Halftime

By Aaron Ziegler
spanner@visi.com

Chapter 16: Passing Time

Gradually, light returned to Ranma's world. She could feel concrete beneath her, and her nose registered a sort of damp, sour smell. An alley smell. Opening her eyes, she could see featureless buildings towering on either side of her, as well as an old wooden fence behind her. A moment's recollection reminded her why she was lying on her back in one of Nerima's many alleyways. She had been blasted there by the same musical attack that had stripped her of consciousness.

Groaning, she began to sit up. She found her efforts hindered by some sort of weight atop her. It was Akane. Ranma panicked momentarily, fearing that Akane might be seriously hurt. Fortunately, a quick scan revealed that Akane was uninjured, aside from a few cuts and bruises. She was sleeping peacefully.

Ranma gazed at her tenderly for a moment. Akane looked so innocent while sleeping. Ranma loved to see her this way. Oh, even when she was violent, angry, and tomboyish, she had her appeal (though Ranma would never admit that, even to herself). But Akane smiling, Akane thoughtful, Akane peaceful; these were the moments Ranma had come to live for. The moment passed, and Ranma decided to wake her. "Akane!" she prompted softly, gently shaking her.

Almost immediately, Akane's eyes popped open. "Wha- Ranko! What happened? Where are we?"

Wincing slightly at the name 'Ranko', Ranma responded, "We're in an alley somewhere. That stupid band hit us with some powerful technique or something. The others must've landed somewhere else."

Akane stood and helped Ranma to her feet. "We should find them. We can't just let those bullies have our home!"

Ranma nodded. Then her face fell. "But they could be anywhere," she responded.

"They'll probably try to find their way to someplace where we'd be likely to meet them," decided Akane. "Probably not the dojo. Chances are they either went to Ucchan's or the Neko Hanten. Let's try to figure out where we are, and then go wherever's closer."

Emerging from the alleyway, the two of them discovered that they had only been thrown a short distance. The street they were on was familiar. It was the route that the two of them had often taken to get to school.

They each walked in silence, contemplating the battle they had just lost. Individually, at least some of the band members were top-notch fighters. Ranma was certain that she could defeat any of them one-on-one, but was uncertain whether she could do it fast enough to avoid getting cut down by the others using that 'Dischord' attack. More importantly, she needed some way to counter that attack. There had to be something-

Splash. Abruptly Ranma found herself soaked by cold water. Slowly she turned. There, predictably stood a withered old lady, obliviously ladling water from a bucket. A thought struck Ranma, and the absurdity of it hit her like a fist. Ranma began to laugh, and found that she couldn't stop.

Akane's head jerked around at the haunting, ghastly sound of Ranko's laughter. Ranko was standing in a puddle of water, sopping wet and pointing at the little old woman Akane remembered seeing often on their trips to school. "Ranko?-" she tentatively began.

"HA! It didn't work, you see!" Ranko babbled at the elderly lady between saw-edged bouts of hilarity. "You couldn't change me, cause I'm not a man anymore!" The old woman was apparently ignoring her.

"I'm not a man anymore!" Ranko choked out again. Akane noted with some concern that it was becoming difficult to tell whether Ranko was laughing or sobbing. Akane set her jaw determinedly. 'That settles it. Ranko's not getting any better. I'd better take Dr. Tofu's advice and hit her. It's for her own good.' Akane grasped her mallet firmly, and prepared to swing it.

Suddenly, Akane found that Ranko had grabbed her and forced her against the wall of a home. "R-ranko?-" Akane began again, mallet slipping from loosened fingers.

"Please, Akane," Ranko was saying, eyes boring into Akane's with feverish intensity. "Please don't marry Kunou, or Ryoga, or Gosunguki, or anyone else. I'll find some way to fix this! I just need time!"

"Wha-? Marry who? Ranko, I-"

"Please Akane! I don't want to lose you! You're my fiancee-" abruptly, Ranko's eyes widened in horror at what she had just said. Akane's had as well.

"Fiancee? Ranko I'm not-"

"NO!" Ranko shouted, almost hysterically. "Don't say it! Don't say anything! I love you! I can't bear to be without you." Akane's incredulous stare served to force Ranko to realize what she had just said. With a desperate moan, Ranko released Akane and began to run away from her.

Akane shook herself out of the horrified stupor Ranko's announcements had instilled in her. "Ranko, wait!" she shouted, beginning to pursue. Her efforts were in vain, however. Leaping from fence to rooftop, Ranko was soon out of sight.

Slowly, Akane halted, her mind spinning. Ranko...was in love with her? But that would mean Ranko was...was... And yet, somehow, in some bizarre way, some part of Akane almost welcomed the sentiment. Something deep within her remembered waiting, hoping for the day that Ranma would finally admit-

'Who is Ranma?' a voice whispered compellingly. 'There is no Ranma, only Ranko.' Akane shook her head. No, that wasn't right. Ranma was-

'There is no Ranma, only Ranko,' the voice insisted. Akane grasped at her memories. She was certain she had been about to remember something important. Where had she heard that name before? She didn't know any Ranma. Only Ranko. And Ranko needed help. Even if she was a...a... Even if she did l-love... She still needed help. She was obviously not in a state of perfect mental health.

* * * * * *

In another part of town, Ranma was leaning against an alley wall, sobbing freely. 'Sobbing like a little girl,' she tried to admonish herself. It didn't work. The tears merely kept flowing. She had made an utter fool of herself in front of Akane. 'Akane must think that I'm some kind of pervert,' she thought bitterly. 'Or worse.'

As if summoned by Ranma's train of thought, Ranma felt an uncomfortable and regrettably familiar pressure clamp down on her chest. With a twisting feeling in her gut, Ranma's anguish was entirely converted into fury. Ranma gazed downwards to where Happosai was nestled cozily within her ample bosom. The tiny, withered old master martial artist turned large, lust-filled eyes up to meet Ranma's gaze. "So, Ranko my girl, still wearing men's underwear, eh? Don't you think that a pretty young woman like yourself would look better in these?" Pulling a hand free, Happosai shoved a bundle of panties, brassieres, and scandalous lingerie into Ranma's face.

It would be best to take a moment to describe the phenomena known among powerful fighters as a "battle aura". A battle aura is the visible manifestation of one's fighting spirit. While anyone angry at anything or anyone produces a battle aura of some kind, few have enough fighting spirit for the aura to be visible to the unaided eye. With enough training (usually training in the martial arts) a fighter can hone his or her fighting spirit, but even then it rarely produces a visible aura. Some of the most powerful fighters in the world have developed such control over their fighting spirit that they can use it as a weapon, lashing out at their opponents with their battle aura. Of this select group of fighters, Happosai (though also one of the world's premiere perverts) was one of the more powerful, especially when angry. He was about to learn, to his chagrin, that Ranma, one of his best students, was another.

* * * * * *

Miss Ninomiya Hinako, chief disciplinarian at Furinkan High School, had a unique technique for dealing with delinquents. As a little girl, she had been weak and sickly, suffering from an exceptionally poor constitution. One day, while she had been lying in her hospital bed, Happosai appeared at the window and offered to make her well. She accepted, and over the course of the next few weeks, Happosai taught her various exercises to alter her metabolism, as well as a supplementary technique designed to work with her altered metabolism to draw upon the fighting spirit of others to make up for her own lack of energy. This technique was known as the Happo-5-Yen-Satsu, and used the circular hole in the center of a 5-yen coin as a focus to draw an opponent's fighting spirit into oneself. (Actually, the use of a 5-yen piece was optional. Any circular object with a hole would suffice, though the larger the hole, the more powerful the technique. For example: A Happo-5-Yen-Satsu is not as powerful as a Happo-50-Yen-Satsu, which has enough power to suck the fighting spirit from a target who is not even angry, and neither is as powerful as a Happo-Donut-Satsu, which in turn pales in comparison to a Happo-Basketball-Hoop-Satsu.) It had been Happosai's hope to use young Ninomiya to suck the energy from anyone who tried to interfere with his frequent attempts to acquire women's underwear from their owners. For a while, the girl cooperated with Happosai's demented activities, not really understanding her tutor's behavior. But after a time, the two of them finally went their separate ways, and Ninomiya Hinako all but forgot about Happosai. She moved on into a career in school discipline, where she used her Happo-5-Yen-Satsu technique to drain delinquents of their fighting spirit before they had a chance to get out of hand.

It wasn't until years after parting from Happosai that Miss Hinako discovered the odd side affect of her altered metabolism. Her body stopped growing when she was about eight years old. From that point on, the only way she could attain a body reflecting her true age was by using the Happo-5-Yen-Satsu technique to drain someone's energy. Remaining stuck most of the time in an eight-year-old body had also had an unusual effect on her mental state. Despite her present age of twenty-four, Miss Hinako often behaved in a frivolous, child-like manner--especially while in child form, though occasionally also as an adult. On the other hand, she often displayed unusual wisdom and maturity, both appropriate to her adult form, but seeming odd coming from an eight-year-old. At that very moment, Miss Hinako was in child- form, dressed in her usual yellow, tube-like garment--clothing which was obviously oversized for her, but would fit with almost embarrassing snugness to her curvaceous adult form. (Nearly all of Miss Hinako's wardrobe consisted of clothing that would look decent on a little girl of eight as well as on a stunning beauty of twenty-four. It was a difficulty the woman had to bear, though she had to admit that she was often flattered by the looks she drew in adult form.) Miss Hinako was skipping down an uncrowded street, taking an occasional lick from a double-dipped triple fudge ice-cream cone (with sprinkles), and humming the ditty the ice-cream truck had been playing, when a tiny old man suddenly zipped through the air in front of her to be embedded headfirst into a telephone pole.

The very battered-looking ancient popped free of the pole and glanced around with feverish, terrified eyes. When his eyes fell on a wide-eyed (and no longer humming) Miss Hinako, he sighed with desperate relief. Raising a shaking arm, he pointed to the alleyway behind him and croaked out a single word: "Delinquent!"

Miss Hinako's eyes narrowed. She was always equipped to deal with delinquents. Squaring her shoulders, Miss Hinako took a 5-yen piece in hand (the hand unoccupied by ice-cream) and stepped forward to look into the alley herself. What she saw caused her a moment of such panic that the top scoop of her ice-cream fell to the ground with a soft 'plop'. The delinquent was one with which she was well familiar: Ranko Saotome, the only student ever to overcome her techniques. But this time, Ranko's battle aura was brighter than any Miss Hinako had ever seen; a blue glow surrounding her body, almost bright enough to obscure Ranko's features. Willing her body to stop shaking (and failing) Miss Hinako held her 5-yen piece between the middle and index fingers of her left hand, and pointed it at Ranko. When Ranko saw this, the brightness of her battle aura doubled. Miss Hinako lost her grip on her remaining ice-cream and let out a tiny, terrified squeak.

Ranko lashed out and slapped the 5-yen coin from Miss Hinako's hand. The coin whizzed through the air until it embedded itself in the wall of a building with a sharp 'clink'. Cringing beneath Ranko's smouldering gaze, Miss Hinako began to wonder where she might be able to find a hula hoop on very short notice.

Miss Hinako didn't resist as Ranko brushed her aside. She watched, not daring to move, as Ranko picked up the little old man by the front of his shirt. "DIE, YOU LETCH!!!" Ranko screamed at the dangling fellow, pulling back a fist.

Suddenly, Miss Hinako found her courage. She wasn't about to let this delinquent harm an innocent old man, no matter how scary she was. Trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach, Miss Hinako fiercely kicked Ranko's shin, yelling, "Leave him alone, you big meany!"

The effect was astounding. Ranko yelped in pain and dropped the battered little man. Her battle aura flickered and grew dim, probably because she had been distracted from the original source of her anger. Miss Hinako didn't wait around to find out. She grabbed Ranko's poor victim and began to run for her life.

Buildings and people streamed past as she ran. "Drop that lecher, you little twerp!" Ranko was yelling behind her. "He's mine!" Ranko was gaining, Miss Hinako could tell. She needed longer legs, and she needed them now.

Tucking the old man under one arm, she began fishing around in her pockets with her free hand. She came out with a handful of objects, but to her dismay found that she didn't have anything circular. 'No change?' she thought desperately. 'I always have change! Drat! What now?' Then she noticed that one of the objects she had pulled out was a stick of chewing gum. Hastily, she popped it in her mouth and chewed for a few seconds. She pulled out the sticky mass and moulded it into a ring shape. 'Ranko's too good at dodging,' Miss Hinako thought. 'I'd better zap one of these pedestrians. I'll apologize later.' Miss Hinako pointed the makeshift ring at a random bystander and shouted, "Happo-Chewing-Gum-Satsu!" The innocent man was bathed in a pale green light, and nearly all of his energy was siphoned into Miss Hinako, leaving him drained and withered. Miss Hinako suddenly recognized Kunou Tatewaki, and felt a little better about draining him. 'A delinquent if ever I knew one,' she thought with grim satisfaction. She popped the gum back into her mouth and kept running.

It is worth noting at this point, that had all gone as it should, Miss Hinako would have easily left Ranko behind. Ranko was still limping, and the adult Miss Hinako's long legs kept up a respectable stride. The adult Miss Hinako, mind. Basically, if Happosai had managed to muster any sort of restraint to speak of, he might have escaped unscathed. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one's point of view), restraint is a characteristic entirely foreign to Happosai. So, when the ancient pervert found himself in the arms of a suddenly shapely Miss Hinako, the results were, to say the least, predictable.

"What, no brassiere here, either?" Miss Hinako screeched to a halt. Happosai had squirmed around in her grip until he could gaze down the disciplinarian's shirt. "What a waste of two fine female forms! You and Ranko should be ashamed!"

Miss Hinako grabbed Happosai and held her out at arm's length, staring at him with wide-eyed indignation. Ranko had caught up at this point and was gazing at Miss Hinako with grim satisfaction. "You pervert," the teacher whispered with barely contained fury.

Happosai looked back at her with poorly feigned innocence. "Oh, what a cruel world! Will no one spare a moment of indulgence for a feeble old man on his last legs?" Happosai groped out hungrily towards Miss Hinako's bosom with a withered arm.

Miss Hinako glanced at Ranko and suggested, "Together?" Ranko nodded once.

The disciplinarian tossed Happosai into the air and quickly formed a rough circle from her thumbs and index fingers. Glaring through this opening, she shouted, "Happo-No-Yen-Coin-Return!" Green energy poured forth from her hands.

At the same time, Ranma was exercising a technique of her own. With the words, "Mouku-Takabisha!", Ranma unleashed a torrent of blue spiritual energy fueled by her self-confidence (which was a considerable source, considering that her opponent was already mostly beaten, and she had Miss Hinako's assistance besides). Ranma had learned the 'Mouku-Takabisha' technique to counter a technique that Ryoga had learned, known as the 'Shi-Shi-Houkudan'. While Ranma's technique was powered by self-confidence, Ryoga's was powered by depression. (This had the potential of creating some rather interesting battles. Whenever Ranma would start winning, thereby gaining self-confidence, Ryoga would become more depressed, and both techniques would become more powerful. Whenever Ryoga gained the upper hand, Ranma would lose self-confidence and Ryoga would become less depressed, thus weakening both techniques. However, it is worth noting that, of the two techniques, Ryoga's probably has the greater potential. When Ryoga reaches the utter depths of depression, he has the ability to execute a 'Full Shi-Shi-Houkudan', a technique of vast destructive potential.)

Both beams of energy struck Happosai an instant before he would have landed on the concrete. The old man was blasted away like a gnat in a tornado, leaving tidy, Happosai-shaped holes in each wall and telephone pole that intercepted him. Soon, he was out of sight.

The 'Happo-No-Yen-Coin-Return' technique was a way for Miss Hinako to expel the spiritual energy she had drained in the form of a beam of destructive energy. Of course, the loss of that energy also had the effect of reducing Miss Hinako back to child form. "That was a bad, bad, man," Miss Hinako muttered sternly, glaring in the direction Happosai had been flying. She turned to Ranko. "I'm sorry I tried to stop you, Ranko. I didn't know that little old man was such a delinquent. I should have asked before interfering." Miss Hinako shook her head silently. Then she opened her eyes wide, and gave Ranko a cute grin. "Buy me an ice cream?"

Ranko chuckled, for the moment forgetting her problems. "Sure, teach. Just a sec, okay?"

Ranko sauntered over to where Kunou was lying crumpled and drained on the ground. She put on the cutest expression she could manage and said, "Oh, Kunou honey? You don't mind if I borrow a few yen, do ya? Pretty please?" She batted her eyelashes.

Kunou groaned, "All my wealth...is yours for the taking...my pig-tailed one...ugh." With that, Kunou lost consciousness. Ranko wasted no time in emptying Kunou's wallet.

"C'mon, kiddo, let's find us an ice-cream truck."

"I'm not a kid! I'm your elder, you know. Can I get sprinkles?"

"Sure."

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, at the Tendo's former home, the Director was staring with frustration at the Shogi game that had been in progress before he had evicted the occupants. Try as he might, he couldn't seem to figure out how anyone could get into the jam one of the two players was in. "He must have been trying to lose," he muttered irritably.

The Director was distracted from his ill-tempered musings by the entrance of one of his minions. "First Bassoon Slakinov reporting, sir!" Slakinov saluted briskly.

"Report," commanded the Director.

"The compound is secure, sir. Non-electronic surveillance posts have been established at regular intervals. No one will get in undetected."

"And the prisoner?"

"Under constant sonic confinement sir. Damage from the initial break-out attempt has nearly been repaired."

The Director nodded. "Very well. Dismissed."

The combat bassoonist hesitated a moment. "Permission to speak freely sir?"

With a raised eyebrow, the Director responded, "Granted. But make it brief."

"Nerima has little strategic value, even if it is within Tokyo. Why are we here?"

The Director grimaced. Too many had been questioning his plans lately. "Following orders, First Bassoon Slakinov. That is all that I am at liberty to say, at the moment."

"But, sir-"

"That's enough, First Bassoon. Dismissed." Slakinov saluted again, and turned to leave. "Oh, one final thing," the Director growled. "It seems that our discipline has become entirely too lax. I was very disappointed in our confrontation with the enemy yesterday. I wanted to subdue them, not scatter them all over town! As it stands, we only took one prisoner. I want you to organize a series of intensive harmonic drills for the entire band. In sections, of course. I want at least six band members sustaining the sonic prison at all times." The bassoonist saluted a final time and walked out.

The Director contemplated the Shogi board again. "Following orders," he had said. Not entirely a lie. He had, technically, been ordered to challenge the Anything Goes Martial Arts Dojo, and to subdue and capture the occupants. However, they had been orders that he had requested. Requested...no, begged for was more like it. A chance to finally prove the worth of the Kielowitz International Martial Arts Marching Band.

Since the day of its inception, the Director's superiors had mocked his marching band. They called it silly. Silly! He had never been taken seriously, and his marching band had never been assigned any real missions. Then came the day that Ryoga Hibiki made a mockery of the Kielowitz military. Finally, his superiors had come to see the potential of a well-trained martial artist--and realized that they had no less than fifty under their direct command! Finally, they granted his request to hunt down and subdue the most dangerous martial artists on the planet, a mission which had led him here. Nerima. A town he had studied for months. The concentration of high-powered martial artists here was astounding, to say the least. There had been powerful fighters yesterday that he had never heard of, not to mention the unexpected bonus of Ryoga Hibiki himself! The Director had taken great satisfaction in mentioning Hibiki's defeat in that morning's report.

The Director turned from the Shogi board and walked upstairs. He wanted to verify for himself that the prisoner was secure. She was being kept in the room formerly occupied by Soun's daughter, Nabiki. At the moment, the girl was asleep on Nabiki's bed. Six musicians were sitting around her, but only four were playing at the moment. That was as it should be. Only four were required to keep up the harmonic rhythms that formed a box of sound far harder than steel. The other two would rest until their turn came again. The Director chuckled. It was odd that such a confinement was necessary. Who would have guessed that the girl was strong enough to break through concrete with her bare hands?

The Director studied the tall, blue-haired girl again. She was one of the unidentified fighters, and (aside from her strength) was totally unremarkable as a martial artist. With training, perhaps, she would have become extremely formidable. What had she said her name was? Oh, yes. Robo. Under the Director's preliminary interrogation, that, and her serial number (though the Director was uncertain what military assigned serial numbers like R66-Y), were all the information she had been willing to give. The Director needed to know more, but was still waiting for authorization to use torture in his interrogations. All in due time. Robo's serene calm gave credence to her name, but she would crack. No one could withstand a sonic interrogation.

The Director was just about to compliment his minions on their flawless playing, when an object of some kind smashed through the window and smacked into the wall. The four musicians didn't skip a beat. 'An excellent performance under pressure,' the Director noted. 'Commendations for them all. But first, what have we here?'

There seemed to be a two-foot tall man stuck in the wall. The Director yanked him free, and nearly dropped him. It was Happosai, one of the most powerful of the powerful martial artists, and the teacher of many of them, including Soun, Genma, and Ranko herself! He needed to be contained, and quickly.

'Haste makes waste,' the Director admonished himself. Besides, Happosai looked to have had the tar beaten out of him. He was no threat--well, not much of a threat, anyway--until he recovered. The Director would need to establish a cell of at least ten members, with six playing at all times, to contain Happosai. That, along with Robo's cell, was going to put a real drain on manpower.

Suddenly, an idea flashed into the Director's head. An evil grin settled upon his stony face for the briefest of moments. Perhaps he would not need so much manpower after all. His superiors had not yet authorized torture, but there was no injunction against grouping prisoners more efficiently...

"Attention, Robo!" the Director called.

The prisoner stirred in her sleep, slowly waking. She blinked groggily at the Director and asked, "What do you want?"

"I'd like you to meet your new cellmate. He's called Happosai. You can introduce yourself when he comes to. I'm sure that you'll be the best of friends." With that, the Director tossed the diminutive martial artist into the sonic cage (the harmonics allowed nothing but air out, but anything could be tossed in).

As Robo eyed her new companion warily, the Director instructed the two idle musicians to find four others to bolster the cage with. As soon as all ten were in place, the Director turned to leave. As he did so, he heard the sound of Happosai slowly regaining consciousness behind him. The evil grin returned and stayed permanently fixed to the Director's face this time. He closed the door just as a piercing shriek filled the air, accompanied by Happosai's voice muttering, "Another braless beauty? Oh, what is the world coming to?" Yes, Robo would be ready to talk soon. It was only a matter of time.

As the Director walked downstairs, he noticed an odd new addition to the Tendo living room. A glowing blue sphere had appeared in the center of the room, hovering about chest height above the ground. As the Director watched, the sphere seemed to open up into a circular hole in the air with a diameter of nearly two meters. The hole was suffused with a shifting pattern of blues and whites. Abruptly, a comely, sharp-nosed woman with long blonde hair leapt out of the hole and landed on the floor on all fours. She was wearing a simple, brown, homespun dress, as well as a long, grey, fur scarf. She was also wearing boots and wristbands of the same grey fur as her scarf. The woman rose to her feet with catlike fluidity as the hole behind her collapsed once again into the blue sphere it had been. Standing, her grey scarf just barely brushed the ground behind her. She gazed at the Director with hawklike intensity and asked, "Who you? Where Crono?" She was speaking in Chinese, but barely--it was an almost unrecognizable dialect. Fortunately, she was using very simple words and phrases, so the Director (fluent in Chinese) was able to follow.

"I'm afraid that I don't know any 'Crono', my dear," he answered in standard Chinese. He could tell that the woman was having trouble following along, so in Japanese, he asked, "Do you speak Japanese?"

The woman's eyes widened almost gratefully, and she answered in Japanese, "You not speak strange here. Is good. Me Ayla. Who you? Where Crono?"

"You may call me the Director. As I said, I don't know of any Crono, but I'd be glad-"

The woman's eyes narrowed. "Gate take Ayla to Crono. What Director do with Crono?" Ayla began sniffing the air.

"Calm down, my dear. As I was saying-"

Ayla crowed triumphantly. "Yes, Crono here, less than one sun past. He gone now. Ayla follow." Ayla began to walk towards the door.

The Director was through with being polite. "Intruder on the premises!" He yelled. "Apprehend her!"

The door Ayla was approaching slammed open to reveal several band members. The woman hissed menacingly, suddenly realizing that she was being hunted. She dropped to the floor again, and leapt toward a window, crashing through and landing on the ground beyond. The Director moved to look out the shattered window just in time to see Ayla viciously rake the face of a second-chair saxophonist with her clawlike fingernails. She managed to evade all her other pursuers, scrambling away on all fours like a predatory cat. The tail-like grey scarf trailing behind her complemented the illusion.

The Director realized that no one was going to be able to catch up with her, and to try would draw undue attention to their activities at the Tendo home. "Do not pursue!" He commanded. "Someone get that saxophonist some first aid."

The Director settled wearily into a chair. Today was just full of surprises. He glanced once more at the Shogi board and came to an abrupt realization. The only way anyone could be losing that badly is if their opponent was cheating. The Director smirked. 'No, Soun Tendo,' he thought. 'You won't win that way. After all, in war, there is no cheating.' The Director flipped his baton at the Shogi board, sweeping all of the pieces to the floor. 'I win,' the Director chuckled.

* * * * * *

Shampoo sat on her haunches on a street corner, unconsciously grooming herself. Shampoo hated acting like a cat when a cat, and would have been appalled to realize that she was licking herself clean. However, her thoughts were on other matters. There was some serious magic in action. Not her own unnatural physical transformation--there were many simpler explanations for that--but the strange mental transformation that had overcome so many. She had met many who knew of her curse, and none had treated her as anything but a cat. What could have happened?

The more philosophical part of Shampoo's psyche had entertained the possibility that she had, in fact, always been a cat, and had only been dreaming of being human. Shampoo refused to even consider that possibility. No, someone had cast a powerful spell, but who? Who would want to see Shampoo reduced in this way? The only possibilities Shampoo could think of were her rivals, Akane, Ukyou, and Kodachi, but none of them knew magic of this magnitude. Come to think of it, Shampoo knew of only two who did: her Great-Grandmother, who seemed as affected as anyone else, and Happosai, but that perverted old lecher would much rather freeze Shampoo in human form. Preferably without any clothes. Shampoo shuddered a moment at the thought.

"Shampoo?" Shampoo was startled by the voice. Looking up, she saw the less-than-welcome face of Ukyou peering down at her. Had her furry face been capable of such a maneuver, Shampoo would have scowled. She was in no mood to be petted, especially not by a rival for Ranma's affections. "What are you doing outside my restaurant?" Ukyou frowned. "Waiting to spy on Ranchan?"

Shampoo was startled. Why would Ukyou accuse an ordinary cat of spying? "Mew?" she inquired, before remembering that she couldn't speak.

Ukyou sighed. "You know I can't understand you. Well, come in then. I'll get you some warm water, and you can explain yourself."

Shampoo nearly leapt with joy. Finally, someone who knew who she was! Shampoo scampered after Ukyou.

Inside the restaurant, Ukyou ushered Shampoo to a back room, and soon returned with a change of clothes and a pot of hot water. "You can use one of my spare outfits until we get you back to your restaurant. It wouldn't be very nice to make you run home naked." A momentary grin informed Shampoo that Ukyou might have liked to see that, whatever she said.

Shampoo mewed sadly. She knew that she wasn't going to need an outfit anytime soon. She was a bit unnerved by Ukyou's generosity. Shampoo would have preferred to humiliate her enemy, had their roles been reversed.

Ukyou poured the water. Shampoo would have rather have avoided getting wet again, but she could think of no way to tell Ukyou of her problem without a demonstration. The warm water (not too hot, this time), trickled between her ears and down her back, soaking her white and pink fur once again. When Ukyou was finished, Shampoo shook involuntarily and mewed sadly once more.

Ukyou dropped the kettle in shock. "You are Shampoo, aren't you?" Shampoo nodded her head. "What happened to you?" Shampoo mewed again, and then growled at herself in irritation. She kept forgetting that she couldn't talk. "Of course you can't tell me. Does Cologne know?" Shampoo nodded. "And she won't do anything? Why not?" Shampoo tried to grimace. As a demonstration, she rubbed against Ukyou's leg and purred, hating every second of it. Ukyou looked at her in confusion. "You acted like a cat? Or she treated you like a cat?" Shampoo nodded vigorously at the second guess. "That's weird. Is she punishing you, or something?" Shampoo shrugged, another gesture she could manage. "What about Mousse? Couldn't he help you?" Shampoo purred again, and shrugged. "Mousse treated you like a cat, too? Now that's hard to believe. Are they under some kind of spell?" Shampoo nodded. Ukyou was quick to catch on, there was no doubt about that.

"Ucchan!" Ranma's feminine voice suddenly called from the lobby of Ukyou's restaurant.

"Ranchan!" Ukyou gasped delightedly. Shampoo's face also lit up. Then she slumped and mewed pitifully. Ukyou looked at her with some pity, and said, "You're right, Shampoo. You'd best stay here. We don't want to scare Ranma away before she has a chance to help you out."

'Besides,' Ukyou thought devilishly, 'this way, I'll have Ranma all to myself. For a little while, anyway. Sounds like she'll need some hot water, too.'

Ukyou stepped out of the back room and was slightly disappointed to see that Ranma was not alone. For some reason, Miss Hinako was with him, and they were both eating ice cream. "Hey, Ucchan!" Ranma smiled. "Say, has any of our friends come by lately? I was thinking they might have gathered here."

Ukyou hesitated. She didn't want to reveal Shampoo's problem just yet. If Ranma found out that there was a cat even in the same building as her, she might leave. "Sorry, Ranchan, I haven't seen anyone. You look like you could use some hot water."

"Oh, that's too bad," Ranma said distractedly. "Don't bother on the water. I'm stuck-" Abruptly, her eyes widened. "You remember?" Ranma leapt over the counter to where Ukyou was standing, and grabbed her by the shoulders. "You remember?"

"Er, remember what, sugar?" Ukyou asked uncomfortably.

"That my name is Ranma! That I'm really a guy, and not a girl! Please tell me that you remember!"

"Well, yes, of course. Why would I-"

Abruptly Ranma threw her arms around Ukyou in a bear hug. "Oh, thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou! You don't know what it's been like! Everyone's gone nuts except you!"

Ukyou was rather enjoying Ranma's embrace (though she would have preferred her fiancee to have been in male form), but she wanted the whole story. She gently disengaged herself from her misgendered fiancee. "C'mon now, Ranchan. Tell me what this is all about."

Ranma hesitated, and then said, "Let me show you. Miss Hinako!"

The diminutive disciplinarian looked up. She had been totally absorbed in her ice cream, and had been paying no attention. Miss Hinako quickly licked away the triple fudge chocolate moustache (with sprinkles) she had cultivated and answered, "Yes, Ranko?"

'Ranko?' thought Ukyou in bemusement.

Ranma continued, "Would you do me a favor, and tell Ucchan who I am?"

Miss Hinako looked at Ranma dubiously. "It looks like she already knows you pretty well." Ranma insisted. "Well, all right. You did buy me ice cream. You're Ranko Saotome, my toughest disciplinary case."

"And what gender am I?"

Miss Hinako giggled for a moment. "Don't be silly, Ranko. You're a girl. Anyone can see."

Ukyou spoke up. "What if I were to tell you that Ranko is not her real name? That her name is Ranma, and he's actually a boy, cursed by a magic spring to turn into a girl whenever splashed with cold water, and back to a boy with hot water?"

Miss Hinako considered that for a moment. 'Now, where have I heard that name?' she pondered. No sooner had the thought crossed her mind, a compelling second voice echoed through her brain, 'There is no Ranma, only Ranko.' 'Of course,' agreed Miss Hinako uncertainly. "I'd say that you were fibbing, and a delinquent besides," Miss Hinako answered Ukyou, a dangerous glint appearing in her eye. Then she giggled again. "Besides, that's the stupidest story I've ever heard. Ranko's always been a girl." Then her eyes widened. "Of course if it were true, I'd love to see you change..."

"I'm kinda, er, stuck right now," Ranma responded, a little embarrassed.

"Thought so!" Miss Hinako chuckled.

"You see, Ucchan, everyone's just like Miss Hinako, except for you and me. And I'm stuck as a girl besides."

"You, me, and Shampoo," Ukyou corrected.

"Huh?"

"You see, Ranchan," Ukyou began hesitantly. "Shampoo...well, Shampoo has the same problem you do."

Ranma looked confused. "What do you mean-" suddenly Ranma blanched. "You mean, she's stuck as a c-c-c-c... a ca-ca-ca-" At Ukyou's nod, Ranma shuddered.

Miss Hinako smiled brightly. "Shampoo? You mean that cute little kitty at the Neko Hanten? So what does she turn into, then. A giraffe?" She giggled uncontrollably for a second, and then looked thoughtful. "If you two really believe all this, maybe you should see a doctor."

"I've already been to see Dr. Tofu, thanks," Ranma muttered.

The teacher persisted. "Really, I mean it. You said yourself that no one in town believes your little fairy tale. Isn't it more likely that you two are...er, crazy, instead of the whole town?"

Ukyou pondered that a moment. "Maybe I can convince you. I'll show you that Shampoo's not just a dumb cat."

Ranma's eyes became as wide as saucers. "SHE'S HERE?!?"

Ukyou sighed. "Pull yourself together, Ranchan. I won't let her anywhere near you. You don't even have to see her. She's in the back room-" no sooner had the words left her lips, Ranma had wedged herself into a corner at the front of the restaurant, trying to look in every direction at once with a hunted look in her eyes. "Er, just stay there, Ranchan. We'll be right back. Miss Hinako?"

"This is silly," Miss Hinako muttered, but followed Ukyou anyway. When she spied Shampoo on the floor in the back room, she said, "Yep, that's Shampoo. You didn't kidnap her, did you?"

Ignoring her for the moment, Ukyou addressed the transformed cat. "Shampoo, you remember Miss Hinako, don't you?" Shampoo nodded, and meowed. She cut the meow short, and seemed to regard herself crossly. "She thinks you've always been a cat. But you're not a cat, are you?" Shampoo shook her head vigorously. "You're a Chinese girl who's been transformed." Shampoo nodded.

Miss Hinako scoffed. "You practiced this, didn't you. I'm impressed. It's not easy to train a cat."

"You tell her to do something, then," Ukyou challenged.

"Change into a Chinese girl," the teacher suggested impatiently.

"Something you think she's capable of doing," sighed Ukyou.

"Fine. Sit down and clap your paws."

Shampoo looked at Ukyou and meowed indignantly. Miss Hinako began to smirk. "Just do it, Shampoo," Ukyou sighed. "We need to convince her."

Miss Hinako's smirk faded as Shampoo reluctantly plopped down on her haunches and tapped her front paws together. Miss Hinako frowned, and said, "Stand on your head." Shampoo looked at her reproachfully. "Even if you can't, try."

After another angry stare, Shampoo futilely attempted to push her body into the air. She could never quite get her proper balance, though, and finally collapsed with a squeak.

Miss Hinako stared at the spectacle in disbelief. Could it be that Ukyou's absurd story was true? Might Shampoo actually be-

'Shampoo is nothing but a cat,' asserted a vaguely familiar voice in her mind. 'But those tricks, no one could have trained a mere cat-'

'Shampoo is nothing but a cat.' Miss Hinako was furious. "Don't try to trick me! Shampoo is just a cat, you...you...delinquent!" Miss Hinako jammed her hand into her pocket, searching for some change. After a moment, her anger faded, to be replaced by embarrassment. "Do you, er, have change for a 1000 Yen bill?" she asked sheepishly, holding out a crumpled piece of currency. Shampoo and Ukyou both collapsed in disbelief.

A moment later, Ukyou and Miss Hinako returned to stand before Ranma (after stopping a moment at the cash register to get the disciplinarian her change, on the condition that she not use it on Ukyou). "Sorry, Ranchan," Ukyou told him. "It must be some kind of spell. Even proof wouldn't change her mind."

Miss Hinako harumphed. "I didn't see any proof. Just parlor tricks."

Ranma merely stared at them both in blank terror.

"Oh, come on outside, Ranchan. I'll explain once you stop gibbering."

Ranma was only too glad to comply. Once she was safely outside, and far, far away from Shampoo, Ukyou explained again, to Miss Hinako's irritation. "I still think you're both crazy," she complained. "But I promised Ranko I'd help her deal with all the delinquents that stole Mr. Tendo's house, and I will."

"Thanks, Miss Hinako. I owe ya big time," said Ranma. "Let's get to the Neko Hanten. I'm sure the others are there by now." 'Even Akane,' Ranma thought uneasily.

* * * * * *

On the rooftops above, two figures silently followed Ranma. One was Shampoo, who was following out of sight at Ukyou's request. She was as unaware of the second stalker as the trio on the ground below.

Magus slipped invisibly from shadow to shadow, carefully watching the four he followed. Unseen, he grimaced. He had hoped that Shampoo would not have thought of consulting Ukyou--the two were rivals, after all. Still, it might not make any difference. As the dark sorcerer had planned, Ukyou had become Ranma's sole link to sanity. Ranma would stay close to Ukyou, her one true friend, and the only one who would believe her 'wild' stories about her true identity. Better still, he would stay far away from Ukyou's rivals; Kodachi because she was ill, Shampoo because she was a cat, and Akane because of their...embarrassing confrontation a few hours before. Given time, Ranma would come to love Ukyou, and even if she didn't, she would choose her out of gratitude for the hardships they had endured together. When Magus was certain that Ranma would choose Ukyou, then, and only then, he would invoke the proper counterspells, and all would 'miraculously' return to normal. And if Shampoo did try to cause trouble, well, Magus would deal with that problem when it arose. Magus chuckled mirthlessly.

On the subject of problems, Magus did not care for Miss Hinako one bit. The woman/girl was an enigma to a man who hated puzzles. When Magus had first spotted her a few moments before her altercation with Ranma, he had been shocked to discover that she didn't have an aura. Upon closer inspection, Magus had found that what she did have was sort of an anti-aura--an aura which drew upon regular auras in a manner similar to the way black holes drew on matter. All Magus's attempts to probe her negative aura had been cut short, her aura ripping his magical probes into nothingness and putting no small drain on the sorcerer himself. Magus would not have been surprised if the woman could absorb any magical attack in a similar manner, and the idea of one whom his magic could not touch bothered him--even more so once he learned that she could extend her anti-aura using that technique of hers. Fortunately, her odd aura had done nothing to deter the spell Magus had cast upon the town. That spell had depended more upon the magical fields of the planet and of the spell components he had utilized than on his own magical aura.

After glancing at the foursome again, he came to a decision. Miss Hinako was not the problem at the moment. It was time for Magus to rejoin the others. He had been gone long enough. Any longer might create suspicion. Besides, helping the Tendo's to regain their home might help improve his image in the eyes of all concerned. Wrapping his black cloak around himself, Magus soared through the air on a straight path towards the Neko Hanten.

So intent was Magus on the four he had been following, that he had completely failed to detect the aura of another hidden observer watching him from a convenient alley. Nabiki, as had Magus, had observed everything that had occurred within the restaurant. 'So,' thought Nabiki, 'you are up to something. That's hardly surprising. But that you'd cast a spell on Ukyou, too--now that's a surprise. What on Earth would you have to gain by making both Ranko and Ukyou think that Ranko is a boy? Let alone by making them think that Shampoo is a human girl! I think it's time to pay Gosunguki a personal visit.'

Afterword:

Some may wonder about this magical reservoir thing. Is magic supposed to be the same as chi energy, and fighting spirit in this story? I'd have to answer no, though they are somewhat related. Miss Hinako's altered fighting spirit affects both, however, though in different ways. For instance, if Crono were to try to hit Miss Hinako with a Lightning blast, the Lightning would be harmlessly absorbed, and Crono would be sucked dry through the magical connection between himself and his attack, without Miss Hinako having to lift a finger to do anything about it. If Ranma were to attack her with a 'Mouku-Takabisha', on the other hand, Miss Hinako would be sent flying--unless she were, at that moment, directing a 'Happo-5-Yen-Satsu' (or a variant) at Ranma at the same time. Then, I imagine, Ranma's chi-based attack would be absorbed, perhaps along with Ranma's own fighting spirit.

So, how, exactly, are magic and chi related? I don't think it's particularly important. (Translation: The author is too lazy to work out a theory himself.) The only real effect is that Miss Hinako has been rendered utterly immune to personal magical attacks, an enviable state.

Chrono Trigger Tip #16:

I miss Crono! How can I get him back? Lavos pulverized him!

So you want to try to save Crono, regardless of the fact that changing the past can have dark, disastrous consequences?

Uh huh.

Well, if you're gonna go mucking about in time, the best person to talk to on the subject is Gaspar, the Guru of Time.

Isn't he, er, dead, or something?

Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, he's that guy standing under the lamppost at the End of Time.

But didn't Magus have him banished-

Look, I told you it'd give you headaches to try to think about it. Yes, Gaspar was sent to the End of Time when Lavos teleported him, the other two Gurus, and Janus into the future. Yes, Gaspar, Janus, and the other two Gurus never encountered Lavos, because Magus (posing as a 'Prophet') banished all the Gurus from the palace. Yes, these two histories conflict. And yes, Gaspar is, nevertheless, waiting for you at the End of Time, where he's been since you first met him after Robo joined your group.

I think I'm going to be ill.

Whatever. The point is, Gaspar has a pretty good working knowledge of time, and he can help you out.

How?

After you talk to him, he'll give you a small, egg-shaped device called a 'Chrono Trigger'. Take it to the top of the mountain near Belthasar's laboratory in 2300 A.D. Make sure you have a Clone of Crono in your possession. You can find it at Crono's house if you won it at the Millennial Fair. If you never won one, go to the House of Horrors, and bargain with the owner Dr. Bekkler. He'll give you a second chance.

I can't get up the mountain. It's too windy.

Talk to Belthasar.

But didn't Magus have him banished-

Shut up.

Right.

Anyway, Belthasar definitely is dead. Fortunately, as you discovered when he gave you the Epoch, his memories are still alive, well, and a good deal more sane in the body of his assistant Nu-droid. That Nu-droid'll create a number of helpful Poyozo-units which will help you climb the mountain. Two of them will transform into trees, which serve as wind blocks while you're climbing. Just hide behind a tree when the wind begins to pick up, and you'll be fine.

Ouch. These Lavos Spawn keep killing me.

Make sure that none of your attacks damage the spiny Lavos Spawn shells. Those shells retaliate viciously. If you still die, you may simply not have powerful enough characters to handle this part of the game yet. Go find something else to do.

I can't seem to get to the very top! I see footholds in the rock, but they're too high to reach! And how come this Lavos Spawn left its shell behind?

Think about it. Slowly.

Er, I'm supposed to shove the shell against the cliff face by the ladder, and climb it to reach the ladder?

Bravo!

You know, you really are needlessly sarcastic.

Thank you. Incidently, if you feel like witnessing a touching moment, make sure that Marle or Lucca is in your party once you save Crono.

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