Chapter 5: Equilibrium

Sunday 2:45 AM

Ranma stood at the summit of a large mountain somewhere in China. Mist obscured all but the ground immediately surrounding him. Standing in Battle stance, several figures cloaked in mists appeared one after another.

Ryu Kumon in his military fatigues and tank top, smirked at Ranma.

"Nice to see ya again, pussy. What's with that body? Finally decided you were a little girl, after all?"

Ranma was confused. He was in his male form last he checked. He looked down and his arms and swelled chest painted a different picture.

Ranma flinched slightly before retorting, "Not like it makes a difference asshole! I'll still beat you again, like last time!"

Herb, in his royal garb and flowing white hair, a sword of pure ki emanating from his hand.

"I thought you were worthy of respect, but I see I was wrong! Look at yourself, lost to Nyaniichuan like that."

Saffron, in his old form, wings spread fully, a wheel of fire dancing in front of him.

"In this life, I will have my revenge upon you, you worthless bitch."

Happosai bounded into view, carrying a sack overflowing with stolen underwear.

"When we finish with you, we're gonna have a fun time, Ranma-chan!"

Kuno, in his old kendo uniform, ran in, his eyes looking wide with an unsettling hunger.

"My pigtailed girl! I will destroy that foul sorcerer within you once and for all!"

Mousse and Ryouga came in now, fists prepared, grinning wildly, their brows furrowed.

Ryouga cracked his knuckles one at a time, saying in a low voice, "Saotome, it will be extra sweet watching that pretty body of yours die so many times. Akane will be mine!"

Mousse raised his arms, his glasses glinting from an unseen light source, "I can't wait any longer! Shampoo will be mine if I have to get through your flimsy corpse to do it!"

Finally, Ranma's own father emerged from the shadows and stood in front of the others. Genma adjusted his glasses and looked downwards, spitting at the ground in front between himself and Ranma.

"You have disappointed me for the last time, girl..." The middle-aged man growled as he took a battle stance, "You no longer have manly honor. Die!"

The mob of enemies charged Ranma, but even in the nightmare, Ranma slipped through them all and counterattacked. One by one, they disappeared into mist with each strike.

Finally, the phantom of Genma remained. Ranma raised a fist to prepare a strike, but hesitated.

"Ha! I knew you were nothing but a weak girl after all! You should be lucky you fell into Nyaniichuan, shame of my loins!"

Enraged, she punched the figure only to have it disappear in an unsatisfying puff of black and white smoke, the sound of manic laughter echoing across the empty space. She looked around wildly, enraged.

Suddenly, loud synthesized fanfare echoed around Ranma. It was as though she had beaten a particularly bad video game. A chill down ran down her spine and, looking down, he found he was back in his male body.

Suddenly, Shampoo, Ukyou, and Kodachi, emerged, throwing themselves at his feet. Ranma was spooked and tried to move, but found his legs unresponsive.

The three women looked up at him, wide-eyed. Their mouths were open, but speechless and the overall effect was that they looked more like automata than human. Ranma began to feel intensely ill.

"Yay! You're awesome for killing them all! You're the manliest murderer of them all!" an unfamiliar, annoyingly perky voice boomed into his head.

Ranma was taken aback, but could not move. He shouted to the air above him, "Murderer!? I-I just beat them up! I don't kill people!" Ranma looked outwards and saw small piles of skeleton surrounding a pair of large crimson wings, covered in blood, heaped on top of gory, ripped apart body that, as a whole, was just recognizable as the former incarnation of the Phoenix Lord. The image was a crisp in his mind as the day a year ago when he had rent Saffron asunder, tearing through him with a tornado of ice.

Raising his hands, Ranma saw traces of water and blood trickle down his fingers. He looked down again and saw a pair of white shoes and pants.

Ranma now stood in the Tendo Dojo on the day of the wedding. The bedlam from that day seemed to swirl around him, as though he was standing in the eye of the storm of this farce of a ceremony.

He saw Happosai reach for the familiar cask of liquid. Ranma made a beeline and kicked it in the air, breaking it open. The Nanniichuan water inside the cask fell onto Ranma like a waterfall.

He was whole, complete again! Never again would he be faced with the indignities of turning into a girl! He was all man now! He smiled jubilantly and walked into the mirror triumphantly,

His reflection told a different story. He looked down and could see his body was male, but the reflection was that of his girl self, tears streaming down her face. She began soundlessly banging her fists towards him, as though trying to break the glass from within. Gradually, the reflection grew distant and faint until she disappeared from sight. Even though he could hear no sound, her final scream was almost too loud to bear.

He fell to his knees, feeling like weeping, but nothing came. .

"Well done boy! You're my real son again!" Genma cheered.

"Here here, Ranma! Have some ginjou sake, a man's drink!" Soun handed him a small cup.

"Oh, isn't my son brave and handsome for killing that awful girl!" Nodoka smiled sweetly.

Ranma was perplexed. "Wait, kill?" he asked hesitantly.

"Isn't he a dream boat now!" Kasumi cheered.

"I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crackers," Nabiki added.

"Ranma is strong man for village!" Shampoo cheered.

"He's more of a man than we'll ever be," Mousse and Ryouga said at the same time, shoulder slumped, dejected.

"Ran-chan! My manly hero!" Ukyou, wearing the Furinkan girls' uniform, squealed in delight.

Ranma looked around at the garish displays, the colors in the dojo seem to brighten into a vulgar cacophany of images that made his eyes hurt until everything around him was a stark, blinding white. When the blinding light subsided he found himself, once more, in solitary space, the walls, floor, and ceiling of which were a flat, bright white. He found he was wearing his usual Chinese-style clothes and the discordant sights and sounds were gone, with one exception.

Akane sat cross-legged at a low table, similar to the one in the Tendo home's living room. There were two fruit and ice cream parfaits in front of her, one of which she was in the midst of eating, using an extremely dainty motion and a comically tiny spoon.

Ranma walked over and sat at the table next to her. He reached over to grab the other parfait, but was slapped in the hand by Akane.

"Now, now. That's only for girls, not men like you. You killed her, after all."

"But, I... I just wanted to sit next to you."

"I can't be with a murderer."

"But I thought this what you wanted! I didn't mean to kill her. I'm sorry!"

"Sorry won't bring her back. You'll just have to die as well." Akane stood, the spoon in her hand turning into a sword. Ranma stepped back, only to bump into the other Tendo sisters, their swords raised.

"Murderer! Murderer!" The women chanted as they began their downward swing.

Ranma could only scream in terror and closed his eyes, bracing for the oncoming blows.

Ranma sat up from his futon, letting out a quick, baritone scream before realizing where he was.

He put his head into his hands for a moment, before standing up and preparing for the day.

Sunday 11:33 AM

Ranma was sitting on the Tendo home's porch, letting the cool Spring air dry the sweat from his brow. He had spent all Sunday morning training, first in the Dojo, then outside, practicing the complex, infinitely variable aerial maneuvers that was the signature of the Anything-Goes School.

After stretching his limbs. He stood to grab something to drink when Akane entered the living room from the entrance hall, a tote bag in her hands. Ranma smiled upon seeing her..

"Yo, Akane. Had fun at Ucchan's place?"

"Oh, Ranma! Um, yeah. It was actually really nice," Akane replied, caught off-guard, showing a slight smile herself, "We watched a movie, talked. Ya know, really girly stuff. Even Konatsu was bored stiff," she said, trying to save face for the kunoichi, "you would've hated it."

"Ah, that so?" he said, somewhat haltingly, as he entered the kitchen, "Well, I was busy too, ya know. Sparred with Mousse, ate some food, kicked back... Real dude stuff, ya know?"

Akane gave him a look of incredulity, "Mousse isn't exactly a 'dude' like you are, Ranma" she teased, which made Ranma shrink a bit.

"Yeah, I guess not," a weak laugh escaped him as he returned with a glass of water.

Akane continued, "But I'm happy you did something yesterday other than sit around or train. Where's your mother?"

Ranma shrugged as he emptied the glass. When he finished he set it down on the kitchen counter and said, "Ma went out to buy stuff for dinner with Kasumi. Dunno what they're makin' though. She left as soon as I was coming downstairs for breakfast."

Akane nodded. Ranma walked back to the porch, began shadow sparring, and asked, "So did you guys go jogging or somethin' today? You look like you worked out."

"Actually... I'm doing some training. Ukyou said she'd help me."

"What, like theater exercises or somethin'?"

Akane stared at Ranma, eyes wide in frustration, "No, Martial Arts! We were sparring."

Ranma cocked his head slightly as he looked behind him, "I thought you didn't do that seriously no more."

"Well, I changed my mind! I'm allowed to, aren't I?" she replied, sputtering the words as she felt herself ball her hands into fists.

Ranma turned his back to Akane to once again face his invisible opponent, "Yeah, I guess... I hope you're still decent, for Ucchan's sake."

"Well maybe if a certain egotistical jerk would lift a finger to help me, I wouldn't have had to ask Ukyou. I'd be good enough already!"

Ranma turned around and looked at Akane with a piercing glance, "I... I don't wanna be responsible if somethin' happens. I might hurt you bad. I ain't... y-you're not strong enough, Akane. Not yet. It... it ain't worth it." He closed his eyes, recalling the near-tragedy that occurred last year at Jusendo, feeling the weight of her body in his arms once more. He took a slow breath, steadying himself.

The perfect storm of emotions were formed inside Akane. Akane sputtered the bile-like words outwards.

"I'm not a child, Ranma! I'm not fragile doll. I can fight better than any normal person, and I can do it without being a stupid egotistical perverted girl-boy cross-dressing jerk!"

As soon as she uttered those words, she had regretted it, feeling the initial pangs of it in her stomach as she chastised herself..

Ranma, for a second, puffed up his chest, looking as though he would flare up and counter her insult with another. Instead he backed down and looked away from her. He slowly walked towards the front door stopping in front of Akane, unable to look at her as he wrung his hands.

"Yeah... you're right. What was I thinking? Sorry. Um, Ucchan's a good partner. She'll keep ya on your toes," Ranma paused for a second, nodding slowly to himself, before continuing, "Um, good luck, Akane. I'm... I'm gonna go for a walk. Later."

Ranma continued towards the entrance. Akane, confused, called out to him before he left the room.

"Wait, where are you running off to?"

He looked up to her, his eyes unfocused, as though looking back towards the garden.

"It's my turn to get Ryouga from the station. Goin' for a walk before he shows up."

Before Akane could reply he walked into the entrance hall, put on his shoes, and ran out of the door. Akane followed, opening the door just in time to catch his back as he leapt onto a neighboring roof and disappeared from sight.

Sunday 12:12 PM

Ryouga Hibiki sat on the train as it barreled down the Shounan Shindou Line, steadily heading towards Ikebukuro Station. He had memorized the directions like a mantra, kept a copy of them in his pack, had laminated cards placed at Ucchans and Akari's place, kept a rolled up copy tucked away in his main bandana and, in essence, did everything short of tattooing them on his hand to make sure he knew the right path: Akari's grandfather drives him to Shimaebashi Station. Shimaebashi to Takasaki. Takasaki to Omiya. Omiya to Ikebukuro in Tokyo. Ikebukuro to Nerima. Nerima to whoever was there to lead him back to Ucchans. Every other weekend, repeat the whole thing in reverse.

Ryouga wasn't averse to walking the whole 100 kilometers from Akari's home to Ukyou's, but he knew that he would probably pass by Nagano, Gifu, Shizuoka, Mito, and Utsunomiya before he found Tokyo and Nerima Ward again. Plus, it gave him desperately needed time to finish the seemingly endless piles of homework. Ryouga lamented that he wasn't as smart as Mousse, Akane, or Ukyou, but took great pleasure in the fact that he was better than Ranma in academics, especially in English.

During a particularly difficult trigonometry problem set, he got distracted. He looked at at the moving scenery and wondered when it had all become the new normal. He remembered that, after Jusendo and the wedding that wasn't, things had changed. He spent some time with Akari, but, for all her support and their ease of communication, he had missed Tokyo and Nerima and the people he had come to know, when he wasn't butting heads with them.

Akari was a little disappointed, but after some phone calls, she and Akane had devised a compromise. Ryouga was more than a little embarrassed that the two women he cared for more than anything else had decided to greatly alter his way of life, but he was also very grateful. It was somewhat ironic, but he took pride in his humility and gratitude towards his friends.

And so almost a year had passed since the Lost Boy had found a clear and obvious path. He had enjoyed the relief that there was a direct way between A and B. Between friends and love. Between the confusion and rage that dominated his past and the clarity and promise his future held.

"But..." Ryouga kept thinking over and over.

Is this really enough?

Ryouga sighed and put his books away into his pack and pulled out a map of the JR rail system with his commute highlighted brightly in yellow.

"Got about 20 more minutes before we hit Tokyo. Guess I'm done with trig until I get home,"

he muttered to himself as he put away the map and stared vacantly, once again running the directions in his head.

Ryouga reached into his pack again and pulled out a small lunchbox, wrapped in a decorative cloth. Ryouga chuckled to himself. He knew it was hardly a coincidence that Akari had wrapped his lunch in the yellow cloth with the black pansy floral pattern. It was a sweet gesture, all told.

Opening it, he saw it was a compact but dense lunch of rice, pickles, some root vegetables Akari grew on the farm, and a fried chicken cutlet. Ryouga smiled. He had endured, even perversely enjoyed Akane's (admittedly far improved) cooking at its worst, but Akari's slightly above-average skill in the kitchen was heavenly in comparison.

Ryouga had just finished his meal when the train slowed down, heading to Ikebukuro Station. Ryouga stood up, put on his pack and muttered to himself, "Take the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line outbound to Nerima. Seibu-Ikebukuro Line outbound to Nerima."

After asking two station attendants, and being escorted part way by a third, he made it on the right train.

It was around 2PM that Ryouga exited Nerima Station. Outside, a short red-haired girl stood waiting for him, dripping slightly, but otherwise relaxed.

The girl slowly walked up to Ryouga, smiling a bit, "Heya P-chan. How's Akari doin-"

"Ranma Saotome! We never finished our fight!" Ryouga took a stance as he grabbed his umbrella.

Ranma jumped back, in a crouch, looking at Ryouga's eyes, "Are you still with that!? Akane n' I patched it up! You still wanna take me? I'll mop the floor with ya and turn you into katsudon."

Ryouga stood up straight, returning his umbrella to its place on top of his pack. He laughed a bit.

"Heh. Cute as always, little girl. But I'm tired as hell..." he stretched, "You finish the trig homework yet?"

Ranma stood and shook her head, "Nah. Got sidetracked last night with Peking Duck."

"He challenge you for Shampoo's hand in marriage again?"

Ranma shook her head, "No, thank the gods. We ate some Chinese food, did some sparring in the park, and ended up playin' babysitter to a kid from Chiba. Fought Kodachi and her goons, though."

Ryouga tilted his head slightly, "She has goons now?"

Ranma rolled her eyes and threw up her hands, "I don't even want to know how... the one in the slinky dress was cute, though. And the Goth Loli chick was into Mousse." Ranma began sauntering away from the station.

Ryouga followed as Ranma retold the events of the night before. The lost boy was unsure of what to make of the story. Even he couldn't deny that after Jusendo. He was arrogant, as always. In many ways, the pigtailed boy/girl was the same as always. Yet, he had picked up the changes is his rival's mood. A story about a caring, protective Ranma would have seemed ridiculous not so long ago, prompting Ryouga to worry his rival was under yet another magic spell or ridiculous challenge. Now though, it somehow fit, though he didn't have the words to say how.

Ryouga knew he tended to be oblivious and knowing what other people were feeling was a skill he was woefully terrible at. However, he knew when someone was depressed. He knew that feeling too well not to see it in others.

The why was still a mystery, however. But, then again, most things about Ranma Saotome were a mystery to him. The long history or fierce rivalry, rage at being cursed, anger at being tricked over and over again by Ranma in battle and in his day to day life, his own shame at mis-aiming a magical artifact he never should have messed with, the begrudging respect given and received on Mt. Horai and Mt. Phoenix, and, most recently, the concern about the pigtailed boy's descent into depression.

Fundamentally, Ranma was still the same asshole that Ryouga had hated. At his worst he was egotistical, brash, selfish, and an asshole. Yet, somehow, Ranma had become someone worthy of the Lost Boy's respect, even friendship. He had seen the times where he protected others, stuck his neck out, even for people that didn't deserve it, and risked his life to save the lives of those he cared about.

Over the last six months, Ryouga had been trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle that intertwined his life and the lives of the people he had come to see as important. He didn't quite understand what was happening, but he sensed a turning point would come sooner or later.

What was currently occupying the Lost Boy's mind was that, curiously, the emotions he saw in the girl in front of him were quite different from the Ranma Saotome he had constructed and then revised in his head. There was a life and an energy he hadn't really seen in the taller Ranma in a while.

Finally, just before turning the corner that he remembered was near Ucchans, Ryouga grabbed Ranma's shoulder softly. The girl turned back, confused.

"Whaddaya doin, P-chan? We're goin' the right way. Ucchan's is right here."

Ryouga nodded, "I know... kind of. I meant to ask... how did you get splashed this time?"

Ranma blinked, "Well, uh... the Old Washer Lady! She got me real good."

Ryouga looked at Ranma dead in the eyes. Ryouga's greatest virtue and biggest weakness was his honesty (mostly, he admitted to himself, he had one considerably large black mark in that department). Aside from being honest to a fault, he could pick up people lying or evading questions, as long as he was in a calm enough mindset to not let his emotions cloud his judgement. Ranma's story seemed fishy and he had no qualms saying it. He spoke deliberately, his voice uncharacteristically even.

"Ranma... the Washer Woman is never around on Sundays. What really happened?"

Ranma froze. Instead of answering, she grabbed Ryouga's wrist, slid the door open, unceremoniously threw him into Ucchan's, quickly sputtered, "he's all yours now, Ucchan! Sorry, can't stay! See ya tomorrow!" and ran off.

Ryouga spun around the open area in front of the restaurant like a wobbly top for a moment, disoriented by Ranma's actions in more ways than one. Steadying himself, he caught Ukyou's confused look and merely shrugged.

"Hey Ukyou. How's things?" he said, somewhat nervously.

"You wanna tell me what that was about with you and Ranchan?"

He looked down at his feet for a moment, wondering how what had just occurred fit into the larger puzzle he was trying to figure out and shrugged.

"Damned if I know. Does anyone ever understand what that bastard is up to?" He walked towards the kitchen. Looking back, he muttered, "Let me put my things upstairs and I'll give Konatsu a hand."

Ukyou nodded, her attention once again split between her work and the conversation, "Sure Ryouga. Welcome back, by the way."

Monday 12:17 PM

Furinkan High's campus was surprisingly green and pristine, given the sheer number and scope of the fights that took place on its grounds. On a good day, such as the clear, sunny, and only slightly chilly April day, the grounds were practically idyllic in the midst of greenery-deprived suburban Tokyo.

Underneath a tall tree that had seen its fare share of combat and yet, like its brethren, endured, Ranma Saotome, Akane Tendo, Ukyou Kuonji, and Ryouga Hibiki practiced their detente, engaging in peaceful relations over a shared ritual in order to stabilize a long term peace agreement.

To most other people, this would be called lunch.

As per usual, the highest honors went to those behind the scenes as Kasumi's excellent cooking had defused a possible source of tension between the pigtailed boy and the cobalt-haired girl. Mousse had occupied the potential spoiler with an impromptu Japanese lesson following a less than stellar showing on the morning's quiz. Ranma, for his part, had utilized the rather unorthodox method of leaving the building by jumping out the third floor window to meet up with the other three, avoiding any potential complications.

Ukyou, via a portable grill, was busying herself making lunch for herself and the bandanna-clad boy, who was taking sips from a bottle of water while he eyed the warming grill.. She poured two rounds worth of batter and added a few ingredients before looking at Akane.

"So Acchan, what did you think of the agility training this morning?"

Akane smiled and, after swallowing some rice from her lunch box, replied, "It was rough. I'm glad you decided to use the dull throwing spatulas," Akane made a show of rubbing a stiff shoulder, "Got me good right around my collarbone."

Ryouga interjected, "Yeah, learning to dodge with your torso can be difficult, since it's tough to break the instinct not to turn away from the opponent. I only really get away with it because I can take a hit, thanks to the Bakusai Tenketsu training."

Akane waved him off, a bit nervous, "Well... I'm not exactly ready for that, Ryouga, but maybe when I am, you can show me?"

Ryouga thought to himself for a second before responding, "Well, if the old crone is okay with it, since it's technically an Amazon move and all. But I mean, you saw me learn it, I'm sure you'd pick it up quickly... After you got used to the blowback."

Ukyou waved Ryouga off and replied, while flipping an okonomiyaki, "Acchan has enough strength to handle it, don't you think so Ranchan?"

The other three turned their heads to see Ranma, leaning against the tree and staring out into space, looking blankly at the other students enjoying the warm spring day. He seemed to be on autopilot, eating slowly, but not paying attention otherwise.

"...Ranchan?" Ukyou asked again slowly, trying to gently gain his attention.

Akane tried herself, with somewhat more force, "Hey Ranma! We're talking to you."

Ryouga sighed and flung the bottle of water he was drinking from, its contents spilling on the distracted boy.

"Wake up, cross-dresser," Ryouga said playfully.

"Ack! Whaddya do that for, P-chan?"

"Don't call me that, Ranma! You were staring into space like an idiot, so I was trying to snap you out of it. Hell, not like you don't mind! I'm starting to think you prefer bein-"

Ryouga flew against the corner of Furinkan High, the force of his body leaving a deep crack on the concrete wall of the school.

With a measured anger that, while not much louder than the conversational din, projected a strong, certain threat, Ranma spoke, "Are you that stupid, Ryouga? You want me to kill you before you can graduate? I don't want ta have to give Akari my condolences."

Ranma began walking towards Ryouga but felt a force tugging back. She looked to see Akane strongly grabbing on to her arm.

"Ranma, what the hell! He was just kidding."

Ryouga extricated himself and prepared himself for a defensive stance, waiting for a follow-up attack.

Ranma looked at Akane with wild, rage-filled eyes, her chest heaving as she breathed heavily, fighting to remain controlled. In an instant, she relaxed into a more sedate annoyance, "Well, it ain't funny. I ain't a freak or nothin'..."

Ranma kept muttering to herself as she slipped her arm from Akane and put her hand in her pockets. She started walking towards the school building just as the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch period.

Upon hearing the bell, Ryouga put his fists down, unsure of what had happened, but feeling a sense of déjà vu.

Sauntering into the men's room, Ranma received momentary stares from the guys at the sink or urinals, but, upon recognition, they went back to their business. Ranma walked up to the sink and opened the left faucet handle. Her hands gripped the edge of the basin.

She looked down at her hands and the water as it pooled into the sink before draining. her eyes focused on the swirling pattern, almost enraptured by it before slowly turning up towards the mirror. She stared at the face in front of her and took note of its features, while holding a hand out, tentative towards the mirror itself. It wasn't until a waft of steam interceded between herself and the young red-haired, blue eyed woman looking back that she shook her head clear.

Ranma let out a snort, made a split-second decision, and turned off the faucet. She walked out of the bathroom, the boys' faces confused by what had just passed.

Just outside of the classroom, Ranma found Ukyou who looked back at her, an eyebrow raised. Ukyou responded to Ranma's presence by calling out to her "You okay, Ranchan? I thought you went to change back. Class is going to start."

Ranma briefly looked at Ukyou before walking past her, shrugging. "Yeah, Just figured it don't matter. Not like anyone within 10 miles of here don't already know what I look like when you add water. Hell, most of 'em think I'm a weirdo anyhow. I just..." she let out a breath, muttering, "I don't care anymore."

Ranma entered the classroom, gaining the side-eyed attention of the class. Ranma sat down, opened her notebook and, overall, failed at being nonchalant while avoiding the glances of her classmates. A loud, child-like voice came front the front of the classroom.

"What exactly are you playing at, Saotome? Are you up to trouble again? I don't like troublemakers in my class!" the small teacher in oversized office wear huffed.

Ranma shook her head, "I'm not playing at anything, teach. I'm just trying to get by. Sorry to disappoint you. If you gotta use your Go-En Satsu on me, go ahead. But I'm tryin' not to fail English more than I already am."

Hinako looked up at Ranma with narrow eyes and a pouting face, "Hmmm... I don't like your tone, Saotome! But, fine, whatever, I don't even care!" Hinako threw up her hands, stuck out her tongue, and then turned to walk to her podium in front of the class. She picked up and tapped a sheaf of papers.

"Okay class, today we're going to cover imperative sentences today..."

Ukyou looked up from her notes to see that Ranma looked to be reasonably attentive, not actively taking notes, but also not dead asleep. It was an encouraging, if out of character, sign. Additionally, it looked like, after some initial looks from the class, especially the other girls, everyone seemed to either not care or were too focused on the unfamiliar grammar to pay the red-head any mind.

The stillness disturbed Ukyou. On the one hand, barring the small incident between Ranma and Ryouga and the subsequent exchange between herself and her erstwhile fiancé, things were otherwise normal. On the other hand, that very normalcy made her expect something, anything to happen. But nothing did. It was just a normal class and, when the bell rang, Ms. Hinako left and another teacher came in for Trigonometry and then it repeated itself with the last class of the day.

Leaving school to go to work, with Ryouga in tow, Ukyou, rather than feeling relieved, felt dread. She had been on edge the whole afternoon expecting the other shoe to drop. The uneasy anticipation she felt was familiar territory, in a sense. It may take a decade, but she knew first hand that decisions had consequences and there was always a reckoning to be had. What it would be, was anybody's guess.

Tuesday 11:38 PM

The Nekohanten had closed about half an hour earlier. Having wiped down tables and upturned chairs in the dining area, Shampoo and Mousse set themselves busy cleaning the back kitchen before going to bed. It had been a good night and, even if they would have to scramble to finish their homework afterwards, they were pulling in the most covers since they opened nearly two years ago.

Cologne had gone upstairs to meditate when the restaurant closed the hour before, thanking them for their work before turning in, which amplified the sense of accomplishment, for Mousse anyway. Shampoo had been quiet all night. Mousse had noticed she had been withdrawn since the incident with Ranma the week before.

Granted, Mousse knew that, outside of her encounters with her 'Airen', Shampoo was not a particularly extroverted. She had been raised among warriors and, among that sisterhood, she bloomed with a sociable warmth and happiness. Away from that close kinship, however, she had grown aloof, pushy, and purposely distanced herself from most people.

Shampoo, like Mousse, had become part of the tenuous friendships among the other martial artists, but unlike the Amazon male, she remained guarded, never ingratiating herself as fully. Similarly, she never made an attempt to make other friends in their class, preferring to either seek out Ranma's attention (with limited success) or simply go straight home to work at the Nekohanten.

Mousse missed seeing that more open Shampoo since arriving in this country. He felt her ministrations over Ranma, whatever her desires, rang hollow, though he would also quickly admit his bias in that assessment. Even the pranks and beatings she had inflicted on him back home seemed warm compared to the ways in which Shampoo was acting this evening.

Even so, this recent quietude was extreme, even for the lone Amazon Warrior. In the midst of putting away the last set of sanitized bowls, Mousse nervously asked, "Shampoo. Um, I know this is sudden and I'm probably wasting my time, but... did you want to do something for Golden Week? Just a movie or something?"

"Mousse, you didn't really think I would say yes, did you?" she replied in Mandarin, dripping with sarcasm.

"I know, but I had to try. For my own peace of mind," Mousse replied, holding back a sigh as he placed another tray into the sanitizer. Closing the steam-filled machine's doors, he pressed a button and wiped his forehead.

Taking his fogged up glasses and wiping them with the sleeve of his robe, Mousse added, "You know, you should probably speak in Japanese more. It's probably why it hasn't improved as much as it should have."

Shampoo spat out, "I don't want to always speak in that crude tongue. Why don't you ever speak our language? Are you ashamed of being an Amazon now?"

Mousse shook his head hesitantly, "N-no, Shampoo, you know that's not true. I'm just doing what I can to fit in. I thought you wanted to do the same."

Shampoo ignored Mousse as she scrubbed a wok, putting more force than was strictly necessary as she ranted to the running water in front of her, "Why bother? Once I get my true love, I'll be back to the Amazon Village and I won't have to worry about Japanese or Literature or History or any of these other useless classes that my great-grandmother seems to think are so important. What's the point of all this, Mousse?"

Mousse answered her, trying to maintain a civil tone, "Well... I agree with the elder. If we can't take what we can from the outside world, we as a people will just dwindle. I know I could never be a leader in the tribe, but maybe I can advise on engineering projects, or just teach the future warriors. We have the Musk, the Phoenix people, and the PLA to worry about, nevermind the fact that Jusenkyo seems to attract more and more people these days."

There was silence between the two, though the kitchen was filled with the din or running water, steam, and motors. Shampoo grabbed a large sprayer attached to the sink and rinsed the wok she was cleaning before picking up another one to wash.

Mousse, standing in front of the sanitizer awaiting its contents to be heated to legally safe temperatures, continued, "Besides, do you really think if you somehow manage to convince Saotome, the Slayer of Saffron, to return with us, he will no longer speak his native tongue?"

Shampoo brushed him off with a growl before asserting herself, "...You annoying male. If I can get him to accept the marriage, I can get him to accept our customs. Ranma is strong, but he is pliable. He is weak to the airs I put on as any of the other men around here. Not to mention his pathetic bravado is leverage that has been exploited time and again. He will bend sooner or later."

Mousse thought to himself, "You can't be that blind, Shampoo. If, after everything, you still want to think Ranma is just another man, then you are more of a fool than I ever suspected. Why are you lying to yourself?"

He replied to Shampoo, "You know as well as I do that Ranma is powerful, but unpredictable. There is a reason he could learn the Hiryu Shouten Ha, even when his strength was all but extinguished. It's the same reason he favors it in serious combat, endlessly twisting it to his desires. Shampoo, can you see yourself taming him like any other male?"

Shampoo released the sprayer she was using and looked at the long-haired boy in disgust, "Are you so foolish that you have forgotten the ways we have to control you men? We have magic, our strength, and our wiles!"

Mousse replied, loading a second sanitizer tray with washed glasses and plates, "Cologne has said time and again she would not risk forcing his hand. The consequences would be dire."

Shampoo froze at that. She steadied herself, "...You're right Mousse. I was frustrated." Shampoo scolded herself, thinking, "I shouldn't be acting so weak." She continued, "I'm tired, Mousse. I miss the village and the mountains. I miss hunting game and the celebratory fires. This country doesn't suit me. There is nothing here for me, except Ranma."

Mousse took a tray from the sanitizer and began putting dishes away. "I think you're lot letting yourself be open to the possibilities. We may not like it here as much as home, but there are things the outside world can teach us. I'm finding new things that will be of use when we return. I feel like I'm growing as a person. You could too, Shampoo. Don't let the law and your pride blind you to finding something worthwhile. I know you have to capacity to take advantage of this time here."

Shampoo put away the cleaned woks on a rack, and replied, once more in a condescending tone, "You are really stupid, you know that? It's not a surprise, really. What was I expecting from a talk with a man anyway, but weakness?"

Shampoo nodded in agreement with that statement and walked past Mousse, feeling righteous in her strength against her inferior. Mousse merely sighed at that display. He wanted to say something, tell her off, and get angry but, ultimately, just took a few deep breaths as he fished the last tray from it warm confines and finished cleaning the kitchen.

Mousse knew Shampoo was right, in a sense. He hated that she was miserable and that he seemed to have no sway in cheering her up. Turning off the dishwasher and sanitizer, he wiped down the counters one last time, turned off the lights and wandered back upstairs to his small room, letting a small sigh escape his breath as he trudged upstairs.

In her modest bedroom, Shampoo looked out the south-facing window. She felt lucky that the second largest bedroom afforded a view of the suburban skyline. However her usual gratitude was dashed by her frustration that the stars never seemed bright enough anymore. She scowled again to herself, her homesickness smashing into her heart like a ball-peen hammer.

Away from the sight of lesser males and other warriors, she allowed herself to cry over her loneliness. After letting out a silent stream of tears, she let out a croaking laugh, noting that the one thing she was jealous of Japanese females was that they could feel openly and honestly in ways that would have been shameful back home. She truly hated this country.

She heard shuffling from the room next door through the thinly insulated walls. "Stupid Mu Si," she thought to herself, idly wondering if the blind boy could even see in the windowless box of a storage closet he called a bedroom. After a moment she heard some shifting and then a high pitched note.

A few bars later and Shampoo recognized it as Mousse's erhu. The boy was playing Han Chun Feng Qu, the Song of the Cold Spring Breeze. Shampoo smiled a bit and she heard the softly playing song. Shampoo had only learned of this talent during late nights where he would play it alone in his dark, windowless room.

Though it was the song of the foolish Han and not of her people, Shampoo knew that Mousse played it exceptionally well and it began to draw upon her feelings of homesickness and, after he finished all of the movements, she somehow felt better, sleep beginning to overtake her as she lay down on her futon. She briefly spotted the full moon, now shining brightly at the apex of its rise, as she fell asleep.

Wednesday 6:29 AM

Light was just beginning to pour in, through the bottom of the window, throughout the small room where the two men living at Ukyou's, Ryouga Hibiki and Konatsu, slept. Ryouga was splayed on his futon in a yellow t-shirt and loose drawstring pants, whereas Konatsu as curled up on his side, the top of his pink pajamas visible over his covers.

At 6:30, a digital alarm clock on a table next to Ryouga's futon started going off, it's shrill beeping echoing throughout the room. Konatsu began to stir.

"Mmm R-ryouga? Turn it off..." Konatsu said in a soft whisper, still more asleep than awake.

Ryouga turned his head toward Konatsu and whispered, "W-What's that's Akari? Katsunishiki has to go walkies?"

"Ugh!" Konatsu yelled in frustration as he sat up and scratched his head, yawning. He stood and, quietly stepped over the other boy to press the alarm's snooze button. He stretched his arms, one at a time, as he walked outside.

A few minutes later, he returned, face washed, and stood in front of the mirror that was placed on the back of the door. He let down his long brown hair and started brushing until it practically shimmered. He then rummaged through his dresser until he found his usual kimono and tabi. He put on the clothes, easily wrapping the obi around his waist.

Finally, he put on his favorite hair ornament, a small cherry blossom,

Konatsu took one look at himself in the mirror, he smiled. It wasn't by any means 'manly', whatever that meant, but he liked his appearance regardless. He hoped Ukyou liked it, but was happy enough if it attracted customers for the restaurant.

He gave his reflection a weak smile. He wished he knew why the woman he was in love with was so fixated on masculinity, especially given the man she had been pursuing until a year ago had a woman's body half the time. It somehow didn't seem fair, but he found a measure of solace in knowing that most of his friends seemed to be harboring unrequited love, so there was company to be had.

While checking his outfit one final time, the snooze alarm rang again. In a flat, but high pitched voice, Konatsu said, "Hey Ryouga. Get up. I'm going to make breakfast for you and Miss Ukyou."

Ryouga sat up, scratching his head. He groaned, "Konatsu?"

Konatsu smiled and replied with a twinge of playfulness in his voice, "The one and only, Master Hibiki," he grabbed his forehead as his expression became serious, "Can you get that alarm? The sound is so grating this early."

Ryouga nodded, stood and turned the alarm off. He rubbed his head, still groggy.

"Man I had the weirdest dream. I was at the farm and..."

"Let me guess, you took Katsunishiki for a walk?" Konatsu interjected, folding up his futon.

"How did you know?"

Konatsu shrugged as he placed the futon in the room's oshiire, "Oh... ancient ninja secret, I suppose."

"Yeah, well I ran into this girl..."


Ryouga shook his head he crouched down and folded up his futon, "No.. I'd never seen her before. She was short, but carried herself well. She started walking ahead of me, like she was leading me somewhere. I woke up before I knew where I was."

Konatsu smiled once more, "I see. Aren't we a cassanova? Take it from me, since I live somewhere in-between, but girls don't like men who dream of strange women taking them places."

The feminine boy gave Ryouga a warm smile and a suggestive wink and gracefully exited the room.

Ryouga rubbed the back of his head dumbly as he watched the beautiful boy walk out.

Thursday 8:30 PM

Kasumi was thankful that she had recently purchased a cordless phone as she paced inside her bedroom. She sat at her desk, a small spiral notebook open, she chewed on the back on the pen she held in her right hand as she cradled the phone against her head with her left.

"So you'll arrive next Tuesday evening?" she asked.

The slightly fuzzy voice replied, "Yes. I unfortunately can't get out of the hospital until Greenery Day. Ibusuki is small enough that we had to pull in staff from Kagoshima City to cover us from the 29th, till the 5th. Thankfully I had some vacation time built in, so I can be fully away and not just backup on-call."

Kasumi nodded to the planner in front of her as she noted the dates.

"Do you think you can help Ranma, Ono?"

"I think so, but as I imagine you suspect, whatever is troubling him can't just be cured. I'm not sure what I can do other than talk to Ranma, read his ki, and help find a therapist to keep the conversation going."

"Thank you, Ono. This means a lot to me. I know you're making a large sacrifice on our behalf, but Ranma seems to trust fewer and fewer people."

"It's not a problem at all. I can't let down a patient, especially someone who doesn't have many places to turn to. How has he been since you called?"

"Some may say better, but I'm pretty sure he's just hiding behind his facade again."

"Hmm... that blasted Soul of Ice, huh?"

"That too, but... it may be my inagination, but it seems he's spending more time in his cursed form as well."

"I see..." Ono's voice was silent on the other end for a few minutes, "yeah, I'll make sure I have a list of therapists for him."

"Thank you once again, Ono. I'm ever in your debt."

"No problem, K-Kasumi. Also... I... this is more personal, but... I... I'll be h-h-happy to... ACK! Um, H-h-happy to see y—you, K-k-kasumi! One sec!"

Kasumi faintly heard Ono speak softly, repeating, "Hold on, Hold On. Find your center."

Dr. Tofu resumed, "Well.. a-anyways. I'll be happy to see you all again, especially y-you, K-kasumi. T-take care."

"I will Ono. Good night."

"G-good night."

After Kasumi hung up the phone, she stood, rotating her neck and rubbing her left shoulder. She left her room and slowly walked downstairs. She found Ranma alone, in guy form, doing situps in front of the television which was turned to a variety show. Kasumi noticed that he had a far off look on his face. After a moment, Ranma noticed her and sat up.

Ranma looked up, blinking, "Oh, hey Kasumi. How's studying going?"

Kasumi smiled and nodded, "Quite well, Ranma. Where is Akane?"

Ranma shrugged before continuing his conditioning, "She said she was gonna be at Ucchan's place. They were gonna do some more speed training or somethin'."

"I see..." Kasumi nodded slowly.

"Ranma. Ono we'll be here next week. I thought, if there was anyone I knew you could trust, it would be him."

Ranma stopped again and sat back up, "Tofu's comin' back ta see me? That's kinda... you didn't hafta do that Kasumi. It's... it's too much." Ranma pulled his knees to his chest, "Sorry for causin' ya so much trouble. It ain't fair to you."

Kasumi smiled as she shook her head, "It's all right. I know you're not comfortable talking to others about what's bothering you. I think talking to another man you can trust like Ono would be good for you."

Ranma nodded, then looked down at his feet, "T-thanks. I'm... I'm sorry for makin' you go through this kinda work. I know that me and Pops've been freeloadin' too long, 'specially since Ma's got the house rebuilt."

Kasumi lightly scolded him, "Don't you dare say that. Whatever happens, you're family."

Ranma looked up at the Elder Tendo, studying her expression. After a minute, he responded, "You're too nice ta me Kasumi... Thanks."

Kasumi sat down next to Ranma and lightly hugged the boy, ruffling his hair slightly, "Don't mention it."

Ranma looked at Kasumi and smiled, "Hey. So if Tofu's comin' back, you two gonna hang out or somethin'?"

Kasumi tilted her head and repeated at the expression Ranma used. " 'Hang out'?"

Ranma shrugged, "I dunno. I guess it ain't my place ta say anythin' about it, but you're doin' me a favor, and I know he was always kinda sweet on you."

Kasumi turned to face the television, watching what now appeared to be a game show, and lightly remarked, "Is that so?"

The two sat in peaceful silence that evening.

Friday 4:01 PM

The Tendo Home was rather quiet on this late afternoon. Soun was usually out, either on town council business or in "planning sessions". Genma had been effectively missing since the week before, though no one really minded. Ranma and Akane had not arrived home from school yet, and Nodoka had returned to the new Saotome Home the day before. Kasumi, for her part, was upstairs studying for her evening class. She stopped momentarily when she heard the front door slide open. She closed her eyes, trying to discern the sounds and, after a moment, lightly sighed in relief and returned to her work.

The entrance hall of the Tendo family home was filled with the din of six teenagers relaxing and chatting freely, looking forward to tomorrow afternoon when, after the the half day of Saturday class were finished, they would be free from school for Golden Week Holidays.

"Man, did you guys get a load of Prinicpal Kuno's face?" Ranma said as she entered the Tendo family living room.

"What, before or after we started using him as an impromptu tetherball?" Mousse said stretching his arms.

"Yes Duck-boy, Shampoo impressed with your magnet gun. We're all impressed," Shampoo said sarcastically.

Ukyou laughed a bit at Shampoo's sarcasm before adding "Then he starred throwing pineapples, like none of us couldn't throw them back at him. You'd think after the beating Acchan and Ranchan gave him this morning he'd quit it."

Ryouga nodded, "No kidding, that stupid bastard. Hey Ukyou, is Konatsu gonna be okay by himself?"

"It's always slow until about 6 or so, Ryo-chan. He'll manage"

Ranma looked around, ascertaining the auras of everyone int he room. seeing that tempers were on an even keel, she exclaimed, "Man, I'm starvin'. I think we still got those cream puffs Ma n' Kasumi made. Lemme get 'em."

"Don't eat em all before you get back!" Akane reminded, in an almost motherly tone that almost sounded like scolding before she and Shampoo sat down by the living room table.

"Ha ha, tomboy. Yo Ryouga, come on, I could use an extra pair of hands." Ranma said, dragging Ryouga by the short sleeve of his uniform towards the kitchen."

"What about me?" Mousse began to move before he felt the sleeves of his robe being tugged at. He looked back and saw the gakuran-clad Ukyou.

"He needs hands attached to someone with better than 20/200 vision, Mousse." Ukyou quipped.

Mousse nodded slowly, a disappointed frown on his face, "...fine. I'm just gonna sit here next to Shampoo," his expression immediately brightened at the thought.

Shampoo rolled her eyes, "Mousse such a stupid duck-boy, Shampoo should... Oh, nevermind. Have fun, idiot." Mousse took this less than enthusiastic assent for all it was worth and sat next to her, grinning foolishly. Shampoo, for her part, began engaging in small talk with the other two girls in the room.

Ranma and Ryouga came back. The shorter of the two held a tray of pastries whole the taller boy held a tray containing a pot of tea, and several mugs. Ranma in particular had a impish grin on her face.

"I knew we still had 'em! I think there's enough for everybody, ta boot."

Akane quipped, "I'm surprised you had enough self-control."

Mousse nodded along, "Seriously, Saotome. You're like a black hole where no food can escape. I'm never treating you to dinner again."

Ranma placed the tray on her head and raised her arms in disgust, "Aw, come on, I ain't that bad!"

"You know half the reason I wanted to pay Kona-chan 5 yen an hour when he first started working was to cover the cost of all the freebies I gave you."

"Jeez, everybody's picking on me today." Ranma sulked as she sat down and placed the tray on the table. She grabbed a cream puff and took a large bite from it, annoyed. She looked at Akane and for a second, their eyes met before Ranma blushed slightly and turned away.

Shampoo smiled sweetly at Ranma and said, in a low voice, "Oh Airen, don't be sad. Shampoo can make you all the mantou and gao you want."

Ranma gulped, "Uh, no, it's okay! I don't need any! Tell her Akane!"

Akane stood up and walked over, lightly bopping Ranma in the head, "don't encourage her, Ranma! Besides, you already eat too many sweets."

"Hey! She started it! Though I gotta say, I miss Cantonese desserts somethin' fierce..." Akane rolled her eyes at the pigtailed girl's reverie.

Mousse sidled up next to Akane and said, in a failed attempt at sweetness, "Shampoo, you can make me mantou anytime!"

Shampoo looked away, coldly, "Mousse can make own food. Better yet, Mousse can make Shampoo mantou!"

"O-oh okay, Shampoo!" Mousse replied excitedly.

Shampoo rolled her eyes as she felt Mousse's mood brighten even more than before.

Ranma slowly ate the pastry and smiled to herself. Part of it was that the cream puff was rather delicious, with the subtle butter and egg flavor of the pâte à choux mixing rather well with the sweet, but not too sweet pastry cream. It was a nice perk of her present form being a better taster than her default body. Finally, her smile came as she looked at the auras in the room once more. Everyone was radiating peaceful blue tones.

Unless someone strongly projected it, auras didn't typically have colors. Over the years, though, Ranma developed an aura sense was, in many ways, synesthetic. She felt that overall peace as a blue hue, with several variations. Ryouga's was always more aquamarine than blue, for example, tinted with his disposition towards depression, whereas Akane's was more indigo, tinted with her temper. She noted similar variants in the others, Ukyou closer to a light grey as he felt an orange tone, Shampoo a light sky blue from the addition of white, Mousse a slate blue, almost cobalt from the addition of black.

Ranma nodded internally. It was as close to what he had been hoping for since the wedding. Somehow, the hopes for friendship seemed to have borne fruit. There were a few close calls, especially as of late, but it looked like the tide was stemmed and Ranma Saotome had held it all back. Ranma felt like things would pull through and be resolved peacefully. He wouldn't have to change and neither would their relationships. This made the last bite of her pastry all the more delicious.

Kasumi could hear the six teens as they settled into light conversation, which sometimes escalated into yelling or light sparring, but just as quickly settled back down into laughter. The de facto Tendo matriarch was grateful, especially when she took stock and remarked on the fact that Ranma, Akane, and four of the other most destructive people in a 100 mile radius were calmly talking, joking around, and acting like... well like teenagers. Kasumi was glad, if a touch jealous. She decided to stay upstairs and wait to clean up whatever inevitable mess occurred.

While her prescience was warranted, she was somewhat surprised by its source.

About an hour after they had arrived, just as the four guests were about to leave, a loud clattering noise emerged as the front door was slammed open and the clacking of shoes being removed turned into loud thumps.

Genma Saotome. His white gi, marred with dirt, ash, and soot, ran into the living room, looking around wildly.

"Where are you, you lazy good for nothing boy?" he yelled, looking around indiscriminately until he settled on the red-haired girl who had a less than warm look on her face as she stared daggers at her father.

"Ranma! I did it! I found a cure! A real cure!" Genma exclaimed, puffing his chest in pride.

Ranma, along with the other people in the room, looked at Genma incredulously. The red-haired girl asked, with no small amount of sarcasm, "What, another Korean Nanniichuan? This one in the DMZ too?"

Genma, suddenly flustered, replied, "How was I supposed to know the 38th Parallel was significant?" The six teens slapped their foreheads collectively.

Rifling through his gi, he pulled out a small cylindrical container. Opening it he revealed a scroll.

Genma moved to hand the scroll to Ranma, "Here boy," but suddenly hesitated, pulling the scroll away at the last second, "change back first. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"

Ranma looked back up at Genma with the same cold stare, but gave up and grabbed the teapot, its contents still warm and changed back.

After being handed the scroll he noted at the seal, labeled "核変換宝石"

Mousse looked over Ranma's shoulder, adjusting his glasses and reading aloud, " 'He Bian Huan Bao Shi'? The... Orb of Transmutation?"

Ranma looked askance as he opened the moldy handscroll, revealing a document in Classical Japanese. Ranma looked at his father, asking, "Where'dya find this? A pawn shop? Or were you robbin' graves again?"

Genma, with a hurt expression, replied, "Nonsense! I'll have you know some of the finest Saotome-Ryuu Techniques came from the the tombs of the most ancient and powerful warriors this country has ever known."

"So grave robbing then..." Akane said, flatly as she rolled her eyes.

Genma waved Akane off, "Yes yes, that isn't important. The scroll tells of a Hidden Temple in the depths of White Mountain, in Niigata. Inside that temple lies the Orb. It is said that the contents of the Orb will revert anyone to their true form!"

Ranma remarked, "Well then ya better be careful Pops. You might turn into a lazy good for nothin' panda for good. Or maybe a rat."

"How dare you insult all of the hard work I've done for you! Don't you want to be cured of that horrible curse?"

Ranma eyed his father warily, but waved a hand in dismissal, "Whatever. I ain't killing myself for some moldy scroll you got off a dead guy."

"I see... well perhaps there's someone else in this room who would like to beat my son to the punch and get themselves cured?"

Instantly three sets of ears perked up.

"A cure you say?" Mousse asked, his eyes darting in calculation.

"Get Orb for Airen!" Shampoo said, her characteristic perkiness creeping back into her voice

"Beat Ranma to it?" Ryouga added, beaming at the thought.

Ranma, who had tried to steady himself against this new intrusion into the peace was conflicted. Every time the possibility for a cure emerged, it ended up being a fraud, or it no longer existed, or someone had beaten them to the punch. But Ranma also had an image to maintain and part of that was looking like he was proactive about finding a cure and, more importantly, not appearing like he was okay with losing out to anyone. His expression changed instantly from apathetic to roused.

"Yeah! Like I'd let you two chumps beat me at anything!" Ranma said, pointing at Mousse and Ryouga, "I beat ya anytime, anyplace, and at anything. I'm gettin' the orb first, ya hear me?"

"Well see about that Saotome!" Mousse said, his voice dripping with a anger that spoke of the long-time rivalry.

Ryouga turned to Ukyou, "Help me get back. I need to prepare to go and beat Ranma."

Ukyou nodded, "Sure Ryouga, but I'm coming as well."

The three male martial artists and Shampoo continued trading verbal jabs at one another while Akane and Ukyou looked at each other, trading worried looks.

Mousse pointed a finger at Ranma triumphantly, "We'll see you at the station in two hours! Once we get to the base of the Mountain, it's no holds barred until one of us gets the orb first!"

Ranma let out a theatrical laugh, "Ha! Ya mean, when I get the orb first, Peking Duck?"

"Well see about that, you cross-dressing bastard!" Ryouga yelled.

There was a mass of confusion as the other four martial artists quickly departed the Tendo living room to prepare for the journey. It was that sudden set of thumping noises that prompted Kasumi to put down her studying. She came down the stairs in time to catch the tail end of the conversation. Ranma was crouched to the ground, with a deflated look as Genma, oblivious, droned on.

"This is perfect. A chance to once again prove the greatness of the school, a real cure for that affliction of yours, and, with that out of the way, you can marry Akane in peace! And the best part is that you have a free week coming up, so it isn't as if your mother can yell at me for dragging you away from school." Genma laughed contentedly.

Ranma shook his head at he stared at the overturned mugs on the ground left in haste. His father's laughter grew intolerably proud, which made Ranma stand up suddenly, facing Genma and growling, "Dammit old man... all right. I don't like it, but if it'll shut you up, I'll go find this stupid thing. I ain't letting anybody else beat me to it."

"I'm coming too, Ranma!" Akane yelled.

Ranma looked towards Akane, confused. "Why do ya wanna come with us? It's gonna be dan-" Ranma paused, recalling the argument they had had almost a week before, "All right tomboy. Get packing, we gotta get outta here as soon as possible."

Before Ranma could walk upstairs to his room Kasumi moved in front of him, a shocked expression on her face which Ranma responded with one of his own.

"Ranma, you can't leave now! Ono is going through so much effort to see you. "

Ranma's face went pale with a sudden remembrance, "K-kasumi I..." the boy looked at his father, seeing the expectant, demanding glare from him. "I'm sorry. I think... I think I need to pack."

Kasumi expression grew sad as she looked on while Ranma and Genma quietly put together travel packs. Ranma couldn't dare look at Kasumi when he came back downstairs, the look of disappointment her face had disarmed him so. Finally, the three martial artists shuffled off into the night, the unseasonably chilly air accompanying them.

First off, I want to thank everyone who has shown an interest and commented on the story so far. Just wanted to let you know that the next two chapters will be action packed and full of martial arts adventure, before I roll out the character drama and angst once more.

A big big thanks to tuatara for pre-reading this chapter. Their critique was instrumental as I am still having trouble pinning down Akane and Shampoo as characters in this story, the latter more so than the former. I really could not have finished the chapter without their help. Thank you.

I also have been experimenting with storytelling forms, such as the flashback sequence in the last chapter. I'm not sure how successful I was in this chapter, though I think I captured the kinds of emotional status checks I wanted for this chapter. The next two chapters will be fairly straightforward, from a formal standpoint. Then I suspect three more chapter will round out Part I of the story. I'm also planning on revising the first four parts (perhaps merging Chapters 1 and 2 since I seem to like 7-10k word chapters).

Finally, I'd like to direct readers to my other stories and leave any feedback you might have. I have a loose timetable for when new chapters of my continuing stories as well as my currently planned oneshots will be released, but I admit I'm driven more by my personal writing whims than any schedule. I have a feeling Difficult to Love, my attempt at BL, will be next on the docket, though I've made considerable progress on Chapter 2 of 放浪武道家Wandering Martial Artistand Chapter 3 of 夢ばかりじゃない少女- Not Just a Dream Girl is near completion, though I'm stuck on certain aspects of the plot. In addition, I will be indisposed for the next two weeks as I take my qualifying exams.

Once again, thank you everyone and happy reading.