A Bear of a Different Color
Three hundred pounds of brown bear named Bjorn padded through the rushes and groves of the river bottomlands. His head swung back and forth as he sniffed the air, following the scent-trail of the girl named Ranma who'd just destroyed his bar. Behind, there were yelps and wails of pain, dying out in the distance. The full moon was rising in the east as twilight dimmed in the western sky.
It's not every day that a slip of a girl takes on a bar full of werewolves and werecats, and leaves it in shreds. Bjorn badly wanted to talk with her about that.
Nighthawks were whizzing in their arcs above him nothing unusual there but ahead, several red-wing blackbirds took flight from the rushes. Wrong time of day: something or somebody had disturbed them. He was catching up.
He caught a glimpse of red in the shadows of a willow. The wind was wrong; Bjorn quietly circled towards the bluffs until he could catch Ranma's scent. Mmmmm woman and blood and sweat, of course, and fear dying away. Plenty of adrenaline. Still, she was settling down. The bear sat back on his haunches, and waited.
Half an hour. She hadn't moved, hadn't made much noise. Bjorn thought he'd seen her licking her hands. She circled several times, and lay down. Another ten minutes, then.
Finally, the bear thought it was time. He rose, and began walking slowly towards the willow, not especially trying to be quiet. Nobody wanted surprises here. "It's okay, Ranma," he said as gently as he could in his growling, chuckling bear-voice. "They're Were. They'll heal up just fine. You didn't do any permanent damage." The girl shot up on all fours, arched her back, and began to hiss as soon as she heard him.
He approached carefully. She had her right paw in the air it was hard to see it as a hand, somehow and was making scratching, threatening movements at him. "Ranma. It's okay." She leaped forward, and swung; great wounds opened in his shoulder. She scampered backwards, then turned to face and threaten him again. "It's okay, Ranma."
He sat, and healed himself a bit. The blood stopped flowing; the wounds closed. Ranma stood, tense; but the movement of her paw slowed and stopped as the bear continued to do nothing. "It's okay, Ranma." She dropped her paw to the ground and stood on all fours, her head cocked at him, then began to circle him. Gradually, she drew closer. He held his paw out, claws curled back. She sniffed it, darted away, then came back to sniff it again. She rubbed her cheek against his paw.
Slowly, carefully, he reached out and tousled her hair. She purred. She squirmed a bit, butted her shoulder against his side, and curled up, leaning against his great furry frame. Gently he encircled her with his arm, and made himself more comfortable. A quiet purring buzz came from her, drifting into an equally quiet snore.
I'm lucky her father turns into a bear, Bjorn thought. It gave me a real head-start in gentling her down. If she's like most berserks, a night's sleep should take care of the rest.
He looked fondly down at the girl nestled against his side. So much promise, he thought. So little control. We'll have to do something about that.
Moonlight and shadows slowly moved past, revealing, then hiding, then revealing again the bear and the small girl sleeping beneath the willow. The life of the riverlands went on about them, keeping a respectful distance.
* * * * *
"Moshi moshi, Tendo residence"
"Hi, Kasumi, it's Ranma."
"Ranma, where are you? We've been starting to worry." Ears pricked up at the shogi board and in front of the television.
"I think I'm in a place called Minneapolis. But I don't really know, because everybody here speaks English, and I don't, not very well. This woman who turns into a rabbit took me to a club where everybody changes shape, and she thought there might be somebody there who knew Japanese, only that turned out to be a c- c- ca- and then the next thing I know I woke up in the woods next to a bear wearing a bloody tunic, and, and, when the bear took me home for breakfast we went past the club and it was all torn up and I think I'm in all kinds of troubblll -l -l ." Ranma's voice was tumbling out, and it rose to a wail near the end. Ranma didn't like being confused, and girl-Ranma wasn't nearly as shy about showing it.
"Gently, Ranma, gently!" Kasumi soothed. "You know Nabiki speaks English. Is there anybody there who could talk with her and explain things?" She motioned the middle sister over to the phone.
Ranma turned to Bjorn, appeal in her large blue eyes, and held the phone out to him. He smiled, and took up an extension instead. "Bjorn Njalsson here. I'm the bear Ranma has probably been telling you about. But right now, I'm human."
"I'm Tendo Nabiki. Ranma and his father live with us, here at the family dojo in Tokyo. Ranma disappeared last evening, after we came home from the beach. He's with you?"
"Yes, here in Minneapolis. We're in the north central part of the United States. But if my grasp of world time is right, she walked in my door about twelve hours after she left your house and she'd spent several hours with my friend Erica. Even a jet plane couldn't get here that fast. Are you sure we're talking about the same Ranma?"
("Ranma, how did you get there?""'I followed Ryoga.")
"Changes sex? Knows this telephone number? It's the same Ranma. Nobody can explain how he got there the best I can say is that he got caught up in the fringes of a friend's curse."
"Well, last night, besides changing sex, she pretty much turned into a cat. Then she tore up my club."
"Oh dear. That was the neko-ken, the cat-fist. Were there cats around?"
"Dozens of were-cats. But what she was doing acted more like a claw than a fist."
"-Ken can mean 'sword' as well as 'fist'. 'Claw' isn't a bad translation." And Nabiki told Bjorn all about the Neko-ken.
Bjorn was silent for a moment, then said thoughtfully, "I can see I should have a bear-to-bear talk with Ranma's father."
Nabiki's eyes shone as she thought of the money she could make selling tickets to that conversation. "Genma turns into a panda. What kind of bear are you?"
"I'm a brown bear. But the most famous brown bears are the grizzlies. As grizzlies go, I'm rather small at, oh, a hundred-fifty kilos."
"Oh, my!" Nabiki turned to the room and filled in her family. Genma began to sweat. Akane, at the television, smirked. Kasumi wanted to know what grizzly bears ate, in case Bjorn should drop by. And Soun didn't quite know what to think.
Bjorn spoke seriously. "For many generations, my family has held mastery of what could be called the bear-claw. We call it the bear-sark, from the Old Tongue.
"From what I've seen of Ranma and the cat-claw, the cat is the master. This is dangerous for everybody. I'd like a chance to train her. Some of the ways we teach our cubs may help, and it's just the perfect time of year for it."
"Ranma has only a month of summer vacation."
"We'll be finished, one way or another, by the next full moon. And since Ranma got here without benefit of passport, it'll probably take that long to arrange a trip home."
"I'll take care of the passport," Nabiki said.
"I'll pay the airfare," Bjorn said. "And I think I can arrange an entry-stamp for the passport. Some people owe me favors."
Nabiki was thunderstruck at the generosity. "It may take a while to pay you back ...."
"Don't worry about that. I'm an elder in the local community of shape-shifters and berserks. Ranma is both, and a guest as well. It's both my duty and my pleasure to take care of her."
Nabiki held the phone at arm's length. She looked over at Genma, then back at the phone. An honorable bear, a respected elder; a bear with money, and favors due, and a sense of hospitality. She looked at Genma again.
Definitely a bear of a different color.
Then she continued. "Bjorn-sama, everybody here looks very curious; and I am sure Ranma wants to know what's going on. I'm going to switch to Japanese and explain. Make sure Ranma's listening?"
Ranma, Bjorn, and Nabiki talked, shifting among languages. While this was going on, Ranma was paying attention to both Bjorn's words, and Nabiki's translation. She hadn't expected an exercise in Anything Goes linguistics but everything could be practice, right? If Bjorn was going to teach her, suddenly English became useful for the Art.
After some discussion, the outlines became clear. Ranma would stay in hot-water form as much as possible. If the neko-ken took over, Bjorn might need to force a change of form. It was almost always easier to find cold water.
"I've sparred with Ranma, seen her tear through a room full of werewolves. She'll be as safe in the Northwoods as I am. But there are some creatures we should leave alone call it enlightened self-interest." Bjorn explained skunks and porcupines, and showed Ranma pictures. "Don't worry about the other animals," he added. "Most of them can be quite tasty. And they all know not to bother a bear."
"Nabiki, you take care of the passport, and send it to my address. I'll get it stamped, and I'll have Ranma back to you just after the next full moon."
Nabiki checked her calendar. "Summer break is over two days after full moon, and Ranma will be going back to school. Don't be late."
After a flurry of well-wishing and goodbyes, the call was over.
"You like Akane very, very much, don't you?" Bjorn said.
"Nani?" Ranma replied, with a question on her face.
"She was the only one you had a hard time talking with. I can recognize shyness. And you can't easily fool a bear's nose."
Ranma blushed. She knew perfectly well what Bjorn was talking about, even if the details of translation were a bit fuzzy.
Bjorn's next phone call was to his brother Thorbjorn, arranging for him to take care of the Outlook. "The wolves need a bear in the house to keep them polite," Bjorn explained.
Ranma took a quick rummage through Bjorn's camping equipment, and found everything they'd need. The restaurant kitchen had plenty of food. Ranma packed very lightly bedroll, tarp, a few pots and pans, bowls and cups, rice, seasonings, and tea. Bjorn smiled to himself. This was very auspicious.
"'But you need tougher clothes," Bjorn said. "Boots especially. Where we're going, the bones of the Earth poke up into the open air. These are some of the oldest, hardest rocks in the world."
Bjorn's vehicle was enormous. Bjorn had a knapsack already packed, so they loaded it and the camping gear in the back. They got in, Ranma buckled up (still wary of automobiles), and they were off. It wasn't long until they were at a shopping center, sprawling buildings with bright signs surrounded by hectares of flat land covered with parked cars. The only thing like it Ranma had seen in Japan was an airport, and he stared with open eyes.
By noon Ranma was in jeans and tough boots, with more tossed in with the gear. After some complicated roads and traffics through the city, they were headed north. Bjorn didn't seem talkative, and Ranma didn't want to distract him, so they rode in silence.
They passed through land that was rolling, but relatively flat. Eventually trees started to crowd the road, and began shifting to aspen, birch, and pine. Rocks were more common.
A grey sea stretched into the distance before them, with port and ships, loading-docks and bridges. The road went down, down, through cutouts in rugged cliffs, and through a mid-sized city.
Past this city, the road was narrow and curving, crowded between the sea to the right and the cliffs to the left. Gulls wheeled above, and in the distance Ranma thought he saw an eagle. The rock-cliffs were dark, with tinges of red; the stones were solid despite many years of exposure since the road had been cut through them.
"Bones of Earth," he whispered. "This is place of power."
"It's a place of water, and rock, and hardship," Bjorn said. "The rocks are old, and that sea to our right is actually the largest lake on Earth. Its water is clear and sweet, but cold. In winter, the air can freeze a thermometer. But it's a place of great beauty, too. Indians say this is the land of Manitou."
"The Great Spirit, the chief of all the gods."
"Ah, Kami-sama we call Him."
They drove an hour or two further, through small towns and past lone houses. Most of the houses were plain and weather-beaten, but very sturdy. There were a few boats on the sea. Bjorn pulled off the highway into one of the larger towns, one with a lighthouse. "This will be our last indoor meal for some while. The food is okay, and Sven and Ole's is a legendary eating-place. Up here, a lot of people sustain themselves on myth and legend."
They ate pizza, in a room with fish mounted on the wall, then got back in the SUV and went further North. Bjorn pulled left onto a road, a very rough one, and they jounced through forest for several miles. They pulled into a clearing with a sturdy log home, several outbuildings, and a truck.
A large man came out to greet Bjorn. They grasped forearms, and obviously were glad to see one another. Bjorn introduced him to Ranma:"''This is my cousin Steinbjorn. He's gone native he turns into a black bear. I think his great-grandmother may have been fooling around."
This man's aura, too, suggested he had bear in him. Ranma nodded and bowed."''Saotome Ranma, of Anything Goes school of martial arts."
"'And you'd better believe it!" Bjorn said, placing his hand proudly on Ranma's shoulder."''Last night, Ranma tore up my bar, werewolves and all!" Ranma wished Bjorn wouldn't keep repeating that. He simply couldn't understand why that was a matter for either of them to be proud of.
"'Ranma's a shape-changer and berserk, but not like us. Would you believe it, the shape-change and the berserk don't have anything to do with one another?" Steinbjorn's eyes widened, and Bjorn shook his shaggy head."''We're here to work on getting her human and berserk sides onto better terms with one another."
"'Her?" Steinbjorn raised one eyebrow.
"'Well, that's the shape-change." Bjorn shrugged."''Sorry, Ranma. We try our best to honor the forms we're in, but I'm a bit off-balance here because it was your girl form that tore up the bar."
"'You not complain about bar, I not complain you say 'girl'."
"'Anyway," Bjorn said,"''we'll be out in the woods until after the dark of the moon. Can you take care of our things until then?"
"'Glad to," Steinbjorn said. And with that, while Ranma took up the supplies he'd prepared, Bjorn went into an outbuilding and emerged as a bear.
"Thought you change for battle?" Ranma said, cocking his head at the bear.
"The more comfortable my Human and Bear natures become with one another, the easier it is to switch between them. We're here to get your Human and Cat more comfortable with each other. The Cat is a creature of nature, and there's more nature here than almost anyplace I know." (Ranma winced each time Bjorn said "cat".)
"'And if we accidentally touch off your neko-ken, I may suddenly find myself with a battle. So it's appropriate."
Bjorn turned and shambled down a faint trail into the woods. Ranma donned his pack, and followed.
The summer day was long, this far north, and Ranma had been running on excitement and adrenaline. But it was after midnight in Japan. An hour into the woods Bjorn and Ranma found a thicket of blackberries and started to eat.
Ranma knelt by the bush, to pluck the low berries. The sun was warm, he was eating good food, and he was on a training trip with a companionable bear. Filled with satisfaction, he closed his eyes a moment to savor it all.
When he opened them again, the moon was high. He was lying on his side on a soft layer of pine-needles, and he felt well-rested. To one side a great mound of bear breathed deeply; but as Ranma stirred, so did the bear.
They both went through their various stretching-and-yawning exercises. A bear's yawn in the moonlight is very impressive.
"Why you let me sleep?" Ranma asked.
"Cats live at night. People are day creatures. You need to learn the night. Besides, Japan is half a world from here."
"Night here, day Japan?"
"You got it. This way when you go back to school, you won't want to sleep all day long."
"Will not promise," Ranma said with a smirk. And Bjorn smiled back.
They set off again, deeper into the woods. The path was dark, especially when the moon went behind clouds; but bears are four-footed, and after years of walking on fences, Ranma's balance was excellent. They moved smoothly and silently.
Bjorn stopped suddenly, head cocked to one side, then moved slowly into the bushes. His paw flashed through a beam of moonlight. There was a sudden squawk, instantly cut off; and Bjorn began to eat.
"Growf!!" snarled Bjorn, as he waved Ranma away.
"Bears all alike," Ranma sniffed.
Bjorn finished off whatever-it-was Ranma hadn't quite caught the details and sat on his haunches, wiping his paw across his muzzle. He rumbled contentedly.
"I'm a bear in the woods at high summer," he said. "There is food for me. You brought rice. Maybe you can catch something to cook with it. It's not a good time of year for fruits and nuts, but there are lots of young animals who haven't learned survival very well yet."
"On training trips, mostly hunt by day."
"If you already can do that, you won't learn much will you?"
So Ranma built a fire and cooked rice, and thought of Kasumi's food. The Tendos would just be starting the noon meal.
While the rice was cooking, Bjorn settled down next to Ranma, and carefully avoided staring into the flames or getting downwind of the smoke. They had fallen into the same speech patterns Ranma and Erica had used the day before slow speech, lots of time to consider their words.
"I see well at night," Bjorn said. "But I mainly hunt by scent. When you were looking around, back at the Outlook, you could tell who was Were. You can see auras, can't you? Could you use that at night, see animals by their auras? Could you do the same kind of thing with your ears, and your nose?"
Ranma had never used ki as his dominant kind of vision, but could imagine the possibilities. He ate his rice slowly, chewing his way along the skein of thought. I wonder if this is what Zen archers do when they shoot blindfolded? His father had kept him away from most weapon-forms, so he didn't know as much as he'd have liked.
Eventually he finished. "Will meditate on that," he told Bjorn as he sank into seiza.
First he looked at Bjorn, because he was familiar with him. What was it about his aura? Well, it was very strong, and heavy on yang. Bjorn had great aggressive potential, quiet at the moment. There was earth and fire in him.
Then Ranma looked around. The trees and rocks were almost invisible to his mind; the trees were alive, but not the kind of life he'd had much practice with. And the fire was scaring most of the animals away.
"Your forest. You find me in morning if I get lost?"
"Yes," Bjorn replied.
Ranma rose smoothly, and silently vanished upwind.
Away from the fire, the world was different and he'd had to go a surprising distance before he was away from the fire. It was quiet, but not completely quiet; dark, but not completely dark. A slight breeze rustled the trees. The moon was high and bright; that showed him the landscape, but no animals. He found a place shadowed from the moonlight, sat seiza again, and opened his mind and spirit to the night.
And thus was terribly vulnerable when maniacal laughter echoed through the stillness. Before he quite knew what happened, he was twenty feet up in a tree with images of Kuno Kodachi jangling in his mind.
The cry came again, but Ranma was more prepared. It had a flute-like quality, with enough echoes to prove it came from some distance. Still, it was disturbing not the least because it reminded him of the madness of Kunos. He was not at all sure he wanted to share a forest with whatever made that sound.
Carefully, he shinnied down the tree and made his way back to Bjorn and the campfire. Bjorn looked up as Ranma entered the circle of light."''Back so soon?"
As the cry was repeated, Ranma pointed in its general direction."''What is?"
Bjorn smiled a bear-smile in the flickering light, and said,"''Bird. Loon." He rose and motioned Ranma to follow him, then padded silently into the darkness. They traveled for five minutes or so, up a hill and onto an outcropping of rock that looked down upon a lake. The water was still, and the setting moon reflected clearly upon it; there were ripples here and there as fish rose to the surface. Again the cry, but now Ranma could see a pattern of ripples, a wake that indicated something was swimming. He looked more closely. He couldn't see the birds themselves, but the water said there was a small family of them, swimming together.
"'When you hear a loon," Bjorn said,"''you are in the wild. That's practically the definition around here. Come, sit with me."
The bear settled to his haunches, while Ranma found a comfortable rock nearby."''I apologize," Bjorn said."''I didn't consider how different our woods must be from the forests you know. There are strange sounds, strange sights, strange smells, strange foods. Before you try to learn the forest, you should learn some of the details. The rock you are on feel around the base ."
* * * * *
After several nights of meditation and rice, Ranma was beginning to perceive the world around him in a different way.
On all fours, Ranma stalked the dim flicker of a rabbit's ki. Closer closer his legs uncoiled in a leap. He hit a tree-trunk painfully hard with his left shoulder, then watched the ki of the rabbit vanish into the night. He could see animals but trees were still invisible to him. Damn, it was almost as bad as mallets; and without any of the compensating advantages!
* * * * *
Ranma woke in late afternoon, hungry after nothing but rice for his late-night meal. Something else was eating, though; the bite of a deer-fly had brought him to awareness. And as the sun went down, the mosquitoes came out.
Driven to distraction, he fired off a small mouko takabisha at a particularly annoying mosquito, and smiled as it vanished in a brief pop and a spark of light. Then he sat on a log, and practiced. By moonrise, he'd learned to infuse a bit of mouko takabisha into his battle aura, and to draw it into his skin. Then he lowered the strength until he could maintain it all day while hardly noticing. Mosquitoes still landed on him but as soon as their wretched little hypodermics started to drill in, a flash of ki came bursting out to kill them without any fuss, and they fell to the ground.
He smiled. Bjorn had his thick fur to protect him, but Ranma had noticed him rubbing up against trees as if he itched. Obviously, something was getting through. But once Ranma learned the trick, nothing had bitten him. The bear would be so jealous when he showed him in the morning!
* * * * *
Ranma had spent a week of nights learning to use ki to strengthen his vision, his hearing, his sense of smell. He saw greys, flickering and shimmering in the dimness. He'd seen that on television back home, nature shows taken through a night-scope. He could hear tiny rustlings in the underbrush. He could smell things but he had to learn what each smell meant as he went along.
There was only so much his eyes could do with starlight, even with a ki-boost, but at least he could avoid trees and boulders. And the ki of animals was more focused with context around it. This rabbit didn't stand a chance.
He started a low fire, set water to heating, and cleaned the rabbit. He tossed it in the pot and let it simmer, then added rice, soy, a bit of salt, and some of the tasty roots Bjorn had shown him. He waited.
In the near distance, he could hear Bjorn's bear-form breathing slowly, deeply. Once Ranma had gotten used to the woods at night, Bjorn woke by day, and guarded Ranma's sleeping form. They talked at dusk and dawn, and shared a few quiet moments as well. Several times, Ranma had his cat-nightmare; but when he woke screaming, Bjorn would comfort him and promise to keep all the cats away as Ranma slept.
At night, Ranma studied the night and the woods and himself. No need to guard Bjorn who would bother an adult bear?
Ranma ate. The rice-and-rabbit was good, but strangely unfilling."'No fat," Bjorn had said. "The animals don't fatten up until fall. That's when the real bounty arrives. We'll both be hungry for fat before this moon is done."
* * * * *
The sky had been cloudy most of the day, and dusk was a sullen thing hours ahead of its due time. Neither Ranma nor Bjorn liked the looks of the weather. There was no time for food. "We need shelter," Bjorn said.
In the dim not-yet-night, they found a rock crevice beneath a cliff and crowded into it as a gust of wind swept the trees and the smell of moisture filled the air. There was a mutter of thunder in the distance, a patter of rain, and then a sudden downpour. The wind grew stronger, and lightning flashed. Trees creaked and groaned as they swayed. A spray of water blew into the crevice, and suddenly Ranma was a girl. Smaller, she wriggled further into the opening between the rocks, away from the storm.
There was a tremendous flash and an immediate explosion of sound, followed by cracklings. A tall pine fell, perhaps fifty feet from their shelter, with a prolonged series of thuds and snaps.
That was the climax. In an hour the storm had blown off, the clouds had cleared, and a sliver of the waning moon began to light the forest. Ranma ventured out, followed by Bjorn; and she went over to see for herself what damage the lightning had done to the tree.
Near the tree, there was the body of a porcupine. A big fat porcupine. It had obviously been killed by the lightning, and fallen with the tree it was already partially cooked. Ranma's mouth watered. She didn't care what Bjorn said about porcupines, she was going to eat it. Eat it all.
Bjorn came snuffling up behind, and looked at her porcupine. She whirled and hissed at him, and lashed out with her claws. Pieces of the tree fell to earth as Bjorn ducked out of the way. He backed off, and looked at her quizzically.
Ranma looked back. "More polite say 'growf'?" she asked. Then, delicately using her claws, she peeled the skin off and threw it and the quills away. And she cooked and ate most of the porcupine, but she let Bjorn have the umbles.
The forest was sweeter after the rain. The air was fresh, the berries bursting with juice, the leaves green and thick. After Ranma had digested her porcupine, even the next day's rabbit stew was more filling.
* * * * *
It was the dark of the moon. Ranma was well-fed, so he wandered, watching the life of the forest going about its business. There the quivering light of a rabbit; up in the trees, the dim glow of a sleeping squirrel, the tiny cluster of sparks from a bird-nest, the silent flight of an owl. He could see a bright predator creeping through the night large for a fox, small for a wolf. The jovial, bearlike aura he'd learned to associate with raccoons went wandering by.
He thought of Nerima. Peace and quiet were all very well, and clean air and wilderness, but he missed his friends. What were Hiroshi and Daisuke up to? How was Ukyou? He even felt a bit of nostalgia for Shampoo and her bicycle. What were the Pervert and the Old Ghoul doing, without him to play with? Who was Nabiki making money off of? He didn't wonder about oyaji and Tendo-san; he knew perfectly well they were playing shogi and getting drunk now and then.
Most of all, how was Akane? The longer he was away from her, the more he missed her. The mallets and cooking faded into the mist, and all he could think of was her smile. Well, her smile and he stopped to think a moment perhaps the old grizzly's nose had been right after all. Not just the smile.
Ranma climbed a ridge, found a rock-point, and gazed out over the land. The predator he'd seen earlier was stalking a rabbit. It made its pounce-and-kill as he watched, then settled down to eat. After a while it wandered towards him, climbed partway up the rock face, then settled on a ledge and sat, glowing with contentment.
The starlight was too dim to actually see. Ranma decided to wait for dawn he could see the first flush to the east so he could add another animal to his list of familiar things.
Ranma lay on the rock, lazily content, thinking of the hunt and perhaps of his mate. The hunter lay below, lazily content. Slowly, light grew towards dawn. But the creature was well-camouflaged, so it wasn't until Ranma had been watching for some while that he began to pick out its form. Pointed ears, with a tuft of hair. Short tail. A compact form.
It was a cat. A strange, large cat, a short-tailed cat, but a cat. Within Ranma's soul, the Cat stirred; and he began to purr. And the cat below purred as well. They were that way when Bjorn came silently up.
Bjorn sat, silent still, and smiled. After perhaps an hour of basking in the warmth of the new-risen sun, Ranma shook himself, stretched, and padded over to Bjorn on all fours, then butted his head and shoulders against Bjorn's flanks. He rose, then sank into seiza before Bjorn, and bowed.
"Thank you, Bjorn-sensei. This first time since child, I comfortable with cat. Have learned much from you."
"And it's time for you to sleep now," Bjorn said. "Your human part has learned some of the ways of the Cat. Now your Cat must learn more of humans. You'll have to rise in the early afternoon, when people are awake and about. Sleep, and let me think on your next lesson."
Ranma found a soft spot under an evergreen, cushioned with needles, and curled and wriggled himself into a comfortable nest. He slept. And as he slept, he dreamed.
Again he was a small child, covered in fish sausages, about to be tossed into a pit by Genma. He struggled and cried, but there was no escape down he went, and the door was slammed shut over his head. He looked around. The eyes of many cats surrounded him; he could feel their hunger almost as a living thing. They began to advance on him.
But this time, he was the largest, fiercest cat in the pit. He spat and wailed, and the other cats shrank back; then he burst out of his bonds, scattering sausages among them. As they began to eat, Ranma gathered up the kittens, and sausage enough for them, and curled around, protecting them as they ate. He purred or was it she? Perhaps she was the mother cat now? No matter.
When the food was gone, Ranma looked up to the light coming through the cracks of the door. He would never accept being kept in a cage. With a snarl, he leaped up and tore at the wood with his claws. It parted before him, and the door collapsed into the pit, bringing the heavy body of a panda with it. A panda? What did pandas have to do with this?
But the panda, falling in, had hurt some of the cats, and scared them all. They leaped upon it, Ranma first of all, and attacked with claws and teeth. It screamed a most un-pandalike scream, and practically levitated out of the pit, then ran gibbering into the forest trailing torn clothes (clothes? A panda with clothes?) and streaming blood from dozens of minor wounds and several major.
Ranma carefully gathered up the kittens, carried them out of the pit, and found a quiet place to rest with them. He settled down, curled around them, and began to purr.
Bjorn, watching over Ranma, sighed in relief. He'd seen the dream before the whimpers, the pitiful scrabblings and was afraid it was happening all over again. But then the boy's motions became more purposeful. He settled down, even in his sleep, and began to purr.
Purrs instead of screams. If he was any judge, there'd been a huge breakthrough this morning. He'd been doing his best to stay out of cat territory until Ranma was ready, and it seemed to have worked. And there were still two weeks for finishing touches. Bjorn settled down next to Ranma, and went into a contented doze.
* * * * *
Bjorn and Ranma stood by a pond in a forest clearing sprinkled with flowers, looking at an ancient tree. It was partially rotted, hollow with only a few leaves still growing. Ranma smelled decayed wood, a bit of something acid, and a wonderful aroma of concentrated flowers. There was a humming in the air. "Bee tree," Ranma said. "Last time was near one, speed training."
Bjorn shrugged. This kid had been through some seriously weird things. "Taste training, this time. Cats love good food but they can only eat meat. In your body, your Cat will taste honey for the first time." Bjorn shambled towards the tree, and began tearing chunks off with his claws. The bees came swarming out, and gathered about Bjorn. With one paw covering his nose, he continued clawing until he reached the honey. Paying little attention to the stings, he began to gorge himself. But where was Ranma?
A smaller cloud of bees had decided Ranma might be a threat. Dancing and leaping in place, his hands blurred about him. Bjorn watched in amazement for a moment, then realized Ranma was slapping the bees down, one at a time, without a single one being able to reach him. A grin split Ranma's face. "Still got it! Yatta!" He drifted towards the tree, dealing easily with the thicker swarm of bees. His left hand shot into the hive, and came out filled with honey. And then Bjorn was treated to the sight of simultaneous Anything Goes speed-training and eating. Which, from the looks of it, was also speed training.
Ranma finished off with several leaps and flips, and a dive into the pond. "Sticky!" she cried, as she scrubbed her hands and hair. "Heat water! Turn boy! Want tea with honey!"
Bjorn shook his head, and went into the water with her. "Sticky fur is even worse than sticky hands." And they swam a bit, then rested in the shallows.
Later, as Ranma drank tea and they watched the sunfish they'd caught cooking on a spit, Bjorn turned to Ranma. "Actually, beyond the honey I'd intended that as clawing practice."
* * * * *
Ranma-chan sat on a fallen tree in the evening light, and meditated on the world about her. Spray from a waterfall had triggered her curse, but since the dark of the moon, the neko-ken was no longer such a threat; it was easier to stay a girl than to make a fire, heat water, and turn boy again.
"'That's about the fifth time in the past three days," Bjorn had noted."''In the beginning I thought you were talking up your problem with water. But the stuff really does chase around after you."
And Bjorn was testing Ranma's enhanced senses as a cat. Not a good idea, building a fire the smoke would have dulled her sense of smell. Better to leave it fresh and unspoiled.
"'I smell a bear," Ranma-chan caroled. But a frown crossed her face. This bear didn't smell like Bjorn. She turned, and there was a large black bear examining her from behind. Startled by her motion, the bear charged for her.
She grabbed the bear by the foreleg and flipped him through the air, feeling a strong sense of dιjΰ vu; but unlike the panda, she put enough spin on the blackie so he landed rolling instead of against an obstacle. Wanting nothing further to do with her, the bear scuttled off into the woods. And when Ranma turned back, there Bjorn was, downwind from her.
"'Not bad," he said."''You even landed him gently."
"'Didn't want to hurt bear," Ranma said."''Too many bears in family."
* * * * *
Noise and wood-chips filled the air. Half-a-dozen tree-trunks had been set upright in the ground, and four men and a woman were using chainsaws to carve them. Bjorn as a man and Ranma were in the crowd at Lumberjack Days, watching and eating roasted corn and hotdogs. Ranma was considering the possibilities of a chainsaw in the martial arts. He snickered to himself at the thought of Konatsu with a chainsaw. Hard to be a ninja with something that loud!
Bjorn nudged Ranma. "There's still one trunk available. You could do better than that guy in the middle. He obviously doesn't know anything about bears."
Ranma smiled back. "Is that challenge?"
Bjorn caught the judge's eye they seemed to know one another and motioned to the last trunk. He cocked his eyebrow in a question. The judge nodded "yes". Bjorn gave Ranma a push. "You got permission, kid."
Ranma moved forward to the trunk, and looked it over. He popped his claws, and took a gentle swipe. A slice of wood curled off and fell to the ground. He consulted his memories of the forest, and set to work.
First prize went to a leaping muskellunge. Ranma would have taken second with his bobcat, but he was disqualified for not using a chainsaw.
* * * * *
Ranma sat in the diner, watched the cook flipping pancakes. In the back of his mind he could feel the Cat purring, as it thought of another meal. Ranma and Bjorn had been slowly eating their way back towards home, teaching the Cat the joys of human cuisine.
"'A penny for your thoughts," Bjorn said.
"Thinking of okonomiyaki," Ranma replied."''Cat thinking of meal in front of us. Both enjoying smell. But penny is only worth single yen. Could you pay in herring?"
"No herring around here," Bjorn replied."''But it's fine walleye country. Fish for dinner?"
Ranma grinned like a Cheshire cat, though he didn't know of that particular variety of feline.
* * * * *
The full moon had come again, and Ranma and Bjorn were back at the bar. It was a farewell party, and Ranma was finishing up a particularly fine meal. He was male, of course he'd been a girl last time, when he took the place apart, and he didn't want to frighten the werewolves.
But the wolves knew, and the cats knew. Too many had seen him change last moon, when he was sparring with Bjorn; and Ranma's scent was similar enough in both forms that he could be recognized. They gave him a wide berth, especially the cats, and the mood was edgy and subdued. Bjorn had said he was okay but nobody wanted to put it to the test.
Erica, in her rabbit form, was sitting at a nearby table with Mao and a woman who appeared normal. Ranma had met Mao before she'd been the werecat that triggered the neko-ken last time. He hadn't met the other woman, though her aura was heavier on yang than most women's.
Ranma finished his meal and gathered up his courage. He had to apologize. Hesitantly, he went over to their table, bowed from the waist, and spoke in Japanese for the first time since he'd talked with Nabiki. "Mao-san, I am deeply sorry for my behavior last time we met. I was cursed as a child with extreme fear of cats, and reacted poorly when I saw you and all the other cats. But now Bjorn-sama has helped lift the curse. With luck, I shall never again behave that way. Can you forgive me?"
Mao smiled (a bit nervously) and motioned towards a fourth chair at their table. Ranma sat, marveling that he could read a cat's emotions so easily. And Erica Bugs held one hand each towards Ranma and the normal woman. "Ranma, this is my friend Lena. Lena, Ranma. The two of you have a lot in common. But first, tell us what you and Bjorn have been up to."
"'Been north, in forests. Bjorn teaching me be cat. Now I know enough, learn by self. Was nice, being in woods."
Mao's whiskers twitched as she smiled."''Want to go down to the riverlands with me? There are some interesting smells."
Ranma was smiling back, and started to rise."''That'd be good," he said in Japanese. As he pushed his chair back, he nudged a waiter, who spilled ice-water over him. She scowled, tried to wring out her top, and realized there really is nothing to wring out on a wet t-shirt. Erica snickered, and from the bar they could hear Bjorn's snort.
Lena's eyes got very, very wide."''You turned into a woman," she said.
Ranma sighed, and sat back down."''Even in bar full of werewolves "
"'You don't understand," Mao said."''Lena is only a woman during the full moon. The rest of the time, she's a man."
"'I change water, she change moon?"
Lena smiled warmly at Ranma-chan."''This is wonderful!" she said."''I've never met anybody who changed sexes like me before. Do you enjoy it as much as I do?" Her amber-and-gold jewelry caught the light as she leaned forward.
Ranma's jaw dropped, and she looked at Lena in dismay."''Enjoy?"
Lena raised her eyebrows at that."''When I'm a man, I understand women like most men never will. When I'm a woman, I understand men. I get the good bits of both sides. What's not to like?"
Ranma cradled her head in her hands, and stared at the table."''Oh, joy, another learning experience," she muttered in Japanese.
Mao chuckled, and nudged Ranma."''Bjorn's had you out in the woods learning cat," she said."''Maybe Lena should take you shopping."
* * * * *
Ranma, Bjorn, and Erica were standing by the security gate at the airport, saying their goodbyes. "I thought bad luck, get dumped here," Ranma said, "but some of best luck ever. Erica, you good friend. Bjorn, you great teacher." And he took their hands. "I miss both of you."
"Oh, I've already signed up for lessons in Japanese," Bjorn said. "I still want to have a talk with your father. You might suggest he learn English. And you have things to teach me. I'll be paying you a visit one of these days."
After a large group embrace any embrace with Bjorn in it was large Ranma walked through the gate and was lost to their view. Bjorn turned to Erica. "Let's get something to eat," he said. "And I can tell you more about what happened a month ago. That kid's had a rough life. Even with all the fuss, thanks for bringing him to the Outlook. We helped him a lot; and that hole in the wall tells a wonderful story. I don't think I'll ever get it repaired neatly."
* * * * *
The Tendos were all waiting for Ranma at Narita airport; but it'd been some while since the flight had arrived, and they'd seen no sign of him. Customs always had a terrible backup on these large planes. So when a teenager wearing jeans, hiking boots, and a "Sven and Ole" t-shirt approached, it took them by surprise.
"Ranma!" Kasumi said. "I've never seen you dressed like that!"
"Silly Kasumi!" Ranma smiled. "When I came to Japan from China, wasn't I wearing Chinese clothes? Now, here I am from the Northwoods." He stopped and looked at them. "It is so good to be back with you all."
Ranma spoke in English: "Thanks, Nabiki, for your help getting training organized, and getting me home. I learned much English there can we practice together once we settle down in school?"
Then he headed towards Akane, hands reaching out to her. "Akane ." But he was interrupted by a splash of water and a mighty cry of "Sweeto!"
Ranma looked down at the tiny pervert clinging to her breasts, and her face twisted in disgust.
"Ranma, m'boy, it's good to ." Happosai started to say; but there was a bright flash and a crackle, and he fell to the ground smoking, blown off like a particularly large biting fly. He recovered and angrily turned to Ranma, only to see her on all fours, kneading a rapidly-shredding pile of cloth. He felt a cool breeze. Those were his trousers! That was his underwear! And he hadn't even seen it happen! This could not be allowed!
Ranma looked up from the pile of cloth, staring at Happosai's crotch. For the first time, they heard the Cat speak.
Happosai disappeared. There was a gabble of angry female voices, receding into the distance. Ranma stood, picked up the cloth, and dumped it into a trash receptacle.
"That was my variation on the 'Crouching Tiger' I call it the 'Crouching Wildcat'." She smiled at Soun. "Think I should keep it?"
Then Ranma went the rest of the way to Akane, and took her hand. "Let's get my pack, then I want to go home."
Akane looked at their two hands, joined. She was struck speechless, her mind dithering somewhere between a mallet and a kiss.
"Cats aren't nearly as shy about showing their feelings as people are," Ranma said as she began walking towards baggage claim. "Let's go home."
Blankly, the Tendos followed along.
I'd like to thank Thrythlind, and the editorial crew at Tales of the Unanticipated, for helping me with this. (The Tales folk actually read a different story, but the comments were just as applicable here.) I've been under the influence of the Icelandic Sagas for quite some while, and away from fiction to boot; I need to learn how to put introspection and grace-notes back into my writing. This helps.
Next story: "A Curse of a Different Color".
This version completed January 23, 2006