"I got a feeling you and me are gonna to get along just fine… Buddy."

- Larry Faulk 'Solo Wing Pixy', Ace Combat Zero


It's important to note that the more you tear your body up, the nastier its revenge is later. You know. Exercise really hard one day, and you're sore for the next five. Push it to the limit, and you pay for it like a shady loan shark with criminally jacked up interest rates.

I kind of expected it after the abuse I had put myself through in the last personal twenty-four hours. Sick, poor appetite, chemical stimula- fuck I'll just call it what it is: Drugs. And then the vicious physical pounding I took.

After that kind of brutality, you think my body was just going to let me walk away from that without consequence?

Well, let me put one debate to rest.

I'm not even sure I can WALK at the moment.

Waking up in Shampoo's bed was like realizing that your entire body had been imported directly into Verdi's anvil chorus… As the anvil.

I guess it's a credit to Luna's diplomatic skill that I was allowed to sleep as long as I did, because the first thing I noticed after realizing that existence was pain, and pain was existence, was daylight.

Daylight meant that I had at least a minimum three hours of sleep. Which honestly isn't enough at this point to do jack for my mental health, but any sleep is good sleep. I just wish I could get more of it.

The second thing I noticed upon realizing that I actually had rest, was that I couldn't move.

It wasn't a restrained or paralyzed kind of 'can't move', thankfully. It was more that my muscles seemed to refuse to provide the required power to get beyond the sensation of tensing up. I could feel myself trying to move, but movement did not come as desired.

And with every attempt, that pulling, rolling sensation that was a bizarre cross between a wonderful stretch, and searing pain struck me.

I realized that since my body had taken such massive punishment, I'd become impossibly stiff while I was resting.

Now, you'd figure that with all the healing Washu's nanomachines can do, I'd be feeling a lot better than the night before. But, honestly, I think they were making it WORSE. Oh sure, I was probably healing at an absurd rate, but the lactic acid and lord only knows what ever else was coming out of those healing processes only have one method of exit from my body.

Barring that method, those chemicals stay put.

I'm seriously concerned about whether or not I should attempt that training from hell stuff. If this is what it's going to end up feeling like, I'm not sure if I could take it.

"Is awake yet?" an annoyed tone asked.

"Hush child," a far more raspy voice returned. "You know the extent of his injuries from what she told us."

"But is in my bed," the first voice replied. "I tired from waking early."

"Then lay down and go back to sleep," the first asked. "He's not stopping you."

"I only sleep in bed with Ranma," the second voice, obviously Shampoo with that dialect, responded. "This man not husband, just crazy cat man."

Definitely Shampoo…

"He's not all that crazy," it was Luna. "A little exhausted and paranoid, but hardly crazy."

"I no care," Shampoo came back. "It my bed."

"Actually its Mousse's bed," the elder voice commented, must be Cologne. "You broke yours."

"I only smashing intruder," the younger one argued back.

"I understand Granddaughter," Cologne's tone remained neutral. "However you must learn that you do not have to solve all your problems by smashing them."

"But you taught me to smash obstacles great grandmoth-"

"THWOCK!"

"I taught you how to apply force to those obstacles that needed it," the elder's tone had suddenly become condescending. "Wanton destruction and mindless violence serve no purpose but to take a small mess, and make it a large mess. I taught you how to make the most use of your aggression, but not to solve all your problems with it. This young man could have been dealt with using finesse and tact the way he was acting last week. Yet you chose aggression, and lost in a very undignified exceptionally and embarrassing manner you NEVER should have. Were you not already betrothed to son-in-law, I'm sure that becoming this young man's wife would have been a punishment befitting your foolishness."

I could hear Shampoo audibly choke/squeak at the implications of what had just been said; though part of me wanted to take it as an insult. I mean, I might not be the ideal manprize Shampoo's after, but I wouldn't call being my wife punishment.

You know what? That was just wrong. So I'm going to NOT think about that.

"I apologize great grandmother."

"Very good," the elder was probably nodding. "And to answer your question…"

Something jabbed me in the rib just above the kidney where my suit was less reinforced. Instantly my body jerked in place and I hissed a pained breath.

"He's been awake for two minutes listening," Cologne's voice continued.

Then the hag's face came into view.

"Good morning," she began. "I trust you slept well?"

I opened my mouth to speak, but found it a lot harder than expected. My throat was dry, and I realized I was very, very thirsty. So it came out as little more than a hoarse crackle.

"Ah," the crone nodded as if understanding. "A little dry under the tongue. But no matter... Time to wake up. You've gotten the required six hours of sleep a healthy mind needs this time around. However, you have an appointment, so you can't dawdle anymore."

Appointment?

"Ap…" I ended up choking on a dry throat and some leftover nighttime congestion. It had a slightly copper flavor to it that I remembered was the result of my lungs almost being pulverized. "App-"

I tried to start sitting up, but that wasn't going anywhere fast between deathly painful ribs and general soreness.

"Hmm…" Cologne backed out of my view. "Help him sit up. And Shampoo, be wary of his neck."

After a moment, two sets of hands gave me the assistance I needed. My body protested and I groaned audibly until I was upright, my head and neck braced all the way up.

Soon as I was up, the headache came on, causing me to squint and suck more air through my teeth.

"A pretty sorry state that's for sure," Cologne was a few feet away, balancing on her ugly stick. "But the sooner we get you moving the better."

I found myself being offered a glass of water, Luna on the other end smiling cutely in her human form, now wearing that hello kitty shirt I got her the day before. Taking the glass, I began to drink eagerly and ended up downing it as fast as I could without tilting my head back.

As soon as I finished it with a refreshed gasp, I tried to speak again.

"Appointment?" was the question I'd been going for.

"Luna explained what's been going on to me while you were asleep," Cologne nodded at the catgirl. "This talk about other worlds intrigues me. However, most pressing were the injuries you've received. So I went ahead and called Doctor Tofu to arrange an appointment for you. While you may be healing fast, you are far too injured to simply wait it out."

While Cologne was talking, I noticed another glass being offered. This one from Shampoo, who seemed to eye it with some level of distrust. She also had this tired, impatient look to her before I finally handed the empty glass to Luna and took the full one.

As soon as I downed that one, I handed it back to Shampoo and started working my way off the bed. Of minor note, was the pillow where my head had been, now soaked with sweat.

Standing was only slightly easier than sitting up. I was still sore, but it seemed my legs had escaped the worst of yesterday's 'fun'. The hard part was resisting the temptation to fight the towel wrapped around my neck and turn my head.

Once I was up, things got a little easier.

Emphasis: 'Little'.

"Oh, I'm stiff," I groaned as Luna propped me up. "Man, that critter beat me up more than we thought."

"At least you can stand," Cologne nodded from the door. "Now come, this place smells like a locker room from your sweat. I must fetch Mousse to clean it, but I want you out of here before then. His actions are quick, but his wit is slow. And I do not trust him to correctly distinguish between the sweat of the injured, and the sweat of the passionate. Your life would be forfeit in his eyes, and not even I would be able to stop everything at once."

If I could cringe in this state, I would, but I definitely felt Luna stiffen a bit under my arm.

"Great Grandmother," Shampoo suddenly spoke up in indignation. "What you imply?"

"I imply nothing," the elder stated in an even tone, but turned and pointed. "However, those sheets imply many falsehoods when read by the blind. And as we all know, Mousse is as blind as they come."

"You right," Shampoo made a face none too polite. "He dumb as blind."

Cologne nodded an affirmative and turned for the stairs. Part of the way there, I made to break off for the bathroom, but the crone stopped and interrupted me with her stick.

"Not now," she instructed.

"But," I didn't want to say it outright. "I've got to GO."

"Hold it until you get to Doctor Tofu's clinic," the crone continued. "His instructions, not mine."

Of all the… I've been asleep for six hours! After drinking extra water! And I just DRANK more water!

"If it bothers you that much," Cologne commented idly at what was no doubt a very displeased look on my face. "Then I suggest you move faster. Your body is broken, but your legs are fine."

"Eeeghhh…" I growled in irritation. There was a chirpy giggle from Shampoo, which made me REALLY want to turn my head and shoot her a glare. Of course, that wasn't going to happen.

The restaurant itself was empty. Apparently despite being mid-morning on a weekday... I think it was a weekday. The date was meaningless to me anymore.

Despite the time, it seemed Cologne had closed for the day. Whether that was a result of my appearance or not I could only guess at. However the fact remained that there was nobody there to watch as I almost made a fool of myself, waddling rigidly down the stairs.

I was kind of glad. No prying eyes to investigate the newcomer. The possibility of having to answer a dozen 'What happened to you?' questions was not one thing I think I could keep my patience for. Especially with this headache...

I honestly didn't think I could feel worse than yesterday. Squeezing my eyes shut, I rubbed my head where the throbbing was.

"Shampoo," Cologne began suddenly, and sharply. The younger warrior quickly stepped forward as if she were a soldier being called to attention.

"While I have the sleeping arrangements dealt with," the elder informed her great granddaughter, "I want you to escort these two over to the clinic. I doubt either of them knows the way."

"Yes great grandmother," Shampoo replied in a firm, but obedient tone. "I get them there."

"ALSO," the crone continued in a more commanding tone just as Shampoo hastily turned toward the door. Shampoo turned around again, just barely hiding a look of irritation.

"I have a challenge for you," Cologne continued. "Think you can handle it?"

"I handle any challenge," Shampoo's tone turned to indignation. "I squash flat."

The old crone just stood there, allowing Shampoo's comment to hang for a moment. If I weren't so god-awfully distracted by my general discomfort, I probably would have noticed it.

"Very well," Cologne finally nodded. "You are to care to, and provide for the needs of this young man for the remainder of the day."

There was a brief silence where I swear I could hear the gears in Shampoo's head turning. Though it turns out, that was just the pounding of my headache, but still…

"WHAT?" the Chinese girl asked.

Cologne made a motion to me with her stick.

"I want you to assist Luna in caring for his injuries and needs," she instructed. "It would be good for you to learn how to be a little more gentle. Taking care of this young man is the perfect practice. So you're going to care for him and make sure he's okay as if he were your own husband."

Shampoo's eyes got large at the last statement.

"But…" she began, casting a quick glance my way. "But…"

Cologne just kept her gaze even while her granddaughter tried to voice an objection. I thought she was going to give up for a moment, when suddenly she exploded into an incoherent string of words I thought for just a moment were nothing but angry gibberish.

Then I realized there was a certain rhythm to the mess of sounds I was hearing when Cologne interrupted in seemingly random chitters of her own. After a moment, it clicked. They were talking in Chinese. Having come to understand spoken Japanese to the point I almost didn't notice when I'd swap between it and English, I'd become rather used to understanding everyone without fault. With the two Joketsuzoku before me exchanging a series of rather sharp statements at lightning fast speed, it was De-Ja-Vu.

Shampoo motioned at me a few times in the process, her words seeming to come angrier and angrier. Cologne responded in what sounded like a more level, but increasingly forceful tone that caused Shampoo to gape for a moment before protesting noisily some more.

I did my best to turn to Luna, who just looked back and shrugged.

'CRACK!'

We almost jumped when the crone suddenly knocked her granddaughter upside the noggin with her ugly stick. Shampoo grabbed her head in pain, vocally expressing her discomfort with a series of sucked in hisses. Cologne waived her stick around threateningly as she took the opportunity to berate her descendant. Several times she made a series of sharp, pointing gestures while speaking in rhythm that seemed to be some kind of list. Then suddenly she twirled it, grabbed it by the middle, and planted it firmly in the floor hard enough to make a 'thwock!' noise. Then she just stood there looking all the world like she just told her granddaughter how things were going to be.

Shampoo said nothing, but the look on her face… Her eyes were wide and I think she'd lost a bit of color. It was hard to tell. But the younger warrior quickly stood up rigidly after a moment and bowed to her grandmother speaking something I had yet to decipher. I expect it was an apology the way she was acting.

"Very good," the crone continued. Then she turned to me.

"What was that all about?" I asked reflexively.

"Oh just a minor disagreement," Cologne's voice seemed almost nonchalant. "But she won't trouble you. Or else."

Cologne left it at that, Shampoo biting her lip next to me looking like the threat had more weight to it than I actually knew.

"Now go," Cologne pointed at the door. "Before you make a mess all over my restaurant."

"Don't have to tell me twice," I turned to make for the door. A moment later, I almost buckled over when Shampoo latched herself on to my sore arm and gave a tug.

"We go!" she chirped. "Yes?"

Then she quickly jumped back when she heard me groaning.

"I sorry!" she all but yelped.

"What was?" Luna began. "What was that about? Why'd she do that?"

"Ditto…" I groaned massaging a still sore shoulder. Shampoo bit her lip again, glancing at her grandmother, who was shaking her head silently.

"I told her to treat this like a date," the crone began.

DATE?

"A DATE?" Luna asked in shock.

"A training date of sorts," Cologne nodded. "If its not too much trouble of course."

"You-" I stopped and hissed again at the throbbing in my shoulder, which was now forcing my headache to reassert itself. "You realize your granddaughter takes things literally, right?"

"That's what I'm counting on," the elder smirked. "If she can treat you with gentle loving kindness, then she passes. If not…"

Another warning glance at her granddaughter, who flinched.

"If it's okay with you of course," she continued. "In your state, I wouldn't be surprised if you declined. I'd just have to find another. Though finding someone who is as… Intuitive about my granddaughter as yourself would be troublesome."

I sighed. Just the description alone screams 'trouble' in all kinds of rule-of-funny ways.

"You know," I began. "All things considered, what you're asking is kind of awkward and complicated in ways you won't under-"

"We'll do it," Luna interrupted me. I started to turn my head but was reminded just in time by the pressure of the towel wrapped around my neck that could very much hurt.

"Lu-OW! -" I winced. "Luna, what are you-"

"On one condition," she held up a hand to silence me.

"Oh?" Cologne raised an eyebrow.

"When we're done here," Luna continued. "We'd like one of those magical Chinese trinkets as payment."

Cologne remained silent for a moment. It was long enough for me to jump in.

"What are you trying to do?" I asked.

"I'm here to help you," Luna turned to me with an almost sad smile.

"By pissing them off?" I asked. "You don't just ask for their secret magical treasures… That whole... secret thing. They're kinda' touchy about it."

"By negotiating," Luna advised. "You're a bit awkward at it, but this is the kind of thing I was taught to do. Let me do my job."

I wonder how many times I'm going to sigh today.

"So what do you say?" Luna turned back to Cologne, who'd silently watched the exchange. "You didn't help us for free, so we'd like to be compensated in return for helping you."

Cologne just stood there silently for a moment. Honestly, I was hoping they'd get this solved one way or another soon. I'd like to make my bladder gladder, and we still had to walk an unspecified distance.

The hag glanced at me, then back to Luna, a wry smirk sprouting on her features.

"Very well," she nodded. "Consider it a deal. Though Shampoo must pass my criteria to earn that."

"I hope these criteria aren't too strict," Luna crossed her arms. "This isn't some simple lesson we can just teach."

"Don't worry," Cologne nodded. "I have done many underhanded things, but I do not make unfair deals. I'll speak with them both this evening. And if I'm satisfied, I'll give you something magical. But nothing dangerous."

"Of course," Luna nodded, then turned to me.

"Good enough for you?" she asked.

"Fine," I reached up and lifted my glasses to pinch the bridge of my nose. My headache was making like a rolling pin, traveling back to front to back in waves. And pulsing... "Just- can we just GO?"

Cologne nodded silently to Shampoo, who approached me this time, a little slower and reached for my arm.

"Other arm," I added another sigh to my list, raising my good arm.

Shampoo just kept a neutral face as she wandered around and locked on, then began to guide me out of the store. Luna quickly fell into step on my right, but forewent any attempts to grab the sore arm.

Behind us, I imagine as soon as that door closed, Cologne was probably cackling at whatever scheme she'd just roped me into.

We walked to a corner, rounding it before the purple-haired warrior opted to loosen up a little. Her falsetto smile was replaced by a look of indignance.

"I perfectly nice," she began to complain now that the threat of getting her skull split open was gone. "I not try to kill you this time. I even let you sleep in bed. Why great grandmother so upset?"

I know why…

"Because you have all the tact and subtlety of a train-wreck," I spoke in English as I rolled my eyes.

"What you say?"

"Nothing," I sighed. "Nothing important."

Then again, that's what made Shampoo entertaining to me. She was a cute little Chinese wrecking ball. Anything that got in the way of her goals, she did her best to flatten. Luckily for most people, a martial arts romantic comedy setting like this had plenty of opponents to keep her in check. Given her propensity for knocking down walls just to make an entrance, she'd be a walking disaster area in under a week otherwise.

Honestly though, I didn't really care at the moment.

"So Luna," I began. "What did you just do?"

"What, you mean you forgot already?" Luna asked.

"I must have," another sigh. "Otherwise I'd remember it."

"You made a deal with Kitsune to bring her a Chinese trinket," Luna explained. "Remember?"

I… Oh… THAT. DUH! Blasted concussion…

"Obviously this whole mess made you forget about that," Luna continued. "I remembered it while I was explaining the situation to Cologne. I also remembered a few other things you may have forgotten in the last few days."

"So what exactly happened this morning?" I asked. "I know for ONCE I got at least SOME kind of sleep.

"Not much surprisingly," Luna replied. "I managed to wake them before she could find you first and over react like last time. Then we just talked for a few hours until it was time to wake you."

"What did you tell her?" I asked.

"I explained what was going on," the catgirl advised. "How we're showing up where we are, why we're showing up, and some of the things that's happened so far. We spent a while just talking."

"You didn't spend the entire time in your human form did you?" I immediately felt a touch of worry for the Feline, considering how much energy she burned through like that.

"What?" Luna blinked. "No, of course not. That would be a total waste. I only switched to my human form right before we came back up stairs."

"Good," I replied curtly. "I'm smashed up horribly as it is. I'd hate to try and explain you to either a doctor or a vet."

Luna scoffed, just barely coming out as a laugh after she thought about it for a second.

"What you talking about?" Shampoo asked in a slightly forceful tone.

"How much have you told Shampoo?" the warrior's question made me curious.

"Honestly," Luna sighed. "Not much. She didn't really feel like listening to 'a silly story', as she put it."

"I no care about stupid story," Shampoo admitted in an aggravated tone. "It just distraction."

"Well you better START caring," I found myself snapping back. The foul mood she had was contagious when her tone was combined with my headache. It made me highly irritable. "Because knowing your grandmother, that's the whole point of this exercise. And if you so much as piss me off, all I have to do is say the word and its game over. Capice?"

Shampoo winced. I could feel it the way she clamped down on my arm again. Honestly, I wasn't too thrilled about how quickly I just got shoehorned into this. But I think for the most part it happened so fast that I couldn't even really think about it. They say the first five minutes after you wake up your brain isn't quite all the way awake. So you can't quite make rational decisions or comprehend fully what's going on.

It certainly felt like that. And the more my brain started to catch up with me this morning, the more it left a sour taste in my mouth. It's just so… STUPID. But now we're stuck with it so…

Another sigh added itself to my list as I worked to partially pry Shampoo off.

"You don't have to hold on like that," I informed her. "I'm not your boyfriend, and this isn't a real date. Its just a zany lesson your grandmother cooked up to make you behave a little better. So don't be so serious about it."

Shampoo slowly disconnected from my arm, looking cautious as we crossed a side street.

"You sure?" she began when we cleared the traffic. "Great Grandmother sound pretty serious when she threaten to end engagement to Ranma."

I stopped, a perplexed look on my face.

"She did what?" I asked after a moment. "Are you serious?"

Shampoo nodded, crossing her arms.

"She threaten to terminate engagement," she continued. "And to make worse, threaten to make me marry you."

I had already stopped, but this time I went stiff. Well, I was already stiff. I all but stopped moving.

"Bullshit," I commented in English before switching back to Japanese. "She didn't."

"Why you think I so upset?" Shampoo asked. "You not husband. Ranma supposed to be husband. I no want you for rest of life."

That- There's no way!

"She's bluffing," I frowned. "That's all there is to it. It's a bluff."

I knew Cologne was pulling shenanigans. I knew it… There's no way she'd terminate Shampoo's engagement over that. Not with the amount of time she'd already invested and the techniques she'd taught to Ranma.

And now she's using me as a centerpiece to a bluff just to get Shampoo to behave, knowing full well what condition I was in, and probably knowing what was bound to happen-

"I'm going to kill her," I stated in a cold tone as I turned around and started to walk back. "I'm going to march back there, load a Goodfellow, and I'm going to introduce that woman to a strange game in which the only winning move is not to play."

"You what?" Shampoo's voice sounded shocked.

Luna's face contorted in realization as I stepped into the street, and she quickly reached out and grabbed my good arm.

"Wait!" she snapped. "You can't do that! You're in no condition-"

"You no win fight with great grandmother," Shampoo interrupted. "Is dumb!"

"Grr…" I bit my lip. "I don't need to be in good shape to use a nuclear pellet gun."

"Now stop that," Luna's voice reprimanded me. "You're being silly."

"I don't care," I let my tone climb. "It's too early for this kind of bullshit. I just finished getting us through a mess. I don't need to be thrown into another one!"

"Relax!" Luna snapped. "You know better than that. She's not going to do something to hurt you."

"She's treating me like a pawn!" I snapped, venting my rapidly climbing anger. "I am NOT her PAWN!"

"Oh trust me," a new voice piped up. "When it comes to the old lady, everyone's her pawn."

Oh great… Just what we needed.

"Airen!" Shampoo turned, a huge smile popping up on her face. Exasperated, I felt my bout of anger go out like a candle as it was replaced with resignation. I'm not awake ten minutes, and already this place was setting itself up for the fall. I was hoping for, you know, peace and quiet, for a few hours? Was that too much to ask?

But, as I noted when I turned, if that was Ranma, this situation just increased in complexity by about three-fold.

Ranma was sitting just a few feet away, perched solidly on top of some kind of sign post. His head was cocked slightly to one side as if examining me.

"So," he continued. "The old hag's up to more of her games is she?"

Then he dropped to the ground, continuing to act as if he were examining me.

"It terrible Ranma!" Shampoo zipped right over to him and turned the charm up as high as she could crank the dial. "Great Grandmother is being mean. Say I have to be nice to strange cat man all day."

"Cat man?" there was just a hint of apprehension in Ranma's voice as he continued to keep his head cocked to the side. He glared at me for a moment then suddenly started to laugh.

"It's you," he chuckled. "Yeah, I remember you. The guy with the cat who embarrassed me at Ucchan's last week. I guess Karma does exist. Wha'd you do? Try to hit on Shampoo? I should warn you, she hits back. But then again, you already know that, don't you?"

Ranma laughed more at his own joke before I rolled my eyes and turned to walk … wherever we were going.

"Wait!" Ranma suddenly shouted. "Wait, wait. I'm only kidding."

"I'm not in the best of moods right now," I turned back. "So pardon me if I don't enjoy your humor."

"Okay," Ranma raised his hands. "Sheesh. I'm only joking. Relax. I'm not here for any vendettas. I was in the wrong last week. That's my fault."

He quickly jogged up and looked me up and down; his head still slightly cocked.

"So what really happened to you?" he asked. "You look like hell."

"Fist fight with a fifteen hundred pound-"

"Seven-hundred fifty kilo." Luna provided.

"-Cat monster." I rolled my eyes.

Ranma blinked. Shampoo just covered her mouth.

"That's…" he began. "That's a BIG cat."

"Very big," I turned away. Shampoo wasn't leading at the moment, but I figure we'd be going this way for a while.

"Man," Ranma jogged up beside me again. "That critter musta' done a number on you. How bad did he beat you?"

I stopped, trying to relax. I just wanted Ranma to leave me alone.

"I won," I stated in my most curt voice.

"Won?" Shampoo piped up in disbelief. "How you win? You scrawny, overweight tub!"

"What she said," Ranma indicated. "How'd you win? I imagine if this is what winning looks like, I'd hate to see the loser."

"The loser's DEAD," I pointed out.

"JEEZE," Ranma winced. "How'd you manage it?"

"I shot it in the head," stop asking me questions.

"Oh," Ranma replied in a tone that sounded, rather disappointed. "Like THAT."

"Yeah," I replied, letting my own tone nod for me. "Like THAT."

There was an awkward pause.

"So…" Ranma began at last. "That's it?"

Oh for the love of-!

"YES!" I snapped, causing Ranma to jump back. "It was trying to kill me! So I shot it! That's it!"

"Jeeze whoa!" Ranma put his hands together in a time-out symbol. "Really touchy today, aren't you?"

"I HURT!" I emphasized. "I'm tired, I have a headache, and I halve to pee. And I'm standing here answering all your inane questions. Get it?"

"Calm down," Luna reached out and gently set a hand on my shoulder.

"Let's just go," clenched my eyes shut, the throbbing in my skull seeming to match my blood pressure. "The sooner to Doctor Tofu, the better…"

"Yes," Shampoo nodded. "We go."

"Oh perfect," Ranma commented, falling into step as Shampoo took the lead. "I was heading that way too."

"You go with?" Shampoo turned around, smiling brightly.

"I…" Ranma began, looking apprehensive for a moment. "I guess."

"Is perfect!" Shampoo grinned, bouncing back from her lead to latch on to his arm. After a moment though, she glanced at me, seemed to mull on it, then with a momentary grumble unlatched from Ranma's arm and locked on to mine.

Luna didn't quite manage to hide neither her double take, nor her exasperation as she rolled her eyes.

"Man," Ranma blinked. "The old hag really does have a scheme going."

"It no fair," Shampoo's look returned to a pout. "If I no take care, I stuck with him…"

"Stuck with him huh?" Ranma's voice was a bit too curious all of a sudden.

"I really hope you're not planning anything," my sarcasm escaped me before I could put a lid on it.

"What?" Ranma began. "No! Of course not. Knowing that crone, she WANTS me to try something. Those two are ALWAYS plotting something like this."

"Ranma really think I like that?" Shampoo let go of my arm, pouting and making with excessive eyelash flutters at her object of affection. "You no think I be sneaky like that, do you?"

"Cheh," Ranma snorted. "There, WAS that mushroom soup stuff…"

Shampoo's pout deepened, a hint of scorn forming on her features.

"There was the Shiatsu," he continued, ticking off on his fingers. "That reverse personality thing… Yeah."

Ranma glanced up again.

"Pretty much every time you're acting odd, it's something sneaky…"

Shampoo dropped my arm to cross hers; her face now clearly upset.

"Fine," she snapped, her tone no longer masking how tired she was. "You think I sneaking…"

She reached up and grabbed my chin.

"I just do as Great Grandmother tell me-"

And she pulled my head to face her. Anything else I might have noticed at that moment was of no consequence to the absolutely blinding set of pain signals that flooded my brain, causing my vision to go fuzzy as I lost focus.

I opened my mouth to voice my agony, but found that difficult to do for the strange sensation of it being blocked. I nearly panicked because of that, my muscles painfully tightening up and hands clenching before I remembered to try my nose for breathing instead. Airway selection complete, I let loose with the most primal scream I could muster to alert anyone present that I was in serious pain.

This continued on for what I'm guessing was only a few seconds, but in the throws of pain, felt like a few hours easily.

Then suddenly there was a jolt and I was free to move and breathe, or at least stumble in place and gasp. It took a moment to get my neck painfully straightened the way it was supposed to be before the pain started to ease up.

I could hear arguing at that point. I think it was Luna shouting something, and Shampoo sounding surprised.

"Why you stop? Ranma supposed be jealous."

"YOU HURT HIM!"

"Eh!"

Someone steadied my balance about that moment, just before I had a chance to stumble over. A male voice chuckled near my ear, part of the tone seeming to wince in sympathy.

"Was it good?" it asked.

Good? What? My neck? NO! That FUCKING HURT! That's BAD!

I blinked and continued to try and control my breathing. As a result, I dimly began to remember my lungs too had been battered. Taking a moment to just rest, I finally wiped the tears from my eyes, noting that Shampoo was busy apologizing to me in a total panic. Luna was standing next to her, slightly pink in the face and looking apprehensive.

Ranma was the one holding me up at this point. And judging from the sharp chirps he was fighting back, he thought this whole thing was funny as hell.

"I sorry!" Shampoo's voice finally made sense as I tried to steady. "I no mean to hurt!"

"Your grandmother warned you about his neck!" Luna's voice was a bit higher in pitch. "What's wrong with you?"

"I SORRY!" Shampoo all but pleaded. "I no do again! Promise!"

Ranma all but burst out laughing. What the hell is so funny?

"It's not funny!" the two females chorused, each for their own reasons.

Ranma just laugh louder.

"This is too good," he managed to collect himself a little. And he just continued to laugh, somehow finding whatever happened hilarious for a little while longer.

That is, right up until I realized where he was standing, and planted my elbow right in his stomach.

"OOF!" he coughed.

"I'm not laughing," I gasped. My eyes were still watering "I'm hurting."

"Right," he chuckled. "Right… Sorry."

Urgency to get to the clinic went up after that. So Shampoo, still apologizing profusely as if she were expecting her grandmother to pop up from around any corner and hold the Ceremony right there, took the lead once more, picking her pace up. Ranma still laughed to himself, but tried to keep it muted as he followed just out of range of my ability to flail uselessly at him.

Thankfully, the distance to the clinic wasn't as severe as I had feared, just a few blocks really. It was a happy day to get through that door. My hands were visibly shaking from the decidedly horrible combination of pain and anger.

"I go get doctor," Shampoo motioned for us to wait. "He expecting me."

"So…" I finally worked enough curiosity to ask. "What's your story?"

Ranma, whose head was STILL cocked to the side, chuckled to himself before answering.

"You mean MY neck?" he asked. "Fell asleep in class."

That doesn't look like an 'asleep in class' issue…

"The instructor caught me," Ranma continued. "She didn't like that."

"Your instructors dislocate necks?" Luna covered her mouth in horror.

"No…" Ranma laughed. "My Fiancée' did this. She decided to 'help' the instructor wake me up. And Akane knows how to hit. The nurse took one look at me and sent me straight here rather than attempt to mess with it."

"Your Fiancée'," Luna continued to look at Ranma Aghast. Then she paused.

"Wait a second," Aren't you engaged to Shampoo? Who's Akane?"

"Oh," Ranma reached behind his head and laughed. "Maybe I should tell you the mess my pops got me into. I was originally arranged to marry Akane… But then Shampoo started chasing me over a misunderstanding. And according to their law, if I beat them in a fight I have to marry them. And I kinda' beat her to stop her from destroying the house."

Ranma paused to glance at where Shampoo had gone to fetch the doctor.

"I can see that," Luna nodded.

"And then there's Ukyo, who my father tried to offer me off in marriage over a cart of food… I'm not even going to get into that."

Luna screwed up her face as she digested the brief summary of Ranma's main three relationships. Then she closed her eyes, nodding sagely before turning to me.

"Am I right in guessing he's got some guys after him too?" she stated.

We both blinked at her statement, Ranma just turning to me as if to ask-

"He turns into a girl when you hit him with cold water right?" Luna continued. "The way you explained things to me the other day, it just seems that he'd be chased by men too."

"How does she know about-?" Ranma began, then looked at me again and smacked his fist into his palm. "Of course. That's how she knows about the curse."

Any other commentary was cut off as Shampoo returned to the room, Tofu in tow.

"Ah," the doctor began as he took a glance at us, adjusting his glasses. "Ranma, Ranma… Did you make Akane angry again?"

Ranma shrugged.

"I didn't really do anything," he explained. "Just fell asleep in class."

"You should probably not do that," Tofu smiled as he walked up to us. "I can tell Akane's hits anywhere. And if the instructor's having her enforce the rules on you… "

Then he glanced aside to me.

"This should only take a second…"

The doctor circled Ranma once, hand on his chin as he examined the young man's neck.

"Still," he continued, straightening up and giving Ranma a series of sharp jabs to his neck. "It's amazing how she knows just the right amount of force to seriously mess you up without actually snapping your neck… It's uncanny. She must know you really well."

Ranma almost collapsed like a puddle of jelly as the doc spoke, but was quickly caught under the arm poked again, allowing him to stand once more.

"Yeah, I think it's just because I'm tougher than that," Ranma managed to speak despite his face taking on the look of someone who'd suffered a stroke.

"You shouldn't push your luck," Tofu admonished lightly. "At least this is an easy fix for me, but you never know when I might be out or on vacation. Then where would you be? Stuck going to a chiropractor I guess…"

Tofu circled again, poking Ranma a few more times before carefully taking the young man's head in his hands, and gently began to straighten it out. After a very delicate twist, there was a pop, and Ranma's head seemed to come free.

"Yeah well," Ranma summoned up some more bluster. "I didn't exactly start this."

"I never said you did," Tofu poked Ranma several more times, causing the young man to slowly regain control of his body. "But you should know better than to give Akane an excuse."

Then the doctor gave one last jab right to the young man's sternum. Ranma's body jerked in place.

"There," Tofu smiled gently. "Good as new."

"Oh…" Ranma reached up to rub his neck. "That's nice. Thanks doc."

"Nothing to it," the doctor nodded. "Though your neck might be sore a few hours from now… You know the drill."

Ranma nodded as Doctor Tofu turned his attention to me.

"And you must be my ten-thirty," he began, adjusting his glasses once more. "Cologne told me all about your-"

He paused, staring intently for a moment, then walked up and circled me the same way he'd done Ranma.

"Oh dear," he began at length. "She said you were a sorry sight to behold… But I didn't realize it was THIS bad."

That… Okay, I'm worrying.

"What-" I started. But the doctor cut me off.

"Now I understand what she meant when she said that this super-fast healing of yours might be dangerous."

Then he walked towards the door leading back into the clinic, motioning as he went.

"Follow me please," he instructed.

Nerves starting to creep up on me, I quickly fell into step, with Luna and Shampoo following close behind.

"You two stay put," the doctor turned and motioned to a sign next to the door. Couldn't read it, but it looked authoritative.

The doctor lead on, turning a corner into a narrow hallway before stopping in a small room with an examination chair/bed and a few of the typical items you'd find in a doctor's office.

"Just have a seat and I'll be right back," Tofu advised before grabbing a clipboard and slipping out of the room. Usually with most doctors, this meant a good ten-minute wait. But Tofu surprised me when he was back in all of thirty seconds, heavier a load of different items.

"Drink this," he handed me a bottle full of a purplish-red liquid. His tone seemed almost urgent.

"What is-" I began.

"Cranberry juice," he advised. "How do you feel by the way?"

"I feel like I got hit by a truck," I replied honestly. "Literally…"

"Can you be a little more specific for me?" he asked as I broke the seal on the bottle.

"My neck hurts like hell," I began. "I've got a massive headache. My joints keep stiffening up every time I stop moving, and I generally just ache all over."

Tofu just stood there looking a touch apprehensive while I proceeded to take a swig. Oh, that's tart. But it's good. Still…

"And I have to PEE," I continued in mild annoyance.

"Right," the doctor came out of his thoughts. "Of course you do. Your bladder is likely full, and your kidneys are probably working overtime."

He turned and set the items he'd collected down, writing on his clipboard as he went. He was getting more jittery by the second. After a moment, he turned back to me, a small pair of scissors in his hand.

"Let's get this wrap off," he indicated the bandages around my chest. "I don't know why anyone would wrap outside your clothes, but we can't get that suit of yours off until we do."

Er… uh… Yeah.

Doctor Tofu worked quickly with the scissors, cutting the tape right up the middle with almost one deft motion. When the bandages came loose, I almost choked in surprise at how GOOD it felt.

Taking a deep breath, I noted that my chest was still really sore, but breathing didn't feel like the agony that I had known last night. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that my ribs were still cracked, but no longer broken.

"There," he nodded in satisfaction. "Now follow me."

I set the bottle of cranberry juice down and did as instructed while Tofu set aside his scissors and snatched up a small container. Then he led me down the hall again until we stopped at a small bathroom.

"I'm sure you've done this before," he began as he opened the lid on the container and set it on a small ledge next to the toilet. "Just make sure to fill it about half way up and then set it down right there. I'll take care of the rest."

"Okay," I agreed.

Doctor Tofu nodded and stepped out of the room, allowing me to walk in and shut the door.

I'll spare the details of the next minute or two simply on the fact that I don't think anyone really likes to read about this kind of thing. Well, almost anyone... I wouldn't put it past a few of the less savory types to secretly enjoy it. Sickos…

Needless to say though, aside from fighting my towel wrapped neck to get my suit off, it was pretty standard for anyone who's ever had to go take your typical drug test. Well, maybe that's a lie. I don't think I've ever seen a fluid of that color come out of my body in my LIFE. And quite honestly, it was rather disturbing. So much that I was even half-tempted to flick the light switch to check if the container was going to glow in the dark. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised.

When I was done and back in the suit, (minus the sync-up, I had the feeling I wouldn't be in it very long today.) I stepped out of the room and Tofu slipped past me, a pair of blue gloves protecting his hands as he wiped down the container, stuck the lid on it, and sealed it tightly with tape. He seemed to hiss quietly to himself as he did so, eyeing the fluid with a certain level of concern.

Well, yeah. It doesn't take a medical expert to identify when something you see every day isn't exactly normal. I just hope it tells him more than it tells me. But I digress...

Once he'd sealed it, he wrote something on the tape and placed it into a small plastic bag, sealed that, and stuck it in a silver cabinet behind an all-too-familiar biohazard warning sticker.

"Go ahead and head back to the examination room please," he instructed as he began to remove the contaminated gloves and toss them in a bin with another clearly identifiable biohazard symbol. The apprehension in his tone was unmistakable now, which only made my anxiety over the issue creep up a little more. But Rather than stop to ask, I just did as instructed.

Once I got there, I grabbed up the bottle of cranberry juice and began to chug it as best I could. Just watching and paying attention, I was beginning to get the feeling I needed to get the stuff in me as fast as possible. After what Washu said last night, and the way the doctor was acting now. Well, I can put two and two together. And I was seriously starting to worry something worse than just being 'sore' was wrong with me.

"Okay," Tofu entered the room as I did my best to get my drink down despite being unable to tilt my head back. "Finish that up and we'll get that neck of yours in a proper brace."

Don't have to tell me twice...

"Okay," I began after swallowing one last gulp. "I know that wasn't normal. What's going on?"

The doctor said nothing for several seconds as he went through his clipboard and scribbled some notes down. Then he placed it on the counter and walked over to me.

"Well," Tofu reached around and started working the towel free, causing me to wince in pain at a few points in the process. "Normally, when I see a patient come in with your complexion I send them straight to the hospital. Because when their eyes are the color yours currently are that's a good indicator they're suffering from acute kidney failure."

I think my heart skipped a beat.

"Say what?" I asked.

"Kidney failure," Tofu repeated. "You've got more toxins in your blood than your kidneys can safely filter. And if it goes unchecked…"

The Kidneys: Essential vital organs of the human body. About the size of a small potato, one on each side of the torso, who's function it is to filter all the toxins your body and dump them into your bladder. If those things stopped working, chances are you'd be dead in a few days from poisoning.

And mine are...

"No…" I began. "No, no, NO!"

"And I can't send you to the emergency room," he continued. "From what Cologne told me, that would do more harm than good due to your… 'Unique' circumstances."

"NO!" I snapped again, I could feel the panic starting to take hold.

"Calm down," he placed two fingers right below my ear in a spot just behind my jaw. "Cologne said you knew who I was, so you know what I can do with a tap like this. I need you to work with me here, because we're doing something I technically shouldn't do. But like I said, your circumstances are… Unique."

I took a breath, trying to control that sudden surge of panic I had felt. So far I've dealt with monsters, magic, devils, cyborgs, romantic comedy jokes, bruises, broken bones, concussions, and skull fractures. And I'd handled them all just fine. But somehow the idea of my kidneys shutting down… I don't know. It was that same spike of fear I'd had when Judge startled me the other day. The one that reminded me I was still fragile despite everything I'd pulled off. That I could die like an animal at any moment if I dropped my guard.

I was having a hard time fighting the fear this time though. The panic continued to creep through me, causing me to shake slightly. I found myself taking another breath in an attempt to fight back the urge to lash out at something, anything really. But slowly, I was coming down again.

"That's good," Tofu nodded slowly. "Just keep your wits about you."

The doctor then crouched down, working the neck section of my suit down carefully to make room for the brace. I found my good hand reflexively finding something to hold on to and gripped it as a manner to channel some of that anxiety away.

"Now," he continued. "The good news is, from a quick glance at that urine sample I just took, I don't think your kidneys have failed yet. They're producing quite robustly. But they've got to be straining to keep up with the amount of byproducts this 'enhanced healing' of yours is putting out. So if we're lucky, all we have to do is flush your system with lots of water, and you should clear up just fine without even damaging them."

I wanted to nod, but the doc was fixing the brace in place now.

"But it's not going to be that simple," he continued. "This healing of yours… It must have your metabolism cranked up to overdrive. You feel like you've got a fever and you've been sweating just while we've been in here."

Well, I am kinda hot.

"So you'll probably need to eat," Tofu continued. "Lots of food and lots of water. If you can find more cranberry juice, that'll help too. That was the only bottle I had. But you've got to keep your system in balance. If you don't, you could go into shock."

That pang of fear came back so fast it wasn't even funny.

"Try and stay relaxed," the doctor instructed. "You should be fine if you just follow directions. Shock is a possibility, but only if you completely ignore my advice. Got it?"

Doctor Tofu waited a moment while I tried to relax again and then continued adjusting the brace. My list of problems was just piling on. One thing lead to another, which instigated more, and generated the rest. I would say it was even like some kind of slow death spiral. The more problems I had the more problems that seemed to pop up as a result. That thought didn't help me to relax. If anything it made this gnawing anxiety I was feeling even worse.

"There," Tofu interrupted my thoughts, pulling on the neck-brace once to test it. "That should do it for your neck. Just keep the brace on for the rest of the day. If that fast healing of yours works like it should, you'll be able to take it off by morning."

"Got it," I spoke, for lack of the ability to nod. GOD, that's already driving me nuts. I really am just one long list of complaints and problems. I've got to get my head back in the game.

"Good," the doctor nodded. "As far as I can tell without an exhaustive number of chemical tests, you're actually hanging in there pretty well. So don't let my initial diagnosis scare you. If I thought you were in any real danger at this moment, we'd be on the way to the emergency room already. So try and stay positive."

"Okay," I began, letting out an apprehensive sigh. I just have to keep a positive outlook. Think positive, positive.

My hand continued to grip whatever it was I had a hold of with all its force. Dammit! I'm too worked up to be positive at the moment! I've got to distract myself... Something, anything positive, even the silliest thing. Be it the fact that I could go back in the other room and splash Ranma with some cold water for a cheap laugh, or the fact that my stomach is rumbling and I'm...

I'm… Hungry?

Well, that's a good sign.

How is THAT a good sign?

You had no appetite yesterday dofus. If you're hungry, that means that stomach bug has finally run its course and been eradicated. Which means you can eat your fill like you've been told to do SEVERAL times.

I suppose that's good.

AND you have the money to buy whatever the fuck you WANT.

That's even better.

AND! You don't have to be STINGY about it!

That is… far better than merely 'best'. That is… Superior.

So let's blow this popsicle stand and find us some chow. Luna too... Hell, if we're stuck with Shampoo, we can afford to feed her. Even Ranma if we have to. You've got money to spare. USE it. Nothing says allies like buying people lunch after all.

Good idea. Thanks inner monologue.

Don't thank me…

"Thank your recruiter," I chuckled for a moment, catching Tofu by surprise.

"I'm sorry?" he asked.

"Nothing," I did my best to relax a little. "I'm just thinking out loud."

"Ah," the doctor nodded. "Well whatever it is, try and hold on to it. They say laughter is the best medicine after all."

"Yeah," I agreed. "It does help a little."

He was right of course. Just that little personal joke had improved my attitude considerably in only a few seconds. All I've got to do is relax. Eat, relax… Crack a few jokes with Luna. So long as my heart's still ticking, I can keep at this.

Could stand to lose the headache though…

"Looks like that's about all I can do for you," Tofu nodded as he gave me another once-over. "Just be aware of what I said, and…"

He paused, smirking as he leaned in conspiratorially.

"If you play it right, Shampoo should baby you like a mother hen," he finished.

"Not my thing," I couldn't help but laugh at the way he said it.

"Suit yourself," Tofu leaned back with. "But I think that helped your mood a little more."

Then he stood up and turned to leave the room after scribbling a few more things on his clipboard.

"Follow me," he indicated.

The doctor lead me back out to the front waiting room, where Ranma was sitting in a waiting chair, engaged in what sounded like a story of some kind with Luna. Shampoo was close, but seemed to be visibly resisting the urge to latch on to him.

"Oh, Ranma…" Tofu commented idly. "You're still here? Shouldn't you be heading back to class?"

Ranma stopped on in the middle of describing something he'd done to someone's face and regarded Doctor Tofu for a moment before just giving a plain shrug.

"Eh," he began. "By the time I get back it'll be lunch time anyway. No hurry."

"I see," the doctor responded in such a manner as if to say 'Well, if you think it's okay…'

Shampoo and Luna noted my appearance a moment after that and stood up from where they were sitting.

"How... is?" Shampoo asked as she made her way over. Though she looked concerned, the way her voice was full of hesitation indicated that she was forcing it. "Is okay?"

"About as okay as someone beat up like he is can be," Tofu nodded as he filed a few documents. "Just be mindful of his neck and chest, keep him out of trouble, and make sure he eats and drinks a lot today. Generally, just take it as easy as possible."

"Eat and drink?" Luna stepped past Shampoo and placed a hand on my shoulder. "I just hope he can keep it down."

"Well," Tofu turned, shutting a drawer. "If he keeps the juice I gave him down, he should be good. Was he having trouble eating?"

"I had a little bad water," I tried to laugh. "It didn't like me."

Tofu turned and adjusted his glasses, giving me a critical eye for a few seconds.

"Amazing," he commented at last. "It's too bad we can't do any documentation on you. I know a few doctors who would love to follow you as a Case Study."

"Ugh…" I rolled my eyes. "I'm already a case study."

"Do tell…"

"Too long a story," I went to shake my head, and found the neck brace the doc. stuck on me made it impossible to even ATTEMPT to twist. As a result, I just ended up looking weird. "And believe it or not, I actually am getting hungry. Which is good…"

"Well," Tofu nodded, turning to grab a small bottle, then he tossed it towards me. Before I even registered it was heading for me; Luna snatched it right out of the air without so much as a sidelong glance. Both Tofu and Ranma regarded the action with mild looks of surprise. The doctor hid his quickly, but Ranma stared for several seconds.

"Eeeboo..." Luna frowned at the label, then looked at the doctor. "What is this?"

"Anti-inflammatory for him," Tofu explained. Luna just tilted her head curiously.

"Pain reliever," he simplified. "He's trying not to show it, but I can tell he's hurting."

Luna silently made an 'oh' face and turned, handing the small, rattling bottle to me. I held it up for a moment and instantly recognized it with another small chuckle and a smile as the entire bottle was labeled in English front to back.

"Ibuprofen," I read it to the Felis Sapien.

"Just some over-the-counter stuff," Tofu shrugged. "I use it mostly to treat some acne cases. There's not much left in that one, but you can get more just about anywhere. Just don't take it right away. Wait for things to clear up a bit first or it will just make it worse."

"Thank you," Luna turned and put a little formal bow in. In my opinion, that was a touch overkill, but whatever.

"Not a problem," Tofu made a shooing motion with his hands. "Now, go eat. The sooner you do, the better you should feel. And come right back here if anything gets WORSE."

"I'm with the doc. on that one," Ranma eagerly cut in before I could respond. "Let's grab some grub."

Since when did he join our 'merry little band'? I don't recall inviting him.

"I know good place!" Shampoo cut in next before I had any possibility of telling Ranma to mind his own business. The Chinese warrior pushed through Luna and latched on to my arm, almost knocking the catgirl down in the process.

"We go now, yes?"

Luna just huffed once in agitation after recovering from her near stumble.

"As long as they have meat," she all but demanded, casting me a snap glance that had the most longing, almost begging look in her eyes. Yes, meat…

"Meat expensive," Shampoo frowned. "I no can buy much. Maybe kill for food. But no place to hunt-"

"I'll buy," I cut her off in an annoyed tone. "Trust me… I've got the money."

Speaking of which…

"That reminds me," I turned to the doctor. "How much do I owe you?"

"Owe me?" doctor Tofu blinked behind his glasses. "Don't worry about that. Cologne already said she'd take care of it."

"Ah," I gave a 'full body nod'. "So I don't-"

Wait... The crone's footing the doctor's bill? Last time she 'foot the bill' over anything was that Whiskey and he 'ancient' Chinese Ritalin-filled chocolates. And I ended up working all day for them. If that hag was footing a doctor's bill then…

"Ooh…" I began. "Nononono... I don't think so."

That's just what she would do to keep me on a leash.

"No," I continued. "We're not playing that game. I'm not playing her game."

"What you talking about?" Shampoo asked.

"Off the arm." I instructed. I needed to get into my portal. Shampoo complied and I raised it, making sure nobody was in the usual danger spot.

The reaction people had to this thing just never got old. Shampoo seemed the most interested, actively reaching out after I closed it and waving her hand through the space it had occupied. The look on her face almost made me want to pop it open again. It was hard to catch her being interested in anything that didn't have to do with Ranma, or snaring Ranma, or otherwise tricking Ranma. You know, in that Ranma-centric mind of hers...

"I'll pay for this," I continued after taking the reactions in, plinking my bag of gold coins on the counter. "I'm not going to owe that woman anything if I can help it. Not while I can afford it."

Tofu just adjusted his glasses and lowered himself to look closely at one of the coins that had spilled free of the bag. Ranma too, eyed the bag in shock.

"Where did you get that much…" the young man began. "And what was that hole?"

"How much?" I ignored him and kept my eyes on the doctor. "Think a coin will cover it?"

Tofu blinked, then glanced up, his glasses briefly catching one of the overhead lights

"Cover it?" he asked. "Young man, my fee is only five thousand yen."

"So it's covered then?" I asked.

"Well, yeah," he began. "But don't you-"

"Don't worry about it," I waved my hand. "I just don't wanna' owe that crone ANYTHING."

Tofu nodded, straightening up.

"I understand," he continued. "That woman can be a hard bargainer, and she takes whatever she can get."

Then he turned his head.

"Isn't that right Ranma?"

Ranma, upon hearing his name, jerked his head up from staring at the gold coins on the table.

"Wha-" he began in a distant tone, then realized he was being spoken to. "Uh, yeah! Yeah. That old bat can be such a con-artist."

That boy's probably never seen that much money before outside of Kuno.

Oh god, I hope we don't end up meeting Tatewaki, or worse, his sister Kodachi. That whole family is completely off their rocker.

In fact, now that I think about it, half the cast was batshit insane...

Some more so than others, but it's effectively a circus act.

God...

Suddenly I have this feeling I'm going to want to get rid of this headache in a hurry. Because the way things are looking, it's only going to get worse. I am SO GLAD Tofu just gave me some Ibuprofen... I'm gonna' need it.

The doctor took his payment reluctantly, but after some hesitation, he picked up and pocketed the gold coin we'd been inspecting.

"We go?" Shampoo latched on to me again, this time with a little more gusto in her attitude than before. I wouldn't have caught it except for the fact that the sudden about-face in her mood was rather obvious. Maybe flashing that much money around was a mistake. I know better than that. Showing off money is a quick way to get you robbed. And in my condition, I'd be easy pickings for a mugger. At least, until they caught a shotgun blast to the back.

But that would attract all kinds of attention I didn't want. The kind of attention I just left one nap ago.

"Yeah," Ranma was trying desperately to conceal a snicker as Shampoo tried to tug me towards the door... considerably more gentle than even a few minutes ago. "Let's find a good place."

"Who invited you?" I let the agitation in my voice out. Ranma's snickering died a little, but then he smirked and indicated Shampoo.

"She did," he pointed at the young warrior smiling next to me. Shampoo made a cheesy showing of fluttering her eyes at me.

"Is okay?" she asked.

Honestly, I'd rather keep Ranma at arm's length, as he tended to attract trouble. But at the same time, it was just as likely he'd follow us anyway and make a pest of himself, and STILL attract trouble. Plus Shampoo would probably be more unpleasant... Ugh, I'm over thinking this.

"Fine," I sighed... again. "He can come too."

"Is perfect!" Shampoo smiled brightly, which was actually surprisingly pleasant to witness. "Is date with you and Airen at same time!"

Ranma visibly recoiled, stepping back.

"Date?" he asked defensively. "Err... Maybe I should get back to class. At least check in before lunch."

Oh is THAT how you want to play it Ranma? You think you can just act like a weasel and get away with it? Not around me you won't. I know how to play this game too. And unlike you, I can keep a poker face, AND I've already dealt with some serious heavy hitters. Let's have a dry run...

"Oh no," I turned to Ranma, my voice raised so as to give away that I was on to him. "You've done lost your chance. Now you're stuck with us."

"Whaha-?" he glanced between each of us a few seconds.

"You're coming with us," I started to smirk. "Whether you like it or not."

"HAH!" Ranma burst out. "What are YOU going to do about it?"

"Me?" I laughed back. Now to set the trap... "I don't have to do anything. I'm sure once the doctor cripples you the same way he did that one time Akane had to carry you home, it'll be easy to haul you wherever we want."

Bait set.

"As if I'll- Wait, what?" he turned looking confused.

Foot's in the noose...

"How did you know about that?" Ranma's eyes widened in shock. "Shampoo wasn't even here for that! Did Tofu tell you?"

Ranma shot a look at the doctor, who simply regarded the scene before him passively. Now to cinch this...

"I guess if you leave now you'll never find out," I did the best shrug I could manage in my state.

Ranma, the tables turned on him in a heartbeat, just sat there looking irritated. Then suddenly he slapped his face and started to laugh.

"Oh man," he chuckled. "I get it now. That was good. That was really good."

"So are you coming or not?" Luna piped up. Serious cat was getting serious, which meant her patience was drying up.

"Yeah, yeah," Ranma recovered from laughing. "I guess I can go on a-" he made air quotes. "Date.' I've GOT to hear more about you guys now."

I'll call that success.

"Good!" Shampoo chirped happily. "Is date!"

"Ugh," Luna audibly exhaled. "Let's just go."

She turned, intending to lead the way out the door.

"Hold on…" I called.

"What?" Luna asked in agitation. She must be getting really hungry.

"I gotta' pee," I turned, sighing as I walked past Dr. Tofu.

"Again..."