A Curse of a Different Color
Ellen Kuhfeld

Ranma woke to dimness. He was confused for a moment - for a month now, he'd been waking early in the afternoon. Where had the light gone? Then he realized the light was still where it was supposed to be: back in Minnesota. But he was in Japan again, on the other side of the world from the daylight. And his body still had some timing adjustments to make.

He checked his surroundings more thoroughly than the night before (when all he'd wanted was sleep). Yep, still the guest room at the Tendo dojo. He was home.

He didn't see much that was different, though now he saw it more clearly through the eyes of a cat. Genma's travelling gear was gone. He heard gentle breathing all around, and a bit of a snore from Soun's room; everybody was still asleep. He could smell panda, and nervousness, a few days old.

Silently Ranma dressed, then catlike went out to the courtyard. He explored it as if for the first time, cataloguing the sights and sounds and smells of home with his new senses. By the dojo, near the corner you might peek around to see the house, he smelled panda again - more recent, still nervous. When he had more time, he'd have to follow that trail.

Near the koi pond, there had been cats; near the gate, dogs. In the trees above, he could sense the dim ki of sleeping birds; and over in the bushes - a rabbit! He crouched, began to stalk, then shook his head and laughed. He didn't have to catch his own meals any more. Soon, Kasumi would be in the kitchen.

Ranma leapt to his favorite place on the roof and sat, smelling the flowers in the neighbors' yard on the night breeze, smiling at the stars. The East was slowly brightening, and drowsy birds began warming towards the dawn chorus. The paper carrier left the morning paper at their gate.

Below he could hear Kasumi waking. He waited until he heard her in the kitchen, then jumped down. He gathered up the paper, then slid the door open, deliberately making a bit more sound than necessary. "Ohayo, Kasumi. It's Ranma."

She was just starting breakfast, putting water on to heat. She turned to smile at him as he sat on the stool at the end of the counter. "You're up early!"

"I'm still wakin' by an overseas clock," he said. "But that's fine. I'm back with my family, and I wanna catch up. Why not start early?" He looked at the pot with a smile. "You can even use all the hot water for cookin' - no koi pond this mornin'. I'm sure the koi appreciate it. Which reminds me. Where's oyaji?"

"Oh, my, Uncle Saotome left on a training trip several days ago." Kasumi held her forefinger to her chin in thought. "And to tell the truth, I think he was worried you might be bringing Bjorn-sensei back with you."

"I heard Nabiki on the phone, tellin' him Bjorn wanted a bear-to-bear talk with him. And while a panda may be a bear, a grizzly is a BEAR. That sounds like oyaji, all right."

"Oh, Nabiki didn't help any. She decided to research grizzlies, and brought back all kinds of articles and left them lying around. Naughty Nabiki!" Kasumi and Ranma twinkled at each other.

Ranma was startled. He'd seen mischief on Kasumi's face before, but was that an actual bit of gleeful malice? Perhaps without the Usual Suspect in residence, some of the domestic problems had actually come to roost in oyaji's lap? "He's been snoopin' around, there was sign in the yard. He'll prob'ly show up once I'm at school for the day."

Kasumi shook her head over Genma's behavior, then changed the subject. "Since this is your first meal at home, what kind of breakfast would you like?"

"I've had plenty Western breakfasts lately, so none of that. Rice and miso? And if you want to make somethin' really special, fish? There's nothin' like my own woods-cookin' to make me appreciate even the simplest meals you make."

"Fish? I guess the cat did take hold on you!"

"Unfair. Haven't I always liked fish?"

Now Kasumi was setting up the rice-cooker. "Name a food you haven't always liked," she said over her shoulder.

Ranma sighed.

"Well, there is that," Kasumi agreed as she measured out the rice. "You and Akane both like miso with dashi stock. Should I add bonito flakes too?"

"And maybe some kelp," Ranma agreed. "Food just ain't the same, thousands of kilometers away from the ocean."

"What did you eat over there?"

"Bjorn-sensei had me do my own huntin' and cookin'. I'd brought rice, so there was always that. There were berries and mushrooms, and some good roots. I usually caught at least one rabbit a day for stew. The best, though? Wild honey from a bee tree. And when Bjorn and I were hungry for fat, there was a wonderful fat porcupine. Sometimes they call 'em 'tree-pigs'."

Akane came in, wearing jogging clothes. The tea was ready; Kasumi poured her a cup, which she drank gratefully. "Ah, that's what I need to wake up for my run! You're up earlier than usual, Ranma."

"M'head's in a different time zone. I think I'll stay here with Kasumi and the food this mornin', but can we run some katas together after school?" He turned to Kasumi. "Can I have some tea to perk me up? Usually, gettin' thrown in the koi pond sets my blood goin'. But oyaji's not here today."

"Katas?" Akane said. Then, trying to get the conversation back on its accustomed track, "You're still afraid to spar with me?"

"Akane, I ain't gonna spar with nobody 'til I get used to these claws. I've learned a few things about usin' 'em. Don't know fer sure how not to use 'em. Somebody could get hurt bad."

"I don't see any claws."

"Neither did Happosai, but they sliced his pants off real neat. Remember?"

Akane had strong issues with Happosai, so this cheered her up immensely. "Katas, then!" she said back over her shoulder as she headed out for her run.

Ranma sat, quietly sipping his tea and enjoying one of the rare peaceful moments in the Tendo home, as Kasumi hummed and good smells began to happen.

After a while, dragging footsteps and muttering were heard from above. Kasumi spooned coffee into a one-cup coffeemaker and added hot water. There was the sound of shuffling, and water, and flushing, and Nabiki came slowly downstairs, eyes half-open. She and the cup of coffee arrived together at her regular seat at the table - she was reaching for it as she sat. She hunched over, elbows on the table, and drank, then stared into the cup as if to read fortunes in its bitter depths. She grunted, sighed, and fell silent.

She's a bit less intimidatin' this time of day, Ranma thought. Have ta keep that in mind. I wonder how much I could charge her for a cup a coffee? But the payback would be rough.

Soun came down, and smiled when he saw the paper at his place. He sat, and disappeared behind it.

There were no pandas.

Akane came in, glowing from her run, and sat next to Ranma. The breeze from the opened door caught up with her and wafted her scent, fresh and strong, to his nose. His mind reeled and his body snapped to attention, and for a moment, Akane was all he could see. This is what I've been missin', he thought; but he had enough sense not to say it.

Kasumi served out breakfast. Ranma's first mouthful went as rapidly as usual, but the taste was so strong and good that he slowed to appreciate it. As a result, he finished at the same time as everybody else. He rose, and made a gentle bow to Kasumi. "Thanks for such a wonderful breakfast," he said. "Now I know for sure I'm home."

Nabiki rose and picked up her bag, ready to head off for school and the day's enterprise. But Ranma touched her on the elbow. "A word before you go?" he said as he cocked one eyebrow at her. She raised her corresponding brow, but let him guide her into the kitchen for a moment's privacy.

"I'm gunna try stayin' out of fights at school for a while," he said.

"You are telling me this just why, Saotome?"

"Well, y' make money bettin' on my fights. This'd help ya set odds, and I suppose that's okay, 'cause we're family, but I'd like some say in it too."

"And what percentage of the take do you want for this?"

Ranma smiled a most unsettling smile. "Put it on my tab, 'Biki. I don't imagine you'd like givin' me money any more than I like givin' it to you."

He smiled again, then catlike began to wander off towards the dining room and Akane. But he looked back over his shoulder as he went through the door. "If I gotta fight, remember what I did to Happosai." Then he was gone.

Nabiki blink-blinked, and stood stunned for a moment, then hustled out the door. She definitely had to talk with her people.

Back in the dining room, Akane was starting her patented Slow Burn. Just what was Ranma up to? Flirting with Kasumi? Doing something in the kitchen with Nabiki? WHAT?

Actually, it was more like a Fast Burn, but Ranma had been awfully nice to her earlier, so it had to start from zero. While she was trying to decide what next, Ranma said, "c'mon, Akane - let's get washed up and head for school. We don't wanna be late, first day. And it'll give us time to talk. You c'n have the bathroom first."

At that point her mind seized up. All she could do was follow her well-worn morning routine, sluicing off the sweat from her run, then changing to her school uniform. And wonder what was going on.

As they started walking to school, Ranma stayed on the sidewalk instead of jumping to the fence nearby, and made sure he was downwind from Akane. He'd been gone for a month - this was almost a chance to make a first impression again. He wanted every advantage he could get.

Right now, he could smell uncertainty and a fair bit of adrenaline coming from her. He knew he wasn't always the best talker, so he remained silent and simply took her hand. She went tense for an instant, then began to blush; he could hear her heartbeat speeding up. So far, so good.

But Akane wasn't completely ready to give up her burn. "So, Ranma," she said. "Just what were you up to in the kitchen with Nabiki?"

"Well, I figger Nabiki's gamblin' operations help keep the family afloat. So I told her I'm gonna try hard not to get in fights. I can use the neko-ken now, Akane. But I don't control it. That's dangerous. I don't wanna to slice Kuno up when I only mean to punch his nose. So if I'm not gonna fight, maybe Nabiki can make some money out of that.

"An' to tell the truth," - Ranma put his free hand behind his head and looked a bit abashed - "I was threatenin' her some. 'Member those photos of us Kuno had? Don't want that to happen again. So I told her I wanted more say in how she made money offa me.

"Then I told her to remember what I did to Happosai. That was a twofer," he said with a quirked smile. "She can use it for bets. And now she knows I can use embarrassment as a weapon just like she does."

Akane looked up at him from beneath lowered brows. "Who are you, and what have you done with the real Ranma?"

Ranma squeezed her hand gently. "A month in the wilderness, away from everything, leaves plenty of time to think."

He could hear her heart beating, rapidly still, but the tension was out of her body and the tang of anger gone from her scent. This is a good time to keep quiet, he thought. They walked several blocks in companionable silence.

But Ranma realized he hadn't given Akane anything like a whole answer. He looked over at her. "Um, Akane?"

"Yes?"

"You've never seen me rested and relaxed before. When we came to your place I'd just been hounded across China by Shampoo, swum the ocean to Japan, and just a few blocks before we got to your place, I was knocked on the head by oyaji. Since then it's been Amazons and Kunos, and getting thrown in the koi pond at least an hour before I want to wake up. And then there's that 'man among men' thing.

"In the Northwoods, with Bjorn-sensei, I didn't have any of that. I had a month with all the sleep I wanted, and nothing worse than bears to deal with. And none of the bears were pandas. Which is just as well, because there wasn't the least bit of bamboo."

Akane sighed. "It was pretty peaceful here, too."

"Let's try to hang onto it," Ranma said with a squeeze of Akane's hand.

As they came up on the gates of Furinkan, Ranma let go. "If Kuno's on the other side, I'm gonna try ignorin' him. I may need space for that. If he's really persistent, you'll have to do the poundin'." He smiled, and ducked.

Akane chuckled, and made a pro-forma swipe with an invisible mallet over Ranma's head. But she lost her smile when she heard the Blue Wonder's voice.

"So, foul sorcerer!" he declaimed. "You disappear for a month, yet still hold the fierce tigress Akane in your thrall?"

Ranma kept walking, unperturbed.

Kuno moved to stand in his way. "Halt, miscreant! Release the maiden, lest the vengeance of Heaven strike thee!"

Ranma continued on, somehow dodging the kendoka without seeming to notice him.

"Have at you, then, knave!"

Ranma danced between the blows as he passed. "Windy today," he said to Akane as he smoothed down his bangs. And the two of them went through the doors of the school, leaving the Boy Thunder to wonder why his bokken was only a third of its normal length, and the ground around him littered with thin kite-shaped slices of wood.

Looking down from her classroom window, Nabiki smiled as she considered her profits. Something's going to happen at lunch, she thought. I'd best start offering bets on what it'll be.

Of course Ranma and Akane went first to home room. They took their old seats without much fuss, and began chatting with their friends. There was a lot of catching up to do. Hiroshi and Daisuke immediately were asking Ranma where he'd been, and what he'd been doing. Yuka and Sayuri wanted to know what Akane thought about Ranma now that he'd returned from wherever he'd been.

But they'd barely gotten started when Ninomiya-sensei called the class to order. Everybody passed through the roll call without getting sent to the hall, and began English class. They got the traditional assignment, of course: an essay about "what I did on my summer vacation". In English. Two pages by the end of the hour.

Ranma was not sure what to write. His English had improved immensely, but how much could he say about his adventures, and still be believed? He was gently chewing his pencil in thought when the door slammed open.

"Saotome! What did you do to my bokken?"

"Happo five-yen satsu!"

Ranma sighed, as Ninomiya-sensei tapped her suddenly-larger foot. "A guy could manage okay without that," he said. In English.

Ninomiya-sensei raised her brow. "That was some of the strangest English I've ever heard."

"Minnesota talk," Ranma replied.

And as the school nurse's clean-up crew was carrying Kuno's limp form out, Ranma began to write. He left out the were-bears and the wildcats, of course, and concentrated on his linguistic and dining experiences. Ninomiya-sensei would appreciate them more.

History class was next. Ranma always enjoyed that one ancient battles and warriors and shoguns were bedtime tales for young martial artists. More of the same, in greater detail, was meat and drink to him.

But then came math. Normally, he'd sleep through it. Today, he was pondering delusional samurai kendokas. What to do, what to do?

When the lunch bell rang, Ranma and Akane headed for their customary tree. They sat down, opened their bentos, and began to eat.

"What about Kuno?" Akane asked. "He seems as bad as ever."

"We've hit 'im with kempo, judo, and musabetsu kakuto, and none of 'em seemed to make an impression. I wanna try some bushido. Maybe he'll pay more attention to that. Kami-sama knows, he might listen better if we leave him conscious."

"Bushido?" Akane asked. "But that's "

In the distance, they could see Ukyou and Kuno both closing in, with grill and bokken respectively. "Can you go keep Ukyou busy, Akane? I wanna talk about Foul Sorcerers with Kuno, and it'll be easier if he doesn't have any Fierce Tigresses to distract 'im."

Akane raised one eyebrow. "Are you sure?"

"Please?"

Akane knew Ranma didn't say 'please' very often, and she didn't want to discourage the habit, so she headed out towards the chef just as Kuno came within speaking range.

"Accursed sorcerer! You send the fierce tigress Akane away, so I cannot wrest her from your grasp?"

Ranma kept his seat on the ground, but placed the lid on his bento and set it to one side. He sent a short prayer of thanks to the kami Kuno had changed his rant just a bit, and in the best possible way. "Accursed, yes, but no sorcerer. And you should be able to recognize at least one of the curses, because you suffer under the same curse yourself."

"What madness is this? I bear no curse! Think you a samurai would not know such things?"

"It's a family kinda curse, Kuno-dono. It strikes a whole generation. Could you perhaps see your sister as being cursed? Then you might be, yourself."

Kuno was plainly shaken by that. Ranma was glad he could see it, because Kuno was downwind, and he couldn't get any hints by scent.

"I won't lie to ya, Kuno. I probably got more curses than you at least three I know of. But I think the curse we share has caused lots o' trouble between us. And now one of m'other curses has changed everything. Right now, we can't fight any more. It could destroy both our souls."

"I shall not believe a sorcerer! Something has happened to weaken you; now thou'rt playing for time to recover your strength."

"You're samurai, Kuno. Bushido demands righteous living and honesty of you. I'm a martial artist, and live by a similar code. Do you think I like being called a liar?"

Ranma moved into seiza, and spoke formally. "Kuno-dono, I charge you as Samurai: for righteousness and honesty, find a place where we may speak in peace and believe one another. Your resources are greater than mine. Find a priest, find a kendo master, find whatever witness you choose, but find somebody who can recognize a sorcerer or a liar and deal with him. Then let us go before him and speak honestly and forthrightly for if things continue as they are, we may end in tragedy. And until we find this person, I ask you for a truce." Ranma bowed to Kuno, and fell silent.

Kuno did not know what to do, so he fell back upon formality himself. He sat seiza before Ranma, and kept silence for some while as he thought. Saotome had never spoken to him in this fashion before. In fact, almost nobody had. And in the final analysis respect, especially from a foe, was worth a great deal to Kuno Tatewaki. He hadn't been getting much of it lately, away from the tournament circuit.

He looked Ranma in the eyes, and spoke. "Serious speech, and a serious petition, demand serious reply. I shall seek the person you describe, and we shall have a meeting before him. Our relationship shall then be determined by the results of that meeting. Until that day, I shall attack you neither physically nor by speech." He bowed to Ranma.

Ranma spoke. "I am glad to hear your response. Until then, neither shall I attack you, physically or by speech. I await our discussion eagerly." And he bowed to Kuno in return.

Kuno stood, and walked regally away. Ranma sighed in relief. So far, so good. Now all I have to do is talk him down from that high horse.

Akane came up to Ranma as he was breathing deeply, centering himself after the stress of the conversation. "What happened?" she asked.

"I got me a short truce, but now I'll haveta talk with him again once he finds a priest that can handle vile sorcerers," he replied with a sigh. "That means more formal talk. Hittin' Kuno is easier than talkin' with him, but maybe talkin' will work where hittin' won't."

"Did you get me a truce, too?"

"Akane, he doesn't think he's attackin' you. So why should he stop? I'll see what I can do next time I talk with 'im. Til then, most ya can probably expect is less of the 'sorcerer' stuff."

Akane sighed. "So I talked to Ukyou. Of course she knows about the neko-ken, so I told her it was giving you Interesting Times. She's going to try putting less stress on you for a while."

Ranma sighed in return. "And just like Kuno doesn't think he's attackin' you, she doesn't think she's stressin' me. Well, 'sa start. One step at a time."

They finished off their bentos with subdued appetites, and walked hand-in-hand back into the school for the afternoon classes. Please, Kami-sama, let the afternoon be quiet.

oOo

And the afternoon was quiet. Oh, there was the incident with the volleyball in PE, but volleyballs are cheap. And people wanted to know what had happened between Ranma and Kuno. "We spoke," Ranma said, and wouldn't elaborate. Kuno was no more talkative, which was not at all like him.

After school Ranma and Akane walked home together. The ladle lady got him, of course, but that was the worst that happened. It was as if the whole world were holding its breath, worried about starting anything.

"You say your senses are ten times as sharp now, but you still can't see her coming?" Akane teased.

Ranma-chan grumbled as she wrung water out of the tail of her tang. "Dammit, she's just washing her sidewalk. She don't mean me a lick of harm. So she don't set off any alarms in my head." The two continued down the street, the redhead trailing wet footprints behind her.

No sooner had they taken their shoes off by the door than they saw Nabiki leaning against the wall waiting for them. "So?" she said. "What happened between Kuno and you?"

"We spoke. We got a truce for a while."

"Surely there's more to it than that?"

"Sure is. But that's between the two of us."

"I'm going to find out, you know."

"Who's gonna tell you? Kuno and I were the only ones within earshot." Then an idea came to Ranma. She cocked her head to one side, and smiled at Nabiki. She held out her hand. "Fifty thousand yen, please?"

Sizzling elegantly, Nabiki went up the stairs and into her room. She closed the door. But Ranma could hear her fist come down on her desk, and muttered curses.

oOo

After dinner that evening (Genma still hadn't shown up) Akane curled up on the sofa to watch television. Ranma snagged a spare cushion, and curled up on the tatami near her. Some while later, during a quiet portion of the show, Akane noticed a slight buzzing. She pricked up her ears and looked around. It seemed to be coming from Ranma. His eyes were closed, and he was breathing gently.

"Kami-sama help us, he's purring," Akane thought.

oOo

Ranma woke again to dimness, this time on the tatami. After he'd gone to sleep, someone had put a blanket over him, and the freshest scent was Akane. He yawned, stretched, and smiled.

Oyaji still hadn't come home. It was time to hunt him down and have a long talk.

Ranma went to the refrigerator for a snack, then had a quick rinsedown with cold water in the furo. She changed clothes. Heh, it'll really honk oyaji off if I'm a girl when I find him!

She went to the spot by the dojo where there'd been panda scent. There was more now, fresh. Sniffing, Ranma began to track her father back to his lair.

After half an hour, she was in one of the neighborhood parks. There was the quiet sound of a small stream, and she could feel his sleeping ki deep in the bushes nearby. Quietly, she crept up on him.

Genma woke, flying through the air. He splashed down with a terrible curse cut off into a 'growf" in midstream. Then he rose, snarling, from the waters.

"Hold it right there, oyaji. You're in enough trouble already don't make it any worse."

"Growf?"

"I got good news, and I got bad news. The good news is that Bjorn-sensei didn't come back with me. The bad news is that the Cat came back."

Genma produced a sign, not remembering it was too dark to read: "I don't know what you're talking about."

Ranma read the sign, even in the darkness. She had, after all, brought back the Cat. "It's the neko-ken, you doofus. You remember the neko-ken? The cats? The fish sausages? The way I pleaded with you not to toss me in the pit?"

"It was for your own good, boy." (flip) "And why are you a girl?"

"I'm a girl because you knocked me in the damn spring," Ranma said. "And I've given you ten years credit for thinking it was for my own good. But now I have another point of view."

"It was for your own good, boy!" (Genma had a lot of practice with that sign.)

"And how would you feel if you were taken from a comfortable home? Starved, hauled about, tossed in a pit, starved some more and then had some poor kid thrown on you? Over and over?"

"Growf?"

"I've learned the neko-ken for real now, you idiot. That means I'm sharing this head with the Cat. Do you think we cats enjoyed your training? Are you going to say it was for our feline good too?"

"They were only worthless cats!" Suddenly Genma realized who was reading his sign along with Ranma, and tucked it behind his back. It was too late.

Ranma snarled, and leaped at Genma. Only the older martial artist's reflexes saved him, as he jumped into the air. Ranma hit, and growling, began to shred the boulder she'd landed on. "Run, oyaji, run! I'll try to hold the cat back!" Huffing, the panda receded into the distance.

Ranma-chaneko fumed as she tore at the rocks. She stared longingly in the direction Genma had run. Eventually Ranma-chan diverted the Cat over to Genma's camp. She knelt, and began quietly to shred every last item Genma had with him into slivers and scraps. A deep chugging, halfway between a purr and a growl, came from her. Then she took down her pants and marked the devastation as her own. She stood, fastening her pants again about her waist.

Should have done this as a guy after all, she thought. It would have been neater.

And she went home to tell Kasumi that Uncle Saotome would probably not be showing up for some while.

oOo

On Tuesday, Ranma was walking down the street when Ryoga descended like a bolt from Heaven, shouting "Ranma, prepare to die!" When the sound and the dust and the flying stones quit, Ryoga stood alone in the crater he'd made. He looked around for Ranma. Then he heard a hissing coming from the tree beside him. He looked up.

Ranma was crouched on a branch, hissing and spitting and making threatening motions with his paw. Ryoga broke out in a cold sweat, and carefully backed away. "Uh, er, I can see you're not quite yourself today, Ranma. We can talk about this later ."

And then Ryoga did what he did best: he got lost.

oOo

On Wednesday, Ranma and Akane were walking home from school together, chattering happily, when Ranma heard the Bicycle of Doom approaching. At the last instant, he ducked and slashed upwards with his claws. Shampoo landed awkwardly, with flat tires, and bent the frame of her bike.

"Fer Pete's sake, Shampoo, be more careful with that thing! You almost hit me!"

Shampoo untangled herself from the wreckage, crying "So, so sorry, airen!" and tried to glomp him. But somehow Ranma bumped her and she missed, glomping Akane instead.

"Shampoo, what the heck are you up to! Let her go!"

Shampoo staggered back from Akane, who was radiating bright green.

"Shampoo, you've knocked me for a loop with that thing half a dozen times. You're an Amazon, you think men are the weaker sex, and you claim I'm your husband. Isn't this a bit too much like wife-beating? And what are you doing glomping Akane? Is that the kinda spouse you wanna be?"

Shampoo shook her head dazedly, and picked up the remnants of her bicycle. "Shampoo confused. Must talk with Elder Cologne." And she trudged off in the direction of the Cat Cafe.

oOo

Thursday, Kuno met Ranma at the entrance to Furinkan. "I've found the right man to witness our talk," he said. "There's a shrine in Okayama that holds a demon prisoner. The priest is a powerful swordsman, and he has a good reputation for wisdom. Would this Saturday be acceptable to you?"

"How we gonna get to Okayama? That's down in Chugoku region!"

"We'll take the bullet train. It'll be a long trip, but we can get there and back in a day if we start early."

"I can't afford that."

"I'll pay. This is a serious matter of honor and as you noted, I have greater resources."

"I can do it, then. One more request, Kuno-sempai. Could ya bring a piece of steel along, about the right size to make a knife? I got somethin' to show you, an' you'll be more sure of it if you supply the steel."

"Saturday, then. The front entrance of my estate, six in the morning. We shall leave from there."

"See ya then. Thanks for going to all this trouble, Kuno-sempai."

oOo

Friday night, Ranma prepared for a day-trip to Okayama. He laid out fresh clothes, and spent some time at the Tendo family shrine. "It's for Akane too, Tendo-san. Do your best." Then he went back in the house, did homework with Akane, and went to sleep early.

Cats sleep with their ears open. A little after midnight, Ranma heard the scrape of his window being carefully opened.

Happosai.

Happosai with a bucket, and his pipe.

Ranma didn't even want to think what Happosai might be up to. He lay still, damped his ki down, and watched through narrowed eyelids as the old master crept closer. I don't need a distraction, Ranma thought. The pervert brought his own.

Even as Happosai was beginning to pour the water, Ranma jumped up and slashed with her claws at the pipe. There was a terrible jar through her arm the pipe must have been charged as full of ki as the old ghoul's staff but it fell in several sections.

"Mousie!" Ranma-chan cried joyously as she leaped for Happosai. But he wasn't that easy to catch, and in an instant he was gone.

Ranma closed the window, and lay back down to sleep. In the morning, bathed and neatly dressed, he was waiting at the gate to Kuno's estate.

oOo

After the train ride, after the bus ride, Ranma and Kuno found themselves at the foot of a long stone stairway. Still in silence, they began to climb.

Several hundred steps later, they stood in the courtyard of the shrine. The priest stood in the door. They bowed to him; he bowed in return.

"Kuno-dono? Saotome-san? Welcome to the Masaki shrine. I am Katsuhito. Please, come in."

They entered, and sat with the priest before a low table. A young girl with long, pale-blue ponytails entered with a tray, and served each of them with tea, bread, and salt.

Ranma was startled. While the ki of the old priest showed a man of great power, that was only to be expected. But when Ranma looked at the girl, her aura was so strong it almost blinded him; more, it gave him triple vision. Beside her he saw an elegant woman, and behind the two, a majestic tree.

Surely, this girl was not a were-tree!?

They sipped tea in silence, tore pieces off the bread and sprinkled salt on them, then ate. They drained their tea. The girl took their plates and cups, put them on her tray, and left.

"We have shared food and drink," the priest said. "The ancient laws of hospitality hold. There shall be no fighting while we remain on the temple grounds.

"Now, Kuno-dono, you asked for this meeting. Could you explain more fully what you wish of it?"

Ranma raised one hand. "Before we start, may I ask somethin'?"

Katsuhito nodded assent. "How does such a young girl have so much power, Katsuhito-sama? Just being near her felt like being in full sunlight. And there was a tree looming over her."

The old priest's brows rose behind his square-rimmed glasses. "She is not so young as she seems," he said. "And if you saw a tree, at the very least this is a sign we should go to the holy tree of our shrine to continue this discussion." He rose, and motioned to the others. Together they left the shrine and descended the steps.

The tree was on a small island in a pond, with stepping-stones going out to it. It was girded with a sacred shimenawa rope with paper streamers. Up close, it seemed even more unworldly to Ranma than it had in his vision? "Are you the demon's prison?" he wondered as he looked at it.

Ranma stood before the tree. The only sound he heard was the sighing of the wind, the rustling of branches. He suddenly felt that he was alone, and turned to Kuno and Katsuhito, to find they were gone. When he looked back to the tree, the woman of his vision stood beside it. She was tall, with long pale-blue hair, elegantly dressed and agelessly young a mature version of the girl that had served tea. Gracefully she sat by one of the larger roots, then patted the ground beside her and smiled at Ranma. He, too, sat.

"That is an interesting question," the woman said. "And I wonder how you came to ask it, let alone realize I was there to be asked. May I know your mind?" Her red eyes looked into Ranma's blue.

Somehow Ranma knew this was his decision, and she would respect it. His time with Bjorn came back to him. If he could trust a grizzly, surely he could trust a woman of such serenity? His ears heard her heart beating, slowly and calmly. The scent of blossoms, and earth, came to his nose. It was time for him to learn trust. He nodded.

Gently she smiled, and reached out to touch his brow. Twin markings on her forehead glowed. There was a chime, the sound of a drop of water falling into a crystal pool, then an instant where he felt an unearthly love and understanding. His mind came back to his body seated upon the ground. He sighed in contentment, knowing somehow that he had been heard, and not found wanting.

The woman touched the back of his hand. "You deserve an answer," she said.

"The one you ask of is not a demon she is my niece. I am Tsunami, the Goddess of a distant world. She is Ryoko, daughter of my sister goddess Washu. Many years ago, Ryoko was taken from her mother, and raised by a cruel and selfish man who thought of her only as his weapon." Tsunami smiled wistfully. "You can see why your story reaches out to me, now that I know it your story, and that of the Kuno boy, if what I read in your mind is true. But Kagato was a hundred times worse than your father, or Kuno's.

"Seven hundred years ago, Ryoko escaped and fled to Earth, where she was captured by the priest of this shrine and locked away in a cave. Her body lay still, while her spirit could wander the temple grounds and take in its peace. And it seems she learned to love, too. Recently she was freed from the cave, and is learning to bring her body and spirit back into harmony, learning to reconcile the love she has learned with the hate she was taught."

Tsunami smiled again, this time looking towards the future. "If she lives through the next few thousand years, she'll make a fine young kami. Until then children can be such a bother!

"You," she continued, "are learning to reconcile the human and the cat. And doing a good job of it, though there's a long way to go. You still have much work before you combine male and female "

Ranma looked at her, opened his mouth she spoke before he could. "You're not one of mine. In this, I cannot act. Bring your curse up with the local kami. But I've read you down to the bottom of your soul. You still have much to learn, and that curse is one of the lessons. You'd miss her if she were gone.

"And though you have a long way to go, you're still trying to help the Kuno boy bring the two halves of his soul together the samurai, and the schoolboy raised without a mother by his idiot father. I think I can help there, by soothing his mind as you speak. His problems come, not from the wrath of the gods but purely from humanity.

"I can't have your mind remembering this. But your soul will." She kissed him on each cheek, and on his forehead. The scent of flowers grew even stronger in his nostrils. "Go now. You're on stage."

As Ranma looked behind himself, he saw Kuno and Katsuhito. He turned to them, bowed, and sat seiza. For some reason, he was filled with peace and confidence. A lingering fragrance brushed past him on the breeze. Kuno and Katsuhito also sat.

Kuno spoke.

"There has been bad blood between Saotome Ranma and myself since the day we met. For reasons I considered good, I claimed he was an evil sorcerer. He claims, now, that he and I suffer from a curse that has caused much of this conflict. We are here before you priest, warrior, and tamer of demons to speak of this curse. With you as witness, we need fear no further sorceries."

Ranma spoke.

"There is truth in what Kuno Tatewaki says: my life has been touched by sorcery or magic. But I am the victim of sorcery, not its creator. As a priest of long years, and a master of the martial arts, you must have learned to distinguish between truth and lies. I call upon you, as witness, to judge the truthfulness of our speech."

Katsuhito spoke.

"I hear, and in this holy place, agree. If I see sorcery, or hear lies, I shall act. Until then I shall hold silence. Nor shall I speak of what I hear to others." He raised his hand, in a gesture familiar to both martial artists, then dropped it. "Begin."

"Saotome Ranma, what is this curse you claim you and I and my sister share? And how has it caused conflict among us?"

"Kuno-sempai, it's a simple and common curse. We were raised by idiot fathers. Worse, we had no mothers with us to temper our fathers' idiocies."

"Continue," Kuno said.

"I was raised on the road, movin' from place to place, learnin' the arts of combat and insult. I almost never stayed long enough to make friends, seldom even acquaintances. I made two friends in all those years, an' because of th'way oyaji took me from 'em, they came back as enemies. My social skills are rotten, 'cause I've never had much chance to use 'em. And I'm used to hittin' problems on th' head or throwin' 'em into a wall.

"And you? Raised in a mansion by father and servants, along with yer sister. Told stories of past glories. Y'know, while Sasuke ain't a bad sort, he's a ninja. They got funny ideas about honor. 'Nen when you get to school, yer father's principal. You're rich. You can get away with anythin'. But that doesn't get'cha friends. It gets ya toadies. I don't think either of us got very many true friends."

Tatewaki grimaced in pain. His eyes were closed, tears leaking from their corners. For several minutes he was silent, breathing heavily. When he spoke, it was no longer with his customary elegance. "And my sister?"

"I bet yer father wasn't comfortable with girls. Did Sasuke do more to raise her? You, you got Samurai honor and Samurai tactics. Kodachi, she tries for the Samurai honor, but her tactics are more like a ninja. And neither of you understand people who ain't Samurai."

Kuno Tatewaki was silent again or at least, he did not speak. Ranma heard his heart beating irregularly, his breath catching in his throat. Kuno's face was bowed down, but Ranma smelled the salt tang of tears. Without looking up, he finally choked out, "Tendo Akane and my pigtailed goddess?"

Ranma reached out, put his hand on Kuno's shoulder. "Akane? She's caught up in the same curse we are, but her father's nowhere as bad and she has sisters to help. The pigtailed goddess? 'Member I said I had at least three curses? She's caught up in my third curse. And it's not the time to talk 'bout that, yet."

Now Ranma was holding both of Kuno's shoulders. "Kuno-sempai, I'm weary to the bone of fighting. I've just had a month away from it, an' now I can't go back to the way things were. I won't go back to the way things were. I want a life, not a lifelong battle. I want a home, not a battleground.

"If there's anybody in Furinkan who can understand me, it's you. If there's anybody who can understand you, it's me. I dunno if we can be friends. But we can't be enemies any longer."

Ranma moved to sit beside Tatewaki, then kept silence. The two sat for five minutes, then ten, lost in memories, emotions playing over their faces.

After fifteen minutes, the old priest spoke. "You've both been staring your past in the face, and seeing things you didn't like. I know I have more past than the both of you put together. It's why I'm priest at a lonely shrine: duty and memory keep me here, and the peace sustains me. Saotome-san, Kuno-dono, there have been no sorceries and no lies. But the whole story has not yet been spoken. What brought the two of you to this place? Rather, what brought the two of you to the decision to come?"

The youths rearranged their garments and their faces.

"You said that to battle now could cost us both our souls," Tatewaki said. "How?"

"Kuno-sempai, Katsuhito-sama, have you heard of a technique called the Neko-ken?" And Ranma told them about the pit, the cats, the fish, the claws and eyes, and the madness that could descend upon him. "'Member when Gosunkugi told you I was afraid of cats, and you dumped me in a pit of cats? And I shredded your bokken? You were lucky I didn't shred you. I wasn't human when that happened.

"Ever since I was taught the Neko-ken, I've had the soul of a cat in me, as well as the soul of a human. Mostly, the human was in charge and the cat slept. Sometimes it was the other way around, and I was very dangerous.

"This last month, I studied under a master of the bear-claw. They also have two souls, bear and human, but over the years they've learned to bring the souls together so they work as one. I learned the beginnings of this. Now I'm part cat all the time, and I can use the claws of the cat whenever I want.

"Kuno-sempai, did you bring the steel I asked for?"

Kuno Tatewaki took a cloth-wrapped rectangle from where it was held in his belt, and gave it to Ranma, who unwrapped it. It was perhaps twenty centimeters long, two wide, and half a centimeter thick, of finest tool steel. He spread the cloth on the ground before him.

Concentration plain on his face, Ranma brought forth his claws. One end of the steel he rounded, corners and edges, to make a comfortable grip. Then he took the grip in his hand, and began carving a blade on the other end. In less than a minute he had a serviceable small knife. He handed it, grip-first, to Kuno.

Tatewaki and Katsuhito both looked at the cloth, covered with slivers and shavings of sharp steel. They looked at the knife. They looked at one another. Then they looked at Ranma.

"Test the knife," Ranma said, looking at Katsuhito.

The priest reached out, found some deadfall wood from a nearby shrub. He carved it with the knife. Then he placed the knife on a rock, and hammered it with another rock.

"This is a sharp knife, of good steel," Katsuhito said as he handed it back to Kuno.

"Hold the knife out, point-first, over the cloth." Kuno did so. Then Ranma waved negligently at the knife and it fell into pieces, which dropped to the cloth.

"I scarcely felt that," Kuno said. "How sharp are these claws of yours?"

"Dunno still learnin'. Plenty sharp enough to carve through rock and steel."

"The soul of a Samurai is his sword. You're of an old family. Your sword must be at least a thousand-layer sword, maybe more. What just happened to the knife? I don't want to do that to an ancient and honorable sword."

"And what if I killed you? I don't want that on my soul. But the angrier I get, or the more desperate, the more the cat comes to the fore. He doesn't mind killin'. And this time I'd be there to watch. So let's not fight any more please? The stakes are too high."

Ranma stared into Kuno's eyes, and Kuno stared back. How odd, thought the kendoka. I've never looked into his eyes like this. They are strangely like the eyes of my pigtailed goddess.

Katsuhito said, after a moment, "So your fathers are the first curse, and the neko-ken is your second curse. But you speak of a third?"

Ranma looked down, at his hands, at the pond. He looked up, first at Katsuhito, then at Kuno. He took a deep breath. "It's not yet time to speak of the third curse. First, Kuno-sempai must observe the curse my father bears." (Ranma smiled wryly to himself at the pun.)

"Before we came to Nerima, my father and I traveled to a cursed training ground in China. There he fell in the Spring of Drowned Panda. And now, when hit by cold water he turns into a giant panda with a human mind. Hot water returns him to human form.

"When you come to me and say you have used both cold and hot water on my father, Kuno-sempai, I shall speak with you of my third curse."

Kuno said, "I have seen a panda on the streets of Nerima. This is your father?"

Ranma nodded.

Katsuhito spoke. "Then I think the two of you have talked sufficiently. I have seen no sorcery, deceit, or lack of good faith. Would you care to use the shrine for a while now, to meditate?"

The two boys stood, and bowed. "It's time for us to return home," they said. "We thank you very much for your aid, Katsuhito-sama." And they walked back towards the bus stop, after yet another bow to the priest.

"This formal speakin's gonna drive me nuts yet," Ranma said as they walked comfortably together.

Kuno punched him lightly on the arm. "You need to learn better speech, Ranma-kun."

"And you need to tone yours down."

They smiled. "Perhaps we can teach one another?"

oOo

Katsuhito gathered up the cloth with its sharp slivers, and walked back to his home. In the kitchen, he met the girl. "Sasami, you would not believe the conversation I've just witnessed."

Sasami lifted a ladle of soup, tasted, smiled and added just a pinch of sea-salt. "I don't have to believe I was there with Tsunami. It was even stranger than you know. But we promised not to talk about it."

"True, true. When is dinner?"

oOo

That night Ranma slept, and dreamed he was crouched on a high branch in a noble tree. Beside him on the branch sat an elegant woman with long blue hair. "Good cat," she said as she scratched the back of his head just above his pigtail. "Good cat." Ranma squirmed in pleasure. "You spoke well today. I think friendship will work for the two of you."

"You had four curses, you know. The fourth was the most traditional: 'interesting times'. After you left I talked with Kami-sama about it. Your father had it put on you, to keep you from slacking off or going soft."

"Kami-sama and I spoke sharply with the kami in charge of that curse, and he agreed the curse would suit your father even better than you. So we transferred it over."

The woman stroked Ranma gently along his back, as she silently vanished away bit by bit, leaving only a smile behind. "Sleep well, dear cat."

And Ranma did.

oOo

Thanks to iCe for pre-reading. This version completed September 3, 2006.