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A Ranma ½ story
by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

Notes: Alternate universe. Initial divergence is after Hinako's arrival, but before Ryugenzawa. Circa volume 25, I believe… And that's where our story begins. The rest will become clear as relevant.

Chapter 1

Cologne muttered to herself, surveying the thinning crowd of evening customers. Business was… not bad, but not good, either. The old woman knew that she could attract more customers if she found a way to snare Ranma again, but the likelihood of doing that was becoming smaller and smaller with each passing day. Not to mention the idea of subverting Ranma just to help her efforts at the restaurant was silly.

It was hardly the reason that she and Shampoo had come to Japan after Ranma, and Ranma's desirability as a husband… Now there was a quandary. Would he survive, or would he break himself in his upcoming ordeal?

He was a lot like a diamond, Cologne mused. A potentially flawless gem… but so very, very brittle. His stresses would need to be played just so… or it would all come to naught.

Ranma would have been a very good catch for Shampoo, true… but times had changed, and so had he. Was the difficulty in finishing the stone worth the potential price of failure? The sight of Shampoo bouncing between the tables caught her attention for the moment. Cologne sighed again, the girl had a little too much optimism, all things considered.

And too much free time. Doubtlessly, she would seek to find out something else to keep her martial arts skills up in line, perhaps something even as dangerous and stupid as…

Finding a lull in the already slow day, Shampoo approached the Amazon matriarch, chirping, "Great-grandmother…"

Cologne rubbed her forehead wearily, grumbling, "I know, I know. 'How do I make a ki attack like Airen,' right?"

Shampoo blinked, then nodded eagerly, clapping her hands together and bouncing up and down. The male population of the restaurant swallowed noisily at the sight, while their respective dates growled.

Akane grumbled, wondering why Ranma had gone to school early, leaving her behind. She frowned suddenly, her dark mood deepening as a familiar -- albeit annoying -- sight greeted her. Shampoo.

Her anger began to rise instinctively, before she realized two things. First of all, Ranma wasn't there. Secondly, Shampoo was staggering about, a haunted look in her eyes. Guttering briefly like a candle in gale-force winds, her battle-aura winked out.

Akane stepped towards Shampoo cautiously, greeting, "Shampoo? What's wrong?"

Shampoo startled, not expecting to see Akane, then glanced about furtively before answering, "Violent… Shampoo sorry. Akane. Shampoo have much to tell Akane and Spatula-girl."

Akane frowned, then shook her head. "I have school, Shampoo. You can tell me later, or on the way."

The Amazon shook her head quickly. "Nuh… Is very bad news about Airen."

After a moment of hesitation, Akane scowled, tapping one foot impatiently. "What's going on with Ranma?"

Shampoo swallowed nervously. "We find Spatula-girl first, then talk."

Akane's frowned deepened, though some of the anger faded from it. "Her name is Ukyou, Shampoo."

"Shampoo not remember that. Thank Vio-- Er… Akane."

Shampoo paced nervously near Ukyou, while Ranma was off fighting with yet another challenger.

Akane listened, hearing nothing of the battle -- wherever it was. Shrugging to herself, she dismissed the affair. Ranma could handle himself in the challenger's arena, whatever the specifics of martial arts origami were, anyway. "Okay, he's gone. Now what's so important that we have to talk about that he can't know?"

Ukyou glanced at Akane, bemused. "Akane, this better be good. I'm missing time I could be working at my shop."

Akane rolled her eyes and opened her mouth to retort, but Shampoo interrupted, "If you two not work together with Shampoo, he no one's Airen."

There was a twin 'clack' as mouths closed, and attention turned towards Shampoo. The Amazon smiled haughtily for a moment before lapsing back into her nervous state. "Yesterday, Shampoo ask Great-grandmother how to make ki attack, like Ranma."

Both of the other girls blinked at this, then Akane shrugged. "And?"

Ukyou took a slightly defensive stance, and placed one hand on the handle of her battle-spatula. "So you want to fight us for Ranchan with your new technique."

Shampoo deadpanned, "That right. Shampoo use self-hurting attack to fight." Rolling her eyes, she announced, "Shampoo not stupid."

Again, both of the other girls were rebuffed. Confused, Akane asked, "Um… 'Self-hurting'? What do you mean?" Ukyou glared at Akane for a moment for beating her to the punch, then nodded grudgingly to indicate that she had wanted to know more, as well.

Shampoo swallowed, and explained, "Great-grandmother say… Ki attack not work with good feeling. Only bad feeling."

Akane rolled her eyes. "I remember that. The shi shi houkodan nonsense. So… Ranma's using a confidence-based attack. Is that bad?"

Ukyou frowned. "Actually, it might. Ranma could become conceited and arrogant."

Shampoo and Akane stared at the okonomiyaki chef for a long, silent moment. Shampoo collected herself first, then continued, "When you use feeling, feeling become stronger to you. Lost-boy use depression, so always be depressing."

Ukyou corrected her, "You mean 'depressed,' don't you, Shampoo?"

The Amazon scowled, then shook her head. "Is both. Make people around become like you feel."

Akane shrugged. "So people around Ranma will become more confident? Is that really so bad?" She winced, then added, "Aside from the obvious?"

Shampoo glared. "Great-grandmother tell Shampoo… it not confidence. It something bad emotion. She not know it."

The three girls shared a glance, then Ukyou nodded. "It's our duty to find out what's going on. If he's using negative emotions, he could hurt himself. Let's go talk to Cologne for a better explanation."

Akane scowled, while Ukyou looked smug, and the three headed towards the Nekohanten. Neither Akane nor Ukyou realized that they were skipping school at that point, but with all the kidnappings and challenges, one day's attendance would make no difference, and half of the class was off watching Ranma fold paper in competition anyway.

Cologne looked up as the trio of fiancées entered, then frowned. "You aren't… Shampoo, did you tell them?"

Shampoo nodded. "Shampoo want to help Airen."

Ukyou nodded quickly in agreement, and after a moment, Akane sighed and nodded as well.

The Amazon matriarch scowled, then summoned Mousse.

Mouse glowered at the cash register. "What do you want?"

Rubbing her forehead again, Cologne considered, not for the first time, stapling Mousse's glasses in place. She resisted the temptation with temperance of three thousand years of Amazon tradition. "Ahem. Mousse, go pick up all of the supplies for the restaurant. I expect you to have them all back by five o'clock, or I will be very displeased."

Mousse lowered his glasses, and accepted a list from the old woman. Scanning it over, his face contorted in a comically confused expression, as he whined, "There's only one item!"

Cologne growled, "Go, Mr. Part-Time!"

The master of hidden weapons grumbled to himself as he left, trotting out the door and disappearing from sight.

The trio of fiancées watched him exit in silence. Ukyou broke the quiet that had descended first, sarcastically noting, "Um… isn't he going to come back really soon, since there's, well, one item on the list?" She shot Cologne a look that spoke volumes of skepticism.

Shampoo answered before Cologne could. "Mousse want to annoy Great-grandmother. He not be back until just before five."

Ukyou shut her mouth quickly, while Akane shot her a smug look.

Cologne grumbled, "Children these days. I swear. Did you forget why you came here?"

Shampoo shook her head quickly. "No, Great-grandmother. Shampoo and Vio-- uh… Akane and Ukyou want to help Airen. Not want him to hurt himself with bad technique."

The old woman pogoed over to a table then nodded to herself, hiding a smile. "Good. Good. First, what do you understand of ki, children?"

Akane volunteered an answer first, "It's… kind of… the life force in everything. Right?"

Cologne cocked her head to one side, then nodded. "That's… a bit simplified, but yes. Let's delve into that a little more, though. How does Ryouga use a shi shi houkodan? Or Ranma use his own attack?"

Ukyou smirked. "The mouko takabisha?"

The matriarch scowled. "That's only what he calls it, child. It's not what it really is. The real mouko takabisha is an internalized technique, not an outward one."

They blinked, mulling this over. Shampoo went next, struggling to express herself in her Japanese, "When Lost-boy use shi shi houkodan, he make depression. Depression bleed off lost-boy, then he use it to throw ki at Airen."

The youngest Tendo looked surprised for a moment, then nodded. A certain… heavy… feeling hung in the air whenever Ryouga prepared to use his attack. The feeling near Ranma was different. She spoke slowly, struggling to remember the last time he had actually used it. "Let's see… he was fighting Hinako-sensei, and he used it. I was actually pretty close to him once."

Cologne raised an eyebrow. "And what did it feel like?"

Akane winced, and tried to shrug off Ukyou and Shampoo's gazes. "Um… I don't know. I can't really see ki that well. It was, ah… wild. Kind of like the energy in the area was charged, and not sure if it wanted to be heavy like Ryouga's, or light…" She trailed off, considering.

The matriarch nodded again, commenting, "Much as I expected. Confidence would feel like a force radiating from him, and pushing everything else away. It shouldn't just sit there and be agitated. What kind of emotion reflects that? What emotion rules Ranma more than anything else?"

Akane rolled her eyes, complaining, "Arrogance. He's got enough confidence for most nuclear powers, and a few third-world nations besides."

Ukyou scowled, but said nothing.

Shampoo hesitantly said, "Shampoo not so sure… Ranma not very confident when Shampoo try to sleep with him…"

Ukyou blanched, and put a restraining hand on Akane's shoulder, as the youngest Tendo girl glowered at Shampoo. "Calm down now, Akane --" she began, cutting off suddenly, and frowning at Shampoo. "Wait… you tried to sleep with my Ranchan!? You… you… you…"

Cologne closed her eyes and calmly counted to ten, using a technique to disable her senses, so she wouldn't be able to hear or see anything until she was ready. She spent a few blissful seconds submerged in her subconscious, but the yelling overcame even her three thousand five hundred years of Amazon tradition. She stopped it with a bellow, "Enough! You three, leave now. I'm not going to deal with you anymore today."

Akane and Ukyou colored, and fled, while Shampoo simply gawked. Normally when Cologne was upset, she would express it with the stick. After a half-second of deliberation, she decided to flee with the other girls.

Cologne's sinister scowl shifted subtly, becoming a sly smirk, as she nodded to herself. Delicate, careful pressures, to make a perfect gem.

Sitting in the Ucchan, the three girls agreed on a temporary truce. The true source of one of Ranma's seemingly more devastating attacks had to be discovered, and necessity was the mother of invention. But the question was, if it wasn't confidence that he used for his attack… what could it be?

Ukyou frowned slightly, tapping the counter in front of her with one finger. "Well… what do you suppose it could be? Love?"

Shampoo scowled. "Great-grandmother say is bad emotion. Bad emotion directed outward, good inward."

Akane twisted her face in a thoughtful expression. "Bad emotion? What could it be? I've never seen Ranma show anything except confidence."

Smirking, Shampoo pointed out, "Fear."

Ukyou frowned. "Eh? How's that?"

Akane shook her head. "No, the only thing I think he's really afraid of is cats. What would scare Ranma about Ryouga? Ranma normally smiles when… well. He used to be happy to see Ryouga. Now he just gets irritated."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "Irritation?"

The Amazon shook her head again. "No, iri… iri… is anger. Only one attack use anger. Mousse tell Shampoo about it."

Akane blinked, incredulous. "Mousse knows a ki attack based on anger?"

Shampoo scowled and shook her head again. "No! Mousse see Herb use anger attack. Ranma beat attack with hiryu shouten ha."

This caused another round of speculation. Ukyou mumbled, then sighed, "Well, what is it? What negative emotions are there aside from depression, fear, and anger? And which ones would Ranma have?"

Akane raised a finger to tap her lips thoughtfully, "Let's see… negative emotions… guilt, maybe? I know he should feel guilty for some of the things that he does…" Akane wisely chose not to mention that it was the act of chasing the very same girls in that room, but continued, "Um… I can't think of anything else off the top of my head."

Ukyou crinkled her brow, concentrating. "Guilt? Maybe…" She hesitated over naming the obvious source, since much like Akane, she didn't want to be responsible for breaking the truce. "What else aside from guilt?"

Shampoo sighed, rubbing her temple in a manner that mirrored Cologne's. "Maybe greed? Airen not seem like greedy type, though…" She trailed off, uncertain.

Akane added, "Oh, what about, uh, lust? The way he's always grabbing onto the two of you?"

It was Ukyou and Shampoo's turn to exchange the knowing glance, before Ukyou explained, "I don't know that lust or greed are negative in the sense that we're looking for, and I think it'd be obvious if there were any attacks based on them. Wouldn't the old pervert or Ranma's father know them?"

Slumping slightly, Akane acquiesced, "Good point. Well, we've got four emotions here. Anger, depression, guilt, and fear. Which one would Ranma focus on?"

Ukyou grimaced. "Well, it's not depression. Ranchan's nothing like Ryouga in that sense. You can feel the depression rolling off of him some days…" She trailed off, thoughtful, then shook her head.

Shampoo sighed. "Not know. Not anger, Great-grandmother say it not that, and Herb use anger, not Airen."

Akane mumbled, "Guilt, or fear then. Or an emotion derived from those. But he looks so darn confident when he uses it! I just don't know…"

Ukyou hesitantly offered, "We could ask him to use it and try and feel it… if it's like Ryouga's depression, we could tell by being close, right?"

After another round of thoughtful sighs, they agreed to try and be near Ranma when he used the technique. Trying to read the emotion would be the fastest route to success.

Akane watched Ranma from the doorway to the living room, as he lay on his side, seemingly unconcerned. He flipped idly through his newest volume of Caravan Kidd, frowning at the latest plot from Empress Shion.

Clearing her throat, the youngest Tendo stepped into the room. "Ranma?"

He glanced up at her, then back to his comic, speaking disinterestedly, "Yeah, Akane?"

Akane knelt near him, then smiled slightly and asked, "Can you teach me the mouko takabisha?"

Ranma froze, mid page-flip. After blinking a few times, he furrowed his brow in thought and turned the page backwards, not noticing he was re-reading a page. "Huh? I don't think I heard that right."

Akane sighed, wondering at Ranma's evasive attitude. "Ranma, can you teach me how to throw a mouko takabisha?"

Ranma flipped through the pages quickly, not even seeing them as a thin sheen of sweat formed on his forehead. "Did you hear my mom just now?"

Akane glanced over her shoulder to the door, then back towards where Ranma had been a moment before. "No, Ranma I…" She pursed her lips thoughtfully as Ranma disappeared over the neighbor's rooftop.

"Well," she commented to no one in particular, "that went well."

Nabiki glanced at Akane from her way to the kitchen, then raised an eyebrow. "What was that all about?"

The younger girl jumped, startled, then shrugged. "Nothing, really."

Ukyou glanced up, as Ranma entered the okonomiyaki chef's restaurant, then smiled brightly. "Ranchan! One usual?"

Ranma's eyes darted to the street behind him for a moment, then he nodded. "Uh, yeah, sure, Ucchan. What's up?"

Ukyou shrugged, whipping up a quick okonomiyaki for her fiancé. "Not much, Ranchan. Yourself?"

Ranma slumped to a stool, and sighed, "Uh… nothin'."

Frowning, Ukyou served Ranma his okonomiyaki. "Here you go, Ranchan! Eat up."

Ranma picked at the meal, glancing behind himself nervously.

Ukyou's frown deepened as she observed the unusual behavior. "Okay, Ranma. What's really bothering you?"

Ranma dropped his chopsticks, alarmed, then scratched the base of his pigtail nervously. "Well… it's…" He seemed to struggle for a moment, then shook his head, muttering, "Nothin'. Nothin' at all, really."

Ukyou sighed. "Never mind. Oh, Ranchan… I wanted to ask you a favor."

Ranma seemed to relax a little. "Sure thing Ucchan. What do you need?"

Smiling, the okonomiyaki chef leaned forward. "Can you demonstrate a mouko takabisha for me?"

The pigtailed martial artist stared at Ukyou for a long moment, searching her eyes for something. After a lengthy pause, he relented, "Why the hell not? I ain't gonna teach it to you, though."

Ukyou watched while Ranma concentrated, forming a glowing ball of wavering energy between his hands. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, trying to read the emotion that should be radiating from him.

Ranma held the ball of energy for a long moment, and it became more and more stable the longer the pair watched it. Ukyou frowned, feeling only nervous indecision. Not fear, or guilt.

She sighed. "Okay, Ranma. Thanks for showing me."

He grunted, letting the energy dissipate. "Yeah… not that special."

"You think I could learn it?"

Ranma stared hard at Ukyou for a quiet minute, then shook his head. "I don't think so."

Ukyou feigned a pout. "Why not, Ranchan? I don't have enough confidence? I can run my own business; I'm secure in my cuteness… I don't have anything to be unconfident about!" The obvious lack of Ranma's affection went unnoticed.

Ranma fidgeted for a moment, then shook his head, "Uh, right. Thanks for the 'yaki. I gotta go."

The chef opened her mouth to say something else, but Ranma had already disappeared.

Ranma sat in a park a few miles away from the Tendo dojo, in cursed form.

The redhead was huddled behind a small bush, wearing her typically placid expression. The only difference this time was that she was comparing her reflection to a small picture of herself -- or rather, himself, at the time -- to a small mirror.

Smiling in satisfaction, Ranma folded the cover of the small mirror shut, and buried it under a small rock. Her secret was still safe, for the time, but eventually the battle for control would be lost, and her emotions would be readable, as plain as day. Not that her fiancées gave her any shortage of the emotion that slowly consumed her to the point of destroying all others.

She walked back towards the Tendo dojo, pushing those thoughts aside.

The next day, the fiancée squad assembled to share notes. Shampoo, of course, hadn't seen Ranma, so had tried to salvage the evening by questioning Cologne. "Great-grandmother say nothing Shampoo understand. Say Airen realize emotion upon reality."

Ukyou grimaced. "I got him to make a ball of ki, but I couldn't tell what emotion it was supposed to be."

Akane tapped her chin thoughtfully. "I asked him to teach me the technique, and he just ran off, so nothing useful there."

Shampoo grimaced. "Shampoo maybe have idea, but not like it."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "What's that, Shampoo?"

The Amazon sighed, explaining, "When Ranma in tough fight, he use powerful technique. Find Lost Boy, or better challenger, and make Ranma use technique."

Akane frowned. "Well, I know the idiot deserves some of what he gets, but that's going too far. Aside from which, where are we going to find someone better than him on such short notice?"

Ukyou smirked. "Actually, he's got the rival thing down pretty well without our help. But I don't think that's such a good idea, anyway. What if it's based on stress, or something like that?"

The three shared a laugh at that, and Akane giggled, "That would be funny. But I've never seen him worry about anything short of his mother. He always seems to be pretty calm."

Shampoo frowned, considering. "Not always calm. Sometimes annoy."

Akane nodded sagely. "Yes, he does, Shampoo."

Ukyou glanced around to make sure no one was approaching too closely, while ignoring Akane's obvious bad joke. "You know, if you don't want him, I'd be glad to take him off of your hands."

Shampoo growled. "What make spatula-girl think she get--"

Akane cut the pair off, "Are you two forgetting the truce already? Look, let's start thinking about this seriously. What are we going to do now? As far as I can tell we aren't any closer to finding an answer about this than we were yesterday."

Ukyou bit her tongue, then nodded. "You're right. I'm sorry."

Shampoo nodded warily. "Shampoo too, too sorry, too."

The other two girls blinked for a moment, before Ukyou shook her head, "Er… right. Anyway. What are we going to do next?"

Akane began to pace, concentrating. "Well… I think we're on to something with the Ryouga idea. Ranma's always picking on him… I don't like the idea of using him like that, because he's such a nice guy, but… we'll get a lot more chances to figure out what Ranma is doing that way."

Shampoo frowned unhappily. "Akane, if Airen use technique based on bad emotion, then emotion become only feeling for Airen. More using technique make it faster. Not good."

The okonomiyaki chef sighed. "I think that means that we can pretty much scratch that idea, then. I don't want to have Ranchan break under the emotional stress."

Rubbing her forehead, Akane stopped pacing. "Maybe we should get help on this. But I don't know who to turn to for something like this… Cologne doesn't have any useful information…"

Shampoo furrowed her brow in thought, then snapped her fingers together. "Shampoo know! Where Airen learn technique?"

Ukyou concentrated. "I don't remember that too well… you, Akane?"

Akane snorted, "Of course I remember. He made it up from watching Ryouga use the shi shi houkodan. He adapted it from that. Right? And something his father said…"

Shampoo shook her head slowly. "Must have way to learn that technique, Shampoo think."

Ukyou smiled as realization dawned on her. "The old man."

Akane blinked at the thought, then nodded. "That makes sense. Happosai… but I didn't see him around the entire time that Ranma was trying to learn the shi shi houkodan. Still, he might know something. How do we get an answer from him?"

Shampoo smirked, giving a seductive wiggle. "Getting old pervert easy. But what we do with him after?"

Running a finger across one edge of her battle spatula, Ukyou grinned. "That's even easier. We just beat some answers out of him."

Akane shrugged. "Sounds like a plan. Shampoo will act as the bait, then we'll grab him."

"What if old pervert not know?" Shampoo frowned slightly, though she was flattered at being told she was the most suitable for a distraction.

Akane heaved an exaggerated sigh. "He's an old pervert. We'll beat him up anyway."

Ukyou nodded in quick agreement.

In the dark of the city at night, a hero leapt from rooftop to rooftop. A savior of beauty, a rescuer of all that was good, and a defender of all that was right in the world. His thankless task, night after night, was never neglected, not even for an instant.

He threw his body forward, vaulting up two-and-a-half stories. Again, there were prisoners here.

Sighing mournfully, he liberated them, stuffing them into the burgeoning sack on his shoulder.

Clucking his tongue, he cast his senses out, hearing the faint keen of yet another pair of panties held prisoner. The cry was interrupted by something ever more urgent.

Swallowing, the hero leapt up to the rooftop of a nearby restaurant, and goggled.

Shampoo stretched languorously, wearing a thin white shift that managed to hint at decency while providing nothing of the sort. The material clung to her like a second skin, luring Happosai towards her, her pale skin shining under the glow of the moon.

Too stunned to properly glomp, the old man staggered forward, occasionally slipping on one of the numerous rivulets of drool that issued forth from his slackened jaw. Shampoo winked at him, raising a glass of water over her head.

The old man's brain sparked, sputtered, and choked. Giggling, he could only stare. A pretty girl in a thin white piece of lingerie was about to pour water on herself! How could the situation get any better? Shampoo winked, dousing herself, dampening the white lingerie, and… turning herself into a cat.

His brain, rapidly trying to shift back into gear, threw its transmission. Once denied his favorite source of sensory input, it shut down completely.

Shampoo-neko calmly licked herself clean while Happosai's weak struggles were halted with a few exacting hammer and spatula strikes.

Later, in the back room of Ukyou's restaurant, the three fiancées studied the old lecher. He whimpered, upset more that he had forgotten Shampoo turned into a cat than anything else. And the fact that he was too distracted to cop a feel when he had the opportunity. And… Whatever else it is that old perverts feel upset about.

Akane adjusted her borrowed Chinese clothing uncomfortably. "Are you sure this is necessary, Shampoo?"

The Amazon nodded, wearing another set of nearly identical clothes. Her shirt was green, where Akane's was red, and Ukyou's was blue. "If old pervert see girls in boy clothes, he not get too much power from us."

Ukyou giggled, "It's just a good thing that Ranchan has enough spare changes of clothes for us to pull this off. Did you ask, or just sneak them out?"

Akane flushed slightly. "Um… right… I snuck them out." She scratched the back of her head nervously. "But, um, let's finish this before we have to get back home anyway. Happosai seemed to get enough of a charge from Ranma in these same clothes."

Shampoo nodded curtly, then turned towards Happosai. "Old man, we want to know about Airen's technique."

Happosai blinked, still feebly struggling against the ropes. "Eh? You want to know how good he is, right?"

Shampoo, not quite understanding the question, shrugged. "Er… yes."

The old man smirked. "Well, he relies on instinct with his tongue when he talks, so it's reasonable to guess he'd be able to make you happy. Is that all?"

For a long moment of silence, the three girls stared at the old man, and then they flushed simultaneously, as understanding set in. Ukyou cleared her throat, stating, "Um… that's… good to know, but--"

Happosai frowned thoughtfully, then added, "From what else I've seen of him, he probably has enough stamina for a few hours--"

Shampoo coughed politely. "Shampoo hear enough for now--"

Droning on as though he hadn't heard the girls, Happosai continued, "And of course, as Akane knows he's hun--"

Akane growled, face turning crimson, "Ahem. Enough of that."

Ukyou blinked, as Happosai smirked silently. Shaking her head, she turned to Akane. "You've seen Ranchan… naked?"

Akane said nothing, merely maintaining her blush and nodding slightly. Shampoo was still somewhat pink herself, and managed, "Shampoo see Airen, too. Happosai is right, Airen is too, too well--"

Ukyou choked, eyes bulging, then shook her head, waving a hand to forestall any further speech from the Amazon. "Um… right. I'll worry about that later."

Happosai took advantage of the lack of attention to try and wriggle free, but Shampoo pinned him with a bonbori. "Old man not go anywhere. Tell us about Airen's technique."

The old lecher smirked. "Think you can hold me down long enough to get that out of me?"

Cologne's voice came from the doorway of the restaurant. "Oh, they might not be able to, but I would. Now that you three are actually trying to work together, we might accomplish something."

Happosai visibly wilted at Cologne's presence. "Uh-oh."

The old woman smiled brightly, prompting the girls to shift away nervously. "Ah! So you do know something!"

Happosai gulped audibly. "Um… no?"

Shampoo smirked, while double-checking the straps trying the old man down. "Great-grandmother get secret from old pervert."

Akane nodded. "If anyone can, she would…"

Ukyou cocked her head to one side, studying Cologne intently. "Really? Why would you help us?"

Cologne clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "I'm curious as well. I still have doubts that any of you will consider him worthy of marriage afterwards, but I'd still like to know."

The responses to that declaration varied, but all three managed to avoid vocalizing them.

Cologne largely ignored the trio, and poked Happosai in the sternum with her cane. "So, Happi, what's the secret? What does Ranma use to power his technique?"

Happosai swallowed. "The mouko takabisha?"

The matriarch nodded silently.

Ranma groaned, grabbing his head in his hands and falling to his kneed. "This sucks!" he shouted, body trembling with barely restrained anger.

Happosai slid to a halt, leaping down from a nearby fence, and frowning. His heir was having some serious trouble… It wouldn't hurt to do something nice for Ranma, the old man decided. Perhaps set him a little closer to the path that Happosai wanted Ranma to follow…

"So, boy! What's the problem?"

Twitching slightly, Ranma bounced to a relaxed stance, ready to either evade or attack, as the situation called for. "Nothing…" he muttered, shaking his head. "Just Ryouga's stupid shi shi houkodan…"

Happosai blinked at that, remembering all to well being on the receiving end of one such ki blast, a long time ago. "Ohh…" he said softly. This would make the situation much easier. With Ranma using an outward directed ki technique, essentially throwing a piece of himself away to attack, and letting himself be taken over with a negative emotion… That would change things, wouldn't it? "I know a little about that," he hedged. "I might be able to tell you something…"

Sweating nervously, Happosai explained, "I don't know. All I did was tell him to find the negative emotion that monopolized his life, and use it. I don't know what it is at all."

All four females groaned. Shampoo sat down heavily, sulking. "Dead end. Now what we do?"

Ukyou pouted, leaning on the unlit grill. "I wish we could just ask him…"

Akane blinked at this. "You know…" She trailed off nervously, darting a glance between the Amazons.

Cologne picked up where Akane left off, "…you don't really trust the Amazons, but if you were to catch Ranma and bring him to me, I might be able to use some truth spice or something on him, right, Child?"

Akane colored slightly, then nodded.

Shampoo scowled. "Shampoo not like that idea."

Ukyou balked, complaining, "Wait a minute, drug Ranchan? Are you sure that's… I mean… Seriously?"

Cologne nodded, and Happosai sighed, relieved he was forgotten for the moment. The Amazon matriarch's gaze met his briefly. "It's in your better interest to avoid letting Ranma know about this."

He twitched nervously, then gave a vigorous nod.

After he was freed, Cologne turned back to the fiancées. "So… you don't want to get the answer from him with a potion?"

Shampoo shook her head. "Is… Shampoo not want to hurt Airen's trust."

Akane frowned. "I thought your first impulse was always to try and use magic or drugs on Ranma."

The Amazon twitched slightly, then grimaced. "Is wrong, stupid-- Truce. Great-grandmother help in planning some times. Shampoo know that magic not work on Airen well."

Ukyou nodded at that. "We need to get the answers from him without forcing him, or he might not be too happy with us afterwards. I'm not too keen on drugging him anyway…"

Cologne nodded knowingly. "We could always use the old fashioned trick of tying him to a chair and simply asking him when he doesn't have a place to run."

Ukyou squirmed at the thought, nervous. "What if that pushes him over the edge?"

Cologne considered that for a moment. Delicate pressures, not hammer blows. "Good point… but do you have a better idea?" she asked.

The girls sat in a mutual silence for a moment, thinking, before Ukyou sighed, "Look, let's just try and keep a closer eye on him without letting him see it, and try and figure it out ourselves. We'll… do that only as a last resort."

Akane nodded slowly. "I agree… that's a good idea."

Shampoo sighed, shaking her head slowly. "Worried about Airen… Shampoo help. Truce still in effect?"

All three of them reaffirmed the truce, under Cologne's watchful eye.

Akane crept down the hallway from her bedroom towards Ranma's. He had gone to sleep earlier, and that was when she had taken advantage of the opportunity to take his clothes from the laundry room under the pretense of taking them to him. Kasumi had accepted the offer, not knowing Akane's plan.

The room that Ranma shared with his father was eerily quiet, with only Ranma's soft breathing to disturb the stillness. Akane frowned, before remembering that the elder Saotome had gone out drinking with her own father.

Creeping softly across the floor, Akane placed the folded clothing in the closet, then closed the door. Sighing in relief, she turned too quickly, and stumbled, sprawling across the floor in the darkness.

She swallowed back a yelp as she landed across Ranma. The only thing she could think of for a long moment was just how much trouble it was going to be to explain this one. After Ranma failed to react, she flushed, and muttered, "Well? Aren't you going to call me a 'clumsy uncute tomboy'?"

Ranma's only response was a soft snore. Akane stared, fascinated. "How the hell did you sleep through that?" she asked, awe apparent in her voice.

Nabiki's voice answered from the doorway, "Akane, what on earth are you doing?" Akane flushed even more deeply, and picked herself up off of the floor. Nabiki activated the light, and Akane flinched. Ranma continued to snore. Nabiki smirked, sparing a glance towards Akane. "Amazing, isn't it?"

Akane nodded dumbly. "Uh… yeah."

Her older sister's smirk deepened, then she shook her head. "I doubt anything short of his father or a bucket of cold water will wake him up. Though I have seen him sleep through that, too."

Akane blinked, staring down at Ranma curiously. "You've… watched him sleep?"

It was Nabiki's turn to blush. "It's not like that!" she insisted. "I was just taking pictures!" Grimacing irritably, she motioned Akane to follow her. "Come on. This isn't exactly the best place to talk."

After turning the light back out, Akane followed Nabiki to the hallway. Nabiki pointed towards the door bearing the wooden duck with Akane's name on it, and the two entered.

Nabiki flopped down on Akane's bed, then sighed, "Okay. What were you doing in Ranma's room? Looked pretty intimate to me…"

Akane flushed. "Um… actually… I was putting his clothes away for Kasumi."

A raised eyebrow met that statement. "Oh?"

"Er… it's a long story. I had to borrow his clothes. I was putting them back before he woke up."


Akane stared at Nabiki, then narrowed her eyes. "Wait a minute… I don't have to explain things to you…"

Nabiki smirked. "True. But I wonder what Ranma would think when I told him what I saw you doing…"

Akane's smirk challenged her sisters. "Nothing. Even if he believed you, he'd know better than to say anything about it. Aside from which, it wasn't what it looked like."

Nabiki sighed, then climbed to her feet. "Okay, okay… I'll tell you what, though… I won't tell him." Akane nodded. "But I do expect to find out what this is about sooner or later. I don't want my little sister getting in the 'family way' without a wedding, or anything."

Akane blinked. "Eh?"

Nabiki walked towards the door, "Of course, you might have been doing something else, but that's what it looked like to me…"

Her mouth opened to refute the accusation, but Akane bit down on her tongue at the last moment. "Nice try, Nabiki. I'll tell you when I'm ready."

A rare look of irritation and grudging respect shone in Nabiki's expression. "Touché. You're learning. I won't push anymore, then."

Akane sighed in relief that she hadn't walked into her sister's verbal trap, then prepared for bed. She would be far too busy trying to figure out what was wrong with Ranma to worry about her sister's machinations…

Akane watched Ranma intently on their way to school, noting a very slight, nearly hidden tremble in the boy's hands as he trotted along the fence.

"Ranma?" she asked, noting a very subtle jerk, as Ranma turned to face her, wearing a placid expression.

"Yeah, Akane?" he asked, crouching lower on the fence to be closer to Akane's level.

She bit her lip, watching Ranma slowly seem to tense up, holding something in. Hiding it from her. "Are you… you feeling okay?"

Ranma shivered, then looked away, nodding. "Yeah. I'm fine." After a moment, he added, "Why you asking?"

Akane shook her head, walking forward again. "Just wondering…"

Sticking largely to the shadows, Ukyou scrutinized Ranma's daily 'battle' with Kuno, noting that Ranma simply dodged a few attacks, then pounded Kuno firmly into the ground, leaving the dazed kendoist unconscious. Nothing had seemed different there…

And again, throughout the day, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary -- for Nerima, at least. The seemingly weekly challenger had been dealt with, and left afterwards. Was there even anything to worry about? Ranma's behavior seemed… normal. Like nothing was wrong.

She frowned, walking towards class, and mulling it over. What if it was just a ploy, or something, and Ranma was really fine? What if it was all a clever setup to make them think that something was wrong? But then… Shampoo seemed completely convinced…

Happosai perched on the uppermost branches of one of the few remaining trees in the school's yard. The majority of other trees had been destroyed by various battles as time had worn on, but this tree had survived, along with a few others. The old man furrowed his brow in thought, watching Ranma from his hiding spot.

The boy was strong -- immensely so. And more than Cologne had suspected. Happosai's task was easy. The boy could be broken, and then the pieces reassembled. But there was a pressing need to find the boy's weak point.

Once it was found, he could press it, breaking the boy firmly, and reassembling the pieces of his shattered psyche as he saw fit. It was a perfect plan… until then, a calling that served a duality of purposes.

Antagonizing the schoolgirls would fulfill his own desires, and drive Ranma ever closer to his breaking point, once he was enlisted to help them… or lumped in and beaten, which happened as often as not. Aside from that, there were always opportunities to glomp the boy's cursed form at home, among other things.

The fact that Ranma had witnessed and been willing to try the technique he had seen Ryouga using on own was a gift from the kami, as far as he was concerned. And until all was ready…

Ranma grit her teeth, punting Happosai over the wall of the Tendo's side yard, and took a deep, calming breath. "Damn," she muttered to herself, walking unsteadily towards the house. "Why can't the old letch leave me along…"

She trembled slightly, and held a hand over her mouth, coughing. It was always worse when she was in her cursed form; the imbalance was much harsher.

Stumbling, she grabbed the kettle Kasumi had already left on the back porch. Dousing herself, she changed back. Male again, he relaxed slightly, then ran the hot water over one hand, washing away a slight red slick. Glancing around furtively to make sure that no one could see him, he cupped one hand, and ran some hot water into it, lifting it to his mouth with a grimace.

Swishing the hot water around, he turned towards a bare patch of dirt and spat, frowning at the telltale flecks of blood. Shaking his head, he poured what was left of the hot water out over the blood, rinsing it away.

At the rate things were going, something was going to have to give, soon. He just hoped he could keep holding it at bay, until… until… Well, something would come up. Ranma was sure he would win. He was the best. He had to be.

Akane narrowed her eyes, pretending not to notice the subtle trembles in Ranma's hands -- the trembles that were becoming less subtle, with each day. Something had to be wrong, but she was afraid to push too far… maybe something to distract Ranma, and give him a chance to calm down. But three weeks of doing nothing more than watch were beginning to grate on her.

She was beginning to be seriously worried about Ranma at this point.

"Ranma?" she ventured, slowing her gait to look up at him more openly.

Ranma crouched low on the fence, scowling slightly. "Yeah?" he answered.

"Would… would you like to see a movie after school? Or maybe get some ice cream?" Biting her lip, and hoping that she didn't sound too pleading, she watched the pigtailed boy.

A light flickered in Ranma's eyes before fading, as he snorted, "Feh… A date? With a tomboy like you?" He rose to his feet again, walking away atop the fence. "Heh… I don't think so."

Akane stared after him in dismay, fear combating anger for control. "Ranma!" she yelled ahead to him. "Why are you being such a jerk?"

He shifted, and seemed about to say something, then shook his head. Mouthing something quietly, he turned away again, calling back, "Why would I want to do anything with someone as uncute as you?"

She bit her tongue, hard, nearly enough to draw blood. She was not going to rise to his goads, not this time. It was obvious that he was hiding something. Even though he could be rude, he had never been this caustic before.

Slowing to a halt, she watched him disappear around a corner, longing shining in her eyes. Why couldn't he open up to her?

Shampoo perched atop a roof, peering down at the road where Ranma and Akane typically passed beneath on their way to school. It galled Shampoo to lose the opportunity to prove her affection for Ranma on the way to school as she used to, but she was leery of aggravating the situation any further.

She caught the way that Ranma seemed to hesitate, his poor poker face telling the world that he wanted to agree with Akane, but… he didn't. The Amazon shook her head slowly, watching the boy dejectedly walk across the fence, following Akane to the school.

Eyes glinting with unshed tears at her own helplessness, she leapt away, heading back towards the restaurant.

Ukyou watched Ranma enter the school grounds warily. He had been oddly… distant the last few weeks, growing more so as time passed.

Perhaps he had never truly been close anyway, but his changes lately… She frowned, as Kuno approached him, spouting his standard nonsense. Ukyou doubted that anyone paid attention to him anymore.

Ranma moved in to strike, and the battle was joined. Ukyou stopped paying attention, instead turning her thoughts inward. Ranma would win, of course -- he always won.

But Ukyou hated feeling so helpless about the entire thing. She felt like she had nothing to offer and there was nothing she could fix, when she knew that something was wrong.

A gasp from the collective student body alerted her, and she looked up, seeing something that worried her even more.

Ranma had fallen, Kuno somehow having landed a good blow. She stumbled forward in confusion, wishing she had paid more attention. Ranma slunk low outside of Kuno's reach, clutching his shoulder like a wounded animal, teeth bared. Kuno was too caught-up in his own success, and was laughing maniacally, not watching Ranma.

And then the pigtailed boy struck, leaping at Kuno, arms extended and viciously clapped them together just below Kuno's ears, sending the tall kendoist to the ground. Ranma hissed, preparing to attack again, possibly crippling the fallen combatant -- or worse -- but Akane grabbed his arm, hauling Ranma back from Kuno.

Ranma jerked his hand free, his head hanging low, and clutched his struck shoulder again, as Ukyou finally drew close. He laughed low in his throat -- low and sinister. "I'm the best," he whispered hoarsely, "I have to be."

Akane's eyes were wide with worry. "Ranma?" she asked. "What's going on? Are you okay?"

Ukyou tried to take Ranma's hand, but he edged away, loosely pinned beneath the two girls, head still hanging low. "Ranchan?" Ukyou asked, not able to find any other words. What was wrong with the boy?

Ranma laughed again, weakly, and hollow, and a small spatter of blood fell from his lips to the ground below him. "I'm the best…"

Akane's eyes met Ukyou's, and they reached an unspoken agreement. Ranma needed help. One way or another.

Working together, the girls led Ranma away from the school. First, to get him somewhere he could recover, and then…

Ranma lay on the -- as of yet -- unlit grill, unconscious for the moment. Whatever wound he had taken from Kuno had left him weak enough that once he was alone -- save for Akane and Ukyou -- he had collapsed, still murmuring about being the best to the very end.

"What should we do?" Akane asked nervously.

Ukyou swallowed, and nodded decisively. "We need to get Shampoo here," she said. "Remember that plan we were talking about earlier, and really didn't like?"

Akane sighed, nodding. "Yes, I remember… I guess we don't have much of a choice."

Cologne rubbed her hands together. "Another mystery unraveled, heh…"

Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "It's not solved yet, you know."

The matriarch scowled, then finished her visual survey of the still unconscious Ranma. Akane sighed, while Shampoo paced back and forth nervously, clearly unhappy with the situation.

Cologne prodded a few points near the base of Ranma's neck, causing his aura to intensify, bleeding into the visual range.

The girls all blinked, alarmed, as Cologne smiled to herself in approval. "He won't wake up for a while," she assured them. "But this does give me a chance to study his ki."

The girls remained silent, while Cologne carefully passed her hand across the aura, drawing her breath in with a sudden hiss.

Swallowing in tandem, the girls exchanged a glance, Shampoo asking, "What happen?"

Cologne snorted, shaking her head. "As I thought," she sighed. "It's fear. The boy's running from it for now, but eventually, it will destroy him."

The girls stared at each other in confusion. "Fear of what?" Akane asked.

The old woman waved her hand dismissively. "Who knows? But the fear rules his life, right now. He's hardly a use for anyone -- least of all, himself. Shampoo, this boy is going to fail… I'm afraid I'm going to have to nullify the Kiss of Life you've given him."

Shampoo gaped openly, eyes sparkling with unshed tears. "Why? Is… Is Ranma that sick?"

Cologne nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so, Shampoo." She frowned sternly. "And whatever you do, don't touch the boy's aura right now. You might get some of his tainted ki."

Shampoo spared a haughty glance towards Cologne, then raised her own hand to touch Ranma's aura. Not the normal shining blue of an intense battle, but a dull amber halo.


Ukyou hesitated, then followed suit, smiling grimly.


Akane nodded, following with some hesitation, while Cologne stared in surprise.


Akane fell. That was the only way she could describe the sensation, Ranma's ki rushing through her violently, seeming ready to tear her apart, but… it didn't. It left her alone, unharmed. And falling.

It was a long way down, but the darkness was soft, comforting -- endless.

She smiled slightly, not able to see anything but the comforting darkness around her. She was dimly aware of Shampoo and Ukyou falling -- floating? -- near her, despite her inability to see them.

Below her, on the edge of her perception, a pool of light was slowly expanding. Below THAT, further away then she could truly see, despite her awareness of them, were twinkling motes of light. Impossibly far away, and certainly too far away to know how, but she _knew_ that they were twinkling.

Shampoo and Ukyou knew it too, though none of them could say why. It just was that way.

But the pool of light was drawing near, and Akane grew worried. Where was this, and what was happening? Struggling, she joined Ukyou and Shampoo, then the three wordlessly -- did words exist here? -- joined hands, and fell





Images assaulted the trio, images of Ranma's greatest fears. Himself. He was frightened of himself, his curse, his mother… he seemed to be frightened of everything remotely female.

Himself, because he could become herself. The physical change didn't bother him, they could tell, but what if it wasn't just physical? What if it became mental, too? What if 'he' was lost, and only 'she' was left behind?

His mother? That only made things worse. He had to become 'she' in order to even see his/her mother, and that only complicated matters. There was the constant fear of discovery, of failure, of… death. But greater than the fear of death, was the fear of betraying someone he loved. Betraying her hopes that he become a 'man among men'.

Nabiki, as much as any other woman, frightened Ranma. For one thing, he couldn't understand her. For another, even if it was outside the arena of physical combat, Ranma lost to Nabiki. Constantly. He never managed to win against her. And that meant that she was better than him, which meant that he wasn't man enough. Flawed logic, perhaps, but it was the logic that Genma had drilled into him. After all, if girls were all stupid (and Genma had pounded that point into Ranma quite well), then obviously, Ranma was more stupid than they were. Which wasn't manly.

Akane, because Ranma knew that he cared about her, even if he wouldn't admit it to himself. It was true, and that made dealing with Akane on a regular basis difficult, because Ranma knew deep down in his soul, that she hated him. Not always, and there were times when she pitied him… but that hardly acted as a bolster for his confidence. And if he reacted to the other girls, well, that just made things even more complicated. Obviously she loathed him; she didn't want him to be happy with the other girls either. But at the same time, he cared about her too much to do something that made her unhappy; be with one of the others.

Ukyou was just as bad. Ranma cared about her, deeply. A childhood friend was nothing to scorn, certainly. Then… there was the confusion of her gender during the initial encounter, and a million reasons to run from her. But friendship couldn't just be abandoned like that; and more than that, there was honor. Honor was important to Ranma, because it had been the one thing that Genma couldn't sell, or take away. Actually, he had, but Ranma clung to the remnants of it anyway. Of course, he could no more try and be with Ukyou than Akane, since he would be hurting Akane, whose happiness depended on his unhappiness, and his mother, since Ukyou's manner of dress would not make Ranma appear very… manly. Which would result in Akane feeling betrayed, and Ranma's mother being betrayed.

Shampoo was much the same. On the other hand, her clothing and attitude left no doubt as to her gender, and there never was a question… but she had tried to kill Ranma before, and that was something of a worry to him. Still, Ranma thought she was cute, and could tell she was a lot smarter than she acted. In addition to that, her laws said that Ranma had to marry her, and that meant honor. Then there were bonuses. When she wasn't so physically aggressive, she was friendly, she knew about at least half of the magical items and problems that Ranma stumbled across, and her grandmother was a source of knowledge even deeper of that.

Which meant that Ranma was in a quandary, since he was honor-bound to marry all three, but quite obviously, couldn't. Even if honor weren't involved, Ranma cared about the three of them, and that was more important than just honor. But how could he make them all happy? He couldn't. So he just waited, trying to maintain the status quo without ever shifting the balance one way or another, hoping, somehow, things would resolve themselves.

Akane staggered back, even as Cologne scowled, and shook her head. "Shampoo, I'm very disappointed in you!"

Shampoo said nothing, only staring at the other two girls and trying to work her jaw.

Ukyou sank to her knees, pulling her hand away, and began to sob.

Cologne growled, shaking her head over Ranma's prone form.

Akane cleared her throat, the vivid memory of Ranma's pain and fear still echoing through her. And she knew that there was even more pain than that, that she hadn't seen yet. "What… do we do now?"

Ukyou glared at Akane, remembering vividly. Wiping away an errant tear, she spat, "I can't believe how much you hurt him! You… bitch!"

Akane recoiled, stung, then muttered, "I didn't want to hurt him… I never knew…"

Shampoo nodded, still dazed. "Airen… need help-"

Cologne interrupted the younger Amazon’s tirade, "No. Shampoo, I doubt that you have what it takes to help Ranma at this point."

Shampoo swallowed, then shook her head, tears shining in her eyes, "Shampoo hurt Airen. Shampoo owe him. Not care if other marries Airen. Shampoo help anyway."

The matriarch recoiled at the determination in Shampoo's eyes, then growled, "Damnation girl, do you really think that…" she let her statement trail off there. "Well… I suppose if all three of you truly wanted to help him… at any cost…" She hid a smile to herself as the three traded a glance. Of course… this could be just as good. Ranma had enough strength to control his fear, and if…

Ukyou nodded quickly. "Damn straight, I'm willing!"

Shampoo nodded, then turned to Akane. The youngest Tendo paused then sighed. "I want to help him. But what can we do?"


To be continued.

Author's notes:

And why not? If you think about it, it's almost feasible. Obviously not to the extent that I've taken it, but you have to wonder…

Chapter 2
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