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A Ranma ½ story by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. This story based on the anime, not the manga.

Chapter 1: Gift of Icarus and Oberon

"Hmm? What's that?" Akane said, more speaking the thought aloud than actually asking her companion. She and Ranma were on their way home from school, after a day that had been rather boring. There had been no speeches or antics from either attendant member of the House of Kuno, nor had any of Ranma's other rivals (or suitors) put in an appearance. As she had been for a week now, Miss Hinako was still working her way through the biggest jar of Pocky Akane had ever seen, and was in too good a mood to drain anyone for minor offenses. Which meant one Ranma Saotome, reluctant fiancé to the equally reluctant Tendo daughter, was getting away with using her class to catch up on sleep. All in all it had been an utterly unremarkable day, and Akane was ready for a little diversion. Such as looked to be waiting for her up ahead, where the stream of passersby coagulated around some sort of large wooden booth.

Akane increased her pace, working her way through the onlookers until she could get a good view. The sides of the booth framed a miniature stage complete with velvet curtain, which was currently drawn back to give the viewers a clear view of the show. Across the stage danced several wooden marionettes. Every detail about them spoke of the work of a master, from the articulation of their joints to the artistry of their carving, from the brilliant, vivid, flawless paint jobs to the graceful fluidity with which the invisible puppeteer controlled them. Akane watched, spellbound, for nearly a minute. "Isn't that amazing?" she asked at last.

On hearing no response, she turned some of her attention from the spectacle. "Ranma? Don't you think—" She let the sentence lapse, as the complete and total absence of her pigtailed companion registered.

"Ranma? Where are you?" she called, looking around for him, paying no attention now to the marionettes. She therefore remained oblivious to the sudden jerk and stutter of their movements, or to the rapidly increased pace of the performance after the unseen puppeteer recovered from whatever had broken his concentration.

Finding no sign of Ranma in the crowd around her, Akane worked her way out of it and scanned up and down the street. At first this effort was equally fruitless; Akane frowned, sighed, and looked higher. Sure enough, there was Ranma some five blocks down, walking casually away, or at least as casually as one can when striding along the roof of a three-story building.

He had nearly reached the intersection that marked the next turning they would take on their way back home. Akane hurried after him, making that turn and catching up just as he jumped down to terra firma, joining him in an alleyway which was otherwise empty. "What was that for?" she huffed, her wind stolen by indignation rather than exertion. There was a time when that sprint would have left her breathing at least a bit more heavily, but the conditioning she'd done with Ryoga during that business with her pseudo-sisters Natsume and Kurumi hadn't completely left her yet.

Ranma shrugged and kept walking. "Just didn't feel like dealing with that guy today."

Judging from the look on Akane's face, this answer was about as clear as mud. "What's that supposed to mean?"

By now Ranma wore his own incredulous look. "Come on, Akane, don't tell me you didn't catch on. It's the same old thing we've seen over and over again."

"What, you saying things that don't make much sense?" she fired back. Then she blinked. 'Wait a minute, that's not what usually happens. He usually says something insulting or perverted, not just plain weird.'

"Jeez, you're thick," Ranma complained, as if hearing her thought and acting to restore the status quo. "I'm talking about what happens when some weird new guy shows up in town. It always — and I do mean always — means he's gonna make trouble for me."

'Oh, yeah, my mistake. He usually says something insulting, perverted, or egotistical.' Akane snorted. "Honestly, Ranma, listen to yourself. The world doesn't revolve around you, you know."

"Ahem." After clearing his throat and pausing for emphasis, Ranma said, "That guy with the trained frogs. That idiot Martial Arts Calligrapher. The Battle Shogi moron. The Gambling King. The Jusenkyo Preservation Society! Pantyhose Taro!" By now he was struggling to keep from shouting. "Picollet Chardin! The Ghost Cat! Mousse! Ryoga!! Don't tell me you forgot all of 'em, Akane!"

"Well, maybe if you don't go out of your way to be a jerk to this one like you usually do, he won't have any reason to get mad at you!" she fired back. Noting the stubborn look reflected on his features, she continued, "Honestly, Ranma, this is ridiculous. I bet you'll even sneak off tonight and deliberately offend the guy, just so you can say you were right when he challenges you tomorrow!"

"Ranma Saotome, I challenge you!"

"This always happens," Ranma muttered. Giving Akane one last disparaging glance, and realizing that she was now too busy staring bug-eyed over his shoulder to take any notice, he heaved a sigh and turned.

It was still vaguely recognizable as the booth from the previous street. However, like the rose that blossoms from tight compact bud to threatening expansive flower, the booth had folded outward in all directions, panels moving along seams that had been invisible to Akane's casual earlier inspection. It now resembled nothing so much as a wooden parody of a small, primitive mecha, stretching ten feet from wheeled base to topmost control seat.

The man seated inside that upper deck was a European gaijin in his middle twenties. His head was shaved bald, and on his bare scalp was tattooed the indigo image of a hand. A thread led from each finger, black whisper-thin tattoos that snaked down his face, down his neck, and disappeared under his clothes.

The newcomer raised one fist and shook it in a universal gesture of righteous anger. Ranma idly noted that a tattooed thread, presumably one that led all the way back to the image of the hand, terminated at his wrist. "Ranma Saotome. Today is the day of vengeance and of wrath!"

"I know I've never met you before," Ranma deadpanned. "I woulda remembered. Who are you, and just what did my old man do to tick you off?"

"Isn't that just like an infidel, to try and shift the blame of his sin onto an innocent man," the other sneered. "I am—" He stopped, and waited the minutes it took for Ranma and Akane to recover from this reference to Genma. Once they were more or less able to pay attention again, he continued, "I am Jere Radinov, of the Order of Heaven's Threads. We recognize the truth that all men are the puppets of the gods, who pull our strings and set us dancing for their amusement."

Ranma nodded his head in involuntary agreement. His life sure felt like that sometimes.

"And though they have not yet come to know the fullness of this truth, the Holy Clan of the Cursed Dolls are our strongest and oldest of allies!" Jere continued, glaring all the more fiercely. "You trespassed greatly against them, Ranma Saotome. You defiled the hot springs doll that is one of their most revered and venerated objects of worship. For this sin against our honorable allies, I shall make you pay!"

"Just a minute here!" Akane snapped, stepping forward past Ranma, who was too busy gaping at Jere to stop her. "What gives you the right to do that? They're the ones who ought to be taking revenge on Ranma, not you guys!"

The acolyte snorted. "Do you understand nothing of honor, girl? Or of standing beside your allies when they need you?"

"I understand plenty!" she retorted. "You're the one who doesn't. It should be them fighting their own fight, and you helping them if they need it! Not you jumping in and doing it for them like they can't even stand up for themselves!"

"Our allies feel that they cannot do so, because the doll itself let Ranma off the hook. And so it falls to us to step in and set things right." Several minutes back, Jere had slid his hands out of sight beneath a wooden panel. The muscles in his forearms suddenly twitched, an instant before the booth-turned-pseudomecha opened further, expanding outward with a meshwork of wooden lattices, from which descended strings leading to puppets two-thirds Ranma's own size. Each puppet moved purposefully and menacingly, the whole of them weaving back and forth in the space between Jere and the teens, gesturing with swords and spears that definitely were not stage props.

Ranma took a couple of extremely quick steps forward, getting between Akane and the threat. "Okay, fine, have it your way. Well, sort of your way," he amended, his hands coming up, together, and forward. "MOKO TAKABISHA!"

The chi blast cleaved easily through puppets and puppet-booth alike, reducing them to a cloud of splinters, threads, metal, and cloth. Fortunately Jere's own perch had been high enough that by the time he hit the ground, all the sharp pointy blade bits were several yards further down the road. The man just sat there, staring up from the ruins of his booth-turned-mobile-weapons-platform, his face quite pale and sweat popping out on his brow. He muttered something under his breath in his own language, but neither Japanese teen was able to translate.

"Y'know, it actually feels a little good that you aren't from Japan," Ranma stated. "Nice to know there's other people who have to put up with crazy stuff like I do. But if it's not too much ta ask, and seeing as how you are seriously outmatched here, I'd like you to give it up and go home. Deal?"

Jere got unsteadily to his feet. "I-infidel! Though you wield sorcerous powers th-the like of which I have never seen…" He stopped for a moment, seeming to be having difficulty swallowing, as if there were something large, hard, and jagged caught in his throat. Getting it down at last, he spoke again. "I will n-not be swayed! I will not betray the tenets of my Order!"

"How the heck ain't you doing that already?!" Ranma wanted to know. "Blamin' me for what I did, when your stupid Order believes the gods move us people around doing what they want for their own amusement. How the heck you figure what I did is my fault?"

Neither pigtailed boy nor shorthaired girl would have thought there was any way for Jere to lose more color than he already had. However, impossibly, at this point he did. The wind rose in a sudden gust, playing about their feet and tugging at their clothes. Not a word was spoken. Somewhere, off in the distance, a cricket chirped.

"Ranma!" Akane yelled, turning at last from staring worriedly at Jere to glare at the boy in question. "How could you do that to him?! Look at how bad he's taking this!"

"Oh, and I suppose that's my fault?"

"Your fault? Of course it's your fault! Look at him. You just gave him a crisis of the faith or something!" Akane's fists clenched, a sure sign that her temper was reaching the boiling point. "That's really low, even for you. What have you got to say for yourself?!"

"Hmm, how about, 'Give it a rest, Tomboy'?"

Akane saw red. "Ranma, you jerk!"

She surged forward, ready to give him his well-deserved thrashing, bookbag coming up for the opening blow. And then she skidded to a stop, nearly stumbling, as a quiet voice cut through her ire. "What was that?" she asked, turning back to Jere, relief replacing some anger on seeing him at least a little recovered now.

"I said, please stop," Jere said, speaking with some difficulty. "He… he doesn't… I don't…" After another long pause, the man managed to give a jerky approximation of a bow, and say, "Please forgive me for troubling you. It will not happen again." Moving slowly and unsteadily, he made his way back to the mouth of the alley from which he and his booth-gone-bad had entered, disappearing into the larger thoroughfare beyond.

"Well, that went better than it usually does," Ranma commented, as he and Akane resumed their own journey homeward.

Akane frowned, and gave him a low-power smack with the bookbag. "Aren't you even a little sorry about what you just did?"

"No," Ranma said flatly, opting not to get into a long, fruitless discussion about just what the heck Akane thought he should have done differently. "Aren't you even a little sorry for not listening to me earlier?"

"Listening to you earlier? What are you talking about?"

He sighed. "When I pointed out that things were once again happening just like we've seen them before, over and over. Nothin' ever changes around here, Akane."

Akane gave a loud hmmph. "Says someone who only found out a few months ago that his mother was still alive."

Ranma frowned back at her, but there was more sadness in his expression than anger. More than a month had passed since Nodoka told a certain redhead that she'd make a wonderful wife some day, but the pain was still there. "Okay. Nothin' ever changes for the better."

"Nihao, Ranma!"

The cheery cry resounded through the air. Both teens whirled, orienting on the sound and finding Shampoo dropping through the air. As was often the case, she wore a short Chinese dress that was tight enough not to be rendered indecent (at least, any less decent) by the wind of her descent. Neither Akane nor Ranma noticed in that moment, but the hair ornaments that usually secured the Amazon's odango were nowhere to be seen; instead, a pair of bright, festive ribbons tied the forward tassels of her hair.

'What perfect timing,' Akane thought grumpily. It had been two weeks since Shampoo and Cologne left for some business in China, two glorious weeks of no top-heavy too, too cute underdressed bubbly bimbos draping themselves over Ranma and plying him with oh-so-delicious ramen. She might have known it wouldn't last much longer. 'Why can't Ranma be right when it's about something good instead?'

'Hey, that's new,' Ranma thought as the Amazon touched down a few paces away from him. 'She's on foot and she ain't landing on me. Usually she's on the Bike of Pain and I end up with my face in her cleavage or something.'

"Is very good to see Airen again!" Shampoo enthused, taking several quick steps that closed the distance between herself and her beloved. She took his hand in her own, either missing or ignoring the fact that this raised his uneasiness level by a couple of notches. "You come with Shampoo, Ranma? Have important talking, much to tell!"

"Uh, I'm kinda busy right now," Ranma said nervously, trying to walk that fine line between hurting Shampoo's feelings and engaging Akane's temper.

Shampoo just gave him a wink and a big smile. "Not for this, Ranma is not. Is very good news, Shampoo promise Ranma be very, very glad to hear!"

"What is it this time, Shampoo?" Akane wanted to know. "A love pill? A Red Thread of Fate? A big bell that'll make whoever has it love whoever has the matching little bell?"

"Why you so mad this time, Akane?" Shampoo answered, speaking just as cattily as had the youngest Tendo. "Grow face hair from cheat with Super Soba? Get beat by new little sister out of nowhere? Put family in sickbed after you cook breakfast?"

"I don't have to stand here and listen to this!" Akane declared. "Come on, Ranma, let's go!"

"You go, Ranma stay!" Shampoo replied just as firmly. "Have to tell him good news."

"That's it? Just tell me something? Okay, Shampoo, go ahead. I could use some good news right now," Ranma said, desperately striving to remain balanced on that ever-narrowing line.

"Is for Ranma's ears only. After you hear, is you choice to tell Akane or not," the Amazon responded. "Shampoo choose not." Seeing Ranma look very dubious, Shampoo pulled out the big guns. "Is serious, Airen. Serious as time I tell you to come, hear about Phoenix Pill."

"If it's that serious, then I should hear about it too!" Akane declared, retracing the step she'd taken away from Ranma at the end of her previous dialogue, coming back to stand as close to him as Shampoo was.

"Ranma." Shampoo ignored Akane, staring directly into his eyes. Ranma blinked, caught off-guard by the absolutely serious look in her ruby gaze. Usually whenever she looked at him some sort of passion sparkled in those irises. Now, though, it was just sober determination, a sight that struck him as a very good argument in favor of listening to what she had to say. "Shampoo mean this. You need to hear for own self, by own self. Tell Akane later if you think is right. But Shampoo need to tell you first, in private. Please come now." And with that, the Amazon broke eye contact, spinning away and bouncing to the rooftop from which she'd initially descended, a three-story leap that Akane couldn't have followed if her life depended on it.

Ranma hesitated for one instant longer, then said, "I think I better find out what's going on, Akane. See you back home." Quickly, before she could try to change his mind, or more likely render him temporarily unable to make the jump, he took to the air, landing easily on the rooftop in pursuit of Shampoo. She wasn't there; she had already jumped again, bouncing to another nearby building two stories higher. Ranma followed again, and again, and again, catching up to Shampoo on top of a ten-story building, the highest one in the immediate area.

"Thank you, Ranma," Shampoo said, serious tone and expression still in place. Then her face curved into a warm smile. "Already say is good news. Airen be happy to hear, Shampoo promise."

"So what is this good news," Ranma wanted to know, "and why couldn't Akane hear about it?"

"Shampoo say that already. Is not Akane business. Is matter that not concern her, just you and me. Is good news for you, it not matter one bit to her. That is why Shampoo want to share this first only with man she love." Ranma fidgeted at this, but as she had just produced a portable stove out of nowhere and was currently engaged in lighting it, Shampoo didn't seem to notice.

"How'd you do that, anyway?" Ranma asked, instinctively trying to move the conversation away from talk of such dangerous and uncertain topics. "You study Hidden Weapons on this trip or something?"

"No be silly, Ranma," the Amazon replied. "Shampoo always been able to do what you see now. Most Amazon learn how to store bit of stuff. Shampoo can manage sword and bonbori." A shadow crossed her face. "Not carrying those now, so is easy to pack little stove and kettles and towel." She pulled out one kettle and set it on top of the stove.

"Huh. Well, I guess what you've got to say is really important, since you ain't taking any chances on getting interrupted by your curse." Ranma glanced up at the sky. Fairly cloudy. If it did start raining, that one dose of hot water wouldn't do much good. "Shouldn't you have an umbrella or something though?"

"No," Shampoo replied. "And Ranma all wrong anyway." She produced the aforementioned towel and second kettle, both of which she set aside. Then, quick as a wink, she stepped out of her shoes and shucked off her dress, leaving her bare as the day she was born.

Moving slowly enough to be sure her Airen got a good eyeful, but quickly enough that he didn't have time to descend into full-blown panic mode, the Amazon grabbed up the second, unheated kettle and dumped its contents over her head.

Ranma had already begun edging backward at the sight of Shampoo in all her maidenly glory. Her new action caused him to stumble and fall flat on his rear. He scrambled back to his knees and stared at the sight before him, trying to come to terms with this. Terror-blurred memories danced through his mind, hazy half-recollections of a pink-and-purple cat latched onto him, sometimes in anger at something he'd done, more often in reflex against falling as Akane splashed both Amazon and Airen.

After a few moments had passed, he recovered at least some self-possession. "Heh… guess that ain't happenin' no more," he breathed. "Good news is right." Louder, and speaking directly to her, he said, "This… this is what you went to China for?"

The falcon perched beside an abandoned Chinese dress gave a skreeling cry of triumph and agreement.

"I'm home." Akane bit the words off, her tone alone enough to reach Nabiki all the way in the living room and clue her in that they were shortly going to be a few dozen bricks poorer. Or maybe it would be training dummies this time, the middle Tendo mused; it had been a while since little sister had demolished any pigtailed strawmen.

She listened idly as her sibling headed upstairs to her room, opened the door, entered, and turned right back around and left again, swinging the door shut behind her. This was at least mildly surprising to Nabiki, who'd expected her sister to change into her gi and head directly for the dojo. But here came Akane, still dressed as she had been for school, minus only shoes and satchel. The youngest Tendo came into the living room and settled down next to Nabiki.

"So how far into his mouth did Ranma stick his foot this time?" Nabiki wondered.

Akane snorted. "You'd have to ask Shampoo about that. He's off listening to 'big important news!'" she said, duplicating the Amazon's bubbly tones as best she could. "Or at least that's what she said she wanted with him, and the idiot just jumped at the chance to get all caught up in whatever stupid scheme she's working out now. Honestly, I don't know what it would take to teach him a lesson."

"You say Shampoo is back in town?" Nabiki asked, far more casually than she really felt. Knowledge was power, and forewarned was forearmed. If Shampoo's and Cologne's recent jaunt back to the motherland was part of another scheme to snare a certain son-in-law, then the sooner she knew the particulars and could start setting up preparations to minimize fallout, the better. It was always a good idea to restrict as much trouble as possible to Ranma himself, and if a Tendo had to take some of the blow, by all means let it be Akane.

"Uh-huh. She stopped by just now when Ranma and I were walking back home. Said there was something she had to tell him, and that she didn't want me there for it." The dark brooding look on Akane's face deepened. "He'd better not be eating a batch of ramen with another love pill inside it! I can't believe him, just running off and leaving me behind like that. I bet she just wanted to get him alone so the two of them could do something perverted."

"Oh, yes, that fits his character so perfectly," Nabiki drawled. "All those times I've seen him flinch when Shampoo comes on to him, why, obviously those are just an act. We all know how good Ranma is at putting on masks and telling a convincing lie."

That level of sarcasm was enough to cut through even Akane's anger. She didn't say anything in response for several moments, then heaved a sigh. "I-I've seen that too, I guess. Times when Shampoo made him nervous…" but then her voice hardened again. "Just like it made him nervous when that stupid, stupid cursed doll pretended to flirt with him and he thought it was me! Thinking about that doesn't make me feel a lot better, Nabiki!"

"It should," Nabiki replied. "Doesn't it rather imply that Ranma's more comfortable with how you usually are than how Shampoo usually is?"

"M-maybe." Akane's eyes were downcast, and her voice wasn't much above the level of a whisper. "But sooner or later… I just keep waiting for him to…." Giving a sudden jolt, she made eye contact with Nabiki again. Speaking firmly once more, although her words came out in a rather rushed tone, as if she wanted them to overtake and override the ones that had just slipped out a second past, she said, "All she has to do is get lucky once with a stupid trick like that Red Thread of Fate. And right now that jerk is off giving her every chance she needs to do it!"

"Well, maybe if you save him enough times and hit him hard enough over the head with an 'I told you so', you can get him to forget about spending any time with Shampoo," Nabiki offered. "Even though it's a tenet of Saotome honor to never turn down free food. Even though it's a tenet of Ranma Saotome's personal honor not to make a girl cry. Even though the Amazons are probably the best hope he has for a cure for his curse. Even though—"

"Nabiki, you're NOT HELPING!!"

"No, I suppose I'm not," the middle Tendo said with a sigh. Trust Akane not to notice that none of those reasons she'd just listed had anything to do with romance. Sometimes it could be just as hard to get an idea through her little sister's head as it was for her True Stalker, Tatewaki Kuno himself. Frankly, Nabiki didn't feel like putting in any more pro bono effort right now. "So why aren't you off in the dojo already, taking out your frustrations on a few hundred yen's worth of construction materials?"

"I… I wanted to tell you about this," Akane confessed. "It's just…."

Nabiki gave her sister a long, evaluating stare. "Why on earth are you this worried, Akane?" she said at last. "What really happened this afternoon? Did Ranma seem happy to see Shampoo? Eager to go off with her?"

"…no," Akane was forced to admit. "It's not that… I'm… it's the timing, Nabiki!" she burst out. "The Amazons leave for China without any real notice at all. And they come back the same way, Shampoo showing up out of nowhere and dragging Ranma off for some time alone on the very day after Dad and Mr. Saotome leave for awhile!"

"That's why you're worried?" Well, it was more thought than Akane usually put into these things. She wasn't right, or rather it was highly unlikely that she was, but at least the reason why wasn't glaringly obvious. "Stop and think this through, Akane. Just why did Daddy and his panda pal leave?"

"They went on a training trip with Grandfather Happosai."

"And whose idea was this trip?"

"Grandfather's," Akane replied, in a tone that made it obvious she didn't think the question needed to be asked, not even rhetorically. The thought of Soun or Genma willingly leaving with Happosai was unthinkable enough; the idea of one of them proposing the trip was something at which even a Kuno would scoff. Happosai had literally dragged his two disciples out the front door by the scruff of their necks. Kasumi had spent several hours buffing out the gouges left by their fingernails, the marks of their failure to either resist or take the floor with them.

"And how far in advance was this trip planned?"

Akane shrugged impatiently. "I don't know! It's not like Grandfather would have warned them and given them a chance to slip away ahead of time." He'd told them of the proposed trip, in the same breath given them a minute to say their goodbyes to their respective offspring, and nailed their desperately fleeing forms with the backpacks that he'd already packed for them. "He probably just came up with the idea that day… oh." She blinked a few times, then said, "Is that what you meant, Nabiki? That there's no way the Amazons could have timed things to get back just when Dad and Mr. Saotome had left, because they didn't have a clue they'd be going anywhere?"

"It does seem pretty unlikely," Nabiki replied. "Cologne is the leader of the Amazon tribe, after all. It's quite possible that they just had to go back and take care of some business back home."

"So you don't think we need to be worried about this at all?"

"I didn't say that." Nabiki shrugged. "Just that you shouldn't worry about it any more than you usually do."

"Great. That's a lot of help," Akane muttered. P-chan and her diary knew she spent more time worried about Shampoo than all other girls combined. The Amazon had always been the one who consistently came the closest to snaring Ranma for good, the one who would most readily put Akane down or show her up, the one who'd come right out and tell Ranma to his face how much she loved him, how much she wanted him…

The youngest Tendo's fists balled at her sides. "That jerk better not be enjoying himself."

Shampoo cocked her head to the side and stared quizzically at her Airen. A falcon's vision was quite different from that of a human, and there were limits to how far the magic of Jusenkyo went in immediately adapting its victims to use of their cursed form. Viewing the world in this body really only felt strange when she consciously thought about it, which in turn tended to happen mainly when she saw something particularly odd.

Watching the love of her life dance a jig certainly qualified.

"WHOO-HA! NO MORE NEKOKEN!" Technically that wasn't true, nor was what it implied; there had been a couple of times in the last year when some cat other than Shampoo had triggered the state. But they were seriously outnumbered by the times when she had been the culprit, willingly or no, and all the near-misses had been due to her. Ranma spun through a very tight Anything Goes kata, moving at five times normal speed with the force of his celebration. "THANK YOU, KAMI-SAMA!!"

A beak wasn't nearly flexible enough for smiling, so Shampoo couldn't. Nonetheless, she was beaming on the inside. The metaphysical smile only got wider as Ranma danced over to her side, scooped her up in one hand, and held her triumphantly aloft. "Nothin' to be afraid of here, right?!" he called to the sky. "Just a harmless little pink-and-purple hawk. Nothin' to mess anybody's day up!"

Shampoo considered the implication that up until now that hadn't been true, and resisted the urge to give him a quick nip.

The initial wild fury of Ranma's joy had pretty much exhausted itself by now, though he was still half regarding Shampoo, half looking beyond her to the sky with a big grin on his face. He stood like that for several moments, his gaze gradually focusing more on the avian Amazon. It was strange to see a pink-and-purple bird of prey, he decided, as far as he was concerned even stranger than that color scheme had been on a cat. Then again, he'd never exactly taken a good, long, calm look at Shampoo's feline form.

There was more variance to the shades on her new alternate shape than Ranma thought he remembered from her previous curse. Her back was purple, a purple which varied from hue to hue on his close inspection, but was everywhere deep enough to be indistinguishable from black under a twilit sky. That color extended along her wings as well, although there it was broken up by bars of light creamy pink. The curve of her chest was primarily that same light color, though there were numerous freckles of purple spattered there too. The pale pink extended up her throat and the sides of her neck, rising nearly as high as her eyes in most places before terminating at more of the deep purple. Markings like the memory of her typical hair tassels swept down from this, purple bands that pushed their way down her cheeks and past her beak.

Judging that Ranma was probably ready to pay attention again, Shampoo uttered another squawk and gave a quick flap of one wing, pointing toward the remaining kettle that waited to change her back. Ranma walked over there, set her down next to the stove, and reached for the kettle, noting as he did so that Shampoo had adjusted the flame perfectly when setting the water to heat—it would be hot enough to trigger a change, but not enough for discomfort. He picked it up, and only just in time did he remember that after he doused her Shampoo would, once again, be stark naked.

He positioned the kettle and clamped his eyes shut, then tilted and poured. The downside of having his eyes closed meant that he couldn't remove his hand in time to prevent Shampoo's increasing mass from brushing against it, though he didn't realize this until far, far too late. His lack of vision also meant he didn't realize that had just been her arm rubbing past the back of his hand. Ranma scrambled backwards, covering a good five feet before realizing that retreating backwards with closed eyes is an extremely stupid thing to do on top of a ten-story building. He came to a stop, and over the pounding of his heart he heard the reassuring sound of cloth moving against Shampoo's skin.

Once it had stopped, once she was safely clothed, he opened his eyes and said, "Sorry about—GAAHH!" His eyes snapped shut again, too late to do nearly enough good. The image remained burned into the back of his mind, a crystal-clear vision of Shampoo staring back at him with a half-amused, half-exasperated look, one hand open from dropping the towel she'd just finished using, and her other only now reaching for the discarded dress.

The sound of cloth sliding over flesh came again, and ended. "Is okay now," Shampoo called, her tone a good match for her earlier expression. Ranma cracked one eye open, then, reassured that Shampoo was as decent as she was going to get, followed suit with the other. She gave him an ironic look, then sniffed and said, "Silly Ranma, was okay all the time. Akane not here, remember? Is nobody here get mad at you for something like that."

"Uh, right, whatever." 'Man, I really hope when I get home Akane don't ask me if I was up to anything perverted,' Ranma thought. 'Yeah, right, who'm I kidding? As if I could get away with seeing something like that — okay, think of something else, change the subject… maybe ask her why that, why not some other curse…' Then he blinked. "Hey, Shampoo?"

"Yes, Ranma?"

"You went back to Jusenkyo, right?"

For this he received perhaps the most dubious stare he'd ever gotten from Shampoo. "Is you okay, Airen?" A note of concern rising into her voice, the Amazon asked, "Akane not give you bad head injury while Shampoo gone, did she?!"

"No, and that ain't what I meant. Obviously you did something about your curse," he explained, "but if you went all the way back to Jusenkyo to do it, why this? Why not just use the Spring of Drowned Girl?"

"Oh. That what Ranma mean." Shampoo didn't answer right away, searching for the best words, wondering if she could really pull this off with her limited Japanese. Her great-grandmother had specifically warned her not to take what seemed the most obvious course in explaining this to Ranma. As the Matriarch had put it, "Just tell him straight out, girl. Unless you want to end up pushing him away, don't try to play on his sympathy or make him feel guilty. You always take things too far."

"Did I say something wrong?" Ranma asked, after the silence had stretched for a while.

"No. Shampoo just trying to think of right way to answer." The Amazon sighed. "Is point of law, Ranma. Shampoo get Jusenkyo curse for break Amazon law, so no can be cure of curse. Can change one curse for other, but can not just cast aside penalty for my actions."

"Wait a minute," Ranma protested. "You got that curse for not killin' the outsider girl who beat you. And that's me, and I ain't really a girl at all. Why can't you be cured?"

Shampoo looked away. "Remember you is one who asked," she said quietly. "What Ranma say is true, but also true I not in, um, what is word… not in compliance with law right now. That why no can take cure."

"But you… You mean me," Ranma replied, his own voice falling.

The Amazon nodded, then looked back at him with a determined expression. "I not want to say, not want to blame you again. Did that first time I got here with curse, tell you it all you fault. It do no good, just more hurt. Not want make that mistake again. So no be sad or guilty, okay Ranma? This one… Shampoo not think of it as curse at all. Not even think is burden."

"Well, it's definitely a big step up. I'm sure you didn't much like being a c-cat," Ranma said.

Shampoo snorted. "Ranma practice for Understatement of Year contest?"

That raised a bit of a grin on his face. "Nah. Just natural talent."

She flashed him her own smile. "Ranma is man of many of those."

"You know it." He fell silent for a moment, then continued in a more meditative tone, "But there's some things I can't do. Shampoo… what's it like? What's it like to fly?"

"Over last few days Shampoo think about how to tell you that," the Amazon replied slowly. "Still don't think words are right. Is maybe not any words that do good enough job. Can say 'Is great, is glorious, is more than Ranma can imagine,' and that is true, but not come close to the whole thing. Think of you, Ranma, and every normal person you know, and everybody else you not know. You, they, we all born to chains, live our whole life in them, not even realize things could be any other way. What this is, to Shampoo, is freedom from that. Those chains cut away, not weigh me down no more." She stared him directly in the eye. "Maybe this is best way to say it. Mousse get his curse because of you, it make him so mad, he try give you duck-curse too. Try to give greatest enemy a body with gift of flight as revenge. Is single stupidest and blindest thing he ever, ever do."

"Really that good, huh," Ranma said, looking away from her, casting his gaze up into the sky. "It does sound good… heck, it sounds wonderful. Didja know that's a Saotome Anything Goes specialty, Shampoo? Our style focuses a lot on jumps and midair combat. But I guess you just one-upped me, huh?"

"Looks that way," Shampoo said, in a far-too-innocent tone.

Ranma didn't quite notice. His mind was still occupied with his previous line of thought. "You know… that Instant Drowned Guy water you had once, do you or your granny have any Instant packets for this? I think it'd be kind of nice to try out being a hawk for awhile…" For something like that, he'd gladly take her out on a date or two.

"Not know," Shampoo said. "And is very bad idea anyway. Ranma use that, it push girl-curse off to the side, just for one second. As soon as more cold water hit you, water that not have Instant Jusenkyo powder dissolve in it, old curse come back." She gave him a mirthless smile. "Turn into girl one mile up in sky is very bad news."

Ranma's lips curled in a frown of disgust and frustration. "Why am I not surprised. Not like I've ever gotten a break before, why should I expect it to start now…? No, that ain't true," he said, reminding himself that the absence of Shampoo's cat-form was certainly a serious turn for the better in his life. "Shouldn't be complaining about half a loaf. I'm glad for you, Shampoo." He smiled, a genuine expression even if it was rather small. "Glad you got something this good after that awful, horrible, evil, terrifying — anyway, I'm glad for ya."

She smiled back at him, though the expression trembled with anxiety that Ranma wasn't perceptive enough to notice. "Thank you for say so, Airen. But Shampoo not out of good news for you yet."

"No? There's more? Cool." His smile was wider now. "Let's hear it."

"Kind of ties in with what Shampoo just had to say to let you down a minute back. About you curse. Shampoo understand why you not like turn into girl, why it seem so bad to you. At least understand a little, anyway, Shampoo think about having curse to turn into man and know how much she would hate it. Would be terrible. Would be worse than turn into falcon, much, much worse."

Ranma frowned at her. "Y'know, rubbing it in doesn't usually qualify as good news, Shampoo."

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Impatience lead to lost chances, Ranma. Well, sometimes it do," she amended. "That not a threat, Shampoo not going to take back what she offer if you impatient, just means more time wasted while—" With some effort, the Amazon cut off her babbling. Taking a deep breath, she spit it out: "I bring back Drown Falcon water for you. If Ranma want, no more girl curse."

There was another one of those long, profound silences. Shampoo waited patiently for Ranma to give some indication of recovering higher-order functions. Currently he was just sitting there, frozen like a statue, staring at her in shock.

Just as Shampoo began wondering whether he'd come back to life if she leaned over and gave him a kiss, Ranma spoke again. "Y-you serious?"

She nodded her head.

"I… I don't know what to say…" After another long moment of silence, something to say did occur to him, but he pushed the impulse aside. It wasn't too hard to imagine why she didn't just bring back some Drowned Guy water and offer him a full-blown cure. He might not be an expert at figuring out how girls' minds worked, but even Ranma was able to see that if Shampoo had to still be cursed, and it was a curse she kind of enjoyed, it would be far more natural for her to want to share that with him rather than just hand him a complete curse cure.

'Would that really have been so much better than what she's offering me? Heck, with this I could maybe just fly to Jusenkyo on my own if I wanted to…' Seeing Shampoo still looking expectantly at him, waiting for some more meaningful response, Ranma said, "Thanks. I… I'm gonna have to think about that for awhile."

Judging from the look on Shampoo's face, this wasn't exactly what she'd wanted to hear. "No take too long, please," she advised, though her tone shifted more toward pleading by the end of the sentence.

"Why not?"

'<Because I broke the law for you again, or at least bent it. Jusenkyo is not to be trifled with. Even what Great-Grandmother and I did, exchanging my curses, wouldn't be okay except for how the first one was handicapping me from doing what I was supposed to. Taking more water away just to give someone a nice little gift may very well get me busted down from Champion to Latrine Guard. It was all I could do to smuggle the water away without letting Great-Grandmother find out about it. I had to leave my weapons behind to have the space available to hide the casks. And I still don't trust her not to sniff out the secret, and if she does who knows what will happen? The least I can expect is her to pour out the water and give me a lecture on not pushing my luck any further with the Law.>'

Shampoo didn't say any of this, remembering anew Cologne's advice/command about not trying to use guilt to motivate Ranma. Instead, she said, "Water away from Jusenkyo will slowly lose permanent power, stays able to give real curse for a while, then one day, poof! Is just Instant type. Salt soak in that is what make powdered form." It would actually take nearly three months for the water to lose its permanent effect, but Shampoo didn't think it was a good idea to go into that much detail. "You not want to run out of time, right?"

"HELL, NO!!" Ranma shouted, unpleasant memories surging back through his mind, thoughts of all the cures that had just barely slipped through his grasp. "How long do I have?!"

"Sooner the better," Shampoo answered. "One more day is okay, two, probably okay… after that? Is pushing luck." She hoped she wasn't setting herself up to fail her Airen. Surely she could manage to keep this secret at least that much longer.

"…Okay," Ranma replied. "I'll have an answer for ya tomorrow."

She inclined her head, then smiled at him. "Remember, Ranma. Shampoo do this for you. No let it get you all stress out, okay? If worse come to worse, Shampoo always willing to go with you, take trip to China and guide you to Jusenkyo for real cure. Just say word and we do that."

'Huh? But if she's really willing to do that… then why not just bring back Drowned Guy water in the first place?' Ranma stared confusedly at Shampoo for a couple of seconds, then gave himself a mental smack on the forehead. 'Duh, Ranma, think about it. This way she gets to either share something with me, or we take a nice long trip together.' That made much more sense. Not long after the dust had settled after that affair of the Contrary Jewel, Shampoo had said something about how she wished she got to see him more. If he took her up on either choice she'd just offered him, she'd be getting some of that.

Well, this scheme was a lot more benign than some she'd come up with, Ranma thought with a smile.

"Earth to Ranma. Is you there? Why you all spaced out?" Shampoo wanted to know.

"Huh? Oh. Just thinking," he replied. "Got a lot of that to do now, I guess." He got to his feet. "Shampoo… thank you. Thanks for all of this."

"Happy to help," the Amazon replied, giving him a warm, wistful stare. "Anytime, Airen. Shampoo happy to be there for you."

Next to a bridge, alongside a canal, beneath the afternoon sun, sat Ranma Saotome. He might more usually be found underneath the bridge than beside it when he came to this area to think, but for the kind of reflection he had to do now he needed a little more light.

It was a tranquil scene. A gentle breeze blew, strong enough to raise soft ripples on the surface of the water, but not enough to stir Ranma's pigtail. There were no clouds in the sky, nor were there any other people within his line of sight.

Not that he was spending his time looking around. The Saotome heir was seated cross-legged on a large rock, staring forward into the water with a deeply pensive expression, studying his reflection. The ripples from the wind regularly caused the image to waver and distort, but it remained clearly recognizable for the most part.

After a few minutes of this, Ranma got to his feet. He took the few steps necessary to bring him to the water's edge, then dipped his hand beneath the surface. The newly-redheaded martial artist returned to her original seat, sat back down, and resumed staring at the vision of herself mirrored in the waters. It was time for some serious soul-searching.

'This is me.' She cocked her head to the side. 'Except it really isn't.' She held up one hand, watching as the girl in the canal did so as well. 'This body… this curse… it's the worst thing that ever happened to me.' The girl in the water nodded her head, mimicking the action Ranma-chan herself had just taken. 'I can get rid of it now.' She let her hand fall to her side, and leaned forward, staring with greater intensity. 'Say goodbye to you. But…' She heaved a sigh. 'It ain't a cure. All I can do is change this curse for a different one. Better? Worse? It ain't such an easy thing to say.'

She shifted her gaze, looking away from the waters. Raising her hand again, she fixed her eyes on that, rotating her wrist and flexing her fingers. 'Way back when he first found out about my curse, Ryoga said it wasn't a curse at all. And I guess I know why he'd say that. Turning into a defenseless…' she scowled, remembering the times P-chan's teeth had infringed upon her skin's personal space, '…well, nearly defenseless little pig, that would be worse than still being human.'

"Defenseless…" the redhead muttered aloud, then shivered. "No way would I want that. This body, at least I still got hands, feet, arms, legs, still got all my skill and my training, even if I haveta shift my focus when I'm like this. Losing power and gaining speed… there's a lot of worse tradeoffs that Jusenkyo coulda stuck me with.

"But… this one… this choice Shampoo's giving me… What do I do? Do I take it? Do I turn her down?" Ranma-chan got to her feet, staring forward into the water once more, scrutinizing her image as if trying to see past the ripples and distortions and commit every inch of it to memory. Then, without warning, her head shot up and her eyes stared skyward, scanning the limitless blue as if searching for answers written there. Back and forth, from ground to sky again and again, each time requiring a little less time to change the view. Finally, staring up into the heavens, Ranma-chan whimsically called out, "Hey, you up there! How's about giving me a sign?!"

"Pigtailed girl!" *Glomp*

Ranma-chan's eye twitched. "Always knew the kami hated me," she gritted through closed teeth. In one swift motion, she reached up with one hand and grabbed the arms that Kuno had wrapped around her bosom, bent at the waist while lunging forward, using her other arm to grasp Kuno's shoulder and fling him forward and off her back. The maneuver sent the kendoist shooting forward and away at high speed. He skipped over the surface of the water, reaching the far side only mildly damp, and slammed into the wall of the embankment at a velocity hardly reduced at all from its initial level. The impact was enough to knock even the Blue Thunder unconscious.

"You there! Pigtailed hussy!" Ranma-chan groaned and turned, already knowing what she was going to see. Sure enough, there was Kodachi Kuno, as well as the Kuno clan's overworked and underpaid ninja peon, Sasuke. Judging from the number of parcels under which the latter was almost buried, the Kuno siblings had been doing some shopping. Just her luck, the redhead thought sourly. Usually you wouldn't encounter multiple Kunos together outside their home, at least not unless one of them was caught up in a scheme of some kind.

"How dare you treat my brother like that!" Kodachi declared. "You should welcome his suit with open arms! And thereby end your foolish, doomed, infuriating infatuation with my darling Ranma! Oh, dearest Ranma," she sighed, her eyes widening as she gazed into some glorious future visible only to her, "how I long for the day when all these foolish interfering witches cease their efforts to stand in the way of our true and destined love….

"And where do you think you're going?!" the Kuno daughter snapped, her gaze hardening and fixing firmly on Ranma-chan, who had begun moving unobtrusively away.

The redhead scowled, annoyed all the more that she hadn't been able to sneak off while the gymnast was lost in la-la land. "What's it to you, Kodachi? I don't think either one of us wants me to stick around and waste time kicking your tail again." 'As soon as she whips off that dress so she can show off her stupid leotard, I'll run for it. There'll be just enough time for me to get outta sight while her vision's blocked.'

"You wicked, wicked girl!" Kodachi snapped. Why, oh why had she come out without wearing a combat leotard underneath her dress?! She might have known this would happen! But her two favorite leotards were in the wash, and her five next-to-favorite ones were in the mending. All that she'd had available today were forty-odd plebeian garments no longer worthy of her elegant beauty. The very next stop on their shopping trip was to have been a gymnastics supply store, which would have allowed her to restore herself to proper preparedness. But this vicious little harpy just had to show up half an hour too early! For that, on top of all the other times she had been a nuisance, she deserved a special punishment.

In an instant the Black Rose produced her ribbon and sent it snapping towards the other girl. Ranma-chan, caught off-guard by the absence of Kodachi's staple strip-down-to-one-garment-away-from-naked maneuver, was unable to dodge. The ribbon snapped tight around her, and then she was flying through the air. Her flight was short, giving her enough time to orient herself and realize where she was landing, but not enough to alter her course.

"Pigtailed girl, come to my arms!" a recovered Kuno shouted, despite the fact that he'd already latched those arms around the redhead in a grip an octopus might have envied.

"That's right, you little trollop, kiss my brother and make up!" Kodachi shouted from the far bank.

"Let go of me!!" With a burst of frenzied strength, Ranma-chan broke free. Not giving Kuno time to recover, she grabbed his arm and slung him across the canal again, this time on a more carefully-aimed trajectory. It was Kodachi's turn to be caught flat-footed and fail to evade an attack, as her brother plowed into her with what would be bone-breaking force in a more normal district. The impact carried them both into Sasuke, whose tentative grip on his mountain of packages finally failed. Boxes and bags buried the three unfortunates.

Turning her back on the enraged shouts and confused noises of the Kuno siblings trying to extricate and untangle themselves, Ranma-chan hurried away.

"Okay… hot water… where's the nearest hot water…" Ranma-chan maintained the litany under her breath. Her hair was frazzled, she sported the beginnings of a battle aura, and one eye was twitching noticeably. Anyone with a reasonable amount of sense would have stayed well clear of her.

"Once again this fair flower crosses my path." Mikado Sanzenin stepped out of the doorway of an adult bookstore, stopping right in front of Ranma-chan and arresting her forward motion. "I know that ever since our first kiss, you must have spent many sleepless nights pining for me, aching for the pleasure that was now only a memory." He flashed his most charming grin. "Only a cad far worse than I could deny you something so dear to your heart. Truly you are—"

The thunder of hooves cut his smooth talk short. The self-proclaimed Emperor of Martial Arts Figure Skating paled, turning swiftly away from Ranma-chan. "Not again," he growled under his breath.

"Haven't I warned you often enough?!" Sentaro Daimonji snarled, piercing Mikado with a furious glare. Ranma-chan stared at the newcomer in amazement. In many ways he was just as she remembered him, still wearing the traditional tea ceremony robes that were the uniform of his family style, and mounted atop a powerful brown mare. The horse seemed to be under far better control now than the redhead had seen in the past, though, and for that matter Sentaro had rather a different air about him as well. He was more confident, more forthright, and a good bit more imposing. The glare he leveled at Mikado spoke volumes of incipient violence, of a level that would have any concerned parent jerking the book right out of his child's hands. Crazy as it seemed to Ranma-chan, it looked like there was about to be a fight in which she wasn't involved at all.

She ran that thought through her mind once more, and took several long steps backward.

Noting all that and getting a little more distance had only taken Ranma-chan a second or two. Meanwhile, Sentaro was still speaking. "I've told you over and over, Sanzenin. I won't tolerate your perverted ways with women! They are people to be loved and cherished, not objects to drool over and mark as notches on your belt!"

'Damn,' Ranma-chan thought, 'that girl they picked out as this guy's fiancée must be somethin' else. She's really made a new man out of him.'

"What kind of a man are you anyway?!" Mikado retorted. "There's nothing wrong with showing a healthy appreciation for feminine beauty."

Sentaro's lips curled in disgust, disdain, and wrath. "Don't you mean, nothing wrong with forcing your attentions on unwilling women… like my Satsuki?! GREEN TEA GRENADES!!" And with that his hands flashed forth, each emerging from the confines of his robe holding two of the projectiles Ranma-chan remembered so well from her own travails with Martial Arts Tea Ceremony.

Off the ice and not currently wearing rollerblades, Mikado was far too slow to dodge. The explosives rained down around him, igniting in a mighty blast that left the 'emperor' squashed flat against the pavement, eyes rolled back in his head and hands extended out with middle and ring fingers bent, pinky and pointer straight.

Sentaro gave a self-satisfied snort, then sent his horse edging forward around the blast zone. "Are you all right, Miss… Ranma!" he exclaimed as recognition dawned.

"Yeah, it's me." Ranma-chan gave him a big smile. "Not gonna sweep me up on the horse and try to take me off to be your bride again?" she joked.

The redhead hadn't expected quite the level of reaction that she got. Sentaro gave a choking gulp of disgust, pulled back and gave her a long, evaluating stare, then slid down from the horse and walked over near to her. "Can I ask you something, Ranma," he said, his tone not really sounding much like a question at all to Ranma-chan. "Why were you letting him hit on you?" Judging by what he remembered of Ranma's combat prowess, and what he knew of Slutzenin's, surely 'letting' had to be the right word. And come to think of it… "For that matter, I once heard a man named Tatewaki Kuno rambling on about his 'red-haired pigtailed goddess'. Is that you?!" Judging by the look on her face, Sentaro was quite confident in saying, "It is! Have you no shame?! How can you have fallen so far, Ranma Saotome?! Acting like this gives real girls everywhere a bad name, and encourages vermin like Sanzenin to prey on those who aren't really transformed master martial artists! How dare you sink so low?!"

He would have continued, but at this point the clatter of hooves cut his diatribe short. Sentaro whirled, to see his faithful steed racing away, an expression of terror on her face.

"That horse is a lot smarter than you," Ranma-chan growled, cracking her knuckles and letting her battle aura flare to its full height.

"C'mon, hot water… gimme a restaurant, a café, heck, even a stupid normal yattai!" Ranma-chan paused, sending a disparaging glance over her shoulder. She'd passed four of the mobile food-serving carts in the last five minutes, but they were all locked in grim competition to see who could offer the best ice cream to people in this area. Not a trace of hot water to be found there, though the ridiculously low prices had plenty of teens clustered around each one.

The redhead turned her attention forwards again and continued walking, coming up on yet another customer-choked ice cream cart. Just as she did, someone broke free from the crowd, a girl with which Ranma-chan had much in common. The satisfied customer licking away at a triple-scoop fudge cone was also relatively short, cute, quite well-endowed for her height, and a skilled martial artist with an unusual hair color for a Japanese.

"Doesn't Azusa know you?" Mikado's sometime partner inquired, coming up beside Ranma-chan.

The Saotome heir gritted her teeth, ignored the question, and kept walking. 'Just ignore her, don't let this get to you, it's just the universe's way of making up for the good news I got from Shampoo earlier.'

"Are you giving me the silent treatment?" Azusa asked, sounding more than a little indignant. "That's not nice. Thanks to stupid Mickey, you won our first match." The second one had been a draw, due to the rink collapsing. "If anybody's gonna be sore after that, it should be little Azusa. And I'm not." As if to show that there were no hard feelings, the klepto queen of kawaii began skating along next to Ranma-chan.

The redhead gave one irritated glance at the rollerblades the shorter girl wore, then deliberately looked away. "I ain't in a talkative mood."

Unfortunately, Azusa apparently was. "You were pretty impressive. Not as good as Azusa, but good. You ought to move to America or someplace where we wouldn't have to compete against each other, and go into Martial Arts Figure Skating too." She paused for thought, a process which took several seconds. "Of course, you'd have to get a good guy to back you up. It's really hard to find someone good enough. Mickey was the best I could do." She made a face, then soothed herself with several huge gulps of ice cream.

"Don't wanna get into figure skating," Ranma-chan grumbled, speeding up a little more. By now they'd closed most of the distance to yet another set of ice cream yattai, two of them directly across the street from each other. Only in Nerima, the redhead thought.

"You really should. Although…" Another pause for thought, interspersed with licks at the rapidly-dwindling cone. "You had good skill, but you've got a lot to learn about grace and beauty. You're the biggest tomboy little Azusa has ever seen."

For the first time since this conversation had begun, Ranma-chan felt a slight lessening of her overall aggravation level. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"It's not one!" Azusa said reprovingly. "No makeup, that icky hairstyle, plain old clothes, and I bet you're not even wearing a bra!" She zipped around in front of Ranma-chan, forcing the redhead to stop or run into her. More by reflex than actual choice, Ranma-chan went with the first option, and the jiggle of her unrestrained chest showed clearly to Azusa that her suspicion had been well-founded. "You'll be halfway down to your knees by the time you're twenty… Huh?" The blonde blinked, as the sight before her registered more clearly. "Charmand! Chantage! Loiselle! Mireille! Margot! Alec-Paul! You're so cute!!"

Ranma-chan took a quick step backward, bringing up both hands in a warding posture. "What? What d'you want now?!"

"Those ties on your shirt are so cute! Loiselle! Margot! Come to little Azusa!"

The redhead spared one instant to curse. She just had to decide this morning to wear the shirt Kasumi had given her for her birthday, didn't she?! All the rest of her garments just had plain wooden ties, but the fastenings of this one were elegantly carved mahogany dragons. Apparently here and now they were a little too elegant. "Listen up, Azusa — HEY!!" Ranma-chan shouted, as the shorter girl made her move, one hand darting forward to seize the objects of her desire.

Ranma-chan had little difficulty blocking the attack; she did it reflexively, operating on instinct rather than conscious thought. Unfortunately the hand Azusa had used was the one carrying a cone with most of a scoop of ice cream remaining. The cold treat splattered all over Ranma-chan's arm, which was just disconcerting enough for Azusa's free hand, the one that was already moving in for the real attack, to snake through her guard and effortlessly pluck all six ties from Ranma-chan's shirt.

"Bye-bye!" Azusa said. She lashed out with one foot, bracing it against Ranma-chan and pushing off. The force of the move sent her zipping away at top speed. Ranma-chan stumbled back a pace, while the wind of Azusa's exit whipped the redhead's vandalized shirt wide open.

As has previously been stated, the rock-bottom prices for ice cream had attracted enough teenaged customers that each yattai along this strip was surrounded by plenty of patrons. The two between which Ranma-chan was currently standing were no exception — or rather, had been no exception. The sight of the newly-revealed bounty before them changed this in an instant, sending the male half of the customer base rocketing away from their previous positions. Before Ranma-chan could even catch her balance, she was utterly surrounded by half-crazed hormonal guys.

"Dammit!" she snarled, pushing them back as best she could, having flashbacks to the time she'd fought Mousse as a girl and her top had gotten ripped. This same thing had happened then. "Once is more than enough for any lifetime!" This time seemed even worse, in that there were significantly more guys present, crushing in on her, reaching out to her, all of them together radiating a level of lust that would have done Happosai himself proud.

Ranma-chan kicked and thrashed, through sheer ruthlessness creating a temporary pocket of open space. She took every shred of her anger and forced it through the Soul of Ice, turning it from hot to cold. The redhead spun through a very rapid contortion, twisting her icy aura through the heat radiated from the crazed onlookers, forming as best an approximation of a spiral as she could. It was sloppy, and wasn't going to give a very well-formed effect, she knew. But that was okay; all she needed was to get a little space. "HIRYU SHOTEN HA!"

The result was indeed sloppy. The twister formed only for the briefest instant, then destabilized in a powerful explosion outward from her that tossed all her would-be molesters far farther than Ranma-chan had hoped for. Not only that, but the rest of the onlookers, and even the two nearest ice-cream carts, were also flung back by the wind. Ranma-chan would've felt guilty, had she not caught several of the comments the females had made on seeing her state of indecent exposure . Like it had been her idea or something!

Too angry to care a whit for modesty at this point, Ranma-chan shucked off the damaged shirt, then strode over to the nearest guy who looked about the right size and wasn't wearing something too embarrassing for a macho guy like her. She yanked him upright, pulled his shirt up and off, dropped him back to the street, and then donned the garment herself. "Thanks," she said sarcastically, biting the word off. Then she nearly bit her tongue as she looked back down at the jerk whose clothing she'd 'borrowed', only to see him staring up at her with a goofy grin and a nosebleed.

"My shirt… she took my shirt… Thank you, mistress," he moaned in ecstasy.

Ranma-chan gave a snarl that wouldn't have sounded out of place if she'd been in the throes of the Cat Fist, and darted away.

"I don't believe this! How much longer is it gonna take me to find some stupid hot water?!" At least she seemed to have finally left the World's Largest Concentration of Ice Cream Stands behind. Unfortunately, the neighborhood she was in now was a residential one, with lots and lots of little houses everywhere she looked. She wasn't quite ready yet to walk up to one of them and bum some hot water off someone she'd never seen before — the last time she did that, she'd sent one poor housewife into hysterics — but Ranma-chan's unwillingness to resort to such a tactic was steadily dwindling.

She hurried along, scanning each house as she passed it, wondering without much hope whether one of these houses might be the home to a classmate that already knew about her curse. 'C'mon, Hiroshi, Daisuke, anybody… heck, I'd even be glad to see Gosunkugi come out of one of those houses…'

"Ranma! *pant* *pant* Thank goodness it's *gasp* you!"

Ranma-chan started, turning her attention away from the house she'd been looking at, focusing on the girl who'd just run up and was now trying to get her wind back. It was one of Akane's best friends, she realized, brown eyes, straight black hair… Yuka; that was her name. The girl was normally a cheerful, smiling sort as far as Ranma-chan remembered, but here and now no trace of that usual sunniness was evident. Yuka was pale and trembling, staring at Ranma-chan with the desperation of someone who sees one last glimmer of hope appear just when she had thought all was lost.

"What's wrong? Did Akane get kidnapped or something?" Ranma-chan asked, putting one hand on Yuka's arm to steady her.

"No… Not Akane… It's Sayuri… Oh, god, come on! You have to save her! That… that thing is going to force himself on her!" As if this terrible thought had unlocked new reserves of adrenaline, Yuka turned and raced away from Ranma-chan. The redhead followed, keeping pace as they hurried to the end of the current street and made a right turn. Both girls came to a stop then, Yuka stumbling with fresh weariness, Ranma-chan skidding to a horrified halt.

They weren't the only ones staring at the sight before them. An average Japanese schoolgirl cuddled up beside an eight-foot-tall Ghost Cat will draw attention even in Nerima.

"C-c-cat!" Ranma-chan stammered, retreating a good twenty paces in the blink of an eye.

Yuka's jaw dropped. Pulling herself together, she jogged over to Ranma-chan's new location. "What do you think you're doing, Ranma?! Sayuri needs you to save her!"

"Save her?!" Ranma-chan risked one more glance at the sight of Akane's other normal friend. At least, the Saotome heir had always thought of her as pretty much normal. The redhead was quite confident that no normal girl would be happy to be in Sayuri's current position, but the blissful smile on her face spoke volumes. Yuka might not be happy to find out how kinky her friend apparently was, but that didn't mean Ranma-chan was going to face down her worst nightmare to 'save' someone who was perfectly content where she was. "Looks to me like she's just where she wants to be. Ain't we supposed to respect people's rights to make whatever kinda bizarre, scary choices they want with their own lives?"

"You idiot!!" Yuka just barely held back from slapping Ranma-chan, more out of a suspicion that doing so would hurt her hand than any other reason. "You don't think she'd do that if she was in her right mind, do you?! Look at the stupid necklace she's wearing!"

Reluctantly, Ranma-chan did so, focusing on Sayuri and her jewelry with intensity enough to prevent the sight of the Ghost Cat from registering. "What'm I supposed to… Oh." Now that Yuka had drawn her attention to it, the necklace did seem rather suspicious. It was a large, solid chain, much heavier than girls usually would choose to wear as jewelry, and Ranma-chan was nearly certain that each link in the chain was formed from a twisted, distorted small bell. The kind of little bell that was supposed to tie the heart of whatever girl held it to the Ghost Cat Miao Moulin, who possessed the matching big bell. Ranma-chan had never seen that particular effect actually work in her prior encounters with the feline phantom, but then again the spirit had previously only ever handed out one little bell at a time. "Did she start acting like that after she put it on?"

"After that monster tossed it over her head, you mean. Yes!" Yuka exclaimed. "You've got to save her, Ranma!"

The redhead heaved an extremely reluctant sigh. "Yeah, I guess so," she said unenthusiastically, fighting off twin shudders, one from the idea of getting up close and personal with the spectral feline again, the other from the sight before her. Sayuri had just begun rubbing her cheek against the Ghost Cat's. Her cheeks were flushed, and her smile had gotten even wider. Better not to waste any more time.

Ranma-chan darted over to one of the onlookers, a man who was alternating between staring incredulously at the sight before him and frowning worriedly at the half-empty sake bottle he held in one hand. "Scuse me, time for you to do your part to help out," Ranma-chan said briskly, then slipped the bottle out of his hand. She pivoted, letting the motion of her turn give her extra power, and threw the bottle toward the cross-species couple. The missile bounced off Miao Moulin's head, spilling a fair amount of sake over him, knocking him away from Sayuri, and sending him to the ground in a dazed heap.

Sayuri gave a cry of distress and reached out toward her fallen paramour. Ranma-chan was already blazing in at top speed, though, and snagged her before she could close the distance. The redhead dashed the length of an entire block, then whirled Sayuri into the air. The brunette squealed in shock and dismay, a noise which cut off abruptly as her spin brought her upside down and the necklace slipped off to fall to the ground below. Ranma-chan caught the dazed schoolgirl, set her back on her feet, then grabbed hold of a nearby bench. The thought of Miao Moulin using that chain on her gave her more than enough adrenaline to rip the bench out of the ground and bring it crashing down on the artifact, smashing it to what she seriously hoped was uselessness.

"Aowwww… that's nyot fair…." the Ghost Cat whined, sitting up and rubbing his head with one paw. "Why'd you have to… Ranma!" His eyes widened as he took in the sight before him. It was the most beautiful redhead he'd ever seen, the girl with that intriguing hint of felinity in her soul, the one who was second only to Shampoo as a desirable potential mate. And since Shampoo was off limits, given what that horrible old woman had said she'd do to him if he ever caused Amazons any trouble again, that actually put Ranma in first place.

"Oh crap," Ranma-chan said, noting the hearts and stars that had just appeared in the Ghost Cat's eyes. "Later, or better yet, never." She turned, intent on leaving this whole blasted nightmare in her dust.

In that instant, the Ghost Cat ran his paws through his coat, gathering up a bunch of loose hairs which immediately wove themselves into an impossibly long cat's cradle. Ranma-chan had taken only the first step away when the strands caught up and snared her. She screamed bloody murder as Miao Moulin gave a quick tug, sending her flying back into his embrace.

"Oh, Ranma, it's been so long and I've been so lonely. Myi'm not giving up this time!" The giant spectral cat punctuated this declaration by giving the redhead a long, loving lick, then rubbing his cheek against her. Ranma-chan struggled, but even though the cat's cradle had vanished she was having no luck whatsoever in freeing herself; her position afforded her almost no leverage, the Ghost Cat had a distinct strength advantage, and she was currently too frightened to think straight. She could already feel the darkness of the Cat Fist creeping up from the blackest depths of her unconsciousness.

*CLONK* "MYAOOWWWW!" The bench which Ranma-chan had earlier freed impacted with the back of the Ghost Cat's head, wielded by the combined fury of Sayuri and Yuka. The blow didn't quite KO the spirit, but it was enough to destroy his grip on Ranma-chan. In an instant the redhead was out of the horrible embrace, running away as fast as her legs and her terror could take her.

"If this is some kami's idea of a joke, it sure isn't funny," Ranma-chan growled. Suddenly lifting her gaze to the sky, she screamed, "YOU HEAR ME?! IT'S NOT FUNNY AT ALL!!"

The rest of the people on this lane had already been giving the redhead a fairly wide berth; her rumpled appearance, her battle aura, and the fearsome glare she sported were enough to ensure that. This declaration just prompted them to pull a little further back. Ranma-chan caught sight of one particularly fearful stare, grumbled a few choice curses under her breath, and began plodding forward again. She covered two more blocks at that same trudging pace, no longer even slightly surprised to find that there were still no sources of hot water available.

Five minutes after that, though, her search finally bore fruit. Up ahead stood a lone yattai, one whose sign proclaimed that it offered the best varieties of tea that could legally be purchased off the street. Ranma-chan didn't care a whit for the quality of whatever beverages they served, but the fact that this yattai was bound to have hot water was the best news she'd had in what seemed like a very long time indeed.

Finally breaking into her first smile since leaving Shampoo, the redhead increased her pace. The expression lasted just long enough for her to close the rest of the distance, realize there was no-one manning the yattai, and take note of the 'closed' sign. Ranma-chan let out a low, quivering moan, and sank down with her back resting against the cart. 'Guys don't cry… guys don't cry….'

"Is something wrong, young lady?"

The concerned, grandmotherly voice drew Ranma-chan's attention up from her private misery. An older woman was looking down at her with sympathy and worry plain on her face. "I just… I really, really want some hot water…." Ranma-chan replied, gulping a few times during the process of getting the sentence out.

Moemi Hamabusa paused, taking a good long look at the redhead's visage and general appearance. She was scuffed and rumpled, with several smudges on her face. The poor dear had obviously been through some trying experiences, probably a run-in with some of those martial artist hoodlums who were such a trial in this district, and wanted to clean up and make herself presentable again. The older woman offered a reassuring smile. "Just wait a minute, young lady, and I'll have some heated up for you."

"Oh, thank you! Thank you!!" Ranma-chan said, not even realizing she was now doing her best 'sparkly-eyed vision of beauty' routine, the one that was usually reserved for scamming free food from male teenaged vendors. She beamed at Moemi as the woman moved around to the other side of the yattai, poured some water into a kettle, and began heating it. Ranma-chan stared at the kettle as if it contained the answer to all her hopes and dreams, waiting what seemed like years for the water to heat sufficiently.

"Here you go," Moemi said at last, handing over the kettle. She offered Ranma-chan a clean cloth as well, which the redhead regarded for one puzzled instant before returning her attention to the far more precious gift she'd just been given.

"Ranko? Is that you? It is!"

Slowly but inevitably, every last iota of joy drained out of Ranma-chan's smile, reducing it to a sickly grin. 'No… it can't be… Aw, hell, who do I think I'm fooling? Of course it can.' She gulped, steeled herself, and turned around. Sure enough, standing a few feet away from her was one of Japan's few other natural redheads, a woman far closer to 'Ranko Tendo' than she knew, the most important woman of Ranma's life: Nodoka Saotome.

"Auntie Saotome! What a surprise!" Ranma-chan said, smiling as pleasantly as she could manage.

"Yes, it is. A wonderful one," Nodoka said, her smile eclipsing the younger redhead's by a significant margin. "What brings you out this far away from home?"

"Oh, just walking around, having… fun." Forcing that last word out took quite a lot out of Ranma-chan. "You know, girl stuff."

Nodoka didn't quite know what sort of 'girl stuff' would have Ranko wandering around on her own looking so rumpled, but was too polite to say so. At least the girl seemed to care enough about her appearance to want to clean up. "I see. Were you about to wash your face, Ranko? You do have one or two little smudges."

"Hahahaha! No, that's not it. Hot water is terrible for your skin, you know," Ranma-chan confided with a manic grin. "Wouldn't want to get any of that anywhere near my precious schoolgirl complexion."

"Then… what…?" Nodoka asked, feeling a little unbalanced from the unexpected reaction.

"Oh, this?" With no further ado, Ranma-chan hefted the kettle and drank its contents in one long series of gulps. "Ah, that's better," she lied through her teeth.

"I see." Nodoka blinked a few times. "But you know, you still need to wash your face, dear. And…" The Saotome matriarch stepped closer, and took a deep breath. "Ranko… have you been drinking? I thought I smelled sake."

"Drinking? Me? Nope, no way, not a chance." Ranma-chan gave a half-crazed laugh. "That was just from the jerk who decided to make me his squeeze toy."

Nodoka parsed that sentence, and began considering its implications. One corner of her mind noted, as had Azusa Shiratori before her, the lack of a certain foundational garment on the very-well-endowed girl before her. "Ranko, dear, that doesn't sound at all like appropriate behavior for a young lady," she chided gently. "I'm sure it's hard growing up without a mother to teach you these matters, but there are some things that simply aren't done. A young woman should be a delicate flower, demure and proper and well-behaved. Running around wild and unescorted, dressed like a boy in all the ways that matter," she gave Ranma-chan's chest a disapproving look, "just isn't right."

"Sorry, Auntie Saotome," Ranma-chan muttered, looking down.

"Would you like to come shopping with me, dear? I would very much like to teach you some things, lessons that you really need to learn," Nodoka offered, hoping desperately that the redhead would say yes. It had been so long, so terribly long since she'd had her own child to fuss over and care for. The Saotome matriarch had even made a quick visit to the Tendo household earlier this day, only to be disappointed yet again when Kasumi regretfully informed her that her husband's master had dragged the menfolk away on another training trip.

Especially perceptive Ranma-chan wasn't, but nonetheless she clearly heard the loneliness and hope in Nodoka's voice. "Ah… I… that is…" she stammered, knowing she was going to say yes but not quite able yet to get the words out. She gulped, screwed her courage to the sticking place, opened her mouth — and then blinked, and turned away from Nodoka, as the sound of an approaching commotion registered. The street actually seemed to be trembling beneath her feet, the redhead noted with some apprehension, and the vibration was increasing along with the climbing noise level.

Two blocks down the street from the mother-and-daughter duo's current position, a large brawl suddenly spilled out of a side-street into full view of the Saotome women. The older of the two blanched, took one reflexive step backward, then hurried protectively in front of Ranma-chan while drawing her blade with a trembling grasp. As if in response, the battle ground to halt, staring down those two blocks in sudden greater intensity.

"Pigtailed girl!/Pigtailed girl!/Ranma!/You!!/Pigtailed girl!/That katana is cute!"

Tatewaki's, Kodachi's, and Mikado's synchronized cries managed to drown out Miao Moulin's utterance of Ranma's real name. The redhead would have been grateful, if she'd been in any condition to notice the small mercy. However, she was too busy staring in horror at the sight before her, and seeing all too clearly what was about to happen.

Sure enough, all six former combatants declined to renew their battle, dashing toward her instead. Ranma-chan spared one more instant to wonder what the heck that freaky oversized Dojo Destroyer was doing mixed up in this, and then she scooped up her mother and raced away.

"Pigtailed Girl! I would date with you!"

"O HO HO HO HO HO!! You still owe my brother a kiss, harlot!"

"I said myi'm not giving up this time, and I myeant it!"

"GRRR! It's payback time, girlie!"

"Francesca! Francesca! Come to little Azusa!"

"Azusa, you twit! What did I tell you about stealing things worth more than fifty thousand yen?!"

Ranma-chan nearly broke her stride in astonishment as Mikado's comment registered. Was the playboy-wannabe actually in this just to look out for his partner?!

"And you, pigtailed girl! I'm still indebted to you for a kiss!"

No, she supposed not.

"R-Ranko! What's happening?!" Nodoka cried, totally unready to handle such a turn of events. Her day-to-day existence was as peaceful as it was lonely. Nothing in it had prepared her for something like this. From her position in the redhead's arms, she was able to see the chase behind her. In what was certainly not a good sign, already more participants were cropping up in the crowd behind them: a man on a horse wearing an expression of righteous anger, a shrunken old man of about the same size as Happosai but with hair obscuring his entire face, and an uncertain number of black-clad figures whom Ranma-chan would have recognized as faceless ninja minions of the House of Kuno.

Not that Ranma-chan had any chance to realize this; she was too busy running as fast as she could without jarring her mother. Unfortunately, she could sense the crowd behind her was slowly but surely narrowing the gap. Desperately the redhead scanned the road in front of her. All the buildings within sight were at least ten stories high, too high for her to reach in a single bound even had she been unencumbered and in male form.

On the other hand, the street was fairly narrow here…

With an animalistic snarl, Ranma-chan leaped, going as high as she could, bouncing off one building and leaping higher, crossing the street and rebounding off the building on the opposite side. Several bounces later, a panting redhead carefully set Nodoka down on the rooftop, gave her an intense stare of mingled apology, sorrow, and longing, then yelled "Catch me if you can, morons!" to the stalled pursuit below. With no further ado, she took off over the tops of the buildings. The crowd, now swelled to at least twenty people, gave a collective roar and followed.

Nearly a minute later, Nodoka finally found words. "Oh my, Ranko certainly is… talented…." The Saotome matriarch fell silent, gazing sadly after the long-vanished girl. At last, she heaved a sigh, then blinked as a new thought struck her. "Dear me. How am I going to get down?"

Despite knowing that Cologne would have some rather unpleasant things to say if she should return and find him not yet done with his chores, Mousse moved slowly and distractedly through the restaurant. He'd finished sweeping just a little while ago, but the tables still needed to be wiped clean of dust and the kitchen made ready for tomorrow's reopening. At his current pace it would take at least a couple of hours to complete all this, but if he put all his effort into it, he could probably be finished in another forty-five minutes.

Mousse heaved a long, yearning sigh. But who could concentrate on such things when Shampoo was finally back?

She wasn't here right now; she and Cologne were off shopping for the supplies they'd need in the morning, when the Cat Café opened its doors to customers once more. Great-grandmother and dutiful descendent had popped in at the restaurant earlier this afternoon, showing up at roughly the same time classes ended at Furinkan, dropping off the luggage from their trip and leaving again almost immediately. There had been time enough for Mousse to recover from his initial joy that today was the day of Shampoo's return, to see that she was in a good mood, smiling and eager and hopeful, and to open his mouth to ask her if she wanted to go out for the evening. But the Matriarch had been just a little faster, ordering him to have the restaurant made ready for the morrow's reopening by the time they got back. And just like that, after only a couple of moments of his destined bride's company, Mousse was alone again.

It had been a long, cold, lonely two weeks here in Nerima. He still didn't know why Shampoo and Cologne had gone to China this time, but he supposed it was probably another visit to allow the Matriarch to handle matters back at the village that required her personal attention. They'd taken several such trips in the past, and each time Mousse had stayed behind to keep watch over the Cat Café. Each time, too, he'd worried that this time was really a chance for Ranma to sneak away and make a secret rendezvous with Shampoo. But each time Saotome had stayed safely back at the Tendo household. No, that worry, at least, had proven unfounded yet again.

There were other worries, of course, other reasons why Mousse's heart wasn't completely filled with ecstasy at the return of his bride-to-be. Cologne had undoubtedly spent much of her recent time alone with Shampoo trying to browbeat the girl into pursuing Ranma more wholeheartedly. If Shampoo were really unlucky, the Matriarch might have found and forced on her some new cursed artifact that would supposedly chain the Wild Horse down. The Bell of Miao Moulin, that damned Red Thread of Fate — each time in the past, it had just backfired and dropped more stress and heartache on Shampoo. But did the old mummy care? Did she learn from her mistakes? Not a chance in the world!

Mousse grimaced, realizing that somewhere in that fugue he'd apparently dropped the dustcloth. Pulling down his glasses from where they rested on his forehead, he peered around the floor for it. Ah, there it was, underneath that table. He bent down and reached out, grasping the cloth.

The front door slammed open with a bang to wake the dead. Mousse shot to his feet, then clutched his head and groaned at the pain. Knocking a table aside with your scalp as you stand generally isn't much fun. At least his glasses hadn't been in their usual position; they would have been broken for sure. He stared through those glasses at the newcomer, eyes first widening, then narrowing at the sight of Ranma Saotome.

Mousse's arch-rival had clearly had better days. His teeth were clenched, and his brow wrinkled in a glare. His clothes were dirty and torn, with one shirt sleeve missing altogether. He sported a black eye, and he moved with a noticeable limp as he made his way into the restaurant. His battle aura was out and burning, but it was a faint and weary thing, showing that while Ranma might have plenty of anger and willpower left, his energy levels were very, very low. All in all, as far as Mousse was concerned it was a sight for sore eyes.

Ranma spared Mousse one disinterested glance, then turned his attention toward the rear of the restaurant. "Shampoo! I got your answer, and it's 'Hell, yes!' " The pigtailed boy paused, taking a few deep breaths, then yelled, "You and me, right now! Let's go!!"

"What?! Y-you… I… what…" Mousse stopped, considered exactly what Ranma had just said, took a deep breath, gave a scream of fury, and launched a fusillade of blades and chains.

"Not now, Duck-boy!" Ranma snarled, diving forward to one side and upending a table. Several blades buried themselves in it, but the Nekohanten furniture was constructed to Amazon specifications and none of Mousse's weapons pierced entirely through the impromptu shield. The half-blind boy gave a snarl of his own and whipped out several exploding eggs, intending to lob them on a course that would drop them past the table and directly onto Ranma.

"Mousse! What you doing?! Stop right now!"

A new person stood in the doorway, an arrival about a thousand times more welcome than had been Ranma, at least as far as Mousse was concerned. "Sh-Shampoo!" The eggs slipped right out of his grasp. He had time to realize his mistake, but not enough to do anything about it.

The Amazon maiden in question stared in annoyed resignation at the charred, blackened sight before her. Great-Grandmother wasn't going to be happy about the floor. Or the table, she added, noting the damage done by Mousse's earlier attack.

The resounding *boom*, followed by the unmistakable sound of an irritated female sigh was Ranma's cue to peak his head around the table. Sure enough, Mousse's current threat potential had dropped to zero. Not only was the Chinese boy unconscious, or at least incapacitated, Shampoo was trotting over with a scowl and a glass of water for him.

Shampoo unceremoniously dumped the liquid over her oldest friend and most persistent nuisance, picked up his feathered form, and slung him into a cage on the far side of the room. The impact caused the lid to flip down and latch closed. Mousse immediately lurched to his feet and began quacking furiously. Shampoo rolled her eyes, took Ranma's arm in her own, steered the Saotome heir out through the front door, and closed it behind them, cutting off Mousse's increasingly pitiful squawks. "Sorry about that, Airen."

Ranma gave her an odd look. "You apologizin' for Mousse? That's not exactly your fault, Shampoo."

"Not for Mousse. For not be here to meet you." Shampoo paused, giving him her own long, searching stare, reaching roughly the same conclusions that Mousse had. Her beloved had had one heck of an afternoon. "Sorry, Ranma. This really not work out like Shampoo plan."

"Planned? Whaddaya mean?" he asked warily.

"When you leave to go think things over, Shampoo change into falcon and follow you. Meant to make sure you got chance you need, keep trouble from catch up and take away time to think." '<And tell you afterward, so you knew who to thank for an afternoon away from the crazies.>'

Ranma stared dubiously back at her. "You mean you were trying to run interference for me today? Then how come every loony in Nerima crawled outta the woodworks to give me grief?" Just his luck that Shampoo's good intentions had probably somehow managed to stir up trouble rather than suppress it.

"Not every one," Shampoo retorted snippily. "Ranma not see Pantyhose at all, yes?" The Amazon shivered. She'd seen and seized an opportunity to snag a bit more of Ranma's gratitude and good will, but she hadn't been expecting a fight like the one she'd actually gotten. Just her luck that the first menace whose path would have intersected his was someone as fearsome as Happosai's godson. "That was Shampoo's afternoon trial-by-fire. Deal with him was no fun at all."

"Whoa. You had ta fight him? By yourself?"

Shampoo nodded, smiling now at the obvious respect and gratitude on her husband's face. At least that much had worked out as intended. And once he heard the rest of what she had to say, he'd only be happier.

"Damn. Thanks, Shampoo. Dealing with him on top of everything else that happened today…" Ranma clamped his mouth shut. He didn't want to think about it.

"Is not something Ranma ever have to be afraid of doing again," she pronounced.

"Huh? You don't mean you…" he lunged forward, grabbing Shampoo's shoulders and staring desperately into her eyes. "Please tell me you didn't haveta douse him with the Falcon water, to get rid of that monster form."

"Hmmm, sound like Ranma not need whole day to think about it after all," she teased. "No, Airen. Shampoo did not waste your gift like that."

"So what did you do?" If there was another way to handle someone as dangerous as Taro, he sure wanted to learn it.

Shampoo grinned like the canary that swallowed the cat. "Just tell him what he want to hear."

"Bartender! One for everybody in this dump, and make it the best stuff you've got!"

Tanaka repressed a sigh. When he was in the neighborhood Taro was one of the regulars here, despite technically not even being of age to drink. Nobody ever called him on it more than once, though. At least today the kid was in the best mood Tanaka had ever seen on him, swaggering up to the counter grinning from ear to ear. He'd also apparently managed to lose that pantyhose sash somewhere.

"Hey, thanks, buddy!" This was a drinker who'd never met Taro before, which explained his next question. "What's yer name, so I can hoist my glass to you?" Tanaka said a quick prayer, tensing to dive toward the back door and possible safety.

Against all odds, the youth in the dragonscale vest just smiled even wider. "Taro. Rebel Leader Taro."

"Let me see if I got this straight. You used the Xi Fang Gao on him to give him the memory of Happosai actually changing his name to something he wanted… and that's what he picked?!"

Shampoo just shrugged. "We already knew Pantyhose not all there. Change that with Xi Fang Gao take days, not seconds."

"Huh." Something occurred to Ranma. "You don't think he'll throw it off, do you? I mean, like Akane did. I wouldn't say he's any less stubborn than her."

"Hmmm… is good matchup maybe," the Amazon mused, indulging in a moment of wishful thinking. "Anyway, no, Airen. He not break technique and see through fake memory, because he not want to. When Xi Fang Gao work with what victim already wants, no chance it fade or fail."

"Well, that does sound good. He won't be any less of a jerk, but after this he's got no reason to come around. Thanks, Shampoo, I appreciate it." Ranma hesitated, then clarified, "That doesn't mean I think you oughta go around using that technique on anybody else or nothin', though." Especially since it was apparently more powerful and versatile than he'd known. He wondered how many of those 'fake' bottles of shampoo that she'd dumped on him so long ago weren't fake at all, but rather intended for different effects.

Shampoo shivered involuntarily. "Not have to worry about that. Formula is much too expensive to use except in crit… critic… um, in crisis. Great-Grandmother make that very clear after she hear about first time Shampoo use." Pushing aside the unpleasant memories, Shampoo spoke again. "Anyway, Ranma, you have make decision about Jusenkyo and falcon body?"

"Yeah, that's right. Heck, I shoulda just taken you up on your offer then and there," Ranma groused. "But no, I had ta go off and give everybody an' their dog a chance to show me how stupid I'd been. Never again," he swore, then turned back toward the restaurant. "Let's go do it."

"Ranma going the wrong way then," she said dryly. "Water is not at Cat Café."

"Huh? It's not? Why not?"

The Amazon snorted. "Why you think? Shampoo have not tell Mousse about new curse yet, but as much trouble as he always cause me he probably trip over cask and splash water over himself anyway. For sure if he know about Shampoo change out cat for falcon body and offer same to Ranma, he would try to steal water and use on own self."

"Okay, yeah, we don't want that," Ranma agreed. "Where'd you hide it?"

"This way." Shampoo led him down the street, through a right turn at an intersection, and two blocks further along the new road. She came to a stop outside a bath house, one that had apparently sustained some damage recently and was closed for repairs. "In here," she said, then tensed and leaped to the roof. Ranma did likewise, and followed her through the unlocked rooftop access into the building itself.

Only a few moments later, the two of them were safely inside the interior of the ground floor, Shampoo checking to make sure the hot water was still running and Ranma wishing she'd hurry up and get with the main event. Once satisfied that she'd be able to transform her beloved back to his normal self afterward—no way was she going to miss out on the free show if he didn't think to protest beforehand — Shampoo retrieved what looked for all the world like a perfectly ordinary cask. Ranma stared at it, trying and failing to find words. At last, giving up, he gave her a look of warmth, gratitude, and happiness that nearly buckled her knees, and reached out for the prize.

"N-not like that, Airen," Shampoo chided, speaking with some difficulty through the lump in her throat. Damn, but she was going to be seeing that look in her dreams for weeks to come. "You hold up cask and dump on self, you change, not have hands to hold cask. It fall on you and bump you head. Is dangerous in body so small, and Shampoo not want that happen."

"Okay, whatever. Just pour it on me!"

"Right." Shampoo knelt down, settled the cask securely on the ground, carefully pried up the top, and gave her Airen a big, heartwarming smile. And then, rising to her feet, she carefully began to pour.

Jusenkyo's magic was more powerful than she'd expected. Ranma's form wavered as the first droplet hit him. The cask was less than a quarter empty by the time he shrank down into his new body. Shampoo blinked, nearly dropping the cask in her surprise. She recovered, though, and carefully resealed the container. Maybe if she gave it to Great-Grandmother for use in preparing Instant Falcon powder, it would get her out of some of the trouble she'd just brought on herself.

Ranma, meanwhile, had already hopped over to where Shampoo had earlier begun running the hot water. It was still flowing, filling up a large basin. He stared into the waters, getting as good a view as he could of his new form.

He made for a beautiful sight, Shampoo thought to herself. Where her falcon body was pink, his was a stormy blue-grey. The areas that were dark purple on her were for him a glossy black that matched the hair of his true form. Aside from these differences, the patterns of his coloration were more or less the same as hers, down to those distinct tear-shaped darker patches that extended down his cheeks. Great-Grandmother had said those were the markings of a peregrine falcon, Shampoo remembered, feeling a great surge of happiness well up within her that apparently Jusenkyo had decided to change her beloved into the exact same species of raptor as she herself had become.

So caught up in these thoughts was Shampoo, she almost missed it when Ranma jumped forward into the hot water. She'd been looking forward to that moment too much to let it slip by, though, and paid close attention to the view. She was rather expecting Ranma to dive for his clothes, turn his back on her, and change at lightning speed, or perhaps hunch down in the tub and request her to turn away. However, her pigtailed husband surprised her quite pleasantly indeed by moving slowly and thoughtfully over to another faucet, turning on the cold water, and then just standing there staring at it.

"Ranma? Is something wrong?" Shampoo eventually asked, concern at the odd behavior edging out her appreciation of the sight before her.

"No… It’s just…" Ranma gulped. "I know you said we still had time, but what if the water really did run out of power? What if it really had downgraded to just Instant stuff? That'd be the way my luck usually runs. I won't know for sure until I try and see. Just trying to get my nerve up, I guess."

"No worry so much, Ranma. You not be disappointed," Shampoo said, moving over to stand beside him. "Even you have good luck some times." Unable to resist temptation, she reached down and gave him an affectionate pat on his bare derriere.

That little gesture broke right through whatever mental block had kept him oblivious to the naked reality of the situation. Ranma shot forward as if propelled from a cannon, diving into the water at a speed that would have been seriously painful on an earlier day. As it was his action kicked up a huge splash, but before he could strike the edge of the basin Shampoo's reassurance was proven correct; his human form was washed away, leaving a black-and-grey falcon fluttering through the air. His feathers were wet, making flight difficult, but Ranma could already sense an echo of what Shampoo had promised. She'd been right, he knew in that moment, flight was a glorious gift indeed, one that he was going to enjoy to the limit once his wings were dry and he had room to spread them.

"~Very funny, husband,~" he heard Shampoo say behind him, speaking in tones of wry amusement. Something had sounded odd about the words, though…

He turned around, and let out a squawk of surprise. Apparently he'd kicked up enough water to trigger Shampoo's own curse. The pink and purple falcon from earlier that day was just now struggling free from her clothes. Ranma stared at her, realizing something rather annoying. "~What the heck?! Why's she bigger than me?!~" he asked no-one in particular. Shampoo's form was seriously larger than his own! Weren't female animals supposed to be smaller and weaker than their male counterparts?

"~Wait… what?~" Shampoo was now as wide-eyed as a falcon could get. "~I understood you?! Ranma, can you understand what I'm saying?~"

It was his turn for realization and shock. "~I… I can. Whoa. I mean, I knew this was magic, but this seems like a little bit much, you know?~"

"~I'm certainly not complaining,~" the avian Amazon retorted. "~This has to be the nicest surprise I've had all day.~"

Ranma cocked his head to one side and gave her a quizzical stare. "~Huh. What's happened to the way you usually talk, anyway?~"

Shampoo did her best to stick her tongue out at him, but her current body couldn't quite manage the gesture. "~Silly Ranma, you don't think I talk like that in my own language, do you?~"

"~Guess that's a good point. So, getting back to my original question, why's your cursed form so much bigger than mine?~"

Another thing a falcon body couldn't do very well was shrug. "~I don't know. Maybe it's so the males and females of the species can hunt different types of prey?~" Shampoo guessed.

That still didn't answer the question of why the females should be the bigger ones, Ranma brooded. Oh well, maybe it was to help them sit on eggs or something.

"~Anyway, guess that clears up one thing,~" Shampoo squawked cheerfully. "~Your old curse really was replaced.~"

"~Yeah. Yeah! You're right!~" Ranma was now finding out for himself that a beak just couldn't curve into a grin. His happiness was more than evident in the words Shampoo heard, though. "~Thanks a lot, Shampoo. I'm really, really grateful for this.~"

"~I'm glad,~" the Amazon said softly. "~Bet you'll be even happier once you try out your wings. Come on and let's get changed back, Ranma; you can't get any decent flight inside this building. And I've got some other stuff for you anyway.~"

"~Huh? Other stuff? What do you mean?~" Ranma asked, following Shampoo back into the hot water, once again without pausing to consider just what he was doing. A quick change, fierce blush, and even quicker dive for his pants later, Ranma was clothed and human once more, facing safely away from Shampoo.

Deliberately grasping one last opportunity for teasing, she got out of the hot water and trotted over to the area where she'd secured the rest of her gift to him, not bothering to swing by her own discarded clothes just yet. "Is three bars of waterproof soap, Airen," Shampoo said after retrieving the package. "Use when you know you going to have fight, like if get a challenge letter or something."

"Thanks." To her disappointment, he didn't turn around this time. "Ah… could ya please put your clothes back on now?"

"Hmmm, so that what is on Ranma's mind," the Amazon teased, watching the back of his neck turn an even deeper red. "Okay, okay." She set the soap down and did as he had requested. "Is better?"

'Less dangerous, at least,' one corner of his mind responded. "You said you had waterproof soap for me? Isn't that stuff real expensive?"

"Order all the way from Jusenkyo, yes. Get at source, no," Shampoo replied. "So you not want to use these up too fast, okay?" She grinned at him. "Unless Ranma would like to make trip out there with Shampoo to buy more."

"Ah… right…" A little reluctantly, Ranma accepted the package. The two of them stood in silence for a moment, before he hesitatingly asked, "Shampoo… all this… why're you doing so much for me?"

The Amazon's smile dimmed, fading into a look that Ranma couldn't quite read. "Ranma already know why," she said quietly. Turning away, she continued, "Shampoo need to get going now. And Ranma should too, go try out what is like to fly."

"Right, yeah." He stood there, unsure how to react or what to say, finding more words only an instant before Shampoo could disappear up the stairway that would lead her to the rooftop access. "Maybe we could fly together sometime?"

"Shampoo will hold you to it," she replied, and though he couldn't see her face Ranma nonetheless heard clearly that her smile was back in full force.

It felt like a long way back to the Cat Café. Walking away from Ranma, from the man she loved who was smiling and happy now because of her, going back to the restaurant where she'd find a blind fool in a cage quacking piteously at her, knowing that before this evening was over she'd have to face the Matriarch and explain just what she'd done… none of this was calculated to lend wings to Shampoo's heels. And so she covered the few blocks back to the restaurant at a pace more suited for a geriatric cripple than the Champion of the Amazons. She sniffed in irritation as the comparison crossed her mind, but didn't increase her pace.

As she walked, she began mentally building her defense, or at least the explanation that she would give to her great-grandmother. Okay, she'd bent the law. There was no denying the truth that Jusenkyo was off-limits to the tribe as a whole. In fact, she was one of a scant handful of Amazons of her generation who even knew the truth of the training ground of cursed springs. By ancient law and by order of the Council of Elders, all that was allowed to be common knowledge regarding the place was that it was very dangerous, an area where Amazons were forbidden to go, save for the unfortunates who trespassed badly enough against the law to receive a punishment of 'retraining' there.

She was the youngest Champion in eight generations. She was also the first Amazon in nearly that length of time to receive Jusenkyo's punishment kiss. The irony wasn't lost on the lavender-haired girl.

It had to be the single greatest unfairness of her entire life. Shampoo was sure of it. The curse of Jusenkyo had been given to her for an act of disobedience that truly hadn't occurred at all. She had not carried out the sentence she'd believed was required against the outsider girl that had defeated her, that much was undeniable; but if she had known the truth of Jusenkyo, had understood just what it meant when her new-found husband had dumped that cold water on his head and changed into the redheaded object of her earlier hunt, she would never have left Japan in defeat at all. The law had twisted against itself in ways that Shampoo felt sure were never intended, and she cursed the ruling that meant she hadn't understood Jusenkyo until far too late. Not even her great-grandmother had realized what had really happened; Shampoo's pride had kept her silent, until her plunge into Maoniichuan and the subsequent revelations had washed that all away.

'<Great-Grandmother picked out my old form herself. Chose just what spring she would swat me into.>' It was a little easier now to smile about this than it had been in the past, though Shampoo's grin was still mirthless and bitter. '<It was supposed to let me get close to the outsider girl, spend time with her when she was unguarded, and catch her unawares.>' Except that once Shampoo had finally learned about the cold-water curses, she'd seen that the 'outsider girl' could be no girl at all. There had been no reason then to think her new form wouldn't be just as useful in doing what she really needed to fulfill the law, even if she would be getting close to Ranma for an entirely different reason. 'I was even looking forward to posing as his pet cat. Ha. That has to have been the biggest disaster of my entire life.>'

These were thoughts Shampoo had had many, many times in the past. With some effort she pushed them away, reminding herself that she had finally been given a fresh, new start.

'<I can't be cured until Ranma stops being so stubborn about our marriage. I couldn't even have changed my curse, except for how it was making it harder to do what I was supposed to. But because that was the case, it was okay. We could go back there and pick out a new curse, choose the one that Great-Grandmother thought really would help my chances instead of hurting them.>' She hadn't needed her Airen to tell her about the Saotome school focusing on midair tactics; she'd already known that quite well. In fact, it was a prime factor in Cologne's choice of what new curse to give to her.

Shampoo paused, considering the implications of that a little bit more. '<We didn't just grab a random curse to get rid of my cat form. We talked, Great-Grandmother let me give her my opinion, and we deliberately chose this curse because it was the one that seemed like it would be most helpful. So if it was okay to use Jusenkyo once to make things easier for me to be with Ranma, why shouldn't it be okay to do it twice? Why not give something so nice to Ranma, make him happy, show him once again — heck, show everybody who the best choice for him is!>'

By now she was right outside the restaurant door. Shampoo opened it and passed inside, with the tiniest restored measure of a spring to her step. She was all the way into the restaurant proper before several facts registered.

Mousse was no longer in his cage or his cursed form. She could hear him bumbling about in the kitchen, still working on the chores Cologne had told him to have done before her return. He'd failed at that, though. The Matriarch was seated calmly at a table farther in and to Shampoo's right, sipping at a cup of tea.

Shampoo took a deep breath. Might as well get it over with, she thought. Walking over to the table, she sat down at the chair opposite Cologne. "Great-Grandmother, I see Ranma. Tell him news, show him he not need to be afraid of Shampoo curse no more."

"Good, child. I expect Son-in-law was most pleased?"

"Mm-hm. Ranma very happy with what Shampoo had to tell and give him." Shampoo mentally winced as her voice wavered on 'give'. She'd meant to just slip that unobtrusively in and continue slowly working up to the revelation of exactly how much good news she'd had for her pigtailed love. But someone as observant as her great-grandmother would surely catch the 'mistake' when it was made with emphasis like that.

" 'Give'? Don't you mean 'show'?" Cologne asked dryly. On seeing Shampoo's look of confusion, she chuckled and said, "Don't play innocent with me, child, I know you well enough to be sure you used the opportunity to give him a glimpse of the real you. Without any clothes to hide what you have to offer him."

"Aiyah! Yes, Great-Grandmother." Relief as well as the memory sent a warm glow throughout Shampoo. "He get more than glimpse. And Shampoo pretty sure he like what he see."

"That's coming out of your salary, Mr. Part-Time!" Cologne snapped toward the kitchen, in response to the crash of breaking dishes. "If you've got time to eavesdrop you're not working nearly hard enough." Ignoring the string of blistering oaths muttered under Mousse's breath, she turned her attention back to Shampoo. "And did you heed my warning about not trying to use guilt to drag him in the direction you wanted him to go?"

Shampoo inclined her head. "Yes, Great-Grandmother. Not until Ranma ask did Shampoo tell him why get new curse, why not just get cure. Tell him be sure not to feel guilty about this, about stupid Jusenkyo laws that made life harder for him and me. Told him they were why it take so long for Shampoo to get rid of old, bad curse. Told him how Great-Grandmother say is finally okay to use Jusenkyo to make things better for him, for me. For us."

"I did indeed," Cologne said. "This twisted, hurtful tangle has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was right all along."

"What you mean? Right about what?"

"About the folly of keeping the true nature of Jusenkyo a secret. I have argued for the last two hundred years that we should warn all our people of just what the place is and what it can do. Jusenkyo is a danger, but it can also be a tool used to great effect."

Shampoo gave her great-grandmother a dubious stare. "Used? Not sound safe, Great-Grandmother."

For some reason, this caused Cologne to give a rather un-Matriarchly snort. "That you of all people should say that…" she muttered under her breath. Then, louder, "Your own cursed form is a perfect example of this. Do you have any idea how far your flight range is? Peregrine falcons migrate nearly half the circumference of the world in a year. Amazons with such an ability would make messengers beyond compare. To say nothing of spies or assassins."

"Guess so," Shampoo said, not particularly enthusiastically. None of those three duties was in the least appealing to her. Still, she could see the utility for the tribe as a whole. Except… "But can not really do that when Amazons forbidden even to know the truth of Jusenkyo. That what Great-Grandmother mean?"

"Yes, it's a big part of it. And suppose some fool should fall into the spring that idiot Happi used to baptize his godson? Amazons who know nothing of Jusenkyo might very well slaughter what appears to them to be a monster, not knowing all they have to do is douse it with hot water. Misunderstandings like that are unavoidable as long as only the Elders are allowed to know the truth of the curses."

When Cologne laid it all out in terms such as these, Shampoo was left with only one question. "How other Elders not agree with Great-Grandmother? Everybody ought to know whole truth!"

Cologne shrugged. "A couple of them agreed with me from the beginning, and I've won a few more over to my side over the years. The rest are stubborn, hidebound fools. However…" The Matriarch gave a bloodcurdling triumphant grin. "On our most recent visit home I finally lost the last of my patience, and forced the issue through."

"Aiyah! You mean trial by combat?" Shampoo's eyes were as wide as ever they got. Combat between Elders was a spectacle worth paying almost any price to witness. "Great-Grandmother kick their butts and make them agree? When this happen? Why you not tell Shampoo, let me see?!"

"It happened during the five days I gave you to fly around freely and get used to your new form. And the battles were not open to pubic viewing. I didn't need to spark any more resentment from those old biddies. I knew they'd be sore enough at being forced like this, no need to bruise their pride further by letting the tribe gawk at the spectacle."

"So Jusenkyo is not secret no more," Shampoo mused. "Nobody else have to go through what I go through."

"That is correct. By now everyone should know about the springs. Not only that, but they are now free to use them under supervision of the Elders. The dangerous springs are still off limits, of course; we don't want anyone cursing themselves to become an Oni or a weretiger or Yeti-Riding-Bull-Carrying-Crane-And-Eel. But other Amazons are now following in your footsteps into the sky." Cologne smiled and said, "They know who they have to thank for it as well, Great-Granddaughter. I instructed your aunt to spread the word, to let them know how you have borne up bravely under such unfair disadvantages, and how your struggle and your example finally won this concession for everybody."

Shampoo blinked, not looking nearly as happy as Cologne had expected. "Th-they know? About Shampoo? How Shampoo turn into falcon?"

"Yes, that's true. Why?"

"Ah heh heh…" Shampoo offered her great-grandmother a sickly, feeble grin. "<It was on the third day of those five free ones you gave me. I flew around the village. And I… I kind of… flew overhead and hit that sour, stuck-up witch Lin Rei with something.>"

"<Something?>" Cologne asked, suppressing a smile with increasing difficulty.

"<Something… organic.>" Shampoo might have found the words to be more explicit in her confession, except this was where Cologne lost it. As she waited for the Matriarch to recover from her fit of hysteria, Shampoo thought with some disgruntlement that she was glad somebody was getting such a laugh out of this. Maybe it would put Great-Grandmother in a good enough mood not to punish her at all for her indiscretion with Ranma. Hey… wait a minute… Shampoo's eyes widened in belated realization.

"Oh, dear, I haven't had a laugh like that in far too long," Cologne said. "At least not for something that happened at home, rather than here in Nerima."

"Great-Grandmother, Shampoo have something else to tell you!" the lavender-haired girl bubbled, all traces of her previous disgruntlement now gone the way of the dodo.

"Ah, yes, I have something for you too. Here," Cologne replied, extracting from the subspace folds of her robe three objects very familiar to Shampoo. "You forgot to pack these for our return trip."

With trembling hands Shampoo reached out and accepted that which her elder had for her: the bonbori and sword she'd thought were lost for good. The very things she'd abandoned at Jusenkyo to be able to smuggle the water back undetected. "Great… Great-Grandmother knew all along? About water what was gift for Ranma?"

The Matriarch inclined her head. "If you haven't figured it out yet, you aren't going to receive any punishment for your actions, Shampoo. However," as she schooled her features into a not-very-stern glare, "I'm afraid I am going to have to hand out a little discipline. Thinking you could fool me with that pathetic act?" She shook her head, now wearing a look of not-very-convincing sorrow. "My own dear great-granddaughter thinks I've become blind and senile with age. Obviously I've been remiss in your training, if that's how far your opinion of me has fallen."

Shampoo just smiled merrily back, not cowed in the slightest by this half-hearted remonstrance. "Could beat me hundred times in row at shogi. That would prove Great-Grandmother is still too, too far ahead of Shampoo."

"You're suggesting endless games of shogi?" Cologne now wore a look of uneasiness, which she wasn't completely faking. "There's less time to lose than I thought. Best we get you and Son-in-law both away from Genma as soon as possible."

From his position on the rooftop, Ranma stared into the sky. Three hours ago, a lifetime ago, it had been clear, but now in the west a ragged patchwork of clouds interrupted the endless expanse. The sun was sinking low, and its dying light painted those clouds in bands of orange and crimson. Off in the east, these colors faded to a deep blue just beginning to hint at purple. It was a beautiful sight, if you liked that sort of thing.

Ranma noted the colors and the clouds, but none of that was why he watched the sky. For a very long time in his life, there had only been three constants. One was the Art, the driving force of his life. His time in Nerima had taught him many things, and one lesson Ranma had come to learn, one truth which he grasped at least dimly by now, was just how much he'd sacrificed in order to become who he was. His classmates, Akane included, were utterly familiar with many things that were mysteries to him. To them, he was the mystery, a source of wonder and awe, a little piece of the unknowable. Guys like Hiroshi and Daisuke might hang out with him at Furinkan, girls too numerous to count might give him those covert longing looks, but there was always a barrier there. Ranma suspected there always would be. If the price of removing those walls was becoming like everybody else, then he knew they weren't coming down in his lifetime.

The second constant in his life was Genma. His father, his teacher, his rival, his guide, his antagonist, his source of a hundred 'what to do' lessons, and a thousand in what not to do. Genma had a number of qualities that irritated Ranma to varying degrees, ranging all the way from 'annoying fly buzzing around my head' to 'oops, I just fell onto a hornet's nest in a patch of poison ivy'. He was the source of more problems than Ranma cared to count. When not teaching his son the Art, he was lazy, cowardly, a glutton (sometimes he managed that one even when he was teaching), and ready at all times to make up for past mistakes by pushing his only son forward to deal with them.

On the other hand, his father had been always been there for him as best he could, helping him out when the going got tough. The advice wasn't always good, the help not entirely one hundred percent effective, but even as recently as the challenge with Natsume and Kurumi the elder Saotome had still managed to aid his son in a time of difficulty. Genma was the source, directly or indirectly, of the vast majority of everything he'd learned to be. Considering how well Ranma himself had turned out, he couldn't ultimately claim his old man had done that bad a job. He'd rather openly two-time Akane with Kodachi Kuno than admit that to the old panda, though.

The Art and Genma were more or less intertwined, if not quite to the extent they'd been during his trip. However, his father was nowhere near Ranma's thoughts just now, and the Art itself was only in peripheral focus. It was the third faithful companion in his life that held his attention.

As if seeing it for the first time he stared up into the sky, the limitless vista that had looked down on him no matter where he went. Japan, China, Malaysia, India, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Texas—he'd passed through them all with his father in their long quest to perfect their Art. The sights had changed around them as they went, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Even the stars had shifted in their courses as the duo ranged farther and farther from the Home Islands. But the stars were far away, so distant from his life that even as he looked up at night and watched them, some of the lights he saw above him were long dead. Or so they'd told him at Furinkan, anyway.

The sky itself wasn't so far removed. Every time he jumped, taking one of those leaps that ordinary people would swear were impossible, he brushed against it. He wasn't sure just how much of his own spin Genma had put on the teachings he'd received from Happosai, but one thing was certain — his father had done an enormously better job in forming his branch of Anything Goes than had Soun Tendo. Even after all this time, Ranma wasn't sure just what the Tendo branch favored; it seemed to be largely weapon-based, but Akane's lack of training and of commitment to the Art, along with her father's broken emotional state, meant that he just didn't know what Tendo Anything Goes was really supposed to be. Whatever it was, he was firmly convinced it paled in comparison to the Art his father had passed along to him… and a big part of that Art was their command of aerial combat. Some of his rivals (and suitors) could probably equal his jumps for sheer height; that was just a natural extension of building up chi and allowing it to empower one's moves. But only Happosai and Cologne could match a Saotome in midair battle.

Ranma stared up into the sky, and a slow grin curved across his face. "Let's see any of you keep up with me now."

No more half measures. No more being limited to stretching his skill to its uttermost just for a few seconds of extra air time. No more looking up into the sky as a distant friend. That ultimate symbol of freedom that had been with him so long, so close and yet so far away, just barely within range of brushing his fingertips against it for the merest whisper of contact — if any of what Shampoo had said was true, it was now his. His world, his territory, his playground.

He was currently standing on top of the tallest building near the bathhouse where Shampoo had changed his life. He'd brought the soap she'd given him, along with a cask full of ordinary cold water. He picked this up, removed the top, and, mindful of the Amazon's warning not to let it fall on him as the change eliminated his grip, held it out and hurled its contents onto his chest.

"~Note to self,~" Ranma grumbled a moment later, as he struggled within the folds of his suddenly-far-too-large-and-sopping-wet clothing, "~remove shirt first next time.~"

The transformed teen worked his way free, took a few steps away from his clothes, and began fluffing the water out of his feathers. The movement came instinctively and felt utterly natural, which wasn't all that much of a surprise. He'd already known from first- and second-hand experience that a Jusenkyo curse gave the recipient immediate magical familiarity with the new body. No way otherwise could Genma have jumped out of the Spring of Drowned Panda and balanced on a pole. Ranma-chan herself had had no balance issues with her accursed new form, and so now Ranma wasn't surprised to find he knew just what to do in this falcon's body.

Once his feathers were dry, he tested the breeze, moved to the edge of the building… and took flight.

Immediately he learned the difference between a human chi-powered leap and the true, unlimited freedom Shampoo and Jusenkyo had given him. Later, he would think back with a better appreciation for just how hard it must have been for her to find the right words to describe this. Everything she'd said was true, and it only began to scratch the surface. But for that first moment, and for a very long string of eternal, timeless moments afterward, all conscious thought fled, and Ranma simply existed.

As he cast himself away from the building, it was as if the wind underwent a transformation worthy of Jusenkyo. No longer did it brush past him and buffet him; it was instead a near-solid force, warm and comforting and bracing all at once, surrounding him, bearing him up. He could feel every nuance of the air as it swirled past his feathers, eddies and currents ready to be reshifted by the most subtle of movements. With a twitch he curved his flight away from its previous path, turning toward a rising current of air that he could sense several meters away. Not content to wait even long enough to reach it, he brought his wings down in powerful sweeps that pumped him higher, and higher yet. It felt like the heartbeat of the air itself, as if the sky were alive and welcoming him up into it.

Then he was in the rising thermal, relaxing for the moment as he allowed the wind to do the work. He soared higher and higher, controlling his flight by angling his wings, basking in the euphoria of a freedom greater than he'd ever know — or even thought to dream. This was a power and a glory and a majesty that he'd only ever touched before in those moments when he was at the absolute zenith of his skill, submerged so deeply into the Art that nothing else mattered and all awareness faded.

The thermal petered out a few hundred feet up. Ranma coasted out of it, pumping his wings again, driving himself along now rather than letting the wind do all the work. Not that he fought the currents of the air; even in his current state, with all conscious thought several hundred feet behind him and nowhere near catching up, Ranma knew that wasn't the way to go. He moved in tune with the wind, flying now in a long, looping spiral, now in a straight line with his wings beating for more altitude, now in a lazy glide as he searched for a new thermal. He rode the currents higher and higher, soaring to the north, diving to the south, east for a bit of level flight, then a long climb again to the west.

By the time enough of the rush had worn off to allow conscious thought, the sun was halfway below the horizon, and Ranma was so high in the sky that he could no longer make out details on the ground.

The Saotome heir gave a long, whistling sigh of contentment. 'Everything Shampoo said, and more. Man, this is cool. I almost wish I could stay up here all night.' He didn't feel as if he'd expended much of his energy reserves yet, probably because the wind was doing the main work of fighting gravity's burden. Ranma felt quite sure that he could fly all night if he wanted to. On the other hand, that likely wouldn't lead to a very good reception at the Tendo home the next day.

Not that he was looking forward to that reception anyway. Edit things though he might, Akane was bound to assume both he and Shampoo got to see each other's goods during this whole 'show him her new curse and let him get a new one too' episode. He'd be lucky if she didn't accuse him of getting it on with the Amazon in their cursed forms. Ranma shook his head as best he could while cruising several thousand feet in the air. Sometimes he wondered what it would take to make Akane not assume the ridiculous, unbelievable worst of him. Probably a few weeks of Xi Fang Gao blend number infinity or something.

None of these thoughts really had any power to bring his mood down, though. Not here, not now. He pushed thoughts of truculent tomboys out of his mind, returning his focus to immediate concerns. As has already been mentioned, he was currently so high up that the landscape of Japan below him was a patchwork of blurred details, far too far away for any landmarks smaller than Mt. Fuji itself to be discernable. Ranma began sailing lower in slow sweeping arcs, thoughts straying once more. Seeing the land like this was certainly an experience unlike anything he'd ever experienced before, and yet it had a certain bewildering sense of familiarity to it.

Wondering what he was feeling, Ranma slowed his flight further. He was lower now, and some details were becoming discernable. There, off to one side and just barely visible through the gathering dark, he saw the curve of a river. In another direction, he made out the forested, mountainous area where he'd trained several times, and recognized the general direction that would take him back to Nerima. Almost absentmindedly he corrected his course, sailing toward home while still concentrating on just why this experience was tugging at his memory.

A couple thousand feet of lost altitude later, he finally made the connection. It wasn't any one memory that he had been recalling; rather, it was the whole grand mélange of them, all the strange vistas and far away lands through which he and his father had passed. At the age of seventeen, Ranma Saotome had traveled further than many people would in a lifetime. He knew better than anyone else at Furinkan just how large the world truly was, how vast and varied and interesting. Seeing the great spread of landscape all at once from a bird's-eye view, witnessing the whole of it so far away, unfamiliar areas every bit as easily accessible as his usual stomping grounds, that was what had struck this chord in his soul.

Ironically enough, it was the ending of the sensation that brought this realization. He was now low enough to make out the individual sights of Nerima, though still too high for anyone there to spot him. Without even realizing it, Ranma halted his descent, maintaining his current altitude while puzzling over these new thoughts. Seeing the town before him felt odd, compared to the former sensations recognizable now by their absence.

'This place… from up here, it seems so small… have I really stayed here so long?' It was an odd thought, but also quite compelling. He stared down at the city before him, watched as lights winked on against the coming of dusk, and contemplated it. Nerima was the craziest place he'd ever encountered, full of strange characters, wacky variations of the Art, challengers and challenges galore. It certainly made for an intense change from his long training journey; one thing Ranma knew his father deserved full credit for was how he'd almost always kept them one step ahead of the strangeness (until Jusenkyo, anyway). All the training and the trials he'd gone through had prepared him for the challenges of Nerima, but not its sheer 'weird' factor.

They'd been here longer now than Ranma could ever remember staying in one place. Furthermore, Genma had made it clear that this was it, the last stop in the line, the end of the trail. Here, now, riding the wind and looking down at the buildings, so small beneath his gaze, the people entering and exiting them little more than specks, Ranma realized something very important. His father might be ready to settle down like a great big lazy panda doing its best impression of a rug before the fire, but he still wanted more. Nerima, for all its madcap challenges and general fiery chaos, was becoming too small to hold him.

These feelings had been growing for some time now, he sensed. Ranma had no idea when they'd had their genesis. Even now they weren't truly developed yet; from the echoes he felt, it likely would have taken months of his normal life before they'd grown enough to become obvious. If those months had held multiple training trips, or race-far-away-to-save-a-kidnapped-Akane episodes, it might have taken even longer. It wasn't that he wanted to abandon Nerima, it was just that the place in and of itself had begun to feel stale. Confining. Shampoo's gift had bootstrapped him to a new level of awareness, letting him see these things far more clearly than he could have even twenty-four hours ago.

He flew in silence for a time, circling Nerima, looking thoughtfully down. It was small, true, especially from his present bird's-eye view or the perspective of his past. However, it was also important. All the people he cared about and who cared about him either lived here, lived nearby, or, in Ryoga's case, came here as often as they could. It wasn't that he wanted to leave, Ranma realized, it was more that he didn't want to be chained down here. What he wanted, what he needed, what he darn well wasn't going to let anyone take from him, was the freedom to come and go. To leave at such times as it was appropriate, and to return home at journey's end. But there never would be a permanent end to those journeys, or at least he would never be truly happy if such an end should come.

He gave a shrill cry of determination and triumph at making such an important connection, and swooped into a dive. Nerima had changed before his eyes now. It was welcoming, not confining. After all, he didn't have to let it rule his life, was under no obligation to regard these borders as a boundary line to his existence. Shampoo's gift to him made it easier to sail away to freedom when he wanted, Ranma thought with ironclad conviction, but that was all it did. He owed the Amazon for putting him in a position to realize all these things, but even if she'd never gone back to Jusenkyo, it wouldn't change the truth he'd seen. The choice to stay or go was his, with or without a facilitating far-ranging free-flying falcon form. He was Ranma, the Wild Horse, and nobody would ever tie him down or ground him. Not his father, not his foes, and for sure not his fiancées. 'Let the tomboy pitch a fit about the latest developments! Ranma Saotome backs down for nobody!'

By now he had descended well below the heights of the tallest buildings in the district. Ranma sailed along, sinking lower and lower, and came down to a landing on the very rooftop from which he'd started, the maneuver as graceful as if he'd lived as a raptor all his life.

He took one step toward his abandoned clothes, and facefaulted with an utter absence of any grace at all.

"~Oh, man! I forgot all about that! What the heck am I gonna do?!~" His clothes were here, true enough, but hot water was conspicuous by its absence. "~Jeez, I shoulda paid better attention to Shampoo's example. Hmm. Maybe I could go to the Cat Café…~" Ranma considered that thought, then discarded it. If Mousse was there and not stuck as a duck in a cage, that could be very hazardous to his health. Besides, grateful to Shampoo though he might be, he was nowhere near foolish enough to be caught naked in her home base.

Fly back to the Tendos then, and pantomime a request for hot water from Kasumi? P-chan notwithstanding, it shouldn't take her too long to realize this was no animal but someone with a Jusenkyo curse. On the other hand, that would inevitably mean he'd end up flashing her, and as sure as the sun rises in the east, Akane would pick that very moment to walk in and go nuclear. He'd survived worse, of course, but it was still no fun — and he didn't want to traumatize poor innocent Kasumi like that.

"~Ucchan's? Sure, she'd spatula me for embarrassing her, but it wouldn't be nearly as bad as Akane… oh, wait, she's outta town.~" Ukyo was visiting family in Kansai and not expected back for at least a week. And Dr. Tofu's was out of the question; Kasumi must have gone by to return something or other, because as he'd sailed through the final stretch of air toward his landing, he'd seen Tofu and Betty doing the skeleton saraband through an alley. "~Dang it, this sucks!~"

Ranma determined then that the first order of business, after explaining his new curse to everyone, would be to help Kasumi set up some kind of hot water dispenser a falcon could operate. Maybe in the dojo, for a combination of easy access and reasonable privacy. "~Wonder how much of a pain this is for Ryoga…~" He'd seen the Lost Pig maneuver a kettle on top of a kerosene stove and heat water for his transformation, but since Ryoga carried those supplies in his pack, such a method was of no help here.

After a few more minutes of thought, he made the best of a bad set of options. Flying back to the bathhouse was easy enough, as was gaining access. Turning on a hot water tap with his talons was rather a challenge, but he managed it without too much trouble. Streaking (in more ways than one) back from the bathhouse rooftop to the one on which he'd left his clothes was no fun at all, but at top speed he was little more than a blur and a couple of empty basins from the bathhouse served to cover the important areas. And after tonight there ought always to be hot water available back at the Tendo place, so a repeat of this little incident shouldn't be nearly as risky or embarrassing.

'Still,' he thought, 'I wonder how much Shampoo would want in exchange for teaching me to store a kettle and stove.'


To be continued.

Author's notes: The title of this story and the title of this chapter both come from a book I read way back in the halcyon days of my youth. It was a story about a very clumsy boy who did a favor for a magician and was rewarded with a magical salve and an incantation (two lines of which are the source of the aforementioned titles) that would allow him to grow a huge pair of functional wings. Of course, new ability of flight plus extreme clumsiness equals lots and lots of bruises. Hence, the title of that book: Black and Blue Magic.

Yes, I didn't know better than to expose myself to such horrible puns in my formative years. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

I should acknowledge here that I have seen a couple of other stories where Ranma receives a falcon curse. However, those are AU's where things happened differently all the way back at Jusenkyo, not a case of Ranma switching his girl curse for what he would consider a better one. I'm sure some readers are disappointed at the loss of Ranma-chan, but I'm confident that Ranma himself would make this decision if given the opportunity, at least under such circumstances as I've outlined here. Remember that this is the anime, not the manga, and Nodoka has never learned just what's really keeping her apart from her son.

I hope it doesn't seem too contrived that Ranma and Shampoo can understand one another when both are in their cursed forms. I try to work with ideas that aren't widely used, and in all the Ranma fan fiction I've read I've only seen something like this one mentioned once, in Wade Tritschler's Most Unlikely of Friends. And he didn't actually use it, he just had Akane disappointed to learn that even with her own recently-acquired cat curse she and Shampoo couldn't understand one another when in feline form.

Credit where credit's due: the 'Slutzenin' reference appeared before this in DB Sommer's story, The Things We Wish For…, and I'm pretty sure some of Ranma's contemplation of the sky in the final scene was inspired by Brian Randall's story, Time is Funny (though I took it in a very different direction than he did).

Thanks to those at the Refuge who gave C&C. And one final note about subsequent chapters before I go: don't read too much into Cologne's last line of dialogue. That's just her indulging in witty banter, not a clue that I plan to make this a Genma-bashing fic. One goal of the final scene was to offset this purely negative reference to him. I believe in giving every character their fair shake, which is probably the root and heart of why I don't write Ranma-Akane stories.

Chapter 2
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