~~~~~ Chapter 7: Competition ~~~~~
To the layman, the point of equestrian competition, be it a race, steeplechase, jumping, or even polo, is to determine who has the better horse. The equestrian, however, knows that competitions are won by the best team of horse and rider... without trust between them, neither horse nor rider is able to perform at full potential...
The Taming of the Horse: An Equestrian's Guide
Akane turned. "Hai, Sensei?" I love the look he gets every time I say that. She left the fragments of destroyed concrete block and went up the steps into the dojo.
Ranma tightened his gi belt a little. "Since Kasumi's not trainin' with us today, I want to try something different." Akane raised an eyebrow at him. "No, really. You know about auras, right?"
Akane felt an electric tingle of excitement. Is he finally going to teach me "A little," she said, as casually as she could manage.
Ranma noticed that she was jittering up and down a little on the balls of her feet and smirked. "Calm down and pay attention. Tell me what you know."
Akane controlled herself. "Well, there's Happosai's battle aura, and there's Father's demon-head, and Oji-san did that huge panda that one time, and of course there's the Hiryu Shoten Ha you do, and Oh, Ranma, are you finally going to show me how to do those?!"
Ranma held up a hand. "Calm down, I said! Jeez, the reason I haven't shown ya any of this yet was because you keep losin' control. Usually at me," he added.
"Well, if you wouldn't make me mad, I wouldn't get mad!"
Ranma shot her a disgusted look. "You expect your enemies to be all nice-nice?" Akane froze with her mouth open as she digested the implications. "Yeah, you're gettin' it now. You got plenty of power, you just don't know how ta use it. It sorta pops out when ya get mad, but then it does what it wants, not what you want. I think. I hope."
"Oh...." Akane thought about that. "You don't do any of those visible aura manifestations. Why not?"
"Good phrase, that." Ranma shrugged. "I want my opponents to think I'm weaker'n I am, not stronger. I wanna surprise 'em, not bluff 'em." He grinned suddenly. "I'm not gonna teach you to do a demon-head. You're frightenin' enough as it is."
"Tomboy." Ranma sobered. "You were there when I learned soul-of-ice for the Hiryu Shoten Ha, but I've gone a lot farther since then. C'mere and stand right in front of me." Akane did so. Ranma looked past her, and suddenly Akane felt a wave of cold coming from him. It intensified. Akane shivered and stepped back a little. A faint mist appeared in the humid air. Drops of water ran down Ranma's bare forearms, and then they stopped moving, and a film of ice spread over his skin.
"Brrr." Ranma slapped his arms against each other, and the ice cracked off and clattered on the floor. "Any more and I'd'a changed."
Akane's mouth hung open. "Ra... Ranma...."
"I used that to... to destroy Saffron," Ranma said quietly, still not looking at her. "There was no way I was going to teach you anything like that until I was sure you wouldn't use it when you didn't really mean to." He gazed into her eyes very seriously. "You've been gettin' better about your temper lately, and I think you'll keep gettin' better, so I think you're ready... but you need to think about this, because this is dangerous."
Akane nodded, matching his seriousness. "A lot of the things I've learned are dangerous. I haven't crippled anyone yet. My control might be better than you think."
"I hope so. Don't get overconfident."
"YOU'RE telling ME?!"
Ranma laughed. "All right. This idea I had isn't dangerous, though. Auras are good for more than makin' ice cubes or scaring people. If you do it right, it's like a second skin, and you can feel with it. If you do it, and I do it, then we can sense what we're doin' when we're fighting as partners."
Akane thought about that. "I think I see. How do I do it?"
Ranma smiled faintly and blushed a little. "You've done it already. Uh, we've done it already."
Akane stared at him for a moment, perplexed, and then her eyes widened. "Ranma! That first time we kissed!"
Ranma nodded bashfully. "And the second time... and a few times after that, but I sorta lost count."
Akane's lips curved into a small, fond, anticipating smile. "I think I'm going to enjoy practice."
Junko waved as Ranma and Akane came into the locker room. "Hasegawa-sensei has posted the roster for the next meet," she said as they came up to her. She paused for effect. "You're on it, of course."
"Yeah!" Ranma slapped palms with Akane.
Junko shook her head and smiled. "And I thought Michi was exuberant." She sobered. "Michi didn't make it this time, and neither did Sachi, but Eriko and I are in. Thanks, Ranma. We couldn't have done it without you."
"We haven't done it yet," Ranma said slowly. "When's the meet?"
"In a week and a half. Why?"
"When does Kodachi usually start takin' out the other team?"
Junko thought. "A few days before, I think. Have you decided what to do about it?"
Ranma half smiled. "Yup." She started changing into her leotard. "I'm gonna talk to her."
Kodachi turned from watching the practice. "Ranma-sama! I'm pleased to see you looking so well."
Ranma seized on the conversational lead-in. "Yeah, you're looking healthy, too, so whaddaya say we let the other team make it to the meet this time?"
Kodachi frowned in puzzlement for a moment, and then her expression cleared. "Oh, that. How direct you are, Ranma-sama. One could wish you were as direct in other matters."
Ranma looked uncomfortable. "Whatever. The thing is, we were hopin' to actually have a meet this time, so we could win for real, instead of winnin' by forfeit."
"Why, whatever are you implying?"
Ranma gritted her teeth. "I'm askin' ya not to take out the other team before the meet."
Ranma and Kodachi stared at each other while the silence stretched. Finally Kodachi sighed, looked away, and massaged her temple with a finger. "Even if I were to admit to doing such a thing, which I do not at least, not here I fail to see why I should change my accustomed practices on this occasion."
There was a pause while Ranma worked that out. "Some of the girls just wanna compete in a gymnastics meet, that's all," she said finally. "I was thinkin' it'd be kinda fun, too."
"Hmm," Kodachi said. "So. You want something from me." Ranma saw the gleam in her eye. "It occurs to me that if I were otherwise occupied, I would have neither time nor incentive to interfere with anyone." Kodachi looked around. "Come, Ranma-sama, let us move apart a little so that we will not be overheard." She took Ranma's elbow delicately and guided her away from the other gymnasts.
"I remember our last date fondly," Kodachi said quietly, "but that was so many months ago. Perhaps it is time for us to spend a pleasant evening together. This Saturday will do nicely. My treat, I believe the saying is, of course."
A sweatdrop appeared on Ranma's head. "Uh...."
"Is the prospect so very unappealing? Am I so hideous that you can't stand the thought of being seen with me? Is that it?" Tears began to well from Kodachi's eyes.
"Uh, no, it's not like that, it's just...." Ranma sagged. "Lemme think about it, all right?"
"Certainly. But do not think too long. If I do not hear from you tomorrow, well...." Kodachi shrugged elegantly.
"Sure." Ranma tottered off.
"She wants WHAT?!"
Ranma looked around the dojo, hoping Soun wasn't in earshot, and gestured for Akane to lower her voice. "Hey, you went along with it the last time, when that White Petunia gal showed up."
"And I remember what happened! You got run over by cows, drugged, bombed with roses AND lilies, trapped, smoked, and kicked through the roof, and it ended up a draw!"
"You're the one who kicked me through the roof," Ranma said darkly.
"Oh. Right. Still, you deserved it. She was about to take advantage of you."
"Just how does that" Ranma began indignantly, then stopped and waved his hands. "Oh, forget it. It's not like I care. I get enough fights to keep in shape. I just thought maybe you an' Eriko an' Junko wanted to compete."
Akane bit her lip. "I do. They do. But there's got to be another way."
"Yeah, well, when ya think of it, lemme know. We can't exactly stake out the Kuno place for a week an' a half, and we can't stake out the opposition even if we knew who they all were, and we can't warn 'em for the same reason, and even if we did, Kodachi's prob'ly good enough to take 'em out anyway; she always was before."
Akane stared. "You've been thinking again. Amazing."
Akane sighed. "Oh, all right. But make her promise: no drugs, no bombs."
"Good idea. No cows, either."
"And you... do you promise not to kiss her?"
Ranma looked convincingly revolted. "Hell, I bet her lipstick is toxic. I won't kiss 'er, and I'll try ta keep 'er from kissin' me. Just trust me."
Akane looked searchingly at her fiance. "I have a bad feeling about this."
"That makes two of us, then."
Akane flopped on her bed after Ranma had gone home for supper. Trust, he says. Hmph. I have to go along to keep him from... from doing anything. She resolutely steered her imagination away from contemplating definitions of "anything". After all, he's followed me whenever I went out with anyone. Like Ryoga. It's not like he can complain.
Cheered by her rationalization, she jumped to her feet and started going through her wardrobe. An awful thought struck her. Some of the places Kodachi is likely to take him, I'll need a guy to keep from standing out. Argh! Where am I going to get a guy who can handle rooftops?!
She thought of one.
"Welcome to the Nekohanten. One?"
"I need to talk to you, Mousse."
Mousse slid his glasses down over his eyes. "Akane?" He looked behind her. "Where's Ranma?" A horrible thought occurred to him. "Nothing's gone wrong he's not after Shampoo, is he?!"
"Keep your voice down!" Akane hissed. "Meet me outside." She left, as inconspicuously as she could manage.
Mousse looked around. A roomful of curious customers looked back at him. Some of them were already whispering to each other. "A-heh." He went to the window to the kitchen. "I'm taking a break," he said quickly, and fled before he could hear anything Cologne might have to say about that.
"Over here!" Akane whispered when Mousse came out of the Nekohanten.
He joined her in the shadow of a telephone pole, not noticing that it wasn't nearly wide enough to hide them. "What's going on? What's Saotome up to?"
"He's going on a date with Kodachi."
Mousse straightened. "Oh. Is that all? Another girl might distract that cad from Shampoo long enough for me to Why are you growling like that?"
Akane subsided and remembered how to influence Mousse. "Listen. He's taking Kodachi on a date so Kodachi won't put the other gymnastics team in the hospital, so we can have a meet. If Ranma, um, does anything with Kodachi, I'll break the engagement. If I don't marry Ranma, he'll probably marry Shampoo, because there's no way he'll settle for Kodachi, right? You don't want that to happen, do you? So you have to go with me while I keep an eye on them, because a girl can't really go to a fancy restaurant alone. Are you free Saturday night?"
Mousse's mouth opened and shut. "Can't I just chain him to a post or something for the evening? I think I can manage that..." he said plaintively.
"No. Ranma has to show Kodachi a good time, dammit. I just need to make sure it's not too good. What part of 'are you free Saturday night' are you having trouble with?" A thought struck her. "You still owe me for the onsen race ticket, remember."
"Aaah." Mousse gripped the sides of his head tightly and wished he were back in China, where life was simple if one stayed dry and didn't fall in love. He forced himself to focus. "I suppose I can be free Saturday night. It's only the busiest night of the week, so they'll probably punish me when I come back, but they do that anyway, so I might as well deserve it for a change."
Akane shook her head. And I thought Ranma was a masochist, she thought. "Great. I'll pay. Wear something nice, but be prepared to do a lot of roof-hopping. I'll meet you just down the street across from Ranma's house at ten 'til seven. 'Bye!" She left.
Mousse muttered something in Chinese, shook his head, and went back inside.
On the corner of the rooftop above, Shampoo fiddled absently with an empty delivery box, considered what she'd just heard, and wished she'd heard more of it. If stupid Mousse is going somewhere, I think I'm going too... just to make sure he doesn't do anything to disgrace the Joketsuzoku, of course. Airen and Kodachi, eh? Akane and Mousse. Shampoo and... I need a date. She frowned attractively. Where have all the boys gone? Ryoga's not likely to show up. She rejected Kuno without consideration. There's no one! No boys! No A candidate occurred to her. "Aiyaa...."
Ukyo looked up as Shampoo walked into Ucchan's, then did a double-take. "Hiya, Shampoo," she greeted her. "Got tired of ramen?"
Shampoo slid onto one of the seats in front of the grill. "Need talk private."
Ukyo surveyed her crowded shop. "It's not a good time."
Shampoo shrugged. "No say I no warn." She stood and turned.
Ukyo bit her lip. "Konatsu."
The waitress came over, taking tiny steps in his tight kimono. "Yes, Ukyo-sama?"
"You're on the grill until I get back."
The kunoichi's eyes widened. "I shall not disappoint you, Ukyo-sama!" He hurried around behind the grill. There was a sudden explosion of brightly-colored silk and Konatsu reappeared, with the kimono redeployed to be less restrictive. Some of the customers applauded as Konatsu took up his place at the grill.
Ukyo led Shampoo upstairs and into her room. "So, what's so urgent?" she asked once the door was shut.
"I need date," Shampoo said, looking slightly embarrassed.
Ukyo snickered. "You and me both, honey. Don't forget, I saw him first."
Shampoo smiled sweetly. "Airen no date you or me. Not while Akane in way."
Ukyo's smile disappeared. "Yeah. So what does this 'date' have to do with me?"
"Need you to dress up like boy and date me," Shampoo said, looking more than slightly embarrassed.
Ukyo stared at her in astonishment. "Look, just because I dress as a boy doesn't mean I'm that way about girls! You got the wrong"
Shampoo silenced her with a slashing gesture. "No want aaah! Stupid talk!" She calmed with a visible effort. "No want girl," she said carefully. "Need DATE. Person go with fancy place."
"Oh. Well, why didn't you say so?"
Shampoo's fingers flexed convulsively. "Did say so," she said in a strained voice. "Say first."
"So you did. Now say why."
That took a little longer.
"Oh, Ranma, how handsome you look!" Nodoka enthused, fiddling with Ranma's bow-tie. Ranma looked down at his black suit with its short, open jacket and cummerbund and couldn't help but agree. "Now, you be nice to Kodachi-chan," his mother continued. "Remember, a woman likes to be handled gently but firmly."
"I, uh, I'll keep that in mind," Ranma managed, blushing. Akane'll kill me if I 'handle' her at all! He sidled out the front door. "See ya later, Momma."
"Stay out as late as you like!" Nodoka said, smiling. She closed the front door behind Ranma, and Ranma relaxed a little. He looked up at the sky; there were a few clouds, their gray bellies illuminated by the lights of the city below, but it didn't appear to be about to rain just yet. He heard a faint sound of feet landing on the street and turned.
"Ah, Ranma-sama! You are wonderfully punctual." Kodachi posed for his inspection. Her dress was long-skirted, elegant, and, of course, black, but it was rather more restrained than the black wedding-gown she'd worn the time Ranma had pretended to be her boyfriend for her competition with Asuka the White Lily. A silver pendant hung from a black velvet ribbon around her neck. She inspected him in return. "And quite dashing."
Ranma fidgeted. "Ya look, uh, nice."
"It pleases me that you should say so." Kodachi produced a black rose and stepped closer. "If you will permit me?"
Ranma stepped back and eyed the rose suspiciously. "You remember what we agreed, right? No drugs, no bombs?"
Kodachi gave him a look that mingled impatience and amusement. "And no cows. Do trust me, Ranma-sama."
"Well... all right, then." Ranma watched as she slipped the rose into his lapel buttonhole and adjusted it slightly. Her hand lingered on his chest a moment longer than necessary.
"There. Shall we go, Ranma-sama?"
"Sure. So, where are we going?" Ranma matched Kodachi's leap to the roof.
"To begin with, I have a bite to eat planned. I hope this meets with your approval?"
Ranma's stomach growled underneath the cummerbund. "You bet," he said unnecessarily. "Let's go!" They flitted off over the rooftops.
Ranma watched Kodachi's effortless bounds covertly as they went. She's not bad, considerin' that skirt, he thought. Another thought occurred. I sure am glad Akane can do this now too....
Fifty yards back, Akane was thinking the same thing, more or less. I sure am glad I can do this now. Last time I had to follow them on the street. "Move it, Mousse," she growled.
Mousse didn't answer. He saved his breath and wondered if perhaps he'd packed a little too much weaponry into his black robes this time.
Fifty yards further back, Ukyo's jaw was hanging open. "When the hell did Akane learn to roof-hop?!" she called to Shampoo as she followed the Chinese girl.
"You know Ranma train Akane," Shampoo tossed back over her shoulder.
"Looks like Ran-chan did a good job. I don't know why I should be surprised."
"No-ru-su-ma-n," Ranma spelled out, looking at the restaurant sign. "That sure is a funny-lookin' boat."
"I believe it is called a longship," Kodachi said casually. She linked her arm through Ranma's and urged him towards the doors.
Ranma looked around. The Norseman looked like a fancy place; it had a strip of landscaping around it, rather than being built right up to the edge of the lot. Strange music and stranger smells drifted out of the doors.
"Good evening, Sven," Kodachi said to a Japanese man wearing a strange helmet with horns on it and a furry vest.
"Kuno-sama! Welcome! Your table is right this way," the man said effusively, leading them into the restaurant.
"They know you here?" Ranma asked.
"So, what kinda place is this?" Ranma asked after they were seated in a tall-sided booth.
"Scandinavian. The cuisine is actually a little like our own, so it may not seem completely unfamiliar to you," Kodachi replied. A waiter appeared. Kodachi said something Ranma didn't understand to him. The waiter bowed and slipped away. Kodachi returned her gaze to Ranma. "This is quite pleasant, is it not?"
Ranma shrugged uncomfortably. "Yeah, I guess." He quelled the dislocated feeling. I've been in lotsa stranger places. He looked across the table at Kodachi and smiled uncertainly. At least she can't grab me from over there Agile toes slipped up his pants leg and caressed his ankle above the sock. "Yeep!"
Kodachi looked disappointed. "Really, Ranma-sama. Most men would be delighted to have a beautiful woman play footsie with them while waiting for their dinner. Why do my attentions distress you so?"
Ranma got his heartrate under control and gave Kodachi a stern look. "Look, I'm not most men, all right?"
Kodachi smiled appreciatively. "You certainly are not. You stand out from the oafs who populate this town as a diamond stands out in the sand. But that doesn't explain why you continue to resist my charms so vigorously." Her smile had become a hurt look. "Are my charms deficient in some way that is not apparent to me? Am I so unattractive?"
"It ain't like that," Ranma muttered. "I keep You're Look, I just don't feel that way about ya. You know I don't. You said so when we were goin' out for that White Lily gal."
Kodachi sighed and looked away. "Yes. I hoped, and I continue to hope, that you may yet discover some feelings for me, though." She looked back at him. "Please be frank with me, Ranma-sama. Is there some approach, one that has not occurred to me as yet, that might open the way to your heart?"
Ranma opened his mouth and closed it. "Ya might quit grabbin' me," he said cautiously. "That really drives me up a wall."
Kodachi's glossy lips twitched. "Yes. I have seen it do so." Her mirth vanished and she gave Ranma a serious look. "Ranma-sama, if you are expecting a pale, shy blossom, a girl who will wait for you to make all the advances, you will not find one among the martial-artist women of Nerima. I am the Black Rose, and I take what I want. You know I want you."
Ranma grimaced. "Yeah. I dunno why, though. But ya can't take me." He had a sudden flash of insight. "If ya could take me, I don't think you'd want me."
Kodachi half-smiled. "Perhaps you are right." She looked up. "Ah. Our supper."
Ranma's eyes traced over the wide platter loaded with foreign-looking goodies, and he started salivating. He didn't notice the waiter until a hand reached across to fill his glass. Hey, that's a girl's hand! He looked up. The waiter winked the eye away from Kodachi at him. Ranma's eyes bugged out.
A little earlier....
Shampoo and Ukyo watched from a rooftop across the street as Mousse and Akane walked into the Norseman. "Explain this plan to me again," Ukyo muttered.
"Is simple," Shampoo said impatiently. "Akane and Mousse want mess up date. We want date go good. We get in way Akane and Mousse. So simple, even" Shampoo bit off what she was going to say.
"I still don't understand why we want the date to 'go good'," Ukyo complained. "I don't want my fiance dating ANY other girl!"
"Akane number one now," Shampoo said absently, watching the restaurant. "I We next. Kodachi last. Even if Ranma like Kodachi a little more from tonight, we still ahead. But if Ranma and Akane big-fight, my our chance better."
Shampoo and Ukyo looked at each other. Each had the same thought: MY chances will be better. I'm number two. You're number three. Their smiles were as sweet as saccharine, and just as phony.
"This better be worth it," Ukyo grumbled. "I had to close Ucchan's for the evening."
Shampoo raised an eyebrow. "How much Ranma worth? Nekohanten close too."
"Huh. So now what?" Ukyo asked, shifting a little and wishing for a moment that she'd brought her spatula, just because.
"We food-place people, yes? We go in back, get clothes, go in." She bounded away, and Ukyo followed. Shampoo leapt from rooftop to rooftop until she landed above the Norseman's back door, with Ukyo right behind. She dropped to the ground and slipped inside while Ukyo waited.
"Nihao!" "Hey!" Thump. Shampoo came back out with a waiter draped over her shoulder, leapt to the roof, and laid the man out on the sloping tiles.
"No waitress." Shampoo frowned. "I want go in, but you better waiter." She started stripping the unfortunate man of his coat and trousers. Ukyo put them on over her dark suit; the man was a little bigger than her, and the extra bulk helped the fit.
"How do I look?"
Shampoo rolled her eyes. "Like waiter. Go quick." Ukyo grinned, dropped to the ground, and went inside. Shampoo prowled silently over the roof, looking for an air vent or a skylight so that she could see events in the room below, or at least hear them.
"I hope this isn't what I think it is," Ranma said, eyeing the goblet of fizzing amber liquid with suspicion.
"It's apple juice," Kodachi said, taking a sip of hers. "No drugs, bombs... or cows. The sparkle is aesthetic, not anaesthetic. Oh-ho-ho-ho!"
"I thought maybe it was some kinda wine or beer or somethin'." Ranma sipped, then drank. "Hey, not bad."
Kodachi studied him. "You don't drink alcohol, Ranma-sama?"
"Nah. It messes ya up. I spent my whole life ta get fast reflexes an' perfect control, why would I do anythin' ta take 'em away? I see what it does, too. My pop drinks, and look at him. Happosai drinks a LOT, and look at HIM!" Ranma shuddered.
"I would rather... not. I take your point." Kodachi grimaced slightly.
"How about you?"
Kodachi shrugged. "A little wine or sake, from time to time. It can be pleasant, in moderation."
"If ya say so." Ranma took another open-faced sandwich, shooting a glance across the room at Ukyo from time to time.
Akane conserved her bowl of soup (the prices of the other items on the menu had given her a little trouble with her breathing) and tried to hear what Kodachi and Ranma were saying to each other, but her table by the windows was too far away, and the diners in between were too talkative. Mousse had already finished his soup and was waiting patiently; for what, he did not know, but he'd had a lot of practice at waiting, and it came naturally to him.
The table was off to one side of the booth a little, so Akane could see Kodachi, but she couldn't see Ranma, except for his hands when he gestured. Kodachi appeared to be having a great time: her eyes were sparkling as she leaned forward, nodding and laughing occasionally. Every sparkle stabbed Akane in the heart. Why can't that baka treat me like that?!
Akane gritted her teeth. "Let's get closer," she told Mousse in a low voice. "I have to hear what they're saying."
"Isn't it enough for you to be able to watch them?" Mousse objected.
"No." Akane pointed at the next booth over on Ranma's side. "I want to sit there."
"But there's a man there already"
"Come ON, Mousse! And keep your glasses on this time!" Akane got up and headed for her target, careful not to expose herself to Kodachi's view too much. It turned out to be a wasted precaution. She's watching Ranma so hard, it's a wonder her eyes haven't fallen out....
Akane slipped into her booth of choice, smiled brightly at the astonished diner occupying it, and promptly forgot him. She bent her ear to the next booth over. Mousse sat down next to her and favored the man with an inscrutable look which would have come off better had he not been wearing his glasses.
"Now look here," the man began.
Ukyo, who was getting tired of replenishing the smorgasbord by this time, saw her chance. She hurried over to the manager. "Got a problem," she whispered. "A couple of customers are creating a disturbance...." The manager collected a pair of waiters and followed her.
"Excuse me. Are these people disturbing you?" Akane looked around, and saw that the manager was addressing the man whose booth they'd usurped.
"Well, he is," the man said, indicating Mousse, "but she isn't. She can stay as long as she likes." He smiled at Akane enthusiastically. Akane's jaw dropped.
"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave," the manager said politely to Mousse. Mousse looked at the manager. Mousse looked at the two ersatz vikings behind the manager. Akane looked at the enthusiastic man. Ukyo turned away to keep from being recognized, quivering with suppressed laughter.
"Let's go, Mousse," Akane said quietly. If we make any more of a scene, Ranma will notice.... Mousse shrugged and slid out of the booth. Akane followed, careful not to pass into Ranma's line of sight. They left, followed closely by the manager and the vikings.
"You certainly have a healthy appetite," Kodachi observed over the crumbs of a light Scandinavian meal for six.
Ranma scanned the platter for any morsels that might have escaped consumption, but found none. "Everybody says that. I dunno why." He shrugged. "You ate a fair share yourself...."
Kodachi patted her lips with her napkin and laid it down. "Gymnastics is quite effective at keeping one trim, wouldn't you say?"
Ranma smiled and cocked an eyebrow. "The way we do it, you betcha. Hey, whatsa matter?"
"I implore you not to do that in public, Ranma-sama," Kodachi said in a husky voice. "It makes my blood boil to see you smile at me like that. I can barely restrain myself from... well!" She produced a fan, snapped it open, and fanned herself.
Ranma gulped. "Urk. Sorry. Uh, thanks for the warning."
"Quite." Kodachi put the fan away, turned the inside of her wrist up, and consulted a slim watch. "Well, shall we go?"
"Hm? Oh, sure." Ranma slid out of the booth, waited for Kodachi, and accompanied her to the door.
"This is demeaning," Mousse grumbled from his place among the bushes outside the Norseman's front door. "And uncomfortable." He straightened to his full height, his patience exhausted.
"Ssh!" Akane hissed, peering over the hedge. "They're coming out! Get down!" She dropped, grabbed Mousse's robe, and yanked hard. Mousse, already crouching, lost his balance and fell on top of Akane. "Eek!"
Ranma heard a strangely familiar noise from behind the hedge as he and Kodachi walked out into the evening. "Hang on a sec, Kodachi." He took two steps and peered over the shrubbery. Akane and Mousse stared up at him from their compromising position. "Akane?!"
"Ranma! It, it's not what it looks like!" Akane cried.
Ranma snorted in disgust. "Well, of course it ain't. You're just tryin' ta make me jealous. But with Mousse? Gimme a break!" He stepped back. "C'mon, Kodachi, let's go."
"As you say, Ranma-sama." Kodachi's voice was amused.
"AARGH!" Akane's roar of chagrin and embarrassment split the night. "Get OFF me!" Mousse appeared briefly on a rising trajectory. Akane stood, her aura flaming around her, and looked around. Ranma and Kodachi were nowhere in sight. Crash! Akane turned. "Oh, it's you," she said to Mousse, who was lying in a heap on the ground. "About time you got back."
Mousse sprang to his feet. "Shampoo!" he cried gladly, embracing her. "What are you doing here?!"
"Just where do you see Shampoo?!" Akane snarled, decking him.
Mousse got up slowly. "I have come to the conclusion," he said with as much dignity as he could manage, "that you and Saotome deserve each other." He straightened his sleeves.
Akane smiled. "It's very sweet of you to say so, Mousse." Her expression changed. "Aah! They got away! Go! Go!" They leapt to the top of the Norseman.
"There!" Akane called, pointing. Two figures were dimly visible, bounding away over the roofs.
"I'll have to take your word for it," Mousse said wearily, rummaging in his sleeve for another pair of glasses.
Ranma followed Kodachi over the roofs, dodging television antennas and the odd clothesline, until they came to a large park. Dim lights glittered among the trees. "What're we doing here?" Ranma asked as they slowed to a walk outside the park gate.
"The moon will rise soon, and we shall observe it," Kodachi replied. "Have you never been to a moon-viewing before, Ranma-sama?"
"Well... I seen the moon lotsa times, o'course, and sometimes it was real pretty, but nobody ever called it a 'moon-viewing'."
"Well, you must not think yourself unfortunate, Ranma-sama. I am sure that some of the places you have seen complement the moon far better than this one, but this was the best place that we could reach without undue effort."
"I guess." They had come to the shore of a small lake in the park. Boats with lanterns on them drifted to and fro on the water, each containing a small party of merrymakers. "So what's the deal?"
Kodachi strolled out on the dock. "I have hired a boat," she said, gesturing to a boat tied to the dock. It had an oar at the stern and a canopy over several flat cushions in the midsection. Candle-lanterns hung from the canopy, and rolls along the edges of the canopy betrayed the presence of bamboo screens.
Ranma stared at the lake. "Uh, that's not a real good idea."
"Whyever not, darling?"
"Uh... well... you know about me and water. If I go out there, it's a real good bet I'm comin' back as a girl."
Kodachi raised an eyebrow. "But that's what the boat is for, surely."
"Ya don't understand," Ranma said desperately. "Water, like, finds me. Sometimes I could swear it leaps out at me. I'll go in the boat if ya like. I'm just tellin' ya that this much water, well...." He shrugged.
"Amazing," Kodachi remarked. "Well, as I certainly wish you to remain male, the boat is out of the question.... Ah! I have it! There are pavilions along the lakeshore. Come, we shall engage one." Kodachi bounded away. Ranma shrugged again, glanced at the lake, and followed.
Akane and Mousse arrived at the park shortly after their quarry, hanging well back to avoid being seen. They watched as the two figures held a short discussion on the dock, then got into a boat and sculled out onto the lake.
"Great," Akane said. "Boats. I hate boats. Actually, boats are all right, it's falling out of them and sinking I can't stand."
Mousse shrugged. "Water's fine for me. It's the trouble finding hot water afterward I can't stand."
"Well, let's just not fall out, then," Akane told him, marching out onto the dock. She stared at the sole remaining boat, and especially at the cushions. "Look at this thing! It's a floating makeout palace!" She glared out over the lake. "Come on, Mousse. We have to find them before it's too late."
Mousse sighed, folded his arms into his sleeves, and waited out the short negotiation with the boatkeeper. Akane came back, grim-faced, and got into the boat. Mousse boarded after her, cast off the mooring line, picked up the sculling oar, and eased the boat away from the dock. Akane watched him. "You do that pretty well," she said admiringly.
"For some reason, I'm better at it now than I was before I fell into the Yazunichuan," Mousse said. "So what do we do now?"
"We cruise around and look for Ranma's boat, and when we find it, we hang around," Akane said determinedly.
"Adequate," Kodachi pronounced, looking around the interior of the pavilion. It was about four yards square, with four shoji walls and a low table. She slid open the shoji facing the lake and sank to sit on one of a pair of cushions on the floor. "Do sit down, Ranma-sama." She poured tea from the pot on the table into a cup and placed it before the other cushion.
The situation was altogether too cozy for Ranma's peace of mind. "Uh... look, no grabbin', all right?"
Kodachi shot him a half-annoyed, half-amused look. "You sound like a nervous virgin bent on defending her chastity at all costs," she remarked. "Has your curse affected you that much?"
Ranma flushed. "No! It ain't like that at all!"
"Well, then, what IS it like?" Kodachi looked suddenly doubtful. "You ARE interested in women, are you not?"
"Well, sure! Well... some women." One woman.... His mind's eye supplied him with the image of Akane as he'd seen her that first day in the bathroom, and then with a more recent image of Akane looking happily at him because of something he'd done. Then the image of Akane under Mousse replaced it, and his lips thinned. Uncute baka. She said this was all right. She said she'd trust me. Hah.
"Ah. I dare not ask whether I am one of the women you are interested in," Kodachi said, watching her hands pour another cup of tea for herself.
"Well, look," Ranma began. "You don't get the hots for every guy ya see, do ya? And you wouldn't boff every guy ya get the hots for, would ya?"
Kodachi smiled slightly. "Indeed not. But I am a woman. You are a man." Kodachi frowned slightly. "Please sit, Ranma-sama. Having to look up at you is giving my neck some discomfort."
"Oh. Sorry." Ranma dropped to sit cross-legged on the cushion. He gazed out over the lake. "It's startin' ta really bug me, how people think just because I'm a guy, I'm supposed ta get the hots for everything in a skirt," he grumbled. He looked at Kodachi accusingly. "The guys at Furinkan thought that, my momma thinks that, and now you."
"Well, I am accustomed to being an object of desire. What I am not accustomed to is the great self-control you display by not responding to my advances."
"You know the spot I'm in. If I respond to ANYone's advances, I'm in a world o' hurt. I ain't about to boff anyone I don't lo, uh, like a whole lot. The way things are goin', I'd better be married to 'er, too."
"You have just given me yet another incentive to wed you, Ranma-sama," Kodachi said, smiling slyly. Ranma groaned. "Do face your fate with courage, darling. I assure you, it will be far from terrible. But it intrigues me that your attitude is more typical of a woman than a man, especially one of your age."
Ranma began to look angry. "You don't have a katana, and you aren't my momma. I don't need to care if ya think I'm manly or not."
"Oh, there's no doubt of my opinion, Ranma-sama," Kodachi said passionately, turning to face him fully. Ranma recognized the look in her eye and resigned himself to being assaulted, guiltily aware that a tiny corner of his mind was looking forward to it. Kodachi collected herself with obvious difficulty and produced her fan again. She watched the lantern-lit boats floating about on the lake, but did not speak.
"Look, Kodachi, ya gotta understand," Ranma said finally. "I told ya, I just don't feel that way about you. I wouldn't mind bein' friends with ya, though."
Kodachi laughed shortly. "I have heard girls say that to their would-be suitors a time or two," she said in a controlled voice. "What a bitter pill it is to find in one's own mouth, though." She sighed. "Still, you have done nothing but confirm what I already knew." She glanced at Ranma suddenly. "Do not imagine that I have given up, Ranma-sama. If I can be your friend, perhaps I can yet be more."
Ranma sagged. "Can we talk about somethin' else, maybe?" he said desperately.
"If you insist." Kodachi watched him for a moment longer, then looked out at the lake again. "Look. The moon is coming out." The clouds that had hidden the moon were parting. Filtered and magnified by miles of urban air, it was ruddy and baleful: impressive, but not beautiful. Ranma looked at the boats on the lake instead, and wondered idly why two of them seemed to be moving much faster than the others.
"Faster!" Akane urged Mousse. "That's got to be them, we've looked in all the others" She blushed, thinking about some of the things they'd seen while looking in the others, and wondering if Ranma would ever take her out in a boat like this, and what she'd do if he did.
Mousse put more weight into the sweeps of the sculling oar, but they were already gaining on the other boat. "How close do you want to get?" he asked.
"Close, hell! RAMMING SPEED!"
The occupants of the other boat turned in surprise at Akane's shout. The one on the cushions jumped up just as the boats collided, teetered on the brink for a moment with windmilling arms, then fell in. "Aiyaa!" Splash!
Mousse dropped the scull. "Shampoo?! I'll save you, Shampoo!" He shucked off his robes and dove into the water. Surfacing as a duck, he shook the water from his head and swam straight for the foundering cat. "Wak!"
"What the hell are you doing, idiot?!" The other boat's pilot was hanging onto the scull for dear life as the boat rocked.
Akane stared in amazement. "Ukyo?! But Where's Ranma?!"
"How the hell should I know?! Why'd you ram us?"
"Um, I thought you were Ranma and Kodachi," Akane blurted.
There was a brief pause. "Riiiight. Let me put it this way: why'd you think ramming Ran-chan and Kodachi was a good idea?"
"He she they I had to stop them! He's my fiance! I can't let her have him!" Akane paused for a moment, wondering if that was the right approach to use with Ukyo, and then forged ahead. "Look, you don't want them to, um, do anything either, do you? I mean, you're out here to stop them, aren't you?"
"Uh, yeah. Absolutely. Stop them," Ukyo agreed, suddenly struck by a brilliant idea. "What else would we be doing out here? Say, you want to join forces?"
Akane looked around. "Well, considering what happened to Mousse, I think we'd better."
"Mrraaooww! Mrruggl! Fft! Ft-ft-ft!"
"Oh, there you are," Ukyo said to the cat, and to the duck that was trying to rescue the cat over the cat's strenuous objections. "Chin up, I'll be right there." She sculled the boat over, reached down, and pulled the transformed pair out of the water. "Gosh, you look miserable," she told them, depositing them in the boat and fishing for their floating clothes.
"Where can they be?" Akane moaned. "We've looked in all the other boats!"
"Well, if they're not in the boats, and they're not in the water I think we'd have noticed that that leaves...." Ukyo turned and looked at the west shore of the lake, where several small pavilions stood.
"Sure! Let's go!" Akane's enthusiasm collapsed suddenly. "How do you work this thing, anyway?" She got up cautiously and made her way aft to the scull. Her first tentative sweeps caused the boat to rotate slowly.
Ukyo snickered, tempted to leave her out on the lake, but then remembered about Akane and swimming. "Hold still. We'll come alongside and you can get in our boat."
The moon had risen out of the smog somewhat, and was pleasant orange rather than baleful red. "Isn't the moonlight romantic, Ranma-sama?"
Ranma glanced at Kodachi and saw that she wasn't looking at the moon. "Yeah, I guess." He cast about for a change of subject. "Say, Kodachi, why'd ya get us transferred to St. Hebereke's, anyway?"
"Well, isn't it obvious? I thought that if I could get you away from Kuonji and Tendo, at least during school hours, their influence on you would wane and you might become enamored of me. Hmph. I should have known my father would sabotage my plan."
"Yeah, mine's kinda annoyin' that way too."
Kodachi's look turned curious. "I must say, I wasn't expecting you to take to it so well. It must be dreadful, for a man such as yourself to spend so much time as a schoolgirl."
Ya coulda thought about that before havin' me transferred, Ranma did not say. "Yeah, well, I manage... and St. Hebereke's is a way better school than Furinkan." Akane was right about that. Akane....
"Yes. I imagine it has other compensations as well. All those girls around you all day... even in the showers. Well, I suppose that if your self-control is sufficient to restrain your desire for me, it can't have much trouble with the others."
Ranma blushed. "It ain't like that," he muttered. "You don't use the showers when I'm in there anyway."
Kodachi smiled coquettishly. "Why, Ranma-sama! I'm so pleased that you noticed! If you wish to behold my hidden beauty, darling, you have but to ask."
"Urk." Ranma ran a finger around the inside of his collar and wondered why the conversation kept steering him toward pitfalls. "I, uh...."
"I live in anticipation of the moment." Kodachi relented, seeing that Ranma was about to break and flee, meet or no meet. "I see you've made some little friends, too. Starting a clique of your own?"
"Uh, joinin' theirs, more like. They're not bad. A couple of 'em made the roster for this meet comin' up."
"Well, don't forget that I'm the team captain." There was a slight edge in Kodachi's voice.
Ranma smiled, but it was his grim combat smile. "Not likely."
"I'm so glad you understand, Ranma-sama." Kodachi looked at the moon again.
Akane crept up to the back of the third pavilion, listened for a moment, then nodded in satisfaction and flashed Ukyo a high-sign. Ukyo nodded. Akane pointed to herself and pointed up, then pointed to Ukyo and pointed around the side of the pavilion. Ukyo nodded again and moved off quietly.
Akane sprang to the roof of the pavilion, landed as silently as she could, and listened. Ranma and Kodachi were still talking; she could hear their voices, but couldn't make out what they were saying. She crept around the edge of the roof, heading for the front where the shoji was open, hoping to hear better. She didn't see the cracked roof-tile.
"So when they" Ranma stopped and looked up, then over at the shoji on his side of the pavilion. He landed next to it in one silent hop.
Ukyo was eavesdropping shamelessly at the side of the pavilion when she heard Akane slip. She looked up, saw Akane falling, and caught her neatly.
Ranma slid the shoji open. He looked at Ukyo, in her man's suit, who was holding Akane in the classic back-and-thighs rescued-damsel pose. He looked at Akane, in her dark blue frock, whose arm had fallen naturally around Ukyo's neck. They stared back at him. "I do not," he said firmly, "want to know." He closed the shoji gently.
Akane and Ukyo looked at each other. Akane blushed. Ukyo made a strangled noise. Then "BWA-HA-HA-HA!" Ukyo collapsed backward into the landscaping, still braying laughter.
Akane rolled off Ukyo and lay with her face in her hands, hoping for a sudden lightning bolt to put her out of her misery. Over the pounding in her ears she heard Ranma say, "If ya had anythin' in mind after this, I think we better go there."
"Actually, Ranma-sama, there's a nice French place...." Kodachi's voice faded as they departed.
Ukyo finally managed to stop laughing and sat up. "Did you see the look on his face? Boy, I sure wish I'd had a camera. That was a Fuji moment if I ever saw one." She chuckled. "I'd pay a night's profits for a picture of us, too." She nudged Akane. "Maybe you should take some lessons from Konatsu, hey?"
"I'm so glad you're enjoying yourself," Akane said in a muffled voice. She pushed herself up to hands and knees and got up.
Ukyo recoiled from the look on her face. "Hey, you're the one who slipped! Should I have let you fall on your butt?"
"It might have been less humiliating," Akane said, but her anger ebbed a little. She looked around. "They got away, but there's only one French place in the area. Come on."
"Let's see if Shampoo and Mousse found hot water first," Ukyo suggested. Akane grumbled a bit, but followed Ukyo along the path at a run.
Akane, Ukyo, Shampoo, and Mousse crouched in a row on the rooftop across the street from "Chez Jules", looking a little like stylish gargoyles. "You sure this is the right place?" Ukyo asked skeptically.
"Well, it's the only one I know about," Akane replied.
Ukyo shrugged. "Only one way to find out." She looked at Shampoo. "Shampoo, you and Mousse go in the back; we'll go in the front."
"You no give order," Shampoo said coolly. "YOU go in front. WE go in back. Mousse!" She leapt to the next roof. Mousse followed. Akane and Ukyo exchanged glances, shrugged, and dropped to the street. They were barely inside the front doors when a sudden shower of rain soaked the street.
"Hope they were already inside," Ukyo muttered. She smiled at the waiter and pitched her voice deeper. "Table for two?"
"Wak." Mousse struggled out of his robes, put his glasses on, and looked at Shampoo. The cat squelched dejectedly towards the back entrance of the restaurant. The duck settled his feathers and followed, secretly glad of the way the rain was running off his back. He was barely inside the door when a hand closed around his neck. Mousse stared up into a pink face with a chef's hat and an awe-inspiring mustache. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Shampoo strolling through the kitchen in her best "Of course I belong here, I'm a cat" manner.
"Zut!" the face expostulated. "Now I make ze canard a l'orange!" A finger prodded Mousse in a ticklish spot. "Hmm. He is not fat, zis one, but I bet he has ze good flavor. Hey, useless, prepare zis duck!" Mousse was handed off to a young man with a less lofty hat.
"How do you want it prepared?"
"What, do zey teach you nossing? Kill, scald, pluck, and clean! Vite, vite!" The chef gestured expansively and turned back to his work. "Les canards, les canards, how I love les canards...."
Mousse watched the counter approach. If only it were 'scald' first! Razor-sharp steel glinted between his wing feathers as he waited for his chance. The apprentice put Mousse on the block and reached for a cleaver. It wasn't where he thought it was, and he glanced aside for a moment.
Whitwhitwhit thunkthunkthunk! "YAAAA!" Mousse took wing, leaving the white-faced apprentice stapled to the chopping block by his sleeve. He made it out the door and hid, panting. Now I know how Ryoga feels.... He saw the piles of fabric that were his robe and Shampoo's dress. Shampoo!
"Well, you were right," Ukyo admitted. She looked across the restaurant to where Ranma and Kodachi were selecting from an assortment of pastries on a cart.
"Of course I was right." Akane was still seething from the encounter at the pavilion. She jabbed her fork at her cherry pie a la mode with excessive violence. It flipped over and landed in her lap. "Eeep!"
Ukyo craned her neck over the table and looked down. "Oh, dear. You'd better rinse that out right away, or that expensive dress will stain. Go ahead, I'll keep an eye on Ran-chan."
Akane scraped the mess up with her napkin as best she could, dropped the bundle on her plate, and got up. "I am NOT having a good evening." She stalked off towards the restrooms. Ukyo hid a smile.
Shampoo lurked in the women's room, hoping someone would forget and leave the hot water running. She heard someone come in and sigh heavily, then mutter "Honestly!" under her breath. Shampoo poked her head out under the privacy panel and watched as Akane looked around, bit her lip, and unzipped her dress. Akane peeled the dress off and began to wash the wasted dessert out of it.
Ranma was caught gesturing with his fork when a passing diner jostled their table, just enough. His water glass fell over, sending a flood of cold water over the table and into his lap. Ranma looked up into Kodachi's wide eyes. "See? I told ya," she muttered.
"I'll order some hot water," Kodachi said.
"Nah. I don't wanna change back in public. I'll be right back." Ranma picked up her empty glass, got up, and headed for the restrooms. Get a glass of hot water from the women's room, take it inta the men's room, change... no sweat.
Akane finished rinsing her dress, shivering in the chilly restroom, and turned on the hot-water tap to warm things up a bit. She hung her dress carefully over a towel bar and began to dry it as best she could.
Shampoo saw the steam rising from the sink and acted, dashing across the floor and leaping for the sink. Akane saw the motion out of the corner of her eye and turned, but it was too late. Shampoo stuck her paw in the flow from the faucet, ignoring the pain briefly to send a spray of hot water over herself. Suddenly there was a naked Chinese girl perched on the sink. "Aaah!" She snatched her hand out of the scalding water and shook it. "Stupid rain, stupid Mousse, stupid" Shampoo's eye fell on Akane's dress. "I borrow dress, yes?"
"Over my dead body!" Akane hissed, stepping in front of it and dropping into a ready stance.
Shampoo shrugged. "Okay." She hopped off the sink and skidded on the wet floor. "Aiyaa!" Akane mistook the skid for an unusually cunning attack, stepped forward to counter it, and found her arm seized by Shampoo as the other girl tried vainly to stay upright. Shampoo went down, and her head hit the floor hard enough to daze her. Akane fell on top of Shampoo, putting out a hand to catch herself. Goosh!
The door opened. Ranma froze in the doorway. Shampoo, naked as a... as a... as a girl with no clothes on, writhing on the floor and moaning. Check. Akane, wearing bra, panties, and shoes, lying half on top of her, looking at me and blushing. Check. Akane's hand is on Shampoo's "Waah!" Ranma grabbed her nose and fled. The door swung mercifully shut.
Kodachi looked up as Ranma returned. "Ah, you found hot water. Good." She noticed that he was pale and trembling. "Whatever is the matter, Ranma-sama?"
"We gotta leave right now," Ranma said urgently. "Sorry, but we gotta." If we're still here when Akane comes out, we are so dead....
Kodachi glanced down at her half-finished slice of torte, shrugged, and stood gracefully. "As you wish." She headed for the doors. Ranma followed, casting nervous glances at the hallway to the restrooms.
A minute later, Akane came back out, wearing a damp dress and a furiously embarrassed expression. She stalked over to Ukyo's table, but did not sit down. "I've had it," she stated. "If you want to keep Ranma out of trouble, you go right ahead. I'm going home."
"They just left," Ukyo said, surprised. "I was about to come looking for you." She eyed Akane curiously. "What the heck happened in there?"
Akane's color deepened. "I do NOT want to talk about it. Not now, not ever." She dropped money on the table and stomped out.
"Look, Kodachi, can we talk?" Ranma said, unable to stand the silence as he escorted Kodachi through a darkened temple park.
Kodachi squeezed his elbow slightly. "I don't know, Ranma-sama. Can we? Between the frequent sudden interruptions and your attempts to change the subject, I'm beginning to wonder."
"You got a point there," Ranma admitted. "I was just wonderin'... why'd ya get interested in me in the first place?" Maybe I can talk ya out of it if I know why....
"Don't you own a mirror, Ranma-sama?" Kodachi's voice was teasing.
"Well, sure, I figured that, but that's not what I meant. I mean, my crazy pop promised me to Akane an' Ukyo, and Shampoo's followin' that Joketsuzoku law, but you decided to on your own."
Kodachi was silent for a time as they walked along the graveled path. They came out into a clearing where a five-storied pagoda stood. Kodachi looked up. "I will give you your answer... up there," she said, releasing Ranma's elbow. She ran forward and bounded up the outside of the pagoda to the top roof in five amazing leaps: since each roof of the pagoda was the same size, there was no setback, and it was necessary to leap straight up, catch the edge, and swing over. Kodachi not only did it, she made it look easy and graceful. Ranma followed her up the same way.
"That is why," Kodachi said when they both stood thirty meters above the ground. The usual amused, superior tone of her voice was gone. Ranma looked at her in surprise, and saw that her expression was different too, as though a mask she had long worn had been removed. "You, too, know well the taste of the freedom of leaping through the night, far above the heads of the ground-bound masses." She swept her arm out over the city lights that stretched nearly as far as they could see. "Where in all this is a man to match me? Shall I wed one who requires ladders in order to stand here? Shall I spend my life practicing my gymnastics alone? How can I respect a man who cannot best me?"
Ranma's heart sank. "Shampoo talks like that too."
"Perhaps. But she was constrained by her law; I chose you freely." Kodachi sighed and looked out over the city. "Perhaps it was not as free as I thought. Even that first night I met you, you displayed such extraordinary physical prowess that I knew I had finally met my match in all senses. You were so very fine. You were everything I had feared I would never find in a man. How could I help but love you?"
"I, uh...." I can't talk her out of that! It makes too much sense!
Kodachi turned back to Ranma and took two steps closer. She did not need to stretch; she was nearly as tall as he was. She took his face in her hands without haste and kissed him firmly. "There," she said. "Now you have your answer, and I have what I wanted." The mask was back. "Shall we go?"
She dropped off the roof without waiting for an answer and swung down to the next. Ranma followed, wishing he knew what to wish for.
"Would you care to come inside?" Kodachi asked when they stood on the roof of the Kuno mansion.
"Saotome! I have given thee leave to date my sister, but that does not permit thee to pollute our place with thy putrid presence, poltroon! Get thee gone at once!"
Ranma looked down at Tatewaki. "I don't think that'd work," he told Kodachi, not without some relief.
"No, I suppose not." Kodachi smirked. "Well, I enjoyed our time together immensely. I shall consider our bargain fulfilled. Good night, Ranma-sama."
"G'night." Ranma bounded off, following his heart for the first time in several hours.
Akane was tossing and turning in bed, exhausted but unable to sleep, when the familiar rap at her window came. The latch opened by itself before she could force herself to fling the covers aside and get up. The window slid open and Ranma dropped quietly into her room, still wearing his fancy clothes. He closed the window. Akane sank back onto her pillow. "You came to laugh at me, I suppose," she said without heat.
"Well, why did you come, then?"
"I need a reason? Fine!" Ranma glared at her and folded his arms. "I came to find out what the hell made you act up that way!"
Akane stared at Ranma in the dark. "Look, I'm too tired to fight about it," she said finally. "Can we just sort of forget it ever happened?"
Ranma relaxed. "Best offer I've gotten tonight," he admitted, "and I've gotten a few."
"I'll bet." Akane hesitated, then patted the bed beside her. "Come sit down where I can slug you without getting up."
Ranma snorted, but he sat down carefully and turned to half-face her.
"None of it was what it looked like, you know," Akane said in a small voice.
"Of course it wasn't. Stuff like that happens ta me all the time. Maybe next time you'll gimme a break." Ranma's voice paused, then resumed with a mischievous tone. "Still, I wanna know what's goin' on between you and Shampoo ow! Jeez, you ARE tired; that was pretty feeble."
"You didn't even stay to help me out," Akane accused.
"It looked like ya were handling her pretty well ow!"
"You said we'd forget about it!"
"Okay, okay. Sorry. Jeez." That scene, I ain't likely ta forget soon....
"Um... so how did the date go?"
Ranma shrugged. "I guess we got what we wanted. The meet's on."
"She didn't get what she wanted, did she?"
"Well, she said she did" The words slipped out before Ranma could stop them.
"What?! What happened?!"
"Nothin'! Hey, YOU said to forget about it!" Ranma protested.
"Rrraaannnmmmaaa..." Akane growled.
Ranma cringed. "Nothin'! Really! I didn't kiss her, and she only kissed me once, and yours are better!" He waited to get slugged again, but by some miracle he'd said the right thing for a change.
"They are?" Akane's voice was hopeful.
"Well, sure. I'm here, ain't I?"
"So why did you really come here?" Akane asked shyly after a moment.
"That's what I said. Really."
"Uh... promise ya won't laugh? Or slug me?"
"Uh... well... I figured from the way you were actin' that ya might not exactly rest easy until I showed up and told ya the date was over and I was goin' home." Ranma twiddled his fingers.
"Ranma... that was nice of you. Thanks."
Unseen in the dark, Ranma blushed. "Sure. So, uh, I'm goin' home now. See ya tomorrow."
Akane felt her bed rebound slightly, then heard the window open and close, and knew Ranma had gone. Darn. I was hoping he'd kiss me good-night, or at least hold my hand for a moment. Baka. She smiled a little and turned over. This time, sleep came quickly.
The day of the gymnastics match was cold and cloudy, but it was not raining. Kodachi led the team through the gate of Teiketsu Academy, waving graciously to the onlookers. Among the gaggle of other St. Hebereke's girls, Ranma and Akane formed a tight group with Junko, Michi, Sachiko, and Eriko, wearing sweat-suits and carrying bulky duffel bags. Students swarmed around the gymnasium as they approached, and they heard the murmur of the crowd inside.
"Nervous?" Ranma muttered to Akane.
Akane shook her head. "Excited." She glanced at Ranma mischievously. "Why should I be nervous? I hear my partner never loses."
"Damn straight," Ranma said firmly. Michi and Junko exchanged smiles and followed them into the gym.
"Let's have a big welcome for the St. Hebereke's martial-arts rhythmic-gymnastics team!" the PA called. The crowd roared as the team waved.
Ranma started to cheer as Eriko scored a knockout, dropping her opponent with her clubs, then cursed as Eriko fell to the mat as well, taken out by her opponent's simultaneous strike. The gong rang. "Damn, a draw!" She leapt into the ring and helped Sachiko pick Eriko up, carry her into the corner, and revive her, not noticing the activity around the judges' table.
"Winner: Eriko To, er, Thompson, of St. Hebereke's!" the PA blared.
Ranma looked up. "What?" She looked down. "Eriko! You won!"
Eriko looked up groggily. "Won? I" She got to her feet, supported on both sides by Ranma and Sachiko. "But"
By that time Akane was there, jumping up and down excitedly on the floor just outside the corner of the ring. "You won, Eriko! The combat part was a draw, but the judges thought your form was better!"
Eriko straightened. "I won..." she breathed. She looked at Ranma. "We won... sensei." She waved to the crowd, then let Sachiko and Ranma help her out of the ring.
"Wonderful!" Akane bubbled when Eriko was seated and Ranma had straightened.
Ranma shook her head. "I dunno. Since when does someone else get to say whether I win or lose? I don't like it."
"Well, I meant Eriko," Akane said. "You know the rules, Ranma."
Ranma cocked an eyebrow. "Musabetsu Kakuto's not real good about rules"
"Oh, Ranma-sama!" Ranma and Akane turned. Kodachi was standing a little ahead of what appeared to be a pair of identical twin teenaged girls, with one hand on her hip and an enigmatic smile on her face. "I thought you might like to meet your opponents," she said, gesturing with her free hand. "Souda Tomomi, Souda Tomoko, these are my team-mates, Saotome Ranma and Tendo Akane."
"Pleased to meet you," Akane said automatically. Wow, they're pretty. It's a good thing Ranma's not a guy right now.
"Hey," Ranma said casually. Good muscles, good balance. They might put up a fight. It's a good thing Akane's been practicin'.
Tomomi eyed Akane. "So, Tendo Akane, we meet again at last," she sneered. "You destroyed our innocent happiness, and now we will have our revenge by humiliating you before all these people!"
"It sure is a big crowd," Tomoko agreed.
Akane's jaw dropped. "What?! What in the world are you talking about?!"
"Don't tell me you don't remember," Tomomi said incredulously.
"She doesn't," Tomoko put in.
Tomomi drew herself up. "Well, Akane, cast your mind back to a sunny day on the beach...."
"Ten years ago," Tomoko specified.
Suddenly Akane remembered where she'd seen these twins before:
Little Akane was walking along the beach, looking for shells, when she saw two girls about her own age arguing over something. She hurried closer and saw that they each had hold of a few arms of an extremely distressed-looking octopus.
"Let go! I saw it first!" One girl pulled on her end of the octopus.
"Mine!" The other resisted.
"Don't hurt the poor fishie!" Akane cried, running up to them. She tripped over a bit of driftwood and knocked both girls sprawling. "Oops!" The octopus, knowing the Sucker of the Tako-God when it saw it, carefully squirted both its tormentors in the face with ink and fled to the safety of the ocean in a flurry of tentacles.
"You let it get away!" one girl protested, getting up.
"Waah!" the other girl added.
"Well, you shouldn't have pulled it like that!" Akane yelled, embarrassed by her clumsiness.
The two girls studied her through their respective ink-blots. "What's your name?" one asked.
"Tendo Akane," Akane answered hopefully. Maybe they want to be friends after all....
"Die, Tendo Akane!" Suddenly the two little girls were holding large mallets. They swung. Akane reacted as she'd been taught. Pow! Wham! Two little girls and their mallets went sailing high into the air.
"Honestly," Akane muttered, straightening from her stance. "Some people." She ignored the distant splashes and went on looking for shells.
Akane blinked and returned from her reverie in time to hear Tomomi say to Ranma and Kodachi, "...so after she assaulted us, we devoted our lives to martial arts so that we could humiliate Tendo Akane when we next met."
"And now here she is," Tomoko said happily.
"It wasn't like that!" Akane yelled. "You attacked me!" She caught a glimpse of Ranma out of the corner of her eye and rounded on her. "What are YOU grinning at?!"
Ranma backed out of range, holding her hands up in front of her shoulders but keeping the grin. "Hey, it's just nice ta see someone else catch this kinda crap for a change."
Tomomi noticed Ranma. "So, you're Akane's partner for the pairs combat? I don't know who you are, but I warn you: to choose Tendo Akane is to choose"
"Death?" Ranma broke in, looking as bored as though she'd heard it a hundred times before.
The Souda twins gave her identical peculiar looks. "What a silly thing to say," Tomomi scoffed. "No, I was going to say"
"a violent tomboy with a nasty temper," Tomoko finished.
Ranma grinned again. "Tell me something I don't know ow!" She rubbed her shoulder and glared at Akane. "Cut it out!"
Tomomi smiled. "By all means, alienate and injure your partner before the fight," she told Akane. "Just don't think of forfeiting."
"We will have our revenge!" Tomoko said. They turned simultaneously and left.
"Cool," Ranma exulted. "For once it's not me. This is great." She noticed Akane's stunned look. "What's your problem?"
"Well, you may be used to having perfect strangers come up to you with a grudge they've held for years and challenge you to savage combat, but I'm not!"
Ranma shrugged. "So? We'll kick their butts," she said lightly, flicking her pigtail over her shoulder. Akane took in her partner's confident smirk, and her expression turned to determination. Ranma bent down to open her duffel bag, then pulled a ribbon out and ran its thin, tough silk through her fingers. Kodachi had offered to supply them from her arsenal, but both Ranma and Akane disdained to use trick tools.
"And now, the final match of the day!" the announcer shouted over the PA. "Our own Souda Tomomi and Tomoko against St. Hebereke's best pair, Saotome Ranma and Tendo Akane!"
Akane leapt into the ring with Ranma. They landed at the same moment, turned, and waved at the cheering crowd. Akane smiled brightly, but she felt the weight of duty. Junko had lost her match, thrown out of the ring by a clever rope-trick. Kodachi had won easily, entwining her opponent in her ribbon and forcing surrender. The other girl from St. Hebereke's had lost, so with Eriko's victory, the tally was tied, and the outcome of the meet would depend on the final match. Michi and Sachiko stood ready to supply them with tools.
Tomomi and Tomoko entered the ring with side-by-side forward flips, landed, and posed. The crowd cheered. The referee stepped forward. "Ready?" She looked both ways. "Begin!" The gong rang.
Ranma set her ribbon twirling and waited to see what the twins would unleash. Akane crossed her clubs, ready to parry. The twins each had a ball; they raised them over their heads and pirouetted gracefully. "Crap," Ranma muttered. "Nice form." She continued to wait.
"Souda Specialty Attack!" Tomomi shouted suddenly, leaping high into the air, matched by Tomoko.
"Mighty Globes!" Tomoko completed. They hurled the balls down at Ranma and Akane. Ranma flicked the ribbon into the air and Akane did the same with her clubs, intending to catch the balls and hurl them back, then catch their own tools. It didn't quite work that way; Ranma and Akane were slammed into the mat by the balls. The ribbon draped itself over them, and Akane's clubs dropped neatly on her head. The crowd roared with laughter.
"Ow, dammit!" Ranma got up, picked up the ball on the second try, and stared at the three holes in one side. "Heh. Heh. Cute. Reeeeal cute." She glanced at Akane, who was on her feet rubbing her head and hefting the ball that had felled her.
"No more Miss Nice Gal," Akane said grimly. She glanced at Ranma. Ranma nodded. "Ball Return!" Akane cried, rifling the ten-kilo sphere at the left Souda. Ranma let fly at the same instant. The twins swayed out of the way, and the balls shot past.
There was a crashing noise somewhere in the stands, and a yell: "Yaay! I caught a ball!" Pause. "Medic?"
"Hoops!" Tomomi shouted to their seconds. The twins caught their hoops and started a graceful hoop routine leading up to a vicious attack.
Ranma recovered her ribbon and flicked it at Tomomi's hoop just as it was leaving her hands. Tomoko's hoop sliced at Akane. Akane rolled, picking up her clubs, and parried with them; the hoop glanced off and sailed away. The crowd clapped. Ranma whipped the other hoop around in a wide circle, aiming at Tomoko, but Tomomi caught it and spun it free of the ribbon. Ranma lashed at her ankle, hoping to drop her, but Tomoko was there to parry. Ranma paused, ribbon twirling. "They're good," she muttered to Akane. "Could drop 'em in two seconds if it weren't for the damn rules, though."
"Clubs!" Tomoko and Tomomi shouted in stereo.
"Great. Just great. Close in?" Akane suggested.
"Fine. Clubs!" They spun up from Michi and smacked into Ranma's left hand. Akane slipped into stance next to her. Ranma snapped the ribbon hard at Tomoko's face, then discarded it as they darted in. Whack! Smack! Pow-pow-pow-pow! "Ow!"
"Ha!" Tomomi gloated from the other side of the ring, gesturing with her clubs. "Now you see our skill and power! Surrender before you are injured!"
"Give up now," Tomoko advised, although a lump had sprouted on her head.
"The hell with that!" Akane shouted. "What happened?" she said quietly to Ranma.
Ranma rubbed her head with the hand that wasn't holding her clubs. "Well, YOU hit me a coupla times," she muttered. "They blocked and countered for each other. Damn confusing, but I think I saw it. Man, I wish we could train with them.... Ribbon!" she shouted, caught it, and dropped her voice again. "Here. Cover me."
Akane deployed the ribbon Ranma handed her and flicked it at Tomomi as Ranma darted in alone. Snap! Flick! Whackity whackity smack pow! Ranma came flying out of the blur of arms, legs, and tools, bounced off the ropes, and landed. More lumps were showing on Ranma, but Tomoko and Tomomi had some new ones, too. Ranma looked satisfied until the crowd booed. Tomoko picked up Ranma's discarded ribbon.
"What?!" Ranma demanded, flipping to evade a ribbon-flick.
"I think they think I'm lazy," Akane whispered, mortified. "Eek!" Four clubs streaked at her, and she blocked. Bang-bang-bang-bang! Akane leapt out of a cloud of smoke, flipped, and landed, coughing. She wiped soot from her face with her arm. "That's it," she growled, and attacked. Tomoko and Tomomi flipped deftly out of her way and she ran into the cornerpost. Clong! Fortunately, the post escaped serious damage. Akane turned, still fuming.
"Clubs!" the twins called.
Ranma landed next to Akane. "Hey! Cool it!" she hissed. "They're real good together, but I think I got this figured out. You gotta help. Not enough arms, no time to explain. Rope!" A rope flew into her hand. "Get your" she ducked a hoop "aura going and follow my lead." Ranma turned to face the twins, and Akane felt the chill of her aura. Akane thought about kissing momentarily, and then managed to concentrate. The play of Ranma's emotions and movements tickled her senses as Akane's aura flared. Her arms came up, holding her clubs, just... so. Her left foot shifted slightly....
The crowd gasped as Ranma and Akane darted forward, seeming to be tangled up with each other, but not stopping or falling. Tomoko and Tomomi gaped an instant too long, and were snatched into the tangle by a blur that looked a lot like a loop of rope. Whack! Smack! Pow! "Owww!" "Eeek!" Tomomi and Tomoko emerged from the tangle, braided into a sort of pretzel configuration held together by a rope knotted around one of Tomomi's wrists, looped strategically, and secured to Tomoko's ankle. Akane grabbed the rope and heaved, tossing the protesting twins out of the ring without touching them. Ranma dusted off her hands and smirked.
The crowd murmured. Ranma raised an eyebrow at the referee. "Legitimate use of tools," the ref told the judges, shrugging. The gong rang.
"The winners: Saotome Ranma and Tendo Akane!" the PA blared.
Twin screams of "NOOOO!" were drowned out by the roar from the crowd.
"And now for a girls' night out to celebrate!" Michi said cheerfully as the six walked out of the Teiketsu gymnasium. "How about this: we'll go home, bathe and change, and then meet at the Harlequin at seven. After that, well, I'm sure we'll think of something!"
"Sounds good," Junko said. "Eriko, are you up to it? Good. Sachi? Akane? Ranma?"
"I'll be there," Sachiko affirmed.
Akane glanced at Ranma. Ranma shrugged. "Sure!" Akane told Junko.
"I need a pit-stop first, though," Junko said. "Anyone else?" She blinked at the nods. "Well, let's leave the stuff here, and Michi and Ranma can watch it." Four girls dropped their duffels and headed off, talking. Ranma put down her bag and stretched.
Ranma turned and saw Kodachi beckoning to her. She turned back to Michi. "I'll be right back. Gotta see what our captain wants." She walked over to Kodachi, irked at how subordinate her actions appeared. "Yeah?"
Kodachi looked around for eavesdroppers, then focused on Ranma. "I have the most delightful evening planned to celebrate our victory," she told Ranma quietly. "I'll come by for you at seven"
"Sorry, Kodachi," Ranma interrupted. "I already got plans."
Kodachi gave her an annoyed look. "How inconsiderate. Well, you'll simply have to break them, won't you?"
"No way," Ranma said firmly. "I'm goin' with Akane and some of the gals from the team." She locked gazes with Kodachi and wished she were taller.
Kodachi broke the staring contest first and examined her nails. "It certainly would be a pity if your friends were to find out about your curse," she pointed out. "I doubt they'd be quite so friendly if they knew you weren't really a girl. I, on the other hand, am prepared to be quite friendly indeed, curse or no curse...."
Ranma realized what Kodachi was implying and her jaw dropped. Suddenly it dawned on her: I can't! If I do this, she can make me do anythin' she wants! "You do that," she said slowly, "and I'M not gonna be real friendly. I'm goin' with my my other friends. Seeya." She turned her back on Kodachi and trotted back to Michi.
"What was that all about?" Michi asked interestedly.
"Personal," Ranma muttered, avoiding her eyes.
"I'll bet," Michi said, looking over Ranma's shoulder. "Whatever you said, it ticked her off big-time. If I didn't know better, I'd say she put the moves on you and you turned her down what?"
Ranma stopped coughing. "It ain't like that!" she said weakly.
Michi eyed her. "Well, you must know there's been a lot of gossip about you and Kodachi. If Kodachi wasn't so obviously guy-crazy, there'd have been a lot more. As it is, we keep telling people you and Akane are just buddies, but some still think you're, um, interested in girls." Michi watched Ranma turn white and smiled to herself. Bingo!
"Urk." Ranma cleared her throat. "Look, don't tell Akane any of that, all right? She'd, uh, take it wrong."
"Sure." Michi patted Ranma on the arm and leaned closer. "I understand. Your secret is safe with me." She smiled sympathetically, then looked up before Ranma could protest further. "Oh, good, they're back!" She waved at the approaching four. Ranma sagged and wished for something to pound her head against.
"Why so quiet, Ranma?" Akane asked. They were walking home after the party had broken up. Akane was in high spirits, twirling occasionally from sheer exuberance and even singing from time to time, but Ranma had not said much since leaving the other girls.
Akane laughed. "Oh, come on, Ranma, you can think later. Now's a time to have fun!"
Ranma glanced at her sidelong and half-smiled. "That's what I was thinkin' about." She looked ahead and sighed. "I dunno. I just wish more guys would act like Junko an' Sachiko, or even Michi or Eriko. I never had this many friends before." She started to say something else, but closed her mouth firmly.
"Does it bother you that they're girls?"
"Nah. I'm not tryin' ta grab them, and they're not tryin' ta grab me, so it doesn't really matter. Maybe it bugs me that I'M a girl. No, it bugs me that I gotta BE a girl to have friends like that."
Akane was silent for a moment, knowing what was really bothering Ranma and wondering how to approach it. "Being a girl isn't so bad, is it?" she said finally.
Ranma flinched. "Ya know how I feel about that."
"I know how you felt a few weeks ago," Akane said gently. "How do you feel now?"
Ranma looked up, saw the Tendos' front gate not far away down the street, and stopped. "No. It's not so bad," she admitted reluctantly. "Bein' a girl like Momma wants me to be is pretty bad. Bein' a girl like you, though... that's turnin' out... pretty good."
Akane gulped against a sudden tightness in her throat as the full impact of Ranma's words flooded through her. "Oh, Ranma!" Suddenly her body was pressed up against Ranma's, her arms were around Ranma, and her lips were WHAT AM I DOING?! Akane froze, her lips a scant inch away from a kiss that part of her wanted very much and another part was desperate to deny. The fraction of her mind that was still working noted dispassionately that Ranma's eyes were very wide, and Ranma's heart was pounding rapidly against her chest. Bosom. Oh, dear.
Akane pulled back slowly, letting go of Ranma, who hadn't moved at all since speaking. "I... um.... See you tomorrow, Ranma, good night!" she said in a rush, then turned and ran for the front gate.
Ranma stood motionless and watched Akane disappear through the gate without looking back. She heard the front door open and shut. What the hell just happened? Oh. Oh, crap. She moved finally, rubbing her forehead with one hand. Nothing just happened. That's the way it's gonna be. She turned and started walking towards home and hot water.
Ranma followed Akane into the showers, trying not to admire the delightful rear-view too much, and headed for her usual spot on the end. Michi, using the shower next to Akane's, waved at them, but for once didn't say anything. Ranma double-checked the label on the cold-water tap, reached for the handle, and twisted. "Waahaa!"
Akane heard Ranma's voice, and was starting to shake her head you'd think he'd be used to the cold water by now when it clicked: Ranma's voice was male! Her hand darted for her taps even before she started to turn her head. Ranma was crouched tightly, trying not to display any aspect of his masculinity, and manipulating the taps while holding the shower-head away from him on its flexible hose. Akane slammed her hot tap off and her cold tap full on, careful not to wreck them, and turned her shower on Ranma. Ranma shrank and curved.
Akane's head snapped back around, and she saw Michi. The other girl's eyes were wide, and her shaking hand was pointed at Ranma. "She he I heard I saw" Michi turned wonder-filled eyes on Akane. "It's, it's all true, isn't it?"
Akane looked past Michi. Other girls using the showers were watching the commotion, but their expressions reflected curiosity rather than shock. Looks like none of them saw anything.... She was about to deny anything and everything, when
"Yeah. It's true. Sorry about this...." Ranma's voice was not loud, but it was quite clear. She stood up slowly and faced Michi, not quite looking at her.
An expression of delighted amazement came over Michi's face. "My god! It all makes sense now!" She took a couple of steps closer and examined Ranma's body closely. Ranma suffered her to do so, not moving at all, but pink spots flared on her cheeks. "How...." Michi looked at Akane. "You know, don't you."
Akane lowered her eyes. "Yes. I'm sorry about this too." She looked up into Michi's smile and began to hope. "Please, if there's any way you can keep this a secret...."
Michi stepped back and her smile faded. "Um... I have to tell Junko and see what she thinks. I'm no good at implications and stuff." One implication occurred to her, and she covered her breasts with her arm and her groin with her other hand.
"Wait," Ranma said quietly, still looking a little away from Michi. "If ya feel like ya owe me any favors at all, bring Junko to the dojo. Bring Sachi an' Eriko, too. They deserve to know. I'll explain the whole thing there."
Michi nodded slowly. "It's a deal." She grinned suddenly. "They might not believe me, anyway. See ya!" She left quickly.
"What were you thinking?!" Akane hissed quietly to Ranma.
"I was thinkin' I don't wanna lie to my friends any more," Ranma said firmly, keeping her voice low. She turned away from Akane and squatted at the taps. "Now what the hell happened here?" She picked up the shower head, twisted the cold tap, and stared at the steaming spray. "Crap." She turned the cold tap off, shrugged, and twisted the hot tap.
Ranma flicked a finger through the spray. "Cold. Damn!"
Akane looked at her taps, then at Ranma's. "The plumbing must have been tampered with. Someone set you up. Someone who knows you use this shower every time."
"One guess who and why," Ranma said with finality. She shook her head, turned the cold spray up a little, and proceeded with her interrupted shower.
Ranma stood in the dojo, wearing only boxer shorts and a determined expression. A kettle and a bucket of water rested near her feet; her shirt and trousers lay near the wall. Michi, Junko, Eriko and Sachiko stood before her. Akane was guarding the closed doors.
"Michi told us you wanted all of us here," Junko said in a flat voice. "She also told us something I'm not sure I believe."
"She told you there's only one Saotome Ranma, and I'm a guy and a girl," Ranma said resignedly.
"See?!" Michi burst out. "I told you! You wouldn't believe me, but I saw it!"
"Not now, Michi," Sachiko said gently. She looked at Ranma. "You'll forgive me if I ask you to prove it...."
Ranma sighed. "I was plannin' to. I'm really sorry about this." She reached down, picked up the kettle of hot water, held it over her head for a moment, and poured.
Eriko took two steps backward and turned her back. Michi covered her eyes with her fingers and peeked out between them. Junko nodded slowly. Sachiko looked Ranma over, smiled slightly, and went to soothe Eriko.
"Wow," Michi said in admiration. "Akane, you lucky girl! He's just sooo gorgeous!" Ranma blushed, but stood still.
"So hot water... turns you into a boy," Junko said slowly. "How do you, er, turn into a girl?"
"Cold water." Ranma picked up the bucket of water and poured half of it over his head.
"Amazing." Junko inspected Ranma again. "If I hadn't seen it, I still wouldn't believe it. Sorry, Michi."
"This must be very hard on you," Sachiko said to Ranma. Eriko had turned to face them again, but she was having a lot of trouble meeting Ranma's eyes.
"You don't know the half of it," Ranma snorted.
"So are you a boy who turns into a girl, or a girl who turns into a boy?" Junko asked.
Ranma looked her in the eye. "What do you think?"
"Judging by the way you act, and, er, some other things, I think you're a boy who turns into a girl. How did this happen, and when?"
Ranma sighed. "About a year and a half ago, my crazy ol' man took me to a place in China called Jusenkyo." Her voice took on the Guide's intonations. "There are many springs there, each with a tragic story. Fall into a spring, get a curse. I fell into the Nyannichuan. I turn into a girl." She hesitated. "I guess there are worse curses, because I know some people who got 'em."
"Why did you come to St. Hebereke's if you're really a boy?" Junko demanded. "Are you some kind of pervert?"
Ranma flushed. "No! I"
"He did it because I asked him to," Akane broke in from her place by the doors. The girls looked at her. She lowered her voice slightly. "Kodachi arranged for Ranma to be transferred. You know how much pull she has. For some reason, I was transferred too. I thought St. Hebereke's would be better than Furinkan, and it was. Ranma doesn't like being a girl, but I talked him into pretending to be one so we could go to St. Hebereke's together."
"And of course you two are really engaged to each other. I can hardly imagine how she, er, he must feel about you, to do something like that for you," Michi said in an awed voice. She picked up the kettle. "Um... do you mind if I...?"
"Go ahead," Ranma said dully. Michi poured the water and watched as Ranma gained twenty centimeters in height and lost some curves.
"But why would Kodachi" Junko stopped and snapped her fingers. "Of course! That's why Kodachi was after you all the time! She knew! Why, that sneaky... bitch. She thought she'd found the perfect way to smuggle a guy into the school. No wonder she was calling you 'Ranma-sama' all the time." Junko giggled. "Oh, this is rich. I wonder how long it'll take her to live down the rumors that she's, um, interested in girls now...."
"You lied to us," Sachiko said without emphasis.
Ranma sighed. "I know."
"Wait a minute," Junko said suddenly. "I remember that conversation. She he didn't exactly lie. Everything they said was the literal truth, but misleading in context. Very clever."
"I lied," Ranma said firmly, but he cast a grateful look at Junko. "I had to. All I can say is I hated it."
"You peeped at us in the locker room," Eriko said faintly. All four girls glared at him.
"It wasn't like that," Ranma muttered. "I didn't ogle ya or nothin'. I tried ta act just like a girl. Believe me, I know just what it's like to be ogled an' groped by guys ya want nothin' ta do with. I knew you'd hate me when you found out. I'm really sorry about this."
"How sorry, Ranma?" Michi said suddenly. She gestured at Ranma's boxers. "Drop 'em."
Michi persisted. "You've seen all of us. We should see all of you. It's only fair."
Ranma's mouth opened and closed as he tried to think of a rebuttal. "What, right now?" he temporized.
"RANMA! Don't you DARE!" Everyone looked at Akane. Akane stormed over. "Honestly!" She glared at the other girls. "What's the matter with you? You've seen all of his female body; that ought to be enough!"
Michi pouted. "Spoilsport." Everyone looked at her. "Well, how often do you think I get a chance for a look at a guy like him?!"
Junko shook her head. "You're a bigger lech than I thought Ranma was, Michi," she said after the embarrassed laughter had trailed off.
"I think Akane's right," Sachiko said. She glanced at Junko. "Now what?"
Junko looked even more thoughtful than usual. "I don't want our friend to get kicked out of our school. We sure don't want to lose our sensei. We've come so far in just a few weeks; I don't want to stop now. We'll have to treat him no, her the same, or someone else might guess the secret, and then we would lose our friend... both of our friends; I imagine Akane would find a way to go with her." Akane nodded firmly, and Junko continued. "I believe Ranma about the ogling. I'm willing to share a locker room with her. Michi?"
Michi shrugged. "Sure. No problem. I think it's kinda cool."
Junko snorted. "You would. Sachiko?" The quiet girl nodded. "I thought so. Eriko?"
"I... I'm not sure I can. I'll try...."
Junko shrugged. "One can't ask more than that." She picked up the bucket, looked Ranma in the eye, and sloshed the rest of the water over him. "I'll try to think of you as a sort of, er, honorary girl. We'll keep your secret, Ranma." Junko bowed to Ranma and stepped back. Michi winked at Ranma and kissed her on the cheek. Sachiko patted her on her bare shoulder.
Ranma looked hopefully at Eriko. Eriko hesitantly held out her hand, and Ranma held it for a moment. "Thanks," Ranma said. She looked at the others. "Thank you all. I owe ya."
"Yes," Junko agreed. "You freely gave us a lot of your time and skill, though, and that's worth something too. See you in school."
Akane opened the doors and stepped back as the other girls filed out of the dojo. She slid the doors shut and turned to Ranma. Ranma avoided her eyes and picked up the kettle. There was just enough hot water left in it for one more change.
"Well, that went better than I thought it would."
"Yeah, it surprised me too, a little." Ranma quickly pulled his pants on and slipped into his shirt. "'Honorary girl'. Huh. Part of me wants to get mad, but Junko didn't mean nothin' but good by it, did she."
"Never mind that. What on EARTH were you thinking?! Were you really going to drop your shorts in front of five girls?"
Ranma blushed and put his hand behind his head. "I dunno. Maybe. Michi made it sound so reasonable...."
"You should have known better! She just wanted to, to ogle you!"
"I guess. Good thing ya made 'em let me keep my shorts on."
"Baka. That's not for them. That's not for anybody but me, when I'm your wife."
Ranma looked at her with wide eyes. "Akane...."
There was a sudden commotion outside the dojo. "Heheheheh! Girlies!" "EEEEE!!" "Hyaa!" Crash! "Hotcha!" "Hey! My pan!" "Sweeto!" "Yuck! Get it off me!" "TE!" Wham!
Ranma and Akane exchanged horrified glances and dashed for the doors.
"Saotome-san. Tendo-san." Ranma and Akane paused in the act of heading for the locker room to change into their leotards. Coach Hasegawa was standing in the doorway to her office and looking at them.
Ranma glanced at Akane. "Oh, hell. Now we get it." Akane nodded, tried to smile despite the sinking feeling in her stomach, and followed Ranma into the office.
Hasegawa walked around behind her desk and settled into her chair. "Close the door, please." Akane complied, then stood at attention beside Ranma and fixed her eyes on the coach. Hasegawa was a petite woman, only a little taller than Akane, with shoulder-length hair that was just starting to show a little gray, and a face whose primary distinguishing features were the webs of faint crinkles at the corners of her eyes. Ranma let her gaze slide around the office, lingering on the framed photos of Hasegawa in her gymnast's tights at various meets and competitions. She looked at the wall of trophies, and noticed the one from the meet at Teiketsu Academy on the end.
"So," Hasegawa said after studying them for a while. She opened a file folder and held up a sheet of paper. "I have here a note from an anonymous source that alleges that you, Saotome-san, are not really female, and that if I douse you with hot water, I will get, I quote, 'the surprise of my life'." She eyed Ranma carefully, holding up a hand when Ranma seemed about to speak. "Please. I haven't finished." She held up another paper. "I also have a rather confusingly-worded note, signed by four young women on the team, which appears to both contradict and confirm the first note, but asks me to ignore it."
Ranma seemed about to speak again, but Akane elbowed her: Akane was beginning to hope. Hasegawa smiled a little and nodded. "Yes. I do not wish you to comment on this, because I suspect that if you did, I would have to take action. Fortunately, I need not act on suspicions." Under Ranma's astonished gaze, she carefully tore both notes into tiny pieces.
"Why?!" Ranma burst out.
Unruffled, Hasegawa tapped the other documents in the folder. "I also have here your records from Furinkan my, what a checkered past you have and your records from this school, and I have spoken to your instructors." She shook her head. "It's amazing what a difference there is." Hasegawa leaned back in her chair and regarded Ranma over her steepled fingers. "To send you back to Furinkan would seem to do you a disservice, considering how well you're doing here. To drop you from the team would do the team a disservice; your martial-arts scholarship appears well-deserved, and I appreciate your initiative in tutoring others."
Ranma began to smile. Hasegawa leaned forward and looked Ranma in the eye. "Do not give me ANY cause to regret this, Saotome-san. Do I make myself quite clear?" Ranma lost the smile and nodded quickly. "Good." Hasegawa looked at Akane. "I expect you to keep her out of trouble, Tendo-san."
Akane nodded with more firmness than she felt. As if I can! "Hai, Hasegawa-sensei!"
"That's what I wanted to hear. You may go now. Oh, by the way," she added as Ranma and Akane turned to leave, "congratulations on your part in our victory over Teiketsu. It was much more enjoyable than winning by forfeit, wasn't it?"
"Sure was!" "Thanks!" Akane and Ranma left with much more enthusiasm than they'd come in with.
Hasegawa smiled, shook her head, and put away the file folder.
~~~~~ end of Competition ~~~~~
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