The contest had begun with little preamble, by stating what it was about, how things would proceed, and what would be expected of everyone once it was over and a winner had been determined. After that, the judges and those of the audience took their respective places on opposing sides of the dojo.
On the judges' side sat Tofu, Yasuo, Soun, Nodoka, Cologne and Midori Kame-san, in that order. Cologne had been placed between Midori Kame-san and the other judges in the unlikely event that the alligator tried to make a snack out of any one of them. In front of each of them was a notepad for them to keep score on, as well as a small stack of cue cards with the numbers zero through ten written on them. The audience, which included the contestants when they weren't competing, consisted of Genma, Ranma, Konatsu, Tatewaki and Happosai. Mousse was also present, but as a duck in a cage, while Ryoga just happened to be present as a pig.
The grandmaster of the Anything Goes school of martial arts had been a late and unexpected addition, but as much as this displeased a number of those present he had promised to not interfere or cause any problems. And, so far, he'd done nothing but sit and smoke from his pipe.
"Who'd want to miss a bunch of pretty girls giving it their all in such a variety of ways?" Happosai had replied, when Ranma had asked him his reason for being there. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, m'boy, so you should enjoy it while you can."
Ranma had snorted derisively in response. However, in the back of his mind, he had noticed something off about the last thing that Happosai had said. Instead of saying, "while it lasts," he'd said, "while you can." The meaning had been unmistakeable, but its exact portents hadn't been so clear. Since he hadn't been able to figure it out, he had decided to put it out of his mind.
The contest began with breakfast, with each girl given the choice of making one dish of their choosing to the best of their ability, with the added requirement of making enough so that each person could eat a small portion of it. This required them to go outside, to the pavilion, and the judges followed them to oversee their efforts and make sure that there wouldn't be any cheating or sabotage.
The first challenge was very revealing, regarding what to expect from the judges. Four of the six judges were fair-minded and critical, with Cologne — somewhat surprisingly — being perhaps a bit too critical of Shampoo. Soun, on the other hand, had behaved like an immature child and had given his daughters the highest possible score while reserving the lowest for the others. Tofu, as he had claimed earlier in not so many words, had been perfectly able to keep his wits about himself in Kasumi's presence, though they both seemed to act a bit oddly around each other. Midori Kame-san, as he had no doubt been commanded to do, had almost given everyone save Kodachi a zero, much to her surprise and consternation. While the alligator had been able to resist Shampoo's and Ukyo's efforts with no small amount of trouble, he'd raised a ten for Kasumi before he'd even realized it.
What surprised Ranma was that Akane's miso soup had been pretty good. It hadn't been anywhere near as good as the food made by the other girls, but when one lowers the bar to, "I hope I can contain the contents of my stomach after this," it might as well have had the same impact. Still, she seemed fairly pleased by the responses that she had received from the judges, despite getting the lowest score.
From there the challenges switched between those of the martial arts and those of the marital arts: throwing accuracy had been followed by sewing, which — in turn — had been succeeded by evaluating their limberness, and so on and so forth. Soun continued to give tens and zeroes to the same girls, regardless of their performance. Midori Kame-san managed to give every girl except Kodachi zeroes, with the sole exception being the challenges that involved food. The other judges maintained reasonable assessments, though Ranma wondered if Yasuo might have been favoring his daughter a little.
Nabiki, rather than refraining from being a part of the contest completely, had opted to participate when it came to the marital challenge of managing one's household finances. She'd won, of course, and had come away from it acting as if she'd won the entire contest. Ranma figured that she felt that way because — to her — it had been the only challenge that really mattered.
Ranma hadn't counted on Kasumi taking part in the contest, much less both the marital and martial portions of it. Since there wasn't any physical violence exchanged between any of the contestants, he could see why she would be able to, but not the why behind the why. It wasn't like she applied herself with any particular enthusiasm, though: she simply approached each and every challenge just like she normally would any daily household chore.
She had even managed to win two of the martial arts challenges. The first had been meditation, where she had done a better job of maintaining a meditative state despite various attempts to break it. For example, when all of the girls had suddenly had their backs exposed to an ice cube, she had merely flinched instead of jumping into the air and/or squealing in surprise. The second had been on the knowledge of the human body: on what was what, what was where, and where to strike for what effect. The pained expression that Ranma had caught on Tofu's face near the end of her session had really baffled him, especially since the doctor had given her a ten.
By the end of the contest, it was obvious that Kasumi had dominated the marital challenges. It was a rather mixed bag of victories for the other girls in both categories, and it was too close for a casual observer to tell who had the most victories between the lot of them. Except for one girl: Akane. While she had managed to win a few challenges, those few were more than enough for anyone to tell that she didn't have a chance of winning, and the look of suppressed despair on her face told everyone that she knew it.
Ranma didn't want to see her in such a state, wanted to call the whole thing off and assert that she was the only girl for him, but something held him back. While he knew that the circumstances were irreversible, and that changing his mind — by making up his mind — would bring even more dishonor than prior to the current arrangement, a part of him didn't want to marry Akane. To be more accurate: it didn't want to marry anyone, the circumstances be damned.
Before the final challenge was set to begin, when Kasumi had returned from her challenge session and had sat down with the rest of the audience, Ranma overheard Nabiki speak to her in a hushed tone. "You know, sis... I won't ask you why you bothered with this, but you do know that you're going to win, right?"
Ranma's body stiffened upon hearing that. Kasumi? Win? He tried to dismiss Nabiki's assertion as a guess or an assumption, but he knew that she had probably kept track of everyone's scores in her head, and it wasn't improbable considering her lack of participation in the contest, and thus a distinct lack of distraction. And if he were any judge of Kasumi's attitude during the whole affair, unlike her competitors she probably didn't even have a single clue about what her own score was.
He could hear the anxiety in Kasumi's voice quite clearly when she replied. "W-what? Oh, my... Nabiki... But I... Father said..."
"What did father say?" Nabiki hissed, and Ranma could easily imagine her eyes narrowed into slits and her jaw firmly set.
"H-he... He said that the others would find it offensive if we didn't represent our family and its abilities properly," Kasumi answered, who sounded calmer than before yet still nervous. "That between Akane and myself we'd have both the martial and marital arts of the contest covered. He said... He said that, with so many girls competing, and with the marital arts being my only strength, that there wasn't any chance of me winning and that I shouldn't worry about it."
She must have put more thought into what she had just said, because the words that Ranma heard from her next were conveyed by a sense of dawning realization and horror. "Oh, no... I've done so well in the marital arts challenges... And the others' martial arts victories are rather divided among them..."
Ranma's eyes had gone large in the second that it took him to realize that she was right. There were nearly eighty challenges total, divided equally between the two categories; and, while Kasumi certainly hadn't been the only one to win the marital arts challenges, by comparison she had won far more of those than any one of the other girls had won martial arts challenges. One of them would need to supplement their martial arts victories with enough victories in the marital arts in order to win, and he wasn't sure if any of them had accomplished that.
"Kasumi," Nabiki spoke in a serious tone, yet so quietly that Ranma could barely make out what she was saying, "I know how you feel... in that way." Whatever she had been referring to required a pause, and he had almost been unable to resist the temptation to look and see why. "I know Ranma isn't exactly what you're looking for, but considering the circumstances..."
Ranma had never heard Kasumi sound so lost before. "I... That..."
Before she could finish, the girls participating in the contest were told that the final challenge would commence. Since it involved making a main course for dinner, it required them to head out to the pavilion. Kasumi was the last one to stand and walk toward the exit, and when she walked by Ranma he could clearly see just how troubled and uncertain she was.
Unable to contain himself, his curiosity getting the better of him, he risked a furtive glance in Nabiki's direction. He froze when he found himself caught by her, but more so for the fact that the look that she was giving him said, "You better not disappoint me, or else."
Ranma gulped and looked away, realizing that his situation may have developed into something even worse than before. As if it hadn't been bad enough that the girls who would inevitably lose would have to bear it out and live with the results, but what if they lost to a girl who wasn't even interested in him? Could they live with that? And more to the point: could he or Kasumi live with that?
He went through the remainder of the contest — and consequently a meal — in a sort of daze. Even though he had long expected to end up married to someone, someday, it felt surreal for that moment to finally become defined; especially since it promised to change his life in significant ways. He only absently noticed that Kasumi must have been similarly distracted by thoughts of a related nature, considering how Midori Kame-san had possessed the presence of mind to give her food a zero instead of a ten.
And then the moment of truth arrived. While the judges consulted their notepads, Ranma looked over at the girls who would be affected by the scores that were written on them. Ukyo, Shampoo and Kodachi seemed eager to hear the results, as if they had a chance of winning, so he assumed that they hadn't kept track of anyone's score but their own. Akane — by contrast — was sitting stiffly as she stared down at her lap, and her quavering body told him that she was fighting to maintain her composure; she didn't seem to notice "P-chan" as he nudged her with his snout. And then there was Kasumi, who looked at the judges with no small amount of worry, which — in turn — worried him because of what that would mean for both her and himself if she won.
When the judges came to a consensus, most of them did a good job of hiding what they knew. For being an alligator, Midori Kame-san's visage was surprisingly expressive, but that hadn't been the reason for the tempering of Kodachi's enthusiasm. Rather, it had been his lack of eye contact with her, and the avoidance thereof. As for Soun, he didn't even try to hide anything: he looked very, very pleased with himself. It made Ranma wonder how Ukyo, Shampoo and Kodachi could have missed it. Seeing the positive turnaround in his father's mood, he was pretty sure that he hadn't.
Nodoka soon broke away from the other judges and stood before the audience. With a gesture, Ranma, who managed to hide his reluctance well, got to his feet and went to stand at her side. Her eyes swept over everyone once, then settled on the six girls who would be the most affected — aside from her son — by her words. She proceeded to clear her throat before speaking in a solemn voice. "First, I'd like to begin by saying that I was very impressed by what I saw today, and that I'd be proud to call any one of you 'daughter.' However, there can only be one. And with a three-point advantage, by unanimous agreement, my son's future wife will be..."
Ranma's heart raced, as he tried to look anywhere but at the girls seated before him. He couldn't bear to see their faces, especially knowing that at least half of them would soon be replaced by heart and gut-wrenching expressions, and that the one that was already like that was unlikely to improve when his mother finished her announcement. Not for the first time did he ask himself why things had to turn out the way that they had.
The dramatic pause also gave him more than enough time to remind himself that his fate was about to be sealed; that the life of a young and fairly carefree man was about to be condemned by more obligations and burdened by even greater responsibilities. And even though he had never really given his future much thought before, he'd never liked the idea of having it decided for him. In particular, he simply couldn't imagine himself sharing his life with someone else, much less having sexual relations and raising children together with them. He couldn't even see himself working a typical and/or mundane job, which included running a dojo. Not yet, at least.
Whether he was ready for it or not, his mother finally said, "Tendo Kasumi."
Many things happened at once. Genma and Soun met halfway and pat each other on the back in celebration. Mousse looked as relieved as a duck could be. Tears came and fell from Akane's eyes, which made "P-chan" torn between comforting her and glaring at Ranma. Ukyo looked positively grief-stricken, but it wasn't long before her father was there to comfort her as she cried into his shoulder. Shampoo had sat in shock for a moment, as if she couldn't believe that she had lost, and to whom, but it wasn't long before she settled on giving Kasumi a murderous glare. Kodachi voiced her denials ever louder until the last of it was screamed as she ran out of the dojo. Tatewaki and Midori Kame-san followed after her, with the former cursing Ranma's name and promising that he would pay before doing so.
But Ranma didn't really notice any of that as he stared at his future wife with a mixture of conflicting emotions. He didn't think that Kasumi noticed much of anything, either, since she was staring back at him like a deer caught in someone's headlights. And when he heard his mother trying to encourage them to do whatever it was that newly-engaged couples did, it had taken him nearly as long for him, as it did for Kasumi, to both register and understand what she was saying.
Kasumi's initial reaction had begun to subside by then, and what that revealed had stopped Ranma from approaching her as she awkwardly got to her feet. Her visage didn't express happiness, acceptance, or even resignation. What he saw was very similar to what he felt, which could be summed up as, "I'm not ready," or, "I don't want this." She was just as uncertain and/or uninterested about their future being tied together as he was.
It suddenly occurred to him that he had purposely done everything humanly possible — as far as honor/anyone would allow — to avoid his current situation. He'd made it quite difficult for Akane to like him, and in a number of ways. He was also solely responsible for Ukyo seeing him as a fiancé instead of as a means of extracting her revenge — while doing one of those things that made it hard for Akane to like him, no less. He had never put his foot down with Shampoo's familiarity, or had gone to the required lengths to make it absolutely clear to either her, Ukyo or Kodachi that he wasn't interested in them — in the romantic sense — at all. And whenever he'd been stuck in a situation where he had been expected to choose between them, for one reason or another, he'd always managed to get out of it; even if he had initially chosen one of them.
However, he couldn't get himself out of this one. He was going to marry Kasumi, whether they liked it or not. He'd run out of options.
"...For a human," it suddenly — and unexpectedly — occurred to him.
He felt something change within him, and everything suddenly became clear. He knew exactly what he wanted, and had known all along. He'd been blinded by his need to do what was expected of him, but not so much that he couldn't resist doing it by avoiding its fulfillment for as long as possible.
He had grown up on the road, moving from place to place, meeting and seeing interesting people and places... and learning martial arts. But learning martial arts had often been serious, painful and boring; what he had really anticipated was the next person that he could play with using what he'd learned as a martial artist, so he could have some fun with it. All he'd ever wanted...
Sensing a change in the air, Happosai and Cologne quickly looked toward Ranma. Then they looked at each other, shared a nod that conveyed a mutual understanding of what was going on, before returning their attention back to what had caught their interest.
"All I ever wanted," Ranma whispered to himself, so quietly that even he couldn't hear it, "was to horse around."
It began as a soft, white glow that outlined his body, much like a battle aura would, except it was placid instead of roiling and/or exuding. This only served to catch some attention, just some curious and wondering looks. But a few of those same people gasped and/or voiced inquiries that got everyone else's attention, when the glow around his body began to contract and alter shape alongside his body. Even more surprising and worrisome to most of the onlookers was that the end result had left her in a familiar form... without the application of any water whatsoever.
A few considered approaching her, or were already doing so, but they thought better of it and changed their mind — respectively — when the glow about her body grew in intensity, until she could no longer be seen. And then the shape and size of the aura-like glow began to change, becoming shorter yet more parallel with the ground, as if she had taken to her hands and knees and held her head up high. Except that image — as some noted — didn't exactly match up with what their eyes were seeing.
They learned why when the glow faded away to nothing. Where once stood a young, human man was a creature unlike anything they'd ever seen before, yet had traits that were quite familiar. She — for, despite the creature being new to them, it was obviously female — stood on four legs that ended in hooves, had a black coat, a mane and tail, and possessed the general body shape of a horse — albeit a small one, even smaller than a typical adult pony. However, there were a few things separating her from being a horse in fact, like a pair of wings and a single horn that stood out proudly from the forehead. That, and her mane and tail were a vivid red, with the hair seeming to float in the air as if submerged in water. And then, of course, there was the head and the face, which could have been a mix between that of a horse and a human in its shape, size and function.
When Ranma became more lucid and cognizant, what she found when she opened her eyes were a bunch of shocked, slackjawed and otherwise dumbfounded looks, which were all being directed toward her. The only exceptions seemed to be the old ghoul and the old pervert, who appeared to be more intrigued than anything else.
"What?" She demanded, the sound of her voice startling her.
She suddenly became aware that something wasn't right, beyond the fact that she shouldn't have sounded like a girl. For one, her perspective was all wrong, and it kind of felt like she was on her hands and feet... yet not. It also felt like she was no longer wearing clothes.
So, she looked down. "What the...!?"
She raised a forehoof and looked upon it in shock. It was then that some of those around her had recovered enough from what had happened, as opposed to those who had been surprised further by the fact that the horse-like thingy — that she had become — could actually speak, and things soon descended into a very familiar chaos despite the unfamiliarity of the situation.