I'll make this short and sweet: I wrote this story as a personal challenge. I wanted to get Ranma and Shampoo into a close relationship while depicting the Joketsuzoku in a unique way (based on what is known in the manga canon). I don't expect anyone to understand why I did this, or why I did that, but I hope the effort is enjoyed nonetheless.

For those of you who would appreciate the warning: this is — for all intents and purposes — a story that features a female Ranma. It probably wouldn't be worth it to read the story until the very end, since things only change a little bit near said end.

Speaking of the ending, I also wrote this story so a sequel could be picked up by someone else. I simply have too many stories of a higher priority to get to, finish and start. Which might make some people happy, since one of them does not focus on female Ranma and is supposed to be humorous. Yay?


Ranma cursed her father, and not for the first time. He had abandoned her during Shampoo's last ambush, leaving her to deal with the homicidal maniac all by herself. That wasn't too surprising, seeing as he had a tendency to foist his and their problems onto her; or, in the case that the problem was her own, chose not to "interfere." However, the greedy bastard had run off with both of their supplies, leaving her to deal with the purple-haired warrior without the resources that would have been beneficial in a campaign of endurance.

As a result, running away was beginning to look like a bad idea. No matter what she and her father had done to hide, which had included a return to their birth identities whenever hot water had been available, they hadn't been able to lose her — not for long, anyway. Now she had absolutely no luck in finding a place to hide and rest while crossing the countryside between human settlements, and the lack of food and sleep were beginning to take their toll.

If she hadn't encountered some guy running around with a bowl of rice porridge the other day, she wouldn't have had a chance to catch a break at all. Although she would have preferred that it hadn't come at the cost of needing her hair secured by a dragon whisker, which would prevent her hair from growing nonstop while she was a guy. Still, people didn't usually grow so much hair in so short a time, so she had opted to keep her hair long and hope that it would disguise her identity from the girl that was hunting her.

Unfortunately, given that she was currently running away from said girl and what she promised to do with her spear, the length of her hair hadn't been enough to cover her identity. Of course, she should have realized sooner that being the owner of such exotic red hair would have still made her very conspicuous, regardless of its length. Either way, she was getting tired of running, and in more ways than one. If she didn't settle things with the girl, and soon, then she may very well end up dead.

Now that she was determined to face her problem, she stopped and turned around to face what had been the bane of her existence for the past week. The girl from the village of warrior women showed no outward sign of change toward her action, and came upon her with a savage thrust of her spear to initiate their engagement.

As she weaved in and out of each successive attack, she felt obligated to ask, "Can't we talk about this?"

Instead of the answer that she had hoped for, the girl's furrowed brow creased further and the pace of her attacks increased. Seeing as her assailant was bound and determined to kill her, she sighed and kept her eyes open for an opportunity that would lay the girl out with one hit. Despite being a girl — at the moment — she still had her reservations about hitting them, even if the one that she wanted to hit was trying to stab her to death.

When she saw the kind of opening that she was looking for, she didn't hesitate to take it. When the girl's spear thrust by her hip, she grabbed it and gave it a quick yank in the direction that it had already been traveling. As the girl stumbled toward her in surprise, she raised one foot over her head and spun around on the other, striking her in the back of the head with her heel as she was passing by. She watched as the girl fell face-first into the dirt as she came to a stop, and winced at the sight and sound of it.

Now that the girl was incapacitated for the time being, she could finally rest. However, she knew that this respite wouldn't last very long unless she could come up with a way to take care of the problem permanently. She wasn't about to kill her, or be killed, so she had to somehow make the girl listen to reason even though she had proven to be quite unreasonable.

She released a tired sigh. "Man, I really have my work cut out for me..."

Shampoo became aware of someone shaking her shoulder, so she opened her eyes. The rest of her senses went online at the same time, and she recognized the sounds of a small fire, night bugs and a girl saying something in Japanese. The ground was hard, the air was cool, and the smell of cooking meat tickled her nose. She had a good view of the open, night sky, its stars, and of a red-haired, blue-eyed...

She rushed to get up, but the girl that she was supposed to kill placed her hand on her sternum and forced her back down. Before she could fight for the leverage that she needed to get up and put some distance between them, so she could mount an attack, she found a cooked fish — on a spit-fashioned stick — being held in front of her face.

"Here," Ranma said, as she gave the fish in front of the girl's face a shake. "I don't want to fight. I just want to talk."

When the offered food was looked at with suspicion, she sighed and took a bite out of the fish herself to show that she hadn't done anything suspect to it. When the look persisted, but was instead directed at her, she dropped her shoulders a bit and sighed.

"Look," she said, "I know you want to kill me. But you haven't had anything to eat since you started to chase me this morning, and I'd feel bad if I allowed you to starve."

"I no want sympathy," Shampoo coldly stated. Her stomach chose that time to disagree with what that meant, and quite loudly.

"Please?" Ranma tried again, and gestured for her to accept the fish that she had cooked for her.

With tears of shame building in her eyes, Shampoo finally accepted the offered food. She knew that the outsider girl could have killed her, had she wanted to; yet she had responded not as an enemy might have, but instead with kindness. She hated her guts for what she had done to her before the whole village, but even she knew that there was a limit to how far one's pride could guide one's actions, and as a Joketsuzoku she had been taught the importance of staying true to their moral and ethical codes of conduct. Still, the law was the law, so she would get back around to killing her at a more appropriate time.

Missing the unshed tears, Ranma gave a half-smile. "Good. There's more where that came from, so hold on and I'll get the rest for you."

Shampoo, relieved of the staying hand on her chest, sat up and began to eat as her unwanted benefactor matched her actions to her words. She glanced over at the campfire and saw that a makeshift rotisserie had been fashioned out of sticks, where two spit-skewered fish were being removed by the redhead. It would have been a good opportunity to attack the stupid girl while her back was turned, but she was able to keep herself in check. Sure, no one from her village was watching her, to pass judgement, but her conscience was and it was being guided by the teachings that had been drilled into her for years.

"I used your spear to catch these," Ranma spoke up, conversationally, as she planted the sharp ends of the spits into the ground, in front of Shampoo. "I hope you don't mind."

Shampoo responded with a noncommittal grunt, as she began to finish off her first helping of fish with as much dignity as she could.

"Um," Ranma suddenly voiced, after an awkward pause, "I was kind of wondering why, you know... Why you've been trying to kill me?"

Shampoo glared at Ranma balefully and growled out, "Why? You want know why?"

She tossed away the spit, and with it the remains of the fish, before she got to her feet. Ranma remained seated, cowed primarily by the tears that were now flowing down her angry visage.

"You made mockery of Shampoo!" She yelled, her clenched fists held tightly against her sides. "You shame Shampoo before whole village! Shampoo time for great honor, gone!"

"I..." Ranma tried to find the words to apologize.

"Shampoo hate you!" She went on, her voice warbling a bit. "That why Shampoo wish kill!"

Shampoo smiled inwardly, with satisfaction, at the look of guilt that showed itself plainly on the redhead's face. Still, she was allowing her emotions to get away with her, so she closed her eyes and took a few calming breaths. When she reopened her eyes, she was glad to see that her audience of one was still riddled with guilt.

"You get now?" She posed coolly.

Ranma did. She knew that she would feel just as cheated if she had earned the right to feel like the king of the world, only to have some stranger waltz in and take a crap on her throne. So she did the one thing that she had never felt the need to do before: she prostrated herself before the girl that she had wronged.

With her forehead touching the ground, she wholeheartedly said, "I don't expect you to forgive me, but I'm really sorry."

Shampoo hesitated in her response, as she examined the girl at her feet. She wanted to deny what the evidence was showing her, but she was beginning to open up to the possibility that she may have to kill someone that wasn't as bad as the picture that she had painted of them. As much as she didn't want to admit it, the girl before her was more than capable of killing her, and could have done so during the past week had she been so inclined.

It made it difficult to feel angry with the outsider girl, now that she realized what kind of personality would cause someone to run away and avoid attacking her when they were the superior fighter. And it also seemed like they wanted to resolve the issue between them in a civilized and peaceful manner. It confused her to an extent, because she wasn't sure what to do in light of the situation.

In the end, she sighed and softly said, "Even if did, Shampoo must kill. Is law."

Ranma rose until she was seated upright again, then raised her eyes to meet Shampoo's. "Is there any kind of time limit to that law?"

"No," Shampoo answered, even as she wondered what the redhead was thinking. "Law give Shampoo all time in world."

Ranma smiled entreatingly. "Then why kill me right now? You would miss out on the chance to become as good as I am."

"What you mean?" Shampoo asked, confused.

"I could train you," Ranma supplied, who continued to smile.

Shampoo frowned as she considered the offer. It was more likely than not a delaying tactic, but the idea did have some merit. After all, she wouldn't really gain anything substantial from killing the girl, since that wouldn't erase the memory of what had happened from everyone's minds. Whether she killed her or not, she would still have to deal with the past. However, even if she did accept the offer, there was still one problem that couldn't be ignored.

"But Shampoo no can return to village unless kill," she informed the redhead.

Ranma's smile faltered. She was trying to get out of being hunted down like an animal, and possibly killed, but her plan hinged on her offer being more appealing than the consequences of failing to uphold a law. What she needed to do — now — was to find out what she was working against.

"What would happen if you returned to your village without killing me?" She asked.

Shampoo's eyes narrowed. "Then get punished, and more shame get heap on Shampoo."

"That's just great," Ranma thought to herself. That meant that she had to overcome the very thing that had inspired the purple-haired girl to try and kill her in the first place. She would have to think of something more, in addition to the training, if she wanted her plan to succeed. However, as tired as she was, nothing new and useful was occurring to her.

After some thought, she sighed and decided to say, "Well, the least that I can do is train you, right? Then you'd have a better chance of killing me."

"You have point," Shampoo conceded. "Shampoo think about it."

Ranma, glad that she had bought herself some time, nodded her head. "Well, you really ran me ragged, so I guess I'll talk to you some more in the morning."

She made her way to the other side of the campfire, close enough to benefit from its heat, and laid down. She closed her eyes just before she said, "Good night."

Shampoo didn't respond in kind. Instead, she regarded the other girl thoughtfully for a few moments before she sat down and ate the rest of her dinner. The fish were barely warm, but that didn't bother her too much. She had more important things to think about, anyway. However, before that, she needed to perform a test.

She got up and retrieved her spear, which had been left on the ground not so far away from the campfire. Then she moved over to the other girl, whose limbs were sprawled out haphazardly, and whose light snores issued forth from a gaping mouth. She stared at her sleeping form intently before she thrust her spear forward, its point stopping a hair's breadth away from the girl's chin. The spear's movement had been fast enough to disturb her hair with a short gust of wind, which made her groan and turn onto her side, still sound asleep.

She returned to the other side of the campfire and sat down, where she began to consider the result of her test with mixed feelings. When the girl hadn't done anything to prevent her from chasing her further, after rendering her unconscious, that could have been explained by a confidence in her superior abilities. The same could have been said for the time when she had shown her back, or when she had prostrated herself at her feet. To fall asleep while in the presence of a potential threat on her life could only mean that she was placing her trust in her, which meant that her other actions could be judged in the same light.

And while she would like to see it that way, she knew that she could be acting tricky, like the other girls in her village. Before one of the Joketsuzoku were recognized as adults, their peers were seen as competition, rivals and — ultimately — obstacles first, acquaintances second, and friends a distant third. It wasn't just due to the honor, prestige and the personal rivalries between the families within the village, but between several other villages who had families whose females lived in their village as fellow Joketsuzoku. There was a lot to be proven among groups and individuals alike, and it wasn't all that uncommon for those things to be accomplished in ways that were less than honest or fair.

There was only one way to find out if the girl that she had to kill was someone that she could really trust with her life. But to do so might lead her to finding a true friend, and she didn't know if she would be able to place such a person above the law, which was a part of her world and defined her life as the Joketsuzoku that she was. To disobey the law would be no different than killing a part of herself.

She glanced over at the other girl and — in her native tongue — thought, "I want to be the best warrior in the village. I want to make great-grandmother proud to have me as her successor. But do I listen with my mind, or with my heart? I really wish I knew."

The next morning found the two girls eating cooked hare. Shampoo hadn't needed much sleep, so she had woken up before sunrise to hunt in a nearby forest. She had found the stream where the fish had likely been caught, and it would have been easy to catch some more, but there was something to be said about variety. Fortunately, since it was Spring, and she had decided to hunt so early in the morning, hares had been plentiful.

"So," Ranma spoke up perkily, after they were done eating, "have you thought about it?"

"Shampoo don't know," was Shampoo's contemplative response.

Having thought of some new leverage while she had been eating breakfast, Ranma eagerly said, "I could also help you to polish up your Japanese."

Shampoo did well to hide her disappointment, when she realized that the girl was only concerned about preserving her own life. That was to be expected, though she had hoped that the test last night had revealed something more. Perhaps there still was, but she wasn't about to look for it when she had an excuse to not fear caring about her later, which would only complicate matters when she no longer had a reason to postpone killing her.

"Fine," she answered, devoid of enthusiasm.

Whether Ranma didn't catch her tone or ignored it, she jumped to her feet and — with evident satisfaction — yelled, "Great!"

Then her smile settled into a frown, as she really considered their situation, and realized the great lack of things that would make a training regimen more troublesome than she wanted to deal with. Besides which, she was with a girl, and she wasn't about to make her live like an animal. And, to be honest, she wasn't sure if she could stand living like that while she was a girl herself. Aside from still being unused to her body and its implied delicacy, it was with a strange sort of pride that she wished to preserve her appearance.

"Damn," she grumbled to herself. "Stupid pop..."

"What matter?" Shampoo inquired.

Ranma sighed before she returned her attention to the other girl. "I'd prefer having better living arrangements. I'm used to roughing it from time to time, but I'd rather not be without a tent at the very least, if it can be helped."

"Is okay," Shampoo replied, and waved the problem away with a hand gesture. "Shampoo travel light; use money for food, and shelter if like. Should be more than need for tent."

Ranma's expression brightened upon hearing that. "Do you know where the nearest town is?"

Shampoo pulled out a map and a compass from within her top and confidently said, "Should be no problem."

It was well past noon by the time that they reached the town. Before they went to buy the necessities for their projected campsite, Shampoo treated them to lunch since they were both hungry. They went job-hunting afterward, what with needing more money to sustain their means of living for the foreseeable future. One restaurant was more than happy to hire them both as waitresses, even though Ranma couldn't speak much of any Chinese worth noting. It was an odd sort of pride that filled the redhead when she realized that she was pretty enough for a critical language barrier to be ignored; "odd" in that she was a girl being hired to perform what she perceived to be a girl's job.

Once their future funds were secured, they went about purchasing a tent, a sleeping bag, an extra outfit for each of them, a pair of shoes for Ranma, two towels, some cookware, a pair of bowls and plates, several cooking utensils, reusable chopsticks, a canteen and a sponge (Ranma didn't carry either one on her person, like Shampoo did), a small amount of rations, toilet tissue, and a pack to store and carry them all in. Shampoo had enjoyed teasing Ranma when she seemed uneasy and reluctant about sharing a sleeping bag with her, when she realized that it wasn't out of fear for her life that she behaved that way. She also took pleasure in the fact that she didn't seem to like her new outfit much, even though she had picked out a nice one that was similar to her own. It was petty, to be sure, but satisfying. Although she did wonder why her soon-to-be-sensei would be shy about sharing a sleeping bag with another girl, or why she didn't seem to care about wearing something that would be more flattering for her figure.

It was late in the evening when they found a suitable campsite, about a kilometer outside of town. It was beyond a stretch of trees, so it afforded them an acceptable amount of privacy. The location was also optimal because they were near a small lake, which gave them access to drinking water as well as a place to wash themselves, their clothes and kitchenware.

Once they had their camp set up, they settled in, prepared dinner, and ate. They only had rice, for the time being, but hunting and foraging would soon expand their menu, and their jobs would allow them to broaden it even further before too long. All in all, it was a very good start to their little enterprise.

The sun was beginning to set by the time Shampoo stood up and stretched, after finishing her meal. "Shampoo go to take bath. You come?"

"T-that's okay..." Ranma replied, with a weak smile.

Shampoo frowned and stated, "Shampoo no share tent with smelly girl."

"I'll go after you're done," Ranma quickly answered, her eyes averted.

Shampoo stared at Ranma for a time, as if trying to see something that wasn't readily apparent — which made the redhead sweat with nervous tension. Finally, she turned away and went into the tent, no doubt to get their towels. Ranma breathed a sigh of relief, glad that the danger had been avoided. Which was why, a few seconds later, she was caught by surprise when Shampoo grasped the base of her long ponytail and began to drag her toward the lake.

"Hey!" She protested loudly. "Let me go!"

Rather than respond with words, Shampoo — despite Ranma's ongoing objections — hauled her into a spin. She let go of her after a few revolutions, and watched with satisfaction as the smaller girl sailed through the air while yelling and flailing about. She made a big splash in the lake, about a hundred or so meters away.

After Ranma broke the surface of the water, she — with water spraying from her mouth — angrily shouted, "Why'd you do that for! ?"

With a smug look on her face, Shampoo stepped up to the bank and looked down at the cross redhead. "Bathe together save time."

Ranma was about to argue with her, but she was able to bite her tongue. Shampoo was right, after all. For the time being, while they trained and worked as waitresses, they would need to synchronize their activities and multitask to make the best out of the time that they had during the course of a day. Not that she had to like it, of course, since that still left her with her current problem.

It wasn't like she could tell her that she couldn't bathe with her because she wasn't — in actuality — a girl. She didn't know what would happen if the truth were to be discovered, and she didn't want to risk complicating matters further. If the Joketsuzoku gave the kiss of death when they were defeated by girls, would they be any kinder to guys? And the last thing that she needed was to have both of her forms marked for death. On top of that, she doubted that she'd react all that well to being tricked.

So, it was with a sigh of resignation that she began to remove her soaked dōgi. It needed to be washed, anyway. Once she was nude, and she had her wet clothes placed on the bank, she accepted a sponge from Shampoo. Then she turned her back on her, so she wouldn't see anything inappropriate, and went to work. When she heard Shampoo enter the water a moment later, she did her best to focus on the task at hand instead of the fact that there was a naked girl nearby. And not just any girl, either: but a very pretty one; a girl that — for the time being — wouldn't inspire the fear that would have normally driven away her attraction.

Shampoo, rather than start washing up right away, observed the other girl closely. What she saw were stiff movements, a rigid body, and a lack of attention toward what she was washing. It was all too obvious that she was uncomfortable being naked around others, though her own cultural background made her wonder if it was the presence of a naked girl that might be the cause. If it were the latter, that might even explain her non-violent behavior to some extent. She couldn't be completely sure, based on the observations that she had made thus far, but there was a way to find out.

Ranma was so distracted that she didn't notice Shampoo's close proximity behind her until her hand had fallen upon her shoulder. She tensed, let out a little squeak, and at the same time felt like jumping out of her skin. However, because she didn't want to accidentally see Shampoo naked, or draw unwanted attention by running away, she remained rooted to the spot.

"Sh-Shampoo...?" She managed to stutter out.

"Shampoo wash back," Shampoo replied, keeping her amusement out of her voice.

Ranma gulped audibly. "Er... That's n-not really necess—"

Shampoo tossed Ranma's long hair over her shoulder and interjected, saying, "Hold hair out of way, please."

Without waiting for an answer, Shampoo applied her sponge to Ranma's back and began to run it over her skin in gentle, circular motions. The muscles beneath that skin were very tense, and she was surprised that she could feel a rapid heartbeat through the sponge. When she looked over the redhead's shoulder, opposite the one her hair draped over, she could see that her cheeks and ears were quite flush.

"This is too good," she thought to herself, as she imagined the fun that she could have with her discovery.

Ranma's attraction to her wasn't strange, nor did it disgust her. Having grown up in a village where only women lived, apart from the men who resided in neighboring villages, it was an accepted development. For the most part, some girls — during their early years of training — formed very close bonds. Sometimes that caused problems, when it came time for one of them to find and marry a man. The larger families in the village, where the pressure to produce offspring were low, had the highest chance of having girls that would devote themselves to other girls, forsaking men entirely.

Even had she found a girl that she could endear herself to like that, her family was much too small to allow such a relationship. In fact, with her great-grandmother and herself as the only remaining females, her family was the smallest in the village. If she didn't find a man and produce female offspring, then their family's long-standing history with the Joketsuzoku would come to an end.

Either way, she was comfortable with the idea of one girl being close to another, and that would allow her to tease the girl that was currently under her ministrations without reservation. It was spiteful, to be sure, but she wasn't about to let go of what she had done to her — back in the village — so easily.

When she finished washing Ranma's back, she turned around and held her hair away from her back. "Okay, now you do Shampoo."

Ranma obliged, albeit slowly and with little in the way of finesse. As she washed Shampoo's back in an awkward and jerky manner, she kept on reminding herself that she was a girl and that what she was doing was fine. Given enough time, she figured that she would become more comfortable seeing naked girls, since she could now become a girl herself. However, she'd only had her curse for little more than a week and most of that time had been spent evading the deadly intent of the girl before her, so that comfort had yet to have a chance to establish itself in any significant way.

She couldn't believe how she was feeling. Her face felt so hot that she feared that it would melt. Her heart was pumping so hard and so fast that her head felt like it was going to explode. It was probably a good thing that she was too short to see over Shampoo's shoulder, and that her eyes were loyal enough not to stray toward the lower half of her backside. In the back of her mind, she idly wondered if this was why her father had enrolled her into all-boys schools; or, conversely, if doing so was actually responsible for the poor handling of her current situation.

Being that she was too distracted to realize how long she had been washing Shampoo's back (and poorly, at that), it came as a surprise when Shampoo turned around to face her. It was impossible to look away from her breasts, seeing as her extended hand had lost the sponge that it had been holding on to when one of them had bumped into it. Her eyes felt like they were going to pop out of their sockets, and — in addition to her breath being caught — it felt like her heart had arrested. It didn't take long for her eyes to roll up into her head, and for her to fall back into the water, unconscious.

Shampoo grinned as she looked down at her work, and the trickle of blood that came out of Ranma's nose. It was going to be a pain to clean her up, but she felt that it was worth it. Besides which, it'd be a lot easier to get her into the sleeping bag with her while she was unconscious, because she was unsure of whether she would be able to convince her to do so otherwise.

Once she was done bathing and drying both Ranma and herself, she carried her unconscious and equally-naked companion into the tent and placed her inside of the sleeping bag. Until they could afford some proper sleepwear, it would be more economical to sleep in the nude. The fact that she'd get a stronger reaction from the redhead, when she realized that she was sleeping with a nude girl while being nude herself, had little to do with it. They only had two pairs of outfits at the moment, after all, and one set would get soiled by training and the other needed to be as fresh as possible when they worked at the restaurant.

Once she finished washing the clothes that they had worn prior to bathing, and hung them up to dry on several tree branches, she returned to the tent and slipped into the sleeping bag. She maneuvered behind the smaller girl and spooned with her, so she'd elicit the strongest reaction once she woke up. As she waited, she recalled the last time she had been in such a position, back when she was a little girl. She had been on a training excursion at the time, with a group of other girls, and she had huddled close to one of them when a sound from outside of the tent had scared her.

Unlike then, of course, she was now a young woman without any clothes on, in intimate contact with another young woman. It felt a bit odd, but only because it had been so long since she had been so close to someone else. She was accustomed to being apart and alone in regard to a lot of aspects of her life, after her mother had passed away a few years ago. The only close relation that she had, aside from her great-grandmother and father, was her martial arts. With that, she hoped to one day lead a fulfilling life.

Her attention was brought back to the present when she felt Ranma begin to stir, who — before becoming fully cognizant of the situation — snuggled into her body. She smiled inwardly and waited in anticipation for her reaction, when she realized just who and what she was snuggling into.

The first thing that Ranma noticed was that she was lying down, and that she was warm and dry rather than cold and wet. When she opened her eyes, she saw that she was inside of their tent, and that she was within their sleeping bag. Her relief at not being killed while incapacitated was short-lived, however, when it dawned upon her as to just what it meant to be in the sleeping bag.

Her body became stock-still, and her skin hyper-aware. She almost swooned when she identified the two breasts that were pressing into her back, as well as what her posterior was nestled against, but she managed to rally her fighting spirit to deal with her current dilemma. She began to reason that there was nothing to worry about because she was a girl, even though she had over a decade of memories that told her otherwise. Even with her distinct lack of experience with the fairer sex, she was convinced that it was normal for two girls to be in the situation that they were in: being that girls were the touchy-feely type.

Not that those ideas really helped, but they were good enough of a focus to keep herself from thinking of doing something rash, something that might call into question whether she was really a girl or not. Of course, even if she wanted to bolt, she was too paralyzed by fear to do anything that would shift the other girl's body against hers, or do anything that might risk accidentally touching the other girl in an inappropriate way. She could better handle the thought of the other girl doing the moving and the touching, because she would only feel guilty and responsible — and likely act accordingly — if the opposite of that were to be true.

Once Shampoo fell asleep, she was able to relax a bit. She still wanted to be anywhere but where she currently was, but her reasoning — as to why it was okay for her to be together with another girl while in the nude — was beginning to have some effect. She didn't want to wake up Shampoo while attempting to get out of her arms, as well as the sleeping bag, anyway: since said sleeping bag was so snug that it offered little in the way of maneuverability.

Eventually, she turned her head and looked at Shampoo's face out of the corner of her eye. She was certainly pretty, now that she wasn't looking at her as if she were the scum of the earth. As she considered that thought, she wondered if she could avoid having Shampoo trying to kill her again by making her like her too much to follow the law of her village. She wasn't exactly sure how she would accomplish that, since she didn't know whether or not girls differed in how they went about forming friendships, but she figured that she could pick up cues from Shampoo and follow her example.

With that decided, along with the thought that she might have the answer to her problem, she closed her eyes and awaited sleep, her mind burdened far less than before. The thought of making a new friend helped her to fall asleep, and brought a small smile to her lips, while any far-reaching consequences of said potential friendship managed to slip her fatigued mind.

Since they had to start their first day of work at the restaurant, and because it was important that they secure a source of income, Shampoo had decided against teasing Ranma further when she woke up in the morning. Instead, she slipped out of the sleeping bag and got dressed in her new outfit as fast as she could, what with the morning air being quite chilly and all. Then she had woken up Ranma, who showed no small amount of reluctance when it came to leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag so early in the morning.

Once they were ready, and had eaten breakfast, they left for the nearby town. There they met with the owner of the restaurant, more than two hours before his restaurant would open, in order to familiarize themselves with the layout of the restaurant and the menu. In particular, Shampoo drilled Ranma into recognizing and memorizing which was what in Chinese: not only for what was on the menu, but also basic numbers and other common words and phrases one might expect a customer to say. By the time the restaurant opened for business, they both agreed that Ranma would have to learn Chinese properly, alongside Shampoo's Japanese lessons.

Ranma didn't think that she had done all that well on her first day, but the owner of the restaurant seemed impressed by the effort that she had put into doing her job right despite the language barrier. The lunch hour had been a particularly trying time for her, and a few times she had almost spilt hot broth on herself, though Shampoo had somehow found the time and opportunity to help her whenever she couldn't keep up. If she didn't know any better, she suspected that Shampoo could have waited all of the tables on her own.

In the end, once they had finished their shift early in the evening, the owner had been satisfied enough to offer them a free dinner at his restaurant. They accepted, since they weren't about to turn down a free meal. Afterward, they used what they had made in tips to purchase some fruit and vegetables, though Shampoo had also insisted on buying a bar of lilac-scented soap. She had argued that it would improve their appearance, which was important in their current line of work — especially in regard to their hair. Ranma reasoned that she would be better-informed about such things, what with being a real girl and all, so she had capitulated with her demand without too much fuss.

They returned to their campsite once they finished their business at the town. Since the sun was their ideal source of light, which would be required for the writing portion of their language lessons, they decided to do that first and have their martial arts training afterward. They decided that this arrangement would only be for that day, since they could have their language lessons in the morning before they had to go to work.

The first session did not include Chinese lessons for Ranma, and was mostly used to assess Shampoo's proficiency at Japanese. Though she did fairly well, and had a respectable vocabulary, she had obviously not taken her lessons as seriously as she should have. However, by the end, she did learn to refer to herself properly in the first person.

Following that, they changed into their training attire and sparred, so Ranma could gauge Shampoo's skill in the martial arts. She was well-versed, technique-wise, but hadn't gone far enough to take her strength and speed to the level that her own training had taken her. She learned that this was due to her education (in general) being spread out over a more diverse amount of areas, in comparison to her own, and included such things as shiatsu, herbalism, tracking, hunting, group tactics, cooking and learning other languages. Of those, she herself had only had any formal training in shiatsu, hunting and cooking; though very little in regard to the first of the three.

When it came time to bathe, Ranma was better-prepared for what was to come. However, despite her resolve to appear as a girl who was simply bathing with another girl, she was still distracted and awkward about it. If Shampoo had noticed, she didn't bring it up. Of course, she would have wondered about her impish smile, had she seen it.

In regard to her hair, however, an issue had arisen. Being that it was the first time that she'd had the opportunity to wash it, it became apparent to her that having long hair was too much of a hassle to keep. Making her intention known to Shampoo had been a mistake, because she had insisted that she keep her hair long, being of the opinion that cutting it would be both a waste and a shame. She didn't want to seem like an abnormal girl (as she saw it) for wanting to cut it, so she had changed her mind.

If only she had known that Shampoo had taken such a stance because she knew that it was a chore that she wouldn't like. Still, at least she had accepted the explanation that she had given to account for her recent hair growth, about how she'd eaten something strange when she had been too hungry to think beyond her stomach. It was a good thing that Shampoo seemed to know of a way to grow one's hair out faster than normal — or, at least thought it was possible — because the last thing she wanted to do was explain what the dragon whisker was, and how it only affected males.

Willingly getting into the sleeping bag with Shampoo, while naked, would have been harder if not for the fact that the temperature had gone from cool to cold over the course of the day. It would only get worse later on at night, and she didn't like the thought of sleeping outside of the sleeping bag — even while dressed. So, while looking away, and reassuring herself that what she was about to do was okay, she climbed into the sleeping bag, once again with her back facing Shampoo. And, like last time, she was spooned by her, which made her freeze in a way that was unlike what would have happened had she slept outside of the sleeping bag.

While she (eventually) fell asleep with the thought that she would succeed at making a friend out of Shampoo, and thus convincing her to not abide by her village's law, said girl was smiling to herself, convinced that it would be impossible for her to grow attached to the redhead so long as she continued to think little of her, and had her fun at the girl's expense. Of course, both failed to notice a potential flaw that was inherent in both of their plans.

The first few weeks passed by uneventfully for Ranma and Shampoo. They began each day with breakfast, then Ranma would work to improve Shampoo's Japanese. Shampoo, in turn, would teach Ranma her native tongue, Mandarin. Then they worked at the restaurant from nine o'clock in the morning until five o'clock in the evening, and ate lunch during their break. They usually spent some time in the town afterward, often to purchase something that they would need back at their campsite. Shampoo's martial arts training followed, though dinner sometimes preceded it. Dinner time really depended on how hungry they were, and if the training planned for any particular day would require more energy to endure it. If one or both became particularly filthy during training, however, then dinner would follow bathing. Between then and bedtime, they usually had some free time, unless there was some small chore that they hadn't been able to get done earlier in the day.

In regard to Shampoo's Japanese, it had improved significantly; especially once they could afford notebooks and pencils for writing. Of course, it had helped that there had been more diamond than rough to begin with. Ranma, encouraged by the environment of her current employment, made good progress in learning Shampoo's language. However, after only a few weeks, she could do little more than make simple statements, and had a long ways to go with her vocabulary. Not that she was worried, since her main concern had been dealt with: she no longer had any problems understanding the orders made by the patrons of the restaurant, or in recalling and relaying them.

They did very well as waitresses, since word about them eventually got around and increased the restaurant's popularity. As it turned out, the owner of the restaurant had been so eager to hire two girls as beautiful as they were because business for him had been quite dry for the past several months. It also helped how, as Ranma watched and learned from Shampoo, they developed a real synergy as they worked the tables together. Neither would admit to having fun with the other, but the various tricks and stunts that they did together — for the benefit of the customers — were acts that did not include the smiles and the playful banter that often accompanied them.

Shampoo's strength and speed training had begun to pay off during their sparring matches, though she had made her dislike for some of the training methods known to her sensei. The results of said training methods, however, did eventually mollify her (for the most part). And she wasn't the only one to benefit from their training sessions, since Ranma had learned to take into account her shorter limbs and had adjusted her fighting style accordingly.

Their bathing and sleeping arrangements remained the same, save that they were eventually able to afford something to wear when they went to sleep. By then Ranma had become accustomed to seeing Shampoo naked, as well as being in intimate contact with her. Shampoo found this development strange because Ranma had begun to reciprocate the same behavior that she used to tease her with in a clearly platonic way, as if it were normal. It wasn't that Shampoo had been doing anything that — to her way of thinking — would have been considered abnormal for a girl to do (though it certainly wasn't her style): she had simply expected a different reaction from someone that she had thought favored their own gender.

Regardless of Ranma's actual sexual orientation, they spoke impersonally despite their tendency to be within the other's personal space when they did so. Whether shoulder to shoulder when they ate a meal together, or placing one's hand over the other, they said little about themselves, or of their pasts. Both considered this arrangement to be acceptable because they each had their own reason for maintaining their distance in such a manner, and outright hostility would have been counter-productive in regard to both of their plans.

However, after being together for three weeks, things between them began to change. It had begun during one of their sparring sessions, where Shampoo had noticed Ranma favoring her abdomen even though she had yet to land a strike there. Then a strange look had come upon her face, and — for the very first time — she had cut their sparring short so she could excuse herself to the relative privacy of their tent.

Shampoo suspected what the problem might be, because Ranma had been a bit touchy for the past few days, and she was sure that she had overheard her mutter something about her breasts feeling tender when they had been bathing yesterday. Normally something like that wouldn't have warranted investigation, but the look on her face — especially the part of it that had expressed confusion — made her realize that something wasn't right.

So, she went over to their tent and stuck her head inside. What she saw stopped her from going in any further than that, for the time being. She found Ranma sitting on the floor of the tent, with her trousers and boxers around her ankles, and her legs spread. She was staring down at the two red-stained fingertips of her left hand, although whether she still had the presence of mind to see anything was anyone's guess.

Ranma's lost and imploring eyes looked up and met her own. Between that and the unshed tears gathering at the corners of the redhead's eyes, it didn't even cross her mind just how ripe the situation would have been for some teasing, to make the girl feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Rather than seeing the outgoing and confident — and somewhat shy — young woman of the past several weeks, she saw a child whose innocence had seemingly been lost, and she couldn't bring herself to make things worse.

Finally, through trembling lips, Ranma spoke up softly and asked, "Wh-what do I do...?"

Finding that to be an odd and surprising question for a girl of Ranma's apparent age, Shampoo kept her face from revealing her thoughts when she answered. "Is this your first time?"

Ranma gave one, quick nod of her head in reply.

Shampoo knew that it was possible (though very unlikely) for a girl to experience her menarche as late as Ranma was having hers, but it didn't answer how the redhead hadn't been prepared for the eventuality. However, being that there was a more immediate issue to deal with, she refocused on the problem at hand and entered the tent completely, so she could get what she needed.

"Here," she said in a soft tone, as she handed Ranma a roll of tissue paper. "Use this to clean yourself up and absorb the flow, for now, while I go to a shop to get something better. You may wash up in the lake, too, if you want."

Shampoo gave Ranma a sympathetic smile before she turned around and left. Ranma would have sighed in relief, concerning the upkeep of her image as a girl, but her mind was far from worrying about something like that (all things considered). While she had known about menstruation and what it meant, the thought of actually ever experiencing it had never crossed her mind, due mostly to the fact that she'd neither known what signs to look for (and thus when to expect it) or exactly how to deal with it. Now, for the first time, despite knowing that her current body made her a girl, it was no longer solely by intellectual reasoning that she identified herself as being one. Experiencing menstruation had collapsed the distance between her mind and body, and had made her feel like a girl, as only a girl could feel.

It had brought up a lot of questions and implications that she had tried not to think about: questions about her sexuality and character that never would have come up before her visit to Jusenkyo, as well as the implications — in regard to herself — of what it meant for a girl that menstruated. When she had realized that she had been bleeding, and from where, the questions had overwhelmed her, making her examine herself as a person and wonder whether she could be considered a guy or a girl, and what really made someone one or the other. She didn't even know if she should fear not feeling unlike herself the more she followed Shampoo's example, because Shampoo was a girl and yet adopting her mannerisms hadn't felt overtly strange. It had taken some time to get used to being in Shampoo's company, to be sure, but it hadn't felt bad, much less wrong. Plus, she could still admire Shampoo's beauty as any guy could, while still having no sexual interest in men.

By the time she had cleaned herself up, and recovered her bearings, she decided not to dwell on whether or not her identity as a man was being threatened. It wasn't like anyone of importance (like her father) would know about her masquerade as a girl, who could call her behavior into question. Besides which, she felt that her plan was working: not only could some of their time at the restaurant be considered playing, but — just moments ago — Shampoo had shown the first real sign that she might care about her to some extent. And she reasoned that it certainly wouldn't hurt to stick around, so she could have a chance to bear witness to the same kind of smile that Shampoo had given her before her departure.

When Shampoo returned, she had three reusable cloth pads in her possession, each a different color and bearing simple print designs. Ranma almost balked at the sight of them, as they presented a new reminder about her condition, but she managed to maintain her composure. Then her eyes widened when Shampoo procured a certain pair of panties from her own section of the tent; ones that she had insisted on buying with her own money, in opposition to her preferred choice of underwear. As far as she had been comfortable and willing to go, in order to give the appearance that she was a girl, she had drawn the line with underwear.

Whether or not that decision had been based on irrational fear, she could tell that boxers wouldn't be able to support the pads and she needed to use them until her menstruation ceased (whether she liked it or not). So, with much reluctance, she quietly accepted the pads and panties. Then, after tossing away the wad of toilet tissue that she had been using to absorb the flow of blood into a small trash bin, she doffed her trousers and boxers completely, took a deep breath, and pulled the panties all the way up her legs, once she had placed one of the pads within it.

As with the first time that she had worn girls' clothes, she had expected something bad to happen, for something to irrevocably change about herself. When nothing of the sort happened, she didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed for being wrong. She didn't really know what to do, other than to stare down at herself dumbly, uncertain as to how she should interpret the way her time as a girl had progressed up to that point and time.

It was then that Shampoo could no longer contain her curiosity. Ranma's initial reluctance to wear appropriate clothing for a girl, her preference for wearing boxers and going braless, and the way in which she had once moved her body — before she had adopted her own mannerisms — had seemed odd but not suspicious enough to delve into before. However, with how she had responded to her menarche, she concluded that all of these things were related to something bigger, something that she herself couldn't imagine going through herself and wouldn't wish on anyone.

So, she broke the awkward silence that had fallen upon them and — in the most tactful way that she knew how — softly asked, "Is your mother...?"

Ranma, afraid that she might somehow reveal her secret or her plan, looked away and failed to answer her immediately, as her mind tried to come up with something to say. However, when Shampoo moved over to her side and took one of her hands into her own, and she looked up into the other girl's concern-filled eyes, her mind all but emptied its contents.

"I don't know," Ranma found herself saying, in a quiet tone.

Which was true enough: for as long as she could remember, she had been traveling and training with her father. She couldn't even rightly say that she'd ever given the possibility of having a mother any serious thought until just then, seeing as it had never had any bearing on the way that she had lived. And it was this inexperience and ignorance that she feared would lead her to making a mistake, in that it would showcase how she couldn't possibly be a girl despite the physical evidence.

A tinge of confusion joined Shampoo's concern. "What do you mean?"

"I've never met her," Ranma admitted, having no choice but to be honest since she didn't know what lies she could say that would be of any help.

With the pieces of the puzzle having fallen into place, Shampoo now understood that — whether the mother lived or not — her redheaded sensei couldn't have been raised by a member of their own sex; not with the kind of results that had been produced in her, at any rate. It was even possible that she hadn't even had any significant contact with other girls, which might even explain how she had treated her teasing and flirtatious behavior as normal and adopted it as being such without understanding the true nature of it.

She drew the smaller girl into a gentle hug. "I think I understand."

"You... You do?" Came Ranma's bemused response, surprised by the hug yet also wondering what kind of conclusion the other girl could have drawn.

Shampoo drew back and smiled. "You were raised by a man, right? Your father, perhaps?"

Not seeing anything wrong with relinquishing the information, Ranma nodded her head in affirmation. "My old man, yeah."

Without really thinking about the ramifications that might result from what she was about to do, feeling as if it were a duty that any other girl in her position would take up, Shampoo smiled with a mix of hope and encouragement as she said, "Then — if you'll allow me to — I'd like to teach you everything that a girl your age should know."

Afraid that it'd be strange for a real girl to decline, Ranma hid her reservations for the idea behind false enthusiasm and a small yet equally-faked smile. "You'd really do that for me?"

"Of course," Shampoo readily assured. "And when your flow passes, I'll even teach you how to prevent it in the future."

It went without saying that Ranma held no false enthusiasm for that idea, which had been made evident enough to make Shampoo amused. And while Ranma looked into the future with a certain amount of dread, having not foreseen what it might mean to be a girl in accordance with her plan to make Shampoo her friend, said girl tried to convince herself that teaching her the ways of their sex would give her more opportunities to have fun at the redhead's expense.

For the next few days Shampoo forewent her usual martial arts training in lieu of teaching Ranma proper hygiene, and she also included the knowledge related to — and surrounding — menstruation that her own mother had taught her. While Ranma had known a bit of the latter already, in a very general and simple sense (putting part A into part B was how babies were made), she'd never realized the full scope of it because much of it had never been something that she'd had to worry about until she had acquired a girl's body and had it pointed out to her. It was both enlightening and a bit frightening, though she ultimately came out of it with a newfound respect for the fairer sex.

When Ranma finished menstruating, Shampoo did as she said she would and taught her a shiatsu technique that would prevent the occurrence of menstruation. Shampoo had gone further by explaining that it worked by tricking the body into thinking that it was pregnant, and she gave the various reasons for why the technique had been developed in the first place. However, she had to warn the redhead that — while it could be used indefinitely — there were health risks involved when it was applied for too long, since — like most girls — she seemed quite eager to use the technique.

At that point Ranma had thought that her life couldn't have changed any more dramatically, but that was proved wrong when Shampoo suggested that they could afford to take a hot bath for once, since it was the perfect way to feel fresh and clean after one's flow. She had tried to beg off, but she could find neither the excuse nor the adamancy to persuade her against going without risking being suspicious about it. So it was with a great deal of effort that she hid her anxiety and trepidation when they went to the communal bath house, as she tried to figure out how to avoid hot water or how she might handle the situation if Shampoo saw her change into a boy.

Shampoo noticed that there was something off about Ranma's behavior while they undressed in the changing room, but she figured that it was just the redhead's shy side rearing its head once again. Since she wasn't supposed to feel any concern for her, and felt that she hadn't been distancing herself as much as she should have as of late, she decided that it might be a good opportunity to make the other girl unhappy with her. While it didn't really matter whether she was seen as a friend, she had a problem with it: she didn't want to risk seeing her companion as a friend by the time she had to fulfill the "kiss of death" law, and she'd already been affected enough by her to feel that it would be too cruel to try and kill her if the redhead thought of her as a friend.

However, by the time that they had found two pairs of vacant faucets that were right next to each other, and had occupied their respective stools, Shampoo began to suspect that it wasn't shyness that Ranma was trying to hide. The bath house was fairly crowded at the moment, yet the other girl seemed more distracted than anything else, the conditioning she'd acquired from bathing with her having apparently extending to others of the same sex. The question thus became: what was she feeling, and why did the bath house (or something that could be found in it) inspire it?

Just to make sure, Shampoo decided to continue their usual routine by washing Ranma's back, but doing that in front of other people didn't change anything. She wasn't sure what to make of it, so she refocused her efforts on trying to find a way to make the other girl upset with her. It was when it came time to rinse away the soap on their bodies that she saw an opportunity to do so, so she took her own bucket of water and poured it over her companion's head when she wasn't expecting it, hoping to get soap in her eyes.

Ranma complained about her burning eyes in a rather unhappy manner, but it only lasted for a few seconds and cut off abruptly, which was how long she had been distracted by it until she realized the fact that she'd come into contact with hot water without changing into a boy. Her mental processes came to a halt, and with it physical movement, as she tried to absorb what had happened while also trying to keep herself from doing anything that would lead to questions that she didn't want to answer.

Unfortunately, suddenly stilling one's body and stopping one's complaint was peculiar enough for a curious Shampoo to ask, "Is there something wrong?"

Ranma did her best to act nonchalant as she went back to cleaning her eyes out, but it was obvious that she was distracted by something. "N-nothing's wrong. Just, um... warn me next time."

Shampoo knew better than to believe her, though she was more caught up with wondering what had happened and being disappointed that her ploy hadn't gotten a better result. She had to settle for watching the other girl silently as they rinsed themselves off, her mind trying to piece together a mystery that had more clues than evidence.

Ranma managed to notice the unwanted attention despite her current state of mind, and while she tried to act normally she was also trying to convince herself that she must have imagined the temperature of the water that Shampoo had used to douse her with. However, she was still presented with a dilemma: either she was somehow stuck as a girl, which she didn't even want to contemplate; or she would still have to deal with Shampoo learning about her curse, and how to go about revealing it.

When it came time for them to enter one of the baths, she still hadn't decided on what she wanted to do. She was kind of hoping that she could get away with acting surprised when she changed into a boy, like it was a new and unexpected development, but she had been around Shampoo long enough to know that her acting skills weren't as great as she had first thought. It was evidenced enough by the kind of attention that her purple-haired companion was paying her already.

Finally, she decided that the water that Shampoo had used might have been on the warmer side of tepid but not hot enough to deactivate her curse. In which case she might be able to get away with entering the more moderate-temperatured bath instead of the hot one, though she wished she were more certain about it since she'd never had the opportunity to test exactly what kind of temperature was needed to deactivate her curse. In the end she opted to take a risk and enter the coolest of the baths, and if it didn't work she could try to pretend like she didn't know anything about her transformation and hope for the best.

However, while Ranma had been deliberating over the matter, Shampoo had discerned enough of her facial expressions to tell which bath she had decided on. Thinking that it had something to do with what was going on in Ranma's head, and seeing another opportunity to make the redhead upset with her, she picked up a bar of soap before they stood up and made their way to the baths. She stayed directly behind the other girl in order to be in the right position for her plan.

Since the hottest bath was directly ahead of them, with the one that Ranma had decided upon being to the right of it, she waited until the redhead was as close to the former as possible before she would need to turn toward the latter. When the time arrived, she slid the bar of soap under Ranma's back foot, right when she had raised her heel, which caused her to slip and stumble forward. She smiled with satisfaction when the redhead fell into the hottest bath with a splash, which elicited a few squeals and shrieks of surprise from some of the other female patrons that occupied the same bath.

When Ranma surfaced, she glared at Shampoo and yelled, "Why'd you do that—"

And then the fact that she was sitting in the hottest bath, unchanged, struck her dumb. She was pretty sure that the water was hot enough to change her, yet she was still a girl instead of a boy. Between what that meant and trying to hide her reaction as best as she could, the shock and stress (respectively) sent her reeling into unconsciousness.

While Shampoo had found Ranma's behavior of the past few hours odd, she was simply dumbfounded by this latest development. She had no idea why the redhead had fainted, or how the bath could have contributed to it. As she fished the redhead out of the bath, she resolved to find out what had just happened.

A few months later found Shampoo looking back on her time with Ranma, with the time of her first (and so far only) menses standing out among the others. That was when there had been significant changes in the other girl, and consequently the turning point of the changes in their relationship.

The changes had really begun after the incident at the bath house. Ranma had seemed shell-shocked afterward, behaving nothing like herself at all. She had become introverted and quiet in the following days, and her performance during their martial arts training had been frustratingly pathetic. And when she had confronted her about her behavior and what had happened, she'd been enigmatic about it, saying that it no longer mattered.

So she had been surprised and unprepared when Ranma had approached her and asked her to teach her more about the things that she would need to know to live properly as a girl. She had been surprised because the other girl has been rather reserved about it before, since she had only wanted to accept the things associated with menstruation. And she had been unprepared because of the look in her eyes: while the facade had appeared calm and serious, there was a desperate intensity that could be seen beyond it, as if she were looking for a lifeline.

She hadn't known what else to do other than to follow through with her offer, and Ranma had thrown herself into her care completely, like a child might their parent. In that regard she supposed that she may have actually experienced what it must be like for a mother to instruct their young during the first few weeks, considering the amount of innocent-like trust that had been placed in her by the redhead.

The temptation to take advantage of Ranma when she had been like that had been there, to be sure, but she hadn't been able to do it. If what Ranma had needed from her had been anything else, then perhaps she would have been able to do something to ensure that the distance between them had never closed. However, if it hadn't been the unguarded and dependent look in the redhead's eyes that discouraged her, then it had been the feeling that she would betray her sex by not taking her instruction seriously, if she didn't raise one of their number to be a proud and respectable member among them.

She had known what could happen before it did, but she hadn't been able to put forth the effort to avoid it. Ranma had grown into the friend, confidante and sister that she'd never had, and the side of her that had hoped for that outcome had won over the side that hadn't — simple as that. She couldn't even begin to feel ashamed for what she had done, and it tore her up inside because she knew that she would receive a harsh punishment when she finally decided to return to her village, for not observing the law.

Those were the kind of thoughts that she was currently having when Ranma found her, as she sat at the bank of the lake that they had lived by for the last four months. She had wanted it to look as if she had been observing the sun as it set behind the mountain that lie beyond the lake, but she knew that it wasn't to be.

She thought it uncanny how fast Ranma had learned to read people, and how well. It really amazed her how much the other girl had changed from the childish, brash, easygoing and somewhat clueless tomboy that she used to be. While she thought that she — herself — had matured a good bit over the course of time that they had been together, there was no doubt in her mind that the redhead had surpassed her in that regard by comparison. It wasn't too surprising considering the other girl's drive and focus, but to grow so much in so short a period of time, just from the foundation that she'd given her...

She looked askance as Ranma sat down beside her, exhibiting the feminine grace that she had developed over the past few months as she did so. She had taken to wearing the Mandarin style of clothing, much like herself, but unlike herself preferred to wear roomy pants as opposed to skirts. She'd also gotten into the habit of tying some of her hair up with a pair of hair sticks, leaving the rest to hang nearly halfway down her back; and that's how she wore her hair at the moment. She was also wearing a minimal amount of makeup, which wasn't a surprise considering how much pride she had in herself in general.

Her sister in all but name was calmly looking at the sunset, but she knew that she was there for her, not it. So she wasn't surprised when she heard her say, "We can't go on like this forever, you know."

Ranma had picked up on what was going on a few weeks ago, but it hadn't been until the day before last that it had become glaringly obvious: her purple-haired friend had been putting off the inevitable. When her strength and speed training had put her on par with her own capabilities, and as a result offered to teach her some of the Joketsuzoku's own martial arts styles and techniques, she knew that her friend was intent upon — yet reluctant to — returning to her village.

Shampoo looked back toward the setting sun and released a sigh. "I know."

There was a moment of silence between them before Ranma spoke again, this time with a bit of emotional strain in her voice. "I'm so sorry, Shampoo. None of this would have happened if I hadn't allowed my stomach and arrogance to do the thinking for me." She bowed her head and pressed her clenched fists deeper into her lap. "And the worst part is that I don't know if I should feel ashamed for the position I've put you in, because the thought of never having the opportunity to get to know you is just so..."

Shampoo shushed her and laid a reassuring hand on her knee. "What's done is done. I wasn't supposed to get attached to you so I could uphold the law of my village, but I did. You didn't want to get attached to me so you wouldn't feel this way in the event that I couldn't kill you, but you did. Neither of us thought that this would happen to both of us, but it did."

"It's not fair," Ranma whispered.

Shampoo gave Ranma's knee a gentle squeeze. "That may be so, but I can't abandon my great-grandmother. She would be devastated if I left her to finish our family legacy in such a way. Our family's long-standing history in the village would be viewed as a joke instead of with veneration, and unless she leaves the village she will be mocked and made to feel shame. It is better for me to be punished than to do that to her. She has done a lot for me since my mother's death, and I have her to thank for becoming the champion of our village, so I owe it to her to live up to expectations — even in failure."

Ranma nodded her head faintly. "I understand. I just wish that there was something that I could do so you won't be punished."

"And I appreciate the thought," Shampoo replied, as she retrieved her hand from Ranma's knee, "but it will be better for both my great-grandmother and myself if I accept punishment instead of trying to avoid it."

They shared another moment of silence before Ranma sighed and looked up at the dusky sky with a faraway look in her eyes. "It's kinda ironic, you know?"

Shampoo regarded her with a questioning look. "What is?"

She saw Ranma hesitate, as if she were reconsidering something, before her redheaded friend adjusted the position in which she sat and faced her, a serious look in her eyes. "Receiving the kiss of death. I..." She paused, seeming to have trouble continuing, before she cast her eyes downward and managed to do so. "I wasn't always a girl."

Shampoo blinked her eyes confusedly. "What do you mean?"

Ranma took a deep, calming breath and re-engaged eye contact with her one and only friend, the one person who deserved to know what she was about to confess. "Shampoo, I... I used to be a boy." Seeing as Shampoo kept silent, and her facial expression remained unchanged, she took that as a sign to continue. "Before I came to your village I had been cursed at a place called Jusenkyo. If I came into contact with cold water, I would become a girl. If it was hot water, I'd change back into a guy. But... hot water doesn't work anymore."

To say that Shampoo was surprised was an understatement, but she realized that it would explain a lot of things. That it was even possible for someone to be changed by magic was a non-issue with her, considering the fact that she'd dealt with magic before, and that her great-grandmother had shown her a few of her own magical objects over the years. However, she'd yet to encounter magic that'd had such a profound effect before: even before Ranma had reinvented herself as a girl, she never would have guessed that the anatomically-correct and buxom female had ever been a boy.

Ranma looked down and began to fidget with her hands. "I'll understand if you no longer want anything to do with me. If I could become a man again I'd do it in a heartbeat for your sake, but I can't." She closed her eyes, her feelings of regret being conveyed in her voice as she added, "I'm sorry."

Shampoo moved over to the redhead's side and pulled her into a hug. "You don't have to apologize. Besides, would you really want to get married for that kind of reason?"

"Maybe," Ranma murmured as she looked away, her cheeks becoming flush. "I'd like to think that I've gotten to know you pretty well and... marrying you doesn't sound like such a bad idea."

The unexpected admission caught Shampoo off-guard, but it warmed her heart to think that there was someone who cared for her that much; especially since Ranma was that someone. The girl within her arms had filled a special place inside of her, a place whose formerly-yawning void she had tried to ignore ever since her mother had passed away. She had been able to handle being friendless when her mother had been around to make her feel wanted, relevant and good about herself, but neither her father or her great-grandmother had been able to make up for what she had lost with her mother's passing.

She hugged Ranma a little tighter. "You don't need to be a man to marry me, but I've grown too fond of thinking of you as a sister to really want that."

"Yeah, I think I feel the same way," Ranma replied softly, as she returned the hug. "Having a sister... Being a sister..." She looked up at her purple-haired sister, her eyes shining and quavering with emotion. "If it wasn't for you, I never would have learned that being a girl wouldn't be a step down from being a man. And it's thanks to you that I can appreciate being a girl, not to mention what we have between us. You were there for me when I was lost, wondering what to do with myself when I discovered I couldn't become a man anymore, and that means a lot to me."

"Ranma..." Shampoo voiced, feeling touched but not sure of what to say.

"That's why," Ranma continued, with resolve and a determined expression on her face, "when you return to your village, I'm coming with you the whole way. If you're going to be punished, then I'm going to be punished right beside you."

Shampoo tried to argue with her. "But—"

"No!" Ranma interrupted vehemently, before calming down and continuing in a quiet but no less emotive tone. "My ignorance won't be used to excuse myself from what I did to put you into this position. I won't accept it. I was being an idiot and a thoughtless jerk, and you were justified in giving me the kiss of death — given the circumstances."

She got to her feet and pulled Shampoo up along with her so that they were both standing, facing each other. Then she moved her hands to the other girl's shoulders and tried to project her soul from her eyes as she stared into those belonging to the most important person in her life. "And I won't accept being anyone's friend — much less a sister — who's only there when it's convenient. You mean too much to me to do anything less than to share this burden with you." The area around her eyes softened, as did her voice. "You're just gonna have to accept the fact that you're stuck with me. Got it?"

Shampoo's throat was too tight to convey her answer verbally, so — with tears in her eyes — she nodded her head before engulfing the redhead in a powerful hug, in response to her poignant words. She found it hard to believe that she had once thought of ending the life of the girl within her arms, and more than ever she was glad that she had decided to receive a punishment for not obeying the law.

The owner of the restaurant, Ranma and Shampoo's employer, had been devastated when they had told him that they were quitting. They felt a bit sorry for him, since they were pretty confident that they would be next to impossible to replace with anyone of matching beauty and skill, but they had much more pressing concerns than the future of a restaurant whose owner they weren't particularly attached to.

The trip to the Joketsuzoku's village was both sedate and somber. They spoke very little along the way, though they made plenty of physical contact to reassure each other that they would endure what lie ahead of them together. It was through this contact that their friendship fully blossomed into sisterhood, which had been made possible on the day that they had put their feelings for each other into words.

When they reached the outskirts of the village, Ranma got a good look at it for the first time. She had been too hungry to notice much of it on the way in, too busy eating and fighting while she had been there, and then she had been too preoccupied with trying to save her own skin on the way out.

The first thing that she noticed was the paddy fields and other crops on either side of the road that they were traveling on, which appeared to pass through the center of the village. At said center of the village was a square, one that appeared to be used for both social gatherings and markets. While many of the houses were at ground level, focused around the village's square, much of the village was built alongside steep cliffs, and a good number of houses could be found overlooking the village from them. The paths leading up to them had been made to give vehicles — such as carts and wagons — the ability to traverse them without much trouble, and there were retaining walls wherever the cliffs were being used by the inhabitants of the village.

As they moved deeper into the village, she noticed that they were drawing a fair amount of attention. The kind that they received from the adults were rather mixed, though few expressed anything that appeared to be negative. Many of them simply turned back to what they had been doing before, as if there wasn't anything of interest to see, while others watched with neutral expressions or something that hinted at something else. Those around their own age were a lot more negative in their response to Shampoo's presence, with some going so far as to taunt her, but she held her head up high and ignored them.

When they reached Shampoo's house, she entered and announced herself, but remained just inside of the entrance. Ranma watched as someone stepped into the hall from another room, who she assumed to be Shampoo's great-grandmother. She was short, and quite a sight to behold, but she did her best to hide her reaction because being anything less than polite would probably do Shampoo more harm than good. Considering the stony look that Shampoo's great-grandmother adopted upon seeing her, she decided that she was probably right in that assumption.

"Shampoo," Cologne spoke to her great-granddaughter, with an air of solemnity, "am I to assume that you have failed to uphold the law?"

Shampoo kept her composure and simply nodded her head.

"I see," Cologne replied, her tone and expression unchanged. "Then we must hold a meeting with the elders to determine your punishment."

She proceeded to walk toward a cane that was leaning against the wall, near the door, and Ranma found it difficult to hide her reaction when she used it as a sort of pogo stick as she left the house and told them to follow her. Since Shampoo seemed to hold her great-grandmother in high regard, she wasn't about to find humor in her mode of transportation, much less make said humor public.

They were led to a house near the center of the village, among those that defined the shape of the square. From the outside it didn't look much different from any of the other residential houses, in either its size or appearance, except for the bell that hung from a tall post in front of it. This Cologne rung with a few tugs of a rope, before she continued on her way and entered the building, with them following in short order.

Inside was a single, spacious room. Opposite of the door that they had entered through were three tiers of raised desks, and Cologne left their presence to find a seat behind one of them. They then stood aside and watched in silence as other elders began to filter into the room and join Cologne, most of them just as old and diminutive as she was.

Once every seat was filled, the elders present numbered twenty-three. Before reaching the village Shampoo had explained to Ranma that each elder was the head of one of the families, wherein their own individual politics (if there were any worth mentioning) decided said head. The elders each held a vote as part of a council in order to decide on the broader aspects of their lives, and while there was no official leader among them it was common to designate an elder with a special role, to make it easier for people to know whom to go to and whose authority to follow during certain circumstances.

When they moved to stand before the bench when directed to do so, one of the elders spoke up — in Mandarin — and said, "Shampoo, with the girl that you were supposed to kill standing right beside you, it is obvious beyond a doubt that you have failed to uphold the law. To know what punishment would be most appropriate, we wish to know how it was that you failed to do so — and it would be in your best interests to leave nothing out."

With so many powerful, influential and intimidating individuals staring at her so gravely, Shampoo couldn't help gulping and having a difficult time trying to find her voice. That changed when Ranma took her hand and squeezed it, and when she turned to see her smile there were a myriad emotions behind it, giving her the strength and courage that she would need to face her elders.

With determination and a distinct lack of shame, she also spoke in Mandarin as she told the elders what happened from beginning to end. She not only told them the events that unfolded, but her thoughts and feelings, and how they had changed over time to what they were now. By the end of it, she'd gone so far as to tell the elders that the "kiss of death" law was stupid, and that it would have denied her the chance to experience something far better than upholding it ever would or could.

She was nearly in tears by the time she finished, as emotionally high-strung as she had become in relating what she had. A part of it was due to the fear that she might have gone too far with some of the things that she had said, even though it had felt right to say them. And while Ranma's presence was a comfort, it tempted her to relax and let go, and she couldn't do that unless she desired to make a spectacle of herself.

The elders shared looks with one another for a time, and the many nods that followed in silence seemed to indicate that their decision was so unanimous that they found it unnecessary to speak of the subject aloud. It didn't seem to bode well for Shampoo, whose grip on Ranma's hand increased tremendously when her great-grandmother focused on her and spoke.

"Great-granddaughter," she said, her manner and tone as severe as ever, "it's plain to all of us that not only should you be punished, but that you receive the harshest punishment that we are allowed to give."

Ranma didn't need to follow the language being used completely, or feel Shampoo's body shake through her hand, to get the impression that the punishment would be bad news. If she understood what the punishment would be upon hearing it, and it turned out to be too unreasonable to accept, she would try to escape with her friend regardless of her protests. She tensed her body in preparation for such an undertaking.

"Your punishment," Cologne went on, before pausing and slowly revealing a smile, "is to be recognized as a true Joketsuzoku in the eyes of this council and to start an advanced training regimen immediately. Congratulations."

Shampoo's shock and confusion at the verdict was total, and she stood before the elders dumbfounded, not knowing what to do or what to say. A number of elders found her reaction to their judgement funny, and began to cackle with amusement as the others adopted a more casual attitude in the way that they presented themselves.

"Stop laughing!" Ranma yelled at them angrily in her native tongue of Japanese, in defense of her friend. She'd understood the gist of Shampoo's "punishment," but like her friend didn't know how it had been decided. "Don't you think she's been through enough! ?"

The laughing elders quieted, and they along with the rest of the elders focused on her, which made her feel uncomfortable. Then one of the many yet-to-be-named elders turned to Cologne and asked, "Well?"

Cologne nodded her head and regarded Ranma with a piercing look. "Child, what my great-granddaughter is about to learn is a secret so well kept that we only allow a single individual among us with the privilege and the duty to be able to convey it in any way, shape or form, and outsiders — along with those who have yet to become true Joketsuzoku — are absolutely not welcome to this knowledge. Do you understand?"

Ranma thought about it carefully for a moment before she nodded her head slowly. "If I want to stick around to hear it, I'd have to become a true Joketsuzoku." She paused before forging ahead more carefully. "But if that's what you're offering, what happens if I turn you down?"

"You would essentially be made to forget having ever known Shampoo," Cologne stated pointedly, to both Shampoo's and Ranma's horror. "If we only took your memory back so far, you might discover that Shampoo hadn't been punished for failing to kill you, or that she should be trying to kill you but isn't. Whether you start to ask questions or not, we aren't willing to take the risk of having someone who isn't among our number with knowledge that reveals what appears to be a contradiction in the way that we do things. The secret that we withhold from the unworthy is so important that our very way of life depends upon it."

"So," she went on, as she stared intently into Ranma's eyes, "what will it be? Between Shampoo's account and reading the truth of it in her aura, we have ascertained that you are worthy of becoming a Joketsuzoku in fact; and, despite how we may seem, we are reluctant to end the bond between you."

Ranma turned to regard Shampoo, who looked back, and there wasn't a question in her mind as to what her decision would be as they each looked the other in the eyes. Becoming a Joketsuzoku wasn't going to be any more life-changing than coming to terms with being a girl, and it would also allow her to remain close to her purple-haired sister. And while she'd had reservations about the Joketsuzoku before coming to their village, it now seemed apparent that there was more to them than she had first thought.

She turned her attention back to Cologne and — with a resolute expression on her face — put into practice the tact that she had picked up over the past few months. "I would be honored if you would accept me as one of your own."

Cologne smiled pleasantly in reply. "Call me great-grandmother, child. That is, if you don't object to being adopted into our family?"

"I have no objections, great-grandmother," Ranma answered, which earned her an enthusiastic hug from Shampoo.

She felt her eyes sting with tears as she returned Shampoo's hug with equal enthusiasm, happy in the knowledge that their being sisters would be recognized beyond themselves. Even more, she was hopeful that she would gain what she had been missing — in familial terms — from her father.

After a while Cologne cleared her throat to bring their attention back to the present. "Normally we would hold a ceremony to induct new members into our tribe, but it would raise too many questions as to why we would accept you even as Shampoo is being punished for not killing you. So, it will have to remain unofficial for the time being."

Ranma nodded her head in understanding.

"Now," Cologne continued, "before we explain why Shampoo has done the right thing by disobeying the law, I feel that our newest member of the tribe should know a little about our history, so she will have a better understanding of what she will learn."

After she received a number of sounds and gestures from her fellow elders, indicating that she should carry on (with some not being entirely patient in nature), she returned her attention to Ranma and said, "The Joketsuzoku arose after a small women's rights movement was suppressed in ancient times. The method of suppression — of course — involved force and death. A small group of women, who managed to escape, took this as one of many lessons when they fled to find a place to call their own."

"Initially," she went on, "they were primarily focused on matching or surpassing the men in regard to their strength and skill as fighters, but met with limited success. Eventually, differences in philosophies arose among them, and a growing number no longer saw the benefit — much less the point — of devoting their life to being antagonistic toward men."

"While most remained to continue their campaign, a small portion defected and found their new home here. As Joketsuzoku — as they are now known — their goal had changed, from proving their superiority over men to one of self-improvement and enlightenment. And while they retained their martial roots, they placed their focus on using it to improve the body and the mind. This, in turn, eventually led to the exploration of attaining various concepts of perfection: not only as warriors and thinkers, but also in terms of beauty."

She turned to one of the elders and nodded her head. "They are now ready to hear it, Coffee Grinder. Thank you for your patience."

Coffee Grinder returned the nod with one of her own before she focused her attention on Shampoo and Ranma. "To pick up where Cologne has left off, it was in the early days of our tribe's history when our growing number became a problem. While it made sense that we could make more progress in our pursuits with a large population, it drew too much attention and fear from our neighbors. And if that weren't bad enough, our tribe had done little to mitigate the problem, and some independent actions by a few in the tribe had made things worse."

"The war that resulted was a disaster for all parties involved," she revealed in a somber tone, "but we all learned from it. As a result, the Joketsuzoku made peace and offered a place in our society for the people who lived in the other villages, and at present more than half of the elders that you see before you are either directly or indirectly connected to them. This reassures the other villages that our power structure isn't wholly one of self-interest, and that trying to remove their influence — at this point — would prove self-destructive."

She paused before getting to the part that was most relevant to Shampoo's current situation, the part that only she — out of the entire village — could tell. "But there was still the growth of our population to consider, and many of our advanced techniques are not the kind that should be taught to just anyone. So, we created a system where only those who pass our tests can become true Joketsuzoku, and only those that become such are aware of this. Those that fail the tests, or have reached a certain age without making enough progress, have their minds altered so that they gradually lose interest in learning the advanced techniques, and some move out of the village to seek their destiny elsewhere. Though that's not to say that a good number decide to do this on their own, since many girls from the other villages come here to learn certain things before returning home."

"As for the law you 'disobeyed,'" she emphasized, getting to the point, "it was one of our many tests, of the type that we save for last. While we teach that both the law and how one should behave are important, we never teach which one to choose when they come into conflict with each other: after all, if we did, one could act their way through the test and do what's expected rather than their choice reflecting how they truly feel and believe. The 'kiss of death' law is a final test for those that we feel could go either way, but we usually find out the moment they administer the kiss or refuse to. Also, this test is supposed to be conducted under controlled conditions, as I'm sure your great-grandmother would be willing to demonstrate."

Shampoo and Ranma looked over at Cologne, who began to glow as her aura manifested into the visible spectrum. Her aura began to grow in size, expanding more vertically than horizontally while at the same time taking on a more defined shape, until it looked like a larger version of herself. Then, as the appearance of her aura altered to become a different and younger woman, it also became more opaque. It wasn't long before Cologne couldn't be seen through the aura, and the young woman that remained looked real and solid.

Cologne, who now looked like a teenage girl from somewhere in Europe, posed seductively and grinned at her wide-eyed — as well as speechless — great-granddaughters before saying, "I've aged fairly well, wouldn't you say?"

After a number of elders finished chuckling, Coffee Grinder picked up from where she had left off, but in a more casual tone than before. "Anyway, it's obvious to us that you've learned a few valuable lessons since you were last here, Shampoo; and it was in no small part due to the fact that you were fortunate enough to encounter your new sister."

Ranma and Shampoo turned to look at each other and shared a smile, but their attention soon returned to Cologne, when she released her hold on her technique and returned to her old, shriveled self. She was smiling softly, with her attention squarely on Ranma, when she spoke. "Yes, it was fortunate that the one who received the kiss was you, Ranma, if not one of us. I was worried that my great-granddaughter would fail the test, or worse, and I didn't even want to imagine how she might react if I ever found someone else to take my place as the head of the family instead of her."

One of the elders cleared her throat and said, "While I'm happy for you, Cologne, can't that wait? Some of us were in the middle of our own matters of importance when you rang, and I'd rather not waste borrowed time on something that you can do at home."

"You're right, Spittoon," Cologne agreed patiently, before she turned to address one of the other elders. "Butter Churn, we'd better place 'the seal' on them before Spittoon's granddaughter remodels the house again."

While many elders got a good chuckle out of that, at the expense of an embarrassed Spittoon, Butter Churn approached Shampoo and Ranma. Before she reached them, Shampoo told Ranma how Spittoon's granddaughter, Holster, had come back from a training trip after learning martial arts interior decorating. She added that it wouldn't have been so bad for the family involved if Holster'd had better taste.

Ranma could only stare at her in disbelief in response, wondering if it were true, and what other weird styles might be out there if it were.

After the meeting with the elders had concluded, Cologne had directed Ranma to leave the village and set up camp at a particular location a few miles away. That way, when Cologne and Shampoo left the village to meet up with her the following day, it would help the illusion that they were leaving to serve out Shampoo's punishment, rather than going on a friendly-looking excursion with a part of the reason for why she was being punished in the first place.

While Ranma understood the reasoning, she was still a little glum about being separated from Shampoo, in addition to having to hide their relationship. She was able to put it out of her mind by the time she'd set up camp, but that left her feeling distinctly alone, now that she was totally unused to any extended period of absence regarding Shampoo's presence. The day proceeded to move at a crawl because of that, despite attempts to distract herself by practicing her forms, exploring the immediate area, and meditating.

She felt a lot better the next morning while she was preparing breakfast, knowing that both Cologne and Shampoo would be joining her very soon. When she noticed them entering the glade that she had established her camp in, she abandoned her still-cooking food and sprinted over to Shampoo in order to give her a hug.

When Shampoo received said hug, she returned it and laughed good-naturedly before saying, "We were only gone a day!"

Ranma pulled back and pouted. "I know, but..."

"Hey," Cologne complained, feigning a hurt look, "where's my hug?"

Ranma disengaged from Shampoo before kneeling down and giving Cologne a hug in greeting. "I'm sorry, great-grandmother. You're only the second person with whom I have this kind of relationship with, so it's still fairly new to me."

"Is that so?" Cologne wondered aloud, before seeming to come to a decision. "Well, we'll just have to change that, now, won't we?"

Ranma got to her feet and smiled at both Cologne and Shampoo, having a good feeling about her decision to pursue a familial relationship with them even though she still had her biological father. She wasn't sure what she was going to do when she next met the man, because she wasn't going to avoid him, but she wasn't going to allow him to separate her from Cologne and Shampoo regardless of what else might happen.

When Ranma returned to finish the preparation of her meal, Cologne and Shampoo joined her, with the former telling her more about the tribe that she had joined, as well as the family that she had become a part of. She started by telling her that their family was the smallest in the village because they focused on all three of the core values that the Joketsuzoku desired among their number: fighting ability, intelligence and physical beauty. It wasn't an easy combination to come by, and various misfortunes over the past century had only exacerbated matters by making it hard to stabilize and recover their number. To say that Ranma was a godsend was a gross understatement.

Cologne had to reassure Ranma that she wouldn't force her to seek the company of a man. It was partly due to her having lived as a man until recently, but it was mostly because of the fact that they weren't restricted by bloodlines (though it wasn't like that for a number of other families, who forwent adoption in their own pursuits). So, if she ever saw anyone promising, she should seriously consider trying to have them adopted. Which was easier said than done the farther away their prospects lived from their village.

Ranma also learned that she would be given a Joketsuzoku name once she was officially inducted into the tribe. She explained that those who considered themselves Joketsuzoku (even if not in truth at the time) went by a given name, and during formal occasions — or when clarification was required — a last name would be tacked on afterward. The last name was always the head of the family, so when addressed in full she would be called, "Ranma of Cologne." It was a bit odd to her, but it made enough sense to distinguish themselves since so much of their population came from neighboring villages.

When Ranma finished eating her breakfast, Cologne — seemingly to herself — said, "Well, I think it's been long enough for it to take effect." She pulled out a thermos from within her robe and offered it to Ranma, who accepted it with a confused expression on her face. "Humor an old woman and pour that hot water over your head."

Ranma guessed that it had something to do with her curse, but she didn't really expect anything to happen since hot water had failed to change her back into a man for several months. Which was why he was surprised to have his manly bits pinched by his underwear after pouring the hot water over his head, with his clothes feeling uncomfortably tight in general. Between those things and hoping that Shampoo wouldn't react negatively to him, he failed to notice that his hair wasn't growing at an unnatural rate.

To say that Shampoo was shocked was an understatement, and after identifying with Ranma as a girl for so long it was also a bit uncomfortable for her to find him attractive. However, what ultimately won her attention was the image of her "sister" wearing clothes made for a much smaller woman, and the giggles came out before she could stop them. At that point it was pointless to try, now that they were out, so she kept giggling.

"Shampoo!" Ranma whined petulantly, feeling embarrassed, which only got worse when Shampoo laughed at the way that he had said her name.

"I'm sorry!" Shampoo tried to apologize as she attempted to calm herself down, which was met with limited success. "It's just... You should have heard... It was so funny!"

Ranma responded with a pout, which just added fuel to the fire.

By the time that Shampoo had regained control of herself, Ranma had changed herself back into a girl using some water from a canteen, seeing as it would be impractical to be a guy while she had no clothes that fit her properly. Cologne, who had watched what had happened in silence, regarded her two great-granddaughters with amusement.

"What did you do?" Ranma asked of Cologne, as she tried to come to terms with the fact that she was no longer just a girl. "I thought... Because I couldn't change back... I'd decided..."

Cologne raised her hand in a calming gesture, having noticed a build up of tears at the corners of the redhead's eyes. "When Shampoo told the council that you had gotten a curse at Jusenkyo, and when you'd told her at which point you discovered how hot water no longer worked, I had my suspicions. Since she expressed her concern to me about it last night, when I inquired about it further, I decided to undue the 'no-showing mother' pressure point and bring some hot water to see if I was right." She paused, and was unable to suppress a grin from forming. "In case you're wondering, I undid the pressure point when you hugged me."

"What?" Ranma replied with wide eyes, as she tried to recall the hug on top of absorbing everything else that she had said. "But... How?"

Cologne's grin grew wider. "You'll find out when you learn how to do it yourself."

"So the pressure point was the cause...?" Shampoo asked, as she looked at her great-grandmother for confirmation.

Cologne nodded her head. "That appears to be the case. There are a number of ways for a person to be trapped in their cursed form, and pregnancy — even a fake one — is one of those ways."

Ranma didn't know what to think, so she just sat where she was in silence, staring into space. She'd put a lot of effort into working out her doubts about being a girl for the rest of her life, and now her doubts were returning. Was she supposed to be a boy, a girl, or both? While she'd been born male, and had at least some obligation to remain such for her biological family, she had just been accepted into a family whose tribe exclusively consisted of females, and her new sister was someone that she was very close to and fond of — as a girl. It had felt awkward being a boy in front of Shampoo, and the last thing that she wanted to do was to complicate or ruin the wonderful relationship that they already had.

Cologne reached over and pat her knee in a placating manner. "Don't worry too much about it, at least not yet. You've got plenty of time to figure things out." When Ranma looked at her with hope in her eyes, she smiled and added, "For now, let's break camp and find a place farther removed from the village, so we can start some of your training. It's only going to be temporary, mind you, because I think it would be best to go to Japan so you have a fair chance to try and work out your situation with your parents rather than just us. After that... Well, we'll see."

Ranma smiled her gratitude and nodded her head in agreement before she got up and started to put everything away. When she was finished and bore the weight of her backpack once more, they left the glade and chose a southerly direction to travel. Along the way she would sometimes sneak glances at Shampoo, wondering if it was possible to have the kind of relationship that led to men and women becoming husbands and wives. In her opinion Shampoo was certainly beautiful enough, not to mention likeable enough (once one got to know her), but a part of the problem was that marriage hadn't been a part of her considerations until recently, when she had to face the idea — and possibility — that she might someday choose to marry a man.

She wasn't sure what the future held for her, now that she had more than one sex to consider. But she began to smile nonetheless, knowing that Shampoo and Cologne would be there for her, helping her to find her way.