Merry-Go-Round Broke Down

Shampoo outran the gravity as she pedaled across the high brick wall of an old office building, smiling and waving cheerfully down at the third story inhabitants gaping at her through the windows. Kicking powerfully, flinging the bicycle into mid air, she hooked the top of a lamp standard with her foot so that she spun the bike around and deftly touched down on the fence, having made simultaneous ninety-degree course, attitude and altitude changes without slowing in the least.

Her legs pumped furiously, the whirr of the tires and the snapping of her micro-skirt and long purple tresses in the slipstream combining to make a tearing sound that caused the unfortunates that had heard it before dive wildly for cover. Not that it would help them.

Shampoo suddenly stood up, only her toes on the pedals, jumping at the optimum second that she ran out of fence. Her momentum was such that she blazed across the intersection at the average altitude of seven feet, needing only to kick off from Stupid Pig Boy's iron-hard head to maintain her height and touch down smoothly on the fence on the other side. She grinned with delight as she saw a time display on a billboard. She had crossed Tokyo in under six minutes. Shampoo would never miss a delivery! She ruled!

ooOoo

Ryoga fell senseless to the sidewalk, massive quantities of blood jetting from his nostrils. He had been screaming his hatred for Ranma to the gods, looking up just as Shampoo had used his forehead as a springboard while passing overhead. Her foot had not hurt, but the panty shot had been more than perfect. He now knew beyond any possible doubt that her shocking purple hair color was completely natural.

"Outsider pervert no look up Amazon Womans dress!" Lou-fa, exhausted from trying to catch up with Shampoo and startled by the male's conciousness, decided to rest a while and beat the male unconscious before resuming her search for the Cat Café.

Ryoga blinked in surprise as a bonbori slammed into his forehead and cracked like glass into a thousand small fragments. "Augh! I didn't mean to be looking up that way! I'm so sorry! I'll look down from now on and- Wait a minute, you're not Shampoo!" Ryoga sat up, using a bandanna to staunch his bleeding nose. "Who are you? Why are you breaking things with my head? Curse you, Ranma! This is all your fault!"

Lou-fa scowled. The bonbori had been a family weapon. "You is pretty, Outsider Male. But can you fight?"

Ryoga stood, gaping at her, bemused. That accent where had he heard it before? She had bright green hair, too. What could it all mean?

Lou-fa took the opportunity to produce a small dental mirror and inspect his teeth. "Ah, very good fangs. You is about sixteen? Unmarried?"

The penny dropped. "Y-You! You're an Amazon!" Ryoga took a step backward, bumbling to a halt against something. "What do you want?" He gulped, hoping that he hadn't wandered into China again somehow. No, there was Tokyo Tower. He could be in that other city though, the one with the rude waiters. They had a Tokyo Tower too, but no Amazons that he knew of. Tokyo was often just crawling with them.

Lou-fa nodded in satisfaction at the municipal garbage truck that he had inadvertently pushed aside. "You is STRONG male! You I challenge!"

Ryoga crossed his arms. "No way, Amazon! I won't fight! I don't want to marry anyone but Akane." His eyes glazed and fluttered closed, shutting out the generously endowed crazy-woman as he began to ramble. "Or maybe Daori, or Linda, she's really cute. Or maybe even-

Lou-fa was suddenly angry. She reared back, calling up every last trace of ki she had and head-butted him in square in the forehead, just as hard as she possibly could. The blow would have dented an army tank. In fact, her blows had done so, easily. The tribe had several dozen horribly dented captured PLA tanks lying around, for use as practice targets.

Ryoga, caught up in his somewhat lecherous thoughts, failed to notice. "Shori, or Akiri, or that tall girl I met in that one city with the big arch-

Ryoga noted the silence and frowned in sudden suspicion, opening his eyes. The Amazon was lying on the ground in front of him, unconscious. Had she fainted? Was it some sort of trick? People were always tricking him and it just pissed him off to no end. Inspecting her carefully, he decided that she wasn't Ranma in disguise again after all. Ranma was just the sort of pervert that would sink to any depths, so one always had to be on the lookout for such disgusting Ranma-tricks.

Ryoga gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, thinking about it. It was always Ranma's fault, but he couldn't quite see how this time. Ranma was tricky that way. He hadn't been paying attention, thinking of all the pretty girls he knew, and he knew all those girls because he was constantly looking for Ranma.

Ryoga brightened. Ha! Of course. There it was. However you looked at things, it always boiled down to Ranma's fault. Maybe he ought to tell those global warming protesters if he ran across them again.

Thinking about Ranma made his fists itch terribly, reminding him of the fact that Ranma was in need of a truly catastrophic beat-down. Picking up the girl, he departed in an utterly random direction in search of his nemesis. After he pulped Ranma, he would drop the girl off at the Cat Café. Cologne might even feed him for bringing back a fallen Amazon that had fainted because of Ranma, the fiend!

ooOoo

Kasumi smiled out of the window at Ranma as he twisted in mid air, spun, bounced off of one of the ornamental rocks in the koi pond and mule-kicked his father into the water as he passed overhead. Watching Ranma spar was better than anything on television. He was a wonderfully fit heir to the Anything Goes School.

Uncomfortably, she wondered what was to become of her when Ranma and Akane finally inherited the house. She had no real prospects, and there was no way that she could afford to move out. Unlike her luckier sisters, she hadn't been able to even think of attending college. She had easily passed the Todai entrance examination but her father had been nearly catatonic that year, and with two younger children to look after, she just hadn't had the time. Kasumi had graduated at the top of her class in high school and her life had just stopped. She had looked after the family ever since, her dreams of medical school forgotten, telling herself that they were worth it.

Turning, Kasumi's sad smile died. Akane had sneaked into the kitchen while she was distracted and was standing by the stove, pouring wasabi powder into the pot of miso soup stock that Kasumi was in the process of preparing for the family's breakfast.

"Akane!" Kasumi stared in disbelief. "What on earth are you doing?"

Akane, turning to look at her older sister, immediately became defensive. "I just want to help! How am I supposed to learn with you hogging the kitchen all the time? I mean, don't you ever go anywhere? How is anyone ever supposed to learn with you always in here?"

Kasumi stared at her sister for a long moment and then removed her apron. "Perhaps you are right, Akane."

ooOoo

Ranma Saotome, slightly deafened by Akane's angry harangue and out of sorts from his miserable breakfast, heard the bicycle one millisecond too late. He winced as his crazy Amazon fiancée impacted his head with her front tire, coming to rest and then instantly kicking off, knocking him dazed and spinning into the canal, all without a word of greeting.

There had been no bell, either. Obviously, Shampoo was most displeased about something today.

Ranma surfaced and glumly sloshed her way to shore, completely ignoring her two angry fiancée's cat-fighting on the other side of the fence. As she removed and wrung out her shirt, she felt her danger-sense flare. Hopping back, a rain of knives, arrows and daggers buried themselves in the ground where she had stood.

"Mousse." Ranma used the same tired, disgusted tone that she reserved for such statements as, 'The toilet is backed up again,' or 'Kuno is at the door with flowers.'

"PREPARE TO DIE FOR YOUR CRIME OF TRYING TO TAKE MY SHAMPOO!"

Ranma sighed with boredom. Blindman's Bluff was getting old indeed.

ooOoo

Nabiki had been trying to talk Kasumi back into her kitchen all morning, so she was running very late. Her thoughtless little brat of a sister had the nerve to suggest that Kasumi had somehow 'stifled' them, by 'hogging' the kitchen.

Kasumi had abandoned them all to the mercy of Akanes cusine, trying to appease the self absorbed little brat's bad temper. Kasumi had seemed serene during the conferentation, but had gone upstairs to cry afterwards.

Dark, unforgivable things had been said during Akane's little tirade. Nabiki felt a sharp pang of regret for not keeping up her training in the Tendo school. Nabiki would have taken the time to beat Akane into a twitching pulp, if she could. Kasumi had not shown it externally, but her youngest sister's careless words had hurt her deeply. Hurting Kasumi was not permitted in Nabiki's book. Akane would pay dearly, just as soon as Nabiki could think of a way to set Ukyo or Shampoo on her trail. Maybe Ukyo and Shampoo. Akane deserved a really special day.

Coming upon a half-naked onna Ranma desultorily beating the crap out of Mousse, Nabiki brightened and pulled out her camera. Taking candid shots of Ranma's enormous rack as it bounced and moved in ways that would send Tatawaki Kuno into a coma, Nabiki gloated over her profitable morning. She would almost certainly need the money to eat out on.

ooOoo

"Stupid, savage, Chinese BIMBO!" Akane shook with anger. Shampoo was better looking than her, a better cook, a better swimmer and a vastly better martial artist. It made Akane crazy. The only thing that kept Akane even remotely sane about the whole fiancé situation was the fact that SHE had Ranma, while the rest of the girls tried to take him. The Amazon could pose all she wanted, but Shampoo was the second or even third-best in the race for Ranma. That meant that Akane was the truly superior one.

Shampoo was amused, knowing exactly why Akane got so angry. "So, does Violent Girl want to challenge Amazon Warrior today? Perhaps lose temper like child? If let that baby temper out in village, Gorilla Girl get dolly of own, be dressed and treated as little girl is until is learning to be grown up woman!"

Shampoo didn't want to provoke the Japanese girl too much. She didn't actually dislike Akane. The Japanese girl was a spoiled little brat, endlessly indulged and sheltered by her father and older sisters, but that wasn't really her fault. Shampoo, motherless herself, sympathized with Akane, who didn't seem to have any Great Great Grandmother to take up the slack and teach her the things that a girl needed to know.

Cologne felt and Shampoo agreed that Akane had great natural potential as a martial artist, once she was properly trained. Shampoo was aware that Ranma occasionally tried to help, but as Cologne had pointed out, neither Ranma nor Soun had what it took to pass the brutal, degrading training for the School Of Anything Goes on to anyone that they actually cared about.

"This is Tokyo, not your stupid little village!" Akane clenched her fists, swallowed her fury, then turned and walked away.

Shampoo was impressed with her self control. Akane was learning, slowly but surely.

Nabiki shook her head. Akane was so bad at non-physical conflict. "Shampoo?"

"What Mercenary girl want?" Shampoo was smiling, watching Ranma's bare breasts bouncing prettily as she finished off Mousse, this time using only her left pinky.

"Does this happen every morning?" Nabiki had used up all of her film. "I can't believe that I let this get by me!" Kuno would pay a fortune.

"Almost, but Greedy Girl never saw." Quick as a wink, Shampoo washed, dried and combed Nabiki's hair, using her formula 110 shampoo to give Nabiki a quick Xi Fa Xiang Gao.

Shampoo whispered rapidly in Nabiki's ear. "Nabiki go school, not looking back. Saw Poisoner Sister in argument with beautiful Amazon. Saw boy-type Ranma beating idiot Mousse. Notice forget film in camera. Nothing interesting to take picture of anyway. Now go, in big-big hurry to shake down weakling males, not looking back."

"Morning, Shampoo." Nabiki nodded at her and walked past quickly, a bored expression on her face.

"Good Morning, Mercenary Girl!" With a cheery smile, Shampoo dropped Nabiki's film into her change pouch. Nabiki was an excellent photographer and there was no reason to let such skill go to waste.

Moving in a blur, Ranma caught Mousse up in his own chains and wrapped him up to the usual lamppost. Mouse sagged as the end caught him on the temple.

"What does this prove?" Ranma stood, arms crossed over her breasts, looking up at the helpless Mousse. "Why do you keep attacking me? I'm way out of your league, Mousse. You can't win and it's not even good sparring. Please, just stop."

Shampoo squealed with joy and wrapped herself around the redhead like an anaconda. He was just so terribly womanly.

"Augh! Shampoo!" Ranma pulled, wriggled and finally gave up. The Amazon Glomp was a ferocious martial arts technique in its own right, and she was beginning to suspect that there was a pressure point involved. She never became this aroused when Kodachi wrapped herself around him and demanded that he 'make her a woman immediately.'

Ranma felt her nipples harden and flushed. It was time to end this, before she got arrested for lewd conduct again. There was no Tatiwaki around to buy her out of trouble this time. "Shampoo Don't you have a delivery?"

Shampoo came out of her fog of blinding realization and loosened her hold. Clearly, Ranma was vulnerable to her Art in his girl form! He had trained his male body to ignore pain and he could easily make it ignore pleasure too, but this female body was vulnerable! "Uh? Oh, yes, Airen. Must get back to Nekohantin. Airen come date with loving wife?"

"No, Shampoo, not now. I have to get to school," said Ranma, patiently.

Reluctantly, Shampoo let go. She thrust out her chest and put on her number four smile, the one that made Mousse quack like a duck even when he wasn't a duck. "Airen pleased to come see poor lonely Shampoo today? Is just happening to be Free Dim Sum for Ranma Day at Nekohantin!"

"Yatta!" Ranma leapt into the air in celebration, her mouth watering. Cologne was quite possibly the best cook on the planet and Shampoo was learning fast. "Um, sure! Maybe I'll stop by around closing." Two dinners! Kasumi was going to make beef bowl, so she would have both! She felt like dancing over this fabulous windfall.

Smiling, Shampoo grabbed the small girl in a paralysis lock and then kissed her goodbye, using plenty of tongue. Releasing the redhead to stumble back and fall clumsily on her rear, Shampoo mounted her bicycle, careful to show as much leg as possible. "Don't forget to come, Airen! Shampoo waiting with too-too delicious feast!"

Humming the part of the Man Hunting Song that described the art of beguilement, she streaked off toward the restaurant, careful not to lay down any rubber. She went through three sets of tires a week and Mousse was an indifferent mechanic at best.

ooOoo

Ranma exhaled tremulously, put her shirt back on and climbed shakily to her feet. No one had ever put her tongue in her mouth before. It should be gross, but it wasn't. She wanted more. Groaning, she wondered just what kind of magic potion Shampoo was using on her this time.

Noticing Mousse coming around, she moved off on unsteady legs to find hot water.

ooOoo

Mousse woke, both depressed and viciously angry. Ranma had smacked him around and handled him like a child, careful not to leave any bad bruises. It was so humiliating. On top of that, Ranma had obviously figured out how his hidden weapons ki-warp worked and had methodically reached in and crumbled away all of his hidden weapons with an odd, non-explosive variation of the baksu tensu as they fought. Didn't Ranma realize how expensive those weapons were?

Struggling with his chains, Mousse finally freed himself from the lamp post. He groaned, dumping out his payload of scrap and then kicking through the broken steel confetti that used to be fine Amazon knives, swords and spears.

"Damn that Saotome!" Climbing over the fence, Mousse felt around and picked up the few weapons that Ranma had left unbroken from the initial volley. Cursing, he began stowing them away.

ooOoo

Officer Hiro Masushido strolled for the first time in this new district of Nerima. He was very early for his first shift at the koban, but he wanted to get to know the neighborhood a little before seeing it again through a policeman's jaded eyes. He had noted the many signs of hastily repaired property damage and was growing increasingly uneasy about his new assignment. Did Nerima have some gang of teen vandals running around, preying on the citizens? If so, they had a new opponent to be reckoned with. Hiro hated punks.

Frowning, he saw a strangely dressed young man with a large sword in his hands, standing near an area of slashed up fence. Calling for backup on his small radio, he ran to get the vandal before he could do any more damage.

ooOoo

Cologne fumed looking at the clock. The lunch rush was on and Shampoo was dawdling, taking her sweet time making her deliveries. Mr. Part Time was absent again, no doubt lazing about, knocked unconscious by the Son-In-Law. There were simply too many customers out in the dining area for her to handle alone, even moving at Amigurken speeds. She would have to close, in spite of the crowd.

Cologne needed no money, being fabulously wealthy by these paltry modern day standards. She could order the Nekohantin filled with gold and the tribal treasure vaults would easily manage it without feeling any sort of pinch. But in hunting, placement was everything. If Shampoo was to have a chance at obtaining Ranma for the tribe, she needed to be a part of the local community. Besides, making money was always preferable to spending it and Cologne enjoyed the simple challenge of running a restaurant.

Hopping out to the dining area with a loaded tray, she halted as Kasumi Tendo entered the restaurant. Immediately, the boisterous customers calmed down.

"Ah, Miss Tendo. How very pleasant it is to see you again." Cologne rather liked Kasumi. Of course, she reflected, everyone that had ever met Kasumi rather liked Kasumi. It was virtually impossible not to like Kasumi, unless you were a demon, and even some of them had proven to be partial. Kasumi was always the serene center of the positive ki that she generated in vast, mind-fogging quantities.

"As it is to see you, Honored Matriarch." Kasumi's Mandarin was charmingly accented, but perfectly intelligible.

Cologne paused, surprised. "I was unaware that you spoke Mandarin. You speak it well, Miss Tendo."

Kasumi smiled. Nabiki had gotten her a portable CD player for her eighteenth birthday and Kasumi had found a treasure trove in the public library. "I fear that my accent is poor. I have been borrowing a Mandarin language course from the public library and I fear that the narrators were not actually native Mandarin speakers. I felt that it was worth pursuing though. I desperately needed something to occupy my mind beyond housework over this last year." No one had paid any attention at home. Kasumi had also learned to understand and speak very passable English in the same way.

Cologne was very impressed. The girl had a will of iron. "Well done, Child. Few people have what it takes to profitably occupy their idle hours, let alone to divide their attention during their workday." Intrigued, Cologne looked closely at the girl. There was some tension on her face. Perhaps the child had finally come to her senses and needed advice on how to escape the Tendo asylum. "Excuse me for a moment, my dear. I am short handed today and must wait the tables as well as prepare the food. I may well be forced to close, if Shampoo doesn't return very soon."

Looking at the packed restaurant, Kasumi blinked. "I had come to inquire about the possibility of obtaining a job, Honored Matriarch. Might I be of some assistance?"

Cologne smiled with relief. Clearly, the gods were on her side today. "I would be grateful indeed if you would accept a job, Kasumi Tendo. There is a spare apron in the kitchen. We shall discuss your terms of employment after the lunch rush."

"Thank you, Honored Matriarch." Smiling happily, Kasumi donned an apron and deftly restored order to the chaos.

ooOoo

Mousse sat in the cell, in the position of light meditation, impassive. The guards, more racist than most Japanese, had 'beaten' him, foolishly imagining that their feeble little taps could compare with his daily battles with Saotome Ranma. It had been like being attacked by a gang of seven year olds. The Matriarch had ordered that no Japanese official was to be harmed, so he had not resisted.

Wonder filled him. His time here in Japan had made him very strong. Before coming here a beating like that would have left him badly hurt, perhaps even dead. Now, normal men could not harm him. Not only did he not notice it, but he had already fully recovered from the beating that Ranma had laid on him earlier.

The police had been rather nice, in a hesitant sort of way, but the jailers were brutes. They had stripped him nearly naked before locking him in a cold isolation cell. It was an old part of the building, deep in the basement, with primitive barred cell doors and key locks. The chill was intense. He had deduced what was to come and simply waited, patiently. There was no way this place could hold him if he really wanted out.

ooOoo

Corporal Tominaga Shozo sneered at the prisoner. Chinese, of course, and without a passport. Central Records had been unable to identify him through fingerprints, either. An uncouth sneaking barbarian, here illegally, who had assaulted a police officer. Why were so many foreigners being allowed in the country? The Yamato Blood could not be allowed to be diluted by these filthy parasites.

"You! Quickly! Give me your name!"

Mousse schooled his face into its most serene expression. This fool was perfect. "God."

"God? GOD!" Shozo grit his teeth together. The Chink was toying with him!

"Yes, I am visiting the Earth. Right now I am judging Japan. Should I sink Japan for its people's unthinking nationalistic cruelty and unwillingness to admit to their long history of brutal war crimes? I shall decide very soon."

Shozo flushed with anger. "If you're God, then why are you squatting in a cage like a dung-eating Chinese monkey?"

Mousse answered, face serene, "One place in Japan is as good as another."

Shozo sneered. "Well, Mr. 'God,' perhaps I can make things more comfortable for you while you decide?"

Mousse shrugged. "Thank you for your concern, but it is not necessary. If I should become uncomfortable I shall simply take up another form more suitable to the environment."

Shozo smirked, amused. The Chink was crazy. "If you are 'God,' why not become Japanese to visit Japan?"

"Japanese?" Mousse frowned at him. "I would not so demean myself."

Grunting and muttering with rage, Shozo unrolled the fire hose and attached it to the emergency fire-main. "Well, 'God,' enjoy your bath. So sorry. We seem to be a little short of towels today." Shozo itched to beat him to a pulp, but he wasn't allowed to leave too many marks. Let the Chink bastard shiver all night in the cold concrete cell. That was harder than a beating, in its way. 'God,' would be more than ready to talk in the morning.

Shozo opened the valve and then sprayed the insolent Chink down.

The Chink disappeared.

Shozo's mouth dropped open and he lost control of the nozzle. It spat and bucked, writhing around and spraying down the whole tier, until it finally hit him in the knee, knocking him down. Crawling to the fire main, he turned off the valve and then sat sprawled on the concrete floor facing the cell, mouth open.

A duck stood in the cell, staring back at him impassively.

"Oh." Shozo tried to speak, to plead, but he was mute. It WAS God. Japan was doomed.

Mousse managed to control his duck laughter and with a dignified waddle, indicated that the door should be opened.

Shozo, feeling the unreality of it all begin to drown him, limped over and opened the door. Following God, he unlocked every other door until they came to the dayroom.

ooOoo

Captain Tanaka stood, mouth open, as the soaking wet duty corporal followed an arrogant looking duck across the large reception room, solemnly opening the glass doors until he reached the pair that lead out into the police parking lot behind Central Booking.

Following, Tanaka saw the duck look back at Corporal Shozo, shake its head slowly, draw a wing across it's throat in a 'you're dead' sort of gesture and then fly away.

Captain Tanaka blinked. Now that was an odd duck indeed. "Corporal! What the hell was that all about? Who brought that duck in here? Why are you wet?"

Corporal Shozo abruptly collapsed to his knees, blubbering hysterically. "That was God and he's going to kill us all!"

Captain Tanaka's eyes widened. "What? Have you flipped out? Shiro! Matsuda! Secure Shozo! Get some cuffs on him before he hurts himself!" He went to call an ambulance and a hazmat team to find out what had gotten to poor Shozo.

ooOoo

Ranma strolled along a telephone wire, enjoying the remains of the day. School was out and there were no bothersome fiancées in sight. The sky was clear of the usual smog and the sun shown down on him. Involuntarily, he smiled. Looking up, he could see stars through the blue. No one ever believed him, but he could often make them out in the daytime.

He had fled a violent, ranting Akane after school and now he was simply wandering happily through Tokyo. Ranma had spent his whole life wandering and he missed it greatly. Wandering was a fine way to live. There was always something new waiting around every bend in the road, people to see, places to go and adventure lurking everywhere. He often daydreamed about Oyaji just giving up on the Tendo dojo, throwing on his pack one day and announcing that they were off to Brazil, or Sumatra, or some other place far away from boring schools, annoyingly dense fiancées and stupid ranting rivals who couldn't ever seem to come up with any interesting new techniques. He had suggested it several times, but Oyaji was adamant about staying, even if Ranma could see the same desire lurking in his eyes. The open road called to the Saotome blood and there was no way to deny it.

Hopping from the wire to a fence, he turned down a random street and paused to bow to a crowd of young schoolchildren who were clapping and pointing at him.

A cute little girl clapped and called, "Do another trick, Acrobat-san!"

"Um, okay." Ranma jumped straight up thirty feet, hung tumbling in the air for an unnaturally long time and then landed lightly back on the fence, perched on his toes. "How was that?"

The teacher and her assistant gaped at him in disbelief and the children stared, wide eyed.

A little boy broke the stunned silence. "How did you do that?"

Ranma shrugged, rubbing his neck in embarrassment. "It's just a martial arts move."

"But You were flyin! People can't fly!" The little boy's eyes were huge.

Ranma snorted in disgust. "Naaa, i wasn't really flying. Not yet. I know a coupla guys that can fly and I just ain't got the hang of it. But someday I will!" Ranma jumped spinning into the air again, hanging twice as long.

The small crowd cheered wildly as Ranma touched down and bowed again. He opened his mouth to speak further, stopped and blinked. A masked man with a gun stood beside a nearby car, watching a bank. As Ranma watched, another masked man came running out, carrying a long gun and a sports bag. Laughing, he fired a long burst into the bank and then jumped into the car. It burned rubber, fishtailing and accelerating straight toward Ranma and the crocodile of schoolchildren on the sidewalk below.

Ranma launched himself into the air, landing on the car roof. Oyaji had told him about a new Saotome technique not long ago, a technique derived from Ryoga's 'Backsu Tensu.' People were always trying to put Oyaji in various types of cage and now they were after him more than ever.

"Panda Breakout Blast!" Ranma shielded himself with ki and smirked nastily down at a wide-eyed criminal.

The car abruptly disintegrated into a cloud of metallic powder and the criminals screamed in terror as the gasoline ignited behind them like a fuel-air bomb.

Moving with awesome speed, Ranma blurred into the middle of the unexpected fireball, plucked their guns and the bags out of their hands, tossed the robbers free of the cloud and put them to sleep with a pressure point, all before they could blink.

High denomination yen notes from the other robber's bag fluttered in the air. Ranma, overcome with sudden greed, slipped into the Silent Thief. Moving rapidly, he collected a few of the bills that were floating toward the burning pavement, as they would have burned up anyway. He considered them legitimate spoils of war.

A security guard ran out into the street, gaped at the burning pile of scrap that was once a car, saw Ranma standing nearby and pointed a shaking pistol at him. He screamed, "Freeze!"

Ranma flipped a loose bolt from the car like a shuriken and destroyed the gun. "It's seventy degrees out here, Fatso." He turned away, the incident already forgotten, in search of a good buffet to spend his loot on.

The guard looked at his twisted weapon then at the unconscious Japanese Red Brigade terrorists and at their disintegrated car. He swallowed, dryly. "I- I Robbers Nerima martial artists I quit."

ooOoo

Ranma hopped off of the top of the speeding bullet train, swinging several times around a suprisingly flexable metal light pole to bleed off some momentum before launching himself high over the top of the station and landing lightly on the sidewalk in front of it. The fast-moving train never stopped at Nerima, but Ranma rode it fairly often. Bullet trains were rather tame, but sort of fun now that he couldn't shark-ride anymore because of his curse. Leaping to a nearby roof, he streaked for the Tendo Dojo, starving.

Scowling, he hopped over the Tendo gate. Every buffet that he had gone into had his and his girl form's picture taped up behind the cash register. Most had Genma's picture too. Apparently the Japanese Buffet Association had it in for all things Saotome. He had been hustled out every time, before he could even open his mouth.

Ranma started to enter the Tendo home, anticipating beef bowl, but caught a horrible whiff of something that started his nose running. There was only one way that a smell like that could ever be found coming from Kasumi's kitchen. Coughing, he sneaked around to the back of the house and took a cautious peek through the kitchen window. Recoiling, he stifled a gasp of horror as he saw a sight that made his blood freeze.

Akane was standing in front of the oven, beating something into submission with a spoon. The amorphous blob had escaped from a pot and was on the floor, sending thin, quivering tentacles in all directions, frantically attempting to escape. Akane, fury on her face, dropped the spoon, pulled her mallet and proceeded to turn it into a thin paste. It keened, writhing pathetically as it died. Akane screamed back at it, letting her hatred and rage build until she had a dull red battle-aura flickering fitfully around her, the hammer striking faster than the gong of an electric fire-bell.

Suddenly all smiles, Akane dug out a spatula, scraped up the flattened paste, rolled it up into a tube, folded it and jammed it back into the pot. Then she dumped an entire pound of un-ground black pepper corns into it and mashed it all up with her spoon.

Ranma's jaw sagged open and he took a shaken step backward.

Noticing the movement, Akane suddenly looked up and saw him through the window. "Ranma! Get your butt in here. I made a nice dinner for you!"

"You eat it then!" Shuddering, he spun and ran for all that he was worth, ignoring Akane's pursuing screams of rage.

ooOoo

Mousse slunk into the Nekohantin, knowing that he was in deep trouble. He was a good eleven hours late for work. Cologne wouldn't be pleased at all. Suddenly, his breath caught. There she was, his Shampoo, so beautiful, so graceful, so wide-open Knowing that he would pay for it later, he lunged and executed a perfect flying mega-glomp.

"Oh, MY!" Kasumi's eyes popped wide as Mousse fastened himself to her and proceeded to grope her thoroughly. Not even Happosai had ever dared something like that.

Shampoo, coming out of the kitchen, stopped and snarled, exactly like an angry cat. Mousse, wearing an expression of blissful stupidity, was obscenely rubbing himself all over a shocked Kasumi Tendo, just as he did her whenever she left herself open even for a split second.

"Mousse! Idiot male! Why you never learn?" Producing her bonbori, she tapped him hard enough to make him release Kasumi and stagger back on rubber legs. Next, using her strong overhead right, she spiked him into oblivion, careful not to damage the floor. Shampoo usually didn't bother with weapons when dealing with Mousse, but now she felt herself slipping into a blind rage. Kasumi was a very nice girl, someone who Shampoo truly wanted as a friend. Hopefully, she would take Mousse in stride and not go running home in tears.

Shampoo missed having female friends, as every Japanese girl that she liked also seemed to be a strong rival for her Airen.

"Oh!" Kasumi straightened her clothes, the barest traces of embarrassment and discomfort on her features. "Oh. Oh, my. I had thought that an Amazon man would learn to behave properly toward women."

Cologne entered the dining room, her expressionless face far worse than anger. Cologne was terribly, terribly embarrassed by this lapse. Mousse had badly shamed the entire tribe in front of someone worthy of respect. "Child, most Amazon males do eventually learn to show some small respect to women, but this blind duck has always gotten away with doing as he pleased. He was an uncommonly handsome child and pity for his blindness was allowed to excuse his bad manners. But no more."

Mousse woke, groaned, sat up and stood. "Shampoo! Where-

Cologne glared at him, secretly impressed with his quick recovery time. "Enough!" She paralyzed his vocal chords with a poke of her staff. Looking out at the now sparsely populated dining room, she bundled him into the kitchen. "Do not leave the restaurant or show yourself to the public. Remain in the kitchen. We shall have words, Mousse."

Kasumi gave him a stern look, realized that he couldn't see her and then with a small vexed sigh, resumed her duties as a waitress. Retrieving her pad from where she had dropped it, she went out to the dining room to greet a new arrival. Used to chaos, she took such things in stride better than most.

ooOoo

There were only a few tables occupied, mostly by unmarried salarymen, poor hard working souls in their late twenties or early thirties that had for whatever reason, no one at home to prepare a meal.

Shampoo hung back to watch, fascinated, as Kasumi went to greet a new customer. The phenomenon was indeed worthy of study.

"Hello, I'm Kasumi! Welcome to the Cat Café!" Kasumi always accompanied her cheerful welcome with a truly genuine smile. She enjoyed meeting people and treated each new person in her life as a treasured friend.

"Ah, hello, I'm" The customer, a business suited young man in his mid twenties with the bloodshot eyes of the habitual workaholic, swallowed and blinked hard. Kasumi was devastation itself, floating along in a blinding cloud of cheery goodness. His entire system just seized up. "Hiro! I'm Uh, Hiro." But Hiro who? He couldn't remember!

Kasumi giggled, covering her mouth. "Welcome, Hiro-san! Will that be a table for one?"

Hiro swallowed. "Um, do you have a bar? I usually eat at the bar of the Fontainebleau Inn, but it burned down, you see. Some fool lit his drink and spilled it on the bar. I lost my phone in the fire and it had all of my important numbers stored in it." Hiro winced. He was babbling and he could feel his face turning red.

"I am so sorry to hear that, Hiro-san." Kasumi's beaming smile had dimmed a fraction. "I'm afraid that the Cat Café has no bar. I can certainly bring you a selection of traditional Chinese liquors to sample if you wish, but if drinking is your pleasure then I must recommend the Arm, on Forges Street." She knew that her father, Grandfather Happosai and Uncle Genma all went there fairly often, so it must be nice.

Hiro blinked, wondering how such a delicate, innocent, perfect beauty could possibly have heard of that horrible, yakuza-infested den of thieves. Only hardened criminals and violent madmen dared to enter. There was even a rumor that they had a trained attack Panda that acted as bouncer! "N-No, that's alright. I don't care to drink. I just don't like taking up a whole table by myself. It's not fair to the wait-staff."

Kasumi's approving smile returned to its full devastating force. "That is really very thoughtful of you, Hiro-san, but truly, we aren't very busy tonight. It is really no problem at all. Please, do follow me."

Hiro, unable to resist her earnest entreaty, followed like a little pet dog, sitting obediently when she pulled out a chair at a small table near the kitchen doors.

Kasumi favored him with another laser-bright smile and handed him a menu. "This table is very simple for me to handle, Hiro-san! I can see you easily from the cash register area. May I bring you anything to drink while you look over the menu?"

Hiro stared at her, slack jawed, his brain completely frozen. He had forgotten why he was there. "Uh Drink?"

Kasumi wondered again why Japanese men were all so silly, like that silly Dr. Tofu. Maybe she should try to meet some foreigners. But not Chinese. They were entirely too forward.

ooOoo

Shampoo ran back into the kitchen, biting her fist to stifle her screams of laughter. Kasumi was having a hilarious effect on the male customers. Cologne had seen it immediately and laughed, predicting that Kasumi would marry very well and within the year.

ooOoo

Just as Kasumi began to get concerned, Hiro pulled himself together. With superhuman concentration, he managed to speak. "I wwww would like some black tea, any brand, with sugar and lemon, please, Kasumi-chan."

"Certainly!" Kasumi marked it on her pad and then poured him a glass of cold water. "I will be back soon, Hiro-san!"

"Uuuuuuh." Hiro swallowed and stared at her retreating form, cold sweat beading on his forehead. He was in love and it hurt worse than being punched in the stomach. He failed to notice the murderous looks of hatred and jealousy that he was getting from her other tables.

ooOoo

Horrified, Ranma backed away from the window. Kasumi, working at the Cat Café? He shuddered. What a lousy day. First no beef bowl and now if he went in to claim the free dim sum, Kasumi would surely mention it at home. Then he would have the Tomboy on his case, along with the stupid fat Panda and the weeping Tendo in his armor, after him with that damned naganta again. They might even go so far as to get Happosai wound up against him again and he didn't need THAT. Backing up, he faded into the night. Fortunately, Uchan's was still open. Good ol' Uchan! It was good to have an extremely cute fiancée who was also an excellent cook.

ooOoo

Mousse donned an apron with an embarrassed sigh. He had made yet another mistake. "Elder, when did you hire Kasumi Tendo?"

"That is no longer your concern, Mzu-Tzu." Cologne spoke in Mandarin, not wanting any misunderstandings. "You may as well remove that apron and come with me."

"What? Why?" Mousse did as he was told, following her to the living quarters. "What is the matter?"

Cologne took a breath. She hated having to do this to the boy, but childhood had to end for everyone sometime. This was Mousse's time. "Sergeant Itachi was here this afternoon. Your little stunt may have fooled the jailers, but they know all about Jusenkyo curses down at the koban."

Mousse frowned in dismay. "But they let me go!"

"And they will soon pick you up again, Mzu-Tzu." Cologne hesitated, then took the plunge. "You have exhausted the patience of the local authorities. Your arrest was an error by a new officer, but now they cannot let you go without losing face. You must return to the village or else be prepared to be placed in a Japanese prison. There are simply no alternatives."

Mousse hung his head. "I understand, Elder." he said, in a bitter tone. By giving him a choice, she had removed his will to resist. If Cologne had tried to order him home he would have taken it for a scheme to separate him from his glorious Xaim-Pu. But she did not. In fact, the Old Ghoul had given him a place to stay while he pursued his love. He had to accept what she said as the truth.

"You may speak to Xaim-Pu to say your farewell if you wish, Mzu-Tzu. If it is any consolation, I believe that you have the potential to become a truly exceptional warrior." Cologne sighed. But not Xaim-Pu's husband, no matter what happened. Although such a match was technically legal under tribal law, his bloodline was simply to close to her own for that.

Mzu-Tzu was in fact Xaim-Pu's second cousin through two seperate lines, and every bit as closely related to Kol-Lon as Xaim-Pu was. As illustrated by Mzu-Tzu's blindness, birth defects and genetic problems were increasingly common in the village. The council was getting desperate, as often two out of three newborns had to be exposed and allowed to die. Some, like Dowel, were freakish and borderline retarded. Even the weak, short-lived Chinese villagers on the fringe of Amazon territory were being seriously considered as a source of husbands when Ranma's shocking arrival had assured the elders that the tribe could continue on the path of strength while bringing in a new influx of genetic diversity.

The Japanese martial arts clans had proven to be a godsend. As shown by the Saotome-Tendo arrangement, these people had been breeding for strength for at least as long as the Amazons. The fact that so many other clans were actively pursuing Ranma was proof of that the Amazons had at last found their genetic equals. The tribe needed a generous infusion of that strong alien blood if it was not to decline and perish.

ooOoo

Mousse looked around at his little attic nook for the last time and involuntarily, his heart lifted. He was sick of Nerima, sick of Japan and most of all, he was heartily sick of the hard labor, low pay and free abuse showered upon him by Cologne. Shampoo of course couldn't be blamed for joining in. She was just following Cologne's example like any good Amazon Warrior would.

He shook out his bedding, made up his bedroll with both of his blankets and rolled it up, tying it with a ribbon that one of Ranma's more dangerous fiancées had once snapped his duck form out of the air with. Fortunately, he had woken when an ugly little monkey of some sort had tried to boil him, and a transformed Mousse had fought his way out of the nightmarish crazy-house in which he had found himself. He had faced a bokken wielding maniac, numerous deadly traps, hungry alligators and a mad barber of some sort. Finally, he had faced the loony girl again and had taken her ribbon away after a battle just short of epic. Mousse had kept the ribbon to prove to himself that it had all actually happened and as a souvenir of as harsh a battle as any ever fought with the Musk.

Gathering his personal belongings, he sorted through what he would keep. His boombox, a stack of classical music CD's, a toolbox, some gifts for his parents and little sister and a box of photos. Wrapping the breakables in clothing, he tied the second bundle and then packed his suitcase. Throwing all of his possessions into a ki warp, he took a last look and then went to see Shampoo. Maybe she would come to her senses and come with him rather than face the reality his farewell.

ooOoo

Mousse stood diffidently, facing a potted plant. "Shampoo? I am leaving Japan."

Shampoo, passing by with a loaded tray, kicked him in the butt. "So? What you want?"

Mousse sprawled on the floor, leapt to his feet and whirled. "Shampoo! This is our last chance! I love you! Will you leave this accursed place and come with me?"

The businessman whose hand he was holding frowned. "Young man, please, put on those glasses."

Mousse opened his mouth to reply, but his jaw snapped shut from the g forces when Shampoo grabbed him by the hair and threw him into the kitchen.

"Okay, Stupid Duck Boy, what you want?" Shampoo stood, head cocked, tapping her foot on the floor and her bon-bori on her palm.

"You! Oh, shampoo, how I long to marry you and build a house for you and forever be your devoted-

Shampoo silenced him with a bon-bori tap on the head. "Stupid Mans! Where you from?"

Mousse stood, groaning. "What? You know that, Shampoo!"

Shampoo drove him back to his knees with another tap. "Answer question or die!"

Mousse stayed on his knees, glassy eyed. "Um, Jocketzu village."

Shampoo nodded. "Good! And what are marriage customs of Amazon of Jocketzu village?"

Mousse flinched, seeing the blur that he thought was her bon-bori move. "The same stupid custom that we use for everything. Challenge and trial by combat."

Shampoo's eyes narrowed. "Is true. So, as Amazon boy, how you dare insult Shampoo like that? Think Shampoo too-too weak for real marriage challenge? Maybe you wise enough to be afraid?"

Mousse flushed. He couldn't do it. "No. I love you too much-

Shampoo silenced him with a kick to the head. "You want to challenge Shampoo for hand, as warrior, or you want to insult and grovel like low-village prostitute? Make up mind!"

Mousse rose, angrily. It was all or nothing. "Very well. Shampoo, by my right as an Amazon, I challenge you for your hand in marriage!"

"Good! We fight in alley, settle this now." Shampoo turned. "Come on!"

Mousse launched the tiny dart, telling himself that it was perfectly legal. There were no rules in a marriage duel.

Shampoo had spun around 360 degrees to face him again though and she caught the dart in midair between thumb and forefinger. "Oh Mousse, always so-so stupid, fall for every little trick. Must be Amazon witness for fight to count." Catching sight of Cologne watching from the hall, Shampoo shrugged and quickly poked him with the dart.

Mousse gasped and stiffened, losing all feeling below the neck. The dart was tipped with curare. "Shampooooo!" he moaned, eyes rolling up in his head as he collapsed backward onto his back.

Shampoo smirked. "That, 'Superior Warrior' Shampoo, to you, Defeated Male. I leave glass of water next to you. When you wake up, you turn into duck and fly far away. That enough of goodbye." She turned and went back to help Kasumi.

ooOoo

Cologne walked up and flipped his glasses back onto his face with her stick, carrying an envelope. "Mousse, I was witness to that challenge. You truly have no hope at all of marrying Shampoo." Her voice was kind.

Mouse groaned. "Shampoooo."

Cologne rolled her eyes. "Let's hope you do better when you get home. Po-Ma-De, has written me to inquire about your eligibility. She intends to challenge you for your hand." Cologne opened the envelope.

"Po-Ma-De?" Mousse scoffed. "What can she do? She's just a skinny little kid with scabs on her knees!" She had followed him around for years, helping him with his elaborate but somehow always useless plots to land Shampoo.

Cologne looked at the picture that Po-Ma-De had sent and smirked. Po-Ma-De had just won the festival, becoming the new Amazon champion for her age group. She was even better built than Shampoo, if that was possible.

Cologne handed Mousse the challenge letter, knowing that he wouldn't bother to read it or take it seriously and that Po-Ma-De would use the suprise of her grown-up appearance to crush him like a bug the instant he showed his face in the village. Cologne suspected their first child would be born well before she herself returned to the village. "When you get home, Mu-Tzu, you be sure to wear your glasses."

ooOoo

Nabiki was livid with rage. "So you're going to try and cook again. Why, Akane, so that you can waste a lot of perfectly good food and send Daddy back to the hospital?"

Akane reddened. "I know where I made the mistake this time!"

Nabiki snorted. "Are you going to pick something simple and follow the recipe, like Kasumi advised?"

Akane was angry now. "I'm making stir-fry squid and rice! How could it go wrong?"

"You can stir-fry the squid in dish soap and spice it with drain cleaner crystals, that's how!" Nabiki was carrying a tremendous grudge. "Let Ranma cook! He's a good cook."

Akane stiffened with outrage. "Ranma won't cook indoors! It isn't manly."

"So turn him into a girl and stuff her cute little ass into an apron! It's time that lump of trouble made himself useful around here anyway!" It had been two weeks since Kasumi had made her move and Nabiki was losing weight fast. "Dammit, Akane, we're starving!"

Akane set her jaw. "Ranma isn't starving. He won't touch the meals I make for him."

"And this suprises you? He's a martial artist, not a kamikaze." Nabiki gritted her teeth in exasperated envy. "Of course he isn't starving, Akane. He isn't stupid- well, all that stupid, anyway. All Ranma has to do is snap, and Ukyo, Shampoo or Kodachi will cook a twelve course gourmet meal and feed it to him by hand!"

"He scams food from guys in his girl form, too. But they're no better than me!" Akane glared in determination. "All I have to do is learn and I'll be as good as them!"

"They're COOKS, Akane! With years of experience! At least Shampoo and Ukyo are. Kodachi can afford to hire the best cooks in Tokyo. You can't hope to compete with any of them on the basis of cooking, so you might as well just stop trying!" Nabiki wondered what Akane had that made Ranma stay. If she was in Ranma's shoes, she would be long gone by now.

"Oh, My." Kasumi stepped through the door, looked around at the remains of her mother's beautiful kitchen and sighed at the devastation. What wasn't broken was either etched, stained, chipped, cracked or gouged.

"Kasumi!" Nabiki sagged in relief. Could sanity be returning? "Why aren't you at work?"

"Father called the Nekohantin and forbade me to work anymore. Cologne was very sorry, but she felt that she couldn't allow herself to become involved in our family quarrels." Kasumi looked toward the stairs, eyes narrowed, knowing that her father was up there listening.

"I suppose that you'll be wanting the kitchen back?" Akane's tone was surly, but her eyes showed her relief.

"Not at all. Carry on, Akane, I'm sure that you can master cooking. After all, practice makes perfect." Kasumi turned to Nabiki and smiled sympathetically. "Don't wait up for me. I'll be going out to dinner with a certain young man that I know."

Nabiki sobbed, faint with hunger, then suppressed it. She was spending way too much on food lately. It was beginning to compromise her long term financial strategy. What in the hell was she going to do? Looking out of the window, she grimaced as she saw Genma, nauseatingly in his panda form, setting up his battered old tin billy over an open fire, getting ready to make his usual awful camp rice. No wonder Ranma had learned to cook after ten years of trying to survive on that garbage.