A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.

- Benjamin Franklin


Considering my luck as of late, I can't say I'm completely surprised at the amount of sleep I managed to get 'between' Ranma's universe, and what I quickly verified as the universe of Ah my Goddess.

"AH! GET OFF ME!"

'WHUD!'

"OOMPH!"

'PLOOMPH!'

None.

One of the really big problems about one's mode of transit being literally based on loss of consciousness, you can't really assess your arrival point right away. So when the warm comfy thing I was somehow leaning vertically against suddenly shoved me forward, I only had enough initial processing power to feel something strike my forehead before the sensation of falling in a half dream caught up with me.

And then it stopped, and for some reason I registered a mild pain on my cheek.

"BE CAREFUL!" a very familiar voice snapped in alarm.

"Wait- You're-"

Something tugged my arm, and my dogged mind registered a 'fwip' sound, followed quickly by the sound not unlike my dog chewing on a piece of plastic. It didn't take long for the chewing to turn into a mild 'pop' and a splash. At which point, something warm ran along my arm.

I had my eyes open by this point, but the world had yet to resolve properly before a third voice joined the commotion.

"YOU HURT! I KILL!"

My brain booted right then and there, even as the other voice started to shout in righteous indignation in an attempt to stave off the sound of a human bulldozer plowing it into a wall.

I was on the floor, hot soup warming my side as it spread on the ground, my face and forehead protesting a recent unexpected journey from the upright to the prone. Strangely, my neck didn't protest, and for just a split second I thought the worst.

Thankfully, my knees were reporting a recent skinning attempt in just fine, so I breathed a sigh of relief over a false alarm.

Another loud crack, like a large piece of wood being smashed against cement brought me further to my senses.

"Just how are you able to-" The loud surprised voice began before it was interrupted with a sharp 'WHAM!' And then it croaked in pain. "-GUAH!" then wheezed "punch so hard..."

There was a meaty sounding crack followed by the sounds of more stuff breaking, my vision now showing me to be cheek to floor in a warehouse. A warehouse I quickly remembered as the home base of a one Marller.

"Shampoo! Calm down, you've made your point!" came a panicked sounding voice.

"Is not killed," angry, halting words snapped back. "I fix first."

Groaning, as I realized what I was hearing was in fact, a very angry-sounding Chinese murder-machine running at its maximum overkill settings, I pushed myself up on my left arm, glancing at the most peculiar sight.

A naked, angry, very much mortal Chinese girl, was DEMOLISHING a Demon First Class with brute force.

No seriously. Shampoo, in what appeared to be her version of a blood rage, was more or less validating the effectiveness of Heihachi Mishima's famous ten hit combo on the likes of a being that technically out-powered her like a nuclear warhead out-powers a fireant. Or at least, it looked that way at first. It became clear after a few moments of blank-minded watching that punches that she would otherwise shatter the concrete when she missed, only seemed to wind Marller when they connected. The problem was that Shampoo was making a large number of them connect, quite frequently.

Given the punishment she was delivering, anyone else would be a broken pile of meaty bone flakes on the ground by now. Marller regularly tanked explosive anti-demon ordinance...

'CRACK!'

"AHWAH! That was a rib..." the demon winced.

Still damned impressive if you ask me.

"Shampoo, she's on our side!" Luna's voice piped more in panic.

"She no act like it!" the naked Chinese girl snarled.

About this moment, I realized that if I didn't say something, Shampoo was likely to continue her assault on Marller until she slowed down enough to give the demon an opening. And while the pummeling was impressive, Shampoo would lose, and lose HARD once Marller managed any kind of magic.

"Stop!" I announced. Or at least, that's what I attempted to announce. It came out as a slightly congested cough of sinuses that had recently been subjected to spices. Thus, 'stop' sounded more like 'stough!'.

"Well..." A familiar voice somehow managed to send a chill right down my spine. "This is certainly new."

I turned my head with a snap to face the voice.

This failed, because neck brace.

As a result, I participated in a complex, but smooth motion of rolling on to my still-sore right arm, and immediately going down in a heap.

"Oops..." The chilling voice seemed to impress equal parts disdain and concern at the same time. "I forgot, you startle easily."

Hild, or rather sub-form Hild (one one-thousandth I believe it was?) floated into my field of vision as I rolled onto my back. She glanced me up and down once, biting her lip while shaking her head slowly.

"That condition just won't do at all," she announced in a matter-of-fact tone. "Come on, get up."

"Yeah," I groaned, shifting weight to learn against a pillar to my left. "Sure, let me just heal instantly here and-"

'SHNMP! - CREEEEEEK-tut-tut-tut...tut...'

All sarcastic and/or trivial thoughts stopped. The sound of metal shifting around you tends to do that. Had the sound not been really close to me, I might have simply frozen in place to determine what caused it. Instead, I stumbled back, jerking my hand away from anything that might have been about to take it off-

'POP!'

I jumped as a flash of electricity sizzled in front of my face, causing me to stumble back further.

"HOLD STILL!"

Of course I didn't. Now fully startled, I spun towards the sound of Hild shouting at me, and I was just in time to see the fractional lady of hell itself jerk back in mid-air, a look on her face that had abandoned her usual 'cool and unamused at the universe' facade and replaced it with a look that was more akin to a cross-eyed person staring down their nose through overly small spectacles.

No sooner did that look cross her face, did the demon dart forward, shoving me back as she grabbed my left arm in a grip hard enough to cause me to grunt in complaint. After stumbling to a stop, the Daimakaicho just held me in place while her head turned to look at the pinned arm.

"A new toy I see," she stated, quickly regaining that composure that made her so spooky. "A fifth-dimensional isolated microfold."

A- What?

I blinked in silence as I tried to process the comment. Still a little muddled from just getting drop-kicked awake, the tech words did not morph into a conscious mental image until I followed her glance to my left into a dark circular mass with lense-like edg-

Oh...

OH!

"JESUS CHRIST!" I snapped in shock.

"Not quite," Hild chuckled, releasing my hand as I carefully brought my other arm up to push the 'access' button.

'Fwip.'

Missing the humor in Hild's response, I continued with my mind one-tracking on my own concern as my eyes glanced back at the smoke and sparks that had startled me.

"Are you kidding?!" I snapped. "I almost brought the building down on us!"

The Daimakaicho rolled her eyes as if such trivial things as property destruction were of no-... Okay, yeah. My mind walked right into that one.

"It's nice to see you too," she commented idly. "Though since we last met, you've apparently been busy."

Hild gave me another long up and down glance, sending a now perceptible chill through me once more.

"And- Goodness are you fragile," she continued in a slightly more shocked tone. "What is this mess? Organic chemistry imbalances, physical injuries on par with critical trauma-" she paused again, her eyes narrowing as she appeared to inspect the space around me.

"Where's Senbei?"

That got a pause in my thoughts. And with the inability to turn my head, I opted for slapping at my shoulders like a dofus.

"Senbei?" I asked. "Senbei!?"

No response, captain.

"Ohhh... sh-" I began, gripping my forehead with my 'bad' arm. "I forgot to make sure he was there!"

Great! I left him with Ranma- In Ranma- at Ranma... I don't have time to parse the correct term. I left him there! He's probably already teaming up with Happosai for all the luck he can... Does he 'eat' it or-

"Focus," Hild's hands gripped my shoulders. "We have things to do today, so I need you to be in the here and now. You can just grab Senbei later. Right now-"

A crash interrupted the Daimakaicho, reminding us that Shampoo was still proving that momentum can best even a demon. Luna, trying not to get in the way, was desperately trying to convince the Joketsuzoku to lay off the Incredible Hulk routine.

Marller, to her credit, was still standing, though even her demonic constitution was starting to show signs of the pummeling she was taking.

"Okay... I got it. You can stop it now..." she grumbled out in pain.

"Ma-chan," Hild sighed. "So little creativity. Can she not even see that curse?"

With a snap of her fingers, Hild did... something. What exactly wasn't immediately apparent until suddenly the warehouse's fire suppression system kicked on. In an instant, naked murder-girl had become a fluffy purple death ball. One that carried on in its momentum for a few more seconds before pausing to inspect its own paw.

Then, with a huff, kitten-shampoo sat down, pouting with an angry mewl.

Marller, now free of the brutality she'd been on the receiving end of, stumbled slightly before resting her hand on a wall to right herself.

"Finally," she gasped. "Were I mortal, I'd be dead twenty times over by now..."

"Twang!"

That sound was-

We all jumped backwards as a section of overhead steel beams came slamming down with a thunderous racket. Not even a split second later, sheet metal panels and other overhead odds and ends joined it. After the cacophony died out, the warehouse had undergone spontaneous renovation with the inclusion of an open-air atrium. Now firmly back on my ass, I could only glance at the pile of crumpled metal with something akin to a disconnected, terrified shock.

Luna was similarly parked on her own ass nearby, Shampoo firmly embedded to the top of her head with eyes the size of saucers.

Marller was...

There was a twitch of movement from the wreckage and a groan of pain.

Oh my.

"Owwww..." came a whine, a hand sticking out from under some sheet metal.

"Huh..." Hild's voice reached me in a detached, but far more neutral tone. "I would have pegged that as Senbei's doing, but he's not here."

"Mreow..." Shampoo murmured. Luna responded in an equally shocked sounding tone.

"Yes... Many are the pieces."

With seeming nary a care in the world, Hild floated effortlessly over the wreckage, hand on her chin as she glanced around the mess. As she did so, she spoke in a slightly more sweet tone.

"Ma-Chan? Are you still alive under there?"

"H... Hai. Hild-Sama" came the strained reply.

With the initial shock of the moment wearing off, I started climbing back to my feet, my eyes darting around a bit more in an attempt to spot any more evidence of immediate danger. To be fair, I didn't know what I was looking for.

"Okay," I huffed, "I'm awake."

I tried to look up, but the brace wasn't having it.

"Anything else I should know about?" I continued as sarcasm came to the surface to smother my fear. "We're off to a wonderful start here. Not awake five minutes and I've almost been killed twice. Do I hear three? Can I get three?"

"Mreow..."

"Yes," Luna responded. "He gets a little testy when he's tired... And almost killed."

When the universe didn't decide to finish the job, I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, forcing myself to calm down a little.

"I need to start keeping a running Death Count," I grumbled, turning towards the pile of wreckage again. "That's number three? Four? Do I get a stamp card for this shit?"

"I wouldn't suggest such taunts right now," Hild floated to a landing and stepped over to me. "The System Force appears to be slightly unstable in proximity to you. And while tempting fate isn't as 'direct' elsewhere, the System Force literally is fate here. And it could respond unpredictably to a transient outside anomaly."

She then pointed at the pile of wreckage that was covering a still-twitching Marller.

"Case in point."

I glanced at the twitching, in-need-of-some-assistance, demon buried in rubble and frowned.

"I didn't say anything ironic before that fell on her."

"No, but she did."

I opened my mouth to counter, then shut it again. Thinking on Marller's words before she got buried. Eh... I guess that could be counted as tempting fate. And that's the last thing I really want to do. Knowing Narrative Causality can cause problems because the universe is just 'that way' is one thing, knowing it would actively try to punish me for a verbal misstep?

God, I HOPE it's verbal. My mind's a running dialog of thoughts that kick Murphy in the balls about once every five minutes. I don't think I could maintain the level of mental discipline needed to keep from slipping in such a manner. If fate itself is reading my mind and waiting for me to cock up, then just kill me now and get it over with.

"Don't worry," Hild stated dryly. "Your thoughts are safe."

Oh for the love of... REALLY?!

I shot the Daimakaicho an irritated look. She just rolled her eyes and smirked. An irrational part of my mind wanted to knock said smirk right off her face. Exhausted, saner parts of my mind reminded the irrational part that such an action might as well be ritual suicide. Obviously noting my sudden burst of anger, or just reading my internal narrative outright, Hild just reached out and placed a hand on my shoulder.

"Lighten up," she half consoled. "Even among my kind, deep mind reading is considered a bit rude. So I won't mess with your head... too much."

Then she spun towards Luna, a trollish smile on her features.

"Intelligence gathering not withstanding."

Luna sputtered, Shampoo looking slightly confused at what was going on from the top of her head. Hild gave them no opportunity to actually form a reply before she was speaking to me again.

"I'm just messing with you," she smirked. "I've already checked all your memories and I must say..."

The Daimakaicho shot a wry look at the pile of wreckage Marller was still buried under.

"You do a better job at causing a ruckus than she does. I must say, I'm impressed. I want to ask you to come work for me, but you're, you know: Mortal. I might be able to fix that, but it would involve ripping your identity from that body and stuffing it into a good demon body. Unfortunately, good demon bodies are hard to come by. Even with my powers, I can't just snap my fingers and poof one up."

The demonic CEO paused for a moment, then shrugged.

"Well, I could, but then we'd have quality issues. I could always tie it together with the normal method of making fresh bodies, but I don't think you can wait around here that long..."

I don't recall Hild being this rambly before. Did something happen between last time and now? She's actually being a bit more chipper too.

"-ould need to be slapped with a rapid aging spell or-"

Reminds me of Urd.

"-but then I'd have to assign a doublet-"

Yep, they're definitely related.

"Uh..." I spoke up, interrupting Hild's now obvious rambling. "Excuse me? What are you-"

"She almost said it!" Hild grabbed me by both shoulders and grinned in a near manic way. "The plan worked!"

Then she paused.

"Mostly..."

Then back to grinning.

"But she almost said it!"

"Plan?" I asked into the first gap she gave me. It was enough to stop her in her tracks and glare at me.

"Yes," she went from disturbingly borderline chipper (for Hild), to the more familiar tone I was used to. "The PLAN...?"

Plan... Plan... What was I- Oh yeah.

"Oh," I sighed, remembering. "That plan. The plan to-"

I stopped, blinking.

"Wait," it was coming back to me. "It worked? After that train wreck of an abort?"

Hild nodded, her familiar sly smirk returning as she did so.

"Almost," she chirped.

If I recall, I'd essentially chugged more sake in five minute than I had any form of alcohol in my entire life. For the love of... Washu? ...How did that clusterfuck of a conversation-

"HOW?!" I vocalized.

Hild floated into a levicline (Levitating recline? Just work with me here), and adopted a story telling face. As she did so, I glanced back at Marller, still twitching and looking like a poor parody of the Wicked Witch of the East... You know. The one Dorothy's house landed on.

"Well," Hild began into my observation. "As it would happen-"

"Hold that thought," I raised my hand. Hild scowled but surprisingly, didn't push her authority. I turned and walked over to the debris pile, glancing about it the best I could try and see if anything was going to be a problem, then flipped the dial on my suit, grabbed a piece and gave a tug.

Of course, the genius I am, I forgot the suit still wasn't actually synced to me, and I only managed to make metal creak in protest.

"Ma-chan?" Hild asked from over my shoulder. "How long are you going to play dead under there? We have an intern to brief."

"I'm... Working on it," was the labored reply.

"I think she needs a hand," I blanched.

"She's a big girl," Hild replied. "She can handle herself."

"I... Don't think she normally gets crushed by a collapsing building," I pointed out.

"After being pummeled by a superhuman," Luna chimed in.

"Mreow!"

"Even if she did deserve it," came the translated.

Hild rolled her eyes, mulling on the situation in front of her. Then she sighed, floating in to examine the wreckage before just scoffing and flicking her fingers at it.

I was forced to jump back as the rubble, all but silently, suddenly accelerated up away from the ground and out the hole in the roof. Days into this mess, and having borne witness to teleportations, levitation, laser swords, explosive attack spells, and even one instance of a matrix-esque 'back door', just seeing plain old ordinary debris just pick up and fly away like it was falling in reverse...

"Huh..." I verbalized. "Gravity manipulation?"

Stepping forward cautiously, I reached out with my good arm to help Marller regain her feet. The demon, humbled by the beating she'd taken at this point, accepted the offer without complaint. At the same time, Hild hovered along in her half-recline as she replied.

"Waste of effort," she shook her head. "Uniform motion of a fluid, which is what that pile of scrap would effectively be at that scale, requires continuous updates across every individual macro-object in real time. While it's certainly within my power to do so, why? There are easier ways to achieve results."

After helping Marller up, the subordinate demon went about adjusting herself, straightening her outfit and carefully keeping her dazed expression off her boss.

"Take Ma-Chan here," Hild continued. "Clever and powerful as she can be, she does tend to over think things and ignore the obvious..."

Hild then rolled her eyes.

"Like how everything on top of her only needed to go one direction."

She then spun back to me.

"So tell me," Hild asked with a smirk. "If you get buried in a rubble pile? How do you get it off?"

Blind sided by the sudden pop quiz, I stammered for a moment before answering unevenly.

"Lift it off?"

Hild blinked.

"And as implied, fight gravity to do so?"

I blinked.

"You're mortal," she waved it away. "You don't get to toy with universal constants so I don't expect a real answer. But it's simple. Ma-chan?"

'POOF!' a notebook popped into existence in front of the Demon First Class.

"Write this down..."

Even dazed, Marller reacted to the instruction as if she were on fire, grabbing the pen and scrambling to ready herself for note taking.

"Instead of burning energy, running a bunch of math, or anything so tedious, you can just flip the force constant on gravitation for the matter involved."

There was silence for a moment as Marller scribbled.

"What?" I asked, getting but not quite connecting what she said.

"What?!" Luna asked in a slightly more frantic tone.

"Gravitational Force Constant," Hild turned a 'It's rather obvious' look on Luna. "A value of... One. Reverse the value to negative one. Turn gravitational attraction into gravitational repulsion and let nature do the work for you. Easy, right?"

"ARGH!" Marller suddenly exclaimed into the explanation. "Of course I'd forget something so SIMPLE!"

"Simple?" Luna turned to the demon with a look quickly approaching horror. "She just proposed rewriting reality itself!"

Marller stopped scribbling, glancing up at Luna like the felis sapien had missed the memo.

"Uh... Duh? Demon, first class, unlimited license."

Luna's mouth snapped shut with an audible click.

"Forget I said anything..."

"Eh..." Hild waved a hand dismissively. As she did so, she reclined further, staring out the hole. If I caught what she said right, she just treated a mechanical problem like a computer coding problem. Not that this was unexpected for this world, but it did bring up some thoughts to refresh my mind about the setting. In Ah My Goddess, the deities treated the laws of physics like computer code. Magic was programming...

And, Hild treated a physical constant like a single variable. Kind of genius really. But, wait-

"Gravity's value is one?" I asked aloud. "Uh... That seems- stupidly simple?"

"You're probably thinking in silly human terms," Marller interjected, risking a glance at Hild for any indication to shut up. Seeing naught but a gentle wave to continue, she gathered a little more courage and expanded on her explanation.

"Newtons, grams, all that stuff. Inaccurate and complicated really. And totally made up by humans. If you want to be accurate, you need to use natural numbers... Your puny mortal brain probably couldn't handle them though, so really, no loss."

Puny mortal-

"Ma-chan?" Hild interrupted Marller's growing smug in a dangerously sweet tone. "That puny mortal brain did come up with a plan a bit more robust than your usual fare recently. Credit where it belongs."

Marller paled, then inhaled sharply while ducking her head in submission.

"Hai, Hild-sama."

"She's not completely wrong though," the Daimakaicho dropped out of her lazy float and landed with a click on the cement. "You are a mortal, and cannot directly interact with the code anyway. So really, the understanding of natural units is of limited use to you. Now..."

In a swift few steps, Hild wrapped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me in close in a conspiratorial manner.

"As I was saying before," she continued. "The plan was an astounding 'almost' success..."

"In what way?" I asked slowly. "I recall getting hammered by Urd's sake habit and making a hasty, and hazy exit."

"But you kept cover almost perfectly," Hild all but whispered to my ear. "And when you left - I felt you go, mind you – your vanishing act pretty much cemented your story. No sooner did you leave the universe then did I get a phone call from my daughter worried sick about her baby brother!"

Baby-

"Sake mixed with essence of honesty – which you completely ignored, as expected of a transient – and you improvise a tale of the overbearing mother who doesn't let her little demon do anything for himself."

Hild wiped a, likely fake, tear from her eye.

"She was worried sick she'd poisoned you!" the Daimakaicho finished. "Not even bothering to check your code at all!"

"To be fair," Luna commented from the side, "I thought he was going to end up pretty messed up myself at that point. She was dropping Genshu on him cup after cup, and I'm pretty certain he doesn't even drink."

Hild grimaced slightly at Luna before turning her face to me, a wry expression on her features.

"Regional culture tip," she began. "It is considered mandatory for a host to refill a drink immediately when a guest has finished it unless the guest expresses a desire to stop. Failure to do so is considered rude."

I blinked, processing that small pro-tip. After a moment, my memory recalled that tiny culture piece from my own trawlings on the internet...

I about smacked my own face for that one.

"That being said," Hilld continued, floating to a more respectable distance. "I suppose that would make either myself of Ma-chan the host again here."

She passed a look around my group, then at Marller.

"Mostly Ma-chan," she finished. "This is her hideout after all..."

There was a moment of silence while Hild left the statement up in the air. Marller, to her credit, only took about five seconds to notice the Daimakaicho's thinly veiled implication. To her... I guess, discredit, she ended up stuttering and sputtering about what kind of host she was supposed to suddenly be on such short notice and began scrambling around the dust covered pinball machines. Next to me, Hild stifled a quiet, but somewhat malicious laugh.

"Do you always do this to her?" I sighed under my breath.

"Only when it's funny," she replied coolly.

"It's always funny," I muttered.

"Exactly," Hild nodded. "I'll let her squirm for a few more minutes, then give her a nudge in the right direction."

And so she did. Marller quickly set about trying to scrounge together what was needed to be a good hostess... But, was failing spectacularly if the rats in tiny lab coats-

I blinked. New one for the weird list.

-if the rats in tiny lab coats scrambling around collecting leftover microwave dinner plates from trash bins was any indication.

Speaking of food...

I turned towards where I more or less 'woke up', noting the up-ended plastic container and the leftovers of my monstrous bowl of ramen spilled everywhere. Spilled when Shampoo utilized them as an ad-hoc hot water source...

"What a waste," I muttered.

Luna turned her attention away from Marller when I spoke, her eyes traveling to what I was looking at before sighing in recognition of what I was probably thinking.

"Hmmm..." Hild's breath was all but in my ear as she once more violated my personal space. "Bemoaning lost broth besmirched by the bowels of the Earth..."

Before I could react to her English alliteration, she continued.

"That curse seems to be a rather troublesome sort. Forced dimorphism with a Schmidt trigger centered on a temperature of two point one six three times ten to the negative thirty..."

What?

With a snap, Hild conjured up what appeared to be a water balloon, sans the balloon. A quick flick of the wrist, and the blob splashed into Shampoo, leaving a sputtering naked Chinese girl in its wake.

Scarcely did the warrior have time to respond when a second balloon-less water balloon struck her, rendering her back into a kitten.

"I like its simplicity, but it's going to get in the way," the Daimakaicho continued. "It's definitely a good prank but... Ma-Chan?"

Marller stopped in her tracks, now sporting a small octopus on her shoulder with disturbingly human-like eyes scrubbing away at one of the plastic plates.

"Hai! Hild-sama?"

"I believe we have a potential contract on our hands here," Hild commented with a tone as sweet as tainted honey. "If I'm not mistaken, I'm sure our little pink kitten-friend here would love to have this curse undone, if only for a little while."

Even with a feline form, Shampoo's body language was very telling as her ears shot straight up, her eyes locking right on to Hild.

"Curse?" Marller wandered over with a slightly cautious leer, her eyes scrutinizing the kitten who had previously been a young girl pummeling the demon into next year. "Okay so I see it no-"

Marller's face took on a look of shock and everything she was holding clattered to the floor as she jumped back.

"-wha-wha... WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!" she all but exploded.

"Mreow?" Shampoo blinked. In an instant, Marller lept forward, picking the kitten up.

"This is-" Marller sputtered again. "What the actual hell!? Hild-sama! Are you seeing this?"

"Indeed Ma-cha-"

"This curse is-!" Marller continued. "This- This is GARBAGE!"

Without ceremony, Marller pitched Shampoo straight up, grabbing her own head in the process and retching and howling in disgust. Shampoo just missed colliding with the ceiling before Hild effortlessly shifted over and caught her.

"Who!?" Marller continued in an outrage. "Who creates a curse like that?"

I traded glances with Luna, who just shrugged in confusion at the demon's outburst. Ever the diplomatic one, Luna asked the question that I assume was more or less on everyone's mind. Or at least, those of us who couldn't see curses.

"What seems to be the problem?" she asked.

Marller stopped raging at nothing, blinking before turning her sights on the feline.

"Ah," she gasped. "You probably wouldn't get it but... This curse. It's written by a complete MORON!"

Luna blinked.

"Bah!" Marller growled, placing her hands close together and causing the air between them to glow. "Explaining it won't do any good, you have to see this to get it..."

With a few mutterings and a motion that reminded me of expanding easy-construction tent supports, Marller shaped her glowing space into something that looked more akin to a small rectangle, then all but shoved it in our faces.

"Take a look at this!" she snapped.

Luna glanced at it, confusion written on her features. Not one to be left out, I leaned over her shoulder to get a look myself:


/*

Jusenkyo

Tsundere Aqua Curse Ver 0.5b

*/

#INCLUDE transmute.h

#INCLUDE ENERGY.E

#INCLUDE MATH.M

#INCLUDE temporal.t

#INCLUDE environ.u

#DEFINE VICTIM kitten

#DEFINE NORM newsubmerge

void change();

#DEFINE WATERLIKELY 1.75

/******************************

/*

Two stage transformative curse function. Splitting primary trigger mechanism

and transformation subroutine into two parts makes it harder to break. My

brother won't see it coming... ;)

*/

/******************************

/ Define Curse Trigger based on water temperature and call transform function.

form master(){

float WaterTemp;

BEGIN:

scanE("%f" , &WaterTemp)

if(WaterTemp = 2.147E-30 || WatertTemp = 2.179E-30){

change();}

else{

goto BEGIN;}

goto BEGIN;}

/Define transformation as returning to normal or not.

void change(){

form body;

float WaterTemp

scanE("%f", &WaterTemp)

if (WaterTemp = 2.147E-30){

body = VICTIM;}

else if (WaterTemp = 2.179E-30){

body = NORM;}}


"Huh..." I blinked, recognizing parts of it from old computer science class. "Curses are written in C?"

"Er..." Marller glanced up at me. "No. That's just the closest thing I could get that wouldn't melt your mind into a slagged heap of despair and agony. Showing magic in its true code form would be more akin to subjecting your auditory center to a seizure-inducing laser light show made of left turns."

Of course, because that makes sense... Also-

"It has comments in it," I pointed out. "How does it have comments? In English, I should mention... Shouldn't they at least be in Chinese?"

"Curses retain the will of the one who created them," Hild informed us. I frowned, turning to her.

"In THAT kind of detail?"

Hild shrugged. "Welcome to magic."

"That's not the point though," Marller continued with another growl. "LOOK at this code. LOOK AT IT!"

I looked at it again. And...

"Not sure what I'm looking for," I continued. "Kind of a mess-"

"EXACTLY!"

We ALL jumped back from Marller at that outburst. The window vanished like a popping soap bubble as the demon clenched her fists, seething.

"The code is an absolute trainwreck!" she snapped. "It's redundant! It's repugnant! It's been completely trashed line-for-line into a compact, borderline unsalvageable mess. There are more calls to beyond than it even needs to function! And speaking of functions, it's broken into two even though it doesn't need it! And don't even get me started on the instant redirects! The little girl that created this curse was just... JUST..."

"Mortal?" Hild chimed in.

"YES!" Marller snarled. "Why do mortals always write superstring code? Do they not understand how much damage they could do to the cosmos if-"

"Does she always get like this?" Luna almost made me jump as she spoke quietly into my ear.

"I have no idea," I replied. "She loses it a lot, but never like this..."

"Last time she did this," Hild shrugged between us, "she tried to teach some mortal named Merlin how to properly manipulate the code. Such things aren't allowed, even for demons, so she got sealed into a CD over it."

Oh: 'She broke the Rules', as Belldandy had said in Marller's introductory arc. I always wondered what Marller had done that was so nefarious that she had to be sealed. Considering that she seems to have a conscience.

"Huh..." I verbalized.

"A pity too," Hild smirked. "He held promise..."

"-but enough about that." I tuned back into Marller as she ended a rant, huffing from the effort. She spun in place, dramatically pointing down at Shampoo. "Do you want me to fix your curse?!"

"What?" Luna blinked, "Not Hild?"

"Eh..." Hild rolled her eyes at Luna. "What's the little kitten got that I want? This one's all Ma-chan."

"Wait," I began. "What's Shampoo got that Marller could want?"

Shampoo, at this point, was nodding furiously up at Marller, who now sported a manic grin of her own.

"Okay then," the demon announced. "But this kind of thing doesn't come free. You'll have to do something for me in exchange."

Shampoo all but bounced in place, continuing to nod.

I sucked in a breath. Luna sucked in hiss. Yeah, we both knew where this was going.

"Shampoo don't just-" I began. Then Hild slapped a hand over my mouth before whispering quietly into my ear.

"Let her make her own mistakes," she chided in a soft, but dangerous tone. "You want her to learn, yes?"

I couldn't nod or shake my head either way, so I let my response come out as a defeated sigh.

"Good," Hild smiled sweetly. "Now just sit and enjoy the show."

"If you want me to fix your curse," Marller continued with a sadistic glint in her eye and a dangerous bite to her voice. "You'll have to give me something in return. Something so precious that you'll regret it later."

Shampoo backed up, the first signs of unease showing up on her features as her ears flattened. It didn't help that Marller was really starting to get into the act. Despite the visible signs of all the punishment she'd received recently, she was sporting a full on shark-like appearance and likely radiating as much first-class demon aura as she reasonably could. Finally, the dam burst, and the demon made her demand.

"You'll have to apologize to me!" Marller announced with the finality of a shakespearian actor.

I think everyone in the room blinked in surprise.

"That's... It?" Luna voiced my thoughts. "An apology?"

"Yeah," Marller glared at us in annoyance. "Did you see what this girl was doing to me earlier? I didn't even do anything and she was going for maximum brutality. Normally I'd be more than willing to fix this travesty of a curse without even a contract, but little miss bulldozer here had to murder first and ask questions never. At the very least, she owes me an apology for that."

"Huh..." Luna blinked. "You know, that's a good point. Carry on."

Marller took that as her cue to turn back to Shampoo, who I'm pretty certain had been quietly chittering in laughter while the demon was ignoring her. However, she quickly hid it once attention was focused on her once more.

"So what's it going to be?" Marller asked. "Do we have a deal?"

Shampoo glanced up at Marller with an unreadable expression. For a moment, part of me expected the Joketsuzoku-turned-kitten would decide to be contrary simply for the sake of pride. But then, Shampoo sat back on her haunches, raising one paw to her chest before emitting an adorable 'mew' to the demon towering over here. In response, Marller blinked in genuine surprise.

"Well," Luna stated, slightly shocked. "She actually apologized quite elegantly for someone who's understanding of Felix is strictly implanted by a curse... Color me impressed."

Marller continued to look a little shocked for a few more seconds before she remembered she wasn't alone. Quickly coughing into her fist to try and hide the awkwardness, she responded to what I guess was the nicest thing anyone had said to her in a while.

"I guess we have a contract then," she bent down, reaching out her hand. "Let's shake on it and take care of this disgusting curse."

Shampoo nodded, reaching out with a paw to meet Marller's outstretched hand.

The moment the two made contact, the room begin to fill with a glow that wasn't all too dissimilar to that cast by a black light. As this occurred, Marller began rapidly muttering in demonic code-speak. Ever hear an old cassette tape play backwards? It kind of sounded like that.

Then, there was a sharp, shrieking sound and a crack, and we found ourselves blinded by a burst of smoke and vapor.

It smelled distinctly of sulfur and methane, the usual you'd expect from a recently used toilet. I about gagged at the smell.

"Hahah!" I heard Marller crow from somewhere in the cloud of 'bleh'. "It's done! It took a little bit of effort to recompile it around your transient nature, but your curse is as good as fixed! Better even!"

Fighting back my urge to retch again, I peaked through the dissipating smoke, expecting to see a naked warrior girl patting herself down and ready to demand clothes.

Except there was no warrior chick standing there.

Just a kitten.

Just a pink, confused looking kitten who was probably a few seconds away from unleashing claws of rage... If I was predicting the future with any accuracy.

"You didn't do anything!" Luna shouted from next to me. "She's still a kitten!"

Shampoo finished checking her still-feline body out and glared up at the demon, a look of outrage on her face.

"MREOW!" she snapped.

"I did so!" Marller replied in her own burst of outrage. "You wanted your curse fixed! I fixed your curse!"

"MEOW MEOW MEOW!"

"It's not MY fault you weren't specific about it! If you wanted to be human again, you should have said something sooner."

"MEOW!"

"I did! Not only is the curse corrected for proper coding practice, but I commented out the trigger mechanism so you wouldn't be changed by splashes of water any more."

"MREOW!"

"You're still a kitten because you didn't specify any particular form to be locked in! Sheesh! It's like you mortals don't know how to watch out for obvious holes in your contracts!"

As the three of us (Hild was rather quiet, but smirking) watched the argument unfold, I felt torn between wanting to laugh, and coming over to tell Shampoo 'I told you so'. Problem of course, was that Hild already prevented me from warning her in the first place. So really, no 'told you so's were forthcoming.

"This is absurd," Luna finally chimed in, stepping between the demon and the kitten. "I thought it would have been obvious she'd want to be human again. Why didn't you take that implication?"

"Look," Marller crossed her arms, floating in the air slightly. "When you've worked around enough people wanting wishes out of you as I have, you learn not to take anything a person says beyond the face value. If the concept of Monkey's Paw, Rules Lawyering, or a Jackass Genie is somehow beyond you, then that's really your problem, not mine. You do business with a demon, you need to be specific, end of story."

"Can't we just skip the argument and turn her into a human again?" Luna pleaded. "It can't be that hard..."

"That's not how this works," Marller stated plainly. "You get a wish, I get a favor. A demon's services aren't free."

"But," Luna began in confusion. "You just said you'd fix the curse for free not five minutes ago!"

"Yeah," Marller blew a puff of air out of her mouth, rising from a floating-stand position into a floating cross-legged position. "Because I got something out of it. I wouldn't have to look at that disgusting amateur coding every time I glanced towards the kitten here. That was as much for my own sake as hers. I threw in disabling the trigger because she apologized. You want more? Make another contract."

"I can't believe you're being this stubborn!" Luna snapped. "Why can't you bend a little?"

"Because that's not how demons work," Hild interrupted the argument, floating over to the trio. "Or did you forget what your companion told you about us the last time you were here?"

Luna's mouth snapped shut as she turned to Hild. The Daimakaicho was sporting a particularly wicked sneer to go with the acid-flavored honey of her voice.

"We make contracts with mortals and exchange wishes for favors. We obey the contracts to the letter, be they verbal, or written. Perhaps the lesson little Shampoo will take from this is to be more-" Hild reached down and ran a caress through Shampoo's fur. "-careful, about what contracts she'll agree to in the future."

Shampoo shot Hild a glare sharp as daggers, but the Daimakaicho dutifully ignored the non-threat even as the warrior-turned-kitten started mewling and growling quietly. I sighed into the conversation.

"So you're just going to leave her stuck like that?" I asked.

"Marller's alterations will fade once she leaves this world again," Hild shrugged. "You should know that since you pretty much called it last time."

"Yeah," I reluctantly agreed. "Maybe, but... It's going to be hard to talk to her like this. I'll have to have Luna translate constantly. You don't think you can give her the ability to talk like that, can you?"

Hild smirked.

"We most certainly CAN," she replied. "The question is, what do we get from it?"

Again, I sighed. Was it really so hard to get these two to do something simply because it was helpful?

Why am I asking this question of DEMONS?

"I don't know," I found myself saying. "It might be useful to actually be able to TALK to Shampoo at some point while I'm doing whatever we've got coming up next. I can't do that if all she ever says is 'meow', you know?"

Hild's smirk vanished as she pondered on my logic for a moment. Then, with a smile that was more in agreement than exploitative, she raised her hand.

"Very well," she nodded. "But only because it suits our purpose, not because you asked. Luna?"

Luna backed up a step as Hild turned to her.

"Hold still," the Daimakaicho instructed. "I'm copying your language assist."

Luna nodded and stood in place as Hild snapped her fingers. A crack of noise later and the rambling undertone of quietly angry feline suddenly became a slightly more recognizable but still incoherent string of gibberish syllables.

"Er..." I began, "what's she saying?"

"You don't want to know," Marller shook her head.

"Chinese, right?" I asked.

"Mostly," Hild floated over to me. "There's some tribal specific dialect mixed in, but she's definitely got a way with words that would curdle milk. I definitely approve."

Then the Daimakaicho turned to me.

"Speaking of milk, we need to get you fed. What you've been through recently demands it if I want our plan to go through... Ma-Chan?"

Marller all but struck a salute.

"Come with me," she declared. "We'll find a nice place to feed our guests."

Hild then turned to us.

"Back in five!" she all but cheered. And then the two of them vanished with a hiss and a pop.

There was a gasp of relief from Luna right after they did so, the Felis Sapien looking suddenly exhausted as she took a moment to pop back into her feline form.

"I'm never going to get used to those two," she admitted. "Every bone in my body screams to run and hide, but at the same time I know it would be pointless."

"You're not the only one," I replied. "Worst part is, I'm starting to be able to FEEL Hild. Or I'm running a fever again. The woman gives me the chills when she puts on the ice queen act."

"Shampoo took it surprisingly well," Luna pointed out, pawing her way over to the still simmering kitten.

"Shampoo too angry for scared," the kitten announced suddenly. "She get tricked by wimp demon when should have know better."

"Oh give it a rest," I sighed, leaning up against a wall and sliding down next to the two of them. "Just remember what we've learned from this experience."

Shampoo joined me with a sigh of her own as she turned slightly to inspect her kitten body for any possible changes, good or bad.

"Shampoo know," she muttered after a moment. "No jump into deal being too good. Shampoo also need be more specific when haggling. Great grandmother right. Shampoo think too much with fist lately. No stop to think plan through. No thought for after. Just smash."

"Well," Luna chimed in. "At least you figured it out on your own. Plus, I think you got off easy, so there is that."

"There is," I agreed. And Hild was kind of right about letting Shampoo make her own mistake. With all the mind-reading she'd been doing, it came as no surprise in hind sight she'd let that happen. Part of me really wondered how much of what Hild was doing was malicious, and how much of it was a demonic, creepy kind of 'tough love'.

For the time being though, I had just one last question to get answered that had been tickling the back of my mind almost from the moment I was awake:

"So," I began. "Why is Shampoo here with us in the first place?"