Close Encounters of the Ranma Kind
by Angela

CHAPTER FOUR: Love and Nannichuan

Part One: "Two Too Violent Girls"
The morning was warm and peaceful, but Ranma was feeling anything but peace. She'd been so busy with every other detail in her life lately that she'd gotten less than three solid days of training. Now it was time to meet Cologne and she hadn't had time to really practice her old techniques, much less learn anything new. She'd decided to fight as a girl for the added speed--strength wouldn't do a bit of good if she didn't last long enough to get a hit in.

She looked down at Akane from her perch on the fence. She had a pensive pinch to her face. Ranma knew she'd been itching to say something since breakfast. "So why don'chya just say it?"

Akane looked up, a worried look on her face. "Ranma, how can you fight without your hand? You can't even do 'chestnuts.' How are you going to beat her?" She carried a first-aid kit under her arm, and though Ranma had chided her about it earlier, she thought it was a good thing to have.

Ranma tucked her arms behind her head in her most carefree pose. "Have some faith, Akane! I'll improvise! Besides," she knew she sounded more confident than she felt, "the old Ghoul has to catch me before she can beat me." Or so she hoped. She'd learned not to underestimate these Amazons, and with only one good hand, she wasn't at all sure that she'd win.

From the corner of her eye, Ranma watched Akane as she walked. She had to win. There was no other way. She'd agreed to go to China and marry Shampoo if she lost, and that was even more unthinkable now than ever. Since that night in Akane's room, the two hadn't had much time together. Sure, Akane helped her train, but so did her pop. And Happosai. It wasn't like they were ever alone. They'd gone through a lot together. She wasn't about to lose her now.

When they arrived, a small crowd was already milling around the Cat Cafe. Soun and Kasumi sat beneath a tree with the panda, and Ryoga stood nearby with Ukyo and a pale-looking Konatsu. Ranma recognized a few kids from school as well. The master was there too, already causing trouble among the girls.

"Nihao Ranma!" Shampoo burst from the restaurant with a smile. She was dressed in Chinese fighting clothes and carried bonbouri. Mousse followed close behind, nodding in greeting to both Ranma and Akane.

This was a little awkward. Akane hadn't seen the couple together with Ranma since the fight, and Ranma wasn't sure how Shampoo would act. She felt Akane step closer, protectively, and smiled inwardly. Akane was too much the jealous type to let anyone too close.

"Mousse and Shampoo talk," Shampoo announced proudly. "We decide to help. Great-grandmother no beat you with us fight too." She smiled and linked her arm with Mousse's.

Ranma couldn't believe that she was willing to go up against her own family to save her. She also couldn't believe that she thought she had to. "No thanks, Shampoo. I got it covered."

"Then Ranma no fight Great-grandmother today, okay? She tricky and want hurt Ranma!" Shampoo's eyes were big and pleading. "Shampoo no want Ranma hurt because of Shampoo. Know you lose fair."

Ranma shook her head. "Sorry Shampoo, I gotta do it. Don't worry, I won't hurt her too much." She winked at Mousse, who didn't seem to see the humor.

"Mousse!" Shampoo clung to his arm. "Tell Ranma no fight! She not listen."

Akane tugged at her sleeve. "Maybe she's right," she whispered. "She'd know what Cologne is planning to do to you."

Ranma scowled at her. "Gimme some credit, would ya? I ain't never lost a fight when it mattered, and I'm sure not startin' today!" She crossed her arms over her chest. "So stop worryin' already!"

Akane glared at her for a moment. "Fine!" With a toss of her head, she turned on her heel and stomped away.

"Violent Akane no want you fight too," Shampoo observed. "Maybe you listen now?"

Ranma gritted her teeth. What was with these girls? She was nervous enough as it was, she didn't need them to put new fears into her head! "I ain't changing my mind," she ground out, tempted to smack Shampoo upside the head with her own maces.

"Then Ranma go head, be stupid! Shampoo no care who win!" There was a flurry of indigo hair and she was gone, too.

Ranma sighed. Girls were so crazy sometimes. She'd have figured that a year in a female body would help her understand them, but she was just as confused as ever.

Mousse stepped up, adjusting his glasses. "I--I wanted to thank you, Ranma."


"You've given me the greatest gift--my Shampoo. For that I will be forever in your debt." He bowed deeply. "I hope that past wrongs can be forgotten."

"Uh, sure!" Mousse had always been pretty annoying and tricky, but he wasn't a bad guy, deep down. Ranma figured he'd be a useful person to have on her side.

"Thank you!" Mousse grabbed her hand and squeezed. "Although I know I can never repay you for what you've given me, please let me fight with you today."

"No way!" Ranma was really getting tired of this. "Ranma Saotome fights alone, especially against one old Ghoul."

Mousse hung his head. "I understand, but please, don't underestimate her. Amazons are full of surprises." He put his hand on her shoulder. "I'll be out here if it gets too rough."

Ranma pulled away. "Yeah, thanks," she said half-heartedly. She wasn't going to need his help anyway. She was about to say so, but Cologne chose that moment to make an appearance.

She hopped out of the Cat Cafe and a hush fell over the spectators. "What's with the grand entrance, Ghoul? Get a make-over?" Ranma taunted. "Funny, you don't look better to me!"

Cologne looked amused. "Be careful son-in-law. You don't want to make me angry." Her voice held a warning.

Ranma chose to ignore it. "Nyah-ah! I'm really scared!" She stuck out her tongue insolently.

"Don't be a jackass, Ranma."

Ranma jumped, spinning around to see who stood behind her. Nabiki. Of course, how could she have missed the dry sarcasm?

Kuno was with her. "Focus, Saotome." he coached. 

Ranma was about to snap at him when she realized he was right. If she'd been properly focused, they wouldn't have been able to sneak up on her. "Right," she mumbled.

She faced Cologne with new sobriety. "Ready when you are, Ghoul!"

They stood face to face in the middle of the street. "You remember how it is, son-in-law? If I win, you marry my Shampoo."

"Yeah, and if I win," Ranma continued. "Then you go back to China and leave me alone."

The old lady nodded and silence fell over the spectators as they each got into fighting positions.

"No!" A high-pitched squeal pierced the air. A cartwheel of pink and blue spun through the air and landed between them as Shampoo. Her bonbouri were raised and a determined scowl was on her face. "Shampoo no let Great-grandmother fight Ranma!"

Cologne didn't look surprised. "Move aside, Shampoo," she said, fixing her eyes on Ranma. "This is no longer your fight."

"Why you so stubborn when Shampoo tell truth? No need fight Ranma!"

Cologne was starting to look irritated. "Don't be so naive, girl! Do you want to marry that nearsighted idiot?" She hopped close to Shampoo, narrowing her eyes. "Ranma lost to him on purpose."

Ranma noticed the girl's knuckles turn white as she clutched her weapons. She hadn't seen Shampoo so angry for a long time. "Shampoo have had enough!" Her speech was even and icy. "It dishonor husband to say fight fixed."

Cologne laughed. It was a harsh, cold sound. "Ranma is no longer your husband," she reminded her unkindly.

"Shampoo no mean him husband." She tossed her hair arrogantly. "Mean //real// husband. Husband what beat Ranma!"

A murmur ran through the audience. Ranma couldn't blame them for commenting. She was pretty startled herself. She never thought she'd hear anything like that.

Mousse stepped forward and situated himself defensively next to Shampoo. "We were married two days ago, Great-grandmother," he said proudly.

Cologne was unruffled by the news. "A Japanese marriage can be easily dissolved. It is no matter." She hobbled toward Ranma. "Let's get to it, son-in-law."

Ranma couldn't agree more. It was starting to get irritating, watching everyone try to save her. As if she couldn't beat the old Ghoul anyway!

Once more, Shampoo jumped between them. Ranma sighed in frustration. "You no fight Ranma without fight Shampoo first!" the girl challenged, stamping her foot.

"No!" Cologne's hair raised in fury. "You no longer claim Ranma as your husband, so you cannot challenge a fellow Amazon in this way." She pointed at Shampoo and Mousse, "you both will be banished if you do."

"No kidding!" Ranma raised her own voice to join Cologne. "This is //my// fight! I don't need your help!" As insane as it was for the Amazons to banish a girl for fighting, she had to agree that Shampoo really needed to stop with the intervention already.

Mousse whispered something to his wife and she shook her head violently. He motioned more urgently and she kicked his shins. Ranma felt sorry for the poor guy. She knew what it was like to deal with an unreasonable female. Finally, to everyone's surprise, Mousse hoisted Shampoo over his shoulder and trudged out of the street. She screamed in Chinese, hitting his back with her bonbouri. Ranma almost smiled. That was going to be one interesting marriage.

The distraction gone, she turned to Cologne with a more serious attitude. The crone was hard enough to beat with two hands, it'd be hell with only one. She clenched her fist and stood ready. She wasn't going to move until the Amazon did.

Cologne didn't seem to object to the strategy. Her speed was amazing as she charged Ranma--faster than any Ranma had ever reached. She instinctively dropped to the ground as the Ghoul came within range. That staff of hers would be deadly at such a velocity.

Rolling, Ranma took the advantage for herself by kicking her legs into Cologne's path. The old woman stumbled, but refused to fall. She wheeled about and came at Ranma again.

This happened a couple more times, and each time the dodges required more and more complexity. As Ranma leaped into the air and spun into a back flip, she realized that the old woman was trying to wear her down. Physical strength over Cologne was Ranma's greatest asset--it was clear that the Ghoul was trying to even things up in that area. She gritted her teeth. She wasn't going to dance to that tune any more!

Launching herself from a light post, Ranma dived toward Cologne. She tucked her bad hand behind her back, out of the way, while the other she hurled at the woman. She didn't usually hit little old ladies, but Cologne wasn't like most of them. "Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken!"

Somehow, she dodged every punch Ranma threw at her. The redhead jumped back, astounded. "What the--"

The old woman laughed. "Don't forget who taught you, boy," she cackled. "Do you really think I would train you to beat me?" She took advantage of Ranma's surprise and jabbed her staff into her belly. Hard.

The girl clutched her stomach, biting back the sting. The crone was stronger than she'd first thought. Maybe strength alone couldn't save her. Resorting to trickery was not something Ranma did often, but as Pop always said, a marital artist does whatever he has to in order to get the advantage in a fight. "Ooh!" she yelped, doubling over as if she were in terrible pain.

She felt, rather than saw, Cologne relax a fraction. It wasn't much, but it was enough to let Ranma know that the crone bought the act and really believed she'd hurt her. Now she could take the old lady by surprise. Without a word, she kicked, straight into Cologne's midsection.

When Ranma landed on the ground, scraping her cheek on the pavement, shocked was the only word to describe her feelings. The Amazon had moved faster than she could see. By the expressions on the faces of the onlookers, it was clear that they hadn't seen her move either. Ranma sat up, covering her bloody cheek with her bandaged hand. How could she beat her if she couldn't even //touch// her? Things had never looked more hopeless, not even the day she'd discovered Jusenkyo's curse.

"Come on, Ranma! You can win this!" One voice spoke up in the hushed crowd. Popping her fingers in her mouth, Akane whistled enthusiastically before continuing. "No one can beat you! Where's that ego of yours?" She smiled, mouthing the words "I love you" so no one else would hear.

Ranma felt her eyes fill with tears. Akane was right. She believed in her and Ranma was determined not to disappoint her. Slowly, the rest of the crowd took up Akane's cheer, and Ranma felt her confidence flare. She stood and faced Cologne with new vigor.

Before Ranma could make a move, though, the Amazon cried out in Chinese and half a dozen fiery balls of chi flew from her fingers. Ranma danced and jumped and dove, managing to dodge five before the last struck her shoulder. It brought her down, knocking the wind from her lungs as she landed in the road.

She struggled to sit, her shoulder burning with Cologne's energy. She couldn't give up now. Akane was counting on her. She worked her way to her feet, hoping Cologne wouldn't send more chi blasts anytime soon.

"Oh, how could you?"

Ranma turned to see a red-faced, teary-eyed Happosai step to the front of the crowd. She didn't know what the Freak was up to, but she wished he'd go away.

Happosai looked at Cologne. "A young, beautiful body like that should be cherished, not destroyed," the old man declared with feeling. "For marring such perfection, such loveliness, I will never forgive you!" Happosai's eyes narrowed angrily. "Now feel the burn of the Anything Goes final attack: Happo Fire Blast!"

Ranma knew to dive. She hit the ground in a painful lurch, scraping her chin on the rough pavement. This was just not her day. The blast exploded with a powerful bang and flames filled the air around her. The heat was intense, and Ranma wondered how the old Ghoul was faring.

When the smoke lifted, Ranma found herself lying next to a shallow crater. She was dark with ash and smoke, but nowhere near what Cologne looked like. The old woman stood--miraculously still on her feet--in the middle of the crater, everything about her black with soot, except her eyes, which seemed to glow for the contrast. Ranma smirked--to think, she'd thought the Ghoul was scary before.

"What!? She's still standing?" Happosai demanded angrily. Cologne turned slowly and faced the master. Ranma couldn't see her face, but by watching Happosai, she was sure she didn't want to. The old man's face blanched white and his eyes began to water with tears. With a yelp, he turned and ran away--perfecting the Saotome School's final attack. This made Ranma pretty nervous. It was one thing for her Pop or Tendo to freak out and run off, but the master usually had more guts than sense.

When the Amazon turned back to Ranma, her face was a picture of rage. Her eyes gleamed violently and she spoke slowly and evenly. "Son-in-law, you have deceived me. This was supposed to be a fight between just the two of us, and you cheated by letting Happy help." She picked up her staff from where it had fallen. "Still, if you wish to change the rules, then understand that two can play at this game."

Ranma tried to explain that she'd had nothing to do with the Freak's bombs. "Look, I didn't--"

It was clear that the Ghoul didn't want to hear. She had crossed over to where Shampoo stood. "Watch this, boy." With the end of the staff she lightly tapped her great-granddaughter just between the eyes. "Shampoo, you hate Ranma."

Shampoo's eyes lost their depth. As the stick struck, they became unfocused and glassy. Cologne stepped aside as the girl looked all about her, her thick hair swinging. When her gaze fell upon Ranma, her lips curled into a sick smile. "Ranma, you I kill!" she announced.

Ranma felt her stomach twist. Not again! Shampoo threw one of her maces, at the same time charging toward her, her face twisted in determination. Ranma dodged the club easily, falling into a one-handed handspring to kick away the girl's attack. Shampoo startled her, however, by leaping into the air, positioning her feet so they would land on Ranma's head with the strongest impact.

The best Ranma could do was to twist so that her back took the blow, rather than her skull. It was still gonna hurt, but she could probably avoid falling unconscious. To her surprise, the kick never came. Just before Shampoo's feet made contact, a web of chains encircled her and pulled her back to the sidelines.

Ranma saluted Mousse in thanks as the myopic Amazon boy tightened the restraints on his wife. Thanks to Mousse's quick thinking, the fight was even once more.

"Okay, you've had your fun!" Ranma called to Cologne. "Let's get back to this!"

She ignored him, smiling as the panda lumbered from his place in the crowd. The animal's eyes were narrowed into evil slits--it was clear that Cologne's pressure point techniques were good on more than just humans.

"Whaddya think you're doin', Pop?" Ranma asked crossly, crossing her arms over her chest. She wasn't afraid of her own father. Although he could still take her by surprise, she'd long ago surpassed his ability in martial arts. Cologne was going to have to do better if she expected this new trick to best her.

'It's time you were taught,' Genma held up a sign, then flipped it over. 'Some manners, boy!' Then, with a roar he dropped the sign and glowered at his son.

Ranma was still unimpressed. Her father may talk big, but he seldom came through when it counted. She yawned dramatically. "Yeah, I'd like see ya try it, old man!"

The panda tried. His battle aura flared about him like a halo. Roaring wildly, he began to grow. Spectators gasped, and some even ran from the awesome sight of the giant giant panda. Ranma refused to budge, though she was getting nervous. She'd seen her father do that only once before, and although those results had been disappointing, there was no saying that he hadn't perfected the technique since then.

She was very lucky. Just as before, Genma was able to hold his large size for no more than just a few seconds. His roars weakened as he began to shrink. Ranma knew what was next, so she concentrated her confidence as her father shrank.

"I ain't here to fight no one but you, old Ghoul," she announced loudly. "Moko Takabishi!"

The ball of hot chi blasted toward Cologne just as the panda fell unconscious to the ground. "Gee, Pop, why'dya do it if ya can't sustain it?" she asked the sleeping figure.

Cologne twirled and seemed to disappear, letting Ranma's chi slam into a nearby tree, scarring its trunk with dark burns. She reappeared next to Kuno and tapped his forehead. Ranma rolled her eyes. Would this woman never learn?

"Ranma Saotome!" Kuno roared, yanking his bokken from its place on his belt. "You shall pay for the humiliation you've caused me!" With a snarl he ran at Ranma, his wooden practice sword raised high over his head.

Ranma kicked and Kuno flew--just the same as always.

Before the upperclassman had even landed, Cologne started for her next pawn. Headed straight for Ryoga, her Amazon staff raised to strike, she alarmed Ranma more than she had since this game began. If anyone could beat her, it was going to be Ryoga. He gripped his own staff tightly in his hands, and Ranma couldn't help but remember the fear she'd felt the first time she'd been up against the weapon.

Just before Cologne's staff made contact, however, Ukyo and her spatula intervened with a metallic scrape. "Not so fast!" she yelled, pushing between the crone and Ryoga. With expert control of her rarefied weapon, Ukyo pushed away the Amazon's stick, at the same time kicking a booted foot at the old lady's shins. With a scoop-and-toss motion, she flung the crone a few feet away. "Don't even think about it," she snarled, tossing a few smaller spatulas for good measure. "It ain't a good idea to mess with my friends!"

Ranma was impressed. It seemed that surprise was key to a successful attack on Cologne. She hadn't been expecting Ukyo to take up such a defense. This was clear by the irritated look on the old woman's face. "It seems your friend is more worthy than you, Ranma Saotome."

Now Ranma was mad. Ukyo was good, but not //that// good. "I'd think again, Ghoul!" With new determination as well as a second wind, she approached the woman for a new attack.

"Ayiaa!" Every eye turned to the younger Amazon, including Ranma's and Cologne's. She had freed herself of Mousse's restraints--the young man had bonbouri bruises all over his face. Now she looked at Ranma, her eyes slitted and angry. "You no get away this time!" she swore, pulling her sharp and shiny sword from its place on her back. Cologne stood back to observe, smiling.

"Shampoo," Ranma tried to reason with her. "If you kill me, then how can you marry me later?"

The girl snickered. "Shampoo no want Ranma. Shampoo want Ranma dead!" She raised the sword high over her head, ready to charge.

And then her weapon was gone. "How //cute!//" A familiar little brunette, who must have been watching the fight, suddenly had the deadly blade in her hands. "Does Azusa's wittle Pierre want to come home wif Mommy?" With a giggle and a squeal, she skipped away before anyone thought to stop her.

Ranma thought she was going to be sick. There was something very surreal about this whole fight. She shook it off--at least Shampoo didn't have that nasty thing any more.

The Amazon girl was staring after the ice skater, her mouth hanging open in shock. Ranma understood the feeling--meeting Azusa for the first time could be pretty alarming. Suddenly, Shampoo turned back to Ranma, kicking and jumping at once.

A blast of cold water filled Ranma's eyes and nose. She choked, trying to focus her gaze on the source. Akane stood nearby, a garden hose in hand. Just as that image was processed in her mind, a wet kitten latched painfully to Ranma's neck. She screamed, both in terror and pain. Shampoo's claws scraped against her neck as Ranma struggled to get away from the persistent animal. The cat wouldn't budge, and a new fear enveloped her.

She was almost as terrified of the Cat's Fist as she was of the cats. The loss of memory and control haunted her for days after an episode. Her panic was building, and Ranma felt her whole body stiffen with fear. Now that she couldn't run, it was just a matter of time. The cat smelled like fur and exotic perfume--the scent made Ranma sick to her stomach. She felt her mind leaving and clutched to her last strand of consciousness. Her scrapes and wounds hurt a lot--maybe if she concentrated on the pain--

"Erowl!" She hisses and smacks at the kitten on her face, knocking it away with a powerful swipe. Falling to all fours, the cat looks about for someone to fight. She is angry, though she can't remember why.

"Cat Fu!" The old crone speaks, drawing the cat's attention. She feels her neck bristle and fur stand on end. She doesn't like the old woman. Jumping with her powerful hind legs, the cat launches herself at the crone.

She hits her mark with a heavy impact, knocking the lady from her feet. The cat tries to scratch her soot-smudged and wrinkled face, but cannot seem to reach--it is as though an invisible barrier is between them. Then the cat sees the movement--the woman's fists are moving rapidly, blocking her body from attack. The cat reaches in as quickly as she can and pushes her paw to the old lady's face, scratching it severely. For whatever reason, she wants to hurt this lady--hurt her a lot.

The crone manages to push the cat away with a scream of rage. Not to be so easily stopped, the cat lunges close again, only to be blocked by the woman's gnarled cane. As if mere wood can stop her! She tears through the staff as if it were nothing more than dandelion fluff, getting to the crone once more.

To the cat's amazement, the old woman runs away. She picks up a hose and turns back to the angry feline, who doesn't realize what's going to happen until it does.

Water! It's everywhere, coming in a violent burst from the hose. The cat hates water. She searches for a place to run, but the water follows wherever she goes. Panic rises with discomfort, and she scans the crowd of onlookers for a familiar face. She spies the girl right away.

The girl is kneeling on the ground, yelling something the cat can't quite hear or understand for the roar of the water. She runs closer, hoping the water will go away if the girl is near. "Kitty-kitty! Come here, kitty!" The cat suddenly understands. She scurries into the girl's lap, where it's soft and warm and the water stops. The girl pets her, cooing soothing sounds into her ears.

The old lady throws down the hose. "Do you think your little girlfriend will protect you? Three thousand years of Amazon history won't be bested by a girl and a cat!" Her hair rises to its ends, but the cat is unconcerned. Yelling doesn't make a lot of sense to her, so she ignores it. "Prepare for an Amazon final attack, perfected over centuries and virtually unbeatable!" She yells something in Chinese and a dark cloud swirls above her head.

"Great-grandmother, no!" The boy in glasses lunges as if to stop the woman, but he is knocked down by a blast of air. The cat takes note. This seems to be a powerful person.

Something twitches in the back of the cat's mind. The girl. She is in danger. It has something to do with the dark cloud. The crone begins to laugh--a sinister sound that raises the scruff on the cat's neck.

Suddenly the cat reacts. She leaps to her hind legs, which are surprisingly easy to balance on, blocking the girl from the crone. She doesn't care what happens to her, as long as the girl isn't hurt. The crone points her finger at the cat, who is terrified at the sparks that crackle around the tip. Whatever this old woman does, it will hurt.

Suddenly the boy with the yellow headband jumps behind the crone, holding a heavy-looking staff. "I won't let you hurt my friends!" he screams. The cat notices his lovely fangs. The boy lifts the staff--it seems to glow for just an instant--and smacks it against the back of the old crone's head as if he were hitting a baseball.

The old woman's scream is cut short as she falls unconscious.

"Great-grandmother!" The boy in glasses dives for the woman, catching her before she hits the ground. The cat doesn't understand such loyalty.

Then the girl's arms wrap around her and pull her close. The cat leans on her, burrowing in her warmth. She would do anything in the world for this girl. Maybe this is the same loyalty the boy felt. The cat closes her eyes, content.

Ranma noticed warmth and a light floral scent. She was sitting on the ground, curled up against a soft, warm cushion. She opened her eyes to the darkness of someone's hair. Akane. She wrapped her arms around her and held on tight. Nothing could be too bad, as long as Akane was okay.

"Ranma?" Akane pulled away and studied her face. Her eyes welled with tears. "Are you all right?"

Ranma felt embarrassed, letting her cry over her. "Yeah--nothing hurts too much." She took a quick inventory of her pain and discovered that her body hurt a whole lot. Her hand was throbbing and her face felt like it'd been through a blender. "What happened?" She remembered everything up to when Shampoo became a cat.

While Akane looked for the words to describe it, Ranma looked around. It really did look like a battlefield. Ukyo was kneeling by Ryoga, who looked like he'd been hurt pretty badly. Ranma didn't see any wounds, but the boy was crying like he was near death. Mousse and Happosai were both huddled in the middle of the street around Cologne's still form. It figured that the Freak would show up again after it was all over. The panda was still unconscious and the crowd milled about uncertainly. It seemed that she had somehow won the fight. Ranma rubbed her head. She wished she could remember the end.

"Ryoga did it." Akane's voice was solemn. Ranma spun around to look at her, puzzled.

"He used his stick," she said, curling her fingers in her skirt. "He killed Cologne to save you." She quickly told her all she'd missed.

Ranma looked back to her friends, seeing Ryoga with fresh eyes. He was crying. He'd never killed before. It all made sense. Ryoga had killed to save her life. "I've gotta go see him," Ranma tried to jump to her feet, but stumbled right back into Akane's lap. Her head was spinning wildly.

Just then, Kasumi emerged from the Cat Cafe. Her arms were full of supplies. She had three steaming kettles and the first-aid kit, along with an ice pack. The tiny pink kitten purred on her shoulder, rubbing her face against Kasumi's cheek. "Ranma!" she said, smiling brightly. "I'm so glad you've come back to us!" She dumped the contents of one kettle over her.

The change had never felt so good. As always, Kasumi made the water hot without being too hot, and it was soothing on his scratches and damp, chilled skin. "Thanks, Kasumi," he said gruffly.

She dropped the medic kit on Akane's lap. "Fix him up while I tend to the others?" she asked sweetly. Akane nodded and Kasumi went on her way.

She was quite a wonder, really. Ranma watched Kasumi work as Akane bandaged him. She changed Shampoo and Genma back to their human forms and used a special pressure point to reverse Cologne's hold on them. "I read about this is in Dr. Tofu's Human Pressure Points book last year." She then went to check on Cologne. Ranma didn't know why she bothered with the ice--if Ryoga used his staff, the crone had a whole lot more than a bump on the head.

"Come on Ranma." Akane helped him to his feet. "You need to talk to Ryoga." Ranma was surprised. Last he'd heard, Akane still hated Ryoga. Together they walked across the street where Konatsu greeted them with a shy smile. Ryoga and Ukyo were still on the ground.

"I shouldn't be allowed to live!" The boy was more upset than Ranma had expected. "That damn staff is deadly and I don't have the control to use it right." He buried his face in Ukyo's hair. "Ukyo, I //killed// her!"

Ranma was at a loss for words, even in his mind. Ryoga had been his friend for years. All those times he'd helped him find his way home or when they'd shared a laugh or fought common enemies--those were important enough to erase the fighting and the hard feelings. At least for Ranma they were.

He knelt beside them, meeting Ukyo's solemn eyes silently. "Ryoga, I--" He broke off when Ryoga looked at him. He took a deep breath. "You saved my life. Probably Akane's too." Unable to control his emotions, he flung his arms around his old rival. "I'll always consider you my brother." His voice was broken with feeling. Tears filled his eyes as he waited for Ryoga's reply.

The lost-boy's sobs got louder as he returned Ranma's hug. "Sounds good to me," he whispered. "Brother." Hugging until they'd both erased their tears, Ranma realized that he'd never really had a male friend. It was going to be a good thing.

A murmur though the remaining crowd made them finally look up. Kasumi knelt by Cologne, beaming as the crone slowly sat up, the ice pack pressed to the back of her skull. Shampoo and Mousse embraced joyfully and Happosai did a little jig, giggling merrily.

"Looks like your rage just didn't cut it, sugar," Ukyo teased. Ranma could hear the relief in her voice. He felt the same way, and was glad that his friend hadn't mastered the use of his newest weapon. Ryoga's tears began again.

"Ryoga Hibiki," Cologne said at last, pointing. "You have bested me in combat. This is not something an Amazon takes lightly." She approached slowly, helped by Kasumi. Ranma could hear Ryoga's teeth chattering in fear.

When the old woman stood before them, she looked up at Ryoga with narrowed eyes. "Amazon law says that I must now marry you." She stumbled into his arms, smiling like a girl. "I am yours, husband."

Ryoga was unconscious even before she touched him. He rocked on his feet and fell into Ukyo's arms. She looked at the Amazon sternly. "You're lying, aren't you?"

Cologne smiled. "You'd make a good Amazon, Ukyo Kuonji. You're right, that's just for the young women."

She hopped from Ryoga's chest and looked up at Ranma. "I consider you a worthy opponent, and am sorry you will not be marrying my Shampoo." She glanced over to where the girl stood with her arm around Mousse. "But she has chosen to believe in the boy and seems happy. You obviously have skill at more than merely martial arts." She motioned to all the people still hanging around. "Not a single soul here wanted to see you lose. You've won loyalty as well as honor. In that, you have bested me." She shocked him by bowing deeply. "You will make a great master one day, Ranma Saotome."

"Th-thank you." Ranma was stunned. "You've been no easy opponent."

The crone smiled. "Then I will leave you in peace, as we discussed. My great-granddaughter wants me to come back to China with her. I will." Without another word, she walked away.

Akane looked at Ranma, her eyes wide. Apparently she was just as amazed. She was about to speak when Shampoo appeared before them.

"Shampoo do that?" She pointed at the four deep scratches that tore into Ranma's neck. Akane nodded and the Amazon girl colored deeply. "I sorry. No mean hurt Ranma." She turned to Akane and smiled. "Perv--Akane and Shampoo part as friends, yes?" She looked uncertain and almost shy.

Ranma looked at Akane, who seemed to be struggling with her answer. They'd been through a lot--Shampoo had done everything from trying to turn her into a duck to threatening to kill her on numerous occasions. She'd even attempted it at the wedding, throwing food bombs and fighting viciously. Akane looked to Mousse, who watched his wife with happy, though unfocused, eyes. Suddenly she smiled tentatively. "Sure. We can try that," she said softly.

The Amazon beamed. "Thank you," she whispered happily.

"Shampoo! Son-in-law!" Shampoo and Ranma both looked at Cologne, who stood in the doorway of the Cafe. "We have a whole lot of people to feed." She looked at Ranma and smiled at his puzzled expression. "Not you, Saotome--I'm calling my son-in-law."

Mousse scurried to her side, never happier to do her bidding.

Ranma pulled Akane close to against him. It looked like things were finally falling into place. She smiled up at him and he knew that he'd really won. His heart thudded painfully.

"Com'on kiddo!" Ukyo smacked Ryoga's face lightly. "Wake up already, you're gettin' heavy!"
Ryoga's eyes opened slowly. "Akari. Save me. From the Amazon woman," he mumbled lowly.

"You don't gotta marry her, dummy!" Ukyo's smile was relieved. "You done good today, Ryoga-sugar." To everyone's surprise, she punctuated her praise with a brief kiss--right on his mouth.

It was clear that Ryoga was startled. He twitched violently and put his hands on her shoulders as if to push her away. He didn't push. Ranma averted his eyes, embarrassed to be witnessing his friend's first kiss.

When Ukyo let him up, a trickle of blood ran from Ryoga's nose. "Ukyo!" His voice was full of wide-awake amazement. "What about Konatsu? And Akari?"

Ranma glanced around for Konatsu and spied the pretty ninja hiding behind a nearby tree. Talk about your awkward moments.
Ukyo smiled. "I never said you had to marry me neither." She smirked playfully. "Let's just say we'll keep our options open."

Ranma took Akane's hand. "Com'on," he whispered. "Let's go home." She squeezed his fingers in response and they headed back to the Tendos' in silence. He didn't know what to say to her, or if anything needed said.

After a time, she looked up at him. "Ranma," she was very hesitant and he wondered why--they'd been through too much that day to be shy. "That music box you gave me, it has the Saotome crest on it. Is it--" Everyone knew that something like that could be used as an engagement gift. Ranma felt his face burn. "Is it an heirloom? Maybe I shouldn't have it."

He was relieved. He knew they had to discuss it soon, but he wasn't ready to start that day. "It's yours, Akane. Don't worry about a thing." He kissed the top of her head and smiled.

Part Two: "Let My Love be Forever"
A couple days later, Ranma felt less like she'd been trampled by elephants. Her face was healing quickly, and although her shoulder was taking longer, Kasumi said it had no signs of infection. Now she sat with Akane, their feet dangling in the koi pond. A kettle sat on a gas burner nearby, ready and waiting just in case Nodoka happened by--which happened more and more frequently lately. Of course, Ranma's mother knew about the curse, but she never liked to see her son's female form.

Ranma was wondering when things would stop being weird with Akane. Every time she saw her, her heart did a double beat and she couldn't breathe just right. Now they sat quietly, and Ranma didn't know if she was supposed to be talking. Akane had said that she didn't want to over-discuss their new relationship, but Ranma could think of nothing else. It was on her mind constantly.

She shifted slightly, putting too much pressure on her bad hand in the process. Ranma flinched. Kasumi never had much of anything to say about her hand as she dressed it each day. It was almost as if she were avoiding bad news. But Ranma didn't need to hear it said out loud. She knew what it looked like and what it felt like. She was getting more and more certain that it was never going to heal right. It really scared her.

She looked at Akane, who had a distant, thoughtful look on her face. Ranma was tempted to confide her fears, but hesitated, unsure of Akane's reaction. She didn't want her to know she was weak or think she was helpless. Truthfully, she was afraid that Akane would find any weakness unmanly or unacceptable. As it was, she never let Akane see her hand. It was grotesque and would reveal the truth in an instant.

"You invited Ryoga for dinner." It was a statement, not a question, and it took Ranma completely off guard. She looked at Akane dumbly until she spoke again. "It's no big deal, I'll just go study at the library or something."

"Why don't you stay home?" Ranma suggested. She knew that Akane was in a temper about Ryoga, but it was time they talked. That was half the reason she'd invited him. That, and the fact that since Konatsu was better, he wasn't eating as well as he could.

"You know I can't." Akane's eyes focused somewhere beyond Ranma's shoulder. "He completely violated our friendship and used my love for P-chan. He watched me dress and slept in my bed. He even listened as I told my most personal secrets." Her voice was quiet and listless; it made Ranma nervous to see her so upset. "The worst part is that he would've continued if I hadn't found out."

Ranma had to tell her the truth. "That afternoon, 'cause I won the fight, he swore to me he'd never come to you as P-chan again. I forced him to 'cause you were crying." Ranma looked at her hands. It was time to face up to the truth.

Akane gasped, her eyes falling to Ranma's bandages. "You mean you fought with him. . . over //me?//"

"He loves you."

She sighed. "I know. I've always known. It makes it worse." Her hands clenched into fists. "I feel exposed, and I don't know if I should scream or cry." Akane's voice broke. "I'll never forgive him."

The tremor in her voice really got to Ranma. She cared about Ryoga and owed everything to him, but she realized that Akane would always come first. "Do you want me to fight him?" she offered seriously.

Akane shook her head. "No. I couldn't let you. He rescued you, Ranma. He saved your life when he was angry enough to want you dead."

Ranma tried again. "You could challenge him yourself." She had faith in Akane's abilities, especially in emotional circumstances. She also knew that she felt better when she hit things--hitting Ryoga would be just the medicine she needed.

She shrugged and let her head drop. "I owe him a lot for that. For you. I'm as indebted to him as you are."

Ranma finally voiced something that had been on her mind since the fight with Cologne. "She had me beaten, you know."

Akane didn't answer, which verified the truth to Ranma.

"I don't think I should inherit your father's dojo," she continued. "You're a great martial artist and you deserve it. Your father's wrong to jilt you and your sisters."

Akane looked up at her with a spark in her eyes. "No, Ranma, you're worthy of it! He //is// giving it to me--through you." She smiled encouragingly and took her hand.

"You shouldn't have to marry me," Ranma mumbled. Akane deserved a whole man--not a cursed cripple who turned into a girl. "It ain't right." She was about to protest when Ranma cut her off. "You've been sayin' it yourself from the start."

Akane looked strange. Ranma couldn't tell what she was thinking, but she was almost certain she was agreeing. Akane Tendo was no dummy. Why would she stick around for her when she could have some normal guy who'd make her happy?

"I mean, look at how they've schemed and tricked us. If it weren't for me, you'd be free to date whoever you wanted. All the guys at school gave up because you were engaged to me--it wasn't like you had a choice." Ranma hoped Akane would see the wisdom in her words and do the right thing. It'd take forever to get over her, but Ranma knew it'd be worth it as long as she knew Akane was happy. "I just figure things would be easier and you'd be happier if you were in love with someone else. If I wasn't around."

Akane looked away. "So you're saying that you would be happier if I hadn't been //forced// on you?" Her tone was stiff and formal.

Ranma was startled. Where was she getting this? "No!" She grabbed Akane by the shoulders and forced her to look her in the eyes. "Akane, what I said the other night--" She broke off, embarrassed. "It's all true. At Jusendo, when I thought you were dead . . . All I'm sayin' is that it's wrong of them to force us to get married!" Ranma wasn't sure she wanted to get married at all; she certainly didn't want Akane in it against her will.

"You're right," Akane conceded, her voice strange and devoid of emotion. "No one should be forced to do something they don't want to." She trailed her fingers in the water of the pond, tracing patterns in the ripples. "Maybe we //should// call it off."

Ranma's heart constricted. She reminded herself that this was what she wanted. She knew she was crippled and cursed and less than half a man; it wasn't right that their parents had left them no say in the matter.

"So it's settled, then?" Ranma asked.

Akane nodded, and an awkward silence fell over them. Ranma watched Akane's fingers skim over the surface of the pond, creating tiny eddies and whirlpools. She wondered what she was thinking of.

It popped into her head like a flash of light. What if they were breaking up? Ranma didn't want that--she hadn't meant that! She thought about that night in Akane's room, the kissing and talking and the tears. She remembered the agony at Jusendo when she'd thought she'd lost her. That was all a part of her now. Akane was a part of her--had been since the first.

//I'm Akane. You want to be friends?//

Ranma studied her, her mind reeling. She was lovely. Beautiful. Her black hair ruffled in the breeze and pale pink cherry blossoms swirled around her. Her long eyelashes brushed her cheek as she looked down into the water, and Ranma had to clench her hands into fists to keep from touching her. As she watched, a teardrop gathered on Akane's lashes and spilled onto her skin, rolling down her face. The trail of moisture sparkled in the sunlight.

Ranma felt like she'd been punched. How could she live without Akane by her side? Why would she want to?

Without warning, Akane stood, turning toward the house. "I'll tell Dad," she said quietly. "You can explain to Mr. Saotome if you want, but you're off the hook with my family." She walked slowly away.

No! Ranma jumped up. She couldn't allow things to go this way. She hadn't meant to break up with Akane! "Wait!" She grabbed her wrist.

Akane paused, but didn't turn.

Ranma took a deep breath. "If you won't marry me for your father, will you do it for me?" she asked in a rush.

Akane looked at her slowly, her face unreadable. For an instant, Ranma thought she saw happiness reflected in her eyes, but she couldn't be sure. Her heart deflated as Akane pulled from her grasp and turned away.

Ranma's legs went weak. How was this happening? Ranma and Akane--that was how it was supposed to end. "Please Akane!" she cried out in a panic. "I love you and I can't live without you!" Tears were forming in her eyes and she didn't feel too proud to shed them.

Akane spun on her heel, a huge grin on her face. Before Ranma knew what was going on, the contents of the teakettle were dumped over her head. Akane crossed her arms, dropping the empty kettle. "Dummy," she smiled. "Ask me again. Ask me now."

So she'd wanted him to be a guy? Ranma wanted to laugh. He also wanted to strangle the girl who stood before him. But mostly he wanted to marry her. "Akane, will you marry me? Not because you have to, but because you want to?" Even though her attitude had already said yes, Ranma held his breath--he felt like his lungs forgot how to breathe.
She didn't disappoint. "Yes!" She flung her arms around him, kissing wildly. Ranma struggled to keep his balance as he returned her kisses; her lunge had knocked him onto the slippery rocks that edged the pond. Suddenly his foot landed on a particularly wet spot and they toppled over into the water.

Akane was laughing, water streaming down her face and from her hair. She had landed on top of Ranma and they were half sitting, half laying in the shallow water. She smiled down joyfully, oblivious to the fact that her clothes clung to her body like second skin.

Ranma was glad to see her so happy. She'd been afraid that a reminder of her curse might break the mood. She was shocked when Akane leaned down to kiss her again.

"Akane, I'm a girl," Ranma reminded her before their lips met. She really wanted to kiss her, but she didn't want to be pushed away violently like before.

Akane dropped a damp kiss on her mouth anyway and smirked. "I don't care!" she declared. "You're still Ranma!" Her eyes were big and sparkled with glee.

Ranma couldn't help herself. With a grin, she pulled Akane closer. "Well, in that case. . ." she growled before capturing her lips again in a deep kiss.

"Oh my!"


"It appears my son is manlier as a girl than most //men// are!"

Ranma opened one eye as her father growlfed his reply to her mother's observation. The whole family--including Happosai and Kuno--stood in the doorway, gaping at the couple in the koi pond. Ranma blushed deeply and nudged Akane, who looked up with a gasp.

"I see we were right to choose Akane," Nabiki commented dryly. "She always said she hated boys." She looked up at her father, who appeared to be near tears.

Kuno nodded his agreement. "She is clearly beneath the spell of the love that dares not speak its name."

Akane started to giggle, which prompted Ranma to do the same. She was in too good a mood to get upset by this unwelcome intrusion. Putting an arm around Akane, she helped her up out of the pond, water streaming from them both. This was going to take some serious explaining, she figured with a smile.

Part Three: "Faster Kasumi! Kill! Kill!"
Ranma knelt on the rocks, Akane lifeless and heavy in his arms. The red of his shirt she wore was reflected in the eerie light, making her skin pink and vibrant, as if she were merely sleeping. "Wake up, Akane," he said urgently. "Don't leave me!" He felt tears well in his eyes. Why wasn't she moving?

He leaned his head against her chest, hoping to make out the sound of her breathing, or some sort of heartbeat. Nothing. The silence surrounded him, making it hard to think. All he felt was a part of himself dying. "Akane!" he screamed, giving her body a gentle shake. Why didn't he hear him? Why wouldn't she listen?

The tears in his eyes spilled onto his cheeks in warm streams. A sob broke in his throat and he put his head down over her, clutching her body close to him. "Akane, I love you," he whispered. "I'll never let go of you." He looked at her face, then recoiled in horror. Where his tears had fallen, every drop burned into her skin like acid. It left red welts on her perfect skin.

Hurriedly wiping his eyes, he shook her more violently, trying once more to wake her. "I'm sorry Akane. I'll never hurt you again if you'll just come back to me! //Come back to me!!// She remained motionless.

Suddenly the rocks were gone, and he knelt in the tall grass near Jusenkyo. It was raining, but he didn't change. Akane lay a few yards away, in the mud on the edge of the rapidly rising flood. Jumping to his feet, Ranma ran to her. He stumbled, barely keeping his balance in the tall weeds.

When he finally reached her, the many-cursed water of Jusenkyo was just inches from her feet. She was still unconscious, though this time Ranma thought he saw the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. "Akane!" He slid to the ground beside her, gathering her up in his arms. He couldn't hear her breathing because of the roar of the water and thunder.
Bracing himself, he pulled on her body, attempting to move her away from the dangerously flooded spring. It was as if he had no strength--he couldn't move her an inch. Water lapped at the soles of her shoes, frighteningly close to touching her skin.

He didn't give up. He pulled and tugged until he collapsed, exhausted, next to her. Still he couldn't move her. It was as if she'd been cemented into the landscape like a statue. He'd never felt so helpless in all his life.

While he caught his breath, he looked at her. She was perfect--the welts from before had vanished and her face was as smooth and white as porcelain. Her lips were parted, and for a moment Ranma thought she'd whispered his name.

"Akane?" he asked hopefully, cradling her in his lap. "Akane, I'm here."

Her features began to distort slowly, changing in shape and color. In panic, Ranma looked at her feet. The water from the spring was covering them. "No!"

The changes came rapidly then, twisting Akane into something that wasn't an animal but wasn't human anymore, either. Her eyes popped open--bright red and blazing. "Ranma, help me!" she cried weakly, clutching at his arms as scales grew over her fingers. Thunder rumbled nearby, blocking the sound as she tried to speak again.

Ranma held on to her tightly, holding her head against his shoulder as the winds of the storm picked up violently. Rain beat against his face, cutting his skin like tiny razors. "I won't let you go, Akane!" he yelled over the stormy gusts. "I'll never let them take you from me!" He protected Akane's hideous form from the weather, trying to control the fear in his heart. "I love you!"

His shout echoed through the still and sterile hospital room. Nabiki and Kasumi looked up in startled irritation as they leaned over Akane's bed. Ranma ran to her, nudging the girls out of his way. "Akane?" he asked, trying to wake her. She was beautiful again, with no signs at all of what happened at Jusenkyo. Ranma was relieved beyond belief, but wondered why she was in the hospital. Was she sick, or maybe had a relapse?

He looked to the family for answers, but got none. The Tendo girls were glaring at him with open hostility, and Soun had his fists clenched at his sides angrily. Even Ranma's father seemed displeased. His arms were crossed and he wore a scowl on his face. "I don't believe you showed your face here, boy," Genma said evenly.

Ranma felt the room swirl in dizzy confusion. What was going on? What was wrong with Akane?

The door opened and Kodachi entered, dressed in a pure white nurse's uniform. She laughed her demented cackle and put a bundle of swaddling in Ranma's arms. "For you, Ranma darling," she cooed. Then she was gone.

Ranma uneasily began to unwrap the blankets. It seemed to be a baby. He glanced over to the bed, where Akane was suddenly awake and sitting up. It was their baby! Ranma felt his heart pound with excitement.

It nearly stopped when he saw the child. It was a horrible beast--a tiny replica of Akane's cursed form on the banks of Jusenkyo. Its red eyes glowed at him and it hissed lowly.

"I hate you, Ranma," Akane said quietly. "I hate you and that monster that's your son."
Ranma stared at her in silent shock.

"Why didn't you let me die at Jusendo?" she demanded. "You should've let me die rather than live //tainted// with your curse!" Tears streamed down her face and her features were distorted with rage. "Get out!" she screamed, sobbing. "I don't even want to look at you! GET OUT!!"

Ranma was frozen. "A-Akane--" he began, his own eyes full of tears. He didn't know what was going on and he-
His thoughts were cut short by Akane's scream.

Ranma sat up, his heartbeat wild and breath short. He was on his bed, in the still darkness of his room. His blankets were soaked with sweat and he shivered in the cool night air. It must have been a dream. It //had// to have been a dream! He was scared--more than he'd ever been before.

Ranma was used to nightmares--since he was small he'd been plagued by the demons of his imagination--but this was the worst. It was still twisting inside of him, feeling so real it shattered the comfort of the room he'd slept in for the past year.

"Akane," he whispered to himself, drawing a small piece of comfort from the sound. Was she okay? Was she going to stay that way? It seemed that since he'd shown up, horrible things kept happening to her. Was he stupid to hope that the worst was over?

A scream shattered the stillness of the night.

He was on his feet before the sound stopped. It was coming from downstairs. He headed for the steps at breakneck speed, only to find Akane already there, bokken in hand.

"Who was it?" he asked shortly, relieved to see her.

"Kasumi." Her face was fierce, reflecting the deep protective streak she felt for her sisters. "I think she's right by the door."

Ranma peered down the dark stairs, for the first time wishing for Ryoga's presence. There was a quite scuffling noise in the darkness--//someone// was down there. "Want me to go first?" he whispered.

Akane shook her head and they descended the steps together. Ranma's eyes gradually became adjusted to the darkness. The front door was open, allowing starlight into the house. It was by this light that Ranma was able to make out the figures of two people fighting in the doorway. He noticed that one was wearing a dress and ponytail. Kasumi! Ranma took the next three steps in a rush.

"She's //winning,//" Akane noticed, putting a restraining hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Kasumi is actually beating him!"

Watching more carefully, Ranma quickly saw that Akane was right. Her moves were rough--clearly from lack of practice--but complicated. She twisted and kicked in the same style that characterized Akane's fighting.

"She must have remembered her training from before her mother died." Soun spoke, making Ranma and Akane turn in surprise. Genma and Nadoka stood on the step above him, watching Kasumi with shocked faces. Nadoka met her son's gaze and blushed, looking down at the floor.

"Mom?" Ranma asked incredulously, for the moment forgetting all about Kasumi.

To Ranma's amazement, Soun slid his arm around Nodoka's waist. "It's time you knew, boy--" He was cut off by the impact of Genma's fist on the top of his head. "Just kidding, Saotome. Kidding."

Ranma wondered if he wasn't still dreaming. His parents were sleeping under the same roof--probably in the same bed--and Kasumi was punching some intruder's head. Nothing would surprise him now.

"Kasumi! Kasumi please, it's me!" The burglar spoke.

The eldest Tendo daughter gasped and stopped her blows, in the same instant flinging her arms around her opponent. Ranma was wrong--he definitely hadn't been expecting //that.// The burglar pulled her close and they shared an embrace while Soun--leaking steam from his ears--fumbled for a light switch.

With a growl he flicked the lights on. Kasumi and the intruder jumped apart, Akane gasped in surprise, and Soun growled a little less-threateningly. Ranma was speechless, as was his father, apparently.

Akane found her tongue first. "Uh, hello Dr. Tofu!" she yipped in greeting. Ranma cast her a suspicious glance. She didn't have to sound so happy to see him.

The doctor looked tired and just a little crazy with Kasumi's hand on his arm. He bowed to the umbrella rack. "Mr. Tendo, I apologize for the late-night intrusion." He pulled his skeleton from his back and smiled at it delightedly. "Betty and I have good news for the Saotome family." He looked up at Nadoka. "My, Nabiki, you are looking so grown up these days."

Ranma rolled his eyes. If they didn't get Kasumi out of the room, they'd never figure out why he was there. It was really weird, since he'd been gone for months, that he'd show up, unannounced, in the middle of the night.

Akane was apparently thinking along the same lines as she smiled at her sister. "Kasumi, why don't you make some tea? I'll get everyone situated in the living room," she suggested.

Nadoka offered to help and the two disappeared into the kitchen. Ranma helped Akane usher Tofu into the next room, trying not to snicker as the doctor apologized to a chair he bumped into. Once everyone was seated and Betty was curled happily on the couch, a gradual change came over Tofu. His glasses lost their metallic sheen and his smile became more normal.

"I have many fascinating things to tell about my trip, but before I get into my story and explanations, there is something I must say." He cleared his throat and pulled a little pouch from his pocket. "Kasumi?" he called into the kitchen. "Kasumi would you listen to me--but don't come into the room."

Everyone looked at each other wonderingly. "I've recently noticed that I suffer from a peculiar lack of focus when Miss Tendo is in the room," he explained sheepishly.

Ranma coughed loudly, choking on his laughter. Lack of focus? Yeah, you could call it that. Akane punched his arm solidly, a warning, Ranma guessed.

"I'm listening, Doctor," Kasumi cheerfully called from the kitchen.

Tofu cleared his throat. "I have had a successful practice for a number of years and I've had a lot to offer a wife, if I so desired one. Until recently, I have not." Ranma remembered the fiasco when Tofu's mother had come to see him married off. He shuddered at the memory of the old woman squeezing his hips.

"What I mean to say," the doctor continued. "Is that I've been waiting for a particular young lady to grow up and decide for herself what she wants from her life. The time appears to be upon us." He ran a hand through his hair nervously. "Kasumi, with your father's permission, of course, will you marry me?"

Akane giggled in excitement for her sister, and all eyes turned to the wall that separated Kasumi.

"Father?" was her reply. Her voice sounded strange to Ranma.

Soun stood. "I've always tried to consider my girls' feelings in this sort of thing," he began. Ranma and Akane looked at each other dryly. "And I try to look out for their best interests." He sniffed back tears. "I think you'll make a fine husband for her, Doctor. Just--take care of my little girl." His tears broke into full-fledged sobbing. Akane put her arm around him in comfort.

Dr. Tofu looked pleased, but nervous. "Ka-Kasumi?" he asked.

She burst into the room, skirts and hair flying. "Oh yes, Dr. Tofu!" She stumbled into his arms and loose papers flew everywhere. Tofu pulled a ring from his little pouch, sliding it onto Kasumi's finger. The couple embraced as Ranma curiously watched sheets of paper drift slowly to the floor.

"What's all this?" he asked, picking up a couple pages that fell near his feet.

Kasumi blushed, pulling away from her new intended. "Oh, those are letters," she explained brightly. She looked up at Tofu and smiled. "I've written to you every day you were gone. I just didn't know where to send them."

Tofu smiled delightedly. It seemed that having his feelings out in the open did much to keep him normal. "I've been keeping a journal for you, Kasumi-dear." He pulled a small leather-bound book from his pocket. "I recorded my thoughts throughout my journey--for you."

Ranma thought romantic stuff was all well and good, but he was as anxious as anyone to find out where the chiropractor had been. "So where did you go?" he asked.

"Kasumi, would you please get me a tall glass of cold water?" Tofu asked politely. The girl scurried from the room and everyone got comfortable to hear the doctor's story.

Kasumi returned an instant later with Tofu's water. He took the glass and promptly dumped it over Ranma's head. "Good, you're still cursed," he commented lightly.

"What'chya pickin' on me for?" Ranma protested angrily, squeezing the water from her pigtail. She'd been a girl entirely too often lately.

Nadoka entered with the tea. When she saw her son, she left the room, returning with a kettle. "This may be a little hot," she cautioned as she tipped it over her.

"Yeow!" Ranma screamed. "A //little// hot? It was boiling!" Back to normal, however, he settled down quickly to listen to Tofu. If it had something to do with his curse, then Ranma wanted to hear it.

"Let me begin on the day Shampoo mailed herself to me. Once I happened to see her change into her cat form, she explained that she too was cursed at Jusenkyo. Ranma and his father's cases had already intrigued me, so when Shampoo begged me to find the cure, I decided I would. I had already exhausted the Japanese library system, trying to find a book with the answer, so I went to China in the hopes that I'd discover something there."

Ranma remembered the family's surprise at finding the good doctor had closed his clinic. "So why didn't you say goodbye?" he asked.

Tofu reddened. "Truthfully, I wasn't sure I'd find much, so I didn't want to get your hopes up. I spent the first couple months doing research. I found plenty of old documents and books written on the mystery of Jusenkyo, but nothing with mention of a cure." He took a sip of tea. "I discovered that water from the nannichuan won't help you."

Everyone gasped. This whole year, almost every hope had been in the anticipation of acquiring water from the spring of drowned boy. "So there's no cure?" Akane asked frantically.

Tofu laughed. "No. Yes. Don't get ahead of me! It seems that yes, nannichuan will turn you into a man, but not yourself. Ranma, you become very short in your girl form, even for a girl, though you are not short as a boy. That's because the girl who drowned in the spring was very short. She also had red hair."

"So Ranma and Genma would take on the characteristics of the boy who drowned?" Soun pieced it together.

"Right. You see, there's no real cure for Jusenkyo's curse. But I started thinking that maybe the curse itself could be used as a cure."

Ranma was confused. Nannichuan wouldn't help? Was he going to be cursed forever?

"So in other words," Kasumi began, scanning through the journal Tofu had given her. "The only way anyone could end up looking like Ranma and Mr. Saotome is if //they// drowned at Jusenkyo!"

"Exactly!" Tofu beamed at his bride-to-be. "So you see, the solution is simple!"

"Simple, you say?" Genma interjected suspiciously.

Ranma's mind was working rapidly. Akane had drowned at Jusendo--Kiima had taken her form. But Akane was right there next to him. Maybe this would work after all. But how? He was still pondering the mystery of how it happened in the first place.

Tofu continued. "I decided to try un-cursed spring water. I couldn't tell if there was a spring at Jusenkyo without a curse, so I followed the flow patterns back to its source--a place called Jusendo."

Ranma looked at Akane, startled. Tofu had been to Jusendo?

"For lack of a better plan, I dug my own spring, intending to gather some water to bring back to you. Before I could collect any, however, I was captured by some strange bird-people. It's a long story, but I was imprisoned for a number of weeks. It seems they were having some kind of trouble with humans."

Akane tried to hide a giggle, but failed miserably.

"Well," continued the doctor. "When they finally released me, I hurried back to my spring, but it seemed that a young girl had drowned in it, cursing the waters with her form. I dug another nearby and collected all I needed." He broke off his story and suddenly stepped from the room, excusing himself politely.

"Dr. Tofu was at //Jusendo?//" Akane and Ranma gasped simultaneously. It was amazing--he could've been in a cell near Akane's in Saffron's dungeon. Clearly his spring had become the spring of drowned Akane. Tofu was lucky he'd gotten out alive.

They had hardly finished gaping when the doctor returned. This time, rather than toting Betty on his back, he carried a huge barrel, presumably full of spring water from Jusendo.

"You carried that all the way from China?" Ranma asked, amazed. You'd think that, as a chiropractor, he'd know the dangers of carrying so much weight.

Tofu looked at him strangely. "I had it airlifted out of the mountains," he answered, looking at him as if he were crazy. "To the airport in Beijing, and then to Tokyo by plane." He shook his head. "From there I took a taxi."

Ranma felt dumb. He guessed it wasn't right to assume that everyone did things the way they were done in his family.

Just then the front door opened and shut. "Shh--the light's on. That means Kasumi's still up," a voice whispered urgently. It was clearly Nabiki. Everyone looked at one another. No one had noticed her absence. "She's probably in the kitchen, though." There was a scuffle as she and her guest took of their shoes.

No one said a word, but Ranma knew he was about to witness something incredible. In the year that he'd lived there, he'd never seen any of the Tendo girls do anything worthy of punishment. Sneaking someone inside in the middle of the night seemed like a good way to get into trouble. Big trouble.

The steps creaked distinctively as Nabiki and her guest headed upstairs. The whole family crept to the doorway, eager to see who she had with her.

"Nabiki Tendo!" Ranma had never heard Soun bellow so loudly.

Nabiki spun around, nearly falling down the stairs in her shock. She clutched onto her companion for support. "Daddy!" she cried in alarm.

Ranma burst out laughing at the picture it made. Kuno stood tall, having drawn his bokken at the first noise. Nabiki cowered behind him--looking frightened for the first time in Ranma's memory. Together they made a ridiculous pair--as if Kuno could shelter her from her father's anger.

"Do you mind telling me what's going on?" Mr. Tendo's voice was icily calm, but his head was growing dangerously large. Ranma saw fear flicker through Kuno's eyes, with good reason, too; it wasn't every day he was caught in such a compromising position.

"Mr. Tendo," Kuno began, his voice shaking. "Good sir, I want to assure you that I intend to marry your daughter." He lowered his bokken, realizing it was still threatening. "Whenever you like, we can voice our nuptials as early as tomorrow. Morning, if you like."

Tendo didn't have even a moment to think about it before Nabiki burst in. "Marriage! I am //not// going to be pawned off like a sack of rice!" She stamped her foot indignantly, glaring at the young man. Ranma noticed though, that for all her outrage, never let go of Kuno's arm.

Soun sighed. It was late and he looked tired. "Tatewaki--go home. Nabiki--to your room. We'll discuss this at length in the morning." He sounded beaten. No one moved for a moment. "//Now!//" he roared.

Kuno was scooping up his shoes and out the door in a moment. In the same time, Nabiki made it almost all the way up the steps. "Hello Dr. Tofu!" she called as she disappeared down the dark hallway.

Everyone looked at each other, embarrassed. It'd been quite a night. "How about I finish explaining in the morning?" Tofu asked weakly, obviously shocked by what he'd seen. Soun nodded his approval, already heading for the stairs. Nadoka and Genma followed close behind.

"Hey wait," Ranma protested. "You can't do that! What about the cure?" He'd been so close to finally learning something that he was sure he wouldn't sleep until he did.

The doctor tousled his hair. "Sleep Ranma," he suggested. "You have a big day tomorrow. It'll be your last day as a girl." With a smile, he followed Kasumi into the kitchen.

This left Ranma and Akane alone by the stairs. His mind was spinning. Was it really almost over? He tried not to get too excited--he'd gotten his hopes up too often in the past. The idea of being normal again was too tempting to ignore. "I can't believe he left us hanging like that!" he grumbled.

"Trust him, Ranma," Akane said softly. "He wouldn't get your hopes up unless he was sure." She slipped her hand in his and hoisted her bokken over one shoulder. "And let him look at your hand. I know it's been on your mind."

He didn't answer as they walked up the steps and into the hallway. As they passed Nabiki's room, he thought he heard the muffled sound of sobbing, but it seemed too out of character for him to believe. Besides, he was too worked up to worry about other people's problems that night.

"Goodnight Ranma," Akane whispered, stopping by her door. "Try to sleep."

He kissed her distractedly and went to his own room, where he lay in the darkness for a long time. A cure? He couldn't believe it, even when it came from Tofu. Maybe if he was cured, the lingering feeling of his nightmare would leave him. He hadn't felt it downstairs, but in his own room it seemed to hang in the shadows. He closed his eyes tightly, trying to imagine his mother's face. Akane's image filled his mind instead and he sighed, content. Maybe he would sleep a little, after all.

Part Four: "Goodbye Girl-Type"
When Ranma reached the breakfast table, the family was already eating. He sat down in his spot next to Akane and rubbed his eyes. Between the nightmare and the doctor's visit, he hadn't gotten much sleep. It seemed no one had. Kasumi was the only one in the room with a smile on her face.

"Good morning, Ranma," she chirped. The new ring on her finger sparked in the sunlight as she held it up to admire it.

"Son," Tendo glanced at him wearily. "Did you happen to see Nabiki on your way down?"

Ranma hadn't, but didn't get a chance to say so. "Didn't you know?" Kasumi asked, wide-eyed. "She left early this morning--she said she had some errands to run."

Her father didn't answer, rather, he left the table in a rush, leaving the rest of them to look at each other wonderingly. Ranma felt sort of bad for Nabiki now. She was really in for it.

"Well, if this is really my last day as a girl, I'd better make the most of it," Ranma said with a smirk. He picked up a glass of water and dumped it over his head, remembering to enjoy the transformation this time. Strange, but he was gonna kinda miss it.

"Going shopping?" Akane asked dryly.

Ranma smiled sheepishly. "Wanna come?" she asked.

A few hours later, they trudged back through the door.

"So why'd you gorge yourself if you knew it was going to make you sick?" Akane demanded, removing her shoes.
Ranma clutched her stomach and groaned. "I couldn't help myself. It ain't like I'm ever gonna get to eat like that again."

"Yeah, and for less than 200 yen," Akane muttered under her breath.

"Can't help it if I'm cute," Ranma retorted, sticking out her tongue.

Laughing, Ranma headed upstairs to take a hot bath. Akane followed her up, heading to her bedroom to change. Dr. Tofu would be there soon.

In the bathroom, Ranma thought about the past year, and how accustomed she'd gotten to her female form. Certainly not a day had gone by that she hadn't wished to be normal again. But it seemed less and less urgent lately. She remembered all the times when being a girl had come in handy. She would've never saved Akane from the orochi in the Spring of Life without her curse, and although Kuno had made himself a royal nuisance, it had been sorta fun teasing him all this time. But then, the Jusenkyo curse had caused a lot of trouble, too. If she'd never been to Jusenkyo, Akane would've never been tangled up in the whole Mt. Phoenix disaster. Ranma shuddered, remembering.

She stepped into the warm tub, saying goodbye to her female form forever.

"Ahhh, it feels good to be normal again." He pushed away the nagging reminder that he didn't even know Tofu's plan yet. Akane was right; Tofu wouldn't have said anything if he wasn't sure. Ranma sighed. It was weird, trusting someone because you had no other choice. He wished he could see this as just one more attempt--probably doomed to failure--but somehow he had put his faith in the chiropractor.

After Ranma was dressed, he stepped into the hall and headed for his room. The sound of the door slamming downstairs grabbed his attention. He wondered if Tofu had arrived. Eagerly, he ran to the top of the stairs.

"You go on to the kitchen, Ryoga." Nabiki's voice was clear. "Kasumi can give you something to eat while we wait for the doctor." Ranma watched her push the lost boy in the right direction, before coming upstairs herself.

He darted into his room, not eager to face her. He hid there until she was safely in her own room. Ranma knew it wasn't right to avoid her, but he didn't want to endure the awkward moment that would come when she knew that he knew what she was planning to do the night before. That kind of stuff made him nervous.

Once her door was closed, he slipped out into the hallway. He was concerned about Ryoga's presence. He'd intended to set aside some of Tofu's cure to deliver to him later, but now that Nabiki had brought him over, the plan would have to change. He hoped that Akane didn't get too upset about it.

As if summoned, Ryoga turned into the hallway from the stairs. Ranma ducked into a shadow. He thought it'd be fun to watch him fumble around looking for the kitchen. Ryoga opened each door as he came to it, poking his head inside to decide if it was where he was supposed to be.

"I hope I'm still at the Tendos' house," he muttered to himself as he passed close to Ranma, who almost felt sorry for him. Almost turned definite when the wanderer reached for Akane's doorknob. Ranma was about to warn him when he thought better of it. Maybe a confrontation was just what those two needed.

He crept closer as Ryoga popped his head into her room.

"Ryoga!" Shock and outrage filled Akane's voice. "//Get out!// " Ranma wasn't at all surprised when his friend recoiled as if he'd been hit with something.

"Wait!" Ryoga nimbly dodged a projectile alarm clock and the barbell that followed. Ranma was impressed--who would've guessed he'd never been targeted before. "Listen to me!" A high-heeled shoe hit his head. "I'm sorry, Akane. Really, really sorry!"

Akane paused her onslaught. "Sorry?" she laughed. "That doesn't do a bit of good. What you did is unforgivable. You lied to me!" She pushed Ryoga into the hallway and against the opposite wall. "I thought you were my friend!"
Ryoga didn't fight back. "I know I don't deserve to be," he said timidly.

"Damn right you don't!" She kneed him in the stomach. Ryoga doubled over with the pain. She used the opportunity to elbow his head. "You pervert!"

Sliding down the wall, Ryoga sat on the floor and pulled his knees up. Ranma had never seen him look so beaten, and he knew that it wasn't Akane's punches that stung. She must've noticed as well, because she stopped and stared at him, out of breath and angry.

"I know it's not an excuse," Ryoga began weakly. "But I only did it to stay close to you. I don't know why or how it started, but I do know that no one had ever loved me before, and when I was P-chan, you did." Tears filled his eyes, but he blinked them back, seemingly unwilling to cry. "I know I can never make it up to you, and that our friendship is over, but I want you to know that I never meant to hurt you." He put his head on his knees. "I loved you," he whispered.
Akane fell to her knees before him. It hurt Ranma to see her looking so confused, but he knew that this time he couldn't help her.

"And you saved Ranma's life," Akane said slowly. "For that I owe you everything."

Ryoga looked up at her, his eyes wide. A trickle of blood ran from his nose--apparently Akane was getting better with her aim. "Akane?" he whispered.

"But that doesn't mean I forgive you. I don't know if I can." She looked at her hands, then quickly met his eyes again. "When I think of all the times I defended you--really Ranma was the one being honorable. I hurt him because I believed in you. Now there's nothing to believe." She shook her head sadly.

Ryoga stood, swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand. "I understand," he said softly. With a last look at Akane's face, he smiled sadly and turned away, his footsteps the only sound as he went.

As soon as he was gone, Akane collapsed on the floor crying quietly. Ranma went to her, crawling from his hiding space. She accepted his embrace wordlessly and he didn't ask questions as she wept. Ranma knew that this wasn't about him this time. All he could do was support her when she needed it.

Akane had barely stopped crying when Ranma heard Dr. Tofu announce his presence downstairs. He lifted Akane's chin with his fingers looking into her watery eyes. "Come on and smile, Akane. My cure's here."

Akane tried, a trembling smile coming to her lips. "Okay, Ranma," she whispered. "I'm better now."
Together they went downstairs and to the dining room where everyone waited.

"The water's almost hot!" Kasumi called from the kitchen. Ranma looked at the faces of everyone gathered around the table. Dr. Tofu looked nervous and excited, the complete opposite of Nabiki's fake boredom. Nadoka and Genma whispered quietly to each other. Ranma had never seen his pop look so young--he and Nadoka looked like excited newlyweds. Soun was weeping into his tea, somehow seeming both proud and tragic at once. To Ranma's surprise, Kuno stood on the porch, staring out at the courtyard in contemplation. Nabiki must've invited him over to make sure there were no doubts about the pig-tailed girl's true identity. Ranma was shocked he'd showed up, seeing as how Soun would surely want to have words with him. Ranma almost didn't notice Happosai. The master was curled up under the table, his eyes big and watery. Ranma figured he was upset about the end of the curse--the end of copping free feels.

Finally he looked at Akane. Her eyes were still bright from crying, but she wore a brave, happy smile. Ranma knew that, no matter what happened today, Akane would love him. His heart thumped at the idea, and he blushed. For her sake, he hoped this cure worked.

"Ranma, Akane, sit down," Tofu said, smiling. Ranma was about to do as asked when Kasumi called from the kitchen.

"Ranma? Could you come here for a minute?"

Ryoga was sitting on the floor eating cookies when Ranma came in. He looked pretty pathetic. "Don't worry, buddy, I'll save some of this cure for ya," Ranma tried to reassure him.

"Thanks," Ryoga mumbled, shoving another cookie in his mouth. Ranma knew it meant more to him than he admitted--his depression over Akane just made him seem unexcited.

"Ranma," Kasumi began seriously, "I think everyone will understand if you decide not to be cured, considering the circumstances." She blushed a deep shade of red. "I believe your marriage to Akane should be protected at all costs, and I'd hate to think we all ruined it by pressuring you into this cure."

Ranma and Ryoga gaped at her. What was she thinking?

"I know you and Akane have found some sort of . . . compatibility with your curse."

Suddenly Ranma knew what she was talking about. "Kasumi!" he said, startled. "It ain't like that at all! I mean, Akane likes me better as a guy!" He couldn't believe that after all his explaining the other day, she still thought that he and Akane were . . .

"Are you sure?" she asked incredulously. "I mean, I haven't seen Akane react so . . . strongly to a boy before."
Ryoga was staring at them, the cookie hanging half out of his mouth, forgotten. Ranma could imagine this conversation seemed pretty alarming to him.

"Yes, I am sure. She reacts even more strongly--" he broke off suddenly. blushing. Kasumi and Ryoga blushed, too, and for a moment, the kitchen was totally silent.

"Oh my," Kasumi whispered, covering her mouth with her hand. "Don't I feel silly!" She tilted her head and grinned. She suddenly turned toward the stove, where large vats of water were heating. "Umm, could you help me carry these into the other room?"

Ranma and Ryoga each took a washtub of water and headed into the dining room. Kasumi followed, with smaller basins. Ranma noticed Akane look away when Ryoga entered. He wondered how his friend felt about that.

Tofu stood. "I suppose it's now time for me to explain how this works," he said. "I'm going to drown you."

Everyone gasped and looked at the doctor as if he'd grown another head. "What good's a cure going to be if we're too dead to enjoy it?" Genma demanded.

"Wait--hear him out, Pop," Ranma protested. "In China, Saffron's people drowned Akane. But she's fine now."

"//They drowned my Akane?//" Soun screamed, holding his head. "RANMA!"

Ranma was about to run when Akane spoke up. "Dad, look at me; I'm fine," she said, glaring at her father sternly.

Soun put his head down on the table, sobbing. "Oh, don't growl at me like that!"

Tofu ignored the outburst and continued, smiling. "What you said is right, Ranma. In order to activate Jusenkyo's curse, people have to be only //mostly// drowned."

"Inconceivable!" Happosai exclaimed.

Ranma rolled his eyes. He wished they would just get on with it already. "Mostly drowned? So how are we gonna do this?"
Suddenly the wall behind him exploded. As the dust settled, Shampoo's startlingly blue hair was the first thing Ranma could make out. An embarrassed-looking Mousse cringed behind her. "Hello!" she chirped.

Everyone in the room stared in amazement. Shampoo tossed her head, smiling arrogantly. "Shampoo do know Japanese, you know." She looked excitedly at Dr. Tofu. "Nabiki Tendo say you find cure. Is true?"

"Nabiki," Soun said, startled. "I must say I am impressed by your sentimentality and generosity. It was nice to inform Shampoo. I'll consider that your way of trying to make up for last night's . . . mistake."

The Amazon scowled. "Shampoo pay many yen. Nabiki not so generous."

"But we would like to thank you for //your// generosity," Mousse broke in, bowing deeply to Mr. Tendo.
Shampoo looked at the doctor with wide eyes. "Can doctor fix husband Mousse too? He turn duck."

Tofu smiled at her and nodded kindly. "All right then, if we're all here, we may as well start before the water gets cold." Kasumi was already bringing extra tubs into the room for the new arrivals.

Ranma was about to ask for some water for Ryoga when Akane spoke up. "Umm, doctor? Could we spare some water for my . . . my friend Ryoga?" She looked at the fanged boy and smiled hesitantly.

The lost boy was so startled he nearly dropped the vat of hot, uncursed spring water. Before a drop could spill, however, Mousse and Genma were next to him, supporting the weight.

"Thank you, Akane," Ryoga breathed.

Nadoka slammed her hands on the table in impatience. "Can we //please// just get on with it?" Ranma smirked. It was obvious which parent he took after.

"Okay then, everyone find a drowning buddy." The room fell silent, deadly silent. Tofu laughed nervously. "Trust me! This works. I experimented on myself."

Akane took Ranma's hand and smiled. He'd found his drowning buddy. He wondered for a moment if Tofu had cursed himself to find a cure.

"I volunteer to drown Shampoo," Nabiki piped up, narrowing her eyes at the Chinese girl. "I've been wanting to do this for a long time. Kuno-baby, you take the boy." Mousse glanced at Kuno nervously.

Genma and Nadoka had paired off, and Ryoga was looking frantically about the room. "I'll help you out, boy," Soun offered forebodingly, a gleam in his eyes. Ryoga had no choice but to agree. Ranma wondered if Tendo had ever noticed that Ryoga and P-chan were never in the same room at the same time.

Within a matter of minutes, Kasumi and Tofu had divided the heated spring water into five basins. "We've warmed the water so that you won't change before drowning. I want the uncursed drowning buddies to hold their partner's head in the water until they drown."

"//Do you mind?//" Genma protested. "Some of us don't like that word!"

Tofu cocked his head curiously "Drowning?" he asked.

"//Yes, drowning!//"

"Sorry. Hold your partner's head under the water until they pass out," he amended. "That will be evident by the lack of struggling."

"And then what?" Ranma asked suspiciously.

Tofu tried to reassure him. "And then we pull you out and let the water cool."

Everyone took their places, kneeling around the table of basins. "Bye-bye kitty cat!" Shampoo said cheerfully, winking at Ranma.

Nabiki grabbed a hold of the Amazon's thick hair and forced the girl's face into the water. At the same time, Kuno leaned on Mousse. Ranma watched his mother happily dunk his Pop into the their basin, and Soun was already fighting Ryoga's wild thrashing. Tofu came to his assistance.

"So, are ya gonna dunk me or what?" Ranma twisted to look at Akane. Before he met her eyes, his face was full of warm water. Knowing he was so much stronger than Akane, he tried not to struggle, though the water was alarming. Was he supposed to try to breathe? He'd never drowned before, and didn't know how it worked. Attempting a deep breath, he choked.

Akane yanked his pigtail and pulled his face out of the water. Ranma coughed violently. "What'chya do that for?"

"I can't!" she declared. "I--I can't //drown// you!"

"Then what'd'ya volunteer for?"

Before Akane could answer, Happosai bounded onto the table. "Let me!" he cried gleefully. "Lemme drown the ungrateful little--"

Ranma's head was submerged again, this time with Master Happosai standing on it. Ranma panicked, wondering if the old freak was gonna pull him up in time. He didn't trust him like he trusted Akane. In a moment, though, it didn't seem to matter. The water was peaceful, and he felt his mind drifting. He stopped struggling.

"Ranma? Ranma!?"

Ranma felt himself being shaken violently. "Akane?" He sat up slowly. Everyone was staring at him. It seemed he was the last to come to.

"Ranma not brain-dead?"

"Shut up, Shampoo!" Ryoga defended.

"Are you all right, Ranma?" Tofu asked.

Ranma nodded weakly. Drowning was not something he wanted to do again. "So what now?"
Tofu took his position at the head of the table. "Now we wait until the water cools. Each of your basins is now a tiny cursed pool. Once the water is cold, you'll dump it over yourselves, cursing yourselves with your own images."

"Not much curse there!" Shampoo giggled.

"Want to drown for real?" Nabiki asked, motioning to the koi pond in the courtyard.

"But Dr. Tofu," Nadoka asked calmly, "won't all the water get mixed up on the floor?"

"Hmm . . .hadn't thought of that. Maybe we should do it outside?"

"And have bugs that look like Ranma?" Nabiki interjected with a sneer.

Kasumi spoke up. "Maybe we should use just a glass of cursed water--that way hardly any will spill," she suggested practically.

Tofu beamed at his bride-to-be. "Good thinking, Kasumi."

And so they waited. Shampoo gushed to anyone who would listen--Mousse--about how great it would be to be normal again. Ryoga spent his time blowing on his basin of water, hoping to cool it faster. From time to time Tofu stuck a thermometer in the water to test its temperature.

"Saotome, may I speak with you a moment in the kitchen?" Kuno asked gravely. His voice was low, and he looked around suspiciously, as if he didn't want to be overheard.

Ranma didn't want to, but curiosity got the better of him. Now that Kuno was with Nabiki, he certainly wouldn't try anything sick, Ranma hoped.

In the kitchen, Kuno looked at him sheepishly. "Saotome, since dating Nabiki, I have strived to forget about Akane and . . . and the other. But now, today, in the wake of losing the pig-tailed girl forever, I have realized that my true heart will always lie with her."

Ranma jumped away, disgusted. "Kuno, you ain't saying--"

"Good heavens, no!" Kuno looked a little green around the gills himself. "I have no interest in you, Saotome. There mere thought revolts me."

"Well, that's good to know," Ranma muttered. "So what's the difference? She's still me."

Kuno splashed him. The transformation was a shock to Ranma, but no more shocking than the feel of Kuno's hands on her body.

"Pig-tailed girl, my love! I cannot bear the thought of living parted from you!" He tried to kiss her, his lips puckering sloppily.

"Get off of me!" she shrieked. With a twist and a kick, Kuno went flying through the roof. "Great," Ranma muttered. "Just one more thing I gotta fix."

She quickly changed back to her normal form and headed back to the dining room. Imagine, Nabiki really wanted to waste her time on that buffoon. Strange, the girl was smart about everything else.

Before he'd made it through the door, Dr. Tofu pushed him back into the kitchen. "I noticed your hand, Ranma. What happened?"

Ranma explained about Ryoga and the chi blast, wishing he could go. He didn't want to hear the doctor tell him it wasn't going to get better. Tofu unwrapped the bandages and studied the wound. "I want you to come to the clinic tomorrow," he said cheerfully. "It looks pretty bad, but I think there are a few things I can do for you." He patted Ranma's shoulder reassuringly, and for the first time, Ranma thought that maybe it would heal. He followed Tofu out of the kitchen.

In the dining room, some of the cursed partners were getting impatient. "How much longer do we have to wait?" Ryoga demanded.

"Wait for what?" Ukyo smiled brightly as she popped her head through the hole in the wall. "I thought'chya might be here, Sugar."

Ryoga smiled in greeting, then turned violently to Tofu. "Is this wait absolutely necessary?" he shouted.

"Well, actually, no," Tofu answered.

"WHAT!?" Ryoga was joined by Genma, Mousse, and Ranma. Shampoo critically contemplated a lock of her hair.

She looked up. "Hmmm?"

"By cooling the water," Tofu explained, "we can be immediately certain of the results."

"What if we don't //want// to wait?" Genma asked threateningly. He held his wife's katana in his hands.

Suddenly Kasumi burst through the kitchen door, smiling. She batted Genma's sword from him. "Mr. Saotome," she scolded, "you shouldn't be playing with such a dangerous weapon." Either ignoring or not seeing the obvious hostility in the room, she held up the tray in her hands. "I brought ice! I thought it might hurry things up a bit."

Before the words were completely out of her mouth, eight grasping hands snatched the ice away, quickly dispersing it into the basins. Ranma threw some into Shampoo's, not wanting to have to wait for hers to cool, too.

In a matter of minutes, the ice was melted and Tofu declared the water cold enough. "Before you jump the gun here, I want you all to take turns. That way I can be sure nothing went wrong. Ranma, you can go first."

Ranma ignored Ryoga's squeal of protest, scooping a glass of water from his basin. Finally--after a year of being a freak and dealing with a girl's body, he was going to be normal again.

A giant splash from the courtyard distracted him. Kuno had landed, finally. Nabiki hurried out to him.

"Nice kick," Akane commented, smirking.

The hesitation was all Ryoga needed. "A pig no more!" he cried, scooping his water into a cup. He unceremoniously dumped the water over his head, closing his eyes tightly. "Bwee?" he tested quietly. "I'm not a pig!" he screamed triumphantly.

"Well, that's a matter of opinion," Ukyo laughed, smacking him lightly with her giant spatula.

Shampoo and Mousse cheered, doing a little jig around the table. Dr. Tofu looked both relieved and deliriously happy as Kasumi planted a kiss on his cheek.

Ranma took a deep breath and held his cup out to Akane. He wanted her to be the one to cure him. "Just be careful it don't splash on you," he warned, smiling. Akane beamed as she accepted his gesture. With pomp and ceremony, she proudly doused her fiancé with water from the newly-made pool of drowned Ranma.

It tingled. Ranma closed his eyes tightly, half-expecting the shape-shift. When it didn't come, he peeked his eyes open. Akane was grinning at him. Instinctively, his hands flew to his chest, relieved to find it flat. "Ahhh," Ranma sighed. Today he'd been molested, accused of being a lesbian, and half-drowned, but it was still the best day of his entire life.

Soun was wailing, and even Genma blinked back tears as Ranma gleefully hugged Akane, his mother, and even the evil Happosai.

Genma picked up his own cup and eagerly filled it with Genma-water. Once it was full, however, he hesitated. Ranma was certain he was remembering those lazy days spent sunning himself on the porch as a giant panda. His pop was the only one who really //enjoyed// his curse. Shrugging, the elder Saotome poured the water back into his basin.

"Oh no you don't!" Nadoka said angrily. With a jump, she attacked her husband, forcing his head into the water.

Without lifting his head, Genma held up a sign. 'Did I change?' They all shouted negative answers. 'Yay,' the flip side read. Ranma wasn't sure if it was supposed to be sarcastic or not, but he was glad his pop was back to normal.

"Now it's your turn, Shampoo!" Mousse yelled eagerly at Genma.

"Who do you think you're talking to, boy?"

Shampoo spun him around. "Duck go first," she ordered.

"How about we go together?" he suggested.

They eyed the two basins before them, then looked outside, where Nabiki was smacking the unconscious Kuno. Mousse scooped water from one while Shampoo took the other. Counting to three in Chinese, the couple doused themselves.

Everyone gasped. Rather than being cured, the couple had discovered a new curse for themselves. With the cold water, Shampoo had become Mousse and Mousse was Shampoo.

"Sweet-O!" Happosai launched himself into the deep V of Mousse's robe, where his new bosom swelled.

Meanwhile, Shampoo picked her husband's glasses up from the floor, squinting. "What we do?" she asked, her voice low.

Ranma started laughing hysterically. Leave it to them to screw it up! Mousse's body looked pretty dumb squeezed into that little Chinese outfit Shampoo was wearing.

Shampoo knocked Happosai away from her husband and stood back to study his new curvaceous form. "Shampoo not know Shampoo look so good." She latched on to him, kissing him soundly. "No wonder Mousse follow Shampoo from China!"

Mousse accepted his kiss but then pushed away, flushed. He tightened his robe self-consciously. "I fear that we've messed this up, darling Shampoo."

The entire room twitched, everyone reacting as violently as Ranma when they heard Mousse's speech in that annoyingly familiar voice.

"Don't worry!" Dr. Tofu exclaimed. "We have more water from your basins--we can fix this!"

Suddenly Shampoo kicked both basins to the floor, expertly jumping away from the puddle and snatching Mousse up in her arms. "Shampoo like switch! Plenty time to change back later!" It was clear that they wouldn't be able to change her mind.

Ranma really felt for Mousse, until he noticed how his now-blue-haired friend was eyeing his wife. Maybe he didn't mind so much after all. Ranma thought it was pretty weird, but then, Shampoo and Mousse had always seemed a little crazy to him. It would certainly make things interesting for them.

The family went outside, leaving the water to evaporate since it was so dangerous to clean. Genma, Ryoga, and Ranma dived into the koi pond, laughing, while the newlyweds sat on the rocks, splashing each other playfully. Kuno had come to, and he looked at everyone dizzily. "Did I miss it all?"

"Sorry, Kuno-baby, but it's your own fault," Nabiki said icily. She had apparently figured what Kuno had been up to that got him kicked.

Akane leaned over the water and tugged on Ranma's pigtail. She had questioning look on her face. "I just thought--what about . . . Kodachi?" she asked slowly. "You took care of everyone else! But what about Kodachi?" She was suddenly frantic, not wanting to have to deal with Kuno's psychotic sister.

Ranma didn't have an answer for her. "I couldn't find her," he said, not admitting that he hadn't really looked.

"That," said Kuno, "is because she's traveling. After your mockery of a wedding, she was sent to China to study martial arts rhythmic gymnastics. There's a training ground there that specializes in balance training. She shouldn't be back for another two months, at least." Kuno grimaced. "I rather hope she decides she enjoys China too much to come home."

"Balance training? Do you mean Jusenkyo?" Akane asked incredulously.

"Perhaps. It was something like that. I doubt she'll cause you any more trouble. She's taken up will a fellow named Taro. It seems she's finally found a man more handsome than Saotome." Kuno laughed sarcastically and turned to Nabiki, obviously preparing to grovel for her forgiveness. Ranma smirked. He hoped Nabiki would be hard on him.

"I have a question," Kasumi began, in her own little world, as usual. "If Dr. Tofu was our burglar last night, then who was it before?"

"Whoever he was, the scum better think twice before crossing Soun Tendo again!"

"That's right! The wretch had best not come back," Genma agreed, cracking his knuckles.

"Call your revered Master scum? A wretch, eh?" Happosai jumped wildly in anger, waving his pipe.

"YOU!?" they all shrieked.

Happosai laughed harshly. "Sure! Had to come back for that fine staff of Ryoga's. You saw how much trouble it was in that amateur's hands! Never did get my hands on it, though." For a moment the old man sounded thoughtful. Soun sighed in relief; it seemed the master had forgotten to be angry. Hearing the sound, Happosai turned back to his elder students, his head inflating. "So . . . scum am I?"

"We're sorry, Master!" both men cried, falling to their knees and bowing as low as they could.

Ranma rolled his eyes. "Ya know, you shouldn't encourage the old freak!"

"No kidding!" Akane added.

Happosai looked up, his eyes widening at the sight of his loveliest student. "Akane!" He leapt into the air, latching himself to her chest and laughing merrily.

Ranma slammed his fist into the old man's head. "Stay away from my fiancée!" he yelled, hurtling the evil master into the heavens. Once he was sure the Freak would be gone a while, Ranma climbed out of the pond and took Akane's hand. He gave some excuse to his family and friends and led her back into the house, carefully avoiding puddles of spring water.

Alone in the living room, they sat on the couch, neither caring that Ranma was soaking wet. "So, how does it feel to be your old self again?" Akane asked, poking him gently in the ribs.

"I'm not," Ranma answered.

"Huh?" she cocked her head and looked at him curiously.

Ranma pulled her closer, leaning his head on her hair. "A year ago I was normal on the outside, sure, but all I knew of life was travel and Pop and martial arts. Then I changed to a girl and I got to see my mother, I got real friends, and I . . . I fell in love with you." He kissed her head softly. "I ain't at all who I used to be." Ranma liked being close to Akane, but he knew he'd have the rest of his life for that, so he went ahead and said what came to his mind next. "The guy I was before the curse would've never fallen for a clumsy tomboy like you! I mean, you can't even cook! What was I thinking?" he laughed.

He was still laughing when Akane knocked him onto the floor.

The End

completed: April, 1998