Ranma was both unamused and nonplussed by Nabiki's declaration. "You can't be serious. There's no way that I—" She stopped abruptly and turned her attention toward Akane, who hadn't put much effort into suppressing the chuckles that her sister had inspired. "Hey! It isn't funny!"
"That's right," Kasumi spoke up in agreement, her tone of disapproval snuffing out Akane's amusement. "This is a time for celebration, not mirth."
Ranma palmed her face out of exasperation. "That's not right, either...!"
As Akane's amusement returned, even as Kasumi became crestfallen, Nabiki took the opportunity to make her case. There was a lot that she could gain just from getting Ranma to stick around, particularly if she were to ever feel like a member of the family, so it wasn't an opportunity that she could — in good judgement — pass up. Even if most of the profits went to the family as a whole, that was good enough for a start since she would still be making more money than she had been prior to the catgirl's arrival.
"Look," she began calmly, pausing briefly to make sure that she had Ranma's attention, "you'll be a pet in name only; we won't actually treat you like one. The idea is to make you a part of the family without anyone getting married. After all, what's important for securing the legacy of a school of martial arts is having the skills to pass down to the next generation." She glanced upward and placed an index finger to her chin thoughtfully. "Well, unless there's some kind of bloodline-inherited skill that we're unaware of..."
Akane released a snort upon hearing that last part. "This isn't some kind of manga or anime we're in, Nabiki."
Nabiki cocked an eyebrow and pointed at Ranma. "Catgirl, remember?"
Akane blinked her eyes a few times as she considered that. "Oh, right..."
"I don't know..." Ranma weighed in with a mild frown, who fixed her gaze on the floor as she gave the idea some serious thought.
It wasn't like she had any particular place to go, since her father's evasiveness concerning the acknowledgement of their own home probably meant that they didn't have one. And now that her training trip was — for all intents and purposes — over, nothing was lined up for her to do, either. Sure, she could make do with being on her own, even should she ever become disowned, but she wanted to avoid that if at all possible. However, becoming a part of a family with three girls — as a girl — was a bit of a daunting prospect...
A familiar smell caught her attention, and what she saw when she looked up made her blink her eyes a few times in response. Within arm's reach was a mackerel being dangled by its tailfin, and beyond the hand holding it out to her was Kasumi's hope-filled visage.
"...Is that a bribe?" Akane wondered aloud, who was trying to figure out the nature of her sister's behavior. It wasn't that Kasumi didn't have any quirks, but the ones that she was used to seeing were usually passive or reactionary in nature, such as the times when she chose to be either oblivious or observant — if not downright critical — of other people and what they said or did around her. There were also times when she was unusually easygoing and/or calm, particularly during the occasions when she abruptly became that way when she had been anything but beforehand.
Nabiki pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "Kasumi, you're not helping."
Ranma looked between the fish and Kasumi, both puzzled and amused by the gesture, before glancing at the other girls, who were waiting for her reaction. It occurred to her, just then, that the girls were fairly different from one another despite being sisters. From what she had experienced so far, Kasumi — aside from the odd behavior — was pretty much what she expected a traditional girl to be like, Nabiki seemed to be the most level-headed and modern girl of the three, and Akane appeared to be a bit of a tomboy.
With her mind set on living the rest of her life as a girl, she had intended to learn how to interact and fit in with other girls, and living with three sisters who had enough differences between them seemed like a good way of doing that. Besides which, she was a bit curious about what it would be like to live as a part of a family, in a house, rather than with her father in a tent. It would also serve as a litmus test for whether she would like interacting with girls, or if it would be too much of a hassle to fit in among them.
And the best part was that her father would be around to see it all happen, which wouldn't be the case if she were to strike it out on her own. It was the least that she could do for all of the grief that he had put her through, and whatever more he planned to add on to that with the arranged marriage. She needed to keep an eye on him, anyway, as it would be harder for him to surprise her with something when she already knew where he was and had at least some idea of how he spent his time. As the saying went: keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.
"...Well, I'm not that much of a cat," Ranma finally said, which appeared to dishearten Kasumi. "Still," she added, with an absent shrug of her shoulders, "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to be your pet if it's just pretend."
"Really?" Nabiki asked, who just barely managed to keep the, "it's too good to be true," tone out of her voice.
Kasumi tossed the fish over her shoulder, so she could clap her hands together with unadulterated joy. "That's wonderful! I think this calls for a special meal for tonight's dinner!"
After everyone watched her leave the room with a skip in her step, their attention was unerringly drawn to the fish, which had landed on the face of the only man in the room. Akane was the first to speak after the silence that had descended upon the room, following the eldest sister's exit.
"What's gotten into her?" She wondered aloud.
Ranma gazed at her questioningly. "She's not normally like that?"
Akane prepared to answer, but a thought made her pause and frown, which allowed Nabiki to answer in her stead. "It's hard to say. She's not normally this," she paused to consider her wording, "excited."
"Anyway," she continued, wanting to get back on topic, now that she had Ranma's attention, "are you really up to it?"
Ranma frowned, but nodded her head resolutely. "It's better than what I had thought of. Although I still doubt that my old man will accept our refusal."
"Yeah," Nabiki agreed, as she regarded her father with a small measure of distaste, "I don't think ours will take it lying down, either." When one of Ranma's eyebrows rose in response to that, she lamely added, "Well, you know what I mean."
Since they were as ready as they were ever going to be for the miai to come, and her father was still unconscious, Akane came to a decision and approached Ranma purposefully. "Say, would you like to spar with me in the dojo?"
Ranma considered the state of the girls' father, then her own, before shrugging her shoulders. "I've got nothing better to do, and I'm in no hurry to butt heads with our fathers, so..."
A moment later, Nabiki watched silently as her younger sister proceeded to lead their guest out of the room. Once they were gone, she turned her attention toward the panda, which Ranma had taken into consideration before she had given her answer. "That's not her father... is it?"
When Akane and Ranma arrived at the dojo, neither said a word as they split apart and faced each other for their sparring match, the former wanting to get right down to business while the latter simply went along with it.
After Akane assumed the stance that she would start the spar with, she thought that it would be a good idea to determine just what she was up against. Assuming that Ranma had started her training journey after middle school, since it wasn't mandatory to attend high school, she asked, "So, how long were you on your trip?"
Ranma looked up and hummed thoughtfully for a moment. "I can't say for sure... I know it was longer than ten years, though."
That was enough of a surprise for Akane to slip out of the position that she had been holding, and she had to reassert her control and composure to prevent an embarrassing spill. "You were training like that for over ten years?"
To her, that level of devotion was reserved for crazies and fanatics. If not for a lack of aptitude in other things (not that she would readily admit such failings), family tradition and circumstance, she wouldn't have become a martial artist at all. By now she was proud to be a martial artist, but that pride had come grudgingly, not from any initial interest. Nowadays, though, she couldn't even tell if being a martial artist was a blessing or a curse...
"Well, yeah," Ranma answered casually, who didn't see anything strange or wrong about devoting one's life to martial arts. "Why?"
"I was just making sure," Akane replied, as she regained her focus and prepared to start the sparring match. "Boy or not, I would have toned it down if we weren't evenly matched. But, I take it that's not the case?"
Ranma wasn't exactly sure how to reply to that, in part because she was wondering what the other girl had against boys, so she shrugged her shoulders and said, "I guess?"
When Akane saw that Ranma was just going to stand where she was, and didn't bother with any kind of stance, she decided to initiate the sparring match. She held back a bit during her first round of attacks, just in case, but ceased doing so when she failed to strike anything but air. Despite trying her best to land a blow afterward, though, she soon found out that even her best wasn't enough to do the job.
Had their difference in skill been the only issue, then she wouldn't have become so upset by it. However, Ranma wasn't making any effort — at all — to take the offensive, and under normal circumstances she would have assumed that she wasn't being taken seriously. That would have been bad enough, but knowing that the girl had once been a boy probably meant that she was being treated as someone weak by default, as if all of her accomplishments as a martial artist didn't merit any acknowledgement.
She paused long enough between attacks to shout, "What do you think you're doing? Swing at me!"
When Ranma failed to heed her words in the engagement that followed, that's when her anger finally got the better of her. "If you're really a girl," she growled, her voice rising in volume as she charged forward with the intent to put everything that she had into her next attack, "then you better start treating me like an equal and hit me!"
The next thing she knew, after seeing her fist enter the space where Ranma's face had once been, she was staring up at the ceiling, coughing and grasping her abdomen in pain. Then the person responsible for her condition was standing over her, looking down at her with a worried expression on her face.
"Are you okay?" Ranma asked.
After she got her breath back and under control, Akane sat up and casually said, "Yeah, I'm fine." She wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes with the backs of her hands before she continued. "You just caught me by surprise, is all."
"Sorry 'bout that," Ranma apologized, as she rubbed the back of her head. "I just reacted, and I didn't mean to hit you that hard..."
Akane looked up and studied Ranma's face, and thought about the nature of her words before she said, "It's okay." To prove her point, she got to her feet and spread her arms out, in order to present her evidence. "See?"
Ranma hesitated before she nodded her head once in agreement.
An awkward silence ensued, which gave Akane enough time to ponder her next action. She imagined that the boy-turned-(cat)girl had yet to realize the mistake that she had made during their sparring match, considering what she had said as a part of her apology, and that was a problem that needed to be addressed; especially if she was serious about being a girl. In all likelihood the problem probably wasn't restricted to the incident in question, but she felt that it would be prudent to stick with what was relevant for the time being.
"So," she began, with her arms akimbo and her expression turning serious, "why did it take you so long to do more than avoid my attacks?"
Ranma looked away in embarrassment. "I kinda forgot that it was alright for a girl to hit another girl."
When her gaze returned to Akane, it was immediately evident that she had said something wrong. The other girl's expression was too mixed for her to discern exactly what feelings her words had evoked, or to what degree for any individual feeling, but she was pretty sure that she was not happy in general. In fact, it looked as if she were about to yell at her.
Akane almost had, but she had thought better of it and calmed down a bit. If she and her sisters were going to avoid being engaged, they would all need to treat Ranma as a fellow girl, not as a boy. And if she ended up living with their family for any significant length of time, it would be better to act as a teacher than to be antagonistic, in order to make sure that there wasn't — or wouldn't be — a voyeur lurking beneath the surface.
That, and she really didn't like the idea of being bested by a boy.
When she was ready to speak, it was with a glare and an edge to her voice. "It's not about being a boy or a girl. When we were sparring, we were supposed to be martial artists." Seeing the realization dawn on the other girl's face, she added, "What you did wasn't a courtesy: it was insulting."
She didn't trust herself to say anything more, so she turned about and left the dojo in a bit of a huff, with the intent to work off some steam by breaking a few more bricks in the yard. Ranma had opened her mouth and raised her hand, wanting to apologize to her, but she couldn't find her voice. She ended up watching the other girl's exit, feeling bad as well as a mite frustrated.
Not wanting to stick around the "scene of the crime," she eventually followed Akane's example and left the dojo. She wanted a better place to reflect on things, without having a constant reminder of the latest incident, and she found it at a section of the house that looked into a different portion of the garden than what could be seen from the living room. A part of the engawa was there, so she chose to sit there instead of finding a place in the garden.
As her eyes fell upon the hard-to-miss sunflowers that were within her field of vision, she sighed as she thought back on what had just happened with Akane. She had been right about their gender being irrelevant within the context of being martial artists, seeing as physical endangerment was part and parcel of training and combat. It was one thing to take precautions to avoid injury, but it was quite another to inhibit one's ability to be a martial artist by being chivalrous.
Until recently she'd never had any reason to put any serious thought into the differences between the sexes and how they were treated, because she had been content with her own and hadn't seen why anything else should matter if they didn't affect her directly. She'd never seen anyone complain about their sex, or about what was expected of them as said sex, so it had never been an issue worth being conscious of. Now that she was a girl, and she finally had her own questions and complaints, she couldn't help being conscious of all of those things related to one's sex and gender.
Of course, since this was a recent development, she wasn't yet in the habit of seeing things outside of her usual perspective, so the kind of mistake that she had made with Akane were still possible. She still had a lot to learn, after all, and it didn't help that the newness of her situation, as well as the uncertainty of her future, made her reluctant to move forward and adapt at a pace that corresponded better with her resolve to go through with it.
She was just glad that she could continue to be a martial artist. Irrational fear had made her unsure if she could be one — despite the evidence — before she had met the Joketsuzoku, a group of warrior women who lived in a remote village in China and devoted their lives to the martial arts. She'd never seen the like of it before, so she had assumed that it was very uncommon for females to take martial arts that seriously, but it had been enough to reassure her that it would be possible to remain a martial artist. It had also helped when she had been bested by one of them, despite the enhancements and neko-ken that had made it possible to finally overcome her father.
She was just beginning to wonder how Cologne — in her beyond-old age — was doing, when she heard a familiar voice say, "Oh, there you are!"
She'd been so preoccupied by her thoughts that she hadn't noticed Kasumi until she had spoken, who was carrying a towel as she closed the distance between them. It wasn't hard to figure out what the older girl was up to, if she was looking for her with a towel in her possession, and she didn't really think that it was necessary. Training with her father had made her accustomed to accumulating a lot of filth before being able to take a bath, and a little rain and sweat was nothing compared to that; she could wait until it was nighttime to clean herself up, when the only "activity" that was expected to happen afterward was a night's rest in bed.
When Kasumi sat down beside her, she said, "I heard that you had gone to spar with Akane, and I thought that you would like to take a bath afterward."
"Thanks," Ranma replied, "but I'll be okay for now."
"Oh?" Kasumi voiced, who tilted her head and regarded the catgirl with curiosity. "Does that mean that you gave yourself a tongue bath?"
"Huh?" Was Ranma's initial response, who had been caught off guard by the nature of the question and how innocently it had been delivered. When her mind finally caught up with the particulars of the question and what was being implied, it made her rather flustered with embarrassment. "No! Of course not!"
Kasumi set the towel on Ranma's lap and adamantly said, "You must be all sweaty from your workout, so it's to the bath with you."
Ranma didn't have it in her to argue with — or otherwise resist — the older girl, and so she soon found herself being guided toward the bath.
Back in the living room, Saotome Genma had recently finished having a tearful reunion with his long-time friend, Tendo Soun, and the former of the two had followed that up with an explanation for why his son had appeared before his friend as a girl while he himself had been a panda. Considering all of the things that Soun had seen and experienced while under the tutelage of "he-who-must-not-be-named," ofttimes right alongside Genma, he accepted everything that had been told to him without any questions.
"So that girl really is your son," Soun said with evident relief, after Genma had finished telling him his story.
Genma crossed his arms and nodded his head solemnly. "That's right. Unfortunately, unlike myself, he has some control over his curse. That wouldn't have been bad in and of itself, but a village of barbarian women have put strange ideas into his head, and now he's set on being a girl. I've had no success in changing his mind."
"That's quite a problem," Soun observed.
Genma grunted his agreement before saying, "I have some ideas, though. We can trigger his curse if he's asleep, or when suitably distracted. The problem is that — until now — I have been unable to think of anything that the boy would willingly stay a man for."
"Until now, you say?" Soun wondered aloud, as he stroked his chin. "Am I to assume that my help is required, then?"
"Yes," Genma confirmed, his expression becoming more serious. "More importantly, we may need to enlist the help of one of your daughters, so we can ensnare my son in a trap that will leave him feeling responsible as a man." Seeing the worried look on his friend's face, he allayed his concerns by quickly adding, "Not that things will go as far as he would have taken them. You can be sure of that."
Soun's hair had risen above his head just from his former master being referred to without his name being used. "Believe me, I will."
"So," Soun continued thoughtfully, after a brief pause in their conversation, "I imagine that the first challenge will be to keep your son here?"
Genma frowned and looked up toward the ceiling, as if for inspiration. "I'm reluctant to say it, old friend, but even I am unsure of how to accomplish that."