I decided to take a quick break from 'Desperately Seeking Ranma' to allow my tired little brain to refill with thoughts, which gave me a moment to do something I've wanted to for a while, and some people have asked about.
You'll probably want to be familiar with 'Desperately Seeking Ranma', it may not make a lot of sense otherwise. I could flesh this out but it was just an idle thought, it's not worth too much effort, although it does explain a few things that the longer story uses.
This is the story of the first meeting between Ranma and a certain foursome of magical girls. Enjoy.
Usual disclaimer, characters belong to their original creators.
No commercial use, for private enjoyment only.
Plummeting towards the ground at a speed significantly higher than mere gravity could manage, Ranma fumed to himself even as he checked to make sure there were no people in the projected landing zone. It was going to be a rough one this time. Akane had blown a fuse in a major way, after yet another simple misunderstanding, one taken far out of context and raised to the status of an international incident, malleting him through the roof and into the distance with glee and some might even say malice. 'She's got no right to keep pulling this shit,' the pig-tailed martial artist thought in anger and confusion. "Didn't do anything to deserve it. Haven't done anything to deserve it the last seven times. This crap has to stop.' Almost glowing with rage, something that in his case was a literal statement, he arced towards what was going to be a very hard landing.
Bracing himself and feeding ki into his body to strengthen it past the already worryingly high level it possessed, the boy just had time to note that there was some sort of fight going on below him before he shot past the participants at a speed so high all they saw was a red and black blur, gouging a furrow in the ground sixty metres long directly through a large fountain, making it erupt in a shower of water and stone fragments.
All the fight participants stopped and stared in shock. Seconds after the pieces of fountain stopped falling, a short girl with brilliant red hair stomped out of the remains swearing to herself. Taking off her shirt she wrung it out before putting it back on with ill grace. Someone close enough to hear what she was muttering would have, after gasping in shock at the vicious obscenities apparently aimed at someone called 'Akane', heard her complain, "Every fucking time. Right into water. A lake, a fountain, a rain barrel, even a goddam car wash! How the hell does she do it?"
The two tall girls in the amazingly skimpy clothing standing some fifty metres away were in fact not close enough to hear any of this. They exchanged glances. Someone who could produce that much damage to the immediate vicinity and walk away apparently unhurt and merely very angry was even to them somewhat unusual, and they'd been professional Magical Girls for two years now. The red-head was very good looking and apparently very tough. One of them said to the other, "Do you think she's one of us?" The other one shrugged wordlessly, turning back to the more immediate problem, the very large, very dangerous, and furiously angry demon that was doing it's level best to kill them with extreme prejudice.
A somewhat shorter girl with deep auburn hair, wearing the same blue and gold clothing that was notable for it's almost not being there more than anything else, who was swinging a glowing sword at the thing, shouted, "Will you two for fuck's sake pay attention?! I can't deal with this damn thing on my own!" She ducked as a huge clawed hand passed through the space her head had been occupying, turning the move into a thrust upwards with the tip of the sword into the demon's lower torso, which made it yell deeply in pain and become, if possible, even angrier. It said something in a language they didn't understand but may well have translated into "Ow." Or possibly not.
"Aiko's down, she looks bad," the auburn-haired girl yelled to her friends, as they transferred their attention back to the fight. The demon had spared the flying red-head a small amount of attention but wasn't all that interested as there were much closer, more irritating things to deal with first. "Misaki, circle around, hamstring this fucker or something before it kills us all." The taller girl who hadn't spoken nodded, running around to try to get behind the demon. It turned to keep her in view, having a pretty good idea what they were trying.
The other girl, who looked similar enough to the first one to have been her sister, and in fact was, hefted one of the twin sais she was holding, considering throwing it before coming to her senses. There was no way it would fly properly, it was designed for hand to hand combat not as a projectile weapon. Muttering to herself she waited until the monster was apparently not paying attention then dived forward, stabbing it in the leg then ducking out of the way of the return kick which proved it wasn't completely distracted. "Shit," she mumbled, dropping prone on the ground as it's clawed foot passes centimetres over her head, close enough to ruffle her hair. Rolling quickly out of range she bounced to her feet.
"Tamiko, this isn't working," she said as soon as she was close enough to the other girl.
"I know that, Fumiko, but what else can we do? It's hardly going to stop, not now. I think it's kind of pissed off." The smaller girl glanced at her friend before looking back just in time to see the demon pick up a trash can and heave it accurately at her, almost managing to avoid it. Unfortunately, almost wasn't enough, as it clipped her shoulder and sent her flying with a scream of pain.
"TAMIKO!" the tall girl, Fumiko, shouted in worried anger, watching her team mate fly backwards, spinning into a tree and bouncing off it limply. She dropped to the ground and groaned. Angered, Fumiko returned her attention to the demon, darting in and sinking both sais into it's right leg to the bone, pulling downwards with all her considerable strength and opening the scaled skin in a pair of thirty-centimetre gashes from which bright yellow blood gushed. At the same time her sister swung the large pole-arm she carried into the thing from behind, seizing the opportunity presented by it suddenly paying extremely close attention to the young woman who had stabbed it. The curved blade on the two-metre staff slashed into it's side, making it scream again, lashing out with one of it's four arms and knocking her flying. She landed heavily ten metres away, yelping in pain, before slowly pulling herself up with the aid of her weapon.
Everyone, even the demon, looked to where the shout had come from. The short red-head was staring at the fight from a few metres away, looking absolutely, terrifyingly, totally pissed off. There was a moment of silence as all the participants, including the bleeding but still very much alive demon and the semi-conscious Tamiko, noticed that the girl was literally glowing a pale blue colour, the expression on her face more furious than that of the creature from another world. All of them, united in this way alone, took a couple of steps away. The anger radiating from the girl was that intense.
"I've just had one of the worst days I can remember," the red-head growled. "I'm wet, I'm aching, I'm female yet again, and I'm in possibly the shittiest mood I've ever been in. So if you want a fight, leave them alone and come here, you ugly bastard, I'll give you a fight you'll never forget." The three conscious girls exchanged glances. There was something odd about that statement, but they couldn't quite work out what in the heat of the battle. The demon stared at her for a moment. Glancing back at the other girls it roared in pain when a ball of blue energy caught it squarely in the middle of the back with a loud bang, smoke pouring from the scorched flesh. Fumiko stared. Where the hell had that come from?
The demon knew precisely where it had come from, turning and charging the red-head, who braced herself with a vicious grin on her face that would have made any of her normal rivals rapidly reassess their approach to her. It was the look of someone who was genuinely anticipating with considerable enjoyment the handing out of a massive amount of pain, not something anyone who knew her would think was characteristic of the martial artist. Even certain Amazon elders would have had second thoughts in the face of that grin.
Wincing in sympathy for the imminent collision between the two and a half metre creature from another world and the more than a metre shorter, three hundred kilo lighter girl, Fumiko watched in total shock as she jumped right over it's head in a blur of motion, kicking it in the face at least a dozen times on the way past. That was only the opening move in a fight that left everything they'd been doing up until now in the dust. The red-head landed lightly, instantly rebounding towards the demon, showering blows on it so fast they made nothing more than a high-pitched buzzing sound. The demon screamed, swinging around far faster than anything that size had any right to move, but by comparison to the young woman it might as well have been standing still.
She was everywhere, kicking, punching, striking with almost every part of her body. Each blow made the sort of sound you'd normally associate with the back room of a butcher's shop, several of them producing spurts of yellow blood. Pulling herself to her feet Tamiko wobbled a little, grabbing at the hand her team-mate offered her as Fumiko helped the girl, while they both watched the short girl take the demon to pieces. If it hadn't been for it's remarkable regeneration ability it would have been dead already. She was still grinning that horrible grin, which made the other young woman shudder.
Limping over, watching the fight, Misaki stood next to her sister. "Who or what is she?" she asked quietly, turning her head away for a moment as the girl physically ripped one of it's four hands off with her own. The scream it produced was horrific.
"I have no idea. None at all. I've never seen anything like it. She's so fast!" Fumiko watched open-mouthed as the red-head kicked the demon's knee so hard it reversed it's normal direction of travel. Lashing out at incredible speed with a ghastly scream of pain it caught her a lucky blow, propelling her towards a large tree at huge velocity. All three magical girls were sure that was the end of the other female, closing their eyes as a group in anticipation of the splat, only to hear nothing. Opening them again they were just in time to see the girl rebound off the tree, bounce into another one, swing around a branch and go vertical, around a different branch, then end up going right back at the demon with apparently even higher speed than with which she'd left. Even the demon seemed shocked.
It ducked as she flew overhead, but didn't escape unscathed as she produced a pair of those blue energy balls which slammed into it, blowing it head over heels some ten metres. Landing and tucking into a roll, she flipped onto her feet and walked calmly over to where it lay. It was already healing, although it didn't look to be in good condition. A few metres from it she stopped and looked at it darkly. "You ready to go back wherever it was you came from?" she asked calmly. It growled, a bass rumble, standing and glaring at her, opening and closing it's three remaining hands. She waited.
After a moment it said something in it's own language. She cocked her head to one side. "Sorry, was that a yes?" Making a deep rumbling sound it began to move forward, aggression clearly present. "I guess not."
She turned her body slightly, then made a slashing motion with her right hand. All three girls blinked as a ripple in the air shot from her hand, closing the ten-metre gap between them in the blink of an eye. The distortion in the air crossed the left upper forearm of the demon, which promptly fell to the ground as if severed by a giant invisible razor blade. They all gasped in shock, even as the demon screamed.
"Ready now?" she asked curiously, radiating an air of dispassionate coldness in contrast to her earlier red-hot anger. It was somehow worse.
Misaki pulled a small artefact from her storage space, pointing it at the girl then looking at it. "She's not using any magic," the young woman reported to her friends in shock.
The demon was incandescently furious at this point, showing no signs of wanting to retreat, regardless of the damage it had incurred. Leaning forward it roared incredibly loudly. The girl looked unimpressed. "Not an answer." She made the gesture again, watching as it's lower right arm separated into two pieces. Once more the demon registered it's pain with a roar. "I can keep this up all day, but I'm getting bored now. You're tough but not a good fighter. Go away or die, your choice. I don't like killing normally but right now I'll make an exception." The thing stared defiantly at her. She shrugged after a few seconds.
"OK." Turning she walked away, stopping as she reached Fumiko and her friends. Giving them a mildly curious once over, she turned back to the demon which was stomping slowly forwards thirty metres away, leaking blood and killing intent in equal amounts. "Last chance." The huge creature ignored her, getting ready to charge.
With a slight sigh, she raised her hand. A blue glow collected around it, the sensation of danger suddenly coming from her completely dwarfing that from the demon. Fumiko and the other girls exchanged wide-eyed glances, then started backing away. It was clear that something was going to happen, although they didn't know what.
They found out two seconds later, as did everyone within a couple of kilometres. A meter-diameter blue sphere of energy roared from the red-head's outstretched hand, impacting on the approaching demon a fraction of a second later with a flash that made the entire world go white. The noise was so loud it was more felt than heard at that range, all three magical girls getting blown flat by the shock wave. Recovery took them a good twenty seconds during which they could hear echoes bouncing back from around the neighbourhood.
When they could finally see again, they gaped wordlessly. The girl was standing beside a fifteen-metre dully red-glowing crater where the demon had been, looking at it. After a moment she made a shallow bow as if to a defeated opponent then turned and walked off. Slowly standing, Fumiko approached the crater as closely as she could, the heat radiating from what appeared to be melted glass lining it so intense she couldn't get closer than ten metres. "Oh my god," she breathed, horrified. Staring at it for several seconds she was barely aware of her friends joining her.
Kilometres away a wizened old Chinese woman jerked erect from the nap she had been taking, turning her head to stare in the direction she'd felt the absolutely massive wave of ki come from. "What the fuck was that?" she muttered in Mandarin.
Tamiko turned to watch the red-head walking away, then looked to where the fourth member of their group was lying, crumpled where the demon had kicked her into a lamp-post hard enough to bend it. She sighed. "Go after her, Fumiko. I want to know more about her, if nothing else we owe her thanks. Misaki, help me with Aiko, OK?" The two girls nodded. "Oh, Fumiko? Be very polite..." Fumiko stared at the still-glowing crater and nodded again.
"Don't worry about that!" she replied, hurrying in the direction the red-head had gone.
Ranma turned her head as one of the girls from the park came up beside her, having been aware for several seconds she was being followed. She said nothing, merely looked at the other female for a moment then went back to wandering along in the general direction of Furinkan, morosely wondering what she was going to do about the entire Akane situation. The fight with the demon had helped, her at any rate, the now-evaporated demon might have had other ways to put it except for the minor problem of being evaporated, but she could still clearly see that the problem wasn't going to get better.
"You ever found yourself in one of those situations where you can't see any way out that isn't worse that the place you are already, but there's no way you can live with it as it is?" she asked idly, making the other girl look at her oddly. After a few seconds the tall girl shrugged.
"Not really. Want to talk about it?" She smiled down at the considerably shorter red-head. "Thanks, by the way. I have no idea how you did that, but you may have saved our lives."
Ranma nodded in simple acceptance of the fact. "I don't know. I guess it wouldn't hurt to get a fresh viewpoint," she replied after several more paces. Stopping, she sized up the other young woman, then put out her hand. "Ranma Saotome." The girl shook her hand.
"Fumiko Fukazawa. Want to meet the others?"
"Why not. Got nothing else to do, it's not like I really want to go home."
Fumiko looked at her for a moment then shrugged again. "Family problems?" Her answer was a hollow laugh as the pair began walking back in the direction they'd come from.
"You have no idea."
"Problems with being a magical girl, I guess."
Ranma stopped and stared incredulously at her for a moment, then began chuckling. "Magical girl? That's fantastic. Akane would go completely ape-shit if she heard that." She laughed for some while, making Fumiko look curiously at her. Every now and then there was the comment, "Magical Girl!" followed by more laughter. Arriving back at the park they walked over to where Aiko was being helped to her feet slowly and painfully by the other two, clearly trying not to scream in agony. The auburn haired girl knelt down and inspected her leg and knee which were swollen visibly, with blood coming from a gash through which bone could be seen protruding. They stopped a couple of metres away.
"Guys, this is Ranma. Ranma, this is my sister Misaki, Tamiko, and the one with the nasty looking leg is Aiko, she's kind of our leader." Ranma nodded to each of them in turn, then took a closer look at Aiko's leg. Reaching out she gently and expertly prodded it in a few places. Aiko looked startled as the intense pain stopped as suddenly as if a switch had been flipped.
"What did you do?" she asked, looking down at it. The martial artist glanced up at her, then went back to inspecting the wound.
"Pressure points. Block the pain, and slow some of the blood flow a little so you don't lose too much." She stood up. "That's a bad break. Snapped the larger bone in two places, tore a minor artery, and you've got three broken ribs as well." The four young women looked at her with interest. She seemed slightly embarrassed. "I've got quite a lot of experience with injuries, I've had most of them at one point or another. Broken ribs are something I used to get all the time. Pop, various rivals, or the damn fiancées." They exchanged glances.
"Um, what?" Aiko asked slowly. "Your father broke your ribs?"
Ranma nodded sourly. "Yep. Probably not on purpose, but I wouldn't swear to it." They all looked at each other, appalled. The red-head looked down at the brunette's wounded leg, noting idly that they were remarkably similar in size and general build, which was unusual. "You're going to need some good medical attention. You don't seem to heal as fast as I do." Looking around, she vaguely recognised the area. "This is Minato somewhere, isn't it?"
Fumiko nodded. "Yes, about in the middle. We, um, I guess you could say we work around here."
"OK. I know a doctor who's around here somewhere. He's pretty good and can be trusted. If I can work out how to get there he could fix you up. But I don't think you're going to be teasing demons for a while, not with a leg like that." She grinned. Aiko rolled her eyes.
"We weren't teasing it, we were trying to kill the fucking thing. And it was trying to kill us!"
"Who started it?" Ranma asked curiously. They all looked at her, then each other.
"What do you mean? It's a demon. Well, it was a demon. Now it's a damn great hole. How the hell did you do that, anyway?" Tamiko said.
Ranma shrugged a little. "Ki blast," she replied, answering the last part first. "Like I told it, I was in a... spectacularly nasty mood. Bad day. No, bad week." She thought for a few seconds. "Bad year." There was a pause while they tried to think of something to say and the red-head was absently staring off into space thinking about how bad the last year had really been. After a while she came back to the here and now with a slight shake of her head. "Anyway, what I meant was that, yes, it was a demon, but a lot of them will go away if you just leave them alone. He didn't look like he was going to, though, you really annoyed him. I've seen that type before, when they get into that state, someone is going to die, either you or it." She was rather regretful, but realistic enough to know that what she'd done was something that had to be done by that point.
"What are you talking about?" Tamiko demanded.
Ranma looked at her. "Exactly what I said. Not all demons are vicious killers. In fact, most of them aren't from what I've seen. It might just have been a tourist."
"It was trying to fucking kill us!" Misaki said hotly.
"You were trying just as hard to kill it," the red-head replied, looking annoyed. "And from what I saw not doing a very good job. Lucky for you I came along just then, and was in a bad enough mood to need some stress relief." Misaki glared at her.
"We were doing fine."
"No. You weren't." Ranma smirked at her. "It was handing you your asses. Another five minutes and all of you would have been like Aiko here, if you were lucky." She indicated the short brunette with a wave, who took the opportunity to nearly collapse as the steady leakage of blood from her leg made her head suddenly feel light. "Whoops." Grabbing her other arm, the martial artist help Tamiko keep her friend upright. "We need to get you to a doctor soon. I think I can remember his address."
"What is it?" Aiko asked weakly. After a little thought Ranma told her. She nodded, then the world flickered. The red-head looked around curiously, ignoring the brief twinge of nausea as unimportant. She'd had far worse on a nearly daily basis for months as a result of Akane's temper tantrums.
"Cool. Teleportation?" Aiko nodded, then nearly collapsed.
"Crap. OK, I think that's the Docs place over there." She scooped the other girl up in her arms and shot across the street, followed by the other three, pushing the door to the clinic open with her shoulder. "Hey, Doc? You in here?" A tall man with his brown hair in a ponytail appeared from a room at the back of the clinic, staring at her, as were the half dozen people in the waiting room.
"Ranma?" he said, surprised. Spotting the martial artist he smiled. "I haven't seen you for months." Noticing the wounded Aiko his eyes widened behind his glasses. "Oh hell. That looks bad. Bring her through. Sorry, everyone, this is an emergency, I have to deal with it." Several pairs of eyes watched as the entire group of magical girls and martial artist followed the doctor into the back room and shut the door, recognising the uniforms with surprise. They looked at each other, then went back to talking or reading magazines.
"Put her on the examination table, please, Ranma," the doctor directed, pulling on a pair of disposable gloves. Once Aiko was in place, he moved into position and began his examination. "Ah. You used pressure points to help with the pain?" The red-head nodded.
"Yep. Seemed like the best idea. I slowed the blood flow as well, but I didn't dare do more than that."
"Good, that's not a problem but anything else might have been. You did very well." Looking at the girl on his table he smiled at her. "Hello. I'm Doctor Ono Tofu. May I ask your name, miss?"
"Aiko, Doctor, Aiko Maedam." She smiled back at him, slightly glassily. He nodded, carefully examining the broken leg after a quick look at her ribs.
"OK, Aiko. Your leg is very severely broken. I'm going to have to set it, which is probably going to hurt even with the pressure points. I can give you some Nitronox, which is safe and will help a lot, but I'm reluctant to use general anaesthesia unless I have to. Is that all right?" After a moment she nodded jerkily.
"Yes." Doctor Tofu got up and walked over to a cupboard on the other side of the room, unlocking it and extracting a metre-high pressurised cylinder and breathing mask. He soon had it set up with the mask around the girl's head covering her nose and mouth. As her friends watched with worried expressions he instructed her to breath deeply.
"You'll probably feel a bit strange and sounds will echo a bit, but it will stop almost all of the pain." Studying her carefully he took her pulse, then slightly adjusted the gas flow. Satisfied, he looked at Ranma. "Hold her shoulders, please. I'm going to have to pull." The red-head moved to the end of the table and firmly anchored the other girl in place. Tofu went to the other end, gently holding her foot and leg, then with a steady and expert pressure slipped the bones back into the correct position with an unpleasant crack/squelch sound. Tamiko paled while Fumiko looked away. Ranma and Misaki watched with interest. Aiko let out a choked little squeak of agony and momentarily fainted, coming around as the doctor began suturing the torn artery, which was bleeding again. When he finished he began closing the wound the end of bone had left in her thigh.
"You're going to be in a cast for a while, I'm afraid, Aiko. That break is bad. The ribs will hurt for some time, but there's not much I can do except tape them up. They're not too bad, just some simple breaks. The leg is a different matter. Even with the accelerated healing I suspect you have, based on your obvious profession," he looked at the clothes she and her friends were barely wearing with a raised eyebrow, the first sign he'd shown that he even noticed, "you're going to be off your leg for at least three weeks. Even Ranma would take a week or more to heal this much damage." Tofu looked at Ranma, who shrugged.
"Perhaps. I heal pretty fast nowadays, Doc. I haven't seen you for six months, things have changed." She didn't seem to want to go into details. He merely nodded, looking back to his patient.
"Do your parents know about you?" he asked. She stared at him, then shook her head. "OK. I'll give you a report that says I treated you for injuries resulting from an accident. What you tell them that accident was is up to you. Is that all right?" Aiko smiled.
"Thank you, Doctor."
Bandaging the wound, he began applying a cast. "You'll need to get this changed in a few days and the wound checked, it will need that every four or five days until it's healed, then the cast can stay on until the bone is properly set. It would normally be at least six weeks, I'd recommend a minimum of three weeks in your case. Perhaps a month. You can come back here if you want, or use your regular doctor. It's up to you. I have a pair of crutches you can borrow as well, although I'd like them back when you don't need them any more."
Finishing up he washed his hands. "Lie there until the plaster sets completely. That will take about ten minutes." Writing out a prescription he handed it to her along with a bottle of pills and a couple of completed forms. "Take one every four hours to a maximum of five a day, all right? There's a weeks supply there, along with a prescription for another week's worth. That should be enough." Accepting the two items the girl smiled.
"Thank you Doctor Tofu. This is very good of you."
"It's no problem. Any friend of Ranma is a friend of mine, so to speak." Tofu looked at her for a moment, then her friends. "Off the record and out of curiosity, what did do this to you?"
She glanced at the other three girls, who looked at each other. Ranma was leaning against the wall with her arms folded simply watching and listening. Eventually she said, "A very large, very angry demon. We may have made a bit of a mistake taking it on. It was... difficult." Ranma snorted.
"It was wiping the floor with you." She flushed, casting a glare at the smirking red-head, then lowered her head.
"What happened to it?" Doctor Tofu asked. Aiko pointed.
"She did." Everyone looked at the red-headed martial artist who looked slightly guilty.
"I've had an absolutely terrible day, Doc. I wasn't in a good mood when I landed there, then when I saw that thing... I dealt with it." Tofu stared at her for a moment.
"Is that what that explosion about twenty minutes ago was?" he asked slowly. She nodded.
"Probably. It was pretty loud." He continued to stare at her, looking quite worried.
"What on earth did you do to it?"
"Ki blast. Pretty big one. The sort of thing I'm always trying not to let loose on Ryoga or the ghoul." She half-smiled for a second. "Probably a good thing I don't. The crater is... impressive."
"Crater!?" Doctor Tofu looked mildly appalled. "You went full power in the middle of the city?" The four girls were looking back and forth between the red-head and the doctor like people at a tennis game. Ranma shook her head.
"No. That would just be stupid. But I made sure it wasn't a threat any more." She sighed. "I don't really want to talk about it." Inspecting her for a moment more he nodded.
"All right." Tamiko stared at them both for a moment then exploded.
"What? That's it? She tells you she blew a fucking great glowing crater in the park, you asked her if she used her full power, she says no, which I don't believe by the way, and you just say 'All right'? Who the hell are you people?" Tofu and Ranma glanced at each other then studied the annoyed magical girl with almost identical expressions of polite interest. Eventually, Ranma waved to Tofu as if to say, 'You tell her.'
"You don't get to Nerima much, do you?" Tofu asked. Tamiko and the others froze.
"Nerima?" Fumiko squeaked. He nodded.
"Ranma and I both come from there. I moved away around six months ago, she still lives there." The magical girls looked at each other, worried.
"I've heard some weird things about Nerima," Misaki mused, staring at the red-headed girl. "They make Minato sound sane. Which it isn't." Ranma shrugged.
"They're probably all true. Sorry about that."
"Ranma is an extremely good martial artist," Doctor Tofu explained. "She has a number of very unusual skills and abilities. I'll leave it up to her to explain more, it's not my place to say, but she'd been involved in a large quantity of very odd things in the last eighteen months or so. You might have heard of a couple of them. Mount Horai ring a bell?" They all nodded, then turned to stare at Ranma, who looked embarrassed again.
"You blew up a mountain?" Tamiko squeaked.
"I had help," the red-head said quietly.
"It was still somewhat impressive," Tofu said, smiling a little. "Just the fact you survived it was exceptional." He looked at his watch. "Look, I'd like to chat, Ranma, I've been away from Nerima for some time, but I have other patients I need to see. Come back sometime after hours, OK?" Fumiko and Misaki moved to help Aiko off the table, where she was sitting on the edge listening. Tofu retrieved the crutches from the corner and quickly adjusted them, handing them to the short girl who tucked them under her arms and experimentally hobbled around, then smiled.
"OK, Doc." Holding the door open for the three girls to exit, Ranma nodded to the doctor, before following Tamiko out, who was looking at her nervously for some reason. Tofu watched them leave, as did all the patients in the waiting room, until they were out of sight.
"Next," he called, waving to an old lady.
Outside, they all looked at each other. "Now what?" Fumiko said. "I don't feel much like walking home like this. Do you have enough power left for a teleport, Aiko?" The short girl concentrated for a moment then nodded.
"Barely. I'm going to need to lie down for a while. Can we go to your cousin's old shop, Tamiko?"
The auburn-haired girl was still looking at Ranma every now and then, but she nodded. "He wouldn't mind. I've got the key. As long as we lock up afterwards there's no problem."
Aiko glanced at the red-head who was standing slightly apart from them, thinking about the events in the park. "Ranma? Would you like to come with us? I'd love to learn more about you. If nothing else we owe you a thank-you meal." Looking a bit startled, Ranma gazed at her for a while, then nodded slowly.
"Thanks. You don't owe me anything, but I never turn down free food." She smirked at them. "Better than going home anyway." Aiko motioned her closer, then the entire group vanished. Several passers-by blinked at the intense flash of light the outbound teleport produced.
Happosai looked down at the crater in the middle of the park, then studied the long trench in the ground leading towards what had once been a rather nice fountain. Shaking his head he puffed on his pipe. 'Impressive, m'boy. Very impressive. You're becoming a force to be reckoned with. I wonder what pushed you to this?' Watching the local police wandering around inspecting the damage, he grinned. 'I can guess. That girl is not a nice person. It will be interesting to see how long this goes on before something breaks. I just hope we all survive it when it does.' With one last look at the devastated park, he bounded away cackling to himself, diverting his path when he noticed a particularly skimpy set of feminine underclothes on a line hanging out a window in the middle distance.
The cry of a hunting Happosai echoed out across the town, making men faint and strong women tremble. "What a haul, what a haul!"
Ranma sat and watched as all four girls produced a change of clothes from nowhere. 'Something like hidden weapons, but not the same,' she thought, feeling with ki senses to see if she could determine how the technique worked. 'Feels like some sort of magic. Not one I've seen before, though.' Soon all the girls were dressed in normal clothing, the ridiculously impractical uniforms put away. She looked around the large room they were currently in, which appeared to be the second floor of some sort of shop.
Various cardboard cartons of stock were piled along one side, while about half of the room was set up as a basic apartment, with a single bed visible in what was probably intended as a closet. In the main room was a table, several chairs, a microwave oven and kettle, and at one side a sink with some cups and plates stacked next to it. Tamiko, now wearing a nice dress, sat next to her, following her gaze. "My cousin owns this shop. He had a small fire on the ground floor a month ago, which meant he had to close his business for a while. He wasn't doing very well anyway. I borrowed a key from him so we'd have somewhere to change. Before that we had to keep looking for unoccupied places, which was a pain."
The martial artist looked at her curiously. "Does he know about you and the magical girl thing?" She smiled a little.
"I'm not sure. I never told him, he's never said anything, but he didn't ask any questions when I asked to borrow the key." She shrugged. "He's a very nice person and pretty smart. He might have figured it out." Aiko and Fumiko came out of the back room where the tall girl had been helping her friend change her clothes. Luckily she had a skirt as well, since the cast would have been in the way of anything else. Both Fumiko and Misaki were wearing jeans.
Fumiko helped Aiko to a chair, then she sat as well. Misaki came back from where she had been making tea, putting a pot on the table with five cups. Soon they all had one. Everyone looked at each other wordlessly for a moment, then all eyes turned to Ranma, who sighed a little. "OK. I guess I did say I'd talk about it." She looked at them, then sighed again. "Better get this part out of the way first. It's the really awkward bit." They glanced at each other, wondering what the red-head meant, then watched as she got up to fetch the kettle and a glass of water from the tap.
"Right. Like I told Fumiko here, I'm Ranma Saotome. I'm a martial artist. A very good one, probably the best you'll ever meet." She said this in a completely matter of fact way as if it was merely the simple truth. "I have a very complicated life. I hate it." Fumiko watched her, seeing that she didn't look happy, but seemed less upset than earlier. Talking about it seemed to be helping.
"I wouldn't normally say any of this, the people I know at home would only take it as either a sign of weakness or use it against me," Ranma continued after sipping some tea. "That's part of what I hate. I don't have any real friends, no one I can open up to. No, that's not really true. I have one. But she has her own problems, it's not fair to dump mine on her as well. Especially since I'm a large part of her problems as well." She sighed.
"OK, let's just get it over with. I'm a guy." They stared at her, then each other. Fumiko looked closely at her chest, remembering when she'd taken off her shirt to wring it out in the park.
"Umm..." she started. Ranma looked at her.
"I know what you're thinking." She hefted her breasts, then let them settle back into position. "No guy has these. Or the rest. Trust me, I know. But it's true. A while ago I ended up in a place called Jusenkyo, have you heard of it?" They shook their heads. "Good. It's a horrible place. But there's some weird magic there, which can change you. A lot." She explained the entire Jusenkyo trip and it's ramifications in a dispassionate and articulate manner that would have surprised any of her normal acquaintances other than perhaps Kasumi. When she finished the familiar old story she waited for the inevitable.
The four girls looked at each other, then studied the martial artist for a while. Eventually Tamiko said what they were all thinking. "Can you prove it?" The red-head nodded, reaching out for the kettle, which had cooled to merely hot not boiling. Picking it up she poured a little on herself. They all gasped, staring in disbelief.
"Holy shit!" Misaki exclaimed. This was more or less what all the others were thinking. Hearing about it was one thing, seeing it something else entirely. Ranma grinned tiredly at them.
"You see?" He picked up the glass of cold water and splashed himself with it, instantly becoming the red-headed girl they were familiar with. "Not a magical girl, just a cursed martial artist."
"Wow." Aiko watched the girl as she became a boy again with the last of the hot water in the kettle. "That must be difficult for you." Slightly surprised, Ranma nodded, looking at them all curiously.
"Normally by this point people are making crude jokes or calling me a perverted cross-dresser. Or both," he said, dropping the kettle back on the table and picking up his teacup. She looked oddly at him.
"Why? It's not something you can help, is it?" He was silent for a long time.
"Thank you. That's one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me." Once again they stared at him. Finishing his tea, he put the cup down and began to explain the story of his life. It took quite a long time. By the time he was done he looked very tired. "So that's pretty much it. Akane blew her top yet again, for no reason I can work out, and smacked me right through the roof and all the way to that park. You know the rest." He rested his head in his hands looking morose. "I'll probably get blamed for the hole in the roof. Again. And Nabiki will make me pay for it. Again." Mumbling the last few words he sank into a depressed pile on the table for a few minutes, his hands over the back of his head, before he looked up at the four young women.
The expressions of sympathy were so unfamiliar to him it took him some time to work out what they were. Normal responses to even part of his story ranged from shock to revulsion. Expressions that said that the people wearing them actually felt sorry for him and would like to help were rather alien. Eventually, Misaki smiled. "You poor bastard. No wonder you wanted to kill something. If it was me I'd have broken the necks of almost everyone involved months ago." This made him laugh with unexpected amusement, giving the tall girl a look of appreciation.
"Thanks. You have no idea how nice it is to just talk to someone without them jumping on me for some stupid reason or not. Especially a woman. There are a lot in my life, but most of them... aren't very helpful." He shook his head in annoyance. "Kasumi is the exception. She's a wonderful person. I'm so sorry I've made her life more difficult that it already is."
"From what you told us you can hardly blame yourself for most of that," Tamiko commented. He half-grinned.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. There's no denying me just being there causes her, and to be fair, the rest of them, a lot of problems. The number of people who turn up just to have a go at me is nuts. Not to mention all the other insanity that seems to follow me around." Getting up he refilled the kettle and turned it on, then leaned against the sink as he waited for it to boil. "Pop is a menace, a child-abusing thief with some master plan for me and Akane I still haven't worked out. Mom is just nuts. Soun was probably a pretty good guy once, but he's badly broken. If he can ever be fixed I don't know. Happosai?" He shrugged, looking disgusted.
"I have a lot of respect for him as a martial artist, he's ancient and clever, knows more than I'll probably ever learn, but is also a huge pervert. That really annoys me. Akane has her moments, when I first met her she could really be nice, but she can also flip right into the most violent unstable person I've ever met. That's the one that seems to be around more and more nowadays. I really don't like that Akane at all. But everyone expects me to marry her." He laughed, not a happy sound. "If that ever happened one or both of us would be dead in a week." Turning to the boiling kettle he made more tea for all of them.
"Nabiki is... complicated. On one level I could easily hate her, but I don't. I don't actually like her a lot of the time, but I do respect her. She's very smart, smarter than I am, dedicated to her family despite all the money-grubbing, and as weird as it sounds to say it, probably one of the most honest people I've ever met." Ranma laughed again. "As in, when she's bought she stays bought. It's weird. I think under different conditions we could have been good friends."
He sat down once more and stared at the teapot for a while in silence as they all politely waited. Eventually he looked up. "Add to that all the other insanity. The fiancées are crazy. Ukyo is the sanest one and she's pretty strange in a lot of ways. Kodachi is genuinely insane. Shampoo is... Shampoo." The martial artist chuckled a little. "You'd have to meet her, I can't really do it justice. The Amazons are all very weird. Ryoga is a pain, not to mention the other 'rivals'." He made sarcastic little air-quotes with his fingers.
"Rivals! It's nuts. I didn't pick any of these people, but try explaining that to them. Oh, wait, you can't, they don't fucking listen! Mousse tries to kill me because he wants Shampoo, who wants me. Ryoga tries to kill me because he's nuts, he blames me for most of the things that have gone wrong in his life, and, oh yes, he wants Akane. Who might or might not want me, depending on time of day and whether she's currently angry. Which is most of the damn time. Kodachi wants me as a male and wants to kill me as a female, but doesn't realise we're the same fucking person. Her brother is the exact opposite. All the so-called fiancées want to kill each other or failing that, me, so no one else can have me."
The martial artist sighed heavily. "And in the middle of all this insanity is poor old me, who doesn't know what or who he wants since he never has a moment to even think about it, what with the constant fighting, kidnapping, supernatural happenings, you name it. Yet my own honour is so tightly tied into everyone, due almost entirely to other people's actions, I can't just walk away. Which would be the sensible thing. Even if I did, they'd find me practically anywhere I go." Fumiko watched him for a moment, then got up and moved over, gently hugging him. He looked surprised, flinching slightly. She laughed.
"Don't worry. I don't want to marry you. I'm just showing that people can care about other people without all the troubles you seem to have." She sat next to him. "I'm sorry you've got all this hanging over you. We haven't known each other for very long, but I think I speak for all of us when I say..." Here she held out her hand, "Hi. I'm Fumiko Fukazawa. Would you like to be friends?" He stared at her for a long few seconds, then glanced around at the others, who were smiling. Finally he reached out, his hand trembling slightly, and shook hers.
"Yes. Very much."
He suddenly smiled brilliantly, giving all four girls an insight into why so many people seemed desperate to claim him as their own. "Thank you. Meeting you four might have been under unpleasant circumstances but I think it was a good thing. I must have known it all along somehow, I don't know why else I opened up like that."
"You needed to get it off your chest," Aiko said, watching him. "You can only bottle things like up for so long until something horrible happens. With the power you have, that could be very horrible." His smile vanished.
"I know. That worries me a lot. You have no idea how hard it is to hold back with some of the idiots, to keep from finishing the fight in a way that makes sure it doesn't happen again." Ranma shook his head in disgust. "I know some very powerful people, but aside from Happosai and the old ghoul, I could take any of them. Permanently. Even those two would know they'd been in a fight. But I can't do that. I don't like to kill, I really hate it in fact, but like with that demon, I have done in the past a few times. None of them have a clue, it was always under weird circumstances, but it's happened. Sometimes there simply isn't a choice. If I find myself in a kill or be killed situation, I'll deal with it. I'm no saint. But, none of the fights I get into with the idiots in Nerima are that serious, at least from my viewpoint. They're incredibly irritating, though. Sometimes a decent workout, but recently not even that, I can't fight back hard enough to make it matter." He sighed a little, pouring himself a cup of lukewarm tea for something to do more than anything else.
"It's not like I ever asked for all this power and stuff. It just sort of... happened. I love the art, learning about it, practising it, but I sometimes wonder if I'd been given a choice when I was a little kid, if someone had told me what the end result would be, whether I'd have decided to be an engineer or something." He shrugged, grinning a little. "Probably not."
The four girls laughed, Aiko wincing a little. "I think I need one of those pills. Misaki, where did the bottle get to?" The other girl looked around, then went into the back room, returning with the bottle of painkillers. "Thanks." Aiko read the instructions on the bottle carefully, then shook one pill out and swallowed it with some tea.
Ranma watched as her face relaxed. "Knowing the Doc, they work fast." She nodded.
"Yes. Remarkably so."
"OK, enough of me and my own problems. Tell me about you guys." They all exchanged glances, unspoken words being exchanged, then Aiko nodded. As one, they reached for their wrists and did something. Ranma blinked. Something had happened, he could feel it, but he wasn't sure what. He noticed that each of the girls was wearing a silver bracelet, ornate and elegant, which for some reason he hadn't seemed to see up until now.
"What did you just do?" he asked curiously. Fumiko smiled.
"Decided to trust you as much as you trust us." She held up her left wrist. "This thing is a disguise bracelet. It's got a really complicated spell on it that hides our identities. The effect is that to anyone who isn't wearing one, or wasn't present when they're activated, we can't be remembered properly. Not what we look like, our names beyond a basic recognition, what we sound like, anything like that. It even works on cameras. We could wander around in the street stark naked and seconds after we left no one would have a clue what we looked like." He stared at the thing for a while.
"Cool. Where did you get it?"
"It came with the magic." She glanced at Aiko, who nodded. "We've been Magical Girls for about two years now. We were on a school trip to Kyoto, to a museum. We were friends then so we tended to hang out together. Misaki decided that she wanted to poke around in the non-public parts of the museum since the tour we were on was too boring so we followed her. Somehow we ended up in a sub-basement which was full of crates of artefacts that the museum hadn't got around to cataloguing. We were looking around, expecting to get discovered and kicked out at any moment, when three people came in and started opening one of the crates. We hid and watched." She glanced at Aiko who took up the story.
"Two of the people were people. We realised after a while that the other one wasn't human. She was some sort of demon, I know that now. They seemed to know what they were looking for, they had some little device that seemed to be a sort of tracking system. It led them straight to one large crate they opened. Inside it was this incredibly ugly statue of something, I have no idea even now of what. It was difficult to look at, you kind of forgot the details as soon as you looked away. They seemed very pleased and started pulling it out of the box. As soon as the demon woman touched it it started glowing. She laughed, then told the two men with her to put it on the trolley they had with them." Aiko sighed. "They dropped it."
"Sounds like that was a bad thing," Ranma commented, engrossed in the story. She nodded.
"It wasn't good, that's for sure. She panicked and started some sort of spell. Some kind of energy from the statue attacked one of the men. He... melted." She looked sick at the memory. "It was horrible. We were hiding right at the back of the room, we could only just see what was happening, but we were terrified that they'd find us. Then, one of the crates next to us started to smoke. It seemed to be reacting to the spell the demon was doing, or maybe the broken statue. We never did figure out what triggered it. A few seconds later the crate just crumbled to dust and this kind of crystal ball floated out. It was just hanging in the air in front of us. It scanned us somehow, with a sort of glowing beam, then basically exploded. There was a loud pop like a balloon bursting and we were covered in glittery dust. Five seconds later we had those clothes on."
"If you can call them clothes," Fumiko said grumpily.
"They're fine if you have the legs for them," Tamiko interjected with a grin. Her team-mates spared her an icy glare.
"Anyway," Fumiko said, continuing the story after looking hard at her friend, who seemed unaffected, "somehow we knew what we could do with the powers we'd suddenly got. Not like we had a manual or anything, just what we were capable of. We also knew that the demon woman had to be stopped. She had managed to finish her spell which seemed to make the energy from the statue go inside her, which made her very pleased. Not so much the other man, who was shouting at her in some weird language. She grinned at him then stabbed him with a knife she got from somewhere. I can't remember which one of us jumped in first, but seconds later we were in a fight for our lives." She shuddered a little, remembering. Her sister watched her for a moment, then looked at the martial artist.
"We won," she said, biting into an apple she'd pulled out of nowhere.
Ranma nodded, interested. "Sounds like a pretty harsh introduction to the magical girl lifestyle." They all sighed a little.
Tamiko looked annoyed. "You can say that again. We were only around thirteen or fourteen. Too young to be killing demons with plans of world conquest. Plus, when it was all over, we discovered that our clothes didn't change back. One of my best dresses got eaten by that damn clothing spell. There we were, covered in demon blood, wearing practically nothing, hundreds of kilometres from home, and kind of traumatised. Luckily Misaki and Aiko held it together and came up with a plan."
"We poked around in the crate the crystal thing had come from and found a load more artefacts," Aiko added. "These bracelets, about a dozen or so of them, some little gadgets that turned out to be weapons, which we could have used during the fucking fight, by the way!" She looked annoyed even after all the time that had passed. "Plus some notes that the researcher who had found the stuff before the war had made. He clearly had no idea what it all was, his notes were basically useless. There was another crystal ball which turned out to be a sort of recording device. When I touched it we heard a voice telling us how everything worked, and that we'd been chosen. Chosen by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as far as I can see." The petite brunette sulked a little.
"We managed to find new clothes, although we had to sort of break into a store," she continued after a few seconds, during which Ranma exchanged an amused glance with Tamiko. "Luckily none of the teachers seemed to have noticed we were gone for over an hour and a half. Not very responsible. We stuffed all the uniforms and artefacts into a couple of back-packs we... liberated... and got back on the bus. For the first couple of weeks we tried to pretend it hadn't happened, but weird things started happening around us back home." Ranma nodded understandingly.
"I have a good idea what you mean. It goes with the whole having strange abilities thing."
"Right. So when the third demon in a row turned up making a nuisance of itself, we decided to deal with it ourselves rather than wait for one of the other magical girl groups to get around to it. Minato has dozens of them, you know." He looked slightly surprised.
Aiko nodded. "I don't know why, but there are loads. They all seem to end up here."
"I guess it's like Nerima and martial artists." Ranma thought about it for a while, then shrugged. "Not like I can do anything about it, but it's interesting."
"We managed to persuade that demon to go away, but more by luck than skill," Tamiko said, "I think we just annoyed it so much it left. I could swear it was sighing when it jumped through a portal it produced." The martial artist chuckled. She glared at him for a moment, then giggled. "We got better."
"Not much better, from what I saw earlier." They all gave him an unfriendly look, making him hold up his hands defensively. "Not trying to be rude. Just telling you what I think." He examined them curiously then nodded. "Would you like me to show you some stuff that will make you more effective?"
The four girls exchanged looks. "Can you show me how to do those energy balls?" Misaki asked eagerly, peeling an orange. He laughed.
"Not for a while. It requires a lot of ki control and from what I can tell you don't use ki at all."
"Ki?" The tall girl looked puzzled.
"Life energy, I suppose you could call it. It's very useful, there are all sorts of tricks you can do with it when you have enough." Holding out his hand he formed an apple-sized ball of pale blue ki in it. They all stared.
"Holy shit!" Tamiko yelped.
Dissipating it he smiled. "The only way I know to build up enough of it and the control you need is years of martial arts. Everyone has different levels naturally, some quite high and some fairly low. I don't know what the upper limit is. Herb, that half-dragon prince I told you about, has an absolutely huge amount of it, far more than I do. Happosai has nearly as much. But mine is much higher than anyone other than them that I know and increasing fast. Maybe one day I'll be able to figure out a way to teach people about it without all the martial arts, maybe not. Right now, I can't. But I can show you quite a few things that will make you much more effective fighters."
Aiko stared at him. "Why would you be willing to help like that?" she asked curiously. He looked back at her evenly.
"Friends help each other. That's what I always heard."
After a moment both of them smiled broadly.
Misaki watched for a second. "You're not going to be doing any fighting for a few weeks, Aiko," she commented, glancing at the cast on her friend's leg. Aiko sighed.
"I know. Damn it." Looking around at her friends she had a worried expression. "It's going to leave the team one short, which isn't ideal." Suddenly stopping dead, she stared at Misaki, who returned her gaze, one eyebrow going up, then glanced at the other two girls. As one, they turned to stare at Ranma, who looked back with a curious expression that slowly turned to horror.
"We're even nearly the same size," Aiko mused, looking him up and down. "When you're female, of course."
"I bet my uniform would fit perfectly."
"No way in hell am I wearing that thing!" Ranma crossed his arms and glared at her. She put on her best puppy-dog eyes.
"Friends help each other. Remember?"
"I look fucking ridiculous." The red-head examined herself in the mirror.
Aiko and Tamiko exchanged amused looks. "You've certainly got the legs for it, Ranma," the other red-head said with a giggle. The look she got back should have made her spontaneously combust, although all it actually did was make her collapse laughing.
"You look fine," Fumiko reassured the martial artist, making a slight adjustment. "You're remarkably close in size. Lucky we had a spare set of Aiko's, the one she was wearing is a little wrecked." Stepping back she inspected the unwilling stand-in magical girl. "Take your hair tie off, let it hang loose. That would look very nice."
"Don't want to look very nice," Ranma growled, but reached up and untied her pigtail. "I knew meeting you lunatics was a mistake," she added, looking at her reflection again. Aiko giggled.
"No it wasn't, and you know it." The red-headed martial artist glanced at her, then smiled.
"You're right. But this is still incredibly embarrassing. I'm a guy, damn it!"
Fumiko looked sympathetically at her new friend. "At the moment you're a very beautiful girl, you might as well admit it. Why hide it? From what you said you'll be living with this for the rest of your life unless you find a cure which seems to be very unlikely. I think you'll have a lot less trouble if you accept the fact that sometimes you're female. It doesn't change who you are inside." After a long moment Ranma nodded slightly.
"I guess so. I don't like it, I don't like anything that's forced on me, but you're right. It's not going anywhere."
"I think it's kind of cool," Misaki remarked, walking around the red-head inspecting her closely. "You make a very good woman. Not many men can say that!" She grinned, while Ranma sighed.
"Not many men want to say that, I expect," she muttered. Looking at her reflection she ran her hands through her hair. "Mind you, I have to admit my hair in this form is amazing."
"I'm jealous," Tamiko said, standing beside her. "Your colour is nicer than mine, and it's thicker as well. Typical overachieving man, having nicer hair than a real woman." She grinned at the other girl, who smirked a little despite herself.
"Your hair is fine, Tamiko," Aiko said, watching them with a broad grin. "Right, you certainly look the part. Misaki, do you have a spare bracelet on you?" The other girl put the apple she was eating in her mouth and patted herself down, coming up with one of the silver bracelets. She handed it to Ranma, who took it and looked dubiously at it.
"My experiences with magic up until now haven't been very positive," she said sourly, before fastening it around her left wrist. Misaki reached out and touched it. She felt something change, inspecting it with interest. "It's on?" The other young woman nodded. "Can you turn it off again?" Once more Misaki touched it. "Interesting. It's a little like ki but not..." She stared at the bracelet for a moment, then prodded it with an experimental thread of ki. "Hmm. Not quite." It took several attempts but finally she smiled. "Neat. That's it. Very interesting indeed. I'm going to have to experiment, I never thought of using ki like that." The other four were watching her with varying expressions.
"You worked out how to control it just like that?" Fumiko asked with curious respect. Ranma nodded, smiling.
"It's not obvious, but I could see what Misaki was doing. I just had to figure out how to do the same thing in a different way." She shrugged. "I'm pretty good at working out how to do things I shouldn't be able to do."
"Interesting. I think this is going to be fun, working with you." Fumiko grinned at her, getting a grin back.
"Embarrassing, but fun. But, one thing." Ranma looked seriously at them all. "I'll help, but before we kill anything, we try to persuade it to go away, OK? Like I said, killing is the absolute last resort." They all looked slightly confused but nodded after a few seconds.
"OK. If you think you can, go right ahead. I'll be at a safe distance watching," Tamiko said with a giggle. Ranma made a face at her but laughed.
"No one will notice the bracelet whether it's active or not, it protects itself," Aiko said. "You should probably just leave it on. We'll call you if we have a problem. I can always pick you up, I can still teleport easily enough, but I'm not walking anywhere I can avoid." She made a slight face. "The problem is that to use the teleportation I need to activate the magic, which means I'll end up in the uniform again. Hmm. I'll have to think about that."
"Don't worry, I can get here pretty quickly by roof-hopping. Don't bother with a pick-up unless it's a real emergency." Ranma grinned at their expressions. "I can see what my first lessons are going to be."
Fumiko and Misaki looked at each other. "I have a feeling that this is going to be painful," Fumiko said quietly to her sister, who nodded calmly.
"What's your cell-phone number?" Aiko asked, pulling her own phone out. Ranma stared blankly at her. "You do have a cell-phone?" The red-head shook her head. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Ranma, this is the end of the twentieth century. Everyone has a cell-phone." The martial artist shrugged.
"Never needed one before."
Aiko sighed. "OK. I can get you a nice one cheap, I know someone who works at one of the big phone shops. We can stop in later, it's fairly close." She struggled to her feet, Tamiko quickly helping her, then took the crutches Fumiko handed her. "Come on, let's go and find some decent food. I'm starving. Then I need to figure out how to explain to my mom how I ended up in a cast."
"Can I at least change into something less obscene?" Ranma asked, looking about for her clothes. Soon she was dressed normally for her, the unwelcome super-revealing outfit safely hidden in a ki pocket. All five girls left the building, Tamiko carefully setting the alarm and locking the door behind her. Shortly after that they were sitting around a table in a good restaurant.
"I'm surprised you didn't change back," Fumiko said quietly, glancing at the red-head beside her who was wolfing down a very nice fish stew. Ranma shrugged slightly.
As quietly, she replied, "If I did, odds are the curse would pick the most embarrassing time possible to turn me female, that's what normally happens when I'm trying to enjoy myself. In any case, what you said earlier made me think. If I'm going to be stuck with this forever I might as well get used to it. I've had fun with it before, but someone always turned that against me. You guys won't." They all looked at her and simultaneously shook their heads.
"No, we won't. Friends don't hurt each other on purpose. They try not to do it accidentally, either." Aiko grinned at the woman opposite her, who smiled back, looking and feeling happier than she had for a considerable time.
"I'd leave it alone if I were you." The unexpected voice made Cologne twitch, then whirl to glare at the small figure in the window. She'd had no idea he was there which annoyed and worried her. Covering her unease with anger, she pointed her staff at Happosai, who grinned.
"Leave what alone?" she demanded. He looked past her to the scrying bowl on her table.
"You know exactly what. The boy is growing ever more powerful, at least partly because of you pushing him so hard. Soon or later he's going to push back. You may not enjoy how." Happosai looked at her with an unusually serious expression on his wizened face. "It may be a battle that you'll finally lose. All of you. So, like I said, best to leave it."
"Did you feel that ki spike earlier?" the Amazon elder demanded. "It was huge! I haven't felt anything like that since the last time Herb got really angry." Grinning, the ancient martial artist nodded happily.
"Felt it, certainly. Everyone in a hundred kilometres who's sensitive felt it. I saw the results as well. Very impressive. I knew the boy had it in him, but I don't know why he did it. I might ask, I might not. He's been in a funny mood recently. But I can tell you one thing. You really don't want him turning that level of power on you and yours, trust me. So, for the last time, I suggest you let it be." He smirked at her, then faded from view. Glaring after him, she swore under her breath.
"Trust you? Trust you? No chance of that." Even so, she stared uncertainly at the scrying bowl before carefully putting it away, with the merest hint of worry in her eyes.
Kasumi looked up as a familiar figure silently entered the kitchen, smiling at the red-head. "Hello, Ranma. I hope you're all right, I haven't seen you since this morning. You made quite a large hole in the roof. Akane seemed more annoyed than usual today." She looked more carefully at the martial artist, who unusually didn't have her hair tied up in her customary pigtail. "I like your hair. You should wear it like that more often."
Looking embarrassed, the girl felt her hair, then produced her tie and quickly bound it up once more into the pigtail. "I forgot it was like that," she mumbled. The elder Tendo daughter studied her for a moment, before turning back to the dishes. Ranma watched then picked up a dishcloth, drying the dishes already on the rack. Murmuring her thanks Kasumi smiled at her. They worked quietly together until the job was finished.
Ranma turned the hot tap on, changing back to her birth form then turning it off again. Adjusting his clothes a little he glanced at the eldest sister. "How is she?" he asked cautiously. Kasumi sighed a little, knowing who he meant.
"Bad tempered. More so than usual. I would suggest you try to stay out of her way for a while. It might make things a little easier." The martial artist nodded resignedly.
"I'll try. It's not easy."
"Where have you been all this time?" Kasumi asked curiously. "You were out for hours. Are you all right?" He sat at the table and looked at her, debating with himself how much to tell her. While he was sure she could be trusted he was also aware that saying anything almost anywhere in the house might bring it to Nabiki's attention, which he definitely didn't want. In the end he reluctantly decided that he couldn't risk it yet. "She punted me further than normal," was all he said. "I met some interesting people, we got to talking, so it took me a while to come back." Kasumi studied him for a while, making him sure she knew there was more to it, but didn't push.
"I saved some dinner for you," she replied after a moment. "Would you like it now?" He nodded, smiling. Soon he was eating at the table, Kasumi sitting across from him with a cup of tea, watching. "I wish I could think of some way of smoothing things over between you and Akane," the eldest sister said after a while. Ranma sighed, pushing the empty plate aside.
"So do I. But to be honest, at this point, I don't think it's going to happen. Even if it did, all the other problems wouldn't go away. I've been trying to figure out a way past all of that crap for a year and a half now, but I can't. There might not be a way."
Kasumi reached out and put her hand on his. "There must be. I can't believe that you're as trapped as you think you are. Somehow, we'll find a way out for you." Ranma noticed the 'we' just as a shriek of rage filled the kitchen.
"RANMA! You pervert, what are you doing to my sister!" Both of them looked to the doorway to the hall, where a furious Akane was standing glaring daggers at the martial artist. Kasumi sighed.
"He's not doing anything to me, sister. We were just talking." Akane ignored her completely, stomping closer to glare at the pig-tailed boy who massaged his forehead in irritation.
"Hello, Akane. How was your day?" he asked sarcastically. She fumed.
"You pervert. I saw you touching her. What were you planning on doing?" Ranma glanced at Kasumi, who shrugged just the tiniest bit.
"You know what? Just for once, I'm not playing your game." He stood, pushing the chair back with a screech. "Fuck off, Akane. I'm tired and I've had a long day. We can jump right back into your stupid, tiny-minded little world tomorrow, but tonight I'm going to bed. Come after me and I'll break your legs." He let a small amount of power leak out in a way that made the youngest Tendo, who was staring in outraged shock, step back unconsciously. Nodding politely to Kasumi, who almost seemed to be hiding a smile, he left the room and headed upstairs, leaving Akane spluttering in the middle of the kitchen, trying to work out what the hell had just happened.
Halfway up the stairs he met Nabiki, coming the other direction. She'd obviously heard everything. Looking at him she said, "Living dangerously, there, Saotome. She's going to make you pay for that." He sighed in a tired fashion.
"Worth it for a moment's peace. Stay out of it, Nabiki, it's nothing to do with you. This one time, just stay out. Please." He continued up the stairs while the brunette watched with speculative interest, before going to help her older sister calm the younger one down. It sounded like she was headed for a major meltdown, which got expensive.
"How are things at home?" Aiko asked, as she watched the other three members of her team go through some exercises the martial artist sitting next to her on the wall had come up with. They both winced as Misaki slipped and fell off the narrow fence she was walking along, dropping three metres to the ground with a thud.
Ranma shrugged. "Not ideal, but no worse than it's been for a while now. Mind you, Akane was hellishly mad the day after I swore at her. I had to run pretty fast." Fumiko followed her sister to the ground, landing on her, which made her quite annoyed. The red-head grinned. "That probably hurt."
"Is there a point to this other than your own sadistic pleasure?" Fumiko yelled, glaring. The other girl snickered.
"Well, I have to admit my sadistic pleasure is enjoying watching you, but yes, there is a point. It's balance training. So hop right back up there and try again."
"This would be much easier if we activated our magic," Misaki grumbled.
Ranma laughed. "Exactly. Which is why you haven't. Come on, back to work." She clapped her hands sharply, making them glare at her, but reluctantly climb back up. Tamiko was watching with a grin of her own, having mastered the activity rather more effectively. Aiko shook her head, amused. They'd been jumping through hoops, literally in one case, for three days now on the training exercises Ranma had invented. She's asked why the martial artist didn't use some of the methods she herself had been trained with, but it only took a brief recital of them to make her very rapidly change her mind.
On the up-side, they were definitely learning. On the downside they were starting to wonder whether meeting Ranma had been a mistake...
She watched Fumiko fall off again, suddenly grateful for her broken leg.
Nabiki watched with interest as Ranma answered his cell-phone. 'Since when does he even have a cell-phone?' she wondered. For the last week he'd been acting out of character, both looking happier than usual, which was weird since Akane if anything was even worse than normal, and also being somewhat secretive. She'd tried following him once or twice when he'd slipped out but lost him almost instantly. None of her normal contacts were any more useful either, no one seemed to know where he went.
He looked up at where she was peering out her bedroom window, grinned at her, then jumped over the garden wall and disappeared. "Weird," she mumbled, turning back to her homework but with curiosity burning inside her.
Later that evening she shook her head at the news. There was coverage of yet another demon attack in Minato, reinforcing her decision that she'd only go to that particular ward under duress. She watched with the rest of the family as the reporter babbled excitedly. The images of the magical girls who'd turned up to deal with the demons were oddly out of focus and blurry, making identification of them impossible.
"...girl team working locally arrived shortly afterwards. Panicked shoppers hid as the four brave girls took on the demons. This encounter was unusual in that once the girls had subdued the creatures, one of them appeared to talk to the demons for some time, after which they left through some kind of portal without further violence. No one around here can remember an encounter where there wasn't a fight to the death when demons were involved. Is this the start of a new trend in demon/human interaction?" The reporter smiled into the camera. "We don't know, but we'll keep you informed as we learn more. Now, back to the studio for the financial news." Soun kept watching, while the others went back to eating dinner.
"That was strange," Kasumi said, serving Ranma some more rice. He nodded. Nabiki looked suspiciously at him, he seemed to have found the report more amusing than it warranted. After a moment she shrugged a little, going back to eating and dismissing it as irrelevant, while trying to work out a method to find out where he was vanishing off to. It was beginning to irritate her.
"No, you duck at that point, then step forward, grab the wrist, twist, and pull," Ranma sighed, doing precisely that with ease and elegance. Misaki yelped as she flew through the air, ending upside down against the tree in the empty lot they were practising in. Fumiko nodded, making mental notes. Tamiko giggled.
"Do it again!" she said happily. "Do it again!" Misaki groaned.
"Please don't do it again," she muttered painfully. Aiko was biting her fist trying to stop herself laughing.
"OK, now, let's try the next move. Tamiko, you're up." Ranma pointed to a spot in front of her. The other red-head immediately stopped giggling and looked worried.
"What the hell is that boy doing?" Cologne wondered, watching as Ranma walked past, looking more satisfied with himself than she'd seen for a while. She'd tried shadowing him several times but he always seemed to give her the slip somehow. Once or twice he'd even managed to sneak up on her from behind, greeting her cheerily as she was peering around a corner looking for him as if he was unaware of her interest. She was absolutely certain he was doing it on purpose but for the life of her couldn't work out how.
Feeling a familiar and unwelcome ki signature, she looked around to see Happosai grinning at her from atop a building on the other side of the street. She made a rude gesture, making him laugh, then disappear. When she looked back Ranma had vanished as well.
"It's like they're working together," she muttered, disgusted, before hopping homeward.
"Look, I know you just wanted some chocolate ice cream," Ranma patiently explained to the cat-like demon that was sitting in a depressed heap on the floor of the empty shop. "But people around here are a bit twitchy about, um, people from a distant place just appearing in the middle of the shop through a portal. They tend to panic. That's not good." The demon looked up at her through enormous, sad eyes. She quelled a slight feeling of discomfort, reminding herself it wasn't really a cat, it just bore an unfortunate resemblance to one of those horrible things. It was quite cute, really, even it it was about two metres tall and covered in feathers.
"I'm sorry," it said in a deep feminine voice, with an odd accent. "But it's so hard to get back home and the best stuff comes from around here. I can pay, look!" She held out a handful of gold bars. Ranma stared at them for a moment.
"You could probably buy the shop with that," the red-head muttered in awe. The demon watched her hopefully. "OK, OK. Stay here, don't move, and don't go outside, all right? I'll see what I can do." She plucked one of the small gold bars from it's grasp, while the thing nodded.
Walking out of the shop she glanced at Fumiko who was guarding the entrance. The tall girl shrugged. "You're the one who wants to talk to them."
"Any idea where the shop owner got to?" Ranma asked. The other girl looked around.
"Over behind that van, I think. Short round guy with glasses." Going over to the indicated vehicle, Ranma looked behind it. Sure enough a middle-aged man meeting the description was cowering behind it with his fingers in his ears.
"Hey. You the owner?" She prodded him with her toe, making him jump, then look up. She repeated the question when he took his fingers out. The man nodded, looking worried. "Come on, you have a customer." He stared at her, then enlightenment dawned.
"That thing?! It's a demon. Kill it, that's what you do." She put her hands on her hips and glared at him.
"She's a customer. A paying customer. A very well-paying customer." Dropping the gold bar by his feet she waited for him to slowly pick it up, eyes wide. "All you have to do is sell her some chocolate ice-cream and she'll go, leaving you much better off. Isn't that the whole idea of business?" Avarice working it's own form of magic, he stood up, dusting himself down and nodding happily.
"Correct. Business is business. Ice-cream it, I mean, she, wants, that's what she gets."
"And no cheating her." Ranma gave him a severe look. Offended, he put a hand on his chest.
"Me? Cheat a customer? Never. All my sales are fair and aboveboard. And final." All signs of fear gone he headed back to his shop. Ranma trailed behind him shaking her head and grinning. Fumiko and the others watched in wonder as he sold the cat-like demon several large tubs of his best chocolate ice-cream, accepting enough gold in return to double his yearly profits, then waved as the demon vanished through a crackling portal. Smiling, he called, "Thank you. Please come again," then counted his gold once more.
"You are very strange," Misaki said, as they left the shop and headed home. Ranma grinned.
Happosai watched from concealment as the boy, currently a girl, took several pretty young things through a number of basic katas, grinning. 'You can certainly pick them, m'boy,' he mused, inspecting the girls closely. 'Beautiful. And the makings of very good practitioners of the Art, with time. How did you meet, I wonder?' He looked at the fourth member of what he was sure was a team, who clearly had a broken leg. 'Filling in, perhaps? Interesting.' Watching until the lesson ended, he nodded approvingly. 'You'll be a superb teacher one day, Ranma. Far better than your father or Soun. Speaking of which, I really should go and say hello. They've gone too long without my own teachings.'
Cackling to himself he bounded off, while kilometres away two middle-aged martial artists suddenly got an inexplicable urge to emigrate, which unwisely they put down to bad chicken the night before.
"Ah, hello, you lot. Time to get the cast replaced again, is it?" Doctor Tofu looked at the four girls in his clinic, accompanied by a male Ranma. Aiko nodded. "You really must tell me one day how you manage to make me forget about you until you turn up," Tofu said, grinning. "It's a very good if slightly disturbing trick."
"It's magic, of course, Doctor," Fumiko said with a smile. He laughed.
"And that's all you'll tell me, I suppose. Fair enough. Come on in, Aiko." Holding the door open he waited for her to hobble past, then looked at the others. "Are you lot coming in as well?" They all shook their heads, Misaki picking up a magazine and leafing through it. "OK. This shouldn't take long."
Fifteen minutes later the door opened again. Aiko came out with a fresh cast on, laughing at something Tofu had said. He grinned, then looked at Ranma. "Can I have a quick word, Ranma?" The martial artist nodded, standing and going with him back into his room. Once the door was closed, Tofu moved to his desk and sat down. "How are you coming along with your career as a magical girl?" he asked with a grin. Ranma stared at him in horror, then schooled his features into an expressionless mask.
"What makes you think that, Doc?" he asked casually. Tofu laughed.
"I'm not stupid, Ranma. You turned up with four magical girls, one of whom is now walking around on crutches. Yet there are still four magical girls with the same uniforms running around Minato doing very odd things with demons." He smirked, while Ranma sighed heavily. "One of them is about Aiko's size, but clearly isn't her."
"Damn. I hope no one else puts it together." The martial artist looked pleadingly at Tofu. "Please don't tell anyone. Aside from the embarrassment, it would cause more trouble than I want to think about."
The other man held up his hand. "Don't worry, Ranma, my lips are sealed. Think of it like doctor patient confidentiality." He inspected the boy for a moment. "How on earth did you end up running around in that clothing anyway? It's rather... revealing."
"It was a favour to some friends." Ranma slumped into a chair. "I don't like it, but I gave my word, and they're good people. I'm training them a bit to try and make sure that what nearly happened to them the last time won't happen again. I certainly don't plan on taking up the magical girl lifestyle permanently." Tofu looked at him with amusement in his eyes.
"Perhaps it will grow on you in time," he suggested. The pig-tailed youth shot him a look that implied it was most unlikely, making him laugh.
"You never did come back to talk," Tofu said after a moment. "I wanted to find out about what's going on back in Nerima. How everyone is. Especially..." He trailed off a little. Ranma nodded understandingly.
"She's fine. Aside from being trapped as much as I am in her own way, she's getting on with life. I think she misses talking to you. Why did you leave so suddenly, anyway?" He looked curiously at the doctor, who glanced away for a moment.
"It's rather complicated. I'd been seeing someone for a while, it got serious, and I decided that I had to leave, since Ka... Since she was causing me to have problems. I was in danger of harming a patient, aside from anything else. I'll always have a soft spot for her, but nothing could ever have happened. Not with my problem. The age difference was a bit awkward as well."
"She'd have looked past that, Doc," Ranma said gently. Tofu nodded.
"I know. But it was just one more thing in a list of things that made it impossible." He took a deep breath. "I'm getting married in a month. I've been offered a teaching post in a small medical university in Oregon, in the US. We'll be moving there for a few years, then, I don't really know. Perhaps back here, perhaps not." The young man sitting opposite him listened silently, then slowly nodded.
"Good luck, Doc. Whatever happens, I hope you do well. You've been a decent friend despite some early little issues I had with you." He grinned suddenly. "I might visit you one day."
"Please do, if you can," Tofu said. "You're invited to the wedding, of course. I'd invite her, but it would probably not be a good idea."
Ranma smiled. "I understand." Standing, he grabbed a notepad and pen, quickly scribbling down his new phone number. "You can get me on this." Handing it to the doctor he turned to leave.
"Ranma?" The martial artist turned back. "Look after her. She's dying inside, staying at that house. See if you can get her out somehow." Tofu looked seriously at him, obviously sincere. After a long moment, the youth nodded.
"I will. Somehow." With that he left, collecting his friends on the way. Tofu stared at the door for a long time before cleaning up and going home.
"This is fantastic," Tamiko whooped, jumping to the next roof. Ranma, behind her, grinned.
"Don't get cocky," she said, laughing. The other red-headed girl glanced back, just in time to miss noticing the TV antenna she was headed towards. They met with a crunch of bending metal. "Or that happens," Ranma finished, landing neatly next to her and helping her up. Fumiko and Misaki were standing on the roof they'd just left laughing their heads off, while below an irate householder came storming out to find out why his evening entertainment had abruptly ceased. "Uh-oh. Better leave." Picking a dazed Tamiko up she jumped back to the other roof, all four girls quickly vanishing.
"Bloody magical girls!" the elderly man shouted after them, shaking his fist, then went inside to call the relevant repair company. Half a kilometre away four girls were rolling on the ground laughing, or rather three were while one was sitting with her arms crossed sulking.
"That stung, you know," Tamiko grumped.
"We should pay for his antenna," Fumiko gasped out, still giggling. "It's a small price to pay for the amusement value." She watched the expression her team-mate gave her and fell over again.
"Idiots," Tamiko said sulkily, although the corner of her mouth was twitching a little.
Nabiki stalked her prey like a brunette stalking thing. Finally, she pounced. "Saotome, where the hell are you disappearing off to every night?" she demanded, as he came out of the bathroom combing his hair. He gave her a mild look that insinuated both that he'd been fully aware that she was there, something she could believe, and that he had no idea what she was talking about, something she didn't believe for a moment.
"I've got no idea what you're talking about, Nabiki," he said, making her eyebrow twitch.
"You're a terrible liar, Saotome," she growled. "We both know that every night for more than two weeks now you disappear after school, and sometimes during it. Plus you seem to have a cell phone now. Who keeps calling you?"
He smirked in his insufferable manner. "No comment." The middle sister stared at him, gritting her teeth.
"I'll find out sooner or later," she said slowly. He looked at her, then shook his head.
"No, you won't." As she fumed, he added, "There's nothing to find out. It's all in your head." He wiggled his fingers in front of her making a moaning noise. "All in your head. All in your head."
"You're a pain in the ass, Saotome," Nabiki said, but couldn't help smiling slightly. He grinned and bowed.
"Thank you very much. My next act is at eleven." Doffing an imaginary hat to her, he bowed slightly again and left. She followed him with her eyes, surprised and amused. The boy might have been a real pain but he was surprisingly funny and up-beat recently, which was very weird considering how unbearable Akane had been over the same time period. Even her sisters were getting worried.
'I'm still going to figure it out, Ranma,' she thought, heading down for dinner.
'Ah. That's interesting,' Happosai thought as he watched the five young women vanish in a flash of light. 'Some sort of magical disguise, I think. Plus that teleportation which is extremely powerful magic. I really wonder where your friends learned that, Ranma. And how you ended up helping them.' He lay back on the roof he'd been watching the girls practice from, thinking.
'You've grown as a person a lot recently. I'm very impressed. Gives an old man hope for the future.' Snickering he puffed lazily on his pipe, watching the clouds. 'And what you seem to be doing with all those demons. Talking to them of all things, and somehow persuading them to go home. Five in the last two and a half weeks. I've never heard of that approach before from people like your friends. Most magical girls just try to kill them on sight, which seems a little heavy-handed. I know some very nice demons.' Pulling the pipe from his mouth he inspected it with a frown, then reinserted it, lighting it with a burst of ki from his index finger.
'You do make a very convincing magical girl yourself as well, m'boy. I wish I could persuade you to stay like that, you're much easier on the eyes, but I suppose you still cling to your manhood as hard as ever. Your father has a lot to answer for. Oh well. Perhaps one day you'll learn to deal with it, there's no cure for the curse. Not that I can find.' Chuckling, the old man bounced lightly to his feet and went in search of the subject of his favourite hobby.
"It's healed up nicely, Aiko. I think the cast can stay off. But be careful, your leg will be weak for a while. I'd suggest staying off it as much as possible for three or four days, then a week or so of exercise to build it up before you start anything too vigorous. I'm sure Ranma can suggest some suitable training for that." Tofu glanced at the red-head, who grinned.
"Oh, believe me, yes."
Aiko looked apprehensive. "Go easy on me, I was wounded in the line of duty," she said jokingly. The other girl snickered.
"You get three days rest, then you start exercising. You're more than three weeks behind the others."
Aiko stared while her team-mates giggled. Turning to the doctor she asked pleadingly, "Can I have the cast back on?" He laughed and shooed them out.
"Go on. You'll be fine. Try not to break it again." Waving he watched as the group walked away down the street, as usual finding that he couldn't remember the faces of any of them but the martial artist after a few seconds. "Very effective magic indeed," he muttered, smiling.
"Look, that Magical Girl team who was on the news the other day seems to have five members now," Akane said, watching the TV avidly. Her family turned to look at the local news, which once more was showing the exploits of one of the Minato teams. They recognised the uniforms but as usual the faces and anything identifiable were blurry and out of focus. Sure enough, there were five skimpily dressed females bouncing athletically around the place, giving some large and outlandish hostile visitor from another world a hard time. One of them appeared to be directing the other four in their attack, and if the TV could be believed, criticising it mercilessly.
When the fight was over and the demon defeated, that girl stomped up to it and shouted at it for a while, then booted it through a portal that had been shimmering at one side of the scene during the fight. The doorway to another world closed, the five girls left, and the reporter did her bit to camera. Akane watched with interest, as did Nabiki. Kasumi looked thoughtful, then slowly glanced at Ranma over his father's head, who returned her look slightly guiltily. She looked even more thoughtful, an expression that instantly smoothed out into her normal mild smile when her father looked up. Nabiki would have been shocked to the core at the sudden change had she noticed. Ranma hid a small smile of his own by bending over his bowl and eating faster.
"I can't teach you much more very quickly, I'm afraid," Ranma said, looking around at her friends. "You've come on very well, I'm proud of you, but I think I've done all I can for now. Keep practising, every day ideally, and be careful." They all nodded.
"You're sure we can't persuade you to keep coming out with us?" Aiko asked. The red-head shook her head.
"Not now. Too many people are watching. Even with the disguise bracelet, sooner or later someone would find out. Doc Tofu worked it out even with them, and I'm pretty sure Kasumi knows even if she hasn't said anything. If it had been Nabiki, or Cologne..." She shook her head again. "No, it's too dangerous. I'm risking you all as well as myself. You're back up to strength, Aiko is nearly at the same level you other guys are and you can easily bring her up to speed, so I think I need to get back to my own life. But it's been a lot of fun. Even with the stupid clothes." She stood, as did the others. Taking off the bracelet she handed it to Misaki, who put it carefully away, before stepping forward and hugging her.
"I'll miss you, Ranma," she said softly, releasing her and stepping back. One at a time the others all hugged the martial artist as well. She looked around at the girls who had become very close to her in the last month and a half.
"I'll miss all of you as well. Thank you for being there and being such good friends."
"We'll meet again, I'm sure of it," Aiko said, trying not to cry, something unbefitting a magical girl warrior, trained by Ranma Saotome. "If you ever need anything, call. We'll drop everything to help. Or, if you just want to get away for a while, we can still use a fifth member." She smiled.
Ranma chuckled. "I'll remember. Take care of yourselves." With a last look, she turned and slowly began walking home. Behind her Misaki put her arm around her sister while Aiko and Tamiko exchanged glances, then watched until the red-head was out of sight.
Nearly eight months later, a phone rang somewhere in Minato. It was answered by a sleepy young woman.
"Hi. It's me. Something's happened and I need your help."
Aiko rubbed her eyes, sitting up in bed. "We're on our way."