Part VI : The Price of Glory

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"Mother?"

Akane looked for her mother. She was so hoping to see her soon; it had been so long. Surely Mother would be the first of her ancestors to greet Akane.

The blackness cleared, to be replaced by a field of white. Akane didn't think that was right. She had heard about white light, something that guided you to the next world. Akane had been hoping for her mother instead. Still, if Mother was nothing more than white light now, Akane wouldn't mind. Just so that she was near.

But the white wasn't light; if anything, it looked like cloth. This wasn't anything she had ever heard about. And why was it moving so much? It jiggled up and down, and folded this way and that. It was so hard to understand. Mother would explain it. Akane tried to call out for her, but somehow, all that escaped her was a whimper.

"Do not worry, Tendo Akane-san, you are safe. I just need to get us a safe distance away."

That wasn't Mother; it was some man whose Japanese was tinged with a Chinese accent. Akane tried to remember if she had any Chinese ancestors. She didn't think so.

Suddenly she realized that it wasn't the cloth that was jiggling up and down; she was. Like a long-forgotten memory being recalled, feeling was slowly coming back to her. With it came the realization that she was being carried, that she was slung over someone's shoulder.

Did that mean she was alive? She wasn't sure. It was a little disappointing. She had been so looking forward to seeing Mother.

Akane had gotten enough feeling back to be really uncomfortable. She tried lifting her head, but all she succeeded in doing was to bang her head against her rescuer's back.

Her rescuer. She had been nearly killed. The sword, flashing as it sped towards her. Her mind must have shut down at that moment; who wanted to witness their own death? Still, it would have been useful to know what had happened next.

Finally, the man carrying her slowed to a stop. Akane was placed gently onto a seat, a park bench by the look of things. A tree was across from her; it looked beautiful.

Akane turned her head to gaze at her rescuer; she had long ago surmised who it had to be. "Thank you, Mousse."

He nodded once, then sat down beside her. Akane noticed, almost idly, that he was bleeding. He looked to have a nasty cut on his forearm. She thought that maybe she should reach over and try to bandage it, but somehow it didn't seem worth the effort. Akane let her gaze wander back over to the tree, wondering if Mother was in there.

"Are you well, Tendo Akane-san?" Mousse sounded worried. Akane supposed that was fine. He could be worried if he wanted to be. She was just going to wait for her mother.

***

Mousse examined Akane closely. She had a slight discoloration on her jaw, one of her arms hung limp, and blood trickled down her leg. All these things, though, paled in comparison to her vacant expression and the way her eyes wandered aimlessly around, not focusing on anything for more than a few seconds. Still, she had been aware enough to recognize and thank him, and that was a good sign.

Mousse sighed and winced. He tore a strip of cloth off of his tunic and used it to bind his arm tightly. It wasn't a very good bandage, but it would do for a little while. Right now, he needed to assess his options. He had made for himself the most dangerous enemy he possibly could.

***

Mousse followed Shampoo from a distance. He didn't need to be very close; he knew where she was going. The sound of voices from the restaurant late at night had waken him, and he had slipped downstairs to see what was going on. He had found Shampoo and Cologne discussing horrible things.

Mousse slipped behind a group of students when he saw Shampoo stop and scan the horizon. He knew she wasn't looking for him, but for someone else. He went around the back of a restaurant, let fly a chain that wrapped around a chimney stack, and hauled himself to the rooftop. He made his way along several rooftops, until the buildings ran out. He watched from the last one as Shampoo hid herself in the shadows of a wall along one side of a small park.

He needed to get closer. He went back the way he came, dropped to the ground, and found his way to the other end of the park. He tried to move as quietly as he could, considering the small armory he was carrying. Shampoo seemed intent on staring down the road, and didn't look his way. He concealed himself in plain sight close to her; a magician's trick of misdirection.

Soon, too soon, Tendo Akane appeared. Mousse's heart sunk; Ranma wasn't with her. Mousse had hoped that Ranma would be able to defeat Shampoo and Cologne. Akane by herself had no chance.

She surprised him, though, more than holding her own against Shampoo. It took Cologne's knowledge of pressure points to subdue her. Cologne used that same knowledge to give Shampoo her breath back. Then she spoke with Shampoo.

"Shampoo, get up, that was not worthy of you. We'll need better from you if we are going to convince Son-in-law to marry you."

"She surprised me. I had no idea she was that strong. Ranma's been training her, I can tell. Next time, she won't beat me so easily."

"Next time, Shampoo? What next time? Come, let us finish what we started. Take your sword and finish her off."

Shampoo seemed to flinch ever so slightly. "Must we, Great-grandmother? Surely we can just convince her to leave Ranma alone."

Cologne's voice sharpened. "What's this? Is this the Shampoo who gave Akane the kiss of death?"

Shampoo sounded petulant. "I gave Ranma the kiss of death, too."

"A misunderstanding. Do you want to disappoint our tribe by returning defeated, unavenged, and unmarried?" Cologne's voice lightened slightly. "Do you love Ranma?"

Shampoo's voice took on a wistful edge. "More than anything in the world, Great-grandmother."

"Then I tell you that, as long as this one lives, Ranma will never be yours. Trust your elders; this is a thing that must be done. For the glory of the Amazons, eliminate the obstacle that keeps Ranma from you."

Shampoo nodded and took the sword from Cologne. Mousse simmered; Cologne knew exactly what buttons to push in Shampoo. By reducing Akane to nothing more than an obstacle in the way of Shampoo's love, he had made it easier for her to kill Akane.

Mousse saw the hate twist Shampoo's face. He loved her so much, but to see her like this wrung his heart. He could not let Cologne turn her into a murderer.

Shampoo contemptuously pushed Akane onto her back and prepared her for a killing blow. Mousse stood still, hoping beyond hope that Shampoo would return to herself, that she would stop before she took the last step into damnation. Instead, he saw her raise her arms and prepare to strike.

Suddenly he realized he'd waited too long. He had little chance of grabbing Akane before Shampoo struck. His only option was unthinkable. It was also unthinkable to let Akane die. He needed to choose now.

With a cry, he let fly a curved blade attached to a chain. It flew through the air just as Shampoo brought the sword down. Mousse's blade cut her arm, causing her to scream. Her attack went wildly off the mark, her sword burying itself in the pavement well above Akane's head.

Cologne turned to him, quick as lightning. "Mousse!"

He had to escape before she had time to perform any of her tricks. He used two chains to reach out, grab Akane, and bring her to him. He slung her unceremoniously over his shoulder.

A sword came flashing at him. Holding Akane, he could do little to stop it. He lifted his arms slightly, and it deflected off his forearm, leaving a nasty cut. Ignoring it, he turned and ran.

"Mousse!" He heard Cologne screaming behind him. "The Amazons will hear of this!"

He withered at the thought, but kept running.

***

Mousse sat in a daze little better than the one Akane was in. He had defied Cologne in the past, each time paying dearly for it. However, this time Cologne had made it a tribal issue. When a matriarch of the Amazons spoke, you listened and complied.

Cologne was one of the last of the old guard, a throwback to the times when the Amazons were self-reliant and kept all outsiders from interfering with their business. To the Amazons, the rest of the world had been at their beck and call, even if the rest of the world wasn't aware of it.

The events of nearly fifty years ago had changed that. The Amazons had been forced to accept the new world, and live in it. For the most part, they had adapted well, and got along. There were just a few of the older matriarchs who still dreamed of the days of glory, as they saw it.

Among them, Cologne was the most powerful and influential. When Shampoo had returned from Japan with tales of a man who had beaten her in combat, won her heart but refused her love, Cologne had decided that this was indicative of the outside world's attempt to oppress the Amazons. She had returned to Japan with Shampoo, determined to bring Ranma back, not so much as a husband to Shampoo but as a trophy of dominance over the outside world.

Mousse had gone to Japan, too. His love for Shampoo knew no bounds, and he would do anything for her. He had seen her over the months, rejecting him, pining over Ranma. He had watched Cologne using that to her advantage, slowly warping the Shampoo he had loved into a hateful, twisted woman bent on using whatever methods necessary to get what she wanted.

Mousse had done what he could. He had always been a moderating influence on Shampoo while she was growing up. When she had been about to go on one of her rampages, he had tried to soothe the fires that burned within her. He had succeeded sometimes. He had learned painful lessons other times.

Now he could only watch as Shampoo became more and more like Cologne. Mousse was doing everything he could to stop it. He just wasn't sure if he had done enough, or waited too long. Shampoo had come within a hair's breadth of becoming a murderer.

Mousse grimaced; was he any different? He'd been trying to kill Ranma from the moment he met him. It was the old Amazon credo: Kill that which gets in your way.

Still, they had had to soften that position in the past fifty years. Mousse had been raised in a new era of Amazon relations, that of tolerance. He threatened and blustered a lot, but deep down, he really wasn't able to kill someone. Even Ranma. Just scare him, that's all he had been trying to do.

Wasn't it?

Mousse sighed and looked over at Akane. She was now just staring at a tree. He hoped this was another sign she was recovering.

Mousse shook his head; he'd spent all his time reminiscing, and none of it thinking of what he should do. He couldn't go back to the Nekohanten, that was certain. The Tendo home seemed the obvious place, but it would be obvious to Cologne, as well. As would Ukyo's restaurant, the Kuno residence, the Saotome home, and even Tofu-sensei's. Mousse needed to go somewhere unknown to Cologne.

How about hiding in plain sight? Mousse smiled. That would do.

He rose to his feet. "Tendo Akane-san, we must leave. Cologne is looking for you; we cannot leave you in public like this. Come with me."

Akane slowly lifted her eyes to him, her face still expressionless. She looked back at the tree.

Mousse sighed heavily. He reached down, took her hand, and gently pulled her to her feet. She resisted slightly, then allowed him to pull her along the path. She continued to look back at the tree. As they left the park and the tree went out of sight, she balked. "No," she said without much heat, trying to walk back into the park. Mousse firmly guided her down the road. Akane made a token resistance, then faced forward and stared ahead of herself as she walked.

***

Ranma entered the dojo, his heart hammering. He had done some very scary things this afternoon with Nabiki, an experience he would as soon forget.

He sat cross-legged in the middle of the dojo, attempting to meditate. This was not his strong suit; his father had had little use for such "mysticism", as he called it, so they had not done it much. The closest they came was the Saotome Secret Attack. Ranma figured that using it before the battle began was probably a good idea now.

He had to prepare for Shampoo. Preparing for Shampoo meant, of course, preparing for Cologne, quite possibly the most dangerous opponent Ranma had ever faced. Happosai was a strong fighter, but he was unbalanced and easily distracted. Cologne brought all her force to bear in any fight she undertook.

The problem, Ranma knew, was that he couldn't let her touch him. One touch, with finger or staff, in the right place would paralyze him in a second. This made fighting her very difficult; any attack Ranma made left him vulnerable to her devastating counter-attacks. He had to be absolutely on your guard every second.

Could he bargain with Shampoo? Ranma shook his head; they'd tried that with Ukyo. Even Ukyo had not given up without a fight. If the sweetest and most even-tempered of the women chasing him was capable of vicious attacks, then certainly he could expect far worse from Shampoo. Shampoo would simply not give up, ever. He still had no idea how they were going to convince her to go back to China.

They needed to convince her, somehow. She was preventing him from telling Akane all the things he needed to.

Ranma took a couple of deep breaths. What was the word? Sophistry. That was it. The only thing preventing Ranma from showing his feelings to Akane was Ranma himself. He couldn't, and shouldn't, make any other excuses.

Except he had tried, on a few occasions. Each time, Akane had either slapped him, yelled at him, ignored him, or performed some combination of the three. She was very stubborn, and prone to jumping to conclusions. He hated that about her. He'd tried opening up, and she had always found a way to keep from listening to him.

Ranma tried to calm his thoughts. This was bit of the pot calling the kettle black, he knew. They both had their faults. They had, at last, had a bit of a breakthrough. There was an affection building between them, something he truly wanted to explore. More than affection. And he wanted to do more than explore it.

The entire point of these confrontations with his other fiancees was to make sure that he and Akane were given a fair chance at what they had discovered between them. He would do anything and everything in his power to make sure they were given that chance.

While he was still trying to approximate something that resembled a clear mind, he heard the dojo door slide open. This was enough to break whatever feeble state of consciousness he had attained. Slightly annoyed, he opened his eyes to discover Kasumi smiling brightly at him.

His annoyance vanished. One could never be mad at Kasumi. Well, hardly ever.

"Ranma-kun, do you know where Akane is?"

Ranma raised his eyebrows. "She didn't come home?"

"No, I thought you and she were out somewhere, along with Nabiki. Nabiki came home a few minutes ago, but I didn't see Akane with her, either." Kasumi began to look worried.

Ranma grew alarmed himself. What was Akane doing? Sulking was something she did well, but she usually did it in her room. She'd been kidnapped a fair number of times, but he could think of no one who would want to do so now.

Or almost no one.

Ranma sprung up, ran over to the door. "Kasumi, tell my father I've gone to look for Akane. She may be at the Nekohanten. I'll try and call later and let you know where I am and what I've found out."

With that, he leapt over the wall and ran toward Furinkan. Maybe he could see if she'd been ambushed somewhere along the way.

It wasn't hard to spot. He stopped on the canal fence, examining the signs on the ground. He was no great detective, but he could see the signs of a fight. There were also a couple of marks in the pavement. Something very sharp had made those marks recently.

Someone had tried to kill Akane.

Frantically he examined the ground for traces of blood. He found a few spots, but nothing much. Whatever had happened, it had not ended with anyone's death.

Time to get the real answers.

He was about to leap off the fence when a thought occurred to him. If he was going to take on Cologne right now, he needed to be fast. And as fast as he was, he could be faster.

He turned and jumped into the canal. Emerging, Ranma leapt over the fence and ran towards the Nekohanten.

***

Cologne paced around the Nekohanten, quite irritated. Things had not gone according to plan at all. Mousse had taken Akane somewhere. After Cologne had taken care of her wounds, Shampoo had gone out to try to discover where Akane was. Cologne knew Mousse well, though. He was clever for a man; he would not be easy to find.

He had defied her. Defied *her*, an elder matriarch of the Amazons, during tribe business. The ancient laws proscribed only one punishment for such an offense. Mousse would pay.

Meanwhile, she had to deal with Son-in-law. He was certain to discover something was amiss soon. Either Mousse would contact him, or eventually he would wonder why Akane had not come back from school. Son-in-law would soon be here.

Cologne considered the package she had tucked away in her wraparound. It had been another one of her concoctions, one that was meant to drive Ranma insane with lust at the smell of lilacs.

The plan had been simple enough. Cologne was to have taunted Ranma into chasing her, which was simple enough to do given Ranma's volatile nature. When he had gone, Shampoo was to dispose of Akane. Then, after Cologne had subdued Ranma, she would force him to ingest her potion. Shampoo had been ready with some lilac spray to apply liberally after she had returned to the Nekohanten. Ranma would have willingly followed the smell of lilacs all the way back to China, and there would have been no one left to come after him. Maybe those two fools Genma and Soun would have tried to rescue Ranma, but if they had attempted to penetrate the village of the Amazons, they would have been in for a very rude and probably lethal shock.

That plan was in ruins now. Ranma would know very soon that someone had tried to kill Akane. Cologne knew him well enough to know that he would never forgive Shampoo for Akane's death. He would have been easy to hold in China; she would simply have convinced him that Akane had given up on Ranma and moved on. With Shampoo providing a willing distraction, Akane would have been soon forgotten.

Now the problem was much more difficult. Probably they would have to apply a Xi Fa Xiang Gao to Ranma to make him forget Akane completely. This was a somewhat unreliable method, though. Eventually the recipient regained their memory. It would have to be continually reapplied, otherwise Ranma would regain his memories and go berserk. This was not an ideal situation.

Cologne grimaced; it was the best she could do. The only other option was to give up on Ranma, and that was quite simply unacceptable. No outsider ever defeated an Amazon, especially a male outsider. He would come back to China as Shampoo's husband, and the tribe would remember once again how inferior outsiders were to the glorious Amazons.

A flash of red came through the front door and directly towards her. She jumped over it, using her staff to try and propel it headlong into the wall. Like quicksilver, a hand came from the flash and tried to grab the staff. Cologne was able to keep it out of the hand's reach, but she also couldn't touch the flash.

The flash resolved itself into Ranma. She looked as angry as Cologne had ever seen her, but she had something else, a murderous glint in her eyes that told Cologne no holds would be barred in this fight.

"What have you done with her, old hag?" Ranma's voice was low, guttural, full of menace.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Son-in-law." She didn't expect Ranma to believe that. Her wits were failing her; she couldn't think of any way to satisfy Ranma. She'd just have to paralyze her until Shampoo found Akane, and Mousse had been dealt with. It was an inelegant solution, but it was the best she could come up with under the circumstances.

A whisper was her only warning; she used her staff to block Ranma's kick, then vaulted backwards to avoid Ranma's fast-moving right jab. Ranma was moving perfectly, quickly, and all of a sudden Cologne began to doubt her ability to defeat Ranma. This was not a boy incautiously attacking, leaving all sorts of openings in his haste to acquire something from her. This was a martial artist in the prime of her powers, totally focused, and with deadly intentions.

Ranma stepped up and shouted "Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken!" Her fists flew, and Cologne attempted to block them. Ranma was moving with incredible speed. No one was faster than Cologne, no one. Yet Ranma was getting through. Cologne had taught Ranma this technique. She couldn't be bested by it. However, as unfathomable as it was, she was forced to leap back, out of the range of Ranma's attack.

Ranma smiled a cold smile. In Ranma's eyes, Cologne could see the same knowledge Cologne herself was realizing: Ranma had grown beyond Cologne's abilities to easily defeat in hand-to-hand combat. Something had matured in Ranma, something that allowed her to focus in battle as she had never been able to before. With the knowledge came fear, fear that, for the first time in many, many years, Cologne might be beaten. Beaten by a man, no less.

Ranma's voice was full of confidence, and menace. "Last time, old hag. I ain't gonna go easy on you. Where is Akane?"

Cologne reassessed the situation. It was quite untenable. She could either fight Ranma and risk losing, or she could do something she'd never done before.

Cologne decided on the latter, much as it galled her. She took a small ball from her wraparound and threw it on the ground. As the smoke billowed, she turned and ran.

***

Akane looked around, wondering where Mother was. She was sure she had heard her voice a moment ago. Or maybe it had been Mousse again. It had been someone familiar.

She tried to recall where she was. She seemed to be on a rooftop, sitting against a chimney. Mousse had told her to wait there, then he had gone. That had vaguely troubled her, but it had also allowed her to look for Mother without any distractions.

Akane thought she heard the familiar voice again. She strained her ears, trying to fix on its location. She stood up, and winced; her knee hurt badly. Holding it with her hand, she leaned against the chimney and looked around.

The neighborhood looked familiar; she was still in Nerima somewhere. She should be able to tell where she was. If she could only concentrate a little.

Suddenly smoke billowed from the building she was standing on. She looked around in alarm; if the building was on fire, this was not the place to be. Trying to get off the roof by herself with a busted knee was not good, either. Oh, well, the tired side of her mind said, this is just another way I can go see Mother.

Something shot out of the smoke-filled building. Akane tried to follow it with her eyes, but it was soon lost among the other buildings. She heard someone coughing below, just outside the building. The coughing slowed, and a voice shouted, "You old hag, just you wait! This ain't over yet!"

The voice was like a broom that swept the cobwebs from her mind. Joy filled her, driving out the lassitude and replacing it with excitement and eagerness. Eagerness to be reunited with the voice's owner.

"RANMA!" Akane shouted as loud as she could, the excitement too big to be contained any other way.

She looked around, and very quickly Ranma appeared. "Akane!" Ranma ran over, scooped her up, and jumped off the building with her. She carried her a short distance away, then set her gingerly on the ground.

"Akane." Ranma spoke in a gentle, worried voice. "Are you okay?" Ranma was examining her face, looking down to see the dried blood on Akane's leg.

Akane was, for the first time, noticing the pain of her wounds. Her jaw ached, she had bruises in a few places on her body, and her knee was on fire. None of it mattered, however. She was alive, and Ranma was here. She smiled adoringly at her.

Ranma's worry deepened. "Akane, answer me."

Akane shook herself a little. "I...I think I need to see Tofu-sensei."

Ranma nodded. "All right." She bent over her, paused for a moment with her face next to Akane's. "I'd hug you, but it doesn't seem right like this."

Akane smiled at her. "I know. It's okay."

Ranma smiled, too. Then she lifted Akane in her arms and started down the street.

***

Shampoo stalked towards Ukyo's restaurant. She'd been several other places, but she hadn't found Akane yet. She had to be around somewhere. Shampoo had a task to complete.

Something spoke to her, asking her if she really wanted to do this. She beat the thought down; she was an Amazon, the heir-apparent to a great matriarch. She would not disappoint her, she would not disappoint herself. She would have Ranma, and Great-grandmother had told her that the only way she could have him was to kill Akane. She believed Great-grandmother. And she hated Akane.

The voice inside her was insistent. Remember when the phoenix attacked? Akane had fallen, and would have been hurt, if not killed. Yet you slid under her and rescued her. You don't really hate her.

A moment of weakness, she assured herself. Great-grandmother would have let Akane fall. Shampoo told herself that she must be strong like Great-grandmother now.

The voice asked, is that strength, or cruelty?

Shampoo beat the voice back. No distractions, not now.

The restaurant looked busy. Shampoo paused, looking at the new banner: "Ukyo's". She wondered at the name change. Irrelevant, she decided. She looked through the window, to see Ukyo at the grill, happily cooking. Ukyo did not look worried or distracted; if Akane was here, Ukyo wasn't aware of it.

Shampoo slipped around to the back of the restaurant. She examined the rear windows, trying to find a good place to enter. There seemed to be a second floor window partially open; she could climb up to it easily.

"Akane's not in there, Shampoo," a voiced called to her in Chinese.

She whirled around and brought her sword to bear. Mousse was standing on some crates, his hands in his sleeves, his glasses over his eyes for once. He did have attractive eyes; she had once made the mistake of commenting on this, and ever since, he had kept his glasses off as much as possible. Not a good idea for someone with severe astigmatism and nearsightedness.

"What did you do with Akane, Mousse?" She tried to put the authority of an Amazon matriarch into her voice. No man of the Amazons should be able to resist that authority.

Mousse had already demonstrated his ability to disregard it, however. "Shampoo, why do you do this? This isn't the way we do things now."

Shampoo grunted. "I've seen you attempt to do the same to Ranma. Don't lecture me on moral superiority, Mousse."

Mousse flinched; she'd gotten in a good blow. "I...do not claim to be your superior, Shampoo. You already proved that I'm not." He paused, and they both remembered the beating she'd given him when they were very young. "But you will not throw away your life on this mad quest."

"I'm throwing away nothing. Ranma will be mine, and we'll go back to China and live a long, happy life together as husband and wife."

"Shampoo, you're not thinking this through. Will Ranma ever forgive you for killing Akane?"

Shampoo was brought short; she hadn't considered that. "It doesn't matter. We can make sure that he never thinks about her again."

"With more secret techniques and magical herbs?" Mousse shook his head. "Is that what you want, Shampoo - a man enslaved against his will by the things you and Cologne do to him? Where is the happiness you dream about in all that?"

The voice was back in her head, urging her to listen to Mousse. She shook her head and gritted her teeth. "Shut up Mousse. you have no idea what you're talking about. Ranma and I will be happy! For the glory of the Amazons!" She leapt at Mousse, her sword flashing.

Mousse jumped and sent a chain flying at her. She knocked it aside with her sword, landing on the crate Mousse had been standing on.

It was a trap. Shampoo realized that the moment she put weight on it. The crates beneath her collapsed. Shampoo tried to leap away, but she could find no purchase. She went down, losing her sword.

On her back among broken crates and loose refuse, Shampoo let out a small scream of frustration. She'd hit her wounded arm as she'd fallen, and it blazed like fire. Shampoo began knocking things aside, trying to get to her feet as she attempted to find stable ground among the junk she was lying on. Still on one knee, she looked around for Mousse; she needed to find him before he could take advantage of her vulnerability.

Mousse was merely standing in the center of the small yard, watching her impassively. He did have her sword lying in two pieces at his feet. Keeping an eye on him, Shampoo regained her feet and stood facing him.

"Always using tricks, aren't you Mousse? You could never beat me in a fair fight."

"Can I not?" Shampoo was surprised by the calm, confident voice he used. "Let us duel one last time, Shampoo. It is not for the right to your hand; I have already lost that battle. Rather, let it be for the right to Ranma's hand. You win, I help you kill Akane and kidnap Ranma. I win, you give up Ranma, help me defeat Cologne, and leave Japan with me."

Mousse took off his voluminous robes, and various weapons dribbled out as he tossed the robes aside. He was wearing nothing but close-fitting pants and his sandals. One of his forearms had a crude bandage on it. His long, black hair fell over his shoulders, his muscular body standing straight and proud. Shampoo looked up to his face; if only she could see his eyes...

She suddenly came to herself and growled at him. "Mousse, you are a pathetic man. You have made yourself an outcast of the Amazons, and you think you have the right to challenge me to a duel of honor!"

He continued to speak calmly to her. "That is Cologne speaking with Shampoo's voice. That is not the Shampoo I knew growing up. That is not the Shampoo I fell in love with. What does that Shampoo think about what you are doing?"

Shampoo cried out and ran at him. She kicked at him high, then low, then followed with quick jabs towards his face and chest, then used a spinning attack that sent her elbow towards his jaw. He blocked her kicks and jabs, and ducked under elbow. He came up under her, placed his hand on her chest, and shoved her backwards.

She fell, amazed. When had he gotten this good? Ranma beat him up so easily. Then again, Ranma beat everyone up pretty easily. It was hard to use Ranma as a point of reference.

Shampoo brought herself to a crouch and sprung at Mousse. His long arms reached out at her, spun her around, and threw her towards the wall. She screamed and tried to break her fall, only partially succeeding as she hit the wall, bounced off, and landed among some hoses and buckets.

She looked around her, slightly dazed. Hoses. She followed one, it ended at a spigot.

She grabbed the end of the hose, sprung to her feet, flipped over to the spigot, and quickly turned the handle.

Mousse realized too late what she was up to. He leapt at her, but the spray from the hose caught him full in the face. He continued forward during the change, and Shampoo's hand caught his neck in a vice-like grip.

Carefully, Shampoo set the hose on the ground, holding it down with her foot as she turned off the faucet.

She brought his face close to hers. She smiled at him wickedly. "Mousse, it is time you learned what it means to defy the matriarchs of the Amazons."

She brought her other hand up to grip his head. She began to turn it to the side.

She expected him to thrash, to quack loudly, to protest in some way. Instead, he hung there quietly, defiantly even, if she could read ducks correctly. She'd had some practice at that over the past few months. She turned his head a little more, to see if that would start him going. He didn't even resist, instead turning his head with her, for all appearances cooperating with her while she wrung his neck.

Shampoo stared at him, not understanding what was going on. Why didn't he try to stop her? She looked around, half-expecting Ranma to come running, or Ukyo to look out a back window, or even Konatsu to come flying from the roof. The yard was empty.

Why was she hesitating? Mousse deserved this, Great-grandmother had told her so. The ancient laws demanded it. To defy the matriarchs was to die. No exception, no appeal, just death on the spot. These were the same laws that were going to allow her and Ranma to marry.

The voice in her head spoke to her. You know why you're hesitating. You know this is wrong; you've waiting for someone to stop you. All your life, you've let others decide what is right and wrong for you. Why develop morals if all you have to do is let those around you tell what is moral? So much easier to follow the ancient teachings than to think for yourself, isn't it?

Then why am I hesitating know? This is what the teachings say is right.

It's because there was someone who was always there, someone who didn't believe in the old laws too much, who accepted the new world. He was there to keep you from being too cruel, to try and stop you from doing something wrong. He knows right from wrong, and he taught you some of that, too.

But he didn't teach me very well; I was prepared to kill Akane.

Were you? How hard was it to ignore Mousse following you? Why didn't you tell Great-grandmother that you noticed him listening in on your plans? Was it so that he would stop you if you tried to do something wrong?

She examined Mousse closely. If you kill him, who will be there to protect you from yourself next time?

Shampoo felt herself trembling slightly. She had kept so much repressed, so much buried. She remembered her childhood dreams, to be the strongest of the Amazon warriors and to lead her people into a new millennium. Why had she given up on those dreams to chase after a man? Because one old woman had sought to use her, to avenge an imagined slight on the honor of the Amazons. It was time to set that right, to put her life back on track.

Shampoo sighed. She looked down at Mousse, and wondered how he had known.

Cradling him in one of her arms, Shampoo bent down, picked up a bucket, and went into Ukyo's to get some warm water.

***

Ranma lowered the kettle and shook himself. Wringing his clothes dry as best he could, Ranma hurried back into Tofu-sensei's clinic.

Akane was on an examining table. She had another bandage on her face, where Shampoo had clipped her jaw. Tofu-sensei had done a remarkable job with her bruises, push and prodding with his fingers until they seemed as if they had occurred weeks ago. He was now working on her knee, gently bending and straightening it.

He smiled at Akane. "Good news. No damage to the bones or cartilage. You'll limp for a while, but you'll get full use of it back. While you're here, let me remove the last of your stitches. We were going to do this tomorrow, but they look like they're ready to come off now. Then we'll send you home, where you will rest for a couple of days, and do no martial arts training for a week." He said this with a smile, but the command was unmistakable.

Ranma went up and gripped his shoulder. "Thank you, Tofu-sensei."

Tofu nodded. "Your fiancee is a strong, healthy young woman. She heals fast and well, rather like you, Ranma. Now please, go to the other room and wait for me to finish here."

Ranma looked down at Akane, reached out and took her hand. She smiled at him and gave his hand a squeeze. They stared at each other a moment, then she released her grip and Ranma went into the waiting room.

It was only when he got there that he allowed himself to collapse into a chair. This was not how it was supposed to go. With each fiancee, Akane had come closer and closer to being killed. It was his job to protect her and he was failing. Miserably. Akane hadn't given him many details about her fight. He got the feeling she didn't want him to know how bad it had been. He had seen the marks on the pavement, he knew what would have happened to her if the blows had landed.

He grabbed his head with his hands. Rationally, he knew that there had been little he could do. In fact, they had removed two of the major threats to her life. This last threat, though, could be the most deadly, and he was a long way from neutralizing it.

"Saotome Ranma-san?" A voice from the doorway.

Ranma looked up. Mousse was there. Shampoo was, too.

Ranma didn't stop to think. He launched himself at her, his hands going for her throat. She screamed and thrust Mousse in front of her. Mousse allowed this, reaching for Ranma's hands.

Ranma would have none of it. He pulled his hands down and head-butted Mousse. Mousse staggered, Shampoo the only thing that kept him from falling over backwards. Ranma grabbed Mousse and threw him to the far side of the room.

Ranma didn't wait to see him crash, instead turning back to Shampoo. She looked frightened. She stood very still, her hands at her sides, her eyes glistening. It was enough to cause Ranma to pause for a second, trying to figure out what she was up to.

Shampoo spoke in a small, quiet voice. "If Ranma want to kill Shampoo, she no stop him."

He sent his fist blurring towards her face, expecting her to block or dodge it. Instead, she closed her eyes as it struck her jaw. She collapsed with a shriek.

Ranma stood stunned. As he watched, Shampoo pushed herself up, sobbing, to stand in front of him again with her hands at her sides and her lip bleeding.

Tofu-sensei came up behind Ranma. "What is going on, Ranma?" He looked at Shampoo. "Oh my, Shampoo, you're bleeding! Come in and let me look at it." He reached over to take her hand.

"No!" Shampoo violently slapped his hand away. She stood in front of Ranma, still sobbing but standing straight, gazing at him, looking for all the world like she wanted him to hit her again.

Ranma stood, wavering. This woman had tried to kill Akane, had nearly succeeded. Yet there was no part of him that wanted to keep hitting her. He could not forgive her, not yet, maybe not ever, but he couldn't go on punishing her either.

He stepped back. "Go with Sensei, Shampoo. We... we'll talk about his later."

Shampoo only started sobbing harder. Mousse, who had recovered from Ranma's throw, came up to her and put his arms around her. She clutched at him, burying her face in his chest. Mousse looked up at Tofu-sensei, who indicated a room. Nodding, Mousse guided Shampoo into it.

Tofu-sensei looked at Ranma, his eyes probing. Ranma couldn't meet his gaze, instead stalking back to his chair and sitting down, staring at the far wall. After a moment, Tofu-sensei went back to where Akane was.

She emerged shortly thereafter. She was limping badly, but other than that and the two bandages on her face, she looked well. Ranma's heart broke again; he had to make sure this never happened to her again.

He ran over to her and they fell into each other's arms. She spoke into his chest. "Ranma, next time I'll be the one with all the fiancees. You can be the one who they all want to kill, and I'll come and rescue you over and over."

Ranma grimaced and hugged her tighter. "Oh Akane..."

"Of course," she continued in a mischievous voice, "there's a certain appeal to being rescued a lot. It's fun to pay the grateful damsel." She snuggled deeper into his grasp, sighing with contentment.

Ranma couldn't help but smile. She was certainly doing her best to put him at ease. He appreciated the effort, but he still couldn't find peace. Not until the last threat had been eliminated. Even if that was the real Shampoo in there, full of contrition, there was still one more person out there, still dangerous, still deadly. For Akane's sake, she had to be taken down. Hard.

***

Cologne stood alone in the Nekohanten. The smoke had gone, as had Ranma. Shampoo had not returned, nor had Mousse. The world was turning against her, but she had weathered storms like this before. She remembered the tanks rolling over the ridge, the army men pointing their guns into the village, the elders surrendering without a fight. The glory of the Amazons had been forgotten that day. It was Cologne's job to make sure the world remembered it once more.

She went into the kitchen. Cologne opened up a cupboard and tapped the back panel with her staff in a certain manner. It opened, and a package fell out. She took it, felt its pulsating warmth.

Cologne smiled. The world would remember. Ranma would, too.

~*~

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