~~~~~ Chapter 6: Herding ~~~~~
Horses are social animals by nature. A horse in a herd exhibits behaviors and attitudes which may be quite different from those observed when it is by itself... when a horse is moved from one herd to another, its relationship to the herd is almost certain to change, and hence its behaviors and attitude should be expected to change.
The Taming of the Horse: An Equestrian's Guide
Kuno Kodachi paused at the door to her father's study, knocked, and went in. "Daddy?"
"Aloha, keiki," Principal Kuno said from his beach chair under a transplanted palm tree. Ukuleles played faintly in the background.
Kodachi hid her distaste of the sand crunching underfoot and hung a cute smile on her face. "Daddy, I have a teensy little favor to ask you...."
The principal shrugged. "Like what?"
Kodachi took a deep breath. "It would make me ever so happy if you could have Saotome Ranma transferred to St. Hebereke's," she simpered.
Kuno's eyebrows appeared over the tops of his sunglasses. "Ranma? You lolo? He one kanaka, and last time I looked, St. Hebereke's was one school fo' wahines."
Kodachi gritted her teeth. "Yes, I know, Daddy, but I found out he can become a girl, too." And you've known it for months, you deranged excuse for a parent. She waved her hand vaguely. "I'm sure that, in your position, you can clear up any... irregularities in the paperwork, can't you?"
Kuno laughed. "Like, what box is checked for 'sex'?" He thought about it. "Hm. No promises, keiki, but I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you so much, Daddy," Kodachi gushed. She left hastily before the urge to strangle her father with his own lei overcame her.
Kuno pondered. A grin slowly spread over his face. "Haha! I'll do it! Dat Ranma, he needs a taste of Catholic discipline! They make him no, HER plenty pilikia. An' dat Ranma, he hates being a girl." He paused. "Heeey... if I transfer Tendo Akane too, she make him twice as much trouble, and maybe tweak Kodachi's nose, too. Crack two coconuts wit' one machete... no, t'ree! Hahaha!"
Ranma ran up to the Tendo front gate, carefully angling his umbrella to keep the rain off, and saw that Akane was already standing outside, carrying her own umbrella. Her face was very serious. Well, I guess mine is too. He stopped in the shelter of the gate roof and smiled at her for a moment. "Hey, Akane." She half-smiled.
"We gotta problem." "Ranma, we have a problem."
Ranma sighed and gestured for her to talk first.
"Ranma, my father got a letter yesterday," she began. "I've been transferred from Furinkan to St. Hebereke's."
Ranma gaped at her. "I was gonna tell ya the same thing," he said incredulously. "I've been transferred to St. Hebereke's too."
Akane dropped her umbrella, smiled like a sunrise, and threw her arms around him. "Oh, that's wonderful!" she exclaimed.
"Hey! What's wonderful about it?" Ranma protested, but he hugged her back anyway. "It's a girls' school, dammit!"
Akane let go and pulled back. "Oops. I hadn't thought about that. I was just worried that I was going to have to go to another school... without you."
"It's a girls' school," Ranma repeated. "I can't go to a girls' school!"
Akane studied him. "I think we'd better talk about this, Ranma. Let's go inside."
"What about school?"
"This is more important. Come on." Akane dragged Ranma through the gate and to the dojo. She closed the doors behind them and turned. Ranma was still looking stubborn. The rain hissed outside, and the unheated dojo was cool and humid. Akane knelt on the floor. After a moment, Ranma sat facing her. "So, did your letter say you'd been awarded a martial-arts scholarship, too?"
"Yeah," Ranma said. His mouth quirked. "I guess their rhythmic-gymnastics team needed a boost."
They stared at each other. "Kodachi!" they accused in unison.
"Son of a bitch," Ranma breathed. "Yeah, it has to be. Now that she knows about me and the 'pig-tailed girl', this has to be a scheme to get me where she wants me. Well, I'm gonna bust it up." He stood.
"Wait, Ranma," Akane said firmly. "Think this over."
Ranma stared at her. "What's to think over? I can't go to a girls' school!"
"You keep saying that. Shut up for a minute and listen to me, Ranma. St. Hebereke's is a much better school than Furinkan. Sure, the students have a reputation as oddballs, but it has better facilities, better teachers, higher standards, better everything. Graduating from St. Hebereke's would mean a lot more than graduating from Furinkan. It's expensive, too. There's no way either of our families could afford to send us there. I want to go, and I want you to come with me."
"Akane." Ranma breathed deeply. "It's. A. GIRLS'. School."
"You can be a girl if you want to be."
Ranma's face appeared to collapse. He sat down again with a thump and stared at Akane in horror. "No. Not you too."
Akane reached out and took Ranma's hand. It was cold and trembling. "Your mother and her 'daughter' thing?" Ranma nodded mutely. "Ranma, please listen to me. I won't... I won't make you do anything you don't want to, but please, at least give me the chance to talk you into it. If I can't, well, we'll do it your way, I promise. I said I wanted to go with you wherever you go, and that means to school, too."
Ranma brightened a little at that. He squeezed her hand and waited.
Akane marshaled her thoughts and began. "Ranma, I've been thinking about this for a long time. I only have a vague idea of what your curse is like for you, but you might want to know how I feel about it. You have to understand, I've never known you without it, so for me, it's just the way you are. No, let me finish! Ranma... I love you the way you are. Curse and all. I could wish that your girl form wasn't quite so cute and busty, 'cause it makes me envious sometimes, but I really don't mind it.
"Some ways I actually like it. I know you understand a little of what it's like to be a girl. You're like a girl-friend and a boyfriend in one. You can spar with me as a girl. Maybe... maybe, when the time comes, you'll be able to teach women's classes in the dojo better as a woman yourself. Now, you can come to a girls' school with me, if you want to.
"But it hurts me two ways to see you hating to be a girl. First, because it sort of says that you think being a girl is somehow worse than being a boy, and you know how I get about that. But mostly...." She sniffled. "Mostly because you ARE a boy who's a girl sometimes, and you're not happy about it, and I really, really want you to be happy, Ranma, and it hurts me so... so much when you're not." Two tears tracked down her cheeks, but she kept her eyes steady on Ranma's.
Ranma sighed and lowered his gaze, but kept her hand. "You done?" he said after a while.
"For now. Your turn."
"Akane, I don't know if I can explain about manhood." He laughed without humor. "I don't know if I can explain it to myself. It's a confidence thing. I guess some people would call it an arrogance thing. But it's what I was taught, by my father and my mother, and it's not something I can let go of easy. Especially... especially since I'm a... I'm a... dammit." His face worked, becoming almost angry. "I'm... afraid... that if I let myself get used to being a girl, that I'll lose being a man." He paused, then continued at a lower volume. "If that happens, then I could lose the Art, I could lose my family, and I could... I could lose you."
Akane shook her head, but did not speak.
Ranma looked at her, and continued. "I've been locked in girl form now twice. Both times, it could have been forever if things had gone wrong. In between... well, maybe if I stay in girl form on purpose too much, the curse will take over and lock on its own. Going to school as a girl would be...." He shrugged. "And if I stay a girl, they'll cancel the engagement and take me away from you. If I get a girl's mind, they'll do that even if I look like a man."
"And you'd let them?" Akane hissed. "You think I'd let them?!"
Ranma shrugged resignedly.
The sound echoed in the dojo, and Ranma looked at Akane, his eyes wide. "Akane...."
"That was for thinking like a quitter," Akane informed him tightly. "And for insulting me." She leaned forward. "And this... this is for caring about losing me." She kissed him, carefully and thoroughly, then settled back on her shins.
"I'm never gonna understand girls," Ranma muttered, touching his cheek and wincing.
Akane smiled. "Another reason for spending time as one, ne?" She sobered. "You might want to confirm this with Kasumi; she has books about it. But... you know about yin and yang, right?"
Ranma shrugged. "Sure. Who doesn't?"
"Well, consider this. Every person has yin nature and yang nature, man or woman. Women average more yin than yang, men more yang than yin. But everyone has both. If they don't have both, they're crippled, out of balance. I... I'm a tomboy because I have more yang than most women, or at least more than women are supposed to. Your yin and yang are struggling now because of your curse, and you're unhappy because you can't find a balance. But I think there are two ways you can be happy, and only one of them is to cure the curse. The other is to find a new balance rather than struggling to keep your old one.
"The thing about Kasumi's books is that they say that biologically, brains and minds are like that too, that there's no real difference between a man's brain and a woman's brain except, um, hormone levels and... um... cultural sex-role training, I guess. Ranma, you win a lot of your battles by changing the rules can't you win this one the same way?"
Ranma stared at her. "Jeez, Akane, you HAVE been thinking about this." His tone was admiring.
Akane felt her face grow warm. "Well, sure," she said. "It matters to me. You know why."
Ranma looked down and twiddled his fingers. "What about, uh, sex?"
"I told you. Not until we're married." Akane's face got even warmer.
Ranma waved his hands frantically. "No! That's not what I meant!"
Akane was torn between relief and disappointment. "Well, what, then?"
"Suppose I get... gack. Suppose I, er, my girl form, gets, uh, interested in, uh... guys?"
Akane thought quickly, then decided to go with her initial impulse. "Then I hit you. A lot. Hard. With many large, heavy, hard, painful objects. The same way I do when it looks like you're interested in a girl... other than me, of course. Until you aren't interested in guys any more."
Ranma started laughing. After a moment, Akane joined in. "Thanks, tomboy," Ranma said finally. "That makes me feel a lot better."
"You really are a pervert," Akane said fondly. She retrieved his hand and squeezed it.
"Since you mention it," Ranma said reluctantly, "what about, you know, bathrooms and locker rooms and things?"
Akane looked crestfallen. "That, I haven't thought about," she admitted. "Could you just keep your eyes shut or something?"
Ranma shook his head ruefully. "Not practical," he said. His eyes glinted at her. "Besides, you're talkin' about me tryin' ta really be a girl when I'm in girl form. Work that out."
"Well, no one else at St. Hebereke's will know you're not a girl except me and Kodachi," Akane thought aloud. "What they don't know won't bother them... you'll just have to avoid hot water."
"It should be easier than avoidin' cold water, at least," Ranma acknowledged.
Akane nodded. "So... can you control yourself when faced with a roomful of undressed girls?"
Ranma shrugged. "Done it before," he said. "Public baths, onsens... you kicked me out of the girl's locker room at Furinkan a few times, and as I recall, it was 'cause you was afraid I would molest someone, not because I was molestin' someone. I'm not Happosai."
"Point," Akane admitted reluctantly. He's thinking about it!
"So," Ranma said, eyeing her speculatively. "What about you?"
"Me?" Akane asked, but her heart sank. She knew where he was going. Ranma's eyes told her he knew she knew. "Um...." She steeled herself. "Only one way to find out." She stood up, keeping Ranma's hand. Ranma's eyes opened wide as she dragged him to his feet and out the dojo doors. She stopped on the veranda. "Become a girl," she told Ranma firmly.
"You are serious about this, aren't you," Ranma said wonderingly. He stepped out into the rain. Akane watched him shorten and curve. Ranma stepped back up onto the veranda and shivered a little. Akane took her hand again before either of them could lose their nerve and led her into the house.
"Akane?" Kasumi said as they passed her in the hall. "Oh, hello, Ranma-kun. Aren't you supposed to be at school? Akane, what are you doing here?"
"Taking a bath," Akane shot back over her shoulder. Ranma smiled helplessly at Kasumi as she was pulled into the bathroom.
Kasumi put her hand to her mouth. "Oh, my goodness!"
Akane stopped in the changing room and locked gazes with Ranma. You're in charge here, Ranma's eyes said, and the message quelled some of Akane's nervousness.
"We undress," she told Ranma. "Just like two girls in a locker room. You don't stare at me, but you don't make a point of looking away, either. Don't men do the same thing in public baths?"
"Yeah," Ranma said. She turned half away and started undoing the buttons on her shirt. Her peripheral vision told her Akane was removing her jumper. She concentrated on her own disrobing. She finished and stood still, cheeks pink, shivering a little.
"All right," Akane said finally. Ranma turned. She kept her eyes firmly on Akane's face, which was blushing furiously, but her excellent peripheral vision could see that Akane was trying not to cover her sensitive bits with her arms and hands, and not completely succeeding.
Ranma exerted control, and found that it came rather easily. Easier'n a Hiryu Shoten Ha. She relaxed, moved over to the water taps, fiddled with them, and decided she didn't really want to be any colder than she was. "How ya doin'?" she asked over her shoulder.
"Not so good."
Ranma nodded. "Control it the same way you control anger," she told her student, still not looking at her. "You're in charge. I won't look unless you tell me you're ready. Think of this as training. Remember the soul-of-ice training Pops put me through?"
"Hai, Sensei." Ranma heard a hint of giggle in her voice and sensed her calming down a bit. Ranma turned around and looked, still keeping her gaze above Akane's neck. Akane was blushing less, but still looked nervous.
"How do I look?" Ranma asked, turning around once and stopping with one hand on her hip and the other behind her head. Get her mind off her own body....
Akane's gaze traced down Ranma's body. Ranma noticed the faint frown that appeared when Akane looked at her breasts, and smirked a little. "You look great," Akane said finally. "Dammit. You really do have no feminine modesty at all."
Ranma shrugged, producing interesting secondary motions. "Nope. Didn't start out with one, and after ya flash your tits in battle a few times, it ain't really an option." She frowned and put her hands on her hips. "What the hell is the matter with you? You're naked with other girls all the time, and it doesn't bug ya." Her voice took on an I-told-ya-so tone. "Guess ya know there's really a guy in here, after all, hey?"
"No!" Akane turned away quickly, hunching her shoulders. "It's not that! It's you!" Ranma saw her shudder. "Boy or girl, you're engaged to me... you've seen me before, by accident, but I don't... I didn't want to... to... to display myself to you until our wedding night!" Akane spun back. "And now you stand there, and you're gorgeous, and you just have NO trouble at ALL keeping your eyes off me, and... you just have NO idea how HUMILIATING that is, DO YOU?! YOU'RE NOT UGLY!!" She turned her back on Ranma again and covered her face with her hands.
Ranma stood there, slumped, and she listened to the weeping noises echoing in Akane's corner of the room, and she thought about all the times she'd violently denied wanting to look at Akane's body, and she could only think of one thing to do. "Akane."
"What part of 'hit me' didn'tcha understand? Hit me. I deserve it. Neither of us is gonna feel better until ya do."
Akane turned, and looked into Ranma's sad eyes, and raised her hand reluctantly.
Slap! Ranma rode it out, and waited. Slap! Slap! Slap!
"You done?" Ranma asked through cheeks that were reddened and beginning to swell.
"I think so." Akane giggled suddenly. "At least you're not so cute any more...."
Ranma rolled her eyes. "You know how good my control is, Akane." She twiddled her thumbs. "I, uh, wanna look at ya, but I told ya I wasn't gonna until ya said I could, so I didn't."
"Oh." Akane thought about that. "Ranma... you can look at me... if you want to...."
Ranma looked. She smiled shyly. Akane began to feel quite warm. "Well?" she said when Ranma's eyes returned to her face.
"Ya look fine ta me," Ranma said, shrugging helplessly. "I ain't no poet. Akane...." She gulped. "I, uh, I always wanted ta look at ya. Ever since that first time, when ya walked in on me in here, thinkin' I was another girl. I did. I just couldn't say it, 'cause... uh...."
"...because if you did, you would have been a husband before you knew it, or I would have gotten mad and beaten you to a pulp, or both," Akane completed, looking a lot happier.
"Both," Ranma confirmed. Her eyes thanked Akane for saying what she couldn't.
Akane shook her head. "I've been an idiot."
Ranma turned away. "Uh, me too." She felt Akane's small, hard hand pat her bare shoulder, and jumped a little.
"Sorry, partner. About a lot of things." Akane started putting her clothes back on. Ranma followed suit. "So, what about St. Hebereke's?"
Ranma sighed. "Since it's you askin', I'll give it a try. You better cover for me, though."
"Don't I always, when it really matters? Thanks, Ranma." She opened the door to the hall, saw Kasumi standing right there, and jumped back.
"Is everything all right?" Kasumi said, not smiling at all.
Akane recovered and nodded. "Now it is. We, um, had some issues to work out." She felt her face get warm and cursed her own capillaries. "What are you doing here?"
Kasumi let her smile return. "Oh, just guarding. Father wanted to use the bathroom, and I felt that that would be... disastrous." Someone needed to make sure things didn't get out of hand inside, either.
"Um. How much did you hear?" Akane asked cautiously.
"All of the louder parts, and some of the rest," Kasumi said. She turned her regard to Ranma. "Ranma-kun... hmm. Would you like me to call you Ranma-chan when you're a girl?"
"Uh, no, Ranma-kun is fine either way," Ranma managed. "I get more'n enough 'Ranma-chan' from Momma."
"Oh, yes, of course. Well, Ranma-kun, I just wanted to say that I'm very proud of you. You're a fine young man, and I'm sure you'll do well at St. Hebereke's. Bring honor to our families." And don't forget to keep your hands off of Akane unless she asks for it, she didn't say.
Ranma got both messages loud and clear, and straightened. "I will, Kasumi-san. Thank you." She bowed slightly and followed Akane out.
"Stop fidgeting!" Akane hissed to Ranma as they approached the gates of St. Hebereke's for the first time two days later.
"I can't help it, dammit," Ranma said, trying to reach the middle of her back. "Bad enough I gotta wear a girl's uniform, but Momma made me wear this damn bra, and it itches!"
Akane suppressed a smile. "Well, the uniform looks good on you, at least."
Ranma stopped trying to scratch and perked up a little. "Really?" She looked at Akane, also wearing the dark skirt and tunic with a wide white collar that was their new school uniform. "Uh, yours does too... uh, it's less cute."
Akane frowned. "'Less cute'?!" Her hand twitched on the handle of her bag.
"Argh! That's not what I meant! It, uh, makes you look less like a girl no, no, wait! More like a young lady! Yeah, that's it!" Ranma sagged in relief and wiped her forehead.
Akane shook her head. "Baka," she said fondly. "Thanks, Ranma." She looked at the gate. "Well, here we go...." They stepped through the gate. Other students swarmed by; some looked at them curiously, but most ignored them.
"Ranma-sama! Let me be the first to welcome you!" Kodachi strode imperiously through the crowd of students. "Oh, it will be so marvellous to have you here with me! When" She noticed Akane and stopped. "What on earth are you doing here, Tendo?"
"I was also transferred to St. Hebereke's, Kodachi," Akane said evenly. "Ranma and I both got scholarships." She smiled a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I'm looking forward to trying out for the gymnastics team."
Kodachi turned white. "You Oh, Daddy, you'll regret this," she vowed to the sky. She lowered her gaze to Ranma, ignoring Akane. "Well. We might as well make the best of it, I suppose. Come, dear Ranma, I'll show you to the office." She took Ranma's arm, gingerly at first, then more confidently, and started off. Ranma grimaced and flicked an apologetic glance at Akane. Akane fell into step beside Ranma, shifted her bag to her off hand, and took Ranma's other arm.
I hope they don't make a wish, Ranma thought.
Akane walked into the locker room and looked around. "Wow. It's nice." It was: tall and airy, with rows of lockers and polished wooden benches, and lit by clerestory windows. Best of all, it smelled clean, not like sweat or disinfectant. "Look, here's ours, all labeled already and everything!"
Ranma nodded. "Not bad." She opened her locker, inspected the interior, nodded again, and began to unbutton her tunic, ignoring the other girls changing.
Akane gulped a bit but started undressing. I guess I'm glad we had that, um, practice. He sure looks relaxed....
Ranma adjusted her leotard slightly. "Hurry up, slowpoke." She waited impatiently for Akane to finish changing. "Right. Now let's go show them some Unrestricted Gymnastics."
Akane smiled with teeth and slapped Ranma's upraised palm. "Hai, sensei."
The gymnasium was the same large room Ranma had fought Kodachi in last year, with a large floor area surrounded by bleachers, but the ring was pushed over to one end. Other girls were positioning gymnastic equipment at the other end of the room, and a large square of floor mat had been unrolled in the middle. Ranma stared at the trampoline and grinned. "I just gotta try that," she muttered, moving.
"Wait, Ranma!" Akane called, but Ranma was already vaulting over the padded rim. Boing! Boing! Boing
Other girls gasped as Ranma didn't complete her third bounce. Akane shaded her eyes with her hand and stared up into the maze of roof girders above the glaring lights, and thought she saw motion there. "Yuck," Ranma's voice came faintly. "They don't dust up here." Ranma dropped out of the glare on an arc that carried her clear of the trampoline. Akane ignored the gasps. Ranma landed lightly and wiped ineffectually at a smudge of grime on her thigh. "Guess I got carried away a bit," she admitted.
Akane handed her her towel. "I was going to warn you, but you were too fast," she accused.
"Yeah, well...." Ranma stopped. Akane looked where she was looking and saw Kodachi, doing a routine with a ball on the floor mat. She looked back at Ranma, noticed the intentness of Ranma's stare, and glared at her. "Shh," Ranma said. "Watch and learn. It's a kata, sorta."
Akane was taken aback. She turned her gaze back to Kodachi and watched... and learned. She had always counted Kodachi's martial skill lightly, because of the gymnast's dependence on tools, tricks, and drugs, but now she saw Kodachi's grace, agility, and sense of timing. The ball ran from one of Kodachi's hands to the other, looped as she spun, arched into the air and returned to be caught by her foot and flicked into the air again.
Suddenly the ball was flying at Ranma. Ranma caught it spinning on a fingertip. Kodachi walked off the mat. "Now, Ranma-sama, let us see your skill," she said. Ranma glanced at Akane, flung the ball on a high arc across the mat, and took off on a rapid series of flips to meet it. She poised for a moment, then began the same routine Kodachi had been doing, but where Kodachi was studied grace and elegance, Ranma was flowing energy and casual precision. Akane watched and learned. She knew what was next.
Akane caught the ball Ranma tossed and stepped onto the mat, feeling self-conscious and inept, but determined to try. She recalled the routines Kodachi and Ranma had done and began. She tossed the ball, rolled, caught it, spun, but she felt mechanical rather than graceful. She was about halfway through when the ball just wasn't where she thought it was going to be, and there was no way for her to recover it. It fell to the floor and rolled away. Kodachi laughed scornfully.
"Hey," Ranma said quietly, walking up.
Akane turned on her. "What?!"
Ranma regarded her evenly, and she began to regret snapping. "This isn't a battle, or a match, or even a tryout," Ranma said, still keeping her voice down. "This is just practice. If ya don't make mistakes in practice, it's 'cause you're not pushin' yourself."
"You didn't make a mistake," Akane muttered.
Ranma smirked. "I wasn't pushin'." She paused and looked at Akane speculatively. "Am I makin' a mistake now?"
Akane sighed. "I hope not."
"Good. Want to know what you were doin' wrong?" Ranma waited for Akane's nod. "You were thinkin' again. I keep tellin' you, stop thinkin' and just do it," Ranma said. "And don't take it so serious-like. If this isn't fun, you're doin' it wrong."
"Hai, Sensei." The familiar words calmed Akane. She watched Ranma demonstrate the move that had eluded her, then toss her the ball and move clear. Akane found her center and began. This time, the ball arced neatly down her back and up the curve of her leg to be flipped into the air, and she continued. This time, it felt right. This time, she finished the routine without bobbles.
Akane had only a moment to stand and feel proud of herself before she saw something flying at her. She snatched the haft of a ribbon-baton out of the air. Ranma was standing on one foot five yards away, twirling another ribbon and holding four clubs in the other hand. Her hand snapped and two of the clubs spun across to Akane. Akane caught them easily in her other hand and set the ribbon twirling. Ranma's eyes sparkled with mirth. "Try not ta tie yourself up this time," she said, and attacked.
Kodachi watched Akane and Ranma sparring for a while, then looked around. Many of the other girls in the gymnasium had also stopped to watch, talking among themselves. Kodachi frowned. "Now, ladies, I'm sure you have things to do!" she called. She clapped her hands, and the others scattered to the equipment. Kodachi watched Ranma show Akane a club parry, then sniffed, tossed her ponytail over her shoulder and headed for the parallel bars.
Ranma eyed the showers warily. Clouds of steam were rising from where the other girls were showering. "Uh...."
Akane took in the situation. "Take the one on the end, Ranma," she said, pointing, "and I'll take the next one, and I'll make sure you don't get splashed."
"Yeah, that'll work." They waited for the spots to become vacant, then moved in. Ranma double-checked that she had her hand on the cold-water tap and twisted it. "Brr!" Akane smiled to herself and set her shower for luke-warm, just in case.
Akane looked around for Kodachi as they returned to the lockers, but saw no sign of her. Ha. Kodachi stayed out the whole time we were in here. Guess she doesn't really want to show Ranma her goodies after all.... Akane opened her locker and pulled a package out of her bag. "Ranma? I, um, got you something...."
Ranma turned, trying not to look at Akane while trying not to look like she was trying not to look at Akane. "Hm?" she said casually. Akane was holding out a thing that looked a bit like a very short tank-top. Ranma took it and examined it curiously. "What's this?"
"It's called a sports bra," Akane said. "I saw it in a store when Nabiki and I were shopping for school stuff. It might work better for you than...." Ranma was already pulling it over her head. "If you, you know, run into hot water, it might not look as silly, too," Akane said quietly.
Ranma adjusted the garment and jumped up and down a little. "Hey. This is great," she said in a surprised tone. She looked at Akane. "Thanks... partner." Akane felt herself grinning like a maniac at the look in Ranma's eyes, and had to suppress the urge to throw her arms around Ranma and kiss... her? Ranma was too busy putting her uniform back on to notice that Akane had gone pale and silent.
"Hey, look at those two babes there," one of the guys loitering around the gate of St. Hebereke's as school ended said to his buddy, pointing. "Let's pick them up...."
"Tendo Akane! Pig-tailed girl!" Ranma and Akane looked in the direction of the shout and saw Kuno Tatewaki running towards them with two bouquets in his hands and a look of brainless joy on his face. They sighed in unison, glanced at each other and nodded slightly. "Furinkan has suffered dearly by the loss of your great beauty, but I am here to woo urk!" Kuno doubled over as two fists slammed into his belly, jerked straight as two elbows hit the nerve plexi in his shoulders, and fell face-down on the pavement, out cold from two carefully controlled strikes to his head.
Akane and Ranma slapped palms and kept walking.
"...or maybe not," the buddy said, wincing.
"So, what do you think?" Akane asked, glancing at Ranma.
"About St. Hebereke's?" Ranma considered. "All right so far, I guess," she said finally. "Uh... was it just my imagination, or do girls really act different when there's no guys around?"
Akane looked at Ranma in surprise. "Sure we do. I thought you knew that."
"Uh, yeah, right. Sure I did." Ranma shut up.
Akane smiled. "You did fine today," she told Ranma. "No trouble with water, no ogling in the locker room"
"no one running around screaming 'Saotome-san's really a guy!' But you were still Ranma. I knew you could do it if you wanted to."
Ranma looked uncomfortable. "Still not sure I want to," she said. "But I said I'd give it a try. Right now, I want some hot water."
"So do I," Akane said demurely. Ranma eyed her uncertainly, then started running, swerving to head directly for the Tendo Dojo rather than following the street. Akane muttered a bad word under her breath but leapt onto the rooftops anyway, following Ranma and trying to keep up.
"Tendo Akane, please report to the main office."
Ranma looked up at the PA speaker in the hall, irritated. "Shit, it's lunchtime!" she said.
"Language, Ranma," Akane chided. "It's probably just paperwork. I'll be back in a minute." She started down the hall.
"Wait, you got my lunch" Ranma began.
Akane turned and smiled mischievously. "Well, this way you'll have to wait for me, won't you?" she said while walking backward.
"Saotome Ranma, please report to room 318," the PA speaker interrupted.
Ranma looked thwarted. "Damn!" She caught up to Akane. "Say, where is room 318, anyway?"
"I don't know, but I imagine it's on the third floor, baka," Akane said, as though to a small child. "We're on the second floor, so you find a stairwell, you go up"
"Yeah, yeah, I get it," Ranma muttered. She stalked away. "Stairwell... hm?" Taped to the wall by the stairwell was a piece of paper lettered with "Room 318" and an arrow pointing up the stairs. Ranma shrugged and started up the stairs, three at a time. At the third floor was another sign, with the arrow pointing down the hall. Ranma followed the arrow. More signs led her to a door with half a dozen signs of varying sizes pointing to it, all reading "Room 318".
"I guess this is room 318." Ranma tried the handle. It turned. The door opened. Ranma walked in. At the far end of the room, under large windows, a table was spread with an array of food. Ranma's stomach, neglected since breakfast, issued orders to her legs, bypassing her brain. Ranma went for the buffet.
Ranma spun around. "Kodachi!"
"I'm so glad you could make it, Ranma-sama," Kodachi purred, stepping away from the now-locked door. She tugged gently on a rope dangling from above. Ranma looked up just in time to catch a bucketful of hot water in the face.
Splash! Poing-poing-poing-poing-poing-SNAP-riiip! Buttons flew as Ranma suddenly became the wrong size and shape for his clothing. He looked down in horror. "Argh! My uniform's ruined!" He carefully peeled the tunic off his arms, looked at it, and discarded it. Then he saw his skirt. "Wah! Momma's gonna kill me!" He glared at Kodachi. "Why, you!"
Kodachi was staring at his torso with her hands clasped together beside her face. "Oh, Ranma-sama, how handsome you are!"
Ranma could almost see the little hearts in her eyes. He looked down. I guess she's ignorin' the sports bra. Good thing I wore boxer shorts....
"Now, dear Ranma-sama, let us have a nice, cozy noontime repast together," Kodachi suggested, in a tone which did not admit the possibility that he would not wish to do so.
"No way. I'm outa here." Ranma sprang past Kodachi to the door and seized the handle. It was locked, unfortunately for the hardware. Metal shrieked and snapped. The door opened, and Ranma was gone.
Kodachi put one hand on her hip, looked at her other hand, and started folding down fingers. "One... two..."
"Eeek!" "A guy!" "AAAA!" "Perrrverrrt!" "Hey, he's cute!" "I saw him first!"
Ranma burst back through the door, wearing a tightly stretched sports bra, a damaged skirt, and a terrified expression. He slammed the door behind him and leaned on it. "...three," Kodachi completed, and looked at Ranma with satisfaction. "It's so nice to see you again, Ranma-sama."
"Hell!" Ranma moaned. "Cold water... no, I need a new uniform first...." His eyes fixed on Kodachi's chest. "Kodachi. YOU'VE got a uniform. You wrecked mine. Gimme."
Kodachi frowned. "No, Ranma-sama, that's not how it goes. You're supposed to say something like, 'Those drab rags do not suit your divine figure! I must free you from their tyranny!' Then you tear my clothes off, I collapse into your strong arms, and you shower my upturned, panting lips with feverish kisses."
Ranma's jaw dropped. He collected himself. "I ain't got time for this." He took three rapid steps forward and his hands blurred.
Kodachi felt a draft and looked down at her lacy black bra. She looked back at Ranma, who was holding her suddenly unoccupied uniform top, and put her hands to her blushing cheeks. "Oh, Ranma-sama, how forward you are!" Her eyes glinted suddenly. "You realize, of course, what will happen to you if I scream?" Ranma paled. Kodachi took a graceful step forward and draped her arms around his neck. "However, if you're... nice... to me, I'll keep quiet."
"Uh... how nice?"
"Well, we'll just have to see, won't we?" Kodachi began to draw Ranma closer.
"KE-!" BAM! Ranma and Kodachi both snapped their faces toward the door in time to see Akane's worried look, bucket of water, and kicking foot. The door, which had offered no resistance to Akane's assault, rebounded off the wall. Akane's expression changed to saucer-eyes just before the door slammed shut again. Akane shoved the door open, charged in like an avenging angel, and slammed it behind her. "RANMA!" she roared.
Ranma suddenly realized what he looked like, and worse, what Kodachi looked like, and worse still, what they looked like together. "You got it all wrong!" he began, without much hope.
Akane hit him over the head with the bucket of water. Ranma's yelp of pain changed pitch halfway through as the change occurred. Akane ignored it. "You pervert, I leave you alone for five minutes and you're half undressed! And she's... she's...."
"Deshabillee?" Kodachi suggested.
"You keep out of this!" Akane stormed.
Kodachi eyed her haughtily. "Speaking of keeping out, Ranma-sama and I were about to enjoy a pleasant little interlude before you intruded, Tendo. Why don't you just accept that Ranma-sama would rather be with me than with you, and go away?"
"Uh, Kodachi?" Ranma said while Akane's mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
Kodachi's expression changed as she turned back to Ranma. "Yes, Ranma-sama?"
"Sorry about this" Pow! Ranma caught Kodachi as the taller girl folded neatly, and lowered her to the floor.
Akane's eyes were saucers again. "You hit her!"
"Oops. I guess I did." Ranma examined her hand as though she'd never seen it before, then glanced sheepishly at Akane. "Uh, I ran outa things to say?"
"But... you HIT her!" Akane seemed to be torn between horror and admiration, giving astonishment a clear lead.
"Hey, I'm a girl, right? Besides, if YOU'D hit 'er, I wouldn'ta had ta!" Ranma had a long fuse, but most of it was already burned by this time.
Akane blinked. "But... her top...."
"Well, look what she did to mine!" Ranma complained, scooping the sodden mass up from the floor and displaying its buttonlessness. "And my skirt!"
Akane looked stunned. The abused door started to edge open. She kicked it closed again without looking. Pained sounds were heard from the hallway. Ranma hastily readjusted her sports bra and shrugged into Kodachi's tunic. "Damn," she remarked, inspecting her waistband.
Akane shook her head hard and regained her priorities. "Um, hang on, I think I have a safety pin," she said, rummaging in her clothing. "Here...." She jury-rigged Ranma's waistband.
"Is that a girl thing?" Ranma asked interestedly.
"What? Safety pins? I guess so. We can mend it when we get home. Help me find your buttons." She glanced at Ranma while they poked around on the floor. "You really weren't, um...?"
Ranma looked disgusted. "Of course not. Jeez. If I was gonna smooch someone, it'd be" Ranma shut up suddenly, but Akane saw her blush and matched it. "Uh, got 'em all. Let's get outa here." They left quickly.
Kodachi twitched, then sat up groggily. "Oh... I must have fainted when Ranma-sama kissed me...." She noticed the absence of her top. He must have torn my clothes off... and showered my upturned, panting lips with feverish kisses! "Oh-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!"
The door was opened cautiously. "Captain Kodachi? Are you all right?"
Kodachi's laugh cut off abruptly. "Oh, I'm far better than all right," she said dreamily. Her voice changed. "Fetch me another uniform, at once." She picked a carrot stick off the tray and nibbled on it meditatively. "Now, how shall I enter this in my diary?"
Ranma stopped whispering to Akane and straightened up hastily. "Hai, sensei."
"Do you have something to share with the class?"
Ranma shook her head. "No, sensei."
The teacher sighed and came up the aisle between the desks. "Hold out your hand." Ranma obeyed. She knew what was coming; she'd seen this happen to other students. She felt the ki, just a little, as the teacher raised the ruler....
The teacher stared at half a ruler. Ranma sat there like a pig-tailed statue, her hand still held out, unmarked. "Don't chat in class," the teacher said finally, and returned to the front of the room.
Ranma lowered her arm and glanced sideways at Akane. Akane was struggling silently to keep a straight face, and barely succeeding. I think maybe I will like it here, after all.
"No Kuno," Ranma observed as she came out of the St. Hebereke gate with Akane. She looked up at the gray sky and wished she'd thought to bring an umbrella, then remembered that it didn't matter as much any more.
"Not yet, anyway." Akane walked around a leftover rain-puddle on the sidewalk. "Maybe he's finally given up...."
Akane and Ranma glanced at each other for a moment. "Naah," they said in unison.
"Say, ya wanna go to Ucchan's, see how everyone is?" Ranma suggested.
Akane frowned slightly. "Not really." Not when we can go home to the dojo and I can have you all to myself for a couple of hours.
"Aw, c'mon, we haven't seen her since we quit goin' ta Furinkan. Heck, your friends, whatsernames, might be there, this time of day. Or Hiroshi and Daisuke. Or"
"All right. Sure. Fine. Whatever." Akane's voice was icy.
Unfortunately, Ranma only heard her words. "Great! It'll be fun to see our friends again, huh?" She smiled cheerfully.
"Nihao, Ranma!" Ranma and Akane turned to see Shampoo approaching rapidly on her bicycle, waving.
Oh, damn, Akane thought. "Well, here's another one of your 'friends'," she told Ranma.
Shampoo dropped her bicycle and hugged Ranma. "Hey, Shampoo, how's it goin'?" Ranma ventured, grateful that the hug was one of Shampoo's what-good-friends-we-girls-are embraces and not one of her lay-me-right-here-right-now glomps.
Shampoo let go and stepped back. "Why you no in school when I bring lunch?" she accused. "I look for you long time, no one say why you no there, just yell about doors." She eyed Ranma's and Akane's uniforms. "You wear dress like Kodachi ah! You go Kodachi school now, yes?"
"Yes," Ranma admitted.
Shampoo picked her bicycle up and walked it along as Ranma and Akane resumed their way home to change. "Why you girl? Why you dress like girl?" She tossed a sly look at Akane. "Akane like girl better than boy now? Always say you pervert."
"Look, you!" Akane growled.
Ranma, looking acutely uncomfortable between Akane and Shampoo, raised her hands. "Hey, cut it out!" she interrupted. She regarded Shampoo sternly. "There's no perverts here, okay?"
"Sorry," Shampoo said casually, not sounding sorry at all. She returned to her theme. "So why you girl, airen?"
"Hey, it wasn't my idea" Ranma began.
"We were transferred to Kodachi's school," Akane broke in. "It's a girl's school. No boys allowed."
Shampoo made a face. "That no fun." She eyed Ranma speculatively. "Airen mother lose sword? Girl school no very manly she know this thing?"
"She loves the idea," Ranma said grumpily. "Says it'll make a real young lady outa me, dammit."
Shampoo regretfully abandoned her barely-formed blackmail plan. "You come Nekohanten, airen. I get hot water, I make you man." She watched Akane carefully as she spoke, knowing the double meaning, and was not disappointed by Akane's reaction.
Ranma was looking the wrong way and missed it. "Nah, that's okay. Besides, these clothes don't exactly fit me when I'm a guy."
Shampoo couldn't resist. "What you need clothes for, airen? I like you fine without."
"No way!" Ranma blurted. She shot a glance at Akane, perceived the aura, and cringed out of the line of fire.
"That's enough," Akane grated. "That's waaay more than enough." She dropped her bag and slid into readiness.
"Ah. Rematch?" Shampoo smiled, but her eyes were analyzing Akane's new stance. "I no know why you forget what happen last time, I no do your hair" She dropped her bicycle and skipped aside as Akane darted forward, but she underestimated Akane's speed badly and overlooked the nearby puddle. Akane's foot sweep sent a sheet of water over Shampoo.
"Mrraaaarr!" Shampoo skittered out of the way of Akane's kick and leapt for Ranma. Ranma, trembling like a leaf, sprang into the air, did a tucked backward flip, and landed behind Akane. Shampoo hissed, unwilling to risk dashing past Akane to get to Ranma, and circled Akane at top speed. Ranma fled in the same circle, keeping Akane between her and the cat.
Shampoo suddenly reversed direction. Ranma wasn't quite as sudden. "YAAAH!" She barely evaded Shampoo's claws-out leap. Akane watched them run around her six times in the other direction before stopping suddenly on opposite sides of her. "C'mon, don't just stand there, help me out here, Akane!" Ranma panted.
Akane felt a grin slide over her face. "YOU need MY help, Ranma?" she began.
Ranma shot her a betrayed look and straightened. "I don't NEED no one's help!" she yelled. "You're the one who said ya wanted ta be my partner! Some partner!"
"Well, fine!" Akane shouted back. Akane noticed Shampoo, scooped the cat up before she could recover from her amazement, and flung her at Ranma's head. "Maybe you'll like THIS partner better!"
Ranma stood, arms akimbo, for a long moment. Whimpers leaked out from under the cat plastered to her face. Then
Ranma sank slowly to all fours. One paw came up and gently patted at Shampoo. When the cat didn't move, the paw swung back, and Akane could almost see the claws of ki slide out. Shampoo hastily dropped off Ranma's face and scrambled back, eyes wide.
Akane gulped and recovered her temper, too late. "Here, kitty-kitty," she said, holding out her hand. "Nice Ranma... nice kitty doesn't want to hurt me... does he?"
Ranma ignored her, sat down, licked her paw, and started smoothing the hair that Shampoo's claws had disturbed back into place. When she was done, she shot Akane a single disdainful look and bounded away. Akane and Shampoo looked at each other. "This is all your fault," the girl told the cat, but her voice lacked conviction. Akane picked up both schoolbags and ran after Ranma. Shampoo watched her go, smiling a feline smile.
Akane ran up to the Saotomes' front door, juggled the bookbags awkwardly while she opened it, and dashed in. "Sorry, Oba-sama, but Ranma's" She stopped suddenly in the doorway to the main room.
Nodoka looked up. "Oh, hello, Akane-chan," she said. "Whatever's the matter with Ranma?" She continued to stroke her daughter's hair. Ranma, curled up on Nodoka's lap, purred loudly; she ignored Akane, aloof as only a cat could be.
"I guess they didn't tell you about the Neko-ken," Akane said unsteadily. She put Ranma's bag down and took a step into the room. "He thinks he's a cat, and he's much better at kempo. The change should bring him out of it, but he won't remember what happened while he was a cat."
Nodoka blinked. "How very strange," she said. "Well, there's a kettle of hot water in the kitchen. Would you bring it, please? I don't want to disturb her...."
Akane laughed shortly. "No, that's definitely true, you don't." She left the room and came back with the kettle, setting it on the table.
"She certainly is affectionate this way," Nodoka remarked.
Akane knelt and reached out a hand to stroke Ranma's head. Ranma didn't look at her, but the purring stopped. Akane drew her hand back. "Yes. Yes, he is. Usually... usually I'm the only one he'll trust when he's like this, but... I guess he doesn't need me any more." Akane rose and headed for the door.
"Akane-chan? Don't you want to stay a while?"
Akane paused in the doorway, but didn't turn around. "No, thank you, Oba-sama. I don't think I should be here when he comes to. Excuse me." She left.
"Very strange," Nodoka repeated to herself. She reached out for the kettle and poured its contents over Ranma. Poing-poing-poing-poing-poing-SNAP-riiip!
"Ow! Hot! Akane! Cat!" Ranma said suddenly, then noticed where he was. "Woop!" He scrambled off of Nodoka's lap. "Sorry, Momma, I, uh...."
"That's all right, Ranma," Nodoka reassured him. "It was rather pleasant, actually." She noticed his buttonless tunic and ripped skirt, and sighed. "Go change your clothes, please."
Ranma looked down. "Oh, crap. Not again."
"It was my fault," Nodoka admitted. "I should have realized. Bring your uniform back and I'll mend it."
"Okay." Ranma left, returning a few minutes later clad in his usual drawstring trousers and long-sleeved shirt. He dropped his school uniform on the table and sat.
Nodoka regarded her son levelly. "Ranma, what is the 'Neko-ken'?"
Ranma flinched. "Oh boy. Momma, promise you won't kill Pops for this...."
"Is there some chance that I will think he deserves it?"
"Please answer my question, Ranma."
Sorry, Pops. Ya shoulda told 'er yourself. "Well, it's like this...."
"My poor baby," Nodoka whispered brokenly. "I should never have let him take you...."
Ranma fidgeted. "Well, it ain't really all that bad. I mean, it's come in handy a couple of times, and I ain't never hurt nobody or nothin' while I'm in the Neko-ken. The only real downside is that I'm, like, really, really nervous around ca, ca, uh, cats."
"Really nervous. I hope you're not gonna start the 'manly' thing again, Momma."
"That nervous? Oh, dear." Nodoka wiped her eyes. "Well, what's done is done, I suppose. Still, your father will have much to answer for the next time he comes home."
Ranma made a mental note to make himself scarce on that occasion. "Say, how'd my bag get here?" he asked, noticing it in the corner.
"Oh! Akane-chan brought it. Which reminds me: she wouldn't stay to see you out of the Neko-ken, and she seemed to be crying when she left." Nodoka let the unspoken question hang in the air.
Ranma's expression hardened. "We had a fight," he said tersely. "No. SHE had a fight. Shampoo came by as we were leavin' school, and Akane got all upset, and splashed Shampoo, which turned her into a ca-cat and" He broke off and brooded. "She let me down. She stuck Shampoo onta me, and that's what sent me into the Neko-ken."
"Well, she certainly seemed upset about it," Nodoka said. "And you seemed to be miffed at her even while you, er, were a cat."
Ranma looked up. "You're gonna say I should go apologize to her, aren'tcha?"
"No," Nodoka said slowly. "If what you say is true and I'm quite sure that you always tell me the truth she should apologize to you."
Ranma, who had looked like he was about to defend himself vigorously, deflated suddenly. "Eh?"
Nodoka shrugged. "I'm sure that if you wait, she will see the error of her ways, and abase herself at your feet," she said evenly.
Ranma blinked. "Uh...."
Ranma stood haughtily, arms folded. Akane knelt before him and touched her forehead to the floor. "I humbly beg your forgiveness...."
Ranma shivered. Ick. No way.
"BAKA!!" Akane brought her mallet down on Ranma's head. Ranma posed momentarily, laid out horizontally in midair with his arms and legs akimbo, before being embedded in the floor.
Ranma winced. Better, but.... He rose suddenly. "I'm goin', uh, out. See ya at supper, Momma." He left. Nodoka waited until her son was well gone, and then smiled to herself and got up to fetch her sewing kit.
Kasumi put down the knife and turned when she realized that only one pair of feet had just come in the front door. "My goodness, Akane," she said when her sister appeared in the kitchen doorway, looking like she'd just run a mile while crying. "What's happened now?"
"Ranma hates me," Akane said dully, slumping against the door jamb.
"Oh, I'm sure that's not true," Kasumi said with confidence. "Why do you say that?"
"He was in the Neko-ken, and he... he... ignored me. He went to his mother instead. He doesn't trust me any more. He doesn't need me any more."
"Well, why was he in the Neko-ken?" Kasumi asked, trying to grasp the situation.
"I threw Shampoo at him."
"What? Why on earth did you do that? Usually she throws herself at him perfectly well without your help...."
Akane stared at Kasumi. Her mouth twitched. A snort escaped her, then a giggle, and then she was laughing. Kasumi dried her hands on her apron and waited for Akane to run down. "I think if he hated you, he'd have hissed at you, not ignored you," she pointed out when her sister had quieted. "It sounds as though he's just upset at you."
"Well, I'm upset at him!" Akane burst out. "First he wanted to go to Ukyo's, then Shampoo came by and needled me and he just stood there smirking. So I splashed Shampoo, and things got a little exciting, and he actually asked for my help with Shampoo 'cause she was a cat. I was so happy I just couldn't help myself, so I said something like 'What, you need my help?' and he got all bent out of shape. He said he didn't need a partner like me."
"And that's when you threw Shampoo at him?"
"Hmm." Kasumi turned around and picked up the knife and the cucumber again.
Akane stared at her back. "What? What did I do?"
"Well," Kasumi said slowly, "nothing, really."
"No, tell me. Please?"
"Well... you know Ranma has a very hard time admitting that he needs anything or anyone, especially if he does. Things might have gone a little better if you'd asked him if he wanted help rather than if he needed it. He might have been able to admit that. As it was, he might have thought you were taunting him."
Akane grimaced. "Oh. You could be right. That's still no excuse for what he did, though."
"No, I suppose not." Kasumi continued to cut the cucumber into even slices.
"He shouldn't have done that. I'm right, and he's wrong, so he should apologize to me."
"As you say."
Kasumi finished slicing the cucumber, put the knife down, and turned. "Akane... think carefully before you answer this. Would you rather be right... or happy?"
Ukyo dropped her spatulas and gasped when Ranma appeared in the doorway of her shop. "Ran-chan!" she cried, bouncing over the grill. One more bounce and her arms were around him. "I haven't seen you in over a week! Why haven't you come by before?"
"Oh, ya know, just busy, what with the new school and all," Ranma said, allowing Ukyo to lead him to one of the seats along the grill.
Ukyo went around behind the grill and selected a fresh pair of spatulas. "So, what can I make for you?"
"Let's see...." Ranma's stomach growled.
Ukyo laughed. "Same old Ran-chan," she said fondly.
"Pork, extra nori?"
"Comin' right up." Tssss! "We miss you at Furinkan, you know. Kuno-sempai's been even harder to take than usual."
Ranma smirked. "I'll bet. He showed up outside Hebereke's the first day, ya know? 'Pigtailed girl! Tendo'" Ranma broke off. "Anyway, we, uh, decked him."
"I really miss you, Ran-chan," Ukyo said. "It's just not the same with you not there every day."
Ranma wouldn't meet her eyes. "Yeah, well, it's not like I had much of a choice."
"Must be pretty strange for you, going to a girls' school," Ukyo said idly.
"You'd know, wouldn't you? Sorta."
Ukyo smiled lopsidedly. "You got a point." She scooped the okonomiyaki off the grill and onto a plate, then handed it to Ranma with a flourish. "Enjoy!" She dealt out orders to several other customers and started another batch.
"So, where's Akane?" she asked casually.
Ranma shrugged. "Dunno. At home, I guess."
"How's she like St. H?"
Ranma winced. "We don't call it that. Gives people the wrong idea."
Ukyo snickered. "Yeah, well, everyone else does." So, had a little tiff, hmm? Gooood.
Akane sat at her desk after supper. Homework was spread out in front of her, but she couldn't concentrate on it. She twiddled a pencil in her fingers. I have to go find him. I have to make up with him. I have to say I'm sorry. Control, darn it. I have to apologize, even though I'm right "Argh," she said softly to herself. "Try again." I have to go find him. I have to She heard a rap on the window. Her pencil spun one way and her chair went another. He came here!
Akane flung the window open. Ranma was hanging outside. His inverted expression was hard to read, but it appeared to mingle apprehension and determination. "Look, if we're gonna be partners mmmf!" Akane had leaned out of the window and hugged him. He suddenly realized that his face was nestled in a particularly comfortable part of Akane's anatomy, and his feet slipped. "MMMPH!!"
"TE!" Akane took advantage of her firm grip on Ranma to haul him through the window, adapting a throw usually used to slam an opponent onto the ground. She dropped him on the floor as gently as she could and staggered back.
"Whoa, good save," Ranma muttered dazedly. He rolled over, sat up, and remembered what he was saying. "If we're gonna be partners, ya shouldn't make me ask for help," he said, less firmly than he wished to.
Akane blinked. "You said you didn't want me to be your partner!"
"What?! I didn't say that!"
"There you go again! Yes, you did! You"
"I said I wanted you to be a BETTER partner!" Ranma interrupted. "Baka! You never listen to me!"
"You!" Akane wrestled her voice to a stop. Control. One of us has to. She took a deep breath and forced her voice to something approximating calm reason. "When I asked if you needed my help, I wasn't needling you. I was just really surprised that you asked."
It was Ranma's turn to blink. "Oh. Uh...."
Akane remembered what Kasumi had said. "Next time I'll ask if you WANT my help. Maybe that'll work better?"
"Yeah, I guess." Ranma twiddled his fingers. "I did kinda, uh, want your help there," he admitted.
"Oh. I, um... I'm sorry I threw Shampoo at you."
Ranma shrugged. "Well, it's not like I'm not used to it, but usually she does it herself hey, whatcha laughin' at?"
"So, what happened while I was, uh, in the Neko-ken?" Ranma asked.
"Didn't kiss anybody?"
"No. Not this time." Akane leaned her hip against her desk and crossed her arms.
Ranma studied his fiancee. "I wish you wouldn't get so damn jealous all the time. I mean, a little bit is cute, but"
"Well, I wish you wouldn't pay so much attention to them!" Akane interrupted.
"They're just friends! Look, I'm with ya all day at school, then for a couple of hours in the dojo, an' sometimes I eat here, and then we study most nights ain't that enough?"
No! Akane thought, but his words hit home, and she winced. "I can't help it," she muttered. "They're just so... and I'm...."
"Look, I told ya, I don't want them." Ranma sighed, then got an idea. "Look, Kuno's tall and rich, and I'm neither, and he's not too bad-lookin', so why do ya kick him over the school every time he grabs ya?"
Akane made a face. "Eeew. He's just.... He made my life miserable before you came, and worse after. I hate him." She looked at Ranma. "You don't hate Shampoo or Ukyo, and you sure don't kick them over the school when they grab you. I don't see a connection."
"Well, how about Ryoga, then? He brings you presents, he's nice to ya, he's almost as good as I am...."
"Ryoga? He's just a friend. I don't know, I just don't feel that way about him. Besides, he doesn't grab me."
Ya don't know where the pig was sleepin', Ranma managed not to say. "Yeah? Well, I 'just don't feel that way' about Shampoo, Ukyo, an' Kodachi. They're just friends. Kodachi's not even that, really."
Akane stared at Ranma. "But you're a boy. Everyone knows that a boy, well, feels that way about any pretty girl. Especially if she comes on to him."
"Jeez." Ranma frowned. "I expect that from Momma she thinks I oughta be 'manly' an' boff 'em all but I thought you'd know better." He got up. "Forget it."
"Wait, Ranma." Akane moved to intercept him before he could depart out the open window and took hold of his shirt front gently. She stood very close to him and gazed up at his still-annoyed face. "Maybe I am too jealous," she said slowly, "but I can't help it. I denied it for a year, and I just won't do that any more. If someone steals you away from me, it's not going to be because I thought it couldn't happen."
Ranma sighed, but he lost the frown and his arms went around her. "Nobody's gonna steal me away from you. They tried. I'm here."
"I know... but it's like when you can't tell them you don't want them. You can't make yourself tell them, and I can't make myself not be jealous."
Ranma slumped a bit. Akane could feel him trying to say something, and failing. "Fair enough," he said finally. Akane went up on her tiptoes and looked at him expectantly.
The door opened. "Akane, I brought" Kasumi's voice cut off suddenly. The door closed.
"Darn," Akane muttered at the panicked look in Ranma's eyes. She grabbed his head and kissed him quickly before he pulled away, then let go. "You know, if you would just come in by the door"
"then everyone would know I was here, and it'd be even worse," Ranma finished. "I guess I better go."
"I guess," Akane said, a little sadly. "See you tomorrow...."
"Yup." Ranma went over to the window and looked back for a moment. "G'night!" He leapt out the window and vanished into the darkness. Akane sighed, shut the window, and went to talk to Kasumi about knocking.
"Ready!" Akane watched Ranma, poised at the opposite corner of the mat under the gymnasium lights. Akane saw the hand signal and started her tumbling run: four running steps, forward handspring, flip to handstand and hold. The soles of Ranma's feet landed on hers with the precise smoothness she had come to expect from her partner, and she held steady as Ranma's ribbon lashed left and right at phantom opponents. She kicked hard, sending Ranma on a high arc. Akane flipped to her feet, spun with one foot up and her clubs held overhead, and watched Ranma land on the corner she'd started from. She nodded in satisfaction, cartwheeled three times, and came upright back-to-back with Ranma.
"Perfect," Ranma said.
"Really?!" Akane said brightly. "I mean, it felt just right, but"
"Well, after the seventeenth try, it oughta," Ranma observed, deflating Akane a little. "And I'm still just guessin' that a routine like that'll do any good in a match. But the judges oughta like it."
"Um... excuse me...." Two of the other girls in the gymnastics team had come up to the mat.
"Hey," Ranma greeted them. "Michi and, um, Junko, isn't it?"
The two girls, the first with short, boyishly cut hair, the other with medium-length hair caught in two pony-tails, nodded and smiled. "That's us," Michi agreed. "Saotome-kun, we were wondering... um... do you suppose we could train with you?"
Akane and Ranma glanced at each other and raised their eyebrows. "Call me Ranma," Ranma said easily. "You know Akane, don't you?"
"All right... Ranma-kun. Yes, Akane-kun was your second when you defeated Captain Kodachi last year. We're sure not going to forget that anytime soon, even though we didn't see much of it from under the ring...."
"We were sort of wondering when someone would talk to us," Akane put in.
"Well, you're new here," Junko said with a trace of embarrassment. "And Kodachi-san made it clear that you were her, um, special interests." She gestured at the other gymnasts, who were working out without much energy or sitting on the benches chatting. "And since we don't actually have any meets, a lot of the girls don't practice much."
"But a few of us really want to do gymnastics," Michi said to Ranma. "We heard Akane-kun calling you 'sensei', and of course we watched you practice, and, I mean, like, wow!"
"All Kodachi and her bunch think we're good for is pushing the ring back and forth when she whistles," Junko said bitterly.
Akane and Ranma glanced at each other again. Ranma shrugged and quirked her mouth. "We'd be glad to," Akane told Michi and Junko. "We're developing a pairs rhythmic-gymnastics martial-arts style, and we're about to the point where we need another pair to practice with."
Michi clapped her hands, squealed, and jumped up and down. "Yaay!"
Junko bowed, her face serious. "We'll do our best not to disappoint you, Ranma-sensei. I know we're not nearly as good as we should be."
Ranma nodded. "First, let's see what you can do, and then we'll see about gettin' ya shaped up, hey?" She gestured to the mat.
Akane looked up, but kept buttoning her tunic. "Yes?"
Michi looked past her at Ranma, who was having a little more trouble with her sports bra than usual. "Um, we were wondering if, well, there's a place where some of us hang out after school. Cafe Harlequin. It's just a few blocks from here, and if you'd like, maybe we could talk a bit...."
Akane glanced at Ranma. Well, they're not fiancees She kicked herself mentally. "Sure, sounds like fun!" she said cheerfully.
"Great!" Michi smiled. "Do you know the way? Well, I can show you, then, when you're ready to go...."
"Now," Ranma said testily. Damn all bras forever. She picked up her bag and slammed her locker. Akane suppressed a smirk and followed Michi and Ranma out of the locker room.
The Cafe Harlequin was a bright place with a black-and-white checkered floor and a big clown mask hung on the wall by the entrance. Michi rubbed the clown's shiny nose absently as she passed. She waved to three other girls in a booth as Ranma and Akane shook off their umbrellas. "Look! I brought them!" she called. She turned to Ranma and Akane. "Come on, they're all so anxious to meet you"
"'All'? Wait a minute, what have you gotten us into?" Ranma protested, but she followed Michi to the booth.
"Junko, you met in the gym," Michi bubbled, "and this is Eriko, her father's English" a tall brunette with long, straight hair nodded "and this is Sachiko. Girls, our shining hopes: Tendo Akane and Saotome Ranma."
Ranma's jaw dropped. "'Shining hope'? What the hell is this?"
All four girls stared at her for a moment, then Michi giggled. "You talk just like a boy. You're so hip!" Ranma blushed. Michi gestured to her friends. "I just meant that you're our hope to actually do some gymnastics instead of just cheering for Kodachi while she bumps off the other teams before the meets."
"Oh." Ranma slid into the booth after Akane. "She's still doin' that? I'd'a thought she'd learn, after what happened when she tried to bump Akane off. I kicked her butt pretty good."
"Yes, and that's why we thought you might be able to do something now," Junko said. "If you can train us the way you're training Akane, we might have a hope of taking some of the places on the team, and actually fighting in a few meets before we graduate. We'd like to win, of course, but to participate is what we really want." The other three nodded.
"Good. We're with you," Akane said suddenly. "We want just what you want." The expectant tension on the other side of the table dissolved into smiles.
Ranma flicked an astonished glance at Akane. What the hell's she up to? She ignored the chatter and examined the other two girls carefully, remembering them from the school gymnasium. Sachiko's strong, but nowhere near as strong as Akane. Eriko... might be as good as Kodachi, with about three years' training. But in a few months? She shook her head slightly.
Junko caught it. "What is it, Ranma-kun?" she said in a low voice.
"Gonna take a lot of hard work," Ranma replied. "We'd be doin' it anyway. I hope you guys are up to it."
"So do I," Junko said. She flashed a tight smile. "But if we don't try, we'll never know, ne?"
Ranma nodded slowly.
The waitress came, took their orders, and left. Ranma sat and listened to the girls talking to each other. Akane's sure havin' fun.... She watched her fiancee with a fond smile on her face.
"Looks like you have an admirer," Michi suddenly said to Ranma. Ranma followed her look and saw a young man at another table looking back at her. The fellow nodded and smiled.
Ranma looked away pointedly. "Not my type," she told Michi.
"Oh? Well, there's lots of types here. The Harlequin's a good place to get picked up. Just wait a bit, and your type will come along," Michi said confidently.
Ranma blushed. "Don't wanna get picked up," she muttered.
Michi nodded sagely. "Some guy break your heart? You'll get over it, a cute girl like you, with a figure to just die for"
"It's not like that!" Ranma burst out. The other conversations around the table ground to a halt. Everyone looked at Ranma. Ranma briefly considered disappearing under the table.
Michi looked at Ranma and Akane. "You two aren't" she stuck her pinky out "are you?"
"No!" Akane said hotly. She lowered her voice. "We're, um, buddies. That's all."
Michi looked relieved. "Oh, good. It happens at an all-girl school, of course...."
Junko elbowed her friend. "Michi, you're blabbing again. Don't embarrass them."
"Oh, lighten up. How about you?" Michi said to Akane. "Looking for a boyfriend?"
Akane's chin came up. "I'm engaged," she said proudly.
The other girls stared at her. "What, already?" Michi said incredulously. She glanced at Akane's hand. "I don't see a ring...."
Akane blushed. "Our families arranged it." Silence greeted her announcement. "What?!"
"Eeew," Michi summed up. "I mean, you're obviously a catch, but what kind of loser would need to have his family arrange a marriage for him?"
Akane glanced sidelong at Ranma, whose fuse was clearly shortening, and suppressed a smile. "Well, that's sort of what I thought at first, but I changed my mind. My fiance's wonderful." She felt Ranma twitch slightly and resisted the urge to look at her again.
"Wow," Michi breathed. She glanced at her friends. "If you ever wondered what a girl in love looked like, here you go." She looked back at Akane. "I'm envious. Tell us about this guy."
Akane yielded to temptation. "Well, he's a martial artist, of course. He's better than I am, darn it, but I don't suppose I'd respect him if he wasn't. He's just enough taller than me that I have to stretch to kiss him."
"I bet he's built," Michi said wistfully. "Is he handsome?"
Akane grimaced. "He must be. He's got other girls chasing him around all the time." She felt Ranma twitch again.
"Well, as long as he doesn't chase them, that just tells you you've got a good one," Sachiko put in.
Akane bit her lip. "I guess so." Ranma hasn't said a thing. Either he's dead over there, or his self-control's stuck.
"Hey!" Michi burst out. "I know who he is! My cousin's friend's brother goes to Furinkan, and she told her that he said Tendo Akane was engaged to the other Saotome Ranma!"
Akane stared at her, appalled. The others stared at her in disbelief. "What do you mean, 'the other Saotome Ranma'?" Junko asked finally.
"The one who didn't beat Kodachi!" Michi said excitedly. "Look, there's a Saotome Ranma who's a guy, who goes to Furinkan. And there's a Saotome Ranma who's a girl, who beat Kodachi last year. Kodachi SAID they were two different people with the same name. She went on and on about it, remember?" Heads nodded. "Anyway, my friend's, er, my cousin's friend's brother said that Tendo's a babe, and Saotome's a hunk, but there was some sort of sex-change or cross-dressing thing that didn't make any sense." Michi eyed Ranma mischievously. "You sure you're a girl, Ranma?"
"Uh... what do you think? You saw me in the locker room, didn'tcha?" Ranma hoped for the best.
"One hundred percent female," Junko confirmed. "No extra bits, no missing bits." She nudged Michi. "Lots of silly stories come out of Furinkan. Remember the one about the vampire teacher? I'd rather believe in a girl and a guy who are both named Saotome Ranma, and the power of confusion and rumor, than one person who changes sex. I'll bet they're even related." Four pairs of eyes swung to Ranma and waited expectantly.
Ranma thought frantically. Keep it simple "Yeah, we're in the same family," she said carefully. "We got a lot in common. Even the same hairstyle."
The waitress came back with their snacks. Ranma eyed the three bowls of hot noodle soup on the other side of the table and gulped nervously. She noticed Akane making sure of her water glass, relaxed a little, and took a bite of her parfait.
Michi looked at the parfait. "I thought martial artists weren't supposed to eat that kind of stuff."
Ranma swallowed hastily. "Well, once ya get to a certain point in the Art, your body can handle it...."
"Listen up, girls," Michi said to her companions. "Another incentive." She looked back at Ranma. "So, how about you? Got anyone special?"
"Uh, yeah," Ranma said. "I'm engaged too."
Michi rested her chin on her hand and regarded Ranma with half-closed eyes. "So, is he a dreamboat like Akane's?"
"Uh, sorta. We get along." Ranma pushed a bit of ice cream around and tried to ignore the look Akane was giving her. "My fiancee's a martial artist too. My fiancee's, uh, cute."
"Not much of a talker, are you," Michi observed. "Well, that's all right."
"You'll have to forgive Michi," Junko said to Ranma. "She's a bit of a motormouth, but she doesn't mean any harm. Maybe when she gets a boyfriend, she'll quit bothering other people about theirs."
"Hmph." Michi folded her arms and looked away. The others laughed.
Akane and Ranma walked home though the rain in silence. The hissing grayness outside the overlapping circles of their umbrellas enclosed them in their own tiny world, like an inside-out aquarium. Occasional stray drops speckled their dark uniforms.
"They liked me," Ranma said finally.
Akane looked at her, a little startled. "Well, sure. Why wouldn't they? Just because you're rude, and talk like a boy"
"Cut it out, Akane," Ranma interrupted. "It bugs me. I mean, they like me. They're not grabbin' me or tryin' ta kill me or ignorin' me. They're just bein' friendly, and it's all because I lied to them."
Akane sighed. "You had to. We can't keep going to St. Hebereke's unless they think you're a girl."
"That doesn't make it any easier, dammit. I mean, I've lied a few times to my momma, to Shampoo but only when my butt was on the line, and I hated it anyway. When they find out I'm really a guy, they'll hate me. Like you did," Ranma finished quietly.
Akane shifted her bag to her umbrella hand so she had an arm free, and put it around Ranma's shoulders. "I know. But that was a long time ago, and it's been just about that long since I hated you, and you know how I feel about you now. You wouldn't be going to St. Hebereke's if I hadn't asked you to; if you like, you can blame it on me."
"That's not much better."
"Well... if something happens, maybe we can convince them that you're a girl who turns into a boy with hot water, not a boy who turns into a girl with cold water. Or maybe they'll like you so much that they'll forgive you for not being a girl."
"Maybe." Ranma kicked at a puddle.
"Hey, I did...."
Ranma looked over at Akane's loving smile, and finally, slowly, she smiled back.
"Now, why did you have so much trouble telling Michi how wonderful I was?"
Ranma's smile turned to a grimace. "Gaah. I can hardly tell you. I sure can't tell them."
"Good answer, partner. You're getting better."
"So, what do you think?" Michi asked Junko after Ranma and Akane had left the cafe.
"They're our best chance. They're a little strange, but then, all the good ones are. If Ranma taught Akane even half of the things she was doing out there, she's even better than Hasegawa-sensei," Junko replied. Her eyes shifted to Sachiko. "What was going on between them, Sachi?"
"Well...." Sachiko tapped her chopsticks against her lips. "You saw how they looked at each other, and you saw how Akane looked when she was talking about her fiance. She's got it real bad for him. But Ranma's got it real bad for her... and the really weird thing was, it looked like Akane's got it almost as bad for Ranma, but doesn't want to. I don't know about Ranma's fiance, but I think I pity the guy, because this is going to get messy."
They thought about that for a while. "It's not a love triangle," Michi said finally. "I don't know what the heck to call it. I think it's three-dimensional. Maybe if I hadn't skipped geometry yesterday I'd know." She sighed romantically. "I think it's sweet. Forbidden love blooming in the gymnasium of St. Ecchi, the weirdest high-school in Tokyo eek!" Michi ducked the sudden storm of chopstick wrappers and wadded-up napkins.
"Stop reading those shojo-manga, they're rotting your mind," Junko advised her.
~~~~~ end of Herding ~~~~~
|BACK to chapter 5||UP to Index||FORWARD to chapter 7|