Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ A Different Kind of FiancÚ ( Chapter 2 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

Nabiki awoke to the sound of two people fighting below her window.

The sounds of violence weren't an entirely unfamiliar one in her life, but it had been some years since noises with that intensity or feeling had been heard around the Tendo dojo. It was mildly disturbing to Nabiki's well-ordered sense of propriety and it made her frown a little, trying to piece together just who could be fighting at this time of the morning.

Certainly not Akane, who rarely had anyone to spar with these days. Their father had given up after Akane had proven too much for him to handle, so these days Akane had to content herself with brawling outside the schoolyard. No, it could not be Akane who was making those particular noises, which had a distinctively male cast, which meant…

"Oh," she said aloud to herself as she slowly sat up and glanced at the wall clock. Time to get out of bed and get ready for school, and maybe catch a glimpse of her new fiancé in action.

Nabiki was not a morning person and found very little reason to be bright and chipper with the dawn. She did not even bother to take off her pajamas as she wandered downstairs to find herself some breakfast. Kasumi always rose first with the sunrise and had the kitchen humming to her tune with sweet efficiency, so there was no reason to doubt that this time would be any exception.

Of course she had failed to take into account their two new guests, whom she discovered outside going at it with full force. Nabiki had stopped by the bathroom long enough to fetch a toothbrush, but now she halted in mid-stride as she saw Ranma and Genma Saotome exchanging punches and kicks with a speed that was astounding.

"My," she murmured to no one in particular, "Aren't they chipper."

"They have been doing this for a very long time, Nabiki-chan," her father remarked from where he sat sipping his morning tea at the head of the table, "Genma and Ranma work out like this every morning."

"Every morning?" that woke Nabiki up right away, turning back to look at her iinazuke and prospective father-in-law with frank disbelief.

Akane showed up just them in her jogging shorts, and she too was taking in the fight between their two houseguests with frank dismay. The way the two men fought it was as though they genuinely did not like each other, and Ranma was taunting his father in disrespectful terms quite apart from the nice boy whom Nabiki had enjoyed talking to the previous evening.

"Okay," Akane voiced aloud, "They really are good."

"Good is an understatement," Nabiki softly murmured.

"Breakfast is ready, everyone!" Kasumi brightly called out as she came in bearing a tray of freshly prepared foodstuffs.

"Good," Nabiki said, "I'm starved."

Kasumi called out to their guests but neither one appeared to take notice, so intent they were on beating the stuffing out of one another. The fight nearly ended when Genma knocked his son into the koi pond, and a second later Ranma resurfaced in girl form. Ranma quickly retaliated by returning the favor, and soon a very annoyed panda was rearing up to glare in his son's direction.

Nabiki just stared, now fully awake and realizing that it was not a dream, that everything that happened the night before was not just some wild fantasy and that she really was engaged to this boy who at the moment looked like nothing so much as a really cute redhead. Her first impulse was to be disgusted, but she checked her own reaction when she saw the redhead turn to look her way, her expression almost challenging as if expecting to see rejection.

"What are you looking at?" he asked, and what Nabiki saw in Ranma's face was forlorn disgust at her own altered condition.

"Oh my," Kasumi said, as if not on the same track as anyone else, "I supposed Mister Saotome would like something else for his breakfast."

With that Kasumi produced a second tray that must have been concealed under the table, and upon this tray were freshly cut bamboo shoots. Nabiki just stared at her older sister, as did everyone else, unable to fathom how someone who seemed so out of touch at times could be so insightful.

"I'll have mine in another minute," Ranma said as she turned away, "I need a bath first, if nobody minds very much."

"Ranma," Nabiki started to say when she hesitated, uncertain just what she had been about to add besides his name.

"Look," Ranma said as she turned around in annoyance, "You don't have to say or do anything. I know the sight of me must be pretty revolting at the moment. It's not like you have to feel obligated to make small talk."

"I…" Nabiki blinked, then watched the redheaded girl pad away before frowning in confusion, "What brought that on all of a sudden?"

"Just forget him," Akane said in disgust, "You don't need be nice to that pervert."

Nabiki turned an annoyed glance of her own on Akane, "Are you still going on about that? I thought you agreed that it was all just a misunderstanding."

"Why are you taking his side?" Akane asked as she knelt down before her breakfast, "Don't tell me you actually like that freak? He gives me the creeps just living under the same roof!"

Nabiki blinked at that. Since when did Akane get this worked up about a guy? Very cautiously she said, "Excuse me? Weren't you the one who tried being nice to him when he first arrived here?"

"That was before I knew he was a guy," Akane said as she snapped her chopsticks out of their package and prepared to use them, "He wouldn't fight me for real, and then he turns around and insults me in front of everybody. He's mean, arrogant and a prideful jerk, so why shouldn't I hate him?"

"Because you started it," Nabiki replied, just before their father and Kasumi started making noises to mollify their budding altercation.

"Look," Akane tried more reasonably, "I'm just saying that I hope he keeps way clear of me at school today. I don't want him messing up my life if word gets out that he's a guest in this house. You know what Kuno might do to him."

"Oh yeah, Kuno," Nabiki sighed. There was a sore subject to bring up around Akane. Nabiki had never told anyone that she was just a little bit envious of all the attention Akane received from their peers. Kuno was the richest boy in the school, and one of the handsomest by far, but certainly not the brightest, a boy she sometimes hung around with since they shared the same homeroom. Nabiki had long considered Kuno a prize that would have been worth winning if it were possible to gain his attention long enough to notice that she was even a woman. The fool had eyes only for Akane, and other women simply faded from existence around her.

Nabiki had to agree that it was definitely not a good idea to let Kuno know anything about Ranma, if only because of the danger he would pose to her new iinazuke. Better to get the boy to school before the haiku-spouting Samurai wanna-be had a chance to learn about the boy staying under their roof.

When Ranma and his father showed up at the breakfast table they wolfed down their dinner with such a speed that it seemed as if they practically inhaled it. Nabiki looked on aghast, wondering just what manner of barbarian she had gotten herself attached to. Ranma and Genma wound up fighting for the last few morsels of food before Nabiki had finally had enough of it and got up from the table saying, "We better get to school now, Ranma, or we're going to be late."

Ranma suddenly lost the fight for the last few pieces of rice as he looked up at her in astonishment and repeated the word, "School?"

"That's right, boy," Genma said as he set down his chopsticks and straightened up, "It's time you started to work on your other training. After all it wouldn't do for a martial artist to slacken in other areas like history and grammar."

"What are you talking about, Oyaji?" Ranma said as he straightened up, "What do I need that stuff for if I'm going to be the heir to the Saotome School?"

"Oh please," Nabiki growled, "You don't mean to tell me you don't intend to graduate High School? What do you want to do for a living, work fast food?"

"She's right, boy," Genma informed him, "You need to work on your learning skills. A martial artist can't afford to slow in other departments…"

"Excuse me, old man?" Ranma gave his farther a hard and disrespectful snort, "When have you ever held an honest job or done anything to make a living? Most of the time we barely scrape by as it is!"

"Oh, this is just terrific," Nabiki turned away, "Whether you're coming or not I'm going to school. It makes no difference to me either way."

"But…" Ranma said as he saw Nabiki leave, "I don't got any school supplies…"

"Here you go, Ranma-kun," Kasumi said brightly as she came in to hand him a satchel, "I went out and bought these for you last night after your father mentioned that you didn't bring anything with you."

Nabiki halted in mid-stride and turned to look at her sister, "Oneechan?"

"I also picked out some new shirts for you that should be just in your size," Kasumi continued in her usually cheerful manner, "You prefer Chinese style clothing, right? I just happen to know of a place in town that sells them for a decent price…"

"You spent money on him, Oneechan?" Nabiki asked, only to be treated to one of Kasumi's patented smiles that could have brought peace to a war-zone and made the combatants feel rather foolish about getting worked up over things, with a strong urge to telephone their mothers.

Nabiki sighed in resignation. She would have to have a talk with Kasumi about finances… sometime later in the day. For now she just turned and said, "Coming, Saotome?"

"Uh, sure," Ranma replied, then glared at his father and hissed, "Don't push me! I'm going already!"

Akane was already at the door when she turned to see the two of them approaching. She gave Ranma a sour look then turned to Nabiki and asked, "He's coming with us?"

"Go with it, Sis," Nabiki said as nonchalantly as she could manage while sensing the boy walking just behind her, whom she noted, moved as silently as a cat. She was seriously starting to regret this iinazuke business and for the twentieth time in the morning wondered what had possessed her on the night before to accept him in the first place.

A short time later they were walking along the side of one of the city aqueducts…or rather Akane and Nabiki were walking alongside it. Ranma was walking along the top of the railing, seemingly not to mind the pace the two girls set as though he were walking a broad platform. Nabiki could not help glancing at him as they went, and neither could Akane.

"Showoff," Akane muttered to herself.

"Mind telling me what you're doing up there, Saotome?" Nabiki asked with studied indifference.

"Huh?" Ranma looked down at her, "What's wrong? What'd I do now?"

"You're being rude," Akane replied, "Think you're too good to walk beside us like a normal person?"

"Huh?" Ranma blinked, "Well, actually I just do this to work on my balance. Never thought much about it. Why, is it bothering you or something?"

"Yes!" Akane snapped.

"Well, that's too bad," Ranma lifted his nose as if mimicking Nabiki, "I guess a clumsy tomboy like you wouldn't know anything about balance…"

"What did you call me?" Akane stopped dead in her tracks and glared at him.

Ranma turned where he was, effortlessly perched upon the railing, and crouched down to give Akane his best condescending stare, "C'mon, you telling me you never did this when you were younger? It's easy!"

"How so, Saotome?" Nabiki asked as she looked right up at him and smirked, "You telling us you never fall down?"

"Well, no," Ranma looked puzzled, "I haven't fallen since I was little…"

"Really?" Nabiki grinned and threw her satchel right at him, "Catch!"

"Huh?" Ranma was caught off guard by the gesture and the satchel bounced right off him, knocking him backwards. His arms flailed wildly as he fought to regain his balance, and he nearly would have but for a passing bird that suddenly chose that moment to roost upon his face.

"Hey, get out of-WHOOOAAAH" he cried, right before the splash as he landed in the waterway below him.

Nabiki picked up her satchel, feeling smugly pleased with herself…right up until Akane said, "Oh great, Oneechan, now we're going to have to fish him out of there and dry him off!"

Nabiki silently cursed herself, then forlornly said, "I don't suppose we could just leave him there and let him find his way to school?"

"He doesn't know the way," Akane replied, "We were supposed to lead him to Furinkan, remember?"

"Doh!" Nabiki covered her eyes and just groaned. Of course she would have remembered if she had not let herself get excited over the fool's reckless behavior. It was with only mild surprise that she heard a wet form hauling itself over the rail, then land at her side dripping wet and angry.

"What did you go and do that for?" Ranma demanded as she looked down at her wet body, "Just look at me! I can't go to school looking like this!"

Nabiki looked the female Ranma up and down without comment. She was tempted to say something to the effect that she did not see what Ranma found so bad about the way she looked, or that Nabiki herself wished she had half of Ranma's looks and build. The redheaded version was gorgeous! How in the name of the kami could Nabiki have ever mistaken her for a cute guy?

It was Akane who spoke first, "Come on, I know a place where you can change back before school. It's just a couple blocks away. You go on ahead, Nabiki."

"Ah," Nabiki thought for a second then said, "No thanks…I'll tag along for now. Sorry I knocked you into the water, Saotome, but you were being a showoff."

"So who died and made you my trainer?" Ranma shook her soggy head and followed after Akane. Nabiki hesitated only a few seconds then reluctantly followed after.

Doctor Tofu Ono was not in his office at the moment, but the Tendos were always welcome to his clinic and the door was not locked, so Akane let them in and soon Ranma was waiting beside Nabiki while Akane went and heated up a teakettle. Ranma looked around with curious eyes as though she had never seen the inside of a doctor's room before. There were charts and herbs everywhere, and Nabiki patiently explained to her that Tofu-sensei was their family's personal physician and was into traditional medicines, as well as holistic therapy and acupuncture.

Ranma started to turn to say something to her when she felt a bony hand fall upon her shoulder. She turned to see a skull-face looking at her and cried out, jumping into Nabiki's arms out of sheer reflex as though she had seen a literal ghost.

"Sorry," Doctor Tofu smiled as he held up the skeleton in his hands, "Betty-chan did not mean to frighten you so. She's my assistant. Wave hello to the new patient, Betty-chan." Tofu then badly mimicked a ventriloquist and said, "Ohiyo!" as he waved the bone-hand that had touched poor Ranma.

Nabiki was surprised at discovering how light Ranma was in her arms, but she was also aware of how wet the girl was as she glared at Ranma and said, "Do you mind, Saotome?"

"Huh? Oh…sure, sorry," Ranma got down back onto her own feet, just as Akane showed up with the teakettle in hand and caught sight of Tofu.

"Tofu-sensei!" Akane suddenly was all smiles and bowed to Doctor Tofu, who returned her smile and asked how she was doing. Ranma sensed the one-sided tone of affairs and glanced back and forth between them before getting the point and smiling to herself as if discovering that Akane had a boyfriend.

Yeah, right, Nabiki thought to herself but nonetheless held her silence until minutes later, after they left the office, having given Tofu a terse explanation about the Curse of Jusenkyo. It turned out Tofu knew something about the place from his studies, but to Ranma's acute disappointment it turned out that what he knew did not include a cure, so Ranma had to content himself with leaving the office in male form.

"What was that all about back there?" Ranma murmured to Nabiki as he noted how pensive Akane was since leaving the office.

"Excuse me?" Nabiki sniffed, "We're not talking to each other, remember? And for your information, Akane-chan has a thing for the good doctor. Unfortunately he doesn't know anything about it."

"Shut up, Oneechan!" Akane snapped.

"So you like that guy, huh?" Ranma asked indifferently, "And he's also into martial arts?"

"How could you tell?" Nabiki asked with a sidelong glance.

"It just makes sense," Ranma said as he cupped his hands behind his head and watched the sky for a few moments, "No ordinary guy could sneak up on me like that, and I never even heard him move."

"He's more of a man than you could ever be!" Akane snorted back his way.

Ranma studied her backside then smiled and said, "I thought you said you don't like guys."

"That's right," Akane squared her shoulders and suddenly sounded very angry as Ranma saw that they were now approaching what looked like a large school building at the end of the block. Akane's tone grew sharper as she snarled, "I-hate-BOYS!"

And all at once she was running on ahead, which startled Ranma almost as much as when he caught sight of a horde of boys rushing out at them from the school yard. There were close to forty in all and they were garbed in athletic gear of every kind, charging right at Akane.

Ranma started to tense when he felt Nabiki's hand close about his forearm as she murmured, "Let it go, Saotome. This is Akane's fight, she can handle herself just fine."

"But…" Ranma started to protest when he saw Akane leap into action.

He halted in mid-stride as Nabiki refused to enter the gates for the next several seconds. Akane flattened the first three guys who came at her with brutal efficiency before laying into another six, taking them down two or three at a time, smashing the athletes with punches and kicks that knocked them flying in all directions. Akane struck savagely with brute force and a speed that none of the boys could match, and in just over a minute she finished them all off, never having wasted a single motion.

"Wow," Ranma heard himself saying, "She's good."

"The best in Furinkan so far," Nabiki replied with neither pride nor disdain, looking at the fools decorating the yard with a mixture of contempt and despair, then added almost as an afterthought, "Until you showed up, that is."

"Honestly," Akane growled between panting and wiping her forebrow, "I just wish sometimes that these guys would give it a rest!"

"What the heck happened here?" Ranma looked at the victims in disbelief, "Why'd they all attack you?"

"Just the usual morning routine," Nabiki replied, then nodded to one side, "And here comes the usual clincher."

Ranma caught a flash of movement and was about to warn Akane when she moved herself to catch the object in one hand, then held it up with a look of disgust. Ranma saw that it was a rose, but before he could ask the significance of this event he heard a voice spouting poetry and turned to see a tall boy wearing a Kendo outfit appear, clutching a bokken in his hands as though he were practicing to join a troop of Kabuki dancers.

Akane turned to exchange angry words with the boy, who just smiled as though challenged and brought up his sword into play, at which point Ranma tensed, his senses suddenly warning him of the presence of danger. The way the other boy was holding his sword, the confidence of his stance and bearing, all but telegraphed in large script that this was a dangerous customer that was not to be taken as lightly as the others.

The boy advanced while Akane held her ground, but suddenly he stopped in mid-step and turned to look curiously at where Ranma was standing next to Nabiki. Suddenly he swiveled around and leveled his bokken in their direction.

"You there!" he cried, "Aren't you being awfully familiar with Tendo Nabiki?"

Ranma pointed to himself and asked, "Who, me?"

"Oh no," Nabiki groaned. This was exactly what she had been afraid of! If only she had dragged Ranma out of there before anyone noticed that they were together…

"Who are you, churl?" Kuno asked, then frowned and said, "Wait! Is it not the custom for one to speak his own name before inquiring that of another? Very well, my name is Kuno Tatewaki, Junior Group D, Upperclassman and President of Furinkan High, the rising star of the Kendo world known far and wide as the crashing Blue Thunder!"

Ranma did hear the crash of thunder, which he thought a little ironic, and it made him tense slightly before he replied, "Saotome Ranma, Freshman Class E, heir to the Saotome school of Anything Goes Martial Arts."

"Blue thunder, huh?" Nabiki murmured to herself, "Last week he was calling himself Shooting Star."

"Anything Goes?" Kuno turned to stare at Akane, who just shrugged in reply.

"It's the brother school of the Tendo dojo," she replied simply, "Ranma and his father are just staying with us for a few days…"

"Staying with you?" Kuno repeated while Nabiki groaned softly.

"Way to go, 'Neechan," she murmured simply.

"Oops," Akane winced, "Sorry about that."

"Hey, what's the big deal?" Ranma asked, only to see Kuno whirl on him with a look of sheer loathing.

"Silence, Peasant! How dare you take such liberties with the Tendos? I, Kuno Tatewaki, will not allow it!"

Ranma frowned, "So why should I care what you have to say about it?"

"Ranma!" Nabiki hissed, "Don't provoke him, he's dangerous…"

"Yeah?" Ranma smiled, as he pulled off his backpack and handed it to her, "Well, danger's my middle name. Here, hold this for me, will you?"

Ranma took a step away from Nabiki and assumed a fighting crouch, "As heir to the Saotome School I accept your challenge."

"Very well," Kuno replied as he raised his sword high then cried, "Have at thee!"

He struck with a speed that did credit to his namesake and his sword came crashing down to strike the wall behind where Ranma had been standing. The strike was magnificent and had the effect of shattering brick and mortar like paste and could hardly be faulted merely because Ranma did not happen to be standing there at the time of impact.

"Kendo, huh?" Ranma said dismissively, just before Kuno made a backward swipe that cut right through a tree in spite of the fact that his weapons was technically a blunt object. Ranma was now standing slightly to one side of Kuno as he continued, "Lot of fancy moves there, guy, but so far I'm not impressed."

"Why you!" Kuno tried to thrust his sword at Ranma, but the boy dodged so quickly it was as if he flowed around the thrusts with the efficiency of smoke.

"I don't know why you're so worked up about Akane," Ranma said, "It's not like I want anything to do with the kawaiikune tomboy…"

"What did you call me?" Akane growled, now more angry than astonished at Ranma's speed and agility.

"Hold still and let me strike you!" Kuno snarled as he kept trying to land a blow on Ranma, who just did not seem to want to cooperate.

"Yeah, like that'll happen anytime soon," Ranma said dismissively, then somersaulted back to a safe distance beyond Kuno's reach, "Look, there's no reason for us to be fighting, and I don't really want to hurt you, so why don't you give this up now and we'll call it even?"

Nabiki was standing as though rooted to the spot, unable to believe what she was seeing happening before her very eyes. Ranma was that good? It certainly put to shame her best estimation and made Kuno appear to be no more than some stumbling amateur!

Of course she knew that to be folly, and that Ranma's overconfidence was about to land him into trouble. Sure enough she saw the dangerous gleam appear in Kuno's eyes as he assumed a serious crouch and summoned up his internal Ki-force. With a snarl he cried, "I would sooner die than yield!"

"Suit yourself," Ranma replied with a leap forward while Kuno moved to attack, and suddenly the thunder crashed as the first drops of water started to fall all around them. Lightning bathed the scene of battle for one poignant instant before Ranma vaulted away and landed on the other side of Kuno. He started to straighten up with a smile when he felt water touch his cheek, and only then did dismay cross his handsome features.

"Saotome!" Nabiki started to cry when a form rushed past her and grabbed Ranma up on the run, a very furry shape that looked surprisingly like a panda running on two legs. The two of them vanished into the building while she and Akane just stood where they were, staring in disbelief.

"Wow," Akane finally said as she ignored the rain that was falling all around them, "Did you see that?"

"I sure did," Nabiki replied, then blinked, "What did I see?"

Akane moved closer to examine Kuno, who was standing in place unmoving. Nabiki followed her example and looked up into the face of the tall boy, seeing a red mark on his forehead.

"Baka?" Akane read the kanji symbols aloud.

"You will address me as senpai…" Kuno said mechanically before falling forward, out like the proverbial light bulb.

Nabiki stared at Kuno, who lay slumped at her feet, then turned to look towards where Ranma and his panda father had vanished. She then took note of all the students crowded along the window rails staring down at the battlefield and something clicked in the back of her mind. Suddenly she smelled a sure-fire moneymaking investment in the making. For the first time that morning she really began to smile as she and Akane headed for the building.

"I don't see what everybody's so upset about," Ranma said as she pulled her shirt back on, having wrung it once again of moisture, "I won, didn't I? He wasn't that tough."

"Oh no?" Akane replied skeptically, "Take a look at your neck."

"Huh?" Ranma felt herself with probing fingers then looked startled, "There's a bruise? Wow! And he never even landed a blow…"

"Be glad of that," Nabiki snorted, "Or you'd be breathing through a straw, Saotome."

"Kuno is dangerous!" Akane insisted, "You should have let me handle him…"

"Hey!" Ranma protested, "It wasn't my idea! I was just minding my business when he made that stupid challenge."

Genma appeared with kettle in hand, which he promptly poured over Ranma's head before swatting him in anger.

"Hey!" Ranma protested again, "Quit that!"

"Foolish boy!" Genma growled like his bear form, "How many times have I told you to never underestimate your opponent? Just because the other boy used a weapon is no reason to take him for granted…"

"Because he used a weapon…?" Nabiki frowned, "Why would you take him for granted?"

"Because weapons are only as good as the martial artist who uses them," Genma informed her, "Relying on one weakens the art. You must study unarmed combat first before developing a weapons skill. Apparently no one ever taught that to the other boy…"

"Are you saying that you saw us fighting?" Akane asked.

"No, but I could figure it out," Genma replied, "I just happened to be in the neighborhood applying for a job when I heard the thunder and knew that rain would be falling…."

"Whoah, back up a minute," Ranma urged, "Did you say that you were applying for a JOB?"

"Well, why not?" Genma rounded on him again, "Nabiki-san here reminded me that we need to earn some money to maintain our share of the grocery bills, and the doctor is willing to let me work part time…"

"Doctor?" Akane's eyes took on a wary cast, "Doctor Tofu?"

"Why, yes," Genma replied, "From what I understand he comes highly recommended."

"Recommended by whom?" Nabiki asked, then answered her own question, "Kasumi?"

"How did you know?" the older man looked at her in confusion.

"Kasumi and Doctor Tofu…" Nabiki sighed, "Never mind."

That was when the bell sounded, causing both Tendo girls to curse their bad luck in unison. Nabiki headed for the door saying, "You owe me for this big time, Saotome! I've just ruined my perfect attendance record for your sake. Better go with Akane to your homeroom, and try to stay out of any more trouble."

"But…" Ranma started to say, then sighed in resignation.

Akane grabbed him by the arm and said, "This way, Baka, and thanks a lot for making me stand in the hallway."

As it turned out they both wound up doing so together…

Kuno eventually staggered up the hallway, having taken the time to change from his samurai garb into more conventional shirt and pants. He was rubbing his head and looking very much out of sorts while Nabiki greeted him with a polite nod, maintain her vigil holding a bucket full of water.

Inwardly she was fuming at herself for letting her well-honed sense of priorities get skewed by the morning events. Bad enough to be late and have to suffer the punishment that was normally heaped upon others, but to do so for a boy who acted like such a jerk at times? Worse still, there had been a considerable amount of money passing hands between the students who had witnessed Kuno's fight with Ranma, and for once she was not one of the bet takers! And then there was the gossip that immediately started…

"Did you hear about the new boy?"

"The one who beat Kuno? Man, is he for real?"

"Not only that, but he said he was staying over at the Tendos!"

"With Nabiki and Akane? How did he manage to pull that off?"

"Did you see the way she was holding his hand earlier?"

"I wonder what she's charging him?"

"Must be a lot. I've never seen the Ice Queen do that for any boy before."

"That wasn't just any boy! Did you see him?"

"Are you kidding? He's so dreamy!"

"What was his name again?"

"I think he said his name was Ramen…or Ranma…"

"Wild Horse? I'd like to ride him…"

And those were just the comments she had heard when entering the class!

Nabiki cringed a little in reflection of what this whole incident had done to her image. The speculation train was already in full gear with other students wanting to pester her with questions, but fearing to because of her fearsome reputation. Everyone seemed to believe that there was some connection between her and Ranma, but as yet he was a mystery boy that the girls could swoon over and the boys could envy. By clobbering Kuno with such ease he had just shot to the top of everyone's opinion poll, and by association Nabiki was suddenly everyone's favorite topic of interest.

She calmed herself down by remembering that this was just a business opportunity that she was exploring for her own benefit. There was no reason to get upset because everyone in school thought she was getting soft by looking out for some boy who had just taken out the class bully. If anything it gave her certain stock to use to her advantage, and with everyone wanting to know about the new boy she had a golden opportunity to charge for the privilege. She only had to wait until break time to seize hold of the opportunity and play it to her full advantage.

She looked down at the bucket in her hand and saw her crocodile smile return as she considered ways of making a profit off of Ranma. The water reminded her of his "special" curse, how one simple medium could turn the boy that was every girl's dream into a girl that boys could only dream about. She smiled as though she could see the redhead's face reflected in the water and called to memory the softer features of her face, her blue eyes staring curious and guileless at Nabiki, the way she had smiled when she handily defeated Akane…

Stop it, she sternly told herself. There was no way she was going to let herself get soft over somebody like Ranma. In the circles she traveled in it was dangerous to betray any type of emotion, let alone give them the impression that you were as human as they were. It just would not do to spoil her image over some guy, else there would be riots and mutiny in the ranks of those who owed her a favor. Work, work, work…

She was in for a surprise, though, when she saw Kuno wandering back out of the class with a bucket in hand, and a moment later he returned with it filled and rested his back against the opposite door frame.

"Tendo Nabiki."

She looked up at him curiously and said, "What is it, Kuno-chan?"

He turned to study her, and it was plain that the red marks were still upon his forehead, "What is your connection to this Saotome Ranma? I noticed he was being awfully familiar with you before…"

"Oh, it's nothing, really," Nabiki looked away, "Turns out his father is an old friend of my father's and Daddy asked them to stay over. The Saotomes have been traveling to places like China…"

"China?" Kuno replied, "I wondered about his strange appearance, but the question I was directing towards you had to do with his relationship with you and Akane."

"Relationship?" Nabiki blinked, "What relationship? He's just a friend staying over, and we were helping him to find his way to school…"

"I see," Kuno replied, "Then he does not know of my edict that none shall date the fair Akane or have ought to do with her unless they defeat her in combat…"

Nabiki could not help snickering at that, "Well, no problem with that, then, Kuno-chan. Akane and Ranma did spar last night and he beat her rather handily…"

"WHAT???" Kuno rounded upon her, "He defeated my precious flower of innocence? How dare he! And I suppose this means that he will expect to have a date with her…?"

"Kuno-chan," Nabiki said levelly, "Ranma is not going to be dating Akane anytime soon, so you can relax…"

"You mean the cad has spurned her?" Kuno reacted even more loudly.

"No," Nabiki was surprised to see him worked up this way. Usually Kuno was only mildly insufferable, but this was the first time she had ever seen him express such intense emotion, "Akane doesn't like Ranma, and he doesn't seem to get along with her either, which is all for the better."

"That your sister has some taste I can understand," Kuno replied in a more level tone, which darkened considerably as he added, "That this Ranma would be so callous to her I do not, and what do you mean by saying that it's all for the better?"

Nabiki silently cursed the fates for letting her get talked into a corner-and by Kuno of all people! No way did she mean to let this fool in on the secret of her engagement, but a sudden inspiration did make her see a golden ray of opportunity here. She had long thought Kuno rather handsome and interesting in ways beyond his shallow façade, knowing him better than anyone else in their high school. He had always ignored her in favor of Akane, now was a perfect time to pay him back a little for treating her like a stage prop.

She put on her most seductive smile and said, "Because Ranma is someone I am interested in…for strictly personal reasons, of course. That wouldn't be of any interest to you, would it, Kuno-baby?"

"He…" Kuno rocked back on his heels and stared at her in dismay, "You mean you have feelings for this...Ranma person...?"

Nabiki's delight at the thought that he might actually be jealous of her and Ranma turned to dismay when suddenly the window to their room flew open and half the students in her class were crying out a hundred questions at a rate that defied comprehension:

"What? Is it true, Nabiki?"

"You're in love with the new boy?"

"I didn't think it was possible, not you!"

"Are the two of you dating?"

"Are you going steady?"

"Man, who would believe that the Ice Queen's heart melted?"

"Can you blame her? What a hunk!"

"Yeah, and he's way better than Kuno!"

Nabiki turned to look at them, denials already leaping quick to mind as she gazed at them all in horrified realization. They must all have been listening in at the same time, including her teacher! Her big secret was out, and she had practically given it away free of charge!

And then to top it all off Kuno blew his stack and declared, "Never! By all that is holy and of the Heavens! Never will I suffer to allow this! Saotome Ranma must die! He will know the swift vengeance that is Kuno Tatewaki!"

So declared he turned and ran down the corridor with bucket in hand, heading in the general direction of his locker. Nabiki stared at his retreating back and knew instinctively where he would next be headed.

"Mou," she cursed aloud, dropping her bucket and running for the stairs…

"I thought I told you that we were going to be strangers today," Akane growled without looking towards Ranma.

"And who says we're not?" Ranma growled while looking in the opposite direction, "It's not my fault if people think we're somehow related."

"They think you rescued me from Kuno!" she growled angrily, "As if I'd ever ask a jerk like you to do something nice for me, like stick your head in that bucket."

"Ohhh, I'm so scared," Ranma said mockingly, "How about next time telling that guy that I'm not interested in an uncute tomboy like you. I don't like having to fight with guys who think I'm out to steal their girlfriends."

"I AM NOT HIS GIRLFRIEND!" Akane openly shouted, "And I'm not anything of yours either! You're engaged to my sister and that's as much as I want to have to ever do with you, so back off before I show you what I think of perverts!"

"There you go again," Ranma snorted, "Calling me a pervert when you walked in on me in the bathroom! Besides, I'm not afraid of you, and I'm not like your wimpy playmates back out in the schoolyard, and what the heck was that all about anyway? Why were they attacking you?"

"Well…" Akane began to say when she suddenly became aware of all their fellow students staring at them with looks of incredulity and dismay.

"What was that, Akane?"

"Did you just say that he's engaged to your sister?"

"Which one?"

"Oh man, are you dense! Who do you think he was with coming to school?"

"What, Nabiki? That's impossible!"

"Yeah, there's no way that she could go for a guy who was a year younger."

"What difference does a year make? If they like each other…"

"SAOTOME!!!"

Ranma slowly turned around to find Kuno Tatewaki standing there in his Samurai garb again, clutching a pail of water in both hands as his expression was one of hateful disdain.

"What?" he growled, "Back for more?"

"Try this, you enemy of women!" Kuno hurled the pail at Ranma, but Ranma was presently in the air three feet over Kuno's head and sailing. Kuno reached for his bokken and slashed at Ranma but only managed to slice the pale, which splashed its contents on Kuno while Ranma successfully landed well beyond the reach of the bokken.

Ranma straightened up and said, "This is no place for a fight, Kuno. If you want to do this, then follow me…"

"Wait!"

Both men turned to see a slightly winded Nabiki lean against the wall and look at both of them with an almost pleading expression, "This is…no place…to do this…if you want to…settle…which of you is better…"

"Oneechan?" Akane turned to her in concern, "Are you all right?"

"Just fine," Nabiki said, pushing against the wall in order to stand upright, "Just took a few…too many stairs to get here…but I want you boys to pay attention. If you want to settle this…like gentlemen… then do it outside…preferably in the soccer field…"

"And where's that?" Ranma asked.

"It's just outside that way," Akane pointed absently.

"All right," Ranma nodded, "I'll meet you there, Kuno."

He turned and sprinted away, but Kuno only hesitated by a fraction of a second before snarling, "We'll see about that, Saotome!" and he charged right after him, followed by Akane and the rest of their class.

Nabiki winced, "Those idiots," then she turned about and headed for the stairwell.

Ranma wanted to find a quick way downstairs and spotted a window that was open, which caused him to smile as he called over his shoulder, "Let's see you follow me here, Kuno-senpai."

"We'll see who has the last laugh, Saotome," Kuno snarled as he followed Ranma out the window.

"Wait!" Akane cried too late, "This is the third floor, you baka!"

Ranma was about to call back to her not to worry when he made a discovery about what was waiting for him beneath the window. An Olympic-sized pool beckoned towards him, causing Ranma to emit a choice word that was not found in standard dictionaries. Two seconds later he landed with a splash in the center of the pool, followed closely behind by an equally dismayed Kuno.

Water! Ranma thought as though the word were a curse, why did it always have to be water? He felt his body change the instant he was submerged, and then she was swimming in the stuff, having lost her shoes when her feet contracted. The realization that Kuno was about to discover her secret made her swim for dear life…right up until rough hands grabbed her and the sounds of bubbling noises in her ear told her that Kuno had caught up with her. The jig was up…and then Kuno's hands began to fondle…

Ranma gasped in pain as Kuno squeezed her rudely. Of a sudden anger boiled up in her and Ranma reached up to snare the boy by the head, then dragged him with her to the bottom, where she settled her weight and summoned up her Ki-force. With one explosive effort she pushed off and carried them both bodily out of the water, flipping around in mid-air so that she landed on top of Kuno, whose back absorbed the bulk of the impact.

Ranma was fuming in disgust as she got off the boy, then took off running towards the bushes. Meanwhile the students who were crowded up at the window had a curious look at the retreating Ranma, and quite a few took note of the Chinese boy's change in size and hair-color.

Only one of them knew what this meant, and Akane cursed under her breath, then turned around and sought out the cafeteria, hoping to appropriate the use of a kettle…

By the time Nabiki reached the bottom floor she was beginning to get her wind back. Silly, really, to run full-bore like that to try and warn Ranma of an attack, only to find herself nearly late. She had not realized how out of shape she must be to allow Kuno to beat her to Akane's homeroom. Now that she was on the bottom floor and could walk at a more leisurely pace she found it easier to regain her bearings, but still something was nagging in her mind. The direction Ranma and Kuno had been headed did indeed lead towards the track and field, but…

She suddenly had a very unpleasant thought, which prompted her to pick up the pace a little. Sure enough she came out at the end that passed right by the swimming pool, and as she had half-suspected would be the case she found Kuno laying on his back on one end of the pool, sopping wet and surrounded by a puddle with his head bent back into the water. His arms were folded over his chest, and he seemed to be making a tremendous effort to do the one thing that he found most difficult, which was to think out a puzzle. Nabiki saw the trail of water leading towards the fence, which ended abruptly. She then turned her head to follow the same direction and caught sight of a flash of red hair heading towards the bushes. Unlike with Kuno it only took an instant to puzzle what had happened, and then Nabiki turned and headed after Ranma, intent on finding him…her…and giving her a piece of her mind.

Of a certainty the baka could use it.

She reached the trees and looked around, finding no trace of Ranma until a few drops of water fell on her head, prompting her to look up at one of the branches. Sure enough there she was, perched atop a limb twelve feet off the ground, and Nabiki did not even want to speculate how she had gotten up there.

Ranma was pulling off her pants and squeezing them to get out the moisture, grumbling quite loudly about being squeezed too hard by Kuno. Nabiki watched her dangle her bare legs out over space before deciding to make her own presence known by a question.

"What are you doing up there?" she asked.

Ranma turned to look down and said, "Oh…hi, Nabiki. I…kinda got wet again…"

"So I've noticed," Nabiki said dryly, "You were supposed to go to the Olympic field…"

"Uh…I kind of got distracted…"

"Ranma!" Akane called out as she arrived holding a teakettle, "I brought you something!"

Ranma brightened, "Hey, thanks! I was afraid I'd have to sneak back into the building…"

"Saotome!" Kuno's voice informed them all that he had fully recovered and was out to renew their battle.

"Oh great," Ranma groaned, "He's probably figured it out by now…"

"Not Kuno," Akane said scornfully, throwing the teakettle up at Ranma, "Here, hold this while I take care of the baka."

"But…" Nabiki started to say as she saw the teakettle arc towards Ranma, too high for the redheaded girl to catch.

"Hey!" Ranma cried out and made a desperate grab for the kettle, grasping the branch with her bare feet as she stretched her body out as far as she could manage and just barely caught the thing before it could fall back earthward. Ranma stretched out at an almost perfectly horizontal attitude, somehow managing not to fall while Nabiki looked on incredulously, unable to believe that was she was seeing was physically possible.

"If I could only…get it…back up here…" Ranma grunted.

"Ranma," Nabiki called out, "What are you doing? You're going to fall like that!"

"I can handle myself, Nabiki," Ranma confidently assured her, "No problem…"

That was when Kuno suddenly dropped in…literally. Nabiki blinked as she saw the other boy land headfirst upon the kettle, startling Ranma into almost losing her balance.

"We meet again," Kuno said from his inverted position, "Pig-tailed girl."

"Huh?" Ranma blinked intelligently.

"Have you by any chance seen a cur by the name of Saotome Ranma?" Kuno calmly asked, "The boy who ran off and left you in his place?"

"Huh?" repeated Ranma, even less certainly than before.

"That man is not a man! He is no man! He ran off like a dog and…"

Ranma let the kettle go, and Nabiki covered her face so that she would not have to see the resulting impact. She winced slightly as Kuno landed, but when she looked back again he was sitting up perfectly fine while the kettle looked mashed in somewhat.

"That hurt you know," Kuno said matter-of-factly.

Ranma alighted on the ground and at once assumed a martial stance, "Listen you, I don't have to take that from the likes of an idiot like you…!"

"Ranma, what are you doing?" Akane demanded to know as she came running up holding Kuno's bokken, "Why didn't you change back into a boy?"

"Stay back, fair Akane," Kuno declared as he rose to his feet and snatched the bokken out of her astonished grasp, then faced the redhead before him, "You are fair to behold, and if you defeat me in battle I shall honor you with a date…"

Kuno slashed forward, but when he completed his swing he found Ranma perched upon his sword with the same expert balance he had displayed on the fence railing.

"And who'd want to date somebody as stupid as you?" Ranma asked before planting a kick in Kuno's face that knocked the boy sprawling. Ranma leaped into the air and executed a double-side kick as though to work out remaining tension, then alighted lightly between Akane and the equally surprised Nabiki. With a kick of her foot she spun the bokken into her hand then rested it against her shoulder as though it was a trophy.

"I've had enough of this, I'm going home," she declared, "School can wait for another day…"

"Uh, Saotome," Nabiki pointed up to the branch, "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Huh?" Ranma looked back up towards the branch she had been perched upon before and saw her trousers dangling there, "Oh yeah. Thanks, I almost forgot."

With a single leap Ranma snatched them out of the tree then slung them over her shoulder with a backward glance to the Tendo sisters, "Well, you guys coming or not?"

"Nabiki will go with you," Akane smiled.

"What?" Nabiki looked at her sister as if told she was sprouting horns and a tail.

"He's your iinazuke," Akane grinned, "I'll stay here and look after Kuno."

"You…?" Nabiki was doubly surprised. Akane normally could not stand being around Kuno, while Nabiki was usually the one who carried him to the nurses office and tended to his injuries…not that the baka had ever bothered to notice.

"He's no problem," Akane sniffed, "And he'll be out for a while after that last kick. So…what are you waiting for? You know you want to help out poor Ranma."

"I do not!" Nabiki protested, but then she saw that Ranma was already heading for the building, so she just groaned to herself, feeling the onset of a massive migraine, "Wait up, Saotome! I want to talk with your sorry ass!"

"Oh?" the redhead looked puzzled, "What about?"

Nabiki took a deep breath and by the time she caught up with the other girl she had managed to calm herself down somewhat, then said, "If we're going to be stuck with one another for the time being, I want to lay out some basic ground rules."

"What are you getting so worked up about?" Ranma asked, "Don't tell me you're actually serious about this stupid engagement mess? I thought we agreed it was just some dumb idea of our parents."

"That's what I thought, too, until Kuno blabbed that we must be romantically involved or something in front of the entire school," Nabiki declared, looking away as she said this.

"He did that?" Ranma sounded aghast.

"So now everybody wants to know if we're engaged or not," Nabiki looked angrily back at her, "That's why I need your help to squash that rumor before it gets out of control."

"Oh," Ranma said, "Okay, no problem, you've got it."

"I've got a reputation to think about in this school…" Nabiki started to explain when she caught the nonchalance of his tone and said, "Huh?"

Ranma halted in mid-stride, still a good distance away from the building as she squared her shoulders and looked up at Nabiki, "Look, you don't have to explain anything to me. I know the sight of me like this must disgust you, so I don't blame you a bit for wanting people to think you're not weird or something. I mean, it's not like I can blame you for wanting people not to think that you were interested in another girl, right?"

"Nani?" Nabiki replied numbly, then blinked before saying, "Oh yeah…sure…I guess…"

Ranma took a deep breath before continuing, "Ever since the accident that got me stuck with this curse my life has been a real nightmare, and somehow I keep getting splashed with cold water without any kind of warning. What kind of big secret is it that somebody besides Kuno is likely going to see me…and what the heck is wrong with the baka? Why'd he want to date me if he saw me change in the pool?"

"Uh…oh," Nabiki said more evenly, "That's just a problem of his…he's got this mental problem… I think he's borderline psychotic, makes up fantasies in which he sees himself as the hero…"

"Borderline?" Ranma arched a crimson eyebrow, "I'd say he was all the way over the edge."

"Not quite," Nabiki said with a more clinical edge, "It's more like a Dissociative Personality disorder, a form of denial in which he shuts out the reality that you and I take for granted in preference of a version of reality in which he's a noble samurai from out of the Tokugawa era. He's the hero of his fantasy world, a legend in his own mind, and if it weren't for the fact that he's a superb athlete and above-average Kendo student he'd be perfectly harmless. It's not like he's really as far out as a Sociopath or full-fledged Schizophrenic."

"If you say so," Ranma inclined her head and asked, "I didn't know you majored in Psychology."

"I'm not," Nabiki replied easily, "I've just taken a few classes, and I once used Kuno-chan as one of my case studies…"

"Kuno-chan?" the redhead's expression darkened.

"Relax," Nabiki replied, "That's just a nick-name I give him when we hang out together. Actually Kuno's got a few good point in his favor, like the fact that his family is rich…"

"Oh," Ranma said, "So that's why you like him."

Now it was Nabiki's turn to frown, "It's not just money, Ranma, I happen to know something about the Kuno family and their…history of mental problems. It may interest you to know that Kuno lost his mother when he was roughly the same age as I was when I lost mine…"

"Your mother's dead?" Ranma asked as if not having thought of this before now, "Oh…I'm sorry."

For some reason Nabiki looked away, feeling emotions tighten in her breast beyond her ability to stamp down, "About nine years ago. Cervical Cancer. Kuno's mother…took her own life…"

"She did?" Ranma was suddenly very contrite, glancing back towards Kuno, "I had no idea…"

"Nobody does," Nabiki fought to keep her voice normal, "Officially she died in an accident, but I heard the real story from one of Kuno's family retainers. She had problems…life overwhelmed her, drove her over the edge. Her husband was remote and negligent, and he disappeared a few years ago, leaving Tatewaki and his sister in the care of some trusted advisors. It…affected them both pretty badly."

"Kuso," Ranma softly murmured, then looked at the bokken in her hand, "Maybe it's not so surprising he'd rather not deal with that, but why'd he picking on Akane this morning, and what was his beef about me living in the same place as the two of you?"

"Well…Kuno…" Nabiki sighed, then took Ranma by the arm and drew her along, "I'll tell you when we get to the bathrooms and you change back into a guy. It's almost time for your next class, and you don't want to be late for that…or me either."

"Sure," Ranma said as she allowed herself to be guided towards the rear of the building, only now taking note of all the students crowded around the balconies watching them from a distance, "Are they always like that around here?"

"Who, those guys?" Nabiki gave the crowd an absent nod as if ignoring their existence, "You'd better get used to it if you're going to hang around here for a while. You've just taken out the School bully and turned him into the class clown. It's bound to make an impression with the local crowd. There's also going to be some speculation about you until people figure out you're girl-half and boy-half wound up in the same package."

"Oh," Ranma said as though not yet realizing the significance of what she had accomplished, "Um…hey, Nabiki-chan?"

Nabiki almost halted in mid-stride when she heard that and replied without thinking, "Yeah, Ranma-kun?"

"Thanks for helping out," she said, "I know this is a lot of trouble I'm putting you to…"

"Uh, no problem," Nabiki replied, "No problem at all," and even as she said the words she knew implicitly that she was lying…

Continued

Comments/Criticism/Essay Questions in Kanji Script: Shadowmane@msn.com