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A Ranma ½ story
by DB Sommer

Any and all C&C is appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

Preface: What's happened before: Akane got her hands on a wish and used it to wish her mother had never been in a car accident and was alive in the present. Well, her mother wasn't in an accident and is with them in the present. There's only a slight complication; Kachiko had been in two accidents, the first occurring when she was the ripe old age of seventeen…

Chapter 8

Kachiko Tendou had a noticeable spring in her step as she hummed to herself and entered the backyard of her home. The day was exceptionally bright and sunny, with hardly a cloud in the sky. It was perfect weather for engaging in an activity she had never been permitted to do by her parents: Sunbathing. The conservative couple had been adamant about the improprieties of showing so much skin, and held the opinion that men wanted women to look like pale ghosts. Of course, they also held the opinion that women should be meek little mice that should be seen and not heard, and whose sole reason for existence were taking care of their husbands and ushering in the next generation of children. No other extraneous thoughts need enter a woman's head.

Such a lifestyle might have suited her mother, but not Kachiko Tendou. She was destined for better, and infinitely more interesting, things. On the sly she had managed a decent tan the few times she went on trips to the seashore with Sakura, but those had been far in the past — really far in the past, once Kachiko thought about it — and taking one look into the mirror made the time-lost girl grimace in distaste. Steps had to be taken immediately to rectify the problem.

Originally, Kachiko had planned to borrow something from Akane, but the few swimsuits Akane owned had way too much material. The girl didn't own a single two-piece suit. That meant heading to the local shopping mall to pick up some suitable swimwear, a trip had been most enlightening. Times had changed, as evidenced by the fact that what Kachiko had assumed was material to make bikinis turned out to be bikinis themselves. The items were so small they practically weren't there, which made them perfect.

Kachiko refrained from buying what was termed a thong. It wasn't that she considered it too revealing, just that her attempt to wear one proved that walking around with a string running in between her buttocks was a decidedly uncomfortable experience. So she settled on something small, that bordered on scandalous, if not a touch on the other side.

"And it just might attract Ranma's attention," Kachiko told herself. That was the other reason for taking the time out to tan in the backyard. The poor boy was far too restrained for his own good. One look at Kachiko though, and he couldn't help from loosening up at least a little. She knew Tachi-chan would go through the roof if he saw her in such revealing garb, though he didn't really need much in the way of prodding to be open about his feelings. Usually coming into his line of sight was enough. One thing Kunou had over Ranma was the ability to make a girl feel appreciated.

Kachiko spread out the towel across the grass and smeared tanning lotion on her body. Ranma was supposedly due back from wherever he had gone before too long. That should give her enough time to gain at least a little color, and make it seem as though she was lying inconspicuously in the yard, and that putting herself on display for his benefit was merely a coincidence.

Kachiko had been lying out on her back for no more than fifteen minutes before she heard the door to the house slide open. She rose up and shielded her eyes from the glare, squinting and trying to make out who had emerged. "I should have brought sunglasses," she mumbled as her eyes failed to refocus from the bright glare that had narrowed her irises to almost nothing.

"Hey, Kachi," the familiar voice of Nabiki said.

Her eyes finally adjusting to the light, Kachiko could see that Nabiki had come outside. She carried a sizable basket on her arm and was wearing a two-piece bikini that, while in no way conservative, contained about twice the material Kachiko's did. Of course Nabiki did have more to conceal, Kachiko noted with distaste.

"I saw you laying out, and decided to join you," Nabiki said cheerily as she put down the basket. She pulled a towel from the top of the basket and laid it out next to Kachiko. She then retrieved a radio and sat it down between them. Reaching over, she grabbed the bottle of lotion Kachiko had left out and proceeded to lather herself up.

"How delightful," Kachiko managed without a hint of sincerity. Better company she would have preferred. Actually she would have preferred no company at all compared to Nabiki's presence. Competition, she did not need. But without some pretext to force her middle 'daughter' to leave, she'd have to tolerate the annoying pest.

Nabiki finished lotioning in silence. She then reclined on her back, just as Kachiko was, and let out a loud sigh. "It sure is nice out."

"Uh," Kachiko grunted, trying to kill any attempt at conversation before it could begin.

Nabiki seemed content to leave things at that. However, after a few minutes, she turned to Kachiko and said, "Mind if I listen to some music?"

If it'll get you to leave me alone, Kachiko barely refrained from saying. Instead she got out a neutral, "Sure."

Nabiki leaned over and pushed a button on the CD player. Instantly, a song began to play:

~I must!
~I must!
~I must increase my bust!
~I must!
~I must!
~I must increase my bust!

Nabiki smiled evilly at Kachiko, whose entire body jerked as the first chorus ended. Some of Nabiki's amusement disappeared when she heard the muscles in Kachiko's neck, tensed beyond all measure, actually groan in protest as her head slowly, inexorably turned in Nabiki's direction. Further amusement died as she saw the rictus smile plastered across Kachiko's features, and that her eyes were shot through with so much red it was painful to look.

"It's a bit loud," Kachiko said, smile not faltering in the slightest. "I'm going to turn it down." She picked up the radio, and brought it down over the top of her head, rending plastic and wires as she shattered it in two. As though she had done nothing more than adjust a dial, she carefully set the two pieces down, as if they were delicate pieces of china. "That's better," she informed Nabiki, her smile now somewhat back to normal.

That hadn't worked out quite as she planned. Nabiki decided to cut her losses and lie back so that she could work on her tan.

Kachiko was seething insider, trying to come up with some means of retaliation for that not so subtle jab. There was no way such a conniving girl could ever be her daughter. And her chest was too big to be her offspring. Children weren't supposed to one-up their parents — Kachiko excluded from the rule, naturally.

The first edges of a plan involving hamsters, grease, and duct tape had just started to form when Kachiko heard the door to the house slide open. Her eyes had once again shifted to the huge amount of light, forcing her to squint. Kachiko could just make out the outline of a young man with tousled hair coming through the doorway. The figure, who could only be one person, gave a hesitant, "Ah," and scratched his head.

Kachiko was up in an instant, vaulting into a handspring and hurling herself through the air towards Ranma. She would prove to Nabiki she had a desirable body and that men weren't only interested in big chests.

"Oops!" Kachiko cried out, pretending to stumble forward into Ranma. She then 'slipped' her hands around his neck, forcing his head down and into her chest.

"It's so nice to see you, Ranma," she cooed, keeping his head snuggled firmly between her breasts.

There was a loud, "Ack!" and Kachiko felt Ranma suddenly go limp in her arms, forcing her to support him. Something wet then started to trickle down her chest.

"What the heck?" Kachiko said, and pulled Ranma's head away.

Her eyes finally having a chance to adjust to the light, Kachiko saw that the figure whom she had assumed to be Ranma was nothing of the kind. It was somebody Ranma's age, with approximately the same color hair, height, and weight, which explained the confusion. The most notable thing about him was the yellow bandanna with black stripes wrapped around his forehead. Currently he was unconscious, a huge gout of blood trickling from his nose; that was the source of the wet substance Kachiko had felt on her stomach.

"Ahh! This isn't Ranma! It's some pervert!" She dropped the boy she had been supporting like a rock, allowing his head to thump loudly to the ground.

Nabiki looked over the scene with an amused grin. "Not quite. His name is Ryouga. He drops by sometimes. He's someone that hangs around Ranma. They're sort of friends, in the same sense you and that Wakaba girl were."

That made Kachiko relax. That meant he was one of Ranma's best friends in the whole world, and probably not a pervert that had tried for a cheap thrill by impersonating Ranma and receiving some 'special treatment' from her. "He's injured." She pointed at the blood.

Nabiki shook her head. "He tends to pass out at the sight of a little female flesh."

Kachiko reconsidered him. "Oh, so he's a weenie boy." She shook her head distastefully. While she didn't like her men lecherous, like Icky Slutzenin, she didn't care for weenie boys that passed out at the sight of a little skin either. She wanted someone between the two extremes.

Since Ryouga's life wasn't in any danger, and seeing she had some blood decorating her chest, she removed the fallen boy's bandanna and used it to wipe off the blood.

As her attention was riveted to wiping her body, Soun emerged from the house. "Is everything all right? I thought I heard a…" his voice trailed off as he espied his wife, standing in a swimsuit far smaller than he had ever seen her wear before. The shock of seeing someone he had been married to for so many years in such revealing garb, and in better shape than she had been when they were married, combined with over ten years of abstinence had an odd effect upon him. His mind seemed to shut down, as more basic instincts took over. His eyes took on a vacant stare, drool trickled down his chin, and he raised his arms up and began to walk slowly forward. "Kachiiii."

Turning from her cleaning, Kachiko noticed him from the first time. She screeched, "AHHH! The old guy's been turned into a zombie!" and proceeded to level a hard kick right into him, punting him well over the wall and out of sight.

Nabiki made a clucking noise with her tongue. "Jeez, Kachi, you aren't ever happy, are you? You dress in next to nothing to get guys' attention, then complain when you get it."

"I don't want creepy old guys going for a grope or weenie boys bleeding on me," Kachiko explained. Her eyes took on a sinister glint. "Sounds to me like you're jealous that they're going after me instead of you."

Nabiki's eyebrow twitched. "You have got to be kidding. I am way more attractive, and have a much better body than you." Nabiki thrust out her chest.

Kachiko's eyebrow twitched back in annoyance. "Yes, but looks only take you so far, especially when attitude can scare guys away. It's not like you've had a lot of men dropping by asking for you, now is it?"

"I have been on plenty of dates!" Nabiki shot back.

Sensing blood in the water, Kachiko pressed forward. "But how many of them have gone out with you more than once? I bet you hit them up for every yen you can milk out of them and don't give anything in return, other than a cold shoulder."

Nabiki growled slightly.

Kachiko taunted, "I heard someone the other day say getting to first base with Nabiki means she doesn't lunge for your wallet in the first hour."

"At least I don't hit on engaged men or deluded jerks!" Nabiki shot back.

Kachiko snorted. "Ranma obviously isn't comfortable with this whole engagement thing or he wouldn't have agreed to postponing it so quickly. And if you don't appreciate a guy like Tachi-chan, then you're an even greater lost cause than I thought."

"At least I have some pride and don't throw myself at guys and hop into the sack with them like some slut!"

It was Kachiko's turn to become angry. "I'll have you know I've never let a guy get farther than second base, and only one even made it that far! But even so, I'd rather be known as a slut than some frigid bitch!"

Nabiki walked forward until she was right next to Kachiko. "What did you call me?!"

Kachiko shivered. "It's suddenly so cold my nipples are hard enough to cut glass." She fingered her top to emphasize the point.

Nabiki was in a state she had rarely fallen into the last few years; one of trembling anger. "You're really asking for it!"

Kachiko quaked in mock fear. "Oh no, you're going to run some kind of simple-minded scam on me, aren't you? Woe is me. Whatever shall I do in the face of such terror?"

Nabiki snarled at Kachiko, who didn't back off an inch, and met her squarely eye-to-eye. Lightning seemed to dance between their baleful glares as they squared off with one another.

Inside the house, Kasumi turned from the cupboard she was cleaning. She thought she heard the sounds of someone arguing in the backyard. What was curious was that the usual causes of such disruptions, Ranma and Akane, were both out. She hoped it wasn't something her father had done to her mother. Kasumi kept telling him to take things slowly, but far too often he seemed to lose control in Kachiko's presence and wasn't making any progress at all. Kasumi had tried coming up with a plan to bring them closer together, but nothing came to mind. If only someone would kidnap Kachiko… then her father could rescue her, just like Ranma did with Akane on several occasions, and then they could grow closer to one another.

Kasumi was pondering who might be interested in abducting her mother when there was a knock at the front door. Her train of thought lost, she went to the door and opened it.

Pantyhose Tarou waved pleasantly at her. "Hey there. How are you doing? You're Akane's sister, Kasumi, right?"

"Why yes, I am," Kasumi bowed. "Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for Ranma. I need to beat the shit out of him before tomorrow. Is he around?"

"I'm afraid not," Kasumi was taken a bit aback by both the youth's rough demeanor and his stated intentions. Although curiously he didn't seem angry, just very businesslike.

"I'll wait for him to come back," Tarou said, allowing himself inside and looking around, obviously searching for someone. "I'll stay out of your way."

"Um, sure. I suppose so," Kasumi said. He was a bit on the rude side, but perhaps whatever reason he wanted to beat Ranma up for was important.

Tarou's ears perked up at the sounds of an argument coming from outside. He immediately headed towards the noise. Within moments he had navigated his way through the house and out to the backyard.

He smiled as he spotted the two girls snarling and staring daggers at one another. Out loud, he said, "Sweet, a catfight with girls in bikinis. Don't let me interrupt you. My money's on you, Akane."

Both heads turned to the source of the disturbance. Kachiko's anger momentarily abated, and her eyes took on a more evaluative glare. "Who's this?"

Nabiki backed away slightly, allowing her mother to stand between her and Tarou. Quietly, she said, "His name is Pantyhose Tarou. He's a pain in the ass like you. Whenever he shows up, trouble follows." And he was one of the few people Nabiki regarded as actually being dangerous. Kachiko was just an annoyance that got under the skin (and cost a fair bit of money). Tarou was far was worse than that, if the others' descriptions were the least bit accurate. He had a fairly devious mind, and a lot of power he was unafraid to use to get what he wanted.

"What's he doing here?" Kachiko asked.

"I don't know, but it can't be for anything good." Nabiki admitted. "And if he's smiling, that means it's almost certainly something bad for everyone else."

Kachiko scowled at the youth. She sensed a great deal of power from him, almost equal to Ranma's, whatever difference between them being negligible. Also, she didn't like the looks of him either. He exuded an aura of danger. Nabiki's change in demeanor and caution felt merited, rather than the warning being some scheme she used to play with Kachiko's mind.

Kachiko walked forward. Tarou gave an appreciative whistle. "Looking good there, Akane. Not the sort of thing I ever thought I'd see you wear. Say, did you change your hair? You look different."

"My name is Kachiko, not Akane," she said as she walked forward until she was next to Tarou.

Tarou nodded his head in understanding. "I see now. Yeah, you do look different from her. Family relation?"

"Sort of," she said. "What brings you here, Mr. Pantyhose?"

He flinched at hearing his name aloud. "It's just Tarou. Anyway, I dropped by to kick Ranma's butt. It's not personal, this time. I just need to make sure he's out of the way for the next day or two. He due back soon?"

Kachiko looked over Tarou's shoulder and said, "Good timing. There he is now."

"What?!" Tarou spun on his heel, rapidly tensing up in order to fight Ranma. Only when he turned around, he saw no one. "Where did he go?"

A foot came up from behind and found its way between Tarou's legs. He howled in pain, and doubled over in agony.

Kachiko grabbed him by the back of his shirt and heaved him into the koi pond, his wincing form making a loud splash. She said to the pond. "That's what you get for trying to ambush up my Ranma." She slapped her hands together, and gave a satisfied grin to Nabiki. "That takes care of that."

There was a loud eruption from the pond as water flew everywhere and an inhuman roar reverberated throughout the neighborhood, making Kachiko's hair stand on end. Reluctantly, she turned around, immediately wincing at the monstrosity that was now standing in the pond.

"Oops. I didn't see that one coming," Kachiko admitted as the cursed form of Pantyhose Tarou ominously began making its way to her.

Ranma wasn't in the Tendou home for more than minute before he sensed something amiss. He entered the living room and spotted Nabiki watching the television. Everything appeared all right on the surface, but there was definitely something lingering in the air; something not right.

She waved to Ranma. "Tarou came by to cause some trouble. Kachi tried to take him out first. Big mistake."

Whenever Pantyhose came around, trouble followed. That he was specifically trying to find Ranma made it infinitely worse. "What? Where is she?"

Nabiki pointed up at the ceiling. "In her bedroom. Kasumi's taking care of her. He didn't rough her up too bad, despite the shot to the nuts. I think she caught him on a good day, Well, that and the fact her top got ripped off after his first couple of punches. I think seeing her like that distracted him. Not that she had much to distract him with," she added acidly.

Ranma was upstairs in an instant. He rushed into what had formerly been Akane's room and saw Kasumi sitting on a chair next to the bed staring mournfully at it. On the bed was a human-sized lump under the covers. He couldn't see who it was as a second, smaller sheet was completely over its head, reminiscent of a funeral shroud.

Ranma's eyes widened. Nabiki had said it wasn't bad. How could she have been so wrong? He shouted, "Kachi!" and lunged into the room.

A cry of alarm came from beneath the shroud. "Ahhh! Don't come in here, Ranma! I don't want you to see me like this!"

Ranma stopped dead in his tracks at the 'body' screeching and wriggling around. "What's going on?"

The concealed Kachiko sat up, keeping the sheet over her head and wrapping the blanket around her torso. "No, I won't let you see me." She jumped out of bed, hands still over sheet and blanket, and ran for the doorway. She missed it by a good three feet as she instead slammed hard into the wall next to the door, and bounced off.

"I could have sworn there was a door there," Kachiko said, before loosening her hold on the sheets and slumping to her butt on the floor.

Ranma moved forward to make sure she was all right. As the covers fell away, he received a look at what Kachiko had been hiding under the smaller sheet. "Wow, that's a pretty good shiner you have there."

The statement shook Kachiko back into the real world. She clutched at her face in horror, then grabbed the fallen sheet with both hands and held it over her head. "Wah! Ranma's seen how ugly I am! Now he'll never want to go out with me!"

"Ah, it's only a black eye," Ranma said, completely failing to understand what was going on.

"It's a horrifying disfigurement!" Kachiko cried.

"It's just a black eye," Ranma insisted.

At that point, Kasumi said, "Ranma, I don't think you should really be staring at mother's breasts like that."

"What?" Ranma started to ask, then realized that at the same time the sheet had fallen from Kachiko's face, the blanket wrapped around her body had also fallen away. Unlike her 'shroud', Kachiko had failed to pick that one up again. He hadn't even realized what had happened because the black eye had caught his attention first.

Ranma covered his eyes. "I'm not looking at her chest!"

Beneath the cloth, Kachiko cried out, "See? He thinks I'm so repulsive he won't even look at my body! Wah!"

"That's not it!" Ranma assured her. "Look, you're overreacting. Black eyes go away."

Refusing to be comforted, Kachiko cried out, "Every time you look at me from now on, you'll only picture me with this horrifying disfigurement and you'll be repulsed by the very sight of me!"

Ranma shook his head sadly. "Believe me, if I can look at Akane sprouting whiskers and not be repulsed by the sight, a black eye ain't nothing."

Kachiko's sniffling subsided. "Akane had whiskers? Her harelip problem must be way worse than mine."

"Cat's whiskers," Ranma clarified. "It was a side-effect from some super soba she ate."

The sheet fell away from Kachiko's face. "Wow! She must have looked like a real freak. Do you have any pictures?"

Ranma said, "Ah, no. It wasn't the sort of thing Akane wanted saved for posterity."

Now recovered from her emotional turmoil in record time, Kachiko rewrapped the blanket around her body. "You can look now," she said.

Ranma peeked through the fingers covering his eyes, saw Kachiko was indeed telling the truth, and removed his hands altogether. "Now what's this about Pantyhose coming by and beating you up?"

Kachiko said, "Actually, he came by to beat you up. I couldn't let him do that, so I tried my best to take him out before he could attack you."

"You shouldn't have done that!" Ranma said with more than a touch of anger. "I can take care of myself. Tarou's dangerous."

Kachiko looked aghast at the idea. "You couldn't expect me to stand idly by while he laid in ambush, waiting to beat you up."

"He could have hurt you," Ranma protested.

"I can take care of myself, and I'm responsible for my own actions. If I want to leap to your defense, I'm going to do it no matter what you say. You don't like it; I don't care. I'll do it anyway," Kachiko stated firmly, crossing her arms defiantly under the bedsheet wrapped around her torso.

Ranma wanted to argue further, but let it go. He sensed any attempt to change her mind would be a long and drawn-out battle that he didn't feel up to, given how guilty he felt about her getting a black eye for his sake. Besides, no matter how often he tried, he never seemed to be able to change any female's mind. He had tried it often with lots of different women, and never once been satisfied with the results.

Kachiko continued. "I was winning too, only that rat had another one of those curse things and tricked me into throwing him into the pond. After that, well, he doesn't suck when he's that big, let me tell you. What did you do that would make him want to beat you up?"

Ranma shrugged. "I haven't seen him since the big fight with Rouge. I can't come up with a reason why. Of course, this is Pantyhose we're talking about, and he's not exactly the most peaceful guy around. If he thinks beating me up is in his best interest, he wouldn't hesitate to do it." Ranma placed his hand to his chin in thought. "But for the life of me I can't figure out why he'd want to."

"I might be able to answer that," Nabiki said, producing a small poster, about the same size as the ones the CLAP hung everywhere to identify 'perverts'. "Pantyhose dropped it when Kachi tossed him into the pond." She handed it to Ranma.

He read it. "It says here there's a race tomorrow outside of Nerima. Some sort of obstacle course thing. Aw, they have an entry fee for it. Why would I want to pay to go through some obstacle course? My life is already full of lots of obstacles and I don't have to pay for any of them."

"Read all the way to the bottom," Nabiki said in a tired voice.

Ranma did so. "Third Prize is a slap to the face. Second Prize is a month's supply of Rice O'Roni. First Prize is… a ring that can control curses?!"

Kachiko eagerly said, "Ohhh. Rice O'Roni. It's a treat even outside of San Francisco. Sign me up!"

"I have to have it!" Ranma shouted.

"I didn't know Ranma was so big on rice," Kachiko whispered to Kasumi.

"I think he's more concerned about the curse-controlling ring," Kasumi pointed out.

"Oh. Well, it's not like I have a curse, so after I win, he's more than welcome to…" Kachiko trailed off as an errant thought occurred to her. If she won the contest, and gave the curse-control ring to Ranma, then he'd owe her one. She might even be able to get a date out of him. But it would mean giving up the Rice O'Roni. Matters of the heart or matters of the stomach; which was more important?

It was more likely she could acquire money to purchase an equivalent amount of rice than find something else to get Ranma to agree to a date. To Ranma, she said, "Don't worry. I'll win the race and get you that ring you want so bad. Although don't think for one second that I'm proposing by giving you a ring. I like taking things a wee bit slower than that."

"Yeah, right," Ranma scoffed. "I'm going to enter the race and win it."

Kachiko gave a laugh, one full of superiority. "Oh, poor, foolish Ranma. I've been through so many of these things I'm known as the Queen of the Obstacle Course."

"You made that up," Nabiki said flatly.

"Did not!" Kachiko shot back. She was too known as the Queen of the Obstacle Course. Of course, she was the only one that actually used the title, but that didn't mean she wasn't known as it. "Wakaba used to run me through them all the time to help build up my reflexes. She had them all: pit traps, pendulums, flame throwers, land mines, piranha-filled pools, ferocious tigers, and even ravenous rabbits."

"Ravenous rabbits don't sound like much of an obstacle," Nabiki said.

"They are when there's five hundred of them and you've had a barrel full of carrot-scented perfume dumped on you," Kachiko assured her.

The sound of footsteps hurrying toward the room came to everyone's ears. Akane appeared a moment later. "Mom, I heard you were hurt. Ouch! That's a pretty big black eye."

"Ranma said he loves me no matter what I look like," Kachiko said dreamily.

Akane shot Ranma a shocked, then angry glare.

Ranma let out a strangled noise and quickly blurted out more to Akane than Kachiko, "I did not say that! I said your black eye would go away and it wasn't anything to feel bad about."

"Sounds like a commitment to me," Kachiko said.

"Only to those that need to be committed," Nabiki added dryly.

Akane's eyebrow started to twitch madly when she spotted the paper in Ranma's hand. A few words on it caught her attention, and deflected her anger. "What's this?" she asked, pulling it out from his hands.

Her eyes pored over the text. Upon reading to the bottom, a bright smile lit up her features. "This is great, Ranma. If I win this race, you won't have to worry about changing into a girl against your will."

"Actually, I'm going to be winning it," Ranma pointed out.

"I am," Kachiko corrected. "After all, I'm not known as the Queen of the Obstacle Course for nothing."

"You made that up," Akane said flatly.

"I did not!" Kachiko insisted.

Kasumi patted Kachiko's head. "I believe you were called the Queen of the Obstacle Course, Mother."

Kachiko pointed at Kasumi and said to Akane and Nabiki, "See? This is how a proper daughter is supposed to act. You should believe everything your mother tells you."

Bitterly, Nabiki snapped. "Right! Like when you told me our dog wasn't around anymore because he got a new job in a junkyard and had to relocate to Singapore?!"

Caught off guard by the accusation, Kachiko said, "I never told you that."

Hesitantly, Kasumi said, "Technically, you did. We used to have a family dog about eleven years ago. His name was Akuma. He was sort of a mix of Irish setter, golden retriever, boxer, and German pinscher."

"So he was a mutt?" Kachiko said.

"Well, that is a bit blunt, but accurate," Kasumi agreed. "He was a touch ill-tempered."

"He was not! He was a sweet and lovable dog!" Nabiki insisted.

Akane entered the conversation. "He always snarled at me and treated me like his personal chew toy. He was nearly twice as big as me and was terrifying. I didn't like him at all."

Nabiki said, "He kept you from drowning in a river once."

"He was the one that chased me into it in the first place!" Akane snapped. "And he didn't save me. He was running after me so hard that he didn't stop in time and fell in, too. He was saving himself. I only got out because I clung to his back." Akane shuddered at the memory. "It's one of the reasons I don't like dogs. Pigs are much better as pets."

"Yeah, they never try to bite or chase you around," Ranma said sarcastically.

Kasumi said, "Nabiki was the only one that he liked, and she got along with him, too. They loved each other very much. The two would play with each other for hours. But one day he was run over by a car. So instead of telling Nabiki what really happened, you said that he got a new job."

"I called every junkyard in Singapore looking for him," Nabiki said, her voice full of emotion. "There were over five hundred of them, by the way, and I don't know how to speak Chinese."

"You and Father nearly had a heart attack over the phone bill," Kasumi informed her mother.

Kachiko gave Nabiki a soft look. "I'm sorry. The next time you lose a pet, I won't lie. I'll be sure to let you know he was turned into a road-pancake."

Kasumi looked at her mother askance, "Actually, that's exactly what you told Akane and me. I was a little sad. Akane cheered."

"I absolutely hated that dog," Akane confirmed.

Kasumi told her mother, "Father said we probably shouldn't be so blunt with Nabiki — saying something about your sense of humor traumatizing her enough already — so you came up with that instead."

"I'm not surprised." Kachiko turned to Nabiki. "Given how much you whine now about losing money, I can't imagine how much worse you were when you were five."

"The point is you used to lie to us all the time," Nabiki said.

"Probably to teach you not to be gullible," Kachiko retorted. "Are you gullible?"

Nabiki considered that. Slowly, she said, "No. Not really."

"Obviously it worked," Kachiko said satisfactorily.

"Horribly enough, I can actually picture you doing that," Nabiki said, annoyed that Kachiko probably had just won the argument.

The entire conversation had passed by Ranma without a thought; he was off in his own little world. "Just you wait. By tomorrow, I'll be rid of changing into a girl." He left the room, singing and dancing to a personal tune of, "Never gonna be a girl again. Never gonna be a girl again."

The hour was getting late as Ranma prepared to head to his room to catch some sleep. Anxiousness over laying his hands on the ring made him awake and alert long past his usual bedtime. Gaining some control over his eagerness, Ranma made his way to his room. Just as he was about to enter, he noticed Akane emerging from the bathroom, already dressed in her pajamas.

"What are you doing up?" he asked.

"I'm a little nervous about the race tomorrow. This could be your big chance to control your curse," Akane explained.

Ranma was genuinely moved by the concern. He was trying to figure out how to thank her, without being too blunt so she would read something into it that wasn't there and become creeped out, when he heard movement coming from the living room. He saw the noise had caught Akane's attention too, and she was looking in the same direction.

Ranma moved Akane behind him and tensed for a fight. "Maybe Tarou's come back again to try to take out the competition early." He sneaked forward, Akane following behind far enough to stay out of Ranma's way but still close enough to help if she could.

The pair emerged into the living room and were taken aback by what was there. "What are you doing, Kachi?" Ranma asked.

Kachiko turned away from the pile of items she had been working on. "I'm preparing for tomorrow's battle. That Tarou guy is tough, but with the information you've given me, I know I can outsmart that oversized bovine."

Ranma gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "You don't have to worry about him. I can handle Bull-Butt, no problem. I've beaten him before."

"He's still dangerous," Kachiko warned.

"Ah, he ain't nothing," Ranma bragged. "You're looking at someone who beat a god once."

Kachiko rolled her eyes at the declaration. "Oh, please. I've heard some pretty tall tales in my time, but beating a god? You can't expect anyone to actually believe that."

"It's true," Akane confirmed. "I was there. Ranma beat him."

Sensing Akane's sincerity, Kachiko's expression of dubiousness became one of awe. "That's amazing. I knew you were tough, but I didn't think you were that powerful. I'm seriously impressed."

Ranma laughed confidently at the praise, but didn't deny it. It was the truth, after all.

Kachiko continued looking at Ranma appreciatively. "I never beat a god. I did beat someone that claimed he was a god, but he was full of crap."

"Really?" Akane asked, interested in hearing what her mother had to say.

Seeing Ranma was attentive as well, Kachiko began to explain. "Actually it's kind of a funny story. You see, it sort of began because I accidentally destroyed this treasure map Gosunkugi had, and it was totally not my fault. Since Gos was an acquaintance, and I felt kind of bad for him, I promised him I'd replace it. I asked around about important maps. Eventually I heard these rumors about this ancient lost race living in the inland of China having a map that led to some magical place.

"Naturally, I went to find them and get the map. The usual gang followed since it was going to be fun. Once I got there, I find these guys pretty easily, only there was a little complication. There was this big jerk with a stupid set of wings that went around saying he was god and how lowly people like me had no right challenging him for the map since he was a god and everything and I was just a worm. So after he finishes with his speech about how great he is, and how unimportant I am, I said to him, 'How do you figure you're a god?' And he tells me how he can basically fly and shoot flames. So of course I say I really don't think having abilities that are a cross between a sparrow and an oversized lighter really constitutes divinity. Well, he flipped his birdy little brain and attacked me. Can you believe that?"

Both Akane and Ranma looked at each other, then turned their attention back to Kachi. Slowly, Ranma said, "He shot flames and could fly?"

"Yeah, but it was no problem. It's not like he was dangerous or anything," Kachiko said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "The smaller flames I could just dodge out of the way. For the really big blasts he tossed around, well, it's like when you're training by the ocean. You don't try to stop a whole wave, you ride it out to avoid harm. So I used the same technique that lets you walk across hot coals without getting burned, amplified about a hundred times, and rode out the blasts the way you would surfing waves. I mean, 'Mr. Bird God' was seriously a one-trick pony with fire being the only thing he could do. Okay, his whole regeneration thing was a bit tricky, but I would have eventually figured a way around it and kicked his ass good and proper, but it turned out I didn't have to. Wakaba helped me out by giving me a chance to trick him into dive-bombing into a vat full of liquid nitrogen."

Kachiko didn't feel the need to mention that Wakaba had been so caught up in the action that she had mistakenly told Kachiko, 'Jump into the vat and you won't have to worry about the bird guy anymore'. Kachiko had tensed up to dive into it, but slipped and fell flat on the ground. It proved to be most opportune, since at that very moment the birdbrain had swooped down on her with some kind of weird-looking spear and tried to impale her with it. Instead, he missed and ended up plunging into the vat of liquid nitrogen instead. Wakaba had been so ashamed of nearly screwing up that she had cried for hours afterward. Kachiko tried to console her and said she understood that people often made mistakes when under pressure, but it had done little good; Wakaba wailed for just about forever. Kachiko again thanked the stars for being blessed with good friends that cared about her well being.

"You… beat… him?" Ranma barely managed to get out.

"Yeah. It was easy. We're talking instant bird-cicle," Kachiko bragged. "So I told all the remaining bird people that if they didn't cough up the map, all the king's horses and all the king's men wouldn't be able to put Humpty Ice-cube back together again. So they handed us the map and we helped them thaw out birdbrain. Only it turned out that he had been frozen too fast or something, and he, get this, reverted to being in an egg. You should have heard them whining about how it would take years for him to hatch again and heat up the joint, which was just plain stupid. I mean, they're half birds. When it gets cold, all they need to do is fly south for the winter." Kachiko stated it as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"You… took… their… map?" Akane said, trembling slightly.

Kachiko laughed nervously. "Well, about the map. A funny thing happened. I really did intend to give it to Gos, but I sort of — and this is the funny part — lost it in a card game while I was in China. If I recall correctly, it was to some guide running a famous hot spring or something. I wanted to check it out, since it would be cool to visit a foreign hot spring, but Sakura said it was time to go back home so we left instead. She could put a real damper on things sometimes. Anyway, the whole thing turned out to be a big waste of time. Pretty funny, huh?" Kachiko asked…

….and looked into two faces whose glare alone threatened to pull her into a hellish abyss where her soul would be damned for an eternity.

"What?! What?!" Kachiko cringing back in fright.

A miasma of hatred clung to Ranma as he said is slow, dangerous tones, "You mean to tell me that from hauling my butt halfway across a continent…."

"To being kidnapped…," Akane added.

"To nearly being frozen to death…."

"To nearly being drowned…."

"To nearly being boiled alive…."

"To being shrunk to the size of a doll…."

"…WAS ALL YOUR FAULT?!!" the pair said as one.

"What are you two talking about?" Kachiko backed away, realizing neither was in the mood to give her answer that didn't involve tremendous amounts of violence, and prepared to retreat to somewhere, like Hokkaido.

She wasn't anywhere near fast enough as two irate martial artists fell upon her.

It was morning as Kasumi happily started breakfast and prepared to feed the majority of her family.

She was in the middle of steaming some rice when Kachiko staggered into the kitchen. Kasumi turned to her and said, "Good morning, Mother."

"Ur," Kachiko groaned, heading directly for the refrigerator. She flung open the door, grabbed something with alcohol in it, removed the top and drank nearly a third of the contents in one gulp.

Kasumi stared in disapproval at the display. "It's really a bit early to drink so heavily, don't you think?

"Ur," Kachiko said again.

Kasumi noticed something odd, besides the fact no one had had to drag Kachiko out of bed. "Mother?"


"I thought it was your other eye that was black."

Kachiko stared balefully at Kasumi, then wandered out of the room, mumbling, "Stupid jerks blaming me for all their stupid problems they stupidly get into like it's my fault. I'll show them. I'll win the race and give first prize to Pantybull just to piss them off," Kachiko swore as she headed up for her room, bottle in hand.

The race site looked like any other, save that it was taking place in some sort of park that hadn't been there the day before. But racing courses that sprang up overnight was hardly cause for concern, in Ranma's opinion. He had seen weirder things, and it showed the people throwing the race did indeed have access to magic. No way would it be a fiasco like the take-out race. Even Pantyhose knew these guys had the item they claimed, since he was taking the competition so seriously. Soon, Ranma would have the next best thing to a cure in hand, once the officials showed up.

"Never going to be a girl again," Ranma hummed to himself.

Akane, who was standing next to him, warned, "Maybe you should win the race first before bragging about it."

Ranma looked over the competition that waited around the starting line nearby. There was an assortment of people that had gathered for it, though Ranma did not recognize any of them. The Amazons were out of town, which meant no Mousse or Shampoo, and evidently Ryouga hadn't stumbled onto it yet. None of the folks looked like competition in the slightest, except Tarou, who was currently keeping his distance at the far side of the gathering.

Ranma turned to some guy standing nearby. He was dressed in an outlandish red spandex bodysuit with a yellow lightning bolt across the chest. "And what are you supposed to be?"

"I'm Jiminy Quick," the man boasted. "The fastest man alive."

"Yeah, right, I'd like to see you prove that," Ranma said.

"I already did," Jiminy boasted.

Ranma stared at the man. He hadn't even moved. "What do you mean?"

"I like those cornrows in your hair."

"I don't have any…" Ranma trailed off as he felt that not only had his pigtail been undone, but that all of the hair at the back of his head had indeed been retied into cornrows.

Jiminy laughed. "I'm so fast, I'll win this race before it begins."

"No way!" Ranma insisted. "Now that I'm ready, you can't do that to me again."

"Nice bra," Jiminy bragged.

Ranma felt his chest, then pulled his shirt up. He discovered he was now sporting a white athletic bra. "Ack!" he cried out, and tried to remove it.

"Hey, that's mine!" Akane exclaimed, grabbing at her own chest and feeling a lack of something that was there a moment ago.

"I needed to prove a point. It's not like I walk around with bras," Jiminy said, laughing so hard he doubled over. When he looked back up, he saw that Akane was now in front of him, fist pulled back.

"You pervert!" she exclaimed, punching him hard and sending him into a wall, which collapsed around him from the impact and fell on top of him. When the dust settled, all that was left was two yellow booted feet sticking up from the rubble.

"No one's fast enough to evade Akane's righteous anger," Ranma informed the pile, handing the bra back to the fuming Akane.

Tarou moved from the far side of the course and approached the pair. He snickered at Ranma. "So, Fem-boy, ready to watch me win this race and make you look like the loser you are?"

"Tough talk coming from someone that felt so threatened he tried to ambush me. And you still have to pay for roughing up Kachi," Ranma threatened.

Tarou didn't appear the least bit concerned. "If she had minded her own business, she wouldn't have gotten hurt. Besides, I only popped her twice. She could take it."

"Why, you—!" Ranma intoned, but was interrupted by a disturbance from the empty judges' stand.

In a flash of light and a puff of brimstone, a quintet of figures appeared on the stand. One figure was at the forefront, the other four flanking him two to a side and slightly behind. All of them were shrouded in voluminous black robes that concealed their entire bodies, making their true size impossible to tell. Hoods were pulled over four of the beings' heads so as to entirely conceal their faces from view. Only the one in the front had his hood pulled back far enough to allow light to touch what lay underneath, revealing what lay within. Rather than the face of a person, all that showed was a bright silver mask. It was a plain thing, with eye slits as its only feature. Within those slits was not the expected presence of eyes, but rather a sickly green luminescence that shone through.

A voice boomed from the masked figure, "All those who would dare lay their eyes upon my august personage, kneel before their God King and Eternal Emperor!"

One of the shrouded figures cleared his throat. "Actually, Lord Asmodeus, we aren't in control of these lands. They aren't under any obligation to bow to you."

Emerald fire flared briefly from the eyes as the masked figure turned its baleful gaze upon the subordinate. "Really?"

"I'm afraid so, your Eternal Obliviousness," the figure confirmed.

Turing back to the crowd, Asmodeus's voice boomed out, "Very well, you do not have to kneel, though if you want to, feel free."

No one took him up on his offer.

"At any rate," Asmodeus continued, "You have gathered together today in contest for the ultimate prize." He held his hands apart. Between them, a swirling orb of pink energy shot through with motes of white light formed. Within seconds it took on a shape, eventually solidifying until it formed a golden scepter. It was nearly two feet tall, and ringed with a horde of jewels encrusting its entire length.

Asmodeus bellowed, "Behold, the ultimate key to global conquest: The Scepter of Domination. He who wields it can control all of humanity. Bending their wills, and making it their ow—"

One of the other figures behind him cleared his throat in interruption.

"What?" Asmodeus asked.

"It's nae the Scepter oov Domination we be given oot today, yuir Eternal Irritant," it said.

"It's not?"

"Nae. It's the wee little ring that controls carses. The Scepter is the prize in next week's contest."

"Oh." Asmodeus banished the scepter, and began rummaging through his pockets until he found a small band of unadorned gold. He held it up and announced to the crowd, "Behold the Ring of Controlling Curses! With it in one's hands, you can control curses!"

Everyone cheered at being shown the prize.

Asmodeus said. "And all you need to participate in this contest for ultimate control over humanit… I mean control over curses, is the small, paltry sum of… your mortal souls! MUAHAHAHA—"

"Five hundred yen," another of the figures whispered.

"What?" Asmodeus said irritably.

The figure lisped, "The entry fee ith only five hundred yen! Not their mortal thoulth. Thatth in next weekth contetht, your Eternal Thufferenthe."

"So this is only a money-raising gig?"

"Yeth," the figure confirmed.

"That would explain the lousy prize," Asmodeus said. To the crowd, he shouted, "Very well, the entry fee is only five hundred yen. MUAHAH… bah. Sinister laughter isn't worth such a low fee. Cough it up and we'll start this thing."

Each contestant paid their fees, and retook their positions at the starting line. Ranma continued to stretch and stay loose until he heard a voice chime out, "I'm here, Ranma."

He turned only to see a sight that made his eyes bulge so wide they threatened to fall out of his head. Kachiko bounced her way over to him. Or perhaps it was more appropriate to say that certain parts of her anatomy bounced their way towards him. Even beneath the sweatshirt she now wore, it was obvious her chest has somehow expanded to unbelievable dimensions. Her front was practically going in a different direction from the rest of her body.

"How…?" Was all Ranma could get out at the inconceivable impossibility.

It was more than Akane could manage, as she just stood and pointed.

"Like the new modifications?" Kachiko posed for him, jiggling as much as if she was running.

Nearby, Tarou shook his head in disapproval. "You were better off with what you had before. That's what, H-Cup size? It's just inhuman and disgusting."

"Says the guy who turns into an oversized bull," Kachiko shot back, before bouncing her way to the judges' table and paying her entry fee.

She made it back to the starting line just in time as Asmodeus stood up, pointed a hand to the sky, shouted, "Let the race… BEGIN!" and shot a glowing ball of blue energy straight up into the air. It exploded in a blossom of blue and green fire, accompanied by a tremendous boom.

Tarou let off his trademark snicker as he stood idly by, watching the participants scramble like rats informed there was a piece of cheese at the end of a maze. The sad fools. Taking out Saotome early was just something to kill time, as well as putting things that much more in Tarou's favor. He had no fear of losing. All those chumps in the race could do was run. Tarou assured himself he was different as he pulled a gourd from his belt. While they were dealing with the obstacles, he would fly over them, outdistancing everyone and avoiding all those traps.

He poured the water over his head and changed. Now in his cursed form, he bellowed loud and hard in triumph.

While Tarou was in mid-bellow, something struck his face, exploding and dousing him in warm water that reverted him to his human form.

"What?" Tarou spluttered, spitting out some of the water that he had swallowed.

Kachiko stood there, water balloon in one hand and her chest now a full cup-size smaller. "Nyah, it's not so easy when you can't change, is it?" Kachiko taunted, drawing back the hand with the balloon in it.

Tarou played it off, wiping back his now wet locks. "You're quite the little cheapshot artist, aren't you? First there was the incident yesterday, now you set me up by faking a boob job and try to keep me from winning the race." He stepped menacingly forward. "Of course, all I need to do to take care of that problem is get the rest of that loaded chest of yours."

A second balloon popped against his head, dousing him again. "Hey! I wasn't in my cursed form!" he snapped as he spat out more water.

"I know, hitting you is fun," Kachiko said.

Lunging forward before she could bring another balloon out, Tarou grabbed Kachiko, pinning her arms to her side in his powerful grip. "Your chest is mine!"

A solid kick met the back of his head, forcing him to release his hold and teeter backward, and allowing Kachiko to move outside of his reach. It was of little consequence. He rubbed the back of his skull, Kachiko momentarily forgotten as a new, more dangerous, threat presented itself. "Oh, it's you, Fem-boy."

Ranma stood back tensed and ready to unleash another attack. Voice full of anger, he said, "When I didn't see you in the running with the others, I figured you were up to something. But of all the slimy, rotten things you've pulled, threatening to molest Kachi is easily the lowest of the low. I'm really going to kick the crap out of you now."

Tarou smirked. "I could say it's not what it sounded like, but I honestly don't give a damn what you think. Actually, you getting angry amuses me. So go ahead and assume I was trying to feel her up. Even if I was, you couldn't stop me."

Tarou's lack of effort to deny what Ranma had seen fueled his anger. "You're going to pay for that." He moved forward to attack.

"Not at your hands." Tarou shot back and moved forward as well.

Just as the two were about to meet, a pair of hands darted around Tarou's waist. Deft fingers undid the buckle around the belt, extracting it and its payload of water filled gourds.

Kachiko held her prize up in the air triumphantly. "I have them now. Hahaha… eh?"

Kachiko looked in confusion at the results of her move. Ranma and Tarou had stopped moving forward. Apparently Tarou's trousers were baggier than Kachiko had thought, as, without the support from the belt, they had dropped to his ankles. Also Tarou evidently believed when one wore pants, underwear was optional.

Ranma's pigtail stood out from the back of his head as he stared at Tarou.

Casually, the older youth said to Ranma, "Look, Fem-Boy, just because I'm not wearing any underwear and am at… full extension, and while you can turn into a girl, don't get any idea that I'm attracted to you or anything. I just get kind of turned on by fights is all."

"Ack!" Ranma covered his eyes.

Tarou smirked. "Yeah, if I was you, I'd feel inferior to me, too." He turned to confront Kachiko, not the least bit embarrassed about his state of nudity. He placed his hands on his hips and smirked. "Since you wanted a look, here I am. Like what you see?"

Another water balloon met his face.

"Cool off, Bullsy. Some of us girls are interested in things other than well endowed guys with pantyhose fetishes." Kachiko retorted. She then raised the belt above her head, then
brought it down hard, shattering all of the gourds and spilling their contents on the ground, allowing the soil to soak it up. She then tossed the belt back to Tarou.

Tarou pulled up his pants, and refastened them. He stared at the course. "Looks like we do it the hard way. You'll see me at the finish line." Declaration made, Tarou ran off at top speed.

Ranma peeked out through his fingers. Once he confirmed Tarou was no longer present, and pointing anything in his direction, he said, "That pervert wasn't ashamed or anything! It gives me the creeps."

Kachiko headed in the same direction Tarou did. "Come on. We have to hurry if we're going to win that damn ring."

Realizing she had raised a good point, and that there was no reason to stick around, Ranma did the same.

Akane was running as fast as she could, delighted at unexpectedly taking the lead. At least, she thought she was in the lead. No one seemed to be following her. Of course, given the number of different paths that kept cropping up, all of them looking the same, it was small surprise she had lost track of the rest of the contestants. She just hoped Ranma was okay. Of course, he was stronger than her and would probably have an easier time through the course anyway, but maybe, just maybe, she'd choose the path with the fewest and easiest obstacles and win the race, showing that she should be taken seriously for a change.

So far, the obstacles had been easy. Nothing more than a few pit traps, tripwires, and poppy fields full of drug-filled flowers — making her grateful for Kodachi pulling the flower trick on her from time to time and recognizing them for what they were. They were all fairly common impediments, which were not slowing her down in the slightest.

Eventually, Akane came to another split in the road. Curiously, there was a sign that said 'This Way' and indicated the path to the left.

"Like anyone falls for that one," Akane said, and followed the trail to the right.

She quickly came upon what appeared to be a bottomless chasm. Well, technically it probably wasn't bottomless, but when one couldn't see the bottom, there was little difference between the two. Directly in front of her, spanning the chasm, was a bridge. On her side was a man so ancient he made Happosai look young. He was stooped over, clutching a gnarled staff that was as wrinkled as his skin.

In a raspy voice, he intoned. "Here lies the Bridge of Death, which spans the Really Deep Chasm. In order to cross it and get to the other side, ye must answer me these questions three, or else thy doom will be assured. Hehehe." He cackled insidiously.

Akane asked, "You mean I'll be doomed if I unsuccessfully answer any of the questions, or is it I'll only be doomed if I don't answer all the questions correctly and try to cross the bridge?"

"You'll only be doomed if you don't answer the questions right and try to cross the bridge. Actually getting the wrong answers doesn't intrinsically do anything to you. This isn't 'Jeopardy'," the man clarified.

"What if I try to cross the bridge without listening to the questions?"

"Wouldn't be much point asking the questions if you could just cross it, now is there?" the man said, put off by the very nature of the query.

"What if I was to cross the bridge that's just fifteen meters that way?" Akane pointed to a sturdy wooden bridge that was located just a little farther down the length of the chasm.

"Drat! She spotted it," the man hissed to himself. To Akane, he said. "Ah, you don't want to do that."

"Why not?"

"It's ah, old, and dilapidated. Not sturdy at all," the man said.

Akane persisted. "Will I be doomed if I cross it without answering any questions?"

"Ah, well, who's to say?" the man said with a hint of menace in his voice.

"I think I'll use that one." Akane moved in the direction of the second bridge.

The old man said, "Wait! Don't do it! It's made of wood. You might get splinters. Very painful, splinters are. Mine is a nice and polished. No chance of splinters here."

"Getting a few splinters is somewhat less risky than being doomed for answering a few questions wrong." Akane made to walk that way again.

The man stepped in front of her. "But my questions are easy. Anyone can answer them. Go ahead and try it."

"That's all right." Akane tried to move around the man.

"Wait, wait, wait," the ancient one insisted. He went through a pocket on his robe, pulling out several coupons. "I'll throw these in too. They're for free sundaes at the local ice cream shop. Each one has a value of 200 yen. What do you say now?" He gave a winning smile.

Akane moved around him and headed to the other bridge.

"I'll make it only two questions," the man pleaded. "One of them will be where you were born. Come on. Please. No one ever crosses my bridge. I'm a lonely man." He fell to the ground in a pathetic, crying heap.

Akane crossed the other bridge anyway. These obstacles were definitely proving easy to beat.

Tarou snickered, despite having no one around to appreciate his smugness. So far, the so-called 'obstacle course' had been simplicity itself to walk through. All he had to do was bitch-slap a bunch of ninjas that had tried to sneak up on him, bitch-slap a pack of wild apes that had tried to attack him, and bitch-slap some mimes. Not that the pasty-faced weirdoes had stood in his way, just that he had seen them, and kicking the crap out of some was always fun. Smacking mimes around was addictive, like smoking, except without the dangers of nicotine. He was surprised more people didn't do it.

Then he came upon something that put him on edge. A little ways up the path were two girls, identical twins that were about the age of elementary students, dressed in equally identical school uniforms. They stood just off the path directly across from one another. Between the two of them were a pair of jump ropes that they were twirling; a curiosity since no one was using them to jump.

Tarou moved closer until he stood before the skipping strands of rope. He looked to the girls. "This is supposed to be the next obstacle?" he said incredulously.

"Yes, sir," the pair said as one.

"I'm Rei," the one on the right said in a singsong voice.

"I'm Mei," the other said in the same way as the first.

Tarou's eyes nearly rolled into the back of his head. "This is the lamest obstacle I have ever seen." Humoring the two girls, he leaped between the ropes.

He believed he had their timing down perfectly, and by all rights it should have been a simple matter to give two tiny hops and end up on the other side. Instead, he saw only one of the ropes skip under his feet. The second one wrapped itself around his ankle, and he found himself hurled powerfully back the way he came, skidding across the ground on his chest until he came to a stop.

Two girlish giggles reached his ears, turning Tarou's face red. He picked himself off the ground and dusted off his shirt. It was a fluke, that was all. A one-time error in his coordination. He would get through it easily. It was just a couple of jump ropes.

Watching closely until he thought he had the timing down again, Tarou jumped in-between the ropes. Once more, he only managed to leap over one, the other entwining itself around his ankle and throwing him back just as hard as before

His eyebrows twitched furiously as he again raised himself up off the ground.

Mei — or was it Rei? he wasn't certain — said, "In all the time we've been stationed here, no one has ever gotten past our spinning Ropes of Repulsion. Just do like all the others did, and backtrack until you get to a split in the path and take another fork."

Tarou snickered. "Ah, but you see. I'm not like all those other narrow-minded idiots. I don't think linearly." And with that Tarou leaped high in the air, at least ten feet above the two girls.

Just as he reached a point directly over the ropes, one snaked out and somehow grabbed at his ankle, snaring it. Tarou found himself hurled so hard to the ground that he bounced once before coming to a stop.

"The last fork is no more than two hundred meters the other way," one of the girls said.

Much more slowly this time, Tarou rose to his feet. He didn't bother brushing himself off as he slowly walked back to the spinning ropes.

"You're not going to make it though," Mei warned.

"He's more stubborn than most," her sister agreed.

Tarou's eyes followed the spinning ropes again. His nodded up and down in accordance with the pieces of rope. At last, he gave a satisfied grin.

Mei looked at Rei and shook her head sadly.

Tarou's hand lashed out, grabbing Mei by her collar. He leaned the other way, then grabbed Rei as well.

Holding the pair well off the ground, he snarled. "Knock off the rope spinning and let me pass."

"You won't beat us up," Mei said defiantly.

"Why not?" Tarou asked, as though he was being subjected to the world's most stupid question.

"Because most people would regard pummeling harmless little girls as being morally corrupt," Rei offered.

Eyebrow raised curiously, Tarou asked, "Do I look like most people?"

Mei and Rei laughed nervously. They also released their holds on their ropes.

"Go on past," Mei said, ushering him past.

Tarou placed them back on the ground and patted their heads. He then walked over the ropes and continued down the path.

Rei looked at Mei. "I don't care how many Girl Scout Cookies Lord Asmodeus promised to buy off us, I'm getting a new job."

Mei nodded her head in agreement.

Ranma found himself confronted by an unexpected obstacle in the middle of the pathway; actually the first to be labeled such. Simple things, like climbing ladders covered in grease and jumping through a hopscotch setup didn't really count as 'obstacles' in his mind. But this one was different. Before him was a huge man, towering three meters tall, and adorned in bright golden metal armor emblazoned with rams so lifelike they practically threatened to jump off the armor and charge. It had to have been crafted by a true artisan. The man within the armor was a sight to behold as well. Not only tall, but incredibly wide and with tree-trunk-like arms and legs that appeared they could shatter rock as if it was papier-mâché. A giant sword hung across his back, the weapon as long as Ranma and weighing perhaps twice as much. It was quite the imposing sight. The man's face indicated he was in his late twenties at the outside. He stared disdainfully at Ranma.

"None shall pass," the warrior promised.

"We'll see about that," Ranma said, tensing up for a fight.

The warrior said, "By the Code of Kachoo, you are given the right of three free blows, before I shall strike you down. That is three, and not one more, nor one less. Just three. A trio of blows, like triplets born of a mother. Not two, like twins. Not quartets, like in a barbershop—"

"I get the idea. Only three," Ranma said. "It's only going to take one, though. I'll make it quick and relatively painless."

Ranma launched himself, aiming a kick right at the man's chest directly at the image of the ram above his stomach. The man did not even move as Ranma's attack headed right on target.

"Argh!" Ranma shouted as he bounced off the armor. It had been like hitting stone. The warrior hadn't even had the courtesy to flinch.

The warrior said, "That counted as your first attack. Not the second. Not the third. But the first. A single number, like one, which is indeed the loneliest number that you shall ever—"

"I know, I know!" Ranma snapped. This guy was no pushover, but it didn't really matter. Ranma Saotome was unbeatable when it came down to it, and with three free blows, he could take anyone down.

Ranma smirked, drawing on his supreme confidence and formed a bright ball of blue energy between his hands. He let the ball build up until it was what he regarded as a sufficient size, and cried out, "Mokou Takabisha!" and released it at his opponent.

The blue beam spattered harmlessly against the armor. Again the warrior failed to react to the blast.

"That was two—"

"Don't start that again!" Ranma said, annoyed that this was going to take a while. It wasn't that he was fearful of losing, just that this was a race where every second counted. He had to stop Tarou from getting to the finish line, since there was no way Akane or Kachi could stop the jerk. It was all up to Ranma.

The giant warrior unlimbered his giant sword. It gleamed wickedly under the sun.

"Hey, you said I get three free shots. I've only taken two," Ranma insisted.

The warrior said, "Indeed. I am merely preparing myself for after the last free blow falls. Once you have unleashed it, I shall strike you down with one mighty blow from my blade. Like the giant lumberjack of lore, I shall smite you as if I were he, my sword were an axe, and you were a tree. I would—"

"I got it! I got it!" Ranma snapped. He calmed himself down. One last attack, and then the fight would truly begin against….

"What's your name?" Ranma asked.

The warrior puffed out his chest. "I am the greatest Knight of the Realm of Jotunheim. The Rose of Sancrest. The Kingfisher of Argoth. The Assembler of Linux—"

"What do your friends call you?" Ranma said slowly, pronouncing each word through clenched teeth.

"My friends call me… Glazz Jaw."

"Glazz… Jaw?" Ranma said slowly. "Any reason for that?"

"Indeed," the man said. "It was something of a joke. You see. I inherited a hereditary condition from my father. He—"

Ranma's fist met the man's chin.

Glazz Jaw said, "Yes, that would be it." His eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed to the ground.

Ranma sighed to himself and hurried onward. What a waste of time.

Kachiko Tendou stared at the sight before her. So far this obstacle course had been far from difficult. Wacky Wakaba's morning greetings were usually more lively than what she had encountered so far. Nothing really inspired, just rope ladders over pits of poisonous snakes, walking across broken glass, and leaping through flaming hoops. All easy stuff.

However, this latest obstacle was something else. Here she was, confronted by a large what-appeared-to-be playing board of some type directly in the middle of the path. Its edges were flush with the hillsides, forming a barrier that prevented anyone from leaving the path. The only way to go forward was to cross the board and continue on.

Kachiko was not the only one present. A girl around her age was reading some sort of sign located next to the board. Kachiko asked, "What are you reading?"

The girl turned to give her the evil eye. "I am in the process of figuring out the answers to the equations necessary to safely cross the board, idiot."

"No need to get rude," Kachiko snapped back, then looked at the sign. It said something about figuring out the equations on it in order to step on the correct squares in the proper order to traverse the board. Kachiko saw that the sign was overflowing with a variety of numbers, letters, and symbols represented sets of equations. She scratched her head in confusion.

The girl that was poring over the equations noticed Kachiko was staring at them intently. She laughed. "Don't be ridiculous. Any obstacle that can give I, Amiko Mikohara, the Queen of the Obstacle Course, pause, means you can never hope to pass it."

Kachiko took a step back in shock. "How dare you refer to yourself as the Queen of the Obstacle Course. I'll have you know I am the true queen."

Amiko appeared equally offended. "Don't be ludicrous. I have completed over five hundred obstacle courses in my time. From the great Splasherfest Course in Yokohama, to the International Volcano Obstacle Course Challenge in Ghana, I have won them all. They don't call me the Undefeated One for nothing."

"They'll be calling you Loser Girl after I'm through with you," Kachiko bragged.

Amiko was openly angered by the statement. "If you think you're so hot, cross the board."

"A piece of cake." Kachiko walked to the board and stepped on one of the black squares furthest to the left edge of the board. Smirking, she then leaped to the other side, advancing one square. She covered her eyes, hopped on one foot to a square five over and two ahead. Next she did a handstand to the one diagonal from her. She then pretended as though she was drunk, staggered across four different squares, before making a dramatic sweeping gesture, and stepping off a final square and off the board, now on the opposite side.

Amiko's jaw nearly dislocated itself with how far it swung open. She pointed at Kachiko and babbled, "How?"

Kachiko smirked. "It's simple, if you've not a total loser idiot like yourself."

Amiko pointed at one of the equations on the board. "But how did you get this one with the variable integer that's dependent on the time of day."

"I took the wind variable into consideration."


"It's something your puny mind couldn't understand," Kachiko said quickly.

Amiko asked, "And this one which multiplies zero several times, but still comes up with a positive number?"

"Yes, well, I just applied the Ornstead Theorem to it," Kachiko answered.

Amiko stared at her suspiciously. "You just randomly chose squares, didn't you?"

Kachiko broke out into a light sweat. Her posturing broke down as she said, "Fine! I did. So what? I just figured I could deal with any problems that popped up if I hit the wrong square. It's just a game board. What's it going to do? King me?"

Amiko gave Kachiko a flat stare, picked up a rock, and tossed it on one of the squares. Instantly flames erupted, liquefying the rock in seconds. Amiko repeated the action, tossing a second rock on a different square. It was frozen solid in a second. A third time, and the rock disappeared in a pop.

"I knew it could do that," Kachiko said.

"Liar! You got lucky!" Amiko shot back.

Kachiko turned her back to Amiko, bent over, and smacked her bottom. "Right here, Loser Girl." She then stood up properly and announced. "I'm out of here. See you later," and took off.

Kachiko hummed pleasantly to herself, enjoying her superiority. She was barely out of sight of the board when the world went spinning as a sudden pain shot through the very center of her being. It was unlike anything she had felt, ever, a piercing thing that seemed to erupt from every portion of her body. She cried out and doubled over in agony, curling into a fetal ball and praying that the pain would go away. For a moment, the pain lessened, but the decreasing pain was accompanied by a feeling of weightlessness, and a lack of sensation from her surroundings.

Then, as suddenly as it started, it was over. Everything felt like it was there again, and the pain drifted away, almost as though it had never been. Kachiko stood up, making a critical examination of her herself in an attempt to discover what had caused such agony. She could see no wounds, nor any indication of what had triggered such an experience in the first place. There was nothing at all wrong with her. Not even a lingering sensation of pain.

"Maybe I didn't hit all the right squares after all," she admitted to herself. With time wasting, and no indication of a second attack coming, Kachiko went on ahead in search of the next obstacle, quickly putting the incident behind her.

Within minutes she came upon it; a wide pool of tar that was set in the middle of the path she had been traveling. There was a way across, of course, but it was something on the unusual side; a single taut rope strung across from one side to the other. It was easy enough to navigate if one could handle walking across tightropes. What was especially curious was that there was a man on the far side, with a pair of shears in hand. He sat next to the rope, the shears open and the rope lying in-between the sharpened pieces of metal.

Kachiko smirked at the sight. "Heh. Pretty clever, but I can see right through it. The people who came up with the obstacle course would never provide such an obvious way to get across, while leaving such an obvious means of preventing people from crossing it. This is one of those, 'It looks like the trap is simple and impossible to pass, but it really isn't.' It's meant to make me try to come up with some complicated alternate route, when in fact I can walk right across this rope and nothing is going to happen. That might sucker chumps like Loser Girl, but I've seen it done before. No need to confirm it."

"Then I won't," the man standing on the other side said.

Without a moment's hesitation, Kachiko stepped onto the rope and began to walk across it as casually as if she was walking down the street. She even whistled and made a big production as she casually strolled over the tar pits and towards the other side.

Halfway across, the man closed the shears, severing the rope and sending the stunned Kachiko into the tar.

As Kachiko began sinking into the tar, she heard the man say, "My favorites are the dumb ones that think they're incredibly brilliant when the only people they can outsmart are themselves. God, I love my job."

And then Kachiko was completely submerged.

Ranma emerged from a tunnel filled with what were supposed to be terrifying ghosts. Having more than enough dealings with such otherworldly beings, from the inane Cat Ghost to that silly Cave of Lost Love to being possessed by spirits, they were nothing more than a casual annoyance.

Once out in the open, he looked over the area. Much to his delight, he could just make out the finish line beyond the next obstacle, which consisted of a number of pools dotting the ground. A small island of rock was in the middle of each of the tiny bodies of water, with giant bamboo… poles… sticking… out?

Ranma looked at the nearby sign proclaiming the nature of the obstacle before him. "Welcome to the Cursed Drowned Pools Obstacle Course™ (Owned by Jusenkyou Guide, Inc.). Enjoy your stay."

"Oh, no," Ranma moaned. This was the last place on earth he wanted to end up. All he needed was to get some other curse and end up a freak like Tarou. Still, things shouldn't be too bad. All he needed to do was leap across the pools and get to the other side. He had obviously arrived here first, and since the rope was still unbroken across the finish line, no one else had finished yet. He still had time to win.

As he jumped to the nearest bamboo pole, a figure emerged from a different path, and instantly examined its surroundings. Ranma stopped in his leaping to see who his competition to the finish line would be.

Tarou was up on a pole in an instant. "Want to do this the easy way, Fem-boy, and have you stand here and wait for second place?"

Ranma gave him a cocky grin. "You'll be the one eating my dust, Pantyhose."

"Well, if you want to end up with a month's supply of pain in addition to your rice, bring it on," Tarou made a curling motion with his finger.

Ranma accepted the offer and immediately launched himself at Tarou. The older boy fended off the two punch combination, but was unable to launch a counterstrike due to the speed of the attack and his need to maintain his balance on top of the pole.

Landing on top of a different piece of bamboo, Ranma gave an identical curling motion with his finger to Tarou.

Unable to resist the lure, Tarou leaped toward Ranma's pole. Rather than remaining there for the attack, Ranma waited until Tarou was three-quarters of the way across and kicked off from the pole he was on. The unexpected attack caught Tarou off-guard, and he was unable to react in time. A kick landed solidly in his gut. The force of the blow sent him flying on a different course towards the ground. Luckily his flight path took him within arm's reach of a different pole. He kept himself from falling by clutching the bamboo as though his life depended on it.

Safely on top of his own perch, Ranma taunted Pantyhose as he climbed to the top of the shaft he had snared. "Looks like some big mouth doesn't have what it takes to beat a poor old 'Fem Boy'. Isn't that a shame?"

Tarou snarled a curse and hurled himself at Ranma again. This time Ranma retaliated immediately and the pair exchanged a number of blows in midair. Ranma managed to get one last one in as they retreated, hitting Tarou in the jaw. It was a light tap, not so much doing damage as proving Ranma's superiority in aerial combat.

Now firmly enraged, Tarou paused a moment before giving out a loud battle cry. He crouched slightly, and Ranma tensed up for the next attack. He was so prepared for an assault that he failed to react for a second when, rather than hurling himself at Ranma, Tarou leapt to another pole. Rather than jumping to the top of it, Tarou leapt to another pole, grabbing on to the middle again. Confused, Ranma continued standing there, watching Tarou leap again to another middle section of a pole. It was then Ranma realized something very important in the selection of poles Tarou was using.

They led directly to the finish line.

"Coward!" Ranma shouted, and hurried to catch up. Luckily, the way Tarou was leaping from the middle of the poles was not anywhere near as quick as jumping along the tops of them.

Ranma leaped on a set of poles along a parallel course to Tarou. He had almost caught up to his foe when he jumped to the shaft Tarou had occupied a moment before. Just as Ranma's weight settled on the top, the bamboo let out a tiny cracking noise, and the whole thing broke right where Tarou had previously landed. Caught off-guard, Ranma found there was nothing he could do to prevent himself from falling downward and into the pool below him.

Tarou laughed at Ranma's falling form. "You always were a sucker, Fem Boy."

"Nooo!" Ranma wailed, catching sight of a sign that said 'Pool of Drowned Panda.' "Anything but the one my stupid old man fell in!" His pleas went unheard as he hit the pool with a resounding splash.

Tarou climbed to the top of his current pole and laughed at the sight. "Hahahaha! I look cool with my
Yeti-Riding-Bull-While-Carrying-Crane-And-Eel-And-Octopus curse, but you look just plain stupid as a girl and… nothing but a girl?"

Ranma-chan sat up and looked at herself. Curiously, she wasn't a female panda, or a cross between a female and a panda. She was just a girl. She looked at the sign again, which said in bold black letters: Pool of Drowned Panda.

"I don't get it," Ranma-chan said. Then she heard a disturbance coming from the water behind her. She turned to see emerging from the pool, one very large and very wet panda. It plodded out of the pool, stood on the ground, shook its fur, flinging water everywhere, then turned to walk away on all fours.

Ranma-chan looked again at the sign. "It looks like someone didn't quite understand the nature of what a 'Pool of Drowned Panda' was supposed to do."

Tarou pointed and laughed at Ranma-chan. "It doesn't matter. It was worth it just to see the look of sheer terror on your face as you were falling and thought you were going to get a stupid panda curse. Hahaha—"

The laughter was cut short as Ranma-chan launched herself from the pool and shattered the pole beneath her opponent's perch. She taunted, "Let's see how you like getting all wet!"

As the pole slowly began to fall, Tarou called out in an overly dramatic voice, "Oh no, I'm about to fall in a pool of water that is going to activate my curse. Whatever shall I do?"

It was then the repercussions of Ranma-chan's actions hit her. Tarou was bad enough without the curse, but with it….

Ranma-chan sprang off the pole she was on and launched herself at Tarou. He took a swing, which she managed to duck, and kicked him away from the water so that he would fall on one of the strips of earth between the pools rather than in one.

The midair blow left Ranma-chan with no recourse but to fall into the water Tarou had almost ended up in. It didn't matter to her, knowing the nature of the stupid pools now. She held her breath as she went under, waiting for her momentum to die so she could swim back up. Her strokes were powerful, and she broke the surface. But as she did she felt something small and wet attach itself to her face, covering it completely. Now able to breathe again, she spluttered, "What?"

The creature let out a gruesome yowl. It was then Ranma-chan grasped the true horror of her predicament, and came to understand that there was nothing more terrifying than having a wet, irate cat attached to her face.

"AHHH" she competed screeching with the cat's cries and began running blindly around, crashing into pools and poles alike, like a bumper car left to run at full speed in a narrow passage.

Tarou made his way to the top of one of the poles so he could have a good view of Ranma's terrified antics. "This is great!" he said, nearly doubling over in laughter.

Something glomped onto him from behind, nearly knocking him from his perch. Tarou was forced to use every ounce of equilibrium he had to keep from going over and directly into the ground.

"How are you doing, Bullsy?"

Tarou recognized the voice, "Ah, it's you again, you shifty little wench. Get off my back."

Kachiko said, "Actually, I couldn't do it, even if I wanted to."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Ever hear the one about Bre'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby?"

Tarou sniffed the air, crinkled his nose, then looked over his shoulder at the girl so firmly attached to him. There was a black substance smudged on her face, and he could see quantities of it on the arms that encircled his torso. "You idiot! If you're attached to me, you can't win either."

"I don't need to win." Unable to remove her arms, Kachiko shook her head behind them, indicating he should look in that direction.

Tarou turned to see Akane Tendou had also emerged into the final obstacle course.

Akane looked at the scene before her. Ranma-chan was running around with a cat attached to her face, and Kachiko was stuck to Tarou. With Ranma-chan in panic mode — and Akane unable to help her fiancé in 'his' panicked state — and her mother effectively negating the only competition around as well as herself in the process, that left Akane to win the race.

"Hurry!" Kachiko cried as Tarou leapt to another pole, barely able to hold on with Kachiko struggling on his back.

Akane hurried along the ground, which was tricky considering how thin some of the pathways were. But she felt it was safer to trust her feet on the ground rather than her leaping ability. Quickly, she emerged from the forest of bamboo a good fifteen seconds ahead of Tarou, who was desperately trying to peel the girl from his back. Akane noted he had made some progress, despite Kachiko's attempts to remain clinging to him. He had freed one of her arms from his front and was trying to pry the rest of her from his back. It was a nearly impossible task given his lack of sufficient leverage, but somehow he was succeeding.

"Hurry!" Kachiko repeated, her voice all but acknowledging she was losing the battle.

Akane turned and prepared to sprint to the finish line. It would take her no more than half a minute. Even if Tarou was free, with the lead she had there was no way she could lose. Finally, she was going to prove to everyone that she was a serious martial artist and win the race. Ranma would finally be free of his curse, and he would actually thank her for it. Not that she would try to force him into thanking her or asking for anything in return, but she knew Ranma well enough to understand that he would be grateful. With how strained things had been lately, his appreciation would be like a breath of fresh air. Also having control over his curse would take away that problem, and then he could move on to the other one of Kachiko's unwanted attentions and openly admitting Akane was his one and only fiancée.

Akane ran, her pathway to happiness in sight. She could hear her mother shouting words of encouragement and Tarou cursing her. Akane felt her heart nearly leap into her throat. It was all real. Nothing could stop her now. She was finally going to win one.

And then a louder caterwauling reached her ears, one that was all too familiar. Akane paused, turning to see that offending cat had remained attached to Ranma-chan's face too long and the girl had slipped into full nekoken mode. Ranma-chan finally stopped running, and swatted the cat off her face before heading out of sight, as far away from the cat as she could. As to the poor feline, it gave one loud yelp as it went flying through the air, only to hit a pool, kicking up an impressive gout of water. A second later a sparrow emerged from the pool and flew off, but the cat wasn't anywhere to be seen.

Akane stopped. It was still alive, she had heard it cry out even after Ranma-chan batted it away, but hitting the water must have stunned it. If it wasn't pulled out right away, it would drown. It was a good distance away, thanks to Ranma's blow, and every second would count in rescuing the poor creature whose only crime had been being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But the finish line wasn't that far away. She could be the hero for a change instead of Ranma, and he would be so grateful to her.

But the cat could die.

"I'm sorry," Akane said out loud.

"What are you doing?!" Kachiko screeched as Akane turned around and headed the other way.

"Jeez, talk about not having your priorities straight. She really is softhearted, isn't she?" Tarou said as he continued pushing Kachiko away.

Finally maneuvering the girl far enough off his back he could put his arm between her front and his back, Tarou managed to use enough leverage to bring his full strength to bear. There was the sound of ripping garments as Kachiko fell away from him with an audible thud. The sudden lack of resistance was so great that Tarou fell backward as well, hitting the ground solidly.

He had just returned to his feet when Kachiko latched onto him again, this time attaching herself to his front. Unlike before, with the lack of tar and proper leverage, he easily pried her off.

"Nice tits," he said as he held the struggling girl at arms' length.

"What?" Kachiko looked down and discovered that it was both her shirt and bra, not Tarou's clothing, that had torn, when the youth had pulled her off his back.

"Ack!" she cried out, ceasing in her efforts to cling to him, and covering her chest.

Tarou used the opening to turn tail and run straight for the finish line. Kachiko tried to catch up, but stopped halfway when she realized that between his longer stride and her effort to cover herself there was no way she could prevent Tarou from winning. Instead, she turned, tying the remnants of her shirt into a makeshift top that barely hid her breasts, and stalked in the opposite direction.

Akane looked with relief at the cat that lay in her lap, spitting up water and breathing. She placed it on the ground where it continued hacking, as though the monster of all hairballs had become lodged in its throat.

As Akane rose to her feet, she saw that her mother had approached and was now standing next to her, glaring at Akane with a murderous gleam in her eyes.

Akane looked at the ground in shame. "I'm sorry. I guess I screwed up."

A resounding slap met Akane's cheek, turning her head slightly. Akane didn't try to move it back to its proper place, instead she remained as still as a statue in shock from the unexpected gesture.

Not satisfied with the blow, Kachiko unleashed a verbal barrage, "What the !#$% do you think you were doing, you idiot?! You could have won! The finish line was right there!"

Akane held her face, trying to explain, "But the cat was drowning."

"So what?!" Kachiko screeched. "It's just a cat! Just some strange !#$% cat no different from the thousands they put to sleep every year! You can't even keep it because Ranma's terrified of them! Do you think you're great and wonderful because you saved it?! There are millions of cats out there, but only one ring. Which do you think is more important?"

Memories of a little girl being yelled at by her mother tickled Akane's subconscious. Rather than trying to shout back or defend herself, tears began to well in her eyes. She tried saying, "But I thought—"

"You thought what?" Kachiko raged. "That if you had good intentions and pure motives everything would turn out all right? Here's a little piece of advice, from mother to daughter. That's a bunch of !#$%! Look around you." She pointed to where Tarou was now standing in victory, congratulating himself. "What do you know, we lost. That asshole won the race! The ring is his, not Ranma's! Now an exceedingly dangerous person has even more power than before, and Ranma's just as screwed over as before.

"Don't delude yourself into thinking you won anything by taking some imaginary high moral ground. Thanks to you, Ranma's going to be paying for your 'benevolence' for a long time afterward. But hey, what does it really matter in the big scheme of things? At least you saved the cat." Kachiko gave Akane a disgusted look as she turned away in anger and headed toward the finish line.

All Akane could do was look down at the ground, and try to hide the tears that rolled down her face.

"Impetuous fools! I am the Lord of The Everrealm. Master of all I survey! Emperor of my dimension, and you have the audacity to deliver me such grievous news?!"

"Thorry, your motht Unworthy, but there are no more thin minths. How about a thortbread cookie?"

"No, I don't like shortbread. Give me a Samoa."

"Hey, where's my prize?!" Tarou said to the quintet of figures that were huddled over a number of cookie-filled boxes.

Asmodeus turned to look at him. "Won the race, did you?"

"Yes," Tarou said, vaguely disturbed as Asmodeus consumed a cookie by placing it against his faceplate where a mouth should be and watching the Samoa simply disappear into the plate.

Asmodeus placed his hands slightly apart and summoned a glowing ball of light. "Very well, the Scepter of Domination is yours."

"The Ring of Controlling Curses, sir," one of the hooded figures said.

"Oh, right." Asmodeus dispelled the ball and rummaged through his pockets until he came up with the ring. "Here you go." He offered the item to Tarou.

Tarou raised his hand to grab the item, but somehow Kachiko inserted herself between him and the ring, snatching it out of Asmodeus' hand.

Asmodeus said to her, "I'm sorry. There seems to be some confusion. That's first prize. You came in second. I believe your prize is a slap to the face."

"Nae, it's a moonth's supply o' Rice O'Roni," one of the shrouded figures corrected.

"Hand it over," Tarou said menacingly, holding out his hand expectedly.

Kachiko placed the ring in the palm of her hand, raised a glowing fist above it, then brought the fist down directly upon the ring, breaking it in half. "Here you go," she placed the pieces in his open hand.

For a moment, Tarou didn't respond. He just stood there, open mouthed in disbelief. Then his fist curled about the fragments, trembling with how powerfully he gripped them. He closed his eyes, eyebrows twitching fiercely. "You trick me and give me a sucker punch to the balls. You outmaneuver me and keep me from transforming. You attach yourself to me like an oversized leach in an effort to prevent me from winning, and when all your efforts failed anyway in the end, you destroy the prize rather than letting me win it." He moved toward her, bringing his full height to bear. "You're a sneaky, manipulative, ruthless little cheapshot artist that'll do anything to come out on top in the end."

"So what are you going to do about it?" Kachiko said, bringing her fists up and prepared to defend herself.

Rather than speaking any further, Tarou rushed forward. Kachiko tried to strike him, but he deflected both her attacks. He then grabbed her by the face, brought it forward, and kissed her full on the lips.

Breaking off the kiss, Tarou said, "God, you seriously turn me on."

Kachiko just stood there, twitching and making strangling noises as she turned green.

Tarou snickered in satisfaction, wiping his mouth off. "Yeah, I won't deny I've had problems finding a girl I was seriously interested in, but you're someone I could actually respect."

That snapped Kachiko out of her stupor. "Don't be ridiculous! I could never stomach someone like you! You're a maniacal, egotistical, ruthless asshole who's so convinced he's the greatest thing around nothing could possibly break through your delusions of adequacy!"

"I know you're hot for me too, babe."

"I find you utterly repulsive!" Kachiko shrieked jumping up and down like a little child on a sugar-high being told she can't have any more candy.

Tarou shook his head. "Every time we meet, one of us ends up flashing our goods to the other."

"All unfortunate coincidences!" Kachiko insisted.

"Go ahead and deny it. I can tell you're attracted to me by how aroused you are," Tarou countered.

"I'm irate, not aroused, you moron!" Remembering something Ranma had told her about Tarou's previous problems with girls, Kachiko shouted, "Pantyhose, Pantyhose, Pantyhose, Pantyhose, Pantyhose!"

Tarou said blissfully, "From other women, my name sounds like fingernails across a chalkboard. From you, it sounds like the sweet call of birds chirping in the spring air." He sighed.

Kachiko appeared as though she was about to cry. "I'd rather have you try to beat me up than date me. I did destroy the ring you were after," she mentioned hopefully. "Don't you want to kick my ass for destroying your one chance of controlling your curse?"

Tarou shook his head. "Nah. It was something that would have made things more convenient is all. Finding true love is a much greater prize."

Kachiko was seething. "I'd sooner marry that dirty old man that keeps coming onto me and birth three little anklebiters like everyone wants me to than ever consent to dating you!"

Tarou waved his hand dismissively. "You're a little wild. That's cool. I wouldn't want our courtship to be too easy. I'm going to have fun taming your shrew. I'll give you a little time to adjust to the fact you're going to be my woman. See you around." Tarou snickered and walked off, stride showing nothing but extreme confidence.

Unable to think of anything that would drive him off, or make him want to kill her, Kachiko fell to her knees and began to cry. It was beginning to look like throwing herself in front of a truck would be a good thing. At the very least it would be less painful than having to deal with a total creep like Pantyhose Tarou as a suitor.

"Why does everything have to happen to me?" she wailed.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Yes, Kachiko coming down on Akane was exceptionally harsh, wasn't it? You'll glean a little bit of the reasons for her almost irrational ire in the interlude that's coming up next.

Yes, those really were lyrics to a real song: "I Must Increase My Bust' by the Lords of Acid.

And yes, Monty Python and the Holy Grail inspired more than a few of the 'obstacles'.

Next time out we get a little interlude that will hopefully explain a few things.

Special thanks to:

  • The Apprentice
  • Max M.
  • Eternal Lost Lurker
  • Michael A. Chase
Interlude 1
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