Warning: This chapter contains some gross-out humor. Nothing graphic, but it's there nonetheless. You have been warned.

The Sign of the Crane

Part Five: Waitress Blues

"We're not gonna take it," Shawn sang along with his I-pod, bobbing his head to the beat as he helped the bald pated Phil Blackcrow heft a log into the bed of an aging pick-up truck. "No, we're not gonna take it. We're not gonna take it anymooore!"

Shawn's voice warbled painfully on the last note, nearly causing Drew to drop his and Jim's log as the blond teen fought his instinct to cover his ears.

"Dude, you can't sing," Drew said as he and the ballcap wearing brother worked to get the log up onto the truck. Scrambling up onto the bed and atop the logs that had already been set in place, he lifted the end up where he had left it on the tail gate and began to pull while his partner pushed. In spite of its weight, the nine foot long, nine inch diameter length of hardwood slipped easily into place alongside its brothers.

Though the noonday sun was partially obscured by the leaves of the towering backcountry woods- more than twelve miles north of the resort- it was undeterred in its efforts to make the day hot, and the labor infinitely sweatier. Drew's muscles burned with the constant strain, and his breathing was heavy. Vegetation was thick between the sparsely spaced trees, and the mosquitoes even thicker. The Blackcrow brothers' seeming immunity to the heat and the mosquitoes irked him, but Shawn's similar resilience drove his frustration to new heights.

"I can too sing," Shawn replied with a disdainful snort. He turned to the two brothers under whom they had been placed under. "Can't I sing, guys?"

"Like Madonna and Frank Sinatra's baby would sound," Jim answered, his expression so even that at first Drew wasn't sure if he was being serious or not. Thankfully, Phil's uproarious burst of laughter led him to decide it was the latter, and therefore not assume that there was something seriously wrong with Jim's hearing.

"Screw all of you guys," said Shawn, hopping off of the truck's bed and slipping off his i-pod's earbuds.

"Nope, it's you that's screwed," Jim said as they made for the next tree to be felled, "Or rather, your friend down at Martha's is."

Phil chuckled in response.

"Screwed," the big, bald Indian agreed as he settled a pair of protective earphones over his smooth head, "That's a good word for anyone who has to work with Raven." He laughed again as he hefted the chainsaw and added with a glance to his brother, "Don't get me wrong. She's a good kid, but man is she a handful."

"I hear that," Jim replied as he, Shawn and Drew placed earphones over their own ears. The next several few minutes were filled with the deadly whine of the chainsaw's whirling teeth and flying sawdust. Once the thirty foot pine had landed with a thunderous crash its thin branches were neatly trimmed away and then the trunk itself sawn neatly into thirds. Phil moved with a practiced deftness, wielding the chainsaw with a greater amount of subtlety than one would normally associate with the whirling tool.

"Gets excited about stuff way too easily," said Jim once the chainsaw was shut down, continuing the conversation as if there had been no interruption.

"Got a nice rack though," Phil added, staring up at a cloud with a dreamy expression on his face. A slight blush crossed his face as he realized what he had said, shook his head violently and said, "Your friend, that is. Not Raven."

"They both do," Shawn said with a stupid grin plastered across his face. "And Megan, I mean Bridget too, for that matter."

Drew shook his head in slight exasperation as his companions began to laugh and slap each other on the back, feeling a slight twinge of envy. Though he and Shawn had both gone out for sports everywhere since middle school, Drew had never really been "one of the guys." He lacked the camaraderie that Shawn had always been able to forge with other men, finding himself terribly out of place parties or when hanging out. Though he often disapproved of the beer swilling and lewd jokes that often came of such occasions, Drew often wished that he had Shawn's charisma and free spiritedness.

"Come on, let's get back to work," he said, rolling one of the segments of trunk out of alignment with a shove of his tennis shoe and grabbing hold of one end of it. "We've got a cabin to rebuild, and the sooner we get done the better."

With a collective groan, the others returned to their task. Shawn slippied his earbuds back in and thumbed back on his i-pod.

"And no more singing unless you have a reasonable chance of winning American Idle."

The brothers laughed as Shawn scowled. Nevertheless, he did not sing, though he did hum.

None of them had any idea of the large yellow eyes that watched them from the thickest parts of the underbrush, nor of the inhuman growl of impatience that rumbled up through the watcher's throat.

***

"This is so stupid," Michael said, staring at himself in the mirror of the employees' women's restroom. He was in his female form and wearing a chest hugging waitress top and a white skirt that hung less than halfway down his rounded thighs. His hair was pulled back in a long red ponytail identical to Bridget's and held up with a blue ribbon. The heels of the cursed boy's cramped feet stood more than an inch off the ground, causing him to sway dangerously even while standing still. Bridget, Katie, and Raven stood at his side dressed in almost identical costumes, though Michael could not help but notice their skirts actually covered their knees and that their blouses weren't quite so form fitting.

"No, you look great," Katie cheered.

"Yeah, really…really cute," Bridget stammered, looking away with a slight blush.

"Cute?" Raven laughed with a provocative nudge to the red head, "She's downright sexy if ya ask me!"

"But nobody did ask you, and I'm a GUY!" Michael said, his voice growing in volume as he spoke. "And why is this thing so much smaller on me than you guys anyway? They can be the same size, can they?"

"Sure they are," Raven said with an assuring smile that somehow had the opposite effect on Michael. Turning to the bathroom door, she added, "Now let's go before Cousin Martha starts wondering where we're at. She's not a woman to be kept waiting."

With a reluctant sigh, Michael followed. After him came Bridget, looking equally miserable. Only Katie seemed still in high spirits, watching herself twirl in the mirror one last time before skipping after her friends.

The name of the restaurant was Cousin Martha's Northern Kitchen, but for all the lack of imagination in its naming it was actually quite charming; and popular. A noontime crowd was already beginning to fill up the spacious dining area, the regulars maneuvering across the faded blue carpet to their unofficially reserved seats with little to no conscious thought while tourists and passers-through occasionally stopped right in the middle of the road to admire the numerous Native American and logger memorabilia that decorated the walls. A small boxy television tuned into the local news station hung suspended from the ceiling in one corner, while another two tuned into ESPN occupied another pair of corners.

"Raven! You girls missed the breakfast shift! Now stop lollygagging, get your butts in gear and get out there, we're swamped!" Cousin Martha shouted as the four filed out through the kitchen. She was a heavy-set woman in her early-fifties, standing just over five feet tall with thick curly brown hair pulled back into a tight bun, and world-weary blue eyes with work-won bags beneath them. She was dressed in blue cotton work dress and a coffee-stain covered apron, and seemed to Michael to be of an irritable disposition.

"This isn't how I wanted to spend my vacation," Michael grumbled to himself as he left the kitchen, forcing down his instinct to correct Martha on the matter of his gender with a sour frown. He had no way of knowing if Morgan had called ahead to inform her of his condition or not, and more importantly it would draw more unwanted attention if the clientele caught any whiff of a cross-dressing employee. It didn't matter that he didn't know anyone there or that he would likely see any of them again once he went home, it was still a situation he had no intention of getting in.

Bridget and Katie fell right into the role of waitress, all smiles and politeness, scrawling their customers' orders into their little notepad with practiced speed and making recommendations. Even Raven was able to take on the guise of a model server, much to Michael's surprise. He himself, however, was not quite so good an attendant.

"Good morn- er, afternoon, good afternoon, folks," he said, reaching a table occupied by an elder couple and trying to make it seem as if it actually was for him. He must have failed, because the old woman gave a start as she looked up from her menu while her husband- Michael noticed their rings- gazed up at him warily.

"My name's-," he glanced down at the name tag that had been pinned to his chest, "Michele, and I'll be your wait…ress today." It hurt immensely to refer to himself in a female form. In his head he began to chant, 'What would Ranma do? What would Ranma do?'

"Girl, do ya make it a habit to dress so shameless?" the old man berated, speaking in a thick, deep Southern drawl. Across the table, the man's wife could be heard murmuring in an identical accent, "Land's sakes! How can a girl stand to be so shameless?"

"What are you- oh," Michael said, glancing down at his mini-skirt and tight blouse. He forced the most faux-pleasant smile he could muster and said, "Well, it's the style, you know. It's the best way to bag a handsome guy, right?" An imagined sweatdrop rolled down the back of his head at his own words.

The old couple seemed unimpressed by this, as the old woman just shook her head disapprovingly while her husband made a loud "Hmmph," sound and snorted through his overlarge nose.

"We'll have coffee and a new waitress," the old man said. His wife nodded in agreement.

More imagined sweatdrops.

'Okay, maybe "What would Ranma do," is a bad mantra,' Michael decided, 'Otherwise I'm going to end up with a law-suit for assault on my hands.'

Aloud he said, "Now look here, old timer, that's not very fair. Just because I- Whoah! Aaaaaaaagh!" He had attempted to shift his stance and his heel had sunk unevenly into the carpet, throwing off his already precarious high-heeled balance and causing the cursed boy to tumble over sideways with arms flailing wildly.

"Worst vacation ever," he said into the floor as the whole restaurant burst into a unanimous fit of laughter.

The rest of the lunch period was much the same, with men (and some women) gawking unashamedly, women treating him cooly at best, and those of the most conservative mindset treating him like he had openly declared himself a prostitute. He quickly learned not to fold his arms beneath his bust, as this tended to bring on the worst of the staring. Though the men who gaped openly made him the most uncomfortable, he was much more forgiving of them as they proved to be admirable tippers.

Even if he were to discount people's attitudes towards him, Michael still found it to be a miserable day. He was continually tripping or running into the other waitresses, mixing up orders, forgetting where customers were seated, spilling food, and often venting his growing frustration out on customers. Finally, one of his heels broke and he was forced to go barefoot, where his toe was promptly crushed beneath the heel of a pretty blond girl who was also working as a waitress under Cousin Martha, who by way of apology lent him her street shoes- a pair of plain black flats. They were even tighter than the high heels, but at least he could walk.

Yet by far the worst for Michael was passing Raven every five minutes, at which point the Indian girl would catch his eye in order to flash him a very nasty smile, a Cheshire–sort of grin that made him think of a cat that had trashed its owner's home and but had gotten the blame placed upon the dog. It was only at these points that the "What would Ranma do?" mantra returned to the forefront of his mind, at which point he would mentally respond, "Kick her ass, that's what he'd do!"

All told, it was the worst three hours that he could ever remember and it was only the ever-present reminder of his bouncy-top heavy body and the sight of Bridget in her cute waitress uniform that kept him from calling it quits and start walking back home to Missouri.

At the end of the rush period Martha allowed her waitresses (six in all) a free meal and a thirty minute break. They went two at a time, and Michael slumped down into a booth at the second break shift with a painful sigh of relief.

"I'm so glad that's over," he said with a groan, slipping off his borrowed shoes before biting into his hamburger with an eager zeal.

"We're not done yet, you know," Bridget said across from him, sipping on an iced tea.

"How's that?" he spoke through a mouthful of burger.

"More than half of Martha's regular girls are down with the flu, so it's just us six for every shift," she clarified. She took a moment to devour an onion ring.

Michael's face looked as if she had just told him that his dog had died.

"You're kidding me," he said with a potent whine, "Now that's just not right."

Bridget shrugged.

"It happens. Nothing to be done about it."

Michael turned away.

"This sucks," he said, muttering under his breath, only to receive a hard smack on the forehead.

"You think you've got it bad?" Bridget questioned, her tone sharp as she waved an onion ring about angrily. "People keep mistaking me for you!"

"How's that any worse than what I'm going through?" Michael shot back, his own anger rising. The handful of coffee-sipping patrons still occupying the dining room turned simultaneously in their seats to stare. Chagrined, he apologized, turned back to Bridget and demanded again in a voice barely above normal, "How is being mistaken for me any worse than what I'm going through?"

"It's quite simple, Hun," she replied evenly, sitting back with her arms folded across her chest. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but you kinda suck at waitressing…"

"And in what way am I supposed to take that?" asked Michael, but Bridget ignored him.

"…And when people see you screw stuff up or lose your temper they decide that they really don't want to have you serving them. Now Shawn was right, when you're like this we really do look a lot alike, and not only is it a little creepy but when people see me they assume it's you. Then either they start complaining to me about everything you messed up or they try to ignore me until one of the others comes by to take care of them, and I can't convince them otherwise until the next time you go by. See where I'm getting at?"

Michael looked down with a shamed, poignant expression on his face. Guilt washed over him like a tsunami as he realized that her expression was less angry than hurt, knowing that his self-centered attitude had been the cause of it.

"I-I'm sorry," he stammered, "I know that it's my fault that we're doing this instead of enjoying our vacation, but I was so caught up in my own misery that I didn't even consider that you might be suffering too. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be sorry," she replied, giving her cursed boyfriend a warm, forgiving smile, "just try harder this evening." She reached out across the table to pull his head so as to plant a light kiss on his forehead. "Remember, just smile, be polite, and the customer is always right. That's the waitress' credo, got it?"

"Got it," he smiled.

"Good," Bridget said, smiling more brightly and kissing him again, this time on the lips. As she pulled back, she noticed a fat middle aged man gawking at the two from across the aisle. She promptly flipped him the bird and scowled until the other went back to his coffee.

Michael chuckled and said, "What happened to smiling and being polite?"

"I'm off duty," she answered with a sly grin that Michael found to be incredibly sexy.

Martha came down the aisle then. Though a portly woman, she moved with a swaggering authority and deftness of foot that most would associate only with champion boxers and warrior queens, and left no doubt that she was the sole source of authority within the establishment. The older woman stopped in front of their booth.

"Uh…Michele…," she hesitated just long enough for Michael to reluctantly raise his hand. "Right, Michele. I've just spent the last thirty minutes taking calls from my regulars complaining about you, and from what I was able to catch of your performance I'd have to say the complaints are pretty well justified. Sloppy doesn't even begin to cover it. If I wasn't so short handed and Morgan hadn't insisted so strongly that I take you, your sister and that other girl on and keep hold you till my own girls came back, I'd've fired you hours ago."

She spoke briskly and matter-of-factly, and the drill sergeant-like undertones of her voice left no room for interruptions. Michael wondered if she hadn't served in the army at some point.

Martha gave a great sigh as she continued.

"Nevertheless, ol' Morgan really wants you kids to have this job for the next week or two and I owe him a favor, so I'm moving back to the kitchens. Hopefully you won't be able to cause too much trouble back there. Any questions?"

She didn't sound like she expected or would be pleased to get any, but Michael asked anyway.

"Umm, Mrs. Finch," he asked, fidgeting in his seat while trying and failing to meet the short woman's eyes. The stammering and lack of eye contact weren't an act. He genuinely found Martha to be rather intimidating for some reason, if not out and out frightening.

He swallowed hard and started again.

"Mrs. Finch, I was actually just talking about that with my…sister," he sent a questioning glance towards Bridget, who just shrugged, "And I was wondering if you might give me another chance up front."

Bridget seemed surprised at the request and Martha no less so.

"Why would you want that?" the older woman asked with a suspicious eyebrow raised. "You were lookin' pretty hopeless out there. I almost wasn't sure that you weren't trying to get fired on purpose."

"I know, I'm just…I have some anger issues. You know, redhead." Michael almost let a grin slip as he said this, and it became all the harder to hold it back when he felt Bridget direct a look of pure ire his way. Martha just gave an impatient snort.

"All joking aside," he went on, "I really didn't want to do this, and I was letting self-pity get the better of me. But I realize that all I was doing was making my sister and my friend look bad, and I want to make it up to them by proving I can do better." He forced himself to look directly into Martha's stormy blue eyes and put on his most pleading face and put his hands together. "Can I have just another chance to work out front? Please?"

He thought he saw a look like sympathy in her eyes, but only for a moment. With a sound like disgust in her throat, Martha turned back towards the kitchen and waved an impatient hand.

"Alright, fine. But just one more," she said as she strutted away. "And hurry up, your break's almost done."

***

The evening was even more hectic than at noon, with what felt to Michael to be half the local population crammed into the dining area. Yet for Michael it was infinitely less stressful. No longer tottering about like a drunk on stilts, he was able to smile that much easier. He still couldn't bring himself to engage anyone in conversation, but he found that he could better ignore any verbal or ocular criticism of his attire or still-clumsy waitressing skills by allowing his attention to wander back to the too-small borrowed shoes he wore.

Apparently word of attractive new waitresses had spread around town, as there were a number of adolescent boys, arriving singly or in groups. This Michael found to be the worst ordeal, as they stared at his long legs, lustrous orange locks and straining bust without shame even when he attempted to take their orders. Whenever they began to flirt with him he found that he had to look either to Katie or Bridget (now sporting long twin pigtails) for a supportive smile in order to keep from giving in to his instincts to start pulling off heads.

He was on his way to deliver a platter of catfish and barbecued ribs to one particularly raucous group when Raven stopped him just outside the kitchen.

"One side, Dances With Wolves," he said, not bothering to hide his impatience. He had been avoiding his homicidal tormentor since his heels broke. A difficult task, but he had thus far succeeded in even taking notice of whatever nasty expressions she would no doubt send his way whenever they passed one another. Now her lips were pursed and her eyes narrow, as if there was something weighing heavily on the Indian girl's mind.

"Let me take care of those guys at table six," she said, her voice flat but commanding.

Michael snorted.

"Why?"

Raven pointed a thumb over her shoulder towards the table in question.

"You know the big, brawny blond guy back over there?"

"The cute one? Yeah."

"Well, I just overheard him bragging to his buddies about how he's going to try to cop a feel when you try to go over there"

Michael's eyes widened with horror.

"What, seriously?" He wasn't all that surprised, actually. The blond boy in question had already proven himself to be the cocky, wanna-be lady killer types when he had tried to order "Big chicken breasts with a slice of smokin' hot bass," in a played-up, faux-Scandinavian Minnesota accent, accompanied by howls of approving laughter from his cronies. Michael's exclamation was born of disgust.

Abruptly his face turned wan, save for a pair of bright scarlet spots on his cheeks.

Raven's voice was bland but he could hear the smile within it.

"Just now realized what you said a second ago?"

"Yes," he answered, shoving the platter into Raven's expectant arms. "Take this please. Excuse me."

He made it to the women's bathroom just in time.

"Bleeeeaaarrgh!"

When he emerged several minutes later, Michael's expression was still ashen but he felt much better. Only merciless purging of his stomach and passing the moments not spent heaving on drooling over every image of a scantily clad anime girl and memory of Bridget in a bikini in his brain had saved his sanity; and now that this was done he felt much more confident about returning to work. Nevertheless, he found that his subconscious mantra had now changed from "What would Ranma do?" to "Heterosexual male, heterosexual male, heterosexual male."

"You alright kid?" Martha's husband and cook David Finch asked, glancing over at him from a list of orders. He was a big man- no doubt the result of working with good food for many years- with thin graying hair, a big beard and mustache, a round jovial face, and kind merry eyes. Michael had taken an instant liking to the man since their brief introduction that morning, and it was no small source of bewilderment to the cursed boy how such an affable man like David could ever married so severe a woman as Martha.

Now David's expression was one of concern rather than perpetual mirth.

"You're not catching anything like the other girls, are you? Do you need to go home? It sounded like a battlefield in there."

"No, no, I'm alright," Michael said, waving off the other's concern. "That was just a one-shot deal. It's passed."

He took another step towards the door, then stopped and looked over at David with a slight frown.

"Wait you heard-?"

David nodded, trying to look solemn in spite of a creeping grin.

"Ugh, forget I asked," Michael shuddered as he exited the cluttered but aromatic kitchen, hoping that the sound of his struggle for sanity hadn't carried too far. Taking a quick assessment of the current standing of the dining room, he made for the far left corner.

He made his round, checking up on customers, refilling glasses, and all the while trying to keep his hips from swaying too much as he walked, still uncomfortable and self-conscious as he was about the strange, constant movements of his transformed body. His concentration slipped for just a moment when it happened; a firm stinging blow to his backside that brought the sensual weaving of his sculpted hips and indeed his entire body to a screeching halt.

With hands tightening into fists, Michael forced his lips into the brightest, most cheerful forced smile he could muster and turned slowly around. A teenage boy sat alone in a booth, gazing into a menu and looking as if he hadn't moved for many seconds. He looked around Michael's age, of about average height and scrawny, clad in tight red leather pants, black tennis shoes, an impeccably white long sleeved shirt, a navy colored vest and with a huge, gawdy wristwatch that had to have weighed at least half a pound. The entire outfit looked like it was designer, terribly expensive, and horribly out of place in the small rural town. Short, gel-spiked brown hair crowned the boy's head, and arrogant grey-green eyes stared out from a haughty, pointed face that Michael could only describe as being weasel-like.

Michael forced himself to take a deep breath as he stared at the weasel faced twerp and turned back around to continue on. He only made it one step before he felt a finger push into his spongy buttocks, then whirl about with a look of savage fury. Again, the boy seemed not to have moved at all.

"Are you ready to order yet, sir?" he asked through clenched teeth, making more of a harsh grimace than a smile. Internally, he now chanted, 'Smile, be polite, the customer's always right; smile, be polite, the customer's always right.'

"Yes, actually," his voice was smug and arrogant, with just a touch of a pre-adolescent whine. "I order you to give me your phone number and go out with me. I nice strip tease wouldn't be out of the question either." He slapped his knees and laughed heartily, though it was little more than an annoying, snobbish chuckle. "Ho, ho. Quite amusing. My dear old nanny used to tell me that I was quite the witty one."

He extended his hand, which, out of politeness, Michael accepted but only with two fingers. The supposed wit seemed not to care or even notice.

"The name's Fenton Glasgow," he announced, "An honor, I'm sure. You've probably heard of me, or at least of my father's company. Glasgow Manufacturing? No? My, you really are hillbillies, aren't you?"

"Would you like to make a serious order, sir?" Michael asked, finding it harder to keep up the pleasant visage even as he mentally substituted "sir," for "jackass."

"Well for starters," the irritating Fenton said, tossing aside the menu, "I'd like a filet mignon with saffron boiled rice and-,"

"We don't have any."

"Then perhaps some escargot-,"

"Nope."

"Les Éscaloppes-,"

"Nuh-huh."

"A date with a hot red head?"

"I'd recommend the broken arm instead," he answered with a bright smile.

"Alright then." The boy glanced over his menu again with a look of disgust. "What do you have then, that might sate the delicate pallet of a rich young man like me?"

'Well you could always try the knuckle sandwich,' Michael thought with a grin but aloud said, "Probably not."

He yelped as Fenton's hand slipped up his skirt to give his backside a tight squeeze.

"Mmm, well in that case I'll settle for the rump roast," the tycoon's son said, gazing up into Michael's eyes with a look of sly daring.

"R-right," he said, slapping his hand away and stepping out of Fenton's reach, all the while maintaining a painfully forced smile. "One round steak. I'll…I'll go get that for you."

He held his composure until he had made it to the kitchen, then let loose a furious shriek and kicked over a big trashcan with a loud clatter.

"Mercy sakes, girl! What's the matter with you?" Martha demanded, leaving her post at the stove to grab Michael by the shoulders before he could do anything else. David hovered at his wife's shoulder with a look of concern. Bridget, Raven, Katie and the other two girls rushed in a few moments later.

"That asshole!" he raged, trying and failing to squirm out from Martha's grip. "That f-ing, stuck up little asshole!"

"What? Who's an asshole?" Martha demanded.

At last escaping her mannish grip, Michael maneuvered to the narrow window where chef and waitress' exchanged food and orders and stabbed a finger at Fenton, who seemed to be the only customer not staring towards the kitchen.

"Him! That spoiled little freak, Fenton Somethinorother. He grabbed my butt. Three times, even!" he continued to yell in his shrill voice and holding up three fingers. "And the last time he went straight up my skirt to do it while I was looking!"

"He did what now?" Bridget shouted, her face hot with rage. "I'm gonna go over there and pop that little pimple right now!" Luckily, Katie and the other two girls were able to hold Bridget back within the kitchen, but only just.

Martha, however, stared out the window with her fists clenched tight enough to turn her knuckles white.

"Him again," she growled, her voice one of pure loathing and hatred, "Oh, how I'd like to strangle that little piece of-,"

"What'd he order?" demanded Raven, her arms folded and voice even.

Michael handed her his notebook without a word.

"Oh, how clever," she said as she looked down at the pad, her voice dry and not at all amused. She glanced up at David and said, "One round steak, Cousin David, priority order. And use the special sauce with it."

The big man chuckled as he gave an approving nod and made to prepare the dish. Martha seemed to agree with this, as her rage was replaced with an evil smile and the tenseness of her body slipped away.

"Right then," she said, taking a relaxing breath. She strode to the door and said, "Alright girls, show's over. Let's get back to work." Turning to Michael, she added, "You just stay in here for a bit to cool your heels, girl. I'll take over till then."

"I'll stay with her," Raven volunteered. Martha just nodded and disappeared into the dining room. Slowly, the other girls followed, though Bridget lagged behind long enough to give Raven an untrusting glare. The Indian girl just stuck out her tongue in response and slapped Michael on the back.

"So Strifebringer. Having fun yet?" she asked. She no longer sounded scornful as she usually did when speaking to him, and indeed her voice now had a slight, playful edge to it. Michael actually found the lack of disdain somewhat disturbing.

"What's the special sauce?" he asked.

Raven just answered with a wink and a cryptic, "You'll see."

They didn't speak again for several minutes, and the two began to wander separately about the spacious kitchen, Raven with a mysteriously smug smirk on her face whilst humming to herself, while Michael spent half the time bewildered by the girl's odd behavior and the other half rubbing at his butt and feeling highly violated. David occasionally called for assistance with the food, but little conversation could be brought forth from this.

When the roast was finally done, David reached deep into the back of a cabinet to retrieve a ratty, palm sized cardboard box. From this he drew out a bottle of browned glass, whose contents were applied to the sizzling meat with a marinating brush. It was brown and thick and smelled strongly of pine cones.

"This is a secret recipe passed down from my grandpa," David explained before Michael could ask. "He was a chef at a logging camp, you see, and loggers can sometimes be a bit…rowdy, especially when it comes to grub. So my grandpa invented this lovely little devil to keep them in line for fear of finding it in their food."

"What does it do, exactly?" Michael asked as he took the plate.

The big man winked.

"Gives grub a mighty zesty kick to it," he said, sporting a big grin.

Michael smiled back as he took the dish and exited the kitchen. Raven followed a short moment later.

"Here you go, sir," the cursed boy said once he reached Fenton's table. He waited several minutes for the rich boy to finish a loud phone conversation before repeating himself and setting the food down before the obnoxious customer.

"About time," Fenton snapped as he tucked his phone into his pocket. He looked down at the steaming dish and then back up at Michael with a questioning glare.

"What is this?" he asked, indicating the sauce with his finger.

"Well you seemed like such a man of very refined taste," Raven said from behind Michael's back, causing the other to jump with surprise. "So we thought that you might enjoy some of our special sauce. We only use it with customers who require very special attention, Mr. Glasgow."

Her smile was impish and endearing, and Michael found himself marveling at how such an innocent looking girl could have been trying to kill him just a day earlier.

Fenton needed no more persuasion, though. He carved himself a slice, ate it, and his eyes lit up like sparklers. Another piece was devoured, then two more, and in less than two minutes the entire roast was devoured. Lounging back as best he could in the unyielding booth, Fenton gave a loud, satisfied belch and looked up at his two pretty waitresses with an indulgent smile that Michael found just the slightest bit creepy.

"Well done, ladies," he said, sounding appeased. "Maybe this place isn't such a dump after all. Perhaps you two would like to come work for my father? We could always have more sexy things who excel at girl's work around the house. Or the yacht. Ooh! That'd be even better! Then you'd only be able to wear swimsuits while on duty! I love it!"

Michael scoffed at turned to Raven with a questioning look. The Indian just continued to smile with a roguish patience. They didn't wait much longer.

Within moments, Fenton's face soured, as if plagued with troubling thoughts. As he looked up at his servers with a questioning look, he suddenly retched and pitched forward into the aisle, a hand covering his mouth. Raven grabbed Michael by the shoulder and steered him out of the way as the rich boy half-crawled, half-ran to the bathroom, the stares of customers following his progress. He didn't make it.

A minute of intense vomiting followed, and customers began to evacuate the area with looks of disgust even as the restaurant's staff began to gather around Fenton's trembling form.

"Problems, sir?" Bridget asked, her concerned voice faking impressive sincerity even as her dainty lips spread into one of the most frighteningly evil grins Michael had ever seen anyone make.

Fenton's head shot up, gasping as if he had just escaped drowning.

"You…," he said, trying and failing to sound threatening. He had to take another big gulp of breath before continuing. "You bastards, you tried to poison me! My father will hear of this, mark my words! He'll shut you down so fast-,"

"Just try it, rich boy!" Martha interrupted, sounding fiercer than even Michael could have guessed her to be capable of. "Just try to shut us down, but be prepared for a court room whooping like no other!" Her height seemed to increase to menacing proportions in the midst of her wrath. "You dared try to lay a hand on one of my girls, so this is only fair recompense. We'll call it square if you like, but only if you get out of here and never come back. But if you ever step foot in my place again, or any of your daddy's lawyers come to my doorstep waving court summons, there will be hell to pay."

With the entire staff glaring down upon him, Fenton had little other choice but to pick himself up and stumble over to the door.

"This isn't over," he said in a high, fearful voice and shaking his fist. Then he slammed the door shut behind him and a great cheer went up from the customers.

"Well done girls. And Dave," Martha chuckled, patting her husband playfully on the shoulder. Returning to her tough boss persona, she shouted, "Alright, now get to work. And get this mess cleaned up."

As Michael made for the backroom and the mop, he saw Bridget flash Raven a thumbs-up and a smile. He watched as Raven hesitated, then returned the gesture, then smiled himself.

'Maybe this won't turn out so bad after all,' he thought just as his shoe made a nauseating squish. He looked down with disgust and wished he hadn't.

"Then again, maybe it will."

To Be Continued…

Author's Note: Well, here's the newest chapter. Sorry for the length, but I had a lot to say in this one, and set up for the next one.

At last we meet the antagonist, the reprehensible but well-connected Fenton Glasgow. Not the best villain out there, but certainly one to be careful about crossing. What's his connection to Michael's curse and the tribe? Maybe nothing, maybe something, only time will tell.

Things aren't over yet between Michael and Raven, so if you enjoyed their rivalry then fear not. However, I figured that her helping him with Fenton would help to ease the tension between them, and show a bit more of her good side. There are some lines that even she won't cross, of course.

Hmm, for one of my earliest-conceived scenes for this series and one of the ones that I was most anxious to get to, I had a hard time focusing on this chapter. Partly because it was so long, but I was also having trouble getting into Michael's head with this one for some reason. I hope it came out alright.

Next chapter we'll be getting to know Shawn a little better, and also discover some more of the magic that guards these ancient lands besides a cursed, gender-bending lake. As always, criticism and ideas for improvement are encouraged and indeed appreciated. Thanks again to all my reviewers, and especial thanks to my most consistent reviewer Rabukurafuto.