Ranma took off after the buns holding the whisker and cursed as he felt his hair coming loose. The minute it unraveled all the way, this whole chasing thing was going to get a lot harder. "Stupid, no good buns, why can't they just leave me alone," he shouted to no one in particular as he kept chasing them. His hair brushed his elbows and he jumped after them harder. If they made it to the rooftops before he caught them, they'd get away! He landed on a branch for another jump but his foot landed on something silky and he slipped and fell to the ground. He looked up at the traitorous branch and saw that it was covered in his hair. He leaned back against the closest trunk and shut his eyes so he didn't have to look at his rapidly growing bangs. Of all the times for this to happen to him!

"Ranma," a hesitant voice asked. It was Akane. "Is that you?"

"Oh yeah," he sighed. "It's me alright."

He heard her take a few more steps towards him and then stop. Probably, she was staring at the thick ropes of hair sprouting from his head and piling on the grass near him. "What happened?"

So he told her, about the dragon whisker myth, his stupid move in China, and even about the lack of effect it had while he was a girl. "So I can't ever take that tie off, at least not as a guy. And now I'm stuck like this."

She brandished her scissors. "I'll just cut off the extra and tie it back up. No big deal, Ranma."

That made him turn around. "You got the whisker?" Was that hope in his voice?

"Yeah," she smirked, holding up the short string. "Just let me cut off the extra and-"

"No time," he cut her off. "Just give me that." He grabbed the whisker out of her hand and quickly tied all the hair into a ponytail at the base of his neck."

She frowned at him. "It would have been a lot easier if you'd just let me cut it." Unexpectedly, his shoulders slumped. He mumbled something. "What was that?" she asked. Anger tinged her words. Why couldn't he speak clearly or look at her?

Finally he brushed his somehow still short bangs out of his eyes. "I can't cut my hair."

Akane rolled her eyes. "What, did you take a vow or something?"

"No," he growled. "It literally can't be cut. The last time this happened, I tried everything. Swords, knives, I even tried to burn it off." He shuddered at the memory of that particular attempt. "But nothing I do effects it. That's the second part of the curse." He separated the mass of hair into two parts and started braiding one half. "You wanna give me a hand?"

His fiancé seemed to remember herself and grabbed the other half. "I don't see why it's a curse. I mean, you just have long hair, right?"

Ranma rolled his eyes. "Of course you'd think that." She opened her mouth to reply but he plowed on. "For girls, it's no big deal. You like having long hair. But think about how long it would take to wash or braid it when it's really long." Akane shut her mouth. He did have a point. "And on top of that, it's heavy. Doing martial arts is harder when you've got a lot of hair piled on your head, and you can't leave it hanging or it'll trip you and catch on things." He flinched again. "Believe me, I know." They sat like that for a few more minutes, braiding their individual halves. Ranma finished first, since he had more experience and so was quicker. Once Akane finished, he the ends of both braids, quickly unwound the whisker from the base of the ponytail, and then wound it around the two ends. "You got a spare hairpin?"

Her eyebrows drew together in confusion. "Why would you need that? It's already braided."

"So I can put it up in a bun. It's too long to hang down my back. Never mind though. If I can just…" He started twisting the two braids together until he had a knot of hair the size of both his fists at the back of his head. With one hand holding it in place, he ran the other through the leaf cover on the ground, snatched two twigs from the ground, and slid them into the knot. "There." He let loose a sigh. "Guess I gotta get used to that again. I just hope-"

Bombs flew out of nowhere and Ranma leapt straight up. He landed in one of the trees and looked around for his assailant. The old freak was running over the rooftops towards the school and the teen spotted his old man not far behind. "Great. Looks like those two figured it out." He took off towards the river.

Akane watched him go. The look on his face was one she hadn't seen before. It was resigned, but mostly just tired and a little sad. I wonder why. Then Happosai burst through the trees and looked around. His battle aura surrounded him and Akane's hackles rose. "You tossed those bombs, didn't you, Happosai?"

The master's eyes narrowed at her. "Where's Ranma?"

Akane crossed her arms and glared at him. "I don't know. And if I did, I wouldn't tell you."

His battle aura grew in intensity and she almost took a step. "You tell me where he is, you brat, or I'll-"

Suddenly, Genma ran right over the top of the old ghoul and smiled gently at the girl. "Hello, Akane. How's school going for you today?"

Instant suspicion bubbled in her gut. "Fine, why are you asking?"

Ranma's father shrugged. "I just wanted to make sure you were alright. The master's been trying to find Ranma to get the dragon's whisker from him. You haven't seen my boy, have you?"

Okay, something was definitely up. "He ran off that way," she said, pointing in the opposite direction of where Ranma had gone. "But I really think you should leave him alone."

Genma nodded at her, still with that smile on his face. "Thank you, Akane." And he took off in the direction she'd pointed to.

After she checked to see if Happosai was well and truly out, Akane headed in the direction Ranma had actually gone. She found him sitting by the river. With his long braids running through his hands, he stared into the water as he tried twining them around his head in different ways. He still had that look on his face. "You know," she said suddenly, making him look over his shoulder at her, "you could try tying it around your arm or something. It doesn't have to be piled on your head."

He unraveled his braids from the three layer crown he'd just put in and looked at them speculatively. "That might work." Still carefully keeping both ends tied, he wound each braid around a shoulder a few times, around his chest under his arms, and then tucked the ends into the back of his shirt. He stood up and took a good look at himself in the river. He turned around and something eased inside her when she saw that his face had a slight smile. "Thanks, Akane." Then his face darkened again. "Are Pops and the freak still chasing me?"

She shook her head. "Happosai's knocked out and your dad's headed in the wrong direction."

Slyly, he grinned at her. "You told him to go the wrong way." She smiled back and he laughed. The moment broke when he flopped back down onto the bank and his face fell into that mix of resigned and tired. "Where'm I gonna go now? Can't go back to the house."

Ranma's avoiding a fight? That's not like him, Akane wondered. "Why not just fight them for it?"

He carded his fingers through his bangs. "If I do, one of them will eventually get the dragon's whisker and my hair'll get even longer. Then the only way to stop it will be staying a girl until it finally gets short again."

She plopped down on the riverbank next to him and drew her knees up to her chest. "If this has happened before, how did your hair get short again?"

Curling his knees up to his chest too, he answered, "Hair falls out every day. Eventually, all the really long hair was gone and just the regular stuff was left. It took forever." He curled in on himself further.

He looks so…tired. Akane had a crazy impulse and acted on it. Cautiously, she slid an arm around his shoulders. She fully expected him to shrug it off, to bluster or put up his bravado like a shield. Instead, he leaned into her. For a few minutes, they sat together in silence, something blooming between them.

Line Break

Nabiki got one of her friends to put Ranma up until he could get back to China and away from the master and his old man, help secured only with the promise of a photo session of girl Ranma later. "Long hair is a new asset, Ranma," she'd said by way of explanation. "It's an unexplored market. Just one photo session and I'll help you hide." Grudgingly, he'd agreed. Nabiki would have fought a lot harder, gotten more concessions out of him, but the way Akane glowered when she saw that predatory look in her older sister's eye was quite telling. She resolved to keep an eye on her little sister after that, and what had turned up was surprising.

For example, Akane was supposed to be home from school an hour ago, but she'd only just walked in the door, and in addition to her bookbag, she had several books hugged to her chest. What might her little sister be researching? Nabiki planned on finding out.

Kasumi called in from the kitchen. "Nabiki, can you or Akane come in and help with dinner?"

It couldn't have been more perfect. "Sure," the middle Tendo girl called down the stairs. Then she walked down the hall and stuck her head into Akane's room. "Kasumi wants you to help with dinner."

"She said you or me, Nabiki," the younger girl growled out.

She brushed it off and said with a swagger. "I'm the one hiding your fiancé. Do you really think it's a good idea not to listen to me?" Her sister glowered at her, but got up and walked down to the kitchen. Nabiki smiled at the retreating back and ducked into the bedroom. The books laid in a pile on the bed and she scanned the titles. "They're all hair style books," she muttered to herself. Glancing back at the doorway to make sure Akane wasn't about to barge in on her, she picked up the first one and started flipping through it. It was all about braids, in dozens of different styles and for different types of hair, but almost all of them were better suited to long hair. "But Akane doesn't have long hair," she thought out loud.

She grabbed the next one. This one was about updos. Most of them were fancy and Nabiki laughed at the thought of tomboy Akane doing her hair in any of these styles. Still, there were a few practical ones she could see the other girl using. But still, almost all of them were for girls with long hair. Then it dropped on her like one of Happosai's bombs. Ranma!

As if on the heels of that thought, running came from the hallway and in a moment, Akane stood in the doorway glowering once again at her sister. "I didn't say you could read those," she berated. Angrily she stomped over and yanked the book out of Nabiki's hand.

The older girl didn't show her annoyance at having her snooping session interrupted. Instead, she smoothly inserted, "Ranma's going to keep his long hair, then? What a good little wife you're being, researching for him."

As expected, Akane went bright red. "It's not like that." But then the blush faded and to her sister's surprise, Akan'es face softened. "He just needs my help."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Really? To do what, braid his hair?"

The blush returned full force. Akane grabbed the books, shoved them into her schoolbag, and dragged Nabiki out into the hall. "Kasumi said you should help too."

I bet she did, Nabiki thought with a mental eyeroll. Honestly, her little sister was so easy to rile up sometimes. Still, this time it was a bit different. She'd have to find out how to play this. Maybe she could get something out of Ranma while she was taking his photos later.

Line Break

Happosai and Genma had pooled their resources with the four steamed buns and still come up with nothing. Ranma and the whisker seemed to have vanished. Of course, it had mainly been Genma and the master looking. The four buns didn't know a thing about the town or their errant martial artist. "Akane's hiding him, I know it," Genma growled. He was still mad at the girl for pointing him in what he was certain was the wrong direction the first day of the search, but since he didn't have proof and her father was keeping an unusually close eye on the girl, Genma hadn't been able to corner her for an interrogation. If he could just get her alone, he would get some answers.

"Then why don't we just get her? We can go after her after lunch." the red bun offered.

The yellow bean whacked him in the head. "Because she's just going to kick us too. We should have made the old geezer tell us more." The two buns kept arguing as they walked into the restaurant. "I'm telling you, we need a new plan to get the Dragon's Whisker."

Cologne hopped up on the counter and narrowed her eyes at the four buns and two men. "What are you going to order?"

They each rattled off a dish and Cologne went into the back to get them ready. Suddenly, the phone rang. She lifted it off the hook and asked, "yes?" There was some mumbling from the other end. "Yes, this is Cologne. Who is this?" More mumbling. "Oh, yes!" the old lady smiled. "How is everything with the restaurant?" The mumbling continued. "Well, I'm sorry to hear that. But thank you for telling me."

She hung up and Shampoo asked from across the kitchen," Who that?"

"That was an old friend of mine from China. He just called to tell me to take the Dragon Whisker Porridge off the menu." Was it Cologne's imagination, or did the four buns and two men from the Tendo dojo perk up at the mention of that dish?"

"Why?" Shampoo innocently asked.

The grandma tried and failed to hide her smirk as she looked at the six sitting in her dining area. "Our supplier just called to tell me that the effect's worn off. It won't work anymore." Then she retreated into the back room to avoid the theatrics of the six at the front of the store. Really, men sometimes. This was why she came from a females-only tribe.

Line Break

Ranma tied his braids under his arms and around his shoulders before tucking the ends into the knot in between his shoulder blades. Slowly, he turned his head and twisted his spine to make sure he could still move. He could. "Huh, Akane actually had a good idea," he said to the mirror. She'd actually had quite a few of those recently, like the idea that he should get back to China until this whole thing blew over.

He grabbed his shirt to put it on over the braids when a sly feminine voice interrupted him. "Sorry, Ranma, baby, but your photo session's today." Then he was hit by a cold splash of water.

"What'd you do that for?" Ranma shouted in a now much higher pitched voice at Nabiki, who held the still dripping bucket.

The older girl rolled her eyes. "Come on Ranma, don't tell me you forgot." Ranma's shoulders slumped. No, she hadn't. Still, she'd been hoping to get away before Nabiki demanded her compensation for hiding her sister's betrothed. Satisfied that Ranma wasn't going to take off, Nabiki called over her shoulder, "Come in, girls." Akane and Nabiki's friend walked into the room carrying a huge duffle of clothes and hair styling tools, with Akane holding a stack of hairstyle books and looking very apologetic.

"She threatened to tell your dad if I didn't help," Akane said by way of explanation.

Ranma growled out, "if you think I'm letting you put bows in my hair, you've got another thing coming, Nabiki!"

But the older Tendo girl just rolled her eyes. "Look, Ranma, honey, you either let me do what I want for the next hour, or I tell your dad and the old freak where you are and you get to spend the rest of your life running from them. Your choice." She took her phone out of her pocket. "Now untie your braids or I call my dad."

Ranma glowered but untucked the ends of her braids and started unwinding them from her shoulder. Wow, Nabiki marveled, that's a lot longer than I thought. Some of these outfits aren't going to work. She mentally discarded the schoolgirl uniform. Most of the others would still work, though. "Akane, do the braided crown you showed me, but leave most of the braid hanging." She pulled out one of the dresses she'd borrowed from the school's drama department. Ranma would be a lovely Rapunzel.

At the end of the hour, Nabiki had plenty of new fodder for her many male customers and Akane helped her poor fiancé wash all the curls and product out of her hair. "I'm never doing that again," Ranma grumbled.

Rolling her eyes, Akane said," you won't have to. Do you need another rinse?"

Ranma ran her hand through her hair to test the texture. "No, I think most of the stuff's out. I'll just braid it and head for the train station. You should go home, tell your dad I'm gone."

Akane nodded. "Do you want me to say anything to your dad?" The only answer she got was a growl. She turned around and started to put on her coat. "So, when do you think you'll be back?"

"Maybe a year," Ranma said over her shoulder as she started the laborious task of braiding her hair. "I think that'll be long enough for this to blow over, and maybe I can find that restaurant again. Who knows, the old monk might have a cure by now." They both stopped moving for a moment, unsaid words hanging heavy in the air. Will he miss me, Akane couldn't help but wonder. She heard Ranma shift in her seat behind her. "Hey, don't get married while I'm gone or anything."

Akane smiled. That was probably as close to a goodbye as she was going to get. "Well, try to keep that ego of yours under control, pervert."

Ranma scowled at her back but the girl didn't see as she walked out the door. Ranma heaved a sigh and kept braiding. She had a train ride and a long swim ahead of her.

When Akane finally got home, she was greeted by the sight of her father attempting and failing to comfort a sobbing Genma and Happosai. "What's wrong with them," she scowled.

Her father looked up from the two irate men and explained, "The dragon's whisker they were trying to take from Ranma wore out. The magic doesn't work anymore."

"Wore out!?" Akane couldn't believe it. She immediately ran back to the entrance and started putting her shoes back on.

Soun stuck his head into the hallway after his rushing daughter. "Where are you going," he asked.

"To tell Ranma before he runs off to China!" Akane shouted as she closed the door with a bang and took off running for the bus station.

Will Akane catch him before he leaves? What will happen when he turns up at school with his new look? I'll answer all these questions and more if I get enough interest in this to write a new chapter.