Once again, I found myself stuck with too many words going round in my head. I needed to take a break and let my subconscious write the next few chapters, so I decided to use a couple of days to knock out another part of the backstory for DSR. This takes place immediately after the events in Aftermath.

DSR will resume after the break.

Watching the two women, the young policeman couldn't quite decide whether to go over and ask whether they needed help, or to stay well out of it. This being Nerima, almost anything could happen in either case. It was a weird place, he'd discovered shortly after being posted here a few months ago, weirder than the stories he'd heard really did justice to, weirder even than Minato, which his cousin said was completely nuts.

Just on the verge of heading over, studying the short red-head who was clearly injured by the way she was leaning on the arm of her taller brunette companion, never mind the way there was blood visible slowly seeping through her shirt at her side, he froze when she looked in his direction, her brilliant blue eyes almost glowing with emotion. There was something in her gaze that spoke of a person pushed to the absolute limit, a person who was on the verge of snapping. He immediately decided two things; that the only reason she hadn't snapped was the woman helping her to the ticket machine, and that he had absolutely no desire whatsoever to find out what would happen if she did snap. The air of barely repressed danger surrounding her was appalling.

He finally worked out the other thing he'd subconsciously noticed but up until now hadn't been able to put into words, which was that both women were moving in a sort of bubble of space in the otherwise fairly crowded station, people almost unconsciously parting to flow around them, only the occasional station-goer seeming to even notice them, but all of them avoiding the two females by a clear metre or more. He saw that the odd person who did seem to register them moved out of their way with an air of worry, as if they were also picking up on the danger present.

Deciding that for a number of reasons it was probably best to let them go about their business without hindrance, he watched as the shorter woman talked quietly to the taller one, then shrugged, picking a destination on the machine in a way that looked more or less random, then feeding it with yen notes until it disgorged two tickets. Briefly looking at them she handed one to her companion then the pair moved off towards the platforms, the red-head glancing at him for a moment again before ignoring him completely. Shivering slightly with the feeling that disaster had somehow been only just averted, he turned and walked more rapidly than he'd intended in the exact opposite direction.

It was only when he came off his shift at the station that he heard something very unusual had happened at the Tendo Dojo, which was a peculiar place at the best of times, even for Nerima. Even then, no one got around to asking him if he'd seen the red-headed girl for a couple of days, by which time it was too late. Both she and the brunette had vanished completely.

Things became very frantic and confusing in Nerima for some while after that.

"We've got to get you to safety," the tired female voice said. After a long pause, a different, somewhat lower-pitched voice replied, sounding calm but firm.

"I'm staying with you. You're in no state to go off on your own right now, Ranma."

"Kasumi, it's not safe! All those idiots will be after me sooner or later, although hopefully not for a few days. I can hide, I think, but I'm not sure I can hide you as well. If they find us together... Well, you know what happens if I'm anywhere near a female when those fuckwits pop up."

Kasumi giggled a little, smiling at the smaller young woman leaning against her, her eyes shut and weariness across her features. Gently she brushed some brilliant scarlet hair from the girl's face. "I know. I don't care. We are going to find somewhere to stay, get a decent night's sleep, then in the morning work out what to do next. We're in this together. I thought I'd lost you, I'm not going to let that happen again."

Sighing slightly, Ranma nodded in defeat, but smiled a little. "OK. I'm too tired to argue right now." After a few seconds her brow creased, then her eyes opened, looking at the older woman beside her. "Lost me?"

Smiling more widely, Kasumi nodded. "It was only in the last few days I realised quite how bad that made me feel, but I've been building up to it for a long time now, I think. I finally admitted to myself that I made a horrible mistake that day you and your father arrived, a mistake I never though I'd be able to fix." Ranma stared at her. "Luckily, I was wrong. And there's no way I'm letting you get away again."

"Kasumi..." She put a hand on Ranma's mouth, silencing her.

"We can talk about it when we're both rested and you're healed up. You're still bleeding, you're exhausted, and we're both in shock from what happened earlier." Lowering her hand she looked the martial artist in the eye. "But I owe you my life. Thank you, Ranma, for saving me." After a second or two she hugged the smaller woman, carefully but hard, making Ranma aware for the first time that the eldest Tendo sister was shaking. Gingerly, both being careful of the half-healed wound in her side and somewhat gun-shy from the normal results of showing any signs of affection to a female, a reaction literally beaten into her for the last two years, Ranma gently put her own arms around Kasumi, holding her.

Shortly both of them were leaning on each other, crying gently, as years of frustrations and pain finally came to the surface, aware that they were both in the presence of possibly the only other person around whom they could let their guards down.

The train rolled steadily on into the darkness, taking then further and further from the hell their lives had become.

Blinking at the light, Kasumi looked around the inside of the small tent, puzzled for a moment until memories rolled back and made her relax with a faint sigh. They'd arrived at this small town several hours north of Tokyo just after midnight, disembarking alone, to find a deserted station. Ranma had told her she'd been here once before in her travels with her father, remembering that there was a forest which they could lose themselves in for a day or two not too far from the town. After a fifteen minute walk in the dark along a narrow road they'd entered the trees, heading away from the road and the town, until the martial artist had declared the small clearing they ran across as being good enough. The eldest sister had helped put up the tent then both of them had climbed inside, unrolling the single sleeping bag Ranma possessed and lying on it, before pulling a couple of spare blankets over them both.

Ranma had been somewhat embarrassed to lie next to Kasumi, but the older woman had simply smiled, then pulled her close. "It's OK, Ranma. It's too cold to worry about anything. We can talk about it tomorrow." Eventually the other woman relaxed, falling asleep soon after, followed minutes later by the Tendo woman, who still had a smile on her face, one more genuine than any she'd worn in the last few years.

Looking around she momentarily felt worried when she found Ranma missing, but, hearing some noises from outside the tent, relaxed again. A moment later a familiar head poked into the tent. The red-head smiled at her. "Good, you're awake. Would you like some coffee?"

Yawning, Kasumi nodded. "Yes, please, that would be very nice."

"Don't say that until you taste it," Ranma grinned, before disappearing again. Smiling, she flipped the blanket aside, sitting up, then crawling out of the tent and standing, straightening her clothes which were getting badly wrinkled.

"I'm sure it will be fine, Ranma," she replied, watching as her companion lit the small camp-fire she'd built with a tiny ball of ki, marvelling at the casual way she did something so odd. Shivering a little, she ducked back into the tent to retrieve one of the blankets, wrapping it around her shoulders. "What time is it?"

The martial artist glanced at her, then produced a mobile phone from somewhere and looked at it for a moment. "Half past six in the morning. Sorry, I was getting hungry." Ranma poked her side gently, then lifted her shirt, to reveal a nearly-healed yet still angry red wound. "Healing takes a lot of energy, I guess."

Moving closer Kasumi dropped to her knees, inspecting the wound closely. "That still looks very painful," she said, gently wiping the skin with the end of the blanket. A little dried blood flaked off, revealing that the gash was no longer bleeding even though the skin hadn't yet sealed over completely. "I'm still astounded how fast you heal," she added, sitting back. Ranma dropped her shirt again, shrugging a little as she turned to the fire, which was now well alight, putting a steel pot full of water in the middle of it.

"It surprises me a little sometimes as well. It's been getting steadily quicker for the last few years but really seems to have speeded up in the last ten months or so. Mind you, if it hadn't been for the technique I worked out while I was... relaxing... under that pile of crap I'd still have a huge hole there. Assuming I was even still alive." The last few words were said in a depressed, low voice, causing Kasumi to look at the red-head with worry, then reach out and put a hand on her shoulder.

"It's done. Don't keep dwelling on it. We have to think what we're going to do next, we don't have to think about what happened." Ranma put her own hand on Kasumi's without looking at her, although she smiled a little.

"We need to work out what to do about getting you somewhere safe, that's the main thing."

Kasumi sighed loudly and harshly, making Ranma twitch. "No, it isn't. The main thing is getting us both somewhere safe." She stared hard at Ranma as the other woman turned to look at her, surprise on her features. "You're still not listening. I'm not letting you go this time!"

"You can't come with me, Kasumi," Ranma started, "it's not safe..." The eldest sister shook the martial artist by the shoulder, shaking her head at the same time.

"No. You can't say anything that will convince me it's any safer to let you go off on your own. We left the Dojo together, we're staying together. Unless you didn't mean what that look you had when you offered me your hand seemed to tell me?" Turning, Ranma looked fully at her for a long moment, then sighed, closing her eyes.

"I just wanted to get away from there, and get you away as well. Neither of us could stay there any more, not after what all those stupid idiots did. Especially her." The young woman opened her eyes again, inspecting her companion, before turning back to the fire. "Aside from anything else, I made a promise I'd keep you safe and get you out of there. I always keep my promises."

Studying her for a moment, Kasumi asked curiously, "Who did you make that promise to?" she asked.

After a long pause, the reply came, "Doctor Tofu." Kasumi looked at the other woman, surprised.

"When did you promise Doctor Tofu that? He's been gone for well over a year."

"I met him about ten months or so ago, he was working in Minato at the time." Ranma looked somewhat guiltily at her. "I'm sorry I didn't mention it, but he asked me not to, and there were... other reasons as well that I didn't want to talk about for being in Minato."

Nodding slowly, the eldest sister studied her friend. Eventually she smiled a little. "Reasons such as being a temporary Magical Girl?" Ranma froze mid-motion, causing her to giggle, then peered over her shoulder with a panicked expression.

"Um, what?" she squeaked, before clearing her throat and trying again. "I mean, whatever makes you think that? What an odd thing to say. Me, a Magical Girl?" The red-head laughed lightly, although her voice quavered a little. Kasumi grinned.

"I thought you made a very good one. Although that costume was a little... revealing." She started laughing as the other woman went bright red, her face nearly taking on the colour of her hair. "But you have nice legs so it wasn't all bad, I suppose." The expression on Ranma's face nearly made her fall over.

"Oh, god," the martial artist moaned, covering her face. "How long have you known?"

"Known? Just now. But suspected? I had an idea you were involved months ago." Kasumi giggled as Ranma shook her head in despair. "How on earth did you end up running around Minato dressed like that fighting demons?"

"It... was sort of an accident. It all started that day Akane was in a particularly spiteful mood, you remember I didn't come home until late?"

Kasumi thought for a moment. "The day you were somewhat rude to her?" Ranma nodded, smiling slightly. "Ah. I see. I remember you had your hair down when you came back. I thought it suited you." She looked amused as the martial artist seemed embarrassed again. "I still think it suits you. But go on."

"Well, she knocked me right into the middle of Minato, into a park in fact, and I landed in a fountain. As usual. It was always water of some sort. I still can't work out how the hell she did that. Anyway, I was in a really shitty mood to start with, that was just the icing on the cake, and when I pulled myself out of the remains of the thing, I was right on the edge of doing something horrible to someone. Then I saw the demon..."

Ranma sighed a little. "I recognised the type. I've seen them before. Fought one, actually." Kasumi looked at her, surprised. "I haven't told everyone all the things I've had happen to me, not by a long shot. Some of them are embarrassing, some are things I promised not to talk about, and some... some, I just don't want to think about." She sighed a little, reaching for the instant coffee, adding a little to a couple of cups as the water came to the boil, then pouring some or the water into each cup. After a shot of long-life milk, she stirred each cup and handed one to Kasumi, who took it with a smile. "It'll be horrible but it'll wake us up," the martial artist said, sipping her own and making a face.

"I'm sure it will be fine, Ranma," Kasumi assured her, before tasting her own coffee.

There was a long pause.

"Oh, my..."


Gamely smiling, the eldest daughter of Soun Tendo tried again, drinking a quarter of the cup in one go. "It's... fine."

"No, it's crap, but it's got caffeine in it, which is the main thing," Ranma chuckled, drinking some more of her own coffee. "You don't have to be polite, I know how horrible it is."

"It's... not good," the other woman admitted with a smile, taking some more, then grimacing a little. "Go on with the story, perhaps it will take my mind off the taste."

"OK." The martial artist finished her cup, tossing the dregs into the bushes before setting it down, then leaned back against a tree next to the tent. "Basically, there was the demon, which was in a foul mood even for one of that type, and four magical girls. Aiko, Tamiko, Misaki, and Fumiko. Aiko was pretty badly hurt, she had a seriously broken leg, and Tamiko was injured as well, but still fighting. They weren't doing very well, all they'd managed to do was wind the demon up to the point it wasn't going to stop until they were dead, or it was, but they weren't good enough to deal with it." She sighed a little. "I stepped in. I'm ashamed to say I was really spoiling for a fight right then and took the whole thing as stress relief. In the long run it was probably a good thing, it most likely stopped me doing something horrible at home, but it wasn't... it wasn't exactly the most honourable thing to do." Ranma shrugged a bit, meeting Kasumi's eyes. "But I couldn't let it kill them either. So I stopped it. Very permanently."

They were both silent for a few seconds, during which Kasumi finished her own coffee, although with difficulty. It really wasn't very good at all. "When I was done, there wasn't anything left of the demon, just a crater in the park. I started walking home, or going somewhere, at any rate, I'm still not sure if I'd have gone home right away, but Fumiko came after me. We talked for a little then I went back with her." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "I'm not quite sure why, but for some reason I just felt I could trust them. It was a little weird. Four very attractive girls a little younger than me, wearing almost nothing, with very dangerous magic, but even with the past history I have with women, I didn't get the feeling it was going to end up the way it almost always did." She smirked a little, as Kasumi giggled. "You know what I mean."

"I do. I have no idea how you end up with them all chasing after you like that." The elder sister smiled sympathetically at her companion. "I assume that didn't happen this time."

"No. They more or less just accepted me. In fact, at the time, they thought I was a magical girl as well, for a while." Kasumi laughed again while Ranma smiled wryly. "I guess I can understand the confusion. I used some pressure points to help Aiko with the pain and slow the bleeding, then took her to see Dr Tofu. I'd found out where he was practising in Minato a couple of months before then, more by accident than anything else. It turned out Aiko can teleport, so even though she couldn't walk we got there in about five seconds."

"Teleport? Oh, my, that's remarkable," Kasumi exclaimed, fascinated.

"It was interesting, although it makes you feel a little sick the first time." Ranma shrugged, adding, "it wasn't anything particularly unpleasant for me, but apparently some people get it worse than others. Doc Tofu fixed her up, put her leg in a cast, then gave her some crutches to borrow. She was in the cast for about a month." The red-head looked at Kasumi for a moment. "He asked after you."

She returned the gaze for a moment, before looking at the ground. "What did you tell him?"

"That you were doing OK, all things considered." Pausing for a moment, Ranma went on slowly, "I asked him why he left Nerima." She paused again. Kasumi looked up.

After several seconds, she asked, "What did he say?"

With a small sigh, the martial artist told her, "He was seeing someone, it turns out. Another doctor, a GP from Minato. Nice woman. He... invited me to their wedding." Kasumi went still for a moment, then slowly nodded, smiling sadly.

"I... see."

"He said he missed you, but because of everything, he didn't see that there was any future between the two of you." Ranma was watching her sympathetically. "I know you liked him. And I know he more than liked you for a long time. I'm sorry."

"It would never have worked out, I'm afraid," The eldest sister smiled gently, remembering the funny doctor. "I did like him, although I think Akane had a bigger crush for a while, but he always acted so oddly... Poor man, he had real problems when he was around me. I didn't realise at the time, it was only after he left and I thought about it that I worked out he was reacting to me being there." She laughed a little. "I suppose I should take it as a compliment." After a moment's silence, she asked, "Did you go to his wedding?"

"Yes. It was very nice. You'd have liked it, I think. He said he wished he could have invited you, but..."

"I understand. Thank you for telling me." They were silent for a few minutes, Ranma leaving her to her thoughts while watching her. Eventually she shook her head once, smiling with a tiny sigh. "Oh well. I hope, one day, I can meet him again. Just to talk."

The martial artist grinned. "He'd like that, I think. They moved to the US for a few years, he got a teaching post at a university somewhere in Oregon. I've got the address somewhere. He's a good man, Doc Tofu. I miss the guy being around."

"So do I, Ranma." Kasumi picked up her cup and looked at it for a moment, just to have something to do with her hands, then put it down again. "So do I." Meeting the eyes of her friend she added, "Go on with the story."

"Well, when we left the Doc, Aiko and the other girls invited me to go back with them and talk, and get something to eat. I wasn't really in the right frame of mind to go home, I was hungry anyway, so it seemed like a good idea. I owed them an explanation, I'd promised to tell them what was going on." The red-head smiled reflectively. "Again, a little weird. None of that was really something I was eager to tell people normally, you know the sort of reaction showing the curse tends to provoke. For every person who's OK with it there are a dozen who treat me like a leper or worse. But I felt, for some reason, that they wouldn't react like that."

"What happened?" Kasumi asked curiously.

"They were surprised, true enough, but basically just accepted it. Possibly the only people who ever have." Ranma thought for a moment, then shrugged, an odd expression on her face. "Except for Nabiki, strangely enough. She never seemed to find it a problem either. A money-making opportunity, true, but then, everything is to her." The girl sighed a little as Kasumi nodded understandingly. "I can almost respect her, you know, despite all her flaws she's at least true to herself. I wish I could have been able to know her under different circumstances. I think we could have been friends."

Smiling slightly, Kasumi watched the other woman. "She changed when Mother died, I'm afraid. She was always the analytical one, terribly smart and watching everything, trying to work out how things worked. I think if Mother had lived she'd probably have ended up going into some form of scientific study. She has the raw intelligence and the drive to do anything she wants to. But, for several reasons, she ended up with this pursuit of profit. Even there, she could still make something of herself. She withdrew into herself for years after Mother died, the girl who finally emerged is someone who is too concerned with profit for its own sake to make me very happy. I hope, one day, she manages to overcome that. I love her very much, as I do with the others, despite everything. I'd like to see her become a better person."

Ranma listened, still looking thoughtful. "She's the one we'll have to hide from. Her and Cologne. None of the others are too much trouble, but both of them are... very dangerous, in different ways." She shrugged. "We'll have to think about it soon. Anyway, as I was saying, Aiko and the others just accepted it. I told them everything, the story of my life, all the trouble with the rivals and the fiancées, I showed them the curse, they watched, asked some very sensible questions, then simply asked if I'd like to be friends with them. No strings attached, no sudden fiancée attacks or anything like that," she grinned as Kasumi giggled, "just friends. People to talk to. You have no idea how much I wanted that."

After a second or two, Kasumi got up, moved next to Ranma, then sat again, taking one of her hands in both of hers. "I have a very good idea. I know how lonely you were. I did what I could myself, although I'm ashamed I didn't do more. I'm even more ashamed of how my family has treated you over the years." She smiled at the red-head, who stared at her, then her hands. "You've always had at least one friend. I'm very glad you have others."

"It was always something to look forward to, knowing I could talk to you without being judged, like Akane would do, or charged for it, like Nabiki would, or..." Ranma sighed heavily as she nodded, understanding the problem. "But even knowing I could talk to you, there were things I couldn't bring home. Things that, if they'd become known by any of those other people, would have caused me even more problems, and could have put you in danger, not to mention affecting other people who I didn't want to drag into that insane circus surrounding me. That's one of the reasons I never mentioned any of this before. Aiko and her girls have enough to do already without inflicting my own problems on them." She smiled for a moment, "Plus it was amazingly embarrassing. Ranma Saotome, a magical girl in Minato? Akane would have gone insane!"

Giggling, Kasumi nodded, her eyes bright with amusement. "I think that's understating it considerably. Although it might have been very funny." She inspected the person beside her with interest. "How on earth did they persuade you to wear those clothes?"

Looking mildly disgusted, Ranma replied, "They talked very fast, then used a low trick. They used friendship and trust against me." Kasumi laughed, as did the red-head. "I had no defence against it. No one ever tried that before."

She shrugged. "It was, and still is, embarrassing, but I don't regret doing it. Aiko and my cursed form are very similar in size and general build, so her uniform fitted perfectly. I filled in for her for a month or so, while training them all. When she healed up I trained her as well, went on a few more missions with them, then decided I needed to stop before someone found out. The Doc actually figured it out and I was beginning to wonder if you had, which made me worry about what would happen if Cologne did, or Nabiki." She shook her head. "I'd have paid for that for the rest of my life. Or possible with it."

"While I don't miss the clothing at all, I do miss the girls. It was fun, having people I could trust absolutely while we helped others. We even managed to help the demons, I think. Most of them turned out to be pretty harmless, a lot of them were just tourists, usually after ice-cream or coffee." Kasumi stared at her in wonder. "It's true. They love it. Apparently chocolate and coffee are hugely valuable where they come from. I found out there are even some demons who are buying it in bulk and taking it back through portals to their own worlds, trading gold and silver for coffee, chocolate, ice-cream, and a few other things. It sounds nuts but it's true."

"How very odd," the Tendo woman remarked.

"It's kind of weird, yes, but it makes a sort of sense. If two different people have something the other one values, there's some trade opportunities right there." Ranma grinned. "There was this one ice-cream shop owner that ended up selling a demon half his stock. He went from being terrified of her, wanting us to kill her, to very sincerely asking her to come back any time she needed more ice-cream. It was hysterically funny to watch."

"Did these other girls think it was strange?" Kasumi asked. Ranma nodded.

"At first. They were used to just jumping in and trying to either kill the demon or chase it back through a portal. All the magical girls do that. Minato is full of them, for some weird reason. But, I don't like killing, if it can be avoided, even demons. I've met some very nice ones." The girl looked amused at Kasumi's expression of wondering astonishment. "It's true. Yes, some are downright homicidal and need to be dealt with, but a lot of them, probably most of them, are basically just people. Pretty odd looking ones, true enough, but not hostile. One day I think I'd like to go through a portal and have a look around." She pondered the matter for a moment, nodding slowly. "That's a possible solution, if nothing else works out, actually. I do know one or two mages who could probably open a portal, I could go through one if all else fails, no one would ever find me."

"Find us." Kasumi's voice was firm, although she was nervous about the thought. Ranma glanced at her, then sighed again.


"I'm serious. I've been serious since I took your hand last night. You're not going anywhere without me. Never again."

Studying her closely, without speaking, the red-head eventually sagged a little. "Are you sure? I can't be certain I can protect you if any of the lunatics find us. I'll do anything I can, I'm damn good, but I'm not unbeatable. Cologne is extremely dangerous, so is Shampoo, or Mousse, or even Ryoga if he gets worked up enough. Kodachi is insane, Kuno is a dangerous idiot, Akane is simply a nightmare..." She sighed, shaking her head. "They're all nuts as well. Especially your sister."

Also sighing, Kasumi bowed her head. "Despite myself, I agree. Akane is... not a good person at the moment. She's been getting worse for some time. I hoped she might eventually work things out, but..." A tear leaked out of one eye, Ranma raising her free hand to gently brush it away. "I miss my little sister so much," the elder Tendo said in a low voice. "The person she used to be. She sometimes still is that person, but the angry, impulsive, dangerous one is the one you see more and more often. I'm terrified she's going to kill someone one day." She looked at Ranma, who smiled back. "If it hadn't been you who she fixated on and hit so much, she would have. I don't think anyone else could have taken it. Or would have taken it." She leaned against her companion, who after a moment put her arm around her shoulders. "I'm so sorry I let it go on for so long. I used you as much as Nabiki did, but to stop Akane becoming a murderer, not for profit."

Ranma smiled wryly. "I guess at some level I knew that. I wish it hadn't happened, but I forgive you, if you need forgiveness. I don't really want to see any of them ever again, especially her and dear old Pop, but I'm very glad we're still friends."

The pair sat in silence for a while, watching the fire burn down. "I'd like to be more than that," Kasumi finally said, not sure what the reaction would be but unable to help herself. The admission of what she'd been building up to for a long time came as a slight surprise to her, even as it made something inside relax. It was finally out in the open. She felt Ranma tense slightly. There was a long pause.

"I'm... not sure I understand," the other woman finally said.

"I want more than just to come with you," she said, putting it into words even as she was working it out to herself. "For a while now I've been becoming more and more sure I made a horrible mistake years ago, when Nabiki and I pushed you and Akane together. Like I said on the train, I intend to fix that mistake."

The martial artist stared at the fire for a moment longer, then looked at her. "You're saying...?"

"I'm saying that I think I love you." Kasumi thought about her words for a moment. "No. I'm sure I love you. It's much more than friendship. I don't want to let you go. I won't let you go, not again." Another pause followed her words, making her a little worried. She met the eyes of the person beside her, which were filled with confusion, worry, and not a little fear.

"I'm not sure how to respond to that," Ranma finally admitted.

"Don't worry, I know all too well what your past with women has been like, Ranma. I'm not going to push, but I'm not going to let you get away either, or push me away, not even if you think it's for my own good. I'm coming with you, wherever you go, even it it's through a portal to some weird demon world. And I'm not in any hurry. We can take our time, get to know each other, then see where it leads." She smiled serenely, suddenly sure of herself for the first time in the last four days. "I think it will lead to somewhere amazing."

"Can you love someone who turns into a woman all the time?" Ranma asked after another pause. "This curse isn't going away any time soon, probably ever. I've looked into it. There isn't a cure, I'm pretty sure of that, although I'll keep looking if you want. In all probability I'm going to spend a lot of my time female for the rest of my life. While I've more or less come to accept that, because of you, Aiko, and the others as much as anything, it's a lot to ask of you." She watched Kasumi with a concerned and rather worried expression.

The Tendo woman smiled back, releasing the grip she still had on her companion's hand with one of her own, raising it to touch her face gently. "Ranma, I love you, not whatever body you happen to be wearing at the time. I love the person inside that body. Male, female, anything, I don't care." The red-head stared at her for some time, then closed her eyes and swallowed hard.

"I guess, under the circumstances, it would be best if we stuck together, then," she said in a voice that trembled with suppressed emotion.

"What is our next step?" Kasumi asked, as she finished cleaning the last of the tin plates they'd used for breakfast. Glancing at her watch, she added, "It's still early. Hopefully none of the others at the Dojo have had time to start looking yet."

Ranma looked up from the pot of water she was heating on the embers of the fire. "I'm not sure. We need to figure out where to go, while we could stay here for a while, it's not an ideal place. Too close to the town. You're not used to camping out, either, not to mention you don't have any other clothes. Some of mine might fit but you're a little taller than I am even when I'm male. None of the female clothing I have stored away would come close."

Kasumi smiled widely. "You have female clothing? How... unmanly."

The martial artist looked narrowly at her, then snickered. "Quite. Yes, as you very well know, I have female clothing. You've washed most of it at one point or another."

"The leotard from that gymnastic competition you did against Kodachi was nice," Kasumi giggled. "And I remember some school uniforms, and some swimsuits..."

"And a couple of dresses, yes, I know, thanks," Ranma finished, looking mildly irritated yet still smiling. "The point is, none of them would fit you. I'm at least twenty-five centimetres shorter than you are like this, and still five or so less even when I'm male. You're a very tall woman."

"I'm not that tall," Kasumi protested, looking amused.

"You're no giantess, but you're not exactly short." Ranma grinned as she giggled again. "We need to find somewhere better than the middle of the forest. It would work for a few days, maybe a week or so, but I'm not planning on spending the rest of my life in a tent if I can avoid it."

"We can't go to any of my friends," Kasumi mused, "I know a few people from school who might put us up for a little while, but the problem is that Nabiki almost certainly also knows about them, the first thing she'll do is contact everyone I've ever met she knows about."

"And pretty much everyone I know is part of the damn problem," Ranma replied, sitting next to the fire. She frowned a little. "At least... Everyone in Nerima."

"Your friends in Minato?" Kasumi said, kneeling next to her.

"Yes. Aiko and the rest aren't anyone any of the people back home know about, or as far as I know they aren't." Ranma sighed. "I didn't want to drag them into this."

"From what you told me, they won't mind."

"No, they won't, I'm sure of that, but it's a lot to ask of them. They have their own lives to deal with." The red-head shook her head. "There are a couple of things I can try first. Before we do anything, though, what do we actually want to do?" She looked at Kasumi, who looked back, a little puzzled. "I mean, what is the long term goal?"

"Ah. I see. Hmm." They both thought for a moment. "I can't see any way to resolve the situation in Nerima, in a way that doesn't cause someone or other a lot of trouble," she finally admitted.

"Neither can I," Ranma sighed. "Believe me, I've been trying to work it out for years. If I could do anything about it, I'd have done it a long time ago."

"So, in that case, all we can do is leave," the eldest Tendo said, reluctantly. "For good."

Ranma studied her for a few seconds. "Are you all right with that?" she asked gently. "I'd come to the same conclusion, I worked it out quite a while ago, and that's basically what I was planning on doing for myself. But it means you may well never see your family again. We might have to leave the country."

Slowly shaking her head, Kasumi closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again and fixed her companion with a steady gaze. "I will regret it forever, but I will also live with it. If that's the only solution, that's what we do. As long as I'm with you it will work out." They looked at each other, then both turned to the fire. Ranma picked up the pot of water, which was steaming gently.

Putting it on the ground, she stared at it for a moment, then put her hand in it, almost instantly becoming male. He winced, touching his side gingerly. "Ow. I thought that might happen."

"Is that why you didn't change back sooner?" Kasumi asked, watching with concern as he lifted his shirt to reveal the wound was bleeding a little once more. He nodded.

"Yes. Normally the change doesn't affect injuries very much, they just transfer over, but a bad one can reopen. Or sometimes, heal up even faster. This one was very deep, though." He prodded it gently, sucking his breath in. "Right into one kidney, in fact."

Kasumi gasped. "Do you need to go to a hospital?" she asked, worried. He shot her a glance, smiling.

"I don't think so. It's mostly healed, it'll be OK. In fact..." Putting his hand on the wound he concentrated hard. After ten seconds or so he smiled as his hand began glowing pale blue. The woman beside him watched in astonishment. "Wow. It really does work. I was wondering if I'd imagined it."

"What are you doing?" Kasumi asked, fascinated.

"Healing myself," he replied, lifting his hand to show the wound had sealed up completely, although the skin was still red and scarred a little. She stared in shock.

"Oh, my. That's... absolutely amazing. Where did you learn to do that?"

He shrugged, poking the scar a couple of times experimentally, before lowering his shirt again. "I worked it out while I was lying under all the rock and wood. I had lots of time to think, and there was a large piece of wood stuck in me to practice on, not to mention all the cuts and things. It took a while, hurt quite a lot, but seems to work."

She gaped at him for quite a long time. "You worked that out all on your own?" she finally asked. He nodded, grinning.

"I'm not actually an idiot, you know, Kasumi. I know quite a lot about how the human body works. Partly because you have to learn that sort of thing to be good at martial arts in the first place, partly because when you get hurt as often as I do you have to learn how to patch yourself up." He frowned for a second. "Dear old Pop broke enough bones over the years that I didn't have much choice but to learn all sorts of things."

"I know you're not an idiot, Ranma, I've thought for a long time you were very smart indeed. The speed with which you learn things is proof of that." She smiled at him as he looked embarrassed. "But to invent something like this is still very impressive. I wonder how far you could take it?"

"I don't know. The sensing part of the technique shows some remarkable detail, I can easily see how the blood is flowing, watch my heart beating, even feel the cells dividing, I think," he replied, looking interested. "I get the feeling that I'm only scratching the surface, though. All I've done here is push the normal healing process to go much faster than normal. I think, with a lot of work, it might be able to do quite a bit more. Something I want to look at when I have time. It would be very useful to be able to heal properly. I don't know if I could use it on other people, though." After a moment, he inspected her. "Would you mind if I..." Kasumi smiled at him.

"Help yourself," she said, moving closer, trusting him to be careful. Seeming slightly taken aback at how quickly she agreed, he reached out, putting his hand on her shoulder. Seconds later it began glowing again.

"Hmm. Interesting. Very interesting," he muttered, looking like he was inspecting something that wasn't visible to the naked eye. After a few seconds he removed his hand. "It looks like I can probably use it on other people as well. I could see your heart operating as easily as I could mine. That's incredible."

She nodded, agreeing whole-heartedly. Incredible seemed to be an understatement. "Do... Do you think I could learn to do that?" she asked tentatively. He looked surprised. "I've always been interested in medicine. I'd love to be able to heal people."

Ranma studied her for a while. "I don't know," he finally replied. "It takes a control over ki that very few people have. The old ghoul could probably do it, Happosai certainly could, it's barely possible that Ryoga could if he wasn't an idiot, but... You certainly don't have the skills needed at the moment. Although your ki level is remarkably high for someone who isn't a martial artist." Kasumi looked at him, surprise on her face.

"Really?" she asked. He nodded.

"Yes. It's a little weird. I noticed it when I was taking my peaceful vacation under the debris." He grinned a little sadly as she winced at his words. "Hey, don't worry, in some ways that was the most useful three days I ever spent. Some very interesting things came out of it. One of the things I worked out how to do was push my ki... vision, or sense, whatever you want to call it, out quite a long way. It turns out I can feel other people, their ki, or life, for a considerable distance. Several hundred metres at least. Everyone who was there has a lot more of it than most people do, for some reason. Akane, Ryoga, Shampoo, they all do because of their martial arts training, so do your father and mine, Happosai, and Cologne, of course, but even you and Nabiki have much higher ki levels than most people who aren't martial artists. More than some martial artists I know, actually."

He looked thoughtful. "In fact, you and Nabiki both have nearly as much as Akane does, which is weird. She's been doing what she thinks is the Art for years, you only do some Tai Chi for exercise, Nabiki exercises as well but doesn't even do that much, yet you're all pretty close in ki levels. I'd say at about the same level as Kodachi, who is actually a fairly good martial artist. That's... interesting. I wonder if it's something that runs in families?"

Feeling somewhat confused, Kasumi just looked at him. "I really have no idea, Ranma, this is something far outside my knowledge," she admitted.

"Mine too, in some ways," he said, smiling. "I can tell a lot about ki, and about a person as a result, but I still don't know nearly as much about it as I'd like to."

"Does anyone?" she asked curiously. He stopped, looking at her, then shrugged.

"Good point. I don't know. I've never heard of anyone doing some of the things I worked out. I suppose it's possible that I managed to invent something completely new, although I'd be a bit surprised if no one had ever thought of it before."

"What other things did you come up with?" she asked.

"Well, there was the ki beam, of course. That's what I... saved you with," he replied, looking slightly worried at the reminder of how close she'd come to dying. Kasumi smiled at him, somewhat sadly, feeling her hair, which was still a little crispy from the blast that had resulted when he'd destroyed Akane's mallet.

"You don't need to feel you did anything wrong, Ranma. I owe you my life. That's not the sort of thing you forget."

"No, I suppose it isn't," he said with a smile. "It was a shock when it worked, though. I half-expected it to fail, but I was desperately hoping it wouldn't. It was all I could do, there wasn't time to try anything else."

"It was very loud," she said, remembering. "I had my eyes closed at the time, so I didn't see what happened, but I expect everyone in Nerima probably heard it."

"The technique turned out to be pretty effective," he admitted. "I'll be interested to see what happens the next time I try it, although I'm a little worried as well. It punched right through all the rocks like they weren't there. What it could do to a person..." Ranma shook his head as she felt slightly unwell. "I'm going to have to practice that very carefully indeed, a long way away from anyone else."

"That's probably a good idea," she said, feeling worried.

"The other thing I came up with was weird." He chuckled as she raised an eyebrow. "Weirder, then. You know the Roasting Chestnuts speed technique Cologne sort of taught me?" She nodded. "I noticed a while ago that when I was fighting, everything seems to slow down. People talk about that sort of thing all the time, you know, like being involved in an accident and seeing everything happening in a fraction of a second like it was in slow motion?" Once more, Kasumi nodded, looking interested. "The speed technique takes that to extremes. My hands are moving so fast I can punch someone hundreds of times per second, I shouldn't be able to see it at all, but somehow, I can. Each blow is as visible as if I was running at normal speed. At first I just accepted it as something that happens, but then I started wondering how it worked. And if I could do it when I'm not fighting."

"Can you?" she asked, fascinated again. The things he seemed to work out were amazing. He grinned.

"As it happens, yes. It's kind of strange. Watch." Looking around he found half a dozen plum sized rocks, taking them in both hands, then began juggling them. She watched with an amused smile. "Something I picked up years ago as a training exercise," he told her. "So, I'm juggling the rocks, it's not difficult, I could teach you to do this in an hour, although practising enough to be good at it would take weeks. But, if I speed things up..." His hands started moving oddly, staying in one place long enough that it looked like he was about to miss the catch and throw, then blurring into the correct position so fast she could barely see them move. "And I can go faster," he added after a few seconds, his voice sounding odd, like he was deliberately speaking more slowly than normal.

She gaped as he folded his arms in front of him, yet the rocks kept moving. "How the..." she gasped, staring in shock. He grinned but said nothing. Looking very carefully, she could just make out a flicker of motion out of the corner of her eye, finally realising what he was doing. His hands were spending most of their time folded, but as each rock reached the point it needed to be moved, he flicked out a hand far too fast for her to see the motion, gently urging the thing on its way, then folded his arms again. Persistence of vision made it look like he wasn't moving at all. The sheer speed was only exceeded by the extraordinarily delicate control such a feat would require.

The Tendo woman shook her head in silent respect. Once again, Ranma had surprised her. "Very impressive," she finally said. Smiling, he grabbed all six rocks out of the air in a fraction of a second, making her blink, then held them up.

"I can't quite work out what to do with it, but it's interesting. Using that method I could see each rock moving really slowly, as if it was sinking through syrup. I had loads of time to think about what to do, then do it. The speed technique lets me move fast enough, this technique lets me have the time to work out my next move. It happens automatically during a fight but nothing like as much."

"So you're adjusting your subjective time sense somehow?" she asked. He nodded.

"Basically. I can do it in the other direction as well, make things 'outside' go really fast compared to my internal time sense, which I guess might help for waiting around for trains and that sort of thing." She giggled at the concept, making him smile. "I think the speeded up perception would be more useful, though. I suppose it might be handy for studying, if I can keep it going for long periods I could effectively make much more use of my time. Speed up by five or six times, you can pack five or six hours of thinking into an hour of real time." He shrugged a little. "I'll have to experiment. It was just an idle thought, but it turned out to work better than I thought it would."

"I'd like to learn that as well," Kasumi told him sincerely.

The martial artist studied her for a while. "I can't see any way to teach you the needed ki control without teaching you martial arts as well. There may be a way, but I don't know it, the only method I do know is the same one I used." She looked somewhat uncertainly at him as he thought. "Mind you, if you intend to stick with me..."

"Which I do. I've already told you that."

"... then being able to protect yourself would make me feel much better." He smiled at her. "Don't look so worried. I'm pretty sure I can teach you enough to allow you to hold someone off for long enough for me to get there and deal with it. I'm not expecting you to learn everything I know, not if you don't want to, but I'd be happier if I knew you were capable of putting up a decent fight."

"I'm not sure I could learn to do anything like the things you do," she said quietly.

"I am. I'm quite good at assessing someone's potential. You have a lot. I've watched you doing Tai Chi. No, you're not an expert, but you were never taught properly either, from my point of view. What you know, you do well and easily. I think you could learn a lot more without too much trouble. I'd like to see what happens if I teach you. It might surprise both of us."

"Are you sure?" Kasumi looked at him, feeling worried, but for some reason, quite excited as well. He nodded, smiling a little.

"Pretty much. I've certain you could learn a lot more than Akane, for instance. I should be able to get you up to the level that you could take on Kodachi with some work, although it's going to take time. Maybe even to Shampoo's level, and she's damn good. I think you may already know a lot of the basics from your early training. Your father taught all three of you, didn't he?"

She sighed slightly, nodding. "Yes, in the old days all of us were taught quite a lot of things, but after Mother died... Akane was the only one who kept at it. I know she hasn't done very well, in many ways, but she did at least keep trying. I took on Mother's role to the exclusion of everything else, I simply didn't have time to do the Art, and Nabiki lost interest as well, becoming the mercenary we all know and love." Ranma snickered at her words, causing her to smile a little. "I think I'd like to be able to take it up again. Mother always wanted us all to learn it properly, she felt it was something that we could be good at and it would please Father. She would have been upset we gave up the family school, especially in the way we did, but there wasn't really anything else that could have happened. Not with the way Father became... diminished."

"Soun isn't the man he should be," Ranma agreed, looking at her sympathetically. They sat in silence for a while. "All right. That gives us one goal. Whatever else we do, we need to find somewhere we can teach you the Art, as far as I can. We need to go somewhere we can stop anyone finding us, possibly forever. The Amazons will never give up looking, certainly, and I doubt Nabiki will either. She's damn persistent. To be honest, she worries me more than anyone else." He paused, then added, "What else do we want to do?"

"What would you like to do?" she asked, inspecting him. He looked a little surprised for a moment.

"I... don't know. I came to realise, under the rocks, that about the only thing I knew was martial arts. Oh, I know a hell of a lot about it, and I'm proud of that, but there's more to life than the Art. Despite what Pop says." He frowned, then shrugged. "He's tried to program me most of my life to be someone I don't want to be. I love the Art, I always will, but not the Art he wants me to learn. The one I want to learn. His idea of honour, and Mom's idea, is all wrong. I'm not going down that path any more, I decided. There are other things I can learn as well that are at least as important."

Listening, Kasumi smiled. He was clearly working this all out even as he spoke, but she could see and hear the conviction in him. This was Ranma setting out the path of his life for himself for once, not being driven in the direction others wanted for him, a direction that would lead to something horrible. She approved. Especially as she intended to stay with him, wherever it lead.

"I think... I think I want to finish school, then do... something." He looked her in the eyes. "Something useful to other people as well. I've been so busy trying to stay sane and alive the last few years, hell, most of my life, all I could ever do was react to something, not plan out my moves in advance. I'm tired of that. I want to see what I can do if I'm allowed to plot my own course."

"As do I, Ranma." She smiled gently at him. "Let's see where it takes us, shall we? I feel it could be very interesting." They looked at each other, then he cleared his throat, looking away, picking up the pot of warm water and pouring it away before putting the pot in his pack.

"Um, we should pack up the tent, I guess," he mumbled. She smiled.

"We haven't decided where to go, yet."

"True." He grinned, still looking slightly uncomfortable. Kasumi giggled.

"Perhaps we should call your friends."

Frowning a little, he shook his head. "Not yet. I don't want to impose on them unnecessarily. OK, we need to find somewhere to stay for at least a while, then decide what we do. Leave the country, perhaps? I don't have a passport, do you?" She shook her head.

"No, I don't, I've never left Japan."

"That's not an impossible problem, but it does make things more difficult. I know a few ways to get away even so, but it would be more difficult for you, I think." He pondered the thought for a while, slowly nodding. "Yes, that might work." Looking at her, he added, "I've met some very... interesting... people over the years. Most of them no one in Nerima knows about. I wouldn't call them friends, not as such, but thinking about it there are some favours owed I could call in. There's this one guy who could help get us fake but very good IDs in different names. I'm not sure about passports, but everything else should be possible, which would at least let us sort of hide in the open for a while."

"Nabiki will be circulating our pictures even now," Kasumi warned him.

"Yes, I know. Hmm. Disguises are easy enough, I've got all sorts of practice with wigs, things like that, I think I could make us look different enough that only someone who knew us would see through it, at least for a few days. There are some other methods that could work more long-term."

"What methods?" she asked curiously. He grinned.

"Magic, basically. I know some magic workers who might be able to help."

"How on earth did you meet all these people?" Kasumi asked, surprised. He shrugged.

"I've ended up in some odd places over the years. Sometimes as a result of Akane being nuts, sometimes because I've been running from one of the other idiots, a few times because someone asked for help. I even did a little work for a weird department of the government a couple of times." She stared, shocked, making him grin.

"That's right, Ranma Saotome, Secret Agent." As she continued to stare, he began laughing. "Well, not quite. There was someone in a very high place, part of a government department that doesn't officially exist, that had a bit of a problem. Apparently they keep track of people like me and some of the others, and most of the magical girls around the place, for some reason. I guess we worry them a little, although I was told that there were instructions from even higher than that to take a hands-off approach. Weird, really. One day I'd love to find out why. Anyway, there was this situation, which they had no way to deal with. A little like the Saffron incident although not as bad. Someone apparently felt that it would be worth asking for my help. I was bored, and kind of pissed off, so I said yes. In the end it all worked out, I sorted it for them, they said if I needed help in the future to contact them. I got a number and a code word to use if I needed to talk again."

Kasumi shook her head slowly and wonderingly. "You have far more depth to you than even I suspected," she finally said, making him look pleased. "Doing secret work for the government? Nabiki would go mad if she had even an inkling of that."

He laughed. "Oh, that's certainly true. I was even offered a certain amount of help dealing with her. They seemed to know a lot about it." At Kasumi's worried look, he made a calming gesture. "Don't worried, I turned that down. Like I said, I kind of respect Nabiki. I didn't want to do anything serious, not like that. I suspect they'd have had a shock if they'd actually tried to do anything, anyway, I wouldn't put it past your sister to have a backup plan even for that sort of thing, but I didn't think it was worth it. Pop and I have been such a drain on your family for so long I don't really mind what she did, although I'd have preferred it if all the money she made out of exploiting me had gone to the family, not just some of it."

"I suspected you let her take all those photos," Kasumi told him.

"Of course I did. I knew she was there every time, although I'll admit she's damn sneaky. I could feel her coming from fifty metres away even years ago. Her ki signature is extremely distinctive. Cold, focussed, and intelligent. I don't know anyone else who feels like that."

"It sounds bad when you put it in those terms," she commented. He shook his head, smiling a little.

"Not really, not like that. She just has exceptional control over her emotions. She feels them, certainly, but doesn't let them get in the way of doing what she thinks she needs to do. It's almost like she's taught herself the Soul of Ice technique the Amazons use. I think she'd be very good as a spy, or a paramedic, someone who needed to react and get the job done, no matter what. Probably a spy, she's so smart it's almost scary. A lot of the time she's not very nice, that's true, but she's not evil. Not even close. Just uninvolved. Nothing wrong with that, although you don't make a lot of friends."

"She's a very lonely person, I fear," Kasumi responded sadly.

"Aren't we all?" he asked in return. She smiled at him.

"Not any more." Smiling at her, he nodded, then pulled out a small wallet, opening it and looking at the various business cards she could see in it. Eventually he took one out, inspecting it for a few seconds.

"This guy could be useful as well. Once we find somewhere to stay, would you like your things? I've got everything I own either here or in a ki pocket, but all you have is the clothes you're wearing."

"There are some things I'd like to have, certainly," she admitted. "Photo albums, some clothes, a few mementoes."

"Make a list," he told her, handing her a notebook and a pen. "I'm pretty sure that Oyabun Kaneshiro could get everything on it." She froze, staring at him.

"Oyabun?" she asked, shocked. He grinned. "You know people in the Yakuza?"

"Oh, yes. Quite a few of them. We've had... interactions." She shivered at the tone of his voice. "Once or twice I had to chastise them for the way they were treating people. Mainly women. I don't like that sort of thing, not at all. I made that very clear. Eventually they listened." His voice had gone cold and flat. "It seems to have stuck. I haven't had to break anyone in nearly a year."

"Ranma, what did you do?" she asked, worried. He shrugged slightly, looking mildly embarrassed, but unrepentant.

"Made a few examples. People learned the lesson I had in mind. It's amazing how the big tough Yakuza enforcers get all embarrassed about being crippled by a small red-headed woman." He grinned as she sighed a little. "Don't worry, I didn't do anything too permanent, except to one guy who wasn't going to stop. He's not in a state to hurt anyone any more. Even his friends didn't seem to think I was excessive, that time. I think even the Yakuza were losing patience with the bastard."

"It sounds like you were a little... unkind," she told him, not entirely approvingly.

"Oh, very much so. Trust me, he deserved it." His face went blank for a moment. "What I did, and a lot more. The police were very happy to find him. They'd been trying to catch him for years, they tied up half a dozen rapes and three murders when he was... handed over, shall we say. When he gets out of the hospital he'll spend the rest of his life in prison."

"Oh, my, Ranma. That sounds... not nice."

Kasumi studied him. He looked uncomfortable. "It needed to be done and I was in the right place at the right time. If I hadn't stepped in at least one more person would have died, and that would have been on me as much as him, since I could stop him. I didn't have a choice." Shrugging a little, he inspected her face. "If it happened again I'd do the same thing. Does that change your feelings towards me?" She watched him, seeing how he was trying to hide the fact that he was very worried about her answer. The Tendo woman thought about it for a moment or two. Did it change what she felt about him? In the end, she shook her head.

"No. It probably should, but I trust you did the right thing. The law might not agree, so I would ask you to be careful, but I know you. You would only do something... serious... if you truly felt you had to, and I trust your judgement." She could easily see how much he was relieved by her admission.

"Thanks, Kasumi. Hopefully, it won't happen again, but I don't want there to be any secrets like that between us. If you're going to stick around, we need to trust each other."

"I trust you completely," she told him, reaching out and holding his hand for a moment. He looked surprised yet pleased.

"I feel the same about you." After squeezing his hand, she released it, smiling. "Anyway, Oyabun Kaneshiro's part of the Yakuza isn't involved in violence like that, although they're not exactly pushovers. He's more involved in... acquisitions and relocations." He grinned as she sighed. "Very good moving men, basically."

"Smugglers and thieves, you mean?"

"Well..." He shrugged a bit as she gave him a hard look. "They do have a certain tendency to move things in a manner that people who thought they owned the thing in question would be annoyed about." He snickered at her expression. "More the smuggling than the thievery, actually. They're very, very good at it. If you want something 'imported' or 'exported' without official notice, they're your people. I think they could probably retrieve your stuff without anyone, for example Nabiki, finding out where it ended up."

"So you have done work both for the government and the Yakuza?" she inquired, folding her arms and staring at him. He laughed a little.

"The thing with Osamu wasn't really work, not like that. A rival group kidnapped his daughter and tried to use her as leverage to get him to put his group under their control. They're much nastier. Prostitution, extortion, blackmail, all that sort of thing. I don't like them at all. Neither does Osamu. He may be a criminal, but he's an honest one, if you can imagine that. Honourable in his own way. He keeps his promises. So he asked for help after his own people failed to get her back. He couldn't really go to the police." Ranma smiled slightly at some memory. "I got her back, in one piece, and also made it extremely clear to the other group that they weren't welcome anywhere near Tokyo ever again. I had to demonstrate why, though." She looked curiously at him.

"You remember, about eleven months ago, there was a freak wind-storm that made the news, down at the docks? One warehouse got destroyed, along with a small freighter?" She thought, then nodded, her eyes widening.

"That was..."

"Odd thing, the way a small tornado blew up out of nothing, then vanished after only a few minutes," he smirked. "Freak weather due to unusual climatic conditions, the official account said. Luckily the warehouse was empty, as was the freighter. I heard that the police even found some sort of criminal activity as a result of their investigations into it."

Kasumi stared, then began giggling. "Oh, Ranma. Please be careful. But that is quite amusing."

"Osamu found it pretty damn funny. He said he could never repay me for getting his daughter back, he owed me a life debt. I'd have helped him anyway, he's actually quite a decent guy for a criminal, but I'm not above asking him for help as a result of that. I'm sure he'll be fine with it."

"Does he know about you?" she asked. He shook his head.

"Not about the curse. The Yakuza people I've interacted with think there are two of us, brother and sister. The sister is really dangerous and slightly nuts." He grinned as she laughed. "She's even been offered a couple of assassination contracts. There's one particular Yakuza boss who is extremely angry with a former colleague who moved to the US after some nastiness in Kyoto, who was quite prepared to fly the crazy red-head over to make sure this guy found out quite how pissed off he was. I turned him down, I'm no murderer, although I have to admit, knowing what the guy did, if I ever run into him I'm going to give him a very hard time."

Kasumi giggled a little, not sure whether to be shocked or not. She'd found out more things about Ranma in the last hour than in the previous year, things that were quite a surprise. Hidden depths indeed. Picking up the pen she thought for a while then began a careful itemisation of everything she could think of that she wanted. It took some time. Eventually finishing, she handed him the notebook. He looked through the list, nodding. "Good. Can you sign it, please? Knowing Nabiki, if you don't, she'll argue a lot. They'd probably get it done anyway but I don't want her hurt, even with everything that's happened." He handed it back, she signed the list, then returned it to him along with the pen.

"OK, then. I guess we should go and find somewhere to discreetly change our appearances, then contact Oyabun Kaneshiro and a couple of other people, get your stuff somewhere safe, and work out the next step." He looked at her for a moment. "I don't really want to ask, but... Are you OK with cutting your hair?" Reaching up, she felt her pony-tail, then sighed and dropped her hand.

"I suppose it's a small price to pay."

"I like your hair like that, I admit, but it might be needed. It's quite distinctive." He smiled at her sympathetically. "It will grow back eventually."

"True, but I've had it like this for years. I like it."

"Time for a change, then," he laughed. She gave him a look which made him school his expression into sobriety, which in turn caused her to laugh.

"Let's pack your tent away, shall we?" Grinning, he nodded, getting up then offering her a helping hand, which she gladly took.

Looking around the hotel room, Kasumi sighed a little. Ranma watched her, smiling when she glanced at him. "It's nothing like as nice as you're used to, I know, and I'm sorry for that, but it's discreet. We should be safe here for a little while at least. I'll try contacting Osamu again in a while. I want to speak directly to him, but apparently he's not available at the moment." Kasumi nodded, reaching up and scratching the blonde wig she was wearing, with her hair neatly tucked under it. She'd been somewhat surprised how easily Ranma had changed her appearance in the rest room of the train station when they'd headed back that morning. Deciding that the best thing was to hide in plain sight, they'd gone right back into the middle of Tokyo and were now in a small and dingy hotel near the airport, one that clearly catered for transients, and more importantly, accepted cash and didn't ask intrusive questions.

Glancing at the stained and discoloured mirror on the wall, she saw an unfamiliar face looking back. The blonde hair, much shorter than she had worn since she was a child, was matched by eyebrows that had been bleached, along with skilfully applied makeup and glasses, which all together made her look completely different. They'd stopped in a small town on the way back and purchased new clothes, Ranma now wearing a suit, which she privately thought he looked very nice in, with his hair cut short, and contact lenses changing his eye colour to brown, while she had jeans and a silk top on, not anything like her normal attire. While Nabiki would have seen through it in an instant, most other people would probably have to study them for some time, she thought. It would do for the moment.

"It's a little weird seeing myself like this," she commented. He nodded, smiling again.

"It's a little weird looking at you, to be honest, but I doubt anyone will see through it for a few days. Hopefully by then we should be able to come up with something better. Now, remember. You are Akiko Morita, from near Sendai. I'm your cousin Shiro. We're in Tokyo visiting a sick aunt, if anyone asks. Try not to get into any details, just make light conversation, then leave as soon as you can, without making it look odd." She nodded, remembering the cover story. It was thin, they hadn't spent a lot of time on it, but it should suffice for the moment.

"What about your female form?"

"Cousin Sumiko, you mean?" He grinned with a shrug. "She's around somewhere. Bit of a wild girl, she's exploring." Kasumi laughed.

"All right. I think I can remember all that. Let's go and find something to eat, shall we? I'm quite hungry."

"After you, my dear cousin," he said grandly, waving toward the door. She giggled, taking his arm when he offered it.

"Thank you, Shiro. How nice of you."

Snickering, he locked the door behind him, walking with the eldest sister toward the stairs.

"Of course I'll help you, Ranma. I owe you everything. This is nothing at all." The rather heavily built short man in the very expensive suit smiled at the disguised martial artist, glancing curiously at Kasumi in the process. "I could arrange to cause considerable trouble for your pursuers as well if you like. I know some people..."

"That won't be necessary, Osamu, but thank you for the offer," Ranma replied politely, causing Kasumi to smile slightly. He was treating the man in front of them more respectfully than she'd have thought likely. The feeling was clearly reciprocated, the Oyabun had greeted the martial artist like a son when they'd been admitted to his office, which was in a very up-market building in the central Tokyo business district. It was only the presence of a number of fairly large men who were, even to her eye, clearly armed, which made the operation look anything other than a normal business of some sort. Even these men had seemed to be more respectful to Ranma than she might have expected. He'd greeted several of them by name.

"Are you certain? I know of Nabiki Tendo, she has a formidable reputation as an information broker already. She's extremely good at what she does. We could muddy the water quite a bit even if nothing else."

"You've heard of my sister?" Kasumi couldn't help but ask, shocked. The Yakuza man smiled at her.

"I have. Quite a few people have, in fact. She may be young, but she's made something of a name for herself in the last few years, to a fairly select group of people on both sides of the law. Nothing anyone could definitely pin on her, or she'd probably have had someone from the police talk to her by now, but her name is one that's known about." He grinned as Kasumi looked worried. "I suspect she may well have insurance policies against blow-back from her little schemes. Very smart woman your sister. Which makes this all more difficult, of course. She also has the reputation of being very persistent. Doesn't give up easily."

"No, she doesn't," Ranma sighed. "I don't want her hurt, but I don't want her to find us either. I could probably negotiate with her if was only her we had to worry about, but it's all the other lunatics in Nerima that would come along with her that will be difficult."

Osamu looked at the list in front of him for a moment. "I will arrange to have all of this collected and stored securely. Don't worry, we know what to do even against someone as good as Miss Tendo. She won't find us, or you. I'll send my best people." He motioned to one of the bodyguards, who approached and bent down, listening impassively to the quiet instructions, then nodding, leaving the room. "It will take a little while to get everything in order. I think we can get it sorted either tomorrow or the next day. Is that all right?"

"It's fine, thank you, Osamu." Ranma smiled at the man. "I owe you one."

The Oyabun waved a hand negligently. "No, I owe you. This is a small thing to do, forget about it." Tipping his head the martial artist accepted the gesture. "Now, how else can I help. What about new IDs?"

"I was going to talk to old Tsutomo Nomura. I think he could help."

"Ah. That's who I was going to suggest. I didn't realise you knew him." The middle-aged man looked impressed. Ranma laughed briefly.

"We met last year. It was a bit of an accident, an incident involving a magical document that got out of hand. I was in the area totally coincidentally, heard some screaming, went to investigate..." He shrugged, grinning, as the other man laughed.

"Yes, I can imagine that. You seem to end up in the middle of things more often than those weird magical girls in Minato do from what I've heard." Osamu looked amused. "Your sister is even worse. Are you sure she isn't a magical girl?" Kasumi suddenly giggled, making them both look at her. Ranma winked, causing her to cover her mouth as she laughed.

"Not as far as I know. She'd be amused at the thought, though."

"Give her my best when you see her. Ranko is a bit odd, but very effective." The man smiled at a memory. "I even heard Kazuhiro wanted to hire her for a job in the US."

"Apparently so. She turned it down, you know neither one of us are comfortable with assassination, but I believe she told him she was flattered to be considered for it." Ranma grinned as Kasumi stifled another giggle.

"Probably for the best. Well, I have another meeting I can't put off, but it's been very nice seeing you again. If there's anything else I can do, call me. I'll let you know as soon as this job is completed." Osamu watched as Ranma stood, bowing slightly in respect.

"My thanks, Oyabun."

"You're more than welcome, Ranma. And it was nice to meet you, Miss Tendo." The man nodded politely to Kasumi as she smiled at him. They both followed the second bodyguard as he led them out of the meeting room and to the elevator, exchanging a few words with Ranma then shaking his hand as they entered.

"You know some very interesting people, cousin Shiro," she said once they were on the street. He laughed, taking her hand.

Watching the old man as he worked, Kasumi was impressed. He was producing the most accurate and official looking false driving license that she'd ever seen. It looked totally real. "I don't know how to drive," she whispered to Ranma, who was also watching. "Aside from a go-kart, very slowly," she added, remembering one eventful day at an amusement part. He snickered.

"You won't need to, these are just so we have something to show people for the moment. When we come up with a better cover we can get other documentation done as well. I can teach you, anyway, it's not difficult." She looked at him, surprised.

"You can drive?"

"Not officially, I've never taken a test, but I know how. Like I said, it's not difficult." He smiled. "I've never needed a car but it's a useful skill to have."

"I can still hear you even when you whisper, you know," the old man snapped in an annoyed tone, not looking up from his painstaking work. "Stop distracting me."

"Sorry, Master Nomura," the martial artist chuckled, "We'll be quiet."

"See that you are. Youth today, too talkative by far, in my opinion," the old forger muttered, belying his words with a slight smile. They fell silent, watching as he worked. Eventually he straightened up from the machinery with a faint groan. "Ow. Getting too old to lean over like this." He picked up a pair of brand new, artfully aged, completely fake driving licenses and handed them over. Kasumi inspected hers. It had her picture as 'Akiko Morita' on it along with all her details, none of which were real, along with the official seal. She smiled when she saw her age was reduced by two years.

"Very good indeed, Tsutomo," Ranma said approvingly, looking at his one very carefully. "I can't see anything that would show it wasn't real."

"Of course you can't, boy," the elderly man said, looking insulted. "It's some of my best work. Even the police can't tell the difference. I'll get the details put into the computer system by young Sakiko later tonight. She's at school right now."

"That's your grand-daughter, correct?" Ranma asked curiously. The man nodded, looking proud.

"Yes. The best hacker I've met so far, that girl. She'll go far."

Laughing, Ranma put his fake ID away. "I'll get the one for your sister done by tonight. Send her around to pick it up at about, um, let's say eight, all right? Try not to get stopped by the police until after then, if they check the computer it will flag a problem until Sakiko sorts it out."

"Thank you, Master Nomura," Ranma said, smiling and shaking the old man's hand. "Very much."

"It's no problem, Ranma. Glad to help. Keep your young lady here safe, and when you settle on a proper identity, come back so I can get everything done for you."

"I'll do that. Say hi to Sakiko for me, and thank her for her work as well." They left the print shop the man ran as a cover, heading off down the street. Watching them go, he smiled a little, then went back to his work.


"What?" Kasumi asked, looking up from the breakfast menu she was studying. Ranma was still looking at his own menu.

"Don't look around. There's a girl, about nineteen, three tables behind you, who I'm pretty sure is one of Nabiki's. She recognised me."

Fighting the natural urge to look, Kasumi kept her expression in its normal serene blankness, long practice coming to her aid. She picked up her glass of water, sipping it. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure she recognised me, yes. I felt her ki output change when she spotted me. I don't think she's worked out who you are yet, though." She saw his eyes momentarily lift, looking casually past her left shoulder, then return to the menu. "She's studying a photo and comparing it to both of us." A few seconds passed, then he sighed minutely. "Fuck. Yep, we've been made. She's pretty good. She's using her phone now, making it look casual. No prize for guessing who's on the other end."

Sighing herself, Kasumi motioned to the waitress, taking the opportunity to glance around, seeing a blonde girl talking on the phone, making sure not to look at them, although she could almost feel the interest she had in the pair. Placing her order she handed the menu back, waiting until Ranma had done the same. "What do we do?"

"If we run now she'll just follow. For all I know there are more of Nabiki's agents scattered around. Damn, your sister is good." He sighed, thinking. Eventually his mouth twisted a little in irritation. "I can't think of any way to get to any of the magic workers I know without leaving a trail. I could use the umi-sen ken technique to shield myself enough to get clear but I don't think I can do it for you as well, not for long enough to make a clean getaway, at least. We need something effective and fast. That only leaves one option." He produced a phone, flipping it open and dialling a number from memory. Kasumi could faintly hear the other end ringing from where she was. Eventually it was answered.

"Hi. It's me. Something's happened and I need your help." He listened, then added, "No, it's worse than that. I'll need two of the bracelets. Can you do that?"

There was a pause. "Great. Thanks, I'll explain when I see you. Twenty minutes, the alley beside Kitashinagawa station, around the back. We're just around the corner from there. It'll have to be quick, we'll be followed." He listened again for a moment.

"OK. That sounds good. I'll see you soon." After a pause, he added softly, "I've missed you guys." A few seconds later he hung up, putting the phone away as their order arrived. As soon as the waitress left, he looked at Kasumi.

"That was Aiko. She's going to pick us up and take us somewhere safe, then we can work out our next step. There's no way Nabiki or her people can follow us. She couldn't get here before Aiko does, so enjoy breakfast."

"It's very early," Kasumi noted, trying some miso soup, then nodding approvingly. This café was really rather good.

Ranma grinned. "I know. She was asleep, she sounded tired. She perked right up when she recognised my voice, though."

"You really like those girls, don't you?" she asked, watching his face. He nodded, starting in on his breakfast.

"Yes, I do. They're like sisters to me, in some ways. I enjoyed my time with them more than almost anything I've done in years. It was hard work, sometimes, and embarrassing, but the people I was with made it all worthwhile. I've really missed not being around them. But I thought it was safer for them to make a clean break, just in case." He sighed faintly, shaking his head. "Such an annoying life. I wish I could have just made friends without worrying about what other people in my life would do to them."

"Hopefully, it will become more like that, eventually," Kasumi replied soothingly. "I'm looking forward to meeting them. They sound fascinating."

"You'll like them, they're good people."

Both of them ate their breakfast, appreciating the good food. The blonde girl stayed at her table, watching discreetly, making two more phone calls, during this period. Once they finished and paid, she waited until they had left the café and were heading towards the train station before she got up and followed, making it look remarkably accidental.

"Not bad," Ranma mused from fifty metres in front of her. "If I couldn't feel her interest in us I might not even notice her. Your sister has some good people working for her."

"You make her sound like some sort of spy master," Kasumi giggled. Ranma chuckled.

"She's not far off that sometimes. OK, as soon as we get to the station, we'll duck into the alley next to it and go around the back. Aiko should be there by now. She'll teleport us to somewhere safe. It will probably make you feel pretty sick, it does for most people the first time they experience it, so be warned. It doesn't last long and doesn't cause any damage." Kasumi nodded slightly apprehensively. He put his arm around her shoulder comfortingly, picking up on her mild worry.

"It'll be fine." Shortly they arrived at their destination. Looking around, the eldest sister spotted their tail in the reflection in a nearby window. The blonde girl was still fifty metres back, on the phone again. They entered the alley, going to the end, then turning right into a small and dingy loading dock for the adjacent building. Waiting for them, half-hidden behind a large dumpster, was a petite brunette in clothing that Kasumi recognised from the TV, a uniform that left almost nothing to the imagination.

The girl looked curiously at her, then turned to Ranma, walking over and hugging him hard. He hugged her back, smiling. "We have to hurry, she's right behind us," he said. The girl, Aiko, nodded, glancing at Kasumi and opening her mouth. "I've already warned her," the martial artist added.

"OK." The world flickered and Kasumi dropped to her knees, her recent breakfast threatening to make a reappearance. With an effort of will she forced it back down, gagging slightly, then lost it. Ranma knelt next to her, holding her shoulders, as she vomited.

"It'll be over soon," he said calmly. Eventually she stopped. He handed her a bottle of water with which she rinsed out her mouth, breathing hard.

"What a waste of a nice breakfast," she mumbled, embarrassed. Breathing hard for a moment she stood, looking around, to find three other girls in identical clothing watching them both. Two were nearly her height, clearly sisters, with brunette hair, the grey-eyed one on the left having her hair dyed blonde at the tips, the other one having much lighter brown hair and black eyes. The petite girl who had met them had blue eyes remarkably similar to Ranma's female form's own eyes, while the last one was a middling height red-head, dark auburn hair offsetting her green eyes nicely.

"Sorry about the floor," Ranma said apologetically. The red-head laughed.

"Don't worry about it, it'll clean up." She stared at him, then launched herself into his arms. "God, it's good to see you again, Ranma." He hugged her as she held on, nearly crying. "Why the hell haven't you talked to us for so long?"

"You know why, Tamiko," he said softly, holding her gently. "It wasn't safe. I didn't want my insane life to suck you all in as well."

"We're magical girls, by definition our lives are insane," Aiko said, watching with a smile. The two taller girls laughed. "What's a little more?"

"You know what mine is like. Even in your terms it's nuts. I couldn't do that to you." Releasing Tamiko, who wiped her eyes, he put his arm around her shoulders, turning her to Kasumi. "I want you to meet a very good friend, Kasumi Tendo." They all looked at her. She smiled back.

"This is Kasumi?" One of the tall girls smiled at her. "We heard a lot about you. I'm Fumiko. It's nice to finally meet you." She held out her hand. Shaking it, Kasumi glanced at Ranma.

"That's Misaki, her sister," he said, indicating the remaining girl, who nodded to her, while eating an apple. "She generally doesn't talk very much. Mind you, when you get her started..." Misaki looked hard at him, making him chuckle. The other three girls laughed.

"Good to meet you, Kasumi," Tamiko said, holding out her own hand. "Fumiko is right, Ranma told us a lot about you. By the sound of it you're the only sane one in that entire household. Including him, of course." She snickered as Ranma made a sound of mild annoyance, although he was smiling. Kasumi giggled, watching as each of the girls greeted the young man with a hug. They were clearly very fond of him indeed, although she could tell it was not in a romantic manner, more like a big brother. Eventually they finished, Aiko gesturing to a table surrounded by chairs.

"Come on, tell us what's going on, and how we can help." All six of them sat around the table. "What happened?" she asked, when they were seated.

Ranma glanced at Kasumi, then took a deep breath. "It's all gone to shit," he began. Over the next half hour he explained everything, the elder Tendo filling in some details, while the four girls sat and listened carefully. When they finished, Aiko looked around at her friends, who all nodded. Something happened, something Kasumi couldn't quite put her finger on.

"You sure about that?" Ranma asked curiously. Aiko grinned.

"You're a good judge of character and you obviously trust her completely. Since we trust you in the same way, we trust her as well." Puzzled, Kasumi looked around at them all, wondering what they were talking about. Aiko held up a silver bracelet, twin to the one the Tendo woman suddenly noticed they were all wearing, while Misaki slid another identical bracelet over the table to Ranma, who put it on his left wrist. "This thing is a disguise device. I don't know if Ranma mentioned them?" Kasumi shook her head.

"No, he didn't tell me much about your methods."

"He keeps secrets well," Tamiko commented, smiling.

"Well, basically, these are what we use to keep our identities secret. The spell on them prevents people from remembering anything about us as soon as we leave their sight. It even works on cameras, any sort of recording device, as well as people. The magic is very complete and pretty powerful. Anyone who wasn't present when they were activated simply can't relate the person wearing one to anyone they know, even if they know them well otherwise. With that on, you could walk up to your sisters, grin at them, then walk off, and they'd be none the wiser." Aiko laughed. "I know it works, I tried it on my Mom once. She had no idea who I was. All you have to do is make sure you look slightly different than you normally would, a wig or something, and they can't work it out at all. As soon as you leave, even if they did recognise you, they'd forget. They're really effective."

Kasumi took the bracelet that Aiko handed her, looking at it wonderingly. A real magical artefact! "Oh, my, that's remarkable," she breathed. "Can you spare them?"

"Yep. We've got a dozen or so and there's only the four of us. Keep those as long as you need them," Tamiko replied. Aiko nodded.

"It's no trouble. We'd happily have let Ranma keep the one we gave him ages ago but he gave it back when he left, just in case somehow that Cologne woman ever worked out something odd was going on. I don't think she could have done so, myself, but he has a lot of respect for her abilities." The brunette looked at Ranma, who shrugged slightly.

"I do. She's nothing to take lightly. I still need to work out how we're going to block her scrying spells, she's bound to try that sooner or later. From what I know it will take her a little while to set up for it, a few days to a week or so, but she'll certainly try."

"What can you do to stop that?" Misaki asked. He glanced at her, sighing.

"It will be difficult. I know a few mages who know something about warding spells, I may be able to get something set up if we hurry, but I don't know how long that will work for. I'm going to have to think about it."

Looking at the bracelet she was holding, eventually Kasumi slipped it over her wrist. She was interested to note that it showed no signs of wanting to come off. Fumiko noticed with amusement her shaking her wrist. "The magic will stop it coming off unless you want it to. You can take it off, as long as it's a deliberate act, but it won't come off accidentally and no one can remove it without your permission. No one who doesn't have one on will even see it."

"How strange," the eldest Tendo said, rotating it on her wrist. "How do you make it work?"

"You need some magical ability," the other woman replied, before glancing at Ranma, who grinned at her, "although he worked it out for himself. He's got some weird talents." Reaching out she touched the bracelet. Once again Kasumi felt something indefinable happen. She raised the bracelet and looked closely at it, not seeing anything different, but even so had a feeling that it had changed somehow.

"Very odd," she murmured. Ranma watched her, an eyebrow raised.

"What's odd?" he asked curiously.

"When Fumiko did whatever she did I felt... something. I can't describe it better than that. I felt the same thing earlier when they all did the same thing." His other eyebrow went up, then he shared a look with Aiko and the others.

"Interesting." He inspected her closely for a moment. "Very interesting indeed."

"You know what it was, don't you?" she asked.

"The only thing it can be was the magic of the bracelet activating. And deactivating, they all turned theirs off a while ago." Kasumi stared at him, then the bracelet, then the four girls.

"That's... What does that mean?"

"A couple of things, I think. Firstly, it means they trust you enough to let you remember everything about them. Very few people know that." He grinned as she looked surprised, turning to the four young women again.

"Are you sure about letting me know?" she asked, somewhat shocked. Tamiko smiled at her.

"Like Aiko said, he trusts you, we trust him, so therefore we trust you. Welcome to the club."

"I'm flattered," Kasumi managed, meaning it.

"The other thing is more interesting." She returned her attention to Ranma, who reached out and touched the bracelet. Once more she felt whatever it was. "Did it happen again?"

"Yes. What is it?" She was beginning to work it out herself, as unlikely as it seemed.

"You can obviously feel the magic at work. I use ki to sort of... mimic... what they do with their own magic. It took a little while to work it out, but it seems effective. Since I met the girls, I've been watching every time I come across magic, which is a lot more often than you'd think likely, and I'm beginning to think I might be able to use a sort of variant of ki to do some of what the mages I've met are doing, but in a different way. I need to look into it seriously pretty soon. But I'm kind of surprised about you." He studied her. After a moment he held out his hand, a pale blue ball of energy the size of an apple forming on it. She stared at the thing. "Did you feel anything when I did this?"

"I'm... not quite sure. Can you do it again?" Nodding, he made the ki manifestation evaporate, then produced another one. "How strange. Yes, I could feel something that time." She leaned close, staring at the ball from a few centimetres away. "I can still feel it when I'm this close. It's like, like, maybe a sort of fizzing sensation in my head?" Cautiously she reached out a finger, looking at his face. When he didn't show any signs of warning or danger, she put her finger right next to the ki ball. "It's difficult to describe. There's something there, but nothing I have the words to really explain. I can't say I've ever noticed it before, but then, I've never really been close to this sort of thing in the past." Pulling her hand back she looked at him curiously. "Is that the usual reaction?"

He shook his head slowly, still inspecting her with interest and a growing sort of wonder on his face. "No, not at all. Very few people would notice any of that. Even most practised martial artists wouldn't, unless they had quite a lot of ki ability. The girls here can because of both their inherent magic and the training I gave them, but even so they still have to concentrate. It's going to be a couple of years or so before I can teach them to do this, as far as I can see from looking at them." He glanced at the four young women, who were watching and listening curiously. "Speaking of which, I hope they've been practising regularly."

"Yes, teacher, we practice every day," Fumiko laughed, while her sister grinned. He snickered.

"Good. I'll be testing you pretty soon." Her face went blank while Misaki looked mildly worried. Kasumi smiled. "But for someone who doesn't have that training or magical advantage, that's... unusual."

"What does it mean?" she asked. He stared at her for a moment longer, then flipped the ki ball into the air, where it vanished.

"I don't know yet. I'm going to have to think about it." He had a thoughtful expression on his face as he looked at her.

"Well, while he thinks, why don't we go and get something to eat," Aiko said cheerily, "you have a breakfast to replace and I'm starving. That teleporting takes it out of me." She got up from the table, as did the other three, all of them disappearing into a back room, re-emerging a few minutes later wearing normal street clothes. "Let's try that new restaurant, the Indian one on the corner," she suggested to her friends. Misaki looked interested, although Kasumi was amused to note she was now eating a cereal bar which she'd acquired from somewhere. Her sister noticed as well, glaring at her in disgust.

"How the hell are you still wanting to go to a restaurant, after everything you've eaten in the last hour?" she demanded, hands on hips. Misaki shrugged, then produced another one, which she handed to Fumiko, who sighed, then took it, quickly unwrapping it. Tamiko leaned in towards Kasumi, smiling.

"They do this all the time. Misaki is always hungry," she whispered. The eldest Tendo sister giggled behind her hand, following as all four girls headed to the stairs down to the street, Ranma beside her. She noticed he was still looking thoughtful. Absently he touched her bracelet, causing her to feel the sensation again as it activated.

"Everything is there," the Yakuza boss said, waving at a pile of carefully packed and sealed boxes in the corner of the warehouse. "Everything that was on the list. My men were very careful with it, and also went to considerable effort on the drive back to be discreet. They're confident that Nabiki Tendo has no idea where they went, although my enquires show she put a lot of effort into trying to find out. The items you marked as urgent are in that box there, Kasumi."

"Thank you, Osamu," the eldest sister said sincerely. "Thank you so very much."

"You're more than welcome, my dear," he replied, smiling. "Any friend of Ranma... You know the saying."

"I do. But I thank you even so." She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek. He reddened, causing one of his bodyguards to chuckle quietly, which gained the reward of a mild glare. The man subsided, looking straight ahead, although his lips twitched a bit. After staring hard at him the Oyabun turned back to the two visitors, who looked amused.

"I'm happy to store any or all of it as long as you need me to," he said.

"That would help, until we find somewhere permanent to stay. We haven't decided what our next move is, yet." Ranma glanced at Kasumi, who looked back, not sure either. They had discussed the pros and cons of staying in Japan versus leaving for somewhere else for a couple of days, but were nowhere nearer a solution yet.

"If it's any help, I'd suggest that staying in Japan is probably your best bet for the immediate future," Osamu said, watching them curiously. "I can lend you an apartment if you like. I have a number of safe-houses scattered around the place, you're welcome to one of them. There would be nothing to tie you to it for young Nabiki to trace you through. If you leave the country, you'll need some very good documentation, which may still go wrong at the other end, wherever that is. Passports that pass scrutiny are getting harder and harder to fake properly. Even old Nomura would have problems, I suspect."

Ranma sighed a little, glancing at his companion. "We have access to a method that wouldn't require a passport, but we'd need one sooner or later, true enough. Tsutomo mentioned the issue. Both of us are pretty good with English, but neither of us know any other language, so that really restricts it to North America, the UK, or Australia. All places I want to visit one day but none of them are anywhere I know anything about."

"Canada is fine, nice and polite people, but very cold half the year, Australia is too hot, the US is not too bad but a bit crazy in most places and totally nuts everywhere else, the UK is too wet a lot of the time, although the people are normally quite decent," Osamu immediately replied. They looked at him, causing him to smile. "I get around. Business, you understand."

"I see," Ranma said, grinning. "What do you think we should do, Kasumi?"

She thought for a few seconds. "You still want to finish school, you said." He nodded. "That will be difficult to do even if we stay here, I think it would be very difficult indeed if we went somewhere else and had to start all over again in an unfamiliar system. If we can do it, I think it would be best to stay in Japan."

He nodded slowly, then turned to the Oyabun. "You're both right. Thank you, Osamu, I think we'll take you up on your offer."

The man clapped his hands together and rubbed them, smiling. "Good. Now, where would you like to stay? I have safe houses in Minato, Meguro, Setagaya, and Sumida, in Tokyo, then also a couple in Kyoto, one in Osaka, and one in Fukushima."

Kasumi glanced at Ranma, who looked back. "Where would you recommend?" she asked. The man looked thoughtful.

"Minato is a very weird place, but so is Nerima, so you might fit in nicely, and the apartment there is easily big enough for three people. Setagaya is quite nice. I don't personally like Sumida very much although the apartment is a good one in a decent area. The Meguro one is quite small although very secure. Fukushima is OK, but a long way north, it gets quite cold. Osaka isn't bad. The Kyoto ones are dumps, frankly, I wouldn't recommend them."

"I'd be happy with Minato," Ranma said, looking privately amused. She giggled, knowing why.

"All right. Why not?"

"Minato it is, then." He turned to the Yakuza boss, who grinned.

"I'll have the keys and the address brought down." Looking at one of his guards, the one with the inappropriate sense of humour, he issued some orders, causing the man to nod, then silently vanish. Ten minutes later he returned with an envelope which he handed to his employer, who checked the contents then passed it on to Ranma.

"There you go. The utilities and things like that are all paid for automatically, don't worry about it. The alarm codes are in there for the front door, the rear door, the panic room, and the armoury." He grinned slightly. "I doubt you of all people will need that last part, but it's there if you do. Call me if you do use it so I can get rid of the evidence."

"I don't think we're likely to need any weapons, Osamu," Ranma said with a small smile, looking at the contents of the envelope. "But thank you for the offer."

"The apartment is yours for as long as you require it," the man said. "Do you want me to arrange to have your things delivered there?"

After a glance at his companion, Ranma replied, "Let's look at it first. But I think we'll probably want that eventually." He picked up the box Osamu had indicated earlier, making it vanish into wherever he stored things. The Oyabun watched with fascination.

"I wish I could do that," he commented, "it would be very useful in my line of business." He grinned as Ranma looked at him for a moment. "But I also realise how long it would take to learn such an advanced technique. I doubt I have that much time, never mind the ability." Turning, he led them to the door. One of his men looked out, carefully, then waved them out of the warehouse when he was sure they were unobserved. Shaking hands with each of his guests, Osamu smiled. "Take care, both of you. Let me know when you want the rest of your things delivered."

"Thanks again, my friend," Ranma told him with a smile.

"Any time." They walked off, Ranma activating both bracelets as soon as he was sure they were unobserved in the dark of the evening. Entering an alley some distance away, he made a phone call, then they waited. Aiko appeared next to them seconds later.

"Everything go OK?" she asked, glancing around quickly before looking back at them.

"Yes. Better than OK, actually, we have a place to stay now." Ranma grinned as Kasumi laughed, feeling that things were starting to work out. "Looks like we're going to be neighbours."

Seconds later, with a bright flash, the alley was empty.

"I think this will do what you need, although it's not going to last forever," the mage said, turning to Ranma, who was sitting on a table in the long low room, Kasumi standing next to him looking around with interest and some surprise. The tall foreign woman handed him a pair of glowing spheres that looked like glass, each of which had a metal ring around them, inscribed with odd-looking symbols. He took them carefully, inspecting one with interest while giving the other one to the Tendo sister who did the same.

"It's a broad spectrum anti-scrying spell, it should interfere with almost any form or method of viewing from a distance, tracing biosignatures, precognition, and everything else I could think of." The mage shrugged. "I can't guarantee I thought of everything, but it'll cover all the common methods and quite a lot of unusual ones. I looked up the magic techniques these Chinese Amazons are reputed to use and made sure it would handle them. The power cores are good for perhaps six months. They can be recharged, obviously, but the spell itself will gradually degrade, so you won't get more than a year out of them best-case."

"That should at least give us time to come up with something better," Ranma said, still looking at the magical device. "Thanks, Monica."

"You're welcome." She smiled at him. "That should cover most of the debt for getting those bastards off my back."

"Easily. I think I owe you, now," he replied, looking pleased.

"No, it was my pleasure. Let's just call it quits." She laughed as he nodded. "Hey, I did some more research on that weird curse of yours. Do you have any idea how powerful it is? And old. I mean, really, really old. Older than any magic I've ever seen before by a long way. Whoever came up with it was simply unbelievably good."

Kasumi glanced at Ranma, whose attention was now firmly on the mage. "Any sign of a counterspell?"

"Sorry, no. I'd have to say I'm pretty sure there's no viable method to reverse it. I tried everything I could think of, and asked around, no one has ever even heard of a cure for the Jusenkyo magic. It seems once you have it, you're stuck for good. Most people don't want to even try interfering with it, there have been some pretty spectacular misfires as a result of poking around inside that particular spell. It's the most complicated one on record as far as I can find out and has some weird defences. Whoever designed it meant it to stick."

"Damn." The comment was surprisingly mild. Both the mage and Kasumi looked slightly surprised, something he noticed. "I pretty much figured that was the case a while ago, but it's good to have it confirmed," he added in explanation. "I guess I can live with it. It could be worse."

"It sure could," Monica said. "You're pretty good looking as a male, but you're a knock-out as a female." She grinned. "Could be much worse. Think if you turned into something weird. A cat or a duck or something." Kasumi started giggling.

"Or a panda?"

"Hey, yes, that would be pretty strange." The mage looked puzzled when both of them collapsed laughing. Eventually they explained, causing her to look surprised and laugh as well. "God, you have a weird life," she said after calming down.

"You have no idea," he said, chuckling. Looking at the gently glowing spherical device he was still holding, he carefully put it on the table.

"They have a durability spell as well, they're almost unbreakable," Monica noted happily, watching. "If you drop them they'll just bounce."

"Very impressive."

"Oh, while I think about it, I might have a good solution to your hiding from the lunatics problem," she added, turning away again, retrieving a scroll from her desk. "I got this a while ago and I've been looking for a reason to try it. It's a sort of illusion cloak spell thing. Difficult to describe exactly. I traded a few ward-breakers for it to this demon mage I met last year. It's a little weird but looks easy enough."

"What does it do?" Kasumi asked, curious. She was fascinated by the way this woman treated magic as just something you did, completely matter-of-fact about it. Monica looked at her, then at the scroll.

"Well, basically, it produces a sort of appearance change. It only lasts about twelve hours at a go, but it can make some fairly significant alterations to your appearance. I don't think it's good enough to make a man look like a woman, not convincingly under close inspection, and it will only allow for a fairly similar size and build, but it should make you unrecognisable within those limitations. I think I can put it on a couple of pendants, or rings, or something like that. If I add a low-power magic tap to it, it should recharge from ambient magic in about twelve hours, so you could use it during the day then let it charge up overnight. Would that help?"

"That sounds almost ideal," Kasumi replied, feeling amazed. She looked at Ranma, who was scratching his nose, thinking.

"Hmm. Yes, that might well be very useful indeed. Can it do more than one appearance change? I mean, could it have a sort of list of different identities?" Monica studied the scroll for a moment, eventually shaking her head.

"I... don't think so. Not like you mean. The spell encodes one specific alteration, it would take a lot of work to make it be able to do more. I'd have to redesign it from the ground up which would take weeks. Plus, I think, it would get confused if you tried wearing two copies of it with different changes. It looks like they'd probably interfere and possibly even cancel out. So you're probably stuck with one for the moment."

"We can work with that," he replied, still thinking. "With the other stuff we have, it should work."

"Look, I have another client coming in about twenty minutes," the mage said, glancing at a clock on the wall. "Why don't you think about it, come up with some sort of idea for what you'd need in a persona, maybe build a consistent background story, then come back in, hmm, two days. That will give me time to do the basic spellwork on something suitable. We can try some variations and get it running with what you come up with."

"Sounds good." Ranma jumped off the table, picking up his glowing magical device. Kasumi slipped the one she was holding into her purse. "We'll be in contact. Thanks again."

"No trouble, Ranma." Monica waved as they left.

"But why a girl?" the martial artist asked again, sighing. Kasumi looked at him sympathetically.

"Because you're much more likely to get accidentally splashed with cold water than with hot. Look at what normally happens. You've been hit twice today, for example. Even if Monica's spell works properly, she said it probably wouldn't stand inspection if you're male and turn female. Or the other way around, but that's a lot less likely. If you want to go to school, you need a disguise, this seems like a good way to arrange that." She smiled at him a little. "Not to mention, most of the people from back home wouldn't think you'd do that willingly."

He shook his head, leaning back in the chair in the small living room of the apartment where they'd been for the last week. "Damn. You're right, of course, you usually are, but I still don't like it."

"I thought you were getting used to your female side," she said. He shrugged despondently.

"Most of the time I am, true, but getting used to it and actively liking it are two different things." Getting up, she moved to squeeze into the large chair next to him, putting her arm around him. With a slightly surprised look he allowed this.

"Look, Ranma, I understand that, as much as I can without experiencing it. I know how both your parents have basically programmed you to think of women. You've done amazingly well overcoming that, the girls helped a lot, and I like to think I did as well, but you still need to let go of the last problems you have with it." She leaned against him. "I know it's hard, I understand why, and I don't hold it against you at all. It's a difficult thing, I have no idea how I'd handle it myself if the situation was reversed but I don't think I could do any better. Even so, it holds you back. If it helps, think of it as just another special technique. Martial arts girlery." She giggled as he snorted with laughter.

"Yeah, right, that's going to be an international sport any day now," he commented sarcastically.

"You'd be good at it." Both of them laughed for a moment.

Eventually he sighed again. "All right. You win. I'll have a female alter-ego for outside. Thanks for crushing my male ego even more."

Kasumi laughed, looking at him. "You'll recover. You have a female ego nearly as large, it can work for you."

Grinning, he looked down at her next to him. "This would be much harder without you along," he said softly.

"That's what I said nearly two weeks ago, I seem to remember," she laughed.

"OK. So, do we know what sort of girl I am?" he asked her. She tipped her head to the side, studying him.

"It will have to be someone fairly short, Monica said the spell wouldn't handle too much change in build. Perhaps a little taller than your female form. Brown hair, like mine but longer. Much longer, I think, it would throw people off since it would obviously take a long time to grow, far more time than we've been away. I could braid it for you as well, that would look nice."

"All right." He listened, apparently trying to picture the girl they were designing.

"A deeper voice, your female form has quite a high one. Similar figure, grey eyes, good sense of fashion." She grinned. "I can help with that. You need to blend in. I can show you some of the things you miss when female, which make you stand out a little more that you should. Speech, body language, that sort of thing. It's not obvious most of the time but it does make your female form memorable. Not that anyone would forget that amazing hair."

Chuckling, Ranma nodded. "You've been thinking about this a lot, haven't you?" She laughed for a moment.

"Since Monica mentioned it."

"Got a name for this woman?"

"Maiko. Um, Maiko Nakahara, I think." She looked at him, pleased, as he repeated the name a few times.

"I can live with that. It's going to take a lot of practice, though."

"You should be used to that sort of thing by now." Kasumi smiled, as did her companion.

"Very true. Speaking of which, we need to start teaching you soon."

"I'm half looking forward to that, half terrified of it." She was being totally honest. He smiled again.

"I think you'll enjoy it. I also think you'll be very good at it. You may surprise both of us."

They sat in companionable silence for a while, then Kasumi got up and retrieved a notebook and pen, leading to them spending the next four hours designing both 'Maiko' and her own persona, who she decided was called 'Rika'. By the time they went to their separate beds she'd filled a dozen pages on both manufactured women and was well satisfied.

"A slightly rounder chin. Yes, that's good. Move the eyes apart a little. No, too much. OK, stop." Kasumi walked around the table, studying the illusory form floating in a large block of some crystalline material sitting on it, while the mage Monica glanced at Ranma, who shrugged, grinning.

"She has fairly high expectations, your friend, doesn't she?" the mage commented, amused. He nodded.

"Very much so." Kasumi looked at them both, smiling slightly, then went back to the image she was trying to get right.

"Could you make the hair longer, please?" she asked politely. Monica made a few mystical passes, sighing theatrically.

"That do it?"

"Perfect." The eldest sister turned to Ranma. "What do you think?"

"She's quite pretty," he noted, inspecting the figure in the crystal. "Not someone who stands out as beautiful, but good looking."

"That's the idea. You need to be something you've never been, average and able to fade into the background." Kasumi grinned as he looked mildly insulted, while Monica laughed.

"She's got you there," the woman chortled.

"I suppose so," he replied, still looking hard at Kasumi, who smiled unrepentantly, feeling rather pleased with herself. She turned to the mage.

"Can you make the hair braided?"

"Hmm. I think so." Monica thought for a moment, then did something complicated and magical, smiling at the results. "How's that?"

"Very nice. Thank you." Kasumi studied the result again, finally nodding. "With the right clothes, this will work well. You probably need something more feminine as a finishing touch, though."

Monica giggled. "A nice bow on the end of the braid would look cool," she suggested. Kasumi smiled, while Ranma groaned slightly, covering his eyes.

"Oh, god."

"We'll take it," the Tendo woman said, pleased. Laughing, Monica picked up one of the silver pendants on a fine chain that was on the bench next to her, showing it to them.

"This will hold the spell. I've already put most of it in, it just needs the illusion pattern. Hold on a moment." She touched the pendant to the crystal, mumbling to herself for a minute or two. Finally she looked satisfied. The image faded away as she handed the pendant to the martial artist, who took it gingerly. "Right, just put it around your neck. You activate it by pressing there on the end. Turn it off by pressing twice. Turn female first, though, before you try it." She handed him a cup of cold water. Dipping his fingers in it he became his red-headed female alter-ego, the girl putting the pendant around her neck as instructed. Slightly hesitantly she followed the instructions. With an odd wavering effect for a few seconds, she changed into the girl whose image had been in the crystal. Kasumi clapped her hands, while Monica studied the new brunette closely, walking around her. Eventually she looked pleased.

"Good, it's stable. That worked even better than I hoped it would. Any odd feelings?"

"No, not really," 'Maiko' replied, looking slightly stunned as she turned to inspect herself in the reflection from the side of the crystal block. "My voice sounds a bit weird inside my head, though. Does it sound all right to you?" Her voice was noticeably deeper in tone, although still in the normal female range. Kasumi nodded, pleased.

"It's fine. It doesn't sound anything like your normal voice, though, which is what we were going for. I think with a little work no one will ever be able to tell it's you."

'Maiko' grinned, her expression pure Ranma. Kasumi snickered a little. "We need to work on the body language though." She turned to Monica who was looking pleased with her work. "Now me, please."

When the two women left the mage's workshop, no one from their old life would have had any idea who they were based on appearance.

"Wow." Fumiko studied the brunette girl with the immensely long braid who was smiling at her. "That's incredible. It doesn't look anything like you."

"Kasumi and Monica between them do good work."

"I'll say. Between the bracelet and this, none of Kasumi's sister's spies have any chance of finding you."

Turning off the spell, Ranma grinned. "The whole point, of course. Assuming the spell she came up with blocks Cologne and her magic, we should be safe for a while." She looked up as Kasumi came out of her bedroom, as 'Rika'. Fumiko stared, then laughed.

"That one is damn good as well."

"Thanks," the short haired, ice blonde woman with hazel eyes said, a trace of some foreign accent in her voice, which made Fumiko look impressed. "Rika Nygaard. Nice to meet you." She held out her hand, which Fumiko shook, laughing.

"What accent is that?" she asked.

"It's supposed to be Danish," 'Rika' said, looking amused. "It needs work."

"You're not bad, actually. I don't know how authentic it is but it certainly sounds fairly convincing to me."

"I'm going to have to practice. We both are." Kasumi turned off her illusion pendant with a double press of the end.

"That's not bad at all," the other woman said, watching with interest. "She really does good work."

"We need to go out and get some suitable clothing for Miss Nakahara," 'Rika' said, smiling. "Would you like to come and help?"

Giggling, Fumiko looked at Ranma, who rolled her eyes, sighing, before activating her pendant again. "I think I have to, actually. I can't miss this..."

"Women," the brunette with the long braid sighed, following them to the door. Both the others laughed as they all left the room.

"Very good, Ranma. I mean, Maiko." Kasumi smiled as she watched the brunette walk around the room, her body language subtly different than the normal movements of the female Ranma. "That looks very natural. I'd never guess."

"It's kind of embarrassing," the girl muttered, turning to her friend, who looked sympathetic.

"I realise that, and I'm sorry about it, but it's necessary, I think."

"I know, you're right, but it's still embarrassing. But, I suppose it's better than running around with almost nothing on fighting demons." 'Maiko' grinned as Kasumi giggled. "They want me to come out on a few missions again, for old times sake."

"You should go, then. They want you to help, they miss you, and I think you miss it a bit as well." The girl stared at her, her head on one side. "Well, perhaps not the clothes," Kasumi admitted, amused at the expression. Ranma was developing a whole new set of mannerisms for the 'Maiko' persona, eerily rapidly and effectively. She hoped she was doing as well for 'Rika'.

"Maybe. I did enjoy working with them, that's true." The girl giggled. "When I train you enough you could come as well." Kasumi laughed, surprised, then looked thoughtful.

"Perhaps I should. It sounds... fun." She had her own chance to giggle when 'Maiko' looked surprised. "The next trimester will be starting in a week or so," she added, changing the subject completely. "We need to get you registered in a decent school, somehow."

'Maiko' sighed, nodding, before deactivating the pendant. Ranma sat down, looking annoyed. "Yes, I guess we do. I'm not sure what to do about that, to be honest. All my transcripts are in the name Ranma Saotome, it would be a dead giveaway to use them. But if I don't, I'll have two terms of school at most, which isn't enough to get into university."

Kasumi studied her friend, surprised. "University?" she echoed. "Have you decided what you want to study, then?"

The red-head grinned, looking slightly embarrassed but pleased as well. "Yes. After a lot of thought I decided you were right. I want to study medicine." They'd discussed the idea several times, while Ranma experimented with the ki healing process she'd invented. Kasumi beamed, very happy.

"Fantastic. I think it's the right thing. I really do think that if you learn more about how the body works you can make that technique far more powerful. Perhaps even heal diseases, or organ failure."

"I have to admit I'm getting a bit excited about the idea myself," the girl said. "I also think I can see some other applications for the methods I came up with when I invented it. It looks like it might allow some interesting control of magic as well, that weird usage of ki." She held up the pendant around her neck. "I've been watching what this thing does when it's turned on and off. It looks to me like it might be possible to replicate the effect, possibly even improve on it, with a lot of work. I'm going to have to study it for a while, perhaps months, but I can just see the glimmerings of an interesting idea. It's damn complicated, though."

Staring, the eldest Tendo finally shook her head in wonder. "If anyone could teach themselves magic the hard way, it would be you, Ranma. I'll be interested to see what you come up with."

"So will I."

"But we still need to think how to get you into school." They stared at each other for a while. Eventually, and visibly rather reluctantly, the red-head started to speak, then caught herself. Kasumi looked at her, raising her eyebrows. "You have an idea?"

"Sort of," the martial artist finally admitted. "I don't know if it's a good one, though."

"Tell me, then."

There was a very long pause. "We could ask Happosai for help." Kasumi stared, shocked, as the girl said the last thing that she'd expected.


"I know, it sounds crazy, the manipulative old pervert is a horrible person in many ways." Ranma sighed deeply. "But he's the grand master of my school, he's absolutely ancient, and damn cunning. If anyone could figure it out he could."

"But, we've spent the last two weeks going to ridiculous measures to hide from everyone in Nerima... Now you're saying we should deliberately contact him?" She was astounded and rather upset.

"When we left, he was actually respectful to me," Ranma said, staring out the window into the night, looking thoughtful. "There was something in his eyes... Something I never saw before. I think... I think he could help, and more to the point, would help. I got the definite impression he'd given up on the rest of them."

Kasumi thought back to that horrible night, realising what the girl was saying made a weird sort of sense. The old man had seemed to know something all along, something no one else had picked up on, and he'd definitely been acting out of character when they left. She could certainly agree he was a horrible old pervert, but in some very odd way she also sort of liked him. Eventually she said, "How would you contact him? It seems risky to go back to the Dojo, even with the disguises."

"It's much too risky, but I think I know a way to get in contact..." Ranma smiled mysteriously, then, as she folded her arms and stared at her, explained. Slowly a smile spread across Kasumi's face.

"I need to see if I can get something first, though," she said thoughtfully, looking through her collection of business cards. Selecting one she made a phone call, giving some sort of code word, then waiting. Eventually she got an answer.

"Hi. Nice to talk to you again, as well. Look, that offer you made once. Is it still good?" Kasumi listened curiously as she paused, then smiled. "Thanks. I assume you heard about all the trouble?" She listened again. "Yes, it was a little irritating. I think we've got it under control, more or less. That device will help." Once more there was a pause, before she chuckled. "OK. I'll pick it up in about an hour. Thanks. Yes, if you need help again, just call. Tell him I'm available." After a moment more she bid the person on the other end goodbye and disconnected.

Looking up she grinned at Kasumi, who had an enormously curious look on her face. "Someone who doesn't exist is going to let me have a piece of technology that doesn't exist either."

"Which is?"

"An untraceable phone. Very hush-hush. Only a few people outside a very particular part of the government have them."

"Who are these people?" she asked, fascinated. She shook her head regretfully.

"I'd like to tell you, but I made a promise. It's one of the very few things I can't share."

Not at all offended, more impressed by her attitude, she nodded and accepted it. "Have fun."

"Oh, I think I will..." Smiling, she activated the pendant. "Back soon." As she left she smiled, picking up the book she had been reading earlier during the day and looking for her page, feeling surprisingly content.

The small ninja twitched as a petite but impossibly strong hand clamped on his shoulder. Looking behind himself while trying not to fall out of the tree he was perched in, right on the edge of Nerima, he stared, as the one person he'd never expected to see grinned at him with a certain amount of mildly malicious amusement. "Hello, Sasuke," the female Ranma Saotome said politely, although the grip didn't waver.

"Master Ranma," the diminutive Kuno retainer gasped. "Or Mistress Ranma. Sorry. I get confused." He winced, expecting a blow. Oddly enough, the girl just laughed quietly.

"Don't worry, I'm not here to do anything to you. In fact, I was hoping you could do something for me."

"Me? Master Tatewaki and Mistress Kodachi both have me looking for you! Now you want me to do you a favour? I'm not sure how that would work. Surely I should tell them I saw you?"

Ranma snickered. "If you tell them, what will they do?"

"Um, I guess they'll come and find you?" Sasuke stammered. The girl nodded, still smiling.

"And what will they want to do then?"

He thought for a moment. "Well, Mistress Kodachi would want to kill you if you're female at the time, or probably paralyse you and drag you off to do... something worse... if you were male." Ranma nodded. "Master Tatewaki would want to kill your male self, and do... well, you, I suppose, if you were female."

"Yep. Sounds about right." He smiled. He'd got it right. Then he frowned. The girl laughed again in a low voice.

"Now, what do you think I would do in either case? Bearing in mind what happened at the Dojo two weeks ago. I'm sure you heard about it and saw the results."

The tiny ninja paled at the look on her face. "Um."

"Go on."

"You'd... be uncooperative?"

"Oh, yes," she breathed in his ear, "You wouldn't believe how uncooperative. I've turned over a new leaf, you see. I'm not going to be pushed around any more by all those idiots. I learned some new tricks, worked out some interesting techniques, and decided I'm going to live my life on my own terms. Those do not include pandering to the delusions of your employers."

Idly, Sasuke mentally noted he was very close to soiling himself. There was something in her eyes which suggested he was extremely close to an unfortunate end. Perhaps arm's-length, in fact. He whimpered a little. She smiled again, with more teeth this time. Struggling to maintain control of his bowels, he asked, "Can we avoid anything... unpleasant... happening?"

"Certainly," she replied brightly, looking pleased. "I thought you'd never ask. That part is easy. You see, you swore an oath to protect the Kuno family. If they find me, I will probably kill them." She thought for a moment. "No, I'd almost certainly kill them. No choice, you understand. They're nuts. So, if you tell them about me, you're putting them in danger, which goes directly against your oath. You see?"

He nodded slowly. Put like that, it sounded reasonable. Although he wasn't entirely sure that his employers were the insane ones right now.

"Good. So, to do your duty, to protect them, you need to make sure you don't tell them about me. Anything, at all, ever. Simple."

"OK," he said, thinking carefully. So far it all sounded fairly sensible.

"Great." She looked pleased. "With that out of the way, you don't need to keep looking for me. If you found me, something horrible would happen, which means to do your job, you have to tell them you can't find any trace at all."

"I suppose so," he mumbled. His head was beginning to ache.

The red-headed nightmare behind him seemed happy. "Fantastic. I'm glad you understand. I won't have to do anything horrible, then. To them, or you." He shivered again, there was something in her voice that made him think she'd have done whatever it was she was referring to without another thought. He suddenly realised how amazingly badly everyone had underestimated the martial artist. "Now, onto the favour. Well, two favours, although I'm willing to pay." He waited, not sure he was going to enjoy this next part.

"I need you to very discreetly get a message to Happosai. Can you do that for me?"

"Happosai?" He was very puzzled now. "I thought you were trying to hide from him and all the others."

"It's complicated," the girl said patiently. "Can you do it?"

"I think so," he admitted. "I have a good idea where he is, or at least where he'll be in about an hour." He went over his local knowledge, recalling the schedule of the girl's volleyball team at the local sports centre. Ranma smiled.

"Great. Here you go. Make sure he gets this, please." She handed him a sealed envelope. "Don't let anyone else see it. And whatever you do, don't open it." He took it carefully, slipping it into his shirt.

"I promise."

"Very good," she said, smiling in a less worrying manner. "Now the other thing. It's only a little one, something that you'll have no trouble with." She slipped him a folded sheet of paper. Opening it he saw a phone number. He looked at it curiously, then at her. "All I need you to do is let me know anything the Kunos find out about either me or Kasumi Tendo, any leads they get, anything of that nature. Also any information you find out from Nabiki. I'm sure you're watching her in case she discovers anything either."

Sasuke stared at her. "But... That's betraying my employers! I can't do that!" She sighed a little.

"No, it's helping your employers."

"Um. I'm not sure..." The girl shook her head sadly.

"Again, it's easy. If you tell me what happens, I can make sure they never find me, you see?"

"Yes." He concentrated on her words. Her blue eyes drilled into his.

"If you don't tell me, they might find me."


"If they find me, I would have to do something horrible to them. So, to protect them, you have to make sure I know what they're doing, so I can make sure they fail at it, or otherwise I'd have to deal with them permanently. It's the same problem as you looking for me, with the same solution. Get it?"

After a few seconds, he nodded again. There was something about her eyes he couldn't look away from. She smiled, releasing him.

"Brilliant. I'm glad we could come to an understanding. Here's twenty thousand yen for your trouble. Keep the information coming, keep protecting your employers to the best of your ability, and I'll make sure you get some more money." He took the notes numbly, sure there was something odd going on but unable to work out what it was. She suddenly pointed over his shoulder. "Hey! What's that?" He spun around to look.

"I can't see anything, Master Ranma. Sorry, Mistress." There was no answer. Looking over his shoulder he found himself curiously unsurprised to see she'd disappeared. He looked around but couldn't see any sign of the martial artist, male or female, only a young brunette woman with an amazingly long ponytail in a complex braid walking away, some distance off. Eventually he sighed, inspecting the cash in his hand, before tucking it away and going to find Happosai. Seconds later he forgot all about the woman.

He didn't have the slightest inclination to look in the envelope.

"Poor Sasuke," Kasumi giggled, while Ranma laughed.

"He seemed confused."

"I can imagine. It sounds like you were very worrying to him," the eldest sister said, smiling. "He's a nice man, even if a little... slow."

"He's not the sharpest tool in the box, true, but he's not stupid. Just easily led. He probably wouldn't be working for the Kuno idiots in the first place otherwise."

"Do you think he'll get your message to Happosai?" she asked. He nodded.

"Yes. And I'm pretty sure he'll also come through on keeping us updated on what happens back at the Dojo, and with the Kunos."

Kasumi handed him a cup of coffee, then they headed out of the small kitchen into the living room, sitting down in a pair of chairs next to the window. "Perhaps we should see if we can interest some other people in helping us as well. Keeping an eye on what's going there would give us early warning if anything did happen. I can think of a few people I know, that I don't think even Nabiki would ever suspect."

Ranma looked interested. "Who do you have in mind?"

"Well, there's Mrs Tachibana, for a start. I talked to her every time I went past, she's actually quite an interesting lady. I'm sure she'd find it fun to help out."

"Mrs Tachibana?" He looked puzzled. "Why does that name sound familiar?" Kasumi giggled a little.

"You certainly know her. The old lady with the bucket and ladle?" His eyes widened.

"Oh. Her. She caused me quite a lot of embarrassment." She laughed, followed by him doing the same. "You really think she'd help?"

"Probably. She's got an odd sense of humour and I think she's rather bored. This would probably give her an amusing hobby."

"It's certainly an idea. I could think of a few people as well who might be able to pass on information, although half of them at least would be on Nabiki's payroll by now." He thought for a moment, an evil grin slowly growing. "But I bet I could persuade them to talk to us instead," he added slowly, obviously amused.

"You could probably just pay them better," a third voice cut in, making both of them jump. They whirled, to see Happosai grinning at them from just inside the window, which was now open, although neither one of them had heard anything. They exchanged glances.

"How long have you been there, you old pervert?" Ranma growled. He stood, glaring at the tiny martial artist and deviant for a few seconds. Suddenly, somewhat to Kasumi's surprise, and apparently Happosai's, he grinned, bowing respectfully. "Thank you for coming, Grand Master," he added.

The old man stared at him for a few seconds, before smiling. Pulling out his pipe he hopped up on a spare chair, lighting it with a flash of ki, then inspected them both curiously, puffing on it. After a moment he nodded thoughtfully. "There's hope for you yet, boy. Right, then. How can I help?"

Six months later, 'Maiko Nakahara' graduated high school with a score in the top five percent of the entire school, looking very pleased with herself when she left on the last day in the company of her girlfriend 'Rika'. The two women walked back towards the train station, enjoying the spring day. 'Maiko' looked at her graduation certificate with a smile. "I never thought I'd have one of these," she commented, tucking it away.

"I'm proud of you, dear," her companion said, looking it. "You made up a huge amount of work much faster than anyone would have expected. You'll easily get into university. "

"You'll easily get into university as well. He got your transcripts when he got mine from Furinkan High." The brunette shook her head respectfully, her braid waving. "I'm still amazed he thought that far ahead. Getting all the school records, all that other information, then sitting on it until we called him. You tend to underestimate how smart the old deviant is under all that perversion."

"I'm still astounded how much he knows about magic," 'Rika' commented, smiling. "He keeps saying he's not a mage, but he knows a remarkable amount about wards and the like. Even Monica seemed impressed."

"When she stopped chasing him because he stole her bra," the other woman snickered.

"True. He is a little... irrepressible." The blonde giggled. "He told me that he thought you had some very interesting ideas about ki and magic mixing. He looked very pleased."

"I haven't has as much time as I'd have liked to experiment recently, not with the exams, and teaching you, but I can see some fascinating possibilities." 'Maiko' smiled, content with her own work. "The healing is becoming pretty damn effective. Hopefully I can work out how to teach someone else to do it soon."

"Me, I hope," the eldest sister said, looking down at her shorter companion.

"That's the idea. You're gaining pretty damn fast on the training you missed over the years. I'm extremely impressed and very pleased about it. Even Happosai was looking surprised the last time he watched us training. It takes a lot to surprise the old goat." They arrived at the station, stopping in surprise when the old goat in question waved happily at them from a wall next to the entrance. He dropped to the ground, puffing on his pipe, looking up at them both.

"Well done, 'Maiko'," he said slyly, emphasising the name. The brunette girl sighed but with a smile. "I'm pleased that you have achieved such high marks. It reflects well on the training I've given you." He chuckled as she put her hands on her hips, glaring at him.

"I think it reflects well on all the work I put in, myself," she snapped, looking irritated.

"That too." He grinned. "Come on, I have a surprise for you two." They both exchanged glances, then watched him carefully.

"A... surprise?" 'Rika' asked slowly. Knowing the ancient little man, that could be anything from very, very good to very, very bad. He looked amused at her expression.

"Yep. You'll like it."

The two women exchanged glances again, then rather reluctantly followed as he went into the station, leading the way to a different platform, buying three tickets on the way. "This isn't the train home," 'Maiko' said suspiciously.

"No, it isn't. Well observed," the small man said, looking highly amused. When the train pulled up he hopped on. "Come on, then." They followed, looking slightly worried. He didn't answer any questions, merely grinning, getting off a few stops down the line. Once more they followed him. After a few minutes walking they entered a very affluent area, full of high-end cars and expensive apartment buildings. Walking along one street they noticed in the distance a tall clock tower, with a cluster of buildings around it. "Damn good little university, that one," he commented, indicating the facility. "Exceptionally good school of medicine, I'm told." They both looked at it as they passed, almost stumbling into each other when he suddenly stopped. "Here we are. Now, where did I put that..." He mumbled to himself, patting his pockets, pulling out a number of items that clearly didn't fit the space available in a way that 'Rika' recognised as a usage of the hidden weapons technique. She smiled a little at the sight.

Eventually he exclaimed, "Aha! There it is." Handing her a thick envelope, he rapidly stowed away again all the items he'd scattered around his feet , then plucked the envelope from her hand, popping it open to pull out a piece of paper with some numbers written on it and half a dozen electronic access cards of some sort. He put most of those back, keeping one out, then approached the door to the building they had stopped in front of. Looking at the paper he tapped in the numbers on a security pad, then swiped the card through the reader next to it, smiling when it beeped and the door clicked. He pushed it open. "Let's go inside," he said, waving them in. 'Rika' glanced at her friend, who shrugged. They both entered, the old martial artist following them in, closing the door behind them, which clicked again as it locked. They looked around.

The three of them were standing in a bare lobby, slightly dusty, leading to an elevator, and a door to what seemed to be a flight of stairs. At the back was another door that bore the label '1A and 1B' on it. "Um, where are we, Happosai?" 'Maiko' asked uncertainly. The little man just grinned, pressing the elevator call button. The doors immediately slid open. Hopping inside he waited expectantly, until they both got in as well. He pressed the top button, labelled '6', swiping the card again on the reader built into the panel. The doors closed and the elevator ascended silently, obviously well-maintained even though the lobby gave the impression of being more or less abandoned. Shortly, the elevator stopped, the doors opening. He waved them out.

"This is getting annoying," 'Maiko' muttered, but followed as he turned to walk down the corridor back to the front of the building. When they got there, they were confronted by a door with the number 6 on it above a security peep-hole. He pulled out a key and unlocked it, slipping inside.

"Come and have a look," he called back.

"What the hell is going on?" the brunette asked her companion. 'Rika' shrugged.

"I have no idea, but he certainly seems in a good mood for some reason." They went through the door.

"Look at the size of this living room," Happosai exclaimed, waving his hands around as they found him. "You can see the university from here, the view is fantastic." Sure enough, out a set of large glass doors that opened onto a balcony at the front of the building, the clock tower could be seen a few hundred metres away. They were obviously on the top floor of the building. "Have a look at the kitchen, dear, it's wonderful," he urged, pushing 'Rika' gently in the right direction. She let him, looking around the room in question. It was actually very nice, fitted out with every modern appliance one could ask for. "Right, have a look at this bit, it's amazing," he went on, rushing out of the kitchen and around the corner. 'Maiko' looked at 'Rika' and sighed, before following, muttering something too faint to make out under her breath. With a gentle smile, puzzled, the blonde followed.

"Oh, my...," she breathed when she found them, the brunette standing in the doorway to a surprisingly large room, staring at it. The room was nearly as large as the Tendo Dojo, wood floored and high-ceilinged, with a number of tall windows around one long side and one short side. It seemed to comprise close to half the total area of the floor they were on. In the other short side were two doors. Happosai pointed to them.

"Behind door number one is a small storage room. But behind door number two..." He grinned, walking over and opening it. "Is something remarkable." They went over and looked. It was a flight of stairs, leading up. He smirked at their expressions, dashing up the stairs and opening the door at the top. "This is the best bit."

With another sigh 'Maiko' followed, with 'Rika' bringing up the rear. They stepped out into sunlight, looking around in astonishment, then at each other.

"I didn't expect this," the brunette admitted. 'Rika' shook her head wordlessly. They were standing in a garden, rather overgrown, but impressive nonetheless. The entire top of the building seemed to be landscaped. Walking around in it for a few minutes they were both silent, looking about in wonder. After a while they found the edge, which had a low wall topped with a railing at just over waist height to stop people falling off, looking out over a lot of Minato. Behind the building was a large park, the eldest sister noticed, with quite a lot of people wandering around in it.

"It's a very nice building, in a very expensive area," the blonde commented, looking around. "I wonder what Grandfather Happosai brought us here for?"

"I have absolutely no idea. The crazy old guy is up to something, though, I can feel it. I just don't know what," the shorter woman said, looking annoyed.

"Where is he?" the disguised Tendo sister asked, looking around. Without looking 'Maiko' pointed to the side.

"Over there, about thirty metres away, feeling smug," she reported. Smiling, 'Rika' took her friend's hand and lead her off in the right direction. When they cleared the last of the bushes they stopped in surprise again. A glassed in enclosure filled the rear third of the roof, showing the garden wasn't the entire thing, although that paths through it certainly gave that impression. They glanced at each other, then approached the structure, finding the door and going in. Inside, they stopped dead again.

"A swimming pool," 'Maiko' said, sounding impressed. "A big one as well."

"It's good, isn't it?" Happosai said from where he was sitting cross-legged on the diving board at one end. He took his pipe out of his mouth, indicating the pool and the building beyond and below them. "Six floors, one penthouse apartment, ten smaller ones on the lower five floors, a huge parking garage, a sub-basement, the pool, and the roof garden. Quite a place."

Leaning against the inside of the glass door, 'Maiko' exchanged a glance with her companion.

"It's nice, sure," she said slowly. Happosai suddenly flipped her the envelope, which she caught with a motion of her hand too quick to see.

"Enjoy it."

They both stared at him, then looked at each other.

"Um, what the hell are you talking about?" the brunette demanded. 'Rika' nudged her, looking disapproving for a moment. She peered up at the taller woman, then sighed a little, adding, "I mean, respectfully, Grand Master, may I ask your meaning?"

Happosai burst out laughing, looking at the tall blond with amusement. "Well done, my dear, you're certainly having a civilising influence on this one." She dipped her head, grinning.

"Answer the question, will you?" 'Maiko' gritted. He snickered.

"I'm giving you a graduation present. Well done, by the way. Did I already say that?" He raised an eyebrow, looking thoughtful, then nodded as they gaped at him. "Yes, I think I did. I suppose there's no harm in repeating it, though."

"I... don't understand," 'Maiko' finally admitted, looking at her companion, who had no idea either. Happosai looked at his pipe, pulling out a pouch of tobacco and slowly refilling it. He was smiling in a weird way.

"I'm not surprised. Sorry, but allow a very old man some amusement." He looked up at them for a moment, then went back to his task. "I really am very old, you know. I lost count at around five hundred or so and that was a while ago." They stared in shock. "I know I'm not the smartest one around, and I'm certainly not the nicest person you'll ever meet, not by a long way, but I'm neither stupid or evil. Well, not very evil, anyway." He chuckled, putting the pouch away and puffing his pipe alight again. They watched and listened. "Your two fathers were my last students. I hadn't had any for a long time, I thought it was worth a try again. They showed promise. But somewhere, it went wrong. Probably my fault, I wasn't strict enough with them. Or possibly too strict." He shrugged.

"They lost track of the true Art. Your father, Kasumi, despite his potential, was badly broken by the death of your poor mother. A woman far too good for the lad." He smiled slightly, looking like he was remembering something he enjoyed. "She really didn't like me. Not one little bit. I miss her." He looked sympathetically at the eldest Tendo daughter as she bowed her head. "You remind me very much of her. Your father, Ranma, is a very good practitioner of the Art, but he's missing something. Some indefinable thing that would allow him to reach the levels he'd like to reach. And, of course, he's the laziest bastard I've ever met."

'Maiko' couldn't stop herself from laughing at that. The old man grinned. "But you... You, my boy, have more potential than anyone I've ever heard of. You could reach a level that is simply... extraordinary. You have it in you to be far better than I am, far better than anyone, probably. I've never met anyone who can absorb the Art like you can, and extend it to places no one would expect. The true meaning of Anything Goes. My best student, the pinnacle of my life's work." The girl looked embarrassed at the praise while the ancient little martial artist snickered.

"All the things that happened in Nerima distracted you in a way, but at the same time pushed you harder than anything I could have expected. A lesser person would have broken, or snapped, or possibly simply wiped the entire place from the map. I'm still impressed that you didn't. Cologne and her idiocy certainly didn't help in some ways, although the old girl could still teach you a lot. Pity about all the baggage that would go along with it."

He studied them for a moment. "I was beginning to wonder if you were stuck in a rut, never to reach the level you were capable of. Then that remarkably unstable young Akane managed to make you meet those lovely young magical girls." He laughed as 'Maiko' went red.

"You... know about that?" she squeaked. He grinned widely.

"Oh, yes. Yes indeed. I enjoyed watching you teach them. Both because you were so good at it, and because of the view. Interesting clothing those young ladies seem to wear. It suits you." 'Rika' couldn't help but giggle as the brunette looked like she couldn't decide whether to die of embarrassment or kill the old man for mentioning it. In the end she settled for glaring. "All joking aside, I really was impressed by how competently you taught them. It was very effective."

"Why didn't you ever say anything?" 'Rika' asked, curious. "You've met them since you came to help, but you never said a word about any of this, and you never mentioned it at the Dojo either." He looked at her.

"There was no reason to. Ranma was doing a fine job, it was clearly helping him as much as those young ladies, it even helped a surprising number of demons, oddly enough. Not to mention it was also likely the only thing keeping him from doing something impressive to the Dojo. It seemed safest to stay out of it." Happosai laughed again. "And, of course, it was driving Cologne absolutely insane trying to work out how you kept disappearing like that. The magic those bracelets have is very good indeed."

"OK, all that said, what's this for?" 'Maiko' asked, holding up the envelope. He grinned.

"Like I said, it's a present."

"What is?"

Happosai sighed a little, then shook his head. "Perhaps I underestimated you, boy." She looked annoyed. "This is. All of it." He waved his hands around. "I own it. The entire building. I've got quite a few of them, when you're as old as I am some shrewd investing can do things that you wouldn't believe, given enough time. I thought you'd like somewhere you could call home. This is a very nice place, and it's all yours." He laughed as she gaped again, going completely still. "Both of you, of course. I can easily see that you come as a set."

After a very long time, the pair of women looked at each other, seeing the shock in their companion's eyes. Happosai was watching, puffing his pipe, looking satisfied. "All of it?" the Tendo woman whispered.

"Yep. The whole thing. I'd like to keep apartment 1A since I've got some stuff in there, but everything else is yours. The deeds and all the other documentation are in the envelope. We can work out the names to put them in later. Key-cards are there as well. We'll need to set up some sort of warding system, of course, to keep certain old Chinese women from poking their noses in where they're not wanted, but that's easy enough. You can move in today if you want. No one else lives here."

"I think I need to sit down," 'Maiko' said faintly, promptly doing just that. The blonde woman sat beside her, both of them looking blank.

"I thought you'd like it," Happosai chuckled. "Oh, by the way, I happen to know someone who could get you into that university we passed. It really does have a remarkably good medical school." After a couple more minutes passed without either of them talking, he leaped from the board, landing next to them, then walking out the door. "Come on, I'll show you the rest of it, then we can start getting you moved in." They stood mechanically and followed him, both of them beginning to smile.

"Ah. I should also say I set up some accounts for you and put a bit of money in them. Call it an extremely early wedding present," he called back over his shoulder. "The details are in the envelope as well." The little man went into the stairwell, whistling happily to himself as they both stopped, looking at each other, before 'Maiko' reached into the envelope and pulled out a stack of paperwork. Both of them studied the papers for some time, finally finding the part with some figures written on it. Then, with eerie synchronicity, they simultaneously fainted.

"Oh, yes, this is going to be fun," Happosai chortled as he waited for them at the bottom of the stairs.