[FFML] [Ranma] Spring of Drowned Dojo (formerly "Life is Complicated"), Part IV

Ambulatory Kettle ambket at inbox.com
Thu Mar 13 17:20:00 PDT 2008


Yay, more crap from me!  Lately I'm like a broken garbage disposal that just keeps spewing junk out.  I've tried to eliminate spaces at the ends of some lines on this one, since they seemed to be causing problems.

This is "the story formerly known as 'Life is Complicated'." ^_^ Parts I-III can be read on ffnet (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/4110828/1/Spring_of_Drowned_Dojo), with fixes to typoes and some other boo-boos that were kindly pointed out to me here on the FFML.

Cheers,
The Kettle formerly known as Ambulatory ;)
____________________________________
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 IV: Duel

	As soon as Nabiki stepped into her classroom, she knew something
was amiss.  A hush fell, and the clustered groups of early morning 
arrivals all seemed to be watching her.  Conversation resumed an instant
later, but it was all in whispered tones, with glances skittered in her 
direction.
	This was very wrong.  Nabiki walked calmly to her desk and sat, 
avoiding making eye contact with anyone.  <Just act normal,> she told 
herself as she opened her schoolbag and began unpacking homework and 
other necessities for the morning lessons.  <Act like everything is 
going according to plan, just like it always does.>  Even if the 
unthinkable had happened, and Principle Kunou had somehow gotten his 
little "announcement" out, Nabiki was not going to panic.
	While she was concentrating on keeping her cool, someone walked up
and dropped something square and flimsy on her desk.  Nabiki looked down 
at the object.  It was a photograph.  It must have been taken the night 
that Preston had brought out his guitar and instigated the impromptu 
party, because the picture clearly showed Nabiki dancing with him.
	Nabiki looked up at Ukyou standing over her.
	"What's this about?" Nabiki questioned warily.
	"You tell me," Ukyou said, her expression quizzical.
	Nabiki picked up the photograph, narrowing her eyes at the 
unguarded smile that had been captured on her features.
	"Where did you get this?" she demanded.
	"Off Gosenkugi," Ukyou replied, gesturing back over her shoulder.
"He's been showing it around all morning.  I imagine he has others."
	Ukyou's eyes were searching Nabiki's for something; Nabiki doubted
she was likely to find it.
	All Nabiki could think was that Gosenkugi had a really good 
camera.  The picture must have been taken from outside and a distance 
away, but he had still managed to catch Nabiki in the exact short-lived 
instant her control had slipped, without any signs of motion-blur or 
exposure problems.  She imagined that the novelty of such an untoward 
display by her, Tendou Nabiki, would prompt anyone to show the picture 
around, whether or not they had something to gain from it personally.
	"You certainly seem to be enjoying yourself," Ukyou commented, 
nodding at the photo, her voice neutral.  "You should be more careful.  
You might lose your prized reputation as a woman of ice."
	Nabiki glanced quickly around the room, at her classmates still 
furtively watching her, then back at Ukyou.
	"Why are you showing me this?"
	Ukyou shrugged.  "You helped me out with Ranchan.  I figured one
good turn deserves another."
	Nabiki smirked.  Yeah, right.
	"I didn't do you any favors, Ukyou.  You know that's not how I 
operate.  We had an arrangement, and I fulfilled my part of the bargain 
as promised.  Besides, how do you figure that this --" she held up the 
photo "-- is doing me a good turn?  Looks to me that Preston-kun did me 
a turn better."
	As expected, a spark of anger ignited in Ukyou's eyes.  "Hey, I 
was just trying to be nice," she protested.  "Rumor's about you and 
that-- that WEIRDO are flying around the school like crazy already, and 
classes haven't even started yet.  I thought you might want to know what 
people are saying about you and him."
	"Oh?" Nabiki raised an eyebrow.  "Why would I?"
	The anger in Ukyou's face flickered and died away into dumbfounded
silence.
	Still holding up the picture, Nabiki continued.  "Everyone was 
dancing with everyone that night.  I happened to be dancing with 
Preston-kun when our creepy friend snapped this picture.  I'm smiling 
because I enjoy dancing.  Preston is grinning like an idiot because he's
incapable of doing anything else.  If you read anything else into it, 
you're clearly deluding yourself.  Why should I care what people say 
after seeing this?  The real question is..." Nabiki flicked the photo 
back to Ukyou, who caught it deftly.  "Why do YOU care?"
	For a moment Ukyou just stared at Nabiki, obviously shocked into
silence by what she was implying.  Then the anger rekindled into a full
fire, and she glared.
	"Well, that's the last time I try and do YOU a favor," Ukyou 
snapped.  She spun on her heel and stalked to the door.  
	But as Ukyou reached for the handle, the door slid open -- 
revealing none other than Preston himself.
	"Ukyou-san," Preston greeted her, his voice a bit surprised.
	From her desk, Nabiki watched as Ukyou glared up into his face.
Then she shoved the photo roughly onto his chest, shouldered him aside,
and stomped loudly off down the hallway.  Preston watched her go for a 
moment, looking bemused, then glanced down at the photo that had ended 
up resting in his palm -- he'd put up a hand to keep it from falling 
after Ukyou had thrust it at him.
	"Hey, it's me!"  He waved the photo.  "Nabiki, this is a really
good picture of you.  I mean, you're actually smiling for real, for 
once."
	Nabiki turned to look out the window, pointedly ignoring him.
	Nonchalant as ever, Preston walked over to a cluster of boys and
started showing them the picture.  "Hey, check it out."
	A few of the girls in the class took this as their cue to pounce
on Nabiki, showering her with stupid questions.
	"Is that really you in the photo?"
	"Are you and Preston-kun dating now?"
	"Are you two in love?"
	"Is it true you're going to run away together out of the country?"
	Nabiki didn't deign to answer.  <Let them talk,> she thought.   
Nabiki knew that soon enough her reputation would reassert itself, and 
this isolated incident would be forgotten, written off in everyone's 
memory as too far-fetched to have really happened.  In the mean time, it
would keep the rumor-mill busy, and hopefully leave no room for gossip 
about her and a certain other half-cracked kendoist.

	"Daisuke-kun, have you seen Ranma?" Akane asked as he passed her
on the stairs.
	Daisuke pointed up.  "Said he was heading up to the roof."
	"Why?" Akane asked, puzzled.  School was over; considering his 
recent enthusiasm for teaching at the dojo, Akane had half-expected to 
hear he had already rushed back ahead of her.
	"Heck if I know," Daisuke replied, looking a little bit aggravated
by his friend's odd behavior.  "He's been acting weird lately, all quiet 
and stuff.  In class he sits there like a statue --"
	That much was no mystery to Akane.  So far Ranma seemed unable to
cope with having an intelligent, willful woman in a position of 
authority over him, especially since Emi didn't particularly like him 
and seemed to take pleasure in exposing his academic shortcomings.
	"-- and then at lunch its like he's on another planet," Daisuke
continued.  "Says he's planning stuff for the dojo.  And he's been 
hanging out with that weird foreign kid too."  Daisuke set off down the
stairs again, shaking his head like a doctor contemplating a grave 
diagnosis.
	Akane turned and continued her ascent, heading for the roof.  For
the past few days, something had been bothering Akane, and she had been 
unable to put a finger on it, except that it had something to do with 
Ranma.  Of course, lots of various Ranma-related things bothered her off
and on, but this was something out of the ordinary.  She had tried to 
talk to Emi about it at lunch, but her friend-cum-teacher had obviously 
been in sensei-mode and had only lectured Akane on how she should really
just break off her engagement with Ranma altogether.
	"Most men can't handle adult relationships.  They're just boys 
who've gotten too big for their own good," Emi had pointed out.  "Ranma 
is no exception."
	That had finally tipped Akane off to what exactly was bugging her.
She had resolved to talk to Ranma about it.
	She found him standing at the railing, looking out over the 
cityscape, his hair riffling slightly in the autumn breeze.
	Akane tucked her own hair behind her ear and walked to the 
railing a few feet away from where Ranma stood.  He didn't move.  Was he
ignoring her?  There was no way he hadn't noticed her.
	"Ranma...?" she spoke to his silent profile.
	He turned.  "Oh.  Akane.  It's you."  Ranma blinked.  His distant
expression seemed to focus back on reality at the sight of her.
	"What... ah... what brings you up here?" Akane asked lamely, 
trying not to fidget.
	"Just thinking," Ranma replied.  "About the dojo and stuff."  His
gaze fell on her hands, and Akane realized she was twining and untwining
her fingers.  She gripped the railing to still them and steady her 
nerves.
	"What's up?" Ranma asked, and Akane was surprised to actually hear
a note of concern in his voice.
	"I... wanted to apologize," she began, not sure how to formulate 
the strange mix of guilt and frustration into a coherent sentence.
	"Ugh?  What for?" Ranma asked.
	"Let me finish."  Akane barely kept herself from snapping.  "I 
wanted to apologize for... striking out at that student the other day."
	"Oh."  Ranma looked blank for a moment.  "Well... just don't do it
again, I guess."
	"Don't patronize me," Akane growled.  It irked her to no end that
HE, the ever-juvenile Ranma, had acted like the mature one when she had 
lost her temper and almost injured someone, but she wasn't about to let 
him rub it in.
	"Hey, settle down."  Ranma raised his hands in a warding gesture.
"What're you apologizing to me for anyway?  I'm not the one whose ribs 
you almost broke.  If you wanna clobber somebody, take it out on me, at 
least I can handle it."
	"Handle it?" Akane fairly spat.  She'd told herself she wouldn't
lose her temper -- again -- but so much for that.  "You probably LIKE 
it, you pervert!"
	"Like it?  Are you crazy--!?"
	"Lovers' quarrel?" a new voice interrupted.
	Preston stood watching them from the door to the stairwell, his 
hand resting on the strap of his backpack slung casually over one 
shoulder.
	"We are NOT lovers!" Akane protested loudly, feeling her face burn
with embarrassment.
	Ranma turned his face away and leaned back against the rail in a 
show of casualness, but she had the distinct impression he was blushing 
too.  "Like I'd even go NEAR some uncute tomboy like her!"
	Akane had anticipated the hated words "uncute tomboy" and her fist
was already flying full-force in Ranma's direction -- but it came up 
short against something halfway.  Something very hard.  Akane's hand 
throbbed; the blind haze of rage fell from her vision, and she saw that
her knuckles had connected solidly with the side of Preston's head, who
was suddenly standing in between her and Ranma gazing over the railing.
	"Ow!" Akane cried, shaking her hand out and glaring at the 
foreigner indignantly.  Preston ignored her, seemingly completely 
unfazed by the blow to his cranium.  He stared intently down at 
something on the school grounds.
	"What the heck do you think you're doing?" she demanded, as much
surprised as she was angry that Preston had so blithely inserted himself
in the path of her attack, not to mention that it had apparently hurt 
her more than him.  Ranma just stood looking nonplussed.
	Preston didn't respond.  His head was cocked to the side, either
in a quizzical manner or as a result of Akane's punch.
	"Isn't that your sister Nabiki down there?"
	Akane followed his gaze.  "Where?"
	"Oh, yeah, I see her," Ranma broke in.  He pointed.  "There, 
sitting under that tree."
	Akane looked to where Ranma pointed and saw her sister seated 
beneath a tree down below on the school grounds.  Then another figure 
appeared: Kunou, crossing the lawn and heading towards Nabiki.
	"Man, that's a strange sight if I've ever seen one," Ranma 
remarked as they watched Kunou join Nabiki in the shade of the tree.
	"Those two have been thick as thieves lately," Akane said.  "I 
wonder what they're up to...."
	Preston just nodded pensively, looking about as serious as Akane
had ever seen him.  For about one tenth of an instant, she wondered if 
maybe there were some microscopic grain of truth to the rumors about 
Nabiki and Preston being "involved," before she realized that even 
contemplating that for too long was likely to give her an aneurysm, and 
possibly make the universe implode.
	"More like, what's Nabiki up to," Ranma quipped.  "As if Kunou 
could be 'up to something.'  Nabiki's probably just using him to..." 
he trailed off as a light bulb seemed to go on in his head, filling his 
eyes with a sudden light of amusement.  He started in on a low chuckle 
that quickly grew into full-blown laughter.
	Akane frowned.  "What's so funny?"
	"Yeah, what gives, share the joke," Preston urged.
	Ranma pointed down at the pair, who still seemed unaware that they
were being watched.  "They're engaged!"
	"What?" Akane asked, bewildered.
	"Huh?" Preston said.  "Since when?"
	"Uncle Tendou made the arrangements last week when Nabiki was 
trying to intimidate him," Ranma explained, suppressing his mirth with 
visible difficulty.  "Nabiki damn near tore his throat out over it, but 
he never said anything about calling it off.  I totally forgot about it,
with all the stuff that's been going on lately."
	"Was that what the Principal's announcement was supposed to be 
about?" Akane wondered aloud, remembering the truncated assembly speech 
that Kunou had so effectively sabotaged.  "They must be working to stop 
it from getting out.  Oh, poor Nabiki."
	"Heh.  I don't know if I feel more sorry for her, or for Kunou,"
Ranma said, smiling and shaking his head in obvious appreciation of the
situation.  After a pause, he added, "Nah, those two deserve each 
other!"  Chuckling, his eyes still full of mirth, he turned away from 
the railing.  "Well, I've seen enough.  Let's get outta here."
	Akane thought that he was being insensitive, but that was hardly
anything new from Ranma.  She chose to ignore it.
	Preston pulled his backpack off and started rummaging in it.  
"I'll catch up with you guys later; got some stuff to do."  He paused 
and looked thoughtful for a moment.  "The hopeless romantic and the cut-
throat realist," he mused, as if talking to himself.  He shrugged and 
continued searching through his bag.  "Maybe they'll be good for each 
other?"
	"They'll be good for something," Ranma said, heading for the 
stairs.  He let out another guffaw.  "Like about a million laughs!"

	"Were you followed?" Nabiki asked as Kunou crossed his legs and 
sat down beside her on the grass in one smooth motion.  "Did anyone see 
you come this way?"
	"No," he responded simply.
	"Good," Nabiki said.  She glanced around just to be sure, but 
didn't see anyone about; most people had already left for the day.  
	Nabiki took a moment to collect her thoughts.  But before she 
could even open her mouth to brief him on the latest events, Kunou broke
in, "Would you care to explain this, Tendou Nabiki?"
	He held out the now familiar photograph -- or half of it.
	"It's a photo of me dancing," Nabiki replied.
	"And?" Kunou prompted.  "What of the other half?"
	Nabiki shrugged.  "What of it?  Did you lose it somewhere?"
	Kunou gritted his teeth.  "Your obstinacy is unbecoming.  You know
what I speak of -- the other half of this picture, which the foreign 
rogue insisted on keeping.  And what are these rumors I hear about you 
and he being romantically involved?"
	Nabiki raised an eyebrow.  "They're rumors, what else?  And why
are you so concerned?"
	The tension in Kunou's posture eased visibly.  "I should have 
known as much.  While I cannot say it would be beneath you to take up 
with such a dog of the West as he --"
	Nabiki bristled at this but didn't give Kunou the satisfaction of
a verbal response.
	"-- I must say that these rumors trouble me by their very nature.
Should you lose your well-deserved reputation as a she-devil among 
women, well...."
	"Relax, Kunou-chan," Nabiki assured him.  "You're thinking about
this the wrong way.  As long as they're talking about me and freakshow, 
they can't be talking about me and... anyone else.  This just makes our 
job that much easier."
	Kunou frowned at the photograph pensively.  After a bit, he 
absently tucked the picture away in the front of his gi, his gaze still 
thoughtful.  "Perhaps you are right," he said.  "I pray that you are."
	Nabiki noted where he'd put the photo.  "What, you're keeping 
that?  Kunou-chan, I didn't know you cared."
	Kunou gave her a distinctly unamused look.  "I mean to dispose--"
	"Say 'cheese' you two!"
	Nabiki leapt to her feet at the same time that Kunou did, finding
herself gazing down the barrel of a camera that Preston was pointing at 
them menacingly.
	"Don't you DARE!" Nabiki snarled.
	"Desist, or I'll cleave that infernal device in twain!"
	"Aw, you guys are no fun," Preston said, lowering the camera.
	Kunou lowered his bokken in turn, but he held it ready at his 
side.  "It seems that others are making inroads into your territory, 
Tendou Nabiki," he remarked to her.  "Wasn't candid photography 
previously your own specialty?"
	<You're one to talk; you buy up all my work>, she thought, but
chose to ignore him.
	"What the hell are you doing here?" she snapped at Preston.
	"I could ask you the same."
	Nabiki's mind balked on a response, but only for an instant.
	"We're discussing the dojo."
	"Oh?" said Preston looking interested.  "You finally telling 
mister fancy-pants over here that he can shove it?"
	Kunou met Preston's glare with equal ire.
	The tensions between the two self-proclaimed leaders of the kendo
dojo had been building since day one, Nabiki knew.  <This is why so many
business partnerships fail,> she thought.  <No singularity of purpose.  
No congruity of vision.>  Unfortunately, as busy as she was these days, 
she had yet to come up with a solution that would satisfy both parties 
-- or at least one that she could force down their throats with minimal 
effort and expenditure.
	"Don't start," Nabiki broke in before Kunou could respond.  "I 
don't want to hear your argument on 'hair-style appropriateness' again, 
thank you."
	"Do you turn against me to side with this vulgar foreigner?  To 
betray your Japanese spirit in matters of coiffure, Tendou Nabiki!  
Surely your ancestors do weep!"
	Nabiki snorted.  "Hardly."
	"Well, you SHOULD side with me," Preston said, reaching into his 
pocket and pulling out his half of the photograph -- the half with him 
in it, "now that we're officially an item."  He waved it at her.  "Don't 
you think?"
	Nabiki narrowed her eyes at him.  "Hardly," she bit out.
	"Suit yourself," Preston said, stowing the picture and turning on
his heel.  "I got places to go."
	"Yes, get thee gone!" Kunou shot in his wake.
	Preston didn't respond, but tense annoyance showed in his stride
despite an obvious effort to appear unconcerned as usual.  Nabiki 
decided that very soon she would have to do something about this 
contested leadership of the kendo dojo.
	"His insolence rivals Saotome's," Kunou remarked.  He glanced at
her.  "Do you think he suspected...?"
	"Our real purpose?  How could he?"
	Kunou nodded in relieved agreement.  He glanced aside at her.  
Reaching into the front of his kendo gi, he removed the half-photograph 
again and held it up to the light.  "You know... you claim that he likes 
thee not, but I'll have you know he was loath to part with this."
	"But he did," Nabiki pointed out.  "Obviously he's more in love 
with himself, if he kept the other half but not that one."
	"A compromise, of sorts.  He did not wish to give up either half.
I suppose I can comprehend his reluctance," Kunou held up the photo for 
her to see -- as if she needed another look.  "It is a most rare and 
unusual image of you.  To look at this, one might almost imagine that 
you were... human."
	Nabiki just glared at him.
	"However," he said, as he stood and turned to go, "to think that,
it would take a man more foolish than I."
	"Yeah?" Nabiki called out after him.  "Yeah?  Well, there's damn 
few of those in the world!"
	Too late -- Kunou was gone, and her retort echoed lamely across an
empty schoolyard.
	<Damn him!> Nabiki seethed.  So far, Kunou had been surprisingly 
easy to work with.  Nabiki had almost thought there might be more to him 
than the reality-blind imbecile he so often seemed to be.  She should 
have known better.

	"Emi-san -- no, Sakai-san.  I fear that I have made some -- I want
to apologize -- no that's not right...."
	Kouryuu had carefully planned out what he was going to say.  Now 
he was standing at the gates of Furinkan High School desperately trying 
to remember it.  Why did beautiful women have to make him so nervous?  
Moreover, why did Emi have to be one?  She seemed like she would have 
been an enjoyable person to be around, if it weren't for that one 
undeniable fact.  All he wanted to do was ascertain whether he had 
offended her somehow at the recent evening dinner, and apologize.  If 
she were a man, it would have been easy.  While Kouryuu found that he 
had acclimated himself to the females of the Tendou household to the 
extent that he could interact with them quite normally, his contact with 
Emi was intermittent enough that she still seemed to upset his balance. 
	"Kouryuu-san...?"
	Kouryuu looked up.  He'd heard the soft footfalls approaching and
the creak and tick of a bike being walked out of the gate, but hadn't 
realized that it was none other than Emi herself, dressed in her karate 
uniform and ready to head to the dojo.
	"Ah, Sakai-san, hello."  He licked his dry lips, trying to 
formulate his words.
	<Just imagine she's a man,> he told himself, but found this 
exceedingly difficult to put into practice.  About the only thing that 
Emi's appearance had in common with that of any man Kouryuu had ever 
seen was that they happened to have the same number of limbs -- and even
that seemed a strange sort of accident.
	As he gazed down into her brilliant, waiting eyes, panic started
to overtake him.
	"I meant no forgive!  Please insult me!" he blurted, bowing low.
	Emi blinked, and frowned.  "What?"
	Kouryuu realized that in his haste, his words had come out not 
only in the wrong order, but in a jumbled mix of Japanese and Chinese.  
He didn't know whether to feel like even more of an idiot, or thank his 
dumb luck that Emi didn't understand Mandarin.
	"Ah, ahem, that is, I mean,"  Kouryuu mentally fumbled for words.
He took a breath, calming his embarrassment.  "Would you... walk with me
a ways?" he asked, gesturing down the roadside.  He glanced at her bike.  
"I don't want to hold you up, but... there's a matter I'd like to... 
discuss."
	"Um... okay, sure," she responded, looking a bit bemused.  "I'm 
headed to the dojo anyway."  She kicked her bicycle around to face the 
right direction, and they started walking.
	"So what's this about?" she asked.  "Is it something to do with 
Ranma?  Or Akane?"
	"Ah... no," Kouryuu replied.
	Emi looked up at him expectantly as they paced down the road.
	Kouryuu took a breath.  "Did I... do something to offend you?"
	Emi frowned.  "No.  Why?"
	"The other night at the Tendou's... you seemed... upset.  I 
thought maybe I'd said something."
	Emi pulled a wry face at the street ahead of them and shook her 
head.  "No, that was... something else.  Sorry I ran off like that in 
the middle of our conversation, that was rude of me."
	"Not at all," Kouryuu responded automatically.  In actuality, he 
supposed it had been a bit rude, but he'd been so preoccupied thinking 
HE had been the rude one that it hadn't occurred to him.  At any rate, 
he was much too relieved to feel offended now, so far after the fact.
	"Can I ask you something?" Emi broke in on his thoughts.
	"I... certainly," Kouryuu answered, not sure where this was going.
	"This may sound like a dumb question," she said, "but did you know
that Akane and Ranma were... engaged?"
	Kouryuu blinked.  "Yes.  Of course."
	Emi made a face again.  "I didn't.  Akane... neglected to tell 
me."
	"That's odd," Kouryuu said somewhat lamely, feeling like the 
conversation was faltering from his inability to find anything useful to 
say.  "I mean, that she didn't mention it."
	Emi sighed.  "Well, she had her reasons, I guess.  She knew my 
view of Ranma was pretty negative, and she didn't want their 
relationship -- if you can even call it a relationship -- to reflect 
badly on her.  I suppose I should be flattered that she valued my 
opinion of her so highly."
	"Whatever discipline Ranma-san lacks as a martial artist now, he 
will learn in time," Kouryuu said, feeling obliged to put in a good word 
for the young man who was effectively his colleague and dojo-brother.
	"Oh I'm not saying anything against his martial arts abilities," 
Emi replied hastily.  "What I can't stand are his failings as a... as a 
teacher and a student, both.  And as a man.  Or maybe it's just the fact 
that he IS a --" Emi glanced up at Kouryuu, then away, and fell silent 
for a time.
	"Do you really think they were too embarrassed to dance together 
that night?" she finally said.
	"It looked that way to me."
	"But, I mean... they're ENGAGED.  Should they really be getting 
married if they're not even comfortable dancing together?"
	<You should see them fight,> Kouryuu thought, but just said, "Like
I said before, I think young people just get that way sometimes."
	Kouryuu stepped aside to get out of the way of a gray sedan coming
up from behind them.  As it drove past, the car's side mirror gave him a 
momentary view of the street at their backs.
	"Speaking of young people," he said, "I believe we are being 
followed."

	"Ranma, I don't like just following them like this.  It's not 
right."
	"We ain't following, we're just walking to the dojo, same as 
them."
	"Well then why don't we catch up and we can all walk together?"
	"Hey, you're the one who said you didn't wanna 'interrupt' them."
	Whatever that meant.  Ranma glanced up at the top of the fence 
beside him, his usual walking place.  Better not; wouldn't want to draw 
attention to himself.
	He narrowed his eyes at Kouryuu and Emi walking just a block or so
ahead of Akane and himself.
	"That's the second unlikely pair I've seen today," he commented, 
feeling a growing suspicion about the whole thing.  "Can't say which is 
odder though."
	Akane cocked her head to the side, looking at the two 
thoughtfully.  "Oh, I don't know," she said.  "Their not such an 
unlikely pair."
	Ranma just stared ahead at the tall and short form walking side by
side, wondering what Akane was seeing that he was missing.  Taciturn but 
friendly, meet bossy and mean.  Even proportionally they didn't match 
up; what was NOT odd about them walking together?
	"How d'you figure THAT?" Ranma voiced his bafflement.
	"I saw them talking at dinner on Thursday."
	"Yeah?  So?" Ranma challenged, and added mentally, <After all, I'm
talkin' to Akane right now, but that don't mean I LIKE her or nothin'.>
	Akane smiled in girlish appreciation, which did little to settle 
Ranma's already somewhat befuddled nerves.  "Well, it kind of looked 
like they wanted to dance together, but were too shy to ask."
	Ranma couldn't imagine why a skilled martial artist like Kouryuu 
would want to dance with a violent, tomboyish girl like Emi.  But 
eventually he had to admit, "Okay, so maybe it KINDA looked that way.  
But I'm not saying nothin' like that was really gonna happen, 'cause, 
you know, sometimes it LOOKS like a guy wants to ask a girl, but then 
REALLY--" Akane pulled closer to him as she huddled in to avoid a 
passing car, bringing him into sudden awareness of her body; her 
shoulder brushing against his arm, her hip pressing into his thigh.  His 
mind flitted briefly to the safe distance of his fence-top.  But then 
his gaze accidentally met with Akane's, and all thoughts and the rest of 
his intended sentence disappeared into a terrifying void that suddenly 
opened up inside his skull.  He lost all sense of what he had been 
saying, but his mouth kept moving.  "But then really... I... I mean, he 
doesn't, you know... know how to... ask...."
	Akane stared up at him with her big Akane eyes.  He thought he was
about to fall headlong into them.  Her lips parted.  
	"I..." she breathed.  "I--" she looked away abruptly "--I wonder 
why they were embarrassed?"  She laughed nervously.  "S-silly of them."
	"Uh, yeah!" Ranma agreed his eyes snapping back to the pair 
walking ahead of them.  "Embarrassed!  Ha!"
	Akane moved away from Ranma, her cheeks slightly flushed.
	After a moment of awkward silence, Akane said pensively, "Really,
it doesn't seem like them.  They're both such confident people normally.  
What do you think made them nervous?"
	"I dunno," Ranma replied, still finding the subject strangely 
discomfiting.  What made people nervous in such situations?  He glanced 
over at Akane, her face turned away from him.  He felt inexplicably 
compelled to reach over and put his arm around her, pull her back 
towards him.  Could he?  His arm twitched out.  Should he...?
	Would she bash his face?  Probably.  Ranma sighed and let his arm
fall.  Che... who would want to do that with some dumb, sexless girl 
like her anyway?  Not Ranma, no sir.
	"Don't ask me what made 'em nervous," he said.  "I guess old 
people just get like that sometimes."
	"Ranma!  They're not 'old people!'  Don't be rude."
	"Okay, yeesh.  You sound just like Kasumi."
	Akane's outburst seemed to break the awkwardness and return them 
to more familiar territory, and Ranma felt an immense relief come over 
him.  But strangely, the sensation was coupled with a counterpoint of 
regret, deep and fierce like a killing undertow.
	His relief made sense, but what did he have to regret?  He'd just
narrowly escaped getting pounded -- or worse.  Still, if he hadn't known 
better, he could have sworn that a moment had just passed that he longed 
to return to, but feared to repeat.
	<Doesn't matter now,> he told himself, but even in his mind he 
lacked conviction.
	A screech of tires interrupted Ranma's reflections, and something
slammed full-force into his chest.
	His first thought was, <Holy crap, I've just been hit by a bus.>  
He realized it was soft, but firm.  His second thought was, <A bus made 
of marshmallows.>
	Then someone screamed, "AIREN!" and his third thought, whatever it
might have been, was smashed out of him by the impact with the pavement.

	"Why do you suppose they're following us?"
	"Maybe they're not.  We're all going to the dojo after all.  Maybe
they just wanted to talk privately -- or walk privately."
	Emi frowned.  She opened her mouth to answer, but suddenly Kouryuu
grabbed her and pushed her back against the fence; her bike fell to the 
ground with a clatter.
	She felt her heart pounding from the shock as he gripped her 
shoulders -- firmly, but not roughly.  His tall frame filled her view, 
blocking out the street and the rest of Nerima.  He was close enough 
that she could smell him, his scent dark and earthy, but pleasant.
	Then she remembered herself, and glared.  "Get back."
	"I'm sorry.  There was no time to warn you."  Kouryuu stepped 
away, and gestured to a black streak of bike-tire treads that cut across 
the exact point where Emi had been walking just a few seconds earlier.  
He glanced at her.  "Are you all right?"
	"I'm fine," Emi said distractedly, her eyes followed the tire 
marks to where they ended -- just in front of Ranma, who was lying 
prone with his arms pinned to his sides by an unfamiliar girl wearing 
Chinese clothing.  The girl was clearly intent on hugging him to death.  
Akane was stalking away from both of them, her face a mask of controlled 
anger.
	Emi ran up, indignation rising in her voice.  "Are you gonna let 
her get away with that?"
	Akane, who had been staring blindly forward, rounded on Emi.  "Who
cares what that stupid pervert--!"  She blinked.  "Wait... her?"
	"Yes!  Look, she's all over your fiancé!"  Emi still held that 
Ranma wasn't a good match for Akane -- or for anyone -- but as long as 
Akane refused to break their betrothal, she certainly couldn't let other 
women just throw themselves at him, literally or otherwise.
	Ranma had managed to struggle to his feet, but seemed to be having
a lot more trouble extricating himself from the girl's passionate 
embrace.
	"Leggo, Shampoo!"
	"Ranma come date with Shampoo now?"
	"No way!  Get off me already, I gotta teach class at the dojo in
like fifteen minutes."
	The girl -- Shampoo, obviously a foreigner by her name, dress, and
speech -- was very beautiful, Emi had to admit.  She had long, luxuriant 
hair and a stunning figure -- just the type that men drooled over.  And 
yet Ranma seemed less than willing to throw over his responsibilities 
even for this extremely affectionate and gorgeous foreign belle.  His...
devotion was admirable, Emi had to concede grudgingly.  She glanced 
aside at Akane.
	But Akane's angry eyes seemed only to see her fiancé with another
woman, not the valiant struggle he was putting up.
	"Why Ranma not want date with Shampoo?"
	"I told ya, I gotta teach class today at the dojo!"
	Shampoo released Ranma and took a step back, looking confused.  
"What Ranma mean, teach class?"
	<Cute, but not too bright,> Emi thought.
	"Martial arts class, at the Tendou Dojo," Kouryuu said, coming up
alongside Emi.  He bowed to Shampoo, and Emi was surprised to detect a 
hint of irony in the upward quirk of his mouth.  "We meet again."
	Shampoo glared at him.  "What stupid man talking?  Tendou Dojo 
never has classes.  Old mans are too lazy."
	"I'm afraid you're mistaken," Kouryuu replied.  "Ranma-san and I
lead classes there.  I'm surprised you didn't notice the students about 
when you... stopped by the dojo before.  Lessons were just ending then."
	Looking to Ranma, Shampoo asked incredulously, "Really?  Ranma 
really do teaching at the dojo now?"
	<Hard to believe, isn't it?>
	"Yeah, really," Ranma replied shortly.  "So I can't go on a date
now -- not with you or nobody."
	Akane flared, her fists clenching tightly, but she made no move 
and said nothing.  Emi eyed her a moment; then she strode up to Ranma 
and delivered a resounding slap across his face.
	Ranma stood stunned.  Emi commended herself that she'd managed to
mask the attack until the final instant.  She'd traded power for 
stealth, but that hardly mattered.
	Shampoo looked Emi up and down, menacingly.  "Why you hit Ranma?"
	Emi ignored her.  "What about Akane?!" she shouted at Ranma.
	He glanced at Akane, then away, pushing his lower jaw out 
rebelliously.  "Wh-what about her?"
	Emi turned to Shampoo.  "He can't go on a date with you -- not 
because he's teaching classes this afternoon -- because he has a 
fiancée!"  Emi jabbed a finger at Akane, who took a step back, startled.
	Shampoo's eyes glinted.  "LIES."  Without warning, she lunged at
Emi.  "Shampoo is only true fiancée!"
	It was all Emi could do to avoid the sudden rain of attacks as 
Shampoo's fists pelted down on her.  Panic started to rise in her as she 
realized she was outmatched -- <She's good!  Too good!  I'm-->
	Kouryuu appeared, rearing up behind Shampoo.  With one sharp 
movement, too quick for Emi's eye to follow, he struck the enraged girl 
an angled blow to the base of the neck, and she crumpled into a heap.
	Emi stood breathing heavily.  "What did you...?  Why did you...?"
	Kouryuu looked down at the unconscious form of the girl.  "She's a
Chinese Amazon, a woman-warrior of Jouketsuzoku.  Very dangerous.  She 
might have injured you seriously if I hadn't intervened."
	Akane just stared with wide eyes, and Ranma with eyes even wider.
	"Oh, man... Kouryuu, do you have any idea what you've done?"
	Kouryuu looked grim.  "Yes.  It was unavoidable."  He looked 
around.  "If no one else saw, we can pretend the incident--"
	"SHAMPOO!"  A young man with long dark hair landed abruptly in 
front of Emi, making her start.
	"Mousse!" Akane cried, sounding almost as surprised as Emi felt.
	The young man -- Mousse, evidently -- surveyed the scene.  His 
handsome face contorted in rage as his gaze swept from the unconscious 
girl to Kouryuu.  "What have you done to Shampoo!"
	Kouryuu stood silent for a moment, as if considering how to 
answer the question.  "What makes you think I did anything?"
	The youth narrowed his eyes at Kouryuu, but the gesture looked 
more near-sighted than threatening.  "Wait, who are you?"  He pulled out
a pair of thick, round glasses and put them on.  "Do I know you?"
	"We haven't officially met, no," Kouryuu returned.
	Ranma stepped forward.  "Look, Mousse, lemme explain--"
	"So YOU did this!"
	Chains suddenly shot forth from Mousse's sleeve, and Ranma barely
had time to leap out of the way.  With lighting speed, Kouryuu grabbed 
the chains as they tore past him, whipping them around to hurl the 
hapless young man against the nearby fence.
	"Interfere with me, will you!" Mousse shouted as he extricated 
himself from the human-shaped cave he'd made in the chain-link.  He 
charged Kouryuu, a pair of bladed fans appearing in his hands as if by 
magic.  Mousse's first strike hissed through empty air as Kouryuu ducked
and wove aside easily, spinning around the outside of the attack and 
disarming Mousse of the fan almost casually with one hand as he planted 
his other elbow in the side of Mousse's head.
	As Mousse turned to slash at him with his remaining fan, Kouryuu
snapped shut the fan he'd taken, catching the edge of Mousse's blow on 
the blunt end of it and twisting the attack back around to pin Mousse's 
weapon against his own throat.
	Mousse grimaced, and lunged with his free hand.  Emi started when
she realized that a set of three-pronged battle-claws was now screaming 
straight for Kouryuu's head.
	Without even flinching, Kouryuu moved the closed fan to intercept
the claws, and, stepping aside, gave a flick of his wrist that sent the 
hapless young man tumbling on past him, head over heels.  Mousse's 
battle claws clattered to the pavement and his bladed fan went spinning 
off and over the fence like a helicopter.
	Kouryuu tucked his hands and the fan away in his sleeves and 
looked down at Mousse, who gazed back up at him with angry indignation 
that was quickly melting into surprised -- and possibly even fearful --
admiration.
	"I'm afraid your hidden weapons technique won't work against me,"
Kouryuu informed him evenly.  "Any weapon can cut both ways.  If you 
rely on them, you favor a dangerous crutch."
	Mousse was now staring at Kouryuu with wide eyes.  He pointed a
finger; "I know who you are!  You're Jiaolong, the Arrogant Dragon!"
	Emi looked to Kouryuu questioningly.  "Arrogant dragon?"
	"What're you babbling about, Mousse?" Ranma asked, crossing his 
arms over his chest.
	Kouryuu sighed.  "Jiaolong is how the monks pronounced my name in
Mandarin.  The... from the Amazons' point of view, unbelievable 
audacity of my attack against the Jouketsuzoku tribe prompted their 
scribes to write it as 'arrogant dragon' in their records."
	Akane's jaw dropped.  Ranma tried not to look impressed, but Emi
could see it in his hard blink and the roundness of his eyes.
	"You ATTACKED the Amazon village?" Akane blurted.
	"He did!" Mousse confirmed.  "It was about five years ago.  I 
remember all the trials and councils and hearings.  It went on for 
months!"
	"You're blowing it out of proportion," Kouryuu demurred.  "I... 
got into a fight with a group of Amazons out on patrol, and... I won."
	Akane just shook her head dumbly, disbelieving.
	Emi looked at Kouryuu again, puzzled.  "Is that bad?"
	"ALL kinds of bad," Ranma managed, looking severely nonplussed.  
"You have no idea."
	Kouryuu looked away, clearly embarrassed by this bit of his past.
"It was a foolish thing to do.  By that time I'd proven myself better 
than the other novices, and... I suppose they wanted to take me down a 
notch.  They... bet me that I couldn't defeat a whole party of 
Amazons single-handed.  So... I picked a fight."  Kouryuu paused.  "It 
was my own fault for giving into the goading of my peers."
	Mousse hopped to his feet, anger clear on his face.  "You broke 
a thousand-year-old treaty on a DARE?!"
	Kouryuu’s gaze met his briefly, then flicked away.  "You could say
that...."
	Mousse seethed, apparently too angry to speak.
	Emi felt lost.  "What treaty?"
	"The treaty between the monastery and the Jouketsuzoku," Kouryuu
replied, obviously taking to the question as a relief from discussing 
his own youthful mistakes.  "Amazon law states that a man who defeats an
Amazon woman must marry her.  Understandably, this law didn't sit well 
with a monastery full of celibate monks.  If a monk ever got into a 
fight with an Amazon and won, it would cause all kinds of problems.  So 
both groups had to officially agree never to fight each other."
	Emi's eyes flicked to the still unconscious Amazon girl, who 
Mousse was just now lifting tenderly into his arms.
	"So let me get this straight," Emi said.  "You attacked a bunch of
these so-called 'Amazons,' and in one stroke you violated an ancient 
local peace treaty and ended up with half a dozen brides-to-be?"
	Kouryuu rubbed his head sheepishly.  "Ten, actually.  The rest 
were already married."
	"Hmm," she huffed.  <Playboy.>  Maybe he had more in common with
Ranma than she'd thought.  <Just another vulgar male after all.>
	"TEN?" Ranma broke in, glancing from Akane to Shampoo.  "How... 
how'd you get outta THAT?"
	Kouryuu looked like he wished they'd drop the subject.  "Well, to
tell a long story in a few words, the Jouketsuzoku elders said that 
they'd drop all charges, and, er, betrothals, if the elders of the 
monastery would expel me from their order and banish me from the land.  
The monastery elders were, ah, less than pleased with me, so they were 
eager to agree."
	Emi tilted her head, considering.  "Well, you might be free of any
weird traditional obligations from that dumb move, then.  But what about 
HER?"  Emi pointed emphatically.  Mousse took a step back, turning 
halfway away as if to shield Shampoo from the indicating finger.
	Kouryuu looked surprisingly grim.  "You were in danger.  I had to
act quickly, without thought for the consequences should I--"
	"What, you think I can't take care of myself?"
	<Bite your tongue and swallow your pride, girl,> some more 
reasonable part of her was admonishing her.  <You were overmatched, and 
you know it.>
	"Not at all," he returned.  "You're... eminently capable.  But 
Chinese Amazons are fearsome, dangerous -- they fight to kill."
	"She hasn't killed anyone yet," Akane assured him, eyeing the limp
Shampoo. 
	"She's sure TRIED," Ranma interjected.
	"I don't think she would have seriously hurt Emi," Akane finished,
though the admission sounded begrudging at best, hardly a defense plea.
	"Well... perhaps spending some time in civilized society has... 
socialized her a bit," Kouryuu said.
	"Not much, it hasn't," Emi opined, remembering the way she had 
shameless glommed onto Ranma, followed by the vicious assault on Emi 
herself.  As far as Emi was concerned the girl was still a barbaric 
hussy.  And a bimbo to boot.
	"I'll say," Ranma agreed with Emi, his gaze distant, as if 
mentally replaying the violent flying tackle she must have made from the
back of her speeding bike.
	Wait, Ranma agreed with her?  Emi was shocked.  She couldn't 
remember him EVER conceding to her obvious good judgment.
	Mousse was frowning.  "Stop talking about Shampoo like that.  She
can't even defend herself."
	Emi sighed.  He had a point.  "Look, Mush, whatever your name is.  
Why don't you take her home, or wherever.  Just tell her she fell -- or 
tell her you didn't see what happened."
	"I DIDN'T see what happened," Mousse confessed, as if lamenting a
mortal failing.
	"Good," Emi replied.  "Then nothing happened."
	She turned and went to retrieve her bike.  When she glanced back 
over her shoulder, everyone was still staring at her -- except for 
Mousse, who was gazing down at Shampoo in his arms, a pained and 
helpless look on his face.
	"Well?" Emi said.  "Are you guys gonna stand there all day?  We'll
be late."
	With that, the clustered group seemed to come unfrozen, and Mousse
leapt away onto a nearby roof as the rest moved to follow her.  Emi 
realized that only just a week before, Mousse's spectacular bound might 
have surprised her.  After what she'd witnessed since, and even today 
alone, she could hardly bring herself to be fazed by it.

	Ukyou was straightening up a few odds and ends in her restaurant,
in preparation for heading over to the Tendou Dojo, when a swishing of 
curtain fabric heralded an unexpected arrival.  She looked up, and the 
carefully prepared apologetic smile and "sorry we're closed" speech 
transformed immediately into a silent glare.
	"Hiya," Preston greeted her warmly.
	"What do you want?"
	He grinned.  "Oh, I want many things.  But not TOO many, I'd like 
to think.  I'm not greedy."
	"Can't you read the sign?" Ukyou asked, frustrated as usual with 
the foreigner's apparently willful obtuseness.
	"Of course.  It says you're closed until dinner.  Got time for one
more customer?"
	Ukyou made a show of shelving more ingredients.  "Not if the 
customer is you."
	Preston shrugged this off.  "Fair enough."  True to past form, he
failed to take a hint, and just stood watching her as she closed up the 
cafe, his hands tucked casually in his pockets.
	Slamming a drawer shut, Ukyou rounded on him.  "Why are you HERE?"
	Preston raised his eyebrows.  "I'm glad you asked.  Matter of fact
I had a great idea I thought you might like."
	"Does it involve you jumping in the ocean with a brick tied around
your face?" Ukyou asked.
	Preston's grin returned.  "Not quite."
	"Not interested," she said.
	"Well, I was thinking," Preston continued blithely, "why don't you
start serving alcohol here?"
	This brought Ukyou up short.  "What?"
	"You could get a liquor license," he suggested.  "Wait, do they 
even have those here?"  He shook his head.  "Nevermind, whatever.  The 
point is, I've heard most restaurants make their real profits on alcohol 
sales -- least in other countries that's true, can't see why it wouldn't 
be the same in Japan."
	"Oh, I see!"  Ukyou crossed her arms.  "Let me put it this way: 
as a minor, I don't think I could get away with serving alcohol here, 
and I sure as hell wouldn't serve YOU any.  So if this is some cheap 
trick to try and get booze, it's not only stupid, it won't work."
	"Nah," Preston waved a hand.  "I don't drink.  That stuff'll kill
ya!  As for you being a minor, it sure hasn't stopped you from running 
your own okonomiyaki-ya.  I doubt anyone will raise a fuss," his grin 
flashed again, "long as you keep them well lubricated, so to speak."
	Ukyou considered his words.  "You don't drink?  Then what do you 
get out of this scheme of yours?"
	"Nothing," Preston replied.  "Well, that's a lie.  I get the 
satisfaction of seeing you pull in a hefty profit."
	Ukyou lowered her brows incredulously.  "Uh-huh.  And who exactly
is gonna deal with all the rowdy drunks while I'm busy cooking?  
Especially the ones who want to stay late and keep drinking.  I'm not 
open all night, you know."
	"That's easy," Preston responded.  "You get a bouncer.  Someone to
mostly just stand around and look tough, ask people to settle down or 
leave if necessary -- he probably wouldn’t actually have to 'bounce' too 
many customers, but it'd be best if you got someone who looked the part 
AND had the ability to back it up."
	<Ah.>  Now she saw where this was going.  "I suppose you're going
to recommend someone for the job?"
	"Actually, yes," he said.  "I was going to recommend Piku."
	Nowhere near the response she had been anticipating, Ukyou's 
thoughts skid to a halt, and had to do a full about-face.
	"You... you know Hasegawa-san?" she asked when she'd recovered 
from the momentary mental whiplash.
	"Course I do," Preston grinned.  "Me an' Piku, we're like this."  
He held up his hand, his fingers crossed.  Ukyou thought the gesture 
looked kind of vulgar, but she understood his meaning.
	<Of course,> she realized.  Preston and Hasegawa both practiced 
kendo at the Dojo.  Of course they would know each other.  Whether they 
were as close as Preston indicated was another question.  In her own 
limited interactions with him, Hasegawa hadn't struck her as the sort to 
put up with Preston.  Hasegawa seemed to value a measure of propriety 
that Preston most notably lacked.
	But that was just one of the qualities that recommended him to the
role of an enforcer.  Piku -- Hasegawa, she corrected herself mentally 
-- had a certain noble bearing about him.  He carried himself like a 
real swordsman, a real fighter.  He wasn't nearly as imposing a figure 
as Kouryuu -- who, Ukyou realized, would have made an ideal bouncer, 
except that he smiled too much -- but Hasegawa certainly did have a bit 
of personal intensity to him that couldn't hurt in such a position.
	<Damn,> Ukyou thought.  <He's got me considering his proposition 
seriously.>  She was still trying to figure out how this was going to 
benefit Preston.  Maybe he thought it would give him more of an excuse 
to come hang around her shop and be obnoxious, as he seemed eminently 
inclined to do.
	Well, if he did, maybe she could get her new "bouncer" to kick him
out.  Ukyou brightened.  There was a thought.
	"What does Pi-- er, Hasegawa-san think about all this?" she asked.
	"He likes the idea a lot," Preston answered.  "He can start 
whenever you need him to."
	"If he likes it so much, why didn't he come pitch the plan 
himself?"  Certainly it would have gone over better.
	Preston shrugged.  "It was my idea.  'Sides, now was a convenient
time for me to drop by, so I figured I'd go ahead and put it on the 
table and see what you thought of it."
	For a long moment, Ukyou didn't say anything.  It was hard to 
admit that she liked his plan.
	"All right," she said finally, trying to make it sound grudging
rather than eager.
	Preston held out his hand.  "Shall we shake on it?"
	Ukyou eyed the appendage warily.  Preston just gave her an open
smile.  If she hadn't known him, she might have even said the smile was
sincere -- charming, even.
	"Believe me when I say I am thoroughly authorized to shake on 
Piku's behalf," he told her.  "You can work out the details of his... 
employ later on.
	Tentatively, Ukyou reached out to take the proffered hand.  
"You're not going to be taking a cut of his pay or anything, are you?"
	Preston's smile split into a full grin as he gripped her hand 
firmly.  "I promise you, Ukyou-san," he said.  "I will never see a 
single yen from this."
	Despite the rising feeling in her chest from the anticipation of
finally bringing in enough money to sustain her business -- plus the 
added opportunity to get to work with Hasegawa, and maybe get to know 
him a little better, since he actually seemed like a decent, 
interesting guy (but not interesting like THAT of course) -- Ukyou 
couldn't help but notice the sinking feeling of worry in her stomach 
that threatened to drag her elation down.
	Preston just kept grinning, and it didn't help.

	"Knave!  Outlander wretch!  You have no respect for propriety in
the forms of the Art!"
	"And you've got a bokken up yer ass!"
	Nabiki heard the argument well before she saw it.  She sighed as
she rounded the corner of the main training hall and the two bickering 
kendoists came into view.  Kunou was standing in front of the kendo 
hall, blocking Preston's path.
	The foreigner stood a few paces away, feet set apart in a stance
of readiness, holding an electric guitar of uniform unpainted silver-
gray metal gripped in one hand as if he was ready to use it like a 
weapon.  His teeth were barred in an expression that was definitely not
a smile.  Nabiki had never seen him truly angry before, and the sight 
was a bit disconcerting.
	"I was gonna play something inspirational," he fairly shouted. 
"But you went and chucked my hi-fi in the dirt, you dumb-shit!"
	Preston pointed to where a pair of speakers and an amp lay 
carelessly strewn on the still newly turned earth between the two 
training halls.  A long black extension cord snaked across the grass 
from the equipment to the new house bordering the Tendou residence.
	"Your cacophonous canting is not fit material for meditation!"
	"What d'you mean, not fit?!  'Voodoo Child' clearly expresses the
proper --!"
	"It's crass Western drivel!"
	"WHAT!?  Look, shitbag, you can insult me, you can insult my 
family, my heritage, anything -- but don't you EVER insult Hendrix!"
	The kendo students had started to gather around, but there was a
clear split between them.  A cluster of clean-cut rank-and-file 
kendoists formed up behind Kunou, while the bleached-haired punks and 
surly-looking types stood at Preston's back with more attitude and less
discipline -- but no less loyalty and determination, Nabiki noted.
	She had been hoping to put off the resolution of this particular
inconvenient rivalry, but it looked like things had become too divisive
to continue without a drastic change, or at least some kind of immediate
action.  She would have to diffuse the situation before things got ugly.
	"Gentlemen!" she raised her voice as she stepped briskly to 
intervene.  "Arguing will get us nowhere.  I'm sure there's a more 
civilized way we can settle this dispute."
	"Civilized!" Kunou spat.  He jabbed a finger at Preston.  "This
cur has defiled the sanctity of the kendo hall!"
	"Oh, yeah?" Preston shot back.  "Well I don't like your face!"
	Kunou drew his bokken in a flash; startled, Nabiki stopped in her
tracks.
	"You DARE impugn the majesty of my visage!?" Kunou bellowed.
	"You heard me, weasel-face.  What're you gonna do, poke me with
your tiny stick?  Oh, I'm so scared!"
	"What's going on?" a whisper came at Nabiki's shoulder, nearly 
making her jump.  She turned a frown on Ukyou.
	"What does it look like?" she quipped back in annoyance.  Nabiki
realized that other curious observers were congregating.  <Better get a
lid on this fast,> she told herself.
	His eyes afire, Kunou pointed his bokken to the front gate.  
"Leave now if you value your wretched existence.  You defile the 
hallowed ground of this property with your very presence!"
	A surprising show of restraint from Kunou.  Maybe there was time
left to stop any serious damage to the dojo.
	But Nabiki didn't even have a chance to open her mouth before 
Preston growled, "Listen, you egomaniac!  I paid for half of it, so it's
my damn property too!"  He shifted his grip on the guitar dangerously. 
	"We shall see about that!"  With a deliberate move of his bokken,
Kunou drew a line in the dirt.  "This line denotes the boundary between 
my demesne and yours.  Cross it at your own peril!"
	Smirking, Preston stepped one foot over the mark.
	Kunou's eyes narrowed dangerously.  "It would behoove you to take
your foot back to your own side of the property line."
	A bolt of energy seemed to pass along their locked gazes as 
Preston's eyes narrowed in response.  "Make me."
	"That I shall!"
	<Aw, crap,> Nabiki thought as Kunou charged Preston with a primal
yell.  Well, as long as they kept the fight off Tendou property she 
decided she wouldn't get too worked up.  If she didn't have to pay for 
it, it wasn't her problem.
	Kunou lunged forward in a characteristic fashion.  Preston easily
side-stepped the attack and spun out of the way, swinging the guitar 
around in a lateral arc like an axe, bearing down on the back of Kunou's 
skull as he blew past -- but Kunou wasn't there.  Ducking into a tumble, 
Kunou rolled out of harms way.  Preston's attack went wide, the metal 
edge of the guitar whizzing by over Kunou's head to collide with a 
nearby stone lantern that smashed to bits on impact.
	"Whoa!" Ukyou blurted.  "That's no ordinary guitar!"
	True, Nabiki noted.  Not even a snapped string; the thing must 
have been custom built with the strength of a suspension bridge.  But 
Nabiki was more impressed by the ease and agility with which Kunou had 
avoided Preston's counter-attack.  Had training at the dojo really 
refocused his under-used skills that much?  His confidence seemed more 
solid than the usual display of bravado.
	Rolling to his feet, Kunou met Preston's gaze.  "Don't play games
with me.  Get yourself a real weapon and face me like a man."
	Preston sneered, and spun the guitar around in his grip, exposing
its other edge -- probably only for show, since the guitar was 
symmetrical.  "I've got all the weapons I need, thanks."
	"Then know you," Kunou proclaimed, leveling his bokken to point 
menacingly at Preston, "that you face none other than the undefeated 
champion of high school kendo..."
	Someone snorted, and Nabiki looked over to see that Ranma -- and 
just about everyone else -- had taken up position nearby to watch the 
scene unfolding.
	Akane elbowed Ranma in the ribs lightly, and even at this distance
Nabiki could hear her stage whisper, "He means undefeated in the high 
school kendo tournaments, dummy.  The NORMAL ones."
	"... the esteemed High Master and sensei of the Kunou Tatewaki 
Kendo Hall at the Tendou Dojo..." Kunou continued.
	Preston rolled his eyes and moved over to his offended hi-fi 
equipment, inspecting it for damage and adjusting a few knobs.
	"... the finest swordsman in all of Tokyo, nay, in all Japan, NAY,
in all the WORLD..."
	"Isn't he overdoing it a bit?" Ukyou commented.  She glanced over 
at Ranma, looking like she was tempted to work her way through the crowd 
so she could stand by him, but clearly too engrossed with the combatants 
to put the plan into action.
	"This is nothing," Nabiki smirked in reply.  "He's toned down the
melodrama quite a bit.  He's managing to look ALMOST respectable while 
spouting that garbage."
	"... the notorious BLUE THUNDER of Furinkan High School..."
	"He talks too much," Ukyou remarked in an undervoice, chewing her
lip.  "Preston's got him beat, no contest."
	"Don't be so sure," Nabiki cautioned.  "Kunou's different today.  
He's taking this fight really seriously."
	There was an... intensity about him that marked this fight as 
different from others.  He had fallen into the routine of losing to 
Ranma and blaming it on trickery.   But Preston was not Ranma.  And 
Kunou clearly didn't consider this just another kendo match either.
	For his own part, Preston looked perfectly content to fiddle with
his sound equipment and ignore Kunou's speech, nonchalant and 
unconcerned as usual.  He found the amp cord, dusted it off, and plugged 
it into the guitar.
	"Kunou Tatewaki, age--!"
	Preston blasted out a chord that split the air, cutting off 
Kunou's words and wiping out all other sounds on the dojo grounds.  
Slowly, the noise died away into silence.
	"I know who you are, dipshit."  Preston glared across at Kunou.  
"Well, I'm Preston.  And I'm-a kick your ugly ass back to the feudal 
age."  With a twang of feedback he tore the cord from the guitar and 
charged his opponent.
	Up and down the length of the property line they battled, stepping
over the discarded bokkens and bamboo swords of their students who had 
scrambled to get out of the way.  Weapons blurred as strike after strike 
failed to meet its mark, each combatant dodging and countering with 
equal skill and grace.  The crack of hard wood against metal filled the 
air, the harsh music of elaborate parries and ripostes.  Nabiki's heart 
raced, and she suddenly realized she hadn't even been paying attention 
to whether they were on Tendou property or not, that she'd been caught 
up in the tension of the fight just as much as Kunou and Preston, just 
as much as everyone else looking on with bated breath.
	And the mob of observers seemed to gasp as one as Preston suddenly
disappeared from view with a grin, descending right through the ground 
and out of sight.  Kunou, his face a stony mask, leapt after him 
undeterred, and Nabiki realized that Preston had dropped down into the 
open construction pit where the pipes bringing water to the new house 
were still being hooked up.
	The onlookers all rushed forward en masse, no one wanting to miss
and instant of the duel.  Before anyone could reach the construction 
pit, a giant plume of water erupted from it, shooting skyward.  Nabiki 
flung her arms over her head, trying vainly to shield herself against 
the sudden downpour of cold water that rained from the sky.  She ran to 
the edge of the pit; Ukyou, Kouryuu, Akane, and Ranma, now female, were 
right alongside her.
	The first thing Nabiki glimpsed was Kunou's back, coming straight
for her as he leapt up from the floor of the pit, keeping his eyes 
trained ahead.  She barely had time to step out of his way before he 
landed on the ledge just inches away from her.  He glanced back over his 
shoulder at her, water dripping off his damp hair to fall past his hawk-
intense eyes.
	"I nearly had the fool, but like a low coward he ducked behind the
water main at the last instant."  Kunou's gaze flicked back ahead of 
him, scanning the construction pit for his adversary.  The pit was 
already slowly filling with water.
	Nabiki made out the indistinct shape of a man just behind the 
column of water shooting steadily up into the air.  The shape moved, 
seeming to leap toward them -- and shot up the spire of water, vaulted 
into the air by the pressure under his feet, somersaulting in a high arc 
to land deftly nearby.
	Everybody stared.  The person crouched menacingly on the wet turf
was dressed in a kendo gi as Preston had been.  He had a strip of red 
cloth tied around his head to keep the hair out of his eyes, just as 
Preston usually did.  But this person was not Preston.  He reached up 
and pulled the headband back, cinching his hair into a neat pony-tail.  
Then he reached down and a picked up a stray bokken, standing and 
knocking the dirt from it with an almost casual flick of his wrist.  
Even that simple motion looked deadly.
	There could be no doubt left in Nabiki's mind.  She was gazing at
none other than Hasegawa Piku.
	"No.  Fucking.  Way."  This from a wide-eyed Ranma.  Ukyou and 
Akane looked dumbfounded.  Kouryuu just looked unusually sober, though 
he glanced at Ranma without recognition, apparently wondering who this 
unfamiliar female was.
	"This is bad news for you, Kunou-san," Kouryuu said in an 
undervoice.
	"Why?" Nabiki interjected, overriding any response Kunou might 
have given.  What the hell was going on here?
	"Because, Tendou Nabiki-san," Kouryuu replied grimly, "Piku is a 
much better kendoist than Preston."
	Piku rolled his shoulders, as if stretching -- flying through the
air and falling ten or fifteen meters to the ground didn't seem to have 
fazed him in the slightest.  "Enough children's games, Kunou.  Let's end 
this now."
	Nabiki started backing slowly away from Kunou, her eyes flicking
back and forth between him and Piku.  Everyone else seemed to have the 
same idea, retreating to what seemed like a safer distance.  Kunou 
strode forward, but seemed hesitant, confused.  Nabiki could hardly 
blame him.  Her mind was still trying to wrap itself around the whole 
situation.
	"I have no quarrel with you, Hasegawa," Kunou said, his voice 
projecting across the drenched crowd for all to hear.  "My fight is with
that insolent dog of a foreigner, not you."
	Piku held his bokken forward.  "I am your opponent."  And he 
rushed at Kunou with blinding speed.  Kunou was barely able to fend off 
the whirlwind of attacks Piku sent at him -- one, two, six, ten -- too 
many for Nabiki to even begin to count.
	But then as suddenly as he had begun, Piku paused.  He seemed to
be listening.  Nabiki realized that the roaring gush of water was 
beginning to subside; the unnatural rain lessened, then finally stopped 
all together.
	Everyone, crowd and combatants alike, all stood in confused 
silence for a moment.
	"What the hell is wrong with you people?!"  Nabiki's attention --
along with everyone else's -- was wrenched in the direction of the 
voice.  A very perturbed-looking Emi stood with her hands clenched on 
a wheel protruding from an exposed portion of the water main.  She stood
up on the huge pipe, her position at the top of a large bend raising her
out of the pit into full view.  "Just stand there gawping, why don't 
you!  Was I the only one who thought somebody should shut the water off 
before we drain Tokyo dry?!"
	A few sheepish glances were exchanged throughout the crowd of 
observers.  Nabiki wondered if Emi would feel quite so high'n'mighty if 
she knew that her blue sports bra was showing through her soaked gi and 
undershirt.
	"Give it a rest!" Ranma yelled, breaking the silence.  "Just 
'cause you're a high school teacher doesn't mean you c'n treat everyone 
like a bunch o' kids!"
	A hushed murmur of agreement arose, and someone shouted gleefully,
"Hey, it's the redhead!"
	Emi glared at Ranma, but also looked puzzled, clearly not 
recognizing her female form any more than Kouryuu had.
	<Surprising that Ranma's kept that secret hidden from either of 
them for this long,> Nabiki thought.  She glanced toward Piku.  Speaking
of secrets....
	Nabiki raised her hands and her voice, calling for attention.  
"Everyone!  I want to thank you all for coming today, but I think that 
due to this unfortunate accident, classes will have to be put on hiatus 
for the remainder of the day."
	The disappointment was audible and almost unanimous -- which was 
encouraging, to a certain extent, since it meant people really wanted to 
be here.
	"I'm very sorry," Nabiki said, trying to look sympathetic, though
she was having trouble not grimacing and grinding her teeth at what she 
knew she had to say next.  She took a breath and continued, putting a 
reassuring smile on her face, "You will all be reimbursed for the cost 
of today's lessons."
	This seemed to assuage the disgruntled feelings of at least some
of the students, and they began slowly filing past Nabiki, heading for 
the main gates.
	"C'mon, Saro," someone said sullenly.
	"What?!  We can't leave now!  The REDHEAD, man, the REDHEAD!"
	"Shut UP, Saro!" was followed by the sound of knuckles wrapping 
someone's skull.
	Kouryuu was gazing at Ranma in renewed puzzlement.  Then a spark 
of understanding seemed to enter his eyes.  "Ranma?"
	"Uh...."  Ranma was blushing slightly in spite of herself.  Nabiki
guessed that Kouryuu, a respected male friend and colleague in the 
martial arts, was probably the last person Ranma wanted to know about 
the curse.
	"You've been to Jusenkyou?" Kouryuu asked in amazement.
	Ranma looked as taken aback as Nabiki felt.  "Yeah, but how did 
you--?"
	She broke off as Emi approached, her gi muddied in several places
from scrabbling about in the construction pit, and parts of her bra 
still showing through the wet material.
	"Classes have been canceled for the day, Sakai-san," Nabiki 
informed her.
	"Good," Emi replied with an approving nod.  "Maybe we can get 
something done about cleaning this up."  Either she hadn't caught the 
broad hint in Nabiki's statement, or she was choosing to ignore it.  Emi
looked around.  "Where's Preston?  He's at least partially responsible 
for this mess."
	Nabiki noticed Kouryuu's gaze fall on Piku.
	"I think a fair bit of explaining is in order," he said.
	"So it seems," Piku agreed, looking resigned.

	Emi, feeling much better now that she'd changed into dry, clean
clothes, sat on the dojo floor with Akane on her right, Kouryuu on her 
left, and Nabiki, Ukyou, Kunou, Preston, and the unfamiliar redheaded 
girl filling out the circle.  She didn't know where Piku had gone, and 
Ranma was still mysteriously absent, but since she wasn't exactly fond 
of either of them she didn't bother to ask after them.
	"So," Kouryuu began.  "Where to start...."
	"I'll start," Preston volunteered.  He'd gotten a hold of a bag of
snacks and sat popping them into his mouth and munching loudly, but it 
didn't seem to interfere with his usual gregariousness in the slightest.
	"I was born in Hong Kong," he said.  A small "ah!" escaped from 
the direction of Nabiki; he gave her brief "I told you so" glance, then 
went back to his story.  "My father was a wealthy British businessman 
at the time, though he eventually went into politics.  My mother died 
when I was very young.  I don't really remember her.  I was raised 
mostly by my Japanese step-mother."  He set aside his snack-bag as he 
went on, pitching his voice so that it wasn't loud, but they could hear 
every word quite clearly, and there was something about the way he spoke
that captured Emi's attention immediately.  She could tell he was no 
mean raconteur.
	"When I was about three years old, we all went on a trip through
provincial China.  I don't really remember much about the trip, but at 
one point, when we were touring the Qinghai province a long way from 
civilization, I wandered away from my parents.  I think I wanted to find
a dragon's den or something.  What I found... was Jusenkyou."
	Someone swallowed loud enough for Emi to hear.
	"You fell in?" Akane blurted.
	Preston nodded.  "I remember that much.  I don't remember anything
that happened right after falling in, though.  I guess Kouryuu happened 
to be nearby and he fished me out."
	Preston looked to Kouryuu, who took up the thread.
	"I was... about eleven," Kouryuu said thoughtfully.  "The order of
monks who raised me USED to be the guardians of Jusenkyou, an order 
founded to keep people from wandering into the cursed springs.  I 
thought this was a lot nobler than their modern reclusive lifestyle, so
I wanted to uphold the old ways, I think."  He shook his head, as if 
trying to get his mind back on track.  "That's all unimportant.  I was 
nearby, and I was all in a panic when I heard splashing from one of the
springs.  But when I pulled Preston out, he looked like a normal healthy
boy to me.  Unfortunately, that... wasn't exactly the case."  He looked
to Preston, waiting for him to continue.
	Preston dipped his head in thanks and went on.  "We learned the
nature of the spring I'd fallen into soon enough."  Preston held up his
snack bag as if it were a signboard, and his normally flawless Japanese
broke into an accented pidgin.  "Oh, no, sir, you fall in Spring of 
Drowned Samurai.  Very tragic story of exiled samurai from Japan who 
drown in spring five-hundred year ago."
	Others around the circle smirked or chuckled in spite of 
themselves, but the humor was lost on Emi.
	"So," Nabiki leaned forward, gazing at Preston with interest.  
"You're Piku."
	"He CAN'T be," Ukyou breathed.
	"You are, aren't you?" Nabiki said eagerly.
	Preston smiled.  "No, I'm most definitely Preston."
	Nabiki frowned, as did most everyone else except for Kouryuu.
	"It's... a bit complicated," Kouryuu said.
	Emi was thoroughly confused.  "What are you all talking about?  
What's all this about cursed springs?  Where IS Piku?"
	Preston grinned and popped another crispy rice snack into his 
mouth.  "Takin' a nap."
	"Waitaminute here," the redhead broke in.  "You fell in... what,
the Spring of Drowned Nut-job, you said?"
	"Samurai," Kouryuu corrected, while Preston just looked amused.
	"So when you get splashed with cold water... like you did earlier
today..." the redhead continued, "you turn into Piku."
	"Correct," Preston responded still grinning.  "Give the girl a 
prize!  Kouryuu, tell her what she's won."
	Kouryuu pursed his lips, obviously refusing to play along, while
the redhead just grimaced.
	"Don't call me 'girl,'" she said.
	<What kind of crazy nonsense IS this?> Emi thought.  People 
talking about turning into other people....  Had she landed in an 
episode of some bad anime or something?
	Kunou, who had yet to say anything, finally spoke up, addressing
Preston.  "So.  You say that you fell into an accursed spring, and that 
now your body and soul have become intertwined with that of a dishonored
cur of a ronin... much in the manner that the pig-tailed girl has become
bound to the vile Saotome."
	Everyone except Kouryuu and Preston gawked at Kunou.  Emi looked
around at the shocked faces.  Certainly, what Kunou had said was totally
crazy -- but that didn't seem to be why they were so surprised.
	"You KNOW about Ranma-kun's curse?" Nabiki asked after a moment of
dumbfounded silence.
	Kunou nodded sagely.  "Yes, I know of Saotome's curse.  It is a 
most foul curse indeed, one that no mortal deserves upon them."
	Everyone just continued to stare at Kunou in shocked wonderment.
	"Only recently has it become clear to me why the pig-tailed cannot
escape him, bound to him as she is by his vile magicks!"
	The looks of awe fell away into blandness bordering on disgust.
	"Your powers of deduction never cease to amaze, Kunou-chan," 
Nabiki remarked, resting the side of her face in her open hand.
	"My heart goes out to her all the more now that I know the full 
truth of the matter," Kunou went on.  "Damn that Saotome for all his 
black sorcery!"
	The redhead waved.  "Uh, hello, Kunou, I'm right here.  I can hear
you, you know."
	Kunou turned his gaze on her.  "Yes, my pig-tailed goddess, I know
you desire my attention and affections at all hours of the day, but now 
is not an opportune time.  I promise to lavish my full attention upon 
you later."
	The redhead's face seemed to be trying to match her hair-color.  
Emi realized it wasn't embarrassment, but red-hot fury.
	Nabiki grinned broadly at the girl.  "'Daddy's busy now.'"
	The redhead looked like steam would shoot out of her ears at any
second.  <Make that white-hot fury,> Emi thought.
	Kunou turned a patronizing eye on Nabiki.  "Thank you Tendou 
Nabiki, but I'm sure she understands my meaning quite clearly without 
your inelegant and ineloquent interpretations."
	Growling murderously, the redhead stood and stormed out of the 
dojo, muttering something about the hot water being ready.  Emi thought
it looked more like the hot water had boiled over.
	Ukyou turned back from watching with a look of sympathy as the 
redhead strode towards the Tendou house.  "I don't believe it," she 
said in a clear attempt to steer back to the topic at hand.  "Preston 
CANNOT be Piku.  Preston is an obnoxious jerk."  Preston winced at this,
but Ukyou took no notice.  "Piku... Piku is nice -- CUTE even!"
	Emi disagreed, but held her tongue.  Even if Ukyou's reasoning 
was faulty, at least she was arguing on the side of sanity, whereas 
everyone else seemed ready to believe that two young martial artists of
completely different ethnicities and nationalities, not to mention 
somewhat different temperaments, were somehow the same person.
	Ranma stalked in and sat without saying a word, looking about as
angry as the redhead who had just left.  Kunou eyed him menacingly, but 
said nothing.  As it was Ranma, Emi was content to ignore his arrival, 
much as everyone else seemed to be doing.
	"Why THANK you, Ukyou," Preston was saying.  He managed a quite 
effective bow from a sitting position.  "Piku will be flattered that you
think he's cute and nice.  And I'm sure that Piku thinks you're very 
cute and nice too."  He grinned, with a hint of irony.  "We're pretty 
much of one mind on that."
	Ukyou jumped to her feet.  "I am NOT nice!"
	"Kuonji-san, please sit down," Kouryuu remonstrated.  "Or else 
leave.  There is more yet to tell."
	Grudgingly, Ukyou sat, her face still red and her eyes still 
sending the occasional scorching glance in Preston's direction, which he
seemed to weather without so much as a dent in his good humor.	
	But Preston's smile faded as his gaze went distant, his thoughts
clearly turning inward once again, and his mind's eye did not seem to 
relish what he saw there.
	"My mother... my step-mother, that is, was never quite... I 
mean, she was..." he trailed off.  He swallowed hard, not meeting 
anyone's eyes.  Finally he looked at Kouryuu.  "I think you can tell 
this better, it's... too much."  He paused.  "Too much a part of me."
	Kouryuu nodded solemnly, and took a deep breath.  "Preston's step-
mother was... an odd woman.  She handled his curse... well, strangely.  
It seems she insisted on calling him by a different name and treating 
him like a different person depending on which form he was in.  When he 
was in the form you see him in now, she called him by his given name, 
Preston.  When he was in his other form, she called him Piku -- the gods
know why, as I said, she was strange woman."
	"Was?" Akane broke in.
	"Is," Preston corrected.  He sent a strange, sharp glance at 
Kouryuu.  "She's not dead yet."
	"My apologies," Kouryuu said.  "I meant that she WAS a strange 
woman.  Now she is..." he trailed off.
	"Unhinged," Preston supplied.  "She's in a special facility now
where they take care of... people like her.  Anyway, what Kouryuu's 
saying is she made me what I am.  Or at any rate, that's the theory."
	"So you're saying Preston's mom gave him some kinda... complex or
somthin'?" Ranma asked.
	Kouryuu hesitated to answer.
	Preston shrugged.  "Like I said, that's just the theory.  I am 
what I am, for better or worse.  And so's Piku."
	Kouryuu folded his hands in front of him, seeming to make up his
mind about what he was going to say.  "I'm sure you've all noticed how 
people with Jusenkyou curses seem to attract cold water almost like a 
magnet."
	There was nodding all around, some general murmurs of agreement,
and Ranma smiled sardonically.
	"No," Emi interjected, probably louder than necessary.  She was 
getting tired of all this lunacy about curses.
	Kouryuu smiled apologetically.  "I should have explained the 
details for you sooner, but everyone else seemed so impatient.  Anyone 
who falls in one of the cursed springs at Jusenkyou takes the form of 
the creature that drowned there -- in Preston's case it was a young 
samurai who drowned.  A cursed individual can return to normal if doused
with hot water, but cold water will always turn them back into their 
cursed form.  Part of the curse seems to also involve attracting cold 
water to the cursed person as well."  He returned his gaze to address 
the whole party.
	<He just said all of that with a completely straight face,> Emi 
thought, her mind reeling.  Kouryuu, possibly one of the most honest and
straightforward people who she had ever met, had just given voice to the
most ludicrous stream of insanity she had ever heard outside daytime 
television or the pages of a bad manga.
	"I have noticed," Kouryuu continued, "that Preston seems to have
less of a problem with getting randomly splashed, compared to other 
cursed people I've encountered.  In fact, he hardly has more of a 
problem with it than the average non-cursed person.  I think it's 
because he grew up with both halves of his self developing almost 
equally.  He was cursed at such an early age that the curse is very much
a part of him.  He's not so much a man cursed as one... divided."
	"Don't give me that crap," Preston interrupted.  "I'm a whole 
person.  Both of me -- us."  He paused thoughtfully.  "I think."
	Emi stared around at everyone in the circle.  All expressions were
serious, pensive even.  Nowhere could she detect any signs of 
incredulity.
	<They believe him,> she thought.  <They all believe him.>
	"I..." she stammered.  "I can't...  I don't...."
	Kouryuu's eyes seemed sympathetic as he watched her.  "I know it's
all a bit hard to comprehend, for people who didn't grow up around this 
sort of thing."
	Emi just shook her head dumbly.  A little voice inside her kept 
repeating, <wake up, Emi, wake up,> over and over again.
	Kouryuu sighed.  "A demonstration may be in order."  He rose with
a muffled, "Please excuse me."
	An instant later, he returned, carrying a metal bucket that 
sloshed noisily.  He walked up behind Ranma, who was sitting with his 
back to the entrance, looking rather bored.  Then Kouryuu upended the 
bucket over Ranma's head, and a feminine scream of surprise broke the 
silence in the training hall.
	"Waaah!  Why'd you use ME to demonstrate?  Weren't we discussin' 
PRESTON's curse here?!"
	Where Ranma had been sitting not three paces away from Emi, a 
sopping wet redhead -- the same unfamiliar girl as before -- now sat 
fuming on the dojo floor.
	"Well, now you know, Teach," the girl shot across at Emi.  Then 
she glared up at Kouryuu standing over her.  "Satisfied?"
	Emi, feeling suddenly dizzy and light-headed, reached out blindly 
and gripped Akane's sleeve, her eyes fixed on the small, pig-tailed girl 
in the oversized Chinese shirt.  Ranma's shirt.
	"Akane," she murmured hoarsely.  "I don't think you mentioned this
particular complication with your engagement."

	Nabiki's spirits were lifted to discover that the next morning's 
gossip at Furinkan High School revolved entirely around the incident of 
the burst water main at the Tendou Dojo, and didn't so much as skirt any 
apocryphal rumors about her romantic life.  She even hummed contentedly 
to herself as she made her way to her locker.
	Her humming stopped abruptly as she pulled open her locker to 
reveal a flimsy white square propped against the heels of her school 
slippers.  Glancing about to make sure no one was paying attention, she 
picked up the photograph, flipping it around to see the front, then 
quickly reading the note scrawled on the back: "Meet me on the roof."
	Tucking the photo away in her blouse, Nabiki made her way calmly 
but rapidly up the stairs to the top of the building.
	It was surprisingly warm out for the time of year.  The sun shown
brightly, and only the cool breeze and the barest bite of dryness in the 
air hinted that winter was only a few months away.
	Preston greeted her on the empty rooftop with a smile that was 
somehow lacking in its usual humor.
	"What's this all about, Preston-kun?" Nabiki demanded, not wanting
to mince words.
	"I'd thought that picture I gave you would be worth a thousand 
words," he replied, still smiling.
	She could almost feel the heat of scandal emanating from the 
photograph where it rested just over her heart, one corner tucked into 
the top of her bra.  Nabiki glanced down at the schoolyard, and walked 
to the railing.  She gazed down at the tree that she and Kunou had sat 
beneath just the day before.  This was the spot -- the exact height and 
distance from where the well-timed snapshot had been taken.
	Nabiki gripped the rail tightly.  She knew all too well that what
was not shown was as valuable as what was shown.  From what little the 
photo revealed, she and the brainless wonder might as well have been 
sharing a picnic like lovers instead of plotting like accomplices.  
Following on the heels of the photo of her and Preston, there was only 
one way that anyone at Furinkan could interpret it.
	<It's not a big deal,> she told herself.  <The picture means 
nothing.  I can weather this.>
	"Why are you doing this?" Nabiki asked aloud.  "This is Japan.  
You can't do this sort of thing here."
	"Why not?  You do, from all I've heard."
	Hidden from view by the rail, Nabiki's fingernails clawed at the
cool metal.
	"Why me?  I don't deserve this."
	Preston came to lean against the railing, his eyes narrowed.  
"Don't give me that innocent damsel routine, Nabiki.  You're pure evil.  
I can see it in your beady little eyes," he said, pointing two fingers 
at her face.
	"Hey, you take that back!" Nabiki protested.  "My eyes are NOT 
beady!  OR little!"
	Preston raised a hand, palm upward.  "Point conceded.  But, 
nevertheless...."
	Nabiki took a deep breath.  "What do you want?" she asked plainly.
	Preston almost looked disappointed.  "What's this, Nabiki?  Giving
in so soon?"
	That this idiot should try to play her at her own game....  Nabiki
clenched her teeth.  "Spit.  It.  Out."
	Preston nodded.  "Alright.  I want your help."
	Nabiki managed to keep her voice even by not meeting Preston's 
gaze.  "With what?"
	"I want you to help Ranma and Akane."
	Nabiki's head snapped up.  "What?"
	Preston broke into a grin again.  "Weren't expecting that, were 
you?"
	"What do you want me to help them with?" Nabiki asked, playing for
time as her mind raced ahead.
	"You know what I mean," Preston stated.
	Of course she did.  "What makes you think I can help?"
	"You'll find a way.  You're resourceful.  And I'll let you know if
I come up with anything more... specific.  On a need-to-know basis, of 
course."
	Nabiki studied him.  "And what happens if I don't agree?"
	"I know all about your engagement to Kunou," Preston replied, his
smile fading to seriousness.
	Nabiki's blood nearly froze in her veins.  
	"I could blow this whole thing wide open, with or without that 
photo," he said, pointing to her chest.
	Nabiki looked down.  To the wary observer, the faintest outline of
the picture could be made out through her white blouse.  She took a step 
back, placing a hand over the photo instinctively like someone clutching 
a wound or covering up an embarrassing hole in their clothes.  She could 
feel her heart thumping just beneath it.
	Making an effort to compose herself, Nabiki started counting 
heartbeats.  What did Preston have to gain by bringing Akane and Ranma 
together?  
	Soon, she found her voice again, though her words still came out 
clipped and full of indignation.
	"What do you get out of all this?  Ukyou?"
	"Maybe," Preston said, his face unreadable.  "If I'm really lucky.
But that's completely up to Ukyou, now isn't it?"
	Nabiki didn't respond, just focused on regulating her breathing.  
She refused to show weakness in front of him.
	"I do this for the sake of pure altruism," Preston said.  "Not 
that that's something you'd understand."
	"There's no such thing as altruism," Nabiki replied.  "Everyone 
has an ulterior motive.  Even freaks like you."
	Preston seemed to consider this for a moment.  "Maybe you're 
right.  The truth is I really can't stand negative emotions.  They have 
a tendency to snowball out of control.  Luckily, so do positive 
emotions.  So I guess my ulterior motive is that I want everyone to be 
happy.  I hate being around angry people.  And I think this will be a 
way to multiply everyone's happiness."
	"Everyone's?" Nabiki shot back.  "What about MY happiness?  You 
think this is going to make ME happy, asshole?!"
	Preston grinned.  "Oh, yes.  I know how much you love scheming and
manipulating events.  That's why I'm leaving the method and execution 
entirely in your hands, Nabiki.  You'll have quite a lot of fun helping 
your little sister and her fiancé along the road to Love City.  And for 
once, you'll actually be doing some good, too."
	Nabiki sighed and released the railing, which she'd been squeezing
hard enough to hurt her fingers.
	Maybe he was right.  Maybe she would enjoy the task, even though 
it stood to gain her no money.  And after all, keeping Ranma around was 
in her best interest, now that he was teaching classes at the dojo.
	As for Preston, he would come to regret ever having crossed blades
with Tendou Nabiki -- of that she would make absolutely sure.  The time
would come for her to counter his move and turn it against him.  She 
just had to be patient.  Their duel was not over yet.
	"I commend you, Preston-kun," Nabiki said, at last able to meet
his steady gaze.  "You aren't nearly as stupid as you look."
	"And you aren't nearly as smart as you'd like to think," Preston
responded, his tone just as level as hers.
	Nabiki shrugged.  So she'd underestimated him and let her guard
down.  It was a temporary setback as far as she was concerned.  "That's
fine," she said, and flashed him a fierce grin.  "I'm still fabulously
charming and beautiful, after all."
	Preston smirked.  "And modest, too."
	"Oh, yes, how could I forget," Nabiki agreed dryly.  "Modesty is
one of my very finest qualities."

End Part IV

Part V will be the fight of the century, as Ranma teams up with Harry 
Potter to take on Darth Vader and the Care Bears!  *Explosion noise*

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