Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi. I'm just telling some stories about them.

Author's Note: Blargh. My apologies once again about just how long this chapter took to get out. Was under some pretty insane deadline crunch for a few months at work, and then I ended up getting hit by some nasty recurrent illnesses as well that really set me back and messed things up.

Anyway, here at last is the far-too-long-delayed final chapter of the interlude. And with this fic complete, keep an eye out for Part Two to start up next—which will be titled "The Dark Lords Ascendant". Hope that you enjoy (and that you have a blessed Palm Sunday)!

Chapter Four: Remembrance

Ranma's feet moved along the top of the chain-link fence. Not at a jog. Not this time. His hands were jammed into his pockets, his head bowed in thought as he walked away from Furinkan High School without paying much attention to where he was going.

He was troubled, more troubled than he had been in a long time, and yet he could not explain why. It had all started with that weird, terrifying dream last night, the details of which he could no longer even remember. And yet... there was more to this than just a simple dream. He was sure of it. Somehow.

But beyond that vague impression he had no idea what was wrong, despite wracking his brain all day, paying even less attention in class than normal. It seemed like the more he tried to make sense of it all, the more muddled it became. Still he refused to give up.

A flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye caused him to glance up, just in time to see Mousse riding past. The nearsighted warrior was pedaling hard, with deliveries for the Nekohanten strapped to the back of his bicycle.

Ranma sighed. As if mysterious dreams weren't enough to worry about, there was also the added annoyance of Shampoo's obsessed suitor to deal with. He had returned from China barely a week ago, sporting a Jusenkyo curse the idiot had picked up while there. And he had attempted to use water from that same spring to curse Ranma to turn into a duck as well. The pigtailed fighter could see the scene in his memories, as Mousse tried with all his might to—

—pull Ranma free of the Jusendo reservoir, even as Saffron's deadly egg threads wound up the chain he was using to do so. Ranma had to shout at him to drop the chain, knowing that if Mousse kept trying to save him it would only result in both their deaths—

The pigtailed boy stumbled, nearly losing his balance on the fence. He watched, wide-eyed, as Mousse cycled out of sight, oblivious to Ranma's shock. What had that been? The briefest flash of a... memory? It had been senseless, little more than a burst of déjà vu... but at the same time it had felt so right.

Sighing, Ranma rubbed his head. Maybe I'm just losing it... he mused. I mean, seriously. Mousse trying to save my life? No way that'd ever happen.

He continued home, his thoughts even more confused than before. Nothing further interrupted him, and eventually he reached the outer wall of the Tendo compound and pushed his way through the gate. On reaching the other side, he noticed that Ryouga was sitting on the porch, staring off into space.

Of course. Ranma's headaches just wouldn't be complete if the lost moron hadn't found his way back here as well. The lost boy glanced up as Ranma shut the gate behind him, and they looked each other in the eye—

—as Ryouga clicked open his umbrella, the attacks from the entrenched youma pouring down the corridor between them. Ranma knew, in that instant, what his rival was about to do, but he could do nothing to prevent it as Ryouga hurled himself around the corner and—

Ranma sucked in a hiss of breath, wrenching his eyes away. He eventually looked back, expecting mockery from Ryouga for his strange behavior. He realized, however, that the lost boy was giving him a strange look as well, like someone trying to place a distant recollection. The awkward silence stretched on, until it was unexpectedly interrupted by a voice from behind Ranma.

"Um... excuse me?" It was a female voice, one Ranma could not place, but which was maddeningly familiar all the same. He turned, and saw that it was a young woman with long silver hair tied back in a simple ponytail, standing just outside the gate he had just entered through. She was wearing a long green dress, and was looking at them with a hesitant, hopeful expression.

The pigtailed fighter felt another wave of déjà vu hit him. Not as drastic as the flashes of combat earlier, but he definitely felt as though he should know this girl from somewhere. "Who're you?" he asked, his tone wary. Something weird was definitely going on here, and he didn't like how little he knew.

"I see... You don't remember either." The girl sighed and nodded. "I thought it would probably be that way."

"Remember? What do you mean, 'remember'?" asked Ryouga, his expression a troubled frown.

The girl took a deep breath. "It's a long story, but I can explain all of this," she told them. "We should get the rest of the Tendos and Mr. Saotome together first, though. They'll all need to hear it too."

"...and then I actually saw it myself. The scale of the spell was beyond belief. A wall of pink energy that just... washed over everything in sight. That's the last thing I can remember in the Dark Kingdom. The next thing I knew, I was waking up back in my room at Doctor Tofu's clinic."

Ryouga stared intently at the strange, green-skinned creature, who had been a human girl right up until the moment she had poured hot water over herself as a demonstration. She had said her name was "Beneda", and the story she told them had been utterly outlandish even by his standards.

And yet... he couldn't shake the nagging feeling of familiarity that he got every time he looked at her, both in her human form, and now even more so in what was apparently her original form. He did know her from somewhere. He was certain of it. Even the details of her story had rung true to him on some subconscious level, despite the fact that his conscious mind was boggling at what it was being asked to believe.

Nabiki, however, did not appear to be nearly so credulous. "So then why are you the only one who still remembers all this?" she asked, giving the youma a disbelieving look.

"I... don't think I am the only one, actually," Beneda responded. "If Sailor Moon's cat really is who the Dark Kingdom rumor mill thought she was, then she probably remembers too. And for the same reason."

She looked across the room at each of them. "Wind back your memories this far, and all of you can just pick up and go forward again from whatever you were doing originally. Maybe with a little massaging to make any wrinkles fit, like how Doctor Tofu remembered me as recently signing on as his apprentice. But me..." She grimaced. "My memories from this time say I should be cringing in the service of a demoness who doesn't even exist anymore. There just isn't any way for the 'me' of back then to fit with the way the world is now. So winding back my memories just didn't take."

Now it was Ranma who spoke up. "But if it's like that, then it means the memories are still in our heads somewhere too. Just... covered over. We might be able to get at them. Somehow."

Nabiki's eyebrows shot up, her expression incredulous. "Don't tell me you're actually believing her story, Ranma? She doesn't have proof of any of this!"

"I believe her!" Ryouga surprised even himself with the instinctual vehemence of his defense. "It's the only thing that makes sense out of these weird... half-memories that keep hanging around in the back of my mind. Haven't you had them yourself?"

But Nabiki's only response was to look at him like he'd lost his mind, and Ryouga realized that the mercenary girl hadn't been having the same flashes of déjà vu that he had. But if that was the case, then what was the difference between them?

"Ryouga's right!" exclaimed Akane, raising a hand to her temple as she tried to concentrate. "There's something we're not remembering. It feels... it feels almost like it did when Shampoo used the Xi Fa Xiang Gao on me to erase my memory of Ranma! There's something there, but it's just... always out of reach."

The lost boy clenched his fists, and closed his eyes. He had never been all that proficient at the more mental aspects of martial arts, but he had picked up a few simple meditation techniques here and there on his endless travels. He didn't know if they would help any, but he had to try something. This constant not-quite-knowing was starting to drive him crazy.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Expel all thoughts, and take full control of the mind.

Once in that state, he tried to somehow locate his suppressed memories, forcing past the walls that stood in front of them when he tried to bring to mind what Beneda was describing. To his mild surprise, he actually felt like he was making progress, but the end goal remained frustratingly out of reach.

"Keep telling us more about what happened," urged Ranma. "Especially details! That might trigger something."

"Um..." Beneda began hesitantly, then started to rattle off random facts. "When I first came here... it was Akane's room that I spent the night in. She said I wouldn't want to share the guest room, since Ranma was a pervert." Another spark of familiarity flashed across Ryouga's mind, but it remained disconnected.

"Before that... when I was coming here, I tried to drain some ki from Ryouga without him noticing, to heal myself. But... I found out later that he knew what I was doing all along." Yet another flash of memory, this one even stronger than the last.

"And... and when Ranma found out about it, Ryouga told him..." The youma's voice broke, just a little bit. "You told him that you didn't care what a 'youma' was, or what the 'Dark Kingdom' was. You said you cared about who I was. And then... you said that—"

"—you were my friend, and anyone who wanted to get to you would have to go through me first!" Ryouga shouted, leaping to his feet. In that instant, everything finally clicked, and the walls around his memory came bursting apart like their Breaking Point had been hit. "Beneda!"

The look on the youma's face melted into one of pure joy and relief. "Ryouga!" she said, lunging forward impulsively to wrap the lost boy in a hug and bury her face in his chest.

"I was so scared," she said at length, her voice muffled as she still clung to him. "I was scared that you wouldn't remember. That I'd be all alone, the only one who was still a part of that time."

Ryouga chuckled. "Like you could really get away from us that easily," he said, giving the youma's silver, metallic hair an affectionate ruffle.

Akane was the next to regain her memories, pulling on her previous experience at breaking free of the Xi Fa Xiang Gao to do much the same thing again. Ranma followed shortly thereafter. But no matter how hard they tried, they were unable to convince Nabiki, Kasumi or their fathers to even make the attempt, much less break through the memory blocks.

Kasumi, at least, seemed to agree that it wasn't all some elaborate trick, although Ranma got the feeling she did so more out of politeness than anything else. Nabiki was openly scornful, suggesting that they were the victims of some hallucinogenic magic product, as per one of their usual escapades.

Soun and Genma more or less avoided the question altogether, making Ranma wonder if the two martial artists were truly as free of the flashes of déjà vu as they claimed to be. Did they not remember... or did they not want to remember how they had run in the crucial moment? Ranma didn't know which it was.

And really, he didn't much care anymore.

In the end, the four of them were left alone, sitting around Tendo koi pond. Mostly they were silent, as they tried to acclimate themselves to the better part of a year's worth of experiences now returned to them.

—Akane's sightless eyes staring off at nothing, her neck brutally snapped, Ukyo and Shampoo dead on the ground next to her—

Ranma shook himself and quickly spoke up, breaking the silence. "So we're right back where we were?" he asked. "What about Metallia? If everything got turned back to the way it used to be..."

Beneda shook her head. "She's gone. Believe me, if she still existed, I would know. You shouldn't think of this as going 'back in time.' Not exactly. It's more like... reshuffling reality."

The youma's expression grew thoughtful as she continued. "From what you described to me, I think Sailor Moon must have made a Wish back there. Probably for things to be 'back the way they were' or something like that. I doubt she even consciously realized what she was doing. And the effects of that kind of magic can be... unpredictable and haphazard. To say the least."

"It's definitely tying my brain into knots," muttered Ryouga. "It was just a normal day to start out with... and now suddenly I remember that I have a girlfriend." Then he paused, frowning in thought. "Had a girlfriend." Then he paused again. "Will have a girlfriend. So confusing."

Akane glanced up at that. "How long is it from now until Akari is going to show up?"

"Well, let's see..." Ranma said, searching his newly-recovered memories. "It was right after Nabiki beat that weird debt-based martial artist, right? And right now, it's still a couple weeks before the Principal is going to get back from America. So that means..."

But his voice trailed off, his eyes widening as the full significance of the situation they were in hit home to him. "The Principal..." he breathed, turning to face the others and their puzzled faces. "Guys, don't you realize what this means? We already know the Principal is coming back! And it's not just that. Think about it! We know practically everything that's going to happen for the next year!"

Of course, to really make the most of their advance knowledge they would have had to keep the information amongst themselves. But—tempting though it might have been—they knew that at least the other participants in the final battle deserved to remember the legend-worthy feat they had all helped accomplish. Accordingly, they began to spread the knowledge from person to person, working to uncover each person's memories as Beneda had with them.

The difficulty of doing so varied greatly, and they never quite figured out a pattern for which people would have more trouble than others. Kuno, surprisingly enough, had the easiest time of anyone by far. They had barely even begun when his eyes widened and he stumbled back into the nearest chair with a small thud. After a few speechless moments he excused himself, hurrying away without another word to anyone, a haunted look on his face.

His sister, on the other hand, resisted even the suggestion of the attempt tooth and nail. Ranma was sure, from the sheer vehemence of her rejection, that she was experiencing flashbacks like the rest of them, but the unbalanced girl kept refusing to confront them in any way whatsoever. In the end, despite multiple attempts, there just wasn't much they could do.

Ukyo was somewhere between those two extremes, requiring some strenuous effort on her part, but still ultimately manageable. By the time they reached the Nekohanten, they found that Cologne had detected the manipulation of her memories all on her own, and that the ancient master had already restored not only her recollections, but also those of Shampoo and Mousse.

No one knew for certain why some people remembered so easily, while others never could. Some of them had theories, though. Ranma was of the opinion that the main factor was simply the mental discipline of the martial artist in question. Mousse thought that it had more to do with the level of dissonance between the person's life at the point of forgetting and their life at this past point they subsequently found themselves in.

Akane suggested that it might also have something to do with being right there at ground zero when the spell was cast. Ukyo agreed... and went even further, suggesting that the spell might have left the ability to reclaim their memories on purpose. Either in thanks for their part in thwarting the Dark Kingdom, or in preparation for some part they might end up playing later on.

They never could decide whether it was one of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else entirely. But whatever the cause, one effect was constant: they never managed to arouse more than the briefest flickers of déjà vu from anyone who was not among the martial artists that had participated in the assault on the Dark Kingdom.

Most of the fighters in the immediate vicinity were easy enough to restore to remembrance of their missing year, and Cologne had also called back to China to make sure their allies there had regained their memories as well. Nevertheless, there were a few people with... unique challenges associated with them.

"So Konatsu was—is—living with his stepmother?" Mousse asked, as he tried to remember specific details from the brief explanation Ukyo had given him back when he had first met the ninja in the original timeline.

"And stepsisters," agreed Ranma. "If things are back the way they were then he's probably back with those hags again... and that's a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone." The pigtailed fighter paused for a moment. "Well. Maybe Happousai. But no one else. And definitely not a decent guy like him."

Mousse looked around Ucchan's at everyone who had assembled for the "Rescue Konatsu (Again) Mission." Ukyo—the chief organizer of the venture—was cooking up a quick dinner for them before they set out, while talking with Akane at the same time.

Kuno, to Mousse's surprise, was also there, sitting on one of the stools at the far end of the okonomiyaki grill. And to Mousse's even greater surprise, there had not been a single bombastic declaration of love, unwanted embrace, or challenge to Ranma from the kendoist the entire time. He actually seemed thoughtful, and even reserved, words that the Joketsuzoku warrior had never imagined he would have cause to apply to the older boy.

"Do we really need so many?" Mousse asked his rival. "Just how powerful are these stepsisters and stepmother anyway?"

"As far as a straight-up fight goes? They ain't even worth mentioning," was Ranma's reply. "But as far as running around being completely annoying with all their stupid tricks? You have no idea. Even if five of us are kinda overkill, I guess Ukyo isn't in the mood for a repeat of how much trouble we had last time."

Mousse nodded. "Fair enough," he said. "Your count is off, though. It's six, not five."

"Really? Six?" was Ranma's response. "Who else did she ask?"

The nearsighted fighter opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the sound of the restaurant door opening behind them. "Nihao!" came a familiar voice. "Last deliveries for great-grandmother done for tonight. Shampoo is ready for battle any time."

Ranma turned to look at the beautiful Joketsuzoku warrioress, his eyebrows going up in surprise. "Shampoo! You're coming on this?"

"Of course," replied the girl, speaking as though that should have been obvious. "Ninja-boy is fellow warrior, who fight alongside Joketsuzoku for most important battle in tribe history, and even save life of Elder Loofah. Is no way Shampoo leaving him with nasty step-family."

"Indeed!" exclaimed Kuno, slamming the point of his bokken into the floor for emphasis as he stood. "This fellow is our comrade who helped us save the world! It would be disgraceful to leave him in ignorance of the noble feat we all undertook together!"

"Well we shouldn't do it on an empty stomach," interjected Ukyo, gesturing toward the okonomiyaki she had now finished cooking. "Come on, dig in everyone!"

Most of them needed no second bidding, but Mousse noticed that Ranma hung back, a worried look on his face. "Something wrong?" the hidden weapons master asked quietly.

Ranma's lips pressed into a thin line. "Nah. It's just... I'm just surprised Ukyo went so far as to ask Shampoo. And I hope it doesn't backfire. The one way to really screw this thing up is if we start fighting each other, and you know how the girls can get. Especially Akane and Shampoo." He sighed. "I hope Ukyo at least warned Akane about it beforehand."

"Warned...?" Mousse gave the pigtailed fighter a puzzled look. "Ranma... Akane was the one who came to the Nekohanten to ask for our help with this."

Ranma's jaw dropped slightly, and he turned back to look at the bustle around the okonomiyaki grill. Mousse did so as well. The three girls, along with Kuno, were all chatting amongst themselves. Their body language was not altogether unguarded, true... but neither was it hostile. They were talking about the upcoming fight, the food, even occasionally a notable event in their past weeks.

Eventually, Ukyo glanced up at her fiancé. "Hey Ranchan, what're you waiting for?" she asked. "Your food's going to get cold!"

At her words Ranma shook himself a little, clearing most of the surprise from his face. "Oh, uh... yeah," he said walking over along with Mousse. "I was just... thinking about something I never expected to see."

The actual rescue of Konatsu went off with only one or two minor catastrophes—which by Nerima standards meant that it was a smashing success. When all the dust had finally settled Konatsu's memory had been restored, his stepfamily pounded into unconsciousness multiple times, and his employment at Ucchan's blissfully reinstated.

It was cause for celebration, and celebrate they did. The ninja had been the final member of the Nerima participants in the battle of the Dark Kingdom left unreminded of what had happened. With the task of remembrance complete, it now became a matter of moving forward into the future. Armed with their original memories of the coming months, of course.

At least, that was how it was for most of them. For Ranma, however, there remained one last obligation to the past that he felt he had to perform. Which was why one early morning, a few days after they had gotten Konatsu settled, the pigtailed fighter found himself riding the subway toward Juuban.

Normally he would have gone over the rooftops, but this time he felt like keeping his approach more low-key. He watched the tunnel walls blur past, wondering if he was making a big mistake. His every instinct told him to just leave things be, to not risk stirring up unnecessary trouble. But in his heart of hearts, he knew that wasn't an option. This was something he had to do.

Eventually the train reached its destination, and Ranma followed the milling crowd as it flowed out of the car. It was still a bit of a walk from the station to his final goal, and he spent the entirety of it pondering just how exactly he could explain everything that had happened.

Despite his slow pace, he reached his destination long before he reached any kind of answer. Not that he was particularly surprised. He would have to wing it, just like he usually did.

Thanks to her visit to Doctor Tofu's clinic, Ranma had long known that one of the Sailor Senshi was named Mizuno Ami. Later on, their occasional visits to Ucchan's had revealed the other two as being "Hino Rei" and "Tsukino Usagi." Or "Usami", as the blonde girl sometimes remembered to call herself. But it hadn't been until he and Ryouga had actually seen them transform while spying on the fight at Haneda airport that they had been able to connect which was which.

Supposedly, two more Senshi had also joined them later on, but he hadn't seen them in person, and had no clue as to their secret identities. It didn't much matter, though. They weren't the ones he needed to talk to. A quick phone book search and a little bit of digging had told him all he needed to know for what he had to do.

He leaned against a nearby streetlight, his hands jammed into his pockets, glancing around uncomfortably as he waited. He didn't know exactly when she was going to leave for school, so he had come early. Apparently much too early, as it turned out. He waited there for almost a full half-hour, and was starting to wonder if he hadn't somehow gotten the wrong address, when at last he saw the door of the Tsukino residence burst open and a girl with long blonde pigtails come racing out.

Ranma took a deep breath. This was it. As she drew nearer and nearer, he turned to face her directly, looking her right in the eyes...

...as she ran right past him without a moment's pause, without the slightest hint of recognition on her face.

For a moment, Ranma just stood there, puzzled. Had it just been an act, to keep from blowing her cover? No, he knew from experience that she didn't have anywhere near that perfect a poker face.

Then had the spell affected its caster's memory as well? But even if it had, Beneda had been sure that at least her talking cat—Ranma suppressed a shudder—would have remembered for the same reason the youma had. Surely by now the cat would have been able to restore her master's memories, just as Ranma and his friends had done.

He glanced over his shoulder at the girl's back as she continued to run... and at last he understood. This was your wish to begin with, wasn't it? he thought. A normal life.

And it was absolutely perfect for him as well. It meant he could do what he had come to Juuban for, without any risk of kicking off another round of misunderstandings and battle. "Hey!" he called out after the girl's retreating form, causing her to pause in mid-run and look back at him.

So many things he could tell her, so many ways he had thought of to say it, but in the end he just used the two words that summed it up in the simplest way possible. "...thank you."

The younger girl cocked her head, clearly not understanding what in the world he was thanking her for. He went on. "I know this must not make any sense to you, but... you did something important. Real important. For everyone in the world, and most of 'em don't even know it. But... especially for me. If you hadn't done what you did..."

His voice broke just slightly, as the image of Akane's mangled body flashed through his mind, an image that had taken up residence in more than a few of his nightmares of late. "Anyway, it's only 'cause of you that I didn't lose a whole lot of people I care about. So... I had to say thanks. Thank you."

With that he turned and began to walk away, leaving a completely befuddled Usagi in his wake. He wanted to be gone before she could collect her thoughts enough to start asking questions he didn't want to answer. Enjoy your normal life, Sailor Moon, he thought, as he gave her a backward parting wave. It's too bad, though. I'd have enjoyed seeing you in action again, like you were during that last fight. That was really something incredible.

Ranma, as it turned out, wasn't the only one with unfinished business in Juuban.

Beneda took a little longer to pursue it than he had. She waited both until after everything had settled down, and until Ryouga's lost wanderings once again brought him back to Nerima. She had wanted someone with her on the journey. Not so much for physical protection; the Senshi had all forgotten them, and she already knew from Cologne what she would find at her destination. It was more a question of emotional support, and for that there was no one better than her first and dearest friend in the human world.

They walked down the Juuban streets, Beneda in her human form, leading Ryouga by the hand so that he didn't wander off. They exchanged small talk as they went, about what had happened in Nerima during the lost boy's latest absence. Konatsu's rescue. Kurenai Tsubasa's reappearance. Happousai trying to attack Ranma with the Weakness Moxibustion... only to be dismayed at its complete and utter failure, thanks to Cologne still remembering the cure from the first time. Ryouga had a particular laugh at her description of the pounding the old letch had taken, confident in his assumption that Ranma wasn't strong enough to hurt a fly.

At last they reached their goal: a small café familiar to both of them, but with particular significance to Beneda. It was La Crepe, the establishment built on the location of the Juuban portal to the Dark Kingdom.

She took a deep breath, then stepped forward and opened the door. Inside there were a few patrons, respectable business given that the lunch rush was hours past, but not crowded by any means. She barely noticed as the two of them made their way to a table on the far wall, or when Ryouga ordered for both of them.

For a few minutes she hesitated there, putting it off while Ryouga watched in silence. Then, finally, she reached out and ran her fingers along the wall where the portal had been.

What she felt there—what anyone would have felt there, if they were familiar enough with magic—did not surprise her. After a few seconds she let her fingers drop away from the wall. "Cologne was right," she said quietly, not sure whether she was talking more to Ryouga or herself. "The seal has been restored. Stronger than ever before. I guess... I guess I just had to see it for myself."

Ryogua looked thoughtfully at the wall himself. "Well... Couldn't there be a way to... I don't know... get around it?"

Beneda shook her head. "This is the magic of House Serenity, the Ginzuisho working in its highest state," she said. "You'd need more power than... well, let's just say that I couldn't imagine any human or youma making so much as a dent in it. At least... not without making bargains with the sort of things you should never, ever make bargains with." Queen Beryl had once made such a bargain, she knew. And Beneda also knew how that had ended.

"So there's no way for you to get back there?" Ryouga looked at her, concern on his face. "How do you feel about that? Are you all right?"

The sometime-youma shrugged, glancing away uncomfortably as she tried to make sense out of her own emotions. "I... don't know. I thought I'd resigned myself to not going back a long time ago. Even if the seal weren't there, they still think of me as a traitor. It's not like they would welcome me back with open arms. It's not like I even enjoyed my life there in the first place. And now the fighting between the two worlds can finally stop. But... I just wish..."

She sighed, then shook her head. "I wish I could have at least tried to explain to them. About why I did what I did. About how there's a better way than what they've been living."

The lost boy reached across the table and gave her hand a small squeeze. "Well, look at it this way," he told her. "At least now they can choose their own path for themselves, without having the likes of Metallia or Beryl over them. I don't know what they'll make of their freedom... but it's a damn sight more than they had before. It's in their hands now, one way or another."

Beneda nodded. "I... suppose. Anyway, I'm sorry for making you come all this way for nothing, Ryouga."

"Don't apologize," was the lost boy's firm reply. "However bad it was there, it was still your home. And I know what it's like to be separated from your home. Just... don't forget that you've got a new home now. And a new family."

The sometime-youma smiled at his words, and felt herself choke up a little as she replied. "Thank you," she said. Then she looked up as she saw a waiter approaching their table with the food Ryouga had ordered. "Well, at least we'll have something to show for this trip. We should be able to enjoy some good crepes, at least."

Which is exactly what they proceeded to do, digging into their food with gusto. The conversation soon shifted back to less weighty topics, and after a little more than half an hour they were ready to head back to Nerima.

As they departed the café, Beneda took one last glance over her shoulder. And, even though it seemed as final a resolution to that part of her life as she could imagine, she still felt a slight flicker of inexplicable apprehension squirm through her stomach as she looked back at the blank wall on which the portal to the Dark Kingdom had once opened.

Life went on, as life had a tendency to do. Many familiar events happened to Ranma, although the events involving those who hadn't been with them on the Dark Kingdom assault often ended much differently thanks to his foreknowledge. The Gambling King, for one, was a bit more straightforward to deal with now that Ranma knew to simply go with cheating from the start. It wasn't any less annoying this time around, though.

Still, for every familiar event that Ranma faced there often seemed to be a completely unexpected one right alongside it. Even though most of the planet had forgotten the events of the rewound time, all nine tribes that had taken part in the battle still remembered, and they had seen him strike the decisive blow that had annihilated most of the youma army. From them, his renown began to slowly spread through the greater martial arts world, and he and his friends began to find themselves caught up in battles, challenges and pleas for aid with a notably greater frequency and danger than even they were used to.

It was, in many ways, a heady experience for the young fighter, but it was tempered by a growing worry that had been building inside him since the Dark Kingdom battle. In fact, it had been building since Jusendo. The increased danger barely fazed him... but all too often Akane was one of the ones who came along for the ride.

Ranma tried everything he could think of to discourage it. He was still haunted by nightmares of what had happened to her in the Dark Kingdom, and none of these new escapades were anywhere near as important as that battle had been. He was vehemently opposed to her involving herself, but she was just as stubborn in her insistence on helping.

Their disagreements on the matter typically escalated into shouting matches that ended in one of them storming off in a huff. Or sometimes sent flying, on the occasions when Ranma's tendency to fall back to insults really got the better of him. All in all, it was getting nowhere fast.

However, as it turned out, Ranma was not the only one who noticed that Akane was increasingly out of her depth for the danger she was facing.

Panting slightly, Akane sped down the street as fast as she could in the direction she had last seen Jing-Wei flying. The girl was a member of the Phoenix People and—by her account—Ranma had saved her life from a youma during the chaos of battle in the Dark Kingdom. Ranma claimed he didn't remember it, not to mention that Jing-Wei had died later on anyway... but the experience had still been enough for her to have the (utterly predictable) reaction of falling head over heels in love with Ranma anyway.

The youngest Tendo rounded a corner, and caught sight of Jing-Wei once again, locked in combat with Mousse and Shampoo. The hidden weapons master had managed to snag Jing-Wei's ankle with one of his chains and was digging in his heels as he tried to drag the flying girl's careening trajectory down to earth. Shampoo, for her part, was grappling her in mid-air as the two of them fought over the locket Jing-Wei was holding.

Akane hurried to catch up. That locket was the cause of the current trouble, a magical trinket the bird-girl had found somewhere. It—supposedly—would grant "three perfect dates" between whoever wore it and the one who put it around their neck. However, not being exactly the brightest person in the world, Jing-Wei had made the mistake of boasting how she was going to win Ranma's affections with it, resulting in most of the Nerima regulars learning of its capabilities as well.

The results had been predictable.

As Akane watched, Shampoo soon snatched the locket out of her opponent's grasp. Jing-Wei made a desperate lunge to get it back... which left her completely open for the elbow that Shampoo swung around into the side of the bird-girl's head. Jing-Wei's fight became an uncontrolled plummet, which Shampoo ended by driving the Phoenix warrior straight into the ground.

"No! How dare you do that to Shampoo!" shouted Mousse, outraged, as he whipped a huge mace out of his sleeves and leapt to stand protectively in front of Jing-Wei's unconscious body. "You will pay for that!"

He then proceeded to lunge at Shampoo, swinging. The Joketsuzoku girl rolled her eyes, and when her vision-impaired suitor was just about to strike her she shouted out "Stupid Mousse!"

Mousse's arms locked up on hearing her voice, his swing stopping in utter panic as he realized what he had been about to do. Shampoo took full advantage of it, plowing a kick directly into his oncoming chin that snapped his head back and sent him flying through the air in a tangle of limbs, ending as his body crashed through the wall of a nearby store.

A sigh of disappointment escaped Akane's lips. Mousse would have been a good ally to have, as determined to keep Shampoo from using the locket on Ranma as Akane herself was. But Shampoo knew his weaknesses far too well.

Still, there was no time for regrets. Shampoo was just up ahead, the locket held in one hand. Akane skidded to a stop and took up a fighting stance. "I'm not going to let you use that thing!" she warned.

Shampoo raised her eyebrows a little, then began to lazily toss the locket up into the air and catch it again, taunting the other girl with it. "Akane think she can stop me?" the Chinese girl asked, amusement in her voice.

Akane gritted her teeth, well aware of how outmatched she was. Even so, she wasn't about to back down. With a loud kiai she charged in, her guard held in front of her as she tried to ready herself for the inevitable counterattack. Her eyes were fastened on Shampoo as the distance between them dwindled, until Akane was almost in range to—

—and then she was face-down on the ground, pain exploding through her skull. An axe kick... she thought, as the pieces of what had just happened began to pull themselves back into semi-coherent memory. She could have sworn that Shampoo had been about to kick her in the ribs, and had defended accordingly, but that had just been a feint. The real attack had slammed down onto her head from above, driving her into the street.

Slowly, she pulled herself back to her feet. Shampoo was still there. She stood a few steps backward now, still tossing and catching the locket without any interruption as she watched Akane. Shaking herself, the Tendo girl took a stance again, then launched herself in another attack.

It met with the same result. The exact same result. Shampoo used the exact same feint she had used the previous time, and achieved the exact same success. So fast... thought Akane, as she staggered back to her feet a second time. And how does she switch her target without giving away that she's doing it? I can't read her attacks at all!

Akane threw herself forward in a third attempt, all her senses now focused on watching for that axe kick, ignoring the feint altogether. So, of course, that time what had been the feint became the real attack, and Akane was sent tumbling away by a kick that exploded into the side of her rib cage.

It continued like that for what felt like an eternity. Shampoo never once used any technique other than a kick off that single leg, and she never once interrupted the steady rhythm of throwing and catching the locket. Again and again Akane was knocked down. Again and again she kept climbing back to her feet. Each time, she felt a tiny bit closer to seeing through Shampoo's feint, but each time it remained frustratingly out of reach.

Wheezing and wobbly, Akane attempted to catch her breath while propped up on one knee. Shampoo watched her for a moment, then spoke. "Akane need rest? Maybe Shampoo go have lovey-dovey dates with Ranma while wait."

Biting back a growl, Akane lurched up to a standing position once more. "I'm... not finished yet..." she panted.

The Joketsuzoku warrioress looked her right in the eyes. "Might as well be... since it look like Akane not even have skill enough to sense difference between real attack and fake."

Akane blinked, turning the other girl's words over in her mind. "Sense difference"? Was that the key? Her danger sense had served her well before in alerting her to the presence of attacking enemies, but she had never tried to use it on a smaller scale before, to aid in her reading of each individual strike. It would be a much more subtle, split-second difference to detect... but it just might be possible. Akane gathered herself and charged once more, this time turning her attention fully inward.

Another burst of pain sent her to the ground... but this time a surge of elated realization accompanied it. Shampoo had been right! It was extremely slight, but Akane had been able to detect a difference between how her danger sense had reacted to the feint versus the real kick.

Her limbs trembling, she pushed herself up one last time. She would have to put every last ounce of strength she had into this attempt. Taking a deep breath, she studied the Joketsuzoku girl, who was still tossing the locket as though she didn't have a care in the world. Then Akane hurled herself forward, trusting in the method Shampoo had indirectly described. Wait for it... Here it comes...


Shampoo's leg shot up, but Akane didn't fall for it, keeping her guard steady, then shifting it in anticipation of where the real kick was going. The impact against her arms was bone-rattling, but she had blocked it, and now she was in close with her opponent. Instinctively her hand shot out in a punch—

—which Shampoo leaned around, catching Akane's wrist and redirecting her momentum to slam her face-first into the wall she had been backing up toward this entire time. Her vision exploded into white as she rebounded off of it, landing flat on her back at Shampoo's feet.

For a moment, all was silence. Then Shampoo's voice come from above her. "Hmmm. Actually block kick. Maybe Akane not quite as hopeless as look like."

Akane couldn't reply immediately, still trying to catch her breath and stay conscious. Shampoo turned, kneeling down to pick up the fallen locket, which she had dropped while defending herself in that last exchange. "Shampoo go to get dates with Ranma now. Akane not going to be stopping Shampoo, Shampoo think. But maybe, if Akane keep trying this hard... Akane is not dying again for while yet."

With that, the Chinese girl turned and walked off. She had gotten several steps before Akane called out to her. "Shampoo..." she said. "...thank you."

Shampoo paused, glancing back over her shoulder. "Why Akane thank Shampoo?" she asked. "Shampoo only beat up rival, and give insult. If Akane figure out something from hearing insult, that not Shampoo concern."

Then the young warrioress looked away. "But if Akane enjoy being beat up and hearing insult... then can come challenge Shampoo at Nekohanten. Shampoo accept, any time."

Akane stared up from where she lay at the wide blue sky over her. "...I might just take you up on that."

Of course, events in Nerima holding true to form, no one got exactly what they wanted from the magical locket. After a day filled with frantic back-and-forth running, fighting, plotting and theft, it was a recovered Jing-Wei who used the locket's power in the end... but ended up using it on Konatsu by accident.

After the spell-enforced "three perfect dates" were over she left again, distraught. Especially since—as they only realized after the fact—no one had thought to mention to her that Konatsu was actually a boy.

The next few weeks were a relative lull. Picolet Chardin made his appearance, and Ranma quite enjoyed thrashing him with the Parlay du Foie Gras on their initial encounter, completely avoiding the dinner-debt he had accrued the first time they had first battled. Other than that, the only really new development was Akane's increasingly frequent trips to the Nekohanten to fight Shampoo. She unvaryingly returned from them bruised and bloody, much to Ranma's distress. He tried his best to convince them to stop, but to his surprise neither girl would listen to him on the matter.

But that aside, there were no notable incidents for a while... until a singularly interesting rumor finally filtered its way back to Nerima.

The Sailor Senshi were active again.

Beneda wandered up and down the darkened streets of Juuban, glancing back and forth while trying to hide her nervousness. Tonight was a bit more dangerous than the last time she had been here, since it seemed that the Moon Kingdom warriors had regained their memories just as the residents of Nerima had. Still, she was in her human form, and she had taken the extra precaution of putting her hair up in a very different style from the one brief moment when they had seen her in this body at Furinkan High.

So there shouldn't have been too much to worry about. Still, her apprehension wouldn't quite go away. She didn't know what she would find—if she found anything. All she knew was that there had been stories of Sailor Senshi fighting against monsters.

Could I have been wrong? she wondered. Could the seal on the Dark Kingdom have been circumvented after all? Some other portal somewhere that didn't get locked shut? Is that why the Senshi are back?

And if it was... if her people were attacking once again... what were they going to do about it?

First things first, she thought. I have to find out what's really going on. She was searching the city, as she had been for the past few days. Nor was she the only one walking such a beat. She had requested help from some of her friends whose faces the Senshi would not be likely to remember: Konatsu, Mousse, Ranma in his female form. They were elsewhere, covering other ground.

A sudden scream broke her out of her thoughts. Her head snapped around, and she took off as fast as she could in the direction it had come from. Was this it? Had their search finally born fruit?

She rounded a corner, and saw a young girl lying sprawled out on the sidewalk. Beneda raced over to her, checking her for injuries, and was relieved to find that she was still alive. A quick examination revealed the cause of her unconsciousness: the tell-tale signs that her life energy had been drained from her.

Fortunately, the girl wasn't in any danger. In Beneda's expert appraisal, whoever had done this had made sure to leave just enough that it wouldn't risk any damage beyond fainting and temporary exhaustion. Which didn't sound like Dark Kingdom methods; standing orders had been to try and drain every last drop from their victims to feed Metallia. If this is youma work, they're being led by someone a whole lot more compassionate than Beryl ever was.

Farther down the street, she caught sight of another prone body, and Beneda ran in that direction. A quick check revealed that this victim was in an identical state to the previous one. The sometime-youma kept on running, trying to catch up to the perpetrator, straining her senses as Doctor Tofu had taught her. Soon she zeroed in on a presence up ahead, one like nothing she had ever sensed before.

Putting on an extra burst of speed, she managed to catch up to the assailant. As it came into view, she saw that it was a wolf-like creature, almost half-again her height, with bared, drool-coated fangs. It had cornered yet another girl, towering over her as she trembled, terrified, against a wall.

"Hey!" Beneda shouted, causing the monster to swing its head around and look at her. And even if the thing's aura hadn't given it away earlier, one look into its eyes confirmed that this was no youma. Beneda could see no sapience there, just a bestial cunning. Whatever these things are, they're nothing I've ever heard about.

A low growl building in its throat, the creature spun and launched itself through the air toward Beneda with a cry of "Lupos!" She leapt to one side, just barely avoiding its grasp as its clawed hand ripped through the air. It landed on all fours, its body immediately coiling and springing again.

Beneda was already off-balance from her previous dodge. As a youma it would have been a more even fight, but she could not avoid the monster's second attack in her weaker human form. The creature bowled her over, knocking her to the ground and pinning her there with a victorious howl of "Lupos! Lupos!" It seemed to be all the thing could say.

The currently-human girl struggled with all her might, but the thing was far too strong. She could feel a sudden and unnatural lethargy hit her, as the monster proceeded to suck in her life energy as well. So this... is what it feels like... she thought, not without a certain dark irony.


For the second time that night, the wolf-creature found its attack interrupted. It spun toward the rooftops, to face the most recent interlopers. Beneda turned her head to look as well, though in her case she already knew who she would see.

She remembered that voice.

Sailor Moon stood on the nearby rooftop, flanked by the four other Senshi and two cats, one black, one white. "The city streets should be safe for romantic walks at night, not for monsters to attack!" she continued, striking her usual pose. "In the name of the moon, I'll punish you!"

The wolf-creature bared its fangs, then launched itself up at them in a blur of claws, fur and rage. The Senshi scattered, fanning out in different directions to try and catch it in a crossfire. Bursts of fire, lightning and golden energy began to criss-cross through the night air as the battle was joined.

Beneda pulled herself groggily into a sitting position, only to jerk in irrational fright as Sailor Mercury leaped down to check on her. "Are you all right?" the Senshi asked, concern in her voice. "Don't worry, you'll be safe now."

The sometime-youma couldn't help it; a small, half-hysterical giggle escaped her on hearing those words from one of the ancient boogeymen of the youma race, the sort of figures they told stories about to terrify their young. In a way—despite how little sense she knew it made objectively—Beneda was still more afraid of these five girls recognizing her than she was of the wolf-creature that had actually been attacking her. They don't remember me, she reminded herself. And even if they did, it'd only be as a random human they saved a year ago.

"I'm... fine," Beneda assured her. "Thank you."

"Good," Sailor Mercury replied. "You should hide over there and keep out of sight. We'll take care of this." With that, she turned and ran back into the battle to assist her friends.

Beneda complied, but only to the extent that let her keep an eye on the fight. It was not going well for the outnumbered monster. Soon it caught one of Sailor Mars' fireballs head-on, sending it flying back with its fur ablaze. A Crescent Beam from Sailor Venus slammed into the side of its head as it tried to put out the flames, staggering it further and leaving it open for the Moon Tiara to finish the job.

There was a blinding flash of light as the ancient Moon Kingdom weapon struck home, and with a scream of "Cleansing!" the wolf-creature's body ripped itself apart into nothingness. All that remained was a single card, which fell to the ground and began to release repulsive black smoke.

Five minutes later, after assuring the other Sailor Senshi that yes, she was all right and pointing them in the direction of the other, more drained victims, Beneda let out a heavy sigh and leaned back against the wall of a nearby building, closing her eyes.

"Well, looks like we finally found 'em," came a voice from above her. "I was wondering how long it was gonna take."

Beneda looked straight up, to see Ranma standing on the rooftop above her. "Looks that way," she agreed. "How much did you see?"

"Just caught the tail end of the fight," the currently-female martial artist said, as she stepped off the edge of the roof and dropped to land next to the currently-human youma. "Did that answer your questions?"

Beneda nodded. "All the important ones, anyway. I don't know what they were fighting against, but this isn't a Dark Kingdom resurgence."

"Probably just some random monster," offered Ranma. "You see it all the time as a martial artist, honestly. Stuff like that demon-dog-swimsuit-thing that was going around drowning girls, or that stupid black cherry tree spirit, or the monsters we went out to help Shinnosuke and his Gramps wrangle. Usually it's someone like us who gets called in to deal with things like that when they pop up. Guess those girls are getting back into the same gig after all."

"It's what they do," agreed the sometime-youma. "Protecting your world is what they've always done. I suppose I'm not really surprised that their retirement didn't take."

"Heh. Well, still seems kind of a step down to me," Ranma said. "I mean, seriously. Going from a crazy, end-of-the-freaking-world demon like Metallia to cleaning up small fry like this? I bet they're disappointed."

"Not everyone is as crazy as you, Ranma," Beneda reminded the pigtailed fighter with a roll of her eyes. "Some people actually like a little less danger in their lives."

Ranma chuckled. "Well, to each their own. C'mon, let's round up Mousse and Konatsu and head back home."

Of course, if they had realized that these "random monsters" were, in truth, agents of an entirely different end-of-the-world level threat with no relation to Metallia whatsoever, or that there were an additional four more such world-destroying threats waiting in the wings, they would doubtless have had a rather different reaction. They remained, however, blissfully unaware.

His movements quick and stealthy, Pantyhose Taro stalked his prey from his position on the Nerima rooftops. He watched intently as his target walked below, completely oblivious to his presence. According to the stolen Jusenkyo registry his name was "Mu Si." The boy was about his age, with long, flowing white robes and a large pair of glasses on his face.

With a vicious smile, Pantyhose Taro lifted the pail of ice-cold water he was carrying. He intended to make full use of the element of surprise. The fool would never even know what hit him. Gauging the proper trajectory, he drew back his arm for the throw —

—just as, from behind, a hand clamped down hard on his wrist, locking the pail in place. He whirled, to see a pigtailed boy standing there. "Sorry," his assailant quipped. "Not this time."

With a growl, Pantyhose Taro swung his other fist around in a punch, but it too was grabbed before it had a chance to get anywhere close to its target. This time, by a bandanna-wearing boy who had just landed on the other side of him, locking that arm in place as well. At the same time, on the street below, his "unaware" target spun and leapt for the rooftops, a sword shooting out of each of his sleeves into his waiting hands.

Before he could fully process the complete reversal of his ambush, Pantyhose Taro found himself with both arms immobilized, and twin blades crossed at his throat. His mind spun. What was going on here? How had they known he was coming?

"Easy, easy!" the pigtailed one said. "Look, we just want to talk, all right? Trust me, going around beating people up isn't gonna get you what you want."

"How would you know what I want?" Pantyhose Taro snarled back, struggling a little against their grasp. Then he felt cold steel press against his neck, and he relented.

"You'd be surprised what I know," was the pigtailed fighter's reply. "And hey, I'm even willing to help you out! Partly 'cause I feel sorry for you. Mostly because I want you out of our hair, Pantyhose Taro."

The name. At the sound of that hated name, he bared his teeth. In that moment he didn't care about anything else, didn't care what this smug bastard was offering. He wasn't about to bargain from a position of weakness like this. Not him. Using the strength of his fingers for all they were worth, he flicked the pail into the air. Not targeting any of them this time, but rather himself.

Mousse swung up one of his swords to intercept it, knocking it away... but a small bit of the freely spraying water still managed to make it past and splash Pantyhose Taro in the face. It was enough.

His three opponents leapt back as his size increased to gigantic stature, a shaggy coat of fur replacing his skin, wings sprouting from his back, his arms and legs swelling until they were the size of tree trunks. Tentacles emerged from him as well—an inexplicable change to his curse that had appeared a few months ago without warning or explanation... but which he enjoyed all the same. He let out a deafening bellow, allowing his foes to see the full terror of the raw, bestial power that Jusenkyo had seen fit to bestow on him.

These opponents, however, were looking distinctly non-terrified. "All right, all right..." the pigtailed boy sighed, cracking his neck back and forth as the three of them took fighting stances. "The hard way it is, then."

Almost fifteen minutes later, Ranma, Ryouga and Mousse sat propped up against one of the few walls left standing in the surrounding city block, which had been mostly leveled by the resulting fight. The inhabitants of the houses had all long since fled, leaving the area empty except for them, and for the hulking form of Pantyhose Taro, which was currently lying sprawled out on his back in the middle of the street.

Not that they had escaped unscathed. Ryouga was sporting a truly impressive black eye, and Ranma felt his ribs ache every time he moved. Which was part of the reason he was sitting here, not moving, listening with half an ear to Ryouga talking as he rested.

"...but she wasn't even angry! Can you imagine that? I mean, I'd kept her waiting for two whole weeks trying to find the place, and when I did finally get there she was right in the middle of figuring out a new training regimen for her pigs. But she just stopped right in the middle to go on the date anyway, like we had talked about." Ryouga shook his head in wonderment. "No matter how many times I stood her up, no matter how little I actually got to see her, she was always still waiting for me. Always."

"Yeah, yeah, we know, we know. You've only told us this about a million times already..." Ranma quipped. "So have you made any progress in actually finding her again?"

Ryouga's face fell. "No," he admitted. "I've been looking everywhere I go, but she doesn't stay in any one place for very long. She's always gone by the time I catch up to any rumors I hear." Then he hesitated. "And... I'm not sure I want to find her early, either. I mean, we know she's going to end up here eventually, right? If it happens that way, I can make sure to do everything exactly the way it happened before. But if I start to change things... what if I screw it up somehow?"

The lost boy's worry caused Ranma to throw him a skeptical look. "What's to screw up?" he asked. "You find her giant pig, you beat it up, she throws herself at you. Pretty simple, if you ask me."

"Everything about girls sounds simple when you just say it like that!" snapped Ryouga. "But somehow it always ends up going wrong for me. I can't let it happen like all the other times, Ranma. This time, it has to work like it did before."

"Well, I still think you're worrying over nothing," Ranma said. Then he stood, biting back a grimace as his injuries once again made themselves known. "Hey Mousse, could ya use some of your chains to tie the big jerk up? I'm going to go find some hot water to bring him back down to size."

Mousse nodded and headed over toward the prone behemoth. Ranma turned to leave himself, then paused and glanced back as a thought struck him. "There's one thing that's kinda strange, though. His cursed form. It still had those tentacles. He shouldn't have gotten those until he came back later, for his second try."

"It doesn't seem that strange to me," said Ryouga. "After all, Beneda didn't lose her drowned-girl curse either."

"Well, yeah, but I always figured that was on purpose, since the big spell decided to send her back to our world," said Ranma. "But if it didn't switch Pantyhose Taro back either... then maybe that's not it. Maybe there's something special about Jusenkyo curses."

Ryouga gave him a skeptical look. "You really think Jusenkyo magic could stand up to the kind of power Sailor Moon was throwing around at the end?"

"It's not always just about power, P-chan," countered Ranma. "Sometimes sneaky is just as good. I'm wondering if that big spell even noticed Beneda's curse at all. Maybe when it looked at her back then... all it saw was just a human. Maybe that's why it sent her back with the rest of us, and fit her in as best it could. And maybe that's why it didn't change back what Pantyhose Taro did to his own curse either."

"Perhaps," interjected Mousse. "Or perhaps it was deliberate in both cases. The spell might have decided to let him keep his tentacles because he considered them a benefit. Curses aren't the only things about our bodies that haven't changed. I'm fairly certain I haven't lost any speed or strength from everything going back a year—even though by all rights I should have. My eyes, on the other hand..."

The hidden weapons master took off his glasses and showed them to the other fighters. "These are the same lenses I had when I first came to Nerima," he said. "But in a month or two I'll be needing to get a new prescription. If my eyes were still the same as they were when I went on the Dark Kingdom attack, I wouldn't be able to see hardly anything with these glasses."

The other two mulled that over for a bit, trying to make sense of it all. Eventually, Ranma broke the introspective mood. "Well, however it happened, we gotta take care of this idiot before the old pervert comes by and gets wise to what's going on. I'll go grab that hot water. Then maybe we can get started with the real plan."

The "real plan" was the end result of Ranma examining what had gone wrong with his previous attempt to get Happousai to change Pantyhose Taro's name. He had ruminated on it carefully, and come up with a completely new plan designed to fix all the problems of his previous attempt. This time—he assured everyone involved—his idea was completely and utterly perfect, with no chance whatsoever of failure.

Predictably, it failed in the most catastrophic manner possible. The result was even more large-scale destruction of property and a Pantyhose Taro who, at the end of the day, was still very much named Pantyhose Taro.

It was a few weeks later that Kuno called on Akane once again.

He had been largely keeping his distance since he regained his memories of the Dark Kingdom battle. On the occasions they did meet he was polite, but also withdrawn. Or perhaps "withdrawn" was not exactly the right word. He seemed uncomfortable, even unsure of himself, strange though that was to think about someone like him. Either way, their conversations were usually brief, and Akane didn't want to force matters in such a situation.

So it was with a bit of surprise that she found Kuno standing outside the door of the Tendo home, requesting to speak with her. She had obligingly brought him into the family room, where he had lowered himself into a formal sieza sitting position. "I have been... thinking of late," he began. "Reflecting on what I learned at the moment of my temporary passing."

Akane looked away, not meeting his eyes. Finally convincing him of her lack of feelings toward him hadn't been at all what she had intended in response to his saving her life, but it was what had happened nonetheless. Kuno, however, was continuing. "I have been meditating on my actions, as well as consulting with other classmates who may have a clearer view of these matters than I had. And what they have told me has left me even more troubled. Tell me truthfully¸ Tendo Akane... is it actually possible that you disliked the morning challenges as well?"

It took Akane an open-mouthed moment to formulate a proper reply. Those "morning challenges" had been infuriating to her, something she'd told Kuno to his face multiple times. She'd had to fight her way to school every single day, through what felt like half of Furinkan High's male population. The utter disregard that her "admirers" had shown for her wishes, the idea that all those boys had to do was beat her up and she would be theirs... it made her jaw tighten just thinking back on it.

But this was neither the time nor the place for that, and so she swallowed those feelings. "No, Kuno, I didn't enjoy them," she explained patiently. "Challenges are one thing, but I didn't want to fight one every single day, whether I agreed to it or not. And I definitely didn't agree to the stakes you set."

Kuno's face fell. "But... but I thought that if anyone, you would understand! The romance of a warrior's soul! To win your beloved's affection by the valor of your blade! What could be more noble, more exhilarating, more passionate, more—"

"Kuno." Akane interrupted his growing passion before he got even more carried away than he already was. He stopped in mid-sentence, his mouth hanging open, before eventually looking down in dejection. This allowed Akane to continue, in a gentler tone. She searched for the words, trying to phrase it in a way that he might be able to accept. "Kuno, I understand that you feel that way, but... girls today... we don't want to be treated like we're a prize that gets awarded to the strongest warrior. For something like love, it shouldn't matter whether I can beat you up, or you can beat me up, or... anything. That part of life... it's about who you are, not how well you can fight."

"But this sword is who I am!" exclaimed Kuno, holding up his bokken in a bombastic, yet still strangely heartfelt gesture. "Do you mean to say that this modern world has no place for one to communicate his truest feelings through the language of honorable combat? That there is no one left who sees the glorious struggle of life and love in such terms? That a love won on the battlefield is not as true and pure as any that can be imagined?"

"But... It's just that..." Akane floundered for words, at a loss for the proper way to get through to him. She didn't want to completely crush his dreams, and yet at the same time she didn't want him to end up alone because he couldn't see things from the viewpoint of someone he might love. "I just... think you should at least try to get a girl to like you personally, before you try to... communicate your feelings through combat. It'll make things a lot easier, I think."

Kuno frowned, no signs of comprehension on his face, and with a sinking heart Akane realized that she probably hadn't gotten through to him. "I will... consider your words carefully, Tendo Akane," he told her, bowing his head. "And... I have not seen her recently, but... should I assume that the pigtailed girl also shares your feelings on these matters?"

"Er..." Akane hesitated. "Well, it's not exactly the same situation there. But... she isn't interested, Kuno. She has... her own issues, but she really, really isn't interested."

"I see." Kuno nodded sadly. "I feared so, though I held out hope that I had not twice deluded myself. But it seems that I will need to settle matters with her as well. Until next we meet, Tendo Akane."

And with that he rose to his feet, bowed, and exited the Tendo home.

"I just... don't know what's gotten into them. They used to not be able to stand each other! But now Akane's over at the Nekohanten at least once a week. She always comes back beaten to a pulp, but she still keeps going back there no matter what I tell her!"

Ukyo glanced up from the okonomiyaki sizzling on her grill, over to where Ranma sat brooding across from her. "Doesn't seem very mysterious to me, Ranchan," she said. "Akane wants to get stronger. We've been seeing a lot tougher opponents than we used to, and I'm sure she doesn't want a repeat of what happened to her against the youma. And I don't think Shampoo wants that to happen either. Not anymore. Though good luck getting her to actually admit it."

It was funny, in a way. The very idea of Shampoo and Akane training together would have seemed preposterous to Ukyo not long ago, but now she was barely even surprised at it. There were some experiences that changed the people who went through them, experiences that made it impossible to look at things the same way afterward. Apparently, dying back-to-back against an endless army of monsters while the world hung in the balance was one of those experiences.

Ukyo certainly understood that on a personal level. Not that she didn't still fight and bicker with the other girls on a regular basis, of course. Not that she didn't still fully intend to win the struggle for Ranchan's heart! But even so, it didn't—couldn't—change the simple fact that they had all stood together against impossible odds, relying on nothing but each other when it seemed like everything else was lost to darkness.

They had fought together, bled together, killed together, died together. Whatever happened in the future, that was a connection between them that could not be erased.

"Actually," Ukyo continued. "I'm more surprised that you're so set against it. I know Akane is taking some knocks, but—"

"It's not just that." Ranma looked away, not meeting her eyes.

"Then what is it?" asked Ukyo, now curious. "Akane blows off some steam, and gets her skills up a little more in the bargain."

"The problem is that it's not going to be enough!" Ranma snapped. "Not to keep her safe, not with the way things have been going ever since Jusendo. But she's going to think it is, and she's going to keep jumping in. I've been trying so hard to get her to just leave things to me... but she's hasn't been listening, and this is only going to make it worse!"

He looked back up at Ukyo, and the okonomiyaki chef saw a haunted look in his eyes. "Saffron, then the youma... she's already had two miracles, Ucchan. How many more do you think she has left?"

Ukyo regarded him for a moment, then let out a small chuckle. "And you honestly think you can stop her from jumping in, whether she trains with Shampoo or not?" The pigtailed fighter had no response to that, only stared down at his hands in silent frustration.

The okonomiyaki chef sighed. "Ranchan... I know we've had some close calls lately, but we all came through them in the end. And even if she's not at your level or my level, Akane was a part of it in her own way. What would have happened to you at Jusendo if Akane hadn't been there to turn off the Kinjakan and stop Saffron's egg threads? I know I'm glad she was there... or I'd have lost you."

After one last flip, she offered Ranma the now-cooked-to-perfection okonomiyaki she had prepared for him. "So don't worry too much, all right? You'll look out for us, like you always do. And we'll look out for you too. I'll even keep an extra eye out for Akane next time, if it'll make you feel better."

Ranma's response was a grateful smile that made Ukyo's heart swell. "Thanks, Ucchan," he told her. "I'll... think about what you said. But thanks."

Hibiki Ryouga sighed, weary from almost a week straight on the road, as he trudged down the sidewalks of whatever city he happened to be in this time. Kyoto was his best guess. He glanced back and forth around him in yet another fruitless attempt at gaining some kind of insight into his location, or how to reach his destination. To no avail, of course.

His goals, at present, were twofold. Or rather, he had two approaches to the same goal. He was constantly searching for news of a girl traveling from city to city on a giant sumo pig, of course. And barring that, he was trying to stay in the Nerima area as much as he could. Akari would show up there sooner or later; that was the one place he knew she would visit in her own search. If he didn't find her on his own, he couldn't allow himself to miss her when that happened.

In three months and eleven days.

He considered pulling one of his many maps out of the bulky backpack strapped behind him, but decided instead to ask one of the people standing nearby for directions. Again. It took him a little while, but eventually he identified a good person to ask, someone who didn't look too busy or preoccupied. It was some girl with long blonde hair, looking to be a little younger than him, leaning against the wall of a nearby building like she was waiting for someone. Near her feet, a bored-looking white cat was curled up.

Wasting no time, he approached her. "Excuse me?" he asked. "Do you have a moment?"

The girl looked up at him, blinked, and then gave a friendly smile. "Sure," she said easily. "What do you need? I'm just waiting for a friend of mine to show up so we can play some games together." Looking up, Ryouga noticed that indeed, the sign of the building she was in front of proclaimed it to be the "Crown Game Center."

"I'd just like to ask you a couple questions," was Ryouga's grateful response. "First, have you heard anything about any large pigs in the area? Maybe going around attacking random boys?"

"...no..." was the girl's surprised response. "Well, I mean, there have been the Cardian attacks happening recently, but I don't remember there being a pig Cardian. And they usually went after girls more than guys. And there haven't been any of those since... well, since they stopped attacking about a week ago."

Now it was Ryouga's turn to look confused. He'd never heard of "Cardians" before. It sounded like even Kyoto had its own unique problems. "All right. Well in that case, do you happen to know what direction Nerima ward is from here? I'm trying to reach the Tendo dojo."

At that, the girl gave him a quizzical look. "Nerima?" she asked. "Well, it's about five miles northwest of here. Um... if you need a subway route that'll get you there...?"

"No thank you, that's all right," Ryouga said. "I'll just walk. I always spend too much money whenever I try to take the subway anywhere, and I just end up getting lost on it for about the same amount of time anyway." He laughed, his mood lightening. "But I had no idea I was this close! I'm probably not in Kyoto at all, am I? This close, it's probably... Nagoya, right?"

Or maybe not. The girl was giving him a peculiar look now, so that probably wasn't it. But he didn't let it dampen his mood. He had found a kind, helpful person on his first try, which didn't always happen. And now thanks to his new directions, he was set to go! He just had to head ten more miles east. He was practically there already!

"Thank you very much!" he said, bowing, as he walked off toward the south. "I really appreciate it!"

Aino Minako watched as the strange, homeless-looking boy departed, still not quite sure what to make of his odd behavior. He didn't seem like he was having a joke at her expense... though she couldn't imagine for the life of her how anyone could think the middle of Tokyo was either Kyoto or Nagoya.

She hoped that he found whatever he was looking for, anyway. Somehow, she had the sneaking suspicion that she hadn't actually helped him very much, despite her best efforts. It was too bad, really. He'd actually been kinda cute—if you looked past the dirt and the travel stains and the fact that he didn't seem to have had a bath in quite a while.

"Minako! Minako!"

The incognito Senshi of Venus turned to see Tsukino Usagi running toward her, twin pigtails streaming in her wake, followed closely by Luna. A smile crossed Minako's face at the sight of her energetic princess. "Hey, Usagi," she called out. "Are you ready for some Sailor V action?"

"You bet!" exclaimed Usagi, raising a fist in determination. "Today is the day we beat Ami's high score! I just know it!" Minako laughed, and the two of them entered the arcade, chatting all the way about how they were going to break their losing streak. Soon, all thoughts of the peculiar boy had been displaced from her mind.

Then, a few days later came the arrival of a certain mysterious pink-haired girl, and with her the start of their troubles with Death Phantom and the Black Moon family. And, by the end of that tumultuous period, any memory of that one brief, passing encounter had been forgotten entirely.

Cologne stood, alone, in the center of the Nekohanten, awaiting the guests that would soon arrive. The old woman had both closed the restaurant and sent Mousse and Shampoo away, telling them not to come back until late that evening. She did not know what the coming confrontation would bring, but it was a confrontation that was unavoidable nonetheless.

She waited in silence, hardly any movement disturbing the—outward—serenity of her bearing. Almost an hour passed with no change. Then, at last, the restaurant door slid open, revealing the long-anticipated visitors.

The two women standing on either side Cologne knew by face, but not by name. Mages, participants in the Dark Kingdom battle. In between the two, her shrunken frame dwarfed by theirs, stood Meihui.

"Welcome," said Cologne quietly. "You honor my establishment by your presence."

Meihui nodded once, then directed a gesture at her two attendants. They proceeded to exit the restaurant and close the doors behind them, leaving the two ancient masters alone. After a few long moments, Cologne spoke again. "I never had the opportunity to express my gratitude for what you did at the portal. All hope would have been lost had you not lent your assistance. Thank you."

A small grunt was Meihui's only reply, and Cologne found herself again wondering just what the other woman's objective here was. She had made nothing known except for the fact that she was coming, and even now her expression was unreadable. But delay or deception in such a matter was entirely unlike Meihui. If she were truly here for a final reckoning, Cologne would have expected her to have issued her challenge long before now.

The dead, after all, would be satisfied in no other way.

With so much pain and uncertainty between them, Cologne took refuge in the banal issues that two clan elders would be expected to discuss. "I trust that matters are well back in China? Soap tells me there has been a bit of unrest recently."

That prompted a dry chuckle from Meihui. "Yes," she said, as she walked over to one of the decorative screens that stood by the kitchen doorway. She studied it, reaching out a finger to trace its designs. "Some of it was expected, of course. Alliances shifting and consolidating based on what the different tribes went through during the battle. The Tian Wu Swordsmen, in particular, have expressed a strong interest in forming a pact with the Musk Dynasty after fighting alongside them. Even the Phoenix People have begun to relax their isolationist stance, if only a bit."

The ancient mage paused for a moment, then continued. "There are other changes, however, that we did not anticipate."

Cologne was willing to bet that she knew what Meihui was referring to. "The Silk Lotus?"

"The Silk Lotus," Meihui agreed. "How much have you heard?"

"Not much." The tribe of Iron Cloth wielders had always been secretive, but after the battle for the Dark Kingdom their secrecy had increased to a paranoid extent. "Soap told me that they're clearly hiding something, but she hasn't figured out what it is yet."

"I have." A grim, satisfied smile flickered across Meihui's face. "I believe that they are trying to conceal the sudden loss of their leader."

The Joketsuzoku elder couldn't help herself; she sucked in a quick breath of astonishment, her memories reaching back to the child-like face that had participated so shrewdly in their war council. "He's dead?" she asked, scarcely daring to believe it. "You mean he wasn't brought back to life with the rest of us?"

"Oh, the body was brought back to life," explained Meihui. "But the soul now controlling it is that of the boy it originally belonged to. The child is once again living with his parents in the village of the Yakusai Poisoners, with eight years of perfectly normal memories."

"And there's no way he could have cheated death again?" asked Cologne. "How many times has one of our clans thought we'd killed him, only to find out later on that he'd used that damnable technique to escape at the last second to a child he'd hidden at the edges of the battlefield?"

"It doesn't seem likely," was Meihui's response. "He couldn't have brought such a child through the portal without one of the other masters noticing. Everyone that was within range of his technique during that battle had a far too developed psyche for it to work. And it seems that the Princess's Wish did not see fit to spare him from facing that which he had sacrificed so many others to keep at bay."

"So he's finally dead..." breathed Cologne. Then she snorted. "I can well imagine that the Silk Lotus are in a panic! He's led them for almost nine hundred years, and he's been their most potent weapon all that time. With him gone, a great many other tribes will be lining up to settle old grudges."

"Indeed." There was no mistaking the satisfaction in Meihui's voice. "Of course, I plan to be careful in how I release this information. It would be best if matters did not degenerate into open warfare, especially considering how closely the Chinese government watches us these days. Still, there is no question that the standing of the Silk Lotus tribe is about to experience... significant change."

"If you desire, the Joketsuzoku can provide a moderating influence to help keep tensions from boiling over," said Cologne, an eager light appearing in her eyes as she began to think ahead. "While nobody is exactly on good terms with the Silk Lotus, they never clashed with us as badly as the tribes living directly on their borders. And if we play to the camaraderie of the recent battle as well, then—"

Cologne opened her mouth to say more... but then she stopped, suddenly and painfully aware of what was happening. This kind of scheming, tossing political machinations back and forth between each other... it was exactly what the two of them had used to do all the time almost a century ago. Back when they had been young and full of idealism, confident that the two of them could accomplish impossible things together, could bring about a new era between their tribes and their region at large. Almost without realizing it, Cologne had fallen back into it again. As though they were only twenty-two again. As though nothing had happened between them.

But it had happened. It had, and it wasn't something that could be just ignored like this. "Meihui—" Colonge began.

"For the past eighty-seven years there was nothing in this world I wanted more than to see you die." The quiet interruption cut off anything Cologne might have said, returning the room to silence again. Meihui was still studying the screen intently as she spoke, not having looked at Cologne during the entire conversation. "Then... five months ago at the Dark Kingdom portal... I saw exactly that."

"And I have spent these last five months coming to grips with what a fool I have been all this time."

"Fool? Meihui, you had every right to want revenge!" protested Cologne, anguish in her voice. "If I had only handled the knowledge you gave me better... If I had only stopped and thought about what the consequences would be...!"

A tired smile flitted around Meihui's lips. "Or if I had found a better way than putting you in such a position of conflicted loyalty. Or if our elders hadn't been willing to engage in base treachery to advance themselves. Or if your council had been more merciful on their part. If. If. If. You can drive yourself mad like that, trying to find someone to blame. I know."

The ancient mage looked down at her tiny, withered hands. "It's easier to see now, as old as I am," she continued. "Back when Lihua first died, it was her loss that consumed my mind. But now, after my own brush with death, my thoughts dwell less on her absence, and more on how little time remains until I will see her once again. What I will say to her when I do... and what view she will take of how I have spent these past eighty-seven years."

Cologne said nothing, allowing Meihui to speak. "So much time I've wasted," the ancient mage whispered. "So many chances I've thrown away in my anger and grief. But... no matter what mistakes I have made... and no matter what mistakes you have made... I know that the woman who I watched give her life for the sake of the world is not a woman Lihua would have hated. And... she is not a woman I wish to hate anymore either."

By now Meihui's voice was almost breaking. She turned away from the screen, looking directly at her old friend. "Cologne," she said, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "Please forgive—"

The Joketsuzoku elder covered the distance between them in less than the blink of an eye, grabbing Meihui and clutching her in a tight embrace. The two tiny old women remained there, no further words passing between them as they clung tightly to each other.

Later in the evening, Shampoo returned to the Nekohanten, to find Cologne seated in one of the chairs, clearly lost in thought. The young girl breathed an almost-undetectable sigh of relief. Not that she had really thought that the meeting between the mage elder and her great-grandmother would end in violence, or that her great-grandmother would lose if it had... but still, it was good to see with her own eyes.

Cologne glanced up as her great-granddaughter approached, breaking out of her distraction. "Ah, Shampoo," she said. "You're back a bit earlier than I expected."

"Shampoo forget. Today is day Akane coming here for more beating on. Shampoo need get back here before time we set, to prepare."

"Mmmm..." Her great-grandmother's reply gave little indication of her thoughts on the matter, or what she had been pondering so intently. Shampoo waited, watching, but when nothing else seemed forthcoming she turned away and began moving chairs and tables around, setting up a space for her imminent duel.

"Great-grandmother learn any news from mage elder?" the Joketsuzoku girl asked as she busied herself, more to make conversation than anything else.

"Yes, quite a bit," responded Cologne. "Events back home are shifting to a much greater extent than I had realized."

"Really?" Shampoo's eyebrows went up in mild surprise. "What tribe going to do?"

"That is, indeed, the question..." Cologne said. There was silence for another few seconds, before the old woman spoke again. "I will be leaving within the week. To return to China."

Shampoo froze in the middle of moving a chair. "Great-grandmother leaving?" she asked. "For how long?"

"Indefinitely," was Cologne's plain answer. "Meihui and I will be working together with each of our villages to guide the events that are about to transpire."

"Shampoo see." The girl's response was quiet. She set the chair down, the wooden thunk echoing in a silence that suddenly seemed far more stifling than before. "Shampoo... wish she could help great-grandmother in too, too important time for tribe."

"You have your duties here, child," Cologne replied. "You will be allowed to return to the village when you fulfill them. In the meantime, I will arrange for you to take over the running of the Nekohanten. The ownership will still be technically under my name, but you will have control over all the day-to-day operations."

The young girl nodded once in understanding, accepting Cologne's decision with the stoicism that was expected of a Joketsuzoku warrior. "Shampoo will keep restaurant running good. And win love of Ranma. Great-grandmother no worry."

"Good." Drawing in a deep breath, Cologne turned to head upstairs. "Now I must see to my preparations. There is much yet to be done before I can leave."

With that, the elder made her way over toward the stairs. She had made it about halfway there when she was stopped by Shampoo's voice. "Great-grandmother..."

Cologne glanced back over her shoulder. "Yes, Shampoo?"

"Is there... any last thing great-grandmother can teach Shampoo before leave?" asked the girl hesitantly. "Something so plans Shampoo make for Ranma work better than all other times?"

For a moment Cologne simply regarded her. Then the old woman smiled. "You're already making great strides in something far more important than any technique or scheme I could teach you, child," she told her great-granddaughter, her raspy voice taking on a rare warmth. "You're growing up into a woman that son-in-law would be a fool to ignore."

"And if Ranma ignore anyway?" whispered Shampoo, her voice barely audible.

Cologne looked away. "Then..." she eventually said. "...we will cross that bridge when we come to it."

Was it worse, Mousse wondered, to hear bad news without warning, sprung on you suddenly? Or was it worse when you knew it was coming, when you had been waiting for months to hear it? When you could practically recite it along with the person giving it to you?

The optometrist, a short, balding, slightly rotund man, looked up from his papers and met Mousse's eyes for a moment, but then quickly looked back down again. "Er... We... have your new prescription ready, as we discussed," he said, fidgeting with his pen as he spoke. "However... there is an important matter that you need to be aware of."

He was clearly nervous about delivering this news to the robed young man seated in his office. Probably he realized that Mousse was one of the area's infamous martial artists. Did he think that Mousse might attack him for what he was about to say? The hidden weapons master resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He hadn't done so the first time he'd had this conversation, and he had no intention of doing so now.

"The tests... you see... they showed..." The older man was floundering now, prompting no small amount of annoyance in Mousse. It's not that hard to say! the young man thought, irate. Your tests showed that my vision is worsening even faster than you expected.

As Mousse listened in silence, the optometrist eventually got around to conveying exactly that. Not so concisely, and sprinkled with terms like "degenerative myopia" and "posterior staphyloma", but the essential meaning was there. At length Mousse interrupted in an attempt to move things along. "Doctor..." he said. "I believe that I understand. How much time would you estimate that I have left? Before glasses become ineffectual?"

That set off another round of hedging, but Mousse tuned it out. The doctor was only working himself up to saying what the hidden weapons master already knew: that he had a year—at most—of sight remaining.

Just give me the new prescription and let me go... Mousse thought, tiredly. If I have only a year left in which I can look on Shampoo's beauty, I don't want to waste any part of it sitting here...

Running one hand absent-mindedly through her hair, the currently-female Ranma glanced around at the schoolyard, wondering why she had agreed to go through with this. The last time—so long ago, it seemed—that she had answered this summons the result hadn't exactly been one of her favorite memories. And yet here she was. Again.

She looked down at the note she held in one hand, reading the familiar words written there: "On Sunday, in the tenth hour, meet me in the second field of Furinkan High School." She really wasn't in the mood to have another bouquet chucked at her, but Akane had been insistent that this might be important for Kuno. And sure, the guy had been a lot more low-key lately, ever since his death and eventual remembrance of it. Still, it was with no small reluctance that Ranma had agreed to answer the summons.

At ten o'clock on the dot Ranma caught sight of Kuno descending one of the short sets of stairs that led down the side of the hill to the field proper. He was wearing his usual kendo uniform, with his bokken slung across his back in its carrying bag. Soon they were facing each other, standing a few meters apart.

"So what's up?" Ranma asked. "This isn't all to offer me another chance to date you, is it?"

"No." Reaching behind his back, the young man drew his bokken and held it at the ready in front of himself. "Pigtailed girl... I wish to humbly request a match with you."

Ranma's eyebrows went up a little. "Really? What kind of stakes are we talking about?" she asked, remembering their previous such encounters.

"No stakes," was Kuno's reply. "Just a match. I wish to face you once again."

For a moment Ranma hesitated, searching for the other shoe that experience told her would be dropping any second now. But after a second or two she just shrugged. "Sure, fine by me. Let's go."

"Thank you." Kuno assumed a kendo stance, his sword aimed directly at his opponent, and began to carefully advance, step by sliding step. Ranma, for her part, just stood there, pondering how best to handle this. She didn't want to insult him by going too easy, but at the same time it wouldn't do to just stomp him in a move or two either. In the end she decided to just play it on the defensive side, and wait for the right moment.

Kuno surged forward with a sudden charge, putting all his speed into a single downward swing toward the top of Ranma's head. The girl hopped back, allowing the tip of the bokken to slice past less than a centimeter from her nose. Kuno tried to shift into a thrust at Ranma's solar plexus, but she twisted to one side, allowing him to go past and using the same motion to spin her elbow into the side of his head.

The young kendoist staggered away, but managed to catch his balance and counterattack faster than Ranma had been expecting. He's gotten better! Ranma thought, as she ducked under a slash and drove her fist into his gut, doubling him over. It didn't put him down, though, since he managed to shift the point of impact slightly, making it not a clean hit.

Yeah, he's been in some serious training for this fight, Ranma realized, as she watched him stumble backward, swinging his sword in a desperate defensive pattern. It was impressive, really. Not that she couldn't take him down easy if she really got serious, of course... but even so, an improvement like this, especially in such a short time, was nothing to sneeze at.

By then Kuno had steadied himself and regained his stance, his breathing ragged but his sword still steady. Ranma met his eyes, then stepped back into a modified Tai Chi stance she had picked up in China, her open hands moving in intricate circular patterns as they slid into place. There she held, waiting.

Kuno shot forward on the attack once again, his sword ripping through the air in a furious rain of strikes. Ranma ducked, leaned and weaved around them as she backpedaled, flowing like water around his every attack. They soon crossed the whole width of the field, their movements blurring with speed as they dueled.

Then, as they reached the far side of the field, Ranma made her move. Kuno attacked with a swing, but Ranma slipped inside his guard and caught him in a shoulder throw.

She flung him through the air like a rag doll and then, when he was directly above her, lashed straight up with a split-kick right into Kuno's chest, blasting him even higher. Eventually he fell, right onto a flurry of Amaguriken punches that kept him aloft as they battered him. Finally, Ranma let him fall, dropping him into a heap on the ground.

For a while he just lay there, and eventually Ranma began to worry that she hadn't held back quite enough on that last salvo. But then she heard a groan emerge from him, and he flopped over onto his back. "Magnificent..." he croaked out at length. "Even more amazing than I remembered..."

Ranma shrugged. "Yeah, well..." she said. "You weren't so bad yourself. Not that I'm gonna start falling for you over that or anything."

"I... know," was Kuno's response, as he stared up at the sky from his spread-eagled position. "It has... been made clear to me that I have been misguided in my pursuit of you and Tendo Akane. That, in truth, was the reason behind this duel." He took a deep breath. "This will be the last time I pursue you, pigtailed girl. With this, I am... satisfied. Please forgive any trouble my archaic methods have caused you. They are the only way I know."

At that, Ranma's jaw dropped. "...seriously?" she asked, stunned. "I... well... that's great! Er, I mean... but don't let it get you down or anything, though. Just 'cause I'm not into you doesn't mean there isn't any hope. You just... gotta find the right girl is all."

A small chuckle escaped Kuno's mouth. "I thank you for your concern, pigtailed girl..." he said, his voice filled with resignation, and a quiet, aching loneliness that Ranma realized might have been there all along. "...but I find myself doubting that, now."

"Look, you're just feeling a little down from getting your ass kicked," Ranma insisted. "You'll get over it, trust me. Heck, I'll even give you some pointers, help you brush up on your techniques for dealing with this kind of thing!"

Kuno lifted his head off the ground to look at her. "Truly? You would do this for me?"

"Sure!" was Ranma's confident response. After all, she didn't hate the idiot. And if a few tips steered him even more conclusively out of his and Akane's hair, so much the better. "Who better than me? After all, I am just about the biggest girl-magnet around these parts!"

"I... see..." Kuno's eyes bulged a little at the pronouncement, and Ranma realized she hadn't quite been thinking about her current form when she'd told him that. "I... believe that I now understand what Tendo Akane meant by your lack of interest..."

Ranma opened her mouth to reply, hesitated, and then finally just decided to leave it be. It was close enough to the truth, after all. "...anyway, just trust me, I know what I'm talking about. Follow my advice, and I guarantee you'll see some results. Now, the first and most important thing when dealing with a girl... is... to..."

Her voice trailed off as she stared past Kuno, at the large, distant form trundling away from Furinkan. She only caught a brief half-glimpse of it before it disappeared around a corner, but it had looked almost like...

"Crap!" Breaking into a run, Ranma raced toward the main school building. Behind her, Kuno shouted out a worried question about what was wrong, but Ranma didn't have time to reply. She bounded up the school's face to a vantage point where she could survey the surroundings. And there they were, walking side by side. A huge, hulking sumo pig and a small schoolgirl.

Ranma's mind raced. Was Ryouga still around? The lost boy had been staying at the dojo for the past few days, but with him who knew how long that would last. There was no time to lose!

Jumping back down off the roof, Ranma took off in a blur of speed toward the Tendo house, running as fast as she could.

Several minutes later, panting for breath, Ranma arrived back at the place that had become her home... just in time to see Ryouga meandering away from the house and about to turn a corner out of sight. Swearing under her breath, the Saotome heir shot toward her rival like a bullet, slamming into him and grabbing hold. "Oh no you don't!" she muttered.

"Wha-? Ranma?" asked Ryouga, startled. "What's the matter? I was just going to grab a drink of water from the kitchen; there's no call to—"

"She's here!" Ranma interrupted. "Akari's here, Ryouga! I just saw her and Katsunishiki over by the school!"

Ryouga's face went pale. "H- h- here? B- but she's not supposed to be here yet! This isn't nearly the right time! What happened?"

"I don't know!" was Ranma's response. "Maybe we changed something, somehow. Or... or maybe she came to Nerima twice all along, but we just never met her the first time. The point is, she's here! Now!"

The lost boy looked like he was about to have a panic attack, but he somehow forced himself to function regardless. "O- okay!" he said. "I have to find her! Right away!" With that, he spun and took off running in the exact opposite direction of Furinkan.

"You just never learn, do you?" Ranma muttered, as she grabbed the directionally-challenged boy by the collar and began dragging him toward his actual destination.

It took all his willpower, but Ryouga managed to resist the urge to pace nervously as he waited in the middle of the sidewalk where Ranma had put him. He didn't dare move one step from this spot. Who knew where he would end up if he started? And he couldn't get lost, not now! He couldn't!

He clenched and unclenched his fists, feeling the sweat building in his palms. Where was Ranma? It felt like hours, days since she had left. He wanted—needed—to go and check for himself, but he knew how impossible that would be.

Then, at last, he saw Ranma vault one of the nearby buildings and run up to him. "Get ready!" his rival whispered. "She's almost here!"

Ryouga licked his lips, trying to quiet his hammering heart. He unconsciously reached up with his hand toward the hilt of his umbrella, then froze as he realized that he'd left it, along with his pack, at the Tendo dojo. "Ranma! I don't have my umbrella with me!"

Ranma shot him a quick glance. "So?"

"So when I beat Katsunishiki the first time, I used my umbrella to do it! It won't be the same!"

His rival rolled her eyes in disbelief. "Ryouga, just calm down you moron! It doesn't have to match exactly! Just beat the stupid pig and get it over with. Look, there they are!"

Ryouga tried—and failed—to be inconspicuous as he turned, watching out of the corner of his eye as two figures, one small, one hulking, conferred several blocks away. It's her! It's her! It's really her! His breath caught in his throat. He had not realized until this moment the full extent of how badly he had missed her all these months.

She was peeking around a corner, watching him carefully. After a few moments of appraisal, she gave her porcine companion a nod and a slap, and with that the pig was barreling down the street toward Ryogua.

Now the lost boy turned to face the animal directly as it thundered at him. A simple uppercut would be best, he decided. Win with one impressive shot, just like he had done before. He clenched his fists as the pig came closer and closer. There was little more than a block between them now, and Ryouga gathered his strength for the strike—

—just as, gasping for breath as he ran headlong out of a side alley, Kuno appeared halfway between them, his eyes homing in on Ranma. "Pigtailed girl!" he called out. "At last I've caught up with—"

"Kuno!" shouted both Ranma and Ryouga, horrified. Kuno, for his part, only detected the oncoming pig a second before the animal slammed into him from behind. Still, he managed to brace himself in the nick of time, his heels carving furrows in the concrete as he absorbed the full force of the charge.

The sight snapped Ryouga out of his shock, and he ran down the street toward the sudden conflict. But Kuno was already there. With a loud battle cry he spun, grabbing his bokken and slamming it directly into the sumo pig's flank. Katsunishiki reeled unsteadily away, opening itself to the full force of Kuno's attacks. "Strike! Strike strike strike strike strike strike strike!"

Blasts of air pressure pummeled the huge animal, the final one catching it right between the eyes. It crumpled to the ground, unconscious, just as Ryouga reached Kuno. The kendoist, for his part, turned to Ranma. "Hmmm... was this brutish creature the cause of your distress back at Furinkan field?" he asked. "If so, it was my pleasure to assist you in any way I could."

Ranma made no reply. Nor did Ryouga, who could only stare numbly down at the defeated pig. His thoughts weren't working right. He tried to process what had just happened, but all he got was empty static.

"E- excuse me?"

All three of them turned as one at the words, and Ryouga's heart lurched. There she was. The subject of all his months of waiting and hoping, exactly as he remembered. Her modest sweater and skirt, her long hair and her beautiful, adoring smile. "Y- you... are the winner..." she said as she walked toward them, a demure blush on her cheeks. Then, as she reached them, she exclaimed "Please! Read this!" as she thrust out a small envelope toward Kuno.

Ryouga's heart imploded. He could only watch, unable to form words, as Kuno took the envelope with a puzzled frown. Akari immediately spun away, fleeing over toward where her now-recovered pig sat. It was that sight that finally shook Ryouga from his stupor. "Wait, Akari!"

The girl paused in mid-run, turning to look at him. "Yes?" she said, sounding puzzled. "How do you know my name?"

"I... you don't..." The lost boy wracked his brain for the words that could somehow salvage this. He started to walk closer to her, as he begged her with every fiber of his being. "Akari... please try to remember! You... you were in love with me! We went on dates together. All kinds of dates! You took me to the amusement park—that was when I broke their strength-test machine trying to win you that pig stuffed toy! And then we met at that lake, in the Futoraku Highlands by the elephant statue! And I tried twice to take you to the movies... and even though I got us lost both times, you never even complained about it!"

He was nearly in tears now. "And once I walked home with you after Katsunishiki had a sumo pig match, and you let me hold your hand, and even if it was mostly because you were guiding me, I was still really, really happy! And every time I found my way to your farm, there was that special noodle dish that you made just for me! And then there was—"

But his desperate pleas were having the exact opposite of their intended effect. Faced with a crazy man fervently claiming a long history with her that she had no memory of whatsoever, Akari was backing away from his advance in increasing fear. Then suddenly Kuno was there, holding his bokken as a barrier between the two of them. "Enough!" he snapped. "You are frightening her!"

Kuno's words brought Ryouga back to his senses, and he flinched back as though struck. "I... No, no, I didn't mean...!" But his stammering words fell on deaf ears, as Akari continued to shrink away.

"Young lady," said Kuno, without taking his eyes off Ryouga. "I believe it would be for the best if you left now. I shall read your letter at some more fitting time, and we can all discuss these matters once the circumstances are more settled... and our passions have cooled." The last part was directed with pointed emphasis at the lost boy.

Akari nodded in obedience, while giving Kuno an adoring look. "I understand," she told him. "I promise, I'll find you soon!" Then with that, she turned and ran back to where Katsunishiki sat, jumped onto him, and galloped off as fast as she could. Kuno waited until she was gone, then walked away as well, with one final, dark look directed at Ryouga. In the end, the lost boy and Ranma were left standing alone in the empty street.

"What did I just do?" Ryouga whispered at last. "I... I was scaring her. Kuno had to protect her from me! All the times I imagined and planned and practiced what I was going to do when I saw her again... How could it go so wrong?"

"...look man, it's not hopeless yet," Ranma said, attempting to bolster Ryouga's spirits. "Okay, so he beat up the pig. You can still beat it up too! That might still put you in the running!"

It wouldn't, Ryouga knew. He understood better than anyone the sheer depth of unswerving devotion that Akari had immediately focused on him upon his victory. She wouldn't be looking for additional suitors. He continued to stare straight ahead, his fists clenched so tight that his fingernails were drawing blood even from his toughened flesh, as loss and anger ate away at him from the inside out.

Ranma watched Ryouga worriedly, trying as best she could to think of a way to fix the situation. Nothing was coming to mind. Her rival looked more messed up than she had ever seen him before. The promise of the girl he loved, the girl he had been waiting so long for... completely pulled out from under him in an instant. "Listen, man..." she said at last. "Why don't you just come back to the dojo with me for a bit, until you're thinking straight again? And if you give me a little while, I'm sure I can come up with a plan for what you can do!"

Ryouga gave no acknowledgement of the Saotome heir's words. Ranma waited for a few moments, then tried again, reaching out her hand toward her rival's shoulder. "Hey, Ryouga—"

"Don't!" snarled the lost boy, whirling to slap away her hand before it reached him. "Don't even start, Ranma! I'm sick of your stupid plans, and I'm sick of your stupid games, and I'm sick of how everything always goes wrong when you're involved!" He began to advance on the other martial artist, something dangerous and unstable smoldering in his eyes. "Kuno... Kuno said he was trying to find you, because of something you did at Furinkan! You were the one who led him here! This is... this is all your fault!"

"Ryouga, wait—" But Ryouga was in no state of mind to listen to his rival. With a scream that was half-roar and half-sob, he burst into furious motion, lunging at Ranma with a wild swing that the pigtailed fighter barely avoided. She shot backward in a series of quick hops and dodges, with the lost boy following relentlessly in step, attacking at every opportunity.

Finally, Ranma jumped clear over one of Ryouga's punches, planting a hand atop her opponent's head and flipping over him. Then, twisting in midair, she dug her fingers into Ryouga's hair and wrenched himself at the lost boy from behind, kicking both her feet into the back of Ryouga's head with all her strength. His rival stumbled forward, off-balance, as Ranma landed in a fighting stance.

Ryouga wasted no time in righting himself and charging after Ranma again with a feral snarl. His punches had no strategy or technique to them; he was simply lashing out at his rival with blind, animal fury. Ranma weaved back and forth around his hugely telegraphed strikes, retaliating with surgical blows of her own. But no matter how hard or how repeatedly she pounded on him, it was like he wasn't even feeling the hits.

Panting for breath, Ranma met Ryouga's latest charge with a side kick straight into his gut, using the lost boy's own momentum to help spear him. But that time, she was a half-instant too slow in retracting her leg. Ryouga managed to grab her by the ankle and swing her bodily over his head, then slam her back down to the ground with enough force to put a crater in the street.

Ranma screamed in pain, but Ryouga was already coming at her again, aiming a kick at her prone form. She rolled with the attack, diminishing some of its force, and managed to catch the kick on a crossed-arm block. She angled the impact against her arms to send her flying back through the air, and with an acrobatic twist she regained her footing, backpedaling furiously.

Roaring out an inarticulate battle cry, Ryouga kept up the chase. He swung and swung and swung, until Ranma was able to redirect one of his punches and then twist it into an armlock, using the leverage to force the lost boy to the ground. Ryouga thrashed and struggled, but from the position Ranma had his joints in he couldn't force his way free. "Just calm down!" shouted the pigtailed fighter.

But Ryouga only fought harder, his struggles growing more and more desperate as he tried with all his might to get at his rival. Ranma gritted her teeth, keeping up the pressure. Ryouga pulled and twisted and strained... until, with a final wrench, the sound of a loud snap came from his arm, and suddenly he was once again in a position to attack Ranma.

Ranma tried to react to the unexpected change, but it was too late, and she was in too close. Ryouga's other fist swung around and crashed into Ranma's face, causing white spots to explode across her vision as her head snapped around and she stumbled away. He followed that by plowing a kick straight into her chest, sending her flying back into a nearby telephone pole, which shattered and toppled from the impact.

The pigtailed fighter wheezed for breath, clutching her side in pain while she tried to stop the world from spinning in circles around her. Ryouga, for his part, was lurching toward her again, his right arm hanging uselessly at his side.

Raising her hands in a shaky defensive guard, Ranma began to circle Ryouga, trying to keep her distance as she thought. The lost boy was in complete berserker mode now, ignoring the pain even from his broken arm. If she was going to have any hope of taking him down, she would have to take him down hard. It was either that... or else the one other option she could think of. The one other chance of snapping him out of it.

Ryouga put on an extra burst of speed, careening toward her with a yell that might have been her name. Ranma met his gaze as he charged, took a deep breath... and then lowered her guard.

The first punch slammed into her jaw, filling her mouth with the coppery taste of blood. The second punch hit her in the stomach, doubling her over. The third punch was an uppercut that sent her flying away to land flat on her back, skidding along the street.

By the time her vision stabilized, Ryouga was straddling her, fist upraised. Ranma didn't say anything, just kept looking him quietly in the eyes. Ryouga raised his arm higher, then with a scream swung it down in a vicious blow...

...that, at the last instant, he twisted away to slam into the street next to Ranma's head.

The two of them remained like that for several seconds. Then Ryouga rolled away, sitting there on the ground next to Ranma as he buried his head into his knees. Right before Ranma's eyes, the anger he had been using to sustain himself bled away like air escaping from a pricked balloon, and what little was left of the lost boy seemed to just crumble in on itself.

Slowly, Ranma managed to raise her head a little off the ground. "Listen, man..." she said at last. "I'm sorry things went the way they did. I didn't mean to bring Kuno here. I didn't mean for any of this to happen. Believe me."

At that, Ryouga lifted his head a little. "I... know," he mumbled, using his unbroken arm to wipe across his eyes. "Damn it. I know."

Shell-shocked, Ryouga could only sit there, the wracking pain from his arm becoming more and more agonizing as the adrenaline faded. More painful yet was the realization of just how stupid the fight had been that had caused it. He knew it wasn't really Ranma who deserved the blame. Probably, he had known it the entire time.

Probably, he had known it ever since that first damn piece of curry bread.

And yet, when everything had come crashing down around him, he had gone right back to that same old crutch—as though nothing at all had changed between the two of them since that first day of their meeting. He had come within a hair's breadth of beating Ranma's face in, even with his rival refusing to fight back. He felt sick and disgusted at the realization of what he had done, on top of all the other emotions of losing Akari. It all settled into a single mass of black despair in the center of his soul.

"Hey. Ryouga." Ranma's voice. "Look... About what I said earlier... We don't have to do a plan to get Akari back or anything if you don't want to... but you still oughta come back with me. It'd do you good, and you really need to get that arm looked at."

The words stabbed at Ryouga, striking at his shame like salt on a raw wound. He didn't deserve this. He didn't deserve any of it. In that moment, all he wanted was to escape, to be alone with his guilt and failure.

He staggered to his feet, still clutching his arm, and began stumbling forward, putting one foot in front of another with no purpose or direction other than to get away from that place. "I'm sorry," he rasped out as he went. "I can't... I need to... I'm... sorry."

"Hey, wait!" Ranma shouted from behind him, pulling herself up with great effort to a sitting position. "Ryouga, where are you going?"

In spite of everything that had happened, Ryouga managed a single, bitter bark of laughter at the utter absurdity of the question Ranma had asked him. "I don't know..." he answered.

And more than ever before in his life, it was the truth.

"I don't know."

"Hmmm, now I wonder where Ranma could be?"

Akane glanced up at Kasumi's question, then looked around. It was true; Ranma was nowhere to be seen. And it was getting close to time for dinner, an event that the voracious martial artist almost never missed.

Unless it was her cooking it. Jerk.

"I'll go look for him," Akane offered. Not that she really thought anything was wrong, of course. It was most likely nothing, just Ranma losing track of time. Still, with all the added problems that had been coming their way lately it wasn't something she could just rule out either. And, truth be told, she'd had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach all afternoon.

Checking the guest room he stayed in revealed nothing, nor did searching the dojo or the yard outside. That left one place in the immediate vicinity that she knew him to frequent, and it was there that she found him.

Her fiancé lay with his back flat against the slope of the roof, staring up at the sky as the setting sun stained the clouds with streaks of red and gold. He didn't visibly react as she alighted on the rooftop herself, though she knew he was aware of her. His face was heavily bruised, he had a bandage over his nose, and his expression was pensive.

"Ranma! What happened?" Akane asked, concerned at the state he was in. "Did a new enemy attack?"

The pigtailed fighter shook his head. "No. Wish it was that simple," he said. "Akari showed up today. Ahead of schedule. I tried to meet her up with Ryouga again, but... it all went to hell. Then Ryouga kind of lost it, and we ended up fighting it out until I managed to calm him down."

Akane's eyes widened in shock at the news. "Oh no..." she murmured. "Where is he now?"

Ranma made a vague gesture. "Out there, somewhere. He wanted to be alone, I guess. And there wasn't much I could do to stop the moron." He sighed. "Damn it all. I really thought it was going to work out for him. Seeing it just... fall apart out of nowhere like that..." He shook his head, dejection showing on his face.

Slowly, hesitantly, Akane walked over and sat down next to Ranma. "Is there anything I can do?" she asked.

"No." There was silence for a long moment, and then Ranma corrected himself. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, there is. I just..."

He turned around to look her in the eye. "I... know it can be rough sometimes, the way things are. I know we don't always see eye to eye on everything. I know I can drag my feet on stuff, like this whole fiancée mess. And I know I haven't been listening to you very well on... whatever it is you've got going with Shampoo. But..."

The pigtailed warrior took a deep breath. "But whatever happens... or however long it takes to get everything sorted out... I don't want it to end between us like it did for Ryouga and Akari. You understand what I mean?"

Akane nodded. "Yes. I... do understand."

The two of them sat together in uncomfortable embarrassment, not saying anything further. After what seemed like forever, Akane slowly allowed her hand to creep out, holding it open on the rooftop between the two of them.

She didn't look down at it, but after a few moments she felt Ranma's hand on top of hers, taking hold. Their fingers interlinked tightly, holding onto each other as they sat there in silence, watching the bloody sunset as day fell inexorably toward night.

~ end interlude ~