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A Ranma ½ / Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon / Ah! My Goddess crossover story
by L. S. McGill

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 characters property of Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Sailor Moon characters property of Takeuchi Naoko, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC. Ah! My Goddess property of Fujishima Kosuke, Kodansha, TBS and KSS films; AnimEigo, Studio Proteus, and Dark Horse Comics. Other characters who may cameo are property of respective owners.  All are used without permission. I did not write this for profit, but for practice. Will be removed at request of original creators or authorized rep.

Zhu Shu (who shoo), Tao-Ching, Xi'an Chi (zy-an chee), and Clans' Dragon and Skorpion are mine, and may be used so long as I am asked beforehand.

Book One: The Mandarin

Chapter Eight: Black Rose and Thorns

Dawn broke over Tokyo like a cresting wave, illuminating the darkness in a rush. Small eddies of light swirled into dark alleys and over the tops of buildings as the sun rose, waking the city to life. At a small temple in Juuban ward, the light spilled over the form of a sleeping Rei, caught in confusing dreams of fire and golden eyes. She woke with a start, wiping the sleep from her eyes and pondering what it might mean.

Across the city, in another temple, a goddess looked out at a lonely Shan Pu practicing her forms, a sad smile on her face for how long it was taking her older sister to grant the poor girl's wish. Said sister was currently groaning with a hangover after a night of finding out that Ke Lun could apparently drink an infinite amount of sake.

At a vacant restaurant in Nerima, a hand turned a key in a lock and opened the door. Ukyou looked around the interior and smiled. Give her a month, and Ucchan's would reopen for business, and Ranma would meet his just rewards.

Several blocks away, Ke Lun stood atop a phone pole watching as Soun and Genma dragged a groggy voodoo priest out of the house and into a taxi, then bounced along behind them.

In the kitchen of the Dojo, a still pale Ranma sat unmoving at the kitchen table, a puddle of congealed cocoa pooling around a hand still clutching the fragments of a cup.

In the hall outside the kitchen, Zhu Shu sighed before continuing to the dojo, and stripped off her robe to begin her morning kata. It had been a mistake to mention Shan Pu.

Time ticked inexorably forward….

When Kasumi entered the kitchen for breakfast, she uttered her trademarked "Oh, my!" then waved a hand in front of Ranma's blank stare. Slow as granite, the redhead's eyes rose to meet hers. "Are you okay, Ranma?"

Ranma shuddered, then seemed to unfreeze. "Just reminded of something I'd rather not think about. I'll… be okay." He took a deep breath and seemed to mentally take hold of himself. Finally, he noticed the shattered cup. "Sorry…."

Kasumi decided it was not the time to pry, and just smiled. "It's okay, accidents happen."

In the bathroom, Akane was brushing her hair as Nabiki entered and did a double take. "Hey, Akane. You cut your hair!"

Akane looked at her in the mirror and nodded. "Last night."

"Hmm… And what brought this on?" An amused tone was evident in the inquiry.

Akane shrugged, making her braid chime. "Just felt like a change." Akane wasn't about to tell Nabiki the real reason, knowing her sister would blackmail her in order to keep that knowledge from Ranma.

"Um hmm…." Her tone made it plain she knew there was more, but that she'd dig it up later. "So what's with the braid?"

"Zhu Shu thought it would look nice and I agreed. She taught me how to do them."

"Akane put in Zhu Shu hair too." The Chinese girl called from the tub, where she had gone after her kata.

Nabiki stuck her head in. "Ah, but why black and red?"

Zhu held up her red and black twined braid and pointed to the black strands "From Akane-chan." then the red "From Ranma-chan."

Nabiki looked at the red end of Akane's braid. "Nice work."

"Thank you." Zhu Shu bowed from the tub.

"Breakfast!" Kasumi called from the dining room.

Fifteen minutes later, they were all seated around the table and wondering why Soun and Genma weren't there.

Several hours later and many miles away from Nerima, Soun, Genma, and the voodoo priest Sandal traipsed up the side of a hill near Mount Fuji towards a long deserted cave, sealed by a large boulder around which magical wards had been tied. As they came to the clearing around the cave and stopped, the voodoo priest Sandal was looking wide eyed at the boulder.

"Here. Seal?" Genma asked in very bad English.

"Hoo, Mon! You got no idea what you askin' Mon! Plenty big spirit locked in here. Almost free. Gonna take some puttin' down and a massive seal to lock it in. What you bury, Mon? A big fuckin' Demon?!"

"Master Happosai." Soun said nervously. "Seal?"

Sandal nodded. "Hey Mon, can do, but it's gonna take a while and I'm gonna need a lot of things to do it proper."

"We get." Genma said, a determined look on his face.

They turned back toward the small village they'd come up from and headed away.

As they vanished into the forest, Ke Lun dropped from the tree she'd hidden in. She walked over to look at the boulder and shook her head.

"Amateurs." It was a wonder it had held so long already. Another year at most and the old devil would be on the loose again. She cocked her ears at a faint sound, almost on the verge of audibility.


She sat down on the boulder that sealed in her ex-fiancée and contemplated what the three who had gone down the hill were planning. If they succeeded, then that young goddess was correct in thinking it was a service to the Amazons. Happosai was a very old matter of tribal vengeance, even more so than her own personal score as a jilted bride.

But she had to smile at the irony. Betrothing Shan Pu to the son of the old letch's student and allying the Tendos and the Saotomes to the Amazons for the service of ridding them of Happosai on a more or less permanent basis was a rather fitting vengeance for having been left to explain to her mother that her groom had departed with the family heirlooms and the Amazon treasures, but without her….

As she leapt away cackling, a faint sound could be heard, so low it might have been a trick of the wind.

"Mmmmmmyyyyyyyy pppppppprrrrrrrreeeeeettttttttttiiiiiieeeeeessssss…."

Time passed as it was wont to do and a passing week found Ranma walking the Ginza looking for a snack and wondering at the fickleness of fate and Akane Tendo.

He was still trying to figure out how the girl could be so sweet and cuddly one minute and so violent the next. Ever since that fight with Ryouga, she'd been more confusing than ever. She would tease him, and he'd swear the five or six times he'd run into her topless or naked hadn't been complete accidents, but she'd been easier than ever to annoy. Only this afternoon Akane had walked in on him in the bath and then had thrown him bodily from the room when he'd asked "What happened to your hair?" in a surprised tone.

How was he supposed to know Akane would get angry over such a simple question? He'd just been surprised when Akane had walked in minus the tangle of black curls she'd used to have, that was all! He sighed. Maybe he just should have kept his mouth shut. He'd never understood why girls shaved all their hair anyway. The thought of a razor down there made him cringe

Still, he had to admit Akane was looking really nice lately. The sessions she spent helping Zhu Shu train her friends were starting to tone her already athletic body along Zhu Shu's curvy lines. She was beginning develop the sword dancer's rounder figure, and when she wasn't being angry or tomboyish, she could be pretty cute.

Maybe Zhu Shu was teaching Akane a few of the things that Ranma had learned by watching her. He'd used several of Zhu Shu's cuteness tricks to snag a few freebies as he'd wandered the Ginza and he could attest that cuteness had its advantages. Now if Akane would only use it more often!

He sighed. At least he wasn't having to fight Ryouga constantly. He was only annoying occasionally, even if he was always underfoot. He wouldn't stop making moon eyes at Kasumi, and she thought he was cute as a piglet and charmingly chivalrous as a boy. Ranma couldn't tell if she genuinely liked the Hibiki boy or if she was just flattered at the attention and flowers, and chocolate, and flowers, and teas, and flowers and by the way, had he mentioned flowers? Where Ryouga had managed to find some of the wild bouquets Ranma would rather not contemplate. He'd nearly lost a finger to that one tiger lily with a real tiger's head in its blossom, however small. At least Kasumi had liked it; Ranma just had to walk wide of it in the garden.

He jumped up onto a fence next to a vacant lot he used as a short cut to the Ginza, preparing to make him way home in hopes Akane was out of the tub and that he would be able to finish his bath, but stopped at the weird scene before him.

A very pretty female in an expensive uniform from a private girl's school stood surrounded by three people dressed in nondescript gray outfits and swathed in bandages, and holding gymnastics clubs. The girl they surrounded had jet black hair pulled into a ponytail on the side, and held herself as if she was completely confident of her safety.

"Pardon me, but you are from Furinkan High School, are you not?" the girl in black asked, catching Ranma's complete attention. "Please, no need to rush on my account." she continued. "If I'm not mistaken, we'll be having our match in one week." She smiled condescendingly.

"No more talk!" one of the swathed figures yelled. "We've got you at last!"

Ranma squatted on the fence, nibbling absently on a fried dumpling, and wondered what was up with all the bandages.

"We're finishing you off here and now!" the last figure screamed "Prepare to die!" They rushed the girl in black together.

Still supremely confident, the girl dropped her bag. "Forgive me, please, if I've failed…" a long ribbon appeared, stretched between her hands, "… to convey my message!!" Like a lightning fast snake the ribbon lashed out to knock the onrushing attackers off their feet.

Ranma was impressed.

The ribbon whirled around the girl in black like a living thing. "If I may restate it…" a sharp crack echoed as it connected with one of the figures. "… perhaps this… or this… or this will be clearer!" Each statement was punctuated by another lash to the prostrate and helpless forms.

Enough was enough. As the ribbon struck again, Ranma moved.

There was a loud snap. The girl in black looked down the taut length of her ribbon to Ranma's hand in surprise, then raised them to meet Ranma's.

"Don't cha think that's enough?" Ranma asked casually. "I mean, you've already won, right?"

Half-lidded eyes took in Ranma's casual stance, but the girl held the ribbon taut for a long second before she replied.

"You caught that ribbon as if it were nothing." She shifted her stance slightly." If you'll forgive me, you seem no ordinary girl." She tugged slightly on the ribbon, but Ranma's hand didn't budge.

"Uh… Yeah." Ranma was privately amused. "I guess you could say that!"

The other girl nodded once. "Good…" Her foot hooked under one of the abandoned clubs. "Because I prefer not to treat girls…" She blurred as she released the ribbon and kicked the club into her hand, attacking even as she spoke, "with ordinary courtesy!!"

Ranma dodged the face shot almost contemptuously and intercepted her leading foot. The girl flew forward, but caught herself on her hands and did a split handstand to land on her feet as Ranma pivoted to face her.

They stared at each other a second, waiting to see what the other planned to do, then the girl in black made a depreciating 'Heh' and spoke. "Well, you are… very good!" She straightened. "Remember… I am called the Black Rose of Saint Hebereke's School for Girls." A rose appeared in her hand, it's petals as black as her dress. "Kodachi the Black Rose." A sly smile crossed her face as she tossed Ranma the rose. "Please don't forget it!" With a maniacal laugh, she bounded off in a series of leaps worthy of Zhu Shu as Ranma stared after her.

Behind him the swathed figures began to sob heavily. "Oh, how humiliating." Ranma turned and bent down.

"Hey! What's with the crying? Remember, you're men!"

"That's what you think!" Bandages were ripped away revealing three cute faces heavily band-aided. "We're the Furinkan High Gymnastics team!"

Ranma stared in shock. All three girls were from his homeroom. All of a sudden he was glad he'd not had a chance at the tub, because none of them recognized him. He stared after them as they limped off, looking anything but athletic, then followed them to the Dojo. This was getting curiouser and curiouser.

Kasumi let them upstairs to see Akane, then handed Ranma a tea tray to take up after them. He sat down on Akane's bed as the leader started.

"Akane! We've been humiliated!"

Ranma stretched his back as Akane looked at the other girls. "Everyone on the team is injured?!" Akane asked in disbelief.

"We were ambushed!" the leader continued.

Ranma raised an eyebrow, but didn't say a word.

"Now we'll have to withdraw from the match!" The girl laid it on thick, eyes dripping tears of bitterness.

"Then…" Akane pondered, "You want me… to take your place?"

"Please, Akane! There's nothing else we can do!" Desperation colored their voices. "You see, this next match is Rhythmic Gymnastic Wrestling!"

That threw both Ranma and Akane for a loop. "What the heck is that?!" Ranma asked.

"This!" A diagram was slapped in front of them showing two female combatants attacking each other with gymnastic equipment. "The schools champions fight with the techniques of Rhythmic Gymnastics!"

Akane stared, then said slowly "I'm still not sure I get it… But all right. I will avenge you!"

The gym team girls clutched at her oversized sweater. "Oh!! Thank you, Akane!!"

Ranma rubbed his temples in disbelief.

Watching Akane staring at the supposed weapons of her bout several hours and a hot bath later, he knew he'd been right.

"You shouldn't have agreed so quickly. Do you even know how to use these things?" He idly twirled a club quickly enough to buzz.

Akane said a lot more confidently than she felt "You just watch!"

A snort from the door drew their attention as Zhu Shu walked in carrying Ryouga the piglet. She looked curiously around the Dojo and gave Akane an inquisitive look. "What do?"

"Akane has to fight a rhythmic gymnastics match. She's 'practicing'." Ranma said wryly.

"Hey! I can do this!" Akane protested, adding an "I think" under her breath.

Zhu Shu sat on her knees next to Ranma and put the piglet down with an absent pat. Ranma watched and leaned over on one elbow. "Yo, Ryouga, looks like you're letting the "cute piglet" routine go to your head."

Ryouga bit him.

Ranma pried the annoyed piglet off his arm and prepared to punch him as Zhu Shu hissed, "Behave, or throw both out!"

Ranma refrained from booting the piglet into orbit. "He started it!" he huffed.

Ryouga put on an innocent look. As Zhu Shu petted him, he gave Ranma a gloating look.

Akane interrupted before Ranma could hit him. "Now watch this!" She did a leap, performing a split in midair as her clubs twirled up in beautiful arcs….

… And landed on the far side of the dojo as she touched down.

"Are you supposed to let them drop like that?" Ranma asked.

Frustration colored Akane's cheeks. "Very funny." She glared at the traitorous clubs then bent down. "Let's try the ribbon."

A few minutes later, Ranma asked "Are you supposed to get tangled up?"

Akane forced a "Shut up!" past the ribbon wrapped around her throat… and the rest of her body.

Zhu Shu and Ryouga looked at each other, then the Mandarin girl picked up the piglet and carried him outside.

Akane untangled herself and tried the hoop. She caught it well enough, but as she tried to slide through it, she snapped it.

"Are you supposed to break the hoop?" Ranma asked from the sidelines as Akane yelled "That does it!" and threw away the pieces in frustration. He couldn't resist adding "Aren't you supposed to have just a little bit of grace?"

Outside in the garden, Zhu Shu stood by the entrance to the house as Ryouga emerged. "You wanted to talk to me?"

"Ryouga know what Akane do?" the small Chinese girl asked.

"Rhythmic Gymnastics? Yeah. I know the style, but I doubt Akane will let me teach her. She just gives me dirty looks."

"Show Zhu Shu. Then she try get Akane to let teach." She hopped up on a convenient bench. "Zhu Shu know ribbon, but not other weapon."

Ryouga nodded. "Okay. If you know ribbon, the other stuff isn't too hard. The secret to Rhythmic Gymnastics is that you can't attack barehanded…."

Ten minutes later, Zhu Shu and Ryouga entered the dojo to hear Akane crying "I'm a klutz! I'm a klutz! I'm a klutz!"

"Hey! What can I do about it?" Ranma said unhelpfully.

"Ranma, you always know exactly the wrong thing to say," Ryouga commented.

"Oh yeah? Well what should I say, Pig Brain? I don't know this Rhythmic Gymnastics stuff!" He crossed his arms. "You think you can do better, be my guest!"

Ryouga's eyes narrowed and he reached down to pick up the ribbon Akane had dropped. It blurred into a spiral that slammed Ranma into the wall.

Ranma glared at Ryouga murderously, his cut clothes hanging off him. "Why you!"

Ryouga bowed to Akane. "Zhu Shu asked me to show her what's involved with Rhythmic Gymnastics. If you'll let me, I'll show you how to use the basic weapons, the ball, the hoop, the clubs, and rope. Zhu Shu will teach you how to use the ribbons. I know you don't like me much, but I can help."

Akane's eyes narrowed. "What's in it for you?"

Ranma smacked him on the back of the head. "He just wants to score points with Kasumi and Zhu Shu!"

Ryouga growled. "Why you—" His hands came up in claws as he launched himself at Ranma.

"Will you two stop acting like children?!!" Akane yelled.

Zhu Shu looked at the two boys bouncing around the Dojo with half lidded eyes. "Zhu Shu thought Senshi bad. Begin wonder maybe mistake." She sighed as she took out her swords and began to spin.

Loud cracks echoed across the Dojo as a swirling tornado of cloth forced Ranma and Ryouga to opposite sides of the dojo. At the storms center, Zhu Shu danced, her swords moving so quickly she appeared to have six arms. The rhythmic cracks of her snapping ribbons matched the intricate steps of the spinning dance and within their spirals, she seemed some how obscured and hard to see. With a last snarling whirl, the dance came to the utter stillness of a completed form and as the ribbons slowly floated down, Zhu Shu fixed Ranma and Ryouga with a hard glare. "We here teach Akane, yes no?"

"Jeez, Zhu Shu, where did you learn that?" Ranma asked amazed. He looked down to the tattered scraps of cloth that had once been his shirt, then over at Ryouga, who was in a similar state.

Akane grinned. "That was wonderful! That was an absolutely gorgeous dance!"

Zhu Shu smiled. "Um… thank you. Zhu Shu learn 'Dance of Veils' from Indian Dancer…."

"You gotta teach me that!" Ranma said. "That's a hell of a technique."

Zhu Shu raised an eyebrow, recalling Nabiki's similar remark. "Um… Not think Ranma really want Zhu Shu do that."

Akane looked at her curiously. "Why? It's a lovely looking dance."

Zhu Shu gave Akane a sidelong glance and a sultry smile. "Zhu Shu not do full dance… Zhu Shu still have clothes on…."

Akane stared at her for a moment as that penetrated, then her mouth rounded into an "o" as she blushed. "Oh… I… see…" then she looked sidelong at the wide-eyed stare Ranma was giving Zhu Shu. "Maybe you should teach me that dance."

Ryouga's nose gushed blood as he ran out of the room. Ranma just looked at the two girls and shook his head. "Girls…" he muttered disgustedly.

Zhu Shu and Akane broke out in wild giggles.

Outside in the darkness, a cloaked figure listened to the sounds from inside the dojo and thought "So, they've sought help. These Furinkan high gymnasts are bad losers."

The cloak dropped away to reveal Kodachi in a black leotard, holding a large mallet. "Akane Tendo…" she said around the rose in her mouth, "Kodachi, The Black Rose, will cripple you!"

She vanished into the darkness above the walls.

Zhu Shu sat on the dojo floor shaking her head as Ryouga coiled his ribbon and told Akane "Enough special drilling for today."

Akane knelt on the floor catching her breath. "Thank you… . so much."

"You handled the ribbon very well. You're making very quick progress."

Zhu Shu sighed. She was glad someone thought so. She'd tried having the returned Ryouga teach Akane the basics of ribbon so she could observe and see where Akane needed the most help. Unfortunately, it appeared it was everywhere.

Akane looked at Ryouga hopefully. "You really think so, Ryouga?"

Ranma looked at her with half lidded eyes. "You don't really buy that stuff do you?"

So thoroughly tangled that she couldn't move her arms, Akane rounded on him. "You shut up!"

Ryouga looked at Zhu Shu and scratched his head puzzledly.

Zhu Shu gave him a "what can you do?" kind of shrug, and fell back spread eagled on the floor as she sighed. "We do tomorrow. Same time."

Ranma untangled Akane and watched as she stormed off, then turned to Zhu Shu. "You make it look easy. Why don't you fight the match?"

Zhu Shu gave him the evil eye. "First. Zhu Shu not asked. Two. Is Chinese exchange student. Three. Is sempai. Match between lower classes." She looked back to the ceiling and sighed. "Or Zhu Shu would. How Akane have such good combat skill and be so clumsy? Usagi be more coordinated, Zhu Shu thinks." She put her hands palm up across her eyes. "Must think. Ranma shoo now."

He nodded and wandered into the garden to plop down on a stone birdhouse next to the Koi pond. It was almost bed time and he could hear Kasumi in the kitchen prepping for breakfast. Ryouga walked out to stand near the pond and looked towards the kitchen with a smile.

"It's embarrassing to watch." Ranma said to him. "And you! Have you no shame? Flattering her like that!"

"You should be ashamed of yourself, Ranma— for your jealousy!" He stepped into the pond.

"Who's jealous?" He watched as Ryouga crawled out of the pond. "What? You off to charm Kasumi into giving you a few treats again? At least I don't have to resort to being cute to be near Akane! What do I have to jealous of?"

Ryouga bit him. Hard.

"Youch!" Ranma howled "That's it, Pig! Bacon time!" He dived for the piglet, who bounced away….

Akane opened the door to her room with a creak. Now that she'd taken her bath, she was really feeling the effects of the exercise she'd been through. She flopped down on her bed and muttered "I'm exhausted." She rolled over and her eyes focused on a long tassel of black hair. She followed the tassel up with her eyes to the girl in a black leotard clinging to her ceiling. Her eyes widened as the girl cried "Prepare you, Akane Tendo!" and dropped towards her with a large mallet.

Akane forced tired muscles to move as she flipped out of the bed to land in front of the bookcase in a crouch. As the mallet impacted the bed, she asked "Who are you?!"

The girl rolled to the edge of the bed and stood primly, the mallet balanced easily in one hand. "I'm from St. Hebereke’s School for Girls! Kodachi, the Black Rose!" She swung the hammer at Akane, who dodged. "I shall be your opponent next week!" She missed again. "So… Let us both do our best…" She tried to catch Akane with a downward blow, but missed again as Akane dodged. "…and fight in all fairness!" the girl finished.

Now Akane was mad. "You call this…" she cried, "in all fairness?!" She launched a kick at Kodachi, but the girl dodged and came up standing by the door. "It's you, isn't it!" Akane realized. "The one who's been ambushing the team!"

"Ambush?!" Kodachi actually sounded surprised. "What a nasty way to put it." She gave Akane a sly look. "I simply believe in fighting in all fairness before the match!"

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever…" Akane started, but at that moment a small black rocket slammed her door open into Kodachi's face. Then she was slammed back into the wall as Ranma slammed it the rest of the way open with a cry of "Bacon! Pork Chops! Sausage!"

They bounced around the room like super balls and were back out the door almost before Akane had a chance to react. She leaned out the door after them and yelled "Ranma! You better not hurt him till he's done teaching me for the match!" The whistle of the wind warned her and she turned to kick the mallet out of Kodachi's hands…

They glared at each other as the mallet crashed to the floor, then Kodachi pulled out her ribbon. "So. The rumors are true. You are good aren't you?" Black rose petals swirled in a blizzard as she spun her ribbon in a spiral and she vanished from sight.

"Rose petals?" Akane asked in puzzlement, but as the petals cleared, only the fall of a single black rose answered her. Kodachi was gone.

She stood before the open window and yelled "Who—" Then in a quieter tone "who do you think is going to clean up this room?" she looked around at the mess. "Kodachi, the Black Rose, I'll repay you for this at our match!"

Kodachi stood on the roof over Akane's room and contemplated her failure. She'd lost, something that hadn't happened in so long she'd grown contemptuous of her competitors, but this Akane Tendo could not be so easily dismissed. She had to crush her before the match, no matter what! It was bad enough to have been bested by her tonight, but to be shown unworthy in front of the entire school would be unbearable… No, she could not allow the world to know what a failure she was in truth….

She began to run along the roof and away, but had taken no more than a few steps when a small black blur flashed towards her. She had only the time to notice that it was a baby pig before a vengeful spirit rose before her and cried something she couldn't make out in her surprise. Then the brass kettle in its hand connected with her forehead and stunned her.

The sound of brass rang in her head as she watched the moon arc by in slow motion. Seconds moved at a crawl as her world turned upside down and the ground fell towards her face.

How fitting, she thought. Slain by a spirit for my clumsiness. An appropriate end to a life so filled with failure. A broken neck. The slow asphyxiation to follow… Mother would have said it was just what I deserve…

Then her slow approach to the ground ceased as a pair of strong arms surrounded her and bore her away from her fate. The wind made her close her eyes as she was lifted and felt the world go right side up again, then the voice of a god asked her "You okay?"

She opened her eyes to gaze upon her savior, and she knew then, that somehow, karma had relented and released her from her terrible destiny. He was beautiful. An Apollo. A Hercules. He was even more handsome than her hated, gods-favored brother, Tatewaki!

She blushed and looked away. To think that such a beautiful man had cared enough to rescue a clumsy, ugly girl like her! She threw her arms around his strong shoulders and cried, "I was so frightened!"

His hesitancy made her blush again. Only a true gentleman could act so. Oh, the gray dreary life of a girls school! She thought. I had given up hope of finding a man to love! To think that such a wonderful encounter was awaiting me! He couldn't be like the others who had taken their pleasure of her then left! He couldn't be! He was the One! Her romantic god upon his white steed, come to bear her away to bliss!!!

"Please, sir," she prayed, "may I ask your name?" She burned with the desire to hear his divine voice again.

Ranma was rather nervous at the intense look the black clad gymnast was giving him. "R-R-Ranma Saotome," he stuttered.

Kodachi smiled. He was shy! How divine! She had to encourage him! She handed him a bouquet of roses to show her desire of him. "For you, my Ranma!"

He took it with a surprised look, and as he took a sniff, the aerosol can released.

Kodachi was oblivious to her own maniacal laughter as she looked down to where Ranma had collapsed twitching in response to her "encouragement." "A bit of paralysis gas in the bouquet!" she explained to allow Ranma to appreciate her aid in overcoming his shyness.

"What?!" Ranma said in shock, his body refusing to obey his will. "Are you crazy?!"

Still so shy! Afraid to admit his love! Kodachi marveled. She threw herself on his manly form. "Now, My Ranma. Be brave." She cradled his face in her hands and the wild look in his eyes inflamed her desires to their peak. Her heart hammered in her chest and she could barely breathe. "Take these lips of mine!" She panted.

Then a foot caught her in the side and sent her flying.

"Right over my bedroom, yet!" Akane growled.

The villainess! Kodachi thought. To interrupt the consummation of true love!

"Such tragic timing!" she lamented as she landed. So close, and yet the vile girl stood over her god like a vengeful demon. Oh the tragedy!

But such was her fate. As always, to come so close and to fail. Her mother was right…

No. she would prevail! The gods could not be so cruel as to give her Ranma and take him away! This was a test! The vile wench was her challenge to overcome.

But now was not the time. She turned to look at her beautiful god. "My Ranma, let us meet again!" She turned and vanished into the night.

Akane watched her go in a furious rage. "Feh. Ridiculous!" She snarled. The bitch had not only tried to ambush her, she'd tried to seduce her fiancée. And him! She turned to look at the still unmoving Ranma. How could he have fallen for that innocent act! She tugged her braid in a fury. Served him right! Letting her cling to him like that! And allowing her to almost kiss him! When he hadn't even given her a real kiss yet!

Almost, she shoved him off the roof and let him dash his brains out on the rocks around the Koi pond. Almost….

She shrugged out of her house coat and dropped it over him. "Sorry I got in the way of true love!" she turned to stomp off. "Nighty-night!"

As she disappeared, a light sound came to Ranma's ears and his eyes turned to see Zhu Shu looking after Akane as she crouched next to him. "Hmm… Zhu Shu sees Akane jealous…."

Downstairs again in her bed, Akane punched her pillow. Kodachi, the Black Rose!!!! It was unfair! She had a body to kill for, a gracefulness Akane would give anything to posses, and she had to be rich! Why did she have to have so many advantages over a clumsy girl like herself? How could she compete? A girl like that could have any boy she wanted! Why Ranma!?! Even with the exercises Zhu Shu had been teaching her, how was she ever going to develop a body like that? Why wouldn't he choose the sexy gymnast over her! He thought she was sexless! And after she'd gone and shaved in hopes of making him notice, in hopes that he'd find her more attractive! Kodachi comes along and off he goes, falling for her hook, line and sinker!

One thing was certain. Come hell or high water, there was no way she was going to lose to her. Not in the ring… or out of it!!!

But… dammit! Why'd she have to make a play for Ranma?!!

Sleep was a long time coming….

As silence descended over the Dojo once more, a black figure detached itself from the shadows it had concealed itself in as Kodachi moved past, and watched its quarry help Ranma down into the house. For just a second, red eyes gleamed in the darkness of its face, then vanished as it once more slipped into the dark.

Morning in Nerima after wonderful dreams. Leaves fell slowly through the air as birds sang joyfully, and the demoness Akane Tendo was right below her…. Her practice sword overhead primed for a killing blow, she descended like a vengeful angel. "Akane Tendo, prepare you!!" she cried as she delivered her death stroke.

Akane caught the blade in one hand and stopped it cold. Kodachi fumed at how easily the beast had foiled her attack, but she had only been a target of opportunity. She glanced around for her real quarry as Akane growled "You again! Ambushing me first thing in the morning!"

Kodachi was taken aback. The offensive cow! How dare she! "Ambushing?!" she cried, outraged. "I was doing no such thing!" She informed the girl of her purpose of her visit in a haughty voice. "I have merely come to visit with Ranma!"

Berserk rage kindled in Akane's eyes. "Oh?! Then why don't you go right to him!!!" With the strength of a Demon, she threw Kodachi through the air towards her god, who apparently hadn't noticed her and was running away. "Oh! Wait! Please!" She called after him as she landed, but he was so preoccupied with his thoughts he didn't hear. She ran after him as he approached her thrice bedamned brother, then leaped over Kuno's bokken swing to plant his foot firmly into that oh-so-blessed-by-the-gods handsome face.

The sight warmed her heart, but she didn't allow it to distract her from the burning passion in her soul. As Kuno grabbed Ranma's shirt and they talked, she latched onto Ranma's divine back with a contented sigh. "Oh Ran-ma-sa-ma!"

A frozen moment passed as Ranma politely bowed his head to Kuno to await his decision. Oh, to think that Ranma loved her so much to approach her brother so quickly!

Kuno pondered them for a moment, then gave them both a hearty clap. "Yes!"

Ever modest Ranma asked "Yes, what?"

A victory fan appeared in Kuno's hand as he clasped his soon to be brother-in-law on the back. "Yes, you have my permission to go steady!"

In a haze of bliss, Kodachi looked into her god's eyes. "I am so happy!"

Then cruel fate once more made a mockery of her happiness. "Wait a minute!" Ranma cried, his words venomous daggers to her heart. "You can't tell me what to do!" Oh the pain! The shame! "I have no intention of going st—" her sobs broke off his hateful words as once again she could see how she had failed to live up to her dreams. Tears poured like rivers from the pain and shame and anger at her failure…

"So!!" she cried, stepping forwards as he back stepped. "You hate me!!"

His words stopped her. "No. No. It's just…" he laughed nervously. "I have a fiancée!" He placed his hands around the demoness Akane's shoulders. "Her. Really!"

The splintered pieces of her heart came to a crashing stop. "F-f-f-f-f-fiancée? You?" She stared at the ugly cow with her short hair and that ridiculous braid.

"More or less." Akane admitted.

Understanding came. "So" she said. This demoness had trapped Ranma into this unholy pact, and he was too noble to save himself. "How interesting." Her ribbon lashed out, but Akane dodged it. She had too much space here, Kodachi realized, but in the ring, she had the advantage. A solution to the dilemma presented itself. She smiled.

"What do you say then? Shall we wager for Ranma in the upcoming match?" She would free her Ranma by defeating the wretched girl, humiliating her, and defending her school all at the same time. Perfect!

"Wha—" Ranma started to say, but he was overrun by Akane.

"What did you say?!" she balled her fists. "Are you insane?!"

Kuno's hand on her shoulder stopped her. "I think it's a fine idea, Akane. If you wish to leave Ranma… you need only lose."

Kodachi laughed at her brother's pitiful attempt to help her. "She needn't worry about that! She'll be losing in any case!" She wouldn't fail this time. She wouldn't!!!! She turned to her poor trapped god. How happy she would make him! "Ranma! When this match is over…" she bit a rose stem as she blushed at the wonderful things they would do together. "You shall be mine!" The shock on his face at the realization that freedom was so close made her heart nearly burst . She closed her eyes and released the rose petal blizzard. "Farewell." Her joy at having outsmarted that fiendish Akane lent wings to her feet…

Staring in shock at Kodachi's departure, Akane and Ranma heard Kuno sigh. "Really, that girl is such a deviant." They watched Kodachi vanish in the distance. "But even so, Ranma Saotome, take care of my little sister." He gave Ranma a comradely pat on the back.

Ranma looked at Kuno in disbelief. "Huh?" He did a double take. "Wait a second, what did you just say?"

Kuno looked at him coolly. "I said, 'take care of my little sister'." He turned. "Even though I am her brother, I have to admire her for being so wicked… so nasty… so spiteful… and so thoroughly twisted!" He presented the bouquet of roses he was holding to Akane. "Please Akane, try not to let her injure you." He turned to walk away. "When Kodachi wants a man, she doesn't let go. She'll surely try something evil in the match."

He disappeared into the building as Ranma and Akane stared.

"K-Kuno's sister?" Ranma finally spoke.

Just as stunned, Akane answered. "Now that I think about it… they're identical!"

A low cough made them turn to see Nabiki and Zhu Shu on the back of the smilodon. Zhu Shu looked around at the carpet of rose petals and sighed. "Zhu Shu think Akane need go advanced training."

Akane looked into her friend's eyes and nodded….

School dragged on forever with Akane fuming over Kodachi and fighting with Ranma. Zhu Shu saw them at various times during the day, noting the massive streak of jealousy in Akane's aura and sighing as she contemplated her course of action. She had to teach Akane the art of the ribbon, and no matter how she ransacked her knowledge of techniques and herbs, she came back to only one solution, and a potentially dangerous one at that. The only way she could do it in time was by using the same method she had learned it by, which raised the question of whether Akane could allow herself to relinquish that much control of herself.

Days end finally arrived and Zhu Shu decided to give Ranma and Akane some time alone. She meandered over the rooftops in no particular hurry as she approached the Dojo, but midway there, her senses tingled and she barely had time to draw her swords and block a lightning swift attack from a gray blur.

She blocked several more attacks with her ribbons, shifting fully into the ribbon form as she descended to a telephone pole, more puzzled than alarmed. The attacks were just probes, testing her defenses more than serious attempts to harm, though her attacker was shielded against her. She balanced on the pole as her ribbons danced, blocking the attempts of the gray blur to penetrate her defenses. Finally, the gray streak landed and resolved itself into the Warleader of the Amazons, Ke Lun.

Zhu Shu finished the form and put away her swords before clasping her hands before her to bow. "Greetings, Great-grandmother. I trust my defenses have met with your approval?"

"They have, Child of the Dragon. A most interesting use for the Dance of Veils. Why did you shift to that for defense?"

"Your attacks were probes. I had no need for offense, and the Dance of Veils is the most defensive form I know."

"Are you schooled in the full technique?"

"I have learned the full Dance of Shiva, Great-grandmother." Zhu Shu admitted.

Ke Lun appraised her carefully. "I will keep that in mind the next time I have you spar with Shan Pu. She has grown used to your usual forms. And perhaps I should have you teach her the Dance of Veils for her husband. How did you come to learn it? It is not a part of the Song School."

Zhu Shu blushed as her eyes darted around. Ke Lun noted them and shook her head.

"Shan Pu is not with me, Little Mouse. I decided to come speak with you alone. But please, I am curious. The Dance of Shiva is an Indian martial art."

Zhu Shu turned a deep red. "I was educated in it by an Indian Dancer, Great Grandmother."

Ke Lun noted the blush and raised an eyebrow. "Among other things, I suspect." she noted the start and the deepening crimson and laughed. "I am Amazon, Child, and no stranger to the love of women for each other, or how they pleasure one another."

Zhu Shu looked shamed face. "I did teach much from our time together, Great Grandmother. She came to me in a time of great depression on my husband quest, and helped renew my spirit. I-I know my grandfather and aunt would not have approved, yet I could not resist her, or the comfort she offered."

"There is no crime in that, Little Mouse."

Zhu Shu looked down. "I did not wish her leave, Great Grandmother, though we both knew we would be soon parted. She gave the Dance to me as a gift of remembrance for what could not be."

"Yet you did part. And continued on your quest. She aided you in a time of need. Do not be ashamed of that Child. Honor her for the caring she showed you."

Zhu Shu's eyes meet Ke Lun's and she smiled at the approval she saw there. Then her smile froze at Ke Lun's next words.

"A most interesting occupation you have had of late." the old woman said dryly. "I have watched you for the last few days. A very interesting way you have of fulfilling your quest to secure Ranma for Shan Pu as her Groom."

Zhu Shu stood very still and said nothing. Her eyes stayed locked on the elder.

"Were I Shan Pu, I might question your methods. Suspect you had betrayed your quest."

There was nothing she could say in her defense. Ke Lun had not asked a question. She hoped Ke Lun did not believe she was guilty of betrayal. She had no chance if the elder decided to kill her, and by Amazon law, she was an adopted sister to Shan Pu. Her death for betrayal would not be quick. She could gain no clue of Ke Lun's thoughts though. The Warleader controlled her aura too well.

Ke Lun watched her eyes for a long moment before nodding. "Good. You believe you do right. I needed to see if that was the case. I am not Shan Pu, great granddaughter, and once I have explained your reasons, she will understand what your friendship means. I had underestimated your wisdom, my child. And your devotion to your friends. I see what you are attempting and I approve. Had you the time, you might have succeeded."

Zhu Shu looked at Ke Lun wide eyed in alarm. "Shan Pu—!" she started, visions of her purple-haired adopted sister fighting Akane to the death flashing through her mind.

Ke Lun held up her hand. "Calm yourself child. Shan Pu is far from here. You need have no fear she will fight this Akane Tendo. There now is no need. Her father and Ranma's have performed a service to the Amazons of such magnitude that an alliance can be forged. Shan Pu shall be engaged to Ranma as part of this alliance, and so Amazon law can be met. But for this to take place, the Tendos must not object to the alliance, and the Saotomes not refuse our offer. To do such an insult can result only in blood feud. You know them granddaughter. Will this happen?"

Zhu Shu closed her eyes and thought. The Tendos depended on the marriage to Ranma to ensure that the School of Anything Goes continued. Soun might object at first, but so long as the marriage to Akane wasn't jeopardized, he most likely would eventually accept, particularly if the alternatives were explained and the benefits shown him. Saotome merely needed to have the threats told to him. He was never averse to saving his own skin. She looked back to Ke Lun. "They may object at first, but I believe if it were made clear to them why they must not refuse, their objections can be overcome."

Ke Lun nodded. "I had assumed so based on their actions. They show that their own skins means much to them. Can you explain this to them?"

Zhu Shu shook her head. "I fear I am too much another daughter to them."

"I see. Well there is one whom we could trust in Nerima who could deliver the message, and advise on how best to deliver it. I will contact him." She looked again at Zhu Shu through half lidded eyes. "And how will Ranma and this Akane take the addition of Shan Pu as a second fiancée?"

Zhu Shu sighed. "It will take much work, Great-grandmother, but I believe they will accept her in the end. Ranma has much honor in him, as well as pride. He is learning to express it gradually, and he is at heart a good man. If Shan Pu is patient and loving, demanding no changes of him, she will win him. He resists demands, but can be subtlety guided. It is Akane I am worried about. Like Ranma, she is strong willed and full of pride, and just as stubborn. She, too, has to be won, else she will see Shan Pu as a rival."

"But you believe it can be made to come to pass?"

"Yes." Zhu Shu averted her eyes lest Ke Lun see too much in them. "Akane has already learned much about herself, and I am helping her build up her self esteem. She has suffered much since the death of her mother and has hidden away the side of her she considered weak, believing she had to be strong. It is not easy for her to draw it out again. I do think she is learning that to be feminine is not always to be weak. Yet, she is still confused in matters of the heart. She is in love with Ranma, though she resists admitting it, and she is only just realizing she likes Ranma as a female as well as a man."

Ke Lun looked at her for a long moment, her aura unreadable, and Zhu Shu feared she had said too much. "So Akane is aware of your own preferences."

Zhu Shu couldn't deny it. "Yes."

Ke Lun turned to look out over the city, the silence building. Zhu Shu waited, hoping Ke Lun had not guessed what she had not said.

Finally, the elder spoke. "And what of your own quest, child?"

Zhu Shu had dreaded that question. "It… it is not the time to continue it, Great-grandmother. I am not yet done with my quest to aid Shan Pu."

Ke Lun tried to catch her eyes, but Zhu Shu avoided them. Ke Lun nodded. "There is that you have not said, Little Mouse. I know you wish the love of a woman solely, but that cannot be. Reluctant you may be, but your quest must be fulfilled. You are the last Dragon, my child. There must be an heir. On this Clan and Tribe both agree."

"I am aware of my familial duties, Great-grandmother." Zhu Shu answered sadly.

Ke Lun laid her hand on Zhu Shu's shoulder. "I am sorry you have no brother, Little Mouse. I would free you from this burden if it could be done." She lifted Zhu Shu's chin to look her in the eyes. "It does not have to be unpleasant, granddaughter. Surely there is one with whom you can be content?"

Tears fell from the corners of Zhu Shu's eyes as she whispered. "One with whom I can be content? There is no one, Great-grandmother. The one whom I had believed I might accept is betrothed already and soon will be again. Yet even were he to ask I would deny him. He is my friend… I cannot curse him with my hand… I cannot condemn him to share my fate…" She closed her eyes to fight the tears. "I could not do that to anyone I love…."

"Will you deny yourself love child? There can never be any good to come from that. And what of your tests? Did you set them only to insure your failure?"

Zhu Shu shook her head. "No… I… will fulfill my duties to one who can pass the tests… but I cannot love them back… I am cursed."

"No child. You are no more cursed to be what you are than any woman. Surely you can not hate men so much as that. There is no shame in love Zhu Shu, so long as it is true."

"And yet my duty bars me from the love I desire. I can feel nothing for men, Great-Grandmother. For all my training to please them, I feel no passion, no desire when I am with them. Not even Ranma."

"Duty is as heavy as a mountain, Little Mouse, yet we must fulfill it nonetheless. To do otherwise robs us of honor." She gently brushed Zhu Shu's braid back over her shoulder. "Do not despair, Little Mouse. I know that Shan Pu desires you. I gave her my permission to seek you as a bride. I know she would in all ways strive to make you happy. Were you to accept her as your sister-wife, you would need to fulfill your duty with Ranma only to bear an heir. The Loremaster can ensure that you would conceive. You need have no other intercourse with him as a man."

Zhu Shu shook. "It would not matter, Great Grandmother. I could not hide my feelings from him. I would not hurt him that way. I love him as a friend too much."

Ke Lun relented. "I will think on this. Mayhap there will yet be a way to fulfill duty and still bring you happiness… I would do much to see you happy, Child of the Dragon, for the happiness you have brought to others. Do not give up hope yet…."

Zhu Shu bowed, her closed eyes fighting a losing battle . "Thank you, Great-grandmother. I… will try." she whispered.

Ke Lun kissed her on the forehead and with a faint sound of wind was gone. Zhu Shu stood on the pole for a long while as the tears fell like rain.

Akane was waiting at the door to the Dojo when Zhu Shu finally arrived, and upon seeing the Chinese girl, gave her a double take. "Zhu-chan? What's wrong? You've been crying."

Zhu Shu shook her head yes. "Zhu Shu be okay. Just talk with Great-grandmother. She is worried for Zhu Shu is all." Zhu Shu wiped her eyes. "Could not stop tear is all. Zhu Shu give up on happiness. It seem no one else do. All think Zhu Shu should be happy. Cannot be and fulfill duties."

Akane hugged her at the sound of sadness in her voice. "We care for you, Zhu-chan. We hate the trap you're in and want to find some way for you out of it." She hugged her tighter. "And we're going to!" she said fiercely.

"Yeah!" came a five voice chorus from the doorway, where the Juuban girls were once again eavesdropping avidly, and eyes wide.

Zhu Shu essayed a sad smile at her students. "Almost, Zhu Shu believe."

"Believe, Zhu Shu." Akane said. "Somehow, we'll find the right girl for you."

"She likes girls?" Usagi said right before Rei bopped her on the head and knocked her over. "Owwww! What was that for?"

"Dummy!" Rei was furious. "How blind can you be!"

"Well, I didn't know. No one told me." Usagi whined as she rubbed her head.

"Um… Rei? I didn't know either." Ami said.

"I suspected, but I didn't know." Minako added.

"And how did you know?" Makoto asked.

Rei blushed furiously.

Zhu Shu laughed weakly. "It not matter. Zhu Shu appreciate try cheer her up. Thank you. But is time for lesson, yes no?" She straightened her dress and dried her eyes. "Lessons best thing for Zhu Shu now. Help clear mind." reasserting her iron control, she ushered the girls into the Dojo.

Zhu Shu noted Akane watching her closely through practice, and was glad to see her trying to learn the exercises so ardently, but unfortunately, she overreached and pulled her shoulder muscle. Zhu Shu had her sit to the side working the muscle to keep it from stiffening until she had finished with the Juuban girls and they were on their way home. As she worked on Akane's shoulder in the massage room, Akane surprised her with a question out of the blue.

"Zhu-chan? What is it like to make love to another girl?" Akane asked in a quiet tone, her eyes searching for Zhu Shu's

Zhu Shu's hands froze. "W-what?"

Akane turned to see her better, the towel draped over her slipping to the floor, revealing her unclothed form. "What is it like to make love to another girl?" she was blushing a deep red, but her eyes were pleading.

Zhu Shu took a deep breath, then bent to pick up the towel and put it back over Akane's body, her hands shaking. "That evil thing do Zhu Shu. Ask question like that and lose towel." She sat down across the room and looked at her. "Why ask?"

Akane sat up, holding the towel to cover herself, much to Zhu Shu's relief. "I-I-I was… curious… a-a-about w-what it would be like f-f-for me and R-R-R-Ranma." Her blush deepened and spread all the way to her towel. "I-I-I mean, I know what's done… I-I-I've seen magazines. But you're the o-only girl I k-k-know who's done it."

Zhu Shu looked at her for a long time before answering. "Zhu Shu cannot describe. Words not say what Zhu Shu mean. Can describe actions, can describe feelings, and still not come close."

"Oh." Akane's voice was disappointed

Zhu Shu looked off into nothing. "Zhu Shu only make love twice. Both times different. Both times mean more to Zhu Shu than words can say." She looked back to Akane. "In this, Zhu Shu think she luckier than most."

Akane cocked her head. "Why?"

Zhu Shu sat quietly for a long moment before deciding to answer "Listen girls from school, ones admit not virgin. Most say first time not pleasant. Messy. Painful. Man not know what do, hurt girl, and not care for her pleasure. Most only did to keep boyfriend. Were pressured to do. Others feel only way get boyfriend at all. Only few do because really want to, because feel is sharing between two kindred souls. Not like that for Zhu Shu."

"What was she like?" Akane asked, her voice hesitant. Zhu Shu took a deep breath as tears formed at the corners of her eyes.

"Ying Ying — Cherry Blossom, was best friend in village. We love one another for long time before do anything. She so beautiful Zhu Shu think heart would break when see. When first kiss, think heart burst out of chest. Spend hours learning how to pleasure one another. Both young, yes, and just learning and experimenting, but feelings there. Never feel pain when Ying Ying tear hymen, but blood on dress betrayed." She stopped for a long moment, her throat tight. "Aunt nearly kill Zhu Shu in anger. Ying Ying parents decide move week later…" Zhu Shu's voice broke as she sobbed silently, then continued in a whisper. "Nine month later Zhu Shu learn dead. Fall from cliff…"

"Oh, Zhu-chan…" Akane whispered.

Zhu Shu wrapped her arms around herself tightly, still staring blindly into the past, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Zhu Shu stop fighting family duties on day she learn"

A rustle of cloth hitting the ground was the only indication of Akane's motion until she laid an arm across Zhu Shu's shoulders. "I'm so sorry. I… didn't know."

Zhu Shu closed her eyes and struggled to seal the pain back behind the iron wall. Finally, she shrugged, her voice steadier. "Is old pain… Zhu Shu learn to live with long ago."

Akane heard the lie in her voice, and she hugged the smaller girl to her. Zhu Shu sat there a long time, the warmth of Akane's body doing little to fight the chill of old angers and regrets. Finally she continued. "Second time, Zhu Shu older, trained in many ways to please by aunt. Aunt make Zhu Shu learn how please man. Make learn how attract man's eyes, how seduce. Train for years in art of pleasing men, learn much, yet Zhu Shu find self student to one who know far more. She find Zhu Shu when think only thing Zhu Shu good for is make babies. When Zhu Shu think no one ever want for anything else. Zhu Shu had quest for over half year, no find anyone who met tests, just people want have sex with. Sarhia train Zhu Shu in art of dance, but she also teach much about pleasure, and passion. She show Zhu Shu she more than just body for men to use. Give Zhu Shu courage to continue quest. Zhu Shu learn much from her of the physical. Will always cherish time as her student." a faint smile came to her at the memories of those long days with her teacher in Shiva's Dance, The beautiful Indian dancer Sarhia she'd met in Beijing. "Zhu Shu learn from her that there can be much pleasure for oneself in pleasing another. Zhu Shu never forget, even when think quest failure. Part Sarhia touch never give up hope." She gave Akane a look with a little of her normal sparkle returned. "Zhu Shu think Akane do much worse than Ranma for fiancée. He have unique appreciation of the pleasure of a woman, like Sarhia. Perhaps have taught enough that he make first time with Akane wonderful."

Akane rose to stand before her and give her a hand up, then pulled Zhu Shu into an embrace, her bare body pressed against the thin silk of Zhu Shu's dress. "Oh, Zhu-chan… I want that first time to be with you… I want you to teach me…." One hand rose to cup Zhu Shu's head as she bent to kiss her.

Zhu Shu's hands on her shoulders stopped her. "No." She looked into Akane's eyes as she took a deep breath. "Akane… please… Zhu Shu…" She swallowed hard and concentrated on her Japanese. "I-I would like nothing better, but I-I can't." She had to look away from the hurt in Akane's eyes. "Please, if you not Ranma's fiancée… I-I would have give anything to have heard words from you. But I would not be true friend if accepted offer. I could not play with heart like that. Ranma deserve better. Akane deserve better… Sha…" she caught herself just in time. "Ranma is your fiancée. Zhu Shu know Akane care about Zhu Shu. Know Akane think she make Zhu Shu feel better this way. Know Akane think is what she want do… But I cannot allow… there is no honor…."

"Honor be damned," Akane whispered, tears in her eyes.

"No… Akane-chan mean too much to Zhu Shu to hurt like that." She held the other girl in her arms, letting her head rest on her shoulder. "I am sorry Akane-sama." she whispered.

"I hate you," Akane sobbed.

"Why?" Zhu Shu asked soothingly.

"Because I don't want you to be right…" She turned to look into Zhu Shu's eyes. "I wanted you to make wild passionate love to me… to…"

"Show Akane she truly desirable… show her she match up to Kodachi Kuno."

Akane looked away. "Damn you and your dragon eyes." She laughed bitterly. "I wanted to be swept away in passion… and you stand there with your implacable will, unmoved while I crash and break around you. Can nothing break you?"

Zhu Shu took Akane's hand and moved it downwards to touch her thighs, then raised it again to let the other girl see the fluid on her fingers. "Akane come very close… Zhu Shu go take very cold bath now." On unsteady legs, she turned to go.

Behind her, unseen, Akane rubbed her wet fingers together, then slowly raised them to her lips to taste.

The masked Chinese wizard Mara faced was not the person she had expected to find as the head of a clan of assassins, yet this was the person her spell had lead her to, the person she had traced the dead assassins in Tokyo to. His age was impossible to determine behind the mask, but he felt centuries old. He was not at all what she had expected.

Then again, neither was the Hexagram she found herself trapped in. She felt along the invisible walls around her, but they were like iron. She tried to dispel them, and her eyes widened in shock when she failed. The wizard laughed.

"Your Mistress herself could not break that seal, demon. Why not desist and tell me why you have invaded my domain."

Mara looked at him, and reasserted control of herself. "I believe we may have a mutual interest."

The man steepled his fingers. "Indeed. Skorpion has many interests, demon. Only a few involve the affairs of your realm or the Heavens ."

Mara raised her eyebrow at the casual way the man said that, then nodded as she sat crosslegged in midair. "This is a mortal affair in which we may share a common cause." She smiled evilly. "Shall we suffice it to say we both wish this mortal harm?"

"And you cannot eliminate this 'mortal' yourself?"

"I am… restrained in direct action. A goddess watches directly over this mortal, and I am not yet ready to challenge her directly. I wish to make her… suffer first. She is watching me, but will not be on guard for the actions of another mortal."

The wizard gave her a contemptuous smile. "Ah… and what grudge do you suspect Skorpion holds against this mortal."

Mara bristled at the smile, but controlled the anger that demanded she slay him and everyone in the mountain fortress. "She has slain those whom you sent to Japan to capture her."

The man's knuckles whitened against the arms of his chair, but he gave no other outward sign. "Yes… The Heir." The ice in his voice at the end dropped the room temperature several degrees. "In truth, I cannot say I regret their deaths. They acted against orders. Still, such an offense cannot go unpunished. And her death or capture would do much to repay the debts owed to Clan Dragon."

Mara smiled back, a cold lifeless thing. "And if I could arrange that?"

The wizard smiled just as coldly. "She is a warrior trained equal to any ten of my best assassins. The men in Japan tried to capture her only because they sensed she was low on chi, yet she still bested them easily. I will not waste men uselessly."

"Perhaps if she were unable to fight?"

The wizard's eyes glittered behind his mask. "And you believe you can arrange this?"

"Perhaps. I must investigate the possibilities, which I cannot do from this Hexagram…"

"Agreed." He muttered a cryptic phrase and the symbol ceased glowing. "If you can arrange for Song Zhu Shu to be captured, we will be in your debt, Demon. Clan Skorpion never forgets its debts." The glitter in his eye made sure she realized both meanings of that promise. Mara didn't bother to laugh at the notion this mortal could harm her, once he had served her purposes, he'd find out how foolish it was to annoy a demon.

And the absence of that maddening Chinese girl would make Urd's assignment impossible. And once Urd failed, she would be right where Mara wanted her, on the end of her leash.

"We shall see what can be arranged, wizard. If nothing else, perhaps events can be manipulated to lure her back to China and into a trap. She is blood bonded to an Amazon, and likely would feel a duty to aid them if… unfortunate things were to occur?"

"Indeed." He looked at her over steepled fingers. "A promising idea. I have several possibilities in mind. Return to Japan, demon, and watch over her for the moment." a mirror appeared in his hand and floated over to Mara. "Use this to keep me updated. I will set up the trap, and together, we will spring it to ensnare our Little Mouse."

Mara noted the absurd implication that the wizard considered them equals, but tucked the mirror into a sleeve and gave him a feral grin. She turned to go, but a last question struck her. "By the way. Why does she hide that dragon tattoo she bears?"

The man laughed. "It marks her, Demon, for all the world to see. It marks her as what even she herself does not know. It marks her as the Heir."

"I don't understand."

"No, Demon. Nor do I wish you to. It is a Clan matter. That is all you need know." The finality of his statement dissuaded her from further questions. It didn't matter anyway, so long as the Chinese girl was out of the way .…

There was still much to do. She'd drag the answers out of him later… when she was slowly ripping his soul out of his body….

Shan Pu stood at the door to the mansion and pressed the funny little button like she'd been told, even though it looked nothing like a bell. A sound of chimes came from far inside, and she nodded. Now, if she remembered her older cousin correctly, it could be awhile before he found the door. Rin Se's adopted son had always had the worst sense of direction. It had worried his mother when he had disappeared for days at a time whenever sent on simple errands, but eventually she'd gotten used to it when nothing they'd tried had ever worked for long. When she was little, Shan Pu hadn't minded that he got lost so easily, he'd had an uncanny knack for showing up at the right time to help the younger kids out of trouble. She'd been especially grateful at thirteen when he'd shown up and rescued her from Herb, the neophyte leader of the Musk. Nor had she forgotten how badly hurt he'd gotten doing so. He'd left the village to find his real parents following his recovery, and Shan Pu suspected, to find a way to get revenge on Herb, both for his injuries, and her curse.

She sat down on the step, thinking back over her childhood and the various little misadventures she'd gotten into with him. The encounters with the twins from the next village over, Pin Ke and Lin Ke and their plants… the time she'd fought that arrogant Tarou, even the one time she'd gone for a walk with her cousin and ended up in someplace called El Dorado when she was six. Her cousin had wandered in and out of her life like he had wandered across the land.

Finally, she heard footsteps behind the door and hopped up to greet him when he opened the door.

The door opened inwards to reveal a slightly feline face that broke into a wide grin when he saw her. "Shan Pu! Little Cousin!" What brings you to Japan?!" He stretched his arms out for a hug.

Shan Pu let herself be engulfed by the much larger figure. "I'm on a husband quest." she responded as she hugged him back. "I'm getting married!"

"What? My little cousin? Don't tell me you caved in to Mu Si?"

"Don't be silly. I'm getting married to a proper husband for the best of all reasons. He defeated me in fair combat!" She beamed. "Isn't it wonderful?" she sighed.

Her cousin took in the starry eyed look and shook his head. She had it bad. "Shan Pu. If he beat you in a fair fight, why are you questing? You should have been married on the spot!"

"Well… he was a girl at the time and I didn't know it so I gave him the kiss of death. Then his traveling companion told us the truth and we came to Japan to find him. We had to split up because Tokyo was so big, but now she's found him and Great-grandmother and Zhu Shu have worked out a plan to settle things to overlook the fact that he already has a fiancée."

"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Zhu Shu? Song Zhu Shu?"

"Yes! She's my blood-sister. She'd been living with my groom preparing things so that when we arrive, Ranma can't escape again. And Great-grandmother has a plan to ensure his family doesn't ruin things by objecting."

"Ranma… Saotome?" He sat down and shook his head. "Shan Pu, he's engaged to Akane Tendo. How in all the hells does Ke Lun think she can convince them to engage him to you as well, short of wholesale slaughter and kidnapping? I know that's the normal way, but this is Japan. Ke Lun may be a stickler for traditions, but…."

"Great-grandmother has her reasons, cousin. She's the Warleader, and must uphold the traditions." Shan Pu looked at him crossly.

"No matter how out of date they are?"

"Cousin!" she said in shock. "You were raised on those traditions!"

"Humph. A year in the JSDF mellowed my opinions on 'traditions', Shan Pu."

"Do not let great-grandmother hear you say that or she will re-educate you in them."

He shuddered. "I don't intend to tell her." He stood again. "Anyway, little cousin. I take it you were sent to fetch me for some reason?"

Shan Pu nodded. "Great-grandmother will tell you what she plans so you may advise her on how best to proceed."

"Ke Lun?! Listen to me? What a novel idea!"

"Tao-Ching!" Shan Pu chided.

"Just kidding, little cousin. Just kidding. Lead on… ."

Honey and cinnamon.

She couldn't get the taste of honey and cinnamon out of her mouth or off her fingers, nor did she really want to despite the guilt the taste brought. She'd give anything to take back those moments and the words she'd said to Zhu Shu. She had never meant to hurt her friend like that and she'd undo it if she could… and yet at the same time, she couldn't stop thinking about that last moment, when Zhu Shu had taken her hand and showed her the effect she'd had on her….

Honey and cinnamon….

She'd run to her room, unable to bear the feelings of shame at what she'd done, and the fire between her thighs. She'd exhausted herself over the last hour between mind numbing orgasms and bouts of crying.

How could Zhu Shu not hate her for torturing her like that?! She was engaged to Ranma! Zhu Shu's best friend! She should have known better, should have thought first, and should have realized it was going to backfire. All she had wanted was to make Zhu Shu feel better, to cheer her up… to caress her and kiss her and…

She was in the middle of her eighth climax when the door opened and Kasumi slid into the room. Too shocked to move, she lay there with one hand cupping her breast and the other between her legs, staring guiltily.

Kasumi tilted her head and looked her over. "She said you'd probably be doing this or crying, but from the state of your pillow and sheets, I'd say you've been doing both.

Akane sighed and blushed simultaneously as she covered herself with her sheet. "She must hate me."

"She said you'd say that too. She asked me to tell you that were you not engaged to Ranma… she would have accepted." Kasumi sat on the edge of her bed. "She's not upset with you Akane. She's flattered. And she said it boded well for Ranma."

"But I-I…"

"Tried to seduce her and almost succeeded." Kasumi smiled. "In my opinion, it might have been a good thing if you had…" She rolled her eyes. "Then again… she'd be the one doing this right now and convinced that she had betrayed you both by shaming the fiancée of her best friend." She sighed. "I love her to death, the dear, but she can be ever so stubborn about some things. Then again, so can you and Ranma. No practicality at all."

Akane stared. Kasumi noted the shocked look and chuckled. "What? I'm your big sister, Akane. You're supposed to talk about sex and things like that with me." She reached down and poked at the damp sheet. "Besides, who does the laundry? I've been a little worried by the fact that I don't have to change your sheets as often as Nabiki's." She smiled. "It's nice to see you finally admitting to being a normal girl."

Akane blinked repeatedly.

"But still… we really should talk about things like contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as techniques and…" She looked at a beet red Akane who appeared to be trying to crawl into the headboard. "Oh, do calm down, Akane. You were just soaking your sheets thinking about sex with another girl, why are you getting so flustered by my talking about it?"

"But… but… you're my sister!"

"Exactly my point." She sighed and folded her hands in her lap. "Akane, you never had the chance to learn any of this from our mother. She had a talk with me about all this when I was much younger than you. Mother was a very practical woman, she had to be to balance out daddy, and she raised me to be practical too. I try my best to be like her, and even though mom might not have handled these things exactly like I am, well, I've had to learn to be more pragmatic about things. Raising you and Nabiki and taking care of daddy demands it. But I enjoy it too; it makes me happy to have everything running smoothly because I feel like I've accomplished something important."

Akane sat limply against the headboard, too shocked to do more than nod.

"And I know you admired Zhu Shu's pragmatism about educating Ranma in the finer points of female anatomy."

Akane nodded again.

"So why does my pragmatism about teaching you about sex embarrass you?"

"Umm… It's just an attitude I'd expect from Nabiki, not you. Although with her, I'd expect a ton of laughter and a lot of blackmail." She shrugged. "It's just unexpected, Kasumi. I mean, yeah, I can see your logic, but… it's you!"

Kasumi laughed, a bright merry chuckle. "Oh, my. I'm just too straightlaced, am I?"

Akane nodded furiously. "You're just so… so… conservative… and traditional!"

There was a bright sparkle in Kasumi's eye. "Really? Well Akane, geisha training is very traditional. I may not know everything Zhu Shu does, but I do read a lot, and I've studied it over the years. Anyway… I've decided to give you a few lessons in the 'traditional' arts, like the tea ceremony and such. Zhu Shu could give you a far better education in those arts, than I, but when I asked her, she said she'd enjoy it far too much if you were her student in those arts." She laughed again at the return of Akane's beet red blush. "She also said to tell you to be glad I'm not her aunt. I gather her aunt was a very strict teacher."

Akane gulped. "Geisha training? Zhu Shu's a geisha? Is that what she meant?"

"She didn't call it that, she used a Mandarin word, but the closest match in Japanese was geisha. She said it was just another way of serving her emperor." She looked towards Zhu Shu's room. "From the slight bitterness in her voice, I would take it her lessons weren't very pleasant for her. Then again, knowing her preferences…" She left the rest unsaid. "Still, I figured that if you might be getting sexually active, I should do my best to make sure you were safe about it. I know what kind of urges teenagers get, Akane. I went through it all myself just a few years ago. If I hadn't had to take care of you all, I'd have made some terrible mistakes. Nabiki has made a couple, and if she hadn't been so insistent that she knew what she was getting into…" She sighed. "Well, she's still stubborn and will make up her own mind. But you, Akane; you're my little sister, and I don't want you to be hurt. There are a lot of guys out there who will do nothing but use you. I've been so worried about all the boy problems you had at school until Ranma came along. I was afraid that you might… well, it didn't happen and I'm not one for 'what might ofs'." She sighed again. "I'm really starting to get jealous of you these days Akane. I think maybe I was far too quick to pass Ranma off on you just because he was younger than me. He's not perfect, but he is a really nice person at heart. And with Zhu Shu helping him out… He's still got a long way to go, but I'm starting to see what he could become."

Akane looked at her even more shocked.

"Oh my, I've shocked you even further now have I?" Kasumi giggled.

Akane nodded. Then curled her feet up to wrap her arms around them. "You're jealous of me? Over Ranma?" She smiled. "Who would have figured. He's arrogant, proud, stubborn…."

"And he cares about you… and you care about him." Kasumi finished.

Akane blushed. "Yeah… He's a jerk sometimes… but he's my jerk."

"I'm glad to hear that. I hope someday, I'll find someone like him."

"What about Ryouga? He's always hanging around you."

"He's a very nice boy too. And very chivalrous. I haven't made up my mind about him yet." Kasumi admitted. "I do like older men because it usually means they've matured enough to think about my feelings as well as their own… I just don't know yet with Ryouga."

Akane grinned. "Sounds to me like you do like him."

Kasumi blushed delicately. "Maybe a little."

"Oh, my." Akane giggled softly.

Kasumi batted her foot. "You're terrible."

"ME! You're the one sitting there telling me you're gonna teach me to be a geisha!"

"Well… it's better to teach you than to let you learn from mistakes… And I'm not teaching you to be a geisha, I'm just going to teach you a little about sex, and things to maybe help your romance with Ranma along…" She looked at her seriously again. "It's not something to just gloss over. It would cause so many problems if you came up pregnant. And don't bother to tell me you haven't even thought about it. I've heard about your little 'accidental' flashes."

Akane blushed again. "Ok… yeah… I've thought about it… What it would be like with…" She blushed harder. "Well… with him in either form really. I guess it'd be kinda pointless to deny I'm attracted to him as a girl too… considering." She looked down to the mute evidence of her fantasies.

Kasumi noted her gaze and nodded. "There's nothing wrong with that, Akane. You're in a unique situation. I've had my share of fantasies along those lines too."

Akane looked at her wide eyed. "You?"

"This from a sister who suspects I've slept with Zhu Shu… Yes. I've fantasized, but on the whole, I guess I like men entirely too much to really do anything with a woman. I love Zhu Shu as a friend, and yes… I've kissed her… But we've never done anything else."

Akane looked at Kasumi's smile… still the same warm caring smile she had trusted all her life. And yet… "You know Kasumi, before Zhu Shu came, I could have sworn I knew you so well… Now…"

"She has a way of bringing out of people things that are normally hidden, yes no?"

Akane laughed at Kasumi's imitation. "Yes, yes." She tilted her head at Kasumi. "If she had asked, would you have slept with her?"

Kasumi smiled. "That… is something I don't know the answer too. I guess I will just have to wait and see if she ever asks me. I can't say that I'd rule out the possibility I'd say yes."

Akane smiled. "At least I'm not alone in that."

"No. But I am curious about something Zhu Shu said… she said you had tried to seduce her because you were jealous over Ranma? What happened today to make you jealous?"

Akane's eyes hardened. "That bitch sister of Kuno's, Kodachi. Its bad enough I have to fight her, it's bad enough she's rich and graceful and pretty. Oh no. She just has to fall all over Ranma and he lets her! I found them on the roof last night almost kissing! Then she fawns all over him in school today and wants me to wager Ranma on the match!"

Kasumi nodded. "Oh, my. And what did you do?"

"Well what could I do? The whole school was watching!"

Kasumi shook her head. "Oh, my. Akane… you really need to learn to control your temper… I really don't think that Ranma's encouraging this Kodachi, is he?"

"Well, he's certainly not discouraging her either!" Akane fumed.

"Akane. What do you want him to do? Punch her? From what Zhu Shu told me, he's done almost everything short of violence to discourage her."

Akane glared at nothing.

"Akane, is it really even that you're angry with Ranma? Or are you afraid that Kodachi might be successful? Are you afraid of losing Ranma?"

Akane wouldn't meet her gaze.

Kasumi sighed. "Oh well, it was worth a try." She got up and straightened her skirt. "I really think you should think about it, Akane. Anyway, I have to go and get dinner on the table before Ranma starts eating the house." She looked over her shoulder just before slipping out the door. "I really do love you, Akane. I'm just trying to help."

Akane hung her head. "I know Kasumi. I'm sorry… It's just so hard to…"

"I know. It'll come in time…" She slipped out the door with barely a whisper.

Akane stared after her for a long time, asking herself over and over, what did she really feel?

After a rather quiet dinner, Ranma sat on a rock by the Koi pond and pondered the strange tensions he'd felt in the room at dinner. Zhu Shu had seemed… strange, almost as if she felt guilty about something, and Akane, when she had finally come down, had seemed to spend more time looking at him than eating. It was weird… he wondered what he had done now.

A whisper of cloth made him turn to see Kasumi sit down on the bench next to him. He blinked. "Hey, wassup?"

"Ranma, what happened in school today?"

"Huh." The question caught him by surprise. "Uh…nothing much I guess… When we got to school Kuno's crazy sister attacked Akane and tried to glue herself to me. And Akane got mad when I tried to tell Kodachi I had a fiancée. Then Kodachi challenged Akane… that if she lost the match next week, she had to give me up too… and that idiot Kuno encouraged her. I can't believe she went along with it. I dunno… maybe she wants to get rid of me… I can't make heads or tails of her… one minute she's so… um… well… she can be really nice you know, then bam she's angry and I getting yelled at. At least she hasn't hit me for a while. I can't figure her out. And now at dinner, she looked at me the whole meal and I couldn't tell if she was mad at me, or what…."

"How do you feel? About her?"

"I don't know… I mean… " He looked down into the water. " I-I like her… and I want her to like me… but I always seem to mess things up… and then she's mad at me… and half the time I don't know what I did wrong…."

"Have you ever told her that? I mean, in words, just like that?"

"I-I…" His voice lowered to a whisper. "I can't…" What if she laughs at me? his mind said. What if she tells me she hates me when she's not mad?

<<Why?>> a voice whispered back… barely loud enough to hear.

"Because… I-I…" He took a deep breath. "I-I'm afraid… she… might laugh at me."

<<But what if she doesn't?>>

Ranma's breath caught as he tried to think of an answer to that, then a noise made him raise his eyes to where Akane was crossing the garden to the Dojo for her lesson in rhythmic gymnastics with Zhu Shu. Kasumi looked into his eyes as he watched her, and nodded. "You might be surprised at that…" She rose and picked up a cloth wrapped bundle from the bench. "I actually came to ask you a favor from Zhu Shu. She asked me if you would guard the dojo tonight. Make sure no one enters. She said what she would be doing tonight could be dangerous if any distractions occur. And she gave me this to give to you." She handed the bundle to Ranma.

Puzzled, he slowly unwrapped the bundle, and his breath caught.

On the silk lay Zhu Shu's swords, minus the long ribbons.

Ranma stood, holding the bundle reverently. "Yes. On my honor, no one shall pass." He escorted Kasumi to the Dojo and bowed to her. "Tell Zhu Shu, her honor is safe with me."

Kasumi smiled. "She said she already knew that… but she's not the one who you are guarding tonight. She said it Akane was who needed protection…."

Ranma nodded, stroking his hair nervously. "Uh… well… I will keep them both safe."

With a final smile and nod, Kasumi slid the Dojo door closed. Ranma turned and sat on the step where he could see both entrances and placed Zhu Shu's swords on his lap. What could she be doing tonight that would prompt her to ensure Ranma's vigilance by giving him her swords? It meant she was placing her life in his hands.

What could she be doing?

From the shadows beside the dojo, a faint sigh issued from a pair of perfect lips. This Ranma seemed to be a nice boy, but he seemed as shy as her darling Keiichi. Well, at least she had planted the question in his thoughts. Maybe it would eventually give him the courage he needed to admit his heart.

She smiled as he sat before the dojo and assumed guard. It was so obvious he cared for Akane, and that he had an enormous heart buried beneath that rough exterior. If Urd succeeded in granting Shan Pu's wish, then the Amazon would indeed have a happy life with her Airen.

Which meant she had to get busy with her part. She turned to the dojo wall and murmured a chant, a glowing circle of light forming around her hand patterned with mystical symbols. Normally, she wouldn't do something like this, but Urd had been adamant that something had to be done to make a change, and faced with a choice of doing the spell, or leaving it up to Urd's potions, Belldandy had relented. She wanted her sister to succeed in her present task, and was worried that Kami-sama had given what was proving such a difficult case to Urd. She had been instructed she was allowed to aid Urd if asked, and hoped Kami-sama wouldn't view this as overstepping her bounds….

Zhu Shu sat motionless in the center of the Dojo, meditating and cleansing her chi flows. Before her sat a bowl of strong tea that had a pungent, spicy odor. The vapors from the tea helped her deepen the trance, calming the raging flows of emotion kindled earlier in the day. She needed to be absolutely calm and centered for what she planned to do tonight. She had racked her brains since yesterday night, but the only solution she could think of that would teach Akane what she needed to learn to win her match was this. She had spent the last few hours following her cold bath preparing the dojo and herself, reviewing all the things her teacher had done when she had undergone this same process almost nine months ago, learning a new technique in one night.

Akane could do it, she knew. She had the training and the skill, but not the confidence or patience, or for that matter the coordination at the moment. She had the potential, but had never bothered to learn to be graceful. Zhu Shu had to bypass all of that. She had to get past Akane's subconscious resistances and preconceptions of what she should do, and get her body and mind to learn the techniques so well they were reflexes, something done without thought….

Akane entered, a curious look on her face, but wearing the Indian dance outfit that Zhu Shu had left for her in the dressing room. She started to ask about it, but stopped when she saw Zhu Shu dressed in a matching outfit. When Zhu Shu didn't move, she proceeded to the training mat, and sat across from her in the same pose.

After Akane had settled, Zhu Shu spoke, her state of extreme concentration perfecting her Japanese. "You are here to learn the Dance of Shiva, and in doing, you will learn the art of the ribbon. We have no time for you to learn it in any normal way, as there are only five days to your match. I can teach it to you tonight, but I must first know the true answers to two questions."

Akane nodded. "I will answer truthfully, sensei." she replied formally.

"Is defeating Kodachi worth this? You will be changed by this, you will learn things you may not want to know. Teaching you the Dance this way is all or nothing, to master it, you must give up all you know, only to regain it as you absorb what you have learned. It may be weeks before you recover the knowledge of the martial skills you have now. Is he worth this?"

Akane thought about it for a long moment. She had no idea that what Zhu Shu had planned was so drastic, but…

Finally, she nodded. "Yes."

"Then I must ask my second question." She held up the bowl of tea. "To train your body in what it must learn, you must relinquish your will, give up thought, give up time. You must exist only in the now. If you drink this, you will lose all conscious control, able to do no more than obey my commands. You will see and hear everything, but you will be a passenger in your own body as the dance controls you, and burns itself into you. There is danger in this, for you will obey any command, even those that will result in your death. For two hours, you will be a slave to anyone who commands you." Zhu Shu opened her eyes to look directly into Akane's. "So I must ask you. Do you trust me?"

Akane looked at the bowl, a slight hint of dread in her eyes. "Is it safe?"

Zhu Shu nodded. "Ranma sits without, bearing my swords to bar all who might enter. Kasumi sits here with the antidote if needed. I can make it no safer save to seal us both in a vault."

"Is it necessary?

"To learn the Dance in time, yes."

Akane gulped. She took the bowl in both hands and closed her eyes before draining it.

Zhu Shu took the bowl from her and tossed it to Kasumi. At that signal, Kasumi started the CD player and a low throbbing beat filled the room. Zhu Shu rose, drawing Akane up with her. "Open your eyes Akane-chan. Move as I move, do as I do." She began a slow dance step, mirrored flawlessly by Akane.

"Hear my words and remember." Zhu Shu started, the words said to her by Sarhia, her teacher, coming to her lips almost unbidden. "To learn the Dance, you must be the Dance. Forget your fear, forget your worry, forget your doubts and pride. You can make no errors because the Dance dictates your moves. There is only yourself, and your partner, be they rival or companion. The Dance defines you. You are motion, you are desire, you are life. You will only fail if you admit to the possibility of failure, if you give less than your best. You are the Dance. Hear and remember." She moved into a more complex pattern as the tempo increased. "There is no time during the Dance, Akane-chan. All is one, the future is the next step, the past is the one finished, the present is your partner." In a flowing sweep, she picked up her ribbons in a move still echoed flawlessly by Akane, the motion flowing so smoothly that the ribbons twined about them both in a helix before settling in to swirling patterns about them as the tempo increased again.

"There is more to the Dance than just motion. The Dance is of the spirit as well. To know the Dance you must release the locks on your spirit. Let your spirit flow, let it rise, let it join in the Dance. As you have abandoned your body to the Dance, so too must follow your spirit. Allow your spirit to flow as the Dance wills!" With that last command, Zhu Shu released her own fading hold on her conscious mind and lost herself within the Dance. The moment she could have stopped the training was past; from here it was all instinct and the rapidly escalating effects of the potion they had shared.

As she relinquished her conscious mind, green tendrils of light wisped along her ribbons as they caressed the ribbons surrounding Akane. After a few minutes, wisps of blue flickered along Akane's ribbons to twine with the green of Zhu Shu's and a breeze began to rise.

Kasumi watched from the sidelines as the glows from both girls grew and the energies slowly formed globes around each other. The tempo increased again and with a sudden rush of glowing fire, the two were no longer mirrors, but separate parts moving as a whole. As they swirled into complimentary dances, the wind in the Dojo rose to a peak and streamers of blue and green light began to merge into gold.

Entranced by the Dance, Kasumi lost track of time, aware only of the patterns of light and motion before her. Unnoticed, the CD stopped, but the music continued, its rising tempo driving the Dancers even harder. As the music rose to a fever pitch, a haze of golden light swallowed the last of the streamers of green and blue, and a soundless explosion lit the Dojo.

Time ceased to exist….

Honey and Cinnamon.

Akane floated in a void, her mouth once more heavy with the taste of honey and cinnamon, her skin on fire with a thousand pinpricks of ice. Energies she had never felt before flowed through her, making her insides feel like they had melted into molten gold, and electric sensations jumped along her nerve pathways. Slowly, like a glacier calving into the sea, the sensations faded and sorted themselves into currents and flows that ran through her body and mind.

Is this what Zhu Shu feels? she thought. Is this what it feels like to be aware of your ki?

She opened her eyes to find herself staring at the ceiling of the Dojo, her sight blurred by a golden haze. She tried to set up, but for all of the energy flowing through her, she could not use any of it to make her body respond. With a faint groan, she closed her eyes and fought with the wild floods of energy within her. After what seemed an eternity, she finally tamed the raging surges and it settled into a broad placid river, bringing with it bits and pieces of memories not her own: Faces she didn't recognize, names she couldn't place. They came in a sprinkling of images, like snowflakes that melted away and were gone, leaving only the strongest to remain in the forefront of her mind.

A beautiful Chinese girl with cherry blossoms in her pink hair to match her name, her face forever frozen in that last sad look as she waved goodbye. Behind the image of her face emotions lay buried. A grief so strong that Akane could bear to only brush the fringes of it and another emotion…

It wove through every hint of memory and even the grief. Every trace of the ghost of memories associated with the girl bore its mark… every flash of a memory of shared laughter, or the guilty pleasure of sneaking off to hear the stories told by a blind old woman. From every memory it sprang, intertwined through Zhu Shu's very being and stretching beyond sight, beyond hope, in a link that could never be broken. Seeing it, separate and apart from herself, Akane had no choice but to name it for what it was, and recognize its echoes in herself.


It ran through her own memories as well; of Ranma when he smiled, or the utterly shocked look on his face that one time in the bath. It had come to tinge the edge of every memory she had of him, even the arguments, and seeing it so clearly, she finally knew the answer to the first serious question Zhu Shu had ever asked. "Do you love him?"

Zhu Shu had been right. Her heart had known all along. It didn't make Ranma easier to live with, or change his irritating habits, or anything else… but that didn't matter. She knew… and with the knowing she realized she had taken a step towards her own happiness.

Carefully setting aside the memories of Zhu Shu's lost love, not wishing to probe them too deeply, she turned to the next strongest memories that had somehow found their way into her head, memories of herself and a purple haired Chinese girl sporting odango. A part of herself she couldn't put a finger on whispered the girls name… Shampoo… and told her that she was…

Ranma's Fiancée?!!!!

She tried to untangle it, but the memories of herself and Shampoo were intertwined and inseparable. Zhu Shu apparently thought of both of them, equally, as Ranma's fiancée… Akane's eye's snapped open again and she sat up to see a dazed Zhu Shu supporting herself on one hand and shaking her head to clear it. Puzzled, Akane asked, "Who is Shampoo?"

Dazed, off guard and unprepared for the question, the Mandarin girl answered automatically. "Ranma's Amazon fiancée and my blood-sis… ter…." As she realized what she was saying she trailed off, looking in dread at Akane.

Kasumi, recovering her own wits nearby, gasped. "Ranma's fiancée?"

Glumly, Zhu Shu nodded.

Akane rubbed her temples. "Zhu-chan… when were you going to tell me about her?" an undercurrent of anger tinted her voice.

"Zhu-chan?" Kasumi's voice held more of a plea for a reason to understand.

Zhu Shu sat and folded her legs under her. "Akane-sama, Kasumi-sama, I must beg your forgiveness, but I could not tell you."

"Why!" Akane glared. "I trusted you! Why didn't you tell me!"

"Please, Zhu-chan. Tell us why you kept this from us?"

"Because… because I did not have a choice. Shan Pu gave Ranma the Kiss of Death when he defeated her. By Amazon law she would have hunted Ranma down and killed him, believing him female, but I told the Amazons about his curse. Shan Pu gave the Kiss of Death to Ranma's female half for defeating her in battle, but Amazon law dictates that a man who beats an Amazon must marry her. Shan Pu has to marry Ranma, even if she has to kill his other fiancée. But when I found Ranma, I found Akane, and saw that Ranma and Akane cared for each other, whether they would admit it or not. If Shan Pu had come too soon, before I had a chance to prepare things, she would have killed Akane. Ranma would have been devastated and most likely would have hated her. Shan Pu is my blood-sister. Ranma is my friend. Akane has become my friend. What was I to do? As Shan Pu's blood-sister, I too am bound by Amazon law to see Ranma wed to Shan Pu, but Ranma loves Akane. Without her, he will never be happy. I can't let Shan Pu kill Akane, but if she doesn't marry Ranma she will be disgraced and would probably kill herself in shame…." Her voice broke. "I had to find a way to arrange things for both Akane and Shan Pu to marry Ranma, to make her a sister-wife by Amazon custom… I couldn't bear to let Shan Pu kill herself… I already have one suicide I'm responsible for… I couldn't bear another!" Sobs racked her as she collapsed in tears. "It's the only way I could make everyone happy and no one had to die!"

Kasumi reached out to hold her close and stroke her hair. "Oh, you poor dear… You've been doing this all this time, just so you could make all of your friends happy?" She looked at Akane. "I think it's a wonderful thing you've done."

Akane looked guilt stricken. "Zhu-chan, would Shampoo really kill me?

Zhu Shu's agonized eyes gave her the answer. Akane had to look away. "Who— Who's suicide do you think…" her whispered question trailed off as she realized she knew the answer even as she asked… and why Zhu Shu would rather die than see another friend lost… the knowledge was there in the memory of her face as she waved goodbye…

"Ying Ying didn't fall…" she whispered.

She threw herself across the floor to hold Zhu Shu as well, tears falling from her eyes. "I'm sorry! I didn't know. I never realized…"

Kasumi held both the sobbing girls until they had quieted, stroking their hair until they cried themselves out. For long moments they let themselves be comforted until finally Akane asked "What is Shampoo like?" as she rubbed her eyes.

Zhu Shu sat back on her feet and looked down at her hands. "She's the Amazon's Champion. A very strong warrior. She can be a vicious enemy or a wonderful friend. I-I miss her very much."

"Will… will I like her?"

"I hope so. She's like you in a lot of ways, like Ranma in a lot of ways, even like me in some ways. She is an Amazon. She has a lot of honor and pride. She's the strongest Amazon warrior of her generation. Ranma's the only person to beat her since she turned thirteen. She has a very strong will, like you." She looked up to meet Akane's eyes. "I fear will squabble with her worse than you and Ranma do. She's under no obligation to love you like Ranma, and she won't settle for the role of a lesser wife. She must be first, or equal."

"So… I have to accept her as a second wife, or she'll kill me?"

"It's the Amazon way. They are even older than Clan Dragon. Even the Communists fear them."

"And Ranma was stupid enough to get us in this position." She sighed. "Oh well. I guess I'll deal with her when she shows up. One Fiancée at a time. I can't say I'm thrilled at the thought of a mystery fiancée, but—" She smiled at Zhu Shu. "—I had contemplated the idea of sharing him. Just not with an Amazon." She looked around the dark dojo. "I guess it's a good thing Ranma's guarding the door. A fine sight we must look huddled on the floor like this." She stood and bent to kiss Kasumi on the forehead. "Thank you… for being a wonderful big sister." Kasumi blushed as Akane turned to Zhu Shu. "I- I think I know now why you said no. You're in love with me aren't you?"

Zhu Shu looked away.

"You're afraid you wouldn't be able to let me go afterwards. I understand it now." She offered her hand to the Chinese girl and helped her to her feet. "If you want the truth, Zhu-sama…" she whispered gazing into her eyes, "I'm not sure I could have let go afterwards either. I don't know if I could have been able to choose between you or Ranma. I might have ended up breaking both of your hearts if I had to choose. Why do you think I've thought about sharing?" She looked at the ribbons lying on the Dojo floor where they had fallen. "That's why it got out of hand isn't it? When our ki touched, neither of us wanted to let go… we bound ourselves so close I have some of your memories… I know now how to recognize love from your memories of it… and my feelings for Ranma and you." She hugged Zhu Shu close. "I will find a way to repay you for all you have given me, I will find a way to allow you the happiness you deserve… I swear I will. And I'll try to accept Shampoo. For you."

They shared the hug for a long moment before Akane stepped back and turned towards the dressing room, then hesitated, looking back at Zhu Shu. "It's funny, you know… you still glow gold…." She turned and disappeared into the dressing room as Zhu Shu and Kasumi stared after her.

As the door slid shut, Kasumi asked. "Glow gold?"

Zhu Shu looked at her wide eyed. "She's seeing my aura… chi… She's right. I had green chi, but now, it's gold… so is hers…."

"She moves like you too… so fluid, and she feels different somehow."

Zhu Shu buried her face in her hands. "I am a fool. I should have seen this would happen. Akane's a complete novice in chi manipulation. When we blended… we couldn't unblend… We… we're sisters now in the same way Shan Pu is my sister. Our chi is bonded, but where only a small part of my chi is bonded to Shan Pu, much more has been bonded between us. I did not expect that. When Sarhia taught me the Dance this way, nothing like this occurred."

Kasumi looked after her little sister. "I very much doubt she will mind one bit, Little Mouse."

Zhu Shu nodded. "I certainly hope so…."

Akane smiled as she opened the door to the Dojo and saw Ranma setting on the step, his red aura flickering faintly as he breathed. The swords in his hand moved a bare fraction as he tensed at the sound of the door, then relaxed as he recognized her. "Oh. It's you. You ok? It sounded like you were pushing pretty hard in there earlier."

She smiled even more broadly. He'd been curious, but had kept his promise. She nodded. "I think, in many ways, I'm finer than I ever have been before Ran-chan." She looked out over the garden and fingered her braid. "I think I learned more tonight than I have in my entire previous life, I certainly have a lot to think about." She looked up at the few stars visible through Tokyo's light pollution and smiled. "Have you ever noticed the stars, Ranma?"

"Yeah… out on training trips with Pops, I looked at them all the time. When you're out away from the city, you can see them fill the night sky. Once, I stood on a mountain where all I could see in my entire vision was the night sky. I almost felt like if I just pushed off, I could fall into the sky…."

Akane looked at his face and saw he was looking up at the stars as well. The revelation surprised her. She'd never thought he could be sensitive. He caught her looking and looked down at her. "What?"

"Nothing… just…" She smiled. "Make sure Zhu Shu and Kasumi get to the house alright." She started across the garden to his puzzled look.

Halfway across, she stopped and looked back. "Before I go though, I think you should know two things… One. I don't think you truly realize what kind of a friend Zhu Shu really is…" She stopped and looked at him directly. "And two. And this one you had better remember, Ranma Saotome." The strange light in her eyes made him swallow. "I love you."

She left him there, staring after her with no words he could find worth saying…

In the deepest shadows by the Dojo wall, another guardian watched their exchange and smiled. At least this part of Urd's crazy plan seemed to have worked. He looked down to the angelic face of his most beloved Belldandy cradled in his lap as she slept. He snuggled his Nekomi Tech jacket closer around her shoulders as she smiled and snuggled closer. It would be pointless to try and wake her for several hours yet. She always had to sleep whenever she had created a major spell, and she had worked this one for almost an hour and a half before passing out. He'd ask her later what the point of those two colored balls of light, one blue, one green, she had joined into a single ball of golden light. She'd stared in to it for over an hour before releasing the spell and falling asleep. Maybe for once, her explanation of it would be something he could understand.

Ranma turned as Kasumi and Zhu Shu exited the Dojo. "No one came in, but Nabiki wanted to know what the light show was. Pop and Mr. Tendo showed up too, with that weird voodoo guy in tow. Wouldn't tell me where they'd been all week. That Voodoo guy said there was a 'heap o magic' flowing out of there, but he didn't want anything to do with a 'Loa' that big, whatever that means." He handed Zhu Shu back her swords. "I have guarded your Honor and now return it to you unshamed."

Zhu Shu took the swords. "I thank you for that guarding." She bowed.

Ranma nodded. "What's up with Akane? She was acting kind of weird."

Zhu Shu nodded. "The training didn't go exactly as I planned it." She looked up as the light went on in Akane's room. "And truth to tell, I don't know yet if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I don't know at all…."

Ranma tilted his head at her. "Zhu Shu, what happened to your accent?"

"What? I can't help having an accent. I would have thought you'd be used to it by now…."

"I am… but it's missing."


"He's right." Kasumi added. "It wasn't there in the Dojo either. You're speaking Japanese fluently."

"Yeah, much better than the broken pidgin you usually speak."

"I'm Mandarin. I speak a proper tongue! If I have trouble wrapping my tongue around… around…" She broke off as she realized she had been about to punch Ranma into next week, and that he was cringing.

"Jeez, Zhu Shu, what's got into you? I'd expect that from Akane, not you!"

She unballed her fist and stared at it in astonishment. She'd never punched anything in her life. All her training and reflexes were with her swords or ribbons, and she'd been trained to channel anger into her chi. Her reaction to the casual barb from Ranma was as alien to her as… as…

Akane's ability to see auras?

She searched her emotions to try and find what had sparked her sudden rage, and almost cried when she found it.

Didn't he realize how much his words could hurt her? How could he insult her like that? Didn't he realize her….

Loved him?

Memories and emotions not her own lurked inside her head, mixed into her subconscious….

Sisters indeed… in so much more than blood.

From his seat in the shadows, Keiichi Morisato watched as the Chinese girl burst into tears and was lead away by the taller Japanese one, leaving Ranma standing speechless in the garden once more. He looked down at Belldandy's peaceful face. What had she done? He watched as Ranma entered the main house and settled himself, leaning his head back against the wall and looking at the stars. He hated to see girls cry. He hoped the end results of Urd's scheme made what ever had just happened worth it, that for once in her career as a goddess, she was doing the right thing….


To be continued.

Chapter 9
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