Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Fox in the House ( Chapter 46 )

[ 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

"Hello, Uncle Saotome?" Akane asked as she entered the dojo and found Ranma's father lying on the floor looking badly bruised and battered, which prompted her to say with more alarm, "Uncle Saotome!"

Unnoticed by the youngest Tendo daughter, a furry head poked up from underneath the floorboards of the dojo to look with more than casual concern at the motionless form in the weathered martial arts gi, making a slight noise of inquiry and concern as beady eyes dilated slightly.

Akane was bending over the recumbent form of Saotome Genma calling him by name while trying to determine if he was still conscious.

To her amazement the burly fat man murmured in a dull tone of voice, "Are they gone yet?"

"Huh?" Akane blinked her eyes, "Who…?"

"My son, the ingrate," Genma risked opening one eyelid, then swiveled his gaze around until he was confident enough to open the other eye, then calmly he sat up and adjusted his glasses.

Akane was amazed to see that the man's bruises had already started to heal as the elder Saotome male folded his legs and assumed a full lotus posture. As in answer to her unspoken inquiry he said, "The boy got a bit enthusiastic during training. Nothing that you should worry about, Akane-chan, I've taken much worse in free sparring, though I have to admit that Amazon has a pretty good uppercut."

"You mean Shampoo and Ranma did this to you?" Akane said in mild outrage of the thought that those two had been picking on one during practice.

Akane did not see the furry head swivel about to look from Genma to the yard where it could make out the figures practicing there. Its eyes narrowed slightly as it caught sight of a purple haired shape standing next to a dark haired boy who looked oddly a lot like someone else with whom it was most familiar. There were two other shapes in the yard, but the creature chose to ignore them, and when the boy figure vaulted away over the nearest wall it decided the issue in the creature's tiny mind. Without hardly making any sound it slipped back again and vanished back beneath the floorboards.

"It's nothing to worry about," Genma replied, showing an almost fatalistic humor as he added, "And at least they're learning to coordinate their attacks. Did you have something you wanted to say to me, Akane?"

"Uh…yeah," Akane had almost forgotten her reason for seeking her adoptive uncle out, "There's a man at the door who wants to see you…I think he said he was a lawyer…"

Akane was amazed at how fast the fat man moved suddenly, going from a lotus position to a full run in under two full seconds. She would not have believed such a thing was physically possible before that moment, but at the mere mention of the word "lawyer," Genma was moving like a shot, heading out of the dojo.

"Wow," she marveled, "And I thought Shampoo was fast…"

Choosing to exit by the opposite side of the dojo than the one that opened out on the garden, Genma reached the nearest section of wall at a dead run and vaulted over it with a single bound of his powerful legs. He cleared the top effortlessly and came down on the other side, landing on the sidewalk with perfect timing and coordination.

"Saotome-san?" a voice asked, causing Genma to whirl around in amazement as he found a young man in a three piece business suit holding a briefcase standing next to him holding out a card, "My name is Su-Yu, and I've been retained by Kuonji Industries to serve you with some papers…"

Genma did not wait for the other man to complete his sentence before he attacked the lawyer, only to his surprise the man hefted his briefcase and intercepted the fist, casually deflecting it to one side before the man came whirling about to strike with an elbow inside the elder Saotome's guard, catching Genma just right so that he was unprepared to block the follow-up swipe as one end of the briefcase was suddenly shoved up into his face, smashing Genma backward into the nearby wall with enough force to momentarily stun him.

Genma started to shake off the force of the blow when something came hurtling towards him, and like a flash Genma's hand moved to intercept the attack, instead finding it was a rolled up scroll that he caught so effortlessly, which same he stared at in complete non-comprehension as the suited figure began to turn away, calling back in a casual tone of voice, "We'll be seeing you at the date and time mentioned on that scroll. Don't be late or we'll be forced to take action against you and the Tendo household."

Genma continued to stare at the man's retreating backside until a grunt brought his focus back to the top of the wall, where Akane was climbing over the rim, looking down at him with a puzzled expression.

"Hey, where's that guy going? And what's that he gave you?" she asked as she dropped down lightly beside him.

"I…don't know," Genma unwound the scroll and looked at it, then blanched. Akane peered around his shoulder and saw the words at the top heading and started to ask, "Is that a challenge letter…?"

"Uh, exactly!" Genma declared as he hastily rolled up the scroll and concealed it within his gi, "A challenge letter…you know the Saotome School never refuses a challenge…"

"So who was he really?" Akane asked, then frowned with suspicion, "You didn't get into trouble again, did you?"

"Uh, no?" Genma responded a bit too hastily, "Why do you say that?"

"Past history, for one thing," Akane narrowed her eyes and growled, "Don't tell me you went and made another engagement for Ranma? Don't you have any regard for my sister's feelings? It's bad enough that she has to accept that Amazon floozy as a rival suitor…"

"It's-uh-nothing like that, nothing at all!" Genma lied freely, sweating so profusely that even Akane wasn't fooled by his attempted evasion, "Ah…is your father anywhere around? I need to talk to him on a personal matter…"

"Dad's in the furo taking a bath," Akane said, "I'm sure he'll be out in a few minutes, if you want to wait."

"Uh…fine," Genma swallowed, glancing back to where the lawyer had vanished before asking in a too-casual voice, "By the way…how are you at playing Shogi?"

Akane actually brightened as she replied, "Really? You want to play with me, Uncle Saotome?"

"Sure," Genma said, "It helps to pass the time and all that. It's a man's game, really, but I figure you could learn a lot from playing it…"

"I'll get the board," Akane said eagerly, her irritation with the man forgotten in her delight at being included by one of the adults into a sport that they normally claimed for themselves like it was a test of their manhood.

Genma eyed the girl as she headed off, then mused, "I wonder if she and the boy…" he shook his head in dismissal of the idea, for once realizing that it was this very impulse to play matchmaker that was in large part the source of his troubles…

Soun was enjoying a good soak, at last able to get away from the bustle and confusion that had become a daily ritual at his home, especially since the added houseguests had taken residence and were causing him no end of confusing troubles.

It was not that he minded having things become more interesting, but he was a quiet man of modest habits who preferred the calm and peaceful life to one of endless bickering and adventure. Life had been routinely dull before his old friend had arrived to betroth his only son to Soun's clever middle daughter, and in some ways he actually missed the peace and quiet of those days and wondered if it would ever settle down like that again? Probably not, not with Amazons dwelling under his roof, not to mention a particularly irksome young boy who had begun seeing his youngest daughter on the side, in spite of the fact that the boy tended to get lost just looking for the exit.

How much like another the boy reminded Soun, grateful that it was only the son and not the mother that he would have to deal with. The idea of having such a boy for a potential son-in-law was troubling, to say the least, but he could handle that since Ryoga was moderately well behaved (at least in comparison to some people he could name), not at all like the woman he once knew so long ago as a source of endless vexation.

"Soun dear!" a voice called from just outside the furo, causing Soun to start slightly as he saw a slender hand appear through the door holding out a towel, "Are you well in there? Would you like me to join you, possibly even to scrub your back?"

"Gah…!" Soun suddenly felt his mouth go dry and his mind go blank, his eyes very wide as his voice almost squeaked, "Ahhh! No, that's quite all right, Silk! I'm just fine as I am…"

To his consternation she poked her head in through the gap and smiled at him, so heartrendingly like his beloved Kimiko that for a moment he felt his resistance give ground to a certain desire such as he had not felt in ages. She quirked her eyebrows in a fetching way and said in a sultry purr," Are you sure you want to be in there all by yourself? I wouldn't mind joining you, not one bit…"

"Ah, no, no-I'm just fine, really!" Soun swallowed in spite of the fact that his mouth felt as parched as a desert, "But-ah-I was wondering…could you fetch me my cigarettes? I could use a good smoke right now…"

"Really, Soun-chan?" she pouted, "Cigarettes? I thought you knew better than that. Those things could kill you."

"I'll be fine, Silk-chan, really," Soun assured her, then mentally kicked himself for using the endearing honorific.

"Suit yourself," she shrugged, batting her eyelashes prettily before closing the door again as she murmured, "But I can think of a lot nicer things that you could have in your mouth. If you change your mind do be considerate enough to inform me of this, would you please?"

It was with supreme effort that Soun resisted the urge to swallow his own tongue as the tone of her retreating voice caused certain parts of him to stir to life against his will. Soun lay back against the furo and murmured softly to himself, "Women…"

And yet, still, he could not in all honesty, say that the prospect of what Silk was offering him was an entirely unpleasant notion. They had been so very close at one time, and had Soun not been engaged to Kimiko in an arranged marriage…who knew what might have resulted? For a certainty Kachu was a good look at what his life might have been like had he chosen Silk over Kimiko, and he wasn't entirely sure if that was a good or bad thing, only that he had of late been tormented by the question of the different road not taken…

The door to the furo slid open again, and Soun groaned inwardly as he half-expected to see Silk return with his cigarettes, thinking to himself how very badly he needed a smoke at the moment…but when he turned his eyes towards the door there was no sign at all of the sultry Amazon Lore Master.

Instead a movement along the floor caught his eye, and then Soun gave an involuntary start, for a quick reddish form was trotting along toward the furo, not even breaking stride as it hopped up over the rim and landed in the water without ceremony or warning. In a dull sense of dismay and deja vu, Soun thought to himself, "A Fox-Spirit?"

One second later a form lurched up out of the water, startling him as much for its expected appearance as it did the fact that it was naked and unmistakably female!

"At last!" she cried in outrage and relief, "I will have my revenge!"

"A-Atsuko?" Soun gasped aloud, recognizing that angry tone as he did her striking profile.

"Oh, I didn't mean against you, Soun-chan," she amended in a distracted tone of voice, only to blink her eyes and look at him as he was gazing up at her nude form, and suddenly Soun felt very small in side as he hastily covered his eyes and cried, "I didn't see anything! Honest!"

"You-PERVERT!" she snarled, lashing out at him without even half thinking.

Silk was almost to the door with Soun's pack of cigarettes when she heard the loud crash from inside, and then she rushed into the furo, concern for the man of her lost youth replacing any thoughts of propriety and privacy that she might have learned from his people, only to stop in her tracks as she found Soun's stunned form lying half-prone outside of the furo while a huge hole had been torn through one wall of the chamber.

"Soun-chan!" she cried, hastening to his side to check on him for possible injuries, only to discover in relief that he was only mildly battered and bruised with no serious bones broken.

"Gah…" he started to sit upright, regaining consciousness with a speed that almost rivaled Genma's phenomenal recovery time, and he looked around wildly as he cried, "She's here! I have to warn Saotome!"

"Warn him of what?" Silk asked, when her Lore Master senses whispered tellingly in her ear and she turned a distracted gaze off to the side and said, "Oh no…you don't mean SHE is back in Nerima?"

"It seems like old times, doesn't it," he said almost sorrowfully as he started to try and regain his footing, only to wince when he saw where her focus was centered now, and he hastily put both hands over his manhood to hide it, "Do you mind?"

"Not at all," she leered sweetly, "But I think we should postpone this until after we deal with this latest crisis."

"Quite right," Soun agreed, only to realize that she was not averting her gaze from him, which caused him to flush red for more than just the heat he had been experiencing in the furo, "Do you mind?" he repeated with special emphasis.

"Oh, if you insist," she turned her back to him and stood fluidly up to her full height, stretching out a hand that was suddenly filled by the silver flute that she used as a weapon, "Besides which I have to warn Comb about Atsuko."

Soun was reaching for a towel as he looked at her in surprise, "Don't you mean Saotome?"

"He can handle his own messes," Silk replied as she strode out of the room, "But he's not a primary target for the Oni, Comb is. You know what they were like twenty years ago."

"Oh," Soun replied in a very small voice, his memories all too vivid of the fierce rivalry that once existed between the Amazon and the woman named Hibiki Atsuko…and inwardly he shuddered…

"Problems dear?" Comb asked as she came out onto the porch and found Shampoo staring off in the direction which her Airen had vanished.

Shampoo permitted herself a sigh, "<Depends on what you call a problem, Mother. I can't seem to get my husband to respond to me like a proper husband.>"

"<You should be patient, little one,>" Comb replied, "<I didn't instantly land your father either when I was only a few years older than you are today. If your husband is truly the man that I judged him to be last night, then you must be patient and wait until he is ready.>"

"<But when will that be?>" Shampoo complained, then in a more thoughtful voice she said, "<Do you suppose Great Grandmother's recipe book…>"

"<No,>" Comb said sternly.

"<Mother?>" Shampoo was surprised at the harshness in the other woman's tone.

"<Trust me on this, Shampoo,>" her mother replied, "<You don't want to go there. Using magic to secure a husband brings more complications than it is worth. Take it from my experience, you don't want to compel your husband's love, you want him to come to you willingly and without compulsion.>"

"<I don't understand,>" Shampoo said in confusion, "<What is wrong with using magic?>"

"<I'm no expert, child, and I'm certainly not a Mage or a Lore Master,>" Comb replied, "<But I understand enough that magic works upon natural principles, the same principles that govern the cosmos, and to tamper with the flow of nature is to risk the law of unintended consequences, such as I did when I dabbled in things for which I had only a limited understanding.>"

"<You, mother?>" Shampoo's eyes got wide with amazement.

"<I was young and foolish once,>" Comb smiled back at her oldest daughter, "<And I tried to use shortcuts to obtain what I wanted, instead of working with what I had to increase my chances with the man whom I…ah…in whom was interested.>"

"<You mean father?>" Shampoo asked, then saw the hesitation in her mother's eyes, which prompted her to blink and say, "<You don't mean…?>"

"COMB OF THE JOKETSUZOKU, PREPARE TO DIE!!!" a voice cried out from directly above their heads, causing both mother and daughter to look up in dismay as a figure came hurtling towards them like a bolt from the heavens.

Without needing to say a word between them both purple haired woman scattered, just one instant before the falling object collided with the ground in an explosive hail of dirt and rubble. When the dust began to settle a figure emerged from the resulting crater, and at first glance Shampoo thought from the way it was dressed that it might have been Ryoga, only this figure was much taller and had waist-length brown hair, and with only a moment of scrutiny could be unmistakably identified as female.

"You?" Comb gasped, producing her sword on the instant.

The figure smiled fiercely, exposing her pronounced canines like a predator baring its fangs, then she hefted a massive umbrella in one hand and pointed it at Comb as she said, "Nihao…we meet again, Comb. Long time no see…too bad for you it couldn't be longer!"

"What do you want, Oni?" Comb asked as she assumed a fighting crouch, her Chinese straight-sword raised above her head in guard fashion.

"Your head for starts!" the brown haired woman declared, bringing the umbrella back with a sweep before launching it at comb with such force that it kicked up a windstorm.

Comb naturally dodged the thing as the umbrella opened and sliced through the ground where she had been standing, launching herself into the air in an attack that Atsuko was more than ready to counter. The female who looked so much like Ryoga easily avoided Comb's sword thrusts and got within the Amazon's guard, only to miss delivering a solid punch as Comb rolled away and managed to avoid her on the follow up. The woman then took a step back, stretched out a hand and effortlessly caught the umbrella as it arched back towards her.

The woman stabbed forward with her curious weapon, only to have the thrust blocked by Comb's sword as the two began an odd fencing match that raged back and forth across that portion of the yard with all the intensity of a literal death match.

Nabiki had, by then, broken off of performing her katas, Lotion having turned to watch even before the fight was in earnest.

"Who the heck is that?" Nabiki wanted to know.

"Someone I have been expecting for quite some time now," Lotion replied matter-of-factly, "Her name is Hibiki Atsuko, the mother of young warrior Ryoga."

Nabiki's eyes got very round, and she started to watch the fight with increasing interest…

Ryoga stood very still where he was, mindful of his fragile relationship with Akane, which was why he was being so literal in interpreting her instructions not to wander off or get lost, which he tended to do under even the most innocent of pretexts.

The fact that he was in Akane's room and sitting on her bed in human form made him all the more mindful of the rare privilege and trust that she was placing upon him, leaving him in this sanctum sanctorum to the one woman he cared most about (with the sole exception of his mother, whom he had not seen in ages). Though Ryoga was intimately familiar with every piece of furniture, every odd adornment and personal article in Akane's bedroom, he was not used to seeing it in quite this way, or at the present angle of his vision, so the newness of the experience was altogether strange and thrilling for him. Even the smell of the place felt different, though it was unmistakably laced with the scent of Akane, the perfume she radiated, which he could detect like some rare and wondrous aroma. It was like being there for the very first time, and he fervently hoped that this was a sign that Akane was at last beginning to forgive him for the deception of "P-chan."

Of course as deliriously happy as he was at the thought that Akane had allowed him into her bedroom, he rather hoped that she would not leave him waiting for too much longer, especially in light of the fact that he needed to go very badly, and his full bladder was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and he would soon need to relieve himself in the worst way possible, and by no means did he want it to be where he was sitting!

"What's taking her so long?" Ryoga asked with uncharacteristic impatience, jiggling his legs to try and keep control of his plumbing, knowing that soon he would have to risk getting lost in the hopes that he would somehow make it to the bathroom on time. He fervently hoped that Akane had not forgotten all about him and would be up very soon to help guide him to the nearest lavatory.

This sort of thing never used to happen when he had Shirokuro to guide his way. The dog had been a gift from his mother and had been his faithful companion for many years. Unfortunately he and his faithful pet had been separated since the time when he had first set out on his crusade to punish Ranma for his dishonor. Two years of wandering blindly without his pet made him appreciate Shirokuro all that much more intensely, and what he would not give to have his faithful dog with him right then and now! He never seemed to go astray when Shirokuro was leading him, in fact…

A massive explosion that occurred right outside Akane's window shook the room and almost threw Ryoga off the bed. It was only by some miracle that he did not lose his self-control right there and then but was able to pick himself up and hop over to the window, trying to see what was causing all the noise he heard outside. He knew that there was practice going on out in the yard, but he would have expected Ranma to have more sense than to destroy the home of the Tendos. In fact he…

Ryoga blinked his eyes, discovering to his surprise that it was not Ranma who was fighting this time, but some lady with long brown hair who was fighting with an umbrella against one of the Amazons…Comb he judged after discovering that Shampoo was standing to one side looking on, as was Nabiki and that old woman, Lotion. Shampoo's mother was wielding her Chinese straight-sword and fending off the attacks of the new arrival, though she was clearly being hard pressed for the brown haired lady was a formidable fighter. In fact Ryoga knew the style of fighting she employed, for she had taught it to him herself since he was barely old enough to crawl, small wonder that she looked so much like him but for the length of her hair and her obvious feminine status.

Ryoga uttered what for him was something on the level of an oath as he turned away from the window and began hobbling towards the door, desperate to get down there so he could put a stop to things before they went too far, but also in great haste to find the Kami-loving bathroom before his kidneys exploded! He could risk losing his way and annoying Akane, making it up to her on another day, but that was preferable to the fury she would turn on him if he wet himself in the middle of her room!

It was an even tossup which was more alarming to him: the fact he might not be in time to put a stop to the fight, or he might now make it to a urinal before the dam burst, either way he would be some minutes before getting downstairs and intervening. He just hoped a delay like that would not prove fatal to one or both of the contending parties…

"Gaaah!" Ranma declared as he ran his fingers through his hair and voiced his exasperation to the cosmos. The fact that he was perched atop a telephone pole fifty feet above the ground, and thus less likely to be overheard by people at ground level was merely incidental to his state of mind at that precise moment.

"Why does this happen to me?" he asked of no one in particular, "Why do I always freak out whenever they do that? Why am I such a wimp that I can't look them in the eyes like a normal guy would and tell them how I feel about them?"

"I don't know, Ranma my boy," a voice replied to his dismay, "Why is that?"

"You?" Ranma snarled as he saw Happosai perched upon one of the telephone wires, "How did you get up here? And I wasn't talking to you, you old pervert!"

"Oh please," Happosai sniffed, "You think you're the only one who can climb a tree? Don't forget, my boy, I've been doing this for three hundred years, and I taught your father everything he knows, with maybe one or two exceptions."

"Why you…!" Ranma started to lurch at the ancient master, only to find Happosai quite easily sidestepped him, leaving Ranma suddenly in a precarious situation of having fifty feet of ground below him and nothing to cling on to.

With desperate tenacity the young martial artist was able to snag his feet around one of the wires to break his momentum. Unfortunately this had the effect of leaving him dangling upside-down with a slight tingle of electrical current felt through the thin material of his slippers. Ranma started counting his blessings that the wires had at least partial insulation, and without a grounding wire to complete the circuit he was spared the full shocking effect of more than fifty thousand volts of current using his body for a connector.

"Tch, tch," Happosai said from above him with obvious disapproval, "You're much too slow, my boy, and your reflexes are pathetic. I suppose you might be considered adequate for your young age, but I expect a lot more from my apprentice…"

"Shut up!" Ranma growled, "I ain't your apprentice or your anything! And I didn't ask you to butt into my personal life…!"

"But it looks to me as if you don't have any choice but to sit there and listen," Happosai said with matter-of-fact aplomb, "Or maybe I should say 'hang-out,' like you young people call it these days…"

"Don't you got nothing better to do than bug me?" Ranma said with growing annoyance, "I wanna be alone right now, don't you get it?"

"Of course not," Happosai replied, "Because it's a crock of nonsense. You don't want to be alone, Ranma…and take it from me, being alone is pretty overrated. You were just now fretting because you've got two hot babes who want to nail you in the worst way possible and all you can do is run away every time they try to get intimate with you. I call that pretty pathetic."

Ranma started to say something acid about that, stopped himself then looked off into the distance, his face sullen and forlorn, an effect not at all spoiled by the fact that he was vertically inverted.

"I suppose the blame really falls on Genma, though," Happosai sighed, "Your father was the same way you are when he was your age, always scared of the ladies, afraid of telling them how he felt, having pretty women literally fighting over him for the honor of dating him, even though he chose in the end to accept an arranged marriage to one of them, go figure!"

"What do you know about it, Gramps?" Ranma asked as he glanced up at the ancient pervert.

Happosai smiled a bit coyly, "So, you've finally accepted the fact that you're my flesh and blood, have you boy? Well, don't let it go to your head. You're a long ways from filling my shoes. But back to the point I was making…your father could really line them up around the block in his day, but he never could figure out what to do with them when he had them eating out of his hand. It's the curse of his line that makes him that way, I suppose…the Saotome men have always been courted by strong and aggressive women, it's the curse you must bear to be the latest in the line to be confronted by the Combat Fiancées."

"The what?" Ranma blinked his eyes, "Just what are you saying?"

"Ranma my boy," Happosai began, "You ever hear of a little thing called animal magnetism? Well, you've got it in spades and you don't even realize it. Women are attracted to you because they sense that Saotome men are strong and aggressive fighters, the real alphas of the pack, and not to be outdone by any lesser imitators."

"Imitators?" Ranma asked.

"Of course," Happosai began, "You know…Don Juan, Casanova, Marc Anthony, Jack Nicolson…"

"Who?" Ranma asked in confusion.

"Never mind, just believe me when I say they're all rank amateurs next to the Saotomes," Happosai assured him, "Only the kind of women you tend to attract are the ones who not only can fight their way out of a paper bag but can fold, spindle and mutilate with the best of them. The combat fiancées fight for the honor of deciding which of them will be your wife, and when that's decided they just pound each other for the principle of the thing. You should have seen some of the cat-fights the girls used to get into over Genma before they were willing to admit that they had lost the fight and only one had been the victor, your mother."

"Uh…really?" Ranma asked, "What do you know about my mother?"

"Nodoka?" Happosai sounded unusually thoughtful, "Sweet…a real lady, that one is…calm and sophisticated, nothing at all like Soun's late wife, poor thing. She could come across as the nicest, most easy going cutie around, and then turn on you without warning and show the steel she keeps beneath the silk wrapping. It's a mistake to underestimate her, as I found out on more than one occasion…"

"You tried something with my mother?" Ranma suddenly felt the urge to spout vengeful phrases like Kuno, but he checked himself after belatedly remembering his precarious situation, so he held himself to a low growl and silently vowed to seek revenge on the ancient pervert just as soon as he was able.

"Tried, yes," Happosai smiled fondly, "Succeed, no…which sorta makes her the cute one that got away. Of course Comb was a lot easier to play with in those days…can't imagine how she's managed to keep those great looks of hers after all of these years. Most women with assets like that tend to sag sometime after they have babies…" he sighed, "You're a lucky boy if that Shampoo turns out to be anything like her. Which brings me back to my original point, you being such a pathetic coward when it comes to the ladies."

"Hey, I don't need to take that from you!" Ranma protested.

"Oh no?" Happosai eyed him coyly, "I'm the one who doesn't have a problem admitting how I feel around the ladies, Ranma. You get to be my age, you appreciate them a lot more for the rare, exquisite flowers that they are, so gentle when in bloom, so much to be treasured long after their looks have faded. The problem for me is that most women won't give me the time of day, while you just have to sit there and look smug and you draw them in like flies to honey!"

"Hey, it's not like I asked for this!" Ranma said, "I never even wanted to get married before…" he faltered.

"Before what?" Happosai made a point of cocking one ear, "Go ahead, say it…you don't have to be shy around me. I know you want to say it, but Genma probably told you it wasn't very manly, or some such nonsense like that."

Ranma said something incoherent and glanced off in the distance.

"It's Soun's little girl you're thinking about, isn't it?" Happosai said with a knowing expression, "That short-haired girl they're teaching to be a Lore Master, Nabiki. Tell me I'm not right…tell me she isn't the one who got you seriously thinking about your eventual marriage."

Ranma was silent a moment longer, but then he whispered the word, "Nabiki…"

"Thought as much," Happosai grinned, then hopped up and down on the wire, causing it to vibrate alarmingly.

"HEY!" Ranma cried, "Cut that out!"

He lost his perch and started falling, but with the agility of the very animal whose mere mention could send chills down his spine he tumbled in mid-air and landed perfectly on his feet, absorbing the fall on legs that could perform superhuman feats beyond that of a normal athlete. He straightened up and found Happosai had alighted next to him and was looking up with a curious intensity in his expression.

"Listen to me, Ranma," the old pervert said in the most sober voice that Ranma had ever heard him use, "You're letting a great thing slip through your fingers because you're afraid of making a permanent commitment! You've got two women all but begging you to show them the sun, moon and stars, and all you can do is mope around and feel sorry for yourself. What a waste! Take it from me, don't squander the time you've got! Even if you live to be as old as me, you've got to take a stand somehow or you'll always be looking back and wishing you had taken the initiative…or at the very least stopped running away from those girls every time they try and bed you!"

"I…I…" Ranma hesitated, unable to meet the gaze of level gaze of the man who barely came up to his waist level, "I want…I want…"

"Yes?" Happosai smiled patiently, watching the longing and fear war on the young boy's expression and sensing a turn-about was immanent if Ranma was only pushed a little farther…

Unfortunately that was the moment when they both heard the explosion that echoed out from the direction of the Tendo dojo. Ranma instantly knew that the dojo had to be involved because past experience had made it plain how much the place was a virtual magnet for trouble!

"Nabiki," Ranma whispered, then cried out, "Shampoo!" and launched himself back towards the place that was now so much like home for him now that his mother's place seemed more like the abode of a stranger.

"Uh oh," Happosai murmured to himself, "Something about that noise sounds awfully familiar. I've got a bad feeling about this, or maybe things are about to get really interesting," the latter part he said with a smile before hurrying to catch up with Ranma…

Kasumi approached her house in a slight daze as she tried to think over what exactly had happened to her that day, but her mind was in a perpetual state of confusion, replaying images over and over again as her body moved as if on automatic pilot.

It was all so strange to her, as if it had happened to someone else and not her. One moment she was speaking casually with her best friend on a personal matter…and the next…that was the point where Kasumi's mind faltered.

What has happened to me? She asked herself in wonder. The last thing she could remember clearly was leaving the house with the intent of taking some sweets she had prepared over to Doctor Tofu and then…and then…

A vision filled her mind, causing her to inwardly wince, though a part of her would not look away or deny what had happened. There he was, Tofu, in bed with…Kasumi? How had she gotten over there, she wondered in amazement, and what was she doing in bed with Doctor Tofu? No wait…that isn't quite right…it was Kachu who was in bed with Tofu…or was it?

And then a second image, Kodachi's face looming large in her vision, and their lips pressed together as all sense of reality went awry and her head swooned as her vision blurred and her memories became hazed again…or was that really Kodachi's tongue she had felt in her mouth? The idea of it made her feel very strange yet not altogether unpleasant, but the shock of the experience made her feel a wrenching confusion that washed the experience away and left her back where she had begun, unable to clearly remember what had happened.

She was almost to the door of her house when she heard the explosion and felt the ground shake under her feet, a clear sign that something was happening during her absence, no doubt another fight breaking out, most probably between Ryoga and Ranma.

Kasumi hurried in through the door and removed her shoes before tucking them under her arm so that she could use them again when she got to the other side, where found the two combatants locked in mortal combat together. Akane was standing next to Ranma's father looking on with concern, but when Kasumi followed their gazes she was surprised to find it was the Amazon named Comb who was fencing against a tall woman who looked something like Ryoga.

"Oh my," she said, "What's happening, and who is that?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Oneechan," Akane replied, not seeing the way Genma had blanched as white as a sheet, though Kasumi did see this and wondered to herself what new secret from the past had followed the elder Saotome on his quest to teach his son the ways of martial arts glory. Ordinarily she would have let the matter go as clearly none of her business, but with two of those aspects from his past currently making a mess in the yard her normal sensibility about such things became frayed to the point of exasperation.

"Uncle," she said in a way that most people would have taken for calm, yet coming from her had the effect of raising her voice in a tirade, "Who is that fighting with your old girlfriend?"

"Girlfriend?" Genma swallowed, his face belying any pretense of disinterest as he tried to act nonchalant, and failed badly, "What do you mean? I don't even know the lady…now, if you'll excuse me…"

"Hold it!" Akane growled, taking firm grip over the larger man's gi, so that Genma's feet began to pump yet he made no progress forward, "Oneechan just asked you a question, Saotome-san. Now what do you know about that woman, and why does she remind me so much of Ryoga?"

"I don't know," Genma all but wailed, "I never saw her before in my life!"

That was when Soun entered the room, hastily pulling on his brown gi and looking like he had just stepped out of the tub and slipped on a bar of soap in the process. His tone-while arguably never all that calm and focused at the best of times-sounded deeply distressed with worry as he cried, "Saotome, she's back! I saw Atsuko rising out of the water and…!"

"Atsuko?" Akane blinked, "Atsuko…as in Hibiki? As in Ryoga-kun's…?"

"MOTHER!" a desperate cry caused Akane's head to whip around with a speed that might have given a less well trained person a case of whiplash. Ryoga was stumbling down the stairs with such haste that he actually tripped and fell part of the way in a tumble, only to get to his feet once again as he cried once more, "MOTHER!" right before he ran into a wall, turning the wrong way from what he had intended.

"Oh," Akane turned back to stare at the fight raging in the garden, belatedly realizing that it was potentially her mother-in-law who was currently pressing her attack against Shampoo's mother.

Kasumi followed all of this with all the understanding of someone who had just walked into the middle of a soap opera. She briefly wondered if Ryoga would be all right before turning her own worried gaze towards the continuing battle, thinking to herself that this was the sort of thing that could drive a normally patient person to distraction…

"Unhand me, you…you lunatic! How dare you do this to me, your son of all people!"

"Hey, can't take the heat, stay outta th' sun, lil' Kahuna! Ya gotta move fast if ya wanna beat yer old man…"

Kodachi tried to block out the noises that she heard raging in the hallway, wishing her bedroom was as sound-proofed as the special "playroom" that she used to…entertain some house guests. It did little good to pretend disinterest over these affairs. It was quite obvious that their father had gone mad during his years of isolation, to say nothing of those follow-up years when he had learned to "party hardy" with the native peasants.

Kodachi stared out the window to her room and felt a chill run down her spine, causing her to hug herself as she felt emotions creeping over her that she had managed to block out for years, yet which were threatening to drown her in the angry voices that too often echoed about her mind. Ordinarily she would try to drown out those voices with one of her concocted potions that used an extract of the juice that she derived from the Black Roses of her garden, but of late she had stopped taking her self-prescribed medication. She had found she no longer needed to be drugged when she was in the presence of Tendo Kasumi, for the voices never intruded on her when the calming presence of the older girl was upon her.

Her mind flashed back to the moment when she had finally worked up the courage to make her move on her beloved, only to be thwarted by her father's most untimely arrival. If Sasuke had not interrupted them when he did she was confident that she would have made Kasumi her latest conquest, only she perversely found that she was glad for the interruption. It had been premature, too sudden, not at all what the other girl had been prepared to experience. Kodachi realized this when she saw the terrified look in her friend's eyes, which as much as accused Kodachi of rushing into things before she was ready.

"Kasumi-sama," Kodachi whispered, the fear growing within her that she had misjudged her timing and possibly poisoned any chance that she might have in creating the desired effect with Kasumi, which meant that the other girl might well avoid her in the future. She had flinched from Kodachi's touch for the first time since their initial meeting, and that was simply intolerable! Kodachi felt…very bad at the notion that Kasumi might start to think ill towards her. If that happened, then the only real friend she had in the whole world might be lost to her forever, and Kodachi felt a wretched fear grip her heart at the prospect.

"Give that back! You have no right to take it from me!"

"Really, Tachi? You gonna use a stick t'prove that you a big bad hombre? Get yourself a comb an' scissors and ya ol'man show you how t'be da boss around this spread!"

"I have no intention of turning out like you, now give me back my bokken!"

Kodachi's mind resolved not to wait around any more with regret or indecision. She had to talk to Kasumi, to try and convince the other girl that it was all right, that she didn't need to be afraid, that Kodachi would never hurt her (at least, not in a permanent way) and only wanted to deepen their friendship by carrying it to the next highest level. She who hesitates would be lost, or so Tatewaki might say under similar circumstances, and besides, if she stood around listening to any more of that commotion in the halls then she really would go crazy!

Her path decided, Kodachi shed her regular clothing and donned the green leotard she wore as Captain of the Saint Hebereke team of Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics. She had already gathered her standard tools and equipment, but she knew she would not be needing any of them for what she had in mind. Satisfied that she was well-equipped, she pushed her window open and vaulted out from the second floor, bounding and leaping away from her family estate as the call of her heart drew her like a magnet towards the home of her beloved, and woe betide anyone who came between Kuno Kodachi and the object of her desires…

"[I said I was all right,]" Ukyo complained for the fifth straight time, beginning to feel mildly exasperated with the way this Perfume character was expressing such open concern for her welfare.

"[You sure about that?]" the Amazon Enforcer asked in nervous Cantonese, "[That was some stunt you pulled back at Jusenkyo, and I hope you have some idea of the trouble you've just let yourself in for.]"

"[I knew what I was doing, Perfume-san,]" Ukyo said with more patience, "[I've had a lot of time to think about this, after all, and while the idea may not exactly be my greatest turn-on, it will help me cope with a certain problem that's waiting for me back in Japan.]"

"[Because of this arrangement you've got with your father?]" Perfume asked, then tried to sound more at ease as she shrugged her shoulders and said, "[Weird. I can't believe you went to all this trouble on account of a male. You know that there are going to be a lot of drawbacks to your condition…]"

"[I know,]" Ukyo said sadly, "[But this is something I have to do. All my life I've resented the way people always treat me when they find out my true sex, and this is my best chance to take charge over my life. I don't expect you to understand this, but it's something I have to do to restore my honor.]"

Perfume murmured something so low that Ukyo could not catch it, though it sounded both concerned and disapproving. Ukyo smiled as she regarded the brown haired Enforcer's comely profile, feeling an odd liking for the adopted cousin of Shampoo for no particular reason that she could list. Perhaps it was the honesty Perfume displayed in expressing her thoughts, or perhaps it was the sense that Perfume did not take everything so seriously and had even demonstrated a wicked sense of humor in the manner of making her introduction. Whatever the case, she was glad for the Enforcer's company as the two of them trudged through the forest heading for the Amazon village as Cologne heeded the summons of her fellow Elders, who wanted to consult with their Matriarch on some sort of personal business.

When they arrived at the village Ukyo had a chance to size up what made the place so different from other rural peasant villages that she had seen during her brief stay in China. For one thing the place had a wall around it, suggesting that the Amazons were no strangers to conflict with other neighboring villages, which prompted the question of why the central government had so far granted them even nominal independence.

The village was also a lot bigger than she had expected, being home to a couple thousand Amazons who lived there and tilled the fields in relative peace, but obviously trained for battle with an intensity that was simply phenomenal. Ukyo briefly wondered what it would have been like to be raised in a village where women were regarded more highly than men, then dismissed the idea as of no practical value.

After all, Cologne had warned her that she was an Outsider girl, and as such regarded with suspicion by the Amazons, who might feel inclined to test her mettle but for the Matriarch's granting her a temporary exemption from such customary treatment. Instead her mind flashed back to the moment she had been at Jusenkyo gathering the bottles of cursed water she now carried in her backpack. She remembered looking down at one of the pools, being careful not to get her own hand wet, and the idea had just dawned on her that it was difficult to believe in the power of the curses that were said to be contained within. Even granted her experiences with Ranma and the others in Nerima had convinced her of their reality, it was still difficult to trust that such water might hold the cure for Ranma's condition, to say nothing of the others she was hoping to help.

Instinct had warred briefly with curiosity and logic, and she thought again of the perverse idea that had been in her mind from the moment she had first learned of Jusenkyo. Even granted that it might be possible to reverse a curse with one of the bottles she now carried, Cologne had stressed that it was no light matter to take a curse upon one's self, and that in the whole history of the Amazons there had never truly been such a thing as a complete reversal of a curse once it had been adopted.

What had decided the issue for her was a kind of logic she had grown up with, one that had been with her all during training when she had been on her misguided quest for revenge upon Ranma, the idea that a martial artist had to adapt with change and take advantage of every opportunity that they were offered. Jusenkyo provided one such tempting offer, but was it worth sacrificing her very womanhood in order to make a point with her father? She had only recently begun to discover that being a woman might not be such a curse after all, and yet the only boy she had truly been interested in was promised to another. Being a woman was a painful reminder that she had failed in so many things that she had been hoping to achieve, and yet was she truly willing to sacrifice the one link that she shared in common with her late mother?

In the end it was Jusenkyo itself that decided for her, for she had been bending down over the pool of the drowned man when a face startled her, looking back at her like a reflection as she had carefully been filling one of the bottles, trying to avoid getting her hand wet by accident. The face had looked up at her and smiled, and for a moment Ukyo had wondered why the face seemed so familiar until she belatedly realized that it was her own face in male aspect. It was only later that she would discover that the pool itself had somehow been calling out to her, having read what was in her heart, so that when she had slipped from her perch along the bank and tumbled into the water it could not truly be called an accident, and feeling its cold embrace grip her flesh, her body began to change and mold with the power of its magic.

She sighed, realizing that in a way it was probably inevitable that this was happened. She had a curse now, the opposite to Ranma's, yet in a way it provided an opportunity that she could explore to see if it could work to her advantage…and if it did not…well, she had extra bottles of Nyanchiichuan water, and that was supposed to be the cure for her condition…

They stopped outside of a large building, little more than a fancy hut made with stone walls but with pretensions to being something grander. There Cologne brought them to a halt then turned to Ukyo and said, "Wait here, I will be but a moment. The business of the council is not for the ears of an outsider, but you will be all right so long as Perfume is with you to discourage the others from…testing you. I will be but a…"

"About time you got here, Matriarch," a feminine voice interrupted the old woman, causing Cologne to turn back and look at the doorway to the hut with dismay clearly written on her visage.

Ukyo saw a woman about her own age but with long pink hair that was combed over the right portion of her face, a tall Amazon whose single visible eye swept over Ukyo in return with only casual interest before centering on her companion, at which point Perfume bridled and suddenly had both of her axes at the ready.

"YOU???" she hissed wish such unbelievable hostility that Ukyo felt certain a fight was about to break out between them.

"Stay your hand, young warrior," an old woman who looked even more shriveled up than Cologne said, stepping past the pink-haired girl to regard Cologne with somber appraisal, "Matriarch."

"Be-Dea," Cologne acknowledged with no clear hostility in her tone, only a tight, wary appraisal, "Is this why you have summoned me? To invite this…creature back into our midst?"

"Ambergris is here at the invitation of the Council," the other old woman replied, "She has important information to relate, some of which is most interesting to all concerned parties. If you would care to step in, and by all means invite your young companion to join us."

Cologne glanced briefly at Ukyo before turning a stern gaze at Perfume, who wavered but did not put down her axes. With a weary sigh the ancient Matriarch said, "<Truce must abide for now, child, so it is best not to carry naked steel into the council chamber. I know not what mischief is afoot, but we will deal with it in as civilized a manner as tradition mandates.>"

Perfume wavered a moment, then sighed and her axes vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. She stood erect and said, "<Yes, Great Grandmother,>" before glaring at the pink haired girl and growling out the word, "<Whale Puke.>"

"<Nice to see you, too, Pur-Fum,>" the other girl responded, "<And who is your friend? Your latest conquest.>"

Ukyo did not understand the words but the tone left no doubt as to their meaning. In as calm a voice as she could manage she said, "[Don't let her get to you. I take it you guys aren't exactly the best of buddies?]"

"[You could say that,]" Perfume's glare at the other girl was little short of lethal.

"[I'm sorry you feel that way about me, Pur-Fum,]" the pink haired girl replied with no discernable menace or sarcasm in her voice, "[It has been two years, I had hoped we could put all of that in the past. I've learned to forgive Shampoo for what she did to me, so you should be willing to allow that we both came out with scars from that encounter.]"

"[You're lucky all she cut was your face,]" Perfume said without wavering her tone by a fraction, "[If it had been me you would not have been so lucky.]"

"[Perhaps I can persuade you to change your mind about me,]" Ambergris replied as she stepped back into the building, allowing Cologne and the others to follow after the aged Be-Dea, "[After all, there is someone who is with me whom I thought you might like to see again.]"

"<Pur-Fum?>" a gentle voice inquired, causing Perfume and Cologne to both stiffen and turn as one in time to see a blue haired girl approach, one dressed not in warrior garb but in the manner of Comb the Healer, "Pur-Fum, it's so good to see you again, it's been ages!>"

Ukyo could not miss seeing the way her new friend stiffened with shock, and it was more than from the darker illumination in the hut that caused her face to grow paler than usual, even as she noted that Cologne's face had suddenly turned ashen.

"<Lo-Xion?>" the brown haired Enforcer all but whispered, "<It can't be…!>"

"Lotion?" Ukyo said with a start, recognizing the name at once from her conversation with Shampoo, and all at once she realized that things had just gotten extremely complicated for all concerned parties…


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