"But you don't have to take my word for it."

- LeVar Burton

My impulse control is failing me. This much I'm certain of.


I think it was worth it. If ever there came a time in my life where I would be asked if I regretted doing something, hitting Happosai with an explosive magical attack would not be one of them. Granted, I look back on the action and I'm fully aware that from my strategic standpoint that it was probably the worst move I could possibly make. But at the same time, anyone would have to admit I needed to vent my frustrations.

Let me tell you about how it felt to cast that spell.


If only for a moment, I was batting in the same league as the rest of the people I'd met. For once, we were playing by the same rules. Yeah, I know I've already managed to succeed against enormous odds thanks to a combination of a little wit and the right tools. But this was just different. All the other times, it's like I knew the rules, but played a different game with entirely different rules. Like I was a chess piece on a checker board and I still had to obey the movement rules of a Rook or something. From the perspective of the checkers players, I was weird, and moved in weirder ways.

But this time...

Suddenly my Rook could move diagonally like a Bishop, or a Queen, and I could jump that ONE irritating piece.

A piece who's name was Happosai.

Predictably, I felt none of the actual magical energy being transferred from Senbei into the glove, but I felt the shock- I should say, the recoil -when the spell left it. I never knew magic had physical recoil, but it almost threw me off my feet. It kicked like a backlash round.

Happosai never knew what hit him. I can't say for certain what exactly the spell I fired really was, but I was focused on an explosion, and an explosion is what I got. In the fraction of a second it took to cover the distance between myself and the diminutive pervert, I vaguely remember seeing something that looked like just a white blob. It grew in size the moment it left my hand like a rapidly expanding balloon. In all honesty, it seemed like my hand had become the muzzle of Mike. I was presented with the same deafening concussion and the same disorientation. And that was just the back-blast.

The explosion itself? Let's just put on the official record that using a magical attack defined as EXPLOSIVE at close range goes about as well as using bombs or missiles at the same distances.

The shockwave shattered windows and threw a cloud of debris high into the air. If I weren't so busy being blown off my feet I probably would have had time to muse about the similarities to the raging firefight with Kunzite the day before.

Luckily for me this time around, it seems that Ranma-styled fights in this area are common enough that people tend to simply clear out at the first sign of one. So aside from the property damage (which I think is covered by insurance policies), I'm pretty sure there were no casualties. Please tell me there were no (unintended) casualties...

Still, I made a mess. I feel kind of bad about it after the fact. Considering we WERE trying to get Shampoo to think a little more and be more discrete with her problem solving, having me turn around and muscle my way through a situation I should have just kept walking away from IS kind of hypocritical.

However, Ranma explained as we fled the scene of the crime (yes, I'm willing to admit that my actions there are probably downright criminal since I hadn't been defending myself. But at this point I'm neither in the mood, nor have the luxury of time for dealing with any form of due process), that if anyone rightly deserved a good exploding, it was Happosai. And I wholeheartedly agree.

But we left in a hurry either way. Happosai, amazingly enough, can apparently survive a direct hit from the equivalent to an air strike to the FACE. It must be his Chi reserves. At this time that's the only theory I have on it. Chi in this world is their magic, and Happosai can power a battle aura strong enough to intimidate just about anyone. So it's likely he can use it to block, or at least deflect high explosive force.

Whatever the excuse, one thing was for certain: He wasn't getting up for a while, and NONE of us wanted to be there when he finally did.

With that being said, we made a beeline for the Nekohanten as fast as we could.

Have you ever heard the term 'A convoy only goes as fast as the slowest ship'?

I have not recently forgotten my new found hatred for running. And having a body caught in the midst of the most hellish healing cycle known to man, the very act of doing so was every bit as excruciating as you would expect. I lost what little lunch I'd managed about half way back amidst a fit of coughs, and nearly blacked out from the spots in my vision at one point. If it weren't for the fact that Luna kept Ranma from just picking me up and going to the rooftops, I probably would have ended up back where I started in terms of neck injuries.

I'm not going to get into the details, but after ten horrible minutes that felt more like hours, I was sitting in the office of Nekohanten, downing a glass of water like I'd just been rescued from certain death in the Sahara while Cologne, somehow suspended from her walking stick like she always was, looked absolutely shocked.

"He looks worse than when he left" she gaped in amazement. "I didn't think it was physically possible to make someone in his condition any WORSE, but this..."

"He fine great grandmother!" Shampoo defended. "He only ate little of lunch, so only make small mess on sidewalk."

"He's pale as a sack of rice!" the matriarch snapped, pointing her wrinkly hand at my face. "I can understand if you decided killing him would prevent me from going through with my punishment. But if you're going to do so, at least FINISH the job!"

I'm not entirely sure even now if that was just a joke.

"Now wait just one Second!" Luna cut in. "I'll have you know we just-"

"I'm FINE!" I managed to gasp, interrupting the feline before she had a chance to make the argument worse. "You try keeping a dead sprint for ten minutes some time. You'll look like this too."

Cologne lowered her gaze from her granddaughter to meet mine even as I tried to divide my body between heavy breathing and another gulp of water. I nearly choked but managed not to cough it up. The old hag had a look on her face that seemed a bit to casual for her.

"In my youth, I could sprint for thirty minutes straight," she stated. The tone was almost mocking. "You're horribly out of shape."

I swallowed and glared.

"Yes," I agreed. "I AM out of shape... And beat up... And sick as a dog... Try it some time."

She gave me this look... A brief but obvious look something along the lines of 'you're swimming in the shark tank and taunting the shark'.

"I'm old," she croaked before raising her gaze back to Luna and Shampoo. It took several seconds before the depth of the retort struck home. Dammit... Walked right into that one.

"So what exactly happened that had him-" Cologne forewent the pointing of the stick for a curt nod towards me. "-running for ten minutes straight?"

I would have said 'Happosai' had I not already started chugging down another glass of water. However, Ranma proved this to be unneeded.

"We had a bit of a run-in with the old pervert," he stated in a casual tone.

"Happi?" Cologne frowned. "He's a disgusting fool, but that doesn't explain making this young man run in his condition."

"After what he DID to the geezer...?" Ranma's gaze turned half way between something I'd like to describe as 'deer in headlights' and 'What the Fuck'. Seeing that, Cologne dropped her gaze back to me.

"What did you do?" she asked sharply, almost coming across as anger.

I finished my gulp of water and took another breath. After a moment, I decided that trying to come up with longer versions of 'what happened' weren't going to work with my breathing.

"I blew him up," came out of my mouth before I even considered how it sounded.

For several seconds, the room was quiet save for the sound of my slowly relaxing breath rate. Cologne stared, her face not revealing any emotion. It wasn't until I decided to take another pull on my glass of water that she allowed herself a very visible blink, and cocked her head slightly.

"What?" she asked.

"He make big Chi explo-" Shampoo began. However, before she could finish, Cologne conked her on the head.

"Silence." she stated firmly without so much as breaking eye-contact with me. "Now, you did WHAT to Happi?"

I finished my swig, dancing spots in my vision all but gone by this point as I ran the sequence of events through my mind one more time.

"I blew him up," I concluded once more. There was no way around it. Once more, the giddy sensation of being able to cast an actual honest-to-god magic attack caught up with me. I felt my shoulders start to heave as I rediscovered the humor.

"I did," I managed to chuckle. "I blew his ass up. And I didn't even need a bomb!"

"How?" Cologne asked.

I couldn't resist. I really couldn't.

"Magic…" I waved my good hand mysteriously.

"I'm being serious," the old hag deadpanned.

"So am I," I coughed slightly. There might have been a partial laugh in it, but at this point I couldn't even tell. Cologne merely gave me one of her classic 'not amused' expressions.

"No! Really!" my other hand with the glove came up as I handed the glass I'd just emptied off to Luna. "I figured this glove out! It's an automated power amplifier and casting control computer… Or if you take the universe it came from, a Device."

"The glove?" Cologne tilted her head slightly and gave the power glove a sidelong glance. "Was it not broken and worthless?"

"No," Luna cut in. "Just powerless…"

"Turns out," I began after another swig from a fresh glass and another round of cough-chuckles. "The damn thing just needed batteries."

Cologne opened her mouth for a moment, then surprisingly, snapped it shut. Lowering herself from her stick, she hopped up on the table and lifted my arm up, gently examining the glove for a few moments. Far be it from me to ask what she intended to find, but after a short stint, she looked up at my face.

"The luck demon?" she asked.

"The luck demon," I verified.

Cologne let a smirk grace her features, and her shoulders began to heave slightly. The old hag started to emit a sound much like a wheeze before I realized she was laughing. After a moment, the sound evolved into a near mad cackle as she leaned against the office wall.

Luna spared a glance at me, a look of worry etched on her features. I replied silently with the best I could manage for a 'give it a moment' look.

Almost as if flicking a switch, Cologne ceased her ancient chortles and snapped a look at me again with, I don't know… 'Bedroom Eyes' doesn't sound like it should be the right kind of thing to describe the way the hag was looking at me. I almost felt my skin crawling.

"Clever boy," she cooed, which did nothing to lessen the aura of 'disturbing' she radiated at the moment. Unfortunately, my brain went there, if only for a second. Brains are wont to do that after all. It didn't like what it saw.

The train of thought must have been as easy to read on my face as a piece of paper, because the old ghoul sighed and turned away after a moment.

"Maybe eighty years ago," she muttered at the wall. ...Ew.

"Ew…" Shampoo chirped quietly-


-And earned a clubbing from the matriarch. Next lesson: Knowing when to keep your comments sub-vocal.

"Consider me impressed," Cologne continued after she'd leveled a glare at her granddaughter. "It is far from easy to land a blow on that pervert. He's deceptively spry for his age and even I have a hard time holding my own against his antics."

"He's not TOO hard to hit," Ranma cut in with a frown. "I've put him down enough times to know that one. If you know how to distract the old freak, he's an easy target."

"Maybe easy for you," Cologne turned her gaze to the still currently female Saotome. "However, you have trained your entire life and have benefited from Joketsuzoku training techniques. This young man-"

I found the crone's walking stick thrust inches away from my face.

"-is a slow, ungainly, borderline cripple."

The stick swung down to the floor and Cologne hoisted herself up on it. I'm still at a loss as to how she manages to remain balanced when her center of mass is sitting over open air.

"But despite these handicaps," she continued, "he managed to land an impressive blow on Happi. Credit should be granted where it is due. Now-"

Cologne turned and bounced a step, landing in front of Shampoo.

"I wish to know what exactly YOU were doing that this crippled young man was in a position to even get a blow in on Happosai."

"I-" Shampoo's eyes widened. The tone of the matriarch's voice, and the way she'd been acting. I smelled a blame-game coming. And even my sleep deprived, chemically addled brain could figure that one out.

"Oi! Don't go blaming her," I snapped before I even thought my response all the way through. "If it wasn't for her, you'd be picking porcelain splinters out of my skull with tweezers. Don't believe me? Check her hand out."

Cologne, who'd shot me a bit of an annoyed glare for interrupting, waited casually for a moment before turning back to her granddaughter. The matriarch said nothing, but held out a hand and gestured at Shampoo. The younger girl obediently raised her injured hand, revealing to Cologne the bloodstained bandage. After a moment of inspection the ghoul hissed in sympathy.

"I'm sorry I doubted you, little one," she stated in a more motherly tone. "Happosai doesn't normally play this rough with women."

"Is nothing," Shampoo blushed at her grandmother's change in tone and made to hide her injury. "Just small scratch…"

"Bullshit," I muttered over another gulp of water. The warrior was trying to pretend she was fine again, and after having gotten through to her once today, seeing her starting to act like that again was grating on my nerves. "Quit pretending with the tough-girl act and just admit it. A solid chunk of glass through the palm of your hand isn't 'scratch'. It's a trip to the emergency room."

I didn't know it was possible, but Cologne lost a bit of color as she shot me a look, then with all the delicacy of a pack of wolves over a kill, yanked Shampoo's arm up and unceremoniously pulled the bandage off. Several Chinese statements, no doubt choice phrases I could translate into Drilleese followed as she examined the horrendous, partially clotted mass dribbling blood down onto the ground.

"STUPID GIRL!" the Matriarch spat. "This isn't a scratch! Do you want to lose the use of your hand?!"

Cologne wasted no time in turning rapidly and fishing a first aid kit out from a cabinet next to her head. At the same time, she shouted in a voice surprisingly strong for someone her size.

"Mousse!" she all but roared. "Bring me a pot of boiling water, alcohol, and sewing thread! And don't pretend I didn't notice you! Be quick about it!"

"Uh," Ranma began. "Shouldn't she go to the hospital, or Doctor Tofu's? That's where we were starting to go when-"

"Sterilize, clean, and close," was what the hag responded with. "It is the same thing the hospital does and the same thing I've done a hundred times before. How long has this wound been open? When did she get it?"

It took me a moment to realize I was the one being spoken to.

"About… an hour, maybe two at this point?"

Cologne practically heaved an angry snort as she turned back to Shampoo.

"You should have told me about this FIRST," she snapped at the younger girl. "You're lucky the bone wasn't damaged… Not to mention lucky someone-" she looked up. "Who wrapped this?"

"I did," I stated matter-of-factly. Cologne turned for a moment, eyes lidded in chagrin before she snapped back to her task.

"Your knots are clumsy but you wrapped it nice and tight," she nodded. "It's adequate for a short period, but not for leaving alone. Infection kills many more than wounds alone. I'll teach you how to clean and close a wound later. Right now I must be swift."

Mousse returned with a stumble and a clatter, only barely keeping control of a steaming pot in one hand, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the other. I'm not going to ask how he managed to bring that water to a boil in thirty seconds, but hind sight suggests maybe it was kept around for 'cursed spring' reasons.

"Thread, needle, cotton, and fresh bandages," Cologne ordered as she deftly swept the items from the taller young man. Without missing a beat, Mousse turned on the ball of his foot and left the room again, not so much as a pause to acknowledge what she'd said.

"I need to disinfect now," Cologne turned towards Shampoo with the hot water in one hand, alcohol in the other. "This is going to hurt granddaughter. So I suggest you find something to bite on."

Shampoo gave her elder an indignant look.

"I take it," she frowned. "I get wound, I handle healing."

Cologne's arm twitched reflexively, as if rising to strike her granddaughter with her walking stick, but ceased upon the apparent recollection that the implement of percussive knowledge was out of reach.

"It is that attitude that got you into this mess in the first place," Cologne snapped back. "This will be a pain like no other. So do as I say! Find something to bite on, NOW!"

It must have been the tone of voice, because the younger Joketsuzoku bolted from the room in a blur. It didn't take long before she returned, rope in her good hand and Mousse in tow with the supplies he'd been ordered to bring. Cologne gave the both of them a stern look before pointing.

"SIT." came the command.

"You," she turned to Mousse, taking the supplies. "Out."

He was gone without a word.

"Miss Luna," she continued in a slightly (only slightly) more gentle voice. "I will need you to use that feline strength and hold my granddaughter down."

"I'll do my best," Luna shifted around behind Shampoo's chair and stood ready. The younger Chinese girl blinked slightly, the first signs of anxiety showing on her face as the precautions started to stack up.

"What about me?" Ranma asked. "Do you need me to do anything?"

"Hold her arm," the hag replied. "Once I begin, she must not move."

I won't deny I knew what was coming. The moment Cologne had mentioned 'something to bite into', I knew where this would go. And even though I should feel bad about thinking about it, I was mentally going 'glad it's you and not me'. As the trio around Shampoo took their positions, she placed the length of rope into her mouth and gently bit down on it, a look of mild fear showing up in her eyes. The hag inspected the injury once more, then made her move.

Hot water came first, and Shampoo narrowed her eyes and grit her teeth as the water flushed the wound. She let out a defiant growl that almost seemed to be a laugh around the rope.

"Don't be so cocky," Cologne began with a pause. "The real pain has yet to come..."

She inspected the freshly rinsed wound a for a moment, fresh blood now beginning to seep out of it. Then she picked up the alcohol and up-ended it.

All present were thankful for the rope stuffed into Shampoo's mouth. The moment the antiseptic fluid made contact, her eyes shot wide as saucers and her body jerked in place as a scream forced its way into the universe. The rope compressed as her jaw locked down, and despite Ranma's grip, her arm spasmed in place. Cologne merely looked on with a gaze as cool as ice as the initial shock passed.

After a moment, Shampoo finally recovered, breathing heavily around her gag.

"A minor scratch," the hag began. "A broken bone..."

She picked up the cotton and soaked more alcohol into it, then dabbed the wound. Shampoo's expression exploded into more muffled screams.

"Bruises and scars," the matriarch continued almost serenely. "Stings and welts..."

She stepped back and discarded her first cotton ball while waiting for her granddaughter to come down again.

"All but surface wounds," she poured more water over the wound, causing Shampoo to flinch.

"Things the Joketsuzoku brag about..."

She reached for the alcohol again. Shampoo's eyes widened.

"Things we claim prove how strong we are," the hag turned the bottle.

"How about evisceration?" she asked.

Alcohol hit the wound, Shampoo resumed screaming.

"How about disembowelment?" the hag raised her voice over it.

Cotton joined it; Shampoo jolted in place. The table jumped but with both Ranma and Luna there to hold her down, she went nowhere.

"Do you feel this pain, Granddaughter?" the matriarch continued. "I am but merely cleaning up after your foolishness. Its excruciating, is it not? The gentlest of touches, and this tiny hole in your hand reduces all that pride and strength to a sobbing mess."

That caught my attention, glancing at the matriarch who was lightly dabbing at the wound, then at Shampoo's face. Upon closer inspection, I saw something I thought I'd never see. There were tear streaks down the girl's cheeks and I suddenly realized her screams were less solid wails of agony, and more the jerking of one fighting back against the urge to cry.

"There is no shame in knowing your limits," the crone continued. "For as small a wound as this, it could cost you your hand, your arm, or even your life with little more than an infection. And the pain you feel here is nothing compared to them. And that in turn pales in comparison to a real injury."

The dabbing stopped, more water poured. Cologne didn't seem to care that she was making an ever larger mess with every move. The water spread the blood and alcohol across the table until it splattered on the floor.

"But if you wish to continue as bull-headed as you always have," she stated. "You can look forward to many more sessions like this. Now be ready, one more time-"

The next alcohol-induced scream of pain was weaker, but had no less effort behind it. Shampoo jerked her head to the side as her grandmother continued to probe and clean the wound, gasping around her gag like I had been from my run earlier. After a moment, we locked eyes, and I could see that look she'd only allowed out at the peak of our scuffle with Happosai.

She sat there for a moment, wincing as cotton probed her hand once more. But it was the way her breathing slowed down and an odd look seemed to come over her face as she stared at me. Then, all at once, she tilted her head, the expression of pain and fear begrudgingly being forced aside as she narrowed her eyes and redoubled her grit on her rope with a weak, but discernible growl.

"That's the way..." I heard Ranma quietly mutter. Must have been there before...

Cologne wrapped up the initial cleaning and quickly shifted into to closing the wound. With a skill born from years of... Well, whatever Cologne had done in nearly a century or more, she deftly threaded a freshly sanitized needle and began to sew the hole shut. Shampoo bit back more screams when she realized the needle had also been treated with alcohol.

"A lesson, Granddaughter," Cologne began after a period of relative silence. "Many are the obstacles in life you can smash. But many more are the pieces that will pepper you when you do. And as you've discovered today, sometimes those pieces can still cut you after the fact. Sometimes the pieces can even hurt you more than the obstacle itself. Do you understand?"

The only response from the younger warrior was her borderline hyperventilating gasps around the rope she was now clearly chewing a gouge into. However she did incline her head as if barely starting to nod.

"Very good," Cologne graced her granddaughter with a nod of her own. "A little forethought ahead of time saves a lot of pain later. And while you may not think about it, your hands are the second greatest tools on your body. The loss of just one can be devastating."

"Amen," I blurted in agreement. That earned a confused glance from Ranma and Shampoo, but Cologne just let a smirk grace her features while she began another round of cleansing around the now sealed wound. Another few minutes of cleaning and dressing the wound passed while Shampoo's breathing slowly returned to normal. She still winced here and there, but for the most part it seemed pretty much over. With one final tug and a pained grunt from her granddaughter, Cologne finished, allowing the younger Joketsuzoku to spit the rope out. As a minor note I'll say this: That rope was done.

"Keep it dry," Cologne ordered. "Though honestly, with the curse really you should just clean it gently and frequently every time you get wet. And for heaven's sake, don't punch a wall with that hand for a few days or we'll be having another 'talk' like this one."

Shampoo allowed herself to visibly blanch, a pained smile on her face as she nodded in understanding of her Grandmother's warning.

"Now," the hag continued, turning to me. "How about that cut on your forehead?"

You know, I think I'll-

"Pass," I deadpanned. Cologne chuckled.

"Suit yourself."

"Remind me not to get any injuries," Luna commented. A slight turn allowed me to view just how much the color had drained from her face. "That looked more painful than the actual injury, if that were possible."

"I'm not a doctor like Tofu is," Cologne replied curtly. "But what I've learned in my years is what works, if horribly crude. A few minutes of agonizing pain is well worth not losing one's limbs or life."

"Agreed," Luna nodded solemnly. "Speaking of agony… How bad do you think that blast hurt Happosai?"

"Meh," Cologne turned, grabbing a set of paper towels Mousse had returned with. "Back when we were younger, this happened all the time. A quick nap and he'll be as… Active-"

The hag visibly shuddered…

"- As always."

Luna's face dropped.

"Damn…" came a near breathless English curse from the Felis Sapien. Cologne cackled quietly at the response.

"Taking foreign languages I see…"

"It might help me in the future," Luna shrugged in return.

"Yeah…" I interjected slowly before moving on. "Luna's question has me wondering though. About how long do you think before Happosai's on his feet? I just blew his ass up with a military grade attack spell. And if he hasn't decided I need to be exterminated on principle already…"

I really shouldn't have let whimsy control me like that.

"I could try to hide you," Cologne tapped her chin. "But no doubt Happi will guess where you are. If he's actually out for blood, then even I won't be able to stop him."

"Maybe pervert Happi get caught by strange strong cop," Shampoo chose that moment to join the conversation, her voice now tired from her ordeal. "He not much liking fight first time with all stuff we breaking."

I felt my headache coming on strong again all of a sudden.

"Oh no…" I all but growled under my breath. "THAT guy… shit."

Cologne glanced between us as Luna and Ranma joined me in an all but verbal groan.

"Something else I should know about?" the matriarch asked.

"Some crazy police officer," Ranma shook his head. "He wasn't exactly a happy camper when he interrupted our little skirmish the first time. He's probably all kinds of pissed if he's found out about the second fight and cripple-guy-here's magic bomb attack."

Ranma finished by shaking his/her head again and pointing at me. Cologne's features pursed up for a moment.

"Strange," she spoke at length. "Normally the police leave us well enough alone."

"This is no normal cop," I informed her. "This is some kind of strange Kung Fu super-cop. If you believe me about the other things that are going on with the universe hopping, believe me now when I say this world finds ways to make anything work as a martial art."

"If that's true," Cologne frowned. "How strong do you think he is?"

"He scare Happi," Shampoo interrupted. "Ignore battle aura and-"

"Ignored Happosai's battle aura?" the hag interrupted her granddaughter, wide eyed before she turned to me, her own well-mastered dialect faltering for a split second. "Is true?"

"Yeah," I felt a sudden surge of fresh adrenaline at Cologne's response. "The guy was cool as ice for the situation. In this kind of setting that means he's either an idiot, or strong as all fuck… Pardon the language."

The hag waved away my swear.

"But yeah," I continued. "The guy didn't strike me as a moron. He was too in control from the start."

"He also didn't waste any movement," Luna pointed out suddenly. "I've seen that body language before. Everything he was doing was a measured action."

"Pi!" Cologne snarled under her breath, then raised her voice as she continued. "He's a master, there's no doubt about it. If he's responded to the second fight and that explosion you caused, you can bet he'll be wanting answers."

Luna chose that moment to snark.

"What is it with you, explosions, and attracting authorities?" she asked. In response, I could only sputter incoherently for a moment before settling on the best attempt at shaking my head that I could muster in a neck brace.

It was Ranma who seemed to have a bit of humor in him... her -I'm REALLY getting tired of having to assess my pronouns every five seconds...

"I don't know," the dual-gendered martial artist shrugged. "It's like a law of nature or something. They cause everything to move away from them really fast, except cops. They're like cop-gravity..."

"Shampoo wish they have stronger grav-tee then," said female replied. "Cops not fall on Happi nearly fast enough when he use fire burst technique."

My mouth opened to bring a retort of my own to the humor of the moment, but it died when Shampoo's statement fully processed.

"Since when did you know physics?" my mouth overrode my ass once more. In response, Shampoo 'hmphed' and crossed her arms while Cologne chortled at my surprise.

"We're a centuries old clan of warriors hidden deep in the hills and jungles," the hag smirked. "But we're not stupid."

There was a pause as Cologne looked out of the room for a moment, then smirked.

"Well, most of us."

Humor had, Cologne's expression shifted towards grim once more as she continued.

"But that won't mean anything if this officer you speak of is already out looking for you... Especially if he finds you in here. I won't bore you with details, but Shampoo, Mousse, and myself are from China, and this is the heart of Japan. The passports I secured to get us here weren't cheap, and petty grievances take longer to heal than I've had years on this planet. With the kind of trouble you've caused, being caught here with us would be more than just a problem for you."

"Wait," Ranma cut in, "You're not just going to kick him out are you? That's-"

Anything else he wished to add was silenced when Cologne treated him to a similar concussive punishment as her granddaughter.

"I'm jaded," she frowned. "Not heartless."

"Could have fooled me at times," Ranma grumbled while massaging a growing lump on his noggin.

"Hmmm..." Cologne intoned. "Indeed, but no matter. This is serious. Happosai's going to be on the warpath, and I'm certain there will be a formidable officer of the law on my doorstep within' the hour. Knowing your luck, Son-in-law, both at the same time."

Ranma snorted as if to say 'typical' before voicing the question now on everyone's mind.

"So what do we do with him?" the martial artist asked as he glanced at me. "No offense, but you're kind of a lame duck at the moment. I'm no doctor, but you started the day out as a wreck, and I don't think running is your thing."

I opened my mouth to voice my thoughts, but Cologne was faster.

"It's simple, really," the hag nodded. "He needs to go some place that neither Happi, nor this policeman can follow."

There was a pause as she cast me a sly smirk. She means world-hop, doesn't she? I mean, it's not rocket science. Just...

"Please tell me you're not going to try that little neck-hit-thing you did last time again..." It was a request more than a query when I said it. Cologne cackled in minor humor once more before giving me a soft, rather warm look of pity.

"Considering the neck brace you wear and your physical condition," she began. "I'd have to strike you hard enough to snap your neck just to be felt-"

The collective blanch by all other parties present reflected my grimace perfectly.

"-and I'm sure you'd object to being paralyzed from the neck down."

"Or killed," Luna muttered.

"He could achieve that by going back out to fight Happi," Cologne smirked. "But no, at this point I have no desire to see his body suffer more trauma. For services rendered to the clan this day, he deserves better."

"So you're going to drug me then," I concluded. After all, its the only option that made sense. However, Cologne gave me a look like I'd grown a third head. Never mind a second...

"In your condition, further meddling would be ill-advised," she stated bluntly. "Your body doesn't need more chemicals seeing as it can barely handle what it has to begin with."

With a deceptively labored-looking scuttle, the matriarch motioned for us to follow her from the office over to the kitchen. Mousse looked was busy tending to a large stock pot, likely in preparation for evening meals. Though, he did shoot a few glances at us. I'm not the best to tell, and it's actually kind of difficult to see through those glasses he had, but I'm certain the guy was giving me a slight stink-eye.

"What you need is food," Cologne continued with her train of thought despite mine going another direction. Another little bounce from her that I could swear I heard the rising squeak from, and she stood on the counter. Part of my mind that was wont for tangents screamed about dirty shoes on a food preparation surface, but I kept that thought to myself.

"Prepare an additional large batch of noodles," she instructed the man-duck. "Our guest has earned himself a meal as I'm sure you've no-doubt heard."

Mousse contemplated her instructions for a moment, giving me an actual stare that allowed me to see through, or rather, NOT see through the lenses of his glasses. I know I'm not one to talk, but jeeze, I thought my prescription was intense. At least you can see my eyes through mine. The 'swirly-lense' might be a for the sake of simple animation, but I couldn't even make out his pupils with the distortion his glasses created. It's no wonder the running gag is that he can't even identify a person standing next to him without his glasses. He's got to be legally blind. Or if not, it wouldn't take long pass that judgment from any given optometrist.

"Of course," his voice broke me out of my rumination. I was staring, and upon realizing that quickly found something else to take in. Like how small the kitchen actually was in this place. I never quite processed that fact last time. I was either too tired, or too doped up on Cologne's moonshine-Ritalin recipe to notice.

Probably both.

"Great Granddaughter, Ms. Luna," Cologne continued instructions. "I would like you two to clean up our little mess. We all know how the inspectors frown on bodily fluids near food. And I don't need that hanging over our head if and when our next expected guest arrives."

Both the warrior and the catgirl nodded, turning to find paper towels.

"And remember to use your good hand," Cologne added. "I'm only going to say it once."

Turning back, the crone's attention was brought to the last person in the room aside from myself.

"You look like you have something for me too," Ranma crossed 'her' arms and gave a wry smirk. Cologne contemplated her for a few seconds before pointing to the exit.

"Go, son-in-law" she instructed. "I believe you should return to the school before your obligations there pile up. While your help is most appreciated, the trouble that may be coming is trouble best avoided. Make use of your father's wisdom-"

Ranma scoffed. 'Genma' and 'Wisdom' were two subjects that didn't really belong in the same sentence.

"-And run away for now."

Ranma nodded, turning reluctantly to leave. But not before stopping and punching me on my (thankfully good) shoulder.

"Hey," 'she' commented. "Anyone willing to blast that pervert's okay in my book. Stay in one piece. I want to hear about the next round of crazy story when you get back here."

I shuddered like ice had been dumped down the back of my shirt. Oh the implications involved in that statement... This whole world-hopping, crazy loop mess. How many worlds were in this sequence of events? I still had, what, at least two more destinations? There was one I also slept through, right? I still have to go back to-

My eyes closed and I groaned. I had to go face HILD next, didn't I? And after I figure out whatever mess that ended up being, I'd have to still face down a dozen angry cyborg girls and their mad-scientist father of sorts in order to save Rei and her world...

Can- Can I just borrow Ranma for a while? Not Ranma himself; ALL of Ranma. Just throw a small army of unstoppable superhuman martial-arts crazies at The Numbers and let that mess sort itself out while I skulk about in the shadows. Even with this suit, even with some of Senbei's tricks and a new understanding of my magical little toy, there's no flippin' way I'm going to strong arm a rogue magical special forces unit. The very idea of-


A slap on the back knocked the air out of my lungs. I spent the next few moments bemoaning the my life in pained coughs as Ranma spoke again.

"Just focus on what's in front of you and stay in one piece," 'she' advised. I wanted to snap right about then about how smacking a guy with broken ribs in the back wasn't conducive to staying in one piece, but words failed me for obvious reasons.

"That's how I kept my head during Pop's training. Don't worry about the big picture. Just-"

"Ranma," Cologne's voice interrupted.

A loud, 'clonk' and a pained 'OW!' sounded as I turned to blink the pain-induced tears out of my eyes. Ranma was rubbing 'her' head with Cologne scowling slightly, walking stick at the high-ready.

"A reminder that he too is injured," she snorted. "Use this pain in memory later to mind your choice of contact."

"Ow... Jeez old hag," the Saotome grumbled. "You could have just said something."

"Yes," said hag cracked a small grin. "But that doesn't stick nearly as well when it comes to you, does it?"

Ranma 'heh'ed before lowering 'her' hand and returning with an equal smirk.

"Yeah, I guess it doesn't. Later!"

And with that, the Saotome bolted. I would make a witty comment on the speed of said departure, but I'm honestly not feeling it at this point.

"Now," Cologne continued as she turned to me. "Since that's settled..."

Her statement was left hanging in the air for a moment as she dropped herself back down to the floor and waddled towards the stairs in the back of the shop.

"Come with me."

There wasn't a reason NOT to comply, so I followed her up the stairs.

The last time I was here, I think I was up here for about two, maybe three minutes before I'd been led down into the shop proper. Still, I recognized the layout vaguely, including the bathroom where I'd hit Shampoo with water from the sink. Only now did I realize how utterly cramped the place was. I'm actually amazed I managed any kind of head start last time. What I felt was barreling down a hall had to be three, maybe four steps between the door to Shampoo's room, and afore mentioned bathroom.

"In here," Cologne indicated a room. It only took a second once I was inside to recognize it was hers. The hag shut the door behind us before she wandered over to a small box and began digging through it.

"I'll cut straight to the point," she shot over her shoulder... Then paused and turned a little more. "Sit."

I sat.

"As I was saying," she continued digging in the box. "I'm going to cut straight to the point. No use wasting our time with this: What do you think of my granddaughter?"


"I'm sorry?" I asked. I barely registered I'd said that, but almost before she finished her question, my tired brain started screaming warning sirens. There are certain leading questions in the world that have very obvious implications no matter how delicately you ask them.

"I said: What do you think of my granddaughter?" she turned around and placed both her hands behind her back in classic 'grandmaster' style. Her gaze was cool and nothing in her tone was threatening. She really was just cutting straight to the point.

Needless to say, I felt the sudden strong urge to deflect the question.

"And... Why do you want to know?" I started slowly. Cologne continued to gaze at me for a second before turning back to her box.

"No reason in particular," she stated casually. I was of two minds of that response. Part of me let out a breath I didn't realize I started holding. The other immediately shouted 'BULLSHIT!' internally.

"It's just..."


"I've never seen Shampoo act like that before," the hag continued. "Not the indignant, proud, bull-headed manner, mind you. Rather..."

There was a clatter of metallic objects and the matriarch muttered in annoyance for a second.

"Rather I've never seen her ignore Ranma before in all the time we've been here," she finished.

Cologne left it at that for the moment and all but pitched herself into the box, digging at it like crazy for several seconds.

"I'm going to have to sort this..." she grumbled. "Dammit Ling-Ling. You threw everything in one box again."

Cologne stood up and stepped back, glaring at the box for a moment. Then with absolutely no fanfare, kicked the box over. Immediately it spilled out hundreds of gemstones, gold trinkets, and other various odd but obviously expensive and exotic knick knacks.

"Not here..." she furrowed her brow for a moment after examining the pile. "What did I..."

The hag turned with a jerk, hopping over to a wicker dresser, pulling the top drawer and fiddling through it.

"She never ignores Ranma," she continued just when I thought she'd distracted herself with her search. "At least, she never waits very long to start doting on him. But when you returned... Look."

Cologne suddenly snapped around, taking up the grandmaster pose again as she waddled deliberately up to me.

"You and I both know that my granddaughter is about as single-minded as they come," she stated coldly. "I possess no delusions to believe otherwise. So imagine my surprise to see her race into the kitchen to grab you a glass of water the moment you four came through that door."

Cologne fixed me with a much more stern gaze before after she said this. For her size, she could definitely pull off a certain amount of intimidating.

"There are other tells," she continued. "Something happened when she glanced at you while I cleaned up her little accident. No sooner does that happen then her determination goes through the roof. I felt it. So I know it's not simply her panic to comply with my demands... You did something."

Cologne narrowed her eyes dangerously at me, sending a shiver up my spine.

"Didn't you?"

Okay... Urge to panic, rising. That accusatory tone would have the hairs on the back of my neck on end if it weren't flattened under a brace. The last thing I wanted or needed right now was to have BOTH of the 'Old Masters' pissed off at me. Especially when I was bound to show up next to the granddaughter of one of them in a week.

"I..." I began. My mind was racing to build an explanation up from scratch. My tendency to babble and over elaborate when nervous quickly making me fudge what should have been a simple, easy answer.

"...Might have gotten a bit of, sympathy? From her after our, first, encounter with Happosai."

It was delivered slowly and with a bit of a pause in places for word selection. Cologne was hammering me with this look that you'd get from a parent making a child squirm.

"Sympathy?" she barked suddenly, causing me to jump. "You got sympathy from, and think about this, the girl who's sole obsession is Ranma. Mind you, I approve of that obsession for obvious reasons, but sometimes she worries me... Not as much as that Kuno woman, but THAT is one mess I'm not going to touch."

And with no warning, Cologne turned away again, fishing through the drawer again before pulling out another.

"Where could I have put it-" she began again. Then suddenly, she stopped.

"Of course..."

Our conversation remained solidly on pause for about another minute or so as the crone scuttled over to a vanity (a rather fancy one at that) on the other side of the room. There she opened up a small jewelry box and began going through it's contents. During that time, I found myself inspecting her room in further detail. For the most part, I would say it more or less matched what one could perceive as an Eastern Style Room, complete with a traditional futon. Though, for someone who had only just recently relocated to Tokyo from China, she had some surprisingly large pieces of ornate furniture. Like the vanity...

I guess when Cologne decides to set up shop, she goes all the way. It makes me wonder if the furnishings were made locally, or if she had them delivered, or brought them with her... Never mind how much that must have cost. Actually, how much money was she throwing around to set up shop in Tokyo as a foreigner? Last time I checked, Tokyo was one of the most expensive cities in the world by square footage... The Nekohanten's no warehouse, but it wasn't exactly a dorm room either.

"I've had high hopes for my great granddaughter for years," Cologne glanced at me through the reflection on the vanity's mirror. "She's always made me quite proud with her strength, skill, and dedication. However, she's also stubborn, narrow-sighted, and single-minded- ah!"

Cologne turned around, palming something before hopping up on the bed next to me.

"I've tried to teach her lessons about it," she continued. "But she jumps to conclusions far too quickly and acts on impulse. You've seen first hand how that works out."

"Hulk Smash," I commented in an uneasy half-irony.

"Not familiar with that one," Cologne shrugged. "Sounds right though..."

The matriarch sighed, letting her head droop for a moment as she shook it back and forth.

"And you," she continued. "You just... I recognize that your actions are self-defense; survival. There's nothing really cunning about your behavior. You simply know just where to hit, and you don't hesitate to strike as hard as you can. But you only do so when it is needed, simple and clean..."

Cologne began to chuckle at this point.

"You are living Bakusai Tenketsu," she laughed.

I am the living breaking poi- Oh. Okay, that makes hilarious sense.

I laughed a little myself at the description, which only served to graduate Cologne's chuckles to louder, but surprisingly pleasant cackles.

"If you would humor this old woman," she continued with a laugh. "I think I'd like to call you by that name. After today, I think you've earned a warrior's title."

The neck-brace stopped my turn, but not my comment.

"I'm not exactly-"

"Nonsense," she cut me off. "Don't try to deny it. I am Joketsuzoku, and I know a warrior when I see one. You may not be one in the traditional sense, but you have been put through the trials of a warrior. This much you deserve. If this makes you uncomfortable, I apologize. Luna has informed me of your aversion to receiving gratitude. But understand, this title is not gratitude or some kind of special honor. It is a description as you are when you are a warrior in the field of battle. When you fight, you are he who finds the weakest point and attacks it with all his might. You are Bakusai Tenketsu... The Breaking Point."

There was a moment of silence as I processed that statement. I am- I- well... Okay. This is a thing. Also, double translation. Did she say that name twice, or did I just imagine it because of Washu's language program?

"Okay..." I finally managed to say. "I guess... If you're sure."

"It's as I said," she continued. "It is not some special honor, merely title acknowledging you as a warrior. Plus it has a nice bite to it. Too often in my life have I run into warriors with the most... unfortunate of names. At least this time I got to you before someone else could name you something absurd like 'Sleep Walker'..."

Cologne almost spat the statement out in distaste.

"Want a name like that?" she chuckled ruefully. "It makes you sound like a zombie."

I laughed a little too.

"Well, it did look like I was getting back up from the dead that one fight I had with Zoicite... and I appear like a soulless abomination to anyone with magic or chi sense. I'm sure if I shuffle around moaning 'braaaaains' a little I could freak a few people out."

And cologne laughed. It sounded like a bark.

"And that's what I like about you," she grinned. "You remind me of Happosai's good points."

"He has good points?" I asked. That earned another bark-laugh.

"He did..." she continued, her features becoming crestfallen. "Long ago."

Then Cologne's features immediately rose to form a scowl.

"But not anymore."

Cologne hopped down, stepping in front of me.

"But enough of that," she continued. "Bakusai, I would like to ask you again. What do you think of my great granddaughter, Shampoo?"

Oi! This again? What's the hag getting at here? She can't be-


Oh no no no no no no no...

My expression must have given me away because she laughed again.

"Don't be afraid to be honest with me here," she continued. "Your opinion must be at least positive, if your very presence is anything to go by. And by that I mean, your presence here in this world: A place you know as a story to entertain yourself with. A place where you ended up because you appear next to your... 'favorite'... characters."

She smirked.

"And who did you end up next to?"

My mouth opened, but no proper sound came out. For several seconds I attempted the time honored tradition of total denial, but my brain couldn't process anything coherent, and my mouth articulated that even worse. After a moment, I finally just ended with a 'that's unfair!' kind of gasp, the sound of Cologne's amused cackles being the only other coherent sound.

"She is pretty," Cologne continued into my silence after a moment. "I wouldn't fault a man for having a preference towards her. Even if she were but a picture in a storybook. "

"I don't-" I finally found words but got nowhere.

"Don't what?" the hag pressed. "Don't think she's pretty? Don't desire her? Don't like her?"

If she had teeth for this next part, I swear it would be a shark's smile.

"Don't want to admit it?"

Lord help me, I'm trapped with a martial-arts matchmaker.

"Oh, and let's not forget the other women..." her voice took on a teasing tone. "From what Luna's told me, quite the energetic collection too."

What color is my face?

Cologne' cackled some more.

Can't win for losing...

"So, the shy type..." came her voice in a more thoughtful tone. "Or maybe something else... Either way, I can work with that."

No, no ma'am, you are NOT going to 'work with that'! I am not-

"Not interested," I spat in an attempt to sound bored. In retrospect, it sounded more like I was making a threat.

"Everyone is interested," Cologne waved my response away. "And the more you try to cover it up, the more obvious the signs. Playing dumb and putting up this front of denial just makes your behavior all the more cute."


"CUTE?!" I all but shouted. "Cute? Cologne, I'm twenty-FIVE! She's- What? Fifteen?"

"Sixteen..." the older Joketsuzoku corrected.

"Sixteen!" I snapped. "Whatever! I'm a decade older than her!"

"And?" Cologne posited. "In another decade, that won't matter. She'll be twenty-six, you'll be thirty-five."

"That doesn't make what you're insinuating any less creepy," I snapped back.

"And just what am I insinuating?"

I scowled, annoyed that she thought she could play dumb considering what we both knew that we knew about each other.

"Seriously?" I asked. "You and I BOTH know exactly what's being said between the lines here. Don't insult my intelligence."

Cologne's smirk faded slightly to something that was more pleased than devious. She still chuckled as if she knew something I didn't, but at least it didn't look like I was the butt end of the world's biggest joke.

I really hope I'm not the butt end of the world's biggest joke. Actually, scratch that. I'm already the butt-end of the world's biggest joke, several worlds. I just wish the world- universe- multiverse- WHATEVER would give me a break. If the jokes keep coming, there won't be much of me left to laugh at. How funny is a dead man, universe? HOW FUNNY?!

…Terrorist puppets not withstanding.


I'm going to end up as a soul trapped in a puppet for that thought. These worlds have the means to pull it off.

"Alright," Cologne interrupted my latest bout of ironic self-depreciation. "I'll concede a little and admit I'm being a little pushy on the subject. Though I doubt you can fault these old bones for having a backup plan."

Cologne looked down, inspecting something she was holding.

"I'm sure my granddaughter has long since told you about that argument you were witness to this morning. Likely in detail."

I would nod, but...

"Che..." she scoffed. "I should let you know right now that I do not make threats, only promises. I knew she'd take it literally, and I figure you understand my ways well enough to see it a bluff..."

The hag's face turned up towards me again.

"I don't bluff."

She let that sink in for a minute, allowing me ample time to let all the air out of my lungs as I found myself sighing into my hand.

"There are two types of strength," Cologne continued in a lecturing tone, turning to pace away from me. "One is of the body, such as the Hibiki boy. Strong like a rock, steadfast like a rock..."

She spun, a wry grin on her features.

"Dumb like a rock."

Well, that definitely sounds like Ryoga...

"The other is strength of mind," she continued. "And the strength of the mind is just as varied as any of the body. It is a strength I fear is waning with my tribe. Our youngest generation are headstrong, but think with their fists. Shampoo made that clear with her little speech this morning. Solving problems by smashing them..."

The matriarch waddled back to me, taking my hand and gently shoving something into it.

"What is-" I began.

"Payment, as negotiated with Luna for services rendered," she smiled. "One relatively harmless, but distinctly magical trinket. Despite the mess of a situation that this looks to be, my granddaughter learned something from you. Even if it doesn't take today, she's learned to treat others from outside our village with a little more respect. Empathy has grown scarce in the Joketsuzoku. Our pride and our goals often blind us."

I shrugged the best I could.

"Okay, cool. Though-..." I couldn't help but snicker at Cologne's choice of words. "Yeah, I guess that works if I'm still considered an outsider. What with the way Shampoo was going on about calling me her village... Hell I don't-"

Even if I'm not the best at reading people, there's no way in hell I could miss Cologne's wide-eyed gaze shooting up at me. She didn't say anything, and there was more than enough time to realize something wasn't right.

"What?" I asked. The matriarch's mouth opened, she blinked, and then it closed again, doing an absolutely stunning impression of a gold fish. Thinking on my last statement, I pondered on the only fresh piece of information I'd given the hag.

"What?" I asked a second time. "What's important about the village thing?"

Cologne finally reacted with something other than an aquatic vocabulary, blinking several times and turning away abruptly almost as if searching for something to occupy herself with.

"I-it's nothing," she continued. "I'm just..."

Oh no. You are NOT pulling that shit with me. I'm not falling for the 'obvious reaction tell and bad excuse to cover it' routine.

"You didn't freeze up for thirty seconds in shock because of nothing," I frowned. "And I'm pretty damn certain just about nothing fazes you."

"I said it's nothing," she repeated more firmly.

"That's an awfully big nothing," I countered. "You can't just pretend I didn't notice that and wave it off as unimportant. If it wasn't important, it wouldn't have blindsided you like that and you wouldn't be trying to pretend it never happened."

I waited a few more seconds, but Cologne said nothing, staring out the window and likely deciding how to approach this new direction our conversation was taking. In what had to be turning into a rare moment of clarity, I knew that just outright threatening action to get information would end badly, but I had a way to apply SOME pressure...

"You know," I sighed. "I could always just go ask the duck."

"You ask him-" she whirled around so fast I felt the whiplash, "-and he'll kill you before you finish the sentence."

If I weren't already sitting down, I would have taken a step back.

Cologne turned and recovered her staff, brooding in silence once more.

"So tell me," I probed her verbal defenses again. "What's so important about shampoo calling me her village that Mousse would-"


"Oh god, she proposed to me," I said it out loud even as I thought it. "Didn't she?"

The question was more directed at my own thoughts than the matriarch with her back turned to me, but none the less, it was voiced. After a few seconds, I could hear faint cackles and noted the old woman was shaking slightly with laughter.

"She did," I reaffirmed my thought. "She proposed and didn't even real-"

"No." Cologne turned, cutting off her chortles and thumping her staff into the floor. "No, she did not."

She then took a deep, calming breath, shaking her head in the process.

"But you're not far off..."

Oooohhhhhhhhhhhh... Fu-

"Joketsuzoku law is very strict on how it deals with the relationships we have with the outside world. In part, it is to carry on our tribe, but also to ensure that what continues forward to be Joketsuzoku in the future will be of the highest quality and bring honor to its name. It is a tradition and a culture around which it's own existence is centered. In a way, the tribe is family as much as it is our people and our way."

The Matriarch looked up to make eye-contact with me once more.

"There are two ways for an outsider to become Joketsuzoku," she continued. "Obviously, one is to marry in. That is the common practice when one of our young ones finds a suitable male from outside the tribe."

I don't think I like where this is going...

"The other, is for a warrior to grant an outsider a place in the tribe. This doesn't happen often, for reasons I assume you would find obvious. But it is possible. Usually the honor is reserved for those who aid the tribe in times of great need. But sometimes, it is simply a sign of great respect... If occasionally misused."

I'm really not liking where this is going.

"So," I interjected. "Why-"

"Why is such a declaration important?" Cologne interrupted. "Well, to make it simple, the one who bestows citizenship upon an outsider, by our law, is also allowed first chance to woo them should they be so inclined. Thus, as often as not, granting an outsider citizenship to the village is traditionally seen as one step away from proposing.

Exasperated face: Go.

"So," I sighed. "In short, by calling me her village..."

I placed my hand firmly over my face.

"...Shampoo has inadvertently called dibs on me."

Cologne grunted an affirmative.

"You still have that Lagavulin downstairs?" I asked. "I feel I may be on my way to becoming an alcoholic real soon."

"Cheh," the matriarch snorted. "You're not getting any alcohol in your current condition. And as much as you've been making an effort to moan and groan about everything, she's still betrothed to Son-In-Law. Existing arrangements take precedence over new ones. Consider yourself the backup plan."

I shot Cologne a death glare through my fingers.

"If I'm not a third wheel, I'm the spare tire," I lamented. "Either way, you have a real habit of making me feel like property rather than a human being."

"I'd like to say I get that a lot," the crone's voice had a bit of an amused edge to it. "But honestly, you're the first to say it outright to my face."

"Joy..." I groaned. For a few seconds I just contemplated my new status as, apparently, backup fiancée. As if I needed that kind of psychological luggage on top of everything else. I mean, on top of trying not to end all life in one universe, and saving another world from a madman and...

Actually? Fuck it. Soon as Washu fixes my shit, I'm not coming back here. I'm not dealing with this, THE END.

Taking my mind off of the rather insane subject at hand, I decided to look, incidentally, at the object in my hand.

"So..." I asked, gazing at what looked like some kind of ring with a large gemstone on it. A gemstone that for the life of me, I couldn't decide which color it was. I was reminded of cheap holographic collectors' cards.

"What is this, and how does it work?"

Cologne took my change of subject as cue to adopt a slightly more serious face as she bounded back up on the bed next to me.

"That, young man," she began, "Is Reading Rainbow."

Had I been ingesting anything at this time, my reaction would have been ripe for a spit take.

"Blu-ah... What? Reading... Say that again?"

"Reading Rainbow," Cologne nodded. "That which reads the color of one's moods."

I blinked.

"You gave us a mood ring?" I asked. Mind you, a mood ring named to conveniently match a certain popular PBS series from my childhood, but...

"I assure you," cologne outpaced my thoughts. "This is no children's toy. I promised a magical, but harmless trinket, you get a magical, but harmless trinket."

"So what does it do?" I asked with a slight air of impatience.

"I was getting to that," Cologne shot me an annoyed look. "The Reading Rainbow-"

I snickered, Cologne shot me another look but didn't wait.

"-Was once used by the Joketsuzoku as a means to train our speakers and representatives in the subtle art of reading the emotions of others. When worn, the wearer could then sense the emotions of others, allowing them to see past false pretext and even the most hardened emotional mask."

"Neat..." ...Is what I said. What immediately came to mind however, is that, to put it bluntly, we're accepting the gift of a magical empathy reader, and we were going to give that to Kitsune? Give the girl who's nickname for daily use being 'Fox' the tool to read people even more easily? Is it just me, or is there someone out there in the cosmos who might agree with me and consider that a REALLY bad idea?

I mean, one can CALL that harmless, or at least, not outright dangerous. But then again, this is the Joketsuzoku, who's idea of NOT dangerous is... Well. For fuck's sake! Shampoo considered walking through walls an acceptable form of instant commercial renovation for her own personal convenience!

Then again, Joketsuzoku like Cologne probably wouldn't give away something if it were useful... And she described it's use in the past tense-

"What's wrong with it?" I snapped. Cologne seemed taken aback at my response.

"I beg your pardon?"

"What, is wrong with it?" I asked more slowly. "You just handed me the ultimate politician's training aid without so much as flinching. By what you described alone, I can already imagine the damage that could be done just by handing this to Nabiki and saying 'have fun'. What's the catch?"

Cologne blinked, surprise on her features, then rolled her head back and laughed whole-heartedly before patting me (gently) on the shoulder.

"Very perceptive!" she smiled. "I was planning on a cryptic warning, but you already seem to know better. The answer is how the Reading Rainbow actually informs the wearer of the emotions it is reading..."

The crone chuckled again and sat down for once.

"As you might suspect, to be as useful as this has been implied, yet end up buried in a box... Well, one might consider it could be defective. And to be honest, it is. After all, it only got used once. I'll give you three guesses who tried it, and the hint is that she's in this room."

"I don't know," I cut in. "That hardly narrows it down..."

Cologne laughed again but continued.

"It was an interesting experience... You see, in order to convey such a wide array of emotions people have with the discretion needed to not give itself away, it was created so that it would inflict the mood it detected upon its wearer."

I flicked my eyes over to the side. "And..." Then my eyes widened. And once more my palm came up to hide my face.

"God..." I muttered through my hand. "That's... "

"Completely useless," Cologne finished. "I attempted to read one of my friends at the time. She thought it was a funny idea. As a result, I found myself laughing. That made her start laughing, and pretty soon I was trying my best just to breathe until someone could get it off. After that, we decided that it was lucky we didn't try on someone who was angry."

"So," I began. "Rule One: Beware emotional feedback loop."

Cologne nodded.

I feel a snark coming on...

"You know," I began. "It seems like the more I come across magical artifacts, the less and less reliable they seem."

"Three fourths of everything is garbage," the hag shrugged. "You get a lot of failures before you get a success."

"So why do you keep the junk around if it's failed?" I asked. "Or rather, failed, and potentially dangerous?"

Cologne gave me a smirk as she cast a glance back at her overturned box.

"Sometimes," she said in a more passive tone. "Even garbage has its uses."

"Careful," I exploited a verbal opening. "You might earn the nickname 'Junk Master' if you-"

The punch was light and well aimed so as not to aggravate my injuries, but the hag made her point. I winced, twisting to cast a grimace at her. In return, Cologne just shot me a cocky little smirk between another round of light cackles.

"Can dish it out, but you can't take it," I grumbled in English.

'Knock Knock!'

"Great Grandmother?" Shampoo's voice carried through the door. "Food is made."

"Ah, excellent," the hag nodded, hopping down off the bed and motioning to me. "Come."

Two minutes later saw me sitting in the restaurant office once more, staring at a bowl of noodles I swear was as big as my upper torso.

No, really. Most soup bowls come in the sizes of small, medium, and large. This thing was like someone decided to skip 'Mondo' and 'Huge' and jump straight to 'Gargantuan'. I've made pots of spaghetti that lasted me a week that were smaller than this.

Did I mention the bowl was full? I feel that observation should be relevant here.

"I'm not sure even Usagi could finish this," Luna commented. "Why-"

"Shampoo tell Mousse to make largest bowl we have," said Joketsuzoku interrupted. "New friend need good meal after mess with Happi. Luna-kitty agree, yes?"

"Well," Luna glanced at the soup uncertainly. "Yes, but I'm thinking this is going just a bit far."

Shampoo rolled her eyes before turning to me, a hopeful look on her face.

"What you think?" she asked.

I glanced down at the bowl, wide across as my torso, tall as a half of a gallon jug of milk, filled to the brim. There was no way I was finishing this. Not in one sitting anyway.

"I think I'm going to need a doggy-bag," I replied. Shampoo's face screwed up in confusion.

"What is bag full of dog having to do with ramen?"

"A to-go box," I corrected.

"Is soup, make mess in box," Shampoo frowned.

Luna's hand came up to her face as she shook her head, earning a fresh look of confusion from the younger warrior.

"Right," I blew some air out of the side of my mouth in lieu of shaking my head. "Literalist..."

I returned my gaze to the ramen in front of me, ignoring as Luna began verbally berating Shampoo for 'knowing what he meant'.

"Luna," I cut into their arguing. "You want some too?"

She barely ate more than me all day, she's got to be starving.

"I-" the catgirl paused. "You really should worry about yourself first..."

"Can we not have a repeat of our earlier conversation?" my voice raised just a hair, and then I laughed absurdly at my bowl as I continued speaking. "There's no way I'm going to finish even half of what's in this. So grab an extra bowl or two and we can all chow down."

Luna's eyes flicked down, just for a split second, betraying what she wanted. I just waited, giving her a slight eyebrow raise as if to say: 'I can read you like an open book'. After a moment, she cracked the faintest of smiles, blowing a lock of hair away from her eyes to mask a 'fine'.

I'll take it.

With Shampoo's continuing help (and some help from a still oddly quiet Mousse), my Gargantuan bowl of ramen was reduced to merely Mega-Colossal. A feat that left me rather confused considering the portion size of the bowl Luna was given. Part of me suspects Joketsuzoku magical bullshit might have been involved. Subspace pocket, meet subspace bowl of holding. Or maybe I'm just too worn out to accurately gauge sizes...

Honestly, I want to blame it on Mousse. It would make sense that he somehow managed to extend his hidden-weapon technique to 'hiding' more soup in a bowl than should fit. How would that work? I dunno, Ranma Logic? If they can make Tea Ceremony into a combat art that involves hanging 'kneeled' from the ceiling, then-

Luna's staring at me.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Fine-...ish," I replied in a disjointed fashion. "Just thinking."

"About what?" the Felis Sapien asked.

"Eh..." I waved my good hand dismissively. "Nothing worth talking about."

"Oh," the Felis Sapien nodded, giving me this knowing look for a moment. The kind of look that said 'You really were thinking something important, but don't want to talk about it'. Which is wrong, but I couldn't really care less at the moment. Besides, what am I going to say? 'Hey, you're thinking I'm hiding something, but I'm not, so chillax'?

"Speaking of," Luna spoke up again. "What was Cologne talking to you about up stairs?"

That actually made me grimace. Being told in so many words that you were essentially backup husband material for a bride who's not only fictional, but ten years younger than you, fifty times stronger, and also fully aware of how you perceive them? I don't care if I technically like Shampoo and think she's a cute character. That's just-...

God dammit Cologne!

My congealed thought came out as a snort thinking back on it. If I could shake my head, I would as I responded.

"Meddlesome old hag stereotype," I grumbled, much to Luna's confusion. Rather than immediately continue, I chose to stuff my face with noodle. It only bought me a few seconds however, as she fixed me with a head tilt that promised no end to queries until I coughed up what I meant. But stubborn is as stubborn does, so I decided to take the topic in another direction, remembering our 'payment for services rendered'.

"Just our reward for a job well done," I answered her aloud. "I'm not entirely sure on it..."

With a deft grab, I pulled 'Reading Rainbow' out of my pocket, placing it on the table where Luna could get a good look at it. Unfortunately before I could start explaining our new mood-detecting trade commodity, Shampoo decided to test how my mood was reacting to cranial chemical imbalances.

"Oooo... Has you decided to propose to Luna-kitty already?"

To be fair, even as her comment caused the both of us to freeze in place, part of me wanted to say yes to that, just to see the look on their faces. I mean, really. A setup like that couldn't be any more obvious if it were drawn, inked, printed, and converted to animation.

"Is very cute couple," Shampoo chirped in an almost TOO chipper tone that reeked of something being up. And like that, a very brief temptation to be silly was replaced with a much less brief urge to retaliate in an inappropriate, yet overkill, manner.

In an attempt to control my obviously compromised decision making process, I inhaled slowly and deeply before calmly exhaling and emptying a glass of water-


-In Shampoo's face.

"Did you just-!?" Luna gawked as we both glanced at the purple and pink kitten now scrabbling not to fall off the edge of the table.

"I've about had it with people telling me how my life should go," I grumbled. In the mean time, Luna reached over and gently pulled a now very irate warrior kitten up. As soon as she was able, Shampoo shot me the miniature murder-ball version of a stink-eye. I returned it with my most weaponized 'get over it' eye-roll before returning my attention to the meal I should have downed a while ago.

Shampoo just mewed in response, causing Luna to blink in surprise, admonishment dying in her throat.


"What?" I asked.

"She speaks Felix in this form," the Felis Sapien informed.

She does?

"Huh," was what I articulated around that thought. "Well what'd she say?"

Luna just giggled a bit as Shampoo mewed again.

"Her dialect is a little broken," Luna smirked. "But she more or less said 'finish soup, and don't spill any if you know what good for you'."

It took a second, but then my eyes cast down at my bowl of, still steaming, ramen noodle soup. A bowl big enough to bathe a kitten in. Eyes coming back up, I was met with a very human smirk coming from the now diminutive warrior.

Another long, slow, if slightly painful breath followed this before I finally turned my attention to my bowl, tiredness catching up in my voice from today's insanity.

"Fair enough..."

In one last bit of inspiration, I realized. The day wasn't over yet.