Part IX : Cursed

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"So let's see if I have this straight." Nabiki was rubbing her forehead, holding a pencil in her hand and staring at a pad of paper in front of her. "We got my dad, your mom and dad, me, my sisters, Shampoo, Mousse, Ukyo..." She looked at Ranma, who was sitting on the other side of the dining room table from her. "No Konatsu?"

Ranma shook his head. "Nope. Just Ukyo."

Nabiki nodded and looked back down at the pad. "Tatewaki, Tofu-sensei, um... and we haven't seen Ryoga for weeks, right?"

Ranma squirmed a little where he stood. "Actually, I saw him a couple of days ago."

Nabiki looked at him again. "Really? Is he coming?"

Ranma grimaced. Ryoga had been in his cursed form at the time. "He, uh, was running away from me when I saw him. I didn't get a chance to stop and ask him."

Akane gave him a funny look, but spoke to Nabiki. "I did see Akari and told her that she and Ryoga were welcome to come. She said she'd join us if she could find Ryoga."

Nabiki made an exasperated sigh. "Great, Akari too." She looked at the list. "Am I forgetting anyone else? Like maybe the other half of Nerima as well?"

Ranma looked at her glumly. "I didn't hear my name."

Nabiki's eyes got wide as she scanned the sheet. "Damn. Well, I guess you can't come then."

"Nabiki!" Akane looked shocked, and a little angry.

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Just a joke Akane, you gotta learn not to take these things so personally." She made a couple more notations on the pad. "You know, when I rented this place, I thought five bedrooms would be plenty. Now I'll have to see if there aren't any other rooms that can't be temporarily converted. We should bring some extra sleeping mats and pillows."

"I've already got some packed." Kasumi came in, carrying a tea tray. She set it down on the table. "Have some tea. When is Tatewaki-kun coming over with the van?"

Nabiki glanced at her watch. "In a couple of hours. He'll drive us there. Shampoo, Mousse, Ukyo, and Tofu-sensei will be making their own way there."

"Actually, I will be riding with Tofu-sensei." Kasumi poured herself a cup of tea, blushing ever so slightly.

Nabiki smiled at her. "Of course. Well, assuming Ryoga and his girlfriend make it, we'll be twelve people sharing the same house. It'll be crowded."

"Oh, but it will be so much fun." Kasumi smiled brightly. She turned to Ranma. "Have you packed yet?"

Ranma sighed. Kasumi's trick of ordering you to do something was to ask innocuous questions like this one. Still, she was right. He'd better get to it. "Not yet." He stood and left the dining room.

Akane followed him as he went to his room. She stood and watched him as he packed. "Ranma..." Her voice sounded worried. "What's wrong?"

Ranma looked at her, annoyed. "Whaddya mean?"

She frowned at him. "You've been moping around all day. It's like you're going back to school rather than going on vacation with us. This is the last time we'll be a family going somewhere. Why are you treating it like some sort of..." She trailed off, trying to find the words. "...unwelcome obligation?"

Ranma stopped in the middle of stuffing clothes into his backpack. His first reaction was to tell Akane she didn't know what she was talking about, and to leave him alone. Fortunately, he caught himself in time. He forced himself to ask the question: Why, indeed? Seeing Ryoga run off after Ranma had stuffed Akane's engagement down Ryoga's throat had unsettled Ranma. That led, somehow, to his present depression. "I dunno, Akane. I got a bad feeling about this whole thing. Something's going to go wrong, I know it." He looked at her, trying to put words to the vague premonitions of danger he was feeling.

Akane was scowling at him. "Come on, Ranma, what could it be? We've dealt with all of the problems. Can't you let your guard down for one minute and just have fun?"

Ranma grew irritated. "Yeah, and in that one minute, someone like Happosai will come and ruin everything."

"You can't live your whole life waiting for someone to attack you!" Akane's hands were clenched at her sides. "If you go around looking for a fight, you'll always find one." She came up to him, unclenched her fists, and put a hand on his arm. "Please, just relax, okay?" Her eyes looked up at him, imploring.

Ranma looked at her. "I want to Akane, I really do. But..." He trailed off, still unable to express how he felt terrible things looming on the horizon.

Akane's anger returned. "But you're just gonna parade around, acting all macho and protecting us from dangers that aren't even there." She spun on her heel and marched out of the room.

Ranma scowled at her retreating back. She never took the time to understand. She just leapt to her conclusions, and got mad at him for no reason. It was her most annoying trait.

Ranma thinned his lips and resumed packing. He came to his swimming suits. He had a pair of trunks and a tank top. He also had several women's swimming suits. He held up one, a white one-piece with "BOY" written in English across the bust. He stared at it for a while, the frustration building inside. How long was he going to own women's clothing? The rest of his life? Would he ever be a complete man again?

He crumpled the swimsuit into a ball and threw it at the wall. Right now, he hated his curse. All of his major problems could be traced to the curse. How simpler it could have been if he and Pop had never gone to China. If they had just gone home, and he could have met Akane as a man and dated her like a normal person.

Then Ryoga wouldn't have been cursed, either. And he wouldn't be feeling guilty for hurting Ryoga's feelings so badly.

***

Ryoga wandered through the streets. He had been a pig now for three straight days. He'd ran from the Tendo home in a complete panic, and had been unable to find his way back. Hot water, unfortunately, did not sit in puddles waiting for him to splash into. His cooking gear was back behind the Tendo Dojo, so he couldn't heat water for himself. He didn't know what he was going to do.

If only he hadn't run away so quickly. He could have just jumped out the window and gone around the back. He knew his way around the Tendo home just fine. Instead, he had run blindly into the night and gotten himself thoroughly lost.

No, it wasn't his fault. It was Ranma's. Ranma, showing off Akane's engagement ring, rubbing it in Ryoga's face. Kissing Akane, knowing full well Ryoga was right there. Ranma had no shame, no right to do that to him. He would pay.

"Ryoga! I've been looking for you everywhere! Hurry, we've got to get ready to go to the beach. Everyone else left yesterday." Ryoga felt himself being lifted. He turned and looked into Akari's face. "Come on, you silly pig," she said, smiling down at him. From anyone else, that was an insult. From Akari, it was high praise.

She held him closely while she ran through the streets. Ryoga's mind was whirling. Akari. He loved her, almost as much as he loved Akane. More than he loved Akane. Maybe. Akari certainly loved him, was even willing to give up pigs for him. That kind of devotion was hard to ignore.

He looked at her face again, which was set in a big smile as she ran. She was very pretty, too. Prettier than Akane. Maybe. Her long hair flew around her head as she ran, and Ryoga thought it was beautiful. More beautiful than Akane's short hair. Probably.

She came to a house, and for the first time Ryoga realized that he had never been to her home. He knew she worked with pigs, somehow, and thought that she would live far from the city on a farm or something. She had a small house, with most of the yard being used as a pen for her giant pet pig.

She went inside, and the pig motif continued. There were pigs everywhere. Stuffed pigs, pictures of pigs, even the wallpaper had little pigs on it. Ryoga stared around him, trying to take it all in. Akari loved pigs, you could not doubt that.

She ran to the bathroom and set him in the tub. She took a hand-held shower, pointed it at him, and turned on the water.

In a few seconds, Ryoga had regained human form. He let out a big sigh. He'd had enough of being a pig over the past three days. It was all Ranma's fault, his being a pig. Something else he'd pay for.

Suddenly he realized he was sitting in the tub, naked. Akari was looking at him, smiling. He blushed and covered himself. "Akari, do you suppose you could give me something to wear?"

"Of course!" She turned off the water and ran from the room. "I have a few sets of clothes I made for you. I'll just pack them with my stuff and we'll go and meet Akane at the beach."

Ryoga's jaw dropped open. "Meet Akane?"

She came back in, holding a set of clothes. "She's invited us to spend the week with her family. Isn't that exciting?" She set the clothes on a stool and beamed at him.

Ryoga gaped at her. Akari, fortunately, had no idea how he felt about Akane. Spending a week with both Akane and Akari would be heaven.

And Ranma would be there. He could settle the score with him once and for all.

He smiled in anticipation, then refocused on Akari, who was looking at him happily. "We'll need to stop by the Tendo Dojo, I left my stuff there, and a present for..." He trailed off, unsure who the present was for.

Akari leaned forward expectantly. "A present for...?"

He cast about. "Ranma," he finished lamely.

"Oh." She looked disappointed.

Ryoga fidgeted. "Uh, Akari, would you mind if I cleaned up a bit?"

"Of course not!" She continued to stand there, smiling at him.

He shifted uncomfortably. "Um... alone?"

"Oh! Okay." She turned and flounced out of the room. "I'll make you something to eat."

Ryoga looked after her. She was a strange girl, but he loved her. Almost as much as....

He stopped himself. Don't think about that now. Instead, as he cleaned himself up, he thought about what he was going to do to Ranma, and smiled.

***

The weather was beautiful. They had spent yesterday settling in; today was their first time down at the beach. Ranma sat cross-legged on a towel, watching the ocean.

When Shampoo had seen the ocean, she had dropped her things, grabbed Mousse, and practically thrown him in. She had quickly followed, and they were soon splashing each other. Shampoo was squealing with laughter. Ranma had never seen her so happy. He felt some of his depression leaving him just watching her.

Most of the others had joined them. Akane was being carefully monitored by Tofu-sensei as she frolicked with the rest of them, although she wasn't swimming as far as Tatewaki and Nabiki were.

Ranma's mother had grabbed Father and Uncle Tendo and taken them a little distance down the beach. They were conferring on something, with Mother looking very excited, Uncle Tendo nodding happily, and Pop looking inscrutable as ever. Ranma knew his father, though, and thought he was a little unhappy over what was being said. Ranma wondered what they were talking about. He could guess.

Mousse came back after a while, his long hair dripping. He didn't have his glasses on, and Ranma had to call out to him to help him find his way back to the towels.

Mousse flopped on a towel and stared at the sky, a happy grin on his face.

Ranma was still filled with the sense that something was going to happen. He tilted his head and considered Mousse. He didn't think the trouble would be coming from Mousse, but it couldn't hurt to find out. "Have you sold the restaurant yet?" It seemed a reasonable opening ploy.

Mousse turned on his side. "Yes, it was very easy. We got a decent price. I think we could have done better, but Shampoo was anxious to be rid of the restaurant. She wants to go back to China as soon as possible."

Ranma looked at him thoughtfully. "Are you guys in trouble over what happened with Cologne?"

Mousse bowed his head. "I will certainly catch my share of trouble over that, but it is Shampoo who will carry most of the responsibility."

Ranma raised his eyebrows. "Why her?"

"She was the most senior female present."

Ranma blinked. This Amazon stuff was weird. "Will she get into a lot of trouble?"

Mousse shook his head. "I don't believe so. Although the passing of a matriarch is no small matter, she clearly misused the Ancestor Stone. Some of the older matriarchs, those that agreed with Cologne's views, will certainly press Shampoo hard. But to have the founder of the Amazons condemn Cologne herself, that will be difficult for them to argue against. Shampoo will be all right."

Ranma felt relieved. "Is she going to become a matriarch?"

"She is years away from achieving that. She still has a lot to learn, in my opinion. She has all the qualities needed to become a strong leader. I hope she will be a good person as well. I think she will."

Ranma thought on that. He could see Shampoo doing a good job as a leader of the Amazons. She was intelligent, brave, a good fighter, and fiercely determined. Certainly someone you'd want as a friend rather than an enemy. Ranma hoped he and Akane were among the former rather than the latter. He thought that they were.

Mousse interrupted his thoughts. "Tell me, Ranma, what is it you plan to do after high school?"

Ranma looked at Mousse in surprise. "Huh? I don't know. Why do you ask?"

Mousse looked at him evenly. "I told you I thought Shampoo would eventually become a good leader. You, on the other hand, are already a good leader."

Ranma blinked at him. "What?"

"You should have seen yourself when Cologne summoned the spirits of my ancestors to attack. You brought us together and formed a good defensive plan, given the limited amount of time you had to set it up. When you saw that the cause was hopeless, you found a way to save me and Shampoo. You have a natural feel for tactics, the ability to think clearly and well under pressure, the skill to direct others, and the courage to make hard decisions.

"In a way, it is too bad that Japan has no military. You would make a fine general." Mousse paused a moment, looking steadily at Ranma. "I hope you do not squander these talents inside a dojo, teaching others the art. You, I think, have a much greater destiny."

Mousse lay on his back again, closed his eyes, and smiled.

Ranma stared at Mousse. He'd never thought of himself as having a destiny. Certainly he'd never thought of the future, other than a vague idea that he would be running the Tendo Dojo. Mousse had given him a lot to think about.

He went back to staring at the others in the ocean, his mood as dark as ever. Mousse had forced his brain to start working again, and it was deeply involved in depressing thoughts.

Akane came up to them, smiling at Mousse. "Shampoo says you had better get back into the ocean, or she will take you back to Jusenkyo and find a really horrible thing to turn you into."

Mousse's smile got wider, and he ran back to the ocean, yelling Shampoo's name.

Akane smiled after him. "I don't know whether to feel happy or sad for him. I think Shampoo was serious." She turned to look at Ranma, who was wearing just his trunks. "Why don't you change and join us? I know how you love to swim."

"Change?" Ranma looked up at her. "You mean become a girl?"

Akane's smile vanished. "You've done it before."

"Not since we got engaged." Between him and Akane, the beginning of their engagement was the night he'd proposed on the roof. "It ain't right. We're going to be married as man and woman. Not man/woman and woman."

As Akane regarded him evenly, Ranma lowered his head. He was in a bad mood. It had brought out this frustration, one that had building steadily for the past few weeks.

Akane sat down beside him. "Ranma, when we got engaged, I knew what your nature was. It doesn't matter to me."

"It does to me!" Ranma took a deep breath; that came out more sharply than he intended. "Have you tried to imagine it yet? All our lives together, with me being afraid of the rain, of having to explain to people over and over about Jusenkyo, of having our kids wonder who their mother is." Ranma looked up at Akane. "We deserve better. You deserve better. I don't want to spend the rest of my life like this."

Akane tilted her head. "You used to like it, I think. I remember you'd spend hours as a girl, even when you really didn't need to. And don't forget, it's been useful. You might not have beaten Cologne without your curse."

Ranma shifted uncomfortably. "You're right, I did... kinda like it. It felt different, but good. It was kind of a fun game." Ranma took another deep breath. "But we're growing up. Mom will have us married before we know it. It's time for games like that to end. I want to be a whole person again. Just the me I was before I went to China."

Akane looked at him for a long time. Ranma looked down at the sand, ran his hands through it.

Finally Akane spoke. "Okay. After we get back from the beach, you and I will go to China."

Ranma snapped his head up. "What?"

Akane smiled at him. "Nabiki will lend us the money. I'll make her. We'll go to Jusenkyo and have the Guide tell us which pool for you to jump into."

Ranma bit his lip. "That won't work."

Akane blinked. "Why not?"

Ranma looked down, this time in shame. "I haven't told you about the curse."

Akane's voice sounded puzzled. "What do you mean? I know all about the curse."

Ranma fidgeted. "Not all of it." Ranma looked into Akane's eyes, which had grown wide. "When I came up out of that pool, opened my tunic, and saw breasts, I thought I was going to be that way forever. That I was going to be a woman forever. Can you imagine how horrible that was to me?"

Akane nodded slowly.

"I spent the first couple of hours chasing Pop around the pools. It didn't matter to me that he was stuck as a panda, I was just so angry that he had turned me into a girl. That was when-" He broke off. That was when he'd knocked Ryoga into one of the pools, but he couldn't tell Akane that.

Akane looked at him steadily. "When what?"

Ranma decided to try and gloss it over. "Pop eventually got away, and headed back to the Guide's house. I eventually made my way there, too. The guide kept me from attacking Pop long enough to tell me about the hot water - cold water thing." Ranma shook his head. "He had some long explanation about why it worked that way, but he didn't speak Japanese too good and it didn't make any sense.

"I was still plenty mad. I asked him if there was a Spring of Drowned Man and he said yes. He pointed to it. I asked him if it would cure me and he said yes, if I could get to it."

"If you could get to it?" Akane looked puzzled.

Ranma shrugged. "When he said it, I didn't wait for him to finish. I started walking towards the pool. The grass was wet. I slipped before I got there. I tried to get up and continue on to the pool, and I slipped again. I tried to crawl there, and my hands slipped from underneath me. The strange thing was, I could go any other direction without any problems. It was just if I went towards the Spring of Drowned Man that I couldn't seem to keep my balance. I tried jumping into it, but an incredibly strong wind came from nowhere and blew me back. That's when the guide told me."

He gazed at Akane, seeing if she was understanding him. She seemed to digest his words, then slowly asked him, "What did he tell you?"

Ranma sighed. "That I don't have the curse, the curse has me. The magic of Jusenkyo has a purpose. When you're cursed, you must live with the curse until it's finished with you. It might be an hour, it might be your whole life. I'm stuck with my curse until it decides it doesn't want me to be a girl anymore."

Akane was clearly very shocked. "And... what does your curse want?"

"I don't know!" Ranma shouted, then closed his eyes to control his frustration. "I keep thinking it's done with me. There was the Japanese Nannichuan, the instant powdered Nanniichuan, the hot-water soap, all sorts of things that would 'cure' me. Each time I thought, the curse is done with me, it's letting me go. Each time I was wrong.

"Then we fought Saffron, and we beat him, and restored Jusenkyo, and I thought, *now* it's over, surely that's why I was cursed. But then it started raining, and the pools flooded. And when we almost got married and your dad had that cask of Nannichuan, I thought, it's time. But no. Every time I tried to take the cask, something bizarre happened, and eventually Happosai drank it. It reminded me so much of the slippery grass I wanted to cry."

He looked at Akane. "I'm afraid to go with you to Jusenkyo. The plane might crash, or you might fall into a spring. I think we have to wait for the curse to tell me when it's all right to get rid of it. I'm afraid to think of what will happen to us if we try too soon."

He and Akane stared at each other for a while. Akane was trying to find something to say, Ranma could tell. But she wouldn't be able to; he had been trying for a year to find an answer.

Ranma turned to look at the ocean. "I had accepted it. I really had no choice, it was either accept it or go mad. Lately, I've come to hate it. I just don't want to be your husband and a woman at the same time."

"D-does..." Akane sounded frightened. "Does that mean you don't want to get married while you're cursed?"

Ranma looked at her in surprise. "No of course not. That's not what I meant. I love you." He reached over and hugged her. "I just am not going to allow myself to become a girl if I can help it. I hope you understand."

"I do, Ranma." She sounded relieved, and sad. They hugged for a while.

A shadow fell over them. Ranma looked up to see Akari standing there, smiling happily. "Hello! Ryoga and I are here. Can someone let us into the house?"

"Uh... sure." Ranma looked quickly around, but didn't see Ryoga. He yelled over to where his parents were sitting. "Hey! Akari and Ryoga are here! Can someone give me a key so I can let them in?"

He saw his father talk to the others, then get up and walk towards them. "I'll help you let them in, Ranma."

Ranma was surprised; surely it wasn't necessary for both of them to go. Pop wanted to talk with him about something, that was certain. Ranma looked at Akane. "I'll only be a minute. I want to talk with Ryoga. Why don't you go back and play with the others?"

Akane smiled and put her hand on his cheek. Then she stood up and went back to the ocean.

They stood and started walking back to the house, which was about half a mile from the beach. Ranma looked over at Akari, who seemed very happy. "Where's Ryoga?"

"He's unpacking our stuff from the car. He has a present for you." Akari beamed at him.

Ranma's uneasiness grew. A present for him? From Ryoga? It seemed quite unlikely. He wondered what Ryoga was up to.

They reached the house. Father opened the door. Akari's stuff was sitting by the front door, but of Ryoga there was no sign. Ranma didn't like that.

Akari turned towards Ranma. "Where will Ryoga and I be staying?"

"Uh..." Ranma tried to remember the discussion with Nabiki over sleeping arrangements. "I think you're staying with Nabiki and Akane, and Ryoga is staying with Kuno and Tofu-sensei." He told her where the rooms were located. "Where's Ryoga?"

Akari looked around, startled. "He was just here. Oh dear, is he lost already? I'll go look for him when I finish unpacking." She went inside.

Ranma was about to go looking himself when his father put a hand on his shoulder. "Ranma, I need to tell you something."

Ranma looked at his father in surprise. "What is it?"

Pop crossed his arms. He seemed uncomfortable and determined at the same time. "Your mother intends for you to be married at the end of the week."

Ranma's jaw dropped open. "What?"

"It is her plan to have me and Tendo subdue you, as we did before, and make you wear a tuxedo. Your mother said she would get Shampoo and Ukyo to help her with Akane. There will be a ceremony on the beach, and you'll be married. Nabiki actually rented this house for two weeks. We'll all go home after you're married, and you'll spend your honeymoon alone here for a week."

Ranma's head spun. Married, in just a few days. Was this the danger he had been sensing? He swallowed, licked his lips, and took a deep breath. He just couldn't get himself under control.

He looked up at his father, realizing something. "Why are you telling me this, Father?"

His father grimaced. "This is not honorable. The times we tried this before ended in disaster, mostly because you were not consulted. Your mother does not understand this. She is so obsessed with getting you married, she is resorting to this trickery, not allowing you a choice in the matter. I believe this is wrong." He looked into Ranma's eyes. "This is your life, boy. Tendo and I got you engaged, and I think it worked out okay, but it didn't have to. You and Akane want to get married, and that is more than we could have hoped for. I believe, however, that you should get married when you want to. If it's not for a few years, I understand."

His father grasped Ranma's shoulders, squeezing them. "The point is, this is your choice, Ranma. No one can force you into it. Tell me that you don't want to get married right now, and I'll stop the wedding plans."

Ranma drew a shaky breath. "What about Mother?"

"I will deal with your mother." Father crossed his arms again. "She will come to understand that if you get married before you're ready, it might ruin your marriage. Your mother understands how... unpleasant marriage can be."

Ranma stared at his father, respect for him growing. He'd never seen the old man acting in such a responsible manner.

Ranma thought about it. Married. By the end of the week. It was damn frightening, yet somewhat alluring.

He thought back to his decision to propose to Akane. Mostly, he had just wanted to give her a physical manifestation of his love in the form of the engagement ring. The fact of their eventual marriage had been firmly implanted in their minds by this point, so proposing to her hadn't been as scary as it could have been. After all, they were going to get married anyway.

Ranma bit his lip. There he went again, trying to excuse himself. Both he and Akane knew that if they protested strongly enough, they wouldn't have to get married. Their initial vehement protests had been sincere. For his part, Ranma had decided to play along with it until he was old enough to be on his own. Then he could dump Akane and his father and do as he pleased. He suspected Akane had developed similar plans.

Something had changed over the past year. He wasn't sure how, or why. It had begun to feel natural and right to have her at his side, walking to school together, sitting at the dinner table together.

One memory came to him strongly. When Happosai had first appeared, Ranma's father and Uncle Tendo had attempted to force Ranma to bow to Happosai, in the hope that his would appease Happosai and get him to leave the Tendo clan alone. Ranma had refused; there was simply no way he was going to give that perverted creep any respect. For that, Uncle Tendo had thrown him out of the house. It had been a very cold night, and Ranma had sat next to a small fire he had built, hungry, and quite depressed.

Then Akane had appeared.

She had brought him tea and buns. What's more, she had bundled herself up and seemed ready and willing to stay with him as long as he wanted her company. She hadn't yelled at him, hadn't called him an idiot for refusing to bow to Happosai. She had just seen that he was in trouble, and had offered her help.

Ranma wasn't entirely sure, but he thought that was the moment he fell in love with her.

It had taken him many months to admit it to himself, and even longer to admit it to Akane. They had both suffered in the meantime, because of their inability to show each other how much they cared.

Ranma thought about that. They'd wasted so much time because of some unknown fear. Would they suffer more, waste yet more time, if they let fear get in the way of their marriage as well?

He wasn't sure what he thought about it. Then he realized that he needed someone else's thoughts on the matter.

Ranma focused once again on his father. "Let me talk this over with Akane first, Pop. We'll let you know."

Father seemed surprised at his answer, but nodded and went inside the house.

Ranma started walking slowly back to the beach. He tried to figure out a way to break the news to Akane. Knowing her, she'd think it was all his doing. Hopefully he could get her to calm down before she blew her top, and they could talk it over rationally.

"Shishi Hokodan!"

The words were not quite enough warning as Ranma was blasted from behind. He was lifted in the air and sent a great distance down the road, to land on the ground rolling. He got up slowly; Ryoga's blasts were very powerful.

He looked to see Ryoga walking up to him grimly. He had a huge, silly-looking statue of a bear banging on a drum strapped to his back. He also looked very angry.

Ranma stood warily. Of all the people he knew, other than Happosai, Ryoga was the closest to Ranma in martial arts ability. He was stronger, and his ability to generate and use vast amounts of chi energy was almost as great as Ranma's. Ranma was a lot faster, however, and nearly as strong, so he could usually get the better of Ryoga.

This time, though, Ryoga looked very determined. It was also axiomatic with Ryoga that the more depressed he was, the stronger he was, especially in regards to his Shishi Hokodan. It was best to get to the root of his depression and deal with it, quickly.

He tried smiling broadly at Ryoga. "Hey buddy, what's up?"

Ryoga shrugged his shoulders, dropping his backpack and the statue onto the ground. He reached down, grabbed his umbrella, opened it, and threw it at Ranma.

Ranma dodged it easily. Come to think of it, trying to reason with Ryoga usually got you nowhere. He leaned aside again as the umbrella made its return trip. Ryoga snatched it out of the air.

"Too long have you made my life a living hell, Ranma. It's time to settle the score once and for all!" He launched himself at Ranma.

Ranma merely danced to the side, out of Ryoga's reach. He jumped and landed on a street sign, looking down at Ryoga. Maybe he could call Ryoga's bluff. "Come on, Ryoga, what are you going to do? Kill me?"

Ryoga smashed the street sign, crumbling it. Ranma was able to leap away, landing on a car. Hopefully Ryoga had some respect for other people's property. "Come on, buddy, this won't get you anywhere. I don't want to fight you, and you really don't want to kill me. Let's say you and I talk this over, okay?" Ranma almost couldn't believe his own words. He had changed.

Ryoga was just getting angrier. "Shishi Hokodan!" Ranma jumped away in time, but the car was destroyed. Ryoga really was beyond reason.

Ranma kept trying to reach him. "Ryoga, I know that you don't like it that Akane and I are really engaged now, but you've got Akari. She's a wonderful person, why don't you-"

"Don't tell me what to do!" Ryoga reached up, grabbed a bandanna out of his hair, and threw it at Ranma. Ranma leaned aside. The bandanna was followed by lots more, and Ranma had to leap aside yet again, although he got tagged by one or two of the bandannas.

Ranma's newly-learned patience was nearly at an end. Ryoga just wanted to fight. Like Ukyo and Kodachi and Shampoo before him, Ryoga didn't care who or what got in his way.

Ranma didn't want to fight Ryoga. He'd seen what had happened to Akane. She could have been killed any number of times already. What Ryoga might do in this unreasoning attack of his frightened Ranma. He needed to talk some sense into Ryoga, for both their sakes.

Ranma landed in the street near where Ryoga stood. "Ryoga, please, tell me what I can do to make it up to you."

"Just fight!" Ryoga was yelling now. "You've done nothing but cause me misery since the day I met you, and I want to take my revenge out of your skin. You made me look like a fool in school, you gave me this curse, and you took Akane from me. For these things, I will never forgive you!"

Ranma shook his head. "I'm sorry you feel that way Ryoga. But you did a lot of those things to yourself. And Akane chose me. We're going to be married, and that's the way it is."

"You never gave me the chance to..." Ryoga's eyes were glistening. "To tell her my feelings. She never knew-"

"She never knew a lot of things, 'P-chan'." Ranma bore his eyes into Ryoga's. "Blaming me for your lost opportunities will get you nowhere. If I let you beat me up, at the end you'll have my bruised body in front of you, and you'll still be feeling the same way you do know." Ranma shifted uncomfortably; this kind of talk was new to him, but it felt right. "I ain't gonna fight you. You'll have to find another way to deal with your problems."

"Well perhaps I can give you some motivation, Ranma." He ran over to where the statue he'd been carrying was sitting. With a cry, he smashed it with his fist. The statue crumbled. Inside, where the drum had been, a cask fell out and rolled on the ground.

Ryoga picked up the cask and held it in his hand.

Ranma knew very little Chinese. However, long ago he had memorized one particular phrase. That phrase was stenciled onto the cask Ryoga was holding.

Nannichuan. Spring of Drowned Man.

Ranma gaped at Ryoga.

Ryoga smiled and started flipping the cask end over end in his hand. "So, Ranma, shall we fight?"

~*~

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