"W- What the hell is this place?" Ranma stood in a deceptive stance, ready to move with every bit of speed that he could muster. He had been standing by the river, examining a pretty blue stone that he'd found and suddenly he was here.
Swallowing, he saw nothing but an endless smooth blue floor and a translucent blue dome overhead, stretching away to eternity. It was… magical.
"A visitor! It has been such a long time. Good morning!"
Ranma spun around to face the voice. There had been nothing but endless blue haze in that direction before. Now there was a low round dais, covered with evenly spaced pedestals holding various objects. A small blue horned creature, manlike, but clearly a devil of some sort, stood in the center of the dais smiling at him.
"Great. More magic." Ranma slumped, wearily. He had never had any luck at all with magic. "Okay, so whaddaya want with me?"
The blue devil bowed. "I am here to serve."
Ranma laughed darkly. That would be the day. The thing would be out to get him any time now.
"Yeah, right. Name's Ranma. Ranma Saotome. So who are you?"
"Who am I? Intriguing! No one has ever asked me that question before. Ah, but I digress. I have no name, no personal identity. You see before you an artifact created to serve the dreamstone." The devil gestured at the objects around it on the pedestals. "I collect and guard the talents."
"Talents?" Ranma scratched his head. He knew what talent was, but how could a talent be guarded? Maybe it was some kind of foreign money. He pointed at the pedestal closest to him. "That looks more like an abacus to me."
The devil reached over and picked up the stylized ivory device. It smiled at Ranma, teeth showing. "This is simply a manifestation of the divine talent of a prodigy, a mathematical genius who never got the chance to reveal himself to the world." The creature regarded the tool fondly and then sat it down. "It is quite the find, one of the stone's more recent acquisitions."
Ranma took a step back, shaken. "But… talent is part of the soul! Are you sayin' that you got a bunch of souls trapped up there?"
The devil looked surprised. "I did not say it but it is nonetheless true after a fashion. The dreamstone is drawn to the greatest of talents and becomes their eternal repository. I collect them before they can be squandered in death by you feckless mortals." It smiled, looking speculatively at Ranma. "I only take the useful part of the soul. The rest… a partial soul never survives."
It shrugged, unconcerned with the waste. There were many souls.
"You kill people and destroy their souls?" Ranma was getting angry. "Why?"
The devil enjoyed these arguments. It was the only conversation that it ever got. "Please, it is my function. I was made to perform this function and so cannot be held morally responsible. It is not a bad thing I do, though. I preserve the greatness of the soul! I collect only the best from many worlds and times." The devil strode to the edge of the dais, claws clicking, possessively brushing various talents as it passed. "My late creator's talent was inadvertently collected during my creation you see, and so I am able to go where I must."
The devil paused to caress the ivory wizard's staff, gloating. "I need no master now that I am able to access the talents."
"So," Ranma glared, outraged. "Crazy Devil! You want to steal my art!"
The devil bowed. "It is an honor, in a way. Ranma Saotome, you are the possessor of the greatest martial arts talent that has ever lived in any world. You are undoubtedly the best martial artist, or you would have been, had you lived long enough." The devil raised a clawed hand and pointed at Ranma. "I must have it, you see. I must save the talent. It is my function."
"No one just takes the art. No one." Ranma had leveled mountains and boiled lakes. He had slain a god and he had beaten demons into sniveling servile submission. He had ridden tornadoes and recently he had even begun teaching himself how to fly. The cost to him in sheer effort had been incalculable.
Ranma glared. No shitty little blue devil was going to come along and take all of that effort for itself. Not without one hell of a fight.
The devil crooned at him, "I will guard your art and keep it safe for all time. The remainder of your soul will not survive, but then of what use is it without talent? Be content that a portion of your being shall outlast eternity. You shall always be the best!"
"Yeah, I am the best, Devil. Too damn good for a messed up thing like you! Mouko Takabisihi!"
The devil smiled affectionately as the ki passed through everything, like light through glass, without effect. "So powerful. So very impressive. Now I must rend the talent from your soul. It will be very painful and save for your talent, you will utterly perish, but I must carry out my function. It is my reason for being after all."
A beam sprang from the devil's hand and touched Ranma's head.
Ranma froze, feeling his very being coming apart. He had lost!
Suddenly, a terrible scream of rage echoed through the blue emptiness and a huge, snow-white tiger bounded into the devil, knocking pedestals over willy-nilly as its massive burning claws tore into the keening devil.
"C- C- Cat!" Ranma wailed, falling to the blue floor in his weakness. He was helpless against the awful demonic cat, as helpless he had been as a child tied up in the pit! Surprisingly though, the sick mindless terror of the neko-ken did not fully engulf him this time.
The cat tore the devil into scraps and then proceeded to eat it, just in case.
Ranma closed his eyes, ignoring the grisly crunching sounds coming from the cat. He would be next, dying the death that he feared the most, but at least with the devil gone he would probably die with his soul intact.
Its enormous meal concluded, the tiger licked off its claws and then walked over to where the insensate Ranma lay. Presently it began nuzzling playfully at him.
Ranma lay paralyzed with terror for a time, but there was only so much fear in one man. He wasn't going insane and the creature wasn't harming him. "G- Good kitty." Ranma managed to overcome his horror enough to open his eyes.
The tiger was truly enormous now, easily the size of a small elephant.
Ranma tried to fend it off, but his movements were weak, jerky and uncoordinated. He finally gave up when the tiger simply pinned him down with a tire-sized paw and began to lick him.
Lying there, Ranma wondered at the strange growl, until he realized that the huge cat was purring.
Absently, he reached up and rubbed the great friendly beast on its broad head. He was struck by the depth and the crystalline purity of its blue eyes. Feeling himself slipping away, Ranma made a decision. He had always wanted to go out with class. This thing had fought for him, so he had to make an effort. He took a deep breath and used every bit of his willpower, and finally managed to put aside his fear.
"You ain't so bad, are ya? Thanks a million for killin' that devil, pal." Ranma looked past the great form and saw that the dais was gone. Resigned, he closed his eyes to die.
The cat rumbled ecstatically, butting its huge head against Ranma. It suddenly thinned away into smoke, which boiled into Ranma's chest.
"Ranma! Oh, Ranma-Honey! Are you alright? Speak to me!"
"Uh?" Ranma opened his eyes to find his face deeply buried in Ukyo's abundant cleavage, her arms clamped around him like a bear trap.
Ranma's eyes crossed, glazed over and then sweat popped from every pore. She certainly wasn't cross-dressing today. The reality of her strawberry scent almost overwhelmed him.
"You're awake!" Ukyo hoped that she could contain her embarrassment. She was wearing low boots, tight hiking shorts and a scandalously brief yellow halter-top. The bow in her hair contained more material than her top.
Ranma swallowed. Who would have thought that such large and finely shaped breasts could be hidden so artfully? It was a good thing that he was used to his girl form's breasts, because otherwise Ukyo would have her way with him on the spot and he would end up spending the rest of his life as an okonomiyaki waitress.
"U-Ucchan? What are you doing up here?" Ranma managed to overcome his paralysis and pull away from that deep and perilous valley. He looked around, bewildered. He was still high in the mountains, beside the small river. Looking at his hand, Ranma saw what looked like blue powder covering his right palm. That was the palm that had held the dreamstone. He must have crushed it and escaped.
"I was looking for you, silly! I thought that you might get hungry up here all alone so I brought my grill. I found you unconscious, holding that blue stone and I couldn't get your hand to open so I just waited." Ukyo took his arm, leaning in to him, smiling. The top had worked! He had seen her as a woman at last! She almost had him! They would camp together tonight and she would take him. In the morning they go for a quick wedding on Love Hotel Hill and then go pick up his things from that miserable dojo!
"Yeah, the stone. Ugh. That was scary." Ranma warily blew the powder off onto the ground and then buried it with a few flips of his kung-fu slipper.
Ukyo looked at him with concern. "Was it a training accident? Are you feeling alright, Ranchan?"
"Uh, yeah, sort of. I'm fine now, Ucchan." In fact, he was feeling good. "Say, where's my shirt?"
Ukyo blushed, glad that she had re-buttoned his pants. Once she had determined that he was alive, she had taken the opportunity to thoroughly and minutely inspect every inch of her property. She had been delighted to note her fiancées abundance of inches. Now she was more determined than ever to hang on to her dear Ranchan.
"It's drying over by the grill, Ranma-honey. You were laying half in the river, so I changed you back once I got you out and had some hot water ready. I took it off of you so that it could dry out."
Ranma smiled at her, feeling a great rush of warmth and affection. He was glad to have someone around after getting away from that devil. Ranma didn't need comforting very often, but having it now was like water to a desert. Good ol' Ucchan, always looking out for him. Whatever the blue thing had been, it was over now and best forgotten.
"Oh, Ranma." Ukyo, seeing the real affection in the smile, pulled her shirtless muscular fiancée tightly to her bosom, once again bringing her heavy guns to bear. She really owed Konatsu for showing her that Cosmo article. They were absolutely right about attracting a man! Who could have guessed that it would work this fast?
"Ayaaagh! Shampoo so-so surprised to find dear Husband in mountains!" Shampoo was trying to hide her horrified dismay at this cozy little scene behind a bright smile. Spatula girl would pay and pay dearly for this outrage!
Ranma swallowed as the purple-haired glomping-machine attached itself to his other side, relentlessly pressing into him with her own over-generous endowment of cleavage.
"What are you doing here? You let go of my Ranchan, you Chinese Hussy!" Ukyo wriggled and ground her bosom, getting a good grip on his arm for the upcoming round of tug-o-war.
Shampoo smiled sweetly at Ranma, got a good grip and then glared with laser-like fury at Ukyo. "Spatula girl up in mountains looking for nice set of bruises? Shampoo happy to help!"
Ranma swallowed, unable to intervene, trying his best not to melt into a puddle. So much for comforting. Simultaneous cleavage attacks did not appear to cancel each other out. He clenched his eyes shut, knowing what was coming.
"Ranma! I knew that you were up here having an orgy with your perverted fiancées! Akane glared white hot rage at him from the other side of the river, hammer in hand. At least she had caught them before-
A trickle of blood ran from Akane's nostril as her imagination filled in the blanks. She screamed with inchoate fury. "Raaaannmaaa! You pervert! I'll get you for this!"
Ranma winced. He was a dead man.
'Ungrateful boy!' read the Panda's sign.
"Wahhhhh! The houses will never be joined!" Soun brought his nagata into attack position.
Genma and Soun fanned out, jumped over the river and readied themselves to attack the wayward groom.
"Ranma! How dare you cheat on Akane!" Ryoga stumbled out of the forest, got a look at Ukyo's attire, saw Shampoo locked onto Ranma's other arm and had an instant nosebleed. "Gaaa! Ranma, you dog! How dare you cheat on Akane with two women at the same time! I will crush you into thin red slime for this outrage!"
Ryoga got turned around, smashed a large tree out of his way and blundered into the river, where the swift current carried the angrily squealing piggy right past Akane.
Akane suddenly snapped out of her oblivious glaring at Ranma and noticed something besides the perverted boy/girl and his two perverted girlfriends, getting ready to hold an orgy that would forever redefine the bounds of perversion. "P-chan! Hold on! Mommy will save you!" Akane dived into the river, instantly sinking.
"Akane! My little girl! Oh, don't drown, Akane! I couldn't bear it!" Soun collapsed into useless crying, one suspiciously dry eye glaring hard at Ranma.
"Kami-sama. Every damn time I try and go anywhere…"
Ranma sighed and then used Ryoga's umbrella to pry himself free of Ukyo and then after a much greater struggle, from Shampoo. "Sorry girls, but I gotta go save the tomboy again."
Both girls pouted, but neither really wanted to see Akane drown. It would be far too kind.
Ranma dived in, the curse instantly taking hold and spoiling the smooth dive. She opened her eyes and saw Akane, completely turned around, hammering determinedly with fists of iron at the river bottom and churning up gravel like a dredge.
P-Chan was clamped to Akane's shirt collar, throwing off vortexes as he swam furiously for the surface. The piggy was trying hard, but he simply wasn't large enough to drag Akane away from her battle with the river.
The instant that Ranma arrived, Akane's blouse buttons gave way. P-Chan gave one final, heroic lunge and managed to pull her bra off too, before the current spun him away.
Seeing Akane's breasts flopping free did little for Ranma's sense of wellbeing. Akane would pound her good for this, any way she tried to explain it. With considerable trepidation, Ranma reached for her tomboy fiancée.
Akane went limp the instant that Ranma touched her, as if she had been waiting.
Among the bickering spectators watching from the riverbank, an invisible panda paused to scarf down the okonomiyaki that Ukyo had cooked for her Ranchan's triumphant return. Sadly for the beast, Ukyo detected the theft almost instantly and was smart enough to watch for footprints.
Mousse, having just landed, spilled Ukyo's steaming teapot in order to change back from his duck form. Sweeping the crowd, he mistook Soun's broad back for that of his bitter rival and lunged determinedly to the attack. The surprise back-stab technique had an honored place in the annals of advanced Amazon wu-shu, after all.
The armor-clad master of the Tendo Ryu felt the burning gaze on his neck and just had time to turn and deflect a wickedly hooked sword. While not really related to Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu, the Tendo School of Kendo had existed for long generations before Soun's brutal apprenticeship with Happosai.
Soun grinned unpleasantly and raised his weapon.
Shampoo laughed. Like all of the other Masters of Anything Goes, Tendo was a dead loss in every other aspect of his life, but no one could deny that he was a great martial artist. Mousse had made this same retarded mistake before and Tendo had not been kind.
Shampoo could tell that the panda was playing dead, perfectly safe behind an iron-skin style ki shield, so she took the opportunity to kick Ukyo's grill into the river. It was time to teach Spatula Girl just who was wife around here. With any luck the issue could be settled before Airen emerged from the river.
Ukyo paused in her panda-abuse and glared. "You shouldn't have done that, China-Girl."
All offended parties attacked simultaneously.
Ranma stood on the opposite side of the river, a half-naked Akane in a fireman's hold, staring in disbelief at the idiotic tableaux of mayhem and egregious environmental destruction unfolding before her. Shaking her head, Ranma spun the girl around and patted Akane's back to help the water run out of her mouth.
Laying her out on a flat limestone rock-shelf, Ranma listened to Akane's thready heartbeat, steeled herself for a blow and reluctantly began mouth-to-mouth respiration.
Akane woke and the first thing that she noticed was the sensation of Ranma-chan's oversized breasts pressing into her. The second thing was Ranma-chan's silky-soft lips, gently caressing her own. She then became aware of Ranma-chan's naked embrace, the soft fingers trailing over her breasts as the heel of the hand pushed at her diaphragm. The feel of it was so intense that she almost fainted.
Akane lay rigid for a long, shocked moment, nose trickling blood. Ranma was molesting her! The perverted freak had dragged her into one of her unspeakably wild lesbian orgies, just like Akane had always known that she would!
"Pervert!" screamed Akane, throwing off the redhead and swinging a supersonic hammer of ki that even Happosai had trouble avoiding.
An instant later, Ranma was crossing the horizon, courtesy of mallet airways. Flying towards the city, Ranma sighed to herself. A very cute girl that was actually a boy had occasion to learn to appreciate the many subtle flavors of irony. She had gone out on a solitary trip to contemplate the advanced ki manipulation that allowed morons like Herb and Saffron to defy gravity, only to be sent flying by means of an entirely different application of ki by an entirely different group of morons.
Ranma sighed again as her mother's newly repaired house grew rapidly in front of her. Once again it seemed that there was no limit to just how bad her life could get on any given day.
Nodoka sang happily as she completed the inspection of her new home. She had received a substantial amount from her insurance settlement and the house was larger and had better furnishings than it ever had before the disaster. The construction company that had finally responded to her inquiries had been connected to her late father's clan in some way and was very reasonable in price. In fact, the new appliances and artwork were at least equal in value to the money that her insurance company had given to the construction company. It was good to have solid clan ties.
There was a loud thud from outside, like ground meat hitting a cold frying pan.
Frowning, Nodoka stepped out of her back door and regarded the topless, heavily endowed young girl sliding down the wall. The girl flopped nervelessly at her feet.
Ranma blinked until her eyes uncrossed. "Hi, Mom. Sorry about this."
"Wha- Oh, Ranma!" Nodoka swallowed, uncomfortably. Horribly unmanly curse or not, Ranma was a scorchingly beautiful young woman and it wouldn't do to give every pervert in Minato-ku a free peep show.
Ranma sat up, groaning and rubbing her breasts. "Oh, man, that wall is strong. It really hurt." Most walls shattered obligingly upon impact.
"Come inside, Ranma. It is not really very manly to let people see your br… Never mind. Just come inside, please." Nodoka sighed.
"So then she bashes me a good one with her mallet an' I land here." Ranma sipped his hot tea, grinning with delight to be himself again. "I don't think these weekend training trips are gonna work out for me, Mom." Ukyo and Shampoo could track like bloodhounds and Akane had the old men to help her find him.
Nodoka shook her head in disbelief. "Does this sort of thing happen to you often, my son?"
"Well, that blue devil was a little different from the common red devils you usually run into and Ukyo never wore anything like that little bikini thing before, but yeah. Pretty much every day." Ranma sighed. What the hell was he going to do about Ucchan? No way was he going to be a sexy little waitress getting her ass pinched all the time and that was about the only real job that he could do in an okonomiyaki restaurant. Kami alone only knew who else would hire a mobile war zone like him. Maybe a demolitions contractor or something like that.
Ranma frowned. It was just too soon in his life to have to make these kinds of life-long decisions. He was only seventeen.
Nodoka nodded slowly. "I have learned at great personal cost that while love is a good reason to marry, it is by no means the only reason. You must be able to tolerate each other, Ranma. Do you want out of the Tendo arrangement? It is easily done."
In her safety deposit box, Nodoka had the actual marriage contract that the two clowns had negotiated. Because Soun and Genma had been too cheap pay a lawyer's fee it was a purchased fill-in-the-blanks document, pre-printed with lots of standard legal boilerplate, boilerplate that neither her husband nor Tendo had ever bothered to read.
One helpful clause stated that either principal could verbally declare the contract null and void at any time before the marriage occurred. Since all three of the Tendo girls had already done just that, Ranma need only leave the Tendo Dojo to be free of the arrangement with his honor intact.
Ranma shrugged, shame-faced. "I couldn't let 'em down, Mom. I got a duty." The truth was that he liked all of the Tendo girls, but love? Ranma had no idea what love was. He liked Kasumi's cooking and her gentle personality. He liked arguing with Akane and he especially liked teasing her until she ignited in a fireball of feminine rage and came after him. He even liked sparring verbally with Nabiki, unless Nabiki got too rough.
Ranma frowned. If that was the measure that he was going by, then Ucchan had the edge on all of them. She was always friendly, upbeat and free with her delicious okonomiyaki. Ucchan would do anything for him and he would do anything for her, except become another Konatsu. He just couldn't see any real place for himself in her life.
Not that he didn't like Shampoo, either. The Amazon was a divine cook, and she had a smoldering sexiness that made his mouth go dry and his knees knock together sometimes. Her maniac energy attracted him and he especially liked to watch her move during a fight.
He liked all of them. Every one of his fiancées, except maybe for Kodachi, were truly great girls. But love?
Ranma loved to fight, loved to eat and loved to learn new martial arts techniques. He had no idea what it was to love another person.
"Duty? Son, whatever do you mean?" Nodoka raised her eyebrows interrogatively.
Ranma sighed at the thought of his burden. "It has to do with taxes or something, Mom. Tendo needs to pass on the estate so many years before he dies or else the Tendo sisters could lose the whole thing to death taxes. So unless I marry Akane pretty soon all of the Tendos could end up out on the street." He couldn't let it happen, especially not to Kasumi. It was plainly his duty to marry Akane and Ranma never shirked his duty.
Nodoka double-blinked. "Surely you don't actually believe that tripe, Ranma. The most elementary bit of estate planning allows one to avoid that sort of tax situation with ease. Married or not, you will certainly face no such tax liability when your father and I pass on. Soun is a city councilman and I happen to know that he is quite well off. He has a financial planner that will have told him just how it can be done." She shook her head. "Besides, Soun could easily last another fifty years or even longer. Martial artists are notoriously long lived."
Ranma froze in the act of biting his cookie. He blinked twice and then set the cookie down. "You gotta be kiddin' me." Ranma swallowed, and then smacked his head on the table. "I've been had! The panda got me again! What the hell is wrong with me? I must be the dumbest guy in the whole world! When am I ever going to learn?"
Nodoka frowned, her eyes arctic cold. "So, to recap, your father told you that little tale to manipulate you into a loveless marriage with that abusive harridan? So that he could retire comfortably upon your labor?"
"Yeah- Uh, Akane ain't really so bad, though." Ranma knew that he had worse girls than Akane after him. Pink and Link, or Kodachi for example. And Akane was just around more. The other girls weren't exactly reluctant to lay a smack down on him either.
Ranma looked at his mother, eyes troubled. "Anything Goes means just that, Mom. It never stops and there ain't no limits. I should have seen it coming."
Nodoka's face was now beet-red with fury. "You should not have to worry about your father and his stupid, sordid schemes trapping you into a living hell of- Damn that man!"
Ranma swallowed. Mom was pissed.
Nodoka took a deep, calming breath. It was time to discard the illusions that had sustained her and to consider only her son's needs. Martial arts had ceased to serve any purpose beyond that of warping her son into a person who could never make a place for himself in modern Japanese society. It was time to take a hand in her son's life and repair some of the damage before it was too late.
"Never mind, my son. It has become painfully evident to me that you need to put some distance between yourself and that whole sordid situation until all parties can regain some sort of perspective. I am exercising my prerogative as your mother and moving you home." She should never have let that dishonorable panda take her precious child. Nodoka hoped that the gods would not judge her too harshly.
"Home?" Ranma looked around at the newly rebuilt house and felt nothing. He had no memories of the place as a home. He had been nothing but a wandering martial artist for his entire life. To Ranma, home was his shirt and his roof was the sky.
"Yes, home, Ranma. This is your home and you will live in it, whatever that panda thinks. He has had his ten years and now it is my turn. You may commute to school by train when the term starts next week or transfer to a nearer school as you wish, but you will sleep here. No arguments, now!"
Ranma winced. "Uh- Mom. What about… the fiancées? They really tore this place up the last time around. We can't have them coming here again. And… I got some pretty tough guys out for my blood." He could just imagine Ryoga blundering in from wherever he went and casually blowing up his mother's incredibly sturdy new wall.
Nodoka frowned. Yes, it was true, but she did have some very good insurance now. What good was a home that everyone was afraid to live in? "I wish to speak with each of the girls that you deem to be legitimate claimants to your hand. In fact, I will speak to all of the girls that are pursuing you, legitimate or not. But not together! They must each come on a separate day! Please be so good as to arrange it for me, Ranma."
"Okay." Ranma wasn't looking forward to that one. Most of them would take any such invitation as a sure sign of impending marriage. Maybe he could get Nabiki to help. It would be expensive, but Nabiki was good to have on your side when there was trouble ahead.
Considering, Nodoka continued, "As for the men, let them know in no uncertain terms that only formal challenges and pre-arranged matches will be accepted in these environs. I will regard any sort of surprise attack or breakage as a criminal and a civil matter. The police will be informed as well as my lawyers."
Ranma nodded, uncomfortably. He didn't want cops involved in his life. They would probably want to lock him up just to calm things down. "Mom, do we really have to call in the cops? I'd rather not."
Nodoka smiled tearfully at this manly display of rugged individualism. "Oh, Son, it will be so grand to have you home!"
"Uh… yeah." Ranma wheezed, realizing once again that Shampoo was a rank amateur when it came to glomping.
Nodoka released him and beckoned. "I took the liberty of buying you a few things to bulk out your wardrobe, Ranma-dear. Come upstairs and I will show you to your room. You can try some of them on for me after dinner!"
Ranma stood uncomfortably in the front of the train station. He had never grasped the logic in wasting money riding inside of trains when riding on top was free, but his mother had pressed the ticket money on him after breakfast and had made him promise to be 'civilized' today.
Every girl in the place was staring at him, wide-eyed. He tossed his hair, unused to the irritating sensation of long hair worn free instead of tied off in a sensible pigtail. His mother had absolutely insisted that he wear it this way and as the dragon whisker soup had lost most of its potency, he didn't see why he shouldn't oblige her. But… all of these girls… Their intense staring gave him the willies. What in the hell did they want from him?
"Eeeeee!" A young girl nearly fainted at this breathtaking display, slumping against her widely grinning friend. To their eyes the boy was the epitome of handsome, perfectly muscular with a divinely handsome face and flowing raven locks that just called to have fingers running through it. He was wearing kung-fu slippers, black silk pants and a collarless, body-molding sleeveless silk shirt that was exactly the same startling shade of crystalline-blue as his eyes.
Ranma was oblivious to the fact that his mother had dressed him almost exactly like the cover illustration depicting the rugged hero of her favorite romance novel. Most of the girls in the station had read the book and although none recognized the outfit consciously, their subconscious minds were absolutely aware of it.
Ranma swallowed, taking a step back. It was unnerving, almost like cats. To hell with the train then. What was so uncivilized about roof hopping?
Ranma stiffened as a powerful pair of arms closed around him from the back. The rose scent wafted over him and he stuttered, "Ko- Ko- Kodachi!"
"Oh, Ranma, what a wonderful surprise!" Kodachi spun him around and hugged him tightly, sweeping the entire train station with a murderously possessive glare over Ranma's shoulder. Most of the girls looked quickly away, but a few predators stared coolly back.
Kodachi's face was all smiles when Ranma saw it. "Whatever are you doing here in Minato-Ku, Ranma-samma?"
Ranma smiled self-consciously as Kodachi took his arm. At least she would keep the rest of them away. "I was just visiting with my mom."
Kodachi's smile never wavered. So that's where he had been. None of her minions had been able to follow him. Satsuki would pay for his incompetence.
"How is your delightful mother?" Kodachi was thrilled by his presence here. It was almost like a date! How could she turn it in to one? Of course! Appeal to his manly virtues! Her agile mind worked furiously to come up with a plan. It had to have an element of truth, but not necessarily be the truth.
Ranma shrugged. "Good, I guess. She finally got her house rebuilt an' she's pretty happy about it."
"Ah." The Saotome home was something of a sore subject. "How nice for you all. Does this mean that you will be returning to your own home?" That would neatly remove the Tendo competitive advantage.
"Yeah. Mom wants to see you." Ranma winced and added hastily, "She wants ta see all of you girls. But on separate days!"
Kodachi was thrilled to be included. "Of course, Darling. I will call her tomorrow and see when it would be convenient for us to have our little chat."
Ranma smiled with relief. "Thanks."
Kodachi, loving that smile, took him firmly by the hand, having conceived her scheme. "Ranma-dear, could you do me a great favor?"
Ranma began to sweat. Agreeing to anything on an open ended basis was a sure invitation to disaster. "Um, well, what do you want me to do?" Ranma mentally congratulated himself on a deft sidestep.
"I recently broke my old cello and wish to purchase a new one. I need a strong man to help me carry it back. Could you please help me, Ranma-samma? I'll pay for the train and everything." Kodachi rarely used it, but her cutest-little-girl-in-the-universe look could melt even the hardest heart.
Ranma blinked. He had some time to kill anyway, and it would leave some money in his pocket at the end of the day. "Uh, yeah, okay. But what's a cello?"
"I didn't think there were any cello stores in Takeshita Street." Ranma's arm was firmly in Kodachi's possession and he was carrying several of her shopping bags, just like the hundreds of other teenaged couples thronging the narrow street of Tokyo's famous 'Teen Town.'
Kodachi smiled sweetly at him, reveling in the envious gazes that she was receiving. "I'm sorry, Ranma-darling, but I needed to make a few stops. One more little purchase and then we can go over to Shibuya for the cello. There are some very fine restaurants over there and I'm feeling a bit peckish today. Oh, look there, a Starbucks! Come, Darling! Let's get a cappuccino and some pastries to hold us." She was quickly learning how to manage Ranma. It had taken some small effort to convince him to go along with her plan, but once moving he could be led easily by his appetite.
"That sounds great, Ko-chan!" Ranma brightened with new enthusiasm. He had never had a cappuccino before and was curious. So far the day had been something of a culinary adventure for him and he hadn't spent a single yen.
Kodachi almost fainted with joy over this diminutive. She had found the key to Ranma's heart at last!
Ranma stood in the huge music store, utterly bored. Kodachi was in another room talking with a store clerk about various cellos, which had turned out to be nothing more than great big fiddles. He had been skeptical but surprisingly enough she could really play the thing.
Yawning, Ranma picked up a regular sized fiddle from a display table, looking curiously at it. He had heard some great fiddle playing in America, when he and his father had been staying with Colonel Bristol. Genma had been hired for a while as a consultant to help develop the unarmed martial art of the American Marine Corps.
Holding the fiddle as he'd seen them held in Nashville, he experimented with the neck and then plucked out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the strings.
An elderly man wearing a rumpled brown suit and a pince-nez walked up to him. "You'll need a bow to play that instrument properly, young man."
Ranma hastily put the fiddle down. "Sorry. I'm here with a friend. I just got bored waiting and wandered out here to have a look around."
The man smiled, picking up another violin. He knew talent when he saw it. "Not a problem, that's what these instruments are here for. I work for the company and I suppose that I should help the customers occasionally. Here, do me a favor, take a bow and I'll show you how it's done to pass the time. There's really nothing much to it. It only takes seven easy lessons."
"Seven?" Ranma shrugged, picking up the violin and the bow. How hard could it be? "Why not. I like fiddle music." Looking at the clerk, Ranma tucked the instrument under his chin and copied his stance. "Like this?"
The man inspected him and then nodded with satisfaction. "Hmm. Absolutely correct. You are a quick study, young man. There, that's lesson one down. Now, on to lesson two. The second thing that you have to know in order play this 'fiddle' is the art of proper, even bowing. You need it in order to hold a sustained note."
Kodachi had played the cello religiously until gymnastics had caught her interest. She had broken her old student model over Tatawaki's head some weeks ago and was quite surprised at how much she missed playing it.
Having made a selection, Kodachi emerged from the soundproofed audition room and gaped with pure astonishment. Her dearly beloved but somewhat barbaric Ranma was standing in the middle of the room with a violin, taking alternate passages of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with Dr. Ishikawa.
Kodachi knew Dr. Ishikawa socially. He was the first violin of the Tokyo Symphony. As far as she could tell, Ranma's bowing was impeccable. She couldn't detect any difference in their playing.
Beaming, Kodachi made her way to her future husband's side. They would make such beautiful music together!
"Hello, Ranma." Nabiki grinned merrily at him. "I heard that you had a fun-fun date with Kodachi today!"
Ranma frowned. Was there anyplace on the planet where Nabiki didn't have spies lurking? "It wasn't a date, alright? I was just carrying some stuff for her."
Nabiki smirked. "You know that Akane is going to kill you if she finds out."
Ranma shrugged uncomfortably. Damn if he would pay blackmail this time! Maybe he could change the subject. "I need to talk to her. Where is she, Nabiki?"
Nabiki frowned. Ranma wasn't following his conditioning. He should be floundering about, trying to buy her off. It was very cute, so she always took his money. "She hasn't come back from the mountains yet. Daddy called and said that there had been a little bit of trouble with the foresters, but that everything was fine now." They had blamed everything on Ryoga, a legendary figure of destruction hated and feared by foresters all over the planet.
Ranma sighed. "Yeah, they were tearin' up the woods pretty bad last I saw. I guess that I'll just go ahead and pack up before they get here."
Shocked, Nabiki grabbed his shoulder, marveling at the delightful feel of prime beef. "Hold it, Saotome. What do you mean, pack?"
"She knocked me all the way to mom's house, Nabiki. Mom saw me land and she's not very happy about it at all. I have ta go and live there for a while until everyone cools off on the fiancée business."
"Crap." Nabiki knew that this would alternately devastate and infuriate her sister. More to the point, it would drastically cut into Nabiki's profit margins. "Giving up, Saotome? What about the Dojo? Are you going to take us in when we're all living in the street?" Nabiki didn't quite manage a tear, but she was quite proud of the artful trembling of her lip.
Ranma snorted. "Mom finally set me straight about the tax thing, Nabiki. I ain't fallin' for any more of that kind of crap and I ain't gettin' married to nobody until I'm at least twenty one, got a job and really want to do it."
Nabiki pealed with laughter. "Touché Saotome! You didn't have a thing to worry about anyway. Kasumi and I decided on the day that you arrived that no marriage was going to take place until you were both college graduates with decent income. You're both way too immature to marry."
Ranma smiled at her. "Nabiki, I'm gettin' the hell out of here and away from you while my butt is still attached."
Letting her palm slide down from his shoulder, Nabiki caressed her way down his back to grope lewdly at the area in question. "Saotome, do you doubt for a minute that I could have gotten my hands on that butt any time that I wanted? Maybe I will anyway, stud-muffin."
Nabiki gave a belly laugh when Ranma used his revised umisenken to fade from view. She was quite flattered. It was a move that he usually reserved for gods, demons and other supremely dangerous opponents.
"You can just put that nonsense out of your mind right now, Boy! The schools must be joined!" Genma was furious. He had spent most of the day getting himself out of a zoo cage in panda form and now the damned imp of a boy was giving him some line of bullshit about moving home to be spoiled by his mother?
Ranma shrugged into his pack. All of his gear was packed inside. It wasn't much more than he had arrived with. "Mom says I hafta."
"But the schools! This is unacceptable, Ranma!" Soun got right up in Ranma's face, shouting.
Ranma wasn't impressed. Ryoga had much better halitosis. "Mom says."
Genma was frowning heavily. "This is serious, Soun. Nodoka… I can't stop her."
Ranma smirked at the two idiots.
Genma narrowed his eyes in furious thought. They still had the tux. "All that we can do is…
Genma and Soun leapt simultaneously at Ranma, shouting, "Hold the wedding right now!"
Ranma jumped cleanly over them and then mule-kicked them both out into the back yard. "Ha! I ain't asleep this time, Old Men! If you want me, come and get me at home!"
"Insolent boy!" Genma was up and at him in a flash, but Akane's mallet came down and hammered Genma's head into the ground.
"Hey, that was pretty good, Akane." Ranma smirked derisively at his unconscious father.
Akane glared at Soun, who backed off fast, sweating.
Dear, sweet little Akane was getting to be more and more like Kimiko every day. As dangerous as a ticking bomb in a campfire. "But sweetheart, I was just-
"You just keep out of it, Daddy!" Akane gave Genma a narrow, calculating look. "He'll come around any time, Ranma. You'd better go now while the house is still standing."
Ranma hitched up his pack and shuffled his feet. "Look, I'll still see you in school, right?" School started again in four days.
Akane nodded, sniffling forlornly. "And you can still visit us here after school, right?"
"And you can come over to our place!" Ranma was smiling happily at her now.
"I can even bring you a bento now and then!" Akane was smiling back, winsomely.
Ranma's eyes widened. "No freekin' way, Akane! I ain't never eatin' that toxic slop of yours again unless you eat some first!"
"Jerk!" Akane swung with ferocious energy and sent him on his way via mallet-express.
Nabiki looked sardonically at her sister. "I think that what we have here is a textbook case of true love, Sis."
Kasumi giggled. It was true love all right. True love for eight year olds.
Ranma touched down lightly, elated that his flying skills had grown enough to allow it. Soon he would be able to lift himself into the air with ki alone!
Whistling happily, he settled his pack, looked up and froze with disbelief. He had an audience. "Uh… what?"
"Who are you?"
Ranma blanched. Fiancées! A whole pack of fiancées! The old Panda had been peddling him off to groups now. It had to be. Why else would a bunch of young girls dress up like Happosai's most hentai dream and come after him?
"Answer us!" The one with short hair stepped forward and they all suddenly posed.
Ranma gawked in stupefied amazement, stricken utterly speechless.
The one with the weirdest hairdo suddenly piped, "The park is a place for fun and family, not a landing portal for the dark kingdom! In the name of the moon, we will-
"Wait, Moon." The one in blue with the computer looked up. "He isn't with the dark kingdom, but he's very powerful. His body is composed of almost twenty percent pure energy."
Ranma finally managed to break free of his fugue. "Only twenty percent?" He had guessed that it would be more. He had to find a way to train more and harder. Much harder. "Ah, look, I gotta go home now."
Moon Chick pointed at him. "Not until you tell us who you are!"
They all took what they imagined was a menacing step forward, assuming a different pose.
Ranma bit down on his sniggering, almost rupturing his eardrums. "It ain't none of yer business who I am, Meatball Head." Not unless it was an engagement. Then they'd have him by the honor. He knew better than to tell a pack of girls who he was. They would track him right down and it would be fiancée city.
"Meatball Head! Are you laughing at us?" The yellow-skirted blonde dropped her goofy pose and pointed at him, stamping furiously.
Ranma lost it. "Bwahahahaha! Bwahaaahahaha!" Knowing the situation to be completely irretrievable, he swallowed his giggles, assumed the umisenken and started to walk away. Chicks went crazy when you laughed at them.
The clumsy, meatball-headed Moon Chick fell on her rump in shocked surprise. "W- Where did he go!"
The one in blue suddenly shouted, "I have him on the computer! He has a magic signature! Mercury Bubbles Blast!"
Ranma cried out in shocked fury as icy water hit him and the curse activated. These girls actually had an attack? A water based attack? That meant that there was a way to precipitate water out of the air! If he could do that and then use ki to heat it up….
"Jupiter thunder crash!"
Deftly, Ranma dodged a lightning bolt. All of those spark attacks by Gosunkugi's summoned 'spirit of household appliances' had taught her to feel the chi lines that the bolts followed, or else she would have been fried for sure. Fortunately she was still cloaked, so they hadn't seen her change. Well, now the gloves were off. They had asked for it and she wasn't in the mood to dish it out properly. But Ranma knew someone who would be delighted to oblige. Anything Goes, right?
Taking a deep breath, she cried out, "Happosai Happosai Happosai!"
The old bastard appeared almost instantly. He looked right through the umisenken, confirming a dark suspicion of Ranma's.
"Well hello there, Sweet Ranma-chan! It does this old man's heart good to-
Happosai caught sight of the leggy young sailor-suited girls and froze for a long, gaping stare. It was one of his most cherished dreams, come to life before his very eyes. Filled with inexpressible emotion, Happosai shed a single happy tear.
"Sweeeeeeeet-O!" Happosai launched himself, ignoring his usual target.
Ranma ran, sniggering at the screams and explosions behind her. They probably didn't deserve Happosai, but then nobody did. On the other hand the weird violent chicks certainly deserved him more than whatever innocent nonviolent girls the little troll had been molesting earlier.