Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2.
Author's note: I can't believe I have to state that this isn't a vampire fanfic. I wrote this story because there aren't enough Ranma/Kasumi matchups. Here's my contribution.
Love at First Bite Chapter 1
Cook a man a meal, and he'll eat for the moment; teach a man to cook, and he probably won't need you anymore.
"Then why don't you make some yourself, Ranma?" asked a six-year-old Ukyo angrily at the ponytailed little boy who was eating an okonomiyaki while seated on her back.
She had been defeated again and forced to eat dirt while the boy feasted on the fruit of her labor. Much to her chagrin, she'd become excruciatingly familiar with the small stones and pebbles strewn about the yattai in the past week.
The whole thing had started innocently enough- her father had introduced her to the overactive gremlin, saying that he had big plans for her future. Ukyo didn't exactly know why that future involved readying an okonomiyaki each day for her to defend against the boy who attempted to steal it, but being a good girl, she did what she was told.
It certainly had nothing to do with how her blood boiled in excited anticipation whenever lunch time approached, nor did she draw those funny faces on the okonomiyaki in sauce to see his face light up….
"Make okonomiyaki? Me?" Ranma had finished off his meal, and was licking his lips to clean them off. "But I don't know how."
Ukyo frowned. "If you can't make okonomiyaki, then why don't you make something else?"
"But all I know how to make is camp rice," Ranma answered. "That's not very good on its own."
Now that was just silly. What kind of family style didn't have any sort of main recipe. There were some practical problems too. Maybe if she helped him understand, he wouldn't take to thieving so much. "Look, Ranma. You should learn to cook more than camp rice. If you can cook for yourself, then you don't have to starve all the time."
"I don't have any money to buy stuff to make food. If I did, then I wouldn't be hungry anyways."
"No, dummy. If you make extra food, then you can sell it like me and my father. Then you'll be able to afford all the food you want," Ukyo said, though she was exaggerating by a tiny margin—the bottomless pits that were Genma and Ranma Saotome could strip even the fattest of margins down to the bone. She had to sell him on the idea first. "I'll even give you some pointers."
The okonomiyaki his buddy Ucchan had made for him was filling, so Ranma was a little less fixated on his hunger, which effected how much he was able to pay attention to his playmate's words.
Make his own food? It was certainly a novel idea. Usually, he and his pop would go to a restaurant, and then run real fast after. That sometimes caused his stomach to hurt. Plus there's something to be said about having the luxury of digesting ones meals in relative inactivity.
He'd also never starve again. Being without food for even a day was pure torture- an experience he'd gladly do without.
He narrowed his eyes, working his mind furiously. What about the art? That was important too.
A thought struck- wasn't the Anything Goes School of Indiscriminate grappling all about adaptation? Ucchan seemed to have some kind of martial arts built into her family style of cooking. If he could somehow meld cooking into his own art, then he'd be feeding himself and practicing the art at the same time. He'd learn all sorts of secret family cooking styles and be the best ever!
Grinning stupidly to himself, Ranma looked down at his good buddy and said, "Ucchan, you got yourself a deal!"
That declaration marked the beginning of the end of the Saotome branch of the Musabetsu Kakuto-ryu. Genma didn't know yet, but his school was going to be subsumed, turned into the rich stock that would flavor his son's Musabetsu Ryori-ryu.
The Anything Goes School of Indiscriminate Cooking was born.
The silence of Nerima's streets was broken at dawn by the sound of rolling wheels. These were typical of vendors and shops getting ready for the day. What did come slightly out of the ordinary, however, were the accompanying frustrated screams of one teenaged Ranma Saotome.
At age sixteen, Ranma cut a striking figure. He wore a pristine white heavy cotton tunic and black pants of the same material. Around his neck was a durable leather strap that kept what looked like a cape hanging at his back. If one were to get a closer look, one would notice that the 'cape' most definitely did not sway dramatically in the wind. As a matter of fact, it seemed to pointedly ignore the wind's futile efforts to cause theatrical effect. The only way one could tell that the cape was made out of some kind of semi-malleable material instead of a solid slab of metal was caused by the slight bulge of a scabbard and handle that peeked up from Ranma's right shoulder.
"Arrrgh! Stupid Pop, we're here already so stop your whining!" He unsheathed the weapon and, in a blur of motion, added a few more lumps to the head of the panda that was pulling their yattai. It was slightly taller as far as food carts went, and was topped with a gabled red roof in tribute to the one he had received from his old friend, Ucchan. Shutter boards all down and secure, it looked like any other non-descript food cart, except it was at least half again as wide as the norm. If there was anything good that came from the curses, it was that a panda body possessed far more strength and stamina than a human body. Ranma, being the enterprising youth that he was (while also being entirely uncaring of inflicting extra burden upon his father), recognized the competitive advantage that having more space could provide him.
Ranma glared at the panda. "You'd think it was the end of the world with you sulking like that. We were only in China for an extra six months. We've stayed in other places for longer." He idly took a cloth from his belt and started wiping what looked like a katana-length sword, which was actually a giant knife based on santoku design. The handle was longer to balance the weight of the flat edged blade that curved at the end like the outer edge of a crescent moon.
"What did ya want to come here to Nerima for anyway- this nowhere district without any decent restaurants? I'm not gonna advance in the Art by commin' here. Why couldn't we go to Juuban, at least there I could have gotten my hands on the Kiino School of Lighting Flash Fry, or the Usagi Odango no Ken."
The panda growled and pulled out a wooden sign. "I meant the REAL art, boy."
"Okay, okay," the pigtailed boy said tiredly. "Right, this is Indiscriminate Grappling stuff. I guess we're heading for a Dojo then?"
Ranma's ursine father flipped the sign. "Yes, the Tendo Dojo. Soun is my oldest friend, and trained with me under He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named."
"Don't get your fur in a twist. I'll learn the Tendo style in a snap. We'll head there just as soon as we finish the morning rush. I think if we go down the street a little, we'll be able to catch people going to work."
The eldest Tendo daughter had decided to take a walk that morning. Breakfast was ready, and her sisters knew enough to set the table themselves. Kasumi wasn't hungry so she decided to skip. Contrary to popular belief, she wasn't always slaving away for her household. She did have a lot of work and did more than her fair share, but one got better with practice after all. This was also a personal choice- a lot of what she did was because she enjoyed an orderly house and the love she received from her family for her efforts.
'I could always have some of the anmitsu later on if I get peckish,' she thought of eating desert for breakfast a little naughtily.
The year had started on a slightly rougher note. That Kuno boy had begun the practice of morning challenges to vie for Akane's favor. Witnessing the trouble youthful exuberance and indiscretion brought on in boys who couldn't control themselves was yet another reason why Kasumi's preferences ran towards older men. While older men still had their problems, time and experience had at least smoothed some of the rougher edges.
Thankfully, after the first trimester, the boys of Furinkan had come to the conclusion that Akane was undefeatable. They also admitted to themselves that even if they had somehow won against her, she wouldn't date them willingly- this was assuming that Kuno would hold to his word and allow such a thing to happen.
She wasn't headed anywhere in particular, following the flow of people, simply enjoying the sights and sounds that the district offered.
The smells came first, savory, sweet, and spicy mingling in the air like the dance at a royal masquerade. Kasumi's mouth watered a little, and she soon found herself behind a crowd of people who were gasping in amazement at what was transpiring.
Kasumi excused and thanked her way to the front in order to get a good look.
The yattai was larger and wider than normal, which hadn't surprised her considering that it housed four roaring, high BTU, gas ranges and a charcoal grill. Laid out on tables in front on the food cart was an assortment of skewered delights. Fishballs, beefballs, squidballs, and octopus tentacles glistened with bright orange sauces and all manner of seasonings. They had marinated liver and chicken skins, crispy pork rinds fried up to the size of a man's head, and a large pot of pork soup beside steaming dumplings.
What impressed her was the level of cleanliness. The layout was chaotic, to put it mildly, looking more like a cornucopia of protein than anything resembling a well-ordered Japanese food display. That said, the bamboo panels of the stable and stall were spotless and cleaned with an attention to detail that impressed the head Tendo homemaker.
A man in what Kasumi assumed was a very realistic panda suit delivered orders with one paw while holding a wooden sign up with the other, proudly declaring "Try Our Hong Kong Street Food! You're gonna love it!"
The panda then pulled some plates out of nowhere, and with a flick of the wrist, doubled the number of signs it held up. A quick toss of the plates later, and the panda was dancing about while spinning plates at the edge of the wooden signs.
"Ooooh." The crowd clapped appreciatively.
The sound of crackling oil was like soft background music accompanying the energetic shouts of the customers, which wasn't the norm especially because it was only around 5:30. Most people wouldn't have that kind of enthusiasm so early in the morning. One look at the young man tending the stove and Kasumi could see why.
He was grinning widely, and called out each order as he finished them. And call them out he did, completing orders at speeds so fast Kasumi couldn't even see his hands move most of the time. His white cotton tunic was now somewhat stained by oil and sauce in places, but he still gave off a well-kept appearance. She noticed he did seem to have an apron, but it was draped on his back like a cape, unused. The pigtail was distinctive, but so were his stormy blue eyes. She supposed he was rather attractive, and the taught muscles of his neck spoke to years of extensive training. She could tell he was younger than her though, if only by a handful of years.
"San Juk Guen, ready!" He had a long bean curd skin roll sliding expertly on a gigantic wok, the flames exposed momentarily to the open air rumbled like the stampeding of a thousand wild horses. The youth tipped the lip of the wok onto the open flame, and the resulting translucent blue flare shot up like violently clashing waves.
Stepping away from the stall, flaming wok in hand, the cook hurled the bean curd skin roll into the air with one hand, and then pulled a large blade from his back with the other.
In a flash of what Kasumi could only describe as brilliant swordsmanship, the bean curd roll was cut into four pieces in mid-air before landing on the flat of the giant blade, which inexplicably already had four small paper plates on them.
"Hmph," smirked the youth cockily.
With a mighty swing that rend the air in two, the plates went flying towards the Panda, who snatched them up without a backward glance, and presented them to their respective customers.
Beside the stall was a large board of things she could order along with their descriptions. Kasumi smiled, the descriptions were imaginative and really got her into the international spirit. The prices were reasonable too! Fishing out her coin purse, she decided on what to order and yelled, "Black sesame tong sui, please!"
As though he had super human senses, the young man looked straight at her, and said, "Black ses'me tong sui commin' up!"
Almost before he finished speaking, a bowl of steaming hot sweet soup was flying in her direction. Kasumi panicked for a split second before a paw lashed out and saved her from a face full of scalding liquid.
"Growf," the panda said offering her the bowl. Kasumi took it dumbly, but the panda kept staring at her with its dull and – to her perception, barely intelligent—eyes. Then she realized why it hadn't moved.
"Oh my, I'm sorry." She quickly got the correct amount out of her purse and dropped it into the panda man's outstretched paw.
Kasumi hummed a happy tune. She remembered with a blissful blush how good her impromptu breakfast had been. The ton sui had been as sweet as being licked by a cute puppy with a thick coat of curly, black fur.
"Ahaha~" Kasumi tittered with a starry-eyed look.
Akane and Nabiki were at school, and father was at the neighborhood council. As much as she loved her family, she also enjoyed her alone time. She was an introvert at heart, and gained a measure of energy and solace from being on her own, free to think as her body went about its daily routine.
That didn't mean she didn't like spending time with others, far from it. However, she was the type that needed moments of solace here and there.
She was in the middle of hanging out the wash, when she heard a knock at the door.
"Well, so much for solace," she told herself happily.
At the door was a gi-clad man, the cotton of his shirt was slightly yellowed from long use, and he had a similarly experienced bandana on his head to hide his baldness.
"Hello there," the man greeted. He was about Father's age. He had a large-framed body with barely any fat, which was rare for a man of his years. Something about him tickled at the edge of her memory.
"May I help you?" Kasumi asked, hoping to gain more information.
"Would this happen to be the Tendo residence?" the man asked.
"Yes it is. May I ask who is inquiring?"
"Apologies, Young Miss. I'm Genma Saotome."
Kasumi said, "Oh," as the memory snapped into place. Father had mentioned repeatedly that a friend named Saotome was going to visit, and was worried about how late they were in coming.
"Father is at the neighborhood council right now. He should be back shortly. Would you like to come in for some tea?"
"Thank you, Young Miss."
"Oh my, how rude of me! My name is Kasumi, Kasumi Tendo."
"Well, thank you for the invitation, Kasumi. I believe I'll be taking you up on that offer for tea."
Kasumi smiled and motioned Genma in.
Genma knelt in the family room, facing towards the entrance to the garden while he waited for Kasumi to bring refreshments from the kitchen.
Fall was just setting out, barely brushing the trees with a hint of yellow. The weather was warm and agreeable. As he sat there, watching the sunlight glitter playfully across the koi pond, he wondered for a fleeting moment whether or not he had made the right decision. The thought of all the times he could have been enjoying this scenery made his heart ache a little.
"Here you go, Mr. Saotome," the young lady said with an angelic smile. She had brought out some cold barley tea, which was perfect for the climate.
'She has Soun's eyes, but her mother's features,' the Saotome elder observed.
"So…Kasumi, was it? How has your father been? I haven't seen the old boy in over a decade."
"He's been in good health," she answered while kneeling to face him, "and keeping busy." Her face then took on a bit of a mischievous streak. "Don't tell him I told you this, but some people call him the Mother Hen of Nerima."
The girl's giggles were infectious, and Genma couldn't keep himself from chuckling- though he didn't miss the small shadow that crossed Kasumi's face when she said that her father had been keeping busy. He had stayed a year after Soun's wife had passed- long enough that he was sure his friend wouldn't die of grief. 'It seemed that her memory weighs heavily on him still.'
"Kasumi, I'm home!" came a familiar masculine voice.
"Father!" Kasumi immediately got to her feet. "You won't believe who dropped by for a visit!"
Soun greeted his daughter as he stripped off his wooden sandals, only to have her run towards him.
"You won't believe who dropped by for a visit!" she said, beaming like the sun.
'I haven't seen Kasumi this excited in a long while. Who could it possibly be?' Soun asked himself, it was then that he noticed the figure standing behind his daughter. The man had aged a bit, but the strong cheek bones, wide mouth, and mirthful expression were the same as they had always been.
"Saotome! My friend!" He walked to the man with arms upraised. Genma mirrored the action, and they came together in a fierce patting of backs.
Soun pulled back. "It's so good to see you!" Then with a realization, he looked his friend up and down. "You've lost weight! You're positively gaunt! Is life on the road that harsh?"
Soun then noticed a complicated expression play across his friend's face. "Well, in part, though not exactly…."
Soun looked at his friend in puzzlement before a thought entered his mind. "Ranma!" He clapped Genma on the shoulders. "What about your son? Is he here?" He tried to look passed his friend, but there didn't seem to be anyone else around.
"He will be around soon enough. The boy is busy pursuing his art—actually that's part of what I'd like to speak to you about while I can get you alone."
"Ah! Of course!" Soun said in what he thought was a silent whisper. "We can talk in the Dojo." He noticed Kasumi standing to the side, wearing her normal happy smile.
"Kasumi," Soun spoke, "I have some important business to discuss with Genma. We'll be in the dojo if you need us."
His daughter, ever the perceptive hostess, realized that he had been asking for privacy and bowed. "Have fun, Father," she said before cheerily walking off.
"This way, Genma," Soun herded him towards the dojo.
Genma sat cross-legged, with his arms tucked into the sleeves of his gi. Soun had taken his seat and remained unspeaking- though the way the man was leaned forward made it obvious that he was hungry to hear what Genma had to say.
"You know as well as I that the path of a martial artist is fraught with peril, Tendo," he said gravely, finally deciding on the way he would explain himself.
Soun nodded sagely, a hand to his chin. "This is truth, Saotome, but what does this have to do with Ranma and the pact between our schools?"
Genma went on as though he hadn't heard the question. "We faced wild animals, monsters, and even…" he narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice, "magic."
His friend had his mouth agape, but before he could say anything Genma saw his opening. "But worse than all these, worse than any foreign or exotic danger -you must understand— is a danger and pain that is quite mundane, a pain that even now you must remember the dreaded master had used against us during our training. Even to the point where he almost succeeded in setting us against each other."
Soun reared back and gasped. "No, you don't mean-"
"Yes, Tendo, the danger I speak of is…. Hunger."
Genma closed his eyes. "During our travels, we didn't have much money, and odd jobs were few and far in between. The cruel world is crueler still than in the days of our youth. As we travelled, we did the best we could, trying to eke out the barest of livings in order to sustain ourselves. There were times when I was sorely tempted to take what we needed. For what father would willingly stand by and watch the flesh of his flesh waste away?!" He was up on one knee now and looking to the unseen heavens.
"Yes!" Soun said, tears streaming down his cheeks. "No court would condemn such action."
Genma sat back down, and lowered his head. "But I could not, Soun. How would I face the boy had I resorted to theft? We are both men of honor. There was hope, but the cost was terrible."
He locked eyes with the Tendo patriarch. "In desperation, Ranma had turned to the art to solve our predicament." There was a gleam of sad pride in his countenance. "He did something that was beyond even my wildest dreams."
"What could Ranma have done?!" Soun chewed on his lip to prevent further outbursts.
"The boy branched from the traditions of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Indiscriminate Grappling and founded his own."
Soun was on his feet. "Impossible! Astounding!"
Genma sighed. "The Musabetsu Ryori Ryu or Anything Goes School of Indiscriminate Cooking solved our lack of food and more… so much more. For like any art of terrible power- what life it could give, it could also take away. Ranma had discovered the dark side of his new school, and unlike us, his wise and experienced elders, he explored it to its murkiest depths and isn't the least bit discriminating about its application."
Face pale, Soun reached out a hand. "You poor soul! Could you not have stopped him?"
He shook his head. "He's my son, and you know how willful a Saotome is. He must be allowed to roam free and make his own mistakes. We were always on the road, often times the boy needed to forage for ingredients to make ends meet. He's gotten particularly adept at the use of herbs both beneficial and otherwise. Since I refused to steal, what sustenance we had were prepared by Ranma's hand, and when I did something to displease him, he would get creative."
"My stomach has known exquisite pain the likes of which I would not wish on anyone. He even took exception to my appetite, and after nearly ten years of constant exposure to my son's experiments, I am no longer able to overindulge. Even a little over the limit, and I will fall sick and insensate. The testament to this truth is the body you see before you."
Soun sat limp, awe and horror filling his voice, the full ramifications of Genma's thin body finally coming to the fore. "Then, he has won."
Genma's smile was full of sweet melancholy. "Without knowing it, my boy has created a school that surpasses the power of even my own, not with a fist, but a spatula."
Soun straightened his back and closed his eyes, and then a deep rumbling began to emanate from his chest. "hm hmh… hm hmh hmh Hmh huu huu HAHAHAHA!"
Genma joined him, and before long, the dojo was filled with booming laughter.
"Then the Schools shall be joined! And it shall be more powerful than ever!" Soun declared. "Allow me to pour us a drink to celebrate, my friend!"
When Soun exited the dojo, Genma let out a visible breath, and wiped some imaginary sweat from his brow. Hopefully he had fired up is friend enough for when the more interesting aspects of their trip comes to light. The best truths were flexible, after all. He really hadn't stolen anything, sort of—within a certain definition of the word 'stealing'. Maybe his reasons were less noble than what he had claimed, but results were results. Weren't they? So his son had grown a conscience earlier than expected and developed the means to back it up, Genma had raised a son who was well on his way to becoming the greatest of martial artists- even though he may have done a lot of it by accident. That had to count for something.
Lunchtime at Furinkan High was, like any other school with a captive market, a feeding frenzy- or was that a frenzy to feed?
Ranma sniffed derisively when he observed the students push, shove, and elbow each other in their race to the concessionaires. The grand prize was typically the ever popular yakisoba pan, which was a dubious one in the pigtailed cook's opinion.
Food vendors were generally welcome, so he had set up near the school gates where he could be seen and, more importantly, smelled from within the school grounds.
It was about half way through the lunch period when something caught his attention. A girl with short, blue hair had been eating and conversing with her two companions when an older boy in a blue hakama marched forward and tossed a rose lightly towards the girl.
The older boy said something, and then pulled a shinai out of his belt and readied into a stance. The girl looked irritated, crushing the rose, and was in the middle of getting up when the boy charged forward. The girl, still having her lunchbox in hand had tossed the lunch high into the air in her rush to get her hands free for combat.
Ranma, unable to stand the waste, quickly finished serving his latest customer before dashing forward to catch the girl's lunch.
The container safely in his possession, Ranma decided to focus back on the match. The girl was above average and had power behind her blows.
He noticed that she was slow, but it seemed like she had fought the older boy often enough to predict his movements in order to dodge. The sad part was that even though she could read him like a book, she lacked the speed to take a decisive win quickly, prolonging the match. Really, the fight wasn't terribly interesting, but Ranma wanted to do his good deed so he waited in the sidelines.
Without really noticing, his eyes slid from the fight to the lunch in his hands. There were three riceballs left. Normally, Ranma wouldn't take food from another without asking, but there was something about the lunch's contents. There was almost an arcane kind of force that said, 'EAT ME' in big, bold letters.
As though in a trance, Ranma's hand took a riceball, turned it back and forth to make the light gleam off the individual grains, and then popped it into his mouth.
There was a moment, a pinprick of singularity in space, before his senses exploded.
He had never tasted a riceball so good in all his life. Even after being cloistered within a plastic container, the seaweed was still crisp and richly tasted of the ocean. And the rice! Oh what rice it was! The natural sweetness was more than awasezu, a seasoned vinegar. The sweetness came from within the humble grains themselves! Ranma almost fainted when the umeboshi at the center graced his taste buds, the pickled plum splashing him into a panorama of autumn leaves cascading towards the forest floor.
That was the single most intense experience of his life. How could the humble riceball hold such depths? What hands had made this masterpiece? He had to know!
Ranma nearly teleported in front of the girl, barely noticing that he had knocked someone aside in order to reach her.
The girl stood there, blinking, stunned.
Ranma held the plastic container up shakily with one hand.
"Did you—did you make these?" He locked his eyes with her, putting every fiber of his being into discovering if she was the one he sought.
"huh… wha?" The girl said, still trying to gather what had happened.
He couldn't wait any longer! He had to know and there was one surefire way of finding out.
Before she could even move, Ranma had her free hand palm up in one of his. He examined that hand for a split second before he bent his head down and licked.
The last thing Ranma felt before a gigantic round shadow came crashing down was the spike of a powerful red aura.
'It wasn't her…' he thought disappointedly as he journeyed beyond consciousness.
People would be a little surprised to know that Nabiki liked chess. She never played against anyone in real life, but Empress_95 possessed a very respectable ranking on the server she frequented. She hadn't thought deeply about why she liked the game. Tactics didn't interest her much, but the view she got from above the board while watching the pieces move was fascinating.
Nabiki watched from her classroom overlooking the courtyard, idly taking note of her little sister's position. The youngest Tendo was sitting under a tree with Sayuri and Yuka, talking animatedly about something that was turning Akane's face a shade of pink.
She smirked, glad that Akane seemed to be back to her usual self. That thought brought her eyes towards Akane's short hair, and Nabiki's lips pressed into a thin line.
Not long after the morning challenges had stopped, things had started looking up. Akane had mellowed out to the level before she had first met the kendo crazed upper classman, which was actually par for the course. Sure, her little sister had a quick temper, but she was also quick to forgive.
An outsider may wonder how anyone so violent could be so popular with that many boys. The problem with being an outsider is that things often aren't as they seem. Akane's true identity was that of a bright and cheerful girl who used to treat boys and girls alike with friendliness and a never-say-die positive attitude. More than her athletic figure and cute face, she'd captured the heart of many a teenager by virtue of her personality.
So imagine how Akane felt when suddenly, at the words of a madman, her male friends who she had treated with kindness and trust for years suddenly attacked her? The betrayal had hurt her little sister greatly, and the old Tendo temper eagerly made itself available as an outlet.
The challenges went on until Akane had spent most of her rage, and began to start considering her situation. Knowing that only something drastic would get through to them, Nabiki's little sister went to school one morning with a pair of Kasumi's sharpest shears.
In front of the collective student body, Akane faced those who would attack her every morning. Nabiki could still hear her little sister's voice, as clear as a bell, and as unstoppable as a rook.
"I know most of you here from middle school, and I thought you were my friends. But friends don't turn on each other just because of some puffed-up upper classman's speech," she said, the youngest Tendo's shoulders sagging.
"So I'm going to do something to show how much losing all of you hurts, and I hope that after seeing it that you'll understand."
Akane pulled her long hair up and took a breath before the hand with the shears went to work. Kasumi's shears were indeed sharp, cutting cleanly in one irrevocable pass. Finished, she let the bundle fall from her hand and then looked pleadingly at those gathered. "It'll take a while, but my hair will grow back, and I hope that with it, my friends do too."
The boys of Furinkan High, even Kuno, were shamed to the point of tears. Nabiki was aware that she should have moved earlier, martialing her pieces in order to alleviate some of her sister's pain, but she had been paralyzed by profit and lost her chance to act. She had misread the game. In the end, it was Akane who had engineered her own checkmate.
Akane had gone home with false cheer that afternoon, and blatantly lied to Kasumi about why her hair was shorter.
A loud voice in the courtyard brought Nabiki back from her musings. Speaking of morons, it looked like Kuno was done giving Akane space.
She watched uninterestedly at how the fight was unfolding, when something unexpected happened. A boy, probably Akane's age had come out from thin air, and Kuno had somehow been sent flying. She recognized him easily as the one who had been selling food only seconds prior.
There was a pause as the boy took Akane's hand and…
Shocked cries came from the students. Nabiki blinked. She was too far to tell for sure, but… had the boy just LICKED Akane?!
The boy was now one, face-first, with the school ground. Nabiki's eyes deadpanned. Well, that figured. She was intrigued though. She had written him off as some performing street vendor. Taking Kuno out in an instant was no mean feat, however. It took some serious martial arts power to pierce that field of absolute ignorance. Who was this food vendor and why had he licked her sister? She had to find out.
A few minutes later, the bell rang. Akane had settled down enough to be pulled by her two friends towards the classroom, leaving the embedded boy behind.
Nabiki waited until the teacher arrived for class before she asked him if it was okay to go retrieve the idiot. Being used to the drill, the teacher gave his assent immediately, and she was off.
She worked quickly, pulling in Kuno first. She relieved him of half her usual fee because she only dropped him on the floor by the shoe lockers. Nabiki was interested in bringing someone else to the infirmary today.
Jogging over to the unconscious street food vendor, she tried to drag him in like she had the other boy, but was suprised when she discovered that she could barely budge him.
"Why are you so heavy?!" She asked the boy, not really expecting an answer. A little bit of inspecting revealed that the culprit was the cape of sorts that was attached to him by heavy leather straps around his neck. With not a small amount of effort and patience, she wiggled and jostled him out from under the obscene weight.
Covered in sweat, Nabiki grimaced. 'This guy better have a good story,' she thought darkly.
The pigtailed food vendor's back hit the infirmary bed with an ungraceful flop. Nabiki wiped her brow, and took out a handkerchief to dab at the inside of her uniform. She was actually quite proud that she managed the feat. Even without the heavy cape she had left in the yard, the boy still weighed more than someone his size had any right to be. She didn't have her little sister's monstrous strength, but she did keep fit.
After collecting herself, Nabiki inspected her quarry. She cursed inwardly when she saw the large handle sticking up from behind his right shoulder. She couldn't believe that she had missed his sword.
'Maybe I should have stripped him first to make him lighter,' she thought, studying his face. He was handsome in a boyish sort of way, and if what she felt of his arms and waist was any indication, she wouldn't be disappointed by what she'd see.
Shrugging at the missed opportunity, Nabiki decided that if she wasn't going to get any fun, then she may as well receive her fee. With finely hones senses, Nabiki zeroed in on the pigtailed boy's wallet. She had been able to barely touch it when a hand shot out and caught her wrist.
Chocolate brown met ice blue, and seconds of silence passed.
"That money's for ingredients," said a voice so dead serious that she felt as though someone had just walked over her grave.
Nabiki's heart felt like it had lodged in her throat, but she covered admirably. "Someone's got to pick you up and make sure you don't get trampled. I deserve a little reward, 2000 yen."
An electric thrill ran down Nabiki's spine when she realized that the boys eyes had changed. "1000 yen, I would have been fine," he countered.
"1800, you were heavy, you expect a fragile girl like me to get you here without difficulty?"
"1500, and that's my final offer. You tried taking my money when I said nothing about giving it."
"Deal," Nabiki said. The grip on her hand loosened and she grasped it in a shake to seal the deal. She had a grin on. It wasn't anything special, but haggling was fun and her clientele were either too stubborn about the process or avoided it like the plague.
"Ranma Saotome," he said, pulling out a bill and some coins from his wallet. "You?"
She took the money, and decided to avoid introducing herself since Akane was involved. "So, what happened out there?"
Ranma blinked. "Ah, that." He rubbed the back of his head. "What hit me?"
"A giant mallet. You still haven't answered the question," Nabiki said.
"I didn't even see her carrying one. That's in interesting move…."
Nabiki had her arms crossed, impatiently tapping a finger on one arm.
"Okay, okay," Ranma slumped. "It's sort of a technique."
Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Sort of a technique?"
He scratched his cheek, embarrassed. "I'm a traveling martial artist, you see- going around training an' stuff. My school is called the Anything Goes School of Indiscriminate Cooking… well, it's not really even a school yet. I've got a long way to go. One of the tenets is to find the best techniques of other schools from the food-based martial arts and work them into my own."
"Food-based martial arts?" Nabiki considered. "I suppose it's possible." She couldn't argue against the speed and power she had witnessed. "Though it seems a bit silly to me."
Ranma stared at her. "Have you ever been really hungry? I don't mean my stomach's growling because I missed breakfast. I mean so hungry because you hadn't caught anything decent in days, and you're down to chewing on the leather from your own belt or eating bugs you can't identify just to get by."
Nabiki's grossed out expression was more than enough of a reply.
"Thought so," he said. "Take my word for it. Martial arts cooking is more than a job- it's a path to life. Anyways, one day I ran into this girl, she wasn't a big deal or nothin', no training to speak of. The important part is that she's the only living heir of the Azusagawa baking arts. She had a collection of scrolls, books and diaries all about her family art, and in one of them, there was their most powerful and their most basic technique called 'The Tasting of Hearts'. There were all sorts of poetry and mystical mumbo-jumbo to keep the technique from being cracked easily, but I accidentally pieced a version of it together. I'm not even sure what the technique is supposed to do for real."
"Wait," Nabiki was getting impatient. "I'm not here to get your life story. I just want to know why you did what you did back there."
"I'm getting to it!" Ranma snapped. "You know, you could use some meditation practice or somethin'" He shrank at Nabiki's glare.
"When I tasted that riceball-"
"You what?!" Nabiki asked incredulously. "What kind of deviant takes food from someone else's lunch without asking?"
"Hey! Like you're one to talk? You were gonna take my money!"
Nabiki was beginning to tire of the whole conversation. "Fine, forget I ever said anything. Just get on with it."
"Like I was saying, I tasted her lunch, and it was like… heaven. I could have made a riceball myself, easily. Even with the same ingredients though, there's no way I could make it like THAT. So I had to know if the girl made her own lunch, or if it was someone else. I used the technique, which kind of lets me taste what kind of cooking skill a person has. It's hard to describe…"
Ranma gagged at the memory. "Whoever made her lunch, it wasn't her. She tasted WRONG. It's like some demon took her cooking talent and twisted it into something sick and nearly unrecognizable." An idea struck Ranma and it visibly changed his demeanor.
"Who is that girl? Do you know who she is? Tell me! Maybe her mom—I have to meet whoever made those riceballs!"
Nabiki held her breath, doing her level best to stop herself from bursting into laughter. If Akane ever heard this—oh deities!
With a monumental effort of will, she said, "Calm down, Saotome. I might have a lead, but I'll need some time." She looked at him slyly, "Aaaand another 1000 yen."
Ranma growled, but extracted a coin instead of a bill, then flicked it towards Nabiki's open hand. "500, and not a yen more."
That's more like it! "Heh, nice doing business with you."
Nabiki strode out of the infirmary and headed for class. There might be a fun new piece on the game board, and his name was Ranma Saotome.
Ranma yawned as he joined the stream of Furinkan High students heading home. He hadn't been sure when he was going to get another chance at a clean bed so he had decided to take a long nap at the infirmary.
Genma had told him earlier that he would have to come over to a place called the Tendo Dojo to meet his friend's three daughters. They were supposed to be around Ranma's age. Figuring that at least one of the daughters was attending school, Ranma decided that he could wait until the final bell rang before setting off. He may as well meet them in one go.
Fortunately, speaking with one of the lunch ladies had netted him a free spot to park his yattai for safe-keeping.
He pulled out a sheet of paper in order to follow the surprisingly well-drawn map that his father had provided, and began navigating through the streets of Nerima.
He wondered why his father seemed to stress that he was going to meet three daughters. It wasn't like this was the first dojo they'd ever been to that housed a master with daughters. Since nothing easily came to mind, he decided that it was a waste of energy trying to understand what was going on in his old man's head. As far as he was concerned, this was only another stop on their training trip.
"I'm home," Nabiki called while taking her shoes off at the foyer.
"Welcome back, Nabiki," Kasumi greeted from behind the two futons she was carrying.
"Would you mind guiding me up the stairs?"
Nabiki tilted her head to the side. "We having guests, Sis?"
"Yes!" Kasumi confirmed happily. "An old friend of Father's has come to visit with his son. I haven't seen him this lively in ages."
Nabiki nodded and put a guiding hand on the futons, "Alright, I've got it."
The middle Tendo daughter watched thoughtfully as her eldest sister tucked futons into the guestroom closet. Seeing Kasumi had reminded her of her encounter with the weird pigtailed boy. What would happen if he knew that it was Kasumi who made her and Akane's lunches?
"Is something the matter, Nabiki?" Kasumi seemed to have noticed her staring.
Nabiki shook her head. "Nothing. Lunch was good today by the way, Sis. Thanks."
Kasumi looked puzzled for a moment before she beamed. "You're welcome! I don't think I did anything all that special. Are you fond of riceballs? I could make them for you more often."
"No, it's not that, sis I'll be happy with whatever you make. Say, how do you feel about younger men?"
Her big sister giggled. "You're so silly, Nabiki. You know I prefer them older. Are you sure nothing's the matter?"
"Yeah. Just thought I'd check," Nabiki winked. "You can never tell what the future holds."
Nabiki wasn't sure whether or not to feel relieved. Today had reminded her how fortunate she and the rest of the family were for having Kasumi, and wanted to do something to repay her elder sister's kindness. On the other hand, Nabiki also saw potential in being involved with the pigtailed boy herself.
"Hey Kasumi, Is Akane home yet?" she asked.
"She's in her room, doing homework."
"Okay," said Nabiki, turning to leave.
She'd have to evaluate how to handle the pigtailed vendor tomorrow. Should she point him in the right direction, or stall for time? If he loses patience, then he'd ask Akane, and knowing her little sister, she'd give Ranma a straight answer. Maybe Nabiki could try distracting the boy herself. That might be entertaining.
'You sure got a deal, Saotome,' she thought. 'All this trouble is worth way more than 500 yen.'
There was a knock on the door.
"I'll get it, Kasumi!" Soun yelled from downstairs.
Ranma sighed as he knocked on the door. It was a nice looking place, and pretty darn big to boot if the size of the surrounding stone walls were any indication. He really wanted it to be tomorrow already. Then he could focus on tracking down that greedy chick so she could lead him to whoever made those riceballs….
'Crap!' he internally cursed, realizing that he hadn't gotten her name. Now finding her again was going to be a pain.
The door opened, and he was greeted by a healthy looking older man sporting a thick, bristly, mustache and a head of long, black hair that reached to his shoulders.
"Hello, I'm Ranma Sao-!"
"Ranma, my boy! You've come at last!" The man said, catching him off guard in a bone crushing hug.
"Ugh," he patted the back of the man's shoulder rapidly in the universal sign of tapping out.
The older man finally came to his senses and pulled away. "I must apologize, Ranma. I was so happy to see you that I couldn't help myself. You're such a fine, strapping, young lad!"
Ranma could only smile awkwardly while lowering his head in embarrassment.
"What are we doing? Standing out here? Come in! Come in! Your father is in the family room," he said, welcoming Ranma inside.
Putting a hand to his mouth, he called up the stairs, "Kasumi, Nabiki, Akane! Ranma's arrived! Come to the family room!"
Nabiki was on her way to Akane's room when she heard what her father had said. "Ranma?" It couldn't be… could it?
What were the chances? The odds calculated in an instant, Nabiki raced down the stairs as fast as her legs could carry. She was in such a hurry that she had forgotten her sense of caution. It was only when she reached the middle of the hallway where the pigtailed boy spotted her that she realized her mistake.
Ranma blinked in recognition. "You…."
Nabiki breathed, and stood up straight. Everything was fine. She could handle a little slip up.
"Ah, hey Saotome," she said, in her best nonchalant voice.
"Hey Nabiki, what's the hurry?" Akane peaked passed her.
"You!" The youngest Tendo daughter pointed an angry finger at Ranma.
Nabiki put a hand up to cover her ringing ear. "Geez, Little Sis, loud much?"
"…sorry," Akane mumbled, but kept a glare at the pigtailed boy.
Kasumi walked past the both of them and stopped in surprise. "Mr. Food Vendor, what are you doing here?"
Their father looked dazedly between them and the boy. "W-what's going on?"
After Soun had gotten his bearings, he managed to calm everyone down enough to prod them towards the family room. He and his daughters were seated across the table, facing the koi pond. At the other side of the table were the Saotome patriarch and son.
"Seems you've already met my daughters," he said, trying to get the ball rolling.
Beside him, Akane was red faced and looked like a rumbling volcano about to erupt. Nabiki had on a carefree mask—though he could tell something was weighing heavily on his middle daughter's mind. Out of his girls, only Kasumi was her usual self, smiling serenely while pouring another round of cold barley tea.
He really hoped that this meeting would go well. Soun had many associates and acquaintances. He had polished his generally friendly demeanor to a fine art form. However, as much as he could ask after how someone's son was doing or whether or not someone's bad back needed to be checked, he was always aware that he was pretending. A significant portion of his role in the neighborhood council was the well-honed act of a stoic and respectable man. Genma, for all his faults was a rare friend indeed to have accepted him despite his cowardice.
Thankfully, his daughters all inherited the quality that had so enchanted Soun about his dearly departed wife. They all demonstrated the ability to create and maintain genuine connections with those around them.
He knew that it was selfish of him to wish that his plans go through so that he could spend even more time with his true friend, but if Ranma was anything like his father, then he would be leaving one of his daughters in good hands anyway.
Nabiki gauged the heat that was starting to radiate from beside her. 'I can't let Akane blow up here. He's cute and it would be a waste to scare him off.'
"He was selling food at Furinkan today," she volunteered to her father, incidentally cutting off whatever Akane was about to say. Ranma was looking between her and her little sister. She could almost see the gears in his head turning slowly, but determinately towards their inevitable conclusion.
She placed a hand on Akane's lap beneath the table, hoping that her little sister would take that as a hint to hold her temper. Miraculously, her little sister did seem to understand, and managed to turn herself down from a rolling boil to a simmer.
"Yes, I bought a small snack from him and Mr. Panda this morning, Father," Kasumi chimed in.
"Mr. Panda?" Soun questioned, but shook the strange words off before latching onto the part of Kasumi statement that he could comprehend. "So this is what you meant when you said that the boy was busy pursuing his art," he said to the bandana clad man across the table.
The man wiped the back of his neck with a towel. Nabiki wondered what had been said to make him so nervous. "Umm… yes, Tendo."
Her father clapped his hands happily. "What an industrious young man!"
She internally cursed as her mind scrambled for any sort of plan, but seemed only to slip and fall on its metaphorical rear. What was it about the boy that had her miscalculating at every step? Ranma had already stopped paying attention to the room, and was staring fixedly at Kasumi.
'I think he's figured it out' Nabiki was out of time. She had hoped for a day at least to sort out her own feelings and talk to her elder sister.
"Enough of that, let's get on with the business at hand," Soun continued. "This is Genma and his son Ranma Saotome."
"Genma was an old training partner, and we studied the same school together before branching out in our own respective styles."
"Ranma here is the heir to the Saotome School of Anything Goes Indiscriminate Grappling. More recently, he's also been working to create his own school, the Anything Goes School of Indiscriminate Cooking."
Soun brought one hand up and gestured to his daughters. "Ranma, these are my daughters: Kasumi, nineteen; Nabiki, seventeen; and Akane, sixteen. For the sake of joining the Schools of Anything Goes Indiscriminate grappling, pick one, and she'll be you're fiancée."
"WHAAAATT?! You're going to let that licking pervert marry one of us?!"
'Looks like Akane couldn't hold it in anymore,' a detached part of Nabiki's brain quipped. The rest of her was stunned speechless at the news, her own anger at not being informed about such an important event mixing with other less definable ones, creating a spinning mental landscape.
"Father!" Kasumi protested, "This is too sudden!"
"Licking pervert? What happened at school?" Soun asked, taken aback. Her father then rounded on the party in question. "Ranma! Explain yourself, young man! You shouldn't lick just any stranger off the street. What if she weren't your fiancée?!"
"'Father, you idiot!" Akane launched a haymaker.
Nabiki watched in morbid fascination as she saw her father's face contort in comedic ways before he hit the floor.
"Tendo! Are you alright?!" Genma moved with a speed that startled Nabiki.
"Akane! Oh My!" Kasumi said when their father hit the floor.
A strange silence fell upon the room. Nabiki noticed that the key party in question had also been quiet- his eyes having not strayed from her elder sister.
After seeing the girl who had taken him to the infirmary, Ranma's mind began furiously trying to connect the dots. He was led to the family room and sat next to his father.
'Greedy Girl is living in the same house as the Angry Girl,' he thought. He had come up with his own nicknames so that he could more easily think about them.
Somewhere in a remote warrior's village in China, a certain purple-haired amazon inexplicably felt like someone too too cute had encroached on her turf, which made her happy, but not enough to stop bashing the boy who had been hounding her with an oversized mace patterned like a beach ball.
'They must be sisters, and I don't feel anyone else in the house.' He was tangentially aware that there was talking going on, but he ignored it in favor of continuing his quest to solve the mystery before him. 'Which means…!'
The last Tendo sister that he had yet to account for came into view, smiled radiantly, and asked him a question. He vaguely remembered nodding, and seeing his tall glass filled with a golden brown liquid. His eyes fell on the moisture condensing on the glass. With slightly trembling hands, he took the cup and put it to his lips.
To his ki-enhanced sense of taste, it was like he had been submerged in an ocean, but instead of salt water, the ocean was made of a refreshing draft that drew a fountain of nourishment from the very earth itself!
He heard screaming and felt hostile intent being directed at him, but they all seemed muted compared to the woman holding the pitcher. He was almost completely sure, but he couldn't leave this to even the smallest chance!
Kasumi looked down at her father, unsure of how to act. On one hand, she was worried. On the other, she was still upset. Her father knew her preferences as well as Nabiki did! How could he not give her the option of bowing out of the selection? She was going to be quite cross with him for the foreseeable future!
What had Akane called the boy? Licking pervert? That didn't sound proper or very enjoyable. This was why she didn't like younger men. They were always so impulsive—
Kasumi stiffened when she realized that the boy in question was undeniably invading her personal space.
She felt the boy lift up her hand, his grip tender, as though she were the most delicate thing in the world. His eyes gave off a soft cerulean glow that hadn't been there before, pinning her where she stood.
"Please excuse me," she heard him say.
'Excuse him? Excuse him for what?!' a voice in her head asked urgently.
"Aaaahn…" he said before gently inserting her fingers into his mouth with an oddly cute *paku* noise.
Her entire being became focused on the tips of the three fingers in the pigtailed boy's mouth. He had nibbled her a little. She felt the blood rush to color her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. 'This doesn't feel good. This doesn't feel good at all!' she forcefully convinced herself.
The boy released her fingers, and Kasumi almost fainted at what she saw in his eyes—a burning possessiveness that threatened to consume her everything to ash.
This fic owes a large part of its quality to the good people of Atelier #Night. Fallacy and Rai-kun, you guys are awesome!