Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Motherly Resolve ( Chapter 99 )

[ 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

Nabiki's Journal Resumes:

Once again I found myself in that curious place between worlds that Lotion calls the Astral Light, or dimension of Souls, whatever you might like to call it. To me it's like an infinite blue screen canvas that stretches out to infinity in all directions, a place where the Mind has more substance than the Body, and where change is unknown but belief is the absolute criteria for what you see, hear and experience.

Call it the TRUE third dimension, as Lotion insists that the world of substance that we know is merely a product of the Fourth dimension, time being essential for change, and change being necessary for there to be energy, particles, atoms, molecules, heat and all the like. I mean, it makes sense when you come down to it…without the power of change, of one event flowing into the next one, how could we possibly even recognize ourselves, let alone a speeding bus heading straight for us in an immanent collision? The Old Woman is rather scathing to the limits of modern day physics, rather like a college professor critiquing the finger paintings of a small child, as if ancient Amazon Lore is that much more superior to the accomplishments of scientists of our era. (Of course the fact that she constantly reminds me of what a cute young boy Einstein was when she first met him does kind of help me to understand why she feels this way, given that her mere longevity alone is proof of the soundness of her theories).

Actually to even call her an OLD woman when she's giving one of her Astral lectures is a bit of a stretch, seeing how she barely looks older than me while we're both mentally on that plane, our bodies left behind in meditation. Young, pink-haired and radiantly beautiful in a silken Chinese styled kimono, exactly how she looked back when she was a young warrior in training under Cologne. The resemblance between her and Ambergris is striking, leading me to speculate as to a possible relationship, though when I asked her about this Lotion just smiled and reminded me that in a small village such as theirs all the families were related by blood in one sense or another, a reason they have to constantly be on guard against excessive inbreeding.

Anyway, on the occasion of this particular session, Lotion was showing me the art of Astral Timetravel, stressing all the while that the power of the mind to project itself through the Astral stream from one point to another is a facet of the plane's essential LACK of time and continuity, and that it would be easy to get lost this way if it were not for those silvery chords that anchor us to our still-living bodies. Sever the cord and the soul would be lost in the timestream, something we both had to guard against as a simple scrying session could easily turn out disastrous without the proper precautions and safeguards.

Having drummed this point home to me almost to excess, she then proceeded to show me how she could negotiate through the complex web of data and impressions that were open to our minds for ready access, and how to find the chords of one's own destiny so that you can trace it back through time to the original source material. She showed me the point where my chord began, which was a few months before the time of my actual birthing. To my surprise my chord changed color and continued onward into the past, but Lotion merely explained that this was the point where my soul had entered my mother's embryo, and that the soul extending backwards in time was the Me who was before my birth. I asked for clarification on this point and got a lecture about Reincarnation, how we live many lives over and over and that few souls are ever truly created, and what a silly idea it was for the Catholics to believe that the soul was universally created at the moment of conception.

Yeah, that really clarifies thing a bunch. I'm just the me who is right now, but before the first Trimester of my physical conception…maybe the second or third month of my life…my soul merged with my then-embryonic body and began the long process from womb to birth to infancy to my present teenaged state. Naturally this prompted me to ask her how there could be six billion people living on our world in the present when the total number of human beings who ever lived before the nineteenth century was estimated to be just about that number. I mean, wouldn't that imply that we only had time to be alive twice in all the millennia that Homo Sapiens have existed?

Her response to that surprised me as she merely smiled and asked if I had ever heard of a place called Atlantis. She then added that Scientists barely know less than one percent of the total story of the human race, and that there used to be a race before our own called the Solnoids, or something of that nature. All women, she added, who reproduced through artificial means, something that no doubt would have amused Sham-chan to no end but would no doubt have appalled Ranma.

Okay, I didn't really let the point drop there, but Lotion's second answer was no less puzzling than the first one, something about the souls of all the people who now live having come from other places and times, even other worlds and close parallel dimensions where life had died out or the world had mysteriously ended for one reason or another. She assured me that there was still a ready supply of souls yet to inhabit the bodies of children not even yet conceived, and that there was even something of a waiting list, "Though admittedly the list grows shorter every year what with you prolific youngsters all too eager to help out with the short fall," she added with a rather smug and infuriating expression.

And of course she couldn't let the point go without assuring me that when the time came for me to be a mother that an appropriate soul would be found to inhabit the body of my baby.

Okay, so that's jumping ahead a bit for my money (but it is a nice thought to know I won't be short-changed in that department). I was curious, though, about knowing what sort of person I was in a previous life, but Lotion told me that was for a different session to unravel. At the moment she had something else in mind that she wanted to show me, so she left off following my chord and instead selected the chord that belonged to my mother.

This one stretched out in two directions, and from where we were viewing it I could see the future ahead of that chord merging with a golden chord that shone with intense inner light, briefly becoming intertwined before separating some years off further downward. Rather than follow that trail, however, Lotion directed my attention to the chord stretching back into the past, showing me where a shiny silver chord touched it and separated (without question that one belonged to Kasumi) then moving even farther back to where her chord became intertwined with a gray chord that I discovered belonged to my father. Lotion selected a specific point in the chord and directed me to focus upon it, and like that I felt myself being drawn into the chord itself, merging with it as reality reshaped around us and took the solid form of four gray walls, walls that dulled a bit in color as a sense of solidity fell over us and we found ourselves in a room currently occupied by strangers.

Or rather a few of them were strangers, but as I focused on the faces sitting around the table I immediately recognized one of them with a start, discovering to my surprise that it was none other than my mother!

"They cannot see or hear us," Lotion explained at my side, "We are not truly present in anything but an astral context. These are the shadows of what once was, the past that cannot be changed yet exists eternally at this moment, which is the present reality for those in attendance. This is the point where your mother and father first met, and that is Tsukino Kimiko, a distant cousin to Masaki Nodoka. Your father has never laid eyes on her before, yet due to her close resemblance to my granddaughter, Silk, he is looking at her and appraising her as if to see the mirror image of a woman with whom he is currently involved. The others are your grandparents on both sides of the family, and now watch as events unfold the way they did almost twenty years ago. Do not try and interfere in any way, merely watch and listen."

I wondered why she thought she needed to remind me of that, but I was shortly to discover the reason for her stating that precaution as I tuned in to hear the older folks concluding what had to be some pretty involved negotiations. There was a document laying on the table between them, and with a start I recognized it as a marriage contract, the sort of thing that was positively old fashioned in any modern romantic framework.

Just as one of the two men sitting down wearing kimonos leaned forward and was about to put his kanji signature on said contract, though, the young man at the table (Yep, three guesses, it's Daddy, or rather my father as a much younger guy, and surprisingly handsome as I discovered on closer examination) spoke up and said, "One moment, Father. I object to this. We have only just met each other, and now you want the two of us to get married?"

All eyes turned towards Daddy as he sat there cringing a bit, as if wondering what had just possessed him to speak up at this time and place. Having found his spine, however, Daddy squared his shoulders and said, "I'm not saying I won't marry her…but it wouldn't be fair…I mean…she and I…we don't even know each other…"

"What's that got do to with it, Boy?" said my father's father, a thinly build guy with a touch of grey in his hair and a more than slightly care-worn expression as he peered at my daddy over a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, "This is an agreement of honor between our families, Tsukino and Tendo. The two of you are to marry to unite our families and schools of martial arts, so don't go mouthing off about the deal being fair or not. Give yourself some time and get to know the girl before you reject her."

"I'm not rejecting her, Father," Daddy spoke up, "But…well…what about her feelings? Does Kimiko want this engagement any more than I do?"

The other man at the table, who definitely had more gray hairs on his head than my father's father, just said stiffly, "My daughter will do what she is told. She is a dutiful child of our clan and has already given her consent for this engagement."

"But doesn't she had a right to tell me this for herself?" Daddy persisted, "I mean…she's a very attractive young lady…ah…" he swallowed before going on, "I would never refuse her…if this is what she truly wants, but…I am still a young man with prospects…"

"You mean those other girls you like to hang around with?" Grandfather Tendo replied, "Tough luck, boy…your tomcatting days are as good as numbered. A lady such as Kimiko won't be cheapened by you flirting about chasing after other women."

"But that's not what I…" my father tried to protest, but I could have warned him where this line of debate was headed, watching the old Hypocrite dig himself in ever deeper.

"I'll tell you what," Mother's father suddenly got a smile on his features that looked downright menacing, and I knew at once he was up to something, "Why don't we leave these two alone and give them the chance to get better acquainted with one another? The boy does raise a valid point, it wouldn't be fair to have them engaged sight unseen. Better to let him know what he's in for once they're married."

"An excellent idea," my other grandfather shared his benevolent smile, and that's about the point where I would have been heading for the door or taking cover. Instead both men stood up and left my future parents alone together, stepping out of the room as if the two old goats were chatting about old times and looking forward to killing off a bottle of sake between them.

Daddy looked real nervous as he stared across the table towards Momma, but much to his and my surprise we both saw Momma frown in his direction as a long, tense silence hung in the air between them, broken only at the point where she said (in rather frosty tones), "My, aren't we special?"

"Excuse me?" Daddy asked, no less surprised by that chilly greeting than I was.

"Here I was told I'd be marrying some kind of heroic figure from a samurai legend," Momma's tone literally dripped sarcasm, "It took a lot of arm-twisting before I let Dad talk me into going along with this, and now you have the grace to all but humiliate me by saying I'm not good enough for you. What a fine thing that is for a girl's ego…"

"Excuse-I mean-I'm sorry, I never meant…!"

"Oh, did you now?" Momma's eyes narrowed as she studied his profile, "And what's this I hear about other women? Don't tell me you've been seeing girls on the sly before condescending to meet with me for an omake? How very generous of you to spare me the time and attention…"

"Ah…look," Daddy tried to make a pacifying gesture, "You've got the wrong idea, Miss…"

"Oh, Miss is it?" I heard Momma's tone harden, "I'll have you know I hold a Lieutenant's rank with the Home Defense Force."

"Er…what?" Daddy blinked his eyes, "You're in the Army?"

"Correction," she replied rather archly, "Japan doesn't have an Army, we have a Home Defense Force, and you'd better bloody well remember that, Mister Big-Shot martial artist."

"Er…ah…well…they never told me…" Daddy continued to dig himself in even deeper.

"As a matter of fact, I'm a Helicopter Pilot," she continued, "And a rather good one at that. If you like I could give you a demonstration."

"Er…that won't be necessary…"

"Are you sure?" she smiled, "I'm also pretty good in a simulator…I have over seven hundred hours flying time as a jet pilot…not that they'd ever trust a mere woman to fly one of their big, expensive American made jets…"

"Er…ah…can we get back to the engagement?" Daddy's smile was more like a wince, and a bit too hopeful.

"Don't tell me a woman in uniform intimidates you?" Mother continued to taunt him, "How like a man to find a woman who knows how to fight too much for them to handle…"

"Er, well…you would be surprised…"

"You know," Momma continued, "I'm ranked as a pretty good martial artist in my own right…I hold a third Dan Black Belt in Shotokan Karate. In fact I could demonstrate for you if you'd like to try me out."

"But…ah…you…" I could already see sweating, as if wondering just what he had said to set off this line of conversation.

"Come on, then," Momma got to her feet and smiled, "This is supposed to be a famous dojo, right? Well, I'll meet you out there once I change into something more appropriate. Don't be late, or I may be forced to come get you."

And with that my Mother left the room and my father, the latter blinking his eyes as if trying to sort out what exactly had just happened.

Lotion made a small gesture and the scene shifted to the interior of the dojo, which looked surprisingly a lot like it does in our time (or did just prior to its latest calamity). Momma was standing there in a martial arts gi with a black belt that bore three distinctive black stripes separated by two white ones down its length, facing off against daddy, who was wearing a version of that brown gi that seems to comprise the whole of his wardrobe (I almost hadn't recognized him earlier when he was dressed in a blue and white silk kimono). He looked remarkably handsome with his long black hair hanging loose, while Momma's short-cropped brown locks curled in such a way as to denote her mixed Japanese/American ancestry. The resemblance between her and Silk was even more uncanny now, only to my surprise it was my momma who looked the part of a tomboy, while compared to her Silk would almost come off looking like Kasumi!

They sparred, Momma at once coming on as the aggressor, showing a surprising ferocity that reminded me a little too much of Akane and her wild rages. Unlike Akane, however, Momma fought with clear intelligence and purpose to her motions, less of the wild energy that's typical of my sister and more of the cunning that I usually associate with Ranma. She seemed more than a bit surprised when Daddy managed to avoid her earlier strikes, however, and yet when he did not counter-attack my Momma stood back and said, "What's wrong with you? Why won't you fight me?"

"But…you're a woman," Daddy protested.

"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock," Momma sniped, and I swear to you it was almost my own voice that I thought I was hearing! She launched another attack, this time going all out for the kill, and this time she managed to force my father back into a corner where she was able to nail him with a spinning reverse kick that sent him crashing back into the wall. Before he had time to recover she was on him, gripping him by his gi and crossing her arms so that she drew it tighter about his neck, almost choking off circulation.

"Now you listen and you listen good, Buster!" Momma hissed into his face, "Just because I let my dad talk me into this insane scheme is no reason for you to think I'm some kind of timid, weak hothouse flower that you can coddle and take care of! If you think you're too good for me, fine, and if you think I'm too aggressive or too mannish, then that's also fine, but DON'T come off like you're doing me any kind of a favor here! I'm a young girl, too, and I've got a career to think about, and Dad's trying to get me to resign my commission, so you just tell me why you think I should give all of that up to be with you of all people?"

"Urk!" Daddy responded, turning a shade of purple.

"Huh? Oh," Momma let him go and stood back, "Sorry about that…I get carried away sometimes. Even I don't know why I do that…"

"Ah…hah," Daddy felt his throat and took deep breaths before saying, "I wasn't going to…say anything…about it…but you remind me a bit too much…of Yumi."

"Yumi?" Momma turned a puzzled look his way, "Who the heck is Yumi? Is that the name of one of those girls you hang out with?"

"Sort of," Daddy coughed to clear his air passage, rubbing his neck before continuing, "Actually for a while there she was trying to kill me…then she…ah…changed her mind. It's a bit complicated, and I doubt you'd want to hear the full story…"

"Try me," Momma looked at him as if she were accepting a formal challenge.

"Ah…well…" Daddy replied, "I've been training with my family Elder and…a fellow student of the art, for a number of years now…and on one of our training missions we…made the acquaintance of a fair number of young ladies…one of whom looks a good deal like you, as a matter of fact."

"Like…me?" Momma blinked, "This Yumi person?"

"Er…no," Daddy replied, "Her name is Silk and she's Chinese…ah…well, enough about her. I don't think you need to hear about that…"

"No," Momma insisted, "By all means tell me more…like who is this Silk person, and who else are you involved with?"

"Ah, well, ah…um…" Daddy winced, "This could take a while…"

"I've got nothing scheduled for the rest of the day," Momma folded her arms over her chest, "My weekend furlough lasts until Sunday."

"Oh…isn't that interesting," Daddy looked like a drowning man trying to swim upstream, but the look Momma gave him was one that as much as said that refusing her request was not an option. It was clear from the start, which of them would be wearing the pants in the family, and it most definitely was not my father!

"It gets better than this," Lotion said, reminding me of her presence, "Observe what happened the day your mother and my granddaughter met for the first time."

The scene shifted once more, only instead of the dojo we found ourselves outside at the local Zoo with animals running amok all over the place and my father in the middle of everything, a young man wearing a bandana around his head close by his side, quite obviously Ranma's father.

"We have to do something, Saotome!" Daddy declared in a surprisingly heroic manner.

"Agreed, Tendo," said a Genma who was about a hundred pounds lighter and sported a few tufts of hair from beneath his head piece, "The only question is what?"

"We have to round up all the animals and get them back into their cages before anyone gets hurt," Daddy replied as if he were the strategist among them.

"I've no problem with the basic concept," Genma adjusted his glasses, "It's pulling this off that gives me a problem."

"You men," sniffed one of their companions, who beyond question was Silk in an earlier age, dressed in a green Cheosong and sporting a pair of Amazon Odangos in her hair with her trademark silver flute in hand, her Japanese clearly not as refined as in the future, "No can be trusted make decisions of this nature. Amazons know how to deal with animals who run loose in village."

"Is so," agreed a purple haired spitting image of Shampoo who was wearing a red pantsuit with leather embroidered tunic, "First deal with big animals, then round up smaller pests…"

"You mean like this?" a cheerful voice inquired as a younger version of Atsuko appeared dragging a brown bear by its scruff, the animal quite clearly unconscious as if she'd thunked him good and hard with something, "I caught one of them, Gemi-chan…where do you want me to put him?"

"Ah…" Genma replied with rounded eyes, "At-chan…I…"

"What the hell are you people all doing standing around gawking like tourists?" a familiar voice demanded, and as I turned to look in amazement I saw a young girl riding a giraffe that she had her arms and legs wrapped around, a girl dressed up in a ninja costume with her dark brown hair done up in a pony tail, and with a real jolt I recognized this girl as Kuonji Yumi!

"Yumi-chan?" Daddy replied in no little amazement.

"Get to work, you lazy cows, and catch some animals!" Yumi challenged before guiding her long-necked mount off in the direction of one of the nearby submerged pens.

"Well, aren't we the show-offs," Atsuko snorted.

"No let stupid ninja girl make fool of Amazon warrior!" the one whom I now knew had to be Comb growled angrily, "Comb catch bigger animal and show who is better fighter!"

With that the purple haired dynamo vaulted away, looking very much to me like an enraged Shampoo as she zeroed in on a group of people currently being menaced by a pack of lions.

I heard Silk heave an exaggerated sigh, "She so impulsive…feel sorry for big cats…"

"Tendo-san!" a voice echoing her own called out, directing attention away from the swirling confusion that surrounded us to see my momma running up towards us, only dressed in uniform, as if she had just stepped out from a military recruitment poster.

"Kimiko?" Daddy whirled about, "But…how…?"

"Eh?" Silk turned towards her with a very puzzled expression, "Who this?"

"Tendo-san!" Momma came up to within a few meters of Daddy then glanced around and asked, "What the hell is going on here? What are all these animals doing outside of their cages, and who are these people…?"

"Excuse me, Ma'am," Genma spoke up, "I don't mean to be rude, but…you wouldn't happen to be Tendo-san's new fiancée, would you?"

"Why yes," Momma turned to regard him, "I'm Lieutenant Tsukino Kimiko, and you are?"

"Saotome Genma," the young man replied.

"Oh," Momma at once acknowledged, "Then you're his best friend, the one he's been telling me all about."

"Ah…wouldn't you rather hear my side of the story?" Genma asked with a somewhat nervous expression.

"Fiancée?" Atsuko slowly turned to first regard Daddy, then Silk, whose expression had noticeably darkened, "Uh oh…"

"Soun-chan…" I heard the purr in Silk's velvety throat turn particularly menacing, "What means word 'Fiancée?'"

"Uh…ah…er…" Daddy hemmed and hawed like a man with his balls trapped in a vice grip.

"Why the hell are you idiots still standing around gawking here?" Yumi demanded as she came vaulting back over the railing, minus the giraffe, "We've got too many animals to…who the hell are you?" she demanded as she came face-to-face with Kimiko.

"That was going to be my next question," Momma replied as she turned and regarded the Ninja, "You're…Yumi, right?"

"Who wants to know?" Yumi asked as she stood ready, as if about to draw a weapon.

"Er, ladies!" Genma spoke up before the carnage could happen, "Can we save this for another time? As you say we do seem to be having a little problem with some animals…"

"Is so," Silk responded, "And maybe we deal with other animals when wild ones put back in cages."

"Who are you?" Momma asked as she seemed to take notice of the Amazon for the first time, "And why do you look like me?"

"Ah…" Daddy finally seemed to get his brain back in gear, "Silk…this is Kimiko…Kimiko-san, this is Silk of the Joketsuzoku…"

"Charmed," Momma bowed to the Amazon.

"Is like so," Silk returned the gesture, almost as though a formal challenge was being issued.

"Oboy," Atsuko winced, "Something tells me there's gonna be trouble…"

"You've got that right," Genma sighed, "Why can't the Master's training missions ever be easy…?"

"As you can see," Lotion remarked as she dismissed the picture, returning us to the blue-gray void with the merest hand gesture, "The patterns were set back then that echo down to the present era. Your father and mother eventually did fall in love and marry, after my granddaughter made the decision to return to China, having had your father for a single night as a way of closing their relationship on a high note. From that Kachu was born, while you and your sisters are the result of your father's commitment to your mother."

"Wow," I exclaimed, "I'd guessed that things were a bit frantic back then, but I never imagined the adults could screw things up this badly. Compared to Daddy and Momma, Ranma and me almost seem like a couple of old school chums…"

"You really should spend more time looking into a mirror," Lotion remarked, then refused to elaborate as she left me to chew that one over, "Of course Yumi herself still harbors feelings for your father that she had worked hard at denying, even as Atsuko and Comb have renewed their old rivalry for the affections of Ranma's father. His engagement to Nodoka did not occur until a year after Soun's marriage, and their courtship was an even more spectacular affair as Atsuko held out hope for the longest time, egged on by her mother, who wanted their firstborn for her own dark purposes. Of course there is one other rival for your father's hand who appeared around this time, even as the vision you saw did not include Gosunkuji Hitome, another suitor for the affections of Genma."

"Kodachi's Mom had the hots for Ranma's Dad?" I blinked, "What is this, a generational thing?"

"In a manner of speaking," Lotion replied, "Only the son of Atsuko fell in love with the daughter of Kimiko, even as the niece of Yumi has caught the favors of your sister. Kimiko and Genma got along far better than either of them did with Silk, so I don't think your mother would at all disapprove of your marrying a Saotome. As for Hitome's daughter…well…Kodachi has always needed someone in her life who could provide the stability, love and support that she has desperately needed and was lacking with her own mother. The fact that Comb's daughter is now married to Genma's son is the only relationship of this lot that truly seems generational, so in a way you can think of the past as a different example of the same principles that you now live with."

"Right," I said simply, "So…what was your purpose in showing me all that?"

"Two fold, really," Lotion replied, "The first being to obviously demonstrate how the past can be accessed for knowledge that you may find useful in the present…the second point is to give you some idea as to the nature of your mother prior to her having merged with the goddess Peorth. As you can see she embodies aspects of all three of her daughters…and in some ways the best and worst that is now within you."

"Right," I said, "So…how come nobody's ever told me that my momma was in the army?"

"Home Defense Force."


"Kimiko chose to enlist in the Officer corps as a means of seeking educational benefits and advanced avionics training," Lotion replied, "From the time she was a little girl she always dreamed about flying. She was also a bit impulsive and never too comfortable in the traditional roles expected of a Japanese woman, and given that her mother was herself the daughter of a United States pilot who served during the occupation…"

"Okay, I get all that," I said, "So Daddy never mentioned that she was a Lieutenant…"

"Your father has had a difficult time coping with the loss he suffered with her death," Lotion replied in a gentle manner, "For good or ill he chose to let you and your sisters keep your memories of your mother as she was when you knew her. She changed a lot when she married your father, lost much of her anger and sense of isolation. She found a soul mate in Soun, a man who did not try to contain her or smother her with the expectation that she be a good housewife. I think it was because of this that your mother undertook to domesticate herself by learning how to act like a more traditional woman, and to this end she sought the aid of her closest friend, Nodoka."

"I think I'm beginning to see," I said, "And about this same time she contracted cancer and made that arrangement with Peorth…"

"Who fulfilled her training in how to become a perfect Japanese housewife," Lotion replied, "And passed on the benefits of her training to Kasumi, who proved an even more adept student."

"So you're telling me that, prior to meeting my Dad, Momma couldn't even keep house or cook?" I wondered.

"She could barely even boil water without alerting the Fire Marshal," Lotion explained, "Oddly enough your sister seems to have inherited this trait, only unlike your mother she lacks the patience to make a good student in the kitchen."

"So Momma had a lot more patience than Akane, huh?" I asked.

"Extraordinarily so," Lotion replied, "She could never have studied and achieved such high marks in Pilot academy were it not for her having the methodical and even ruthless ability to bone down and study a problem until she had worked it out and had mastered the details. She learned to cook by following the steps Nodoka taught her as if she were studying up for another one of her exams. Truly she was an extraordinarily gifted young woman, and such potential I sensed within her…" she sighed, "You have no idea how gratified I was to know that her potential lives on in you. You mother could well have been a Lore Master had I been the one to train her, but with you I have had a very fulfilling experience, and I know your mother is very proud of you and all you have accomplished."

"I wish…" I felt tears in my eyes, though how I could cry tears in my astral body I won't even begin to speculate, "I wish I could have had more time to get to know her…"

"Your wish will granted," Lotion replied, "Peorth herself has promised this to you, is that not correct, Great One?"

"I did indeed promise her," an all-too-familiar voice said as I turned to see an almost blindingly radiant figure materialize in the space at my side, "And I am a goddess of my word. It took some doing to sort through the paperwork and obtain the right forms, but I've come through on my part of the bargain, Cheri, as you can witness for yourself if you are ready."

I turned, both metaphorically and physically, to see the glowing form of Peorth smiling at me with benevolence, and then glancing to another figure who was approaching from what seemed like a great distance. I could sense a field or garden somewhere beyond the shadow of a woman who slowly approached me, but then the woman herself filled my vision, and with a gasp I recognized her as none other than Momma!

"Hello, Nabiki-chan," she smiled at me, her brown eyes alight with all the love that I still remembered, "They told me you were all grown up, but I never realized that my little girl had become such a beautiful young woman."

"Momma?" I gasped, and then I flowed into the orbit of this impossible vision, almost performing a kind of Amazon Glomp, even though our bodies were not solid and it was more like a meshing of textures than an actual embrace. That was enough to confirm it for me, though, that this really and truly was my mother, the mother who had given me life, who had married my father, having won out in the sweepstakes competition against all rivals.

I think I'll skip over the details of what we said in those first few exchanges, but you can bet that I was gushing with emotions that I've never expressed to anyone else, not even Shampoo or Ranma. I was a little surprised, however, a voice chimed in on our meeting and asked, "Nihao…is private moment or can Shampoo greet Mother-in-law like Nabiki?"

I think you can imagine my surprise on hearing those words, but Peorth's own reaction was almost comical as she cried, "YOU? How the heck did you get here?"

"Oh my," Lotion turned to regard Shampoo, who stood there on the edge of our little gathering with an expectant air of anticipation.

"Shampoo not know how she find strange place," Shampoo replied, more in thoughts than words as her emotions reached out to me with warm, rosy intensity that made the metaphorical air feel like summer, "Only know she looking for Nabiki and find Airen in strange place like Amazon Happy Garden."

"Are you Xian-Pu?" I heard Momma ask, and then the surprising warmth in her voice as she continued, "You look just like your mother! And you're married to my Nabiki? Come here, please, and let me see you…"

With an all too typical cry of delight, Shampoo leaped to embrace us all in a hug, somehow managing to grab Peorth in the process, much to the dismay of the goddess, who did not seem at all accustomed to such treatment.

"It would seem that Shampoo has astral traveled in her dreams in order to find you," Lotion theorized on the periphery of my awareness, "Her love has given her the strength to cross time and distance in order to be with you. Most likely she believes that this is a dream, but it would be better to respond to her as if this were a real event taking place in the material world, and your mother seems eager to meet up with her daughter-in-law…"

"No fooling," I gasped before surrendering to the moment, but even as I warmed to the embrace of the two more important women in my life, I couldn't help but wonder…where was Ranma and why wasn't he trying this hard to reach me in the land of dreaming…?

Ranma awoke from a deep sleep and was almost immediately aware of the emptiness that rumbled about in his stomach like a herd of hungry elephants. His senses became at once alert to the peculiar mix of perfumes in the air and other telltale signs of semi-unfamiliar surroundings.

His eyes opened to a most unfamiliar ceiling, a canopy hanging over the bed that he lay upon amidst silken covers. To judge by the softness he felt underneath him, Ranma determined that it was a goose down bed of a type he had never previously encountered, so soft and yielding to his weight that a futon would feel like a bed of nails by contrast. As Ranma began to look around he found his body being pressed into the mattress by two very warm and familiar bodies, and with a slight movement of his head he took in the welcome sight of Shampoo and Nabiki curled up on either side of him, looking snug, content and wondrously happy.

It was at this moment that Ranma realized where he was and under what circumstances he had found himself, recognizing the room as the chamber that he and his two girlfriends had chosen for their own. They were on board the Nekonron sky ship, traveling back home after successfully rescuing Nabiki from Prince Kirin, even guests of the prince himself, who had proven surprisingly conciliatory after his stunning defeat at the hands of Ranma. They had come to this room shortly after leaving the Mainland and were obviously still under way back to Japan. Just how much time had elapsed was a question that Ranma did not feel able to answer, but as the sun was still visible through the windows, and Ranma was feeling very well rested, it probably was sometime during the morning. The only way to know for sure would be to get up out of bed and consult with a time clock.

Of course doing that was not a thing that he felt any great urgency to do, being how comfortable he felt with two highly desirable young women pressing their naked bodies against his. It was at moments such as these that he became aware of how incredibly lucky he was to have Shampoo and Nabiki as his fiancées, and proposing to them both had been the smartest move he had ever made in his whole life. He was even in too good a mood to mind that it was the old man's idea to include Shampoo in the proposal.

Of course as warm and snug as he was feeling, his body had a way of rudely reminding him of more practical considerations, such as the fact that he had to go potty and was ravenously hungry. He also felt like he had not taken a shower in the past forty-eight hours. As a man who could hardly cross the street without encountering cold water this was an incredible realization, and one he knew would need prompt rectification if he was to avoid catching flack from both of his lady loves…

Lady loves?

Ranma blinked his eyes and thought that one over. True his feelings ran deep for both women, and he could no longer imagine what his life would be like without them, but to date he had never even once managed to speak the words of endearing praise and fond devotion that were in his heart. His upbringing had conditioned him to believe such things were unmanly, but when he was with these two he felt as if all the words ever spoken would never prove enough to express how much he wanted them in his life and how empty his world would be without them. Having come frighteningly close to losing Nabiki, he now had a sense of what all the poets could go on and on about, and for the first time in his life he envied Kuno Tatewaki's ability extemporize at length upon that subject.

Not that he needed words to express what was in his heart, of course. He had more than proven himself in his quest to regain Nabiki, and his feelings for Shampoo had proven even deeper for the way she had stuck close to Nabiki's side like a faithful guardian watch-cat. On the edge of his awareness was the sense that losing one would surely doom his relationship with the other, for the three of them had become like the sides of a triangle, or a three legged chair, the loss of one surely dooming the structure of the other. The fact that Shampoo was carrying his baby only added to both his desire and need to offer his protection, so while he had yet to say the actual words to either girl, his actions spoke volumes and his deeds had proven mighty. He would go through hell itself to win them back to his side come whatever the future might offer, and-the best thing of all-they both knew this beyond question.

As such he did not have it in his heart to want to disturb these girls as he carefully and gingerly managed to pry his body out from beneath them. The girls seemed unusually out of it, as if both were enjoying a deep and mutually satisfying sleep, so he was glad that he did not wake them as he slipped his bare feet onto the floor, glad that he at least had his boxer shorts on and would not have to seek out the privy stark naked, even in the presence of his fiancées.

An amused thought passed through his mind as he searched out for a place to go potty, that Shampoo and Nabiki must have been going at it with a lot of drive and energy if they could sleep in this soundly. Normally it was Ranma who got teased about being dead to the world. He hoped they would get a good rest for the next time he climbed into bed with the both of them because that down bed felt a lot more comfortable than a futon, and certainly more spacious than the bed in Nabiki's room, which offered lots of possibilities for later exploration.

Odd to think that only as little as a month ago he lacked the basic knowledge of what girls and boys the world over were expected to do when they got close to one another. His mother's advisement that they should wait until their honeymoon was a difficult concept to have to live with after being initiated into sex by someone as enthusiastic and gifted as Shampoo. As used to he was to hard and grueling discipline, he rather doubted he would have that much self-restraint, especially considering the warm reception that he was expecting from Nabiki over the reception of her mother's engagement ring. That was one celebratory party that he had every intention of attending!

Finding the equivalent of a john took some doing, but Ranma's cosmopolitan upbringing had given him familiarity with almost every type of privy to be found throughout the whole of Asia. Coping with the Nekonron conception of toilet paper was another matter entirely, but Ranma completed his business and washed himself up, taking time to soak in a hot bath that had been prepared for him by a pair of thoughtful servants in the employ of Prince Kirin. Ranma had been more than a bit disconcerted on discovering that their privacy had been so compromised, but it turned out that it was Kasumi who had given them their instructions, somehow having anticipated in advance the moment of his revival.

A bath did much to restore his vitality, but what he really needed was some food in his belly, and in that respect Kasumi had come through again, having left a substantial amount of food on covered plates, most probably for the first person to wake up, either himself or one of his ladies. Ranma silently thanked the eldest Tendo girl for her thoughtfulness and consideration then devoured the contents of three plates, being careful to spare enough for his lady loves when they woke up without him. He would have written them a note telling them not to worry, but after food and hygiene he felt a need to stretch out, feeling incredibly stiff and tight all over.

Leaving the warm security of their room, he found his way out onto the main deck where the fresh air invigorated him greatly. Seeing that there were few people on deck he started to do a few warm-ups to stretch out, only to pause when he heard the sound of someone playing a stringed instrument. He recognized the sound as Mon Mon playing her cardolin-styled sitar. He glanced around but could see no sign of the Courtesan priestess, yet the sound of her music carried on the wind, leading him to believe that she was somewhere close nearby, but where?

"Hello, Ranma," a gentle voice hailed him, and Ranma turned around to find Kasumi and Kodachi smiling at him, having joined him on the deck, albeit more warmly dressed than he was, "It's good to see you fully rested."

"Indeed," Kodachi gave that sly smile of hers that automatically put him on edge, even though he knew that she was no longer pursuing him with any serious interest, "Saotome-san always looks good in the mornings. Has the noble knight emerged from his perilous trials with the noble princesses he has rescued to at long last grace us with his presence?"

"Ah…" Ranma smiled nervously and rubbed the back of his head, "Actually I just wanted to stretch my legs. We were so much on the go trying to get to Nekonron that I guess I kinda forgot to take care of myself, but a good night's rest sure has put me back on my game…"

"That was over a day and a half ago," Kodachi revealed, "Do you mean to say that you have been sleeping it off the whole time instead of entertaining the ladies?"

"Ah…" Ranma blinked his eyes, "A day and a half? No way!"

"I'm afraid so, Ranma-kun," Kasumi said pleasantly, "The crew of this ship says we're making good time, considering that the winds are mostly against us. We should be back in Nerima by this time tomorrow, a full two days longer than it took for us to get to Nekonron in the first place."

"Not that any of us are in that great a hurry to put an end to this lovely vacation cruise," Kodachi added with a warm exchange of glances between herself and her companion, "Even given that Hinako-sensei has made a point on tutoring us in private one-on-one sessions. We prevailed on her to leave you and your ladies alone, but now that you are awake she will doubtless be seeking you out to lecture you on the benefits of a proper education."

"Thanks for the warning," Ranma groaned, "And here I was hoping the old goat would keep her too busy to think of us."

"They do seem to be getting along a lot better," Kasumi remarked, "I've even seen Grandfather helping Hinako-sensei out in the preparing of her study materials. It's amazing how much he knows for someone who has never even had a formal education."

"Or seen the inside of a classroom without looking up women's dresses," Kodachi added, "In a way I think we're in debt to your homeroom teacher for keeping him too busy to bother the rest of us…not that we've had too much need for undergarments with all the time that we have been spending enjoying the hospitality of our Nekonron hosts."

"Ah…yeah," Ranma decided not to explore the thought that crossed his mind at that point and instead asked, "By the way, where's Ucchan and Ryoga?"

"Up there," Kasumi pointed to the blimp over their heads.

"Say what?" Ranma blinked.

"Ryoga-san wanted to be alone so he climbed on top of the blimp itself," Kodachi explained, "Kuonji was concerned that he might be contemplating harming himself so she went after him, and neither one has been down in the past several hours. Of course we haven't seen anyone falling off either, so I take that as a good sign…"

"Oboy," Ranma winced, "I'd better go up there and check on those two to see that everything's all right. Ah…by the way, where's your sister?"

"Akane?" Kasumi replied, "She's out stretching her wings."

"Indeed," Kodachi mused, "Ever since she's learned how to fly it's all we can do to keep her on the ground. I don't think even she defines her condition as a curse anymore, in fact she definitely counts those wings of hers as a blessing."

"Guess I can't blame her for that," Ranma smiled lopsidedly, then added, "And…what about Ucchan's girlfriend?"

"Makoto?" Kasumi replied, "She's downstairs in the kitchen trying to convince the cooking staff to prepare something besides pickled dishes. She's taken inventory on the storage rooms and everything…"

"Oh yes," Kodachi nodded, "The way she's bossing them around downstairs you would think she was a Master Chef asserting her dominant role over the poor cooks who are quite intimidated by her presence. I don't believe that they are used to a woman who compromises so little in her pursuit for culinary perfection. I can well see why Kuonji is considering a union with her as she would make him an excellent wife. Too bad this has caused serious friction between her and Akane."

Ranma lowered his arms and sighed, "Yeah, that's pretty tough all right. Guess I'd also better have some words with Ucchan so she doesn't feel like joining Ryoga in being depressed all over the place. I…ah…can kinda sympathize with what she's going through, if you know what I mean."

"Indeed," Kodachi sighed, "I have offered my own counseling, but I fear the best case scenario now would be a win-lose situation. Someone will win, someone else will lose, and no one will be entirely happy with the outcome. I most feel sympathy for Ryoga, he is the one who has definitely emerged the poorer for Akane's declaration of a lack of romantic interest towards him. Even I was somewhat surprised that she would come out and tell him this, though in retrospect I should have foreseen such an outcome."

"Huh?" Ranma asked, "But…why's that?"

"Akane-chan for a long time believed that she was a perfectly normal girl, Ranma," Kasumi replied, "She's always tried to fit in, even when she couldn't really behave like the rest of her classmates, and for the longest time she's been afraid to admit to herself that she's…different."

"What?" Ranma asked, "You mean like her being such a violent tomboy who can't cook or sew to save her life?"

"I'm afraid it's more than that, Ranma," Kasumi was clearly reluctant to go on, but she managed to say, "The fault is really mine because I'm her older sister and I should have explained things for her when she started to show…signs of her true nature. Instead I pretended not to see things…and I denied to myself what in my heart I've always known was the truth…"

"You are not to blame, Kasumi-sama," Kodachi touched her arm, "There are many who never admit to the truth and spend all of their lives in denial of what is in their hearts. I might have been the same way…had I not met somebody who is very special and has helped me to understand things."

"Understand what?" Ranma scratched his head, "What are you both getting at anyway?"

"Ranma," Kasumi looked at him with unusual clarity in her expression, "Do you remember when you first came to visit our home and Akane invited you to spar with her in the dojo? Do you remember what she said after you defeated her that first time?"

"Ah, sure," Ranma thought back over the long months that had happened since that fateful day when he had first met the Tendo sisters, "She said she was glad I was a girl because losing to a boy would be too…" He paused, then he said, "You've got to be kidding…"

"You decide for yourself," Kodachi replied, "I was not there to witness events for myself, but I understand that she did treat you a lot better before finding out that you were really a boy cursed to become a woman when wet. She even walked in on you while you were taking a bath under that same faulty assumption, but when she saw that you were male…well, I've given to understand that she did not take it well."

"That's putting it mildly," Ranma sighed, "Poor Ryoga…I wonder if he even suspected?"

"It's doubtful," Kasumi replied, "I don't think even Akane knows for sure, but the way she acted around Ukyo both before and after learning about her secret…"

"It would not be such a stretch to suppose that she likes Kuonji all the more because of her curse rather than in spite of it," Kodachi noted, "She might say it is what is within that matters most to her, but knowing Kuonji is a woman at the core gave her a competitive advantage that Ryoga simply could not compete against, and so he lost before the battle was even begun. That is why he has my pity, for he is not that bad a fellow when you truly get to know him."

"I guess," Ranma said, giving the Black Rose a curious study before deciding to save his observations for later. Instead he gave them a friendly nod then headed over to one of the suspension cables and began scaling it with no regard to the possible danger. He never once glanced down, being comfortable with scaling high places, and just as agile as any monkey, he soon was able to ascend to the top of the balloon itself, where he found the source of the music sitting by herself casually strumming her cardolin while Ryoga and Ukyo sat off to one side in an uneasy silence.

"Ah…hi guys," Ranma called out as he crawled on all fours over the spongy surface of the balloon itself until he was close enough to sit within earshot of his fellow martial artists.

Ukyo acknowledged his presence, but Ryoga just sat with a neutral expression and said nothing. He was deep in thought and it was difficult to discern his mood, but at least there was no hint of that black aura surrounding him that had fueled his awesome Ki attacks. Ukyo appeared to be female at the moment, but Ranma was not about to venture a guess without closer inspection (something he was extremely reluctant to do for fear of word getting back to his own loves). As he settled in between these two he wondered how to begin a conversation, but seeing that the mood was so silent threw him off. About the only good point he could recognize in the situation was that his best friend and half-brother did not appear to be on the verge of yet another major altercation.

To his surprise it was Ukyo who broke the silence by saying, "She's pretty good, isn't she?"

"Huh?" Ranma replied, then nodded, "I guess. Ah…how you guys getting on? I've been kinda out of it for a while now…"

"So we've heard," Ryoga noted, "So glad you've finally decided to grace us with your presence, Ranma. We were starting to think your future brides were going to keep you busy all the way back to Japan."

"Well…not quite," Ranma said, "I gotta eat sometime you know."

"Ignore him, Ranchan," Ukyo said, "We're both glad to see you're all right. You were looking a little ragged at the end of the fight there, not that I doubted you'd win out in the end."

"Well, sure," Ranma shrugged, "I always win…but I guess I was a little tired. Did either of you guys come to check on me while I was asleep?

Ryoga made a somewhat disgusted noise, "Frankly, Ranma, we have had better things to do with our time, or at least some of us do. Akane…" he sighed, and his words petered off as if he lost all interest in the point that he had been about to make.

"Are you still upset about what she said?" Ranma asked, "Forget about the tomboy. There are lots of better women in the world for you to moon over, Ryoga. You don't need her…"

"Who says?" Ryoga asked, still evidencing little emotional interest.

"Well, I do for one," Ranma replied, "I never could see what you saw in her anyway. I mean…I know she treated you a hell of a lot better than she did me, and I ain't exactly her biggest fan to begin with, but to me she was always just some violent tempered macho chick who always expects everything to go her way, and she gets mad when it don't…"

"You're not exactly being fair to Akane, Ranchan," Ukyo responded, "Akane isn't that macho, and she's only occasionally violent…"

"Like that makes a difference?" Ranma scoffed, "Come on, Ucchan, face facts! She just ripped his heart out and broke it into pieces. Ryoga may stand for that, but I sure as hell don't see why I should…"

"It's none of your business, Ranma," Ryoga remarked without turning about.

"I say it is," Ranma replied, "Just because you like playing a door-mat doesn't mean I should sit it out and let her get away with it…"

"And who the hell are you to complain?" Ryoga snapped as he turned a hateful glare towards Ranma, "It's my life…"

"To throw away?" Ranma shot back, "To spend the rest of your life mourning over a girl who never had the guts to tell you she wasn't interested in guys? That's a hell of a lump to have to swallow…"

"Shut up!" Ryoga got to his feet, bobbing slightly as the balloon under his heals reacted to this sudden motion, "Who asked you for your opinion? For that matter, who said you could even breathe in my direction, you jerk?"

"Nobody had to tell me what to do," Ranma got to his own feet and readied his stance, "And if you weren't such a blockhead you wouldn't need me telling in the first place, because you'd already know it!"

"And why should you care?" Ryoga asked.

"Because you're my brother!!!" Ranma declared, and then he fell silent as both he and Ryoga exchanged astonished looks over this simple declaration.

At last the two young men turned their heads away and looked off at opposite skylines. Ryoga managed to recover first as he said, "Well…anyway, Akane's my problem, so just leave off insulting her for once, will you?"

"That's okay," Ranma said as he glanced off into the distance, "The less I have to talk about that walking disaster area the better…or maybe I should make that flying disaster area now, considering how she usually makes her landings."

"And what would you know about it?" Ryoga asked, "You should give her more of a chance before you condemn her."

"No thanks," Ranma replied, "I'd rather not let my guard down if it's just the same with you guys."

Ukyo sighed, "Would you two please not get into a fight while we're sitting on top of a couple hundred thousand cubic meters of hydrogen gas, okay? Ryoga and me are having a truce right now, Ranma, so I suggest you do the same. Besides, it's not as if Akane deliberately meant to hurt Ryoga's feelings."

"Hello?" Ranma turned her way, "This is the guy who tried to bash your head in a while ago, Ucchan! What are you doing defending Akane and making nice with Ryoga?"

"Look, I'm trying to make amends and do the right thing, okay?" Ukyo replied, "It's my fault I messed up Ryoga's relationship with Akane, and now she's coming onto me and I don't know what to do about that. I've tried explaining to her that it's Makoto that I want to settle down with, but somehow…it's like she just hears what she wants to hear, and I'm left feeling like a real sleaze because I'm making Makoto insanely jealous!"

"Akane's after you even though you want somebody else?" Ranma sniffed, "That sounds just like her…and don't tell me I'm being unfair, Ryoga. After the way she's treated you, you're the last one who should be in her corner."

"I-I don't blame her for it, Ranma," Ryoga glanced away, "It's really all my fault…I let myself believe that there was a chance of something between us, and I ignored all the signs that we were in serious trouble. Her coming onto you was no accident, Kuonji, you really are better equipped to satisfy her than I ever was."

"Huh?" Ukyo responded, "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Ah…Ucchan?" Ranma rubbed the nape pairs beneath his pigtail, "You ever wonder why Akane doesn't mind so much that you're really a girl who just happens to turn into a boy? For that matter, why you're the only boy she wouldn't mind climbing into the sack with?"

"What?" Ukyo blinked for a moment then said, "No…no way! You've got to be kidding! You guys are crazy!"

"Why don't you ask her yourself," Ryoga glanced up and to one side, "She's coming this way."

"Huh?" Ukyo reacted, turning just in time to be swamped by a winged form that came barreling down out of the sky for a rude landing, knocking the chef sprawling as the two of them landed in a heap upon the canvas.

"Oops!" Akane winced, "Sorry about that, Ucchan…guess I need to work some more on my landings."

"Ah…" Ukyo became all too cognizant of the fact that the winged girl was straddling her with their faces only a few inches apart. Despite the ridiculous of the situation she found herself staring up into the soft brown eyes of the other girl and forgetting about her slight case of discomfort.

"Incoming," Ranma murmured with a sigh, "She's hopeless."

"Which one?" Ryoga asked with a neutral expression.

"Uh-oh," Akane said as she shifted her wings and sat upright, turning to glance at the two boys as she said, "Do you guys mind? I'm sharing a moment with Ucchan."

"Who, us?" Ranma made a deflecting motion, "Don't mind us at all. In fact, Ucchan here had something she wanted to say to you…right, Ucchan?"

"Oh?" Akane turned back to Ukyo, "What about?"

"Ah…" Ukyo forced herself to sit upright as she faced Akane and tried to rally her thoughts, only to find those eyes of the Angel girl turned upon her with unmistakable adoration, "You…ah…really enjoy flying now, huh?"

"Oh yeah," Akane grinned broadly, "Is the best thing I've ever learned to do! You can't imagine what it feels like, the freedom, the feeling of the air against my body, the power of holding the sky in my hands with the sun warming my back and…OH! Words just can't describe it, Ucchan! There's nothing that I can compare it to! It's better even than…ah…well…I don't really know if it's better than that, to tell you the truth," she gave Ukyo a shy, happy and intimate smile.

"Ah…uh…huh?" Ukyo's mind went blank once again, any words that she might have said banished like smoke before the intensity of that gaze turned on her like a thousand-watt light bulb by the radiant Tendo.

"Maybe…you might be able to convince me which one is best?" Akane added with a coy expression, her normal shyness asserting itself as she pressed her palms to her face and said, "OH, I can't believe I just said it! I'm so embarrassed!"

"Hah?" Ukyo blinked as the Tendo girl got back to her feet and started running off, flapping her wings and immediately returning to airborne status.

"That girl is totally out of control," Ranma murmured to himself with a disbelieving expression.

"Nicely played, Kuonji," Ryoga mocked, "You handled that in a really mature and expert manner. Real honest of you, letting her know your true feelings."

"Shut up, you Jackass," Ukyo snapped, but with no real heat in her words as she covered her eyes and said, "I'm such a louse! Makoto's gonna kill me for sure this time…"

"I don't get it," Ranma said, "I mean…I know she's putting words into your mouth and making a lot more out of this than she ought to, but can't you at least get Akane to see that she's messing up what's between you and Makoto?"

"I don't think she really cares anymore," Ryoga sniffed, "You want it both ways, Kuonji, and don't bother trying to deny it."

"Look, I'm trying to do the right thing," Ukyo complained, "It's just…every time I'm with Akane…it's like my brain has a seizure! She gives me one of those smiles and…and I just can't bring myself to hurt her feelings! The words just don't want to come out of me…and it feels so WRONG whenever I think of turning her away…"

"You're in love with her," Ryoga sniffed, "Admit it. The reason you don't want to break up with Akane is because you know how special she is and you don't want to give her up. I felt the same way…until now…but I never could make her smile at me the way you do."

"Is that it?" Ranma glanced from Ryoga to Ukyo, "You like the Tomboy that much? But…"

"I love Makoto!" Ukyo was in tears, "You guys don't know! You don't understand…when I was with her in middle school…she was the first person who made me feel that way, besides you, Ranchan! The day I…I broke up with her…I thought I was doing the right thing then, too, telling her who I really was and why I dressed up like a man…and it was awful! You can't imagine what I was feeling like when I said those words to her…and of course I blamed it all on you since you were still my handy-dandy all-purpose excuse for all of my problems…"

"Okay," Ranma said, "So it looks like you're stuck with both of them. You ask me it'd be better if you try and work out a peace between Makoto and Akane."

"But how do I do that?" Ukyo all but wailed, "Your girlfriends sorted things out between themselves, but mine are seriously contemplating homicide, and it's all my fault! I should have stopped things from getting so out of control before, but I didn't even want to see what was happening between Akane and me. I was in denial until Mako-chan showed up, and now…everything's so complicated, and it's all my fault! What am I gonna do, Ranchan?"

"I dunno," Ranma sat down beside Ukyo, "Maybe I should talk with Usagi…she's Makoto's friend, she'd have a better handle on her than I would. Besides, isn't that Minako girl also interested in Makoto?"

"That's the other complication screwing up my life right now," Ukyo's shoulders slumped, "I don't want to make anybody unhappy, but now I've got Makoto's best friend hating my guts, and it's Mako-chan who's all screwed up about it. I mean…I like Minako…honestly I do…but I don't think she'd be interested in sharing Mako-chan between the three of us. Just when I think I've got my resolution up to commit to the first girl who ever treated me like a human being…and now…"

"Sounds tough all right," Ranma sympathized, giving Ryoga a sober look, "You absolutely sure there's no chance of you winning Akane back, Ryoga?"

"I wouldn't even try at this point," Ryoga slumped back down onto the canvas, "No matter how much I wish it were otherwise, Akane just sees me as a friend, like she used to see me as nothing more than her pet pig. What chance there was that she would have returned my love died when she learned about my secret. I thought maybe when she got cursed herself it might give her a better understanding of what my curse was like for me…but…"

"Aw jeez," Ranma winced, "Now you're gonna remind us that it was all my fault you getting stuck with that stupid curse in the first place."

"No," Ryoga sighed, "I've done a lot of thinking about that, and I've finally accepted the fact that you never really meant to do that to me in the first place, just like it was my fault for missing that fight that started this whole mess. I was wrong to blame you for everything, and I see that now…and worst of all, it was you who helped to cure me. You don't owe me anything more, Ranma, I…I…"

"Aw jeez," Ranma winced again, "Don't get all mushy on me all of a sudden. I mean…what are brothers for, right? You'd have done the same for me…"

"No, I wouldn't have," Ryoga glanced down, "And that's what shames me. You're a better man than I am, and…and it's just taken me this long to figure that out."

"Sounds like you've both done some growing up," Ukyo sighed, "Now if only I could solve my own problems. If only Akane found somebody she liked more than me…if she gave up on me, I'm pretty sure Mako and me could work something out with Minako. I'm really and seriously convinced that Makoto's the one I want to build my life with, but…"

"There's something I don't get here," Ranma turned back to his best friend, "What is there between you and the tomboy anyway? I mean…it's none of my business, but what do you two even have in common?"

"Aside from the both of us being tomboys?" Ukyo replied, "Akane's a nicer person than you seem willing to accept, Ranma, and I've seen enough of her to know that I like what I see. I'd never deliberately hurt her, and I…think she's actually kind of cute. Okay, so she can't cook or do any domestic stuff, but that's not all there is in a relationship. I like seeing Akane smile…she can light up a whole room when she's being so kawaii…"

"I guess," Ranma shrugged indifferently, "Maybe it's a lot like me and Nabiki. I mean…Nabiki's smart and funny and real pretty, and she can really mess up my mind when she teases me. There's not a whole lot that we have in common, but I like being around her and I never get tired of watching her haggle with her business friends…"

"If it's all the same to you two," Ryoga said, "I think I'll just go over there and kill myself."

"Want me to supply you with a spatula to slit your wrists?" Ukyo offered, then shook her head, "Seriously, Ryoga…if there's no reason for us to be enemies, couldn't we at least agree to talk things out with Akane? She likes you too, even if it's not the same way that you want, and it's not like she's told you to say out of her face or anything like that…"

"She might as well," Ryoga said indifferently, "I'm just too tired about caring if she knows my feelings or not. I can't…make her love me…not even if I had one of those love pearls."

"That would only just be a temporary solution anyway," Ranma, "Those things wore off after only an hour."

"Tell me about it," Ukyo grimaced, "I still remember the power it had over me and how it made me feel…you're better off without one, Ryoga, trust me on that."

"Maybe," Ryoga said noncommittally, "But…it would still be nice to know if Akane…had any feelings for me at all…or if she could love me as a guy, that it isn't just women she favors…"

Mon Mon continued her playing, catching snatches of conversation from the three young warriors who comprised her current audience. She said nothing though her ears were perked at the curious bits and pieces that drifted her way in the thin air through which they were drifting. She eyed the curious boy-girl who had defeated her so handily, recalling the way in which the chef had turned the tables in their battle over her love for two other woman, and it left her curious to know more about this Kuonji Ukyo. Surely a woman cursed to turn into a handsome boy whom other women found charming and desirable was worth a closer study, and there was the issue of pride at being defeated by such a one that caused the Courtesan to resolve to learn all that she could about such a one, and how a girl of her talents had earned the loyalty of the young warrior who had the audacity and skill to defeat her beloved Master.

And unbeknownst to the Minstrel and the three teenagers, a fifth pair of ears perked up upon hearing this, and the unseen figure floating above them arched an eyebrow as she murmured to herself, "Love Pearls? How interesting…sounds almost like one of Urd's potions. I wonder…"

Peorth gave a cunning little smile, having just finished conducting Nabiki's soul back to her body when she went in search of Akane…and made a discovery that offered such interesting possibilities for the future. The Rose Goddess had a calculating look within her eyes as she resolved to conduct some research into this matter, sensing the potential for a means of convincing Kuonji that a union with her daughter had sufficient merit to justify going even further than just kissing.

It was not easy manipulating the sex-changing girl's mental patterns, for such a thing was a violation of the rules concerning free will among mortals. It seemed Akane herself was providing much of the inspiration for Kuonji to hold off in making her permanent resolution, the natural charm and charisma with which she had been gifted having such a strong effect upon the unsuspecting okonomiyaki chef. All it would take was a bit of **tweaking** to get the cook to thinking that Akane was the girl to keep in her life. Let the senshi have each other, all that mattered to Peorth was the happiness and security of her daughter.

"You just wait, Kuonji," Peorth smiled in relish as a plan began to form within her divine head, and then she slipped away, all unnoticed, returning to her office in the heavens to set certain things into full motion, and then…watch out!

The three teenagers paused in the midst of their conversation, glancing up at the heavens as each one thought they heard the unearthly peal of rose-tinted laughter…


Comments/Criticisms/Love Potion 69: Shadowmane@msn.com