally stick your foot in it and so you can make sure she knows she's not alone in all of this... I'm hoping this experience will help you better understand what its like for her, because I think if you two are going to be a couple, you're both going to need to be really patient with each other for quite a while if you two are going to make this work.'

Ryoga nodded unsure if Ukyo knew just how right she was on that last part. If... she was really starting to hate that word. There were too many "ifs" lately it seemed. Nothing was certain anymore... there were only ifs. Well, that wasn't entirely true; she knew her feelings for Ranma were real... that alone was confusing...

She didn't like guys, she knew that without a shadow of a doubt... but when she looked at Ranma, she didn't see a guy... she wasn't even sure she saw a girl... she just saw her friend. Her best friend once, that despite all the crap she'd put her through still went out of her way to help her. A friend who had been sympathetic about her bad sense of direction when everyone else had made fun of her and who had always made sure she found her way home... Ranma had been there for her when no one else was, had kept her secrets and gave a damn...

She didn't want Ranma to feel alone...

Ryoga frowned slightly; what if...?

'What if she didn't have to be alone in this at all?'

This time Ukyo frowned as she tied the bandage off. 'What's that supposed to mean?'

Ryoga played with her thumb nervously, trying to steel her nerves. 'W-what if... I caused this curse to become permanent...?'

Ukyo froze, gaping at her in jaw dropping shock.

'You... you would really do that for her?' she asked in disbelief.

Ryoga stared seriously at the ground in thought, considering the radical change such a decision meant. Did the prospect terrify her? Yes. Without a doubt. It went against everything her male driven instincts told her. It would be hard as hell, but was it any harder than living half her time as a pig? As a pig she didn't even feel human, let alone safe. At least if she turned into a girl accidentally she didn't have to worry about where she was going to find hot water, or accidentally get adopted by a herd of wild boars because she was too tiny to do anything about it... it was still a big decision though...

She nodded with a faint smile. 'Yeah... I think I really would if it meant sparing Ranma feeling alone...'

'Aww, You two really are suited for each other!' Ukyo's shock melted into a wide grin. 'But, promise me you won't do anything like that... not yet at least. This isn't the time to be make life altering rash decisions. Ranma would never forgive herself if you made that kind of sacrifice for her. For now... just be more careful about what you say.'

Ryoga felt her spirits lift, like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders...

Suddenly Ukyo reached over and pusher her bandana up so it looked more like a girl's head band. The chef nearly squealed. 'Oh you look so cute as a girl!'

'Stop that!' Ryoga flushed as she swatted the girl's hands away and pouted.

'Now you look even cuter!"

'Geez, what's taking you guys so long?' Ranma shouted suddenly. 'Is she showing you how to put on makeup too?'

Without warning, the red head pulled the tent flaps open and stiffened at the sight of Ukyo glomping Ryoga-chan with a huge grin on her face. When the black haired girl looked up, she froze under the red head's dark glare, her left eye twitching dangerously down at them. Ryoga realized she was only in her borrowed pants and the bandage wrapped expertly around her chest... and panicked.

'So that's how it is huh?' Ranma glowered coldly. 'You ditch me so you can seduce Uuchan? Am I not good enough for you huh?'

In a huff, the red head threw the flap closed and stormed off. Ryoga all but threw Ukyo off as she untangled herself from the chef's arms and hurried after the crimson haired girl in a panic.

'Wait! Its not what you think!' she cried as she practically fell out of the tent in her mad rush. 'Please, stop! Its not what you think!'

At the same time, Akane, Shampoo and Mousse were returning with small makeshift baskets of of fruits they had managed to find. They stopped short as Ryoga chased pleadingly after the pissed red head, blinking blankly at the scene before them.

'Ah, what's going on?' Akane asked worriedly.

Ukyo emerged from the tent laughing. 'Nothing, Ranma's just teasing Ryoga-chan again.'

Ryoga froze in her tracks in surprise and snapped her head around at Ukyo, who cocked an eye brow in amusement and shook her head. Ryoga looked around to find Ranma grinning cheekily back at her. This time it was Ryoga's eye that twitched dangerously as she clenched her fists and jaw tightly; why did she always fall for this! Then all of a sudden the red head pitched forward as Akane nailed her in the back of the head with an apple, sending her sprawling to the ground in a heap.

'What have I told you about teasing Ryoga all the time!' Akane snapped, causing the others to roar with laughter.

'It's good to see you all in high spirits.' They all turned around to find Cologne standing there, perched upon her staff. 'It's good that you're all here.'

Ranma winced as she pushed herself on to her knees. 'Why?'

'Because I need you all to leave,' the old woman replied simply, catching them all by surprise. 'Everyone except for Ranma and Ryoga. The rest of you need to return to Nerima by yourselves. There are things I must discuss with Ranma alone.'

'Then why do you want me to stay?' Ryoga frowned.

'So I can keep an eye on you,' Cologne replied dryly. 'If Ranma is going to really fight Happosai, then there are things that I need to teach her and it will require dedication and there can be no distractions. So I need everyone that doesn't need to be here to leave... that means you to Tetsuya.'

The Guardian nodded. 'I need to return home before heading back to Nerima. I need to make preparations for the fight. I can have my people bring you fresh supplies if you wish.'

'That won't be necessary,' Cologne declined gracefully. 'We'll be able to find what we need.'

Shampoo frowned. 'Why no teach Shampoo as well?'

Cologne looked at her kindly. 'Because you are not ready for this, child. I'm not even sure Ranma will be... but she already has the foundation mastered and she stands a better chance of succeeding at this. I promise one day I will teach you all that I know Great Granddaughter, but now is not that time.' Shampoo nodded reluctantly and Cologne turned back to Ranma and Ryoga. 'Collect your things and divide up whatever supplies we have left with the others and say your goodbyes. We'll be leaving soon to find a new place to train...'

With that she hopped off, leaving them all to look at each other in confusion.

~oOo~

Dark clouds were starting to roll in, stretching slowly across the blue canvas of the sky, like a slow moving tide. It cast an already eerie grey shadow across the old dojo as Genma stared at it with trepidation. Soun's expression was a mirror of his own. But, it was something Genma knew they had to do; it didn't stop him from shuddering at the memories from the last time they were here. It hadn't changed much either since then. It still looked ran down, or well used would be a better description. Genma couldn't help but smirk though; sometimes he felt well used as well.

Seeing that Soun wasn't going to step through the torii gate first, Genma made the first move, leading the way. He stole his nerves though, reminding himself that he was doing this to prove himself a better man to his wife, and someone that Ranma can be proud of finally despite his many, many mistakes he had made over the years.

This wasn't going to be another one.

When they reached the dojo, the doors were already opened, but the inside was a black hole. It was an inky darkness that seemed impervious to light, eerie and off putting as the two men stood there staring into it. They exchanged final glances at each other, this was the time to back out and leave... but they both knew that wasn't an option anymore...

With a deep breath they stepped into the darkened dojo and were swallowed completely by the black. There was a faint scent of incense that hung on the air, but they could see absolutely nothing around them.

Soun gulped and turned to leave. 'Well we tried, lets go!'

He didn't get more than two feet before the doors slammed shut with an ominous whoosh. Soun yelped and stumbled backwards, landing on his ass beside Genma, starting to tremble and looking around like a scared rabbit.

'I did not expect to see you two again!' a voice came from the darkness.

Genma took a deep breath to steady himself. 'We came to discuss a matter of great importance with you.'

The voice snorted. 'We have very different ideas on what is and what isn't a matter of great importance.'

Genma frowned, his nervousness quickly being over come by annoyance as he grabbed Soun by the scruff of the neck and hoisted him to his feet. He didn't come all this way to screw around!

'Is Happosai getting his grubby little hands on the Jusenkyo Jewel important enough?' he demanded irritably.

A long silence followed as they stood there waiting; Genma was starting to think maybe he had let his annoyance get the better of him... Then the candles all around them, along the walls sprung to life, ending with a pair of fiery torches at other end of the hall flaring to life, revealing an old man sitting there with his back to them.

'Come... sit,' he told them calmly.

Genma breathed a sigh of relief.

'Thank you...' he bowed, forcing Soun to do the same. 'Master Chingensai...'

~oOo~

Back in the forest, it didn't take that long for the group to break down the camp and divide up their supplies. In no time at all, the group was ready to leave. Ranma stood there looking at her ex-fiances as they prepared to head off, even as Shampoo loaded Mousse up like a pack mule. They had all worked in silence, off balanced by Cologne's sudden orders for them, but they did it anyway. They had all learnt by now to trust Cologne's requests.

'Well...' Ranma finally said, breaking the silence as Shampoo loaded Mousse up with the last of the travel packs, despite his protests. 'This is it...'

Akane nodded slightly. 'Yeah...'

'Be careful,' Ukyo told them.

Ranma grinned at that. 'I should be telling you that. Remember, don't let Akane cook.'

'Jerk!' Akane punched her hard in the shoulder, before turning to Ryoga. 'Do try to keep her out of trouble and don't let her get you into any more trouble alright?'

Ryoga smiled. 'I'll try.'

'Its time to be going,' Cologne announced softly and they all nodded slightly, with a certain amount of reluctance Cologne looked at them all seriously. 'When we return to Nerima, it will be time to face Happosai and end this, so prepare yourselves for the coming battle...' she then motioned to Ranma and Ryoga. 'It's time to go.'

'Good luck guys,' Akane told them worriedly. 'Be safe.'

Ranma nodded as she slung the travel pack over her shoulder, trying to look as reassuring as possible as they all shared one last look with one another. After everything they had been through since they started out on this journey, it just seemed wrong to be splitting up like this. But, if Cologne wanted to train apart from the others then they had to do it... it didn't make her feel any better though. Finally though, it was time to go; one by one they turned away from one another. Following Cologne, Ranma and Ryoga headed in one direction, Akane's group headed off in another and Tetsuya took another route.

The red head couldn't help but glance over her shoulder as the others disappeared into the forest. 'I hope they'll be ok...'

'They'll be fine,' Cologne assured her. 'They can take of themselves.'

Ryoga cracked a grin. 'Yeah, and if they have to they always have Mousse to use as a distraction.'

Both Ranma and Cologne chuckled at that.

'So what was the real reason you didn't want the others tagging along?' Ranma asked finally.

Cologne simply sighed.

'We all have our secrets...'

~oOo~

Chingensai listened quietly as Genma detailed everything they knew about the jewel and Happosai's involvement, which admittedly wasn't much. When he was done, Chingensai sat there silently, taking a long drag on his pipe as he closed his eyes in deep consideration. Genma idly hoped he hadn't made a mistake by coming to the ancient martial artist for help. He remembered all too well how their last dealings with Happosai's old friend had blown up in their faces, but they had both agreed that Chingensai was probably the only one that knew Happosai better than anyone else. Better even than Cologne. It was just whether or not the little old martial artist would turn on Happosai this time...

Chingensai exhaled a cloud of smoke with a sigh.

'So Happy finally found the Jewel after all these years?'

Soun blinked in surprise. 'You know about the jewel?'

Chingensai snorted harshly. 'I know everything about that damn jewel that Happosai knows... or at least as much as he shared with me all those years ago,' he shook his head. 'When we were children, Happosai found an old journal that talked about it. I never knew where he got the journal from, but from the moment he read about it, he was obsessed with finding it. He was always talking about going off to China to find the damn thing once he finished his training...'

He paused to tap some ash out of his pipe.

'I must admit, I never really believed the jewel existed myself. I thought it was a myth. The ravings of some mad man or maybe something Happosai had made up... he had a very wild imagination as a kid, always creating games and adventures... it was all very exciting and memorable, but nothing more. When Happosai left, he asked me to go with him to China so we could find it together, but I said no. I had a family that needed me and I was content with my lot. After that we lost track for a very long time... Of course Happosai didn't have much choice, he had to leave. He had angered the wrong people and they wanted him gone or dead... that being said, Happosai was ready to leave; he was never meant to be contained to a small no name village like that.'

'Would have saved us all some trouble if they had just killed him when they had the chance,' Genma muttered darkly.

The little old man sighed and shook his head. 'You judge him without really knowing the true Happosai, Saotome... I am fortunate to have known him before he became the selfish creature you know him as now. Once, he was a truly selfless, idealistic and courageous person. He put many people before himself and fought for those that were unfairly treated, which was just about everyone back then... Happosai's curse however, was his appearance. Cologne and myself, age made us this way over time. But, Happosai was born unlike you or I. He stopped growing early on and I found out much later that his birth was one more agonizing than an average one. The villagers believed Happosai was the offspring of a demon and for all I know, he was...

'That didn't make the way he or his mother were treated right though. She was shunned by our people and likewise so was he. Children used to pick on him, threw rocks at him and beat him with sticks. He never let it get to him though. When his mother killed herself however, everything changed. The other villages wanted him gone and they constantly threw him out. But, he kept coming back, over and over again, until finally they had enough. One day, when he was coming back, they ambushed him... and they beat him... a child no less. They beat him within an inch of his life and they probably would have succeeded if my sensei hadn't intervened and stopped them... My sensei took him, nursed him back to health and was so impressed with Happosai's fortitude and bravery that he made him one of his students...'

Both Genma and Soun stared in open shock. Happosai had never shared anything about his past with them the whole time they were his students. They knew he was impossibly old though. All they ever heard were his tall tales passed off as the truth. They had never thought about who Happosai was back then...

'Happosai may seem like a hardened, often crazy old man,' Chingensai added. 'But there's a very real pain behind his actions, a pain of being treated little better than an animal as a child, even by his own mother. A pain he's tried to fill with his self serving antics and desires.'

Genma frowned. 'He can't be allowed to keep the jewel. He's too dangerous to leave it with him.'

Chingensai sighed heavily.

'I know...'

Soun blinked at Genma in surprise, before asking tentatively. 'Does that mean you'll help us?'

'Yes...' Chingensai nodded reluctantly...

'I'll help you stop Happosai...'

~oOo~

The fine, beautiful spring weather changed abruptly as the skies over Nerima darkened considerably. Black clouds rolled in off the ocean, an ever shifting mass of blacks and greys tinged with dark purples and blues where they were at their darkest. Winds had picked up and a steady rain was drawn across all of Tokyo like a closing stage curtain sweeping over the city. Thunder rumbled ominously as small pulses of light lit the clouds up from the inside.

There was a heaviness in the air, a tension that was felt cleanly by everyone across the city and its wards...

Happosai sat perched upon a smoke stack tower, staring out at the ward with his legs and arms crossed. His eyes opened slowly to glower darkly at Nerima. Dark shadows hung heavily under his eyes, seeming sunken into his head, bloodshot and tired. He looked worn and even older than he already was.

Tucked inside his gi, the jewel glowed an eerie blue along with his eyes...

Lightning lanced from the sky behind him with a terrible crackling roar.

Happosai growled...

'Let them come!'

TO BE CONTINUED

A/N:

I don't have much to say about this chapter

It was fun to write, specifically teasing Ryoga-chan; but that's always fun isn't it? XD

Anyway, I'm not going to linger here and uselessly justify anything. I'm done doing that, especially this close to the end of the story. I hope the chapter was enjoyable though because it was fun to write and I look forward to getting started on the next one as soon as I can, I just dont know when that will be at the moment.

Anyway, until next time!