"PHENOMENAL! COSMIC! POWER! Itty-bitty living space..."

- Robin Williams as 'Genie', Aladdin


"No wonder your grandmother's pulling this stunt," I growled down at the hand resting in front of me. "Getting you to do anything you don't want to do is like trying to have a debate with a tank."

"Is strong and intimidating?" Shampoo's voice returned with a bit of that cocky chirp she sported from time to time.

"More like you're impossible to move when you button down, and focus only on things directly in front of you," I countered. I admit, not the best snarky response in the world, but I'm finding it harder and harder to come up with anything really clever to throw back at her. It could be the fatigue, or all the crap in my system, or who-knows-what. But my creativity was drying up faster than a dish towel in the summer heat in Death Valley, California.

We'd been going at it for about an hour by this point. It was like a little game; A game to see who was more stubborn. Granted, when I threatened to 'tattle' on her if she didn't let me look at her hand, she complied like the old bat was breathing down her neck. But that didn't stop her from making me work for her compliance every step of the way since. About every third or fourth instruction she'd get 'uppity' and I'd have to refresh my threat/remind her who was in charge. It was mentally exhausting, and I was already worn out to begin with. That surge of energy I had felt from being annoyed earlier had long since worn off, leaving me sighing every other response.

Luna wasn't much help either at the moment. After that run in with Happosai, she'd lost a lot of her usual spunk. My little pep-talk and smashing that crystal had some effect in snapping her out of it. But she was still clearly in shock or something over how easily the old coot all but took her apart. She remained for the most part silent, save a sarcastic comment here and there. But it was devoid of her usual dry wit.

The melancholy air the catgirl gave off seemed to be a bit distracting for Shampoo as well. I'm not sure how or why, but at the moment I could say I was grateful. Shampoo had made no attempt to either latch on to me, or pine for Ranma. The latter of which was off taking advantage of the female body to try and rustle up some food.

Anyway long story short, Shampoo's hand had taken quite a nasty blow. The warrior had a piece of glass the size of a US half-dollar embedded firmly in the back. I'm pretty sure it had cut all the way to the bone. And the rate at which blood had been seeping from the wound was enough to make me cringe. Two seconds looking at it and I immediately called Washu.

"Make sure it's tight," the scientist crackled in my ear. "But not too tight. If the tips of her fingers start turning white, you've overdone it.

Good call on my part really. Washu immediately started giving me instructions on what to do and how to do it.

"I know," I replied. "I did learn at least that much in my first aid courses."

"Yes," Washu crackled back. "But I get the impression you haven't had to do this before."

"Me?" I replied. "Not directly… But there was this one time a friend of mine tried to slice his finger off cutting an onion. I had to tell him to take the tourniquet off while driving him to the hospital."

"I rest my case then," Washu continued. "Get the bandage tight, and check her fingers for discoloration. Once the bleeding's under control, she's going to need stitches. I trust you to be able to handle that."

I sighed. "Double back to see Doctor Tofu I guess."

"Local physician?" the scientist crackled in my ear.

"Yeah," I replied. "Martial arts doctor… however that works."

"It's probably for the best if you don't try and think about it," Washu advised. "I know it's been rough for you, so you'd probably be better off not trying to make sense of every little thing. Let me take care of that."

"It's hard not to though," I pointed out. "There's just something about how everything works. Everything I know of these worlds is based off a bunch of stories. It's fantasy, but it's real. Stuff that shouldn't happen by any stretch of rational logic has happened right in front of me."

"The cosmological conventions," the red head cracked.

"More than that," I found myself becoming distracted from the hand I was trying to bandage up. "The more I see happen, the more familiar everything becomes. There are events that I could speculate on the impossibility all day, but I see it happen anyway. There's stuff that happens that have no proper explanation that contradict even basic physics. Then somehow, the universe I'm in manages to twist things around and I get to see how it works. I can't just ignore it."

"Witnessing new connections between the laws of physics can do that to a person," Washu explained. "I know it's a bit confusing at times, but you're stressing yourself out. I need you to try and relax."

"I'm trying," I felt my tone shifting towards whiny. "But this is hard. I've..."

I paused, Shampoo was staring intently at me as was Luna. Without waiting for either of them to say a word, I gently set Shampoo's wrapped hand down, stood, and moved away from them before switching to English just to be sure.

"This is hard," I repeated, allowing my tone to crack. "It's like basic training all over again, but worse. Basic was controlled, it was safe. As much as it sucked, some part of me knew the sucking would stop at some point. But this..."

I heaved a ragged sigh and wiped my eyes. Of all the times…

"I don't know," I continued. I could feel the last few days coming back through the fog of exhaustion and pain. "This isn't like Basic. This is… I just don't know. I should be dead. I've been all but killed twice now. I don't know if its luck, or planning, or if I've got a convention of my own like… like the hero always wins or something. If I'm even the hero here… But I got hit hard enough to kill a man each time, but I'm still here. I'm still here…"

Silence on the other end. But the floodgates were open now.

"I'm scared," I continued, my voice now completely broken. "I'm afraid of opening my mouth and sticking my foot in it. I feel like the universes I'm in are just waiting for it, like some kind of predator. I'm afraid that at any second, I'm going to die like an animal. I won't get any last words, I won't get a dramatic moment of realization… I won't even get the world's smallest violin as a backing track. I'll just open my mouth, and POP! It's over. Because for once in my life Murphy's Law isn't just some silly superstition, it actually WORKS!"

I paused, finding the need to wipe my eyes. For a moment I wondered if Washu was still connected, but the low hiss of the dimensional channel indicated things were still working.

"Have you eaten?" Washu's voice was the softest it had been all week.

"No," I said at length before quickly adding. "And not for lack of trying either."

"You don't have to defend yourself," Washu's voice returned soothingly. "I know you well enough. You try. You try hard. Too hard even. If it were anyone else, I might suspect them, but I can tell from a universe away that you've taken everything seriously even if you can't comply like I want you to. So don't stress thinking I'm going to snap at you now of all times."

There was a brief pause before she continued.

"To be honest, you are the first to be caught up in something like this. My sisters and I have never come across this situation. We've weaved dimensions, mixed worlds, moved people about… But in all that time, never have we seen something so convoluted. You're below us, but somehow above us and yet beside us. And from the data I've gotten back so far, your astral pattern is linked to the girls you've woken up next to as if you belong in each of these universes when it's obvious you don't. So if you're feeling lost, you're not alone. I'm working on a theory with Tokimi now, but we're still collecting data. So far, you're doing fine. Now…"

Washu's tone changed again as she asked a question.

"Have you been getting angry lately?"

Angry? Only every five to ten minutes, depending on what god damned piece of the universe wants to take a crack at me nex-

Wow. Did I just-

"Yeah," I replied weakly.

"You're having mood swings," Washu continued in that soothing tone of hers. "Extreme mood swings. Which means you're probably suffering from a chemical imbalance in your brain… You need vitamins and nutrients. Malnutrition like that will only exacerbate the effects of the stress your body has been receiving. I know it's hard. And I know you're scared even when you're bottling it all up. I know how to read a person like you and no amount of pretending can hide it from me. The important thing is that you're doing just fine for the stress you've been under. You're torn up really bad at the moment, but it'll get better. I promise."

There was another pause. I felt the need to say something into the gap but couldn't think of anything that didn't sound really dumb in my head.

"You've got to try and relax," Washu continued. "I know you think you're responsible for the mess you're in and in some ways that might be true. But any living being, no matter how many dimensions we have dominion over, can only take so much. I haven't known you long enough to be able to tell how close to breaking you are, but I can tell you as an expert in the field of psychology that if you keep this up, you WILL break."

Washu's voice had slowly shifted towards a kind of firmness as she finished that last comment.

"So try and relax," she continued after another pause. "Unwind if you can. Take a break, even have a little fun if you can manage it. If it helps any at all, I'm not even going to hold you to finishing that manual. You've still got to eat, and you need to drink plenty of fluids. But at this point, all the stressing is going to do is make you snap."

"I wish," I shuddered. "But it's hard to relax with grand master martial artists adding DEATH THREATS to my never-ending list of shit to deal with."

"Death threats?" Washu's voice went from soothing to concerned. "What happened?"

"Run in with Happosai," I sighed. "Apparently he thinks I'm some kind of abomination and gave me a very clear warning. Try anything, and he'd… and I quote. 'Snuff me out himself."

"I don't like the sound of this guy," Washu's voice returned. "What's he like?"

How to describe Happosai in a nutshell… OH!

"Picture this," I began, feeling my anger coming back slowly. "Imagine a two, maybe three-foot tall man who looks to be over a hundred years old – no longevity enhancements."

"Okay," Washu almost seemed amused by the image. I wish I was.

"Now imagine this old coot is the most skilled martial artist on the planet in the field of martial arts sexual harassment."

Silence on the other end.

"One who specializes in the theft of ladies underwear," I continued. "And behaves like a total hypocrite without any form of remorse, and doesn't even bind himself to honor. Self-serving, egotistical, two-faced, and shameless."

There was a long pause before Washu spoke up.

"Sounds like a recipe for a total asshole," she crackled. "And how good a martial artist did you say he was?"

"I dunno…" I sighed as I relaxed a little and returned to the table. Shampoo and Luna fixed me with curious looks, but I ignored them and tried to remember where I was with the Joketsuzoku's injured hand. "He's a grand master of the aptly named 'Anything Goes' school of martial arts - which I'm sure he just made up – but he's got the skill to make it credible."

"How would you rank his ability?" Washu asked again.

"I'd say he'd give Yosho a serious run for his money in raw skill," I frowned.

There was a whistle on the other end.

"You'd never match him in your condition no matter how well armed you were," she continued. "I'd say the best thing for you to do is to cut your losses and get out of there as fast as you can. But I don't want you going to sleep in the state you're in. Not until the artificial recovery process slows down. How's your water intake? Are you keeping up with that?"

"Yeah," I replied. "I've managed that much."

"At least it's something," Washu crackled. "For now just stay out of this guy's way. I'm going to check with Sasami and see if we happen to have this manga- What did you say it was?"

"Ranma," I replied.

"I'm going to see if we have that manga lying around," Washu affirmed. "I want to get a feel for this Happosai character. But for now just stay well out of his way and don't give him any reason to 'snuff you out'. If he's half the scumbag you describe him as, then I doubt he'd lift a finger unless he sees a genuine threat in you. Got it?"

"Clearly," I pseudo-nodded.

"Good," Washu sounded satisfied. "Now give me to Luna and get that other girl's hand fixed."

I was quick to comply, pulling the 'crab tooth' from my ear and holding it out to the felis sapien. Paying her little heed as she stood up to step away from the table, I returned my focus to the hand I hadn't quite finished wrapping yet. Just a few more bindings to go and Shampoo would be able to hold up until we got a doctor to look at it.

I want to say that Washu's speech made me feel better. But in all honesty? It didn't. If anything, I felt miserable all of a sudden. It might just be the chemical imbalance in my brain talking, but I felt useless. Washu made it all sound so simple. Malnutrition, lack of sleep, stress, physical injuries… Everything that could possibly go wrong with the human body short of adding terminal cancer and a deadly infectious disease to the list. And the worst part was that keeping it under control was such a simple thing. It was something I should be perfectly able to manage on my own.

Twenty-four hours ago, I was preparing to introduce modern combat doctrine to a super villain the hard way. Now…

I was useless. At least it felt that way. It's hard to tell any more. Washu did say I was experiencing extreme mood swings. And given the way I've been swinging; Anger, to fear, to anger, then sadness… I can't really tell what's me, what's chemicals, or what mood I should really be in. Part of me just wanted to say 'fuck it' and start nuking shit. Another part of me just wanted to grab something, squeeze it, and bawl myself to sleep.

I've known for a while that I'd probably end up fucked up in the head, or at least well on my way to being fucked up. But hearing someone actually tell you that your mind is coming unglued…

How does one respond to that?

"Hey…"

Glad for a distraction, I snapped my glance up to see Shampoo's face. There were still some patches of dried blood on it from a few times where she'd wiped her hand off that we hadn't bothered to clean. At least not until I finished dressing her hand…

"You okay?"

The question almost sailed past me as I contemplated what we'd just been through less than an hour ago.

"Huh?" As usual, I'm a master at the art of conversation.

"You was crying," Shampoo commented. "Why?"

I replied... With silence. I tried to come up with a way to explain myself. But after a few seconds it became clear that I was taking too long to answer.

"Shampoo see kitty cry earlier," the warrior continued. "She understand why Luna cry… You strong then. Now you cry too. Why?"

Again I tried to come up with an answer, and again I couldn't think of anything. First thing I wanted to say was 'you wouldn't understand' but whatever semblance of logic was left in my brain vetoed that as the most cliche and easily circumvented response.

These were responses I avoided all my life because I knew they weren't true. I couldn't just say 'you wouldn't understand' because in all reality, she probably COULD understand. The real problem was, did 'I' understand?

I turned, facing the opposite way as best as I could manage, a sigh escaping me again. Yes, yes I did understand. I knew why I'd been crying. I'm not stupid enough not to know, even if I pretend I don't.

"I sorry for asking," Shampoo's voice seemed disappointed.

I laughed, once. It hurt, but I did.

"That-" I began slowly. "I think that's the first time you've apologized today and actually meant it beyond saving your own skin."

Silence.

Without any warning, either within my head, or to anyone who might have been watching, I turned in my seat to face the warrior. She had this look on her face of someone who'd just looked in the mirror and discovered they were covered in dog shit. I only had an instant to see it, but it was there for the blink of an eye before Shampoo hid it behind a neutral facade.

"Let me ask you a question," I stated. "When I appeared with Luna in your bed, what were you thinking?"

Shampoo blinked, surprised.

"I…" She began, then paused. "I think you crazy fool pervert like Happi, need smashing to teach lesson, maybe kill to warn others."

"Right," I 'fully body nodded'. "But you know I didn't do that on purpose."

"Shampoo know NOW," she quickly became defensive. "But not before. She just think pervert need smashing."

"And that's perfectly fair," I conceded. "That's who you are. If there's a nasty bug in your bed, you smash it. I might as well have been that bug."

Shampoo smiled for a moment, nodding that I seemed to understand what she was thinking.

"But…"

The happy smile faded.

"What about the other way around?" I asked. "What if you're me? What if you're the bug and someone else is there to smash you?"

"Shampoo fight back!" the girl's response was fast and explosive. Her fist came up and impacted in her hand, which she immediately regretted with a wince of pain.

"Good," I smirked. In response she smirked as well, feeling triumphant for getting the answer 'correct'. "So like me, you fight back, and you win."

"Of course," Shampoo got a little snooty. "Shampoo strong."

"What if you aren't strong?" I asked. Shampoo's snooty face faltered.

"What if you're weak?" I asked. "Then what?"

Shampoo paused.

"If Shampoo weak?" she asked more to herself than to me. "I- Shampoo doesn't know what she do if weak. She be happy to win if weak. But Shampoo never weak."

I let a hand motion speak rather than try to nod.

"So you win, and it's all good. But you might have lost."

"Scary thing to think Shampoo may lose if weak," the warrior filled in the blank. Then she took a deep breath and formed a stern front. "But Shampoo taught to be warrior and ignore fear. It make weakness even weaker."

"But you still have that fear?" I asked.

"Only crazy fool never have fear," she admitted. "Warrior never listen to fear, but fear is there. It good sign that warrior knows danger."

"I agree." Shampoo smiled again at my response. "So you ignore the fear, and you win."

"Yes," she nodded.

"But remember, you're me."

Shampoo frowned.

"So you've won once, right?"

"Yes," she nodded again.

"Now what if you try to go to sleep, and it happens again?"

"Shampoo fight back, ignoring fear," she snapped with pride. "Whether with fear, or weak. Shampoo not allow to be smash like bug."

"Right," I agreed. "Now, what if you try again, and it happens."

"Shampoo think it would be getting tiring if enemy not let her sleep," the Joketsuzoku frowned.

"But you still win?" I asked.

"Is good win then," she replied. "Maybe not so weak as thought if winning that much."

"So what if it happens again?"

Shampoo blinked.

"Again?" she asked.

"Again," I confirmed.

"Be very tired," Shampoo admitted.

"And again?" I continued.

"Is silly!" Shampoo laughed. "Shampoo keep fighting!"

"And again…" I continued. Shampoo opened her mouth to reply but I cut her off.

"And again… and again… and again… Never ceasing, never letting you rest. It keeps coming after you Shampoo. Like everyone keeps giving you the Joketsuzoku Kiss of Death. What are you going to do? What will you think?"

Shampoo didn't reply, stopping to think about it. The young warrior shifted in her spot twice before placing her elbow on the table and leaning into her hand in contemplation.

"Shampoo not know what to do," she began after a while. "She know she need rest, but also know that when she try to rest, she be attacked. Shampoo would maybe become afraid of resting, maybe go mad hoping it stop. She know that if she weak, the less rest she get, the more-"

I swear, it was like throwing an industrial high voltage switch to see her connect the dots. Complete with gigantic reverberating 'choom!' sound. Her face snapped up to mine, eyes wide in horror.

"… more afraid she going to make mistake of death."

Shampoo's mouth slowly went slack jawed, an unintelligible, half-whimpering chirp leaving it as she stared at me. Her eyes went up my body and then back down, taking in my 'condition' for what it really meant.

"I is you?" she stated in shock. "Is true? Not just story?"

I felt a tear roll down my cheek, nearly startling me.

"You was going mad," she continued. "Last time you was very strange!"

I could feel myself shaking now, trying not to let that one tear turn into a cascade, but failing. Somehow, I think I just managed to get through to Shampoo.

"You was crying," Shampoo continued into my thoughts… "Because you afraid all time… You so afraid."

"Shampoo," I cut her off. It was no use this time, and the tears came. I won't even try to pretend they didn't like I did with Washu. "I'm terrified. I'm afraid of everything. I'm afraid of you. I'm afraid of Happosai, I'm afraid of your grandmother… I'm afraid of myself. It's been two weeks, and it hasn't stopped."

"Is cruel!" she snapped. "Is fate worse than death to live life fearing death going mad! Is unfair! Shampoo kill self before-"

The warrior cut off abruptly, eyes glancing down and away.

"I would kill self…"

Shampoo slowly tilted back, rocking her chair slightly as the full weight of the situation hit home with her.

"You cry because you want it stop," her voice broke. "You always afraid, you not stop being afraid, and can't stop. Is torture. Horrible torture that make even strong warrior into little weak child… And Shampoo…"

She covered her face with her hands.

"Shampoo would give up before person she is thinking is weakling useless thing great grandmother punish her with."

Shampoo continued to stare at the ground in silence for some time, not so much as budging from where she'd planted her hands, even as the still slightly unfinished bandage leaked a drop of blood.

"Great Grandmother," she muttered the moment it hit the ground. "What you try to Teach Shampoo? Is important, but Shampoo not understand."

After another short pause, she looked up.

"Is you knowing?" she asked. "Shampoo not understand, but want to understand. Is important for warrior to know great many things."

"It could be anything," I felt so tired all of a sudden. Then again, crying always did take the wind out of my sails. Not to mention I wasn't exactly a bundle of energy to start with. "Your grandmother schemes with the big picture in mind. Whatever she's doing, it's because she can use it."

"Shampoo knows this," the girl across from me nodded. "Great Grandmother always thinking, always scheme. She look at little pieces like puzzle and move them around. Sometimes strange for Shampoo, sometimes annoys Shampoo. But Great Grandmother always seem to help."

Shampoo stood up and began to meander around her seat in a pattern that vaguely reminded me of someone who wanted to start pacing.

"If Great Grandmother helping," she continued. "Shampoo not understand how. She know I do anything for Ranma, so she threaten to make Shampoo marry you if failing task."

Worn out as I was, I found myself drawn to the young warrior's agitation.

"Is big punishment," she continued. "Much big punishment that Great Grandmother only use if Shampoo make big fool of self and not act like good warrior… Maybe punishment if Shampoo embarrass family."

Shampoo's meandering was almost like squirming. She leaned against her chair for a moment, then twisted before half-circling around it once. After a moment, she place herself half-way into position to do angled pushups off the back, but immediately stopped, favoring her partially bandaged hand.

"Ow…" she grunted. "Is hurting more than Shampoo thought. She try hard to protect but Happi very strong."

With that, she pulled her chair around and sat back down with a sigh, her head audibly thumping on the table as she slouched. For one long minute she just stared at the bandage on her hand before her eyes flitted up to me. There was an air of calculation to them the way her brow was furrowed.

"How punishment like this be helping?" she frowned. "Great Grandmother know Shampoo only do because of threat. Otherwise, I just leave alone."

I swear, I could HEAR the cogs turning as Shampoo continued to think out loud for my benefit. I could feel some envy building up watching as she stretched across the surface of the table, limber as all get-go while I was practically locked in place by my neck brace. That did nothing to improve my mood, causing me to emit an audible sigh.

"Maybe Shampoo been being too selfish," she sat up. "Maybe she not acting like warrior. Warrior protect village. Warrior make sure weak not hurt. Great Grandmother tell Shampoo to protect you like husband. Husband is part of village…"

Without warning, Shampoo pulled her chair in, sitting upright as she dropped her wrapped up hand in front of me.

"You fix?" she asked.

My eyes dropped to her hand then went back up to her face. I'd pretty much exhausted anything I felt I could possibly say.

"Shampoo need hand good if she going to protect," she continued. There was this look on her face now that reminded me somewhat of someone who'd been watching one of those guilt videos of children starving in Africa, begging you for your money. "You prove strength with torture sleep, but weak now. Shampoo's job is protect weak. It no matter what Great Grandmother say. Shampoo need protect you and help get strong again."

It's kind of strange when you're there, participating in a conversation in which the other person literally has the discussion as if you were responding the whole time. Glancing at her hand again, I noted the blood from her wound was soaking the bandage we'd used and it was going to need tightening to work.

Reaching out, I took the bandage again and made to tighten it. There was a sharp intake of air from the girl, but otherwise she didn't so much as flinch. I'd expected another complaint, but her usual banter didn't come.

After another few passes on the bandage, and a moment to re-remember how to tie a knot good enough to keep it secure, I let her hand go. However, before I could retract mine, she quickly grabbed it and gave it a squeeze.

"Shampoo sorry she treat you like crawly thing with many legs," she continued. "Is mean and selfish and you not deserving it with cruel sleep."

"It's fine," I tried to pull my hand away. "You're just being yo-"

"Is not fine," she firmly reprimanded me. My arm remained locked in her grip and there was no way in hell I was going to escape the level of strength she briefly used to maintain it. "Shampoo make up. You her village now, and Shampoo protect village. No more be scared. Is horrible thing."

We sat there for a while longer, my hand still in her grip as she stared- no… BORED into my eyes with this odd look on her face. And it made me hate myself. I hated myself, hated everything about myself. I hated how smart I knew I was, hated how I liked being independent and not having to rely on others. I hated how utterly weak I was by being the geek I'd been for years. I hated letting anyone see my weak side. And I hated how I somehow had this list of favorite characters in my head that put me into this mess in the first place.

But most of all I detested how all my screw-ups and flaws resulted in dragging them into this mess. For just a moment, I wanted to be someone else. Someone who didn't care if he looked weak in front of others, someone who didn't mind the emotional contact. I didn't want to be the guy with more emotional defensive walls than Minas Tirith. I just wanted to cry, and cry, and cry…

Because Shampoo just told me she cared.

And for some reason, that hurt.

"Please let go," I stated, my voice nearly a whisper.

Shampoo slowly complied and I turned my chair the best I could so I didn't have to look right at her. I felt wretched. I didn't want her sympathy, didn't NEED her sympathy. But at the same time, I just wanted to let it all go. Something to hug, someone to tell me it was going to be okay, and an excuse to chew on my fingers like when I was five.

Like I was five, and I'm supposed to be an adult.

An adult beaten to a bloody pulp, locked in a neck brace, and slowly dying of poisoning and starvation. Slowly going mad...

I fought to calm myself, breathing in deeply and exhaling, tears once more in the corners of my eyes as I did my best to lean into my hands. If only to keep my eyes off-

"You stop now."

Shampoo's hand landed on my shoulder as she sternly snapped at me, causing me to pull away reflexively.

"You no give up yet," the Joketsuzoku continued. "You keep going, no stop when hard. Is torture but you is making stronger. You will win. No cry no more."

"I agree with the crazy wall smashing warrior," a feminine voice interrupted. "That's enough moping out of you."

Ranma surprised the both of us when h- er.. she dropped a large plastic shopping bag on the table between us. Then, just as I was making to find the cursed fighter, someone slipped their arms under mine, and deftly hauled me out of my chair before wrapping them around me.

"What you need is a hug!" the identical replica of Megumi Hayashibara's voice continued in a chirpy tone. And then I was gently pulled in and pressed against something soft.

It took about a second for the entire logic to catch up with me. But I was being hugged against the breasts of a girl, who was a guy, who was doing his slash her best to act like a chirpy girl in order to cheer another guy up… So it was technically a guy giving another guy a hug, and not a girl, and yet the girl body was real, with real pheromones I couldn't detect having real effect on my very real hormones and my mind took one look at the mess and screamed for Emergency Deep.

"Let go-let go! LET GO!" I shouted in a near panic. "NOW!"

Ranma complied without argument, releasing me and allowing me to rapidly, and with many cold shudders, slip away from the warrior as he-slash-she started to laugh.

Once I had my footing, I turned around, my breath now coming in panicked gasps as I look at Ranma, still in… her female form. Which as skin crawly as it is, was very nice on the eyes.

"That's fucking CREEPY!" I huffed at 'her'. "In ALL the wrong ways... Don't EVER do that to a guy who knows your curse!"

"Aw," Ranma mock pouted, pursing 'her' lips for extra cuteness. "What's the matter? Don't like Ran-chan? You looked so sad and down in the dumps."

And then the young man turned disturbingly cute girl burst out in riotous laughter, almost choking for air after a moment.

"I'm serious," I wasn't laughing even if shampoo next to us was doing her best to suppress her own chirps behind her bandaged fist. "There is no word to describe just how DISTURBING that was!"

"HAH!" Ranma continued to laugh. "A bit TOO serious if you ask me. Lighten up!"

"Lighten up?" I snapped, my voice cracking slightly. "I'm half-way unhinged here and you're playing pranks on me! Do you WANT me to nuke your ass?!"

"Hey it worked right?" Ranma rolled 'her' eyes without registering my threat. "And besides, I doubt you could do anything before I stopped you."

I tried to shake my head, reminded by its inability to move that I hadn't left that neck brace.

"I-" I began. "You don't seem to get it. I have more firepower on me than most third world-"

My blood pressure caught up with me about then. Under normal conditions it wouldn't have bothered me. But in my current state, the spike of adrenaline and the subsequent drop had the entertaining effect bringing to life the sensation of walking up a hill falling backwards.

Whatever I had been saying was lost to me as the next thing I was able to realize was that Shampoo had my arm across her shoulder, helping me maintain my balance, and Ranma was in my face, his/her trollish grin replaced with a much more serious look.

"You still with me?" the fighter asked.

"Hu-Yeah," I blinked and took a deep breath as little white dots raced back and forth across my vision. "I'm okay. I think..."

"Okay," Ranma nodded. "I guess I'll lay off the jokes if you're going to try and pass out on us."

"Good idea," I blinked again, this time squeezing my eyes shut and making a grimace in order to shake off the vertigo.

"You bring food Ranma?" Shampoo asked. Her voice no longer laced with her 'buttering' tone, and straight up business-like.

"Yeah," Ranma nodded back to her. "Let's get some food into this guy."

Pork meat buns... Not exactly my kind of food, mainly because of the pork. It tends to disagree with me a lot. However, at this point I could probably almost stomach raw onions if it meant getting solid food into my system.

Almost...

I'm not quite that far gone yet.

Luna had seen my stumble and had wandered over again, worry etched on her features as she relayed questions from Washu on the other end of the line.

Once again, the order had been given:

EAT.

Between Luna's worried nagging, Shampoo's new found resolve, and Ranma showing some genuine concern that I wasn't exactly looking good after a near faint, I practically found one of the meat buns shoved into my hand and almost got force fed.

It was awkward, to say the least. Even more so than earlier when Shampoo had tried to pull the whole hand feeding stunt on me for attention. The three of them stared intently at me as I slowly built up momentum around the flavor of the pork bun. Before I knew it, I had practically gone right to military chow-hall speed: 'Eat now, taste later.'

"One down," Ranma announced as I finished the bun. There was the slightest look of awe on his/her face as I licked some of the salty sauce that had leaked out of it off my fingers.

My eyes tracked up. Ranma had the worst poker face I'd ever... Wait. He SUCKS at poker faces. He couldn't hide an emotion if his life depended on it.

"What?" I asked.

Ranma cocked 'her' head to the side.

"You're not related to any Frenchmen are you?" 'she' asked.

At the time, what he meant sailed right over my head.

"What?" I came back again.

Ranma blinked then leaned back, waving the comment away.

"Never mind."

Almost as quickly, the young fighter picked up another meat bun and dropped it in front of me.

"Bon apetite!" she stated, even if it sounded like horribly mangled Japan-o-French.

More awkward staring ensued. It just felt weird stuffing my face while they looked on. Honestly, if I could have eaten that second pork bun any faster, I would have been happy to make it vanish rather than feel like a child who's every move was being closely monitored.

"Two," Shampoo announced with a pleased nod, reaching out to set another in front of me. "You eat another and keep strong, yes?"

Okay, a moment ago I could have killed for a proper meal, but at the rate they were trying to stuff me, I'd probably end up sick. Like I said, my stomach and pork don't get along very well most days of the week. The last thing I needed right now would be to sour my stomach and end up vomiting up its contents and going right back to square one.

That and I didn't exactly have any desire to find out how such an act would go down with my neck locked in this brace. I'm in shitty shape, but against all odds I think I've managed to maintain some of my dignity in the face of everything.

At least up until this point.

I don't like to tempt Murphy. It seems he's real, he's probably watching my every move, and he doesn't like me.

Remember how I got myself into this mess? Someone kicked Murphy in the balls and I paid for it.

My musings a little less sophisticated than after the fact, I recalled that I wasn't the only one who needed something a little more substantial to eat. My human/feline companion was probably burning through as much energy as I was at this point. And after the number Happosai had managed to do on our previous meal, I knew Luna was probably just as hungry as I was.

"Alright," I stated in the best 'Nothing But Business' tone I could muster at this point. "Your turn."

I slid the garlic-shaped dumpling over, hoping there wouldn't be any fuss over the issue.

I should know better by now to think I'd get off that easily.

"What are you doing?" Luna frowned at me.

"Feeding you," I replied evenly.

"I'll be fine," Luna slid the dumpling back in front of me. "You need to eat, doctor's orders."

"I just had two," I retorted. "Take it."

"I said I'll be fine," Luna deflected. "You need the nutrients."

There was a brief pause before I picked the dumpling up and set it in front of her again.

"You're in your human form," I countered logically. "You have a metabolism like an Olympic athlete."

"And you have a metabolism like a REGENERATOR," Luna counter-countered with a steely gaze. The dumpling ended up in front of me again. "I can last a while still. I've gone hungry longer."

The dumpling slid back over to Luna.

"Not in human form you haven't," I frowned back. "You have no idea HOW long you'll last like this."

"I said I'll be fine," Luna pushed the dumpling towards me. "I'm pretty sure I can at LEAST last a day."

"Luna," I placed my good hand over my face for a moment. "You're being stubborn."

"I'M being stubborn?" her pitch went up. "I'm not the one disobeying the orders of a goddess!"

"Yeah, well she's not here!" I snapped back reflexively. Inwardly I winced because I'm pretty sure Washu was still on the line. The hesitation was enough to throw my train of thought off and allow Luna to cut in with another retort.

"It doesn't matter!" the felis sapien snapped. "Here or not! The instructions she gave you are for your OWN WELL BEING!"

"I DON'T CARE!" I all but exploded, causing not only Luna to jump back, but also Shampoo and Ranma as well. "Just eat the damn dumpling! That's all I'm asking of you!"

"Well I DO care!" she scowled angrily. "Honestly the way you shift your priorities like this I'm amazed we lasted the week!"

Our raised voices had drawn the attention of several people walking by. In particular a mother and her young daughter picked up their paces, trying to look like they hadn't heard a thing. Ranma and Shampoo in the mean time, had gone deathly quiet. But with my mind becoming fogged with anger again, I didn't care.

"Priorities?!" I heard my voice crack. "Do you have any idea what I'm trying to juggle here?! It's hard enough trying to STAY THE FUCK ALIVE in realities where a mere bitch slap can leave you a gooey mess! Try knowing that your mistakes can kill people! Try-"

"I'm fully aware of what you're going through," Luna interrupted. She'd spoke with a tone that sounded like a mother scolding a child. "I was THERE, remember? Which is why I'm trying to help you heal as quickly as you can. So you don't need to worry about silly things-"

"I'm trying to take care of you!" I cut her off this time.

"This could get messy," I heard Ranma mutter from somewhere behind me.

"Shampoo suggest they share?" Shampoo suggested. "Ranma brought many dumplings..."

That didn't really register at the time.

"I'm not a mere PET!" Luna declared imperiously. "Are you forgetting that part?"

"That's not what I mean and you know it!" I replied. I'm not even sure what we were arguing about any more. My desire to hit something was rapidly climbing, and I was beginning to notice I was mentally trying to find an escape route before my actions overrode my brain. In fact, I was fighting a lot of reflexive desires at that point. I wanted to call Luna several phrases insulting her intelligence on one hand, backhand her on another, and on I think one of my feet, the desire to grab the dumpling sitting next to us and physically stuff it down her throat.

Under just about any normal conditions, yes, these options would cross my mind but would quickly be dismissed as childish, petty, or just plain stupid. The mere fact that I actually caught myself tensing to follow through with one of those actions was testament to just how NOT normal conditions were.

Still, even if I'd caught myself, my self control was failing quickly.

"-and I have to make sure you don't do any more stupid things like turning into a trigger-happy psychopath!" Luna finished. In my moment of self reflection, I'd missed a good half of what she said. But that which I did register, the only thing I really 'heard' was the word 'stupid'.

And just like that, the petty part of me won over. If Luna could see inside my head, she would have realized that I was all but looking for any excuse to disable my restraint. I'll admit, it's petty. But deep down, sometimes the only thing that keeps me from being a complete and total dick is phrase I think about from an old movie called Top Gun.

'Do Not Fire Unless Fired Upon.'

And Luna, however indirectly, however accidentally, had managed to fire the first shot. At least, in my point of view it was the first shot.

"And who's fault was that?!" I practically pounced on the felis sapien verbally. "Who damn near got herself killed trying to jump a living fucking artillery piece with nothing more than angry words and her bare fists?! HUH?"

"I was trying to HELP YOU!" Luna countered.

"And you did a lousy job!" I snapped angrily. "I had a goddamned shot, and you fucking ruined it!"

'SMACK!'

It was wrong, it was insulting, and I knew it even before I'd hit the second 'and'. And the smack to the face I earned from Luna because of it was well deserved. But unlike most people who might have stood there looking dumb for several seconds, all the physical response did was push me further.

For a moment, I didn't feel pain as the chair I was sitting in flew out from under me. I must have had that same look on my face as when I scared the crap out of Naru. Because despite knowing she was technically several times stronger than me, Luna dumped over her own chair scrambling away from me, white as a sheet and her pupils dilated in fear.

I feel like an ass now after the fact, but I'm pretty sure that if it had only been the two of us, I probably would have done something excessively stupid even for my track record in the next few seconds.

Thankfully, intimidation was as far as that ever went. The rock-solid hand coming down on my bad shoulder sent a sobering spike of pain through me, jolting me away from doing... whatever animalistic behavior my nearly shut down brain was queuing up.

"Whoa, no no no..." fem-Ranma's voice quickly joined the orchestra of sensations as 'she' gently started pulling back on me. "You don't want to go through with that one. Relax man."

Another hand gently, but firmly landed on my other shoulder, all but making it impossible to move even if the impulse to attack had lasted more than an instant.

"You sit," Shampoo's voice left no room for argument as I felt the chair I'd previously knocked down touch the back of my knees. I allowed myself to flop down in it after a moment, only just noticing how much my breathing had picked up in that instant.

"Is good," Shampoo continued calmly.

In front of me, Luna slowly stood up, relaxing now the wind had gone out of my sails. I felt burned out again, so I simply relaxed into the seat I was in, resting against the neck brace as it reminded me of my miserable condition.

The catgirl's eyes darted sideways for a moment before she nodded as if answering someone. As I'd thought, she was still connected to Washu through the goddess' little crab-tooth. So odds were pretty good that she'd heard the entire exchange. Mentally I kicked myself as Luna pulled the device off her ear and reached out to hand it to me.

"For you," Luna said in a soft, seemingly pitying tone.

With a sigh, I accepted the device and slipped it over my ear.

"You finished?" Washu began almost immediately. My hand never left the side of my head.

"I know you're concerned," she continued. "But Luna's right. She can wait a little bit while you eat. Your metabolism is completely out of-"

'Click'.

Disconnected...

Just like that, I'd hung up on Washu. I was sick of it. Right? Wrong? I don't care. I didn't feel like talking to her anymore.

The more she prattled on about how messed up was becoming, the more trapped and helpless I felt. I know I'm messed up, goddammit. I was there, you know? Getting smacked by the Doduos knockoff? I'm well aware that half the bones in my upper body are busted, that my kidneys are stressed, my metabolism is locked in overdrive, and my brain is chemically unbalanced. How many times do I need to hear that? How many times do I need to be told to take it seriously when I already am? I could recite the instructions in my sleep at this point. Eat, drink water, shit, relax. Don't do anything, don't stress, just heal.

It's kind of hard to do that when one source of your stress refuses to take care of herself...

"Beedeedeep! Beedeedeep!"

I almost jumped when the call tone hammered right in my ear. I'd terminated the connection, but hadn't moved an inch.

"Beedeedeep! Beedeedeep!"

You know what? Fuck it.

I stood, removing the crab-tooth from my ear and turned towards the nearby road. A silent snarl coming from my throat, I hurled the ear piece into the street. It beeped a grand total of two more times before a passing market truck rendered it into an unidentifiable pile of debris.

After that, it was mercifully silent.

When I turned back to the table, Luna's face betrayed every ounce of shock she was feeling towards what I had just done. In hindsight, hanging up on a GODDESS and then trashing her only method of communications with you was NOT a smart move. But in this case, I think I was willing to accept the delayed punishment I had just earned myself in exchange for not having to listen to the condescending tone she'd fallen into.

Hell, maybe if I was lucky, that would piss Washu off enough to break her own rules on her nigh omnipotent powers and come get me.

If only I were that lucky...

Thirty seconds into being free of the inter dimensional phone and I had yet to suffer the wrath of the Choushin. Washu must have the patience of a saint. Damn...

"Why," I finally noticed Luna was speaking. "Why did you DO that?"

I looked back at the street for a moment, my impulse wearing off allowing my brain to finally get a chance to evaluate the stupidity of my actions.

According to intense analysis of all data collected in the last five minutes and cross referenced with historical data... Experts have concluded unanimously that my actions were, and I quote, 'Pretty Fucking Stupid'.

Please tell me The Dumb isn't slowly infecting me. Someone please tell me I'm not going to become that formulaic. It's just hormonal and chemical imbalances...

Right?

I'm not sure how long I stood there, staring at the ground up powder that used to be my earpiece lying there in the street. Maybe it was a few seconds, maybe a few hours. But somewhere in there, the adrenaline rush finally wore off from that moment of anger, and both my back and my arm had decided to chide me on my actions as well.

Absentmindedly I found my left arm coming up to massage the right just below the shoulder.

Stupid day.

Stupid me.

Stupid universe.

Turning back around to still find Luna fixing me with a look of pity, I sighed, sitting down in my chair, suppressing a groan if only to keep the three present from acting any more like mother hens.

"Why?" the catgirl repeated when I settled.

"Impulse," I couldn't shrug, but it was still the truth.

"Impulse..." she squeezed her eyes shut and looked away.

"I was angry," I continued, falling into my old habit of trying to explain my every thought before she could go anywhere with it. "I didn't want to hear her nag on me any more about my 'condition'."

My best attempt at air quotes ended up being my good hand coming off my shoulder for a moment.

"We're trying to help you..." Luna turned back to me sadly. I swear, she looked like she was about to start crying. That almost broke me. Luna was seriously that concerned if I was going to be okay?

Then it hit me, we were both so mule-headedly concerned about each other that it didn't even click.

If Bakane had managed to break one of my legs so it bent the wrong way, I could have kicked myself.

"Luna," I felt my hand leave my shoulder to cradle my face. "You know one of my problems is stress, right?"

"Yes," she nodded. The look on her face never faltered. "Washu said you need to-"

"I know," I cut her off, then lowered my voice when I realized I had hardened my tone. "I know. But that's hard to do when I keep stressing over taking care of you."

Luna sighed as if in exasperation.

"I told you," she shook her head. "You don't need to worry about me."

"Doesn't matter," I returned. "I'm going to worry about you anyway. I can't help it, and I can't stop it. It's just the way I am."

Luna said nothing.

"Now please," I took a long deep breath and continued in a partially pleading tone. "It would make me feel a whole lot better if you'd eat something. If you won't do it for yourself, at least do so knowing that will be one less thing for me to stress over."

Having spoken my thoughts, I just sat there and waited. Luna just continued to stare back as I glanced through my fingers. After a good minute of just continuing that sad, gut wrenching stare of hers, the facade finally cracked. Luna's features softened and a small, warm smile drew itself across her mouth.

"Okay..." she replied.

Like that, I felt every muscle in my body relax. That revealed nicely for me that my shoulders were now sore from the tension that had compounded things. But it was a good kind of sore even if it was overwhelmed by my headache and my protesting everything.

Luna reached over snatched up the pork meat bun. She made her best attempt to look dignified and 'not hungry' as she bit into it. But after a few seconds of chewing, her features visibly brightened and her pace accelerated quickly.

Within a few short moments, Luna had ravenously consumed the dumpling and was busy licking her fingers to get the small amount of filling that had fallen on them. I couldn't help but feel a certain level of humor at seeing this unfold and after a few moments failed to suppress a chuckle.

The chuckle felt good on an emotional level.

A slight giggle from behind me indicated it was contagious too.

"What?" Luna looked at us for a moment. I could see just a little bit of pink reach her cheeks.

I chuckled again, gently reaching out with my good arm to take hold of the catgirl by her shoulder and pulled her towards me, allowing me to wrap her in a hug.

"Thanks," I stated quietly. "I'm not the only one stuck in this mess. Remember, you count too."

I felt something touch my back, and after a moment realized Luna had reciprocated the hug.

"I-," she replied hesitantly. "Thank you... That means a lot."

I know I'm not one to be sappy, but honestly I could have sat like that for the rest of the day and would have been perfectly okay with it. Luna felt kind of like a warm, oversized plush pillow in my arms, and the way things were I had to resist the urge to tighten the hug to the point it started to crush her. But after a moment, the warm-fuzzies I was feeling in were interrupted by the sound of both Ranma and Shampoo letting out little 'daw' sounds behind me.

"Have something to say Ranma?" I snapped irritably.

"Nothing!" Ranma quickly replied.

Didn't think so...

"Shampoo think is very sweet," the Joketsuzoku warrior commented behind me.

Luna pushed away at that moment. I released her, allowing the felis sapien to back away with a slight blush still on her face. She took one long, slow breath before glancing around as if to see if we'd attracted undue attention. Personally, I was kind of happy I couldn't turn my head. If there WAS someone nearby staring, there was no way I could see them to feel embarrassed myself.

"What's up?" I heard Ranma's voice query and refocused my attention on the catgirl in front of me. Luna's face had scrunched up like she was concentrating. It almost reminded me of someone who'd been confused after reading a particularly technical science article and couldn't make heads or tails of it.

"Luna?" I began.

"SHH!" she snapped, then gently turned her head from side to side while resting her head on the table, wrapping her hand around a salt shaker. After a moment, she looked at me again.

"What?" I asked.

"Hush," she ordered and glanced around again. "It's..."

Luna paused mid-sentence, walking towards the road. Then without any warning, she turned and brought her arm around with a throw that would have put her firmly on the wish list of every baseball team on the planet.

There was a whistling sound as the salt shaker she'd taken shot past the rest of us, continuing on to hit something behind me with a loud metallic 'thack!', and a not so normal muted 'oof!'.

I turned as the noise turned into a series of small crashes to find the absurd, green jacketed demon god Senbei pushing himself off the ground.

"You bumbling buffoon!" the now all too familiar voice of Happosai announced from behind one of the tables further back. "You gave us away!"

"Like he needed to give you away with that disgusting smell of yours!" Luna spat from behind me. There was a choked sound from wherever the old man was hiding even as she continued. "Senbei! Where have you been?"

"I'll have you know I take a bath every day!" Happosai jumped out of hiding and on to a table. Almost immediately his look of outrage turned into a lecherous grin. "I'll even prove it to you if you want to joi-"

'THACK!'

'WHUD!'

"HAHA!" Ranma crowed as Happosai went down in a cloud of black dust. "NICE shot!"

"Thank you," Luna's voice returned as she walked into my field of vision. She had a look on her face that could murder Queen Beryl. "I still owed him for earlier."

"Errargh!" Happosai choked and spat as he climbed back to his feet behind the table. "Blech! Ptttuaaa! Seriously girl? PEPPER? Kids these days..."

"Oh, quit complainin' ya old man," Ranma countered. "You deserve that and more. Now why are you spying on us?"

Happosai spat a few more times trying to get the flavor out of his mouth before replying.

"I told you!" he snapped and pointed at me. "I was going to be watching that one! No telling what kind of problems a walking chi hole can cause around here!"

"I'll bet," Ranma's voice was full of sarcasm. "You're probably just sore he managed to smash your foot so easily! Now you're just looking for an excuse to hit him while he's down! You sick fre-"

"HOLD YOUR TONGUE BOY!" Happosai snarled. "I warned you before. If you don't want to listen..."

"Why should I listen to YOU?" Ranma retorted. "You're only ever in this sort of thing for yourself! You couldn't care less about anyone here, let alone a guy who's obviously not a threat to anything but your own disgusting ego!"

"I'm warning you Ranma," Happosai's voice wavered between rage and uncertainty.

"You're at a disadvantage this time old man!" Ranma snapped back. "Don't think I can't see you keeping off that foot."

"You WOULD try to take advantage of the injured," Happosai took a stab at Ranma's pride.

"What can I say?" Ranma didn't so much as flinch. "I'm well taught."

"You really are looking for a beating, aren't you boy?" Happosai's tone dropped any pretenses he had previously been using.

It was kind of like watching National Geographic. Specifically, an episode on bears or something. Ranma and Happosai were both dishing out threats to each other like a pair of angry grizzlies trying to size each other up. It was all show, but it was no less distracting to the people around us. Unlike earlier, I decided that my best course of action would be to try and ignore the old troublemaker and avoid any further involvement with his antics. Because the first time around had quickly turned into a mess with me smack dead in the middle.

Looking around for a quick 'escape', I noticed just how much attention the two had gathered with their posturing. That reminded me that there was what was most likely a martial arts cop in the area. If this escalated into an all out fight, there was no doubt he'd show up.

Given how things had turned out earlier, I don't think I wanted to be found right in the middle of a second round of property damage. Injured or not, the guy would start to wonder before long why I'm in the thick of it and that would lead to awkward questions. Awkward questions meant being detained, checked for ID, paperwork I didn't have... The whole shebang. Not something I needed...

Time to jump ship.

Ranma and Happosai were right in the middle of verbally picking at each other's current weaknesses when I suddenly stood from my spot (with only a minor sensation of light headedness) and grabbed the bag of dumplings.

My sudden movement was enough to give the two pause, but neither said anything as I politely shoved my chair in (it'll probably end up in a window anyway,) and made for the street.

"Ranma, I'm taking Shampoo back to Tofu's office," I announced, putting all my willpower in to ignoring Happosai. "Meet us there when you're finished."

"Kay!" Ranma chirped in a deceptively positive tone. He-er... she was probably happier being in his/her element of taking Happosai on anyway.

Don't think about the perverted asshole, don't think about him. It only pisses you off. And you are in no condition, OR POSITION, to succeed in round two.

I picked up my pace, surprising considering that my body still felt like a lead weight, but every step helped to get my blood flowing. Shampoo and Luna fell into step along side me, the former checking on the bandage I'd wrapped her hand in. Part of it had already bled through, but there wasn't much I could do about that aside from taking the time to apply pressure to the wound. Luckily, the injury looked nastier than it was and most of the blood Shampoo had been leaking for the last hour had been superficial.

Still, it could get infected.

Any excuse to get out of there faster..

"Ugh..." I heard Senbei's voice suddenly as he teleported onto my right shoulder. "For a cat, she throws really well."

I felt my fist clench and unclench as I resisted the urge to try and pluck the mini-god of misfortune off my shoulder and crush him. That might feel good for a moment, but I'd probably end up just hurting something else with the twist.

"Mind telling me just what the hell you were doing with Happosai?" I settled for asking him instead. Mind you, I only barely managed not snap at him as my anger spiked. God damn. Now that I was aware of it, I really could spot the problem.

A deep breath did wonders at that point.

"I was intrigued," Senbei spoke up. "The old man is VERY GOOD at taking wealth and spreading misfortune. I wanted to see how a mortal did it. His POWER is amazing despite not being such an amazing, and STUNNING god of Poverty and misfortune..."

God, he's in ego mode again. It must be some kind of power high or something.

"How much fortune did you guzzle?" I asked, slightly curious if the amount of fortune the demon god absorbed actually did anything.

"Actually not very much," Senbei immediately stopped being flamboyant. Okay, maybe he really is just a goof. "Most of the fortune he took went to himself."

"Happi very strong," Shampoo piped in. "He take all power for self and leave nothing for others."

"Tell me about it," Luna sighed in exasperation. "The little imp is a thousand times worse than Rei's grandfather in every way. I mean, for Serenity's sake, that 'battle aura' as you called it. It had more power in it than most monsters Usagi fought. How the heck does he produce it all?"

"Oh!" Senbei hovered off my shoulder and teleported over to Luna. "That is one thing I found. He doesn't generate much power."

"Cheh..." Luna made a face at the demon god floating in front of her. "You mean to tell me he didn't create that giant chi monstrosity?"

There was a loud crash up the street behind us, I resisted the urge to investigate the sound, as did the others, and quickly crossed the street. I could hear Ranma and Happosai's voices shouting over the din of traffic.

"No," Senbei corrected Luna. "He created his battle aura, but he did not make all that power. At least, he did not create it on the spot."

"What you say?" Shampoo frowned. "Happi like well?"

"Maybe," Senbei nodded. "I've not seen a human do it before, but he produces very little of his own power. Perhaps even none at all. Instead, he takes from around him and stores it. Lots of it."

"So..." I found myself cutting in. "Essentially if we wanted to beat Happosai in a stand-up fight, we'd have to effectively make him waste all his chi."

I paused deliberately.

"Essentially outlast him..." I finished and immediately moved on. "Not happening."

"Well," Luna shrugged next to me. "It's good to know anyway."

I rolled my eyes.

Right... We can't even stand our ground against a maniac like Happosai. Good luck out-lasting the chi reserves he probably has. The old man probably stores more power than a naval nuclear reactor. It doesn't matter if he does or does not produce his own. He's like some kind of living chi battery. All charged up he could last probably last so long tha- Wait, batteries?

I stopped so abruptly that Luna, who had at some point grabbed my arm stumbled and almost took me down with her.

"What th-" she began but quickly silenced herself. "What's the matter?"

"I'm fine," I answered automatically. Batteries? Energy STORAGE?

"Fuck... Of course," I muttered, bringing my hand up to my face. "It doesn't work without power. Nothing works without power. God damn, I'm so STUPID!"

"Fi- What?" Luna asked. "What doesn't work? Stupid?"

But I was ignoring her at that point, taking a few paces back. Once I was clear, I opened the portal.

"Luna," I asked. "Can you grab the glove for me?"

"Why would you-?" she began, then stopped, her eyes widening. Then she stepped forward, eyes narrowing.

"I know that face," she pointed at me. "That's the same face you had planning that demon act with Hild. The same face when you were coming up with that four-way plan at Hinata. And the same face you had before we started that fight with Kunzite."

Then she smirked.

"You know something, don't you?"

"Just a theory," I pseudo-shrugged in response. "Can you grab the glove?"

After a moment's hesitation, Luna nodded and reached into the portal, retrieving Jail Scaglietti's magic control glove. The same glove that'd blown a molten hole in an armored metal door and nearly killed a combat cyborg. The same glove that did nothing when I tried to show Washu, and later acted funny when it acted like an electrical short for magic.

I couldn't make heads or tails of the thing.

But then again, maybe I hadn't really sat down and tried to.

But now, suddenly, I had an idea. Past experience for anyone should warn them that me, plus ideas, equals something 'interesting' happening.

"Shampoo afraid she not understand," the Joketsuzoku commented as Luna helped my glove up my arm. "What is purpose of glove?"

"Power glove," I stated, looking at the back of it, and then the palm. It was plain and dark. "Or at least, it's supposed to be."

"It's done nothing but act up since you took it," Luna shook her head. "I suggest we stand back..."

At Luna's warning, Shampoo nodded and slowly backed up a few steps. As a result, I cast the catgirl a slightly annoyed look. Come on Luna, I know my plans suffer from me being only human, but I haven't blown us up...

Yet.

"Shampoo still not getting it..." the warrior frowned.

"Senbei?" I began. "Remember the 'Special Effects' we used?"

"Easily," the demon god seemed to take a moment to examine the back of his hand smugly. "Why?"

"Same thing, but just the energy, don't actually do anything with it." I answered.

Senbei gave me a confused look before shrugging and snapping his fingers. We stood there for about ten seconds in absolute silence before my lack of patience started to get the better of me.

"Well?" I asked.

Senbei just rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

"Mortals," he muttered, then spoke up. "I'm already doing it."

I blinked.

"Are you?"

"Yes," Senbei nodded. "You said not to do anything with it, so I'm not. I can't say I know what YOU are doing though."

If I could have shaken my head, I would have. Instead I chose to raise my arm and look at the glove. Almost immediately I noticed lines running along the back of the hand down the fingers. They were glowing blood red as if the whole thing was one big LED display.

I could feel a smile forming on my lips as I saw that. The last time those lines had glowed, I recall it was right after it 'shorted' touching Kunzite's attack. And before that...?

Before that I vaguely recalled the same nasty glowing effect right before I...

I felt a slight heave in my chest. I was chuckling- no; I was LAUGHING. It hurt a little, but felt so good at the same time. I was laughing at myself, at my own stupidity.

"Are you okay?" Luna asked in a worried tone.

"I-hi- I'm fine," I took my glasses off for a second and wiped my eyes. "It's just..."

I turned the glove around and showed Luna the glowing lines.

"I think I got it..."

The look of concern on the felis sapien's face changed to one of surprise.

"Got it?" she blinked. "The glove?"

"Ye-he-yeah," I laughed again. "It needs BATTERIES!"

I think Luna just about coughed up a hairball.

"B-BATTERIES?!" she nearly shouted.

I tried to nod, but the neck brace continued to do its job without remorse. Of course, it all makes sense now. All magical attacks require power. The glove is a Nanoha-Universe Device. That's Device with a capital 'D', mind you. It's not a gun, and it's not some kind of strange enchanted stick. It's a control computer; one made for assisting the mage in question in focusing and directing his power. The MAGE is the battery! And I'm not a mage! The reason it worked the first time was because Senbei, a fucking DEMON GOD, was saturating me with raw magical power!

And the thing's probably linked to the mind of the wearer... How? I don't know. But now that I think about it. When I unexpectedly cast 'venom', I was visualizing an explosion. And the glove decided to cast 'explosion' on my command.

I felt my grin grow wider as a new idea formed.

"Idea!" I snapped excitedly. "I think I can use it... I just"

Okay, a quick test. If this really is mind-linked to the user somehow, and seems to have a way around the whole Medium Transfer garbage (not that MTP ever stopped Washu or Hild...), then maybe if I imagine what I want...

I turned my hand over again, my shoulder still protesting but I was so excited that I hardly noticed. In the palm of my hand, I imagined a sphere, a glowing orb of light the size of a tennis ball. Nothing fancy, just a sphere of light. Irritatingly, nothing appeared to happen in my hand. I frowned. There had to be more to it.

"C'mon!" I growled at my arm in English. "Work you stupid thing! GLOW!"

What else was I doing when it cast that explosion? Incanting? I used completely made up gibberish from the Bastard OVA. The spell had nothing to do with the Nanoha universe...

Is it voice command? But then it would go off every time the caster said the wrong thing.

"Dammit..." I muttered. "So close."

So close I can taste it. What else makes this thing tick? The Doc. simply had to make hand mo-

Hand motions.

I closed my hand into a fist, focusing my mind on that same orb of light as before. Then I snapped my hand open, imagining the motion as if I were making a 'poof' gesture; almost like I was flicking a Zippo lighter.

"IGNITE!"

'CRACK!'

"WHOA SHIT!" I snapped in surprise and stumbled back as the palm of my hand flashed like a camera. Luna and Shampoo were on me in an instant, catching me before I could fall over. I could hear both of them asking me if I was alright, but for an instant the world was lost to me as I finally got a focus on the light that had yet to go away.

In the palm of my hand was a ball of white, tinged with a blue hue roughly the size of a tennis ball. It was like staring at a small, hundred-watt light bulb.

I continued to giggle like a deranged madman at the orb I'd just created, tightening my hand around it. I felt some resistance as I did so. But I didn't feel heat. The 'magic light' was somewhat solid. However it began to give way as I tightened my grip, before it blinked out suddenly.

"It-" I began. "It works..."

"He make light like chi..." Shampoo's voice hovered on the edge of my thoughts.

"Do it again," I heard Luna more clearly.

I snapped my hand in the same fashion, getting nothing for my effort. Okay, so it's not pure motion activation. That can lead to trouble as well. Which means it must be a combo. Which makes sense from a safety perspective. You have to visualize what you want, AND go through the right motion linked to the concept, perhaps even using a keyword for the incantation.

It's a safety key.

So you can't blow yourself up!

OF COURSE!

I visualized the sphere once more, getting a clear image of the tennis ball-sized orb again. And with a flick of my hand, I snapped what I had stated before.

"IGNITE!"

'CRACK!'

This time the flash didn't take me by surprise. But I did notice how my voice seemed to carry a reverb to it. However, it sounded like the sound had come from the glove itself. And I think I understood why. It was a confirmation feedback. Like a green light on a card reader door telling you that your authentication was cleared. The voice echo effect wasn't part of a spell, it was to tell you the spell was working.

"He do it..." I heard Shampoo mutter as I closed my fingers on the light orb again, bringing it up to eye level. It was bright, and the light actually was real. Closing my eyes for a moment I could see the blob of afterimage color behind my eyelids proving it Opening them again, I felt a certain giddy sense of achievement. I mean, it was a light spell... but it was a magic light spell.

...Holy Fuck!

It was a MAGIC light spell!

I started to laugh again. This time so bad that Luna actually took a step back.

I cast a MAGIC spell!

I can cast MAGIC!

MAGIC! FUCKERS! MAGIC!

My condition forced me to remember it about that moment as some sinus drainage caused me to cough and gag in the middle of laughing, but I could stop even as it made my ribs ache.

If I could cast light, and I already cast a lethal explosion... Then, shit!

"Senbei," I managed to choke out. "Turn up the juice!"

"Eh?" the demon god blinked. "More?"

I held my light orb up, feeling a bit silly and dramatic.

"MOAR POWAH!" I flamboyantly demanded in English.

Senbei laughed, just a short chuckle before snapping his fingers again. The orb visibly brightened, the glow casting shadows on the street around us and forcing me to turn it away. The energy going into it continued to rise and before long it was glowing bright as day. And still; I couldn't feel ANY heat in the palm of my hand.

"Thi-his is AWESOME!" I finally managed to blurt.

"You did it!" Luna was grinning. "You ACTUALLY went and did it! Do you know what this means?"

I was still choking out laughs as my mind turned to think about all the options I'd just opened up. If I could think it up, I could make it work! I just needed power. All this time I needed power. I could have saved us numerous headaches if I'd known that. Kunzite would have been a crater from the start. I could have put a shield between myself and Bakane had it come to that. I could have avoided this entire mess simply by not being nearly crippled. No mess, no encounter with Happosai...

My mind clicked over like the second hand on a clock rolling from 11:59 to midnight. I squeezed the orb in my hand, putting it out as I lowered my arm to my side stiffly. Spinning on my heel, I turned back to the ruckus being caused half a block behind us and began marching towards it with newly found purpose. As I did so, I continued to chuckle, barely in control of of my own breathing as I began to piece together an idea in my head.

I could cast 'explosion' in the form of Dark Schneider's spell, VENOM on accident. I could cast 'light orb' just by thinking about it. If I could think it, I could cast it. And having watched shows ranging from Bastard, to Ah My Goddess, to Slayers, and on and on and on... I had a potential arsenal of magic ranging from glorified tasers, to thermonuclear explosions. Beams, bolts, fireballs, homing projectiles, area attacks, flash-freezing... The possibilities had just become endless.

Maybe it was the elation getting to me. Maybe it was the power, or maybe I really was just that loopy. Hell, maybe it was all of the above, but I barely registered Luna and Shampoo asking me where I was going as my sights narrowed on the bouncing crimson form ahead of me. I picked a spell from my mind that should be simple enough.

I ordered Senbei to 'give me everything he could' and recalled the incantation in my mind.

The funniest thing about BASTARD, is that most, if not all the spells in the Anime or even the Manga were based on the names of metal bands or the people in them. So if the next part doesn't make sense... look it up.

"Dave Mu-STAINE!" I snarled, snapping my hand open. And nearly surprised myself when not only did my voice echo, but every window around me within probably a hundred feet shattered and dozens of pedestrians cringed and ducked to get away. However, I was so focused on what I was about to do that none of that mattered.

Just the asshole that needed adjusting in front of me.

The concussive report I had produced by starting the spell had caused both Happosai and Ranma to stop in their tracks. I made eye-contact with the old fart, earning me a deadly glare.

You don't like me Happi? You want something to fear? Know Fear, for he is me.

"Spirits of earth and air," I recited in English, seeing as I only know it in English. "HONOR the ancient pact and fulfill your destiny!"

I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rising as I brought my 'casting glove' up. And I remember the surprised look on Happosai's face as he felt what in retrospect was undoubtedly ME redirecting the entire magical force of a demon god right down my arm. Ranma had enough sense to bolt in the span of time between the incantation I had just recited, and what I would later come to call the 'trigger word'.

"MEGADETH!" I shouted. "HEAVEN AND EARTH EXPLODE!"

In that instant, I was the happiest man in the multiverse. Because I knew then and there why everyone wanted to be the wizard, or the sorcerer, or the mage, or whatever. There is nothing, NOTHING like the feeling you get when you take the laws of physics themselves, and make them your unmitigated BITCH.

And when I cast MEGADETH, I had just told the universe itself to explode the fuck out of Happosai.

And the universe said 'yes mastah', and exploded the fuck out of Happosai.