"Little fools! I am Beelzebub, Lucifer! The Reaper of Souls! The REALLY ANGRY ONE! I! AM! SATAAAAAAAAAN! HUHUHUA-HAHAHAHA!"

"So, that's nothing. I'm…

Princess Angelina Kentessa Francisca Francheska Bannanna Fanna Bo BESKA… THE THIRD! MUAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Just a little thing I do."

- Dot vs Satan, Animaniacs


"I've seen a LOT of weird things," Ranma commented as he looked at Senbei, eyes level with the edge of the table we were at. "And honestly, this little guy's pretty cool if you ask me."

I had nothing to say at that point. Honestly, the novelty of Senbei had long since worn off on me. Senbei of course smugly grinned at the compliment while I took a swig of an orange Gatorade.

After leaving Doctor Tofu's clinic, we'd set about taking care of a minor prerequisite to my assigned task of eating. Namely: Money.

See, despite the amount of cash I'd picked up in the previous world. It turns out I'd spent nearly all of it by the time we'd finished with purchasing that helmet. The one that paid for itself in full thanks to Bakane...

Without cash, all the instructions I had meant absolutely dick.

Of course, I'd flashed enough gold to call in the vultures. Both Ranma and Shampoo had very quickly changed their tunes once they'd seen that bag and what was in it. I guess greed really is the universal language.

But given my state, if the very notion that I was loaded helped to keep Shampoo from being upset with her grandmother's scheme (and thus, a little more docile), I was willing to be a little liberal with my funds.

It was weird too. It seemed so strange to know I was loaded with more money than I literally knew what to do with at the moment, but at the same time, know what I had to jump through hoops to make it useful.

Luckily, Ranma seemed to understand the whole issue with gold and currency, having explained that taking a training trip to China had resulted with him and his dad encountering the same problem. (At least, when they had a little money...) And one of the first things he'd done when returning to Tokyo, was scout out all the local places where one could exchange currency, no questions asked. It had been reflex...

That was good, because he quickly lead us around to a small place nearby that was more than willing to change up some cash for a few gold coins.

And what was the first thing I did?

I walked across the street, into a small market shop, and immediately grabbed the first thing I recognized almost as soon as I was in the door. A bottle with an old, familiar lightning-bolt logo.

Thank you Florida Gators.

After that, Shampoo lead us to a surprisingly nice outdoor café-turned-Americanized-steakhouse. Nothing too fancy, but at least it had meat on the menu. And meat was what we wanted, especially Luna.

Seating arrangements were, for lack of a better term, expected. I sat us in a corner, facing across the patio and out into traffic. Shampoo, practically glued to me at this point, took a spot on my left. Luna took a spot on my right, leaving Ranma to sit directly across from me.

More or less, this seemed to work out nicely. Shampoo got to sit next to both me, which fulfilled what she was supposed to be doing, and next to Ranma, what she WANTED to be doing.

Once situated, and our food ordered, we launched into a brief discussion as to just what exactly was going on. Senbei became article one of the evidence to back up the story.

"But anyway," Ranma continued. "Other worlds eh?"

"Yeah," I sighed. "You'd expect this to be a cool trip, but it just kinda sucks all around."

"I feel ya' man," Ranma nodded. "I didn't go to different worlds, but I've had my fair share of traveling… That and women trying to kill me."

Ranma cast a sidelong glance at Shampoo, who was either completely oblivious to the barb, or playing dumb. Either way, she just smiled cutely as if nothing had been said, returning her gaze to the small demon god sitting on a salt shaker.

"And you're really a… cat," Ranma turned his gaze to Luna. He seemed to almost squirm in place, but suppressed it.

"Yes," Luna seemed to notice the young man fidget as well. "This is actually an alternate form of mine."

"I… See," he continued.

"You seem to be taking this rather well," Luna frowned. So far, Ranma appeared more or less unfazed by our exposition. In fact, it kinda' made me glad he was taking it in stride. How many times had we gone over things at this point?

"Well, like I said," Ranma rubbed the back of his head for a moment. "I've seen some pretty weird things. People from other worlds don't really surprise me after some of the stuff I've been through. I guess at this point the only thing really missing would be aliens and time travelers."

"And ESPers," I added without thinking. The response earned me confused look from everyone.

"Never mind," I tried, without success due to my neck brace, to look away. Given how things worked with all the fictional conventions, I opted not to elaborate on where that thought came from by quickly stuffing the end of my Gatorade bottle in my mouth and taking a long swig.

"Aaaanyway…" Ranma continued. "Just do me one favor while I'm around."

"And what would that be?" Luna's features went flat.

"Stay in the humanoid form," Ranma stated. "Pleeeease…"

"What?" the catgirl's face went straight to confused. "Why?"

"Well," Ranma began. "It's kinda embarrassing-"

"He's Aluraphobic," my voice resonated out of my now half-empty Gatorade bottle, causing it to vibrate in my hand.

"Al-what?" Luna blinked in my direction, but I was already enjoying another sip of the orange liquid.

"It means he's uncontrollably terrified of cats," Senbei commented from his salt shaker, earning him a look. Then the little demon god turned to Ranma.

"How bad?"

"Ranma go running and screaming at sight of Shampoo when looking like kitten," Shampoo pouted as she cut in. "It very sad."

"So," Luna began. Then suddenly her eyes widened and she shot me an understanding look.

"THAT's why he panicked last time!"

I gave my best approximation of an affirmative, humming 'MmmHmm' into my Gatorade bottle. It was getting close to empty at the rate I'd been nursing it. And soon I'd have to crack open the second one I bought. Shampoo was eying it curiously, but Ranma had been the one to ask me about it back at that store. Turns out he'd never even seen the stuff, let alone tried it.

I offered to get him one, but he quickly declined, stating that he'd rather not, just in case he liked it. He thought it was too expensive for mere colored salt water that had sugar added to it.

Ah well, more for me.

"My offer still stands," I commented at Shampoo's curious gaze. "If you want me to buy you one, just ask."

Shampoo had declined as well, but with the excuse that I was already buying her lunch. Of course, the look on her face made it obvious she wanted it. But her staunch refusal was surprising. Even acting with restraint, which she'd been struggling with all morning, I would have expected her to jump at it once offered.

I just can't say for certain. Ever since getting my body scrambled by that monster, it's been hard to keep my thoughts coherent, especially through the filter of mild pain and the after-effects of a concussion tied with missing sleep and the fogging effects of medication. I might be missing something. But I'm not sure what.

"Don't waste your money," Luna suddenly snapped up, her voice becoming almost hostile in stark contrast to her previous tone. This I had also noticed since this morning. Luna was irritable, and it was getting worse by the minute. I'm guessing she was hungry, and like me, when you're hungry, you're grouchy.

The only reason I wasn't the same way at the moment was because the sugar in the cranberry juice combined with the Gatorades I'd bought was acting to mellow me out. I was hungry, but my blood sugar wasn't dropping. I guess that's one small victory. Sorta'…

You take what small victories you can get though. I wasn't as grouchy as I had been earlier this morning. That's always a plus. Even more so because I was going to get my first decent meal in two days.

Speaking of which…

I spotted our waitress coming out the door with a large tray, carrying what appeared to be our food. At least, I think so.

No, I'm certain of it.

The way she glanced at us as if to check we were still here was a huge indicator before she began making her way over. Like any waitress who'd been in the business a while, she somehow managed to appear as if balancing the tray with one arm was nothing to call home about. I guess it's not, since it's just practice. But still, you could tell she'd been at this job a while.

"Food's coming," I announced to the others.

"It's about time," Luna commented curtly, diverting her impatient attitude to the approaching waitress. I opted to say nothing about it, as the tone had all the warning signs of someone who would verbally destroy you if you so much as called fault to them. Instead, I quickly redirected my attention away to another matter.

"Senbei, go ahead and take five."

"Of course," Senbei nodded and vanished with a pop.

"Okay," the waitress began as she made it to the table. "I've got a porterhouse, double order of mashed potatos."

"Me," I announced. The waitress glanced, a flash of pity in her eyes upon noting my condition as she set the plate in front of me.

"Grilled Talapia," she continued without pause as she started to move the plate towards Ranma. "Double order."

"That would be me," Luna chimed in, her tone doing a complete one-eighty from before. The waitress gave the catgirl a look of pure shock; probably surprised that such a 'small' girl would order so much food.

In all honesty, that was actually a deal. The fish was far cheaper than the beef, and Luna had insisted that I not spend an absurd amount of money for her sake. I freely admit however, that if she had asked, I would have bought it for her. Luna deserves it, and that smile of hers is just too damn cute not to be worth the price.

But she went for the fish. So I saved on steak money there…

Now granted, at this point I wasn't all the surprised that there was an Americanized steakhouse in the middle of Tokyo. Given the way this city was in just about every world that had it so far, it was rather expected.

Actually, the surprising part was that Shampoo knew about the place, what with being a Chinese girl in a Japanese city and all… but it made sense after she explained herself. With all those delivery runs she made all over the area, she had a pretty solid mental map of not merely streets, but what businesses were located where.

In fact, the way she spoke, Shampoo sounded like a living GPS for the Nerima Ward. Not only did she know about the steakhouse, but she also knew the locations of six different bicycle repair shops, including one particular shop she visited frequently. Turns out she had an arrangement with the shop owner to keep her bike in top condition in exchange for free lunches from the Nekohanten. She'd bring her bike in on Wednesdays on a weekly basis. As rough as she was on things, I'm not surprised.

But I digress.

Shampoo got one of the leaner steaks, well done. I forget which one, but compared to my giant porterhouse, hers was rather shrimpy. I was rather surprised too. I expected someone with her active lifestyle to eat considerably more.

I just wish the lean steaks weren't so expensive. Hers cost almost as much as mine did. And it was half the size!

Ranma, well… He wanted to try the Fillet Mingion. The look of disappointment on his face when the plate was set before him spoke volumes. I think he was expecting something completely different.

However, he said nothing, likely because I was the one buying.

Anyway, now that we all had our food, it was time to FINALLY do something about Washu's rather persistent set of instructions. And I'll tell you what, I had no second thoughts to completing them.

"ERHEM…"

I was half way through cutting into the first piece of my steak when Luna cleared her throat, glaring pointedly at me like I'd done something wrong.

"What?" I asked. My eyes drifted to Shampoo and Ranma, who seemed to be looking apprehensive.

"Manners?" Luna asked in a straight, non-plussed voice.

What is- Oh… Nice restaurant, act civilized. And here I am tearing into my food like an… Animal? You've got to be KIDDING me! Luna picks NOW of all times to turn on that nobility mode she had around Ayeka?

"Seriously?" was what I ended up saying.

"Try and set a good example," Luna nodded to the side, indicating Shampoo.

Oh for the love of, what does my manners have to do with teaching her not to smash things without thinking first?

"Seriously?" I asked again, my town lower this time.

"Seriously," Luna nodded solemnly.

'Clink!' My knife and fork went down on my plate with a little more force than normal as I let out an irritated sigh.

"How'd it go?" I rolled my eyes. "Oh… Yeah. Eat-a-daikon-masss-room."

Ranma suppressed a laugh, causing it to sound like a choke. It may have been in English, but even he knew it wasn't right.

"Itadakimasu," Luna stated curtly, returning my eyeroll with one of her own. "Whatever you just said… Oh just do it right."

Oy… Yes MOTHER.

"Itadakimasu," I chimed in an underwhelmed singsong tone. Then paused and waited.

"Better," she nodded.

"Can I EAT now?" I asked. But to my surprise, Luna had already managed to stuff her face with food.

I'll take that as a yes.

I quickly returned to attacking my steak, a quick, complementary 'Itadakimasu' coming from Ranma and then Shampoo as they worked to catch up.

With the first bite, the verdict was in: This steak was good.

Of course, not five minutes into our 'lunch', and Shampoo was already up to her usual antics…

"Ranma," she turned, smiling at the young man and holding her fork out to him. "Aaaaaa…"

Ranma froze in his tracks, eyes flitting to the Chinese girl and the bite of steak she was offering him.

Ah, the old 'offer to hand feed the guy you like' routine.

I allowed myself to smirk in good humor, trying to avoid laughing because of my chest as Ranma visibly squirmed in place. The poor guy was stuck in such a spot between his three 'fiances'. He wanted to be nice, because Ranma, for all he liked to pick on Akane, was actually a nice guy. But he also found the attentions of the female population a bit awkward, especially with the position he was in.

It was obvious he wanted to turn down the offer without upsetting Shampoo. Accept the offer, and if word got around, he'd be up to his armpits in trouble. Turn it down and Shampoo throws a tantrum.

The whole thing was a kind of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' setup. Typical for Ranma. But he'd probably figure a way out of it.

Or so I thought. The decision left Ranma's hands after a few moments when Shampoo suddenly pouted and retracted her fork. Then with almost a deft turn, she stuck the utensil in my face.

"Aaaaaa…"

The smirk left my face, replaced by one of my typical neutral frowns. Ranma, slightly off put by the sudden change, cocked his head to the side, then absentmindedly rubbed his neck.

"Aaaaaa…" Shampoo repeated in a slightly more… I guess you could call it 'urgent' tone. However I continued to stare at her like she'd told a really bad joke and that I was trying to telepathically explain to her just how stupid it was.

Then her face too, became a frown.

"How I suppose do this right if you no cooperate?" she asked.

"I have food," I stated in a flat tone.

"But I supposed to be taking care of," she replied pleadingly.

"I'm not two," I glared back. For just a moment, her eyes narrowed, but she quickly caught herself and took a deep breath. I was hoping she would give up when she did it…

She switched to the most pitiful look she could muster. I believe the term for it was 'manslayer'. Honestly I didn't know she could pull something like that off. It's almost as if all that time she spent in her cursed kitten form had given her practice in cute animal expressions.

But the expression I was witness to at this point could only be described as the most pitiful, adorable little pout I'd ever seen. And given the pout Luna had used on that pawn shop dealer yesterday, that's saying something.

Shampoo just sat there, fixing me with that pitiful cute stare, her fork outstretched towards me, just waiting for me to break.

Had it been any other guy, even Ranma (who, mind you, was staring mutely at the spectacle), they probably would have capitulated. Trouble with me, is that I'm stubborn as fuck, and I'm not really comfortable with the whole hand-feeding thing.

I could feel my own expression dry up as we locked eyes, a silent battle of wills taking place. For a few moments, you could almost feel the tension. Then I made a deliberate motion to set my utensils down, raised my hand, and pointed at her.

"No," I stated in a low tone, almost as if reprimanding a pet. "DON'T."

"But Great Grandmother," Shampoo continued with a whimper. I- wait a WHIMPER?

I felt my breath catch in my throat as I choked on my follow up response. That- That's just not fair! How the hell can a girl this strong manage to come across as so utterly pathetic at the drop of a hat? Even Motoko took the psychological shock of her life to reach this level.

"Don't," I repeated. I could feel anger in the pit of my stomach. Something about her just being so persistent was starting to tick me off.

"Please?" she asked, her tone begging.

I felt that ball of anger flare, my patience snapping.

'THUD!'

My fist smacked the table, causing the girl to jump in her spot.

"FINE!" I snapped. My patience had dried up, and with it, my ability to remain stubborn. I was just too worn out to try and resist that kind of onslaught. Being stubborn is a lot of work after all.

Shampoo dropped the manslayer pout almost instantly, beaming in triumph as she stuck the fork in my face.

"Aaaahhhh…" she chimed again.

Not one to be totally beaten, I reached up and neatly plucked the piece of meat off the utensil with my hand, then stuck it in my mouth.

"Eh-" Shampoo blinked.

The steak was bland, slightly dry, and-

"Needs salt," I commented between chews. I'm not sure I understood what Shampoo saw in a lean, well done steak like this. It tasted like leather and chewed like jerky.

The Joketsuzoku warrior lowered the fork, a confused expression warring with her disappointment.

Disappointment ended up winning.

"That not how you do it!" she snapped. "Do right!"

"It'll stick to my own steak," I replied. I had to suppress the urge to grin in satisfaction at her fluster. I let my eyes drift to Ranma, who was doing a terrible job of the same.

"Besides," I continued. "That steak tastes like an old shoe."

"Yo- what?" Shampoo froze in mid-retort and looked down at her plate. "What you mean? Is cooked real good. You is one eating shoe. Steak for you almost raw."

"Medium-Rare," I corrected her.

"Same difference," she crossed her arms.

"I bet you it's not," I challenged. As I did so, I did my best to look at my plate, which is a little harder when you can't turn your head. Picking up my knife, I cut a piece off the corner. A little fat, a little moderately pink meat and pushed it over.

"Try it," I instructed.

"I no want to," she continued to pout.

"Then you concede?" I asked.

"Conc-" Shampoo gave me a look that I swore asked 'What the fuck?'

"Do you give up?" I used a simpler phrase.

"Shampoo not give up," she snapped. Ranma was continuing to watch silently. Now he looked like he was stuck between wanting to laugh, and wanting to put some distance between himself and the table.

"Then try it," I pushed the piece of meat a little further to the edge of my plate. "If you like it, then you like it. No big deal."

Shampoo continued to glare at me. After a few moments, her fork reached out and neatly stabbed the piece of meat I'd offered. Her eyes never left mine, even as she raised the bite to her mouth.

Something I'd like to figure out more… I've noted before that the characters are smarter than they appear from the perspective of a reader or watcher. But at the same time, some of them are still as easy to manipulate as you'd expect. I didn't even realize it and I'd already talked Shampoo right into a corner.

Is it really that easy? Or am I getting better at it? It's not like I was trying or anything. It just kind of fell into place.

Hell I'm not sure, maybe the arguments I use just make sense to them.

Shampoo continued to glare for only a few more seconds before her chewing slowed, her eyes widening in surprise.

"Is good!" she chirped.

"See?" I asked. "

"Speaking of good," Luna's voice piped up. I had to shift in my chair to face her, but when I did, I found her reaching out with a fork with some partially falling-apart bits of fish on it.

"You've GOT to try this," she continued. "Trust me, it's good."

I glanced at the outstretched fork for a moment. Part of me wanted to refuse automatically. But then another part of me immediately warned me of what I just pulled on Shampoo. If I refused Luna, I might look like a hypocrite and they'd both call me on it. Then I'd look like a dofus with my foot in my mouth.

Not wanting to lose face like that, I hesitantly reached up to pluck the fish off Luna's fork.

"It's going to fall apart," she interrupted. "Just eat it."

I hesitated, casting a glance at the catgirl. Luna just frowned at me. After a moment, I sighed, leaning forward and carefully trying to take the fish off her fork with my teeth.

"Oh for Serenity's sake," Luna continued, agitation more evident. "I'm a cat. We have the cleanest mouths in the animal kingdom. Quit being such a big baby and just eat it!"

My irritation flared again, making my teeth snap down on the fork. Luna bossing me around just a bit was normal by now. It was in her nature to be at least a little bossy at times. But I just couldn't get over some of the weird times she'd pick to assert herself. Between this and her attack on my non-existent Japanese table manners, I had to fight off the urge to be contrary just because I didn't like being ordered around.

It's all a little silly, but I'm still a guy, and we don't like being told what to do.

The fish, honestly, it took me a second to register the flavor. It was… fishy, but with a lemon-pepper taste to it that had just enough kick to make it interesting. As I contemplated the fish, I did my best to come across with a full body nod.

"Good…" I managed between chews.

"See?" Luna leaned back, lowering her fork. "That wasn't so hard now was it?"

She had this obnoxiously cute, triumphant grin on her face. Like she'd just won a competition I didn't know about.

Ranma started to laugh again. This time he made little, if no attempt to hide it.

"What?" the two ladies and myself all chimed in unison.

Ranma lost it, and almost fell out of his chair laughing.

I didn't, couldn't understand why he found everything so funny all of a sudden. Well, maybe a little bit with Shampoo's antics and the way I almost completely owned her in that respect. But I've got this feeling that I missed something in the process that was only obvious to an outside observer. Given my current state, that's not too hard. I can't turn my head to look at people properly, and I can't move very fast for being so god-damned stiff and sore. I could miss a million things right now and would never know it.

Like things sneaking up on me…

"Well, well, well," A voice began from somewhere above and behind me.

Ranma's laughing came to a dead stop, his eyes trailing up and scowl flashing across his face.

"If it isn't Ranma," the voice, decidedly male and older continued. "Shouldn't you be in school, boy?"

I'll give anyone who might be familiar with Ranma three guesses to figure out who it was. However I suspect most people would only need one. Maybe two tops…

"You're one to talk old man!" Ranma practically spat the sentence out. Then he grabbed up his fork and snapped the utensil through the air over my head. I tried to duck on reflex. Only for the action to prove impossible thanks to that neck brace I was wearing.

"Hah!" the voice scoffed. "You're sixty years too early to hit me with something that pathetic."

Suddenly, something crimson and tan filled my field of view as it smacked down on the table with the sound of rattling plates. It was so sudden that I involuntarily kicked back, but found that my slightly restrained body was unable to properly move before I lost control of the chair.

The only thing that saved me from cracking my skull on the ground (and thus, my third concussion) was Shampoo, who darted out of her own chair when she saw me tip and caught me. Luna, likewise, was on the other side as well, sharing a brief look of concern in making sure I hadn't split my head open on the cement.

"WATCH OUT-"

"BE CAREFUL!"

The two girls snapped almost as one, causing the thing that had landed to turn in place.

The man known as Happosai looked a lot like old man Hino, except he seemed far more 'lean' than one would expect from an old coot. In fact, the best way to really describe Happosai was 'sinewy'. There wasn't much meat on the parts of his body that were exposed, but the muscles that I could see peeking out from his crimson 'pajamas' had a look to them that reminded me of steel cables. The ones you usually see grounding telephone poles. The impression that left in my mind in that instant screamed a few dozen warning bells. As an animated character, he looked silly. You almost wouldn't suspect him to be every bit the grandmaster he claimed in his title.

But seeing him in the flesh sent chills down my spine. His body structure reminded me of a mouse trap come to life. One wrong move and 'SNAP!'

…Which honestly wasn't making my projected outlook for the day any better. 'Happi', as his name could be shortened, was what I could only describe as 'The World's Oldest Juvenile'. His personality ticked all the boxes you'd have for a hormone driven high school jock. He's self centered, conniving, selfish, egotistical, hypocritical, and last but certainly not least, monstrously perverted.

In fact, perversion was pretty much the identifying trait that dominated the mental picture of anyone who'd seen this character. And considering my company, that's about to be a BIG problem.

The tan thing that had nearly hit me in the head when he landed appeared to be a blanket he'd bundled up as a makeshift sack. Judging by the way it was bulging, I had this feeling that Happosai had been quite busy the last few hours.

"Ah, I see," he continued, turning in a motion that reminded me of a reptile. "Skipping class to have lunch with Shampoo… I wonder how Akane would take this one-"

"It AIN'T what yer thinking you old pervert!" Ranma snapped. I heard him audibly pound the table. In response, Happosai momentarily sported rather amused smirk before his eyes drifted away from Shampoo and over to Luna.

"And who might we have here?" he tried, and as far as I could tell, failed to come up with a tone I believe was supposed to be 'flattering'. "Aren't you the sweetest looking-"

'SMACK!'

Happosai had reached up to feel Luna's face, and at almost the same time, the catgirl's hand snapped up and caught him in a firm grip, stopping his antics dead in their tracks.

"Don't, touch me," she stated in a cold tone before motioning towards me. "You almost hurt him."

Happosai stared for a few seconds. Then with a slow, deliberate turn, acknowledged my presence for the first time, his eyes sweeping over to look at me in an examining manner. His hand came up as well, tapping his chin in thought. While he did that, Luna blinked a few times, glancing at her own, empty hand in surprise.

For once, I'd seen what happened. The old man had deftly, and rather neatly twisted his way right out of her grip with such a smooth, swift motion that she hadn't even noticed. The guy was fucking fast.

"Hmmm…" he continued into my thoughts. "You've been mauled by a large bear. Not something I'd recommend for anyone less than Ryoga or Ranma. Got you right in the sternum if I'm not mistaken."

"No SHIT Sherlock," I snapped back at him in English. Part of me was honestly surprised he'd gotten so close, while another part of me was not surprised considering it was Happosai. A third part of me was just irritated. That part won.

In response to my aggravated snap, the old man simply raised an eyebrow before he unshouldered his makeshift sack and opened the top.

For a few seconds, he dug around in it. An interesting sight considering it was about as big as he was. Then with a muffled 'AHA!' he popped back out, quickly turning to me.

"Here," he began. Before I could figure out what was up, he tossed something into my lap. "Take two of these and call me in the morning."

I heard a gasp of shock from Luna but was unable to turn my head to look down, so I was forced to lift the item into view.

As could be expected from having been pulled from Happosai's sack, it was a slightly off purple bra. Honestly, I couldn't care less. I've done enough laundry over the years that some random bra wasn't even going to faze me. It wasn't even a particularly fancy piece of lingerie either. Just a plain, slightly off purple pair of… whatever size they were.

But the way everyone behaved around here, I could feel this slight tension in my stomach with the minor realization that this could get ugly, really fast. And there was nothing I could do about it. As a result, I found myself rolling my eyes, letting an exasperated breath out.

"You can't say I'm not a charitable old master," Happosai continued, looking rather proud of his 'good deed'. "That right there should help you relax. You need it."

"Charitable?" Ranma practically spat into the conversation. "Yeah right! You have SOME NERVE, OLD MAN!"

Happosai quickly turned on the ball of his foot to give the younger Saotome an antagonizing smirk.

"Did you want one too?" he asked, reaching in and pulling out a rather risqué looking set of panties. That only served to aggravate Ranma even more. I suspect that the difference in the 'inapproprietness' of the two undergarments was deliberate.

"You need only ask."

"What the heck is wrong with you!" Luna interjected, causing several of the other people dining near us to look up curiously. "This isn't the kind of thing you should be waving around in a public place!"

"Oh you don't even want to get started with this old coot," Ranma replied before Happosai could respond. "He does this kind of thing all the time."

Luna glanced at Ranma, then at Happosai, then at Ranma again, her expression mortified. Then she repeated the motion, her eyes drawing to the large sack Happy had just gone through. I could almost see the gears turning in her mind as realization dawned on her as to what it really meant.

"That's DISGUSTING!" she jumped back. "Totally deplorable in every sense of the word!"

"Disgusting?" Happosai paused from his trolling of Ranma to cross his arms.

"Young lady," he closed his eyes, looking pensive. "I object to that observation. I am a man who appreciates the beauty in all its forms. To call it disgusting is a grave injustice. Even more so that you should feel this way considering the body you possess. It brings sadness to these old bones to hear one of such splendor as yourself decry an old man one of the few pleasures he has left in life."

Luna failed to find the right words to respond to Happi's change in tone, her face gaining a slight shade of red.

"Eh- I-" she stuttered. But being a smartass, I beat her to a response.

"You steal UNDERWEAR," I stated in a 'that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard' tone.

Happosai's head jerked back to me, a devilish smirk exploding on his features.

"Right you are M'boy!" he cackled with glee, then turned back to Luna. "And I wonder what lovelies this beauty prefers. Perhaps some fine silk, or maybe Egyptian cotton!"

Luna turned about three shades of red as Happosai grounded his bag.

"Come here sweetie!"

The old man leapt forward, causing the table to shake from his spring; An action which forced me to slap my hand on my plate to prevent my food from being thrown. He almost caught Luna by surprise if it hadn't been for the fact that he'd all but announced his intent. The catgirl yelped in shock, jumping back and spinning to avoid the flying pervert's roving hands.

"Is going be problem!" Shampoo voiced from my left. Happosai seemed to miss his mark and planted his feet firmly, spinning around with a downright obscene grin on his face as he followed right after Luna. It didn't click at the time, but the way he moved at that moment spoke volumes of just how adept he was at dealing with a moving target.

Luna, being a predator of course, was just as adept as he was, and proved it by evading the ancient pervert a second time as she leapt right over him. Still, he must have managed something, because the moment she landed, she acted as if she'd just been frisked by a pick pocket.

"You!" she spun around, now pretty much looking like she had a sun burn.

"Heh!" Happosai grinned as he paused. "You're fast dearie, but not fast enough I'm afraid."

Then he tilted his head slightly to the side, his devilish smirk turning sly once more.

"But I didn't know you'd be so… traditional," he continued with only a slight pause. "I'd expect something like that from Ranma since he doesn't really care and all. But for a cute thing such as yourself to be going, as the Americans would put it, 'Commando'…"

Ah crap…

The gear click in the back of my mind was like a spring-loaded latch. Until Happosai had said 'commando' in English, I'd been wondering what he was starting to go on about.

"What?" Shampoo asked.

Happosai just continued to grin at the round of confusion amongst the others as Luna stood frozen in place. As far as I could tell, the tension had gone up a few more notches in that time frame. After all, ol' Happy had just announced to anyone who understood the term that Luna wasn't wearing any underwear.

Well, now that I think about it… When we bought her clothing, we never got her any underwear. I hadn't even thought about it. And honestly, I would have been the first person to think Washu would have taken care of that back when she gave Luna that dress.

So that means Luna's been running around a skirt-flip away from total embarrassment? She had that fight with Motoko, AND she was getting thrown around by Junpei, all the while just waiting for someone to look at her at just the wrong (or right depending on your perspective) moment?

I wish the human mind could use true-type fonts. Because if it could, I would find the curviest, most curled 'Ye Old English' font I could get my hands on for this next statement:

'Jesus Christ!'

I mean HONESTLY, this is just the kind of problem we DON'T need at this point. It's a STUPID problem, and stupid problems cause nothing but heada-

My thoughts were interrupted by a sound that made every hair on the back of my neck stand on end and sent a chill right down my spine. At almost the same moment Ranma, who was still across from me, backpedalled several feet, knocking the chair out from under himself in the process.

The source of the sound was Luna. She was, crying? That- no, that wasn't right. While there were tears in her eyes, she had this look on her face that would have made me soil myself if it had been directed at me.

Then I realized what I was hearing.

Luna was growling.

I've heard a cat growl before. And cats tend not to growl unless there is someone who's shit is about to get wrecked in the immediate future. I'm dead serious. Most cats may be so small as to be no real threat to the average human. But still, when a cat starts growling, anyone with any sense backs the fuck off.

And that's with your average ten to fifteen pound feline.

Considering Luna's current humanoid form and its substantially larger physical size, her enraged growl took on a whole new level of menacing. The growl coming from a normal sized kitty is loud enough halt all the activity in a room in an instant.

Luna's current growl sounded the godawful love child of a police siren and a Harley Davidson. I found myself taking a single, deliberate step back.

This fact wasn't lost on Happosai either. He'd grown silent and was watching her carefully as her hands flexed involuntarily with rage. Even her feet couldn't keep still as she padded back and forth from one foot to the other.

That reminded me of something I've seen cats do before. Usually, right before they pounced on something, they'd pad in place a little to get the right footing to-

Uh oh…

"You better RUN," I shot a glare at the old man. There, I did my one nice thing for the day. Pity it's being wasted on HIM.

"What?" Happosai turned his head slightly. "Why shoul-"

Everything exploded into motion. I felt my body get yanked sideways as Shampoo dove on me. The only reason my head didn't get cracked on the ground was because she rolled to take the impact instead. At about the same moment there was a crash and I saw the table go inverted. In an instant, the corner of my mind most concerned with getting a decent meal screamed in horror.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to add my actual voice to the chorus before I was yanked again, this time to my feet. I barely registered one of our chairs clattering across the ground where we'd been a moment before when Shampoo suddenly spun again, yanking me bodily forward and to the side.

The whole experience was horribly disorienting and compounded by the sudden loud pop from behind, which I assume in retrospect was Luna changing forms given the sudden Shriek coming from Ranma.

"WELL!" Happosai's voice cackled into the mess. "Isn't that interesting?"

The world came to a stop for one blissful moment, allowing me to catch sight of Happosai facing off against the now feline Luna. Ranma, interestingly enough now sporting red hair and a more feminine frame, was on top of a nearby table earning a vicious glare from the diners sitting there.

"I'd say this does explain why you've got such lovely reflexes," the old man continued. Luna just let off another enraged growl, though this one was nowhere near as loud as the other.

"Feisty," Happosai continued. Each time he spoke his tone was taunting. The old man was playing with fire, but obviously he had an idea of what he was doing. "You want to use those claws and teeth on me, don't you missy?"

Luna hissed and spat, her ears flattening.

"Oooo…" Happy taunted. "I'm so scared…"

"I will…" Luna snarled, barely understandable through her more feline sounds. "Rip out your wind pipe."

Happosai just reached up with one hand and pulled on his eyelid, sticking out his tongue in the process.

"You're a real jackass, you know that?" I found myself cutting in.

"It's all strategy, boy," the geezer replied without even glancing away. His tone was suddenly conversational. "I've got her worked up into a murderous rage at the moment. She probably couldn't hit the broad side of a-"

Luna snarled, pouncing once more.

"Tora!" he mocked, sidestepping. But the dodge quickly changed direction as Luna shifted forms in mid-air much the same way she'd done with Kunzite. The old grand master of Anything Goes went right with it, catching her by the arm and throwing her my way.

That was about all I saw before I was once more spinning due to forces other than my own. I could hear the crash of another table full of plates going down, and a surprised, but still angry snarl from Luna mixed with those of some upset people.

A moment later, the blurs reversed direction as Happosai crowed happily. I could feel my headache coming back and my joints protesting as I stumbled, doing my best to stay upright.

"Errrgh!" A new voice added to the mix. "YA' BIG JERK! LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE!"

"Woohoo! Ranma!" the world came to a halt allowing me to see Happosai almost seeming to welcome the boy-er… girl lunging at him. "You want to play too?"

The old man ducked sideways and hopped over a foot sweep with a gleeful grin on his face.

"Hold still!" female Ranma snapped angrily. A wheel kick aimed for Happosai's face missed as the pervert jumped onto the teen's leg, then used it for a springboard.

"Two cute ladies all over me!" he cackled as he landed on a still-upright, but empty table. "Shampoo-chan, you want to come over here and make it a threesome?"

The Joketsuzoku warrior froze in disgust, making a half-choked sound in my ear.

"Now now," Happosai continued to taunt in that deceptively sweet tone of his. "No need to be shy!"

Despite what I may have said about Shampoo's behavior previously, it was obvious that when her grandmother gave the girl instructions, she followed them. It might be a strange time to muse on that, but when Happosai taunted the young lady, I could feel her hands dig into my shoulders like vice grips. She was fighting the urge to act on her killer instinct and rip (or try to rip) the old man a new one. I couldn't blame her. The way he'd already behaved, I was finding myself sorely tempted to set her loose on the old man like a German Shepherd.

But as tantalizing (and funny) as setting the catgirls loose on Happosai like they were attack dogs sounded in my head, I knew there was no way he could be brought down so easily. And I was WAAAAY too close to the middle of things for my own taste. And-

-Wow… You know, this girl's got hands. JEEZE…

I grunted in pain from Shampoo's inhumanly strong grip. Immediately, her eyes left the pervert nearby and focused on me, her hands forcing themselves to loosen up in the process. The brief look of apprehension on her face conveyed a silent apology.

"Ah-huh…"

And, Happosai saw it too…

The old coot was grinning like a madman again, his stance widening out of the 'perch' position he'd been sporting.

And of course, footwork is the basis of all upright fighting arts!

I could FEEL the adrenaline shoot into my bloodstream the way my entire body tightened up and every sore muscle therein throbbed in unison. I even felt Shampoo's hands dig in again.

"Panic!" my brain couldn't think of anything more coherent to say in the moment. And I'm quite certain it came out in a pitch not becoming of my age.

"COME'ERE SWEETIE!" Happosai shouted with glee, conveniently avoiding Luna as she silently tried to pounce on him. "Give Happi a KISS!"

"YEEK!" Shampoo shrieked, pushing back in order to throw herself out of the pervert's line of fire. Unfortunately, conservation of momentum being what it is, and me not being securely bolted to the ground, I went stumbling backwards just as hard.

This might have been okay had I some sense of equilibrium at the time. Being thoroughly torn up as I was and my head locked in one position, there was pretty much none of that nonsense to be had around here.

It might also have been okay if there weren't so many smashed plates lying around.

I was already likely to be going down as it was. I could feel my center-of-gravity going past that point of no return. But the plate that happened to be underfoot just added insult to my many injuries when I reflexively shifted my weight to avoid crushing it.

Add rolling my foot to the list. Why's it got to be all the LITTLE things?

There were two quick pops, almost deafeningly loud in my ears, and then something braced me. Happosai spun in place with sadistic glee and took a dive in my direction again. The bracing became a shove, causing me to stagger forward this time.

It felt like I had suddenly been thrown into a pinball machine, or a group of schoolyard bullies from when I was little. Off one person, right into another. I hate this…

Happosai passed me on the right, a little blur as he shouted in triumph.

My movement came to a stop as Shampoo caught me. I had maybe half-a-second to think on this before she took a sharp breath and spun, my body in tow.

The warrior ducked and twirled, deftly hauling me around as she leveraged across a table and then flipped it on its side. There wasn't much to see beyond that between the blur of being forcedly yanked every which way for several seconds.

Then, almost as fast as it started, movement ceased, the girl holding me by the shoulder and the wrist, panting for breath and two shades of red darker than when we started.

"Heh-heh," Happosai chuckled, twirling something around one of his fingers. "You seem a little slow today, lose something?"

Shampoo flushed even darker as Happosai stopped twirling what seemed to be a br- Oh GOD DAMMIT! He's like a little fucking pickpocket! One that'll steal the clothes off your back! Literally!

"You CHEAT!" Shampoo snapped in a clearly upset tone. Happosai just continued to level her with a gloating, evil smile.

"Anything Goes," he practically 'purred'. Again, Shampoo's hands tightened up like a vice. Is he TRYING to get her to sna-

"OW," I intoned when I suddenly realized she was on the verge of crushing my wrist. Her glare snapped back to me, a certain level of panic-

Happosai took the opening, his foot stamping down on a plate, which spun into the air like an over-sized coin. The old man then caught it and threw it like a discus.

Like lightning, Shampoo yanked me to the side and lashed out with her now free arm. There was a distinct crack of shattering ceramic, and a sharp, stinging sensation just above my left eye.

"OW!" my verbal snap was pure reflex, causing Shampoo to squeak in surprise and turn her attention from Happosai to check on me.

Hissing through my teeth, I reached up and dabbed the spot with my hand, which only stung even more.

"Dammit," I snarled quietly, examining a small smear of red on my fingertips. "Th- That fucking HURT, ASSHOLE!"

"Is Okay?" Shampoo almost panicked right there.

Is NOT okay…

"This is a strange handicap you've given yourself," Happosai continued, his tone seeming to lecture even though that lecherous grin never left his face. Shampoo cast him a glance that was somewhere between confusion and anger.

The old man snapped up the remains of a glass and hurled it with the force of a fastball right at my face. Shampoo immediately jumped between the projectile and myself with an upset squeak and intercepted it, letting out a pained whimper as she did so.

"Perhaps now you see your weakness?" he lectured again. The only response the Joketsuzoku warrior seemed to put out was for her features to drop as she bit her lower lip.

"Oh GODS," Ranma (still female) suddenly picked up on what Happi was hinting at. "Shampoo, get RID OF HIM!"

Shampoo shot Ranma a look that reminded me of a deer caught in headlights, her features draining of color as she lost a bit more of her cool.

"But-" she began.

"She CAN'T," Happosai interrupted in gloating tone that reminded me of someone spreading peanut butter on toast. Then he relaxed from the fighting stance he'd been holding.

"For some reason," he continued smugly. "Little Shampoo, who couldn't care less about anyone other than you Ranma, is protecting this young man as if her life depended on it. Quite honestly, I'm surprised. It's like she's guarding a kitten."

Luna's angry warning growl kicked in again, reminding us that she was still here and still EXTREMELY pissed off.

"Oh, did I make a funny?" Happosai cackled. "Heh! With Shampoo stuck guarding him so closely, I'm presented with a very unique opportunity, wouldn't you say?"

"You leave him out of this," Luna snarled. "He didn't do anything! And she HAS to protect him!"

"Oh?" he turned his expression on Luna. "Why?"

"Because her Grandmother SAID so," Luna continued. "And if she doesn't-"

Wait, what is- NO!

"-She'll hav-"

"LUNA!"

Everyone jumped when I threw out the Drill Tone. I only barely managed to cut the catgirl off, but it was the only thing I could possibly do in the half-a-second or so I had.

Luna's angry expression faltered, her eyes drifting over to me. After a moment, those eyes widened as she realized what she'd almost done.

"Oh god, did I really almost tell HIM?" she blanched, head hanging slightly as she rested it in her hand.

"Heheheh," Happosai chuckled, Luna's head yanked up as she shot a glare at the old man with renewed anger.

"Commendable attempt, boy," he smirked. "And you've got some decent power backing those lungs of yours, too."

Then he adjusted his stance.

"But I already know what I need to know here…"

"SHI-" I began, understanding perfectly what the old pervert was planning. With Shampoo so encumbered with having to take care of me…

Well FUCK!

"HOTCHA!" Happosai lunged at Shampoo. I braced myself mentally as the world snapped into motion again, the warrior hauling me around once more like we were filming for a Jackie Chan movie.

The yanking came to an abrupt stop as something caught my foot, almost yanking me out of Shampoo's grip as I dropped bodily like a stone. She managed to catch me, but only just barely, tweaking my bad arm in the process. I grunted, but you couldn't tell that from any other sounds going on at the moment.

Happosai took the opportunity to try and grope her in that moment, which came disgustingly close to being successful (I have a front row seat to this mess after all.) before Ranma managed to plant his/her foot in the old man's side.

It didn't take Happosai long to recover from the strike, sliding to a halt near one of the tables that had been overturned. Like before, he deftly kicked up a plate and hurled it right at my skull.

Shampoo full-body-tackled me this time, pulling me down and then using her own body to take the blow of the landing. For just a second, I caught sight of her eyes. She was in a complete panic, pupils darting this way and that as she huffed, trying to catch her breath.

"KEEP MOVING!" Ranma's foot hit the ground next to our heads. A moment later the sometimes-girl, sometimes-boy spun and parried a strike from Happosai.

"Pick on someone your own speed," he/she snapped. I could hear the exchange of lightning fast moves above us as the two more skilled combatants deadlocked.

Unfortunately, Ranma quickly found him/herself on the defensive, almost tripping over my prone form as Happosai pressed the attack. The martial arts student's feet danced around my head precariously, causing me to bite my lip.

Then suddenly, Ranma leapt back, practically handing Happosai the initiative.

"HAHA!" the pervert crowed triumphantly. "You still have a lot to lea-"

'WHAM!'

Luna unloaded on him with a chair. Feline stealth had its advantages.

"DISGUSTING APE!" she snarled vindictively. Then quickly reached down to help me up off the ground.

"You okay?" she asked, looking me up and down.

"Nauseous…" I admitted. Now that I was upright again, I was feeling a bit light-headed.

But before I could collect myself enough to extend the conversation, Luna wrapped an arm around me and spun, pulling me away as something whistled past my ear.

"YOU'RE INSANE!" she shrieked in horror.

"You threw the chair first," Happi's voice came from somewhere behind me.

"You're going to KILL him like that!" she snapped back.

"Not if you keep him out of harm's way!"

Luna's eyes bugged out and she turned, stumbling past a table as she tried, with far less grace mind you, to mimic how Shampoo had yanked me around like a rag doll to keep the both of us out of Happi's clutches.

Honestly, I could feel myself getting queasy even faster. Despite her refined feline skills, she just had no experience with this kind of thing.

"Shampoo!" she suddenly shouted, pushing me away.

A second later the pinball feeling was back, Shampoo obviously catching me from behind.

Happosai, now in front of us, instantly changed 'targets' as he effortlessly ducked a wild swing from Luna.

Shampoo wasted no time in turning my stomach inside out, twirling us impossibly around as several projectiles whipped past us.

Something warm and wet hit my face in the process, forcing one of my eyes shut on reflex.

I could only stand there and feel helpless as the situation continued to deteriorate further and further into Happosai's favor. Either he was going to manage to feel one of the girls up, or they were going to falter and I was going to be on the receiving end of the new 'Anything Goes Martial Arts Plastic Surgery' experience.

Now, there's frustrating, there's infuriating, and then there's impotent rage.

Being unable to so much as hit back and knowing that I was being used as a catalyst, that last one was picking up rather quickly. I was already feeling rather crappy, and my lunch was ruined, and now Happosai was just toying with us at my expense.

Between being tossed back to Luna for a few moments and back to Shampoo, I managed to find my wrist and gave the dial a twist. If I could just get my hands on the old man for a second or two, I'd give him the surprise of his life.

That was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, reality had other ideas. As it would turn out, I'd forgotten about a small, almost trivial detail when Doctor Tofu had been fixing that neck brace on me earlier.

When I twisted the dial, and that familiar sensation of all my joints getting 'looser' didn't happen, I realized:

The suit was not synced up to my body.

"DAMMIT!" shot out of my mouth as I was tossed once more from Shampoo to Luna. The catgirl barely managed to catch me and avoid a flying lunge that had been intercepted by Ranma.

The young martial artist seemed to hear my exclamation and spun, driving a weak kick into Happosai's back.

"Here!" he/she snapped, pulling me out of Luna's arms. "I'll get him out of here!"

Ranma then pulled me in close.

Freezeframe the situation for just a moment.

I'm a guy, being hugged into the chest of a girl, who's a guy.

Awkward right?

I mention this mainly because Ranma has very little in the way of sensibilities in terms of what he does with female anatomy. Especially with female anatomy that belongs to his own body. You can't blame the guy for it either. But for just a moment when I was presented with this peculiar situation, my brain got hung up on the concept. I mean, Shampoo was practically wearing me like a skin at points, but that never even registered in my head. Yet somehow, this being Ranma, who's a guy magically changed into a girl, I can't help but get a certain cold shiver in my back. Creepy…

Luckily, my brain didn't get more than half a second to dwell on it before I realized what Ranma was planning when he shouted 'Hold on!' He was going to-

"NO!" I snapped, almost at the exact same time as Luna.

"NO JUMPING!" the catgirl continued in a frantic shout. "You'll hurt him!"

"What?" Ranma snapped in shock. "So will the old man! How am I supposed to get him away from the creep now!"

"You don't!"

Ranma jumped as Happosai managed to partially cop a feel of hi-er, her at the moment. Then the martial artist broke free to throw me away, once again heading for Shampoo.

However, I never got there when my arm, almost limp as I got tossed about, was caught in a firm grip, yanking me to a stop.

"OH! HOHO!" Happosai cackled as he yanked me back. "UH OH! Looks like you've messed up BIG TIME Ranma! Now I have him. What are you going to do about it?"

"Joke's on YOU!" Ranma snapped, leaping forward. "Now YOU'RE the one who has the handicap!"

"Oh, AM I?" Happosai laced the statement with venom and yanked on my arm. Despite being half my size, the old man managed to move me more easily than even Shampoo had. Ranma, half way into a swing by then, was forced to pull it wide at the last second. Happosai took advantage of the opening that produced and nailed the younger Saotome in the stomach.

Another table bought it, big time. Ranma's female body smashed right through it like some kind of movie prop. But it was obvious the impact was a LOT more substantial than any Hollywood stunt.

"EYA-HAHA!" Happosai cackled, yanking me to come face-to-fist with Shampoo, who hesitated and backpedaled.

"Come on!" the old man goaded. "Come at me! Hit me if you think you can! Or can you not do it?"

"We've got to do SOMETHING," Luna complained to the other two. Yet, with me as a human shield, there wasn't a lot they really could do.

"What do?" Shampoo asked. Her voice was now clear desperation. "Shampoo would smash Happi, but this HARD!"

"Yes, it is hard, isn't it?" Happosai asked as he adjusted my position. "You're not used to having to PROTECT something for a change, are you Shampoo-chan? It's like having to fight as two people at the same time, is it not? You have to be twice as fast, twice as smart, and you have double the weaknesses and openings to worry about."

Happosai applied a squeeze to my wrist to emphasize his point. It was like a pair of bolt cutters that were slowly working to snap my hand off. And it hurt like hell. I bit my lip and held my breath, trying to suppress a grunt of pain, but it slipped out before long as the geezer only increased the intensity. The girls' upset faces only got worse as I did so.

"What can you do?" Happosai continued at them, loosening his grip slightly after he got the response he was, in hindsight, obviously trying to 'squeeze' out of me. "Let this be a lesson to you. If you want to fight to protect someone or something, you'd best be prepared to fight as if there were two of you."

Ranma pushed 'her' way out of the table that had broken 'her' fall. The younger Saotome snarled angrily at the old master.

"You're a dirty, cheap old coot!" Ranma snapped. "I wouldn't be caught dead using a half-cripple bystander as a hostage! How can you claim to be the master of Anything Goes Martial Arts when you act lower than some petty thug?"

Happosai laughed, his voice filled with a strange irony.

"Listen to yourself Ranma," the old coot returned after a moment. "What do you think that name means? Huh boy?"

Ranma merely took a more aggressive stance.

"Anything Goes," Happosai continued as if revealing something for the first time. "And when I say anything, I MEAN anything. It means we fight as dirty and low as we need to win."

Something about that made my brain hang-up. He's not seriously-

"What about honor?" Ranma snapped in anger. "What about what it means to be a martial artist?"

"HAH!" Happosai laughed. "Don't think you can lecture me boy! You are just as guilty of taking advantage of the ideals of this style. Or can you honestly say that you haven't taken any cheap advantage you can get in the name of winning?"

Ranma said nothing, but 'her' teeth visibly clenched.

"So don't pretend that you're somehow 'better'," Happosai continued. "Because I know you Ranma, and you're the first one to resort to being a cheat if it's convenient and you can get away with it."

Ranma had enough of the old man's brutally honest slander, lunging with everything 'she' had. Happosai simply adjusted my position to line me up with the younger martial artist's incoming punch. Honestly, I felt just a bit scared at that moment, because I just couldn't see Saotome stopping this time.

But surprisingly, Ranma managed to pull the punch, coming to a halt with a fist so close to my face I could feel the air it displaced.

"Still weak," Happosai chided.

Those words did it. My suit may not be synced, but I still have my portal. If the geezer let go of my arms for even a second, I'm not sure I could resist the urge to take his head off or not.

I don't think I've ever been this close to actually acting on the desire to kill a person in cold blood. Zoicite not withstanding due to being an enemy combatant... But the old man's lecture reminded me too much of my own 'fighting logic'. Technically, the old man was right, you take any advantage you can get, any opening you can obtain, and play as low down and dirty as need be.

No sense of fair play...

But I put emphasis on the word 'NEED'... I didn't like the way he was hiding behind the logic, using it like a crutch just so he could do whatever he wanted rather than what he absolutely needed.

It was disgusting, and it made a mockery of the very logic I used to justify what I did in order to STAY ALIVE for the last week. It's like seeing the kind of monster you could become if you didn't keep yourself in check. And I didn't like it.

Not.

One.

Bit.

Ranma must have been thinking in a similar mindset, because 'her' face mirrored how I felt at the moment.

Impotent Rage…

If only one of us could HIT this guy... He's not invulnerable. He's got a weakness, just like everyone else.

I found myself growling as I realized what the coot's weakness was: Girls.

Yeah, like we can just THROW Shampoo and Luna (and female Ranma) at him. The entire point is to keep his mitts OFF them.

"So, anything goes?" I found myself saying, if only to butt my way into this one-sided conversation.

Happosai's grip adjusted, indicating he'd shifted in place.

"Of course," he commented.

"ANYTHING anything?" I asked. "As in, no holds barred, kill or be killed, no trick too nasty anything?"

I'll admit, I had no idea what I was doing. I was rambling, just trying to find a way to poke at him, if only verbally.

"Anything," Happosai confirmed. "Like I said, you do what it takes to win."

"You're a pig," I had nothing really witty to say.

"I believe Ryoga has more experience in that department," the geezer reflected smugly.

"You're a PIG," I repeated. "And using a cripple hostage to protect himself over stupid shit-"

"You are the one who was foolish enough to get himself mauled by a bear or whatever it was," Happosai cut me off.

Idea!

"I'm sorry boy, but I'm taking advantage of my environment. And it's your bad luck to be-"

"Do you know what happened to that 'bear'?" I asked, cutting the old man off again. I'm glad I did too, I didn't want to hear the geezer try and shift the blame for a situation HE started by making it the fault of the victim. Namely me.

"I'll admit," Happosai continued after a pause. "I am curious as to how you escaped alive. Most people don't fight bears and live to tell about it."

"I killed it," I stated. For just a moment, I felt a bit of thrill admitting it. Immediately I kicked myself, knowing I had killed a little girl's pet, but for just one fleeting moment, to be able to back something up with fact like that... It made me feel strangely more confident. If I wasn't careful, I might just end up liking the idea.

"And how'd you manage that?" Happosai asked. Ranma, right in front of me still, glanced back and forth but said nothing.

"Trade secret," I provided. I wasn't about to explain to the geezer how I put a hypervelocity, starship-grade projectile through a demon cat's head... The last thing I needed was to give the jerk ideas.

"Then what makes you think I believe you?" he continued, clearly baiting me. This probably won't work but:

"Let me go," I instructed. "And I'll show you."

"HAH!" Happosai laughed. "And lose a hostage? You think I'm stupid, boy?"

Didn't work, but that gives me another idea.

"Fun fact," I stated in a louder tone, indicating I was changing the subject. "If you've taken a hostage, you've already lost."

That got pause from the old man.

"What?"

Okay, so I'm just flinging out dialogue trying to find something, anything to latch on too. I've had this little train of thought run in my head before, something stupid that ran through my head at work once upon a time. The cold cruel logic of how hostage situations go down and why they were just so... Stupid. Not to mention it reminded me of the desperate bluff I tried to pull with Doctor Scaglietti and the Numbers a few days ago. Only instead of being the one bluffing, I was the one trying to call the bluff.

"You've already lost," I mentally shrugged. His grip tightened. "The moment you took me hostage, you lost."

"How's so?"

Now, let's just hope I can keep a steady dialogue going... What could I use against this guy other than trying to out-logic him? Because I'm pretty sure this is going to fall apart.

"The moment you took me hostage," I spoke up. "You anchored yourself to this spot. I am the only thing standing between you, and a world of pain. You can't part with me, or you lose that advantage."

"Who says we're going to part?" the old man asked suspiciously.

"You HAVE to part with me at some point," I pointed out the fact. "Unless you'd rather spend the rest of what's left of your life handcuffed to me. And you HAVE to sleep some point, so you can't have me around otherwise I might just... Well, you know."

"HAH!" Happosai laughed. "Not happening."

He's not buying it. Probably because he knows he can just fight his way out of a tight spot, hostage or no.

"So you're going to kill me then?" I asked. I didn't even expect to spit that one out, but it DID earn a longer pause than normal.

"Don't be silly," Happosai stated at last. "Why would I-"

"Either you have to part with me," I continued, my voice climbing in volume. "Or you have to KILL me. Because if I'm stuck with you, the moment I get the chance, I'm going to STRANGLE YOU IN YOUR SLEEP!"

My head hurts... I'm losing my cool and I still can't think properly. That last part burst out as a forceful snarl on my part. I just keep jumping from one mood to another at the drop of a hat… But for what it was worth though, I didn't get a response from the old man. Was he really thinkin-

"HAH!" the way Happosai scoffed indicated he didn't feel at all threatened by my declaration. "Perhaps you are right about having to part with you at some point, boy. But not yet. Not while there's fun to be had!"

That made my blood boil. The old man was secure enough in himself that the brutal fact that I would kill him in his sleep if given half the chance didn't intimidate him in the slightest. Then again, it was probably a poor move on my part. The geezer's probably been on the receiving end of more death threats than anyone else on the planet. Even Shampoo's entire tribe had been after him at one point. She could track Ranma part-way across the world even though he could change entire GENDERS, making for the perfect disguise.

But Happi? Who am I kidding?

DAMN THE LUCK! Why can't I beat anyone at a game of verbal wits when it REALLY counts? I know I've dealt with Hild, but at least I had some good leverage at the time, and she was willing to take it easy on me!

Speaking of Hild, where's Senbei? I could use his help!

Don't tell me that lazy demon god's been sitting around watching us get our asses kicked by a perverted old freak this whole time! I'm his only ticket home!

While Happosai moved me slightly to account for the girls fanning out to try and find an opening, I let my eyes fall on roughly where our table had been. The entire patio was empty by now, the customers probably frightened off by the fighting going on. Where'd that demon god go? I doubt he'd stayed put after Happosai had landed on our table, so he had to be around here somewhere.

Feh, I wouldn't even be surprised if he was relaxing in the little bag Happi was toting his 'haul' around in. He did spend half a day nestled in Rei's underwear dra-

My eyes snapped over to the makeshift bag, lying almost forgotten near our overturned table. It was sitting there, almost unassuming without the geezer to bring attention to it. And then it clicked.

Happosai's weakness…

The old man is NOT infallible as he would like to think.

"SENBEI!" I barked, causing Happosai to tighten his grip for a moment.

"Yesu?" I heard from nearby. I couldn't turn my head, and I couldn't physically turn either to see what he was up to, but I knew that demon's voice anywhere at this point.

"What in the-" Happosai began behind me. Typical reaction most people had to the demon god…

"There's a bag the old man brought with him over by the table," I stated in a deliberately loud, clear voice. "Do you see it?"

Happosai's grip locked down on me to the point it almost hurt.

"What do you think you're doing, boy?" The old man asked.

"I see it," Senbei replied.

"BURN IT."

If I could have seen the look on the old man's face… Happosai's grip faltered and he let out a bark of surprise as Senbei teleported with a faint pop.

"Wh-!" the grand master snapped. "You wouldn't!"

"I would," I snapped back. I know the old man couldn't see it, but for once today, I was grinning. It was a twisted, smug little grin that I couldn't help feel growing on my features. Why?

"That's LOW!" Happosai snapped.

Because it was IRONY.

"Anything goes," I parroted the old fart.

Senbei, now floating over the old blanket Happi was using as a makeshift bag looked up at us, grinning that devil-smirk that appeared when he got to be part of the misfortune someone experienced.

"NO!" Happosai shouted. "DON'T YOU DARE!"

The God of Poverty and Misfortune flamboyantly uncurled his arm, his index finger and thumb closed together.

"SHAKKIN!"

'FWOOSH!'

"NOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Happosai howled like he'd been set ablaze himself, suddenly powerless as his 'silken darlings' or whatever nicknames he gave the loot in his sack burst into flames. Senbei looked absolutely ecstatic at the old man's grief.

And now, while the old man was distracted, I gave test tug to see if he'd lost as much grip as he had concentration.

Unfortunately, he hadn't. All I ended up doing was causing the both of us to stagger slightly as his desperate wail became whimpers of sorrow.

I felt something brush my foot as we did so, and an idle thought hit me.

Did Happosai wear shoes?

My foot came up…

Because I wear-

My foot slammed down on something that gave a satisfying 'CRUNCH' on impact.

-BOOTS!

My ears were nearly busted as the old man went from upset to shrieking in pain the likes of which I'd never heard out of his animated counterpart. Instantly my body was shoved forward, the vice-like grip on my arms released.

Bastard should count himself lucky I don't wear cleats. A steel spike through his metatarsals would serve him right!

I was reminded a moment later as I stumbled that I had just recently rolled my foot on that plate a minute ago. It wasn't the worst I'd experienced, but it was enough to make me inwardly curse as I found myself unable to keep balance.

Luckly, Shampoo was in front of us and effortlessly caught me, twisting to tuck me behind her protectively.

"NICE ONE!" I heard Ranma shout. There was a meaty crack a moment later, followed by a yelp with the distinct tone of Happosai's voice and the crash of a table being abused.

"And stay down you old freak!" Ranma continued vindictively.

For a moment, it was quiet. Luna raced over as Shampoo spun my body around to check on me.

"Is he okay?" the catgirl asked, her voice tense with anger and worry as she turned to me. "Did the old man hurt you?"

The two practically pawed at me as they both inspected the cut I'd gotten on my forehead. After a moment to balance on my good foot, I had to bat their hands away in annoyance.

"I'm fine, I'M FINE!" I assured them. "Calm down!"

"What a horrible old man!" Luna continued. "I don't even think the Dark Kingdom is that petty and disgusting."

"That's Happosai for you," Ranma wandered over, half-grumbling in the process. "The lech can rot in h-"

An angry snarl interrupted the conversation before Ranma could even finish. A moment later, the table Happosai had been smashed into crashed down next to us. Shampoo and Luna immediately placed themselves between me and the old man as Ranma set back into a fighting stance.

The grand master was seething. Gone was the playful smirk he'd previously been sporting, replaced with a look that I swear could have melted galvanized steel. He took a step forward, limping slightly as he did so.

"You DARE," he loosed the most guttural growl possible, rage practically glowing in his eyes.

"You want a piece of this?" Ranma stepped forward. "Bring it gramps! I'll just pound you again!"

"SILENCE BOY!" Happosai snarled. "I will not tolerate your insolence! I may have been playing around before. But what the cripple did is a crime against nature itself! And for that, he must pay!"

"Over my dead body," Luna snarled, advancing a few steps. "You will not so much as lay a FINGER on him!"

"Shampoo no let you harm him either," the Joketsuzoku chimed in. "Happi do worst, but he WILL fail!"

"And how do you plan to stop me?" he growled. "You could barely touch me before… But now I'm serious."

Luna just hissed; quite a freaky but rather neat sound coming out of her humanoid body. It was like a small steam vent being purged and sent a cold chill - or was it a thrill? - running up my spine.

"I'm through playing these games," Happosai continued to growl while crouching down, slightly favoring his left foot. "Now I will show you the TRUE power of Anything Goes!"

"Ah crap," Ranma didn't quite manage to swear under 'her' breath. "The old man's doing THAT!"

"Doing what?" Luna's voice included just a hint of worry in her anger this time.

Ranma didn't answer as Happosai continued to glare threatening at us. Whatever it was the old man was planning had suddenly made Ranma very anxious. The young martial artist took a step back, 'her' teeth grit nervously. Even Shampoo seemed to be getting extremely nervous as she moved a little closer to guard me. As the tense silence - punctuated only with Happosai's growling - continued, I could feel the hair on my body start to stand on end, making my skin prickle slightly. Something told me this was going to be really bad.

"COWER!" Happosai snapped, "Cower like the fools you are!"

Ranma let out hiss as if making the same assessment I just had. I could see 'her' out of the corner of my eye as 'she' started looking up. The same went for Shampoo and Luna, who both took an unsteady step back as if backing away from something huge.

"H-He can DO that?" Luna spoke, her anger turning into pure dread.

My eyes flicked to the side for a moment, then up to the empty space they were looking at, then back down to the old man. He was just standing there, glaring at us.

"Happi, VERY mad," Shampoo mentioned uncertainly. "Maybe burning naughty bag was bad idea…"

My eyes flicked up again, finding nothing. Uh… Did I miss the memo?

"Girls?" I began uncertainly. "Something I should know about?"

"What, you can't see that?" Ranma asked sarcastically. "You can't FEEL that?"

"Feel…" I began tentatively, making sure to double check where Happi was still glaring at us. "Static electricity? Maybe? My neck's sore, my arms are sore, my foot hurts…"

"WAIT!" Luna snapped out of her funk, glancing between me and the empty space above Happosai. "He… HE CAN'T SEE IT!"

The old man in front of us faltered, the vicious glare softening as confusion knit across his brow.

"What do you mean he can't see that?" Ranma snapped, waving with 'her' arm. "The old coot's cranking out more chi than I even know what to do with!"

"Ranma right," Shampoo voiced from next to me. "Happi's battle aura biggest Shampoo ever see!"

Battle aura? Wait; The hundred-foot tall, glowing optical illusion slash manifestation of Happosai's fighting spirit? The same battle aura that made the old man look like a kaiju about to start a rumble with Godzilla?

THAT battle aura?

There was no hiding the look of confusion on my face at this point, nor the look on Happosai's to match. This probably had something to do with Medium Transfer Principle and my lack of any physical ability to interact with magic and magic-like forces. But something must be different here. The others could obviously see something BIG above Happosai, that much was certain.

"Yeah…" I began again at length, glancing around as Happosai's face began to betray his own disbelief more. "I got nothing."

The old man lost his composure.

"IMPOSSIBLE!" he spat. The three around me took an involuntary step back. "You should be whimpering like a sick puppy right now!"

The old man limped a step forward, tensing as if he were preparing to spring. Again, the girls took a step back, Shampoo pulling me slightly. Aside from that weird feeling much like a lightning strike waiting to happen however, there just wasn't anything I could spot.

"Still nothing," I admitted after another glance around. "You're still three feet tall, a billion years old, and limping on your left foot."

Ranma and Shampoo looked at me, shocked stupor on their faces. Happosai's eyes darted between them and myself several times. I could almost see the thoughts racing through his mind. Then suddenly, those eyes narrowed.

"What are you?"

I felt my body tense again. The old man's voice had changed, dropping almost to an inaudible growl; a tone laced with suspicion, promising a quick death to the abomination before him. It was that tone, more than anything that scared me at this point. He didn't just sound angry…

He sounded deadly.

"There is nothing…" he continued again. "…Nothing alive or dead in this world incapable of sensing chi, or seeing something like my battle aura- ESPECIALLY my battle aura."

The old man limped forward again, placing his weight on his good foot. Perhaps, maybe, just possibly, NOW would be a good time to figure out how to NOT get killed by what I think might be a half-dozen lethal moves coming my way in the next sixty seconds…

Come to think of it: Yeah, I just violated the 'Don't Piss Off the Locals' rule, twice.

I'm fucked.

"WHAT," Happosai addressed me a second time. "Are you?"

It never ceases to amaze me the number of ways the same question can be asked. I've repeated the answer to this question almost a dozen times. Yet each time, the context behind it was different, making it hard to answer no matter how many times I could have practiced.

And now Happosai was demanding an explanation for the, what I suspect he'd label 'abomination' standing before him. How the hell am I supposed to answer this question in such a way as to pacify the old master?

The seeming staring contest continued for several more seconds, the tension so thick you could carve it out with a spork and serve it to the homeless. I couldn't figure out how to answer. I wasn't sure just how far his skill went. However, I had this distinct feeling I didn't want to see just how lethal the otherwise goofy old man could become with as many years of martial arts behind him as he had. Limping on a crushed foot or not...

'FWSHHHHHHH!'

The blast of hissing noise sent a decent jolt through all of us.

The sound turned out to belong to a fire extinguisher, a police officer calmly blasting Happosai's former haul with it to smother the fire Senbei had started at my behest. After a few seconds, the rather impassive looking man halted, satisfied the fire wasn't going to spread. Then with deliberate ease, he turned, making no effort to acknowledge our presence as he calmly set the extinguisher on a table.

'CLANG!'

We all jumped a second time at the surprising amount of force he used. Again, with practiced ease, the officer turned back to us, a frown plastered on his features as he silently tugged on his gloves, tightening the white material around his hands. He seemed almost disdainful of our group as he placidly looked around the mess that had formerly been the patio.

"So," he began almost casually. "I get this call while I'm eating lunch. Some kind of fight going on at a restaurant; lots of damage, customers distraught, you know how it goes."

The officer finished tightening his gloves and reached down, pulling a wicked looking police baton out and giving it an experimental spin from its side-grip. The item made a whirring sound as it spun in his hand.

"I know how it is around here," he continued in that same tone. "Always some martial arts group or another. There's always some damage involved, mostly superficial. Occasionally things get out of hand and a bathhouse gets a free renovation. But for all the chaos and damages that causes, not once have I ever heard of a SINGLE martial artist let even ONE bystander get hurt."

He paused again, the spinning baton coming to a halt, popping up into the air before the officer caught it again.

"Is big trouble," Shampoo murmured in my ear.

"How?" I muttered.

"Happi still have battle aura up," she continued nervously. "And he not even flin-"

'PING!'

Shampoo jumped as the officer struck a metal rail next to him.

"I'M TALKIKNG," he thundered in a tone to match a drill sergeant. Then after a moment he continued, pacing and looking around at the mess some more.

"Now," he returned to that idle chit-chat tone. "As I was saying: I've never heard of any martial artists around here letting bystanders get hurt. That's why we let them get away with so much property damage. Usually, it's just the property that gets damaged. That and we'd end up arresting half of Narima…"

The baton spun and tucked under his arm, almost as if being part of his body.

"But you know what's different today?"

There was a pause as he waited for someone to guess. When nobody bothered to answer, he filled in the gap.

"Right now I've got three people in there, two customers who got cut by flying glass, and a waitress who's been crying ever since she got hit in the face by a pitcher full of ice. That's three people more than should ever happen."

The officer absentmindedly tugged on and inspected his gloves again.

"And considering I don't like paperwork, that's three people more than I'd like to talk out of pressing charges. So tell me, are there any good reasons why I shouldn't arrest the lot of you right now? Be quick about it, I don't have all day."

Ranma jumped in almost immediately.

"We were just sitting here eating lunch!" the younger Saotome began angrily. "The old man's the one who started it! We just fought back!"

"He's right!" Luna interjected, anger returning to her voice. "That nasty old man tried to molest me! And then he tried to molest Shampoo, and he threw plates at us, and-"

The officer held a gloved hand up, silencing the catgirl as his eyes drifted to Shampoo.

"Shampoo agree with Luna," the Joketsuzoku frowned. "Try to ruin Shampoo's job today!"

"So that's how it is?" the officer's eyes drifted to me, his brow line lifting slightly as he looked me over. In response to his gaze, I just gave him a thumbs-up due to my lack of nodding ability.

"Well," he continued, recovering his baton and beginning to stride forward. "This looks pretty straight forward to me."

"WHAT?" Happosai snapped angrily. "You're going to believe what a bunch of delinquent children have to say?"

"I can just ask those people inside who started what," the officer continued. "But I don't think I need to."

"ABSURD!" Happosai snapped angrily.

"Sorry," the officer had almost closed the distance now. "But I suggest you take a seat."

We turned as he walked past us, almost on Happosai when suddenly the old geezer jumped back, again favoring his hurt foot in the process. With a quick mutter of 'time to go', he raised his hand up.

"Oh no you don't!" Ranma began, racing forward, only to be stopped by an outstretched baton.

Happosai hurled something at the ground. A moment later he was obscured in a cloud of smoke, hiding his retreat.

"Wha'd you do that for?" Ranma turned angrily on the officer.

"No real hurry," the uniformed man stated conversationally. "I'll get him later, on my terms."

Ranma growled as he/she glared impotently at the dissipating smoke cloud.

"Besides," the officer continued. "I've got injured inside, and we don't need to go making bigger mess."

Then with another idle twirl of his baton, he pointed through the patio gate.

"Now I want you four to clear out of here," he instructed. "I have to explain to the owner what happened and file an incident report. And I believe some of you have to get back to class. So get lost, and don't come back here for a good while."

With that, the officer holstered his baton, pointing with his free hand for us to leave. With none of us seeing any real reason to disobey the peace keeper, we began to file out into the street, leaving the mess behind us.

Just as I was about to follow Shampoo out of the gate, a white glove came down on my shoulder. Involuntarily I froze for a moment, apprehension tensing me up.

"Quick question," he began quietly. "It looks like someone managed to do quite a number to the old man's foot. Was that your handy work by any chance?"

For a moment I blinked, unsure how to answer. But honestly, it would have been too much work to come up with an excuse.

"Yeah," I admitted. "How'd you know?"

"You're the only one with shoes made for that kind of thing," he commented quietly. "Nice shot by the way. But don't do it again. The less legal ammunition you give him now, the better for us when I catch him. Got it?"

"I'll try," I glanced out of the corner of my eye. The apprehension evaporated once I realized he wasn't going to do anything.

"Good man," the officer patted me on the back and turned to walk into the building.

A minute later found the four of us standing on the sidewalk, glancing at each other as if asking ourselves what to do next. After a few moments, Ranma broke the silence.

"DAMN that old freak," the currently female Saotome growled. "He ruins EVERYTHING!"

"He almost ruin great grandmother's challenge," Shampoo joined in now that the ice was broken. As if having been reminded, the girl turned and walked over to me, carefully looking my body up and down."

"No bad hurt," she commented after a moment. "Shampoo block plates, but they shatter."

"Yeah," I sighed. "Not your fault there. The old fart was aiming to take me apart on purpose just to bog you down."

"What a jerk," Luna frowned as she joined Shampoo in examining me. "If we hadn't been trying so hard, you could have been seriously hurt..."

I swatted their hands away after a moment while Luna added 'Again' to her statement.

"Now quit that and let me take a look at you. You're bleeding."

"Just a nick on my head," I reached up to massage the injury. "No big deal."

"Are you kidding?" Luna narrowed her eyes. "I can SMELL it. You reek of blood all over!"

"What?" I tried to look down and failed, opting to raise my arms instead. Sure enough, there were some small red smears on them, but I couldn't feel anything. "Can't be me, I'm wearing body armor, remember?"

"Well, you ARE," the catgirl admonished, looking for the stealthy injury. While she did that, I frowned, puzzled.

If it wasn't me, which I'm pretty sure it isn't, then someone had to be in contact with me…

My eyes glanced over to Shampoo, who was looking a bit tense even now. After a moment, I found myself drawn to the small puddle of red next to her foot, a drop landing in it. From there my eyes tracked right up to her hand, balled up so tightly in a fist that where the skin wasn't covered in streams of blood leaking from some kind of shiny jagged thing, it was almost paper-white… Wait, HOLY-

"JESUS CHRIST!" I snapped in English. "Shampoo, your hand!"

"Is fine!" the Joketsuzoku stuffed the appendage behind her back. "Is not first time Shampoo bleed in fight! Is not last time either!"

"Come to think of it," Ranma walked over to her. "You blocked a glass with your hand, and I don't remember what happened to it."

Shampoo hopped back from Ranma a couple paces.

"Shampoo is fine, Airen," she snapped in a defensive tone. "She can handle little cut on own."

"Don't be silly," Ranma followed her. "That's not a little cu-"

"Am not silly," Shampoo countered with another step back.

"Oh honestly," Ranma rolled his/her eyes. "The one time I'm willing to get this close to you and you want nothing to do with me."

"Shampoo appreciate gesture Ranma," Shampoo pouted. "But I handle cut hand on own."

"Stubborn girl," I sighed.

"Reminds me of somebody I know," Luna commented nonchalantly. I tried to shoot her a glare at the exact same time Ranma snapped 'Hey!'

"I was thinking more along the lines of Usagi," Luna pouted, then smirked for a moment. "But you know what they say about people with guilty consciences…"

"Stubborn is a fitting word…"

The air left my lungs in an exhausted moan the moment Happosai's voice reached my ears.

"Still," the old man landed in front of us, dumping some used tobacco out of a pipe he was holding as he did so. "She's a proud warrior, and wouldn't cry over a simple flesh wound."

Oh god dammit, didn't we just get rid of this guy?

"NOW what do you want, you freak?" Ranma snarled. Shampoo and Luna both turned to close in on the old man. But before they could get close, he held up a hand to indicate for them to wait.

"Now don't worry your cute little rears," he frowned. "I've had my fun for the time being."

"FUN MY ASS!" Luna spat, charging the old man with renewed vigor. "You little-!"

At first I thought we were about to go through round two of this mess, but Happosai wasn't playing games anymore. He stood his ground as the catgirl pounced. I didn't even have time to think.

"WATCH THE PIPE!" Ranma snapped.

No, don't watch the pipe… Watch the OTHER hand.

At least, that's what I realized about a second later. I could do nothing but stare dumb-struck as the old pervert snapped his tobacco pipe down on Luna's wrist just as she caught him by the throat. His other hand, concealed by the action that drew everyone's eyes but my own because I was just too slow to react to it, lashed out, jabbing her firmly with a strike to a mid-body pressure point.

While her nervous system was busy locking up, causing her to almost drop like a rag-doll, the old man finished by coming back across with his pipe-hand, now free of said tool, where he caught her free arm, and tucked inside and twisted.

Luna went over his shoulder and right onto her back. There was a substantial, meaty sounding 'plop' as she landed, knocking the air right out of her lungs.

Happosai raised his pipe with the opposite hand, working to add some fresh tobacco to it while Luna gasped for breath on the ground. Part of me wanted to nuke the guy on principle.

Then again, I wanted to nuke him anyway at this point.

"My apologies for the rough treatment," Happosai bowed his head for an instant, though one eye stayed open and fixed on Ranma. "But I must attend to business with Ranma."

"Business?" Ranma asked incredulously. "You just finished harassing us to the point it drew the COPS! And now you have the nerve to say you've got BUSINESS!"

"RANMA!" Happosai's tone was firm. "Be silent and listen for once in your ungrateful life!"

Ranma took a step forward, just begging for the old man to leave him/her an opening. However, Happosai left no such thing, stopping to take a puff on his pipe as he let the last sentence sink in.

"I've been thinking the last few minutes," he continued after blowing a smoke ring. "And I have to warn you. Be wary of this one…"

The old man casually turned his head to me. His eyes narrowed for a moment, examining my body carefully before he turned back to Ranma.

"Something about him isn't right," Happosai continued. "He isn't natural. It might be nothing, but I've never met a living thing that was so devoid of chi in my life. Keep your guard up."

"I'm flattered old man," Ranma growled. "But somehow, I don't think there's a threat."

"Maybe," Happosai took another drag on his pipe. It seemed to make the old man relax a little more. "But one should err on the side of caution at times like this. Keep an eye on him. If there's a problem, I'll snuff him out myself."

Happosai took a look at me again. It took a few seconds for the statement to register, but when it did, I almost started blabbering at the old man right then and there.

He just- Did he? YES! He just told us flat out that he'd KILL me if I turned out to be a threat!

For what? Because I can't feel chi! THE FUCK!

"Now wait just a second!" Ranma interjected as the martial artist's thoughts caught up with my own. "Aren't you being a bit hasty? You didn't hear his story yet!"

"Not interested," Happosai stated flatly. "Words can be fabricated with ease. Actions I can observe. And trust me, I'll be observing you."

The last statement was directed at me as he dumped his pipe on the ground. Then with a twist, the old man leapt up onto the building next to us, hesitating as he landed and shifted from one foot to the other as if in pain. Then he bounded out of our line of sight.

"Damn hypocrite," Ranma glared after him.

My concern returned to Luna, who hadn't moved to get up.

"Luna, are you-" I began, but stopped when I saw her face. Her body was jerking, choked sobs coming from her.

"Oh no…" I carefully dropped to a knee. "What's the matter?"

"Is she hurt?" Ranma's grumbling rant came to a stop as the cursed fighter rushed to my side. "The old man throws me a lot further."

"I," Luna began, blinking back tears in her eyes. "I had him, and he just… I couldn't hit him. Not once. N-Not once."

"That's all?" Ranma asked. "That's just stupid. You shouldn't get upset over not-"

My fist found Ranma's shoulder, bringing me up to two for two in sucker-punches today.

"Shutting up," the fighter got the message.

"I had him, and he just," Luna continued, her sobs coming more freely. "And he just brushed me off like… Like… Everyone else we ever fight."

"Come on," I bent down, ignoring my body protesting as I took Luna's free arm and started to pull her up. Oh jeeze, I forgot she's heavier than she looks.

"What good am I if I can't even help in a fight?" she continued to whine.

"Come on," I repeated, pulling Luna up with a grunt. My arm let me know it didn't like that, but for the catgirl's sake, I sucked it down. "You barely learned how to fight a few days ago. Happosai's a grand master."

"But I'm a CAT!" she snapped through her tears. "I'm faster, and stronger, and I could feel where he was going, and… and."

For lack of anything better to do, I just pulled Luna into a hug, letting her rest her head on my shoulder while she broke down. In front of me, I could see Shampoo just staring. For once, her expression just looked sad. When we made eye-contact, I used what limited motion my neck brace allowed to nod. Her eyes narrowed and she nodded in return.

"Hello…" Ranma bent down next to me before returning to an upright position. "What do we have here?"

The younger Saotome raised something to his/her eye level just in that corner of my vision where the glasses I had on created a small blind spot. It only took a slight twist to bring it into view. Whatever it was, it was shiny.

"She dropped it," Ranma continued. Upon hearing that, Luna pulled herself out of my now soaked shoulder and took a look.

"Oh," she continued with a slightly 'stuffed up' sounding voice. "The crystal."

Crystal? My brain caught the word and immediately went into apprehensive mode. Which crystal?

"What?" I voiced aloud, turning my body to get a full look. "Let me see."

I reached out and Ranma handed the item over. Almost immediately I could feel my tension wash away as I noted it wasn't one of the Rainbow crystals. Instead, it was the little dark crystal Kunzite had been using.

"I picked it up after you left it lying around," Luna continued through puffy eyes. "I forgot to tell you because we were so busy."

Touche', isn't that how I forgot about the Rainbow Crystal?

I examined the evil trinket for several long seconds. I hadn't really gotten a chance to the first time. It was dark purple, bordering on black. Like I had observed before, it was the size of a marker, easily fitting in my grip. The facets themselves reminded me of a pencil that had been sharpened from both ends, but had since been dulled from use. And the strangest observation occurred to me well into a minute of just looking at it.

It was cold, and stayed cold no matter how long I held it.

"Good job," I found myself saying while I continued being hypnotized by the crystal. "Very good job, Luna."

As I remembered when I was talking to Washu. If WE have it, then Kunzite does NOT have it. It may not be much, but Luna denied an enemy one of his resources.

"You're not useless," I continued. "Don't beat yourself up over a lost fight with Happy. You did more confiscating this than a thousand fist fights with the old man."

There was a small sniff from Luna as I tore my eyes away from the crystal. She had this small, hopeful smile on her face. Despite how rotten a mood I was in, it was contagious.

"So what does it do?" Ranma's voice interrupted us.

Shortest smile in history…

"It-" I began, raising the item back into my vision with a frown. It tracks a certain group of people down, turns them into monsters, and if required, imprisons them to merge them into a super monster. Could I explain something like that to Ranma? SHOULD I explain something like that to Ranma?

More importantly, what use could it be to me? …To us?

I loosened my grip on it until it was held at the bottom between my index finger and my thumb. Slowly, I let it slip in my grasp until it had spun around to dangle towards the ground. After another brief silence, my mind came to a conclusion. I remember how Mercury had handled the thing OTL.

"It doesn't do anything…" I finally stated as I let it drop from my hand. There was a small glass-like 'tink' as it hit the ground. Before anyone had even registered what I had done, I took an extra step and brought my foot down, a satisfying crunch coming from under my boot.

"…because it's broken."

"What are-!" Luna began in shock, bending down next to me. "I'm sure we could have used that for something."

"I've learned my lesson with magical crystals," I replied to Luna's comment. "We've got enough problems as it is without inviting more."

"But we could have used it," Luna's voice was still a bit weak, but her normal demeanor was returning as she tried to admonish my action.

"Then we'll use it in a hundred pieces," I stepped back, allowing Luna to start collecting the fragmented shards. "In one piece, it's too dangerous."

My stomach gurgling reminded me of our original goal today. Because of Happosai, I hadn't gotten but maybe two, three bites of food before the whole thing had been thrown on the floor. I doubt the steak would be any good with bits of gravel, and I really doubt the restaurant owner would let us back in anyway.

On the plus side, we never paid for the meal, so I guess the only thing lost was time.

Time…

I sighed. Time was a commodity right now. And we'd just lost half an hour to nonsense. Especially in my condition…

If I wanted to manage to get myself back into something resembling working order by the end of the day, we were going to have to step it up something fierce. As unpleasant as that sounded in my head, there really was no choice.

I guess instead of just relaxing through the day, I was going to have to make a to-do list.

…And before we could do anything, even EAT, there would have to be one thing at the top of the list.

"Shampoo," I turned to the Joketsuzoku. The small pool of blood had grown slightly and had followed her from spot A to spot B. "Let me see your hand."

Shampoo hid the offending limb, but Ranma beat her to a response.

"Cheh!" the currently female Saotome scoffed. "It's not like she's going to listen. If she won't listen to ME, what hope do you have?"

The arrogant comment only helped to raise my smoldering annoyance factor. My irritation gave me energy. Energy I desperately needed at this point.

"Unlike you," I began, working to find the right tone I needed, slowly settling on the fatherly tone I'd used on Usagi the day before. "I have one advantage that WILL get her to comply."

"Oh yeah?" Ranma seemed to almost take it as a challenge.

"She has to do what I say," I stated matter-of-factly.

Then with a deep breath, gathering all the annoyed energy I had left, I squared my shoulders, fixed my eyes, and projected all the paternal authority I could muster.

"Shampoo," I began in a deep baritone normally reserved for my drill sergeant impersonations. "Under the threat of your grandmother… Let me see your hand."

I waited a calculated amount of time and narrowed my eyes, dragging my tone even deeper.

"NOW."