Into Every Life, a Little Rain Must Fall

A Ranma 1/2 (manga) fanfic by NemesisZero

Act 4: A Rhythm in the Flames

Part 3



Recap of Last Chapter:

Ranma's 'plan' to resolve the fiancée mess has come and gone, and the resulting changes to the relationship landscape are still taking shape. Akane discovered that her father was wasting no time engaging her to the next guy who wandered into line, much to Ryoga's happy bewilderment. Ukyo was similarly displeased with Mousse's continued insistence that they were now married (following a rather eventful night of drinking), and eventually kicked him out. Kodachi cleaned up Taro's wounds before taking full advantage of her brother's absence, Kuno being across town helping Shampoo with the tasks Cologne set for her before leaving.

Meanwhile, the Amazon elder spent the duration of a flight to China giving Ranma a history lesson (also aimed at preventing him from slipping back into his demon-haunted dreams) while his mother listened in. The elder detailed the divine origins of the Jusenkyo valley, the common root of the valley's various residents, and the nature of the demon causing so much trouble. Ryu managed to sleep through the entire tale, much to a now very tired Ranma's annoyance.

It was a good day for a funeral. The sky was mostly clear and breezy, not one of the usual cold, gray, rainy Nerima mornings common this time of year. It wasn't the sort of day that would lend itself to sadness, which was good because Genma didn't feel particularly sad.

That's not to say he was particularly joyful to be burying his perverted master/father-in-law, either. He wanted to be happy, even felt he deserved to be, but this moment just wasn't playing out in the way he'd always dreamed. The old bastard had apparently died peacefully, if strangely, rather than holding out long enough for his long-suffering pupils to finally overcome him.

There were people in the assembly that actually seemed sad to see Happosai go, and those few tokens of genuine loss were also dampening the mood on this joyous occasion. The boy's teacher, the chi-vampire he halfheartedly suspected of killing the old goat, was sniffling pathetically into a handkerchief that obscured her childish face completely from view. A woman he didn't recognize stood by silently, at a distance, with two young children in... Santa hats? His old partner-in-perversion Luckosai didn't show, claiming illness, but sent along a bouquet of origami flowers decorated with a strange multi-hued metallic ink.

Genma was also too preoccupied by the absence of his family to really live in the moment. His clueless son was off in the wilds of China amidst a tribe full of backwards-thinking gynocentric lunatics, with only an arrogant cousin to back him up if things went wrong... and Nodoka of course, but he rather suspected that she would prove to be only a liability if things went sour. The boy had been his constant companion, and even as rocky as that relationship was he felt hollow when on his own. His son was a man now, able to stand on his own, but somewhere along the line things got mixed up and Genma had started depending on him more than he cared to admit.

Finally the sutra was coming to a close. It wasn't a very inspiring reading to say the least and he had tuned out most of it anyway, but then you get what you pay for. He wasn't about to go cash-crazy on the old bastard's funeral like some folks might have been inclined, but the lower-end of the funeral business were looking for things to be done in an almost drive-through manner which certainly wouldn't do, to say the least of the more unusual arrangements he sought. Most of the monks he had approached had balked at the things he wanted done to insure the master stayed dead. He finally settled on one who owed the family a favor and thus worked cheap, but hoped the monk did a better job sealing Happosai's soul away than he had done thus far in keeping the ridiculous little oni trapped in its box.

Hosting the funeral proceedings at his home helped keep the costs down as well, even if it was a bit tacky. There was simply no way he was springing for a temple ceremony, much less buying a burial plot for the old goat, especially since he left behind almost no money to cover the expenses. Besides, keeping the bastard in a corner of the yard made it easier to prepare his custom tomb and would make it simple to keep an eye on the plot, just in case the master did somehow manage to come back yet again.

The few attendees formed a line and began bringing up small offerings to be burnt along with the body. Several who actually knew the Master brought lacy bits of clothing to offer his restless soul, but luckily Soun had the foresight to collect those items away from the corpse on the off chance that such tokens of femininity might revive it. Genma took the opportunity presented by this break to deal with another small mater.

"So, Nabiki..." he began, sneaking up on his target who he had noticed slipping out the back earlier with a stack of envelopes in hand, "have you finished counting the cash offerings that the Master brought in?"

She looked up at him with a neutral expression and handed him the envelopes without fuss. "It's not enough to really bother running off with, I'm afraid," she sighed, "but I'm not surprised. I really didn't expect he had even this many friends."

"They aren't friends," he answered gruffly, slipping the envelopes into the inside pocket of his old blazer, already struggling to contain the girth he had gained since last donning the garment. "Just people who don't know him well enough to realize what a loathsome piece of garbage he really was. The only one who might have been considered a friend didn't bother show."

Nabiki smiled thinly, her eyes taking on a familiar predatory gleam. "Speaking of no-shows... where's the family? Don't you think it's a little inappropriate for the new master of the school not to attend the final service of the former one?"

"Something came up," he grunted. "Ranma's taking care of it."

"Typical. Just like a Saotome to run for cover when any actual work needs doing," Nabiki prodded. "And he even managed to stick you with the job. My how they grow, huh?"

"He's not running from anything, Nabiki. He'd be here if he could, but something came up, like I said."

She cocked an eyebrow. "Ah, so something interesting came along and you decided to take the safer job, eh? Now you're starting to sound believable."

"I'm no coward, girl. As soon as this mess is taken care of I'm going to try and meet up with him," he snapped, walking away. He always found the middle Tendo daughter simply infuriating to talk with. She always seemed to know just how to get under his skin and no compunction about doing so at every opportunity.

"Try to meet up," she repeated. "So they don't expect you to catch up? There isn't a plan? This story of yours just keeps getting more interesting Mr. Saotome. I'd almost think you did something to make him upset."

"Hardly," Genma replied, turning halfway around. "If it was up to me I'd be there right now where I can actually make a difference, but someone had to stay and make sure your father didn't screw the funeral up. I'm not leaving until I'm positive this time the little pervert is staying buried."

Her eyes narrowed. "So Genma, how does it feel now that your son is the man of the house? Is the life of leisure everything you hoped or does it bother you that Mr. Saotome wants to keep you occupied away from the important business, sheltered from the real action?"

He chuckled at the image; Ranma, indecisive as ever, trying to run a business. He'd probably end up answering phones while his secretary made all the decisions... assuming she wasn't too busy swooning, of course. The boy did have that talent at least.

"And auntie isn't here either," Nabiki paused, adopting an exaggerated expression of deep thought. "You don't suppose she's gauging his manliness personally now, do you? After all she didn't seem to care much that you were gone, but she's been fawning all over her little manly man ever since she found out... and he is the new man of the house, right?"

His jaw clenched and his knuckles went white. With barely controlled anger he marched up the girl and towered over her, glaring down at her smug face. "If you weren't just a weak little girl I'd break your damned jaw for saying something that vile about my family," he growled.

"And if you weren't such a weak little man you might be able to solve your problems without resorting to violence or just running away," she replied. "Geez, it's no wonder Ranma left you behind."

"You think you're so clever, but you don't know people half as well as you think you do Nabiki. Ranma actually wanted me to come along, and the only reason I'm still here is that the old witch convinced my wife that I'd be unwelcome in the Amazon village for some reason."

"There, finally some info I can use. Was it so hard to just answer a simple question?" She smiled and walked away, dropping a small wad of yen on the ground behind her. "And here's your money, by the way. Like I said, it's not enough to bother running off with."

He watched her walk away as if he were no threat at all, then glared down at the meager offerings as they lay in a lump on the raw earth of the temple path. Finally he growled and kicked the offending currency, scattering it into the breeze and across the grounds. That money had been for Happosai and therefore he wanted nothing to do with it, especially if Tendo's bitch of a daughter thought it was beneath even her. Saotome Genma still had some pride, after all.

In the distance the hazy tops of young mountains, still ancient by man's reckoning, dominated the skyline in proud unbroken spires... save perhaps one shattered, miserable specimen. She took a deep breath of the crisp, clear air, the thinness of the high altitude noticeably apparent. The smells of sweat and wood fire, apparently the main source of cooking fuel in this quaint little village, mixed in a not unpleasant fashion. Its musical accompaniment was the sound of deep but unlabored breathing and staccato impacts of flesh, set against the distant beat of thirty or so forceful stomps on the unyielding bare earth in near unison. The sensations combined to offer a rustic, primal charm that was quite invigorating.

Nodoka looked on with anticipation and pride as her son sparred with his older opponent, just warming up for a serious training session. The two firm-bodied young warriors were clearly holding back as they tested one another's form with mundane portions of their art, however the slight sheen of perspiration on their hairless bare chests as they alternately launched and deflected thunderous blows offered evidence that they were by no means slacking off. As they circled and swayed in the dance of combat Ranma's eyes were aglow with the thrill of competition, promising her that it wouldn't be long before the situation became interesting.

He'd slept into the afternoon and still looked a bit unrested, the deepness of his slumber no substitute for the dreams he'd been forced to miss by the old woman's dank-smelling herbs. As the elder was busy attending to matters with the local government she'd been left to her own devices, and had spent the day studying these backwards people in this time-forgotten environment.

In a way they were almost as ancient as the crumbling mountains around them. Their population getting by on primitive farming and livestock rearing, duties which fell on the men while their wives dealt with the more important matters of training, hunting, governing, and other specialized work. These men were hardy and strong from the physical work of the fields, but they spent as much time horsing about with one-another and the children as they did working. They had an altogether undisciplined, carefree manner only afforded them by their lack of any real responsibility, mere boys in bodies fit for men save one or two outsiders not yet completely broken of their pride.

The latter group were the only ones who seemed to notice as Ranma and Ryu steadily intensified the match, the pace and power increasing. The other males pointedly ignored the two warriors as their strikes became more risky and unorthodox, the dodges more acrobatic, lest they be confronted with the comparative evidence of their own emasculation.

The women on the other hand were far more passionate, going about their daily tasks with an intensity of purpose rare in the modern world. Everything worth doing was done with pride and precision, as much for the satisfaction of the worker as to reinforce their worthiness in the eyes of their peers. These women were formidable in mind and body, but ultimately were still very feminine at heart. Between moments of jaw-clenched determination and inhuman bravado they still giggled and glared, shared secrets to bond or to scorn others.

At the moment the giggling was coming from a group of young girls training across the field, their practice obviously hampered by the distracting presence of the outsiders. Nodoka sympathized with the instructor, an older teen, who was obviously torn between her frustrations with her students and her own desire to sneak more than a surreptitious glance. Anger and attraction... yes, those emotions would always come very easily to anyone around her son, often at the same time; his own special curse to bear.

And now the show was finally starting. Her son was finally pushing himself, throwing punches faster than his cousin could block... though it took an impressively high speed to reach that point. Ryu didn't seem phased though, simply backing off and snapping back with powerful strikes that forced Ranma to break his rhythm. Now it was a real contest, each trying to force the encounter to fit a style that favored them.

This went on for several more exchanges, both landing glancing blows but neither really gaining ground... but the tone of the match was changing. Ranma was getting more aggressive, attacking with quick bursts before feinting and coming back from a different angle. Ryu was still swinging but now only defensively, backing away from each new rush as it came and trying to deflect the brunt of the attack with a counter.

"Don't you think we've warmed up enough?" The older combatant finally asked, sidestepping a kick and rolling away from the follow up punch.

"Sure, if that's what you want," Ranma replied with a sinister grin, letting a globe of dark red energy punctuate his message.

Ryu quickly sidestepped but was not prepared for the globe to explode rather than pass by. "What the hell was that?" he demanded, rolling back to his feet.

"The chi of focused anger," Ranma growled, his hands cupping a much larger ball of swirling light that looked like tangled wisps of blood and ink. "You might wanna try dodging this one a little more effectively."

"Enough... let's start training already," Ryu suggested before being forced to dive out of the way.

"We are training. When you go invisible I'll stop havin' a target," his sensei snapped.

The bystanders stopped gawking now, their safety taking precedence over the view. Ranma's blasts were self-destructing before reaching any accidental targets, but not by much. Possibly not by choice, either... constantly channeling anger wasn't doing much for her son's composure. He'd stepped up the training further and was now tossing volleys rather than single bursts, taunting his student all the while for his continued visibility. Eventually a group of women, including Cologne and another shockingly old specimen, emerged from the council chamber and stood witness to the mayhem.

"I can't do this, damn it!" Ryu yelled in frustration, dodging another blast. "Every time I get close you bomb the whole area!"

"Whining ain't part of the technique," Ranma snarled, tossing another volley. "Ya just need more motivation."

"Enough!" the trainee yelled defiantly, striking a wide-legged stance then reaching out to catch two blasts as they approached. He froze in place as the spheres slammed into their target, but was unmoved. Rather then explode the attacks shrank and fizzled in his unyielding grasp. The earth rippled and bucked in a violent wave at his feet, though his footing did not slip.

Ranma paused in his attacks. He looked at his cousin with a narrowed glance, and a sly grin. "So, holding out on me, eh? I thought you said you hadn't developed any new chi techniques since last time we fought."

Ryu did not return the grin. "No, I said I didn't have any useful new chi attacks. Chi-based defenses, however... well, you didn't ask."

"Rooting your chi to the ambient ki of the earth. Yeah, that opens up some interesting opportunities," the defacto sensei remarked, casually charging another bundle of chi as he flexed his other hand, leaving only his index finger extended.

Cologne hopped into the open ground, apparently having seen enough. "Stop this madness, foolish boy!"

"There's just one more thing I wanna try before we quit..."

"The bakusai tenketsu?" she demanded, landing squarely in his path with a grim look on her weathered face.

Ranma said nothing, but glanced down to meet her gaze.

"I don't know how you picked it up," she began, "but let me ask you something, Ranma: Just what do you hope to accomplish? Using it while he's executing that defensive channeling technique will either do nothing at all or instantly kill him. Have you lost all sense of yourself?"

The young man tensed, on the verge of lashing out. His glare smoldered wordlessly as the chi ball he clutched pulsed, streamers of darkness coiling out of the sphere and trailing around his forearm, creeping ever higher.

"Just look at yourself. This is exactly why I told you to stop using chi techniques... don't you see that you're losing yourself in the moment, allowing the demon's influence to infect your mind? Ranma, you're on the verge of killing your own cousin just to satisfy your curiosity!"

Nodoka decided that it was time she step in as well. "I think that's enough for today, my son," she stated calmly, closing in. "There's no sense in fighting with the very people who intend to help you, is there?"

He turned to regard his mother as she approached, and his look softened. He closed his eyes and growled in frustration, then tossed the withheld ball of energy skyward where it exploded in a swirling spray of crimson sparks and black streaks that faded away like fog.

"Fine," Ranma sighed. "We'll call it a day, I guess."

Ryu balked. "You think? Actually, let's just call it quits altogether... as if I'm about to subject myself to more of this crap. Thanks but no thanks; I'll figure the rest out on my own," he muttered, walking off. "Why am I even here?"

"Suit yourself," Ranma replied in a loud, snotty tone, "But don't blame me when you still can't give me a decent match next time we meet." Seeing no reaction he kicked a stray rock angrily and strutted off, giving the elder a warning glance that he wanted to be alone.

"I fear we haven't much time," Cologne sighed.

"I'm sure it will all work out in the end," Nodoka assured her with a confident smile, "so long as he still listens to his mother."

"Geez... where the heck is Dad, anyway? I'm sick of this hypocrisy," the young woman growled.

"Akane," Kasumi sighed, looking down on her youngest sister with obvious disappointment.

"Oh come on Sis, don't you start pretending he was anything other than a nuisance, too" she complained.

"That's beside the point. He was the master of the school, and thus deserves at least a little common decency from all of us. Even if he was an evil, abusive, perverted, and generally useless old bastard he was still a human being."

"And how exactly does that make up for what you just said?" Ryoga wondered, fidgeting with his kimono again. It was tailored to fit her father, not the shorter, broader build of the present occupant so it was no surprise it didn't quite hang properly.

Kasumi slapped Ryoga's hand away from his collar then realigned his outer cloak to sit straight upon his shoulders, ignoring his annoyance at being childishly groomed. "Happosai had his demons to face, as we all do. Speak no more of him and let his death grant some manner of peace to everyone involved."

"If he was such a great master how come I've learned more from Ryoga in the last couple weeks than he ever showed me in the whole time he lived with us?" Akane complained, more to herself that anyone else. She cast a rueful glance at the burial plot where the monk was affixing spiritual seals to the outer rim of the small concrete bunker.

"Because you weren't ready, of course," she chided, "as Father told you earlier. If he had taught you directly it would have been a disgrace to Father, an acknowledgement that he didn't properly prepare you to take the next step on your own."

"Well that's not my fault!" the fiery-tempered Tendo snapped.

"Actually..." Kasumi began, then paused. "Akane, perhaps you should just take Ryoga home. I'll wait for Nabiki and Father."

Ryoga nodded in her sister's direction, and immediately began fidgeting again. "Yeah, this thing's driving me crazy. I can't wait to get back and change back to some of my own clothes."

"Hmm, I suppose," she agreed, annoyed at being sent away. The two walked in an uncomfortable silence out of the modest funeral grounds.

"Well, we can train a bit more when we get back. You almost got it to work last night," her newly arranged fiancé offered.

"Yeah, that's sounds good. I've got some anger to burn off anyway. The great Ranma couldn't be bothered to attend but we have to..."

"Hey, that's no good," Ryoga warned her. "You need the emotions, sure, but that's worthless without control. You'll just be channeling yourself into exhaustion with nothing to show for it again."

"I'm in complete control of my anger, thank you," Akane replied in a put-off tone. "I just don't have the proper outlet for it at the moment."

"Good to know that it's not me you're talking about." Ryoga offered a wry grin. "Don't worry about it... Nabiki said she'd get to the bottom of things, and when has she ever failed before? I think she's just as upset about the situation as you are."

"Assuming he wants to be found," Akane grumbled. "If he really wanted to get away we'd never find him. Hell, with those secret techniques of his he could be right in front of us and we'd have no way to tell."

"Uh, yeah..." Ryoga agreed, less confident than before. He kicked a patch of loose (well, loose enough for him) asphalt down the street, just to be on the safe side.

The conversation died again on that note, neither teen particularly enjoying that line of thought. They continued on in relative silence until a distant commotion caught their attention.

Akane squinted into the distance, finding a battle of sorts was taking place on the street ahead. A small crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle (even by Nerima standards) of a young man facing off in combat with a giant... pig? "Hey, isn't that..." she began, then stopped cold as she sensed a change in her companion's disposition.

"Katsunishiki," he confirmed with a sigh.

"We'd better see if Akari needs any help, Ryoga," she suggested.

"Yeah, I guess so..." he replied, pausing as if considering saying something else. With another deep sigh he collected himself then sprinted ahead.

Just as they approached, the tremendously large pig was thrown back by a powerful blow between its eyes delivered by a unique sort of polearm. The young owner of the animal gasped sharply as her champion was vanquished, running immediately to its side.

"Bastard!" Ryoga shouted, leaping towards the black-clothed figure to catch him squarely in the jaw as he turned in surprise. The young man crumpled immediately, rolling several feet before ending up a tangled heap of unconscious limbs.

The young Tendo girl had to wince at the sight, knowing that Ryoga hadn't pulled that punch nearly as much as he really should have. She glanced at him as he pulled back his hand and looked at it, his posture sagging slightly as he realized his error. She moved in to check on the fallen warrior, knowing that this round was over but the real contest for Ryoga was just beginning.

The crowd also understood that the floor show was at an end, and began to drift back to their daily routines. The surreal nature of Nerima had bred careful obliviousness into the population as a well-honed survival tactic.

She kneeled next to the young man, feeling his wrist for a pulse. To her surprise the boy, very much unconscious but otherwise not seeming to be much worse for wear, was still firmly grasping his weapon... a long-handled broom. Her eyes widened in recognition as she softly called his name, "Shinosuke?"

"Young miss!" the fallen young man's grandfather stated in surprise as he joined her in examining his charge. "Fancy meeting you here!"

"I'm sorry for that," Akane muttered, turning the limp body over to lie in a more natural position. "Ryoga overreacted there... we thought Shinosuke was attacking the pig's owner... a, uh, friend of his. I'm sure he just didn't recognize him."

The old man spared her a half-grin as he propped the boy's head up. "No apologies necessary, Miss... Tendo, was it? My foolish young apprentice forgot we weren't still out in the forest and attacked the pig on sight. Fighting giant creatures is one of the few things he really remembers, I'm afraid. Well, and you... somewhat."

Feeling a slight blush, Akane averted her gaze. Across the road Akari had pulled Ryoga in for a hug as they stood next to the downed animal. For a moment she felt a surge of anger, but it quickly subsided into a numb sadness as she caught the boy's pained expression over the other girl's shoulder.

"On second thought I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised to see you again. After all, we're only in town because of your fiancé," the grandfather replied, stifling a slight cough.

"What did Ranma do now?" she wondered, then became annoyed that the jerk's name still sprang to mind immediately in association with that particular title. She wasn't especially eager to accept anyone else in that role for the time being.

The elderly man gazed blankly at her for a moment. "You don't know? But I thought you were among the afflicted he was trying to save with the last of the moss..."

"You mean that horrible incense he sent? He got that from you?" she speculated, amending her earlier notion that he had stolen it from somewhere.

Grandfather chuckled, then coughed lightly again. "Not from me, dear, though I did tell him how best to prepare it for the situation. That young man of yours fought the Orrochi again for the moss of life to save you and your friends. This time he managed to kill the beast, somehow destroying even the true head that great Susano-o left behind, finally freeing my grandson and I from our ancestral duty. You've got quite the young hero looking after you, miss."

"Hardly," she grumbled. "I suppose he forgot to mention that he's the one that screwed up our chi in the first place? I'm actually just coming home with my new fiancé from the funeral of someone that particular accident managed to kill."

"Oh, I see. I'm sorry to hear that, for both your sakes," the man sighed, following her earlier glance. "Of course, this new one was also there fighting for you the first time we met, wasn't' he?"

Ryoga was holding Akari's hand as they talked in muted tones, stumbling over his words as she smiled up at him... but there was growing sadness in her expression.

"Yeah, he was there too... he tends to wander around like that, but at least he always manages to be there when I really need him," she replied, trying to smile. "I'm sorry about all this. Ryoga can get pretty protective of his friends sometimes."

"That's quite alright. As I said-," the thickly bearded fellow reassured her, but was interrupted by the sudden sound of a sharp crack.

Ryoga lowered his head and closed his eyes in an apologetic gesture as the girl held her own hand, pained. She glared at him for a moment, then turned to regard her pet who was now awake and attempting to right himself.

"Old friend, huh?" the older gentleman asked softly, without mirth.

"It's... complicated," Akane replied, standing.

"No miss, in fact it's all too simple..." he sighed, gazing at his still slowly waking charge. "But I can see it's none of my business, nor Shinosuke's."

"Ugh... what happened?" the boy groaned, roused by the conversation around him. "Um... are you the girl I've been looking for? Ak... something?"

The Tendo heir glanced away. "I'm sorry. You, um... You'll have to keep looking. Sorry," Akane said lightly as she walked towards the former couple, not waiting for a response.

"...and don't apologize for getting what you wanted all along, Ryoga. It demeans us both," Akari replied angrily as the young Tendo approached. She wasted no time climbing on the back of the sumo pig that continued glaring at the kneeling boy.

"Akari..." Akane called to the girl she considered a friend, unsure what else to say.

"Treat him well, Akane," she replied as she passed. "Treat him like the best pig in the whole wide world, because that's what he really is."

Akane just blinked, the girl's bitter tone at odds with her known fondness for the creatures leaving her unsure quite how to take that. She said nothing more as the girl passed, turning her attentions instead to Ryoga, who watched his former girlfriend with a forlorn expression as she left.

"Uh, miss?" the older man inquired after a nudge from his injured charge. When she didn't answer the two former animal handlers trudged after her, unable to keep up with her mount's surprisingly quick stride but following anyway.

"That really didn't go so well," Ryoga sighed.

"You could always call this whole thing off, you know," Akane offered. "It's only been a day, and it's just my dad's stupid idea anyway. If you want to go after her, go. I promise I won't be offended."


The finality of his answer put Akane back on her heels. "But Ryoga... you do like Akari, don't you? I thought you two made a really cute couple. Even Ranma thought so."

"I do have feelings for her," he admitted, "but I've been conflicted for some time. Akari pointed something out to me today though, something I hadn't realized. She was worried because I haven't written to her since I left for China, but she knew that she'd find me here. Akane, she came to this side of Tokyo because... this is where I belong. No matter how lost I get it seems my heart always leads me back to Nerima. To you, Akane."

"Ryoga..." she sighed, looking away. "I'm flattered, really, but I've never really thought of you that way. I always suspected you had a crush on me but you were always just... a friend, you know? I was Ranma's fiancée and that was that, whether I liked it or not."

"Ranma's gone, Akane," he whispered. "He's gone, but I'm still here."

"I know that's over. I think I'm even glad it's over, just to be done with it all. But I just got out of one arrangement and I'm not thrilled to be tossed right back into another before I even catch my breath." The girl gently caught his chin and brought the moping boy's eyes back to hers before continuing. "You understand what I'm saying, right Ryoga?"

"I understand that you're trying to give me a reason to quit, to go back to her. I'm sorry I hurt her, but Akari understands me better than I know myself. She told me she loves me just now. She loves me, and that's why she has to let me go."

"I don't love you, Ryoga. She does."

He smiled slightly. "But you haven't given me a fair chance yet."

"Did you give Akari a fair chance?"

Ryoga looked off into the distance, but did not reply.

The silence hung palpably between them as the pair made their way home, hand in hand. Just to keep him from getting lost, of course.

The sun was beginning to set over the ancient northern mountains, their forms more rounded by age than the peaks to the south. The ancient earth was silhouetted black against the golden hues of the sky, casting everything in a hazy twilight glow. In this strange, indirect light even the most mundane object seemingly held more significance, highlighted and almost aglow with an inner life beyond mere existence.

Considering the travelers' destination, however, appearances were hardly to be trusted in any light.

"Are ya sure he's gonna even be up there?" Ranma asked.

"I certainly hope so," she replied, pogoing alongside the young man. It was the first thing he'd said since leaving the village and she found herself slightly relieved at the end of his deep silence, quite an unnatural state for the boy.

"I still think we shoulda went to his shack first," the young man grumbled. "He's way more likely ta be there."

"Are you really so reckless that you would tempt fate brazenly?" the old woman scowled. "So long as there is a link between you I'll not allow you to get within sight of the demon's place of binding."

"What, you think I'm stupid enough to let it out? Geez, as if I even know how ta do that."

"Not willingly, no..." Cologne replied. "And furthermore, I doubt your mother would enjoy being cursed any more than you seem to. Since she's so very determined not to let you leave her sight I can't in good conscious drag her into that place."

"Don't restrict your options on my account," Nodoka wheezed, noticeably more weary from the climb than either of her companions. "I am perfectly willing to brave whatever dangers might cross our path... though I've no intention of foolishly capering wildly about these cursed pools of yours so I hardly see a threat there."

"You underestimate the threat the springs represent. They have a sinister power, a subconscious pull that draws travelers in and inevitably leads them to their fate. The guide and his family are the only ones immune to its dark calling... save those who have already felt its corrupting touch."

"He's got some kinda special power?" Ranma wondered aloud. "I guess I just don't expect much from the guy. He didn't seem like he was really all that with it, ya know? Then again he did know about the source of the springs, so maybe he isn't just wasted space."

"Foolish boy, nothing at Jusenkyo is ever what it appears to be." She admonished him. "I admit the guide does seem a bit too casual at times for my liking, but there are mysterious forces protecting him, just as they have protected every previous candidate for the position. The springs seem to choose their own caretaker, always an outsider male, and summon him from afar with an insatiable urge to explore."

"What about you then, Elder?" Nodoka wondered. "What special power would protect you from the spring's influence if you were to venture there?"

"It isn't wise to speak of such things in the village," she replied. "There are very few who remember, and I would like to keep it that way. But yes, I was once cursed in punishment, just as Shampoo was. I atoned for my mistake and was relived of its bourdon, so the springs have lost interest in me."

"Wow, really? What did you turn into?" Ranma inquired excitedly, walking backwards up the trail. Somehow he managed to absently weave between obstacles like he'd been up this path a million times.

"I'd rather not discuss it, nor would anyone else in the village who bears such a burden, so don't go asking around," she warned. "We believe that the form of the curse is a personal test, an expression of a person's weakest aspect, and thus too personal for polite conversation. It is also considered a dishonor to be cursed, though once it is lifted the stain is removed, save in the memories of others."

"I guess ya got a really bad one, huh?" The boy pressed.

"What exactly did you think you were doing this afternoon?" she replied, quickly changing the subject. "Even if it wasn't an extraordinarily bad idea for you to be using such techniques right now it would still be idiotic for you to do so in the middle of town!"

"It was hardly without precedent. There was a large group of young ladies training just a short distance away," Nodoka replied.

"That was a group of beginners, practicing basic forms in an open area," the elder explained. "Quite a difference from two people trying to kill one another with chi attacks near several houses, wouldn't you say?"

"It didn't start that way," he began defiantly, but trailed off as he added, "It just sorta... got outta hand."

This was a behavior that needed to be put down, and soon. She didn't hold back her anger in dressing the boy down this time. "Well, that's only to be expected when you use negative chi in such a clumsy, direct manner, you foolish boy! Even you can't possibly tap into deep feelings of fear and anger over and over again without it affecting your control, especially with the influence of a demon in your head!"

"I wasn't using fear today..."

"Not today, no, but you do it far too often anyway," she snapped.

"So you know, then..." he hazarded, turning back around to avoid her eyes. As if she couldn't navigate his mind without looking as easily as he could navigate this trail.

Seeing an avenue to get her point across, she relented the attitude just a little as she answered. "I guessed quite some time ago what memory you would use to fuel those blasts of yours, as easily as you seem to be able to draw them up. Confidence indeed... I'm genuinely surprised you don't slip into the cat-fist every time you try."

"Genma," His mother growled, shaking her head in annoyance. Her hand tightened on the scabbard she was using as a walking stick.

"I did the first time I tried it," he admitted. "Pissed Akane off something fierce... something about ruining her homework. Then I tried it on pops 'cause he was buggin' me, and learned that mixing it with other emotions helps keep it under control."

"But such use will only make it progressively easier to summon those feelings... and I'm willing to bet your fear of cats is getting worse again," the elder gravely intoned. "Hardly surprising when you're reveling in it rather than confronting and conquering your fears like you should. Power always comes at a price, child. Sometimes far too dear a price."

"I can't really help it though... my rivals learn new tricks and I have to keep up."

"Oh hogwash! Ryoga is the only one of them that can even make you pay attention, and even that's getting pretty rare," she snorted. "And every time one of them does manage to learn something new you copy and improve upon the technique before they even know how best to use it against you... no doubt that explains your knowledge of the breaking point technique as well.

"Ranma, your only weakness is that you are still thinking outside yourself, trying to find better ways to hurt others. True power comes from internal mastery, from making yourself unassailable. Right now you gamble recklessly on flashy techniques, but if you would focus that talent instead on not losing I suspect you would have much less trouble."

"I don't know... that sounds too much like just stalling to me," he complained. "Fat lotta good that did me with the fiancée problem."

"That wasn't an example of trying not to lose... that was an example of not trying at all," she replied curtly. "Just like the Council, really... they want more information before they will allow me to do anything about your situation. Fools, the lot of them."

"Allow you?" Nodoka repeated. "I was under the impression that you were the head of the council."

"I was," Cologne explained with an acusational undertone, shattering a stone with staff as she bounced off of it. "I had to give up my chair when I decided to make an extended stay in Japan to help my great-granddaughter remove her own curse of dishonor."

"Oh," Ranma replied simply.

"Everything has a price, Ranma, good or bad" she sighed. "The trick is to spend wisely."

Conversation stalled again as the climb grew steeper. The elder found herself pondering just how the guide managed to retain his remarkable girth if he traversed this path daily... and why the path itself was so unkempt. Perhaps there was an alternate route to his cliffside home?

At length the trail became more orderly, the rough stone worn into smooth steps by several lifetimes of purposeful footfalls. On one side of the path a small garden somehow found earth to flourish in, leading up to the guide's home. At first glance it was nothing more than a shack built of stone blocks, but a closer inspection revealed that the home had been carved from the raw mountain as a whole, the grooves between blocks serving as mere decoration.

"Ah! What you do here Honored Guests?" the corpulent man inquired, looking from his tea. The guide sat on a small, low bench and reclined against the western wall, apparently watching as the last rays of sunlight played across the valley far below. From this distance the cursed pools seemed to blaze with a golden light, glittering bright against the darkening earth.

"Greetings, Shan Zedong," the Amazon replied with formality.

"Yo," Ranma added in a guarded tone.

"Why you is back so soon?" the guide asked the boy, genuinely curious.

Cologne dismounted her staff and approached the man. "I need to ask you a few questions pertaining to our unique situation. Your knowledge of the springs would be most helpful."

"Is always good day for guests," the man replied with a half-hidden sigh, grunting slightly as he rose to his feet. "Come, rest. I make more tea."

The trio entered the man's home, a fine place apparently carved from the raw stone of the mountain. Ranma followed Cologne absently, taking in the sights as if for the first time. He particularly noted the way the different strata seemed to form a subtle decorative pattern wherever it was allowed to show from beneath the various insulating tapestries hung about the place.

He had been here less than a month ago, yet it all seemed only barely familiar. Still, he hadn't quite been himself at the time... and if the elder was right he might not be exactly himself right now, either.

"You like, I promise. Is very flavorful, very healthy," the guide assured them as he sat down, a well-used kettle in one hand and an elaborately carved jade bowl, covered, in the other.

"You needn't go to such trouble for us," Nodoka answered with a politely apologetic but halfhearted tone.

"Nonsense, any excuse to enjoy a good tea with company is reason enough," Cologne replied with a crooked smile. The obese man filled her glass with steaming water and a conspiratorial wink.

"None for me," Ranma stated gruffly, turning his unfilled cup upside down before him.

"No?" the guide replied, his momentary confusion apparent. "Hah! You is have enough of need hot water for lifetime, yes? Be happy with cold water again for while, eh?"

"So... you think I'm cured?" Ranma hazarded a guess, his eyes trained sharply on his host.

"Is wrong?" the man asked, taking a seat. "You not receive gift?"

"Well, how's about you tell me... What was it supposed to actually do ta me?" The young man continued, not waiting for a reply, "'Cause the way I heard it, the stuff coulda killed me."

"Ranma, this is hardly the time to make such baseless accusations," the Elder rebuked him. "We've come to seek this man's help, not to prove Happy's words were self-serving lies."

"But he did have a way of slipping in bits of the truth when you might least expect it, so long as that truth helped him," Nodoka rebuked the objection. "It would seem reasonable to make sure this gentleman is indeed trustworthy before involving him further."

"You is strange one," the guide replied in a suspicious tone. "Risk life to help, but angry to receive gift."

The elder sighed, but nodded. "Shan, it seems there may have

been some manner of misunderstanding regarding the present you sent this young man. I'm afraid the water was wasted before he could make use of it by an old fool who later claimed that it had borne no curse."

"No curse?" the rotund man repeated with an air of indignation. "Mei would never do such reckless a thing."

"So you're saying that it's at least possible?" the young man pressed. "And who is Mei?"

"Mei is daughter... You meet not long ago! Yes, is possible if Honored Guest go dig new pit or take springs that not agree and mix."

"Mixing multiple curses together can weaken the magical bonds within the water?" Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "How many types need to be mixed? Could other curses be mixed in as well?"

"I thought her name was Plum," Ranma answered, narrowing his eyes slightly. "And where is she, anyway?"

"Mei is 'Plum'; mean same. She is visit with... friend," the large man answered with some hesitation. "I know not other curses, but is not spring number that matters but mix type. Girl spring and boy spring cancel, for explain. You mix bad types, not matter how many other is mix; all effect is cancel," the guide replied patiently.

The elder's eyes widened. "Then the recent flooding..."

The guide waved her worries aside. "It normal again soon... just take while to sort out, is all. Nothing to worry. Water we send be just what needed."

"The cure was not in question Shan, but rather your intentions in providing it. Since I believe that has been cleared up, perhaps we can move on to more important matters?" The old woman looked over to Ranma, who shrugged and turned away from her gaze.

"Right then. It seems that this young martial artist here has been having quite a bit of trouble as of late, Shan. His curse has been acting strangely, he has suddenly discovered dangerous new abilities, is growing emotionally unstable, and has begun having vivid nightmares... all this since the springs were flooded and Saffron fell."

"You suspect..." the guide began, soon trailing off.

"The dreams he has described to me are visitations by the Pale One. There can be no doubt, the fiend is attempting to free himself using Ranma as either a surrogate body or a tool in some more elaborate scheme."

"No, this is not!" the guide steadfastly refused. "Seal is safe, guardians strong, and springs still have power. No way can escape."

Ranma's mother was not convinced. "I admit I'm new at all this, but surely with the guardian in his current state, I can only assume you mean this dreadful bird person Ranma recently defeated, and many of the springs suddenly reset that such a thing certainly might be possible, correct? How do you know the seal, whatever that is, is as safe as you assume?"

"If seal not safe, you for sure be knowing now," the man answered in a joking tone. "House is built on seal, so no can mistake. House still stand, seal safe. Besides, young Phoenix King only one guardian. Other guardian I speak with recently... annoyed would not stop Safu-Rong, but have ancient pledge of not fight. Other guardian did help keep Mei safe though, send to you for help."

"Yes, that worked out just splendidly," Cologne scoffed. "So, now that this episode has managed to result in Ranma becoming tainted, what do you suggest we do to resolve this?"

"You could always just teach me some fancy dream fighting techniques or somethin'. Just give me a trick or two ta work with and I'll kick him out of my head for good next time," Ranma offered.

"I don't think it would be wise for there to ever be a next time," Cologne remarked. "That would be the absolutely last option." Or second to last, anyway...

"Perhaps new dip in springs do job," the guide remarked, uncertainly.

"Under no circumstances will my son be dissolved away into your little bogs," Nodoka stated flatly, her eyes deadly calm. "If his death is deemed necessary it will be by my blade or not at all."

Ranma choked as his throat clenched, and began beating his chest with one fist as he struggled for breath.

"Calm yourself, dear," his mother consoled him, touching his shoulder. "I have perfect faith in your ability to overcome this setback, with or without the help of others. I only wish to clarify that you would never leave this world in any manner less manly than honorable suicide. Death in glorious combat would also be acceptable, but I doubt an opponent exists who could achieve such a victory over you, my son."

"That not what suggesting. Curse is prison for demon, so add more curse make cage stronger, maybe?"

"Hmm... that might have potential." Cologne sipped her tea thoughtfully.

"You wanna turn me into a freak like Pantyhose? Yeah right... ta hell with that idea!"

She set the cup back down before replying. "It's an option, Ranma, and that's something we are sorely lacking at the moment. Considering the only other two we have at present I think you should restrain your negativity."

Ranma's gaze drifted to the table and did not come back to meet hers. "This curse is bad enough already... and it's still way better than most of 'em have it. I have enough trouble with this body as it is, ya know? I'm not sure I could take it if I was some kinda damn monster half the time. Probably go crazy just from all the different things they'd be tryin' ta-" the boy closed his eyes and tried to suppress a shiver, "aww, just nevermind."

"I understand," the elder relied. "The changes of the springs are never purely physical, and even after being removed some of the more ingrained instincts can remain."

Ranma went still. "They... they never leave?"

"Only those traits of the curse you actively partake of, Ranma. Traits you resist usually fade in time even without a cure."

"Partake? Like... like what for example? Did anything stick with you from your curse?"

His mother eyed him thoughtfully, with an expression of that seemed to hold dark amusement though the rest of her face betrayed nothing.

"You aren't going to let this drop, are you?" The Amazon sighed. "Let's just say there's a reason I prefer hopping as a mode of transportation, okay?"

"You mean..."


"Geez, no wonder ya didn't want anybody to know," Ranma answered thoughtfully. "Bein' a girl ain't half bad compared to being stuck as a warty old toad. I mean, da- OW!"

"A toad indeed... you insolent lout! Just what part of a toad do you think reflects the conflict of my true nature?"

"Bugged-out eyes, leathery skin, croaky voi- OW!"

His mother retracted her still sheathed weapon. "I believe she meant something a bit more feminine, Ranma... and perhaps more befitting the youthful indiscretion that lead to her punishment? I would suspect the wise, patient, and kindhearted woman on whom your future partly rests was at one point in her life quite familiar with rabbits."

"Yes, my secret shame. It will remain secret, correct?" She all but growled at the boy.

"Well heck, I didn't think of that because ya were so ashamed of it and stuff." Her glare did not relent. "So, um, what's the big deal 'bout being a rabbit? They're agile, clever, tenacious... uh, real survivors those little suckers..."

"A hunter should never be trapped in the skin of prey."

Conversation died, and stayed that way until the portly host once again hazarded the turbulent sea of conversation. "Outcome of mixing all depend on springs used and how; if careful, maybe less noticed."

"Ah, but if the curse is his link to the boy then adding more might make the bond stronger? A conundrum."

"Yes Elder, is as you say... these things not sure. What springs exist now, I not even full knowing."

"Very well, Shan. You have been most helpful. There are others with which I would like to consult, so I trust you to investigate the possibilities we have discussed."

"Thank you for the tea," Nodoka added, rising with a slight bow.

"Yeah, and the, uh... gift, I guess. OW! What, what did I say?"

The heat of the furo was almost unbearable, precariously balanced at the point were both soothing and painful sensations overlapped. In short, it was exactly as she liked it. She sighed in satisfaction and slid downwards against the smooth marble, slowly, until she was fully submerged. She gazed upwards as her unbound locks floated above her, shifting against the sunset colors of the natural skylight like a canopy of leaves on a breezy day. She grinned openly, honestly, in this dream world where she could lose herself to memories of fonder days.

The sudden intrusion upon her sanctuary by a rough hand greedily seeking her breast soured her mood quite effectively. She dug her nails into the uninvited flesh and pulled herself up into the light.

"You wanna play rough, eh?" the barbarian leered.

"No," she spat. "I don't want to 'play' at all."

"Feh, come on... I know you've got another round left in ya. Hell, I barley got started that last time."

"I'm not in the mood right now," she replied coldly. "I suggest that you put any pent-up energy into a training session. You could certainly use the practice, predictable and slow as you are."

"Predictable? How the hell am I supposed to get creative when you're bossing me around all time?" Taro whined.

"I was referring to your fighting abilities, simpleton," she corrected, though he was right about that as well. "All that power is wasted if your opponent can see it coming, extra limbs or no. Maybe try using them at the same time for once."

Anger crossed his face, but he wisely restrained himself to striking the water rather than her. "You think I haven't tried that! Hey, it's harder to control all those limbs than it looks, okay?"

"Hence why I suggest practice," she grumbled as a deep chiming tone resonated from down the hall, "But first, get the door."

"What, me? I don't live here," Taro complained. "Besides, shouldn't you have servants for shit like that?"

"Why pay for something so trivial? That's the sort of lazy thinking that leads well-off families into ruin." She replied, pointing towards the hall.

"Fine, I can take a hint," he grumbled, acceding to her wishes at last.

She steamed at the frustrating gall of the man as she contemplated sinking once again into her bath, but new she would find no peace in her current mood. Ruefully she stepped out and wrapped herself in a thick cotton robe, taking time only to quickly dry her hair to being merely damp before venturing out.

"...don't care to discuss it. Is Kuno in or not?"

The anger carrying in the familiar voice at the door drew her curiosity. Thinking perhaps this would do to get rid of her sudden funk, she strolled toward the foyer, still dripping wet beneath her robe.

"Feh, several varieties, actually"

"Not that I can imagine it's any of your business, but I need to talk to the one who thinks he's the shogun."

"He's busy."

"Doing what?"

"Wouldn't you like to know."

"What exactly are you doing?" Kodachi demanded as she turned the final corner.

"I didn't expect you'd be too pleased to see any of Fem-boy's pals," Taro elaborated.

Nabiki ducked under the fool's arm as he turned to explain, sneaking past the doorstep into the foyer. "Kodachi, is your brother here? Or Shampoo?" she asked, slipping out of her shoes.

"Hey, what do you-" The young man began to complain.

Pathetic. "Awesome, go fetch us some tea, will you? Miss Tendo apparently has come here with a purpose, and I'm certain we have much to discuss."

"Awesome?" Nabiki inquired, cocking an eyebrow.

"Tea? What the hell do I look like to you?"

"Consider it a favor," Kodachi suggested, casting him a glance before sighing, "For me?"

"A favor. Yeah, sure, whatever," he grumbled, giving her a casual smack on the rear as he passed. "But I'm calling all the shots next time, princess. Feh, hope you remember to stretch first..." he continued, leering at her over his shoulder as he conversationally discussed these indecencies.

"Awesome?" Nabiki repeated with an amused grin.

"Hmm? Oh, yes, quite an odd name, isn't it?" she replied, ignoring the sting in her backside as she inwardly mocked the completely unjustified title. She gestured for her guest to follow as she continued, "As you can see he's practically useless for anything requiring tact or finesse, but he does have other uses."

"So, trying to pull a fast one now that the old bastard is dead, eh?" Nabiki taunted, speaking loudly in the direction of the crude fool. "Last I checked his name was really Pantyhose. At least he seems to have stopped wearing them himself though... that's some improvement, I guess."

"Indeed? Well, he does seem to have an unusually strong fondness for them," Kodachi replied as she took a seat. It did seem like a much better fit, but 'Awesome' had just as much potential for mockery without need to encourage his more unusual desires. His fetish was only her concern in so far as she could use it as a reward to keep him in his proper place.

It was a room Nabiki was surely well acquainted with by now, a relatively small corner chamber provided sparsely but adequately for simple talks and the like. An oval table carved of dark grey marble dominated the room, surrounded by a halo of thick green pillows and set atop a predominately brown decorative floor rug. The outer walls were simple stained hardwood hung with thin jade relief sculptures depicting samurai epics, while the inner walls were traditional screens, dyed black with a simple triangular floral pattern in a lighter grey around the upper and lower boarders.

It was a very calming room, quiet both in terms of sound and decoration. The effect was only enhanced by the arrival of a faintly bitter smelling tea, despite the best efforts of the scowling server.

"I just grabbed one," he explained. "Why do you need so many types, anyway?"

She ignored the idiotic question and set the tray and cups on a heated tray. "Gyokuro, a fine selection. Now be a dear and fetch my brother and his strumpet, won't you? And then perhaps you can practice your arts in the garden," she hinted once again.

"Whatever... not like I want to sit around drinking steamed weed juice anyway," he grumbled. "And just so you know, the old man changed it right before he died. Even cried at how he'd wronged me, the only one who was by his side at the end."

Nabiki rolled her eyes at the all-too-obvious fabrication, as the volunteer butler left. "Another few months and you may even get him housetrained," Nabiki smirked.

"Hardly worth the trouble... I'm sure I'll have gotten bored with him before then," the gymnast commented simply as she poured the tea into western style ceramic cups.

"Oh, I'm sure Mr. Awesome there can provide all –sorts- of variety, if you experiment a bit," Nabiki hinted.

The mistress looked back at her flatly, clamping down on the spike of anger her guest's attempt at an inside joke inspired. "I'd hardly tolerate the fool were it not for the curse you're so nimbly dancing around mentioning. An old habit for you, I assume."

Nabiki's guard fell noticeably as her private joke was called as a bluff, sending the girl fumbling for her cup to hide behind as she regained her composure.

"Have I shocked you?" the hostess asked as she adjusted the lapels of her robe, fluttering them briefly. "How droll. I thought you of all people would be able to keep a straight face. You're usually so very good at keeping your true feelings well hidden... a perfect temperament for the consummate deceiver."

"Sister, what mischief conceived in you the desire to send that ill-bred hoodlum of yours to interrupt my... Ah, I see," Tatewaki trailed off upon entering the room with Shampoo in tow. "Come, my love. I expect we may bare witness to a rare spectacle."

"Rare... sight was yesterday. This not even count in Shampoo's book," the Amazon huffed as she obviously claimed a spot away from Kodachi.

"Indeed," her new husband agreed, sagely. "Sister, could you simply not be bothered to properly dress yourself today, either?"

"I prefer to air dry after a long soak, Brother dear, as you well know," Kodachi admonished him, striking at his well-known weaknesses.

"And daily do I wish I were less privy to your habits," her brother grumbled, squirming uncomfortably.

"Regardless, I hardly invited you to tea so that you could play the stoic prude for company. It seems Miss Tendo has come to discuss something."

Nabiki took a final sip of her tea and set it down, mask back in place. "Well, actually I mostly came to ask Shampoo a few questions. Depending on the answers, I may have a proposition for the rest of you."

"A pity," Tatewaki interjected. "I briefly permitted myself to assume you still had the decency to seek clemency for your trespasses against the Kuno family. Alas, perhaps the rueful whispers of your irredeemable soullessness do bear some degree of merit."

"You thought I was here to apologize? For what possible reason?"

The anger began to simmer, and she let it slip into her speech. "For lying to us, for making us out to be fools! You didn't even pause before abusing our purest hearts for the sake of filling your bottomless purse!"

"Oh please, that's richer than even you can afford," Nabiki leaned back and rolled her eyes. "Kuno, do you even remember the first time I sold you pictures of Ranma? You gave me some stupid present to hand off to your new crush, and what did I tell you? 'Give it to Ranma,' that's what."

"But... But you misled me! You didn't explain!"

"Didn't explain?" Nabiki complained, but a hint of a smile slipped through. "I dumped a kettle on him and made him change while you were holding onto him! I told you flat-out that they shared the same body and soul. What's not to get?"

"That you did... but still," the idiot mumbled.

"But nothing. You saw exactly what you wanted to see, and ignored anything that threatened that view."

"There was something about him... I just knew he was up to something, not to be trusted." Tatewaki lowered his head in shame, shrinking in on himself. He reached for Shampoo's hand before continuing, more to her than the rest of the table, "I suppose I was not prepared for such knowledge."

"And before you get started," Nabiki whirled to face her hostess, "You never actually asked me, and as far as I knew your brother should have filled you in about him. Either way, not my problem."

"You're right, he should have... but you know as well as I the limits of my dear brother's faculties. Regardless, you knowingly profited from our ignorance, manipulated events to keep us in the dark," She replied, coldly.

"And made me the laughing stock of Furinkan!" Tatewaki added, as if he hadn't secured that title prior to Ranma's arrival.

"Hey, who am I to turn down easy money? I don't really care what you three did with those pictures," Nabiki smirked, winking at Shampoo. "It's not my business to judge anybody's sexual preferences."

"Lucky you," Shampoo complained under her breath, glancing Kodachi's way. The mistress blew her a mocking kiss, silencing her with embarrassment... or perhaps anger?

"I'm not going to apologize because I didn't do anything wrong. That said," Nabiki paused, continuing in a passably sincere tone, "I may have an idea to help."

"And how perchance might one such as you aid the noble house of Kuno?" her brother snatched at the obvious bait.

"Easy, Kuno... drink some tea, let that brain rest a sec. I'll get back to that in a bit. For now, how about we focus on what I want? Shampoo?"

"What Money Girl want?"

"Ranma," Nabiki answered simply.

Despite herself, the declaration caused the gymnast a sharp intake of breath. She knew the bastard was not worthy of her, but she wasn't quite ready to let the idea go.

Shampoo reacted in similar fashion, she noted. Her brother on the other hand nearly choked on his tea.

"Oh please... don't you guys ever get tired of the jealousy game? That's not what I had in mind," Nabiki laughed their reactions away. "Ranma, you know where he is, right?"

"He with Great-Grandmother, back in village. Why you want know?" Shampoo's expression was guarded.

"Look, I already figured out where he was. That's not the point. What I need is a way to get there."

"Hold, Tendo. What manner of ends could lead one such as yourself into the wilds of the continent?"

"Money, honor, revenge..." she trailed off, ticking her fingers off once more than she gave a reason for. "It's complicated. Let's just sum it up that I've got some unfinished business and I'm not letting him get away until it's resolved."

"May not be option for you, Money Girl. Ranma in trouble, bad trouble," Shampoo cautioned.

"All the more reason for me to hurry, no?" Nabiki answered simply. "I noticed your auction notice at the shop, so I thought I'd better get over here before you skip town."

Tatewaki intercepted the question. "Our aspirations for the future are no concern of yours."

"See, that's where you're wrong. If you two are heading out too then it's likely you can get me there faster than I could on my own."

"Brother, you were not planning such a trip without informing me, were you?" Kodachi interrupted. A trip off to exotic lands did sound like an exciting venture... perhaps she would even experiment with some of the more interesting curses the area apparently had to offer. Besides, she wanted to know just what the Tendo wench was up to.

He hesitated, glancing at his reluctant new bride who simply shrugged in response. "I... hadn't imagined you would be interested in such details, Sister. Indeed I have secured the confidence of a chartered craft for departure after the sale of goods is completed."

"Excellent, Kuno. That's just exactly what I wanted to hear," Nabiki replied with a triumphant grin. "I'm going to need you to save a few seats for me on that flight."

Oh, it wouldn't be quite that easy. "Pray tell," she interrupted, "why do you suppose we would offer you even one such favor, let alone several? You hinted at an incentive of some sort earlier, did you not?"

"Surely you don't expect little old me to travel alone in the wilderness, do you?" Nabiki asked, innocently. "Besides, Daddy will throw a fit if I don't agree to take along some backup... at the very least Akane and Ryoga."

"And my sister's second question?"

"Yes, I promised I'd get back to that," Nabiki agreed. "What I have to offer is the chance to repair your reputations."

"Continue," Tatewaki urged.

"Right now everyone you know thinks of you both as either idiots, perverts, or both. Sure you could deny it, but that sort of thing only makes rumors worse. To get rid of a rumor you need either proof or somebody else to stick up for you."

"And you would accomplish this how?" the mistress inquired.

"By giving the people a lie they will want to believe, something with the ring of truth," she replied with a meaningful glance at the idiot. "I'll tell them I manipulated you both so I could keep tapping you for cash. That I tricked you into thinking Ranma was two separate people and sent false messages to convince you that he was interested despite his public refusals."

"In other words, you will simply state the truth, embellished to make yourself sound more important than you are," Kodachi translated. "Yet it sounds as if you intend to leave us the witless victims of the tale, manipulated by your machinations."

"Maybe, but no more than I do to pretty much everyone else. I've suckered just about all of Furinkan at one time or another. That's why they'll believe it when I say it."

"Why do this? Why you 'tell truth' now?" Shampoo wondered aloud.

Nabiki paused for a moment, perhaps caught unprepared. "Well... maybe you figured it all out now that Ranma's gone. I couldn't trick you any more, and decided to admit what I'd done to avoid a lawsuit."

Tatewaki stroked his hairless chin in a poor imitation of deep thought. "Hmm... this new addition seems quite appealing, supporting the perception that I... that we eventually defeated you in your own chosen arena."

"Yeah, well... bonus for you, I guess," Nabiki replied casually, though surely she wasn't happy about that idea. Still, it was probably the closest to a proper apology the wench would ever willingly offer.

"I can have that story circulating as soon as school starts up again, and by the time we get back you'll be free and clear. So... shall I go home and get packed?"

"You get Spatula Girl to come too," Shampoo added.

"Why?" Kodachi asked, wondering what made the foreigner feel she was in a position to seek compensations.

"Is Shampoo business. Get her there is you business."

Nabiki narrowed her gaze, apparently as suspicious as she was. "Fine, I'll see what I can do."

Tatewaki glanced at his bothersome new wife, who gave him a nod. "We are agreed then. I shall dispatch transportation to your residence when tomorrow's task is concluded."

"Well then, I'd better get going." Nabiki stood to leave and gave a short bow. Shampoo was grinning slightly, and the mercenary briefly returned with a broad smile. Whatever game was being played here, the challenge had been mutually accepted.

"Let me see you out," Kodachi offered, seeking to continue the discussion away from prying ears.

They walked in silence until Nabiki sat on the small oak bench in the foyer to put her street shoes back on. "Something else on your mind?" she asked, continuing her actions.

"What do you suspect that barbarian is up to?" Kodachi whispered, taking a seat next to her.

The other girl shrugged. "To be honest, I'm not sure yet. Maybe some it's some sort of trap. Maybe she just thinks she could use the help to save Ranma. I don't really know."

"And what does Saotome need saving from?"

"Why do you care?" Nabiki returned.

"I find myself considering the same question," she replied. "You seem far more invested in this matter than your typical schemes."

Nabiki paused in consideration, then shook her head. "It's personal. Look, I just don't want to let him die while I've got something still on my conscience."

"Hmmm," Kodachi hummed to herself, considering the odd statement. The girl was feeling guilty about something she did to him? Or perhaps something that she didn't do... how curious.

"I just want you to be aware that I don't trust Shampoo in this situation. If it's a trap we'll probably need to work together to get out," the older girl replied as she stood, having finished with her shoes some time ago. "I don't trust you and I'm sure it's mutual, but we may need to call a truce."

"I suppose we will see when the time comes. Good evening."

Author's Notes:

Holy cow was this chapter a pain to write!

My overall plot outline was nowhere near detailed enough to cover this chapter well. It's mostly a problem of setup for later plot, made more complicated by the fact that none of the characters have much incentive to help each other at the outset. This caused me to have to suffer through a ton of frustrating revisions to get something I was even halfway satisfied with. Now I've got about fifteen pages of material set aside that just didn't seem to work, but hopefully I'll find a way to put some of it to good use in later chapters.

It's still too "Nabiki Tendo: Girl Detective" for my taste, but with Ranma out of town and everybody else wrapped up in their own problems she's about all I have left to start shoving idiots (A) into country (B) and get this story rolling at full speed again. I tried to mix things up, using her visits to peek in on some lesser-seen viewpoints and the newly developing relationship dynamics, but it still seems a little 'meh' to me. I ended up trimming out three entire scenes and added the Ranma/Ryu fight to spice things up, but it's still not what I really want. Maybe I'm just being too hard on myself... but I guess reviews will tell the tale, eh?

It's a little known fact that this story began as a Linkin Park "In the End" songfic that I felt had potential to be something more. On a related note, I'll probably be reposting some of my other songfics, though it's likely the lyrics will be removed and the fics generally reworked into a more traditional form... though a few of those early efforts are probably best left forgotten. A friend suggested that having something else to write might actually help cut down on the amount of downtime I need between updates, so I may give it a try. I will almost certainly be starting a one-shot Eva fic soon as well as an intentionally unstructured mess for the same series, so perhaps these will serve in this regard for the time being.

I'm also strongly considering doing a rewrite project on this story... again. Don't worry, it won't be anything major enough to alter the plot this time; just a little clean up of my earlier characterizations here and there. In retrospect I haven't been completely fair to Akane or Ukyo, Kasumi was probably a little too extreme even for what I wanted to accomplish, and Nabiki's moment of clarity is too sudden. I think polishing it up a bit in this way, especially the first couple of chapters, will make the story a little easier for some people to buy into long enough for me to genuinely set the hook.

So, in conclusion, I'm back. To all my returning readers, I'm sorry it took a year and change to find my way back again. I'm like the Ryoga of fanfiction in that way I suppose, but then again my individual chapters are longer than most people's completed stories so I guess I don't feel that bad about it. Heck, these notes are starting to get almost fic-worthy in length... enough rambling already! :D

Name Translations (Chinese)

Shan - Mountain
Zedong - East of the marsh

So the Jusenkyo guide (who I felt ought to be given a name even if almost no-one ever really bothers to use it) is titled after the home he was predestined to inhabit. Poor guy... right from birth he was only referred to by his job function. Tyler Durden would not approve. Zedong was also the given name of infamous Chairman Mao, which tied in so well with the guide's clothing preferences that I just had to find a way to roll with it.

Mei - Plum (blossom)

His daughter's name is still Plum, but literally translated rather than phonetically like the Amazon names. Eh, they can't all be deep or funny.

NemesisZero, AKA Brian #0 (sure, why not?)

Reviews welcomed, appreciated, and sometimes even answered! Wow!