~~~~~ Prologue ~~~~~
Ranma ran to school with Akane, as he had a couple of hundred times before, but this time when the fence by the canal came up, he didn't run along its top rail. It was too easy to fall in from there, and if he fell in he might be too far from Akane if.... His head swiveled back and forth. His eyes roved constantly, sweeping the rooftops and alleys.
Akane noticed and slowed to a walk. He matched her stride, staying about an armlength away, and stopped when she stopped. "What's the matter, Ranma?"
He glanced at her once, and then his eyes went back to sweeping. "Nothin'." Saffron. Shampoo. Kiima. Happosai. Spirits. Demons. Whatever. They're not gonna get ya.
She studied him for a moment and then her lips curved into that small, fond, possessive smile that warmed his heart and unsettled his stomach. "Sure. Come on, we're almost there." She started running again.
Kuno Tatewaki was standing in his usual spot before the school steps, holding his bokken. Ranma slowed from his trot a little after Akane did and walked out ahead of her. "Hey, Kuno, what's up?"
"Silence, Saotome! Prepare thyself to face the just wrath of Heaven! I shall smite thee for thy transgressions against all womankind! HA!" Kuno advanced rapidly to engage Ranma, feinted, and struck. There was a sudden blur, his palms stung, and the bokken left his grip. He looked down at his empty hands.
Ranma, standing a couple of yards away, flipped Kuno's bokken into the air and caught it. "Lookin' for this?" He thrust it deep into the tree behind him, where it vibrated for a moment. Ranma stepped back to Akane's side.
"You cur!" Kuno ran to the tree, seized the bokken, and tried to draw it forth, but it was firmly held by the living wood. He turned to see Ranma's expected slight smirk and Akane's neutral expression. He took a couple of steps toward Ranma, hands working at his sides.
Ranma sighed and slid forward into an exaggerated ready stance. "Want ta try it my way, huh?" Kuno stared into Ranma's eyes, and saw something there that hadn't been there before the trip to China... or was something missing? The thought held him long enough for Ranma to decide he wouldn't attack.
"Hey, Kuno, we can do this again any time ya like." The smirk disappeared. "Just don't bring a katana like ya did to the wedding. Someone might get hurt." The smirk reappeared. "Looks like someone wants ta talk to you." Ranma pointed to one side of Kuno with his chin and turned away.
"Look, sonny," the gardener began as Akane and Ranma started up the front steps, "I don't care what you do to each other, but leave the landscaping out of it. You think trees grow on trees or something? It takes years of work MY work and you kids just chop 'em down or shred them into excelsior or, or run bokkens through them...."
Akane stood outside the girls' locker room, glaring at onna-Ranma, who was wearing girls' gym shorts and top. "I don't care if you look like a girl, you're NOT a girl, and you're not coming in here!"
"But, Akane, what if..." Ranma began.
"'What if' what?!"
Ranma sagged. "Nothin'."
Onna-Ranma crept into the home-ec class, wearing a smock and headcloth, and looked around for Akane. A sudden foreboding made her glance over her shoulder.
"Honestly, Ranma, what do you think you're doing?" Akane said, crossing her arms. Other girls started coming up around her. Ranma cringed. Some of them were carrying frying pans. That roasting fork looked awfully sharp, too....
"Heh. Heh. See ya!" She left hastily. Akane grimaced and went back to her station.
Akane faced onna-Ranma down outside the girls' bathroom. "NO!!"
Ranma stuck close to Akane right through the dojo gate, and then leapt onto the roof and was gone. Akane watched him go and shook her head. She went inside, dropped her bag in her room, and fell on her bed. She heard a faint scrape of roof tiles and knew that Ranma was still on the roof above her room. ...guarding? Suddenly the whole exasperating day made sense, and her expression reflected mingled annoyance and affection.
She turned over and looked up at the ceiling. I can't stand it any more. I have to talk to someone. Not Ranma, darn it. Not Father. Definitely not Nabiki.... She rolled to her feet and left her room.
Akane found Kasumi working on a flower arrangement in her room. "Kasumi? Can I, um, talk to you?"
Kasumi turned to look up at her, smiled, and gestured to the mat beside her. "Well, of course, sister." Akane closed the door and came to kneel beside her elder sister. "Now, what's this all about? Ranma-kun?"
"I guess." Akane picked up a bit of stem and started fiddling with it. "Or maybe it's about me. I just wish I knew how to make Ranma be nicer to me. I wish he'd take me places, like other guys take their, um, girlfriends."
Kasumi turned half away, picked up a sprig of some plant Akane didn't know from bamboo, and trimmed a little off one end. "Well, Akane, I'm not sure what I can tell you. After all, I'm not the one who had dozens of boys chasing after her. I don't go out on dates. I've never had a strong, handsome fiance." There was no trace of an edge to Kasumi's usual soft voice, but Akane stared at her profile, appalled.
"Oh, Kasumi...." Then something clicked. "'Strong, handsome fiance'? You, you're not...?"
Kasumi laughed a little, lifting one hand to cover her mouth. "Oh, my, no. He's not my type at all." She looked out the window. "Sometimes I wonder what my type is...." She smiled at Akane. "But that doesn't mean I don't have eyes. I can see what Shampoo sees, and Ukyo, and Kodachi... and you."
Akane blushed and started to stammer denials, but without much heat.
Kasumi put down her shears and held up her hand. "Sister." She stared at Akane, not smiling now, until Akane blushed again and fell silent. "If you really don't want him, I'll talk to Father about releasing you from the engagement." She paused, waiting for the tiny shake of the head that was all Akane could manage. "So. You don't have to admit the truth to him just yet, but if you don't admit it to yourself, you can still keep yourself from happiness."
"I can what?"
Kasumi smiled again. "If you don't know what you want, only luck will make you happy. If you know what you want, you can plan for it and work toward it." The smile dimmed. "I won't give you advice. I'm not... I'm not Mother." There was no edge this time either, and only a trace of a quaver. "But if you want someone to talk with about your problems, sister to sister, I'd be glad to." The smile returned. "My goodness, I'll probably learn something from you!"
Akane, who had looked like she was about to prove that she was her father's daughter, toppled sideways and came up laughing. "Sure, I'll tell you everything you need to know about punishing bakas, being kidnapped by monsters, and frustrating two generations of Kunos!" She sobered. "But Kasumi... what about your happiness? Until...." She gulped. "Until just now I hadn't even thought that you might not be. I'm... I'm sorry."
"Oh, but I am happy. I know my work is appreciated, especially since Ranma-kun and Saotome-no-ojisama came. And their guests are so very entertaining. It's hard to remember how dull life was before, isn't it?"
"Only... I miss Tofu-sensei since he left," Kasumi said wistfully. "It could have been a good match."
Sure, if he'd prescribed himself some tranquilizers, Akane thought but carefully refrained from saying. "I don't suppose anyone has heard from him recently?" she asked instead.
"Not that I know of." Kasumi turned to look at Akane with eyes that suddenly didn't seem vague at all. "Now, I must admit to being curious about something. You and Ranma-kun told us all what happened on your trip to China, but I couldn't help thinking there were some parts you skimmed over. Why don't you tell me about Jusendo?"
Akane blanched and shuddered. Kasumi watched her reaction without seeming to, and waited for her sister to speak while continuing with her arrangement.
Akane stopped outside the Furinkan library and turned to Ranma. "Look, I'm going to be an hour working on that report on livestock, so why don't you just go find something else to do?"
Ranma looked annoyed. "Why shouldn't I go in there?"
"The last time you went into the library, you got bored in five minutes and started a book-war that took Nishimoto-sensei four days to clear up, and she still blames me for it. Now I'm going in there for an hour, and you're not. Deal with it."
Ranma's response was cut off by the slamming of the heavy door. The old librarian glared at her from her desk, and Akane grimaced. Darn Ranma, he gets me in so much trouble! She tiptoed into the stacks. Just stop thinking about him for an hour.... She found the section where books on livestock should be and browsed along the shelf. Her eye was caught by a kanji character on a book spine because it was the same as the "ma" in "Ranma"
Nishimoto looked up from her desk. "Surely not even Tendo would abuse the shelving," she muttered to herself and returned to the catalog card.
Akane got control of herself and yanked the offending book off the shelf. The Taming of the Horse: An Equestrian's Guide, she read on the cover. She started to put the book back, but changed her mind. She took it to a table and started to read.
An hour later, Nishimoto looked up as Akane approached her desk. Akane silently held out a book. The librarian glanced at the title, checked it out, and handed it back. "I hope you find it useful," she told Akane pleasantly. Akane blushed and left hastily.
Akane finished washing the dishes and waited for Kasumi to finish drying them and putting them away. "If you have a minute..." she began.
Kasumi paused and turned towards her. "Yes, sister?"
"Well, there's something I'd like to chat with you about," Akane said. Kasumi looked around. No one else was in the kitchen. "Privately," Akane added quietly.
Kasumi raised an eyebrow, but led Akane to her room. Akane went to her own room, came back with her bookbag, and closed the door.
"Um... Nabiki can't hear us, can she?" Akane asked nervously, settling beside Kasumi.
Kasumi sighed. "Really, Akane, she knows better than that. If I caught her eavesdropping on me, I would be quite vexed."
"She does it to me all the time, and I get a lot more than vexed, but it doesn't stop her," Akane grumbled.
"Well, for you to be vexed is one thing...." Kasumi made a vague gesture. "So, what would you like to chat about?"
"Oh, right." Akane opened her bookbag and pulled out The Taming of the Horse. "I found this book in the school library, and it said some interesting things." She flipped through the book, stopped at one of several bookmarks, and handed it to Kasumi. "Like this... and here...."
Kasumi read, then gave Akane a puzzled look. "Are you thinking of taking up riding?"
Akane flushed. "No! Um... while I was reading, it suddenly occurred to me that some of the advice in the book fit... um... me-and-Ranma."
Kasumi looked at the book, then looked at Akane and raised both eyebrows. "If you don't mind my asking, who is to be the rider and who the, ah, ridee?"
Akane facefaulted. "I'm the, um, trainer," she said when she'd recovered. "Ranma's the horse. It was his name that gave me the idea in the first place, sort of."
"I see." Kasumi turned back to the book and reread the passages Akane had pointed out. "Oh, my. I do see."
"And here...." Akane flipped forward and pointed.
Kasumi read. "Oh, my goodness." She looked at Akane. "If I were you, I would make sure Ranma-kun doesn't find out about this. He might get the wrong idea." Or the right one.
Akane stared at her own twiddling thumbs. "I know. That's one reason I was worried about Nabiki. I don't need to hide the book I have to return it in two weeks anyway but I have to hide what I'm up to." She looked up. "Do you think it'll work?" she asked hopefully.
"Well...." Kasumi pondered. "Well, assuming you intend to take the book's methods metaphorically rather than literally...."
Akane half-smiled. "I'm not going to put a bridle on him, if that's what you mean." She leaned forward. "But I told you about Jusendo. I'm sure he loves me. He's not sure I love him. That's the only weapon I've got. If I just tell him right out, I'll scare him off. The wedding proved that."
"Since you mention it, I was wondering about the wedding. To tell you the truth, I was a little surprised that you went along with it, after you put up such a fuss the first time."
"That was before Jusendo. That was when I was afraid Ranma didn't love me. That was before...." Akane stopped. "I didn't tell Father everything about Jusendo because... well, you know how he is. But we came so close to dying there that it still scares me. I thought if we could just be married, then everything would be all right somehow." She snorted indelicately. "I should have known it would all fall apart."
"It was quite a mess, wasn't it? I was expecting you to be furious, or hurt, but you didn't hit poor Ranma-kun even once...."
Akane grimaced. "I wasn't mad, I was... exasperated. I gave that baka the perfect chance. I saw how he looked at me. Why couldn't he just SAY it?!"
Kasumi made a palm-up gesture, clearly unable to shed any light on Ranma's motivations. "Well, since you're sure he loves you, you could just wait for him to tell you so, you know."
"I don't think we have time," Akane said grimly. "Half a dozen times in the last year, it could have all gone wrong forever. Mount Horai, Ryugenzawa, even those silly mushrooms. No, I can't wait any more. I have to do something."
Kasumi studied her sister. "Akane... are you sure about this?"
Akane closed her eyes and sighed. "Yes. Yes, I'm sure. He's rude, insensitive, and immature, but I don't care. I want him. I want him more than anything." She looked at Kasumi, trembling a bit. "If I can be in control the way the book says, I can... tame him. Just enough so he'll let himself be mine."
"You'll have to be in control of yourself even more," Kasumi pointed out gently.
"I know. The book says that too. I have to be 'patient, understanding, and firm.' It's harder to get mad at Ranma now that I know how he really feels about me, though. I think I can manage."
"What about the other girls?"
Akane sighed again. "I don't know. Sometimes I feel so, so inadequate compared to them. But Ranma hasn't gone off with one of them, so I must have a chance."
"Oh, I think you do. I think you have the best chance." Kasumi smiled warmly at Akane.
"Do you suppose you could help, Kasumi?" Akane asked, giving her sister a speculative look. "Ranma respects you. He's as polite to you as he is to anyone. Maybe you could...."
Kasumi shook her head doubtfully. "If Ranma respects me, it's probably because I'm just about the only person he knows who's not trying to get him to do something. If I try to get him to do something, even for you, I'll probably lose that without doing any good."
"Hmph." Akane looked frustrated, but didn't argue the point.
Kasumi relented. "Well, we'll see. I've been warning him when I saw he was about to do something foolish, and that doesn't seem to have done any harm." Not that it did much good....
"Everyone else has been meddling, and they've made a real botch of it," Akane muttered. "It'd just be nice to have someone on my side for a change."
"Well, what are you planning to do, then?"
"It's not exactly a plan," Akane said slowly. "Ranma's not really a horse, after all. I can punish him when he does something wrong " Kasumi bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud "but I haven't figured out how to reward him when he does something right. The book says carrots, but he doesn't like my cooking for some silly Kasumi?!"
"Hmmm?" Kasumi kept her lips tightly pressed together and tried to look as though the single strangled giggle had sounded out of thin air. She concentrated on reassembling her fractured serenity, firmly suppressing the image of Akane chasing Ranma around with a blackened carrot hanging from a stick by a string.
"Honestly," Akane huffed. "My own sister. Anyway, I can't, um, train him that way. I can't change anything about me too much, because I don't know why he loves me, and I'm afraid I'll change something he likes. So I'm just going to try to keep from getting mad at him, and hope he'll be nice to me, and wait for the right moment to... well, I haven't figured that out yet."
Kasumi raised her eyebrows. "My, Akane, what a cunning plan!" she cooed.
Akane stared at her for a moment. Sarcasm? Kasumi? No way. She shook her head. "I hope so. Well, that's it, I guess. Wish me luck...." She got up, picked up the book and put it in her bag, and wandered out of Kasumi's room. Kasumi turned to look at the bookshelves that lined one wall of her room, considered for a moment, then pulled out a book. Its title was Child and Adolescent Psychology.
A few days later, Nabiki walked into the main room carrying a large, flat plastic bag. "I saw this at a junk shop, and thought you might be able to use it," she said casually, tossing the bag down in front of Akane.
Akane put down her book and looked at the bag, then at Nabiki. A gift? From Nabiki? "Thanks, I guess." She picked up the bag, reached in, and pulled out...
...something about 2 feet long, springy, tapered to about a quarter of an inch wide at one end, with a handle of plaited leather at the other and a wrist-thong....
Ranma looked up from his manga. "Takin' up riding, Akane?" His voice and face were completely free of innuendo. It saved his hide.
Akane stared at the crop in her hand and turned as red as her name. She looked up at her sister. Nabiki smiled a sly smile and lifted an eyebrow. Akane erupted from the couch waving the crop and chased Nabiki up the stairs, shrieking.
Ranma shrugged and went back to his manga, moving his lips occasionally.
~~~~~ end Prologue ~~~~~
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