Like the morning before, Ranma was dressed in fine Chinese silks; but this time, she wore the formal clothes of an Amazon warrior, as best she could from what she had. Akane was dressed in Ranma's second-finest Chinese, and Nabiki wore the more severe suit of a Japanese businesswoman.
They came down to breakfast together. Genma was sitting at the table looking bilious, still dealing with his cold and a hangover as well. But though his face was glum, his gi was – colorful. It was the only clothing he had. Ranma had shredded almost everything else the man owned, and the few bits he had left, Kasumi had put in the wash. Repeatedly.
"Wow, oyaji, that's pretty bright. If Nabiki hadn't had her coffee already, that'd wake her up! But y'know, isn't hot pink a bit, oh, girlish? And that rose pattern …."
Genma growled, and huddled down around his tea. "You're a fine one to talk 'girlish', boy. What're you doing all tarted up like an Amazon? Go change back this minute!"
"Nah. We're goin' over to visit th' Amazons, so this is only polite."
"Visit the Amazons? Are you catting around with that Shampoo girl, now? Have more respect for your fiancée, boy! I think it's time we got in a priest for the two of you to drive this foolishness out of your head!"
Ranma took this as a reasonable excuse to throw Genma in the koi pond. And she watched, a beatific smile on her face, as a rainbow panda crawled out. "Now that," she said, "is really a bear of a different color." Nabiki had her camera out, and was taking photo after photo of the vivid creature.
I wonder, Ranma thought. Shampoo pulls bonbori out of nowhere, Mousse pulls anything he needs, and Akane always has that mallet. Can Nabiki use Hidden Weapons too? She has a camera whenever she wants one.
Soun started wailing "The schools will never be joined," then went into a full-scale Demon Head in the middle of it. A wailing demon-head was interesting, but not very effective. The tears of smoking acid might have been dangerous, but they vanished before they reached the floor.
The three girls ignored him, ate some rice and miso soup, then stood. "Thanks for breakfast, Kasumi," Ranma said. "We'll be over at the Cat Café, and I don't know when we'll be back. Should be home by evening, though." They bowed to her, then left with Ranma in the lead. They walked out into a bright, cool day with a refreshing breeze, which was a very good omen.
Away from the house, everybody broke down laughing over the panda. "We can use him for advertising," Nabiki said. "Just give him a gi with 'Tendo Dojo' embroidered on the back."
"Are you sure you want people to trace that panda back to us?" Akane said.
Ranma looked thoughtful. "If we cut red cloth to look like a bra, and sewed it in the lining of his gi where he wouldn't notice it …."
Akane's eyes and mouth went wide with a surprised smile. "I want to see what that does to Happosai!"
"Give me lots of warning. That deserves a video, not just photos!" Nabiki wondered if she could sell the tape to the television news. No, no question of that. She wondered how much she could make on the deal.
They were still chuckling over the idea of a decorator panda as they knocked on the door of the Cat Café. Mousse, in fresh white robe, let them in, then locked the door behind them. Cologne was wearing elaborate robes also, much more so than usual. "So, Ranma!" she said. "Something seems to have amused you."
"We've discovered something about the Pool of Drowned Panda, Elder," she said. "Very humorous tale."
"Heh-heh," the Elder cackled. "Bright-colored panda, I'll bet. Having your clothes meld into your cursed form, then reappear with hot water, can be one of the sillier aspects of Jusenkyo. How'd you find out?"
"Principal Kuno gave the panda a haircut. When he returned to human form, his gi was tattered where the hair was gone. So I had Kasumi patch the gi with bright-colored cloth."
"Just another proof the kami have a sense of humor," Cologne said. "But you already know that. You get up the grit to confront me, and the very same day, something happens to make it unnecessary."
"I'm here to talk with ya 'bout that," Ranma said. "But I wanted Akane and Nabiki here with me. And Shampoo should be with us, too."
"She's still resting, but you're right. Mousse, could you bring Shampoo down? Ranma, can you help me get some cushions for her?" Cologne headed back into her room, and Ranma followed. They came out just as Mousse carried Shampoo, wrapped in a quilt, down the stairs. Her hair was unbound, and fell in a purple cascade. They settled her comfortably, then found places for themselves.
<Are you still okay with this, great-granddaughter?> Cologne asked in Mandarin.
<Yes, great-grandmother. I want Ranma as a husband, but Ranma as a shield-sister would be very good too.>
[What that about?] Ranma asked Nabiki in English.
[Basically, 'speak now, or forever hold your peace'.]
Cologne fell over laughing. After several minutes of twitching and snorting and banging her walking-stick on the floor, she recovered. "I suspected you knew English and Mandarin, Nabiki," she got out between wheezes. "But you surprise me, Ranma."
"Elder, Bjorn-sensei spoke English. Understandin' was needful to learn his Art."
Nabiki smiled in mildly shark-like manner. "English and Chinese are good languages for international business and negotiation," she said. "And we're here to negotiate, aren't we?"
Cologne smiled sharkishly back, but with fewer teeth. "I thought we were here to discuss and decide." Then she dropped the shark aspect, but kept the smile. "No tricks this time around, Nabiki. We owe Ranma far too big an honor debt for saving Shampoo's life."
"Even so, Elder, Ranma has asked me to be here. She knows I'm better at seeing the ramifications of things." Nabiki inclined her head at Ranma and Akane.
"I don't want to make Ranma uncomfortable," Cologne said. "And this is very simple. Ranma saved Shampoo's life – they've both said so – and was a woman when she did it. That means Ranma can become Shampoo's shield-sister. As such she'll be free of the Outsider Laws. She can become an Amazon by adoption, and will then be a woman by Amazon law. A woman cursed to turn into a man with hot water, it's true, but there'll be none of that second-class status Ranma is so worried about. Or Ranma can become an ally of the Amazon nation, and be whatever sex she or he feels like. In either case, the kiss of death and the kiss of marriage will no longer apply."
"What does bein' a shield-sister mean, Elder? Ya don't sound like it's just a title."
"Well, Ranma, it means you train with your sister. You teach her, and learn from her. If possible, when one of you goes into battle both of you go, to protect each others' back. If you come to Joketsuzoku, you come as family and your shield-sister will provide hospitality. If she comes here, you will provide hospitality. It's not marriage – both sisters are free to marry as they wish."
"Elder Cologne," Nabiki said, "we need to know more about Amazon marriage law. If Ranma became an Amazon by adoption, would she have to marry a man?"
"Only if she wished the marriage to be recognized in Joketsuzoku."
Nabiki turned to Ranma. "So much for Amazon-by-adoption. I think we'd better research 'ally'."
Ranma was shaking her head 'yes' repeatedly, with wide-open eyes. "Good catch, Nabiki."
Ranma and Akane thought of the marriage plans they'd made the day before, and looked at one another. One problem taken care of before it happens.
"Seems we got two things to discuss," Ranma said. "Feelin's, and laws. Elder, could you an' Nabiki an' Mousse go discuss laws? I wanna talk feelin's with Akane an' Shampoo."
Nobody could live as long as Cologne without learning to recognize when you're being told to go away and take surplus people with you. But Ranma had earned the right to ask, and she'd given a good and useful reason. If you want Akane with you, it looks like you won't be my son-in-law after all, she thought. But I realized that when you confronted me. And a strong ally is nearly as fine. Maybe we can get two. She gathered up Mousse and Nabiki and headed back towards her room.
Ranma gathered up cushions for herself and Akane, and they knelt on either side of Shampoo. "Shampoo," she said, "we all haveta talk. None of us have been good at talkin'. But Akane and I finally got through to Kuno that way. An' now we need ta decide what ta do 'bout becomin' shield-sisters.
"Can the three of us talk honest now, in secrecy? I don't trust my family, and I don't trust yours, and I don't trust Akane's. But we've hit a place where we haveta trust each other, you an' me an' Akane. It's that, or everthin' is gonna keep on goin' downhill."
Shampoo's eyes began to glisten. She thought of the potions, of the magic, of all the tricks she'd used on Ranma. But Ranma was offering to trust her. That was good. And Ranma was insisting Akane be part of the trust. That was bad.
She'd almost died of cold and drowning, a day and a half earlier. She was still weak in body and spirit. She sat, wrapped her arms about her knees, and let her head rest on them. Her hair fell around her face, draped over her shoulders, and she was shaking gently. From the shadows of her hair her voice came, weak but filled with emotion: "Aiyah. Will talk honestly. Shampoo promise not tell great-grandmother, panda-man, or mercenary girl. Not tell anybody."
"Well, then," Ranma said. "I'm not gunna be no Amazon male. I've seen how things are in your village, an' how things are here at the Cat Café. Don't want that. An' I don't think I wanna be female. I'm gettin' used to it, it ain't so bad, but I'm still a guy that turns into a gal. Just like you're a gal that turns into a cat."
"Great-grandmother say you part cat now."
"I sure am, an' a huntin' cat to boot. So my days o' bein' afraid of yer cursed form are over."
"Aiyah! That good!"
"But cats are direct, once they figger out what they want," Ranma said as she reached out to Akane, who took her hand. "An' I want Akane."
Akane looked at Shampoo with more compassion than Ranma had expected. "And I've accepted Ranma. We're planning on marriage."
Shampoo was silent, face shadowed by her hair, but Ranma could hear the breath catching in her throat. Finally she choked out, "But you my airen!"
Ranma put her free hand on Shampoo's shoulder. "By th' Outsider Laws, Shampoo. But if I'm yer shield-sister, I won't be no Outsider. We can get out from under the laws with honor."
"Shampoo want Ranma for husband!" She was shaking now, and there was the salt smell of tears.
"You can't have me that way, Shampoo. I don't love you. But I respect you as a warrior. Shield-sister I could live with. Husband, I can't."
Shampoo turned her head, looked up at Ranma from shadowed eyes. "You mean that?"
"If you, and I, and Akane can agree, I will become your shield-sister. Akane?"
"Do I have to agree, Ranma?" Akane asked.
"Akane, I'm not gonna do this without yer permission. But remember, it's not just Shampoo gettin' me for an ally. It's me gettin' Shampoo for an ally, too. You know what a sorry mess life can be 'round Nerima. Wouldn't you rather have Shampoo by my side, next time some stray prince comes botherin' us? Heck, if you're my wife and she's my shield-sister, wouldn't that make you two sisters-in-law?"
Shampoo's eyes opened wide, and she began to smile. "Aiyah! We all study together under great-grandmother, kick tail on next prince!"
Akane began to smile, too. "I could learn Amazon fighting?"
Ranma smiled as well. "Golly, Akane, I never could teach ya so good 'cause I couldn't bring myself to hurt ya. The Elder ain't got no problem with that. An' she knows enough 'bout ki, maybe she can help me control my claws! Think of all we could learn!"
Akane looked Shampoo in the eyes. "If you can learn not to see me as obstacle-for-killing, maybe I can learn not to see you as competition. Do you think we could do it?"
Shampoo sat upright. "Shampoo not be jealous of sister-in-law if Akane not jealous." And she gently kissed Akane on the cheek.
Akane blushed, but she knew: this was not a kiss of death, or marriage, or passion. This was a kiss of family. And she'd had a solid year to see how seriously Shampoo took her kisses. It was a constant mystery to her how the Amazon could be so mercurial, yet so hard to deflect from her chosen path. "Well," she said. "It sounds like we wait for Nabiki to give us the all-clear. But remember, Shampoo – nothing about marriage. Our parents have been awful pushy about this, and we're going to take them over the jumps. That won't work if word gets around."
Shampoo reached out and hugged the two of them around their shoulders, then lay back down. Ranma and Akane re-arranged their cushions and lay alongside her. Ranma crossed her arm over Shampoo and rested her hand on Akane's waist; Akane reached across to Ranma. And that is how they were when the other three returned.
"For Pete's sake," Nabiki said. "Get a room, the three of you!"
Ranma sniffed at her. "We're already in a room. But do you smell anything?"
"I'm no cat. I don't have your sense of smell."
"Pity. You'd know these things if you did."
While Nabiki was thinking that over, Ranma and Akane rose to a kneeling position, and helped Shampoo sit up between them. "So, Nabiki," Ranma said. "How complicated is it to be an Amazon ally? Is it safe?"
"It's not bad," Nabiki said. "You aren't an outsider any more, so you don't have to worry about the Outsider Laws. But you aren't an Amazon either, so you don't have to live by the specific laws about being an Amazon. Really, all you have to do is remain honorable and keep your promises. You will have to make promises, but you'll know about them when they happen."
Cologne held up a small book bound in brown leather. "These are the rules we expect allies to follow. It's much smaller than the full book of Amazon Law. You might want to read it over before anybody makes any promises." She handed it over to Nabiki.
"Elder," Ranma said, "Shampoo thought you might be willing to teach me, and perhaps Akane, along with her."
"That is part of 'training together', Cologne replied. "But Akane isn't going to be a shield-sister. Do you have something you want to tell me?"
Ranma and Akane looked at each other. "No, Elder, we don't have anything we want to tell you right now."
Cologne raised her brows (such as they were). "We expect allies to keep Amazon secrets. In return, we keep the secrets of our allies."
And Nabiki raised her brows as well. "Are you keeping secrets from family, Saotome?"
Akane's growing slow burn burst into flame. "Keeping secrets, Nabiki? From my father, whose emotions are completely out of control, and who likes to go drinking? From the panda that drinks with him? From a sister who makes a living by selling secrets? I can't see why you'd think such a thing!"
Ranma reached to twitch the book out of Nabiki's hand, while Akane's mallet flickered into view. "Ranma! How dare you get me into a mess like this!"
Ranma leapt up and flew through the door, with Akane after him yelling the auditory version of her father's demon-head. "I'll check in later …." came floating back as they vanished down the street.
Nabiki sighed. "Ranma's been getting harder to predict, lately. But Akane's as easy as ever."
Cologne had been watching the ki of the two girls, and suspected Nabiki was missing something. There hadn't been nearly enough hostility to match the sound and fury. She turned towards Shampoo, and winked.
When they were well away from the Cat Café, Akane quieted down and stowed away the mallet. They kept running until they were well away from their usual haunts. Then Ranma slowed, Akane caught up, and they walked side-by-side, smiling and breathing deeply from their run. "Wow, we must have run halfway to Tokyo Tower. But this is one way to get out of tight situations," Akane said.
"As long as we don't get carried away. It wouldn't be good, droppin' back to real fights."
"We're going to, you know. Everybody argues. You're worried about the Cat taking over and hurting people. Sometimes I think the mallet takes me over."
"Bjorn-sensei says that people who get taken over like that are berserks. Before I made peace with the Cat, I was dangerous. An' I guess I'm still dangerous, but now I got a lot more choices. I'm learnin' control by joinin' the art club and usin' my claws to do sculpture. Maybe you gotta learn to make peace with your mallet. Lemme think on that one."
Akane pointed to one of the small shops on the street. The owner was sweeping the sidewalk, and cranking down the awning in preparation for opening. It was a very seductive shop. The sign was covered with painted petals and read 'Sakura Ice Cream – sweet pleasure for the moment.' "Less thinking, more ice cream," Ranma said in agreement. "We need it."
They had enough money. They followed the man inside, and looked happily into the glass-fronted cooler. There were tubs of many colors, tubs of many flavors. Desire warred with desire, and consulted their wallets.
"I'll have a bowl of ice cream," Ranma said. "Double-scoop, cinnamon spice."
"A hot fudge sundae for me," Akane added. They took their bowls and went to the booth in the furthest corner, then sat as the shopkeeper brought them spoons, napkins, and glasses of water. They smiled at one another, dipped their spoons in unison, and put them in their mouths.
"Wow!" Ranma said. "This cinnamon stuff is pretty strong with my new sense of taste. Want to try a bit, Akane? Can I have a spoon of your hot fudge sundae?"
They swapped bowls. Ranma got a nice scoop, ice cream and fudge both, and rolled it over her tongue. "I knew it," she said. "Chocolate and vanilla work for everybody, no matter what." Akane smiled in surprise at the cinnamon. They decided to keep each other's bowls. And for a while, everything was quiet except for gentle slurping sounds, the clink of silverware on glass, and the occasional sigh of contentment.
Eventually they finished, and leaned back. "Good," they smiled, rubbing their tummies.
"But we can only take so much good," Ranma added. "I'm startin' to worry. Ever'thin' has been goin' too well. We finally opened up to each other. We got Happosai, and both Kunos, off our back. We stand a good chance of solvin' the Amazon problem, and bein' trained in their Wu Shu as well. We even got Nabiki helpin' us. It's not perfect – I thought oyaji was intim'dated, but he sure didn't act that way this mornin'. But too many good things have been happenin'."
"Something's bound to go wrong," Akane agreed. "Let's see if we can find a way to keep it from happening to us."
"Now that sounds like an idea. How we gonna do it?"
"We don't let the world realize things have been going well."
"I get it. We keep on complainin' and fightin' with each other. An' maybe none o' the kami or th'other martial artists will try to balance out th' karma?"
"Right on, fiancé!"
"Good idea, fiancée! So whadda we do next?"
"Give me the book. I'll go home and study it, and maybe fume at Nabiki a little for being nosy. You take a walk for a while – it wouldn't do for us to get home together – and think about training me and my mallet. Then come home, step careful around me and Nabiki, and I'll leave the book in your room to study."
"Better leave it somewhere else. Th' panda shares the room with me, an' he might try stealin' it."
"I'll put it under the girl's underwear in your dresser drawer."
"Give it to Kasumi. I think th' old pervert's trained, but I might be wrong."
"Okay." Akane stood, bent down, gave Ranma the kiss of family (with just a hint of the kiss of marriage), and left with a wave. The storekeeper, a man in his early thirties, shook his head at such a sad waste of prime young female beauty. Ranma smirked at him, took one last sip of water, and left.
Ranma was strolling through the park, deep in thoughts of mallets and werebears, when she heard several rapid steps behind her – heavy steps, but quiet, with the last footfall especially strong. There was a blaze of angry ki as well, rapidly approaching, and finally a great cry of "Ranma, prepare to … urk!"
Ranma had sidestepped just as Ryoga began to shout. Her claws flashed out. Segments of war-umbrella clattered heavily to the ground as she grasped Ryoga's shirt by the collar. She twisted it tight.
"Prepare to die, Ryoga?" she said mildly. "Prepare to die – or to kill? This's gone on long enough." The lost boy's face began to purple. "Ya keep shoutin' 'prepare to die' as if ya wanna kill me. Should I take ya seriously? Do ya take yerself seriously? If ya mean it, are y' ready to take the risk of my killin' you first? I warn ya, your corpse will look like some giant cat clawed it all up. They gonna be lookin' for a tiger did it." Ranma took one claw on her free hand, inserted it under Ryoga's bandannas – all of them – and sliced them off. She caught them.
"Here's yer bandannas," Ranma said as she gently set Ryoga down. "Now, d'ya wanna talk about it?"
Ryoga's face looked naked without the bandannas, and very, very worried. He held his throat as he wheezed, and a normal color began to creep back into his face. "You said … *huff* … 'cat'."
"Yep," Ranma replied. "And I got you to thank. Last time I chased you, you dropped me off in just th' right place to learn to work with th' neko-ken instead of bein' slave to it. But now that I'm parrrt cat, I don't think the sssame. Ssspecially about threatssss."
Ryoga's face kept right on going past its normal tan, all the way to "pale". "Blanched", even. "The neko-ken?" he asked through a tight throat. Ranma could smell the nervousness coming off him.
She took Ryoga by the arm, and guided him over to a nearby bench, and sat him down at the upwind end. "We used ta be friends," she said. "Least I thought so. I'd take y' back an' forth between home and school so y' wouldn't get lost. That bread stuff? I thought we was just rough-housin'. But yer startin' to convince me ya mean me serious harm. The power levels we're at now, somebody's gonna get hurt. It ain't gonna be me."
"Because of you, I've seen Hell," Ryoga said; but it was obviously his mouth taking a familiar path.
"I've seen Hell too, y'know," Ranma said as she sat next to Ryoga. "It's Hell when someone I thought was a friend tries ta kill me. It's Hell when the person who tries ta kill me turns into a pet pig and sleeps with th' woman I love."
"Love?" Ryoga blurted.
"Catsss don't hide theirrrr feelingssss," Ranma said. And they sat in silence for a while. Then Ranma spoke again. "And sssince I'm not hidin' my feelin'sss, here's how I feel. Next time ya sssay 'prepare to die', be prepared to die yourssself. Er at the very least be prepared to lose what yer aimin' at me – umbrella, fist, or foot. You're too powerful f'r me not to take you seriously. Conssider it a verrrry dangerousss form of ressspect."
Now Ranma could smell even more nervousness, and Ryoga's heart had sped up. She looked down at the ground and spoke, as much to herself as to Ryoga. "When ya dropped me off in Minneapolis, I met a man, an heir of the Viking berserks. You know what berserk is?" She looked up at the Lost Boy. "In Malaya, it's called amok. In America, going postal. A martial artist is ready to fight. A warrior is prepared to kill. Berserks may kill without even noticin'. It depends on what gets in the way. When Bjorn-sensei saw me in the neko-ken, he knew I was a berserk. And he spent a solid month trainin' me to get some control over it. I still have a lot to learn.
"Now Ryoga, do you know any other berserks? I think I know two: you an' Akane. When Akane gets carried away with her mallet, she's berserk. When you get carried away in a fight, you're berserk. And you don't think of anythin' but yer fight. That first time you went at me at Furinkan? You damn near chopped Akane's head off, instead of just her hair. You've knocked down trees and walls, you've destroyed cars, you've damaged houses. That's not how a martial artist behaves, and I ain't gonna put up with it. I might be able to live through your attacks – no guarantee. You start endangerin' bystanders, and I'll put you down like a mad dog. Because really, only a berserk stands a chance o' takin' out a berserk.
"I'm tryin' to train Akane to come to terms with her Mallet, just like I'm comin' to terms with my Cat. I don't think I could teach you, but I could put you in touch with Bjorn-sensei. What'cha say?" She smiled into Ryoga's horrified face. "You really oughta study under him. He's a lot tougher than I am, an' they got a lot o' wilderness in Minnesota. He's a good sensei, and it's a good place to train."
This was a lot more "prepare to die" than Ryoga was prepared for. He fainted. When he came to, Ranma was gone. There was a name, address, and phone number in Minnesota tucked in his pocket. Ryoga wandered off, thinking furiously.
"Well, Saotome, the wanderer returns. Just what did you do to upset my sister so?"
Ranma smiled at Nabiki, put her finger to her nose. "That," she said, "is a secret." She laughed at Nabiki's flash of indignation. "Th' old ghoul did that to me a couple days ago. I thought it was worth repeatin'."
"I don't like it when you keep secrets from me, Saotome. I'll find out sooner or later, you know."
"Oh, I'm sure o' that. But I have ways of findin' things out, too. Right now you're not sure what ta think o' me. Half o' you is worried, and th' other half is a bit turned on. I think y' like a fella you can't boss 'round." Ranma looked down at her, mmmh, definitely non-fellowish form, and added, "…or whatever I am right now." Nabiki's face flamed scarlet. That shot had gone right through the Ice Queen façade.
Ranma smiled. "Thanks a lot for helpin' us, Nabiki. Th' whole thing is compl'cated, but we'll work it out. I feel a lot safer with you on our side." And Ranma went upstairs to the room she shared with her father, leaving Nabiki downstairs with open mouth.