Forward: Some consternation has been expressed about switching from flashback to present scenes, and vice-versa. Aside from the line breaks to seperate scenes, changes in chronology will be indicated by bold markup at the beginning. It's the best method I could figure to indicated the change without using something more intrusive, like "FLASHBACK" or "THE PAST" Thanks ;)
To say Nabiki Tendo was not an early morning person was to state a fact so obvious that one would be forced to question the intelligence of anybody broaching the topic in the first place. As such, the middle Tendo did not believe in such euphuisms as 'Early to bed, early to rise' or the ever more popular 'early bird gets the worm'. In fact, she was of the sound opinion that such sayings were adopted by people looking to substitute hard work for their lack of intelligence. Since she had plenty of the latter, getting up early was not only entirely unnecessary, it was just plain wrong; Borderline evil, in fact, which said something about her eldest sister.
Regardless of the aforementioned facts and the potentially malicious nature of one Kasumi Tendo, Nabiki was up early. The exact time had yet to be determined by her sleep deprived brain, but she was certain the hour was somewhere between 'damn early' and 'too damn early'. With natural flow of her universe disrupted, the Tendo had no choice but to brutally slap her protesting alarm clock into submission before shrugging the covers aside to start her new, albeit early day. Of course, there was only one thing all this nonsense about waking up at the crack of dawn could lead to, and that thing wasn't necessarily a good thing. It spoke in monosyllable words and had a nasty temperament, and much like Akane's food; normally something to be avoided at all costs.
Very few tended to stay in the presence of Zombie Nabiki for long, as her usually malevolent tendencies toward black mail and extortion were more pronounced during these unnatural hours, assuming you weren't turned to stone after looking upon her bloodshot eyes, frizzy hair, and wrinkled pajamas to begin with. The favored method to dispatch Zombie Nabiki was not, contrary to popular belief, a wooden stake and holy water. After all, she would only rise again the next morning. While such a scheme would have been gratifying to some parties- half the student body of Furinkan High, for example -there was an imminently more effective technique by which to neutralize the middle Tendo: mass quantities of caffeine. In an emergency situation, one could sneak in and main line an IV directly into a major artery, jump starting her nervous system and bringing the girl's brain slowly back to life without the need for an expensive stone slab, restraining cuffs, high power transformer, switching arrays, banks of batteries, lightning rod, and the obligatory thunder storm.
In most cases, the prescribed emergency procedures were entirely unnecessary, as Nabiki Tendo was more than happy to consume the required caffeine products herself. The earlier she got up, the more she consumed, which would explain why a very large mug of freshly brewed coffee was waiting on the table for the shambling corpse to consume as she stumbled into the dining room.
"Oh my, you're up early."
Zombie Nabiki's hand paused mere centimeters away from the mug of joe as she eyed her older sister warily with those dead, dead orbs of hers. It was early and Nabiki Tendo knew what that meant: Evil. She scrutinized Kasumi's smiling visage for another moment while contemplating the possibilities. It could be a trap. But the coffee… Coffee wasn't evil! Or was it? It was possibly the most perfect substance ever created, besides money, and the only reason that won out was because she could use it to buy more coffee. But it was also early. Early was bad, which made this… 'Early morning Coffee,' made by one of those wretched "early birds" no less. Zombie Nabiki considered the thoroughly twisted logic a moment longer before succumbing to the seductive aroma under her nose.
Hot black liquid flowed from the warm mug and into the Tendo's mouth, proceeding down her throat and into her stomach where it was promptly metabolized into something more useful, much like a vampire would find blood useful; that is to say, life giving. Fortunately for Nabiki, the mug in her hands required neither supernatural guile to seduce nor fangs to dispatch. In other words, the beverage's chances of surviving its encounter with Zombie Nabiki were less than a plate of food surviving its chance encounter with the giant panda currently residing in their home.
For those of you just joining us, that would be zero point zero percent, with a zero percent margin of error.
This ritualistic sacrifice was repeated seven times before something akin to life was reignited within the Tendo's eyes, banishing the dead, bloodshot orbs in favor something resembling intelligence, but no less bloodshot. With her brain operating somewhere above room temperature now, Nabiki turned to the foremost matter on her mind: why exactly was she up so damn early again?
"You're getting lazy, boy!"
"Back off, ya old Panda!"
Ah yes, Nabiki mused darkly, now that that particular portion of her brain were capable of such musings. That's why I'm up. The girl briefly entertained the thought of an eighth mug, but decided against it. As the inviting black liquid was, it was a double edged sword; a balancing act, Nabiki rationalized as she sat up from the table and moseyed to the open sliding door that looked out upon the dojo courtyard. Drink too little and she'd be lucky to survive the day, let alone stay awake. Drink too much and she ran the risk of burn out, and a burned out Nabiki was almost as bad as a Zombie Nabiki, save the fact that she retained just enough awareness to make decisions. Bad decisions if the past was any indicator. Bad decisions cost her money, which explained her need to closely monitor her caffeine intake. Especially today, as she couldn't afford what a bad decision might cost her.
The first rays of dawn were only just now cracking the deep indigo horizon, slowly banishing the shadows of dusk and night as two blurs danced between them. Nabiki's eyes tracked the figures, one black haired teen and another balding, round elder. Perhaps 'dance' wasn't so apt a descriptive after all, and she mentally redressed her assessment of the pair. It might apply to Ranma alone and performing a kata by himself… or herself, she corrected, given the new dynamic she learned of last night. What she saw in front of her now was hardly a dance. 'Indiscriminate grappling' was probably a better term, she decided as the pair charged into one another, cut loose with several martial arts combinations and disengaged. Wash, rinse, repeat.
All in all, it was a fairly boring scene for the Tendo and she was half tempted to seduce another cup of coffee when the inevitable happened. In retrospect, she wasn't sure if he let his guard slip on purpose or if his father just got a lucky shot in, but Nabiki now watched intently as Ranma executed a summersault into his old man, only to have it countered and swept aside. Genma's arm deflected the inbound foot wide and responded in kind, pushing his own leg into Ranma's torso at high speed. Given the power, vector, and speed involved, there could only be one landing zone.
The redhead was up out of the pond instantly without the traditional "whaddya do that for" and it was in that moment that Nabiki decide that Ranma had let her guard down on purpose. Even in her sleepy state, that single fact rippled across her awareness, chaining together with last night's revelations. Ranma Saotome, man among men, didn't mind being a girl. Not only did he not mind being a girl, she had taken to it quite well. Well enough to befriend Kuno and allow him to court her. Akane was also complicit in the entire sordid affair. All three parties were open and honest about the situation with her now. They also knew that she would most likely use said information as a high source of revenue in the very near future, and now… Ranma had let his father get in a shot; a shot he knew would send him into the koi pond.
A slight chill seeped through Nabiki Tendo's soul as father and daughter re-engaged, the pigtailed girl now pressing her father hard with a new found speed and nimbleness. Today's the day, a small voice whispered from the back of her head, instantly burning away any remaining fatigue more effectively than a quadruple shot mocha-latte could ever have hoped to accomplish. The middle Tendo rolled the thought around in her head with a new found clarity as Ranma continued to unleash brutal combinations into her father, who was still unsuccessfully trying to goad her with insults. You wouldn't… Nabiki whispered to herself and began to formulate a plan. The timing was going to be tricky. Only an hour and a half until school with no advanced preparation or ground work. Contacts would have to be informed. She just knew those three were going to play merry hell with the odds today.
Nabiki's urge to reach for the nearby phone was interrupted by Genma Saotome and the peppering insults he was directing at his son-turned-daughter. Sure, he was getting the pants beat off of him, but that didn't stop him from using them as a distraction technique. It was one in particular, however, that stopped Nabiki's hands from ever reaching the wall mounted telephone.
"That was pathetic, Ranma!" The balding martial artist taunted, barely intercepting the redhead's fist in time while expertly masking the pain it produced in his forearm. "Maybe that body suits you after all!"
"Maybe it does."
Genma's eyes widened with the response and that was all it took for Ranma to shift gears, opening Genma's guard like a buzz saw on crack. One moment, Genma was tracking his son through the attacks; the next, she was a red blur. Everything after that was a blur, in fact, as the follow on strike slammed into his body, blowing him across the dojo and into the koi pond. What was once an Anything Goes master was now a giant soaked panda, sitting in its shallow depth.
"Cheater!" the oversized Panda waved the wooden sign with an irritated expression evident across its features, assuming one was proficient in interpreting the moods of giant marital arts panda. Regardless, it declined the invitation to rejoin the fray and instead produced another sign. "What do you have to say for yourself, worthless girl?"
Ranma favored the soaking Panda with a benevolent look and smiled. The smile chilled both father and middle Tendo alike.
"Be careful what you wish for, old man."
"That was on purpose, wasn't it?"
Ranma looked up from her dresser to find Nabiki standing in the doorway of her guestroom. She finished buttoning the final clasp on her red silk shirt and sent the Tendo a put out look. "Jeez, Nabs. Ever hear of knocking?"
Nabiki Tendo had, of course, heard of knocking, but she charged premium rates for that particular privilege and would have happily quoted them if the question were not largely rhetorical in nature. After a moment under the Tendo's gaze, Ranma shrugged. "Yeah, you caught me."
Nabiki stepped in, taking her admission as a silent welcome. Whether it was or not was an entirely different story, not to mention something largely irrelevant to the Ice Queen anyway. "Why?"
"Think you know the answer to that already." She watched as Ranma walked over to the nearby closet and stoop on her tiptoes, fishing around the upper most shelf for something. A moment later she was back to her normal height, having successfully retrieved a small, plain white box. Even if Ranma's standard red and black silks hadn't confirmed her hypothesis, the terse reply all but did.
"You're coming out today." It was simultaneously a question and a statement, to which the martial artist simply smiled. "At school." Nabiki continued, not necessarily believing the conclusion she had come to herself. But here was Ranma, books on her bed and getting ready for school, as a girl. Seeing no objection to the contrary, the mercenary shook her head in awe. "Oh my dear Lord. You're serious."
"Don't see why not." Ranma, admitted, fingering the small box in her hand. "After all, you're gonna sell the information anyway, right?"
Nabiki blinked. The word 'duh' came to mind, but she managed to refrain from speaking it aloud "Well, of course."
"Right." The redhead confirmed the obvious nature of the fact and continued. "So Tachi and I talked it over last night and decided now was as good a time as any."
"Okay." Nabiki nodded, accepting the fact. "But why?"
"Damage control, mostly." Ranma thumbed the top off the small white box, setting its top gently on the dresser before pulling a thick, glistening strand from the container. Nabiki watched it sparkle in the morning light that flooded through the rooms open window and instantly knew it was gold. White gold. Expensive white gold. "Tatewaki brought up a good point after ya left… If we just let you do business and stand by passive and all, things are going to get worse faster than they get better. Probably just spiral out of control like everything else."
"And…?" Nabiki's eyes were now picking out tiny sparkles of light grafted between the interwoven strands of gold Ranma was now applying to her neck. Diamonds. The Tendo twitched unconsciously. RanmaSaotome… with a choker.
And she's going to wear it to school.
Ranma looked away from the dresser mirror and noted Nabiki's silent boggling with an impish grin. "Like it? Tachi got it for me a few months back." Nabiki Tendo produced the barest of nods and she continued, "Anyway, we figure if we get a jump on the shit storm that's waitin' for us, we can at least spin it while you do your thing." The impish smile faded slightly. "But a shit storm's still a shit storm."
Nabiki simply shook her head, but agreed. "And going down there with that thing on isn't going to make your life any easier. Hell, once the school body sees that…" her voiced trailed off and Ranma simply shrugged.
"Tired of hidin' it." The girl stated, hefting her book bag across her back and lead Nabiki out into the hall. "'Cides, you know me."
"No, I thought I knew you." She corrected, earning a chuckle from her redheaded counterpart. "But yes, I know. Suicidal death wishes are just about on par for the martial artists of Nerima."
The pair trotted down stairs and Nabiki was only mildly surprised to find Akane waiting for them with a pleasant smile. Goddamn partners in crime, she mused darkly. The smile widened as the glistening white gold and diamonds came into view. Ranma cleared the final step as Akane leaned in for a closer look, fingering the woven gold as her friend angled her chin up to provide a better view.
"OOoooh, you weren't kidding when you said you had a surprise." The youngest Tendo stared in wide eyed amazement. The smile remained as she pulled back. "Now I can see why you were keeping it a secret!"
Nabiki schooled her features into a neutral expression, as she was long past asking just how long Akane had known about Ranma and Kuno's relationship, let alone little details like insanely expensive diamond studded chokers. Besides, the answer was liable to make her head explode anyway. She couldn't afford that, today of all days. Even Akane and her cheerfulness was damn near a freak of nature.
Akane gave the necklace on last admiring glance before stepping over to the door. "Ready?"
Ranma opened her mouth, but paused. "Just a sec, be right back." She stepped deeper into the house, finding Soun and Genma chatting pleasantly over tea while Kasumi tidied up around them. The eldest Tendo looked up from her cleaning and smiled. The smile quickly turned to befuddlement when she picked out the redheads crucial change in wardrobe. Smiling herself, Ranma discreetly motioned with her head to come over while the old men continued their chatter.
"Um, Ranma… Is that a…?" Kasumi leaned in, hesitantly poking at the necklace around her neck.
Ranma simply nodded. "Don't worry. Fill ya in later, Kas-chan." She looked over Kasumi's shoulder to find the Tendo and Saotome patriarchs staring at them. "Just want to let you know the house could be seein' some action later on today."
"'chan', Kasumi." Ranma correct, causing the daughter to blink rapidly. "And by action, I mean fiancées, fathers, mothers, old perverts… The whole nine yards."
"Oh my." Kasumi put a hand to her lips, clearly receiving the implied meaning behind the redhead's words. "Does this have to do with what's been happening between you and Akane lately?"
"Everything, Kas." Ranma admitted, causing Kasumi's expression to waiver uncertainly. Seeing this, she continued, "But don't worry. Everything's gonna be alright." The eldest simply nodded with Ranma's assertion until she spoke the next words. "Just messy. Very, very messy."
The martial artist simply smiled at her father and gave the trio a nod. "Off to school. Ja-ne!"
With that, Ranma was gone, leaving a still confused Kasumi and two curious parents in her wake.
"Um Kasumi…?" She broke out of her dazed state to find Genma stepping to her side. "What was that around my boy's neck?"
Three girls now made their way down the streets of Nerima at a leisurely pace as they walked to that last bastion of educational hope known as Furikan High School. As far as schools go, and contrary to popular belief, it was actually one of the better ones… As long as one could overlook the insane principle, ki vampires, and of course, the martial arts mayhem that ensued on a regular basis. To some, this was unacceptably abusive to the students in attendance. To others, it was a dumping ground for the problem children who didn't fit in elsewhere.
In reality, it was motivation.
Bad haircuts? Extortion? Blackmail? Martial arts challenges? High energy Ki blasts? Insane kendoist? 'Prepare to die, Ranma?' Simply put, nobody wanted to be held back a year to repeat their classes in academic purgatory, which meant that Furikan High's graduation rates and grad point averages were some of the best in Japan. The unfortunate side effect of this chaotic pressure cooker was that Furikan also tended to imbue its graduates with extreme behavioral aberrations, producing more mad scientists, evil magic practitioners, and megalomaniacal CEOs than the average high school.
Oh, and super powered martial artists; can't forget those.
"What was that all about with my sister?"
The question just happened to be directed at a martial artist of the super powered variety, who in turn looked down from the fence top she had been transferring. Since two of the three Tendo sisters were present at her side, the third pertaining to Nabiki's question could easily be deduced.
"Just givin' her fair warning." Ranma commented easily, hopping down to their level with a flip. "She deserves that much. Probably more."
"Definitely more." Akane agreed in all seriousness, leaving Nabiki to feel her way through uncharted territory once more. The middle Tendo had suspected that her little sister was confiding in Kasumi for some time now, but exactly how pivotal of a role she played in this surreal drama was as yet unknown. That was okay. School was still a good ten minutes away. Even though it wasn't enough time to subtly draw the information out of the two, she sensed there really wasn't any need to tiptoe around the topic and instead went for the direct approach.
"Does she know too?"
"Uh-uh." Akane shook her head. "Pouring my soul out to her several times a week was burden enough, let alone what she already carries…"
"…and involve her in this mess?" Ranma's eyes widened, clearly aghast at the idea while agreeing with Akane. "Not a chance."
"Heck, she doesn't even know me and Dai…" Akane's mouth simply stopped working from Nabiki's point of view, then snapped shut. The middle Tendo looked from her sister to Ranma, who was now chewing on her upper lip.
"Dai-what, little sister?" Nabiki's eyes narrowed, and Akane's face melted into clueless ness. The sister's focus sharpened further as a little piece of last night's dojo conversation snapped into place. "Or rather, Dai-who?"
Ranma came to her rescue before the interrogation began in earnest. "One crisis at a time, Nabs." Then to her surprise, the Saotome reached back to her pigtail and untied the Dragon Whisker binding it. Free of restraint, waves of shoulder length red hair cascaded brilliantly in the morning sunlight. "'Cides, I already called dibs on this one."
Nabiki missed Akane's chuckle entirely as she simply stared at the girl transforming before her very eyes. It had been in discrete steps, she realized, starting with the morning's sparing session. There, she had seen Ranko, the parody of a tomboy mistakenly given a girl's body. Part and parcel with that image came Ranma's usual Chinese silks. Then she wore the choker, sending ripples across that tomboy image. Now her hair was free and flowing in the slight breeze, distorting that tomboy image further. At this rate, Nabiki wouldn't be surprised if it shattered by days end, which only left one more question…
"Exactly how much is that thing around your neck worth, anyway?"
The redheaded martial artist held her stance, focusing on nothing but the wooden practice post standing before her. It was wood. Really just wood. It was not, in fact, the visage of her fat-ass father whom Ranma just found had sold her out again… To a wandering martial artist who just happened to be traveling though the Quing Hai providence of China nearly two years ago in search for his long lost son.
Ranma Saotome's muscles cramped as she fought to maintain the kendo form. Rage sang through her brain as the target dummies' head took on the face she knew all too well.
Selling her out was nothing new, Ranma amended as she fought down the urge to lash out indiscriminately at the dummy via the art she had been trained in since she could walk. Even the negotiable instrument of sale wasn't all that surprising to the Saotome, who had not even flinched when informed that his- now her -hand in marriage had been bought for a kettle of hot water. No, what was surprising was whom 'he' had been sold to; that is if the word 'surprising' could be used to express insult, rage, shock and horror simultaneously. Apparently, the deal was such that once the wandering martial artist found his son, he and his daughter would find Genma and seal the arranged marriage.
Needless to say, the father finally found his son yesterday.
His newest fiancee's name was Yoiko.
The family name was Hibiki.
Ranma trembled and fought to channel her violent urges into controlled focus, stepping forward in two exact steps and unleashed upon the straw dummy. The blurring lines represented three precise strikes, cutting through her target's head, torso and the wooden post that would have been its legs. Compared to Anything Goes, the results were rather unspectacular. Two steps and a flash of movement was all that represented her attack and the dummy stood fast before the stoic girl.
But only for a moment.
The practice blade in her hand was wood. The target was straw bound to a wooden post. Under normal circumstances, the wood on wood interaction would have rebounded off one another with a force more than sufficient to indicate a successful strike to the wielder. Normal, however, did not adequately describe the damage Ranma Saotome was able to inflict upon the target with her bokken and the wooden dummy promptly parted into three discrete segments, clattering to the floor. She held the striking stance for another few moments, allowing her resentment to bleed away into something more manageable before relaxing to consider her handiwork.
God forbid, maybe Tatewaki was right, Ranma mused, wallowing in the irony. If there was one thing she was when it came to the art, it was a perfectionist. It was easy to be an angry perfectionist with Anything Goes. In fact, the art almost encouraged the unrestrained violence and improvisation it begat, which had been the upper classman's point all along; Chaos bred chaos, causing her art to overflow into her actions and life. Irony, hell, she snorted. It was sickeningly ironic that her chief rival was now slated to be her brother in-law, let alone the fact that her mother was fully backing the initiative.
About the only good to come from that particular incident was the look on Ryoga's face.
It was priceless.
Regardless, the controlled release of her anger over the last few weeks was somewhat calming as she let her life's frustrations ablate off the discipline the kendoist art required. It was, in its own way, a soul of ice technique. Unlike Cologne's soul of ice, however, the focus wasn't upon maintaining a cold emotionless state. The focus was to channel that emotion into controlled bursts, and Ranma's perfectionist nature served her well in this new art, pushing that self control to its limits. It was a hard-won victory and even though this newest crisis was pushing her patience to the limit, she simply did not know how to quit. It was perhaps the one favorable aspect of training under her father-- The word 'fail' had literally been beat out of her.
The pigtailed girl briefly considering slaying another target dummy off to her right, but shook her head. There was no need. The effort that was required to maintain the form through her emotional tempest had thoroughly drained the Saotome, and she opted to instead walk over to the weapons rack and replace the wooden blade with its cousins. This particular bokken would need replaced soon, as she had abused it fairly well in the early days of her stress management. Ranma gave the marred and pitted stick a fond smile before grabbing a towel that also hung off the same rack, wiping away the moisture on her forehead that was born more of stress than physical exertion.
She was about to set the towel back in place when she paused, awareness rippling through her being. She glanced over her shoulder to find a cat faced ninja kneeling in the doorway of the gym.
"What's up, Sasuke?"
The direct address prompted the diminutive Ninja to look upon the redhead directly as opposed to averting his eyes to the floor. "If the Mistress is finished with her exercises, I have had servants prepare a washroom so that you may freshen up."
Ranma face took on a look of annoyance as she stepped away from the rack. "You know damn well I ain't no Mistress, Sasuke. I'm a guy, Kuno and I ain't datin' and we sure as hell ain't doing that, so come off it already."
"Regardless," The ninja countered, never leaving his subservient crouch. "Master Kuno favors your company and I shall accede to his wishes… until such time your condition becomes more… obvious to the Master."
Ranma simply rolled her eyes. "Don't hold your breath. One of these days yer gonna have to tell me just what kinda hold somebody like Kuno has on you."
"Perhaps." The ninja returned noncommittally before steering away from the topic. "The servants know of your… distain of warm water and have prepared the guest washroom accordingly."
"I shall pass along your approval." Ranma could have sworn she saw the barest of smiles on the Ninja's face and adopted a bland look as he continued. "When you are ready, Master Kuno desires your company in the main lounge."
'Desires'. Ranma shivered with the word, even though she knew the meaning behind it was fairly innocuous. 'Master' Kuno had been tiptoeing on eggshells around her since she laid down the law weeks ago and likewise, she was becoming use to his flowery mode of speech. She dug her toes into the blue practice mat that lined the room's floor. 'Desires', as in a requesting her presence. Nothing more. Right. The ninja nodded and was gone as silently as he came, leaving Ranma to wonder just how skilled he actually was. Half the time she could sense the mousey retainer and the other half… She shrugged to herself. In either case, the clumsy servant was hardly a threat.
Guestroom three was a familiar sight to Ranma by now and her feet silently rejoiced as they sank into the deep shag of the neutral beige carpeting. It was the closest suite to the gym she normally used, and as much as she hated to admit it, she was actually starting to like the opulent luxury the room exuded. Every piece of furniture was solid wood. While it wasn't something she was an expert on, it was a rich dark brown and screamed expensive whether she was looking at the dressers or the 'simple' intricately carved end tables. Even the bed simply screamed wealth, from its wide cushioning surface to the near ceiling height headboard; also made of the same rich wood. The thick spreads called to her and Ranma had no choice but to acknowledge just how wonderful they would be to crawl under even if she had absolutely no intention of doing so. That would cross a line. She was here to simply clean up and leave a measure of chaos at the door, not sleep in one of Kuno's wonderfully comfortable beds under soft lighting.
It had been a long day.
The Saotome stared at the bed longingly for another moment before sighing and heading to the back of the room and the waiting washroom. Like the suite to her back, the washroom was simply enormous by any standards she had to measure. It was literally the size of the Tendo living room and kitchen, well lit and stocked with every amenity one could hope to use while soaking, primping, dressing… whatever. Soaking was another no-no however, though another thing she could really use at the moment. While a cold water wash down was the last thing her sore muscles needed now, the very last thing she needed was for Tatewaki, Kodachi or the household servants to find a male Ranma Saotome on the premises.
The redhead simply shrugged off her Chinese silks and kicked them into the corner before moving through to the inner washroom and the elaborately decorated wash basin that waited. The copper eagle head water spout before her was the epitome of wealth and bad taste. She took another look at the steaming furo only a few feet away and frowned. Elaborately decorated or not, a cold wash hardly compared to a nice long soak. The act itself was over and done with clinical efficiency. Few people wanted to spend their time under buckets of cold water and Ranma Saotome was no exception to that rule. Rinsing, soaping up and rinsing again before returning to the main bathroom wet and cold for her trouble. She stepped back out onto black marble with a towel and paused, eyebrow arched. Hanging from a nearby hook was a new red Chinese shirt and matching black tangs. She padded over to the fresh clothing and looked back into the corner where she had recently discarded her clothing.
They were gone.
"You've got to be kidding." She mumbled to herself, fingering red silk. They were like new. In fact, they were new. Brand spankin' new. And almost exactly like her silks of old as well. There was one minor difference, however, and she ground her teeth down when she noticed it. Her boxers were missing. Replaced, actually, by a bra and panties. "Somebody's in line for a serious ass kickin'" Ranma growled, balling her fists tightly for a moment, then let the anger seep away. She was getting better at that really. It was even harder to fault the person more than likely responsible for the transgression.
As if bidden by her very thoughts, the restroom door clicked open to admit woman clad in a classic black and white maid outfit complete with frills and white stocking. She was somewhere in her late twenties by the Saotome's estimate, with shining, black locks curling around her pale face and framing green eyes. The woman made no apologies for the intrusion, nor did she even bat an eye over the fact that she had just walked in on one completely nude Ranma Saotome. Instead, the redhead received a generous bow and kindly smile. "I pray that the replacements are satisfactory, Lady Saotome. Your previous wear was in quite a deteriorated state."
Try as she might, the nude girl simply couldn't work up the anger to necessary to rebuke her and instead opted to nod dumbly. The woman was like Kasumi, though in some ways worse when it came to her irresistible nature. But then, new clothing that looked exactly like her old stuff wasn't the end of the world. "Uh, yeah, Yoko. Looks okay to me, I guess."
"Excellent." She clasped her hands together. Even her eyes were smiling now. "The local vendors were inadequate for the task, so I was forced to import your style."
"Eh… Import…?" Ranma blinked, only vaguely aware that she was standing nude before her very own personal servant. Early on, the woman's total and willful obliviousness to her state of undress had caught the martial artist off guard, prompting her to scramble for cover any time the maid entered at an inconvenient time. In the end, it just happened so often that covering up just became more trouble than it was worth and Yoko's pleasant detachment went a long way to putting Ranma at ease… or at least somewhere in the vicinity of grudging acceptance. Besides, they were both girls and this was supposedly her job. Still, something about importing her clothes was vaguely disturbing. Such as importing them from where, exactly?
Ranma very nearly chocked on her own tongue right there. "China?!"
"Of course." Yoko nodded in all seriousness. "I shan't have the Lady wearing cheap imitations."
"Eh… Right." There really was no use protesting. The last two weeks had taught her just how tenacious the woman could be when it came to discharging what she perceived as her duties. The discussion just to convince Yoko that she wasn't required to dress her had been tedious enough. Instead, Ranma turned to the next topic of consternation, fingering the handing bras and panties. "And these?"
Yoko's pleasant smile slipped ever so slightly. "Are far more comfortable than your previous… undergarments. They are Chantelle, after all."
"Chantelle. Right." Ranma repeated without a clue as to what Chantelle was beyond being a thorn in her side. Under normal circumstances she would have just vaporized the creamy garments and their hints of lace with a low power ki burst and claim they were very comfortable regardless, but her keeper was here and she knew what was coming next.
"Let me help you into those."
"Really I can do it myse—" Ranma's protest went little further than the first few words before being cut off by a stern look from the maids green eyes.
"Nonsense. This is my duty and I shan't be found neglectful." Yoko slipped the bra off the hanger and brought it to bear.
The pigtailed girl was barely suppressing the twitches that came with the implied threat. "No, really. I can—"
The panties came off their hook next. "And I shouldn't want Master Kuno to hear that you haven't been properly serviced."
"C'mon, I won't tell if you w—Hey!"
The woman was around her with a speed her slight frame belied and before she knew it, Ranma's arms were being guided through the cream shoulder straps and her breast captured within soft cups. Two clasps later and the deed was done before the martial artist's normal defensive measures could even begin to come online, leaving her blinking as her bosom adjusted to its new position. Yoko held the panties out with her pleasant, unyielding smile.
"Seriously, 'Tate, ya need to talk to Yoko."
Tatewaki Kuno's hand stopped mid-stroke, denying the canvas bound stork a major flight feather. He set the brush back onto the colorfully smeared pallet with a soft click and turned his full attention to the girl entering to his back. Her words prompted a frown and he cocked his head curiously. "Indeed, what is this problem with my esteemed Servant, fiery Goddess?"
Ranma strode into the study in a huff, barely noting either the soft music that played in the background or overly indulgent form of address. Her left hand tugged at the opposite sleeve to illustrate the problem clearly. "She tossed out my stuff and bought me new clothes!"
"Surely not!" His eyes widened. "They were not of the highest quality then?"
The question caught the pigtailed girl off guard. "Well, yeah they are, but that's not the point! She bought me panties and a bra, too!"
"Are they not comfortable? Your sizes?" Tatewaki pressed, determined to find the source of the girl's angst. "While it is true that I hath provided Yoko with a generous expense account intended toward your well being, I doth expect it be spent responsibly."
"Well yeah they fit, but…!" Ranma's argument abruptly faltered as it became clear exactly where the conversation was going. "That's not what I mean!"
"Excellent." Tatewaki nodded with satisfaction, ignoring the redhead's consternation. "Yoko-chan is quite reliable in that regard."
"But she keeps insistin' on dressing me!" There was the slightest hint of pleading in martial artist's voice now, like that of a person fighting a lost cause and knowing it.
"It is heartening to hear thus." Kuno nodded, removing himself entirely from the cushion he sat upon. "Perhaps I should include a bonus in her next paycheck along with your praise."
Ranma Saotome simply rand a slight hand through her red mane and grabbed a tuft in exasperation. "Yeah, sure. Why the hell not. Give her a raise while you're at it."
"An excellent suggestion."
Ranma simply groaned, realizing she really ought to know better by now. The Kuno mansion was, after all, a sanity free zone. Of course, there were worse things in life than being pestered by your own personal servant looking to cater to your every whim, she amended, and most of them were outside beyond the mansion gates. Parents, fiancées and the possibility of Ryoga becoming her brother in-law were certainly among them.
"And I see that thou have ended your exercises early." The upper classman segued easily, breaking her self loathing train of thought. "Hath thy tensions diminished to more endurable levels?"
"Ha! As if!" The redhead laughed bitterly, taking a seat within Kuno's study. It was a large, plush burgundy velvet chair and it had rapidly become one of her favorites when it came to chatting with the kendoist. After all, she might as well get comfy if she was going to endure his rambling. "Found out that Ryoga's slated to be my brother in law. That's not even takin' into account what they got planned for his sister."
"Ryoga…" Tatewaki scratched his chin thoughtfully, trying to recall the name. "You mean the barbaric swine-boy, do you not?"
"Heh, that's him alright. good ol' P-cha…" The syllables dropped off and Ranma's eyes widened ever so slightly while a look of incredulity seeped across her face. "Waitaminute… You know about Ryoga's… problem?"
"Only a fool could miss such an affliction, and I assure you Tatewaki Kuno is surely no fool!"
"No. Of course not." The stunned Ranma nodded agreeably. Just how long had the stick swinger known? The Saotome's thought process was running well into the redline with the revelation when another unpleasant thought occurred to him. "Uh, see any other, um, cursed people runnin' around I should know about?"
"The peasant Chinese of the Cat Café are among the afflicted as well, to my knowledge." Kuno reported, all but leading Ranma by the hand down her path into the twilight zone. "Sasuke keeps detailed records of their activities."
"Eh…" Ranma was forced to moisten her lips as they seemed to have dried suddenly. Detailed records… He knew about all the other players, which could mean… "And what about Ranma Saotome?"
"A fowl sorcerer, without a doubt!" the upperclassman's ire rose immediately with the question. "I shall smite him for the injustices laid upon your sweet bosom! The Gods must assuredly weep for such a—!"
"I AM RANMA, YOU TWIT!" The redhead exploded as Kuno wore down the last measure of her patience. "I'm a guy! One hundred percent guy!" She grabbed at the hot tea steaming on a nearby end table.
"The foul sorcerer!" Kuno's eyes widened as Ranma transformed to the object of his hatred and she grabbed the pitcher of melting ice next to it, up turn it and numerous cubes bounced off her head and onto the floor. Residual water splashed and he became a she once more. "The pigtail girl!"
Ranma stood before the dazed boy. "Now do ya see…?"
"I… I see." Kuno blinked, taking in the wet girl. Definitely stunned, she noted. Maybe this time she had gotten through. Sure, it'd most likely deny her a safe haven from the chaos that rained down upon her regularly, but it was a win-win either way in her opinion. If he saw the curse for what it was, that would be one less person trying to date her. If he continued true to form, well, she still had her hideout. Maybe he would—"I see that the foul sorcerer is attempting to gain purchase on your soul!"
Then again, maybe not. The martial artist fell back into her plush seat in defeat as another stab at reason ablated of Tatewaki's delusional armor. "Dammit, 'Tate…"
"Indeed, he attempts to dissuade my aid by projecting his ghastly visage through your purity!" Kuno was flailing wildly now, pulling the ever present bokken away from the nearby canvas he had been tending. He raised it before Ranma herself with no small amount of flourish. "Fear not, vivacious pigtailed goddess, for he will not succeed. My dispensation of aid shallt continue regardless of his meddling!"
"Riiiight." Ranma shook her head and shrugged. True, he still wasn't getting it, but the very fact that he could actually perceive the change was a small victory nonetheless. And if she played her cards right… "So does that mean you don't mind seeing him around now?"
"Truly, the sight makes me wretch, but I will resist the effort to smite such an illusion on sight," He calmed, studying the pigtailed girl. "I would ask, however, that you resist the sorcerer with all of your might, my goddess."
Ranma arched an eyebrow. As if. "And why would I want to do that?"
"As you may know, my twisted sibling is quite enamored with the dark magician." Tatewaki elaborated solemnly. "It would not do for her to think that this chimera he projects upon your person is actually he himself. I fear the results would be quite… unwholesome." Ranma blinked. 'Unwholesome' was certainly one way to describe Kodachi's desires for her, not to mention a very compelling argument to 'resist the foul sorcerer'. Kuno noticed the girl pale and nodded. "I see you understand."
Ranma also nodded, pushing back into her seat in an unconscious bid for emotional security. There was no doubt in her mind that if it came down to it, anything involving Kodachi would also most likely include thorns, drugs, ribbons and various other… aids. Tatewaki Kuno watched the unconscious shiver and smiled gently, returning the wooden sword to its resting place near the canvas stand. "Fear not beautiful pigtail girl, for I shall protect both you and the tigress Tendo from the malicious designs of my sister and Saotome."
The comment seemed to shake Ranma from her uneasiness, allowing her to project a glare at the kendoist. "Ya really gotta stop that."
Clueless, she snorted mentally and elaborated. "Ya really gotta stop the whole me or Akane thing."
"I do not underst—"
"Alright, let me spell it out for ya." Ranma continued, leaning onto the edge of her seat. "Chicks don't like the indecision crap. Take it from me, it causes more trouble than its worth. Ya can't just go around claimin' ya love two at the same time."
The look on Kuno's face was that of one trying to comprehend rocket science. "It is thus? But how?"
"Chicks get jealous and when chicks get jealous, they fight." The redhead explained, encouraged by the fact that her audience of one was so receptive to the concept. "Not only that, but they tend ta make your life a living hell in the process so do yourself a favor and stop it."
"But nothin'" Ranma cut him off, denying him the chance to insert his own illogic into the conversation. If she could just get him to see it from her angle… "Ya just don't go around yellin' that you love two chicks. Take my word for it. I'm an authority on this one. It'll get you beat, drugged, hated, misunderstood if not all of the above."
The upperclassman dropped quietly to his stool, and began to rub his chin, deep in thought. "And I have been behaving thus?"
"Well, duh." The redhead deadpanned, mildly annoyed that it wasn't already obvious. A slight shuffling from behind distracted her in that moment. Ranma leaned around the enormous armrest to find a smartly dressed butler entering the study with two towels, one a plain white, the other a dark forest green draped across his arm and a dustpan in the other hand. The older man stepped up beside Ranma with a kindly smile and offered her the fuzzy green towel while retaining the plain one for himself.
"Your towel, Lady Saotome."
Ranma stared for a moment before realizing that was her cue to take the towel to dry herself off. Heck, she was wet so often due to the curse that she barely noticed anymore herself, but the mansion staff did. That would leave the remaining towel and pan to clean up the mess she made for Kuno's failed lesson. "Eh, sorry 'bout that, Hosho."
"Think nothing of it, Lady Saotome." He was already bending down to pad the carpeting dry; he then proceeded to collect any errant ice cubes with the dustpan. She put her own soft towel to use and wiped away the tea and water from her skin, occasionally dabbing her hair and clothing to remove the excess. The servant was done at nearly the same time and he bowed, taking the green towel and disappearing back from whence he came.
A fond look crept across her face as the study door closed once more. Damned if towel service wasn't handy. Nice old guy too. Didn't ogle at her or anything when she had a soaked shirt either. She smiled slightly at the thought, then turned back to Kuno. "But like I was sayin' it ain't just the girls either. Polygamy went out with Edo, ya'know?"
"I believe I grasp the portent of your words, my crimson beauty." Tatewaki returned, clearly taking her words seriously by the look of concentration writ across his face. "I shall endeavor to be more decisive in the matter."
Ranma Saotome opened her mouth to rebuke the upperclassman once more when she realized that he had just agreed with her. She was actually getting through to him?! Recent experience had shown her the guy was smart, if screwed up, but to actually have made progress in such a critical area was quite surprising. Still, experience was a harsh mistress to her and the martial artist sniffed doubtfully. "I'll believe that when I see it." There was a slight pause and the way Tatewaki was staring at her intently began to unnerve her. There were definitely gears grinding in that brain now. "What?"
"Just… Nothing, my fiery goddess." The mask of concentration flowed away and he smiled with the change of subject. "We were talking of your day before thee became sidetracked."
Ranma stared at him for another moment. She wasn't sure what, but something had just fundamentally changed. Still, Ranma knew she was better off quitting while she was ahead, so she took the boy across up on his offer to change the subject, dropping into friendly conversation mode as she had become habit over the last couple of months. It really was surprising what useful information and advice could be found within his skewed take on life, almost enough to make conversing with the guy a pleasant, stress free event. And if that failed, it made for great comedy regardless. "Yeah, well, I'm worried about Aka—eh, another person too. She, um, just broke up with, um, somebody and I'm tryin' to help her out."
"Ah, the ails of a broken heart." Kuno nodded sympathetically. "One must question the wisdom of the poet writing on the ideal that it is better to experience love lost then none at all. Truly such an event is tragic in itself."
"Ain't it the truth." Ranma leaned back and relaxed as she stepped back into the familiar territory of friendly conversation. "And damned if I ain't responsible for a good chunk of it too."
"A dilemma to be sure." Tatewaki agreed. "So you have wronged this acquaintance, then?"
"You could say that." Ranma admitted. "Not on purpose, just… well, a bunch a things got in the way. Can't just sit back and do nothin' again, but I'm not sure how to handle it."
The kendoist simply nodded noncommittally and took a sip of tea from a glass that Ranma hadn't managed to spill earlier. He stared at the last remnants of steam drifting up from the china cups' liquid contents for a moment and then nodded once more, as if coming to a decision. "Then perhaps reparations are to be made."
Ranma cocked her head with the suggestion. "Reparations?"
"I know from our relations that you hold honor dear to your busom, pigtailed goddess," Kuno elaborated. "For it is one of the reasons I find myself irresistibly drawn to—"
"The point, bokken-brains."
"Of course," Tatewaki acknowledge the rebuke as his cue to remain focused, something thought to be a miracle to many outsiders that the girl could even illicit such a response from the boy. "Like the samurai of old you find yourself in a debt of honor, one that must be repaid. Such amends will help heal this scar that looms across your friendship."
Ranma simply stared. He was right. The fact that he was right was less surprising than the fact that she was continually finding valuable insight beneath the layers of delusion and insanity. Oh, sure, one had to dig for it. Excessively dig for it at times, but normally what she found was quite insightful. It was also one of the reasons she even tolerated his company—There was actually a person in there. Somewhere. But not just tolerate it, she admitted somewhere in the back of her mind. Amidst all the chaos and upheaval her life was experiencing these days, Tatewaki Kuno was pleasant company. Diluted company to be sure, but pleasant, and there were damn few people on that life's list.
God forbid she was actually considering the guy a friend.
Ranma shook the thought away. She could deal with that later. MUCH later, and her mental focus returned to Kuno. "So what kind of reparations do you—"
The door clicked open to interrupt the conversation, admitting one Kodachi Kuno. She strode elegantly past Ranma's chair and found a similar one opposite of her person. After smoothing her long black skirt down, she sat, producing an arrogant smile for her audience's benefit. "Ah, I see you are finally through indulging in your brutish pastime."
Ranma scowled slightly. "Poison any small kids lately, Ko-chan?"
The smile sweetened. "Not purposely, of course." She paused as the familiar form of Hosho stepped into the room with a china tea set on a silver platter. The servant skillfully balanced the platter on one hand and served Kodachi with the other, then proceeded to refresh Kuno and Ranma's tea before bowing slightly and disappearing from sight. The Kuno sibling took a sip and resumed her witty repartee. "So, will the peasants of Furikan be participating in this year's Rhythmic Gymnastics competition, Ma-chan?"
Ranma's cheek ticked slightly, but she managed to suppress her irritation for the most part as the pair engaged in their ritual opening banter. "As if I care. Not like Hebrick's could present much a challenge anyhow."
"And would you like to place a friendly wager on that statement?" The gymnasts' gaze narrowed and the smile became downright predatory and Ranma recognized the attempt to bully her through financial superiority. It was hardly the first such attempt, she noted absently and deflected it as if it were another martial arts technique.
"Don't think so." The redhead snorted. "Last thing I need is you cheatin' by putting' half our team in the hospital, then have 'em all whining to me to pick up the slack."
"Merely a product of the inferior quality of your sports clubs." Kodachi chortled ruthlessly.
"Hey, let's put your old man in charge of your school and see how they do." Ranma returned fire and even Tatewaki off to the side winced. Kodachi's mouth opened to reply, but words failed her. That was when Ranma noticed the hard glint gone from her eyes and knew in that moment she had gone just a bit too far in their saber rattling. One look over at Tatewaki's face revealed the same pain. "Uh, damn… Look, sorry 'bout that Ko-chan."
The girls' eyes gained a measure of edginess. "And just what do you have to be sorry about?"
Ranma sighed, shoulders slumped. While it was true that Kodachi wasn't anywhere close to what she'd call a friend, the last thing she needed to do was go around and stick her grubby fingers in other peoples old wounds, and she knew from Tatewaki himself that the subject of their father was an old wound. Especially when those wounds hit so close to home. "I… Look, my old man is a bastard too. Guess it ain't my place to be talkin' about yours."
"Hmmf." Kodachi sniffed, as if the topic were one of mere annoyance. "And what makes you think I care for either your contrived rambling or your father?"
Ranma rolled her eyes at the front Tatewaki's sister put up. "Look, just sayin' that I know what you're goin' through. Not that I care or nothin'."
"I sincerely doubt you do." Kodachi returned dryly. "And I suppose that I am now expected to engage in some inane prattle concerning which one of us has the worse father."
Ranma looked over the girl clad in black for another moment and shrugged. "My old man wrapped me head ta toe in fish sausage and tossed me in a pit of starving cats."
"I see." Kodachi glared and stood up. "Then I accept your challenge."
Ranma Saotome couldn't help but to smirk as Akane helped pick her sister off the ground for the second time. While Nabiki Tendo wasn't a martial artist by any stretch of the imagination, she normally wasn't prone to stumble about and the redhead was taking a certain perverse satisfaction in watching the middle sister practically fall over once more. But then again, a little payback never hurt anybody, she amended. Even Akane couldn't help but to smirk at the girl's dazed state upon finding out that the necklace Ranma was currently wearing priced well into six digits.
The Tendo regained her footing and shot a look over at the redhead comprised of equal parts irritation an awe. "You're enjoying this way too much."
"Mmmhmm." Ranma nodded with a grin. "Did I mention how many diamonds it has?"
"Several times." Nabiki glared.
"As if you care." Akane resumed her place next to Ranma with amused countenance.
"True." Ranma admitted. "It's the thought and all that, y'know?"
Akane nodded agreeably while her sister dusted off her skirt irritably. Why did wealth always seem to be wasted on the unappreciative? Nabiki considered the question for a moment as she studied the redhead next to her and felt a small measure of regret. For passing Ranma off to Akane? Not. Using her for profit? Nah. Sandbagging their later engagement? Hardly. No, that regret was squarely aimed the girl's newly acquired access to Kuno's wealth. Nabiki's train of thought sidetracked across her more devious nature as she briefly considered stepping in and stealing the upperclassman for herself, thoughts that were quickly shut down by the fact that not only she would have to cozy up to Kuno- hardly an appealing prospect in itself –but deal with Kodachi's potentially violent opposition. If that weren't enough- and it was –Ranma herself had gone from known factor to wildcard. There was no telling just how far a predominantly female Saotome would go to protect her… interests. Ranma all by herself was an easy mark. Ranma with something to lose was never ever somebody to be taken lightly.
All in all, it was just a bad idea, Nabiki quickly decided. It was in everyone's best interest if she were an ally to this budding romance, not an adversary. Besides, there was more than enough profit in that role all by itself.
The trio rounded the corner and the gates of Furinkan came into view, along with the various other students looking to, or dreading the start of their daily education. Among these were the regulars, the crowd that stood by each and every morning just to watch what chaos the arrival of Ranma and Akane would instigate. At the top of that list was normally the beat-down of one upperclassman, of which the students took particular delight in. Occasionally a sparsely dressed Chinese Amazon or some other shapely fiancée would involve herself, drawing yet more of Furikan's male population out. It had become quite a side show in Nabiki's opinion, one she worked with ruthless precision every single day but today.
As they approached the gates and the regulars, a couple of girls separated from the crowd and moved to join them. The taller one's gaze shifted uncertainly from Nabiki to the crowd behind her and back. "Are you sure about this boss?"
"Yeah," The shorter one with longer straight hair agreed with an equal measure of uncertainty. Her gaze flicked from Akane to Ranma and lingered, noting the necklace. "They're starting to ask why we aren't taking the bets."
"You didn't tell 'em?" Ranma asked, her thin red eyebrow arched with mild surprise. Even Akane looked somewhat shocked.
"I only bet on sure things and today you three are far from sure things." Nabiki explained then returned back to her subordinates. "If we take even a yen today, we'll regret it." Ranma looked at the girls and shrugged, continuing forward with Akane. Nabiki stepped aside with her girls, who continued to stare with rapt curiosity. Instead of providing them with a clear answer, she simply mumbled, "Sit back and enjoy the show, girls."
"PIGTAILED GIRL, I BESEACH THEE!"
Ranma and Akane stopped three meters from the gate as Kuno stepped out from behind the wall in his traditional gray hakama, bokken in hand. The crowd around them backed off as what appeared to be morning tradition got underway. Akane separated herself from her redheaded partner and Ranma affected a weary sigh. "Whaddya want, Kuno?"
"To free thy fiery beauty from the grasp of the evil sorcerer Saotome!" The upperclassman proclaimed, slicing the wooden sword through the air with flourish.
"What else is new?" She returned rhetorically. Ranma put an impatient hand on her hip and the weary look was replaced by one of irritation. "Can't we try somethin' else for a change?"
"Perhaps we shall." The bokken wavered from its bearing slightly and his head tilted, as if thinking on the matter. After a few more seconds of silent comtemplation, Tatewaki's attention seemed to snap back onto the girl. "A kiss!"
Ranma did a double take on the Kuno. "A what?!"
"A kiss shall break the spell!"
"Well ya ain't getting' one!" She belted back, balling her fists. "In fact, yer gonna have to kick my ass first!"
The bokken came back up. "So be it! Much as it pains me to do so, it appears I am forced to extract a passionate kiss from your sensual lips by violent means! I STRIKE!"
What followed was a scene that nearly everybody in attendance had seen many times before. Kuno's blade came down through a quick arc and Ranma was already inside its length, dodging the initial slice. Students watched as the pigtailed girl dodged, weaved and jumped in and out of the kendoist's attacks. Few noticed the strand of glistening sparkle around her next, refracting the morning light and the few that did dismissed it as either a trick of the eye or yet more of the easily dismissible chaos that frequented Nerima on a regular basis. Nabiki glanced over to Akane, studying her younger sister, the collaborator. She wasn't sure which was more unnerving at the moment—the fact that she managed to keep it a secret for so long or that she was still playing the part of the annoyed, jealous fiancée. Her face continued to flicker with emotion for the world to see; aggravation, resent and general annoyance. Nabiki shook her head, kicking herself yet again for having missed the boat so badly. Akane had said it herself last night… All those acting classes paid off.
"Is it 'Beat on Kuno Friday' already?"
Two more people joined their small group, looking on as the redhead continued to taunt the steadily frustrating upperclassman, who had yet to land a blow of any sort. Daisuke chuckled at his friend's comment. "What are you talking about? I thought that was everyday."
"True." Hiroshi smiled, watching Ranma back flip out of the Kuno's range before reengaging. "It's always open season on Kuno."
Ranma's friends, Nabiki calculated almost unconsciously as new variables came into play. Did they have a part to play in this? She watched as the pair joked and pointed at the martial arts antics and mentally scolded herself. Now I'm jumping at shadows. Keep this up and I'll start believing I'm the only one out of the loop, she reasoned. If Kasumi barely knew what was going on, chances are friends like Hiroshi, Daisuke, Yuka and Sayuri didn't have a clue. Movement off to her right snatched the Tendo's attention away from the conspiracy theory to find a new girl with long black hair dressed in the Furinkan males' uniform, immediately identifying her to Nabiki as fiancée number two. She nudged her way through the crowd and stopped beside the middle Tendo, pulling paper yen from a wallet.
"What's running on my Ran-chan, today, Nabi--
"Pools are closed, Kuonji." Nabiki cut the fiancée off, pushing the proffered money back to Ukyo. The girl simply blinked and the middle Tendo fought the urge to roll her eyes. Yeah, it was killing her too.
"Then what's going… on?" Ukyo's voice trailed off into a curious tone and Nabiki watched as the chef's eyes widened. After a moment of silence, a queer smile began to spread across her face.
"Kuonji, you still with me?" The sister arched an eyebrow and the smile grew. Ukyo pointed subtly over her shoulder and behind her. Nabiki followed the pointing finger and turned around, only to have her own eyes widen involuntarily. There was Hiroshi watching the fight. Behind him was Daisuke. And Akane. In close proximity. Very close proximity. In fact, one could accuse them of… snuggling! Daisuke was directly in back of Akane with his arms wrapped around her possessively while she too watched the fight. Nabiki tried to keep her jaw from hanging open but failed. Yuka and Sayuri weren't fairing much better, off to the side gawking, but she could hardly blame them… Which is why, unlike everybody else, fiancée number two is smiling, Nabiki realized as the pit in her stomach grew. It was almost reasonable to assume, after all, that Akane had made her choice and that choice wasn't Ranma. Logic following, if Akane was no long in the game, Ukyo herself probably had the best shot at Ranma's hand in marriage. Nabiki just shook her head. She would have been the same conclusion if not for a few unpleasant revelations over the last forty eight hours. In fact, she almost felt a twinge of pity for the girl, pity that manifested itself in the most unlikely of manners.
Ukyo turned her smile back onto Nabiki and her poker face. "Don't' what?
"Don't get your hopes up." The smile faded ever so slightly as her meaning was clearly conveyed. Nabiki motioned over toward the dueling Saotome and Kuno. "Take a close look at him… Her."
The Okanomiyaki master's head swiveled on to the fight and watched Ranma dance through the kendoist's attacks. Most of the attention was still on the fight, but Akane aside, little seemed out of the—"Uh, what's that around Ran-chan's neck?"
"What the hell are you doing, man!?" Nabiki spared a sigh of relief for the distraction as the hissed question reached her ears. Both girls turned to find Hiroshi staring at his friend and Akane with bug eyes. "Let her go! Ranma's gonna kill you if he sees that! And I don't mean just kill. I mean martial arts pretzel suicide kill!"
Yuka had also finally found her voice. "Um, Akane… don't you think…"
"And now for my final attack!"
All attention turned back to the fight as Tatewaki Kuno stepped out of melee range suddenly, pointing his bokken squarely at his redheaded opponent. Nabiki could barely suppress a groan. It was all orchestrated. They had orchestrated the entire damn thing. Not just the fight. That one was obvious. But critical information was being released in measured shockwaves by the trio, shockwaves that were designed to bury their audience under one stunning event after another. To leave them a nonsensical gibbering mess, I'd assume, Nabiki thought in an acerbic tone.
"Well then make it snappy. School starts in five." Ranma retorted impatiently, facing the boy as if she hadn't been dodging his attacks for the last ten minutes.
"Indeed I shall!" Tatewaki Kuno suffused, swiping his bokken low and to the left. "Prepare yourself!"
"Yeah, yeah." Ranma returned, clearly bored and studying a spec of dirt in her fingernails. "Let me know when—"
Kuno, blurred forward at speeds the crowd never thought possible, forcing Ranma to evade on what looked to be pure reflex, jumping out and away from the sword thrust. This time the upperclassman managed to sustain the rush and stay with the Saotome as she backpedaled through the evasion. In fact, some of the more observant students were noting that the upperclassman had ceased trying to hit Ranma with the wooden sword and seemed content with merely pursuing her through her flips and rolls. The redhead feinted right and circled off Kuno's flank, but the boy recovered quickly, shutting down what could have been an avenue of attack hastily before retaking the offensive. He moved through his own feint, pushing just ahead of the girl's movements and sidestepped one last time, putting his body directly into her path. Nearly every eye on the ground of Furinkan widened as Ranma ran into Kuno, a force which the upperclassman absorbed easily and transformed into a soft embrace in order to keep the martial artist from falling over on her own momentum. The moment hung in time as they stared at one another while the entire student body stared on in disbelief over the fact that Kuno had actually managed to catch Ranma.
The kendoist leaned forward, dipping Ranma back slightly in the embrace. They were face to face now and there was no mistake as to his intentions. "I shall now dispel the curse."
The words were soft and the kiss was even softer. Tatewaki Kuno closed the last remaining inch and pressed his lips to Ranma's, who seemed rather stiff in the improvised embrace. The crowd gawked. There was nothing else they could do. Even the stray teacher wandering by couldn't help but to stop and stare as the insane Kuno attempted to ply his lips to another unwilling female. Oh, sure, his inevitable death was a foregone conclusion. After all, everybody remembered what happened Mikado during the Charlotte Cup skating competition. Somehow, Ranma's female lips had been caught yet again and if past experience was any indication, the offending male was about to die. Horribly.
The girl's rigid body slackened and the crowd cringed. An arm freed itself and began to move toward the upperclassman. This was it: The beginning of the end of Tatewaki Kuno. No amount of money would save him now. The police would be lucky if there were— The earth vibrated as jaws began to hit the ground one after another. One arm snaked around the kendoist back, securing the girl's hold and pulling the pair loser. The other snaked up his back where Ranma's delicate fingers found his head, running them through his dark hair and deepening the kiss further.
Nabiki had suspect something like this was coming. Heck, she had all but known it was coming, but that didn't stop her from eating dirt like half the students around her before the pair finally came up for air, staring at one another longingly. There was absolutely no mistaking the intimacy in their gaze toward one another. Nabiki shook the facefault off and fought to tear her eyes away from the passionate pair. A quick glance over to her sister revealed a satisfied smile on her face, similar to the one worn by Daisuke, who was now nuzzling her neck.
"That was nice." Ranma murmured as Kuno pulled her back upright. She wore her own satisfied smile, one clearly seen by the awed audience.
"Truly, but you did let me win." He stroked her cheek affectionately and the girl shrugged.
"Maybe, but we both got what we wanted." Ranma smiled and gave Tatewaki a soft peck on the cheek before disengaging from the embrace entirely.
The school bell chimed the commencement of school, yet nobody moved. Instead, it signaled the eruption of total chaos.
"What was that?!
"Ranma LET Kuno kiss her?
"Him! Ranma is a him!"
"That didn't look like no guy on guy kiss to me!"
"I'm not sure if I should call that romantic or just puke my brains out."
"No, romantic. Erotic even."
"In front of everybody!"
"So what does that make Ranma now?"
"Insane. He… SHE kissed Kuno of all people."
"Ranma's always was a little weird."
"I'd be weird too after half the stuff he goes through."
"Drugs. Gotta be drugs."
"Maybe a bump on the noggin."
"Seriously. I knew this couple who got stranded on an island and lost their memory."
"You're making that up. I vote alien experimentation."
"But they lost their memories and shacked up, only to remember later that they were—"
"I'M GOING TO KILL HIM!"
A giant spatula whistled through the air and came down in a lethal arc, forcing Ranma and Tatewaki to separate before either was cleaved in half. The edge dug itself into the ground halfway and an almost feral Ukyo stared on the pair with a look that would have melted… well, just damn near anything.
"I'll deal with your drugged, alien experimented amnesic ass later, Ran-chan." Ukyo hefted the combat spatula out of the ground and turned it menacingly onto the Kuno. "But first, this jackass dies."
"I'm sure I we can explain—" The upperclassman never got a chance to finish his sentence as the lethal cooking implement streaked through the air his head had previously occupied only moments ago. It would have been neatly removed from his shoulders too, if not for the hasty step out of range.
"Shuttup!" the spatula carved through the air once more as she advanced on the boy. "First you're going to tell me what drug, spell or magic necklace you used to seduce my Ran-chan. Then you die. Painfully. And in many, many pieces."
"Dammit, Uc-chan, it was my choice!" The spatula froze. "Been datin' for about three months now!"
The Okanomiyaki master turned slowly back to the redhead even as the crowd twittled with the new information. "Three….?"
"Months. Of my own free will." Ranma confirmed, and a mixture of sadness of fury met her eyes.
"But… How… It's…" The chef's spatula dropped to the earth edge first, managing to remain upright on impact. "But… Kuno! You'd rather have Kuno than me?!"
Ranma opened her mouth to reply, but was preempted when Ukyo felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned around and found Akane with a somewhat sad, serene expression. Holding her hand was Ranma's own friend, Daisuke. The mob continued to gasp scandalously at the sight.
"It was never going to work, Ukyo."
"But… but!" Ukyo's head whipped from Akane and over to her fiancé. "It could have! I would have made it!"
"I thought that once too." The youngest Tendo nodded as Ranma walked over. Tatewaki wisely maintained his distance. "But none of us had any choice in the matter. Not me, not you, and least of all, not her."
"Ranma's a him, dammit!"
"I haven't been a him for a while, Uc-chan." Ranma shook her head with a resolute sadness that was more for the girl in front of her than herself. "That stopped being bearable a while ago."
"It would have been!" Ukyo protested, her voice riding the edge of pleading. "We would have had fun together!"
"'Bout as much fun as two people forced together could, probably." The martial artist shook her head. "Face it, Uc-chan, you got too much riding on me. Your family name, your womanhood, your art and your life. You got about as much choice as I do about marryin' Akane."
"Which is absolutely none." Akane inserted her agreement. "The pressure ate what little we had alive. Trust me when I say this, Ukyo, it would have gotten to you too eventually."
"But your old man is just as bad as mine and Akane's." Ranma interjected. "Forcin' you out of the house on a quest for vengeance as a guy? What's that kind of person gonna do to us if we do get together? I'll tell ya—Harp on us and interfere until he grinds our freedom to dust." Ukyo remained silent with the point, prompting Ranma to glance around at the eavesdropping crowd. "Look, let's talk about this a lunch. I owe my best friend the full story at very least."
Hollow eyes looked back at Ranma and the chef looked like she was about ready to protest, but instead simply nodded. Ukyo Kuonji turned away with slumped shoulders and the crowd parted for her, opening a path back to the school building. The redhead's gaze fell to the combat spatula the girl had left behind. "That coulda gone better."
"Or worse." Akane noted, stepping up to her side. "She knows it's true, too."
"Yeah." Ranma nodded. "She wouldn't have left without breakin' a few skulls if she didn't at least suspect it."
Nabiki watched the pair from the edge of the crowd, shaking her head. Who would have thought that baby sister could be so… diplomatic? But then, she was probably right. It was easy to be diplomatic when you didn't have a mountain of pressure pressing down on you, a mountain that Ranma herself had effectively eliminated. Nabiki Tendo shook her head and silently began to formulate her own plans for the remainder of the day. "One fiancee down and two fiancées, one mistress, two fathers, and one mother to go."
Ranma rolled the word around on his tongue as he walked through the park. Once again, and in his own insane way, Tatewaki Kuno was right again. After nearly two years, two failed weddings and a countless number of dates, kidnappings and duels, their relationship had finally imploded under the pressure cooker of stress. Two years, down the drain. The martial artist gritted his teeth, stepping between the golden shafts of light produce by the trees and setting sun. Ranma Saotome didn't lose, but these last few months were apparently the exception to the rule. It was a fact that he had slowly come to terms with, though that hardly lessened the sting, or the fact that he owed Akane. Big time. She had been relying on him and he failed, consoling in Kasumi while he hid from the world in Tate's mansion. His personal honor had been tarnished and now reparations were definitely in order.
"Yo, Ranma!" The voice broke him from his musings and the pigtailed boy focused on the new figure walking into the park towards him. "Got the note. What's with all the cloak and dagger stuff, anyway?"
"Didn't tell anybody, right?" Ranma pressed back in place of a normal greeting, though he did manage a slight smile at the cloak and dagger comment.
Daisuke studied his friend for a moment, the shrugged. "You said it's important, so it's important." Ranma nodded with the information. Nobody had followed his friend, or if they had, they were far more skilled than even his own formidable abilities detect. "What's up, anyway."
"Got a girlfriend, Dai?" The question came out of the total blue causing the classmate to stop short.
"Is that a trick question, Oh Mister "I've got so many fiancées I could puke"? Of course Daisuke knew that they were a constant source of angst in his friend's life, but that didn't mean he was about to let Ranma off easy.
The martial artist chuckled slightly, kicking a stone at his feet away. The answer was, of course, no, but he had to be sure. Last thing he needed for this was to create another love octagon. There were days when he simply prayed to God for a simpler shape. A mere triangle would be welcome at this point. "Yeah, yeah. Just askin…. So?"
"Not unless you count Hiroshi's magazines." The friend snorted. Ranma's smile vanished.
"That's why you're here and he's not."
Daisuke blinked. This was just getting odd. "Oooookay….?"
"Look, what I'm about ta tell ya doesn't go beyond us, got it?" Ranma continued, totally serious now.
Ranma took a deep breath and focused on the orange sunset sky. "Akane and I aren't… Together anymore."
"WHAT!?" Daisuke nearly fell over. "You gotta be kidding! She dumped you?!
"Ain't and no." Ranma confirmed, leaving the teen gawking. "We both decide it just wasn't gonna work."
"Damn, man. I don't know what to say…" Which was entirely true. Most of Furinkan considered their relationship nigh indestructible, the stuff of legends. They had been through kidnappers, martial arts challenges, fiancées, Amazons, demigods… They had been through it all, and now it was over.
"It was comin' anyway. Probably better this way." Ranma shrugged, failing to convince Daisuke with his nonchalant attitude. "Still, she needs somebody ta help her through."
"Somebody who ain't a martial artist. Somebody normal." Somebody who won't attract the crazies or overshadow everything she hopes to ever accomplish in martial arts, Ranma added mentally, knowing full well that external pressure wasn't the sum total of their relationship problems. "Know anybody like that?"
"Half of Furinkan?" Daisuke chuckled. "But seriously, most of the student body worships the ground she walks on."
"Which is why I figure she needs somebody safe." Ranma agreed. "No sports clubs, no mobs, no martial arts dating challenges. Somebody I know and ain't a pervert."
"Sounds reasonable." Daisuke nodded. "Who do you have in mind?"
The smile reappeared on Ranma's lips. He didn't like the looks of it. "I'm lookin' at him."
Thanks for bearing with me as I slowly work us into the meat of the plot. I know, I forgot to turn Ranma into a mary sue nympho again, but I promise to next time. I really don't have much to comment on atm, other than thank you for giving this fic a chance. I estimate probably 2 more parts, three maybe. Then again, it's a fact that my estimates are crap so just assume 10-20 and we'll call it even.
Thanks to everybody who replied to my plea for an editor on my main ffnet page. I've received a number of emails and will likely rotate through them as to not burn any one person out with my laziness.
Special Thanks goes to TriMatter and McClown and MageOhki, whom I routinely bounce ideas off of to ensure I'm not going off the deep end, not to mention UncleLou for services rendered in the editing and grammar department. Thank you much all yas.
Quote of the Day Trimatter: my wife is giving me the "feed me" eyes