Prologue: An Offer He Can't Refuse
//In business news...the financial world was rocked today by the death of Fuusha Onara, founder and head of Daikougan Zaibatsu. Born in Okinawa in 1899, Fuusha-san was the wealthiest man in Japan, and a powerful force in the Japanese financial community. It is unknown at this time who will succeed him as the head of Daikougan; also uncertain is what effect, if any, his death will have on stock prices.//
"So the old man finally kicked," Tendou Nabiki mused, clicking off the television as the financial news ended and the anchor drifted off into a piece about a baseball team's mascot getting his genitals stuck in the zipper of his costume.
A tiny form promptly latched onto her chest. "Not true, my dear! I'm still very much alive! Hotcha!"
Nabiki's eyebrow twitched. "Old man, do the words 'tax evasion' mean anything to you?"
"Not especially," Happousai replied from between her breasts.
"Get offa her, y' freak," a voice growled from nearby. Suddenly, a hand lashed out, cleanly separating the shrivelled old pervert from the ripe young bosom of the middle Tendou daughter. Before Happousai had time to change course, a foot snapped out, sending him flying through the open door and over the boundary wall.
"Took you long enough, Saotome," Nabiki smirked, brushing at herself as though trying to wipe off any germs Happousai may have left on her person.
Saotome Ranma glared out the door, waiting to see if the ancient lecher would return. "You're welcome," he grunted absently.
"Just another day in the neighborhood," Nabiki quipped.
A knock sounded from the front entrance.
"Is anyone home?" an unfamiliar male voice called.
"I'll get it," Kasumi, the eldest daughter, chimed as she bustled out of the kitchen. Ranma, satisfied Happousai wouldn't make a return appearance, trailed after her, followed by a rather bored Nabiki.
The trio found five men in black suits and dark glasses standing at the door. "Good afternoon," the leader of the men said, bowing. "We wish to speak to Saotome Ranma."
"Goodness. Won't you come in?" Kasumi asked.
Ranma leaned back against the wall as the men removed their shoes, folding his arms. "Watcha want?" he asked bluntly.
"Ranma-kun," Kasumi chided mildly, "We should offer our guests some tea before we ask what brings them here."
"Yeah, okay," Ranma said. "Just so long as it ain't about no fiancees or nothin'."
All five of the men suddenly coughed and shifted slightly. Ranma's eyes narrowed. "Aw HELL no."
* * * * *
The dining table was rather crowded. As if summoned by the word 'fiancees', the entire household had arrived just as Kasumi began pouring tea for the five guests. Soun and Kasumi sat at one end of the table, Nodoka and Genma on the other. Ranma, Nabiki, and Akane faced the suited men.
"Alright, let's make it quick," Ranma snapped, glowering. "Who'd Oyaji sell me to, how much did he sell me for, how much did he steal back afterward, who d'ya expect me ta marry, an' who do I gotta fight t' get out of it?"
The second man from the left chuckled. "It's nothing like that, Saotome-san. This doesn't involve your father, nor does it involve any martial arts challenge."
Everyone did a double-take at that. "That's a first," Nabiki remarked.
"Allow us to introduce ourselves," the man at the far left said. "I'm Hitoshi."
"Yeah yeah, an' together you're Kuroko Sentai Burakkuman or somethin'," Ranma said, rolling his eyes. "Cut t' th' chase."
"Very well," Satoshi said, pulling a manila envelope from his suit jacket. He extracted several documents and a large, glossy photograph. He placed this on the table; it showed an ancient, heavily wrinkled man with numerous liver spots, little hair, and few teeth. "Saotome-san, this is Fuusha Onara, the late founder of Daikougan Zaibatsu."
"Oh my. Isn't that the biggest financial conglomerate in Japan?" Kasumi asked.
"It sure is," Nabiki said. "That old geezer was worth seventeen trillion yen at the time of his death."
"Seventeen point eight," Kuroboshi said.
"Okay, so he's a rich old fart, an' he's dead," Ranma said. "What's that got t' do with me?"
Satoshi laid the sheaf of documents on the table. "Fuusha-sama has succeeded in outliving every other member of his family. He has no living relatives. Many of the executives managing his various holdings fancy themselves as the favorites to take over the center seat of the entire organization. However, Fuusha-sama was rather...paranoid about what would become of all he'd worked for his entire life if any of the, as he put it, 'bottom-feeding sons of bitches' were to inherit his personal holdings."
"To the disappointment of many of his junior executives," Tadakichi put in, "Fuusha-sama drafted a will, naming a single heir, prior to his death." He reached over and slid the documents closer to Ranma. "You, Saotome Ranma."
Ranma blinked. "What?"
Yoshiyuki inclined his head toward Ranma, smiling thinly. "Pending fulfillment of the conditions set forth in Fuusha Onara's last will and testament, you, Saotome Ranma, will become the legal head of Daikougan Zaibatsu, owner of the Fuusha estate, and heir to a seventeen point eight trillion yen fortune."
"SOLD!" Genma and Soun cried.
"I'm...huh?" Ranma blinked. "But...huh?"
"Let me see that will," Nabiki said, snapping up the documents and perusing them with a mercenary glint in her eyes. "'I, Fuusha Onara, being of sound mind and...yadda yadda...hereby declare...yadda yadda...Saotome Ranma, of Nerima prefecture, yadda yadda, sole heir to my estate and cumulative wealth, as well as yadda yadda...pending yadda yadda, based on his satisfactorily meeting the conditions set forth below."
"What conditions?" Ranma asked. The five black-suited men shifted uneasily.
Nabiki suddenly threw the will down in disgust. "That'll never happen," she snarled.
"What'll never happen?" Ranma asked.
"It says you have to get married to get the money," Nabiki said.
Ranma sighed. "It figures."
Soun and Genma suddenly towered over Ranma. "BOY, YOU WILL MARRY AKANE IMMEDIATELY!" they both shouted.
"FUCK OFF!" Ranma roared at them, pulling off a perfect Demon Head that sent the two men tumbling into a corner.
"Tendou-san didn't finish reading the stipulations," Kuroboshi pointed out, taking his own copy of the will out of his jacket. "If I may?"
Ranma eyed him warily. "Yeah, go on."
"As Tendou-san said...the will stipulates that in order to inherit the entire estate and all assets belonging to Fuusha Onara, you must marry within sixty days. You may not annull the marriage. You may not enter any prenuptual agreements without consulting with Fuusha-sama's personal attorneys. You may not simply file a paper marriage and never speak to your bride after the ceremony—you'll be monitored to make sure you're living up to your obligations."
"Hey, I ain't like that!" Ranma cut in. "That's th' kinda crap Oyaji'd pull, NOT me!"
"Fuusha-sama was quite aware of that, Saotome-san," Satoshi said. "That's one of the many reasons he chose you. He believes you to be a young man of admirable character. Somewhat rough around the edges, but generally decent, trustworthy, honorable, dependable, and above all, not entirely self-serving."
"You sure you got the right Saotome Ranma?" Nabiki joked.
"He also wants someone who can literally kick ass in the boardroom," Satoshi added.
"Okay, THAT'S our Ranma."
Kuroboshi cleared his throat. "If I may continue? There are further stipulations."
"Oh yeah? What else?" Ranma asked.
"Fuusha-sama knew everything about you there is to know, Saotome-san. Including the multiple arrangements made by your father and others, as well as your...aquatic condition." The five men shifted uncomfortably again. "As such, further conditions must be satisfied in order to fulfill the letter and spirit of the will before you will be awarded your inheritance."
"Okay, lay it on me," Ranma said.
"First: You may not file your marriage as a woman. In other words, you can't marry a man."
Ranma snorted. "That's not a problem, trust me."
"Second: You may not marry any of the following individuals: The Chinese national known as Shan Pu."
"Like I wanna."
"The Chinese national known as Khu Lon."
Ranma made a loud retching noise.
Ranma shrugged. "I ain't never wanted t' marry Ucchan. She's just a really good friend."
"That weird takeout chick? No loss there."
"Hey, it's Ryouga she's after. I don't got no interest in her."
"Again, she's after somebody else."
Ranma smirked. "Too bad, Nabiki."
"Uhh...repeat that last one?"
Soun coughed. "Excuse me. I seem to have misunderstood. I could have sworn you just said Ranma cannot marry any of my daughters."
"That is correct, Tendou-san."
* * * * *
The Tendou residence shook for several minutes with the sounds of violence. Every so often, a figure would fly either through an open door, a not-so-open wall, or the roof. To the rest of the neighborhood, this all seemed perfectly normal, and nobody paid any attention to the chaos.
* * * * *
"I'm sorry, but family honor takes precedence over the whims of an eccentric old man," Soun said once calm descended again in the living room.
The five dark-suited men looked rather rumpled; Satoshi's glasses were completely missing and he was nursing a black eye; Yoshiyuki's glasses were shattered, the frames dangling from his face, and three of his teeth were gone. Hitoshi's nose was swollen and turning an ugly shade of puce. Tadakichi was unconscious on the floor. Kuroboshi, the least abused of the five, faced Soun with a grim stare. "I'm sorry, Tendou-san, but the will of the Japanese government takes precedence over the honor of one family."
"Whatever." Kuroboshi adjusted his glasses. "We are special representatives of the Ministry of Financial Affairs. The government has taken an interest in this situation, as the fate of Daikougan Zaibatsu will have a major impact on the national economy of Japan, not to mention the international economy."
Satoshi sat forward. "We've been assigned to ensure that Fuusha-sama's will is honored, and Saotome-san is installed as the heir to his estate and head of Daikougan."
"An' what th' hell do I know about money that makes me so important?" Ranma demanded. "I ain't never even had none, an' when I did, I hadda give it t' this shark with tits." He jerked a thumb at Nabiki.
"Tits you'll never see, Saotome," Nabiki smirked, affecting a sexy pose which was thoroughly ignored by Ranma.
"Your knowledge of financial affairs is irrelevant, Saotome-san," Yoshiyuki whistled through his broken teeth. "What's important is for the zaibatsu to have a strong, imposing figurehead—someone young, strong, and confident. That's you."
Ranma preened. "I guess when y' put it that way..."
Soun slammed his hands down on the table (it collapsed, sending him sprawling to the floor). "ENOUGH! I want the five of you out of my house this instant! RANMA WILL MARRY AKANE!!"
"Saotome-san will choose a wife appropriate to the fulfillment of the terms of Fuusha-sama's will!" Kuroboshi snarled.
"Otousan, Kuroboshi-san, please calm yourselves!" Kasumi said. "We can discuss this rationally."
"I ain't gotta marry nobody if I don't wanna," Ranma said adamantly. "I'm sick'a people tellin' me what I gotta do."
"Saotome-san...please. Listen. We're not forcing you into the kind of thing you've put up with all your life."
"Ain't ya? Sure sounds like it."
"Look...we've taken your past history with arranged marriages and forced engagements into consideration. We're not choosing a bride for you."
"You ain't?" Ranma asked.
Kuroboshi shook his head, smiling. "No, Saotome-san. We want you to choose your own bride. Provided she isn't one of the women listed in the will."
Ranma perked up suddenly. "Oh yeah?" His eyes glinted; a plan was clearly forming in his mind.
"And you can't marry yourself, either."
"Saotome-san...Ranma-kun," Kuroboshi continued, removing his sunglasses. "We understand what a big decision this is. We're not asking you to enter into it lightly." He pulled a folder out of his jacket. "We've already organized a national search for suitable bridal candidates. We'll be sending leaflets to the homes of every suitable eligible young woman in Japan, and preparing a national publicity campaign. We'll spend three weeks collecting applications for the program, then short-list the candidates down to the best thirty entrants, who will be decided by the five of us."
Ranma blinked. "Uhhh...huh?"
"Three weeks from today, Saotome-san, you will be asked to date one woman a day for thirty days. They will be blind dates—you will not know the name or face of each woman until your date with them. You'll spend a day together, with as few distractions as possible, getting to know one another. After thirty days, you'll have a week to collect your thoughts, reflect on each of the women you went out with, and think over your decision. At the end of that time, you'll be expected to choose one to be your wife."
Ranma stared at him. "An' if I refuse?"
Kuroboshi tossed the folder to Ranma. "Official police documents of charges against Saotome Genma. Arrest warrants. Tax evasion records. Caseworker reports and private investigator accounts of spousal and child abuse by both Saotome Genma and Saotome Nodoka. Authorization for investigation into child neglect by Tendou Soun and Kuonji Ichidama. Tax evasion records for this property. Felony fraud charges against Tendou Nabiki. Damage estimates—bills for damage done to various city-owned properties, by yourself, your fiancees, your friends and rivals, your family members. Warrants for the seizure and deportation of three Chinese nationals illegally residing in Japan."
Ranma stared at him. "You're kiddin'."
"I'm not joking, Saotome-san."
"Y' mean I gotta go along with this whole thing, or Kaasan, Oyaji, th' Tendous, Ryouga, Ucchan, Shampoo..." He swallowed. "Everybody I know's gonna—gonna—"
"Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars," Satoshi said.
"Bastards," Ranma spat.
Kuroboshi shrugged. "It's a simple choice. Cooperate, and everything in that folder disappears. You, your family, your friends—everyone gets off scot-free. Refuse, and..." He spread his hands. "Sayounara."
Ranma tossed the folder at Kuroboshi, fists clenched, teeth grinding. A vein throbbed in his temple.
Everyone watched him anxiously for several minutes.
"Fine," he growled. "I'll do it."
"Ranma..." Akane said softly, tears shining in her eyes.
"I don't got a choice, right?"
"That's about right, yes," Kuroboshi said. "I'm sure it won't be as unpleasant as you seem to think it will be, Saotome-san."
"Whatever," Ranma said. "Just...get th' hell outta my sight, okay? Don't bother me again until th' date shit starts."
Kuroboshi bowed. "We'll be in touch in three weeks, Saotome-san." With that, the five suited men exited the Tendou residence.
The Tendous and Saotomes exchanged glances with one another for several long moments.
"Well..." Genma said hesitantly.
"Fuck," Ranma said, retreating upstairs.
"You shouldn't do that until your wedding night, Ranma-kun!" Kasumi called up after him.
Everyone stared at her.
She blinked back at them. "Ara?"
The First Date: Girl Is A Venus, Boy Has A Vagina
Five teenage girls and two cats gathered around a low table in a Shinto shrine in an upper-middle-class district of Tokyo.
"So...all five of you got these...brochures?" the white cat asked.
"Yeah, looks that way," the tallest of the girls, a brunette, said.
"This is very, very strange," the black cat said, standing and stretching.
"You aren't suggesting this is some kind of new enemy, are you Luna?" asked a girl with long blond hair done up in twin buns and long ponytails.
"How could this be an enemy?" the brunette asked. "I mean, so yeah, it's pretty weird, and it's an odd coincidence that all five of us got these—"
"That part isn't a coincidence," spoke up a girl with short turquoise hair. "It said in the brochure that they're being sent to every eligible unmarried girl under the age of twenty-five in Japan."
"That's right. Naru-chan got one too."
"And how often has Naru-chan been right in the center of an enemy attack, hmm?"
"You have a point."
Luna sighed. "I'm not suggesting anything. I don't feel anything unusual, and this, while strange, seems to be perfectly legitimate and harmless."
"And the guy's CUTE," the other blond at the table put in.
"He is, isn't he?" the brunette gushed.
"So are you two going for it?" the blond with the long ponytails asked.
"OF COURSE!" the other two chorused.
The white cat chuckled. "How about the rest of you?"
The ponytailed blond shook her head. "Mama and Papa suggested it to me, but I've got Mamo-chan. I'm happy."
"My father called. He wants me to do it," groused the only girl who hadn't spoken up yet, a girl with long raven hair.
"Why so glum? I mean...it's not all THAT bad a thought, is it? Getting married to a gorgeous, disgustingly wealthy—did I mention he's a total hunk?"
The dark-haired girl sighed. "Yeah, I know. It..." She smiled slightly. "It wouldn't be too bad, I guess."
"That's the spirit, Rei-chan!"
The rest of them then turned to the blue-haired girl, who looked up from the brochure, startled. "What?"
"Well?" the others asked in unison.
"Well...what?" she stammered, a sweatdrop forming on her head.
"Are you in?" the brunette asked.
The blue-haired girl flushed. "I...ah...I just don't know...it's not..."
The other four LOOMED over her. "We all need to be in this together, Ami-chan! Solid artery!" the girl with long blond hair and a red bow said.
The others blinked at her, sweatdropping.
"Because I'm spoken for. Unless you've been making time with Ryo-kun when none of us were looking?"
Ami blushed deeper. "Well, I, that is, uh..."
"Oh, come on, Ami-chan!" the brunette wheedled. "It'll be fun! We can compare notes! With the four of us on the case, one of us is bound to score the jackpot!"
"You really care about the money that much, Mako-chan?" Luna asked.
"Money? I'm talking about the boy," the girl identified as Mako-chan said, a predatory gleam in her eye.
Everybody sweatdropped except the blond with the red bow, who patted her arm in a gesture of understanding. "A true warrior of love," she said solemnly.
"So, are you in, Ami-chan?" Usagi asked.
Ami looked around at the other girls, and sighed. "I guess. Maybe."
The blond with the bow shot up suddenly, raising a fist dramatically. "Mark my words," she declared. "I, Aino Minako, Sailor Venus, Goddess of Love, hereby declare that ONE of us is going to marry Saotome Ranma! EH, EH, OH!"
"EEH, EEH, OOOOOH!" Mako-chan and Rei cried, standing and joining Minako.
Ami sighed and dropped her head to the table. "eh, eh, oh," she mumbled resignedly.
* * * * *
Three weeks went by in a daze for Saotome Ranma.
Predictably, the news of his inheritance and the fiancee search spread like wildfire. Within four days of the visit from the five suits, Ranma had gotten into several fights with friends, fiancees, and rivals. Happousai was treating him like some sort of hero now, while Cologne had taken to following him around bitching at him about caving in to the Japanese government's demands so easily.
"Is money that much more important than the future of the Amazons, son-in-law?" she asked.
"I ain't never cared about no goddamn Amazons, y' old hag!" Ranma retorted, leaping three rooftops in rapid succession in a futile attempt to lose the withered old matriarch.
Shampoo and Mousse were no better. Ranma had no clue why Mousse was on his case over the whole thing, but for some reason he'd taken to helping Shampoo hunt him down and attack him all over town. For her part, Shampoo was taking full advantage of the blind boy's sudden eagerness to help, and there were days when Ranma barely came home alive for the two of them ambushing him from opposite sides.
Kunou, for his part, had started on his usual "foul sorcerer" rant...then seemed to get inspired by the 'Ranmadate' project, as the government had termed it, and disappeared into his estate, presumably to organize some sort of 'Kunoudate' campaign.
Then, there was Akane.
At first, she had been angry with him. Then, sympathetic. Then, she'd locked herself in her room for two days straight crying. Then, she'd come out and beaten him to within an inch of his life. Then she'd started crying again, and stammered an apology.
Now, she was locked in her room again.
Precisely eight days after the nightmare began, a large black limousine arrived at the Tendou estate. Ranma, who had been sparring with his father, had blinked; he'd seen the cars in magazines and on television, of course, but he'd never actually seen one up close.
"What's this?" Genma asked.
A well-tanned foreigner in a chauffeur's uniform with a glossy black cap perched atop his permed hair stepped out of the car and walked down the side, opening a door. Kuroboshi stepped out, looking much less battered than the last time they'd seen him. He smiled at Ranma. "Ah, Saotome-san! Excellent."
"Yo...Kuroboshi, wasn't it?" Ranma said. "Whatcha doin' here? What's with th' limo?"
"Why, I'm here to escort you to your new home, of course," Kuroboshi said.
Ranma blinked. "My new...home?"
"Yes. We've been keeping tabs on you, and we've seen the sort of difficulties you're having here. We don't want our young heir too battered and tired to date thirty lucky young women, do we? So we've arranged for you to move into the Fuusha manor immediately."
Ranma gaped at him. "Y' want me t' leave th' Tendous an' move inta some big fancy mansion?"
The compound wall suddenly exploded. Shampoo and Mousse came charging at the two Saotomes, with Cologne hopping onto the less damaged portion of the wall to watch. Ukyou came flying over the wall as well, spatula raised and bellowing a war cry. A resounding cackle heralded the arrival of Kunou Kodachi, and the opposite side of the wall crumbled to dust, revealing Hibiki Ryouga, who was bellowing like an angry boar.
Unnoticed, the chauffeur raised his wrist to his face and spoke into his watch. A short series of electronic beeps sounded, much like a car alarm being disarmed.
There was a sudden bright *FLASH*. Ranma covered his eyes and winced. When he dared to open them again, everyone in the yard except Kuroboshi and himself was unconscious.
"What th' hell?!"
Kuroboshi smiled. "So, Saotome-san, shall we adjourn to your manor?"
Ranma looked around at the stupefied forms of several top-notch martial artists, then back at Kuroboshi.
"Sure, let's roll."
* * * * *
Ranma had seen pictures of the insides of limousines, so he knew that something was a bit odd about this one. "Wow, it looks really high-tech in here!"
"It is," Kuroboshi smiled. "Oh, I should introduce you to a member of your staff, Saotome-san. This is Michaels—he's your personal chauffeur. And bodyguard," he added.
"Hey, I don't need no bodyguard," Ranma protested. "Err—but just outta curiosity, that—whatever back there, was that you?"
Michaels turned in his seat and smiled. "That was me. Well, actually, that was my partner." He patted the dashboard fondly. "Ranma—do you mind if I call you Ranma?"
"Hell naw," Ranma said, grinning.
"Well Ranma, say hi to LIMO-Z."
"LIMO-Z?" Ranma asked.
"Logical Intelligent Mobile Operations Zed," a voice spoke from the dashboard. "Or, LIMO-Z for short. Hello, Ranma. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Ranma stared. "Th'—th' car talks?!"
"Yes, indeed I do," LIMO-Z replied. "I also drive myself, wash my own windows, speak fifty-seven languages, communicate with a global satellite network, browse the Internet, play DVDs, provide tactical analysis in defense situations, neurally paralyze hostile forces with an effective range of seventy-five meters, and come with a fully stocked wet bar." He paused. "I can also tap-dance. Would you care to see?"
"He's only joking about that last part," Michaels added hastily.
"LIMO-Z was a prototype for a government security car," Kuroboshi explained. "The government declined to sign a contract to manufacture a fleet of them, because they're a bit cost-prohibitive, so Fuusha-sama retained LIMO-Z for his own personal use."
"And now, I'll be your personal car, Ranma," LIMO-Z said. "Of course, I'd much rather you let Michaels or myself do the driving. No offense."
Ranma just stared. "Whoa."
"Was that a command to decrease speed?" LIMO-Z asked.
"I don't think so, buddy," Michaels replied with a chuckle. "Any sign of trouble on the way to the manor?"
"Negative. We've got a clear road ahead. ETA twenty-seven minutes."
"Good. Keep your scanners peeled."
* * * * *
They arrived at the manor, which was a sprawling, multi-building affair with the biggest lawn Ranma had ever seen, a massive decorative fountain ("Don't suppose we can get rid o' that, huh?"), a garage full of expensive sports cars, luxury cars, and limousines (LIMO-Z refused to park with the other cars, feeling they were beneath his notice, so he had his own private parking facility on the second floor of the garage), more rooms than Ranma could think of uses for, and just about everything anyone could think of to do (and a few things Ranma had never even thought—or heard—of.)
After a half hour tour of the manor, Ranma quipped to the butler, "It's got everything but th' Batcave."
The butler arched an eyebrow, walked over to an antique grandfather clock, and pressed a hidden switch. A door opened; there was a staircase behind it. He motioned Ranma through; curious, the pigtailed boy descended the narrow stone steps.
Ten minutes later, he came back up, looking distinctly rattled. He faced Kuroboshi, eyes wide, and said softly, "It has a Batcave."
"Master Onara had it built as a bit of a joke," a cultured voice called from the opposite side of the foyer. "Though I assure you, he most certainly did not go swinging through the streets of Tokyo in long underwear and a cape. At least, I don't think he did."
Ranma turned to look at the man who had just entered. He was tall, middle-aged, with thinning, neatly parted black hair, a slightly elongated nose, a pencil-thin moustache, and sharp, dark eyes set in a narrow, slightly lined face. He wore an impeccable black suit with a bowtie; his demeanor and the manner in which he carried himself identified him as a butler, but Ranma sensed there was something more to the man than that.
"Saotome-san," Kuroboshi said, "Meet Kuromaki. He's the head of staff here at the manor, and will be your personal aide."
Kuromaki bowed. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Master Ranma. Master Onara thought quite highly of you—he followed every news clipping and wild rumor involving you he could find."
"Errr...hi," Ranma replied.
"I trust Master Ranma has been given the short tour of the manor already?" Kuromaki asked. At the affirmative nod from the butler, he inclined his head to Ranma. "Then if you will follow me, Master Ranma, I will show you to your private chambers and give you a brief orientation on whatever the staff may have overlooked."
* * * * *
And so, Ranma spent the next two weeks getting accustomed to the life of a wealthy playboy industrialist.
Now, it was the day of the first date. Ranma frowned at the clothes which the maid had set out for him. "What's wrong with my usual stuff?" he asked.
"You want to make a good impression on the young lady, don't you?" the maid said. "Now, hurry and dress—we've still got to do something about your hair."
"Hey! Don't mess with my hair," Ranma groused. "It's just—I gotta have somethin' I can fight in."
The maid looked aghast. "Really, Saotome-sama! You're going out on a date, not a karate match!"
Ranma shrugged. "It always ends up that way anyhow. Ah well."
Twenty minutes later, Ranma walked down to the foyer, dressed in a black silk button-down shirt, black slacks, and expensive black leather shoes. He had to admit the outfit looked good on him, although he'd had to argue with the maid over his pigtail for a good ten minutes.
Kuromaki was waiting for him, as was Kuroboshi, who Ranma had not seen for several days. "Good morning, Master Ranma," Kuromaki said.
"Mornin', Kuromaki. Yo, Kuroboshi."
"Good morning, Saotome-san." Kuroboshi smiled. "I see you're adjusting to the good life well."
Ranma shrugged. "It ain't too bad, I guess." He sipped the tea a maid had just handed him without even noticing he was holding it; he'd become accustomed to being handed a cup of tea upon walking downstairs each morning. "So, today's th' day, huh?"
"Indeed it is. We completed the list last week, and the first prospective bride is scheduled to arrive in fifteen minutes."
"Okay. So...uh...what d'we do?"
"Each prospective bride of the thirty selected candidates has been given the option of filing an itinerary for your date. If a candidate does not submit one, then the choice is yours—though, of course, it's only gentlemanly to ask the lady what she would like to do."
"Alright. So th' first one, what's she got planned?"
"There's no itinerary for today, I'm afraid," Kuromaki spoke up. "The young lady wrote something vague about an arcade..."
Ranma shrugged. "Well, whatever."
The doorbell rang. A butler emerged from a room off the side of the foyer to answer it. Ranma had been a bit surprised to learn that there was a butler on staff whose only duty was to answer the door—he had his own rooms off to the side of the foyer, and only emerged from them at mealtime and when the doorbell rang. He'd asked about that, but Kuromaki had given him the look that he'd learned meant "it's a rich people thing—so it's something rich people don't need to worry about."
Not that Ranma was rich—yet.
Now, the butler stepped forward, escorting a young woman around Ranma's age, with long, flowing blond hair topped with a red bow and bright, sparkling blue eyes. She wore a sky-blue dress that hung to just above the knee and had a buttoned white collar, with matching high heels and a small blue purse. *Well, she ain't too bad-lookin',* Ranma thought to himself.
"Miss Aino Minako, sir," the butler said, before retreating back to his rooms.
"Hello," the girl said, blushing slightly.
Ranma smiled. "Yo. Nice dress," he said.
"Thank you. You look very handsome," she replied sunnily.
"Thanks. So...um...whatcha wanna do today?"
Minako smiled. "Whatever you want to do is fine with me, Saotome-san."
Ranma grimaced. "Just call me Ranma."
The blond giggled. "Okay. Then you can call me Mina."
"Okay, Mina. Hmm...how 'bout we go for a walk?" He gestured around him. "Got a lotta space for that."
Mina giggled again. "Alright."
Ranma offered her his arm (as he had been instructed to do by one of the maids, who was acting as an etiquette coach), and they set off towards the rear of the foyer, beyond which lay the gardens.
* * * * *
"So, where y' from, Mina?" Ranma asked as they walked along the garden path. The gardens were, of course, beautiful, and full of every manner of flower that would grow there. The center of the garden was entirely devoted to four large cherry trees, surrounded by a square of rosebushes. A small, manmade spring burbled happily in one corner of the lot, feeding a narrow stream which ran the perimeter of the lawn.
"Azabu-Juuban," Minako replied. "Minato-ku."
Ranma nodded. "Ritzy part o' town, huh?"
"A bit. You lived in Nerima-ku, right?"
"Yeah, for a couple'a years. Fuurinkan-cho."
"I heard it gets pretty crazy there."
"I heard th' same about Juuban. Ain't that where those Sailor gals're supposed t'be?"
"Hai," Minako chirped. "What do you think about the Sailor Senshi?"
Ranma shrugged. "I only heard a couple things about 'em. They sound alright, though th' outfits they wear are a little silly."
"Is that so?" Minako asked, her left eye twitching.
"Yeah. I wouldn't be caught dead in a skirt that short." He paused. "Errr..."
Minako giggled. "That'd look pretty silly, yeah."
Ranma chuckled. "So, what kinda stuff d'you like t'do?"
"Oh...the usual stuff. Shopping, hanging out with my friends. We spend a lot of time at this one arcade." She paused. "And I really like volleyball."
"No kiddin'? You any good?"
"The best," Minako replied, smiling. "I have a killer serve."
"And you? I know you're a martial artist..."
"That's pretty much all I do," Ranma replied. "I fight, I eat, I sleep, I fight some more. That's all I've known since I was little. This whole thing—" he gestured around them— "is really new t' me. I guess I'm gettin' use'ta it, but it's pretty heavy, y'know?"
"I can imagine."
"You do a little martial arts yourself, right?"
Minako looked surprised. "I studied a little bit, yeah. Though mostly just basic self-defense. You could tell?"
"Yeah, you've got the walk of someone who knows how t' carry herself in a fight."
Minako blinked. "Well, I guess I've been in a few scrapes."
"Heh." He was about to say something else, when he was unexpectedly jostled by the gardener, who had just emerged from a gap in the hedges along the walk. "Ack!" he yelped, pinwheeling on the edge of the pavement, perilously close to losing his balance and falling in the stream.
"Saotome-sama! I'm sorry!" The gardener looked mortified. "Let me help you—"
"No, it's okaaAAAAAAY!"
"I'm TERRIBLY sorry, Saotome-sama! Please forgive me!" The gardener rushed off, perhaps in fear of being terminated—in either sense of the word.
Minako, for her part, was gaping openly at Ranma as he—she?—pushed herself up on her elbows in the stream.
"Dammit," Ranma growled.
Ranma stood, wringing out her fiery red hair and the shirt which now clung rather dangerously to certain attributes, and sighed. "I guess they didn't put that part in the brochures, huh?"
"I kinda turn inta girl when I get wet," Ranma said with a sheepish smile.
"It all started when my idiot old man took me to China..."
* * * * *
They'd walked back into the foyer, and immediately encountered Kuromaki, who was already holding a kettle in one hand and a towel draped over his arm. "Your hot water, Master Ranma," the older man said, pouring it over the redhead and offering up the towel.
"Thanks, Kuromaki," Ranma said as she changed back into a man.
Minako boggled. "Wow."
Ranma sighed. "Listen, I gotta go get dried off an' changed. I'm really sorry about this." He turned to Kuromaki. "Take care'a Mina for a bit, wouldja?"
"Of course, sir." Kuromaki bowed, and led Minako off into one of the entertainment lounges, leaving Ranma to head back upstairs and get dressed again.
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes later, Ranma found Minako watching television. He smiled. "Ready t' try it again?" he asked.
She nodded. "If you are."
The outfit Ranma now wore was virtually identical to the one he'd gotten wet, save for the fact that it was a deep royal blue. "So, you wanna go somewhere or somethin'?"
Minako smiled. "That'd be nice."
"Okay. Got anywhere in mind? I'm okay with pretty much anything."
"I know just the place," Minako said without hesitation, beaming sunnily at Ranma and grasping his arm in hers.
"Lead the way then," Ranma said with a grin.
* * * * *
A short while later, Michaels had dropped them off in front of Crown Game Center, in the heart of Juuban-cho.
"That's a really cool car," Minako enthused.
"Yeah, I like it too," Ranma grinned. "So, this is th' place, huh?"
Minako nodded. "Me and my friends hang out here all the time. They have the newest games, and the snack bar upstairs has really good parfaits."
They entered the arcade. The noise of dozens of arcade machines and lots of people chatting, laughing, squealing, yelling, and otherwise enjoying themselves filled the air. Minako took hold of Ranma's arm and led him up a set of stairs to the second level, which was not nearly so noisy, and lined on either side with tables and padded benches. At the top, they met a tall blonde man with laughing eyes. He smiled and waved at them. "Konnichiwa, Mina-chan!"
"Ah! Hi, Motoki-kun!" Minako beamed. She gestured at Ranma. "Motoki-kun, this is Saotome Ranma! Ranma, this is Furuhata Motoki, he's been working here since I first came to Juuban."
"Yo," Ranma said, nodding.
Motoki grinned. "So this is the guy I've been hearing so much about."
The blonde man smirked. "Most of the customers here are teenage girls. You've been a hot topic of conversation the last few weeks."
Ranma flushed. "Oh. Heh."
Motoki nodded to them. "Go on and have a seat, I'll send the waitress straight up."
They sat down at an empty booth. "Nice place," Ranma commented.
"Yeah, it's really popular around here."
Ranma glanced around. A few of the booths were occupied by small groups of girls; some of them had couples engaged in deep conversation, while a few had lone occupants, usually with open books in front of them.
A pretty girl in a waitress' outfit walked up the table. "What can I get you two?" she asked.
"I'll have the fruit parfait," Minako said cheerfully.
The waitress nodded. "And you, sir?"
Ranma shrugged and looked at Minako. "Make it two fruit parfaits, I guess."
"Okay. One second."
As the waitress wandered off, Minako took a quick glance around. "Hmm."
"Somethin' wrong, Mina?"
"Eh? Oh...no, just seeing if my friends are hanging around today."
Minako blushed. "I mean, not that I—I mean—"
Ranma grinned. "I understand."
A moment later, the waitress returned with two large glasses of fruit parfait. They spent a long, quiet moment sampling their treats. "Wow, this IS good," Ranma said.
Minako grinned. "Told you so."
Another moment passed in companionable silence. Ranma then asked, "So, tell me more about yourself."
Minako frowned. "What would you like to know?"
Ranma shrugged, toying with his spoon. "Anything."
"Hmm." Minako spooned a bit more parfait into her mouth. At length, she said, "Well...I go to Juuban High, I get good marks in English because I lived in England for a while—"
"No kiddin'? What was that like?"
Minako frowned thoughtfully. "Wet," she said.
"What else—I spend a lot of time with my best friends, shopping and studying and just hanging out."
"I gathered that," Ranma said, grinning. He motioned to the waitress and ordered another parfait. "So, what else?" he asked Minako.
"What else what?"
"Y' lived in England, y' go t' Juuban High, you've got a bunch'a friends y' hang out with, y' play volleyball, y' do a little martial arts, y' like t' shop—anything else?"
Minako thought for a moment. "Well, I like stuffed animals," she said. "Oh, and I have a cat. His name is Artemis."
Ranma froze. "A c-cat?" he asked nervously.
"Yeah. He's a bit silly—what's wrong?"
"N-nothing," Ranma said, clearing his throat.
"You have a problem with cats?" Minako asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Kinda," Ranma admitted, flushing. "It's cuz'a somethin' really stupid Oyaji did t' me when I was a kid."
Minako sighed. "That's too bad. So what about you?"
"What do you like to do besides fighting and eating and sleeping?"
Ranma shrugged. "That's really pretty much it. I ain't had time for nothin' else. Like I said, Oyaji took me off trainin' when I was little, an' I've been on th' road with him pretty much my entire life. Even after we settled down in Nerima, I didn't have much time for nothin' but school an' trainin'. 'Course, there really wasn't much else I thought about doin'. Like I said, fightin's my life."
Minako nodded. "You must be really good, then."
Ranma grinned cockily. "Th' best."
* * * * *
"So, whatcha wanna do now?" Ranma asked as they left the arcade a short while later.
"Hmm," Minako made a show of looking thoughtful. "You think of something."
"SAOTOME RANMA! PREPARE TO DIE!"
A shadow suddenly descended onto the pavement in front of them. Ranma grabbed Minako around the waist and leapt away with her. Minako blushed as Ranma set her down—then stared at the enormous crater in the sidewalk. As the dust cleared, she saw a young man crouched in the hole, wearing battered, road-worn clothes and a spotted bandana. He was glaring at Ranma murderously, teeth bared.
"Ah shit, Ryouga, d'you gotta start this with me now?"
"SHUT UP!" Hibiki Ryouga growled. "How DARE you—do you realize what you've done to Akane—"
"Hey. I ain't done nothin' t' Akane," Ranma said in a low voice. "Anyway, I thought you'd be happy, havin' me outta your way."
Ryouga stood, head bowed, fists clenched. "I—Akane—all I want is for her to be happy—" He unlimbered a bamboo umbrella from his backpack and levelled it threateningly at Ranma. "AKANE WILL NEVER KNOW HAPPINESS AGAIN, AND IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT! DIE!"
Ranma sighed, and dropped into a combat stance. "Sorry about this, Mina. Be with you in a sec."
Minako didn't reply, for she was no longer there.
* * * * *
Minako stood in an alleyway, heart racing. That—whatever he was—he couldn't possibly be human! And he wanted to kill Ranma...
She scowled fiercely. Ranma couldn't possibly be a match for a monster like that, no matter how good a martial artist he was. And she wasn't about to let a nice guy—a really cute guy!—get hurt, or worse, while she could do something about it.
"VENUS CRYSTAL POWER...MAKE-UP!"
* * * * *
Ranma grabbed hold of a streetlight and swung around it, using his momentum to fling himself at Ryouga with enough force to topple the lost boy. Ryouga grunted, but stood up immediately. "That the best you can do, Ranma?" he asked snidely.
"No, this is. KACHUU TENSHIN AMAGURUKEN REVISED—MANHOLE COVER ASSAULT!"
Ryouga's eyes widened as Ranma belted him across the face and torso with a manhole cover several hundred times in a matter of seconds. He let out of a whuff of pain as he was sent flying, sliding along the street on his back.
Ranma grinned, tossing aside the manhole cover. "C'mon, piggy," he said. "I know you can still get up after that."
Ryouga did exactly that, immediately launching a flurry of whirling bandannas at Ranma; the pigtailed boy dodged these easily, landing crouched upon a parked car. He quickly jumped across the street again as Ryouga's umbrella demolished the car, sending several jets of fluid shooting out of its engine.
"HEY! Watch th' collateral damage, pal! Dontcha know somebody's gotta pay for all the stuff you break?"
"I don't care!" Ryouga snarled. "All I care about is breaking YOU!"
"HOLD IT!" a female voice rang out, startling the two boys, who looked around. Ryouga gaped.
A beautiful young blond woman in a stylized seifuku consisting of a tight-fitting white leotard with orange collar flap, an extremely short orange miniskirt with a yellow bow at the back, elbow-length white gloves with orange trim, orange high-heels, a bright blue bow with a heart-shaped orange jewel, an orange choker with a gold star in the center, and a golden tiara stood perched on a post box near the totalled car. "You who interrupt the stirrings of love between two young people—Sailor Venus cannot forgive you! In the name of Venus, I will punish you!" Her speech was punctuated by a number of rather silly hand gestures.
A trickle of blood seeped from Ryouga's nose. Ranma smirked; the lost boy's inability to cope with female flesh was almost as legendary as his inability to read a map, and the girl's skirt showed off her legs to full effect.
"Private duel, lady," Ranma called out. "I got 'im, don't worry about it."
"It is the duty of the Sailor Senshi to protect the innocent from evil creatures who despise love," Venus said. "I cannot stand idly by while this demon continues to ruin—"
"D'you always make these silly speeches?" Ranma asked, chuckling. He then ducked as Ryouga's fist plowed through the space where his head had been a split second earlier. "Wow, that was a quick recovery," he remarked.
"Nothing will stop me from destroying you this day, Ranma!" Ryouga snarled, sweeping Ranma's legs, then using his umbrella like a golf club to knock the pigtailed boy down the street.
"Oof. You're gettin' faster," Ranma commented, clutching at his side as he rose to his knees. "I gotta be more careful."
More bandannas were now flying through the air toward him. Just as he prepared to dodge—
"CRESCENT BEAM SHOWER!"
A spray of golden beams of light erupted over his head, reducing the spinning cloth blades to drifting ashes. Sailor Venus then appeared directly in front of Ranma; from his vantage point, he could see right up her skirt, and almost felt a nosebleed of his own coming on.
"Hiding behind a woman, Ranma?" Ryouga taunted. "Come on out and fight me like a man!"
"SAILOR V KICK!" Venus shouted suddenly, flying at Ryouga, a foot extended. The lost boy stood, transfixed, his nose bleeding again. As a result, he completely failed to block or dodge, and was sent flying.
"VENUS LOVE-ME CHAIN!" Venus called out, spinning in place. A chain of glowing golden hearts swirled around her, then snaked out and wrapped itself around Ryouga's ankle. She gave a mighty yank on the chain, and the lost boy rose jerkily from where he'd landed. Venus leapt high in the air and began spinning in place. The chain, as well as the trapped martial artist, followed the path of her spin, becoming a blur as she spun faster and faster. As she reached the apex of her jump, she released the chain; Ryouga went sailing over the surrounding buildings, quickly disappearing over the horizon.
Venus landed, panting. "Whoof! He was a heavy one." She turned to Ranma, posing with a hand on her hip, and winked at him. "You alright?"
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, I'm alright." He smirked. "Thanks, Mina."
* * * * *
Venus stared wide-eyed at Ranma. *How? How does he know?* Fighting to keep her cool, she affected a puzzled look. "Mina? You have me confused with someone else. I'm the pretty sailor-suited soldier for love and justice, Sailor Venus."
"Yeah, and you're also Aino Minako," Ranma said. "Cuz you move just like Aino Minako, an' y' sound just like Aino Minako, an' y' got th' same red bow in your hair as Aino Minako. So you're Mina."
Venus stared at him, opened her mouth to protest—then sighed. "Wait right here," she said. She leapt onto a nearby rooftop.
Ranma stood calmly in the street, waiting. A few moments later, Minako emerged from an alleyway. "So you're one'a th' Sailor Senshi," he said in a low voice as she approached him again.
Minako nodded, looking warily around. "Okay, yeah, I am. But don't tell anyone, okay? It's kind of a secret."
"No problem," Ranma said, nodding. "Only one thing—why'd y' get involved in th' fight?"
Minako stared at him incredulously. "I was trying to save your life! That—whatever that was—was seriously dangerous!"
Ranma shrugged. "Nah. Me an' Ryouga fight all th' time. He's pretty much my best friend, even though he comes around tryin' t' kill me all th' time."
Minako stared. "He tries to kill you all the time, and you say he's your best friend?!"
"It's complicated," Ranma said. "But—" He shuffled his feet. "I guess it kinda looked worse than it was, huh? So...uhh...thanks."
The blond smiled. "Anytime, Ranma-kun." She looked around. "Let's get out of here."
Ranma nodded, offered her his arm, and led her away.
As they turned down another street, Ranma said, "By th' way, Mina?"
* * * * *
The rest of the day passed uneventfully; after a quick dinner at a beefbowl joint, Ranma bid Minako farewell at her front door.
"I had a really good time today, Ranma-kun," the blond said, making a show of casting her eyes downward demurely.
"Me too," Ranma said, hands behind his head. "So listen—I ain't promisin' nothin' yet, but—I kinda hope we can keep in touch. As friends, y'know? If I don't choose you, I mean."
Minako looked up into Ranma's blue-grey eyes and smiled. "I'd like that." She leaned forward and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "I'll see you around, Ranma-kun."
As Minako headed up the walk to her house and Ranma turned and walked over to where Michaels and LIMO-Z were waiting to take him back the manor, he reflected that perhaps—if the next twenty-nine days were anything like today—this whole thing might not be so bad after all.
The Second Date: King of the Hills (or, There Can Be Only Two)
"The matter is settled. You will submit yourself as a bridal candidate for Saotome Ranma."
"This is my final word on the matter. It is for the honor of the family. Unless that no longer holds any meaning for you."
"You'll cooperate then?"
* * * * *
"So, what's up today?" Ranma asked as he walked into the foyer. He'd risen early that morning and gone to the gymnasium wing of the manor; now, an hour after sunrise, he was toweling sweat from his hair and smiling broadly.
"Saotome-sama! You need to get ready for your date!" the maid, Haruka, gasped, scandalized. "Those awful, ratty clothes—"
"I've just been workin' out, Haruka," Ranma groused. "Gimme a break."
"Still, you must—"
"I got time," Ranma said, stretching. "So, Kuromaki, what about that schedule?"
Kuromaki coughed. "You have received a letter of challenge, Master Ranma. It reads," he cleared his throat, "'Saotome Ranma, you are hereby challenged to a duel of honorable combat at the hill overlooking the temple facing the court of the Emperor from the northwest, six kilometers from Tokyo Tower, at the hour of nine in the morning—' today, of course— 'to determine your worthiness—'"
Ranma grunted. "Sounds like somethin' Kunou would pull. Is it signed?"
"Yes, Master Ranma. By the girl you are supposed to be dating today."
"Oh...kay..." Ranma said slowly, blinking. He glanced over at Haruka. "I guess these ratty ol' clothes'll be just fine then, huh?"
Haruka shook her head, muttered something, and wandered off. Ranma chuckled.
"A formal challenge, huh? I shoulda known somethin' like this was gonna happen." Ranma sighed.
"What will you do, Master Ranma?" Kuromaki inquired politely.
Ranma looked at him as though he'd sprouted a second head. "You're kiddin', right? I'm gonna go fight th' crazy chick, o' course."
Kuromaki blinked. "But—Master Ranma—your standing rule against fighting girls..."
"Pretty much gone right out th' window," Ranma said with a shrug. "I mean, I been thinkin'. A lotta th' people who try an' kill me are girls. All th' girls I was engaged to or who were after me before—well, they all fought pretty okay, I guess. An' hell, I turn inta a girl, an' it don't make me weak or nothin'. So..." He shrugged. "I mean, I don't like hittin' girls, but I ain't gonna back down from a fight with anyone if they want their ass kicked bad enough."
Kuromaki bowed. "Very good, sir. Shall I call Michaels and have him bring the car around?"
"Yeah, it may take a while t' find th' place. Geez, what kinda crazy chick are they tryin' t' hook me up with, anyway?"
* * * * *
Ranma worried at first that he might be late for the challenge. He was surprised, however, when LIMO-Z, after the challenge letter was fed through a scanner on the dashboard, immediately pinpointed the precise location and took off.
"You really landed a live one for today, huh?" Michaels asked.
"Looks like it. Geez, I thought I'd at least be leavin' THIS kinda crap behind me when I signed on for this gig."
Michaels chuckled. "You'd die from the boredom."
"Nah, I—" Ranma paused. "Hmm. I guess I would get kinda bored, at that."
"We are nearing the specified location," LIMO-Z said. "Scanning the area—one human life sign detected, female, estimated age fifteen. She is armed—weapon analysis: a sword. Katana, classically forged, iron. An honor blade. No other weapons detected in the vicinity. No electronic or mechanical traps or eavesdropping devices detected. No electronic transmissions detected."
Ranma looked through the window and saw a grassy hill looming ahead, a break in the surrounding suburban sprawl. He could just make out a silhouetted figure standing at the summit, waiting.
LIMO-Z slowed to a smooth stop less than a meter from the base of the hill. Michaels turned to Ranma and said, "Good luck."
"Thanks." Rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck, Ranma stepped out of the car and made his way up the hill.
* * * * *
"So, you have come. You are not perhaps as cowardly as I might have expected."
Ranma scowled. The girl standing across from him wore a loose white uwagi and a red hakama; her long dark hair swayed in the soft breeze. Eyes full of loathing glared at him from an otherwise pretty face. Her sword was drawn, the scabbard tucked into the sash at her waist. "Yeah, I'm here. What th' hell's your problem, anyway?"
"SILENCE!" The girl roared, levelling her sword at Ranma. "You will not address me with such a crude tongue!"
"You wouldn't happen t' be related t' a guy named Kunou, wouldja?"
The girl drew herself up. "I would advise you to take this matter more seriously, Saotome Ranma!"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Look, just tell me who th' hell you are, an' why th' hell you wanna fight me."
The girl fixed him with an intense stare. "Aoyama Motoko, of the Shinmei school of kendo. I seek to test your worthiness in battle, and, if possible, remove you from this world to spare others the burden of having to endure your crass, chauvinistic overtures."
Ranma blinked. "Okay, so...you signed up for this whole date thing...so you could try an' kill me to keep me from datin' anyone?"
"I was forced to submit myself as a bridal candidate as a matter of family honor!" Motoko shouted, anger flashing in her eyes. "Make no mistake, Saotome Ranma: I do not desire you. I despise you. I will prove, by defeating you, that you are unworthy of marriage into the Aoyama clan. I will prove that the Shinmei school is superior, and would only be weakened by the tainted blood of the likes of you."
Ranma bristled. "Oh yeah? Well I don't much like you either just now. An' if you don't wanna marry me, you ain't gotta, cuz I got th' final say in who I marry, an' it sure as hell ain't gonna be a crazy wannabe samurai chick like you. If I wanted t' marry some wacko with a sword, I'd marry Kunou. So if that's all this is about, then I'll just be on my way. Have a nice life." He turned to leave.
The pigtailed martial artist sighed. "NOW what?"
Motoko strode forward, sword lewelled at Ranma's chest. "Forfeit to me, and you forfeit your life. I would strike you down rather than allow your parade of lechery to continue."
Ranma rolled his eyes. "Oh great, another violent tomboy callin' me a pervert for no good reason."
"So. Others have seen the villainy in your heart."
"Yeah, yeah, I've heard all this shit before. Find a new one."
Motoko growled. "Enough! Shinmei-ryu, ZANKUUSEN!"
Ranma dropped and rolled down the hill as a flurry of vacuum slashes cleaved the air where he'd been standing a moment ago. "Whoa!"
"Stand and fight!"
Ranma rolled to his feet, tensing and flexing his hands. "Alright, lady, you just got your fight." Without further words, he blurred into motion, striking low with a kick meant to send the kendoka toppling down the hill. To his surprise, she parried with the flat of her blade, then swiftly brought it around and slashed at his midsection, leaving a long, shallow cut that stung as thin droplets of blood oozed forth. He sucked in his breath and dodged left as another slash followed the first. He then leapt straight up, flying over Motoko and kicking her in the back of the head. As she stumbled, he spun around, landing a midair kick to her shoulderblades that knocked her flat on the grass. He leapt away, landing easily on the toes of one foot, waiting.
Motoko stood, turning quickly, sword again at the ready. "You are quick."
"So're you." Ranma grinned. "Maybe this'll be fun."
"You mock me?" Motoko growled. "ZANGANKEN!"
Ranma let himself fall backwards, rolling with the momentum to avoid the pressure strike. He then raced along the grade of the hill, rising behind Motoko as she attempted to locate him. He tapped her on the shoulder. "Yo."
Motoko spun, lashing out wildly; Ranma caught her blade between his hands, then swept her feet out from under her. "C'mon, you can do better than that."
The kendoka surprised him by doing a forward flip, slamming her feet into his chest. As he stumbled, she wrenched her sword free of his grip, then stabbed at his throat.
"Ack!" Ranma yelped, ducking to the side; the blade missed his windpipe by millimeters, shaving a thin layer of skin off the side of his neck. "Shit, that was close!"
"DIE!" Motoko snarled, pressing her attack. Her blade flashed as it blurred, a dozen strikes, two dozen—the speed of her attack was impressive.
But, Ranma thought with a smirk, not fast enough.
"KACHUU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!" Open palms slapped away each strike of the katana, closing ranks with the swordswoman; within seconds, he was inside her guard. He tagged her thrice in the chest with an open palm, struck at her elbows and forearms with the edges of his hands, and slapped her across the face several times.
Motoko stood stock-still, staring, her sword limp in her hand. Her cheeks burned red from the sting of the slaps. "You—you—"
"Y' wanna give up on this now, or what?" Ranma asked.
The kendoka's cheeks flamed even more brilliantly, and her eyes narrowed. "I will not suffer such humiliation!" Abandoning all pretense of form and style, she lashed out with a vicious stab at Ranma's groin.
"WHOA! Watch th' balls, Motoko!" Ranma shouted as he leapt away. "Y'call that honorable?!"
"DO NOT LECTURE ME ABOUT HONOR!" Motoko roared. "You are a craven, honorless dog!" Again she struck out at him, the force of her attacks cleaving the air with a deadly, venomous hiss. Ranma winced as several of the pressure waves slipped past his guard, slicing his shirt to ribbons and drawing more blood.
"Okay, so you ain't such a bad sparrin' partner after all," Ranma grunted, putting some distance between himself and Motoko. "But didja hafta go an' wreck th' shirt?" His red silk tang hung in tatters from his body. "I really liked that shirt."
Motoko stared at him incredulously.
Suddenly, Ranma wasn't there anymore.
Motoko spun around warily. "What—"
The kendoka went flying; Ranma had gotten behind her somehow. She bounced down the hill, nearly losing her grip on her sword. Ranma bounded down after her.
"This is turnin' out t' be a fun date," he muttered, smirking.
* * * * *
"Michaels...I'm still monitoring Ranma's vital signs, as well as those of the girl."
"The level of physical exertion has increased. Also, they seem to be headed this way."
"Hmm. I think we might just be in for a show, buddy."
* * * * *
Motoko skidded to a halt at the foot of the hill, nearly plowing into the rear wheel of LIMO-Z. Ranma landed lightly on top of the car, smirking down at her with his arms crossed. "Yo, Motoko. You awake?"
The kendoka shuddered as she pushed herself to her knees, brushing dirt from her face, eyes, and clothes. Her hakama was torn in places, and reddish scrapes shone angrily on her hands, elbows, and exposed knees. She stood shakily, steadied herself, and picked up her sword. Glaring up at Ranma, she hissed, "You will pay for that." Tightening her grip on her sword, she sprang into the air. "ZANSHOKEN!"
Ranma flipped over the rising sword thrust, wincing as the edge scraped against the roof of LIMO-Z. "Hey, watch th' car, willya?"
"Don't worry, Ranma, my exterior shell is highly damage-resistant," LIMO-Z's amplified voice sounded.
"Yeah? Well, she scratched th' paint."
"Yup. Big scratch, right there."
LIMO-Z's rear door suddenly opened violently as Motoko landed from her attack, knocking her flat on her ass. She glowered at the car. "Tell your servants not to interfere in our fight, Saotome!"
Ranma shrugged. "Hey, you scratched his paint. He's got a right t' be pissed."
"Enough talk!" Motoko launched herself at Ranma once again, pressing the same rapid attack pattern as earlier. Ranma used the Amaguriken to parry her strikes, but the attack was far more vicious now; she was steadily pressing him back up the hill. He tried to strike at her again as he had done before, but she feinted, leaving him overextended...
"An opening!" Motoko cried. "ZANKUUSEN!"
A blinding flash emanated from her sword as it cleaved the air. Ranma had leaned back to avoid the blow as best he could, but he'd definitely felt it; his entire front now felt severely bruised. And his shirt—
"Dammit," Ranma sighed, shedding the remains of his tang in disgust.
Motoko stared at him as he dropped into a ready stance. A faint blush crept up her cheeks.
"Err—Motoko?" Ranma waved a hand in front of her. "Yoo-hoo, Motoko! I ain't gonna attack if you ain't ready."
Motoko blinked, flushed even more, and glared at him. "You dare expose yourself to me?!"
"Hey, YOU cut up my shirt! Geez."
Thunder rumbled overhead. Ranma glanced up; stormclouds had gathered rather suddenly. He sighed. "Perfect."
"Defend yourself!" Motoko shouted. "ZANGANKEN!"
Ranma easily dodged another wave of pressure strikes, wincing slightly as he did so. *Wow, she musta hit deeper than I thought...* He sighed. "Okay. I really hate t' do this t' a girl, but—"
Then he felt it. The first drop of rain.
Another drop, then another...a slow, steady drizzle began to fall on the hill, forming a fine sheet of mist in the air.
Motoko's eyes widened. "What—?"
Ranma leapt at her, kicking the sword out of her hands, then slammed a palm strike directly into her breastbone, sending her sprawling. Motoko lay on the damp grass on her rear, eyes wide, continuing to stare at Ranma, whose bare breasts were now heaving.
"You done yet?" the redhead asked, glaring at the fallen kendoka.
Motoko sat up, trembling, still staring wide-eyed at the topless girl before her. "S-Saotome? Wh-what manner of demon are you?"
"I ain't a demon!" Ranma snapped. "I just turn inta a girl when I get wet."
Motoko stood. "I...I see." She picked up her sword. Her head was bowed, her bangs obscuring her eyes. Her shoulders trembled violently.
Ranma tensed, anticipating another attack.
A low sound issued from the kendoka, her shoulders shaking even more furiously. Ranma peered at her in confusion, lowering his guard slightly. "Motoko?"
Motoko suddenly threw back her head and let out a loud, raucous peal of laughter.
Ranma gaped at her. "Uhh..."
The kendoka continued to laugh, clutching at her stomach as she did so.
"O-oi," the redhead muttered, becoming annoyed.
Motoko wiped a rain-soaked arm across her face, drawing in a long shuddering breath. A strange smile quirked her lips; she stood fully upright with effort and sheathed her sword. Still chuckling, she bowed to Ranma. "I underestimated you, Saotome. You are a worthy opponent. I hope to challenge you again someday."
The kendoka unbelted her uwagi, slipping it off her shoulders; her chest was bound by heavy cloth bandages wrapped around most of her torso. She stepped forward and handed the damp garment to Ranma. "It will likely not cover your breasts fully, as they are rather large, but it will at least serve to somewhat protect your modesty." Her lips twitched as she bowed once more. "I concede the duel, Saotome Ranma, and I bid you good day." With that, she strolled down the hill on the side opposite the parked limousine, her chortles carrying on the soft breeze.
The rain stopped.
Ranma stared after her for a long moment, sighed heavily, slipped on the uwagi, and headed down to the car.
* * * * *
"Who won?" Michaels asked as Ranma slid into the back seat of the car.
"You know?" the boy-turned-girl asked as she reached for the thermos of hot water stored in the wet bar. "I ain't really sure."
* * * * *
Half a kilometer away, Motoko paused, glancing back at the hill. An errant breeze blew several loose strands of grass past her even as it plucked up her long raven hair.
"Saotome Ranma. The strength and power of a man—yet with the delicate beauty of a woman—"
She fell silent for a long moment. Then, she glanced down at herself. She flushed brilliantly.
"We WILL meet again, Saotome," she muttered as she ran into a copse of trees, arms crossed over her chest.
The Third Date: Erotic, In A Way...nyo
The skirt of a plain brown school uniform slid to the floor in a shadowy room.
"Stardom...my dream is stardom."
A pair of glasses was set on a dressing table.
"All my life...as long as I can remember...it's what I've worked for."
Long hair was slowly, carefully unbraided, fluffing out to its full length and volume.
"The road isn't easy. I knew it wouldn't be."
A pair of panties slid to the floor, and were kicked aside along with the skirt by a slim, pale foot.
The slim, pale foot and its mate stepped into a fresh pair of panties, which were pulled up shapely legs by small, slender hands with carefully manicured nails.
"I'll make you proud..."
A new skirt—frillier, puffier, and deep pink in color—joined the panties in their journey up the legs. A moment later, a pair of knee-high white socks with lace trim joined them.
"I'll become a star..."
Loose hair was pulled into two long, slim ponytails.
"Even if it takes every yen Saotome Ranma has."
The room suddenly flooded with light: flourescents from overhead, a ring of bulbs around a dressing mirror, a flashing neon sign above a series of posters and glossy photographs.
The girl turned in place, inspecting herself in the numerous mirrors around the room. She nodded in satisfaction.
"I'm going to become the top idol in the world!"
"And get a really cute boyfriend. Heehee!"
* * * * *
Ranma stared at the outfit the maid had set out for him.
"What. Th' FUCK. Is THAT?!"
It was shimmery. It was bright white.
It was polyester.
"The girl you're dating today said in her personal profile that she likes guys who are—what was it?" Haruka said, putting a finger to her lips. "Oh yes. 'Cool like John Travolta.' So—" She gestured at the outfit hanging from the open wardrobe door.
"No. Way. In. HELL."
Haruka looked at him disapprovingly. "Saotome-sama...please try to be a little more cooperative. I glanced at the itinerary—you're going to be going to a lot of very trendy places today."
"And y'want me t' wear THAT t' trendy places?"
"Why, yes. It's...well...trendy."
Ranma stared at the nightmarish suit again.
"Y'gotta be kiddin' me."
Haruka shrugged. "What can it hurt?"
"It can hurt ME t' be seen in public dressed like that!"
"Saotome-sama...you're the heir to one of the wealthiest men who ever lived. If you wore a fig leaf on a string and a cow pat on your head, the next day every store in Paris would be selling them for thousands."
Ranma stared at her. At length, he sighed.
"Man, I really don't get all this rich people shit."
"So you'll wear it, then?"
With a defeated expression, Ranma reached for the suit. "Ah, hell. At least if I get inta another mess like yesterday, I won't care if this gets all ripped up."
* * * * *
Someone among the staff had gotten the bright idea to pipe "Stayin' Alive" over the sound system in the foyer as Ranma walked downstairs. He wore a shimmery white polyester leisure suit with a blue silk shirt, a pale yellow necktie, and shiny white patent leather platform shoes; his hair had been slicked down with liberal amounts of hairspray, and his pigtail was tucked into the collar of his jacket.
Kuromaki raised an eyebrow. "Good morning, Master Ranma. By the way, sir, I can indeed tell by the way you use your walk you're a woman's man."
Ranma glared at him.
"Er...yes...I suppose there's no time to talk," Kuromaki said with a cough, producing the itinerary from his jacket. "Your date will be arriving shortly. You shall be attending a gaming convention this morning, followed by lunch at Motomori Tokyo, followed by a Purple Fuckmuffins concert and dinner at the Hard Cock Cafe."
Ranma shook his head. "Man, I ain't never figured on me goin' anywhere near those kinda places."
"It is to be expected, sir."
The martial artist in a leisure suit shrugged. "Seems like every time I think I'm gettin' a handle on this fancy life, somethin' new comes along I never thought about before."
Kuromaki smiled. "You will adjust, sir. You are, after all, Saotome Ranma, are you not? You should be able to adapt to anything."
"Heh. Y'know, you're right, Kuromaki. Thanks."
The doorbell rang. A moment later, the butler entered, a strange, stifled expression on his face. "Miss Usada Hikaru, sir."
The girl standing behind him hissed something. He coughed, cleared his throat, and said, "Miss—err—Rabi~en~Rose, sir." With that, he strode from the hall, chuckling to himself.
A very pink blur shot toward Ranma, twirling like a ballerina. "Hi~iiiii!"
Ranma stared at the girl. She was short; he guessed she was maybe thirteen or fourteen. She was, he reasoned, cute enough; trim, graceful, with long pink hair and bright red eyes and a happy smile.
She was also wearing the strangest outfit Ranma had ever seen.
It looked like a cross between a waitress uniform, a maid's outfit, and a bunny-girl suit: a puffy white off-the-shoulder top, an exceptionally frilly, flaring pink skirt, lace-trimmed knee-high socks, and cute red slippers with satin bindings halfway up her calves. She also wore a pair of long, floppy white velvet bunny ears and lots of red bows.
And then there were the dice.
Attached to the red ribbons tying her hair into long ponytails were two enormous fuzzy dice.
The girl gave a curtsy, extending one hand toward Ranma. "I'm Rabi~en~Rose! I'm very pleased to meet you! Please treat me kindly!"
"Err...hi," Ranma said, taking the girl's hand and giving it a brief shake. She pouted cutely, but shrugged and looked him up and down.
"I really like that outfit, Saotome-san!" she said, beaming. "It's really cool!"
"Thanks," Ranma said, scratching the back of his head. "An' just call me Ranma."
Rabi~en~Rose giggled. "Okay, Ranma-kun!"
Kuromaki cleared his throat. "Pardon me, miss."
The bunny-girl turned to him. "Yes?"
The butler was glancing at something inside the itinerary folder. "Are you quite certain you are Usada Hikaru?" He pulled a photograph out of the folder; it showed a somewhat mousy-looking girl with a long pink plait, glasses, and a brown school uniform.
"GAH! Where did you get that picture?!" Rabi~en~Rose demanded.
"It came from official school records," Kuromaki replied.
The bunny-girl shuddered. "Please don't go showing that around. I want people to think of me as a cute and trendy pop idol, not some...some...mousy little schoolgirl!"
"Then you ARE miss Usada Hikaru?"
"I prefer to be called Rabi~en~Rose!"
Kuromaki raised an eyebrow. "Whatever you like, Miss Rabi."
"Okay, so, uh...let's get goin' then, okay?" Ranma interrupted.
"HAI!" Rabi~en~Rose said cheerfully.
* * * * *
As LIMO-Z navigated the busy morning traffic of Tokyo, Ranma found he could no longer restrain his curiosity. "Err...what's with the dice?" he asked.
"Hmm?" the pink-haired girl next to him asked. "Oh, these?" She reached up and bounced the fluffy, fuzzy dice in the palms of her hands, making her ponytails bob slightly. "They're my lucky token and my trademark. When I'm famous, everybody will be wearing them!"
"Err...okay," Ranma replied. "So, you're really into this whole pop idol thing, huh?"
"It's what I've dreamed of," she replied, smiling and looking off into the distance. She idly adjusted her top; Ranma pointedly stared in the other direction, uncomfortably aware that the rather younger girl was trying to deepen the amount of cleavage she was showing.
"So, er—you're inta video games, then?" he asked.
Rabi~en~Rose snorted. "They're for silly geeks with no lives who eat too much, exercise too little, and never learned to shower."
Ranma stared at her. "Then—why—"
"A gaming convention?" The bunny girl paused, putting a finger to her chin in a thoughtful pose. "Because I work at a game store, and because there'll be lots of cosplay idols there, so I can check out my competition."
Ranma blinked. "Lemme get this straight. You hate video games, you don't like people who play 'em, but you work at a game store?"
"Because gaming geeks also support pop idols, and I want all my future fans to remember my good service!" She gave a cute wink and a giggle. Ranma sweatdropped.
"We're here," Michaels said. "Got those pass badges ready, buddy?"
"Of course," LIMO-Z replied, as two colorful convention badges slid out of a slot on the dashboard. Michaels handed them back to the duo; Ranma clipped his to the lapel of his jacket, while Rabi~en~Rose attached hers to her skirt.
"Right, then. Let's go!" the bunny-girl chirped happily.
* * * * *
Ranma had to admit that his date was right; everywhere he looked there were overweight, badly-shaven, pasty-faced guys who looked as though they only left the house if they absolutely had to.
The stench was unbelievable.
"This isn't one of the big cons," Rabi~en~Rose said idly as they walked past a flashing display showing a computer video of two extremely bishounen men with massive, improbably spiky hair and outfits with way too much leather and far too many belts swinging enormous swords at each other. "The really big shows don't let the general public in."
Ranma stared around him, baffled. "If this is a little con, I don't think I wanna see a big con." The bunny-girl giggled.
They walked past a number of people standing around a free-standing game station with four control consoles, around which three women in skimpy, shimmery costumes were walking, giggling and simpering. Ranma shook his head. "So, what're we gonna do here?"
Rabi~en~Rose looked thoughtful. "Let's go check out the Gamers booth. That's the store I work for."
They walked around the crowded convention centre for ten minutes before finding a booth with a huge neon sign that said "GAMERS" over it. Two young girls were working the booth; one wore a costume with a white cat-shaped hat, paw gloves, and a tail; the other was dressed similarly, but with a tiger motif. Ranma cringed.
The girl with the white cat hat spotted them, and waved. "Oi, Usada! I thought you had the day off-nyo!"
Rabi~en~Rose clenched her fists briefly before smiling sweetly. "Why, I just dropped by to see how things were going, and to introduce you to Ranma-kun!"
The two girls looked up at Ranma; he suppressed a shudder. "Ah! You're that guy who's gotta marry someone to get all that money-nyo! Are you gonna marry Usada-nyo?"
Ranma blinked. "Err...well, it all depends."
"I'm certainly going to do my best to convince him to," the bunny-girl giggled, clinging to Ranma's arm and winking up at him.
"Usada pads her bra-nyo."
Rabi~en~Rose glared at the kitty-girl. "I. Do. NOT!" She shot a fierce gaze up at Ranma. "You can tell I don't, can't you Ranma-kun?"
Ranma sweatdropped even more. "Err—well—yeah, I guess so."
"See, Dejiko?" the pink-haired girl said, standing tall and putting a hand to her chest impressively, her nose pointed in the air. "Ranma-kun knows what a real woman looks like. OHOHOHOHO!"
Ranma felt a tug on his jacket, and blinked. He looked down to see the younger girl, the one with the tiger-striped hat, looking up at him imploringly. "How can you tell without touching them-nyu?"
Ranma stared. "Err..."
"Yeah! You gotta touch 'em-nyo!" Dejiko declared, pointing dramatically at Ranma, then at Rabi~en~Rose.
The bunny-girl flushed. "Err. I, uh." She cleared her throat. "Ne, Ranma-kun? I think we should let these girls get back to work now, don't you?"
Ranma blinked. "Uh..yeah. Good idea."
Dejiko grinned triumphantly and waved. "Bye, Ranma! Bye Usada! Have fun today-nyo!"
"Goodbye-nyu," the smaller girl said, also waving. Rabi~en~Rose dragged Ranma forcefully away from the booth.
"Wicked little bitch," she muttered once they were out of earshot.
Ranma declined comment.
* * * * *
They spent two hours at the convention, during which Rabi~en~Rose posed for photographs with several overweight gaming geeks and Ranma had to discipline two guys that tried to get fresh with her (she'd cooed enthusiastically and clung tightly to his arm when he did so, gushing and simpering about how she was "so scared"). After they'd visited every booth and display, they returned to the parking lot, where Michaels and LIMO-Z were waiting at the curb.
"Have fun?" Michaels grinned.
Ranma shrugged. "I'm just glad we're gonna go eat now. I'm hungry."
Half an hour later, they pulled up to Motomori Tokyo. "I heard about this place," Ranma said as they got out of the car. "Ain't this th' place that guy from Bronze Cook runs?"
"Yep!" Rabi~en~Rose said. "It's very popular and trendy, and absolutely anybody who's anybody eats here!"
"Which is why you wanna eat here," Ranma said with a smirk.
"Of course!" the bunny-girl said, giggling.
The inside of the restaurant was decorated in a haphazard modern style. Different colors of bright paint spattered the walls, large glazed ceramic pots in every color of the rainbow stood in the corners, bearing enormous plants, and plasma televisions hung every few metres, displaying bizarre art which changed every few minutes. The main dining room was full of small round tables with padded chairs, and the maitre'd who escorted them to their table wore a loud, metallic red jacket and bowtie which made Ranma feel as though his leisure suit was positively mundane.
Ranma winced as he saw the prices in the menu. He'd never have been able to afford to eat here before the inheritance. He then goggled at some of the items being offered. "Hot dog sushi? Sushi dogs with chili? Seaweed burger with tofu? What th' hell?"
"Motomori-san is the father of what he calls Japanamerican cuisine. He perfected his recipes in America," Rabi~en~Rose said.
Ranma shook his head. "This is some weird—hello, barbecued octopus with black beans and rice. That sounds good."
"I've always wanted to try the grilled macaroni noodles with soy cheddar sauce and tuna, myself," his date replied.
"Southwest-style okonomiyaki," Ranma read off the menu. "Seasoned beef, onions, bell peppers, salsa, tortilla, guacamole, wasabi, and okonomiyaki sauce." He shrugged. "Sounds...like it has a lotta sauce."
A few minutes later, they ordered; a waiter deposited a pitcher of iced green tea on their table and departed. Ranma poured a glass for his date, then for himself. "So why d'ya wanna be an idol so bad?"
The bunny-girl sipped her tea thoughtfully. "I want to be famous and popular," she said. "I want the whole world to adore me. I want to hear thousands of happy boys and girls shouting 'Rabi~en~Rose, we love you!'" She clasped her hands together and sighed dreamily.
Ranma sweatdropped. "I dunno if I could get useta that," he said. "I only gotta worry about a couple dozen people as it is, an' it gets on my nerves a lot."
Rabi~en~Rose tilted her head and blinked curiously at Ranma. "Eh?"
"My family, my old fiancee, her family, another old fiancee, a buncha crazy people after me tryin' t' marry me or kill me or both—that's what my life was like before that old man died."
The food arrived. Ranma looked at the sauce-laden mess that was the Southwest okonomiyaki, cringed, and decided to sample the barbecued octopus first. "Hmm. This ain't too bad."
The pink-haired girl began delicately eating her grilled macaroni. "You were engaged before?" she asked.
"Yeah. Our pops set it up. An' Oyaji engaged me t' some other girls too. Then they all treat me like it's my fault, an' try t' make me choose between 'em..." He shook his head. "It was hell, I tellya."
"Oh, that's so sad," Rabi~en~Rose said. "But what happened after that? I mean—"
"Th' old man's will," Ranma said. "He knew all about my fiancees an' stuff, an' made it so if I was gonna get th' money an' stuff, I hadda marry, but not one'a them."
A bit of tuna fell from the bunny-girl's chopsticks. "And you dumped your fiancee just like that, for money?"
"Hell no," Ranma said bitterly. "I ain't that greedy. But me an' Oyaji an' a lotta th' people I know have done some pretty messed up stuff, y'know? So these government guys, they said I either gotta do the marriage thing an' everyone gets a clean slate, or refuse, an' we all hang."
Rabi~en~Rose's eyes widened. "That's terrible!"
Ranma shrugged. "I was pretty pissed off at first, but..." He sighed. "I'm startin' t' think maybe it's better this way. Make a clean break, y'know? My life was pretty screwed up before, but th' last few weeks've been pretty nice, an' I'm meetin' some girls who ain't too bad." He smiled at his date, who blushed prettily. "I mean, yeah, I don't reckon I'll ever be free from my old life, an' there's some things I don't think even bein' th' richest guy in th' world can fix, an' I do kinda miss some things, but..." He paused to sample the mess of sauces and meat and tortilla on his plate. "I guess I was stuck in a rut, y'know? All this's been a real adventure. An' I don't mean th' kind where ya nearly get killed every few seconds."
He felt something touch his hand, and looked up. Rabi~en~Rose had placed her hand on his, and was smiling at him genuinely, sincerely, with warmth in her eyes. "I really hope everything works out for you, Ranma-kun. You're a nice guy."
Ranma smiled back at her. "Thanks."
* * * * *
The crowd was insanely loud as Ranma and Rabi~en~Rose walked into the packed, standing-room-only amphitheater where the popular rock band Purple Fuckmuffins was performing. "I don't know much about music," Ranma had admitted in the car.
"Oh, you'll love these guys, they're the best!" his date had replied.
"Reckon we'll be able t' hear th' band over th' crowd?" Ranma asked the bunny-girl in a raised voice.
"They'll settle down—HEY! Who just touched my butt?!"
"Sorry, that was me," a girl in a school uniform behind them said, waving sheepishly.
Rabi~en~Rose smiled at her. "It's okay, accidents happen."
The girl blushed. "No, I was actually trying to touch his butt," she replied, pointing at Ranma. She then quickly pushed her way through the crowd and disappeardd.
Ranma stared after her, eyes wide.
Rabi~en~Rose looked at him, an eyebrow raised. "Now there's a thought."
The bunny-girl giggled. Ranma shook his head, laughing, and the band emerged onto the stage to a tidal wave of cheers.
Purple Fuckmuffins consisted of three men and two women; the male lead singer had long, stringy purple hair, sequined bellbottoms which were ripped and torn at the knees and butt, the biggest, dorkiest platform shoes Ranma had ever seen, and no shirt (the word 'FUCK' was tattooed across his chest). The bass player, a girl, had dark hair with purple highlights, a low-cut purple top, ripped jeans, and platform shoes (*what IS it with people and those shoes?* Ranma wondered). The other girl in the band, as well as one of the guys, wore huge purple muffin-shaped hats, and the last member of the band had tall, spiky green hair and two rings in each eyebrow.
"He's so dreamy," a girl nearby gushed; her friends giggled.
"Girls LIKE guys that look like that?" Ranma asked.
"Uh-huh!" Rabi~en~Rose said with a silly smile. "Oh, but I think you're a lot more handsome, Ranma-kun," she added.
"Thanks," Ranma replied, sweatdropping.
The band began to play a loud, energetic rock song about bread and sex. Ranma blinked at the lyrics, but after a few minutes, ignored them in favor of watching the way the people around him were reacting. There was a lot of dancing and thrashing and cheering; next to him, Rabi~en~Rose was doing an odd, complicated little dance which caused her bunny ears and ponytails to thrash about wildly, her skirt to swoosh and swirl, and her chest to bounce distractingly—she didn't have a lot there, but what she had was being put to most effective use. Ranma flushed and looked away, deciding to focus on the band. The bass player was thrashing about as she played (her rather large bosom was bouncing quite violently); the lead singer was gyrating wildly, his long hair flailing around in a manner that reminded Ranma of Kabuki performers.
The song ended to wild applause; the singer made a joke Ranma didn't get but which caused most of the audience to giggle, then motioned to the rest of the band. They began playing a slow tune, and the singer crooned softly (something about love and bakeries). Rabi~en~Rose tugged at his arm; he turned to her. "What's up?"
"Um...wanna dance?" she asked, pointing at the people around them, many of whom had paired off and were slow-dancing clumsily to the music.
"Er...sure," Ranma replied. He'd never danced before; it was a bit of a clumsy affair, but as soon as he and his date (who didn't seem to know what she was doing either) had figured out where to put their hands, they were moving slowly in place in rhythm to the music.
Ranma looked down at her, smiling softly. *She IS kinda cute. Weird, but cute. And pretty nice, too.*
The song went on for several minutes, and when it ended, Ranma didn't remove his arm from around his date.
* * * * *
After the concert, Michaels drove them to the very trendy, very high-profile Hard Cock Cafe. As they approached, they noticed that the Purple Fuckmuffins' tour bus was also pulling up to the restaurant. "Ooh, they're coming here too!" Rabi~en~Rose squealed.
Dinner was less of an adventure than lunch had been, although Ranma couldn't help but notice that whatever his date was drinking appeared to be alcoholic, as she was starting to develop a brilliant pink flush and was giggling tipsily at everything he said. By the time they were ready to leave, it was getting quite dark out.
They pulled up to the apartment where Rabi~en~Rose lived an hour later. As they did, she turned to Ranma and said quietly, "I had a really good time today, Ranma-kun."
"Yeah, I did too," Ranma replied. "It was a lotta fun."
The bunny-girl looked down at her feet for a minute, idly kicking at the back of the seat in front of her. "I hope—I hope I get to have lots more fun with Ranma-kun," she said. Suddenly, Rabi~en~Rose shifted around, drawing her legs up into the seat. She began crawling slowly across it towards Ranma on all fours, catlike. Ranma eyed her nervously. "Err—"
She reached up, wrapped her arms around him, and drew him toward her, lips pursed...
A pane of thick black glass rose up between the front and rear of the car, blocking the driver and the brightly-lit dashboard from view as the pink-haired girl drew closer...closer...
Ranma's eyes widened.
* * * * *
Almost an hour later, as LIMO-Z pulled away and began to head back to the manor, the glass pane lowered, and Michaels glanced into the back seat. "So, have a good time?"
Ranma grinned, though it was somewhat strained. He was busily adjusting his suit, which had become somewhat rumpled. "Well, y'know what they say about rabbits..."
The Fourth Date: Onna-Guy, Teacher
Two weeks ago...
"Didja...*gulp,smack* see those pamphlets a lotta the girls have with 'em lately?" the brown-haired woman asked, smacking her lips noisily as she devoured an entire croquette as quickly as she could pick it up.
Her companion took a sip from a glass of cola, frowning. "Yeah, I have. What do you think about all that?"
The brown-haired woman drained her glass and slammed it down on the table. "I think it's a crime to waste such an opportunity on the young! It's those of us who work hard to make the world a better place that deserve the honor and glory and—" She belched loudly.
Her companion raised an eyebrow. "You just like the idea of being rich, don't you?"
"Absolutely!" the drunk woman cheered.
The other woman sighed, running a hand through her short, blue-black hair. "You have absolutely no shame, you know?"
They sat in silence for a while longer.
"I put your name in too, by the way," the brown-haired woman slurred.
"I mean, you haven't had a date since—"
"HOLD ON A MINUTE!" The dark-haired woman stood, slamming her palms on the table. "What makes you think you can just—that you can—"
"Calm down, calm down. It's not like an old bag like you has a chance, is it? It's just a funny joke."
"Old—old bag?" An eyebrow twitched ominously. "Old...bag?"
Ten minutes later, the two women were bodily thrown from the kissaten by the owner, and informed they were never welcome to eat there again. They were still pulling at each others' faces by the time they reached the train station.
* * * * *
She was surprised when she found a letter in her mailbox one day from the Ministry of Financial Affairs. She was even more surprised when she scanned its contents:
We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected as an ALTERNATE candidate for Project Ranmadate.
ALTERNATE candidacy means that you are not on the list of thirty candidates who will be dating Saotome-san. However, should any of those thirty be removed from consideration for any reason, you may be selected to take her place on the list.
We thank you for your interest in Project Ranmadate.
Even though her name had been entered without her consent, it was somehow flattering to be chosen, even as an alternate, to be a possible bride for a young man who was about to be insanely wealthy.
She wasn't that obsessive about material things, after all, but everyone had a right to dream, didn't they?
And so, that night, as she went to sleep, her dreams were full of images of beautiful wedding gowns, a church full of flowers and all her friends and family, her favorite students in bridesmaids' dresses...
* * * * *
The phone rang.
Kuromaki reached the ornate brass telephone in the foyer before it had a chance to ring a second time and picked up the receiver. "Saotome Manor," he said.
A slim eyebrow quirked as he listened to the caller. "Indeed. I see. So then—yes—very good. And what should I tell Master Ranma, sir? Alright. Yes. I understand. Thank you. Good day."
Ranma came downstairs just as he was hanging up, dressed in neat slacks and a polo shirt, his hair in a sleek ponytail. "Yo, Kuromaki."
"Good morning, Master Ranma." The butler bowed. "I regret to inform you there will be a—delay in today's proceedings."
The younger man blinked. "A delay? How come?"
Kuromaki's lips quirked into a wry smile. "The candidate whom you were supposed to be meeting today has been—err—removed from consideration."
"Removed?" Ranma frowned. "Why? What happened?"
"Well..." Kuromaki coughed. "It seems the lady has a son close to your age, and was keeping her participation in all this a secret. When one of our drivers arrived to pick her up, her son—well—" The smile on his face became more of a grimace. "Reacted violently to the news."
"Wait a sec—she has a son MY age?" Ranma looked sick. "How old's this woman, anyway?"
"Twenty-nine according to her profile. Apparently she was quite young at the time she—"
"Okay, I gotcha. So then what?"
"Well, young Master Urameshi was quite set against his mother dating someone your age—he seemed to feel it was inappropriate. So he, err..."
"He didn't do nothin' t' his mom, did he?" Ranma asked, looking shocked.
"Oh, no, sir. He did, however, destroy one of our limousines."
"With his bare hands, I might add."
Ranma blinked. "Wow. I'd like t' meet this guy sometime."
"Indeed. But perhaps this would not be a prudent time for such an encounter."
The martial artist chuckled. "Yeah, I guess not. So—what happens now? I mean, does this mean I ain't got a date today?"
"There are several alternate candidates, Master Ranma, in the event something of this nature should occur. One of the alternates is being contacted by Kuroboshi-dono at this moment. Your date for today will begin somewhat later than scheduled, but you will indeed meet a young lady today, I assure you."
Ranma shrugged. "Okay, cool. I guess I'm gonna watch some TV until we hear back from Kuroboshi then."
"Very good, sir."
* * * * *
The phone rang.
"Well...I mean...it's awful sudden..."
"I didn't say that! I mean—I—alright. Yes."
* * * * *
"I have news, Master Ranma," Kuromaki said briskly as he entered the television lounge on the second floor.
Ranma looked up from where he was sitting idly on his head, legs folded above him, watching a space cowboy anime of some sort. "Yeah?"
Kuromaki raised at eyebrow as Ranma's odd position, but continued, unruffled. "An alternate candidate has agreed to meet you today, and will be arriving within the hour. The kitchen staff is preparing lunch for the two of you. From there, it will be up to you and the young lady to decide what to do."
Ranma pushed himself off the floor with his hands, did a flip and a twist in midair, and landed easily on his feet. "Okay, cool."
Kuromaki bowed, and Ranma followed him out into the corridor.
* * * * *
"Miss Kurosawa Minamo, sir."
As the butler retreated to his quarters, Ranma sized up the woman before him. She was quite obviously older than himself, though certainly not too much older, and quite attractive. She had short blue-black hair (which caused Ranma a brief twinge of discomfort), bright, alert dark eyes, and a trim, athletic figure. She was wearing brown slacks and a cream-colored blouse, and looked somewhat nervous and overwhelmed.
"It's nice to meet you," she said, bowing.
Ranma returned the bow, and smiled. "Hey, ya hungry? They got a little lunch ready for us."
"Ah...of course," the woman said with a nervous smile.
Ranma offered his arm, which she took blushingly. The two of them followed Kuromaki to one of the smaller dining rooms on the ground floor.
As they walked, Ranma commented, "Betcha you weren't expectin' t' be here today, were ya?"
"N-no, I wasn't," she replied, slightly flustered. "Truthfully, I—" She paused. "Well, anyway, I'm here. This place really is amazing."
"Yeah, ain't it? I'm still not used t' it yet. In fact—" He looked around the small, elegant room they had just entered, which had a mahogany table that would seat no more than four in the center, surrounded by chairs upholstered with royal blue brocaded cloth, "I ain't never even seen this room before, come t' think of it."
Minamo laughed softly. Ranma pulled a chair out for her, and she sat down. As Ranma seated himself across from her, a woman wearing a white uniform and an apron walked in pushing a serving cart, from which she began placing dishes on the table. She uncovered the dishes, revealing a number of sumptuous delights—skewered grilled chicken and vegetables, tempura shrimp, croquettes, a steaming pot of rice, an array of sauces in clear glass bowls, an assortment of sushi, and two large bowls of curry udon.
"Looks good," Ranma commented, placing a cloth napkin in his lap as he reached for a pair of red-and-black lacquered chopsticks.
Minamo boggled at the feast. "This is a little lunch?"
Ranma grinned. "Far as I'm concerned one o' th' best things about this bein' rich thing is th' food." Minamo laughed. "So, tell me somethin' about yourself."
"Oh—" the dark-haired woman frowned thoughtfully, selecting a croquette and putting it on her plate. "Well, I'm a gym teacher. I also coach the swim club at the school where I teach."
"No kiddin'!" Ranma said, popping two bites of chicken and a whole water chestnut in his mouth. "Man, I wish th' gym teachers at some o' th' schools I've gone to had been as pretty as you."
Minamo flushed. "Th-thank you, Saotome-san."
"Just call me Ranma." He paused for a sip of tea. "So, Sensei, what sports do you do?"
"Well, I like just about any sport in general, really," Minamo said, carefully picking at her curry udon. "Swimming, obviously, but I also like volleyball and basketball. Softball's fun too, as long as everyone's behaving themselves."
Ranma grinned. "Heh—reminds me of a time I was sittin' with th' guys watchin' th' girls play ball, an' caught a foul with my face."
"There's a little too much of that at my school," Minamo admitted. "Some of the students are a little...well...spirited. But they're good kids, really."
Ranma nodded, working on his own curry udon now.
"So tell me something about yourself, Ranma-san. I—well—I never actually got to read the brochure."
Ranma blinked. "Oh?"
Minamo shook her head. "Actually, a friend of mine put my name in for this without asking me." She flushed. "But when I got chosen as an alternate, I decided I didn't mind TOO terribly." She smiled, seizing a bit of shrimp in her chopsticks.
"Heh." Ranma paused. "Well, ain't much t' tell. I'm a martial artist, been trainin' with my old man all my life, had a bunch o' crazy, stupid stuff happen t'me that'd take too long t' tell about an' you probably wouldn't believe me anyway..." He shrugged. "An' then one day, this old rich guy dies, leaves me everythin' he owns, I ain't never met him or nothin' like that, ain't related—but I gotta get married t' get th' money an' stuff. Not that I care that much about bein' rich," he added. "I got other reasons for goin' along with this whole thing."
"Reasons such as meeting a lot of eligible women?" Minamo asked teasingly.
Ranma flushed. "Well, it ain't been as bad as I thought it could be so far."
The teacher quirked an eyebrow. "That's an odd way for a boy your age to react to your situation."
The teenager shrugged. "I'm an odd kinda guy." He paused. "So, whatcha wanna do this afternoon? We can go anywhere an' do anythin' you want, just name it."
Minamo sipped her tea. "I really have no idea, Ranma-san," she replied. "I was caught a bit flat-footed by this, and don't really know what—" She paused. "Why don't you decide?"
"Hmm." Ranma popped half a croquette in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "Well, we got a gym here. Wanna goof off a bit? Play a little one-on-one or somethin'?"
The gym teacher smiled. "That sounds like fun." She paused. "Though I'm not exactly dressed for it..."
"Hmm." He paused, then snapped his fingers. "Hold up. Yo, Kuromaki!" he called, more loudly.
"Yes, sir?" the butler replied, appearing instantly.
"Don't reckon we got some gym clothes that'd fit Sensei here? We're thinkin' o' goin' out t' th' gym after lunch."
Kuromaki nodded. "There is a full wardrobe in the guest wing for both male and female visitors. There should be something suitable in there."
"Do you require anything else, sir?"
"Nah, we're cool."
"Very good, sir."
As Kuromaki departed, Minamo stared after him. "I don't know if I could ever get used to that," she said.
Ranma shrugged. "You can get used ta anythin' after a while...trust me."
* * * * *
After they finished eating, Haruka led Minamo to the guest wardrobe, while Ranma headed for his own room to change into his more familiar clothes and re-braid his hair. A half hour later, he met up with the gym teacher in the foyer; she was dressed in dark blue track pants with white stripes, white sneakers, and a light gray sweatshirt. She also seemed to be more composed; Ranma reasoned that she probably felt more in her element in gym clothes, just as he did in his usual Chinese outfits.
"Ready?" he asked. Minamo nodded.
They headed to the gym, which was connected to the manor proper by an enclosed walkway. As they walked down the corridor, Minamo looked through the windows on either side. "Ah! What a beautiful garden," she enthused.
"Yeah, it's pretty cool," Ranma replied.
"Oh, and you have a pool too!"
"Got three pools, actually," Ranma said. "Great big outdoor pool an' two smaller ones inside. One's cold all year, one's hot all year."
"Very nice!" Minamo said, impressed.
They entered the gym, and Ranma dashed to the equipment closet while Minamo walked out to center court. A moment later, the pigtailed boy returned, twirling a basketball idly on one finger. "I gotta admit I don't play much," Ranma said. "Not usually my thing."
The gym teacher grinned. "Don't worry, I'll go easy on you."
Ranma grinned back at her. "Twenty-one points?" At her nod, he passed the ball to her, then stood waiting.
Minamo dribbled for a moment, then broke down the court, cutting a wide arc.
To her surprise, the ball disappeared out from under her. She turned and saw Ranma keeping pace with her, grinning broadly. He sprinted around her, easily evading her attempts to steal back the ball, then leapt into the air as he crossed the free-throw line, slamming the ball through the hoop and catching it easily as he landed.
The gym teacher blinked. "Not bad," she admitted.
Ranma grinned, and passed her the ball again. This time, she managed to keep him from stealing it, as she was on her guard now. She shot from the free-throw line, and was sure she was about to score—
Ranma suddenly sprang into the air, grabbed the ball just before it touched the backboard, spun around, and lazily sank a mid-air layup.
"Gotta work harder if you wanna beat me, Sensei," Ranma said, grinning.
And so it went for nearly half an hour. Minamo occasionally managed to guard the ball long enough to score, having learned that keeping Ranma off the ball was easiest if she didn't let go of it until she was at the hoop. Ranma, for his part, was enjoying himself, and didn't seem to be working up a sweat, while the gym teacher was beginning to feel drenched—she hadn't played this hard since college.
Finally, Ranma shot a three-pointer for the win, and turned to the dark-haired woman, grinning. "You're pretty good alright," he said.
"You're amazing, Ranma-kun!" Minamo said. "You—you should play professionally!"
Ranma shrugged. "Nah. Not my thing. Too easy." At the teacher's stare, he laughed. "I've been jumpin' like that since I was a little kid, Sensei. Th' family school specializes in midair combat. These little jumps ain't nothin' for a Saotome."
"If I hadn't seen how easy it was for you, I'd think you were bragging," Minamo said, an eyebrow raised.
"So, whatcha wanna do now? Volleyball?"
The teacher laughed. "Noooo no, one crushing defeat was humiliating enough." She smirked. "Though I bet I could beat you in the water for sure."
Ranma suddenly went pale. "Eh...heh. You...wanna go swimming, I take it."
Minamo shrugged, sighing. "I wouldn't mind a nice dip in the pool to cool off after that game. Why, something wrong with swimming?"
"Err..." Ranma coughed. "Well..."
"Oh, I get it!" The dark-haired woman giggled. "You're embarrassed about wearing a swimsuit in front of me, right? Or maybe it's the thought of me in a swimsuit, hmm?" She poked him in the chest with an index finger teasingly, winking.
"N—no, it's not that," the pigtailed boy said, flushing. "It's..."
"Don't tell me you don't know how to swim," Minamo said, eyes wide.
"Hell no! I can swim just fine! It's just that—"
"Well, let's go swimming then! Come on, Ranma-kun, there's nothing to be afraid of!"
With that, she began heading back to the manor. Ranma sighed heavily and followed.
* * * * *
Kuromaki looked up as the pair entered the foyer. "Did you enjoy your game?" he asked.
"Yeah, it was fun," Ranma said. "Listen, we—er—gotta get a couple'a swimsuits."
"Going for a swim?" Kuromaki asked, raising an eyebrow. "Would this be in the heated pool, or in—"
"The outdoor pool," Minamo said forcefully, an eager gleam in her eyes.
"What she said," Ranma echoed in a somewhat defeated tone. "An'—an' y'know I only got th' one suit, an' it's a bit—well, I think I could use a new one too."
"Of course, sir. Shall I have Haruka escort you to the guest wardrobe?"
"No—no, it's okay. We know the way. Just kinda keep everyone clear for a bit, okay?" Ranma asked, flushing slightly.
"Of course, Master Ranma."
As they made their way upstairs, Minamo turned to Ranma inquisitively. "What's wrong, Ranma-kun? You're acting awfully strangely all of a sudden."
Ranma sighed. "I just hate this part. I never know how people're gonna react, an' it's embarrassin'."
Minamo stopped him. "What's embarrassing, Ranma-kun?" she asked. "Tell me what's wrong. Maybe I can help."
The pigtailed boy snorted. "I wish." He sighed. "It's just that—well, there's somethin' you gotta understand about me an' water."
"You're afraid of—"
"I ain't afraid o' nothin'!" Ranma cut across her hotly. "No, it's somethin' else." Sighing, he pushed open the door to one of the many lavatories on the second floor, and began filling a small glass with cold water. He turned to Minamo and said quietly, "Y'see—"
He poured the water on himself.
The gym teacher's eyes widened, then contracted to tiny specks as she stared at the damp redhead.
"—cold water turns me inta a girl."
* * * * *
Minamo stared, her mind racing.
When she'd seen the enormous pool on the grounds, she felt a pang of longing—even though she spent more time in the water than any other teacher she knew, swimming was one thing she never quite got enough of.
She'd felt sure that Ranma would jump at the chance to go swimming with her; she wasn't as terribly vain as some people she could name, but she knew for a fact she looked damn good in a swimsuit. A plan had begun to form in her mind; she'd get Ranma to go swimming with her, show off her talent in the water—the younger man seemed to respect athletic skill—and show off her sexy body at the same time, and she'd be sure to win.
Not that it mattered if she won or not, after all. She was enjoying herself, and given she hadn't even signed up for this herself in the first place, she didn't feel compelled to go for the gold. But still, a bit of a competitive streak was just part of her nature, and this was a competition—just like any relay race, the one who kept a cool head and a steady pace would emerge victorious. She felt certain that, once in the water, she'd be in total control of the game, with a clear shot at the finish line.
Then the rules had changed, and all it had taken was a cup of cold water.
The redhead turned the hot water tap, waited for the water to heat up, then filled the glass again. Ranma poured the hot water over herself, and was suddenly male again.
Minamo's eyes contracted further, her jaw agape, her hair frizzing violently as she trembled, staring at the pigtailed boy.
"Hot water changes me back," Ranma replied. "But since we're gonna be swimmin' in th' big pool..." He turned the cold tap again, filled the glass, and—
Minamo tried to say something, anything, but all that came out was a small squeak.
This, she hadn't expected. In her mind's eye, the finish line suddenly vanished from sight, reappearing hundreds of meters away, and a chorus of laughing voices echoed in her head, one of them sounding suspiciously like Yukari.
Ranma was watching her, apparently waiting for her to speak. After what felt like an eternity, she finally managed, "H-how?"
The redhead took a deep breath. "There's a place in China called Jusenkyo..."
* * * * *
Ranma explained the curse and how it worked to the stunned Minamo, and after the shock wore off, she seemed able to accept it, though she was still a bit rattled.
"And there's no cure for it?" she asked.
Ranma sighed. "Haven't found one yet."
"Well—" Minamo fished around for something encouraging to say. "It could be worse, couldn't it?"
The redhead laughed. "Yeah, it could. I mean, at least I don't turn inta a panda or somethin' like that. You got any idea how bad my pop stinks when he's wet?"
Minamo giggled, though it was a strained sort of giggle. "Well, let's find some suits so we can go swimming, ne?"
Ranma smiled. "Yeah, okay."
Several minutes later, the two women stood in the guest wardrobe, a spacious room containing racks upon racks of clothes. "Wow, I ain't never seen THIS either!" Ranma exclaimed.
"I was surprised too," Minamo replied. "It almost looks like someone bought out an entire clothing store and moved it all in here."
"That's probably about what happened," Ranma said, nodding. "I guess it's like they say—if you got it, flaunt it. Th' old man sure as hell had it."
Minamo found a rack of swimsuits and began looking through them. "Ah, some of these are so cute! Oh, but this one's way too small for me."
Ranma perused the rack beside her. "Lotsa choices here. Hmm, this one's my size. This one too. So's—" She paused. "Hey, wait a sec. These are ALL my size!"
Minamo blinked at the redhead. "All—?"
"Yeah. But why—" Ranma's eyes widened, and an angry flush crept up her face. "That old pervert!"
"Th' old man knew about my curse. I'll just bet—" Ranma growled. "Dammit, why do old guys all gotta be such freaks?"
Minamo nodded sagely. "It does seem that way sometimes, doesn't it? You should see this one teacher at my school—" She paused, pulling a suit off the rack. "Ah! This'll work." She held it up to her chest, smiling and turning to the redhead. "What do you think?"
Ranma looked over at her. Minamo was holding a one-piece swimsuit that was half blue and half black, divided by a diagonal double white stripe across the torso which crossed the left breast. "Not bad." She turned back to her own rack of swimsuits, grumbling under her breath, before pulling out a bright red suit with "WILD CHERRY" across the front in big pink letters. "I'll take this one." She looked around the room, musing, "Yanno, I could use a lotta this stuff next time I hafta play th' girl game."
"The 'girl game'?" Minamo asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah. I hate this curse, but sometimes it comes in handy—times I gotta act like a girl, mess with someone's head or somethin'." She nodded. "Yeah, I'll hafta remember about this." Turning to Minamo, she asked, "Ready t' go t' th' pool?"
"Lead the way," the gym teacher replied, grinning.
* * * * *
They changed into their swimsuits in private rooms by the pool, then headed out. Minamo studied Ranma closely; she felt a twinge of jealousy at the fact that the younger girl's chest was as impressive as her own. Then she reminded herself that Ranma was really a boy and probably didn't care how big her chest was. She frowned as she realized that Ranma also probably wouldn't be nearly as interested in her own body as she'd hoped, since she'd probably long since become desensitized to the sight of female flesh.
Ranma grinned at her, then bounded over to the high diving board. One jump carried her to the top, where she landed precariously, bending the board almost to the breaking point. Then, with a joyous shout of "CANNONBALL!", she sprang off the platform, launching herself so high in the air she became a dark speck against the sun, before plummeting toward the pool, body curled into a tight ball, spinning rapidly as she descended. With a tremendous SPLASH!, the redhead impacted with the pool, sending huge sheets of water skyward.
Minamo applauded. "Nice dive!" she called.
The pigtailed girl broke the surface, grinning back at her as she began lazily backstroking. "Thanks. Your turn!"
The gym teacher smiled, then headed for the high dive platform, climbing the ladder quickly. Once she was in position, she glanced down at the pool, noticing Ranma watching her carefully. She tensed for a moment, then leapt, keeping her body perfectly straight, her hands together. She split the water neatly, making as little of a splash as possible, then swam to the bottom and came up behind the redhead. As soon as she broke the surface, she sent a spray of water at Ranma, who yelped.
"Ack!" Ranma turned, glaring at her. "Very funny," she said, sticking out her tongue. Minamo laughed. Ranma smirked, then splashed her twice. With a giggle, the older woman disappeared under the surface again, a playful smirk on her face. Ranma tensed—
Then shrieked and laughed as she felt the swim coach tickling her feet underwater. She splashed around a bit, laughing, then dropped underwater, evading the tickle attack. She spotted Minamo underwater and gave her an evil grin, then charged toward her...
The two women spent nearly an hour and a half chasing each other around the pool, occasionally coming up for air, laughing, then going back under to resume their game. Minamo was surprised that Ranma was nearly as good a swimmer as she was—maybe even just a bit better—but she still managed to stay ahead of the redhead fairly easily.
Eventually, she broke the surface, smiling. "I give, I give!" she called to Ranma, who had just surfaced a meter away. "You're a really good swimmer, Ranma-kun!"
"Thanks." Ranma sighed. "I don't go swimmin' much anymore cuz'a th' curse. But I guess th' swim t' China kinda wore me out on swimmin' anyway..."
Minamo blinked. "The—swim to—WHERE?!"
"That's how Oyaji an' me got t' China in th' first place," Ranma explained. "We swam. We took a boat back, though, cuz'a Oyaji bein' a panda an'...well, we had other reasons t' take a faster way back."
The gym teacher's eyes contracted again. "You. Swam. To China."
Minamo shook herself. "Help me out of the pool, Ranma-kun."
"...eh?" The redhead looked at her, confused.
"I don't want to faint until I'm out of the water."
* * * * *
A short while later, Minamo emerged from the changing room, freshly showered, dried off, and dressed. Ranma was waiting for her, male again, smiling. "Thanks for going swimming with me, Ranma-kun."
"Hey, I enjoyed it. Like I said, it's not somethin' I get t' do a lot anymore." He offered his arm. "I reckon they probably got dinner ready for us by now, since it's gettin' kinda late."
Minamo nodded. "I worked up an appetite in the pool."
"Me too," Ranma said with a chuckle.
They returned to the small dining room and found, to their surprise, a Western dinner spread waiting for them: a large beef roast, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, baked potatoes, sweet peas, a large bowl of salad, hot corn on the cob, a basket of rolls, a boat of rich brown gravy, and a bottle of champagne.
"Wow," Minamo said.
"Man, Imozuki must be cookin' tonight," Ranma said as he held out a chair for the older woman. "Dude's a potato freak." He sat down across from her, and eyed the champagne dubiously. "Err..."
Kuromaki suddenly appeared with a corkscrew, popped the cork, filled two glasses with champagne, and left. Ranma and Minamo stared after him.
The pigtailed boy shook his head. "It really creeps me out when he does that," he muttered.
"What, open a bottle of champagne?" Minamo asked as she placed a large slice of roast on her plate.
"I mean th' poppin' up outta nowhere thing," Ranma replied, helping himself to the mashed potatoes.
They spent several minutes in companionable silence, filling their plates and eating, the clink and clatter of knives and forks the only sound.
"Yukari'd have a fit if she knew I was having dinner in a mansion, with a handsome younger man," Minamo giggled as she sipped her champagne.
Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Yukari?"
"We've known each other since we were kids, we both teach at the same school. She teaches English." She paused for a bite of potato. "She's the one who put my name in for this. She signed up for it too, but I don't think she made it in, or she'd have been crowing about it." She shook her head.
"Gee, she just signed ya up, just like that?" Ranma asked.
"Yeah. She's always doing weird things like that. She's so annoying sometimes." Minamo paused, then flushed. "But I'm glad she did it. I mean, I've had a LOT of fun today."
Ranma smiled. "Yeah, me too. You don't mind that we didn't go someplace fancy or nothin'?"
The gym teacher stared at him. "What could possibly be fancier than this mansion?"
The pigtailed boy grinned sheepishly. "Ya got a point there," he admitted.
Minamo refilled her glass, draining half of it in one gulp. She picked up her fork again and speared a roast potato on it, but didn't eat it straight away. "She's a real pig sometimes. Yukari, I mean." She gesticulated with her fork. "And she's lazy. And messy. And immature. She welshes on bets when she loses."
"Sounds like a pain. And she's your best friend?"
"Yeah. Weird, huh?"
Ranma laughed. "At least she doesn't try ta kill ya every time she sees ya. That's how it is with me an' my pal Ryouga."
Minamo blinked. "He tries to KILL you?"
"Yeah. It gets on my nerves sometimes. But he's not a bad guy, just kinda stupid an' high-strung. He's a pain in the ass mosta th' time, but he's good t' have on your side in a pinch. An' he usually shows up right when y'could really use his help." He sipped his champagne. "So I can live with him tryin' ta kill me all th' time."
The gym teacher shook her head. "You know, Ranma-kun, you have a REALLY strange life."
Ranma snorted. "Tell me about it."
"Sometimes I think my life is strange, but now..." Minamo laughed. Her cheeks were turning quite pink. "Yeah, I got Yukari for a friend, and she's a mess, but..." She sipped her champagne again. "The kids at school are a little weird too, but I can't imagine not having them around. But those girls will be graduating this year..." She sighed, then smiled. "We go on summer holiday with them, you know? Yukari and me. One of our girls has a summer beach home, and we go there every year. But she's gonna go to America for college, so we may not get to go again."
"Mm. Well, maybe she'll come home for summer and you can all go together again then?"
Minamo brightened. "Yeah, you're right! I'm sure Chiyo-chan won't stay in America all year." She smiled. "It must seem weird to you, ne? A teacher wanting to spend summer with the kids she teaches."
"Nah. It's kinda cool, I think," Ranma replied. "Then again, you're nothin' like most'a th' teachers I know. You don't act all grown-up an' stuff. You just wanna have fun, like a kid. It's cool."
Minamo flushed. "Well, I do like to have fun. But it's important to be responsible too."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, most'a th' teachers I know don't know what fun is anymore. Except one, but she's a total nutcase. Actually," he frowned thoughtfully, "She teaches English too. Maybe English teachers are all weird, huh?"
Minamo laughed. "Maybe so."
* * * * *
After dinner, Ranma escorted Minamo out to the limousine. "I had a really good time today, Ranma-kun," Minamo said.
"Yeah, me too," he replied, holding the door open for her.
Minamo started to get into the car, but paused, a pensive look on her face. She suddenly leaned forward and gave Ranma a brief, chaste kiss, then waved. "Goodnight, Ranma-kun."
Ranma flushed, but smiled and waved back at her. "Goodnight, Sensei."
The limousine started off down the driveway. Ranma watched for a moment, then turned to head back inside, whistling to himself, hands in his pockets.
* * * * *
Once the driver had dropped her off, Minamo hummed quietly to herself as she dug her keys out of her purse. She approached her apartment door, and saw Yukari slumped against it, half-asleep.
"Yukari!" she called out in a sing-song voice, bending over and prodding the brown-haired woman.
"Snrrxz—huh? Wuzza?" Yukari glanced up. "Ah—Nyamo-chan. Where were—" She glanced past her fellow teacher, and saw a limousine pulling away from the curb. "UOOOOH!" She stood up abruptly, pointing a finger at Minamo. "WH-WH-WH-WH-WH-WH-WHERE WERE YOU THAT YOU WERE IN A LIMO?!"
Minamo smiled. "I had a date with a very nice, cool, handsome, wealthy young man today." She unlocked the door and pushed past Yukari into the apartment. As she slipped off her shoes, Yukari turned to face her, gaping.
"Handsome—wealthy—young—" Her eyes took on a very scary cast as she jabbed a finger into the short-haired woman's chest. "WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO PULL?"
Minamo took a step backward, smiling. "Thank you for setting me up with Ranma-kun, Yukari-chan. Oyasumi!" She blew her friend a kiss, winking playfully, then closed the door in her face.
Yukari stood there, blinking. "Oyasumi..." She paused, then scowled, snarling at the closed door. "WITH SAOTOME RANMA?! SCREW YOU! SCREWYOUSCREWYOUSCREWYOU!!" She kicked the door forcefully. "OWOWOWOWOW! DAMN YOU, NYAMO!" With that, she stormed off angrily.
Inside, Minamo giggled, then flopped down on her bed, fully-dressed. "Oyasumi, Ranma-kun," she muttered sleepily, hiccuping slightly.
She had very happy dreams all night.
The Fifth Date: Beans And Pornbread
"We have arrived, miss."
The chauffeur stood by the open door, waiting for the young woman in the rear of the limousine to emerge. He gave a small cough, then cleared his throat noisily.
"Err...miss...we've arrived. Please, you want to go to the manor now."
Another long pause, during which the chauffeur began to wonder whether the young woman in the back of the car could even hear him or not. Then, slowly, she stepped out, standing, looking around. She turned her brown eyes on him; he winced inwardly at the vacancy of that gaze. She then turned—slowly, so very slowly—to look at the car from which she had emerged, then—again, ever so slowly—turned back to face him, a serene smile on her face.
The young woman looked at the mansion looming before her. "Aa...it's bigger than Chiyo-chan's house..."
She walked up to the door and rang the bell.
* * * * *
"Miss Kasuga Ayumu, sir."
Ranma, clad simply in jeans and a white button-down shirt, waved at the dark-haired girl, who wore a lavender skirt and matching jacket with a white sweater. "Yo."
"O-ha," the girl greeted, raising a hand and holding it there for far longer than necessary.
Ranma chuckled. "So, whatcha wanna do today?"
Ayumu lowered her hand, and stood silently for a long moment. "Aa..."
Ranma and Kuromaki watched her, waiting for a response.
"Let's go to the moon and meet the rabbits that make mochi."
Ranma and Kuromaki facefaulted.
"I'm afraid a trip to the moon would take considerably longer than a single day, Miss Kasuga," Kuromaki said.
"Aa..." Ayumu paused, putting a finger to her chin. "Let's buy anpan and eat it."
Ranma grinned. "That sounds like a plan."
"Anpan," Ayumu repeated, turning slowly toward the door. Ranma glanced at Kuromaki, who merely raised an eyebrow, then headed toward the door.
He'd reached it by the time he realized the dark-haired girl wasn't with him. He walked back over, took hold of her arm, and led her out of the manor.
* * * * *
"Limousine," she said as they approached the waiting car.
"That's right," Ranma said. He opened the door for her; she looked around for a long moment before getting in. As Ranma got in beside her, she commented, "Not the same limousine."
"Nope, this one's special," Ranma replied.
"Where to?" Michaels asked from the driver's seat.
"Nearest konbini you can find," Ranma said. "Then to the park afterward. We're gonna have a mid-morning snack in the park."
"Anpan," Ayumu said dreamily.
"You got it," Michaels said, and LIMO-Z pulled out onto the main road.
"So, you from Osaka?" Ranma asked the dark-haired girl.
Ayumu turned slowly to look at him. "Ee." She then turned to look at the dashboard. "I live in Tokyo right now though."
"I like it here. I have lots of friends. Chiyo-chan and Tomo-chan and Yomi-chan and Sakaki-san and Kagura and—" She paused. "Yukari-sensei's a little scary though."
Ranma blinked. A couple of those names sounded familiar... *Oh yeah! She must go to the same school as—*
LIMO-Z stopped outside a convenience store, drawing a number of curious stares. "Be right back," Ranma said, hopping out of the car. He paused. "You want anything to drink?"
"Hai! Juice," Ayumu replied. "But not the carbonated ones. I can't drink the carbonated ones."
A few minutes later, Ranma returned to the car, carrying a large paper sack full of cellophane-wrapped bread rolls and a smaller plastic bag of canned drinks.
"To the park, then?" Michaels asked.
"To the park," Ranma replied with a smile.
* * * * *
Five minutes later, Ranma and Ayumu sat on a bench in the middle of a small park. There wasn't much to the place; a few trees, a flowerbed, well-tended grass, and benches dotted here and there. Very few people were in the park this morning; Ranma noted a few young mothers with their small children in strollers, an elderly lady tossing crumbs to the crows, and a heavyset middle-aged man who was jogging.
He rummaged in the bread bag and handed Ayumu a cream roll. "This okay?" he asked. "I got several kinds."
"Ookini," Ayumu replied, opening the plastic wrapper. Ranma handed her a can of hot milk tea also, then helped himself to a curry bread and a cola.
Ayumu bit into her roll. "Oishii," she said dreamily.
They sat in silence for a minute.
"So, what do you like to do?" Ranma asked.
"Y'know, hobbies an' stuff."
"Aa..." The dark-haired girl sipped her tea, then looked out across the park. "I don't know," she said at length.
Ranma blinked at her. "Er—okay."
An awkward silence descended. Ayumu reached into the bag and pulled out another bread roll. "Anpan," she said happily.
Ranma grinned, gulping his soda.
"Your name has the kanji for 'horse', ne?" Ayumu asked.
The pigtailed boy blinked at her. "Yeah, that's right."
"But you could also write it with the kanji for 'demon'."
Ranma stared at her. "Err...I guess so, yeah," he replied.
As Ranma opened another bread roll, Ayumu spoke up. "I saw an anime once where demons were doing hentai things to high school girls."
Ranma chose to ignore that comment, though he flushed slightly.
Ayumu turned to gaze at him with her large, milky-brown eyes. "Do you do hentai things to high school girls?"
Ranma choked on his bread. "OI!" he shouted. "What th' hell kinda question is that?!"
"Aa...right, you're a horse, not a demon," Ayumu replied, turning again to look at a tree.
Ranma opened a can of apple juice and tried to clear the stinging feeling from his throat.
"A lot of girls like to ride horses, though," Ayumu said at length. Ranma sprayed juice everywhere, face crimson.
Ayumu looked at him again. "But where would you put the saddle?" she mused dreamily.
Ranma coughed violently. "Err—"
"Aa! It'd go—"
"Hey, wouldja look at that!" Ranma said loudly, pointing across the park. A dark-haired boy with a spotted yellow bandanna and a heavy backpack was walking through the grass. "It's Ryouga!"
"Aa—?" Ayumu turned to look. "Aa! Maigo-san!"
Ranma blinked. "You know Ryouga?"
"Ee," Ayumu replied. "When I lived in Osaka, he came by every month looking for Tokyo."
Ranma chuckled. "Yeah, that's Ryouga alright." He then reached into the bag of bread on the bench, selected a melon bread, and chucked it across the park. "YO, RYOUGA!" he called.
The lost boy spun around, instinctively catching the projectile and snarling. "Ranma—!!"
"Maigo-san! O-ha!" Ayumu called, waving.
Ryouga blinked. "Haven't I seen you before?"
"Oh yeah, that's right." He frowned. "But then what're you doing in Osaka, Ranma?"
Ranma laughed. "We're in Tokyo, Ryouga. C'mon, sit down, eat some bread. We got plenty."
Ryouga blinked in confusion, then glanced down at his hand, and saw he was holding a wrapped bread roll. "Err—"
"Melon-pan," Ayumu said.
Ryouga stared at her, the bread dangling limply from his hand.
* * * * *
The three of them sat on the bench, the boys on opposite sides of Ayumu, all eating bread and drinking canned juice.
"So, Ranma," Ryouga said, a hint of bitterness in his voice, "Having fun with your little playboy dating thing?"
"It ain't too bad," Ranma said, blithely ignoring the lost boy's tone. "It beats th' crap I took off everyone at th' dojo."
Ryouga growled, crushing a bean paste roll in his fist. "You really are a jerk, Saotome."
"Hey, what th' hell're you pissed off about, P-chan? Akane's free now. You should be happy."
"How can I be happy when Akane is...when Akane..."
Ayumu was watching a ladybug crawl up her leg.
Ranma sighed. "Look, man. This ain't my fault. I didn't have nothin' t' do with this, alright? But they got me over a barrel. Didn't they tell ya at th' dojo?"
Ryouga shook his head. "I—ah—wasn't there long enough, and I was—" He glanced at Ayumu. "—indisposed."
Ranma snorted. "It boils down t' me doin' this, or all of us hangin' for stuff Oyaji did, stuff Nabiki did, all th' crap you an' me an' everyone else broke fightin'..."
Ryouga blinked. "What're you talking about, Ranma?"
"I mean, the black suits that told me I hafta get married said my mom and pop, Tendou-san, and Nabiki go t' jail if I don't do it, an' th' rest of us probably go too, 'cuz'a stuff we've done—you know how much stuff we break when we fight."
Ryouga winced. "I—yeah."
"So, they said if I go along with this, they pay off anyone that needs payin' off, throw out th' records, an' we all get off clean."
"So—you're doing this to protect everyone?"
"More or less." Ranma sipped his juice. "I won't pretend it hasn't been fun, though, 'cuz it has. I've been meetin' some pretty int'restin' gals." He glanced at Ayumu, who was still watching the ladybug crawling up her leg.
Ryouga was glancing at her now as well. "Er—yeah." He stood, brushing crumbs from his hands and pants, then nodded to them. "Well, I'd best be off. I should probably go find Akane."
Ranma nodded. "Take care of her, man."
Ryouga started to say something, apparently thought better of it, then turned and left.
Ranma crumpled his empty juice can and tossed it in a nearby bin.
"Ne, Ranma, is the place he's lookin' for in Tokyo?"
The pigtailed boy blinked. Ayumu was now watching him, having flicked the ladybug off her knee a moment before. "Err-yeah."
"Aa." Ayumu glanced up, staring off into the distance. "He must want to go to Fujiyama first, then," she continued.
Ranma shrugged. "He gets lost."
Ayumu pointed southwest. "Tokyo." She pointed directly south. "Kyoto." She then pointed north. "Fujiyama."
"Eh-heh...yeah, somethin' like that." He glanced at her. "You really know your directions, huh?"
She stared at him with her milky brown eyes. "I guessed."
* * * * *
After they finished all the bread and drinks, they returned to the limo. Ranma asked Ayumu where she wanted to go next; she thought for a moment before suggesting karaoke.
And so it was that Ranma found himself sitting at a table in a small karaoke bar, sparsely occupied at this time of day, watching his rather dotty date sing.
She was actually rather good, too.
After she finished her song (everyone in the bar clapped), she walked down to the table. "Saa, Ranma, you sing one now."
Ranma blinked. "Eh? Hmm...okay."
Ranma got up on the stage, frowning, and selected a random song. It turned out to be a rock song, and sounded slightly familiar. He stumbled a bit at first, but as he neared the chorus, he started getting into it. When he finished the song, Ayumu applauded, as did several others. He glanced at his score, and smirked. "Not too shabby," he mused, returning to the table.
They listened to a few more people sing (Ranma laughed a bit too loudly at one overweight college guy who utterly butchered "Siroi Yami no Naka"). Eventually, Ayumu went up on stage again. The song she sang this time was very slow and very soft, and very soporific; Ranma found himself drifting off to the relaxing sound of her voice. He wasn't alone, either; all around, people were starting to nod off, and the manager cast a rather cross glance up at the stage.
"You ain't a Pokemon, so don't put my patrons ta sleep!" he called as Ayumu finished singing.
The dark-haired girl looked around, blinking. "Aa...?"
Ranma chuckled. "Don't pay any attention, you're pretty good," he said.
"Are you gonna sing again?" Ayumu asked.
"Come on, sing one more!"
Ranma paused. This girl was definitely a bit on the loopy side. Even now, she wore a blissful, spaced-out expression, as though she were stoned. A sudden impulse seized Ranma, and he smirked. *Let's see if I can shock her out of it.*
"Okay, I'll do one more." Ranma picked up a glass of water from the table, splashed himself, and walked up on stage. The few people who had been glancing in the direction of their table stared; the manager blinked, wondering what had just happened. The redhead glanced down at the table, wondering how Ayumu was handling the curse in action—
The dark-haired girl was still staring up placidly at the stage, milky brown eyes wide and dreamy, smiling.
*Che.* Sighing, Ranma selected a song, and picked up the microphone again. When she finished her song, everyone applauded loudly, even the manager. She smiled as she walked back down to the table, sitting across from Ayumu. The dark-haired girl turned to her, smiling. "That was good, Ranma."
Ayumu then blinked, leaning forward. "Aa...something's different about Ranma..."
"You just now noticed?" Ranma asked.
Ayumu looked up at Ranma seriously, her brow contracting, her eyes suddenly sharper, more alert. She glanced from Ranma's face to her chest, then back. Ranma tensed, waiting for it...
"Ranma shrank," Ayumu declared.
* * * * *
As soon as they left the karaoke bar and got back in the limousine, Ayumu fell asleep. Ranma stared at her. "Err..."
Michaels glanced back. "What did she do, get drunk in there?"
"Nah," Ranma replied. "This girl's a little weird, yanno?"
"She did seem a little spaced out," Michaels agreed. "So, what now?"
Ranma sighed. "Head for her place so we can drop her off. I think we've just about finished up here."
"You got it, boss."
* * * * *
Michaels rang the doorbell of the small house. A woman of average height with longish black hair and deep brown eyes answered. "Yes?" she asked.
Ranma stepped forward, carrying the sleeping Ayumu. "Got somethin' here that belongs t'you," he said, smiling.
The older woman stared at him, nonplussed.
"She sorta fell asleep in th' limo after we hit a karaoke bar," Ranma said. "Oh, I'm—"
"Saotome Ranma, yes, I know. Well...I'm sorry my daughter caused you so much trouble."
"She didn't cause no trouble," Ranma said. "I guess she just wears out easily."
Kasuga-san sighed. "Ayumu needs to learn to pull herself together. Well—come on, bring her in."
* * * * *
Ranma carried Ayumu to her room and placed her on her futon, stopped to say his goodbyes to Kasuga-san, then left. "Well, that was...short," he said.
"Not as short as the one a few days ago, though," Michaels pointed out.
"Yeah. And at least this one didn't wanna kill me."
"Might as well," Ranma said, shrugging.
* * * * *
Kasuga Ayumu woke up slowly, yawning. She glanced around. "Aaa...?"
Once she realized she was at home in bed, she laid back down on her futon and went back to sleep.
The Sixth Date: Delicious Talents
"So what's he like?"
The Sailor Senshi and their cat companions were once again gathered in the sitting room of Hikawa Shrine. The current topic of conversation was, as to be expected, Minako's date with Saotome Ranma.
"Well," the blond said, smiling, "He's very nice. And really, REALLY cute. The pictures don't do him justice. And he's a really good martial artist." She put a finger to her lips thoughtfully. "Oh yeah, and he turns into a girl when he gets wet."
The others blinked, then looked around at one another. At length, Usagi, Rei, and Makoto all looked to Ami for a translation. The turquoise-haired girl shrugged helplessly. "I'm afraid this one's beyond me," she said.
"Wow, Mina-chan, you really screwed that one up bad if even Ami-chan can't figure out what you meant to say," Usagi chirped.
Minako glared at the four of them, arms crossed. "I said exactly what I meant," she said archly. "When he gets splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl. A little shorter than Ami-chan, bright red hair, breasts as big as Mako-chan's."
Everyone stared at her.
"Artemis?" Rei asked, keeping her tone light and neutral. "Has she—?"
"She swears it's true," the white cat said, giving a feline shrug. "Mina-chan may be a little flaky, but I know when she's being serious, and as strange as it sounds..." He shrugged.
"Could he be something like one of the Starlights?" Usagi asked. The others started, eyes widening.
Minako shook her head. "Nah, nothing like that. He says it happened to him in China. Some place called Ju—Ju—oh, crap, I knew it a minute ago..."
"Jusenkyo?" Ami offered helpfully, her computer balanced in one hand.
"Yeah, that's it!" Minako cheered.
"You know about it?" Makoto asked.
Ami shook her head. "I just looked it up on the computer. The only thing I could find is a name and a warning—'AVOID.'"
Several significant glances were changed.
"Well, Mako-chan, you've got him on Friday, ne?" Usagi asked. "Be sure to give us all the details!"
"Hai!" Makoto said, grinning.
Minako suddenly let out a gasp. "Oh! I almost forgot. Something REALLY important, too!"
"What is it?" Makoto asked.
Minako looked very serious suddenly. "I had to transform during the date—and he recognized me as Venus. So whatever you do, try not to have to transform. He can tell it's you if you do."
The others looked at her in shock.
* * * * *
Ranma was going through his early morning kata when the doorbell rang, echoing through every part of the estate. He blinked in confusion and checked his wristwatch; it was only seven. "What th'—?"
He began toweling himself off and heading for the door of the gymnasium. Just as he was about to push it open, it opened from the other side; Kuromaki was standing there waiting for him. "Good day, Master Ranma," he said.
"Who was at th' door?" Ranma asked without preamble.
"Your date for the day, sir," Kuromaki replied.
Ranma blinked, then glanced at his watch. "Man, my watch must be really slow. I thought it was just seven..."
"It is only seven, sir," Kuromaki said, lips quirking into a small smile. "Your date wished to arrive early to prepare breakfast for the two of you."
"The kitchen staff is quite put out, but I've—er—pulled rank, and the young lady is currently busy in the kitchens."
Ranma chuckled. "I guess I'd better go up an' get ready then." He paused. "So what's this girl's name?"
"Kino Makoto, sir."
The pigtailed boy nodded. "Makoto. Right, got it."
* * * * *
As Ranma headed downstairs, Kuromaki gestured for him to enter one of the lounges off the foyer. "Miss Kino seems to think a more—intimate setting is required for breakfast, sir," he said.
"I'll go along with that," Ranma replied. He took a deep breath, and smiled. "Somethin' smells good."
He entered the small lounge—small for the standards of the manor, as it was easily as large as the dining area of the Tendou house, and the furnishings alone probably cost more than the entire Tendou property—and saw that a tablecloth had been spread over the low table in the center of the room, two cushions placed on the floor to either side of it. A tall girl with chestnut hair in a ponytail was bustling about, apparently putting the final touches on her masterpiece. Kuromaki closed the door quietly behind Ranma, who took a moment to observe his date before clearing his throat. The girl span around, startled. Ranma smiled at her. "Yo."
Makoto bowed, flushing slightly. "Good morning, Sao—"
"Ranma. Call me Ranma," the pigtailed boy cut across her.
Makoto flushed more deeply, but smiled. "Okay, Ranma. And you can call me Mako-chan." She fidgeted for a moment. "Well, I made breakfast, if you—"
"Looks good, Mako-chan." Ranma seated himself on one of the cushions. Makoto smiled and sat down across from him, then began serving the meal.
It was indeed quite delicious, Ranma mused—mostly traditional dishes, but also a large mushroom and bacon omelette, thin slices of fried ham, and a tray of fresh-baked buttermilk biscuits. "I always cook too much food," Makoto said sheepishly. "I have a friend who's a big eater, and I cook for my other friends too."
Ranma grinned. "Hey, nothin' wrong with that. I got a big appetite too, an' I just got finished workin' out so I'm good an' hungry." He proved it too by making an entire plate of breakfast disappear in seconds.
Makoto stared. "Wow. You could give Usagi a run for her money." She wasted no time in serving Ranma another helping of everything, then began eating her own breakfast, watching the pigtailed boy in fascination.
"This is really good, Mako-chan," Ranma said between mouthfuls.
The brunette beamed. "I'm glad you like it, Ranma." She sipped her tea. "So, you're a martial artist—I've heard you're really good, too."
"Yup," Ranma replied. "So are you."
Makoto blinked, then grinned. "Well, I guess you could say that."
Ranma chuckled. "I can usually tell. You've been in some real fights, but not near as many as me."
"I'll bet," the tall girl said bemusedly, her green eyes twinkling.
Ranma folded a bit of omelette and ham onto a biscuit, and took a large bite. Makoto took the opportunity to refill both their plates; once Ranma had finished his sandwich, she asked, "So what do you like to do when you're not eating or practicing the Art?"
The pigtailed boy shrugged. "Well, I've been spendin' more time watchin' TV an' stuff lately. An' readin' some manga—I never really spent much time on all that before, not near as much as some people do." He sipped his tea. "How 'bout you?"
"Well, obviously I like to cook," Makoto said, grinning. "I like plants, too. TV and manga too, I guess. Hanging out with my friends..." She trailed off.
Ranma nodded. "So, whatcha wanna do today?" he asked.
"Well, I was sort of hoping we could spend the day here," Makoto asked, flushing. "I'd really like to see the gardens, and maybe make us a picnic lunch—we could eat outside..."
"Okay," Ranma said, nodding. "That sounds cool."
The brunette beamed. "Oh, and I was kinda hoping you'd spar with me. I wanna see how good you are," she flushed.
Ranma grinned. "Okay, you got a deal."
* * * * *
Makoto rubbed her rear as she impacted with the floor of the gymnasium for the third time. She stood, adjusting her gi top, and dropped back into stance.
Ranma stood across from her, arms behind his back, wearing a yellow shirt and loose black trousers, smiling. "Almost got me that time, Mako-chan!" he taunted.
Makoto smirked and launched herself at Ranma again. He leapt high into the air, dodging her strikes, then somersaulted and came down with a finger extended. He poked her in the forehead, then grabbed hold of her shoulders and flipped her, flinging her across the gym. She somersaulted in midair, landing on her feet, and growled. She seemed about to attack again—then sighed, relaxing her stance. "Okay, I yield," she said. "You're definitely good."
"You ain't bad yourself," Ranma said, grinning. "You might could give a few people I know a run for their money." He stretched out a bit, then added, "So, wanna go out t' th' garden next?"
"Let me get changed first," Makoto replied with a smile.
* * * * *
"Wow, your family sounds like a real piece of work," Makoto said sometime later. They were sitting under the cherry trees in the garden talking, and Ranma had just shared a bit of his life story with her.
The pigtailed boy snorted. "Yeah, seriously." He shrugged. "What about you? What's your family like?"
Makoto looked down; Ranma knew immediately something was wrong. "My parents are dead," she said in a low, hollow tone.
Ranma swallowed. "I-I'm sorry."
The tall girl sighed. "It's alright. It's been some time." She stared into the rosebushes. "They died in a plane crash. I've been on my own ever since." She smiled sadly. "But I have great friends, and I'm thankful for them every day."
"Yeah...I guess sometimes you just gotta take whatcha can get, huh?"
Makoto nodded. "Mm." Then, suddenly, she stood, smiling. "Hey, I'd better get started on the food for our picnic, huh?"
Ranma smiled weakly at her. "Uh...right. That sounds good."
The tall girl smirked. "Yosh'...you'd better be ready for a meal that'll knock you off your feet, Saotome!"
The pigtailed boy grinned. "I can live with that."
* * * * *
Makoto had worked quickly to prepare a sumptuous picnic for them, and they now sat out on the front lawn of the manor, a checkered tablecloth spread under them, sampling goodies from an oversized basket.
"You really are a good cook, Mako-chan," Ranma enthused as he dug into a bento.
Makoto beamed. "I'm glad you think so, Ranma," she said. She took a large bite from a sandwich, gazing around the lawn as she did so. "This really is a beautiful place."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, I like it. Nice and peaceful out here."
"It's not often you see this much open space in this part of Japan."
"Yeah. It's a bit wasteful I guess, but that's one'a th' things money is good for."
"You almost sound like you don't approve of it."
Ranma shrugged. "It don't really matter t' me. It's just that all this really isn't me. I mean, I'm gettin' useta it an' all, but I'm a futon an' tatami kinda guy, y'know? Only time I need a lot of space is when I'm workin' out."
Makoto nodded. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense."
"Still," Ranma mused, "it's not like I don't like it or nothin'. I mean, ain't nothin' wrong with havin' stuff..."
Makoto was about to say something, but was distracted by an odd sight. "What the—?"
Ranma glanced up. "Hmm? What's wrong, Mako-chan?"
Makoto pointed into the sky. "I think I'm seeing things. That, or something really weird is happening."
Ranma followed the line of her gaze, and dropped his chopsticks. "Oh sh—"
At that moment, they were divebombed by a duck wearing glasses—and carrying, in its bill, a fluffy lavender cat.
"Miao!" the cat cried. The duck loosed its grip, and the cat launched itself at Ranma, landing right on his face.
Makoto stared. Ranma screamed.
"MreeeOWR!" the cat yowled, clinging onto Ranma with all its might.
"Hey, get off him, you crazy cat!" Makoto shouted. She stood to help Ranma, but found herself cut off by the duck, who was flapping its wings in her face and quacking madly. A sheaf of lethal-looking knives erupted from its feathers. The tall girl stared. "What the hell?!"
"Miao!" the cat cried over its shoulder. The duck turned away from Makoto, quacked, and lobbed a small, wobbly rubber ball at the cat. The ball burst on contact, and...
Makoto's eyes bugged out.
Instead of a cat, a voluptuous, extremely naked girl with long purple hair was now clinging to Ranma. "Airen come with Shampoo to China now, yes? Or maybe Shampoo tell Muu-Muu to throw cold water, then Airen say hello kitty?"
"Get—OFF—me—Shampoo—" Ranma hissed, the terror fading slowly from his face to be replaced with something more akin to—
Makoto coughed. "Ahem."
The purple-haired girl ignored her.
Makoto coughed again. "Hey you. With the purple hair and the floppy tits."
This got Shampoo's attention, and she cocked her head back over her shoulder to glower at the tall girl. "What you wanting? Go away, Shampoo busy with Airen. Leave alone."
"I don't think so," Makoto said. "You see, we were having a nice picnic, and you interrupted us. It's rude to butt in on other peoples' dates."
Shampoo unattached herself from Ranma and stood facing Makoto, glaring. "Is also rude to date other women husbands. You is have no claim on Ranma. Ranma belong to Shampoo. Go away or Shampoo kill."
Makoto smirked. "I'd like to see you try it," she replied, cracking her knuckles.
The duck quacked and dropped a large pink bundle. In seconds, Shampoo was dressed in a pink Chinese pantsuit and holding a pair of bonbori. "That easy to arrange."
* * * * *
Ranma grit his teeth. *Dammit...I'm getting really tired of this...* He took his cell phone from his pocket and spoke quietly into it while Shampoo was distracted by Makoto and Mousse flew circles overhead. "Michaels."
//What's up, boss?// the voice of the chauffeur/bodyguard replied from the receiver.
"Those two Amazon idiots are here. Can you an' LIMO-Z take 'em out?"
//Damn! How'd we miss them coming in? I'm on it.//
Ranma pocketed the cell phone and dodged a brace of knives hurled at him by the bespectacled duck. Mousse quacked and divebombed him, but Ranma snapped out a kick that caught him right under the bill, knocking him out of the air and sending him to the ground in a flurry of feathers.
Meanwhile, Shampoo launched herself at Makoto, who dropped into a defensive stance, easily dodging the swipes from the Amazon's maces. She pulled off one of her rose earrings and hurled it at the purple-haired girl, who knocked it aside reflexively; the distraction allowed Makoto to get in low under Shampoo's guard and knock her off her feet.
At that moment, LIMO-Z erupted into the lawn, and a white pulse went off. Ranma shut his eyes tightly—
—and opened them to find Shampoo back on her feet and Mousse lobbing a water ball straight up, then tossing a dart at it.
"Huh?" he blurted in confusion.
He felt a tap on his back.
"That trick won't work twice, son-in-law," Cologne chuckled dryly from behind him. He wasted no time in launching a spinning kick directly behind his head, which missed the Amazon matriarch by millimeters. The old woman chuckled again. "Not bad, son-in-law! I'm glad you're not letting the life of luxury slow you down!"
"DIE, old ghoul!"
"Sorry, not ready yet." Cologne leaped forward and struck rapidly at Ranma with her staff; Ranma parried all her strikes with the Amaguriken, but was unable to counter, and had to fall back to a defensive stance.
He also barely avoided losing his head to a slash from behind by Mousse; the robed boy's sword shaved an inch off his pigtail. Then Mousse let out a startled yelp as, behind him, Makoto had managed to deprive Shampoo of one of her maces and clocked him upside the head with it before returning to her duel with the purple-haired girl.
"Well well, that one has spirit!" Cologne said, watching Makoto and Shampoo over Ranma's shoulder as she sparred back and forth with him. "She'd make a fine Amazon..."
"I'm sure—" Punch, kick. "—she'd be—" Block, duck, sweep, backflip. "—flattered—" Jump, diving kick, misstepped landing, side roll. "—if your—" Amaguriken. "—granddaughter wasn't—" Rapid series of rising uppercuts that actually forced Cologne to give ground. "—tryin' ta—" Well-timed dodge, bringing Mousse into the path of the old woman's staff. "—kill 'er!"
"Maybe so, maybe so." Cologne sighed, hopped up onto the low brick wall along the main walk, and took out her pipe. "Still..." She took a long draw off the pipe, then reached out and caught Ranma by the collar with it, flipping him into the fountain across the yard. "...you both have a lot to learn!"
Ranma looked up as a second splash heralded Makoto's descent into the fountain. As she was not Jusenkyo-cursed, she merely became wet and annoyed. And startled as she stared at Ranma. "Holy shit, it's true," she breathed.
"What?" Ranma asked, standing and wringing out her shirt.
"You really do change into a girl."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah." She blinked. "How'd you know?"
"Mina told me. You went out with her a few days ago, remember?"
Ranma's eyes widened. "Oh! You're friends with Mina-chan then?"
"Yep." Makoto grinned. She pointed at the approaching younger Amazons. "And those two change too?"
"Yeah. Mousse is th' duck, an' Shampoo's th' c-c-cat."
A cannonball on a chain suddenly tore through the air between them, knocking a hole in the statue in the center of the fountain. "HEY! Watch it, y'idjit!" Ranma yelled. She leapt out of the fountain and charged at Mousse, water cupped in her hands. "KACHUU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN REVISED—FLYING SPRAY!"
Mousse dodged the mist of water drops, throwing a bladed disc at Ranma. "You think I'm gonna fall for that, Saotome?" he sneered.
"No, but you'll fall for this," Makoto said from behind him. Mousse didn't even have time to turn around before the tall girl punched him in the back of the head. As he dropped, she wrung her shirt out on him, turning him into a duck. "That's one down. Now for kitty—"
"Don't do that to Shampoo," Ranma said, shivering. "Trust me. That'd be...really bad."
Makoto blinked, but didn't have time to respond, as the other Amazon charged up behind her. She barely had time to duck the incoming strike, then spun around and knocked Shampoo's feet out from under her while the Chinese girl was overextended. She reached down, hauled Shampoo up by the collar, and hurled her across the lawn toward Ranma. "Heads up!"
"Got it!" Ranma grinned, leapt into the air, and executed a devastating windmill kick which launched Shampoo back across the yard to land in a heap beside her great-grandmother.
Cologne sighed. "A pity. I had hoped—but no matter. We'll have you yet, son-in-law."
Ranma glared at her. "Get off my property."
"But it's not really yours yet, is it?" Cologne asked, raising an eyebrow. As Ranma's scowl deepened, she chuckled. "Very well. We shall retreat—for now." She glanced at Makoto. "But I would watch my back if I were you, child. You defeated my granddaughter...she will be out for revenge." With that, she hauled the unconscious teenager over her shoulder, mounted her staff, and bounded over the property wall, leaving Mousse out cold in the middle of the yard.
"What do we do about him?" Makoto asked, pointing at the duck.
Ranma frowned thoughtfully, then snapped her fingers. "Michaels!"
"Yeah, boss?" the curly-haired chauffeur asked as he rushed up to the scene.
"Grab him, pack him up good 'n' tight, and mail him to—oh, I dunno. Anyplace in China is fine."
Michaels grinned. "You got it."
Ranma wrung more water from her hair and shirt, then glanced at Makoto. "I dunno about you, but I'm ready ta finish off our picnic lunch."
The tall girl grinned. "Yeah, I can go along with that."
As they walked across the yard to the (miraculously unharmed) remains of the picnic, Makoto turned to Ranma and asked, "So, what's this about you being that girl's husband?"
Ranma sighed. "Long story..."
* * * * *
"So then she finds out I'm cursed, an' th' girl she's gotta kill an' th' guy she's gotta marry are th' same person, so she runs off back t' China."
Ranma and Makoto had made short work of the rest of the food, and were now packing away the dishes and the tablecloth. "Wow. But it looks like she didn't give up."
"Nope. She got thrown in a spring at Jusenkyo cuz she didn't kill me or come back with me."
"And that's why she turns into a cat?"
Ranma shuddered. "Yeah."
Makoto winced. "I almost feel sorry for her. I guess I can understand where she's coming from. But still—she really shouldn't keep pressuring you when you've made it clear you're not interested."
The pigtailed boy sighed. "She's just real stubborn." He frowned. "An' I dunno WHY that idiot Mousse keeps jumpin' my ass...especially now."
"Yeah. I just wish they'd go back home t' China, forget all about me, an' go on with their lives. They'd be a lot happier. But all they're doin' is makin' all of us miserable." He shook his head. "Besides, Shampoo oughtta know her curse is a problem..."
Makoto raised an eyebrow. "Now hold on a minute. You'd expect a girl to live with you turning into a girl, but you can't live with a girl turning into a cat?"
The pigtailed boy shuddered. "It ain't th' same...you don't know what cats do t' me."
The tall girl folded her arms. "Tell me, then."
* * * * *
Makoto's eyes widened. "He did WHAT to you?"
Ranma nodded. "Several times. Idiot didn't read th' next page that said th' trainin' would make th' victim crazy."
"Damn," Makoto hissed. "And there's no cure for it?"
The pigtailed boy shrugged. "Hell if I know. Ain't never really tried." He paused. "Though now that I think about it, I bet once I get this whole date thing over with an' all, I can probably—"
"Afford a good psychiatrist who can help with the cat thing," Makoto finished for him, nodding. "Yeah. I bet your dad never even thought of that."
"We ain't never been in one place long enough, an' when we were, we didn't have money for it, an' nobody wanted t' help me with anythin' anyway."
The tall girl shook her head and sighed sadly. "You poor thing. I thought I had a rough life."
Ranma shrugged. "Eh. It ain't all bad." He grinned. "Besides, things've definitely been gettin' better lately."
"There you go," Makoto said, smiling. "Look at the bright side."
"An' I'm STILL th' best damn martial artist in th' world, an' they can't do nothin' about that," Ranma continued cockily.
The tall girl rolled her eyes. "We need to work on that ego of yours, though," she said, sticking her tongue out at Ranma and giggling.
* * * * *
The sun was beginning to sink when Ranma accompanied Makoto home in LIMO-Z. The tall girl had graciously allowed the kitchen staff back in their kitchen to prepare dinner for the two while they sat in the lounge watching television and talking.
"Well, they're definitely at least four-star chefs," Makoto commented as they left. "I suppose that's only fitting, though, ne?"
Ranma chuckled. "I guess you'd be a five-star chef, wouldn't'cha?"
Makoto drew herself up proudly, grinning cockily and preening. "But of course." She paused. "I really do want to open my own restaurant someday."
"Heh. Maybe even be on Bronze Cook, ne?"
"I figure I'd win," Makoto said confidently.
Ranma snorted. "I ate lunch at Motomori's th' other day. I gotta say I like your cookin' a lot more."
The tall girl flushed with pride. "That's very kind of you to say, Ranma," she said softly.
The pigtailed boy shook his head. "It's true. That dude's food is a little weird."
"The Japanamerican thing?" Makoto replied knowingly. "I tried making something I saw him do on the show. It...didn't turn out too well."
Ranma chuckled. "His idea of okonomiyaki gave me th' runs."
The limousine pulled up to a medium-sized apartment complex in the Juuban district. "Well, I had a good time today, Ranma," Makoto said as she got out of the car.
"Yeah, me too," Ranma replied, grinning. "See ya around, Mako-chan."
* * * * *
Makoto watched LIMO-Z pull away, then headed up the stairs to her apartment, humming cheerfully to herself as she did so. She withdrew her keys from her purse, and unlocked the door. She yawned hugely as she entered, kicking off her shoes, not bothering to turn on the lights. Striding across the room, she started to undress—
And paused. There was a draft in the air, a coolness that didn't belong. The curtains stirred in the night breeze.
Something was amiss.
Makoto was not alone.
One hand reaching reflexively for her henshin stick, she called out, "Who's there? Show yourself!"
A slender female form crept stealthily toward her, silhouetted against the pale moonlight streaming through the open window, long hair swaying with each step. Eyes like garnets reflected the half-light.
"Setsuna?" Makoto asked, wondering if perhaps the elusive Senshi of Time was paying her a visit, and for what purpose.
"Ni hao," a voice replied from the darkness in a soft, malevolent hiss.
It was Shampoo.
Makoto frowned. "Look—"
The female figure continued to approach stealthily. Makoto tensed for a fight...
A hand cupped the tall girl's cheek. Lips like soft petals pressed themselves against hers.
Makoto's eyes widened.
And before Makoto could respond, Shampoo was gone.
Ranma 1/2 is the intellectual property of Takahashi Rumiko. Azumanga Daioh is the intellectual property of Azuma Kiyohiko. Bishoujo Senshi Sailormoon is the intellectual property of Takeuchi Naoko. Di Gi Charat is the intellectual property of Gamers and Broccoli. Love Hina is the intellectual property of Akamatsu Ken. This intellectual property is used without permission with no intent to profit from said use. The unique content contained on this page is the property of Mythril Moth, and redistribution of this content without express permission is strongly discouraged.