Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Let's Go Camping ( Chapter 23 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

Cologne arrived back at the Nekohanten in a somewhat thoughtful mood, and neither Shampoo nor even Lotion felt inclined towards disturbing the Matriarch as it was plain that her thoughts were still directed towards the question of Saotome Ranma.

The boy was showing tremendous potential, after all, but to have actually defeated her by use of a forbidden technique…that was certainly remarkable. A good thing Elders were exempt from the normal rules regarding warriors and outsiders, the last thing she needed in her life was to go through the considerable trouble of breaking in a new husband, especially one who reminded her a little too much of her first husband. Besides, Shampoo had already claimed him, which was all to the better. The purpose for marriage between strong warriors was, after all, the begetting of children, and though Cologne considered herself well preserved for her age, she did not delude herself into believing she was capable of going through that again, not after the troubles she'd had with Shampoo's grandmother.

Of greater concern was the puzzling behavior of Shampoo, who had actually stood up to Cologne at one point and defended the right of her Airen to choose to accept her or not. That was certainly atypical behavior in the girl, who had not refused a single command Cologne had given her since that incident involving Lotion's great granddaughter. It had taken drastic actions to separate the pair of them, and the incident had definitely left emotional scars on both children, though she suspected that Shampoo had felt the worst of it, believing a lie that Cologne had conveniently fed her.

If Shampoo were developing more independence then it was a basically good thing, a sure sign that the leadership qualities Cologne had always hoped she might possess were finally emerging, but it seemed more to her way of thinking as if Shampoo were actually bowing to her Airen and giving them a choice when by rights she should have been asserting herself more forcefully to gain their compliance. Either Shampoo was displaying a remarkable degree of cunning in playing to the desire of these Japanese for self-determination or…that worrisome submissive streak in her nature was cropping up once again. It would have to be dealt with eventually, as soon as Cologne could determine the best remedy for a submissive nature.

Mid-way to the kitchen she paused in her advances, sensing something in the breeze that made her mind snap back to the present. She began hopping more furiously as she headed towards the kitchen and out the back exit. Behind her Lotion and Shampoo exchanged looks, then silently resolved to follow.

Behind the Nekohanten they found the strange boy known as Hibiki Ryoga staring into a fire, his hands covered in bandages though he was gazing intently at the flames, seeing the roasted chestnuts within them. Of a sudden his hands became a blur, then he stepped back in triumph holding the chestnuts that he had just plucked out of the fire. With an exultant cry of, "I did it! Now just you wait, Saotome Ranma…!" he waved his hands triumphant expectation.

"So," Cologne said, announcing her presence, "You finally mastered the technique, and after only a few days of practice. I take it you've been hard at it since I left you here yesterday morning?"

"I've been thinking of nothing else but what you showed me," Ryoga replied, "The way Ranma moved during our last fight, there was no way I was going to let him keep that kind of an advantage to himself!"

"Excellent," Cologne remarked, "Then you are ready for the next technique I have to teach you?"

"The next technique?" Ryoga asked with a dumbstruck expression.

"You want an advantage over your opponent in your next meeting, am I right?" Cologne said with a cagey expression, "The trick I've just taught you is as nothing compared to the one I'm going to teach you, just so long as you promise to use it to defeat Son-In-Law on your next meeting."

Ryoga suddenly smiled and gave the old woman a confident look, "You can bet I will use it to defeat him, and send him to hell for what he's done to me! How soon can we start?"

"I admire your enthusiasm, Boy," Cologne said approvingly, "What say we begin training in a few days, after I put a few matters in order. I understand that school will soon be out for a one-week vacation…"

"I…don't go to school around here," Ryoga said with some embarrassment, "The truth is…I can't really find my way too good…it's hard to keep up my attendance."

"Yet you managed to find your way back here, did you not?" Cologne asked with raised eyebrows.

"Well…the truth is, I haven't really moved from this spot," Ryoga said with a sheepish expression, "I was afraid of getting lost, and I wanted to show you that I'd mastered this, so…I kind of kept within a few feet of the fire," he flexed his bandaged hands for emphasis, "I needed to keep practicing until my speed was just right…"

"You certainly are a dedicated young man," Cologne remarked, impressed as she said this, though just as heartily glad to be upwind of the boy rather than smell him, "Perhaps you should come inside and have a meal before you think about further training. A hot bath wouldn't hurt you either," she added the latter point with a wrinkling of her nostrils.

"A meal…?" Ryoga suddenly looked both hungry and thirsty, then straightened himself again and said, "Thanks for your teaching, Granny. I promise I'll devote myself to mastering whatever technique you show me. I'll empty my mind of all other thoughts but one: defeating Ranma!"

Back at the entrance to the kitchen, Shampoo wrinkled her own highly sensitive nose and narrowed her gaze as she softly remarked, "No hard to empty that one's mind. It no filled to begin with."

"Patience, child," Lotion advised, "The boy does have a few good qualities, and you know what a prize he would be back in our village."

"Shampoo know," she frowned, "Him very much have want for girl of Tendo Dojo, Shampoo student, Akane. No sure Shampoo think him worthy of her, but Akane like boy. She nicer to him than to anybody else Shampoo know."

"Love works in strange and mysterious ways," Lotion said philosophically, "Which is why I think you should spend as much time as you can around your loved ones…just to insure that they are well guarded against any surprises the Matriarch may choose to visit upon the boy who defeated her using the Neko."

"You no think she challenge him again?" Shampoo replied, then reverted to Chinese, "<Honored great grandmother of one who was once dear to me, I hope for our sakes that great grandmother isn't holding a grudge against my husband and co-wife. >"

"<That would not be her way,>" Lotion replied, "<Vengeance is for lesser mortals, not Matriarchs. I would say that she was a bit hacked off with the boy's smug arrogance, though, so it would be within her nature to knock him down a peg and teach him some humility. I suggest you counsel him not to slacken in his training. >"

"Hai," Shampoo said as she reverted to Japanese, "Shampoo know what she must do, Elder. Shampoo protect Airen and teach him what she know that maybe help him against great grandmother."

"Then there's nothing to be afraid of, is there?" Lotion smiled, "I'll make you a deal, child…look after the boy and I will see to Nabiki's training for the same purpose. The three of you do make a remarkable team, if I dare say so."

Shampoo allowed herself the indulgence of a beautiful smile as she thought of the two people to whom she had given her heart, then snapped back to reality as she heard Cologne issue orders to tend to chores around the restaurant. Ryoga offered to help with these as partial payment for his training, but Cologne declined and said that rest was more important.

After all it would hardly suit her plans to leave the boy anywhere near her great granddaughter, if she judged Shampoo's mood correctly. Amazon training was very demanding, after all, and it would be hard enough to teach Ryoga the Breaking Point technique without having him in crutches, or a full body cast, depending on just how much hostility Shampoo was projecting towards this boy who had repeatedly threatened her Ranma…

Nabiki's Journal Resumes:

I had a dream…

Well…something like a dream, mid-way between a heavenly vision and a nightmare. It began with my feeling as though I were falling naked into a body of water, and as I sank into the foaming pool I had a vision of myself changing into something other than myself, as though a masculine side of my personality that I had never before encountered were rising up to the surface, pushing aside my feminine qualities and leaving me a changed…woman…if that were the right term to use here.

I remember staring at the bubbles, each of which contained a face of someone I knew, including myself, and then I turned to see Ranma in female form looking up at me with bright admiration. I remember her coming forward and embracing me, and then a kiss that made my hair stand on end, including an odd pig-tailed braid that I was wearing for some reason…

That dream ended and another one began almost immediately as my feminine side reasserted itself, and then I separated into two images, the male aspect drifting away, leaving me standing by the bank of a stream that I remember playing around with Akane when we were both so much younger. For some reason I was wearing a hat with a pink bow ribbon tied around it as I knelt to look at my reflection in the water, seeing a male face looking back at me, and then the redhead standing just off from my shoulder.

I turned to look up, only it was a male Ranma gazing down at me with that soft, blue-eyed stare of his that always made me feel weak inside, and then he smiled at me, which lightened up my whole world. I stood up to face him on a more level basis and he surprised me by handing me a flower that I recognized as an iris, purple around the edges but white in the center, a traditional flower meant to signify something…although just what I could not remember at the moment. I took the flower and I remember smiling, and there was music in the background...I think it was "Love Panic," a song I'd heard on the radio when riding the bus the other day, and somehow it seemed right to the moment.

And then we both sensed that we were not alone, and we turned to see a group of people standing on the rise over the bank looking at us with hostile glances. Chief among them were Shampoo, Ukyo and Kodachi, but there was also Kuno, Mousse and our fathers present, and the old women, Cologne and Lotion. The focus of their gaze was directed at Ranma, who tried to deflect their anger with a hasty explanation, only to receive a barrage of attacks that left him falling back into the water with Shampoo's bonbori bouncing off his face.

I turned to see a sopping wet Ranma-chan looking up in disconcertment, and for some reason I laughed to see her like this, feeling all warm inside...and that's when I woke up, swearing to myself that I was going to cut off late night snacks in the future.

I'm sitting here chronicling it down in my notebook, to be transcribed later into my computer. The reason why I'm practicing my calligraphy skills is simple: no electrical outlets here in this beautiful wilderness setting that I happen to find myself surrounded by at the moment.

The reason for this? Well, today is the start of a one-week school vacation, and no sooner had it been declared then Ranma's father insisted that they both head off to the mountains on the outskirts of Furinkan for an intensive training session to further hone their skills. Uncle Genma declared that Ranma's barely-adequate performance against Cologne was a sign that they needed to refine his technique, and no sooner was this declared then my daddy insisted that I come along with them.

Of course I protested half-heartedly that I wasn't into this kind of intense back-to-nature stuff that Ranma and Genma take for granted, but Kasumi thought it was a wonderful idea and told me I could practice my bridal skills by cooking meals for the Saotomes. ME! Cook somebody else's dinner? I knew she had to be kidding, and said as much on the spot.

Naturally Akane saw a chance to dig in her ten yens worth, "That's right, Nabiki's idea of cooking is take-out. Can't get special delivery service in the middle of a forest."

To be fair, sisterly digs like that are usually beneath me, but considering the source I just had to rebut the charge by saying, "At least I know how to boil water without setting the house on fire," in a perfectly reasonable tone for addressing a sister.

Akane glared at me and said, "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Only that when it comes to the kitchen you're even more out of your element than me," I stated matter-of-factly, "We've both depended on Kasumi to do all the domestic stuff, so I don't see why I should start learning now…"

"Because some day you may have to cook a meal for Ranma," Akane said with that nasty edge she sometimes uses when she feels like being petty, "And you wouldn't want to poison him, now would you?"

"Moi?" I asked nonchalantly while giving my most indignant glare at my little sister, "And who's calling the wok black here? Are you saying you don't intend on poisoning Ryoga when he samples that sorry excuse you call cooking?"

That was when Kasumi intervened, handily heading off an altercation that could have gotten really personal if not for her long experience in handling Akane, "Why don't you both try learning how to cook for the men in your lives? It would be good bridal training for you both, and I'm sure Ranma and his father would appreciate having the both of you around to look after them."

"Huh?" both Akane and me said in chorus before turning dumbstruck looks in our older sister's direction. "You've gotta be kidding, Sis," I said, "Ranma and his father have been living on the road for over ten years. What could they possibly need us for?"

"Nihao!" said a bright and cheerful Shampoo as she appeared on our back porch looking as happy as a kitten, "Nabiki want go to market with Shampoo? Could use Airen help in getting special bargains…"

"Hello, Shampoo," Kasumi called out while Akane just glared in the Amazon's direction, "I'm afraid Nabiki won't be able to come with you today. She's going on a special training mission with Ranma and his father."

"What?" I sputtered, "I haven't agreed to go on this trip…!"

"Aiyaa?" Shampoo said in surprise, then recovered promptly and flashed a smile at me, "You go on training mission with Airen? Shampoo come with you! Shampoo cook meal for both her Airen, help Airen train…is very good thing too since Great Grandmother spending time with new apprentice."

"Huh?" I asked, "What new apprentice?"

"Stupid Pig-Boy, of course," Shampoo said simply, "She training him to have big fight with Ranma Airen. Ranma need special training if he keep ahead of new technique Great Grandmother teach boy who get lost looking for door and find only closet…"

"Ryoga?" Akane quickly drew her own conclusions based on the clues Shampoo had fed her, "She's training Ryoga? But…why?"

"Great Grandmother very impressed with Airen," Shampoo sighed, "Also very annoyed he good enough to best Elder. Think maybe he need learn respect for Amazon teaching, use stupid Pig-Boy for that. Lost boy have much anger at Ranma Airen, say he kill Ranma if he can. Shampoo no like this, but no can go against wishes of Great Grandmother."

Well, that pretty much clinched it for me, and I know Akane was sold the moment Ryoga's name was mentioned, which is why I'm now sitting on a log in the middle of our base camp, surrounded by kilometers of open, hilly country without so much as a pay phone within easy walking distance. I'm hungry and miserable and the insects are annoying me to no end, while Shampoo's tending the fire and Akane's busy chopping up firewood with her bare hands and Ranma is pounding on his father somewhere just beyond where we can see them…

"What are you doing, Daughter?"

"Gah!" Nabiki almost jumped up out of her skin in fright before she realized that it was Lotion who had addressed her, "Don't ever do that!"

"Do what?" Lotion asked innocently.

"Sneak up on me without warning!" Nabiki declared, more angry at losing her cool than at being surprised by the Elder as she fought to get her pulse under control so that she could assume her usual nonchalant manner.

"I thought I gave you plenty of warning, as if you needed any such thing," Lotion said simply, "It's not my fault that you were ignoring your senses and concentrating on writing things down in that booklet. Why ever would you want to do such a thing anyway?"

"Uh…just taking a few notes is all," Nabiki said evasively, trying to make the journal in her hand even less conspicuous by holding it at a low angle, "Kind of as a reminder…"

"Indeed?" Lotion asked, "And what is wrong with simply enjoying the moment and accepting it for what it is? You can't hold onto the present, no matter how hard you try. Time is like water between your fingers, it never flows twice in the same pattern."

"Look," Nabiki said more calmly, "It's just something personal I do, you got that? Now, mind telling me what you're doing here in our camp?"

"Where else should I be?" Lotion asked, "It's time for your next lesson."

"Oh," Nabiki said sourly, wondering if there were some way to cop an excuse that would be accepted by the old woman, but doubting it from the tone the Elder was using, "All right, Sensei, but your timing really sucks."

"That is a matter of opinion that is hardly shared by both of us," Lotion sniffed as she watched Nabiki carefully lock her notebook with a tiny key and put it away in her knapsack, then she was about to sling it over her shoulders when the old woman said, "Leave it here. We won't be gone that long, and you need hardly bear the weight at this time."

Nabiki let the pack fall on the side of the log that was nearest to the fireplace. She made a point to fix the key to a thin neck-chain that she was wearing, then let it hang down in the cleft between her bosoms. The light tank top she was wearing on account of the heat hardly made that formidable an obstacle had someone wanted to take the key from her, but she dared Shampoo to even attempt such a thing…not that she was entirely assured that the Amazon would feel less tempted to make the effort.

"So," Nabiki said nonchalantly, "What did you want to show me?"

"Just follow me and it will all be made plain to you," Lotion replied as she started forward again, compelling Nabiki to follow as they walked right past the fire and by Akane, who was even then delivering another killer smash at the offending log stretched out in front of her, shattering it in twain while several messy pieces went flying.

One large splinter came flying at Nabiki, who plucked it out of the air before it could glance against her skin and said, "Hey, wait it, Sis! Be careful where you aim next time."

"Huh?" Akane blinked as Nabiki tossed the chip back at her feet and continue on after the old woman.

It was about a dozen strides later that it occurred to Nabiki what she had just done. She halted in her tracks to look back towards the still stunned Akane, but Lotion would have none of it and said, "What are you lollygaging around for? You'll have plenty of time to chatter with your sister after your lesson is completed."

Nabiki had to hurry her pace to catch up with the limping old woman, then aloud she said, "How did I do that?"

"Do what?" Lotion asked as if it were a pointless question, "Your mind is reacting with greater speed than usual, that's all, and your body is slowly catching up with it. Such a trivial feat will soon be far beneath your notice. We have matters of much greater consequence to discuss, and I want your full, undivided attention."

"O-kay," Nabiki said slowly, glancing at her fingers before shrugging and murmuring to herself, "I just wish you'd give me some warning that I'm going to be doing stuff like that from now on. Time was I used to secretly envy Akane for being the tough one in our household."

"You think your sister is the strong one?" Lotion sniffed, "Her power is as nothing. It takes more than muscle and the ability to concentrate chi-force into your hands to make a great martial artist. So what if she can break wood and brick with those small hands, when was the last time she got attacked by a tree or a brick wall? Besides, the boy who turns into a Jusenkyo pig is learning the Bakusai Tenketsu. That will put to shame her best efforts…"

"WHAT?" Nabiki was stunned for a half-step, then rushed up to throw herself directly in the path of the old woman, "Cologne is teaching Ryoga the Breaking Point technique? She means to have him use THAT against Ranma?"

"Why so concerned?" Lotion asked her with mild scrutiny, "You don't really imagine that she intends to see the boy harmed, do you? She is merely using the other boy's mindless rage as a means to punish your beloved."

"Punish him?" Nabiki repeated.

"For making her look bad," Lotion leaned on her staff and said simply, "Ranma defeated a tribal elder of the Joketsuzoku, and not just any elder but the Matriarch herself. In a way Cologne is actually quite proud of his accomplishment…she still considers herself the boy's teacher. On the other hand her pride will hardly permit the defeat to go down unchallenged, and since Amazon law forbids her from issuing that challenge for another year, she had chosen a surrogate to fight in her place and humble your defiant iinazuke."

"Humble him?" Nabiki had a mental image of Shampoo destroying a brick wall with the touch of one finger, "Ryoga will try and kill him…!"

"Do you really have so little faith in the man that you love so deeply?" Lotion asked, which stunned Nabiki even more than if she had been accused of practicing altruism, "I will see to it that your Ranma learns a way of defending himself, but I cannot do so directly and must work through the boy's father. Have no concern that this Ryoga will hurt your precious Ranma. After all, the Bakusai Tenketsu was designed for work in the quarries…it has no effect on the human body."

"It doesn't?" Nabiki blinked, "But Shampoo…"

"Told you that all things have a breaking point, yes," Lotion affirmed, "But the technique that works against stone works differently upon living flesh because human beings are surrounded by a bio-electric energy field that interferes with the sense that makes the stone technique happen. The Bakusai Tenketsu can be used against wood because the substance is technically inanimate, but it will not affect a living tree for the same reason. So, you see, there really is no direct immediate physical danger, just so long as Ranma receives additional training."

She used her staff to gently move Nabiki out of her path then continued forward again while her charge stood a moment to think about this revelation, then Nabiki fell back into pace and asked, "Why is she teaching Ryoga the technique if it really can't hurt Ranma?"

"Ryoga is a beserker," Lotion revealed, "It's in his blood, which is not entirely human. He is a force to be reckoned with and a very good student of the martial arts. He mastered the Amaguriken in just over one day while your Ranma took a week to gain his speed technique, albeit of the two of them, Ranma is much faster."

"Ryoga also knows the Amaguriken?" Nabiki said in surprise, "That old woman has been busy…"

"She sees the boy as the perfect foil for honing her son-in-law's potential," Lotion remarked, "And as it is the way of the Warrior to master new techniques as a challenge this is the best way for your beloved to learn. He will only put himself out if he feels the threat of not being the best in the craft of War Master."

Nabiki had to look down as she replied, "Yeah…Ranma's only at his best when you make him think it's a challenge. I've never known anybody so competitive…"

"It's an obsession that runs in his blood," Lotion remarked, "Whereas with us the compulsion is knowledge and its practical applications. What is a martial artist besides someone who understands the correct way to move one's body in order to remain alive? We are concerned with things much greater than our own personal survival. Look around you, what do you see?"

"Rocks and trees," Nabiki sniffed, then slapped her arm and grimaced, "And bugs…"

"You talk of things," Lotion replied, "I am speaking of Nature."

"What about nature?" Nabiki asked, "It's just there…"


Nabiki narrowed her eyes, "So it exists, and we're here, and if a tree falls it makes a sound, right?"

"And why wouldn't it make a sound?" Lotion replied, "What difference does it make to the tree if there is anyone to listen, just so long as it is falling? Sound and fury signifying lumber."

Despite herself Nabiki could not keep from a soft chuckle, "Okay, so there's a lot more to the big picture than just a lot of flora and fauna, right?"

"Much more," Lotion replied, "Can you not feel it? The harmony and balance of all elements in their proper place, working together in a great interlocking dynamic? Nature is powerful because it contains within it all the potential of life itself as all things are connected by the great equation of the spirit."

"So you're saying that as long as everything's in its place it all works out somehow," Nabiki said with a slightly thoughtful expression, "And if any element is out of place…?"

"You have imbalance, a disturbance of the great equation," Lotion sounded genuinely pleased by that answer, "You will learn to feel the difference in time. Unconsciously you are already linked to the spiritual center of these woods and you could, if you allowed yourself, become its healer if you open up to the silent voice of Nature."

"Sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo to me," Nabiki admitted, "Not that I'm doubting you, of course, I just don't see the relevance…"

"Tell something about love," Lotion asked as they set out on a new path slightly tangent to the last one, "What is it you feel when you are in the presence of your Ranma."

"Ah…" Nabiki felt as if she were suddenly under a heat lamp and was profusely nervous, "I…uh…well…he…kind of makes me feel…y'know…"

"Warm inside?" Lotion asked, "Fuzzy, confused, all tied up in knots, unable to think and speak normally, afraid of saying or doing something that would convey the wrong impression?"

"Uh…yeah," Nabiki said with a blush, "That's about it."

"And, of course, you know that Ranma feels the exact same way about you?" Lotion asked with a cagey expression.

"He does?" Nabiki blinked, then became aware that her voice was cracking a little and tried to sound more even as she tried again, "Oh…he does, does he? And…how can you be so certain?"

"I'm over two hundred years old, child," Lotion said with a knowing smirk, "But I still remember what love feels like. I went through much the same experience the first time when I met a man…well, I've already bothered you enough with my personal history. The point it, you ought to be aware of how he feels about you without needing him to tell you. It's in his eyes…the one place where a man cannot lie to a woman. It's also in his body language, the one place that a War Master can never lie to anyone. He desires you with an intensity that consumes him, but he will not act on his desire out of fear of what he might do, of what you might do, of what might come of it, and I dare say you have some of the same fear yourself at heart."

"I do?" Nabiki asked in disbelief, "You've got to be kidding! Why, if it were up to me, I'd…"

"Take him like a bitch in heat and make him howl until the sun sets?" Lotion finished for her.

"Ah…" Nabiki found she could not top that one and was frankly surprised at the explicit tone used by the old woman.

"And what then?" Lotion asked, "Once you've both had your way with one another…will you then go on to marriage?"

"Of course!" Nabiki said without thinking, "I…"

"And what of your career as a young and upcoming business woman?" Lotion asked, "Will you set aside your ambition, and your education, for the sake of becoming a mother before your eighteenth birthday?"

That stumped Nabiki, and with some effort she managed to say, "Nani?"

"I know what is in your heart, child," Lotion replied, "It was plain enough at our first meeting. I've known other women with your hunger, your desire to take the world and bend it to you will, to become its Mistress by playing with the rules and breaking them to fit your needs. You have always known that it is within you to make the world into your plaything, to suck the marrow out of life and enjoy the fruits of such luxuries as you presently can only dream about. Would you give all of that up to pursue an entirely different dream beside Ranma?"

"Uh…" Nabiki hesitated, "Why can't I have it both ways?"

"That is up to you, of course," Lotion said, "If you find a way to balance romance against your business interests then you are certainly a career woman of the modern era. Warriors of Joketsuzoku do not have to surrender their status because they take a husband and create a family together, and there is certainly nothing to prevent a Lore Master from progressing, as I did while taking care of an infant."

"W-W-Who says I'd get pregnant on the first try?" Nabiki asked, suddenly feeling incredibly nervous.

"Who said it would be your first try?" Lotion gave her a wry expression, "If I judge you rightly, one time will never be enough, and you will have to repeat the performance every day to satisfy your lust for your new husband. Such intense ardor is to be admired and even envied, but you play great odds each time you choose to heed the call of your inner nature, and you must be enough of a gambler to know what the odds are like if you make love to your husband as frequently as I dare say you are like to."

Nabiki swallowed a dry lump in her throat as she thought about pregnancy and the possible implications. She was silent for a long time before she said, "Well…okay, there is that risk, but what if we, like, use a condom…?"

"Do you think you could convince him to wear one every night?" Lotion sniffed, "If so, then I'd begin stocking up right now. I understand the success rate for those is around 85% with modern latex…"

"What about the pill?" Nabiki suggested.

"Ninety-five percent effective," Lotion replied, "And there are various abortaficants that are reasonably safe to use if you prefer them. We have a great success rate in China…which unfortunately does not account for the rate at which our population continues to expand, nearly doubling with each generation…"

"So…you're saying we should wait?" Nabiki asked slowly, "Is that it?"

"Not too long," Lotion said, "Or I judge that you will go mad with frustration, and there are also Ranma's male urges to consider. If you think you are suffering badly, can you imagine what he must be going through right now just thinking about you and not even knowing what it is that he wants? At some point the boy will need a proper education."

"Okay," Nabiki said slowly, "So…what's the alternative?"

"You are most fortunate that the alternative is close at hand and all together very willing," Lotion smiled, "In fact she has accepted you both into her heart and will gladly bear any burden you may ask of her. She would even tend to your child while you go off to college, confident in the knowledge that your son or daughter will be in safe and loving hands…"

"Shampoo?" Nabiki gasped, "You're saying we should accept the threesome?"

"I'm saying you should consider it," Lotion replied, "A concubine such as her, willing to please you both when you have needs that overwhelm you, and who can fill the void in your domestic talents, is an asset beyond price. Indeed, the three of you would be much stronger than a single unity, so you may indeed consider her as an effective means of fulfilling your desires and your ambitions."

Nabiki thought a moment before replying, "Okay, I'm considering it, and I do see a lot of positives here, but…what about the negatives?"

"That you would have to share him with her at least some of the time," Lotion replied, "And accept that she will seek to give Ranma offspring at her earliest opportunity. You will also be the focus of her intense ardor and must be prepared to satisfy her urges, as I am certain she will do with you in ways beyond the limits of your imagination. You may even have to accept some of the duties of maintaining the household if she were to become sick or disabled, and none of this-I believe-you would call a burden. The real test for you is to admit that your feelings for her are as intense as I perceive them."

Nabiki was silent for a long time as she followed the lead of the old woman, then said, "I dunno…what you're saying makes sense, but…it's gonna take a lot of hard work, and…I've gotta think about it some more. Daddy won't be as easy to convince, and getting Ranma to go along with it…"

"Will be like climbing a mountain?" Lotion asked, suddenly coming to a halt as they reached a small rocky area, then turning a casual glance to one side as she said, "Have a look that way. What do you see?"

Nabiki turned with a puzzled expression, only to blanch as she looked down and saw that they were atop a rocky mountain spire overlooking the very forest that they had just been traveling through. The way down the hill looked steep and unmanageable from this vantage, yet somehow the old woman had found an easy path to climb, and Nabiki had not even paid much notice to the slight upward incline that they had taken. From where they stood she could see their base camp nestled in a small clearing half a kilometer down the side of the mountain.

"The journey of a thousand leagues takes but a single footstep, followed by another," Lotion replied to her silent query, "Looking back the way seems hard, but if you take it in stages the climb is not so insurmountable. Think well on that before you close off possibilities towards the future."

Nabiki glanced up, seeing the sun was beginning to set on the horizon, and for some reason she felt like smiling and weeping at the same time, though just why that should be was beyond her understanding…

"So," Akane sniffed, "She caught the wood chip, big deal. The old woman must've been teaching her something to allow her to do that."

Shampoo had been tending the fire and stirring the pot of cooked vegetables when she glanced up on hearing that, then frowned slightly, "Elder teach Nabiki to catch wood chips?"

"I wasn't talking to you," Akane sniffed, "I'm just wondering what that old woman wants with my sister? What's the big deal about this Lore Master stuff anyway? And why are you smiling at me like that?"

The latter question was growled at Shampoo, who just kept stirring the pot before she replied, "You sound like Shampoo cousin when she learn Breaking Point technique. She always angry at no being told why Elder do this or do that. Still, Perfume learn, become great warrior, tribal Enforcer, do bidding of Elders and no question them after she learn Steel Storm Technique. Shampoo sometime miss having cousin to talk to. Is very hard speaking Japanese, though Shampoo try learn language of her Airen."

"If you miss your homeland so much, why don't you go back where you came from," Akane threw a stone off into the bushes as if imagining striking a target.

"Shampoo is home," Shampoo replied, "This where I live when I marry Airen. If Shampoo go back home she visit family, but no stay, no even if Elder say so."

"You don't intend to go back?" Akane sounded surprised, "I thought you hated it here in Japan…"

"Why you think that?" Shampoo glanced her way, "Qing Hi very beautiful country, and White Rock hills where Shampoo grow up like no other you imagine, but Shampoo like being in outside world. Is very hard here sometime, no understand backwards culture and barbarian laws that say man is better than womans. Still…never know world so full of people, or nice things no have back home. Shampoo like maybe stay a while and learn more about Japanese, then maybe go back home when she and Airen ready."

"There's just no getting rid of you, is there," Akane sniffed as she picked up a bigger rock and threw it farther into the bushes. "You move in, take over my sister's life, force her to share that idiot Ranma with the both of you…"

"Airen no mind," Shampoo said as she casually removed the pot from the fire, covered it and set it to one side, then placed the containers of rice in their stead, "She no tell Shampoo to go, and neither will Ranma. Shampoo know how Airen think now, can understand what need to make happy."

"What they need is to be left alone," Akane picked up a larger stone and weighed it in her hand, "They don't need you and that old lady twisting their arms to make them into Bigamists."

Shampoo dusted off her hands as she rose to her feet, "Shampoo no agree with Great Grandmother methods, but Shampoo know Airen. They no be forced if Shampoo have say in this, but that enough talk. You in nasty mood, what say we fight, work off you bad temper."

"All right with me," Akane rose to her feet, chucking the stone absently to one side before assuming a fighting stance, "I've gotten a lot better since the last time, so I'm warning you not to take me for granted."

"Talk cheap," Shampoo smiled fiercely as she sized up her unwitting student, "You show what you got…"

That was when they both heard a yelp from the bushes where the rock had just landed, and then a body hitting the ground with a thud. They both turned their heads to see Ryoga slumped on the ground a short distance away, knocked completely unconscious.

"Ryoga!" Akane cried, horrified at what she had done as she rushed up to the side of the lost boy and felt the lump that was on the side of his head, "Oh, I'm so sorry! I never meant to do that!"

"Hmph," Shampoo said as she walked up, "Good thing you throw rock at head, less chance you break something, except maybe rock…"

"Shut up!" Akane snarled, "Don't you talk that way about him!"

Shampoo made warding motions with her hands, then said, "No mean make pork of lost boy. Shampoo help take him to campfire, check him for bruises."

"You know what to do?" Akane's tone lost some of its edge of anger.

"Shampoo mother great Healer of village," Shampoo replied, "Teach Shampoo many things about healing. Why you think nice Doctor Tofu take Shampoo on as nurse? You go get water from river to make compress, Shampoo carry lost boy to camp, see he no have permanent damage."

"Thank you," Akane whispered before getting up and rushing off into the dark. Shampoo watched her go for a moment then shook her head in disbelief.

"Angry girl got it bad," Shampoo decided as she easily hefted Ryoga into her arms and carried him with greater caution than she might otherwise have displayed when handling one who was basically so annoying, "Hope stupid Pig-Boy worth all that trouble. Shampoo no tell what she know, but she think maybe Pig-Boy got better than he deserve."

Of course she could have merely doused the Pig with water and let his curse speed up his healing, but Shampoo felt a latent sympathy for a fellow curse victim, and somehow she could not bring herself to hate Ryoga as she thought would have been proper. She still did not approve of the union between him and her apprentice, but for the moment she would let bygones be bygones. Besides, wasn't her mother always saying that it was wrong to take advantage of a helpless opponent?

As she had expected it was only a mild concussion. The boy's head really was harder than a rock, but she gave no indication of this when Akane returned, having torn off a part of her own gi to form the compress. Shampoo took one of Ryoga's bandanas and used it to tie the compress in place, then stood back and let Akane fawn over him while she returned to the fire to tend to the rest of their dinner.

She was dimly aware of a pair of eyes studying them the whole time, but she gave no indication that she knew that her great grandmother was watching. Let Cologne make what she would of the whole affair, Shampoo had dinner to tend to and would deal with the situation another time, when her Elder felt like raising the point in private conversation…

"Oh man," Ranma said as he stared at the darkening sky, perched as he was on a tree branch and thinking about the questions that had come to dominate his existence, "Where'd the old man run off to? Just like Pop to skip out on a workout…"

"For your information, Boy," he heard his father say from directly below, "I've been doing something very important, almost as important as your training. Did you know that Cologne has joined forces with Ryoga?"

"Yeah?" Ryoga asked, "What about it? You think she's gonna help him out the way she's been helping me? Maybe she's got another great granddaughter she trying to fix him up with."

"Foolish boy!" Genma called out, "This is serious! What I've been doing is for your own survival! It is a fundamental technique of the Anything Goes school to practice the arts of subtlety, stealth and concentration…"

"In other words you've been spying on Ryoga and the old woman," Ranma snorted, "So…what did you find out?"

"Only that we're going to have to intensify your training," Genma said, "It's a good thing we brought along the girls because you're going to need to eat regularly and build up your strength…"

Ranma turned his body slightly to the side then fell backwards, catching the branch with his legs before flipping over into a tumble, landing perfectly on the ground beside his father.

"Yeah, about that," Ranma said, "Why'd you insist on bringing them along? You know Akane and me can barely stand being around each other, while having Shampoo here with Nabiki…"

"It just so happens that Shampoo is an excellent cook," Genma noted, "Which is more than I can say about you. As for Nabiki, she's your fiancée and it's good for you both to spend more time around one another…"

"But I can't concentrate on anything while they're here!" Ranma waved his arms in frustration, "I'm still trying to make my mind up about what I'm gonna do about having both of them for fiancées and you think it's just swell to bring them together?"

"They do seem to get along very well," Genma said a bit thoughtfully, "But I was referring to your training…"

"Ah, forget it," Ranma turned away, "Nothing that old lady teaches him is gonna make Ryoga into a fighter of my class. Next time he comes at me I'm gonna knock him into next week, then tell him what I think about his hanging around with Akane."

"If that's the way you feel, boy," Genma said, turning around and starting back for the trail.

Ranma was surprised at the old man giving up an argument so quickly, "Where you going?"

"To get a shovel," Genma called out.

"A shovel?"

"To dig your grave, boy," Genma replied as he came to a halt, "If you refuse to heed my warning, then there's nothing I can do for you but say a prayer and ask the forgiveness of your mother."

"Hey!" Ranma protested, "That's bad luck! What the heck are you thinking…?"

"Listen, Boy," Genma turned an angry glare in his direction, "Even as we speak your rival is mastering the Bakusai Tenketsu."

"The Bakusai…?" Ranma blinked, "You mean that stone-breaking technique Shampoo uses?"

"The same," Genma replied, "All things in the universe have their breaking point…trees, plants, rocks, anything…including the human body."

"The human body?" Ranma asked, "So…where's that located?"

"Foolish boy!" Genma spat, "If we knew that then the technique would be ours!"

"Yeah, well…whatever," Ranma tried to sound nonchalant, "But what if he never touches me? What then?"

"You think you can dodge that fast?" Genma smiled, then with one bare foot kicked a stone into his hand, "Let's test that theory, shall we?"

He threw the stone up high at a tree other than the one Ranma had been perched in, then turned about and started running. Ranma wondered what his father was so scared about when he turned to see a hive of wasps tumbling down in his direction.

"Oh sh-!" was as far as he got before it burst on the ground, spilling out a stream of very angry insects…


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