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

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

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

Book One: The Mandarin

Chapter Seven: Twists, Turns, and Other Convolutions

This was certainly harder than Urd had expected it to be. She'd had to keep Shan Pu occupied for nearly two weeks now because she still hadn't gotten all her players in the right places yet, and they had an annoying habit of randomly shifting locations, sometimes even planets, and in this case, even realities.

How it had happened, she didn't know, but somehow two of the more important players in her little drama had managed to wander even further from the beaten track than even she had ever been before. She'd had to ask Kami-sama's help to even get here and try to set things back on course.

Now, if she had everything right, one of her problems would be walking into the door of the restaurant she was in any moment….

It was a rundown little place on a main highway running from this realities Tampa to Miami, and it had definitely seen better days. It belonged to some chain she had never heard of called Denny's, and at the present, it was the only place she had found in the area that had a probability nexus, a vital component for the summoning spell she had needed to cast to lure her quarry in. This world was surprisingly lacking in people with sufficient faith for magic to thrive.

She peeked out from behind the flower pot she was hiding behind at the probability nexus she had found. They were the only couple in the place.

The male was tall and massively built, like a normal person with an extra foot or two most directions. His long blond hair and beard reminded Urd of Thor without all the testosterone and muscles. He laid a card down on the table in front of him, then tapped the card he had laid the second one on. "Colossus of Sardia with Eternal Warrior. Nine points with trample."

The girl he was sitting with would have made anyone give her a second glance. She was much shorter than the male and voluptuously built. Urd had to admit, if she put on the same muscle tone, she would surpass Zhu Shu's cursed form in cup size. She looked down at her hand, a small frown on her face, then she looked down at the table and turned a card. Pulling a card to show to the male, she said. "Nope. Hyrkul's Recall will send it back to your hand first!"

Urd shook her head. She'd given up on trying to understand the game a while ago. It seemed to have a different rule for every card. Give her poker any day.

A car pulling up outside distracted her. Her first target had finally arrived, after an annoyingly long time. She'd started to wonder if the summoning spell had failed. Considering whom the subjects of the spell were, she really wouldn't have been surprised.

A large Japanese man in a business suit stepped out of the Humvee and entered the restaurant. He waited patiently until one of the waitresses stopped gossiping long enough to notice him. As the girl approached he bowed. "Where Nerima Ward?" he asked politely in very bad English.

The male at the table straightened like he'd been shot.

The waitress scratched her head. "Nerima? Nevah heered of it. That neah Tampa?"

The tall man approached. "Nerima Ward, Tokyo?"

The Japanese man bowed. "Hai! GPS not work. Say Flor-Ida!"

The blond man raised an eyebrow. "You related to Ryouga Hibiki, or what?"

A look of near panic crossed the man's face and he whirled into a Martial Arts pose, eyes scanning. "Where?!"

"No, no, no. Are you a Hibiki?"

Coming out of the crouch, the man bowed. "Hai! Tao-Ching Hibiki."

"Oh god…." In a daze, the man led him back outside and pointed north on US41. "Go that way. You'll get to Nerima eventually."

The Japanese man bowed again. "Domo Arigato." He climbed back into the Humvee as the blond male turned.

Urd hadn't been paying attention, and was standing in full view in chibi form in a flower pot. The blond man stared in shock….


"Oops." Urd muttered as she disappeared.

Too late, the blond turned to run after the Humvee. "Wait! Take me with you!" But the Humvee was already out of hearing range.

He stopped at the edge of the road, hands falling to his side, a picture of despair.

The girl came up to his side. "Lance? What was that about? You okay?"

Okay? he wondered. I've missed my chance to get out of this place and go be with Ranma and the Tendos and, yes, URD!!! To live in a world created by anime!!! His heart sank. Even Jenny would have killed to go and meet the Sailor Senshi, but the Humvee and Urd were both gone, and his world had no Goddess Relief Office.

"Yeah, Beloved. I'll be fine… probably just my overactive imagination anyway…."

"Well come on. It's your turn."

He turned to go back into the Denny's, more convinced than ever that his reality sucked.

A few miles north, the second "coincidental" meeting was taking place.

The driver of the Humvee was cursing, having just smashed the GPS. He could never figure out why the damn things kept going haywire on him. He had set it just before leaving the auto accessory shop, and the dealer had warrantied it for a year, but the thing had still started jumping before he had even left town. Right before he had gotten fed up with it, it had told him he was someplace called Death Valley then had jumped to saying Florida. He growled at the mangled glass and plastic. American made. Give him dependable Japanese technology any day. It was frustrating how hard it was getting to even find a good Japanese dealer. The gaijin were creeping in everywhere.

He had to be near the north end of Honshu, whatever the GPS had said. He knew he hadn't crossed any oceans while driving. No, somehow, he just had gotten lost again.

A figure in his headlights flagged him down and he slowed as he approached, then recognition set in and he couldn't believe his eyes. He thought about running him down, but decided he'd probably only damage his bumper. He wondered if the AK47 under the back seat would work. He sighed. It was too late to pretend he didn't see him, the figure in the headlights had already recognized him and was waving. Grandfather would chew him a new one if he didn't extend the traditional Hibiki family courtesy, no matter how much he hated this particular relative. Gritting his teeth, he pulled to a stop beside his cousin. Maybe Ryouga wouldn't leave him stranded in Tau Ceti Ward this time….

"Hello, Cousin. Hop in." He unlocked the door to let Ryouga in. "Where to this time?"

"I am hunting a boy named Ranma Saotome. He ran out on our man-to-man challenge, and I will not rest till I have found him and gotten my revenge!"

Tao-Ching Hibiki resisted the urge to sigh. More likely, Ryouga had gotten lost on the way to the fight. He started driving down the road, glancing down to the shattered GPS again. "I don't suppose you have any idea where he is?"

"He's going to Furinkan High in Nerima."

Tao-Ching looked back up at the road, ignoring the pink crystal buildings sliding by on either side. He hung a left at the light.

"Any particular reason for this particular feud?" he asked.

"He has offended my honor! What other reason do I need?!"

Good old Ryouga, going off half-cocked again. Tao-Ching thought as he rubbed his eyes. When he looked out the window again, it was daylight. He turned right at the corner.

Finally, he was on a street he knew. "Furinkan High?" He drew up in front of a gate and stopped. "Well, Ryouga, I think it's right over that way." He pointed to the gate and watched as Ryouga got out. "Nice seeing you, cousin!" he lied as he peeled out, leaving skid marks as he put distance between them. Of all his family, he hated Ryouga most. The boy could get lost in a closet, and get anyone with him lost.

Tao-Ching had really not liked Tau Ceti.

Zhu Shu was sitting in a tree, hiding out from the Hentai Squad during break. She watched as Ranma and Akane came out of the school, admiring the way Akane looked in her school uniform, and wondering what they were squabbling about this time.

"Ranma! Stop!" Akane called after the fleeing boy. Zhu Shu sighed and prepared to follow, when all of a sudden, she sensed a disturbance in the chi flows around the school.

Ranma looked over his shoulder at Akane as he pulled one of his jumps. "Come and get me!"

A shadow moved to intercept him.

At the last instant, Ranma sensed the danger and looked up as out of the sun a figure with an umbrella descended.

"Ranma! Prepare to Die!"

Ranma barely dodged the umbrella as it impacted where he would have landed, and he had to throw himself backwards to land on the edge of the impact crater next to Akane. You!" he said as some vague recollection struck.

The boy in the crater stood and spoke. "You haven't changed, Ranma. You're still good at running away."

Zhu Shu stared. There was something familiar about the boy. She knew she'd seen him somewhere before. She examined the yellow and black bandanna, and massive pack, trying to remember.

"Someone you know?" Akane asked, curiosity overcoming her irritation.

Ranma tried to remember. He thought and pondered, then excitedly said "Yeah! Uh sure! He's… he's…" It slipped away again.

Looking at him sidelong through half lidded eyes, Akane said sarcastically "Don't strain your brain remembering, Ranma." Zhu Shu smiled. While the voice was sarcastic, there had been an undertone of fondness to it.

"Just tell me one thing, Ranma." The boy started calmly, then screamed "Why did you run out on our fight?!!"

Recollection came to the pigtailed boy. "Wait! I remember! You were in my class at my old school! Ryouga Hibiki! Long time no see!"

"Answer my question!" Ryouga growled.

Confused, Ranma said "I waited three days at the appointed place!"

"Three days?" Akane asked in disbelief. She looked at the other boy and blinked.

"Yes! And when I came on the fourth day, you had already run away!" Ryouga yelled.

Ranma stared as the entire school did a collective blink. "Uh… Ryouga? Can I ask you something?" He paused. "Why did it take you four days to get there?"

Angrily, Ryouga answered. "Why you! Do you think I was out for a casual stroll for four days?!! I suffered to meet with you!!" He trembled in rage. "Breaking a vow between men and running to China with your father!" He punctuated with a swipe at Ranma with his umbrella.

Ranma dodged easily. Compared to Kuno or Zhu Shu, the thrust had been glacial. "In other words—" he said as he landed, "You want to finish our fight?"

"Finish our fight?!" Ryouga snapped open his umbrella. "How feeble!" He threw the umbrella as he screamed, "THIS IS REVENGE!"

Like an oversized shuriken, the umbrella whizzed at Ranma, who dodged it by inches. It curved in flight like a boomerang and caught several students as it whizzed back past Ranma to be caught by Ryouga.

"No matter what it takes, Ranma, I shall destroy your happiness!"

"My happiness?" Ranma asked as Ryouga turned to leave, his challenge issued. Ranma turned to Akane. "Am I happy?"

She gave him a disgusted look. "Don't ask me!"

From her tree, Zhu Shu stared after the departing figure. China. He had something to do with China

Less than three miles away, the Humvee pulled up to a palatial residence, a massive estate in the style of an ancient samurai family marked by only a small name plate with the word Hibiki in elegant Kanji. Of the five such estates in the Nerima ward, only the Kuno's was bigger. Tao-Ching went in and eventually found his rooms, throwing down his bags. He had been gone almost three weeks this time, having gone to the bank to check on a few investments. He'd certainly never expected the short drive to end up as it had. At least taking the Humvee had kept him in civilized areas, unlike the stroll a couple of months ago that had ended him in a small valley that had been filled with cursed pools like the ones near the village he'd grown up in. It had taken him three days to figure out that hot water would change him back from a smilodon, and he'd had to get completely new IDs and credit cards. He'd decided then that taking a waterproof pack he could drag with his teeth was a good idea.

Still, as curses went, being a saber-toothed tiger had its advantages, for all that he'd had to dodge that crazy werecheetah that had been chasing him after he'd inadvertently wandered into the pond she was bathing in. Cute and busty as she had been, he had no desire to be a pet.

He took a bath, cleaning the grime of travel off. He could never figure out why it was so hard to find a proper bath in so many hotels around Tokyo, and it was depressing how many Wards didn't even speak Japanese anymore. The gaijin were invading everywhere.

At least the person he'd lost that deal to last week had been properly Japanese. He pulled up the map of Nerima up on his notebook and a small red dot blinked on and off. He got out of the hot tub and looked in despair at all of the cat hair on the floor of the wash area. He was shedding again.

Back out in the main room, he dressed in a smart black suit and repacked his bag with clean clothes. Looking in the mirror, he checked himself. Looking good, he thought to himself. He picked up the Glock 9mm and checked it before putting it in his shoulder holster and buttoning his coat over it. He smiled, the Hibiki family fangs showing in his grin. Not bad at all for twenty. He nodded. He was ready to meet this mistress of finance who'd outmaneuvered him in his latest deal, this… Nabiki Tendo.

It only took him an hour to find his way the seven blocks that separated the mansion from the Tendo dojo, and he'd only gotten lost briefly when he'd made a wrong turn into Minsk ward. Pulling up to the curb, he surveyed the Dojo. It was a nice enough place, though several steps down from an estate. He figured the Tendos must be from a samurai line that had fallen on hard times, or they were a cadet branch. He was a little surprised. That deal had needed some hard cash, and this place gave no indication of a family with such holdings.

He approached the door with its traditional wooden sign "Tendo Dojo, School of Anything Goes Martial Arts" An odd school, but then, so was the Hibiki's. He smiled at the smaller sign set off to one side, "To defeat owner in savage combat, use rear door." He rang the door chime.

A beautiful woman with long brown hair tied to one side answered. "Yes?"

Tao-Ching bowed. "Hello. My name is Tao-Ching Hibiki. I have come to see Nabiki Tendo. Do I have the honor of addressing her?" He poured on the charm.

"Oh, my!" The girl put one hand to her lips. "I'm afraid I'm not Nabiki. I'm her oneesan, Kasumi. Do come in, and I'll get her."

Tao-Ching did so, wondering at Kasumi's use of a word denoting "elder sister". The woman looked to be his age, and he hoped that her sister wasn't much younger. As good as Kasumi looked, the sister was likely a looker too, and there were things other than business he might wish to discuss. Also, it would have been embarrassing to have been outmaneuvered by a child.

He waited nervously as Kasumi disappeared into the house, but breathed a sigh of relief a few minutes later as another beautiful girl entered, at most a year or two younger than the first. She had short reddish brown hair in a bob cut which looked sexy and businesslike at the same time. And a body to die for — Or kill for, he conceded; he'd never much cared for the notion of dying, a fact that had gotten him kicked out of the JSDF for insubordination.

"My sister said you wanted to see me?"

Oh yes, preferably unclothed, he thought as he bowed. "Yes. I wanted to meet the woman who had out maneuvered me so neatly on the Systemek deal. You cost me double what I had originally bid to buy the company." He stepped forward to take her hand and bowed to raise it to his lips… and look down her cleavage. "I had no idea you'd be as beautiful as you are talented."

Nabiki's heart hammered on her breastbone, trying to get out as she blushed furiously. Most boys were too scared of her to try and flatter her, and this wasn't a high school boy… This was one of the big boys she competed with in the stocks. He had to have money, and big money to have learned who had outbid him in a sealed stock auction of a small but lucrative company. The buying and reselling of that company's stock had enabled her to put the Dojo back in the black with just the money from Zhu Shu's students.

"I'm flattered. It took me a week to set up that deal."

"Talented indeed. It took me two." Two pairs of eyes measured one another. Tao-Ching was very impressed. "I have done a little research on you. I always like to know my opponents…" He paused. "Or possible allies." He noted the slight flush the hint brought to her face. "But I am curious. You evince enormous talent, yet you play in such small ponds. Why aren't you living you up to your potential?" He waved his hand around to indicate the Dojo.

There was a rather intense look in Nabiki's eyes. "I do what I can with limited resources. I'm a little short of capital."

Tao-Ching raised an eyebrow. And she managed to outmaneuver me. His nose twitched as he grinned. A girl with brass balls, indeed.

"Really…" He leaned forward. "I think that could be… remedied." He considered. "Would you be interested in a little bet? It will take a while to get set up, and will take several months to determine the outcome, but if you win, you may never have to worry about that problem again."

Nabiki weighed him with her eyes, trying to burrow into his thoughts. "What do I have to put forward?" she asked guardedly.

He let his eyes roam over her. "Just your talents…"

Nabiki caught the double reference as her heart beat a little faster. He was making a pass at her? A man who could buy any woman he wanted. She leaned forward herself. "Oh… really?" She gave him a challenging look. "And on your end?" Nabiki Tendo was not a girl who impressed easily!

In answer, Tao-Ching brought out his cell phone, and pressed a button. "Sasuke? Put Tatewaki on. This is Tao-Ching." Nabiki's eyes widened at Tao-Ching's grin. "Tatewaki? You still wanting a rematch? Tell you what, here's your chance to double what you lost. One hundred million yen. Terms? Okay, here's the deal. I've got a talented nobody who I think can take a million dollars U.S. and turn it into three million in three months time. Taking advantage of me? Okay, I'll sweeten the deal. Five to one she'll take the three million and turn it into twelve in a year. One million a month. Done? Good. Have your lawyer call my lawyer and draw it up. I'll work up the contract for the player and pass it over for inspection… Game start?" He looked at Nabiki, a smile on his face. "One month from today. That'll give the lawyers time to fuss. Hmm? Oh, Grandfather is fine, and as far as I know, so's the rest of the family. How's 'Dachi? Really? She get those roses I sent? Well tell her I said hi. Gotta go now, things to arrange…" He snapped the phone closed and looked at the frozen expression of stunned disbelief on Nabiki's face. "He's such a sucker about some things."

Still stunned, Nabiki nodded.

"Well, beautiful, I must be off, but I do indeed look forward to our little business venture… I take it that sixty-forty will make my little game worth your time?" He nodded at Nabiki's double blink. "Good. I look forward to our future… partnership…" He left Nabiki no doubt he meant that in more than one way as he turned to go.

Too weak from shock to even move, Nabiki could only hope the spreading damp spot on the pillow she was sitting on wasn't visible…

Zhu Shu was annoyed. And wet. She'd avoided the hentai squad all day only to get caught by a little old lady on the way home. Now her white silk dress was tight against her, the water soaking it making it nearly transparent. She trudged along the walkway, studiously ignoring the stares and appreciative whistles she drew, her ears quivering.

Just outside the Dojo, she stopped to look at the Humvee parked in front. As she turned to enter, Tao-Ching stepped out. His eyes took in her see-through dress and he grinned. "I see you still have a problem with water." he said.

Zhu Shu looked up at him with her large green eyes. "Have met?" she asked in her Chinese-accented Japanese.

"At least once," Tao-Ching replied in Mandarin. His eyes roved over her, leaving her no doubt as to what was going on in his mind.

"I'm very sorry, sir, but I do not recall the occasion of our meeting." Zhu Shu answered formally, doing her best to ignore the look.

Tao-Ching gave her an amused expression, then curled a hand into the semblance of a paw and went "Merrow" as he waved it like a cat batting something.

Zhu Shu looked puzzled.

Tao-Ching laughed. "You must have hit the bottom of the pool with your head when you fell in. I would have thought you'd have been afraid I would have eaten you, though given the view then and now, I'm tempted."

Thoroughly confused now, and a trifle annoyed at the man's innuendo's, Zhu Shu nodded her head. "I'm afraid I would recall if I'd ever met you."

Tao-Ching rolled his eyes. "I guess the gaijin are right, getting turned blonde does make you an idiot." He leered. "But it does make you cute, too. I particularly like the way that dress shows off everything."

He dodged Zhu Shu's umbrella. "Now, now. An umbrella isn't a sword. Completely different moves are called for."

Zhu Shu grounded the umbrella and glared. "I don't like being made fun of, sir. You obviously know I've been cursed, but I don't recall having ever met you before."

Tao-Ching smiled. "Okay. You're right. I am making fun of you. Surely you must recall the person you met after your little accident?"

Zhu Shu raised an eyebrow. "Humph. There was the Guide, the Saotomes, the boy who turned into a pig…"

Tao-Ching held up his hands. "Okay, okay. There were a few others I don't know about. Anyway, did you ever get the dress you were wearing fixed?"

Zhu Shu blinked. "The dress?!?" The image clicked, long teeth and that same leer… "You're the big cat!"

"Bright one, aren't you? Your grasp of the obvious is amazing."

"You have no call to be insulting. I am not amused in the slightest."

"Maybe not, but I am."

Zhu Shu sniffed and turned to enter the Dojo.

"You didn't answer my question." Tao-Ching observed.

Zhu Shu stopped at the door. "And what question was that?"

"About your dress."

Zhu Shu gave an annoyed sigh. "If you must know. It was destroyed when the pig boy ripped it off me."

Tao-Ching leered wider. "Ah. A fellow admirer of fine female forms."

Zhu Shu gave him an evil eye. "I wouldn't know. He fainted with a massive nose bleed when he looked at me."

"Sounds like my cousin, Ryouga."

Zhu Shu blinked in surprise. "Ryouga Hibiki?"

"You know him? Poor thing. You have my sympathy."

"He fought with my friend Ranma Saotome today at school."

"I know. I dropped him off there to get rid of him."

The nagging familiarity finally clicked in Zhu Shu's head. "That's were I remember him from. He's the boy who destroyed my dress, the one who fell in the pool of drowned piglet!"

"A piglet?!" Tao-Ching convulsed in laughter. "Oh, how I wish I could have been there to see that!"

"You left five minutes too early." Zhu Shu observed sourly.

Tao-Ching straightened. "Anyway, I must apologize for my cousin's rude behavior at fainting while beholding such divine flesh. I am pleased to say that I don't share that problem." He ogled the still semi-see-through dress.

Zhu Shu gave him another dirty look, to which he replied with a leer. "Hentai!"

"Domo arigato." He chuckled. Zhu Shu slammed the door behind her as she stalked to the kitchen. Ranma was sitting in the dining room, having recalled why Ryouga had wanted to fight him. He finished telling the Tendo girls as Zhu Shu walked in.

"It sounds like a case of a lot of straws on one camel’s back!" Kasumi said.

Akane looked up from the paper she was reading. "Uh, Ranma? The date of your showdown was yesterday!"

"No problem. That guy's got the world's worst sense of direction. Right now he's probably asking 'Which way to Tokyo?'."

Zhu Shu sat down as Kasumi poured her some tea. "Humph! Zhu Shu meet Ryouga cousin!" she muttered.

"Oh, yes! Isn't he gorgeous?" Nabiki grinned.

"Zhu Shu not think so. Like better as cat. Less insults. He look at Zhu Shu like she mouse!"

"Cat?" Ranma said looking around. "Who? Where?"

"Ryouga cousin! Turn to cat. Long teeth."

"Long teeth?" Nabiki asked curiously.

"Like so." Zhu Shu indicated teeth around nine inches. "Zhu Shu see skull in rock once with teeth like."

"A smilodon?" Nabiki was awed. "Interesting…"

"He fell into a Jusenkyo spring and turns into a cat?" Ranma shuddered.

"Not fall. Pushed. By you or Panda man."

"What?" Ranma and Nabiki cried at the same time.

Zhu Shu nodded. "Same day as Zhu Shu. Saw by pool. All wet. Much nicer as cat. Quiet."

"A smilodon…" Nabiki drifted in thought. "The possibilities…"

Zhu Shu fixed Ranma with a look. "Still, might give apology to Ryouga cousin."

Ranma had finally taken a good look at Zhu Shu. "And you might want to change out of that dress. It's distracting." Akane whacked him in the back of the head. "Hey, what I say? She's the one with the see-through dress!"

"I think it looks lovely." Kasumi said, beaming absently, seeming oblivious to the stares from her sisters.

Zhu Shu blushed. "Zhu Shu go change now."

Several days later, Nabiki and Zhu Shu were about to leave for school when they found a smilodon on the doorstep.

"Tao-Ching? What do you want?" Zhu Shu asked in Mandarin. "You need hot water? Or did you come to insult me some more?"

The big cat shook its head and stood, looking at his back. He reached out a paw and scratched out the Kanji for "ride."

Zhu Shu looked to Nabiki, who was oohing. "A ride to school?"

The big cat nodded, and laid down so they could mount. As he stood, he looked over his shoulder at Nabiki and then down at the ground. He scratched out more kanji. "Sorry I'm late; I was planning to be here three days ago."

Nabiki laughed. "I see Ryouga's not the only one with a bad sense of direction."

Tao-Ching shrugged, then wrote "The map was wrong." He started padding forward, then stopped when Nabiki tapped him on the shoulder and pointed the other way. He moved off towards Furinkan, letting the girls get used to his gait before he started purring.

Nabiki gasped, then hummed happily, enjoying the ride. Zhu Shu sat quietly for a few moments, then murmured, "Yes, Zhu Shu like better as cat."

Judging from the damp fur on his back, Tao-Ching felt sure Nabiki agreed…

They made an impression in the schoolyard when they arrived. The Hentai Squad took one look at Zhu Shu on the big cat's back and ran away, leaving a scattering of squirt guns on the ground. Kuno for once showed some brains in the face of the fact that Tao-Ching was twice the size of a tiger and only made some quip about how his "Chinese Goddess had tamed the very wild beasts" while holding his bokken reversed at his side.

At the entrance, the girls dismounted. Zhu Shu had much better control than Nabiki, who had to take several minutes to get her knees steady beneath her. She looked the smug cat in the eye.

"Don't think a ride to school is anywhere near enough to buy my affections!"

The cat looked slightly offended, as if to say that wasn't even a thought that had crossed his mind.

"Right. Like I believe that. Look, I don't care how rich you are, you could at least ask me on a date!"

The cat blinked innocently.

"Okay. I'll admit you've got my attention, and I'm more than interested, but a girl's gotta have standards. A few flowers! A nice dinner! A movie!" She reached out to scratch between the cat's ears. "You've got permission to date me, okay! Just give it a try!"

The big cat grinned and nodded.

"Now get outta here, ya walking vibrator. I have work to do!"

The smilodon yawned, and padded over to the side of the entrance and started to wash his paws, making sure to show everyone who had watched the strange exchange what large, sharp, claws he had. Around the school, a buzz of conversation started.

Nabiki noted the conversations and sighed. "Well there goes my reputation as an Ice Queen." Nabiki smiled and turned to enter the school. "Now I'll have a reputation for bestiality." She looked at the huge sabertooth, then at the rest of the school. "Idiots will figure out he's cursed sooner or later, and I can sell the information. And I doubt that anyone will dare say anything to me directly. They're all too scared of me as it is."

"Does Nabiki like Tao-Ching?"

Nabiki gave her a grin. "He's rich, he's powerful, he's got a great body… and he's not intimidated by my intelligence. Yeah, I like him."

Zhu Shu looked at her sidelong. "Still say is hentai."

Nabiki nodded. "Yes. But he's my kind of hentai." She chuckled. "However, if he pulls this again tomorrow, remind me to bring an extra set of panties."

The Mandarin girl nodded. "Yes, Zhu Shu think is very good idea."

That afternoon, Ryouga showed up for the duel.

Zhu Shu was up a tree, taking a break from Hentai Squad baiting when the news started to spread. She hopped to another tree with a view of the field of battle, but as the fight began, a scene going on at Nabiki's usual tree distracted her.

A skinny black man had come from somewhere and was talking to Nabiki. He was nervously eyeing Tao-Ching where he was lounging in the shade of Nabiki's tree. He seemed agitated. Curious, Zhu Shu moved closer, to a tree above the water fountain where she could just hear.

"Ya, Mon! I been trying to find a way of fixin' this curse, Mon! I been in Japan a week now! Nobody knows nothin'! You being my last hope, Mon. Been tol' you know 'bout e'vryting!"

Zhu Shu's English was even worse than her Japanese, but it was enough to get the gist of what the man was saying. Nabiki apparently understood him better.

"What curse?" She asked in English.

"My vodoun put it on me, Mon. I get wet, I change Mon!" The man crouched down on his haunches. "It was som'ting Japanese! I saw writin' on de bottle!"

"Information not free." Nabiki said carefully.

"Shit, Mon. I got nutin'. Spent my roll gettin' here. You do a trade?"

"What offer?"

"I'm a voodoo priest, Mon! Know all de charms, de rituals. 'Bout all but zombie drug. You need a blessin'?"

Nabiki glance sidelong at the cat. "No."

"So put it on tap! I got nowhere ta go, Mon! Mebbe we can work sumting out. I need dat information!"

Nabiki nodded. "Yes. Deal can make. Jusenkyo curse I have information on, but favor for favor, No?"

"Yeah, Mon. Got no problem with dat. Lemme find a pad to crash. I'll check back."

"No need. Can work?"

"Yeah. I be a carpenter on the side. Pay not so good when you're jus' tha apprentice."

Nabiki nodded pleased. "Have room. Need fix. You work for room?"

Zhu Shu was distracted from the last few moments of the conversation because just then, Ranma and Ryouga crashed into the fountain below her. A wave of water exploded upwards and knocked her out of the tree.

She landed on her side, her head slamming into the fence. Dizziness washed over her, and her vision blurred. She tried to orient herself, but by the time she could focus well enough to move, she saw Ranma jump over her holding Akane. She tried to stand. Double vision struck as she felt warm wetness trickle down the side of her face. Ignoring the cut, she stumbled in the direction they had gone.

A few minutes later, after a couple of wrong turns, she arrived at the bike shed just as Ryouga cut the supports. She tried to focus better as Ryouga attacked. Ranma blocked the belt with the umbrella, but had it cut in half as Akane screamed "Let me go!"

"What?" Ranma yelled back. "You don't think I'm holding you because I want to!"

Zhu Shu shook her head in disbelief, then groaned at the pain that washed through her head. He always knew exactly the wrong thing to say. The more stressful the situation, the worse it was.

When she could see again, Ranma was looking after Akane with a massive red mark on his cheek.

"Ignore me will you!?" Ryouga yelled as he attacked. Ranma kicked the belt out of his hand.

"Give it a rest!" he yelled as he went after Akane, realizing he'd said exactly the wrong thing.

Zhu Shu's eyes tracked the belt. Instinctively she calculated where it would land. Without thinking, she started a desperate run.

"Akane! A… Akane… I" Ranma tried to explain, but his words just wouldn't come.

Akane stopped and sighed. "You don't have to explain. Because starting now—"

Zhu Shu's shoulder connected with Ranma's back, shoving him forward as Akane started to yell, "You and I are— Ulp!"

The belt came down where Akane had stood just a second earlier, missing Ranma's skull by a fraction of an inch. His pigtail was severed as the belt shredded the back of his shirt before plunging into the ground. Ranma tottered for a second with Akane, then in an explosion of red hair, they fell over.

Zhu Shu lay on the ground, seeing they were both safe before the pain in her skull made her pass out.

Akane pushed Ranma off of her. "You pervert! It's not enough to insult me, now you have to molest me too?!!" Akane sat up. "Why I oughta— Huh? What happened to your hair???"

She stared in shock at Ranma. The girl sat looking at Akane with a hurt look, surrounded by a swirling mass of red hair. Ranma looked away, the motion causing the shredded shirt to fall off his shoulders.

Akane looked down at her feet to the belt still standing like a sword in the ground, the tatters of Ranma's shirt and the severed pigtail. A shadow fell across her and she looked up.

Ranma bent down to pick up his pigtail and unwrapped the tie around the end. He gathered his hair which even as he had bent, Akane had watched grow another six inches, and tied his hair in a massive ponytail. His hair stopped growing just short of his ankles. He looked at Akane. "Another little 'gift' of my trip to China." was all he said as he turned to Zhu Shu. "She pushed me into you to get you out of the path of that thing."

Ryouga was standing in shock as Ranma knelt next to the gold haired girl. Ranma noted the bruise forming around the cut on Zhu Shu's temple as he picked her up and turned to Akane, his long hair covering the tatters of her shirt. "I-I think she has a concussion. I-I…." words wouldn't come. He turned and walked off, carrying Zhu Shu away. The crowd of students parted to let him pass.

Akane stared after him, her mind a mass of conflicting emotions as around her a buzz of conversation started. "Who's that girl? Where's Ranma?"

A hand reached down to help her up. "That cretin Saotome! To run off from our fight like that!"

Akane's eyes caught a scrap of silk hanging from the fence next to the burst water fountain, the belt still standing like a blade in the ground at her feet, Ranma walking off with Zhu Shu…

Nobody knew where she got the mallet she used to hit Ryouga with, but they all agreed it was very, very large.

From where she sat on the bleachers, Mara watched the whole show and cursed. That hadn't gone at all like she had planned. Zhu Shu was tougher than she'd given her credit for. She'd played a lot of probabilities and wasted a lot of magic to make this fight happen today and ensure that Akane had an "accident" that ended with her dead or hospitalized, so a guilt ridden Ranma would be easy prey for her next trap. But that meddling Chinese girl had interfered again! She was supposed to be out cold!

A sudden odor of ammonia made her look up.

Urd was standing on a nearby pole, holding a bottle of smelling salts.

"Why, Mara, dear. Imagine us meeting here, of all places."

Mara's eyes narrowed. "Urd…" Her voice dripped venom.

"I didn't know why you wanted Zhu Shu unconscious, but I figured it was for no good. Glad I woke her. Which brings me to my next question. Why are you here?"

Mara's eyes sparkled with such malice that Urd felt a cold chill go down her back. Mara had never looked at her that way before. She sensed an aura around the demoness like she had felt when Fenrir had been unleashed. Cold… and hungry.

"What else would I be here for Urd, dear…." the last word dripped ice. "Revenge." She smiled a smile that would have frosted molten steel. "And my job, of course. But getting to mix the two just makes it sweeter, no?"

Urd felt her stomach sink as a wave of fear she had no control over swept through her. "R-revenge? W-what for?"

Mara leaped into the air to hover just before Urd. "You don't recall?" Liquid nitrogen dripped from her whisper. "How you tried to feed me to Fenrir, 'Mistress'? Believe me, O 'Lord of Terror', I most certainly do. The humiliation, the degradation, the casual order to feed all my energy to Fenrir, your order to die!" The split v on her forehead glowed red. "You may not remember, Urd dear, but I will most certainly make you pay."

Urd was white, too stunned to even move. The aura Mara was projecting scared her speechless…

From the bleachers below, another voice called. "Mara! You can't blame Urd for that! She wasn't herself! It was the Master of Terror in her body!"

Mara laughed, a laugh barely touching sanity. "Well, well. If it isn't the sweet voice of reason. Hello, Belldandy." Her eyes never left Urd's. "Stay out of this one, dear. It's between Urd and I. I'd rather not hurt you more than I have to." There was a hard edge to Mara's voice that took Belldandy aback.

"But you were friends!" she pleaded.

Mara spat. "Friends!" She drifted forward and grabbed the still frozen Urd by the hair and yanked her head back. Tears welled up in the corners of Urd's eyes. "Friends don't try to kill friends." She trailed her fingernail across Urds throat, then whispered in her ear. "But don't worry, Urd my love. I shan't kill you. Oh, no. I have much better plans than that. I'm going to break you." Her nail trailed down to rest over Urd's heart. "I'm going to break you… And make you mine! What you tried to do to me, instead, I shall do to you. Her mouth dropped down to Urd's throat, and sharp teeth just pierced skin. Urd finally unfroze enough to scream. Mara laughed, a trickle of Urd's blood running down the side of her chin as she vanished.

A sobbing Urd collapsed in Belldandy's arms. "It's alright. I'm sure she'll get over it. She's just angry." Belldandy said soothingly.

Terror filled eyes met her worried ones. "No. Bell, you didn't her what she said. You didn't see her eyes. S-she meant it!" Urd sobbed. "She meant it…."

Below them, oblivious to the affairs of gods and demons, the students of Furinkan headed home.

"Ranma! Wait! Please!"

Ranma stopped, hair swirling around him as he waited till Akane caught up, then started walking again, more slowly to let her keep up. Akane limped beside him, looking at the still form of Zhu Shu in his arms. "Is she okay?" she asked finally.

"She's breathing regularly. I think that's a good sign." Ranma said quietly. "Dad knows more about first aid than I do, and head wounds can be nasty. She's unconscious, but I don't think she's in a coma."

Akane nodded. She looked worriedly at the blood that was slowly drying on Zhu Shu's temple.

They arrived at Doctor Tofu's and Akane held the door while Ranma carried Zhu Shu inside.

"Why hello Akan— Oh my!" the Doctor started as they entered. "Put Zhu Shu here and let me look at her!"

Ranma put Zhu Shu on the bed with a small grimace of pain. Then after Doctor Tofu shooed them out, he hissed when he sat down.

Akane looked at the red head, who gingerly pulling his tattered shirt back up. "Ranma? Are you alright?'

"It's nothing."

Akane started to say something sharp, then stopped when she saw the blood. Ranma's hair around his shoulders was dark with it. Alarmed, she grabbed the emergency medical kit Tofu kept in the waiting room and sat down next to Ranma, wincing at her own twisted ankle. "Don't tell me nothing! You've got blood all through your hair!"

Ranma started to turn angrily. "I said I'm—" He met Akane's eyes and stopped, reaching out to touch the tears. Then wordlessly he turned to let Akane look at his back.

Akane gasped as she gently moved the hair off Ranma's shoulders. The belt had cut a series of shallow parallel arcs down his back as it had whizzed down. Blood caked his back and had matted in his hair.

"Oh Ranma! Your poor back."

Ranma shrugged. "It's nothing. I've had worse."

Emotions rolled and boiled in Akane as she began to gently clean away the blood. Anger that Ranma thought he had to be brave and ignore the pain. Anger at herself for not noticing the pain Ranma had to have been in while carrying Zhu Shu. Anger that Ranma was dumb enough to think that false bravado impressed her. Admiration that he'd been so concerned with Zhu Shu first. Shame at the way she had called Ranma a pervert. Shame at the hurt her words had caused. Guilt for causing that pain…

She'd twisted her ankle, and Ranma had saved her. Then he'd walked away from a fight because she had been mad at him, and he'd tried to follow her to find out why she was mad.

He'd walked away.

The Ranma who had never refused a challenge— whose pride was that he never refused a challenge.

He'd walked away… for her…

And in her anger, Akane had yelled at him, called him a pervert after the belt had ravaged his back, accused him of….

The silence in the room was deafening.

After Akane had cleaned away the blood, she silently got the hot water kettle and a towel. Ranma hissed as she dampened the towel and began to gently wipe upwards to clean away the last of the clots without opening the cuts back up while Ranma used a little of the water to splash himself male. Akane laid the towel down on the small emergency table and laid her hands on Ranma's shoulders. She kissed him lightly at the base of his neck and whispered, "I'm sorry."

Maybe he was too worried to mess up, but for once, he did the right thing. Reaching up to touch her hand, he whispered back, "Thank you…"

Akane sat quietly as Tofu came out to say that Zhu Shu was okay, and she waited as Ranma was taken back to have his back treated. Thoughts roiled in her head, of who she was, and who she wanted to be, of her dreams and aspirations, and her family's desires. Of Ranma and Zhu Shu. Of a belt that could have taken her life.

What did she feel? Ranma had tried to be less irritating since they'd agreed to try being friends. He'd failed miserably on occasions, but even when he had, Akane hadn't been as angry as she would once have been. Zhu Shu had opened her eyes to how halting Ranma was in social situations… how quickly his pride would overwhelm his common sense…

And it had opened her eyes to see other things as well. How much Ranma was trying to be a friend… how he always seemed to be around her….

When Doctor Tofu came to get her and take her back to look at her ankle, she was more confused than ever.

"Doctor Tofu?"

"Yes, Akane?" He answered as he was examining her ankle.

"I-I… Did Ranma tell you how he'd got hurt?"

"Humm? Oh, he just said he'd been a worse idiot than usual. Claimed it was less than he deserved. Did you two fight again?" Akane shook her head. He smiled and looked at her ankle again. "That's good. I think he really cares for you…"

A small droplet of water landing on her ankle distracted him. He looked up to see tears pouring out of her eyes over a small smile. Concerned, he stood. "Did that hurt? I'm sorry."

Akane rubbed the tears away from one eye. "Oh, jeez. It's not that." She sat for another second as more tears flowed. "This is so embarrassing, but it just won't stop."

Doctor Tofu might not have been a psychologist, but he could tell there was more to it than her ankle. He sat down beside her and clasped her shoulder. "Tell me what's wrong…."

Akane looked at him as the tears flowed freely, then buried her head against his chest as she sobbed. "Oh Doctor…."

He held her, knowing that sometimes it's the only thing you can do when someone is mourning the loss of childhood dreams.

Doctor Tofu released Zhu Shu an hour later, warning her to take it easy for the rest of the day. No jumping and no strenuous exercise. He allowed Ranma and Akane to walk her home. Genma had already called the Dojo to ask Soun to monitor the afternoon training session Zhu Shu usually led for the Juuban girls. Even Zhu Shu had to admit that at their present level, Soun could teach them an enormous amount. It may not be Sword Dance, but the basics were the basics.

The walk home started silently. Akane walked more sedately than Zhu Shu had ever seen her, and her face bore marks of crying. Ranma was watching her curiously, his hair billowing down to his ankles in a loose cloud. The two had an electricity between them Zhu Shu had never seen, and she didn't have a clue as to what had caused it.

Finally, Akane sighed. "Nothing like a good cry." She looked back as Ranma stopped. "What's wrong?"

Ranma stepped over to look out over the canal as Zhu Shu smiled and faded off to one side.

"Uh… look… Akane… About the fight…."

"What about it?"

"I-I'm sorry I nearly killed you when I kicked that belt."

"Don't be silly, Ranma. It wasn't your fault."

"Yes it was! And I'm sorry I insulted you."

Akane gave him a weird look. "Are you feeling okay? I thought Zhu Shu was the one who hit her head?"

"Hey! Listen— I was just—"

"Try tell Akane were scared for safety, yes no?" came Zhu Shu's voice from a tree across the street.

Ranma nodded, looking glum.

"Ranma have hard time say what feel. Maybe get angry Akane put self in danger, worried she be hurt?"

Ranma hung his head over the fence and nodded.

"Maybe even apologize for belt because think how much grieve if Akane hurt?"

Ranma was too miserable to even nod. Zhu Shu had always been able to see him too well.

A soft hand stroking his hair startled him. He looked up to see something special in Akane's eyes. "Doctor Tofu told me what you said. He said you must really care for me."

Ranma didn't know what to say, and wisely, didn't say anything at all.

"You have beautiful hair, you know. Why do you keep it so short?"

"Uh… I like short hair."

Akane looked at him and smiled. "Really? I think you'd look good with a longer braid. Maybe to about here." She slid her arm around his waist and stepped against him.

Ranma stood in shock, but a ribbon snapped down to snag his wrist, picking up his arm and placing it around Akane's shoulder. Akane giggled. "I think she despairs of you ever getting this right."

They stood there for a time without end while Zhu Shu watched happily from her tree. A bump on the head was a small price to pay for results like these.

At the Tendo Dojo, Nabiki was introducing the Voodoo priest to Soun and Genma, telling them she'd hired him for room and board to make needed repairs around the Dojo. Soun had nodded at the need and Nabiki left the three to talk before dinner. It wasn't long before the sake had lubricated tongues.

"Ya, Mon! You want a body raised, I can't help you, Most all me charms be ta keep a body in da ground! Big money in Haiti, Mon, ta bless de graves and cast a ritual seal. Dere more to voodoo than just de zombie, Mon!" The priest laughed to their drunken questions about zombies.

Soun and Genma sobered instantly. "Seal Grave?" They asked in tandem.

"Ya, Mon!" The still drunk priest missed the sudden seriousness. "I got seals not even de Loa can break. Nottin be gettin out of a grave I seal but de worms!"

Genma and Soun were still staring at each other. In unison they nodded. "We leave in the morning."

Behind the TV, Urd sighed in relief. After her meeting with Mara, she'd been terrified something disastrous was about to happen, but this part of her plan had worked perfectly. Now for the second part of it…

With glance to the left and right to make sure no one would see her, she scurried around in front of the TV and dove through the screen….

Ke Lun stood on the end of the dock, examining the massive city of Tokyo. Somewhere in there was her great granddaughter, and her adopted sister, Song Zhu Shu. She looked down at the address Shi had asked Sung Po to radio to the Amazon village, and proceeded down the dock. A woman with hair as white as her own and a golden tan waited at the end.

"Greetings, Revered One." The Warmaster said as she bowed. "I have come as requested. It is not everyday the Amazon council receives a call from a goddess."

Urd bowed back. "I am honored that you have come, Respected elder. I was not sure you would not dismiss me as a madwoman."

"Your message was such we dared not take the chance. The future of our tribe is a foremost concern of the council, as is vengeance for old grievances. I will also admit to some small concern for my great-granddaughter's happiness on my part as well." Ke Lun smiled. "The message left by the lightning bolt didn't hurt your cause either."

Urd blinked. "Lightning bolt?" A drop of sweat rolled down her forehead as she looked apprehensively at the sky.

Ke Lun nodded. "It said 'My daughter speaks the truth'." She thought it politic not to add the "for once."

Urd gulped. Kami-sama was certainly keeping a close eye on her assignment. At least he seemed to approve so far.

Ke Lun cleared her throat to get her attention. "If I may ask, Revered One, how my great-granddaughter came to the personal attention of a goddess?"

That seemed a safe enough topic to start on. "She's my assignment. I'm in the process of trying to grant her wish."

Ke Lun nodded. "I see. May I be permitted to know what that wish was?"

"That her relationship with Ranma be resolved happily for everyone concerned." Urd nodded at the raised eyebrow Ke Lun gave her. "She has no idea how convoluted that wish actually is."

"It is rather vague and open to interpretation. I do hope you are aware that Amazon law will allow only one acceptable resolution between Shan Pu and Ranma."

Urd sighed. "I am, Respected elder. That is part of the reason I have asked for your presence. I need a witness to an event which may allow a resolution from which the Amazons, the Saotomes, and the Tendos may gain much, while allowing Shan Pu to gain the happiness she desires as part of her wish."

"I am wary of easy solutions. They rarely hold for long."

"This is no easy solution, Respected elder. It will open the way for Shan Pu to become Ranma's betrothed, but it will still need much work for her to achieve the happiness she desires."

"I see. I am familiar with the name Saotome, as it is the name of my son-in-law to be, but I am unfamiliar with the family of Tendo."

"It is the name of Ranma Saotome's current fiancée."

"Indeed. Well that shouldn't be a problem. Shan Pu can just kill her and all will be properly taken care of."

Urd shook her head. "I'm afraid the conditions of the wish forbid that, Respected elder." Urd was really beginning to sweat this. Belldandy had tried to coach her on how to deal with the Amazon Warmaster, but she hadn't really expected to meet someone this formidable. She was running out of her carefully rehearsed answers. "The death of Akane Tendo would cause complications which would prevent Shan Pu's wish from being granted."

Ke Lun nodded, seemingly lost in thought. "And how long have you been practicing answers?"

"Two day—" Urd started automatically before the question properly registered. "Uh…."

Ke Lun laughed. "Your pardon, Reverend One, but one does not reach my age without learning to recognize when one is getting rehearsed answers. Okay, so Ranma must have feelings for this Akane Tendo if her death would ruin Shan Pu's chance for happiness. I would assume as well you have not told Shan Pu about this little obstacle, or she would have likely tried to solve it that way already. I take it you have invited me here to witness something that could lead to an alliance between these Tendos and the Amazons? A solution which will allow Ranma to marry both Shan Pu and Akane?"

Urd blinked. "Um…."

Ke Lun smiled. "Ah, the shock the young feel when their elders see right through them. How old are you, dear? No, never mind. I don't suppose age really means anything among the gods. Well, my dear goddess, shall we go and see what you've set up? Maybe this old woman can show you a few of the finer points of manipulating one's descendants into doing exactly what is best for them…"

Feeling like a small child, Urd followed Ke Lun into the night….

After dinner, Kasumi was putting away the last of the dinner dishes when Akane walked in with a pair of scissors and a towel. "Kasumi? Can you help me?"

"Humm?" Kasumi's gaze took in the scissors, unused since Akane had decided she wanted long hair like hers, and the fact that Akane's hair wasn't in her usual ribbon. She raised an eyebrow.

"Akane? Are you sure? You've spent ever so long growing it."

"I-I feel like a change." Akane's eyes said a lot more. Kasumi nodded as she put up the last dish and sat Akane down to brush out her hair. As her scissors began their snipping, her ears caught the barely murmured whisper, "Besides, he likes short hair…"

Smiling hugely, Kasumi hummed a happy song as she set to with a will.

In the bathroom, Zhu Shu combed out the last tangles in Ranma's now waist length hair and began to braid it. Another long braid of red hair lay on the floor next to the nude girls.

"I really wish I could understand her, Zhu Shu."

Zhu Shu raised an eyebrow. "Akane easy understand. Ranma dunce." She ogled Ranma's figure. "And despite pretty body, male."

Ranma rolled his eyes. "You make me feel like a piece of meat." Zhu Shu nodded unapologetically as she grinned.

"I just wish she acted as feminine as she did today all the time, instead of being such a tomboy!" Ranma continued.

Zhu Shu paused in braiding Ranma's hair. "You do good. Akane way to reward." She gave Ranma a sidelong look in the mirror. "You want Akane be all time, must do much work on self."

"Hey! I'm trying not to fight with her, but she— she—"

"Push button?" Zhu Shu supplied helpfully.


The Mandarin girl shrugged. "Is Akane way. Must learn how deal with. Learn which button push back."

"It seems that's all I do!" Ranma sighed.

"Not button for anger. Button for care." She finished the braid and secured the end with a Dragon's hair, then released the other one from the top of the braid. "Think. What do get Akane hold close?"

"I dunno. Apologizing, I guess."

Zhu Shu sighed as she shook her head. He was hopeless. She turned the redhead around to look at her. "Only part! Smallest part! Ranma do one thing over and over which make Akane hold close. Think! What was?"

Ranma thought about it, but in the end he shrugged again. "I dunno. I did lots of things."

Zhu Shu sighed. "Talk Nabiki. Get report. So can tell. What do when Akane trip?"

"I had to get the klutz out of there before she got killed, so I grabbed her and jumped away."

"It man-to-man fight. What of Ryouga?"

"She could have been killed!" Ranma protested.

"Zhu Shu point. Akane safety more important for Ranma. What do when Ryouga attack as fall?"

"I kept her behind me so I could block with the umbrella."

"Second point. Shield Akane. What do when slap? Maybe most important."

Ranma looked troubled. "Uh… I realized that I had maybe gone too far and started after her to apologize. Then Ryouga attacked me and I kicked that stupid belt and nearly killed her. If you hadn't been there…."

"Zhu Shu point three. Ranma walk away from fight. Belt mean nothing. Ranma walk away from challenge. Maybe for first time in life. For Akane. See point yet?"

"Not really. I just did what I had to."

Zhu Shu smiled sadly. "Point four. Ranma do by instinct. No thought. Still no see?"

"You know I'm not as good with this stuff, Zhu-chan," Ranma said defensively.

"Ranma have big pride. Never walk from challenge. Never give up. Never accept defeat." Zhu Shu took Ranma's head in her hands and made the other girl look at her. "Ranma walked away from fight. Away from pride. Because heart not give choice. Akane more important." She placed a finger between Ranma's breasts. "Heart knows what head not see. That what make Akane hold close. What her heart see too."

Ranma just stared at her, too stunned to speak. Zhu Shu stood and held out her hands to the redhead, picking him up. Then she opened the door and pushed the girl out into the outer bathroom. "Now Zhu Shu takes bath! Not proper for boy share tub! Fiancée maybe not understand!" Giggling madly, she closed the door on Ranma's protests.

It felt weird to have short hair again, but Akane was kind of glad it was gone. It had always been such a hassle, and when she had looked in the mirror earlier it had only reminded her of why she had grown it in the first place. Doctor Tofu had never noticed her the way he had Kasumi, no matter how long she had grown it.

She looked into her heart, where her crush on Doctor Tofu had been, and wondered why she felt no loss at its absence. Instead she felt curiously light, as if a shackle had been taken off. She smiled at the mirror in her room as she donned her bathrobe. Kasumi had done a wonderful job and her bob cut looked very cute and chic. She hoped Ranma liked it.

She wandered down the hall and hesitated outside the bathroom as she heard the inner door open and Zhu Shu's voice saying "Now Zhu Shu takes bath. Not proper for boy share tub! Fiancée maybe not understand!"

Anger flared. Why that— then she recalled Zhu Shu's preferences and heard Ranma's female voice calling, "Hey!"

She slid the door open, a thunderous look on her face. A long red braid hanging to the cleft of Ranma's cheeks was the first thing she saw before Ranma whirled and backed up against the door at Akane's look. "Akane! I-I can explain!"

Akane kept the thunderous look on her face as she closed the door. She looked Ranma up and down, noting the terrified look and his erect nipples stiff with fear. Privately, she admitted to herself that she was jealous of Ranma's female figure, and even more privately, she could see why Zhu Shu thought he was terribly sexy as a girl. She decided she'd held Ranma in terror long enough. "And why would you think I would need a explanation when it is so obvious what is happening?" She really put ice into her voice.

"But— But— "

Akane put her towel down and undid the tie to her robe, then advanced on the smaller redhead. "You… have… been…" She placed a hand on either side of Ranma's shoulders as her bathrobe parted. "Getting Zhu Shu to cut your hair."

Ranma couldn't help but look. "Uh… Uh…"

Akane smiled. "I got Kasumi to do mine. Like?" She slipped the rest of the way out of the robe.

Ranma could only stare in shock and nod.

Akane slipped the door to the bath proper open and said, "I like yours too!" before she closed the door to the sound of gales of giggles.

Ranma just blinked and blinked.

(That couldn't have just happened, could it of?)

"Go way, Ranma! Zhu Shu play with girlfriend now!" The Chinese girl called merrily as Akane sat down on the bathing stool.

A sarcastic "Riiiiiiiiight" came back through the door. "I know better, Zhu-chan. Okay, okay. I get the picture. It's time for girl talk and I don't qualify." Sounds of a robe being put on and the outer door opening filtered through the closed door.

"He bright boy. Sometime." Zhu Shu observed.

Akane was blushing furiously. "I can't believe I just did that! I don't know what I was thinking!"

Zhu Shu laughed. "Maybe Zhu Shu rub off. Am happy to see!"

Akane looked at her for a second, then she had to laugh too. "Yeah. In the back of my mind I was thinking about what you'd do in that situation." Akane shook her head. "You and that never-embarrassed demeanor. You should have seen his face!"

"Saw Akane's. Can imagine."

Akane finished soaping up and washed off. She couldn't help but notice the Chinese girl's appreciative look. "Zhu Shu, if you were any other girl, I'd be utterly shocked and outraged at that look."

Zhu Shu averted her eyes. "Apologies."

Akane stood up. "I said any other girl. You can look all you like. I kinda like it when you do."

"Is true?" A coyly arched eyebrow met Akane's gaze.

"Yes. Because you're probably the best friend either of us have ever had. Ranma thinks the world of you, and I'm coming to." She climbed into the tub next to Zhu Shu. "And you probably saved my life today. Look all you want, Zhu-chan. It's a small enough reward. And I know you'd never go father than I'd want you to."

Another arched eyebrow made Akane laugh. "Hey! Don't get me wrong. My biggest complaint with boys is the way they treat me. Hell, I'd deck a guy who looked at me like he's undressing me."

"But not Zhu Shu?"

"No" Akane gave her a smile. "It's different when you do it. It makes me feel desirable and a little sad."


Akane looked over at the curvaceous Chinese girl. If ever there was a body to be jealous of… even in water she seemed so fluid. "Because you deserve to be happy, Zhu Shu. And somehow, I just don't see how you ever will be. I feel sorry for myself sometimes for being engaged to Ranma, but like you, I feel bound by family duties to at least try, even though he can be such a jerk. He's so arrogant, and he rushes in half cocked, and… and…." Her tone dropped to a whisper. "And then he can be like this afternoon at the clinic. So strong and noble and…." Her voice trailed off as her eyes finished.

"Ranma not perfect. But is good man."

Akane nodded. "But for you? Even if a man passes both of your tests, and truly does love you, I can't see you being happy. A wonderful, caring, dutiful wife, but not happy."

Zhu Shu looked off into nothing. "Zhu Shu give up on 'happy' long ago. Must settle for best can get to fulfill duties."

"And that's why I feel a little sad when you look at me, that sense that you've given up hope."

Zhu Shu shrugged. She wasn't used to being the one analyzed.

"I don't know what all you and Kasumi did that day, or even if you did anything. I don't care either. I think I understand how Kasumi felt, and I even admire her for it. I would have done the same thing."

Zhu Shu looked wide-eyed at Akane.

A drop of water falling from the faucet broke the long stillness.

Akane blushed, and turned away. "I'm being all out of character today. I don't know what's come over me."

"Zhu Shu not mind."

"I-I'd never have the courage to say something like that normally."

"Akane be human. Nearly killed. Strong emotions. Is normal."

"Oh. A near brush with death makes people think about things a lot, huh?"

Zhu Shu nodded, and turned away. "Yes. Zhu Shu been where Akane is. Is normal."

Akane nodded, then turned to look at the door. "He's going to be like that forever, isn't he? The boy-girl bit, I mean."

"Not know. Anything possible. Zhu Shu not know of cure for Jusenkyo curse."

Akane sighed "Ahh… Zhu-chan, until you came along, I doubt I ever would have contemplated the thought that I'd ever look at another female and think they looked sexy." She gave the Chinese girl a sidelong glance and blushed, "But looking at Ranma just now… Well, I think part of the reason I was so bold at teasing was that I was just so turned on by how good he looked…"

The Chinese girl laughed. "Zhu Shu relieved. Means can be sure Akane and Ranma be happy eventually."

A knocking at the outer door got their attentions, then Ranma's voice came through. "Are you going to stay in there all night? Some of us would like to take a bath!"

The two girls didn't stop giggling till they were back upstairs.

Akane lay on Zhu Shu's bed reading the latest Sailor V manga while Zhu Shu sorted out a small box of silver and gold charms. She watched curiously as the Chinese girl selected a assortment of small bells and then took the thick braid of red hair she had acquired from Ranma and began to brush it out. "Whatcha doing."

"Something Zhu Shu learn from wandering American." She picked up the shoe box she'd gotten from Kasumi before coming upstairs and pulled out a mass of raven black hair held by a ribbon.

"That's my hair." Akane noted.

Zhu Shu nodded. "Thought shame let fine hair go waste." She brushed out the black hair and then selected a thick lock of both the red and the black hair. She laid them out along with the selected charms and set down next to Akane on the bed. "Girl learn from use braid to commemorate happy event. Today is happy day for Akane and Ranma. Want to make Akane braid to commemorate." She blinked questioningly at Akane.

Akane smiled. "Okay."

Thirty minutes later, she looked at the long braid Zhu Shu had constructed in the mirror. The braid started out with Akane's hair woven into a tail almost an inch thick and secured to her head so skillfully Akane couldn't see where the hair had been woven. The braid descended down to about midback then began fading over to the red hair of Ranma's braid so smoothly that it looked like one continuous length of hair. Interspersed along the length of the braid were the small bells in silver and gold, with a trio of them holding the tuft at the end, which hung below her knees. It tinkled softly as she moved, and when she tugged on it, it felt as firm her own hair.

"Zhu Shu can take out if not like."

"No. I like it. It'll take a little getting used to, but it'll remind me he's not always a jerk. That he can be wonderful sometimes. And besides, he left his braid long for me." She looked at the mass of hair left over, then at Zhu Shu. "Can you teach me how to do them?"

Akane smiled at the pleasure in Zhu Shu's eyes.

Akane woke from dreams of a Ranma who took her dancing across the stars to the sounds of combat.

"What's all that racket in the garden?" She murmured as she rubbed her eyes. The sound of a pot breaking was drowned out by a crash of thunder as her door opened and Kasumi poked her head in.

"Akane? Are you awake?"

"You too, Kasumi?" She looked at the clock. It was after 2:30 in the morning. She leaned down to pick up her practice sword, the braid swinging around to hang over her shoulder in a shower of soft chimes. She shuffled out into the hall. Zhu Shu was poking her head out of the room across the hall. "What noise?"

"We're about to find out." Akane said grimly.

Zhu Shu nodded and slipped out to join them, her thin silk robe flapping softly

"Do you think it's a burglar?" Kasumi asked nervously as they crept down the stairs.

"It had better not be." Akane gripped her sword tighter.

A crack of lightning illuminated the garden, showing them a silhouette of a figure with a large pack jumping through the air.

"It… It is a burglar! With a pack for stolen good!" Kasumi whispered.

Akane was pissed. Someone had dared to break into her home to steal?!!! "I'll beat his brains out!"

"No!!" Kasumi grabbed her arm. "It's too dangerous!"

"But— " Akane started, then stopped as Kasumi handed her a small dumbbell instead.


Zhu Shu blinked, then shook her head as Akane hefted the dumbbell and threw it.

The dumbbell flew through the air and impacted against the head of the shadow who was fighting against a drenched Ranma. The figure seemed to hang in mid air for a second as his umbrella fell, then he dived over the garden wall into the shadows.

"Ryouga!" Ranma called after him.

Akane glared. "Ryouga?!"

Kasumi let out a sigh of relief as Ranma dived off the wall after the other boy. "Oh! It was only Ranma's friend!"

Zhu Shu looked out at the rain and then down to the umbrella, collecting water by the path. She sighed and turned to the other two. "Zhu Shu needs help. Must find small black pig."

Kasumi blinked at her. "A small black pig?"

Zhu Shu nodded and pointed to the umbrella. "Ryouga get wet. Small black pig not be able heat water on own." She shook her head, the twin red and black braids that framed her face chiming softly. "Zhu Shu have saved from cook pot once."

The two girls looked at her in disbelief for a second, then split up to search.

Out in the rain, Ranma ran down the alley outside the Dojo, stopping at a pole where Ryouga's pack and clothes lay. He knelt next to them. "So… he really did…." He hadn't believed Ryouga's claim to have followed him to China to continue their duel. All the way to Jusenkyo.

A growl and the sound of a footstep made him turn.

Two eyes glowed back at him and another growl came out of the dark…

Kasumi had taken the upstairs while Zhu Shu searched the Dojo and Akane had taken the downstairs. She had already searched her room and Zhu Shu's, and as she opened Akane's door, a small black shape dove off a shelf at her. She slapped at it in a panic and a small oink of surprise came from the shape as she smacked it across the room. A small piglet wearing a yellow and black bandanna bounced to the carpet and took a defensive stance.

Kasumi couldn't help herself. "Oh my! How absolutely darling!" She knelt and smiled at the piglet. "Are you okay? I do hope Akane didn't hurt you much with that dumbbell. Zhu Shu sent me to find you."

The piglet stared in amazement.

"I have some hot water in the kitchen and some warm towels to get you dried off. Zhu Shu didn't tell me you were so cute, though." Kasumi turned her smile on high. The piglet fairly melted and allowed her to pick him up. She frowned at the small bump on his head. "What's this? Oh my. That dumbbell left quite a lump. Let's get you down to the kitchen and get that taken care of." She clasped him to her chest and wrapped her shawl around him. "There. That'll keep you warm. I'll send Ranma to find your things when he gets back."

She met Zhu Shu coming back from the dojo at the base of the stairs.

"He no in dojo. Hope Panda man not see. Last time try to cook," Zhu Shu said as she came in, looking in the garden as she walked up to Kasumi.

"Mr. Saotome tried to cook such a darling-looking piglet?! How could he?!" Kasumi cried. She looked down to the covered piglet who had poked his head out to look at Zhu Shu. "You poor thing."

Zhu Shu looked down at the piglet. "Ah. Good. " She leaned over to look Ryouga in the eye. "You owe Zhu Shu dress."

At the kitchen door, they heard Ranma talking. "Listen, Ryouga. I'm sorry about what happened to you, but you gotta cut out these late night attacks! I'm a guest here! I gotta be careful!" They walked in to find Ranma talking to the neighbor's dog.

"Why you talk to dog, Ranma? Ryouga not dog." Zhu Shu cocked her head to one side and looked at Ranma curiously.

"Huh?" Ranma replied intelligently. The piglet let out an annoyed squeal and tried to dive out of Kasumi's arms towards him.

"Ryouga! Behave yourself!" Kasumi chided.

"Ryouga?!" Ranma asked, astonished.

"Remember pool, Ranma. When Zhu Shu say could be worse?" Zhu Shu looked at Ranma with a half smile, her braids chiming softly.

"Hey, Kasumi? I couldn't— Oh! There he is." Akane said as she entered the kitchen after searching the downstairs. "Why were you jumping around the garden at 2:30 in the morning?! You scared us half to death thinking you were a burglar!"

The piglet looked from girl to girl and looked properly ashamed of himself.

"Waitaminute! How do all of you know that that piglet is Ryouga?" Ranma exclaimed. The piglet let out another outraged squeal.

"Because Zhu Shu see fall in pool after Ranma knock off cliff at Jusenkyo." Zhu Shu looked at Ranma with her arms crossed. "And then have to save from Panda man and Guide when try to cook!" She turned back to the pig "And Zhu Shu get dress ripped off as thank you." The pig looked embarrassed. Zhu Shu turned back to Ranma. "Ranma owe apology!"

"But— but—" Ranma couldn't find anything to say to the matching glares. Kasumi took the pot from her nerveless fingers and poured some on the piglet. A quick change later, Ryouga stood with the shawl wrapped around his waist.

"This is all your fault!" he growled.

"I-I didn't know!" Ranma protested.

"Ranma and Genma owe big for Jusenkyo. Knock Zhu Shu, Ryouga and Tao-Ching in pool same day."

"Tao-Ching?" Ryouga looked surprised. All Ranma could managed was a strangled "Eeep."

"Oh, my. They were rather careless, weren't they?" Kasumi's hand was at her mouth. She smiled at Ryouga. "I know an apology won't be enough, but it was an accident on Ranma's part."

"Yeah, even he wouldn't do it on purpose." Akane chimed in.

"Hey!" Ranma stopped at three feminine stares. "Oh, Alright. Ryouga. I'm sorry I knocked you in the pool of drowned pig." He looked at Akane who was fingering her braid and gazing back at her with half-lidded eyes. He sighed. "I don't know if there's any way I can make up for it, but you have my apology." A slight smile on Akane's face made him sigh in relief internally.

Ryouga was still giving him a hard stare, but then Kasumi smiled at him and it melted. "I-I guess its okay. No real harm done." He blushed to nearly terminal red as the eldest Tendo daughter clasped her hands in approval. "I-I suppose it could have been worse." He shivered.

"Oh my. I completely forgot!" Kasumi cried. "You must be freezing! Ranma, be a dear and find Ryouga's clothes, would you. I'll take him up to have a nice warm bath while I dry them."

"They're in the corner there, but what about me? I'm freezing too! And my clothes are soaked!"

"You can have the bath after Ryouga." Kasumi led the other boy away to the bathroom as Zhu Shu threw Ranma a towel. Muttering he dried off and looked at the two girls who were staring at him with crossed arms.

"What did I do now?" he asked plaintively.

"Nothing. Just being yourself." Akane said, still fingering her braid and making it chime softly. Ranma noted the last three feet was his shade of red hair. "I suppose you can't help yourself, but I wonder what other little 'accidents' are going to catch up to you." She turned to go to bed and didn't see the guilty starts on both of the other girls' faces.

Ranma turned to Zhu Shu, and did a double take at the matching red and black braids she had framing her face, but Zhu Shu turned away quickly to make some hot chocolate. Ranma sighed. "I certainly hope Ryouga's the only problem from China to follow me."

Zhu Shu dropped the pot she was about to pour water from. Ranma mistook the reason. "Hey, I don't mean you. You certainly are not a problem."

Zhu Shu quickly poured the water and mixed the cocoa, putting it on the table in front of the redhead. "Ranma…" she seemed on the verge of saying something, then turned to the door. "Zhu Shu go bed now."

She was stopped at the door by Ranma's puzzled "Zhu-chan? Did I say something wrong?"

For a long moment, Zhu Shu hesitated at the door, then as she vanished into the shadows beyond, her last words drifted back.

"Amazon… Shan Pu… never give up…."

Behind her in the kitchen, the cup shattered unnoticed in the hand of a very pale Ranma.


To be continued.

Chapter 8
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