CHAPTER 30

Slumber Party

You are invited

An end of the year slumber party

For girls only

to be held at the Tendo Dojo

Saturday 3 PM

games ~ contests

movies ~ gossip

fun to be had by all

Sunday shopping trip & amusement park

All meals provided

Each girl should bring:

* Pillow and bedding or sleeping bag

* Pajamas or other sleepwear

* Bath supplies, toothbrush, etc.

* Favorite doll or stuffed animal

* Makeup and jewelry

* Change of clothing for next day

* Evening dress or formal wear

Saturday came, and judgment was delivered on the invitations. Nabiki's had been a blue card with a starry night sky over head and a girl in a nightgown hugging a pillow below. Ranma, working mostly on the advice of the print shop she visited, had picked out a pink and white card that included pictures of pajama tops and bottoms. It was stock clip-art according to Miyuki, but as she'd predicted, so was Nabiki's.

Much to Nabiki's chagrin, the invitation duel was declared a tie. She tried to protest that Ranma had received help, but Nodoka and Kasumi were swayed by the argument that Ranma had only been told how to pick out a print shop.

Much like every school morning, Miyuki was waiting for them at the front gates with a bento lunch for Ranma. Sachiko waited with her.

"Ranma, Akane!" Miyuki called out. "Today's the day of the sleepover party!"

"Yes," Akane said. "We know."

"I am one of the people who sent out invitations," Ranma added. The four girls headed into the school.

"Isn't this going to be fun?" Miyuki continued. "I told you I'm bringing a karaoke machine, right? I'm bringing a television and DVD player and some movies as well! Oh, and some board games and card games, and... oh, lots of stuff! I bought new stuffed animals for everyone! Only those are gifts so I'm not supposed to tell you, so just act surprised when you get them, okay? Oh, Ranma, I hope you have cute pajamas picked out! You should totally wear that pink cotton babydoll I got you with the white lace trim and bows and the cute bloomers! You'll look so cute! I'm making special cakes for everyone after school, so I won't see you until the party. So don't look for me after school! Oh, you two know how to get there don't you?"

"I think we can find it," Ranma said.

"We used to live there, remember?" Akane added.

"Oh, of course!" Miyuki giggled. "How silly of me! It's just that I'm just sooo excited that I might just wet myself!"

Ranma looked at Miyuki in alarm. "Ah... please don't," she said.

"Don't worry, that's just an expression," Miyuki replied. "That hardly ever happens to me. But oh, I can't wait! Ranma, how many girls are coming?"

"At least fifteen, not counting Kasumi or Mom," Ranma said. "There's you and me and Akane, and Sachiko and Tomari and Kohana, and Nabiki, and Rin and Akela and Kaida, and also Yoriko - don't know if she will show up - and Ukyo and Shampoo of course, and also Yuka and Sayuri. Oh, but I sent an invitation to Kodachi too. Mom insisted."

Miyuki's eyes widened in alarm. "Do you think she will show up?"

"Dunno," Ranma said. "She might, just to mess things up. Mom says I should be friends with her, that she doesn't have any friends, but there are good reasons that she don't got no friends. Anyway, she hates me."

"Oooh, this is going to be so cool," Miyuki exclaimed. "It's just like an anime show! I wish school were over already!"

They'd reached Ranma and Akane's classroom. Ranma glanced at Sachiko, who had said nothing. "It hasn't even started yet," she said, "although it will in two minutes. You two better hurry..."

"Ohmygosh!" Miyuki exclaimed. "We'd better hurry, Sachichan! Ranma, Akane, I'll see you this evening!"

The girl dashed down the hallway. Sachiko followed at a brisk but more dignified pace.

"Well, someone seems excited," Akane said.

"No kidding," Ranma replied. "Glad we're not in the same class. She ain't gonna talk about nothin' else all day is she?"

"Oh," Akane said, "I almost forgot. I've set up an appointment after school at the salon. I'm going to have my hair redone. Did you want to come along?"

"Why would I do that?" Ranma asked.

Akane rolled her eyes. "I don't know, Ranma," she said. "Maybe you'd like to get your hair re-permed? You liked how it was before, didn't you?"

"Sure," Ranma said, "but I like how it is now too."

"With the ultra-long braid?" Akane asked. "Yet you complain about how long it takes to dry, and how much trouble it is to braid in the morning."

"But it's kind of cool, too," Ranma said. "Anyway, girl's hair is always a pain."

"Keeping hair nice is always a pain," Akane corrected. "It has nothing to do with gender. Boys just generally don't care how they look."

XXX

The phone rang at the Saotome house. Nodoka answered it. The voice on the other end was that of her estranged sister, Anako.

"Hello, Anako," Nodoka replied, her voice cool.

Ranma had asked Nodoka about his aunt after the funeral. Why did you never tell me I had an aunt and a cousin?

It's difficult to talk about her, Nodoka had replied. Our family was a very strict one - very traditional. My father was descended from samurai. That is where I got the family sword, of course. But my sister Anako was rebellious. When she was seventeen, she ran away from home. We didn't hear from her for more than two years.

When she came back, she was pregnant. She wanted a place to stay until the child was born. She was not married, and refused to name the father. Our father insisted that she give the child up for adoption, but this she also refused. So he would not let her stay.

I don't know where she went after that. I don't think she ever spoke to father again, and he refused to allow anyone to speak her name. As I said, he was very strict. It wasn't until after his death that Anako contacted me again. Even then, we've only spoken a few times since. I was as surprised as you to see her at my husband's funeral.

Your cousin Izuko was born after Genma left with you on your training trip, so she's at least two years younger than you.

All of this was true, of course. But it wasn't the whole truth.

"Imagine speaking to my sister twice in two weeks," Nodoka said. "This must be some sort of miracle."

"No, I apologize," Nodoka added after a moment. "That is a bit rude of me. Nevertheless, I've spoken with you only a handful of times since I married, so can you blame me?"

"Yes I know. Father was always stubborn. Anako, what did you need?"

"Because you only call when you need something, that's why."

"You're flying to New York? Tonight? Isn't that a bit sudden?"

It occurred to Nodoka that she really didn't know what her sister did for a living at all. She was still unmarried, so she must do something...

"Would I be able to…? Well, of course I can. No, it's no problem at all. Oh, I almost forgot; the girls are having a sleepover party at the Tendo dojo tonight. I'll be staying with the Tendos to watch over things. She should bring a sleeping bag and pillow and pajamas and whatever else one might need for a sleepover."

"The girls? Ranma and Akane, of course, plus their friends from school."

"Yes, Ranma is my son. I also have a daughter named Ranma."

"No, they're not exactly twins."

"Anako, I'm afraid it's something best explained in person..."

"Magic? Why would you ... yes, it does involve magic of a sort."

"Yes, Anako, I forgot. You do have a better reason than most to believe in magical things. I should have realized. My son Ranma fell into a cursed pool at the Jusenkyo training grounds in China. He is cursed to transform into a girl."

"No, not that kind of transformation. No, Ranma won't be able to demonstrate it. She is living as my daughter and attending St. Hebereki. She's using a magical soap to prevent transformation back into a boy."

"I have my reasons, Anako."

"Yes, that would be fine. I'll see you then."

Nodoka hung up the phone. She sighed. It wasn't that she had anything personal against her sister, it was just... well, she'd disgraced the family name. Father had disowned her. If not for that, Nodoka might have tracked Anako down years ago. She missed having a sister she could talk to.

Nor did it sound like they would get to talk much tonight either. But at least it would be nice to get to know her little niece Izuko better.

XXX

When class let out in the afternoon, Nabiki met Ranma at the front gates of the school. Akane was headed to the salon to get her hair re-permed before the party. Ranma agreed to meet her there in an hour. Their other friends were likewise busy elsewhere.

"Okay, Saotome," Nabiki said. "Now for the next challenge. Two actually. First will be a two-pronged challenge: who has the cutest pajamas, and who has the sexiest nightie."

"Got that covered," Ranma said. She paused. "Wait - why would I need both pajamas and a nightie?"

"Because, Saotome, you get to model both of them. It's part of the contest, got it?"

"Yeah, yeah, got it," Ranma replied. "So what's this other challenge?"

"Come with me," Nabiki said. "You'll soon see."

Nabiki led Ranma down several streets and then about ten blocks East. Finally she paused in front of a video store.
"Here we are," she said with satisfaction. "Ready, Ranma?"

"Sure," Ranma replied, wondering what Nabiki had in mind.

"We're going to watch movies tonight," Nabiki said.

"Yeah, I know," Ranma replied. "Miyuki's bringing a TV and DVD player and everything."

"She is?" Nabiki replied. "Well, of course she is. But we won't be watching anything Miyuki brings."

"No?"

"That's right," said Nabiki. "The movies we watch are going to be ones you and I pick out."

Ranma frowned. "How would I know what people want to watch?"

"That's the challenge, Saotome," Nabiki replied. "Whoever rents the best chick flick wins this round."

Ranma blinked. "Um... okay... what's a chick flick?"

"A movie made for girls. One that only girls like. Oh, and you get docked points if it's one Akane and I have already seen, because you might be tempted to pick something out solely for that reason. Also, no anime. I know Miyuki's an anime freak."

"A movie that girls like?" Ranma asked. "But... I've got no idea..."

"Of course you don't. That's the whole point, isn't it?" Nabiki smiled wickedly. "You go first, Saotome. I'll even loan you the money. Just waltz into this video store and rent a movie. Actually, make it two. When you come out, don't show me what they are. Then I'll go and rent a pair of movies."

Nabiki handed Ranma several yen notes. "Uh... don't I get a hint?" Ranma asked.

"Nope," Nabiki said. "You've got fifteen minutes. Now, go!"

Ranma wandered the aisles of the video store. In her experience, girls liked mushy stuff. If there was kissing and romance and whatnot, then it was sure to be a girl's film. Right? Only Ranma was vaguely aware that, even when it came to romance movies, some films were superior to others. Nabiki would know which ones were good, of course. Ranma didn't have a clue.

"Damn, this isn't fair," Ranma muttered. Normally she wouldn't even set foot in the area of a video store where she might encounter such movies. In fact, even as she debated, her feet led her unerringly to the section for action films.

Ranma picked up a Jet Li film. Well, Akane liked martial arts, didn't she? And Shampoo and Ukyo practiced as well. But Ranma knew from experience that, while Akane didn't mind a good action flick, she really like romance. Just like any girl, Ranma thought. The same was probably true for Shampoo and Ukyo.

Ranma picked up a Kurasawa film. Samurai films. Now there was something Ranma could get into. Sachiko would like that too, wouldn't she? But probably nobody else would. Ranma put the movie back.

She picked up another film. Romancing the Stone. Hmm. It had romance right in the title, didn't it? What was it doing in the action section then? Ranma looked it over, but reluctantly concluded that it was an action film, and put it back down.

She picked up another film. Shimotsuma Story. It caught her eye because of the girl on the cover, dressed in lolita clothing. She scanned it. The lead character designed her own lolita clothing?

Ranma frowned. It looked like an action film - but with lolita fashion added on. Well, that could work, couldn't it? At least for Miyuki, if no one else.

She wandered into another aisle. She only had a couple of minutes left. She spotted a movie with a familiar title. Wasn't that something that Miyuki and her friends liked? There was a guy and a girl on the cover kissing, too.

Ranma grabbed it and headed for the checkout counter.

XXX

"A slumber party?" Tatewaki Kuno asked. "At the Tendo dojo? With Akane and the pig-tailed girl?"

He paused to focus on his target – a practice pole with a pigtail attached. His bokken flashed in a downward arc, slicing the pole in two.

Kodachi stood on the engawa to the inner courtyard of the Kuno home. She watched as her brother practiced. "Yes. Those poor, silly girls and their deviant friends. Thinking they could lend a bit of class to their little party by inviting moi!" She laughed hysterically.

"For too long have I been deprived the presence of the beauteous Akane Tendo and the radiant Pig-Tailed Girl! I, Tatewaki Kuno, must also attend!"

"It's a party for girls only, dear Brother," Kodachi replied. "Still, I suppose I must attend, to keep up appearances..." Laughing again, she bounced across the courtyard in the direction of her bedroom, her ribbon trailing behind her.

XXX

Nabiki headed back to Uchan's. Ranma headed to the hair salon. She recognized the woman who greeted her from her first visit nearly two months ago.

"Good evening, Miss," the woman said. "Ranma, isn't it? Did you have an appointment?"

"Ah… no," Ranma stammered. "I'm here for Akane… my sister. Akane Tendo?"

"Ah, yes," the woman said. "I think she's still being worked on. Let me check for you…."

The woman disappeared into the back. She returned a minute later. "Akane should be done in another thirty minutes. Would you like to wait in the meantime?"

"Guess I got no choice." Ranma flopped down in one of the waiting room chairs. Then she stood again and sat in a more ladylike fashion, smoothing her skirt beneath her.

"Are you sure you didn't need any work done?" the woman asked. "Maybe just a trim?"

"Nah, I'm good," Ranma replied.

She scanned the magazines on the corner table. All of them were for women - fashion magazines, baking, home decor. Not a martial art's magazine to be seen. Ranma frowned. She picked up a hairstyle book and began to flip through it idly.

Several hairstyles caught Ranma's eye. That would look good on Akane, she thought. Why didn't Akane grow her hair out again? It's not as if she couldn't do it in thirty seconds, with Cologne's help. That one would look good on Akane, too.

Ranma reached back to finger her long braid. She'd kind of enjoyed having the extra-long Hikaru Shidou-style braid, but hair this long was a pain to deal with. It took forever to dry out after a bath, and re-braiding it every morning took time and patience. She liked how it whipped around when she was practicing the art, and had been considering how it might be used as a weapon, but she wasn't sure the benefits outweighed the problems it caused.

Ranma had sort of liked the perm she'd had before. True, it had been very girly, but after all, Ranma was trying to be as girlish as possible, right?

And she was stuck as a girl for who knew how long. After the week spent as a boy following the death of her pop, and the second week spent training in the hills without the express permission of her mother, there was little chance she'd be allowed to change back into a guy anytime soon. Mom had not been happy about that training trip. Ranma was resigned to the fact that she'd probably be stuck as a girl until the end of the school year at the very least, if not clear into next summer and fall.

So why not get a more girlish hairstyle? Ranma wondered. It might have nothing to do with tonight's contest - but then again, it couldn't hurt.

Ranma got up and went to the front desk. "I've changed my mind," she said. She held open the book and pointed to one of the pictures. "I'd like something like that."

XXX

"Hiroshi, my friend, the time has come," Daisuke said dramatically. The two boys were gathered in Daisuke's bedroom.

"Indeed it has, friend Daisuke," Hiroshi replied. The two friends clenched hands and raised them high. "As brothers, we must venture where no mortal man dare go!"

"A man must do what a man must do!"

"Yes! And for the sake of our high school years, for the sake of our libidos, for the sake of our journey from boys to men, we will embark the greatest and most dangerous task we have ever undertaken…." Hiroshi said.

"To spy on the Tendo slumber party…" said Daisuke. "To spy on Akane Tendo, Shampoo, Ukyo Kuonji, Sayuri, Yuka, and all of those beautiful St. Hebereke girls…."

"And," said Hiroshi, "most importantly of all… to spy on female Ranma."

Daisuke nodded fervently. "For eons we prayed that Ranma would accept his curse and choose to live as a girl… and now it has happened!"

"It was the day of our greatest triumph, and also our greatest tragedy," Hiroshi said, "For on that day, Ranma ceased to be a Furinkhan high school student!"

"And she took Akane, Shampoo, and Ukyo away from us too!" Daisuke wailed. "Oh, the cruelty!"

Hiroshi said, "But now, my friend, we've been presented with this one final chance… to see everything we've been missing…."

"Thanks to Yuka," said Daisuke, "who mentioned it by accident…."

"We must crash this party!" the two boys exclaimed together.

In the bushes outside their window, another Furinkhan student listened with rapt attention. Hikaru Gosunkugi cradled his camera as his mind raced. So. This was what those two were up to! He'd known something was up from the way they acted. A slumber party? At the Tendo dojo? Tonight?

He could not miss this opportunity!

XXX

"Honestly Ranma," Akane said, "what were you thinking? I thought you didn't want to have your hair done again?"

The two girls were walking home from the salon. Akane's hair looked great - her perm had begun to look a little ragged, but now the mass of curls was once again sharp and full of bounce. She resembled a Greek goddess, Ranma thought, though she didn't say it out loud. Ranma had studied Greek history recently, and there had been a picture of Diana, goddess of the hunt, with short, dark curls like Akane now had.

Ranma, on the other hand, looked perhaps more like an Irish goddess, if she did think so herself. Her fiery red curls fell well past her shoulders and cascaded down her back. She'd had it cut - her hair had hung nearly to her ankles before - but it wasn't nearly as short as Akane's, or as it had been the last time she'd had it permed. Hair this long that wasn't braided or bound up might eventually drive Ranma crazy; she'd never worn it loose like this before. But she was feeling adventurous, and she had to admit she looked great - very feminine. And that was the important thing, right? Ranma reminded herself again that there was no reason to do things in half-measures. If you were going to be a girl, why not be a girl?

"You don't think it looks cute?" Ranma asked.

"Of course it looks cute," Akane said. "It looks great. But Ranma, is it really you? Did you really do this on your own initiative?"

"Of course I did," Ranma replied. "I figured you were getting all prettied up before the party, so why not me as well?"

"Ranma, this isn't just for the party. You'll have to keep your hair like that for weeks."

"Yes, I know," Ranma said. She placed a hand to her forehead in mock pain. "Sometimes a woman has to make sacrifices and suffer to look good, Akane."

Akane rolled her eyes.

"You didn't react like this the last time I had my hair permed," Ranma said.

"That was for a contest," Akane said. "Which by the way, you won. It was two months ago and it's over."

"That's right," Ranma said. "This time I did it just for me. Because I felt like it."

"You really like it then?" Akane asked.

"Dunno," Ranma replied. She swung her head about, letting the curls brush against her shoulders. "I like how it looks. I don't think I'll regret it. And I will look cuter than Nabiki."

"So this is all about your contest with her?"

"It's about me trying to be more like a girl," Ranma said. "That's about the contest, but it's also about pleasing mother. I won't be turning back into a guy anytime soon, I think, not after that training trip. I might be stuck this way until summer. So why not?"

They reached the Saotome house. Ranma tried the door - it was locked. As she fumbled for her keys, Akane said, "Mother's not home yet? I wonder where she is?"

"She didn't have to work today," Ranma replied. "She said she was going to cook something to take to the party..."

XXX

At the Tendo dojo, Kasumi was bustling about, cleaning, cooking, and getting ready for the party. So many girls in one place! Her sister Nabiki had given her money to purchase food, and Auntie Nodoka would be here soon to help, but Kasumi still anticipated being very busy all evening.

In the living room, her father read the paper. He'd already said he had plans to go in town on business. Kasumi suspected that he just wanted to make himself scarce for the evening. In the past, he and Genma might have gone out drinking.

As she hurried down the hallway back to the kitchen, Kasumi overheard Happosai humming happily to himself.

"What should I bring? What should I bring?" he asked out loud.

Kasumi stuck her head into his room. "Grandfather Happosai?" she asked.

"Oh, hello, Kasumi-chan," Happosai replied cheerily. "I was just looking through some of my old treasures…."

"Your underwear collection again?" Kasumi asked.

"No, no, not those treasures," Happosai said. "I mean some of the jewelry and other valuable items that friends have graciously given to me as gifts over the years. Many of them are magical, you know."

Kasumi looked at the collection of knick-knacks spread across the floor. There were rings, necklaces, gold cups and incense burners, vials and bottles and packets and small bags, a comb, a hand mirror, and all manner of other such artifacts. "Oh dear," Kasumi said, "I do hope you're not planning to cause any mischief this evening, Grandfather…."

"What?" Happosai exclaimed. "Me, infiltrating a slumber party of a dozen or more beautiful young girls all dressed in nightwear and lingerie? Kasumi, how could you accuse me of such a thing?"

Happosai began sorting through his pile of items once again, humming a song. Kasumi said, half to herself, ""Why, I don't believe I did…."

XXX

"Evening dress or formal wear?" Akane asked. "What's that about? It's just a sleepover isn't it?"

"I got no idea," Ranma replied. "Nabiki said 'something you'd wear to the opera.' I tried to tell her I wouldn't be caught dead at the opera, but she said it had to be your nicest evening dress."

"She better have a good explanation," Akane muttered.

The two girls were packing for the slumber party. They were running late, due to stopping at the salon; Miyuki's limo was expected to arrive any minute to ferry them to Nerima. Ranma dug through her closet and pulled out the babydoll nightie and matching bloomers that Miyuki had requested she wear. She had to admit, it really was a cute outfit, in a sweet lolita way. With all the lace and bows there was no doubt Miyuki had supplied the outfit - the bloomers even had several rows of ruffles across the rear to simulate a bustle. Ranma stared at them, aware that even most girls might be embarrassed to wear such an outfit. Then she shrugged, and tossed them on the bed.

She turned back to the closet. Something sexy as well? Ranma suspected Nabiki had a strong advantage over her in that department. Nabiki's closet no doubt held a great deal that could be considered sexy, while Ranma's held – thanks to Miyuki – a plethora of cute, but a dearth of sexy.

Ranma sighed. She had owned some sexy things, before her father burned it all.

Could she borrow something from someone else? She glanced in the direction of Akane's room. No, Akane wasn't one for sexy either. Who did Ranma know that might be able to loan her something? Sachiko? Doubtful. Kohana? Only if you thought goth was sexy. Sayuri? More and more, she was nearly as bad as Miyuki.

Did Ranma have time to go get something? Not that she could pay for it….

What about Yoriko? Would the tough yakuza girl have sexy lingerie? Ranma didn't know, but that seemed like her best option at the moment. She whipped out her phone and sent a quick text message. Yoriko, do you have some kind of sexy nightie I could borrow for the party? It's for a competition with Nabiki. -Ranma.

Well, that was the best she could manage for now.

She dug through her closet again. She'd need a change of clothes for Sunday morning. It ought to be something girlish, right? Not that it mattered – not that it was part of the contest. But Ranma didn't want to take any chances. No reason to do things in half-measures. She picked out two overly-flouncy dresses, both courtesy of Miyuki. One she'd wear to the party and one was to wear the next day. Quickly she stripped out of her school uniform and slipped into one of the dresses - a pink one with long sleeves and white lace trim at the collar, cuffs, and down the front. The skirt had layers of ruffles, and there was a large bow in back.

Ranma added some knee-high white socks. She studied herself in the mirror and frowned. Well, it was certainly feminine. Miyuki would like it, and Sayuri. Anyway she wouldn't be wearing it that long, would she?

She opened the top drawer of her dresser. It was filled to the brim with women's underwear – "silky darlings" as Happosai would call them, items of pastel colored cotton, silk, satin and nylon, all purchased by Miyuki while Ranma was on her training trip. Even after two weeks, there were a lot of things Ranma hadn't worn yet.

Something cute, Ranma thought. Something I haven't worn before. She pawed through the underwear, trying to decide. Her hand brushed against something stiff.

Ranma frowned. What was this? She pulled out several small packets of bath salts.

Bath salts? Very feminine, of course, but why did Ranma have such things in her drawer? But even as she pondered this, she recognized them and knew the answer. Here were several items from the Jusenkyo Dekisen Niichuan series – the bath powders that provided instant, temporary Jusenkyo curses. There was Instant Nanniichuan, spring of drowned man, the sort that Shampoo had used to force Ranma into a date. There was also some Instant Nyannichuan as well – spring of drowned girl. There was one of each of several others – Instant Heituenniichuan, Maoniichuan, Shonmaoniichuan, Xiaochiniichuan, Yaazuniichuan, and Shuanshontsuniichuan.

Ranma remembered a conversation with Nabiki earlier in the week.

"You're not inviting Konatsu?" Ranma asked.

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Please. This is for girls only."

"Konatsu is more girl than half the girls on the list," Ranma said.

"Not where it counts," Nabiki replied.

"Yes, but he thinks like a girl 100% of the time," Ranma said. "He makes a much better girl than I do."

"Careful, Saotome," Nabiki said. "Statements like that could count against you in our contest."

"You know what I mean."

"Of course I do. I haven't spent two months at Uchan's without learning quite a bit about our gender-confused master ninja. I'm sure Konatsu will be disappointed, but really, Konatsu only thinks like a girl. He's still got a 100% male body. So no, he's not invited."

Ranma frowned, then shrugged. "Not like I care..." she said.

Ranma stared at the packets. She selected one and put the others away. She grinned. After all, why couldn't Konatsu join them? All he needed was a female body - and with Ranma's help, he'd have exactly that.

Ranma flipped open her phone again. A few moments later, the doorbell rang.

XXX

"Your father is selling the dojo?" Ryoga said. He was seated in the family room of the Tendo household, having arrived there in his usual manner - completely by accident. Kasumi set out a plate of cookies and poured tea.

"Yes," Kasumi replied. "I fear he's overreacting and will regret it later, but he seems very determined. He says that his mind is made up."

"But... I thought that when Ra... when Ranma and Aka... I mean, wasn't it intended as an inheritance?"

"Well yes, it was," said Kasumi. "But that can no longer happen now that Ranma and Akane are no longer engaged."

The teacup slipped from Ryoga's hands. It hit the table and shattered.

"Oh!" Kasumi exclaimed. Ryoga jumped to his feet.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'll clean it up..." But Kasumi had already produced a towel. She wiped up the spilled tea and swept up the broken china.

"You haven't heard, have you?" she said.

Ryoga was watching her guardedly. She set another cup in front of him and poured more tea. "I'm always the last to learn anything," he said. "Is it true? Ranma and Akane are no longer engaged?"

"It's true. Our fathers attempted to kidnap the two of them and force them to marry, but things went horribly wrong. Father Saotome released a demon that killed several people, including himself. Afterwards, Mother Saotome canceled the engagement as she had promised to do should they interfere. Father was devastated."

Ryoga sipped his tea, thinking over this news. He was trembling slightly. At last! His path to Akane was clear! But how had this happened? The last time he'd met Genma...

"When did this happen?" he asked.

Kasumi paused to consider this. "It's been more than a month now," she said. "It was the last week of October."

Ryoga blinked in surprise. "That long ago? But that can't be right. I met Ranma's father in the mountains in November, and he said he wasn't planning to do anything of the sort..."

It was Kasumi's turn to look surprised. "But Ryoga, that's not possible... Father Saotome was already dead by November. I remember clearly, the funeral was the first week of November."

"No, it was definitely November," Ryoga said. "I get directionally confused but I'm good with dates." He paused, staring at Kasumi. "You're sure Genma was already dead...?"

"Positive."

"Then... maybe I saw a ghost?" Ryoga's hands were shaking now.

"Oh, my," Kasumi exclaimed. "Then you met Father Saotome's ghost? What did he say to you?"

"He said... that he wasn't going to interfere with things. That Ranma would live as a girl until graduation, and that he would do nothing until then and then they would marry and everyone would be happy..."

"Goodness! Just the opposite of what he actually did," said Kasumi. "I wonder if Father Saotome's ghost regretted his action? Surely it would have been better for everyone if he had left things alone."

Ryoga sat in silence for several moments. Then he shook himself, and downed the last of the tea. "No," he said. "My apologies, Kasumi, but it wouldn't have been better for everyone. It wouldn't have been better for me."

"How do you mean?" asked Kasumi.

"Now that Ranma's out of the way," said Ryoga, "nothing stands between Akane and I!"

"I see," Kasumi replied. She did not seem at all surprised. "Then you finally intend to confess your love to my sister?"

"L-l-love? Me? Akane?" Ryoga looked startled.

Kasumi frowned. "If you cannot say it to me, Ryoga-kun, then how will you ever say it to Akane?"

Ryoga sighed. "You're right. This is going to be difficult."

"Moreso than you may realize," Kasumi said. "I fear my little sister still harbors feelings for Ranma. It might be best to wait a while. But more importantly, Ryoga-kun, how will you tell her about your curse?"

Ryoga froze.

"How... how did..."

"How did I know?" Kasumi sipped her tea, looking thoughtful. "People must think I'm too clueless to know what goes on in my own house," she said. "But this is my house. Just because I don't raise my voice in objection to everything that happens here, doesn't mean I'm not aware. It would take a remarkably dense woman not to have noticed that you and P-chan are the same person." Kasumi paused, and added, "Akane has been remarkably dense, now that I consider it...

"In any case, Ryoga, I think that will be a greater obstacle to you confessing your love to Akane than Ranma ever was."

XXX

"Are we ready?" Nabiki asked. "Kaida's waiting outside with the limo."

"Almost," Ukyo called out. She skipped down the stairs that led from the living quarters to the restaurant floor of Uchan's. "I wanted to bring my portable grill too," she said.

"Why? There's no need," Nabiki replied. "All meals are provided, remember?"

"I can't leave my grill behind!" Ukyo exclaimed. "Besides, I happen to think a little okonomiyaki would make a great midnight snack!"

Nabiki sighed. "If you insist. We are all slaves to our passions, I suppose."

"That's right," Ukyo said. "And yours is spending other people's money."

"Kaida is being very gracious," Nabiki replied. "How could I refuse? And for once we all get to benefit from her generosity."

It was Saturday afternoon, and the restaurant was already busy. In the kitchen, the backup chef Goro Arakaki was cooking up a storm. He had three waitresses to help him - two neighborhood women who were part-time hires, and Konatsu. One of the women was a former gymnast, the other had some aikido training. They were okay. Nobody she'd hired really had Konatsu's flair, though. But tonight the girlish ninja boy was sluggish, his face downcast. He'd really wanted to come to the slumber party.

Ukyo sighed. She'd never met a more gender-confused person. Why was it every guy she met dressed so frequently in women's clothing? Even Ranma, these days. Was it a curse laid on her for all of those years she'd dressed as a boy?

Kaida's chauffeur appeared. He picked up Ukyo's suitcase and travel bag. "Will that be everything, Miss Kuonji?" he asked. "Miss Genji would very much like for us to be going."

"Yeah, that's it," Ukyo said. As she started to follow him out, her phone rang.

"Ukyo Kuonji," she answered. "Ranma? What?" She listened for a moment, then said, "Really? Yes, I do think that would work! That will make him very happy..."

XXX

Ranma opened the door. Two people stood on the front porch - a woman roughly the same age as Nodoka, with long red hair, and a girl younger than Ranma, who had red hair to her shoulders that ended in curls.

"Good afternoon, Miss," the woman said. She stared at Ranma a moment longer and exclaimed, "My goodness! Aren't you a cute one! Tell me, Dear, is my sister Nodoka Saotome home?"

Ranma blinked in surprise. "Aunt Anako? Cousin Izuko?" she asked.

Now the woman was frowning. "Yes, but... I wouldn't be your aunt, Dear. Unless... no, that can't be." The woman looked flustered. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Miss. Might I ask your name...?"

"Ranma Saotome," Ranma replied, with a belated curtsey. "We met at the funeral, remember?"

Aunt Anako placed a hand to her mouth, a shocked expression on her face. "Well! Is that true? Nochan said something about a transformation, but... I had no idea. You're absolutely adorable."

"Ah... thanks?" Ranma replied. She glanced down at the pink dress. "Oh yeah... I was a guy before..."

"Who is it?" Akane called out from the hallway.

"My Aunt," Ranma called back. "And my cousin."

"Oh?" Akane stepped into the living room. "Aunt Anako! How nice to see you again!"

"Liar! You're not Ranma!" the younger girl declared.

Ranma stared at her cousin. "I'm not?" she asked.

"No! You're just some foofy, cutesy, airheaded lolita girl."

"She's got you there, Ranma," Akane said.

The girl sprung forward and yanked on Ranma's hair. "Ow!" Ranma exclaimed, grabbing Izuko by the wrist. "What gives?"

"You see?" the girl exclaimed. "That's your real hair! You're not my Cousin Ranma!"

"You certainly look quite different from when we last saw you," Aunt Anako said, "and that was only a few weeks ago."

Ranma laughed nervously. "I guess that's true. Um... Mom's not home right now, but she should be back soon. Did you want to come in?"

Aunt Anako glanced at her watch. "Oh, I don't have time! I'm going to be late for my flight!" She quickly deposited a suitcase and a sleeping bag inside the door. She said, "Now, you girls take good care of little Izuko, okay? Tell Nochan that I should be back in just a few days!"

And then she was gone.

Ranma and Akane looked at each other, then at Izuko.

"So she's just dumping her daughter on us?" Ranma asked.

"Auntie Nodoka knows all about it!" Izuko said. "Mother called her earlier today. She said you were having a slumber party, and I could come."

Akane's face brightened. "Then you packed everything you'll need?"

"Yep," the younger girl replied.

"Then it shouldn't be a problem," Akane said. "Miyuki will be here in a few minutes to pick us up."

Izuko flopped down on the couch. She asked, "Is the stupid lolita girl coming too?"

XXX

Miss Okomoto glanced at her watch. Sachiko leaned against the wall and waited. Miyuki dashed up the stairs to her bedroom, then back down the stairs dragging two large suitcases. She dropped these and rushed into the kitchen.

"We are going to be late, Miss Goji," Miss Okomoto stated.

"You only call me Miss Goji when you're annoyed," Miyuki called out. She emerged from the kitchen with several cake boxes. "I'm almost ready. I have two more suitcases, and there's some more cake boxes in the kitchen…."

"I'll get those," Sachiko said.

"You did read the part where the food will be provided?" Miss Okomoto asked.

Miyuki disappeared up the stairs. She appeared again dragging two more large suitcases.

"Kasumi's a very good cook," Miyuki said, "and I'm sure Nabiki is throwing around plenty of Kaida's money, but nobody is going to provide the kind of cakes and deserts I've made. Anyway, it's the duty of the magical girl's friend and sidekick to create delicious deserts, isn't it?"

"If only you devoted half as much energy to something your father might consider useful," said Miss Okomoto, "you might accomplish anything, Miyuki."

"Everything I do is useful!" Miyuki exclaimed. "Anyway, Miss Okomoto, maybe we could accomplish taking this luggage out to the car? That is what father pays you to do, isn't it?"

Miss Okomoto bowed low. "Yes, O Mistress. At once, O Mistress."

Miyuki watched Miss Okomoto carry suitcases out the front door. "Wow. She's extra sarcastic today, isn't she?"

"Perhaps Tomari has rubbed off on her," Sachiko said.

XXX

"Geez, Mom," Ranma said as she carried luggage out to the waiting limo. "You could have warned us that we'd be dragging a rude child with us..."

"I'm not a child!" Izuko exclaimed. "And you're the rude one. Not to mention the only one here dressed like a child"

"Now, Ranma," Nodoka said, "is that any way to talk about your cousin?"

"Hey, she started it!"

"Did not!"

"You're both acting like children," Akane muttered.

Miss Okomoto took their luggage and stored it in the trunk. Miyuki and Sachiko were waiting in the back of the limo. "Hurry, Ranma!" Miyuki exclaimed. "We're going to be late!"

Izuko took one look at Miyuki - also in a lolita-style dress - and yelped. "Lolita girl!" she exclaimed. "Another one!"

"Oh!" Miyuki exclaimed brightly. "What's your name? Do you like lolita fashion too?"

"No!" Izuko stated. She glared at Miyuki balefully. "Can I sit in front?" she asked.

"Now, now, I'll be sitting up front," Nodoka said. She smiled brightly. "I know you girls will want to gossip and talk girl talk; I'd just get in the way."

"Wow, Ranma," Miyuki exclaimed, as the limo got underway. "look at you! What did you do to your hair?"

"Got it permed again," Ranma said.

"It looks fantastic," she exclaimed. "You too, Akane! You got it done again!"

Akane smiled. "Does it look good?"

"Absolutely," Miyuki said.

"So," Ranma said, "this is my cousin Izuko. She's two years younger than me, so she's probably still in middle school."

"Oh, wow! But of course you're Ranma's cousin – you're adorable!"

Izuko glared at Ranma. "I'm not related to this freak," she said darkly.

Miyuki looked from Izuko to Ranma. "She's not? But I can see a family resemblance..."

"We don't look anything alike!" Izuko exclaimed.

"She's the cousin of Ranma Saotome," Akane said. "She just doesn't believe that this is Ranma. She's only seen Ranma as a guy."

"Oh!" Miyuki exclaimed. "I get it! So you don't believe this is Ranma is the same as guy-Ranma?"

"My cousin looks nothing like this," Izuko said.

"Well, not when he's a guy," Miyuki said. "Duh! But Ranma has a curse, didn't you know? Did no one explain that he turns into a girl? It's magic!"

Izuko rolled her eyes. "Please. I know all about magic and curses and transformations," she said. "I know more than you. But that's not the problem. Even if Ranma did into a girl, he'd look nothing like this. I can tell they're not the same person. Their personalities are completely different!"

"You don't even know me!" Ranma exclaimed.

"I don't want to know you!" Izuko retorted. "You're exactly the kind of girl I dislike - all cutesy and useless."

"Ranma's not useless," Miyuki said. "She's a master martial artist!"

"Her?" Izuko replied. She glared at Ranma again. "A martial artist? In that dress? Not likely."

"What's my dress got anything to do with it?" Ranma growled.

"Girls who are into martial arts don't dress like wedding cakes," Izuko said.

"She's got a point," said Akane.

"That's not true at all!" Miyuki exclaimed. "Sachiko's a samurai and she's dressed up in lolita clothing plenty of times."

Sachiko was sitting in one corner of the limo, sketching and saying nothing as usual. She was dressed simply in an oversized white sweater and a wine red pleated skirt. "I only do it to please you, Miyuki…." Sachiko replied calmly.

"Then she's a fake too!" Izuko exclaimed, stabbing a finger at Sachiko.

"You know, Izuko," Akane said, "you don't have to make an enemy of every person you meet…."

"I've known Ranma for months," Miyuki stated. "She's always looked like this! Well, except for the hair."

"As if your opinion counts for anything," Izuko retorted. "You're just like her – another weird lolita girl."

"Lolita fashion is not weird!" Miyuki exclaimed. "Ranma, why did you bring this little twerp anyway?"

"I didn't have a choice," Ranma said. "My aunt dumped her on us..."

"Stop!" Akane said forcefully. "Everyone shut up! Fighting like this is going to get us nowhere." After a few moments of silence, she turned to Ranma's cousin. "Izuko, you've only met Ranma once, so I'm not sure why you think he's so different from this Ranma. Maybe you could you tell us what you think the real Ranma is like?"

Izuko looked somewhat flustered, but nodded. "Well first of all, the real Ranma is a guy, of course. He's bald. His father was a noble martial artist, and Ranma trained under him since he was a child. So I know that Ranma's a noble martial artist too. When I met him at the funeral, I could just tell what he was like in an instant. He looked so noble and sober and serious! Just like a warrior monk! I also heard he was training rigorously under his father's master. I can just imagine them traveling the land together, fighting demons, helping the poor, living the life of an aesthetic, and spreading the teachings of the Buddha!"

Akane burst out laughing. "Yeah, laugh it up," Ranma said. "Good thing Nabiki ain't here."

"No, sorry, sorry," Akane said. "I didn't mean to laugh..."

"That… sounds pretty cool, actually," said Miyuki.

"But really, Izuko, that's quite an imagination you have," Akane said. "I can assure you, Ranma's nothing like that..."

Sachiko said, "It sounds like she has a big brother complex, actually."

"I ain't her big brother," Ranma growled.

"That's right! You're an imposter!" Izuko shot back. "A frivolous lolita girl like you could never be the same person as that warrior monk Ranma!"

"You know," Akane said, "when she puts it that way, she does have a point…."

XXX

Seated amid a pile of silk and satin underwear, Master Happosai whistled happily to himself as he sorted through an odd collection of items. He held up a mirror and studied his reflection for a moment.

"Nanban Mirror?" he said to himself. "Hmmm. Possibly, possibly." He set the hand mirror aside.

"Peach Gem?" he said, holding up a small gemstone. "No, that's for sealing the Star Crystal, which I don't have. Oh, but here's the Forest Mirror! If only I had the Sakura Sword as well, I'd have the full set! But the Star Crystal, that would be best..."

He set the items down and picked up an elaborate card.

"The Flower," Happosai said, staring at the object. "Such a useless card! Why couldn't I have found something useful like The Fight, or The Fiery? Or The Change! Now that I could have fun with!"

He tossed the card aside. He held up a strange blue bottle.

"Hmm. Demon-Sealing Bottle. I forgot I had this." He tossed this aside. "Hmm. Demonic Semi Set. No, don't need that..." He picked up another strange card. "What's this? An old Pactio card? Where did I pick this up, again? I wonder whose it was?

"Ah!" Happosai dropped the card and picked up a bright green stone. He held it up and smiled happily.

"The Dreaming Jewel!" he exclaimed. "This will be perfect! Now, if I can only remember how it works..."

XXX

Yoriko Taoka climbed into the back of the Honda limo. She nodded at Kohana and Tomari. "Thank you for picking me up," she said.

"Think nothing of it," said Kohana. "We'll be picking up Shampoo as well."

The three girls rode in silence for several minutes. Yoriko rarely had much to say to the two Honda girls. They were from an elite Japanese family, and she was yakuza. Her father sometimes did work for Mr. Honda, so she was familiar with the two girls, but even after winding up in a school club with them, they were not really friends. She was uncomfortable in their presence. With Miyuki and Sachiko it was easy to forget that she was not their equal, but the Honda name carried such weight and clout that she could never forget who Kohana and Tomari were.

In any case, she had very little in common with the two gloomy goth girls. But when she noticed the book that Tomari held in her lap, she couldn't help but comment.

"The St. Valentine's Day Massacre?" she asked.

Tomari glanced down. "Yes. It's about Al Capone and the gang wars of 1920's Chicago, Prohibition era," she said. "I've been reading a lot about that era lately."

"I know about that," said Yoriko. "Father is a huge fan of old gangster stories. Goodfellas, Godfather, Chinese triad, all that stuff. You really find that stuff interesting?"

"I find many things interesting," said Tomari.

"Maybe I should lend you some of my dad's movies then."

"I might like that," Tomari said.

Yoriko said nothing. She leaned back and stared out the window. We had a normal conversation, she thought. Just as if we were friends. I wonder...

XXX

When Ranma's group arrived at the Tendo dojo, they were nearly the last people to arrive. Kaida's group - including Nabiki, Rin, Akela, Ukyo and Konatsu - were already there. Kohana and Tomari Honda were there, along with Yoriko Taoka and Shampoo. Sayuri and Yuka had already arrived. But they managed to beat one person, by about a minute. Just after they'd deposited their stuff inside, Kodachi Kuno appeared.

"Oh ho ho ho!" She laughed loudly, drawing everyone's attention. "So, the red-haired harridan is here after all!"

"Oh my god!" Miyuki exclaimed. "She really came!"

"Kodachi?" Nabiki exclaimed. "Who invited you?"

"I did," Ranma said.

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Have you gone mad, Saotome?"

"Mom insisted," said Ranma. "Sorry about that."

"And you brought your cousin..."

"Couldn't be helped," Ranma said. "Her mom's on a trip."

"And you invited Konatsu as well." Nabiki frowned at the kunoichi boy.

Ranma held up a packet. "I got Konatsu covered," she said. "He really did want to come. I figured it'd be okay if... you know, he was a she..."

Nabiki inspected the packet carefully. She frowned. "Oh, very well. But Ranma, you really should notify me before adding to the guest list. I'll let it slide, as long as there are no more?"

"Just the two," Ranma said.

"I refuse to sleep under the same roof as that hussy!" Kodachi exclaimed, pointing at Ranma.

"Then you shouldn't have come," Nabiki retorted. "We're all sleeping together in the dojo, Kodachi. That's what makes it a sleepover. If you can't deal, then leave."

"I knew there was something fishy about female Ranma," Izuko said. "Kodachi-sempai, why don't you like her?"

Kodachi glanced at the younger girl. "This wicked girl is trying to steal my love away from me," she declared.

"I am not!" Ranma exclaimed.

"Liar!" said Kodachi. "You've clearly stated otherwise on many occasions!"

"She thinks female Ranma is in love with male Ranma," Akane said to Izuko.

Izuko's eyes widened. "So they really are different people?"

"They obviously are," Kodachi insisted. "Anyone can see that."

"No, they're not different people," Akane said. "Kodachi's just confused."

"Well she can't be that confused," Izuko declared. "She saw through that fake Ranma immediately."

Nabiki clapped her hands over her head to get everyone's attention. "Okay people!" she called out, "listen up! We have several people here who are bitter rivals! But tonight is a night of fun and games, so I must ask that you set aside your petty rivalries and treat every girl here as your sister. Can we do that?"

Kodachi glared at Ranma and Akane. Izuko glared at Ranma and Miyuki. Ukyo glared at Shampoo, who glared back.

"Shampoo no attack if Spatula Girl behave."

"I won't start anything, Sugar," Ukyo said.

"If the two violent harridans over there can behave themselves, I, Kodachi, will try to restrain myself as well. But I make no promises."

"Just keep me away from the loli weirdos," Izuko said.

"Okay," Nabiki said, "I suppose that's the best we can hope for. Now, we have one person here who is not, technically, female, but Konatsu is a special case, and we have a method by which Konatsu will actually become female for the evening..."

Ranma held up a packet. "Ready whenever you are," she declared.

"Hold that thought, Ranchan," Nabiki replied. "I know that bath powder is temporary, and I want everyone to clean up first. We're going to have a nice formal dinner, so our first order of business is a trip to the local bath house. Everyone brought bathing supplies, yes? Konatsu, since you're technically not a girl - at least, not yet - you can use the furo here at the house and then wait for us to return. We'll use the magic powder on you after that. Okay?"

Konatsu nodded.

"Now, one last thing," Nabiki called out. "Tonight Ranma and I are also engaged in a contest to see who is the more graceful, ladylike, and girlish. Who is the more feminine girl, in other words. I have several contests in mind to help determine this, and all of you will help judge. My elder sister Kasumi Tendo and Ranma's mother Mrs. Nodoka Saotome are the final judges." Kasumi and Nodoka, who were standing nearby, bowed. "But I don't want our little contest to distract from everyone's overall enjoyment of the evening, so there will be plenty of other things going on.

"However, before we go, we're going to vote on which movie people want to watch tonight. I've picked out two titles, and Ranma's picked out two. Whoever's movie gets the most votes will score a point in our little battle. The idea is, of course, to pick a movie that appeals to a majority of girls. To keep things completely impartial, Kasumi will present the movies. We won't reveal who selected which movie. Are we ready?"

"Oh dear," Kasumi said. "This is a little nerve-wracking... let's see..." She picked up one of the movies. "This one is... Chocolat? Is it a movie about chocolate?"

"It is, after a fashion," Kohana said. "It's a foreign film. A woman moves into a small French town and opens up a chocolaterie. The town is very conservative and this happens during lent, which, as all of you girls who attend St. Hebereke should know, is a period of forty days leading up to the Christian Easter holiday. During lent you are supposed to fast and pray and be penitent. Thus, the decadent chocolate delights tempt the townspeople and cause conflict with the devout and orthodox town mayor. Oh, and the woman falls in love with a gypsy, played by Johnny Depp." Kohana raised an eyebrow, which was as good a smirk from her. "What girl could possibly resist the twin temptations of expensive chocolate and Johnny Depp?"

"I could," Kaida replied immediately. "Now, if you could make it Angelina Jolie, I would reconsider..."

"Oh my, that one sounds very good," said Kasumi. "Now let's see... our next one has a picture of a man and woman kissing right on the front... well, that seems promising. It looks like another foreign film. Does anyone know anything about this movie? It's called Princess Bride..."

"It's a fantasy," Nabiki replied. She smirked at Ranma. "Not a true romance..."

"The hero comes back from death for true love!" Tomari exclaimed. "What's more romantic than that?"

"That's Tomari's favorite movie," said Miyuki.

"It's not just a fantasy," said Tomari, "it's also a comedy and a love story, all wrapped into one. It's very quotable, especially if you follow it in English. I can quote it in my sleep."

"In fact, she does quote it in her sleep," Kohana added dryly.

"Well, okay," Kasumi said, "that one sounds like a good choice too. Let's see... the next movie is Shimotsuma Story?"

"Oh," Miyuki exclaimed. "That's the lolita girl one isn't it? That's perfect!"

"Really?" Kasumi replied. "It looks like an action film..."

"It is, in part," Sayuri said. "I've watched it. It's about a shy lolita girl befriending an outgoing yanki girl. It's about their unlikely friendship. I liked it!"

Yoriko's eyebrows rose. "Really? A yanki and a lolita? And some fighting? That sounds interesting."

"Not interested," Izuko exclaimed loudly.

"Well then," Kasumi said, picking up the last movie. "Oh, this one is Titanic. What a wonderful film! Does anyone not know what this film is about?"

Votes were quickly tallied. To Nabiki's shock, Shimotsuma Story, picked out by Ranma, came in first with six votes. She quickly realized her two mistakes – one, both of her movies were very good choices, and that helped split the vote, each movie getting five votes, and two, the trio of lesbian friends – Kaida, Rin and Akela – decided as a group that they'd rather watch an action film centered on the friendship of two women than a love story with a male lead. They threw their support behind Ranma's movie, which Miyuki and Yoriko had also voted for. Ranma's vote for that movie put it over the top.

"I hardly think this was a fair vote," Nabiki protested. "If I'd only included one of my choices, it would have won by a landslide…."

"It's your own rules!" Miyuki exclaimed. "You didn't even tell us who picked out which movie."

"Although it wasn't hard to guess," Kohana added.

"I'm not watching that stupid lolita movie," Izuko stated.

"We'll have time to watch more than one movie if we want," Nabiki said. "Anyway, now that that's done, it's bath time!" Everyone gather your bath supplies and we'll head down to the local bathhouse. Kasumi, can you show Konatsu where our furo is?"

"Of course," Kasumi said with a smile. "This way, Konatsu."

XXX

Two boys crouched between thick bushes and the oft-repaired walls of the Tendo Dojo. They wore black clothing and black masks tied beneath their noses, thus making their nefarious intentions plain for all to see.

"Did you hear that, Daisuke?" the first one said.

"I did indeed, Hiroshi my friend," replied the other.

The two schoolmates grinned at each other.

"A bathhouse full of beautiful babes!" Hiroshi crowed.

"Akane and Shampoo and Ukyo and even Yuka and Sayuri and Ranma – all in the same room!"

"Naked!"

"All of our wildest fantasies come true!"

"We must see this!"

"It is our destiny!"

"Nothing can stop us!"

"Nothing, you say? I rather thing that I can." The steady voice came from behind the two boys. They turned to find a taller and far more muscular boy cracking his knuckles. He wore black trousers and a rough-weave yellow tunic.

"Ryoga!" both boys exclaimed at once.

"Hello, boys," Ryoga said. "I follow Kasumi into the kitchen and what do I find? Two perverts hiding outside of the dojo, waiting to ambush Akane? There's no way I can let you boys…."

SPLASH! Daisuke held an upended bucket above a suddenly very angry black piglet. He regarded the pig with half-lidded eyes. "You can't let us do what, again?"

"Dude," said Hiroshi, "how long do you think we've been dealing with Ranma and his curse? We always come prepared with a bucket of water."

Daisuke lifted the pig by his tiger-striped scarf. "Besides," he said, "you want to see this too. Don't you, P-Chan?"

The boy tossed the pig into the dojo. Girls screamed, then one familiar voice cried, out, "P-Chan! What are you doing here? And all wet and cold as usual. You'd better come with us and warm up at the bath house…."

XXX

Happosai, Master of the School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts, relaxed on the roof of the Tendo dojo. He smoked his pipe and stared up at the evening sky.

"Such a lovely winter night!" Happosai exclaimed happily. "The sky is clear, the air is cold and crisp, the stars are shining down upon the face of the earth. Who could say anything bad about an evening like this?"

He held up a bright green stone. "If I remember right, this will create a dreamworld of my own devising. And oh, but I can devise a very good world. But I have to remember the activation phrase first. Hmmmm..."

He pocketed the gemstone. He leaned over the edge of the roof and watched as seventeen girls headed out of the dojo and down the street. Each of them was carrying a small tub or basket with bathing supplies.

"Ah, it's so good to be alive!" Happosai exclaimed. He emptied his pipe, put it away, and strapped his snorkeling gear onto his head. "Well then, time to take a bath! Hotcha!"

XXX

Hikaru Gosunkugi, who was more experienced at lurking in the shadows (and more experienced at being ignored in general) waited patiently across the street for Akane Tendo to step out of the dojo. When she did, his heart began to beat loudly. He raised his camera and began to snap photos.

"Oh my! A bucket, with… soap and shampoo? A towel? Bathing supplies? Could it possibly be? Is Akane heading to the public bath? Do I dare follow?"

He snapped more pictures, nearly hyperventilating at the thought. "Oh! Oh, I dare not! She will be… n-n-n-naked."

His camera followed Akane down the street. True, there were more than a dozen girls around her, and along with bathing supplies she carried a small black pig, but Hikaru barely noticed these things – he had eyes for Akane Tendo only.

XXX

Ranma paused as the bath house came into view. Akane nearly bumped into her.

"Ranma?" Akane asked. "What's wrong?"

"I just realized," Ranma said, "I've never undressed on the women's side of a sento before."

"What are you talking about? You've been in women's baths plenty of times."

"Yeah, but that was just running through during a chase or race or battle, or jumping over from the men's side while fighting Happosai, or whatever," Ranma replied.

"You've been a girl for months now, Ranma," Akane said. "This is just like gym class at school."

"Not really," Ranma replied. "Changing at school takes only a few minutes. But yeah, maybe you're right. The only girl I've bathed with before is you, and I'm still not used to doing that. Maybe I'm just nervous. But it feels weird just walking into the women's side of the bath. Bad things always happen when I enter there."

"Now you're being paranoid," Akane said. "You brought your soap, right?"

"Yeah, that's not the problem," Ranma replied. "Anyway, Shampoo has some too. It's just…."

Nabiki placed a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "It's just one more step on your path to girlhood, Ranchan," she said sweetly. "Why worry? After all, a real girl would have no problem bathing with other girls."

Ranma grimaced, then sighed. "No, of course not," she said. "Come on, Akane."

As the girls queued to enter, the black pig in Akane's arms began to struggle violently. "Akane," said Miyuki, "I don't think your pig wants to take a bath."

Ranma laughed. "Maybe little P-Chan's afraid of hot water," she said.

"He is not!" Akane exclaimed. "He's just freaked out because there are so many people here. Aren't you, P-Chan?"

P-Chan squealed and struggled furiously in her arms, and managed to glare at Ranma at the same time. "He's a dirty little pig," Ranma said. "He really needs a bath, don't you think?"

"That's certainly true," Akane replied, "and I intend to give him one." The pig squealed even louder. "P-Chan!" Akane scolded. "Behave yourself!"

As they passed through the curtain and into the women's side of the bath, the pig finally got free. "P-Chan!" Akane cried out. The pig squirted from her arms and sailed across the room, hitting the bath with a loud splash.

"Straight into the bath," Nabiki observed. "Poor sap. It's almost like he was trying to sabotage himself."

"P-Chan, no!" Akane cried out. "You need to wash first!"

Akane ran forward. A boy wearing a yellow bandana burst from the water. He bounded over the wall that separated the men and women's baths and was gone.

Akane paused. "That looked like Ryoga!" she exclaimed. "What's he doing here?"

"Peeking at girls?" Ranma suggested.

Akane peered into the bath. "But where did P-Chan go? Ranma, help me look for P-Chan!"

The other girls were already undressing. "Sorry, Akane," Ranma said, beginning to strip herself. "I'm sure he'll turn up." She removed her bra and placed it in a basket. She paused, looking about.

"You get the feeling we're being watched?" she asked.

"Izuko is still glaring at you, if that's what you mean," said Miyuki.

"No, it's not that," Ranma said. "It's a prickling sensation on my skin. I feel exposed." After a moment, she added, "Does anyone know where the freak is?"

XXX

Tatewaki Kuno stood before the sento. He drew his bokken and struck a pose.

"For too long have I deigned to set foot in that most humble of Japanese locales, the neighborhood public bath house!" he declared to the world at large. "And yet verily has it been nearly as long since my eyes have drunk in the remarkable beauty that is the pigtailed girl, or the equally fair and lovely Akane Tendo! Do they not say that absence makes the heart grow fonder? For thus it is with me! Daily my love for my twin goddesses grows stronger, despite the vast gulf that separates us…."

"Make way! Coming through!" A small, bald man wearing a striped full-body bathing suit and diving headgear shoved his way past. He hopped up on the counter and tossed down several coins. "There we go, Miss! My fee for entrance into your world of watery delights! A bargain at twice the price! Hotcha!"

The man jumped down and bounded through the doorway to the men's bath. Without missing a beat, Kuno continued.

"But tonight! Tonight, fair beauties, I, Tatewaki Kuno, the Blue Thunder of Furinkhan High, will take a bath!"

He paused for dramatic effect. "Hey, Kuno Sempai," a voice said. Two boys dressed in black and wearing bandit's masks stepped around him. They deposited their money on the counter.

"The bath house seems very popular tonight," one said. "What do you think, Hiroshi?"

"Indeed it does, my good friend Daisuke," the other replied. He gestured to the curtain to the men's side. "Shall we, then?"

"Perhaps I may gaze upon your beauty from afar," Kuno continued, ignoring the interruptions, "yay, even perchance to catch a glimpse of two maidens as they leave the bath house and return to their dwelling, maybe to hear the music of their laughter as they wash, or perhaps merely to relax among the poor and downtrodden and the great unwashed..."

Kuno paused, considering this phrase. "Although surely they will be unwashed no longer, having visited a bath house?"

"Would it be okay, Sempai, if I went ahead of you?" The speaker was a thin, timid boy with dark circles under his eyes and sunken features. He was carrying a camera. "I don't mean to be a bother," he added quickly, "but you seem to have a lot of exposition left… I'll just slip by, you won't even notice me…."

The boy paid his money and entered the sento. Kuno tried hard to look contemplative, as if he were deep in thought and had not been interrupted three times during his soliloquy. After a moment, he continued.

"It may be that I only dream of the heavenly sights that surely exist on the far side of the great wall that divides this temple of cleansing in twain! For I dare not peak..."

Kuno paused, considering this phrase carefully. "No. No, I must not peak! That would be churlish and vile! For me it remains only to dream..."

"Pardon me, young man." Ranma's mother stepped in front of Kuno and set some coins down. Kasumi was with her. "I just want to make sure Ranma brought her special soap..."

Kuno endeavored to look as noble and tragic as possible. The girl behind the counter asked, "Are you finally done? The price is 450 yen. Hurry up, there's a line waiting."

XXX

Izuko sat in a corner of the bath furthest from Ranma's crowd. She shared this spot with her new friend Kodachi Kuno, who seemed to be a very interesting person – and not at all likely to dress up like a wedding cake.

"Your father is a samurai?" she asked. "That's so cool! I bet he's the noble, stoic type. Very regal and handsome and always frowning, but of course very honorable."

"Oh my, you describe him so well," Kodachi replied. "It's as if you've met him before! He is indeed just as you say."

"And you practice rhythmic gymnastics?" Izuko continued. "I've seen videos of that. So very feminine, so very graceful and elegant. That must take a great deal of poise and skill."

"I practice Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics," Kodachi replied, "which requires not only grace and poise but also strength, speed, and a mind trained for combat."

Izuko's eyes widened. "Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics? Really?"

"Indeed. I am, of course, the undefeated and reigning champion."

"Except," said Akane from the other side of the bath, "Ranma beat you."

Kodachi went from graceful beauty to furious psycho faster than a cursed springs transformation. "She cheated! That doesn't count!"

"Funny hearing accusations of cheating from you of all people," Kaida said. Kodachi ignored her.

"I think rhythmic gymnastics is a very feminine pursuit," Izuko said. "I can't imagine how a cutesy loli-girl like her could be any good at it."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ranma growled. "I'm not feminine?"

"Cutesy is the opposite of feminine," said Izuko.

Miyuki said, "I thought masculine was the opposite of feminine…."

Ranma was only paying partial attention to the conversation. She was watching some upside-down wooden buckets from the corner of her eye. Suddenly she leaped out of the bath and smashed one of the buckets. "Got you!" she yelled. But there was nothing to see but broken wood.

She smashed a second bucket, then a third. A fourth bucket began to scurry across the tiled floor.

"Give it up, you freak!" Ranma yelled, bounding after the moving bucket. She launched a flurry of punches at the bucket. The bucket blocked all of them.

"Wah!" the bucket complained. "Why are you trying to ruin my fun, Ranma? What did I ever do to you?"

"Here we go again," Nabiki said. "Just like clockwork. Maybe I should have started a pool…."

Belatedly, the other girls screamed and sank down into the water, covering themselves. Meanwhile the bucket attached itself to Ranma's chest. She screamed in turn, then smashed the bucket. Happosai continued to cling to her.

"Get off! Get off!" Ranma spun about, trying to land a blow on the tiny master while he scurried about her body like an insect.

"You never let me have any fun!" Happosai exclaimed. "My only dream is to enjoy myself at the bath house. Is that so wrong?"

Ranma finally landed a blow. The master bounced off of the wall and skidded across the floor.

"Ow!" Happosai exclaimed. He bounced up and leaped to the top of the wall separating the baths. He held up in one hand a small green stone. "I have here the power to force you all to share in my dream!" He paused for a moment, then glanced at the stone. "If only I could remember how it worked…."

A bucket slammed into his head. Happosai dropped from view. Three more buckets struck Hiroshi, Daisuke, and Gosunkugi in succession, for all three had taken the opportunity during all the commotion to peek over the wall.

"Stuff it, all of you!" Ranma yelled. "Can't a girl take a bath in peace?"

Ranma turned to see his mother and Kasumi Tendo standing in the entrance. Nodoka was glaring at Ranma. "Hey, it's not my fault..." Ranma began.

"Ha!" Happosai exclaimed, leaping onto the wall once again. "Take a bath in peace? What about me? I should be allowed to enjoy myself without these uncalled-for attacks!" He held up the stone again.

"Thanks for the bump on the head, Ranchan." The grandmaster of Anything-Goes Martial Arts grinned like a madman. "I finally remember how to use this. FANTASY OF THE DREAMING JEWEL: ONSEN DREAM!" Happosai shouted. He threw the jewel into the women's bath. There was a blinding flash of light, and dark green smoke filled the bath house.

To Be Continued