Title: Betrayal's Reward

Author name: Trugeta

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by Rumiko Takahashi and Marvel Comics as well as many others. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended. Note further that I don't own any of the trademarks mentioned in this story. Also, the OCs used in this story are a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead is not intended and purely coincidental.

This story takes place after the failed wedding in Ranma Manga No. 38 and a few months prior to Venom's escape from Ryker's Island during which he spawned the Carnage symbiote. It's an AU, and reviews are welcome and appreciated.

Chapter 9: The pain of loss

A darkly clothed figure moving about New York's skyline nigh soundlessly and imperceptibly fired her webbing for the seemingly umpteenth time in the last few hours, the said person being completely oblivious to the sounds and sights of the lively nightlife that permeated the Big Apple. As she swung into the 56th Street the said person known to the public as Scarlet Widow couldn't help but feel happy that she'd finally reached her destination, seeing that she was practically dead on her feet. Home, sweet home indeed, a safe haven to some, a 'castle' to others, to her the provider of a comfy bed, that being all that really mattered to her at the moment.

The redhead, having changed her costume to a pitch-black colour after bringing Felicia to her doorstep to go as unnoticed as possible, expelled a tired sigh as she touched down on the rooftop of her flat, taking a deep breath of the cool, still somewhat rain-laden night air in an attempt to ward off the bone-deep tiredness that permeated her body. The previous day—only having ended about one hour ago—had taken a lot out of her, the fight with Sandman in particular, yet the luxury of sleep remained out of her grasp for now.

Happosai would want to know everything, the whole bloody truth and nothing but the truth, that much she had gleaned during their brief, impromptu meeting. Truth be told, she couldn't really fault him; had someone she'd thought dead and buried appeared out of the blue alive, well and mysteriously changed she'd have been dying to get the full story as well.

Had she known just how tiring the day would turn out to be she'd have rescheduled the meeting, though. She was about to expel another sigh, but Sym unexpectedly speaking up in an urgent tone stopped her short. — Form a shield the size you used against Sandman. Do it now!

Too baffled to do anything but comply Ranma morphed her hands into a shield of round about one metre in diameter, and no sooner had she done so than a muffled impact registered against the hastily formed barrier.

"Oww, oww, owwie," a rasping and withered voice complained from the ground, and Ranma's eyes narrowed in irritation, for she knew that voice all too well.

"Happi," she growled, her enhanced vision allowing her to see the downed form of the ancient pervert clearly, he being sprawled on his back, a rather large lump growing on his forehead, "I'm not in the fuckin' mood for this," and added 'Thanks for the warning, Sym, must be more tired than I thought if he managed to launch a sneak-attack without my notice,' mentally.

You are welcome, Ranma, — Sym calmly replied.

The shield seemed to melt away, leaving her hands returned to normal, which enabled her to pick up the dizzy Grandmaster by the scruff of his neck. Without wasting a second tendrils shot out from her right arm to bind him tightly, and before Happosai knew what was happening Ranma had already opened the skylight and had landed lightly in the guest room below, carrying him under her left arm.

The redhead moved Happosai in front of her face, and let her facemask fade away to reveal her clearly annoyed visage, the angry, narrowed eyes set in said face boring into him like twin lasers. "This is not Nerima, Happi, and despite your attempts at bailing me out, I ain't gonna tolerate..."

Will not tolerate, Ranma. Do not let your command of the English language slip, for it will reflect back on me, — Sym chided.

'Don't care, am chewin' the old perv out but good here!' Ranma shot back, maintaining the steely glare with which she'd nailed Happosai.

"... Your shit. I'm more than capable of backing up my words, and should you try to feel me up while I'm asleep or should you try some other shit there'll be true, utter hell to pay," she hissed, her eyes narrowed to slits, the fact that her left arm formed different, imposing weapons at random completely escaping her notice. "The indignation with which I reacted before is nothing to the righteous fury with which I'll trash you upon future infractions. Got me?" she snarled, dropping the old pervert unceremoniously onto the ground with a cold and unforgiving look adorning her face.

The downed, wide-eyed Grandmaster, having been thrown for a loop by Ranma's surprising and impressive—read downright frightening—capability to form very lethal looking weapons, nodded his head so fervently that one wondered how it remained attached to his shoulders due to the forces exuded, and faster than one could blink Happosai was in a flawless execution of one of his pupil's signature stance. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" he chanted, crouched low in the aptly named Crouch of the Wild Tiger.

Ranma's fury evaporated to be replaced by utter annoyance, and the redhead slapped her forehead. She scoffed with a shake of her head after exclaiming a soft "Pathetic" and walked towards the door, her combat-suit reforming into a pair of faded blue jeans and a comfortable black hoodie sweater, Ranma not looking back if the pervert followed her or not, and not really caring either. A full-blown frown marred her features as she descended the stairs. "And I'd thought I'd left shit like that behind... Stupid, naive me," she grumbled, her bare feet leading her towards the kitchen.

Muttering curse words under her breath that would have made hardened sailors blush the redhead opened the fridge and helped herself to a decent sized midnight snack consisting of leftovers from two days before, piled it on a plate and used the microwave to reheat it. After waiting for the timer to count down to the time she had specified Ranma retrieved her plate, and walked towards the living room.

Still grumbling, this time about stupid old perverts who served to distract her so much that she'd forgotten to change into a man in the kitchen she placed her late-night dinner and the cutlery she'd fetched while waiting for the food to be reheated on the telephone-desk and entered the guest bathroom, her first action being to open the faucet and switch it to warm. After a few seconds of patient waiting she held her left hand under the steady stream of warm water, inducing an instant gender change that swept through her being, complete with underwear adaptation courtesy of Sym, leaving her a him.

Ranma looked into the mirror above the sink, his slightly grinning face looking back at him. Yeah, he thought with a pleased nod, it was time for some 'guy time', and heaven help whom- or whatever that tried to change him back within the next few hours. Grunting in satisfaction he left the guest bathroom, picked up his food and headed for the living room.

"I see you've made yourself at home," he commented upon entering the room, his gaze falling upon Happosai who'd opted to make himself comfortable on the smaller sofa, "if you want anything to eat or drink feel free to raid the fridge. Kitchen's down the corridor, can't miss it," he added neutrally, his mood now a bit better due to being back to being a guy during his allocated 'guy-time' as well as the good-smelling, steaming plate filled with his favourite foods in his hands.

Happosai eyed Ranma carefully with his huge black eyes for a few moments during which he drank in said young man's changes before nodding, and jumped down from the sofa he'd been sitting on. "Thank you, m'boy. I appreciate it," he replied and walked out of the room, the patting of his feet the only sound audible in the flat.

Ranma allowed a small smile to cross his features, placed the plate onto the wooden living-room table that stood around the corner to the right side, adjacent to the door, walked over to the cupboard to retrieve a table mat, set the table, sat down on one of the four cushioned wooden chairs and began to wolf down the food in a fast yet well-mannered manner. He was already halfway finished when the microwave binged, and about a minute later Happosai returned with a plate of his own and a large glass of water.

The latter made Ranma narrow his eyes in suspicion, but he suppressed said suspicions for the time being and waved his hand at the cupboard behind the Grandmaster's back. "Table mats are in there. Help yourself," he said after chewing and swallowing.

Happosai eyed Ranma for a few moments during which he weighed the pros and cons of arguing with the young man about being a proper host, but having witnessed what this new Ranma was capable of he chose to swallow his pride just this once. Nodding shortly he got up from his cushioned wooden chair and fetched a table mat for himself, placed the plate onto the table mat and grabbed the filled-to-the-brim glass of water.

"Don't even think about trying to induce the gender change," Ranma growled as soon as Happosai had extended his hand, his icy blue eyes narrowed, his expression downright chilling, "I have ways to counter it, and the penance would be draconian. Got me?" he queried in a tone that brooked no argument.

Happosai tried to look innocent, and foregoing that due to it failing utterly tried to utilise the infamous puppy-dog eyes, which quickly faltered under the arctic glare Ranma bestowed upon him. Defeated and knowing it, the Grandmaster of the Anything Goes nodded his head. "Gotcha," he replied, reached for fork and knife and began to eat, showing a remarkable aptitude at handling the western cutlery that surprised Ranma for a few moments. It had taken him quite some time to get used to using forks and knives, not to mention to attain an average level of proficiency where handling them was concerned, but taking Happosai's age into account his dexterity pertaining to the handling of foreign cutlery was unsurprising.

Schooling his features back into impassivity he resumed his meal, which was from then on spent in companionable silence, the clinking and scraping of forks and knives the only sounds in the large living room. Ranma unsurprisingly finished first, wiped his mouth with a napkin and excused himself for the kitchen, from which he fetched himself a large carton of apple juice, guzzling down half the carton's contents in the kitchen already which made him realise he'd been a lot thirstier than thought. Smiling sheepishly at having forgotten to eat and drink along the way during the course of the previous day he fetched himself a glass from one of the cabinets, grabbed the carton and rejoined Happosai.

The old man had finished his meal in the meantime as well, and upon sitting down in front of him Ranma sensed that the pervert was literally bursting at the seams with questions. Suppressing a smile he locked eyes with Happosai, and after helping himself to some more apple juice Ranma opened his mouth and began to weave his tale in all its uncensored glory.

-.-

Happosai literally looked ready to fall out of his chair by the time Ranma had finished his tale. The old pervert jumped smoothly to his feet and started to pace, his eyes narrowed in a very serious looking face as he muttered to himself. "A miracle he didn't break... Almost raped... Raped... Boy," he turned around to face Ranma, who'd watched in silence from his chair, "I commend you to your self-restraint. Had it been me that had happened to I'd have killed the bastard. And the guard," he groused darkly.

"The thought had crossed my mind," Ranma admitted, the hateful expression that briefly crossed his features proving just how serious he was, "but what ruled me after Sym and me had bonded was the want to get away from that hell-hole at all costs. You have no idea just how bad it was, Happi," the expression in his eyes spoke volumes, "and I pray you never will. No one but the worst of what humanity has spawned deserves to be locked away at Ryker's. No one."

"Which is why you want to get back at those who abandoned you when you'd have needed them most," Happosai mused, nodding his head slowly, resuming this line of thought upon Ranma's nod. "I admit I didn't—and still don't—understand why they were so quick to believe you capable of these crimes."

"Their reasons don't matter to me. All that counts is that they threw me away like an old cloth," Ranma retorted coldly, his face displaying unforgiving anger. "I will neither forgive nor forget their actions, ever."

"Absolutely understandable. What of your long-term plans, though? Surely you have plans aside from me making their lives a living hell," Happosai mused, lighting his pipe he had produced from somewhere.

Ranma's expression changed from being pleased that the Grandmaster saw eye to eye with him to cold ruthlessness, the temperature in the room seeming to drop with his change of mood. "Sym had some pretty good ideas, and even though they're indeed long term and require devotion on my part," he briefly shuddered when his thoughts stumbled over the 'sacrifices' he'd have to make, "I'm willing to do anything that's needed to put 'em into practice. I will get my revenge and put them into their place, this I swear, and I never go back on my word."

Happosai made an impatient sound and blew a cloud of smoke from his mouth. "Don't keep me in suspense, boy. Spill!"

"Well," Ranma drawled amusedly, drawing out this one word upon this confirmation that the old pervert was indeed eager to find out what he'd planned for them, which caused Happosai to glare and the younger man to grin, "if I want to get back at them," he inflected this single word with so much venom that Happosai very nearly flinched, "I have to meet several conditions: A)," he ticked off his left thumb, "I have to clear my name and keep the news from reaching them," he stated and paused to collect himself, "How I'll go about that I don't know yet."

"Maybe I can be of help in that regard," Happosai mused and took a long drag from his pipe, Ranma looking at him incredulously, "but more to that later," he concluded after having exhaled a cloud of smoke.

Ranma shrugged and picked up where he'd left off. "B)," the left index finger followed, "I have to have success in life so that I can rub it in once I meet them again. Sym recommended me taking up studies in economics to market products related to my spider-powers, more precisely my webbing, but he didn't give me any details; said I should find a way to take up my studies and gain a degree first."

"Very interesting," Happosai mused and took a long drag from his pipe, slowly exhaling the smoke through his nose. "But while it's true that your male form is American, I doubt you've the necessary graduation diploma. So, how do you want to go about applying to university?" the old man queried, taking another quick drag from his pipe.

"That's a problem alright," Ranma admitted, pausing to gulp down some apple juice, "a problem on which I've dwelled."

"I still am not used to hearing you speak so... sophisticated. It's so... unlike you." Happosai muttered, shaking his head slowly while exhaling smoke from his nostrils.

Ranma smiled wryly, "Maybe for my old self, Happi. But this is the new me, and I'm thankful for what Sym did for me. If speaking in a way that people easily understand makes me stand out less it's okay by me," he explained evenly. "I can already see their stupid faces when I talk to them like that," he mused with a smirk, only to school his features back into impassivity. "But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"Sym and me have discussed it, and came to the conclusion that I'll have to go to school, in female form," he continued, his face displaying mild distaste. "It's not so much going as a girl that irks me, but the fact that I'll have to go to school again. But-"

"If you want to be successful in life you have to swallow the bitter pill from time to time, Ranma," the old pervert intoned sagely. "Sure, you could have the documents forged, but that could backfire spectacularly, especially considering that you'll be up against Nabiki Tendo eventually. You know as much as I do just how much of a Pit Bull she can be."

"Don't mention that bitch's name in my presence," Ranma snarled coldly, his blue eyes two chips of ice. "In fact, don't mention any of them by name. They don't deserve that much respect or recognition."

"Hate her all you want, hate them all you want," Happosai retorted calmly, not affected by Ranma's outburst, "but keep in mind how dangerous Nabiki Tendo is. The others are of minor concern and will most likely be inconsequential to your plans, but not so this sharp young woman. Plan carefully and cover your back, or she will be your undoing," he mused, taking another long drag.

As odd as this Grandmaster of your style may seem, his analysis is correct. Do not let your feelings, as justified as they are, blind you, or it might indeed cause our downfall.

I do not mention it often, but as much as it is my chosen task to aid you in what you do, it is just as much your task to ensure our mutual safety. Do keep that in mind, — Sym commented, his tone completely serious.

"Noted," Ranma grumbled in reply to both Happosai and Sym, schooling his face back into neutrality with difficulty. "To get back on track," he coughed to clear his throat, "I have my ways to set up an identity for my female form, and I'll likely do it soon. Can't tell you more 'cause I still have to flesh out the details."

"You have become more cautious, m'boy," Happosai commented, rubbing his chin with his left hand while taking a long drag from his pipe, "and I can only recommend to stay true to this path.

"Never let your guard down," he paused to exhale smoke from his nostrils, his gaze unfocussing while he reminisced, "it cost me ten years of my life, and you—"

"Yeah? What about me, old man?" Ranma challenged, eyes flashing.

"... Your innocence, Ranma," Happosai whispered sadly, almost inaudible.

The old pervert sighed and locked eyes with Ranma, whose own eyes showed barely concealed surprise. "People like us aren't meant to be locked away in tight confines, we need our space, need to move about as freely as the wind," Happosai continued before Ranma had regained his equilibrium, the old man's gaze losing nothing of its intensity. "Locking us away is the worst punishment to be bestowed upon us, wouldn't you agree, m'boy?"

Ranma's anger flared up, burning away the remnants of his surprise in an instant, "Yes," he growled, lacing this single word with so much venom it was a small wonder no sizzling holes appeared in the carpet.

Happosai nodded sagely, "Do you know why I didn't go medieval on Genma and Soun after I had regained my freedom?" he queried, not breaking the gaze.

"To be honest, I'd wondered," Ranma admitted, scratching the left side of his head. "Had it been me they'd tried to bomb into the afterlife I'd have paid them back in kind."

"Yes, yes," Happosai nodded, an amused glint shining in his eyes, "and I'd have done it, hadn't it been for you."

"Me?" Ranma queried in surprise, leaning back in his chair.

"You," Happosai confirmed, nodding slowly. "My plan was to ruin their finances first, which went off without a hitch. The next step was, or rather would have been to disgrace them through my superior skills and, err, questionable behaviour, me being the Grandmaster of the Anything Goes after all and it reflecting back on the schools and my 'students', but imagine my surprise when a redhaired lil firecracker stood up to me," he said wryly, his eyes glittering in amusement as he indulged in reminiscences.

"Lil firecracker, eh?" Ranma queried with a raised brow, a small grin tugging at his lips. "Well, I s'pose I was a handful,"

"Can say that again, m'boy. Even though you didn't stand a snowballs' chance in hell against me you tried aynway, absolutely refusing to give up, and that intrigued me. That you overcame the Ultimate Weakness Moxibustion," here Ranma scowled darkly, unsurprisingly, "proved that you were worthy to become my heir. The victories you achieved over Herb and Saffron only cemented that."

Ranma's angry expression vanished and he actually smiled in reminiscence, sighing wistfully. "Those were the days," he said softly, before schooling his features back into impassivity. "But we're not here to dwell on the past, even though it can teach us a few things."

"What do you mean?" Happosai asked, taking another drag from his pipe.

"I like the approach you used pertaining the Tendos, and I'd like you to take up where you left off for starters. Cripple their finances, destroy their reputation, expose their flaws, and all that without resorting to—overly much—physical violence," Ranma listed, his grin wolfish, "Your reason? They turned on your one true heir when he'd have needed them most. That will throw them back but good, and once you're done having your fun with 'em you can, dunno, proclaim they're not worth your time and leave Nerima with intent to find yourself a new heir. Me," he smirked, malevolence playing in his eyes.

"A plan worthy of my old and new heir," Happosai replied after briefly mulling it over, slowly nodding his head. "And how about we let Herb know that you've passed away, that'll probably lure him to Nerima. Considerin' the kids' attitude things are likely to boil over," he suggested.

'Revealing myself to him was the best idea ever,' Ranma thought while nodding thoughtfully. "I like it. Herb may be an arrogant royal asshole, but I think he respected me there at the end. Based on that I'd say he'd defend the rep of a warrior he respects—that being me in this case—and if they act like they usually do Herb will likely blow his top and knock them down a few more pegs, especially if a certain someone" he raised his left eyebrow which caused Happosai to smile slightly in understanding, "dares to talk down to him 'cause of his Nyannichuan curse.

"Considerin' we blew up Mt. Horaisan when we got down to the nitty gritty not a fuckin' stone will be left standin' of the Tendo dojo," he spat the name like a curse, "when Herb is through with 'em. Just think, the oh so precious dojo will be no more. Poor, poor waterworks," he sighed in a fake-pitying tone, this time causing Happosai to laugh a short, barking laugh, "With you gone and the tornado by the name of Herb havin' plowed through they'll think they're safe, and then, a few years later it'll be my turn to deal the crippling blow when they least expect it."

"Now that's positively evil, m'boy," the older man mused, his face sporting a growing grin, "I like it."

"Yeah, I can just picture it," Ranma grinned, his imagination running rampant, "me 'n' my attorneys dealing with the Tendos in my office, one of them secretly capturing everything on film how that middle girl threatens and tries to blackmail me and how the youngest practices her violent streak on me; bestowing upon them what they deserve in using their own fatal flaws against them, nothing more, nothing less will be my revenge," he concluded coldly. "I absolutely won't dirty my hands, they're not worth the bother."

Happosai blew a cloud of smoke from his mouth, nodding slowly. "That is a sound strategy. And just think," an evil gleam appeared in his eyes, "provided a war chest that's big enough you could even open up an Anything Goes dojo in Nerima with my full backing. Soun could bitch and moan all he wanted, he couldn't do a thing.

"And even taking Nabiki's activities to keep the dojo afloat into account, and even considering that my worthless student might take on students—which I severely doubt—they could kiss their asses good bye." he concluded.

"I'd never have thought I'd say that, but I like the way you think," Ranma mused with a nasty grin, Happosai mirroring him. "So in short, I'll have to get the best available education—"

"And an ID for your beautiful female form," Happosai interjected, grinning lecherously.

Ranma ignored him and continued as if the interruption had never occurred, "—find a way to—legally—earn a shitload of money, and all that while ideally proving my innocence. Then, and only then can I even think of getting back at them," he finished, crossing his arms across his chest, an introspective look adorning his features.

"Yes, yes, m'boy, it would be a grievous error to run off half-cocked," Happosai agreed, taking one last drag from his pipe before stashing it, "for only the well-prepared warrior will prevail."

"Overly dramatic, but essentially correct," Ranma mused with a small smirk. "It seems old age was good for you after all, seeing as you seem to have acquired some wisdom along the way. Or is it rather that an old dog has its day as well?" he mused mock-thoughtfully.

"Insolent brat!" Happosai exclaimed indignantly, grabbed the still quarter-filled glass in front of him and threw the contents in Ranma's face, inadvertedly—or was it?—triggering the gender change which was accompanied by the usual adaptation of clothes.

"You... Old... Pervert!" Ranma screeched in righteous fury and wiped away the excess water, looking as black as thunder as she grabbed her own glass still half-filled with apple juice, her lightning speed ensuring that the contents of the said glass landed squarely in the Grandmaster's face.

Now it was Happosai's turn to sputter indignantly as applejuice ran down his face, and both locked eyes, their expressions slowly but surely changing from annoyed to amused as they regarded their 'baptised' counterpart; neither Ranma nor the old pervert remembered later on who started laughing first, but the two Anything Goes masters ended up guffawing and pointing at each other while holding their aching sides.

Almost five minutes later Ranma had re-established a semblance of composure, a small smile still adorning her face as she wiped away the tears. "I won't kill you this time for changing me into a girl during my guy-time 'cause I can't remember when I laughed like this last, or ever.

"But do that again and I'll make mincemeat outta you. Got me?" Ranma queried with all the sweetness of a citron, blue eyes promising a world of hurt.

Happosai nodded curtly, and assuming that Ranma wouldn't overhear his muttering grumbled, "Mercurial mood swings and promises of physical violence. Hmm, must be her time of the month," to himself, not realising that the redhead overheard every single word due to her symbiote-enhanced hearing. He froze in terror though when he sensed the sudden wave of coldness emanating from Ranma. "Please tell me she did not just overhear that."

"Oh but I did," Ranma replied calmly. Too calmly.

Happosai met the redhead's chilling gaze that promised divine retribution and swallowed, his mind going into overdrive as it computed possible ways to survive, yet before he could put any of them into practice he felt himself being encased in an iron grip courtesy of Ranma's tendrils. The Grandmaster gulped audibly yet again, then his world exploded in pain.

-.-

Ranma calmly sipped from her apple juice as she lounged on her sofa, looking for all intents and purposes as if nothing had happened. A pleased sigh escaped her lips as she placed her glass on the table, a small grin playing on her face. "Now, that did a world of good.

"Che, I really missed beating him up," she admitted to herself after a few moments of reminiscence and snickered, looking at the still form of Happosai—who was lying at her feet—in bemusement. "But damn, am I ever glad that I closed the blinds. Wonder what the neighbours would have said had they seen anything. Woulda probably called the cops," she muttered wryly.

As much as it seems to be inappropriate to make comments as such, this Happosai was not that off-track. Examining your bodily processes revealed that your menses are indeed approaching and should happen any time now, — Sym commented.

'Feh, so he made a lucky guess. Big deal.' Ranma retorted, grumbling inwardly.

The timing of your menses could not be better, though. The chance of an inadvertent change is zero, which does not put us at risk during the mission, — Sym remarked.

'Always look for the silver lining, eh?' Ranma chuckled lightly, cracking a small smile, 'But you got that right, Sym, it's one worry less; and it means I can concentrate fully on the mission, hot fluids be damned.'

Indeed. We should really look into possibilities for you to indefinitely remain in the gender of choice in spite of fluids of diverging temperature, though. Being subject to something so readily available is a liability we can hardly afford.

'True, but it's not so much a weakness in the physical sense as it is one that would inevitably lead to unpleasant questions upon detection,' Ranma mused, her posture thoughtful. 'That does however not change that you're correct, Sym. We hafta find something better than the ten minute window.'

A visit to someone I 'know' from Peter Parker's memories might be called for. His name is Dr. Stephen Strange, and according to Parker's memories he is the best sorcerer there is.

Before you get sceptical, — Sym added due to Ranma raising both brows, — I assure you that his powers are genuine. If anyone can do anything to improve our situation where your inconstant gender is concerned it would be him.

The redhead nodded her head slowly after weighing her options, 'Can't hurt, Sym.' she mused, her focus returning to the outside world and coming to rest on Happosai. 'Apropos pain, I don't remember hitting him that hard.'

Your heightened strength might be the differing factor in comparison to previous encounters, — Sym suggested thoughtfully.

'Feh, the old perv's tough. But if he doesn't wake up soon I'll have to resort to drastic measures... Hafta catch some sleep myself,' she exclaimed, stifling a huge yawn.

Three to four hours are sufficient, as you well know. Yet your self-diagnosis is correct, your energy levels are indeed dropping. Thus it might be advisable to wake him to resume the conversation and get the topics broached within a reasonable amount of time so that you can regenerate.

'Gotcha. Waking him up it is,' she replied, eyeing the still form of Happosai with a speculative gleam in her eyes, 'But on second thought, why not resort to drastic measures? He did it to me often enough in the past, using buckets filled with fuckin' cold water 'n' stuff. Turnabout's fair play,' the redhead mused with an evil grin as she remembered all the times where he'd woken her up with a bucket of icy cold water to the face, and her expression getting more evil by the second she made to get up from her sofa.

A low moan coming from Happosai stopped her cold though, and a disappointed frown spread on Ranma's face. "Oh shoot," she complained and looked at the ceiling, throwing her hands up in exasperation. "Why can't I even have a little fun?"

If you want a 'little fun' as you put it, why do you not let Felicia Hardy meet your male form once your period is over? I am sure 'fun' would ensue, — the symbiote commented slyly.

Ranma blushed beet-red and shook her head in the vain hope the thoughts her mind was producing would fall out of her ears if only she shook her head hard enough, 'Gah! Mind... Outta... Gutter! Must... Not... Undress... Felicia... Mentally! Bad thoughts! Bad!' the redhead lamented mentally, her right hand shooting up to her nose to wipe away some blood.

"Owwie, oww, oww, oww, what the hell hit me?" Happosai complained as he sat up, holding his aching head in both hands, serving to distract Ranma from her symbiote's merriment.

"That would have been me, Happi," Ranma replied sweetly, putting her hands on her hips as she leaned forward. "And I'll gladly give repeat performances in case you open that big mouth of yours again," she whispered in a fake-sweet tone, her eyes gleaming with an unholy light that promised nothing good.

"No, no, m'dear, that won't be necessary, my mouth will be good," Happosai appeased quickly, holding up his hands while shaking his head in a gesture that said he'd had enough. "Oww, she hits much harder than I remember," he muttered to himself so silently that he was certain Ranma hadn't heard.

"Guess what, I can hit harder still," Ranma commented with an evil grin and cracked her knuckles, causing a surprised Happosai to look at her with wide eyes.

"Oww!" he complained, the fast turn of his head bringing a fresh wave of pain. "And I just thought it a fluke that she overheard me, but nooo, she has to have freakishly good hearing, too. It ain't fair," he grumbled, pouting childishly while shuffling over to the other sofa.

Ranma shot him a full-blown smirk as soon as he'd sat down and was looking at her again. "Those are the perks of being host to Sym. She enhances each and all attributes of moi," she replied, sounding amused.

"All attributes?" Happosai queried with a lecherous grin, his perverted gaze travelling up and down Ranma's body, which caused the redhead to growl from deep within her throat. "Yep," he nodded, ignoring the signs of danger, "no doubt about that. The one who manages to ensnare your heart will be one lucky lady indeed," he opined, nodding wistfully.

Ranma on her part scoffed and decided that going medieval on the pervert—again—would be counterproductive seeing that sleep's calling was getting ever stronger. "Methinks asking you to forego your perverted ways is like asking the moon to stop chasing the sun," she muttered in a disgusted voice, shaking her head as Happosai grinned broadly while nodding fervently.

"Anyway, to get back on track, you know that my plans are long-term and involve a lot of preparation and planning, so I won't be able to get back at them," Ranma inflected the 'them' with the usual venom, "for several years. You can guess that I'm not very happy with that,"

"Naturally," Happosai commented, leaning back into the cushion.

"But you encapsulated it pretty nicely when you said that only the one who's truly well-prepared will prevail. I want to crush them," Ranma balled her right hand slowly into a fist, a feral, unforgiving look on her face, "and if I have to wait a few years to pull it off flawlessly I'll do it. I hold all the advantages. A)" she ticked off her left thumb, her intent gaze fixing Happosai, "they think I'm dead 'n' buried, a feast for the worms or whatever you wanna call it, and dunno a thing 'bout the threat I pose."

Happosai nodded, acknowledging the point, "Go on,"

"B)," the redhead smirked darkly, her left index finger following, "I have as much time as I want at my hands to fulfil my secondary goals like getting an education and making money before hitting them where it hurts. The more powerful I am, and I'm talking about power as measured in influence, maybe even political might," she mused, frowning thoughtfully at this thought before filing it away for later review, "the more it will hurt.

"Revenge is a dish best served cold after all, and you can't get any colder than what my feelings are pertaining to these people," the redhead concluded in a cold and sibilant voice that held as much warmth as the vacuum of space.

"Remind me to never get on your bad side," Happosai muttered with a shudder, almost feeling sorry for those that Ranma had labelled 'betrayers'. "Well, not more than already," he amended, his face sporting a wry smile.

The redhead's face relaxed into a small smile as well, "Done, jiji. Now back to matters at hand, what will you do in the next few years? I mean, going back to Nerima and making their lives hell is all nice 'n' dandy, but as much as it would make my year, this is bound to get boring after a while. Not to mention that they might try to use your weaknesses against you."

"Weaknesses?" Happosai exclaimed, crossing his arms over his chest with an annoyed huff. "I have no weaknesses."

Ranma raised a delicate scarlet brow and created a panty from the fabric of her sweater, dangling it in front of her, "Is that so?" she inquired, her tone sceptical.

Happosai was unable to answer the question, seeing that his complete attention was focussed on the black lace panty dangling from Ranma's right index finger. "My precious, come to papa!" he exclaimed before vanishing from his sofa, reappearing right into an outstretched hand which caused him to plummet to the carpeted floor with a protesting "Oww!" right in front of Ranma's feet.

Quod errat demonstrandum. — Sym intoned sagely, Ranma echoing her in the outside world due to the fact that it seemed a fitting thing to say.

A slightly dazed Happosai raised both brows in confusion, "What did you just say, Ranma-chan? I could have sworn that was Latin," he said as he got back to his feet, looking up at her with unveiled curiosity.

'What did I say, Sym?' Ranma queried as confused, her neutral face giving away nothing as she waited for an answer.

Sym actually snickered. — Loosely translated, 'that which was to prove'. I see we still have ways to go, but we will get there, sooner or later.

On second thought, knowing you it will likely be later, — the symbiote teased.

Ranma blew Sym a raspberry in her mind, 'Bloody funny, Sym. You should take up a job as a comedian.'

Sadly,I must decline the offer, seeing that living with you and ensuring you do not do something inadvisable is a fulfilling enough duty and will probably provide me with more entertainment than any other member of my species ever experienced — Sym retorted.

Ranma raised a mental brow, unsure if this had been an insult or not. Shaking her head she focussed on the old pervert, glad that the mental conversation had taken up but a few seconds. "It means 'that what was to prove'. And ya proved thatcha can't resist certain... temptations all right," the redhead said in a chiding tone. "So if we wanna be safe," she stifled a huge yawn while making herself more comfortable, "we have to make you impervious to the temptations they might dangle in front of your nose," she mused, seemingly innocently thrusting out her chest.

Happosai's eyes glazed over as expected, yet a quick and painful bop to the head brought him out of his drooling spell alright, "Point made, I'd say," she mused mock-thoughtfully, to which Happosai could only grumble.

"And your 'not-weaknesses' likely mean I'll have to make yet another personal sacrifice when the time comes," Ranma sighed, cuddling deeper into the cushions. "The things I have to do to get my revenge..." she complained, heaving another sigh.

"Sacrifice?" Happosai queried innocently, his blue eyes big and round, "For me?"

Ranma expelled a tired sigh and gave the perverted Grandmaster an exasperated look, "Wouldcha stop looking at me like that, or I might just reconsider," she warned, stifling another yawn, "And yeah, it'd be a sacrifice I'd have to make for you, to ensure that there'd be a chance to actually put my plans into practice. We have just seen how little it takes to distract you," she ignored his sour look, "so we have to ensure they can not distract you.

"Thus I've just brought myself to give you a set of bras and panties of yours truly, filled to the brim with my energy prior to your departure," Ranma concluded, a look of barely veiled distaste on her face.

"Y-You'd really do that?" Happosai queried wide-eyed, his tone hopeful and disbelieving to equal parts.

"Way I see it I don't have a choice. You need something to fall back on when they try to incapacitate you, and try they will," Ranma replied with a dark look, "They know your weaknesses just as well as I after all. It's practically a given they'll try a repeat performance of what they pulled with the cave,"

"I see your point, m'dear," the old man conceded, "and I don't particularly fancy spending another decade in a bloody cave," he groused, his eyes glinting darkly, "So when do I get your undies?" he queried eagerly.

Ranma sighed in disgust, and pasted a neutral look onto her face with difficulty, "That's solely up to you. It's your decision when you wanna return to Nerima, but keep in mind that it might just be as much as five years or more until I'm ready. You might want to travel the world or something until you decide it's time to have a little fun," here she grinned coldly, "but that's solely up to you. Just come back here prior to your departure and you'll get the promised undies. Deal?"

"Deal. There're some techniques out in the world I wanted to conduct research on for ages," Happosai mused, stroking his chin with thumb and index finger of his left hand, "and they would make nice guinea pigs to test them out on," he grinned.

Ranma's answering grin was wolfish. "Sounds like a plan, Happi," she mused, stretching lightly while yawning hugely, "Now excuse me but I hafta throw you out, hafta get my beauty sleep 'n' all that."

"Sad but true. My Ranma-chan with bags under the eyes? I shudder at this very image!" Happosai exclaimed theatrically.

"Out, you!" Ranma growled with a shake of her head as she got to her feet, ushering the old man towards the exit.

The redhead accompanied the complaining Grandmaster to the second story and saw him off after a brief but heart-felt good bye, yet Ranma ensured that the skylight was firmly closed; it was better to not take any chances where he was concerned after all, and just to be on the safe side Sym would pay extra attention to guarding her while she slept. Nodding to herself while yawning so hugely that her jaw protested the redhead went downstairs, and finally, after conducting her business the ex-Saotome called it a night.

-.-

Weak sunlight filtering into the bedroom slowly arose Ranma from the deep slumber she had fallen into, and the redhead sleepily pulled her knees to her chest, at the same time pulling the blanket over her head to block out the offending source of light.

Cracking one eye open under the covers she threw a quick glance at her wristwatch, the luminescent chronometer telling her that it was around about nine a.m.. She briefly wondered why she'd gotten almost six hours worth of sleep instead of the usual four to five, but gave a mental shrug after filing this oddity away for later review and closed said eye again, burying her head even deeper into the pillows. A content expression appeared on her face as Ranma relished in the comfortable warmth only lying under a comfy blanket could bring.

Good morning, Ranma. I felt it prudent to let you sleep in for a bit in order to ensure that you are optimally rested for the things that lie ahead of us, — Sym spoke up in her mind a few minutes later, giving the redhead the answer to her earlier question.

''T'was nice of ya, Sym, 'specially considerin' I didn't sleep very well 'cause of… ya know,' Ranma replied sleepily without opening her eyes, stifling a huge yawn.

Indeed, — Sym replied calmly, giving the mental equivalent of a nod. — Yet that events occurred the way I predicted leaves us with one less major concern.

''S'true, Sym. Dunno what I'd do if Felicia saw me change into a guy, and it's good I don't hafta worry 'bout it. Ya know, she's the first ta be friendly to me in almost a year. I really like her, she's so easy goin' 'n' fun. Never really felt like this before, it seems there's something drawing me to her.' Ranma thought back introspectively as she replayed in her mind the events of a few hours ago and the fun she had had, briefly stretching her legs before pulling them back to her chest.

Just easy going, Ranma, or did you not rather mean easy on the eyes? — Sym teased lightly, causing Ranma to groan in annoyance.

'I admit I do like her, Sym, but I won't get up my hopes just yet. First I gotta know if she likes my guy form, and if worst come to worst I'll hafta wait 'n' see how she's reacts to my… I think you called it 'inconsistent gender' problem.'

— 'If worst comes to worst'? — Sym repeated, her confusion showing in her mental voice, — I was under the impression that you liked Felicia Hardy. How would it be worse if your relationship developed from friendship into something more?

Unless… You are alluding to a scenario where your relationship has already progressed past the point of friendship but where Felicia is still ignorant to your dual nature. Correct? — the alien symbiote stated, curiosity filling her mental voice.

'Got it in one, Sym,' the redhead replied, stifling yet another huge yawn. 'These are tomorrow's worries, I know, but I know my luck. I gotta be blessed with the shoddiest karma there is. But I'll cross that bridge when and if the time comes,' she thought, her face relaxing again.

There is much to be gained by trying to deepen your relationship with Felicia Hardy, though, and little to lose in my opinion, — Sym mused, causing Ranma to arch a scarlet brow.

'Oh? Do explain,' Ranma prompted, curious as to her symbiote's opinion of things.

First off, Felicia Hardy does not strike me as someone who would betray your secrets. Even if she were to react adversely to your dual nature, it is highly unlikely she would do something to incriminate us. Second, Sym continued upon Ranma's mental acquiescence, — entanglements caused by your inconstant gender might very well be a moot point as soon as we manage to meet up with Dr. Strange. It is open to speculation, though, which will occur first, — the symbiote concluded.

'Mmmmh,' Ranma thought back after a few seconds of dwelling on what Sym had stated. 'I gotta admit, you've got a point there. Whatever will be will be anyway,' she concluded with a hint of dry humour in her mental voice.

This seems to be something akin to a universal law, yes, — Sym agreed dryly. — Now how about you hurry up and get your lazy bum out of bed? There is much to do.

'Don't wanna. 'S so warm 'n' comfy in here,' Ranma retorted lazily, not batting a lash at Sym's attempt to tease her. 'Mission starts in round 'bout eleven hours, there ain't no need to get up so early.'

And would you be inclined to move your posterior out of bed if I told you I devised a new training method for you to try? — Sym asked slyly.

Ranma lazily rolled onto her back and cracked her eyes open just a bit, a deeply curious expression briefly crossing her face before she managed to school her features back into impassivity. 'Maybe,' she finally retorted in a seemingly casual tone that did not fool her symbiote for a second. 'What does it do?'

I will tell you the specifics once you abide by the rule of 'rise and shine', Ranma,' — Sym thought back, giving the mental equivalent of crossing her arms in front of her chest.

'What the heck? 'Rise and shine'? Where didcha pick up that nonsense?' Ranma queried incredulously, both brows slowly climbing into the hairline.

Do you remember when you fell asleep in front of the TV a few days ago? This said adage was used in an inconsequential series, and I felt it prudent to use it in this context, — Sym answered. — Gauging from your reaction I assume you are familiar with the meaning to be conveyed, so I ask you to abide by it.

'Now even alien symbiotes use the carrot and stick approach. What has the world come to?' Ranma lamented theatrically, closing her eyes again. 'Okay, I'll play along. You know my weaknesses too well, you smug symbiote.'

Anything that works, — Sym replied in a tone Ranma felt was indeed entirely too smug.

The redhead shook her head in dismay. 'Just for your information, next to no one uses 'rise 'n' shine' to wake someone up, it's just so... uncool 'n' annoying. Y'know, if I ever have kids and fall prey to such behaviour remind me to kill myself.'

You should know from experience that I do not care about 'uncool' or 'annoying'. If a method has proven effective I am inclined to use it recurringly, — Sym replied matter of factly.

Ranma's mood rapidly worsened as she imagined herself being regularly ripped out of her well-deserved sleep via those vile words and muttered a few choice curse words in reply that communicated her utter annoyance and dissatisfaction with the situation. While she was at it she thoroughly cursed her own damnable curiosity as well, as it was slowly but surely getting the better of her, yawned yet again and slowly, reluctantly forced herself to full alertness as her said damnable curiosity finally overcame her want to enjoy the warmth of her bed.

The redhead blinked open her still sleepy blue eyes, and slowly turned her head to the right to gaze out of the window in hopes it would give her reason to stay in bed, yet the almost cloudless sky gave little grounds for complaint. Sighing loudly she removed the warm blanket, propped herself up on her elbows and brought herself into a sitting position, and with a sigh she swung her legs out of bed after stretching languorously and finally got to her feet.

Frowning briefly due to the sudden coldness induced by the physical contact with the cold tiles—she made a mental note to purchase carpets for the bedroom—Ranma willed slippers onto her feet and patted out of the room, trudging listlessly towards the bathroom.

Having finally reached her destination she grumbled under her breath, pushed the door open and entered the bathroom, her mood instantly improving to some degree due to the more pleasant temperature predominating in the room as well as the prospect of a hot shower.

She quickly closed the door behind her and willed her red pyjamas as well as her underwear away, grumbling under her breath about unavoidable bodily processes that were a pain in the ass and stepped into the shower.

A small smile of anticipation washed away the previous look of dysphoria as Ranma opened the warm water faucet, and nearly instantly a steady stream of the soothing hot liquid descended down her body, eliciting a pleased sigh from the redhead. Steam slowly began to form in the air, and she unconsciously began to whistle a tune as she scrubbed herself. That was what the doc had ordered.

Being locked in female form due to her monthlies did have its advantages, being able to enjoy the blessings of hot water being one of them. Ranma smiled slightly as she was once more made aware of how far she had come, yet frowned as she reminisced how hard it had been in the bunk when she had started. It had only been due to her iron-hard will and determination to let absolutely nothing defeat her that she had eventually gotten used to the 'downsides' being female brought after almost solely having enjoyed the up-sides during her first life, yet in the end she had accepted it as something all females had to go through.

Of course, her being born a boy she had never expected to ever be confronted with 'female issues' at all, she mused wryly as she washed her long, strawberry blond mane, but she had accepted that she was female just as much as male with everything that entailed, concomitants being part and parcel of the package.

In all honesty, the round about seven months she had spent as a female had made her ultimately stronger as it had led to her accepting her dual nature, her having found her inner equilibrium with the realisation that acceptance was the only way forward. Nowadays it was as Happosai had recently observed, all the awkwardness that had been prevalent in her being whenever she had been female had disappeared. She had finally found a balance, in both forms, and could draw strength from the calm it brought.

The hellish time she had spent at Ryker's had shaped her into a much more competent and versatile fighter as well, and she'd never forget the lessons she had learned. She smiled wryly. That what didn't kill you made you stronger indeed. And she would damn well use the strength she had gained, both physical and spiritual, to get even, come hell or high water.

Ranma allowed herself to relax as her descend on the memory lane came to an end, closed her eyes and let the comfortably hot water enshroud her like a warming blanket, washing away all remaining tiredness, temporarily making her forget about the ghosts of the past as well.

-.-

Twenty minutes later Ranma had finished her morning routine, the redhead now feeling more than ready to face the day. The hot shower had really done wonders for her, and while blow-drying her hair she had wished not for the first time that she had had the luxury of hot showers available in her time in the bunk as well, as that would have made things a lot more bearable.

Yet another thing she had the Tendos, more specifically that bitch Nabiki to thank for, seeing as it had been her who had tipped off the authorities that warm water would trigger her 'mutant powers' and change her back to her even stronger and thus 'more dangerous' male form.

She scowled darkly as her thoughts strayed to her erstwhile family. Regardless if the Tendos and her ex-parents might have been tricked just as much as she had been in this whole ordeal, something she considered thoroughly possible, it had been their behaviour after her arrest and prior to her trial as well as the time-span in between that had shown her their true colours.

In her eyes they had committed the worst betrayal possible, for instead of standing by her they had abandoned her, condemned her, yes, literally left her to rot. Honestly, what good were friends, almost family, if you couldn't depend on them when it counted? She'd have sacrificed herself for them in a heartbeat, had almost done so and would readily have done so in the fight against Saffron.

But they? They had chosen the easy way out instead of believing her, instead of standing by her, instead of fighting for her, with her. And why? Because associating with her, a supposed murderer who had according to witnesses killed five teens in front of said witnesses, with her 'cousins' having been witnesses as well, would have been a tarnish on their precious honour. So distancing themselves from her, downright denying her existence, had been their chosen course of action. A cowardly course of action, Ranma thought with a dark scowl.

She still didn't understand why they had so easily believed the worst of her, especially after all she had done for them, all the times she had come through for them to save their sorry asses, but nowadays she honestly didn't care about their motives any longer.

They had simply thrown her away when the going had gotten tough as if she hadn't been worth the effort, that was irrefutable fact, had even done their utmost to make her life hell. In the end it had been the story of her life. Take the easy way out and blame Ranma, the eternal scapegoat, instead of even trying to uncover the truth.

She was to blame in this as well, oh how she knew it, as she had made too many compromises in the past, too many retreats to satisfy family honour, having allowed them to abuse her as their scapegoat time and again. But when they had thrown her away like a commodity that had lost its value they had gone too far.

Ranma involuntarily scowled as she entered the kitchen. They had expected to break her with all the shit they had heaped on her, had expected that throwing her into jail and effectively locking her as a female for an indeterminable amount of time with the worst examples of humanity for company would shatter her.

It very nearly had, but they had severely underestimated her. They had expected that she'd come to hate her female half due to effectively being locked in that form, had thought her incapable of accepting her entire self, might even have hoped that she'd kill herself, and that would be their undoing. They had forgotten one very important fact, she thought as she gnashed her teeth, a hard, unforgiving look adorning her face, she never lost when it counted, and if she did she made damn sure the defeat wasn't permanent.

Her ex-family's defeat would be very much permanent, though. The first steps to induce the Tendo's and her ex-parents undoing had already been made, and even if they were admittedly small steps, they were necessary steps nonetheless. She had a base of operations, moderate assets that would only grow in time and she had Happosai on her side. Add to that she had a well-paying job and someone who wanted to be a real friend. And not to forget Sym, her confidant, partner and friend.

All she had to do now was to set up an identity for her female form to get the ball rolling, and that she'd do tomorrow night, in the same way she had set up the identity for her male form. First time had worked like a charm, and she knew the area, the requirements and everything pertinent like the back of her hand. She even had already set up a background story for her new identity, and who cared that it was somewhat similar to that of her male form? Life was full of strange coincidences like that, she had lived the life to prove it.

When you have quite finished, Ranma, — Sym interrupted her thoughts smoothly in an amused sounding mental voice, — you have been staring at the fridge for a whole two minutes.

'Just lost in thought, Sym, just lost in thought,' Ranma replied with a small smile, opened the fridge and fetched the desired items for her breakfast.

She frowned a bit as she set the kitchen table. The breakfast items she had chosen reflected the changes she had gone through very well, reminding her of the cause for said changes yet again.

A brief look of disgust replaced the frown for a few moments as she remembered the shit she had been fed in jail. The assorted items she was currently placing on the table, orange juice, sliced bread, marmalade and others of her favourites were a far cry from that vile stuff, yet bore absolutely no resemblance to her former preferences either. The preferences of her first life, she thought with a wistful smile that disappeared as fast as it had appeared. Whereas she'd have eaten Miso soup, rice and other assorted Japanese food for breakfast in her first life she now preferred a more... western breakfast.

This rather radical change in behavioural patterns was attributable to her conscious decision to differentiate from her first life as much as possible. The reasons for this were manifold. First and foremost, though, were security reasons; she had to eliminate as many commensurabilities that could link her with her old life as possible. 'And let's face it,' she thought with a wry smile as she buttered a slice of bread which she subsequently delightfully devoured, 'wouldn't it be a bit odd for an American to prefer Japanese food for breakfast?'

Another reason Ranma did not want to admit the existence of so easily, not even to herself, was that being reminded of her first life even and in particular through her own behavioural patterns and preferences did hurt. For not only did it remind her of what once was, but of what would never be again.

Her life in Japan—and even before that—had never been an easy one, but she had enjoyed it despite it's... oddities. Her old life had been stolen from her, was forever lost to her, she thought bitterly as she washed down the remnants of her slice of bread and butter with a glass of orange juice, but even if the opportunity should ever present itself, she severely doubted that she'd want to take up her old life again. There was nothing worth returning to except for one, and that was revenge.

Ranma smiled grimly to herself as she walked over to the coffee-machine, the menial task of filling and switching on the machine being performed on auto-pilot as she hung to her thoughts. She then walked over to the tall cupboard that held cups, glasses and assorted stuff and fetched herself a large cup. Her face darkened a bit as she closed the cupboard, turned around and leaned against the counter.

She had made a vow to herself after escaping from Ryker's. She would never forget where she had come from and what she had lost, could never forget, for this was her incentive for getting back at those that had wronged her, the unknown mastermind in the shadows, the Tendos and her former parents.

It might have been... unwise to lay so much of her focus on her plans for revenge where the Tendos and her ex-parents were concerned, but they—in contrast to the as of yet faceless and nameless mastermind that had framed her—made an obvious target, a rather excellent bogeyman. Sym had reminded her time and again not to forget about the cause for the Tendo's and her former parents' betrayal, and she would not. Not anymore.

A determined glint appeared in her eyes, and she pitched her weight away from the counter she had been leaning against to walk over to her favourite chair, sitting down. In fact, she would start looking for trails right after the mission was over, or rather right after she had squeezed everything he knew out of Happosai. The comments he had made a few hours ago alluded to him having at least some knowledge of what had really happened to her, and to say that she was as curious as the metaphorical cat would have been an understatement. Yet in contrast to the said infamous cat she strongly planned on staying alive.

-.-

At a quarter to eight Ranma was standing on the same building she had observed the Symkarian embassy from a day ago, and the former Neriman indulged herself in the simple enjoyment it brought to watch the busy street below. Shrouded in the shadows the evening brought, she continued to observe undisturbed for minutes with just the wind playing with her blonde hair, Ranma having undergone the painful procedure to change her appearance into that of her warrior persona she had used during the tournament—minus the change in height, so as not to arouse Felicia's suspicion—at the recommendation of Sym.

In case something went wrong and one of their opponents managed to rip off the malleable facemask—as unlikely as that was—Ranma would have an extra layer of protection, seeing as her warrior persona wasn't the real her. The reasoning was the same as in case of the tournament, and Ranma had readily agreed, not least due to the fact that she inwardly liked being badass. And her tattooed and spiky-haired warrior persona was badass.

Shaking herself out of her musings she suddenly smiled underneath her facemask as she sensed her partner in crime descend from the skyline, the Black Cat landing nimble-footed beside her.

"Hey Scar, well-rested from yesterday's events and ready to kick some ass?" Felicia queried with a grin that showed off her larger than normal seeming incisors, her green eyes sparkling energetically.

"Of course. I'm really looking forward to blowing off some steam, in fact," Ranma said and cracked her knuckles for emphasis, slight irritation obvious in her voice.

"God have mercy on our opponents then. Scar is feeling bloodthirsty," the Cat remarked jovially. "And we all have seen the results," she finished in a somewhat more serious tone, her allusion all too clear.

Ranma snorted in mild irritation and crossed her arms underneath her chest, "They had it coming. And if 'em guys we'll undoubtedly hafta face today have it coming as well it's their problem, not mine. World's filled with assholes anyway, it could well do with a lot less."

"True, true," Felicia agreed after a moment of remembering all the assholes she had met in her life. "So whatcha say we go in and find out what our mission's all about?"

"Sound idea. You up for a repeat performance of yesterday?" Ranma asked with an audible grin in her voice, her head tilted cockily to the side.

Felicia just raised a brow that conveyed the message 'You've got a few screws lose'. "Riiiight. Not that I doubt your abilities, but now that we're working for Sable we can just say 'Hello, Mr. Guard. We're the Black Cat and her crazy sidekick Scarlet Widow,' and walk right through the front door."

"Oi! How come I'm the crazy sidekick?" Ranma queried in mock-outrage, placing her hands on her hips. "And besides, where's the fun in knocking on the front door? Everyone does it," she said haughtily and crossed her arms underneath her chest again, causing Felicia to roll her eyes in mock-exasperation.

"First off, I've been in this whole super-hero business longer than you. That makes you the sidekick by default," Felicia said mock-seriously, causing Ranma to smile in spite of herself. "Second, everyone does it for a reason. It's called making a normal entry, you should try it some time."

"Hah! You're just chickening out, is all," the blonde countered in an equally mock-serious tone.

"Am not. Besides, we really ain't got time for this," she said after taking a look at her watch. "We may have made a good impression yesterday, but we shouldn't risk ruining it by being unpunctual. Particularly not on our first mission," Felicia concluded, her voice acquiring a more serious quality.

"Oookay," Ranma replied, disappeared from beside her companion and reappeared seemingly instantly behind her, scooping her up into her arms which elicited a protesting noise. "You wanna be punctual, we're gonna be punctual."

And without further ado Ranma jumped off the building, a roguish grin appearing on her face both due to the action as well as the slight grin that had appeared on Felicia's face. 'I so have it in me,' the blonde thought as they plummeted towards the ground, and her grin only widened when Felicia seemed to make herself comfortable against her body.

Noticing the slight flutter in her stomach Ranma cleared the street with a powerful jump, and a few mighty leaps later the crime-fighting duo was standing in front of a very surprised-looking and rather non-descript, blackly-clothed guard.

"Hello. I am Scarlet Widow," Ranma said in an aloof tone as if she were talking about the weather as she let Felicia to the ground. "And this lady is The Black Cat. We have an appointment with Silver Sable."

"We're also in somewhat of a hurry," Felicia added with a grin. "So please hurry in rebooting your mental facilities, I don't think the boss likes to wait. And wouldn't it just be too bad if we had to tell Sable that you held us up, Morty?" she queried with a flutter of her lashes after having taken a look at his ID-tag.

"Yeah, too bad," Ranma muttered under her breath, not liking the way the man kept on staring at them.

"Err, umm, yeah," the guard replied after another twenty seconds of staring at Ranma and Felicia like they were angels that had descended from the heavens, "Just a sec," he said and fetched a clipboard from his alarm post. "Everything looks in order. You may pass, ladies."

"Thank you," both Ranma and Felicia replied and walked through the sally port, only the latter bothering to return the guard's smile.

-.-

At 8 p.m. sharp Ranma knocked at Silver Sable's office door, the fact that the guards flanking the said door were little more than unmoving statues telling the duo that they were expected. Sable's exclamation to enter came thus as no surprise, and the blonde opened the door and walked in, Felicia closing the door behind them.

The duo of crime-fighters let their gazes travel over the room to grasp the situation first and then greeted the said room's occupants, that being Sable and the Sandman. The Symkarian mercenary allowed a small smile to cross her lips and motioned Ranma and Felicia to take a seat, an invitation both accepted gladly.

Sable leaned forward in her office chair and steepled her fingers, her intent blue eyes gazing at the two women in front of her. "Now that we are complete we'll go over the mission details one more time, ladies. Just to ensure the pertinent data is understood."

"Yes, boss," three voices chorused dutifully, Flint's mutterings of 'and gents' fading away unheard.

"Our client is Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. It appears one of their enemies, The Wizard, managed to steal an untested and new invention during the ruckus caused by their latest clash. The said device is,"

"A thingie called 'replicator', yeah, yeah, boss," Flint Marko interrupted in a bored and disinterested tone, much to his employers' irritation.

"Thank you, Mr. Marko, that would probably have slipped my mind without you," Sable remarked pointedly, causing Ranma and Felicia to snort in amusement while Sandman had the grace to look sheepish.

"I wasn't able to get a lot of details out of Mr. Richards, just that the 'replicator' is allegedly able to duplicate every item it has scanned and/or that's in its database. To ease your worries, it wouldn't be able to replicate a human being meaning the Wizard could not raise his own army just like that, but according to Mr. Richards it'd very well be able to copy less evolved beings.

"He stated he isn't very worried, though, seeing as his tinker-toy is still riddled by severe bugs, and the fact that he delegated its retrieval to us raises this probability. Then there's the fact that the replicator needs a special casing, some kind of mainframe to be operational, which is something the Wizard doesn't have.

"However, I recommend that you exhibit extreme caution, for we do not know if the Wizard is working solo or if he has partners," Sable concluded, her intent gaze travelling from Sandman to Felicia to Ranma.

"We know all that. We also know that an informant of yours pointed you towards the Wizard's alleged hiding place," Ranma spoke up in a disinterested tone that matched the tone Sandman had spoken in.

"Which is located at the lower East side of Manhattan in an abandoned industrial zone," Felicia supplied, matching Ranma's tone to a tee.

"Good. Seeing that you seem to know your mission so well, I suggest you get cracking. Mr. Marko will accompany you in case you need back up, but this is your first solo mission, ladies, and I expect you to complete it to my satisfaction," Sable remarked calmly, her fingers steepled. "Considering your talents I'd say you should be more than up to it."

Ranma and Felicia exchanged a brief look that communicated both had understood the message Silver Sable had wanted to convey. "We won't disappoint you, boss," they said in unison, exchanged another look followed by a determined nod and got to their feet.

Silver Sable masterfully hid the amused smile that wanted to escape her at seeing that her newest employees seemed to be very keen to prove themselves, and the look she sent Flint Marko that said it was his job to assure nothing went wrong was received loud and clear by the Sandman. "'Kay, come on now, gals, ya can file yer nails later," he remarked tauntingly as he got to his feet himself, shooting Ranma and Felicia a teasing grin.

The blonde for her part fixed him with a glare of her unblinking twin white pools and directed his attention to her rapidly growing talons, a fact that made the teasing grin disappear faster than ice in the sunshine. "One more comment like that and I'm gonna use you as my scratching post to properly file my nails, comprénde?" she queried in a voice that cut through the tall man like an icy gust of wind.

Felicia had to hold back a chuckle as Flint Marko nodded visibly against his will, and she could almost feel her partner's evil grin. 'Can't help but to admire her style. Heh, good ole intimidation works well for her. But hoh-boy, Scar's really scary today without even trying, and she's moody too. Hmm, must be her time. Poor ole Sandman, if he keeps on annoying her he'll get himself kicked where the sun doesn't shine,' the silver haired heroine thought with a grin.

"If you're quite finished, ladies, you have a job to do. And business waits for no one," Sable remarked seriously, just a hint of amusement audible in her voice.

"Gotcha, boss," Sandman replied, taking Sable's remark as an opportunity to gather himself, and Ranma gave a nod of acknowledgement as well. "We'll be on our way then, boss," the blonde added, and giving her employer a nod she strolled out of Sable's office, Felicia and Sandman on her heels.

"Leadership qualities, a good tactical mind yet a streak of individuality a mile wide. Somehow she reminds me of myself when I was younger," Sable muttered to herself with a wry chuckle. "Something tells me she'll go far, and I think having her around and working for me will make things very interesting."

Silver Sable had no way of knowing that words truer than that had seldom been spoken.

-.-

Twenty minutes later Ranma and Felicia had arrived in the vicinity of the abandoned industrial zone Sable had pointed them to, the duo opting to use the roof of an old factory that had been abandoned for years by the look of it as a choke point. Due to the fact that Flint Marko's mode of transportation was hardly to be mistaken as a sudden and severe gust of Sahara winds the trio had decided that Ranma and Felicia would travel via web-slinging while Sandman would travel using the sewers.

The crime-fighting duo had just made themselves at home when all of a sudden sand began to spew forth from a drain right down below their position. The masked blonde and the silver haired crime fighter exchanged an amused look, Ranma scooping the older woman up into her arms while saying, "You reckon he got caught up in a traffic jam underneath the city, or why did he take five minutes longer than us?" in an amused tone.

"Yeah, and they say us women take our sweet time," Felicia replied fake-seriously. "Butwho knows, there's a lot of creepy stuff running around down there," she added in a completely serious tone.

"Yep, all kinds of nasties," Ranma readily agreed, just loud enough to be heard, adding 'With the biggest I encountered yet being Doc Ock, and he learned not to mess with me just as the smaller pests.' mentally.

Felicia shuddered briefly and suppressed memories that came bubbling to the surface. "Moving on, it's good to see that Flint possessed at least enough common sense to choose a point that's far enough away from the target to make his exit," she replied, sounding amused.

"Yeah, he seems trainable," Ranma agreed in a tone that conveyed she was joking, the corners of her mouth quirking up in satisfaction as a brilliant smile bloomed on Felicia's face. "Now get a hold of your panties, I'm gonna get us down there. Flint's obviously looking for us, and it wouldn't do he triggers some kinda alarm our opponent may have set up. The guy's a technical genius after all," she reasoned and flexed her muscles.

Felicia nodded and wrapped her arms around the blonde with a grin. "Okay, got a hold," she replied cheekily.

Ranma just shook her head in bemusement, jumped round about twelve metres downwards and landed nimble-footed. Felicia grinned at her partner as she let herself out of the fireman's carriage. "It was a pleasure, as always," the Black Cat remarked with twinkling eyes before strolling off towards Flint Marko's position, the Sandman having caught sight of them in the meantime.

The host of Sym felt a flutter in her stomach and remained rooted to the spot for a few moments before shaking herself out of her thoughts, muttering, "Damn hot cat doesn't even know how hot she really is," before following said 'hot woman'.

Oh, but I'm sure she does. And if I am not thoroughly mistaken there might be a good chance the Black Cat might reciprocate your feelings, especially once she learns of your male form, my host. I would have to err gravely, but I do not think your gender-changing affliction would present a problem, — Sym mused to herself in the privacy of her thoughts.

"Hey gals, got caught up in a fuckin' traffic jam or something. Ran inta a fuckin' huge alligator, can ya believe that? Had ta skewer the thing 'cause it's tiny brain thought sand was tasty, but here I am. Late, but better late than never," Flint greeted them with a sheepish grin. "And am I ever glad that my sand form ain't having taken on the fuckin' stink," he added with a fierce scowl.

"Hey, Flint. Can relate ta whatcha said, man. I chased Doc Ock through the sewers myself not long ago, so I know exactly what you mean," Ranma spoke up.

"Don't get me started. I've lost count on how often I had to go down into that stinking maze, and it has only gotten worse over the years," Felicia piped up, her face sporting a look of disgust.

"Moving on, we should get started on the mission," Ranma suggested, casually tying her hair into a ponytail with one of Sym's tendrils. "That replicator thingie ain't gonna retrieve itself."

"Right. You two come up with a plan, it's your mission after all. I'm just the backup detail," Sandman stated, calmly crossing his arms across his chest.

"Good," Ranma said evenly and looked at Felicia. "I'm in the know when it comes to this area seeing as I've been here before. The most logical place for the Wizard to have set up his base would be the old warehouse eight through this alleyway. As you see, these two warehouses that form the alleyway are quite derelict, and I'm sure someone with as big an ego as Sable described this Wizard having would only settle for the best available. And that's the warehouse I mentioned," she explained, resting her hands on her hips after having finished.

"So you've been here before, eh? That sure comes in handy," Felicia mused with an appreciative look. "So, what can you tell me about the warehouse itself? Size, exits, the works."

Ranma put a finger to her chin as she recalled her memories of the layout of the warehouse, Sym aiding her unbidden yet she gladly accepted it with her own recollections. "Let me see," she mused, "the hall's about a kilometre long and a half kilometre wide. It had two entrances slash exits last time, one at the right end of the hall, the other obliquely opposite. Can't say much about the interior, it was very plain last time. Other than that... Well, the hall's about twelve metres tall, and that's about it. No idea what the Wizard's done to the place, provided he really set up base here."

Felicia nodded after having gone over the details in her mind, her face sporting a satisfied look, "That's better than naught, Scar, and more on information than we'd otherwise have," she mused, and a thoughtful look appeared on her face. "Can you use that invisibility trick of yours to get us into the hall? That'd be really nifty."

A slightly perverted grin appeared on Ranma's masked face as she realised that this meant more physical contact, the grin being followed by a blush as she realised just what she had been thinking. Realising that she was supposed to give an answer the blonde nodded slowly, "Yeah, I think that'd work. My invisibility wouldn't cover Flint, though, he'd have to find a way of his own. But that ain't a problem seeing as you're the observer here anyway, eh?" she remarked teasingly.

"Oi! You wound me!" Sandman replied mock-hurt, causing the women to smile.

"Okay, let's tackle it," Ranma stated determinedly, and had scooped up Felicia in her arms yet again moments later. She noticed much to her satisfaction that the Black Cat made herself comfortable against her body, and another blush appeared on her face as she thought about how good this would feel in her male form.

"You said it, Scar. Let's show Flint just how we infiltrated Sable's headquarters. Take a good long look, Flint, and don't blink, for in a few ya won't see nothing," Felicia remarked smugly.

Taking her comment as the cue Ranma briefly concentrated as she called up on Sym's camouflage abilities as well as her Umi, and all of a sudden both crime-fighters seemed to have simply faded from existence, just so as if they had never been there in the first place.

Flint Marko couldn't help but to be impressed, and the man of sand whistled lowly, "Now that's darn impressive, gals. Any chance an old dog like me could learn that?" he queried.

"Not really," came Ranma's voice from behind him, causing Flint to whirl around and squint his eyes, yet he perceived nothing but thin air, "Not because I don't trust you or anything, far from it, but it'd take years to learn. Sorry."

"Ah, it ain't a problem. Never been the learning type anyway. And now shoo, ladies, you got a mission to accomplish," Sandman exclaimed, making a shooing motion with his arms.

Light chuckling emanating from seemingly thin air was his reply. "Aye, aye, sir!" Ranma mock-saluted, and then the Sandman, who sported an amused grin, heard nothing any more. Mission 'replicator retrieval' was a go.

-.-

This time around Ranma chose a different path to get to the large warehouse eight that was her target yet again, having taken to the roof of the left warehouse in one powerful leap. Uncaring if the wizard had the warehouse bugged, trip-wired or Jack knew what she hasted across the roof with Felicia in her arms.

The Black Cat was amazed at the speed the other woman exhibited while running, for to Felicia it seemed that her surroundings blurred before they had suddenly, just twenty seconds later in her estimation, covered one kilometre of roof and were jumping to the ground. Not breaking her run Ranma then ran straight towards their destination, another powerful leap taking her to the roof of their likely target, on which she landed in a low crouch and with hardly a sound.

Ranma, this roof is heavily bugged, trip-wired and equipped with a wide variety of surveillance tools. In short, it is secured in an optimal way I cannot help but respect. Whoever thought this up knew his onions, to make use of one of your fascinating human idioms. It is nothing we will not be able to overcome, but do not let go of Felicia under any circumstances, — Sym piped up.

'Roger that, Sym. Now to find something we can use as an entrance,' the blonde thought back and stealthily made her way across the roof.

"How about we start looking for an open window? It has worked before," Felicia suggested in a whisper.

"Not bad, that idea," Ranma whispered back, keeping her opinion that finding an open window was extremely unlikely as she made her way to the side of the warehouse that faced away from the dirt road.

"Of course. The idea came from me after all," Felicia replied mock-haughtily.

Ranma chuckled lightly, "Okay, your brilliantness, would you now please get onto my back? Climbing along the wall is easiest this way, and-"

"No need to say any more, Scar. I've seen firsthand yesterday just how effective this is," Felicia replied, and with a few, artistic movements that evoked all kinds of funny feelings in the blonde the Black Cat made herself comfortable on Ranma's back.

The feeling of Felicia's ample talents and curvaceous body pressed into her back—and other body parts—and the Black Cat's arms slung around her mid-section just below her breasts was even more intense than yesterday, and Ranma barely suppressed a low moan. Sym downright smirked in satisfied amusement within the private 'partition' of her mind at 'seeing' the blonde's physiological reactions to the intense, yet outwardly innocent physical contact, and she wasn't surprised in the least that her host needed several seconds to gather her bearings.

Her host could try to deny it as vehemently as she liked, Ranma's reactions just now proved that she was more than attracted to the silver haired woman on her back, and she would carefully watch the situation and subtly—as well as not so subtly, if needed or opportune—encourage her host. These two were just too good a match, and it was too bad they didn't know it yet.

Oblivious to her symbiote's thoughts and being hard-pressed to keep her imagination from running rampant as well Ranma carefully climbed down the wall and let her gaze travel along the side of the wall, yet not even her enhanced vision was able to discern if there was maybe an open window. In close to medium proximity she had drawn blanks, but maybe the far end would yield results? Well, it was worth a shot, the symbiote host mused, and having made her decision she slowly made her way along the wall.

"Regardless how often you do that, Scar, it's God damn cool," Felicia spoke up in a whisper.

A pleased grin appeared on Ranma's face. "I think so too. I really have to pay Peter back for these cool powers. Dunno, start a company with him and make him wealthy, give him training to make him a real kick-ass fighter or something. These powers are just about the limit," Ranma whispered back, an audible grin to her voice.

"You won't hear me trying to contest that, Scar. I admit I do envy you, but damn, Sym was lucky to have run into you rather than some psychotic murderer. It's damn safe to assume things would have gone straight to hell had that been the case," Felicia replied.

"Maybe it's good that we'll never know, Kittie. But it's nice to know that you think of me as a good example of a human being. It's appreciated," Ranma whispered back in honest gratitude, a smile blooming on her face.

"You're welcome, Scar, but I was just voicing my observations," Felicia replied in a matter-of-fact tone, causing Ranma's smile to grow.

If you are quite finished rotting my non-existent teeth with what the TV calls mushy stuff I would ask you to listen to this little reprimand of mine. — Sym spoke up.

'I'm all ears, Sym, fire away.' Ranma retorted mentally while wondering what her symbiote wanted to criticise, outwardly saying, "Thank you nonetheless," to Felicia.

Ranma, you would very well be able to see the end of the warehouse if you would ask me to enhance your vision to a greater degree, and you know it. And then you would see that no window is open on this side of the building. But I think you prefer the alternative that prolongs the physical contact between Felicia and yourself, is it not so? —

'Goddamm, I like her, yeah. There's just something about her…' Ranma thought with a mental sigh, 'But you better stop teasing me or you won't be seeing me indulging in little bouts of violence for a while, Sym' she added warningly as she continued to crawl along the wall.

Judging from how wet the junction between your legs is I would say you do more than 'like' her, and do not even try to argue that this is due to your period. I know your body, both of them, like the back of my hand—to use another of your interesting idioms—so I know the difference. I find it illogical that you do not take steps to form a relationship with her if you are attracted to her to such a degree. Your body sure thinks you should get horizontal with her, to borrow another interesting human phrase, — Sym retorted, causing a rosy hue to appear on Ranma's face, the blonde being glad not for the first time that she was wearing a mask. — And your threat, if it even qualifies as one, does not impress me in the slightest. As soon as you encounter individuals you find wanting you are bound to dish out justice as you see fit, and that does include violence beyond the shadow of a doubt, — the symbiote concluded with conviction.

'Damn, she knows me too well,' Ranma thought to herself, incidentally reaching the end of the wall which prompted her to speak the observation Felicia had to have made as well. "Oh goodie. No open window. Meh, maybe the backside's our ticket," she said in a whisper.

"I'm sure we'll find a way in. I'm a Black Cat, remember? I bring misfortune to my enemies," Felicia whispered back, her hot breath tickling the right side of Ranma's masked face.

"Y-Yeah, misfortune," the distracted blonde replied and crawled around the corner in an attempt to clear her thoughts.

"'s everything okay, Scar? You sound odd, as if something's bothering you," Felicia whispered, worry audible in her voice, her breath yet again tickling the younger woman.

Oh yes, she is hot and bothered all right, — Sym teased amusedly.

'Oh shuddit, Sym. You ain't helpin', 'n' you've definitely watched too much TV. You're turning into a right pervert,' Ranma shot back irritably, her face contorted in annoyance.

Encouraging you to take up a relationship that is physical in nature as well as what else you have that constitutes a 'normal' relationship is not perverted in the slightest. I even vow here and now not to turn into a 'peeping Tim,

'Tom, Sym' Ranma interjected. 'It's called peeping Tom.'

Interesting. My reference must have been faulty. Thanks for the correction, Ranma.

'Welcome,' Ranma thought back.

To return to what I was saying, I vow that I will not turn into a peeping Tom once you two decide to get a room, — the symbiote concluded, a feint trace of amusement audible in her voice.

"Everything's okay, Kittie," Ranma replied after forcefully ejecting certain images from her mind. "Was just trying to extrapolate what kinda opposition we're gonna face. I hate to fly blind, you know?" she said in answer to Felicia's question.

"'kay. Just wanted to make sure," Felicia replied, and Ranma could tell from the other woman's voice that she hadn't fully bought it.

"I'll be damned," Ranma muttered a few seconds later as her enhanced vision spied a window that was indeed open, the gap allowing them easy access, "Wouldcha look at that. Ain't that neat?"

"What are you talking about... Oh, now I see it as well. Seems we have our way with windows, eh?" Felicia whispered amusedly.

"Yeah, it really seems this way. And who're we to discard an invitation such as this?" Ranma asked rhetorically, making her way towards their 'ticket' into the warehouse.

"True, true. Shall we knock to see if someone's at home?" Felicia whispered impishly.

"By all means," Ranma whispered back, and her mental gears shifting into battle mode the spider-powered gender-changer entered the building.

-.-

Ranma carefully crawled through the open window, mindful that her precious cargo wouldn't bump her beautiful head, and once she had reached the inside of the building she remained adhered to the wall so as to get an overview of the situation. Her first act was to scan for ki-signatures, and upon finding none she asked Sym to conduct a check of her own, which yielded the same results. The owners were apparently not at home. 'Che, they're probably committing a crime right now. Too bad that they'll find someone stole from the stealers when they return,' Ranma thought mirthfully.

I urge you to be cautious despite that. Nothing is what it seems, more often than not, — Sym warned.

'Gotcha, Sym,' she replied and let her symbiote-enhanced gaze sweep across the room. The blonde barely managed to keep in the low whistling that wanted to escape her.

"Damn, would you look at all these... these thingies!" Felicia whispered from her back, beating Ranma to making a comment, the Black Cat's use of the term 'thingies' very appropriate for the wide variety of very futuristic looking gadgets. "It kinda looks like Mr. Fantastic's lab with all those apparatuses standing around."

"Never seen Mr. Fantastic's lab, but yeah, it really looks like some kinda lab out of some crazy science fiction movie or something," Ranma agreed in a low whisper. "Which tells us this is the correct address. Now we're gonna find us that replicator thingie, return it to its owner and cash in on our first salary."

"Sounds like a plan to me, Scar," Felicia replied. "Let's get going."

Ranma smiled behind her facemask. "Aye, aye, ma'am. Your wish is my command," she replied and crawled downwards.

Felicia's body heaving against hers as the older woman seemingly suppressed her amusement didn't make the task of crawling down the ten metres to ground level any easier, and Sym's amusement which she could feel in the back of her mind didn't help any either, which was why Ranma was unsurprisingly happy once she had reached terra firma.

Recalling what she had seen from the bird's eye perspective Ranma guided her steps to the left where she thought to have seen some kind of futuristic workbench, working with the assumption that that particular part of the lab would be the most likely to yield results. Still carrying Felicia on her back without even noticing the weight the invisible martial artist made a beeline for her target, and a wide and satisfied grin spread on her face as she got close enough to make out details. "Damn, that's gotta be the replicator thingie," she said in a whisper and headed straight for a complex looking apparatus.

"You're right. But it's worse than our intel told us. The Wizard has managed to build that mainframe piece Sable mentioned. That could mean the thing's operational," Felicia whispered back, her tone slightly worried.

"Who cares? We'll just take the whole damn thing. If the sucker actually managed to iron out the bugs it's his loss," the blonde retorted, coming to a stop in front of the bulky machine.

And before Felicia had even had the chance to retort that Ranma better be careful due to the replicator likely being booby-trapped, Ranma had already reached out and lifted the machine up. Her spider-sense kicked in a few seconds too late as a loud, blaring siren immediately came to life, and before even Ranma with her outstanding reaction time could react, a large cage seemingly made of acrylic glass had been lowered from the ceiling at insane speeds by some unseen mechanism. The crime-fighting duo was trapped.

-.-

Ranma calmly placed the machine back on the workbench and then turned her head in all directions to assess the situation, noting that Felicia surveyed the cage that had them trapped as well. Opting to find out just how thick the walls of the cage made of what seemed to be acrylic glass were the blonde stepped to the closest acrylic wall to probe it with her senses.

A grin slowly spread on her masked face as she came to the realisation that it was indeed acrylic glass, admittedly very thick glass at that, but nothing that she wouldn't be able to shatter with careless ease. She had just reared back her arm and formed a fist when someone spoke up from her immediate right. "Now, now, we can't have any of that," a male voice remarked in an arrogant tone, causing Ranma to swivel her head towards the speaker, who turned out to be a diminutive bearded man wearing a red and light-blue coloured armour, red helmet, and gauntlets.

"So the Wizard's not in Oz, what a pity," Felicia spoke up, causing Ranma to snort in amusement.

"Witty repartee is not going to help you, little cat," the diminutive man retorted as he stepped closer.

"Maybe not, but that will," Ranma replied and reared back her fist once more.

"Tut, tut," the man exclaimed in a chiding tone and pressed a button on a device that resembled a remote control, "Such violent behaviour. I'm afraid I can not tolerate that."

The instant the Wizard had finished speaking Ranma's world seemed to take a side-wards tilt that threw her into a dimension of agony, and she absently noticed that while affected as well she seemed to be far worse off than Felicia.

'Sym, what's going on… here? Why am I… feeling so... weak?' Ranma almost screamed in her mind as she sunk to her knees, clutching the sides of her bowed head with both hands; she noticed with alarm that her facemask began to melt, and it slowly cascaded downwards in a gooey stream, her ponytail coming undone as the tendril holding it together dissolved.

I am… sorry Ranma. I failed… to tell you… about my… weaknesses, — the symbiote replied in an almost raspy sounding tone. — We are… being subjected to… high frequency sonics… as well as... a localised field... of increased... gravity originating from… the ceiling… of this cage. The wavelength… of the emitted sound… is sufficient… to break up… our symbiosis. I am… sorry.

'Break up? Oh no, no, no, no! I… can't lose you… too!' Ranma thought back fiercely and desperately as she balled her hands into tight fists, uncaring that tears began to leak from the corners of her eyes.

Despite her attempts to maintain her hold on her symbiote Ranma felt that the goo-like substance that comprised Sym's body began to slowly pool at her feet, and a frustrated cry escaped the blonde at being so helpless. 'How could I've... been so careless... and arrogant to... let myself... get caught so... off-guard? How could I... misjudge the... situation so... badly? Stupid, stupid, stupid!' she depreciated herself, gritting her teeth so hard that more tears leaked from the corners of her eyes as the pain caused by the forced separation continued to tear through her being.

Ranma's verbal exclamation as well as the muffled sobs and cursing coming from her as she despairingly fought to maintain her connection with Sym, her saviour, confidant and first real friend, caused Felicia to break through her own pain caused by sonic bombardment and increased gravity, and the Black Cat managed to slowly swivel her head to look at the suffering blonde. Her intent was to help her ailing friend in any way or form possible, yet both brows climbed slowly into her hairline at being able to see Ranma for the first time without her facemask on, and one thought came to the forefront unbidden, 'Damn, she's gorgeous!'

Seeing how much her friend was suffering Felicia pushed herself to her feet and made her way over to her partner under difficulties, knelt down behind the blonde and hugged her from behind. "I'm here for you, Scar. You're not alone in this," she whispered softly and took Ranma's balled hands into her own, softly caressing knuckles and fingers of the blonde's right hand with her own right in a gesture of comfort and support.

"T-Thank you," Ranma replied as she allowed herself to relax into Felicia's embrace.

"What are friends for, Scar," Felicia said with an audible smile to her voice, and squeezed Ranma's hands anew.

Gratitude flooded through Ranma, the pleasant feeling the physical contact induced helping her through her pain, giving her something to focus on which aided her in enduring the pain, yet as hard as she fought to maintain her hold on Sym, the agonised blonde realised all too soon that it was an all but impossible task.

Felicia, who sensed Ranma's mounting frustration and pain as she fought on with the strength of the desperate, just held on tighter to her friend and partner as she tried to lend her the strength to hold out, "We'll pull through this together, Scar, you just gotta believe in it," she urged the blonde on, eliciting a weak nod and an audible grinding of teeth on Ranma's part as she scraped up her remaining strength.

"Aww, isn't that just too cute, no, downright heart-rending? The heroine's are there for each other in their mutual time of need. Pathetic," the Wizard sneered, and looked amused at the twin glares sent his way.

"Anyway, you lose a symbiote, li'l girl,I gain one for studying purposes. I'd call that a good deal. For me," Bentley Wittman taunted arrogantly. "On a side-note, I commend you on your choice of surgeon, those are indeed a nice pair," the man concluded clinically, much like a scientist admiring another's work.

"Screw... you, asshole," Ranma retorted weakly, making no attempt to cover her modesty as she leaned back further into Felicia's embrace.

"Fuck you, you old goat," the said woman had spat out venomously at the same time and had tightened her hold on Ranma as if wanting to protect her from the villain's prying eyes, though inwardly she shared the man's opinion. Scar's breasts were indeed a nice pair and downright perfect, just as the rest of her that was slowly being unveiled by the melting away combat suit.

The Wizard laughed at Ranma and ignored Felicia's insult. "As tempting an offer as this is, I have to decline. One brat is more than enough," he replied, muttering the last sentence almost to himself. "To return to topic, hadn't I decided not to accompany my team-mates your ploy might have succeeded, but did you really think you could enter my lair without my notice? Please. My sensor phalanx detected you right after you met up with your sandy friend, and it was child's play for me to render my presence undetectable to lure you into thinking we had left base.

"Your invisibility trick was admittedly intriguing and would have been good enough to overcome my systems, as I'll grudgingly admit, yet it was ultimately a failure seeing as you employed it too late. Amateurs will always be amateurs.

"Anyway, I will have plenty of time to study the camouflaging abilities a symbiote grants, and I'll most certainly unravel the mechanics behind this disappearance act of yours."

"Never, asshole," Ranma spat defiantly, Felicia lacing the man with an—albeit impotent—glare as well.

"Never say never again, girl. That's a lesson you'd do well to learn," the Wizard retorted, chuckling mirthfully, "That reminds me, you can come out now, Mr. Marko," he called, briefly tearing his gaze away from the suffering women to look to his right. "I believe an old friend of you wants to say hello, isn't that so, Mr. Bench?"

After exhausting her energies to defy the arrogant Wizard in addition to giving her all to keep a hold on Sym Ranma barely had the strength to look up to witness how a steady stream of water began to emit from a nearby water standpipe, but she heard Felicia's outburst of "Fuck!" loud and clear.

"Not very eloquent, but essentially a fitting summary of your situation, Miss Hardy. You foolish and incompetent lot overestimated yourselves, and errors of judgement tend to get punished," the Wizard commented after turning his coldly smirking face towards the captured crime-fighters. "Mr. Bench, whom I called back as soon as I spied you and his former associate, and Mr. Marko will undoubtedly engage in battle… oh, I see they already have," he observed casually as a clash of a sandy and a watery body occurred, Hydro-Man succeeding in pushing his and the Sandman's combined body masses through the newly made door and out of the hall.

"This meaningless skirmish will result in a stalemate with neither being able to win. The result will inevitably consist thereof that I will not only have enough time to make preparations to move to another location, oh no, I will rather have an interesting specimen to study and use for my purposes. The possibilities are endless," the armoured man crowed in dark delight.

"Never!" Ranma snarled through gritted teeth, still barely possessing the strength to lift her head and lace her captor with a defiant glare. "I'll find... a way to break... free. You ain't gettin' away... with this."

"Hah hah hah! I have already gotten away with it, you foolish wench!" the Wizard exclaimed arrogantly, putting his hands on his hips while grinning mockingly at Ranma, who glared back fiercely.

Felicia gave Ranma's hands a reassuring squeeze and laced the Wizard with a death-glare of her own. "The hell you have! You're nothing special, Wizard, you're just a man who likes to play with toys! We will find a way to beat you!" she vowed through clenched teeth.

"Brave words, but you're clearly overestimating yourselves yet again, little girls," Bentley Wittman retorted in a condescending tone. "The separation process is under way, and the cage holding you is impenetrable to anyone with a normal human's level of strength such as yourself. You have lost.

"And you," his cold blue eyes fixated Ranma, "don't even try to delude yourself into thinking you were anything without your symbiote, girl. It is well known from Eddie Brock that a symbiote host that does not possess inherent super powers is nothing without the enhancing capabilities of the symbiote. You are nothing, little 'Scarlet Widow'," he concluded, making mocking air-quotes to further rub in her helplessness.

"Go screw... yourself, dickhead. But then... again, he is... probably shorter... than New York's... area code... so better... forget I said... anything," Ranma muttered derisively, causing Felicia to quirk an amused smile despite their situation.

"Your insults are meaningless, little girl, for you wouldn't be able to recognise true greatness if it bit you in the bum," the super-villain retorted coolly, causing his captives to roll their eyes in exasperation. "The Black Cat," the Wizard continued seamlessly and waved his hand dismissively at the said silver-haired woman who was still kneeling behind Ranma, offering the blonde comfort, "is no threat seeing that she doesn't possess super powers either. There is nothing either of you can do," the armoured man exclaimed arrogantly. "And while we are waiting for the end of the process, I am certain you are curious as to how I knew about your symbiote, correct?"

Ranma opened her fists and grasped Felicia's hands as if to borrow strength from her, and with a feat of mental strength she managed to straighten herself up despite the immense pain, glaring at the arrogant man holding them captive with a look that communicated her utter fury and loathing. "Ya fuckin'... asshole talk... too much. I swear... I'll shut... ya up. And I'll tear ya... a new one... for doing that... to me... to us. I'll hunt... ya down, and... I'll get even." the blonde spat, slumping back into Felicia's embrace upon having delivered her threat, who muttered "I'll be glad to help."

"Oh, pardon me, you're in too much pain to think clearly, not to mention to be a participant in a meaningful conversation, otherwise you wouldn't sprout such nonsense. But I'll indulge you anyway," the Wizard mocked, causing Ranma to turn up her glare several notches both due to the man's arrogance as well as the fact that she was indeed unable to stop the separation process. "I of course knew of the Venom symbiote seeing that I had encountered its host Eddie Brock before, which is why I was very curious when my scans of you revealed that you were wearing such a symbiote. Is it an offspring?" he queried, completely ignoring the conflict that audibly raged outside as Sandman and Hydro-Man clashed repeatedly, the latter obviously managing to keep the former from coming to his team mates' rescue, much as Bentley Wittman had predicted.

"Go... to hell." Ranma ground out, noticing with absolute anger that Sym had slid down to below her waist, only her kneeling on the ground preventing her captor from getting a chance to see more of her private bits.

"I do not believe in an unproven religious concept such as that, only in hard, scientifically proven facts," Bentley Wittman replied in a superior tone, and his sneering face acquired a look of glee upon seeing that Sym had pooled at Ranma's feet completely. "Now enough of these truisms, the time has come to wrap things up.

"Miss Hardy, I'm not inhumane, so I'll allow you to aid your friend in stepping away at least five metres from the symbiote. Otherwise she will meet her demise," he said in a patronising tone while fingering a remote control. "On the other hand, maybe she would like to volunteer for proving hell exists?" Wittman taunted, grinning cruelly, the index finger of his right hand hovering over a button of his remote control.

Felicia sent the arrogant villain a death-glare in Ranma's stead as he walked over to another workbench with a cylindrical contraption standing in it's middle what with the blonde having gone almost catatonic upon the separations' completion, yet the Black Cat was forced to comply nonetheless and took Ranma into a fireman's carry, noticing with a breaking heart how the younger woman stretched out her right hand towards the symbiotic puddle in evident longing and desperation.

The silver haired woman tightened her grip on the younger woman and squeezed Ranma's left hand in a gesture that conveyed she felt for her, and was inwardly relieved when the blonde squeezed back ever so slightly, showing that she was still there. But unsurprisingly, her gaze remained glued to the spot her symbiote occupied, helplessness almost rolling off the blonde in waves.

"You just wait, Wittman, you'll get yours sooner or later," Felicia snarled heatedly, not letting go of the blonde after having reached the specified distance.

"Hardly," the villain retorted with an arrogant sneer and pressed a button that caused an opening of twenty by twenty centimetres to appear underneath the symbiote, some device sucking it in.

"No," Ranma exclaimed from within Felicia's arms, her voice thick with despair, absently noticing the tightening of the older woman's arms around her, "Nooooo!"

Just the Wizard's mocking laughter answered her as the villain stared at the cylindrical tube without even facing them, a mixture of impatience and anticipation prevalent on his face. Ranma, who was slowly recovering from the pain the forced separation had evoked, watched together with Felicia how the red and black substance that constituted Sym's body was pumped into the cylinder, her anger and fury almost palpable.

"You should abandon the hope that your little friend here will break free. This cell, for lack of better term, is equipped with sonic emitters that ensure the symbiote is rendered harmless. It was so easy for a man of my intellect to modify my equipment to suit my needs.

"You see, the cage was there all along as a booby-trap to capture the foolish, such as you," he waved his right hand arrogantly at the Felicia and Ranma, "as was the contraption to pump water and other materials in and out. Adding the sonic emitters as well as the graviton emitters to render you harmless once I knew you held a symbiote was child's play, almost beneath me," the Wizard elaborated smugly.

A grin spread on the man's face and he turned his head to face his captives, who were still glaring daggers at the super villain, and the man almost absently pressed another button that deactivated the sonic and gravitational bombardment. "I have what I wanted. Oh, and did you really believe a man of my intellect would be stupid enough to risk placing something as valuable as the replicator in danger?" he asked in mild amusement.

"Yeah we did, you arrogant shithead," Felicia shot back, her eyes glittering angrily as she stroked a shaking Ranma.

"Neither of you learn very well, do you? I'm above your silly insults as they are nothing more than an expression of your helpless anger, which in turn stems from your own incompetence," the Wizard retorted coolly, and it seemed he almost revelled in the furious glares his captives levelled at him. "Moving on, this," he pointed at the caged replicator, "is nothing but a facsimile. I lied when I said you might have succeeded in case I had accompanied my team. Your venture was destined to fail right from the start. Do you realise your inferiority now?" he queried gloatingly, and erupted in mocking laughter when no answers but death-glares were forthcoming from Felicia and Ranma.

Pressing another button the Wizard delighted in Ranma's and Felicia's looks of helpless fury, and a machine that looked exactly like the replicator standing on the workbench in the cage slid out of a wall-panel and onto the workbench ten metres to the Wizard's right, "This is the real replicator, which my genius made fully operational, and it will be my trump card in bringing about the downfall of the Fantastic Four," the man whispered almost reverently, an unholy glee shining in his eyes. "I succeeded where Richards failed, and his own invention will be his undoing. Isn't that ironically fitting?" he queried, only to erupt in gales of evil laughter.

Ranma, who had in the meantime fully recovered on the sly, thanked Felicia for her help with a heartfelt "Thank you," followed by a warm smile and a hug that lasted for several seconds and slowly eased out of the other woman's arms and easily came to stand on her own feet.

Felicia regarded her with a mixture of worry and surprise, but Ranma slowly shook her head and gave her a reassuring, genuine smile to assure the other woman that everything was okay. Ranma's smile turned grim and a look of fierce, unyielding determination and the desire to enact justice flashed in her eyes as she remembered the last words Sym had uttered before the separation process had been complete.

Ranma involuntarily cracked her knuckles as she replayed her symbiote's words in her mind: — Do not forget... about the powers... the Neko-ken... granted you... and make... full use... of the cat... in you. Use... your claws. Goodbye... my host, — Sym had managed to say shortly before the separation process had been complete, and now that she had sufficiently recovered the time to strike had come.

"There's an old saying, Wittman," Ranma sneered, causing the Wizard to swivel his head over to them, a brow arrogantly cocked. "Never sell the bear's fur when you haven't slain it!"

With that exclamation the butt-naked blonde unsheathed three twenty centimetres long claws made of iridescent energy on both hands, and before Bentley Wittman could even hope to react in any way or form Ranma had already repeatedly slashed away at the entrapping cage at Amaguriken speeds, cleaving right through the thick front of acrylic glass entrapping Felicia and her. Icy blue eyes locked on the Wizard as a myriad of glass shards sprayed outward and around her, and one pissed off martial artist zoned in on her target, colder and more precise than any homing device.

"Your long-winded and narcissistic speeches gave me the time I needed to recover, Wittman. Now I'm gonna kick your ass so hard that your grandfather's gonna feel it! Then, you die."

-.-

Ranma, who had seemingly turned into a stark-naked demonic fury complete with matching claws, seemed to disappear from the cage in a blur of movement, absently noting that an initially surprised, then delighted-looking Felicia followed her into freedom. Ranma's mind was filled with thoughts of revenge that threatened to overtake her consciousness in a red haze, but the calm and analytic part of her that had prospered in the last few weeks due to the symbiosis with Sym pushed the irrational, animalistic part down, seizing control.

Cold blue eyes glared at the Wizard who had chosen to bring a safe distance between himself and his potentially dangerous former captives by using his anti-gravity disks to ascend to five metres above ground level, a sneer forming on his face, "So you had an ace up your sleeve, little girl. Impressive. But unless you have wings or other possibilities of unassisted flight I fear your little display is ultimately useless, seeing that you are symbiote-less," he called, pressing another button and then another, "I do not feel inclined to test myself against your claws in hand-to-hand combat, though, which is why I called back the rest of my team. Leave now with your health intact, or suffer the consequences."

"You imprisoned me, literally tore off my symbiote, taunted and belittled me, all due to my own incompetence and arrogance, admittedly, and you, you arrogant asshole believe I'd just show the white flag like some li'l kindergarten girl just because your buddies are about to join ya? How stupid do you think I'm anyway? You'd kill us in a sec so no one learns the replicator thingie works!" Ranma shouted, glaring defiantly at the hovering man with her hands on her hips and fire flashing in her eyes.

"So you're not as stupid as you look. Will wonders ever cease?" the floating man retorted sarcastically and crossed his arms across his chest. "This is your last word, then?"

"Your fuckin' innuendos can go screw themselves! The answer is I'll never, ever trust someone like you, shithead! What's more, I won't leave without what's mine and your ugly face bashed in!" Ranma yelled angrily, her still brightly flaring claws lighting up with angry power.

"So be it, then. By the way, I have other ways to deal with insolent brats like you who don't know when to back off than lowering myself to engage you in physical combat, little girl. Taking my superior equipment into account you'll likely be a smear on the floor by the time my team returns, claws or no claws," Wittman returned coldly and aimed his gauntlets at the naked crime-fighter. "It's a pity to remove such a fine example of the female half of the species from the gene pool, but that only proves that stupidity is a trait that only serves to remove the fools from polluting the said gene pool. Good bye."

Electrical discharges were immediately emitted from the Wizard's gauntlets, the cold, uncaring and superior look in the man's eyes belying that he expected Ranma's imminent demise, yet the blonde stood her ground unafraid and glared challengingly at the super villain.

Felicia, likewise expecting the unenhanced blonde to be easy meat yelled a warning, yet she needn't have. For the spot where the potent electrical discharges impacted was suddenly vacant seeing as Ranma had blurred away in a burst of speed to reappear five metres to the left, right next to the water standpipe which she crushed with a quick motion of her right hand so as to assure that Hydro-Man wouldn't be able to spring a surprise on them, irregardless the fact that the said man of water was currently locked in battle with the man of sand.

Looking over her shoulder Ranma yelled, "Stay outta this, Kittie, the fucker's mine!" before blurring away again.

Distinct surprise shone in Felicia's eyes and she nodded dumbly, the silver-haired woman hastily guiding her steps to get out of the Wizard's line of sight and fire while Ranma continued to evade blasts of electricity courtesy of an enraged looking Wizard. "Damn," the Black Cat muttered to herself while blending in with her surroundings as much as possible, "not only is she absolutely gorgeous and has a tattoo that seriously rocks, but she kicks some mean ass even without her symbiote."

She slowly shook her head, her grin growing, "Man, that strength of hers really threw me for a loop just there when she crushed that pipe with one hand! And that speed she showed might just be even faster than Spidey's, and the way she moves is almost, yeah, cat-like!" she enthused and almost clapped her hands in glee. "Wonder if her brother's such a hunk of meat as well?" she mused to herself with a hungry gleam in her eyes and unconsciously licked her lips.

Shaking herself out of her slightly amorous fantasies Felicia continued to watch the battle from her vantage point, her awe growing at what her partner could do.

-.-

As much as Ranma was enjoying taunting Bentley Wittman with his inability to hit her with his electrical blasts with which he peppered the ground, she was slowly growing tired of paying him back for his arrogance by just belittling the arrogant man. He deserved far worse for what he had dared to do, and once complete she'd dish out what he deserved. Bentley Wittman would get what was coming for him, that Ranma vowed to herself.

Feinting to the right she immediately blurred to the left, and the Wizard, realising what she intended to do, yelled out "You'll never be able to even damage the cell! It's unbreakable!", but Ranma, having instinctively known to use the heavy artillery, rushed forward and screamed "Infinity Blades", a battery of six ethereal seeming blades of yellow energy—which were nothing but renamed vacuum blades—being unleashed from her hands, heading directly for the cylinder holding Sym.

To Ranma it seemed as if her symbiote was literally bubbling with excitement inside her cage as if knowing that soon they'd be reunited, the knowledge that her attack would be the undoing of the stupid lock-up holding her symbiote captive making Ranma almost giddy. The certainty that her attack wouldn't harm Sym but most certainly destroy the container filled the blonde with a warm, fuzzy feeling of anticipation, and a confident smirk spread on her face.

"We shall see about that, goatee!" Ranma yelled back in answer to the Wizard's declaration right after having brought her destructive attack on course and glared up at the Wizard for the brief moments the blades needed to cross the distance before her gaze returned to the cylinder, Bentley Wittman following her example with his arms crossed over his chest in a smug and confident demeanour.

As soon as the cracking of glass and the failure of electronic equipment could be heard a completely focussed Ranma was already in motion, uncaring that the Wizard's mouth was hanging open in a very undignified yet accurate imitation of a fish, the blonde cartwheeling repeatedly to cover the thirty metres dividing her from her lost symbiote.

Said symbiotic creature was flowing at a quick pace towards her host at the same time, her intent to join up apparent, however, Ranma was briefly forced to unleash a volley of vacuum blades at the still hovering super villain who had loudly expressed his displeasure and who was about to blast them, her pre-emptive strike forcing him to take evasive action. The distraction bought symbiote and symbiote-less host the time they needed, and with a shout of glee—verbally on Ranma's part, at least—they literally jumped at each other.

The Wizard, who had in the meantime gathered his bearings, could only watch in impotent anger as the black and red mass began to coalesce with the woman down below. It began at her feet, and rapidly crept up the lower half of her body from where it flowed on. The red and black mass finally covered everything, forming the combat suit complete with gaping maw filled with pointy, razor-sharp ink-black teeth, and a multitude of deadly tendrils shot out from everywhere. Ranma slowly lifted her head to stare at the floating super villain with an unsettling gaze of the creepy white pools that served as her eyes while flexing her claws, a feeling of malice and bloodlust radiating off of her.

Scarlet Widow was back, and she was out for blood.

to be continued...

Some quick notes:

– Sym's weakness to sonics: has been impressively revealed, I'd say. But just like Carnage in canon, this massive exposure will lead to the symbiote developing a damn good resistance against this particular weakness.

– Ranma's and Sym's separation: had to be done. It was the perfect way to bring Ranma and Felicia closer, and it serves another purpose as well. Which? Now that'd be telling.

– things developing awfully fast between Ranma and Felicia: I admit that to be the case (with this chapter giving additional evidence as well), yet I have my reasons. Just wait what happens when male Ranma is revealed to Felicia and you guys will have your answers. But rest assured, initial attraction there may be, yet that doesn't equal Bam! successful relationship for the rest of their lives and they lived happily ever after.

– Ranma rejecting the Tendos and Saotomes as well as focussing too much on them instead of the unknown mastermind: KGB raised some good points in that regard, but I'd say Ranma's inner monologue should have cleared things up.

– Sym being able to manipulate the genetic code: does extent neither to the symbiote being able to create other people's blood to frame them nor to it being able to produce specific chemical substances. Changing Ranma's genes is only made possible due to the fact that Nodoka has Caucasian ancestry in my story. The genes are there, in other words, it's just the question of activating slash changing them.

– traits carried over from previous hosts/Sym's predecessor: Ranma will have a greater affinity to acquiring information and working/thinking scientifically due to Peter Parker's and Eddie Brock's 'imprints'. Nothing overly exaggerated, though. It's the same as with Ranma's downright prodigal learning curve s/he exhibited on more than one occasion as well as the faster than average healing, this has carried over into Sym's genetic memory.

– Ranma's strength level with and w/o Sym: some good points were raised that Ranma might be a lot stronger, but I'll stick to the upper limits I set. Okay, in the Marvel 'verse where the Hulk is able to lift 150 billion tonnes and more—that was the weight of a mountain range he once lifted, look it up at wiki, the comment was posted related to the 'World War Hulk' storyline—it doesn't seem to matter, really, but I don't wanna make him/her too Gary Stuish/Mary Sueish. S/he'll have to train hard for more strength and power.

– Sable's involvement in clearing Ranma's name: that remains to be seen, but I can see her taking an active role once this knowledge is made available to her.

– Ranma training others: Felicia is a given, Spidey probably as well, Prowler and Sable are candidates as well.

– other symbiotes: will most definitely show up.

– Sandman: I'm really leaning towards making him a permanent part of the team. That doesn't mean that Ranma won't have solo time and lots of it, but rather that the trio will be doing missions together from time to time. But it is as someone said, Sandman has amazing powers, yet got a bad rep for being a moron, and now that he's turned away from crime he'll soon see that it has its benefits. That said, I do not like what happened to him in canon. Not. One. Bit.

– the Nerima situation: as said, I'll be doing a Nerima interlude—or two—to show what's been going on in good ole chaos central. Gotta wrap things up in regards of the mission first, though.

Thank you for reading.

Many thanks to those of you who were kind enough to leave reviews for the last chapter(s):

Dumbledork, James Axelrad, Jerry Unipeg, Nysk, Peter Kim, mystery person, AzureSky123, ACTE, Upgrade, oblivionknight7, hmr, Innortal, nonono, Rei Tamashii, Tommy Oliver Brachio Black, yosh!, ranko lina Inverse, AMWOOD co, Howard Russell, KaiserPhoenix, Jago Li Son Shiranui, ranger5, Eric13, TenWings, richexs, Martrex, Sargon Dorsai, michael68, Gangsta Spanksta, Dracomancer1, nonono, Wonderbee31, Abudharma, Dragon Man 180, Kurt Baros aka The Falcon, Pryde Kitty, Silverscale, TegwenielWestwind, ranma hibiki, Mesterio, Jax9, Sdarian, Paver83, Anonymous, The Eromancer, Screaming Dean, Bobboky, dogbertcarroll, Lord Oberon, Gefallenen Engel, JohnnyG, Honebar, Aaah-Chaaa, shadowbndg, GrizzlyBiscuit, Tadano Ian, Wellin, Nairojam, SSJ Guyver1, migele, JohnJr, Redzorin, KGB, Rignach, drvash, Krimzonrayne, Getzeye Dragon1, New lord of darkness, masaki yang yi1, deathgeonous, DAPC, Paul Varela, GIMME MORE, firelordeg

Last but not least, thanks to my prereader JohnnyG for services rendered!

v. 1.2: corrected several minor errors, suggestions made by reviewers implemented.