Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is the property of Takahashi-san and various other copyright holders who are not me. All obnoxious original characters in this story are actually my own property, dubious honor though it may be.
Note: The first three parts of this story were released on the FFML under the working title "Life is Complicated." Future title-changes are not outside the realm of possibility.
Spring of Drowned Dojo
The Life and Times of an Aquatransexual Martial Arts Instructor
A Ranma 1/2 comedy fanfic of dramatic proportions
written by Ambulatory Kettle
Part I: Sensei
Nabiki bit down on the eraser of her pencil. It didn't taste very good, but she hardly noticed. With her brow knit in concentration and worry, she scanned the household budget yet again.
She sighed and let the pencil fall from her lips and dangle loosely in her fingers. Gazing up at the ceiling of her room, Nabiki felt, for one of the few times in her life, helpless. There simply didn't seem to be any way that the Tendou accounts could regain any sort of balance after a year of freeloaders, interlopers, and the repeated property damage they had caused. Nabiki's assets were rapidly draining.
The answer was simple. They needed another source of income beyond her market investments and private rackets - preferably a second source of income that didn't involve panda's cleaning doctor's offices, since animals, even endangered ones, weren't protected under Japanese labor laws regarding fair wages; and Toufuu-sensei really couldn't afford to pay Uncle Saotome very much anyway.
Nabiki grimaced at the ceiling. The ceiling refused to grimace back, remaining placid.
While the answer was simple, the solution was more difficult. Nabiki didn't particularly like the idea of asking others for financial help, but she was willing to do it. The real problem was, who?
The answer to this question, she knew, was also obvious. She could either borrow money from Kunou - she shuddered at the thought - or she could mobilize the household's... unused human resources. The first possibility was out of the question; that left the second option.
This wasn't going to be easy.
"Daddy... Uncle...? I have some bad news."
Ranma looked up from the TV and over to where Nabiki stood, hands clasped behind her back. Uncle Tendou's hand was poised over the shogi board as he and Pop gazed expectantly at the middle Tendou daughter standing over them.
Nabiki hesitated, a look of contrition precisely etched on her face. Ranma guessed it was, like most of Nabiki's expressions, well- schooled, if not a total facade.
"Yes?" her father prompted her. "What is it Nabiki?"
Ranma had to admit that his own curiosity was piqued. What was Nabiki up to this time?
"Now, don't be too upset, Father," Nabiki began. "But all the family savings are nearly gone!" She flung out the utterance like a handkerchief cast into the wind. A wrist cocked dramatically to her forehead, she continued, "There is only one thing we can do to save ourselves from debt. You or Uncle will have to start teaching classes regularly... otherwise I will be forced to marry that obsessive imbecile Kunou-chan for his money!"
As she turned away in apparent despair, Ranma caught the faintest glimpse of a smirk on her lips.
Thought so, he mentally congratulated himself. Nabiki was up to something - then again, when was she not?
To everyone's obvious surprise, Uncle Tendou did not immediately burst into tears. He looked down at the shogi board where his hand was poised, his face serious, his eyes focusing on some distant point beyond the board. He placed his hand in his lap, then nodded solemnly.
"I... understand, Nabiki." Uncle Tendou said, his voice as grave as his expression. With a look of determination in his eyes, he stood. "It is my duty and responsibility as a man and as your father to provide for this household. I can't simply sit around while my family's livelihood is at risk; I must take action. I will begin the necessary preparations at once." Uncle Tendou turned and strode purposefully but unhurriedly down the hall to his room. The muffled sounds of a phone conversation could be heard a moment later. Ranma guessed he was phoning former students or people he knew who might be interested in joining Anything Goes Martial Arts classes.
New students in the dojo, hm? Ranma thought. This could either be interesting, or extremely obnoxious. Considering his past year in the Tendou household, he was betting on the latter.
Pop shrugged it off with a murmur of, "Better him than me," and switched some pieces on the game board.
Nabiki, on the other hand, looked stunned. Ranma could hardly blame her. He felt a little bit surprised himself by Uncle Tendou's reaction, but he decided that it didn't really involve him, as long as there would still be food on the table, and he didn't care enough to get all the way to full-blown befuddlement. He thought he heard Nabiki mutter something about, "easier than I thought" but Ranma just turned back to the television. To his disappointment, it was now in the middle of a commercial. (For those who have come by the misconception that Japanese TV commercials are highly entertaining, it should be noted that only a rare few are outrageous enough to be funny, and the average Japanese commercial is about as entertaining as the average North American commercial; in other words, not.)
Uncle Tendou re-entered the room, his face still dour.
"Everything has been set," he said with great finality. He looked around the room. "I wish everyone were here for this announcement, but I can't stand on ceremony." His eyes fell on his daughter. "Nabiki, you will marry Kunou Tatewaki."
Uncle Tendou took a step back at the force of Nabiki's exclamation. Pop looked blankly from Nabiki to his old friend and back again. Ranma just sat for a second. Then he burst into laughter, trying to keep himself from rolling on the floor as tears of hilarity and ill-gotten joy sprang to his eyes.
"I... I called Principal Kunou and made the arrangements," Uncle Tendou explained, a quaver of anxiety entering his voice. "You're now engaged to Tatewaki-kun."
Ranma nearly doubled over in a renewed fit of laughter, slapping the floor. Nabiki shot him a quick glare like icy daggers; it might have been more effective if the whole situation hadn't been so side- splittingly funny.
Then he felt cold water being dumped over his head. Ranma opened her eyes. Nabiki was holding a bunch of flowers in one hand and an up- ended vase in the other. Suddenly, things weren't quite so funny anymore. Ranma tried to replicate the glare Nabiki had given earlier, but she knew that even if she could glare like Nabiki could, the only person in the world who would be immune to it would be Nabiki herself.
Nabiki carefully placed the flowers in the empty vase and set it back on the table, then turned her gaze to pierce her father. "Are you telling me Kunou-chan's father actually agreed?"
"Don't yell at your poor father!" Uncle Tendou started to blubber like a baby, but sobered as his expression gradually grew thoughtful.
"Now that you mention it..." Uncle Tendou scratched his head, a gesture somewhere between nervous and pensive, "Principal Kunou actually said something about putting a lime in a coconut, and to call him back tomorrow morning, but I was pretty sure that meant yes."
Nabiki let out a frustrated breath that was somewhere between a sigh of exasperation and a growl of rage. "Daddy, I am not going to marry Kunou!"
"But, but, you said..." Uncle Tendou stuttered helplessly.
"I know what I said!" Nabiki interrupted. "What I meant was you and Uncle Saotome had better take on some students or we won't be able to afford to keep the dojo! Capisce?"
"Waaaah!" Uncle Tendou collapsed in a storm of tears. "You're yelling at your poor, old father again! Oh, what would your mother say if she were here!"
Nabiki just stood with her arms crossed, not buying it. Ranma herself was a little bit disgusted by Uncle Tendou's display, as she often was.
"The long-suffering widower routine isn't going to work this time, Daddy," Nabiki said flatly.
Looking panicked, tears still in his eyes, Uncle Tendou turned to his still poker-faced friend and companion, gripping his shoulder in a plea for aid.
"Saotome-kun, I can't do it - see how emotionally fragile I've become? You'll have to teach the classes!"
Pop gave Uncle Tendou a slightly wide-eyed blank stare. Then he leapt away, his gi coat coming away in Uncle Tendou's hand.
"Saotome-kun! Come back here-!" Uncle shouted, but was cut off by a loud splash.
Ranma ran to the doorway, afraid she already knew what she was going to see.
As she predicted, her eyes were greeted by a dripping wet panda playing with a tire and holding up a sign that read: "I'm just an ordinary panda - pandas can't teach martial arts classes."
Anger started building inside Ranma; anger that had nothing to do with household finances and everything to do with her father's cowardly behavior. She decided now was as good a time as any to interfere. A quick dash and a swift kick punted her pandafied father over the Tendou residence wall. "Come back when you have less fur and more brains, old man!"
Ranma clenched her teeth at her father's complete lack of shame in avoiding any sort of responsibility, and turned back to the house - only to discover that Nabiki and Uncle Tendou were both staring at her in a way that, for some reason, made her very uneasy.
"What're you looking at!" she growled, trying to hide her anxiety. "You never seen a guy kick a panda over a wall before?"
Oddly, they didn't bother to point out that Ranma wasn't actually a guy at the moment. They just kept staring at her disconcertingly.
Uncle Tendou's eyes were narrowed in thought. "Nabiki... Ranma's a better martial artist than either Saotome-kun or myself..."
Nabiki smiled sweetly, "Why yes, Daddy, so he - she is."
Ranma didn't like that smile one bit. It looked... predatory.
"Hey, now, don't you go getting any crazy ideas!" Ranma tried to sound intimidating, but knew that against Nabiki it was a wasted effort.
Nabiki's smile broke into a malicious grin. "I would never dream of it... Ranma-sensei."
Ukyou was keeping busy; it was the lowest point of the lull between the lunch and dinner peaks, but she was still hard at work, scraping down the griddle in preparation for the evening rush. It wasn't really a necessary task at this point, but Ukyou found that occupying her hands kept her mind off other things. Like Ranchan's recent behavior towards her...
Ukyou made a face at the griddle. Best not to dwell on it. Soon enough, he'd realize there was no good reason to be upset with her and be back hanging around Ucchan's in no time.
Someone stepped into the restaurant, and a hopeful vision of Ranchan walking in flashed through Ukyou's mind. She raised her head, putting on a smile.
"No need to act so surprised," Nabiki assured her calmly. "I'm not here to collect on anything."
Ukyou's reaction had been more disappointment than surprise, but she decided not to make a point of it.
"What brings you here then?" Ukyou asked, wiping her hands on a towel. "Looking to grab a late lunch?" Nabiki didn't usually come to Ucchan's without some poor sap in tow to pin the bill on.
Nabiki shook her head. "No, thanks, Ukyou. I ate already." She looked around the empty restaurant. "Konatsu here? I had... something I wanted to ask him."
Ukyou eyed Nabiki suspiciously for a moment. "Konatsu?" Ukyou called, barely raising her voice above normal conversation.
"Yes, Ukyou-sama?" Suddenly, he was at her side. Ukyou would have jumped at this, but she had grown used to it. Nabiki managed to merely blink and look mildly surprised.
"Nabiki has something she wanted to ask-"
Nabiki broke in before Ukyou could say anything more. "I'd like to arrange an exchange of favors."
"With me?" Konatsu asked, looking puzzled.
"Yes and no. With Ukyou really, but I know you'll do what's needed because you're such a loyal... friend." Nabiki smirked.
"I would do anything for Ukyou-sama!" Konatsu proclaimed, kneeling in supplication.
Ukyou had trouble hiding her annoyance. "Would you stop that?"
Konatsu stood obediently. "Yes, Ukyou-sama."
Ukyou sighed in exasperation and returned her attention to Nabiki. "Alright. What is it you want?" she asked resignedly.
"I know Konatsu is fast and discreet and can cover a lot of ground quickly."
"Yes?" Ukyou prompted. Where was this going?
"Well, I happen to need some flyers put up, and I want as wide a distribution as I can get. I'd like Konatsu to post them for me."
"Why couldn't you just hire someone to do it?"
"Because this way is free."
"No it's not," Ukyou countered. "What 'favor' are you offering in return for the service?"
"A two month extension on the loan I gave you after your... unfortunate profit losses."
You mean after Konatsu gave all our profits away to customers as free 'prizes', Ukyou thought.
Konatsu was eager to jump into the breach. "I will do it!"
"Not - so - fast," Ukyou interrupted. "What sort of flyers?"
"Just a little advertisement." Nabiki smiled disarmingly.
Ukyou made sure to give Nabiki her most skeptical eyebrow-quirk. She held out her hand expectantly.
Nabiki stared at the awaiting palm for a moment, then reached into her blouse with a tiny sigh of resignation. She pulled out a small square of paper and started unfolding it. She handed Ukyou the unfolded flyer. "That's just a prototype," she added.
Ukyou looked down at the sheet of paper held in her hand. The words "Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts" ran across the top in bold letters, and beneath that, slightly smaller, "At the Tendou Dojo." Under this eye-grabbing heading was the eye-grabbing graphic of the advertisement, two photos side by side, one of Ranchan and the other of - Ranchan. In the photo on the left, Ranchan was posing cutely (Ukyou really wondered how Nabiki had gotten that shot). But the image on the right was the one that caught and kept Ukyou's attention: Ranchan looking very manly, fists half-cocked at his sides, relaxed but ready, his stance and smile confident. His gi was pulled loose from recent exercise, a sheen of sweat on his half exposed chest. She felt a little stab in her chest at the sight.
Well, Nabiki certainly knows how to pick her advertising material, Ukyou thought. Even if girls who weren't already madly in love with Ranchan found the photo half as arresting as she did, they would probably be sold on it instantly. And guys would probably be sold even faster on the photo of Ranma's girl half, Ukyou supposed.
She scanned down the page, reading the small but bold print below the eye-candy: "Head Instructor Saotome Ranma."
Eh? Ranchan, teaching martial arts classes? Ukyou scanned further, noting the words "Moderating Instructors Saotome Genma and Tendou Soun" and "Business Manager Tendou Nabiki," just above the address and contact information and a little map showing the location of the dojo in relation to nearby landmarks and train stations. At the bottom of the page, one phrase stood out in bold: "Open House and Free Seminar this Sunday," and the date.
Ukyou eyed Nabiki again. "Trying to use Ranchan to make you some money again?" She barely managed to keep the growl out of her voice.
"Oh, I'm sorry, were you planning to object?" Nabiki asked in mock-innocent surprise. "I don't seem to remember hearing any complaints the time I rented him out to you."
Now Ukyou did growl, but said nothing. She could feel her face reddening in suppressed anger and shame. That had been different; Ranchan liked spending time with her... at least, he used to...
"Besides," Nabiki continued. "Ranma knows all about it. It's not like he's contributed anything to the household budget so far besides big negative numbers; he's just learning a little financial responsibility, that's all."
"And Ranchan... agreed to this idea?" Ukyou asked.
One corner of Nabiki's mouth quirked up. "Not exactly. But as I said, he knows about it. He's under no duress." Nabiki's lips parted, showing her teeth. "And if he cooperates, it'll stay that way too."
Ukyou glanced at Konatsu. He looked back at her, awaiting instruction.
With a sigh, Ukyou handed the flyer back to Nabiki. "Sorry, sugar, I can't participate in something that Ranchan might be against."
"Oh, like that's ever stopped you before."
Ukyou just set her lips in a thin line and said nothing.
Nabiki was giving her an appraising look - the appraising look, the one that could make anyone feel like a bug under a microscope.
"Ranma still giving you the cold shoulder?" Nabiki's voice was quiet and smooth, without emotion; it hardly sounded like a question.
Ukyou was certain the glare she gave Nabiki would have set a lesser woman's hair on fire; Nabiki seemed unaffected.
Nabiki added, in a helpful tone of voice, "Next time you're at a wedding, I suggest throwing rice. It may not be as spectacular as exploding okonomiyaki, but it's easier to... clean up after. Wouldn't want to make a mess again, would we?"
Ukyou felt her jaw tighten. She broke away from Nabiki's gaze, blinking at the sudden moisture in her eyes. Damn her.
Yes, Ukyou certainly had made a mess of things, hadn't she. But Ranchan couldn't possibly have wanted to marry that tomboy. Ukyou was the cute fiancée; she was trying to save him.
"Really, Ukyou," Nabiki continued, obviously unimpeded by the distress she was causing, "do you think helping me could make things that much worse than you made them yourself?"
"Shut up!" Ukyou exploded. She clenched her fists as hard as she could to keep from shaking. Her fingernails dug into her palms painfully. She ignored it.
Nabiki's expression softened slightly. "Howsabout this, kiddo. I'll help you patch things up with Ranma, and extend your loan, if you get your little man-sla... er, friend to put up the flyers."
Ukyou took a deep breath, steadying herself. She unclenched her fists. Inhaling another steadying breath, she let it out in a, "How?"
"How could you help? And why should I believe you?"
Nabiki's face was dead serious. "Tendou Nabiki never backs out of a deal. If the terms of the deal say I'll help you, you'd better believe I'll do it."
Ukyou looked away again. In a small voice, she said, "Alright."
Out of the corner of her eye, Ukyou could see Nabiki smile as though nothing untoward had just happened, as if no one had just been on the edge of breaking down in tears and ripping apart half of the restaurant.
"See? That wasn't so hard, was it?" Nabiki said, her tone so expertly modulated it almost didn't sound condescending. Almost.
"Konatsu, stop by our place later this evening, say, oh, eight o' clock or so. I should have all the flyers ready by then."
"I will be there; anything for Ukyou-sama's happiness."
Nabiki nodded once curtly, and left.
Konatsu shuffled cautiously up to Ukyou's side. "Ukyou-sama... are you all right?" He gasped, "Your hands! You're bleeding!"
Ukyou looked down at her palms; tiny drops of blood were welling to the surface where her fingernails had bitten into her skin.
"It's nothing, Konatsu," her voice sounding dead and emotionless in her own ears. "I'll be fine."
"I said it's nothing!" Ukyou barked, more harshly than she had intended. Konatsu shrunk back, stung.
"Sorry," she apologized, her voice still hollow. "I... didn't mean to shout at you."
"It's okay, Ukyou-sama. I'm sure I deserved no less than-"
"Oh, shut up and... go clean the bathroom or something."
Kasumi knew she was very observant. She wasn't overly proud of it the way she would be proud of a particularly good batch of miso soup, it was simply the way she was. She realized that some people, when they first met her or if they didn't know her very well, often mistook her calm smile for vacuousness and her serene unflappability for a sign that she was not really in touch with reality. But Kasumi didn't really mind if people thought that about her. Of course, Kasumi didn't mind most things. She simply didn't see any sense in becoming befuddled or upset over every little thing.
Perhaps the only thing that Kasumi could never really abide was rudeness. She frowned a tiny, almost imperceptible frown at the dish she was cleaning. Yes, rudeness and unkindness she simply couldn't tolerate. Oh, and bad haircuts. Bad haircuts were the worst offense.
The phone rang, interrupting Kasumi's reflections. She dried her hands quickly on her apron as she went to answer it, wondering aloud, "Now who could that be?" They didn't usually get calls in the middle of the afternoon.
She lifted the receiver to her ear. "Hello, Tendou residence."
"Hi, do you teach kendo?"
"I saw your ad, I was just wondering if you have kendo classes there. This is the Tendou Dojo, right?"
"Yes, it is, but I'm sorry we don't teach kendo here."
"No? Oh, well, maybe I'll come check it out anyway. Thanks."
Kasumi sat in the chair next to the phone, bringing the fingers of one hand to her cheek. What a strange call.
The phone rang again. How odd, Kasumi thought, and picked up the phone again.
"Hello, Tendou residence."
"'Ey der, wahine, dis da big kahuna. Dis mornin', I be t'inkin'. Den later I not be t'inkin' so much. Den after dat I be t'inkin' again some more. I be t'inkin', my Tatchi, he such a lonely keike. What he need is a good wahine look after him an' da kine. So me jes callin' t'say my Tatchi, he marry yo' li'l wahine Tendou Nabiki. We gon' have big luau, yeah? You tell dem Tendou Soun, 'kay wahine?"
"I'll... be sure to mention it to Father."
"Okaey den. Aloha!"
Kasumi slowly replaced the receiver onto its cradle, her eyes slightly wide.
"Oh my." It seemed to her like the appropriate thing to say.
She heard the front door open and then shut.
Nabiki walked in. "Hey, Sis, what's up?" she asked when she caught sight of Kasumi sitting in the hall.
"Welcome home Nabiki-chan," Kasumi greeted her. "The oddest thing just happened."
Nabiki gave Kasumi one of her usual sardonic, questioning looks.
"What? You mean besides people changing into pandas and stuff?"
"No, Nabiki-chan, I said odd. A strange call - actually two strange calls in a row."
"So that's more odd than people changing into pandas?"
"Nabiki-chan, please stop saying Uncle Saotome is odd, it isn't polite," Kasumi chastened. "Really, Nabiki, sometimes I really worry about your bad behavior."
"My bad behav-?" Nabiki cut herself off with a roll of her eyes. "Whatever, Sis. So what was so strange about these calls you got?"
"Well, the first one sounded like a young man, and he was asking about what sort of martial arts were taught at the dojo here. He said something about seeing an ad."
Nabiki frowned. "That is strange. I haven't distributed any of the flyers yet." Her frown deepened as her gaze abstracted, obviously in thought. "Someone must have gotten a hold of a prototype copy."
She shrugged it off. "Well, no big deal. Any calls for me?"
Kasumi shook her head. "No, the second call... well I believe it was for Father, actually."
"Oh yeah? From who?"
"Well, I'm not sure, but it was a middle-aged gentleman I believe, and he had the strangest way of talking. He said something about you getting married to someone named Tatchi."
"Do you know anyone by that name, Nabiki-chan?"
It was obvious from Nabiki's reaction that she had some idea what the call was about, though her face was a blank mask.
"No," she said evenly. "Probably just a wrong number."
"Oh, but he mentioned you and Father by name."
Nabiki licked her lips. "Look, Sis, could you do me a big favor?"
Nabiki, asking for a favor? Kasumi looked her sister in the eyes, wondering if she was feeling alright. She saw a glimmer of fear there, hidden behind a carefully neutral expression.
Nabiki's facade never could fool Kasumi. The call worried Nabiki. Kasumi smiled, and decided to indulge her little sister.
"Of course I can do you a favor, Nabiki-chan. What do you need?"
"I need you to forget about that call. Forget it ever happened."
"But I told the man I would pass his message on to Father."
"Sis..." Nabiki's controlled voice held an undertone of panic.
"Sis, please!" Nabiki was actually pleading with her. This was most unusual.
"Alright, Nabiki-chan. I'll try to forget the phone ever rang."
"Thank you," Nabiki said sincerely. She turned and headed for the stairs.
Two strange calls, then Nabiki asks a favor, pleads, and says something with complete sincerity. Kasumi imagined that this had to be one of the oddest days in her young life.
From the Tendou house rooftop, Ranma could clearly make out the dark-clad figure that slipped silently over the wall and into the yard. Geez, what now?
Standing, he took a few steps running start and leapt. A little flip with an aerial twist and he landed silently behind the intruder.
The figure, clad in black, was creeping slowly across the yard towards the house. Ranma briefly debated yelling, "Hey!" while standing right behind the intruder, sacrificing the element of surprise for what would probably be a really funny reaction. He discarded the notion and instead reached one strong arm forward and wrapped it around the intruders neck in a vise-like headlock.
"Alright, pal," Ranma said, his voice dripping menace and disdain. "Who the hell are you and what're you doing sneaking around the Tendou Dojo?"
"Ulp!" was the only response.
Ulp? Hmm... maybe his headlock was a little too vise-like. He pulled the intruder's mask off. A long black ponytail fell out.
"Er... Konatsu? That you?"
He let go.
It was, indeed, Konatsu, he saw as the kunoichi raised his head. "Ranma-san," he said, then swallowed a few times, massaging his throat, and continued, "please forgive my intrusion. I've come to put up some flyers for Nabiki-san."
Ranma didn't like the sound of that. "What flyers?"
"Well... I think they're flyers advertising classes at the dojo here."
"Uh-huh," Ranma replied, eyes half-lidded. "Listen, Konatsu. Hate to break it to ya, but... Nabiki won't be needing those flyers put up after all."
"No?" Konatsu's face fell. "Oh. That's too bad. I was so looking forward to helping out Ukyou-sama..."
"What? What's this got to do with Ucchan?"
"Well, Nabiki said that she would help... would help Ukyou-sama if I did this for her."
Che. Now Ucchan was conspiring with Nabiki? What next?
"What was Nabiki going to help Ucchan with, exactly?" Ranma thought he could guess.
Konatsu fidgeted nervously. "Well... she was going to extend her loan, and..." Konatsu's voice got smaller, "she said she'd help out with... well... you."
Yep. He'd guessed it.
"Help out with me how?"
"I... don't know."
Konatsu fidgeted some more under Ranma's gaze and looked down at the ground.
"Does this 'help' involve renting me out? Or possibly blowing things up?"
"Ranma-san," Konatsu said, looking very earnest. "You must know Ukyou-sama is deeply sorry about what happened. She would never do anything if she thought it would hurt you."
"Go home, Konatsu," Ranma said flatly, holding out the ninja-mask.
Konatsu looked crushed. "Yes, sir." He took the mask and slunk dejectedly back towards the wall, the picture of dashed aspirations.
The world's only male (though he hardly looked it) kunoichi turned back, a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
Ranma looked down at his feet. Then he looked up at the sky. He had a very bad feeling he was going to regret what he was about to do.
He looked back at Konatsu. "Look... why don't you come back in about... wait, when were you supposed to meet Nabiki here, anyway?"
"Eight o' clock."
Ranma just stared. "It's... like four in the afternoon."
"Oh? Is it?" Konatsu looked slightly abashed. "I guess I got a little ahead of myself. I was so excited about helping Ukyou-sama."
Ranma stared some more. "Riiiight... anyway, why don't you come back in about four hours and see if Nabiki still needs your help."
Konatsu's face brightened with joy. "Yes, I will, Ranma-san!"
"Oh... and, Konatsu?"
"You can use the front door next time."
"Thank you, Ranma-san."
"Actually, why don't you make a point of using the front door whenever you come here. Oh, and... if you're gonna insist on the ninja outfit, at least wear the hood with the hole for your ponytail so I'll be able to recognize you and won't think you're some freak sneaking around the dojo."
"Oh, yes, of course, Ranma-san. I've just been wearing this one recently because it was a gift from Ukyou-sama and I haven't had time to make any alteration, and I'm not sure if Ukyou-sama would want me to-"
"Konatsu," Ranma interjected.
Nabiki lay stretched out on her side watching TV, one hand propping up her head. An open textbook lay in front of her, to skim during commercial breaks - though usually she just ended up mentally analyzing the methods and effectiveness of the advertisements with a discerning eye.
"I'm home," her father announced as he walked in from the hall.
"Welcome home," Nabiki mumbled. Kasumi's more enthusiastic response echoed her from the kitchen.
"How was school, Nabiki?"
"School was fine, Daddy."
"Did anything happen while I was gone?"
Kasumi bustled in from the kitchen. "Oh, that reminds me; there was a call for you while you were out, Father."
Nabiki's head snapped around to look at Kasumi, her heart suddenly beating twice as fast.
"A call for me, you say? Who was it?"
"I'm not quite sure who it was father, but-"
"You promised!" Nabiki blurted.
"Yes, that's right," Kasumi agreed. "I promised him I would relay his message."
She promised! Nabiki seethed, scrambling to her feet. She promised she'd forget the phone ever even rang!
"Funny," Kasumi was saying, "I don't remember the phone ringing, - Nabiki's palpitating heart dropped into her stomach - "but I'm sure there was a call, and I remember what he said."
Nabiki felt like the world had just turned upside down. This was a trick worthy of Nabiki herself, not Kasumi.
"What are you doing!" Nabiki hissed at her sister in a stage whisper.
"Please don't interrupt, Nabiki-chan," Kasumi said pleasantly. "It's rude. Now, where was I..."
Trying to play me at my own game, eh? We'll see about that!
Nabiki lunged for Kasumi's hand before she could get any further, hooking her sister's pinkie with her own.
"I sister-swear you to secrecy!"
Kasumi looked at Nabiki and their locked pinkies held up between them, her expression aghast - or as close to aghast as Kasumi ever got, which was somewhere between mildly shocked and disappointed.
"Nabiki-chan, that was a dirty trick!"
"You're one to talk, Miss 'I'll forget the phone ever rang'!"
Father looked annoyed. "I take it you're not going to tell me what this mysterious caller said now, are you?"
"I can't, Father," Kasumi said, matter-of-factly. "She swore me to secrecy."
Father raised his eyes heavenward, as if seeking support from the gods. Nabiki estimated they probably hadn't pulled a sister-swear on him in ten years, but he'd been conditioned very early on, so he was still taking it pretty well.
"Very well," he said, somewhat sullenly, but mostly wearily, and left the room.
"Now you've gone and upset Father," Kasumi chided, pulling her pinkie away from Nabiki's. "And made me break my promise to that poor fellow who called, too."
"Isn't a promise to your own sister more important?" Nabiki shot back.
Kasumi sniffed. "All promises are equally important. That's why I made sure I could keep them both."
Nabiki raised a hand to massage the bridge of her nose. "Sis... I gotta say, you never cease to amaze me."
"Ah, Ukyou, there you are."
Ukyou turned to see Nabiki approaching her down the school hallway.
"What do you want?" Ukyou asked guardedly.
Nabiki gave a false pout. "Now what's that tone of voice? I'm here to help you, after all."
"With Ranma. As per our arrangement."
"Alright then, Nabiki-'senpai'," Ukyou replied evenly, crossing her arms over the front of her usual boy's uniform. "What did you have in mind?"
"Just follow me," Nabiki said, turning and gesturing for Ukyou to follow. "It'll all become clear."
"Wait a second, Nabiki, I got something to say to you."
Nabiki turned back and arched a questioning eyebrow.
Ukyou noted that they were alone in the hall. Good. No chance of Nabiki getting out of this one.
"That crap you pulled the other day, rubbing the wedding fiasco in my face - that was low. I really oughta kick your ass!"
"But you won't," Nabiki returned, almost smugly.
"Right," Ukyou agreed. "So I'll have to make due with this." She paused to inhale deeply. "You're a miserable, manipulative, money- grubbing hobag-bitch and I hope you die in your own feces!"
Nabiki's lips were pursed quizzically. "Are you done?"
"Yes," Ukyou breathed, feeling surprisingly better.
"Good. Then let's proceed."
Ranma was sitting with Daisuke and Hiroshi discussing last night's televised judo matches when an all-too-familiar throat-clearing sounded from over his shoulder. He knew who it was before he even turned his head to look.
"What do you want, Nabiki?"
Nabiki frowned slightly. "What is it with everyone today? So defensive. What, am I some kind of demon?"
"Worse," Ranma quipped. "You're Tendou Nabiki."
"Careful, Ranma," Hiroshi cautioned in a whisper. Ranma glanced back at Hiroshi and discovered he was trying to hide behind Daisuke; he seemed to be having some difficulty, since Daisuke was trying to hide behind him at the same time.
"I'll let that one slide," Nabiki told Ranma with a smirk. "But only because there's more pressing business."
"There is?" Ranma asked, and then realized that the time it had taken him to speak those fairly pointless words might have been better used in running away.
Nabiki nodded. Then raised her voice to carry over the general buzz of lunchtime conversation. "Okay, everyone, move out! Ukyou needs to talk to Ranma! Come on, come on, everybody out!"
A hiss of "Nabiki!" from the doorway cut through the general protests of Ranma's classmates. Ranma looked over to discover Ucchan was standing by the door, her face looking like it couldn't decide whether to turn extremely red, or very, very pale.
Much to Nabiki's obvious satisfaction, and despite numerous complaints and grumblings, Hiroshi and Daisuke led a grudging mass- exodus as everyone trickled out of the room at the command of their formidable senpai, leaving only Ucchan, Nabiki herself, and Ranma. He stood and faced Ucchan warily.
As Nabiki moved to follow the other students, Ucchan reached out and grabbed her arm in passing, looking panicked.
"This is your brilliant plan?" Ranma could hear her practically shout in a stage whisper.
Nabiki just smiled disingenuously, and pitched her voice so that Ranma could clearly overhear her response. "Just talk to him. It'll all work out." Her smile broadened as she glanced in Ranma's direction. "Trust me."
Ucchan looked hardly reassured at those words.
Nabiki left and shut the door behind her. Ucchan jumped slightly at the sound, her wide, fearful eyes locked on Ranma.
"Hey, U... Ukyou," he said, keeping his voice emotionless.
Ucchan looked slightly stung. "Hey."
Ranma crossed his arms and turned halfway away from her, staring out the window at nothing.
"You got something to say to me?"
"Ranchan... I... I..."
She came toward him, until she was standing right next to him. Ranma refused to look at her.
"Ranchan, why are you..." Ucchan's voice got very, very small, "why are you mad at me?"
Ranma rounded on her so fast he accidentally knocked a desk over. "Why do you think!"
Ranma shut his eyes, trying to calm himself.
In a tiny voice, Ucchan answered, "The wedding...?"
"Yes!" he let out in frustration.
"But... you didn't actually want to marry her... did you?" Ucchan's voice quavered at this question.
"Course not," Ranma grumbled. "That ain't the point."
"But... I thought-"
"I know what you thought. You thought you were saving my neck. But what you were actually doing -" Ranma paused for breath "- was tossing around explosives at my wedding!"
Ukyou took a step back. "Ranchan..."
"You didn't ask me what I wanted, did you? No one ever asks me what I want!"
And then when they do ask you what you want, a little voice said mockingly inside his head, you can't admit you want it.
Ucchan looked like she was on the verge of tears. "Ranchan, I was only trying to help!"
"Yeah, well you weren't!" He cocked a thumb at himself. "Hey! You think I would let anyone force me into something like that against my own will? I coulda handled it myself! I had enough to worry about, with Shampoo and Kodachi and Happousai and Pop and getting married when I didn't even wanna, without you throwing gunpowder into the mix!"
Ranma paused again for breath, and realized Ucchan was shaking with suppressed sobs. "Ranchan... I'm sorry."
He felt himself deflate, his momentum lost. He softened his tone slightly. "Yeah, well... next time, try asking before you go wrecking my wedding, 'kay?"
Ucchan's lip quivered. "Next time... maybe you could... try marrying a different fiancée?"
Ranma sighed, placing a hand on Ucchan's shoulder. "Look... Ucchan. I said I didn't wanna marry Akane, and that's the truth. But that's cause I don't wanna marry anyone right now. I... just don't wanna get married yet. But... when I do... I want you to be there." He looked into her eyes. "Without the explosives."
Tears started streaming down Ucchan's cheeks and she collapsed forward into Ranma's chest. She mumbled something tearfully into the front of his shirt, shaking with silent sobs.
Aw, crap, he thought, why'd she have to go and start crying? Ranma knew he wasn't very good at handling crying girls. Angry girls he had plenty of experience with, but crying girls were another story.
He gingerly put his arms around her, trying to comfort her. "Hey... it's okay, Ucchan, I forgive you. We're still buddies, right?"
This just seemed to make Ucchan cry harder, much to Ranma's bafflement.
Then the door to the classroom slid open.
As Akane approached her class's room, it became very clear that something was amiss. A large crowd was gathered around the entrance, many of them trying to get a peak into the classroom, others listening at the wall. Akane pushed her way through the crowd and discovered Nabiki was standing in front of the closed door, blocking the way.
"Nabiki, what's going on here?"
Nabiki smiled cheerfully. "Hello, Akane. Ranma's just having a little private chat with Ukyou right now."
Akane frowned at this as storm clouds gathered in her mind, casting dark shadows on her thoughts. "Nabiki..."
"Sorry, kiddo, can't let you in right now. They should be done in a few minutes." Nabiki looked at her watch. "At least, they had better be, or I'm going to be late for afternoon classes."
If there was one thing that Akane didn't have to stand for, it was her sister's ultimatums. She shoved Nabiki somewhat roughly aside and put her hand decisively on the door handle.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Nabiki cautioned, an expression on her face that could only be described as bored amusement.
Akane shot her a defiant look, and slid the door open.
The sight of Ranma, his arms wrapped around Ukyou in a tender embrace, greeted Akane from the middle of the classroom.
Ranma looked up, color draining from his face. "Uh... Akane, this isn't what it looks like..."
She hardly even heard his words, let alone acknowledged their meaning. A haze of rage descended over Akane's vision, tinting the whole world red, with Ranma at the center.
Akane's fist tore through a desk that Ranma had been standing in front of just moments before.
"Akane, cut it out, lemme explain!"
"Shut up, you jerk!"
Akane lashed out again, sending a second desk flying across the room to crack against the wall.
Suddenly, her intended target was blocked out of her vision. "Leave Ranchan alone, you violent maniac!" Ukyou screamed into her face. Akane saw the wet trails of tears beneath Ukyou's puffy, reddened eyes, and felt her rage twist into confusion.
"Ukyou... what... what happened?"
"You stormed in here and went berserk for no reason, that's what happened!"
By the time Akane saw the hand coming, it was too late.
Not a martial arts attack, but a well-placed smack to the face - the physical sting was nowhere near as harsh as the emotional shock that went with it. It felt more like a reprisal than a challenge.
"I hate you!" Ukyou shouted, and ran from the room.
Akane raised a hand to her smarting cheek, stunned. Ranma stood nearby, looking between her and the doorway, clearly torn.
"Uh... Akane...? Are you okay?"
Akane didn't know how to answer. She touched her fingers to the side of her face and then stared at her hand, half expecting to see some residue of Ukyou's righteous fury.
"Really, Akane," Nabiki was saying as she stepped into the room and around a broken desk, which she eyed meaningfully. "Has it ever occurred to you to stop and assess a situation before you charge blindly in and start trying to clobber people?"
Daisuke popped his head in behind her, looking around cautiously before entering. "Hey, what was that all about? Did Ukyou just dump you, Ranma?"
"Oh. You mean you dumped her?"
Akane sighed. Just like Ranma to protest before he thought about what he was saying. She would have hit him, but for some reason all the anger had been drained out of her.
"Ranma," Akane broke in pointedly.
"What?" Ranma hopped away, putting some more distance between them and going into a defensive stance.
"You're an idiot," she said wearily, and, putting purpose in her stride, walked out of the room.
The sound of Akane's hesitant voice made Ukyou start. She looked up at her rival's face, deeply lined with concern, and then away. Here was the last person she wanted sympathy from right now.
Akane steadfastly refused to take a hint. She tucked under her skirt and sat down next to Ukyou at the railing on the school rooftop. Nerima spread out before them, picturesque and deceptively peaceful in the afternoon sun.
Ukyou turned her head away and scrubbed vigorously at her eyes with a sleeve of her uniform, not wanting Akane to see her crying, though she knew it was a lost cause. "Go 'way!"
"Ukyou..." Akane began. "I'm sorry. I really am. I shouldn't have... exploded... like I did."
At the word "exploded," the memory of Ranma's tirade resurfaced, and a lump in Ukyou's chest threatened to move up into her throat. She managed to swallow both back down with a few gulping sobs.
Ukyou knew Akane was being sincere in her apology. If nothing else, Akane was about as guileless as her sister Nabiki was guile-full. Ukyou would have liked to just continue being mad at Akane, but she was having trouble. The real reason she was upset now was not really Akane's fault, though Ukyou desperately wanted to blame her.
"I'm sorry too," Ukyou finally relented, her voice barely above a whisper.
Akane touched her own cheek lightly. "I probably deserved it." She paused, as if uncertain how to continue. "Did Ranma really... dump you?"
It was the question Ukyou didn't want to answer. Technically speaking, no, Ranchan had not dumped her. He had merely said that he wanted her to be at his future wedding, whenever it occurred. Not as his bride, not as his future wife, but as his friend.
Without even knowing it, Ranchan had crushed Ukyou's hopes with one, innocent utterance. She knew that that was the reason she had hit Akane, striking out at a convenient target - the girl who Ukyou feared had taken Ranchan from her. A girl she felt didn't deserve him, didn't love him.
Or did she?
"What do you care if he dumped me or not?"
Akane looked away. "It doesn't really matter to me one way or the other," she said, an edge of annoyance in her otherwise even tone.
"Then why ask?"
Akane didn't respond.
"You love Ranchan too, don't you?"
Ukyou could see the muscles in Akane's neck tighten.
"No way! He's such a... such a..." she stumbled over her reply.
"Oh give me a break, Akane! I know you don't hate him!" Ukyou fairly snapped. "If you tell me, what do you think I'm gonna do, spread it around? What the hell good would that do me?"
Akane's head turned slowly, her hair moving aside like a curtain, revealing an unreadable mix of emotions in her face. But Ukyou could see something in her eyes - and it frightened her.
"You do love him..."
Akane didn't say anything. She looked frightened too. For some reason, this comforted Ukyou. She and Akane were both on the same uncertain ground - equal, at least, in their insecurity.
It was something. Ranchan had forgiven her, after all, and he obviously hadn't given Akane any unequivocal indication of his feelings; Ukyou still had a chance.
"Maybe... we should try to get along. For Ranchan's sake, at least," Ukyou suggested. They had managed to do it before.
After a thoughtful pause, Akane responded, "Not that I really care what Ranma thinks, but... alright.
They both stared at each other for a moment; Ukyou got the sense that they were both at a loss as to how they should feel right now.
"I'm sorry I hit you," she reiterated.
"I know. I'm sorry I acted like such a dummy."
Ukyou discovered she was managing to smile a little.
"Friends?" she offered.
Akane mirrored her half-smile. "Friends."
"This doesn't mean I'm giving up yet," Ukyou said, feeling her smile widen.
Her rival returned her shy grin in kind, but said nothing.
"Right then." Ukyou put forth her hand. Akane took the proffered hand in a strong grip, a glint in her eye.
"May the best girl win," Akane intoned. It was the closest Ukyou had ever heard Akane come to admitting she was actually in the running; a concession, however small and indirect, that she did have some feelings for Ranchan.
Ukyou just shook her head wryly. As far as Ukyou was concerned, Akane had just wished her luck; Ukyou was the best girl. If she cast aside any pretense of modesty, Ukyou knew she was smart, cute, friendly, loyal, and hardworking, and generally treated Ranchan far better than his other so-called fiancée's.
But, even as she counted her blessings and resolved not to give up hope, Ukyou couldn't quite shake one frightening question from her thoughts: what if being the best girl didn't really matter after all?
It was a beautiful autumn morning in Nerima; the leaves were just beginning to change, and a chorus of birds heralded the break of a new day as dewy dawn gave way to warm sunshine.
It was also Sunday, the day of the dojo open house.
Ranma arose with a feeling of foreboding, wishing it had been raining and dreary - the good weather was obviously wasted on a day as fraught as he dreaded today would be.
Careful not to wake his still snoring panda - er, father - Ranma crept to the window and grabbed his shoes. He'd had the foresight to carry them upstairs the previous night before he went to bed.
Opening the window slowly, Ranma placed his shoes on the sill and swung his legs out, sitting lightly on the sill.
"Going somewhere?" a voice suddenly called from below.
Ranma dropped the shoe he had been about to put on, lost his balance on the precarious window sill, and slid off. His reflexes saved him from an undignified tumble to the ground as he twisted around and grabbed a hold of the window sill with both hands.
"Nabiki!" Ranma yelped in surprise. She was looking up at him from the yard, a smug smile on her face. "Ah, no, course I'm not going anywhere! I'm, uh, just airing out my shoes, that's all! Yeah!" He scrambled back up through the window, slamming it shut behind him. He realized one of his shoes was now squashed in it, and decided he didn't care. No time to worry about it right now. He dashed for the door, almost tripping over a black and white lump - Pop again - and flew down the stairs.
"Ranma! Good morning!"
Ranma skid to a halt.
Saotome Nodoka was sitting at the table, smiling cheerfully at him.
Ranma just gaped. "When... when did you...?"
"Why so shocked?" Mother asked him. "Didn't Nabiki tell you? She invited me over this morning. Wasn't that sweet of her?"
Nabiki. Ranma should have known. "Sweet. Yeah. That's Nabiki in a nutshell," he said somewhat breathlessly.
Mother just smiled at him, missing or ignoring the thinly veiled irony.
"Look... Mom... I was actually just about to take a walk..."
"Don't you want breakfast? A young martial artist like you needs to eat to keep his strength up."
"Thanks, I'll be fine."
"Oh?" Mother looked disappointed. "But I made it especially."
That was when Ranma noticed the place setting across from his mother. His stomach growled at the sight.
Damn you, Nabiki. She had planned this, he knew. Combining two of his only weakness - food, and his mother - to keep him from leaving. It was a plot well worthy of her craftiness, but she hadn't won yet.
Ranma gulped down the food as fast as he could - which meant he was finished in about three seconds - while his mother looked on and smiled benignly, basking in his appreciation of the meal she had prepared for him.
"Thanks, Mom, that was great," Ranma remarked absently as he rose. "Now I'd better get going."
Mother frowned. "Ranma... are you trying to avoid me?"
"I..." Ranma sat. "No, Mother." Inwardly, he continued to curse Nabiki in every way he could think of.
Mother's smile returned. "Good. I get to spend so little time with you; I feel like I should make up for all the time I wasn't there for you these past years."
"That's okay, Mom, you don't need to make it up to me."
Frown. "You mean you don't want to spend time with me?"
"That's not what I meant!"
Smile. "Good. I've been wanting to talk to you."
She paused, looking thoughtful, as if she was planning out what she was going to say.
"Ranma, I'm not going to make you commit seppuku."
Ranma had guessed as much by now, but... he glanced at the wrapped katana propped against his mother's shoulder. "That's... a relief."
Mother's eyes followed his gaze. "I never wanted it to come to that, but I figured your father wouldn't take his responsibility to raise you seriously unless the very real threat of a gruesome death were following at his heels." She patted the katana's cloth wrappings. "I continue to carry this now as a reminder to myself of how foolish I was to let your father take you away from me so young; it is the cross I bear, so to speak." She added, "And I think it helps keep your father in line - as much as is possible anyway."
Ranma was somewhat disturbed by the fact that his mother had managed to explain this all with a straight face - even a trace of a smile toward the very end.
"What I really want to say, Ranma, is I don't think your father did a very good job raising you -"
"I'll say," Ranma interjected.
"- and I feel at fault," his mother finished, then pursed her lips pensively for a moment.
"I think you miss my meaning. I'm relieved that your father hasn't ruined you completely, but you're not quite the son I wish you were - and not nearly half the man I think you could be."
How he was supposed to take that, Ranma wasn't sure, but it didn't exactly sound like a compliment. The "not half the man you could be" part of her statement in particular irked him more than he was willing to show.
"Listen, Mom, if this is about my curse-"
"It's more than just that, Ranma. Your curse I trust you will get rid of as soon as you're able. The rest we will just have to work on."
"Work on what?" Ranma questioned impatiently. Mother seemed to be following up her brutally honest opinion of him with attempts to tip-toe around her actual point.
Mother took a breath, as if steeling herself. "Well, to name one thing, you are often very inconsiderate of others. In that way, it appears you are like your father, though your self-centered streak manifests itself in a different way than his does."
"Inconsiderate like how?" Ranma asked, skeptical of the direction the conversation was taking. As far as he was concerned, he was nothing like his father. In fact, years ago, after he'd become fed up with Pop's trickery and acts of cowardice, he had made it a personal goal NOT to be like his father. He thought he'd done a pretty good job so far.
"You speak without considering other people's feelings," his mother replied. "To be fair, you do it a lot."
Ranma looked away. "So what if I do? I don't see how that makes me like Pop."
Mother sighed. "That's not the point, Ranma. Your father is inconsiderate in other ways; that's his problem. The point is, you need to think before you open your mouth and say hurtful or insulting things. If you weren't such a good martial artist, you probably would have gotten the snot beaten out of you a number of times already for some of the things I've heard you say." She paused. "Actually, now that I think about it, you have gotten the snot beaten out of you for some of the things you've said. Mostly by Akane, from what I hear."
"Well it's not like I could hit her back or nothin'. She's a girl after all, even if she is a tomboy," Ranma griped to a paper panel in the dining room door, unable to meet his mother's gaze.
"And of course you couldn't just dodge," Mother said dryly.
"That'd just make her even more angry!"
"Are you saying you let her hit you so she'll feel better?" she asked with a glint in her eye.
Ranma shifted uneasily. How did she know these things when Ranma didn't even know them until she pointed them out?
"Really, Ranma, I'm sure there are less painful ways to curb your feelings of guilt."
Ranma tried to snort at this, but it came out sounding more like a nervous wheeze. "Why should I feel guilty 'bout what I say to some dumb tomboy?" he grumbled.
"I don't know," Mother replied. "You tell me."
Ranma realized he was fidgeting and stopped himself. He didn't much care for his mother's line of questioning.
"Can we maybe... talk about something else?"
His mother gazed at him for a moment in a way that he found inexplicably disconcerting, like she was looking inside of him. "Very well," she relented. "What's this I hear about you teaching classes here at the dojo?"
Ranma grimaced. Not a topic he liked, but probably preferable to the last one.
"Some stupid thing Nabiki came up with," he said. Since he didn't plan on sticking around long enough for anything to come of it, he doubted any further explanation would be necessary.
"Well, I think it's a wonderful idea."
Ranma did a double take. "You... you do?"
"Yes," his mother confirmed. "It should help teach you some maturity and responsibility - two things your father didn't spend much time educating you about. Not that he's at all qualified."
"I'm plenty mature and responsible!" Ranma protested, feeling once again indignant at his mother's words.
"Really?" a chilling voice came from the hallway. "Mature and responsible enough to step outside and greet a few... guests? I'm sure they're all very eager to meet you."
Ranma suddenly felt like his stomach had fallen into the Spring of Drowned Lead Brick. He slowly raised his head to meet Nabiki's gaze.
"All... already?" he stammered ineffectually while a voice in his head kept screaming, Must get out must get out must get out!
"Oh, you thought the dojo open house wasn't until this afternoon?" Nabiki smiled. "Sorry; change of plans."
Now there were two voices in his head, one telling him to get out and the other repeatedly cursing Nabiki. Ranma leapt to his feet, ready to make a break for it.
At his mother's stern tone, he froze in his tracks. He turned slowly to look at her, filled with a sense of dread.
Mother was frowning at him severely. "Let me be very plain with you. If you try to avoid this, I will be very upset." Her tone held no anger, only warning, the quiet emphasis she put on the words "very upset" leaving no room for argument.
Damn you Nabiki damn you Nabiki damn you Nabiki! Using his own mother against him was too cruel for words. Sullenly, his mind almost numb, Ranma followed Nabiki down the hall.
At the foyer, he paused, a glimmer of hope coming to him. He snatched at it.
"Uh... my shoes..."
Nabiki threw down a pair of sandals. His sandals. "Wear these."
Ranma felt his last chance for escape slip through his fingers. It would have been in vain anyway, only postponing the inevitable. Resigning himself, he slipped on the sandals, and stepped to the door.
He placed his hand on the door handle. Here goes nothing, he thought. Sliding it open, he stepped out into the morning light.
Nabiki surveyed the turn-out with satisfaction. A little more than two-dozen people had shown up. She had been worried that the early hour she had set to help her entrap Ranma might discourage some, but she had reminded herself that martial artists were often morning people.
For her own part, Nabiki was decidedly not a morning person. But she had easily set that aside to achieve her goals. Her tenacity and planning had paid off.
The group standing in the Tendou yard was a little more varied than she had anticipated; there was nothing wrong with that, except that it always irked Nabiki when she failed to anticipate something. Thankfully, she reassured herself, it didn't happen very often.
Mostly males, with a healthy smattering of women; much as she had expected, since her advertisement had targeted both groups. Ages ranged from middle to young, with a mix of various martial arts uniforms, exercise outfits, and relaxed street clothes; nothing too unusual, but then there was also a guy wearing some sort of cloak that hid most of his face and body, and even an attractive blue-eyed, blonde- haired kid who definitely wasn't from around here. Everyone else in the group was trying very hard not to stare at him curiously - except for the cloaked man, who seemed quite relaxed, chatting readily enough with anyone who wasn't too intimidated by his tall, dark frame.
"Nabiki-chan? Who are all these people?" Kasumi had just come out of the house and was looking puzzled at the unexpected gathering. "Friends of yours?"
Nabiki had purposely neglected to explain the open house to her older sister for fear that word might get back to Ranma about the time- switch. "Customers," Nabiki answered simply.
(It should be noted that in Japanese, the word for "customer" and the word for "guest" are the same. This may explain some things about Japanese customer service. More relevantly, it may also help explain the below reaction from Kasumi.)
Nabiki could almost see Kasumi's mind shifting into Hostess Mode. She didn't have a Magical Girl Transformation Sequence, but Nabiki had long suspected that that was only because Kasumi would consider such a thing to be flashy and indecent.
"I'd better get the kettle on for tea," Kasumi said, turning back to the house.
"Sis, there's like thirty of them!" Nabiki hissed.
Kasumi paused, apparently considering Nabiki's words. "You're right," she agreed. "I'd better make it two kettles."
Nabiki gave up on trying to dissuade her sister; nothing short of a natural disaster could stop Kasumi once she was in Hostess Mode, and even then it wasn't a sure thing. She'd probably reprimand the disaster for being rude - or else, welcome it and serve it tea. Or both.
The crowd of prospective dupes - er, honored customers - were gazing at her and Ranma expectantly. Ranma seemed to be doing his level best to hide behind his own shadow.
"Welcome to the Tendou Dojo," Nabiki said, making sure to project her voice so everyone would hear. "Thank you all for coming, and thank you for your patience. My name is Tendou Nabiki and I'm the business manager here. You'll need to talk to me about payment and signing up for classes. Now allow me to introduce our senior instructor." She gave Ranma a violent shove in the back and he stumbled forward into the proverbial spotlight - though he acted more like it was the headlight of an oncoming train.
"Ah... I'm Saotome Ranma," he stuttered.
A general murmur arose in the crowd. Perceptive as she was, Nabiki was able to pick out what some of the people were saying.
"That's the sensei?"
"I thought he was just the poster boy."
"But where's the cute redhead? I wanna see the redhead!"
"He's so young!"
"Oh, shut up, Eiko."
"What is this? He's just some kid!"
"I wanna see the redhead!"
"We heard you the first time, Saro."
"Look, these shoes I'm wearing are older than him!"
"Could your shoes teach martial arts better?"
"I bet they could!"
All this Nabiki had anticipated, if not in so many words. But, if she was any judge of people - and she was, she had no qualms admitting - she knew exactly how Ranma would react.
"Hey!" Ranma shouted, silencing what had grown into a general hubbub of doubt and even derision. "Are you questioning my abilities?"
"You're damn right we are!" cried the older fellow who'd made the comment about his shoes. "What could a little boy like you know about martial arts?"
"Little boy! Listen up, gramps-"
"Hey, at least he didn't call you a girl," Nabiki cut in. Ranma glared at her. She smiled brightly back at him.
"Alright," Ranma said, turning to the doubtful mob, his voice decisive - commanding even. "Any one of you, or any two of you, or even all of you at once, think you can take me on... then bring it!"
He slid into a fighting stance so quickly and naturally that it seemed like he hadn't moved at all.
No one stepped forward. The man who had been the most vocal before now shrank to the back of the crowd. A lot of nervous looks were exchanged; with each other, with the ground, with a neighbor's shoulder - with anything but the piercing eyes of the young man before them.
The man in the cloak shifted, looking like he was about to say something, when someone stepped forward right in front of him.
"I challenge your right to call yourself 'sensei' of this dojo."
Nabiki studied the challenger with interest. Another unexpected turn of events. This could prove a problem; Ranma didn't fight girls.
Ranma looked like he was about to say something to that effect, but Nabiki kicked him in the foot, and interjected, "Very well, Saotome Ranma-sensei accepts your challenge." She pitched her voice so that it was clear she was talking to everyone, and added, "We will reconvene in the dojo in five minutes." She gestured towards the training hall.
A moment of hesitation followed before the visitors started to drift off in the indicated direction, talking amongst themselves.
"What the hell'd you do that for, Nabiki!" Ranma demanded, rounding on her. "You know I don't fight girls!"
"Well you'd better start," Nabiki returned. "Can you imagine what a wimp you'd look like if you turned down a challenge from a harmless looking girl like her?"
That got him. Ranma's expression hardened. "I ain't gonna enjoy this," he said.
Of course, Nabiki didn't particularly care if he did or not.
Ranma sized up his opponent dubiously. She couldn't have been much older than him. She wasn't very big - about Akane's height, Ranma estimated, maybe a little shorter and smaller - and she didn't look exceptionally athletic, though he could hardly tell how muscular her limbs were beneath the gi she wore. Her hair was all of a single length, pitch black and shiny, almost luminescent, and she wore it pulled back sleek and tight in a practical ponytail. Her face was quite striking; she had beautifully defined cheek bones and the most perfectly arched eyebrows that Ranma had ever seen. But mostly it was her cool, unreadable expression, radiating confidence and a fighting spirit that belied an appearance that Ranma might have otherwise written off as ordinary-cute-girl-ish.
Pop stood off to Ranma's right, having been co-opted by Nabiki for the role of moderator. He gripped Ranma's shoulder from behind.
"Nabiki wants this to look professional," he confided. "So I'm going to call out the orders to begin and end the fight. Don't let yourself get carried away, either, that girl might not be able to take a direct hit from the likes of you."
"Don't worry," Ranma assured him. "I got it covered."
His father seemed to take him at his word, nodded, and stepped back.
"First one to take a fall, or take three direct hits to the torso or head, loses the match," Pop announced for all to hear. He paused, then let loose a bellow in appropriate dojo-style. "Bow to each other!"
Ranma bowed, as did his opponent, then stood ready.
"Hajime!" Pop called, signaling the start of the match.
Ranma put his arms behind his back and stood casually. Anger flared in the girls eyes, and she charged him.
"Ei!" She let fly a roundhouse kick at the side of his head. He brought his arm up and around just at the last second, catching her foot in one hand.
From this position, he could easily flip her onto her back. Instead he just stood there for a second, looking his opponent in the eye. She glared back at him. Ranma let slip a smirk, and released her foot. She immediately followed up with a series of punches, aimed for his torso and face - he made sure they all struck empty air.
With a twist of her hips, she rocketed a classic karate reverse punch at his stomach. Well executed - but he caught her fist and used the momentum of her punch and her turning hips to spin her around so she was facing away from him. Reaching his arms under hers, he linked his hands together behind her neck in a full-nelson, and lifted her bodily off the ground. She flailed her legs wildly, unable to break his hold.
Ranma had said he wouldn't enjoy this, but he found himself smirking a bit for the second time; this was actually kind of amusing.
Then a shin collided with his forehead.
As he dropped the girl and stumbled back a few paces, he realized that he should have seen that one coming. With his head just over her shoulder, he'd put himself in a prime position to be kicked - assuming his opponent was highly flexible, which apparently she was.
"Call it! Call the hit!" some of Nabiki's "customers" were yelling.
"Glancing blow! Doesn't count!" Pop ruled.
Ranma's opponent made a face, but didn't protest the call.
"You'd better start taking me seriously or you're gonna get hurt," she warned him as they faced off again.
True, if he let himself get careless again, he might get a bruise or two. But if he started taking the fight seriously, she might get hurt for real.
Nothing for it, Ranma thought. Better end this now.
Gritting his teeth at what he was about to do, Ranma very carefully judged the distance.
"Tenchin Amaguriken!" Three punches landed in rapid succession on the girls upper chest - he was careful to avoid any sensitive areas - and Ranma stepped back, relieved she hadn't moved unexpectedly.
"Yame!" Pop cried, ending the match. "Ranma wins!"
Ranma's opponent stood stunned. "But... he barely tapped me!"
"If he'd done more than that, you'd be lucky to be alive," Pop explained.
Giving Ranma a look that was a strange mix of loathing and respect, the challenger stalked back to join the others at the far end of the dojo. She didn't get halfway there before Kasumi stopped her.
"Would you care for some tea, Guest-san?"
The girl just blinked.
Ranma surveyed the small crowd of potential students, most of whom were looking slightly bemused - either at the match they had just witnessed or at Kasumi and her ceaseless ministrations and offers of tea. He looked over to where Nabiki stood on the sidelines with a clipboard. She gave him a nod.
Maybe this teaching thing ain't gonna be so bad? he thought. After all, what could be better than showing a bunch of people what a great martial artist he was? It seemed to him like knowledge well worth sharing. And who knew? Maybe one of these "students" would prove a decent challenge.
Emi was not happy. What an arrogant jerk-wad! She made a bee-line for the main gate, which had been left standing halfway open. Who did that Saotome guy think he was anyway?
She was about to stride out the front entrance in a huff, when a girl in running shorts and a tank top came jogging in and nearly ran into her.
"Oh!" the girl said in surprise. "Good morning."
"Good morning," Emi returned.
The girl looked to be high-school age, and she had a cute little upturned nose set in a cute heart-shaped face framed by dark hair cut in a practical but cute shorter style. Actually, Emi thought that the word "cute" summarized this girl's appearance quite well - not a sickly- sweet kind of cute, but an attractive, blossoming-womanhood kind.
"If you're here for the dojo open house, everyone's in the training hall," Emi said politely.
"Oh, no," the girl corrected her. "I'm not here for the open house. I live here."
Emi felt herself flush slightly with embarrassment. "Oh! I'm terribly sorry."
The girl smiled warmly. "Don't be. I'm Tendou Akane. What's your name?"
Emi found herself smiling back. "Emi. Sakai Emi."
"You're here for the open house then?"
"How's that going? Are you done already?"
Emi grimaced. "I didn't really feel like hanging around after what that Saotome bastard did to me."
Akane's eyes widened, "You mean Ranma?"
Emi was surprised at the familiar form of address, then realized belatedly that she might have just insulted a close friend or relative. She was about to spout as much apologetic language as she could, hoping she hadn't horribly offended this girl who was effectively her host, when Akane's eyes flashed with wrath that was definitely not directed at Emi herself.
"Did Ranma do something perverted to you?" She slammed her fist into her palm. "I oughta pound his face!"
"What? You mean he's a pervert too?" Emi blurted. "And here I thought he was just an arrogant jerk!"
"He is a jerk!" Akane confirmed angrily. But then the fire fell from her eyes, and she looked away. "But... he's not such a bad guy, most of the time. Once you get to know him."
Emi wasn't at all sure that made any sense. She decided not to ask for clarification.
"All I know is he wouldn't fight me seriously," Emi said. "And that pissed me off, even more than his macho attitude did."
Akane nodded knowingly. "He doesn't fight girls. Some sort of honor thing I guess. It's stupid if you ask me."
Emi tried to imagine the self-satisfied prick she had just faced off against having anything resembling honor. "I thought he was just toying with me out of spite. But you say he just doesn't fight girls?"
Akane shrugged. "I gave up trying to spar with him ages ago; he just avoids all of my attacks and won't fight back."
"I managed to get one hit in on him." Emi grimaced again. "But the moderating instructor said it didn't count."
"You got a hit in against Ranma?" Akane asked, looking duly impressed. "That's hard. You must be really good."
"Well it's not like he's invincible," Emi said, shying away from the praise. "He got careless because he wasn't taking me seriously as an opponent. I'm sure you could get a hit in against him too, if you tried." Of course, Emi didn't really know what Akane's skill level was.
Akane was frowning thoughtfully. "It's funny," she remarked. "When we're sparring I can never touch him. But then sometimes I just get so angry at him that I go to hit him - and he doesn't dodge." She paused, looking puzzled. "I wonder why that is? Do I get better when I'm angry? I mean, he wouldn't just let me hit him, would he?"
"Not unless he's a masochist," Emi offered.
The glint of anger lit in Akane's eyes once again. "That... that pervert!" She cracked her knuckles. "Masochism! That's sick! Next time I see him, I'm gonna... I'm gonna..." she trailed off, looking at her fists. "Hmm... maybe I'd better not."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
"He is... he is really good, though," Emi forced herself to admit, in an attempt to steer the conversation back in a less weird direction.
"He's amazingly good," Akane agreed. Emi could see the deep admiration in her eyes. "Even if he is a stupid jerk sometimes." If Emi didn't know any better, she could have sworn this last part was said with a hint of affection.
Emi considered carefully. Even as a child, she had always been a harsh judge of teachers - sometimes vocally, before she learned better - especially when she felt they weren't explaining things well. The thought that she could do better was what had first prompted her to pursue the path of becoming a teacher herself. Was she falling back into old habits, being overly critical of yet another sensei?
Maybe this Saotome clown was just a perverted, masochistic, arrogant bastard. But if he was the sort of person who inspired as much respect for his martial arts abilities as Akane seemed to show, even though she expressed such a negative opinion of him otherwise, maybe he would make a decent sensei anyway.
Nabiki watched the proceedings with growing enjoyment, not so much for the showcase of martial arts, but for the obvious success of her plan. Ranma and Uncle Saotome had agreed that Ranma should test the skill of each student who had had any prior martial arts training, to judge what class level they should be placed in. With each passing moment, more visitors, many of whom hadn't even tested into a class level yet, approached Nabiki to sign up. She could practically hear the money rolling in. Why hadn't she come up with this idea sooner?
Two men who had been whispering to each other conspiratorially suddenly rushed at Ranma from the crowd. Ranma dropped down, grabbing each attacker around the knees and flipping them over his shoulders as he stood. They both landed hard on their backs alongside him, the wind knocked completely out of them.
"Yo, Ucchan!" Ranma called, waving toward the doorway as though nothing had just happened. Nabiki looked over to see Ukyou step inside.
Ukyou waved back with a smile, glanced around, and casually sidled up next to Nabiki.
"Ukyou," Nabiki acknowledged her evenly.
"Nabiki," Ukyou returned the greeting, with a nod.
Nabiki waited for Ukyou to speak.
"Thanks for helping me with Ranchan," Ukyou finally said. "I... guess I just needed a little push in the right direction."
"Hey, what are friends for?" Nabiki replied, then gave a wry smile. "Sorry things didn't go perfect to plan."
"That's okay. It wasn't your fault Akane showed up."
Nabiki accepted this fact with a gesture of her open hand.
"You know, I didn't really mean what I said about you before..." Ukyou admitted. "I don't really hope you die in your own feces."
"Really? That's good to hear. And you don't actually think I'm a... what was it?" Nabiki paused, trying to recall. "A manipulative-?"
"A miserable, manipulative, money-grubbing hobag-bitch?" Ukyou offered helpfully. "Oh, I stand by that. I just won't hold it against you quite so much in the future."
"I'm touched," Nabiki said dryly.
"Who's this guy?" Ukyou jerked her chin at the blonde-haired foreigner that Ranma was now facing off against.
"Who knows?" Nabiki replied. He was about the same age as Nabiki, she guessed, and wore his hair long, with a red strip of cloth tied around his forehead, presumably to keep the hair out of his face, the trailing ends of the headband falling down his back, even with the length of his hair. Nabiki also noted that his shirt said, "I'm a movie star," in English. His handsome mouth was half quirked into a smile as he brandished a bokken. Maybe this was the guy who had called the other day about kendo; but Kasumi hadn't mentioned anything about a foreign accent, so probably not.
"His style is odd," Ukyou commented as the test/match commenced. "It looks like normal kendo but... see, he just swung his sword around himself in a figure eight pattern, like something out of a kung-fu movie."
Ukyou was right. The young foreigner seemed to incorporate some distinctly Chinese-looking moves into his kendo. Ranma was easily dodging his strikes, but the kid had a pretty decent defense going.
"Should they even be letting him use a bokken?" Ukyou wondered. "I mean, Ranchan's an expert in unarmed styles, but if this foreign kid is actually gonna be training here, Ranma couldn't really teach him much about how to use a bokken."
Nabiki shrugged. "He's probably just some crazy tourist. He'll get whatever kicks he came for and be on his way."
With one swift move, Ranma disarmed his opponent. "Gotcha!" he cried, lunging forward. To Nabiki's surprise, and evidently Ranma's as well, the foreigner just rolled around the outside edge of Ranma's punch like a rag-doll, ending his spin with a backfist to the temple that caught Ranma completely off-guard. As Ranma staggered, his opponent danced away, cranked his foot back like a spring, and launched a kick into Ranma's unprotected flank, sending him flying to the dojo wall.
The foreigner turned and winked broadly at Nabiki and Ukyou with one blue eye, grinning.
"Pay attention!" Ranma yelled with a well-placed foot to the back of his opponent's head, knocking him flat.
"Yame!" called Uncle Saotome.
"Looks like he got all the kicks he could take," Ukyou commented.
But the blonde foreigner just picked himself up, and dusted himself off as if unfazed. "Ladies," he said, favoring them with a bow, and then turned and headed straight for Kasumi, who was just coming back with yet another tray of tea.
"Impudent. But he seems pretty tough," Nabiki noted off-handedly. "Good thing too, or that last kick might have put him in the hospital." She didn't want to think about the implications of possibly uninsured tourists sustaining injury at the dojo.
"Enough of this," Ranma suddenly announced to the dojo, all eyes turning to him. He pointed at the cloaked figure who had been so far unable or unwilling to break away from Kasumi's attempts to make him and everyone else feel very welcome and comfortable. "You in the funny cape. Show me what you got."
The cloaked man pointed at himself, incredulously. "Me?"
"Yeah, you!" Ranma shot back. "I'm tired of fighting these wi- hey!" Nabiki's pencil bounced off his ear.
"Nice shot," Ukyou complimented her.
"Thanks," she replied demurely.
The man in the cloak sat cross-legged on the dojo floor, sipping his tea thoughtfully. He placed it aside on the nearby tray, thanked Kasumi, and stood, linking his fingers together and stretching his arms up over his head. "I don't really have the monetary means to sign up for classes, but I guess I could go for a little friendly practice match. I could hardly refuse, after your gracious hospitality."
He moved his hands down, and pulled back his hood.
Then silence reigned in the training hall.
Ranma noted the stares the tall stranger was recieving from the onlookers in the dojo, but didn't really understand them. The man, an old guy who Ranma guessed was at least in his twenties, had a fairly ordinary face as near as Ranma could tell - no hideous boils or contusions, no disfiguring scars. In fact, the man's piercing dark eyes were framed by decidedly unmarred features; very formed and exact, kind of like a marble statue. His hair was tied back out of the way in a sort of top-knot-ponytail, high and in back. Long black hair arced up and away from his head like a stream of water, falling behind and ending at shoulder level several centimeters from his spine. Ranma decided to mentally compare it to a rooster's tail. He vastly preferred that analogy to the stream of water that had initially come to mind; it was funnier, and a lot less threatening.
It was mostly girls who were staring, so maybe this guy's face was just the sort that made girls gawk stupidly. Ranma didn't know, or particularly care. He didn't consider himself a good judge of male magnetism - except for his own, which was of course flawless.
The guy had an annoying smile on his face; annoying because it showed no hint of fear or hesitation, just a general open readiness, with a hint of anticipation. Damn arrogant bastard, Ranma thought to himself. The rooster's tail suited him.
"My name is Kouryuu," the man was saying. "I practice a style called the Toukai-ken."
"Hmm..." Pop stepped forward, looking pensive.
Both combatants turned to look at him. "You've heard of it, Pop?" Ranma asked.
Pop shook his head. "Toukai. As in the Eastern Sea," Pop turned to Ranma. "Be careful, boy! His attacks contain the very strength of the raging sea!"
"Um... not quite," Kouryuu corrected.
Pop looked thoughtful again. "I see. Then, it must be Toukai as in destruction and collapse!"
"Aha! The Toukaidou Train Line!" Pop pointed emphatically. "You strike with all the swiftness and power of a bullet train!"
"No!" Kouryuu cut in, looking annoyed. "Toukai as in hidden."
"Hidden-fist, huh?" Ranma said, tasting the words as he considered their meaning. "Does it involve chains and claws, and the occasional duck-shaped training potty?"
Kouryuu raised a brow quizzically. "I can only assume you are referring to the Jouketsuzoku hidden-weapons technique. I'm impressed that you know of such an obscure technique, but no, my style is unrelated. I only fight unarmed."
"Whatever," Ranma waved it aside. "Let's do this."
"As you wish," Kouryuu replied evenly. "A friendly match then."
Ranma felt one corner of his mouth quirk up in an anticipatory smile as they faced off across the dojo floor. "Friendly. Right."
End Part I
Author's Note/Warning: As you may have figured out by now, this story contains a few new characters that I came up with - or who sprung full formed from my brow like Athena and jumped into the story without so much as a "by your leave," in the case of at least one of them. I seem to be incapable of writing anything that doesn't contain new characters. If you don't like these interlopers, feel free to go read a different Ranma fanfic; I'm sure it'll suck just as much as this one does. ^_^