A/N: For those of you wondering what's going on, check chapter 1, and my Profile for the current schedule. The old Chapter 3 will be back up next week.
Sunday. The one chance a week for students to get out of their responsibilities and obligations and go out and have some fun. Thus, the salarymen and travelers of the usual commute give way to teenagers of all stripes in the busy Tokyo train stations, and Eri was no exception. Sipping at her fruit juice, she looked around for her best friend and partner in Student Council business.
She rolled her eyes when a pair of hands reached up to cover them. "What are you, twelve?"
"Oh, you love me," Nozomi grinned and stepped next to her. "So, what's on the agenda today?"
"Well, I needed to get stocked up for summer, so I thought we could go shopping together," Eri explained. "Forget about this idol stuff for a bit."
Nozomi shrugged. The season was coming up, she really needed to get it done too. "Shibuya, then?" She took a few steps when Eri nodded, but a flash of bright red striding towards the map. "Huh? Is that…?"
Eri found herself struggling to keep up, the crowds having a mysterious way of parting for her friend but closing in behind her and presenting a difficult obstacle. "Nozomi!"
By the time she had reached the map, Eri found herself staring at Nozomi and . . . "YOU!"
The pig-tailed boy who had stolen her phone looked over at her. "Ah, great, Ayase."
"Don't 'Ayase' me! You . . . you. . . "
Nozomi put a hand on her shoulder, getting a jump and a yelp, followed by a glare when she saw the other girl shaking her head. "Remember, Nishikino said it was her mistake."
"I'm not sure I believe that," Eri groused. "Might just be covering for changing her mind or something, which is no excuse for that. . . "
Ranma felt his confusion grow. "No excuse for what? What'd I do this time?!"
"Nothing," Nozomi said with a small amount of annoyance. "Eri's just upset that she was wrong and wants to believe you were forcing yourself on Maki."
Ranma shook his head rapidly enough to cause his pigtail to noticeably fly around. "Wasn't doin' nothing like that! Yeesh, Akane'd bash my skull in, and I can't say I would blame her for that one." He turned his attention to the map again. "Ekiba...Ekiba…"
Nozomi grinned. "Heading to the amusement park? And isn't there still one out in Nerima?"
"Yeah, but Akane wanted ta hang out at this one today…" Ranma shrugged. "Fair enough, I guess, but I don't know how ta get there."
Eri blinked, then rolled her eyes. "Head down to platform 4, then take the train on the left." She turned away, towards her own train without intending to listen to the response, but Nozomi smirked and raised a finger to her lips.
"That sounds like way more fun than shopping, and I do have some extra money this month…"
Ranma seemed a bit surprised, but shrugged. "Well, it ain't a date or nothin'. I guess if ya wanna come and try ta talk to her or somethin' you could."
Eri found her arm being grabbed in a rather...affectionate manner. "Oh, I think we can manage to convince her," Nozomi said in a half-purr.
Eri tried to get loose. "Don't I get a say in this?!"
Meanwhile, back in Kanda ward, a phone rang. And rang. And rang. Honoka tried her best to sit up, but every muscle in her body screamed at her that this was a mistake. "Get some rest, he said," she mumbled. "You'll feel better on Monday, she said."
The phone's ringing finally stopped, and she slipped back into a fitful sleep.
Akane tapped her foot. "Why didn't I just lead him here?" she asked out loud, but she knew the answer. While she let him think otherwise, she wanted this to be like a real date. Ever since their return from the last trip to China. . . she ruthlessly quashed thoughts of that horrible time. "I can't believe he got lost."
"Yo, Akane!" Her heart leapt as she heard the voice of her exasperating fiance, she turned to look. . . only to see him being closely followed by a pair of girls. She didn't recognize either, but it didn't stop her heart from falling. Oh dear god, that blonde is absolutely amazing, and I think the dark-haired girl has a bigger chest than Shampoo! She felt a familiar bile rise in the back of her throat. "Hi, Ranma. Who's this?"
"Eh, this is Nozomi and Ayase," Ranma shrugged. "Met them out in Kanda, and. . . "
Nozomi, possibly sensing the imminent hostility, immediately threw her arms around Eri and pulled her into a close snuggle. "Well, Ranma's a friend, so I thought we'd make it a double-date."
This sudden declaration made Akane nearly jump out of her skin. She completely missed the way Eri was trying to struggle out of Nozomi's vine-like wrap around to stare at the dark-haired girl in dismay. "Double...date? Aren't you a bit old for that?" Eri ceased her struggles at the sudden news, and gave Nozomi a questioning glance, to get a wink in return.
"Wait, who said anythin' about a date?" Ranma asked, the news completely blind-siding him.
Nozomi chuckled. "Well, a girl asks her fiance out to the amusement park, what do you think it's for? But when this boy got lost, well, I just had to help him out and then this seemed way more . . . interesting than clothes shopping."
"But...but...you're both girls!" Akane finally blurted out.
Eri was never quite sure what caused her to respond to that with "It's a Russian thing," A blatant lie, but if Akane bought it, so much the better. At least now she'd get a chance to see why Nozomi was so insistent about being nice to this weird boy.
Fortunately for her, Akane did seem to buy it. "Well, okay, I guess...but try not to do anything too embarrassing or get us kicked out, okay?"
Nozomi nodded, finally letting Eri out of her grip. "Deal. I'll go get us tickets."
"I've got mine and Ranma's," Akane said.
"That was the worst thing you've ever done to me," Eri grumbled. "Now I've got to spend all day pretending to be your girlfriend. I hope there was a point to this."
Nozomi just gave her most mysterious smile. "There was. I wanted to see what the Saotome's home life is like. They both live with her, you know."
Eri raised an eyebrow. "Her?"
"Akane, I think Ranma may have mentioned."
The pair moved up to the front of the queue, before Eri came to a sudden realization. "Wait, which Saotome's Ranma? I thought that was the sister."
A lesser plotter might have frozen, but Nozomi just gave a little grin. "I'm really not sure. Call it a slip of the tongue, but I think it's the boy. Don't know what the sister's given name is just yet, but I guess we can find out."
Akane glared at her fiance. "I can't believe you let them tag along with you!"
Ranma held up his hands defensively. "Hey, Toujou ain't too bad!" he exclaimed, taking an instinctive step backwards. "As for Ayase. . . well, she's a pain in the neck at the club but I think we're agreeing to disagree. And anyway, it's a free country - I couldn't just tell'em they couldn't go somewhere just 'cuz we were going to be there."
"Ranma…" Akane stopped, visibly swallowing and trying to get her anger under control. "I wanted to spend time with you today. This thing with Otonoki won't last forever, and. . . we're important, right?"
The implication went right over the martial artist's head. "Akane, ya are important, but Nozomi's kind of a friend too. She ain't a fiance or anything, and I don't think she's tryin' ta be like Kodachi."
Akane snorted. "Well that's obvious. She's a worse pervert than you."
Ranma closed his eyes. "Well, I guess she was grabbin' Ayase like the old letch. But I ain't seen her do that with anyone else, so. . . "
Akane shook her head. "Whatever, Ranma." She spotted the rather distinctive pair of Otonoki girls heading for the park queue. "Come on, they've got their tickets."
Kotori found herself being bodily hauled out of bed by her mother. "Oh, Kotori," her mother groaned, a little in exasperation but mostly out of exertion. "You can't stay in bed all day, it's not as if you're sick…"
"Mama…" Kotori's own whimper back was almost pitiful enough that her mother relented. Almost. "Everything hurts. We did so much exercise last night. Just put the computer in my bed and I'll get my homework done, I promise."
A shake of the head was her only reply. "First you force yourself to take a nice hot bath so this doesn't happen again tomorrow. I won't have my daughter missing school due to exhaustion. That can wait until you've gone professional."
A grin. "I'm sure you can do that, if you really put your mind to it. Now, bath, breakfast, then you can lay back down if you really need to."
The long queue threatened to strain Ranma's patience. Five minutes stretched out into ten, and then fifteen before they finally reached the front and swiped their cards over the sensor. "Eh, I don't get why it was such a big deal ta come out. . . here." His eyes widened, but only slightly, as his senses went haywire. All around, stores he would have identified as examples of various Western styles of architecture (were he inclined to think of such things) lined the avenue, tempting people to stop and browse the shops up the avenue that was not as long as it looked leading up to a fairytale castle. "Bwu-bwu-bwu…"
Eri stared at this reaction. "What, never been to a park like this one?"
Akane rolled her eyes. "Wouldn't surprise me." She grabbed his wrist. "Come on, Ranma. What should we do first?"
Nozomi gave it a thought, glancing back nervously towards the entrance. "Well, there's a boat ride over there." She pointed to a spot on the brochure map blindly. "Why don't we start there and work our way around?"
"What? If you didn't want to come, why stay?" Akane snarked at her, seeing the mysterious girl's attention clearly on the exit.
Nozomi frowned. "Well, one, I spent twenty thousand yen on this date. Besides, I thought I saw something."
Eri shrugged, although she idly noted the way the two Nerimans tensed when the word 'boat' was mentioned. "Uh, sure. Boat sounds good."
Ranma gulped. "Uh...yeah, that's fine."
Nozomi gave the skies a glance as well before they rounded the corner.
Eri reflected that it was probably the single most uncomfortable amusement park ride she'd ever been on. And that included the time she'd gotten stuck in a roller coaster next to Nozomi for two hours in on the big class trip last year.
The ride itself was a simple, sedate affair. Ostensibly, everyone sat down in a large, slow motorboat. There was an operator at the front of it to steer the thing and provide canned narration for the twenty or so tourists who were gently carried through a series of scenes with primitive robots. It was a nice warm-up to some of the more stressful rides later, or maybe a way to calm down after getting off some of them.
At least, it should have been.
Instead, Akane was steadfastly refusing to look in Nozomi's direction, although she wasn't giving Eri quite the same level of cold shoulder. For her part, Nozomi was just smiling serenely, commenting on this or that panorama for Ranma's benefit - a practice that wasn't doing anything to endear her to the Tendo girl.
And Ranma needed the assistance, because he was standing in the middle of the boat, refusing to listen to the ride's operator and keeping his eyes closed as if, at any minute, he might be dumped into the water. Water which was clearly boiling acid, if one believed the expression on the boy's face.
"Why didn't you tell me you were aquaphobic?" Eri asked. "We could have done something else."
"I ain't scared of it!" Ranma shouted back, his eyes closed.
Akane glared at him. "You should have just told them, jerk."
Ranma's eyes rolled. "It wasn't an option."
"Told us what?" Eri asked, eyes narrowing. Nozomi put a hand on her shoulder, and gave a gentle shake of her head. Eri sighed. "Okay, fine."
Ranma blinked, giving Nozomi a questioning glance and getting a subtle nod and mischievous smile back in return.
Akane saw her chance. "Look, maybe you guys can go get on the log flume after this? Ranma and I can sit it out."
It was Eri's turn to give Nozomi a glance, but then she shrugged. "No, I think we'll be sticking with you today." Whether I want to or not.
Suddenly, the boat was sent rocking as one of the animatronic displays sent water spraying into the boat. Ranma jumped almost three meters straight up to avoid it, leaving Eri to get drenched by the sudden spray. "Hey!" she shouted at him, grabbing for the safety rail as he landed and nearly sent the boat tumbling the other direction, but not quite over.
Just as everything seemed set to start stabilizing, a loud, low sound that Eri didn't recognize signaled another shudder sent through the boat. Finally stressed beyond its' limit, water sloshed in over the side, the boat finally toppling into the water. Ranma suddenly put his arms around Akane and leaped for the island. Eri took that as her cue and leaped for the edge and into the stagnant water of the artificial stream below, finding the water barely came up to her chest. Nozomi lazily floated next to her, eyes closed serenely and smiling as if it were just another day. "What the...What was THAT for, Saotome!?"
Ranma gently rubbed at the back of his head as a duck floated lazily away on the water.
"This is all your fault!" two voices shouted at him.
Ranma was well used to one of those voices, to the point where he almost, but not quite, tuned it out. But someone else saying it at the exact same time was enough to get his attention. "Hey! That stupid thing was about ta spray me!"
Nozomi frowned. "Be that as it may, Ranma, there were better ways for someone of your skill to handle it."
At that Ranma actually winced. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry, all right?"
Nozomi's frown deepened. "Properly, Ranma."
A blink. "Huh?"
Nozomi sighed, but it was Eri who asked "Were you raised in a cave or something?"
"Don't knock it 'till you try it," Ranma retorted.
Eri was about to ask what he meant by that when Nozomi gave him one of her smiles. "Just bow and apologize properly, all right? I'm sure you've seen it done."
Ranma seemed to get what was being asked. Slowly, with a great deal of reluctance, he bowed slightly to them. "Sorry for gettin' ya all wet and ruinin' the ride. At least they let us stay in the park."
"No doubt..." Nozomi pointed out "...because the damage to the bottom of the boat can't possibly be explained by your actions." She shrugged. "Let's avoid further incidents, shall we?"
Eri smiled, relieved at the topic change. "Someone mentioned the log flume?"
Three voices shouted "NO!" at her. Eri stared at Nozomi, surprised by the force of her objection. "Is there something wrong with it?"
"Yes." Nozomi cut in before the other two could protest. "The cards said 'no.'"
Eri gave her a pointed look. "They did not."
"Do you want to argue?" Nozomi smiled at her. "Perhaps the haunted house…"
Akane gulped nervously, but refused to show weakness to these two. "Uh...yeah, sure."
Eri dug her fingernails into her hand to try to distract herself from just what a monumentally bad idea this was. The queue was spooky enough, passing through a graveyard, and made no better by the haunting organ music being piped through the whole area. The only thing that made it reasonably bearable was that Nozomi was gripping onto her hand like a vise, a reminder that this wasn't real.
Putting up with Tendo's disapproving glare was worth the reassurance.
Trying not to pay too much attention to her, her attention was drawn to the back of the queue where a boy wearing a surgical mask caught her eye. With his long hair, he could have been some kind of musician, or maybe a model, but the mask and a pair of sunglasses obscured his face enough that she couldn't be sure. In fact, she wasn't sure, but . . . just in case she gave Nozomi's hand a little tug, before nodding to the back.
A gesture that didn't go unnoticed. Ranma glanced at them. "See somethin', Ayase?"
Nozomi took a discreet glance, then nodded. "I definitely saw that boy at the entrance. Anyone you know?"
Akane stamped her foot. "Honestly, we're here to have fun, can't you even get that right?"
Ranma ignored her for just a moment to take a look. "Don't think so. Just relax, guys."
Eri took the advice, but noticed the way Akane deflated at the word 'guys.'
Eventually, they made their way up to the front and found themselves shuttled off into a large room, surrounded by bookshelves and portraits, like a very old western mansion. Which, of course, was what it looked like on the outside. She didn't know what else she was expecting.
The door slamming shut behind her with a loud, ominous crash, followed by the sound of a heavy bolt falling into place, wasn't even in the top hundred. But the worst part was the complete and total darkness.
This was not a yelp of surprise or shock. Ayase Eri's scream was one of primal terror, the kind that should have been easily audible through the door but no one answered. As a response, the room was plunged into a panic, with small children wailing as a disembodied voice started to speak, all but drowned out by the noise.
Suddenly, it all stopped. A hand had covered Eri's mouth, and strong arms had wrapped around hers, holding her in place. She hadn't even realized she had been beating on...another bookshelf! Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, but there was no way out! They were trapped. She tried to scream again, but whoever had her was holding on tight.
"Ayase!" Ranma's voice growled in her ear. "It ain't real! Just calm down, all right?"
Eri slowly felt herself calm down enough to respond with a nod. Slowly, Ranma let her go. "You all right?" he asked.
When she nodded, Akane surprised her by speaking up in a gentle voice. "Are you sure?"
"That...just...startled me, is all."
That was when the corpse of a man dropped out of the ceiling, hanging by his neck, while the voice from earlier laughed maniacally. Eri ran off through the newly opened door in a blind panic.
The remaining three peered around the corner. Two costumed ride attendants were sprawled out against the railings as small, individual cars moved along a track continuously at the boarding area. A bust had also been dislodged from its' spot, obviously some heavy plastic rather than stone by the way it wasn't shattered into dozens of pieces by its' fall. A few paintings had been hastily pulled off their balancing points and hung at precarious angles, although whether that was normal or not was debatable given the rest of the attraction. At first, no one was moving, but eventually when the next batch of riders arrived they started stepping off, looking around curiously at the state of the exit and entrance lobby.
Akane was the first to speak, giving Nozomi a look. "Shouldn't you go after her?"
"Nah, looks like she escaped, and I think I want to ride this thing."
Akane blinked at her. "But...but...that's your friend out there!"
"And I trust her." Nozomi said back, smiling.
Akane blushed, then bristled. "And what if I don't trust you with my fiance, huh?"
Nozomi shrugged. "Why wouldn't you? He's a boy, do I act like I like boys?"
Ranma swallowed. "Akane, uh, maybe ya should calm down…"
"I AM CALM!" the indicated girl shouted, before taking a deep breath. "I am calm Ranma," she repeated, and this time she was almost convincing. "What do you think?"
Ranma swallowed. "Eh...Ayase's a big girl." He gave her a look. "Besides, I know ya don't like things like this either. If yer worried about her, why don't ya go and check?"
Nozomi grinned. "That sounds ideal."
Akane bristled, but realized she was trapped – Nozomi may have been a pervert, but the odds of cold water finding Ranma in here were low and she wasn't interested in boys. And...she really didn't want to stay here. "Okay, fine. But Ranma. Behave."
The remainder of the haunted house was completely tame, at least as far as Ranma was concerned. The illusions on display were certainly unnerving, but mostly because there was a certain something to the supernatural he had learned, over the past few years, to detect. It was almost an instinct, to the point where phantasms floating in the air without triggering that sense was almost worse.
But Nozomi seemed utterly calm next to him, so he relaxed a bit. He thought about it a bit more. "Say, you actually learn anything at that shrine maiden job?" he asked her.
"Enough." She glanced around to make sure before declaring "It's all fake," Nozomi confirmed. "You realize you have to tell her eventually."
Ranma smirked. "I could say the same. Why'd you come out here today?"
"Partially to get Eri off your back, at least a little," Nozomi admitted. "I was also curious. A chance to observe the wild Saotome in its' natural habitat."
"Oh, har-dee-har-har," Ranma said back, not bothering to disguise his sarcasm. "Learn anything, sensei?"
Nozomi considered. "Plenty. She's not your girlfriend."
Ranma blinked. "Huh? O'course she's my fiance."
"I said 'girlfriend' not 'fiance.' There's a difference." Nozomi explained patiently. "Maybe she could be, but. . ." The normally unflappable girl shrugged. "Or maybe it's just us. She seemed to have an unusually strong reaction."
Ranma sighed. "Yeah, she gets like that. I just wish she'd listen. She's been better lately, but…."
Nozomi smiled up at him. "Well, I'm sure it will work out."
Just then, a pipe burst above them, dumping cold water all over the pair.
Ranma spluttered, then looked up. "Ah...I can explain."
Nozomi grinned lecherously at her. "Oh, no need. I think I like you better this way. . . but we'd better get you some tea before we catch up with the others."
A moment after the pair had moved on, the small kunai lodged in the pipe dropped to the ground.
It was coming up on ten when Umi, used to hard workouts, finally managed to drag herself out of bed and half-crawl to the bathroom. Without much preamble, she poured cold water over her body and then sank into the tub, slowly feeling the worst of the soreness ebb away. Once that was done, she did some light stretches in the family dojo before excusing herself from her usual martial arts lesson with her own father. Instead, she dialed up Honoka. After the line disconnected, twice, she switched tactics and tried Kotori. "Morning."
The pained voice of her friend on the other end should have been expected. "Oh, Umi, you're alive."
"It was just a workout," Umi said. "Although that was a lot yesterday, I have to admit. Can you get in touch with Honoka?"
"No, she's not picking up. Do you think she's . . . ?"
Umi's eyes narrowed. "She dragged us into this. She'll make it to the performance day if we have to prop her corpse up on stage!"
". . . it's. . . nice to hear you so fired up, but I think I'm going to stay home and relax today," Kotori murmured. "If you want to come by, call first, okay?"
"Right, right," Umi said absently, before hanging up. She was on a mission now.
Eri felt a cold drink being pressed into her shaking hand. "..thanks, Nozomi," she said shakily...only to nearly drop it when the last voice she would have expected answered.
"It's okay, Ayase." Akane took a seat on the bench next to her. "Why didn't you say anything?"
Eri glared at her for a moment, then sighed. "I didn't think it would be that bad," she said quietly. "I knew it would be dark, but I wasn't expecting. . . to be that out of control. That boy following us, and then. . . "
Akane smiled. "Hey, it's all right. After a year with Ranma, I guess nothing phases you anymore." For a few minutes they waited, then she finally said "That stuff about being your girlfriend. . . is it?"
"Back in first year," Eri said, shrugging. "We're still friends, obviously, but I thought she was mostly past this."
Akane thought about it for a moment. "Then why go along with it? I mean, you're just as embarrassed as I was, right?"
Eri smirked. "Nozomi's playing one of her hunches again, I think." When Akane gave her a skeptical look, she shook her head. "Nozomi's always had a . . . knack, I guess. Sometimes she uses it just for the sake of her own warped sense of fun, but there's usually a point to it. And the thing is, I've never known her to be wrong."
Akane gulped. "So you think…"
Eri gave it another moment's thought. "If Nozomi says we need to be here today, I'd say humor her." She finally raised the glass to sip at the juice.
Akane gave this some consideration. "Do you actually. . . " she trailed off, letting the question hang.
Eri nearly choked on her drink. . . then thought about it seriously. "Can I decline to answer that? All-girls school, and I'm so busy with student council business I've never really had time to think about it outside that last date. I mean, I'd rather have a boyfriend, but. . . "
Akane shrugged. "Good enough for me. I know it happens. Yuka and Saiyuri were almost unbearable back in middle school for six months." She grinned, to let Eri know she was (partially) joking.
Eri smiled back weakly. "Yeah. Do you mind Nozomi's. . . antics?"
Akane thought about it. "Now that I know she's just playing? Go ahead, I guess."
"Right." Eri took another sip of her drink. "And thanks, Tendo."
"Call me Akane."
Maki sighed in exasperation. She had told her parents she wanted to go to the amusement park today with her friends and they couldn't get her out the door fast enough. The problem, she realized later, was she'd never gotten anyone's phone number but Honoka's, so she couldn't send a text to anyone else. And apparently Honoka had forgotten her phone or something.
So here she was, wandering about the best amusement park in the greater Tokyo area. Alone. Before this whole mess had gotten started, that wouldn't have really bothered her. But today, for some reason, it did.
Which was why seeing a certain other redhead, in Chinese clothing, suddenly lifted her spirits. She jogged over to the kiosk where she and Toujou were standing in line. "H-hey."
Ranma blinked, surprised. "Oh, hey Nishikino," she offered in greeting. "Uhm..what brings you here?"
"What? I like this place," Maki said back. "What's wrong with that?"
"Uh...nothing." Ranma gulped slowly, glancing at Nozomi in a small panic.
Maki frowned a bit at the exchange, but Nozomi just smiled. "So, Apollo is short on inspiration today?"
That got a weird look from both of them. Ranma may have missed the reference, but Maki picked it up. "Isn't Apollo a god, not a goddess?" she asked with a slight smile. "I mean, she looks like a goddess to me."
"At the moment," Nozomi murmured under her breath. There was something in the way Maki was looking at her charge that made her think that this was about to get messy. "Ranma, I think Maki's looking for some company." She pointed at a nearby queue for a ride with some cars going into a dark tunnel. "I'll get your tea and we can all meet back up behind the castle for lunch."
Ranma blinked, and glanced at Nozomi suspiciously...but really, there was no good reason not to. "You game, Nishikino?"
"Please," the named girl said. "You can call me Maki. And sure."
Eri sighed. "What the heck's keeping them? The hau...that thing doesn't take this long."
Akane chuckled, but wisely refrained from commenting. "Text her?"
Eri already had her phone out, and was just waiting for a reply. Her face went paler for a moment, something Akane only missed because Eri was already pretty fair-skinned. What's Nishikino doing here, and more importantly, why would Nozomi send her off with Ranma when he's on a date? Okay, okay Eri, you can do this. "Nozomi says they're stopping for hot tea."
Akane blinked, looked like she was about to say something...but then something odd happened. Eri noticed her stop, and take a deep breath. "Okay. It's fine." The words sounded more like the was trying to convince herself than Eri. She blinked, but Akane held up her hand. "Ranma's got a weird problem with cold water. Nozomi probably needs the tea to warm up, and Ranma won't leave a girl in trouble." She smiled. "Well, since Ranma's not here, want to try the log flume ride while we're waiting?"
Eri nodded and sent a text along. Don't meet up. Get tea, we'll go to castle in 30.
The text sent, they hopped into the queue. It was getting close to afternoon, and the heat was driving everyone towards the water-based ride. Ducking through the wooden buildings, Eri reflected that it was a lot nicer to be with Akane now that her hangups weren't constantly on display.
Akane smiled up at her. "So, what's Ranma doing at your school, anyway?"
"Honestly, I think he just came by to drop something off." Eri shrugged.
Akane smacked her head. "I mean the other one. Ranko, when they're together."
". . . they have the same name?" Eri asked. "Aren't they brother and sister?"
Akane shook her head. "Cousins, actually, but they were raised together by Ranma's father on a training journey in the family style."
Eri stared at her in utter disbelief. "People still do that?"
"Ranma did," Akane said, giving her a half shrug. That pretty much put an end to the conversation until the pair reached the end of the line. Sitting next to each other, Eri couldn't help but be aware of the way Akane edged just a bit further away from her.
But after that, they were, once again, surrounded by music, colorful animatronics, and distracting lights and Eri quickly let herself get lost in the whole thing rather than immediately contemplate the more disturbing aspects of what she'd just learned. Until they were traveling up a conveyor belt to the 'long drop' that had so worried Ranma. Just then, the mechanism stopped.
"What's going on?" Eri asked.
Akane frowned, hearing a strange repetitive ripping or tearing sound, a second at a time. Slowly her eyes widened. "Oh no! We've got to get out of here!"
Eri stared at her. "What?! Are you crazy? There's no walkway!"
"Someone's cutting the belt!"
Eri paled, and this time there was no missing the change in her pallor. She pushed against the 'safety' restraint with all of her might, but had only barely gotten it moved a few inches when Akane braced against the seat and shoved it hard enough that the metal screamed in protest. They flipped over the front bar, and ran the few feet up to the top of the long artificial hill. While there was a stream of water running over plastic down the middle, along each side was a length of giant chain, like a bicycle, which would tear up any unfortunate limb that came in contact sliding down. "There's no way we can get down that!" she screamed. "It's not safe!"
Akane winced. She looked back down, and closed her eyes. "I...I can try it. It's just like a waterslide. I've done balance training, and Ranma could definitely do it."
"Are you sure?!" Eri screamed in disbelief. But another snapping sound could be heard, and the belt under their feet shifted. Whatever was happening, they only had seconds.
Akane swallowed. "I don't know, but we can't stay here." She swallowed. "Just one thing. You're going to have to pull me out once we hit bottom." Eri looked like she was about to object. "I can't swim, okay!"
Eri winced, but nodded. Akane slung the taller girl over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. "We're going to get wet at the end," she warned, before jumping down. Just as Akane made the jump, the conveyer mechanism snapped, sending their log-boat and the one behind it crashing backwards, into the pool at the bottom, while Akane managed to stick the landing. Then, they were off, Akane barely managing to skid in between the two lengths of industrial chain. She wobbled forwards, then backwards, nearly losing her grip on Eri just seconds before they hit the bottom, splashing down into the meter-deep pool at the bottom. Eri stood up, then grabbed a flailing Akane and hauled her to her feet. The Tendo girl had the good grace to blush.
"...we...we made it." Akane was grinning widely, like a loon. "I...actually saved someone...and got out of it...and I didn't need that jerk's help!" Eri was about to ask what she meant, before her mood dampened on seeing a white duck flying through the sky. She belatedly pulled out her cell phone, then hit it twice. "Dammit. Guess the water was too much for it."
Eri winced, but pulled hers out. "Mine's good."
"Can you text Ranma about a white duck?" Eri raised an eyebrow at that, but Akane just sighed. "He'll know what it means."
Eri shook her head. "I don't have his number...I'll send it to Nozomi to pass along."
Nozomi was nursing her own, cold, tea when the crashing sound came. "Oh no!" She started to run towards it, but she was fighting against the crowd doing what seemed like the sensible thing and getting away from the collapsing ride. She was just about pushed over by a mother desperately cradling a baby in her arms when suddenly she felt someone grab her and pull her into a side-alley. "Ranma?" she asked, before turning around.
It was definitely not Ranma.
A young man, wearing an extremely loose and long-sleeved shirt and pants. His hair was as long and luxurious as her own, and his face was rather handsome if one could discount the...extremely thick glasses on his face. He seemed puzzled. "Are you nearsighted too? I'm not Saotome."
"Oh..sorry." Nozomi said. "I was just surprised, is all."
The boy nodded. "I take it you know him, then. Well, it's all the same to me, I suppose. The more girls going after him, the less likely he is to steal my shampoo."
Nozomi nodded, deciding to not ask why this boy was so worried about that prospect. Maybe he was vain? She still wasn't sure how Ranma stealing it followed, but she decided not to question it. "I have to get to the log flume," she said instead.
"Ah, I wouldn't worry too much," he said. "I was flying overhead when the accident happened. No one was hurt, although it was a near thing. Tendo managed a feat I would have sworn was beyond her ability. At least, I'm pretty sure it was Tendo." He shrugged again. "At any rate, I suggest you either wait here or go to wherever you're supposed to meet them, and they'll be along."
Nozomi nodded. "Thank you again for your help."
Mousse watched her go, before shrugging at the odd acceptance the girl had had of his flying. Obviously she'd been hanging out with Ranma for too long.
Ranma would get Toujou for this one.
It wasn't the creepy way the tiny figures moved. She'd seen dolls get up and walk. Nor was it the relentlessly cheery tune that continued to play over and over in the dark tunnel. Not really, although she sort of realized that normally it would have bothered her tremendously.
No, what was bothering her was the redhead in the seat next to her. Purple eyes stared down at her with an intensity that Ranma normally associated with attempts on her life. She felt like she was at the center of this girl's world, trying not to squirm under the scrutiny. Especially with the lack of battle aura, it was downright disturbing. "Would ya stop that?"
Maki turned her head away to hide her blush. "Stop what?"
"Stop lookin' at me like that." Ranma said, for once recognizing that she needed to keep quiet due to the ride.
Maki's response was a soft snort. "I'm not looking at you like anything."
"...yeah, sure," Ranma said in a grumble. Sighing, she realized that there was probably only one good way out of not being on the receiving end of something she knew she didn't want to deal with. She started it off with the obvious question. "So, I know about Honoka and the others, but why are you mixed up in all this mess?"
Maki's reply was a little too quick "What do you mean? I'm just helping out, that's all."
Ranma smirked at that. "I'm 'just helpin' out and I wouldn't say I'm not involved. So spill."
"Ehh?" Maki swallowed. "Look, you've been on the other end of Honoka wanting something from you! Besides, they were just going to make idiots of themselves without me. This isn't even my favorite type of music, you know?"
Ranma chuckled. "Okay, point about Honoka, but you wrote a darn good song."
"Uh…" Maki was grateful for the darkness to hide her blush. "Thanks, but it was really nothing. Your songwriter...Kasumi was it...I'd like to meet her some time."
Ranma gave a soft chuckle. "I'll see what I can do, but no real promises." Just then, her cell phone beeped. "Ah, man, Toujou says there was a problem. Maki, can ya look after yourself when we get off?"
"Huh?" Maki clued in quickly though, and gazed down into the water. "Boyfriend you need to rescue, superhero?"
Ranma tried hard not to throw up at that suggestion. "I ain't no superhero. . . but yeah, I might need ta help Ayase and my . . . friend out."
Maki caught the slightest hitch in Ranma's voice. "So, no boyfriends?"
And as the ride pulled into the dock, Maki was smiling again. "Go on. I'd just slow someone like you down in this situation." As soon as the doors opened, Ranma was off before the attendant could get out one word, jumping right over Maki's head. The young musician followed more-or-less normally, a smile on her face.
Eri tried vainly to rub the brown stains out of her blouse. "Well, these clothes are ruined." She glanced around at the office. "Maybe we can get some free merchandise out of this," she joked, but even she realized it was a little flat.
The security office, by contrast with the park, was simple drywall. Eri and Akane were forced to sit still while the investigation went on, but eventually the head of security came back. A tall man, well-muscled without being anything on the boys Akane knew, put down a short sword, still glistening from the mix of water and oil it had been dumped in. "We found this in the maintenance area. Do either of you girls know anything about it?"
Akane frowned. "It probably belongs to a Chinese martial artist, goes by the name of Mousse. We've been seeing him hanging around today, but this doesn't seem quite right. Normally he'd be after my fiance, and he's not this subtle."
The security guard paled. "Wait, you mean people making an attempt on your life is normal?" Eri stared at her in shock from the declaration as well.
"Not my life, no." Akane missed the shocked stares from the other two. "In any event, this didn't work, so he'll probably be done for today."
"Nonetheless…" he said "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave, miss. For the safety of our other guests."
Eri swallowed. "Wait, our friends are still in the park. We should go get them."
The officer looked reluctant, but nodded. "If you can't get them on your cell phones, fine. But please, leave quickly. If there are any more incidents, it will be a lifetime ban."
Nozomi had been waiting on the drawbridge when Akane and Eri finally caught up to her. "Oh, hey," she said, looking a little pale. "You're all right? I couldn't get any info out of the park people, but. . . "
Eri smiled. "We're fine, Nozomi," she said. "But we have been asked to leave. We'll need to go retrieve Ranma."
Nozomi swallowed. "Ah, I think Ranma said something about catching another ride. Eri, I think if you head back towards the log flume you'll find him. Also, Ranko's at the park today too, I think she has his cell phone number."
Eri blinked at that. "Your premonition's sure on overdrive today…" she said suspiciously, only to get one of those infuriating 'mystic's smiles' back in return. "Okay, fine."
Once the blonde was around the corner, Nozomi turned to Akane, looking serious. "First, yes, I know about the curse. It doesn't bother me, but Ranma's quite a good friend to several people I consider important. If anything is done to compromise his happiness, I will be rather unhappy myself."
This was not what Akane had been expecting to hear. "What?! Excuse me, I don't see where it's any of your business!"
"Then let me explain," Nozomi replied, calmly. "Otonokizaka Academy is currently facing difficulties. Several people, including Eri, have ideas for helping. I had some of my own, but more importantly, there are several girls in the school who will benefit regardless of whether the plans succeed in helping the school. It was for that reason that I. . . nudged Kousaka Honoka into taking action." Her smile grew a bit. "I admit I didn't expect Saotome, but Honoka has chosen, whether wisely or not, to attach Saotome's star to her own."
Akane sniffed. "Well, then, if you want him, what's stopping you?"
Nozomi blinked. "Are you even paying attention? First, no, I don't actually want him. Or her, if you're going to be semantic about it." Akane shot the third year a look of surprise and some revulsion. She took a deep breath. "Let me try this again…" Okay, not mentioning the specifics. She's obviously got some hangups, and with the way Ranma acts. . . if I mention school idols I can't remotely tell how she'll react. "...Saotome Ranma, for whatever that means, is now essential to the best plans I have been able to come up with for my school. These plans do not mean him any harm, and in fact, require him to be in the best condition he can be." She smirked. "Which is a very nice one, I will admit, and you'd be a lucky girl if you would admit it to yourself."
"What's THAT supposed to mean?" Akane screeched.
Nozomi sighed, but continued on. "The point is, I want Ranma to remain happy. I admit there's little I can do about anything you might want to do to him, but if it's within my power I will make it happen. Right now, that boy cares about you, and anyone with two eyes can see it."
Akane blushed. "I wanted to marry him, you know."
Nozomi smiled. "If that's what he wants, I have little problem with it. If that changes, I'm on his side in that too." Akane stared at her as if she'd changed into a man. Nozomi looked back at her with a serene smile hiding the slowly sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Okay, let me ask one more question. You've said what you want. Imagine you were asking for it at a shrine. What would you be willing to give up to marry that boy?"
Akane blinked. "Wait, what? Why should I have to give up anything?"
"...I see." Nozomi finally let her apprehension show.
Akane was glad someone did. And she couldn't wait to get away from this awful 'date'.
While that was going on, Eri found herself chasing after a redheaded girl bounding back towards the section of the park with the faux-wooden buildings that led to the log flume. "Wait!"
That got her attention. The 'original Ranma' as she was thinking about it, having run into the girl first, stopped bounding and turned around. "Oy, Ayase, what's goin' on here?!"
"Someone tried to kill Akane, that's what!"
Ranma blinked. "Dammit, this is gettin' way out of hand." She sighed. "Guess that explains why the log flume ain't working. Gee, and I sure wanted to go." The last bit was said with a sarcastic drawl. "I'm guessin' Akane's okay or ya wouldn't be runnin' around like this."
"...no, you're right." Eri conceded. "She actually got us out of that mess before we got hurt."
Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Ya mean the tomboy managed ta save herself for once? Heh, knew she had it in her."
The blonde groaned. "You're one to talk."
"Hey, I have an excuse," Ranma said. Or three she thought, but didn't add. "Anyway, looks like today's a bust."
Eri sighed. 'It's barely noon. Nozomi and I will need to get back to shopping…" She swallowed. "Look, it's not that I don't like you, but. . . "
Ranma smirked. "How about we agree ta disagree, hmm? I ain't in it for your school or whatever, I just have a friend who needs help."
"I guess...that's fine." Eri conceded. "There's also the thing with Nishikino. Tell your cousin or whatever. . . just. . . . don't let something like that happen again, all right?"
Maki strolled through the main square, snacking on an ice cream cone. One would think a pigtailed redhead who likes to travel at window height would be easy to track, but Maki had quickly lost her in the crowds.
On the other hand, those old-fashioned Chinese silks were unmistakable, even at ground level. So when she saw the boy she thought was Ranma's brother, she ran up to him on the way out. "Hey!" she said, panting and short of breath. "Do you know what happened to your sister? I wanted to meet back up with her."
Suddenly, she realized she wasn't just talking to The Boy, but also Ayase, Toujou, and . . . "Uhm, who are you again?" she asked the last girl, who was glaring daggers at her.
Akane snorted. "Couldn't I ask you the same thing?"
"Hey, whoa, what did I do?" Maki asked, indeed taking a step back.
Ranma swallowed nervously. "Ah, Akane, this is Maki. She's in the club I was helpin', ya know?"
Maki's eyes crossed. "Uh…"
Nozomi rolled her eyes. "The one day, not all the time," she 'clarified.' "And no, his cousin has been asked to leave."
"Oh." Maki sighed, disappointment obvious in her expression. "I guess that's fine."
Akane rolled her eyes, and started pulling Ranma towards the exit. "Maybe we can do a movie or something."
Maki watched the four go, then sighed and went back into the park, trying to get Honoka on her phone again.
In Honoka's bedroom, a phone rang for the fifth time that day. Very slowly, a hand snaked out from under the covers of her bed, groping ineffectually for the device for a few seconds. As soon as her fingers wrapped around it, it was hurled, hard, at the wall and the noise stopped.
"Honoka, it's almost one!" a voice called.
Honoka groaned. "Can't move today, mom," her voice came out faintly. "Too much workout."
Suddenly, she found herself being hauled out from under the covers. "Move, Honoka!" snapped a voice that was not her mother's.
"U-Umi?" Honoka stammered, before noticeably twitching. "Oww...lemmie go!"
Umi wasn't having any of it. "Come on, we need to get you into the bath now, or you won't be able to move right tomorrow either."
"Uwah…" Honoka groaned, being dragged. "Umi, that hurts!"
Umi just sighed. "Of course it hurts, Honoka. Kotori hurts, I hurt. But you've got to trust me, all right?"
Honoka winced, considering. "Okay…"
They had just made it to the edge of the park, turning onto a shopping thoroughfare, when Ranma felt Nozomi gently tug on his shirt. Glancing at Akane, he trailed back minutely, only to feel a few bills shoved into his hand. "Sorry...take her to a movie. This one," she hissed, the last bit even lower as she pointed at a schedule for the nearest cinema on her cell phone. Ranma raised an eyebrow, but Nozomi gave him a wink and a nod.
The martial artist returned the nod when all hell broke loose for the last time that day.
Nozomi suddenly shrieked "LOOK OUT!" and shoved Ranma aside. His danger sense flashed, as he became aware of a projectile - probably a smoke bomb judging by the shape, arc, and where it was going to land - and glanced to Akane. But then he realized Nozomi was already diving that direction, but Ayase was still in the way.. Enhancing his speed with a sudden burst of ki, he gently scooped her up by the waist and leapt to the top of a nearby bus stop,
Time seemed to recover, as the area where they had been standing exploded into an acrid red smoke. Ranma stared in disbelief. "No way, that ain't Mousse. He don't go in for the poisons."
Eri stared at him in disbelief. "Wait, if not him then who?"
Nozomi frowned. "Wait, that nice boy? He said he was just watching today…"
"That about does it...but then who…?" Ranma's puzzlement was cut off by the realization he could hear Akane's voice, but it seemed to be muffled somehow. He looked...only to realize Akane's head was still buried in Nozomi's expansive bust. "Ahh...ya can let her up now."
Nozomi complied, and had to immediately fend off a series of light (from Akane) slaps. "Get off me you weirdo!"
"Oi, that's gratitude!" Ranma snarked. "Toujou just saved your life, Akane."
Akane blushed, suddenly realizing just how close she'd come. "Uh...sorry about that.
Nozomi just got to her feet with her usual smile. "Not a problem. For me, anyway."
Ranma helped Eri to the ground, and the blonde sighed. "Look, we should get back to shopping. Ranma, remember what I said. No more trouble at school."
"Got it Ayase…" Ranma said, watching as the pair retreated. He turned towards Akane. "Hey, uh, look, I still got some money left. Ya wanna go catch a movie?"
Akane blinked, surprised. "Uhm...okay. Which one?"
"I'll tell ya when we get there." Ranma said, glancing around one last time. "You'll like it, trust me. But the streets got ears, ya know?"
Two girls finally stepped off the train away from Ekiba. Eri wasn't even sure which stop they got off at, she just looked for a station with relatively few people and dragged her friend out of the doors. "Nozomi, this is insane!"
Nozomi, for her part, dropped all pretense at cheer and looked out across the tracks as the train pulled away. "I quite agree. Can you get me some tea? I really need to think."
The darker-haired girl wasn't dissuaded. "Erichi, please. I realize you deserve an explanation, but I need to think." This declaration startled Eri so much she went to the nearby vending machine and fetched two bottles. Handing Nozomi the milk tea, she opened her own mocha coffee can.
"For the record, 160 yen," she muttered, but waited patiently for Nozomi's brain to catch up with the events of the day. It took several minutes of them drinking together, slowly and in silence, before they finally looked at each other. Eri went first. "You're being ridiculous, you know."
"Shall we just skip the argument, then?" Nozomi's smile was back, but Eri shook her head.
Setting the bottle aside, she turned Nozomi to face her. "This is so much worse than we imagined, Nozomi."
"I'll say," came the unexpected response. "No wonder they're so completely. . . " she waved her hand in a gesture. "If that was a typical day, at least. And that Tendo girl is worrisome."
Eri glared at her. "That was at least partly your doing, and you know it. Did you have to provoke her?"
"Yes." It was not what Eri had wanted to hear, but at least it was expected. "I had to know, and know what Kousaka is thinking."
Eri sighed. "Did you at least find out?"
"Well enough." Nozomi frowned more deeply. "I'm also going to have to figure out how to break it to Nishikino."
Eri finally gave up, taking another deep pull from her drink before looking back at her 'girlfriend.' "What about Nishikino?"
"She's crushing on Ranma," Nozomi admitted. "I may have . . . encouraged. . . it a little."
Eri facepalmed. "Which one? Ranma or Ranko?"
Eri stared at her in total disbelief. "Nozomi!"
"I didn't realize everything about Tendo, all right?" Nozomi held up her hands defensively. "I thought it was. . . well, normal stuff, not this." Her smile returned, slightly. "That said, and whatever I said to Tendo, I'm on Maki's side here, I think."
"That's assuming I don't get the chairwoman to kick. . . " she seemed to collapse in on herself. "That's just wishful thinking. If the Saotomes decide they want to be somewhere, I haven't really got a chance of forcing them, do I?"
Nozomi shrugged. "You can try being nice about it, but if you want them gone, you'll have to work through Honoka."
"And Kousaka will say 'no' because that's just how she is." Eri rested her head against the other girl's shoulder. "Please, be honest with me. How much of this did your predictions really tell you?"
Nozomi sighed. "Not much. The Fool suggested following a blind opportunity, and I took it."
". . . and do they say we get out of this?" Nozomi winced at Eri's question, and pulled out her deck. A quick shuffle, and Eri found herself holding three cards dealt neatly out of the middle of the deck. "The Ace of Cups?"
"The beginning of love. It could mean the love between Tendo and Saotome, but. . . " Nozomi said carefully, and got Eri's nod of confirmation – she understood. Too many variables, could mean anything. The next card was the Six of Swords. "Change...whatever happened today, it should be prompting all of us to go back and think things through, to begin again from a new place."
"So you're saying I should just. . . accept this?"
Nozomi shook her head. "No, just think about it. The right answer might be to grow more firm and try harder. I doubt it, but I can't make your decisions for you. The cards advise, we decide." Finally, she flipped the last card out. "The Queen of Wands. In the end, it all comes back to her."
Honoka had been forcibly carried out of bed and to the dining room table. A cold breakfast was laid out in front of her, which she stared at listlessly. She slowly lifted up one hand to try to grab her chopsticks when she heard a sound like every sore muscle in her body cracking at once. Bonelessly, she slid out of her chair and to the ground.
Umi just sighed and gently propped her back up. "I'm not your mother, I shouldn't be having to take care of you."
"I'm sorry," Honoka said, before catching the soft smile behind the exasperated sigh.
Eri shook her head. "We are doomed."
After buying the tickets (and being very careful to make sure Akane didn't see what movie had been picked, Ranma came over to her, with a single bag of popcorn balanced on his head and two sodas in his hands. "Here, hold these, would you?" Akane took them, and then Ranma picked her up, keeping the last treat balanced on his head.
"Hey, what are you doing?" she exclaimed, but Ranma just smirked at her and carried her to the emergency stairwell.
"Easiest way ta make sure no one knows what theater we go to."
Akane frowned. "What, are you embarrassed to be seen with me?"
Ranma shook his head. "Nah, just gotta shake'em off. Now, up we go."
Tendo Akane barely managed to restrain a shriek as she found herself suddenly being lifted faster than any ride at the park could have managed, Ranma bouncing off the flexible handrails as they went up floors in seconds, before finding themselves on the right landing. Ranma kicked the handle and flipped open the door with a casual ease, slipping into the hallway and closing the door behind them.
The whole feat took less than ten seconds. And, judging by the bag of popcorn, Ranma hadn't spilled a single kernel.
"Whew...come on, it's theater fifteen."
This early in the day, the theater was largely deserted, but Ranma led them to the back row. The popcorn was set on the large armrest between the two middle seats, and Ranma smiled. "Your seat, M'lady," he said in an exaggerated, upper-class-twit accent.
Akane made a face at him in response. "You sound like Kuno."
Ranma winced. "Right, not doin' that." They took their seats just as the lights dimmed and the previews started, letting them enjoy the darkness in a companionable silence, although Ranma's eyes stayed on the doors, looking for any light.
None came. They were the last to enter the theater. Safe.
Images of an idyllic mountain countryside came up on the screen, and Akane's eyes widened as she realized that it was the same romantic movie she'd been wanting to see with her friends. "Oh...Ranma?" she looked at him, but he just gave her an easy grin back.
She gripped his hand in hers, the popcorn forgotten.