Its been a while, so I felt that a recap might be prudent.

What has gone on before:

Ukyo went along for the ride with the Saotome's in this universe. At Jusenkyo, Genma and Ranma received their usual curses. Predictably, events conspired to dump Ukyo in the Nanniichuan. Ryoga escaped undipped. Sorry, P-Chan fans. In the days following Jusenkyo, Ryoga quickly developed an attraction to Ranma's female form, evidently convincing himself that she was now a real girl. His earlier attraction to Ukyo despite this, did not wane.

In the Amazon village, Shampoo was defeated by both Ranma and Ukyo, each in their cursed form. They received the Kisses of Death and Marriage respectively.

Back at Jusenkyo, Ryoga bottled some Nyannchiuan, and the unfortunate Guide joined Ranma in unwillingly exploring his feminine side.

An accident with the Dragon's Whisker porridge led to Ranma having to effectively lock himself in his cursed form with the waterproof soap for the meantime. An almost kiss between Ranma and Ukyo was inadvertently foiled by Genma, who has motives of his own. Ukyo's affluent uncle provided the trio with transport back to Japan.

Ryoga's directional difficulties have ballooned to an outrageous level, as Shampoo can attest. The Amazon girl is also unknowingly being shadowed by a heavily-dressed figure…

Chapter 8 - Homecomings

Planes screamed overhead the packed Chengdu airport. Thousands of travellers, unable to engage in such an indulgence, wearily waited on their respective flights. It didn't do anyone's patience any favours when it was announced that there was a disturbance that would cause another delay. A multitude of sighs answered the declaration made by the various large speakers positioned throughout the buildings. When such a proclamation is made, people tend to make certain assumptions as to the nature of the problem. The more paranoid passenger may suspect a bomb threat, or perhaps there was a foiled attempt at smuggling contraband aboard a plane.

The less dramatic, and more pragmatic passengers dismissed the delay as the cause of un-kept schedules, and inept airport staff.

The more cynical airline customers proposed that they send someone to the airport pharmacy and fetch the pilot a hangover cure, should they ever expect to take off.

If indeed there was one thing all these passengers had in common, it was that they would never believe the actual source of the disturbance was small, lavender-haired girl belligerently wielding two oversized baby-rattles. Said girl refused to move until the staff complied with her wishes, and allowed her to board the next flight to Japan.

Shampoo scowled unhappily. Despite this being a matter of law, she was still willing to pay her fare, yet the stupid woman (she'd have decked a man by then) at the counter insisted on being shown a 'passport', whatever that was. Thinking on it, she recalled that her great-grandmother had once told her she'd applied for a 'passport' for her. But that was over a year ago, and she hadn't really being paying attention, engaged as she had been in pummelling a challenger.

"Miss," spoke the short-haired woman at the counter. "If you don't have your passport, I'm afraid we cannot allow you to board a flight out of the country."

"Don't you understand?" demanded Shampoo, smacking her hand against her forehead. "This is a sacred mission! I told you I'd pay," she indicated, holding up a wad of yuan bills. "What more do you want?" she asked in confusion.

"Its more complicated than -"

"What's complicated about it?" boggled the girl. "I give you money for passage on your flying carria-, er plane, and you take me across the water." She indicated a price list between them on the counter top. "This is more than what you're asking for, so take me already!" The woman winced as Shampoo's voice raised in anger.

"Please calm down, miss," pleaded the subject of the girl's ire as she held her hands in an appeasing gesture. She was relieved to see airport security closing in from the corner of her eye. She turned her gaze once more to the girl, spotting as she did, a new item on the counter. She promptly picked up and scanned the irate girl's passport. Had she been just playing a game? Regardless of the inappropriate joke, she motioned for the security to back off. However, a guard had already placed his hand on Shampoo's shoulder.

"Is there a problem, miss?" he asked casually, standing more than a head taller than the petite girl.

Shampoo saw red mist. They had toyed with her, annoyed her and denied her. And now this man had dare put his hand on her. An Amazon champion. The guard's large body left a shallow impact crater as Shampoo made him one with the wall. Two more bulky guards received similar treatment as they rushed her.

"You! You are nothing!" she proclaimed haughtily. She snarled predatorily as a slew of security staff began filing in toward her. Almost all weak men, she noted in fury. Were there no warriors to challenge her? The Amazon moved to mangle the approaching cannon fodder, when a slew of clicking noises cut through her haze of outrage. Shampoo's eyes levelled on the dozen handguns aimed quite purposely at her person. "…Uh oh."

o-o-o

Some miles away, another traveller, accompanied by two trusted vassals, pursued the same quarry. If for a (not entirely) dissimilar reason. The Musk Prince was excited to finally experience the outside world he had until so recently only read about. Arrangements had already been made for a boat to be ready when they reached Shanghai. A voyage across the seas, he thought, fanciful images of sea-faring drama flashing through his mind. One may have described the Musk Prince as being giddy as a schoolgirl at whole idea, had one little concern for their own regularity of breathing.

But, Herb was anxious. He couldn't wait to finally encounter the true reason for this adventure he endeavoured upon. Carefully unrolling the canvas, he gazed starry-eyed at the beautiful portrait that Mint had produced. He'd known before that the wolf-boy was a competent artist, but he had never imagined he was capable of creating something so bedevilling.

The royal heir recalled how several days previous, while seeking out the lupine lad, he had happened upon the painting, displayed in Mint's quarters. His aides had found him there, hours later, completely enraptured by what he saw. He hadn't known until an older warrior had explained that the beautiful red-haired visage in the painting was a 'woman'. Herb concluded that he had fallen in love. Of this he was quite certain.

Hearing Mint's account of how he'd overheard a confrontation in the forest just outside Musk territory, the dragon-prince had bid him continue. The youth explained how he had surreptitiously watched the lavender-haired individual threaten the red-haired one. He'd returned to the palace in a dreamlike state and immediately set about reproducing the strangely compelling faces on canvas.

Herb had sent him after them upon hearing this. He had to find out where the red-haired woman was going. Although Mint never caught up with the girl, an eavesdropped conversation between the purple haired woman and a strange foreigner had revealed that their destination was in the capital of the island nation, Japan. The wolf boy had returned to relay the information to his lord. However, Herb had not been idle during Mint's reconnaissance.

The sagacious prince realised that meeting the red-haired dream without any experience of dealing with a woman could lead to gracelessness on his part. That simply would not do. When eventually he did meet the girl, it would shame him for artless blundering to mar the moment. So, taking the Musk artefact, the Chiisuiton, in hand, Herb made his way to the magical pools which had so must significance in his tribe's long history.

After capturing a wild monkey, the curious Musk Prince was lead by a small person in concealing, large robes, to the Nyaniichuan. He knew from his history lessons that it was indeed the spring of drowned girl. Assuming the person was a relative of the regular Guide, and not really caring, Herb had tossed the small animal into the spring. He readied the locking ladle, as a transformed figure emerged.

He had found himself entranced with the strange protrusions on the neo-girl's chest. The portrait hadn't had those. Slack-jawed, he offered no resistance as the freshly cursed primate angrily knocked him into the water.

Herb chuckled. That monkey girl had inadvertently done him a favour. The naked girl had snatched the Chiisuiton in Herb's shocked state. He was fortunate that the heavily dressed person had been in the way of the locking water's splash. The stand-in guide seemed to take it rather badly though, having run off screaming about some demon in a bandanna or whatnot.

After leaving Jusenkyo, Herb decided that there could be no better preparation for meeting the girl of his dreams than experiencing the world through a girl's perspective himself. He allotted a portion each day to spend in his cursed form - generally the times when he sent Mint and Lime away on busy-work.

Mint had returned that day a with destination and a name. 'Ranchan'. He couldn't wait to meet her, and find out if she too possessed those 'breasts' like the monkey-girl and his own cursed form had.

o-o-o

Amidst a crisply cold queuing area, a heavily clothed girl buried her gloveless hands deep into her pockets, the weather doing the extremities absolutely no favours. She subconsciously hummed along with a familiar Proclaimers tune as the song pumped into the headphones beneath her woolly hat. The game would be kicking off any minute. She had better haul arse if she hoped to make it to her seat in time. The young woman hesitated, frowning at the match programs she'd essentially be abandoning if she did so. She grinned when she spied a late comer, calling, "Programs for the semi-final! Fanzines for Celtic and Hearts!" Her predatory grin warmed into a smile of recognition when the figure's dusty face became visible through the light snowfall.

"Sweet Jayzus, Hibiki!"

"A-Angie?" ventured the Japanese boy. He hadn't encountered anybody remotely familiar since the locker room in Hawaii. "Is, is that really you?"

"No, its Billy Connoly," the freckled girl rolled her eyes at the boy's flummoxed expression. "Of course its me. 'Aven't seen you in bloody years. What've ya been doin', ya gallivantin' bollox?" she inquired, good-naturedly.

Ryoga broke into a gleeful simper. At last, a familiar face. He wondered what Angie was doing in Antarctica, but noticed the much sparser snow, and soon realised that he'd misplaced himself again.

"Everywhere, ah think," he answered honestly, in English. Then something clicked. "Wait jus'a sec? Did you say Hearts are playin' reet now?"

"Yep," she winked. "In the cup semi, no less."

"Then what are we waitin' fer?" He asked urgently, reaching into his pack for his wallet. "Lead me te'de damn ticket booth so ah can see mah boys hammer them Glasgow poseurs!"

o-o-o

You are a contemptible creep. You understand this, don't you?

As per agreement, I'll reinstate the curb on that clan-curse of his. 'As soon as he's back in China.'

o-o-o

Shampoo brooded at what she'd been reduced to. She had had to keep a low profile since the incident in Chengdu. Being a wanted fugitive was not to her liking. After leaving (she refused to call it fleeing, even in her head) through a hastily made portal in the airport wall, and thanking Artemis that something had distracted the gun-toting security officers, she had travelled deeper into the city. Her plan to return to the airport after dark and sneak onto a departing aircraft was somewhat set back when she noticed what was very clearly her own face being displayed on multitudes of televisions in shop displays. Others noticed her noticing. Police had come then. And lots of vehicles. She never imagined how difficult it would be to lose a helicopter from one's tail while roof hopping.

But lost it, she had. And, enjoyable as the chase had been, it hadn't taken excessive contemplation on her part to decide to leave the city and seek alternative means of travel. A low-key cross country tour later, and (minus a bonbori that she had abandoned in Wuhan after soiling it) the girl had reached a small fishing village in the Zhejiang province of the country. And there she found herself, wringing wet after being splashed by spray, bribing a hairy man for passage on the filthy skiff he called a boat.

He'd agreed to ferry her to Japan for a suspiciously low price. Not that she was especially concerned. Someone of her training could stay awake the entire journey if need be. And breaking the ill-guided limbs of any crew member who dared get too close to her would relieve some stress. She made a mental note not to cripple any of them, though. It might adversely affect the journey's swiftness, if those manning the boat were unable to operate it efficiently. Or, y'know, walk.

The unshaven captain grinned evilly as he pocketed the money he'd taken from the naïve girl. He'd get the rest later, of course. He approached the bar where his crew were taking their last chance to become intimate with some hard liquor, before leaving in the morning. They would definitely perk up when he revealed that the pretty young thing that had approached the sailors earlier would be joining them on their next trip to Honshu.

He pushed aside the door to the clichéd bar, chuckling,

"Boys, wait until you all get a load of th…" Carrying themselves like good, honest, stereotypical sailors, his crew had apparently gotten a little rowdy. He expected the odd black eye and band aid, but usually, the men weren't bound, gagged and unconscious on the bar tiles when he returned from various errands around a town. "What in the name of -" his swear was choked off as a hand locked around his throat, lifting him bodily from the floor. He was swivelled around to face a pair of cold blue-green eyes.

"Let's you and I have a little discussion about proper comportment, shall we?"

o-o-o

A muscular boy frowned at the base of the large tower above him, and at the suspiciously large number of French-speaking people present. Ryoga was beginning to damn the foolish embarrassment that had prevented him from allowing Angie to lead him to men's room. At this rate, the second half of the match would begin before he could relieve himself and get back to the stands. He entered a random building, and approached the counter, asking for the restroom.

"Excusez-moi. Où est le W.C?"

"Cosa?" replied the Italian vendor.

"Oh, merde," he sighed, resignedly.

o-o-o

In the hilly forests of Hubei, a clear afternoon sky was witness to a young man of perhaps eighteen years engaging in a slow kata. The tall figure maintained a deliberate and unhurried pace, belying the speed he had at his disposal. Eyes closed, he strained his senses to attune to world around him. His mahogany coloured hair fluttered gently, as the wind carried the man an unexpected message. There, just on the edge of his hearing, was the sound of an upset, female voice.

Quickly securing his dragon scale vest, the spry figure hastily ran toward the sound. He arrived at a gently running brook, eyes searching for the imperilled female. Indeed, there was a girl bathing in the waist-deep water, but certainly no indication of anybody in trouble. Satisfied that his intervention wouldn't be needed, the man made to leave when, seemingly of their own volition, his eyes wandered back to the lithe form sitting in the stream.

Her back was mostly to him, but he was able to see enough of the mysterious girl's face and body to wholeheartedly label her a first class sex-kitten. The multi-coloured, but predominantly pink hair was the kicker. Normally, at this point the man's sense of propriety would rouse in full force and prompt him to withdraw. However, he had been without much human contact since the humiliating events of a Shanghai strip club quite some time before. Thus, engrossed as he was in appraising the exotic girl's body, it didn't register when her slit gaze shifted to stare directly at the gawking interloper. He was woken from his visual study of the of the water-sprite when he spied the covert approach of a large panther, bearing down on the girl. He sprang into motion, as the girl raised her arms in terror.

o-o-o

Herb sulked in a huff, as she sat back into the cool stream. Mint and Lime were supposed to have been off gathering food and firewood, and she had relaxed her guard… Only to open her eyes to the entranced stares of the two Musk warriors… Standing in the water… right beside her. She didn't know what had come over her, but instead of levelling the two jerks with a ki blast, she had shrieked like… like, well, she didn't know what. The tiger and wolf boy were as surprised as Herb herself was by the outburst, and had quickly fled, leaving a nonplussed dragon princess flinging energy after them.

Still sitting in befuddlement a minute or so later, she felt yet another set of eyes upon her. Also absently noting the approach of a leopard, she glared at the tall man, who was unashamedly drinking in the sight of her. The sheer effrontery! The entire situation was stirring indistinct reactions in the cursed Musk heir. Perturbed by these events, Herb pinpointed the one emotion that she currently felt with which she was familiar. Anger. Gathering her energy, she raised her arms to simultaneously blast the skulking cat and the impolite gawker.

Before she could release the fury of her ki, the man had dived at and beyond her. He levelled a kick across the cat's jaw that sent the wild feline into harmless unconsciousness. He landed by water's bank, and turned a relieved smile on her.

Damnit! Why had he done that? Now he'd confused her even more! And he was still looking at her naked body, too! Again, the only recognisable emotion Herb felt was frustrated anger at her inability to understand the source of her own inaction. She grabbed it and locked eyes with the rescuer/pervert/intruder/deviant. In a tone she had expected to sound far more imperious than it did, she promulgated,

"I am Herb, heir to the Musk, and I would know the name of the man who presumes to spy upon my royal person!" Proper forms had to observed after all. It wouldn't do to kill the stranger without names and titles being exchanged. The man's smile faded, and golden-eyed girl nervously wondered what was wrong. He looked absolutely miserable upon hearing Herb's demand.

"I…," he spluttered, "I have to go!" turning and bolting away from the brook.

"Hey!" Herb protested loudly. "Get back here, you jerk!" she called after him. Had those been… tears? She ran from the stream, not finding any sign of him. "What's wrong?" she asked the forest. "Come back," she insisted softly. "…Please?"

A nearby shrub rustled unnaturally. She padded up to the foliage, and pulled it aside. Impatiently thumping the figures she revealed, Herb stalked back to the stream.

"Breasts," breathed Lime dreamily, as Mint nodded in agreement.

o-o-o

"Why?" choked the man as he ran from the exotic beauty. "Why did she have to ask?" He sniffed, as reached his campsite a gathered up his pack. The serene atmosphere now seemed dull and lifeless. Oh, why had she had to ask that?

Of course she was going to ask. So would any others in the future. He would just have to live with it, like he'd always done.

No! He was through bearing this unjust curse. It was time to take things into his own hands and finally begin to shape his own destiny. He opened an ever-present canteen, and unceremoniously dumped the cold contents over himself. He rolled his massive shoulders experimentally, before smoothly taking off. As he flew west over the forest, he glanced down. Perhaps then… he thought wistfully, his neck craning to gaze back the way he came.

Resolute in his goal, he turned to face forward, toward Qinghai, and his birthplace.

o-o-o

Oh thank you gods, it's a miracle!

It had quickly become apparent to the meandering youth that he wasn't going to see the remainder of match. A shame, that. (He'd have to ask the wee lass how it went the next time he was in the neighbourhood.) This acceptance sadly did not serve to increase the volume of his bladder. Ryoga's mission had devolved into the dubious quest for a restroom. In the wilds of a Siberian mountain range, such proprieties were a menial thing. Yet, modesty seemed far less trivial in the heavily populated, urban areas in which he repeatedly found himself since wandering away from the soccer game.

Few would assume it an especially difficult task for person to locate a men's room in a sprawling city centre. But fewer still would assume it somebody of Ryoga Hibiki's eccentricities who was doing the searching. Every bathroom door he opened seemed to lead outdoors. That the sun, or moon as it may be, appeared in vastly varying positions in the sky each time he happened upon a new locale no longer registered. Hours had passed. The urgency of his search inexorably snowballed.

It was when he was prepared to bite the bullet and just make due with the next female restroom he'd inevitably stumble across, that he closed another non-descript door behind him. And found Nirvana. Out of habit rather than any true requirement, he secured the door to the Hibiki bathroom.

Washed and refreshed, hours later, he exited the room, and stalked about his home, finding evidence that someone had been there not too long ago. A dusty pile of pages with his mother's letterhead graced the living room table. He nonchalantly evaded several of her burglar traps, and snatched the top page from the pile. Addressed to his older sister; it asked how things were progressing with that foreign boyfriend of hers, and if his divorce proceedings with that Julia woman were through with, yet. That his sister was married, with a toddler, and lived in North America indicated that it hadn't been the Hibiki matriarch who'd recently tidied the family's household. In the kitchen, he discovered a note from his father. Indeed, he'd indeed been home, less than a fortnight earlier. He had left some dried provisions and kibble for any family member who chanced to find their ancestral home.

Kibble?

Ryoga's features grew into a huge fanged grin as he heard the cheerful bark echo throughout the household. A black and white blur raced into the kitchen and onto his compliant form, knocking the boy to the floor amid throes of laughter. "Shirokuro!" he smiled, ruffling the dog's fur affectionately. "How have you been, girl?"

After feeding the usually self-sufficient Hibiki pet, the animal led Ryoga to a somewhat musty chamber he recognised as his own room. He petted Shirokuro thankfully, grateful that he'd at least be able to drop off his souvenirs. The sight of his old bed sent a wave of desire throughout the frankly exhausted boy. Without preamble, he shucked the blanket over himself, and promptly began getting lost in dreamland.

Tongue lolling out in the canine equivalent of geniality, the dog joined her master on the bed, laying across his dozing frame. Amazed that two of her owners had visited within such a close span, Shirokuro followed the boy into contented oblivion.

o-o-o

You are aware that that dog's presence can negate the curse you've been so callously abusing?

It'll be worth it.

o-o-o

As Shampoo quietly left the docks, her mind again wondered back to the strange behaviour of the boat's crew throughout the entire voyage to Japan. Rather than carrying themselves like the boorish sailors (that even the somewhat backwoods Amazon found clichéd) she had witnessed when she first approached the ship's captain, they had conducted themselves like… She reached for an analogy. Like Amazons. Male Amazons.

Appropriate as it may have been considering her status, it was nonetheless quite unexpected. She also had the oddest suspicion that their deferential and overly polite carriage was less rooted in respect and awe than it was in uneasy apprehension and flat out fear for their own well-being.

That was strange. She hadn't behaved at all belligerently before boarding the vessel, intending to mete out necessary discipline on the journey itself. Perhaps those bandages and rope burns several of the men had sported when she arrived on board that first morning had something to do with the peculiarly complaisant etiquette?

Why also, were they so eager to be off again as soon as Shampoo had departed? They had seemed afraid of dallying for some reason.

Scanning the horizon, Shampoo dismissed the sailors' behaviour as irrelevant. Numerous signs in indecipherable text greeted her exit from the pier. She was in an unfamiliar country. Although she had never travelled much of China before undertaking this quest, at least there she spoke the language. This wouldn't be as straightforward as she initially judged. But no matter. A true Amazon Champion relished a challenge.

Orientating herself, she took a moment to look 'through'the city in her direct line of sight. Beyond this Yokohama, to the north, waited her husband, and the one who held his shackles. Perhaps, she considered, she may even intercept them. It was not that far-fetched a notion. Her quarry would likely have relaxed their hegira when they landed on their home country. Should she locate this 'Tendo Dojo' in good time, she could prepare a most effective ambush.

Tapping her teeth with a calloused index finger, she ruminated over several possible fortifications that would also aid her efforts. Why, with several volleys of darts tipped with neurotoxin venom, and a tripwire or four she could… She brushed off the idea, reminding herself that this was a smash and grab mission, not a war. Being pursued by another small army of police was not on her wish list. The incident in Chengdu had somewhat soured her on the whole 'wrath of the state' gig. The Amazon had best keep the killing limited to her target, and definitely not body slam any security or police officers through walls where others could see. As the buildings in the distance grew, their shadows swallowing her up, she decided a boycott on pummelling non-warriors would be a most prudent course of action.

o-o-o

It was growing very difficult to keep his thoughts from her features. Those perfect, determined lips; those rubicund, burgundy eyes that sparkled like…

And there he nearly lost it again. With a preparatory breath he recommenced the mental gymnastics of cataloguing all his knowledge of the Japanese language, integrating various phrases he'd heard the previous few days into the mess.

It would be awkward. But he was used to that. Hidden in plain sight, the spectacled man did his best not to look the lavender-haired beauty in the eye. She passed by his mumbling figure, lost in her own thoughts. Clothed in dark flowing silks, the tall young man continued to stare across the docks that the… completely random girl had just left.

Eyeing the various signs, he busied himself, repeatedly reading them for some minutes before slumping from exertion. Chengdu had definitely been the hardest. Swinging a grappling hook that accurately, too swiftly for untrained eyes to see was a difficult task on its own. Forcing himself not to think on why he was doing it - while he was doing it - was more a considerably more gruelling affair. He'd still managed it. Choking now would be shameful.

He had already done his homework. He'd be with Shampoo all the way to Tokyo and the Tendo Dojo. There he would encounter the man Shampoo was to marry and the girl she was to murder. After he'd found those two he'd…err… Well, the original plan was easy. Covertly protect and aid Shampoo in finding her prey. Kill her prey, the boy specifically, philandering devil that he was. Leading Shampoo on like that, that playboy deserved all that he got! His Shampoo was so pure, so unpresumptuous and patient… Certainly Mousse had been sure that she was. But, her actions in the airport had struck a blow at the gut of his unquestionable faith in Shampoo's good judgement.

Unable to help her on the rooftops, he had had stand back and hope she could evade the chasing police forces on her own. To his monumental relief, she had consummately escaped after leading the chopper on merry run-around high above the city streets.

Unfortunately, with his confidence in Shampoo ruffled uncomfortably, his original conviction of this 'Ukyo's' womanising nature and the arbitrary death sentence he placed upon him, had been distressingly shaken. The trip hadn't eased it, and with each display of rash behaviour on Shampoo's part, his assuredness in her incisiveness took one on the chin.

Sure, anybody could lose their cool in an airport, but what she did to that guy in Wuhan for hitting on her had seemed… excessive. Mousse had planned to kick his ass afterward, but he didn't have the heart considering what Shampoo had inserted in there.

He came to worry that he had followed Shampoo to kill a victim of circumstance being punished only for a laudable display of skill. His concern aggrandised when he realised that the other one, the girl, was the victim of much the same happenstance as her companion. The darkly clothed man's personal odds that the village champion would experience a mini-epiphany like his before finding the pair were slimmer than Shampoo's taught waist. This too, added fuel to the fire of his growing unease.

Making a mental note to finish his homework before turning it in, Mousse raised an eyebrow in consternation. He understood a decision would have to be made, and soon. His face betrayed his disquiet as he followed after his love at a more sedate pace.

o-o-o

Ryoga was cheerily walking Shirokuro down the street. It was nice to enjoy the morning for once. He cradled several packages in one arm, amused at the notion that he could be trusted upon to buy groceries for the Hibiki household. His faithful pet had stuck to him like Clingfilm since he found his way back to his home. She must have been lonely, by herself all this time. His grin faded a moment but came back in full force when his thoughts predictably turned to Ukyo and Ranma. He was far from them now, but he knew that they would eventually have to return to school. And his effective guide dog had lead him there on more than one occasion.

But he was struck by a horrible thought. What if Saotome-san moved them onto another school like Ukyo had told him he'd often done before? He might never find them. The idea of never again enjoying the company of those who made his life worth living made him quiver with dread.

He stepped inside his front door, frantically contemplating means to avoid such an unhappy conclusion. He could check up on the pair's whereabouts (if they were indeed reregistered at another school) at his own…

Fist sledged palm with a loud 'Aha!'

"Shirokuro! C'mere girl!" The dog was quickly beside her master, panting patiently, leash dragging behind. Finished restocking the kitchen, he grabbed his backpack from a corner, and began rifling through its innards. Plucking a cloudy plastic bag from the pack, he reverently inspected its contents. He removed a large flask, which he carefully placed on the table at which he sat. He tossed aside the bag, not noticing the gash on its side.

The fanged boy resumed his search and produced another plastic-wrapped package. He tugged at his bandanna, relieved that he hadn't had to resort to wearing the t-shirt he had briefly lent Ukyo for her cursed form. Ryoga hadn't washed it because he…ah, hadn't had the chance. With a tracker like Shirokuro searching for this scent, he'd find Ukyo in no time when she returned. And by extension, Ranma.

'Ranma', he thought gazing out a window, a dreamy haze coming over him.

He looked up at Shirokuro sniffing curiously at the container before him. "No girl!" He shied her away. "That's for Ukyo-san." His eyes turned to the flask, frowning as he slowly turned the container around on the flat surface. "Oh no!" he cried, rising in reaction to seeing the long, thin slash midway through the bottle, which went tumbling as he incidentally knocked the table. He rocked backwards and tried to grab the airborne piece of furniture in a flapping hand. The table cracked in half before falling to the floor, amid curses from the boy. Ryoga smacked himself on the forehead as he gave the chunk of wood in his hand a resigned glare.

Glancing down at the remains of the living-room table, his shoulders moved into a long-suffering slump. He pulled the sleeve of his shirt around his hand and picked up the flask. It was empty. "Someone up there has it in for me." His lamentation ceased as he heard a piteous moan from beneath the shattered table. He urgently tossed aside the pieces of wood, freeing Shirokuro from the debris.

She stood, shaking large splinters from her long mane.

Ryoga's eye twitched as a pair of golden eyes peeked from beneath two-toned hair at his own. A vein threatened to bulge on his brow until Shirokuro's state of dress, somewhat irrelevant prior to this point, made him grab his nose reflexively.

"…Rrga?" questioned the naked girl, before grinning at her hands. "Rrga!" she chimed, grabbing the frozen martial artist in a grateful hug. She let go abruptly and began ecstatically bouncing around the house, giggling like a loon. Ryoga just stared passively ahead.

"Oh, goodie. I turned the dog into a girl." With a vacant expression, he began weighing the ramifications of what he'd just done. "This is just freakin' peachy." He glanced at the prancing dog-girl, or was it girl-dog? Whatever, his irate inner monologue dismissed the question. Great. Just great. Finally home and something has to happen to screw it up. And he'd lost the water, too. "How the frick am I supposed to…" he trailed off, vexed, staring at his eyelids. When his brown pupils reappeared, the pique was gone. "To hell with it. I'm sixteen. I'm entitled to the occasional screw-up." He barked out a brief laugh. "Someone else can take responsibility for this craptastic quagmire."

Reflexively donning his backpack, Ryoga decided he needed some air. Moving with a strangely detached calm, he left a hastily scribbled note on the kitchen table and exited through the front door.

Inside, Shirokuro, who was staring wondrously at the now far more colourful world, paused in her glorying as she noticed Ryoga's absence. A word she had heard countless times that now suddenly made real sense came to her lips.

"Stay!" And with her first word, the dog-girl dashed out of the house. Seeing what her rapidly increasing intelligence told her was her de facto mentor in this strange, new and oddly high world.

o-o-o

This city was so frustrating! Following the directions of foreign signs was challenging enough, but she despaired at the uphill battle in store when even locals were unable to direct her with any surety. Finding the location of the Tendo Dojo had been painless. Actually getting there made her feel like someone had glued a jar of gerbils to her kisser, and set a blowtorch on slow burn to the end of the jar so that the rodents had to eat through her face to escape…

"Okay, now I'm getting screwy…" she muttered to herself in Mandarin. "And not in that pleasant Ucchan way," she added, blushing. Her joviality disintegrated when, amongst the din of the bustling Tokyo street, she spied a being of nightmare approaching. "The demon!" she hissed, horrified. Her greatest fears were confirmed at the sight of the enslaved woman trailing him, whom she overheard him bid call him 'master'.

"Alright!" she cried, her face becoming a mask of resolve. She had to finish it. If the hell spawn had pursued her this far, it wouldn't stop just because she'd fulfilled the obligations with which she burdened herself on the day of the tournament.

Gritting her teeth, she drew her lone bonbori, and looked determinedly at her opponent. Loosing a pealing war cry, a lavender blur flew towards its target, it's intent; lethal.

o-o-o

Mousse hummed in appreciation at the coffee in his hands.

"Robust," he commented in Japanese, "yet ethereally smooth and soothing. Like the sound of an over-stimulated rabbit's heart monitor beeping in time with the roaring sea, while children exchange flower necklaces dipped in hummus…"

He paused, reviewing what he had just said, a waiter looking on bewilderment.

"Okay, now I'm getting screwy…" He emptied the dregs of his mug, and motioned the man over. "And not in that pleasant Shampoo way."

"You want me to get you a decaf?" asked the waiter warily.

"You know what?" began Mousse, blinking behind his glasses at the waiter's afterimages. "That's probably a good idea." The café employee nodded agreeably and left to fetch Mousse another drink. Perhaps the short-sighted young man should have paid heed to waiter's warning that ordering a sextuple espresso wasn't the wisest choice available? Having never drank coffee before, Mousse had opted for the old baptism of fire routine… and was now fighting off a severe fit of giggles.

Grinning widely, he looked up and out the one way mirror that served as the café's window. Passing by, right when he expected her to be, was Shampoo, still looking disoriented at the unnavigable surroundings. As he watched her walking across his line of sight, he saw something that he wouldn't have expected to see. Ever.

Looking out at the very fast, very loud, and very naked girl (wearing only a collar and leash!) approaching on a line that would lead her directly into Shampoo's path, Mousse loudly called, "Can I have that decaf to go, please?"

o-o-o

Looking over his shoulder, Ryoga had never felt so mortified. (Even though that time he had confessed his love to someone he thought was Ukyo came close. That cross-dressing little weirdo would pay some day!) Tailing him was the girl the water had made out of his pet, still unclothed save the leash and collar, dangling conspicuously down her back beneath her two-tone hair. All this, he could almost live with. Just about.

Unfortunately, she was repeatedly howling 'Stay, master!' at the top of her considerably powerful lungs, and regardless of how quickly he moved, he couldn't shake her! So, he did the next best thing. He ignored her.

When the hell had she learned to speak? What on earth had that water done to her? Turned her into a girl, body and mind?

Of course! Just like with Ranma! Great. Now, he'd gone and depressed himself again. He couldn't ask the person behind him to just resume their life as a dog, and act as his tracker… Could he? She was calling him 'master' after all, he mused, deciding to ignore that she'd only resorted to the title after mispronouncing 'Ryoga' several times.

"Hello, Iwata-obasan," politely greeted Ryoga with a deferential bow as he passed an old lady in a very traditional kimono, serenely watering her flowers.

"Ah, Hibiki-kun," she smiled looking up from her gardening. "Found that blaggard that stole your lady love yet, have you?" she asked playfully.

"Don't worry about him, Iwata-san," directed Ryoga. "He's out of the picture."

"Excellent," commented the old woman, slowly clapping her hands together once. Ryoga noticed her eyes drift and widen. "And, is this, ah, the uh, lady friend, you spoke of?" she said indicating the naked young lady wearing the leash peeking from behind the boy's large backpack.

"Huh?"

"'Ferr…en'," tested the dog-girl. "Frur…friend!" she exclaimed, yipping triumphantly.

"Er, of course dear," replied the old woman with a half smile. "Ryoga, come here a moment." He complied, sheepishly moving into the garden and behind a hedge where the cursed dog couldn't see them. Ryoga glanced up and blinked at the change in the way the usually hunched up old lady held herself. "What's going on here, boy?" she demanded. "Is that woman on something?"

"No! Never! Of course not! I swear to you that I wouldn't allow such an -"

"Hush, I believe you," she placated the ranting boy. "And I couldn't smell liquor. Then why is she speaking like that?"

"She's only learning Japanese today," he answered honestly.

"Really?" drawled Iwata peeking through the shrubbery at the chanting girl. "A foreigner, eh?" Ryoga made to correct her, but decided some truths were best kept secret. "What's her name?"

"Um, Shiro-, I mean 'Shiko'…er, 'Yoshiko'!"

"And about the naked thing?"

Truths like this one.

"Well, the thing about that is…"

"You wanted to draw the neighbourhood's attention to what a fine catch you've made?" she supplied. "Well, if so, mission accomplished." Ryoga's eyes bulged, noticing the many dozens of people congregating outside of Mrs. Iwata's home. "Yoshiko-chan certainly is a healthy girl, isn't she?"

"Iwata-obasan!"

"Don't look at me. You're the ones who decided your girlfriend should show off her goodies to the locals."

"Its not what you think!"

"Hmm? Oh yes, silly me. The collar! You two are playing dom games, aren't you?"

"Kill me…"

"Not that I disapprove, but there are certain proprieties to be followed." She frowned at Ryoga and whispered. "Such as not doing it in public in broad daylight." She looked out over her fence and placed a finger to her lips. "Oh, dear, Hibiki-kun. It appears that the police will be arriving shortly. I'd suggest you move along with your lady friend hastily if you don't wish to be arrested."

"Eeep!" grimaced the dark-eyed boy, leaping out over the shrubbery, away from her garden. Without preamble, he raced down the street.

"Or on second thought, you could both come inside. I'm sure I could persuade the officers that … oh," she breathed, spying Ryoga's dust cloud in the distance, quickly pursued by his energetic and rather open-minded girlfriend. "Good luck, Yoshiko-chan!" the old woman called. The girl turned back momentarily, flashing her a victory sign. She exhaled with an aged smile. "Oh, to be that young again." She looked to the sky. "I do hope they remember the safety word."

"Will you stop following me? Heel or something!" bellowed Ryoga over his shoulder.

"No!" declared the girl resolutely. "Stay, friend!"

"I am not your friend, Shirokuro. I'm your owner!"

"Own…er?" she repeated.

"As in 'master'," he informed her. When she didn't respond, he thought he'd finally lost her. But when he glanced back, she was still keeping pace, a determined expression on her face.

His head whipped forward when a soprano scream invaded his senses. "Holy oof!" Ryoga's feet left the ground as the bonbori violently whipped his head backwards at what looked a dangerously obtuse angle. He landed heavily several metres behind the shocked dog-girl. "What in the heck just hit m-?" his question died as he was answered by a vertical stomp onto his kidneys and back, shooting the air out of his lungs.

Gasping for air, he gingerly picked himself up, and wheezed angrily at the person who had attacked him.

"What pant do you think pant you're doing? If you want to fight me, challenge me to match like a real m- Hey, its you!"

"No!" cried Shampoo. Those blows should have broken his neck and backbone. "You is true demon! I kill!"

"Huh?" asked Ryoga intelligently, as the lavender-haired girl from China tossed a dagger at his face. A bandanna intercepted the projectile, and another made to slice off a public tree branch above Shampoo. The dog-girl blinked as a grappling hook deflected the airborne weapon off course, and promptly disappeared from view. The incident had apparently gone unnoticed by both combatants. "Listen here, lady! I've had about enough crap piled on me as of late to have to deal with whatever your issues are, too."

Saying, so, Ryoga gave a huge swing of his bamboo umbrella, dashing after the whirling missile which Shampoo instinctively ducked. "Gotcha!" he grinned, grabbing her in a bear hug. She struggled but her effort may as well have been a token gesture for her lack of progress. "Now you're going to tell me exactly why you're contriving to pile more crap onto the garbage heap that's been my existence as of late."

"Amazon womans rather die than give in to-" she blinked as a heavy weight smacked the demon's jaw. Taking full advantage of the distraction, she drove a knee forward with enough force to make every man who had gathered to watch the naked chick… the battle, wince in sympathy.

Ryoga fell to the pavement clutching the Hibiki Jewels, amidst wails of horror from the male spectators. Any harder, he thought, and they'd have been as lost as the rest of the family.

Shampoo gulped deeply, as she got back her breath. She scanned the area for her anonymous benefactor. He couldn't be here, could he?

Cries of 'He can't be human!' and 'Maybe its just a really ugly chick!' alerted Shampoo that her fight was far from over.

Snarling furiously, Ryoga slowly got back to his vertical base, using his umbrella to prop himself up. "THAT," he roared savagely, "WAS NOT A SMART MOVE!" Aura writhing wildly, he levelled eerily glowing eyes on the Amazon.

Champion or no, Shampoo knew when she was outmatched. Desperately seeking distraction, she pointed behind him, exclaiming, "Look, there a naked woman there!"

"I AM AWARE OF THAT!" he growled.

"Oh… bye!" and with that she fled through the city streets, the bandanna-wearing demon in hot pursuit.

o-o-o

"If I recall correctly," thought Mousse aloud over the din of approaching police sirens, "that guy has navigational skills that make a lemming look shrewd." Shampoo would lose him in no time, he realised. He could track her down from the trademark trail of debris whenever he needed to. But first things first.

"So, what's your name?" asked Mousse of the leashed nude lady.

o-o-o

She turned, and breathed in relief, seeing that she had the demon outpaced. Another hundred metres or so and she could lose him completely. She made to leap atop a small diner, when something brought her up short, effectively yanking her back to the earth. As she fell, Shampoo glanced at the black and yellow cloth locked around her wrist. He had tethered her, she realised as she awkwardly landed on her feet.

"You're mine, now," grinned the hellspawn, baring his inhuman fangs.

"Never!" cried the girl defiantly, futilely trying to rip at the bandanna. It was like iron!

Ryoga tugged on his line like a determined fisherman who had caught the feistiest fish in the lake. "You never beat me, man-demon!" grimaced the girl, as a tug-of-war ensued.

"Hey, I know you Amazons have the this girl-power thing going on, but man-demon!" retorted the boy as he pulled.

"Is what you are!" countered Shampoo, dragging back.

"What I am," hissed Ryoga, giving the cloth a mighty heave, "is royally pissed off!" Shampoo screamed as she was jerked bodily from the ground, careening over her angry aggressor and behind a nearby takoyaki stall. Ryoga peered around himself intently. "Where did you go?" he demanded, in his ire forgetting the bandanna still wrapped about his forearm. "I'll find you!" he promised taking off down the street, an unwilling companion in tow. Neither noticed when the buildings gave way to forest.

o-o-o

Mousse bounded across the roofs of Tokyo, patiently awaiting a response from his cargo.

"Yoshiko, you say?" pondered Mousse when the girl finally gave her answer.

o-o-o

Shampoo gulped at the demon's latest bellowed promise of pain. She had become very confused when she gathered her bearings enough to realise that she was in the wilderness. The city they had fought in was nowhere on the horizon. As worried as this made her, she was frightened to call out for fear the beast would go through with his threats. She was taking enough punishment as things were, being dragged roughly through all manner of extreme environments by her oblivious tormentor. He may not have had the girl's speed, but his stamina appeared endless.

After another twenty minutes of unremitting abuse, she could take no more.

"You stop!" she called out. "Am right here!"

"Huh?" muttered the fanged boy, abruptly halting. Shampoo dropped to the ground with relief. He turned, and grinned nastily. "So there you are." He stepped grimly towards her prone form. "I don't know how you've hidden from me," he said grabbing at his umbrella, fighting off a sweat drop when he saw the bandanna still attached to his wrist, "but for all the crap you've put me through, you shall pay!" He raised the umbrella, glad the girl didn't whimper in fear, lest he lose his nerve to chastise her. Strangely, not only did she seem unafraid, but she was chuckling sinisterly…

He looked up, and couldn't help but laugh resignedly at the three dozen Amazon women levelling their weapons at him.

o-o-o

Still puzzled as to why the demon would transport her back to the one place she would be safe from him, Shampoo entered her home to find her great-grandmother perched upon a stool in the main room. The antediluvian Amazon turned her large eyes on the girl, and shook her head.

"So you are back, Granddaughter. I had hoped that Xun-Daofu was mistaken…"

"Great-Grandmother," began the girl questioningly. "Are you not happy to see me?" she asked, somewhat hurt at the cold reception.

"At any other time, dear," replied the old woman. "Xun-Daofu also mentioned that you had returned with a 'demon' in tow. Care to elaborate?"

Despite the abrupt change in subject, Shampoo nonetheless answered with enthusiasm.

"Certainly! I first encountered it here in Qinghai. But it stalked me all the way to Japan, and brought me here during a battle in a city there called Tokyo." Her ancestor nodded slowly.

"So I take it that this 'demon' is not the man you were bound to return with as your husband?"

"Of course not, Great-Grandmother! That demon? My husband is still somewhere… in… Japan… oh no…"

"Indeed," agreed Cologne. "You know of the penalty for returning unsuccessfully from such an endeavour?" she asked rhetorically. Shampoo bowed her head in stoic acceptance. "We shall pay a visit to the Pools tomorrow. But first," she motioned with her cane, "let's take a look at this 'demon' you've brought with you."

o-o-o

"So, he made no effort to resist?" asked Cologne, as she made her way to the guardhouse.

"None, Elder," answered Xun-Daofu. "He just came willingly, laughing in own language about the universe conspiring against him, or something to that effect. It was very strange." She opened a door and led the multi-centenarian and her descendent to the outsider's cell. "Here he is," indicated the guardswoman, stopping at a barred area.

The Matriarch peered into the cell, assessing the contentedly snoozing figure on the floor. Even sleeping, his aura was strong, and she may have perceived what was a lingering curse of some sort, but there was no question as to his nature.

"Shampoo," said the old woman exasperatedly, "this is your demon?"

"Yes?" answered the girl hesitantly at the dubious tone in the gravely voice.

"I think you had better explain everything to me, dear," she suggested, rubbing at her temples.

As her Great-Grandchild's story unfolded, Cologne's headache grew.

o-o-o

Ryoga awoke from a wonderful dream involving Ranma, Ukyo and a loofah, to a rather less pretty sight. A person-shaped raisin was eyeing him. He instantly got to his feet, recoiling in horror.

"What the?" blubbered Ryoga.

The incredibly wrinkled but apparently human figure rolled her eyes.

"Young man," she spoke in Japanese, "I understand that my great-granddaughter," she indicated the chagrined looking purple-haired girl beside her in the cell, "and you have had several misunderstandings since you first happened upon one another." He raised an eyebrow, nodding warily. "And during one of these misunderstandings, while operating under the premise that you were a hellspawned demon," the old woman glared at her scion, whose abashed expression never left the floor, "she offered you a boon of the Joketsuzoku in exchange for information, which you provided."

Scanning his memory, Ryoga affirmed her account. "You are a martial artist, are you not?" she asked.

"Yeah, I am," he answered. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"If I taught you a most powerful technique, would you consider this boon fulfilled?"

"You, old lady?" sniggered Ryoga. "You can't be serious?"

"As a matter of fact, I am," she grinned forebodingly. "I could instruct you in a manoeuvre that could allow you destroy the very walls of this building, or the bars of this cell."

"I could do that with my hands," snorted Ryoga. The old woman scrutinised him intently, her eyes narrowing.

"Yes," she agreed. "I imagine you could." Her staff blurred and the boy flew into the cell wall, crashing through all the way to the outside. A large section of the ceiling cascaded atop him.

"Elder, is something the matter?" inquired a guard as she and others ran to the cell.

"Nothing to worry about," answered the old woman as the foreign boy surfaced, grumbling, but unharmed from the rubble. She stroked her chin. Teaching the Bakusai Tenketsu would be pointless, this boy already possessing the toughness the hideous training regimen provided. "Almost like something Happi would do, " the woman mused.

o-o-o

On a mountain face in Japan, lightning flashed, and the last spirit ward precariously hanging from a boulder finally fell away.

o-o-o

"You shall wait here until our return," Cologne directed the muscular lad. "I will ruminate on the appropriate technique in which to train you while Shampoo, my grandson and I journey to Jusenkyo."

"Whatever," drawled Ryoga. "Sure, you might be strong, but that doesn't mean you've anything to teach me. Don't bother hurrying back from - Did you say 'Jusenkyo'?"

o-o-o

Cologne smacked her palm against her forehead as surveyed the boy's progress. He was indeed proving remarkably adept at understanding any technique with which she presented him. However, each proved more superfluous to the boy than the last. Right now, her descendents and she were resting in a clearing, still a day from Jusenkyo, while she goggled as the boy got lost in a dozen places in the vicinity at once.

She decided that the Splitting Cat Hairs technique wouldn't be appropriate either.

o-o-o

Shampoo gulped as the springs came into view. She stared hatefully at the boy in their group, feeling that this 'Ryoga' was directly responsible for the terror she now felt. But Great-Grandmother had forbade her to attack him, or even to let him to get lost since they had left the village. If only she hadn't said what she had about the boon. How was she to know he'd ever be in a position to collect it? Or that her Great-Grandmother would honour a deal made with a demon? If only he had been a demon. One ritual execution in the village centre later, and not only would she have been forgiven returning without the hand of her husband or head of her rival, but she'd have been revered amongst the village.

Only one other living Amazon had successfully detained a demon, and she was currently hopping ahead of Shampoo on her cane. Looking at the Elder made her think of what was awaiting her. Perhaps she would be merciful and choose to battle close to the Nyaniichuan? The girl could only hope. She regulated her breathing as a girl roughly her age approached the group, welcoming them to the Cursed Springs. As she had assumed the Guide would be, this girl was cordial, civil and -

"I'LL KILL YOU!"

- bloodthirsty? The teenage guide had her hands locked around the throat of the dark-haired boy and was squeezing with all her might. "You die!" Shampoo could definitely sympathise. Sadly, her father grabbed the murderous girl and pulled her away from the passive Ryoga.

"That's enough of that, young lady," he instructed sternly. She reacted by stretching her arms as far as they could go in the Japanese boy's direction, making various emphatic strangling motions.

"Its okay. She didn't hurt me," he commented in unfeigned nonchalance.

"Aaaargh!" she screamed again, breaking from her father's grasp in a sudden rush of adrenalin. She produced a knife and drove it as hard at Ryoga's torso as her arms would allow.

"Hey!" complained the boy. "I liked that shirt!"

The girl stared at the twisted and broken blade in her palm, and then back at the bane of her existence. She looked like she might hyperventilate. Her face scrunched up ominously as her lungs inflated…

"WAAAAAHHHH! I HATE YOU! I WISH I'D NEVER MET YOU!" Shampoo and her father blinked in stereo as the girl dashed away in tears, not stopping until she reached the lone hut in the valley, slamming the door behind her. Moments later, the door reopened, and girl half the other's age stepped out and met the group apologetically.

"Forgive us, Honoured Customers, but Father is very emotional right now."

"Father!" repeated two of the three Amazons. She nodded.

"Is very tragic story. I can answer any questions you need to know about the Springs, Honoured Customers."

"Can you direct us to the Nyaniichuan?" asked the unusually reticent Cologne of the little girl. Shampoo was cheering inside.

"Aiyah, its very dangerous to go near the Nyaniichuan!"

"Don't worry, little one," she soothed her, "I just need to know where it is in order to avoid it." The cheering became somewhat muted. "Hmm," frowned the old woman. "Its seems, dear, that you have another customer besides us." The others present peered about until a cloaked and hooded figure appeared over a natural incline in the land near the pools. The tall man approached the group without hesitance, confidence in his stride.

"Is one of you the Guide?" he asked without introduction. The little girl piped up.

"That's me for the time being, Honoured Customer."

The man pulled back his hood, revealing a face that despite the dubious expression it wore made Shampoo blink twice. He was gorgeous!

"You can't be serious?" he replied looking to the others. They all nodded, confirming the little girl's assertion. "I see."

"How can I help, Honoured Sir?"

"I'm searching for something," he supplied. "Something vital. Something of more significance in the grand scheme of my life than anything else one could fathom…"

"…"

"…"

"Well?" prompted all else present, hanging on his words. He considered all in the group, seemingly deciding something. He leaned in closer and said,

"Mind your own business." Three generations of the same family simultaneously facefaulted.

Ryoga didn't face fault, busy wondering where he had seen the stranger before. Strangely, an image of a speedo popped into the forefront of his mind when he did so. Casting such a horrid mental picture out, he focused on the true reason he had accompanied the Amazons to Jusenkyo. Ukyo curse was lost, but that didn't mean he couldn't get her some more. So he paid attention as the little girl directed the old crone to the Nyaniichuan, as the close-mouthed newcomer seemed unwilling to divulge his business in their presence.

He followed the pair to the unassuming looking spring, setting his pack beside him on the ground. When the ancient Amazon got within three metres of the pool, she nodded silently. She turned to her Great-Granddaughter.

"Shampoo, follow!" she commanded, as she leaped onto the pole jutting from a pool quite a distance away from the Spring of Drowned Girl. Shampoo nodded as her father bid her to be safe. He settled down on a rock beside the little girl.

It took three leaps but Shampoo soon faced off against her ancestor above the accursed Pools of Sorrow. "Shampoo!" the Elder declared, "You broken our laws and disgraced our tribe. You must be trained again!"

"Yes, Great-Grandmother."

"Here I come!"

The battle was hard fought, skilful and very, very brief, as Shampoo careened into a pool not far from where the young girl and Shampoo's father sat.

"My daughter!" cried the man.

"The Maoniichuan," provided the de facto guide, unbidden. "In Jusenkyo, there is a very tragic legend of a cat that drowned in a spring eighteen hundred years ago. Now whoever falls… into… the spring… takes… the body of…"

"What's wrong?" asked Shampoo as she emerged noisily from the spring. The silence was deafening. "What are you all looking at?"

o-o-o

Although they'd quickly readjusted to having the yatai with them again, the travelling martial artists were loathe to manoeuvre the okonomiyaki cart into the heavily wooded forest. One that apparently concealed a famous male martial artists' training ground. Genma agreed with his charges that getting the bulky cart through the omnipresent florae wouldn't be worth the bother. His reasoning being that the ground's location was tightly kept secret only available to true masters of the art. As such, potential customers would be low. The teenagers deigned not to mention the peculiarity of a famous training ground being a secret.

This last stretch before Tokyo, while not having been the most eventful, was certainly the most rigorous. The cursed youths' sensei had decided that his students had both finally attained a level sufficient for him to begin to truly train them.

While not exactly the most arrogant duo, Ranma Saotome and Ukyo Kuonji certainly did not want for confidence in their own abilities. Their mutual dismissive scoffs at Panda-chan's declaration were however, soon to be replaced with mutual groans of pain, as Genma quite handily wiped the floor with each of them. The stocky man had apparently gotten over his odd inability to battle his own child, the one that they'd noticed in China. The pair wondered at how such a powerful martial artist could completely transform into a snivelling coward under the correct circumstances. They were beginning to suspect that their sensei had more layers than he had ever let on.

Nonetheless, this situation was 'bread and butter' Genma Saotome.

It was a male training ground they were approaching. This coupled with the need to guard the yatai, Genma had naturally declared that his manly son and he head onward, while Ukyo remained with the cart. Perhaps setting up roadside and take advantage of the irregular halt in their wandering.

The smallest member of the group had adopted a withered expression.

"Give it a rest, Pop," she groaned. "Even with this manliness shtick, I don't see how I," she pointed a thumb at her chest "am gonna fit in in at a male only dojo, or whatever this place is." She nodded to her recently splashed fiancé. "Take Ucchan, and I'll set up the grill back on the trail. See if I can't earn us some spending money."

"Watch yourself, Sugar," bid the cursed chef, absently flicking his thick, dark braid, turning toward the foliage ahead of them at Ranma's smiling nod. Ukyo unsheathed a spatula and began cutting his way through the plant life.

"What sort of man sends a girl in his place to train?" complained Genma, as he slowly followed.

"The sort of man that turns into a girl who happens to have a girl that turns into a guy handy," she replied after him, easily.

Damn, grumbled Genma silently. The boy has gotten far too comfortable with this curse of his. Oh well, in in six months or so, if all went to plan, which was unquestionable, it would be a non-issue. If he played his cards right, he could even get a lot more out of this than he had originally intended. Best of all, everything could be resolved in such a fashion as to keep all involved happy. That this would prevent taking it out of Genma's hide when they eventually surpassed him, down the line, didn't even come into it. Nope, not at all.

o-o-o

Ranma frowned as she let the batter sizzle on the griddle. Although the trail appeared fairly well-travelled, (the girl rolling her eyes at the large sign that read 'Super Secret Kunoichi Hiding Place - '), she'd only encountered a single customer in two hours. And he'd been lost. She was cooking the modern 'yaki before her, more from boredom than hunger. If there was anything worthwhile to be learned at the ground, she imagined Ukyo would let her know. If so, she'd just have to return when she could finally get her hands on a second dragon's whisker. Sacrifices in the name of the art were all well and good, but Ranma was somewhat vainly attached to her hair, and she preferred to keep it attached to herself. Humming, she nonchalantly plucked a fallen leaf from her gi.

The little redhead was listlessly flipping the grilled dish when she screeched, thumbs, index and pinkie fingers extended as a figure melted form the forest to appear directly before the cart. Taking in the figure's garb and entrance, Ranma adopted a defensive stance (grudgingly conceding to herself that she was lucky that she was wearing a sports bra). She faced off against a ninja who… slobbered unashamedly at the sight of the steaming 'yaki on the grill. A second look showed Ranma an almost emaciated looking girl donned in hand-me-down suit, with various white patches sewn where the dark red material had worn away threw age and wear. Despite her current gender, Ranma had enough teenage boy left in her to note that despite the girl's undignified and malnourished appearance, she was very attractive. More so even, than Ranma herself, she adjudged, stabbing down an unsettling surge of jealousy.

Seeing as her company had yet to shift her gaze from the pancake, and quickly assessing the unlikelihood of the girl having the capacity to pay, Ranma asked rather lamely, "Uh, you hungry?"

No response. Ranma sweat, as the ninja-girl continued to drool. "Er, you can have that if you wan-"

"Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!" she gasped swallowing the meal in a single gulp. Shaking her head as if waking from a trance, the girl swiftly prostrated herself before the yatai. "Thank you for your kindness, miss," she blubbered gratefully, "I am indebted to you."

"No, no, no, its free!" Ranma waved her hands frantically. With her luck, she wouldn't be surprised if… "Er, say, does your clan by any chance have a rule demanding the death of any outsider who sells you any cabbage-based snacks on Fridays?"

"Free?" repeated the tall girl in awe, not hearing the question. "Really?" she exclaimed, and Ranma blinked as a blur quickly began stripping the yatai of all its foodstuffs.

"Hey! Wait a minute, I meant that one okonomiyaki, not everything!" The ninja flushed in embarrassment.

"Oh, I'm dreadfully sorry!" she apologised.

"Then why are you still eating?"

o-o-o

"So Pop, you never did tell us how you heard about this place," prompted Ukyo as he kept pace with the older man. Genma frowned. He had never been to this training ground before, but it was listed as a 'hotspot' in a certain demon's training manual that the bulky man had come into possession of a few years back.

The part-time panda 'hmphed', playing the all-knowing sensei card for the moment.

"Experience, my boy. It all comes down to that. You have to know which grounds will yield the greatest benefit and selectively tour those with single-minded vigour."

"Such as Jusenkyo?" the lad asked dryly.

"Even the best of us is entitled to an odd blip," proclaimed Genma casually, as he splashed into a small puddle. And I don't see why you complain. You've added strength and stamina in your current state, boy.

"So do you, Pop," he countered, "and yet you haven't been exactly jumping for joy at being a panda."

Alright, mistakes were made, conceded the sign lazily. But I've a good feeling about this place, announced Genma as their destination loomed before them. The pair came to a stop and took in the building. Favouring the panda with a glare cold enough to freeze Bill Gate's liquid assets, Ukyo read the large heart-shaped sign aloud,

" 'Men's Training Ground: Sexy Kunoichi Teashop'… Huh." Genma chuckled nervously. "Good feeling about this place, have you?" asked the chef in a calm tone. Male, he may have presently been, but there was no question as to where his sensibilities lay in regards to… this.

Hoping to salvage some modicum of respect from his pupil, Genma suggested that the external appearance was simply a ruse to mislead all but the most determined of martial artists. He dumped a kettle on himself, declining to offer his companion any hot water. Ukyo's glare hardened as he very reluctantly followed Genma inside the building, expecting the worst.

Sometimes, even the worst expectations are optimistic.

A girlishly screaming figure, followed frantically by Ukyo, fled from three…beings, straight through a pair of walls and back into the comforting embrace of the forest.

o-o-o

"Listen, its alright," explained the redhead, wearily. The seemingly weak-willed girl, was strangely resolute in her assertion that she owed Ranma greatly.

"But I must pay you back for you generosity," insisted the kunouchi. She was still bowing before the yatai.

"Geez, you don't have to do that," she complained exasperatedly. "Stand up, er... I didn't get your name." The ninja stood with beaming face.

"I am Kunoichi, Konatsu Kenzan. Shinobi indebted to Miss…," she trailed off suggestively.

"Oh," blinked the shorter of the two. "Ranma," she supplied.

"Ranma-sama," breathed the ninja girl in adoration, as Ranma gulped worriedly. The girl was levelling her with a worshipful gaze that was pumping butterflies into her stomach.

"N-now listen, here," she spluttered. "I um, already got ah…That is to say, that I'm already… I mean, er…" Ranma blushed furiously. "Just… D-don't be gettin' no ideas." She looked up to see that she'd lost her companion's attention. Konatsu's hand was on her weapon, her head tilted to the side. The kunoichi made a silent hushing gesture and whispered.

"Five people are running through the woods in this direction." She turned an intent gaze to the young Saotome. "Don't worry, Ranma-sama," she assured her. "I'll make sure nothing happens to - oof!"

The girl's promise was cut short by the intervention of an airborne foot. The rest of Ukyo followed, incidentally driving Konatsu back to the ground.

"Hey, what the,"

"No time!" wheezed Ukyo, unceremoniously throwing the unresisting redhead over his shoulder. "They're coming!" Ranma blinked as her fiancé's terror-filled shudder sent shivers through both of them.

"What about the girl?" screamed Ranma through the din of their escape, and Ukyo's flailing braid..

"What girl do mean, boy?" questioned Genma, furiously dragging the yatai alongside the pair. Ranma glanced back at the trail and saw no signs of Konatsu.

"But she was… Weird…"

o-o-o

Konatsu was ready to covertly pursue her mistress' captors when she was abruptly smacked over her prone skull. Groaning at the familiar pain, she fell to her knees, lest the following hit be harder. She sighed as she was thumped a second time, her compliant figure, falling to the earth. She soon rose to face the three grotesqueries that were her step-family.

"Konatsu!" growled her gremlin-like step-mother. "Those two fiends destroyed our tea shop and insulted our comeliness by running away from us."

"Imagine questioning our loveliness!" proclaimed the morbidly obese Koume, through her insanely gargantuan lips. Her bald head had gone red with enmity.

"Oh, I couldn't conceive it," declared Konatsu in dubiously faux honesty. Her bony sister Koede whacked her, and shrieked,

"Are you jealous of our beauty?"

"Your beauty? Absolutely not!" the kunoichi answered genuinely.

After the three pummelled her docile form, Kotet yelled,

"Get those people who did this to the shop and us! Do you hear me?" Konatsu shined as she realised she had a excuse to rescue Ranma that her family condoned. "And don't think even think about coming home before you do!" Little chance of that, she smirked.

"Alright, step-mother!" she announced heartily. "I'll go after them this very sec -"

"But first!" intervened Koume. "Get back to the house and wash the dishes!"

"And scrub the floor!"

"And do the laundry!"

"And clean the -"

Conditioned reflexes kicking in, Konatsu smiled agreeably as she dutifully went about her tasks.

"Right away, sister! Busy, busy, busy!"

o-o-o

"Could you please put me down now?" grumbled Ranma as they entered the city proper. Instead of answering, her fiancé turned to her panting father and asked if he felt sure that they had lost them. Huffing more from fear than exertion, Genma shot a glance over his shoulder and carefully examined his surroundings. Things were looking up for the scheming Saotome. They had killed two birds with one stone, reaching their destination, while escaping from the three windigoes.

He allowed himself a smile. They had finally made it back to Tokyo. Gradually signalling Ukyo to a halt, Genma surveyed the expansive metropolis that sprawled out ahead of him. He took a moment to sample the air of his birthplace. After choking on the exhaust of a passing minivan, he laughed.

"Boys! We're home!" After all these years, his plans would take their most important step on their way to fruition.

"You know I was born in Osaka!" complained the chef. "Right, Ranchan?"

"Could you put me down, please?"

"Details," waved off Genma. "You're a Tokyoite from this day forth, and that's what's important." He began to contemplate. His old plan to pair up Ukyo with that Hibiki boy had taken a gut punch at Jusenkyo. The lost lad had behaved in an increasingly disturbing manner towards his own son from that point on. He didn't even want speculate on the potential outcomes of such a situation. Genma hoped that they wouldn't encounter Ryoga again in the foreseeable future, especially with his son currently donning that treacherous soap. Not that he doubted his son's honour in that scenario, but it would truly be best for all concerned if Ranma never even had to consider such a predicament. He glimpsed askance at the pouting redhead laid across the strong shoulder of her very male fiancé. Definitely for the best.

If nothing else good, with his son's curse had arisen evidence that little Ukyo seemed quite taken with Ranma, or rather his girl side. He felt it couldn't be coincidence that the levels of affection displayed between the two had increased so dramatically since Jusenkyo. With Ranma alone cursed, this would have presented him with a very difficult conundrum. If however, as he suspected, Ukyo's tastes ran in the 'alternative' category, then young chef's gender curse granted him a perfect avenue of recourse. Fate had truly been kind.

Genma grinned an alarmingly wide smile. One that would have set warning bells ringing in his students' head if they hadn't been distracted with one another. Imagine, not one - but two sons to carry on the Anything-Goes legacy. He turned to the boys, er, kids and spoke, "We've made good time getting here."

"Lemme down already!"

"Hush, Ranchan," drawled the chef, playfully patting his captive on the rear. "Pops is trying to say something."

This was really going to work! Thought Genma joyously. Oh happy day! He kindly withheld from himself the fact that Ranma hadn't complained about the contact. "Pops?" prompted the chef with an arched eyebrow.

"Huh?" blinked Genma, gathering himself. "Oh yes. As I was saying, we got here earlier than I expected," he motioned toward the city's skyline. "And I think, if we make a good pace, we could reach our destination by the evening."

"Where are we going , anyway?" questioned the dark-haired boy, absently shifting his grip on Ranma. Moving the acquiescent redhead to his other shoulder, he continued. "You still haven't told us about this engagement that was so important, we had to leave China right away." From beneath a hooded stare, Genma spoke an artfully sinister rejoinder.

"Are you telling me you'd rather be back in Qinghai dealing with that Amazon girl?"

"Good point!" agreed Ukyo nodding vehemently, drowning out Ranma's 'hussy' comment. Still got it, smirked Genma at his expert redirection. "But don't change the subject," smirked the chef. "What's happening where we're going?" Damn. He'd have to work some more on that one. Oh well, he thought grabbing a strangely convenient pail of water. Distraction would have only gotten him so far. He could just outright avoid answering their questions the rest of the way. It would also give him time to think of a way to convince the pair to go through with it. He was certain of his plan's long-term success. All he needed was a way to get his disagreeable charges to initially heed to his wisdom. The now-panda could admit to himself that his argumentative skills weren't his forté. He nodded to himself resolutely, as he decided on his method of persuasion. After all, he thought, reciting one of his late master's training slogans, 'When nothing else will work, blackmail is the only honourable option.'

Ukyo quickly recovered from his discomfiture at his guardian panda-fying himself, entreating, "At least tell us where we're going."

Genma decided to throw the pair a bone. After all, the 'where' wasn't the problem, but the 'what'. He produced a sign displaying the words: We're headed to the Nerima ward, boy. Keep up.

'Nerima', pondered Ukyo at the unexpected answer, increasing his pace to that of the yatai-bearing panda. Following the swiftly moving Genma into the endless streets, he wondered... Should that name sound familiar?

"Can I come down yet?"

o-o-o

o-o-o o-o-o

o-o-o o-o-o o-o-o

Author's Notes

My apologies to all who were following this story. I realise that not updating in over six months verges on the ridiculous, and I won't bore you with inconsequential personal details to excuse my absence. All I can do to redress this is to resume posting somewhat regularly.

This chapter accomplishes a lot, getting the story moving again. But in parts it feels just a little hollow. Narrative is definitely not my forté, and I often struggle to marry situational humour with solid illustration. When I read fics by Kirinin or Ebiris, featuring such skilfully crafted narratives, that by comparison, make mine seem to have been written by a ten-thumbed monkey, I feel like just going back to the drawing board.

Personally, I enjoy writing conversation. When I scan what I've written, I'm generally satisfied with the dialogue. Not that it couldn't stand a hell of a lot of improvement as it is. Once again, I'm pipped by a lot of authors (including the above two) in this respect.

But this isn't a competition. Stories aren't rated by their review count although reviews are nice ;) . There's room for my self-indulgent lark to squeeze in along with the true paragons of fine fanfiction. And hey, if it elicits a genuine chuckle or two, then its done it's job.

More coming soon.

Ace A