[FFML] [Ranma] Spring of Drowned Dojo, Part V

Ambulatory Kettle ambket at inbox.com
Fri Jun 20 16:59:12 PDT 2008


The fanfic formerly known as "Life is Complicated."  This installment has been sitting on my hard-drive gathering dust for awhile, so I decided to upload it.  Previous parts can be found on the dreaded ffnet at: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/4110828/1/Spring_of_Drowned_Dojo
- AK
-------------------------------
Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is the property of Takahashi-san and various other
copyright holders who are not me.  All obnoxious original characters in 
this story are actually my own property, dubious honor though it may be.

SPRING OF DROWNED DOJO
The Life and Times of an Aquatransexual Martial Arts Instructor

A Ranma 1/2 comedy fanfic of dramatic proportions
written by Ambulatory Kettle

Part V: The Challenge

	It was a cool Sunday morning, and now and then a gust of fall wind
blew in through the open door to the training hall.  The wood floor was 
chill beneath Ranma's crossed legs.  But he hardly noticed it for the 
frustration boiling in his mind and the angry red welt burning just 
below his left eye.  He glanced over at Akane, sitting a good meter away
and pointedly not looking at him.
	<Uncute tomboy,> he thought forcefully.
	His mother, sitting opposite them, finally spoke into the tense 
silence.  "I honestly cannot see why this sort of thing keeps happening.
I've been told that when Ranma first arrived you two got off on the 
wrong foot, but you have had more than enough time to get back on the 
right one.  So I can't understand why you insist on continuing this 
nonsense.  You get along so well sometimes, but you're both so GUARDED 
against each other.  Really, being more than friends does not require 
you to be enemies!"
	Ranma was trying to ignore her, but her last statement brought him
to attention.  MORE than friends?  Was Akane even a friend?  Well, she
wasn't an enemy; he had plenty of those, and she wasn't one of them.  
Akane was just... Akane.
	"I know you're both quite fond of each other," Mother was saying.
	Ranma opened his mouth to speak, but he hadn't so much as inhaled 
before his mother shot him an icy look.
	"DON'T argue Ranma.  This is a lecture not a discussion.  And I 
very much doubt you want a matching welt for the other cheek."
	Ranma glanced at Akane again, who was glaring at him, as if daring
him to say what he had been about to.  It was his turn to look pointedly
away.  Che... as if they even knew what he was going to say.
	"I suppose your behavior is to some extent my fault, Ranma.  If I 
hadn't let you go off with your father on that fool's errand, perhaps 
you would have learned more sense."  Her voice was calm and cool, even 
mild, but her words retained an underlying edge that cut just exactly as
intended.  "When your father told me he would make you into a man worthy
of the Saotome school, I did not expect him to bring me back a mere boy 
with the skill and body of a man..." she smiled sardonically, "or a 
woman.  But I seem to have set my hopes too high.  Considering your 
curse, the irony is almost..." her smile twisted, "amusing."
	Ranma scowled at the far wall.  HE didn't find it very funny.  But
from her expression, clearly his mother didn't either.
	"But there's no point in placing blame now.  Both of you are old 
enough to take responsibility for your own actions.  Ranma, you could at
least TRY being nice to Akane.  Being a man is not synonymous with 
ignoring your feelings -- or ignoring everyone else's."
	She turned to Akane.  "You, young lady, I cannot try to blame on 
myself.  In any case, you don't need to react to everything with anger 
and violence.  There are other perfectly natural and more ladylike 
responses, even when you really ARE angry."
	Ranma smirked at the ceiling beams.  Heh, his mother had called 
Akane "young lady."  Yeah right.  And besides, when was Akane NOT angry?
	Mother took a breath, as if preparing herself to go on.  "I think 
you should both try to start over.  Get to know each other again, from 
the beginning.  If I can keep your fathers from pressuring you like they
always do, you might even learn to get along peaceably.  Or at least you
might stop causing so much havoc.  What do you say?"
	Ranma looked at Akane, and then away again, and she did likewise. 
No one spoke.
	Mother, who had been sitting the whole time very proper and 
straight-backed, sighed heavily and seemed to deflate.  "Why do I even 
bother?  It's hopeless.  You two CAN'T get along.  You're both just too
immature."
	"Hey!" Ranma growled indignantly.  Akane looked equally annoyed.
	"It's impossible."  Mother was no longer speaking to them, merely 
lamenting aloud.  "You're just not capable of acting like adults."
	"Excuse me!?" Akane blurted.
	"Who says I'm not capable?!" Ranma protested angrily.  People came
to this dojo and called him SENSEI, damnit; that MEANT something.
	"I'm sorry," his mother said, shaking her head in sad resignation,
"but I just don't believe you two can stop fighting and act like mature 
individuals, betrothed or otherwise."
	"We can too!"  Akane shouted, and punched the floorboards.
	"Damn right we can!" Ranma seconded.
	"Fine," his mother leaned forward.  "Then it's a challenge!"
	Ranma leaned in as well.  "You're on!" he agreed in unison with 
Akane.  He looked at her, and saw his own momentary confusion mirrored 
in her expression.
	"Good," Mother said.  She sat back, and broke into a smile.  "It's
decided then.  As long as you two can keep from fighting over such 
trivial things and make an effort to get along -- and stop avoiding your
feelings -- then I will keep the old men off your backs."
	Blinking dumbfoundedly, Ranma glanced at Akane.  She looked as 
much at a loss as he did.
	"But the hitting, the name-calling, the childish bickering, it's 
got to stop," his mother continued.  "If it doesn't, well, I win, and 
then...."
	She trailed off, and all Ranma could hear was is own breathing.
	In a small voice, as though she was not at all sure she wanted to
hear the response, Akane prompted: "And then...?"
	Mother's smile melted into a grin.  "... We shall see.  I'm sure I
can come up with suitable terms of victory."  She idly fingered the 
katana hilt at her side.
	The cold shiver that went down Ranma's spine was completely 
subsumed beneath the shame that burned hotter than his frustration with
Akane or his swollen cheek.  At that moment, he was sure that for once 
Akane's thoughts had to be running parallel to his.  His mother's sudden
shift to hopelessness had been a feint, false weakness to get them to 
fight back at the wrong time.  They had both just walked headfirst into
her trap, and there was no backing out.

	From her hiding place behind the door, Nabiki waited and listened,
not daring to breathe.  Thin slices of her sister and Ranma came into 
view through the gap between the door and the frame.
	"Great, Ranma, now what?"
	"I dunno, why're you asking me?"
	"You're the one who got us into this!"
	"ME!  If you hadn'ta--"
	"My, that couldn't be childish bickering I hear, now could it!" 
Auntie Saotome's voice rang out from further inside the dojo.  Nabiki 
detected a jerk of movement as Akane started at the sound.
	"Maybe we should go somewhere else...?" Akane suggested.
	"Yeah..." Ranma agreed, and the two figures disappeared from view,
the sounds of their hasty footfalls retreating into the distance.
	Nabiki stepped out from behind the door.
	"Well played, Auntie."
	Saotome Nodoka, who was just rising to her feet, looked up in 
surprise.  "Nabiki-chan!  I had no idea you were behind there."
	"I came here as soon as the fight started.  I wanted to watch and
see how our little ploy went."
	Auntie Saotome glanced out the doorway in the direction Ranma and
Akane had lately fled, her brow creasing.  "Do you really think this 
will work?"
	"Barring unforeseen circumstances," Nabiki replied.  The plan was
a flawed one, but that hardly mattered.  The next piece that she put 
into motion would be the important one -- at least from her standpoint.
	"You did well," Nabiki continued.  "Now we'll just have to let 
things play themselves out."
	"You don't think I overdid it?  It was hard to call Ranma a 'mere
boy' like that -- close to the mark as it seems sometimes, he does have
an honorable heart."
	Close to the mark indeed.  Nabiki could hardly argue with that 
part at least.
	"No, I don't think you overdid it," she replied.  "Not that it 
matters now, since your performance seems to have done the trick."  
Remembering herself, Nabiki added, "Oh, yes.  I talked to Preston-kun, 
and he not only agreed to let you stay in the new house, he said you can
have it all to yourself, for as long as you like.  As far as he's 
concerned, feel free to treat the place as your home."
	Auntie Saotome stared at her, astonished.  "Really?  He said 
that?"
	Nabiki nodded.  Whatever else he was, Preston was generous.  "He 
said he didn't much care for sitting in a big, empty house by himself.  
As soon as I mentioned the idea of you staying there, he started packing
up his things."
	He had been eager to oblige when Nabiki had explained that Ranma's
mother would play an integral part in the plot to get Ranma and Akane 
together.  His enthusiasm only deepened Nabiki's conviction that he had 
some ulterior motive, some secondary goal that she would make sure he 
never achieved as a result of the match-up.
	"But..." Auntie Saotome's brow creased in concern, "where will 
Preston-kun be staying?  He's a foreigner after all; where will he go?"
	"Who knows?"  Nabiki shrugged.  <Who cares?>
	Nabiki changed the subject.  "Thank you again, by the way, 
Auntie," she said, honestly gratified.  "I never would have been able to
pull this off without you."  In fact, she might not have ever come up 
with the scheme at all if she hadn't asked Auntie Saotome to help her in
the first place.
	"No need to thank me," Auntie Saotome replied readily.  "You know 
I'd do anything to secure Ranma's future, not to mention his happiness."
She turned a curious eye on Nabiki.  "But tell me, Nabiki-chan... why 
are YOU going to so much trouble to bring my son and his fiancée closer 
together?"
	Nabiki smiled, hoping it wasn't too thin.  "Sometimes generosity 
has its own rewards."
	While she had never really believed in such platitudes, maybe 
there was some truth to the statement.  After all, it was certainly 
going to be enjoyable getting back at Preston without ever straying from
her new "duty" to help cultivate Akane and Ranma's relationship.

	Ranma strolled along in his usual place atop the fence.  He 
glanced over the edge at the river below.  Kind of a dangerous place to 
walk, particularly for him.  And on a blustery day like this, all the 
moreso.  But he liked the feeling of risk.
	"You know, Ranma, I don't think we've ever just gone for a walk 
like this before."
	This after the long silence between them since leaving the dojo; 
whatever Ranma had been expecting her to say, that wasn't it.
	"Whaddaya mean?  We walk like this all the time."
	"Well, sure, we walk to school, and on errands and stuff -- but 
I'm not sure we've ever taken a walk just for the sake of getting out 
and walking."
	"We ain't walkin' to walk, we're walkin' to talk," Ranma grumbled
irritably.  And then paused in mid-step, trying to think if those words
had come out in the right order.  "Takin' a wa... talkin' to...?"
	Akane giggled.
	"What're you snickering at?" Ranma shot, eyeing her.  But his 
annoyance was rudely interrupted by her smile.
	"You really are in a bad mood, aren't you?"  She kept smiling that
same sweet Akane-smile, even more annoying than the silent treatment 
because it gave him this odd lightheaded feeling -- only it was in the 
pit of his stomach instead of his head, which was always disconcerting.
	Ranma put his hands behind his head and looked up at the sky, 
trying to sound sarcastic while ignoring the tickle that was crawling up
his insides.  "Now what could possibly make you think that?"
	"Who knows?  You haven't called me any names yet, so how am I 
supposed to tell?"
	She was laughing at him behind those brightly smiling eyes, Ranma
knew.  He stuck his tongue out at her.  "Very funny.  You saw the one 
mom just pulled over on us."
	"Yeah... but it's not like she can really stop us from fighting 
when she's not here."
	Ranma frowned.  What was that... quiet cast to her voice...?
	"No, I mean it's her trick that's got me pissed-off."
	"Oh..." Akane said.
	There it was again....
	"Hey, what are you getting so glum about?"
	"Nothing," she replied without looking at him, a hint of sharpness
in her tone.
	She had just been smiling and practically laughing a minute ago.  
<Man, girls and their crazy mood-swings,> Ranma thought.
	He jumped down off the fence to land in front of her.
	"Hey, Akane!  Bleaaah!" he said as he hooked a finger on either 
side of his mouth, stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes.
	Akane raised an open hand to smack him, but then let it fall, her
expression and voice falling with it.  "Cut it out, Ranma."
	She walked around him to continue down the street.
	"Hey, aren't you gonna hit me?" Ranma asked, masking the concern 
in his voice with his genuine confusion.
	"Your mom said no fighting," she said, her voice subdued.
	"Uncute."
	That got her.  Akane's fists clenched at her sides as Ranma 
clenched his teeth, anticipating the coming blow.
	But it never came.
	"Oh, leave me alone!" she sobbed softly, and stalked off.
	She... sobbed?  Ranma saw something glittering down through the 
wind-blown air, and he reached out to catch it.  But it was just a drop
of water.  Strange, it wasn't raining....
	Gazing at his palm, Ranma's eyes widened.  He looked after the 
quickly retreating figure of Akane.  Was she... crying?
	"Shit," Ranma muttered.  "That wasn't supposed to happen."
	He rubbed his head; there should have been a bump growing there 
now, but there wasn't.  Instead, he had tears on his hands.

	When Nabiki finally found Preston, he was banging about in the 
Tendou attic, of all places.
	"There you are.  What are you doing up here?"
	"Mm," he grunted, and continued to shift boxes around.
	<What's he up to?> she wondered.  <That's probably Happousai's 
stuff.  I should warn him not to mess with it.>
	Would he listen?  Probably not.
	Nabiki sighed, and pressed on with her obligatory update.
	"I thought you'd want to know that everything is going smoothly,
and my plan to use Auntie Saotome's influence --"  Nabiki broke off as 
she got close enough to make out the contents of the clutter: a rolled-
up futon, one acoustic and three electric guitars, an amp and set of 
hi-fi, and assorted boxes of various sizes.  All things that clearly 
didn't belong to Happousai or the anyone in the Tendou family and most 
definitely did not belong in their attic.
	"What in the world are you doing?" she demanded.
	Preston dropped a large box in one corner with a thump.  "Moving 
my stuff.  What are you doing?"
	"You can't move in here!"
	"Why?"  Preston looked around the musty attic.  "Seems like a 
perfectly reasonable place to park my stuff.  Nobody's even been up here
for weeks, maybe months."
	Nabiki closed her eyes briefly, calming herself.
	"This is Grandfather Happousai's space, and he won't take kindly 
to you... invading it.  He does go off on a lot of long... 'training 
trips,' but he's due back any day now."
	"'Zat so?" Preston responded distractedly, blithely shoving a pile
of bras and panties aside to make room for a white-bodied Stratocaster 
that he swung down from his shoulder.  "What's with all this underwear?"
	He wasn't listening to her.  Nabiki's ire flared.  <So much for 
talking sense to a crazy foreign idiot.>  But the last thing she wanted
was to give Preston a place to stay.
	"Happousai is dangerous," she entreated.  "He'll take you apart 
without a second thought.  He's caused enough mayhem around here already
-- so have you.  I'm not going to have you stirring up more trouble.  
Now... get out."
	Preston looked up from his rearrangements, brushing dust from his
hands.  "One question.  Who the hell's Happousai?"
	"What a haul!  What a haul!"
	As if on cue, the shrunken little pervert came bounding through an
open attic window with a fat sack slung over one shoulder like some kind
of demented Santa-goblin.
	"Nabiki-chan!" he cried when he saw her.  "So nice of you to greet
me!  C'mere, cutie!"
	He leapt at her.  Nabiki recoiled, desperately wishing she'd 
brought her clipboard -- or anything -- to use as a shield.
	Happousai stopped short in mid-air, his feet swinging forward 
abruptly as if he'd been caught by his collar.  Behind him, Preston had
grabbed the edge of the sack, and held it with Happousai dangling from 
it.  The old man looked down at the floor below him in puzzlement.
	"Whatcha got in here?" Preston said, reaching into the sack.
	He came away with the strap of a lacy bra clutched in his fist.
	"Huh," he said, blinking at it.
	"Hey!  Give that back!"
	Happousai snatched the bra away.  Eyeing Preston up and down, he 
turned to Nabiki.  "Nabiki, what's this gaijin kid doing here?"
	"I'm moving in," Preston answered before she could.  "What's it to
you, gramps?"
	Happousai stared at Preston blankly for a second, then turned back
to Nabiki.  "What's he saying, I don't speak gaijin."
	"He's speaking Japanese," Nabiki replied in annoyance.
	"Nonsense.  Western gaijin like him don't speak Japanese, they 
speak crazy moon-man talk or whatever."
	Well, Preston certainly seemed to speak crazy moon-man talk, even
when he was speaking Japanese, but Nabiki supposed that that was what 
came of being a crazy foreigner.
	"So, what, are you some kinda cross-dresser or something?" Preston
asked, looking down at one of the many piles of women's undergarments.  
"Just for fun, or do you do a show or something?"  He shuddered.  "Ugh, 
nevermind, don't answer that."
	The fact that Preston was indeed speaking Japanese seemed to 
percolate through some spongy nexus in Happousai's brain.
	"I'm NOT a cross-dresser!" the ancient lecher snapped.  "Have more
respect for your elders!"
	"You're not?" Preston asked incredulously, gingerly picking up a 
little pair of white-with-pink-lace panties from the top of a pile.  
"But why else would you have all this women's underwear?"  He dropped 
the panties back on the pile.  "Unless you're some kind of pervert."
	"I'm NOT a pervert!"
	"So, what, being a cross-dresser wouldn't make him a pervert?" 
Nabiki interjected.
	Preston shook his head thoughtfully.  "No.  Not necessarily.  
Just... a hobbyist."
	Nabiki snorted.
	Happousai stepped toward Preston, the look on his face spelling 
danger to Nabiki's senses.
	"You need to learn some manners.  I don't know what horrible, 
inhumane things you do to old people in gaijin-land, but in Japan you'll
show your elders proper respect!"
	"'Zat so?" Preston said for the second time in as many minutes.  
While his tone remained just as casual, there was a steely glint in his 
eyes.
	Nabiki knew she would have to intervene.  Now.
	"Grandfather is very dangerous," she blurted in English.
	Preston looked up at her, and blinked.
	"'Zat so?"
	Nabiki pressed on, trying to formulate her thoughts in a language
that felt clumsy in her mouth.  "He is very... much... menace to Tendou
house.  And to family.  He hurt Ranma.  Many times he... do bad things."
	Preston nodded slowly.  "I think I understand you," he replied, 
sticking to Japanese.  He turned and stepped to the box he had set down
nearby, and rummaged through it.
	"Do you like swimsuits, too, Grandfather?" he asked, pulling out a
small leather-bound book.
	Happousai perked up.  If he'd had dog ears, they would have stood
at attention.  "Swimsuits?"
	His reaction did not go unnoticed by Preston.  He motioned the old
man over.  "Lemme show you some pictures."  He opened the volume and 
held it down low for the dwarfish Happousai to see.
	"Hmm, pictures... well, not as good as the real thing, but..." 
Happousai muttered as he trod up to Preston's side. 
	"See -- here's me, and that's Kristina, and Julie, and Brenda--"
	"WHOA, MAMA!"  Happousai's eyes went wide as dinner plates.
	Curious to know what Preston was about, but determined to hide her
interest, Nabiki put on a bored expression and walked sedately over to 
peer around his shoulder at the photo album he was showing Happousai.
	The photographs all seemed to be of girls -- young women, high 
school aged perhaps, though it was harder to tell with Westerners.  The
photos had obviously been taken on some beach outing, mostly by Preston
it would appear, since he featured in very few of them.
	"NOW who's a pervert?" she said in an undervoice.  "Taking 
pictures of girls in their swimsuits?"
	Preston grinned at her.  "Look who's talking, Miss Candid 
Photography."
	Nabiki took a step back.  How did he...?  Kunou had made a 
comment, but he had to have gotten the details from someone else.  
Probably Ranma.  She lowered her brows at him in warning.  His grin 
simply transformed into something more reminiscent of a smirk.
	Happousai reached a shaky hand toward one of the pictures, a 
huge, full-page glossy of three bikini-clad girls with snorkels on their
foreheads, arms thrown around each other in smiling camaraderie -- and 
all leaning forward enough to give most young men a severe nasal 
hemorrhage.  He stroked the picture longingly, as if wishing to reach 
through it like some kind of magic window into lecher-land.
	"Wh... where is this place?" he asked, eyes wide.
	"Australia," Preston replied simply.
	"Aaaw-straliaaaah..." Happousai repeated, as if tasting the 
syllables.
	"It's far to the south, so it's warm most of the year, and the 
girls go out to the beach in their swimsuits all the time.  In fact, 
it's Springtime there right now, just the beginning of the real big 
beach season.  All those young women, getting ready to show off their 
swimsuits to men who appreciate the finer things in life.  Men just like
you, Grandfather."
	"Australia..." Happousai whispered again, as if uttering the name 
of some far-off mythical kingdom.
	"I can... tell you how to get there," Preston offered.  "If you 
like."
	Nabiki's jaw dropped, and she hastened to clamp it shut.
	"Tell me!  Show me!"  Happousai's voice was somewhere between 
pleading and demanding.  "I must go there!"
	"Well, you see, it's really quite simple..." Preston began, 
leaning over to sift through the box that had produced the photo album.  
He pulled out a piece of paper and a pen.  "Here, let me just fix you up
a map and some directions.  See, first you gotta catch a boat to 
Vancouver...."
	Nabiki watched with a mix of amusement and trepidation as Preston 
gave Happousai thorough instructions for what had to be the longest, 
most round-about route to Australia.
	Happousai seemed to hang on every word Preston spoke, nodding and 
making encouraging noises, but Nabiki had the feeling that all that was 
going on behind his intent eyes was a continuous loop of imaginary 
Australian girls in bikinis.
	When Preston was finished, Happousai snatched up the paper 
gleefully and bounded out the window without a backward glance.
	"Yahoo!  Hot gaijin mamas, here I come!"
	His cackling faded into the distance.
	"Congratulations," Nabiki said coolly.  "You managed to get rid 
of Happousai.  But with the directions you gave him, he's not likely to
even get out of Tokyo before he gives up and comes back here.  All you 
did was buy yourself some time, and not much of that."
	Preston gave a little laugh.  "Maybe so.  Even if he doesn't make
it all the way to Australia, by the time he gets back I'm sure I'll be 
moved out.  But don't underestimate him -- the drive of pure lechery is 
a powerful force."
	"You'd know," Nabiki threw back at him.
	"Oh?"  His smile widened.  "Is that what you think?  Is that an 
invitation to prove you wrong or... to prove you right?"  He stepped 
toward her, and placed a hand under her chin.
	Nabiki glared up at him, and hoped she wasn't blushing as well 
from his overly-familiar closeness.  "You wouldn't DARE."  He was bold, 
yes, but he wasn't stupid.
	"Wouldn't I?" he said, but dropped his hand.  "But no, you're 
right.  I'm saving my... romantic advances for someone with a soul that 
has a temperature above freezing.  Or maybe just someone with a soul."
	<I'll show you freezing....>  Nabiki narrowed her eyes into a 
razor-sharp edge.  Preston's eyebrows went up as if they'd been 
scorched -- or frost burnt.
	"Whoo.  Even colder than I thought," he said.
	"Get out of here."
	"Sorry, not yet.  But I won't be staying here that long.  Just 
until I find someplace else that's nearby.  For now, this is it."
	Nabiki seethed.  "You can't afford the rent!"
	He leveled a serious gaze at her.  "I'm allowing you the use of my
house and my property.  The LEAST you can do is allow me to crash in 
your attic for awhile.  If you insist on charging me, I'm sure I can 
match the cost against what YOU owe ME and pay the difference.  If there
is any."
	Nabiki gritted her teeth.  "I don't owe you anything.  I NEVER 
owe.  I only collect."
	"What a sad state to be in," Preston remarked.  "Taking, but never
giving."
	The sudden sincere empathy of his words hit Nabiki like a blow, 
and a momentary pang of... something ached in her chest.  But an instant
later it was gone like a bad dream -- much to her relief.
	Nabiki turned away; took a breath.
	"When were you ever in Australia?"
	She could see Preston smile out of the corner of her eye.
	"Last summer.  It was a school trip -- not my school, my friends' 
school.  But I managed to tag along with them."
	"And all of your friends at that school happened to be girls?" 
Nabiki asked.  "Who all liked to wear revealing swimsuits?"
	"Well, it WAS an all-girls school."
	Nabiki's jaw dropped for the second time.  "How did you--?"
	"Get to go on a trip with an all-girls school?  Don't ask.  It's a
long story, and it involves several instances of cross-dressing.  Since 
you said you thought cross-dressing was perverted, I'm afraid the story 
might offend your... delicate sensibilities.  Maybe I'll tell you about 
it if you agree not to charge me rent."

	Standing with hands in his pockets, Ranma watched Kasumi and his 
mother hanging out the laundry to dry.  The breeze had not let up as the
day waxed towards noon, and they wrestled with a blanket as the wind 
buffeted it about playfully.
	Ranma tried to ignore his own irritation.  <Just confront her and 
get it over with already,> he told himself.
	"Look, mom, this idea of yours... it ain't gonna work," he spoke 
up, since Mother seemed intent on ignoring him in favor of her mundane 
task.
	"Oh?  Admitting defeat already?" she asked with a mild, detached 
interest as she clipped one corner of a sheet to the line.
	"No!" Ranma shouted -- somewhat more forcefully than he had 
intended.  But the idea of conceding defeat in any situation... it just 
made his skin crawl.  "That's not what I mean," he said trying to 
compose himself despite his annoyance.  "Akane's out there blubbering 
now 'cause--'cause..." Ranma trailed off.  Just why had Akane been 
crying?  Maybe he should have thought this through before he confronted 
his mother about it.
	"Oh dear," said Kasumi.  "Whatever did you do to make Akane cry?"
	"Hey, who says *I* made her cry?!" Ranma protested.
	"Well, did you?" questioned his mother.
	"No!"
	She fixed him with a level gaze.  "Then why was she crying?"
	That was just what he'd like to know.  But he was SURE that it had
something to do with this damn challenge of his mother's.  "Er... well, 
I guess she started crying 'cause... she wanted to hit me, but... you 
said, you know... no hitting," Ranma finished guiltily, then tried to 
mentally shake the feeling off.  After all, what was there for him to 
feel guilty about anyway?  It was just one of those damn guilt-inducing 
mother-gazes.
	"Hmmm..." his mother considered.  "You didn't call her uncute 
again, did you?"
	"Nuh... no!" Ranma stammered.
	"You're sure you didn't?"  His mother raised an eyebrow.  Ranma 
didn't reply; it was hard to lie to his own mother, even if she hadn't 
raised him very far beyond infancy.
	"Well, if your fiancée is wandering the streets of Tokyo crying, 
what on earth are YOU doing HERE?" she asked, pursing her lips 
critically, her expression becoming, if possible, even more quizzical.  
That look said more than enough: if he went to make up with Akane, his 
mother wouldn't call him on the breach of conduct.
	"Right," Ranma muttered unenthusiastically, and turned to go.  
Ranma saw all too clearly now that his own failures in this unorthodox 
challenge were easily turned to her advantage.  And his ultimate victory
would really be her victory... how then, to defeat her?
	<Mom must have been planning this scheme for a long time,> Ranma 
thought.  If he hadn't known any better, he'd have said Nabiki was 
behind the whole thing -- but that was just absurd.
	"Just a moment, Ranma."
	He turned back to gaze at his mother grumpily.  "What?"
	"Why don't you try apologizing?  I know you're capable of it."
	"Huh?" Ranma grunted in bafflement.  "Whaddya mean, apologizing?"
	"Apologizing.  It means saying you're sorry; taking responsibility
for what you've done -- like a MAN -- then asking for forgiveness."
	Ranma glared.  "I know THAT.  I mean, what am I supposed to be 
apologizing for?"
	Mother's eyes rolled subtly heavenward.
	"Come inside a minute.  I want to talk to you."
	Ranma had a sinking feeling, but he followed her inside anyway.
	"I'll get some tea for you two," Kasumi said as Ranma and his 
mother seated themselves at the table.
	Ranma shifted uncomfortably, waiting for his mother to say 
something.
	"Windy today, isn't it?" she smiled vaguely towards the kitchen 
where Kasumi could be heard preparing hot water.
	"Uh..." Ranma replied, shifting again.
	Mother speared him with her calm eyes.  "So, tell me what 
happened," she said gently.  But Ranma knew it was not the quiet request
it might seem.
	He fidgeted.  "Nuthin'...."
	She remained silent, but her eyes somehow prompted him to speak 
again.
	"Well... it's like this, okay.  When Akane starts acting all sad 
like that, it just... it just bugs the crap outta me!  I dunno why, it 
just does.  It's not like her.  So I... tried to get her angry.  If she
hits me, sure, it hurts, but I can handle it.  At least then I know 
she's not being a crybaby."
	Mother's expression was unreadable.  "I see...."
	Not knowing whether to feel reassurance or not, Ranma pressed on 
anyway.  "So ya see, it's like she NEEDS to hit me.  Or hit something, 
anyway.  So she doesn't get all weepy and stuff."
	In a momentary flash of... something -- fear? -- Ranma realized 
that his explanation played right into his mother's previous assessment:
that he offered himself up as a target for Akane to take out her 
frustration on; that he LET her hit him so she'd feel better.  Was that 
really true?  Was he really an unconsciously complicit punching bag?
	Mother's expression was still calm as usual.  Ranma thought he 
heard her whisper what sounded like, "My son is an idiot," but it could 
have been the wind whistling under the eaves.
	"And when you... tried to make her angry... just how do you think 
it made Akane feel?"
	"Angry, how else?"
	Kasumi entered carrying a tray with three cups of tea.  She set 
one before Ranma, one in front of his mother, and then sat down before 
her own cup to sip gingerly at the still steaming liquid.  Ranma eyed 
his finely painted ceramic cup, gazing at his reflection, green and 
distorted through the softly swirling tea.  Better to wait a bit.  That 
full-body cat-tongue thing that Cologne had put on him may have been 
cured, but it seemed to have lingered a bit in his mouth even after all 
this time.
	Mother sipped her own tea and sighed, but whether at her son or at
the pleasant taste of tea, Ranma couldn't say.  "It may be hard for 
you," she began, "but imagine for a moment that there is someone who you
care about a great deal, someone you don't necessarily always get along 
with but who means a lot to you."
	"Um... alright," Ranma replied warily.  Where was she going with 
this?  He tried to imagine -- not knowing anyone like that, it would 
undoubtedly be difficult.  But for some reason, when he focused his mind
to the task, he was reminded of Akane's smile, like the one she had 
given him earlier that day, and a twinge of the same odd antigravity 
sensation tingled lightly in the region of his solar-plexus.
	<Weird...> he mused.  <Must be, like, a stomach acid flashback or 
something.>
	"Now," his mother was saying, "imagine that this person, whom you 
care about so much, says the one thing that they can say that hurts you 
the most.  How do you think that would make you feel?"
	Ranma rubbed the back of his head.  "Well... I guess I'd feel... 
kinda shitty...?"
	There was that unexplained guilt again.  Where did his mother keep
pulling the stuff from?
	"Pretty damn shitty, I'd say," Mother opined.
	Kasumi nodded in agreement, though she seemed a little incensed at
the choice of language.  Or maybe she was just annoyed at HIM.  There 
was a scary thought.  If Kasumi ever got more than mildly irritated 
with you, you could be pretty certain you'd done something very bad.
	"And could you understand using anger to cover up that pain?" his 
mother asked.
	"Yeah... I guess.  But what's that got to do with anything?"
	Mother smiled ever-so-slightly.  "Congratulations Ranma.  You've 
just put yourself in Akane's shoes."

	"Che!" Ranma muttered as he walked down the street kicking at a 
loose stone, his hands thrust deep in his pockets.  "Akane's shoes... 
Akane's shoes are too small for me, even if she has got big, clunky 
tomboy-feet."  He kicked the stone hard, and it skipped off the top of a
low cinderblock wall and over a house.  Akane didn't care about him like
that... did she?
	Ranma stared down at his shadow, puddled darkly beneath him in the
high noon sunlight.  The wind whipped around the corner and ruffled his 
dark hair as he glowered at the asphalt.
	Well, on the off chance that his mother WAS right, that sure as 
hell didn't explain why Akane hit him all the time.  You don't go around
hitting the people you care about.  HE never hit HER.
	Not that that meant he cared about her or anything.  He just 
didn't hit girls, that was all.
	His eyes followed the shadow cast by the eaves of the next house,
stretching out in a straight line before him.
	Yes.  Plain and simple.  Akane was a girl.  He was a guy -- even 
when he was maybe technically female.  And as a guy, he did not hit 
girls.  And that was all.
	He walked on past the next block of houses, not really sure where
he was going, or where to look if he wanted to find Akane.
	DID he want to find Akane?  He felt... reluctant.
	Afraid?  Surely not.  But he would almost rather flee than face 
this mysterious guilt that his mother's words had awakened in him.  No, 
not awakened; implanted.  He hadn't done anything... had he?
	Ranma's eyelids, teeth, and fists all clenched together as a wave
of frustration washed over him.
	<Chikusho!> he swore silently.
	He inhaled, slowly, through his nostrils -- exhaled.  Ranma opened
his eyes.
	He needed to talk to somebody about this.  Not his mother.  Not 
his fiancée.  Pop was right out.  He needed to talk to someone who would
listen.  Not someone who would just wait for their turn to talk, but 
someone who would really... listen.
	Rising to his toes, Ranma spun and leapt atop the low cinderblock 
wall, and from there onto the roof of a nearby house, following the path
of the stone he'd kicked as he made his way back to the dojo.

	"Hey, listen, Kouryuu, can I... talk to you for a sec?"
	Kouryuu looked up from the book he was perusing while idly doing 
some stretches in a secluded corner of the spacious Tendou yard.  
Ranma's anxious face greeting his eyes.  Kouryuu straightened, bringing 
his one vertical leg down and closing his book.
	"Of course, Ranma-san.  What do you wish to discuss?"
	Ranma's gaze flicked away off to his right somewhere, then up at 
the sky.  Whatever he had been planning to say he had apparently lost 
his nerve -- very unlike him.  It hinted that something was bothering 
Ranma a great deal.  Kouryuu simply waited patiently for him to find his
way back to the subject.
	"Uh..." Ranma began, still not meeting Kouryuu's gaze, "what're 
you reading?"
	"Oh, this?"  Kouryuu glanced at the book he'd almost forgotten he 
was holding.  "Oh, nothing, really.  It's just a book on martial arts 
that Emi, er, Sakai-san lent me."  He looked at the title, "It's called,
'The Book of Five Rings.'  Have you read it?"
	Ranma shook his head distractedly.  "Not much for books."
	"Sakai-san said every martial artist should read it.  She was 
shocked I hadn't, but I suppose that's what comes from being raised in a
secluded monastery in the mountains," Kouryuu said.  "Nothing really 
new in here, for you and me, I'd guess, but interesting nonetheless."
	Kouryuu had only really been paging through it.  He usually found 
martial arts texts only mildly diverting at best.  Serious reading time 
he reserved for more engaging material -- like Kasumi's fascinating 
collection of what she had called "shoujo manga."  Much to his delight,
the eldest Tendou daughter had generously lent Kouryuu the whole lot.  
She claimed they no longer held her interest like they used to, but for
the life of him, Kouryuu couldn't fathom why.
	<I suppose I'll never understand women,> he thought.
	"So, about growing up in a monastery..." Ranma was saying.  "I 
know you might not know much about women, but...."
	Kouryuu had to wonder if Ranma had been reading his thoughts.  
	"I can't say that I know much about women, no."
	Ranma shrugged.  "Yeah, me neither."  He made the admission almost
dejectedly, but with a distinct air of relief.
	Kouryuu's brows went up.  Did this mean that other men found women
as incomprehensible as Kouryuu did?  Or... maybe ALL men found women 
incomprehensible...?
	<No, that's preposterous,> Kouryuu told himself.  <What sort of 
cruel joke would the world be if that were true?>
	"So, I was wondering..." Ranma went on.  "Do chicks, like, ever...
really GET to you?"
	Kouryuu considered this.  "I suppose.  Could you... be more 
specific?"
	Ranma's eyes searched back and forth, as if he were scanning some 
distant and deeply troubling manuscript.  "I mean... do they ever... has
a girl ever done something that bothered you more than it should have? 
And you couldn't explain why?"  Now that he'd finally gotten going, 
Kouryuu saw it was like a floodgate had opened, and everything on 
Ranma's worried mind seemed to come out in a stream of pent-up 
frustration.  "So, maybe you go and do something dumb, and you can't 
really explain that either, but you were TRYING to do the right thing, 
but you just end up saying something STUPID and messing things up more,
and then your MOM gets on your case--"
	Kouryuu walked up and placed his hands on Ranma's shoulders.  
"Breathe," he said, trying to keep his voice calm and even.
	Ranma sucked in a huge breath, and held it.  After a moment, he 
let it out again.  "Sorry.  I'm just babbling."  He turned away, 
breaking Kouryuu's loose hold on his shoulders.  "I'll... leave you 
alone."
	"Wait."
	Ranma looked up, hope and fear clearly written in his gaze.
	Kouryuu sighed.  "I... may not be the best person to ask about 
this, but... I'm willing to listen."  He gestured to the grass beneath a
small tree tucked into the very corner of the wall that surrounded the 
two residences and dojos.  Ranma sat, and Kouryuu joined him, both 
settling themselves cross-legged on the still slightly damp grass.
	"Now," Kouryuu said.  "Is this about Akane?"
	Ranma didn't answer, just sat pulling strands of grass up with one
hand, his eyes downcast.  He mumbled something that sounded like, 
"Stupid dumb macho chick don't even..." and trailed off, his words 
becoming too quiet and incoherent for Kouryuu to make anything out.
	Eventually, the story came out, this time somewhat less rushed.  
Kouryuu didn't interrupt, even for clarification, but just let Ranma get
the whole thing out in his own rambling way.  Half the time it sounded 
like Ranma was defending himself, half the time berating himself, but 
Kouryuu was able to get a pretty good idea of what had happened, of what
had apparently been happening for quite some time now between Ranma and 
his fiancée, as well as the new development of this "challenge" from 
Ranma's mother.
	When the tale was done, Kouryuu sat for awhile mulling over how to
respond.  Ranma watched him silently, his gaze growing more anxious with
each passing moment, prompting Kouryuu to speak.
	"Bear with me here, please, Ranma-san," Kouryuu began hesitantly, 
"I don't know much about women, so this might seem a little irrelevant 
but... I'm sure you know that you never want to let yourself fall into a
pattern when fighting, right?  Especially a pattern of attack and 
defense that your opponent can see through and exploit?"
	Ranma blinked.  "Of course.  You use any patterns in your 
opponent's style against him and make sure he can't do the same to you.
That's a major part of the Anything Goes school."
	"And of any worthy style," Kouryuu agreed.  "But all humans fall 
into patterns very easily.  In my experience, the world is virtually 
made up of patterns for people to fall into.  If you take a step back 
and look around you, your whole life revolves around patterns.  Each 
day you get up, you go to school, you come home...."
	Kouryuu paused.  He wasn't even sure himself where he was going 
with this.  He felt like a blind man following a piece of fishing line 
through a dark void.  But the line was there.  And Ranma was sitting up 
straight and watching him attentively, waiting for him to continue, 
so... maybe this line of reasoning was going somewhere after all.
	"These patterns aren't always bad.  But if you fall into an 
unhealthy pattern, it can be hard to see it -- even harder to break out 
of it."
	He paused again, gathering his thoughts.
	"When I was a very small child, the other boys at the monastery 
picked on me to no end.  I got into the pattern of being their victim.  
Then one day I got fed up with it, and I fought back.  Of course, they 
learned to gang up on me, and I fell into a pattern of fighting back and
losing.  Later, when I'd developed my martial arts style with fighting 
multiple opponents in mind, I was able to break out of the pattern 
again, and I started winning every fight instead of losing.  But that 
wasn't the end, because I fell into a new pattern -- a pattern of 
horrible violence, fighting every day and... 'beating the tar out of' my
fellow novices.  That pattern was the worst, because it lasted the 
longest and was the hardest to break out of.  It's only been about five 
years since I left the monastery and vowed to dedicate myself to the 
perfection of the art and the self, and not simply the perpetuation of 
violence."
	Ranma was staring at Kouryuu somewhat wide-eyed.
	Kouryuu looked away.  "I'm... sorry, I don't know if what I'm 
saying is of any help to you.  I feel like I'm just monologuing idly."
	"No," Ranma disagreed, to Kouryuu's surprise.  "I... I think I see
what you're getting at."  He paused, licking his lips, his eyes once 
again searching.  "I guess what you're saying is... me an' Akane... 
we've got ourselves in a pattern we need to break out of.  A pattern 
where she hits me and stuff."
	Ranma had put it into words much more succinctly and accurately 
than Kouryuu could have even summarized the vague impressions in his 
head.  "Yes," he confirmed.
	Ranma laughed with relief.  "So it really isn't my fault!"
	Kouryuu pursed his lips.  "Ah... it's not about whose fault it is.
It's about taking responsibility and making an effort to break out of 
the bad pattern -- and with any luck, establish a better one."
	Ranma's face fell.  He chewed his lip.  "But... how'm I supposed 
to do that?"
	Kouryuu sighed, shaking his head.  "You talked to your mother, 
right?  What did she say you should do?"
	Ranma frowned.  "Said I should apologize."
	"That sounds like a reasonable suggestion to me."
	Ranma's frown just deepened as he fidgeted with a few loose 
strands of grass he had uprooted.
	Kouryuu thought for a moment.  "You know, Preston would be a 
better person to talk to about your troubles with Akane.  He knows a lot
more about relationships than I do, especially male-female ones."
	"Actually," Ranma replied, his face pensive, "I kinda did talk to 
him about it.  A little.  A while back."
	"And what advice did he give you?"
	Ranma threw the strands of grass into the wind with a frustrated 
jerk of his arm.  "That I should talk to Akane about all this."
	Kouryuu nodded.  "Both of those sound like good ideas.  You should
try them."
	Ranma met his gaze.  "What would YOU do?"
	Kouryuu put a hand up and scratched his chin.  What WOULD he do?
	"Watch for the pattern," he answered.  "Just like in martial arts.
Watch for the pattern, and when you see it, stop.  Compose yourself.  
Because you're part of the pattern, and the only way you can break it is
to stop being a part of it.  I think I knew that in the back of my mind,
when I attacked those Amazons near the monastery.  I think I as TRYING 
to get banished -- I had to leave to break the pattern."
	"Are you saying I should just... leave?"
	"No," Kouryuu replied.  "Leaving was probably the only way I could
break the pattern I'd fallen into, because it involved me and a dozen or
more others who weren't about to cooperate with me.  But for you it's 
different.  If you talk to Akane, you can BOTH work to break the 
pattern.  You can work to break it together."
	Ranma's gaze went distant.  "... Together...."
	"Ranma!" a voice broke in.  "What are you still doing here?"
	Kouryuu looked around.  Saotome Nodoka stood just a stone's throw 
away, frowning severely with her hands on her hips.
	Ranma just glared at her.  "None of your business."
	Nodoka's mouth fell open.  "Don't talk to your mother like that!"
	Ranma didn't respond, just stood and turned toward the wall.
	"Ranma, don't turn away from me when I'm talking to you!  RANMA!
Where do you think you're going?"
	Ranma shot an annoyed glance back over his shoulder as he vaulted
over the wall.  "T'find Akane, where else?"
	Nodoka's expression softened as her son disappeared from view.  
Kouryuu wondered if her anger had been partially or even wholly an act.
 	"So," she said calmly.  "He came to you for advice, did he?"
	"Apparently so," Kouryuu answered, rising and brushing grass and 
dew from his hakama.
	"Well," Nodoka said.  "I certainly hope you advised him in the 
right direction."
	"Madam," Kouryuu bowed.  "If he learned half as much from our 
discussion as I did, I'm sure he'll be fine."

	Ranma finally found Akane sitting down by the river's edge.  She 
was gazing out across the water, her back to him, and was completely 
unaware of his presence.
	He could slip away unnoticed, and not disturb her....
	Ranma blew out his breath in a sigh.  No.  That would be cowardly.
And he had more or less promised his mother he would... do something.  
Apologize?  The very idea irked him.  It would be like admitting he was
wrong, when it was really this repeating pattern of fighting that was 
wrong.  Ranma himself held no blame, right?
	<Keep telling yourself that,> a little voice inside him said.
	<Shut up.>
	Ranma considered his options.  Leaving without saying anything was
out of the question.  Well, at least he could try and talk to her like 
Preston had suggested.
	"Hey, Akane...?" he ventured gingerly.
	Akane turned.  She wasn't crying, but had the red-eyed look of 
someone who had been.  At the sight, a tiny something wrenched painfully
inside Ranma, and he struggled to jam it back into place.
	<Break the pattern,> he told himself, and felt a bit calmer.
	Akane just turned away again, clasping her arms about her knees.
	"What do you want, Ranma?"  Her tone was hollow, dismissive.
	"Akane, I... um...."
	Ranma screwed up his face.  What to do?  Explain?  That never 
seemed to work in the past -- Akane didn't listen.  <Find the pattern...
break the pattern...>
	"I've been thinking..." he said.
	"How novel for you," Akane said blandly.
	"No, I'm saying I've been thinking about this thing my mom is 
making us do," Ranma pressed on, trying to ignore her irritating comment
and tone.  "Maybe it's not such a bad idea?  I mean, we don't really 
gotta fight all the time, right?  It's like..." he was trying to reach 
for the glimpse of revelation that Kouryuu had given him, but it seemed 
to retreat before his mental fingertips, and a rising panic started to 
grip him.  "It's like, uh, we're in this pattern, see?  And -- and we 
gotta break out of it, 'cause, uhm, 'cause you're always hitting me, and
it hurts.  So maybe you should stop doing that, like Mom says, right?"
	As he had been talking, the muscles in Akane's neck had tightened 
visibly, and she sat rigid, still gazing away from him.
	"Uh... Akane?" he ventured cautiously, fearing he had just said 
something he shouldn't have, again.  What the heck HAD he said?
	Akane stood, turned, walked up to Ranma, grabbed the front of his
shirt in both hands, and tossed him headlong into the river.
	Ranma came up spluttering and female.  "Hey, what the heck'd you 
do that for?" she growled as best she could in her girly mezzo-soprano,
clambering out of the water.
	"Jerk!" was all Akane answered.  She turned to stalk off.
	"Wah-wait a minute!  Akane!"
	"I don't wanna hear it, Ranma!"
	Ranma felt a new kind of panic rush up through her.  That tiny 
piece inside threatening to wrench loose again.
	"Akane, willya listen to me for once!" Ranma cried as she dashed 
up the embankment and leapt into Akane's path, throwing her arms wide.
	Akane shifted into a fighting stance.  "Get out of my way, Ranma!"
	"No!" Ranma fairly shouted.
	"You wanna fight?!"
	"NO!"
	Akane took a step back, clearly startled by the force of the 
outburst.
	"I DON'T wanna fight, Akane!  That's what I'm tryin' to tell ya!  
I DON'T wanna fight, and I don't wanna get hit no more!"
	Akane had regained enough of her composure to fight back.  "What 
are you yelling at ME for, dummy!  You're the one who was acting like a
jerk!  You were practically ASKING for me to hit you earlier, and I 
still didn't!"
	Ranma opened her mouth to retort, but something gave her pause.  
Kouryuu's words from earlier floated back to her: <Watch for the 
pattern, and when you see it, stop.  Compose yourself.>
	Ranma took a breath.  <Find the pattern,> she thought.  <Break the
pattern.>
	Akane was watching her, looking somewhat confused by her lapse 
into silence.
	Now Mother's words came back to her: <... taking responsibility 
for what you've done -- like a man -- and then asking forgiveness.>
	"Uh, yeah," he started.  "About... earlier.  I'm..." he braced 
himself, "I'm... real sorry.  I... guess I did kinda act like a jerk.  I
thought if I made you angry, then you wouldn't be sad anymore.  It 
was... stupid.  Sorry."  Ranma felt strangely like a weight had been 
lifted from her shoulders.
	Akane was staring at her in complete bewilderment.  "Ranma... are 
you... feeling all right?"
	"Hey, I said I was sorry, okay?" Ranma griped, shoving her hands 
into damp pockets.
	"O-... okay," Akane said hesitantly.  "Um... apology accepted...?"
	Ranma's head snapped up.  "R-really?"
	Akane favored her with a shy smile.  "Yes, really.  Don't look so 
surprised."
	"Mmh," Ranma grunted, finding herself unable to form coherent 
speech for some reason.
	Akane was studying her face.  "What... brought this on?  Just a 
second ago you were ready to blame everything on me."
	Ranma looked away at the horizon.  "I dunno.  I guess I was 
babbling.  I think... we're both to blame, really.  That's what Kouryuu 
was saying.  We make the pattern.  We're responsible for it."
	Akane's brow furrowed.  "What are you talking about?  What 
pattern?"
	"C'mon," Ranma turned.  "I'll tell you about it on the way back to
the dojo.  I need to change outta these wet clothes."

	"Look, Mom..." a still damp and female Ranma was saying to her 
mother.  "I think there's gotta be some kinda time limit on this 
challenge thing."
	Akane looked on silently as Auntie Saotome moved about the living 
area of the house that Preston had reportedly lent her the use of -- 
indefinitely, and free of charge.  She straightened things distractedly,
pointedly not looking at her son-in-female-form.
	"Why do you say that, Ranma?" Auntie asked.
	"'Cause any good challenge needs a time limit, or it's no 
challenge at all.  If I said I could run from here to Hiroshima and back
and then it took me twenty years to do it, nobody'd be impressed."
	Akane didn't think it would be wise to point out that distance 
running became more challenging the shorter the time limit was, whereas 
this challenge from Ranma's mother was quite the opposite.  If Ranma was
just trying to trick her mother into setting a very short time limit, 
Akane doubted it would work.
	Auntie Saotome stood up from adjusting couch cushions, finally 
looking at her son.  "Ranma, I don't want to discuss this with you right
now.  Go change back into a man and put on some dry clothes.  Then 
maybe we can talk about time limits."
	Grumbling, Ranma spun on her heel, and Akane turned to follow her 
out -- and almost bumped right into her as she suddenly stopped in her 
tracks.
	"Break the pattern..." Akane heard Ranma whisper.
	Ranma spun back around to face her mother.  "No, Mom, I think we 
should talk about this now."
	Auntie Saotome, who had gone back to work, looked up at Ranma and 
grimaced.  "There's nothing to say.  Now go change back into a man.  You
can use the bathroom down the hall, if you like.  There's running water 
now."
	Ranma stepped back into the room, clearly refusing to be dismissed
or ignored.  Akane's gaze flicked back and forth between her and her 
mother.
	"Ranma," Auntie said pointedly.  "I will NOT discuss anything 
further with you until you're back in your proper form.  In fact, I 
don't want you in this house like that."
	The flame of anger in Ranma's eyes mirrored Auntie Saotome's, and 
was threatening to build into a far greater inferno.
	"So I'm a girl right now," Ranma said with a mock-casualness that 
failed to veil her rising anger.  "You know what?  Deal with it, Mom!  
Okay?  I'm your son whether I've got tits or not!"
	Akane tried to stifle a blush and a laugh -- but it was clear that
Ranma wasn't joking, and she wasn't finished either.
	"I've got to deal with it, so you can just suck it up and deal 
with it too.  You're not the one who has to LIVE in this body."
	"Well I don't want my son parading about like some... some cross-
dressing drag queen!" his mother retorted.
	"What the f--?  I'm not even DRESSED like a girl!  Shit, what 
world are you living in, huh?  What decade?  What fucking CENTURY!?  
Walking around with a damned katana all the time, you're stuck in the 
Edo period or something!  You call me immature -- you can't even accept 
your own son for who he is!"
	"Who SHE is," Akane giggled quietly, nearly hysteric from the 
shock of Ranma's tirade.
	Auntie Saotome's face had gone grim.  "Get out of here.  I can't 
believe that you'd say such things to your own mother.  As far as I'm 
concerned, the challenge lasts indefinitely.  And if you can't live up 
to it..." she paused, her eyes fierce, "then you are no longer my son."
	"Fine!"  Ranma turned and stormed from the room, and Akane 
hastened to follow.  Skittering a fearful glance back over her shoulder 
as she went, Akane saw Auntie Saotome collapse back on the couch, 
looking suddenly very weary and -- for the first time since Akane had 
known her -- old.
	<Ranma...> Akane thought.  <What have you done?>

	"She needed to hear it," Ranma said without being prompted as she
tromped out across the grounds, heading for the Tendou house.  "Gotta 
break the pattern.  She sends me away 'cause -- 'cause I'm like this, 
an' I just go.  Not any more.  I'm her son, damnit.  I'm her SON."
	Akane wasn't sure if Ranma was talking to her or just talking to 
herself, so she didn't answer.
	"SAOTOME RANMA!"
	The voice boomed out from their left.  Akane spun -- too late, 
something was coming straight for them.  Ranma grabbed her by the waist 
and leapt away, just as the indistinct figure blurred passed them.
	<Ryouga-kun,> Akane realized.  What was--?
	Halfway across the yard, Preston was carrying a box toward the 
Tendou house -- Akane guessed it was stuff he was moving from the house 
where Auntie Saotome was taking up residence.  The unfortunate foreigner
looked up and around at the last second, just in time to see the black 
nose of Ryouga's umbrella, which was coming directly for his head with 
all the power of a bullet train.
	A momentary look of surprise on Preston's face was followed an 
instant later by what looked like resigned annoyance.  Then the umbrella
plowed into his forehead, the box dropped to the ground, and he was sent
flying back half a dozen meters to land smack in the middle of the pond.
	Ryouga seemed not to notice that he'd hit something, and he skid 
to a halt, rounding on Ranma with canines bared.
	"Ranma!  What's this I hear about you making Akane-san cry!?"
	"What's it to you, pig-boy?" Ranma quipped, dancing away from 
Akane and out into the open, ready for a fight.
	Akane remembered what Ranma had told her about "patterns."
	"I'm fine, Ryouga-kun," she said calmly, stepping forward and 
blocking the would-be combatants' line of sight to each other.  "There's
no need to fight."
	"There... there isn't?" Ryouga asked, brow furrowed.
	"Aw, hell, Akane," Ranma interrupted, stepping around her.  "I 
could use a good fight.  C'mon, pork chops, let's tango."
	Ryouga looked like he was about to respond, when a bokken 
connected solidly with his head from behind.
	"Ow!  What in the world?"  Ryouga stepped aside to reveal Piku 
standing just behind him.
	"Who the heck are you?" Ryouga demanded.
	"Hasegawa Piku," he responded.  "You need to watch where you jab 
that umbrella.  Someone could get hurt.  And it's likely to be you."
	Ryouga growled.  "Is that a threat?"
	"It's a promise," Piku replied, smirking.
	Kouryuu had come out of the house with a steaming kettle.  "Good 
afternoon, Hibiki-san," he said amiably, completely breaking the moment 
of tension.  "It's good to see you again so soon."  Kouryuu proceeded to
pour the contents of the kettle over Ranma's head, then handed him a 
towel; Ranma mumbled his thanks.
	"Uh... nice... nice to see you again, too," Ryouga stammered, his 
train of thought obviously derailed by the sudden interjection of polite
friendliness into what had been shaping up into a hostile encounter.
	Kouryuu emptied the remainder of the hot water onto Piku.
	Preston blinked away water and looked at Kouryuu.  "Thanks, but 
that wasn't really necessary."
	"Since he hit you while you were still Preston, I thought you 
might want to make your retaliation in this form," Kouryuu confided.
	Preston wrung out the front of his wet shirt.  "Meh, whatever."  
He turned to Ryouga -- who looked more confused than ever -- and raised 
his bokken.  "You hit me in the head with that thing," he pointed to 
Ryouga's umbrella.  "Care to try again?  Or... are you scared?  Eh, 
scaredy-cat?"
	Ryouga's face immediately went from bewildered to angry.  "I don't
know what you're talking about, or why your hair just changed color, but
nobody calls ME a coward and gets away with it!"
	Raising his umbrella high overhead, Ryouga brought it down in a 
double-handed blow that could have split a mountain.  Preston raised his
own weapon to ward off the attack, a hand at each end of the bokken -- 
but it was too powerful, driving Preston to his knees and pushing his 
bokken down until the umbrella struck his head.
	"Ha!" Ryouga cried triumphantly.  He started to lift his umbrella 
away.  Akane expected Preston to collapse in a heap on the ground. 
Instead, he suddenly lashed out with his bokken, sweeping Ryouga's 
umbrella neatly aside, and then launched himself from his kneeling 
position so that the top of his head slammed straight into Ryouga's 
baffled and completely unguarded face.
	Ryouga staggered and fell.  He groaned and sat up, rubbing his 
head.  "What... what the...?"  He blinked and looked around.
	"He's still conscious," Kouryuu remarked aside to Akane and Ranma.
"That's very impressive.  I've never seen anyone withstand Preston's 
ultimate Crouching Ram technique like that.  In fact, I recall one young
fellow who couldn't recall his own name for a good three or four hours.  
After he woke up, that is."
	Preston sauntered up, grinning.  "Can't win against me when I'm 
using my head."  He rapped his bokken against the side of his skull.  
"I've been conditioning it for years.  Hardest thing on the planet."
	Ranma snorted, but looked duly impressed, if a bit weirded-out.
	"Why didn't you use that technique when you were fighting Kunou?" 
Akane asked.
	"I wanted to give him a sporting chance," Preston replied.  "Plus 
I was kinda too pissed to concentrate."  He grimaced.  "Don't like 
fighting angry.  Ruins the fun."
	Kouryuu stepped over to Ryouga and offered him a hand up.  "You're
a tough one, Hibiki-san.  Ever thought about training here with us at 
the dojo?"
	"What?" Ranma blurted.  "Him?  But you can't-- I mean he's just--"
	Ranma continued to splutter ineffectually, while Ryouga went 
momentarily starry-eyed, and looked over at Akane -- for morale support?
She tried to smile reassuringly, but his eyes just went from starry to 
glazed-over.
	"Me?  Train here?  With... with...."
	"No pressure, of course," Kouryuu reassured him.  "Just an 
invitation.  You could help us with endurance training.  That way you 
could be an instructor, and you wouldn't have to pay lesson fees."
	"Endurance training?" Ryouga repeated, still looking nonplussed.
Maybe the blow to the head had done more damage than it seemed.  "So, 
I'd be an instructor?"
	Akane smiled.  "Hibiki Ryouga-sensei.  How does that sound?"
	Ryouga looked at her, and swallowed.
	"Not possible!" Ranma burst out.  "He'd get lost on the way to 
classes!"
	"I would not!" Ryouga protested.  Akane was afraid to vouch for 
him on that.  Ranma had a point.
	Kouryuu gave Ranma a questioning look.
	"The guy's got NO sense of direction!" Ranma said.  "He's got a 
biological compass with no little metal pointer thingy!"  He pointed to 
his palm and made little circular motions, as if indicating a compass 
that just spun endlessly without ever showing the way.
	Kouryuu nodded, as if he'd expected as much, and Akane remembered
that Kouryuu and Ryouga had first met when they'd run into each other 
somewhere in Nerima and made their way back to the Dojo together.  
Likely Kouryuu had gotten some picture of Ryouga's handicap back then.
	"One of the old monks at the monastery told me about a condition 
that renders a person virtually directionless," Kouryuu said.  "He also 
talked about a way to fix the problem, using pressure points."
	Everyone stared at Kouryuu in disbelief -- except for Preston, who
just looked somewhere between bored and quizzical.
	Ranma was the first one to speak up.  "Are you saying... you could
CURE Ryouga's bad sense of direction?"
	"Possibly," Kouryuu replied.  "But... there could be... side 
effects, of one kind or another."
	Ryouga stared at Kouryuu for a moment.  Then he turned away, his 
face thoughtful.  Akane held her breath.
	When he turned back, the light of determination had entered 
Ryouga's eyes.  "Do it," he said.
	Kouryuu hesitated.  "Are you sure about this?"
	Ryouga nodded, his gaze falling on Ranma.  "I've seen hell 
already.  I doubt anything you could do could be any worse."
	Seeming to accept this, Kouryuu approached him.  The tall martial 
artist moved with a confidence that must have reassured Ryouga, because  
Akane could see him relax visibly as Kouryuu proceeded to poke here and 
prod there in different places on Ryouga's back, sides, neck, and at the
base of his skull, sometimes having him lift his arms or cock his head 
to one side or the other.
	"There," Kouryuu pronounced, taking a step back.  "How do you 
feel, Hibiki-san?"
	"... Fine," Ryouga replied, blinking, as if feeling fine were 
a bit unusual, like something he hadn't been expecting or something he 
wasn't quite used to.
	"Do you feel any different than before."
	Ryouga considered, and shook his head.  "Not... really."
	"What, so it didn't work?" Ranma said.
	"Ranma!" Akane hissed at him.
	Kouryuu held up a hand to stall any further comment.  "Now for the
test.  Hibiki-san, I would like you to close your eyes and slowly turn 
to face north, please."
	Ryouga closed his eyes.  He executed a slow turn, then opened his 
eyes.  "That way."
	"But..." Ranma stammered, "that's... that's right!"
	Ryouga's face lit up with delight.
	"I... I'm cured!"
	"Oh, Ryouga-san!" Akane cried, overjoyed for him.  She wanted to 
run up and hug him, but was afraid she'd make him feel uncomfortable.
	"Huh," Preston commented, looking only slightly less bored than he
had just a moment before.
	"Howsabout that!" Ranma grinned, slamming Ryouga on the back.  
"Congratulations, buddy!"
	Laughing for joy, Ryouga gave Ranma a playful punch in the 
shoulder, bowling him completely over.  "It's like a miracle!"
	"Wait," Kouryuu's voice broke in on any further celebration.  "As 
I said before, there might be side effects.  The test's not over yet."
	Ryouga sobered very quickly, and Ranma did likewise, scrambling 
hastily to his feet.  Akane glanced between Ryouga and Kouryuu in worry 
as Kouryuu approached Ryouga once again.
	Kouryuu held up four fingers.  "How many fingers am I holding up?"
	"Four," Ryouga answered.
	"What color is my shirt?" Kouryuu asked, pointing at his shirt.
	"Green."
	"What's your name?"
	"Hibiki Ryouga."
	"Which way is up?"
	"That way," Ryouga pointed.  Then he frowned, gazing up at the 
sky.  "Hey, isn't it a little bright out for this time of night?"
	Kouryuu's face fell.  "Oh, no."
	"Night?" Akane questioned.  "Ryouga... it's still afternoon."
	"It is?" Ryouga asked, brows furrowed.  "But..."
	"Hibiki-san," Kouryuu said, regaining Ryouga's attention.  "What 
day is it?"
	Ryouga opened his mouth.  A puzzled look came over his face.  He 
shut his mouth, then opened it again -- then shut it, his expression 
growing even more puzzled.
	Ranma walked up to him, his eyes searching Ryouga's face.  He 
placed his hands on Ryouga's shoulders.  "C'mon buddy, you know what day
it is, right?"
	Ryouga just shook his head.
	"What month it is...?"
	Ryouga shook his head.
	"What season?  What YEAR?"
	Ryouga shook his head again, his face like a ghost's.
	Ranma stepped away, his arms falling limply to his sides.
	"North...?" Ranma asked hesitantly, his expression nearly 
matching Ryouga's.
	Ryouga paused, then lifted a hand, almost forlornly, to point to 
the north.
	"East?"
	Ryouga pointed east.
	"His direction sense is fine," Kouryuu interrupted, his own face 
grim.
	"Yeah, but you traded the pointer on his biological compass for 
the ones on his biological clock!" Ranma burst out.  "He's got no sense 
of time!"  He gestured helplessly at Ryouga.  "How can he help instruct 
classes like this?  Sure, he won't get lost on the way to classes -- but
he won't know when the hell to show up!"
	Akane swallowed the fear that had gripped her throat.  "Maybe... 
maybe it would be best if you just... put him back the way he was."
	Ryouga, still silent as a ghost, turned his gaze on Kouryuu.
	Kouryuu had a pained expression on his noble features.  "I... 
can't."
	"What?!" Akane blurted at the same time that Ranma did.
	Kouryuu closed his eyes and put a hand to his face.  "The old monk
only showed me the one procedure.  I can't reverse it."
	Ryouga hung his head heavily.  "I'm... I'm stuck like this... 
forever...."
	"What about Toufuu-sensei?" Ranma suggested.  He glanced at 
Ryouga.  "I bet he'll know what to do."
	"He's away at a seminar," Akane said, her voice sounding hollow in
her own ears.  "In Nagoya.  He said he could be gone for weeks...."
	A dead silence fell over the group.
	"Well, hey, only a week or so, right?" Ranma said, trying to 
sound cheerful and failing.  "Not so bad, eh, Ryouga?  That's not such a
long... time..." he trailed off into more silence.
	"Ranma...."  Ryouga raised his head slowly.  "This is all YOUR 
fault!"
	Ryouga leapt at Ranma, his fist passing through the space that 
Ranma's head had occupied an instant earlier as Ranma stepped aside in 
the nick of time.  He grabbed Ryouga's wrist as he went by, and Ryouga 
tumbled forward into a somersault and rolled to a stop, sitting up on 
his haunches.  Ranma's defense had looked strikingly like Kouryuu's 
style of combat, and Akane realized that Kouryuu's method of redirecting
the force of an enemy's attack would work most effectively against a 
power-oriented assailant like Ryouga.  Ranma had probably picked up on 
that fact instinctively while sparring with Kouryuu.
	Ryouga glared back over his shoulder at Ranma
	"Get up and fight," Ranma said, anticipation clear in his voice.
	"There's no need to fight," Kouryuu broke in.  "Ryouga, I don't 
know why you're blaming Ranma.  This is clearly all my fault."
	Ryouga stood, brushing himself off, a bemused expression on his 
face.  "But... it's always been Ranma's fault before."
	"Hey!" Ranma protested, stepping forward menacingly.
	Kouryuu glanced aside at Ranma.  "Well this time it's my fault.  
Akane-san," Kouryuu said, turning to her.  "You and Ranma-san mentioned 
a doctor you know who might know how to fix Ryouga's... condition.  
Where is he in Nagoya now?  I'll go seek him out immediately."
	Akane nodded, her throat dry.  "Uhm.  Kasumi told me about the 
seminar.  You should ask her."
	"Please excuse me," Kouryuu said hastily, and stepped inside, 
leaving his sandals strewn on the ground.
	For a moment, they all just stared at each other, unsure what to 
do next.
	"Well, this has all been fascinating, really," Preston finally 
said, pulling out a pocket-watch.  "But Piku's gotta make an appearance 
at Ucchan's tonight, so I'll catch you all later, 'kay?"
	He glanced up at Ryouga, then back down at the pocket-watch.  He 
walked over and handed the watch to Ryouga.  "I think maybe you'd better
hang on to that for now."
	Ryouga looked down at the watch in his palm.  "Um... thanks."

	"I should not think I need remind you, Tendou Nabiki, that missing
our meetings these past days does no service to either of us.  Indeed, 
it quite nearly gives solace to our enemy."
	<What the hell do you know?> Nabiki thought irritably as she slid 
into the booth across from Kunou.  She had had plenty of reason to avoid
meeting him the past few days.  As it was, she'd made sure that this 
meeting place -- a restaurant she'd never been to and never met anyone 
else at before -- was a good two-hour train ride from the dojo.
	"New development," she said.  "I've been busy trying to patch up a
potential hole in our safety-net of counter-rumors and misdirection."
	"You mean your web of lies," Kunou corrected.  "Whilst I have kept 
myself occupied by destroying every piece of electronic equipment in my 
father's possession, as well as sabotaging his wardrobe, for the sake 
of, as you say, distraction.  What 'potential hole' do you speak of?"
	"Sabotaging his...?"  Nabiki waved it away.  "Nevermind.  Don't 
tell me.  ESPECIALLY if it involved superglue."
	"Superglue?  Ha.  You lack imagination, Tendou Nabiki."
	Nabiki ignored him.  "The potential hole I'm talking about is 
Preston."
	"That wretch again?"  Kunou grimaced.  "Do not tell me that there 
is some truth behind the rumors that you and he--"
	Nabiki pulled out the blackmail photo and slapped it down on the 
table in front of Kunou.  "He knows about the engagement."
	Kunou sank back in his seat, his face thoughtful as he gazed at 
the picture.  "I see.  That does... complicate things.  But... what 
would he have to gain by exposing this farcical betrothal that fetters 
us?"  His eyes flicked in Nabiki's direction.  "Unless he is indeed 
infatuated with thee...."
	"Not very damn likely," Nabiki replied, returning the photo to 
it's by-now-customary place in her blouse.  "Seems he's got the hots for
Ukyou."
	Kunou's eyebrow's went up.  "That Kuonji girl that Saotome strings
along with his fell magicks?  Good luck to him if he wishes to break 
the Sorcerer's spell."
	Nabiki sighed.  Sometimes she wondered how Kunou could be so 
reasonable and coherent one moment and then spout such delusional 
nonsense in the next.
	"Anyway," she went on, "I'll handle Preston.  He made a... 
request, in exchange for his silence on the matter.  I'll make certain 
his little plan backfires on him spectacularly."
	"What did the knave ask of you, exactly?"
	Nabiki made an abstract gesture with one hand.  "He... asked me to
help two people get together.  Two people who really like each other but
are afraid to admit it."
	Kunou looked duly impressed.  "A noble enough cause that -- the 
pursuit of true love's fulfillment.  Whom did he ask you to thus aid?"
	"Better if I didn't tell you, Kunou-chan."
	"Very well, Tendou Nabiki.  You may keep your own counsel.  But 
how do you intend to punish the outlander dog for his interference, as 
you so blithely claimed you will?"
	Nabiki smiled.  "Leave that to me."

	It was late, but for reasons he couldn't explain, Ranma was wide 
awake.  He wandered the darkened streets of Nerima, his mind awash in 
thoughts he couldn't even begin to put into words.  His mother and her 
challenge, Akane, Kouryuu's "patterns" -- all these things swirled 
through his head.
	Stopping at a corner beneath the glow of a streetlamp, Ranma 
studied the ground at his feet.  Strange how seeing things in a 
different light could transform them so completely.  Just that afternoon
he'd stood at this same spot and noted the way the shadows of the 
buildings fell in crisp and even lines along the street.  Now all 
evidence of that simplicity was gone.  Instead, his eyes followed the 
telltale jagged line of a crack in the asphalt until it forked, and then
forked again, spreading out into a myriad of fractal patterns.
	<Patterns...>
	Ranma knelt down and brushed his fingers along the tiny crack in 
the pavement.  He smiled slightly to himself.  Maybe nothing was as 
simple as it seemed.  Maybe everything was actually complex and 
multifaceted just beneath the surface.
	The realization should have been disconcerting, frightening even,
but for some reason, Ranma found it strangely comforting.
	<Maybe...> he thought.  <Maybe there's more than one way to win.>
	And Ranma, if he was anything, was determined to win.

End Part V

Part VI has been outsourced to a room full of monkeys with typewriters,
in the hopes of improving the overall quality of the story.


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