Title: Identity Search

Author: Shareon

Summary: When Tendo Nabiki chances across a sophisticated redhead working in a hostess club, she becomes determined to discover the secret behind this seemingly familiar girl. But will she succeed when all of her assumptions and expectations insist that it can't possibly be Ranma? A "Ranma 1/2" fanfiction.

Chapter 1: Who is Sakura?

"It doesn't count. It was a cheap trick. Ranma-kun will figure it out and be back in a minute," Jiro protested weakly. He had to shout to be heard over the loud meows echoing throughout the grounds of Furinkan High School. It wasn't merely the sound of one cat amplified beyond belief; it was an unnatural mixture of hundreds of them, all meowing and hissing in fury. Occasionally a lion's roar could be heard as well, adding a fearful weight to the racket. It sounded like a veritable army of felines had invaded and was about to storm the school.

The sound was so unnatural that it was eerie even to Nabiki, and she didn't have a childhood phobia brought on by being mauled over and over in a pit full of the furry creatures. The worry was irrational, but that didn't make it any less real. The mercenary ice queen of Furinkan did her best to ignore it and continue on with her business despite it. There was yen at stake here.

She asserted, "It doesn't matter. The terms clearly state that if either party leaves the Furinkan school grounds, and there is no active fighting between the two combatants, then the departing party is considered to have lost the fight. I see Mousse is still here and Ranma-kun is gone. He lost."

Jiro muttered a bit before wandering away. It would do no good to argue. Nabiki was right. She always made sure she was right whenever she talked business, and everything was business.

In the bushes, past the numerous metal projectiles and craters strewn about the school grounds, Mousse finally pushed the stop button on the hidden cassette player. The din of cat cries was brought to an end, much to the relief of everyone still in the area.

"And Abe-kun, you're the last one. Lucky you," Nabiki said. She handed over his cut of the pool. It was a few thousand yen. He was one of the few people who had placed a bet against Ranma, and that made him one of the few big winners of the day.

Of those big winners, naturally the biggest winner was Nabiki herself. The brunette always enjoyed it when Ranma lost an arranged duel. She earned a decent profit whenever he won one of these fights, but it was nothing compared to the income she received whenever he lost. Everybody always loved to bet that Ranma would win. Granted, he always did win in the very end, but he was hardly the unbeatable powerhouse that everybody thought. Somehow people always seemed to forget the numerous times he lost on the path to that final victory, such as the time Akane had worn that battle dogi and beaten him. Even in nominally fair fights he occasionally lost, such as the time when Ryouga had first learned the Shishi Hokodan.

Those infrequent losses always filled Nabiki's wallet nicely, whenever she could take advantage of them. It was surprisingly rare to actually be able to set up a betting pool. It took a certain minimum crowd size to make it worthwhile to arrange one. That meant that it was not viable to set up a pool for those random battles which happened practically on a daily basis at the Tendo Dojo, Okonomiyaki Ucchan, the Nekohanten, or on random islands which just happened to be floating by. It took a great deal of organization and promotion to set up a betting pool, too, which made the frequent impromptu battles which happened in Furinkan High School useless for this as well. By the time Nabiki could arrange one and pay some classmates to help run it, the fight would most likely be long over.

It meant that she had to take advantage of the infrequent formal challenges whenever she could in order to collect her coveted yen, such as this most recent challenge that Mousse had presented to fulfill some Chinese Amazon ritual of some kind. The exact details of the circumstances weren't clear to her, but ultimately they didn't matter. The script was always the same. Something caused somebody to fight Ranma, they fought, there was a large amount of collateral damage, after zero or more losses Ranma would eventually win in the end, and the status quo was restored until the next fight.

Despite the weakness of Jiro's position, he did have a point. Most of the school had stayed around to see whether or not Ranma would return to pummel Mousse. She mentally gave approximately 1:7 odds that he would come back and conclude the final act of this latest incident today. Regardless of whether or not Ranma returned, though, Nabiki didn't want to loiter around to find out. If he did not return, as was more likely, then she would have wasted all that time waiting for nothing. If he actually did return and won the rematch against Mousse, then it would only end up causing her trouble. The terms of the bets were clear, but she was sure some people would argue. It was better to leave rather than face that particular complaint from dozens of yelling students. She had no particular reason to stay around, too. Classes had ended a while ago, and she wasn't part of any club or association. The only business she had had for the day had been the betting pool which she had just concluded.

Some mental calculations of the Tokyo Metro system confirmed that she would be able to take the round trip to Ginza and be back with a bit of time to spare. There was a new designer purse which had caught her eye, and she suddenly found herself with an extra 10000 yen to spend. The only deadline that she had was that she needed to be home by dinner; food vanished quickly with the Saotomes around. Even without them, if she were late, she would probably get a lecture from her father about how bad it was for his precious daughter to be wandering around a place as dangerous as Tokyo. Worse, she would have to face a disapproving look from Kasumi.

The trains were standing room only. They were packed with students who wore their respective uniforms. The various crests, colors, and designs stood out as a catalog of the schools within a 20-kilometer radius. The trains would only continue to grow more crowded throughout the afternoon as the business day ended and office workers started their own long trips home. It wouldn't slow down until well into the evening, long after Nabiki expected to be eating another home-cooked meal prepared by her older sister.

She gave internal odds of 1:2 that Ranma would be in attendance at dinner. More often than not, whenever he disappeared under unusual circumstances after school, he would end up getting home late. In contrast, she gave odds of 5:1 that Akane would be in attendance. It was fairly rare that things escalated to the point that Akane missed dinner in addition to Ranma.

The streets of Ginza were bustling, as they always were. As the premier shopping district in Tokyo, the wide sidewalks and thoroughfares always had people moving about trying to exchange their own yen for whatever nice thing happened to catch their fancy. Nabiki kept a close hold of her book bag as she walked. Crime was very uncommon in Tokyo, but there was no reason to risk being the target of the rare pickpocket or thief.

Once she reached the store, purchasing the purse itself was trivial. Nabiki may have only been a high school student, but yen was the ultimate transformer. It transformed disconnected classmates into Business Associates, and it transformed teenage girls into Customers. The saleswoman was only too happy to help once Nabiki presented an appropriately large stack of bills.

Nabiki's purchase didn't quite match her plain school uniform, but the cream and gold purse would be fantastic with some of her more formal dresses. The warm glow of satisfaction filled her. Things like her new purchase stood as her just rewards for all the sacrifices and all the efforts she had made to collect that yen.

She was still internally preening on her way back to the train station when a shock of red in the corner of her eye caught her attention. It was a distinct shade she had learned to associate with both danger and profit. It seized her attention and demanded a second glance. That second glance quickly became a closer look as she hurried over to check if what she had seen was true or if she was experiencing some kind of delusion worthy of Kuno Tatewaki.

There were dozens of hostess clubs within Ginza alone, and countless more scattered around the greater Tokyo area. Flare was one of them. It looked just like any other hostess club might. Its well-lit sign could easily be lost amongst the sea of equally brightly-lit advertisements lining both sides of the street. The building was neither especially opulent nor particularly rundown. It did have a wall of photographs advertising the various hostesses within the club, but that was nothing unusual. It served as a bait of sort for lonely businessmen passing by. What made Flare stand out as unique was the content of one of those photographs, displayed rather prominently near the center of the tableau.

It was the shock of red which had caught Nabiki's attention in the first place. It cut through the background and stood as a signature of a female Ranma wherever he went. The brunette leaned in closer and closer until she was staring with the picture right in front of her face. Undoubtedly that was Ranma's photograph on the wall. She had seen it enough times to know. He was wearing a pair of glasses, and he had his hair loose rather than in his characteristic pigtail, but it was definitely Ranma.

Laughter bubbled up from her chest and demanded to be let out. Nabiki tried to force it down. She had learned the value of masking the emotions she felt. They just got in the way of business. It was a valiant fight.

A moment of laughter escaped Nabiki's throat. She reveled in it for a second before she managed to regain control of herself and stop. She carefully erased all traces of levity from her bearing and once again appeared to the outside world to be all business.

It was just too funny. Ranma went out of his way to be manly no matter what the situation might be. His life may no longer be at risk from a seppuku contract he had unknowingly agreed to as a child, but he was still fiercely defensive of his masculinity. Nabiki had taken advantage of that trait more than once to manipulate him into doing something for her. There were almost no circumstances which would explain what Ranma was doing as a hostess in a hostess club. It was the exact opposite of what she imagined of him. He almost got drunk at the mere smell of alcohol, and the idea of serving a businessman's every whim was an anathema to both his pride and his masculinity. About the closest thing he got to non-magically-enforced servility was when he had trained at the Nekohanten during the phoenix pill incident, and that wasn't nearly as degrading as working in a hostess club.

Except in that same phoenix pill incident, he had sat next to a fire and plunged his hands into it time after time despite having a sensitivity to heat as high as a cat's tongue. During the weakness moxibustion incident, he had taken scandalously prurient photographs of his female form to tempt Happousai, the biggest lecher in Tokyo. During the Martial Arts Dining incident, he had starved himself so thin that an iron corset had fallen off of him when he had tried to learn the Parlay du Foie Gras. There was one thing which could drive Ranma to work in a hostess club; he would do anything to learn a new martial arts technique, especially if it would let him avenge a recent defeat and lead to his final victory. That had to be what was going on, and he would need to be desperate to subject himself to this amount of scandalous shame to learn that technique.

It was perfect. Desperate people were the best counterparties in a negotiation. Nabiki could go in and enjoy herself. She knew exactly what would happen. She could picture him stomping around in a skimpy dress and accidentally setting things on fire, not to mention his reaction whenever hot water inevitably flew in his direction. He would turn a corner, recognize Nabiki, and freeze. The panoply of fear, shock, and shame would dance across his face. There would be the stammering excuses and the shameless begging to not expose him. And the mercenary ice queen of Furinkan would be only too happy to keep his secret a secret for just a bit of monetary consideration.

She felt a bit of laughter fighting to get out again at the mere thought.

Her deadline for dinner was fast approaching, but she was sure she could spare a bit of time. She would be in and out in a couple of minutes, with a bit of levity enjoyed and a bit more yen in her pocket for the effort.

The door to Flare pushed open with silken ease and revealed the glamorous interior. There were numerous panels of light lining the walls, and more of them embedded in various tables. Despite the numerous sources of illumination, the hostess club still appeared surprisingly dark. The dark brown walls seemed to absorb the light, and the black marble panels lining the edges of the halls gave the club an edge of classy sophistication even as it set a romantic mood. The look catered to those who wanted to imagine they were on a romantic date for a special event. Actually, the customers could very well actually be on a romantic date, it was just that the female companionship was an included part of the menu.

"Welcome to Flare," a maitre d' standing near the front desk greeted Nabiki with a bow. She gave no pause or hint that anything was unusual at Nabiki's appearance, even though the vast majority of the hostess club's customer base must have been men who had graduated from school long ago. Yen was the ultimate transformer, and it worked for anybody. "Would madam please follow me?"

Nabiki followed behind the woman, suddenly feeling quite out of place. The maitre d' was a middle-aged woman who was impeccably dressed. She wore a short black pencil skirt and a black jacket over a buttoned shirt. Her short hair had been styled to present a buoyant frame of sleek elegance around her head, and her makeup dusted out the wrinkles on her face while remaining light enough to be practically unnoticeable. Compared to her sharp business attire, Nabiki's plain school uniform felt decidedly sloppy.

Walls of wooden frameworks broke the main room up into numerous semi-private mini-rooms with black leather seats and glossy tables. The dark wood provided a modicum of solitude between each alcove while the openness of the frames prevented any feelings of claustrophobia. Nabiki was led winding between them, very occasionally passing by some middle-aged man in a suit being served a drink or having a cigarette lit. The idea that one of those girls might be Ranma was enough to bring back that chortle of laughter within Nabiki. She managed to not express it this time, though. The distinguished atmosphere of the club helped her keep it hidden within her.

"Here is our menu of hostesses," the maitre d' said with velvet ease once they had reached a private alcove distant from all of the other customers. She handed over a leather-bound book to her. "Feel free to take a seat and browse at your leisure, madam. I shall return shortly to hear whom you would like to meet first."

"Actually, there is somebody specific I was looking for."

"Oh? My apologies. I didn't recognize you, and I had assumed you were new here. Shall I find your hostess for you? Who was that?"

"Her name is Ranma-chan," Nabiki said. She only got a blank look in reply. "I'm sorry, I meant to say Ranko-chan." Another blank look.

Nabiki sighed, and explained, "She's about this tall with red hair she keeps in a pigtail. She likes to talk like a boy, and probably got into a fight with somebody within the past week which caused some major property damage." No matter where Ranma went, fights were sure to follow, and the script included a large amount of collateral damage. It was the type of thing people tended to notice and remember.

The maitre d' paused a discreet amount of time in thought. She then tactfully suggested in the tone of voice an informed servant might use when addressing an ignorant master, "Perhaps madam is mistaken. We don't have anybody like that here. Is it possible you are thinking of Sakura-chan? She is approximately that tall and has red hair. If I may?" She took back the book she had given earlier, opened the cover to the first page, and returned it to Nabiki.

In the center of the book was a large photograph of Ranma smiling demurely for the camera while wearing a pair of designer glasses and a black lace dress. In the corner of the picture, the name "Sakura" was written in ornately curved roman lettering. On the back of the page were two sections. The top had printed "I work on:" followed by the list of days of the week. Tuesday and Friday were circled, and hand-written in the space next to it was "17:00-21:00". Below that line was printed "Message:" after which somebody had carefully hand-written, "I enjoy cooking and tea ceremony. I hope we can be good friends."

Nabiki coughed, and said, "Yes, Sakura-chan. That's who I meant."

"Quite," the maitre d' said plainly. If she was suspicious, she gave no indication of it at all. "Please have a seat. It is quite early in the evening, so none of Sakura-chan's regular visitors are here yet. I shall let her know you are waiting, and she will be here shortly." She took the book back from Nabiki and walked away.

What the maitre d' had said couldn't be possible. It was inconceivable to imagine that Ranma actually had people repeatedly requesting him on a regular basis. His female form did have the exotic beauty of a foreigner, but that had to be outweighed by his crass behavior and vulgar speech. It was considered unusual for him to go five minutes without insulting somebody. The moment he opened his mouth, people would be demanding another hostess.

Nabiki was still contemplating that particular conundrum as she eased her way into one of the leather chairs. It was every bit as comfortable to sit in as it was luxurious to look at. The brunette sank back with a sigh. It would be easy to relax here and spend hours in the carefully cultivated timeless twilight surrounding her.

A brief glance at a menu quickly disabused her of that idea. The prices of everything were exorbitant. The cheapest drink Nabiki saw was 2000 yen, and at least one of the wines was priced in the hundreds of thousands. It demonstrated the steely edge underlying this world of catered luxury.

She didn't let it bother her, though. The cost didn't actually directly affect her at all. Ranma should have some kind of employee discount. He had better. Nabiki was going to make sure that he paid for everything she ordered this afternoon. The main effect of seeing the menu was to raise her admiration for the owners of Flare. It took a special person to have the audacity to charge that kind of markup, and somebody even more special to have the salesmanship necessary to be able to get away with it.

Nabiki pried her eyes away from the menu and looked up again. She didn't want to miss the moment when Ranma appeared. Soon there would be the shock of recognition, followed by the fight between embarrassment, fear, and despair. It would be the most delicious moment, and Nabiki eagerly waited for it.

It never came.

A red-haired hostess glided into the alcove, which was especially impressive given the substantial heels on her shoes. She wore a cream-colored chiffon dress which coincidentally happened to match Nabiki's purse quite well. Her long red hair had been teased out into waves to drape elegantly down the back of her neck. Some expertly applied eyeshadow and mascara gave her eyes a decidedly smoky appearance behind the expensive glasses she wore, and there was just enough makeup on the rest of her face to give it a smooth airbrushed perfection without calling attention to itself.

She was Ranma. She had to be Ranma. She had the same red hair, the same short height, the same ample bust, and the same midnight blue eyes.

But she couldn't be Ranma. Her designer glasses were coordinated with the rest of her clothing in a way Ranma would only ever achieve by chance, and they were entirely out of place for a martial artist with effectively perfect vision. Her hair framed her head in a way more often seen in fashion magazines rather than in the universal pigtail Ranma always wore. Her muted lipstick was expertly selected by somebody who knew enough about fashion to find a shade which would add just enough color to make her mouth look alluring without drawing attention away from her eyes. Her gaze remained downcast in a demure way which Ranma would never do short of a magical artifact affecting him.

Most importantly, the red-haired girl gave no sign that she had recognized Nabiki at all. No startled shock. No pause in hesitation. No delicious indecision between the desire to run away immediately and the fear that that could somehow make the situation worse. Nothing at all.

"Welcome to Flare, madam. It is a pleasure to meet you. May I have the honor of learning your name?" Sakura asked. She sounded like Ranma, but only superficially. Her voice was silky smooth. All of the harsh edges had been filed off of her consonants, which let her words join together into a single flowing experience. Her modest meekness was vaguely reminiscent of the time Ranma had knocked his head and had thought he was a girl. Much like that incident, Sakura spoke with feminine pronouns and speech patterns, but if anything she was even more deferential.

All of the evidence that the red-headed girl was not Ranma did nothing to dissuade Nabiki. Emotionally she was starting to doubt herself, but intellectually she remained confident. Everything which suggested to her that this girl was not Ranma was possible to fake. Granted, it was utterly implausible that the dumb churl had the ability to fake this, but that was no more implausible than the idea that the girl in front of her was not Ranma.

Despite the tumult raging through her head, Nabiki kept firm control of her external appearance. Being uncontrolled with expressions was never good for business. She spoke with the confidence of conviction, even if she didn't actually feel nearly as certain. "Fancy meeting you here, Ranma-kun."

"Ranma-kun? I'm afraid you are mistaken. My name is Sakura," the girl said with calm composure. She spoke with a slight apology, as if she was sorry for needing to correct the honest mistake of an honored customer.

Sakura's response was simple, and yet it still managed to fluster Nabiki. It was completely off script. Ranma was supposed to be stammering out unbelievable lie after unbelievable lie while squirming around and sweating nervously. Nabiki should be half-way to suggesting her silence could be bought. Earnest confusion and apologetic responses were not what she had expected at all.

Nabiki didn't let it dissuade her from her original plan. She quickly said, "Drop the act. You're not fooling anybody, Ranma-kun. So what's my silence worth to you? Do you have any idea how much I can get for selling this information to everybody back in Nerima?" Nabiki didn't actually know how much the information was worth, but she didn't let that little fact show. This was a negotiation.

"Oh. I understand, madam. You are of course correct. I am Ranma," Sakura said coquettishly, batting her eyes a bit. She took a seat next to Nabiki. "I'm sorry. It has been a while, and I'm afraid to admit that I didn't recognize you at first."

"What?" Nabiki asked flatly. That was not at all the reaction she had anticipated. She had managed to get Sakura to admit she was Ranma, but there was none of the stuttering denial, or tearful pleading, or anything else that such an admission should carry with it. She wasn't sure what it meant.

Sakura slightly leaned in towards Nabiki, and said, "I apologize. It is entirely my fault. Nerima isn't that far away, but you know how things can be sometimes. I'm sorry that I've been so atrociously difficult to contact. However, we are here now, and that's all that matters, right?" She continued to speak with the beguiling dulcet voice and feminine speech with which she had started. It was a far cry from the harsh, strident, forceful voice Ranma used whenever he was in female form.

The silence stretched while Nabiki tried to think of something to say. What could she say in response? She wasn't sure. Everything was wrong. Sakura spoke in vague generalities, and the content of her speech was unusual to say the least. Far from stammering denial, Nabiki's accusations had been met with graceful apologies. This visit was supposed to be a short little escapade, but it had somehow turned into something far different.

After a few seconds of silence, Sakura added cheerfully, "I know. We should have a drink to celebrate our reunion. That would be fun, wouldn't it?" She had somehow managed to open a menu without Nabiki noticing it and was holding it in front of the two of them so they could both read from it at the same time. "Maybe you would like to try some Suntory Kakubin? The whiskey is quite mild, and it has a delightful touch of sweetness to it. I'm sure you would love it. I'm sure you remember my favorite drink as well. What was it again? Maybe it was a grape spritzer?"

The incongruity of it all felt weird, and it unbalanced Nabiki, as did the prices on the menu. A grape spritzer cost 3000 yen, which paled in comparison to the 10000 yen for the glass of whiskey. She felt too caught up in events. She had expected this to be a quick and easy diversion: walk into the hostess club, embarrass Ranma, get a bit of money and maybe a drink, and be back home by dinner. By this point she should have been walking back to the train station, not thinking about which excessively expensive drink would be least bad to order.

What Nabiki needed was a moment to collect herself.

"Why don't you just bring me some tea?" It would grant Nabiki a bit of time while the hostess had to walk away to find some hot water and steep some leaves. The drink couldn't have been that common an order in a place as sophisticated as this, which meant Nabiki might get lucky and get several minutes of time while waiting for the water to boil.

"Of course. I will need to retrieve the tea. Please excuse me, madam, I shall just be a moment," Sakura said. She gracefully stood up and glided away from the isolated booth, showing an agility Ranma definitely had, but in a way that he would never demonstrate.

As intended, it left Nabiki a moment to sit alone and think. Nothing made sense to her. She was sure that that girl had to be Ranma. She had outright admitted it. However, she wasn't talking like him. If anything, it felt as though she had been trying to feel her way through the conversation, as if she had been trying to cold read Nabiki for clues. It made it seem as though Sakura was more an attentive hostess trying to humor a customer rather than actually knowing what Nabiki had been talking about. Of course, that wasn't possible. Beneath the glasses, and the makeup, and the demure speech it was definitely Ranma.

Or somebody who looked exactly like his female form.

What did it all mean? Did Ranma have a hidden wellspring of acting ability? That was doubtful. Nabiki could read the boy like a book. She had often done so during her various negotiations and confrontations with him. He was practically transparent. So who was this girl? Had something like the mirror copy of Ranma returned? Sakura acted strangely, but she didn't act like that. Maybe some other clone had appeared, or a twin, or something else.

Any further thoughts were interrupted when Sakura returned carrying a tray. She placed the tray on the table and took a seat across from Nabiki. It hadn't even been 30 seconds since she had left, which was far less time than Nabiki needed to figure out her next plan of action.

Nabiki watched with growing horror as Sakura removed a stone bowl, a hemp cloth, a cup, a pot, a bamboo whisk, and everything else needed for a tea ceremony from the tray and placed them on the table. It was absolutely not what Nabiki had had in mind. She had thought she was ordering a hot drink in a cheap cup, not an actual tea ceremony. No matter how informal it would be, it would still take quite some time to complete, and time was already an issue. Sakura's actions were also predefined and would be conducted mostly in silence, which would grant Nabiki no further opportunity to directly interact with the hostess for the duration of the ceremony.

Sakura was wiping the edge of the stone bowl with the hemp cloth when Nabiki decided that she had had enough. She should have already left the hostess club and be on the train home by this time. She was going to put an end to the charade.

Nabiki picked up the steaming pot of hot water, removed the lid, and then threw the water across the table. She flatly said, "Oops. I slipped."

Her target reacted instantly. Sakura screamed and threw herself flat against the seat. A few small droplets of water randomly scattered through the air while the majority of it flew over Sakura and continued unimpeded through the loose wooden framework which acted like a wall.

Sakura jumped to her feet and quickly flounced away in a decidedly feminine manner. As she ran, she shouted, "Mama-san! Mama-san!"

It was absolutely not the reaction Nabiki had anticipated. Ever since she had entered Flare, nothing had gone according to script. Nabiki was used to having all the information and being in control, but ever since she had pushed open that door to the hostess club she had felt decidedly ignorant and caught up in events.

She had messed up, and she knew it. She had felt frustrated, and as a result she had picked the most direct way to resolve the situation, just like her younger sister might have. Time and again she had seen how the impulsive and thoughtless nature of Akane had caused problem after problem, and yet Nabiki had just done the same thing. She had wanted to force the issue, and she had successfully done so, albeit in a less-than-ideal way. She knew nothing good could come of it. It only remained to be seen how disastrous it would be.

Nabiki was still mentally kicking herself when the maitre d' showed up. She still looked sharp, but it felt more like the edge of a katana now. Sakura was nowhere in sight.

"I understand that there was a bit of a... situation here, madam?"

"Yes. I was trying to take a look at one of the pots and I slipped," Nabiki said.

"I see... I think it may be best if madam were to leave and not return. We wouldn't want there to be another accident, right?" the maitre d' said. It was phrased as a polite question, but there was no doubt it was both an order and a threat.

"Of course. I was just leaving anyway," Nabiki said. She pushed herself to her feet and picked up her new purse and her old book bag. She was then escorted back through the club. She had to give the maitre d' credit. There was no obvious sign to a casual observer that she was being watched and forced out of the club. A visible confrontation would be bad for business.

The loose escort left her with enough space to quickly grab a business card from the front counter before she found herself outside once again.

Nabiki had a curious mixture of feelings going through her, and none of them felt good. Her heart was still racing from the confrontation with the maitre d' and her fear of what would happen next. This had been the first time Nabiki had ever been forcefully expelled from a restaurant. Rationally, she knew that no police would have been called and she was in no real danger, but that did nothing for her pounding heart and rushing ears. She hated the feeling of adrenaline surging through her veins. Leave that to Ranma, Akane, Shampoo, and all the other martial artists who were long on adventure and short on sense.

Annoyance featured high on her list of emotions, too. She hadn't expected things to go quite so badly. She had been completely unprepared for that encounter with Sakura. It wasn't like an argument with her father, or like a tricky negotiation. She knew when those types of difficult confrontations were coming in advance, and she could mentally prepare herself for both the encounter as well as for a potentially poor outcome. In contrast, this should have been a simple diversion on the way home from shopping. It was like taking a leisurely walk through a neighborhood park only to suddenly realize that there was a pit viper lying across the sidewalk right in front of you.

Hidden away and nestled among her swirling mass of emotions was also the slightest bit of confusion and doubt. Was it possible that that really had not been Ranma? It was said that everybody had a doppelganger, somebody else who looked exactly like them, somewhere in the world. That was even more likely true for Ranma, who drew trouble to him like a supernatural magnet. Nabiki knew Ranma backwards and forwards, and there was absolutely no way he could pull off a bluff that calmly or act that naturally attentive. Sakura's vocabulary had included some words that Ranma probably didn't even know existed. She had had some knowledge of expensive whiskey as well. Maybe she really was not Ranma.

But that was ridiculous. It had to be Ranma. Her face. Her hair. Her unimaginative name.

Nabiki glanced back at the door. She really wanted to go back in. If she could observe Sakura for a bit longer, from an outside perspective when she wasn't directly engaged with the red-haired girl, then she was sure she would be able to sort things out. However, that avenue was blocked to her. If she re-entered the hostess club, then it was very likely the police actually would be called, and assault was a serious criminal charge to be facing. That was even assuming she had the time to investigate further, which she didn't. As it was, she was going to need to jog if she wanted to have any chance to avoid being late for dinner.

Ultimately, it didn't matter. She would get her satisfaction one way or another. If Ranma was present for dinner, she could find out when he had returned and thus whether or not Sakura was him. Depending on the circumstances, she might even bring up the hostess in Flare anyway, just for the entertainment value alone.

On the other hand, if Ranma was not at dinner, then it was just more corroborating evidence that he was in fact Sakura. Then it was just a matter of time. She could confront him in the evening, or during breakfast on Wednesday, or pretty much any day she wanted. He couldn't avoid her forever.

In the meantime, there was one last thing she could do.

Nabiki's camera was in her hand with barely a thought and she snapped two quick pictures of the photograph on the wall which had begun this whole incident. She also took two pictures of the entire club as well. One way or another, Ranma would pay for this, if not personally, then through Kuno Tatewaki.

The sidewalks of Ginza were crowded, but they were nothing like the trains. On the trip from Nerima to Ginza it had been standing room only. On the trip back the crowd had grown even larger, to the point that people were literally being pushed in to allow the doors to close. It was hard to even breathe, let alone move around. Rush hour was always miserable on the Tokyo Metro system.

Things were better once Nabiki was out of the trains. It was a fight to get out of the crowded car, and Nabiki required a firm grip to retain her book bag as it clung to the throng of people she left in her wake. Once she was out of the sticky mass of humanity, the jog home was easy. She had been walking, running, and living in the streets of Nerima her whole life. The sights and sounds were well known to her. There was the familiar fire station, the familiar convenience store, and Ms. Takahashi's house. All of the habitual landmarks guided her routine journey back to the Tendo Dojo.

Nabiki had just enough time to drop her bags in her room before Kasumi called her down to the dining room.

Almost everybody was present for the dinner. Kasumi and her father were there, as they always were. The two adult Saotomes were present, too, and both were human. Akane was there, so the 5:1 payout would not occur. Happousai was absent, but that was no surprise. He had disappeared a few weeks earlier for some reason, and he hadn't been heard from since, much to the delight of Genma, Soun, and every female and part-time female in Nerima. The only noteworthy absence was Ranma.

It wasn't too unusual for him to miss dinner. Her 1:2 odds suggested that it was twice as likely that Ranma would be absent as compared to him being present. Nabiki wouldn't have even given it a second thought, except for the page she had seen in the hostess menu less than an hour earlier. It stated that Sakura worked from 17:00-21:00, and it was Tuesday. It was still circumstantial, but it was yet another piece of evidence which failed to prove that Ranma and Sakura were different people. It wasn't conclusive, though, and she wanted to be sure.

"Akane, where's Ranma-kun?" Nabiki asked.

"How should I know?"

"Well, he is your fiance."

"I am not going to marry that pervert!" Akane shouted.

"So he never came back after he ran away from his fight with Mousse?" Nabiki asked. A blanket denial of marriage suggested that Akane didn't know where Ranma was. If she had known, most likely she would have either said where she had seen him or given a more specific rant about his inappropriate behavior.

"He ran away?" Nodoka asked with a frown.

"Don't worry. He'll be back. I didn't raise my son to run away like a coward," Genma boasted. He carefully eyed the katana his wife carried everywhere she went.

"What about the Saotome Secret Technique?" Nabiki casually asked with a smirk. She enjoyed watching the sometimes-panda squirm almost as much as she enjoyed watching Ranma sweat.

"Saotome Secret Technique? What technique is that?" Nodoka asked.

Genma quickly stammered, "It's a secret. A secret. Martial arts stuff. Very complicated."

"So there's more to it than just running away?" Nabiki asked flatly.

"That doesn't sound very manly," Nodoka said.

Genma was sweating now. He said, "I said it's complicated. It's a very advanced martial arts technique. He'll be back. Trust me."

"Okay. I'm sure you know what you are doing," Nodoka said. She apparently had more confidence and far more trust in the bald martial artist than Nabiki herself did.

Nabiki's question had not been answered, though, so she tried asking again. "So Ranma-kun never came back, Akane?"

Akane's chopsticks snapped in her hands. She said, "No, he didn't. I waited there all afternoon and he never came back. I'm sure he's off having fun with Ukyou or Shampoo."

"Oh my. Let me get you a new pair, Akane-chan," Kasumi said, and stood up.

"See what I mean?" Genma asked, to Nodoka's apparent approval.

Dinner was a subdued affair after that. Things were almost always quiet whenever Ranma was not around. And Nabiki was only too glad to let it be. She instead thought about what she knew. It was highly likely that Akane was wrong. Nabiki internally estimated the odds as being something like 1:50 that he was cavorting with Ukyou or Shampoo. Whenever Ranma disappeared, it was almost never to visit his other fiancees. That didn't help, though. She may know where he probably was not, but she did not know where he probably was. In fact, Nabiki had never really thought about where he went on those days when he didn't return home from school. The rolling fights which Ranma got caught up in had never really merited any particular consideration. It would have been just as useful to ask where a cloud went after it crossed the mountain, or where a wave went after it left the harbor. The chaos around Ranma was a force of nature, with just as much rhyme and reason.

That was up until today. Now she had a theory which she wanted to either prove or disprove. Now she had a mystery she wanted to solve.

After dinner, Nabiki called both the Nekohanten and Okonomiyaki Ucchan to confirm Ranma's absence. They were both only too willing to do so. Of course, there was a chance they were lying, but it was a small enough chance that Nabiki would disregard it unless she had actual evidence that they were. Both Shampoo and Ukyou knew if they did too much to annoy Nabiki, then they could quickly find themselves cut off from the most reliable source of information as to the whereabouts and situation of Ranma. Or, more likely, they would still have access to the information from the mercenary ice queen of Furinkan, but at a much higher price.

The page in the hostess menu in Flare had said that Sakura worked from 17:00-21:00. Assuming Sakura was in fact Ranma, he would only need a moment to change clothes. He must know some kind of Martial Arts Wardrobe Change or Martial Arts Shirt Replacement technique or something. The train trip from Ginza to Nerima would take just over 30 minutes, with a few minutes to walk from the station to home after that. After adding in some time for the delays and various other unexpected occurrences which always happened around Ranma, Nabiki concluded that he would be back by 22:00.

She had the same plan as before, albeit in a slightly different setting. She could picture the worry and despair on Ranma's face when he walked in to the Tendo home and saw her waiting for him. She would make an extra effort to embarrass him and prolong the encounter, due to his having annoyed her in the afternoon encounter. The price of her silence would be commensurately higher as well.

Nabiki sat on the steps near the front door, anxious to get her revenge.

When 23:00 had arrived and Ranma hadn't yet returned, Nabiki's annoyance spiked yet higher. Even considering the various unexpected events which happened with frightening commonality around him, it was still getting to be far too late. The adventures Ranma got caught up in were wild and unpredictable, but there was a pattern they usually followed. Almost all of his common fights, and the individual phases of his more protracted confrontations, were resolved in an hour or less. That would still have put him as having arrived home by this time.

Nabiki kept glaring at the front door, willing it to open.

Once 23:30 came around, Nabiki gave up. He was over an hour and a half later than when she had expected. Whatever had delayed him wasn't a common fight, so she really had no idea when he would be back. All she knew was that she would be able to confront him during breakfast on Wednesday. She couldn't remember the last time he had outright disappeared. Regardless, she would get no answers tonight.

She went to bed in eager anticipation of getting her revenge in the morning.

Last Updated: January 29, 2020