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Ranma meets an entirely different kind of shape-changer

"Come back here, pork-chop, and die!" Saotome Ranma was in hot pursuit of Ryoga, over a particularly infuriating subterfuge involving Akane's beach-bag and a small pig. Ryoga leapt two lanes of slow-moving traffic and disappeared behind a large tree. He didn't reappear; and when Ranma reached the tree, Ryoga was nowhere to be found.

Ranma grimaced, and scratched the back of his head. Sometimes I wonder, he thought, if that guy's ability to get lost is under more control than we think. And he looked about to discover he was just as lost as Ryoga.

Gaijin. Thousands of gaijin, a whole festival of them, young and old in bright casual wear. The cars were driving on the wrong side of the street. It was the wrong time of day, and all the signs were in English. Uh-oh.

Something came arcing towards him from a crowd of shouting children. He saw it from the corner of his eye, and turned to block; but blocking a water-balloon doesn't do much good. As she completed the turn, she found herself face-to-face with a blonde woman only a few feet away. Surprise was written on her face. "You just turned into a girl," she said.

Fuming, Ranma tightened the waistband of her trousers and began to wring the water out of her sleeve. "Sorry," she said in halting high-school English. "Having bad day."

The woman handed Ranma a towel. As she dried herself, Ranma looked the woman over. Late twenties, wearing a bathing suit under a top and shorts; sandals; not a martial artist, but not in bad shape. The look on her face was understanding, rather than the shock Ranma was used to seeing. Her ki-aura gave Ranma double vision. There was something unusual here.

She motioned. "Come, we should talk," and headed towards an empty picnic table. Ranma followed, moving gracefully through a clump of running children with large water guns. Too late to get me, Ranma thought at them.

They sat. "I'm Erika," the woman said.

"Ranma desu." She looked around. They were surrounded by a noisy crowd in constant motion. Just like any other festival, they were as good as alone. They could speak freely.

"How long have you been changing?" Erika asked, concern on her face.

"Year. Since Jusenkyo." Ranma had never been in a conversation like this.

"That's strange. Most new Weres settle down to the moon cycle in just a few months. How did you get bitten?"

"Bitten? Moon?" Ranma was seriously confused now. "Don’t understand. Change with water."

"Water?"

"Cold water, turn girl. Hot water, turn boy. Moon does nothing. And mostly, get bitten by pig name Ryoga." Ranma began to wonder if this woman knew what was going on. "You know people change?"

"I change. Under the full moon, I become a rabbit."

"Rabbit?" Erika stuck her fingers up over her head and twitched her upper lip. "Ah, usagi! Rabbit! I know boy turn duck! He float, water not so bad." Ranma resolved to cram on English before she chased Ryoga again.

Erika had never heard of people turning into ducks. In her experience, it was mammals all the way. And what was the water about? "You've come to an interesting time and place," she told the redhead. "This is Minneapolis, and we're having our Aquatennial."

"Festival?"

"Yes. This is the City of Lakes" – she pointed to one nearby, with brightly-colored sails moving about – "and the Mississippi River. We celebrate water."

Ranma closed her eyes and sighed.

oOo

They drifted through the fair, talking. Ranma and Erika had both realized they communicated better if they took time to think. (Ranma's habit of talking before thinking didn't work in English.) Erika bought them roast corn on the cob, which Ranma ate with astonishing speed and enjoyment. They joined a soccer game, which Ranma dominated. They threw flying disks, and watched a boat race.

Gradually, they learned about each other. Ranma explained martial arts, training trips, Jusenkyo, and water; and the social complications of changing sex. Erika explained the full moon and the bite of a Were; and said she had a friend who changed from man into woman with the full moon. "He was bitten by a woman," she said.

Ranma was glad P-chan wasn't contagious.

"I thought you were new to shape-shifting," Erika said. "I thought you might need a friend, somebody to explain, might like a chance to meet a few other shape-shifters."

And after Erika promised to buy dinner, at a place where the owner turned into a bear, Ranma was quite willing to go with her to the Outlook. A free meal, a native guide, lots of shape-changers, maybe someone to help her get home?  Erika thought her friend Mao spoke Japanese, that was a start.

oOo

Two hours before sunset, they got in Erika's car – it was an easy walk to the parking lot – and headed out. "Best get there well before sunset," Erika said. "There's a full moon tonight, and Bjorn likes to talk with new people before things get interesting."

Ranma wasn't used to cars, so she felt just a bit safer when Erika showed her how to wear the seat-belt. Soon, she was looking out the window with interest. They were driving along a scenic road beside a creek, with large, handsome houses and trees arching overhead. Everything was very clean, and there was a great deal of open space.  Ranma was used to the city and the countryside, but not this mix of the two.

A turn down a less-elegant street and through a shopping district. Onto a highway, and Erika drove faster. There were speeding cars all around them, and only Ranma's trained senses (and Erika's practiced ones) kept them aware of everything. Past a small airport, over a hill, and the road turned to the right and began winding down into a river valley. Birds were everywhere, and river-plains spread out below and to their left.

Erika pulled onto a drive that led into a parking lot by a low stone building. She stopped. "We're here."

Ranma spent a moment pulling in the scattered threads of her attention and finding her center. After a bit of fumbling with unfamiliar latches, she got out of her seatbelt and out of the car. A soft breeze from the south was filled with the scent of water and greenery. She followed Erika into the building.

The lights were low and warm, and the far wall was one enormous window looking south over the river valley. There was a bar in the center, surrounded by stools and backing up to a swinging door. The huge man behind the bar was idly polishing it, and setting out coasters. "Erika! You're here earlier than usual. And who's this with you?"

Erika put her hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Bjorn, this is Ranma. She's a Japanese shape-shifter who's somehow gotten stranded in Minneapolis. I thought I'd bring her by to meet some of the locals, and maybe get some help. Doesn't Mao speak Japanese? Ranma only has a bit of high-school English. We could figure things out better with somebody who has good Japanese."

Bjorn looked Ranma over. He wore a Norse tunic, and was even larger close-up. His aura was much stronger than Erika's, and definitely peculiar. It was the same double-vision thing. Ranma looked around. There were a few other people, and most had the double aura. If these peoples' bodies were as varied as their ki, they were probably all shape-shifters. Didn't seem anything like Jusenkyo magic, though.

Bjorn shook his shaggy head. "She looks awfully young, Erika, and small. Are you sure she should be in a Were bar at the full of the moon? What does she turn into, anyway?"

Now Ranma didn't understand English well, but she understood enough to know this man didn't think she could defend herself in here. She wasn't about to put up with that. She frowned at Bjorn, and held out her hand. "Hot water," she said.

Bjorn raised his eyebrows, but he poured a cup of steaming water from an urn and handed it to Ranma. "You want a tea-bag with that?"

Ranma looked Bjorn in the eyes. "Small. Cute. Young. Helpless?" She poured the water over her forearm. She shot up in height; suddenly a black-haired, athletic young man stood there. Still holding Bjorn's eyes, he smiled a dangerous smile. "I challenge you."

oOo

Ranma and Bjorn faced each other at the empty end of the parking lot. Erika and several others stood back near the building; Erika had insulated carafes of hot and cold water. Shadows were long as the sun neared the horizon, and two ravens settled into a tree to watch. Perhaps they sensed battle and, in the timeless way of ravens, were hoping for a meal.

Bjorn looked down at his smaller opponent. "I realize you're trying to make a point here, kid, but …."

"Not try. Make, or not make. Ready?" and the two began to circle. They feinted, to test one another's reactions. They made a few preliminary strikes and grapples. There was a sudden flurry of movement, and Bjorn landed in the bushes on the side of the lot away from the building.

Grunting, he got to his feet and returned. "Not bad," he said as he again started moving cautiously about Ranma. Several cars had come into the driveway, but stopped when they saw the two. Their drivers got out to watch. Bjorn was striking harder now, and so was Ranma; they'd both seen they didn't have to worry about injuring their opponent. Bjorn lashed out and Ranma ducked under the blow; but Bjorn twisted his body as he was drawing back his arm, and got Ranma in the head with his elbow. Ranma went tumbling across the lot.

Ranma never really fell – he rolled - but there was road-dust on his back now to match the leaf-stains on Bjorn's tunic. "Hai!" he shouted, and bounded back into the fight. He dove, rolled, and got Bjorn from behind with his feet; Bjorn fell onto all fours, then spun about and grabbed at Ranma. It's never a good idea to grab at a master of Anything Goes. Bjorn hit the tree the ravens had landed in, upside down, and slid onto his head. The birds cawed harshly, and took to the air.

A man hit the tree and fell, but a bear got up. Ranma realized Bjorn wore a tunic for the same reason he wore loose Chinese silks: it fit both forms. Bjorn shambled towards him. "A werewolf changes with the moon, but a were-bear changes at the prospect of battle!" he growled, and smiled a bearish smile filled with sharp teeth.

Ranma held his hand out for Bjorn to pause, and motioned for Erika to come over. "Be fair," he said; and poured ice-water over himself. He shrank, became onna-Ranma, and adjusted her waistband. "You change, I change," she said, and blurred into action almost more rapidly than Bjorn could see. Suddenly there was a red-haired girl dancing on Bjorn's head. She yelled "kachuu tenshin amaguriken!" and swarmed down his back, tickling at amaguriken-speed as she went. While Bjorn was trying to stifle his laughter, she stole the belt from his tunic and strapped his ankles together. As he swayed, she leaned back, lined him up, and held her hands cupped. A ball of fire grew between them. "Mouko Takabisha!" she cried as she threw her hands apart, and blew him into a bush halfway up the hill.

By the time Bjorn's head quit ringing, Ranma was there to help him up. "Good spar," she said. "Father turns bear too. Felt like home." They clasped each others' forearms, and for a wonder, didn't use it as the opening for another throw. They walked happily together towards the building, accompanied by the smell of scorched bear-fur. All the people who were watching applauded as they came.

oOo

Ranma was sitting at a table busily chewing through her third buffalo-burger. Bjorn had insisted dinner was on him, which is another thing you can't safely do to a master of Anything Goes. Since Ranma wasn't sure of her next meal, she was taking on plenty of food.

She was eating, but she knew the place might be dangerous. Now the daylight was reddening outside the window, and people were drifting towards two doors at the back, one for men and one for women. There was an air of tension, and anticipation. Erika rose from the table. "Please stay girl, " she said. "My jealous boyfriend may be here later. I'll be back in a few minutes." She headed towards the women's room, but turned for a moment to face Ranma. "Remember," she said, as she put her fingers up and twitched her nose. "Usagi."

oOo

Ranma smiled at the mist-grey angora rabbit coming towards her table. Jusenkyo did good curses: she was a fine-looking girl, Ryoga made a cute piglet, Mousse was an excellent duck, and Shampoo – no, she wouldn't go there. They seemed to have quality curses here, too – that was one beautiful rabbit.

There were growls, and snarls, and scrabbling noises. A werewolf came loping out of one of the doors. Ranma revised her opinion – that was an ugly wolf. But he looked competent, and didn't seem to be making any threats. Well, Jusenkyo had Tarou. Even curses can slip up now and then.

The rabbit sat, just as a waiter brought a salad plate. She twitched her nose at Ranma. "Call me Bugs," she said.

"I sometime Ranko, girl form."

"Different body, different name," Bugs agreed. She picked up a cherry tomato, and nibbled at it. Behind them, Ranma could hear the room filling. While there was a general air of tension, she didn't feel any threat focused on her, so she continued to watch Bugs. Who looked over Ranma's shoulder, and smiled. "Here comes my friend Mao," she said.

Ranma turned to look.

"AAAA! NEKO!" Ranma was on her feet, flinching away from Mao, when she bumped into another furry form. "AAAAAAA!" Her eyes darted about the room. Weres everywhere looked at her, and at least a third of them werecats!

Ranma sank to the floor, eyes tightly closed, then rose to all fours. Her back arched. Her eyes opened wide, and there was nothing human about them. She hissed and spat and twitched her fanny. She leaped in the direction with the fewest bodies in the way, screaming a battle-cry. Pandemonium.

In the shocked aftermath, Bjorn looked over his club. Werewolves and werecats moaned and howled on a bloody floor, a few severed limbs among them.

"Bring out the hamburger," Bjorn shouted into the kitchen. "This much healing is going to be hungry work."

The floor was deeply scored by giant claw-marks. Several chairs and tables had been cut neatly in two, and more smashed and shredded. A hole had been ripped through a solid stone wall. Ranma had vanished through it into the dusk and the moonlight.

"Wow," the were-bear whispered to himself. "That was the finest berserkergang I've ever seen." He dropped to all fours and ran towards the hole in the wall. "I have got to meet that kid's family." And he, too, slipped into the night, hot on Ranma's trail.

Mao and Bugs clutched each other, and quivered, eyes wide in surprise and fear. "She just screamed 'CAT!' and then all this happened," Mao whimpered.

Bugs hugged her were-Siamese friend. "Let Bjorn take care of her," she said. "God knows why, but were-bears like this kind of thing. And they seem to know how to handle it."

"I want to go home," Mao said. "I'm afraid."

And an entire room of werewolves and werecats – and one were-rabbit - looked out into the gathering dark with a shudder.

oOo

Ryoga stepped from behind a tree, and found himself on a nude beach somewhere in the wilds of Marin County. As dozens of lithe, tanned, naked Californians turned towards the intruder, his nose spurted blood and he fell to the ground.

" What's with this guy?

"He just collapsed!"

" Ewwww, look at the blood!"

"Maybe this cold water will bring him around."

"Bweeeeee!"