Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Negotiating For Trouble ( Chapter 4 )

[ 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

"You are shameless, Ranma."

"What do you mean?" Ranma asked, "You wanted me to avoid a fight with Kuno, so I kept my word. What's bugging you this time?"

"Nothing bugging me," Nabiki insisted, "But the way you conned him into buying you ice-cream…"

The redhead paused in mid-stride and glanced sidelong at Nabiki, "You're a fine one to talk. Weren't you extorting food out of him the same way? Why's it all right for you to take advantage of the baka and not me?"

"Because I really am a girl," Nabiki pointed out, "While you're just pretending."

"Huh," Ranma looked down at herself in disgust, "Some pretense. Every time I take a look in the mirror I almost feel like I'm getting a nosebleed."

"You realize, of course, that by playing up to Kuno that way you're just feeding his interest," Nabiki said, trying a slightly different tact to get her point across.

"Huh?" Ranma blinked, "What interest?"

"Didn't you notice?" Nabiki could not believe he could be so dense, "The baka's got a crush on your girl form, a first-class case of infatuation."

Ranma looked at her as if trying to detect a joke. When she saw that Nabiki was serious she curled her lip and said, "That's disgusting!"

"You're telling me?" Nabiki asked, "It was all that I could do to keep from busting out laughing. I did laugh before you got there…oh, and here's your dolly. I think he meant for you to have it."

Ranma backed away from the proffered object as though suspecting that it was poisoned, "No thanks! Guys don't play with dolls, remember? I'm not going that far out of my way to imitate a girl, no matter what that idiot thinks I am. You keep it."

"And what would I be doing playing with dolls?" Nabiki asked dryly as she turned around and resumed walking, "I'll give it to Akane. Maybe she'll find a use for it in some way…"

"Yeah, like target practice," Ranma snorted as she fell in stride beside her.

Nabiki found it disconcerting that Ranma's girl form was a quite a few inches shorter than she was, just as her male form was slightly taller. To all appearances she was a cute little girl with rather large chest endowments in clothing that looked too big for her frame with a pair of leather arm-bracers that were much too slack on her slender wrists. Hard to imagine the raw power that was contained in such a feminine frame, but Nabiki could see that Ranma was wiry and muscular even in girl form. Such a stunning contrast from the manly contours of the male Ranma…

Nabiki stopped that line of thought with real effort. The last thing she needed right now was to start thinking of Ranma as if he really were her iinazuke.

"By the way," she said aloud, "How long do you plan on remaining in girl form?"

"Don't see any hot water around, do you?" Ranma asked, "We could stop at the baths along the way, but I don't have any money."

"I could spring for you," Nabiki noted.

"Thanks," Ranma said, "But I think I'll wait until we get back to your place. No sense taking chances between there and here. You won't believe how many ways a guy can get splashed with cold water!"

"I guess you'd notice after all this time, huh?" Nabiki asked dryly.

Ranma just rolled her eyes, "You'd better believe it. There's about a thousand miles between here and Jusenkyo, and in the time it took to cross that distance I think I managed to get splashed just about every other day, and it always takes twice as long to find hot water as cold water. I think this curse must make me a water magnet or something, it's downright uncanny."

"Is that why your father spends so much of his time as a panda?" Nabiki asked.

"Too much trouble for him to change back and forth all the time," Ranma nodded, "Pop's basically a very lazy guy. If he didn't insist on training me all the time I'm pretty sure he'd be happy just to curl up into a ball and sleep all day. I just hope I'm never like that when I get to be his age."

"It is pretty hard to imagine," Nabiki mused, noting how the compact redhead seemed to glow with vitality and energy. Even in repose Ranma looked capable of going one-on-one with a tiger, and while he did lounge around about the house a lot it was mostly from boredom than an indifference to action.

"Mind if I ask you something?" Ranma suddenly asked after a pause of only a moment, "Why don't you practice martial arts like Akane?"

The question took Nabiki aback somewhat, but she recovered soon enough and replied, "Why should I try to be like Akane? Guys aren't out trying to beat me up every morning."

"Akane tells me you used to train together, but you stopped when you were little," Ranma continued as if ignoring her standard response, "I just figure with your build and reflexes you'd be a pretty good fighter in your own right."

Nabiki looked at her sidelong and said, "I thought you said you didn't like tomboys."

Ranma sniffed, "There's a difference between a girl who studies martial arts and a tomboy. I don't call Akane that because she's tough, I say it because she's got very little art to her form. She beats people up to prove how strong she is, but she's about as graceful on her feet as a walrus."

The comment surprised Nabiki, who had always thought Akane a superb Martial Artist, "So you think she could do better?"

"Lots," Ranma replied, "With a little training even you could take her on. I tried to explain that when we sparred last night but she just got mad and tried to hit me. Dodging her punches is like moving out of the way of a speeding bus. Sure it hurts if it connects, but it takes too long to get there."

In spite of herself Nabiki found herself laughing at the analogy, "Yeah, I can see how Akane might not like hearing you say that, but now that you mention it she has been a little too predictable in her movements. I've watched her almost every morning and I can almost tell which boys she's going to punch when and in what direction."

"The only one she really needs to be worried about is Kuno," Ranma said, "And if he's going to be chasing after my girl form from now on…"

"Oh, he intends to chase Akane too," Nabiki smiled, "Didn't I mention that?"

"Huh?" Ranma stopped in her tracks again and stared at Nabiki, "Both of us? Man, is he really that sick or something?"

"Compared to his usual state?" Nabiki smirked, "Who can tell? But just the same I think you'd both better stay away from him until I can think of some way to get his mind off chasing women."

"Good luck," Ranma resumed her forward advance, "From what I can tell he doesn't have enough of a mind to be worth changing. But I'll try and keep away from water whenever I'm near him."

"That may not be enough," Nabiki pointed out, "What will you do if he approaches you as a guy and wants your permission to date your cousin Ranko?'"

Ranma winced, "I think I'm going to be sick. Now I really am sorry about that ice cream."

"Don't be," Nabiki said, "You also got one for me too, remember?"

Ranma had to smile at that as she eyed Nabiki sidelong, "Is he always that easy to manipulate? I'm starting to see why you do it."

Nabiki did not smile. In fact Ranma's comment seemed to sober her up and make her look thoughtful as they finally came in sight of the dojo.

Once they were inside Ranma headed for the bathroom as Nabiki headed for the stairs, intending to find her room and get onto doing her homework. It was much to her surprise and annoyance that she found Akane waiting for her at the top step with a smile and an intense look of sisterly curiosity.

"How did your date go with Kuno?" she asked once Nabiki was within earshot.

"Oh please," Nabiki growled, "It wasn't a date, it was business. Kuno just had some questions he wanted to ask, and I charged him for a late lunch."

"Uhuh," Akane smiled knowingly, "And that's why your iinazuke came along in girl-form? Guess he was really looking out for your best interests, huh?"

"Why are you so interested?" Nabiki asked crossly, "I never knew you to take an interest in my love-life before now, Sis."

"I'm interested because Dad made that stupid promise with Mister Saotome," Akane answered frankly, "And if you hadn't volunteered to take him on as your fiancé it probably would have been me that Dad stuck with the burden, and I can't stand the baka. I really am hoping it does work out for you two so I can get on with my life and not have some stupid boy latched onto me like an anchor."

"Why are you so hostile to men?" Nabiki frowned, "Don't tell me you really mean to carry through on that stupid vow never to let any boy come close to you?"

"Well, maybe not all boys," Akane said sullenly, shifting her feet as she added, "I'm sure there's got to be at least one guy out there who's kind and considerate and won't make me get angry all of the time and everything. I'd love to meet a boy like that and get to know him better, and that sure isn't going to be Ranma."

"Like Tofu Sensei?" Nabiki asked, then sighed when she saw Akane's pained expression, "All right, but do you think you can lay off on upsetting Ranma for a while? It would do a world of good and give the rest of us some peace and quiet."

"Well, why don't you get him to stop calling me an uncute tomboy?" Akane growled sourly.

"Only if you agree to stop calling him a hentai," Nabiki countered, "How would you feel if you were changing sex all the time, and somebody who walked in on you in the bathroom called you a pervert?"

"I…I'll think about it," Akane glowered as she started to turn away, but at the last moment Nabiki stopped her.

"By the way, I almost forgot," she handed her sister the doll, "For you."

"For me?" Akane took the thing and looked at it as if checking for a price tag, "Where'd you get this?"

"I found it," Nabiki said nonchalantly, "Thought you might like having it, Sis."

Akane broke out in a smile and said, "Thank you, Nabiki, but what is it called?"

"Kawaiikune tomboy," Nabiki said as she hastily fled down the corridor, laughing as she escaped into her room just one second before the doll hit her door in passing…

The next morning Nabiki saw that Ranma was nursing a red mark on his cheek sometime after he finished practice and found out that the boy had accidentally walked in on the bathroom when it was occupied by Akane.

"Ouch," Ranma grumbled as he felt himself on the way to school doing his usual fence-walk, "I said I was sorry! And next time turn the sign around like you're supposed to!"

"He has a point there, Akane," Nabiki noted dryly, "The sign is supposed to be turned around when the bath is in usage."

"I did turn it around!" Akane insisted, "He just wasn't looking!"

"I was looking," Ranma insisted, "You think after the last time I'd want a repeat of that screaming fit you pulled? Besides, I don't see why you're so upset. At the time we were both girls."

"But you're really a boy!" Akane insisted.

"What's that got to do with it?" Ranma asked densely, "Besides, I've seen myself naked lots of times. You think you've got anything that could compare to what I've got?"

"Why you-!"

"Cut it out now!" Nabiki finally snapped, "Or I'm going to go on ahead and leave you both to kill each other. Besides we're almost at the school. Better get ready, Akane, for your usual playmates."

"Not those guys again," Ranma growled, "I've had it with siting on the sidelines. Hey, Nabiki, mind if I clear you a path through those guys?"

"What are you…?" Nabiki asked when both Ranma and Akane whooshed by so fast that they made her hair fly forward. Like a pair of guided missiles they headed straight into the midst of Akane's hormone-crazed fan club.

"Stay out of my way!" Akane growled as she tackled her first three opponents.

"That should be me saying it to you," Ranma retorted as he took our four burly athletes in less than one second.

"I don't believe those two," Nabiki said in a mixture of wonder and mild disgust, "Who do they think they're kidding with this act?"

Akane saw that Ranma was not going too easy on the guys who came within his reach, so she went all-out herself, and in less than twenty seconds they cleared the entire field of all its combatants. Ranma paused at the last before turning to Nabiki with a wave of his hand and a smug expression of superiority on his face that made Akane's teeth clench.

"Your path has been made clear, my lady," Ranma said in his best imitation of Kuno.

"Fine," Nabiki snorted as she coolly started to cross the now-vacant pathway, "Whatever. Since you seemed to enjoy that so much, Ranma, why don't you help Akane out like this every morning?"

"Huh?" Ranma looked at her in surprise, "What did I do wrong now?"

Nabiki was about to answer when she caught sight of a hurtling rose and decided that she had more than enough of these antics. She brought up her school-bag to intercept it, then picked it up when it hit the ground and snarled, "And that's enough out of you, Kuno! What's with you guys, acting so macho to impress the girls all the time? It just makes me sick!"

She scrunched the rose in her hand to emphasize her displeasure.

"What brings this strange response from you, Tendo Nabiki?" Kuno asked as he stepped into view in his usual Kendo outfit, "Yon rose was aimed for the sweet hand of your fair sister. It ill behooves you to make such a petty display of jealousy for the affections I have bestowed upon her."

"I-what?" Nabiki blinked, "What are you on now, Kuno-chan? I just want you to call off this whole stupid morning ritual of yours, it's ruining our attendance records."

"I see that you mistake my intentions for something less honorable than they were meant," Kuno replied, "This concerns you not at all as it is the hand of your fair sister that I covet. Seek not to interfere in love's sweet labors…"

"Listen, Pal," Ranma said as he moved closer to Nabiki, "What you do with the tomboy is your business, but watch what you say about Nabiki because she's my iinazuke."

Nabiki gasped. Did Ranma just declare that in front of the entire school? She looked up at the balconies with a sense of sinking horror as she saw row upon row of familiar faces. He did, which meant that her reputation was effectively in the toilet.

"Iinazuke?" Kuno asked more alertly than anyone would have thought him capable, "You mean to suggest that she has accepted your proposal, peasant?"

"I'm not saying anything like that," Ranma shrugged indifferently, "It was just some dumb idea of our parents. They want me to marry a Tendo, and Nabiki volunteered to make our fathers happy, but that doesn't mean she's going to marry me or nothing."

Kuno thrust his bokken in Ranma's direction, "Do you mean then to say that you intend to jilt the fair Nabiki at the altar? Why you purveyor of ill intentions…enemy of women!"

"What the heck are you talking about?" Ranma asked, "We're both too young to even be talking about marriage. I think Nabiki deserves to marry whoever she likes, and if that isn't me, then it's her choice."

"But if she does intend to marry you?" Kuno asked, "What then?"

"Huh?" Ranma sounded surprised at the question, "Well…I don't know…I mean, if she wants me, then I suppose I'd say yes."

"What?" Nabiki turned to look at him in astonishment.

"Hey, I'm not saying we should or anything like that!" Ranma protested, looking as though he expected her to start hitting him at any moment, "I just mean you're a nice girl, and maybe it could work out, I mean…who knows about these things?"

The detached, rational part of Nabiki's mind was clinically deducing that her iinazuke had a serious problem when it came to making explanations. Put another way, he had just shoved his foot into his mouth and was proceeding to slide it all the way up to the shinbone. All the while he was making a real wreck of the non-rational parts of Nabiki's mind while Kuno became unusually thoughtful and silent.

"I see," he said at last, "So you are offering her a choice whether to marry you or not, in spite of having an obligation to marry her as stipulated by your fathers."

"Uh, yeah," Ranma said, "That's about it."

"Who do you think you are fooling here?" Kuno snapped, "This is the great Kuno Tatewaki you are speaking to, the Blue Thunder and rising star of Furinkan High! I am not to be taken in by this base deception you are practicing!"

"Now what are you talking about?" Ranma asked in more confusion than anger.

"You seek to charm your way into the Tendo House by pretending to court the fair Nabiki, all the while you secretly lust after her sister, whom any man would know to be the real prize of her family.

"What?" Ranma and Nabiki said together while Akane balled her fists and looked ready to start hitting.

"There's no way I'm ever going to go after that tomboy!" Ranma protested.

"What do you mean she's the real prize?" Nabiki snarled, "Are you saying I'm not worth going after too?"

"What man would want a mercenary such as you for his iinazuke?" Kuno sniffed, "You use people to further your own ends then discard them when they are no longer of any use to you. You have beauty but you are cold to the touch, while the fair Akane is fire and spirit…"

"Hey!" Akane spoke up, "You can't talk that way about my sister!"

"You're wrong about her," Ranma said, moving from around behind Nabiki to stand only a couple of meters away from Kuno, "Nabiki may not be perfect, but she cares more about people than what you're saying. I don't know what your problem is, or why you're so hung up about Akane, but I have no interest in her at all, while you've just insulted Nabiki. If you care so much about manners, apologize to her this minute."

"And if I do not, churl?" Kuno replied, leveling his bokken.

Ranma ignored the weapon and looked directly at Kuno, "You sure you want to do this? I've beaten you twice before already…"

"Liar!" Kuno snarled, "Kuno Tatewaki is invincible…!"

"Yeah right," Ranma sniffed, "That's why you wind up laying on your backside every morning."

"Dog!" Kuno raised his bokken, "I will smite thee for your insolence!"

He started to charge forward when he came to an abrupt stop with Ranma's foot in his face. Ranma pried the bokken loose from his fingers then stepped away as he looked at Kuno with the bokken resting against his shoulder.

"Let's talk a minute, guy," Ranma said, "I know you've got problems, but this is no way to go around trying to impress people that you're some kind of a hero. You want to impress somebody, try learning from your mistakes and getting a new act, because without this stick you're a pretty pathetic example of a human being."

Kuno slowly straightened out and looked hard at Ranma, who looked back at him with a neutral expression. Time seemed to stop as the two men continued to stare at one another, then the bell rang in the background breaking the mood as everyone collectively moved to the innate sounds of daily rhythm.

Everyone, that is, but Nabiki, who stood as motionless as a statue staring at Ranma, who was only just starting to stir, then casually tossed the bokken back to Kuno, who just as reflexively caught it. Ranma walked up to her and said, "Let's get out of here. I'm tired of waiting in the hallways," but he had to stop and wave a hand in front of her eyes before Nabiki gave him any acknowledgement or reaction.

Akane had also been slow to stir, but she followed the exchange with some interest, then smiled to herself as she hurried on to class, casting a backward glance at her sister and Ranma before disappearing into the building.

"You gonna be okay, Nabiki?" Ranma asked.

"Um…yeah, sure," Nabiki replied, coming out of her daze.

Ranma glanced back at the building and said, "We're gonna both be the last ones in, unless you want to take the express way?"

"Hah?" Nabiki asked, then almost jumped back as the realization of what he was offering took shape in her mind, "Ah, no, that's all right…I'll think up some excuse for the teacher. Thanks just the same for offering, Ranma-kun."

"All right," he nodded, "See you at lunch?"

"Yeah…whatever," she nodded back.

Kuno just stood where he was, a puzzled expression on his face as he tried to sort out in his mind what had just happened. He could not have lost to Ranma again…without even one blow being exchanged…could he? His ego told him it was flat-out impossible, so he dismissed the thought of failure. Ranma must have used trickery of some sort…yes, that had to be it. Saotome Ranma was some kind of sorcerer who used trickery to defeat-NO-deflect Kuno's wrath! Surely that had to be the answer…

He just wondered why a rebellious part of his mind refused to believe it, and why he felt a curious lack of real passion as he thought about seeking the boy out again to achieve the vengeance of heaven…

"I don't know why you keep insisting that you're not interested in him, Nabiki," Akane smiled as she ate the lunch Kasumi had prepared her with great relish, "I think it's kind of sweet that the baka was willing to go up against Kuno for your sake."

"Like that was some kind of a challenge?" Nabiki replied, finding her own appetite somewhat lacking as she stared at the bento box in front of her, picking through it with her chopsticks without really looking at what she was doing, "Come on, Akane, the guy can walk all over Kuno. Yeah, it's nice that he said those things about me, but…"

"And I thought you were supposed to be the smart one," Akane rolled her eyes as she finished off her lunch then leaned her back against the tree trunk, "It doesn't take a genius to see that you care a lot about him, and I think he feels the same way about you. Why, as incredible as it might sound, you may even love…"

"No way!" Nabiki turned an angry glare at her sister, "You know what my opinion is on that. Love is just a biochemical reaction that nature uses to trick us into perpetuating the species, and romance is just something they use to sell greeting cards. You don't honestly believe that I could feel that way about a mere guy?"

"Is that denial I hear?" Akane grinned back, enjoying the edge she clearly had over Nabiki in this matter, then she pretended to look off over her sister's shoulder and said, "Oh, hi there, Ranma. Care to sit down and join us?"

As predicted Nabiki's head snapped around as she searched the space behind her, then even went to the trouble of sitting back and looking around the tree before slowly coming to the conclusion that she had been had like a first rate con job. She turned an even more annoyed stare at Akane, who just gave her a sweet-voiced, "Made you look!" to further the taunt.

Nabiki growled something unintelligible and slumped back against the tree with her arms folded over her chest. Her lunch sat to the side completely ignored as she stared out over the campus and pretended to take an interest in the comings and goings of their fellow students.

Akane's tone grew serious as she said, "You really are worked up over the guy. I didn't think it was possible, but now I know, you do love him."

Nabiki's eyes had a wounded, deer-in-the-headlights kind of look before she turned a pained expression at the ground and said, "It's probably just a bug or something. I'll get over it, no problem."

Akane just shook her head sadly, "What a sad way of looking at the world you have, sister. What is it about the idea of being in love that's got you so worried? You're not thinking about your old boyfriend again, are you?"

"Of who?" Nabiki blinked, taken off guard by the question until the memory resurfaced, "Oh…you mean Kaneda? Haven't thought of him in months, and it's not like we were ever serious or anything like that. Honestly, what makes you say these crazy things, Akane? You must think I'm like those love-starved boys who attack you every morning."

In truth she had not thought at all about Kaneda in many weeks. He had been a cute guy Nabiki met during her Freshman year and taken a liking to, hanging out with him and even going on a few dates together. On the second date Kaneda had acted impulsively to kiss her, but nothing serious had come of it, and before too long he was transferred to a different school by his parents. It really had not been serious between them, but it still hurt to watch him go, knowing she had lost the only friend she knew who did not owe her any money. It was chief among the incidents in her life that had firmed Nabiki's resolve to avoid romantic entanglements until after her graduation.

Akane finally gave in to Nabiki's hints and got up with her bento box in hand, saying, "I still think you're just being too stubborn for your own good. Just because Ranma hasn't asked you for any favors yet is no reason to think he's setting you up for something."

Nabiki stared up at Akane in surprise as if hearing spoken aloud a suspicion that had been at the basis of her thoughts all morning. It was more than a little alarming to realize that Ranma had not yet asked her for any favors, had not even accepted her offer for compensation the day before at the local bathhouse. Ranma had arrived at their home with little more than the clothing on his back and a few belongings slung across his shoulder and for all intents he was as close to the poverty line as anyone she had ever associated with, still he had not asked for anything, not even the roof over his head or the food he ate with such abandon at the dinner table.

It had been Kasumi who provided those things, who had bought Ranma a new shirt and was treating the boy as though he were already a member of their household. Nabiki had been meaning to itemize a list of expenses to charge against their two resident freeloaders but it was hard to come up with anything solid since everything so far had been a gift given at the behest of her father. As reluctant as she was to admit it, you could not honorably charge a guest for room and board as you would a paying tenant.

Why then did she find herself resenting Ranma's presence? Was it because he was so nice to her nearly all of the time? That he did not insult her the way he did almost reflexively with Akane? The fact that he seemed all-too-willing to hang out with her as though he sincerely enjoyed her company? Or was it that she had never known of anyone who was that selfless and considerate to others, except for Kasumi, who was very nearly in the category for Sainthood.

Nabiki prided herself for her intimate knowledge of human nature, her ability to read people at a glance, to pick out little details that would tell her right away what they wanted and desired, and how best to make a buck in providing them with what they thought they wanted.

She had very little experience with altruism and generosity that was not tied directly to Kasumi, whom Nabiki had always assumed was just too nice for her own good by nature. Ranma was headstrong, arrogant and prideful, but when it came to putting himself at risk for another's sake he seemed all too ready to do so, which spoke more for heroism than all the posturing of Kuno…

She heard a slight scuffing sound from above and tensed, then very tensely asked, "Are you spying on me, Ranma?"

"Who are you calling Ranma?"

Nabiki almost jumped out of her skin as a boy dropped out of the tree looking lost and out of place in his wild mountain-wilderness get up. He looked a little bit like Ranma but had a tiger-striped bandana around his head and he wore a backpack across his shoulder from which protruded a bamboo umbrella.

"Don't be scared!" he at once assured her, "I'm not going to hurt you!"

"Scared?" Nabiki tried and failed to keep her voice flat and even, "Who's cared? And who the hell are you?"

"My name is Hibiki Ryoga," the boy replied, "I wasn't spying on you, I just happened to be in that tree taking a nap when I heard voices."

"You just happened to be in that particular tree?" Nabiki indicated the large-branched tree where she had been sort-of-sharing lunch with Akane.

"I know it sounds strange," Ryoga said with clear reluctance, "But it looked as if it were going to rain earlier this morning, so I took shelter where I could find it. I was about to get up and leave when I heard you two mention the name Ranma. That wouldn't be Saotome Ranma, would it?"

"Um…you know Ranma?" Nabiki asked him.

"Yes, I know Ranma," the boy's face clouded with anger, "I've been trying to find him for months now, and I heard he was going to a new high school. Can you tell me if this is Furinkan High?"

"Says so on the front gate," Nabiki pointed out.

Relief swept over Ryoga's face as he smiled, "Good…then I can finally get even with him for making my life a living nightmare!"

"This is Ranma we're talking about?" Nabiki cautiously asked him.

"Yo, Nabiki!" Ranma himself said as if on cue, "I've been looking all over for…hey! Is that you, Ryoga-kun?"

"Saotome!" Ryoga whirled, his umbrella suddenly in hand as he snarled, "DIE!" and threw himself at a much-surprised Ranma.

"Hey!" Ranma said as he dodged the boy, "What gives? Are you upset with me or something?"

"Upset?" Ryoga almost barked the word, "I'm going to kill you!" and he made a literal effort to so, stabbing with his umbrella as though it was an epee.

Nabiki stood where she was watching the fight break out without the armor of her usual cynical detachment, only now she had an unfamiliar sense that Ranma might be in serious danger. This new boy, unlike Kuno, appeared to her eyes to be a more credible foe who was holding his own against Ranma and even forcing her iinazuke to fight harder than he had against anyone else so far.

Ryoga was slower than Ranma but seemed to have a lot of strength and stamina to his punches and the way he handled his umbrella demonstrated that he had lots of practice. He not only could use it as a thrusting or blocking weapon, when he unfolded it he could hurl it like a top, and when he did so, missing Ranma by a solid meter, it arced into a tree and sliced right through it at the base as though the edge were razor-sharp, then curved back like a boomerang, just falling short of his grasp by the last dozen meters.

"Wow, did you see that?" one of her fellow students asked, "That thing is deadly!"

"Man, that guys way more dangerous than Kuno!"

"You think that Ranma will be able to handle him?"

"Don't know, but it will sure be fun to find out!"

"What's up here?" Akane asked as she came running up to join Nabiki, "Who's Ranma fighting now?"

"An old friend of his, I think," Nabiki absently replied, "Name's Hibiki Ryoga."

"A friend?" Akane sniffed, "They look more like mortal enemies or something."

"There is something missing here," Nabiki frowned, "The way Ranma greeted him it was as if he wasn't expecting this kind of reaction."

"He just seems to have that effect on some people," Akane shrugged, "I just hope he hasn't bit off more than he can chew with this guy…"

"Hey!" one of the students grunted, causing them both to turn and see the fellow laboring to try and pick up the umbrella, "This thing weight a ton! What gives here?"

"Huh?" Nabiki asked as Akane went over to check the student's claims out and found that she could not lift the thing either.

"I don't get it," Akane grunted, "It's like this thing was lined with lead or something…"

"Lead?" Nabiki gasped, "But Ryoga was carrying it one-handed!"

"One handed?" Akane stepped away and gave the thing an angry kick, "Not unless he has the strength of an elephant!"

"Kuso," Nabiki hissed, feeling an unfamiliar catch in her throat, "Ranma…!"

The fight had carried the two boys further and further away while all of this happened, and now Nabiki could see that Ryoga was making use of a different weapon in the form of his bandana…or rather several bandanas he seemed to be hurling as though each one he peeled off his forehead was instantly replaced by another. Ranma was dodging this new attack, but several of the bandanas did connect and sliced through his clothing. Ranma reacted as if in pain and redoubled his effort to avoid the bandanas. This carried the fight even further from the main school building, and when Ranma reached the main wall he vaulted over it with Ryoga close behind him.

"I'll go after them," Akane assured Nabiki, "Somebody's got to keep that baka out of trouble."

Nabiki felt an urge to say something but had no idea just what she wanted to say. She was not a practicing martial artist and could hardly hope to compete in their field. Vaulting over walls in a single bound was not within her list of special talents, let alone going up against umbrella-wielding madman who attacked people without giving a reason.

She went back to her class before the bell could ring and tried to concentrate on her schoolwork but could not stop worrying over Ranma. The clock ticked by with agonizing slowness until she was finally free to go hunting down Akane. To her surprise her sister was not in her regular class and none of her friends knew where she had been for the last period, or Ranma for that matter.

It was not until after she got home that she finally discovered what had happened to Ranma and Akane. Her sister greeted her at the front door with an angry expression and minus one detail that took only a half-second to register before gasping.

"Akane…what happened to your hair?"

"What do you think happened?" Akane's tone fairly dripped sarcasm, "I got too close to the fight and that baka Ranma! The next thing I know I'm feeling a draft along my neck. I mean-look at it! I'm a mess!"

"Uh…I take it something pretty sharp gave you a close shave?" Nabiki asked lamely.

"In a word, yes," Akane growled, "I had Oneechan even it out or I'd be a complete mess! If I see that baka again he's dead meat!"

"Don't tell me you're blaming this on Ranma," Nabiki replied.

"And his so-called friend," Akane said as she turned around, "Who vanished before I could get my hands on him, after he saw Ranma change into his girl-form."

"So he knows the big secret?" Nabiki thought to herself that it would make it harder for Ranma to avoid running into Ryoga in the future. She wondered what the other boy's problem was, and if he was amenable to negotiation. Obviously he constituted a threat to poor Ranma, not to mention anyone else who came anywhere near him.

And that was the strangest irony because Nabiki would have testified that the boy she met just before the fight broke out did not appear at all to be the sort of fellow who would start a fight without good reason. Ranma had been surprised at Ryoga's belligerent attitude, which had to suggest that something had happened between those two that was perceived differently by one from the experiences of the other.

She found Ranma coming out of the bathroom just slipping on his shirt when he saw Nabiki standing there looking at him with arms folded. Realizing he must be in some sort of trouble, he adopted a sheepish pose and said, "I…guess you're wondering what that was all about, and I wish I could tell you. Ryoga wasn't very helpful…"

"So I see," Nabiki replied evenly, "So he attacked you for no reason, is that what you're saying?'

"Well…yeah," Ranma said cautiously, "I mean…whatever reason he has, he didn't seem to want to share it with me. I know that sounds strange…"

"Coming from you?" Nabiki said facetiously, "Why don't we start with what you do know. Who is this Hibiki Ryoga, and what kind of a relationship did you have when you knew him?"

"Well, I knew him from middle school," Ranma said, "The last school I attended before Pop and me went on that trip to China. He's my best…he was my best friend back in those days, and he lived right next door to where we were staying. I used to help him get to school every day, and sure we'd sometimes spar together, but it wasn't serious like that fight we had today."

"Help him get to school?" Nabiki wondered at his particular wording.

"Well," Ranma sighed, "Ryoga's got a few problems, not the least of which is that he has absolutely no sense of direction. He can get lost just looking for the bathroom, which really made it hard for him to attend regular classes. We palled around together a lot after class and I always saw to it that he got home in time for dinner."

"Sounds more like you were a real friend to him," Nabiki frowned, "So what happened?"

"I don't really know," Ranma shook his head, "Except…well, it was an all boys school, you know, and places like that can get kind of competitive. We often came late to the cafeteria, which meant that most of the food was already gone before we got there, so we'd wind up fighting over the scraps. I won most of the time, of course."

"Of course," Nabiki replied, already coming to understand that Ranma was a very competitive person.

"Well, that seemed to irritate Ryoga a lot, and one day he came out and challenged me to a fight," Ranma replied, "It was supposed to be in the lot outside his house, and I waited for him for three days before I gave it up and went back to find my father…"

"Three days?" Nabiki blinked, "Isn't that kind of unusual, Ranma-kun?"

"I wouldn't know," Ranma shrugged, "I just felt I owed him the wait since he probably got lost again, even though we were right next to his house. Maybe he got there late and now he's angry because I didn't wait long enough…"

"You waited three days," Nabiki pointed out, "That's long enough, but it doesn't really account for what I saw in his eyes. He wants to kill you, Ranma, and I can't believe it's because you missed your challenge match. Are you sure there isn't more to this story?"

"Nothing I can think of," Ranma admitted, "But you're right, it sure is strange. The way Ryoga was fighting I could tell he was serious. I must have done something to upset him, but for the life of me I can't think what."

"All right," Nabiki said, "What else do you know about him? Is he a good martial artist?"

"He's better than average," Ranma said, "Not many can hold their own with me, but he's pretty strong and he's always had a lot more stamina than most kids. He's a bit slow, both between the ears and with his fists, but his punches pack quite a wallop, so I just avoid 'em and wait until he slows down enough for a counter-attack."

"And that umbrella of his?" Nabiki continued.

"Odd choice, huh?" Ranma replied, "Ryoga's had special training…I think it was an uncle who taught him how to use that, and those bandanas of his. His whole family was a little strange, and I think I heard somebody once say that they had Ogre blood or something.'

"Ogre blood?" Nabiki repeated.

"Yeah," Ranma chuckled, "Pretty silly, huh? But I've seen weirder stuff in my travels…"

"So," Nabiki stood more erectly and looked Ranma in the eyes, "Any chance this guy will seek you out again and try to cause more trouble?"

"I guess he'll try," Ranma said, "If he can ever manage to find me again. Like I said, he's got no sense of direction, but when he gets an idea into his head he can be pretty stubborn."

"Sounds like someone else I know," Nabiki murmured to herself, "What about the rest of us? Should we be worried?"

"No," Ranma shook his head, "Ryoga's misdirected, but he's not really evil. I don't think he'd ever strike at an innocent person, even if he thought he could get at me indirectly. I'm pretty sure he won't come after you or Akane…" he paused and looked harder at Nabiki, "At least he'd better not try anything. I went easy on him today because we were friends once, but if that blockhead starts something around here…"

He was silent a moment, then smiled again, "Well, that's assuming a lot that he could ever find this place, but I don't think you're in any danger. I'd stay away from him just the same if I were you. When Ryoga gets mad he gets pretty destructive, and innocent people sometimes get caught in the crossfire."

"Like Akane?" Nabiki asked him.

"Ah…" Ranma looked away, "That was an accident, and I told her to stay back, stupid girl…"

"I think I'd stay away from her for a while if I were you, Ranma-kun," Nabiki turned to leave, "And try not to call her a Kawaiikune tomboy at dinner, all right? For once I'd like to enjoy a meal without the sound of you two bickering all night."

"All right, I'll try," Ranma sighed, "I just wish she'd stop calling me a pervert."

"Then try knocking before you enter the bathroom in the future," Nabiki advised, "Whether or not the sign is turned around. After all, it could just as well be me in the bathroom, and if you ever caught me stark naked like that…"

"Ah…yeah?" Ranma blinked nervously.

Nabiki found that she could not complete her own sentence, so she left him standing there while she retreated to her room to do some serious thinking…


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