Miu was locked up in a room in the small inn they were staying at that night getting another treatment for the brainwashing done to her, so Ranma was taking advantage of the situation to catch some fresh air outside as a guy. Tomorrow they'd be arriving at the airport and then it was back to Japan. Cologne assured him Miu would be fit to travel by then, and Ranma believed her. She was a self-proclaimed expert at mind-altering drugs, and given what Ranma had seen from the Joketsuzoku, he doubted that was an empty boast.

The past couple of days since the rescue were a huge improvement over what she'd been dealing with before that, but they weren't exactly easy either. Ranma was doing his best lock everything that had happened far away in the recesses of his mind, but no one seemed to want to let him forget it. Ukyo, Shampoo, and even Kenichi had all wanted to talk about everything that had happened. Couldn't they just take the hint that all he wanted was to forget it ever happened?

And now Reiko was walking up to him, probably keen on adding one more name to the list of people pestering him about this.

"Are you up for a spar?" she asked him.

That hadn't been what he was expecting, but it didn't sound like a bad idea at all. "Sure. I'm ready whenever you are."

Reiko didn't wait at all and came at him the moment he'd said that. And she was going full steam right from the start. Well, that was fine with Ranma as he weaved around a flurry of punches, before blocking a kick and jumping in with a quick strike with his fist that hit her shoulder, not hard enough to do any real damage but forcing her back a few steps.

Reiko didn't stay on the defensive for long, as she planted her feet and charged back in. The high-speed exchange of blows that followed showed that Reiko hadn't been slacking at all since their fight during the tournament. She was faster, sharper, and just altogether more devious in her attacks. That said, compared to the opponent he'd been fighting every day, she seemed slow and awkward. It went to show how much he'd improved in such a short time that he was having little difficulty fighting her.

Not to say it wasn't still a good workout, and there was certainly a risk of losing if he took her too lightly, but for the most part, Ranma was able to hold back and just enjoy the fight this time. So as the minutes dragged on in the spar, Ranma used the opportunity to experiment on some things he'd been working on in his head. Trying them out for the first time and seeing how Reiko reacted to them. After about fifteen minutes of this, Reiko jumped away and signaled for a stop.

"That's enough," she told him as Ranma looked around, seeing they'd gathered a small crowd of natives watching the show. "I know you've been holding back. It was obvious you were fighting at an even higher level against Yami. To finish this off, can you come at me with everything you have, just once?"

"I suppose I owe you that much at least," Ranma answered. She'd been a good sport about it, but it was no surprise her pride as a martial artist wanted to face him at his best even if she knew she'd lose.

Making sure she was ready, Ranma struck first this time. They'd been fighting long enough that Ranma had gotten a good look at her reactions, and he'd notice a few little flaw. The same kind of seemingly trivial things that Jenazad had been exploiting in his own fighting style these past weeks. Picking one of them, Ranma went full speed this time in his attack.

First a hard strike high toward her right shoulder that she barely had time to get any defense against, then a follow-up punch toward her gut that she twisted to minimize the impact of. Ranma then feinted a low kick before sending out a palm-strike straight at her face. Reiko did an admirable job at avoiding any clean hits, given her disadvantage in speed. Ranma probably could have just kept pressing and overwhelmed her by sheer difference in physical speed and strength, but she'd said to go all out.

So he'd done that. All her actions individually had been quite effective defenses, but as Reiko was realizing now herself, when taken together they left her in a rather awkward position. One that was completely unprepared to defend itself from Ranma slamming right into her with his body. Making use of his grappling skills now, he redirected her fall backward so that she quickly slammed into the ground hard, flat on her back. By the time she could even realize what he'd just done to her, Ranma was kneeling over Reiko with his fingers pointed right at her neck in what could have been a disabling or even fatal blow to her windpipe should he have wanted to make it so.

That had been great. For the first time in what seemed like forever, Ranma really didn't feel that bad. The feeling would probably fade in no time, but he was going to savor it for now.

"Thanks for the spar," he then told her, helping her back to her feet. "It was exactly what I needed. I was afraid you just wanted to talk stuff over like everyone else, but this was way better."

"No need to thank me," Reiko answered. "I just wanted a spar."

"No, I'm really glad you helped me get my mind off everything," Ranma said earnestly, "even if just for a little while. I may have been starting to go a little crazy there, but the fighting helped me get my head back on straight."

Reiko actually seemed to blush a bit at that. "Yeah, well, it feels a little strange getting thanked by you for this," Reiko told him. "I mean, I kind of have to admit that I only asked you for the spar because I wanted one myself."

"Eh, whatever," Ranma told her. "Nothing wrong with wanting a bit of a fight. You can ask me for another anytime you want. I'm just about always up for it."

"I'll probably take you up on that," she answered. "But don't expect it to go the same way."

As she ran off, Ranma saw one person who'd been watching the fight that stood out from the rest, as Herb broke away from the crowd to approach him.

"A good show," he said. "Now, seeing as we'll be parting ways tomorrow, I have a few things I wanted to say to you before that happens."

"Oh, and what's that?" Ranma asked.

He was a little wary of where this was going. He hadn't thought they'd left on the worst of terms twenty years back, but Herb had a very dark look on his face, and seeing how strong he'd become, even Ranma was a little intimidated by the thought of a serious fight here.

"After what I just did, there's no longer any hope of peace between me and Yami," Herb admitted. "Not that I ever truly wanted it. It won't be over until either Yami or the Musk are completely destroyed, and shamed as I am to admit it, it's not likely to end in our favor."

That was quite something to hear coming out of Herb's mouth, but at least it was clear that Ranma wasn't the reason for his sour mood.

"I will do as much damage to their organization as I can," Herb continued, "but I will need all the help I can get. I have a great deal of respect for you as a martial artist, and you should have plenty of reason to hate Yami now."

"Are you asking me to join you?" Ranma asked, tossing the idea of making war with Yami over in his mind.

"Yes, you're already good enough to be an asset, and you still have plenty of room to grow," Herb explained. "If we focus on guerilla warfare, then with a little luck we could survive for some time and do a lot of damage. I'd train you personally during that time to ensure you continued to improve. Who knows, if we can isolate their leaders and take them out one or two at a time, we might even have a chance of winning the fight."

Ranma didn't even have to wait for Herb to finish speaking to make his decision.

"I'm sorry, but you already killed the only member of Yami I truly hate," Ranma said. "You're talking about hunting them down and killing them, and that's just way too extreme for me. I've met other members of Yami, and they don't seem like they're all as bad as Jenazad."

"Well, I wish you'd decided otherwise, but I can't say I'm surprised by your choice," Herb replied. "I doubt I can convince you to reconsider just yet, but Yami may do that work for me. I'll try to check in on you from time to time to see if you've changed your mind. Keep your training up until then. Whatever happens, I expect you'll need it."

Ranma didn't even consider trying to talk Herb out of his plan. He'd recognized the look in the man's eye, and there was a determination that simply wouldn't bend. Besides, he was probably right that Yami wouldn't let him go for this, whatever he decided to do. He just hoped Herb did manage to survive whatever that organization threw at him. Even if he didn't support killing them all, Ranma agreed that Yami as a group needed to go.

It was a much smaller group that boarded the plane back for Japan. The Joketsuzoku and Musk had each left to make their own travel arrangements, and Kensei had joined the Joketsuzoku. Ranma just wished that she'd been able to stay male for the trip, but there wouldn't have been any way to explain to Miu where 'Ranko' went.

As for Miu, she did seem to have herself more or less back to normal by now, and had even insisted on a seat next to Ranma, while Kenichi occasionally looked back jealously from where he sat next to Sakaki a couple rows up. Ukyo rounded their group off a couple rows behind where Ranma and Miu sat. It was the closest they'd been able to manage to get the group for a last minute flight, and she supposed they were lucky they even had enough seats for all of them.

This was the first real chance Ranma had had to talk to Miu since everything happened, but they made it through takeoff and were now cruising along without a word yet being said between them. Ranma didn't know if she really wanted to break that silence either. This was the one person that had seen everything she had done, and Ranma just didn't know how to face her. She couldn't even imagine what Miu thought of her right now. It was no surprise to Ranma that it was Miu that spoke first.

"Some things are still pretty fuzzy," Miu admitted, "but I have a pretty good idea of what happened."

"Oh," Ranma said simply looking away from the girl.

"Everything you did. Everything you went through. It was all because of me. Even if you're too nice to say it, deep down you must hate me for it."

"What? No!" Ranma said, shocked she'd even suggest it. "If anything, I'd expect you to be disgusted with me after all the stuff I did."

"I know that if you hadn't done those things, I would have," Miu declared. "And then I'd be struggling to live with myself after what I'd done. I know you must be going through that instead right now. And if I hadn't been there, you could have just refused to do what he said. You have to resent me for that, right?"

"Look," Ranma told her. "You have to believe me that I never for a second held any of that against you. You were a complete victim. I made choices, but you weren't even in control of yourself. Jenazad was the only person I blamed."

"You're a great friend, Ranko," Miu told her, finally smiling a bit. "Actually great doesn't even begin to cover it. The price you paid to protect me … I don't even want to think about it. I doubt I'll ever be able to repay you, but I'll try my best. I'll do whatever I can to help you get through this. Just know that I'm there for you."

Ranma actually felt more than a little ashamed of herself. Some great friend she was. She still was only friends with Miu thanks to a lie she hadn't even admitted to yet. Well, that would change soon enough. Ranma didn't even care anymore what Kenichi had to say on it. She wasn't waiting any longer. Well, maybe trying to explain it on the middle of a plane ride with no hot water around for a demonstration wouldn't be the best idea, but she'd explain it all soon enough. She'd see if Miu still considered her such a great friend then.

Reiko was back in Japan, and would soon be home, and just in time to turn in for the night. Kensei had already left, so it was just her mother and great-great-grandmother walking alongside her for the last leg of the journey. And what a journey that had been. Still, there was one part of it she just couldn't let go.

"Granny, is there any secret Joketsuzoku training to make the kind of jump in ability Ranma just made?" Reiko asked. She didn't want to think her ego had been that big, but having Ranma pass her so completely had really gotten to her.

"There is," she answered. "It's a method that was used during wars when there simply wasn't time to train our fighters up with standard means."

"But it's a very dangerous training that hadn't been used since ancient times," her mother added, only to cry out in pain a moment later when a staff slammed into her head.

"I was the last person to take part in the training," her granny said harshly.

"As I said, it hasn't been used since ancient times," her mother grumbled, but didn't earn a second punishment for her words.

"So, you're interested in following in my footsteps?" her granny asked.

"Great-grandmother!" her mother cut in. "You can't be seriously considering letting her go through that."

"Quiet, Shampoo," she snapped back. "It's her decision to make."

Reiko was quite aware that the more advanced Joketsuzoku training could be dangerous, and if even her mother was this worried about it, then his had to be on another level entirely. Still, she wasn't going to back off at that.

"I'm willing to put my life on the line for this," Reiko said firmly. "You may think I don't take my Joketsuzoku heritage seriously enough, but I'm very committed to being the best fighter I can be."

"It's not your life you should be worried about," her granny answered. "Sure there's always some degree of risk, but it wouldn't be a very useful training method in wartime if we were killing more of our own warriors than our enemies were. No, the real risk is that you won't come out of the training the same person you went in."

"What do you mean?" Reiko asked, admittedly a little concerned by the words.

The sort of training you would go through has broken many people in the past. There's no shortage of warriors that were good for nothing but fighting by the time it was through, and would hardly even be recognized by their own families. Rapid growth on the level you're talking about is never without a price, otherwise we'd train all our warriors this way. Just look at your wayward husband. It's clear he's been through quite the trauma in exchange for his recent growth."

Reiko did feel a bit ashamed about that again. She didn't know any details beyond the kidnapping, but she had clearly noticed something off about Ranma. He'd made it pretty clear he was happier not talking about it, but she wasn't exactly proud of the fact she was worrying more about catching up to him than what she could do to help him through it.

"So think long and hard before you make any decision you can't go back on," her granny continued. "Follow my training and you will reach the pinnacle of your abilities eventually. Are you willing to risk your very sanity to get there a little sooner?"

Reiko didn't want to answer too quickly after she'd brought this up in the first place, but she knew her answer. "No," she finally said.

"For what it's worth, I think you made the right decision," her granny told her comfortingly. "You're still young. You should spend a little more of that drive on the battlefield of love if you ask me."

Who knows, maybe the old woman was right about that too.

One way or another, Reiko's thoughts had remained on Ranma last night and through school today. When class got over, she hurried over the where Ranko and Ranma would be getting out, bumping into Ranko shortly before she reached the room.

"Did you want to walk home today?" Reiko asked, offering, as diplomatically as possible, to help her friend find her way.

"Actually, I've got plans today," she answered. "I'll be getting a ride just outside. Ranma will be staying late, if you're wondering. He has to make up for all those classes he missed."

That was actually a bit of a relief to Reiko. Her friend should be able to find her way to her ride even without her help, and there was something she wanted to do that would be easier without her. So Reiko let her go ahead for a bit before heading for the shoe locker herself. Arriving there, she waited until no one was looking, then quickly pulled out a letter and slipped it into Ranma's locker. She had turned around and darted away almost as soon as she'd finished the action.

The letter itself was an invitation to a date, of sorts. She had been dealing with more than a little guilt over not worrying enough about Ranma, especially after what her granny had said on the subject. So the letter itself was worded more as a challenge letter. Ranma had said she could ask to spar anytime she wanted, so Reiko figured they could start with that, and maybe branch out to some more esoteric martial arts that she might still stand a chance at.

It wasn't exactly the sort of romantic date she'd always wanted, but it was probably a lot closer to what Ranma needed right now. And if it went well, maybe they could do something more traditional next time. Now, to just wait and hope it actually did go well.

Genma's meeting with his son had been somewhat muted last night. He and the Tendos had been notified in advance that they'd be arriving and had wanted to throw a big party to welcome their safe return. But the Miu girl had already been asleep and his son hadn't seemed much in the mood for parties, so they'd kept things much more low scale after the Sakaki fellow had left with Miu.

Other than Soun, the Tendos may have been a bit upset that Genma hadn't made an effort of his own to join the rescue mission, but his son had been much more understanding. They had to all be realistic. His own son had surpassed him, and some of the monsters that had gone along were a match for the master himself. There wasn't any real benefit to Genma risking himself. Especially when the person that had captured Ranma only wanted to train the boy.

Still, even if he wasn't angry with Genma, Ranma could tell the boy was in serious need of cheering up. And there was no better person to do that than his future wife, Ranko. Being the person who was there for him when he was down would go a long way toward bonding the two together. Which was why Genma was here at Ranma's school with a letter inviting Ranma to a date. Ranko would be happy enough to hear he'd put this plan in motion once he'd told her. For now though, he had the letter to take care of.

What he hadn't expected, was to see Shampoo's girl there looking to have much the same idea. Activating the Umi-Sen Ken, Genma waited, striking at just the right moment and grabbing a tiny corner of her letter before it slipped into the locker. Still remaining unspotted, Genma waited until she was gone before pulling the letter out. Dropping the Umi-Sen Ken, he then pulled out his own letter and was about to drop it in when there was a blinding pain in the back of his head and everything went black.

Whatever Reiko has said last night, Shampoo was still worried the girl would go through with that stupid training. After all, if her own mother had been so strongly opposed to something Shampoo wanted to do, she would have just pretended to go along before slipping out behind her mother's back and doing it anyway. Shampoo couldn't entirely put the same thing past Reiko. And when her great-grandmother had disappeared from the restaurant shortly before Reiko's school was to get out, Shampoo had worried the two had something like that planned out.

With it still being between the lunch and dinner rushes, and it only be their first day back open from their surprise trip, the restaurant was currently empty. So Shampoo had just locked it up and run off to the school herself to make certain nothing funny was going on. While she'd been waiting there, she spotted Genma sneaking into the school as well. She didn't know what he was up to, but any thought of just ignoring him vanished when he pulled that stunt with her daughter's letter.

It was good to finally see her taking a bit more initiative, and she was not about to let this panda-man ruin it for the girl. So she pulled out her chui, snuck up behind the man, and knocked him out cold with one swift smack on the back of the head. Taking back her daughter's letter, she slipped it into the locker, not about to let this fool ruin things for Reiko.

Still, leaving Ranma's father here for him to find might not be the best idea, so she lifted him up over her shoulder and carried him out. She'd drop him off somewhere he wouldn't be noticed and let him sleep this off.

Cologne secretly watched the exchange at the school lockers, more than a little disappointed in her descendants. Reiko had let Genma completely get the better of her, and while Shampoo had at least accomplished what she was trying to do, she wasn't putting enough thought into it. The battle wasn't won yet, and her part in it had been far too simple and predictable.

Sure enough, a short while later some man who appeared to work for the school in some capacity came by and went straight for Ranma's locker. Opening it right up, he removed the letter Shampoo had just left there, and a couple others if her old eyes didn't deceive her, leaving a different letter in its place. That had to be Nabiki's work.

Slipping up to the man as he left, she relieved him of Reiko's letter without him noticing it, hopping back to the shadows while taking care not to aggravate her injuries. Cologne then opened it up and read it, to better see what the girl was trying. It actually wasn't too bad of an approach. Draw Ranma in with a challenge rather than a more open date that he might balk at. Still, the message could use a bit of touching up. Pulling out paper and pen, Cologne quickly forged her own slightly improved version of the message before sealing it up.

Now, how to go about delivering it? If Shampoo had abandoned her post as well, the restaurant was unattended. It's not as if they needed the income, but there was a certain amount of professional pride that Cologne had, and closing too often without warning would only upset your customers. So she didn't want to stand watch on the locker hoping Ranma would eventually show up and collect the letter.

But then the perfect opportunity presented itself as Miu approached. She was a fine and trustworthy girl, and more importantly, it was obvious she was completely infatuated with that Kenichi boy. She'd do nicely. She quickly hopped over to Miu, making her presence known.

"Oh, hi Cologne, did you come to check up on me?" Miu asked sweetly. "Thanks to your help, I didn't have any issues at all today."

"That's certainly great news, but I have another reason for stopping by," Cologne informed her. "It's about Reiko. As much as the girl protested the arrangement before, she's found she's fallen hard for Ranma. She wrote a letter to explain everything, but was too nervous to give it to him herself. I want nothing more than to help out my great-great granddaughter, so I snuck off with the letter myself, but I find now that I'm not as recovered from my ordeal as I expected."

"Oh, do you need help?" Miu asked in concern. "I could go get someone to have a look at you."

"It's nothing as serious as that," Cologne replied, happy she'd set the bait so securely. Now to reel in the prize. "I'm just a bit exhausted and don't exactly feel up to searching all over the school for the boy. I was just hoping you could deliver the letter for me. I was determined to see it directly to his hands, but if a girl as nice as you were take over for me, I think I could still set my mind at ease."

"Oh, of course," Miu said quickly. "You shouldn't be pushing yourself so soon. You just take it easy. I'll make sure Ranma gets the letter."

"Thank you dear," Cologne told her. "I really do appreciate the help."

That was how it was done. Ranma wouldn't trust any letter from Cologne, but if anything, Miu delivering it would make it harder for him to turn down the request. Of course she'd now be doing exactly what she'd just mentally berated Shampoo for in leaving before the battle was completely won, but to be fair, this wasn't her battle to fight. If anything, she tended to get more involved than she really should. But it was hard to avoid that, as Ranma was just too much fun to mess with.

Looking at the letter she held, Miu was now having second thoughts. She'd fully intended to deliver it as she said she would, but that was before she'd stopped to consider what that would mean. Suppose the letter worked and Ranma and Reiko started dating. The last thing Miu wanted was to see Ranko go through that after everything else her friend was dealing with. No, she apologized silently to Reiko, but she couldn't deliver this letter. In fact, she needed to act quickly before Reiko made another move.

So she hid the letter away but went to find Ranma anyway. He'd probably already left, since Miu had needed to stay back just a bit to go over the work she needed to catch up on. Still, she may as well check his classroom before heading back, just in case. It was a good thing she'd decided that, as she found him sitting at a desk as Ono-sensei was reviewing some class material.

Miu supposed it made sense. Even if Ranma had missed the rescue mission, he'd probably been out looking for them on his own. Her own teacher had let her off without any extra lessons, but Ranma must not have gotten off so easily. Miu was prepared to wait for the lesson to finish, but Ranma spotted her and perked up immediately.

"I'm sorry, Sensei, but I need to talk to Miu right now," Ranma declared. "We'll have to finish this some other day."

"But I'm not supposed to let you get yet," the woman fretted.

"Please?" Ranma asked. "It's really important."

"Well, if it's that important," she replied hesitantly, and Miu actually felt a little guilty for providing the excuse for Ranma to bowl over her like that and get out of the extra class early. Still, it did provide her the opportunity she wanted.

"Hey," Ranma said as he rushed out the classroom, leading her away from it as he talked. "I've got something I wanted to talk with you about. I planned to do it sooner, but you slept from when you got back until I'd already left for school."

Yes, everyone had let her sleep in, planning to have her skip school until she'd recovered more. Even when she did wake up, it was a fight just to convince them she was in good enough condition to go. She did wonder what Ranma had to talk about, but first she needed to say what she planned to say before she lost her nerve.

"Before that, I have something to say to you," Miu said as firmly as she could manage. "Ranko has been through a lot, and she needs all the help and support she can get right now. I know it would mean a lot to her if some of that came from you."

"Actually, there's something you should know about that," Ranma began, but Miu didn't let him continue.

"I don't even care what your feelings are on the matter, today you're going to do something nice with her. She needs this badly."

"But," Ranma argued only for Miu to cut him off again.

"No buts," she said, now getting a bit angry. "You may have been putting everything you had into finding Ranko, I don't know. What I do know is you weren't there with everyone else to rescue her. Even if that's not your fault, you owe her this much at least. So when I talk to Ranko next, I'd better hear that tonight was one of the best nights of her life."

Miu then ran off without giving Ranma a chance to argue further. She didn't want to give him any opportunity to talk his way out of this. She just hoped for her friend's sake that he was only fighting her on this because he was nervous or had other plans and not because he had feelings for someone else. Maybe she shouldn't have meddled like this. It could all backfire if he tried to pretend there was something that wasn't there because of what she said.

No, she couldn't take such a defeatist attitude. She had to support Ranko completely and trust in her friend to win Ranma over. He had to realize how great a person she was he if he just gave her a chance. And he would give her a chance if Miu had to force him every step of the way.

This was getting frustrating for Ranma. Now that he'd decided to admit his curse to Miu, he couldn't even get the chance to tell her. Well, he should probably head back to Ryozanpaku and try to find her. Even if she still refused to listen he could just show her. Heading to the shoe lockers, Ranma was just about to open his when Rachel came barreling into the side of him, locking him into an unwanted hug. And here he'd been considering himself lucky that she was out the day he got back to school.

"Ranma!" she announced loudly. "You leave for this long without a word to your own girlfriend? And even when you get back I don't hear a word of it from you?"

"Maybe I didn't tell you because I knew you'd act like this," Ranma muttered.

"Don't be like that!" Rachel said. "And after I ran straight back from a mission as soon as I heard you were here. Now come on; let's go on a date."

Rachel then began pulling him along toward the outside, not even giving him a chance to change to his outdoor shoes. Well, not that Ranma ever cared that much for that stupid rule anyway.

Still, Rachel had never really tried to bother him outside of school before. Not to mention the timing was pretty convenient too. Maybe this was another attempt by Yami to capture him. Well, if it was, and Ranma didn't at least pretend to play along, they'd just try again another time. And Ranma wasn't going to hide behind the masters from here on out. No, best to see if they were planning something now when he knew to be careful. If it was a trap, Ranma would just do his best to make them regret springing it.

Ranko shouldn't even be here. After what her Aunt Nabiki had pulled, she should slam any offer right back in her face. But when she'd got that note about how her aunt was setting up a nice dinner for her and Ranma, she couldn't bring herself to refuse. So she'd let herself be picked up by the driver Nabiki had sent, changed into the fancy outfit that she'd provided and was now waiting alone at a table in an extremely expensive looking restaurant. None of that made her any happier to see the woman in question when she waltzed up to the table and sat down.

"What are you doing here?" Ranko asked, voice dripping with venom.

"I wanted to talk to you," Nabiki said. "Besides, I wouldn't want you to be left waiting here all alone."

"What?!" Ranko called out, lowering her voice a bit when she saw some of the looks she was getting. "You lied to me about inviting him?"

"Of course not," Nabiki answered. "I actually have five employees devoted entirely to seeing that he gets here, right now, and if he shows up I'll leave the two of you alone. Still, this is Ranma we're talking about, and I warned you things can get crazy around him. With that level of effort, saying the chances are fifty-fifty would be generous. Honestly, I was hoping he wouldn't show tonight."

"Well you might want to reconsider that, because after what you pulled, I'm done with talking to you," Ranko insisted, turning her chair and refusing to even look at her aunt.

"Then I'll do all the talking," Nabiki said simply. "As for what I pulled, I assume you're referring to my getting Herb to help rescue Ranma, a man who played a pivotal role in the process from what I hear. A man that is now being hunted down by Yami for his part in that. That's right; they want him dead. Would you prefer that was you? Or your mother and father? Do you want to spend the rest of your lives looking over your shoulders, waiting for the next assassin?"

Obviously the thought was more than a little frightening. But was this Yami really that bad, or was her aunt just trying to manipulate her?

"I made sure my family was safe," Nabiki continued. "I've done more than you realize to ensure that nothing like that will ever happen. Which is why I need to impress on you how important it is that none of you ruin that. Whatever Yami does, you need to stay out of it. You can't interfere with anything, or even I may not be able to protect you. Ryoga is already on their radar and there's only so much I can do."

Ranko may have said she wasn't going to talk anymore, but she just couldn't stay silent any longer.

"Tell me, if you were just trying to do the right thing, why didn't you stop Ukyo, or my best friend Reiko?" Ranko asked. "Are their lives in danger now? Did you even stop for a moment to worry about that?"

"As far as I can tell, Yami has focused all their attention on the Musk," Nabiki answered. "As for the rest, I won't apologize for showing more concern for my family than for others. Besides, my influence isn't limitless. You think keeping someone off a plane is a simple feat? Regardless, whatever you think of me doesn't change your need to keep yourself safe. I need you to promise me than you'll stay out of Yami's affairs and try to convince your parents to do the same."

"I can't promise you that," Ranko insisted firmly. "Because I can't just forget about people as easy as you can. Sure it's frightening to think of what might happen, but if one of my friends is in trouble, I'm going to help them. For that matter, if I see some stranger getting attacked I'm not going to stop and check if the attackers are part of Yami before I step in to help."

It did feel a little good to tell her aunt off like that, but Nabiki didn't look at all prepared to surrender. She hoped Ranma showed up twice as much now if only to get her aunt to make good on her word and leave. If Ranko trusted herself to find her way home from here, she'd be very tempted to just get up and leave herself right now, because she was sure of one thing: However much she tried to reason with Ranko, her aunt would not be earning her forgiveness easily.

If they were going to spring a trap, Ranma wanted them to get it over with already. They'd been walking around for about an hour, and Rachel had done nothing but treat this like an ordinary date. She'd dragged them to a public park and hadn't done much beyond point out the scenery and try futilely to get in public displays of affection while Ranma resisted every advance. Now the sun had set, and most of the other park-goers had left. Ranma found that the last of his patience had disappeared with them.

"I'm done just waiting," Ranma snapped. "Tell me what this is all about. I know Yami must have put you up to this. So what's the plan? Another kidnapping? Or do they just want me dead this time?"

"Yami has nothing to do with this," Rachel protested, and … were those tears in her eyes?

"So, it's just more of your showing off for the sake of attention then?" Ranma asked, but unable to muster quite the harshness to his voice given the state Rachel was now in.

"Is it really that hard to believe that I actually care for you?" Rachel asked, with there being no mistaking how distraught she was now. "You saved my life! I may not know how to properly act on it, or even to show it, but I really do love you. It'd be one thing if you turned me down, but to have you not even believe me? It's just too much to handle."

Ranma was now at a loss for words next to the sobbing girl. He supposed he should have seen it coming. He knew from experience that just because someone was crazy didn't mean they couldn't fall for you. He just wished that for once they wouldn't. And even if he wanted nothing to do with her, Ranma felt like a heel for getting her this upset.

So when Rachel ran up to him, he didn't stop her this time, letting her press her head into his shoulder and cry against it. Ranma stood there awkwardly for a couple of seconds, teetering on the decision of whether or not to just run, but in the end guilt won out.

"Look, I'm sorry," he told her. "I didn't mean to be so hard on you."

But she only wailed all the louder. What did you do like this? For all his girl troubles, Ranma had never really had to deal with this situation. He supposed he should try to do something comforting, but what was at a loss as for what. Finally, he reached out an arm around her to maybe pat her on the back or something. Ranma had only just placed his hand there when a flash of light practically blinded him. Then Rachel pushed away from him and darted off. Was this a trap after all?

"This is just what I hoped for," Rachel called out, as his vision cleared to show her looking at a camera. "Such a touching pose, and the look of concern on your face is clear. This will do wonderfully."

Rachel had set up a hidden camera? And even worse, the whole thing had just been an act, apparently, as she didn't look the least bit upset anymore.

"Give me the film," Ranma said menacingly. He wasn't sure exactly how, but he knew that picture would only lead to trouble if it got out. It was probably worth getting rid of it just to avoid hearing about it from his old man.

"It's fully digital," she replied, before pulling something out of the camera. "But I do have the memory card right here."

She then took the small item in her hand and slipped it between her breasts. If she thought that would be enough to protect it, she was way off base. Ranma dashed forward ready to snatch the item and crush it before she had a chance to do anything, only an alarm in the back of his head suddenly brought him up short. He got the same sort of vibe from this he used to get from Nabiki. Looking around, he spotted two more cameras hiding in nearby trees, and those might not be the only ones around.

"Drat," Rachel said when he'd stopped. "That could have made for an even better picture. Ah well, here you go, for your own memories."

Ranma was startled to see she'd just pulled out the memory card or whatever it was and tossed it to him. What was she doing now?

"Don't worry about me," she said. "I already uploaded a copy before I even took it out."

Ranma wasn't really an expert on the technical talk, but knew enough to get the gist of it. He could destroy the card and even the camera itself, but it still wouldn't destroy the picture. Well, there was nothing to it. Now he just needed to find out what this would cost him.

"So what do you want?" Ranma asked morosely.

"I'm not sure what you mean," Rachel answered sweetly.

"I mean the blackmail," Ranma retorted. "What do you want in exchange for keeping that picture secret?"

"Oh don't be silly," Rachel replied. "This isn't blackmail. I can't imagine there's anything you would be willing to give me I'd want more than spreading this picture around. That's why I've already sent the picture out."

"What?" Ranma asked in fear. This wasn't like dealing with Nabiki at all. She really was insane. "Who did you send it to?"

"Oh, I have a rather large list of numbers and email addresses from school, and I sent it to all of them," she answered. "Hopefully they'll share it with friends that aren't on the list. I expect just about everyone will have seen it in no time. Ah, I'm really looking forward to school tomorrow. See you there."

And with that she ran off, leaving Ranma to collapse bonelessly on a nearby bench. Ranma sat there for several minutes worrying about the fallout from this when he started to realize it may not be that bad. Sure, this sort of thing would have gotten him killed back in the day, but things were different now. Reiko wasn't determined to marry him no matter what like her mother had been, and Ranko was no Akane either. Ukyo wasn't interested anymore, and the only girl who could even compete with Kodachi for craziness was behind the whole thing and wouldn't get mad about.

Yeah, his father wouldn't be happy, but one more lecture from the fat fool wouldn't be the end of the world. Ranma was really starting to think he'd made a mountain out of a molehill here. He'd probably get out of this without any real explosions. In his distraction, Ranma sensed the attack with only enough time to get off a partial block as a flying kick smashed into the arm he'd brought up and sent him flying out of the bench.

"How could you!" Miu shouted at him angrily.

"How could I what?" Ranma asked quickly, confused as to why she was so upset. Had she found out about the curse before he could explain it?

"Don't you dare try to hide it," she shouted, even as she resumed attacking him. "I saw Kenichi looking at the photo. Doing this to Ranko was bad enough, but you had the nerve to go and brag about it?"

Ranma was relieved that this was just a misunderstanding. "I can explain that. I've been trying to explain since earlier," Ranma said, as he backpedaled away from her, not really wanting to fight.

"There won't be any explanation that can save you if Ranko ever finds out about that picture," Miu fired back as she pressed her assault with even more fervor.

"Well, I can promise you that Ranko won't be mad about this," Ranma said, not able to resist a bit of a smirk even if it seemed to only enrage her further. "Because I'm …"

Ranma's words word cut off as he realized that run out of room to backpedal. His left foot had plopped down into a pond, and the sudden drop caused Ranma to fall backward into the water.

"I'm Ranko," she finished as she stood back up, shaking off what water she could.

"But … huh?" was all Miu could manage as she stared at the sight in front of her.

"It's a curse that makes me change like this," Ranma told her quickly, hoping to explain as much as possible before she got angry again. "I'm sorry for keeping it from you for so long, and for all the other confusion. There was that whole talk we had where you were talking about liking Ranma, or me, or well … you know, but I thought you were talking about my curse. And that's how this all got started."

Ranma realized she was rambling, but Miu actually seemed to get most of it.

"But what about the engagement?" Miu asked.

"The girl you know as Hikari is the real Tendo Ranko," Ranma answered. "That's why my old man was so keen to keep her around. She used the fake name to help me keep my secret since I really don't like too many people knowing about it. I did want to tell you a while ago, but Kenichi insisted I shouldn't."

"He did, did he?" Miu asked a little coldly, causing Ranma to apologize silently for the boy for dragging him into this.

"He did seem concerned you'd take it poorly," Ranma quickly added, hoping not to cause too much strife between them. "Anyway, I just thought it was wrong to keep it from you any longer. So there you have it."

Ranma then waited to see how badly this would blow up in her face. She might be back to defending herself soon enough.

"I wish you'd told me sooner," Miu said simply, "but I suppose it wouldn't be right to get mad at you over something like this after everything you've done for me. Besides, there's nothing wrong with having things you don't like to talk about."

"Um, well, thanks for taking it so well," Ranma said a bit awkwardly. "I admit I wasn't expecting you to be quite this understanding. People usually freak out when they find out about the curse."

"Ran … ma, you're one of the first friends I ever made, and a better friend than anyone could ask for," Miu told her. "I meant everything I said about wanting to be there for you, and this doesn't change that at all."

"Just to be sure, you do know that I'm really a guy, right?" Ranma then added, wanting to make sure it was all out in the open.

"I'd figured that much," Miu answered. "And well, I will kind of miss the idea of you being my closest female friend. On the other hand, you can be a girl at least some of the time, so I guess it still kind of counts. We can still do some of the girl stuff I couldn't do with Kenichi."

"Well, sure, but not too often," Ranma agreed a bit hesitantly. She could hang out in this form occasionally, especially if it involved eating ice cream or other sweets that would be embarrassing to be seen eating as a guy, but she didn't want to agree to too much without knowing what Miu meant by 'girl stuff.'

"Well, I'm glad we worked this out," Miu told him, "even if I will miss having someone to set you up with. Even so, you might not have such an easy time talking things out with them."

Ranma turned to where Miu was pointing to see Reiko and Ranko walking up toward them.

"Oh, this shouldn't be an issue," Ranma said, waving to the pair. Neither of them should be that upset over the silly picture. Anyway, he wondered why Ranko was wearing such an expensive looking dress. And come to think of it, they both did look a little angry. Well, Ranma still wasn't worried. How serious could it be, anyway?

Author's Notes

Warning: No details are given, but I do have some minor spoilery hints in these notes. Continue at your own risk.

It might seem strange to jump back into more of a wacky hijinks chapter right after such a serious arc, but there's always going to be a mix of both in this story. It's not ever going to be completely dark, serious, and dramatic, even with how bad it got last chapter. There may even be a bit of romance eventually. I'm not going to give away who no matter how much people plead, but somewhere in the last few chapters, I finally settled on a favorite and decided who I'm going pair to Ranma with.

And that's the limit of my spoilers if you were worried, the fact that I will have a pairing for Ranma eventually. Now, for those that take the time to read the notes, I have a little bonus for you today: an extra little scene. I do consider this canon as far my story in concerned. It does happen at some indeterminate time in the near future. It's just an amusing scene I've wanted to put in for a while but don't really feel it's worth the setup finding a spot for it in the story. So enjoy.

Kenichi went back into the main building, looking forward to dinner after the harsh training he'd just been through. Instead of dinner, however, Kenichi found Miu still showing off her pet cat Tora to Renka. Just how long had she been at that? She must have lost track of the time, because Kenichi knew Ranma would be right behind him. The last thing he wanted right now was to have Ranma go berserk after spotting the cat, so he quickly hurried over to Miu.

"Get Tora out of here, quickly," he urged her, turning her to start shoving her away from the entrance Ranma would soon be coming through, only then realizing his mistake.

Miu grabbed his right hand, flipping him over her shoulder, and slamming him into the ground.

"I'm sorry, Kenichi!" Miu said quickly, "I didn't mean to do that."

When would he learn not to get behind Miu like that? Kenichi continued grumbling to himself as he took the hand offered to him and pulled himself back to his feet.

"She got you again, huh?" Ranma asked, and Kenichi panicked as he realized Ranma was standing right next to Miu, and more importantly, next to the cat she held. Ranma must have just realized that himself as the grip instantly became painfully tight.

"Cat!" Ranma cried out as he began pummeling Kenichi painfully.

All of Kenichi's training was no match for the fury with which Ranma came at him, and he might have been seriously injured if Ranma hadn't kicked him away. He was even lucky enough that the kick had sent him straight out the door. Landing awkwardly on his shoulder, Kenichi rolled to his feet and just started running. He wasn't going back in there until things calmed down. Only his flight was quickly stopped when a flying kick landed in the middle of his back and sent him painfully back to the ground.

"Sorry, Kenichi," Renka told him from where she now sat on top of him. "You were running away. I couldn't help it."

"Can't one of you people have a crazy reflex that doesn't involve hurting me?" Kenichi cried out as he lay there bruised and aching.