Chapter 5

Though her wings didn't seem capable of flight, Ranma decided to go outside to see if she could fly with them or not. It wasn't like she had much else to do, and it was just too awkward being around most everyone else. With the latter thought in mind, she had no desire for an audience, so she found a secluded part of the garden where she could conduct her test in private.

She was rather surprised when she was able to achieve lift with her wings. However, between that and her inexperience, she found herself going nowhere fast or steady, until she eventually managed to roll to one side and fall onto her back. And then she had to learn how to get back on her feet from that position, which just added insult to injury.

While the outcome had aggravated her a fair bit, the feeling passed quickly enough, as she imagined what she might be able to do once she had gotten enough practice with her wings. Not only might there be a bright spot to her transformation, but she might even have something to regret once she was back to normal. Well, assuming that things worked out for her, at any rate.

The direction of her thoughts made her frown, as she began to consider how she had come to be transformed in the first place. Now that her awareness of the events surrounding its progression had been expanded, she was able to make sense out of everything that had happened to her — not that it improved her mood any.

It had begun at Jusenkyo, with the threat of falling into one of the springs. She had wanted to remain herself rather than become something else; especially something that wasn't human, like what had happened with her father. Her spirit had been able to sense the nature of the springs, and the nyannichuan had been the closest — and thus easiest — to get to.

However, the choice that had influenced her to maneuver toward that particular spring hadn't been so simple or conventional, as her spirit had a very different way of perceiving things. When she had expressed the desire to remain herself, which could be summed up simply as being "Saotome Ranma," her spirit had assumed that her name was a literal representation of herself, rather than a figurative one. So, if she couldn't avoid falling into a spring, at least she'd remain human and "herself."

That had set the standard for when she had been at war with the idea of getting married without having a choice in the matter, as well as when she needed to be quick enough to take the phoenix pill from Cologne. While the former had come into play far too many times to think about, and was pretty straightforward besides, the latter had been a bit puzzling to her until now, because she hadn't been able to figure out how she had increased her speed so much in a matter of minutes, just from substituting fire with a tank of piranhas. As it turned out: because the heat from the fire had prevented her from doing her best, and she had doubted that her kachu tenshin amaguriken training would be complete unless she could perform at that level and push its limits, it wasn't until the tank of piranhas that she had felt confident and sure enough to escape her problem successfully, which had — in turn — inspired her spirit to endow her with the speed that would help her return to what passed for normal.

She'd avoided becoming a horse at Jusenkyo because she hadn't wanted to be an animal/creature. While that desire had remained unchanged, the same could not be said for the circumstances. Until a short time ago she had been able to avoid getting married with the aid of the "war" aspect of her name, but with the things that she was both willing and unwilling to do to avoid it otherwise, she had ensured that it would be a temporary solution. However, when the time to marry someone had finally become unavoidable, she still hadn't been able go through with it, to the point where avoiding even that would be more preferable than the exact means of escape.

She wasn't sure why she hadn't become a normal horse, but she suspected that it had something to do with becoming a spiritual creature — or a kami, as the old priest had put it. And exactly how that had happened was unknown to her, though she had an idea. Well, she supposed that it was better this way, seeing as how normal horses couldn't fly. And speaking of which...

Now that she knew that it was possible for her to fly, she decided to get some more practice in while everyone else was still occupied. It wasn't like she had anything else better to do, and she'd rather make mistakes when no one was around to catch an embarrassing moment.

She began by trying to keep herself upright and stable, without moving anywhere. Once she had that down, she proceeded to slowly move forward and back, left and right, then up and down. By then she had become rather absorbed with her flying, noticing neither the grin on her face or the passage of time as she picked up the pace, so it came as a bit of a surprise when she heard someone clear their throat. She turned to look at the source without thinking, and ended up crashing cheek-first into the trunk of a tree.

"Having fun while we were all working, were you?" Cologne queried from atop the perimeter wall, amused by what her interruption had caused.

Ranma shook the impact off before she grumbled, "Well, I was."

Cologne allowed herself a moment of cackling, at Ranma's expense, before she became somber and joined Ranma on the ground. "Well, we were able to buy you some time, so don't waste it. If you take too long to make up your mind, someone's going to wonder if it's really an issue of self-control, or through your lack of accomplishment see the issue for what it actually is."

Ranma turned away from her and sighed. "I know, and I appreciate the help, but..."

She paused, wondering exactly what she wanted to say, and whether she should say it to Cologne — or to anyone, for that matter — if it ever came to her. She'd never made it a habit to share much about herself with anyone, particularly in regard to the more intimate parts, and she was reluctant to start doing that despite the current circumstances. Just thinking about it made her uncomfortable, so she shook her head and directed her attention to a topic of greater interest.

"Anyway," she continued, as she turned to face Cologne once more, "how long have you known about my condition? And how could you tell?"

Cologne didn't bat an eye at the change in topic and object of focus. "Oh, that? Well, let's start with how I was able to tell. Rather than hear me make claims, though, why not humor me and try to get a glimpse of my spirit?"

Ranma looked at her with an incredulous expression on her face. "Okay..."

She didn't really know how to go about it, so she just looked at Cologne with the desire to see her spirit. To her surprise, it worked; however, what really surprised her was that Cologne's spirit didn't match her body at all. Not only wasn't her spirit short and old, but it was almost entirely separated from her due to being two or so meters tall, rather than being encased by her body as she had expected it to be. What really got her was when the beautiful and statuesque young woman had winked at her, while the old crone beneath her had not.

Actually, to say that she was surprised was a gross understatement. "What the heck? What's up with that?"

"What you just saw is the greatest secret of the Joketsuzoku," Cologne replied, who smiled wryly at Ranma's response. "As such, I'll leave you to wonder about it while I get to the point: imagine my surprise when my great granddaughter's husband-to-be's spirit was the same as the body he was cursed with by a spring in Jusenkyo."

Ranma blinked her eyes a few times. "Wait, what?"

"Exactly," Cologne agreed, with a hint of amusement. "Was the boy that my great granddaughter was to marry actually a girl at heart, or was something else going on? Well, I had intended to test your worthiness to begin with, and I figured I could take care of two birds with one stone by using the full-body cat's tongue pressure point. After all, you were bound to respond differently to it depending on whether you wanted to be a girl or not."

Ranma's brow furrowed in thought as she considered the new perspective that had just been revealed to her, regarding that particular situation. "So, when you tricked me with that piece of candy..."

Cologne nodded her head. "By then I was sure that your unrelenting fight against your affliction meant that there was something else going on with your spirit, rather than having a secret desire to be a girl. I couldn't very well ask to put you under observation, considering our relationship at the time, so I made sure that you had a reason to seek me out. That, and perhaps extending your time as a girl would reveal something, such as if your desire to be a boy would affect your spirit or become strong enough to change you back without hot water."

"As if I'd be that lucky," Ranma thought to herself.

"And I was right," Cologne continued. "In the few hours since I had last checked up on you, and had learned that you weren't fast enough to take the phoenix pill away from me, you had somehow achieved the ability to do just that. Normally, even if the fire hadn't acted as such a deterrent, there should have been weeks worth of training ahead of you to become as fast as I am, much less faster than that."

Ranma nodded her head in agreement. "Yeah, I just realized that myself. At the time, though, I just assumed that I was already close to being that fast. That, and I had only seemed so much faster because you hadn't expected any improvement from me, so you hadn't adjusted your guard accordingly."

"It did come as a bit of a surprise," Cologne admitted. "Until I realized that I'd lost the necklace, I thought I'd misheard the sound that you had made when you had tried to take it from me."

"Anyway," she went on, wanting to get the conversation back on track, "I knew that something was up, just not what. There are quite a number of ways for someone to be empowered by their spirit, but it is usually conscious and found in much older individuals, due to how long any respectable training regimen would take. While I had caught the connection with your name, and it would certainly explain someone's unawareness, that tends to come with veneration or age. Since I doubted that it was either, especially since the former tends to come with the latter, I decided to see if I could learn anything with a fight, particularly if your relationship with your spirit allowed you to best me."

"Did I?" Ranma asked, who looked thoughtful and unsure. "Akane'd told me what had happened afterward, and she'd said..." She paused, and a look of shock suddenly replaced what she had been expressing before. "Wait, I... I can remember what I'd done while under the neko-ken!"

Cologne wasn't surprised in the least, who carried on with the conversation as if nothing of note had happened. "Of course you do: a part of what you've become was once the very thing that took over when your fear of cats became too much for you to bear."

"So," Cologne carried on, "do you remember what I said when I had given you the phoenix pill instead of continuing our fight?"

It took Ranma a moment to gather her thoughts after such a revelation, especially since she may no longer be afraid of cats. "Um... You'd said..." Her face brightened when she recalled the memory. "Oh! You'd given me the phoenix pill for having so much spirit."

"For having a fighting spirit," Cologne corrected, "but that's close enough. Now you know why I'd seemed so unrelenting at first, by unfairly switching the phoenix pill with a piece of candy, and then freely giving it up without you winning the fight in more definitive terms."

Ranma didn't sit so much as fall onto her haunches, from feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything that she had learned that night. "So you weren't serious about wanting me to marry Shampoo after that?"

"Not really," Cologne replied, with an absent shrug of the shoulders. "Believe me, if I'd wanted you back in our village badly enough, you would have been there already. Of course, you'd likely end up stuck as a girl or a horse, depending on the circumstances, so I saw little point in it."

Ranma didn't look completely convinced. "What about Shampoo?"

Cologne released a long-suffering sigh. "If things don't change, I fear that I'll have to start my family line all over again." Seeing the coming question because of the expression on Ranma's face, she headed it off by adding, "Don't ask," before she continued. "All I can tell you is that we — the Joketsuzoku — don't make a habit of coddling our young. We prefer to give them enough knowledge and advice to make the right decisions, but the freedom to make their own mistakes and come into their own wisdom. While I may have aided her a few times, and even used her for a bit of amusement when she found the reversal jewel, all you have to do — to know my position on the matter — is recall what I did with the love pills. Or, rather, what I didn't do."

When Ranma thought about it, she recalled that only Shampoo had tried to get her to eat one of the love pills. While Cologne hadn't stopped her, she hadn't encouraged her or helped either, much less taken the initiative herself. Well, she had apparently gotten the day and lifetime pills mixed up when Akane had eaten one, but it was understandable to make that kind of mistake after being parted with it for what could have been a hundred years, no thanks to Happosai stealing it.

Thinking about it further, Cologne had helped her plenty of times without asking for anything in return, and sometimes without needing to be requested for said help. Most of the time she just kept to herself, not bothering her at all, rather than scheming and helping Shampoo all of the time. Among the crowd who had multiple counts against them for giving her trouble, she was one of the least active of the offenders.

"I see that you understand," Cologne observed, from reading the expression on Ranma's face. "Well, if that's all, I think it's about time I send these old bones to bed."

"Wait!" Ranma suddenly called out, just as Cologne had turned away from her. As she was regarded with a cocked eyebrow, it was with some embarrassment that she said, "Um... I wanted to say 'thanks.' Y'know, for earlier."

Cologne gave a short nod in response, and favored her with a piercing stare. "Just make sure that you make the most out of the time you've been given. If you don't, you might live to regret it."

It was on that heavy note that Cologne leapt over the perimeter wall — and beyond — in a single bound, leaving Ranma to dwell on her parting words. She did, for a time, before she decided that she had done enough thinking for the night. She figured that she could think about everything some more tomorrow, since she had at least that much time to spare.

Since she didn't feel especially tired, and she wasn't ready to deal with or otherwise adjust to being around anyone else in her current form, she decided to get some more flying practice in. As she rose back up to all four legs, she began to contemplate the wisdom of making a night of it, or doing it until she was tired enough to fall asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.

When she had to wonder how a horse might sleep, one could say that — for the time being, at least — her decision was pretty much made up for her. Besides, she wasn't sure how a horse with wings would be able to sleep comfortably, anyway.