Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Kalinar ( Chapter 70 )

[ 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

Masaki Tenchi was performing his morning chores by sweeping around the shrine when he took notice of a woman mounting the steps, a stranger with dark blue hair who wore a fashionable kimono and looked to be around his age, save for something in her eyes that appeared both strange and mysteriously familiar. She came to a halt a short distance away from him, casually leaning on a walking staff as she regarded him for the longest time, and then she smiled in an oddly friendly manner and spoke to him in a casual voice with no discernable accent.

"You remind me so much of your mother."

The rake fell out of Tenchi's hands as he stared at the stranger before him, and in a hesitant voice he asked, "You knew my mother?"

"Not well, I'm afraid," the woman sighed, "But we met when she was about your age, or possibly a bit older. Is your grandfather in attendance? I would like to speak with him if it is at all convenient."

"Ah…" Tenchi was about to say that this stranger could not have known his mother twenty years ago, that she could hardly have even been alive that far back, but he stopped himself as recent experiences had taught him the folly of judging by a youthful appearance. Instead he belatedly recalled his manners and said, "Who should I tell him is calling?"

"Tell him Kho-Lon of the Joketsuzoku Amazons wishes to speak with him in private," Cologne replied somberly, "He'll understand why…at least when I have a chance to explain about my situation."

"Explain what to me?" Tenchi's grandfather, Katsuhitsu, appeared at Tenchi's side with such suddenness that Tenchi was briefly startled. He was even more surprised to see the look on his grandfather's face as he stared at the strange woman and said, "Kho-Lon?"

"Hello father," Cologne replied with a soft, almost apologetic expression, "It has been a while, hasn't it?"

Tenchi looked from his grandfather to the new arrival and gasped, "Father…?"

Already it was turning out to be a very strange day, which was only to be expected at the Masaki household…

Shampoo's Diary Resumes:

Great Grandmother apologized that she would have to be leaving shortly after my honor-duel with Amber, but I pretended not to be unduly concerned with this as I have not fully forgiven her for the many deceptions that she has practiced with me over the years. I was nonetheless grateful that she did attend, if only so that I could demonstrate to her that I had not become a weak girl just because I was now a happily married woman.

In fact all of my immediate family was there to witness my fight with Ambergris, including my mother and father and both of my younger sisters. My adopted cousin, Perfume, sat with Lotion, Kachu and her husband, and the rest of my new family on my husband and wife's side. In fact, just about everyone whom I knew even casually was there to watch me go at it with my former best friend, a fact I had not countered on since this included a good size portion of the students at my new high school.

The reason for the latter, of course, was Ryonami and the rest of my wife's private staff, who had circulated the news that two Amazons were about to vie for the title of Champion, an event that would have been worthy of a festival back home, only they were busy selling tickets and placing wagers on the outcome. I did not mind this so much as I knew that Nabiki stood to make good money in the bargain, and this would help provide my family with much needed income, to say nothing of helping to build the reputation for the Anything Goes School. What I minded was the sense that a personal feud between me and Ambergris was now being made a public spectacle, and I resolved to…discuss this in private with my airen when the matter had been successfully concluded.

Of one thing I am certain is that Amber did not seem to mind the large audience, perhaps accounting them as witnesses to her expected triumph. This, too, was understandable as every Warrior in their hearts seeks the acclaim of an audience that acknowledges them as the best of all fighters. It was not egotistical of her to want to perform well, even given that I had what Nabiki termed "The Home Court Advantage." It surprises me even now to realize that many of my fellow students were cheering me on, and that I had somehow become a "local favorite." Amber, however, insisted that this only sweetened the match for her as it allowed her to compete against expectations. I think she relished playing the part of the underdog, but then again Amber always did have a flare for the dramatic, and I suppose she also wants the acceptance of our peerage.

I would never dream of insulting her this way, but there are times when I have the feeling that Amber might make a halfway decent politician…assuming such an entity is to be found in this life. Her subtlety and charming cleverness with words makes her formidable in an arena of combat where I have never felt myself particularly gifted. I prefer plain, direct methods to resolve my personal problems while she prefers to study her opponents to determine their weaknesses beforehand. In a lot of ways she can be as devious and sneaky about it as Nabiki, though I no longer question that her motives are for the better.

My reason for believing this? Lotion. She vouches for the time she spend with Ambergris that my current challenger spoke often of her dreams and ambitions, but always with the emphasis of helping our people to integrate into the modern era. According to Lotion, Ambergris believes that the Amazons have fallen well behind the rest of Chinese society, that in spite of our impressive history and traditions there is a danger that the government might one day outstrip us and then come to regard us as a nuisance that should be dealt with. She illustrated her point with the example of Tibet, who-for all their advanced mystical knowledge-were helpless in the face of the guns and tanks of a conventional army. She believes that the Amazons could benefit from studying more of what the outside world has to offer in order to strengthen ourselves and preserve our way of living.

Of course Great Grandmother has often said that Amazons should find their own strength and fortify our traditions. She has a disdain for the modern world with its reliance on technology, and it's only recently that I've come to understand how strong that aversion is. The issue of my father's motorcycle of a year ago illustrated how much she dislikes such reminders of the outer world's progress. In truth, my own experiences in the world beyond our borders has convinced me that we are falling rapidly behind and the world itself might soon relegate us to the obscurity of history. My husband and wife are proof enough to me that not all outsiders are weak and foolish creatures.

So in a way I understood why Amber feels that she must prove herself against me to attain a higher status in our society. Her hopes obviously are to gain a voice that will be heard by the Elders, and to do that she must be stronger than any other warrior in our age class, a potential Elder in her own right, which means that some on the council will not be so quick to dismiss her.

As we took our positions and awaited the signal to commence, I saw Ambergris smile at me, a smile that hinted of our old friendship, and in a pleasant tone of voice she said, "Shampoo…no matter whether you win or lose this battle, I want for you to know that I am grateful to you, for you have done me much honor, and for this I am grateful."

"The fight is not decided either way, Amber," I replied, "Prepare yourself and do your best."

"I intend to," she replied, and I saw by her expression that she was sincere in her intentions…

Ukyo watched the pair squaring off from where she sat beside Akane, Ryoga and the Amazons, not to mention her Aunt Yumi. Close nearby was a certain brown haired girl in a different school uniform who was eyeing Ukyo with curious glances, not missed by her four companions, who were identically dressed, albeit none matched her for height as she stood close to Yumi in height, but without the older Kuonji's rugged build and mannish posture.

Ukyo was puzzled about several aspects of this engagement between friends, feeling a curious sense of deja vu as her own clash against Ranma was too recent in her memories not to draw an analogy. This battle was not in anger or out of vengeance, but it was of two formerly close friends who had experienced a falling out over what eventually proved to be a mutual misunderstanding.

Not that Ukyo could hold it against Shampoo for feeling betrayed by a companion. The feeling had once filled Ukyo's every waking moment like a dull ache seeking relief, a rage so strong that it's absence had created a vacuum in her heart. She did not know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, but to waste it in a useless quest of self-redemption was not the way to honor her ancestors or the memory of her mother (whose memory she only knew from third hand sources, her own memories too vague and indistinct for proper recollection).

She thought of her father when she last saw him in the hospital, hooked up to tubes with wires to monitor the state of his health. The doctor who examined him confirmed that he was suffering from a long-term cancer, but he denied that Kuonji Akira's condition was at the terminal stage as her father had believed. He was more suffering the effects of stress and exhaustion that had no doubt be exacerbated by thoughts of his impending death, a state that her Aunt Yumi attributed to the influence of the Demoness Cybelle, who had played upon her father's mind for her own nefarious purpose.

If there was anyone against whom Ukyo would swear a blood oath, it was unquestionably that Demon, but Ukyo doubted that she could prevail on her own against Ryoga's evil grandmother, based on what she had learned from talking to Yumi, whom she had naturally confronted on the issue of seeming to side with such a monster against her own flesh and blood. Her Aunt's reply to the charge had been telling, looking Ukyo straight in the eyes as though she had been asking herself the same question and was prepared to make an answer.

"Listen to me, Little Pup," she had said, using a favored pet name that she had often used during Ukyo's apprenticeship in her restaurant, "I fought this demon before you were born and I know what she is capable of doing. Your father was too deep under her influence when I received his summons, but I pretended to play along because I knew the time would come to break her hold over his mind. First I wanted to confirm for myself if you were pursuing your vengeance quest or had come to a resolution. Obviously you have made several decisions on your own in this matter, so now I have to do what I can to support the both of you idiots. My brother's folly comes from pride, but you're in a different kind of dilemma, one you put yourself in by the looks of things and the way you fill out your halter."

Ukyo remembered feeling her cheeks warm as her Aunt indicated the sudden change of her gender to her male, cursed aspect. As a man she was noticeably taller, broader-shouldered and narrower in the hip with no need of a wrap to flatten her breasts, and because of the difference in her weight distribution she tended to walk and move differently, a fact that had somewhat hampered her fighting techniques. Since Yumi herself had been her trainer for three seasons it was only natural that she would pick up on these factors, and she proved remarkably accepting of the explanation of Jusenkyo, assuring Ukyo that she knew of the place from other second-hand sources.

"So," Yumi had confronted Ukyo on the subject while they were still in private, "You went the full distance after all in denying your femininity. Have you given up on being a woman entirely because you couldn't have the boy of your dreams?"

"No…" Ukyo had started to say, then amended to say, "Well…maybe…but it wasn't intentional. I fell into the spring when I was trying to fetch some of the water for Ranchan."

"That's a very noble reason to risk yourself," Yumi had replied, "But tell me the truth, Niece…how much did you fight against acquiring this curse? You've told me often enough that you wish that you had been born a boy so you wouldn't be having so many of your problems…"

Against the probing stare of her aunt, Ukyo's resolve crumbled and she had to admit to herself that becoming a boy did not seem as tragic for her as Ranma's turning into a girl seemed to affect him adversely. The one problem with becoming a boy, however, had been the discovery that she still felt like a woman even in male form. The inner her had not changed at all, only the outer trappings, so in a way she felt her change of sex only masked what she was in the eyes of others…it could not erase totally the memory of being a girl for the first sixteen years of her life, and nor had it truly given her a man's perspective (though the odd rush of hormones in her male form was VERY different from what she felt as a woman).

"I see," her aunt had replied after hearing her explanation, "So…rather than curing yourself of your problems, you've just added some whole new ones, is that it?"

"Pretty much," Ukyo had admitted, studying her Aunt's austere expression before asking, "Aunt Yumi…are you disappointed?"

"In you, Child?" Yumi had replied, seeming surprised by the question, "Never! I helped to raise you from a Pup and you've grown to be the cunning Wolf-child that I'd hoped that you would turn into. Granted this adds a new wrinkle to your training since you're going to have to learn all about your center of balance all over, but that's a minor handicap when compared with the problems that this is going to give you in having children."

Ukyo had felt something at the mention of children, a sense of loss more acute than any she might have expected to feel, having had the negative side-effects of her curse explained to her in detail by the old-Uh-by the Amazon Matriarch. In all truth the concept of becoming a mother had never truly dawned on her until she was confronted by the sudden loss of that potential.

The prospect that her only chance of having children might come from the other side of the bedsheets was a subject in which she was utterly unprepared to venture…at least as things stood at the present.

She remembered her aunt's hand on her shoulder and the reassuring smile the older Kuonji had given her before saying, "Don't worry what I think about your situation, Cubling. There's been more than one occasion when I've wanted to chuck my own gender and be like a man, though if you quote me on that I'll deny it and give you such a spanking with your peel. You might even get to like that."

"Ah…" Ukyo had felt her cheeks go rosy again and her thoughts had become flustered, even though she was used to her Aunt's good-natured teasing. That was another downer aspect of becoming a man…her thoughts became so muddled whenever someone paid a compliment to her male aspect (and in all truth she could not blame them, having been captivated and amazed at the sight of her own reflection).

"The one you should really worry about right now is your father," Yumi had added in a much gentler, far more sober tone of voice, "In his condition, I don't think explaining about your curse would be such a great idea, especially as he likely to blame himself for driving you to such an extreme decision. I suggest we wait for a better time to tell him since he's been behaving like such a baka lately. We're going to need to pull together if we're going to save the company from the mess he got us into, and that means you're going to have to convince both him and the board of directors that you're well, fit and able to bear the responsibility of running things in his absence. I'll do whatever I can to help out, but you're the one who stands to inherit a considerable fortune, which means you're going to have to grow up a lot faster than either of us is likely to think fair. It's a shitty deal, but there you have it, so I want to know if you feel up to handling it right now, or else I can tell the Regional Directors to take a hike because of the recent medical crisis afflicting your father…"

Ukyo had assured her aunt that she was more than capable of assuming responsibility for her father's restaurant chain, but in truth was she truly up to such a task? She had expected to have a few more years of preparation and to at least have enrolled in a Business College before stepping up to the plate. It was a lot for a high school student to manage while still maintaining a decent grade point average, let alone cram for her entrance examinations. She had been counting on her father remaining at the helm of his business for a few years more, and trust the old man to screw things up for her again, though she thought this last part without her usual animosity or resentment.

"Of course," Yumi had added, almost as an afterthought, "The ones you really need to explain yourself to are those people waiting for you in the hallway, including a couple of the ladies, if I judge matters rightly. Never knew you were the type who preferred salad with your beefcakes, Nephew," she added the latter part with a teasing expression, "But I'm hardly one to complain having done my own share of experimentation when I was a lot younger. It's your business how you want to handle things, but I think you know enough to honor whatever commitments you might have been making on the sidelines."

That had earned more than a blush from Ukyo, though she could not adequately voice protest against her aunt's good-natured teasing. Try as she might to deny that she had been leading anyone on, she had been more than a little aware of the fact that Tendo Akane was getting awfully close to her, and now with Makoto back in the picture, her life had just become a whole lot more complicated!

To say that she had no idea what to do about either of these girls would have been a gross understatement. Makoto had once been a very strong part of her life, back when she had been living a secret existence as a pretend-guy hiding his real sex from the world and her fellow classmates. The day when she had finally confessed to truth to Mako-chan had been a wrenchingly emotional time for them both, but it had been necessary to head off what was looking to be a much more compromising situation. It had been a hard decision to make, but Ukyo had come clean with the intention of accepting full blame and whatever repercussions Makoto might wish to vent upon her for Ukyo's deception. She had not wanted to lead her friend on with the false promise of a potential romance between them, and had Makoto slapped her face and called her names, or even beaten her up on general principles, Ukyo would not have blamed her.

Instead Makoto had looked at her as they stood in the rain together with shock in her eyes, followed by sadness and loss that was unending. It had broken Ukyo's heart just to see the proud girl whom she had counted as her best friend in middle school looking at her as though Ukyo had suddenly become a stranger, and she knew right then and there that things could never be the same between them. Ukyo had transferred to a different school the same time as Makoto enrolled at Crossroads and they had not set eyes on one another from that time to the present.

Only now Makoto was back in her life, and for the life of her Ukyo did not know what to make of her own reactions to this sudden occurrence. Makoto was taller and had grown more heart-rendingly beautiful, (not to mention she had filled out in quite a few noticeable places) and there was no mistaking the MALE reaction of Ukyo's body when she-or rather HE-had caught herself considering Mako-chan in that particular aspect!

Makoto had been there at the hospital when Ukyo had stepped out into the hallway and asked immediately about the state of her father. Ukyo had the presence of mind to remember that Makoto had lost both of her parents to a plane crash around about the time of their first meeting…it was even one of the things that had helped to firm their friendship when Ukyo had been there to comfort Makoto just after receiving the news that she had become an orphan.

Now the shoe was on the other foot, and Ukyo had more sympathy for her friend, but more she felt as though she were seeing Makoto for the first time, not just as a friend but as a fellow woman (even granted that Ukyo was still in her cursed gender). Of course the confused mix of emotions that had coursed through her body as she looked Makoto in the eyes said a lot about the changes that they had both obviously been through. When Makoto had asked if Ukyo felt up to talking, she had assented at once, knowing it was better to get things out in the open before Makoto began forming weird ideas of her own, based on Ukyo's unfortunate exposure during the battle.

She had promised an explanation, so when the two of them were alone, Makoto had turned an expectant look her way, prompting Ukyo to glance down and say, "I guess you're wondering about why I'm a guy now…"

"You could say that," Makoto had responded with even temper, though Ukyo could tell that her friend was just a hairsbreadth away from showing her legendary temper.

"I…had an accident while I was away in China," Ukyo explained, "There's this place called Jusenkyo…"

"You mean you really are a girl?" Makoto had not relaxed by more than a fraction, "And here I thought maybe you were lying to me all those years ago about really being one. Are you saying you got this way on account of magic?"

"Ah…pretty much, yeah," Ukyo braced herself for a display of skepticism, even name-calling, knowing she well deserved it for whatever hell she had put Makoto through during their time together, "I wasn't lying to you before, Mako-chan…I really was and am a woman, appearances notwithstanding."

"Senpai," Makoto began before smiling at the reflective reference, an old habit from their school days, "It's not that I don't believe you, because I do. I've…seen a lot of strange stuff over the last couple of years, and magic's a big part of it, but…I'm trying to understand, so help me out here. Was it because of me…or did this really just happen to you?"

"What do you mean?" Ukyo blinked.

"You know," Makoto said awkwardly, "This guy-thing. I mean…you have to admit as accidents go it's a little too convenient…"

"Convenient?" Ukyo almost shouted the word, "Do you know what this is gonna mean for me and the rest of my future? How is it convenient that I now turn into a guy because of a curse?"

"Is it a curse?" Makoto asked her, lifting both eyebrows, "Because I remember you telling me how much you wished you were a man…and now you are one…is that, like, a coincidence or something?"

Ukyo had to pause and really think about that one before making her reply, "Okay…so maybe I did think about it a time or two…but I didn't deliberately fall into that spring! I slipped and fell…or it was like it pulled me in or something! I-well, maybe some part of me did want to fall in, but it wasn't like I planned it that way or nothing! So…why do you think it has something to do with you, Mako-chan?"

"I just thought…" Makoto looked down at her feet and seemed unable to get the words out right away, but at last she said, "That maybe you felt bad…about the way things turned out between us…and maybe something I said or did put the idea in your head. I mean…I've thought a lot about you, Senpai, and…I've wondered about a lot of things…about me, for one thing, and why I've always felt so attracted to you, even after I found out…that you're really a woman."

Ukyo blinked at that, never having expected to hear her friend make such an admission. Oh sure, Makoto might behave like a tomboy at times and she certainly had a reputation in their class for violent behavior, mainly against guys who tried to give her a hard time, but in Ukyo's eyes she had never though Makoto was anything but feminine. Ukyo might dress the part of a guy and act like one to fool people into believing she was one, but in the back of her mind she always felt like a woman, and if anything she was a lot more of a tomboy than Makoto!

"Uh…" Ukyo tried to organize her thoughts but instead spoke the first words that came into her mouth, "You don't think it's…weird of me that I'm both guy and girl now?"

Makoto had given her a very lopsided smile in response to that, then said matter-of-factly, "I don't even know what weird means anymore! I've seem people change their sex from hunky-cool guys to…well, I don't think I could explain that one too good…but you've met my friend Haruka?"

"The tall chick with the short blonde hair?" Ukyo replied, remembering that there had been a green haired woman who was hovering at her side as though the two were in orbit around each other, which caused her to say, "Oh…"

"Yeah," Makoto affirmed, "She's like that…only when we first met she looked enough like a boy that my friend Minako thought she was in love with her. Turns out Haruka and Michiru…well…you don't usually find one without the other around, y'know? So…I've been wondering if maybe…ah…well… y'know…?"

Ukyo had stood there and stared at Makoto for a very long time before answering, seeing in the tall brunette's greenish eyes a hint of worry, nervousness and expectation, as though the next thing Ukyo said might crush whatever courage she had mustered underfoot. The admission frankly astonished Ukyo, who had thought any chance of a relationship between them had been ended a long time ago, only now here was Makoto-a girl she had once been very close to-all but admitting that she still had feelings for Ukyo IN SPITE OF THE CURSE, if not outright because the curse made a relationship conceivable from both angles of sexuality. It was a lot to take in all at once, and Ukyo had not the slightest idea how to respond to the question, seeing as she did not know the answers herself, finding it difficult to either accept or refuse what Makoto had to offer.

As it turned out she was spared having to give an answer when a loud clattering noise from just around the corner had caused both of them to turn around, only to see Akane sprawled out on the floor next to the medicine tray that she had accidentally tripped over. The realization that the youngest Tendo sister had been eavesdropping on them both put an end to their conversation (at least for the moment) and left Ukyo with a whole different batter of sauce to examine, realizing that it was not just Makoto who was entertaining thoughts about her, both because of and in spite of her cursed status.

So now she sat watching Shampoo go into battle against a friend while Akane sat close nearby without saying a word on the incident, even pretending that the whole thing had never happened. Ryoga was hovering close by giving Ukyo occasional glances that were borderline homicidal, and Makoto was hanging farther back with her friends, pretending to be a part of the audience while remaining close enough that Ukyo could feel her tall friend's eyes upon her whenever she in turn was pretending not to look, even in spite of the fact that Ukyo was now female once again and preferring to stay so for the foreseeable present.

She heard a soft chuckle and glanced to the side at the Amazons, catching Perfume's wry smirk as the Enforcer stood with her blue-haired amorata in a way that all but screamed that they were an item. She saw the sapphire eyes of the brown haired Amazon smile at her as though she were silently sympathizing with Ukyo dilemma. Ukyo flashed on the memory of how Ambergris had also smiled at her in a charmingly sly way, with further emphasis on the way Akane had reacted, which was not favorable at all, though the dark haired girl clearly did not want to come out and admit that it upset her.

[How do I get myself into these things?] she silently asked of the heavens, knowing full well that they would not be giving her an answer…or at least not verbally anyway, though from the way things seemed to be happening around her, it was a sure bet that somebody up above was having way too much fun at her expense! She sighed to herself and resolved to watch the battle, which was about to begin as Cologne raised her staff and signaled that both contenders should be ready.

At least a fight was something that she understood with clearly defined boundaries, something that could not be said about this relationship business. How much easier it had been when her thoughts were directed solely towards cornering Ranma, but she had surrendered him to another (ironically enough) on the grounds that events around him were much too complicated for her understanding. Avoiding trouble on one end, she had stumbled into an even more complicated situation on the other-go figure!

As the staff came down and the combatants made themselves ready, Ukyo fleetingly wondered about the other thing that she had meant to ask Makoto…this business about her current double-life, and how exactly did a gourmet chef get herself into the business of playing a superhero…?

Nabiki's Journal Resumes:

I don't know why I'm always nervous at these fights…you'd think I'd have more confidence in Shampoo's abilities, just like with Ranma, who always wins no matter the odds against him. The trouble is…I worry. There's always the chance that one day either he or Sham-chan will run into something that's too big for them to handle, and then where will that leave me? I'm not even married yet and already I'm starting to feel like a war-widow!

Of course Ranma dismisses the possibility that he might get in over his fool head one of these days, but I could tell that he was just as nervous as me watching Shampoo go up against a fellow Amazon, and somebody who clearly was a lot more formidable than your average level fighter. This Ambergris worries me on so many levels that I can't begin to identify half of them…not that I get a bad feeling from her or anything like that. It's just a hunch I have that there is a LOT more to this pink-haired chick than some Macho brawler with an exotic hairstyle. She's a little too clever and competent for me to want to have someone like that for an enemy, and I could tell that Ranma was making the same assessment.

Shampoo had assured us that she knew what she was getting into, but even she seemed wary about whatever hidden agenda her former friend might be entertaining in issuing this challenge. Proving that you're the best in a village full of tough fighters is one thing, but Ambergris fairly screams ambition, and it was obvious that she had something to prove and wasn't afraid of doing so in front of a large audience. People like that can be dangerous by din of the fact that they will totally commit themselves to a given objective, and anything that stands in their way tends to get plowed over, be it friends, families or loved ones.

Of course there are some people who would define me in the same terms, but I like to think that I've changed somewhat for the better in that regard…at least to the extent that I think first before I use people.

When I saw Shampoo and Ambergris go into a slow, almost ritualized pair of dance-like maneuvers, I took careful note of the way they each were studying the other with that peculiar focus that I have sometimes seen on Akane's face, or even Ranma's. It was the look of someone tacitly acknowledging an equal in the field of combat, and the wary respect that they were showing one another spoke volumes to me about how serious this match was for the both of them. The uneven stalemate only lasted a short few seconds before Shampoo launched her attack, but in that time I'm sure they each sized the other up and down before making any commitments, so when Ambergris moved to counter the attack it was done as if the move was expected by both of them, as though this were only the feeling-out stage, not the actual serious phase of their battle.

Once the fight had begun in earnest it was lightning fast and devastating, one blow following the other in such rhythmic precision that the fight might as well have been choreographed by a Hong Kong director, albeit that any movie maker would have slowed the action down to where the audience could actually see the actors' motions. Shampoo and her friend were moving so fast that it was only a blur to my eyes, though I'm pretty sure Ranma had no trouble following their movements. I kept stealing glances to the side to see him flinch or tense at certain key moments, as if a part of him yearned to leap into the battle and take over the fight, no doubt to show them how it should be done (though if he said that to Shampoo's face…well, the results would not be pretty!).

As difficult as it was to follow these exchanges, I did manage to get a sense of what was happening between the contenders. Shampoo was wielding her bonbori as if they were as light as a pair of Jo sticks, and they are not light weapons by any measure! I've held them in my own hands and can testify that those hollow metal spheres are pretty thick and solid with a lot of heft to them, which partially explains how they can be so effective at battering down walls and even boulders. Compared to them a naginata is a light hand tool, but Ambergris had no trouble using it to deflect and absorb the punishment of those bonbori spheres so that the sound of metal hitting reinforced wood came at us with a staccato fervor while the two of them danced about the yard going back and forth with precise, controlled thrusts and counter-thrusts giving their fight the look of some fast-moving dance number.

It wasn't long before either one of them started doing acrobatic maneuvers to up the energy level of this grudge match, and since either one of them can leap from a standing start as high as any pole vaulter, you can just imagine for yourself the sort of spectacle these two were creating with their powerful kicks and thrusts being launched with such death-defying agility that I found myself holding my breath without even realizing that I had done it. If either one of them had hesitated by a fraction it would have resulted in a crippling injury, or worse, and the last thing I wanted to see was out beautiful Shampoo reduced to some helpless paraplegic! That idea leant a kind of manic fear to me that would not go away, no matter how hard I tried pushing it to the fringes of my conscious awareness.

In fact I was so worried that I must have been focusing on the pair of them in a very peculiar way, because it started to seem as if the two fighters were slowing themselves down to where I could actually see their movements. As I watched with a peculiar fascination this phenomenon became more and more pronounced, to the point where things seemed to crawl along at a greatly reduced velocity, and before my very eyes I saw Shampoo leap into the air with a dragon-stamp kick aimed at Ambergris, who was in the process of moving the haft of her weapon in order to deflect the kick to one side, and all at once they froze in those positions, Shampoo hovering in the air, her lovely face set with intense ferocity as she aimed her kick at her opponent. Ambergris's face was set in a mask of stoicism as she waited for the blow to come, poised with her legs slightly bent in order to absorb most of the energy of that kick, but the kick itself did not seem about to happen. The two became as motionless as statues before my very eyes, a fact so odd that I turned to ask Ranma about it, only to see that he was frozen as well, eyes set on the combatants while he did not seem to register that he had even heard my question.

"W-What…?" I gasped aloud, feeling a slight buzzing in my ears and some pressure about my temples as I tried to make sense of these occurrences, turning my head about to confirm that it was not just him or the fighters who had stopped moving, it was everyone and everything! Some of our fellow students were gaping with varying expressions that ranged from the very stupid to the extremely thoughtful. I even noted with astonishment that a fly was hovering in the air off to my left by a couple of meters, and a distant bird that I could see flitting through the trees was just hanging there over nothing without even a wire to hold it up against the pull of gravity. In fact, as near as I could tell, I was the only one or thing capable of movement, and even the air seemed thick and slightly resistant to the slightest movement. I was even finding it difficult to breathe air into my lungs as the phenomenon continued, as did a slight chill that I was feeling.

Then a voice spoke into my mind, "That is enough! You don't want to strain yourself doing this too soon in your training. Ease back a bit and allow things to return to normal."

I blinked my eyes and then everything returned to normal. I glanced around to see where Lotion was as I knew automatically that it was she who had addressed me, but the old woman was no where to be found. I was about to say something to that effect when I heard the clash of metal and wood resume, returning my attention back to the here and now and the primary business of seeing how Shampoo would fare against Ambergris.

To my relief Shampoo did indeed seem to be holding her own, albeit that the kick turned out to be a feint on her part and was followed up by a one-two combination of lightning kicks that did manage to force Ambergris onto the defensive. The only difference was that I now had no trouble following their plan of attack, and I began to get seriously interested in studying their maneuvers, seeking a pattern from the web of complex techniques being employed here, enough so that I could even identify which parts were from our school and which one had to be Amazon Wushu in origin.

I also took note that when the fly flew too near to Ranma he automatically caught the thing with one hand, held it cupped there for a moment, then gave it a toss and sent the little pest soaring off to bug some other person.

That was a pretty weird experience, I'll admit, but my attention returned at once to the fight, especially seeing as the combatants broke apart and took opposing position, which signified to me that the preliminaries were over and they were about to escalate their duel to a whole new level…

Shampoo's Diary Continues:

"You are good, Shampoo," Amber said to be as we parted to regain our bearings and retake stock of one another's fighting potential, "You've improved a lot from our last fight, and you deserve your title as Champion of our village, which is why I intend to win it from you fairly."

"As opposed to dishonorably?" I replied, taking deep breaths to steady myself as I knew that I would soon be needing my wind now that we had finished sizing each other up and were about to get down to the serious fighting, "This one expects nothing less from you, Amber. If you wish the title, then it is yours, but only if you best this one in fair combat and prove yourself her better."

"That much is assured," she said with a confidence that had been lacking in our last fight, "Because as good as you are, I've traveled farther and studied harder than you know, and now I intend to demonstrate how much I have improved since you saw me last. Observe!"

She assumed an upright posture, brought her naginata to one side, held it out at arms length, then slowly brought it forward with the point extending, then spun it around like a baton, rapidly gathering speed and power as she spun it in a figure eight pattern, soon becoming a blur while I felt something like the hackles at the base of my neck stand on end and my arm-hairs started to curl. I could feel the power of her Chi grow stronger the more she twirled her naginata, and as I shifted my vision to study her aura, I made out a very potent built up of her internal energies as she summoned the force lines to her body and intensified the strength of her Chakras.

Of course I was concerned about this point because I have only just begun to study Chi attacks and defenses and have yet to master some of the complex forms that Great Grandmother has long promised she would one day teach me. Amber not only knew a Chi attack that was wholly new to me, she obviously had mastered it as I could determine from the way the wind kicked up all around her the more her aura intensified. I braced myself as best I could and prepared to meet whatever form her attack would assume, feverishly racking my brain for every iota of knowledge that I had on the subject, hoping to endure her assault, if not ultimately to defeat her.

When it came it was devastating, like being at the center of a lightning strike as I could feel a charge almost like electricity strike against me and curl along my arms, down my spine and into my feet, where contact with the ground completed some kind of a circuit. The brunt of the attack was absorbed by my bonbori, but this only made it worse somehow as merely holding wooden handles did not in itself provide enough insulation to adequately protect me, so that I was apparently picked up and thrown for a goodly distance (I say apparently because my only memory of the experience was a bright flash of whiteness that momentarily blinded me and left the rest of my senses reeling).

I came back to myself very slowly, aware that I was on the ground and that someone was shouting my name, though it took more than a moment to recognize the voice as belonging to Nabiki. I was not as badly hurt as I might have been, I realized, when I began to feel pain screech over every inch of skin as nerve endings came alive to inform me of their status. I sensed those channels flowing through my body and knew that all my parts were intact, and I was not really burned as I would have been from a true electric shock, it just felt bad because my nervous system had been overloaded, but after a moment the pain began subsiding and I started to make sense of my surroundings. I was able to sit up again after a brief moment of internal inventory, and I determined that I had not sustained genuine injury, which either meant that Amber had been holding back or she was not yet as good with her Chi as a true master. Of course I suspected the former rather than the latter as I was certain Amber's attack had the potential of being far more devastating.

She was standing a short distance away leaning on her naginata and regarding me with a look that could either have been concerned or expectant. I forced myself to my feet, refusing to show weakness before others, and did my level bast to steady my balance, then turned a glance towards my bonbori and saw what condition they were in. The thick metal of the spheres showed signs of deformation, and the force of the blast that they had absorbed had discolored their paint job so that they were no longer quite so pretty, but other than this they seemed serviceable that I could still have used them. I decided not to risk it as it was not likely that they could protect me from a second attack of that nature. They would need repair work as it was, there was no sense to outright destroy them!

The fact that Amber had not attacked me while I was down and recovering proved to me that she was serious about meeting me as an equal, while a true enemy would have finished me off when they had the chance. Amber is no fool, so I can only take it to mean that she was supremely confident in her abilities, and given what she had just demonstrated, I was not about to doubt her prowess.

Nor was I quite yet ready to yield to her, though I clearly had been beaten. I took a neutral tone as I regarded her, then said in a level voice, "You held back."

"Of course," she replied, "It was never my intention to kill you, Shampoo, or even to see you injured. I want only to prove that I am the better warrior, and I have done that. Anything else is up to you. If you wish to renew your challenge I will meet you as an equal, the better to demonstrate that my years of exile have made of me a stronger fighter."

"That much is evident," I replied, assuming a fighting crouch, "But if you want to be the Champion of our tribe you must prove to this one that one trick attack is not all that you are made of."

"I am very pleased to hear you say this," Amber smiled, her one exposed eye showing no trace of disappointment as she held her naginata out to one side then casually dropped it, "Because the Shampoo I knew would never take defeat lightly. You are the best of our tribe, Shampoo, but I am your better, and I do not need either weapon or tricks to prove this, so I will again meet you as a warrior should, bare handed."

She knelt down into a fighting crouch and we squared off again, ready to renew our battle.

"What's this?" we heard Great Grandmother say, "You wish to fight again?"

"Stay out of this, Old Woman," Ambergris replied without looking at great grandmother, obviously making fun of the Elder's confusion of ages, being old in a young body, "This is personal, between the two of us and concerning no one else. The match is only over when the both of us agree to it, so let the fight be renewed until the better one of us is decided."

I saw Great-Grandmother turn a worried look my way and I could almost read her thoughts as she seemed to doubt my ability to stand up to another minute of fighting. That look reminded me of all the other times when she seemed to cast doubt on my abilities, and it motivated me here to square my shoulders and flex my arms, shaking my head to clear it of the last lingering traces of my disorientation, then took as powerful a stance as I felt that I could and faced against my once-and-current friend, determined not to be phased merely because she had learned a few new tricks to enhance her fighting skills. Underneath the new training was strong evidence of her older techniques and style of combat, which I remembered from the time when we were still friends in training together. At heart she was still the same Amber, and I was determined to use my knowledge of her in the same manner that she had made use of me during our first fight from so long ago.

This was no longer a question of determining who would be tribal Champion or not, or even who won and lost. This was a fight to test our abilities against one another for the simple joy of the fight, and whether we won or lost, we would show to these outsiders what Amazons were made of…

Ranma sensed Nabiki's tenseness while watching the battle between Shampoo and Ambergris progress to a new level of intensity. He had felt much the same response when the pink haired Amazon had manifested a Chi attack, and he'd had to check his impulse to want to jump in and defend Shampoo, knowing full well that his assistance would be resented more than appreciated, just as he would feel if someone he cared about were to try and usurp his place in a challenge match. It was the hard code of the Warrior that prohibited him from lifting a finger until such time as it was obvious that Shampoo would need his assistance. Short of that, Shampoo would want to do this on her own terms, and he was forced to respect this, much though he might not like it.

Ranma hated being on the sidelines, just as he hated the sense of helplessness that came from watching someone he cared about going up against a tough competitor. It exposed a side of himself that he would rather keep buried, a side that was not the confident, self-assured champion that he presented before the world and himself. He was more human in such moments, and with his upbringing being merely human meant showing your weaknesses and doubts before the world, which left you vulnerable and helpless before others. It was not a feeling he much appreciated nor wanted to experience as it left him feeling very much out of his element as a fighter without peer. He was never one prone to self-analysis on the subject, but he knew intuitively that he wanted to be the best because it was the thing that most defined him, a basic need that he knew was shared in some measure by Shampoo, though from evidence available he knew that her range of skills and interests was far more diverse than his own, a sense of disadvantage that was also very much contrary to his liking.

His experienced eye had quickly determined that the two combatants were near enough in skill to be equals, but the range of Ambergris's techniques had obviously been expanded by travel and training outside the confines of their village, giving her a distinctive advantage.. Shampoo's skills were largely centered on the basic Wushu of her upbringing, and though she was incredibly fluid with a complete mastery of her supple body, it was obvious to him that her training had numerous holes and drawbacks to be exploited, much as he had taken advantage of one such perceived weak area when he went up against her at their first meeting. This Ambergris was a very sharp customer, and she doubtlessly had detected many of those selfsame deficiencies and was looking to take advantage of them. Small wonder she had cast aside the advantages of her weapon as in close-quarters combat she would have a more than equal footing.

Sure enough, Ranma saw Ambergris holding back in reserve a good portion of her energy, deliberately hobbling herself to lure Shampoo on with a false sense of equality, even as Shampoo was pacing herself to preserve a portion of her own strength in reserve, all the while launching her attacks with a ferocity that bordered on fanaticism. To an untrained eye it might appear that they were going all out, but that illusion masked a more complicated exchange where tactics and strategy were as much in play as battle hardened instincts with each fighter looking to take advantage of that moment when their opponent began to slow down or allow fatigue to overtake them. The least hesitation or faltering about that point could spell disaster for either Shampoo or her rival, so victory was as likely to go to the more savvy combatant as it was to the stronger or faster of the two of them. It was much the same as in some of his own fights when he had gone up against a foe whose abilities had seemed to surpass his own, and Ranma only hoped that Shampoo would be smart enough to be on her guard to meet the read attack that Ambergris had yet to unleash upon her.

Of course keyed up as we was he did not miss the hint of genuine worry that was emanating from Nabiki, whose understanding of the art was admittedly far inferior to his own, yet who seemed just as tense as if expecting something to happen. Ranma felt an uncommon urge to reach out to try and physically reassure her that all was right and that the fight would have a happy resolution, but his own anxiety held him back, as did his habitual reticence on outward displays of softer emotions.

It was with an almost expectant gasp that he felt the battle turn against Shampoo, turning back to the fight in time to see his purple haired girlfriend overextend one of her attacks and provide the opening that Ambergris needed to launch her own assault, easily penetrating past Shampoo's guard to land a solid back-fist to the side of her opponent's chin, which staggered Shampoo back for several paces as Ambergris followed through with a devastating set of combinations. Ranma felt Nabiki mimic his own wince as the pink-haired Amazon pressed home her advantage, forcing Shampoo to give ground inexorably while being seemingly unable to defend herself, let alone counter-attack. It was all Ranma could do to keep himself from rushing to Shampoo's aid as she was pummeled repeatedly by devastating blows and kicks that would have demolished stone and concrete, let alone a flesh and blood opponent. Nabiki was even less able to constrain herself, nearly jumping to her feet before Ranma was able to lay a hand to steady her against rash action. Together they watched in mutual dismay as Shampoo went down from the relentless onslaught unleashed by her pink-haired rival.

Ambergris might have finished the fight then and there, but instead she held back and waited until Shampoo gave evidence that she was not yet unconscious, and even then the pink haired warrior did not attack, allowing Shampoo time to roll over onto all fours, her lovely face bruised but otherwise unbloodied. The entire crowd held their breath and waited to see what would next occur as this had already proven to be a fight of epic proportions, even by the standards usually set around Ranma. Shampoo climbed to her feet with an unsteady posture, and only then did Ambergris seem ready to resume the fight, closing the distance between them with a single kick that would surely knock her rival senseless.

But Shampoo surprised everyone with an explosion of motion, turning her body slightly to the inside of the attack while deflecting the kick with a double-arm motion. Her movements were a blur to everyone, including Ranma, and suddenly it was Ambergris's turn to be sent flying backwards, struck several hundred times at Amaguriken speeds as her airborne assault had unwittingly left her open and vulnerable. She struck the ground some ten meters away and rolled to a halt, from which she did not move again for the next several seconds.

When she did it was Shampoo's turn to stand and watch as her former friend slowly recovered her bearings, got to her feet and resumed a defensive posture. Ambergris looked as if she had just made acquaintance with a rockslide, but as battered and bruised as she obviously was, she was not seriously damaged. If anything she was actually smiling!

Shampoo smiled back at her, and the two Amazons resumed facing off with one another with the slow and supple moves of a pair of wounded panthers. Neither one seemed inclined to yield the fight any time soon, and if anything they even seemed to be enjoying their rough form of play. They seemed willing to go on for as long as either of them still held breath, and there was no telling how much more punishment they might have been to inflict on one another but for Cologne's intervention, raising her staff in one hand and calling out, "HOLD!" in tones that neither warrior could have mistaken.

Both antagonists froze in place as the de-aged Matriarch advanced on their position, not so much leaning on her staff as rapping it against the ground to signify acute displeasure, her glare taking both warriors in with level scrutiny until she at last came to a halt several paces from them.

A long, tense silence ensued, which stretched on for many long heartbeats before Cologne at last pronounced, "Would either of you two mind explaining for my benefit what exactly it is that you are doing?"

Two sets of eyes blinked simultaneously, and then Shampoo responded, "How you mean this, Great Grandmother?"

"You know perfectly well what I mean," Cologne's accusatory glare took in one warrior, then the next, "This farce of a challenge match, which to me seems more like a love-fest in the making. You were going all out against each other in the beginning, but now several times you have allowed yourself to grow unusually careless, Shampoo, and you, Ambergris, have failed to exploit your advantages every time they are given to you."

"What are you talking about Old…?" Ambergris halted herself, then amended with the arched word, "Elder?"

Cologne did not seem willing to allow herself to be baited and chose to answer the question directly, "You know perfectly well what I mean…this uncharacteristic chivalry of not attacking a foe when she is on the ground and clearly at your mercy. You could have finished this battle several times yet chose not to…"

"I don't need to explain myself to the likes of you," Ambergris replied narrowly, "Matriarch you may be, but you are not my Master."

"Oh so?" Cologne hardly seemed to move, yet Ambergris was knocked to her knees and laid flat out onto her back by an attack so swift that even Ranma had not seen it coming. All at once Cologne was poised over her with the tip of her staff hovering just over the bridge of the pink-haired warrior's nose, threatening to crush hr skull in an instant.

"Great Grandmother, No!" Shampoo cried out, looking ready to leap to her formal rival's assistance.

"You need to mind your manners if you want to get anywhere in this world, Stripling," Cologne said, very crisp and precisely, "Now…shall we continue this again with a civil tongue, or do you wish to see exactly how far it is that you must climb before you can account yourself my equal?"

"I yield the point, Elder," Ambergris replied, then waited until Cologne had stepped away before regaining her footing.

"And you, Child," Cologne turned back to Shampoo, heedless of the fact that she did not seem (at least on the surface) to in any way be the Elder, "When have you ever been as sloppy as this against a challenger from our village? You almost seem eager to concede the match…is it that you no longer want your title and are willing to give it to Amber?"

"What you mean, Great Grandmother?" Shampoo replied with a frown, "Shampoo fight very hard with Amber…"

"If that were so," Cologne replied, and suddenly the staff in her hand came rocketing towards Shampoo, who effortlessly dodged it, "Then that would have felled you. You obviously are not fighting at your best, and I have sensed from the start of this match that you are reluctant to go all out against your friend. If your heart is not in this battle, then you may as well concede now and spare us all much trouble. Of a certainty Ambergris here wants what you seem not to value, and I must say that I am more than a little disappointed in you both. It's not as if this were a fight to the death, after all, and I thought you wanted to settle for yourselves which one of you is the stronger fighter."

"Are you saying we're not really doing our best?" Ambergris began, but her single visible eye narrowed as the rest of her exposed face took on a thoughtful expression.

"I am saying that you are doing very well…for a pair of novices," Cologne replied, "But I expect more than that out of Village champions. You have obviously studied long and well for this fight, and so has Shampoo, yet neither one of you seem willing to conclude things in anything less than a rude draw. If such were not the case then this would have been ended some time ago and one of you would become the acknowledged champion. Unless you can convince me otherwise, I must reluctantly conclude that this fight is a pointless exercise and that the real contest should be reserved for the next harvest season…"

"No," Ambergris replied, her expression suddenly quite hard and unyielding, "That is too long and far away in the future to satisfy me. I want to resolve this here and now, not wait for the better part of a year and leave things undecided."

"But what we do if no can fight all-out?" Shampoo wondered.

Ambergris's single exposed eye focused on Shampoo, and then softly she said, "There is one way to finish this here and now. The Kalinar."

There was a slight gasp from Shampoo, and even Cologne's eyes seemed to widen. Ambergris merely extended the palms of her hand towards Shampoo, who reluctantly matched her gesture, and then the Matriarch backed hastily away while the two warriors faced off together.

"What's this?" Soun asked, "What did she just call it?"

"The Kalinar," Silk replied in hushed tones that carried only a few feet from her radius, yet which somehow Nabiki overheard in spite of the slight difference between them, "It's a very ancient ritual dating back to antiquity, seldom used by Amazons below the rank of full master. It's a contest of wills, calling forth the Chi of the two fighters to test which one has the stronger will force."

"It's also seldom used because of the danger of its invocation," Comb added with her own level of intensity, "The danger is great for both of them, but greatest for the one whose will even slightly falters. My daughter is being asked to pit the strength of her life force up against that of Ambergris, and if she hesitates or fails the challenge, then the resultant charge might destroy her!"

"Aiyaa!" cried Ling-Ling as she and Lung-Lung tensed together, only to feel their father's hands squeeze their shoulders in a reassuring manner.

"Kalinar?" Akane frowned, "That sounds almost like something from that American show, Star Trek."

"That's Kalimar," Ryoga automatically corrected.

"Oho?" Kodachi eyed the lost boy, wondering at how he could have known such trivia on a foreign import.

"Oh my," said Kasumi at her side, "I certainly hope they don't overdo things. Nabiki would be very distressed if Shampoo is hurt from all this sparring…"

"I don't get it," Ukyo admitted from her own point of vantage, "What are those two trying to accomplish?"

"Is ultimate test of Amazon," Perfume replied for her benefit, squeezing hands with Lotion as if for mutual reassurance, "Is like ancient Chinese game of Rock, Paper, Knife, only using Chi in place of weapons."

"Shampoo," Lotion said tensely, her eyes focused on the ensuing silent battle.

Shampoo and Ambergris held their ground and neither appeared to be moving, but around their bodies a faint blue glow began to appear, which same was only visible to those who were sensitive to Chi auras, which included not only Ranma and Nabiki but the disguised Senshi warriors in their midst, including a somewhat disturbed pair of talking cats, whose whiskers were standing on end as the energy swirled around the two opponents.

"Whoah," said Tsukino Usagi, "Check it out, guys…"

"Those two are giving off major energy levels," said the dark-haired Hino Rei.

"If I had my pocket calculator I could estimate just how much life energy those two seem to be generating," added Mizuno Ami just as tensely.

"Are you sure there's nothing special about them?" asked Aino Minako, "I mean, with their hair color and all, they might have some connection to the Moon Kingdom…"

"Doubtful," replied one of the talking cats, while the other one added, "But you have to admit it is a disturbing prospect…"

Makoto did not join in with her friends in their speculation but shot an anxious look towards Ukyo, seeing the way "he" tensed up and looked ready to jump to "his" feet at any moment. The fact that Ukyo was friends with at least one of these two so-called Amazons was reason enough for Makoto to express a tacit interest, but she had also caught the way that the one with Pink hair had been flirting with Ukyo a short while before and frowned in obvious disapproval. She was not exactly certain what association-if any-that Ukyo shared with either of these women, but Makoto intended to get to the bottom of it, and very soon…if only out of interest for their one-and-renewed bonds of friendship, of course…

Akane caught the way the tall girl kept glancing at Ukyo and frowned for reasons of her own disapproval, a gesture Ryoga could not help but witness with a sinking feeling in his stomach. He knew he was being unfair to object to Akane's friendship with Kuonji, but he could not help the way he felt about this matter, not trusting that Ukyo was in any way innocent of encouraging Akane's interest. He knew that the matter would have to be addressed, and soon, if only for his peace of mind if not for the dwindling prospects of a relationship between them.

Then all at once a brilliant flash filled the makeshift arena and all eyes instinctively flinched away for a few brief, blinding instants. When eyes could focus once again on the combatants they found Shampoo down and Ambergris still standing. The purple haired girl had been thrown back a considerable distance and lay in a heap where she had fallen, while her pink haired rival wavered slightly on her heels and seemed ready to join her in an unconscious state. Everyone looked stunned, but such inaction only lasted several heartbeats before Ranma came charging forward, shouting Shampoo's name with obvious distress. Nor was Nabiki slow to follow his example, albeit that she approached at less than a full run, anxiety making her curiously reluctant to see her own worst fears confirmed for their mutual partner.

As it turned out she need not have fretted, for Ranma found Shampoo was semi-alert and not truly as down for the count as she had first appeared. In fact she stirred the moment Ranma laid a hand on her and looked up at him with somewhat less than total focus. As Nabiki drew nearer she managed to weakly gasp, "Airen?" with no clear indication which one of them she was so indicating.

The word gave Nabiki the strength and confidence that she needed to close the remaining distance between them, joining Ranma in a huddle of reassurance that the Amazon was all right after all. She was instead seized by the conflicting desires to embrace Shampoo in a hug while simultaneously shaking her with the demand that she not be worried like that again, either one of which gestures would surely blow her image as an Ice Queen out of the waters forever, though at the moment Nabiki was well past caring.

But even as relief flooded through the middle Tendo daughter, she heard Ambergris call out, "So, you still intend to cheat me of my full measure of satisfaction, Shampoo. How ironic…"

Ranma tensed and turned a murderous glare back her way, a snarl on his lips as he cried out, "What's your problem, Lady? You still want to start something, try me out for size!"

"Oooh," Ambergris smiled with a mockingly pleasant expression, "I like him. Small wonder you chose to give him the kiss of Marriage, Shampoo, but your airen need not take that attitude with me. I'm declaring the fight a draw and officially withholding my challenge for another occasion."

"Why so?" Nabiki asked, both vexed and perplexed with the Pink haired Amazon's demeanor.

"Indeed," Cologne remarked as she came up to join them, "You have clearly defeated Shampoo, and no one from out village…not even I…would dare to deny it."

"Simple fact, we're too evenly well matched for either one of us to be the victor," Ambergris replied patiently, "Much though I would like to declare victory, the fact is that Shampoo withdrew her energies at the last instant, which is why she seemed to lose at the challenge of the Kalinar. Had she truly gone all out…well…it would have been a far more interesting outcome."

"Withdrew?" Ranma asked with a confused expression, glancing at Shampoo as he added, "Why would you do that?"

"Shampoo not know," the Amazon replied, "Only sense it no good idea to continue fight. Shampoo trust her instincts, rather give fight to Amber than risk going against will of ancestors."

"And what exactly do our sacred ancestors have to do with any of this?" Comb replied, also joining them, as did the rest of their family and extended clan, while the student onlookers mulled around and Ryonami tried to talk up a convincing spiel about point scale, "Are you saying that my daughter wanted to lose this fight?"

"Not at all, Healer," Ambergris replied, going to retrieve her naginata before leaning against it for support as weariness started to overtake her, "I merely suggest that Shampoo has good reason to not be fighting at her utmost, reasons she's not even aware of, though I should have suspected it myself from the beginning."

"What you mean?" Perfume asked as she joined into the discussion, "Is something wrong with Shampoo?"

"No," Ambergris said simply, "Nothing is wrong with her, per se…but tell me, Stud," she addressed herself at Ranma, "Just how long is it that you three have been officially married, as in engaged in honeymoon antics?"

"Uh…a few days, why?" Ranma asked.

Ambergris shook her head in such a way that the other half of her face was briefly exposed to view, then sighed, "Not nearly long enough, if this were under ordinary circumstances, but I suspect the magic of Jusenkyo is at work here, speeding up Shampoo's metabolism, however slightly."

"You mean…?" the blue haired Lotion asked with sudden comprehension.

"It's only a hypothesis," Ambergris turned to Comb and Silk before saying, "Correct me if I am mistaken, but a warrior who is with child will instinctively hold back a part of her energies rather than risk a possible miscarriage, correct?"

Dead silence fell over the assembly, broken only when Hairbrush turned to his wife and asked, "Is this possible? Can it be true?"

"Ah…well…" Comb seemed more than slightly flustered, "There's no way to tell at the present…it takes several weeks before a woman begins to show signs, and even using modern methods…"

"But it is true nonetheless," Silk said with an odd sense of detachment in her voice, turning a slightly unfocused gaze upon Shampoo before adding, "Grandmother might confirm this, but I sense the truth behind the words Ambergris has spoken. There is indeed the possibility that a seed has been planted, and it is just enough of a potential to alter Shampoo's biochemistry and throw off her natural rhythms. I suspect that she instinctively withdrew because she sensed the potential harm to her child that might be wrought if she continued to go all-out in the Kalinar…"

"I still say it sounds like something out of Star Trek," Akane murmured under her breath, but for the most part everyone else ignored her.

"Aiyaa," Shampoo murmured at last, her eyes as round as saucers.

"You've got to be kidding!" Nabiki at long last reacted, wondering how they could be so sure when she and Ranma had only started having sex with Shampoo earlier in the week, albeit very intensely!

"What?" Ranma asked as he glanced around with a look of incomprehension, "What are we talking about here? What's this about Shampoo? She's all right, isn't she? You didn't hurt yourself, right?"

Slowly all eyes turned his way, only adding to Ranma's confusion. Even Ryoga could not believe how dense his rival was behaving that he could not have picked up by now on what everyone was hinting at.

"Like father, like son," Atsuko philosophically offered.

"What?" Genma asked as he glanced her way.

"Never mind, dearest," Nodoka, clapping her hands together as a beatific grin illuminated her face, "My son is so, so manly!"

"Yeah, whatever," Yumi said with a shrug, giving a playful nudge to Ukyo before adding, "Maybe you ought to clue him in a bit, Nephew.'"

Ukyo gave a sour look at "his" aunt before turning back with a sigh, "Ranchan…"

"I see," Katsuhitsu remarked as he made a fresh cup of tea and passed it along to his daughter, "In other words you're about to be a great great grandmother…congratulations."

"This isn't funny, father," Cologne said tensely.

"Yes it is," he smiled, "By the sound of things, it seems very much that this is what Shampoo herself has wanted…and as you say, she is getting along splendidly with both of her airen."

"But it just complicates things to no end," Cologne sighed, "I was hoping to win back some of Shampoo's trust by offering my services to train her to new levels so that she might never suffer such a humiliating defeat again, but now it seems that her training regimen will need to be cut back for a few months…six to nine, depending on who you ask on the subject, Silk or my granddaughter."

"Young people are so rash and impulsive these days," Katsuhitsu remarked, ignoring the sound of an explosion echoing somewhere on the mountain.

"What was that?" Cologne asked with her battle-reflexes causing her to tense up slightly.

"Just more rash and impulsive behavior on the part of some young people I know," her father replied, "You get used to these things after a while, so pay it no mind."

Cologne settled back in her seat and remarked, "It sounds as if our lives have more in common than I might have once suspected, Father, but to return back to my point, life has just gotten complicated for my great granddaughter and her airen, to say nothing of what a baby will mean to their future happiness. They might be of age back in China, but here in Japan these three are still counted as too young to form a stable family situation on their own. I had thought to give them a couple more years before they would settle down and take on the responsibilities of a family life together. In a way I should have suspected that something like this would happen, but with everything that has been happening of late…" she sighed, "If only that miserable dwarf hadn't splashed me with Jusenkyo water…"

"You are certain of its effects?" Katsuhitsu inquired, "You can't assume your aged disguise? What if you splashed yourself with hot tea water…?" he extended the pot with a helpful expression.

"I'm afraid my condition cannot be reversed like a regular Jusenkyo curse," Cologne waved away the offer, "It was water from the spring of the Drowned Girl, and I am a young girl in body already, though my thoughts at times make me feel very ancient. The water appears to have strengthened my mental conception of myself so that I can no longer form the disguise of great age, nor even think of myself in that context. This is a complete disaster for me as I now stand exposed in my true form before Shampoo and the others, and should word of this ever reach the ears of the Council…"

"It might be difficult to explain your perpetual youthfulness," Katsuhitsu shrugged his shoulders, "I can see how you might find that awkward, having to explain why you've been withholding the truth about yourself for so many generations. It was to avoid complications such as this that I generally avoid having too many close personal contacts. Living on a mountain guarding an ancient shrine has its advantages in that way, and should I meet someone whom I knew a few generations back, they always assume that I'm my own grandson."

"Convenient for you, Father," Cologne replied, "But it still leaves me to face the situation that Ambergris spelled out for me before departing once again for China."

"Oh?" Katsuhitsu asked, "And what was that?"

"She drew me aside and asked to speak to me in private," Cologne began with a sigh, "What else was I to do? She knows enough about me now to ruin our family's standing in the Council. In a way her words were coached as a friendly bit of advance, one warrior to another, but taken as they were…" she sighed again, then sobered, "She explained to me that she once had a vision come to her, of herself leading the Amazons to victory against a terrible opposition. Coupled with a prediction that once was made by Lotion…my former pupil, that is, and not her great granddaughter…"

"I see," Katsuhitsu urged her to continue.

"She said," Cologne began again, "And I quote…that Elder Lotion told her that she was fated to be the next Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku, and that this was necessary to save the Amazons against a looming threat darkening our collective future. According to this prophecy only Ambergris can stand against the challenges and lead our people into a bright the future, but if anyone else besides her becomes Matriarch, it would spell the doom of all our people."

"I see," Katsuhitsu said again, "And do you believe her?"

"In truth I know not what to believe any more," Cologne sighed, "But somehow I do trust her. Ambergris is clever and resourceful, more so than any ten warriors that I have had the distinction of observing from close proximity. Had she intended mischief against Shampoo or my House, she would have contrived it in a less obvious manner than to simply challenge Shampoo for her title. Her ambition is quite impressive, but I am not inclined to think that she would be as ruthless in the pursuit of power and influence in our village as I might be in her position. I believe her to be sincere in her claim that becoming the new Matriarch is truly for the good of our people and not just some form of personal aggrandizement."

"She does sound remarkable for one of her tender age," Katsuhitsu eyed his daughter shrewdly, "It seems to me as if you both admire and resent her. Could it be that she reminds you overmuch of someone you once knew long ago, who had similar ambitions?"

Cologne refused to rise to the bait and just gave her father a faintly disapproving look before continuing, "I would admit that she has great potential and might one day become a very formidable leader. For now it is the other part of what she said that I find troubling. The stripling had the nerve to advise me that I should consider the odd chain of events that brought the rest of our immediate family to Japan, which I must confess had been disturbing me on at least a subliminal level. She hinted that there might be more than mere coincidence behind this, then suggested that the fates themselves might be warning me to distance our family against some possible tide of circumstances that might be working against us. Shampoo obviously does not wish to return to China…at least not right away, while she is settling in to her new life with her airen. Comb and her husband wish to eventually return to resume their duties in our village, but I don't sense any great haste to depart from either of their quarter. My other two granddaughters are just finding out what a vast and wonderful world exists outside our tiny realm, and being teenagers, of course, they are quite curious and precocious. I think Silk intends to renew more than just her relationship with the outsider man who captured her heart and fathered a child on her, and her daughter has already settled in to life with her husband, so you can see how it might appear to a casual observer as if we are being given reasons not to return home, as if to do so might brook the wrath of the gods…or at least that is what it seems like."

"I see," Katsuhitsu remarked, "Do you suppose that Ambergris herself might pose a threat to your House, or one of your fellow elders? Who was that charming young thing who once stole a man away from you all those years ago? Be something?"

"Be-Dea," Cologne frowned, "And no, I don't think the upstart is intending direct harm against our family, nor would the other Council members be willing to cause trouble for us if it is not in their immediate interest. Comb is our village healer, one of three who have attained her level of competence in our immediate region, and her husband is valued for his skills as our village mechanic. I don't see how any of our traditional enemies would gain by seeking harm to the twins, Shampoo or even her baby, and matters have been quiet with the Musk dynasty of late, so I cannot see any reason for why we should be so concerned about a return trip to China."

"But you suspect trouble nonetheless," Katsuhitsu remarked in tones that made clear that it was not an actual question.

"Yes," Cologne signed, "I cannot shake this feeling that Ambergris's warning portends very troublesome things in our immediate future. I have learned to trust my instincts over the years, and they are telling me that it would be best for everyone to have my family extend their stay in Japan for the foreseeable future."

"I think that might be wise," Katsuhitsu said soberly, then as he was wont to do, his mercurial mood swings caused him to smile delightedly and add, "It would give me a chance to meet my great-great granddaughters. You could have them visit me here in the family shrine. I'm sure that my son-in-law would be glad to put you up for the duration."

"That is generous of you, Father," Cologne replied, "And perhaps I will take you up on this offer sometime in the future. But for now…there is another matter than I with to discuss…well, more like sound off with you to see if you can add anything to my own careful perceptions."

"Ah," Katsuhitsu replied sagely, "We come at last to the crux of the matter. What is wrong, Kho-Lon? What is the real reason that you came out all this way to visit with your poor old father?"

Cologne eyed him dubiously at the "old part," for in spite of his great age, the man sitting before her was anything but doddering and senile. having dropped the appearance of old age in her presence, out of respect for her condition, "I came, father…because I need your advice. There are few others whom I could consult with regarding the courses of action that I might take at the present…few I could consider as an Elder at any rate. The fact is…I do not know what to make of my life if I am unable to resume my duties as Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku. I have been the eldest one of our tribe for so long, and there have been occasions when I have, out of necessity and when justified by circumstances…performed some questionable actions…and given the recent way in which my past mistakes have been coming back to haunt me…" she sighed, only to react with a start when she felt his hand caress hers from across the table.

"There now," he smiled gently, "I'm sure you've always acted in what you felt was the best interest of all concerned parties, and you think I haven't had more than my share of regrets? Your little sister was one of many foolish mistakes that I have never ceased chiding myself over. If only I had been more of a father to her when she most needed my protection…" he glanced down at the table and allowed himself a rare moment when regret fully emerged from behind his mask of unruffled dignity and noble bearing.

Cologne took a long moment before she resumed again, "Father…I know you've had your reasons for staying away from us for so long a time, and I regret that I have not sought you out more often, but I never thought it wise to dwell much in the past, and I respected your privacy until now. It seems that I may have occasion to call upon you more often in times to come…I only hope that this won't prove to be too much of a bother."

"Not for me surely," Katsuhitsu replied with his usual cheerful demeanor, "And it would do Tenchi good to meet up with his aunt once in a while. The boy has certainly had his fair share of adventures recently, and I dare say that he could stand to benefit for some Amazon wisdom."

"He does seem like a charming lad," Cologne mused, unable to help comparing the soft-spoken boy with her own son-in-law and wondering how much they might share in common, "Perhaps I should visit more often, if only to pay my respects to the demon you've been guarding."

"She's out, by the way," Katsuhitsu revealed, having timed the moment to where she had taken another sip of tea, which she promptly spat out in the manner that he had predicted, "Ryoko's one of those 'Interesting Things' that I've been meaning to mention. Not to worry, though…her long stay in that cave has made her somewhat more agreeable in temperament, if not outright domestic."

"I can see we do have much catching up to do, Father," Cologne remarked as she hastily wiped her mouth and chin of all traces of tea that she had just spat out, sensing as she did this an epic story worth telling around campfires, "Now that I think of it, I believe I did catch sight of an unusual lady hovering around the boy when we briefly touched bases at that mountain resort. I'll reserve judgement about the demon until you supply me with more of the details."

"Fair enough," Katsuhitsu agreed, "But what of your story? You didn't tell me the upshot of your private meeting with this Ambergris…"

"Not much to tell," Cologne replied, "Other than that I promised to take her words under advisement. I also bade her good fortune in her efforts at becoming my replacement."

"You did?" Katsuhitsu could not quite conceal his surprise at this.

"Of course," Cologne's lovely face conveyed amusement, "If I cannot return home, then at least I can send her to my fellow Elders with a message excusing my prolonged absence, and besides…I rather think she might make a pretty fair Matriarch, one who would keep my fellow Elders in line should I be unable to continue my own duties. At the very least they deserve her."

"Rather like loosing a pink-furred tiger on a gathering of old hens, eh?" Katsuhitsu smiled, "Father would have loved you at court. I always thought you'd make a formidable Juraian Princess."

"Why thank you, Father," Cologne replied with affection, then her eyes went tot he door of the little shrine and she added, "And you can tell my nephew that if he wants to listen in on our conversation, then at the very least he ought to join us instead of sneaking around with a glass pressed to one ear…it might make his lady friends suspicious."

Katsuhitsu turned and his voice became as roughened and withered as the old man he so often appeared to be to others, "Tenchi, I thought you still had chores that needed doing!"

There was a loud, "AWP!" followed by a crash and a hasty scramble, as if some figure were hastily departing the premises, which caused Cologne no end of amusement, deciding there and then that the lad did indeed share a great deal in common with his cousin, Ranma…


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