In Beijing, Genma was offloaded from the plane into a warehouse. He sighed with satisfaction when he saw the tanuki's cage set down some distance off. He immediately sank into the deep sleep he'd been missing for days. He wasn't awake to see an unobtrusive woman swap out his bill of lading.
In the morning, he was roused when his cage was taken up by fork-lift and put into the belly of another plane. Good, he thought. They're shipping me out of Beijing. The boy must have succeeded in diverting me.
Several hours later, as the plane jolted up-and-down in turbulence, Genma reconsidered the 'good' part of his thoughts. But eventually it landed a much smaller airport this time and Genma was back on the forklift express. He huffed a bit, breathless, and couldn't decide whether he should be annoyed at the cold, or grateful for his fur. The air was dry and thin. He had the uneasy suspicion that mountains were in his future and with his luck, the Bayankalas.
A bored, sun-browned workman in heavy garments scooped raccoon chow from the nearly-empty bag and dumped it in his bowl, then refilled the water bottle. That man looks positively Tibetan, Genma thought. He was left alone for hours, to contemplate the uncommonly-dark sky at the zenith. Another fork-lift, and Genma and his cage were on a large, dusty truck. Other cargo was loaded on sacks of rice, agricultural machinery, several bicycles, wooden crates labeled with stenciled Chinese and a tarpaulin was thrown over the back and snugged down. Genma could see a bit out of the back, where the canvas wasn't completely tight mostly road, but when the truck went around corners he could see some landscape to the sides.
They traveled all day and through the night. The road was winding and rough; the truck jounced and slid. Sometimes Genma saw rocks, sometimes positively hair-raising crevasses and precipices with mountains in the distance.
In a tiny and disheveled town, the cage was transferred to a much smaller truck which had obviously once had an intimate relationship with a mountain-goat, or perhaps a yak. It was parked outside of a tavern Genma smelled the beer, yearned for a taste. Finally the small truck's driver came out, mug in hand, stumbling and laughing with half a dozen friends. He got into the drivers' seat, started the engine, and drove up a mountain trail singing at the top of his lungs in Mandarin. Genma's cage was uncovered. He could see where he was going. He could look over the side and see where he might go, if the driver were careless and lurched to the left. Now Genma was really yearning for a drink: this trip would pass better with anesthesia.
Eventually, all trips end. Genma's cage was deposited on the ground in the middle of the Joketsuzoku village. Women came to interrogate the driver. He shrugged, and held out a clipboard. There was more discussion, pointing at Genma and the cage, and though he knew little Mandarin, Genma heard the word for 'panda' quite a few times. He'd learned that word fast enough on his last visit. Eventually an Elder signed the papers. The driver got back in the truck, and drove away.
Genma was surrounded by Amazons, questioning, arguing, gesticulating. Finally one of the Elders said something definite, pointing back into the village. A cheer went up from the tribe, and the women streamed away and got back to the serious business of battle-practice.
Several men came out, wearing aprons and carrying a huge cauldron. They hung it from a tripod over the central firepit. One man the one with the knives and a cleaver came over to examine Genma while the others began hauling water. Another man, scruffy and ill-smelling, came from what was obviously a tannery on the downwind side of the village; he too looked Genma over.
Genma's estimate of the situation had gone from 'bad' to 'dire' and was currently sinking past 'angry Nodoka'. It looked like he was in for a feast that would be even more trouble than the first one he'd had here. Well, hey-ho he was in familiar territory at last; and this cage was made to hold a wild panda, not a martial artist.
When all the men were busy building a fire, except for the man with the knives who was chopping vegetables, Genma quietly put a few vacuum blades through the far side of the cage and crept off down the trail, cloaked in the umisenken.
As Genma disappeared, the Jusenkyo Guide, who was enjoying tea and a pipe with several of the Elders, said "Too too sorry, Mister Customer not want to stay for feast in his honor. Not even stay for us heat water to change him back."
The Elder Lilac rocked back-and-forth with laughter. "We must thank Cologne for sending him. It's nice to have outside entertainment now and then. He won't be nearly as much fun if he ever learns Mandarin." A chuckle went around the small circle. A serving-boy topped off everybody's teacups.
When Ranma, Akane, and Nabiki got home from school on Thursday, they found Soun and Kasumi chatting happily with Mao, while Bjorn was looking around and reading body language. "Bjorn likes the dojo," Mao said. "He may need someplace larger later on, but it'll be fine for early tests. It has excellent atmosphere."
"That's good," Ranma said. "There will be others visitin' on Saturday. Elder Cologne of the Chinese Amazons will be evaluatin' several of us; and I've found another berserk. This one is a shape-changer, but neither of his forms are human. We'll have a busy time. Movin' to a different place would make it even busier."
Mao translated that for Bjorn, who raised his eyebrows. "How did you meet this other berserk?" he asked in English.
Ranma replied without waiting for the translation. "He is cat. Was introduced by other cats." Mao translated for the non-English speakers.
Bjorn smiled in approval. "You're learning fast," he said. Again Mao translated.
Kasumi stood, and bowed. "If we are to have dinner, I must cook. Bjorn-sensei and Mao-san have agreed to eat with us. Since Bjorn is here to meet Akane, perhaps you would all like to adjourn to the dojo while you wait?"
Everybody agreed with that, once it was translated around.
Ranma and the Tendos bowed to the spirit of the dojo. Mao and Bjorn followed suit. Then Ranma said "warm up," and she and Akane began to do katas. Nabiki and Mao retired to the side, where they talked quietly. Bjorn started a few stretches to limber up. Soun was watching Ranma, Akane, and Bjorn like a hawk, reading their states of readiness.
After a while, Ranma thought she was ready. She spoke in Japanese, to Soun and Akane. "Bjorn-sensei is not a martial artist. He is a shapechanger, berserk, brawler, and warrior. I should spar with him first, to show you what you'll be gettin' into." She stepped into the center of the dojo, and Bjorn stepped out before her.
Soun raised his hand, then dropped it. "Begin."
Bjorn and Ranma circled each other casually. Occasionally one would make a feint to judge the other's reaction. After a minute or so of this, Ranma charged for Bjorn, then tucked-and-rolled under his legs and got him from behind. But she'd done that in their first fight, back in Minnesota, and Bjorn was expecting it. His hands came around as his body twisted, and he got one of Ranma's ankles as her kick sank home. She managed to kick his hand loose with her other foot, but he'd given her body enough momentum that it came whizzing past. She got an elbow into his ribs as he wrapped his right arm around her waist and squeezed. Then even as she put her heel into his kneecap he grabbed her right arm with his left hand. Going with the pain in his knee he fell forward onto Ranma, and the air exploded out of her with a *whoof* as a hundred-fifty kilos of Bjorn crushed her.
Dazed as Ranma was, Bjorn hadn't landed all that well either, and he'd twisted his arm. Ranma squirmed out from under him before he could react, and was halfway across the dojo before Bjorn regained his feet. "He prefers to grapple," Ranma told their audience. "He's part bear, and bears love wrestlin'." And she began to bounce about the dojo like a superball on amphetamines.
One of the bounces connected with the back of Bjorn's head, both feet. She wasn't kicking hard enough to do serious damage, but it rang his chimes a bit anyway. The second time she came at him, she went for his midriff but instead of dodging or blocking, he opened his arms wide and accepted the kick, then enfolded her before she could bounce off. And he managed to wrap her into a rather small red-haired spheroid before she could do much of anything. Ranma only had one hand free, and while she could have gotten off a devastating crotch-shot with it, she held back. She knew what that was like from her other form, and she liked Bjorn. So she just said "crotch shot" and Bjorn nodded and let her loose.
"That was a tie, I think," he said. "Want to go up a level?"
Ranma nodded 'yes', and Bjorn turned to Mao. "I'm going to go bear," he said. "We're escalating. My bear form is a lot tougher, and it heals better."
To Ranma, Bjorn said, "Take a few minutes, then use your claws. They need to see what your claws can do, and that I can take that kind of damage. But make it a shallow wound. We don't have to overdo it."
Ranma crouched down and twitched her fanny. "Yesssssss," she said, and Soun could see a ki-tail lashing furiously. Bjorn shifted into a bear, and growled more seriously than Genma ever had. His teeth gleamed wetly. Everybody stepped as far back as they possibly could; Nabiki stood in the doorway ready to escape if it came to that. It sounded like everything would be under control, but a girl can never be too careful Kasumi popped her head in the door she'd heard the growl in her kitchen then left again.
Bjorn reared up and roared, while Ranma vanished into a snarling blur. There was a slapping noise as she hit his nose, then dodged back; Bjorn swiped with his claws but missed. Ranma was buzzing around him it almost looked like the cloud of bees back at the bee-tree and delivering slap after slap. But Bjorn caught Ranma with the back of his paw and knocked her across the room into a training dummy, which fell in shreds as Ranma used her claws to gain traction on it. She darted back towards Bjorn, then past him, and his left shoulder suddenly had long, bleeding gashes in it.
They stopped, and bowed to each other. Now that Ranma was still, the Tendos could see that she, too, had claw-marks on her left arm and side. They weren't bleeding, but they were there. Bears have claws too.
Ranma and Bjorn stood side-by-side, while Ranma explained. "Thisss rrrreally wasss morre of a demonstrration," she said as she slowly emerged from the fringes of the Neko-ken. "Bjorn-ssenssei and I have sparrred enough to know how far we can go. You saw how he was bleedin'? My claws did that. It's why I don't spar seriously any more. But the blood has already stopped. Were-bears heal real fast."
Ranma went to Akane, took her by the hand, and brought her to stand before Bjorn. "This is Tendo Akane, Bjorn-sensei. She's stronger than I am, but not as fast, and likes to grapple. When she gets angry, she creates a war-hammer as her weapon."
Then Ranma spoke to Akane. " Bjorn-sensei is a berserk like we are, but he's mastered it. He only goes totally bear in the most desperate fights. He heals rapidly and well, so you needn't hold back. Try to use your mallet on him without losin' control."
Ranma positioned them facing each other, then stepped back. She raised her hand, then dropped it. "Begin."
Akane stood there, hands clenched, face twisted up, marshalling her anger. Not as fast, indeed! Try not to lose control! A livid green glow began to rise about her, and when Bjorn darted forward and smacked her in the rear, her mallet flickered into existence.
Ranma smiled to herself. It looked like Bjorn wouldn't even begin to fight until they'd helped Akane goad herself into her berserk. And there she went!
She leaped forward, shouting "I've had enough of bears!" and took a two-handed swing at Bjorn's head. On Ranma, that would automatically have been a hit but Bjorn didn't love Akane, didn't have Ranma's inhibitions. His huge paw swept out, and knocked the mallet across the room. Akane wasn't just her mallet. She grabbed that huge paw, turned and bent, and threw Bjorn several meters in the opposite direction from her mallet.
Even as the old mallet shrank and dwindled, a new one grew in her hands. Bjorn came roaring back, but this time she nailed him; and while he was shaking his head to clear it, she malleted him in the midriff and sent him out the door into the night. Nabiki barely dodged in time. Bjorn hit the ground and rolled. Then he lay still.
In the light spilling from the dojo, the sight of her unmoving opponent shook Akane out of her rage. "Did I hurt him?" she cried, and ran towards the bear.
The bear had been playing possum. He sat up, and held one paw out towards Akane, palm first. "Enough," he rumbled; and Ranma translated.
"Whew!" Akane gusted out, and slumped. The bear climbed to his feet, and took her right hand in both paws. "Definitely a berserk," he said, "and a powerful one."
Akane was staggering the journey back from berserk really took it out of her and Ranma and Nabiki each supported her by one shoulder, back into the house and onto the sofa. But Ranma still had one more thing to do. She'd scented another cat, a familiar cat, and her ki senses had confirmed it.
"Luna-san?" Ranma said to the darkness outside of the door. "Will you come in and join us for dinner?"
Luna walked in, with all the dignity a noble cat of the Moon Court could muster, but spoiled the effect by complaining. "A black cat is supposed to be a good spy," she said.
"Only if the person you're watchin' doesn't have a sharp nose," Ranma replied. "I've told ninjas the same thing when they complained."
Ranma turned to go back into the room with Luna, and found everybody (except Akane) staring at them. "What?" she said. "We got signin' pandas, talkin' bears, knife-throwin' ducks, and a boy that turns into a girl. A talkin' cat is that hard to believe?"
"Knife-throwing ducks?" Mao said, then translated for Bjorn's benefit.
"Fer heaven's sake, Mao, you're a talkin' cat three nights a month. Mao, this is Luna. She's a Moon Cat. Luna, this is Chang Mao. She's a were-cat, and changes with the moon. The two of you got things in common."
Luna put one paw to her forehead and sighed. "I thought Minato ward was unusually strange. Now that I'm getting to know Nerima, I still think Minato is strange. But I'm not as sure about the 'unusual' part." Ranma chuckled, and Akane perked up a bit and smiled at the cat.
Luna walked over to Akane where she lay, and jumped lightly onto her stomach. "Using that mallet is rough on you," she said. "I'm glad to see you cheering up again."
Akane stroked Luna, and she curled up and began purring. "It's not using the mallet that does it," Akane said. "It's coming back down, and realizing where my mind had to go to use it. It's not a nice place. Thanks for helping me ground myself."
Ranma came over and sat on the floor next to the sofa. She put one hand on Akane's shoulder, stroked Luna with the other. "I know what ya mean, Akane," she said. "You wouldn't wanna go where I had to go to use the neko-ken, either. 'Member how I always had to nap afterwards?" And then Ranma relayed the conversation to Bjorn.
"With some training, you may learn to love your mallet," Bjorn said. "You just need to move it into your life, instead of saving it for, er, special occasions. Look how well Ranma gets along with cats these days." Since Ranma and Luna were both purring, nothing more had to be said.
At this point, Kasumi called them to dinner, and a good meal was had by all. Kasumi hadn't planned for Luna, but a bit of sashimi on a plate filled her needs quite nicely.
Conversations wandered off in all directions. Ranma, Luna, and Mao discussed interesting smells, and where they were to be found. Nabiki and Bjorn talked about running a business, with occasional side-inquiries from Kasumi over Were cuisine, and how it changed with the moon. Ranma demonstrated Anything-Goes eating for Bjorn, but stopped when he growled. Soun and Akane talked about the testing in the dojo. Cologne, Shampoo, and the Cat Cafι were discussed, and shield-sisterhood.
Soun was uncertain about his Akane learning martial arts from Cologne, let alone Bjorn, but he couldn't deny that he hadn't been teaching her very well since his wife died. And Ranma thought she could see a bit of determination in his face as he came to that realization. Maybe he's starting to come out of his despair, she thought.
After a pleasant evening, Ranma walked to the hotel with Bjorn and Mao. She didn't want them to get lost in a strange place, and it was a welcome chance to prolong the conversation with her friends. Luna came along at Ranma's request.
At the door, Ranma said that she and Akane would be coming home after school. "And then we can go to the Cat Cafι for dinner," she added. "You should meet Shampoo and Elder Cologne before we all get together on Saturday. If you're at the dojo, we'll leave from there. Otherwise, we'll be over here about 6:30 to get you. It's an easy walk." She and Bjorn hugged each other, and Ranma rubbed cheeks with Mao. Then they parted.
When they were well away, Ranma spoke to Luna. "Let's go someplace we can talk in private," she said. "Mind me carryin' you? It'll be an excitin' ride."
"Akane has already carried me," Luna said. "I hope it won't be any more exciting than that."
Ranma swept Luna up into her arms. "More exciting, but shorter," she said as she leaped onto the roof of a nearby shopping arcade. They went well away from the edge, and found a nice pipe to sit on. (She had no intention of sitting directly on a tar-and-gravel roof.)
"It was encouragin' to find you at the dojo tonight," Ranma said. "Checkin' out the lay of the land ahead of time is good strategy."
Ranma could smell embarrassment from Luna. "You caught us flat-footed ." she said. "It frightened us. If you knew that much the day after meeting us, who else knows what else?"
Ranma smiled, her teeth in the moonlight clear to Luna. "We didn't know as much as you think. The shrine, and the names and faces o' five teenage girls and two cats. Cologne used those to tease the rest of the info out a' you. She's a real good interrogator."
"But how did you know even that?"
"Black cats are supposed to be good spies," Ranma said, imitating Luna's voice as well as she could. "But Amazons are trained for it. Shampoo followed you in her cat form."
Luna scowled. "She was that young pinky-lavender cat I saw?"
Ranma nodded. "Right now only me, Akane, Shampoo, and Cologne know your connections. Everybody else just knows I'm friendly with a talkin' cat. Around here, that's normal. Knife-throwin' ducks, don't forget."
"What is it with the duck?"
"Well, you've seen me turn from girl to boy, and back again. It's a curse I got at the Pools of Sorrow in Jusenkyo, China. There are lots of curses at Jusenkyo. Shampoo fell I got a suspicion she was pushed into a pool that gives her a cat curse. My father landed in the panda pool, a boy named Mousse from Shampoo's village fell in the duck pool, I know a guy landed in the Little Black Piglet pool. Then there's Taro, and Asura. Let's just say 'tentacle monster' and 'terrible goddess' and move on. Most of 'em come by Nerima now an' then.
"Mousse, he's a master of Hidden Weapons. He can pull a poleaxe outa his sleeve. But ducks are smaller, so when he's a duck, he pulls out knives. He could prob'ly still pull the poleaxe, but a duck isn't strong enough to use one. Come t'think of it, I ain't seen him lately. Wonder what he's up to?"
Luna sighed. "We could use an armed duck for reconnaissance and air cover. The daimohn just keep on coming. None of them seem to fly, but the witches like heights. It's hard to get at them from the ground."
Ranma chuckled. "Oi, do you have the wrong duck! He's so near-sighted he flirts with telephone poles because he can't tell 'em from the gal he wants."
"A real friendly-fire problem?"
"You got it, except he ain't always that friendly. Not that it improves his aim."
But then Ranma got serious. "We gotta talk about secrets. We got 'em, you got 'em. Neither of us want 'em to spread. What are we gunna do on Saturday? I mean, you're just a talkin' cat, no problem. If you bring Rhett Butler Bjorn-sensei wants to meet him he'll be just another cat, with more power than most. But Cologne wants to meet a couple o' your gals, too. Do we want people knowin' the Senshi are around, or seein' their other forms? And Shampoo will be in Minato with your friends. We got troubles of our own, we don't need your witches identifyin' her and sneakin' around Nerima lookin' for us."
Luna thought a minute, then another. She smiled a cat-smile, and did a backflip into the air. A small rod rattled onto the gravel roof. Ranma picked it up, and looked it over. "A pen?" she said.
"It's a disguise pen," Luna corrected. "We only have a few, but this is a good time to use them. Think of the disguise you want. Hold the pen up, say 'Moon Disguise Power', then release it gently into the air."
Ranma thought a moment, got a crooked smile, and did so. The pen spun, shooting out stars which surrounded Ranma as she was lifted into the air and silhouetted in moonlight. After a moment the light-show ceased, and Nabiki Tendo lowered gently to the ground.
"Hey!" Ranma-Nabiki said indignantly. "You didn't say anything about naked!"
Luna snickered. "A disguise isn't as good if you let other people see you putting it on. The Moon Kingdom gave users some, er, incentive to disguise themselves in privacy."
Ranma grumped, but couldn't argue with that. Good thing I don't have much feminine modesty, she thought. (She'd been starting to learn it, these last few weeks as a girl. It hadn't sunk in.)
"The disguise stays as long as you keep the pen on your person. It even fixes your touch and voice and smell the Moon Kingdom cats had sharp ears and noses. Shampoo, Ami and Makoto can disguise themselves. Then all we need is a little discretion. So get this pen to Shampoo before Saturday."
"I like it. What kinda limits do these pens have?"
"Well, you're still you, with the same strength and abilities. Pick a disguise about the same size, shape, and behavior as your normal self. You can't disguise yourself as an elephant or a mouse, but you might succeed as a trained chimpanzee if you walked bowlegged."
"I c'n see it. I'll write signs and learn to play shogi "
And then Ranma-Nabiki and Luna sighed, leaned back, and watched the stars for a while. The moon was about a quarter up the sky, several days past full. Luna raised a paw to it. "Up there," she said. "Above the middle, and a little to the right. That's the Sea of Serenity. The capitol of the Moon Kingdom was in the mountains to the south. We had a lovely view of Earth. I came to Earth a few times. From here, the Moon was blue, with green and amber for our crops and white from the clouds. It looked like Earth still does."
Luna fell silent again. Ranma moved closer to her, rested her hand on Luna's shoulder. The cat began to cry. Ranma picked her up and held her to her breast, Luna's head resting on her shoulder. Ranma stroked, stroked, until the cat hiccuped, then fell silent.
"What happened?" Ranma asked gently, after a while.
"Queen Beryl and the Dark Kingdom happened. She tried to conquer it all, and destroyed so much that the magic couldn't hold. There were people living on all the moons and planets, but when the magic died, everything died. Earth was the only place people could live without magic, and even here, most of the people died and the rest fell into barbarism for thousands of years. Everything done by magic was undone. Cities crumbled, crops withered, the air went away.
"My poor world, my poor people! There are only two cats left, only a handful of humans me and Artemis and my princess and her court." The cat began to cry again.
Ranma couldn't say anything, but she could hold Luna. She did, until the cat fell silent, and beyond.
"I'm sorry," Luna said at last. "I've tried so hard to be strong for my princess, for my Artemis. Give me a sympathetic ear, and I fall apart."
"D'you want me to walk you home? You shouldn't be by yourself. You already have too much of that."
"Could you? I don't want to be alone. But this is important, Ranma, this is why we fight. Queen Beryl came back, about a year ago. She tried again. We pushed her back into the Dark Kingdom, sealed her overlord Metallia away again, but she could have done it all over. We can't let it happen. Those are the stakes," she said, as she moved her paw over the glowing cityscape of Tokyo, then lifted it to point at the barren Moon.
Sombrely, Ranma dropped her disguise. She walked to the edge, stepped over, landed gently on the ground with Luna still on her shoulder. Ranma began walking towards Minato ward.
Ranma crept into the Tendo home around three in the morning. She didn't get much sleep. At breakfast, Akane wanted to know what was wrong. "Your appetite just isn't there. You have shadows under your eyes."
"I was up late, talkin' with Luna. I'll tell you more on the way to school."
"Wait a minute, Saotome," Nabiki said. "What can a cat say that's so unsettling?"
Ranma turned to Nabiki. "It's Luna's story to tell. Until then " Ranma thought, then held her hand out. " ten million yen."
Ranma looked at her, silently, and there was no laughter in her eyes.
" isn't it?"
Ranma shook her head.
Ranma nodded. "We're holdin' this close to our chest, and there isn't any money in it. But it's ten million yen worth o' serious, and more." Nabiki was far from content with that, but it was all she was able to get.
Soun wanted to know what Ranma had gotten his daughter into. "It's a martial artist's duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves," Ranma replied. "I can't ignore that. I don't think Akane can, either. We may need you teaching, but we'll see how that works out."
Kasumi was concerned in a more practical way. She'd seen Ranma picking at her food. Whatever her mood, her appetite would not be long denied. She went into the kitchen and added several sushi rolls with tuna and wasabi to Ranma's bento. They'd come in useful before the day was out.
The day was bright and chill. With no blanket of cloud the night before, the land's warmth had leaked away. The chill fit Ranma's mood. At the same time it got her blood moving, so she was both introspective and restless. Akane walked by her side; Ranma had learned silence during her training in the Northwoods, and Akane had taken to it also.
Ranma extended all her senses. Nobody close enough to overhear. She sighed. "Akane, I'm so glad we're set to marry in a week."
"Nani?" This was not what Akane expected to hear.
"Monsters, Akane. The world ended ten thousand years ago. The whole solar system was inhabited. Then the Dark Kingdom invaded, and everybody died, except for a few here on Earth. Luna really is a Moon Cat, from the Moon Kingdom. All that's left of her world are two cats, and a handful of humans. I've never heard such loneliness, as when she was telling me.
"It almost ended again, about a year ago, when the Dark Kingdom returned. Back then, you and me were still fightin', tryin' to protect ourselves from gettin' too close to each other. If the world had ended, we'd never have gotten together."
She touched Akane's hand. "Stay around, will you?"
"With my tomcat? Of course."
"And with my tomboy." The banter raised Ranma's mood a notch. She smiled at Akane. "Not much of a tomcat right now," she said. "And the way things are goin', it'll stay this way durin' the day. But I can be a tomcat for you at night." She sighed. "Hot water is startin' to chase me, now, and cold water is ignorin' me. I think the curse wants me spendin' time in both forms. I'll be glad when we're married, and I'll have a reason to be a guy. Besides bein' born one, I mean."
They walked for a while, then Akane said. "In a week, we'll find out what's been putting that smile on Ukyo's face."
They entered the gates of Furinkan, and saw Kuno Tatewaki. They came up to him, surrounded him, hugged him. "Thanks for agreeing to be there for us," they said. Then they continued on into school.
"What was that all about?" Tatewaki said. As did everybody else who'd seen it. Not that Kuno minded; and Nabiki made quite a bit on bets that day. But she didn't sell information, because she didn't have enough.
Ranma and Akane made it to the hotel by 6:30. Bjorn and Mao were in the lobby Mao reading brochures about local attractions, Bjorn making notes in a small spiral book. Bjorn stood to greet them. "I've been doing e-mail and the internet," he said. "I have ideas about sledges and hammers. They might work for mallets."
Ranma translated for Akane, but needed help from Mao the English words for striking tools don't map perfectly into Japanese.
The autumn day had warmed considerably from morning, but the evening was chill again. Most of the pedestrians, including Ranma and Akane, had jackets, and Mao a coat, but Bjorn didn't bother. Ranma wondered if that were custom, comfort, or bragging Bjorn came from a cold place and had both bear and warrior in his system. Ranma could have warmed herself with ki; but her red hair made her stand out enough without further advertising.
The Cat Cafι was a warm and well-lit haven from the darkness. Most of the booths and tables were already taken, but Shampoo led them to a reserved table with room for half-a-dozen. Ranma did the introductions in a mix of English and Japanese. "Bjorn and Mao, this is Shampoo of the Amazons, shield-sister to Akane and myself. And this is Cologne, Matriarch of the Amazons and our adoptive great-grandmother. Cologne and Shampoo, this is Njalsson Bjorn, Master of the Bear-claw, and Chang Mao, who is travelling with him and serving as his translator."
Everybody bowed in greeting, and Mao murmured a few words in Chinese. But Mao spoke Cantonese while Cologne and Shampoo spoke Mandarin, so everybody ended up using Japanese and English.
"We're full, so we won't have more customers for a time," Cologne said. "We'll have the last meals out in a few minutes, and then Shampoo and I can sit with you."
"Let me help, Grandmother," Ranma said. "Shampoo can sit n' talk. She won't have as much time with Bjorn-sensei as you and I."
"Why thank you, Ranma," Cologne said. "Have you decided to come back to work here?" They were heading towards the kitchen as they spoke.
"I think I'll be too busy for that," Ranma said. "You need another talk with Luna to see what th' stakes are. Can't Mousse help? Come t'think of it, where is he?"
Cologne ladled out several bowls of ramen, then scattered chicken strips and scallions over them. She added bowls of rice to the tray. "His poor eyesight finally did him in," she said. "This is for table three. I'll tell you more when you're back in the kitchen."
Ranma took the tray, and the food, to table three. "You're not the waitress who took our order," the alpha male at the table noted.
Ranma smiled at least she was more than an anonymous servitor. "She's my sister. She's busy with family matters right now." She looked at the order, and distributed the food. Then she was back in the kitchen, watching Cologne toss sliced veggies into a wok. "Poor eyesight? Is he injured?"
Cologne indulged in a satisfied cackle. "Nope. Married. Remember Dowel? She was the other warrior on the challenge log with Shampoo, your first visit to the village." She broke an egg into the wok, mixed it with the veggies, added some pork.
"Oooh-KAY," Ranma said. "She was quite large and muscular, as I recall."
"Well, just like Mousse always had a thing for Shampoo, she always had a thing for Mousse. He was the only boy in the village who didn't flinch when he saw her."
"I can already tell where this is going."
"Heh-heh, it took her this long to save up for a trip to Japan. She arrived a week ago, tucked Mousse under her arm, and went back home. But she stopped by a love hotel first, to make sure the marriage was consummated."
"Poor Mousse. He should have ducked when he saw her coming."
Cologne leaned against the counter, laughing. "Ha! I didn't think you had that good a triple-entendre in you, Ranma!"
"Nani? What's a tribble-entender?"
Cologne pulled herself back together, and prepared another tray. "I'll tell you after you're married," she said. "Take this to table five. It's the last order for now."
By the time Ranma had distributed the food, Cologne had taken food to Bjorn's table, and was already seated across from him. Ranma made a quick circuit of the cafι to be sure the customers were okay, then went to Bjorn's table. She took the free chair they'd thoughtfully left between Akane and Shampoo.
" we don't have a village," Bjorn was explaining to Cologne. "We know our family, we know our neighbors, but we keep pretty well spread out."
"Well, who's in charge? Who enforces the rules?" Cologne asked.
"We don't have rules. We're bears. It'd be even worse than trying to herd cats." Bjorn looked over at Ranma. "How well do you herd, Ranma?"
"Not very well," she smirked. "But Cologne already knows that. I'll give my allegiance, but nobody can claim it otherwise."
Cologne sighed. "It doesn't sound like you'd make disciplined fighters."
Bjorn laughed. "A berserk can't be disciplined, and a Were doesn't need it. We thrive on chaos. I love going up against disciplined fighters. They make a fine target, standing there in formation."
Ranma spoke up. "He doesn't fight like us. We were sparrin' yesterday, an' he left his belly open. I went for it, and next thing I knew, he had me rolled into a ball. He'll take a hit to get an advantage he heals fast enough to get away with it."
Cologne shook her head in disbelief. "I'll have to see this, tomorrow." She thought a bit, then added, "Amazons can't fight like that. Our healers are good, but they can't do their best work in the middle of a battle. And there aren't enough of us to risk accepting damage if we can help it."
Ranma smiled as she ate, then launched a diversion. "It's good food, granny, but you already know my tastes. Akane, Shampoo, I've been told it's the custom for new shield-sisters to gift each other. This all happened in a rush, so I wasn't ready. But I've been workin' on it, and made something for Bjorn-sensei while I was at it."
Ranma reached into a pouch, and removed a small ivory bear. "I carved this for you with my claws, Bjorn, in memory of our time in the Northwoods. It's what we call netsuke."
Bjorn accepted it, turned it over in his hands. "Why, this is me! You even have my smile right! Thanks ever so much! But where did you get ivory, Ranma? It's illegal, these days."
"It's really tagua nut, 'vegetable ivory'. Carvers have used it for netsuke for many years it's an ideal size and shape, and it grows on trees. Bjorn, how do you know what your smile is like? They don't have mirrors in the woods!"
"Silly Ranma! I own a Were bar. There's a very large mirror behind the bar, and much of the time I'm looking in it."
Ranma flushed a bit in embarrassment, then pulled out a small netsuke of a bobcat. "This is for you, Shampoo. It's a cat I met in the Northwoods, the first one in years I saw without being afraid. You're a memorable cat, and I thought you might like to see another memorable cat in my life." Shampoo took it, and cooed over it.
"And finally," Ranma said, "This is for you, Akane." It was a small hammer, pierced for a thong so it could be worn about the neck. The head was large, and the handle tapered down to the end. It was incised with interlaced scrollwork.
"A Thor's Hammer!" Bjorn said. "Yes, that's the perfect gift!"
Akane shook her head, but took it. "I'd think you had too many bad memories of hammers," she said.
"I have a lot of bad memories of cats, too. But I'm over that now. It's a wish for your success." Ranma took out a narrow thong, and threaded it through the hammer-handle. She stood behind Akane. "Hold it where you think it belongs," she said, and tied the thong to the proper length. She snipped the loose ends off with her claws, then sat back down and admired it on Akane.
By now, everybody had eaten and there was a general buzz of conversation. Ranma made the rounds of the tables, and ran the cash register for a while. Then there was a lull. She went back to Bjorn's table. "You elders can discuss fighting and governance. But I have to talk with my sisters. Shampoo, could we go to your room?"
The three stood and bowed, and went upstairs. Shampoo closed the door, and she and Akane sat on the bed. Ranma stayed on her feet. "That mailbox we fought was just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "There's more where it came from, and backup. We need disguises if we don't want their attention on Nerima. And Luna gave me what we need. Ready for somethin' unbelievable?"
The other girls nodded. Ranma took the pen, thought a moment, held it high, and said "Moon Disguise Power." She was swept up into her henshin lightshow. After a moment, Kasumi settled gently to the floor. "Oh my, that was startling!" she said.
Shampoo was fanning her face with her hand, and Akane said, "Were you being perverted?"
Kasumi shrugged. "Nudity is part of the package." Then she did it again, and turned into Shampoo. "Aiyah, there two Shampoo in room! What happen?" She dropped the disguise, and was Ranma again. "We can look like just about anybody. Fix the disguise you want in your mind, say 'Moon Disguise Power', and release the disguise pen into the air."
Akane took the pen, and shortly Dr. Tofu stood there. "My, you two look healthy!" he said. "I hear Kasumi was just here?" He began to dither.
"I didn't think of that," Ranma-chan said with wide-open eyes. She took the pen and became Ranma-kun. He kissed Akane most thoroughly, then sniffed. "Doesn't work," he said. "Luna said the pen would translate smells, and I guess it's a two-way street. You still grab me by the nose this way, Akane." He dropped the disguise, and went back to being her. Then she fanned her face with her hand. "Ah, peace! Looks like I'll have to stay a girl during school. I wonder if the disguise can fool hot and cold water?"
Shampoo became Cologne. Ranma tried passing her hand through the air above her. It felt very strange. "Luna said we should pick a disguise roughly the same size and shape." They sat to discuss disguises, and decided to go for Yamaguchi Momoe, an idol singer who'd been out of the game for twenty years, but still was popular. She had glamour, and since the real Momoe had aged, they wouldn't be endangering her. As they were heading downstairs again, Ranma said, "Don't tell Bjorn or Mao. There are levels of secrets here."
At the table, Bjorn and Cologne were arguing furiously over the best way to run a restaurant, both of them ignoring a customer beckoning from table two. "Let those two talk," Ranma said. "I'll waitress, Shampoo can cook, and Akane can referee the table."
Afterwards, walking home from the hotel, Ranma took Akane's hand and led her into a park. It was another clear night, and the moon was large and orange upon the horizon. Ranma pointed to it. "Up there, upper right, near the shadowline. That's the Sea of Serenity, where the capitol of the Moon Kingdom used to be. You seen those pictures of Earth from space? Luna says that when she was young, the moon looked like those pictures. So we're in the big leagues now, dealin' with forces that can ruin a world, and forces that can fight 'em off."
"A martial artist's life is filled with peril," Akane said.
Ranma shuddered. "Don't do that. You sound too much like the panda." They left the park, walking a bit closer together than they had entering it, and went back to the dojo. Tomorrow would be a busy day.
Special thanks to Agramahad for suggesting Mousse's fate.