The alarm clock blared with a tinny, insistent whine as the numbers flipped to 6:37 am, and Ranma extended a languid hand towards the top of the device and flicked it off. Rubbing his bleary eyes with the other hand, he glanced over to the empty, unmade futon across from his, before clambering to his feet.
With a catlike stretch of his arms and legs, he paced over to the shoji and began counting down, tapping his feet to the pace of the quiet click of the alarm clock ticking down the seconds. As the count approached zero, Ranma planted his feet and hunched down, just in time for the screen door to slide open, revealing the silhouette of a panda charging his way. In one fluid motion, Ranma thrust out his arms, taking Genma by the gut and stepping aside, letting the momentum direct Ranma's throw across the room. The impact resounded with a dull thud, and the house shivered; behind the panda's prone form, the wood panelling was indented and shiny from repeated wear. Satisfied, Ranma padded out of the room and downstairs.
From the hallway, he could see and hear the signs of a household beginning to stir. Nabiki shuffled around the living room with a cup of coffee, hair mussed up into an explosive tuft. Soun peered over his newspaper at a half-finished game of shogi, grinning to himself and turning a few pieces around to face away from him. From the kitchen, the muted sounds of oil sizzling in a pan and a knife against a chopping board wafted in with the steam from the rice cooker. Though Ranma's eyes wandered, he didn't stop to comment on anything, instead continuing out of the house and over to the detached building across from the Tendo home.
Wordlessly, Ranma slid open the door to the dojo and took a position in the corner, loosening his posture and beginning a series of warm-ups. Across the room, Akane had set up a series of towers of bricks in increasing height, which she was in the process of demolishing with a series of vicious strikes, punctuated by a loud kiai. Between two of the towers, she glanced up and over at Ranma expectantly. "So? Panda or human?"
Ranma grimaced. "Ech, I still got some hair stuck to my arms...Pops doesn't even stop shedding in winter, the bastard. How about you?"
"P-chan today," Akane replied, a ghost of fading contempt in her voice mixed in with a hefty dose of pity. "Found him in the laundry room trying to figure out where the door was."
"Is that the third or fourth time he—never mind," Ranma shook his head and let out a sharp, short laugh. "Guess I'm takin' a bath first today, I can toss him in when I go. Ya get a look at what Kasumi's cookin'?"
With a sharp cry, Akane brought down a hand onto one of the towers of bricks and shattered them. "Omurice."
"Damn, is it already Sunday? Thought we had at least a few more days until Ma swung around again…"
Akane groaned. "...I'm going to get some more bricks."
The morning routine continued with little fanfare or variation. After completing a few katas and bowing out, Ranma returned to the house, dutifully scooping up the black piglet in Akane's room and making his way to the bathroom. Ryouga ducked into the water and returned to his human form, and after a rinse and a shampoo, Ranma was preparing for a leisurely soak when a tense, insistent rapping came at the door.
With a weary sigh, Ranma stepped away from the furo, pulling a towel off the rack and wrapping it around herself, before sliding open the inner door. "What've we got, 'Kane," she said flatly.
"Well," Akane ran a hand through her hair, "Shampoo's knocked down one of the walls again, and now she's trying to put Mousse in the oven, so…"
"Oh god, 'Animal Farm' again?" Ranma glanced back mournfully at the filled tub. "Guess there ain't any point in gettin' in today."
Akane nodded with a sad smile. "I was having a good hair day, too."
"Yeah, me too." Ranma clicked her teeth. "Alright, well, bathroom's all yours. I'll keep an eye on the liquor cabinet while you're gettin' ready, then we can regroup after breakfast."
With a firmer nod and a tightening of her features, Akane stepped aside to let Ranma out, then shut her eyes, heaved a sigh, and knocked her head against the doorframe.
Twenty minutes later, the chaos level in the Tendo household had mostly maintained an equilibrium. Nobody could truly end the periodic showdowns between Shampoo and Mousse, which recurred with a frequency Ranma and Akane could practically set a watch to, but with a little vigilance the chaos from outside had been kept from billowing beyond the current frozen conflict. As Akane hustled downstairs, she glanced warily towards the kitchen. "How are things holding up?"
"Kept things to a dull roar so far, but we're gonna have our hands full pretty soon. Least Mousse hasn't pulled a Shanghai Shuffle yet," Ranma sighed. "Dammit, where's 'Biki when ya need her most..."
Akane nodded. "Good work so far. What about our dads?"
"Hid the shogi board so they can't start another fight over who cheated. Once Kasumi's done with breakfast, we can have her check up on—"
Just then, the doorbell rang, interrupting Ranma's train of thought and instantly replacing it with an overwhelming dread.
"She's early," Akane said, eyes narrowing. "We were supposed to have at least another 20 minutes, right?"
"Damn it, Ma…" Ranma thought over the situation, before nodding decisively. "Alright, we can still do this. You take over for me, I'll try to get Ma inside quick so we can keep an eye on everybody."
Akane gave her a thumbs-up, and Ranma dashed over to the door and opened it,
"Good morning, son." Nodoka's expression was, as always, curled into a smile so perfect that the tension in it was sharper than the sword she carried around everywhere she went. Though Ranma had figured it wasn't worth the effort to change back this morning when today's brawl was bound—like clockwork—to undo it just as quickly, the way her mother's eyes fell on her with the vague cast of judgment left her second-guessing whether it had been the right decision to skip out on it after all.
"Uhh, mornin', Ma. Come on in," Ranma replied warily, glancing down at the bag her mother held in her hand. Knowing her, a test of manhood surely awaited, and it was anyone's guess what ridiculous trial she'd come up with this time. "Whaddaya got in the bag?"
Nodoka dusted off the sleeve of her kimono as she adjusted the heavy-looking canvas bag she held. "I just came back from the electronics store where they were having a lovely sale on a karaoke system," she said, opening it up for Ranma to see.
"A...karaoke machine? What for?"
"Well, your father tells me that you've never sung any enka in your life!" Nodoka's expression moved past simply distraught into a kind of, as far as Ranma could tell, righteous indignation.
"Um...nope, you're right," Ranma replied, already waiting for the line she knew would come next.
"And I couldn't just sit idly by knowing my son had not been instructed in an art as fine and as manly as traditional singing!"
There it is, Ranma thought as she struggled not to roll her eyes. With a hand extending to pick up the machine from her mother, she said "Okay, Ma, well how about we head into the living room and I can try out some tunes?"
"That sounds wonderful, dear," Nodoka replied. "Although, Ranma, perhaps if you didn't mind…"
"Changin' back?" Ranma finished. "Yeah, hang on a sec," she said, glancing towards the kitchen as the muted shuffle of a pair of footsteps clarified out of the din of the kitchen. As if on cue, Kasumi emerged from the hallway to greet her and Nodoka. "Good morning, Ranma. Good morning, Mrs. Saotome."
"Hey, Kasumi. Er, ya mind puttin' on a kettle for me?"
Kasumi beamed. "Not at all, little brother. Could I get anything for you, Mrs. Saotome? Breakfast should be ready before too long."
Nodoka looked back at Ranma for a moment. "Why don't you set everything up, and I can help Kasumi with breakfast?"
Ranma's head jerked back sharply, coinciding with a dull thump coming from the kitchen. "Nope, we definitely want to stay put and be far away from the kitchen right now. I'm sure Kasumi's gonna be just fine. 'Sides, you gotta judge how, uh, how manly I sound, right?"
Nodoka's expression seemed a little bewildered, as if trying to resolve a paradox in her mind. "Er, I suppose that's right. Well, why don't we connect this to the television, then?"
After a few minutes of setup, all the cables had been plugged in and the karaoke system was ready to run. Despite the occasional grunts and sounds of struggle emanating from the ongoing conflict between Shampoo and Mousse, Ranma was able to convince her mother that it was just the sound of Akane and her father training in the dojo, and when Kasumi returned with a small kettle of hot water for Ranma, Nodoka's test of manhood could finally begin.
"Lessee," Ranma said, traversing the menu on the television screen that carried the titles of various ballads and pop songs. "'Kokoro Koorasete'? 'Amerika-bashi'? Never heard 'em," he muttered as he scrolled down the list of songs. "Oh hey, here's one I know," he said, pausing on 'Kawa no Nagare no You ni' and pressing the 'select' button on the remote.
Nodoka made a slightly sour face, but kept quiet as the song loaded and began to play the florid, orchestral introduction. Ranma, for his part, did his best to stay in tune with the contralto part as the opening bars of the song began to roll on the screen.
I came walking on this long, narrow path
without knowing it
When I turn around,
my distant hometown is visible
The uneven path twists & turns
and doesn't even have a map
So is the road of life
Ah, like the flow of the river
I want to calmly go with the flow
Ah, like the flow of the river
The changing seasons
Just as he was beginning to find his pace, though, a loud crack ripped through the hallway, followed by loud squeal, a shrieked "Stupid boy!" and a series of pots and pans clattering against the ground.
Ranma's voice cut out and went quiet, the continuing music almost enveloping it. "That—that didn't sound so good."
"What is going on?" Nodoka asked, rising concern in her voice. "Is that really Akane and Soun in the dojo?"
"It's—" Ranma started, only to be interrupted once again, as a new, heavier pair of footfalls tore into the room. A few moments later, a harried-looking Akane, her hair mussed and her training uniform thoroughly rumpled and worn around the edges, appeared at the entrance to the living room.
"Have either of you seen Ryouga?" she asked, a faint panic in her eyes.
The karaoke song reached a triumphant crescendo, as a look of realization, followed by instantaneous resignation made its way across Ranma's features. "Aw, dammit," he mumbled, quickly sidestepping towards the screen door to the engawa. "Ma," he called over the music, "you might wanna stand back!"
An ominous rumble portended what followed, as Nodoka moved from her corner of the living room just in time for an explosion of splinters to replace her. Out of the rubble, a dusty mass of hair and cokebottle glasses and flowing robes emerged, assuming a defensive stance. "Shampoo!" a voice cried, "Just hear me out for a moment!"
Across the room from him, the living room now found itself with an extra entrance to the hallway, encircling the terrifying visage of Shampoo wielding a wailing black piglet like a morningstar inside a halo of caved-in wooden paneling. "Mùsī! I kill!" she cried, lunging forwards and swinging the pig by the tail right into the path of Mousse.
Scrambling, Mousse glanced around for an object to defend himself and landed on the kettle sitting on the table. When he hefted it in front of himself to block Shampoo's onslaught, Ranma almost felt like he could feel time slow to a crawl, watching as an arc of warm water leapt from the spout and landed on the body of the terrified piglet. Before Shampoo knew it, the now-tailless and very naked Ryouga sailed out of her grasp, gaining momentum before tumbling end-over-end right into Mousse, then Ranma, and carrying the three of them right out of the living room, through the thin paper of the screen door, and into the frosted-over pond outside.
This proved to be one indignity too far for Ranma. Amid a cacophony of quacking and squealing, a soaking wet and shivering Ranma marched upstairs without a word, returning with a dry change of clothes only to weave through the chaos and destruction of the living room, before walking straight out the front door.
While the walk wasn't too long, after being submerged completely in the Tendos' frigid pond and having her hair freeze along the way, the warmth that emanated from the hot griddle at Ucchan's Okonomiyaki was a welcome change from the outdoors for Ranma. While that in itself was a little unusual, since Ranma figured it wouldn't be on so early in the morning, and the presence of someone placing an order at the counter stranger still, it was the identity of the customer that surprised her most.
"Nabiki!?" she shouted, somewhat louder than she needed to. "What're you doing here?"
"Oh, please, Ranma." Nabiki turned her gaze away languidly from the currently unstaffed griddle and towards Ranma. "You think you're the only one who's figured out that the utter madness in that household's got a rhythm? I know when to keep my distance."
"Damn," Ranma shook her head. "Guess I shoulda figured you'd know all about it too, huh?"
"Hey, you can give yourself a little credit too. Staying on top of the neverending crisis conga takes some quick thinking. I always knew my little sister saw more in you than just a nice rack."
"Well, I suppose not that much more."
"Whatever!" Ranma huffed and took a seat by the counter. "Look, I just hadta get some space, okay? I barely got room to think in the morning before Mousse or P-chan or whoever shows up and trashes the place, or Ma comes around with some ridiculous new test of manhood."
"Believe it or not, I can understand. If you ask me, our parents have been taking advantage of your preternatural talents for managing the circus we deal with for too long. I don't blame you for losing your patience."
"I'm just sick of it, 'Biki," Ranma exhaled sharply, shaking her head and glancing across the room. Just then, another familiar face emerged from the noren dividing the kitchen from the front of the house.
"Another 'customer' before opening time, huh?" Ukyou snickered as she set the container of chopped cabbage she was carrying onto the counter and began oiling the sizzling griddle. "Sick of what, sugar?"
"Oh, you know the score, Kuonji," Nabiki cut in. "Suffice it to say that it's nothing I haven't told you about before."
Ukyou glanced back at Nabiki and shrugged slightly. "Well, it's like I keep telling you, once you have your own place you won't have those kinds of issues anymore."
Nabiki clicked her teeth. "You don't have to convince me, but Tokyo's not cheap. I've been saving up to get a place closer to Kokushikan, but I'm not about to let myself throw good money after bad on some landlord when I could be making a decent investment."
Ukyou nodded sympathetically. "That's smart. It's like they always say, you can't save bad batter with good cabbage."
"... Sure, we'll go with that," Nabiki replied, the confusion on her face matching Ranma's.
"Well, what about you, Ranchan? You thought about moving out from the Tendos?" Ukyou turned to address Ranma as she poured out batter onto the griddle in three quick spirals.
"Hey, I've been thinkin' now for a while since we're almost done with high school, I wanted to move out when it came time to go to university. 'Course I gotta see if I pass the entrance exams, but…" Ranma sighed. "Well, I mean first I gotta make it through the rest of the year, and I'm pretty sure another week of this crap and I'm gonna lose it."
A twinkle gleamed in Nabiki's eye, and she leaned over towards Ranma conspiratorially. "Tell you what, Saotome. I think there's a way I could get you a break from that house for a weekend."
Ranma raised an eyebrow, slowly and deliberately. "Yeah? And what's it gonna cost me this time?"
Her question earned a short, sharp laugh from Nabiki. "Well, normally I would have just had you strike a few poses and make a quick buck on the willingness of your male classmates to think with the wrong half of their bodies"—Ranma's expression turned slightly queasy— "but in this case I have an idea on how to put your natural coquettishness to better use."
No closer to understanding Nabiki's scheme, Ranma kicked her feet impatiently. "Coquetti-what?"
"I'm talking about your frankly unsettling ability to bat those baby-doll eyes and walk out of a restaurant with the tab you've been racking up for weeks forgiven just like that," Nabiki explained with a snap, the corner of her lips tugging upwards as she noted Ukyou's posture shift self-consciously.
"You want me to flirt with a guy to get ya something for cheap." Ranma answers with an utter lack of judgment or surprise.
"Do we have a deal?" Nabiki offered her hand to Ranma.
Taking it into hers and shaking, only the faintest sigh escaped from Ranma's lips. "Deal with the devil, more like."
"I wouldn't have it any other way." Satisfied, Nabiki rummaged through her purse and withdrew a chunky black flip phone, punching in a sequence of numbers and waiting for a response.
"Yes, Kingu-san?" she replied, the smile on her face sharpening ferally. "It's Tendo...yes, that's right. Now, do you remember that favour you owe me?"
By the late afternoon, Shampoo and Mousse had been called back to the Nekohanten, and Ryouga had vanished somewhere between the pond and the bathroom, bringing the ruins of the living room back to a superficial state of peace. The remaining tenants, Saotome and Tendo alike, had returned to the traditional cycle of perennial home repair; Genma cleared out the remaining splinters from the wooden panelling, Soun returned from the hardware store with replacements, Ranma and Akane hammered them back into place, and Kasumi brought the devastated kitchen back into order.
"Well, that should last us until next week, at least," Akane said with a grunt, placing the last panel into place on the living room wall.
Ranma's eyes flickered back to the kitchen. "Yeah," he said dully, "I mean, unless—"
"Nope, nope, nope," Akane interjected. "If Sentaro Daimonji descends on the house with an army of trained monkeys one more time, I am going to change my name and move to France."
"But we'd still haveta deal with C—"
"Fine! Sweden," Akane's voice cracked with exasperation.
"Tell ya what," Ranma said, confidence returning to his voice. "I ran into Nabiki this morning over at Ucchan's. She said that she could get us outta the house this weekend if I did her a favour."
"A favour?" Akane raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure that's a good idea? This is my sister we're talking about here."
"Ain't like I'm not used to bein' parta her crazy schemes before. Back when she was still in school, I could pretty much count on gettin' roped into a new one of 'em once a month. Heh, I almost miss Wildcard Wednesdays."
Akane's expression was flat. "I don't. Half the time it was some dojo challenger or old enemy trying to kidnap me."
"Yeah...sorry," Ranma suddenly seemed chastened. "Anyway, she ain't as bad as she used to be. You ask me, the whole song and dance around here is gettin' kinda old for her too. She started talkin' about movin' out this morning."
"Well, I can hardly blame her. Still, I can't help but feel she's up to something...hey, what did she mean by 'getting us out of the house this weekend', anyway?"
"Apparently she 'won' some mall lottery," Ranma said with a slight roll of his eyes. "Grand prize, a couple nights at this ritzy ryokan in Hakone. I—I mean, if you wanna…"
"Yes," Akane blurted out, stumbling over her words as she continued. "W—well! I just mean, it's what, two hours away from here, right? So it only makes sense for us to go, a—and spend some time away from the chaos."
"R—right, yeah." Feeling a flush rising in his cheeks, he felt a strange sense of relief upon noticing another figure whose shadow had darkened the engawa.
"Ah, young love..." An irrepressible smirk formed on Nabiki's face. "You know, I'm beginning to wonder if the chaos in this house hasn't just been the result of our parents playing the long game."
This time Akane spoke up, expression scrunching up as she sighed. "I know you have no concept of a private conversation, but do you really always have to go spying on us?"
Nabiki snorted. "You two geniuses were having a 'private conversation' in the middle of the living room. In a house like this, I'm not sure what you were honestly expecting, but if I were you, I'd be counting my lucky stars it wasn't someone else."
"Is this some kinda message you wanna call in your favour, or is it just more blackmail as usual?"
"You think so little of me, little brother?" Nabiki pulled an expression of mock offence. "No, it's nothing so serious. I just thought we could take a few minutes to discuss strategy."
"Right," Ranma flashed a brief grimace at Akane. "Okay, wish me luck in there."
"Sunday's not over yet," Akane admonished him as he followed Nabiki upstairs.
A few moments later, Nabiki led Ranma inside her room, and walked over to her desk as she began to shuffle through her belongings.
"So what am I in for here, 'Biki?" Ranma tried not to let too much weariness bleed into his voice as he sat cross-legged on the floor of Nabiki's bedroom.
"Right to the point, hm?" Nabiki raised an eyebrow and smirked. "Well, that's fine. As it just so happens, I'm more than ready to put all of this," she said, gesturing broadly at the room, "behind me too. You heard Kuonji; much as the freeloading life has its uses, having a place to call your own is worth a lot."
"I got it," Ranma shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. "So who's the mark?"
Nabiki pulled out a stack of folders and sat on the bed, placing them on her lap. "I may yet make a proper business partner out of you." Flipping through the documents, she paused on one of the files and began to read off its contents. "Fudo Sanjuro, thirty years old. Last known address in Kitazawa, but he's been more secretive with his movements in the last few months. Engaged, but neighbours reported yelling the last time he was sighted at his apartment, so there could be trouble in paradise."
Ranma rolled his eyes, his shoulders sagging. "Shoulda known you'd try to get me to be a homewrecker again."
With another flip of the page, Nabiki glanced back at Ranma with a piercing expression. "If it works, it works. Besides, it's not like that particular scruple has stopped you before."
"Listen here, it ain't my fault Pops managed to get me engaged to a married woman on top of everything else. And a married man, too. And there was that one time where he—hey, wait a second…"
"Indeed," Nabiki said, some concern in her voice as she shook her head. "How you turned out as well-adjusted as you did is nothing short of a miracle, if you ask me. I'm glad to hear that the traumas your father subjected you to give you at least some pause; Freud would be having a field day."
"This about you psychoanalyzin' me or about you gettin' me to break up the Fudos now?"
"Far be it from me to stop you from helping me, but you seem to be awfully gung-ho about using your powers of seduction. Are you trying to tell me something, Ranma?"
"Just...tell me the rest of what I need to know," Ranma said, with more than a little resignation.
Nabiki's expression took on a slight pout, but she continued. "Fine, let's see what else is here," she said, her eyes flitting back to the page and landing on another section, "listen here...worked at Sentry Realtors for most of the past eight years, but it looks like he left to start his own firm a few months ago, Tsubaki Residential. Could be a way to put the screws to him if he's not biting."
"Hang on a sec, is this supposed to be haggling or torturing!?"
"I think you'll find, Ranma," Nabiki replied coolly, "that the two are not as different as you think."
Later that week, Ranma and Nabiki strolled down the sidewalk of Setagaya-dori, the thick stands of skeletal trees occasionally swaying and dusting them in light snowfall. While Nabiki was bundled up in a practical long coat and scarf, the same could not be said for Ranma, whose trendy peacoat fell to just over the hem of a miniskirt. With a roll of her eyes, Ranma shivered slightly. "I'm freezin' out here, 'Biki!" she grumbled. "Why did I agree to this again…"
"I'm afraid that's more or less the point, Ranma. Weather like this doesn't often provide the opportunity for a hardworking, independent businessman like Mr. Fudo to…appreciate the aesthetics of a pretty girl leaving little to the imagination."
"Ech...why's it sound so much worse when ya put it like that," Ranma shivered again, though not from the cold this time. "Whatever. Not like I ain't done worse. Least this guy's age is in the double digits, unlike that egg roll guy."
"Your selflessness is appreciated. Now, let's go over the specifics one last time. Best offer?"
"Under thirty mil."
"Get the electricity thrown in with the other fees."
"Squeeze him to ten thousand."
"This one's important. Closing costs?"
"No more 'n 2.5%. You wanna keep testin' me or what? Look, I read up on what ya told me to, trust me."
Nabiki nodded with satisfaction, smiling despite herself. "She can be trained. I'm kvelling a little bit, here."
"I'm a guy," Ranma said flatly, but without a great deal of rancour or, for that matter, conviction.
"Yes, yes," Nabiki replied, waving her hand as if swatting away a fly. "Just remember, for the next few hours you're Nabiki Tendo, first-year economics student at Kokushikan University. You need backup, you know where to find me," she said, pressing a chunky cellphone into Ranma's hand.
The two separated as they approached a short apartment building, with Ranma walking into the lobby and Nabiki splitting off and continuing. Though the building showed its age somewhat, Ranma noted that it seemed well-kept, and the interior had clearly been renovated in the last few years.
Her survey of the building ended quickly, as a man dressed in a navy suit rounded the corner of the stairs and approached her. Tall, with longer hair and a sparse goatee, he was hardly unattractive for being a business type, and looked a little like Toshiro Mifune. His appearance contrasted slightly with his tense, wary expression, and Ranma noted he was leaning slightly on a walking cane. "Miss Tendo?" he asked.
"That's me," Ranma replied, giving a quick bow.
"Fudo Sanjuro. It's a pleasure to finally meet you," he responded, bowing in response. His eyes flickered briefly to her legs, and Ranma resisted the temptation not to smirk. "S—shall I show you upstairs to the unit?"
Flashing a pair of doe eyes, Ranma smiled brightly. "I would love that."
A half hour later, Ranma's efforts had borne fruit in rather spectacular fashion. Having shed her coat earlier on, revealing an ensemble of a tight oxford shirt and short cardigan, Ranma had left Fudo resorting to tugging at his collar insistently with every bat of her lashes, beads of sweat forming on his flushed face and the armpits of his shirt having long since soaked through. Most of the preconditions Ranma demanded—many of them flatly absurd—had been accepted on their face by Fudo, and a total success was within sight. Just a few more formalities and verifications remained before the contract could be inked.
"Now, a—as you can see, after its most recent renovation, this building has the best possible ratings in both Earthquake and Martial Arts Resiliency. It can withstand more than 2 Hikarigaoka units of stress! Still, we recommend going with an insurance plan that can protect your home and belongings in the case of a total loss."
"That's great." Ranma shifted uncomfortably. "Say, excuse me, Mr. Fudo? Do you mind if I place a call briefly?"
"Of course, be my guest."
Ranma walked back to the apartment's closet, glancing around at the unit as she did so. From what she could tell, Nabiki had a good eye; the second-story walkup unit was small, like most in Tokyo, but it was a full 1LDK, and used its space efficiently. Wonder how much longer I'd need to save to find a place like this? Ranma thought as she removed the phone, flipping it open and punching in Nabiki's number before placing the call.
"Ranma." Nabiki's voice was matter-of-fact. "I'm hoping the fact that you haven't contacted me yet bodes well for our chances."
"I got him on just about everything," Ranma explained, "but now he's started babbling about needing insurance for the Martial Arts Resiliency Rating or something. Is 2 Hikarigaoka units supposed to be good?"
"Oh for the love of—" Nabiki sighed. "Well, it stands to reason your little mall antics would have some unintended consequences. Figure out the price points for this insurance racket, and use your best judgment. I'd rather not be out my entire savings if one of your little friends decides to rain destruction down upon Kokushikan."
Ranma, regaining her composure, nodded. "You got it. Anything else?"
"Just make sure you get those closing costs down."
Ranma went through her mental checklist, "Yeah, that's next up. Don't worry, he's cornered."
Just then, a rumbling sound came from far away, and the building trembled slightly. "Whoa," Ranma said. "...Feel that?"
"No…" Nabiki replied. "What are you talking about?"
The shaking continued, increasing in intensity with every passing moment. "Hang on, that don't really feel like an earthquake…"
There was an extended silence on the other end of the line, which contrasted sharply with the sound of what Ranma finally recognized as heavy footfalls. "Ranma Saotome, please tell me you weren't tailed by one of your hell-raising acquaintances."
"No, this don't got anything to do with—" Abruptly, the door to the apartment exploded, splintering apart and giving way to a cloud of sawdust and rubble. "—crap! Can't talk now, 'Biki!" she said, stowing the phone and rushing to the doorway
"Tendo! Are you—" Fudo rushed over to Ranma, before the concern on his face melted away, only to be replaced with a liquid fury. "You—! You're from the Homeowners Association, aren't you!?"
"What the hell are you talkin' about!" Ranma yelled back over the sounds of crashing and building strain.
"I should have known it was too good to be true! You come in here with your sex appeal and your lowball offers. It's all so clear right now. You're clearly an agent for…" he paused dramatically, eyes darting to the door, where a number of identical men clad in black masks and suits filed in to surround them, "...the Sentry's 21!"
As he announced it, the men each drew a pair of tonfa and began to close in on Fudo and Ranma. For his part, Fudo raised his cane. "You're going to pay for this, Tendo…" he growled, and lunged forward in attack.
"W—whoa!" Ranma cried, leaping backwards out of the way, only to find herself backed up against one of the masked men, who swept forward with his tonfa. "I'm—dammit—not fightin' against ya, Fudo!" Searching for a safer position in the cramped apartment, Ranma leapt up onto the tonfa, flipping backwards and onto the kitchen counter.
"If that's true—ugh," Fudo grunted as he thrust his cane forward at an attacking adversary, knocking him flat on his back, "what the hell are these guys all doing here!?"
"I got," Ranma paused to deliver a kick to the back of the head of one of the 21 making a break towards Fudo, "no idea!"
One of the masked men spoke up, tossing one of his tonfa like a boomerang as he grinned ferally. "We heard the codeword, of course, to catch you when you're cornered!"
Fudo dodged the weapon and leapt up to let his foot catch it, redirecting it towards the head of one of the other attackers, who narrowly avoided a direct hit. "Ishii, you idiot, there's no need to narrate like a supervillain and give away all our secrets."
"Ishii!?" Fudo yelled as he dodged another attack. "I was right, this is personal!"
"Just business, like always," Ishii replied, sliding under another one of his allies' attacks and picking up the tonfa. "You have to understand, a 3DK with no transfers to Shinjuku…" he said, as he went for a leg sweep on Fudo, "is not something we could let fall through our hands."
Jumping barely in time, Fudo retaliated with his cane, aiming for Ishii's head. "You put my wife in the hospital, you bastard!"
In a crouch, Ishii extended an arm to the cane, his tonfa catching it, before using his other hand to break the cane in two. "Fujioka! The contracts! In his briefcase!"
As Ranma fended off another two attacks, she began to get nervous. She could hold her own for the moment, but the danger in twenty-one-on-two was the fatigue that would set in, and Fudo already seemed to be flagging. Worse, the Sentry's 21 only seemed to be after the contract. If she wanted to win the day, she'd need to act—and fast. Leaping over to the briefcase, Ranma tossed it to the centre, calling out to the realtor. "Fudo! Keep it with you! I got an idea!"
Fudo grabbed the case, doing his best to evade the ongoing onslaught. Meanwhile, Ranma fought her way in, keeping her eyes on the briefcase as she searched for its weak points, all the while shepherding all of the attackers inward into the crowded centre of the apartment. Finally, pouring her energy into a jab, she extended a single pinky towards the briefcase.
"Bakusai Tenketsu!" she bellowed, abruptly shattering the briefcase. The wave of leather and paper shrapnel billowed outwards, blasting back everything not fixed to the floor of the apartment. As the shockwave rocketed outwards, it blew out the windows and reduced the apartment to a shell of itself. All of the attackers had either been thrown out the window with the rest of the detritus, or were knocked out against the walls of the apartment. Only Ranma and Fudo, who had been sheltered from the blast by Ranma herself, were left standing.
"Now," Ranma said, exhaling sharply, "let's talk about closing costs."
In the sudden silence, one of the structural beams of the apartment building creaked, and Fudo sighed. "2 Hikarigaoka units, my ass…"
Meanwhile, across town, Akane was idly browsing at the AEON mall in Itabashi. After a few minutes of searching, she found an elaborate setup in the middle, where a number of signs advertised a raffle and the assortment of prizes one could win. A spa session, a basket of chocolates, gift cards for the mall, some movie tickets—and of course, the grand prize, a weekend for two at the Yunohana Ryokan in Hakone. What surprised her was not any of the trappings of the booth, but the man staffing it. His thick, bright blue haori and ornamented hat were distinctive enough, but when she saw the man's golden-brown beard, there was no mistaking him.
"Gambling King!?" Akane cried out. "What are you doing here?"
"She didn't tell you who she was leaning on, eh?" he replied, chuckling drily.
"How did you end up owing my sister a favour?" For all the heartache he had once caused, Akane's question was almost sympathetic. There was no way being in the hole with Nabiki Tendo could end well for anyone.
"Well, it's better this than losing my legs. Sure, it's a real job, but at least in these raffles you know the house always wins, right?"
"She got you this job?"
The Gambling King laughed again. "Thank your sister for me when you get a chance. And tell her the big boss says hello, will you? Now," he said, pulling out the sheet of raffle tickets and picking out a specific one to hand to her. "Tickets are 200 yen. I wonder if you'll win anything?"
Akane looked confused for a moment, but then caught on, shaking her head and smiling as she retrieved a few coins from her purse and handed them over to the Gambling King.
"Let's take a look at your number," he said, giving her a knowing look as he went to his ledger with the ticket. "Now would you look at that. Lucky for you! It looks like you've won the grand prize!"