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

The Heart's Reasons
by Mark MacKinnon

Part three: One Step Over the Line
 

     Shampoo's world was comprised largely of absolutes.
     Take, for example, the rules of her tribe.  An amazon must kill
an outsider female who defeated her.  An amazon must marry a male
who defeated her.  Simple.  No room for interpretation.
     And she believed in these absolutes.  In fact, Shampoo was a
girl of passion.  She was passionate about her beliefs, about her duty,
and most of all, about Ranma.  In this way, her world was simple.  Had
been simple, at any rate.
     This, however, did not mean she was stupid.  Quite the
contrary.  She was quite smart, and perceptive.  Her gut had twisted
and churned every time she'd thought of Ranma in the days after
Kodachi's death during the fight at Furinkan.  She was aware that
something had changed between Ranma and Akane, and every day that
passed without him coming by the Nekohanten wound her tighter.  She
felt a sense of foreboding about what was to come, but resolved to face
it with the courage befitting an amazon warrior.
     After all, one of the absolutes that she believed in was the fact
that she and Ranma were meant to be together.  One way or another.
     He walked silently beside her as they strolled through the
golden afternoon sunshine, coming upon a nearby park.  Ranma
motioned for her to sit on the first bench that they came to and,
reluctantly, she did.  The time for talking was nearly at hand, and she
felt a sudden twinge of panic which she repressed brutally.
     Brave.  She had to be brave.  She clasped her hands loosely
and cocked a shy glance at Ranma as he sat down beside her.  Her
uncharacteristically reserved demeanor seemed to be unnerving Ranma
a bit.  She waited for him to begin.
     "So, how've you been?" he asked finally.
     "Shampoo okay.  Great-grandmother getting a little better,
too."  He nodded.
     "Yeah, it was good to see her walking around.  I guess the past
little while's been hard on you, huh?"  She looked at the ground, not
wanting him to see the pain in her eyes.
     "Little bit," she admitted finally.  "Easier if Ranma come by to
help Shampoo."  She snuck a glance at him out of the corner of her
eye, seeing his expression turn sad at that.
     "Look, I'm sorry I haven't been around much.  There've been
a lot of things going on that I've had to take care of."
     "Shampoo understands.  It okay, Ranma.  You come for
Shampoo finally.  That what matters."  His eyes flickered with
something dark as she turned to him.
     "I came because I have to tell you something, and I wanted you
to hear it from me.  Shampoo, I want you to promise me that you'll
listen to what I tell you.  Will you do that?  Listen and try to
understand."  Shampoo nodded solemnly.
     "Shampoo promise."  This was it, she knew.  But she was
brave.
     "Shampoo, I love Akane.  I'm not going to marry you, or
Ukyou.  I'm not your fiance anymore.  You understand?"  Shampoo
shook her head sadly.
     "Is Ranma who no understand.  Ranma beat Shampoo.  Law
say that Shampoo must marry Ranma.  Ranma always be Shampoo
fiance.  Is no choice."
     "Yes, dammit, there IS a choice, and I made it!"  Ranma
stopped, took a deep breath.  "Listen to me.  This is not China, and I
am not an amazon man.  I don't follow your laws.  I'm in love Akane,
and that's that."
     "Why that one?" Shampoo asked before she could stop
herself.  "Why?  Shampoo make much better wife!"  Ranma's
expression hardened slightly, and Shampoo reminded herself that she
had to stay in control.
     "Shampoo, don't make this harder than it has to be, all right?  I
don't want the kind of trouble we had before.  No craziness, no
attacking Akane, no weird charms or drugs or spells.  I just want you
to accept this."  Shampoo slowly stood, turning to look down on
Ranma.  Her face was composed, her stance relaxed.
     "Shampoo love Ranma.  Shampoo and Ranma fiances by
ancient law.  Shampoo no can forget that, Ranma.  Shampoo always be
Ranma fiance.  Saying it not true not make it so.  Shampoo can wait for
Ranma, though."  He just stared at her wearily.
     "Why don't you just accept it?  Why?"
     "Accept only for weak.  Shampoo strong.  Shampoo can be
patient."  Can be, she knew, wasn't the same as have to be.  If Ranma
was determined to follow this path, she'd just have to find a way to
change his mind.  Once and for all.
     "Dammit, Shampoo ...!"
     "Ranma say what he come to say.  Shampoo listen.  Ranma say
he in love with Akane, yes?  But he never date with Shampoo.  How he
know for sure?  Shampoo knows that Ranma make mistake now.
Shampoo will forgive Ranma, though.  One day, Ranma will see truth."
Ranma was looking at her, clearly torn between sorrow and anger.
She knew she had no hope of changing his mind now.  He was
determined to stick by his decision.  What she had feared had finally
come to pass.
     Still, all was not lost.  She had been thinking a great deal since
her great-grandmother's injury about what she would do if this came to
pass.  It was a dangerous plan, an all-or-nothing gambit worthy of an
amazon warrior.  But for now, she couldn't risk overplaying her hand.
It would be that much harder if Ranma was expecting trouble from her,
so she needed to let him think he had time.
     "Shampoo, I don't want you to fool yourself," Ranma was
saying urgently.  "I'm not gonna change my mind, and I don't want to
have to worry about you cooking up some stupid plan to get me to
marry you!"
     "Shampoo have no time for stupid plans now.  Shampoo must
take care of great-grandmother."  And that was true, as far as it went.
However, he didn't need to know that part of that care would be
resolving the situation between them, once and for all.  She stood
abruptly, not daring to look at him now, feeling like her desperate plan
might somehow show in her eyes, warning him of what was to come.
     "Shampoo ..."
     "Shampoo go now.  But Shampoo not going to forget that we
engaged, Ranma.  One day, we be married.  One day."  There.  Make
him feel like he has lots of time.  Knowing Ranma, he'd want to let
things just quietly fade, trusting that Shampoo would eventually come to
accept his decision.  She started to walk away.
     "Shampoo."  The way he said her name brought her up short.
She stood still, her hair slipping over her shoulder on a sudden gust of
fragrant wind.
     "If anything were to happen to Akane, I'd be angry.  Very
angry.  We understand each other, right?"  She swallowed.  Maybe he
hadn't been as fooled as she'd thought.  Still it didn't matter.  After all,
her plan depended on him not wanting anything to happen to the
Tendou girl.
     "Shampoo understands," she said hoarsely.  Then she walked
away, taking measured steps, clinging grimly to her resolve, resisting
with all her might the urge to turn and run back to him, to throw herself
into his arms and swear that nobody would ever take him away from
her.  Never.
     She kept walking only because she knew that it wasn't over
yet.  She still had her plan, conceived in desperation, to give her hope.
Her plan, and the absolute certainty in her heart that Ranma would
come to love her if only he would give her a chance, even if he had to
be coerced or tricked into giving her that chance.
     No, it wasn't over yet.  But it soon would be.

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

     Mousse looked up as he heard the door to the back alleyway
open, then close.  He sighed and rose from where he'd been sitting
cross-legged on the floor of his cramped quarters.  Unconsciously
straightening his robe, he went to see if Shampoo was all right.
     He found her in the kitchen, bent over something in the sink.
He stood behind her, shifting nervously.  The prospect of having Ranma
out of his way was an exciting one; however, the pain that Shampoo
would have to suffer at his rejection would tear at his own heart, as her
pain always did.  Still, in time he was sure he could get her to see that it
was for the best.  Without Ranma to come between them, their
relationship could finally progress.
     "What you want, stupid Mousse?"  She spoke without turning,
the cruel and capricious goddess of his dreams.  He took a calming
breath.
     "Are you okay?"  Her back was rigid, with anger or barely
contained grief he wasn't certain.
     "You know why Ranma talk to Shampoo."  It wasn't a
question.
     "Yes.  He told Ukyou already.  Last night."  Shampoo turned
slightly, so she could look over her shoulder at him.
     "Why you not go comfort spatula girl, then?  Shampoo not
need you."  He scowled.
     "Dammit, Shampoo!  Don't be like that!  I want to help you get
through ..."  He trailed off, looking at her carefully.  Mousse knew
Shampoo better than anyone, except maybe her great-grandmother.
He'd studied her every slightest shift of mood, lived for the slightest
spark of kindness in her beautiful eyes, knew every storm warning that
lived in a toss of her purple mane or the angle of her head.  He knew
what he was looking at now.
     "He rejected you, but ... Shampoo.  What are you up to?"  He
noted a flash of surprise, and what might have been panic, cross her
face in an instant.  Then her violet eyes began to mist up with tears.
     "I ..." she began, her voice choked with emotion.  She turned
back toward the sink, head hanging disconsolately.  Careful, Mousse
thought frantically.  Something's up.  Something ...
     "Oh, Mousse ..." she moaned.  That did it.  He rushed forward,
needing to comfort her, needing to make the pain in her voice vanish.
     She spun with almost inhuman speed, pulling the bucket up out
of the sink with one hand and drenching him before he had a chance to
react.  Then he was struggling in the confining folds of his robe, only to
be seized by the neck and hoisted into the air.
     The tears were gone now, and Mousse suppressed a shudder
at the expression on Shampoo's face.
     "Accept," she breathed.  "Accept is for weak, Mousse.  Always
remember.  Shampoo strong.  Strong for herself, for tribe.  Strong now
for great-grandmother.  No can let you get in way of plan.  This
Shampoo's last hope."  She began walking toward where Mousse
knew the cage was.
     "Shampoo have pride.  No can just give up, stupid Mousse.
Shampoo make everything right.  You see, soon."  Mousse didn't like
the sound of that.  He began to squawk angrily, flailing about with his
wings, all to no avail.
     Whatever Shampoo was up to, she didn't intend to allow him
to interfere.

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

     Akane was waiting for Ranma behind the dojo.  She'd been waiting
nervously, remembering how Ranma's discussion with Ukyou had
affected him.  By the time he finally showed up, she was nearly ready to
go looking for him.
     She couldn't tell anything from the expression on his face.  He
walked over to her, a slight crease evident between his eyebrows, and
gave her a faint smile that did nothing to set her mind at ease.
     "Well?" she asked anxiously.  "How did it go?"  He sighed.
     "Um.  How did it go.  Well.  It was, uh, very calm.  And
reasonable."
     "Calm?  Reasonable?" Akane repeated.  "We are talking about
your conversation with Shampoo, right?"
     "Yeah.  It was really strange.  I expected fireworks, but instead
..."  He shrugged.  Akane ventured a cautious smile.
     "So everything's settled?"  Ranma winced, and her smile died.
     "Well, she did sort of say that we'd always be engaged and that
she'd wait for me ..."
     "RANMA!"
     "Hey!" he shot back defensively.  "This isn't my fault, Akane!  I
told her flat out that I love you, not her!  What else can I do?"  Akane's
anger was tempered by hearing Ranma say he loved her, and she
fought back a snappish reply.
     "So we have to worry about Shampoo trying to break us up
now?" she asked finally.  Ranma leaned wearily against the wall of the
dojo and ran his fingers through his hair.  Akane had a sudden,
powerful urge to run her own fingers through his hair, and suppressed it.
Bad timing.
     "Well, she said that she had to take care of Cologne now.  I
definitely got the impression that she had her hands full in the near
future, and she was depending on me to come to my senses.  So to
speak."  Akane moved over close to him, copying his posture.
     "Ranma, that doesn't sound like Shampoo," she sighed.
     "I know.  But she wasn't acting like Shampoo, either.  She was
quiet, depressed even.  This thing with Cologne is really getting to her, I
think."
     "Speaking of Cologne, how is she?"  Ranma grimaced.
     "You know, I never really liked the old ghoul, but seeing her
tonight, I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for her.  Hell, more than a
little.  If it wasn't for her, I don't think there's any way we would've won
that fight at Furinkan.  She can barely walk now, and her eyes ..."  They
fell silent for a time, listening to the sounds of the city filtering into the

yard from all around.
     "I don't want to sound cruel, but maybe this will all work out
after all," Akane said at last.  "I mean, with Cologne hurt so badly, and
you telling her that she has no chance, maybe Shampoo will finally go
back to China."  Ranma stared straight ahead.
     "Maybe.  If it was only one or the other of those things, I'd be
more worried.  But both together, yeah, maybe you're right.  I don't see
how they can run the Nekohanten with only Shampoo and Mousse,
anyway.  If the old ghoul could still get up to her old tricks, I'd be more
concerned, but as it is, I think Shampoo'll just start getting used to
things the way they are now."  Akane said nothing.  She hoped Ranma
was right, but just in case he wasn't, she resolved to keep a close eye
on him for the next couple of weeks.  In the meantime, though ...
     She reached her hand out, brushing it lightly against the back of
Ranma's own where it lay tapping lightly against the wall.  Slowly she
slipped her fingers around the calloused edge of his palm until she could
lace them through his own.  Her heart began to race as he idly ran his
thumb over the web of flesh between her own thumb and palm.  She
looked over to see him blushing slightly, and smiled.
     "Ranma."
     "Hmm?"
     "I know the last couple of days haven't been easy for you,
having to talk to Ukyou and Shampoo about us, and I just wanted to
tell you that ... I'm, well, really proud of you."  Ranma's eyes met hers,
surprise evident there.
     "Proud?"
     "Yes, Ranma.  I know how hard this has been for you.  It
probably seems unfair to you that you have to do all this, and I don't
have to do anything, since Ryouga decided to give up on me on his
own."  Ranma looked a little rueful at that.
     "I don't think that at all," he said, not entirely convincingly.  She
cocked her head.
     "Well, I do.  I know how hard it is for you to talk about things
like this at the best of times."  Ranma's blush deepened.
     "Well," he said, suddenly finding something extremely
interesting in the late afternoon sky, "I did it for, you know, us.  Kinda."
Akane felt a warm tingling at that.  For them.  Now *that* was
progress.
     "For us, huh?" she murmured, moving away from the wall.
"You know, after everything you've been through, I think you deserve
a reward."  Still holding his hand, she moved around in front of him, her
heart pounding with anticipation, and not a little nervousness.  His gaze
shifted back to her face.
     "Reward?" he asked blankly.  She smiled, a sweet, dazzling
smile, just for him, and leaned her body against his gently.
     "Mmm-hmm," she confirmed, nodding slightly without breaking
eye contact.  His face showed that his emotions were running parallel
to hers: nervousness, awkwardness and increasing anticipation.  They
were all alone behind the dojo, after all.  Who knew when they'd have
another minute to themselves?
     "Oh, a REWARD," he breathed.  She placed her free hand just
above his waist and ran it slowly up his chest, fingertips lightly tracing
his muscles as she moved up to his shoulder.  He lowered his head
slightly as she rose up on her tiptoes to meet him.
     "Ah, so HERE you are," a voice said.  In an instant Akane
found herself standing a good two body-lengths away from Ranma
without seeming to have occupied any of the intervening space.
     "A neat trick," she thought dazedly.  "I'll have to remember
how I did that."
     "Oops.  Nabiki Interruptus.  Sorry, troops.  Feel free to carry
on."  Akane's heart, racing for reasons that had nothing to do with
Ranma, finally began to slow.  Ranma was plastered back against the
dojo wall, trying to look nonchalant and failing rather miserably.
     "Nabiki!" he said too loudly.  "We were just, uh, doing that
thing that, uh ... and Akane had something in her eye and I
wasjusttryingtogetitout!"  He finished with a triumphant flourish, not
noticing Akane's disgust with his lame excuse.
     "Hmm.  Martial arts optometry.  Nice try, Ranma.  You two
lovebirds don't have to stop on my account, you know."
     "Nabiki," Akane said, trying not to sound irritated, "what do
you want?"
     "Lovebirds?  No!" Ranma shouted with insane casualness.
     "Supper's ready," Nabiki said.
     "We were just ... hey, Akane, help me out here!"
     "Ranma, cut it out.  She knows."  Ranma's face performed an
interesting contortion.
     "She knows?  About us?"  Akane nodded.  Ranma paled.
     "But.  But.  Why?  Why tell her?"
     "Ranma, she's my sister."
     "But she's NABIKI.  She'll sell the info to our parents, and ...
and ..."  Akane crossed her arms.
     "And what?" she asked neutrally.  Nabiki snorted.
     "Relax, Saotome.  Your secret's safe.  I wouldn't sell out my
own sister.  Anyway, it promises to be much more entertaining
watching you two sneak around here trying to keep our fathers from
getting wind of this.  I mean, one whisper of this and you two'll be
married before you know it."  Akane watched Ranma carefully for his
reaction.
     "Oh.  Yeah.  M-married, and, uh ..."  Ranma began looking
around frantically.  "Hey, supper's gonna get cold!  Come on guys,
let's go!"  With that, Ranma was off and running, not quite leaving a
sonic boom in his wake.  Akane's jaw clenched painfully, but she said
nothing.
     "Wow, it never fails," Nabiki said casually.  "The "M" word
sends any and all males into a frenzy."  Then she caught the expression
on her younger sister's face and frowned.
     "Hey, Akane, I was just kidding.  I mean, you two are engaged,
after all."  Akane began to walk, not saying anything.  She heard Nabiki
trotting up behind her after a moment.
     "Wait a sec.  You two HAVE talked about getting married,
haven't you?"  Akane felt her cheeks warming slightly.
     "Not in so many words, no," she mumbled.  Nabiki sighed in
exasperation.
     "You two are just incredible.  Look, sis, didn't you say that
Ranma told you he loved you?"
     "Well, yeah ..."
     "And didn't you say he was going to settle things with Ukyou
and Shampoo, so you'd be the only fiance?"
     "He did talk to them," Akane admitted.  Nabiki nodded.
     "So why fly off the handle?  Ranma's actions show pretty
clearly what he thinks, right?  Don't get upset if the mention of marriage
makes him a little crazy.  He's still a guy, and Ranma's never been very
good with this sort of thing.  When you get around to talking about it,
do you really think Ranma's going to be at all reluctant to marry you?
Well, do you?"  Did she?  Akane remembered the things Ranma had
done since that night on the roof, the lengths to which he had gone for
her.  Revealing his feelings, showing his own vulnerabilities, even
agreeing to train with her, all showed that "I love you" weren't just
empty words.  And she believed that he wanted to be with her, but long
ingrained habit led her to assume the worst.
     After all, they hadn't actually talked about marriage.  She
thought he wanted to marry her, but she found suddenly that she
wanted to be *sure*.  The old doubts persisted, and she hated herself
for having them.  But she couldn't seem to shake them, not for good.
     She wondered when, or if, she ever would.
     "I really am sorry for interrupting," Nabiki said quietly, all
traces of amusement gone from her voice now.  "I guess it's kind of
hard for you two to get any time alone, huh?"  Akane blushed lightly.
     "Well, yeah," she sighed.  Nabiki gave her a look she couldn't
interpret.
     "Have you thought of just telling our parents that you two want
to be together?  It might make your lives easier, you know."
     "No.  I'm tired of being under a microscope, having people
watch and judge and pressure and interfere all the time, and I know
Ranma is too.  We need some time alone, but they wouldn't
understand.  They'd just push us to get married right away, and I'm
afraid what that kind of pressure might do to us, the way things are
now."  Nabiki sighed thoughtfully.
     "Time alone, huh?  You know, it's not all that long to summer
break.  If you can last that long, you two could go on a trip together
somewhere.  A training jaunt, maybe."  Nabiki was peering at her out
of the corner of one eye as she spoke, and Akane brightened.
     "Hey!  That's not a bad idea!"
     "Yeah, and I won't even charge you for it," Nabiki said
magnanimously.  "This time.  Anyway, it'll give you two something to
look forward to."  Akane impulsively hugged her sister.
     "Thanks, Nabiki!"  Nabiki squirmed.
     "Hey!  No hugging!  No HUGGING!  Geez, what if someone
sees?  C'mon, Akane!"  Laughing, Akane released her grip.
     "Aw, you're just a big old softy," she teased.  Nabiki looked
grumpy.
     "Don't let that get around, sis.  I've got a reputation to uphold, you
know?"
     "If you say so," Akane grinned, feeling the first stirrings of
anticipation at the prospect of taking a trip with Ranma.  Yes.  That
could work.  That *would* work!  Some time alone, entire days to
talk, just the two of them, not having to worry about who was about to
pounce on them ...
     "Come on, sis.  If we don't get there soon, your FIANCE and his
father will have sucked up everything edible in sight!"  Laughing,
the two ran the rest of the way to the house.

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

     The new day had dawned clear and warm, with only a hint of a
breeze.  It promised to be a perfect day, a day for picnics, or long
walks along a riverbank.  A day for lovers.
     The irony was not lost on Shampoo.  She moved around the
kitchen of the Nekohanten, touching things as if for the last time.  She
was finishing the preparations for her plan.  By the end of this perfect
day, she would be married to Ranma.  Or she would have lost him
forever.
     Mousse continued to rattle around in his cage, although he'd
long since given up squawking.  She'd tied his wings to his body, just to
be sure.  After all, this would be her last chance.  She didn't want any
interference.
     She started as she heard a small sound behind her, then turned,
trying to hide her sorrow.  Once, not long ago, she never would have
heard her great-grandmother coming up behind her.  But those days
were over now.  Everything had changed.
     "Great-grandmother, why you up so early?  You need rest,"
Shampoo said, trying to keep her voice free of the emotions that
churned within her.  Cologne, of course, wasn't fooled.
     "I can rest when I'm dead, Shampoo," Cologne replied
grumpily.  Shampoo gasped in spite of herself.
     "Great-grandmother!"
     "Oh, don't carry on so, Shampoo.  I'm an old woman, and
some day I *will* die.  You understand?"  Shampoo nodded timidly,
then realized that Cologne couldn't see her gestures, and a sudden
unreasoning anger rose in her.  She suppressed it as best she could, a
little frightened by its appearance.
     If her plan was to succeed, she needed to be in total control.
So she simply muttered, "Shampoo understand."  She saw her
great-grandmother scowl.
     "I don't think you do!  This plan of yours is bold, but it's an
all-or-nothing proposition.  If you were just patient, you could wait until
I was stronger and could help you!"  Shampoo's eyes began to sting
with the onset of tears, and she was glad for one moment that her
great-grandmother *couldn't* see her.  She fought back the wave of
grief fiercely.  There was no guarantee that Cologne ever would get
stronger, a fact that both of them were more than aware of.  The fight
had damaged something vital in her.  She would never be what she
was.  She might never again be anything more than she was at this
moment.
     And as for waiting, that wasn't an option.  Time was their
enemy now.  They both understood that.
     "Shampoo no can wait," she said hoarsely, when she could
finally speak.  "The longer Shampoo wait now, the less chance of
success."
     "Shampoo!"  Cologne took a deep breath, then switched to
their native tongue.  "<Little one, I understand that things have changed.
I understand that to wait may mean losing any chance to pry Ranma
away from the Tendou girl.  But I must know that you are doing this for
the proper reasons.  To honour our ancient laws, to strengthen the
amazons, to fulfill your obligations as a warrior of our tribe.  Not for
me.  Not for some old woman whose time has nearly run out.>"
     "<Great-grandmother, no!>"
     "<Don't turn away from the truth, Shampoo!  That is
weakness!  Do you seek to end this now because of me?>"  Shampoo
took a deep, calming breath.
     "<No, Great-grandmother,>" she lied.  Cologne's sightless
eyes held hers, as if she could now see into the soul, and for a moment
Shampoo was afraid that her lie would be detected, that her
great-grandmother would try to stop her from carrying out her plan.
But at last Cologne's shoulders slumped wearily, and she nodded.
     "<Very well, little one.  You have my blessing.  Remember
everything I told you about the timing of the drug.  Where will you do
it?>"
     "<At the Tendou house, after school.  I hope that it will force
Ranma's hand, being in front of the family.>" Cologne nodded.
     "<Be careful, Shampoo.  The tribe cannot afford to lose a
warrior of your potential.>" Shampoo smiled sadly.  That was as close
as her great-grandmother would come to sentiment.  Shampoo knelt
carefully in front of the old woman, noting how carefully she held
herself, how her knuckles were white where they gripped her staff.  She
thought again of the incredibly vital woman who had trained her, had
taught her almost everything she knew about being a fighter, an amazon,
and a woman.  Once upon a time, she'd thought her great grandmother
would be with her forever.  Now she knew better.
     Nothing is forever.  And everybody dies.  Everybody.
     She reached out carefully, her palms resting on Cologne's dry
cheeks, and brushed her lips lightly against the old woman's forehead.
     "<I will honour your teachings, Great-grandmother,>" she
whispered.  "<I will make you proud of me.>" Cologne seemed to
have trouble speaking.
     "<I've always been proud of you, foolish girl.  Never forget
that.  Now go!  There is much to do.>" Shampoo nodded, forgetting
again that Cologne couldn't see, and rose, walking over to the door
quickly.  She stooped to pick up her maces and a sack that shifted
oddly when she lifted it.  Then she walked out the door, afraid to look
back.  The door closed firmly behind her, and she leaned against it,
drawing a shaky breath.
     "You always protect Shampoo, Great-grandmother," she
whispered in the early morning stillness.  "Now Shampoo protect you.
One last time."
     With a heavy heart, she set off to engineer her final chance to
win Ranma's heart.

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

     Mousse watched Shampoo leave, dread settling in his gut.
He'd been privy to the plan she'd worked out with some help from
Cologne, and he knew the stakes were high.  As were the risks.
     He couldn't let Shampoo do it.  He had to stop her.  HAD to.
He twisted around, trying to reach the ropes with his sharp bill, clumsily
banging against the bars of his cage in the process.
     "Mousse!"  He heard the barely leashed anger in Cologne's
voice, turning to see her looking directly at him.  Well, not looking, but
facing him.  She knew where everything in the Nekohanten was, and
could manoeuvre through the restaurant as well as a sighted person.
     "None of this would be necessary," she hissed at him
venomously, "if you were a real man."  He shrank back against the bars
of the cage, momentarily frozen by her words.
     For all the contempt that Cologne had ever shown him, he
knew in his heart that this time she was right.  And he was running out
of time to change things.
     He began working at the ropes with a renewed frenzy.

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

     Akane placed her gym clothes neatly in her locker.  One more class,
then home.  With Ranma.  She felt a sudden tingle of warmth flowering
in her chest, and suppressed a smile.  Ranma had promised to train with
her again that evening.  That was progress, and maybe, if she was
lucky, she could coax another neck rub out of him after their session.
     She didn't think it would be all that difficult.
     She closed her locker door, and felt her dreamy smile freeze
and begin to congeal.
     Shampoo was standing there.  Akane felt her good mood
draining away, and she resisted the urge to take a step back.
     "Shampoo!  What are you doing here?"  Even as she asked,
she figured she knew what the answer was.  Ranma.
     "Shampoo want to talk to you," the other girl replied quietly.
Akane frowned.  There was no trace of the usual arrogance or
contempt that Shampoo made no attempt to hide when dealing with
her.  She seemed reserved, almost timid.  Akane thought of how
Ranma had said she was during his talk with her.  Not at all her usual
self, he'd said.  Just like now.
     "I've got to get to class ..." Akane began.
     "It only take a minute."  When Akane continued to hesitate,
Shampoo bit her lip.  "Please."
     That "please" did it.  Akane couldn't recall Shampoo ever
being polite to her before.  She nodded and followed the lovely amazon
down the hallway and outside.  She wondered if she should have tried
to find Ranma first.
     No.  She kept trying to get him to believe that she could handle
herself, after all.  How would it look if she went running to him every
time there *might* be trouble?
     If Shampoo wanted to fight over Ranma, then Akane would
oblige her.
     They stepped out of sight around one corner of the school, and
Akane tensed as she saw Shampoo's bonbori sitting on the ground next
to a brown sack.  Shampoo made no move to pick them up, however,
turning to face Akane.  She swept a lock of long purple hair away from
her face and took a deep breath.
     "Shampoo have to marry Ranma," she said flatly.  "Is law.
Shampoo no can break law.  Shampoo ask Akane to step aside."
Akane stared at her in disbelief.
     "Just like that?  You expect me to just give up on Ranma
because of your stupid law?"  She didn't know what she'd expected,
but it certainly hadn't been this.  Shampoo's lips thinned into an angry
line.
     "Is not stupid!" she shot back.  Then she took another breath.
"And no, Shampoo not expect you to give up.  But Shampoo must
make offer.  Shampoo fight beside you, beside Ranma and all the
others.  Shampoo not want to fight against you."
     "Then don't.  Because Ranma loves me, and I love him.  And
I'll fight for him, if that's what it takes.  Never doubt that."  Shampoo
winced as if Akane's words had caused her physical pain.
     "Why you no can understand?  Shampoo must obey law!  She
must ..."  She trailed off sadly.  Akane stood firm, even while feeling
sorry for the other girl.  She'd never seen this kind of emotion form
Shampoo before, but she still wasn't going to give up on Ranma.
Shampoo must see that.  Then Shampoo's gaze shifted over Akane's
shoulder, and her eyes widened.
     "Ranma," she breathed.  Akane turned.
     There was no one behind her.
     She barely had time to realize she'd been suckered before she
sensed Shampoo moving, felt fingertips striking several spots on her
neck and skull in rapid succession.
     Stupid, she told herself as blackness closed in around the edges
of her vision.  Stupid, stupid, STUPID!

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

     Ranma fidgeted, eyeing the clock.  Only a few more minutes.
He shot another surreptitious glance at Akane's empty seat.  Why
hadn't she shown up for class?  He was beginning to get worried.
     You idiot, he told himself.  It's probably nothing.  Nothing at
all.  No big deal.
     But it wasn't like Akane to cut a class, and tiny worms of dread
were burrowing into his gut.  Something was wrong, he felt it.  He might
have tried to leave if his teacher hadn't been Miss Hinako.  She'd been
on a bit of a short fuse lately, and he figured he wouldn't get three steps
toward the door before she started draining him.  So he sat, and
fidgeted, and waited for the interminable class to end.
     And hoped he was worrying for nothing.
     "I'm not boring you, am I, Mr. Saotome?"  He jerked guiltily,
realizing that Miss Hinako was standing right next to his desk.
     "Um, no.  Ma'am.  I was just, uh ..."  She glared at him, and
while she was currently in her child-like form, he knew better than
anyone that she was still capable of causing him trouble.
     "Do you want detention, Mr. Saotome?  Because that could
easily be arranged."
     "No ma'am!"  That was *all* he needed.  He intended to go
find Akane as soon as the class was over.  Miss Hinako continued to
glare at him for a few moments.
     "You haven't gotten detention all week," she said at last.
Ranma blinked.  She almost sounded *disappointed*.  Then she shifted
her gaze to Akane's abandoned desk.  "When you see Miss Tendou,
however, you may inform her that she DOES have a detention."
Ranma nodded, and then the bell went.  Relief flooded him as he
grabbed his bag and bolted for the door.
     "No running in the classroom!" Miss Hinako shouted above the
din.  He sighed inwardly.  She was getting more strict every day.  But
he had bigger worries than that at the moment.
     He rushed down to Akane's locker, asking a few people along
the way if they'd seen her.  Nobody had, not since gym class.  He
hurried along, trying to tell himself that there were dozens of perfectly
reasonable explanations why she might not have shown up for class.
     Unfortunately, he couldn't think of one.
     Fighting his way through throngs of students anxious to get out
of school, he finally made it to Akane's locker.
     There was an envelope taped to the door.  His name was on it.
It wasn't Akane's handwriting.
     Trouble.

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

     Nabiki frowned.  She'd been looking for Kunou, intending to
brace him on the information she'd discovered about his past, but had
run into something more pressing.
     "Ranma?"  He was standing in front of her sister's locker,
reading something.  His face was white, and his hand trembled as he
crumpled the single sheet of paper in his fist.
     "No," he said.  The tendons in his neck stood out like steel
cables, and Nabiki felt the first faint stirrings of panic.
     "Ranma, what is it?" she asked, moving closer.  Abruptly, he
threw the crumpled paper to the floor and bolted, moving with a speed
she'd only seen him use in combat.  She blinked, and turned to see him
weaving through the afternoon crowd effortlessly.
     He hadn't even acknowledged her presence.
     She stifled the panic that was trying to rise up in her, knowing
that it wouldn't help.  Instead, she crouched down and retrieved the
paper that Ranma had discarded.  She saw a torn envelope lying
nearby with his name on it.  Gently, she smoothed out the cheap
notepaper, noting the labouriously careful writing.  The message was
short and to the point.

     By Amazon law, I must either kill you or marry you.  I can not
     kill you.  I can kill Akane.  I am waiting at the Tendou house for
     your answer.  Come quickly.  She does not have much time.

     It wasn't signed.  It didn't have to be.  Amazon law.  Oddly,
Nabiki's first thought was that Shampoo wrote better than she spoke.
Unless she'd had someone else write the letter ...
     Nabiki threw off her shock with an effort.  Would Shampoo
really kill Akane?  She began sifting facts, even as she stood and
started toward home.  Things had changed, she knew, and Akane had
told her that Ranma had decided to break things off with his other
fiances once and for all.  Could that have driven Shampoo to do
something this desperate?
     Then Nabiki ruthlessly shut away all doubts and questions.  She
was going to operate on the assumption that the letter was serious.
Ranma certainly had, she knew, remembering his expression, and he
knew more than she did about this situation.  Her mind switched into
high gear, weighing and discarding possibilities and options with a
speed that she took for granted, considering everything she knew about
her opponent, seeking every advantage for the coming confrontation.
     By the time she left the building, she was running almost as fast
as Ranma had been.

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

     Finally.  The weakened ropes fell free, and Mousse could move
his wings.  He brought a slim metal pick out of the feathers of one wing,
clasping it gently in his bill.  He'd practised this manoeuvre for just such
an emergency.  Squeezing his head through the bars, he slipped the
pick into the cage's simple lock, jiggling it just the way he'd practiced
until the tumblers gave way with a loud click.  He brought his head
back in and eased the door open with his body.
     "Mousse?  What are you up to?"  He cursed his luck.  The old
woman had been resting, as she did so often these days.  Even blind,
though, she saw too much.  She eased into the kitchen, somehow
aware that he'd gotten loose.  He knew he couldn't chance a fight with
her.  Even in her current condition, one hit on a vulnerable point and
he'd be helpless.  He wouldn't be able to get any hot water before he
left, but that couldn't be helped.  It was afternoon already.  He might
already be too late.
     He launched himself at the window, open to let in the warm
spring breezes.  Cologne came at the sound of his flapping wings, faster
than he would have thought possible, but nowhere near as fast as she
had once been.  Still, she was almost fast enough.
     Almost.  But Mousse cleared the counter, her staff striking it
behind him with a sharp crack, and he sailed through the window,
fighting for altitude.
     "MOUSSE!"  He shuddered at the raw, unbridled rage in
Cologne's scream as he soared up and away from the Nekohanten.
Whatever happened today, he had a feeling it wouldn't be wise for him
to go back there in the near future.
     Or perhaps ever.
     Banking sharply, he soared toward the Tendou house, praying
that he would be in time.

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

     Bench.  Wall.  Hedge.
     Ranma ran all-out, automatically dodging or jumping over
anything and anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way.
     Sign.  Lamp post.  Shopkeeper.
     She wouldn't, he kept telling himself.  She CAN'T.  But a little
voice inside him disagreed vehemently.
     Of course she can, the voice told him, and he recognized it as
his own.  What does she have to lose?  You already told her she'd
never have you.  This is Shampoo we're talking about, you idiot!  How
could you be so stupid as to believe her when she said she'd wait for
you?  Ukyou might just cry and hate you, but Shampoo's *dangerous*!
     Mrs. Shinahara.  Car.  Another car.  Take to the rooftops now.
Faster.  Fewer obstacles.
     But why? he asked himself, panic trying to force its way
through the protective numbness around his heart.
     Doesn't matter why, he answered himself.  What matters is that
she just might do it.  And you should have known that she might do
something like this, you should have been more careful.
     He bounded across the roofs of several houses.  At the apex of
his last jump, he could see the roof of the dojo.  Soon.
     If she does anything to Akane ...
     Agreed.
     And then his little internal dialogue stopped dead.  He felt an icy
calm descend over his thoughts as he arrowed toward the wall
surrounding the Tendou place.  He knew the calm only masked his
emotions, and thinly at that, but he needed it.  He knew he needed to
stay cool.  He could talk to Shampoo.  She'd listen to reason.  He'd
always been able to head off trouble before.  Sure.
     Landing in the garden, he saw that the sliding door that lead into
the house had been demolished.  He didn't bother with stealth.
Shampoo was expecting him, after all.  He bounded up onto the
veranda and stalked into the house.
     And stopped.
     The place looked like it had been hit by a hurricane.  The shogi
board was broken in half, the game pieces scattered everywhere.  He
could see half of a panda protruding through one of the inside walls.
Kasumi was crouched nearby, carefully cradling her father's head.  His
hands appeared to be tied behind his back, and there was a large
bruise on his forehead.  He looked groggy, unfocussed.  Kasumi, on
the other hand, looked very focussed.  And very frightened.
     "Ranma!" she cried as he entered.  He swept the room, finding
what he was looking for immediately.  Shampoo was standing at the far
side of the room, Akane sitting on the floor not far away.  He started
toward them.
     "WAIT!"  He stopped, surprised.  Kasumi had been the one to
shout.  He looked back at her, noting automatically that she seemed
unhurt.
     "Ranma," she continued, her voice shaking a little, "Shampoo
made Akane swallow something.  A pill."  He turned back, feeling the
tension winding tighter in his chest.  His fragile calm threatened to
explode under the stress, and he reminded himself that he needed to
stay in control.  For her sake.
     "Akane?  You okay?" he asked softly.  Her legs were splayed
out untidily, folded back on themselves, and he noticed that her hands
were trembling where they were braced against the floor.  He realized
suddenly that she was trying to stand.
     "I can't ... I can't feel my legs," she whispered, her eyes dark
pools in her pale face.  Ranma knew that his battle aura was now
visible as he turned to face Shampoo.  She stood easily, a large brown
cloth sack in one hand, her beautiful features set in an expressionless
mask.
     "Is poison," Shampoo said simply.  "She lose all feeling soon,
then she die.  Is very rare poison, only Shampoo have antidote."
Ranma took a step forward without realizing it, his aura intensifying.
     "Give me the antidote, Shampoo," he said, his voice low and
dangerous.  "Now."  She reached into the sack quickly, pulling her
hand out as Ranma started to move toward her.  Startled, he stumbled
back.
     It was a cat, a large tabby.  Shampoo held it firmly by the scruff
of the neck so it couldn't get its claws into her.  She held it out toward
Ranma, and it made a low growling noise deep in its throat, the kind of
sound cats only make when they're extremely pissed off.  Ranma's
eyes locked onto the cat's, and icy sweat broke out all over his body.
     For a split-second, just a second, he was certain he could smell
fish sausage.
     Then the phantom scent vanished, but his terror remained.
     Shampoo knew his weakness, and had used it against him.  He
wondered why that should make him feel so betrayed.
     "Shampoo, don't do this!" he gritted.  She held the cat out like
a talisman, preventing him from getting any closer, while she scooped
one of her bonbori from the floor with her free hand.
     "Swear you marry Shampoo.  Ranma swear on his honour,
then Shampoo give Akane antidote."  A flicker of emotion graced
Shampoo's face, gone before he could decide what it had been.  He
tried to swallow past the lump in his throat, shooting a quick look at
Akane.  Her arms were trembling badly now, and she seemed to be
having some trouble breathing.  He shifted his gaze back to Shampoo
and the cat.
     She had him.  Even if he tried to rush her, he couldn't save
Akane.  That cat would send him over, into the Nekoken, and then he
wouldn't be able to think, to try for the antidote.  He'd only be able to
fight, and even if he beat Shampoo, it might be too late.  His body
quivered with tension, caught between his need to act and the certain
knowledge that doing so would doom Akane.  The presence of that
damned wailing cat was making it hard to think, too.
     "What are you waiting for, boy?"  He started, looking over his
shoulder to see an angry Soun Tendou trying vainly to sit up.  "My
daughter is in danger!  Do something!"  Kasumi was trying to calm him,
but when she chanced to look up and meet Ranma's stare, the message
he saw in her eyes was clear.
     Don't let Akane die.  Please.
     He turned back to Shampoo, a snarl pulling at his mouth.
Shampoo held the spitting cat out a little further, causing him to flinch
reflexively.
     "She not have much time, Ranma," Shampoo said, her voice
low and even.  "You not want to see her die, then swear.  Swear you
marry Shampoo."  She had him, he knew.  He couldn't let anything
happen to Akane.  He had to save her.  Maybe later, after she was
safe, he could find a way to change things back, to get Shampoo to
release him from his vow.  Unlikely, perhaps, but better than letting
Akane die.
     He still remembered Ranko's face when he'd talked of
watching his Akane slip away.  Ranma wasn't going to let that happen.
No matter what.  Even if he had to let her go to save her.  He opened
his mouth to speak.
     "No."  His eyes widened in shock.  For one heart-stopping
moment, he thought he'd spoken the word.  Then realization penetrated
the shock.
     Akane.
     Everyone was staring at her now.  She was cradling her arms
against her chest, hands clenched tightly under her breasts, staring at a
spot a few inches in front of her knees.  The trembling seemed to have
reached her shoulders, and Ranma felt a need, almost physical in its
intensity, to go to her and hold her and tell her everything would be all
right.  Even though that didn't seem possible.
     "What?" Shampoo asked, clearly astonished.  With visible
effort, Akane pulled her head up, her eyes seeking not Shampoo, but
Ranma.
     "I said no," she repeated, her voice tight but calm.  "You won't
use me to hurt Ranma this way.  Once you gave me the antidote, I'd
hunt you duh-down, no matter where ... you went.  I wouldn't
luh-luh-let ..."  She swallowed, obviously having trouble speaking.
     "Akane!" her father wailed.  "Stop this foolishness!"
     "Ranma.  Don't let her ... do this.  Pruh-PROMISE me ..."
Ranma felt icy sweat snaking its way down the curve of his spine.  The
cat's yowls were like a drill bit hammering into his skull, and he could
feel all the eyes in the room switching to him now.
     "Akane," he pleaded softly.  She shook her head, the
movement barely perceptible.
     "Promise me."  A whisper now, and Ranma's heart was
breaking.  Make a promise to the girl he loved, the girl he'd finally given
his heart to, or save her life.  He shouldn't have to make this decision.
It wasn't fair.
     But Akane's eyes were telling him a different story.  I won't
lose you, they said.  I'll keep following her, until she has to kill me
anyway.  It would be worse to know she used me to trap you than it
would be to risk death.  We just found each other, we've been through
so much.
     I won't let it end this way.
     "STUPID!" Shampoo shrieked, making everyone in the room
jump.  "WHY YOU SO STUPID?"  Ranma turned to her, summoning
his battle aura once more, letting the rush of his chi fill him.  Shampoo's
eyes implored him now, as the cat began to thrash in panic.
     "She not have to die!  You just marry Shampoo, that all!  Why
that so terrible?  SHAMPOO LOVE YOU, WHY THAT SO
TERRIBLE?"  Ranma tried to ignore her anguish, aware that Akane
could no longer hold her head up, seeing her slumped form out of the
corner of his eye.
     Save Akane or honour her wishes and lose her.  He had to
decide.  Now.
     That's when all hell broke loose.
     "GO, BOY!  GO!"  A series of staccato images shot across
Ranma's awareness.  Nabiki, her hair plastered to her skull with sweat,
stumbling in through the broken door, her sharp eyes taking in
everything in a second.  Her hand, releasing the collar of a huge,
unfriendly looking dog.  The dog lunging forward, claws skittering on
the floor.  The cat, twisting, a storm of claws and teeth, finally managing
to find some flesh to rend as utter panic overtook it.  Shampoo giving a
short shriek of pain and dropping the cat, blood streaming from her
lacerated arm.  The cat being chased away, the dog in hot pursuit.
     No more cat.  He was moving forward as the cat fled, his aura
flaring painfully bright, icy fury descending on him.  Shampoo took one
step back, bringing her bonbori up to a guard position.  He stopped
just outside of her range, his eyes boring into hers.  She met his
gaze, and he couldn't tell what she was thinking.  Not that it mattered.
     "If anything happens to Akane, you'll pay."  He barely
recognized the voice as his own.  "Give me that antidote, Shampoo.
Give it to me now or so help me, you'll get hurt."  He'd never
threatened to hurt her before.  Her eyes widened slightly, and then he
saw something replace her defiance.  Acceptance.  At long last, she
had to admit that it was over.  She had lost.
     She reached inside her dress with her free hand, pulling out a
small pink pill and holding it up between her thumb and index finger.
Ranma wordlessly held out his hand for the pill.
     Then he watched in horror as she flipped it into her own mouth.
     And swallowed it.

End part 3
Revised Sept. 31/97