Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Dangerous Liaisons ( Chapter 38 )

[ 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

Tofu Ono was a bit concerned about the state of his wallet. It was not that he didn't make a very good living as a Doctor and Acupuncture Specialist living in Nerima, Japan, with a steady clientele and much favorable word-of-mouth that kept his business healthy. It was not that he did not have a good nest egg salted away, or that he was normally all that preoccupied with petty concerns such as money.

No, the reason he was concerned was rather the rate at which he had been spending since early that morning, beginning with breakfast in which he treated Kachu to the best Chinese restaurant that he could find in town and wound up making the mistake of telling his new "bride" that she could eat as much as she liked from what was on the menu.

In retrospect that was a tactical mistake, he knew, but how could he have anticipated that she would have such an appetite? Kasumi normally ate very moderately and kept a healthy balance of nutrition in her diet. Kachu-by contrast-ate like a horse and all but inhaled in the calories (though he noted with approval that she avoided meat items and preferred the complex carbohydrate dishes that were full of vitamins in the vegetable category). He reasoned as an afterthought that she probably needed more to eat due to her very energetic lifestyle. Demon hunters, he decided, had to work out a lot to keep in shape for when practicing her profession.

Next he took her to a little shop he knew of that sold Chinese-style dresses. Kachu had sized up the merchandise with a professional eye and got to haggling with the owner over price, then wound up buying one of the more expensive dresses in the place, saying that it was just like the kind of festival dresses she had always dreamed of wearing when she had been much younger. Tofu was now standing outside of the dressing room waiting for her to come out as the attendant herself was helping to dress the Amazon and make her look more "attractive."

Tofu doubted that it was possible to make Kachu any more attractive. After all, she looked just like K-K-K-Kasumi! As he thought this Tofu silently cursed himself for the ten thousandth time his inability to remain focused whenever his thoughts turned towards Kasumi. This was hardly the thing to be thinking when spending time with her aggressive twin sister!

Where to next, Tofu wondered? What do you get for the lady who has next to nothing and only wears what she can carry? He thought of candy and flowers but rejected those at once since he wasn't trying to romance her and he still entertained the hope that he might be able to free her the both of them from this "marriage" business. He considered novelty shops and merchant stores that he knew but wondered just which of these might be acceptable stops to acquire things that were needed by Kachu. He certainly didn't think it appropriate to consider jewelry or other romantic presents that might interest a lady. Already his wallet was feeling about one third lighter than it had been this morning and there was no telling how long it would be before he would have to stop in at an ATM to replenish his resources...

"I am ready."

Tofu was brought back from the privacy of his thoughts with those three simple words. He started to turn around to see how Kachu was doing…and froze where he stood, looking upon the very image of Kasumi!

"Well?" she asked, glancing self-consciously down at herself, "Do you like it?"

Tofu had trouble breathing. His breath caught in his throat as he just gazed at the vision before his eyes and he felt his head swim as he slowly looked her over. Kachu was wearing a tasteful silk dress that was powder blue with pink trim and very flattering for her willowy figure. A pale pink sash around her waist was tired by a simple, functional knot that make it seem like the belt to a karate gi, yet the lines of her dress played fetchingly down to her ankles, revealing well-shaped feet adorned by simple slippers while her upper dress was cut with a neck line that was held in place by hooks but showed just enough of the cleft between her breasts to evoke an air of mystery for what lay in the gulf between them. Over all the effect made Kachu seem like a fairy-tail princess, yet it wasn't her name that was on his lips as Tofu gasped, "Ka-Ka-Ka-!"

"Eh?" Kachu broke the illusion to look at him with open concern on her features, yet a very different sort of concern than he would experience from Kasumi.

"Ah…" Tofu forced himself to look away and said, "It's nice…it looks very good on you…very good, in fact…"

"It does?" Kachu sounded puzzled, "Then why won't you look at me when you talk? Am I really that offensive to look at?"

"N-No!" Tofu protested, "You don't look offensive at all…I mean-you look very nice," with some effort he swallowed, then forced himself to look back at her, unable to help feeling a surge of giddiness overtaking him at the sight of this near-parallel to Kasumi. Kachu was looking at him with a puzzled expression, so for her sake he said, "Ah…how much?"

Kachu told him and he almost fainted. That the proprietor had been talked down from the original sum left him gasping at the thought of what it must have cost wholesale, but when Kachu-correctly for once-read his disbelieving expression and said, "As I thought, it is much too expensive. You could feed an entire village for a year at these prices," something in him rallied and he immediately voiced his protest as she reached for her collar as if she were about to remove it.

"We'll take it!" he said, glad for the fact that he at least had good credit. His words startled Kachu once again, so she made no further protest of her own as he closed the deal with the shop owner.

As they left the store Tofu was glad that the owner had been pleased enough with the deal that she was willing to sell several other more practical items at reduced cost so that Kachu would have more than one change of clothing to wear without driving him into the poor house. At his insistence she wore the dress he had just bought for her as they resumed walking the streets of the Furinkan Financial district with Kachu eyeing him every step of the way until she could bear the suspense no longer.

"Why did you do that?" she asked, "Even for a husband such generosity is not required."

Tofu had to concede that it was a very good question and wondered at his own actions, but aloud what he said was, "I just thought you deserved to own something nice, and it does look good on you. I wanted you to be able to wear nice things whenever you go out…ah…as something other than a Devil Hunter, that is."

"You disapprove of my lifestyle?" Kachu wanted to know.

"Oh no!" Tofu said, "Not at all! Watching you in action yesterday, I…I suppose you're a very good Devil Hunter. I mean, it's not like I know all that much about your line of work, but I'm sure it's very important to you and…"

Kachu halted in her tracks and said, "All right, that is enough!"

"Uh?" Tofu turned around to look at her in confusion.

"No one is as nice to a total stranger as you have been with me," Kachu said, "Not even one compelled by the law to be my airen. Just what is it you want from me and why are you being so generous this morning? Is there something that you want from me? Is it my body you desire, because if it is…"

"Ah, please, no!" Tofu pleaded, unable to help feeling uncomfortable at having this sort of exchange in a public place, "I don't want anything like that from you! I mean…I think you're very beautiful, and any man would be pleased to have a woman like you standing beside him. In fact…" he swallowed again, realizing that he was on the verge of one of his fits of hysteria. She looked sooooo much like Kasumi at that moment that even the contrast in attitudes could not detract from the impression.

"In fact…what?" Kachu asked him.

Tofu shut his eyes and let his head slump forward, momentarily stumped for an answer. It helped not looking directly at her to get his thoughts back into some semblance of order. Recalling a similar conversation that they had shared the night before he managed to blurt out, "I don't want to take anything from you or make you do anything that you don't want to do of your own accord, Kachu-chan. I don't know why you believe that I would ever take advantage of you in that way, but I'm not like that! I respect you too much to ever want to hurt you."

"But…why?" Kachu replied in utter confusion.

Tofu was still struggling to find the right words to explain to the Amazon the concept of altruism for its own sake when he heard a cheerful voice call out to them and say, "Oh my! What a pleasant surprise this is running into the both of you like this, Tofu-sensei, Oneechan."

"Oneechan?" Kachu turned to regard the unexpected appearance of her half-sister, Kasumi.

Oh no! thought Tofu to himself in helpless realization. Not now! I'm doomed…!

Aloud what he said as he turned around was, "K-K-K-Kasumi? F-Fancy meeting you here of all places! I was just…ah…thinking what a nice day it is and…"

"Hah?" Kachu said, almost immediately recognizing that there was something different in the mannerisms of her new husband.

"Kachu and I were just…um…doing some shopping," Tofu said in a high-pitched voice that squeaked with the tension he was feeling upon seeing the real her again, as always struck by her radiant beauty in a way that left him utterly tongue-tied.

"Shopping?" Kasumi said when she took in the sight of Kachu's dress and remarked, "Oh my! What a beautiful dress! It looks so nice on you, older sister. Did Tofu-sensei buy it for you?"

"He did," Kachu said levelly, still not certain what to make of this girl whom she had so recently mistaken for a Doppelganger, and with whom she still felt an odd kind of connection.

"Isn't that just like you, Doctor?" Kasumi smiled at Tofu, who could not help basking in the glow of her warm expression, then Kasumi looked back at Kachu and said, "How very lucky you are to be able to claim him, sister. He really is a very nice man, and he can be such a great comedian whenever he thinks you need cheering up. I just know he'll make you a very fine husband."

"Ah-hah-ah-hah-ah-hah…!" Tofu babbled like an idiot, inwardly cringing at his inability to master himself in these situations.

"Comedian?" Kachu repeated, uncertain about the word though very certain that she did not like the sound of it, or the context.

"Well, I really must be hurrying home now," Kasumi said cheerfully, "Father will be wondering what I've been doing all night, even after I called him to let him know that I would be spending the night at a friend's. Father worries so much over little things, but you'll get used to him in good time, sister," Kasumi said pleasantly before bowing and wishing them both a good morning and afternoon to follow. As she began moving forward again Tofu's eyes remained locked upon her, even after his glasses became much too steamy to see with.

Kachu was studying her husband carefully and missed no trace nor nuance of his enraptured expression. It was only after Kasumi was no longer within his direct field of vision that Tofu finally snapped out of his daze, then he looked around himself in confusion before turning his bewildered gaze in the Amazon's direction.

"Ah…" Tofu said as he sensed her rising displeasure, "I suppose you must be wondering why I behaved like that I front of your sister…"

"Don't bother," Kachu snarled, "I couldn't care less about it!!!"

Tofu had some cause to doubt the accuracy of that statement as-mere instants later-he found himself buried face-first in a pile of apples that were being hawked by a local merchant. Feeling battered and bruised and not a little bit crestfallen, Tofu managed to groan, "I think the lady is upset with me for some reason…OW…!"

Kodachi lay back upon the silken sheets of her bed and fanaticized about Kasumi. The sheets that had been graced by the older girl's bottom still felt warm to her touch, and she could remember every line and feature of her perfect face. The warmth of brown eyes gazing fondly upon Kodachi made her feel so warm inside that Kodachi hugged herself just from the memory of that intimate moment. The warmth of Kasumi's arms around her, holding her close made Kodachi shudder with longing. She wanted to be held like that again, to be comforted forever by Kasumi's wonderful presence. Just thinking about it made her shudder as though she were suffering from a fever and what had been a mere fancy before was slowly growing with intensity like a raging inferno which threatened to consume her.

"Kasumi…sama!" Kodachi breathed, pronouncing the words as if savoring their flavor.

If she were the sort of person who could experience introverted moments of self-reflection it might have struck Kodachi as odd how she had so completely transferred her affections towards Kasumi and away from Ranma. In all truth it had been a gradual evolution that had begun from the moment that she ceased feeling such a rivalry with Nabiki over young Saotome's affections. It had been a whim, to be certain, that she had fixated upon the handsome young boy in the first place, but the novelty had long ago worn off when Ranma had not returned her attempted affections. When Kodachi had agreed to help train Nabiki for the martial arts Ice Skating match it had diluted her desire to rub the Tendo girl's nose in the dirt and even brought them closer to the point of actual friendship.

The turning point, oddly enough, was her date with Ranma, which had gone off without a hitch and provided them both with a pleasant enough evening that Kodachi briefly thought things could be brought closer between them. But then Shampoo had returned to Nerima and nothing was the same. Nabiki had been quick to warn her of the potential threat, hardly the act of someone whom you could treat like an enemy. If anything Kodachi had been touched by such an act of compassion.

In all truth, she reasoned, someone like Nabiki was truly beneath her in terms of social grace and standing, so competing against her was in effect to lower Kodachi to the mercenary girl's standards. Her older sister-by contrast-was a different story altogether! Kasumi had grace and charm in ample abundance, and she carried herself with such dignity that she could have been born to a much nobler house and superior social standing. Kasumi had immediately become more than a friend to Kodachi and filled a void in Kodachi's soul of which the Black Rose had not even been aware.

Let Nabiki and the Amazon fight over their bone, Kodachi had decided. Ranma was an attractive enough youth, but Kasumi was all woman and had no reservations about showing how much she cared about you. Now the only difficult task that Kodachi foresaw was somehow moving their relationship beyond the point of simple friendship. How exactly this was to be accomplished she was not certain, but Kodachi wanted them to be closer, and hence her abortive scheme to keep Kasumi with her for more than a single evening.

She smiled as she savored the finer points of her plans, having long rehearsed them in detail. The scenario was simple enough, to catch Kasumi unawares with a harmless drug that would give her a peaceful rest so that Kodachi could carry her off to a pre-arranged assignation. Kasumi would wake up to find her loving Kodachi in her arms and before she could voice serious protest she would find the amorous Black Rose already hard at work in winning her over. Kodachi had a vivid imagination of the sorts of things that she would do to arouse the dormant passions of the other girl, then it would be the Black Rose giving Kasumi comfort, and from there…oh yes! Such wonderful things were bound to happen!

The fact that things had not gone according to plan was-in her eyes-a mere a setback, nothing to seriously deter her from attempting it again. She would strive to win Kasumi into her embrace and then…oh yes…and then she would have that perfect body at her tender mercies…to do with Kasumi all the wonderful things that her heart so fervently desired.

She smiled briefly and considered the other alternative, then dismissed the idea at once as going too far and too fast. There was time enough to initiate Kasumi into THAT sort of by-play, not that she had any great desire to inflict pain or discomfort to the other girl, as she had done to the girls of her circle whom she had lured into her place for "experimental purposes." Several members of her gymnastics team had, on prior occasions, been the recipients of Kodachi's dark amusements. They had kept the whole affair hush-hush, of course, sometimes with threats and/or bribery, sometimes outright coercive reinforcement. Only a few girls had been the objects of Kodachi's perverse whims, members of her gymnastics club who each had evidenced signs of a submissive nature, thus assuring Kodachi that they could be easily dominated. If anything the games they had played had helped them become more accomplished gymnasts, and ones who were that much more adverse to earning the displeasure of their domineering Captain.

No, that sort of thing could wait before she drew Kasumi into that level of amusement. For now she wanted Kasumi exactly the way she was, and only after she was assured of the other girl's affections would she risk alienating her by subjecting Kasumi to the sorts of things that she had done to her fellow students of Saint Hebereke.

Kodachi gave a mirthful chuckle when she thought of her loyal manservant, Sasuke, who was no doubt even then enjoying the services of the "Punishment Room." The little Ninja tried to hard to stay on her good side, and it really wasn't his fault that he could be so clumsy and incompetent at times. Still and all it was a good thing to remind Sasuke what the cost would be of running afoul of his Mistress. Because of his carelessness and cowardliness he had cost Kodachi a chance at happiness, though as matters turned out it had been for the better as it allowed her to grow even closer with Kasumi.

Still it was the principle of the thing that had to be kept in mind. There was no sense in allowing Sasuke to become complacent, what with her father coming back to Japan after a protracted absence. Keeping him on his toes was all for the better, so by rights he ought to be grateful, Kodachi reasoned.

She just hoped that the punishment that she had inflicted upon him was not too severe, and that Sasuke would somehow find it in his heart to forgive her…

Sasuke staggered out of the room, having completed the six-hour ordeal that had been commanded by his Mistress. The sheer horror of what he saw would give him nightmares for days, but it was no less than he deserved for having failed to defend his household, so in a way he had to concede that his Mistress had shown him at least a token of mercy.

But still…he shuddered at the memory! To think that rational human beings could subject one another to this sort of torture! What were these Americans thinking when they took a perfectly good series like Dynaman and transformed it into such awful dreck as "Mighty Morphing Power Rangers…?"

He glanced back at the VCR machine, which had already rewound the tape after a six-hour marathon of "Power Ranger" episodes, and he shuddered once again. Locking himself into the same room as the cursed machine while it spewed its filth in badly dubbed Japanese was a lot closer to Hell than he hoped he would ever come in real life. He hoped he never had to go through such a thing again but held his dread to himself, knowing that the Mistress had tapes from the rest of the first season of the show that she was ready to subject him to should Sasuke ever again wind up on her dark side…

"SASUKE!" a familiar voice called out, drawing his mind back to the present.

Sasuke heaved a sigh and resigned himself to having yet another long day. No sooner was the Mistress done with him then he had to rush off to placate the Master. No rest for the wicked indeed, he reasoned. Still, without his efforts the whole of the Kuno mansion would probably collapse, which meant that he needed to see to it that it did not for at least one more evening…

Nabiki's Journal Resumes:

"Just what the hell are you up to, old woman?" I growled as I stood inside the Nekoken with Ranma, awaiting Ukyo's arrival while Shampoo was upstairs dressing.

"Why, whatever do you mean, Daughter-in-law?" Cologne asked as she went about her business hopping from one end of the establishment to the other.

"You know perfectly well what she's talking about," Ranma said gruffly, "Setting Shampoo up on a date with Ucchan's just your idea of making us both jealous, right? Well, it ain't gonna happen!"

"So you say, Son-in-Law," Cologne replied in what sounded like a crafty tone of amusement.

"You think this is funny?" I asked, "You like jerking our chains to get a reaction?"

"I think that the both of you are much too clever for that," Cologne replied, continuing to hop from one end of the closed restaurant to the other as she moved things around with ridiculous ease for a little old lady, like furniture and table settings.

"Yeah, right," I growled, "So what are you up to…and would you stand still when we talk to you already?"

"I'm sorry," Cologne replied, putting chairs on top of tables, "I'm a busy woman and a bit short handed at the moment. With Shampoo making herself ready for her date I have only myself to rely upon for closing up…unless you'd like your old job back, Son-in-Law."

"Not a chance," Ranma growled, "I've got enough to do to keep myself busy."

"Ah yes," Cologne remarked, "You two are teaching at your father's dojo, Daughter-in-Law. How are things going with you there? I'd been meaning to sit in on one of your classes."

"Well enough," I said evenly, "We've got about a dozen regular students, a few who attend whenever they can make it. Ranma teaches mostly, and our fathers sit in on the lectures."

"Yeah," Ranma scoffed, "Like the old man knows that much more than me. It's Nabiki's Pop who really runs the show in some places."

Ranma was, of course, exaggerating the role of my father, but I felt gratitude towards him for trying to put the best spin on our fathers' involvement. Uncle Genma, for all that he's a fat, lazy slob who doesn't do a lick of work around the house, can be a real task-master when it comes to working the best out of our students while the most my daddy can do is motivate people to do their best by offering encouragement here or there while occasionally giving the odd pointer.

It's only been a couple of months that we've been running the dojo, but in all truth it does feel good to give the place some life again after so many years where it's just been Akane's personal work-out chamber. I can remember when Daddy used to run regular classes, before Momma got sick and he lost his fighting spirit. Now it's just a few nights a week that we let outsiders train in the family tradition, but with Ranma's reputation drawing in students we've managed to coral some regulars who pay about five thousand yen a month each for the privilege, which is-on the whole-pretty good and helps keep the family solvent. Akane helps out too (whenever she and Ranma can stand to be around each other) and so does Ryoga, if only to help pay for the room-and-board he's secretly been earning as our unofficial houseguest.

Shampoo, of course, has started to make herself useful, and it hardly hurts our business to have somebody as nice-looking as she is around to draw extra male attention. High school students on the whole don't have a lot of money, but their parents are willing to fork over their fees to give their kids a fighting edge in a place as prone to violence as Furinkan High School.

Of course Shampoo's presence has tended to drive Akane that much more over the edge, and training side-by-side with her is bound to make a difference with my little sister. I know Shampoo fancies herself Akane's unofficial tutor, but things are still too new for us all there, and what with the stuff that happened while we were off training in the mountains…well, only time would tell if this was a stable arrangement.

Okay, back to the circumstances surrounding Shampoo's date. The old woman had set the place and time, so I was surreptitiously eyeing the clock to note that Ukyo was due to show up in another five minutes. I don't know why but I felt vaguely uneasy about this whole date thing. Kuonji may have been passing herself off as a guy but she professed that she wasn't trying to be one in just that manner. I had my doubts about the accuracy of her claims as there are a lot of girls I know who profess to harbor no Lesbian or Bisexual inclinations whatsoever, when I've seen plenty of evidence to the contrary. Since I admit I'm Bi I tend to be skeptical about such claims, and having seen too many borderline cases I just think it's all just a matter of meeting the right people. If you like somebody it doesn't matter if they're a guy or a girl, you go for it, end of story. That may not be the popular view, but just because other people are into heavy denial doesn't mean I'd turn a blind eye to the possibility with Kuonji.

Still I was reluctant to expose her on general principles, even granted that it was tearing me up a little to keep a thing like this from Ranma. Both Shampoo and me had an agreement to keep the truth close to the vest until we knew for certain whether or not Ukyo was planning to press her claims as another of Ranma's fiancées. The two of us alone are a crowd, but with three women going after the same guy? Who knew what that could lead to! Then there was the curious involvement of my little sister, and the fact that I'd been deceiving Akane there with my silence that was gnawing on my conscience in lieu of the fiasco regarding "P-chan" Ryoga. On the whole I figured I was keeping way too many secrets.

I caught myself glancing towards the stairs for more than just the matter of what Shampoo might be thinking at that moment. Lotion was somewhere up there in her room, sleeping according to Cologne, and I caught myself wanting to seek her out for some odd reason. I was starting to get used to having the old woman give me advice even when it wasn't wanted, and for a fact I knew that I could benefit from somebody's counseling at that moment.

Cologne was still moving around a lot when Kuonji finally made her appearance, and only then did the old ghoul halt in her tracks and turn into the perfect hostess, smiling with insinuating charms as Ukyo stepped through the door wearing what looked like a rented tux, for once without that giant spatula that she seems to carry everywhere she goes.

"Good day to you, Kuonji-san," Cologne said pleasantly, "I must say you look remarkably handsome."

I had to hold my breath and silently agree with that. Ukyo's bishonen good looks certainly played off her immaculate appearance, and if I didn't know any better I'd have sworn that she was the most handsome guy I'd ever laid eyes on…Ranma notwithstanding. She moved with supple grace that easily betrayed her martial arts training to even a less experienced eye like mine as she returned Cologne's nod then casually greeted me and Ranma.

"Wow," I heard Ranma exclaim, and I turned to look at him, catching a very odd expression in his face as he studied our dear Ms. Kuonji, "Ucchan…you look great."

"Thanks, Ranchan," she said in that roughened voice she used to mimic a boy's deeper tones, her distinctly Kansai accent adding a charming country quality to her speech, "To be honest I feel pretty silly doing this. I mean…she's your fiancée…"

"Hey, I'm not gonna get into that now, okay?" Ranma tried to sound reassuring, "You just show her a good time and we'll call it even. Just don't go trying to use that charm of yours on her or nothing, you got that?"

"Hey, no problem," Ukyo made a pacifying gesture, sounding and looking a lot more nervous than even I would have expected, "I've got a place picked out that should fit the bill, and you know I can afford to take her out in style. I give you my word I won't put the moves on her or anything like that."

"Good," Ranma snorted, "Not that Shampoo would let you do anything with her, of course. She's got me and Nabiki, so that squares it."

I wasn't sure if he was boasting or warning Ukyo off with that remark, but I felt oddly warmed by the fact that he included me in that statement. I have to admit the possibility of sharing Ranma with Shampoo (or is that the other way around?) is becoming less and less of a sore point in my mind. I mean, it could work out between us, right? I sure hope so, because something about that purple haired dynamo has been getting under my skin lately, and I mean that in a good sense.

"Shampoo will be right down shortly, Kuonji-san," Cologne remarked matter-of-factly, "Make yourself at home until that happens. Meanwhile…Son-in-law? I wonder if I might have your assistance in the kitchen. I have something heavy that needs moving, and though I may not look it I must confess that I'm not getting any younger."

"Huh," Ranma snorted, "You got that right. Show me what you got and I'll handle things."

"I knew that I could rely on you," Cologne said, already moving towards the kitchen, "This will require your services for only a few moments."

We watched Ranma as he followed the old woman into the kitchen, then I took advantage of his absence to hiss, "You better mean that about not trying anything, Kuonji!"

"Hey, what do you think I'm going to do with her?" Ukyo protested, "You know I'm not into that scene like you are!"

"Like I am…what?" I drawled in a meaningful sense.

"Uh…" Ukyo felt along the edge of her collar with a finger, "Well, I'm not criticizing you or anything, but if you want her that way, I won't object. It's just that's not for me…"

"Oh really?" I put the full weight of my skepticism into my response.

"Hey," Ukyo began to get cross, "You don't think I'm really enjoying this, do you?"

"Let's see," I replied sardonically, "You dress like a guy, you talk and act like a guy, you're registered in our school as a man and you've got killer looks that make even my sister swoon and want to date you. Gee, wherever could I have gotten the idea that you might be 'like that?'"

I saw her flash an annoyed look my way, but she calmed down almost immediately and sighed, "I guess you wouldn't be the first one to think that. I don't know about your sister, but I have…known other girls who got that kind of impression."

"You've been on dates before?" I asked with lifted eyebrows.

She looked at me with a helpless expression, then sighed and said, "Yeah…I've dated girls before. Can't exactly pass myself off as a guy if I don't at least pretend to like it."

"And just what did these dates consist of?" I asked with more curiosity than I'd intended.

"Oh, just the usual stuff," she shrugged, "I take them someplace nice, treat them with respect and get them home on time. Some girls aren't happy with just that, but I've learned how to let them down gently."

"And none of them have ever suspected you are a woman?" I asked with some disbelief, though I had to admit to myself that I'd have been perfectly willing to date her if I didn't already have Ranma.

There was a guilty flash in her eyes and then she said, "Uh…well, one did…a couple years back. We were seeing each other for a few weeks and…I sort of noticed she was getting serious, so I knew I had to tell her and…" she paused and I thought I caught a look of strain in her expression.

"And?" I asked, prompting her to finish the sentence.

"She…took it bad at first, but we made up and stayed friends," Ukyo glanced away, "She used to call me her senpai, and I still think about her that way. It's funny, y'know, because in a lot of ways she was even more of a tomboy than me, but in a very feminine sense, which is why I think we got along so well. She was also into the martial arts, but these days I think she's hanging around with a different crowd of people. I hope she's happy."

I felt a twinge of sympathy for her about then and almost felt guilty about voicing my next thoughts, "You're a real heart-breaker, you know that, Kuonji-san? I'll bet you cared a lot more for her than you'd like to admit."

"Hey, it was wrong for me to deceive her like that," Ukyo protested, "I didn't know how much the truth was going to hurt her! I feel bad enough about, I don't need you to sit in judgement. I just hope Mako-chan found herself a real guy who can take care of her like she deserves, because with me it just wasn't gonna happen."

"So sure of that are you?" I sniffed, which earned another annoyed look from her and probably would have been followed by a retort on her part, but at that moment Ranma and the old woman returned, so by mutual consent we elected to drop the subject.

"Now, isn't this pleasant?" Cologne said with a cunning insinuation in her undertone, "I just know Shampoo is going to be thrilled to be seen in the company of such a handsome young boy. Be sure to have her back by eleven, but feel free to enjoy yourselves. Youth is such a fleeting condition…" she sighed in a wistful tone that seemed to imply that she was reminiscing about her own lost youth…back during the stone age!

"So…" Ranma tried and failed to sound casual, "Where's this place you're gonna take her?"

Ukyo was about to tell us that when a musical voice from up the stairs called down, "Nihao! Shampoo ready for date."

We all turned to look, and about this point is where I nearly keeled over in a fainting spell. There at the top of the stairs was Shampoo in a coral-red silk dress, sleeveless and slit up along the sides with heavy embroidery that made the material glisten with gold and silver threads. The emblem of a peacock was displayed across her generous bosoms, seeming to move with each breath she drew while Shampoo half-hid her face with a white-feathered fan and gave us all a very coy expression.

I heard a deep gulping noise that I think either came from me or Ranma, because I'm positive that we were both thinking along similar lines as Shampoo slowly glided down the stairs with supple, sensuous movements. She had done something with her hair that I couldn't quite identify, though it looked like the same style with two odangos held in place by ivory ornaments, and maybe it was my imagination but I could have sworn that girl was wearing make-up! Whatever she did to enhance her natural beauty it sure had the right effect as even I was feeling my pulse quicken, and if Ranma wasn't feeling it then his veins must be filled with icewater!

"Oh my…" I heard Ukyo breathe, which caused me to turn and look at her and-sure enough-even she was being affected. Protests to heterosexuality notwithstanding, I don't think a eunuch could have looked on Shampoo at that moment without feeling something. My mind flashed back to the previous night when Shampoo had all but attacked me and I suddenly felt my breasts grow firm as my nipples hardened!

"Sh-Sh-Shampoo?" Ranma's voice quavered, and when she passed right on by him I thought he looked disappointed.

Shampoo walked up alongside Ukyo and linked her arm with the other girl, still fanning herself as she smiled at Kuonji, then purred, "We go on date now? Shampoo eager to get started."

Something made me cast a glance towards Ranma and I saw him ball his fists and scowl in Ukyo's direction. To be quite frank I was surprised to see him act so territorial, but given how I was reacting just then I guess I couldn't really blame him.

"Ah…ahm…uh…sure," Ukyo said, reluctantly turning around and leading Shampoo towards the exit.

"You two young people have fun," Cologne called out, "Don't do anything that I wouldn't do!"

To which Ranma and me turned to look at the old woman with mutually disbelieving expressions…

"I wonder where Silk is at?" Soun remarked as he glanced towards the horizon, "It's almost sunset."

"Meaning what?" asked Comb from where she sat reading one of Kasumi's books on herbal medicine.

"Don't worry, Tendo," Genma assured his friend, "Wherever she is I'm sure she's just fine. Besides, now that we have Kasumi back we don't need to worry about who's doing the cooking."

"Oh?" Comb looked up with a dangerous scowl, "Meaning you don't want to sample any of MY cooking? I have improved somewhat from the old days, you know."

Both men looked up from their Shogi game with equally nervous expressions. They were saved when Kasumi entered the room with a tray and said, "Oh, how nice, then you won't mind helping me tomorrow when I prepare some sukiyaki. It really would help out to have someone else chop the vegetables…"

"That I can do," Comb volunteered with a relieved expression, having briefly tensed when Kasumi had implied that she might take part in the actual cooking, "As long as it involves sharp objects I'm a natural wizard."

Soun and Genma ceased having a mutual fit of terror and calmed down with remarkable haste. Soun hid his sigh as he said, "You know, it's funny but I almost expect to hear Silk say something when you said that. She does tend to join in with you whenever you're in a conversation."

Comb scowled a bit, but reluctantly conceded, "Well…Silk and I don't always see eye-to-eye, but I think I've gotten used to having her around. As soon as she gets back from her errand I'm sure she'll go back to needling me with her sarcasm."

"Errand?" Genma asked, "What errand?"

Comb set down the book, having confirmed that it was already one in her own personal collection. Being quite bored at the moment she naturally decided some pleasant conversation might lighten her mood a little, especially if it meant prying more details out of Genma.

"Call it a fact-finding mission," she said with calm matter-of-factness, "We wanted to satisfy ourselves about an issue, and we agreed that Silk was the better one to play detective."

"Detective?" Soun asked.

"Fact-finding?" Genma's face held a sudden dubious quality that belied the fact that he was currently moving a piece across the board with his toes while Soun wasn't looking.

"More like confirming a suspicion," Comb continued, "A little mystery that we agreed needed solving."

"Mystery?" Soun remarked, "Sounds intriguing."

"Um…what's this about?" Genma asked, already suspecting that he was not going to enjoy the answer.

"As it turns out," Comb said with a cross expression as she directed the heat of her gaze towards him, "It's to find out why you lied to us about Nodoka being deceased."

"What?" Soun glanced at Genma in dismay, "She's not?"

"Uh…ah…" Genma swallowed, "Well…it may be that I somewhat exaggerated about that…"

"Indeed," Comb purred sensuously, "Then perhaps you might care to enlighten us before your wife joins us for dinner?"

Genma's eyes went wide with panic, "Nodoka's coming here???"

"Perhaps," Comb replied, "Silk sent me a mental note to that effect-she can do that, you know, being a lore master-and they should be arriving here at almost any minute."

"No!" Genma was on his feet, looking like a cornered animal about to bolt, "She mustn't find me here! The boy! Where's the boy???"

"Ranma left with Nabiki some time ago," Soun replied, "Why, is it important?"

"I've got to find Ranma and warn him!" Genma started pumping his legs as he ran in place, only to find he was making no progress due to the fact that Comb had grabbed him by the collar.

"What," she hissed dangerously, "Do you have to warn your son about?"

"There's no time!" Genma wailed, "You've got to let me go! I must warn Ranma before it's too late!"

"Warn him about what?" Comb growled, then a sudden realization hit her, "There's something about Nodoka…you don't want her to find out about the curse?"

"Yes!" Genma cried, "That's it exactly!"

"You think she'll be upset with you?" Soun asked with concern.

"Extremely!" Genma protested.

"Oh, come now, Saotome," Soun said with an affable chuckle, "Just because you turn into a panda shouldn't up set Nodoka too much once we explain the curse…"

"It's not about my curse!" Genma cried, "It's about Ranma! If she finds out he turns into a girl she'll kill us both!"

"Surely that's an exaggeration," Soun replied, though it was plain by his expression that even he was dubious about his own statement.

"Tendo-san," Comb replied quietly.

"Yes?" he asked.

"Shut up," Comb growled as she grabbed Genma by the collar and held him up to where their noses were just barely touching, "What did you promise her, Genma? I know you, you can't help but put that big foot of yours squarely between your tonsils, ESPECIALLY if it involves Nodoka!"

"I promised that I would make Ranma a Man among Men!" Genma cried nervously, "Only the boy got careless and…"

"Nihao!" called a pleasant voice from around one corner of the yard.

Comb wasted no time. Displaying an incredible amount of strength for a woman nearing her fortieth birthday she picked up the larger Genma and hurled him with unerring aim directly for the Koi pond. As he landed with a splash Silk and Nodoka appeared, having been admitted into the house by Kasumi.

"That's odd," Kasumi was remarking, "Uncle Saotome was just here a moment ago…"

"My husband is here?" Nodoka pushed forward, glancing around until she noticed a figure rising up from the koi pond, "Oh my…that looks like a panda!"

"He's a pet," Comb spoke up abruptly, shooting a warning look in Silk's direction, "A real nuisance who's always getting his nose into places he isn't meant to be." She turned around and put on a manifestly false smile as she bowed, "Nodoka-san…long time no see."

"Comb?" Nodoka could not hide her astonishment, but then she turned with warmth and said, "Soun-san…it's been a long time."

"Nodoka?" Soun rose to his full height and smiled warmly as they exchanged bows, "It has been a long time indeed…ever since…" he did not continue.

"I'm so sorry," Nodoka was at once contrite, "I didn't mean to conjure up unpleasant memories, Soun-san, I was only here to ask if you have recently seen my husband?"

"Well, as a matter of fact…" Soun began, but before he could continue Comb spoke up again.

"He left a few moments ago," she said, "With his son on a training mission. We can tell him that you stopped by when they get back."

"They left?" Nodoka's expression was crestfallen while Silk's was puzzled, "And I was so hoping to finally see him again, and Ranma…"

"I'm sure you were," Comb's tone contained a growl that belied her patently false smile, "Too bad you won't be able to stay long…"

"Nonsense," Soun said with an annoyed glare in Comb's direction, "My home is your home. Stay as long as you like, we have more than enough room for additional house guests."

"Oh, I couldn't possibly impose," Nodoka began to say, but Silk rallied to her side and said, "Are you sure of that, Nodoka-chan? After all, it's so late, and we came all this way just to find your wayward husband."

"That's true," Nodoka said with a reluctant smile, "And if Genma and Ranma have been staying here with you, then it would make sense to wait for them until they show up. Will they be gone for very long, do you think?"

"You never know," Silk mused, "They could turn up at any moment."

"No!" Comb protested, then when everyone looked at her she sheepishly said, "I mean…no, I'm sure that they'll be gone for days. In fact when we last saw Genma he looked pretty determined to get going."

"Oh, Mister Saotome," Kasumi remarked as she appeared holding a towel out to the figure that was hiding around the corner of the house, "Would you like to dry yourself off before you come inside?"

"Saotome?" Nodoka brightened as she hurried forward, stopping when she saw the owl-eyed panda, "Where is he? I don't see my husband…"

"Oh?" Kasumi turned to her and said, "Well, actually I was referring to…"

"The panda," Silk finished for her.

"Ah…" Comb thought fast, "That's right, the Panda's name is Mister Saotome! It's a nickname, really. Genma and Ranma adopted him for their pet while they were visiting my part of China. In actuality his name is…" and she said a word in Mandarin that caused Silk to blink and Kasumi to blush.

"Ah…" it was beginning to sink in with Soun that Comb was frantically trying to conceal the truth from Nodoka, and he exchanged looks with Silk to confirm her agreement on this matter.

"Mister Saotome," Nodoka mused pleasantly as she stared up into the face of the upright giant panda, "You know, that is oddly fitting. He does look a little like my husband, only I didn't know he liked pets."

"He got it for his son," Comb explained tersely, "You know, a large pet for a growing boy, a real Man among Men…"

Nodoka turned to look at Comb and said, "Did you journey all the way from China with my husband?"

"Ah…no," Comb replied, "I'm here on other business…"

"That's right," Kasumi said brightly, "She came to find her daughter."

"Daughter?" Nodoka brightened, "You have a daughter, Comb? How wonderful."

"Er…Shampoo," Comb replied, "Her name's Shampoo, and she's my oldest of three beautiful daughters by my darling husband, Ha-Brus."

"Why were you looking for her?" Nodoka asked, "Did she run away from home?"

"Oh no," Kasumi replied, "Shampoo's engaged to marry Ranma."

"My son has a fiancée?" Nodoka said with surprise and delight, but then she turned with a questioning look towards Soun, "But I thought…?"

"Oh," Kasumi said brightly, "Ranma's also engaged to marry my sister. Ah…I know that sounds a bit odd, but they all seem very happy about the matter…"

"My son has two fiancées?" Nodoka said with rounded eyes, turning to look at Soun again, "And you're all right with this, Soun-san?"

"Well, uh…actually…" Soun temporized.

Nodoka clasped her hands together and cried in delight, "My son is so manly!"

She wondered why, a moment later, everyone else in the room but Kasumi face-faulted…


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