"Martial Arts Realty, hmm?" Nabiki asked, quirking an eyebrow. "That's an awfully convenient excuse to explain why the apartment I had my eyes on currently looks like it's just survived a bombing."
"It ain't my fault this guy had some secret spy ring tryin' to bring down his business!" Ranma whined. "Besides, they were gonna steal the contract right under ya and resell it at twice the cost."
"Really, Ranma?" Akane sighed as she put her face in her hands. "And here I thought we were finally going to get a weekend away."
"Relax, little sister," Nabiki held up a hand. "I'm not reneging on payment due. You'll get your escape from the rat race in Nerima," Nabiki said, returning to taking a few notes down in the folder she held in her lap. "Be that as it may, Ranma's whole mayhem-first-ask-questions-later tactics have burnt a rather large hole in what was supposed to be a sensible investment. The renovations alone are going to run into the millions of yen."
"Hey, I saved ya the whole closing cost!" Ranma crossed his arms, pointing at the copy of the contract in Nabiki's folder.
"Good, that brings your debts down to—" Nabiki withdrew her soroban and made a few calculations, and a familiar sinking feeling began to nestle itself in the pit of Ranma's stomach "—just three million yen. Perhaps you're best off with the pinups, after all?"
"Yeah, well," Ranma heaved a sigh. "Ain't like bein' in hock to you is anything new in my life."
"Exactly," Nabiki replied, "that's no reason to stop you from enjoying your weekend. In fact, I got you two a little parting gift for the occasion." She held out an envelope to the two of them.
Ranma eyed her suspiciously as he took the envelope. "This ain't just another setup, is it?"
"Oh, be nice, Ranma," Akane chided him, plucking the envelope from his hands and looking back towards her sister. "What's inside?"
"That? It's just some train tickets to get there and back."
"See?" Akane shook her head. "That's no reason to be antagonistic." She flipped the envelope on its back, peeling back the loosely pasted section on top to reveal, as Nabiki had said, two pairs of train tickets.
The tickets were from Shinjuku Station to Hakone and back, on the Romancecar line. "Har har, 'Biki," Ranma said, rolling his eyes. "Shoulda known this was just another chance for you to get one over on us."
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, Ranma," Nabiki said, unmoved. "Now go on, enjoy yourselves. You'll have plenty of opportunities for regret when we work out your repayment plan."
For all of Ranma's protestations about the name of the train they were on, it was a tamer ride than he imagined. The pair of seats were a little cozier than usual, without an armrest to separate them, and the trip from Tokyo to Hakone went quickly enough. The sights of the city soon gave way to a more suburban, and finally rural scene as the train carved a path through the snow-covered mountains into the Haya River Valley. With the sun peeking out from a cloudbank, the tips of the surrounding mountains glittered, and the open-air baths of the small traditional inns peppering the valley gave off small clouds of steam that wafted above them. The combination of seeing the natural beauty and knowing that he was getting out of Tokyo for the weekend put Ranma in an unusually good mood.
"This place looks really nice," he finally commented. "Hell, for once I think I'm glad I fell for one of 'Biki's schemes."
"Well, if there's one thing you can't fault about my sister, it's her taste," Akane responded with a smile.
"No kidding. Hey," Ranma said, glancing back at Akane, "I bet this kinda place would be great for a honeymoon, right?"
Akane did a slight double take, her eyebrow twitching. "Excuse me, what?"
Sensing he had stepped on a landmine, Ranma hunched his shoulders and stumbled over an excuse. "I—I mean! Like, theoretically, for all those other folks gettin' married, ya know…"
Akane's eyes were half-lidded with suspicion as she mumbled, "Right. Theoretically," but she decided not to press any further as a robotic voice came on and announced the train's approach to Yumoto Station.
When the train had pulled into the station and came to a stop, Ranma pointed towards the restroom at the end of the car. "Hang on, tomboy, I'll be right back."
Akane nodded and went to retrieve their suitcase. She was surprised to see Ranma return in her female form, but said nothing as the two disembarked from the train and stepped out of the station.
Like many tourist towns, Hakone's main thoroughfare doubled as a shopping district, dotted with numerous cafes, street stalls, omiyage, specialty foods, and other culinary delights. Within a few minutes of walking out of Yumoto Station, Ranma had discovered all they had to offer, and her face had glazed over into the expression of sickly-sweet innocence she always used to earn free samples from the most guileless vendors and shopkeepers. Despite Akane's best efforts, Ranma began to bounce between stalls within a few minutes of arriving, emerging each time with another tidbit.
It wasn't until Akane saw Ranma's newest haul, a steamed bun that was clearly larger than her head, that Akane knew she'd need to make an intervention. Clutching Ranma's wrist, she raised her voice and planted her feet where she stood. "Ranma!"
Utterly oblivious, Ranma turned around and cocked her head. "Huh?"
Akane huffed. "Honestly, we're going to be having a nice dinner at the ryokan this evening, without the threat of violence for once in our lives. I know you like sweets, but can't you save some room in your stomach for tonight?"
For a moment Ranma flared, ready to justify herself, when something clicked into place in her mind. "Sorry," she said sheepishly. "I know he's not here, but the back of my mind keeps thinkin' a panda's gonna show up and eat it all before I get a bite in."
Akane's expression softened. "Well, he won't be here to ruin it. It'll just be the two of us."
Ranma nodded in satisfaction, and the two settled into a comfortable silence as she offered a piece of her steamed bun to Akane and they began walking back to the inn. It was only a few minutes later that the full impact of it dawned on them.
"Hey...wait a sec," Ranma stopped walking, loosening her grip on the bag of sweets she'd been collecting, her expression caught between confusion and relief. "Did we just get through that without yelling or starting a stupid fight as usual?"
Akane turned towards Ranma and laughed slightly. "I guess things don't have to get that bad if we aren't stuck inside that crazy house."
"Sometimes I think there's something in the air there makin' us all go nuts."
"Don't be ridiculous, Ranma," Akane replied flatly. "It has to be something in the water."
A few hours later, as the winter's early sunset rolled up the bustle of tourists in the town, Ranma and Akane arrived at the door of the Yunohana Ryokan. The inn itself was the height of tradition, the building and many of its fixtures carved out of deeply lacquered dark cypress, with immaculate tatami flooring covering the rooms and the public areas.
After they checked into the ryokan and put away their belongings in their room, there was no debate on what was next. On a cold, still evening like this, with a gentle coat of snowflakes dusting the outdoors, the open-air hot springs were the perfect remedy to warm one up. Both Akane and Ranma made a beeline for the freshly laid-out yukata, only for Akane to pause as she took another look at the girl beside her.
Ranma glanced back at Akane guilelessly. "Yeah?"
"Not to point out the obvious," Akane said, gesturing vaguely at Ranma's torso as her face scrunched with uncertainty, "but we're going into the hot springs."
"Oh right," Ranma replied, before hurrying over to the duffel bag. She unzipped it and began to dig through the layers of clothing and toiletries, before coming upon an ornately decorated cardboard box with the characters '抗水皂鹼' in the centre and showing it off to Akane with a grin.
For her part, Akane squinted at the label for a moment, before realization set in. "Is that…"
"Waterproof soap. Neat trick, huh?" Ranma puffed up her chest with pride. "I mean, it still kinda sucks cause ya gotta use it twice a day for it to stick right, but I figure that ain't a problem if I use it before goin' in the springs."
"Before…" Akane's expression was blank for a moment, before a spark of indignation rose to the forefront. "Hang on, you're going in like that?"
"I mean, yeah?" Ranma replied, flushing faintly. "They don't got mixed baths or anything here. And takin' a trip out all the way to Hakone just so I can sit on the other side of the hot springs from you kinda misses the point. I—I mean, if ya ask me…"
"But what about…" Akane grasped for an explanation, looking unsure of her own words. "Well, what about the changing rooms?"
Ranma's blush gave way to faint annoyance, setting the soap down as she whirled back towards Akane. "You say that like I ain't been usin' the girls changing rooms for swim class for the last two years, tomboy."
"Well, that's true, but…" Akane stumbled over her words, but uncertainty clung to her voice. "I just thought…"
Ranma tilted her head. "Thought what?"
"I thought after the baths we might want to, you know, fool around a little, and..."
With a jerky nod, Ranma coughed, her eyes flitting to the floor. "Oh. I uh, right...sorry. Guess I better go get changed."
"No!" This time, Akane's voice was more sure of herself. "No, I mean… I'm sorry, Ranma. I was assuming something because it seemed like the sort of thing we were supposed to do, not because we have to."
"Are you sure? I don't wanna force ya into anything, 'Kane." Ranma's expression looked slightly strained.
Akane paused again, before finally glancing back at Ranma sheepishly. "Did you mean what you said before?"
"About wanting to spend the weekend with me?"
With that, Ranma's blush came back in full force. "Well it ain't like I was anglin' to spend it apart, so, yeah, I guess," she finally manages.
Akane was quiet, again, for a long while, before a brightness emerged on her face. "Okay."
"I meant okay, girl-boy," she said, sticking out her tongue. "Come on, let's get changed. And don't forget your soap!"
A few minutes later, the two of them emerged from the change room out into the open-air bath. The scene itself was as beautiful as it had looked from the outside—the natural barrier of rocks and moss were blanketed in undisturbed snow, and new snowflakes melting away as they fell into the steaming pools—but it was no less a shock to the system as they went from the heated shower room to the outdoors.
"That's cold!" Akane cried, picking up her pace as she shivered.
"Easy, tomboy," Ranma cautioned, but not without speeding up as well.
Soon, both of them were at the lip of the pool. Akane wasted no time in jumping in, while Ranma, after a moment's hesitation, followed suit.
"Whoa…" Ranma said as she lowered herself into the hot spring. "That feels..kinda different."
"Is everything okay?" Akane asked. Her wariness hadn't been wholly exorcised, but she almost surprised herself at finding her first reaction to be one of concern.
"Yeah, it's fine, ain't anything bad," Ranma waved away the concern, sinking in deeper and humming. "Just been a while since I was in hot springs as a girl. Since that time in Imodzuru with Herb, I think. It's just...weird."
"Let me get this straight: you're not changing back and forth multiple times a day, and that's weird?"
"Hey, for me it is. Pretty sure I ain't gone a day without switchin' back and forth at least once in...a couple months at least?" Ranma said, scratching her chin. "Never really thought about it like that."
"Well, this weekend you get to see how all of the rest of us live. With one gender and everything."
Ranma laughed self-consciously. "Lemme tell ya, it ain't all it's cracked up to be, if you ask me."
Akane's expression was quizzical but, surprisingly to Ranma, largely non-judgmental. "You prefer being cursed? I mean, I know, back at Jusendo, you said it didn't matter...but..."
"Well, no," Ranma explained, "I mean, not being cursed, anyway. But the curse ain't about becoming a girl or a guy. Never has been really, to me. It's just...not gettin' to choose half the time, not knowing what's coming next, that sucks. Hell, if I got to pick whenever I wanted…"
"B—but you're a boy," Akane blurted out, a little too loudly, before covering her mouth and looking away from the other bath patrons.
"I'm just me, 'Kane." When Akane's puzzlement deepened, Ranma continued. "Look, don't ya think it's stupid you get nothing but beef for not bein' able to cook, but when I help out Kasumi in the morning, Pops calls me a sissy?"
Akane's cheeks burned, her temper flaring. "Hey! Just because nobody taught me, doesn't mean…"
Ranma held up a hand. "I ain't sayin' ya can't learn. But if you were a guy, nobody'd be sayin' a thing. I mean, do ya really think I only like parfaits when I'm a girl? It's stupid, but…" Ranma sighed. "People look at ya different. It ain't perfect, but least this way I can do what I want without somebody tellin' me 'that's for girls'."
"Huh." Akane paused to consider it. "And right now…"
"Right now we're two and a half hours away from Tokyo," Ranma said, and then took a deep breath, mustering up her courage. "And, I wanted to hang out with you. Without all the baggage from the dojo and the engagement or whatever hangin' over our heads."
Akane's gaze had been locked on Ranma's, but in the moment she could no longer maintain it, looking away in embarrassment even as she shifted closer. "You know, you can be really sweet when you're not trying to prove something to yourself or your father."
This time it was Ranma's turn to be embarrassed. "Careful, you keep sayin' stuff like that and it's gonna swell my head."
Even as they struggled to maintain eye contact, their bodies were inches apart; Ranma could feel the tense, vibrating energy between them as she paused, searching for something else to say. It was only when Akane moved her left arm—bringing them briefly into blissful, divine, almost unbearable contact—that she lost her mettle, laughing and shifting away, flustered. Akane's motions matched hers, flinching backwards sheepishly.
"Heh...I didn't think through this very well, did I?" Ranma said. "Maybe we should get out for a while and uh...take a breather."
"Y—yeah," Akane replied. "It might be nice to...cool down for a little while."
Wordlessly, they rose from the hot springs. Ranma stepped out first, stretching and shivering slightly. Akane, clutching her towel, not-so-subtly peeked over to see Ranma and, cheeks burning, picked up Ranma's towel and huffed. "Ranma! I don't care if it's all women here, stop being so ostentatious!"
Ranma stuck out her tongue, but took the towel. She opened her mouth to say something, but a gust of cold air shocked them both into darting inside, back into the warmth of the changing room.
After the two of them had put their yukata back on, they wandered into the common area together. To the side there was a large television that showed a pair of figure skaters in an Olympic arena; several people were crowded around the screen, intermittently cheering after the skaters performed a lift or a throw.
"Oh, hey, the Olympics are on," Ranma said, pointing to the crowd and standing on her tiptoes as she tried to get a glimpse of the screen.
Akane approached one of the spectators and motioned towards the screen curiously. "Is that figure skating? Who's dancing?"
The woman replied, "It's the Japanese pair skaters. We weren't supposed to have a shot this year, but many of their competitors were mysteriously attacked by a gang of men wearing hockey masks."
"Um…" Akane replied nervously.
The man beside her glanced away from the screen and nodded. "If you ask me, though, claiming you were attacked by 100 mask-wearing hooligans is a little far-fetched."
Ranma squinted and began to grimace. "Hang on, is that…"
"Still," the woman commented, "you have to admit that it's something of a disturbing coincidence."
Everyone turned back towards the screen, as the pair skaters finally came to a stop at the centre, holding out their hands triumphantly. "That was Azusa Shiratori and Mikado Sanzenin, the pair skaters for Team Japan," the announcer said triumphantly.
"Dammit!" Ranma turned away from the screen. "Let's do something else, 'Kane…"
As they continued to the end of the common room, Ranma and Akane found a door to a small side room that had a ping-pong table.
"This oughta be more fun than watching that asshole gloating on national TV," Ranma grumbled.
Akane smiled slightly as she picked up a paddle and one of the ping-pong balls, and once Ranma had picked up a paddle of her own. "Ready?"
Ranma nodded, and Akane began a simple serve, beginning a rally as Ranma expertly hit back the ball. As it began to drag on, Akane's enigmatic smile grew as she started to deliver the ball back into increasingly difficult locations.
"Dammit! Stupid short arms..." Ranma darted to the right to keep the rally alive, leaving the left side of the table open.
Akane smirked as she tapped the ball with her paddle with just enough topspin to send the ball corkscrewing away on Ranma's weak side, scoring a point. "Damn, tomboy, where'd ya learn to play table tennis like that?" Ranma said, catching her breath.
"Shampoo, if you can believe it. She got a normal table after that whole super soba debacle. We were doing a few sets once a week for a while there."
"You...hang on, since when do you hang out with Shampoo!?"
Akane shrugged. "You know, when she and Mousse aren't causing massive property damage, they're actually a lot of fun to be around. You should try it sometime."
"Yeah, maybe after I stop having nightmares about them pullin' a Peking Panic...anyway, glad ya learned you don't need super soba to win a ping-pong match, at least. I think I like ya better without the whiskers," Ranma replied with a grin.
"Ugh, don't remind me," Akane grimaced, before picking up a new ball and preparing to serve. "You were right, it's a mental game, not about how strong you are. And before you complain about your reach, it's not about that either. Just focus on predicting how your opponent is going to react to your return shot."
Ranma nodded. "Alright, let's do it again."
After Akane won two sets, Ranma pouted, but eventually yielded as her hunger finally outweighed her desire to win the match. The two of them left the common room and filed into the dining room, where a few others dressed in the ryokan's yukata were seated, their chabudai piled with several elaborate kaiseki dishes. The hostess approached the two of them and, after taking their names, guided them to their own table in the corner of the room.
Within a few minutes, the dishes began to arrive at the table, one by one. Small and artful, each plate provided both an aesthetic and culinary enjoyment as the meal proceeded.
As the next plate arrived, Ranma took another one of the black eggs on the plate and cracked it open. "Huh. Always figured this fancy stuff wouldn't be as good as something simple, but...man, these are good."
"They are, aren't they? Still, the sashimi plate was one of the best I've ever had," Akane replied, and then glanced up at the server appreciatively. "Thank you!"
The server bowed. "I will pass along your compliments to the chef."
With the next course, a man with horn-rimmed glasses and a faint soul patch emerged from the kitchen, holding a plate with a delicate pillar of tempura vegetables perched atop a small bowl of tentsuyu. "Ladies, I hope you are enjoying your meal tonight," he said, eyes trained on Akane.
Ranma stiffened, but said nothing as Akane smiled graciously in response. "It's been wonderful so far. Are you the chef?"
"Tetsuo Morimoto, it's a pleasure to serve you." the man said, setting down the plate on the table. "Is this the first time you lovely ladies have come to the inn?"
"No, this is our first time here," Akane replied, her tone straining a little bit but remaining polite.
"Well," Tetsuo smirked, "I'd be happy to give some tips to a new visitor about places one could...enjoy oneself."
Her eye twitching, Ranma breathed in deeply, then shifted slightly as her expression shifted completely, into a doe-eyed, almost impossibly sensuous wonderment. Noticing Akane about to reply, she unceremoniously pushed her aside and took Akane's place in Tetsuo's line of sight. "Oh, yes! We heard before we came here that there was a handsome and amazing chef who was very...skilled with his hands."
Akane gave Ranma a look of shock and disgust as the man gamely followed up on Ranma's ministrations. "Well, perhaps after your meal, you might like to come with me to the kitchen and I'll give you a...private tour." With a wink, he waved to Ranma. "You ladies have a lovely meal."
After Tetsuo was out of earshot, Akane took Ranma by the shoulders and shook her. "What the hell are you doing, Ranma!?" she whisper-yelled.
"Hey, he was makin' eyes at ya, and right in front of me too! I wasn't about to let that creep get away with that!" Ranma crossed her arms and huffed.
"And you thought that the best way to do that was by flirting with him more?" Akane asked, incredulous, before sighing. "Never mind, of course that was your first instinct. You know, Ranma, a little bit of protectiveness is sweet, but there are other ways to solve these things."
Ranma, chastened, slumped her shoulders and nodded. "Sorry…"
Her remorse lasted at least until the next course of the meal came out, where slices of perfectly grilled yellowtail were laid out like a fan. And by dessert, almost the entire conversation was out of mind; it wasn't until they finally stood up and were about to make their way out of the dining room that Tetsuo caught sight of them again, and placed a hand on Ranma's shoulder.
"Miss, why don't you come with me? There's many more impressive things I could show you in my kitchen." Tetsuo's voice had shifted now, to a slightly seedy growl.
Ranma whirled on her feet to face the chef, her temper flaring.
"Ya wanna take this to the kitchen, do ya!?" Ranma asked, "Fine! Well how about this. Ya might make this food look fancy, sure, but I'll outcook you any day!"
A few customers around them began to glance over as the atmosphere between the two began to heat up. Akane just stared at Ranma, dumbfounded.
"Oh ho, little lady," Tetsuo began to chuckle darkly, "I didn't realize it was a fight you were looking for."
"Not just any kinda fight, buddy. A challenge. Any kinda crap you can make, I'll do it better."
"A challenge? I think that can be arranged." Tetsuo thought for a moment, then rapped the sushi bar with his fist. "Hmm. I've got it. You saw those Owakudani eggs?"
"The black ones from the hot spring?"
"Precisely. A kaiseki meal featuring those in every course, to be judged before a panel of experts! And if I prevail…"
"When ya lose," Ranma cut in, prodding Tetsuo in the chest, "you leave my girlfriend the hell alone!"
The crowd of onlookers murmured—whether in confusion or concern, it was impossible to say, Nevertheless, Ranma and Akane were not there to witness the full aftermath, as Ranma grabbed Akane by the hand and marched out of the dining room.
After the unceremonious end to their dinner, there was a stubborn distance in the air between Ranma and Akane, neither one willing to verbalize the dispute, but not willing to let their frustrations go, either. By the time they turned in for the night, each one had turned away from the other on the futons, huffing and clumping up their duvet in their arms.
In the dry winter night, Ranma was the first to wake up, taking a glass from the desk, filling it in the tap, and taking a few swigs. As she padded back to bed, she rubbed her eyes and noticed that Akane had kicked the comforter off of her legs. "Dumb tomboy," Ranma muttered, setting the covers back over her feet and tucking them in, before returning to sleep.
About an hour later, Akane came to, using the bathroom before seeing that Ranma's comforter had slid down to her waist. "Idiot's gonna catch a cold," Akane mumbled, before pulling the comforter all the way up to cover her completely.
The next morning, both of them woke early, and despite the lingering friction, the two agreed to make the hike up to Lake Ashi to train.
As they passed the shrine near the summit of the trail by the lake, something about the bracing morning air seemed to knock loose a stray thought in Akane's mind, and she stopped and turned to Ranma.
"This was supposed to be a relaxing weekend just for us, Ranma. Why did you have to go and issue some ridiculous challenge again?"
Ranma looked away briefly, a little embarrassed. "Yeah, that was pretty stupid of me. "
"What were you thinking?" Akane shook her head, but her tone was kinder than Ranma expected.
"I mean, he was makin' a pass at you! I wasn't gonna let him get away with that. You're my fiancée."
"You didn't say fiancée, you said girlfriend."
"W-well, yeah! 'Cause, well, I mean, I know we ain't talked a lot about what we're gonna do when we graduate, and I know it's our stupid dads who are pushin' this whole thing, but you mean a lot to me, 'Kane. I lo—love ya, after all." Ranma said as her cheeks flushed.
"Dummy," Akane extended her hand to Ranma. "I love you too. Even if you get yourself into trouble too often for your own good." She stopped to consider Ranma's point. "You know, when it's just the two of us and we don't have to juggle our families, it always ends up being easier."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, I forgot what it's like not to have to look over my shoulder for my old man."
Akane laughed. "Me too. Daddy is sweet, but...he can be a lot to manage." Looking out towards the lake, her voice took on a more serious tone. "It's hard, when they're always there trying to get what they want. I don't know about something like engagement or marriage, really, but...maybe we should think about what we should do after graduation."
"Ya mean like, getting a place for ourselves?"
"Well, we can't all be my sister and have enough blackmail money to put down a mortgage before her coming-of-age, but I think we could figure something out."
"Be a lot simpler if we could just toss out our dads and make 'em go live somewhere else," Ranma grumbled. "...But yeah, I'd like that."
Giving her trademark megawatt smile, Akane nodded. "Well, it's still pretty early. What are we going to do now?"
Ranma loosened her limbs and smirked. "Come on, tomboy. We gonna spar or what?"
By the time Ranma and Akane made it back down to the base of the valley, the entire dining area of the Yunohana Ryokan had been transformed. Behind the counter, the kitchen space had been roughly divided into two different sections; some appliances had been dragged over to create approximately equal setups. Outside, the section reserved for diners had had all of the chabudai cleared away, repurposing the cushioned seats for a live audience, and the section nearest to the kitchen had been laid out with a long table, a few microphones, and chairs that faced the audience.
Ranma and Akane stood at the edge of the quickly forming crowd, trying to get a glimpse of the action.
"Man, he really wasn't messin' around. This place is packed!"
"You know Chef Morimoto is pretty famous, right?" Akane placed her face in her palm. "I guess this was bound to happen at some point or another."
"Hell, I don't care if he's famous. I'll beat him anyway!"
"You don't need to convince me, Ranma," Akane smiled and shook her head slightly. "It's him you're going to have to get on your side." Akane pointed at a man wearing an elaborate golden costume.
"Hey, ain't he that guy who runs that TV show where they get weird TV talents to rate food or something? Dammit, did they really get a celebrity chef to come be the judge, too?" Ranma asked nervously.
"You're right, that's Chairman Waga," Akane replied. "But who is that woman with him?"
The two of them looked back at the crowd of onlookers, and what appeared to be a panel of celebrity judges besides Waga. One of them, a middle-aged woman with a slightly crazed look in her eyes, had dropped a large bag on the table, removing dozens of packages of instant noodles, and was in the process of forcing the kitchen staff—and, it appeared, anyone within her reach—to take as many instant noodles as she could give away.
"Oh, shit, that's Momoko Mendo," Ranma whispered. "She's the one who said she could tell the future by reading your cup ramen."
"Don't look now, Ranma," Akane said, pointing back at the scene unfolding across the room from them, "but I'm pretty sure that the special ingredient for tonight's dish just had a last-second change of plans."
The woman's efforts seemed to have paid off, as the kitchen staff had begun clearing off the table with the inn's specialty hot spring eggs, and replacing them with packages of instant noodles.
"Damn it! How am I supposed to make a real dinner outta instant noodles!?"
"Well, if it helps," Akane tried to reassure her, "you won't be the only one doing it either."
"Yeah, but look at that bastard. He's already rubbed elbows with these guys, I know it!" For the first time since laying down the challenge, uncertainty had begun to seep into Ranma's voice. "Aw man, what am I gonna do?"
Akane placed her hand on Ranma's shoulder in reassurance. "Hey, what's all this about? 'Ranma Saotome always wins', right?"
Ranma's expression softened, and she smiled at Akane. "No, you're right. I just gotta...damn, I just need another perspective on this. Maybe I should call mom..."
"Ranma, the competition looks like it's starting in just a few minutes. I'm not sure there's time." When Ranma seemed distraught, Akane continued. "But listen, you can do this. You just have to believe in who you're cooking for! It's like when you put the soy sauce into the melted chocolate. You just have to put enough in to show that you care!"
Ranma just stared and nodded weakly. "Yeah, we can uh, we can talk about how you make chocolate later, tomboy. But," she gave Akane a warm smile, before placing a soft kiss on her lips. "thanks, Akane."
Waving, Ranma rushed over to her half of the kitchen.
In the meantime, Chairman Waga had begun to rile the crowd, listing out the conditions for the competition as well as, perplexingly, a number of corporate sponsors. Is this really going on TV? Ranma wondered, as she snuck through the crowd and back to her place on her side of the kitchen setup.
"If memory serves me right," Waga began, "Tetsuo Morimoto is a man renowned for his mastery of kaiseki cuisine. Today, however, we meet a new challenger!"
As Ranma took her position, a tall, lanky young man in a chef's hat motioned for her to gaze out at the crowd. "That's you, Saotome."
"Uh, right," Ranma replied, briefly soaking in the attention from the crowd with a smile, before glancing back with uncertainty toward the man. "Hang on, who are you?"
"My name is Hashiya Tadashi. I've been assigned as your sous chef for tonight's challenge."
"Great. What are we lookin' at here? I mean what am I doin', really?"
"The terms agreed upon for the competition are for four courses of kaiseki cuisine, within an hour."
"Alright, lessee...uh, well, we gotta make ramen, right? I mean, be kinda stupid not to…" Ranma puzzled it over, before nodding. "It's winter, so miso ramen'd be perfect."
Tadashi nodded, taking it down in his notes. "What about a main dish?"
"I mean, there's yakisoba but...nah, that's too easy," Ranma reasoned. "I gotta think outside the box here. What would Ucchan do...that's right! Ucchan!"
"Er, so that's…?"
"Nothing, just, we got pork belly, right? Put down Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki as the main course."
"That just leaves an appetizer and a dessert."
Once more deep in concentration, Ranma thought back to the things he had eaten in recent weeks. Most of them were rote repetitions of things she ate all the time, Kasumi's rotating menu having become the calendar by which the weeks went by in the Tendo household. Ranma began listing them off to herself. "Curry, nabe, omurice, katsu—hang on a sec," she said. "I got it. Instead of omurice, what about omuramen? Put on some demiglace, toss it on a little rice, and call it sushi."
She paused briefly, but even for an ingredient as strange as a brick of noodles, dessert was no trial to design either. There was never any question what it was going to be, after all. "Oh yeah, and for dessert, it's gotta be a parfait. Ice cream, anko, some fruit and mochi, and monaka—just make 'em out of instant noodles. Sounds like fine dining to me!"
Just then, a loud "ding!" could be heard from a bell near the judges.
"Well, the timer's started," Tadashi commented, "so we'd best get to work quickly."
Ranma sorted through the pans, finding a large, square pan suitable for the omelet, but was briefly distracted by the other side of the kitchen, where Tetsuo appeared to have called in an engineering team to start working on some hardware. "Wonder what the hell they got planned over there…" Ranma muttered, before shaking her head. "Alright, in order I guess...omelet first. Can you get the eggs, Hashi-kun?"
"Yes, ma'am." With that, Tadashi walked over to the fridge.
It wasn't that Ranma thought something was amiss right away. A few slip-ups happened all the time, and weren't anything to think too deeply about. When Tadashi dropped the container of eggs, forcing Ranma to salvage some out of their half-broken shells, she'd been irritated, but quickly caught her stride once again as she stirred together the eggs, tossed them onto the heated pan, and cradled a serving of instant noodles in the runny interior of the omelet.
Nor was it all too unthinkable that a bottle of soy sauce handed over to her could have its top poorly screwed on, leading Ranma to spill it all over the dashi. And Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki was surprisingly tricky to prepare the batter for, requiring a fair amount of care, so when Tadashi's batter turned out lumpy and uneven, she simply sighed and took over. "Can't save bad batter with good cabbage," Ranma mumbled to herself as she began to prepare a new mixing bowl.
No, it was that, as she happened to glance back to ask for a larger whisk, it all came together, since there was Tadashi, pouring an entire bottle of vinegar into the finished ramen.
"You bastard!" Ranma yelled, dropping the whisk—and the bowl along with it—onto the ground. "You've been workin' for him the entire time, haven't you?"
"No—I mean—" Tadashi held up his hands in protest. "I didn't mean to—"
"Outta the kitchen! Just get the hell out!" Ranma grabbed Tadashi by the arm, shoving him out of his section and back into Tetsuo's, where the army of workers had given way to a large stainless steel fountain, almost as tall as a person, which was sending down sheets of piping hot soup from the top, down into a trough with a number of sliced vegetables that collected the broth to be recirculated from the top.
"And it looks like Saotome is in trouble…" the announcer's voice bellowed over the loudspeaker. "Morimoto seems set to coast to victory once again!"
"Dammit...what do I do now," Ranma mumbled to herself. Thanks to Tadashi's sabotage and her own surprise, she was now out two whole courses, and time was beginning to tick down. Worse, she now had no help to finish making the meal. Her options were limited, but as she glanced out into the crowd of onlookers, she realized there was only one she could rely on right now.
"Akane!" Ranma called. "Come over quick!"
Akane looked perplexed for a moment, but quickly came over to the counter, which Ranma was gripping tensely. "Can ya help me out here, 'Kane? I don't got a lotta time and need some help to fix the crap Tetsuo's flunky managed to ruin here."
"You trust me…" Akane said slowly, "to help with your cooking?"
"I asked ya for help, didn't I?" Ranma handed Akane a pot that was sitting on the countertop. "Can ya boil some water? I gotta get the stock started quick or there's no way we finish."
Akane nodded quickly and turned the faucet on, while Ranma went back to the table where she had laid out several servings of soaked instant noodles.
"Hey!" a voice from the other side of the kitchen called. "You can't do that!"
Ranma turned around; it was Tetsuo, who seemed to be content to direct his improbably large team to continue building his masterpiece. "Do what?"
"Bringing somebody in from the audience? There are rules here, Saotome!"
"Rules!?" Ranma rolled up her sleeves and began to march over to the dividing line between her side of the kitchen and Tetsuo's. "You wanna talk about rules? How about we talk about the fact that you got some spy to try and ruin my whole meal? Or that you've gotta bunch of muscle buildin' a damn water fountain in the middle of the kitchen?"
"It's called fondue!" Tetsuo replied indignantly.
"Who cares what it's called? You've been cheating the whole damn time!" Ranma growled.
"Unfortunately for you, that's where you're wrong." Tetsuo smirked and motioned towards a stack of papers and contracts. "Haven't you ever heard of Martial Arts Kaiseki?"
"Martial Arts—" Ranma started, before a grin slowly formed on her face. "Well, why didn't you say so?" she said, and leaped over the barrier straight towards Tetsuo.
"Ha, you think a couple flashy moves can bring me down?" Tetsuo quipped, dodging effortlessly out of the way. "I think you'll find I'm not your run-of-the-mill opponent." Running over to the knife block, he placed his thumbs at the base of the block and used his other fingers to pull all eight of them out at once. "Hassun Houchouburi!" he yelled, flinging them towards Ranma with a burst of ki.
"Ack!" Ranma whirled out of the way just in time, the knives grazing the back of her chef's coat, making eight shallow cuts in the white cotton. "Dammit, I liked this jacket!" she yelled back, and smirked as she saw that Tetsuo's weak point was not himself, but the elaborate contraption his lackeys had built. Training her eyes on the fondue fountain, she let loose a blast of energy. "Mouko Takabisha!"
Plucking a bowl of soup from the countertop, Tetsuo leapt up to trap the blast in the bowl, holding it near him and hurling the bowl and the blast of energy down onto Ranma's side, yelling, "Mukouzuke Nagemono!"
Ranma grabbed a wooden cutting board like a paddle and flipped backwards just in time to swing the board and knock the bowl out of Akane's way, sending the bowl rocketing across the kitchen and towards Tetsuo. "Damn it, she's off limits!" Ranma shouted back as Tetsuo barely dodged the projectile, which landed in the corner of the room and exploded, burning a hole in the traditional wooden-framed building.
The announcer, meanwhile, had smoothly transitioned into reporting on the new sport that seemed to have gone underway. "Morimoto with a convincing counterattack, but Saotome pulls out a new bag of tricks!"
Ranma weighed her choices. Logically speaking, she just needed to land a finger on the fountain to bring the whole thing down with a Bakusai Tenketsu; she just had to evade Tetsuo's stiff defences. Bringing her parkour skills to a new arena, she began hopping back and forth from surface to surface, using the half-destroyed countertop as a springboard to launch her high above the rest of the kitchen—or as it was starting to resemble more closely, battleground.
Tetsuo, however, was ready, and he grinned ferally as he gripped a strange ribbon of cold noodles and yelled "Hiyashi Chuuka!", catching Ranma as if by a lasso.
"It's the famed 'Cold Noodle Crush', ladies and gentlemen! Is Saotome out for the count?" Ranma was really beginning to hate the announcers' ongoing narration.
"Give it up, Saotome. There's no way you're winning this match!"
Glancing at the clock, the time to face the music certainly seemed to be arriving. Only four minutes remained before the food had to be served, and Ranma had nothing but a single appetizer to show for it.
But Ranma Saotome never lost. And the tight ribbons of noodles squeezing her had given her an idea. Her legs had remained unencumbered, too quick by half to have been caught in Tetsuo's trap. So she quickly got to her feet, ran to the fountain and began to run rings around it. After all, the equation was dead simple. Cold noodles, hot soup, and a whirlwind to bring it all together? The outcome was exactly what Ranma needed.
"Hiryuu Shouten Ha!"
Flipping herself upward like a human uppercut, the vortex of superheated soup detonated upon contact with the noodles, exploding outwards and annihilating the fondue-nabe contraption and everything in its radius. As Ranma fell back to the ground, exhausted, she heard the "ding!" of a bell before everything went dark.
A familiar voice was calling, but Ranma could do little to react, except blink vaguely, as the litany of overwhelming sensations of the real world came back.
It was Akane. Ranma's vision finally made out her face, and, looking a little beyond her, the sheer destruction that lay beyond. There was no way of making out that this landscape of mayhem had ever been a restaurant kitchen.
"Ugh…'Kane, why's it feel like I'm gettin' crushed by a python? Are those damn noodles still stuck to me?"
"Ranma, when was the last time you used that soap?"
Oh. Ranma patted...himself down, finding the small chef's jacket all of a sudden far too small. Standing up stiffly, he saw a few workers cleaning up some of the rubble, but the entire audience had cleared out. "Heh. Guess it was about time anyway...how long have I been out?"
"Not that long. Just a few minutes," Akane explained. "Still, you managed to make quite a mess."
"Sorry…" Ranma said sheepishly. "Guess we ain't gettin' another free trip to this ryokan, huh?"
"Don't be. You know, despite everything...I had fun this weekend," Akane replied with a smile.
"Yeah. Me too...or I did till it went to hell anyway. I guess ya really can't win 'em all, huh?"
Akane's smile widened into a grin as she picked up a stray pot and ladle. "Actually, you did."
"Remember that pot of water you asked me to boil?" Ranma nodded, a little confused. "Well, after the explosion, there wasn't much left to do with it, except put some instant noodles and flavour packets in. Tetsuo's meal was gone, so Team Saotome won by default."
"Y–you made the winning dish?" Upon seeing Akane nod, Ranma sputtered with laughter. "Ha! So ya really can cook after all!"
Before he knew it, Akane had flicked him with the chilly remnants of tsukemen in the pot she was holding, and Ranma's jacket all of a sudden fit a lot more comfortably.
"Jerk," Akane said, sticking out her tongue. "Now come on. I'm pretty sure we need to find somewhere else to stay for the night."
"I don't think you need to worry about that." The voice sounded familiar to Ranma, but she couldn't place it.
"Whaddaya mean?" she asked, straightening out her chef's jacket as she looked up to see who it was. That newscaster accent. The way each word sounded like it wouldn't be out of place on a sports commentary. There was no doubting who this was.
"I'm from Fuji TV," the announcer said, his eyes bulging slightly. "That was incredible! What do you say to a full-season contract?"