Note: This takes place after the end of the manga for Ranma and before it's start for Kenichi.

So far Cologne had been having a rare peaceful day. Shampoo and Mousse were both out somewhere and the most exciting thing that had happened was a customer who hadn't realized he'd forgotten his wallet until after he'd already eaten. In short, it was a miserable day. She wasn't sure how many decades she had left, and the chaos around Ranma was one of the few real joys left to her. Of course this was Nerima, so the quiet couldn't possibly last too long, but she was still getting quite tempted to go stir up some trouble herself.

It turned out Cologne didn't need to make the effort, as Ranma chose that moment to waltz into the Nekohanten, quickly scanning the area before relaxing when he saw that only Cologne and a couple of customers were present. Perfect, wherever Ranma was, excitement was all but certain to follow.

"Did you need something, son-in-law?" Cologne asked.

"I'm just trying to shake Shampoo," Ranma answered. "I figured this will be the last place she'll look for me."

Cologne sighed a little at that. She'd have loved to bring Ranma into the tribe. Unfortunately, even if they wouldn't admit it themselves, it was clear Akane and Ranma had developed feelings for each other. After one spectacularly interrupted wedding attempt that she sincerely wished she'd been witness to, a successful joining in the near future seemed likely. Still, Cologne had been around long enough to know that even couples far more in love than those two didn't always work out.

The real problem was Shampoo herself. She'd become even more desperate since the wedding, and it wasn't endearing her to the young martial artist at all. Even if Akane and Ranma did break apart, it was looking more and more of a long shot that he would turn his attention to Cologne's great-granddaughter. She'd try having another talk with Shampoo, but the damage was probably already done quite some time ago.

Ah well, even if she was all but giving up on Ranma, there was no need to let him know that. He was too much fun to tease. Her chance at getting a start with that now was brushed aside, as Ranma's talent for attracting trouble proved to be in overdrive today, as evidenced by Ryoga's entrance into restaurant.

"I should have known you'd run off to Ucchan's the first chance you got," Ryoga yelled accusingly at Ranma as soon as he spotted him. "Even after nearly marrying her, you still can't stop chasing other women."

"This is the Nekohanten, moron," Ranma retorted, causing Ryoga to look around in confusion. Cologne waved at the boy when he looked her way. Despite being temporarily thrown off balance, Ryoga quickly regained his mental footing.

"That's even worse!" he cried out. "I'll make you pay for cheating on Akane!"

Bull-rushing Ranma, Ryoga took a swing at him. Not missing a beat, Ranma leaped lightly over the blow, landing on Ryoga's head. Twisting around, he bent over so that he was looking at Ryoga eye to eye. "Calm down, Ryoga," he said in exasperation. "I'm actually trying to avoid Shampoo."

"In her own home?" Ryoga snarled. "How stupid to you think I am?"

Grabbing an unoccupied table Ryoga swung it in an attempt to smash Ranma off of his head. Ranma, however, had already seen it coming and had taken off in a jump that would send him over the table's arc. Reacting to Ranma's dodge, Ryoga quickly converted his swing into a toss, fired the table straight after Ranma.

Cologne shook her head at this. Ryoga was already too worked up and it was affecting his judgment. This wasn't going to be a very interesting fight if things stayed like this. Ranma of course easily grabbed the table and pushed himself out if its path midair. The table continued upward, shattering in an impressive display of splinters, wood fragments, and sawdust.

"One of you is going to pay for that," she barked out on principle, even if she wasn't terribly concerned with the cost. Still, it might be best to get them out of the Nekohanten while the building was yet standing. She'd heard what had happened to the Saotome home at the wedding.

The sound of creaking from above gave the first hint the damage from the last attack wasn't finished yet. The cloud of sawdust from the impact site cleared just quick enough to reveal the damage the ceiling had taken before it cracked and opened up a small hole under from the weight of a large chest that fell through the newly creating opening. Cologne was already hurrying over to protect the chest she knew had come from her room, but needn't have worried as Ranma casually caught it with one hand, adjusting it so that none of the items sitting on top of it so much as lost their balance before setting it gently onto the floor.

"Thank you son-in-law," she said in genuine gratitude while simultaneously staring down a somewhat sheepish Ryoga to ensure he didn't try anything else yet. "That chest contained priceless amazon artifacts, some of which are quite fragile."

Unable to shake the sudden feeling that something was off, Cologne began to carefully examine the few nicknacks on top of the chest to see if they were damaged. That's when it hit her. There should have been one more item on top of this particular chest. She'd been so engrossed in her task, she'd barely paid any mind to Ranma jumping back into the air, but now she saw just why he had done so.

The missing item, a dark red gem about the size of her admittedly small fist was falling through the damaged ceiling. It must have been knocked off the chest or caught on something and only slid free now, leading to Ranma's to current move to grab it in an unnecessarily flashy manner.

"Stop!" she called out in it warning, considering for a moment trying to knock him away. Instead she chose the safer decision of moving in the other direction.

If he'd intended to listen to her warning at all, he didn't do so soon enough, as his hand soon touched the gem. There was a bright flash of light that blinded Cologne for about a second. When it cleared, there was no sign of Ranma. The gem, now a brighter shade of red, fell to the ground and bounced a couple of times before coming to a halt.

"Is he … dead?" Ryoga asked, turning white as a ghost.

"Nothing like that, merely trapped inside," she answered, relieved she'd had the presence of mind to get out of the way. If she'd been caught up in that there she'd have to trust the fools around here to send a message back the village instead of doing something stupid like trying to break the thing open. "I have something upstairs that can get him out. Just remember the next time you want to start tearing up this place that it could have been a lot worse."

Leaving the gem behind in case it was still active, Cologne hopped straight up through the hole and landed in her bedroom. She then scanned it, trying to remember where she'd put the blue gem that would free Ranma in as safe a way as possible. It was a shame it had turned out like this. The nice shiny gem placed in a visible location had been meant as a trap for Happosai if he ever decided to add to his collection of stolen amazon treasures.

That plan was a good as ruined as news would undoubtedly get back to him now that Ranma, Ryoga, and the restaurant's customers had all witnessed its powers. And to top it all off, her memory really was failing her as to where exactly the item she needed was. She knew she had brought it with her, but she had far too much junk here. It's not like she couldn't get him out without it, but there were risks involved in that.

"He's really going to be alright, isn't he?" Ryoga called up from below. "There aren't any weird side effects or anything?"

"He'll be fine," Cologne answered, annoyed at the interruption. "I'm just having trouble finding the other gem."

"I'll bring Ranma up and help you look," Ryoga announced impatiently, and she was so distracted by her own thoughts it took a few seconds before she caught on to the implications of that statement.

"Ryoga! Stay right where you are!" Cologne yelled out, hopping down through the hole and running to the Nekohanten's entrance. To her dismay, she saw no sign of the boy along the street outside. It was probably far too much to hope that he was merely wandering the Nekohanten, but she quickly checked that anyway. Well, there was nothing left to do but wait for Ryoga to eventually find his way back.

Cologne was fortunate that it only took Ryoga two days to do so this time, as her sanity might not have lasted much longer. She never should have admitted to knowing anything about where Ranma was, as half of Nerima seemed to visit her hourly just to see if there had been an update. She was convinced this was some divine punishment for not appreciating the calm she'd been blessed with prior to this current chaos beginning. But now Ryoga was back and he'd even arrived at one of the rare moments when Cologne was alone in the restaurant.

"Finally, hand the gem over," Cologne ordered, having long since lost any patience.

"Of course," Ryoga replied. "Sorry about getting a little turned around there."

Reaching into his pocket, he treated Cologne to the rather gut-wrenching sight of his hand going right through a gaping hole torn in the side of his pants.

"Huh?" Ryoga said in confusion. "When did that happen?"

In a flash Cologne had darted up to Ryoga, stuck the narrow end of her staff under his chin and lifted the boy a couple feet off the ground. "Where did you last have the gem?" she asked frostily.

"It was just this morning," Ryoga answered, seeming only slightly bothered by his awkward position. The worry was clear in his voice, but it didn't seem to have much to do with his own safety. "I was in Hokkaido, so it must be somewhere between there and here."

"Give me details. What did the buildings look like? Were there any landmarks, street signs, or anything memorable like that?" she asked, anger starting to boil through as she had no faith whatsoever in the accuracy of his previous claim.

"I wasn't paying much attention to that," Ryoga informed her. "Anyway, why are you so worried? Don't you have some crazy amazon thingamabob that can find him wherever he is?"

"Even if I were willing to acknowledge something like that existed, it wouldn't work now," Cologne answered. "If any human deserved that prison we would simply kill them. No, it was designed for creatures that were hard to deal with in a permanent manner. And one thing we didn't want them to be was easy to find by those who might want to release them."

"So what do we do?" Ryoga asked her, his aura visibly turning green as he fell into his all too common state of depression.

"I will be going over amazon records to see if there's anything that might help us," she replied. "You will get back out there and find Ranma if you have to tear the earth apart. And you won't even think of showing your face around here again until you find him."

With that said, she pulled her staff away from Ryoga, quickly twirling it around and hitting him it the gut with the thick gnarled end of her staff before he'd touched the ground. Her aim was true as she sent Ryoga flying through the door and out into the street. The boy always seemed able to find Ranma eventually somehow. She only hoped the artifact didn't interfere with that ability. Thankfully it at least appeared valuable, so if anyone found the item, it was likely to turn up somewhere. She only hoped it surfaced soon. She didn't know how many more days like the last two she could take.

As Ranma touched the gem there was a flash of light and the next thing he knew, Cologne, Ryoga, and the Nekohanten were gone, and he was standing just outside a small hut with nothing but open plains around it facing two tall, well-muscled figures, both dressed in some type of loincloth. One of them was a white-haired man with a beard that went about halfway down his chest. The other was a blond teen who looked like he might be a couple years older than Ranma. The bearded guy tried saying something to Ranma that sounded sort of like Chinese, but not any Chinese Ranma had ever heard spoken.

"I'm sorry, but I don't understand you," Ranma replied, hoping at least one of them understood Japanese. His words seem to surprise both of them.

"Now this is interesting," the guy spoke again, this time in near perfect Japanese. "Can you explain to me how someone who speaks modern Japanese got trapped in an ancient Chinese artifact in the middle of India?"

"This is India?" Ranma asked in complete surprise, finally noticing that the man was holding that same gem he'd just been about to grab. "I was trapped in that thing?"

"Yes, and yes," he answered. "Now I am still curious as to why you would be trapped in it, and why you're here."

"Look, I don't know how I ended up in India, but I was just having a harmless fight with a buddy of mine back in Japan that happened to bust up the place a bit," he answered. "It belonged to this ancient Chinese crone who owned all sorts of crazy stuff. Well that thing comes falling down from the hole in the roof and the next thing I know I'm standing right here. Now if you don't mind my asking, who are you, and why do you have whatever that thing is?"

"Forgive my rudeness," he replied. "My name is Sehrul Rahman, and this is my disciple, Ethan Stanley. When news reached me that some sort of mystical gem had been found nearby, I had to investigate. I recognized it at once, but was surprised to sense that it was a human trapped inside. I was curious to see just what sort of man had needed such a prison. I admit you're not at all what I expected, but then it appears that your ordeal may have been due to an accident."

"Yeah, well, thanks for getting me out of there I suppose," Ranma told him, not wanting to sound ungrateful, "Name's Saotome Ranma by the way, but now that we've exchanged greetings, I've got a long trip back home, so I should get started with that."

"Of course," he answered, "but perhaps you'd consider doing me a favor first. Even before you mentioned your fight, I noticed you were a martial artist of some skill. Ethan here rarely gets to practice with anyone other than myself. It would be of some benefit to him if you would agree to a match."

"Sure," Ranma agreed readily. "I'm always up for a good fight. Let's see if he can give me one."

If the larger boy took any offense to his minor taunt he didn't show it as he stoically took a defensive stance. "I'm ready to start whenever you are," Ethan announced.

"Just come at me whenever you feel like it," Ranma replied, beginning to casually stretch rather than taking his own stance, in hopes it would anger his opponent into making a rash attack.

Ethan stayed calm, but nonetheless didn't wait long before taking Ranma up on his offer, charging at him and opening with a series of punches. Ranma started the fight by simply evading, trying to get a measure of his opponents skills. From what he could tell, Ethan wasn't half bad. He didn't seem to be up to Ryoga's level, but an exact measure was difficult until he really got serious. For now he'd have to guess somewhere around Mousse in strength.

Although he did notice a few oddities in his attacks. One was that contrary to his calm nature, his attacks were quite ferocious. More importantly though, he was tended to repeatedly direct his attacks toward several very precise points. Ranma's gut told him to make sure those attacks never got through, as he probably was targeting pressure points. That raised his danger a little, but still nothing Ranma couldn't handle.

"So, are you going to start the fight, or are we just going to continue with the warmups?" Ranma mocked, still getting no reaction.

His taunts for once proving ineffective and getting bored with just dodging, Ranma decided to go on the offensive. Getting a running start he leaped into a flying kick. Ethan brought up a single arm to block it, and as big and muscled as he was, that might have been enough if Ranma's attack were really that simple. However, instead of the collision Ethan undoubtedly expected, Ranma bent the knee of his lead leg the instant his foot touched the defending arm, letting the rest of his body continue its forward momentum unabated.

Surprise was evident on his opponent's face, and before Ethan could regain his mental balance, Ranma lashed out with the leg he'd been holding back, going over Ethan's guard and smashing into the older teen's forehead. It wasn't hard enough to take him out of the fight, but it did disorient him a bit as he staggered back a couple of feet.

Ranma, meanwhile landed and dashed right back at Ethan, determined to keep the pressure up while he had the advantage. He immediately went into an Amaguriken barrage, nailing Ethan with a flurry of punches all across his head and torso. This was enough to cause him to fall backwards, landing hard on his back.

Seeing Ethan was still conscious, Ranma dove at the prone form cocking back his arm and releasing all his strength into one massive punch. It slammed into the ground just to the right of Ethan's head, throwing up a cloud of dust and leaving a small crater at the impact. Ethan just looked up in stunned silence at where Ranma knelt on top of his chest.

"I believe this is my victory," Ranma boasted getting a nod from Ethan after only a short delay. With that resolved, Ranma got off the other boy and helped pull him to his feet.

"Don't feel too bad," he told him. "You're actually pretty good. It's no shame to loose to someone as awesome as me."

"That was quite impressive," Sehrul said from behind him. Or was it Rahman? He had no idea which order they put names in India. "Now that I've seen you fight, perhaps you'd grant me a second favor."

"I'll at least hear you out," Ranma replied noncommittally.

"Very well then," he continued. "I was hoping you would consider traveling with us for a while. You're even more skilled than I'd thought and I can hardly think of a better way to help my disciple than to enlist you as his sparring partner. Of course I would provide you personal training in compensation."

"Oh, and how good are you?" Ranma asked.

In response, he simply felt the other man's battle aura rise to level's he'd only felt the likes of which from Cologne and Happosai before, holding there briefly before fading away.

"I assure you, I am quite skilled," he said simply.

Having witnessed that, Ranma's eyes sparkled a bit at the thought of training under him. Given that he didn't recognize Ethan's style, that made him all the more eager to learn more. Especially if he really did know pressure point attacks. Cologne could be really stingy about what techniques she would or wouldn't teach him, and he hadn't been able to get that out of her yet. Still, he couldn't let himself be completely blinded by the offer.

"Believe me, it's a very tempting," Ranma told him. "But everyone back home is probably worried sick about me. I really should get back."

"We could head to civilization first and get in contact with them," he suggested, the idea of which got Ranma seriously considering taking him up on it.

They'd probably all hop on a plane and follow him out here, but who knows how much he could learn before they caught up to him. Still, as much as he hated it at times, Nerima really was starting to feel like a home, and he just didn't feel quite ready to toss that aside and go back to a life on the road just yet.

"I'm sorry, but I really do have to head home," Ranma answered. "Although if you could come back to Japan with me, I'd be happy to take you up on your offer there."

"I'm afraid I have some business to take care of that will keep me here for a while yet," he responded, regret clear in his voice. "Perhaps sometime in the future, however."

"Well, thanks again then," Ranma said, giving him a small salute. "I hope you do visit sometime. Farewell until then."

Using the sun as a guide, Ranma set off to the east. He was kind of looking forward to the look on everyone's face when he got back after this.

"What do you think of Ranma?" he asked his disciple after the mysterious Japanese boy in the Chinese outfit had departed.

"It's almost frightening how good he is," Ethan answered. "He must be a few years younger than I am and I didn't stand a chance against him."

"Obviously he is quite talented," Sehrul agreed, "but reaching that level sooner does not necessarily mean he will always be your better. There are many paths a martial artist can follow. I think perhaps yours should follow alongside his for the time being."

"How?" Ethan asked. "He did turn down your offer."

"Easily. Follow him," he told his pupil. "I can't leave India just yet, but there's no reason you have to stay. Track him, ambush him, press him in any way you can. Force him to use to show as much of his skill as you can manage and learn whatever you can from him. Experience such as that will help your development more than training at this stage of your growth."

"Very well," Ethan answered without argument, as obedient a disciple as always.

Sehrul smiled at the thought. Whatever strange fate had led Ranma to him, he wasn't going to pass this opportunity up. It wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on the boy either. Someday he could be a very useful addition to Yami if they could only recruit him into their ranks.

In a way, Ranma's journey was quite nostalgic, especially when he crossed into China. Traveling the countryside, getting ambushed repeatedly along the way. Ranma may have decided he didn't want to give up Nerima long term, but a vacation like this was actually quite nice. He enjoyed the fights even beyond as a means to keep him sharp. Ethan may not be that dangerous in a fair fight, but he was clever and determined, proving himself quite adept at giving himself the advantage in a fight. He had a few good chats with the boy along the way too, even if he refused to teach Ranma anything without his master's permission.

He'd use traps, set his ambushes in areas that limited Ranma's advantage in mobility, and even dig up some other martial artists with a bit of skill to provide a distraction. He wouldn't admit it to Ethan, but there were a couple of real close calls mixed in there. Although for all his deviousness, he hadn't yet figured out Ranma's curse. That was partially because Ranma was doing his best to hide that particular embarrassment.

It also helped that he managed to con a few shopkeepers out of some new outfits, not easy to do when his Chinese made Shampoo's Japanese look good he might add. Some quick speed changing whenever his curse got particularly annoying at least prevented him from noticing the girl in baggy clothes who always seemed to be wearing whatever Ranma last had. Still, as many close calls as he'd had, and as much as his girl form's red hair stuck out, it was only a matter of time until he got suspicious. Thankfully magical curse than turns someone into a girl isn't usually the first conclusion people jumped to.

As much as he was enjoying his time off from everyone back home, it had to end eventually. After a little over two months, he reached the Sea of Japan and began his swim back to his native country. As good as he'd gotten, it wasn't even really a challenge this time around, and he soon found himself climbing to shore on a deserted beach. From there it only took him a couple more days to reach Nerima, finally arriving at the Tendo residence late in the afternoon. He quickly changed into his favorite outfit with the red silk shirt to maximize the effect of his surprise reappearance after his months away.

Deciding he was ready, he waltzed up to the entrance and let himself in, already imagining the shocked expressions he was about to bear witness to. To his disappointment the place appeared to be empty. Although looking around, it had changed a lot since he'd last been here. They must have really redecorated while he'd been missing. Ranma was about to start searching the house for any signs of the Tendos or his father when an unknown girl about his own age and wearing a martial arts dogi walked down the stairs.

"If you want to sign up for martial arts lessons, you should go to the dojo," she told him.

"Who are you?" Ranma asked the black-haired girl, "and what are you doing here?"

"I'm Tendo Ranko, and this is my home," she said, her voice turning angry. "And you have a lot of nerve asking me that after you barge in here uninvited."

Ranma was confused by this turn of events. Could they have gone so crazy with him gone they were bringing in imposters? Maybe he should have called first after all. Especially given that this girl didn't even look anything like his girl side. Actually, she looked a good bit like Akane before her hair had been cut short. Was it possible they really did have a cousin named Tendo Ranko?

"Ah, I recognize who you're supposed to be, Ranma, right?" she asked him.

"That's me," he confirmed with a smile, glad they were finally getting somewhere. He could figure out who this strange girl was after he'd located everyone else. He was expecting that to be simple now that she'd realized who he was, but instead the supposed Ranko's face darkened in anger.

"Listen, buddy," she began, marching up and getting right in his face. "You're not the first nut to come around here claiming to be Saotome Ranma back from the dead, and let me assure you of one thing. It's not in the least bit tolerated around here. If you have any hope of leaving in one piece, I suggest you go now."

They thought he was dead? Ranma was really kicking himself for treating this like a game, but you think they'd be used to crazy stuff like this happening by now. He never dreamed they'd give up on him so soon, but maybe Cologne had thought that crazy gem had just blown him up or something.

"Look, I don't know who's been around here before, and I'm sorry I didn't call or anything, but I really am Ranma," he assured her, not seeming to convince her in the least.

"Are you even really trying?" she asked. "I admit you probably look a lot like he did, but that was like twenty years ago. Did you even stop to think he might have gotten a little older in that time?"

"Twenty years?" Ranma parroted, starting to get a little freaked out. Even with all the crazy stuff that happens to him, he couldn't possibly have been gone for twenty years, could he? No this girl was just had some angle. Probably another fiancee who thought this would give her some advantage. "I don't know what you're talking about. I've only been gone a few months!"

"Oh, I'm sorry," she replied, her face softening. "You're not playing a sick prank, are you? You're just a little troubled. Why don't you come with me and I'll get you some help."

She reached out to grab his arm, but Ranma easily batted it away. Not deterred, she made a second attempt, moving much more swiftly, but Ranma again knocked it aside, more angrily this time. Not willing to put up with this anymore he advanced menacingly on the girly claiming to be Tendo Ranko, hoping to intimidate her into admitting the truth.

"I want to know what's going on here, and I want to know now," he demanded.

His intimidation tactic was having an obvious effect as she backpedaled away from him, fear evident on her face. "Mom! Dad! Help!" she cried out, rather than giving in and admitting her deception as he'd hoped.

Ranma heard footsteps running from the direction of the dojo, followed by the door sliding open and revealing two more dogi clad individuals, these ones with faces he recognized immediately, even if his mind refused to accept what his eyes were showing him. The two figures looked just as stunned by his presence as Ranma was by theirs. The one that looked like, but couldn't possibly be an older Hibiki Ryoga rushed at him at a speed the only further proved it wasn't someone as slow as Ryoga, engulfed him in a bear hug, and lifted him off the ground.

"Ranma! I just knew that stupid gem couldn't stop you forever," he cried out joyously. "Twenty-one years though? You must be slipping."

"Can't breathe," Ranma managed to squeak out under the iron grip that certainly matched the face, causing a quick release on the pressure as he dropped to the floor.

"Is it really you?" asked the Akane lookalike ... no ... asked Akane. He just couldn't deny the facts anymore when they were right in front of him. They were both clearly adults now, and Akane had let her hair grow out a little, if not as long as she'd had it when they'd first met, but it was obvious who they were. Ryoga was even wearing the exact same bandanas he always did, despite it not matching his dogi at all.

"Yeah, it's me," Ranma answered weakly. "But twenty-one years ..."

At his words Akane took her own turn wrapping him in a hug, even if this one wasn't nearly as painful. At least not physically.

"I'm glad you're back," she said as she released him. "Ranko, why don't you go keep the students occupied for a bit out in the dojo?"

"No way," Ranko shot back. "I want to know what's going on here."

"There will be plenty of time to explain later," Akane insisted. "Your father and I need a few minutes to talk to Ranma, but we can't just abandon our students."

"Fine," Ranko agreed, heading out to the dojo and leaving the three of them alone. For his part, Ranma's shock was quickly turning to anger, and almost as soon as she was gone he turned on Ryoga.

"So how long after I'd disappeared did you wait until you went back to chasing Akane?" Ranma accused him. "Did abandoning Akari even factor into your decision?"

The guilt on Ryoga's face didn't lesson Ranma's anger at all, but Akane intervened before he could say anything further.

"It wasn't like that at all," she told him. "If anything, I was the one doing the pursuing."

"What, why?" Ranma asked, hurt by the admission and looking for a way to lash back. "He's ... he's ..."

"In case you were going to say P-chan, she already knows," Ryoga interrupted. "I know you have every right to be upset, and I won't risk letting you break your word in a moment of anger."

Ranma hadn't quite gotten to that point, but he's not certain he wouldn't have said that if the thought had occurred to him. He'd known Ryoga had always had a thing for Akane, but why would Akane betray him like that?

"As for why it happened, it's a bit complicated, and it hardly occurred overnight," Akane explained. "It had been more than three years since the incident. Even Cologne and Shampoo had all but given up. Yet Ryoga hadn't let up searching for you in the least. All he did revolved around finding you. Akari had long since dumped him because of his obsession. He didn't have any life of his own. Honestly, seeing him working so hard when nearly everyone else had abandoned you, I began to fall for him a little. Plus, I felt someone needed to help him before he completely self-destructed over it."

"That's when I told her I was P-chan," Ryoga added simply.

"Yeah, and I nearly killed him over it," Akane said with a laugh. "Until I realized the jerk was deliberately trying to push me away because he thought he didn't deserve me."

"I didn't, and I still don't," Ryoga interjected, smiling at her in a way that made Ranma sick to his stomach.

"He was always being like that," Akane continued. "He even married into the Tendo clan because, and I quote 'I single-handedly ended the Saotome line, so it's only fair the Hibiki line end as well.'" That last bit was given in a clear mockery of Ryoga's voice.

"Don't forget that the Tendo dojo got to stay in the Tendo family this way," Ryoga quickly added, clearly uncomfortable with Akane's teasing.

"I know this is out of the blue for you, but please remember that it was over four years for us before we were married," Akane told him. "And we'll do anything we can to help you get back on your feet. Your old room is still unoccupied, and you can stay as long as you'd like."

Ranma knew it was a gracious offer, but he didn't want to stay. He wanted to go back to his own time with his Akane. He was at a loss for how to respond at all, but was saved from having to do so by Ranko entering again.

"The students are getting impatient, Dad," she informed him. "You really should get out there."

"Can't we just cancel today's lesson?" Ryoga complained. "This is kind of important."

"So is your job," Akane berated him. "You'll have plenty of time to talk to Ranma when you're finished. I'll take him to see Shampoo while you're busy."

"I'm going with," Ranko insisted in response to Akane's declaration.

"Fine," Akane agreed. "But take your father out to the dojo first."

Grabbing his hand, Ranko began to do just that, leaving Ranma alone with Akane. She really had aged well. If he'd heard correctly, she must be nearly forty now, but she hardly looked thirty. Mostly, she looked just like the Akane he'd always known, as uncute as ever.

"You actually want to visit Shampoo?" Ranma asked, trying to get his thoughts away from that depressing line.

"I know it may be hard to believe, but we became pretty close over the years," Akane informed him. "And our daughters are the best of friends."

"So Shampoo is married too?" Ranma asked, finding the news bitter despite his lack of interest in the purple haired girl. "Did she hook up with Mousse or something?"

"Hah, as if," Akane said with a snort. "Although you do know her husband. It's Kumon Ryu. He runs a rival dojo across the street from the Nekohanten."

Ranko returned as he was still trying to process that latest bit of news. Was there anyone who hadn't just replaced him while he'd been away? Whether in deference to his own mood, or just not thinking of anything to say themselves, the three walked in silence to the Nekohanten. It was saved from becoming too awkward by how short the trip was. Soon they found themselves entering the restaurant, which was fairly crowded with the dinner rush. He quickly spotted Shampoo waiting tables and Cologne back toward the kitchen area.

"Ranma!" Shampoo cried the moment she'd spotted him, before examining the crowd around her. "Everyone out! The food is free, but we're officially closed!"

Not one of their customers were foolish enough to argue, not even wasting time to grab a last few bites as they hurried out the doors. Meanwhile Cologne hopped over on her staff, joining the small group.

"I can't believe you're here. How did you get free?" Shampoo asked.

"Some old Indian guy found the gem and broke me out," Ranma said. "That's really all I know."

Looking over Shampoo, she still had the same figure she always had, and with her more mature looks, that like Akane looked younger than her years, she could have easily passed off as some kind of supermodel or movie star. As odd as it seemed, hearing Shampoo speak Japanese properly actually was weirder to him than her having aged. Still, he supposed she would have learned how after all this time.

Cologne, on the other hand, was the first person who didn't seem changed at all. Maybe she had an extra wrinkle or two, or had shrunk another fraction of an inch, but Ranma wasn't certain he wasn't just imagining it while trying to find a difference. If he'd run into Cologne first, he wouldn't have suspected anything was off.

"I would have preferred you were freed sooner, but I must admit, you certainly chose an intriguing time to reappear," Cologne told him, then turned to the stairs and raised her voice. "Reiko, get down here."

A girl hurried down the stairs, one who must have been Shampoo's previously mentioned daughter. Her long hair was exactly the same color as her mother's if done in a simple pony tail instead of the more complicated style her mother still employed. She also had a figure nearly as impressive as her Shampoo's. Glancing over at Ranko, there was no doubt whose daughter was whose on that front, even if Ranko wasn't quite as flat as Akane. Continuing his comparison, Reiko looked to be a couple of inches taller then the three other non-ancient females in the room, each of which were too close to rank their height.

The one final thing that caught his eye was that Reiko was wearing a normal looking shirt and pants the likes of which Japan had borrowed from the West, instead of the Chinese style clothing the other members of her tribe had always favored. Combined with her name, it seemed a bit out of place.

"Reiko?" Ranma asked hoping for some clarification. "I'd have thought you'd have given her some weird Joketsuzoku name."

"It was a compromise," Shampoo told him. "In Japan she's legally known as Kumon Reiko. Back in the village however, her name is recorded as ..."

"Mom!" Reiko interrupted to protest loudly. "Don't tell him!"

"Tsk, tsk," Cologne muttered. "To think you'd still be so ashamed of such a traditional and respected name as ..."

"Granny!" Reiko cried out, once again cutting off the revelation of the actual name.

"They like to tease her, but even I haven't found out what her Chinese name is," Ranko whispered in his ear, making Ranma all the more curious.

"Well, if you don't want everyone to find out what it is, you'd better cooperate," Cologne told her. "This here is Saotome Ranma."

"The Saotome Ranma?" Reiko asked, sizing him up.

"Yeah, but that reaction is getting a little old already," Ranma grumbled.

"And this is my great-great-granddaughter," Cologne told Ranma. "She prefers to be known as Reiko, and to my eternal delight, has proven herself to be as talented at martial arts as you are."

Ranma's balked at that statement. He might, at times, find people that were stronger or faster or even more skilled than he currently was, but that was all only temporary because no one was as talented as him.

"Be careful Ranma," Akane warned him. "She's trying to bait you."

"Feh, I can see that," Ranma declared. "We've hardly said two words to each other and she's already trying to trick me into getting another kiss of marriage."

"That thought had crossed my mind," Cologne admitted. "If you'd come only a year or two sooner, I'd definitely have tried. As things are, I'm afraid you have no hope of defeating Reiko in combat, so there's no real point."

"Hey, I could beat her if I wanted," Ranma protested.

"Maybe if we were having an ego contest," Reiko countered. "But in martial arts, I'd wipe the floor with you."

"I have to agree with Reiko," Cologne answered. "As I already mentioned, she's as talented as you are. Added to that, she's the better part of a year older, and more importantly, rather than your fool of a father, I've been training her personally her entire life."

"I think your memory must be going in your old age," Ranma told Cologne, "because you've forgotten just how good I really am. Good enough that I'm not going to be tricked into a fight I know I'd win. The last thing I need right now is another fiancee."

"If you want to prove you're the better fighter, there are ways to do that without earning the kiss of marriage," Cologne informed him. "I'll let you call an end to the fight whenever you wish, no questions asked. That should prevent any trouble unless you don't think you're good enough to show your strength without finishing the fight."

"I'm plenty good enough," Ranma insisted, hearing a sigh from Akane to his side. Well she could sigh all she wanted. He knew this was what Cologne wanted, but he still stood by what he said.

"No, you're not," Reiko declared just as confidently. "But you're not even going to get the chance. I don't have to accept the challenge, and I see no reason to play along with this."

"You've complained to me before that everyone around here still treats Ranma like some legendary figure that no one can match," Cologne countered. "While, here's your chance to prove you're better."

"Don't bother," Shampoo added melodramatically. "Can't you see she's so afraid of losing she won't even take that risk? It's like I've said before, growing up in Japan is making her weak. We should have moved back to the village when she first insisted we stop calling her ..."

"Fine!" Reiko growled out quickly. "Since I have a mother who will stoop to blackmailing her own daughter, I guess I'll do it. It's not as if I'm going to lose anyway."

Shampoo just giggled at that without the slightest hint of remorse.

"Come on Ranko, let's at least enjoy the show," Akane told her daughter. "They're both too stubborn to see sense now."

"No offense, Reiko, but I hope he does put up a good fight," Ranko told the other girl. "You've been beating me black and blue for so many years, I'd like to see someone our own age make you sweat a little."

"Let's at least take it outside," Ranma suggested, getting quite peeved that no one seemed to think he could actually win this. "I don't want to wake up after missing another twenty years."

"Please, Ranma, I moved everything of danger to a more secure location the very day of the accident," Cologne huffed, although he thought he caught a hint of guilt flash across her face.

"Fine then," Ranma said, getting into his typical relaxed stance designed largely to annoy his opponents. "Ready whenever you are."

He was too good to be caught off guard when Reiko charged him almost the moment he said that, but the speed at which she came at him was far beyond what he'd been anticipating. He hated to admit it, but he wasn't sure he could have matched the feat himself. His stance wasn't as open as it first appeared, and Ranma was able to twist his body to avoid a direct hit from her first punch, but it still clipped his shoulder hard enough to sting.

Ranma didn't like going all out against a girl, but he absolutely loathed the thought of losing to one. With that first attack showing he couldn't hold back if he wanted to avoid that fate, Ranma decided it was time to show who the real master of speed was. Driving back toward Reiko, he went into a full speed Amaguriken attack, holding nothing back in his use of the technique.

His early astonishment at Reiko's skill was easily dwarfed here when she launched into her own version of the attack, batting away every single one of his own and still getting a few extra blows of her own through that forced Ranma back and left his ribs protesting the bruising they'd just received.

"Did you seriously just try to beat me with one of my own tribe's techniques?" Reiko mocked him, and Ranma's temper did flare, if more due to having been humiliated in the speed department than in the actual taunt.

Speed was one of his greatest strengths. He certainly wasn't expecting to be at a disadvantage in that regard during this match. That threw his standard strategy right out the window. Thankfully, Ranma wasn't the type to give up, and he had other advantages to work with. He'd fought with various members of the Joketsuzoku many times and was quite familiar with their style. On the other hand, he doubted Reiko had a lot of experience against masters of Anything Goes.

With that in mind, he went back on the offensive, deliberately favoring the most esoteric and unusual techniques he'd picked up. Ones Reiko was unlikely to have any practice countering. His strategy did prove effective, but not to the degree he needed. He was no longer being overwhelmed, but as much as he hated to admit it, he was still taking more damage than she was. It was clear he couldn't turn this into a war of attrition. Ranma had to go for something big that would turn the tides.

Focusing his attentions on looking for such an opportunity cost him a little more in the balance of their exchanges, but paid off before that became a huge issue when he saw his first potential opening. Reiko had knocked away an attempted strike he'd made with his left arm, but in doing so had left a small opening in her guard. He knew she'd close it up so quickly that his only chance of getting through it was to push forward again with his left. But as close as that hand still was to her body, and with the leverage he had, he wouldn't be able to manage much more than a tap with it.

Which was exactly the key. Hoping to steal some of Ethan's techniques, he'd let his pressure point attack get through to a specific spot on his shoulder several times until he was pretty sure he had it down. That recklessness had almost led to a loss once, but it might just pay off now, as he could theoretically get through her guard and hit that point. The one problem remaining was how precise pressure points strikes were required to be. If Reiko suspected he was going for one, the slightest twist of her body could make the whole endeavor pointless.

He did have the advantage that she didn't know he could use any pressure points, but he already respected her skill enough to believe she'd pick up on the motivation if he started what would otherwise be a pointless attack. What he really needed was a distraction, and he had just the thing for that. With his newly restored confidence, he quickly began charging up a Moko Takabisha in his right hand.

She sensed the buildup immediately, and he saw her eyes lock on to his hand. Thankfully it appeared she did have some experience dealing with chi attacks, and with her focus now elsewhere, he quickly struck with his real plan of attack. His finger landed true, and the gasp of pain, gave him a sense of relief. He knew first hand how much that stung, and her reaction all but proved he'd been successful.

Not wanting to waste a perfectly good Moko Takabisha, he proceeded to finish the charge and fire it off at her right side. He saw the look of surprise on her face when the arm she was surely trying to move in her defense did nothing. With the handicap, his attack was a direct hit, sending Reiko crashing to the floor. Ranma smirked at that, ready to call off the fight, fully convinced he'd just proven himself.

"This isn't over yet!" Reiko cried angrily out as if reading his thoughts, leaping back to her feet and charging at him before he had a chance to say anything.

Ranma turned cold when he realized she was actually moving even faster and with more skill than she had been before. She'd actually been holding back against him this entire time. With Reiko lacking the use of her right arm, Ranma should be completely dominating this fight, but she was actually still matching him blow for blow. In addition, she was adjusting her style as they fought, fine tuning her ability to cover for her useless arm.

If things continued as they were going, it might actually swing back in her favor. At the thought his cold blood began to quickly boil. This was absolutely humiliating. Was this really the best he could do against an injured opponent? Not if he had anything to say about it! He'd just let himself get a little sloppy when he was confident it was over. He was going to show everyone that he was in control of this fight.

With renewed determination and redoubled focus, he made his move, sending his left fist toward her head in his most beautifully executed feint of the night. He'd completely sold it on every level and he could already see that she had bitten as he was pulling his left back. Her left arm was moving up to guard against the incoming punch, leaving her stomach wide open as the intended target for the punch from his right.

He was positioned such that he could put his whole body into it, which would surely knock the wind completely out of her. Or at least that was the plan until a change in movement proved that Reiko had employed a feint of her own. For a split second, he thought she'd seen through his own ploy, but it proved to be just a coincidence as she simultaneously ducked, twisted, and pressed forward in a manner that would have left her under his punch and inside his guard if he'd actually gone through with it.

It was now apparent that her guarding motion had simply been a veil to hide her getting into position for a nasty elbow strike that she could aim at his own gut, or his kidney if she was feeling particularly merciless. Meanwhile, Ranma's body was still fully committed to his own strike, except with her having dropped so low and turned sideways, his aim was much higher on her body.

His instincts had adjusted even further, such that before he consciously realized what he was doing, his fist was now headed straight for the side of her head. His attack was in a race against Reiko's own, but even if she was faster than he, Ranma didn't have to reverse the momentum of his fist to strike as she did with her elbow. As such, he connected first, and try as he might to recall the blow at the last second, it was too late, as Reiko was sent flying back.

Ranma rushed forward and caught her, hoping it would help, but he could already feel how limp she was. Setting her gently to the ground, he backed away from Reiko in a panic, desperately trying to think of some way to get out of this.

"Idiot. You really can't help but get yourself into messes like this, can you?" Akane asked, more in exasperation than the anger such words might have held in the past.

"Is Reiko okay?" Ranko then asked out of concern for her friend.

Cologne simply walked calmly up to the prone girl and held something under her nose. Reiko jolted up to a sitting position, shaking her head wildly in reaction.

"What happened?" she asked in confusion.

"You lost," Cologne said simply.

"This day has been amazing!" Shampoo gushed. "First Ranma comes back alive and well, and now my daughter is getting married! You have no idea how worried I was. It's so hard to find anyone even remotely tolerable in Japan, what with fewer people than ever take martial arts seriously. I was beginning to worry she'd never find anyone suitable, much less someone as perfect for her as you are!"

"Shampoo, dear, you're babbling," Cologne informed her, cutting her off. "But I admit, it is quite the match. Two of the most talented individuals I've ever met. Seeing what sort of children they might have makes me hope this old body can hold up for one more generation."

"I refuse to have anything to do with this!" Reiko insisted firmly, climbing to her feet. "This is Japan, not some backwater Chinese village! Go ahead and tell them my name, it's not worth getting forced into a marriage over!"

Ranma could actually feel Cologne's battle aura rise at that statement, as the old woman approached Reiko. "I consider myself to have been very understanding of your unusual upbringing. I won't even force you to accept to the marriage itself right off the bat. However, the Kiss of Marriage is an ancient and sacrosanct tradition. If you don't at least follow through with that much, I'll heap such humiliation upon you that you'll wonder how you ever even worried over anything as silly as a name."

The chastised look on Reiko's face worried Ranma, as he thought his unexpected ally would allow him to escape this fate yet. With that turning sour, he began to back toward the door while they were distracted, aiming instead for escape. He turned his head to check if anything was blocking his path and saw nothing. Giving Cologne one last look to make sure she wasn't watching before he bolted, he was surprised to see her nowhere in sight.

Wondering what had become of the old ghoul, his question was answered, when he felt her staff slam into his back, shooting him forward as he attempted to gain his balance. Reiko took advantage of his situation and darted forward, her incredible speed proving too much for him once again as she was through is guard and brushing her lips against his almost before he knew what was happening. It was only the faintest of contact before she backed away again, almost faster than she'd come in, her face turning a deep red as she spun around and turned her back to him.

"I only did that because Granny made me," she told him firmly. "Don't get any ideas, because as far as I'm concerned, it didn't mean anything."

"Good," Ranma agreed, grateful that at the very least Reiko didn't look as if she intended to pursue him in the same manner as her mother had, "because I feel exactly the same way. This whole exercise was pointless, old ghoul. I didn't give in for Shampoo, and I'm not going to for Reiko either."

"You couldn't have let him have just one day of peace before starting this up again, could you?" Akane asked.

"I believe in striking while the iron is hot," Cologne answered cheerfully. "Besides, I honestly didn't expect Ranma to win. Hope he could pull out one more surprise victory? Yes. Actually believe he had a chance? No."

"Then you don't know me very well," Ranma said, puffing out his chest in pride at having proven Cologne wrong.

"It was a lucky hit!" Reiko called out defensively. "He didn't outfight me. Our choices of moves, by freak chance, simply happened to mesh in a way that worked out perfectly for him."

"That's true, of course," Cologne agreed. "And he was only in a position to take advantage of that because you didn't take him seriously until after he'd already made you pay for your carelessness. In addition, despite what son-in-law might say about my memory, it remains as sharp as ever. As such, I know he's stronger than he was when he left. You weren't exactly freed yesterday, were you?"

As much as he wanted nothing to do with any crazy marriage laws, it almost felt right having Cologne back to calling him son-in-law. Small comfort that was, though, considering she'd proven herself to be as sharp and dangerous as ever tonight.

"I came to in India," he admitted. "It took me almost three months to get back, and I got in a bit of training on the way."

"Even so, if you were to fight again, with my great-great-granddaughter actually taking you serious, a second victory would be nothing short of miraculous," Cologne claimed, and as much as he didn't want to believe it, he had to admit he was drawing a blank on just how he would manage to defeat her. "Which is exactly why I think you will go along with your marriage this time."

"Plus it would be a huge favor to me," Shampoo added, looking at him pleadingly. "Can't you just do it for my sake?"

"I don't see what that has to do with anything," Ranma fired back at Cologne, while ignoring Shampoo completely. He might have a slight disadvantage against her at the moment, but that just meant he should be busy training to defeat her, not wasting time going on dates with the girl or nonsense like that.

"It's just that Ryoga is so much stronger even than Reiko," Cologne answered. "He's even faster than her, far stronger and more skilled than ever, and wouldn't be so much as phased by attacks that would level him back in your time. Even a miracle wouldn't be enough to defeat him. I just find it hard to believe you would let things stand with you being so much weaker than he is."

"I don't appreciate you trying to turn Ranma against my husband," Akane cut in crossly.

"Not just Ryoga then," Cologne amended. "All your old rivals have left you far behind. You're the weakest one left from those days."

Ranma's hands had clenched into fists at her words. They may very well be true, but the thought galled him to no end, as he was sure it was intended to. Still, he didn't yet see Cologne's angle to this.

"Then I'll train every day until I'm the strongest again," Ranma replied. "It's as simple as that."

"That's quite a commitment you're making," Cologne told him. "After all you've been gone more than two decades. Even if you worked as hard as you could, you'd be very fortunate to reach Ryoga's level in ten years."

Akane huffed a little at Cologne's return to focusing solely on Ryoga, but didn't complain further.

"As if it would take me that long," Ranma countered. Really, what was she trying to pull saying it would take him a whole decade of training if he put his whole mind to it?

"Don't be too conceited," Cologne cautioned him. "As talented as you are, Ryoga was far from average himself. In addition, he and Ryu have been rivals most that interval, pushing each other to improve much as you used to do with Ryoga. That ten years already factored in your drive, your talent, and the assumption you'd have fewer distractions. Even then, I consider ten years a low estimate."

"If it takes ten years, then it takes ten years," Ranma declared stubbornly. "That's not going to discourage me."

"It will take more than that," Cologne continued. "Do you really think Ryoga wouldn't improve at all while you're trying to catch up? Even if you reach his current level in ten years, he'll still be much stronger than you."

"I'm getting tired of this, can you just get to the point already," Ranma snapped.

"The point is that Ryoga has been almost entirely self taught," Cologne answered. "He's also had to work for a living. Now you just saw, first hand, the benefits of my training. Simply agree that if I can convince Reiko to support the marriage that you'll do same and I will give you full access to all the training Joketsuzoku has to offer. I'll even support your training financially. You'd never have to work to earn a living and could devote your full time to martial arts."

Ranma had to admit that he wanted what she was offering, but the cost, as always, was too high.

"With you and Reiko training together, and pushing each other, there's no telling what heights you might reach," Cologne continued. "I'd stake my reputation that within five years I'd have you even stronger than Ryoga."

Five years did sound far better than what she was claiming it would take on his own. Still, even if she did make some good arguments, Ranma wasn't quite willing to accept it would truly take him that long. Maybe he could still come out ahead another way.

"How about we make a challenge instead?" Ranma proposed. "You seem to think it will take me a long time to be able to beat Ryoga, so give me all that training for only one year. When the time's up, I'll challenge him to fight. If I lose, then I'll do whatever you want. But if I win then I got all that training as a freebie."

"An amusing offer," Cologne said. "However, it's one I'll have to decline. I couldn't put it past Ryoga to throw the fight simply to help you out. Besides, this time I hold all the cards. You may resist at first, but I think you'll come around to my offer in the end."

"Even if he does, it still doesn't mean anything," Reiko exclaimed. "Stupid kiss or no we are not married, and that's not going to change."

Ranma's mind was taken off the conversation when he felt a killing intent spring up behind him. Quickly turning around, Ranma recognized the man who, even obscured by a blazing battle aura, could only be Reiko's father, Kumon Ryu.

"Your family has been a blight against my existence right from the start," he said in barely contained fury. "Don't think for a second I'm going to let you waltz back into Nerima and steal my baby girl away from me."

"Dad!" Reiko protested. "I'm glad you're on my side and all, but you're only making this even more embarrassing."

Meanwhile, Shampoo ignored his rage, and ran up to the man, latching on to him in a fierce huge. "Welcome back, Airen," she told him warmly. "I know you're not quite ready to let Reiko grow up, but this is Ranma. He'll take good care of her."

"Off the top of my head I can think of only four people I would be more opposed to marrying her than Ranma," Ryu insisted. "I don't care what you think, or what your laws say, I refuse to even consider it."

Shampoo released him immediately at his words, all warmth vanishing from the woman as a chill seemed to descend upon the room.

"Akane, why don't you take Ranma and Ranko home," she suggested. "It seems my husband and I have a few things to discuss."

Ranma was actually curious as to how this would turn out, but decided it might be best to get out while he had the chance. So he didn't resist when Akane began to usher him around the angry couple and out the door. As soon as they were outside, the door was slid shut behind them. They hadn't gotten far from the restaurant when the shouting started in earnest. Ranma could only make out a few words here and there between the distance and the muffling from the building, but it did not sound pretty.

Perhaps due to his efforts, he didn't notice a new figure creeping up on them until the man's jump caused him to land right in front of Ranma. Just as Ranma realized the white-robed man was Mousse, he clasped Ranko's hand firmly between both of his and began shaking it furiously.

"That was perfect," he said joyfully. "Who'd have thought I'd be so glad to see you again, but I couldn't ask for a better entrance. I've never seen Shampoo and that villain going at it like that before."

"Were you spying on us?" Ranko asked angrily as she pulled her hand away.

"Huh?" Mousse said in confusion, realizing from the voice that something was wrong. Pulling down his glasses he quickly realized his mistake, turning to Ranma, grabbing his hand, and repeating the greeting he'd just given Ranko.

"Just keep hanging around Reiko and you may actually drive them apart completely," Mousse declared. "Then she'll finally be free to marry me!"

"You're still after Shampoo after all this time?" Ranma asked in disbelief.

"Of course," he answered without hesitation. "My love for her is eternal."

"Mousse, you know what Ryu said he'd do to you if he caught you around here again," Akane warned him. "I suggest you leave while he's still distracted."

"Not just yet," Mousse replied. "I need to stay and see how this fight plays out."

"I'm beginning to think he likes being hospitalized," Ranko told him.

"Ranko, why don't you go on ahead with Ranma," Akane told her. "I'm going to try to get Mousse out of here while he's still in one piece."

"Hey, I'd kind of like to stay and see what Ryu does to him," Ranma responded, getting a little annoyed at being told to leave the second time in just a few minutes.

"If you stick around Ryu might do the same thing to you," Akane warned. "So get going."

"Come on," Ranko told him, grabbing his hand and trying to drag him off. "I've been wanting for a chance to talk to you alone anyway."

Sighing Ranma let himself get dragged off. It seemed to be all that was happening since he'd arrived. Just getting pulled along from one place to the next while he was still half in shock. Maybe that was a good thing though. The excitement distracted him from having to think too much about everything. The walk to the Nekohanten was bad enough, and he wasn't sure he could keep it together if he was given a chance to think over just how ruined his life was.

"So what really happened?" Ranko asked him as they walked along.

"What do you mean?" Ranma asked, not sure what she was getting at.

"I mean this crazy story about you being trapped in a magical gem," Ranko clarified. "What really happened? Did they clone you? Or maybe you used some martial arts technique to keep your body young all this time. Something like how Cologne has lived so long."

"You won't believe in magic, but you're willing to believe some scientist was able to make a copy of me?" Ranma inquired curiously.

"There's been a lot of advances in cloning technology lately," Ranko argued. "It's not really that far out there."

"Well, I'm not a scientist, but I don't think cloning copies memories, and if I'd been alive all this time, I'd be so good I'd have wiped the floor with your friend back there with both hands tied behind my back," Ranma insisted, then watched her face scrunch up in thought as she considered his argument.

"Oh, I know!" she exclaimed excitedly after a few seconds of thinking it over. "It's some kind of stasis technique like Happosai used when Grandpa and Mr. Saotome sealed him in a cave."

"Is Happosai still around?" Ranma asked upon hearing the name. He was a horribly unpleasant person to be around, but the old freak certainly was skilled. If he played his cards right, Ranma might be able to get some training without promising to marry anyone.

"If he is, he hasn't been around in some time," Ranko answered. "My dad and some of the other martial artists in the area have gotten pretty good at teaching him not to show his face in Nerima. He hasn't dared in years after the last beating."

"Anyway, why are you so determined not to believe all of this could be caused by magic?" Ranma asked, jumping back to their original topic.

"Because it's not real," she answered stubbornly. "The better question is why everyone wants to pretend it is. Is there some reason no one wants to admit what really happened?"

"It's not real?" Ranma parroted, not understanding at all how this girl of all people could think that. "You don't even believe in curses?"

"Ah, my parents were telling you stories while I was out in the dojo, weren't they?" she asked in annoyance. "Well that was a long time ago, and I'm not a kid anymore. So stop teasing me about it."

Ranma didn't want to get his hopes up after so many disappointments, but the direction this conversation was going now had his full attention.

"Ah, they didn't have time to go into much details," Ranma claimed, as he played along. "If you don't mind, could you clear up what exactly happened back then?"

"Fine," she said reluctantly. "I suppose it's better than you just knowing the bits of it they already told you. Back when I was little we had a pet pig. My parents had me convinced that my dad had some crazy curse and the pig was actually him. Even used some martial arts faster than the eye can follow trick or something to make me think I saw him transforming."

"But I take it they stopped?" Ranma asked, barely able to keep the eagerness out of his voice now.

"One day, my dad just announced that he'd been cured," Ranko informed him. "I didn't realize until I was older that it was just a clever way to keep from admitting that P-chan had died."

So Ryoga had found a cure! Ranma just hoped it was something he could use as well. He needed some good news of that magnitude to help take his mind off everything else right now. He was now quite eager to get back to the Tendo's place, which brought up his next question.

"So, are we going anywhere in particular?" he asked, causing Ranko to open her eyes widely and look around.

"Where are we?" she asked, soundly like she was nearly in a panic.

"Get your father's sense of direction?" Ranma queried.

"No!" she fired back instantly. "I mean I do tend to get turned around a little more easily than some, but if I pay attention to where I'm going, I'm usually fine. If you hadn't distracted me, I'd have gotten us home without a problem!"

"Hey, don't blame me," Ranma said in a huff. "You're the one who wanted to talk, and I was following you."

"You're right, I'm sorry," she said, taking a deep breath. "I'm just a little sensitive about this. Anyway, I just need to stay calm. I have my phone with me, so I can use it to find my way back."

Ranma was curious how her phone would help with that, unless she just meant she was going to call someone. Still, he was too focused on the potential cure to worry about that now.

"No need," he told her. "Just follow me. I can get us back from here."

With that he hopped onto a nearby roof, wanting to take the shortest path. Ranko quickly leaped up behind him and started to follow as he leaped from rooftop to rooftop.

"You know, I'm not really supposed to do this," Ranko informed him. "We're trespassing on private property, and we might even knock loose some of the tiles on the roof."

"We used to damage a lot more than the tiles when our fights got out of hand," Ranma said fondly, already missing those days even if it only felt like a few months to him. Ranko just shot him a glare at his words.

"Don't worry," he told her, we're here anyway.

So saying he jumped down from the building, landing on the other side of the wall to the Tendo complex, with Ranko touching down next to him. He saw Akane standing at the main entrance about to go inside as she turned to face them.

"How are you two only showing up now?" Akane asked as they ran up to her.

"We were just wandering around the area a bit, chatting," Ranma informed her.

"Ah, well, thanks for getting her back home," Akane said with a knowing smile as she led them inside.

Entering the main room, Ranma saw Ryoga was there in addition to three more familiar faces, those belonging to Kasumi, Dr. Tofu, and Mr. Tendo. Kasumi didn't have the benefit of the somewhat more graceful aging that was a side of effect of ki mastery. As such, despite the age gap, it was hard to tell whether she or Dr Tofu were older anymore, both just beginning to get touches of gray in their hair. As for Mr Tendo, their were no mere touches of gray, as his long black hair and mustache had completely faded to a more silvery tone. He also looked a little tipsy.

"Welcome back, Ranma," Kasumi said cheerfully as soon as they'd walked in. If he couldn't see on her face how glad she was that he was here, it might not have seemed any different than when she'd greeted him whenever he got back from school.

"How did you find out about this so quickly, Kasumi?" Akane asked curiously.

"Don't you remember? We were going to have dinner together tonight," Kasumi answered.

"Ah, I did forget," Akane admitted. "I'm sorry, but with Ranma showing up out the blue it was the furthest thing from my mind."

Ranma's danger senses chose that moment to alert him of an attack coming from behind him. Even as he was preparing his defense, his mind was already at work piecing together evidence. Mr. Tendo was just arriving home from being out drinking. Meanwhile, the shadow on the floor proved it was a rather large form that was trying to get the drop on him. It added up to only one thing.

"Now isn't the time, Old Man," he cried out as he ducked down, grabbed the foot aimed at the back of his head, and converted his attacker's moment into a throw that landed him on his stomach.

"Just making sure you haven't gone soft," Genma declared as he got back on his feet.

"You're one to talk," Ranma fired back. "That attack was pathetic."

And it had been too. Far less than his father should have been capable of, but one look at him showed just why that might be. He'd really let himself go. Genma Saotome had never been a thin man, but he'd put on enough weight that with the right coat of paint, you might mistake him for his panda form from a distance.

"Show some respect," his pops countered. "If I'm a little out of shape it's because you haven't been around for me to train."

"Anyway," Kasumi cut in diplomatically, "I haven't called Nabiki yet because I'm afraid she isn't awake yet, but I'll let her know as soon as it's safe. As for Ukyo, she's not answering her phone. I do hope she hasn't changed her number. I never really thought about until now, but we really haven't kept in touch with her, have we?"

"Wait, a minute, still asleep?" Ranma queried. "I know she liked to sleep in late, but it's already evening."

"She's living in America," Akane informed him. "Long story short, she moved out there, married a wealthy businessmen, divorced him a week later, took half his money, and used it to start her own business that she's still running today."

That did sound like Nabiki. Anyway, Ranma was focusing on his old man, as he had that look that said he was up to something as he sidled up to Mr. Tendo.

"Tendo, I had an interesting thought regarding our old pact," he told the other man.

"Yes," the other man replied thoughtfully, "they are the right age for it aren't they?"

Ranma was already letting out a growl that they'd start with that so soon, but Akane was doing more than that, as she marched over to her father angrily.

"No!" she said angrily. "You will not be arranging any marriages for Ranko!"

"Yeah!" Ranko added having arrived at her mother's side to aid in the effort of intimidating the eldest Tendo. "How could you even think such a thing, Grandpa?"

"But what about joining the schools?" he wailed.

"Absolutely not!" Akane snapped back. "You're going to drop this matter completely, right now!"

Mr. Tendo looked back and forth between the angry pair in front of him, also looking around to where Ryoga was sending him nasty looks, but otherwise leaving it to Akane and Ranko to handle. Ranma did his best to add his own glare when the man looked his way.

"Fine, I'll leave the matter in your hands," he said caving in on himself and beginning to weep openly.

Ranma's own father simply gave a loud harrumph, not as easily cowed as his partner in crime. But for once he had the sense to otherwise keep quiet.

"Well, I'm going to go start dinner," Kasumi announced, heading for the kitchen. Akane, however, cut her off.

"Nonsense, you're the guest here," Akane told her. "I'll handle dinner."

Ranma's stomach was already churning at the thought, but he quickly found himself with an ally in this regards.

"Mom, maybe you and Auntie Kasumi should make it together," she suggested. "You could enjoy some time alone with your sister."

"That actually sounds quite nice if you want to do it, Kasumi," Akane agreed.

"I'd love to. We can cook up a celebration feast together for Ranma," Kasumi replied happily as the two of them entered the kitchen to begin their work.

"Is her cooking still that bad?" Ranma whispered to Ranko when they were gone.

"Hey, she's improved a great deal since you last had her cooking," Ryoga butted in, having overheard his question.

"Don't believe him, he has to say that," Ranko whispered. "She really does try, but she makes the blandest food you've ever tasted."

Bland? That was all? That was a huge sense of relief as Ranma could deal with bland food, no problem. "Actually, I agree with Ryoga, it does sound like she's gotten a lot better."

Ranko scowled at him, and opened her mouth to say something before shutting it in confusion. Probably trying to figure out if that had been meant as an insult or a compliment.

"Well, I have something I wanted to ask Akane, but I'll be right back," he told them, hurrying off to the kitchen himself."

"Ranma, if you're that worried about my cooking, don't be," Akane told him dryly. "I can at least help out Kasumi without getting in her way."

"Actually I came to ask you about my curse," Ranma corrected her. "Something Ranko said made it sound like Ryoga had been cured."

And he wanted to discuss this away from her, because as disbelieving as she was of magic, he didn't want to waste time having to prove his curse to her.

"Yes, he is," Akane admitted. "It turns out the curses weaken slowly over time. Cologne actually has a way to remove them completely once it's had about ten years to fade. And before you ask, I stopped back in with Cologne quickly after dealing with Mousse to ask about your cure. I'd been hoping we could offer it to you as a surprise present. Unfortunately, she said she could tell that it had hardly weakened at all. The magic that kept you trapped must have kept the Jusenkyo curse from fading."

"So I'm the only one left who still has his curse?" Ranma asked morosely, having his hopes dashed.

"Well, Mousse still has his," Akane told him. "Cologne has refused to cure him. Also, I haven't seen him in a long time, but I assume Taro hasn't been willing to give up his yet. Although both their curses have weakened to the point they won't get splashed with water any more than an ordinary person."

"I guess it was too much to hope for, what with my track record with cures and all," Ranma grumbled. "Although speaking of that, how can Ranko be so determined not to believe in curses or magic or anything like that?"

"You have to understand where she's coming from," Akane told him. "We get our share of crazy martial artists, nothing like as often as when you were around, but they're still hardly rare. Even so, Ranko hasn't had to deal with honest to goodness magic. She hasn't lived the kind of life we had, so it's not surprising she'd take the same view most people in Japan have."

"It shouldn't have been too hard to convince her though," Ranma mused. "I'm sure Cologne could have come up with something."

"There wasn't any reason to do so," Akane replied. "We just let her have as normal a life as possible, considering. Now why don't you get back out there and let me get back to cooking. Your father is here, and I don't suppose your appetite has lessened either, so we really do have a lot of work to do."

Leaving the kitchen, he found Dr. Tofu conversing with Ryoga and Ranko while Pops and Mr Tendo had set up a game of shogi. It ticked him off more than a little that his father was sitting there with his back to Ranma paying him so little attention when he'd been gone for so long. That did bring up another thought, however.

"Hey Pops," Ranma began. "Is Mom coming to this?"

"She's dead boy," Genma said flatly not looking up from his game.

While Ranma was still frozen in place trying to decide if he'd heard that correctly, he felt a breeze as Akane sped past him carrying a pan, only to slam it down on his father's head hard enough to badly dent the tool.

"Don't you have the slightest bit of empathy anywhere in your body?" she yelled angrily. "How could you just say it like that?"

"Hey now," he complained. "You know I grieved for her more than anyone. But it's been five years already. You have to move on."

"That may be true for us, Saotome, but not for Ranma," Mr. Tendo pointed out.

"True, Tendo, I hadn't thought of that," he agreed, nodding sagely as he spun around to face Ranma "Let me start again. Ranma, there's there's something important I have to discuss with you."

Unable to contain himself, he rushed forward and kicked the old man in the forehead, knocking him backward and sending shogi pieces flying everywhere.

"It's too late for that, you moron!" he yelled at the fallen man, then stood there for several seconds taking deep breaths while everyone looked on silently.

"It was pneumonia," Genma informed him after he'd picked himself back up. "The doctors said she was young enough and otherwise healthy enough that she should have pulled through, but it was as if she'd given up the will to live."

The room again fell to silence, and looking around, Ranma could see near universal looks of pity directed his way. Their sympathy did nothing to help him through this new tragedy, and in fact only made him feel more boxed in. Unable to cope with it anymore, Ranma dashed toward the exit, escaping from the eyes he knew were still following him. He almost crashed into Shampoo as he left, but dodged at the last second.

"Ranma," she called out in concern on seeing him, but Ranma ignored her, hardly even taking note that Cologne and Reiko were with her before he jumped up on the roof to get away from everyone. Going to very top of the roof he sat there, trying vainly to forget everything that had happened today. He'd hardly sat down when Reiko hopped up after him.

"My mother made me come up here, but I'll do my best not to bother you," she told him, taking a seat a short distance away.

Ranma was not pleased to have the company, but maybe this was likely the best he was going to get. If he tried to run off, he'd likely end up with a full pursuit force after him. So he did his best to ignore her as he lost himself in thought. Today had easily been the worst day of his life. Worse even than the day he got cursed. His entire life had come crashing down, just like that.

Well actually it had happened three months ago, or twenty-one years, depending on how you looked at it. He just hadn't realized it until today. Akane had married Ryoga, everyone had moved on without him, and his mother was long dead. As depressing as that final news had been, he was actually a bit guilty it hadn't hit him harder than it had. It's just that he'd never really gotten a chance to know her all that well.

Even counting his time disguised as Tendo Ranko, he'd spent more time with Daisuke and Hiroshi than he'd spent with his mother since meeting her again, and those two could hardly be considered the closest of friends. He hadn't really had a chance to bond with her as well as he'd have like, but she was still his mother, and now he'd never have the chance. Time dragged by in silence as Ranma considered all the other things he'd missed out on thanks to that stupid piece of junk.

"If you want to take your mind off everything, I'm itching for a rematch," Reiko declared, apparently able to hold her silence no longer, even if she had lasted an impressive length of time.

Ranma inwardly balked at that suggestion. With everything going on, he hadn't even had a chance to plan for their next fight, and he definitely wanted to get in some training for it before they fought again.

"Don't wanna," he said simply, spinning where he sat to turn his back toward her.

"Come on," she pleaded. "It has to be better than sitting here feeling sorry for yourself. Unless you're just afraid you'll lose."

She probably was right about needing something else to occupy him, but if he fought now, he'd probably lose, and Ranma Saotome didn't lose. He just needed a way to put this off without it seeming like cowardice. His stomach chose that moment to growl, which gave him the perfect idea.

"Actually, I have a different sort of competition in mind, if you're up for it," he said slyly. "Have you ever heard of an Anything Goes battle over food?"

"You mean like when you and Genma used to try to steal food from each while you ate?" Reiko asked.

"That's it," Ranma confirmed. "What do you say me and you have a match over dinner? Unless you're afraid you'll lose."

"As if," Reiko said, jumping to her feet. "I'm going to go all out right from the start this time, so you don't stand a chance."

"At least you'll be able to eat your words, because there certainly won't be any food making it to your mouth tonight," Ranma boasted, hopping down off the roof. When he reentered the house, the conversation immediately stopped as all eyes turned to him.

"Are you okay, Ranma," Akane asked him, from where she was carrying some food to the table.

"No, but I'll live," he told her. "Looks like I had good timing too, that smells great."

Sitting down at the table, Reiko took the spot to his right in preparation for their match, while Genma slipped into the seat at his left. Once all the food was brought out, the fight began in flash, going just as he'd anticipated it would. Reiko may have him beat in speed, but using chopsticks and fighting over food was basically a whole separate martial art of its own. One Ranma had been perfecting for years.

No matter how talented she was, Reiko simply wasn't able to compete by learning the art in the middle of her first match. As such, Ranma was completely dominating the competition, which was doubly rewarding because of how good the food was. Akane really had reached the level where she was able to avoid ruining Kasumi's cooking.

Meanwhile, Ranma was using a second set of chopsticks in his left hand to fight another front with his father. This fight should have been more challenging, but his old man's skills had deteriorated quite a bit here as well. Even focusing most of his attention on Reiko, he was still coming out ahead with his father as well.

Part way through the meal, he even began using a variation of the Parlay du Foie Gras to move food from Genma's plate over to Reiko's to extend that match a bit. Between reveling in such an easy victory over her, and getting to see the growing look of frustration on her face, he just didn't want to let the match end too quickly. But eventually it did finish.

"I believe that's two victories and no losses for me," he told Reiko as Kasumi and Akane began to clear off the table.

"I was just starting to get the hang of it at the end," she huffed. "Don't expect it to be so easy next time."

Unfortunately, with that distraction over, it was hard to keep his spirits up. Everyone else was clearly trying to celebrate, and given it was because they were happy to see him, he did his best to play along, but he could tell he was bringing down the mood of the whole place. Before long, the Joketsuzoku contingent excused themselves, and soon after Kasumi left with Dr. Tofu. He'd kind of suspected it, but he had managed to learn the two were in fact married during the after dinner conversation.

"It's getting late," Akane noted. "Why don't the two of you stay here, at least for the night."

"Don't mind if we do," Genma answered before Ranma had a chance to say anything. "Been a pretty tiring day, I may just head up now."

"I think I'll hit the sack as well," Ranma added, not really wanting to sleep, but not having any better ideas either.

Following his father up the stairs and back to their old room, he was surprised to see a pair of futon's already laid out. Once they were both inside, his old man turned around and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Son, it really is good to have you back," he declared warmly. The admission caught Ranma off-guard given the way he'd been treating Ranma since they'd met up again. He was trying to come up with the appropriate response when he noticed that Genma had already slipped into one of futons and was snoring away loudly. He supposed that was just how his father was.

"I'm glad you're still around too, Old Man," he replied anyway, surprised a bit by how much he truly meant that.

Taking the other futon for himself, Ranma found himself completely unable to reproduce Genma's feat of nodding right off. Not even close as he tossed and turned for what felt like hours. Eventually, weariness did overcome him as he dozed off.

Ranma wasn't sure how much sleep he actually got, but all too soon he was awoken by his old man grabbing his arm, running toward the window, and tossing him out. Reacting quickly, Ranma had grabbed Genma's shirt, latched on to the windowsill with his toes and used his momentum to toss the fat old man out the window where he landed with a loud splash as Ranma watched from where he hung upside down from his perch. Flipping back in the window, he left the room and walked down the stairs, already in a pretty sour mood this morning.

"Ah, you're up," Akane greeted him, as he came down. She'd finally changed out of her dogi and into a blue sundress, and Ranma wasn't sure which outfit she looked more uncute in.

"The Old Man didn't exactly give me much of a choice," he answered.

"That would explain the splash that came from outside," she responded. "Anyway, we weren't able to reach Ukyo last night, but Ryoga and I were thinking you might enjoy going in person to check up on her. She moved her restaurant to another part of Tokyo, but I have the address right here."

"I could go for that," Ranma agreed, taking the slip of paper Akane offered him. It sure beat staying around here dealing with his pop's pathetic attempts to spar with him. Then again, with neither Ranma nor Happosai around to motivate him, he was should be grateful the lazy bum could still do any martial arts at all.

Not wanting to waste any time, Ranma departed at once, having to send Genma into the pond one more time to escape from him before setting off across the rooftops. Once he got close to the address in question, he did have to hop down and ask for directions, as he'd never been to this particular part of Tokyo before. Of course his curse acted up almost as soon as he did. A construction crew working on the road accidentally broke a water main, drenching Ranma in the process and leaving her in girl form.

She wondered how soon that annoying part of the curse would begin to wear off. For now, though, she just had to deal with it, so she ignored her wet clothes and hurried on to her destination. Ranma soon arrived at the place, a building about twice as large as her old digs but still with the same familiar sign of 'Okonomiyaki Ucchan's.' The sign on the door indicated it was closed, but Ranma simply rapped loudly on the door frame.

"We're not open yet," he heard Ukyo call out from within. "Come back in a couple of hours."

"Can't I at least get some hot water?" Ranma called back.

Her voice combined with the odd request must have been enough for Ukyo to recognize her as she heard running just before the door was slid open hard enough that it was nearly ripped off.

"Ranchan, you're alive!" She shouted enthusiastically.

Ranma then began with the quickly becoming familiar task of examining her old friends to see how they'd aged. Ukyo had continued the masculine dress that left her looking androgynous, even taking it a step further by cutting her hair a little shorter than Akane used to have hers. Other than that, it was much like most of the rest of the people she knew, more mature looking but few changes otherwise.

"Yeah, now about that hot water?" Ranma asked, preferring to be back in her natural form.

"Of course. Come right in," Ukyo told him, moving away and letting him inside. "Did you just get back today?"

"I got back yesterday afternoon, actually" he informed her.

"And you're only now telling me?" Ukyo asked, clearly a bit upset by that.

"Hey, we tried calling last night," Ranma told her. "You weren't answering."

"Ah, I remember now," she said sounding a little sheepish. "A call did come in, but it was while the dinner rush was still going on. I was too busy to answer it, and then I forgot all about it. If I'd known it had been you, I wouldn't have let anything get between me and that phone."

At this point Ukyo had reached a tap and began to fill a cup with hot water, handing it over to her. Gratefully, Ranma dumped it over her head, turning back to her male form.

"So, I didn't hear much about you from the Tendos," Ranma told her. "You ever settle down, marry, have kids?"

"No," Ukyo replied, sounding a little depressed herself. "After you disappeared, I just never found the right guy."

"That actually makes you the only one of my old fiancees who's still single," Ranma noted.

"I suppose you're right," Ukyo said, perking up and letting out a small laugh. "With the competition gone, maybe I should just run away and marry you today."

Ranma unconsciously took a step back at that, as he began to sweat a bit.

"But seriously, look at you," Ukyo continued. "You're the same as you always were. You must be less than half my age now, and I've already moved on. It just wouldn't work out."

Despite himself, Ranma actually felt a little bitter about this. Even the fiancee that wasn't married was throwing him away this easily. It was an emotion he apparently didn't do a good enough job of hiding.

"You're actually disappointed aren't you?" Ukyo said as if she was having trouble believing it. "It's like the reversal jewel all over again. You never wanted us chasing you, but it drives you crazy if we stop."

"Well, I've been through a lot lately," Ranma countered, realizing himself what a weak excuse it was.

Ukyo laughed again before giving him a thoughtful look. "You know, I realized a long time ago that all you ever wanted me to be was a friend," she admitted. "If you're still willing, I'd be happy to be one for you now."

"Of course, Ucchan," Ranma quickly answered. Even if things were weird with the aging, it would be great to have his best friend back.

"Great, Ranchan," Ukyo replied happily. "Now why don't you tell me how you got yourself out of this one?"

They spent the next couple of hours chatting away. They floundered a bit early on, given that Ranma didn't exactly have a lot of new stories to tell, and Ukyo had been focusing more on her business than her martial arts. She was doing well for herself, but it just wasn't the sort of topic Ranma found interesting. When they really started to hit it off was when they simply began reminiscing about old times.

Ukyo had actually been wanting to keep her restaurant closed for the day, but Ranma talked her out of that after promising to visit again. He had been enjoying their conversation a lot, but it had been clear that Ukyo was very proud of her business, and he didn't want to hurt its reputation. They'd have plenty more chances to talk in the future. So they said their goodbyes, and he left.

Ranma started just wandering around aimlessly, trying to figure out what to do with his life. It didn't take him very long to come up with an answer, as it was about the only thing he could pick up right where he left off. His martial arts. That was a very major part of his life, and almost more importantly, it had already proven to be about the most effective way to keep his spirits up. Losing himself in the thrill of a match made him all but forget his troubles, at least until it ended.

And he even had a real goal to set himself toward. Defeating Ryoga and proving once again that he was the best there was. Of course, Cologne had made a lot of sense about it being better if he could find someone to train him. That didn't mean she was the only person who would qualify. He was still hoping to locate someone who wouldn't require marriage as a payment.

In addition, Ranma was becoming more and more certain that he just needed to get away for a while. Oh he could handle being around Shampoo, Cologne, his old man, and most of the others. There was one person in particular he felt he had to get away from, though. Akane. He'd realized at Jusendo just how much she meant to him, and he was having that hammered home once again now. It drove him crazy that she had married someone else, and the feeling was only getting worse as the initial shock was wearing off.

He was sure he'd completely lose it if he was constantly having her shoved in his face as a reminder. And since hanging out with anyone else in Nerima was almost certain to bring her around as a package deal, it looked like he had little choice but a clean cut. Temporarily of course. He expected he'd adjust eventually, whether that took weeks, months, or even years. Until such a time, he needed to get away.

Still, all of them deserved better than to have him just disappear on them without a word. Maybe he should go back and leave a message with Ukyo. Then again, she might try to talk him out of it. His best bet might be to just leave a note. Actually, it was just possible that he had an angle to play that would work out even better. Ducking into a convenience store, he walked up to a counter, pleased to see they did, indeed, have a pen lying on the counter.

Snatching it up, he took the slip of paper with Ukyo's address and wrote out his note explaining that was going on a training trip but would try to keep in touch, finishing up in a flash and setting it back on the counter too quickly for the guy manning it to even notice he had taken it. Now, it was clear his old man wasn't officially living at the Tendo place anymore, so he just needed to hope he hadn't moved from the newly rebuilt, by his memory at least, Saotome home.

Luck was with him for once, as he arrived to find Genma both living there, and present. Now to put his plan in motion. As long as his father still had his soft head to go with his newly soft body, he was set.

"There you are, Boy, I was looking for you," Genma announced

"I was looking for you too," Ranma replied. "I've been giving it a lot of thought, and after missing out on Akane, I don't want to make the same mistake with Ranko."

"That's great news!" Genma answered, beaming briefly before his face fell. "But the girl's parents could prove a problem."

"Yes, but if Ranko and I both agree to it, there's no way they could object," Ranma said with a smile, knowing he had the old fool hook, line, and sinker. "That's why I've got a plan to win her over. A nice dinner, some presents, you know, all that romance stuff that chicks like. I just need a little cash to pull it off."

"Hmm, that you would," Genma said thoughtfully. "A good plan though, and you were right to come to me. I have a little something stored away for emergencies that should be perfect. Wait right there."

Ranma was practically rubbing his hands together in anticipation as his father sped into the house and soon came back out with a small envelope, passing it off to Ranma. He was pleased to see that there was 100,000 yen inside. More than he expected his old man to be able to avoid blowing on sake. Getting by with just the clothes on your back was actually much harder in the city than it was in the wilderness. This amount wasn't exactly going to set him up for the long haul, but it was far better than the nothing he had before.

"This should cover everything you need," Genma told him. "Just make certain you don't blow it."

"There's actually a couple more things you could do to help out in that regard," Ranma said, slipping the note to his father. "I've written the details down there, but I really need to get going if I want to finish all the preparations in time."

Ranma then ran off leaving his father staring at the piece of paper. For once, his poor handwriting would work to his advantage. By the time his old man was able to decipher what he'd written, Ranma would be long gone. Once he considered himself at a safe distance, Ranma began to plan out his next step. He figured he could use an old trick his father often employed when looking for people to train Ranma.

You just find the nearest dojo and ask around for the strongest dojo in the area they knew of. Continue on until you actually find someone good enough to train you. Sometimes they got a little prideful and didn't want to admit they weren't the best, but a good dojo challenge would generally get them talking assuming they actually wanted their sign back.

The first dojo Ranma found was pretty much exactly what he expected. One run for hobbyists by a hobbyist. The guy even gave up another name without the slightest hesitation. Getting off to such a weak start, Ranma was surprised by the success he found at only his second stop. The guy named some place called Ryozanpaku without even needing to think about it. He said they were the strongest dojo he'd find anywhere, not just in region.

Only thing was, when it became clear that he was asking because he wanted to join that place, the guy begged him to reconsider. He claimed the dojo was full of monsters and that no sane person would actually go there. This wasn't the sort of reaction you generally got until at least four or five dojos deep in the process. Nevertheless, it sounded like just the sort of place he wanted. It was time to pay this Ryozanpaku a visit.

Miu was standing out in the yard, fretting about school starting up next week. She always had trouble fitting in with people her own age and she didn't know if she'd actually be able to make any friends. She was interrupted from her thoughts by a voice calling out to her.

"Excuse me, is this the Ryozanpaku Dojo?" asked the voice Miu found belonged to a boy about her own age dressed in a red Chinese shirt and blue pants.

"Yes, are you here to challenge the dojo?" she asked. They usually didn't get challengers as young as him, but he had made it through the gates, so he must be a martial artist of some sorts.

"Actually, I'm looking to take my training to the next level and wanted to see if this might be the place to do it," he answered.

"Did I hear you say were considering joining the dojo?" Kensei asked, the short man having snuck up on them at some point. "We'd be happy to discuss that further. Just follow me inside."

"Great," the boy said cheerfully, walking after him.

Miu followed along too, a mixture of excitement and nervousness running through her. It would be nice to have someone her own age spending time around the dojo, but Ranma wasn't the first person to ask about joining and their track record was 100% when it came to scaring them off before they even joined. Everyone always had trouble dealing with the … unusual residents of Ryozanpaku.

He picked a bad time to come as well, as all of them were home today. Maybe there was still a chance, though. Considering he was male, Kensei was one of the safer masters for him to deal with. If a couple key members were otherwise occupied, they might just make this work. That hope was quickly dashed when she saw the number one offender, Apachai, peaking his head around the door frame from inside.

For his part, the boy didn't even seem to blink as he followed Kensei through the door. When Miu entered behind them, she saw that Apachai wasn't the only master waiting. Akisame was sitting in the center of the room sipping tea, Sakaki was leaning against a wall, gulping down a beer, and Shigure was hanging upside down from a beam. Despite the casual atmosphere they were all trying to generate, Miu had just been in the room not two minutes ago and knew that it had been deserted at that time.

"Just so you know, I don't take disciples," Sakaki announced from where he sat, while Miu wished he would stay away from these things if he really didn't want to have a part in them.

"Just ignore Sakaki," Kensei told the boy. "But before we get any further, might I inquire as to your name?"

"Saotome Ranma," he answered.

"Hmm," Akisame said in reply to that. "I knew of a Saotome Ranma once. He was a martial artist who lived in the Nerima district. A certain Tendo Ryoga spoke very highly of his skill."

"Oh, now that's a name I'm sure I've heard from time to time," Sakaki interjected. "Is he any good?"

"It is an interesting story," Akisame began. "I was actually looking for the Saotome Ranma I mentioned before when I found him. In my youth it was a name I heard quite a few times. As a fellow martial artists with some small skill and us being of the same age, I always expected we'd run into each other sooner or later. However, as the years passed by, and the stories began to dry up, I eventually sought him out myself."

Miu was becoming interested in the tale, but worried they might be boring their guest. However, a quick glance showed this Ranma was fully engaged in the story as well. Perhaps he was related or was simply interested in the person who shared his name.

"Unfortunately, my journey led me to discover that Ranma had vanished a decade prior," Akisame continued. "It did, however, bring about my first encounter with Tendo Ryoga. It may not have been the match I wanted, but I did get a fight."

"What happened next? Was he strong?" Apachai asked excitedly.

"He's very strong," Ranma answered. "I'm here because I want to train to surpass him."

"Fascinating," Akisame replied. "That's a rather difficult goal you've set for yourself. I can attest to his strength myself. Our first match, I lost soundly. His strength was so monstrous he could break free from holds he never should have had to leverage to do so. He also possessed a number of rather strange techniques."

Miu was impressed. There weren't many masters who could not only beat Akisame, but do it as soundly as he claimed he had.

"Heh, you should tell stories of your losses more often Akisame," Sakaki mocked, as he opened another beer. "Most entertaining thing I've heard from you in long time."

"Yes, well, I learned from my defeat," Akisame replied, trying unsuccessfully to hide his annoyance. It was the motivation for my developing my own special muscle training regime. Regardless, I challenged him to a rematch very shortly thereafter. I was better prepared for him this time, and had learned that he is somewhat susceptible to misdirection."

"I'll say," Ranma snorted from next to her.

"I won that match easily and the one after that as well," Akisame told them. "However, we've fought four matches, and I'm afraid the fourth victory was his. He'd been training specifically to deal with my own techniques, and proved to be much more difficult because of it. It was our longest and closest match, but in the end, he outlasted me. I'd always meant to break the tie in one last battle, but things came up and I never quite got around to it."

"It sounds as if the training you'd need if you hope to ever match him would be quite intense," Kensei told him. "Are you sure you're up for it?"

"I'll take whatever training you can give me and ask for more," Ranma insisted.

"I warn you, our training can be grueling, agonizing, and even quite dangerous," Akisame added putting is acting skills to good use as he dramatized it, although Miu wished he weren't putting so much effort into talking Ranma out of signing up.

"I've risked my life for training before, and I'll do so again without a second thought," Ranma responded, completely devoid of any hesitation.

"Hah, well said!" Sakaki barked out. "I still don't take disciples, but I'm starting to like you, kid."

"You know, it is odd that you care so much about defeating Ryoga," Akisame noted. "Might you be the same Saotome Ranma who used to be his rival?"

"What are you talking about?" Miu cut in before Ranma could answer. "Wouldn't that Ranma be around your age?"

"Ah, but he disappeared when he was about as old as you," Akisame countered. "So if whatever caused him to disappear, brought him back now, than everything fits together quite nicely."

"It is possible," Sakaki agreed.

"Yes, I've seen stranger," Kensei chimed in.

Miu was sure they must all be picking on her, but more importantly, she could tell Ranma was getting uncomfortable. Just when it looked like he could put up with the weirdness around here, they decided to take it to a new level. Now he was looking like he might be the next in a long line of runners.

"I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation why he cares about beating Ryoga," Miu said quickly, hoping to keep things from falling apart. "Maybe he's a relative who just wants to live up to his namesake."

"My explanation was hardly unreasonable," Akisame replied, sounding offended. "But I suppose there are other possibilities. Come to think of it, Ryoga had a daughter that would be about your age. You aren't trying to steal her away from him, are you?"

"Hey, that marriage pact was written before I was born!" Ranma shouted out in a panic. "I want nothing to do with it!"

"Ah, trying to get out of a marriage instead of into it?" Kensei said, sidling up to Ranma and putting a hand on his shoulder. "I understand completely. You're much to young to be tied down. You need to be free to sample all the fruits on offer."

Miu was annoyed by Kensei's behavior, but was thinking more about Ranma. What would it be like to have your marriage decided before you were even born? Miu was glad she didn't have to deal with that.

"Can we please get back to business?" Ranma pleaded. "Can you train me or not?"

"I think we should try to get an idea of your current skill first," Akisame suggested. "Are you opposed to a little sparring match with one of us."

"Fine with me," Ranma replied.

"Ooh, ooh, pick Apachai!" Apachai cried out eagerly. "Apachai wants to spar!"

"Fine with me," Ranma declared. "Mind if we take this outside? We'll have a little more room to fight."

Apachai leaped outside in a single bound at the suggestion.

"He certainly is eager," Kensei noted. "I haven't seen him this excited since the last time we had hamburgers."

Ranma followed Apachai out, with everyone else filing out behind him.

"So, how do you want to do this?" Ranma asked the much taller fighter.

"Apachai is going to kick you," Apachai answered.

Proving the veracity of his words, his foot lashed out in a blur that caused Miu to involuntarily let out a screech of fear as Ranma was sent hurtling away from him.

"You idiot! Haven't you ever heard of holding back?" Sakaki berated him.

"Holding back?" Apachai said back to him in confusion, proving he had not.

Meanwhile, Miu was relieved to see that somehow Ranma had managed to get his arms up in time to block the kick. He then twisted his body so he impacted the wall feet first, springing off it and landing in the grass.

"Are you alright?" Miu called out to him in worry.

"If he hadn't told me he was going to kick me, I don't think I would have been able to defend in time," he answered, as he walked back to the group. "Even so, that nearly broke my arms."

"I'm terribly sorry," Miu apologized on Ryozanpaku's behalf. "We had no idea he would do that."

She was certain Apachai had just ruined any hope of convincing him to join, but maybe she could at least talk him out of a lawsuit. The dojo couldn't afford that right now. One thing was certain, if they had any other potential students come along, they were not letting Apachai do any sparring with them.

"Don't worry about it, that was amazing," Ranma said, actually looking excited. "If the rest of you are even half that strong, then sign me up right now."

"Great," Kensei said, pulling a contract and pen from somewhere. "Anyone who can survive one of Apachai's kicks is more than welcome here."

"I'm still not training him, but it will be interesting to see what he's capable of," Sakaki added.

"Apa, we get our first student!" Apachai cheered, grabbing Shigure's hands as they both jumped for joy.

"Yay!" Shigure added simply, and Miu was smiling herself at the good news.

Ranma, meanwhile, had taken the offered items and was just about to sign his name when the sheet of paper was pulled from his hand.

"Don't I get a say in this?" her grandfather said from where he stood holding the contract.

"He's obviously perfect for Ryozanpaku," Kensei argued. "Just let him sign."

"I must agree," Akisame added. "We're not likely to see another student of his caliber come along any time soon."

Miu had no idea what her grandfather was up to. Was he just upset that they hadn't consulted him?

"You're obviously not looking close enough," he argued. "It's clear that he's nowhere near good enough to be Ryozanpaku's disciple."

"I am too good enough," Ranma complained, trying unsuccessfully to swipe the contract back away from the taller man.

"Give the kid a chance already," Sakaki chimed in.

"No, my decision is made, and my word is final," he insisted, then punctuated his statement by grabbing Ranma's arm and hurling him over the wall and off into the distance."

"What did you do that for, grandfather?" she protested loudly. "We needed that money."

"You're not thinking this through," he added. "That's exactly why I did it."

"Huh?" Miu responded, not following at all.

"You saw how determined he was to receive training," he explained. "And yet you offer him the base rate. Not that it would have mattered, with how eager you all were to sign him up you completely destroyed our negotiating position. Now though, he's sure to come back begging to pay us whatever we want if I'll just change my mind."

"A clever strategy," Akisame agreed.

"Yes, and perhaps I did jump the gun a bit," Kensei said sheepishly.

"Now all we need do is wait," her grandfather continued. "He'll be back any minute."

But as the minutes ticked by with no motion at the gate they were all watching with anticipation, they became more and more nervous. Finally, Miu couldn't take in any more.

"And what happens if he just goes somewhere else?" she asked.

"Well in that case we simply …" her grandfather started before pausing briefly. "I actually hadn't considered that. Do you think it's too late to hunt him down?"

Ranma would show that stupid old man. Not good enough? After he dealt with Ryoga, the old man was next. He'd prove to him just how good he was. For now though, he had another option. He hadn't really wanted to leave Japan, but maybe it was time to look up Ethan and see if his master's offer was still on the table.

Notes: Wow, I did not expect the first chapter to end up so long. Don't expect every chapter to be this size. Anyway, you probably noticed that the blurb didn't really describe the point of the story very well, and that's intentional. I didn't want to give anything away.

The mechanism facilitating the crossover may be a bit deus ex machina, but for a piece of fiction involving Ranma, that's pretty par for the course. Besides, I'll take deus ex machina over the all too frequent "making up of one dimensional parodies of all the Ranma characters for the author to bash so Ranma can realize how horrible his life is and leave" mechanism that starts off many crossovers.

As for the time warp seeming perhaps unnecessary, that was actually the initial idea for this story. It was inspired by a similar starting point from an author whom if I could remember the name of or even find during my search, I would love to credit. Regardless, I do plan to take it a very different direction and the crossover with Kenichi is a major part of that.

I decided to make it a crossover, because otherwise it's hard to get a good plot without adding tons of original characters closer to Ranma's age. Kenichi has a wide variety of well developed characters that will fit in nicely, and allows me to limit it to the two OCs already introduced.

That said I'd like to assure everyone that the crossover is no mere afterthought. Kenichi and the other characters from that continuity will still play a major role in the story, and be central to the plot starting in the next chapter.

Also, I'm basing the story on the manga for both continuities. I may throw in some in some anime for Ranma if I really like it, but for the most part, if it didn't happen in the manga, I don't consider it to have happened. This is especially helpful regarding the Nanban Mirror, as I don't want Ranma to have it in his head that time travel is possible and go chasing off after that.

Finally as a bonus I'll give a brief overview of the two OCs. Much if this I hope you have already gleaned from the chapter, but there's a couple new bits of information in there.

Kumon Reiko: 17 years old. She thoroughly enjoys her martial arts and takes her studies seriously, having great pride in her abilities. Despite her father being quite skilled at martial arts as well, she's been trained mostly by her mother and great-great-grandmother.

On the personal front, however, she doesn't identify well with her Joketsuzoku roots, having never even visited the place. All her friends are Japanese, she's grown up in Japan, and she identifies culturally with Japan. Wanting to fit in, she finds most Joketsuzoku customs embarrassing.

Tendo Ranko: 16 years old. Despite being almost a full year younger than Reiko, the two are best of friends. Fairly talented herself, if not to Reiko's degree, she also doesn't take martial arts as seriously. Much like her mother, she enjoys the art but wants to try other paths in life as well. However, with Ryoga taking her training much more seriously than Soun did for Akane, she's far beyond the level Akane was at her age.

She's partially inherited her father's directional difficulties. Although she would only be considered to have a horrible sense of direction, rather than anything freakish. Unsurprising considering her parents, she does have a rather sharp temper, but can generally be reasoned with.