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Prologue


Lime felt his knees buckle from the twelfth consecutive blow, the latest one having connected with his head. It was a credit to his endurance that he had withstood the amount of force that had been used against him; most mountains would have fared less well, but he was finally at the end. All of his own tremendous strength amounted to nothing, as his blows had not affected his opponent in the slightest. And the pure savagery of the man Ėif such a term could be used to describe the massive humanoid before him— was enough to strike fear in Limeís massive breast, even if the huge pile of muscle was fuchsia in color.

Lime looked past his opponent to the fallen men behind him. Over seventy of the troops and Mint had fallen to the attacker. This one had proved himself far more powerful than any of the others that had assaulted the army, save the wind master calling herself Yumi Onita, and Herb had taken care of her.

The thirteenth blow effectively ended the fight, driving Lime to the ground. With the man in tiger skins down, his opponent began shouting triumphantly. "The Great Grond has won once again! None can defeat The Great Grond! Not the armies with their big guns! Not the monsters of the deep! Not the mages of Toril! And not the Chinese either!"

Seeing that he had no other adversaries, The Great Grond once again proceeded north, and unknowingly, towards Mount Phoenix.

"Does The Great Grond usually refer to himself in the third person?"

The Great Grond looked up to see who would dare speak to him that way. It was a girl, hovering in the air and wearing an elaborate suit of dragon scale armor that possessed a slit down the center, showing a V of skin that started at the neck and traveled down to her navel. A long billowing cape that seemed to possess a life of its own flowed behind her, moving on unfelt winds.

"White-haired girl pretty." The Great Grond drooled.

Herb-chanís eyes flared red. "Thatís Emperor Herb to you! How dare you attack my armies!"

The Great Grond began posturing. "The Great Grond dares anything! The Great Grond is powerful! The Great Grond is invincible! The Great Grond can move mountains!"

Herb-chanís eyes narrowed as she drew a gourd from her belt.

"The Great Grond can stop raging storms! The Great Grond has lots of personality! The Great Grond—"

*SPLASH*

"The Great Grond is now a frog," Herb-chan said dryly as she examined what the fuchsia-colored creature had turned into. A powerful bolt of chi energy blew ĎThe Great Grond Frogí into ĎThe Great Grond Tiny Pieces of Frogí.

Lime returned to his feet and stared in awe at Herb-chan. "Wow! How did you know he had a Jusenkyou curse?"

"I didnít, but since five out of the last seven people that have tried to muscle their way past us have been cursed, it wasnít hard to guess." Herb-chan stared at the scorched area The Great Grond had just been occupying. Why was it so many Jusenkyou cursed people were converging on the region?

A wave of dark clouds passed overhead, gaining Herb-chanís attention. The skies had been perfectly clear less than five minutes ago. Of course, the weather had been behaving oddly for the last twelve hours. It could have been some kind of plan the Shogun had come up with. That would explain much. The Shogun had warned Herb-chan there would be some changes in the area, and with her improved chi abilities she now had a feel for the land around her. It was far from a useful ability, and she had no intention of wasting time honing it, but the subtle shift made her wonder exactly what the Shogun had planned. That lack of knowledge was disconcerting.

Herb-chan felt a rumbling and looked towards the east. About ten miles away a pillar of fire, at least four thousand feet high and five hundred feet across, rose to the skies. Rather than fading away in one burst, it remained where it was, burning like some kind of giant pyre.

Herb-chan stared at it and frowned. She really should have been more insistent in learning the Shogunís plans, but in the end it really wasnít any of her concern. All that mattered was that the Shogun was almost done, and all of China would soon be Herb-chanís to control. All in just two more days.


Another dimension:
The Empire of the Five Comets:

The Seer watched as yet another possibility disappeared. There were only two opportunities for change left, and one of them was a true long shot. Should both fail, there was a distinct possibility that nothing could be done to prevent the end of the Earth.

And possibly everything else.


Chapter 35: Those Who Would Dare Dream of Tomorrow

Part II

A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

Last chapter:

After a tremendous battle between the Nerimans and Perfume and her Hunt Pack, Shampoo volunteered to go back top China and home. All of the Nerimans, save Nabiki, elected to travel with Shampoo. Fortunately the group chose the vessel know as ĎThe Worthless Piece of Shití thereby buying themselves some time, at least they hope. Now that the group is on the ship small talks break out amongst the group as relationships start to reach the points where people must now start making choices…

This: <> Indicates Chinese

{} Indicates Thoughts

[] Indicates Sign Language (Not the panda kind)


"Are you sure you no… I mean donít want me there?" Shampoo asked.

"Oh, no! That would definitely fall under the heading of ĎBad Ideaí," Ranma assured her. He had dropped by Shampooís cabin to reassure her that he had not changed his mind about yesterdayís conversation, but the last thing in the world he needed when he went to talk with his parents was the perceived source of the problem with him. His hands were going to be full enough as it was without Shampoo being present and complicating matters.

"Oh, yeah," Ranma said as he was about to leave. "I thought you ought to know Kasumiís sick."

Shampoo went from a sitting position on the bed to a standing one in front of Ranma in the blink of an eye. "What do you mean?"

"Relax," Ranma soothed. "Itís not that bad. Akane was pretty sure it was just motion sickness. Kasumiís never been on a ship before, so thatís probably all it is."

"Iím going to check on her." Shampoo was out the door before Ranma could say anything in return.

"Well how do you like that?" he mumbled under his breath. Still, he probably should not have been that surprised. When it came to Shampoo and Kasumi, if one needed help the other was there. Kind of like him and Akane, except both of them were girls. Well, Shampoo was most of the time.

He was about to close the door behind him when a red blur rushed past and into the room. In less than a second it was in the dresser and sorting through the clothing.

"Hey!" Ranma shouted. "Get out of there, you old coot!"

Happosai continued on, unabated. "I just want to make sure Shampooís underwear is in order. I heard there was a panty thief on board, so Iím going to make sure all of her things are safe. You can never be too careful with such precious articles of clothing." He began tossing garments on the floor.

"Knock it off! That ainít even her stuff. She just borrowed it from Perfume."

"Ah, ha!" Happosai shouted triumphantly and held several items up for Ranma to see. "Somehow I doubt if this is the sort of stuff that Perfume would loan out." He waved a matching set of lacy red bra and panties high in the air.

Ranma couldnít help noticing that the material that was supposed to cover the most private of parts was missing. He pitied poor Shampoo; she had received defective clothes. Obviously they were useless.

"I thought I saw Shampoo in the lingerie shop earlier. Who did she want to impress with these, I wonder?" He waved them tauntingly before Ranma.

"Impress?" Ranmaís brain finally kicked into gear as to why Shampoo had gotten such Ďuselessí items, and exactly whom she wanted to impress with them.

"Ha, ha! Boy, youíre turning as red as my gi!"

Ranma tried to snatch the risquť underwear out of Happosaiís grasp, but was far too slow as the master darted just out of reach. "Those ainít yours, so give them back!"

Happosai avoided another thrust. "Oh, so you want them now, do you?"

"Yes!"

"Iíll make a deal with you. Iíll give them back if youíll wear them for me. And as a girl, not as a guy like the last set you ruined!"

"No way!" Ranma reached for him again, only to meet with air.

"No wear, no clothes." Happosai used Ranmaís head as a springboard and bounced out of the room.

"Give me those!" Ranma set off in pursuit.


Shampoo hurried to Kasumiís cabin and burst in. Kasumi had been resting on her bed when she turned, startled at the intrusion. She relaxed once she saw who her visitor was. "Shampoo, I love having you here, but please knock first."

"Sorry," Shampoo said sheepishly as she closed the door behind her. The eldest Tendo girl started to rise, but was gently pushed down by the purple-haired Amazon. "You rest." It was said softly, but with an underlying tone of command.

"But Iím feeling much better," Kasumi insisted.

Shampoo placed her restraining hand on Kasumi once more. "Stay still. Iíll take care of you." The hand moved to Kasumiís temple to see if she felt unusually warm.

"Iím certain itís just motion sickness. Iíve never been on a ship before."

"Thatís what Ranma told me, but Iíll stay here and make sure." Shampoo retrieved a chair and took up a position next to the bed, telling Kasumi she would get whatever was needed.

It felt odd to Kasumi that someone else should be taking care of her. It was a good feeling, but at the same time she knew part of that enjoyment was because of who was doing it. She relaxed a little bit and began talking. "Have you figured out a way to keep your people from finding out about the curse?"

"No." Shampoo was still at a loss of how to go about solving the dilemma. There had to be some way to do it. There just had to.

"Would your people really hurt you if they find out?"

Shampoo nodded. "Itís one of our most sacred laws. If it was not for our greatest leader specifically ordering the spring remain untouched, it would have been destroyed centuries ago. If my people discover my curse, Iím doomed." Shampoo bowed her head. Admitting that the people she had grown up with almost her entire life would do that to her still hurt.

"What if," Kasumi paused to moisten her lips. "What if you were in your male form? They wouldnít have anyway of knowing it was really you, would they? Youíd be safe then."

Shampoo shook her head. "It would be only temporary. For running twice, my people would always be on the lookout for me. Some would hunt me down and try to bring me back. And even if I tried to hide, the odds are someone would eventually find me."

"What if you were locked in your male form? They wouldnít be able to find you then. You could live your life out as a man."

She considered what Kasumi proposed. "I donít want to be a boy for the rest of my life."

"But the alternative…" Kasumi let that trail off.

Shampooís brow creased as she forced herself to think along those lines. She did not want to be a male, but the loathing that had first accompanied the curse was gone. She willingly switched genders back and forth like most people changed clothing, and if a situation called for it she would splash herself with cold water without hesitation. Even getting caught in the rain didnít bother her anymore. Her hairstyle had been altered for so long she had almost forgotten what it was like before the curse. Almost all of her clothes were now unisex, like Ranmaís. She had adapted to the curse almost totally. But to lose her femininity entirely, even if it meant saving her life, seemed like too much. Even worse than that, it would also mean forsaking Ranma. He might not mind her being cursed and unable to bear children, but there was absolutely no way he would go for a relationship with someone that was male all the time, even if that someoneís soul was that of a woman.

Kasumi reached out and grasped Shampooís hand. "If you do, I promise you wonít be alone."

Shampoo gaped at her in astonishment.

"I remember what you said to me when I was under the effects of the love pill," Kasumi said, maintaining her handhold. "It took a while, but the memories eventually came back. You said you wouldnít let me be alone, even though it would have meant a sacrifice for you. Well, I promise you, you wonít be alone either, and I wouldnít think it was a sacrifice at all."

Shampoo panicked and tore her hand out of Kasumiís. "Shampoo just remembered; I have to go see great grandmother about some Amazon things." She realized she was speaking too quickly and relaxed. "Do you think youíll be all right?"

Kasumi was taken aback from Shampooís initial reaction, but seeing Shampoo calm down, relaxed as well. "Yes. Iíll be fine."

"Good," Shampoo said curtly and made left the cabin. Visiting her friend had certainly led to some unexpected things. If there was no other way, could she sacrifice her womanhood to stay alive? Kasumi was all but telling her she could have a life as a man with the eldest Tendo; the same thing Shampoo had done at the beach. An offer of commitment, freely given. All that was needed was to accept or refuse.

She shook her head. Taking that particular course of action would require some thought, and surely there was something else that could be done besides giving up any chance of becoming a woman ever again. There had to be some other way.


Akane sat in her room, waiting for Ranma. He was supposed to come by to pick her up for the meeting with the parents. The two of them were going to make a united front in their decision. Well, Ranmaís decision, which she was going to back.

"Heís late, the jerk." Her words held none of the anger they usually did. The phrase was used more out of habit than anything else. It had all been so simple: Get married to Ranma. Go on honeymoon. Live happily ever after, eventually. Pretty simple. Well, more like relatively simple if it involved Ranma. Nothing was ever truly simple with him. That was both a good and bad thing. He was certainly more interesting than any other boy she had ever known. He was also more frustrating than any man alive. That was the dichotomy that had compelled her to fall in love with him, even if she hadnít wanted to admit it until yesterday.

Out of control. Something every martial artist was supposed to prevent from happening to them, but it had happened to her. Then again, nothing could corral love, now could it? It overrode everything else. Anger, jealousy, envy, frustration. All were things she had felt before and after meeting Ranma. All of them had been laid low, or at least beaten into submission momentarily, by Akane and her acceptance of what she felt for her fiancť.

Now if only the jerk felt the same way about her.

He just had to have feelings for Shampoo. How could he have not known about them beforehand? Akane had seen it. The Amazon had tried to put the moves on Ranma for months. So if he had wanted to get out of the engagement he could have run off at any time. But instead he had waited until the last minute, when Shampoo dragged him away and tried to run off with him. And he went along with her, sort of.

The jerk.

Now it was different. Now he wanted time to figure things out. Why should that be? Hadnít he had months to try to sort out his feelings about the two of them? He should have figured out whom he cared for months ago. None of this indecision should have been occurring.

Hypocrite.

That one was not directed towards Ranma. Akane had not understood how she felt about him until confronted with the idea that he might leave her forever. She couldnít tell him how she felt until yesterday. Oh, yes, Akane Tendo was SO much more decisive than her fiancť.

That was past her. She had made her choice. Now all she had to worry about was Ranmaís decision, and the rest of the problems life was going to throw at her afterwards.

The waiting was the worst thing of all.

A knock on the door snapped her out of her reverie. It was about time Ranma showed up. How should she react to his being late? In the past it would have been irritation and anger, and now it had been made more intense by the trepidation she felt. But might that not drive him away? Perhaps it was time to be more… understanding of his feelings. As long as he at least tried to extend the same courtesy to her. She wasnít the only one that was going to have to change, at least a little bit, to make things truly work between the two of them. But for a change she was going to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for a little while. It wasnít like he was cruel by nature. It was just that they seemed to push all the wrong buttons with one another, at least some of the time. Maybe they could put the worst of those times behind them. Hopefully.

All of that went through her mind as she tried smiling to put Ranma at ease and opened the door. "Itís about time you showed up." That part hadnít come out right. So much for understanding. Apparently she was going to need a little more practice before it became second nature to her. However, once she got a good look at her visitorís face, she realized that offending Ranma with what she had just said was no longer a concern.

"Iím glad you were expecting me," Tarou said as he brushed past the surprised Akane and stood in the center of the room, looking expectedly at her. He appeared still somewhat beaten, despite falling asleep when he arrived on the ship and resting almost a full twenty-four hours. As great as his powers of recovery were, they were still a far cry from Ranmaís.

"Hi, Tarou. Umm, I was expecting someone… else."

Tarou appeared a little crestfallen at that. "Fem-boy?"

"Donít call him that, please."

Tarou shook his head. "You have my heart, but not my head. I speak my mind no matter what. Sorry if that upsets you," his voice actually softened a little. "I am, but I call them like I see them."

She understood, sort of, and there was the problem with the other part of what he had just said. She wasnít used to someone being so straightforward with her, even him. "I know why youíre here and why you said what you did at the wedding. I understand how you feel. You mean a lot to me, but I have to marry Ranma."

"You mean the guy that dumped you at the altar yesterday?" He heavily emphasized the last word.

"H… he didnít dump me," she insisted. "Heís just confused because of what Shampoo did. Itís all her fault!"

Tarou moved from the middle of the room to stand next to Akane, placing his hands on his hips as he confronted her. "I may love you so much it hurts sometimes, but girl, youíve got to get a reality check. She did not make him do anything he didnít want to do. The only reason he went off with her was because he WANTED to. The only reason he called off the wedding was because he WANTED to. The only reason heís going with her now is because he WANTS to. And if you werenít so close to the matter, youíd see that."

"Youíre wrong," she protested so softly she was almost inaudible. "He doesnít love her. Heís just protecting her. Thatís the way he is. If it were me, or anyone else, heíd be doing the same thing."

"Oh, I donít deny heís a sap, and would do something like that for anyone, but he isnít doing this for her for any other reason then the urging heís getting from his pants."

"He is not that way!"

Tarou shook his head in frustration. Akane was the only one worth the grief of trying to explain things that were so obvious. Anyone else and he would have given up on them. It was time to do something different. "He had a choice between marrying you or going with her. He made his choice."

"She just manipulated him!"

"She loves him. Do you think that if you love someone and try to win their heart, itís nothing more than manipulation?"

"No," she said with little confidence.

"Do you think Iím manipulating you?"

Akane was caught off-guard by the question. "Of course not. You wouldnít do something like that."

"Not to you, no. But I canít deny Iíve got a bit of your sister in me. Sometimes Iím a little manipulative. Iím no angel, Akane, but everything Iíve said about you is true. And everything Iím telling you about Ranma and Shampoo is true. If you keep going on like this, heís going to hurt you, and I donít want that to happen. I want to protect you."

"Ranma wouldnít hurt me. You donít have to protect me."

"He wonít hurt you?" Tarou snorted contemptuously at that. "What do you call what he did to you yesterday?"

Silence was all that answered the question.

"Thatís what I thought." He began grinning smugly. "Heís too busy protecting Shampoo to worry about you now. Heís discarded you, Akane. Heís an insensitive idiot that canít see what the best thing going today is. All heís worried about is his Chinese slut and the problems she has. Let him have her. Let go now, otherwise heís just going to hurt you some more."

"He wonít do that."

Tarou shook his head. Why did she have to make things so hard? "Has he said anything about getting married since yesterday?"

"He said he wants to wait until this is all over."

Tarou laughed at that. "Oh, no! Heíd never dream of hurting you. Just because he knows how badly you want to get married and wants to postpone the thing until whenever is no reason to think he doesnít have your best interests at heart."

"He has to know how he feels about me first," she said softly. Why was Tarou twisting things around to make it sound like Ranma didnít love her? What he was saying made sense, but it couldnít be true.

"If he doesnít know how he feels about you, then it isnít love. With love there arenít any doubts. I know. I donít have any. Iíve overcome everything for you. When we first met, I managed to tell you my last name. Up until then, whenever any girl asked me that, Iíd just run away. But not from you. Iíve gone out of my way to make you happy. Thatís something Iíve never done for anyone. Iíve even accepted my name, to show you that I fear nothing so much as losing you. I love you."

Akane shook her head. "Donít say things like that!"

"Why?" Tarou insisted. "Because it makes you afraid? You arenít used to someone being open with you, or is it maybe because it makes you doubt how you think you feel about Fem-boy? Are you afraid of me?"

"No."

"Then trust me," he pleaded. "Just look at what youíre doing. You are going to China to risk your life over someone you hate, who has the heart of the man youíre supposed to marry, and all because of your fiancť. What kind of a guy does that to someone that heís supposed to love? I know damn well I wouldnít do that to you. Let him go."

Akane shook her head. "I canít. I love him."

"YOU IDIOT!!!" Tarou at last snapped. For the first time in years he had lost total emotional control. "How can you say that?! Iím more handsome! A better martial artist! Smarter! More powerful! Iíve got a better personality! Iím a real man and not some gender-bending freak! Heís just a two-timing user of women! He isnít worthy of your love!"

"Tarou, calm down." She moved closer, trying to placate him.

He seized her roughly by the shoulders. "I should just grab you and fly off this scow! If you wonít protect yourself, then Iíll do it for you!"

"Donít you dare!" She tried wriggling out of his grasp, but the more powerful youth held tight.

"Fine." He kept his hands where they were. "For now. But no matter what happens I wonít let you get hurt."

And with that he drew her close and kissed her, pouring all of his love into it. She was too much in shock to do anything other then fall limp in his grasp. The embrace lasted but a moment before he let go of her completely.

"Thatís so you realize thereís someone waiting for you that really loves you. I hope you come to your senses soon, though. Otherwise the pain of when he totally abandons you is just going to get worse." He departed out of the room with only one backward glance. "And then Iíll kill him."

Akane remained where she was, then slumped to her knees, murmuring "Tarou no baka," under her breath.


"Give me those, you little creep!" Ranma could feel the silky garments brush against his fingertips. Slowly he had been gaining on the perverted one. All he needed was another centimeter and they would be his. Of course that had been all he needed two other times, yet the old master put on a burst of speed, widening the distance between the two.

Then he did it. He grasped the end of the bra, freeing it from Happosaiís clutches. Surprisingly his second grab retrieved the bottoms of them as well.

"HA HA!" he shouted out triumphantly and waved them in the air. "I rescued them from you!"

"Boy! You have no idea of how disappointed I am in you! Following in the masterís footsteps. I thought I taught you better than that!"

"Son! Is this the sort of behavior Akane is going to have to expect from you from now on?!"

"Ranma, I truly hope those are Akaneís undergarments."

Ranma turned in fear to see that he had Ďliberatedí the lingerie right in front of his parents cabin. Apparently they had opened the door just as he had completed his jubilant declaration, missing everything that had happened before. His father and Soun were crying about Happosai now having a true disciple while his mother just looked at him expectantly.

"It ainít like that!" He protested, waving his hands before them, the underwear still in his grasp. "It was that old co…" He trailed off as he realized Happosai was long gone.


Happosai continued bouncing down the corridor. The plan had gone off without a hitch. "Thatís what you get for refusing to play model for me, little punk. Maybe next time youíll learn to respect your elders." It was time to make a run down the Amazon wing again. So many cuties and so little time to give each one the attention they deserved. Still, he would try his best.


"The old goat set me up," Ranma complained.

"Thatís irrelevant right now," Nodoka said, insisting Ranma make himself comfortable.

Things were not going quite the way Ranma had hoped. The plan was to get Akane and meet the parents to tell them the wedding was postponed, together. But that wasnít going to be. Maybe things were going to work out for the best. All the disappointment would be directed at him, and it would save Akane from the protests the trio was going to make. And it was all his fault. Why should Akane suffer for his actions? He knew what it was like to suffer from his fatherís mistakes. In that he could be better than the old man.

He sat down before the trio. There was a cigarette dangling from Sounís mouth; a bad sign. Genma looked about just as pleased. Nodoka appeared the least harsh, looking over Ranma with a mixture of love and concern.

"You guys are probably wondering exactly why… ah… things turned out like they did."

"Thatís something of an understatement," Nodoka said. "Right now youíre supposed to be married and on your honeymoon."

"Itís not too late to make this your wedding cruise, though," Genma pointed out. He quieted down when he noticed the glare he received from his wife that told him who would be running the conversation.

"Honeymoon. Right." Ranma tried figuring out how to explain things. Dealing with his parents was not easy. It took him a moment to settle on an explanation.

"Thatís been put off indefinitely." There was something to be said for taking the direct approach…

"WHAT?!!!"

…Unfortunately, it wasnít good. "Now let me explain."

"You had better do some explaining, and quick, son!" Soun warned, his cigarette having hit the floor upon Ranmaís declaration.

"Akane and I talked it over. We agreed it would be best if we waited a while. Weíre kind of unsure about how fast everything went."

The three parents looked visibly relieved.

"And this delay has nothing to do with Shampoo, correct?" Nodoka asked.

Ranma began fidgeting. How was he to respond to that one? Maybe the slow answer approach would be used this time. Especially since he didnít know how to explain things and his last answering technique had turned into a bust.

"Ranma," Nodokaís voice took on a tone of warning.

He remained silent.

"This has nothing to do with Shampoo, does it?" The tone was louder than the first time she said it.

"Maybe it sort of does, sort of," he answered reluctantly. He hated doing that to his mother. Of all the things he wanted to avoid, disappointing her was the first on the list. They still hadnít had any real time to just talk together and be a normal mother and son.

Nodoka turned to Genma and hissed. "This is all your fault, isnít it?"

"No! I always told the boy he had to marry a Tendo."

"It ainít his fault." Ranma surprised himself by defending his father. "For a change."

"Then why, Ranma?" Nodoka almost pleaded as she looked upon her son.

"Itís not like anyone ever believes me, but Iíll tell you anyway." Ranma felt his heart sink. He was going to disappoint all of them, but there was no other way or he would have taken it. "Iím confused about how I feel about both Akane and Shampoo. You see, just Shampoo told me how she felt about me yesterday."

"Then youíre just confused because of that," Nodoka insisted.

"Not exactly. I think I kind of suspected it, but didnít want to admit to it cause it would have messed up everything. But now that she said it right to my face, and I canít deny I might feel the same way about her. Except I donít know, and maybe I lo… like Akane."

Nodoka sighed. "Itís unfortunate Akaneís not more open-minded about a mistress."

Ranma pictured that in his mind for all of two seconds. He could barely handle either of the girls as it was. Once he was married to either one he was going to have his hands more than full for the rest of his life. Put the two of them together and it would have meant the death of him within five years. Heíd have to go on a training journey for at least as long as his father had just to stay alive. He cared for them both deeply, and did not want to hurt either of them, but there was such a thing as too much. No matter how much of a Ďman among mení he was, he was still only human. "I think I can safely say not one of us would go for that."

"You have to marry Akane, son," Soun insisted.

"Yes. Itís a matter of honor," Genma agreed.

Ranma took a deep breath. "Look, Akane and I talked it over. Neither one of us wants to be in a loveless marriage. I canít do that to her. I wonít make her miserable for the rest of her life."

"Well, thereís always Kasumi or Nabiki, I suppose." Soun and Genma began talking amongst themselves.

"I wouldnít do that to Kasumi either, or do that to myself if you tried hooking me up to that extortionist."

"Then youíll have to marry Akane," Soun insisted.

Genma nodded. "Itís a matter of honor and not subject to debate. Thereís no way around it. You will marry a Tendo."

For all of the fathers posturing, it was the disapproving stare of his mother that bothered Ranma the most. It was her respect he wanted more than anything.

Why did the parents have to be so stubborn? Why couldnít they just let go of the promise and let him marry whoever would make him the happiest? But then again, they agreed to marry him off to someone he had never met before he could even walk. His happiness was never a consideration of theirs.

Despite the anger he felt over that, the desire to please his mother was still there. He couldnít bring himself to hurt her.

He cleared his throat. "Look, Akane and I talked a while and agreed to postpone the wedding. So it ainít like itís off or nothing. Itís just… delayed. Thatís all." He was thankful Shampoo was not around to hear him waffle like that. The last thing he needed was for the Amazon to start harassing him. And if the old ghoul got involved then heíd never have a momentís peace. No. Shampoo would not be finding out what happened in this particular conversation.

"So youíre still going to marry her?" Nodoka asked with an even voice.

"We havenít officially called off the wedding, so itís still on. But thereís no way anything can happen until after this whole Amazon mess is over."

The parents looked somewhat placated by that.

"Well, I got things to do to try to help Shampoo. See yaí." He hugged his mother good-bye and shot his father a cold stare, then left the cabin, feeling like a heel. Akane would probably be happy about the way things went. At least there was that.


Aki Yoshida tried following the numbers along the cabin doors once more. That was usually a pretty reliable way of getting from place to place. However, when she took her eyes off of them, even for a second, theyíd change and sheíd lose her way again. At the moment she was within fifty numbers of the room she wanted, and was about to cry out in joy at being so close to her goal when someone gained her attention.

"Excuse me, Miss?"

Aki reflexively answered the nasally whine. It appeared to be one of the Amazons. "Youíre Condom, right?"

"NO!!!" the girl protested. "Iím Tablet! What kind of stupid name is Condom?"

Aki shrugged, "I knew someone named Trojan, once. So it ainít that weird to me. What did you want?"

Tablet whined some more. "I canít find any lifeboats."

"Thatís because there arenít any. The captainís philosophy is, if he has to go down with the ship, so does everyone else," Aki explained.

Tablet wandered off, whining about how she was never going to get back home alive.

Aki watched her departing form, then realized what she had done and looked back to the cabin room numbers. She was now somewhere around three hundred rooms away. "I didnít even move! How the hell did that happen?!" She began yelling at the ship. "Do you hate me?! Is that it?! Do you want me to never find anything on here, or is that you like to see me suffer?!"

The ship didnít respond.

"Ah, my bandanna-clad temptress, do not weep at your misfortune." Kunou appeared and maneuvered his hands behind his back, then thrust a bouquet of red roses forward.

"For me?" Aki said quietly and accepted the bouquet, breathing in its intoxicating fragrance. "No one ever gets me flowers. Thank you!" She embraced him.

"Ah, to accept the gratitude of one… most… ah." Kunou suddenly found himself out of breath as the air was squeezed out of his lungs and pain began to shoot out from his back.

"Thatís so sweet of you. Except for Ryouga, I havenít met a gentleman around here for months. Thank—," she stopped talking as she heard a grunt of pain come from Kunou. She released him, only to see that he was nearly bent in half from the pressure she had applied. Sheíd done it again. "Sorry. I didnít mean to break you like that. Sometimes I get carried away."

"Itís quite…. all right. I am… used… to it. I… shall… make my way… to my… cabin." Somehow Kunou managed to leave under his own power and headed for his cabin, leaving Aki to sigh mournfully. She was never going to find anyone tough enough to withstand her.

Once more she set upon her course until coming upon one of her fellow crewmen. She made a quick request for him to lead her to the cabin she sought, and a few minutes later ended up at the room. The crewman left as she gave a powerful rap on the door.

"Enter."

Aki went inside to see Kyoko Onamuri. She took a moment to examine her cousinís girlfriend. "Whereíd you get the cheerleader outfit?"

"The captain gave one to me and Ai. He has a whole closet filled with all sorts of outfits. There were French maid outfits, police women uniforms, airline stewardess outfits, naughty nurse ensembles, a giant teddy bear costume, and all sorts of other ones, and then he wanted me to try them on for him even though I have a boyfriend."

"Thatís because the manís a pig."

Kyoko looked suspiciously at her visitor. "What are you doing here anyway?"

Aki held up her hands. "Relax. Iím not here to kill you."

"The others told me why you tried to do that," Kyoko said. "That still doesnít tell me why youíre here."

"I just want to meet my cousinís girlfriend in order to get to know her better." And make sure she was worthy of Ryouga. From the brief time the two of them had met, it had been easy for Aki to tell that Ryouga was desperate for attention from the opposite sex, and would probably grab the first thing that came onto him. Someone had to watch out for his interests, and what better judge of character than her?

Kyoko nodded. "I guess it would be good to know you better. Weíre going to be family someday."

That stunned Aki. "Ryougaís proposed to you?"

"Not yet. But he will." Kyoko could not help smiling in anticipation for that happy day. "Weíre perfect for one another."

"Perfect? In what way?"

"We just are. We love each other."

"Oh," Aki said. "Have you two had sex yet?"

Kyoko nearly fell over in shock. "Of course not! Thatís just not proper! Weíre going to wait until we get married."

"Relax! I just wanted to make sure you guys are sexually compatible. Thatís a big part of marriage you know."

Kyoko gazed suspiciously at Aki. "Are you sure thatís the only reason youíre asking?"

Aki mirrored Kyokoís suspicious gaze. "Whatís that supposed to mean?"

"What were you doing in Ryougaís bed the last time he was here?"

"What do you think I was doing?"

Kyokoís eyes narrowed further. "Tell me."

Once more Aki mirrored Kyokoís gaze. "Not that itís any of your business, but I was trying to sleep with him."

"You were trying to sleep with your cousin?"

"It happened before I knew who he was. Of course, that sort of thing isnít exactly unheard of back home, but itís just not my thing."

"So if he wasnít family, you would have done that sort of thing with him?" Kyokoís voice had dropped a great deal from its usually high pitch.

Akiís normally husky voice dropped the same amount. "In an instant."

Kyoko leaned close enough that the two were almost nose-to-nose. "Is the b-word the only thing that makes you crazy?"

Aki leaned forward so that there was no more than a millimeter between the twoís noses. "Yep."

"Slut," Kyoko said, not in anger, but as though she was stating a fact.

Aki backed off and gave one of her cutesy smiles. "We seem to be getting off on the wrong foot. Why donít we do something together?"

Kyokoís expression did not change as she continued to stare flatly at Aki. "Like what?"

"How about I take you fishing?"


Ryouga wandered about the ship, asking everyone if they had seen Aki. He tried to make certain he stayed above the decks, lest he become lost and never be seen again, but after an hour the best he had come up with was a crewman that said he had seen Aki going fishing with Kyoko. That was a pleasant thought. The two of them were getting along after the misunderstanding from the other day.

As Ryouga searched he took notice of the weather. It was behaving so abnormally one would think they were still in Nerima. It had already rained five times and hailed twice in two hours, which would not have been so odd save that the sunlight showed in-between each time, as though it hadnít rained at all. It was just plain weird.

Ryouga was still in the middle of his search when two girls sprang out from around the corner ahead. An ambush. It took only a moment for Ryouga to recognize his two opponents from the other day: Foam and Soap.

Ryouga dropped into a defensive stance. "What are you two doing? Are you trying to get revenge?"

The two Amazons began talking to one another in Chinese. Eventually Foam spoke up. "We no want to fight. We only fight because we need Shampoo. Now we have Shampoo, so no need to fight."

"What do you want then?"

"What name?"

"Ryouga Hibiki."

Foam nodded her head in approval. "Like name. It strong name. Ryouga impress Foam and Soap very much. Take much punishment and very strong. Ryouga would no beat Foam and Soap, but put up good fight."

Ryouga became embarrassed by the praise, placing his hand behind his head as he began laughing nervously. "Thanks."

Ryouga suddenly became aware of the fact that the Amazons had suddenly moved next to him, one in front and one in back.

"Ryouga is very strong. Foam and Soap want to…" Foam rubbed her body against his. "…see how strong Ryouga is in bed. Ryouga strong in bed, yes?"

"In b… b… bed?"

"At same time. Is opportunity many mens would want. We make, how does Ryouga say, Amazon sandwich."

Soap moved her hands along Ryougaís backside. That, along with the blood he felt rushing to his nose was all it took to snap him out of his trance. He took off running in some random direction, leaving the duo to watch the dust cloud he had left behind.

"<What a tease,>" Soap said, disappointed. Foam simply nodded her head in agreement.


Ukyou barely got out of the way of the fleeing Ryouga in time. He was more than ten feet past her before she shouted at him to stop. "Hey, whatís going on?" She asked as he caught his breath.

"Amazons," he gasped.

"Did they try to attack you?" Ukyou drew her spatula. "Donít worry. Iíll help."

"Itís not that."

Ukyouís eyebrow shot up. "Oh? What was it then?"

Ryouga paused as he tried to figure out what to say next. Ukyou had reacted badly to the revelation that he and Aki had slept in the same bed, so there was no way he was going to tell her that two of the Amazons had just tried to jump in the sack with him together. "They just wanted me to give them a hard time."

"What?!"

"I meant they were just giving me a hard time!" Ryouga panicked. He had to change the subject "Whereís Ai?"

"Got me."

"You donít know?" That was a surprise. The two girls did nearly everything together any more.

"Iím not her keeper. The last thing she told me was that she was going to try to find a cheerleader outfit. Her dress was pretty trashed from the fight. Not that my suitís that much better." She fingered the clothing. It had a couple of holes in it and needed to be cleaned and pressed badly.

"Yeah. Itís a good thing I had a couple of spare sets of clothes left over from the last time I was here." Aki had been kind enough to sew some and save them for him in the hopes Ryouga would return someday.

"Iíll get by," Ukyou said. "Iím sorry I was angry with your cousin. Iíll make it up to her later."

"Thanks." That was a relief. Now Aki would get along with both of his friends.

Ukyou became pensive. "Ryouga, why are you here?"

"Do you mean why am I helping Shampoo, or do you mean in a metaphysical sense?"

Ukyou almost said the latter just to see if he really could explain it. "Why are you helping Shampoo?"

"Originally it was because you were coming, but now I think Iíd have come anyway."

"Why? You donít even like Shampoo."

"Well," Ryouga let out reluctantly. "Just because I really donít care much for her or Ranma doesnít mean I want them dead. And itís not like I hate Shampoo or anything, even if she did knock me into one of the springs. And if nothing else, thereís no reason why she should be killed just because sheís been cursed. Itís just wrong. I have to do something."

Ukyou nodded. "I just wanted to make sure you werenít doing it for me."

"Iíd be here anyway for you, but itís not the only reason."

"Good. Now I have to do some more thinking, so if you donít mind Iíll be going." She turned to go, but paused before going too far. "Ryouga?"

"Yes?"

"Iíd have come along for you, too."

He felt himself blush as he looked to the ground. "Thanks."

"Take care."

"You too." Ukyou continued on.

Ryouga again began his search for Aki, finally discovering her leaning next to a rail, fishing over the side with a large pole.

"Hey, cuz!" She waved to Ryouga.

"Hi. Whereís Kyoko? I heard she was fishing with you."

"Nope. You heard wrong. Iím fishing with Kyoko."

Ryouga scratched his head. "Umm, Aki, thatís what I just said."

"No. It isnít." She returned her attention to fishing.

"Yes it is." He began to wonder of yesterdayís incident had a more lasting effect than what he originally thought. "Aki," he said slowly. "I just said Kyoko was fishing with you."

"And I told you Iím fishing with Kyoko."

Ryouga was about to correct her again when something about the way Aki phrased that clicked. "Oh, no! Donít tell me youíre…"

Aki smiled and reeled in the line. As it was reeled up to the top, the bait Aki was using finally became visible. Kyoko was wrapped up in chains on the end of the line.

Aki examined her closely. "I see you havenít caught anything yet. You just donít seem to be getting the hang of fishing. Back you go." She began to release the line once more.

"WWWAAAAHHHH!!! Save me Ryouga-kun! Sheís trying to feed me to the sharks!"

"KYOKO!!!" Ryouga rushed over and snagged the line before Kyoko was lowered any further. Quickly he brought her back onto the ship and snapped her bonds. Kyoko immediately embraced Ryouga, sniffling mightily.

"Just what do you think youíre doing?!" Ryouga was surprised to find his anger building at his cousin.

"Oh, relax." Aki said nonchalantly. "If I was seriously trying to feed her to the sharks Iíd have chummed the waters first."

"Thatís no excuse." Ryouga dried a few of Kyokoís tears. "You all right?"

"Yes," Kyoko sniffled.

"Why donít you go back to your room? Iíll take care of this." He turned to Aki.

"But Ryougaó" Kyoko started to say.

"Go back. Please."

Kyoko gave him a hurt look, but did as she was told. Once she was gone Ryouga turned to Aki. "What was that all about?"

Aki became angry. Ryouga was stepping way out of line. "It was a private matter."

"Sheís my friend. It is my business."

Aki tried to control her temper. "She called me a slut! Thereís no way I was going to let that pass. And if you think just because sheís your girl, that makes her off limits, think again. I deal with people on the basis of who they are, not who they know. If sheís going to shoot her mouth off, she pays the price. And if you got a problem with me defending myself, then I got a problem with you, family or no."

Ryouga was somewhat taken aback by Akiís intensity. "She called you that?"

"She did."

That was different. Aki was more than entitled to defend her honor. "I apologize for her, then. She shouldnít have said that. She just gets defensive sometimes."

"Let her do her own apologizing. Maybe Iíll accept it." But that wasnít likely. Something about the cheerleader rubbed Aki wrong. "Look, my problemís with her, not you. I donít want to let something like this spoil our reunion. As long as she keeps her mouth shut, I promise to not fish with her again. Will that make you happy?"

"Yes. As long as you donít try to show her the floor of the ocean by tying her to the anchor and throwing her overboard."

"Aww! You spoil all my fun."

"I know you too well."

Aki gave him a wide smile. Things were back to normal.


"<I think the Japanese boy is cute,>" Boudoir said to her companions.

Rei Za and Shi Fan shook their heads disapprovingly. "<Iím telling you, Xian Pu has an interest in him. Youíd better leave him alone,>" Shi Fan warned.

Boudoir waved the warning off. "<Ah, Iím not afraid of her. Sheís lost her touch. I could see that Akane Tendo girl was hitting on him and Xian Pu did nothing about it. She didnít even smack the girl around. Iím telling you, Xian Puís spent too much time among the Japanese and inherited their soft ways. Iíll take that Ranma boy for my own and she wonít… whatís wrong with you two?>" Both Rei Za and Shi Fan backed away fearfully from Boudoir. She was about to reproach them when she felt the presence behind her. Boudoir turned.

"<Oh. Hi there, Xian Pu,>" she said haughtily. After saying all of those things in front of her companions, Boudoir was not about to back down because Shampoo looked a little angry.

When Shampoo did nothing more than stare at her, Boudoir began to go on. "<How much of that did you hea— >"

Boudoir suddenly found a hand clamped around her jaw. Before she could react Shampoo rammed her head into the metal wall four times in rapid succession, giving Boudoir a major concussion as a metal panel on the wall buckled with the fourth blow. Everything became hazy for Boudoir, and she was only dimly aware of being dragged along by her hair somewhere.

Shampoo continued towing Boudoir out to the rear deck as Rei Za and Shi Fan followed. It seemed a little rough, but Boudoir had been shooting off her mouth, and it was within Shampooís rights to answer such a challenge.

Shampoo stopped at the railing on the end of the ship, releasing Boudoirís hair and grabbing her by the ankle. With hardly any effort Boudoir was suddenly dangling over the side, right above the propellers. All it would take was Shampoo to release her grip and the suspended Amazon would plunge to her death.

"<This is a message to all of my sisters,>" Shampoo told Rei Za and Shi Fan, who were taken aback by the anger on Shampooís face. "<Akane Tendo is tolerated by me for a number of reasons that I will not explain to you. It is not your concern. No other will be allowed to make contact with Ranma Saotome in any way, or they will answer to me. I may have been gone for a while, but I have not Ďlost my touch,í as Boudoir so delicately put it. I am still the champion, as Boudoir would kindly attest to, and I will eagerly prove that to any that wish to challenge me.>" Shampoo shook Boudoir back and forth. "<Let this one serve as a warning.>"

And with that Shampoo threw Boudoir back on board, the nearly unconscious girl landing at the feet of Rei Za and Shi Fan. Shampoo walked off, leaving the others to deliver the message.

It was not long before Shampoo came across Aki, who was looking over a railing at the water below. Ryouga had left only a short while ago, but she wanted to continue enjoying the air, and the peculiar weather. If she didnít know better, she would have sworn there was a dark bank of clouds that was moving against the wind and in the direction of the ship.

"Hey, Shamps. Whatís happening?"

"I beat up one of my sisters to warn the others what would happen if they tried to hit on Ranma."

"Good for you." Aki clapped Shampoo on the back. She could appreciate brusque gestures of intimidation. "Hey! I want to ask you something."

"Go ahead." Shampoo liked Aki. She was blunt and to the point, something Shampoo could respect.

"Now, none of the others told me, but you seem to be in some kind of trouble with your people. I forgot to ask Ryouga, but I heard Ranmaís dad talking about you getting killed if something happened. Whatís up with that?"

Shampoo sighed. It was true that the fewer people that knew about her situation the better, but Aki was aware of the curse and could be trusted. Their trip to Pangea proved that.

"It has to do with myó" Shampoo didnít get any farther as a sudden downpour from the clouds Aki had noticed earlier hit the ship. The rain lasted for all of ten seconds, then stopped, leaving a soaking wet Shampoo-kun and Aki.

"Weird weather weíre having, wouldnít you say?" Aki said as cheerfully as she could as she brushed back her wet mop of hair.

It was at that moment that Tablet, Sash, So Fu and Lin Fhall came upon the duo. The group was still about thirty feet away, but even from there could make out Shampoo-kunís features.

"<He is gorgeous.>" So Fu practically went into heat.

"<You got that right,>" Tablet moaned in agreement. Maybe she wouldnít mind sharing his germs.

"<Heís nowhere near as good-looking as my husband. Oh, Mamoru, I miss you so much. WWWWWAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!>" Sash ran away, crying.

Tablet smiled as Sash ran off. There was one less in the competition to bag that handsome male.

*ACHOO*

Tablet turned slowly to the person that had sneezed on her.

"<Sorry about that,>" Lin said as she wiped her nose. "<This cold has been bothering me for the last couple of days now, and the sneezes just sneak up on you.>"

Tablet shook for exactly two seconds before screaming about being contaminated and how she had to get to her antibiotics before it was too late.

Lin smiled at the retreating form. "<That takes care of her. What a sucker.>" She stared at So Fu. There was no easy way to get rid of her. "<We could fight this out,>" Lin offered.

"<Or we could let the male choose,>" So Fu suggested, not wishing to expend herself in a fight.

"<Agreed. May the best warrior win.>"

The girls shook hands then approached Shampoo-kun, each trying to look as seductive as possible. "<Hello,>" So Fu began, hoping the boy spoke Chinese. "<Whatís your name?>"

Aki began to laugh. "<Donít you recognize him? Itís Xian— >"

A hand was clamped over her mouth. "< —Sheng.>"

"<Mister what?>" Lin asked.

Shampoo-kun shook his head. "<Not Xiansheng. Xian Sheng.>"

"<Oh. Well your name sure is cute!>" both girls said simultaneously.

Shampoo-kun tried to keep from retching. This was exceptionally bad. He recognized an all too familiar look of lust in their eyes. It was the same one most Japanese girls gave him, but it was made all the worse that these were girls he had grown up with. Something had to be done before one of them tried luring him into a fight and really messed things up.

Aki was trying to figure out why Shampoo-kun would be hiding his true identity from his fellow villagers when an arm wrapped itself around her waist.

"<Have you met my girlfriend, Aki?>" Shampoo-kun hoped she would pick up on the hint.

"YOU SICKO!!!"

*WHAM*

Shampoo-kun slowly peeled himself out of the wall. Aki was not quite as quick on the uptake as he had hoped.

"Just because I stripped you without realizing your problem is no reason to think Iím some kind of pervert!" Aki stomped away to some other part of the ship. The incident where she had discovered the handsome, and unconscious man in the river in Pangea was not something she would soon forget. She had stripped the unconscious Shampoo-kun and built a fire to warm him up. When he came to she started hitting on him unashamedly, nearly straddling him while he was recovering, at least until Shampoo-kun explained about the curses and how they worked. It took a demonstration to convince her of the truth. It didnít matter how handsome Shampooís male body was; Aki was not interested in women, thank you very much.

The other two Amazons examined Shampoo-kunís form. "<It looks like the two of you broke up.>" Lin Fhall smiled.

"<Too bad,>" So Fu said without a trace of sincerity .

Shampoo-kun just sighed. His luck was running true to course.


The mess hall of the ship was rather crowded when Ukyou arrived. She noticed there were a large number of crewmen and Amazons that were enthusiastically eating. Ukyou sat down with a tray of food. Before she got a chance to try it, a seal sat down next to her. As little as a year ago that sight might have disturbed her, but not anymore. She simply turned to it and said, "Let me guess, youíre a navy seal?"

The seal shook its head vigorously as one of the nearby crewmen began explaining. "Nah! Otto quit the navy a long time ago. He was in one of them experimental animal training programs. The ones where they teach animals to strap explosives on themselves and blow up stuff. Otto got himself dishonorably discharged for blowing up an admiralís yacht."

Ukyou would have sworn the animal laughed at that.

"Anyway, heís our underwater demolitions expert now. He works for beer."

That made sense. Ukyou shrugged and began to eat. The dish was a surprisingly favorable mix of seafood in some kind of sauce.

One of the other crewmen shouted into the galley. "Hey, Swede! Youíve outdone yourself. What is this stuff?"

Ukyou turned to one of the crewmen nearby. "You have a Swedish chef?"

"Yeah! He cooks up weird stuff that tastes good, but looks nasty. Things like kelp pasta, fish head surprise, tongue soufflť. Now this stuff looks okay and tastes great."

"Well," Ukyou said reluctantly, "Itís not okonomiyaki, but itís pretty good."

"Okonomiyaki?" The crewman made a face at that. "I wouldnít feed that crap to my dog!"

*WHAM*

The crewman slumped to the floor after his close encounter of the spatula kind. From the direction of the galley a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed gentleman made his way out to the dining area. The Swede smiled at the people enjoying his cooking. It wasnít often so many of the crew ate his food. They were they the most finicky bunch of eaters he had ever met.

"Whatís in this stuff?" one of the crewmen asked.

The Swede smiled. "Blue marlin, crab meat, a lemon dill sauce, and the most important ingredient that gives it its unique flavor: mermaidís flesh."

Forty crewmen simultaneously spat out their food. "What are you, crazy?!" one of the crewmen choked out.

"Hey, hey, relax. I was just kidding. I know what mermaidís flesh does to a person."

The crew began eating once again.

"Besides," the Swede continued. "How can you possibly mistake sea horse intestines for mermaid flesh?"

Forty crewmen spat out their food once more.

Ukyou decided she would be making some okonomiyaki in a little while and pushed the plate away. A moment later an octopus sat down next to her. "Let me guess, youíre the engineer."

A familiar head popped out from the mouth. "No, itís me."

Ukyou recoiled. "What are you doing here, Tsubasa?"

Tsubasa held all eight tentacles to his lips. "Shh! Thereís an ugly Amazon thatís trying to date me. But donít worry, Iíll stay faithful to you. And Iím going to protect you too."

Ukyou shook her head. "Thanks, but no thanks. This doesnít concern you and I really donít want you around."

Tsubasa gave Ukyou a starry-eyed gaze. "Youíre worried about my well-being."

"No. I donít want you around because you really annoy the hell out of me."


Several tables away, Cabinet watched Shelf eat. The girl was having difficulty since she held an arm over her still sore breasts.

"<Maybe Perfumeís just not interested in you,>" Cabinet offered.

"<Sheís just playing hard to get,>" Shelf insisted, causing Cabinet to shake her head in pity. "<But you know something?>"

"<What?>"

"<When Perfume twisted my breasts, even though it really hurt, it kind of turned me on.>"

Cabinet gave a disgusted look. "<I donít want to hear this.>"

Shelf continued on. "<Iíve never had anyone deal with me like that before. Iíve always thought I wanted to be treated like a queen, but maybe Iíve secretly wanted to be treated like a slut. Do you think thatís whatís missing from my life? Masochism?>"

Cabinet held up her hands in defeat. "<Thatís it! Iím out of here! You can discuss your twisted little fantasies with someone else.>" As Cabinet got up to leave, she spotted the octopus next to Ukyou. "<Hey!>" she grabbed Shelfís attention. "<Isnít that— >"

"< —the ugly Japanese girl in a stupid octopus outfit.>" Shelf drew her cudgel and headed towards Tsubasa. The cross-dresser was so wrapped up in his conversation that he never saw Shelf approach. She raised her cudgel and was about to strike when her target was snatched out of the way.

Shelf turned to Tsubasaís savior. "<Perfume! Donít interfere! Iíll show you this one is unworthy of you!>"

"<I told you, I have no interest in you!>" Perfume snapped. "<Go hit on Cabinet or something.>"

"<HEY!!!>" Cabinet shouted indignantly.

Shelf wouldnít stop. "<Youíre the only one for me.>"

"<Do you want me to do to you what I did last night?>"

"<YES!!!>"

Perfume felt more than a little nausea at that disclosure.

While Perfume was distracted, Tsubasa ran and hid behind Ukyou. "I already have a girlfriend."

"<Isnít that a shame?>" Shelf Ďtskíed. "<Looks like itís just you and me.>"

Perfume scowled at Ukyou. "Are you Tsubasaís girlfriend?"

A "No," and "Yes," came from Ukyou and Tsubasa respectively.

Perfume looked suspiciously at Ukyou. "Well which is it?"

"I can answer that!" Ai had just entered the mess and walked over to her chef. She proclaimed, "Ukyouís my girlfriend!" and gave Ukyou a passionate kiss.

Ukyou was too shocked to do anything, even when Aiís tongue darted past her lips.

After several tense moments Ai broke off the kiss. "There! Satisfied?" The question was directed at Ukyou as well as Perfume.

Ukyou stood there, dumbfounded and uncertain whether to be offended for Ai being so forward, or grateful for trying to get her out of the situation. She settled on just remaining motionless and staring off into space.

Tsubasa was not so indecisive. "You molested my Ukyou! Iíll teach you!" Tsubasaís tentacle attacks were for nothing as Ai deflected them all.

Perfume continued gazing suspiciously at the trio. Instincts told her something was wrong about the whole situation. "I have a way to settle this once and for all. I challenge you to a duel for Tsubasaís hand." She pointed her naginata towards Ukyou.

Tsubasa gave a pleading look to Ukyou. Surely she wouldnít let him down.

"Youíre on!"

Ai stared in surprise at Ukyou while Tsubasa hugged her with all eight tentacles.

All of the Amazons and most of the crew in the mess followed the group outside, pausing to allow a hailstorm that showed up out of nowhere to pass. Once it was over, the group went to the foredeck, where the combatants would have room to maneuver. The crowd quickly became anxious as the fighters squared off.

"Thank you, Ukyou," Tsubasa gushed. "I knew you wouldnít let me down."

"Donít thank me yet," Ukyou warned as she hefted her spatula.

"Soon we shall be together, my dear." Perfume winked at Tsubasa, who stuck his tongue out in response. He knew Ukyou would win.

Both fighters faced off. In unspoken communication both nodded their heads and the contest began. Perfume came in high with her naginata. Ukyou deflected each blow and retaliated with several high strikes of her own. Perfume easily blocked those, then switched tactics, bringing the blunt end of her weapon low and struck Ukyou in the calf. Ukyou dropped her weapon and crumpled to the ground in a heap, holding her leg as though it had been nearly cut off.

"Argh! Itís my old okonomiyaki injury," Ukyou gasped. "I… I canít go on."

Ai was at her side in an instant. "You poor, poor dear. Let me take care of you." She picked Ukyou up and gently cradled her in her arms as the two exchanged a conspiratorial wink.

"It looks like you won." Ukyou surprised herself at how crestfallen she sounded. "Take good care of him."

Off to the side Cabinet sadly shook her head. "<That was the worst thrown fight I have ever seen.>"

Perfume didnít seem to mind. "Tsubasa dear, weíre together at last."

Tsubasa did seem to mind. "Ukyou, save me! You have to keep fighting!"

Ukyou stared at him. "Do you remember all the times you disguised yourself and grabbed onto me even though I asked you to stop? Do you remember all of those times you tried to attack Ryouga, even though he was my friend and I asked you to stop?"

Tsubasa nodded his head as he discarded his octopus costume.

"Paybackís a bitch, isnít it?"

Tsubasa began to cry, finally making Ukyou feel sorry for him. And she had hoped to scare him for a little while longer. "Oh, would you relax? Sheís not going to want you."

Tsubasa stopped crying. "Sheís not?"

"Nope. Youíre forgetting something." Ukyou turned to Perfume. "I hate to spoil your mood, but thereís something you should know. Tsubasa is really a guy."

All of the Amazonsí and crewís jaws dropped in shock. Shelf was the first to respond as she approached her leader. "<You see. Heís a boy, and a pervert at that. I understand you must be heartbroken, so allow me to comfort you. Iíll make you forget all about him.>"

Perfume stared curiously at her. "<Of course heís a guy. What kind of a weirdo do you think I am?>"

All of the Amazons now looked in shock at their leader. "<Y… y… you knew?>" Shelf managed to stutter out.

"<Yes. Why do you think I was coming on to him?>"

"<But I thought you liked women. Heís only a cross-dresser.>"

Perfume was indignant. "<I am not a weirdo that likes girls! Thatís just wrong. Now, guys that cross-dress are what really turn me on.>"

Cabinet shook her head in disbelief. "<I am soooo disappointed in you.>"

Shelf could not quite accept it either. "<You mean youíve known heís a male the whole time?>"

"<Of course. From the moment I laid eyes on him in that cute, frilly dress, I knew it was love. I admired his long flaxen hair and the cute bow in it, as well as those shapely legs. Heís simply perfection.>" Her demeanor became more serious. "<Besides, do you know how difficult it is trying to find a guy willing to wear a dress?>"

 "<No. And if I did, Iíd want my head examined first,>" Cabinet said. "<I knew you had a thing for weak males, but this is just too much!>"

"<Who the hell wants a strong guy? I got more than enough power for any three Amazons. Give me a guy that looks good in a dress any day.>" She looked for Tsubasa. "<Hey! Whereíd he go?>"

Shelf suddenly tackled Perfume to the ground and began crying. "<I donít care if you like cross-dressers. I still love you!>"

Perfume tried prying the glomping girl off, but to no avail. "<Get her off! Get her off!>" The Amazons moved to obey.

As the struggle to remove Shelf went on, Ai and Ukyou decided to take the opportunity and depart. Once away from the chaos, the pair began to talk.

"How long do you think Tsubasa will elude her?" Ai asked.

"For his sake, hopefully a very long time. She comes across as the persistent type. At least itíll keep him out of our hair."

Ai gave a little snicker, then became more serious. "Ukyou, if you reject me, I wonít be like that girl back there. Iíll go away quietly."

Ukyou became tense. "Who said youíll have to go away? We can still be friends."

Ai shook her head. "I donít think so. Itíll hurt too much."

"Oh." Ukyou began staring at the deck, lost in thought.

The duo said nothing for some time.


Ryouga allowed himself to be led to Kyokoís cabin by one of the crew. As he entered he saw that she was sitting on her bed, her arms wrapped up around her legs. She gave him a sad look and turned away. "Youíre mad at me, arenít you?" The usual energy that was in her voice was missing.

That solved the question of whether or not Kyoko had been calling Aki names. "Yes. Why did you call her that?"

"She said she wanted to sleep with you if you werenít cousins, even after she found out I was your girlfriend!"

Ryouga gave a nervous laugh at that. Somehow he didnít really find it possible to picture himself as an object of sexual desire. His reaction, however, was not viewed favorably. 

"Why are you laughing?! Do you think itís funny that someone told me to my face that they want you?!"

Ryouga stopped laughing immediately. "No! No! Thatís not it!"

Kyoko continued on. "Do you want to fool around on me too, just like all the other guys?!"

"Of course not!"

She began crying. "Youíre just like Flex and all the others. ITíS NOT MY FAULT IíM DUMB!!!"

Ryouga was startled by Kyokoís reaction. In all the months he had gotten to know her she was always in one of two moods: Happy/energetic or jealous whenever other girls showed interest in him, which seemed to happen a lot more often lately. But now she was… well, she was now a lot like he was a great deal of the time, depressed. That he didnít like at all. It just seemed wrong. "Youíre not dumb."

"Yes I am!" she sobbed. "I hear all of the snide little comments people say about me when they think I canít hear, or even when they know I can. They say Iím an airhead or I donít have brains and things like that."

"Theyíre all wrong," Ryouga soothed.

"NO THEY ARENíT! THEYíRE RIGHT!!!"

Ryouga nearly backed up from the force of the shout. Now Kyoko was bawling her eyes out. Part of him wanted to run instead of being forced to confront a girl he made cry, but somehow he managed to stay in place. He did remain silent, fearful of saying the wrong thing again.

Eventually she regained enough control to speak through her sobs. "I have to work really hard just to get barely passing grades. I donít always understand things that everyone else does. I miss obvious things around me, and itís easy for people to trick me and make me do things. And all of the guys were like Flex, well, none of them were as bad as Flex, but they all did the same thing. Theyíd go out with me and then go out with other girls behind my back. And if I tried to confront them with it theyíd trick me and make me think they werenít going out with them, but then Iíd find out from other people they really were cheating on me and eventually Iíd find proof. It was like a big joke.

"I know Iím eager to believe in people, but itís just so easy for them to lie to me and I canít see through them. Ranma did that in our cheerleader fight when he said I was prettier than Kaede. I know Iím not, but I believed him. Everyone does things like that. And then you came along, and you werenít like that at all. You were kind of shy and never tried to trick or lie to me. You were sweet and kind and you always tried to make sure I was happy. I tried to do that for you, too. I really donít know what you want, but I tried to do things I thought you would like, and you seemed to like them. But girls kept coming on to you and I thought Iíd lose you to them or youíd try to trick me and go out with them behind my back, like everyone else. So I tried chasing them off so they wouldnít take you away. Iím sorry I get jealous so easily, but Iím afraid of losing you."

Ryouga didnít have the faintest idea of what to say, and whatever he would come up with would probably be wrong. And there was something about her that he had never realized before. In the past he had treated her like, well, like an object. She was the thing he went out with, not a person, not exactly. In all the time he had known her he had never even tried to understand her. Now he was getting a glimpse, and it struck a chord inside of him. She really did care for him, probably loved him, and trusted him fully enough to put her heart on the line. He had not really sacrificed anything for her. He had just gone through the motions of what he thought he should do with a girlfriend and pined away after Ukyou, ignoring what he had. And he did have her, even if he had not really tried. He had a feeling that if he had tried, he probably would have pushed her away by accident, knowing how his luck usually went with women.

Insight crystallized, as he at last understood what decision had been really made when he chose to go out with Kyoko instead of Ukyou. He had not made a choice at all. He just pretended to and kept on going exactly like before, and would have continued to do so, or at least he would have if everyone around him had not been changing. Ukyou grew distant from him while Kyoko tried to become closer. No matter how hard he attempted to keep the two balanced, it couldnít be done, but that would not stop him from trying. However, the harder he pushed the more likely he was going to break it, and end up hurting everyone instead of no one. No matter what he tried to do it would just become worse.

He had slowly become more miserable as Ukyou seemed to become farther away from him, and eventually would have done something terrible to try to win her over. Once more he was going to allow himself to fall into the cycle of depression which he would not get out of, and now it was for no other reason than because it was familiar to him. However, that could all change. At last there was a chance to really get some things settled in his life instead of having it all wander away, like he had all of his life. But he was going to have to make a choice as to what course to take. That scared him. What if he chose wrong? Heíd lose everything then, and be alone the rest of his life, regretting that he made the wrong choice. So which way would he go? Which girl would he choose?

Looking into his heart he was surprised to discover they were actually in even standing. At first he cared about Ukyou more, but Kyoko had unquestionably grown on him with her unfettered caring. So which one would last? There was Kyoko, who it would probably work out with, and then there was Ukyou, who it could work out with, but it wasnít so certain. Still, they had spent a great deal of time together and he thought it might work out. It could.

Both girls needed him, though until today he had not realized Kyoko apparently did. If he had not been made aware of it he would have chosen Ukyou, and would have ended up making a mistake in misunderstanding Kyoko. But Ukyou needed him to keep from falling in Aiís clutches. He needed to save her. It was obvious she was miserable.

Or was she? Now that he really thought about it, she seemed to become more and more relaxed around Ai. And even when the cheerleader wasnít around, Ukyou seemed a bit happier than she used to be. NO! That couldnít be true. Ukyou did not like girls and could never be satisfied with Ai. He had to save her. But hadnít he offered to before? He asked her to the wedding, but she refused. If she did not like Ai wouldnít Ukyou avoid her? She could, but it didnít seem like she wanted to. Could Ukyou really have been happy with Ai?

A sniffle interrupted his thoughts. Kyoko was still crying. She definitely needed his help, now. And there was something that Ukyou told him which solidified his thoughts. It seemed like it was from a million years ago, but he remembered it well.

{Ryouga. I want you to go wherever your heart leads you. Thatís what I want you to do.}

"I hope you meant that," he whispered under his breath.

Kyoko felt an arm embrace her. She turned to see Ryouga had his arm around her in an unusual gesture of affection, at least for him. She gazed through her tear-filled eyes at him.

"Youíre not dumb. Iíve been with you long enough to know that, and Iíd like to think my opinions matter."

"Of course they do," she sniffled.

"Thanks. I know I havenít been a good…" He took a moment to bolster his courage and forced himself to say the unfamiliar word. "…boyfriend. You always seemed so happy, I never thought you might be hurt by anything Iíve done, but Iím going to be more responsible from now on. If Iím talking to girls, itís just because theyíre my friends. I promise not to trick you or lie to you about going out with them and I promise to pay more attention to your needs. And if anyone tries to say youíre dumb, theyíll answer to me." He cracked his knuckles for emphasis.

She threw her arms around him. "Thank you. No one has ever been this nice to me before." At last she stopped sniffling. "Ryouga-kun?"

"Yes."

"Weíve been going out for months now. Maybe we could… kiss. I donít want to rush you or anything. I know you like taking things slow, but I thought it would be nice."

Ryouga laughed nervously. He supposed he should get used to that sort of thing. After all, he finally had made a choice.

So they kissed.

And kissed.

And kissed some more.

And ended up doing it until the pleasure became too much for Ryouga, and he passed out about ten seconds in. He was getting better around women.


Ranma paced back and forth through the shipís corridors. He had tried walking along the railing around the ship once, and nearly ended up in the ocean when the section he was standing on broke off. The worst part about wasnít almost falling into the water, it was the giant tentacles that reached up and tried to grab him. Once he pulled himself back on the ship they disappeared back into the water. He had no desire to know what they were attached to. There were more important things to worry about.

So he settled for pacing about the deck, like a normal person. He had been doing that for several hours when his meandering was interrupted.

"Hey there, Fem-boy."

Ranma immediately brought his fists up. "You want some more, Pantyhose?"

Tarou resisted the urge to beat the crap out of Ranma. "Iíll pass on proving how lucky you were yesterday by beating you senseless. There are more important things at hand."

"Like what?" Ranma asked suspiciously. Whatever Tarou was up to, it was bad news.

"Protecting Akane."

"What?!"

"You heard me." Tarou smirked. "Since you donít give a damn about her, Iíll do it for you."

"I can look after her just fine. I donít need or want your help, and neither does she!"

Tarou held his hand to his temple. How could one human being possibly be so irritating? "Youíre going to go to China to try to keep your boyfriend from being killed by the hundreds of his people that are going to be there when you couldnít even take twenty of them. Now that sounds like a wonderful plan, and I think it has a really good chance of success." Tarou tried to keep from snickering, and failed. "But I suppose thereís an offhand chance youíll get everyone killed. Now personally, I hope you bite it in some pathetic gesture of idiotic heroism. And I donít give a damn about your friends, they can drop dead too. But Akane is a different story. I wonít let her die in some vain attempt to keep you from getting killed, which is exactly whatís going to happen to you once you get there and those Amazons try executing Shampoo. Youíre predictable, and thatís going to be your undoing."

"I wonít let Shampoo get killed!"

"Save your breath, I donít give a damn about who youíll let get killed or not. What Iím trying to do is save Akane, and I know just how to do it."

Ranma wanted to feign disinterest, but couldnít. As despised as Tarou was, he did have a devious intelligence. "What do you have in mind?"

"You admit to Akane you love Shampoo and leave her to me. Iíll get her out of here and to safety." Tarou barely evaded the swing at his skull.

"Iíd never leave Akane in your slimy hands!"

Tarou tried mustering all of the self-control he had. A fight would be unwise at the moment. "Are you planning on marrying both of them?"

"NO!"

"Then you have to make a choice, hermaphrodite," Tarou hissed. "Who do you abandon? Akane who you donít even get along with, or Shampoo, who needs you now more than ever? Akane, who has someone to turn to, or Shampoo, whoíll be left all alone without anyone to care about her?"

"Shut up!"

Ranma threw a punch that was caught by Tarou. Rather than counterattack, Tarou backed off. "Donít blame me for the mess you got yourself in, or for telling the truth. Just because you arenít woman enough to make a decision is no reason to take it out on me."

"Itís not my fault!"

"No, it never is, is it? Itís always someone elseís because you are oh, so perfect. Forgive me for not acknowledging your greatness before." Tarou gave a bow towards Ranma.

"Knock it off! I donít got time for this, Pantyhose."

Tarou felt his face twitch, then let it pass. "Iíll make a deal with you."

"What sort of deal?"

"Iíll help you save Shampoo. Right now I wonít lift a finger to help her, but with me on your side the odds go up in your favor."

Ranma scowled at Tarou. "Let me guess. All I have to do is choose Shampoo."

"You got it. Isnít the life of the woman you love worth that? I mean, itís not like you have a plan to get her out of this, is it? This is her only chance, and everyone comes out a winner."

"Except Akane," Ranma retorted. "Listen to me closely. Even if I choose Shampoo, I will never let you go near Akane. I wonít allow her to end up shackled to a monster like you."

"You call me a monster?" Tarouís temper was at last reaching the breaking point. "Say what you will, but I donít try to pull the heartstrings of women like you, Fem-boy. Thereís only one I want, and Iíll have her one way or another, because unlike you, I wonít let her be hurt, even if it means taking matters into my own hands." Tarou turned to leave before he lost his temper and tried crushing the life out of Ranma, which was becoming more difficult by the minute.

"Stop!"

Tarou slowly turned. Ranmaís voice sounded different. There was an intensity there he had never heard before. Some subtle hint of warning that made Tarou pay extra attention. "What?" Now that Tarou looked at him, there was something in Ranmaís eyes that made him feel even greater caution.

"If you think of getting around all of this by revealing Shampooís curse to the others, like you did with my mother, you wonít leave this ship alive."

Tarouís eyes narrowed. "Was that a threat?"

"No. A fact."

Tarou had to congratulate Ranma. He was capable of a greater degree of intimidation than Tarou had believed. It would have even worked against someone that was less experienced at it than him. He made certain to maintain eye contact with Ranma for a few more seconds and smirked, showing he wasnít the least bit concerned about the threat, then left.


Ranma watched carefully as Tarou walked off. Now there were more complications he didnít need. And what was worse was that he wasnít sure if his threat was sincere or not. The anger he felt over finally figuring out who threw the hot water, which almost got Shampoo killed, made him want to attack Tarou on the spot. But he held himself in check. Beating the crap out of Tarou again would be therapeutic, but it wouldnít actually solve anything, and there was no telling when he was going to need his strength. Anything could happen now.

Shampoo-kun burst from around a corner and grabbed Ranma, dragging him down the hall.

"Whatís going on?!" Ranma shouted.

"We need to hide. My sisters saw me in my male form and are trying to come on to me. Iím going to hide out where theyíll never think to look for a handsome young man."

"Where?"

"Great grandmotherís room."

Ranma couldnít argue with that. Besides, there were more than a few things he wanted to go over with the old ghoul.

The two made their way to Cologneís cabin without further incident; something of an accomplishment considering how much chaos seemed to regularly envelop the ship. Once safely inside the three sat down and began to talk.

"Have you two come up with an idea yet?" Cologne took charge of the conversation. Uncharacteristically, Ranma deferred to her.

"No. Nothing." Ranma said, depressed. He was sure the shifty old Amazon would have come up with something by now.

Cologne sighed. She was no closer to a solution than at the start of the voyage. What she needed to do was take a step back from the problem for a little while, then attack it with a renewed vigor later. There were other things that could be done to fill in that time. "There is something I wish to talk to both of you about. Shampoo has been asking me some questions about Jusenkyou curses. I would assume you are curious as well."

That caught Ranmaís attention. Maybe there was some way to cure curses or keep from changing. "Yeah, go on."

"I can tell by the look in your eye you hope I know of a cure. Well, the only one Iím aware of that works is Jusenkyou water with the sex you want, and I donít have any with me. All I have is some of the instant varieties, and they wonít prove useful for what we have to do."

"Damn!" He should have known it wouldnít be that easy. "Iím going to have to try to get to Jusenkyou, grab some girl water, and get it to Shampoo before you guys get back to the village. Do you think you can stall long enough for me to do that?"

"I could, and your plan might be worth a try, but I doubt it will work."

"Why? Whatís wrong with it?"

"Itís a question of whether or not you can get the water."

"Of course I can!" He wondered how the old ghoul could think that someone as competent as him could mess up something as simple as that.

"Can you?" She loomed up next to Ranma and looked him squarely in the eye, perched atop her staff. "Havenít you ever wondered why you didnít simply jump in the Spring of Drowned Young Man when you first got cursed? The guide was there. He explained how the curses worked. Why didnít you and Shampoo simply cure yourselves?"

Ranma tried to explain what had happened, and why he didnít seek the cure, but found he could not.

"I canít explain it either," Shampoo-kun said. "I already knew how the curse worked and how to cure oneself, but I didnít think about it either."

"Thatís the way it is in almost all cases," Cologne said as she backed away from Ranma, hopped off her staff and began pacing the cabin. "I know of only a handful of people that were able to cure themselves right after becoming cursed. No one knows exactly why that is. Perhaps it is related to the curse itself, though exactly how it determines how long a curse remains with a person is unknown. I am now personally convinced that a curse wonít be cured until the recipient fulfills something. Maybe some kind of destiny."

"What kind of destiny, great grandmother?"

"I donít know!" Cologne snapped, then felt ashamed at her behavior, though she refused to show it. Her inability to divine what destiny Shampoo, or even Ranma, had was not their fault. "Iím sorry, child. I could not begin to tell you what it might be. Suffice to say, Iím operating under the assumption your destiny is not to be killed before our people." She turned to Ranma. "I have no idea what yours is either. I would tell the two of you that there have been people that lived with their curses their entire lives never gaining a cure."

"Never a cure?" Ranma repeated softly. He had never considered being cursed for the rest of his life. Always he was certain a cure awaited him at some point; it just might take a while.

"Thereís something else I need to mention," Cologne paused in her pacing. "Tell me, boy, have you been feeling different?"

"Different?"

"Yes. In your cursed form. Have you felt any changes, especially emotional ones?"

For a brief moment Ranma remembered being on the rooftop with Shampoo-kun, and more importantly, what he had felt at the time. "No!"

"Ranma," Shampoo-kun said softly. He placed his hand on Ranmaís shoulder, trying to comfort him.

The instant Shampoo-kun made contact, Ranma shot out from out of the grasp. "I said no! And donít touch me!"

Shampoo-kun drew back, giving Ranma a pained look.

"Relax, boy. Itís perfectly natural. It just means youíve started to accept the curse."

Ranma glared at Cologne. "Iím not accepting the curse! I want a cure! Iíll never accept it!"

Cologne sighed at the temperament of youth. She wrapped Ranma lightly in the head with her staff. "Would you listen to what I said? Accepting your curse doesnít mean you donít want a cure. It just means that youíll pick up a small handful of your curseís characteristics. As near as I can tell thatís perfectly normal. You wonít start going around lusting after men or anything. Just look at Sparrow. She doesnít go around eating birdseed or chirping, if she wasnít a mute, anyway. But she does have some unusual behaviors that are from her curse. She jerks her head around a lot, similar to a bird. And she absolutely despises cats, something you could appreciate. Now as to you, you just might behave in a slightly more feminine manner. Iíve noticed some changes in Shampoo over the last few months."

"I have not changed!" Shampoo-kun responded.

Cologne rapped him on the head with her staff. "Donít correct your elder. You have changed, even if you donít realize it. <At least I hope you have. I donít recall you ever behaving that affectionately towards any of the women back home.>"

Shampoo-kun looked nervously between the uncomprehending Ranma and his great grandmother. "<I have no idea of what you are talking about.>"

"Kasumi Tendo," Cologne stated bluntly. She was pleased to see Shampoo-kun appear nervous at that. He was a couple hundred years too young to ever hope of putting something over on her.

"What are you guys talking about and what does it have to do with Kasumi?" Ranma hated it when they spoke in Chinese. He couldnít understand a word they said. One day he was going to have to remedy that problem and try to learn the language.

"I was just saying what a great influence the oldest Tendo daughter has had with Shampoo. Sheís helped my great granddaughter change a great deal. <Just how great remains to be seen.>"

"<Weíre just friends. Ranma is the only one I want.>"

Cologne stared at Shampoo-kun suspiciously. "<If you say so.>" It was best to let the matter drop. There were more important things to worry about than possible romantic complications.

"Would you two start talking in a language I can understand?" Ranma growled.

"Very well. As I was telling you, accepting a curse is not a bad thing. In fact, should you try to fight it, you would end up doing nothing other than making your life miserable. More than one person has gone mad trying to fight any effect the curse may have on them."

"I havenít accepted nothing."

Cologne raised her eyebrows at that. The boy really was stubborn and disrespectful. "Do you mean to tell me you havenít changed at all? Do you still hate your girlís body as much as when you were first cursed? Do you try to change back into a man as soon as the change happens, or can you get around without the alien feeling that the body isnít yours?"

Ranma hated to admit it, but he had changed a little from those first early days.

"Iíd say itís probably gotten a lot worse lately," Cologne continued. "That could be because of that blow you took to the head that made you think you were a girl. Even after your real personality came back there was probably some lingering effects. That, combined with having to be a girl for a couple weeks, would have further helped you get used to the curse. Right now I would say that youíve probably changed all that you will. Iíd guess Shampooís finished too. Thatís all speculation, but itís a safe bet. Youíd be having a lot more problems if you hadnít accepted them."

"Youíre wrong. I ainít accepted anything. Iím not a girl and I donít act like one and I never will. Iím a guy no matter what I look like and I ainít attracted to other guys. And Iím still going to get a cure," Ranma stated bluntly as he crossed his arms.

Cologne was more than a little irritated by the boyís stubbornness. Worse, in his agitated state he was more of a hindrance than a help. There had to be a way to calm him down.

She looked over the duo. Of course, there was an easy way to settle Ranma down and have him think of Cologne in a better light. "You two still appear to be in bad shape. Thereís no telling when youíll need your full strength. Let me show you a technique on using your chi for healing."

Ranma gained a hungry look in his eyes. "Technique?"

"Yes," Cologne said. "Both of you come over here and sit side by side and next to me." She was pleased to see Ranma now had no reservations about getting close to her granddaughterís male body. That was one hurdle overcome. They really made a good match. Once the whole situation with Shampooís curse was over, Cologne would have to see what she could do to match the two up. 

But that was for later. After she was satisfied the two had learned the technique well enough to use it on their own (and Ranmaís rate of learning was nothing short of unbelievable) they switched to back to trying to figure out a way to save Shampoo from death.

They continued talking for several hours and came up with nothing. Shampoo-kun and Ranma eventually departed, leaving Cologne alone to think things through. Her solitude was interrupted by a knock on the door. The matriarch told the visitor to enter, and was mildly surprised upon discovering her identity.

"Youíre Ai Konjou, yes?" Cologne asked.

"Yes honored madam. I have come to inquire about something I have only recently learned about…"


Mousse stared at Kodachi as she stood at the bow of the ship, poised next to the rail and gazing out to sea. She was as far to the front of the ship as she could go. Her trademark ponytail was missing as she had allowed her hair to hang loose; the wind fanned it back in a rippling wave of midnight darkness. Mousse noted it was unusual of her to let it hang so, though the effect was pleasing to the eye.

Slowly he approached her. "Kodachi."

She declined to turn around to answer him. "I have nothing more to say to you. If you are going to be stubborn and refuse to listen to reason, I shall not waste my breath. Do as you please." She should have left him paralyzed in their room to keep him out of trouble, but somehow it was like all those other times when she had not immobilized him, even when he acted recklessly. It felt wrong to keep him motionless in such a manner.

"Kodi-chan," he cooed. That would get her to stop being angry with him. Now that Shampoo was all but gone, Kodachi was the only one that would be on his side. Without her there would be no one.

She resisted the urge to throw herself in his arms. He was so transparent. "Go to that harridan if you wish. I wonít stop you."

"I just donít want to see her hurt. I canít let that happen."

She at last turned to look at him. "And if something happens to you, where does that leave me? I cannot go on without you. There would be nothing left."

"Donít talk like that."

Was that concern she heard in his voice? Had she at last struck a chord and made him see what would happen if he should throw his life away? Perhaps taking it a step farther would show how much he really cared.

"Since you are so determined to throw your life away, I shall throw away my own as well. Right now." She placed one slender leg over the guardrail, leaving nothing but a small ledge several inches wide between her and falling into the ocean.

"STOP!!!" Mousse grabbed onto her arm as she struggled in his grasp to continue going over the side.

She was delighted at his efforts. At last he was behaving as though she was his world. She continued to protest while pretending to struggle in his grasp, enjoying his attention.


About twenty feet away, DíAmour and first mate Kawada were doing an inventory of the ship, going over what needed to be repaired. In truth, it was Kawada that was doing all the work while the captain continued to ponder what he was doing wrong with the women.

"What do you think I should do?" DíAmour asked.

Kawada told him.

"Thatís not anatomically possible," DíAmour informed his companion, furrowing his brow in concentration. There had to be something he could do to get the women in bed, preferably at least half of them.

He was still speculating on what to do when he spotted Kodachi and Mousse struggling at the bow. "What are those two doing?"

Kawada looked over the duo. Mousse had both of Kodachiís arms and was trying to pull her back on board the ship. At the moment she was winning their duel, in that she was now fully over the railing with only Mousse keeping her from falling. "It looks like they are playing out that scene from ĎTitanicí, sir."

"Oh," the captain said nonchalantly, then walked over to where the couple was struggling.

Mousse had almost won the struggle and nearly had Kodachi back over the railing when DíAmour moved up behind them and observed them for a moment. He gave a soft smile at the duo, then shoved Mousse over the rail, causing both of the participants to end up in the ocean.

"I HATED THAT MOVIE!!!" DíAmour shouted down into the water.


Minami threw up over the railing again, barely missing Kodachi and Mousse-panda as they wrapped a ribbon and chain around one of the guardrails and climbed back onto the ship, a good distance away from the bow. Minami wondered what the hell was wrong with her? It couldnít be motion sickness; sheíd been in lots of roller coasters, ocean rides, and rode the back of a rampaging Fragenyyd for three hours and never encountered a problem. It wasnít a virus; she magically tested for that. It wasnít food poisoning; her spells would have cured it. She had no explanation for what was wrong, unless it was magically induced.

That was why she was walking over the ship, in spite of her state. A careful examination of the deck revealed something interesting. She had walked ten more feet when she noticed it again. The deck plates were different, and it wasnít due to repair. They were all different. It was the fourth instance of that phenomenon. If what she suspected was true, the ship itself was an aggregation of several ships. But the magic flows were uninterrupted on it, meaning the ship was still capable of absorbing parts of other ships, or, in an ideal situation, an entire ship.

That didnít quite seem right either. Most of TWPOS was just various parts of other ships, making it more likely that it was scavenging pieces on its own to replace what was missing. That might explain the ramshackle appearance of the vessel. Either that or it was a mask to hide its true power. In either case it was something that would need a closer examination.

That was for later. At the moment she had to run to over to the railing and vomit once more. If that kept up she was going to be lucky if she wasnít bedridden by the time they arrived in China. It was as she finished hurling up her guts that she sensed something to the north. Looking out over the horizon she saw nothing more than low fog bank gliding across the ocean. That alone would not have been so bad, save for the fact Minami sensed a magical force emanating from the fog that rivaled that of TWPOS. And what was worse, there was a subtle change in the aura of the vessel she was on, almost as though it was a buildup of energy. All of that came down to the last thing they needed: trouble.


DíAmour had returned to the bridge and looked through his spyglass at the fog bank off to port. "Iíd recognize that cloud anywhere. Helm, make a left," he said with a slowly blossoming smile on his face.

Kawada began to panic. "It might just be a normal fog."

"Moving against the wind?"

"The weather has been behaving oddly."

DíAmour shook his head and repeated the order. Kawadaís second protest was cut off as the captain drew his sword.

"Do it now. And hook up the speakers while youíre at it. I have something to say."

Kawada nodded to the helmsman as they turned to the fog bank. This encounter was the last thing they needed: trouble.


Second Officer Lotus released her hold on her spyglass and stared at the approaching vessel. It was TWPOS, and that meant the last thing they needed: trouble.

The mistress always went ballistic when she and DíAmour crossed paths. Maybe there was time to change the direction of the ship before the captain came up to the bridge.

Lotus was just starting the turn when her partner, the blue-haired Blossom, and first mate of the POJ, arrived. "<Whatís going on?>"

Lotus simply pointed to the approaching vessel.

Blossom recognized it immediately. "<The Worthless Piece of Shit! Thatís where that cute Captain DíAmour is.>"

Lotus could have slapped her partner. "<In the name of the gods, donít let the mistress hear you say that!>"

"<Say what?>"

Lotus turned in fear. The captain had arrived. "<I was just going to send Blossom to get you. It seems we have— >"

"<DíAMOUR!!!>"

"< — a ship off the bow.>" Lotus was afraid of this happening. The long standing grudge between Madame Lao and the captain of the scow that was before them was well known. DíAmour had recently upped the ante by saying some rather rude comments at several ports about the nature of Lao, and rumor had it, what he would like to do to her if he ever got his hands on her. Not that others had not said the same thing. Lao herself was a tall woman with pale sea green hair, very lanky and well built, with a frame that stood just under six feet and was well proportioned. She gave one the impression of an uncaged predator sizing up its prey as she studied the face of her subordinate, then slowly turned to regard the mass of the other ship with loathing.

"<DíAmour,>" she growled like a snarling tigress, a resemblance that was more than superficial.

The pink-haired Lotus swallowed thickly as she saw the pleasant features of her mistress change, as her eyes shifted from their normal pink color to the tawny gold that was diamond slitted. Her mistress was in one of those moods, and not willing to suffer another harangue from the captain of the hated rival vessel. Already they could hear DíAmour testing out the volume on his shipís speakers to see if they were projecting his voice sufficiently. Lao did not need similar equipment to respond in kind, but at the moment the last thing she was capable of was coherent banter.

It wasnít as though Lao had not retaliated verbally in the past, promising all sorts of unpleasantness for DíAmour should she catch him. The whole situation involving him really was odd. Lao wasnít the sort of woman to lose her temper, even under the most adverse of conditions. But then there was DíAmour. Around him she was like an out of control typhoon, and Lotus couldnít fathom why. There were certainly those that had outmaneuvered Lao in the past, but she would just bide her time and strike when an opportunity presented itself. There were those that had said off color remarks about her —one didnít become an infamous pirate slaver without receiving criticismsó but she never lost control. Except when it came to DíAmour. Several times she almost set out with the intention of sinking his ship, but part of that problem was that she couldnít use the Lens of Magellan to find TWPOS. To her knowledge it was the only vessel capable of evading detection, and no one understood why that was, either.

And now Lao was confronted with her longtime enemy on the open seas, where the shipís full power could be brought to bear. For some odd reason that made Lotus nervous. She had heard vague rumors about TWPOS. As many people there were that hated it and its captain, somehow it always escaped its enemies, or destroyed them. It was an enigma, which Lotus despised.

"<Bring us closer to the wreck,>" Lao ordered as she dissipated the magical fog around her ship. She wanted DíAmour to see her. "<I want one of the deck guns aimed at the captain himself. When itís within range, I want a warning shot fired at DíAmourís head.>"

"<Donít you mean over his head?>" Blossom asked.

"<No. Heís a moron, and wonít understand the nature of the warning unless it actually hits him.>"

Lotus felt her dread build at that. She didnít give a damn about DíAmour, he deserved to be enslaved for the things he said about Lotusís mistress, but there was another on board that craft that she was concerned for. And if Lao ever found out about the relationship there was no telling what she might do. The captainís hatred of DíAmour extended to the whole vessel and its crew. Even Blossomís comment about DíAmour would get her flogged, or not, depending on Laoís mood. And given Blossomís… tastes, that refusal of punishment might be the worse of the two options.

Blossom perked her ears up. "<I think I hear someone saying something from the shipís speakers, Mistress.>"


DíAmour was standing on the ledge outside of the bridge, making certain Lao could see him, as he began shouting. "Well, well, well, if it isnít the Slut of the Seven Seas and her wreck, the Piece of Junk! What an aptly named vessel!"

"So says the captain of a ship called The Worthless Piece of Shit," Kawada muttered as he gazed at the innocent looking, if large, Chinese style junk before them. He knew from personal experience that there was far more to that craft than met the eye. Far more.

"If I had something as nasty looking as that, I would hide it in a fog too!" DíAmour shouted.

"Many people say that about our ship too, sir. Mostly the crew."

DíAmour turned on Kawada. "Youíre not helping things here."

"Can we go now, sir? Or do you want us to end up on the bottom of the ocean when you anger her enough to attack us?"

"Sheíll never sink my ship!" DíAmour raged. "My ship is the most powerful in the world, and so is her captain! Iíll show that dyke bitch yet!" He turned back to the junk, and began yelling some more off-color comments about it, its activities, and its captain.


On the bridge of the POJ, a smile broadened on Laoís face. "<Bring us closer. I want to be near enough that heíll be able to hear me. I have an idea thatíll hurt him much worse than blowing his head off. Iím going down to the main deck where heíll be sure to see me.>"

As Lao left the bridge an ominous foreboding washed over Lotus. Nothing good was going to come of all this.


At his position on the bridge, DíAmour saw Lao arrive on her main deck, decked out in white breeches and matching white shirt with a leather brown vest. As the sea green-haired beauty came into sight, a chorus of wolf whistles came from the men on TWPOS.

"Knock it off!" He drew his sword, quieting the men, then returned his attention to Lao. "Greetings, bitch! I see youíre starting to sag! That really is too bad! Youíve lost what little skanky appeal you might have once possessed!"

Lao kept her face from twitching. She would not lose control around HIM! "I see the barnacles are still all that keeps that ship of yours together. And from the sound of your voice, Iíd say you havenít been laid in a while."

DíAmour lacked the control Lao did. "I donít have to capture people and turn them into slaves to get my sexual partners!"

"Neither do I, itís just more fun that way. Why donít I tell you about the women I had last night? The best one was this flexible redhead…"

Most of the male members of the crew began to drool at the rather… descriptive things Lao talked about, and began discussing among themselves about how they wouldnít mind being captured by Lao if that was the way her slaves were treated. Only Kawada remained cool, observing the blood vessels on DíAmourís forehead that were about to rupture. If only they could be so lucky. Lao had definitely won that round, which meant it was time to go before the captain did something foolish, like ram Laoís junk.

Brunt and Aki quietly came onto the bridge and took over the wheel at the helm while DíAmour continued with his comments about Lao, her ancestors, and which farm animals came into the family line. Kawada was delighted the duo had arrived. He was concerned that the orders he had secretly given, while the captain was distracted by Lao, for the duo to get up to the bridge would be too late. A nod of the head from Kawada and the duo turned the ship one hundred and eighty degrees.

"OH MY GOD! WEíRE OUT OF CONTROL!!!" Brunt shouted as he pretended to struggle with the wheel.

DíAmour realized his ship was turning away from Laoís and rushed back inside to the bridge. "Whatís going on?!"

"The helmís not responding. Even Aki and Brunt canít get the wheel to turn," Kawada explained.

"Allow me to help." DíAmour tried to shove the wheel back to its proper course, but was no match for Brunt and Akiís tremendous strength. The struggle only served to convince him they really were out of control. "Damn! The same thing happened the last time we confronted her. I know the ship doesnít like her, but why would it run away?"

Sweatdrops formed behind all of the bridge crewís heads. Every now and then the captain had a hallucination about the ship saying things to him. Fortunately he never had those problems more than four times a year.

DíAmour went back outside to get in one last shot at Lao. "You may have gotten lucky this time, you pirate whore, but next time Iíll have the last laugh! And I wasnít joking about your boobs! They really are starting to sag!"

"The next time we meet," Lao threatened as she gnashed her teeth. "I will have you in chains, groveling before me, while I make love to beautiful women until you beg me to beat you like the dog that you are for some kind of sexual release!"

"Iíll never marry you!"

"THAT WASNíT A PROPOSAL, YOU IDIOT!!!"

"Oh. It sounded like one." He answered seriously, then carefully considered his next response. "The next time we meet, I swear Iíll make you shout out who your daddy really is!" The pelvic thrusts he added did nothing to calm Laoís temper.

Lao was about to order a pursuit when her ship changed its heading and went away from TWPOS. She turned in fury and stormed directly to the bridge. Upon arriving she tore Lotus from the wheel and held her up in the air by the throat. "<Why did you turn away from them?!>"

Fortunately for Lotus, Blossom interrupted. "<Mistress. The ship we were supposed to rendezvous with is approaching.>"

Lao released her hold on Lotus. Every instinct cried out to pursue DíAmour, send his ship to the bottom of the ocean, and grind the man under her boot heel. It was with great difficulty she suppressed the urges. There was a contract to uphold.

As the ships drifted farther away from one another Lao felt her anger abate slightly and began to wonder if the POJ was affecting her emotions. Given the connection between her and the ship it was far from impossible, but why would it try to influence her like that? No, it was just as likely her ship was reflecting her own hatred of DíAmour and magnifying it. That was the more likely explanation. The idea that one ship could hate another was absurd.


Somewhere in TWPOS, a pale man who had not seen the sun for over a year, continued working on a set of engines. At last he had almost figured out a way to make them work in atmosphere without destroying a large section of the surrounding area. He had even discovered an odd serial number on the side, although what series the letters and number meant was probably long forgotten. No. There might not have been a man alive that would know what an SDF-3 was.


Night fell as things began to settle down on TWPOS. Word had passed down about the close call they had had with Madame Lao, and some of the crew decided to mutiny later in the evening; not that it would ever work. The captain had just celebrated the two hundredth failed attempt on his life, but it was a good way for the crew to blow off some steam.

In another part of the ship, Ranma prepared to have dinner with his parents and the Tendos. It was his mother that convinced him that they should have a nice, quiet dinner together as a family. Ranma had to admit, it was a good idea. There was no telling when they would actually arrive at China, and once that happened the chances at having a peaceful meal with his family were going to be nonexistent.  It would be a moment to be treasured, especially if it was the last one.

He shook his head clear of such thoughts. He would keep Shampoo from harm and everything would turn out all right. It had to. He was Ranma Saotome. He did not lose. He would not lose. He would come out on top no matter what it took. He always did, and with the stakes as high as they were, he would not allow himself the luxury of even considering failure.

As he went to meet his parents, his thoughts turned to Shampoo. She had not taken well to the idea of him wanting to dine with his parents without her, but her presence would just serve to disrupt everything, and he wanted a quiet meal with his family, at least just this once. He offered to eat lunch with her tomorrow, which convinced her to back off. She still threw in a comment about turning herself into a guy and dining with her Amazon sisters, mentioning that she would at least be able to dine with someone that wanted her around. Shampoo sure wasnít making things easier. The only thing that went well was that healing technique Cologne had taught him. Physically he was at one hundred percent.

Meeting with his parents, Akane, and Soun went without a problem. Soun mentioned to Ranma that Kasumi was feeling better, but chose to eat with Shampoo, which eased Ranmaís conscience a bit.

As everyone headed towards the mess, Ranma and Akane dropped back a bit to converse. Only small talk was exchanged, neither really knew what to say with the tension as thick as it was.

"We are sitting at the captainís table tonight," Nodoka mentioned as she looked back to the pair.. "Isnít that nice?"

It was about as delightful as listening to the principal talk about coconuts for several hours. Ranma had had more than enough of the narcissistic lech to last him a lifetime. Ranma also would not have put it past DíAmour to hit on his mother while she was there.

The quintet entered the mess and made their way to the captainís table. DíAmour stood up and met them halfway.

"Tanma." DíAmour nodded to Ranma.

"Thatís Ranma, you idiot!"

"Whatever," DíAmour smiled broadly as he turned to Akane. "And you must be Akane Tendo."

"Uh, yeah. So what?" Akane found she wanted to hit the man with the way he was staring at her.

DíAmour gave a lascivious grin to her, then turned back to Ranma. "Mr. Sap-to-me."

"Thatís Saotome! Canít you get anything right?"

DíAmour waved off the protest and turned once more to Akane. "Miss Tendo. By the power invested in me as lord of this vessel, I now pronounce you man and wife. Now I get to kiss the bride."

The statement shocked Ranma and Akane so much that DíAmour actually got as far as sweeping Akane into his embrace before her fist connected with his face, which was followed by Ranmaís elbow striking him in the back of the head.

"Just what do you think you are doing?!" Akane snarled as she got out of DíAmourís grasp.

"You two are married!" Soun shouted.

"Itís about time, boy!" Genma clapped Ranma on the back.

Nodoka cleared her throat. "Genma, I thought we agreed that Ranma and Akaneís wedding was to be postponed."

"Did we?"

"Yes, we did."

DíAmour shook his head free of the pain. "They arenít married until I kiss the bride! Iím the captain of this vessel, damn it!  I make the rules!"

"No way!" Akane shouted.

"Canít you forego that just this once?" Soun pleaded.

"If I donít kiss the bride, then they arenít married."

"If there ainít no groom thereís no wedding either." Ranma stormed out of the mess.

Akaneís first impulse was to follow him, but she resisted the urge and remained where she was. Ranma was already angry, and either one of them could say the wrong thing and start a fight. No, it was better to let him go for now. She would talk to him after he had calmed down.

As she stood there, looking miserably in the direction Ranma had just left, a hand made its way to her shoulder.

"We can still kiss, babe. We can even pretend weíre married if you want."

Akane replied with an elbow to DíAmourís solar plexus. Now thoroughly disgusted and her appetite destroyed, she left for her cabin.

DíAmour was still catching his breath when a bokken was thrust under his nose.

"How dare a sea-going serpent such as yourself dare to attempt to touch the lips of Akane Tendo. I would see justice meted out to one so low."

DíAmour leaped to a nearby tabletop and drew his sword. "So. Itís a fight you want, eh? You simple-minded dolt! This is my ship, where I am surrounded by a crew so loyal that they would follow me to Hell itself! With them at by back Iím inó" DíAmour found the rest of his speech drowned out by the crewís laughter.

"To Hell. Thatís a good one, sir!"

"Loyal he says. HAHAHAHA!!!"

"Oh yes, Iíll guard the capnís back, just long enough to put me knife in it!"

A chant of ĎKUNOU,  KUNOU, KUNOU!!!í rose from the crew.


Ranma was more than halfway to his room before Nodoka caught up to him.

"Ranma. Please wait!"

Despite the betrayal he felt, he turned. "What is it, Mom?"

"I just wanted to assure you I had nothing to do with that situation. I know you want to wait a while before marrying Akane. I intend to respect your wishes."

He sighed. She still had not listened to what he had said about choosing whom he was going to marry, but at least she was willing to give him some leeway. "Thanks, Mom." He turned to go once more.

"Can we have breakfast together? Dinner was ruined after all, and I still want to spend time with you."

Ranma nodded. "Sure, Mom. Only…"

"Yes?"

"Maybe we could leave Pop behind."

Nodoka smiled. "He had you to himself for over ten years. Itís been too long since we spent some quality time together with just the two of us."


Ukyou turned down her covers and prepared for bed. It had been a long day with much to think about, but at least she had had the time to do it. No attacking French chefs, lost bats, bi-sexual cheerleaders, aquatranssexuals, or cross-dressers disguised as dressers had accosted her for nearly five hours. It was the longest stretch of peace she had had in the last six months. That wasnít to say the chaos wasnít enjoyable a lot of the time, it was just that she needed bouts of peace and quiet every once in a while. Ironically, that serenity was now starting to irritate her, and she began to feel lonely. She was considering seeking out Ai or Ryouga when there was a knock on the door.

Ukyou opened it to see a tall man, who was at least a good five inches taller than her, standing in the doorway. He wore a rather appealing combination of dark blue pants and white dress shirt with a blue vest. His hair was tied back, similar to Ukyouís style, and had a dark purple tint to it that was deeper than Shampooís. However, the most remarkable thing about him was his face. He was probably as handsome as Shampoo-kun, which made him more than a little easy on Ukyouís eyes.

"Excuse me, Miss Kuonji?"

"Uh, yes. I am " He had her at a disadvantage. She was certain she would remember someone as attractive as him, although he did seem vaguely familiar. "And you are?"

"Akira Nakajima." He bowed before Ukyou. "I overheard that blonde girl, Ai, mention your name. Thatís how I knew yours." He fished something out of the pocket on his vest. "You dropped this." He held a throwing spatula in his hand.

Ukyouís hands went reflexively to her bandoleer, seeking a spot for the missing one. A quick inventory seemed to account for all of them. Still, she recognized the one in his hand as unquestionably hers. "Thanks," she said as she accepted the weapon.

"No problem." He began sniffing the air. "Is that okonomiyaki I smell?"

"Yeah. I just made some." She indicated the portable grill that was sitting on the floor. "The shipís food is rather…" She wondered how one could say food was rancid without offending.

"Youíre right. It is," he chuckled.

She examined him more closely. He had helped her recover her weapon, and he seemed friendly enough. There was something disarmingly charming about the man. Politeness called on her to do something in return for the favor. "Sit down, please. Iíll make you some okonomiyaki."

"Itís no bother?" he asked as he entered the room.

"Not at all." Ukyou sat down next to her grill and whipped up an okonomiyaki. She watched his reaction carefully as he bit down into it.

"Hmmm," he mumbled as he savored the taste in his mouth. "I can honestly say this is the best okonomiyaki I have ever had."

"Thanks," Ukyou beamed. "Itís my specialty."

"How appropriate. The best okonomiyaki in the world is served by the prettiest okonomiyaki chef there is."

Ukyou felt a blush creep to her face.

"Iím sorry," Akira said. "Did I offend you?"

"Oh no," Ukyou quickly blurted out. "Itís just Iím not used to getting compliments like that. Heck, a lot of people mistake me for a guy."

"That, I find impossible to believe," Akira said soberly. "Forgive me if I seem a bit forward, but I have to admit, I was glad you dropped your spatula. It gave me an excuse to meet you." He looked at the ground. "I am being too forward. Iím sorry. Itís just that most women donít find me attractive."

Ukyouís jaw nearly dropped. "Are you kidding?! Youíre one of the best looking guys Iíve ever met." Her hands darted to her mouth. What had possessed her to blurt out something like that?

Akira sounded surprised. "Really? Thank you."

"S… sure. No problem." Ukyou hoped Akira did not think she was flirting with him. Her hands were quite full with Ai, though as she stared at Akira, she was struck once again by the sense of familiarity about him. It was something about his eyes.

Akira cleared his throat. "I have a favor to ask. I need a womanís opinion about something."

Ukyou was not sure what to make of that. "Yes?"

"Thereís this girl Iím interested in. Sheís a friend, probably the best one Iíve ever had. Sheís not seeing anyone, and Iím trying to get involved with her. The only problem is she has reservations about having a relationship with me."

Something was nagging at Ukyouís memory even as she listened to Akira. "Whatís the problem?"

"Well, I think she likes me as a person, but sheís hung up on the way I look."

"Sheís the one that thinks youíre unattractive?"

"Sort of," Akira reluctantly admitted. "I think itís narrow-minded of her, but no oneís perfect. Not even me."

Ukyou took note of the egotistical statement as she became certain he was holding something back.

"Anyway," Akira continued. "Iíve been thinking about making a big change in my life for her."

"Hold on a minute, sugar. If she canít accept you for who you are then thatís her problem. You shouldnít have to change."

His eyes narrowed. "You mean youíve never undergone a massive change for a guy?"

Ukyou was about to answer of course not, but then remembered Ranma and all of the changes she had undergone involving him. "Maybe I have, but it might have been wrong to do it."

That seemed to placate Akira. "Compared to losing her, no change is too great. But I just want to make sure sheíd like the change."

Ukyou was about to say something when she at last knew what was familiar about Akira. It was that narrowing of the eyes. Her guts knotted up in horror at the suspicion, and she wanted to throw out an accusation, but she remained calm. She needed to be certain.

She turned partially away, only affording Akira a half glance. "You want to know something really disgusting? That girl you talked to, Ai. She kissed me today. It was so gross." She watched Akiraís reaction carefully from out of the corner of her eye. "Like I would ever want to get it on with another woman. Iíve only tolerated her this long because I think itís funny."

Akiraís reaction to that was all the confirmation Ukyou needed. He was not even close to covering up his true emotions. She turned fully to face him. "Excuse me for being so forward myself, but you really turn me on. Let me show you how much."

She approached him as seductively as she could. Surprise overcame the pain that had been evident upon him before. Slowly the okonomiyaki chef slid into his lap. Her hand strayed to his chest as she leaned forward, blew in his ear once, and began whispering. "Actually, everything I said about Ai was a lie. The only thing she could do that would really anger me was if she turned herself into a guy."

ĎAkiraísí heart skipped a beat as he dared to look directly into Ukyouís eyes.

Ukyouís voice of seduction turned into one of anger as she jumped off of Akiraís lap and grabbed him by the collar, shaking him in a powerful grip. "How could you?! How could you do something like that to yourself?!"

"I… I just thought youíd like it better if I could change into a man," Ai-kun stammered. "I  know you still have hang-ups about me being a woman. So I thought if I was like Shampoo, it would work out!"

Ukyou felt her rage practically explode. "Just because you look like a guy doesnít change anything! You will always be a woman to me! Just like Shampoo is! How can you think Iím that shallow?!" She stopped shaking him as some of the anger began to give way to sorrow and her voice dropped to half of its original volume. "Damn it, Ai! Youíre the one that told me I should be proud to be a woman. And I really started to believe I could be one and still dress and behave like I do. But now youíve just thrown it all away on some whim in the hopes I might like you better.

"You were my role model, in a weird sort of way. Now look at what youíve done! Do you know what kind of message that sends to me? That you can just give yourself some kind of curse and be a guy without thinking twice about it? It means everything you told me was a bunch of lies, and that your own femininity was so meaningless to you, youíd get rid of it without a second thought."

Ukyou began sobbing a little. "You donít even understand what I want! If I get involved in a relationship with you, itís because of who you are, not what you look like! And now youíve ruined everything between us! You never even asked how Iíd feel about you cursing yourself. How can you say you love me if you wonít even consider my feelings?"

Ai-kun was in shock. "I didnít know you felt that strongly about me. Iím sorry," he said quietly.

"And now youíre stuck as a guy," Ukyou said through sobs. "How could you do that to yourself?"

Ai-kun looked sadly at her. "Thereís nothing I wouldnít do for you, but you donít have to worry about the curse. I didnít use real magic water. Itís just an instant variety that only works once. I talked with that old Amazon about the magic springs and she said that if I was seriously considering changing myself into a guy, I should try out the body first. So she let me use some."

Ukyou just stood there, confused. Her mouth was barely able to form the words. "Only… once?"

"Yes," Ai-kun reassured her. "Hot water will make me a girl again and I wonít change into a guy anymore. I was considering going to that Jusenkyou place, but I wanted to see how you would react to the idea. I didnít tell you who I was at first because I wanted to surprise you." Ai-kun paused a moment before continuing. "I also wanted to see if you thought I was attractive. It would have made me feel… good to see you behave like that to me. I never thought youíd be so against the idea. Iím sorry."

Much to Ai-kunís surprise, Ukyou embraced him. "Donít you ever scare me like that again, you jackass." She released him. "Now you have to promise me you wonít ever curse yourself. I wonít let you do something like that to me again."

Ai-kun held up his hand. "I promise." Once he was sure Ukyou calmed down he got a mischievous idea. "Just out of curiosity, do you think this male body is appealing?"

Ukyou gave a tired sigh. "Yes. It is attractive, but itís not you."

"I see." Ai-kun nodded his head approvingly. "Since I have this male body anyway, at least for the moment, donít you think it would be a waste if we didnít…" he ran his tongue across his lips. "…try it out?"

Ukyou shook her head. "Donít press your luck, Ai. You got me pretty angry with you."

"Ah, well." Ai-kun shrugged. "You know, this male form of mine is something of a disappointment"

Ukyou cocked her head her head quizzically. "In what way?"

"Well, since Iím so well endowed as a girl, I just figured I would be the same way as a guy. But… well, see for yourself." Ai-kun stood up and dropped his pants and boxers. "See? Iím not big at all. In fact, Iím below average. Itís very disappointing, wouldnít you agre… Ukyou? Why are you covering up your eyes?"

"Because I donít want to see you naked!" When Ai had stood up and displayed himself, Ukyou got more than a passing glimpse of Ai-kun, and to her it appeared he had plenty to offer. However, her conservative nature kicked in, making her cover her eyes.

"Oh come on. I canít be the first guy youíve ever seen, and youíve already said you donít want to do anything. You know Iíll respect your wishes. You have nothing to fear."

"Just pull up your pants. I donít want to look at you."

Ai-kun thought he knew what her problem was; Ukyou was finding herself turned on, and she was not the only one. Ai-kun discovered he was becoming aroused at the idea of Ukyou finding him attractive, and that arousal was making itself known. Ai-kun took note that there was a slight difference in the feeling between when men were turned on when compared to women. And it didnít have entirely to do with the Ďequipmentí change.

He ignored the urge to take Ukyou up in his arms, and pulled his pants up. "Iím dressed."

Ukyou slowly peeked through her fingers, saw Ai-kun was telling the truth, and relaxed. "Youíd better go."

For once Ai-kun did not protest. He agreed, but not before giving Ukyou a peck on the cheek before departing.

Ukyou stared at the door after Ai-kun had exited. Matters were coming to a head, and she was going to have to make a decision soon. Both for Aiís sake and her own.


Kasumi decided to go out on the deck and enjoy the night air. Dinner had been something of a disappointment. Ordinarily she would have loved eating with Shampoo, but tonight, when she had tried to talk about their morning conversation, Shampoo changed the subject. Kasumi let it drop, of course —it would have been rude to press on— but it had been disappointing.  So after dinner she found herself unable to sleep and chose to walk on the deck. It was late enough she believed that she would have the deck to herself, which was why it was such a surprise to find a ten year old girl already present and looking out at the nighttime ocean. It took Kasumi a moment to recall the girlís name: Sparrow.

"<Hello,>" Kasumi greeted gently.

Sparrowís head quickly darted in Kasumiís direction, much like her namesake. The young girl smiled in return, then gave a sad look and pointed to her throat.

"<Oh, my! Thatís right. You canít talk.>" Kasumi brought her hands up and began motioning with them. [Would it make you feel better if I talked like this?]

Sparrow appeared startled for a moment, then relaxed. [You know the sign language of the Joketsuzoku!]

Kasumi thought about that for the briefest of moments. When had she learned that? Shampoo must have taught her. [Yes. I can.]

Sparrow returned that with a joyful smile that only the young could give. [Thatís great. Not too many of my people know how to communicate like this. Just my family, and a couple of others, and all the Elders. But who wants to talk to Elders? They never have anything interesting to say. They just want to collect the messages I have and send me on my way.]

Kasumi noticed the girl appeared a little saddened when she mentioned that. [You sound lonely.]

The girl looked at Kasumi in surprise. [Not exactly. Everyone treats me nicely,] she signed reluctantly. [Besides, it could be worse. If I didnít have my curse, I wouldnít be the best messenger in the village.]

[Why would that be worse?]

Sparrow appeared reluctant to answer, but gazed into Kasumiís eyes. There was a kindness there that made her want to trust the older girl. [My people look down upon those that are not whole. It is not as though they are harmed or thrown out, but they are not treated with the same respect others are given, at least by most.] Her sadness at admitting that was quickly replaced. [But sometimes, people can overcome their problems, like that blind dummy, Mu Tse. If he werenít stupidly throwing himself at Xian Pu all the time, heíd have a lot more respect. And I get a lot of respect because I am the best and fastest messenger ever. No one else comes close. Even though I am young, I get more honor than a lot of adults!]

Kasumi was delighted at the girlís happiness in her abilities, but she detected something else in Sparrowís eyes. Some sort of melancholy. [What do your friends think of your role as messenger?]

The look of melancholy grew. [I donít have many friends. There are only a couple of good ones that can use sign language, but most of my people just say hello and move on.]

Kasumi gave the girl an apologetic stare. [Iím sorry. I didnít mean to upset you.]

Sparrow shook her head, and perked up a bit. [Itís all right. Besides, I have a gift the others donít.]

[Whatís that?]

Sparrow gave an elfish grin a leaped atop the railing. [I can fly!] She spread her arms out and began walking along with exaggerated motions with her arms as she flitted back and forth.

"<Be careful! You might fall!>" Kasumi said.

Sparrow did a pirouette on one toe, then stopped so she could sign once more. [I never fall off. My balance is too good. I think it has to do with my curse. Iím used to perching on things.] To prove her point she went through an intricate series of leaps and dances along the thin metal rail that would put Ranma to shame. Satisfied she proved her point, she stopped to sign once again. [But the best thing in the world is the ability to fly! Thatís why Iím not really sad, even though I donít have many friends. None of them could fly with me.]

Sparrowís eyes took on a distant cast. [Thereís nothing in the world that can match the feeling of the wind running through your wings. You can practically see the whole world when you fly as high as you can. The village looks like a speck. Itís so tiny you wouldnít know people live there.] She gave a broad grin. [Iíve been farther and to more places than anyone, except maybe Perfume and some of the elders. I love flying!]

Sparrow hopped down to the deck and walked up to Kasumi. [If I had any one wish in the world, I wouldnít use it to wish for being able to talk. Iíd wish I could fly faster. That way I could see even more places than I can now and I could get there quicker. It would be wonderful.]

Kasumi admired the young girl. There had been many difficulties for her, yet she overcame them all and still enjoyed life. If only there was some way for Kasumi to grant Sparrow that wish. Then it came to her.

[Sparrow, I know a way you can increase your speed. Hold your hands up, palms flat and pointing up to the sky.]

Sparrow gave Kasumi a curious glance. [How will that make me faster?]

An eye blink later Kasumi disappeared. Sparrow stared at where she had been but a moment ago. Then felt a tap to her shoulder. Sparrow turned to see Kasumi, giving her one of the warmest smiles she had ever seen. Sparrowís hands failed her for a moment before she managed, [How?]

Kasumi began talking. "<Chi manipulation used to enhance speed. I did cheat a little and use a camouflage shift to hide my after-image, otherwise you would have seen me blur instead of disappear outright. But donít worry, youíll be plenty fast enough. Now tell me, can you manipulate your chi?>"

Sparrow shook her head.

"<Then Iíll show you how to tap into that first. Then we can move on to a basic speed technique. You wonít see any differences at first, but if you practice with it a lot youíll get faster.>" Kasumi paused for a moment, her smile disappearing. "<You must promise me one thing. You must never use what I teach you to hurt anyone, or show the technique to anyone else. Iím only showing this to you so you can fly faster, not so you can hurt someone with it.>"

Sparrow nodded her head solemnly. [I promise. I donít even like to fight. Even if I could speak I would never have made a good warrior. I can defend myself, but beyond that, nothing.]

Kasumi smiled at that. On some instinctual level she knew the Amazon would keep her promise. "<Good. Now letís begin.>"


Soun lay back in his bed and stared at the ceiling. He could just not understand why Akane was so angry with him. She said she wanted to get married to Ranma, so why was she so irate at him for trying to get her what she wanted? It was that way with all of the girls; he never understood them. If only their mother had still been alive, she always seemed to understand everything.

Temporarily overcome with grief, he cried a flood of tears for less than a minute. It was true: time did heal all wounds, even the memories of his departed wife. There was a time not so long ago when he would have been unable to control himself for close to five minutes. He was almost healed, at least as much as he was ever going to be. A gentle rap on the door caught his attention.

"Enter."

Silk quietly entered and closed the door behind her. Soun immediately took note that she was wearing an unusual loose-fitting white jumpsuit. A very strange sight, given her usual preference for more subtle wear.

"Itís nice to see you again," Silk purred in an almost feline manner. "Iím sorry it took me so long to visit you. There was some Amazon business I had to take care of. But I have some free time, now."

"Thatís wonderful!" Soun beamed. "Why donít you sit down and we can talk?"

"Talk. Heh."

Soun became nervous at the smile Silk gave when she said, Ďtalkí. And then there was the way she was making her way over to him. He grew even more apprehensive as he read the body signals she was giving off. It was a familiar motion, one she had used on him on more than one occasion those many years ago. She was stalking prey, and not in the conventional sense of attacking either, though she could certainly play rough when she was in such a mood.

"Talk is good," she said as she paused in front of him. "Thereís something I need to ask you. I need your opinion."

Soun relaxed ever so slightly. So they WERE going to talk. "Of course."

She placed her hands on the jumpsuit, then ripped it easily off, leaving her wearing nothing more than a smile. "Tear-away clothing. Itís amazing what marvels in attire you Japanese come up with," she explained. "And I thought having a lingerie shop on a ship was a foolish idea. Go figure."

Soun moved further back on the bed, away from Silk. "Y… youíre not wearing any clothes."

"You always were the more observant of us," she said with a smile. "Since youíve known me for so long, I need to ask you the question. How do I look now, compared to when I was younger?"

"Y… youíre as beautiful as ever," he said with a trace of awe in his voice.

"What a magnificent liar you are." She gave a soft giggle. "Iíve worked out hard to stay in shape, but I know time has taken its toll."

"No. I mean it."

Silk seemed genuinely surprised. "Thank you again." Her surprise disappeared as she moved onto the bed and next to Soun in one fluid motion.

"Silk," Soun protested, but made no move to stop her.

"Now, what shape are you in?" Her hand found its way past his gi and to his chest. "My, my. You have been keeping in shape." Her hand began to work its way further down Sounís body. "Yes. All of your muscles are very hard. Wait. Whatís this?"

"Silk," Soun softly protested again, but with much less force.

Silk ignored the plea. "This one is soft. How can that be? We used to give it such good workouts too. Letís start that training regimen again." Silk cut off the third protest by placing a finger from her free hand to his lips and shifting from her playful demeanor to a more serious one. "I think itís been long enough for both of us, donít you?"

Instinctively he wanted to protest, but realized it was more out of habit than for any real reason. In answer to her, he nodded his head.


Shampoo quietly sneaked down the passengersí area the Amazon hunt pack was quartered in. As late as it was, she hoped all of them were asleep. Subterfuge was called for, and the fewer people that saw her awake at that late hour, the better.

The rooms were all quiet, save one from which the sounds of passion were emanating from. Not the one she desired, fortunately. That cabin was next to the one the noises were coming from. She knocked on the door with only the lightest of force.

Perfume opened the door and stared in surprise at her visitor. "<What is it?>" she whispered, looking down the corridor to see if anyone had spotted Shampoo. Perfume was still wearing her normal clothes. With the noises coming from So Fu next door, there was no way Perfume was going to get any sleep until her neighbor was finished.

"<I need your help. It doesnít have anything to do with my problem, but itís important to me.>"

"<Okay, but first I need your opinion on something.>" Perfume went into her cabin and brought out a dress.

"<It looks nice,>" Shampoo said.

Perfume smiled. "<Great! I thought it would look really look cute on Tsubasa.>"

Shampoo just stared. "<You truly scare me sometimes.>"

"<At least the guy Iím after is one all of the time,>" Perfume retorted.

"<Itís not that I mean to judge your… tastes, but Tsubasa really is beneath you. Heís a pest. Heís been accosting one of my friends for months and I think you can do much better. Iím sure there are lots of other cross-dressers out there just waiting for you.>" Shampoo shook her head in disbelief. "<I canít believe I just said that.>"

Perfume shrugged. "<When we start going out, Iíll be able to judge him for myself, once I figure out what heís disguised as, anyway. Now what did you want?>"

Shampoo appeared somewhat nervous. "<I need a lookout I can trust.>"

"<Okay,>" Perfume returned the dress inside and came out with her naginata.

"<I donít think youíre going to need that,>" Shampoo warned.

"<With that walking libido they call a captain? Guess again. With the way he was hitting on me, this might be the only thing to keep him away. Did you know he even volunteered to wear a dress for me if Iíd sleep with him? What am I watching out for, anyway?>"


Ranma was doing a one-armed handstand in an effort to clear his thoughts. As hard as he tried to come up with a solution, there was still no way he could think of to keep Shampoo out of danger. The only thing he had going for him was that the ship was heading in the wrong direction. That was all that was presently on the bright side. There was also one other thing that was distracting him. Just one question.

Who do I choose?

Over and over his mind kept returning to that one burning question. No matter how hard he attempted to keep it out, it would return and call out to him some more. He decided it was time to stop fighting it and accept an attempt to figure out the answer. There was no clear-cut choice, so it would probably be best if he compared the two. There were a lot of pros and cons. Neither girl was perfect, but even he wasnít. He was close, but not quite flawless.

On the good side, the girls were both martial artists. Shampoo was great, always able to press him hard, though he was still better. On the other hand, Akane had gotten a lot better in the last few months. On the downside Tarou was largely responsible for that. But he couldnít hold that against her. She had to do what was best for herself. As it stood, Shampoo was the better martial artist than Akane. The fight they had the day before proved that.

Too bad martial arts had nothing to do with love.

The next thing to consider was looks. Why not? Shampoo was gorgeous. She had a beautiful face and a great body. The purple hair made her seem exotic. She did have that large scar on her side, courtesy of Perfume, but he didnít care about that.

Then there was Akane. Yes, he had called her an uncute, unsexy, unfeminine tomboy in the past, but the truth was Akane was cute. Actually she was very attractive. Not in the classic way Shampoo was, but in a girl-next-door sort of way. The names he had called her were reflexes. Whenever he felt offended or wronged by her, that was how he fought back. But deep down inside he had never meant them. Never believed in them. Now he could admit it to himself, if not her. So as far as looks went, they were even.

Now that it really mattered. Looks were never truly important to him. Not now. Not ever.

That was two essentially useless categories down. He was about to move on to which one could cook better, since eating was important to him, when he realized he was stalling. He was not going to base a decision on who could be a better Ďclassicí wife; if he wanted that he would have already run off with Kasumi. No. He had to consider more important issues.

Curses. Shampoo had one. Akane did not. Yes, Shampoo would turn into a guy, but he turned into a girl. He was hardly a hypocrite, and would never shun Shampoo because of her curse. Besides, he had never known her without one, growing to care for her with the knowledge that water turned her into a guy. It was irrelevant to him.

There was the problem with children, but he had already covered that, in a way. He did not want any right away. Period. He was sixteen, going on seventeen. Children were the last thing on his mind. If he chose Shampoo, they would adopt when the time came. That was all that mattered about the curse and children.

Family honor.

Now that was a problem. He was supposed to marry a Tendo. End of discussion. That meant Akane. He cared for her. Might have even lo… the l-word her, but he did not want to feel forced into something he was unsure about.

There really wasnít any way around it. If he chose Shampoo, his family still would not release him from THEIR promise. So unless he turned his back on them and the obligation, and he wasnít certain if he could do that, then he could not marry Shampoo.

Ranma cursed his parents for trying to deny him the right to make any choices in his life.

He gazed at the clock on the wall. Nearly two hours had passed. He had asked himself every question and weighed every fact he could, save one.  The most important. And the only one that mattered.

Who did he love?

Through all of the hours and thinking, it all came down to that one question. And he still didnít know the answer to it.

Ranma gave up and stared at the ceiling, seeing not the mildew encrusted tiles, but Akane and Shampooís faces dancing before him. Despite the tribulations of the last week, he was not the least bit tired. So he just lay back and pondered how his life had come to the crossroads it was at.

He cursed his lack of experience in matters of the heart. And the more he thought about whom to choose, the worse he felt. He wasnít like Pantyhose, who he knew would look at it as a no-lose situation. To Ranma, it was a no-win situation. One of the girls would end up hurt no matter what, and it would be all because of him.

A soft knock on the door broke him out of his increasing misery. It was well past two AM. No one should have been bothering him at that hour. His muscles tensed as he approached the door.

"Shampoo, what are you doing here? Itís late."

Shampoo brushed past Ranma and closed the door behind her. He felt a shiver run down his spine as he noticed the familiar predatory gleam in the Amazonís eyes.

"Shampoo, why are you here?"

Shampoo moved closer. "I thought you might be having trouble deciding."

Ranma relaxed a tiny fraction. "Yes. I have. So if you came here for an answer, I donít got one."

Shampoo shrugged. "Thatís okay. I wouldnít expect you to. You donít have all of the facts yet."

Ranma scratched his head in confusion. "I donít have all of the facts?" What was missing that he hadnít considered?

"No." And with that she brought his face to her and gave him a passionate kiss, not breaking it for close to a full minute. When Shampoo broke off the kiss she gasped for air.

"Wow! Ranma sure know how to kiss." It took her a moment to realize she had become so excited that her command of Japanese had slipped. Composing herself, she continued. "I mean, you should know how I kiss. Thatíll make your decision easier. Youíre really a good kisser, though," she added.

At first, Ranma was more than a little weak in the knees. Not the sort of reaction he would have expected from his first kiss, at least as a guy. Then what she said kicked in and his defenses went up. "You kissed me!"

"You kissed back."

It took him a moment to realize that, after the initial shock, he had indeed kissed her back. He didnít even remember thinking about it; it had been an automatic reaction. A good one, though.

"Yeah. I did." He began to swagger a little as his confidence began to build. "And I did it good, too."

Shampoo picked up that, for all of his posturing, he was also asking her if it had been good. "Hmmm," she purred. "The absolute best. It was much better, than Mikado or Uk… It was really, really good." She hoped he hadnít caught the gaffe. Besides, Ukyou had kissed her.

Ranma was so busy feeling proud of himself he missed Shampooís slip of the tongue. He had not realized how afraid he was that his kissing technique was horrible. After all, the only time he had kissed a girl was Akane in the park, and she had run off screaming. Well, she had pretty much done all the kissing; he had done nothing other than sit there in shock, but he was still afraid he had done something wrong.

He was going to say something else when Shampooís next action gained all of his attention. The Amazon took her top off, revealing everything nature had given her for Ranma to see. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he told himself he should have remembered to return her lingerie to her.

"Sh… Sh… Shampoo! What are you doing?!"

She latched onto him, pressing herself tight against his body. "I just want to show you what else youíll have if you choose me." She hooked one leg around his hip and semi-straddled him. "Think of it as a trial run."

Fear and lust fought for control within Ranma. Instinctively his body reacted with hers. He wanted to do it, he could feel that, but at the same time he did not want to. It was a paradox that was almost as difficult as trying to decide between Akane and Shampoo. What she said made sense… no! He wasnít that way. "Shampoo. Let go."

She maintained her hold, rubbing her leg across his backside. "You donít want me to."

He allowed a little more intensity to creep into his voice. "Yes. I do."

This time Shampoo relinquished her hold and stepped back a couple of feet. She placed her hands on her hips, making certain Ranma had an unrestricted view of her chest. "Whatís wrong?" There was more than a hint of irritation in her voice.

"Cover your chest too."

She did as she asked and crossed her arms in front of her chest, leaving her top on the floor. Why was he acting so resistant? It wasnít as though she was forcing him to make a choice. She just wanted to… persuade him a little. As she thought about it, she began to consider an alternate reason for his refusal to her advances. "You think Iím ugly, donít you?" It made sense to her. It would be just her luck to discover the one man in the world that thought big-chested, purple-haired girls were a turn-off.

"NO! Why does it always have to be about looks with you girls? I donít care what you look like."

That eased her somewhat, but maybe it was something else. "You do like girls, right?"

"Of course I do! What kind of a stupid question is that?!"

"Youíre not afraid of me because of my curse?"

"No!"

Shampoo thought she might have the reason at last. "Ranma, you be honest with me. Do you have problems performing?"

He stared at her in confusion. "No. Iím a good actor. And if I have problems with my lines, the solution is one electro-shock away."

Shampoo resisted the very powerful urge to strike him. Even Ranma should have picked up on that. He had to be avoiding the question. "Ranma, just because you have problems getting it up, itís okay. I read in school that most of the time the problem is psy… psycho… is all in your head. With the way your father raised you thatís not a surprise. And if it is physical thereís plenty of drugs that can overcome it." She took a deep breath. "And if you canít overcome it, it wonít make any difference to me. Iíll love you anyway." She smiled to herself, quite proud of the sacrifice she was willing to make.

"Are you finished?" Ranma said softly.

"Yes."

"Good." He took a deep breath.

"IíM NOT IMPOTENT!!!" About halfway through the declaration he had finally understood what she meant by Ďperformingí.

That confused Shampoo. She was all out of ideas. "Then why wonít you sleep with me?"

Oh how he loathed explaining himself, but if he didnít she was going to be confused and miserable. "Look. My decision ainít going to be based on how good the ah, sex is. Itís going to be who I love."

"Iím not asking you to make a choice," Shampoo protested.

"For me, sleeping with you or Akane would be a choice. Thatís the way I am. Itís not like you would sleep around with some guy you thought was good-looking."

"Ah, no!" She began sweating appreciatively. "I would never sleep with a man I didnít love or was just really good friends with." That was the truth, basically.

"Right," Ranma agreed. "If Iím going to sleep with someone, itís going to be someone I love, and after Iím married. Iíd want to do it properly and all."

Shampoo never really understood how old-fashioned Ranma was about that sort of thing. It was kind of sweet. It was also inconvenient, annoying, and frustrating as hell, but sweet. "If youíre sure, then Iíll back off." She gave him a coy gaze. "If youíre sure."

"I am."

"Then letís kiss some more!" She grabbed him once again.

He tried squirming out of her grasp. "I… itís not that I didnít like it! I did! But itís not fair to Akane. And I kind of want to make sure whoever I do that with is the one I choose." Actually he felt he was two-timing Akane. It wasnít as though someone as conservative as her would ever try the sort of thing Shampoo was doing.

Shampoo backed off. As much as she wanted to stay, pushing Ranma would only make him resentful, not compliant.

As Shampoo considered what to do, Perfumeís voice came loudly from the hall. "Oh! Hi there, Akane Tendo! What brings you here this time of night?!"

Ranma panicked. What was Akane doing out at that time of night? What was Perfume doing there too?

"Thatís my early warning system," Shampoo said, answering his unspoken question. Her original intent was to have Perfume warn her if anyone was coming, then make a break for it. But now that she considered it, she should let Akane find out about her presence. If Akane followed her usual pattern, she would jump to an inaccurate conclusion, not listen to the explanation, then call off the engagement. A happy ending for all.

Ranma came to the same conclusion, save the last part. "Youíve got to get out of here!"

Shampoo gave him a defiant stare. "Why?"

"Because sheís going to think we were doing something when we werenít!"

"Itís not my fault sheís self-centered and wonít listen to your explanations."

Ranma gave her a flat stare. "And like you always listen to what I say. Just like that time Akariís breasts fell into my face and I had to touch her to get her off."

Shampoo scowled at Ranma. "It looked to me like you enjoyed groping her chest! You sure didnít move your hands away from her too quick! You just squeezed her so you could get a cheap feel!"

Ranma silently wondered if all women sounded like Akane when they were jealous. He also realized that Akane and Perfumeís voices were getting louder.

"What are you doing here, Perfume?"

"Iím just enjoying the night air, Akane Tendo!"

"Inside?"

"It looked like rain, Akane Tendo!"

"Why do you keep saying my name?"

"Iím showing you respect, Akane Tendo!"

There was a pause before Akane spoke again. "I understand! Shampooís in there and youíre trying to warn her!"

"I have no idea of what you are talking about."

"Liar! Get out of my way!"

"Iím trying, but you keep moving into it."

Ranmaís panic doubled. There was no way Perfume could keep an angry Akane out. "Shampoo, please."

She couldnít resist a pleading Ranma. "Iíll go out the window." It was then Shampoo remembered one very important detail she had overlooked when making her escape plan: ships donít have windows. They have portholes. Small ones. Very small ones. Very small ones that Shampoo could not possibly fit through.

"Uh, oh." She gave a nervous chuckle.

Ranma ran around the room, frantically. "We gotta get you out of sight!" As though there was any such place in the small, cabin where that would work.

Shampoo was initially pleased that she would be discovered by Akane. But an image went through her mind that if Akane rejected Ranma under those circumstances, he might be tempted to win her back. He might even agree to marry her to get back in her good graces. That would not do. Shampoo then considered how to get out of sight. There was no other way out of the cabin than the door, and in order to use that Akane would have to be distracted so Shampoo could sneak out. But what to use as a distraction? Then she got the idea.

The Amazon ran over to the wall next to an adjacent cabin and made one of her old style Ďentrancesí, making a woman-sized hole in the wall. Instead of going through it, she backed away and hid next to a dresser against the wall the real door was set in. As long as Akane did not move into the portion of the room opposite the hole, Akane would never know she was there. Shampoo only needed a moment to get out once Akane was distracted.

Akane burst through the door just as the dust around the hole was settling. "I knew it! Shampoo was here!"

Ranma stared nervously at Akane. "No! No! Sheís not here! That wall collapsed on its own. This is a run down ship and that happens all the time."

"Liar! She just made that hole and is trying to escape!" To prove her point Akane went through the hole, giving Shampoo enough time to escape out the door and run for it. Perfume stopped her long enough to tell Shampoo to wait at the end of the hall and out of sight long enough for Perfume to talk to her.

Ranma breathed a sigh of relief, until his eyes fell on Shampooís top still lying on the floor. Quickly he tucked it under the covers of his bed.

Akane made an intensive search of the adjacent cabin. Much to her frustration it was empty, and the door was locked from the outside. She had been certain the hole had been caused by Shampoo, too. When she returned to Ranmaís cabin she saw Perfume smiling smugly at her.

"See. I told you."

Akane stared suspiciously. "Why are you here?"

"I wanted to try to seduce Ranma away from you and Shampoo. He would look so good in a dress." Perfume gave a deep sigh and stared longingly at Ranma.

Akane began to glow blue. "He is not a pervert! Now get out of here!" She rushed Perfume out the door and slammed it shut behind her. "Sheís lucky I donít beat her up for what she did to me and my family," Akane growled.

She calmed herself down and turned to Ranma. "Iím sorry I doubted you. Iím just on edge." She examined the hole once again. "I guess this ship really is a piece of… well, you know."

"Yeah." Ranma wiped the sweat from his brow. "What are you doing here anyway?"

Akane began fidgeting, giving nervous glances throughout the room and looking at everything but Ranma. "Well, I… umm,"

Ranma just stared at her as she continued stuttering for almost a minute. "Are you just going to mumble all night?" Ranma rumbled, the series of the day's events having finally worn his patience down.

Akane scowled at him, then found resolve in her irritation. She forcefully grabbed his head and brought his lips to hers. It wasnít easy for her to make the effort to Ďwin a guyí like that. It wasnít as though she did not want to kiss Ranma, it was just she had as much experience as Ranma in dealing with matters of the heart.

It was obvious, even to her, that Ranma was confused and trying hard not to hurt anyone. She was willing to give him a leeway now that she had been unwilling to in the past. He was being tentative, and under different circumstances, that was the way she would have preferred things, but now there was an outside force to consider. Akane had to take desperate measures to influence Ranma, and that meant going to his room and doing what needed to be done.

Besides, it was exactly what Shampoo would have done if she had not beaten the Amazon to it.

After a minute Akane came up for air. "Sorry," she gasped. "I donít know what came over me."

"Itís dťjŗ vu all over again," Ranma said as he felt weak in the knees once more.

"What was that?"

"Nothing," Ranma said quickly. Since it seemed Akane missed the innuendo, he thought about the kiss he had just received. It was different from Shampooís, but felt every bit as good. Maybe it was too bad the girls didnít get along. Then they could…

He got rid of those sort of thoughts immediately. Even thinking about it was more than he could handle.

Akane spoke up once more. "I know that was kind of forward of me. But weíve been engaged for almost a year and never really kissed."

"Except for the time in the park and you took off screaming," Ranma said dryly.

"Err… yeah. Sorry about that." Akane blushed a little. That had seemed like a million years ago, but the memory did make her want to try something. Just to make certain she was over that particular problem. She grabbed a pitcher of water next to Ranmaís nightstand and proceeded to dump the contents on his head.

"Hey!" Ranma-chan spluttered as she tried wiping some of the water out of her hair. "Whatís the big idea?!"

Akane didnít answer, but rather kissed Ranma-chan once again. The kiss was much briefer than the first, but tasted just as good to Akane. "I just wanted to show you I donít care if youíre a boy or a girl. I care about you either way."

"Oh," Ranma-chan said softly.

Akane became nervous again. She wasnít certain if she could go through with the next part, but she did not want to risk losing him. "Ranma, if you want to do anything else, we can. Anything you want."

Ranma-chan examined Akane closely. Was she implying… she was. That was all she needed. For two people that were so different, it was amazing how Akaneís mind mirrored Shampooís sometimes.

"Neither of us is ready for that. Youíd better leave." Ranma-chan held open the door for her.

Akane gave her a hurt look. "You donít… want me?"

Ranma-chan shook her head. "Believe me when I say I would do the exact same thing if Shampoo threw herself at me. Itís not that I donít think youíre attractive. Itís just the way I am."

Akane seemed a little reassured, if hurt, by Ranma-chanís refusal. She gave her a smile and left quietly. Akane touched her lips as she headed towards her room. That had not gone as she had thought it would, but it wasnít a bad start. Not at all.

She was more than halfway back when she passed Minamiís room and heard the sounds of retching. Akane wondered how the poor ghost sweeper was doing and knocked on the door. A weak Ďenterí was the response.

Akane examined Minami, who was still lying in her bed, a foul smelling bucket next to her. Akane tried ignoring the smell as she looked her friend over. "Has it been like this all day?" Akane asked.

Minami nodded her head weakly. "Itís magic. Iím sure of it."

"What is there that could make you magically sick?"

"I donít know," she said. "It doesnít matter. Iíll be at your side when the time comes. I promise you."

"You have no idea how sorry I am to hear you say that."

Akane spun in the direction of the voice behind her. She turned just in time to see a tall figure shrouded in a black robe with the hood drawn up over its head wave a hand before her.

"Sleep," the figure intoned. Akane hit the floor a moment later, in a deep slumber.

Minami recognized the figure, even if she could not see his face. The voice and soft pink glint where the figureís left eye should have been was a giveaway. "Fistandantilus," she barely managed to get out. It made sense now. He was more than powerful enough to curse her into such a state. And she was too weak to do anything now.

"Yes. I told you a time of darkness would come and I would see you survive it. Your friends are most likely marching to their death, but not you. I owe a favor to the Six Fingered Hand, and they want you alive. Once I have done that, my debt to them is canceled. So sleep, Neria. And when you awaken, your world will probably no longer be your own." He cast a spell before her. It would render her comatose for the next five days, at which time all would be decided.

Minami managed to say. "Not Neria. Neria… was motherís… name." She could just barely make out the response as everything went dark.

"Yes. It is."


Shampoo crossed her arms over her chest as she and Perfume walked the corridors of the ship. She had forgotten her top in her haste. At least no one had seen her yet.

"<Maybe youíd better change before some sailor comes on to you,>" Perfume suggested.

Shampoo nodded, and made a Ďdoorí to one of the cabins. It was deserted, and one splash of cold water later, a male Shampoo-kun left the cabin. As he walked down the corridor he felt the ship lurch much more than it had in the past. Something was rocking the boat.

"Letís talk in Japanese," Shampoo-kun suggested. "Itíll help people not put two and two together, not that I believe any of our sisters are awake at this time of night."

"Okay." The two walked in silence for a while, only the sound of their footsteps accompanying them. Eventually Perfume spoke up. "Shampoo, what would you give for our people?"

"Whatís that supposed to mean?"

Perfumeís voice dropped several decibels, making it difficult for Shampoo-kun to hear her. "What would you give for our people? What if there was something only you could do to save them? Some threat so great that it would require a sacrifice of something that you held dear? Could you give up your friends? Your love? Your life?"

Shampoo-kun became concerned at his friendís suddenly odd behavior. Perfume was always a deep thinker that would ask odd questions, but this was much stranger than anything Shampoo-kun could remember the girl had asked in the past. "Youíre not making any sense."

"Just answer the question. I need to know." Perfume was almost pleading, something she had almost never done.

Shampoo-kun tried thinking of how to answer the question. "I would do anything for them, even give my life. But I have no intention of dying because of this stupid curse and stupid law! Itís wrong. Thereís nothing either it or I can do to harm our people. Iím no threat. Thereís no reason to die, and Iím not going to let myself be killed!"

Perfumeís attitude suddenly changed as she became much happier. "Letís go spar!"

"At this time of night?" Shampoo-kun said in disbelief. Had Perfume lost her mind?

"It might be the last chance we get. Besides, no one back home can truly test me anymore. Youíre the only one I can go all-out with."

Shampoo-kun thought it over. It was late, and he was tired, but the chance to spar with Perfume was too great to pass up. Sparring with Ranma had taught Shampoo-kun that he could never be Ďgood enoughí. Being the best was something one always had to fight for, and that could only be done by taking on the best and triumphing. The fights with Perfume had always been close. Now it was time for Shampoo-kun to find out if he could truly call himself the best of the Amazons.

The two made their way to the deck, the only place on the ship that was big enough to have a decent match. As they neared their destination they felt the shipís lurching become more violent. Once they made it to the deck, they saw the cause of the craftís increase in movement. There was a storm blowing. From the way the ship was being tossed both thought they were in the middle of a typhoon. The furious cacophony of waves hitting the ship, wind howling in their ears, and rain falling in sheets made both Amazons have to shout to be heard.

"We canít go out in this!" Shampoo-kun protested.

Perfume gave him a wild-eyed look as she placed a leather cover over the blade of the naginata. "Donít be such a baby! Whatís life without a little risk? Nothing but a way of watching yourself wither and die moment by moment. I choose to live life, and I am going to dance in that mother of a storm and show the gods what Iím made of! Make up your mind! Are you alive, or do you wait for death like some old male?!" Without waiting for an answer, Perfume disappeared into the pouring rain.

Shampoo-kun considered Perfumeís words for a moment. It all came down to one question: Live life safely or on the edge?

Shampoo-kun ran out into the storm.

There was a moment of disorientation as Shampoo-kun found himself blinded by the rain and the wind. The slick surface of the deck made his footing unsound. It was during his confusion that Perfume struck. The advantage she had from adjusting to the harsh conditions first paid off as she connected with the blunt end of the naginata into Shampoo-kunís right shoulder. A follow-up fist struck Shampoo-kun in the temple. He barely had enough time to avoid or parry Perfumeís series of attacks. He had to admit, Perfume was pressing him hard and holding nothing back. If Shampoo-kun had not known better, he would have sworn his old friend was really trying to hurt him.

The fight began to move from one end of the ship to the other. Shampoo-kun was put on the defensive for the first part of the combat, but managed to regain his full senses and began to retaliate. The reach advantage Perfume had made fighting difficult, and Shampoo-kunís right shoulder continued to bother him. Perfume landed a second strike into it and made the pain worse, rendering Shampoo-kunís arm nearly inoperable.

"How does that feel?!" Perfume shouted over the ever-increasing storm.

Shampoo-kun connected with a vicious backfist to Perfumeís head. The girl went sprawling nearly twenty feet on the wet deck. "Pretty damn good!"

Perfume regained her footing and the two fought on more even standing once again. A second dance of violence erupted between the two. Unlike the last one, the pair fought not for death, but for pride. For all of the sparring it was supposed to be, the intensity of the fight could not help escalating as the storm heightened in watery fury. Wind tore at both fighters, making the conflict increasingly difficult, yet at the same time adding to it as each combatant used the battleground to their advantage. Lightning struck nearby as they went leaping from one side of the roofs on the ship to the other. Each tried to assault the other in the storm. Twice each warrior nearly lost their footing and plunged to the deck below, yet all it did was to add fuel to their duel.

After several more exchanges, Shampoo-kun at last managed to hurl Perfumeís naginata away from her. The cursed Amazonís hope that the move would give him an advantage failed as he discovered that Perfume was as much a mistress of unarmed combat as she was with her weapons. The two exchanged a rapid succession of blows with one another, each sacrificing defense for offense. Had there been any observer present, and had he been able to gaze into the two warriors' eyes, he would have seen a look of near madness upon each oneís features. The combatants' passion matched the savagery of the storm; both of them were wild in a near orgasmic frenzy of violence.

Nearly twenty more minutes passed as the two fought, until at last Shampoo-kun connected with a series of fists and kicks concentrated on Perfumeís head. With one final blow he drove her back into a radar dish with such force it nearly snapped Perfumeís spine. The girl lay on the metal plates, moaning softly while holding her back in pain.

Shampoo-kun roared at the rain filled skies in triumph, then stared at his opponent and had to suppress the urge to finish her off. The razorís edge of emotion he had been riding on for the last twenty minutes left him in a near animalistic state of mind. At some point primal instincts had overridden his rational mind, and the duel had degenerated into a desperate fight for dominance. Now he had to bring those emotions under control, lest they consume him.

It took him nearly a full minute before he could trust himself to not attack Perfume. And perhaps the most horrifying thing was, he felt no shame at the loss of control. It had been liberating, in some base way, and he almost wished he could have maintained that state of mind. But on some deep level he knew better, and that cutting loose was simply something he had needed to do for so very long. He ignored the sirenís call to release all of those base urges and reigned in his emotions, even as the storm seemed to beckon him into raging out of control once again. Slowly he approached Perfume.

"I cannot think of a more magnificent fight I have ever beeó"

Shampoo-kunís statement was cut short as Perfume kicked out, sweeping his leg out from under him, forcing him to land on his injured shoulder. It was also at that moment that a powerful wave caused the ship to lurch, sending the sprawling Shampoo-kun and Perfume towards the edge of the roof. Both went over and landed hard on the deck. When Shampoo-kun tried to stop his slide into the ocean, his right arm refused to respond with anything other than pain. The rain-slick deck afforded him no purchase, and with nothing to grab onto, he slid over the side. It was only at the last moment that he snagged the deck with his good arm, fingers digging into the deck plate. The handhold was too perilous and he could not force himself up to the deck. It took all he had to simply maintain his grip.

Perfume managed to stop her own slide earlier by grabbing onto a pipe that was sticking out of the deck. As the ship stopped listing and settled onto a semi-normal position, Perfume regained her feet. She wearily walked over to where Shampoo-kun hung over the side.

"Help me up!" Shampoo-kun shouted over the crashing sound of the sea.

Perfume remained motionless, staring at Shampoo-kun and the precarious handhold he had. The seas rolled in the inky blackness, and even Perfume knew there was no one that could survive that kind of violent surging unprotected for more than a minute. Then the ocean would claim another life, swallowing up someone as though they had never existed. One could not fight the endless waters and win.

"The answer to so many problems," Perfume said softly as she stared at the ocean, unconcerned with the swaying of the ship, as though somehow knowing there was no risk to her life.

Shampoo-kun could not make out the words Perfume spoke. All he could see was that Perfume was suddenly very frightening. It was almost as though he had ceased to exist in his old friendís eyes. "Are you going to help me up or let me die?!"

Perfumeís mind was racing with the possibilities. If Shampoo died at sea, the curse would go unrevealed, while her Hunt Pack would have maintained its honor by fulfilling its objective. No shame would fall on Cologne or her clan. No shame would be attributed to Shampooís name, and she would go down as dying with honor against an opponent one could not hope to best. Perfume would become leader without Shampoo to bar the way. The Joketsuzoku would be safe, not dying in ninety years as Mr. Domino predicted, but going on to fulfill a destiny of rule that would extend across the centuries. Shampoo had said she was willing to die for her people. Now she could prove it.

The breaking point of the deck near Shampoo-kunís hand was clear to Perfume. All it would take was one finger and the deck would shatter and the black-haired boy would plummet to his death. Or she could just wait until his grip failed him and he plunged into the dark waters below. Shampoo-kun could barely hold on, and would fall in at any moment. The solution to so many problems, and it could be obtained by simply doing nothing. All she had to do was let her friend die. A lifetime of dreams was only a moment away.

No.

"Give me your hand, my sister!" Perfume shouted as she reached down and grabbed onto Shampoo-kunís hand that was just about to slip away from the deck. Between the two of them they managed to get Shampoo-kun safely back onboard as the duo moved back from the edge of the ship.

Once he caught his breath Shampoo-kun shot an accusing glare towards Perfume. "What was that all about?"

"I was lost in thought. My apologies."

"Your timing really stinks!" Shampoo-kun glowered. "And by the way, I won the fight."

Perfume smiled at her friend. "I think we both did. The only question now is, what price do we pay for our victory?"


It was late morning when So Fu awakened to see her lover had already dressed and had left the cabin. She had had very little experience with members of the opposite sex, but even she could tell her lover was magnificent in bed. She quickly dressed and went outside in the hall, only to see him talking suggestively with Tablet.

"What go on here?" she asked DíAmour.

"Heís trying to hit on me," Tablet explained.

So Fu stared in shock at DíAmour. "Why you do that after what we do last night?"

DíAmour shrugged. "Well, it was great, but itís time to move on."

So Fu could not believe what she was hearing. "But you say you love So Fu."

"Hey. Love only goes so far, baby."

She nearly facefaulted in shock. "You imply maybe we marry." That was one of the reasons So Fu had agreed to sleep with him. He had said such words of caring and affection. She was certain he meant every word.

DíAmour covered his ears, as though someone had shouted at him. "Donít say the M-word. Itís almost as bad as the C-word."

"C-word?" So Fu asked.

"I think he means commitment," Tablet explained once more.

DíAmour recoiled at the sound.

So Fu felt her anger grow. "So Fu know C-word too. It called Ďcastrationí." She pulled out her belt knife and brandished it towards the captain.

DíAmour backed up in a hurry. "Look. Iím sorry. Why donít we screw some more? Maybe that will make everything better."

"There only one part of you So Fu want to hold in her hands! And it not as big as you brag!" She began chasing DíAmour.

DíAmour rounded a corner just in time to see another Amazon come out of her room. She motioned for him to run into her room. Sensing So Fu about to come around the corner, he took a chance and agreed. The Amazon remained outside, but closed the door behind DíAmour.

So Fu paused in front of Julep. "<Have you seen a soon-to-be-dead male run past?>"

"<Iíll take care of him.>"

The smile Julep gave unnerved So Fu to no end. Still, DíAmour deserved whatever came to him.

Julep went inside her cabin. DíAmour cut himself a dashing figure as he tried to romance her "I know why you saved me, you want me. I can see it in your eyes."

Julep couldnít understand a word he said. Instead she simply said, "<Lay down,>" and pushed him back onto her bed.

"I like aggressiveness," DíAmour commented as Julep straddled his hips. He started to undo his shirt.

"<Allow me.>" Julep dug her nails into the shirt and ripped it clean off his body.

"Feisty," DíAmour noted. "I love that too."

Julep dug her nails into DíAmourís chest, drawing blood. He gave a yell. "OWW! Watch it! Iím not into pain."

Had Julep understood him, her response would have been, Ďhereís where you get to learn.í It wasnít her fault her wolf genes made her somewhat… frenzied when she was excited like this.


Outside, So Fu listened to the screams of agony coming from DíAmour. Apparently the rumors about Julepís wild nature were true. She decided the captain was going to be punished enough and left him to Julepís tender mercies.


It was an hour later a badly scratched up DíAmour barely made his way out of Julepís room. Muttering about what an animal she was. It was another hour before he made it to his quarters, cleaned himself up, then made himself presentable to his crew. About the only thing that had gone his way was the defeat of that Kunou person. It would have been a lot easier if his crew had not been taking cheap shots at him when his back was to them.

It took him only a few moments to head up to the bridge and take his position as captain. He looked out over the bridge and observed they were approaching an island.

"What island is that?" he asked Kawada

"Itís Hawaii, sir."

DíAmour groaned. "Taking the long way again, are we?"

At that moment a wild-eyed man with long red hair ran onto the bridge. "Iíve done it! Iíve finally done it!"

The captain shook the manís hand. "Congratulations!"

"Do you even know what heís done, sir, or who he is?" Kawada asked dryly.

"Havenít the faintest idea," he said as continued to shake the manís hand. "I was hoping you would tell me."

"Surprisingly, sir, I donít know who he is or what heís done either."

DíAmour looked the man over. "Who are you?"

"Alexander Luthorinski. And who are you?"

"Iím the captain."

Luthorinski looked the man over. It was such a long time ago that he had met the previous captain he couldnít remember what the man looked like. He shrugged, what was one captain compared to another? "I have finally figured out how to make the fold generators work! And in atmosphere no less!" he shouted excitedly.

"Thatís great!" DíAmour exclaimed. "Is that fold as in origami?"

"I think he means fold as in time and space, sir."

"Correct!" Luthorinski shouted. "Come over here." He led them to a control panel that no one was manning.

"We have no idea what this one does," DíAmour informed the mad scientist. "It does have lots of pretty blinking lights."

"Itís the control panel to the fold generators."

"How do you know that?"

"It says it on the nameplate right here." Luthorinski pointed out the nameplate to DíAmour.

The captain nodded sagely. "Youíre a brilliant man, Luthorinski."

Kawada took the crowbar that the helmsman was aiming at the back of the captainís head out of his hands. "Why donít you explain to us how this works?" Kawada asked.

"Certainly," Luthorinski gave a brief synopsis on how the controls worked, explaining how to set the coordinates and making certain they understood the ship had to be targeted in a body of water, or else the craft would be ruined.

"So we can just suddenly appear somewhere and not have to travel across the seas at all?" the captain asked.

"Well, the number of times you can use it is severely limited," Luthorinski reluctantly admitted. "It takes an incredible amount of power to run the generators. Thereís only enough for two folds per week. No more."

DíAmour practically slavered in anticipation. He could now make a deadline for the first time in his career as shipís captain. "Get me the coordinates for the nearest body of water to Joketsuzoku."

Aki was not present on the bridge, so one of the other crewman the quickly found the coordinates from one of the maps. The nearest body of water they could find was fifty miles away from the Amazon village. It took but a moment to set the coordinates into the computer.

"Do we risk it, sir?" Kawada asked.

DíAmour shrugged. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." He pushed the activation button. "Besides, what could go wrong?"

"We could end up being ejected into deep space," Luthorinski informed them. "But thereís only a ten percent chance per fold of that."

"Weíre safe then." DíAmour grinned happily. "When do we ever beat the odds?"

"Flawless logic as ever, sir," Kawada said as he cursed the gods for delivering him into DíAmourís hands. Then the fold happened.

A moment of disorientation passed on the ship as everyone felt as though they were turned inside out for a brief second. Then the feeling passed, and all of those that had a view outside could see the ship was now in the middle of a large lake. Mountains were seen in the distance to the north. One in particular caught the attention of all of those that could view it. The mountain was surrounded by at least five huge columns of flame that reached out thousands of feet high to the skies.

Kawada paled as he allowed his sense to stretch out to the area around them. It took him nearly a moment to piece together what was happening.

"This whole area is a giant focus," he said in awe. "And the center of it is there." He pointed to the mountain.

"Do you have any idea what mountain that is?" DíAmour asked.

"Itís Mount Phoenix."

The captain turned in surprise to see Cologne standing before him, with Shampoo at her side. He had not heard their approach. "What does it mean?"

Cologne stared off into the distance towards the mountain. "It means this is what the Musk have been protecting, and itís up to me to find out what that is." She hopped to the top of her staff. "Itís time to gather up the children. Weíre going on a little trip to Mount Phoenix."

Shampoo remained behind, unable to move. One sentence kept going through her mind, repeating itself like a mantra.

ĎIf you go to Mount Phoenix, you will die.í

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Madame Lao is a creation Jim Robert Bader (aka Shadowmane) and hails from A Very Scary Thought (Nabiki Ĺ) and is part of the Altered Destinies found on Wade Tritschlerís webpage (the URL eludes me at the moment. but Wadeís email is: tritscwa@mala.bc.ca )

Special Thanks to:

  • Ryan Anderson
  • Jim Robert Bader
  • Bloodblade
  • Ben Follis
  • Gary Kleppe
  • Jason Liao
  • Lord Talon
  • Miashara
  • Dr. Wade Tritschler
Chapter 36
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