Muyami Academy

What if they ALL went to the same school?

I don't have prereaders any more, but thanks for past help to T.H. Tiger, Bombadil Goh, Jeffrey Cornish and William Morse. Also thanks to Jed Hagen and Stardragon for surprise C&C.

DISCLAIMER: Ranma 1/2 characters and stuff, and Inu-Yasha characters and stuff, not to mention Ursei Yatsura characters and stuff, copyright 1999 Rumiko Takehashi. Tenchi Muyou characters and stuff, copyright 1999 Pioneer & AIC. Mamono Hunter Yohko characters and stuff copyright 1999 AD Vision, NCS, Toho Company, LTD, Mad House, and I don't know who else. Koko wa Greenwood characters copyright Yuki Nasu. Mint na Bokura characters copyright Wataru Yoshizume. Other characters and stuff also copyright the creators and owners.

Notes: Divergences may never become apparent, and even if they do, may not be relevant or even sensical. But given my schedule of one chapter per year, roughly, you probably shouldn't sweat it. Even I don't remember where all my plot threads were going at this point.

Chapter Fourteen

Hunter and the Hunted

A new day dawned at Muyami Academy. Outside Matsukata Hall, the heavy drone of the Poison 1 attack helicopter approached. Moments later, gunfire erupted, followed by screams and laughter and the sound of metal being shredded.

Ranma sat up and rubbed her eyes groggily. It sounded like both Nuku Nuku and Aiko were involved in the skirmish with Arisa and Kyouko.

There was a thunderous crash, followed by an explosion. Bits of what could only be the Poison 1 rained down on the dormitory roof. Then all was silent.

Ranma climbed out of bed and began to do her morning katas. When she was done, she sat at her desk, which was piled high with boxes and packages. She moved them aside, turned on the desk light, and stared into the vanity mirror. A pretty red-haired girl stared back.

She really did look a lot like her mother. Ranma stared at herself for several minutes, as if the very act would somehow make sense of her messed-up life.

"I'm not a guy," she said. "I'm a girl. A woman. Female."

To be honest, she felt rather ambivalent about the whole thing. She knew she should feel disgust, terror at being trapped as a girl forever. Certainly that's what her father had taught her to think. But was it really so bad, being a girl? She'd been living as one for a while now, and it didn't feel all that different.

And anyway, she didn't have to be a girl all the time. Her mother had made that much clear. Once Urd reversed the effects of her curse-freezing pill, Ranma was free to be a guy when she wanted.

"I'm my mother's daughter. I'm Akane's sister. Nabiki's sister. Kasumi's sister."

The prospect of having sisters actually sent a small thrill through Ranma. She'd always wanted a brother or sister. The prospect of being someone's sister, that she was more ambivalent about. But they would have something in common, at least.

It would be especially thrilling to hear Kasumi call her 'sister'. Ranma liked Kasumi a great deal. As for Nabiki... well, that she was also ambivalent about.

"I'm going to marry a guy. I'm going to sleep with him. I'm going to give birth to our children."

Ah, there it was. Terror. Revulsion. Disgust. A churning, lothing fear deep in the pit of her stomach.

Was that because Ranma was really a guy? Or would that fade as well, in time?

"Ukyo will be my husband."

That didn't seem as terrifying. Ukyo had always been a good friend, and after all, she was really a girl.

And Ranma was really a guy. Right?

Ranma thought she understood her mother's convoluted way of dealing with the problem. She couldn't stomach a son who ever acted girlish, even if he were sometimes physically a girl. And she couldn't stomach a son who was also a daughter -- in her world, you had to be one or the other. Certainly the law didn't allow for both -- your official records showed you as male or female, period.

But Nodoka's world would allow for a daughter who was sometimes a guy, and when she was a guy she of course was expected to act manly, even if she really were Nodoka's daughter. It was confusing, but if it allowed Ranma to be close to her mother, to be her mother's daughter and to also be a guy at least some of the time, then perhaps it was the best solution after all.

And what if Ranma married Ukyo, and Ukyo became pregnant? Would Ranma's mother be proud of how manly her daughter was? Or was that going too far?

Not that Ranma really wanted to think of having children at age sixteen. But her world was being turned upside down and spun about, and she needed to figure out where her new path might lead her. And really, being a daughter was one thing, but if she were going to have kids -- and she knew very well that her parents wanted grandchildren -- then the best solution was for her future 'husband' Ukyo to bear them.

Because the alternative -- Ranma writhed on the bed in an uncontrollable spasm of terror -- the alternative didn't bear thinking about.

Ranma sighed. The whole engagement question was always the biggest problem, and one she'd rather avoid. Maybe it would all work out, somehow. For now, she really didn't want to think about it too hard.

One thing was for sure, her course was set. Mother would not change her mind. That meant, boy or girl, Ranma was the daughter of Genma and Nodoka. And that meant that Ranma had better learn to like being a girl most of the time.

Sighing, Ranma stood and did a few more quick katas. As she did, her eyes strayed to the red silk Chinese tunic that lay on top of the dresser.

Transforming into a devil hunter yesterday had been very cool. Ranma liked to fight, and fighting demons gave her a real sense of purpose. She'd felt so helpless that first time, weeks ago, when she'd tried to help Yohko and Kagome confront that noh-mask demon. Well, no more! She hated the naked transformation sequence, she really disliked the stupid magical girl speeches, and she wasn't too fond of the outfit itself, but kicking demon butt -- that part rocked. And a soul spear was a pretty cool weapon to have. Better than a sword, in Ranma's opinion.

And really, the tunic portion of the outfit wasn't that bad, if matched with pants or a skirt or something. It would go well with some of Ranma's favorite black silk pants. If Ranma could figure out how to transform into that outfit along with those Chinese pants, everything would be perfect.

It was still mostly dark outside -- the sort of grey half-light that you got just before the sun broke through the morning fog. In the darkened room, the brightly glowing numbers from the clock on the desk told Ranma that she still had time before Martial Arts Club practice. She turned her attention to the packages on the desk.

Trust Nabiki to encourage Ranma's mother to spend even more money, with promises of a tuition break. As if Ranma needed more frilly things in her closet. Several dozen packages, piled haphazardly over the desk -- Ranma hadn't felt like dealing with them last night. But she couldn't leave them here forever.

Ranma rolled up her sleeves, grabbed a package, and opened it.

XXX

In the boy's dorm of Sakagawa Hall, the excitement of hearing an attack helicopter lose a battle with two schoolgirls had died back down. Ukyo Kuonji had just drifted back off to sleep when a loud pounding on the door awoke her. She rolled over and stared at the clock on the desk. In the dim grey light filtering through the curtains, she could just make out that it was 4:30 am.

"Ukyo?" her roommate, Shun, called out from the bunk above her. "Can you get the door? It's for you."

"For me? How can you know that?"

"Because," Shin's sleepy voice replied, "I don't get up at whatever ridiculous hour this is. So it must be for you."

Too tired to refute such logic, Ukyo rolled out of bed and shuffled to the door. She opened it. Outside stood a very large man in a mostly white gi. He wore glasses and had a white bandana tied over his head.

"Mr. Satome?" Ukyo asked, still befuddled by sleep. It was hard to mistake Genma Saotome for anyone else.

"It's morning, boy! Why aren't you up and about? Is this any way for the heir of the Saotome School of Martial Arts to behave? Come on, boy! No heir of mine is going to sleep in and be lazy. Time to train!"

"Train?" Ukyo tried to wipe the sleep from her eyes. Had he called her 'boy'? Belatedly, she recalled the night before -- she was now officially engaged to Ranma Saotome. The engagement had been recognized by Ranma's parents! A tiny thrill shot through Ukyo. Of course, they thought Ukyo was cursed like Ranma to be a boy part of the time, and at the moment they thought of Ranma as their daughter, and there had been some foolishness about Ukyo being adopted as their son, and some other details that Ukyo wished she could block from her mind... but the important point was that she and Ranma were engaged. Mr. and Mrs. Saotome would soon be her In-Laws. And she was certain that the other silliness would get straightened out eventually.

None of which explained why her future Father-In-Law was knocking at her dorm door at this early hour. "Mr. Saotome, do you know how early it is?" she asked. "I don't have Martial Arts Club for a couple of hours yet."

"Then we have plenty of time to train," Genma growled. "If you're going to be my heir, then we have no time to waste! Up and at 'em!"

"At four-thirty in the morning?"

"Time is irrelevant to the martial artist! We know not day or night! Any hour is a good hour for practicing!"

"Could you please take this outside?" Shun called out from the top bunk.

Ukyo stared at Ranma's father. "Um... okay," she finally said. "Just give me three minutes."

"Right now! No excuses!"

"Listen, Mr. Saotome. I am not fighting you in my pajamas!"

"Stop whining like a little girl!" the older man roared. He grabbed Ukyo, threw her over his shoulder, and ran down the hall. "The first lesson is this: ALWAYS BE PREPARED TO FIGHT!"

They burst through the door at the end of the hallway and out into the grey morning light. They were at the top of the stairs, three floors up. Genma threw Ukyo over the rails and then lept after her, shouting, "Ukyo! Defend yourself!"

XXX

Somewhere on the hill, two demons stood in shadow and thick brush and looked down on Muyami Academy.

"The time has come," the monkey-headed one said. "The master desires a body. Today we will gather one for him."

"What of the demon hunters?' the Hawk-headed demon asked. "They look for us. They seek us out."

"It cannot be helped," Monkey-head replied. "We must act before they've found us. Once the master has a body, it will not matter."

"True," Hawk-head said. "When the master awakes, it will not matter."

"Today," Monkey-head said. "The master has waited for too long. Today the long wait will end. Today he will be freed."

XXX

Police Chief Inspector Ido stared down at the body on the slab. It was that of a young man -- mutilated nearly beyond recognition. The next slab over held another body, that of a young woman in a similar condition. The morgue smelled of blood and antiseptic chemicals. The chill that seeped into his bones was not just from the cool temperature.

"We found them in an alley at about 3 am.," his partner, Gonzu, said. "At first glance, it seemed like a couple who'd been out at a club and ran into the wrong sort after leaving a club..."

"A routine mugging?" Ido said. "No. This is too gruesome. I can't imagine what kind of sick mind would do something like this."

"Yeah," Gonzu said. "Like I said, at first glance, it seemed that way. But it seemed too savage, too sick for just a mugging. And... we found something else -- a green, slimy substance. I'm having the lab boys check it out, but ten to one it's a match for the samples you took at that demon fight the other day."

"A demon?" Ido stared at the mutilated bodies. "Yes. You're right -- this feels like another demon attack."

"Anyone you know?"

"Never seen them before," Gonzu said. "Out of towners, it seems."

"Well, start by checking for missing persons," Ido said. "If that doesn't work, we may have to circulate photos with the other preciencts." He shuddered, then pulled sheets over both of the bodies and headed for the door. "I'd rather not do that," he said. He stiffled a yawn. "Thanks for waking me early... I needed to see this. But I barely got three hours of sleep last night."

"I'll get you some coffee," Gonzu said. "And there's some donuts in the lunch room. Day old, but still good. Might even be some leftover ramen in the fridge."

"Thanks, Gonzu. I've got that devil hunter and that other girl, the magic expert, on their way here this morning. Girl says she's a goddess -- can you imagine? Anyway, they're going to help me find this hidden shrine and hopefully put these demon attacks to rest for good."

Gonzu raised an eyebrow. "Going to test your rocket sledgehammer, boss?"

Ido laughed. "Only if I have to, Gonzu, only if I have to. This may be my case to solve, but when it comes to demon-bashing I think I know better than to get in the way of the experts."

XXX

Noel Minamito awoke to the sound of tearing paper and muttered oaths. It was still half-dark outside, but the room lights were on. He leaned out from his bunk bed and saw his roommate Ranma amid a pile of empty boxes and wrapping paper. Clothing of all sorts were piled on the desk in front of her.

Ranma paused to hold up a light blue turtleneck sweater and a white courderoy jumper -- like a shortall, but ending in a skirt instead of shorts. Ranma stared at it a moment.

"Well, that's not so bad," she muttered. "I don't even remember buying it."

"It's cute," Noel said.

Ranma glanced up at her sharply. "Sure," she said. "For a girl."

This response confused Noel, although he was learning that it was a fairly typical one for Ranma. Ranma was, in many ways, one of the strangest girls he'd ever known. She was alternately one of the cutest girls in the whole school, and more macho than most of the boys.

"You are a girl," Noel said.

"I know," Ranma replied. "Don't remind me." The redhead paused to stare at the jumper again, and cocked her head sideways. "Actually, now that you mention it -- I am a girl, so what's wrong with looking cute? And, let's face it, I'm far cuter than most of the girls in this school. It's just that... I'm not really used to thinking about myself that way. It's going to take some getting used to, you know?"

"No, I don't know," Noel giggled. "You're the most unusual girl I've ever met."

"And these tops! Just look at these!" The redhead held up several scoop-neck tops, including a ruffled peasant top with dangling sleeves, and another that was half lace and consisted of only a few straps in back. Ranma grimaced. "I mean, cute is one thing, but why can't girl clothing be more practical? See these shoes?" She held up a pair of black leather mary janes with the four-inch rubber clog heels.

"Those are popular right now," Noel said.

"As if I care? How's a martial artist supposed to move in these things? Lucky for me I got some moccasin loafers and some Chinese slippers, or I don't know what I'd do. Well, and I guess these clogs aren't too bad. But I got no use for high heels and slick, stiff soles.

"And the rest of this -- the sweaters are okay, I guess, but I only got a few pairs of shorts, one pair of jeans, and a pair of black slacks -- I insisted on both of those -- and then all the rest is skirts, dresses, and more skirts. Mom thinks that girls should wear skirts and dresses, and refrain from shorts and pants."

"Girls look good in skirts," Noel said. He thought Ranma looked especially good in a skirt.

Ranma muttered something under her breath and began to stuff her new clothing into an already full closet and dresser.

"Where did all this stuff come from, anyway?" Noel said. "Didn't you have more than enough clothing already?"

"Mom certainly didn't think so," Ranma muttered. "It's a long story. The end result is that I got more clothes than the crown Princess of Jurai, and I should know, I've seen her wardrobe. Here, you're closet's pretty empty. Have some skirts."

Ranma tossed several skirts up at Noel. Several dresses followed.
"Ranma, what are you doing? I don't need this stuff!"

"Well I need it even less," Ranma said. "Anyway, you've got room for it and I don't. Here, catch!"

Ranma tossed a colorful package onto Noel's bed. Noel blinked in confusion. "What's this?"

"Panties," Ranma said. "I have more than I'll ever know what to do with. I noticed you don't have a lot, so it's your lucky day. Here, have another pack."

Noel caught the package tossed at her. Her face began to turn red. "Look, I don't need to borrow your panties..."

"I'm not lending them to you, I'm giving them to you," Ranma said. "It's not like they're used or anything. They've never been opened." She tossed a half-dozen bras at Noel. "Here, I hope these fit. I sure don't need 'em."

"But I don't wear panties," Noel said.

"So I noticed," Ranma replied. She turned and placed her hands on her hips. "Look, Noel, there are a lot of things about being a girl that I don't really have down yet, but one thing I do know is that you can't go around wearing bike shorts 24 hours a day. People will think you're weird or something."

"I suppose," Noel said, staring at the pile of underwear on his bed doubtfully.

Ranma, dressed now in the lavender silk outfit that Shampoo had given her, examined the room closely. The closet door bulged outward. The dresser drawers did not quite close all the way, and bits of pastel silk and satin stuck out. The trash bins were stuffed full, and there were still boxes stacked next to them with more wrapping-paper trash inside.

Ranma nodded her head in satisfaction. "Mission accomplished!" she said. "Well, I gotta run! Martial Arts Club is in half an hour, and I got something to practice first. Catch you later, Noel-chan!"

Ranma bounded out of the room. Noel stared down at the pile of girl's clothing on his bed.

"Well, I suppose it won't hurt to have this stuff in my closet and dresser drawers," Noel muttered. "At least it'll look more normal if anyone looks. And I can probably give Maria back the stuff I borrowed from her, with interest even. But just because I wear a skirt when I'm in my school uniform, doesn't mean I'm going to be wearing any of this stuff."

He jumped out of bed and dumped everything into a dresser drawer. "Anyway, I got other things to think about. I got my own mission to accomplish: Today's the day I wreck Maria's romance!"

Maniacal laughter emanating from Ranma and Noel's room echoed down the hallway of the girl's dorm. This being Muyami Academy, nobody paid it any attention.

XXX

Madoka Mano sat at the table in her kitchen and stared out into the back yeard. The chirping of birds and the hum of insects, the rustle of the breeze blowing through the trees, and the soft whisps of steam rising from her teacup all served to put her in a calm and reflective mood. Summer was coming to a close, and fall was in the air. Soon another year would be near it's end, and Yohko would be a year older and a year more mature. Already she was an accomplished devil hunter. As for Ranma, the girl was a fast learner, and might surpass Yohko herself within the year.

Madoka wondered if now was a good time to start training Azusa. The girl was young, but eager to learn, and it might help to have someone around to keep the house and the hidden dojo/shrine tidy. Of course, she would need yet another Youma ring or talisman first... but she knew there were others out there, somewhere, if you knew what you were looking for.

Floorboards creaked overhead, and she heard the soft footfalls of someone descending the stairs. A tall, beautiful, regal woman entered the room. She wore a kimono and carried a gilded sword.

"Good morning, Mano-san," Nodoka Saotome said. She glided into the room and sat down at the table.

"Good morning to you, Saotome-san," Madoka replied. "A very good morning indeed."

"It is very generous of you to let us stay here until we can find a house to rent," Nodoka said. "I cannot thank you enough."

Madoka laughed. "Please, it's nothing, especially for the parents of one of my students."

"That is something I wished to talk to you about," Nodoka said. "It seems very unladylike, going about fighting demons. I'm not sure that I approve. I mean to see that my daughter Ranma is raised to be in all things a lady among women. That's one of the reasons my husband and I are moving, to be closer to the school where Ranma and her fiancee now live."

"With all due respect, Mrs. Saotome, I was a devil hunter once, and I don't for a moment feel that it made me less of a woman. Only young, pure girls may become devil hunters in the first place."

"That may be," Nodoka said, "but chopping up demons hardly seems the proper thing for a young girl to be doing."

"Yet you've allowed your husband to train Ranma in the ways of the martial arts," Madoka said. "In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen a girl with as much fighting skill. You don't find this unladylike?"

Nodoka shifted uncomfortably. "There were... extenuating circumstances," she said. "I think it's safe to say that my husband will no longer be training her as he once did."

"That hardly matters at this point. The girl is nearly as good as her father."

"Perhaps," Nodoka said. "Still, Ranma has a lot yet to learn about being a lady, and all of this devil hunter and martial arts business will only get in the way. Can you give me a good reason why I should allow it to continue?"

"Mrs. Saotome, your daughter Ranma has a unique gift. Not just any girl may become a devil hunter; it takes a combination of exceptional physical skills and a spiritual awareness that few possess. Ranma's ability to tap into and channel her chi are nothing short of amazing. That's why I chose to teach her to become a devil hunter. To not use such skill would be a waste of her talents -- in a very real sense she has an obligation, a duty, to the world."

Nodoka took this in and considered it for several minutes.

"I suppose I can see your point," she said. "I am well aware of what honor and duty mean. My family has always honored its obligations." She stood and nodded her head. "Very well. You may continue to teach Ranma the ways of the devil hunter."

"Saotome-san, can you tell me where your husband is? I thought that I might have him trim the ivy that covers the wall in the back yard. It looks like it hasn't been trimmed in years."

"He left very early," Nodoka said. "As a martial artist, he always rises early to train. I'm afraid that's one of his few good points. I believe he wished to start training that boy Ukyo -- Ranma's fiancee -- and then he said that he wished to speak with the Principal about something." She sighed. "To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if he somehow sensed that you wanted him to do some work. He may stay away all day, if that is the case."

"Oh, well," Madoka said. "I suppose I'll have to do it myself."

"Nonsense," Nodoka said. "I will be glad to help you, Mano-san."

Niether woman noted the dark shadow which clung to the edge of the lawn, like a pool of blackest india ink, independant of any object to block the light of the morning sun.

XXX

In the center of the lawn between Matsukata Hall and Sakagawa Hall was a very large oak tree. Next to this were six large pieces of what had once been a statue of Mr. Mgobee Sakagawa, one of the two founders of Muyami Academy. These had been added only two days ago; previously the statue of the kindly Jesuit Priest had stood next to the entrance to the Boy's Dorm.

As for the statue of Mr. Katsushi Matsukata, all that remained was an arm clutching a stone Bible, and a pile of rubble. Construction crews had yet to haul away the debris.

Next to all of this, something new had been added this morning... the smoking wreckage of a top secret attack helicopter known as the Poison One. Having this particular Mishima Heavy Industries secret weapon crash on campus was becoming an almost daily occurance, one that some of the students actually looked forward to, but this was the first time it had crashed right next to the dormitories.

Mishima Heavy Industries could hardly cordon off the dormitories, but yellow police tape labelled "top secret -- do not cross" had been strung about the wreckage. This did not prevent students from stopping to stare at the demolished helicopter. Nor did it stop one particular female student from using a still-burning section of the wreckage to practice a little tenshin amaguriken.

Ranma hovered over the flames. Her clothing was smeared with charcoal and charred at the edges, her hair was singed, and her face and arms were covered with soot. If one didn't know any better, one might have assumed that some cartoon bird or rabbit had handed her a stick of dynamite and waited for the inevitable. But in fact, her resemblance to black, crispy toast was completely self-inflicted.

She stared at the flames as if they were gold and she were a Spanish conquistador. The flames were like a map of an El Dorado, because they contained a secret treasure that Ranma desperately wanted to discover and make her own. If only she could just reach out and grab it...

Her hands darted into the flames.

"OW! Hot hot hot hot hot!"

"Having fun, Ranma?" a girl called out. Ranma stood and glanced over her shoulder.

"Oh. Hello, Nabiki," she said. "What are you doing up at this hour?"

"I have an early meeting with Principal Ikari."

"Really? What's that about?"

"Oh, you'll find out soon enough," Nabiki said. "Speaking of which, I talked to Akane last night."

"Yeah?" Ranma turned back to crouch before the flames. "And?"

"She told me about your promise to your mother," Nabiki said. "Frankly, I'm a bit surprised. I thought you wanted to be a boy?"

"I did," Ranma said. "But things aren't so bad, now. I've decided to not worry about it."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. Ranma's hands shot into the flames.

"Ow ow ow ow ow!"

As Ranma blew on her red, swollen hands, Nabiki said, "You're not going to worry about it? But you promised your mother that you would remain a girl."

"Nope." Ranma's hands shot into the flame, only to be pulled out quickly. "Ouch! Shit, that's hot!"

"Then what was it you promisied to your mother?"

"I promised to remain her daughter," Ranma said. "Sheesh, I thought you said you talked to Akane about this?"

"I did. She failed to note the distinction between 'girl' and 'daughter'. And frankly, I still don't see the difference..."

"The difference," Ranma said, "is that I can be a guy whenever I want. And I have to act like a guy, when I am one -- I think I can handle that part. But I'm always a daughter, regardless."

Nabiki thought this over carefully.

"So when you're a girl, you can act like a girl?"

"Yep. I have to."

"And when you're a guy, you can act like a guy?"

"That's right. I got no choice."

"But you're registered as a girl."

"Yep."

"You're attending school as a girl."

"Yep. Ow, ow, ow, hothothothot!"

"And yet, according to the government records, you're a boy."

"Mom's changing that."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "She is?"

"Yep. From now on, I'm officially her daughter. All the way."

"And engaged to Uyko, who they think is a boy."

For a moment, Nabiki looked almost ill. Perhaps she was thinking of a small prank she'd pulled on Ranma days ago, considering how far it had spiralled out of control, and wondering if she could possibly be responsible for such dramatic changes in another's life. If so, she said nothing. A moment later her face was once again as it always was: calm, collected, calculating, perhaps amused, but revealing nothing of her inner thoughts and emotions.

"And you don't mind?" she asked.

"Nah, not too much. Ukyo's okay." Ranma paused. "By the way, do you have that uniform, or the other clothes yet?"

"Not yet," Nabiki said, "but things should become much easier for me within the hour. Also, can you meet me at lunch? In your room? I need to discuss the details of our agreement with you. For now, ciao!"

XXX

An hour before class, the girl's dorm was a beehive of activity, with girls showering and getting ready for the day. Belldandy was in her room, singing a happy song while she made tea. The bright morning sun shown through an open window, and a cool breeze rustled the curtains. Outside the door came the voices of girls gossiping, the pounding of footsteps running up the hall, the crackle and scream of Lum electrocuting Ataru, the curses and energy blasts of Ryoko fighting with Ayeka, professions of love from Tatewaki Kuno, the loud thump that was Akane's response, and the chime and clatter of crossed blades as Utena dueled... well, there was no knowing who it might be on this particular morning.

Belldandy carried the teapot to their small table and poured for both herself and her roommate, Madoka Ayukawa. She kneeled, took a sip, and smiled sweetly. "Isn't it a wonderful morning?" she asked.

"Uh... sure. If you say it is," Madoka replied.

Belldandy set her cup down. "I have to go into town to visit with Chief of Police Inspector Ido. If anything comes up, you can handle it, can't you?"

"What about class? Don't you have to attend?"

"Well," Belldandy said, "I don't really like skipping class, but I'm sure that Principal Ikari won't mind. It's very important -- we think we can find the demon's lair."

"The shadow demon? I thought you said it wasn't evil."

"I don't believe it is. I think it's the guardian for a shrine that was erected to seal away a much greater evil. We need to find that shrine soon, before this evil escapes."

There was a knock at the door, and Belldandy answered it. A young girl, tall and slender, stood in the doorway. She had short brown hair and the sort of build that hinted that she was an athelete. She was, in fact, a member of the track team, and one of the fastest girls in school, if you didn't count cyborgs, aliens and people born with inhuman powers.

"Miss Belldandy?" she asked. "Hikaru said you wanted to see me?"

"Oh, good morniing, Hikaru-chan! Please come in!" As the girl entered and closed the door behind her, Belldandy added, "I heard from several others that you can tell fortunes and dowse for things that are hidden."

Hikaru's eyes widened in surprise. "I... I suppose I can, to some extent. I mean, I haven't been wrong yet. But it's really nothing special. I mean, with all these alien princesses and expert martial artists..."

"Hikaru, you should never sell yourself short. You have a rare and valuable gift that is unlike that of anyone else. Even I can't see the future well, or locate things simply by thinking about them, and I'm a goddess."

"Ah... if you say so, Miss Belldandy. I'd heard the rumor..."

Belldandy smiled. "I wanted to see you so I could ask a favor from you."

"Oh? What is that?"

"Do you think you might use your talent to help me and the local Chief of Police? You'd have to skip class, but I'll make sure you don't get in trouble for doing so."

A crackle came from the television, and right before Hitome's eyes, a sexy woman with dark brown skin and snow white hair stepped out of the screen. She assumed a dramatic pose and cackled madly.

"Hahaha! Never let it be said that Urd is not up to any challenge! Behold!" The elder sister of Belldandy held up a small vial of dark brown pills. "Urd's Special Curse-Freezing Reverser Pills! Ranma's problems are solved!"

Hitomi stared at the strange woman, and then back at Belldandy. "Er..." she began.

"Oh, Hitomi," Belldandy said, "have you met my sister Urd yet?"

"I... um... no, I guess I haven't." Hitome had the presence of mind to stand and bow. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Miss Urd." Turning back to Belldandy, she added, "What was that about skipping class?"

"Yes. You see, it's very important. It really can't wait until the afternoon, when classes are over."

"If it's that important, then of course I'll help," Hitomi replied.

XXX

The morning sun shown down on the lawn between the boy's and girl's dorms. Yohko Mano stared out her window, watching boys and girls headed to class. Beyond the school buildings was the steel slope of the hillside. Somewhere up there was a sealed cave, which contained a very powerful demon.

She could feel its eyes on her, staring at her, into her, staring into her soul. She shuddered. Why did she have such a feeling of foreboding, a feeling of doom? She was Yohko Mano, 108th generation devil hunter. Facing demons was nothing new to her, and now she had a whole demon-hunting team to back her up... and two more teams, if it came to that. There probably wasn't a demon in the world that they couldn't handle.

And yet, she felt nothing but dread.

It didn't help that her personal daily fortune, as delivered by her pink Hello Kitty horoscope with digital display, was "Beware blue bovines."

Really, what kind of a horoscope was that? But the cheap plastic device had never been wrong before.

"You'd better hurry and get dressed," said her roommate, Maria Minamoto, as she buttoned her skirt. "Class starts soon."

"I"m not going to class today," Yohko said.

"What? How can you just decide to skip class? Miss Hinako will report you for sure!"

Yohko giggled. "Let her! You think the Principal's going to do anything to me? I just realized, more than any other kid in this school, I've got a liscense to goof off, because I'm the ace of Ikari-Sensei's new task force."

"Oh, I heard about that," Maria said. "You're a part of that?"

"Sure," Yohko said, suddenly sober again. "Although, really, it's not goofing off, you know. I'm supposed to help find a shrine somewhere in the neighborhood where a demon was once sealed. And to be honest, I've got a very bad feeling about it. You know, Miss Hinako is the least of my problems."

Maria frowned. "If you say so, Yohko. But personally, I've heard some pretty scary things about her. If half of what they say is true, she's every bit as scary as some weird devil." She slipped on her jacket and grabbed her purse. "My only problem is how to confess to the one I love. I guess that's nothing compared to your problems, but it still scares me."

Yohko finally tore her gaze away from the window and looked her roommate in the eye. "You can do it, Maria! I'm counting on you! Maybe I'll never find love, but I know you'll succeed!"

"What about you and Ryoga?"

"Well, he seems nice enough -- but I don't even know where he is," Yohko said.

"What about your mystery pig-tailed boy?"

"Oh, I've made up my mind to forget about him."

"Really?"

"Yep. No more chasing mysterious boyfriends who I don't even know."

"Hey, look!" Maria exclaimed, pointing out the window. "There's your pigtailed boy now!"

"What?" Yohko pressed her face to the glass. "Where? Where?"

"You sure you've given up on him?" Maria asked, teasingly.

"Just show me where he is!"

"My mistake," Maria said. "It was just Tenchi." Yohko turned to glare at her, and she held up her hands defensively. "Don't deny your heart, Yohko. If you love this pig-tailed boy, then take your own advice. Go for it! Don't give up until you find him and make him yours!"

XXX

After Martial Arts Club practice and Kendo Club practice, Ranma returned to the dorms and took a quick shower. She was slipping into her school uniform -- which Shun had left on her bed the day before -- when there was a knock at her door.

Ranma finished buttoning her vest, then opened the door. "Yes?" An older woman, apparently part of the school staff, was standing outside with an electronic clipboard and a bundle under her arms.

"Miss Ranma Saotome?"

"Yes?"

"I've brought your replacement uniform," the woman said.

"Oh!" Ranma replied. "Cool. Shun's going to need it."

"Very well." The woman held out her electronic clipboard. "If you could just sign here, please."

Ranma stared at the clipboard. "Huh? I gotta sign for it? What is this, Federal Express?"

"Standard NERF procedure," the woman said. "Rules like this ensure that we aren't being taken advantage of. Incidentally, Principal Ikari had your request for a new uniform filled out and processed by his staff, but he wanted it to be clear that, after this, you must fill out the proper form yourself. You can obtain a proper form at any time from the Computer Ops person assigned to your team."

"Yeah, okay, whatever," Ranma said, signing the clipboard. "You mean Kohran, right?"

The woman held out a neatly-folded stack of clothing, which Ranma accepted. "Actually," the woman said, "Kohran Li is expected to work primarily with Professor Natsume. As of this afternoon, I believe the new Computer Ops specialist for Team Gamma is Ruri Hoshino."

"Ruri Hoshino?"

"You probably haven't met her yet."

As the woman turned to go, Ranma took a closer look at what was in her hands. She recognized the white silk blouse, the brown sleeveless vest, the short brown jacket and the pleated brown skirt. They were exactly like the items she now wore.

"Wait!" Ranma called out. "This is a girl's uniform!"

The woman looked back. "Yes, of course," she said. "You are a girl."

"But the uniform I destroyed was a boy's uniform."

"A boy's uniform?"

"Yes! It was Shun Kisaragi's!"

The woman frowned, then consulted her electronic tablet. "I'm sorry, Miss Saotome, but I don't show a Shun Kisaragi on the NERF roster..."

"He's not a part of NERF... he's just a student here."

"Oh," she said. "I see. Well, I have no authority to replace the uniforms of people who aren't on the NERF roster."

"But..."

"You will have to file a special request. Check with Ruri for the proper forms."

"Now, wait a second!" Ranma growled. "Classes are about to start. Shun needs a replacement uniform now."

The woman shrugged her shoulders. "I'm sorry, Miss Saotome, but there's nothing I can do. You'll have to submit a special request form, and then..."

"Yeah, yeah, okay, I get the picture."

XXX

"Keichi seems like a nice boy."

"He's Belldandy's. And as for Kyosuke..."

The girls in Miss Hinako's homeroom were gathered in the back, getting in a few minutes of gossip before class started. The subject was the same as every other day...

"Madoka's. Tenchi has two girlfriends... Ukyo has Ranma... Shun... well, if you like him, he's available. Ataru has Lum... and good for her, she can keep him. The new boy, Ushio, comes with Asako.'

"There just aren't many available boys. Mitsuru and Shinobu. Kuno. Jinnai, if you like that sort of thing. Hiroshi and Daisuke I guess. Sasa. Hatta and Komatsu.'

"Please."

"Mousse... he only has eyes for Shampoo though."

"And the worst part is, what few guys are available, you have to compete with alien princesses and the like for. Even a girl like Utena is so beyond any normal girl..."

"Actually, I think she and Anthy are an item."

XXX

"Ohayo, Ranma!"

Ranma paused halfway down the hallway and glanced over her shoulder. One of her classmates was running down the hall -- a girl with reddish brown hair tied with red ribbons into buns on either side of her head. "Ohayo! Miaka, right?"

"That's right. And Hikari, and Yui." She indicated two more girls trailing behind her. "Mind if we walk with you to class?"

Ranma noted the other two... Yui, a taller girl with short blonde hair, and Hikaru, who had hair as red as Ranma's, and which was also tied back into a pigtail -- only in this case, one that hung down to the hem of her skirt.

Although Ranma didn't know any of these girls well, she had a soft spot especially for Miaka and Hikaru, two girls who happened to be even shorter than her, and nearly as cute.

"Ohayo, Hikaru! Ohayo, Yui!" Ranma gave the others a bright smile. "And no, I don't mind at all."

The other girls matched stride with Ranma. "So, is it true?" Miaka asked.

"Is what true?" Ranma replied.

"Are you really a devil hunter?"

Ranma nodded her head. "Yep. That's what this is, you know." She held up her left hand. "My Youma Amulet."

"Oh wow! That's so cool!"

"Is your soulsword like Yohko's?" Hikaru asked.

"Soulsword?" Belatedly, Ranma remembered that Hikaru was a part of the Kendo Club. "I don't have a soulsword, actually. It's more of a soulspear."

"A spear?" Miaka said. "How cool!"

"We heard that you killed a demon yesterday," Hikaru said.

"Hai! Not by myself -- Yohko was there, and Ryoko, and Aiko and Nuku Nuku, and Ushio and Tora..."

"Ushio?"

"He's that new guy, right? I heard he just showed up yesterday."

"Yeah. He's a new student.'

"And Tora? Who's that?"

"Is he cute?"

Ranma's confident stride faltered slightly. "Tora... he's a c-c-c-ca... he's a demon," she said.

"A demon!"

"Not an evil one," Ranma added quickly. "He follows Ushio around, just like a common house c-c-c-c-ca... pet."

The foursome stepped from the dorm hallway into the lobby. There, seated in one of the overstuffed couches, was Shun Isigari. The strange boy with the pink hair saw them and leapt to his feet, his eyes lighting up. "Ranma!" he exclaimed. "I was hoping to catch you. Have you heard anything about my replacement uniform...?"

"Uh... yeah." Ranma turned to the other three girls. "This will just take a moment. I'll catch up with you outside"

"Okay," Miaka said. As the three girls headed out the front doors, Ranma silently handed a bundle of clothing to Shun, who looked it over, frowning.

"How cute," he finally said. "Complete with slip, bra, panties, socks... they thought of everything."

"I'm sorry about this," Ranma said. "They screwed up. I should get a boy's uniform eventually. It's these stupid rules -- I gotta fill out some sort of request form, because you're not an official team member... it's really annoying..."

Shun looked up and smiled. "It's okay," he said. "I can wait. Don't stress over it."

Ranma looked doubtful. "You sure? I mean, won't you get in trouble without a uniform?

"I suppose," Shun said, "but then again, it seems I've got a uniform, doesn't it?"

XXX

Principal Gendo Ikari walked through the carpeted hallways of his administration building, back straight, eyes taking in everything behind square glass frames. Walking with him was a young girl with flowing blue hair tied into two pony-tails, one on each side of her head. She was dressed in a Muyami Academy school uniform, but looked too young to be a high school student.

In the middle of an unremarkable corridor, they came to a stop. The principal pressed his hand against part of a wall hanging, and part of the wall slid back, revealing a small elevator.

"Ah. A secret entrance to the underground complex?" the girl asked.

"Quite," Ikari said. "One of several."

They rode the elevator a short ways down -- perhaps two or three floors. The door opened onto another corridor, wide, white-walled and spotless, like that of a hospital or laboratory rather than a school. Ikari led the girl down one wing and through three security doors, each requiring his id card to open. A short ways beyond the third door they came to a sort of observation lounge, with windows that looked out over a massive room -- an aircraft hanger, as it turned out.

From two stories up, they looked out over a large tarmac. Technicians were working over an airship that was half attack plane and half transport vehicle. Like the Poison One, it had coptor blades built into the wings, but it also had a jet engine built into the tail.

The girl looked up into the rafters. Clearly there was no runway and no hanger doors, so the only way out of the hanger was straight up. And, indeed, she could see where the ceiling was designed to roll back, like a convertible stadium roof.

"And this would be...?"

"The Stinger One," Ikari said, "a multiple-use transport vehicle assigned to our Alpha Team. Very soon we will have a Stinger Two and a Stinger Three, for the other two teams."

"Impressive," the girl said. "I'll be piloting one of these?"

"Perhaps," Ikari said, "if you can handle it. The Stinger Three, of course."

The little girl rolled her eyes. If I can handle it? You know I have the training..."

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a small group of people. A beautiful young woman was at the head of the group, followed by a large overweight bald man dressed in an off-white gi, and two girls in student uniforms.

"Ah, Miss Sakura, Good day," Principal Ikari said. "Giving the new recruits the grand tour?"

"Naturally," the woman replied.

"Good," Ikari said. "I'd like you all to meet another of the newest members of our group. This is Ruri Hoshino, a bright young girl who will be working with Lain Iwakura and Tokiko Mima. Ruri, this is Miss Sakura..."

"The Shinto Priestess and School Nurse," Ruri finished. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Sakura."

"Yes," Principal Ikari said. "And this is Mr. Genma Saotome, the father..."

"...Of Ranma Saotome, who is head of the Gamma Team," Ruri said, completing the thought. the young girl with the blue hair bowed low. "Pleased to meet you, Saotome-sama. I've been studying the files on your daughter, as well as those of the other operatives."

Genma laughed nervously. "Pleased to meet you as well, little Ruri-chan," he said. "Um... I hope you don't mind my asking, but are you a student here? At the high school?"

"Yes, that's correct."

"It's just that you look more like a twelve year old girl," Saotome said.

"Yes. That is because I am a twelve year old girl."

Gendo cleared his throat. "Ruri is a child prodigy, Mr. Saotome. She's an expert with computers, and will be working with our other computer operators, Lain and Key. Ruri will be assigned to the Gamma Team."

"Oh, yes. Of course," the man said, as if he'd known all of this and had only momentarily forgotten. Ruri immediately placed him in the 'idiot' category. In Ruri's internal filing system, most people fit into the 'idiot' category. So far, she was withholding judgment on Principal Ikari.

"Saotome-san is also a new NERF employee," Gendo said to Ruri. "We're lucky to have him on board. Saotome-san is not just Ranma's father; he is a master martial artist and a renown expert on demons and demonic combat. I'm sure his expertise will prove highly beneficial to our team."

"Yes. I've... uh... fought many demons in my day," Genma said. "Part of the job of a martial artist, you know. And since I'm moving here to be near my son-in-law Ukyo -- and my daughter, of course -- I offered my services to Principal Ikari, and he accepted."

Ruri nodded. Yes, indeed. Idiot Category all the way.

Ikari turned to the two girls. "And these lovely ladies are Nabiki Tendo and Chigako Ogawa, two more recent additions to our team. They will be helping us to coordinate marketing, media, and public relations."

Ruri bowed again. "Pleased to meet you both."

Nabiki handed her a card. "Contact me later today, when you have some free time," she said. "Chi and I will want to arrange a photo shoot."

Chigako, who was busy typing on her small hand computer, paused to add, "Oh, yes, definitely." Then her attention returned to her hand comp.

"Certainly," Ruri replied. "As long as it doesn't involve swimsuit modeling." She smiled at her joke. Nabiki did not laugh or smile, but only raised an eyebrow.

XXX

Chief Ido sat behind a battered wooden desk that had clearly seen better days, but likely none of them within the last half century. It was clear that his filing system consisted of large piles of paper stacked in varios spots on his desk that were eternally on the verge of falling over. Buried in the mess were other objects -- two phones, various pens and pencils, a half-eaten sandwich.

Behind him, hanging from the ceiling, was a metal skeletal body of some sort -- a piecemeal headless robot.

Across from him sat three girls -- Yohko Mano, a demon hunter and the star of Principal Gendo Ikari's NERF teams, Miss Belldandy, who claimed to be a goddess and certainly seemed to have talents that were not normal, and Hitomi Kanzaki, another Muyami Academy student that he'd only just met.

Hitomi was holding a necklace aloft. The pendant that dangled from the end of the chain contained what looked like colored glass, or a semi-precious stone of some sort. It swung back and forth in an almost hpynotic way, and in fact it seemed to take exactly one second per swing.

"You... dowse with this? Is that the word?" Ido asked.

"Yes. That's what they call it," the girl replied.

"Are you sure you can find the cave?" Chief Ido asked.

"I don't know," Hitomi said. "I'm never sure of anything. But it's always worked before."

The Chief of Police glanced back at Yohko and Belldandy. "Well, I suppose it's worth a shot," he said. "I haven't found any other clues that indicate exactly where this cave is."

As they stood to leave, Yohko pointed to the metal skeleton. "Chief Ido, do you mind if I ask what the heck that is?"

The Chief glanced back at the object. "Oh, that? Something I found a while back. I was hiking in a ravine to the West of here, and deep within I found what could only be an ancient spaceship. Inside, I found this cyborg body, completely intact."

Ido shrugged. "I have no idea what to do with it, but it's interesting, ne?"

Belldandy smiled at him pleasantly, but the other two girls gaped open-mouthed. "An ancient spaceship?" Yohko asked.

"Yes, of course," Ido replied. When Yohko and Hitomi continued to stare at him, he added, "You do realize that some of your own classmates are from other planets?"

"You must be speaking of Miss Lum, Miss Ryoko and Miss Ayeka," Belldandy said.

Chief Ido nodded. "Oh, yeah," Yohko said. "I guess they must have arrived in some sort of spaceship or flying saucer, right? I'd never thought of it before."

"Now that you mention it, I should probably consult with them on the subject," Ido said. "One of them might know more about this cyborg skeleton thing of mine."

The chief stood. "Spealing of demons, I have something I want to show you... Yohko and Belldandy, at least. It's not pretty. In fact, it's pretty gruesome..."

"Boss! Boss!" Gonzu came running into the room, screaming at the top of his lungs. "Boss! Come quick!"

"What is it, Gonzu?"

"It's those two... I can't describe it... you gotta see it to believe it, Boss!"

Ido didn't have to go anywhere, for at that moment a young couple stepped into the room. Their clothing was shredded and soaked in blood, but both the man and the woman appeared to be in perfect health. Chief Ido recognized the two instantly -- the John and Jane Doe corpses that he'd seen in the morgue earlier.

The young man bowed low. "Good morning," he said. "Chief Inspector Ido, I hope? Sorry to cause you all such a fright..."

"You two were both dead," Ido said flatly. "I saw the bodies."

"Ah... hehe... yeah," the man said. He scratched the back of his head. "Well, it seems we've gotten better. The injuries must not have been that serious..."

"Your neck was nearly severed!" the Chief exclaimed. "Only the spine held it in place!"

"Really?" the man frowned. "Well, that was lucky then." He glanced at his companion, then back at the Police Chief. "Listen," he said, "I don't really know how to explain this, but Mana and I don't die very easily. At all. Decapitation, that might be a way to do it... might be." He paused, and then bowed again. "Forgive me. My name is Yuta, and this is my companion Mana. I was told by the librarian to ask for you. We were hoping you could help us locate a cave sealed with a shrine? It's somewhere on this hillside, but after all these years, I'm not sure exactly where. But it's very important. The demon sealed there might free himself at any moment. His minions are already loose -- you see, we met up with one of them last night."

Belldandy placed a hand to her lips, and said, "Oh my!"

XXX

In the secret hanger beneath the Muyami Academy Administration building, Principal Ikari and Nurse Sakura were winding up their tour of the NERF facilities. They and the tour group -- new members Nabiki Tendo, Chigako Ogawa, Genma Saotome, and Ruri Hoshino were gathered in one corner of the massive hanger before a large bank of computers. Working at the computers were Dr. Kyuusaku Natsume, NERF Science Officer and father/creator of Nuku Nuku; Arisa Mitamura, weapons expert, pilot, and office lady for Mishima Heavy Industries; Lain Iwakura, Muyami Student and computer expert; Tokiko "Key" Mima, also a Muyami Student and computer expert, and Kohran Li, Muyami student and tech expert.

"You'll be taking my place as Computer Ops for Gamma Team," Kohran said to Ruri. "That way I can become Dr. Natsume's assistant full time."

Ruri looked over the other two computer operatives. Both girls appeared to be remarkably pale and withdrawn, although the second girl, Lain, was dressed only in a silk slip. "I assume you're both good with computers?" Ruri asked.

"Oh yes. Key is very good with computers," the first girl said. "Key is a robot, after all."

Ruri raised an eyebrow. She'd read all about the cyborg Nuku Nuku, who was a marvel of engineering, and she conceeded that it was actually possible to build a human-like robot these days, but she had not heard of anyone successfully doing so. And Tokiko Mima looked more like an ordinairy, if very confused, girl.

The second girl smiled coyly. She said, "I don't know how good I am. I'm still learning. I'm still working out how to translate myself to the net, for example."

"Translate yourself?"

"Physical interface with the cyber world," Lain said. "True virtual reality."

"Is that even possible?" Nabiki asked.

"In theory, yes," Ruri said automatically. "Although without a full vr suit and sensory deprivation..."

"It can be done," Lain said. "I know how. Kohran and Dr. Natsume are helping me design the Psyche chip that I need to accomplish it..."

Ruri glanced sharply at Kyuusaku Natsume. She knew nothing of Kohran Li, but she had a healthy respect for Dr. Natsume. This was one person who was placed as far away from her Idiot Category as possible. Anyone that could produce a cyborg like Nuku Nuku probably could also do what Lain wanted, especially if Lain knew enough about computers to help design this 'Psyche chip'.

Ruri smiled. And if Lain and Key didn't know enough, then certainly Ruri herself did. True virtual reality interfacing with a computer. It sounded like something right up her alley.

She turned and bowed to the Principal. "Thank you very much for this opportunity, Ikari-Sensei," she said. "I think this job will be very interesting indeed."

Ikari nodded, which was as close as he ever came to expressing satisfaction. "That should conclude the tour," he said. "Miss Sakura, if you could show the others out? Arisa, are you ready?"

"Hai, Sensei," Arisa replied.

"Are you going somewhere?" Miss Sakura asked.

"I have a... a meeting to attend, in South China." Ikari cleared his throat. "Yes, a very important meeting. A business meeting. I'm hoping it will lead to another student joining our team. And of course, it's a good test of the Stinger One. I'll be gone most of the day. If anything important comes up, Miss Sakura, Dr. Natsume, you have my number."

"Yes, of course," Dr. Natsume said. Ikari and Arisa boarded the Stinger One. Moments later, the aircraft's engines roared. The roof high over head split in two and slid back, revealing a blue, cloudless sky. With a deafening roar, the strange plane lifted off and shot straight up into the morning sun.

XXX

Thus, another day at Muyami Academy began. Students were just arriving at their classrooms when a tremendous roar shook the campus. Few failed to take note of the odd attack helicpter/transport jet as it hovered over the campus and then swung East and South, vanishing into the distance. In one classroom, Keichi Morisato stared in fascination, well aware that this was some sort of brand new design -- a craft that he knew nothing about. In another classroom, Hiroshi, Daisuke, Hatta and Komatsu watched the aircraft in awed silence, then immediately returned to the subject of the amazing girls of Muyami Academy, and how lucky the four of them were to be at this school.

Miss Hinako entered into the classroom. All chatter ceased as she walked to the front and got up on her special platform. It still wasn't clear to most of the students why their teacher appeared to be a five year old girl, but there were some interesting rumors about her. A select few had already witnessed her special martial arts abilities in action against the school's ultimate delinquint, Ataru Moroboshi.

Miss Hinako surveyed the room. She cleared her throat.

"Shun Kisaragi?" she asked.

"Yes?" the boy with the long pink hair replied.

"Would you mind telling us," Miss Hinako asked, "why you are dressed in a girl's uniform?"

Everyone glanced at Shun, who this morning wore a white silk blouse, brown vest, ruffled skirt, and short jacket, as did all of the girls at the Academy. In fact, Shun had also been a prime topic of conversation before Miss Hinako had arrived.

Shun glanced down at his attire and then back up at the teacher. He smiled sweetly. "It looks okay, doesn't it?

Which, of course, it did. Aside from a rather flat chest, Shun made a prettier girl than a good portion of the school's female population.

"I asked you a question..." Miss Hinako warned.

"Um," Shun said, "it's kind of a long story."

Miss Hinako raised an eyebrow. Shun sighed and added, "Well, you see, I switched uniforms with Ranma Saotome yesterday so that she could pretend to be a guy for her parents. Don't ask me why, but it was her idea."

Miss Hinako glanced back at Ranma.

"Miss Saotome does not appear to be wearing a boy's uniform," the teacher noted.

"Yes. Well, my uniform got shredded when she transformed into her Devil Hunter costume. You remember, the big fight they had yesterday?"

"I heard about it, yes."

"Well, anyway, Principal Ikari promised to replace the uniform, only what got replaced was Ranma's uniform, you see."

Miss Hinako looked at Ranma and back at Shun.

"So, am I to take it that the only school uniform you have is a duplicate of Ranma's uniform?"

"At the moment, yes."

Miss Hinako sighed.

"And you chose to wear a girl's uniform to class, rather than normal clothing?"

"You can be expelled for not wearing a uniform to school," Shun replied. "You made that point with Miss Ayeka only yesterday."

"Yes, but..."

"The rules are less specific about whether a boy can wear a girl's uniform, or vice versa," Shun added.

Miss Hinako rubbed her temples.

"Yes, yes," she said. "Miss Utena Tenjou has already spelled that out for us." She glanced at the other pink-haired student in the room, a girl dressed in a boy's nehru-collared jacket and black biker shorts. "But I must say that in this particular case, I do not think adhering to the letter of the law was necessarily the best choice. Boys are not meant to wear skirts, Shun; it makes you seem like a delinquent, or worse. Please see to it that you get a uniform of the correct gender soon."

"I certainly plan on it," Shun said.

Miss Hinako smiled. She surveyed the room again, and frowned.

"Has anyone seen Miss Yohko Mano?" she asked.

XXX

Morning passed. One class faded into another, and the sun rose high into the sky. Several blocks away from school, Yohko Mano was standing in the middle of one of the many streets of the district.

Yohko was bored.

With her were Belldandy, Hitomi Kanzaki, Police Chief Ido, and the two strangers, Yuta and Mana, who had shown up in the Police Dept earlier, covered in blood. Yohko still wasn't clear on who those two were or what their purpose was. They claimed to be human, but had demonstrated some remarkably inhuman healing abilities. They claimed that they were here to stop a demon from escaping the tomb in which he'd been sealed -- but Yohko had yet to be convinced that they weren't here to help the demon escape. Who were they, and how did they know so much about this demon?

Chief Ido had found some spare clothes for Yuta. As for Mana, Yohko had given her the old sweater and frayed skirt that she'd been wearing. One quick transformation later, Yohko was clothed in her usual devil hunter dress. She'd planned to transform at some point anyway, which was exactly why she'd worn such old clothes.

"Not getting anything?" Chief Ido asked.

The group had been searching most of the morning with no results -- exactly why Yohko was so bored. Hitomi's famed psychic powers were turning out to be a bust, which frankly didn't surprise Yohko that much. The girl was good at telling fortunes, but that didn't mean she had actual, practical psychic power.

"I'm sorry," Hitomi said. "I usually don't have such problems, but it's hard to focus..."

"That's okay," Chief Ido said. He stretched and sighed. "It was a long shot anyway. We'll just have to resort to more mundane methods..."

"It's hard to get a clear picture based on vague descriptions..."

"Hitomi," Belldandy said, "did you not witness the fight with the demon a few nights ago? The shadow demon that fought between the two dormitories?"

"I'm sorry, Miss Belldandy, but no, I missed seeing that. I was down on the track field, practicing with Makato. Perhaps if I'd seen it, I could envision it better in my mind, and focus on where it is right now..."

"How about places or objects? If you held something in your hand that had been touched -- even possessed -- by the demon, would that help?"

"Maybe. I don't know."

"It's worth a shot," Ido said.

"I was thinking of the broken stone that used to be a statue of poor Mr. Matsukata," Belldandy said. "It's rubble now, but the demon possessed it, so there might be some psychic residue left behind. I'll have to retrieve a piece. Oh, but it's almost lunchtime. Can we break for an hour?"

Ido nodded. "That sounds like a good idea," he said. "I haven't had anything to eat but some stale donuts..."

"If you like, you can all come back to my dorm room," Belldandy said. "I'd be happy to fix lunch for everyone."

The others agreed this was an excellent idea, especially those that had heard of Belldandy's cooking skills. As the group turned to go, a wander approached them. He was a young boy with a thick mane of black hair, and very dusty clothing. Yohko recognized him instantly.

"Excuse me," he said, "but could you tell me if I'm near Muyami Academy?"

XXX

Ranma stared at the camera in Nabiki's hand, and then at the small pile of sexy underthings on Ranma's bed. A jungle backdrop had been placed in front of the windows, lit up by two bright stage lights.

Ranma's lunch meeting with Nabiki was turning out far different than she'd expected.

"You want to explain this to me again?" Ranma asked.

Nabiki sighed. "It's very simple, Ranma. I want you to pose for me in swim suits and sexy lingerie. One or more of these pictures will appear in a calendar that Chi and I will be selling."

"You gotta be kidding me."

"Of course not," Nabiki said. "I never kid about business proposals."

"Right here? In my own room?"

"Yes, of course. Now, if you'd hurry up and change, we don't have much time..."

"No."

"Excuse me?"

"I said no. No way, no how. Forget it, because I ain't doing it."

Nabiki sighed. "Okay, Ranma, let's go over this again. You came to me the other day, asking if I could help you get a boy's uniform. Right?"

"And some of those Chinese outfits," Ranma added.

"Yes, of course. And you swore to me that you would do absolutely anything to get them."

Ranma's eyes widened. "Nabiki, I... I didn't mean anything like this..."

"Well, I have to raise the money somehow, don't I? Trust me, these calendars will raise the money. In any case, you gave me your word as a martial artist, and I thought that meant something."

Ranma bowed her head. "I... yeah. It does. I always keep my word."

"Good," Nabiki said. "Now start changing. And by the way, Chigako and I are now Media Relations for NERF. So this isn't just a request, it's an official publicity photo session."

Ranma grimaced. "Meaning I got no choice."

"Right on two counts! Now, hurry up and change. We've only got an hour you know!"

Ten minutes later, Ranma was modelling a skimpy black bikini while Nabiki snapped picture after picture. There came a knock at the door.

"Uh... could we keep this private?" Ranma asked. "I don't want anyone to see me like this."

"The whole school is going to see you like this in a week or two," Nabiki said. "But whatever. Hello? Who's there?"

"Nabiki? Is that you?"

"Akane?"

"What are you doing in there? Is Ranma there?"

"Sorry," Nabiki said. "This is a private photo shoot. No spectators allowed."

"Is Ranma in? Ukyo's with me -- we need to talk with Ranma."

"Oh, very well," Ranma said. "I guess I sorta promised to talk to them, so you'd better let them in. But only those two."

"Okay," Nabiki said. "Why don't you change? I want some shots of the teddy next." She opened the door, allowing Ukyo and Akane to enter before closing and locking it again. "You can talk, but don't interfere with my shoot," she told the two.

Ranma was behind a screen in the corner. Nabiki adjusted the lighting and checked her camera.

"Ranchan? I wanted to talk about last night," Ukyo said.

"That's right," Akane added, and then glared at Ukyo. "We need to straighten this mess out."

Ukyo paused to stare at Ranma's bulging dresser drawers. She pulled one open and stared at the mass of pastel silk and satin. She opened the closet door, and stared at everything stuffed within.

"Boys aren't supposed to look through girl's closets," Nabiki said.

"I'm not a boy," Ukyo replied. "Anyway... Ranma, where did all this stuff come from? Your wardrobe must rival Ayeka's and Belldandy's, if not surpass both."

"It's hardly fair," Akane added. "Ranma has no fashion sense or any appreciation of beauty or style."

"I suppose that's true enough," Ranma said. "I'm really no good at this girl stuff."

"Exactly what I'm here to talk about!" Ukyo said. She spun about, and paused.

Ranma had appeared from behind the screen wearing nothing but a very sexy red lace-trimmed silk teddy. She picked up the beach ball. "Ready when you are, Nabiki," she said.

Akane and Ukyo's eyes bulged out. Nabiki smirked, then began snapping pictures.

"Ranchan, what the hell is going on here?"

"Official photo shoot," Nabiki replied. "I told you. Please don't interfere." She knelt and trained the camera on Ranma. "Okay, Ranma-chan. You're at the beach. You're playing beach ball..."

"...In my silk teddy..."

"In your silk teddy, yes. Trust me, it doesn't have to make sense, it just has to look sexy. Okay, breathe in and thrust out your chest... good!"

"Nabiki!" Akane exclaimed.

"Hey, Ranma's got one of the best chests in the school," Nabiki replied. "I want people to get a good look at it."

"Do we need witnesses?" Ranma said. "I feel like I'm on display here."

"You are on display, sister-dear," Nabiki purred. "Get used to it. You're a beautiful girl. It comes with the territory."

"Ranma," Ukyo said, "this is too weird. I can't hold a normal conversation with you when you're posing in... in that."

"Then you'd better leave," Nabiki said. "I've got Ranma for the next hour."

Ukyo sighed. "Oh, very well. Ranma, I want to make it clear that what I did last night was only to force your father and you to fulfill his obligation. I mean, for now, I'm happy that we're officially engaged, with your parent's blessing. But you know that, in the end, I want to be your wife, and not your husband. When this all gets straightened out..."

"Ukyo," Ranma said. "It's not going to get 'all straightened out'. You may think this is all some sort of temporary confusion, that eventually I'll go back to being a guy, that you can be a girl and still be my fiancee..."

"Get down on all fours," Nabiki said. "Yeah, that's it. Hold that pose."

"Well, of course," Ukyo replied. "I mean, you're a guy, right? And I'm a girl..."

"I'm a guy and a girl," Ranma said.

"Well, physically, of course," Ukyo said. "But we both know you're really a guy."

"Now roll about in the sand," Nabiki said. "Squirm a little. Okay, that's good. Hold it..."

"Does a guy do photo shoots in a red silk teddy?" Akane asked.

"Well no, but Ranma's not a normal guy..." Ukyo said.

"Okay," Nabiki said, "enought of that. Go put on one of the other outfits... the purple one with the stockings..."

Ranma disappeared behind the changing screen. She continued to talk as she changed.

"The important thing is, I made a promise to my mother. I promised to remain her daughter. And I always keep my promises, Ukyo."

"Don't worry, Ranma," Akane said. "I understand you. I'm glad you're going to remain a girl."

"You are?"

"Yes. I can tell you're happier this way, and it's easier for me. Everything's going to be so much better, now that I have a sister who's my age, and likes martial arts like me... I just know we're going to best friends! And I'll teach you everything you need to know about being a girl..."

"Ranchan is not a girl!" Ukyo insisted. She was looking a little desperate. Ranma stepped from behind the screen wearing purple satin panties and fishnet stockings, held up by a gartered basque, also of purple satin. It was strapless, and trimmed with black lace across the top of the cups. She glanced down at herself.

"You don't think I'm a girl?" she asked.

"I mean mentally!" Ukyo exclaimed, her face turning red. "That's just your body! It's what's inside that counts, Ranma. Girls and boys are different. I should know; I've been living as a boy for years, but deep inside I'm still me. I'm still a girl."

"Okay," Nabiki said. "Why don't you do some stretching exercises?"

"Some katas?" Ranma asked.

"Whatever. I just want to see you moving around."

Ranma began to go through some of her usual morning katas. They had never looked half so sexy before. "Uchan, I understand what you're saying," Ranma said. "I'm not going to give up being a boy, at least part of the time. But now I need to learn to be a girl."

"Ranma, you can't just learn to be a girl..."

"I can do whatever I want," Ranma said defensively. "It's like martial arts, Ukyo. If I work at it, I'll get better at it."

"That's great," Nabiki said. "Beautiful. Now, get down on your knees. Give me a few sexy poses, okay? Think cute, think sexy... ooh, that's a good one! Hold it..."

"Ranchan, you can learn to imitate girls exactly, but that won't make you a girl. Deep down inside, you're a guy. You act like a guy. You think like a guy... Look, what do you think about makeup and perfume?"

"What about them? Mom got me some, but I ain't wearing any of it."

"If you had the choice between seeing a romantic French film or a Chinese martial arts film, which would you choose?"

"Martial arts of course."

"Tell me which boys you like the most... which ones make you feel all gooey inside."

"What? Uchan, don't be weird. I don't like boys. I'm a..."

"...A guy," Ukyo said. "My point exactly. Just because you say you're a girl now, doesn't make you a girl. You don't think like a girl. You never have, and you never will."

Ranma just shrugged. "Why can't I be a girl who doesn't wear makeup or perfume, who likes martial arts films, and who doesn't like boys?"

"She's got a point," Akane said. "There are lots of girls in the world who don't act girlish. Utena Tenjou, for example."

"Well, of course," Ukyo said, "but they're still girls, right?"

"And? Ranma's as much of a girl as they are."

Ukyo ground her teeth in frustration. "Look, Ranchan, this isn't some hypothetical question. This is about who you are and how you plan to live your life. You will never be happy pretending to be something you're not!"

Ranma sighed. "Maybe you're right, Uchan. Maybe I'll fail at being a girl. But if it makes my mother happy, then I gotta do my best. I got no other choice. I made a promise."

"What about your promise to marry me?"

Ranma glanced away.

"I'm engaged to you, aren't I? And I don't mind. I've thought about it, and I can't see me marrying any guy but you."

"Rachan! I'm not a guy!"

"It seems to me," Nabiki said, "that this is less about whether Ranma is comfortable as a girl, and much more about whethere you are comfortable as a guy."

"Speaking of which," Akane said, "I never agreed to be anyone's co-wife, especially to a husband who is really a girl, and always has been!"

Ranma snorted. "Don't worry, Akane," she said. "That particular engagement has a zero chance of going anywhere."

"It's not even legal," Ukyo added.

"Okay," Nabiki said. "That should be enough for now, Ranma. I think I've got what I need. Go ahead and get dressed."

Ranma stripped out of the stockings, basque and panties withough bothering to hide behind the changing screen first. Akane let out a surprised "eep!" and then covered Ukyo's eyes with her hands.

"Akane, what are you doing?" Ukyo asked calmly.

"Um... a boy shouldn't see a girl undress?" Akane suggested.

Ukyo sighed. Akane dropped her hands sheepishly. By this point, Ranma was already back in her school uniform. Akane frowned and began adjusting Ranma's outfit. Nabiki was breaking down the lights and backdrop. Ukyo began gathering together the clothes that lay scatted on the floor.

"You really shouldn't dress so fast," Akane said. "You want to look good, don't you?"

"Yeah, whatever," Ranma said. Ukyo, what are you doing?"

"Your laundry," Ukyo said. "I can see that it's been piling up since school started."

"My laundry? What for? You don't gotta do that!"

"Don't be silly," Ukyo said. "Doing laundry is a wife's duty."

"But I got lots of clean clothes still!"

Ukyo rolled her eyes. Nabiki had opened the door. Girls that were passing by in the hallway stopped to stare.

"Your boyfriend does your laundry?"

"Yeah," Ranma said. "Looks like it."

Really? How do I find a boyfriend like that?"

"Isn't that a little odd?"

Nabiki laughed. "Odd?" she said. "I don't call that odd at all. A boy will do anything with the proper motivation, you know." She looked Ranma up and down, and added, "And Ranma-chan easily has the tools to motivate any boy on campus."

"Oh, Ranma!" one of the girls said. "Urd's here. You know, Belldandy's weird sister? She wanted to see you, something about a pill."

"A pill?" Ranma's eyes lit up. "Really? Cool!" She rushed out of the room and down the hallway.

Ukyo stood up, a pile of laundry in her arms. She glanced at Akane and raised an eyebrow. "My so-called bride sure seems eager to be a guy again."

"So I noticed," Akane replied, frowning.

XXX

In a certain town in Southeast Asia, renown scientist and High School Principal Gendo Ikari lifted a curtain aside and stepped into one of the private rooms of a brothel. The young girl waiting on the bed inside took one look at him and squealed in delight.

"Ikari-sama!" she exclaimed, sitting up straight. "What are you doing here? It's been almost a year, hasn't it?"

"Good afternoon, Miss Minnie-May," Ikari said. His voice was low and formal, as if he were speaking to one of his students rather than a prostitute. "How are you doing?"

"Oh, you know," the girl said. "Pretty much same as usual. How's tricks with you?"

"Fine, fine," Ikari said. "Actually, I've come here on business."

"And you decided to drop by and have fun with me first? How thoughtful of you!"

"Um... no. My business is with you, Minnie-May. I have a proposal for you..."

"Oh no! No," the girl said. She jumped up and began removing Ikari's coat. "You know the rules, Gendo-san. Pleasure before business!"

"Actually," Gendo said, "it would not be appropriate for a High School Principal such as I now am to... indulge myself, so to speak, with a woman as young as yourself..."

The girl removed his tie and began unbuttoning his shirt. "What's that? You're a High School Principal? How very odd! Why, I'm young enough to be one of your students!"

"My point exactly," Gendo said. "This... is highly inappropriate..."

"That's never stopped you before, Gendo-san," the girl said.

Gendo Ikari cleared his throat. "Nevertheless, I came here to present an opportunity to you, and not just for a good time."

As Gendo Ikari spoke, his shirt slid to the floor. The girl fumbled with the buckle of his belt. He did nothing to stop her.

"Now, Gendo baby, I know you don't mean that. You've always been willing to show a girl a good time before. If you expect me to listen to you, then you're going to have some fun with me first. You know we'll both feel much more relaxed afterwards..."

She lifted his feet one by one, then tossed his slacks into the corner. She pulled him down onto the bed and wrapped her arms about him. Gendo Ikari did not resist.

XXX

In many ways, it was a typical construction site. A large plot of virgin land had been marked off and dug up, and multi-story office buildings were swiftly being erected. Cranes lifted steel into the sky, buldozers moved the earth about, and foremen got yelled at by their superiors for being behind schedule.

However, in one important way, it was a very atypical construction site. The workers had almost immediately discovered the ancient shrine in the woods, there to mark the grave of spirits best left undisturbed. When the old man had come around with his crazy story about an ancient evil laid to rest on this very spot, the foreman had actually LISTENED. And his superiors had actually AGREED that the old tales should be respected, and the shrine should be left undistrubed.

And so, the entire multi-office project had been redesigned around the little shrine, and every morning when the workers arrived, they burned insense and said a small prayer to the spirits that the shrine had been built for.

They had, in fact, done everything asked of them -- everything that other construction crews normally failed to do. Everything they could to avoid a demonic invasion that would lay waste to their construction site.

Alas, the problem with such a careful plan is that it totally failed to anticipate that random demons might show up out of the blue and attack the construction site merely because construction sites were the hip demonic thing to trash these days.

For example, a demon like Babelox the Mighty, Scourge of a Tiny Village North of Tokyo Whose Name Nobody Remembred Because It Had Been Destroyed Long Ago. And his trusty imp sidekick Sharptooth.

XXX

Ranma looked at the pill in Urd's hand. She looked back up at Urd and Belldandy.

"This is it?" she asked. "The pill that fixes my curse?"

They were gathered in Belldandy's room -- Ranma, Akane, Urd, Belldandy, and several others, including Bell's boyfriend Keichi, her roommate Madoka, Madoka's boyfriend Kyosuke, Hitomi Kanzaki, Chief of Police Ido, Ryoga, two strangers named Yuta and Mana, and a certain 108th generation devil hunter. Most of them were gathered around a table that was clearly meant for four people and not eight. They'd just finished a wonderful lunch which Belldandy had prepared, when Urd had surprised everyone by showing up in her usual fashion -- that is, by coming out of the television set. Not long after, Ranma had burst into the room, followed by Akane.

Ranma was so fixated on the pill in Urd's hand that she completely failed to notice that she had a good-sized audience.

"Curse?" Urd rolled her eyes. "The last pill fixed your curse, Ranma. All this pill does is reverse that. You'll be back to the way you were, complete with weird Jusenkyo curse."

"Then I can be a guy again!" Ranma exclaimed.

"Ranma, have you thought about this?" Akane asked. "Are you sure that you want to..."

Ranma grabbed the pill and swallowed it.

"There!" she said. "It's done! Sorry, Akane, what were you saying?"

Akane growled low in her throat. "I was trying to say that maybe you should think about this. Maybe, if you're going to live as a girl, then it's a good thing if you don't suddenly transform into a guy when splashed with hot water!"

Akane had also failed to notice the rest of the rather crowded room. Yuta glanced at Mana. Chief Ido scratched his head. Hitomi and Yohko watched in confused silence.

Ryoga watched, not quite as confused as the others. Unlike them, he knew very well what a Jusenkyo curse was. But he had thought that Ranma had no such a thing.

"But my mom doesn't care," Ranma said. "That's all that matters, isn't it?"

"Baka! What happens when you want to take a hot bath or shower?"

Ranma's eyes blinked twice, her expression blank. Belldandy handed her a tea kettle full of hot water. "Guess I didn't think of that," she said. She poured the water over her head. "I'll think of something. Urd's got those temporary pills, right?"

"That's right," Urd said.

"But if you want to be a girl," Belldandy said, "then why do you want to turn into a guy?"

"I don't want to be a girl," Ranma said. "But I don't mind being both." She paused, staring down at herself. "Hey, what gives? I'm still a girl!" She glanced up at Urd. "Your pill didn't work! I'm still stuck as a girl!"

Urd hopped off the desk and approached Ranma. She examined the boy-girl closely through a complicated pair of glasses. "Hmmm," she said. She walked around the red-head, examining her from all angles. "Hmmmm."

"Well?" Ranma asked.

"Well," Urd said, "I can see that my pill worked. Your curse is no longer frozen in place. But something else appears to be blocking it. Something is preventing it from working."

She paused, then grasped Ranma's right hand and held it up. "What's this?" she asked, indicating the gold-bronze amulet covering the back of Ranma's hand.

"My Devil Hunter Youma Amulet," Ranma said.

"You wear this everywhere?"

"Sure," Ranma said. "In case I need to transform. It's a bit unwieldy -- not like a ring -- but I'm getting used to it. Why?"

"Because," Urd said, "this is what is blocking the curse." She slipped the amulet off of Ranma's hand, then poured more hot water onto her. Ranma was instantly transformed, much to the surprise and shock of many onlookers.

"Hey!" Ranma exclaimed. "I'm a guy again!"

"Yes indeed," Urd said. "You're a guy in a girl's uniform. With dangling earrings. Now, put on the amulet," she said, handing it back. Too happy to be embarassed, Ranma slipped it on, and Urd splashed him with cold water.

"Hey!" Ranma exclaimed. He looked down at his still male body. "What gives? I didn't transform!"

"As I said. The amulet blocks your curse. Its power prevents the curse from functioning or having any effect on you. Pretty sophisticated magic, to be honest. I bet it blocks most, if not all, curses."

"You mean, when I wear it, the curse is nullified?"

"Obviously. Didn't we just demonstrate that?"

"And when I take it off, I can transform?"

Urd rolled her eyes. "Hello? Weren't you paying attention?"

Ranma stared at the amulet in wonder.

"Kick ass!" he exclaimed.

A shadow fell across Ranma. He glanced up into a pair of familiar and very angry eyes. "Yohko?" he said. "What are you doing here?" For the first time, he noticed the rest of the room. "Where did all these other people come from?"

"They've been here all along," Belldandy said. "Oh! You didn't want to keep your curse a secret, did you?"

"Ranma? You transform into a boy?" Yohko asked softly.

Ranma knew he was in trouble. Deep trouble. Serious trouble. "Yohko," he said, "I -- I was gonna tell you, but..."

SLAP! The sound of Yohko striking Ranma in the face echoed throughout a suddenly very quiet room. "LIAR! You've been lying to me ever since we met, haven't you? I thought I could trust you! I thought we were friends! And now I find out that my 'mystery prince' is actually my so-called best friend? My GIRLfriend? Are you even really a girl, or just a boy pretending to be a girl?"

"Boy!"

"Girl!"

Urd and Akane shouted in unison.

"Ranma was born a boy," Belldandy said. "But she's a girl now..."

"Born a boy? You pervert! You've seen me naked! I... I thought..."

There was a faint buzzing in the room, like a radio broadcasting at an almost inaudible level. Yohko paused and placed a hand to her left earring. "Base, this is Alpha Squad Leader," she said. "What's the situation?"

At the same time, Belldandy and Ranma were listening intently to the buzzing in their ears. Moments later, Yohko and Belldandy stood.

"Understood," Yohko said. "We're on our way. Alpha Squad Leader out."

She glanced back at Ranma. "Yohko..." Ranma began.

"I've got nothing to say to you," Yohko growled. "Shall we go, Bell?"

Belldandy looked sadly at Ranma, then grasped Yohko's arm. Together the two stepped through the floor-length mirror.on the back of the door and disappeared. Which also surprised and confused some in the room.

"What's going on?" Akane asked.

"Demon trouble," Ranma said. He touched his left earring. "Base, this is Gamma Squad Leader. Do we have any instructions?" There was a pause, then Ranma said. "This is Gamma Squad Leader. You know, Ranma Saotome?" Another pause. "What do you mean, nice try? Give the earrings back to Ranma? I AM RANMA! No, this isn't a joke..."

Akane pulled the Youma amulet from Ranma's hand, then dumped a glass of cold water over his head. "Honestly, Ranma," she muttered, "you are such an idiot sometimes..."

Police Chief Ido looked at Yuta and Mana and shrugged his shoulders. "This is all so confusing," Hitomi said. For his part, Ryoga got to his feet, stalked across the room, and wrapped a hand around Ranma's neck from behind, lifting her from the ground.

"You said you were a girl," Ryoga growled. "You even had me convinced that... that... you made me think that..."

Ranma managed to twist her head back just enough to look Ryoga in the eyes. "Ryoga? You're here too?" She laughed nervously. "C'mon, Ryoga... I can explain everything..."

XXX

In the back room of a South China brothel, Gendo Ikari lay in the arms of a girl less than half his age. Afternoon light drifted through the thin curtains over the window. Dust drifted through the shafts of light. Outside, the muffled voices of people on the street mixed with the dull roar of cars passing and the occasional honking of horns. Somewhere a dog barked.

"Have you considered my proposal?" Ikari asked.

"I've been thinking about it," the girl said.

"And?"

"You want me to become a student at your school?" She made a face. "There's a reason I dropped out, you know. School books and all that stuff just isn't my style."

"But you're a very intelligent girl..."

"Exactly," Minnie-May said. "Smart enough to know what I want and how to get it. I don't need math or grammer to do any of that."

"The life of a prostitute is not an easy one," Ikari said.

"But it pays good," said Minnie-May. "Anyway, I've been saving my money. I've been thinking of moving on soon, maybe go to America. I've always wanted to visit New York, or maybe Chicago..."

"You have some experience with explosives," Ikari said. "Quite a talent, as I recall. That is, of course, the main reason I've come here. I am not such a philanthropist as to offer scholarships to every young prostitute I know, but I have need of students with weapons experience. I am quite certain that my demon-hunter teams need such experience. There will be times when a rocket launcher will be the best method of attack. Arisa and Kyoko fill in well enough for my Alpha and Beta teams, although they are not technically students at the school... but I've found no one to fill that role for the Gamma Team. No one except you."

"Well, I don't know. Blowing up demons? It sounds like fun, but do such things really exist?"

"I assure you they do." Ikari stood and began to get dressed. "We've had two fights already, one right on campus, the second only a few blocks away."

"Really? That's pretty cool." The girl laughed, then made another face. "I'm still not keen on the whole schoolgirl thing," she said. "But I gotta admit, it sounds like more fun than my current gig..."

"It will, of course, include more weapons training," Ikari said, "and a modest salary."

"That sounds good." The girl thought a moment longer. "Well, okay, you've talked me into it. I'm willing to give it a try."

Gendo paused, now fully dressed. He stared off into space for several moments. Minnie-May watched the odd scientist curiously. He tapped a small pin on his lapel and said, "Gendo Ikari here. What is the situation?" Moments later he added, "Understood. On my way back. Keep me appraised of the situation."

He focused again at the young girl. "Luck is on our side, Minnie-May. It seems that you won't have to wait long at all to witness a demonic attack in progress. We must hurry..."

XXX

Things had been going well for Noel. He'd been worried that he might have to join the girl's basketball team to keep an eye on Maria, which would have been problematic even with Urd's magic tricks. Instead, there was an opening for team manager for the boy's team, and after asking about it, Noel was certain the job was his. That would give him a good reason to hang around the gym and keep an eye on his sister.

She'd all but admitted to him that it was one-sided love. So, she hadn't confessed her love to him yet? So much the better. Once Noel discovered who her so-called boyfriend was, it would be simplicity itself to drive them apart.

Noel was leaning against the gym wall, watching the basketball team, when an errant ball nearly hit him. A blond-haired boy grabbed the ball and tossed it back, then turned to Noel.

"Don't you know that it's dangerous to stand here?" he said. "If you're going to watch, you should do it from the second floor."

Noel blinked, staring at the boy. He looked familiar, but Noel couldn't place the name.

"Hey," Noel said, "aren't you in my class?"

"Uh... yeah," the guy said.

"And your name was...?"

"Sasa. Sasa Ryouji." The boy turned to watch the game.

"My name is Noel," Noel offered.

"I know," Sasa said. "You're Maria's twin." He continued to watch the game and ignore Noel.

Noel frowned. The guy certainly didn't seem very friendly, but Noel needed someone to get information from.

Just then, the girls' team returned from their workout. Noel caught sight of Maria. She was talking to an older guy. Noel instantly made a connection.

"Hey, Sasa!" Noel asked. "That guy talking to Maria, what's his name?"

"Hirobe-san?" Sasa replied. "He's the girl's coach. He's a Muyami alumn... I think he's a college sophomore now."

"Aha! So that's who she's in love with!"

"In love? You think your sister is in love with Hirobi-san?"

"Of course! Can't you see it in her face?" "Sasa... I have a favor to ask of you. Please hear me out!"

Sasa raised an eyebrow, and waited for Noel to speak.

XXX

In the NERF control center, things were getting interesting. Lain was busy monitoring the situation at the construction site, and coordinating communication between the police and Alpha Squad. She was also keeping Principal Ikari, who was somewhere over the South China Seas, informed of the situation. Key was gathering as much information as they had on the demon so far, and running the profile against their limited database to see if there were any matches.

Ruri could have been helping out. She had the knowledge, the skill, and the ability to pick things up quickly. But as a brand new member of the NERF team, she was required to sit back and watch Kohran. And as the lame-duck computer ops member of what was, effectively, the backup to the backup to the main NERF team, Kohran was doing next to nothing.

Ruri sat in her chair, watching everything around her, fascinated but wishing she had something to do.

The room was large, and overlooked the so-called 'secret' hanger that Professor Ikari had showed them earlier. It was sort of a three-tier staging area -- the top floor, where the changing areas, some offices, and an observation deck were -- the command center, which was a large sunken area where the communications and computer ops people could work, and then beyond that, an escalator leading to the floor of the hanger bay.

Nearby was an observation area meant for the advisory board. At the moment, none of the various priests, priestesses, and occult experts were present.

Kids began to rush into the control center. Yohko and Belldandy arrived first. Ruri didn't actually see them arrive -- they just seemed to appear out of nowhere, up near the changing rooms. Ruri noted the floor-length mirror near where they'd appeared, and recalled what she'd read of Belldandy, some of which was speculation and conjecture. The bit about how she got about seemed to be right on target.

Ryoko popped into the room moments later, Tenchi in tow. Ruri wondered about that -- between Belldandy and Ryoko, you had not only a very powerful Alpha Squad, but one that could respond almost instantaneously.

Ryoko and Belldandy headed into the girl's locker room, while Tenchi headed to the boy's locker room. Professor Ikari had made it very clear that the NERF uniforms were to be used, no matter what. But Yohko, who was already wearing her trademark Chinese dress, headed straight down the stairs and into the command center.

The boy's changing room was much smaller, of course. There were, after all, only two boys involved in the project at present. Unless you counted a certain Gamma Squad Leader.

Ruri had read everything she could about the various team members. Some of them were interesting people indeed.

"Tell me everything you know," Yohko said.

"There's been a disturbance at a construction site," Lain said. "About a mile from here."

"Yes, you said that already. Any details?"

"Two demons," Key said. "One is large and very powerful. In appearance it resembles an upright, misshapen ox."

"Is it blue?" Yohko asked.

"Correct," Key said, without a trace of surprise. "The other is much smaller and weaker. It's green and scaled, but appears humanoid."

Yohko nodded. "That doesn't tell me much," she said, "but something is better than nothing."

"Excuse me," Ruri said, "but how did you know it was blue?"

"My hororscope," Yohko said. "Beware blue bovines. Looks like it was right once again."

Ushio Aotsuki appeared with his spear in hand. As he came down the steps, Ruri tried hard to spot the cat-like demon that should be perched on his shoulder or following him just behind. She saw nothing.

"Let me guess," Ushio said. "The construction project was behind schedule. There was a shrine of some sort nearby, some place where a demon had been trapped, and the construction workers ignored the local legends and the old timers who warned them, and now they've set loose a demon..."

"Apparently no," Lain said. "There was a shrine in the woods nearby, but the Foreman insists they went to great lengths to listen to the locals and that the shrine was not disturbed. Despite this, an ox-demon showed up out of nowhere, with his scaled sidekick, and they began trashing the neighborhood."

"It's a hellmouth, I told ya," Yohko muttered. She saw the other three members of her team coming down the stairs. "Are we ready to roll?" she asked, then paused. 'Um... how are we expected to get there?"

"Yoo hoo! Over here!" Kyouko Koitabashi was standing at the top of the escalator, beckoning to the members of Alpha Team. "Arisa's gone so I'm flying you there," she called out. "The Poison One was destroyed this morning, and the Stinger One is in use at the moment -- and we don't even have a Stinger Two yet -- but there are some military transport helicopters here for emergencies like this. Hurry, we don't have much time!"

"I'm coming too," Ushio growled.

"Um... you're not supposed to," Key said. "Only Alpha Team is supposed to go."

"You can't stop me."

"You will not go," Lain said. "That is the direct order of Principal Ikari. One team should be sufficient, and there is too much danger of an attack on campus -- he wants the other two teams here."

For a moment Ushio looked like he was going to argue, but then he growled something and nodded his head. Ruri raised an eyebrow. Ushio was very headstrong -- all of the team leaders were -- and Key had, shall we say, a not very forceful personality. That could spell trouble in the future -- and really, Lain wasn't the most dominate personality around, and neither was Ruri herself. Knowing what she'd read about Ranma, she wondered if similar arguments weren't in her future.

The roof rolled back for a second time that day, and a helicopter rose up into the noonday sun.

XXX

"Tell me how I got roped into this again?"

Ranma watched the gemstone necklace swing from Hitomi's hand like a pendulum. With a small piece of broken marble in her other hand, the girl concentrated on the swaying pendant, then nodded her head decisively. "This way," she said, heading North, up the hill.

Behind her trailed Ranma, Chief Ido, Yuta, Mana, Ryoga, and Akane. "It's simple," the Police Chief said. "Yohko and Belldandy were called away, and we needed a demon hunter. We're searching for the lair of a demon, after all. And you are a demon hunter."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Ranma said. She glanced down at her mamano hunter's outfit -- she'd insisted on transforming in her room beforehand, both to remove her school uniform first and to avoid any lecherous spectators. "You could have got Ushio," she muttered. "He's supposed to be the number two demon fighter, right?"

"But you were right there," Ido said. "He wasn't."

"Ranma," Akane said, "who's better, you or Ushio?"

Ranma snorted. "He's okay, I guess," she muttered. "I could take him if I had to."

The group reached another intersection, and Hitomi paused to concentrate on the pendant. "This way," she said, turning down the right-hand street.

"That's what I thought you'd say," Akane replied. "Anyway, I thought you wanted to get out of class." Akane herself had no better reason for tagging along than her own curiosity and to keep Ranma company. At least Ryoga had a real excuse -- if he let everyone else out of his sight, he might wander away from the campus and never find his way back again.

"Well, sure," Ranma replied. "Only this is nearly as boring as school."

Hitomi came to a halt in the middle of the street, then turned to face one particular house.

"In there?" Mana asked.

"Behind there, most likely," Chief Ido said. "We're looking for a cave opening, after all."

The others started around the side of the house. Ranma exchanged looks with Akane. "Wait a second," Ranma called out. "This house... this is Mano-sensei's house..."

There was a cry from up ahead. The others were running into the back yard. Ranma and Akane followed. As they rounded the back corner of the house, two things became evident.

The thick ivy that covered the hillside behind the house had been cut away, revealing the open mouth of a cave that lead back into the hillside. And it was clearly no ordinairy cave -- the entrance was framed by a stone gateway with worn, faded characters carved on the keystone at the top of the arch. Before this opening was a small pile of toppled stones. They may have once formed a small shrine.

In the grassy yard before the cave, two bodies lay. Ranma recognized them instantly. One was Yohko's grandmother, Madoka Mano. The other was Ranma's mother, Nodoka Saotome.

And the jeweled demon eyes on Ranma's Youma ring were flashing.

to be continued