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

The Heart's Reasons
Part 4: Revelations

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     I can't kill you.  I can kill Akane.
     Those words seared themselves into Ranma's mind in the
impossibly long moments after seeing Shampoo swallow the antidote.
He felt an icy shock of disbelief spread through his chest as his mind
tried to figure out what had just happened.
     Shampoo's plan wasn't going to work.  Akane had seen to
that.  She had no choice but to give him the antidote.
     But she hadn't.  She'd swallowed it herself.  Akane was out of
time, and ... and ...
     And Shampoo had killed her.
     No, he thought numbly.  She wouldn't.  She just wouldn't do
that.  Not for real.
     Then time seemed to speed up, coming back to its normal flow,
and he saw Shampoo bring her bonbori up into a guard position in a
languid yet efficient motion.  She met his gaze then, her eyes calm, a
slight smile tugging at the corners of her lush mouth.
     "You lose," she said simply.
     The numbness was gone, vaporized in an instant by a shockwave of
white-hot rage, almost physical in its intensity.  It eradicated everything
in its path, the shock, the disbelief, all conscious thoughts.  All but one.
     She killed Akane.
     As he allowed instinct to take over completely, Ranma was
dimly aware that he was screaming.

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

     Nabiki grasped the situation quickly.  After the neighbour's dog had
chased that cat off, there'd been nothing standing between Ranma and
Shampoo.  Ranma was angrier than she'd ever seen him, and when he
told Shampoo to give him the antidote, she guessed why.
     Had that Chinese bimbo really poisoned her sister? She must have
done something to her, she thought, noting Akane's slumped form with
concern.  She watched, wiping the sweat from her desperate run off her
face with the back of one hand, while Shampoo produced a little pink
pill.
     Dr. Tofu wasn't there yet.  She found herself mentally
calculating how long it would take the good doctor to get to the dojo
from his office, taking into account the time he'd had since she'd
phoned, and ...
     Shampoo swallowed the pill.
     In the utter stillness that followed, Nabiki's mind seemed to
jump the tracks, switching easily to a new train of thought.
     She did NOT just do that.  No way.
     But the sweat on Nabiki's body seemed to turn to ice as she
realized that Shampoo had, indeed, done the unthinkable.
     And then she pushed it just a little further.
     "You lose," Shampoo said calmly, and Nabiki saw the effect
her words had on Ranma.  A tiny spasm rocked his body, as if he'd
been poked with a live power line.  Then he began to tremble, his aura
flaring dangerously bright.
     "She's goading him," Nabiki thought, still dazed.  "Is she out of
her mind?  And Akane is ..."  She clamped down savagely on her
thoughts.  Think, dammit Nabiki, think!  What's she doing?  What's her
plan?
     She winced as Ranma's aura began actually arcing around his
limbs like raw electricity.  She'd never seen it do that before.  Then a
low, keening noise burst from Ranma's clenched jaw, ratcheting up into
a scream.  It wasn't even the word "no", just a primal sound of
negation that raised every hair on the back of Nabiki's neck with its
raw agony.
     "Why is she just standing there?" Nabiki thought desperately.
"If he connects, he's gonna KILL her ..."
     Then she had it.  Just a few moments too late, she finally
understood.  Ranma was already moving.  She cried out reflexively.
     "RANMA!  DON'T!"
     Shampoo's eyes were still calm, but Nabiki thought she could
see a faint gleam of moisture there as Shampoo's mocking smile
softened into something else, something infinitely more sad.  She let her
guard drop, making no move to dodge.
     Nabiki's eyes had trouble tracking what happened next.  There
was a blur of white off to her left, and something snaked out towards
Shampoo.  Then the wall behind the amazon girl exploded, and for a
few moments, dust and flying wood fragments obscured everything.
     When Nabiki could see again, the first thing she noticed was
that Ranma's punch had obliterated a good part of the what had been
the wall.  Then she saw what had happened to Shampoo.  She was
sprawled, dazed and uncomprehending, on Mousse's lap, one of his
chains wrapped around her waist.  She wondered briefly how Mousse
had arrived, until she noticed yet another hole in the wall behind him.
Finally, she remembered to start breathing again.
     Unfortunately, the festivities weren't over yet.  Ranma leapt
back from the jagged hole he'd made, wheeling on Mousse and
Shampoo with a snarl.  Mousse bounded easily over the still stunned
amazon, placing himself between her and Ranma.
     "Move."  Ranma's voice was guttural, dangerous.  Mousse
held his hands out carefully.
     "Saotome, listen ..."
     "MOVE!"  Ranma moved in with inhuman speed.  Nabiki was
certain he wasn't even aware that Shampoo hadn't dodged his attack
on her own.  He grabbed Mousse by the front of his robe and cocked
his other fist back, his battle aura blazing angrily.
     "RANMA."  He froze at the sound of that stern voice.  Nabiki
turned to see Ranma's mother standing in the entryway, surveying the
carnage in stark amazement.
     "What on earth is going on here?" she asked, her gaze falling on
Kasumi, who was trying to untie their father's hands.
     "Akane's not going to die."  Mousse's quiet words got everyone's
attention.
     "Die?  What do you mean?" Nodoka asked sharply.  Nabiki
noticed that Ranma's aura had steadied somewhat, although it still hurt
to look at.  Ranma and Mousse stood face-to-face, Ranma still
gripping the other boy's robe in one hand.
     "What?" Ranma asked hollowly.
     "She's not going to die," Mousse repeated, speaking clearly.
He tugged himself free of Ranma's grip, taking a step back.  "I know
about Shampoo's plan.  I know what she gave Akane, and it's not ..."
     That was as far as he got.  Shampoo seemed to have recovered her
composure at last, but before Nabiki could warn them, the girl was off
the floor and moving.  Mousse apparently caught a glimpse of that
movement out of the corner of his eye, turning just in time to catch a
spinning kick across the face.  He was sent sprawling back into Ranma,
who nearly tripped over his mother as she ran over to Akane and
crouched beside her.
     "SHUT UP!  STUPID MOUSSE KNOW NOTHING!" she
screamed, fists clenched by her side.  "SHAMPOO KILL VIOLENT
GIRL, AND SHAMPOO GLAD!  YOU HEAR, RANMA?
GLAD!"  Ranma regained his balance, but his unreasoning rage had
broken and he seemed uncertain of what to do.  Nabiki watched
Shampoo's attempts to anger Ranma in amazement.  It seemed clear to
her what was going on, unbelievable as it seemed.
     Shampoo wanted Ranma mad.  Mad enough to attack her.
Mad enough to *kill* her.  But why?
     Regardless, Mousse's arrival seemed to have wrecked her
plan.  The moment was gone, and Ranma had regained control.  So
now what?
     She had her answer within moments.  Realizing that she'd lost
the initiative, Shampoo sprang to the attack, trying to slip by Ranma to
where Akane was slumped in Ranma's mother's arms.  As she
extended her bonbori, Nodoka's katana flashed out, severing it neatly
where the ball met the handle.  Shampoo stared dumbly as the heavy
ball crashed to the floor.  Nodoka still cradled Akane with one arm, her
other holding the katana in a guard position.  Shampoo was nearly
surrounded now, the blade in front of her, Ranma at one side, Mousse
at the other.
     No, Nabiki thought.  Don't fight.  That's what she wants, can't
you see that?  But of course they would fight, that was how these
people resolved their problems, and it would be so easy for someone
to get hurt, or killed ...
     Nabiki hadn't been watching Kasumi.  No one had.  That
wasn't unusual, of course, but it did mean that she was taken
completely off-guard when her older sister slipped back in from the
garden and turned the hose on .
     The stream of cold water spread out, drenching Ranma,
Mousse and Shampoo.  For a moment, Nabiki was distressed as the
transformation overtook all three.  Shampoo would turn into a cat, and
then there was no telling what might happen.
     But Kasumi wasn't finished.  She advanced into the room, and
as Shampoo's cat form emerged from her clothes, Kasumi turned the
hose on her directly, opening the nozzle to narrow the stream of water.
The small cat was pushed back, away from Ranma and the others, it's
claws scrabbling ineffectively for purchase.  Finally, swept to the edge
of the room, it turned and ran, streaking across the garden and
scrambling up a tree to the top of the wall.  Nabiki noticed that it didn't
even stop to look back.
     Shampoo had lost, and she knew it.  It was over.
     Kasumi was still standing in the middle of the room, water
dripping freely from the leaky nozzle of the hose that hung limply by her
side.  Nabiki was truly impressed.  She hadn't thought Kasumi capable
of such decisive action.  She walked over to her, noting as she did so
that Ranma-chan had pulled an unhappy duck off the floor by its neck
and was staring into its eyes with a look that wasn't at all reassuring.
     "Mousse," she growled.  "Explanation.  Now."
     "Hey, sis," Nabiki said gently.  Kasumi started.
     "What?" she asked, sounding dazed.
     "I think we're going to need some hot water ..."  Nabiki was
interrupted by yet another arrival.
     "What on earth happened here?"
     "Tofu!"  Kasumi dropped the hose and ran to the young
doctor, hurling herself into his arms.  He was clearly startled by her
actions, but Nabiki noted that, just like during the last crisis, he
maintained his composure.  At least, relative to his usual state when he
was around Kasumi.
     "Kasumi, w-what ...?"
     "Father, and Mr. Saotome, and ... and Akane!  Please, help
them!"  Kasumi gripped the front of Tofu's shirt in her hands, gazing up
into his eyes tearfully.
     "On second thought," Nabiki said to no one in particular, "I'll
get the water."

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

     Mousse shrugged into his robe as the hot water coursed over
his body, triggering the change.  Seconds later, Ranma grabbed him
again.  Mousse tried, without much success, to maintain his composure.
     "Mousse," Ranma growled.  Mousse made a quick, dexterous
movement with one hand, drawing a small packet out of the opposite
sleeve.  He held it up between two fingers before Ranma's scowling
face.
     "Is there any hot water left?" he asked Nabiki, who was
holding the kettle.  She nodded and he handed her the packet, ignoring
an increasingly enraged Ranma.  "Then put some in a cup, dissolve two
of the leaves that are in this packet in the water, and get Akane to drink
it."  He noticed Nabiki's worried glance at her sister, still cradled in
Ranma's mother's arms, and let some of the tension slip from his voice.
     "She'll be fine," he assured her.  Ranma jerked Mousse back
around by his robe, pushing his face forward until the two boys were
nose to nose.
     "You're sure it wasn't poison?"  Ranma growled, hope warring with
disbelief in his voice.  Mousse gritted his teeth.
     "Yes, I ..."
     "Then WHY?  I don't understand!  Why did ..."  Mousse's
patience gave out with an almost audible snap.  With one smooth
motion he swept one arm around, breaking Ranma's grip on his robe as
he took a step back.
     "Of course you don't understand!  You've never understood
anything!  It's never even occurred to you to ask, has it?  To ask what
it has cost Shampoo to pursue you like this, to ask what the
consequences of ..."  He took a deep breath and levelled an angry
finger at Ranma.
     "Damn you, Saotome!  All this time, when I'd lie awake nights
worrying about her, you never cared once, did you?  Did it never occur
to you that Shampoo had a life away from you, or did you just not want
to know?"  The anger felt good, righteous, and he wanted to let it carry
him away.  And there was no telling what might have happened if he
had let it have free reign, but a quiet voice lanced his fury just then.
     "I, for one," Nodoka said, "would very much like to know,
young man."  Mousse realized that he'd been shouting.  As he looked
around him, he noted the state of the room.  There were several holes
in the walls, the doors to the garden were completely destroyed, and
half the room was waterlogged by Kasumi's bold manoeuvre with the
hose.  Mr. Tendou was crying hopelessly in the middle of the floor.
Kasumi was sticking close to Dr. Tofu, who in turn was trying without
any success to revive the unconscious panda.  Akane was cradled in
Mrs. Saotome's arms, and Mousse realized that they had only his word
that she was in no danger.
     He desperately sought calm.  No matter what he felt towards
Ranma, he couldn't deny that the problems of his tribe and the woman
he loved had caused these people great pain.  They deserved an
explanation.
     "I'm sorry," he said at last.  "I know you don't understand.  Let
me try to explain."  He watched as Nabiki handed a cup to Mrs.
Saotome, who began dribbling the contents into Akane's mouth.
     "All I want to know is that Akane will be all right," Ranma
gritted.
     "I promise you that she is in no danger," Mousse told him as
patiently as he could.  "What Shampoo gave her was not poison, but an
exotic drug that mimics death.  It slows the breathing and slowly
paralyses all voluntary muscle groups.  The tea she's drinking will
counter the effects more quickly than letting it run its course."
     "But WHY?"
     "Because," Mousse said simply, "Shampoo needed you to
believe that Akane's life was at stake.  That was her only hope if her
plan was to work.  All or nothing."  These last bitter words stung his
mouth, and he felt his hands curling into angry fists of their own accord.
     "But all she did was make me mad!" Ranma protested.  "And
all for nothing!  If Akane wasn't in any danger ..."
     "DAMN YOU, SAOTOME!" Mousse roared.  "CAN YOU
REALLY BE THIS STUPID?"  A stunned silence fell over the group,
and Mousse felt his body quivering with the need to lash out, to make
this ignorant, unworthy fool pay for what he had wrought.  All this, and
he still didn't understand *why*.
     "Ranma Saotome, you cease to amaze me," he said, his once again
calm voice sounding loud in the silence.  "Listen well.  Perhaps, at long
last, you will understand, if you are able.  What would have happened if
your attack had reached Shampoo?"  He was speaking in a low,
reasonable voice now, one that belied his inner need to make this idiot
understand with his fists.  He saw Ranma frown, turning to glance at the
huge, ragged hole in the wall, expression distant as he replayed that
moment in his mind.
     "I ... she wouldn't ..."
     "She never tried to dodge, Saotome," Mousse went on, his
voice still calm.  "I pulled her away.  She was just standing there."
     "It's true, Ranma," Nabiki spoke up.  Mousse remembered her
shouting at Ranma as he'd arrived, telling him to stop, and knew that
she'd figured it out already.  But Ranma was still denying the obvious.
     "Shampoo's fast," he said weakly.  "She ..."
     "If she couldn't convince you to marry her this one last time,
then she needed you angry.  Angry enough to attack her all-out, without
thinking.  Angry enough to ..."
     "NO!" Ranma shouted, although Mousse could see that the
truth was finally clear to him.
     "She never moved, Saotome.  Had your attack landed, she
would never have survived.  All or nothing."  Ranma stared at the floor,
his eyes wide with shock as he tried to understand what Mousse was
telling him.  Mousse could almost feel sorry for his rival in that moment.
Shampoo had played him perfectly.  It should have worked.  Would
have, save for his intervention.
     "So the question is why, Mousse.  After all this time, why the
desperation?  Why now?"  Nabiki looked up at him from where she
crouched near her sister, her gaze direct.  Mousse nodded slightly.
Exactly the right question to cut to the heart of the matter.  She was
good, that Nabiki Tendou.
     "Amazon law.  It all comes back to that.  It always comes back
to that."
     "Amazon law!  I'm sick of that stupid law!" Ranma snapped.
"It's caused me nothing but trouble!"
     "Caused *you* trouble?  You've really never given a moment's
thought to this, have you, Saotome?  What about Shampoo?  What do
you think it has cost her, having defied the law this long?"  The answer
was obvious from the oblivious look on Ranma's face.
     "You've never thought about that, have you?" Mousse asked
with deceptive gentleness.  "Never, not once.  Well, let me tell you
what problems you've caused her.
     "When she returned to China that first time, having failed to kill
you, her dishonour was great.  The council was not unreasonable, of
course.  She had a choice as to whether she would kill you as a female
or marry you as a male, in accordance with our laws.  She had done
neither, of course, and that was unacceptable.  You might have
garnered some clue as to the harshness of our laws from the fact that
amazon women are *required* to kill any outsider female who defeats
them in battle.  But you never thought of that, of course.  So you
probably never considered how severe her punishment for *breaking*
those laws would be."  All eyes were on the young warrior now, but his
gaze, full of barely leashed anger, was locked on Ranma alone.  He
wanted Ranma to finally feel shame for what he'd put Shampoo
through, what he'd eventually driven her to do.  He ached to see that
realization dawning in Ranma's eyes, and didn't want to think of what
action he'd have to take if Ranma failed to understand.
     In that case, he honestly thought he might just beat the living hell
out of the moron.
     "At this point, Cologne stepped in.  She took total
responsibility for Shampoo, promising to re-train her and see that she
fulfilled her obligations under the law.  She basically took Shampoo's
crimes onto herself.  Now, being a member of the ruling council, and
one of our most powerful warriors, she could get away with this.
Anyone could have challenged her for her seat on the council after that.
And she does have enemies, but none would dare.  After all, such a
fight would be to the death, and none can best her in single combat.
     "At least, none could."  He heard a small, quick intake of
breath, and knew that once again, Nabiki Tendou had put the pieces
together and formed a complete picture.  But Ranma would need it
spelled out for him.
     "Now, however, all that has changed.  Cologne is blind and
crippled.  The tribal elders are not yet aware, but they soon will be.
Cologne is already overdue for her regular trip back to report to the
council, and soon they will send someone here to check up on her.
Very soon after that, I expect, one of her enemies will know of her
weakness and challenge her.  She will not survive."
     "But that's not fair!" Ranma cried.  "She got hurt *helping* us!"
     "Fair?  Amazon law is exceedingly harsh, Ranma, as are the
amazons themselves.  Fair is not part of the equation."
     "Can she resign her seat?" Nabiki asked.  Mousse smiled
without humour.
     "Oh, absolutely, and then no one would have cause to
challenge her.  Of course, her protection would also be withdrawn from
Shampoo at that moment, and her enemies would take great delight in
drawing her great-granddaughter's punishment out before killing her.
Say what you will about the old woman, she loves Shampoo dearly and
would never allow that to happen.  She would stand, and die, by her
honour.  And Shampoo knows it."
     "But if Shampoo were to fulfill her obligations under the law ..."
Nabiki mused.
     "Yes.  If she were to either kill Ranma or get him to marry her
before Cologne could be challenged, the law would be upheld, and
Cologne could safely step down..  Failing that," he said in a low, even
voice while holding Ranma's gaze with his own, "if Shampoo were to
die in combat trying to uphold her obligations, no dishonour would fall
on her, and Cologne would be safe."
     "That's crazy!" Ranma blurted.  Mousse had had enough.  He
lunged forward, snaring Ranma's shirt collar in his fists and hoisting the
other boy up so only his toes were touching the floor.
     "She blames herself, you idiot!  Don't you see?  All this time in
Japan, she hasn't been able to remove the dark cloud that hovers over
both her and the old woman who protects her!  She failed to marry
you, and so we were still here when the demons came, and Cologne
was crippled!  She loves that old woman, and she knows that Cologne
will very likely die because of her!"  He drew Ranma closer until their
noses were almost touching.  Mousse tilted his head so he could look
over the lenses of his glasses, nothing filtering his gaze as it bored into
Ranma.
     "She was willing to die rather than see Cologne suffer for her
weakness.  And you, Ranma, are her weakness.  You always have
been.  Now do you understand?"  He did.  Mousse could see that.
Now, at last, he understood.
     He just didn't care.
     "You saying this is all MY fault, Mousse?  She busts in here,
wrecks the place, kidnaps Akane, ambushes Pop and Mr. Tendou ..."
Mousse felt his anguish for Shampoo overwhelming his tenuous control.
Ranma saw it in his eyes, pulling free and bringing his hands up in a
ready stance.  Mousse knew that they were going to fight, knew it was
the wrong thing to do and the wrong time to do it, but Ranma's
arrogance couldn't be ignored.  He shifted his weight slightly, preparing
to spring.
     "Ranma.  Stop it."  The words were delivered by a quiet, strained
voice, but they both turned to look.  Akane was staring up at Ranma,
her face drawn but alert.
     "Akane!"  Ranma's relief was palpable.  In that moment,
Mousse finally understood that Ranma really cared about Akane, the
way Mousse himself cared for Shampoo.  It made Mousse hate his
rival a little less.
     Only a little, but it was enough.
     Akane was trying to stand, but was still too weak.  Ranma
crouched down beside her, ignoring Mousse completely now.  She
smiled wanly at him, and he reached out to grasp her hand.
     "How do you feel?" Ranma asked nervously.  She grimaced.
     "Lousy.  H-help me stand?"  Ranma hesitated, then slipped his
arms around her waist and pulled her out of Nodoka's protective
grasp, hoisting her easily to her feet.  She leaned on him, her legs
trembling, and raised her eyes to Mousse.  He felt his mouth go dry.
     "Akane, I'm so sorry about all this ..." he began.  She smiled
weakly.
     "This wasn't your fault, Mousse.  I think we all know that."
She gave Ranma a sharp glance at that.  He looked unhappy, but didn't
contradict her.
     "Perhaps.  But I promise you, I'll put this right, Akane Tendou."
     "Really?" Ranma shot back, still scowling.  "What can you do,
Mousse?  According to you, Shampoo has to either kill me or marry
me before anyone finds out about Cologne, and now she's more
desperate than ever!"  Mousse felt a tight, uncomfortable grin stretching
his mouth as he turned to Ranma.
     "Everything I told you is true," he said, trying to ignore the
sudden tightness in his throat.  "But there is another option."
     "And what might that be?"
     "You will find out.  Very soon, I think."
     "That's not an answer, dammit!  Hey!"  Mousse just turned
away.  He needed to be moving, to be away from these people and the
evidence of Shampoo's willingness to sacrifice herself.  He needed to
think.
     He also needed someone to tell him everything would be all right,
but of course there was no one.  And he wasn't at all sure that if
someone said that to him he'd believe it.  He began walking out through
the shattered door, ignoring the dazed panda that was being tended to
by Dr. Tofu, while Kasumi stood nearby, her hands clasped nervously.
     "Mousse!" Akane called.  He stopped, not looking back.
     "Yes?"
     "She could have used real poison."  It wasn't a question.  He
considered telling her that Cologne had urged Shampoo to do just that,
to ensure that there was no going back, then decided that would serve
no purpose.  He turned to regard her sombrely over his shoulder.
     "She could have.  She didn't.  Whatever happens, I hope you'll
remember that."
     Then he walked away, his decision made, leaving his heart as
shattered as the Tendou home.

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

     "Hey, Doc, will you come check Akane out?" Ranma asked.
For the moment, he'd put Mousse and Shampoo out of his mind.  Only
one thing mattered now.
     Later, though, he intended to make lots of time for those two.
Especially Shampoo.  There'd be no repeats of this afternoon's
activities.  No matter what.
     "Ranma, I'm fine!" Akane protested weakly.  Ranma didn't bother
to argue.  He knew that if he let go of Akane, she'd fall.  In his book,
that did *not* constitute fine.  And he'd had some experience with
those weird Chinese drugs.  Once she'd been thoroughly examined by
Dr. Tofu, then he'd relax.
     She squealed in protest as he swept her up into his arms,
turning to the doctor as if she weighed nothing.
     "What about it?" he asked.  Dr. Tofu nodded, getting up from
where he'd been trying to examine the truculent panda.
     "Yes, all right.  Nabiki, I'd like to have those leaves Mousse gave
you, please."  She complied wordlessly.  "Thank-you.  Let's see, ah
..."  He surveyed the devastated family room helplessly.  Almost all the
furniture was wet, overturned, broken, or all of the above.
     "Her room?" Ranma asked.
     "Excellent.  Lead on."  Ignoring Akane's continued objections,
Ranma carried her up the stairs and into her room, where he deposited
her gently on her bed.  Then he stood back as Dr. Tofu did some
poking and prodding, checking her eyes, her pulse, and doing various
other obscure and arcane medical things.  Finally, he took one of the
leaves from the packet Mousse had produced and sniffed it, then
touched it to the tip of his tongue.
     "Well?" Ranma asked finally, his patience exhausted.  The
doctor grunted, nodding to himself.
     "Well, there's no sign of any adverse reactions.  I recognize this
plant, and if the drug Akane was given was what I think, then there's no
problem."
     "See, Ranma?  You were worried for nothing," Akane chided,
starting to get up.
     "Whoa there, young lady," Tofu cautioned.  "There still might
be some residual dizziness and weakness, so I want you to stay in bed
for the rest of the evening.  If you experience any recurrence of
symptoms tomorrow, call me right away.  All right?"
     "Okay," Akane grumbled petulantly.  Ranma felt a tension he
hadn't even been aware of easing in his chest.
     "So she's okay?" he asked anxiously.  The doctor favoured
Ranma with a boyish grin.
     "Everything looks fine, Ranma.  I don't think there's anything to
worry about.  Just let her get some rest.  And you," he said gently,
turning to Akane.  "This is the second time this month I've had to
confine you to bed for a night.  Let's not be making a habit of this,
okay?"
     " `Kay," she said timidly.  Tofu clapped Ranma on the shoulder
and began guiding him toward the door.  "Ranma, will you stay for a
minute?  I  want to talk to you."  He nodded, and waited until the
doctor had closed the door on his way out, then walked over and sat
down on the bed.  Akane sat up, leaning her arms on her knees
casually.
     "I ..." she began.  Ranma couldn't hold it back any longer.  He
leaned forward and hugged her fiercely.
     "Ranma!"
     "Damn it, Akane!  What the hell were you doing?"  He pulled
back so he could look her in the eye.
     "Ranma ..." she sighed calmly.
     "She was gonna kill you!  I mean, I thought she was, and ...
how could you ask me not to go along with her?  That was crazy!  That
was ..."  She stopped him by placing her index finger gently over his
lips.
     "Ranma, I don't think you quite get it yet," she said, and she
was still calm, but Ranma could see the fire of her temper in her deep
brown eyes, the temper that had been turned on him so often in the
past.
     "What are you talking about?"
     "Ranma, you'd do anything for me.  I know that.  I've seen
that.  But I'm not sure you realize yet that it works both ways.  I'd do
anything for you, Ranma.  I'd die for you.  Understand?"  And he did,
finally, a feeling like vertigo sweeping over him as he realized the depth
of what was between them.  It was more than he'd ever known, bigger
and deeper and more complete, and it scared him more than a little.
He thought of Ranko then, and knew that bad as it had been for him, it
would have been infinitely worse if he'd gotten to this point with his
Akane before losing her.  Reflexively, he tightened his arms around her
waist.
     "I don't *want* you to die," he whispered helplessly.  She smiled,
reaching out one hand to trace the contours of his face.
     "I don't want to die, either," she whispered back.  "But  ...
remember that night on the roof?  You promised to love me for ever
and ever, remember?"  He nodded, his throat too tight to speak, and
she smiled again, her face radiating a tender warmth that eased his
heart.  She slipped her roaming hand along the line of his jaw and
through his hair until her questing fingers found and twined themselves
around his pig-tail.
     "Good.  Because you're mine now, Ranma Saotome, and she can't
have you.  Nobody can.  No matter what.  Remember that."  He pulled
her close, ignoring the stinging in his eyes, and took a deep, shaky
breath.
     "Never," he breathed into her ear.  "Never do this to me again.
Okay?"  She burrowed into his shoulder, her fingers still toying with his
hair.
     "I won't if you won't," she whispered.  Ranma figured that
would have to do.
     For the moment.

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

     Nodoka watched Ranma carry Akane up the stairs, a half-smile
tugging at her lips.  She remembered the way that they'd stood up
for each other on that awful day when young Kodachi had died.
Whatever had changed between them, things had obviously
progressed.  Anyone could see that.
     Well, almost anyone.  She turned with a sigh to her husband,
the panda.
     "Genma, why don't you give Soun a hand?  Perhaps a drink to
calm his nerves."  The panda made a snuffling noise, then climbed
painfully to its feet.  It lumbered over to where Soun sat stunned, tears
still coursing down his face.  Save for the bruise on his forehead, he
didn't appear hurt.
     "Akaneeee ..." he wailed softly.  He didn't even seem to notice
as the panda casually snagged him by the shirt collar and dragged him
across the floor towards his study.  Nodoka sighed.  Hopeless, both of
them.  She turned her attention to the room and stifled another sigh.  A
complete disaster, no question.
     She noticed Kasumi out of the corner of her eye, and turned to
see the eldest Tendou daughter wandering around the room,
straightening items at random.  She walked over, taking note for the
first time of the unfocussed look in Kasumi's eyes.
     "Kasumi, dear, what are you doing?"
     "I have to ... to clean up.  This mess.  It's just ... terrible," she
said, her words vague and disjointed.  Nodoka frowned.
     "Kasumi, I think it will be all right for the moment.  Come, sit
down and ..."
     "I can't!  I have to clean!" she shrieked.  Then she clapped
both her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide with shock at her own
loss of control.  Nodoka immediately put her arm around the girl's
shoulder and lead her toward the upended couch.
     "Nabiki," she said quietly.  Nabiki shook off her own shock at
Kasumi's uncharacteristic outburst and hurried to right the couch.  The
underside was somewhat wet, but the cushions were dry, and none of
the legs were broken.  Nabiki set it back upright, and Nodoka guided
the trembling Kasumi to it, sitting beside her.  Nabiki leaned over the
back of the couch, worry evident in her expression.
     "I'm sorry," Kasumi whispered through her hands.  "I ... I just
..."
     "It's all right, Kasumi.  You don't have to explain," Nodoka
said soothingly.  She knew that Kasumi had to act as surrogate mother
to the occupants of the household, and as a result had nobody to turn
to herself.  Nodoka moved her hand in slow circles on Kasumi's back,
waiting for her to regain control.
     "That was really something, sis, what you did with the hose,"
Nabiki said, admiration evident in her voice.  Nodoka raised one
eyebrow at that, and Nabiki explained what had happened before her
arrival.
     "Quite impressive," Nodoka agreed at last.
     "I was so afraid," Kasumi whispered.
     "It's all right to be afraid, Kasumi."
     "But it's never been like this before!"  She turned to Nodoka,
her eyes pleading with the older woman for understanding.  "People
have died now!  And Shampoo, she, she hurt father and Mr. Saotome
and she said she was going to kill Akane, she said ..."
     "I know, dear.  Don't worry, everything's going to be fine,"
Nodoka told her, her tone comforting.  And it was true.  Everything
*was* going to be fine.  Nodoka intended to see to it.
     Personally, if necessary.
     "I think we could use some tea," she said at last.  Kasumi
nodded, her composure somewhat restored.
     "Of course, I ..."
     "Not you, dear.  You sit here.  I'll take care of it."  Kasumi
looked like she was thinking of arguing the point, then simply nodded
and slumped back on the couch.  Nodoka squeezed her shoulder
warmly, then got up and retrieved her katana, wiping the blade before
sheathing it.
     "Nabiki, would you help me?" she asked.  Nabiki looked
surprised at the request, but left her sister and joined Nodoka.  They
met Dr. Tofu coming down the hall.
     "How is Akane?" Nodoka asked without preamble.
     "I believe she'll be fine.  I've advised her to take it easy for the
rest of the evening, though."
     "Good.  Perhaps you could see to Kasumi, then."
     "K-Kasumi?" he stuttered, his cheeks turning pink.  Nodoka
stifled a sigh.
     "In a professional capacity, *doctor*," she said sternly.  "She's
quite shaken up."  He regained his composure immediately.
     "Of course, Mrs. Saotome."  He walked briskly over to the
couch, while Nabiki trailed her into the kitchen, where she busied
herself with making tea.
     "Y'know, Auntie, I never knew you were so handy with that
sword," Nabiki said, watching the proceedings with interest.
     "Oh, I have some small skill," Nodoka said absently.  Nabiki
snorted.
     "Small?  It isn't very often someone surprises Shampoo like
that.  Um ..."
     "Yes, dear?"
     "You don't really need me to make tea, do you?"  Nodoka
smiled.
     "No, dear, I don't."  Nabiki waited expectantly while Nodoka
put together a tray.
     "I've heard a great deal about this Nekohanten," she said at
last.  "How would I go about getting there?"  She turned to see a
dumbstruck expression on Nabiki's face.  Whatever she'd been
expecting, that hadn't been it.
     "You wouldn't," Nabiki said at last, "because that would be a
very bad idea."  Nodoka smiled again, but this time her smile was
neither warm nor maternal.
     "I assure you, good idea or bad, it is long past time that I paid
that establishment a visit."
     "At least take Ranma with you," Nabiki urged, pushing off the
counter she'd been lounging against.
     "Ranma should stay with Akane," she said softly.  An emotion
flashed briefly across Nabiki's usually controlled features, gone in an
instant.  Nodoka was certain that she'd seen it, however, and just as
certain that she knew what it had been.
     Loneliness.  Curious.  She reminded herself she'd have to delve
into this in more detail later.
     "Yeah, I guess you're right," Nabiki sighed finally.  "What about
your husband?"  Nodoka just stared at her evenly until she blushed.
"Uh, let's forget I said that, shall we?"
     "Let's," Nodoka agreed.  "At any rate, I won't be requiring a
bodyguard, dear.  I'm going there to talk, not to fight."
     "I don't think Shampoo's going to be in a talking mood,
Auntie," Nabiki said doubtfully.
     "That's fine.  She's not the one to whom I intend to speak."  Nabiki
hesitated for another moment, then relented and gave Nodoka the
directions to the Nekohanten.  She nodded her thanks.
     "Here, take this tray in to Kasumi and the good doctor, would
you?"
     "What?  Where are you ... Now?  You're going now?"  Nabiki
seemed uncomfortable.  "Shouldn't you wait until ... I mean ..."
     "Relax, dear.  There won't be any trouble.  I simply have a
message to deliver, that's all."  She went to the entryway, slipped her
shoes on, and set out for the Nekohanten before Nabiki could
crystallize her opposition to Nodoka's intentions.
     Nodoka wrapped her katana carefully as she walked through the
tawny late afternoon light, leaving the hilt free so that she could draw it
quickly if necessary.
     After all, some messages had to be delivered more forcefully
than others.

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

          Shampoo had returned to the Nekohanten without thinking
about it.  After all, she had no place else to go.  Once there, though,
she realized that it held no sanctuary for her.  No place did now.  She'd
gambled everything on one last desperate plan, and had come within
seconds of success.
     But she'd failed, and that was all that mattered.  Failed.  And
now, her great-grandmother would pay the price.  She stood in the
growing gloom behind the place that had been her home for much of
the past year, her fur still damp and matted, her head hanging listlessly,
and felt the full impact of her failure come crashing down around her.
     She wanted to scream out her pain, but when she lifted her
head, all that came out was a high, thin feline wail.
     "Shampoo?"  She started, her tail coming up automatically as
she spun toward the noise.  She relaxed marginally as she saw that her
great-grandmother had opened the back door and was standing there.
Shampoo let her head and tail droop once again.  She'd been raised to
face any threat, any danger, but at that moment she couldn't find the
strength to face the woman she'd let down so badly.
     "Shampoo," Cologne repeated softly.  The gathering shadows
in the narrow alley were no impediment to the sightless old woman.
Somehow, she knew where Shampoo was.  She hobbled over slowly,
bending down to scoop up the unresisting cat.  She cradled Shampoo's
small form in her arms, tenderly stroking the rumpled fur behind her
ears as she returned unerringly to the still open door.
     She didn't say anything.  She didn't have to.  Shampoo slinking
back to the Nekohanten in cat form wasn't one of the successful
outcomes of the plan.  Shampoo shivered miserably, waiting to see
what her great-grandmother would say about her worst failure ever.
Nothing could be as bad as the anticipation, she quickly decided.
     But Cologne said nothing, just carried Shampoo through the
restaurant and upstairs to their living quarters.  Shampoo noted dully
that despite the growing darkness, none of the lights were on.  Now
that she was blind, Cologne often forgot to turn them on.  After all, they
made no difference to her now.
     Shampoo shivered again, fighting not to make another pitiful
mewing noise.  It was bad enough that she'd been reduced to crawling
back here in cat form.  She wouldn't allow herself to be demeaned any
further.
     Cologne walked into the bathroom and set the subdued cat on
the floor, then began running a bath.  Shampoo sat numbly, listening to
the hollow echo of the running water ricocheting off the tiles.  Too soon,
the flow was reduced to a staccato drip, and Cologne turned to her.
     "Come, great-granddaughter," Cologne said with
uncharacteristic gentleness.  Shampoo trembled slightly but did not
move.  Once in the hot water, she would be able to speak, and she
found that the prospect frightened her.  She had no idea what she
would say.  She wanted to stay a cat forever, despite the sudden surge
of anger from her warrior's spirit.  Cats had no responsibility.  Cats
never failed the ones they loved.
     And cats couldn't cry.

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

     Cologne sat there in silence for a time, the only sound the hollow
plopping of water droplets from the faucet echoed by the tiled walls.
Shampoo sat still in the bath, making no attempt to wash herself, no
attempt to move at all.  Cologne didn't press her.  She knew that
Shampoo would tell her what had happened, eventually.
     Finally, Cologne stuck her fingers in the water, finding it tepid.
     "Come, Shampoo.  Before the water gets too cold and you
change back."  Wordlessly, Shampoo stood and stepped out of the
bath.  Cologne held out a towel and heard Shampoo drying herself,
then wrapping the towel around her body.  Cologne led the unresisting
girl to her room, then sat beside her on the bed.
     And waited.
     At long last, Shampoo spoke, her voice quiet and thick with
barely suppressed anguish.
     "Shampoo is sorry, great-grandmother.  Shampoo failed."
     "I know.  It's all right, Shampoo.  Was it Mousse?"
     "Yes."  Cologne felt a bright flare of anger at that.  She'd failed
to prevent Mousse's escape, after all.  She sighed in frustration.
     "Shampoo will think of something.  Shampoo promise.  It ..."
     "Shampoo, I understand.  Don't worry, everything will be all
right."
     "No!"  Cologne was startled as Shampoo moved, engulfing her
in a fierce embrace.  "It NOT all right!  Shampoo not want to go on
without great-grandmother!  Great-grandmother always teach
Shampoo, always guide Shampoo!  It not fair!"  Cologne smiled sadly
as she felt the girl's tears against her wrinkled cheek.  Always so
passionate, her great-granddaughter.  She'd always wanted to teach
the girl how to leash that passion so that she could use it to her
advantage, had always thought there would be time.
     And now, suddenly, there was no more time.
     "I'm an old woman, Shampoo.  You've always known that the
time would come when you'd have to on alone.  I had hoped you
would be going on with Ranma, of course, but I see that is not to be."
     "Shampoo give up so much for him," she whispered, and
Cologne felt an echo of her own girlhood heartbreaks, so long ago now
that she rarely thought of them any more, hoarding them like treasures
to be taken out and examined from time to time.
     "Shampoo defy the law by not killing girl-type Ranma.  Shampoo
come back here for him.  Shampoo put great-grandmother in danger
for him.  And he not care.  He *never* care.  He listen to HER, he fight
for HER.  Why he not love Shampoo?  What else Shampoo can do?
What?"  Shampoo's body convulsed with the force of the sobs she was
holding back, and Cologne let her hand move, stroking the girl's still
damp hair down her back, until her fingers rested above the spot she
wanted.  Gently, she pressed on the acupressure point, putting
Shampoo to sleep.  She eased the suddenly limp body down to
the bed, swinging Shampoo's legs up onto the bed and pulling the
blankets up to cover the sleeping girl.  Then she stood there, listening to
the quiet sound of Shampoo's breathing.  She knew she should have
chastised Shampoo for being so sentimental over a mere man, but she
couldn't bring herself to be harsh with the girl.  Not now.
     I'm old, and I'm broken, she told herself.  I can't let a young,
vital girl like this sacrifice herself for me.  The tribe needs warriors like
her.  Honour was fulfilled by her actions, and yet she was spared.  She
was spared, and now I must ensure that she does not throw her life
away in a futile attempt to save me.
     She did, after all, know one thing that she had not revealed to
Shampoo.  The message had come through the usual channels.  Four
days.  In four days, someone would come to find out why she hadn't
reported to the council on schedule.
     Four days to find a way to save her great-granddaughter, and
to prepare to meet her fate.
     She hoped it would be long enough.

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

     Nodoka stood outside the Nekohanten, waiting for an answer
to her knock.  The place was dark, looking almost abandoned, but she
decided to be patient.  She wanted to talk to Cologne as soon as
possible, to ensure that the amazon elder understood that no further
action against her family would be tolerated.
     Her family.  She'd begun to think of all of the Tendou girls as
family, not just Akane.  After being alone for so long, she ached to be a
mother again, and now she had her chance.  And like any mother, her
instinct was to protect her children.
     Nodoka knocked again, finally hearing movement within the
darkened cafe.  Moments later, the door opened to reveal a wizened
old woman, her unseeing black eyes turned up toward Nodoka's face.
She looked a lot better than the first time they'd met, but that, Nodoka
thought ruefully, wasn't saying much.
     "I'm sorry, we're closed for renovations," Cologne said
politely.
     "That's quite all right.  Actually, I came to talk to you."  Cologne's
brow furrowed, as if she was trying to place the voice.
     "You seem to have me at a disadvantage, madam."
     "I beg your pardon.  Of course you don't remember me.  The
only time we met, you were ... not lucid.  My name is Nodoka
Saotome."  Cologne smiled then, not quite managing to hide her
surprise.
     "Ah.  So we meet at last.  I suppose it would be disingenuous of me
to ask why you're here, wouldn't it, Nodoka Saotome?  Please come
in."  She stood aside, allowing the other woman to enter.  The interior
was dark, all the chairs sitting upended on the tables.  Cologne started
toward one of the tables, carefully pulling some chairs down.  Nodoka
waited politely, thankful that there was enough light coming in from the
street that she could see.  She noted how painfully slow and deliberate
Cologne's movements were, trying to reconcile them with the stories
she'd been told of the old woman's talents, and felt a pang of sorrow.
There were many tragedies here, she knew, but whatever sympathy she
felt for the other woman, it was tempered by her need to protect her
own.  With any luck, she could do that *and* prevent any further
tragedies from occurring.
     "Would you like some tea?" Cologne asked.  "It would be no
trouble."
     "Thank-you, no.  I would prefer to discuss our problem."
     "Which would be ...?"
     "You are aware of the incident at the Tendou house today."  It
was not a question.
     "Yes."
     "And you approved of Shampoo's plan?"  Nodoka noted that
Cologne held very still for a moment.
     "You are a mother, Nodoka Saotome.  You know very well
that at a certain point, you must allow your children to succeed or fail
on their own."  Nodoka felt an unreasoning anger, and fought to control
her emotions.
     "Your lack of concern distresses me.  Your great-granddaughter
nearly died today.  Would have died, had it not been for the
intervention of Mousse."  Cologne fought back a scowl.
     "So I'm given to understand," she said coldly.
     "You do not sound grateful."
     "If Mousse ever returns here, he'll find out to his everlasting
regret just how "grateful" I am."
     "He is not here?"
     "No, and I do not expect he will be foolish enough to return."
Nodoka was appalled.
     "You do him a great injustice.  He explained the situation to us, you
know."  This time, Cologne could not conceal her anger.
     "He had no right to reveal the business of the amazon tribe to
outsiders!" she snapped.  Her staff creaked alarmingly in her fierce grip.
Nodoka was unimpressed, and she allowed a razored edge of ice to
creep into her voice.
     "Shampoo attacked the Tendou's home.  She injured Soun
Tendou and my husband, and frightened Kasumi quite badly.  She
drugged Akane, told everyone it was deadly poison, and then, when
she couldn't blackmail my son into marrying her, drove him into a killing
rage.  This is no longer amazon business.  This is now MY business,
and I intend to see that it is settled, something my husband seems to
have proven singularly incapable of doing."  Cologne held herself
rigid for a moment, then breathed a sigh, slumping somewhat in her
chair.
     "If Mousse told you of our secrets, then you know that any
problems you have with me will be resolved in the very near future, in a
quite permanent manner," Cologne said at last.
     "That is what concerns me.  There is little time left ..."
     "Days," Cologne interrupted.  "Four, probably."
     "That still leaves time for Shampoo to attempt another
desperate plan," Nodoka stated.  "I will not allow any member of either
my family or the Tendous to be placed in danger again.  I trust I am
making myself clear."  Cologne smiled an unpleasant smile.
     "Do not threaten me, Nodoka Saotome."
     "Do not make it necessary.  I am not unsympathetic to your situation
..."
     "I do not require your pity!"  Cologne spat the words out
angrily, infuriated at the other woman's presumption.
     "I assure you, it is not pity," Nodoka said quietly, trying to will the
other woman to understand.  "After that day, when you fought the evil
that threatened this city, Ranma spoke to me of the battle.  He told me
more than once that, had you not been there, they would never have
won.  We owe you a great debt, all of us.  It seems dishonourable that
we should ignore such a debt when your sacrifice has placed you in
mortal danger.  We should be working together instead of ..."
     "Outsiders may not interfere," Cologne said flatly.  "That is the
law, the law that I have fought to uphold and honour my entire life.  It
may seem harsh and unreasonable to you, but it has served us well."
Silence grew up between the two then.  Torn between her need to
protect her family and the debt she felt toward the stubborn old
woman, Nodoka was uncertain as to how to proceed.
     "It is ironic, is it not?" Cologne asked after a time.
     "What?"
     "Shampoo's plan.  In order to get to Ranma, she used Akane,
threatening her very life.  Akane, because she is the one person that
Ranma would do anything for.  At some level, Shampoo must have
realized that, must have known that she had already lost him.  I would
have spared her such pain, had I been able.  But even when I was
whole, I lacked the power to heal a broken heart."  The lacquered
sheath of her katana gleamed in the low half-light as Nodoka
considered Cologne's words.  It made sense, actually.  Shampoo had
chosen to use Akane as leverage against her son because of what was
between them.  She might never acknowledge it, but she had to know it
was true.
     Just one more jagged shard of pain in this whole mess.
     "She does love him, you know," Cologne continued after a moody
silence, her voice raspy and thick with some unnamed emotion.  "That
is not such a common thing in an amazon marriage.  She is young, and
proud, and as stubborn as I was at that age.  I did not personally
*approve* of her plan, you must understand.  But I have trained her
since childhood to be an amazon warrior, and her motivations were
such that I could hardly stop her.  To redeem herself, or die trying, is an
honourable course."
     "And protecting her great-grandmother?"
     "Such sentiment has no place in our culture.  I have made that clear
to her,"  Cologne said, a touch too sharply, and a gentle smile touched
Nodoka's lips, unseen by the older woman.
     "Can a law really prevent a girl from caring about her
great-grandmother?" she asked softly.  Cologne's blank gaze turned to
the shadows, and bitterness flickered across her features before
disappearing as if it had never been.
     "Harsh though they may seem to an outsider, we have reasons
for our laws.  They have been our salvation in times past, and may very
well be again.  We may not decide to forsake them, no matter how
good the cause, no matter how worthy the justification.  That way lies
doom for our people."  Nodoka nodded quietly.  She had suspected as
much.  Then she stood, for she had one last question to ask.
     "Very well.  I must tell you, honoured elder, that I am tasked with
the protection of both the Saotome and Tendou clans by my honour
and my desire.  I will not allow harm to come to any of them.  I ask you
now, will Shampoo try to harm my family again?"
     "I wonder how a woman like you ever ended up with an oaf
like Genma," Cologne breathed, a genuine smile spreading across her
worn features.  Nodoka felt her own expression softening.
     "Perhaps I will tell you the story some day.  Will you answer
my question?"  The old woman bent her head in thought.
     "I can offer you no guarantees," she said after a time, "but I will
say this.  Shampoo was crushed by her failure today.  Her plan was
supposed to end in either success or death, and thus she didn't think
beyond it.  The element of surprise is lost.  I have much to teach
Shampoo in the little time remaining to us, and I will attempt to keep her
busy here.  I do not want to see her throw her life away uselessly, you
know."  There was a silence.
     "Very well.  I cannot ask for more than that.  You understand
that if Shampoo does come after my family, my first concern must be
for their safety."
     "Of course.  She would understand, also."  Nodoka moved
towards the door.
     "It is such a shame," she mused sadly.  "After all they've been
through together, for it to end this way."
     "Young hearts burn brightly and with reckless passion, Nodoka
Saotome.  That heat often consumes common sense."
     "`The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know.'"
Cologne started at that.
     "Yes, just so," she smiled.
     "A favourite quote of mine," Nodoka explained, feeling a little
embarrassed at having revealed that.
     "I think I would have liked you, you know.  Farewell, Nodoka
Saotome.  I think we will not meet again."  Silently, she shut the door,
leaving Nodoka standing outside the darkened cafe.  Shifting her grip
on her katana, Nodoka slowly turned and headed back toward the
dojo.
     It shouldn't have to be like this, she thought to herself as she
walked.  They've all been through so much already.  They shouldn't
end up hating each other, fighting each other.  It isn't right.
     But the world wasn't right.  It merely was.  That was why codes of
honour were necessary, after all, to wrest meaning from life, to place
something above mere survival at any cost.
     Honour could give meaning, but it could also be a harsh and
cruel mistress.
     Her steps heavy, Nodoka returned to the dojo.

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

     Nabiki stretched, luxuriating in the sensation of being clean and
relaxed.  That hot bath had been just what she'd needed.  Racing home
from school had caused her to sweat quite a bit.  Hauling that stupid
dog along hadn't helped matters any.
     Although it'd been worth it.  She smiled at the memory of
Shampoo's secret weapon going ballistic, tightening the belt of her silk
robe around her narrow waist.  She paused to give herself a quick
appraisal in the mirror, twisting slightly and placing one hand on her hip,
glancing over her shoulder.
     "Not bad," she grinned.  Then she sighed.  Not that anybody
was *interested*, of course ...
     Cutting off that particular train of thought (and hardly for the
first time), she opened the door and headed for the stairs.  A loud
banging caused her to detour to the family room, where she found
Ranma busy patching up some of the many holes that the day's
festivities had left in the walls.  He caught sight of her as she walked into
the room and grunted a greeting.
     "Hey, champ.  How's Akane?"  Ranma sighed, lowering his hammer
to squint critically at his latest repair.
     "Raising hell.  She says she feels fine, and she wants to get out
of bed.  I was supposed to train with her again tonight, and ..."
     "Ranma, you're going to have your hands full with my little
sister, let me tell you.  She can be very stubborn when she wants to be,
which is most of the time."
     "Tell me about it," he grumbled.  "Anyway, doc Tofu says she
has to take it easy, so I said no.  Now I have to find something for her
to do in bed ..."  Nabiki raised her eyebrows archly, and Ranma
blushed furiously.
     "Nabiki!" he protested.  "Geez!"  She laughed.
     "Okay, I'm sorry.  How's Kasumi?  She was pretty shaken up
earlier."
     "Doc Tofu's got her settled down.  She's a lot better now.  In fact,
she's making supper.  He's helping.  You notice that he didn't go all to
pieces around her today?"
     "Yeah, just like after the fight at the school.  If he can only act
normal around her during a life and death crisis, though, think how
interesting their relationship's gonna be."  They both chuckled that time,
then trailed off into an awkward silence.  Nabiki noticed that Ranma
seemed uncertain, even nervous.
     "Everything okay, Ranma?"  He nodded, trying to slide a
poorly repaired door closed.  It wouldn't slide in the track, and he
sighed, leaving it open and stepping out onto the veranda, motioning to
her to follow.  Curious, she did.
     "Something on your mind?"  Ranma looked at the floor,
fidgeted, then finally looked back up at her.  It was almost cute, Nabiki
thought.  He must need money.
     She was wrong.
     "I wanted to thank you.  For today."
     "Huh?" Nabiki asked cleverly.
     "If you hadn't showed up with that dog when you did ..."  He
trailed off.  "How'd you know to bring it, anyway?"  She shrugged
easily.
     "I saw the note you dropped.  It was obviously from Shampoo,
and I saw how seriously you were taking it.  You only have one
weakness, Ranma, and Shampoo knows it.  It was either Shampoo
with a cat or Shampoo as a cat, and either way a dog was a handy
weapon."
     "Where'd you get one so fast?"
     "Let's just say that one of my regular customers on the route
between here and school now owes me one less favour."  Ranma gave
her a lopsided smile.
     "Well, it was still quick thinking.  You called Dr. Tofu too, huh?"
     "It seemed prudent."  Nabiki felt a sudden chill at just how
close they'd come to needing his services.  She gave Ranma an
appraising stare.  He squirmed again.
     "Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks."  Nabiki wasn't sure how to
react.  This wasn't a situation that she was used to, having Ranma
actually thanking her for something.  She couldn't help thinking that it
was a very mature gesture on his part.
     "You're welcome.  Um, can I ask you a question?"
     "Sure."
     "What exactly are you planning to do about Shampoo?"
Ranma's expression clouded, and he turned to look out into the garden.
     "I'm not sure, but I intend to see to it that she doesn't get near
Akane again."
     "I don't think you have to worry about that.  After all, her aim
was either blackmail you into marrying her or get you to kill her, and
after today she knows you're not going to do either."
     "Unless she really poisons Akane next time," Ranma said
softly.  Nabiki stared at him.
     "You mean you'd really kill her?" she asked incredulously.
Ranma just turned away.
     "Let's hope it never comes to that," he muttered.
     "Well, maybe your mother can talk some sense into them,"
Nabiki said optimistically.  Ranma turned back.
     "My mother?"  Ooops.
     "Uh, yeah, she said she was going over to the Nekohanten to
talk to ..."
     "WHAT?  That's insane!  Who knows what those lunatics
could do next!  I gotta get over there ...!"
     "Ranma?" a voice asked from inside.  "Is that you?"
     "Mom?"  He stepped to the open door to see his mother standing
there, looking confused.
     "There you are.  Supper is almost ready, and ... why Ranma, are
you all right?"
     "Sure.  Are YOU?"
     "Of course.  Why wouldn't I be?"  Nabiki sighed.  She hadn't
realized how worried she'd been about Auntie Saotome until that
moment, but she obviously had been as good as her word.  Talking, not
fighting, had apparently been on the menu at the Nekohanten that night.
     "Mom, you shouldn't have gone over there alone!  What if
something had happened?"  She favoured her son with a comforting
smile, and Nabiki felt a brief pang.
     She missed her own mother at the oddest moments.
     "I merely wanted to discuss our situation with Cologne, that's
all.  Woman-to-woman."
     "And?" Nabiki asked.
     "And I think we achieved an understanding between us, dear."
     "An understanding?  What's that mean?  Mom, you don't
know her!  She's tricky, she ..."
     "Ranma.  You heard what Mousse said today.  She does not
have long to live.  I am satisfied that she will do everything in her power
to see that Shampoo does not repeat her actions."  She paused,
regarding her son with an expression of weariness, and Nabiki could
tell that the day's events were wearing on her.
     "Still, I think you should stay very close to Akane for the next
four days.  Just to be safe."  Ranma smiled grimly, and Nabiki fought
back a shiver.  Four days.  Was that all the time the old woman had
left?  It seemed incredible that a culture like the amazon's could still
survive in such a modern age.  She sighed, feeling her own weariness
creeping up on her.
     "Come on, troops, let's go get something to eat.  I for one am
starved."  She actually was hungry, she was surprised to find.  And she
wanted to put this day behind her as soon as possible.  She hoped that
diner would be a quiet affair.
     After all, she'd had quite enough excitement for one night.

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

     "Sorry," Ukyou called, not looking up from where she was
wiping down the grill.  "I'm closed for the night."
     "Oh," a low voice muttered.  Ukyou glanced up to see a
figure in a white robe with long dark hair reaching for the door.
     "Mousse!  Wait, come on back here, sugar.  I didn't know it
was you."  He hesitated, then turned back.  Ukyou frowned.  His
expression was unreadable, but something about his posture told her
that he was very unhappy.  She sighed.  Seemed to be a lot of that
going around lately.
     "If you're busy, I could go," he said, sounding uncomfortable.
"I know it's kind of late."
     "Don't be silly, hon.  Reach behind you and lock the door,
would you?" she asked.  He did so, then trudged over to one of the
stools and plopped down with an uncharacteristic lack of grace.  She
reached under the counter and flipped the switch that turned off her
exterior lighted sign, then snagged a couple of cold drinks from the
cooler.  She set one in front of Mousse, who nodded gratefully but
made no move otherwise.  Ukyou came around to the customer's side
of the counter and eased onto the stool next to the morose boy, still
favouring her injured ankle slightly.
     "So, how'd things go earlier?" she asked at last.  Mousse
started out of his reverie.
     "Huh?"
     "You know ..." she trailed off.  She'd just been getting ready to
open up for the supper rush after getting home from school when
Mousse had soared into Ucchan's, sqwawking frantically.  She'd gotten
him some hot water, only to see him race for the door, shouting about
Shampoo and trouble at the dojo.
     "Oh.  That.  You know, I was surprised you didn't follow me,"
Mousse said, sounding faintly puzzled.  Ukyou snorted.
     "Ranma made it pretty clear that he doesn't need me around.
He has his priorities, right?"  She noticed the surprised expression on
Mousse's face and realized she'd let the bitterness she'd been trying to
hide creep out into her voice.
     "Anyway," she went on, "there's *always* some trouble at the
dojo.  I can't be dropping everything and rushing over there every day.
Let them handle things themselves for a change."  Mousse looked like
he was on the verge of asking her if she was all right, and that was a
question she didn't want to answer just then, so she decided to head
him off.
     "So what was it this time, eh?  Another fiance for good ol'
Ranma show up?  A challenge from some new kid in town?  Oooh, I
know, Akane cooked him dinner!"  Mousse just turned back to the
counter, his heavy glasses sliding partway down his nose, and reached
out to turn the unopened can with his fingertips, a precise quarter turn,
then another, again and again in a steady, hypnotic rhythm, not looking
away, not once.
     And he told her everything.
     When he was finished, the only sound was the light scraping of
the can as Mousse continued to rotate it by quarter turns, and the
pounding of Ukyou's blood in her ears.  Unbelievable.  Just utterly
unbelievable.  Carefully, she reached out, dropping her hand on the
can between turns.  Mousse looked up at her, startled, and she could
see his eyes over the tops of his glasses, awash in misery and pain.
     Shame, she thought irrelevantly.  He's got beautiful eyes.
     "Let me see if I've got this straight," she murmured.  "Cologne
took Shampoo's "crimes" onto herself when they came here, and now
that she's crippled, she's gonna be killed for her council seat?"
     "Yes."
     "And if she steps down, then they kill Shampoo instead?"
     "She won't."
     "But if she did."
     "Yes."
     "Uh-huh.  And the only way out of this is either for Shampoo to
marry Ranma or kill Ranma-chan."
     "No."  Ukyou blinked.
     "Uh, pardon?"
     "There is one other option."
     "Well, why haven't they considered it, then?" Ukyou asked
irritably.  The whole thing sounded insane to her, but then she'd always
half-doubted the stories of the amazon's weird laws anyway.
     "Oh, I'm sure they have," Mousse said with a smile that hurt to
look at.  He stared at the drink can, now beaded with condensation,
watching in fascination as droplets writhed down its smooth sides to
pool on the polished wood of the counter.
     "What is it, Mousse?" Ukyou asked gently.  He lowered his
head to rest on his crossed arms.
     "If a man was to defeat Shampoo before she could marry her
fiance, that man would by law become her new fiance.  Her
engagement to Ranma would be voided, and the council would have no
reason to punish her.  At least, not if it could be shown that her new
fiance intended to actually marry her."  A strangled laugh escaped from
his throat, and Ukyou felt the first glimmerings of understanding.
     "We're talking about you here, right, sugar?"
     "You know why they never seriously considered this option?
Do you?  Well, I'll tell you why.  Because Cologne thinks I'm a
worthless weakling, and Shampoo agrees with her.  Because Shampoo
would rather die at Saotome's hands than marry me."  Ukyou stifled a
gasp.
     "Mousse, that's not true!"  She saw him smile again, a hurt,
jagged smile full of self-loathing.
     "It is true.  And after today, after I ruined her last attempt to set
everything right, she'll hate me even more."
     "But you saved her life!"  Mousse's eyes closed and she saw
his hands clench spasmodically as the tendons in his neck stood out
sharply with the effort of holding his emotions in.
     "No.  She loves Cologne dearly.  She'll do something stupid to
get herself killed before Cologne can be challenged.  I know it.  I've
only postponed things.  There's only one way to save Shampoo."  He
drew a deep, painful breath and pulled his head up off the counter,
staring at nothing, his features set in stone.
     "I have to challenge Shampoo.  And I have to beat her.  No matter
what."
 

End part 4
Revised October 21/97