Chapter 14: Hiding in plain sight

By becoming aware of the energies in and around you, you increase your control over chi regardless of whether it resides inside or around you. With enough control you can dominate your enemies without throwing a punch, you can control your environment and defy nature. You can even emulate other kinds of powers like psychic, telekinetic and magical ones. Soun and Genma, unless you manage to move the mountain before you with your chi, I expect you to run five hundred laps around it before supper.

-Grandmaster Happosai, while checking whether his students' gullibility has decreased...

- - -

A still red-faced Akane entered the family room, making sure to take in the scene before her. Kasumi and Nodoka were serving breakfast and her father was absorbed in his newspaper while Nabiki and Taro were busy watching Ranma. Said displaced martial artist was juggling what seemed like five blue and glowing balls, her brown eyes narrowed and concentrating.

Taro raised a brow when he saw Akane was in girl form, then smirked. "Hey fem... I mean, Ranma" he started, shooting a hasty glance towards Nabiki. "That's a neat trick you've shown your girl. It's a coordination exercise, right?" he stated more than asked.

Akane took a second to think an appropriate response, then smirked. "Yep, the tomboy needs all the coordination training she can get" she stated, resisting the urge to bite her lip. She almost started laughing when Ranma shot her one of her own baneful glares.

"If I wasn't so busy with this, I'd show you how coordinated my mallet is" she responded, her voice sounding neutral as if in deep concentration.

Akane almost cringed. There was no way anybody would be fooled by such a poor display. "Oh, I get it!" exclaimed Nabiki, missing 'Ranma's' panicking face. "That's smooth Saotome. While my sister plays with balls, you can say what you want freely!" she went on and Akane had to resist slapping a hand on her face. She wasn't sure whether to be relieved nobody had noticed something was amiss, angry at Nabiki's words or bitter her own family couldn't see through the switch.

"Speaking of playing with balls, where is your father Ranma? It's not like him to miss sparring and especially breakfast." Akane blinked at that, trying to conjure a response.

"I heard uncle Saotome is exploring morning meditation," said Ranma, lying through her teeth. "He might take some time to come down. Isn't that right, Ranma?"

Akane nodded, albeit a bit too fast, causing a silent groan from her fiancée. "Yeah, uncl.. stupid old panda thought it would be a good idea. Panda... good idea..." she babbled, burying her face in her plate and exaggerating even Ranma's table manners.

Nodoka sighed. "If my husband keeps being so lazy, I fear his futon will keep remaining cold at nights" she commented, making it very clear her relationship with Genma was not exactly stellar. "Why, I took pains to find him manly jobs befitting his talents" she added, producing a board filled with copied and pasted ads.

Kasumi nodded. "Why, yes. Uncle Saotome is getting many manly job offers. Two months ago some nice gentlemen wanted him for the national panda breeding program. I can't see why he refused, the pay was very good" she said, causing everybody to stop moving and stare at her incredulously.

Ranma twitched twice, deciding she had had enough. "Let's go Ranma" she exclaimed, grabbing Akane from the pigtail, picking the two bentos Kasumi seemed to conjure out of thin air and dashing towards the school.

"Oh my. This is the first time they leave so early. They might miss their friends on the way" noted Kasumi, smiling as everybody else twitched. From time to time she really enjoyed teasing others, even though her technique was much subtler than Nabiki's.

- - -

Shampoo yawned for perhaps the hundredth time, then sighed. It was the time she would usually leave to meet her airen. She decided her grandmother was nothing if strict. Cologne had roused both her and Mousse from their slumber before the sun could rise and had all but kicked them in the Nekohanten basement, telling them they would find all the ingredients they'd ever need before locking them in.

Yawning again, she checked her notes and measured the amount of red dust she poured from a jar. She didn't have any particular love for alchemy, only learning what Cologne deemed absolutely essential and regarding that knowledge simply as a means to an end. Daydreaming, she imagined the charming pigtailed 'end' that would always come to her mind, tempted to retch when she remembered she had almost kissed Akane yesterday. Shaking her head, she swore vulgarly when she noticed she had added more dust than what the recipe required.

Mousse, sitting next to her and as close as she would tolerate, was constantly on cloud nine. He didn't mind he was totally ignored by his beloved. He was content sitting there and gazing at her perfect figure all day and night. The distiller before him, whose contents were over-boiling, was ignored. Even when the device exploded in his face, he kept watching at his love through his soot-covered glasses.

Shampoo coughed for a while because of the ensuing smoke, muttering unintelligible curses and refrained from venting frustration through her vocal cords by means of screaming. The potion they were experimenting with was quite beyond her experience and Mousse wouldn't mind if they stayed in there forever. Cologne was capable of leaving them locked for years unless they produced results and the young amazon warrior realized that the only way to avoid such a fate would be to rally her thoughts and start working for real.

- - -

"What's the hurry?" snapped Akane as soon as they were out of the Tendo estate's hearing radius.

Ranma let go of the pigtailed, frowning in response. "We were barely able to keep up the charade and you know it. Nabiki would have started suspecting right about now. And besides, Kasumi sometimes creeps me up..." she confessed.

Her fiancée sighed. "Are you the reason your father vanished?" she asked at length.

Ranma nodded. "I pressed a point that will keep him asleep for another hour. It would have been a disaster if pop decided to spar with you."

Akane gave her the evil eye. "Are you telling me I wouldn't be able to take him?" she asked in indignation.

"That's not the reason" she replied dodging Akane's schoolbag. "We have very distinct styles. Even Kasumi would have figured it out after the first minute." Sooner, actually. Specifically when the old man would trounce you repeatedly within the first seconds, he amended mentally. He idly noted it was getting easier to keep such opinions private. Pretending to be Akane meant she had to be very careful around people.

Akane accepted that and started walking slowly. For once they were early and she soon lost herself in thought. The five balls appeared in Ranma's hands again and she started juggling, this time barely paying any attention. An idea came to her mind soon afterwards and she tossed one of the balls towards Akane. The Tendo girl gasped as her senses indicated the projectile and she tried to block it, only to gasp again when the blue ball blew up on her face.

"What the hell do you think you are doing?" she demanded, yelping as she dodged a second ball. She realized in disbelief the 'balls' were in reality condensed chi.

"What's the matter?" taunted Ranma. "Is the tomboy too afraid to send a tiny weenie chi ball back to me?"

Akane almost went mad, just before realizing Ranma-sensei was in action. Instead of answering, she simply smirked. Ranma mirrored the expression, sending a third ball. Akane caught it, panicking for a second and treating it like a hot potato before successfully sending it back to its creator. Ranma simply batted it towards Akane once more.

Five minutes later they were casually juggling seven balls between each other while walking slowly, not bothering to look anywhere else than forward. "That's a great coordination exercise Ranma" beamed Akane excited.

"Who said it was only that?" she asked and Akane almost missed a throw as she blinked.

"But Taro said..." she started, stopping short when she heard her own words.

Ranma chuckled. "Since when does that pantyhose guy know much about chi, anyway?"

"So it's not only coordination" mused Akane. "What else can it be?" she muttered, mostly to herself.

Ranma had to stop herself from laughing aloud. As Akane tried to think harder and harder, her hands started moving with more and more grace and precession. Ranma noted she was barely touching the balls by now, balls that had absorbed some of her own red chi, assuming a purple hue.

I'm going to teach chi control to that tomboy if it's the last thing I'll ever do, mused Ranma walking even slower as the school gates came in sight.

- - -

'Xian Pu, my love, I want to hold you, kiss you, make you mine. You are the blood that runs through my veins, you are the obsession that keeps me alive, you are the reason I was born in this word.'

'Damn it all Mu Tzu. Why must you love me like that? I have always sought a friend in you but you always want more and I have to shove you away. For most of the amazons our age I'm simply 'the champion'. Why can't you love me as a friend and a partner?'

'I can't help it, my love. Ever since we were three, you were the only one who did not consider me an outcast. I had no glasses then and everybody mocked my poor vision. Only you stood by my side as a friend. Why can't you see more than that in me? What does Ranma have that I don't?'

'Ranma is strong and can be nice. He is brave, forgiving and sometimes funny. And his life is never boring, always bringing new challenges, never letting those around him grow weak. But these are just good points, not the reasons I love him. And do I really need reason? Love is by its nature unreasonable. I can't explain what calls me to him and I don't want to explain. Using the amazon law was merely convenient.'

'You know it will not work, Xian Pu. You know he loves Akane. He denies it, by everybody can see. You were there at Jusendo. You saw him fight. I also saw him before, when he thought all hope was lost. He almost died without her, my love. Do you love him enough to let go? You can't touch Akane; he will surely kill you like he killed Saffron. I won't survive your death because I will also attack and I will also die by his hand. Curses, I hate being that honest, talking to you like that, without tact or mercy.'

Shampoo stiffened on her seat, trying hard not to start crying. "Xian Pu too too glad this potion only lasts five minutes. It very annoying with half the amplifier. It makes you hear more than surface thoughts" she groaned, trying hard to suppress and ignore Mousse's mental onslaught. Without meaning to, he showed her his own take of reality, a reality not masked by her own, admittedly biased perceptions. She stubbornly refused to consider anything of what she 'heard' trying to chant a war song in her head and block everything else.

- - -

Akane stomped through the school corridors, ignoring the terrified students around her. They would have parted even if she was still in her own body, but seeing 'Ranma' glowing crimson and stomping around enraged had additional shock value. As things were, everybody was doing their best to get their bodies integrated to the surrounding walls.

"Lo and behold, that the pig-tailed goddess of a pristine institution of learning such as this should shine like the brightest of stars. Truly even the heavens must gaze at her revered person and blush in envy. Thou art the dawn and as our love passes its dawn, thus shall..."

Of course there are always exceptions, usually attributed to either foreknowledge or stupidity. Tatewaki Kuno, belonging predictably to the second category, was soon turned into an aerial exception after Akane applied many times her usual strength below his jaw. Exasperated and only slightly subdued, she reached the school's roof and plopped on one of the benches, choosing to ignore the palm trees that had somehow rooted themselves on the concrete. Sighing, she tried to block as much of her senses as she could. When she had first reached the school, her current body's extrasensory input had caused her to go dizzy and irritable. Feeling the life-force of hundreds of students regardless of walls or other obstacles had been too much for her mind. In time she had adapted, of course, and was able to filter the information with substantial effort.

After a while she had to frown when she sensed Ranma was close, presumably looking for her. Seconds later, said displaced martial artist came into her vision's field, sitting right beside her. "Gee, what's got your panties in a twist this time?" she asked teasingly.

Akane attempted to incinerate her normal body by means of glaring. "For your information, mister, I happen to be wearing your boxers" she retaliated with a huff.

Ranma rolled her eyes. "And I'm wearing your underwear. Why Akane, if anybody else was to hear you, they'd think we are doing something perverted. Do you really think we could get away with wearing our own clothes?"

Akane continued to glare, prompting Ranma to decide silently that her female body's glare was more cute than intimidating, provided you ignored the surrounding aura, of course. "You don't have to act so casual about it" she hissed back. "You fell asleep in the class! I never do that!"

Ranma scowled at that. "Oh, so sorry I'm ruining your reputation, princess. It's so considerate of you to avoid changing into male form all day. I'm sure no one has noticed. It's not like I usually run around trying to find hot water", she responded, voice heavy with sarcasm.

Akane visibly deflated at that. "I won't be able to stand on my legs in male form, Ranma" she half-whined. "The change is... overwhelming" she complained.

Her fiancée snorted. "It's only the first few changes that are like that. That's why I told you to try and stay in male form for some time. How long do you think you'll be able to avoid hot water? The longer you remain in one form, the more the curse tries to attract its trigger. What will you do if you change back in the middle of a battle?" she demanded and Akane sighed.

"It's not only the curse" she replied almost timidly. Ranma thought about it a while, then her eyes went wide.

"You can't handle my senses, that's why you are so touchy!" she exclaimed.

Akane glowered. "I can handle anything you can!" she riposted, although they both knew it was pride talking. Sighing, the Tendo girl wearily massaged her temples. "Every time I get distracted, your senses try to show me where the whole population of Furinkan is. I don't know how to..." she tried. Before she could finish, her hand shot upwards reflexively and something brushed her skin. "What?" she asked dumbly as her body started juggling with Ranma once more. The only thing amiss was the fact that her eyes could see nothing at all.

Ranma was grinning wildly, of course, her hands a blur. "I'm using the visual component of the Umisenken to hide the chi balls, 'Kane. The best way is to keep your senses-technically my senses- occupied."

After Akane overcame her initial surprise, mumbling something about Ranma and her host of new techniques, she realized her fiancée was right. Her developing headache had vanished within the first minute, letting the euphoria of Ranma's body to return stronger than ever. "If we keep this up, I won't be falling asleep in the class, tomboy" noted the Saotome heir, causing Akane to frown.

"We can't do that during lesson", she replied, frowning again at Ranma's smirk.

"Oh well. I thought you could handle something like that, but I guess juggling and learning at the same time is beyond you" she murmured, still loud enough to be heard.

Akane's aura lit up at that. "I can handle that easily, thank you very much" she retaliated. "And you are right. I'll have to do some male body training this afternoon. I won't let something like that to beat me!"

That's my tomboy! Thought Ranma, a grin tugging at her lips. "That's only the beginning, you know. In two days we'll have to use the locker rooms before and after P.E."

The sight of Akane while in Ranma's body going white as a sheet then red as the shirt she was wearing was amusing indeed. "You pervert!" she snapped. "If you think I'm going to..."

Ranma casually doubled her juggling speed, forcing Akane to cut her sentence short. "I was going to say we have enough time to figure a way around it, Akane. You don't have to be so uncute about it."

She had to raise a brow when Akane smirked a maniac smirk. "You fell right in. You can't call me uncute because I'm in your body, genius" she exclaimed in triumph, stopping short when Ranma was reduced to chuckles. "What's so funny?" she demanded.

Ranma took some time to sober up. "I never said appearance has anything to do with uncuteness, Akane" she managed, laughing again at her fiancée's blank stare.

"You...you didn't?" she asked unintelligently.

Ranma ignored her. "Move it, tomboy, the break's over", she exclaimed, prompting the chi balls to vanish and sprinting away.

"Hey, come back here, you can't just say that, then run!" she demanded, chasing after her.

- - -

Shampoo and Mousse were sitting on two identical stools, dumbly staring at each other. Or rather, at their original bodies.

"Xian Pu thinks we recreated original" stated the amazon after a while, cringing at the voice that left his throat.

Mousse nodded silently, trying hard to keep her eyes anywhere but down. The temptation was too much and she had to snap her wayward head upwards at least once every ten seconds. Shampoo had no such qualms, looking at his foreign hand with fascination. He tried to stand up, almost losing his balance in the process and wobbling on rubber legs. "At least Xian Pu learns a bit about Airen's curse. It too too different from animal curse" he observed.

"I'm never going to say Saotome has it easy with his curse again" she replied, yelping at the end of her sentence and bringing a hand to her throat.

A smile appeared on Shampoo's borrowed features. "How long will this last, Mu Tzu?" he asked to verify what he already knew.

"At least another ten minutes" she replied, shaking her head to clear her thoughts. "This is just too weird..."

Shampoo ignored his original body, reaching for the water tap. "Xian Pu always wanted try this" he squealed in a way unbecoming of his current gender.

Mousse blinked as she watched her displaced love changing into duck form. It took him some seconds to fight the dizziness of the change, although he had a lot of experience turning into an animal. As soon as he recovered, he took off through the vent at the top of the basement's wall, quacking in delight and flapping his wings.

The currently purple-haired amazon sighed at the display. Shampoo might have wanted to fly, but Mousse had little interest in turning to a cat. His dismay lasted until she remembered she was inside a female body and, more importantly, alone...

- - -

Akane had once again trouble dealing with her thoughts and emotions, something, she noted, that tended to happen a lot around Ranma. Did he really mean that? Is it important? Am I making a lot of fuss for nothing? If my alleged 'uncuteness' doesn't have to do with appearance, does that mean he finds me... pretty? Is uncuteness even a word? Why the hell does it bother me that much?

She had tried to resume that particular conversation with Ranma, but her fiancée would just up their juggling rhythm in retaliation, pretending there was nothing wrong while their hands blurred. They were walking back home when she decided she had had enough. After making sure she batted the balls where Ranma could not catch them, she turned to face her own body squarely and tact be damned.

"Listen to me, Ranma. We are going to have a long talk here, so you'd better cooperate or so help me. Is that clear?" she yelled, cringing inwardly. She did not intent to sound that bold or forceful. After Ranma blinked obliviously, she started losing her bravado. She was almost thankful to whatever entity was playing with her life when Ranma went into 'battle-mode', her head snapping to their side.

"It never fails", she muttered as they both watched a team of giant flying minotaurs assaulting an antique bookstore.

- - -

20-07-07: I really hope that was not too boring. I had to set a period of relative calm before the inbound combatfest, for which both Akane and Ranma will be needing all the training they can get. Special thanks to Mzephyr whose review gave me at least one angle I hadn't yet thought by my own. Until next chapter...