Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Thinking in Circles ( Chapter 28 )

[ 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 winced as she sampled the latest attempt by the Tendo girl at preparing a meal. It turned out that appearances were indeed far less grotesque than the resulting flavor, being somewhat between horrible and utterly toxic. It was a very good thing that she had trained early in her life to resist poisons of every known kind because the aftertaste of that very mild sample made her suspect that a new kind had just been brewed from a seemingly harmless recipe for Tempura.

"Well?" Akane asked nervously, "How is it? Is it any good?"

Cologne forced her eyes to open and refocus on the shorthaired girl. She was not at all surprised to find her vision doubled, but it cleared itself up after a moment of concentration

"No child," Cologne said as gently as she could manage, "I'm afraid you do need more practice."

She could see how deflated the Japanese girl before her was at the kindly attempt at being honest and for some reason she felt bad about causing her to suffer such humiliation. How odd that she, an Elder with a reputation for ruthlessness, should be affected by the girl's innocent charm. Akane Tendo was the type of person who could seem so sweet and harmless on most occasions, yet revert to utter savagery on a moment's notice. In spite of this child's temper rivaling a certain Demon Hunter Cologne knew all too well, she really did project an air of earnestness that made you want to shelter her from the brutal truth of her utter incapacity for domestic service.

And it was really quite amazing…or appalling when she thought about it. She had stood there watching the girl prepare her ingredients and mix them in the pot, studied her motions carefully and was quite certain this time that she had preempted several attempts at adding the wrong materials, as she had during her previous attempts. This time Akane's well-meaning attempts at "improving" on the recipe had not done more harm than if she had intended to deliberately spoil the mixture. How then could Cologne account for the results turning out to be just as awful?

Still some maternal quirk in her nature prompted Cologne to try to sound encouraging, "Don't let it depress you, child, many of the finest chefs started out barely able to boil water, and there is no shame in admitting that your talents may lay elsewhere. Many of our finest warriors have no skills around the house whatsoever. Why, Shampoo's mother can barely cook rice without setting her own house on fire. It is the men in our village who are expected to carry the burdens of preparing our dinner."

"Maybe so, Elder," Akane replied, "But I want so much for Ryoga to like something I make for him, and not just pretend to like it. I feel so bad about him getting sick like that…I…guess I added a little too much paprika to those lentils…"

"That wasn't paprika, child," Cologne said as gently as she could manage, "That was basil, and you mixed the cinnamon up with the garlic. You really must make a point of reading the labels on ingredient containers before you use them."

"Oh," Akane looked crestfallen, "I guess maybe I ought to be more careful…"

Cologne gave the shorthaired girl a kindly smile and said, "You'll learn in time, child. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. Why, when I was your age there were a great many things that seemed utterly beyond my wildest hopes of achievement, and now I can do them in my sleep…"

"Like the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken?" Akane asked with a slight smile, then held up a bag of chestnuts that she had pulled out of her pack and casually tore the bag open.

Cologne's eyebrows raised by a fraction as she watched the Tendo girl empty the bag into their campfire, then compose herself before taking a deep breath and uttering a kii.

Akane's hands moved like a blur into the fire, and moments later she held up both fists, which were full of partially roasted chestnuts. She smiled triumphantly, then her expression took on a strange cast before she dropped the nuts and began to blow upon her fingers.

"You have been practicing the Amaguriken?" Cologne asked in no little surprise.

"Yeah," Akane said as she shook her hands before blowing on them again, "On my own for the past week, ever since you showed it off in front of Ranma."

Cologne found that she was actually impressed on hearing this, not so much with the girl's achievement as the initiative that she displayed in seeking to master the technique on her own without supervision. She estimated that-at present level-she had achieved a rate of over sixty punches in one second, far slower even than Ryoga's eighty punch record, which was still pretty formidable for a relative novice but a far cry from Shampoo's average of one hundred and twenty punches, or even of Ranma's record one hundred fifty blows that could be achieved in his female form. She understood why the girl before her was far slower than Cologne sensed was her full potential and decided, on a whim, to explain it for her benefit.

"Child," the Elder began, "The Amaguriken is a formidable technique that nearly all Amazons master when they are very young, but it also takes time to gain fully perfect its usage. One of the secrets to speed is not to put too much force into any single blow. You must learn to allocate less force to your punches and gradually increase your speed, and only when you have gained sufficient speed then you can slowly learn to increase your power levels. Merely throwing a lot of punches at your opponent will not win the fight if you tire yourself out too soon in the process. Speed first, power second, that is the key to achieving the Amaguriken's full potential."

"I see," Akane said earnestly, "I understand now. I've got to work my way up to it, just like breaking bricks and boards…"

"Is that what you practice to build up your power, child?" Cologne smiled indulgently, "I've seen you chopping logs for firewood and I was wondering why you were doing it the hard way."

"The hard way?" Akane asked.

Cologne continued smiling as she used her staff to reach out to one of the logs piled up as spare firewood and leveraged it into the air, then released her staff and sent her own hands flying. In the blink of an eye she reduced the five-inch-wide log to bits of kindling, then plucked a single toothpick sized sliver from its core and used it like a Q-Tip to remove some of the wax that had been annoying her ear canal.

"Wow," Akane said in amazement, "How did you do that?"

"Practice, child, the same as any technique is mastered," Cologne replied, "So far you have trained to build up your raw physical power and have even managed to achieve a level of Chi-Force manipulation. Your hands are indeed formidable weapons, but they need tempering and refinement or else they are little better than blunt objects. Think of your hands as tools, my dear, and work upon your craft. Your power is devastating should it connect with a target, but if the target is not there to connect with…"

"I see," Akane replied, "So speed before power also means getting my punches to connect before making them hit with full force. I never thought of it that way before. Thank you."

"My pleasure," Cologne replied, thinking to herself that this Akane Tendo was indeed a very apt and attentive child. She wondered why Shampoo complained so often of her being a slow learner.

Ryoga staggered back into camp at that precise moment, looking as though he had fallen out of a tree, which Cologne took to mean that the rope had broken once again from his repeated collisions. Cologne sighed inwardly and reminded herself that the boy's persistence was gradually paying off, that he already hardly felt the result of his many impacts, so she merely turned to Akane and said, "Better see to it that my student is properly fed and rested before he resumes his lessons. Don't try to feed him your attempt this time…keep practicing on that and I will inform you when it is fit for human consumption."

"Old woman," Ryoga's voice sounded hoarse, but his gaze was as firm as his resolve as he looked at Cologne and said, "Don't insult Akane's cooking."

"But she's right, Ryoga," Akane looked down in misery and resignation, "I'm not very good. You'd be better off eating something she prepared…"

"I'd sooner eat pig slop," Ryoga's voice grated, "Than refuse anything that was prepared by your sweet hands, Akane. I'll eat whatever you made and it'll taste like the food of the gods because you made it."

"Ryoga," Akane's voice trembled with emotion while Cologne just looked at the boy as if hitting his head against a rock had caused him to take leave of his senses. Such a noble display of self-sacrifice was both heart-wrenching and appalling, but she had the welfare of both young people to think about, so she turned about with her staff "just happening" to knock the pot of Akane-made stew over, spilling it on the ground and partially smothering the fire…or perhaps the right term was dissolve it.

"Oh, clumsy me," Cologne said, "Such a careless old woman I can be sometimes. Now I've gone and ruined your lovely dinner. Can you young people ever forgive me for such ineptitude?"

"That's all right," Akane smiled, "It was an accident, it could happen to anyone. Don't worry about it."

"Some accident," Ryoga snorted, but there was a hint in his eyes that he was far from upset by this "unexpected" turn of events, so instead he smiled and said, "On second thought, anything you serve with your hands is good enough for me, Akane."

"It'll be my pleasure, Ryoga," Akane beamed happily as Cologne turned away, murmuring something under her breath in Chinese to the effect of complaining about a stomach ache that she would likely be developing before this training session was concluded…

Nabiki's Journal Resumes:

I have to confess that I'm starting to like that old woman. Lotion can be a real pain in the ass at times, but she's teaching me a lot of really neat stuff, and it helps pass the time talking to her while Ukyo helps Shampoo keep the camp in order and Ranma is off in training with his father.

She takes me on long walks while pointing stuff out to me that I might otherwise miss, like my own personal Nature Scout Park Ranger, and her knowledge of Japanese flora and fauna is pretty extensive for somebody who says that she's spent most of her life in China.

A lot of the stuff she's been teaching me has practical usage, such as knowing which plants are poisonous and which have medicinal value. I now know how to douse for water using a stick, how to judge the patterns of the weather just by tasting the air and glancing at the sky, how to call a woodchuck down from a tree so that it will accept a nut from my hand, and how to judge when a trail is safe or not…and I've got the bruises to show how many times I fell down before learning that trick!

Of course there's the philosophical stuff that sometimes stumps me, such as today when we were sitting by a pond and she casually mentioned that I should study the ripples in the water to discover a hidden pattern. I asked her what possible use that was and she just smiled, then thrust her staff into the water and pulled it back with a fish flying over our heads, landing on the bank where it flopped around for several moments before she casually picked it up and gave it a shake, after which it stopped moving.

"A fish saved my life once," she said matter of factly.

"I'll bite," I said in what I knew to be a loaded metaphor, "How?"

"I ate it," she replied before doing something with the fish that made it disappear out of her hands. Her smile was like any stage illusionist, but this time I wasn't biting.

Instead what I said was, "What about this 'Harmony with Nature' stuff you're always going on about? Isn't killing a fish a disharmonious action?"

"Not at all," she replied, "Killing for food is as natural as giving birth. Life is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and everything is a part of the greater pattern. The Wa of nature accepts the necessity of death in the appropriate time and cycle. It's when death comes before its proper time that the act is disharmonious. Always remember that in situations of life and death it is sometimes necessary to kill in the preservation of life. Killing when there is no need is a disharmonious action and should be avoided at all costs."

"Sounds like hair splitting to me," I said, "Even if you are killing in self-defense it's technically murder…"

"So says the prosecution, who believes that killing is an exclusive right of the Police, the Military and no other," the old woman replied with that annoying tone of reasonableness that she uses when rubbing my nose in a point, "But can you honestly believe that you have less of a right to live than one who would take your life in vicious caprice? What separates the Defender from the Killer is need. A murderer kills from premeditation and intent, but a Warrior kills to defend herself and her property, or to prevent the death of a loved one. What law is there that denies you the right to continued existence? What harmony can there be when Death itself is looked upon as the enemy rather than a somewhat indifferent ally or a cancer that eats away at otherwise healthy tissues?"

I involuntarily flinched from that point, regretting the old woman's choice of words as I fought a thick lump in my throat while memories resurfaced of a time that I would much rather have left buried when I lost my mother to just such a progressive illness.

"Forgive me," Lotion said soothingly as if she had read my very thoughts, "I did not mean to draw an analogy that was so painfully personal. I simply meant to point out that there are those in this world who are life-takers by nature. There is a disease within their souls that corrupts their very fiber, making them into the enemies of life itself and thus the enemy of all who cherish living. Sometimes this disease is treatable by gentler methods, but in times of crisis one can hardly afford the luxury of being gentle. Sometimes the only cure for the disease is to remove the infection from that which is healthy."

"Okay," I said rather tightly, "I go along with that. But what makes you better than the killer if you're willing to kill them, even in self-defense?"

"What makes an ordinary woman different from a mass murderer?" Lotion asked as though amused by the very concept, "Would you go around indiscriminately slaughtering innocent people because you thought it was fun or that they had done something to deserve punishment? Would you casually plan the death of a man or woman who merely offended you or made you feel unhappy?"

"No," I said, "Of course not. What would be the point?"

"The point is that you do not have the disease of which I speak lodged within your bosom," she tapped me with her staff on the chest, which caused me to flinch slightly as I remembered that this was how Cologne had applied the cat-tongue, "If you killed to defend yourself it would not imply that you were intending to kill again under less stressful circumstances. If you killed out of anger, or jealousy, or hate, it would likely be a spontaneous thing, not premeditated at all. You lack the cold and cunning malice that would goad you to plan the murder of a casual stranger, or to go into their house with the intent of slaughtering them in their sleep merely for being in your way, or belonging to a class or group that you considered sub-human."

Something about the way she said that latter part worried me, so I asked her in kind, "You've seen people do that, haven't you?"

"Too many times," she said gravely, leaning on her staff, "The Chinese government, for example, has sometimes resorted to brutal means in the enforcement of its policy. I remember the horrors of the so-called 'Cultural Revolution…'" she shuddered, then seemed to willfully change the subject, "Anyway, let it just be said that I know the difference between killing and murder. A Soldier kills because he is ordered to, but he commits murder when he kills for his own purposes, or his inner malice."

"All right," I said, "Suppose I do accept that some deaths are justifiable. Doesn't every life taken still amount to having consequences of one kind or another?"

"Indeed," she said, "And that is the other side of the equation. Knowing that life is sacred and taking it with the greatest reluctance distinguishes one from the casual murderer, who never thinks at all about the negative consequences of his actions. Let us make a small example here…what if you were to become suddenly enraged with jealousy against Kuonji Ukyo and decided to murder her since she is a potential rival for your Ranma's affections."

"Hey!" I protested, "I'd never…!"

"You'd never defeat her in a fair fight," Lotion said before I could finish my protest, "And you know that you are no real threat to her physically, so there is little likelihood that she would attack you. Therefore the question of self-defense is eliminated, leaving only premeditation as you could conceivably come up with a plan to lead her into a lethal ambush. That, of course, would be murder, however justified you might feel, from simple territorial inclination."

"But I…" I stopped in mid-sentence, recalling the waves of jealousy I had sometimes felt towards both Ukyo and Shampoo. The emotion is very strange for me, like a total overwhelming of my self-control and self-mastery, and the intensity of these feelings often frightens me. Thankfully I don't feel that way very often towards Shampoo now, but those times that I do feel it towards Ukyo I feel like grabbing a rock and bashing her head in.

"You must be very clear about your feelings," Lotion said with unusual intensity, "We Lore Masters have the ability to influence our surroundings. Our understanding of a situation gives us insight and grants us a wisdom to see the possibilities not visible to others. If you had lethal intentions towards Kuonji you could quite easily affect her undoing and not even be aware that you are doing it. I suggest you examine those feelings more closely. Far better to master them than to allow them to become your master."

I swallowed on a dry mouth and thought about it, once again feeling as if the old woman had cleverly manipulated me into thinking about my problems from an entirely fresh perspective. I had to ask myself just why it was that I did have such strong feelings towards Kuonji. I know that she intimidates me the way Shampoo used to, being a powerful martial artist with clear designs upon Ranma. I feel cramped and helpless around the both of them, but Kuonji shares a special closeness with my iinazuke that I can't even begin to approach. Her guy disguise was giving her special in-roads that I could not match, and it was killing me inside as I foamed with resentment.

"All right," I said after taking a deep breath, "I guess I am acting like a fool over Kuonji. I mean, Ranma thinks she's a guy so it's not like he's cheating on me, and she's just as scared about him figuring out her deception…."

"Not just any kind of fool," Lotion smiled, "You are a woman in love who cares very deeply about the man in your life. You don't want anyone to take him away from you, so you erect barriers in your mind to defend yourself against the awful consequences you dread experiencing should Ranma turn to her instead of either you or Shampoo."

I fought hard against the sudden quickening of my pulse as my blood turned to ice with a chill of apprehension, "He wouldn't do that to me…not Ranma…"

"Perhaps so," she replied, "But you wouldn't be the first woman who let her fears run away with her as you imagine an infidelity that is not even intended. Think well about how that Tempest Storm of emotion that you have kept hidden down deep inside you will one day burst to full life. I would that you not poison your soul with fear and petty hatred but rather see the unique potential of a situation that can help you finally bridge the gap between you and Ranma."

"What gap?" I asked, but I'm pretty sure I was holding my breath after saying this, hoping she'd give me the answer.

"You already know what I am talking about, dear," Lotion said with an indulgent smile that made me want to hit her, "You want to remove all barriers or reserve that keeps you from enjoying full intimacy with your Ranma. You are both afraid to let go of the shell that you each have enclosed yourselves within, the web of lies and self-deceit that you know would crumble to dust if you gave yourself fully to him and knew him fully in the way that any woman can know her man."

I felt myself flushing scarlet from head to toe at the way she said this. Somehow Lotion can make a simple statement like that sound like the opening passage to some torrid Shouja Manga. I didn't have to even try to imagine what it would be like to hold Ranma in my arms while he took me like a man takes a woman…and Kami-sama! Did I just write that? Excuse me while I rip out the last few pages…

Just kidding. I'm still here, and I'm still feeling the heady effects of that brief sensation that came over me like a summer breeze blowing with the scent of autumn flowers, foretelling the month when the Cherry Blossoms would be in full bloom. Being…intimate with Ranma is my most fervent desire, a dream that is no doubt going to keep me awake until late into the morning as just writing the words here makes me tingle all over. Sometimes my feelings for Ranma really frighten me, the way it shatters my resolve and totally trashes my hard-won reputation as an Ice Queen. It's like looking at his naked body in either of his two forms, an incredible inducement to forgetting everything else but the utter beauty of my iinazuke…

Okay. Take a deep breath and let's return to the other significant thing I learned from the old woman.

Lotion was using her staff to draw a spiraling line on the ground, then she drew another one beside it that spiraled in the opposite direction. She then tapped her staff on the ground and asked me what this signified to me. For once I was prepared and replied that she had just drawn the symbols for Positrons and Electrons being created in a cyclotron. She smiled at me for picking up on the difference between Matter and Anti-Matter, then asked me if they were both a part of the natural order.

"Of course," I replied, knowing by now that this was leading to something other than a science lecture, "For every positive there is a negative of equal but opposite charge. The two balance out mathematically…"

"And yet there is an abundance of matter and a near absence of anti-matter in our universe," she pointed out, "Why do you suppose that is?"

"Because anti-matter has a very short life-cycle," I replied, "The latest theory that I heard is that anti-matter doesn't hang around for billions of years like matter itself. Protons and electrons are both relatively stable, but anti-protons and positrons change vibrational constancy and fade out of synch with our universe…"

"Going somewhere that is more in accordance with their nature," Lotion replied, "An anti-universe of equal but opposite charge that co-exists with this one on a different quantum vibrational level. The same is true for time…"

"Ah!" I all but pounced on her, feeling that I had finally got one up on the bat, "But according to Einstein and current understanding of Quantum Mechanics time cannot flow backward, so there really can't be such a thing as anti-Chronons…"

"Do tell," she smiled, "Then it is your contention that timetravel is impossible?"

"Not at all," I replied, "It's theoretically possible to travel back in time using a Black Hole or Worm Hole in time and space. If you stepped out of synch with normal time it might flow around you at a faster rate, so when you emerge back into normal time less of it has passed for you than for the rest of the Universe."

"Thank you for that display of textbook physics," she said in the way that you compliment a small child who has just said the alphabet with all one hundred and seven characters of hiragana, "But what if I were to tell you that it is not only possible for people to travel forward and backward in time but that there are those of us who actually do it?"

I felt like laughing on the spot, but the way she said this was so serious that I knew better than to try. Instead what I said was, "I'd tell you that it was ridiculous, that the amount of energy it would take…"

"Is as nothing more than thought itself," she replied, "As I explained to you before, there are other forces in the universe besides those known to conventional science."

All of a sudden she was no longer standing in front of me, and as I started to ask where she was I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around, then before my very eyes Lotion split herself into two parts, then four, just as Cologne had in that fight against Ranma.

"Observe, daughter," said one of the four images.

"…The power of the mind…" continued a second.

"…Is greater than the limits…" added a third.

"…Of your imagination," concluded the forth image, and then the four combined together into a single Lotion.

"H-How…?" I started top ask her.

"Fugue," she replied, using a word I knew to be foreign, "Temporal displacement through non-linear projection. I send an image of myself forward or backward in time then project myself into that image. This power enables me to be in more than one place at the same time, for Time itself bends to accommodate my wishes."

"You're talking about magic!" I replied.

"Yes I am," she smiled, "What's your point?"

I shook my head and said, "This is way too much for me! You're asking me to believe that you can control the rate of time using just your mind?"

"More portable than any device you could imagine," she smiled, "For there is no power in the universe that is greater than the will, no device more accommodating than the imagination. Give me a lever large enough…"

She rapped her staff against the ground and it cracked beneath our feet. The shockwave swept out over the area and seemed to make reality itself ripple, and then everything was perfectly normal again as she calmly finished her quotation, "…And I will move the Earth."

I was just starting to grasp the idea that the woman before me was much more powerful than I had even suspected when she turned from me and continued on with her lecture.

"Positive and Negative are natural aspects of reality, as are equal and opposite forces of every kind and nature. The same is true of Spirituality and Magic…however, there is one fundamental error that many people make when they invoke this analysis."

"Which is?" I asked.

"Positive and negative energy are complimentary," she replied, "They do not work in opposition to one another. They balance in harmony with the nature of all things. The mistake people often make is to assume that the Negative is Evil, which most definitely is not the case."

"And that is because…?" I let the question dangle.

"Evil is imbalance," she replied, "It is inherently destructive, disharmonious and hostile to all life. When the Positive and Negative sides of reality are out of balance and turned inwardly in a destructive way the result is a cancer that attacks the very nature of harmony itself. Like a cancer it erodes the form and structure of its surroundings, tearing apart the unity of forces to create anarchy and opposition. Evil is not a part of nature, it is a violation of nature itself, and so it must always be regarded as the enemy of all life. That is why I draw the distinction I made earlier between killing and murder."

"Because one is a necessary action and the other is unnecessary and creates imbalance?" I guessed, piecing together the clues to formulate a conclusion.

"Exactly," Lotion replied, "You know in your heart what the nature of evil truly is…it is excessive, compulsive, destructive and violates the Wa of nature. We in China preach the Tao de Ching as the Way of Nature, but there is a force that we call The Opposition, or Adversary, that stands against the Tao. You will learn to feel this nature in time, to know why it is The Adversary, where it comes from, what its reason is for existence, and how it can be fought and defeated."

"Defeated," I frowned, "Isn't that a contradiction? If this thing is the Opposition to Life, or the Pattern, or the Tao, or whatever you call it, then doesn't it thrive on opposition?"

"Exactly!" the old woman declared with a smile that looked as broad as if I had just passed a doctoral dissertation, "It IS opposition, so the way to defeat it is not to oppose, but to balance. Evil thrives because men believe in its power, accede to its lure, its temptation, the belief that it is powerful when it is not. The only way to truly oppose evil is not to give into disharmony, to find the way of balancing opposites and reconciling extreme positions with temperance and moderation."

I tried to make sense of that for a moment before I said, "Balance Positive against Negative? How?"

"Imagine a thought exercise," she replied, staring off at the vast array of nature surrounding us, "You are surrounded by positive and negative ions…particles with an electron-to-proton balance that causes them to be charged positive or negative. Those with a positive charge are attracted to the negative, and when the two combine they form an electrical balance. Are you so far with me?"

"Okay," I said, hoping this wasn't the last time that I could reasonably say this.

"Now," she continued, "Imagine that you can project positive or negative ions with your mind. Naturally these ions come from within you, so when you cast out the positive ions you are left with the negative. Also keep in mind that for every positive ion you cast out it combines with a negative to form a balance. The more positive energy you put out, the less negative surrounds you, while the negative inside you becomes polarized by the surrounding positive energy so that you soon become attuned to your surroundings. Eventually you will achieve a state in which all the positive energy outside will achieve a balance with the negative energy inside you and you will be in harmony with the universe. Practice this for every day of your life and very soon you will become a magnet for stability, and no evil will be able to touch you."

"Because the balance repels the imbalance…or destroys it?" I ventured, "So you're saying that the power of positive thinking can overcome evil?"

"As imbalance poisons its surroundings, so too does harmony restore the balance," Lotion replied, "And this is why your sister is such a powerful Lore Master, even if the art she practices is very different from your own."

"My sister?" I blurted, "You mean Kasumi…?"

"She is a rare and gentle creature who brings harmony and stability out of the anarchy of her surroundings," Lotion replied, "I dare say without her your house would have long ago succumbed to the forces that are tearing it apart. You, too, have helped her hold the center by taking upon yourself the negative tasks that she can never permit to poison her own soul. You two are quite a formidable team, but the time has come to expand your horizons and become more formidable through a new and more harmonious balance."

"Wait a second," I urged, "We're talking about Kasumi here? If what you say is true about her projecting a positive influence-and I can accept that-then that means that she contains a lot of negative energy inside herself. What's negative about her life? She's always so happy…"

"Indeed," Lotion replied, "And such happiness has a price. Your sister sees the good in everyone, she looks beyond the chaos and opposition to see the harmony that underlies your existence. The negative polarity is balanced in her environment through the things she does as a daily routine. The housework, the cooking and cleaning, the thousand little chores that the rest of you depend on her to perform…would you not call these essentially negative actions?"

"Uh…for me they would be," I said, "But Kasumi seems to like doing them…"

"At the cost of her own personal life?" Lotion looked at me meaningfully, "Indeed she is happy, and yet do any of you truly appreciate the coast of that happiness? How often do you show your gratitude for her restoring order to your well being? Do you know what your life would be like if she were not at the center keeping everything else in balance?"

I felt my mouth go dry as I tried to imagine what life would be like without my older sister. I have to admit that the idea just leaves me cold, like I can't even bring myself to think of a world without Kasumi. She's more than my big sister, she's like the mother I've needed growing up, the confidant who knows without needing to be told things. I always thought she was a little spacey, not altogether with it, oblivious to significant things, and it never once occurred to me that she might actually be willing herself not to see them.

"We all have the power to project positive thoughts upon our environs," Lotion said softly, "But in your sister's case she puts out enough positive energy to dampen a Nuclear reactor. Think well of the price that is paid for always being pleasant and happy, and think well of her for choosing to use her natural talents in such a way that it creates the eye of the hurricane that is your general existence."

I was still mulling that one over when Ukyo came and found us with the disturbing news that Cologne had told her to relay. It seemed that Ryoga had finally mastered the Breaking Point technique and was challenging Ranma to fight him tomorrow morning…

One Hour Earlier:

Akane was eyeing Ryoga covertly, smiling to herself as she watched the boy eat and trying to work up the courage to say the thing that was foremost in her mind and heart. She was not as equally aware that she was also the focus of similar thoughts in Ryoga, and just like her those thoughts where charged with hidden desires mixed by deep-rooted insecurities. It took quite some time before either one of them worked up the courage to break their mutual silence.

"So," Akane licked her lips before continuing, almost as shocked by the sound of her own voice, as was Ryoga at hearing her speak at last, "How are you coming with the technique, Ryoga-kun? Are you any closer to making a breakthrough?"

She winced as she thought of how lame that sounded, while Ryoga was in shock, thinking to himself with wonder, (She called me Ryoga-kun. Does that mean she…likes me?).

"Ah…" his mouth was suddenly dry in spite of the fact he had been stuffing his face for the past several minutes, "I'm sort of getting it…or maybe I'm getting closer to mastering it. I almost feel the point reaching out to me…but when I try to reach back it…I just lose the focus."

"That's too bad," Akane said, then tried to think of something else to say, "So…when you get your focus…what are you going do with it? You're not really going to…kill Ranma?"

"Maybe," Ryoga said uneasily, "I'm not really sure I want to go that far…just punish him and make him pay for making me suffer the way he has…"

"How has he made you suffer?" Akane set down her bowl of noodles, "Ryoga…why won't you tell me what he's done to make you so unhappy?"

"I…I…" Ryoga looked down, "I can't, Akane. Believe me, I want to tell you, with all my heart I want to tell you, but I…I just can't!"

"Why not?" Akane almost shouted in her frustration, "If what he's done to you is really so awful then I'm sure he deserves to be punished, but I just wish I knew why you hate him so much."

"I…" Ryoga closed her eyes and looked thoroughly miserable.

"Please!" Akane urged, "Just tell me for once and I promise I'll understand. Was there something terrible you two did to each other that started this rivalry? I can't believe it started over bread, but that can't really be the reason why you're so angry now! Ryoga…I…care what happens to you…"

Ryoga's expression tightened with misery as he whispered, "You can't…you don't know what…you couldn't possibly say that if you knew…" his breath became ragged before he cried, "I don't deserve your good feelings, Akane! I'm not worthy of you! I-I've done a terrible thing, and I can never forgive myself! I'm so sorry…"

He started to get up as Akane blinked her eyes then cried, "What are you talking about? How can you possibly…you can't mean that?"

"Yes I can!" He snarled as he turned away from her, "You're the nicest person I've ever known, the only one who's ever treated me like a real person in spite of my…problems…but…you… you'll hate me when you find out! I can't stand the thought that I've betrayed you…betrayed your trust in me. I…I…I can't forgive myself for not telling you!"

"What are you talking about!" Akane swore in frustration as she saw the boy turn and flee into the forest. Her breath caught in her throat and then she cried out in agony, "RYOOOOGAAA!!!!"

"He won't come back, child," Cologne replied, "At least not right away. He needs time to work this out for himself, and when he has he will return, then perhaps he will find the courage to finally tell you the truth."

"You know, don't you!" Akane rounded on the old woman, "You know what he isn't telling me! Tell me now, please! I have a right to know if he…if he doesn't really like me…"

"It is not you that is at fault here, child," Cologne replied with an oddly compelling tone of voice, "And in all truth it is not really his fault either. Circumstances sometimes conspire to create situations that are not entirely of our choosing, and such a caprice of fate has claimed your dear Ryoga, which is why he is so ashamed and believe that he has taken advantage of your trusting nature."

"Taken advantage?" Akane blinked, "You must be mistaken! He could never do something like that to me!"

"Oh no?" Cologne replied, "Say that when he finally shares the truth with you, and before you ask me again I will not tell you. It is not my place to unburden the darkness that clings to his soul. Hibiki Ryoga must come to terms with the bed that he has chosen to lay down in, and so must you one day, if you really and truly care at all about him."

"Is it really so bad?" Akane asked, "This…whatever it is he thinks he's done to betray me?"

"You are the only one who can be the judge of this," Cologne replied, "But once you do understand it will bring everything else into focus, and then a time of decision will be upon you."

"Why are you talking in riddles when Ryoga is probably lost somewhere in…" Akane began.

"Hold!" Cologne raised a hand in surprise, turning her gaze to the side as she stared off the way that Ryoga had vanished. Very softly she murmured, "Can it be? Has he finally mastered the secret? Come, child, let us investigate at once!"

"What the…?" Akane started to ask when the old woman vaulted out of their campsite. Akane got to her feet, now more thoroughly confused than ever, and followed the Amazon Matriarch to the place where Ryoga had spent the last several days bashing himself against a boulder.

Ryoga had indeed feared getting lost, but for once in his life he did not care if he wound up many kilometers away from the spot he had intended. He wasn't paying attention to where he was going, which is why it was such a surprise when he found himself in the place where he had been training. The boulder was still hanging from a rope while the rope that he had been tied up in hung limply in the spot where it had broken.

Ryoga had gone from his usual depressed state of mind to a level of depression that went beyond caring about the misery of his existence. In this state of mind he had practically nothing left but his ego, and at the moment it felt like a small and pathetic thing, hardly worthy of much notice. As he stared at the rock he found himself slipping into a consciousness that was not unlike the mindless daze he felt shortly after his face had made a connection. He lost focus on the present as his mind became adrift in a sea of sensations beyond his feeble powers of description. He opened up to a state of reality formerly invisible to his consciousness, a reality in which everything looked blue and he could see the swirling lines of odd patterns surrounding the boulder and flowing all around the clearing.

It was fascinating to Ryoga, he could feel the patterns as well as see them. It was so easy to go with the flow, to see the way these patterns shaped around the boulder, and then he saw the way it was structurally put together. He could feel the pattern shape itself around a single point near its very center, and then that point beckoned to him, and Ryoga felt the pull and heeded it on impulse.

Ryoga took a step forward, followed by another, and then reflex took over as he stretched out a finger and aimed it for the spot until he was barely touching it, feeling the lines flow around the tip of his finger. In slow fascination he drew back his hand, and then he suddenly cried out , "BAKUSAI TENKETSU!" and thrust his finger at the spot with all of the power in his body.

He was almost beyond surprise when the boulder suddenly exploded in his face, shattering along the lines of his outstretched finger as bits and pieces flew in every direction. Ryoga stared in amazement at the empty space that had been occupied by the boulder, then with a start he heard a voice call out, "Well done, Ryoga! You have finally mastered the technique!"

"I have?" Ryoga turned around in amazement, then stared at this finger as though he had never seen it before, and a slow smile formed upon his face. He closed his hand into a fist and shook it at the sky calling out, "I've done it! Just you wait now, Saotome! Your hour of reckoning is finally at hand!"

Akane stared at the triumphant lost boy and felt a chill go down her spine. He was so happy and triumphant about his learning the technique, and of a sudden-quite unexpectedly-she began to feel very sorry for Ranma…


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