A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic
All Ranma 1/2 characters copyright Rumiko Takahashi
and are used without permission
 

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part four: Reckoning

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     Nodoka walked down the quiet, tree-lined street slowly, trying
to absorb some of the tranquillity around her.  She cradled her katana
in the crook of one arm, taking idle comfort in its familiar weight.
     Certainly there were few enough things giving her any comfort
recently.
     There was the whole situation with Ranko, for starters.  She
hadn't wanted him to leave, considering all he'd been through, but had
finally realized that he was set on his course of action.  Then, of course,
there had been the incredible mess between her son and his fiancees.  It
was pretty obvious to her what had been going on between Ranma and
Akane lately.  If they wanted to try to keep it quiet for a while, well, she
couldn't begrudge them that.  For all that they'd been through, they
were still young.  They'd found each other, and that was the important
part.
     But the fallout with Ranma's other fiancees had been
catastrophic.  Kasumi had told her that Ukyou hadn't spoken to Ranma
since he'd told her of his decision.  Shampoo, driven into a corner by
her feelings for Ranma and the consequences of her
great-grandmother's condition, had threatened Akane and very nearly
died.  Then she'd been challenged, and defeated, by Mousse.  Nodoka
had waited for things to quiet down before embarking on a visit to the
Nekohanten; she wanted to ensure Shampoo understood that, no
matter what the circumstances, she was to consider Ranma off-limits.
     It wasn't like Nodoka didn't have sympathy for the girl.  She
knew it had to be hard for her, and suspected Shampoo was doing the
best she could under difficult circumstances.  However, Nodoka's
primary concern was the safety of her family and, by extension, the
Tendous.  Family had to come before all else.
     Family.  That made her think of her recent talk with her
husband, and she grimaced.  She also had something to discuss with
young Ukyou Kuonji, it appeared.  The more she learned of her
husband's activities during their separation, the less she wanted to be
around him.  She sighed, then took a deep breath, trying to draw in
some of the neighbourhood's tranquillity by osmosis.
     Then things started exploding.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Shampoo's feet barely touched the ground before she was
launching herself backwards, only a split-second ahead of the explosion
which tore up the street.  Large chunks of asphalt spun away in all
directions and she twisted in the air, lashing out at any that came too
close.
     Her injuries were slowing her down, robbing her of much
needed speed and agility.  She kept moving, barely managing to keep
ahead of Xi Fan's attacks.
     And that was troubling.
     Xi Fan was not as good as Cologne, but she was good.  Much
better than Shampoo, and Shampoo knew it.  She wouldn't be able to
defeat Xi Fan under normal circumstances, and she would have trouble
even holding her own.  And these were far from normal circumstances,
yet Shampoo *was* managing to hold her own.
     And she shouldn't be.
     What am I missing? she asked herself.  It was so hard to think
while dodging Xi Fan's attacks.  Chi bolts came out of nowhere,
throwing spikes and surprise attacks awaited her at every turn.  Xi Fan
was obviously toying with her, but why?  If she'd been given permission
to punish Shampoo, then why drag it out?
     As she bounded over a fence, Xi Fan's diminutive figure
appeared from the side, spinning her staff in a deadly arc.  Shampoo
leapt out of range, ignoring the twinge from her cracked ribs.  She had
no time for thought; Xi Fan was keeping the pressure on, driving her
constantly back ...
     Driving her.  No, *herding* her.  Shampoo dodged again,
taking notice now of the old woman's tactics.  Yes, that was what she
was doing.  She was herding Shampoo toward something.  But what?
     Xi Fan sent another chi blast rocketing towards her, and
Shampoo sprang away at the last minute, twisting to land on a nearby
tree branch.  As she did, she saw the Nekohanten not far away, in the
direction she was being driven.
     She had it then.
     She propelled herself off the branch just before it shattered, but
this time she jumped towards her enemy, landing in front of the startled
old woman.
     "<Finally decided to make a fight of it, eh, Shampoo?>" Xi Fan
asked mildly.  Shampoo glared at the old woman.
     "<You don't want to fight me.  This was never *about* me.  It's
great-grandmother that you hate, after all.  You want to take our fight
to the Nekohanten because you know she'll intervene to try to save
me.  Well, I don't like that plan.  I say we fight here.  To the end.>" Xi
Fan regarded her stonily for a long moment, and Shampoo felt her
stomach knot at the prospect of facing one of the tribe's strongest
warriors in a fight to the death.  However, she hadn't sacrificed so
much in order to keep her great-grandmother safe, just to bring death
to her now.  Xi Fan had no pretext on which to challenge Cologne, but
if Cologne stepped in to protect Shampoo from the council's wrath ...
     Xi Fan smiled.
     "<You are very intelligent, young one.  And quite skilled.  And
you are correct, of course.  It isn't you that I want.>"  Then her smile
slipped away, and Shampoo was looking at the cold visage of a
warrior.
     "<But make no mistake.  If I have to kill you, I won't hesitate.
After all, your broken body would suffice just as well to drive the old
idiot to challenge me.  Don't stand in the way of my revenge, or you'll
regret it.>" Shampoo held the old woman's gaze, trying to match her
icy calm.
     "<I am an amazon warrior.  If you want to challenge
great-grandmother, you'll have to go through me first.>" Xi Fan cocked
her head slightly, then a small, almost fond smile crept to her lips.
     "<It's a shame you had to be so loyal,>" she said at last.
"<Ah, well.  So be it.>"
     And she attacked.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     What on earth ...?
     Nodoka gaped as she watched Shampoo avoiding the old
woman's attacks.  Then she suddenly reversed and faced off against
the other woman, speaking to her in Chinese.
     Nodoka wasn't certain what was going on, but she guessed
that the old woman was an amazon.  And if she was attacking
Shampoo, that could only mean that Mousse's plan had somehow
failed.
     But he'd been so certain!  He'd even brought himself to fight
Shampoo all out.  Had that all been for nothing?
     Apparently so, for even as Nodoka watched, unnoticed, the
old woman attacked with blinding speed, reaching through Shampoo's
defences with her staff and striking her once in the chest.  Shampoo
cried out as she was thrown back by the attack, tumbling gracelessly to
the ground in a storm of flailing limbs and violet hair.  Nodoka
remembered the girl's injuries, and knew that had to have hurt her
badly, but Shampoo bounded quickly to her feet to face her attacker,
only to be hit and thrown back again and again.
     Nodoka hesitated.  No matter what had happened, she
couldn't just stand by while Shampoo was beaten this way.  It wasn't
right.  The three amazons had helped to defeat the demons, after all.  If
they hadn't, they wouldn't be in danger now.  She had to help them.
     But how?  Ranma and Akane were at school, as was Ukyou.
Ryouga was missing.  There was nobody she could summon for
assistance in a hurry.
     And judging by the pounding Shampoo was taking, if help
didn't arrive quickly, it would be too late.
     Cursing her kimono, which was definitely not made for running,
she hurried towards the Nekohanten, freeing the hilt of her katana as
she went.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The dinner rush was over, and only one customer lingered at
one of the corner tables.  Mousse was having to do extra duty because
of Cologne's injuries, but he wasn't too put out by that.  The work
took his mind off things, and frankly he appreciated the diversion.
     Shampoo hated him.  That was only to be expected, he
supposed.  He'd humiliated her in front of everyone, and he was forcing
her into a marriage she didn't want.  The only possible consolation he
could draw from the entire mess was that she was safe, and he would
have to take what little comfort he could from the fact that he was
responsible for that.
     It was somewhat ironic that he was following this line of thought
when Shampoo's body was hurled through the door.
     He shouted her name as she tumbled into the Nekohanten,
sending tables and chairs flying as she crashed roughly to the floor.
Before he could reach her, though, she was on her feet, shaking her
head as she struggled to regain her equilibrium.
     "Shampoo, what's going on?"  She spoke in a low, terse voice
without looking at him.
     "Get great-grandmother and run.  Now."  She brushed by him,
a broken table leg clutched in an underhand grip in one hand.  He froze,
unsure of what to do.
     "<I said now, Mousse!>" She was headed toward the door,
towards some danger, and he knew that he couldn't let her face it
alone.  He plunged his hands into his sleeves, reaching for his weapons.
     "<No, Shampoo.  I forbid it.>" They both froze at that.
Cologne had come out from the back and was standing calmly in the
midst of the broken furniture.  Her blank eyes seemed to meet
Shampoo's gaze, and Mousse knew that they were sharing some deep,
unspoken bond.  Instinctively, Cologne seemed to understand what
was happening, which was more than Mousse could say under the
circumstances.
     "<Run,>" Shampoo said simply.  "<I'll keep her here ...>"
     "<She wants me,>" Cologne replied.
     "<I know.  And I'm not letting her have you.>" Shampoo's
mouth was set in a stubborn line as she matched wills with her
great-grandmother.  Mousse looked back and forth between them, torn
between the desire to act and the need to find out more.  She?  They
couldn't mean Xi Fan, could they?  After all, his actions had guaranteed
Shampoo's safety.
     Hadn't they?
     "<My, how touching,>" came a voice from the doorway.  Xi
Fan stood there, shimmering with barely restrained power, her faint
smile tinged with malice.
     "<Ah, Xi Fan.  I've been expecting you,>" Cologne said
smoothly.  Mousse started.  Had she really?  But why?  Although that
would explain why she'd had him hide that bucket ...
     "<Come now, Cologne.  Are you really going to hide behind
these children?  They need not suffer for your sins, after all.  The blood
between us is only on your hands, not theirs.>" Mousse had had
enough.
     "<Wait!  You can't challenge Cologne, she's resigned from the
council!>" he cried.  Xi Fan's smile never wavered.
     "<But I'm not challenging her.  I'm punishing her
great-granddaughter.  She's merely intervening on Shampoo's behalf.
Right?>"
     "<Wrong,>" Shampoo growled.
     "<But you can't!  She's engaged now!>" Mousse continued,
certain that he could head off disaster if only he could make everybody
understand.
     "<The council finds your engagement ... overly convenient, boy.
I've been allowed to show Shampoo the error of her ways.  Now
stand aside, both of you, before you get hurt.  This is between Cologne
and me, at long, long last.>"
     "<No,> Shampoo said again.  Mousse glanced at her, blood
running from many small cuts, her hair tangled, her face dirty and
bruised.  He wanted to protect her, wanted to tell her not to oppose the
old woman, but he didn't.  It wouldn't have done any good, after all,
and would just have lowered his standing in her eyes.  If such a thing
was possible.
     "<Shampoo, stand aside,>" Cologne said evenly.  She reached
out blindly with her staff, sweeping aside some fragments of wood from
the floor in front of her.
     "<No,>" Shampoo said stubbornly.
     "<Don't be foolish, girl.  This doesn't concern you,>" Xi Fan
sighed. <"You're not going to make me hurt you for nothing, are
you?>" Mousse watched Shampoo's face, and his gut tightened
painfully.  She had that look, the one she got when she was going to do
something reckless.  He closed his sweaty hidden fingers around twin
coils of chain and struggled to control his breathing.
     "<Why should I be afraid of you?>" Shampoo asked, and a
strange calm descended on the interior of the Nekohanten.  "<I do not
know what feud lies between you and my great-grandmother, but I do
know that you could have challenged her at any time if you truly
desired.  But you were afraid of her, so you waited until she was
injured, and blinded, and only then did you dare to face her.  I call you
coward, old woman.  And know this.  If you would fight her, you must
first fight me.>"  Mousse felt an odd euphoria at Shampoo's words.
He was absolutely certain that she had just signed their death warrants,
but he thought that she had never looked more beautiful than in that
moment.  She faced Xi Fan with an unearthly calm, imperturbable and
unafraid.  The contorted rictus of rage on the old woman's face told
Mousse that Shampoo had struck a nerve, and had struck hard.  Xi
fan's battle aura flared to life, throwing odd shadows over the shattered
interior of the restaurant.
     "<Girl, you just made your last mistake.  I was going to be
content killing the old bat, but now I'm going to kill all of you.  And
believe me, whelp, you are going to suffer.  You'll be begging me for
death by the time I get finished with you.>" Shampoo just smiled
serenely, which seemed to goad Xi Fan to an even greater rage.
     "<Shampoo!>" Cologne snapped.  Mousse knew that it was
useless.  Once Shampoo decided to do something, it was nearly
impossible to sway her.  And she would certainly never abandon her
beloved great-grandmother.  He prepared himself for Xi Fan's attack.
     He didn't have to wait long.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Shampoo ignored the sharp hot knives that stabbed into her
side every time she breathed.  She ignored the dull throbbing pain from
her injuries, both those caused by Xi Fan's attacks and those that
Mousse had inflicted days before, now awakened and noisome.  They
barely registered now.
     Now was only the fight.
     Her calculated attempts to enrage her opponent had been
successful, although if she was unable to turn Xi Fan's blind rage to her
advantage she would suffer the consequences.  No matter.  Bold action
was required, and so she would be bold.
     Xi Fan blurred towards her, staff striking out with lightening
speed.  Shampoo threw the table leg and dodged at the last moment,
turning to hammer her opponent as she rushed past.  Xi Fan was gone,
though, and her punches struck and shattered one of the remaining
tables.  Whirling, she snatched the pieces out of the air and
fired them at Xi Fan.  As the old woman leapt over the storm of sharp
wooden shrapnel, she was forced to twist to avoid several chains
launched from Mousse's sleeves.  Shampoo jumped in and managed to
land a savage kick on the old woman's staff before she could spin
away.  Then Xi Fan had to evade another swarm of projectiles from
Mousse, who was circling opposite to Shampoo.
     Shampoo grinned ferociously, caught up in the joy of battle.
The old woman was hard pressed, something Shampoo was certain she
hadn't counted on.  If she thought that losing to Mousse had sapped
Shampoo's will to fight, she was in for a very nasty surprise.
     Shampoo and Mousse darted around Xi Fan, keeping her away
from Cologne and  harrying her with constant attacks while trying to
draw her out of position.  She responded with her own techniques, and
the inside of the Nekohanten was being chewed up badly.
     Suddenly, Xi Fan's staff flashed out toward Mousse.  He
dodged it, but even as he did Shampoo could see that it was only a
feint.  Xi Fan flicked a small fragment of wood out of one of her hands
in a lightning fast movement, and Mousse's glasses spun off his face and
flew into a corner.  He drew his head back, surprised, a tiny trickle of
blood appearing between his eyes where the sliver had cut him.  Xi Fan
took advantage of his blindness, slipping in and hammering several
shiatsu points on his body with her staff in a matter of seconds.  He
stiffened with a cry and collapsed.
     Damn!  With Mousse fighting, the old woman's focus had been
split.  Now she would be able to focus solely on Shampoo.  Wiping hot
sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, Shampoo slid into
her stance.  The pain of her injuries, old and new, threatened to distract
her, and she fought it back.  The battle, that was all that mattered.
     "Xi Fan."  Shampoo blinked.  Her great grandmother hadn't
run!  She was still near the counter, and as Shampoo watched, Xi Fan
turned towards her.  "I'm getting bored, Xi Fan.  Why don't you stop
fooling with those children and get on with it?"
     "Great-grandmother, NO!"  Shampoo tried to take advantage
of Xi Fan's momentary distraction, but as she ran forward, the old
woman spun around, moving her staff so quickly that it generated a
shockwave that flung Shampoo back against the far wall.  Tiny
coloured lights exploded in Shampoo's vision as she fell heavily to the
floor, stunned.
     What was her great-grandmother doing?  She was backing
herself into a corner!  And her careful movements ...
     (Ah, Xi Fan.  I've been expecting you.)
     Her movements were clumsy, tentative.  But Shampoo knew
that Cologne had memorized the layout of the Nekohanten thoroughly.
She knew that her great-grandmother could move with confidence
here, but Xi Fan, flushed with confidence over how easily things were
going her way, appeared to believe Cologne was truly clumsy and
helpless.
     (I've been expecting you.)
     Shampoo shook her head woozily.  If that was true, then
Cologne might have set something up beforehand, some way to defeat
Xi Fan.  But what?
     Shampoo couldn't think.  Her head was spinning and there was
a faint, high-pitched whine in her ears.  She tried to rise, but her arms
collapsed under her and she dropped heavily to the floor.  She raised
her head to see Xi Fan stalking Cologne, mirroring her movements as
Cologne stumbled towards the corner, apparently trying to put more
space between her and her opponent.
     Think, Shampoo told herself.  You know how great-grandmother's
mind works.  What is she up to?  Why that corner?
     Xi Fan's back is to you, she told herself.  But no; she couldn't
attack now, and even if she could, Xi Fan would not be so easily
caught off guard.  She'd proven that already.
     She rose up on her trembling arms again, staying there this time.
Watching the two women, Shampoo suddenly realized what she was
seeing.  Cologne was trying to manoeuvre her overconfident opponent.
But where?  And why?
     Dammit!  Even if Cologne had a plan, time was running out.  Xi
Fan would soon tire of toying with her and move in for the kill.  Think,
Shampoo told herself.  See.  See everything.  See ...
     There.  Oh, there it was.  And she knew what it had to be.
Very clever.  A trap, yes, but great-grandmother wouldn't be able to
trip it from where she was.  She might not even be able to get Xi Fan
under it.
     But Shampoo could.  Now that she knew, she had a chance to
beat the elder.  But ...
     Her vision began to go gray around the edges as she struggled
to stand.  The words Xi Fan was taunting Cologne with were just a
buzzing in her ears.
     I need more time, she realized with despair.  A few more
seconds, just a small delay.  Please, I know how to beat her now oh
please don't let it end like this ...
     "Excuse me."  Everybody froze at the mild voice that came
from the doorway.  Shampoo turned her head and saw a woman
standing there, the sunlight behind her shadowing her face.  In one hand
she held something long and thin.  Like a sheathed katana.
     Shampoo gasped.
     "Saotome, party of one," the woman said calmly, ignoring the
devastation inside the Nekohanten.  "I have a reservation."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Nodoka fought to keep her agitation from showing.  This was
worse than she'd imagined.  The fighting had obviously been fierce, and
judging by the noise emanating from the Nekohanten, she'd wondered
what she would find when she finally got there.
     Mousse was sprawled on the floor, breathing but unconscious.
Shampoo was struggling to stand, beaten up and clearly winded.
Cologne faced the old woman Nodoka had seen chasing Shampoo, her
face impassive.  The combatants had frozen at her unexpected arrival,
and she hoped she could take advantage of the lull to calm things down.
     "Pardon me," she said politely, "I hope I'm not interrupting
anything."
     "Saotome," the old woman said with barely concealed distaste.
"What is your relation to that insolent whelp Ranma?"
     "Ranma is my son," Nodoka said evenly.  "Am I to take it that
this involves him?"  The old woman laughed.
     "In a way.  However, right now this involves amazon business.
You should leave before you get hurt."  Nodoka had never cared for
bullies.  She took a step forward, locking her gaze on the old woman,
and deliberately let the smile slip from her face.
     "I have recently had the misfortune of being caught up in
amazon business," she said coolly.  "However, it was my understanding
that Mousse's actions had settled matters for all concerned."
     "I am unsatisfied with matters as they stand," the old woman
sneered.  "I fully intend to see that this travesty is concluded to my own
personal satisfaction."  Nodoka let her hand drift to the hilt of her
katana.
     "Indeed?  I must tell you that, recent events notwithstanding,
my family owes a debt of honour to these people, and especially to
Cologne.  I will not stand idly by while you attack her."  The old
woman smirked.
     "You threaten *me,* little housewife?" she asked in disbelief.
     "Nodoka Saotome," Cologne spoke up, breaking her silence.
"You owe me nothing.  Please do not involve yourself in this."
     "Honour demands no less," Nodoka answered.  The old
woman snorted.
     "Enough of this prattle.  I'll deal with you soon enough, if you
persist."  Nodoka unsheathed her sword, bringing it to a guard position.
     "I do not know who you are," she said coldly.  "I do know that
the woman you are threatening helped save this city, perhaps this entire
country, at great cost to herself.  As an amazon yourself, you should
revere her actions, not punish her for them."
     "You waste you time," Shampoo said.  Nodoka shot a quick
glance to the side and saw that Shampoo was standing again, moving
slowly towards the old woman, an enigmatic half-smile on her bruised
but beautiful face.  "That one no care about honour.  She just care
about revenge."
     "You know nothing, girl!" the old woman spat.  Shampoo
continued her slow, measured movements.
     "Shampoo know one thing.  Shampoo never lose to coward
without honour.  You want to fight great-grandmother, coward?  You
fight Shampoo first.  Unless you afraid.  Unless you only can fight blind
old womans.  Is you afraid, *coward*?"
     Nodoka saw what was happening.  Shampoo was goading the
old woman, the way she'd apparently goaded Ranma days before.
And it was working.  The old woman had turned away from Cologne
and was glaring at the battered young amazon warrior.  Nodoka
watched the two uncertainly.  Shampoo seemed to be waiting for
something, keeping her gaze locked to her opponent's as she moved
slowly, fluidly across the debris-strewn floor.
     What on earth was she planning?
     "Little girl," the amazon elder hissed, "I've grown truly weary of your
attitude.  You lack the proper respect for your elders, and it's time I
taught you a lesson."
     And then, with breathtaking speed and ferocity, they struck
together.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The appearance of Ranma's mother had given her the time she
needed.  She'd been concerned when Mrs. Saotome had drawn on Xi
Fan; she was faster than Shampoo had thought she would be, but
surely no match for an amazon elder.  Still, her actions had irritated Xi
Fan, and Shampoo set out to fan the flames of the old woman's
temper.  She moved carefully, judging distances with a trained eye,
never once allowing herself to look at her objective.
     She would have only one chance.
     "You lack the proper respect for your elders, and it's time I taught
you a lesson."  Shampoo saw Xi Fan's posture change slightly, and
knew the time was now.  The elder was done toying with her.
     They attacked in unison.  Shampoo moved with feline grace,
her injuries dismissed for the moment, rushing forward and struggling to
breathe evenly.  She let Xi Fan move to the spot where she wanted her
to be, then launched herself into the air, tucking into a tight ball and
spinning.  She knew she would be vulnerable, an irresistible target for
the enraged old woman.  As she passed over Xi Fan, she unwound, her
foot knifing out to sever the support holding the light fixture to the
ceiling, sending it plunging toward Xi Fan.  The old woman
contemptuously sprang upwards at Shampoo's exposed flank,
shattering the falling light fixture with her staff.
     The light fixture exploded.  As did the pail hidden inside it.
Shampoo, knowing what to expect, pushed off the ceiling and avoided
the spray of water.
     Xi Fan did not.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The light gleamed dully on the blade of Nodoka's katana as she
stared at the unbelievable scene in front of her.  She had been too far
away to act when Shampoo had launched herself at the amazon elder,
able only to watch helplessly.  Shampoo's act of dropping the light
fixture on her opponent had seemed to be one of desperation, and then
...
     And then the old woman had smashed the falling fixture
contemptuously, and water had drenched her before she could move.
And she had vanished.
     Shampoo had landed beyond where the old woman's robes
had collapsed into an untidy pile on the floor.  A lack of characteristic
grace in her movements showed that she was in pain, although she kept
her expression carefully controlled.  Nodoka found herself admiring the
girl's determination in spite of everything that had happened.  It was
somewhat less unnerving to see that determination focussed on
something other than winning Ranma, after all.
     Wordlessly, Shampoo stalked over to the robes, her breath coming
in harsh gasps that were painful to listen to.
     "It's about time you figured it out, child," Cologne said from her
corner, her tone mild.  She might have been commenting on the weather
for all the emotion she allowed into her voice.  Shampoo snorted in
response.
     "It much easier if great-grandmother tell Shampoo about plan
*before* Xi Fan attack," she said, not turning.  Nodoka watched her
crouch carefully, cradling one arm close to her injured side, and begin
rummaging through the pile of cloth.
     "Yes, I appear to have miscalculated somewhat in my estimate
of how much time we would have," Cologne responded dryly.  Shaking
her head, Nodoka sheathed her katana.
     "I don't suppose anyone would like to tell me what just
happened here?" she asked.  "And where did that woman go?"
     "She not go anywhere," Shampoo answered absently.
Suddenly, a small figure darted from the untidy heap of clothing.
Shampoo snatched it up with feline speed, holding the furiously
squirming figure aloft with a grin.
     "Ha!  Spring of Drowned Rat?  You choose right one,
great-grandmother!"  Nodoka understood then.  That water had been
from the Jusenkyo training grounds.  Shampoo had fooled the old
woman into splashing herself with cursed water.
     Suddenly, the rat began to glow, squealing angrily.  Shampoo
brought the small figure up to her face and squeezed until the glow
subsided.
     "You no want to do that, little one.  Rats no should play with
cats, or they might get hurt.  Remember."  Nodoka walked through
what was left of the Nekohanten, stopping to crouch beside Mousse's
unconscious form.  He was breathing regularly and, unlike Shampoo,
his only visible wound was a small cut between his eyes.
     "Oh, that one be okay," Shampoo said from behind her.
"Shampoo not that lucky."  Nodoka felt a surge of irritation at the girl's
attitude, but Cologne spoke first.
     "It sounded to me like he was at least somewhat helpful in
occupying Xi Fan's attention while you fought, child.  Give credit where
it's due, at least."  Shampoo pouted.
     "Oh, okay," she sighed at last.  "Mousse useful as diversion.
Happy?"
     "I'm still confused," Nodoka said, standing.  "Why did all this
happen?"
     "Because some people," a voice came from behind her, "just
can't let go of the past."  Nodoka turned, noting the shocked
expressions on Cologne's and Shampoo's faces as she did.  A
diminutive figure, dressed much like Cologne and the other amazon
elder, stood in the doorway surveying the destruction ruefully.
"Although I must say I hoped it would never come to this.  Hello
Shampoo.  Cologne, you've looked better."  Cologne smiled slightly at
that.
     "I suppose I have.  Nodoka Saotome, meet Li Feng, leader of
the Council of Elders of the Joketsuzoku."  The newcomer's face lit up
at the mention of Nodoka's name.
     "Ah, so you're the mother of that boy who has kept these two
in Japan all this time.  It's a pleasure to meet you at last.  Enough of
formalities, now.  It appears that we have much to talk about."  She
walked in, shaking her head.
     "Well, what does an amazon elder have to do to get a cup of
tea around here, anyway?"

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Akane wasn't trying to eavesdrop.  She was just getting
changed after gym class when a group of gossiping girls arrived at the
next row of lockers over.  She paid no attention at first.  Not until the
topic of discussion filtered through her indifference.
     "I always thought she was always just interested in money,"
someone said.
     "Yeah, she's never had a boyfriend, has she?"
     "Well, the guys were probably all afraid she'd bankrupt them
on a date!"  General laughter followed that remark.
     "So how does Nabiki get two guys?  I thought Akane was the
one all the boys liked in that family!"
     "Two guys?  Don't you know?"
     "Know what?"
     "Ukyou Kuonji's not a guy.  She's a girl who dresses like a
guy!"  A tumult of voices chimed in there.
     "I thought he was a guy who pretended to be a girl dressing up
as a guy ..."
     "Idiot!  Who would do something like that?"
     "At this school?"
     "Um.  Point ..."
     "Are you sure?"
     "Positive!"
     "Then there can't be anything going on!"
     "Oh yeah?  Listen, I saw it!  They were all kissy-face, holding
hands out under the trees the other day.  Then they ran in close to the
school, and Ukyou practically threw Nabiki up against the wall!  It was
sooo romantic!  They were just gonna kiss when Miss Hinako came
along and scolded them!"
     "No WAAAY!"
     "I'm telling you, I saw it!"
     "Wow!  I never knew ..."
     "Wait!  If she's like that, then what was she doing with Kunou
this morning?"
     "Yeah, I *did* see that, and it looked pretty cozy ..."
     "Maybe she's, like, ambidextrous or something ..."
     "Ambi-WHAT?"
     "You mean, like, ambiguous?"
     "Yeah!"
     "And Kunou does have money ..."
     "Wow!  Who'd have thought she had it in her?"
     "Oooh!  Oooh!  Maybe they're a ... whaddaya call it, a
fromage a trois ..."
     "Geez, Miki!  Talk much?"  The loud voices, interspersed with
frequent laughter and much slamming of locker doors, faded away,
echoing hollowly in the mostly empty locker room.  Soon there was
silence.
     Except for the faint sound of straining metal as Akane's locker
door buckled in her grip.  A faint bluish glow flickered around her
trembling form.
     Those ... those ... IDIOTS!  How could they say such stupid
things about her sister?  It was just ... STUPID!  The only reason she
didn't chase after them was that, in her current mood, somebody would
get seriously maimed.
     Nabiki?  And Ukyou?
     Nabiki and KUNOU?
     Frankly, she didn't know which pairing was more outrageous.  And
she wasn't going to let that kind of loose talk get to her.  After all, there
had to be a perfectly good explanation for what everybody had seen.
     Yeah.  A perfectly good explanation.  And she was going to
find out what it was.
     Right after she straightened out her locker door.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     They had managed to salvage a reasonably intact table and
some chairs, and now sat around in the battered Nekohanten.  It
looked like it had been hit by a typhoon, which of course wasn't far
from the truth.  Shampoo glared at the pocket of Li Feng's robe where
the rat Xi Fan currently resided.  The council leader had taken the
angry little rodent from Shampoo with a serene smile.
     "She won't give me any trouble," she'd said, shooting the rat a
meaningful glance.  And she hadn't.  Now they sat around the table:
Shampoo, Li Feng, her great-grandmother and Ranma's mother.
Mousse was in the back making them some tea.  Nodoka had offered,
but Li Feng wouldn't hear of putting her out.  Mousse was, after all, just
a male.
     "Well," Li Feng said finally.  "This is quite a mess we've got
here."  Shampoo knew she wasn't referring to the Nekohanten's
current state of disrepair.
     "Shampoo not understand," she said respectfully.  "Why you
not let elder Xi Fan finish fight with Shampoo?"  She hated how clumsy
her words sounded, but they were speaking Japanese out of deference
to their visitor.
     "Why should I do that, child?" Li Feng asked gently.  Shampoo
frowned, hiding a wince as she shifted position and felt her ribs twinge
painfully.
     "She say council decide to punish Shampoo.  She say they no
accept what happen as true challenge."
     "Ah.  Well, you see, that's not exactly what happened."  Shampoo
stared at her, stunned.  It had never occurred to her that Xi Fan might
be lying about the council's decision.
     "A poor judgement call," Cologne said dryly.  Li Feng nodded.
     "She forwarded your resignation to us, as well as your
explanation of recent events.  I think she expected an immediate
decision against your great-granddaughter for, as she put it, "flouting
our laws and the authority of the council".  She was most distressed
when we informed her that we wished to examine the situation more
closely."  Cologne smiled thinly.
     "Ah.  She knew you were coming.  That's why she acted so
hastily.  I expected her to wait for a decision from the council before
doing anything.  After all, there was a chance that they would decide
against us, in which case she would be well within her rights to act.  If
they decided Mousse's challenge was valid, well then ..."
     "Then she would have to act on her own.  As she in fact did."  Li
Feng nodded.
     "Once I learned of your condition, I left immediately.  I was
afraid of something like this happening."  Nodoka cleared her throat
gently.
     "I'm sorry, but I'm confused.  First Mousse said that his
actions would solve everything.  Then this Xi Fan apparently said that
they did not.  Which is it?"  Shampoo was very interested to hear the
answer to that question herself.
     "The situation is somewhat unique," Li Feng admitted.  "As
leader of the council, I have come here empowered to render a
judgement on this whole sorry affair."  Shampoo remained outwardly
calm, but she was hard pressed to conceal her elation.  Li Feng had the
authority to annul her engagement to Mousse.  That was all she could
think of.  She could do it, and she *must* do it.  Surely after all that
had happened Li Feng would decide that they had suffered enough!
     Surely.
     "Then no decision has been made yet?" Nodoka asked.
     "No.  I am empowered to make the final decision on this
matter.  Of course, that means I'll have to hear from all the parties
involved first."  Mousse entered, setting a tray with a covered tea pot
and four cups on the battered table.  Li Feng ignored him.
     "First, however, I would like to speak to you, Cologne.
Privately.  Perhaps we could retire to your quarters."  Cologne nodded.
The two old women stood, Li Feng carefully not offering Cologne any
assistance.  As they started to go, Li Feng turned back.
     "Nodoka Saotome, I do hope you'll stay.  As I understand it,
your family has been drawn into this whole affair.  I'd be interested in
speaking to you about it."
     "Certainly.  It would be my pleasure."  With a smile and a nod,
Li Feng followed Cologne into the back of the restaurant.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Cologne appreciated the fact that Li Feng didn't try to help her.
She was determined not to appear any weaker than absolutely
necessary in front of her old friend.  Moving with ease through the
confines of the Nekohanten, she led the way to her room, secretly
thankful that she hadn't stumbled on a stray fragment of furniture left
over from the fight.
     Reaching her small room, she limped inside, sighing as she
heard the door shut gently.
     "Well.  Here we are," she said.  She was uneasy about the
direction this discussion might go.  The council hadn't automatically
allowed Mousse's challenge; that meant she couldn't be exactly sure
what was going to happen.
     "First things first," Li Feng said.  Cologne heard a rustle of
cloth, followed by an outraged squeaking.  The noise cut off suddenly,
and she sat gently on the edge of her bed.
     "I don't suppose you killed her," she said casually.  Li Feng
laughed.
     "Wouldn't that make your life easy?  No, I just hit her sleep
point so we could talk in private.  I suppose I don't have to tell you Xi
Fan will have much to answer for when we get back to the village.  She
probably won't be giving you trouble for a long, long time."  There was
a silence.  "Being a rat rather suits her, actually."
     "Don't get used to it," Cologne replied.  "It's instant Jusenkyo
mix."  She felt the bed give a little as Li Feng sat down beside her.
     "How compassionate of you," she said dryly.  Cologne
chuckled.
     "Not at all.  I just didn't have any of the real thing at my
disposal."  They sat there for a time, Cologne locked in her own
personal darkness, wishing she could see the expression on her friend's
face so that she might make a guess at how serious things were.
     "So what happens now?" she asked finally.  She felt Li Feng's
weight shift slightly and heard her sigh.
     "What happens now?  Well, like I said, I have to rule on this
whole sorry affair with one eye to justice and one to the law.  They
don't always go hand in hand, but I don't have to tell you that."
     "No," Cologne said.  "No, you don't."
     "If I'd known what the situation was, I'd have never let her be
the one to come," Li Feng went on.  "But I never imagined that things
could be so serious.  Demons loose in the world again.  I don't have to
tell you how serious such an occurrence is, even if it is currently
localized in Japan.  I am greatly concerned by this turn of events,
Cologne.  Greatly concerned."  Cologne knew then what Li Feng
would be proposing.  A way out for Shampoo, but at great risk.
     "You wouldn't ...!" Cologne started.  She stopped at the gentle
weight of a hand on her shoulder.
     "It will, of course, be her decision.  Politics, my friend.  All
sides will be satisfied by the outcome of this, I think."  Cologne felt a
chill deep inside and struggled not to let her emotions show.
     "You'd decided before you even arrived."
     "Perhaps.  Perhaps I had.  But tell me this, old friend.  Did
Shampoo throw that fight to protect her great-grandmother?"  Well,
there it was, right out in the open.  Cologne gripped her staff tightly,
feeling Li Feng's presence beside her as she gazed out at nothing.
     "I can't say for certain," she said at last.  "I didn't *see* the fight,
you understand."  A thin smile graced her lips at that, then quickly
faded.  "My impression, from what I heard afterwards, was that
Mousse simply outlasted her.  That boy can take a lot of physical
abuse, all right.  Still, I ... believe that she lost fairly.  Perhaps I've
been
neglecting her training too much lately.  Perhaps she just didn't think
Mousse could do it."
     "A lot of people don't think Mousse could do it," Li Feng said
gravely.  "That's part of the problem.  You understand, under the
circumstances, that many have doubts about the legitimacy of that
challenge.  The only council member present was blind, and Shampoo
had ample reason to lose ..."
     "Her pride was on the line," Cologne said stiffly.
     "The mere appearance of such doubts cannot be ignored," Li Feng
answered curtly.  "And so I must rule."  Cologne bent her head,
suddenly very tired.
     "She's so young," she muttered.  The hand on her shoulder
squeezed in a comforting manner.
     "So were you when faced with a similar ruling, as I recall."
There was a trace of wistfulness in Li Feng's voice.
     "Yes, I suppose so."  They fell silent, and Cologne was startled
to realize that she had let her mind wander down paths that it hadn't
trodden in quite some time.  When she finally spoke again, her voice
was soft and thick with suppressed emotion.
     "I wish I could go back and change things.  I've had to kill
many times, but his death was the only one I've ever regretted."
     "It was an accident," Li Feng said softly.  "She's never
accepted that."
     "Three centuries is a long time to hold a grudge," Cologne
whispered, a harsh ugly laugh forcing its way out of her throat.
     "Or to feel guilt over something that cannot be changed."
     "Gods, Li Feng, were we really ever that young?  Everything
seemed so full of promise in those days.  Remember?"  Li Feng
chuckled softly.
     "Ah, yes, there was going to be glory, and honour, and we
were going to show the elders how to run things."  Cologne nodded, a
lump in her throat.
     "Well," she said at last, "there was plenty of the first two, and
as for the third, you ended up heading the ruling council and until
recently I was a member.  Funny how things work out, isn't it?"
     "I suppose so."  Cologne raised her head, sighing deeply.
     "Well, I suppose we should get this charade over with."
     "So disrespectful, old woman.  Things might not go the way I
planned, you know."  Cologne stood slowly.
     "Oh, I know these two.  You'll get what you want."  She felt Li
Feng stand beside her.
     "I'll get what I *need*, Cologne.  I'm the head of the council.
What I want is immaterial in the face of what's best for our tribe."
Cologne knew that was the closest her friend could come to
apologizing to her for what was about to happen.  She nodded to show
she understood.
     After all, she did understand.  She just didn't like it.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Nodoka smiled as Mousse pulled a rectangular object from his
voluminous robe sleeve and set it on the table gently.  She saw
Shampoo glance at it and wince slightly.
     A first aid kit.  Nodoka thought Mousse's concern for
Shampoo was rather sweet.
     Apparently, she didn't share the sentiment.
     "Go away, Mousse.  Shampoo not need your help."  Shampoo
started to reach for the kit herself.
     "Perhaps you would allow me?" Nodoka asked gently.
Shampoo froze in mid-reach, obviously uncertain how to react.
Nodoka reached out and opened the kit, then moved her chair closer
to Shampoo's.
     "Shampoo not ..." the girl began tentatively.
     "Oh, Mousse, could you go get me some antiseptic?" Nodoka
asked, ignoring Shampoo's protests.  From where Mousse was
standing, he could clearly see a tube of antiseptic in the kit.  He looked
her in the eye.
     "Certainly," he said smoothly, taking the hint.  "It might take a
few minutes, though."
     "Take your time," she told him warmly.  Then Mousse
disappeared into the back, leaving her alone with Shampoo.  She saw
the amazon girl's gaze shift to the sheathed katana that was leaning
against the table and suppressed a sigh.  This was going to require
some delicacy.
     She pulled some gauze and some band-aids from the kit, then
smeared some antiseptic on the gauze.  If Shampoo noticed the
discrepancy, she gave no sign.  Grasping Shampoo's chin gently, she
turned the girl's head and held out the gauze.
     "This may sting," she warned before dabbing gently at a small
scrape on Shampoo's cheek.  Shampoo tensed slightly as the wound
was cleaned, but said nothing.  Nodoka surveyed the girl's torn clothes
and numerous cuts and bruises ruefully.
     "You're having quite a bad week, my dear," she said, turning
Shampoo's head a little further to get at a cut higher her cheek.
     "What you doing?" Shampoo asked finally, her voice small and
confused.  Nodoka tugged the girl's head back around gently, catching
her gaze.
     "Just a little mothering," she smiled.  "Ranma hates it when I
fuss over him, and I'm quite out of practice.  And, to tell you the truth,
I've been wanting to talk to you."  Shampoo's jaw tensed slightly under
her fingers.
     "You angry at Shampoo."  Nodoka went on cleaning the cuts
and scrapes as she spoke, most of which were thankfully fairly minor.
     "No, not angry.  Not anymore.  But there are some things that
need to be said.  I understand why you did what you did, for starters.  I
don't approve, but I understand.  But *you* must understand that I
won't allow any harm to come to my family.  That includes the Tendous
now.  Whatever the future holds for you, I won't forgive you if you try
to hurt my son or Akane."  Shampoo swallowed, and Nodoka felt a
slight tremor thrill through the girl as her beautiful violet eyes raised to
meet the older woman's gaze.
     "Shampoo never want to hurt Ranma," she whispered huskily.
"Shampoo love Ranma."  Nodoka continued her ministrations, her
gentle touch having its desired effect in calming Shampoo.  Nodoka
thought the girl had been like a wild animal, prepared to bolt at any
moment.  Slowly, though, Nodoka seemed to be getting through to her.
     "If that's true, then you should think of what it would have done
to him to be the one to kill you."  Although her tone was gentle,
Shampoo jerked as though stung and looked away.
     "Shampoo not want it to be anyone else."  Her tangled hair
hung down, obscuring her face, and Nodoka reached out with her free
hand to tenderly brush it back.
     "Shampoo, look at me."  Shampoo shook her head slightly,
and Nodoka used gentle pressure to turn the girl's face back to hers.
     "Shampoo.  I know you were afraid for your great-grandmother,
but it was wrong to manipulate Ranma the way you did.  You aren't in
China anymore.  If you need help, you should just go to your friends."
Shampoo's gaze returned to hers then, her eyes glistening with unshed
tears.
     "Shampoo not have friends," she said roughly.  "Just rivals for
Ranma.  And now ... now Ranma hate Shampoo.  Ranma never forgive
..."  She clenched her jaw angrily, and Nodoka could see that she was
determined not to let her emotions get the better of her.
     "You're wrong.  These people are your friends.  And Ranma
will forgive you, I'm sure of it.  Oh, maybe not right away, not that
stubborn son of mine.  But he will."  Shampoo crossed her arms tightly
under her breasts, unconvinced, her posture angry and stiff.  "Listen,
my dear, you all fought together to keep this place safe.  Wouldn't it be
a shame to throw all that away?  If you refuse to accept Ranma's
choice, if you try to come between him and Akane, then we'll be
enemies.  And I don't want that.  Not after the sacrifices you all made."
She took Shampoo's face between her palms and looked directly into
the girl's startled eyes.
     "Let him go, Shampoo.  Prove how strong you are.  There's
been enough pain, hasn't there?"  The truth of her words was reflected
in Shampoo's eyes.  After a long moment, the girl pulled back, turning
to surreptitiously wipe at her eyes with her sleeve.
     "Shampoo already decide to give up Ranma.  Anyway, Shampoo
not have any more engagement to Ranma, and Ranma ... not love
Shampoo."  Nodoka watched the girl carefully as she straightened
her shoulders and turned back, her composure restored.
     "Aiyaa!  Shampoo forget to thank you for distracting Xi Fan!
You come at just right time!"  Nodoka smiled.
     "I'm glad I was able to help.  Tell me, what will happen now
with your great-grandmother?"
     "She resign already.  That why Xi Fan try to get her to fight by
attack Shampoo.  Now Xi Fan in big trouble, great-grandmother
should be safe."
     "And you?"  Shampoo's eyes gleamed fiercely.
     "Shampoo deal with whatever come."  Nodoka nodded.  She
believed Shampoo would keep her word and not try to come between
Ranma and Akane.  That set her mind at ease over one issue, but now
she was concerned about what would happen to the amazons in the
wake of all the recent troubles.  If the elder of the amazon council had
come herself, surely the situation must be serious.
     And poor Mousse.  He'd thought he was protecting Shampoo
and Cologne, only to find out that his efforts were meaningless.  And
the definite chill between Mousse and Shampoo told her that the
amazon girl did not appreciate his efforts in the least.
     Things are always so complicated, she thought sadly.  But things
would get better.  She was sure of it.
     She just hoped the others could share her optimism.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Shampoo pulled back as Ranma's mother finished tending to
her cuts and bruises.  She'd been taken completely off-guard by the
woman's gentleness.  Expecting angry recriminations over what she'd
done, she'd been prepared for threats of revenge and ultimatums.
     Instead, she'd received a reluctant warning against harming the
Tendous or Saotomes.  And that had hardly been necessary; after all,
she didn't really want to hurt any of them.  She just wanted ...
     She just wanted Ranma.  But she'd gone as far as she could
go, and he had chosen Akane over her.  Although the reality of the
situation was still sinking in, she was coming to realize that her only
alternative to acceptance was to embark on a self-destructive course ...
a course that would make an enemy of this remarkable woman in front
of her, one that could ultimately win her nothing but more heartache.
     She watched Ranma's mother bandaging her arm with a touch
of nostalgia, a faint smile gracing her lips.  Shampoo knew she had to
grow up a little, to let go of Ranma for good.  One day she would find a
love that would dwarf Ranma, one that would make her forget he'd
ever existed.
     She stifled a soft sigh.  Sure.  One day.  But now, she had other
priorities.
     Like getting un-engaged, for instance.  She heard Li Feng and
her great-grandmother approaching, and stood, suddenly pulling away
from a startled Nodoka.  The two elders entered the main part of the
restaurant from the back and stopped in front of her.
     "So, Shampoo, how are you feeling?" Li Feng asked.
Shampoo made a dismissive gesture.
     "Shampoo not hurt much," she said.  Li Feng cocked her head, a
mischievous gleam in her eyes.
     "Not even your ribs?" she asked innocently.  In the background,
Nodoka gasped.
     "Oh, I forgot all about that!  Dear, are you sure you're all right?"
Shampoo winced.  She didn't want to appear weak in front of Li Feng,
and waved off the concerned comments.
     "Shampoo have worse.  Many times."  Her great-grandmother
nodded thoughtfully.
     "Still, I suppose we'll have to have that handsome young doctor
check them out again," she said.  Li Feng perked up.
     "Handsome?"
     "Oh, very."
     "My, my.  Perhaps you should call him now, then."  Shampoo
cleared her throat noisily.
     "Honoured elder, Shampoo want to ask you ... about
engagement to Mousse ..."
     "Ah, yes.  That.  You're wondering if you have my blessing?"
Shampoo gaped.
     "No!" she blurted.  Li Feng chuckled, and Shampoo frowned.
"That not funny, honoured elder!  Shampoo want to know if there any
way to ... annul engagement."  Li Feng stopped laughing, and for the
first time Shampoo noticed how tense her great-grandmother was.  She
wondered what they had been talking about in the back room.
     "Well, child, that is an interesting question.  To tell you the truth
there are some concerns back home about this whole affair.  However,
I feel it is only fair to tell you before we go any further that I cannot
even consider setting this challenge aside without the consent of both
parties."  Shampoo felt a queasy sensation in the pit of her stomach,
and all the optimism drained out of her in an instant.
     "You mean ... Mousse?" she asked, dumbfounded.  Li Feng
nodded solemnly.
     "There is only one circumstance under which the will of a male
of the Joketsuzoku is equal to that of a female, and this is it.  Where is
Mousse, anyway?"  Over the rushing in her ears, Shampoo heard Li
Feng calling for Mousse.  No.  This couldn't be.  Hope was finally
within reach, only to be snatched cruelly away at the last moment.
Mousse, poor, stupid, besotted Mousse, once again held her destiny in
his hands.  This was the final indignity.
     She watched, dazed, as Mousse warily entered the room, his
myopic gaze shifting from face to face.
     "You called for me, honoured elder?" he asked meekly.  Li
Feng nodded.
     "Mousse, you must be aware that there are several ...
irregularities in this challenge and subsequent engagement to Shampoo.
I realize that these last weeks have been difficult for all of you, but I
must ask you now: would you be willing to allow this engagement to be
set aside?"  Shampoo closed her eyes.  She couldn't believe it had
come to this.  After all these years of chasing her around, of endlessly
pledging his love to her, Mousse finally had her right where he wanted.
With a word, he could finally remove the last roadblock to his
happiness and marry her.  At the end, she was finally to be a victim of
Mousse's obsession for her.
     The silence that followed Li Feng's question seemed to stretch
out forever, prolonging her agony.  Finally, Mousse spoke, his voice
low and even.
     "Yes," he said.
 

End part 4