The door chimed as Ranma walked into the Cat Café one Friday evening. It was late, the evening rush was over, and he'd seen Shampoo and Mousse heading off to deliver full loads of take-out.
At her perch by the kitchen counter, Cologne widened her eyes. "Well, son-in-law! What brings you to visit an old woman?"
"Hiya, Old Ghoul. I just came by to have a talk with Elder Cologne. Is she available?"
Cologne made to hit him with her staff for the 'Old Ghoul' comment, but stopped almost before she started. "That's not a very polite way to ask."
"You don't like bein' called 'Old Ghoul", I don't like gettin' called 'son-in-law'. Th' whole thing is too damn personal. I wanna talk with the rankin' Amazon Elder 'round here, not someone who thinks she'd make a great gran'mother-in-law."
"This is formal, then?"
"'Formal' means I gotta talk funny. Call it 'serious'."
Cologne headed deeper into the café, snagging a pot of tea and two cups as she went. "Come," she said. "Join me in my quarters."
The room was cluttered, with scrolls and artifacts, strange bits of jewelry and statuary, and a multitude of interesting smells. Chirping boards told Ranma it had a nightingale floor. In the center there was a rich and comfortable rug, with a low square table centered on it. Cologne put the two cups at opposite sides of the table, poured tea, and knelt by the table on the side away from the door. "Close the door, Ranma," she cackled. "Come sit with me. Have some tea."
Ranma took the side of the table across from Cologne. He inhaled the aroma of his tea nothing funny in it and drank, watching the old woman as she drank in turn. They both settled into position and into comfort, each carefully monitoring the other's ki and their small movements.
Finally Ranma spoke. "Things have changed, Elder. Now other things have to adjust."
Cologne nodded, no cackle this time. "You frightened the liver out of Happosai, and destroyed his pipe. I didn't think it could be done. I've never been able to. And now I hear you've made friends with that Kuno boy. That must have taken divine intervention."
Ranma smiled. "I was away for a month. I lucked out an' met a master of the Bear-Claw. They got two natures, bear and human, but they've learned to get the two workin' together. He taught me to get my cat soul workin' with my human soul."
Cologne nodded. "You said 'cat' without flinching. Does that mean Shampoo's curse is no longer a problem?"
"That's the least 'a the things we gotta talk about. First, we gotta talk Amazon law."
"Amazon law says you're married to Shampoo, and there's no way you're going to get around that."
"Shampoo tried ta kill me, for a solid month. Amazon law said that, too. I don't know your law. What other surprises ya got?"
"That is a secret."
"Ha ha, Elder Xellos. Look, I don't like surprises. And I don't like being told what to do. My ol' man and my mother an' Mr. Tendo been putting all kinds of expectation on me. I've had it with that. Now Amazon law says I'm married to a woman who tried to kill me for a solid month, who crashes inta me with her bicycle at least once a week "
"You really upset her over that, last week. 'Wife-beating' indeed!"
"An' what's the difference? Amazon men deserve it? Then I don't wanna be no Amazon man. Look, Cologne, Shampoo may be cute, a good cook, and a great fighter but she's violence, compulsion, potions, and death-threats all wrapped up in unpleasant surprises. I ain't gonna marry her and go back to your village and be some kinda Amazon yamato nadeshiko. I won't, and the cat sure as hell won't. You ever try tellin' a cat what to do?"
"Where is this cat you talk about?"
Ranma sank into the neko-ken, and flared his ki-claws. A tail of ki was lashing furiously behind him, and his eyes gleamed with green fire. Cologne paled a bit, but sat firm. "Thissss cat," Ranma said. "When I ssay 'two ssoulss' it ain't jusst talk. You sssure you want mmmeee 'rrround yourr village? And pissssssed 'bout it?"
"That's a strong argument, but Amazon law is pretty firm on this."
"Ain't no law can't be got 'rrround with a good lawyerrr. Sssay some ambitiousss fella from the People'ss Arrmy beatsss one a yerrr fighters? And a week later, the resst of the People'ss Arrrmy comes by to assk for him back?"
"Well then. Happosssai beatss you. On a good day, he maybe could do it. You gonna marrrry him?"
"Rrright. Trry somebody Happosssai's ssscared of."
Cologne's shoulders slumped. "You're right things have changed. Let me think." She closed her eyes, and Ranma slowly backed out of the neko-ken. The Cat sniffed, turned around three times in his mind, and went back to sleep. Tea hardly counted as food, and it didn't look like there was going to be a fight. Ranma took another sip of tea, and waited.
Cologne's eyes opened. "Amazon law respects ability in battle almost anything can be settled by challenge. For a personal disagreement, it's personal combat. But this is a matter of law, so you'd have to challenge and defeat an elder." She sighed. "I suppose that means we fight?"
Ranma nodded agreement. "But I don't wanna get us hurt. Look, can we have a challenge where the rules say no serious injury? Where the goal is somethin' else?"
Cologne thought a moment. "If we both agree. What do you suggest?"
"Well, we both got long hair. How 'bout you tie yours up in a ponytail? I win if I get yer ponytail, you win if y' get my pigtail?"
Cologne smiled. "I like it. Clear victory, no blood. Can we use weapons?"
"We don't wanna pull hair out by the roots. I'm usin' my claws, you can have a knife or a scissors. You can even use your staff, if you're willin' to risk what happened to Happosai's pipe."
"Well, son- er, Ranma, we need somebody impartial to judge the challenge. And everybody around here seems to have a bias."
"Well, old er, Cologne, then we get everybody to judge. It'll balance out. Nabiki can do videos and bets, and we can split the take three ways after expenses. If they make or lose money on it, they'll remember who won well enough. And if they forget, they can look at the video."
"Ranma, that is positively sly."
"I'm sharper when I've had enough sleep. Shall I set it up with Nabiki for next weekend?"
"That sounds reasonable. Now, about Shampoo's curse?"
The Cat pricked up its ears as it slept. Cats were being discussed.
"Y'know, that's one bright spot in all a this. Even with our problems, Shampoo's been good 'bout my cursed form. It's nice now I can handle her curse. And I think the Cat wants to meet her."
"Ah, son-in-law I know, I know, but let an old woman have her dreams you are truly starting to grow up. What happened while you were gone?"
"Well, Elder Ghoul," Ranma smirked, "A lot of things happened. The pressure was off. I got lots of sleep. And I only had Bjorn-sensei to talk with, mostly, and he spoke English. So I was silent a lot, and hadda think before I said things. Now I got the Cat in my head. Cats are impulsive, so I hadda grow up a lot to ride herd on him. An' the Cat has issues with oyaji over the Neko-ken, so the panda's hiding away from the two of us. That's a lot of pressure gone there, too.
"And there ain't been the usual chaos. I musta got a kami on my side for once, instead a playin' tricks on me. Most everybody been behaving themselves."
"I can believe that," Cologne smirked. "If there were a berserk in the room, I'd behave carefully too. Come to think, there is a berserk in the room."
Ranma smiled a truly complicated smile, with joy and malice and schadenfreude and sorrow all mixed in. "Just don't try an' collect my undies, Cologne. I don't like collectors like that." And Cologne felt an equally complicated reaction as if she'd been warned and complimented all at once.
Ranma stood. "Thanks for the tea, Elder, and the discussion. I'll talk with Nabiki, and we'll get in touch with you for the arrangements." He bowed, and walked to the door. There wasn't a single chirp from the floor, which startled Cologne almost as much as the rest of this surreal evening. Ranma smiled at her, and was gone.
As Ranma left the café, the kami in question decided to let Ranma know he was still on the job. Ranma was almost bowled over by a panda running hell-for-leather on all fours. Close behind was Principal Kuno snapping at the panda with hair-clippers. Following that, Kuno Tatewaki and Sasuke pelted by waving super-soakers. And "OHOHOHOHOHOHO!" oh dear. Ranma faded back into the shadows and waited until Kodachi bounced past.
This would be worth watching preferably, from a distance. Ranma leaped to the rooftops, and followed.
The chase wound up in a blind alley. Genma must have been really flustered to allow that. There was a brief flurry of clipping, black-and-white fur flying through the air, then Tatewaki got the panda with his super soaker and it turned back into Genma. His gi seemed much the worse for wear, with torn and shredded places wherever Principal Kuno had gotten him with the clippers. Genma whirled, burst through one of the walls, and disappeared with the posse after him. Ranma took off for the front of the building.
It was a gardener's shop. When the procession came racing out the front, Principal Kuno was ahead and Genma was chasing him with pruning shears, trying desperately to get the miniature palm-tree growing from the man's head. Sasuke blasted Genma with his super-soaker, and he turned back into a panda covered with bald spots. Pandas may be famous for their hands, but they really aren't that good at grasping anything other than bamboo. Genma-panda fumbled and dropped the shears. Principal Kuno whirled on him, and again brought forth the clippers. Kodachi staggered out the door, laughing her head off, and collapsed against a streetlight. The turmoil headed into the distance and Ranma followed, the sound of mad giggling falling behind.
There was a loud splash. The panda was in the canal. And wait. Where had Principal Kuno gotten that surfboard? He leapt into the canal upon it, and began furiously paddling after the panda. Tatewaki and Sasuke stood on the banks watching them go.
"I suppose you're wondering why I called you all here tonight?" Ranma's voice came from immediately behind Tatewaki and Sasuke.
Sasuke jumped. "You aren't supposed to sneak up on a ninja!"
"Sorry 'bout that. I'll throw a few shuriken to announce myself, next time." Ranma turned to Tatewaki. "Where'd you find the panda?"
"He was camping out in the shrubberies on our estate. Sasuke spotted him, and let me know. We decided to make it a family affair."
"That was smart, fer the panda. He musta figured I'd stay away from yer place. Too bad he didn't know we been talkin'." Ranma looked Tatewaki in the eye. "Sempai, you've fulfilled my conditions, and your sister also. When can we speak of my third curse? I'd prefer a quieter time, without yer father around. An' you may not like what you hear, an' yer sister even less. Would it be safe to include her?"
"There are places my sister considers sacred, not to be disturbed by the quarrels of the world. One is the Rose Hill Teahouse. Could you join us there tomorrow at noon? I'll reserve the private room."
"Okay if I bring Akane? She knows all my curses. If we're gunna be open with each other, she sh'd be there too."
"Perhaps I should order a calming tea? Akane is the Fierce Tigress, after all. And this would not be an occasion for ferocity, on her part or my sister's."
"Sempai, the more I begin ta know you, the better I learn to appreciate society manners. I'll be there, and Akane will probably be there also. Until then " and Ranma walked silently into the darkness beneath the trees.
It was midnight, the dark of the moon, and Ranma was on one of the taller buildings in Nerima. She was female from one of Nerima's sudden showers half an hour earlier. She should have gone home, but too much had happened for her to sleep; and she and the Cat were still snickering over the panda's rude, ragged shearing. The air was rain-fresh, with a light breeze blowing in from the Pacific. The clouds were gone from the eastern sky. There were stars to be seen, and to her cat's vision, the skyglow from the remaining clouds made the city glisten. It was quiet now a major city never sleeps, but the nightlife was off towards the city center.
Something in the back of her mind was nagging at her. Something distressing was happening, somewhere, but what was it? It wasn't something she could see, and all she could smell was the sea, and fresh tar from the roof. She closed her eyes, and listened. In the distance, there was the faintest of cries. It sounded like a cat, a very weak cat in terrible trouble. She headed towards the sound as best she could, being careful on the wet and slippery roofs.
It was closer than she thought, coming from an alley so dark even her eyes had trouble seeing. And the ki within a barrel in that alley was dim and flickering. The barrel was half-full of water and in the water, half-drowned, a small cat.
Ranma pulled her from the water. Shampoo's cursed form was limp and cold, barely conscious, whimpering. Amazon warriors are brave but cold water is an enemy you can only fight for so long. Ranma held her close, then opened her tang and put Shampoo inside with her body heat. She took her bearings for a moment, then headed for the Nekohanten at a run.
Cologne was tossing restlessly on her bed, endlessly reworking her evening's confrontation with son-in-law with Ranma when she heard a loud, urgent knocking. She and Mousse almost collided at the foot of the stairs. It was Ranma at the door.
"Cologne, thank the kami! Shampoo needs your help!" Ranma pulled the limp form from her tang. "She was half-drowned in a barrel of cold water."
"Mousse, start warming towels, and blankets. I'm taking Shampoo to the furo!" Cologne pogoed off, with onna-Ranma carrying Shampoo-neko close behind. Cologne turned the faucet and hot water began spilling into the tub, while Ranma poured as much warm ki into the small form as he could. "Now, Ranma. Put her in."
Ranma carefully dipped Shampoo into the hot water. Ranma immediately turned male but Shampoo stayed cat for several long minutes before slowly, slowly expanding into her human form. She slumped in the tub, but Ranma and Cologne held her head above water, and they could feel the warmth gradually returning to her body. Cologne reached for towels and blanket from Mousse, who was waiting anxiously outside.
Eventually Shampoo's face began to flush, and Cologne took that as a sign she'd had enough heat. Ranma lifted her out, Cologne toweled her down and wrapped her hair, and swaddled her in a blanket. Then Mousse carried her upstairs, and together they put her to bed, wrapped in quilt and comforter. "Stay to watch her, Mousse. Let me know if anything happens. I'm going to talk with Ranma." Cologne pogoed out the door with Ranma following, down through the darkened café, off towards Cologne's room.
"Elder, I'm still wet and cold from the rain myself. Mind if I snag one of them blankets Mousse warmed?"
"Of course, Ranma. I'll prepare some hot tea."
Soon they were seated as they had been earlier that evening, though Ranma was wrapped in a towel and the atmosphere was much less formal. "So, Ranma. What happened?"
Ranma cupped his hands around his tea. "I was on a rooftop enjoying the night when I heard a faint cat-cry. No cat'ss going to sstand sstill for that, so I tracked it down. Shampoo was in a barrel, half-full of water there was no way a cat could have gotten out. And she was barely conscious. There was a cloudburst half an hour before. It must have caught her in mid-air, and she fell in the water. I'm lucky I found her a cat is so small, she didn't have the body heat to last much longer. I fished her out, put her in with my body heat, and brought her here."
Cologne brought out her pipe, and busied herself filling it, tamping it, getting it properly alight. She took in several deep, soothing mouthfuls of smoke before she said anything.
"Ranma, I think you saved my great-great-granddaughter's life tonight. I cannot tell you how grateful I am. I can tell you, though, that you just ran into another piece of Amazon law. And this one you might not mind nearly as much."
Ranma sipped his tea, and grunted noncommittally.
"You just saved an Amazon warrior's life. Even better, you were a woman when you did it. And that means you have the right not the obligation, but the right to become Shampoo's shield-sister."
"Elder, we're gunna have to talk this over. But I'm worn out from the day, Shampoo's unconscious, and you and Mousse been woke up in the middle o' the night to trouble. It ain't the time to make important decisions. We gotta wait til Shampoo's better, at the very least.
"Til then, we should be with her. Is that gunna make anything more complicated? I mean, besides my life with the Tendos? It's way too late to call them."
"Maybe you should be a girl. It'd be best for her to see the person who saved her when she wakes up. And it won't bother Mousse as much, that way. Other than that, no."
"I can do that," Ranma said, and on their way through the kitchen Ranma dipped her hand in cold water. They went up the stairs to Shampoo's room. Mousse was in a chair where he could watch Shampoo, and had his glasses on for once; and Shampoo was breathing much more easily. She seemed to be in a natural sleep, now. Cologne took a spare blanket and settled herself on the softest chair in the room, while Ranma curled up on the tatami at the foot of the bed, wriggled a few times into comfort, and lay her head upon her arms. "Wake me at sunrise," she told Cologne.
And for the first time, Ranma willingly slept with Shampoo.