Black and White and Wet All Over
Akane hung the 'occupied' sign and slid the door to the outer bath shut. Ami and Makoto were looking around with great interest. "Wow," Ami said. "A big house, a dojo, now a full traditional furo."
"It's not what it looks like," Akane said shyly, with her hand
behind her head in unconscious imitation of Ranma. "Our family has lived in
this house for generations. We could never afford to buy it today."
"Oh," Ami said, blushing. "I didn't mean to imply "
Makoto began to laugh. "Two peas in a pod," she said. "You can both be so bashful." As Akane and Ami turned towards her, they saw each other in the mirror, side-by-side. But while Ami saw Akane clearly, Akane saw a hard-to-remember generic face.
"It's difficult to tell," Akane said.
"Oh, the disguise magic!" Ami put her hand to her face. Then she dropped her transformation and her disguise. Her image cleared. Akane opened her eyes in surprise they were almost twins, though Ami was younger and a few centimeters shorter.
"Wow," Akane breathed. "We could have some fun with this! Loan me your disguise pen?" Ami quirked an eyebrow, handed the pen over, and transformed into Sailor Mercury. After a quick study, so did Akane.
"Shabon spray!" said Mercury, and the outer bath filled with fog. Mercury dispelled it with a gesture.
"Shabon spray!" said pseudo-Mercury, and nothing happened. "No magic," she lamented.
"You don't need magic," Makoto said as she was slipping off her sweater. "You have a mallet."
Mercury smiled, transformed back into Ami, and began undressing. Likewise Akane. Soon their clothes were neatly hung. Makoto looked the two over. "You aren't twins with your clothes off," she said.
Ami blushed, and Akane looked irritated. "What?" they both said.
"Well, just look at the two of you! Ami, you have a swimmer's body. Akane, you have a fighter's body. With muscles that dense, I'd bet you're a lousy swimmer."
"Sink like a stone," Akane said ruefully. "Ranma used to tease me about being built like a brick. I never really understood."
"Where is Ranma?" the two Senshi asked. "I'd think she'd want a soak too, after all that exercise."
Akane filled a bucket with cool water, and dumped it over her head. "First of all, Ranma didn't raise a sweat this morning. It was a really light workout for her."
She handed the bucket to Ami, and began to soap herself. "Second, Ranma turns into a guy with hot water. Three girls and a guy in the furo? I think not!"
She took the spray, and rinsed herself. "And third, Ranma's my guy. You don't get to look at him in the bath."
She looked back over her shoulder as she entered the inner room. "Besides, Ranma told me she was heading out this afternoon to do business with Mao and the cats." She eased into the furo with a sigh of contentment. Makoto joined her, then Ami. They floated in warmth (though some floated better than others) feeling the tensions of the morning fade away.
"He's yours?" Makoto finally said. "It's hard to think of Ranma as 'he'. And you keep switching genders when you talk."
"It's easier on the innocent bystanders if the person they see matches what you're saying. Ranma really is a guy, but ever since he got cat-senses, it's more comfortable for him to be a gal in public. Tomcats are ruled by their noses when there's a receptive lady cat around. And we all know teen girls can get pretty receptive. Especially around a hunk like Ranma, when he's a boy."
Makoto smirked. "We better keep him away from Minako."
Ami giggled at Makoto. "I bet he looks like your old sempai."
Akane smiled, slowly. "Want to see? He's going to be a guy tonight, for a special dinner. You two could come? Kasumi's going to be one of the cooks."
When both girls nodded, Akane leaned forward, pulled them closer, and whispered. "Be quiet about this, because our parents are lunatics. But Ranma and I are getting married in a week."
Both girls' eyes got wide, and they nodded frantically. "See, our folks want us to get married real bad, but they go overboard. They'd turn the wedding into a circus, and half the weirdos in Tokyo would turn out to ruin it. And our parents couldn't keep a secret to save their lives. So we're keeping it a secret.
"Ranma turns eighteen this Friday, and we're going downtown for a civil license. For something formal, there's a shrine in Okayama with a swordmaster-priest. We'll talk our folks into going there with us. They'll think we're going for the sword-arts. They won't realize we're there for the priest until the ceremony starts."
Makoto closed her eyes, and raised her face to the heavens. "So romantic " she breathed.
"It's our engagement dinner tonight," Akane said quietly. "Just family and friends. My sister and her new boyfriend are cooking. Of course at the wedding my sisters will stand up for me, and Kasumi's boyfriend is standing up for Ranma. But the family doesn't need to know that."
And they giggled and whispered together until they had to get out of the furo for fear of overheating and wrinkles.
While Akane, Makoto, and Ami headed for the furo, Ranma picked up Luna and jumped to the roof. Rhett Butler made the jump also, though not very gracefully. They looked down at Mao. She spread her hands and shrugged. "I could do that if the moon were full." So the three jumped back down, and they all found a nice sunny spot near the koi pond.
After they'd circled around several times and settled in, they rested in silence for a while. But eventually Ranma sighed, and spoke to Luna. "Cats can be more than you seem to realize."
"Nani?" said Luna. Rhett Butler closed his eyes, and went to sleep.
"Knowledge is power. Our cat-sister, Shampoo, knew who and where you were in just a couple hours. She's trained. But you been fightin' Daimohn for weeks. By now, you should be pretty sure where they're comin' from. You got th' general idea you were over here checkin' out the dojo a few days back but I can tell. You're peacetime advisors."
Ranma turned to Mao. "Luna's hooked up with some devil-hunters. Keep it a secret."
"I can see why," Mao said. "I'm a Were, and I keep it secret. There's a nest of vampires up in Brainerd, and vampire hunters, and both sides keep it secret or at least try to. I think we all understand."
Luna had lowered her head, and her whiskers drooped.
Ranma tousled her head, scratched her between the shoulder-blades. "Yep, I'm pickin' on ya. That's how Anything Goes makes y' work harder. Think, Luna you're small, but you're fast, agile, and got good senses. By th' time trouble arrives, you sh'ld be out of sight observin'. An' if the trouble gets away, you c'n follow it home. If y'know where Daimohn come from, you c'n pay 'em a visit when they're not expectin' it. Act, instead of react."
Luna raised her head. Her red eyes looked into Ranma's blue. "I think I need a teacher."
Ranma licked her lips in a very feline way. "I think y' need a meal. An' I know where we c'n find a teacher 'long with it." She crooned "livverrrr" in Rhett Butler's ear. His eyes blinked open.
Ranma stood, and motioned to the others. "Let's go have some food." She headed out the gate of the compound.
Ukyo smiled and said "Ranchan!" as they came in the door. She looked at Ranma's entourage. "I hear you've been hanging around with a talking cat?"
The black cat looked up at her. "That's me. I'm Luna, and these are my friends Rhett Butler and Mao." Luna nodded towards them as she spoke.
Ranma added, "We've never caught Rhett Butler talkin', but when he's a wise-ass it fits. We're pretty sure he understands us. He's a berserk. An' Mao's one o' the cats I met over Summer break, but she's only a cat under the full moon. Fellas, this is my childhood friend, Ukyo. She owns the restaurant."
Ukyo looked them all over. "Let's see if I have this right, sugar. You're turning the dojo into a cat house?"
Ranma and Mao sighed. Luna facefaulted, and Rhett Butler deadpanned.
"Food first," Ranma said. "A small tuna okonomiyaki for Luna, a medium liver for Rhett Butler, a special for Mao, and three specials for me. T' start." Ranma took a sheaf of yen out of her pocket, ruffled them. "We'll even pay. Your father didn't get all oyaji's winnin's."
Ukyo made a face. "Liver okonomiyaki? I have chicken livers, but "
Ranma shrugged. "Demon cats don't have th' same tastes as th' rest of us."
"Demon cats?" Ukyou's eyebrows raised. "Let's see: a demon berserker cat, a talking cat, a were-cat and you. Everybody here seems to have either adjectives or footnotes attached."
"Includin' you an' Konatsu, I might add. Is Konatsu around? We gotta talk with her."
"She's upstairs, sugar, decorating. The lunch rush is over, and she has time. Why don't y'all grab a booth? " Ukyo turned to the grill, poured batter, added small piles of liver, tuna, and whatnot. "Not that I'm complaining, but we aren't supposed to have animals in here."
"These cats are part o' your vermin-control measures. Do you see any vermin?"
"Well, Tsubasa was in earlier. He just won't give up."
"We shoulda got here sooner. Can't expect it to work when the cats ain't on duty."
Mao and Luna raised questioning brows at each other. Rhett Butler sat, occasionally licking his whiskers when a whiff of cooking drifted by. Ukyo added the toppings and sauce, brought the food over. She was careful to serve Rhett Butler and Luna first, with a quirk of her lips at Ranma. "I'll get Konatsu," she said.
Rhett Butler belched, and looked up from an empty plate. Ranma smiled in respect. "I think he liked it, Ucchan. Make him another when you get back."
Soon four humans and two cats were seated cozily in a booth. Rhett Butler had eaten another two liver okonomiyaki, but he looked more like he'd eaten the canary. He padded over to Ukyo and stropped his shoulder against her side. "Seems like you'll have a steady customer," Ranma said. "Put 'im on my tab. But only one a week, mind you."
Then she leaned forward, and spoke quietly. "We need your help, Konatsu. Luna here," (she nodded to the black cat) "is hooked up with some devil-hunters. She's not big an' powerful enough to battle devils. But a black cat could be a good ninja, and that can be part of devil-huntin' too. Would you be willin' to teach her?"
Konatsu looked Luna and Ranma over, exchanged glances with Ukyo. She nodded. Ukyo went back to her grill, accompanied by Mao, who wanted to talk receipes. Konatsu led Ranma, Luna, and Rhett Butler through a door in the back, and upstairs to the newly-arranged living room.
Konatsu excused herself, went into the bedroom, and returned a few minutes later in kunoichi garb. Ranma and Rhett Butler had found a warm spot of sun near a window. Konatsu sat seiza on the opposite side of the room, where it was darker, and motioned Luna over to her. "Luna-san, frame of mind is important in ninjutsu. When I wear a kimono, I am a waitress or hostess. A housedress turns me into a homemaker. The garb I am now wearing makes me a ninja. This is not true I am always a ninja. But your frame of mind is as important as mine. If I control what you see, I control what you think and do. And this is what you must learn."
Ranma turned to Rhett Butler, who was curled up in the sunlight, eyes closed, and purring. Good idea, she thought, and curled up herself. She'd been on the prowl the night before, though she'd taken a cat-nap in a shrine around midnight when it rained. More naps were always welcome. Konatsu's voice made a gentle background, to which Luna would occasionally reply. She drifted off, into a dream filled with cats. Ah, she thought. Those were the kittens she'd rescued, in the neko-pit, that first dream after she'd met the bobcat. She churred, and they came scampering and tumbling over to her. They were growing nicely. She began to lick them.
"Father, we need you as a teacher," Akane said as she stood with Ami and Makoto.
Soun perked up. Since Ranma returned from the Northwoods, life had been a roller-coaster ride, and he'd had precious little control over it. It felt good to be needed. "Yes, daughter?"
"Ami and Makoto have a problem. They were ordinary schoolgirls who happened to be there during devil attacks. All of a sudden, these devil-hunting powers landed on them and sank in. And now the devils just keep on coming. Well, usually the power runs in families, where the next generation learns the basics before they get the powers."
"Some say the Mano clan devil-hunters are over a hundred generations along," Soun noted.
"But Ami and Makoto got the powers without the training."
Soun looked the three over. "Is that why you had them here for evaluation this morning?"
"That's some of it, daddy, and we wanted to show them what we could do. One of their devils jumped Ranma a week ago, and it took me and Shampoo and Ranma-neko to put it down. I don't think anybody else in Nerima could have done it, except maybe Happosai or Cologne. We don't want devils running around killing people and possessing them. A martial artist can't allow that.
"And daddy, if we can kill devils with our training, and they can kill devils with magic and spirit-power, think how good they'd be with training as well as magic."
Soun took a deep breath. His mind turned inward. I haven't been worth much since Kimiko died, he thought. But I don't have the luxury of that any more. My little girl needs me. And Ranma was so upset after she talked with Luna. This is more serious than Akane is making it seem. "I'll do it. How can we work it?"
Akane smiled brilliantly at her father. His heart warmed at that. "Bjorn-sensei will be here another week or so. Ranma and I will be training with him for that time," she said. "Ami needs strategy and magic, so she might do best with Cologne as a teacher. But you'd be the perfect teacher for Makoto."
Soun looked the tall girl over. "You're a street-brawler," he said. "I could tell this morning."
Makoto blushed, and nodded.
"That's good. You'd have to unlearn brawling for most forms, but Anything Goes can build on it." Soun headed for the dojo, motioned the girls to follow. Inside they bowed to the shrine, giving respect to the spirits of the place. Then Soun and Makoto moved to the center of the room, and bowed to each other.
"I'll leave you two to your lessons," Akane said. "Makoto, learn the Art without your powers that way, you won't be at a loss if a devil jumps you before you can transform. Besides, I want you to leave my father in good condition." She headed towards the door. "Me and Ami are going over to the Cat Cafι. We'll be back in time to get ready for dinner over at the Kuno mansion. Sunset, remember." And the two left.
"Ah," said Soun. "The beginning of all martial art is learning how to fall. In combat, it makes the ground a friend instead of an opponent. Watch carefully, now "
Ami and Akane came through the door into a fierce dispute between Cologne and Bjorn, mostly in English with the occasional multicultural gesture. There were a few customers, even in the middle of the afternoon, and they weren't being properly tended to. Akane sighed. "Ami, do you understand English?"
"Good. Go listen to those two. They're bound to be saying something interesting, and I should take care of the customers." Akane reached behind the counter, put on an apron, and went over to a table where the people looked a bit impatient. "I'm sorry Grandmother does so love to argue. May I get anything for you?"
"Another pot of tea, if you please, and then our check."
Akane nodded, and went into the kitchen. Cologne cringed for a moment (she wasn't as distracted as she seemed) but relaxed when she heard Akane filling a teapot from the urn. Akane was a dangerous cook, but she could serve just fine. Akane came out, set the pot on the table, and went over to the counter where she ruffled through the order slips until she found the right one. She put the bill on a small plate and used almond cookies to weight it down, then set it beside the teapot. Then she went back to the counter, listened to the argument, and waited for customers to act like they wanted something.
Eventually the cafι was empty except for the four of them. Cologne motioned Akane over to the table. "Bring cookies, and sit down." She gently brushed Akane's cheek. "Thanks for taking over the counter without being asked."
"You know, if some old ghoul had asked me to do it, I'd have balked. But when I saw my granny having a great conversation, of course I didn't want her taken away from that."
Cologne cackled vigorously, then explained to Ami and Bjorn that "Ranma and Akane used to call me 'old ghoul' until they got adopted as my granddaughter's shield-sisters. Amazing what becoming family can do for your outlook." Then she looked at Ami. "So, young one what were Bjorn-sensei and I talking about?"
Teachers never caught Ami off balance, and she wasn't letting Cologne do it either. "Well, Cologne-obasan, you both were making a fuss, and obviously having a great time. But at the root, the two of you were discussing when to attack, when to retreat, when to temporize, and when to make peace. And always, to gather information."
"We agreed on gathering information, but not on when to attack or retreat. Why was that?"
"I just met you today, but I've been told a few things. You, Cologne, are a village elder. You lead a band of warriors, and not that large a band. You must be aware of the negative consequences of battle. Bjorn-sensei, on the other hand, is a berserk. He goes into battle alone, and when he's hurt, he heals almost instantly. For him, the joy of battle is foremost. Obviously, he will attack more readily than you. But information will make a battle safer for you, and more enjoyable for him."
Cologne stamped her staff on the floor with a gap-toothed smile on her face. "You and Ranma have brought me a live one, Akane! I'm going to enjoy having her work here! Now, I have to close down for the evening. You two run along, and Akane, tell Ami what I'm talking about. We can say more after dinner."
Next thing Akane and Ami knew they were out the door, and Cologne flipped the sign to "Closed". They heard the click of the lock.
"What just happened?" Ami asked plaintively.
"She turned you over to me," Akane smiled. "I'm going through the same training, so I can tell you what it's like."
"She said 'working here'?"
"Being waitress, that's the training. In China, Cologne is a powerful elder of her tribe. In Japan, she's gaijin. She doesn't have a license to teach. She has to support herself, so she runs a cafι. But she demands a lot from her staff, and brings us up to speed in a thousand little ways. Ranma learned the kachuu tenshin amaguriken as Cologne's waitress. Funny name, chestnuts, but a powerful technique. Cologne likes theatrics, and so do the customers cups and plates juggled, food flying through the air, somehow caught and set neatly in place without spilling. You won't believe what it'll do for your reflexes. But training without a license? Never!"
"So she makes everyday life into lessons?"
"That's it, Ami. That's Anything Goes, too. Everything is practice. I'm learning the physical arts, mostly, and she's working on my self-control. I'll bet the fanciest sundae at Sakura that she'll argue with you. That'll be part self-control, part assertiveness, and a lot of Sun Tzu."
Ami shook her head in wonderment. "The Socratic method of martial arts teaching " she murmured. The two girls walked on. It was late afternoon of a nondescript October Saturday, cloudy, and the little commercial district wasn't all that attractive. But it didn't take that long for them to get into residential territory. Most of the trees still had some leaves, though more and more were on the ground. The fresh-fallen leaves were dry, rattling along in the breeze; yesterday's leaves had been rained on about midnight, and were sulking damply in the gutters.
Ami took a breath of the cool, damp air, let it out again. "I don't think I'll be able to get permission to work as a waitress. School wouldn't approve, and neither would my mother."
"Your mother is a doctor, isn't she? Cologne-obaasan knows a lot of traditional Chinese medicine. And you'll be learning Chinese history, and a lot of philosophy. Waitress? You'd be helping a master of Chinese medicine dispense herbs!"
"Isn't that, oh, a bit close to lying?"
"Truth comes in a thousand flavors, and goes especially well with herbs and spices. That's not lying, it's diplomacy. See, you'd be learning diplomacy too! Just think of it as an eccentric juku. She'd be glad to charge a yen a day for lessons."
Ami suspected Akane had been learning to argue from Cologne. "We can discuss it tomorrow. Maybe all get together at the shrine."
Akane smiled as they entered through the Tendo gate.
The house was bustling as everybody hurried to change clothes for the dinner. Ami and Makoto had it easy all they needed were their disguise pens and a few moments of privacy. They'd also used the privacy to check in with the rest of the Scouts and with Ami's mother, so nobody would worry if they stayed late.
Soun wore the brown suit he'd gotten when Genma won the lottery, and Akane was elegant in the black-and-blue silk outfit she'd had for the last dinner at the Kuno mansion. Ranma was male for the evening, wearing his finest Chinese silks in red and black; and more than a little uncomfortable from Akane and Makoto's reaction to him.
"My heavens," Makoto whispered to Akane as she fanned herself. "You'd better keep him out of sight."
"You don't know the half of it," Akane whispered back.
Soon Mao and Bjorn were there, a bit rumpled in travelling clothes, and they all headed off to the Kuno estate. Ukyo, Konatsu, and the cats were already at the gates, and Cologne arrived at the same time. Kasumi and Nabiki were already there, had been all afternoon.
A servant bowed them in, and led them directly to the dining room, which had been completely re-arranged to handle the crowd. Teppanyaki chefs want to be close to their audience, so Tatewaki had searched out a circular table with a large cutout in the center. He and Kasumi were in the cutout, surrounded by two grills, plates and baskets of foodstuffs, knives and spatulas and cleavers neatly arranged before them. The rest of the people were seated around the table. Luna and Rhett Butler were under the table by Ranma's chair.
Ranma's nose was working overtime. Fifteen people, two cats, a hidden ninja, two hot hibachis, and a table covered with fine food will do that to a cat. Mostly, the people were anticipating a pleasant meal, which was a very comfortable smell. Tatewaki and Kasumi smelled of nervousness it was their first public performance as a team with an undertone of romantic tension. And when a draft of air came from Kodachi's direction, he smelled sadness.
She sorta drooped when she saw me as a guy, Ranma thought. I guess it was easier on her for me to come around as a gal up 'til now. But Nabiki's sitting next to her, and they been pretty close lately. I hope she can help Kodachi handle it.
Nabiki looked around her. "We got here just at sundown," she said. "I guess that makes this a Night of the Round Table." She smirked at Tatewaki, who facefaulted, recovered, and smirked back at her.
Kasumi looked around also, and noted that Principal Kuno had brought hair-shears and a pineapple to place alongside his plate, bowl, cup, and chopsticks. Oh dear, she thought. I guess it's time to learn if I can tame the Kuno eccentricities. She looked directly at Ranma. "As I was coming up the path, Ranma, I noticed one of the trees had wind damage. Didn't you mention you'd run across a martial-arts tree-surgeon last week?" She rolled her eyes in the direction of the Principal.
Ranma's mind went blank for an instant from such an off-the-wall question, but he saw a small palm tree out of the corner of his eye. Ah. "That was last month, Kasumi," he said as he thought. Fortunately, Nabiki had been tutoring him in Martial Arts Conversation. "What happened last week, he introduced me to some Martial Arts Gardeners." He held his chin between thumb and forefinger. "But I don't wanna hang 'round with them, 'cause I've heard some of 'em belong to the Bonsai Liberation Front."
Kasumi was grateful Ranma had caught what she was doing. "Bonsai Liberation?"
"They don't approve of bonsai. They say plants should be free to grow, not tortured into a stunted miniature of their natural form." Principal Kuno nervously caressed the tiny palm-tree growing from his head. "They've learned ninjutsu so they can creep unnoticed into houses, to spray a powerful growth-promoter onto bonsai."
Tatewaki said "I hope you're paying attention, Sasuke."
"I am, Master Kuno," came a voice from the ceiling.
Kodachi, the botanist of the family, decided to contribute. "That must be gibberellic acid," she said. "I've used it to bring roses out of dormancy. I'm sure it would work on bonsai."
Nabiki could tell where this was heading, and threw wasabi in the mix. "Didn't something like that happen a year or two ago in Azabu-Juuban, when an entire flower show went mad and started capturing people?"
Ami, a complete innocent, chipped in. "Oh, that wasn't the Bonsai Liberation Front. I live there, and the Sailor Senshi said the plants were possessed by youma. Completely different thing. There weren't even any bonsai at the show." Makoto, who loved plants and included plant growth among her powers, quietly resolved to talk with Ranma after dinner, and perhaps Kodachi.
"Whatever," Ranma said with a shudder. "I've heard it's bad stuff. The plants start to grow, an' grow, an' of course the roots grow along with th' rest of the plant, and pretty soon they bust outta the pot. What happens after that depends on where th' pot was, I guess, but if th' plant lands on good soil, it can grow to enormous size."
Principal Kuno felt the base of his palm-tree, and blanched. He excused himself and left the table for a moment. Ranma pricked up his ears. From the next room, he could hear the Principal phoning to order plane tickets to Hawaii, one way.
Tatewaki quietly threw the hair-shears in the trash. Kasumi picked up and examined the pineapple, obviously considering its use in dinner. She sniffed it, shook her head, and tossed it, too, in the trash. Principal Kuno didn't fuss about his missing toys when he returned, and dinner got underway.
It started as before, this time with two chefs. Tatewaki began to juggle his knives, and somehow slabs of pork ended up before him, and before Kasumi. She took up her knives, and watching Tatewaki, began to juggle them, clumsily. One of them got away from her, and flew towards her face. She ducked out of the way, and it fell behind her.
Soun's eyes popped open, and his heart was in his throat.
But Kasumi kicked her heel up to meet the knife-handle on its way down. The knife bounced back, spinning slowly, and fell neatly into her right hand. Her movements smoothed out, and became a graceful dance of steel. The knife flicked out, sssh, sssh, sssh, sssh, and the pork was sliced. Halfway through, Tatewaki said "May I cut in?" and began to slice the meat at right angles to Kasumi's cuts. The blades didn't interfere with one another in the least.
Everybody realized they'd been suckered except for Kodachi and Nabiki, who'd watched the two practice. Soun swallowed his heart, and began to breathe again. Kasumi looked at him and smiled radiantly, without missing a stroke. "Blades are part of the martial arts, daddy." And as he watched his daughter's hands, he began to notice a shadow of the moves Genma and Ranma used when they duelled over food. A warm glow crept over him. Kimiko, you should see this, he thought.
Soon enough, the dance had an intermission, and it was time to eat. It was plain to all the experienced people that Tatewaki had led the dance when it was sharpened metal, but Kasumi had taken the lead when it was food. And if the food were as fine as the knifework, they'd be happy, indeed. Which they were.
The conversation broke up into small groups. Nabiki, Kodachi, and Ami the smart set were talking about plant growth, greenhouses, and the biology of mutation and hybridization. Ranma, Akane, and Bjorn were talking martial arts and berserkergang. Makoto was between the two groups, her head swivelling as she tried to keep up with both conversations. Soun and Principal Kuno were both sitting quietly, tears of happiness streaming down Soun's face and occasional twinges of nervousness jolting Principal Kuno.
After getting a nice bit to eat, Luna and Rhett Butler had gone over to Mao. They were discussing the olfactory dynamics of the occasion. Rhett Butler occasionally took a lazy swipe at Happosai's foot as it dangled over the edge of the chair. Happosai and Cologne were fencing verbally, and the demon cat's distraction was not helping Happosai's eloquence.
The cooking and eating went on. After the pork, there was eel. After the eel, takoyaki. Ukyo and Konatsu were watching every move, saving it up for future reference; but Tatewaki and Kasumi had been wise enough to serve neither ramen nor okonomiyaki, so they didn't provoke any challenges.
Makoto smiled, and sighed. "Don't they look so happy together?" she cooed. Kodachi overheard, and her previous depression surged back. Her eyes closed, her face closed; she got to her feet, and ran out of the room.
"I'll take care of her," Nabiki told Ami as she got up to follow.
That quenched the happy mood, and the dinner slowed to a stop. Tatewaki and Kasumi quickly turned off the grills and cleaned their workspace, then headed off to find Kodachi and Nabiki. Principal Kuno went to pack his suitcases. Bjorn and Mao were outsiders, and left for their hotel as soon as possible. Ukyo made a few notes on a pad of paper, then she and Konatsu headed for Ucchan's. Cologne and Happi grabbed Soun, and started nudging him towards home.
Ranma and Akane, Ami and Makoto, and the cats were left. They walked out the door into the night. "Stay on the path," Ranma noted. "It's safer. Their family ninja likes booby-traps."
"Normally, I'd invite you to stay the night," Akane said. "But we're dealing with a broken romance here, and we might be picking up pieces until after midnight. Kodachi wanted Ranma very badly, and didn't handle it well when she found she never really had a chance."
"I understand," Makoto said.
"I'll call home, and see what's happening there," Ami added. And she got out her communicator. She talked for a while with Moon, then called home. Then she turned to Ranma and Akane. "Shampoo did real well," she said. "They took care of a daimohn this afternoon, then she spied out the identities of some other sailor girls that've been hanging around us. She headed home some while ago."
"Why don't we all come by the shrine tomorrow afternoon?" Ranma said. "We can talk all kinds of things over," Akane finished.
So they walked to the subway stop, and waited until two girls and two cats boarded for Azabu-Juuban. Then Akane and Ranma walked back to Tendo-ke. They might have enjoyed a slower walk, and perhaps some lingering in the park, but the breeze held a definite chill. Ranma put his arm around Akane's shoulders, and they moved close together for the warmth.
"I wonder when they'll get home," Akane said.
"Late," Ranma replied.
They entered the house, kissed goodnight, and went to their rooms to begin their last week of sleeping alone.
Nanibozho was a minor trickster-kami in the Department of Blessings and Curses, nowhere as important as his namesake in the North American office. Thus, he was surprised when a major kami like Inari-sama paid him a visit. He bowed, and murmured a few reverent words of greeting.
Inari entered, lowered his sack of rice, and sat comfortably upon it. He brought forth two small cups, and a flask of rice wine. "Come," he said. "Sit with me. Share the honest bounty of the harvest, and the joy the winemakers have made of it."
Nanibozho sat seiza before Inari, and took a cup when it was offered. Inari poured; they both drank deeply, and sighed. Inari sat in contemplation, and the trickster sat in silence. Life could get interesting when major kami were around, and he wasn't about to risk annoying one. He knew too much about interesting. It was his job.
After a timeless time, Inari spoke. "We share an interest," he said. "The Saotome family."
Ah, thought Nanibozho. Suddenly it becomes clear. "I've been managing the Saotome curse of interesting times."
"I should have been paying closer attention," Inari said. "But the younger Saotome was being followed around by some idiot that kept demanding the Vengeance of Heaven be delivered through his hands and sword. I kept my distance the idiot was far too tempting a target, and I'm trying to cut back on the smiting. Then one day Tsunami-sama paid Kami-sama a visit, and the two of them went buzzing off in a huff. I hear they ended up with you."
"They did. Who is Tsunami-sama, and how did she get so much influence with Kami-sama?"
"She's the chief kami for a world named Jurai. More, she and her two sisters are the chief kami of our entire universe. She outranks you, she outranks me whisper it she even outranks Kami-sama Himself."
Nanibozho pursed his lips. "What brings her august presence here? And what got her interested in Saotome?"
"Well, her niece has been in a cave on Earth for the past seven hundred years. Tsunami-sama came to check things out."
"Are we going to repeat all the fuss from when Amaterasu was young, and hid in a cave?"
"No, the niece is out of the cave now, and matters are proceeding according to plan. But the cave was on the grounds of a shrine; and while Tsunami was there, two youths prayed before the sacred tree she was residing in. Saotome and the idiot, would you believe? Their conflicts had gone too far, and they hoped to mend them. She took to the two their stories reminded her of her niece's troubles that ended up in the cave. So she put the idiot on the road to healing, and helped them listen to each other. That set them on a path that could lead to friendship. As a blessing, she asked Kami-sama to transfer the curse from Ranma to Genma."
"I've never met a man who more deserved that curse. It's a joy to keep his life busy. I'd been feeling guilty about the kid, so I did a bit of repair work on the after-effects of his curse myself. Or maybe her curse."
Inari was sitting on the rice-sack in her female aspect, with kitsune by her side. She smiled at Nanibozho. "Thanks." She filled their cups with sake again. "Let us be merry, and consider ways to make Saotome Genma's life both interesting and appropriate. I believe you left him in a tiger pit?"
"And I picked the pit carefully. There are some old customs in that part of China. I thought one in particular might be fun."
Genma was a tired bear, but a fortunate one. The Eastern slopes of the Tibetan plateau weren't good tiger country. His companion was only a snow leopard a hungry snow leopard, true, but with a judicious combination of bluster, threat, and bribery-with-fish, the leopard had left him alone. Pandas might eat bamboo, but they were still bears; and he was a very large panda.
Of course the fish were all gone, and the leopard and the panda would be hungry again soon. He didn't want to think what would happen then, and figured it'd be a good idea to get out of the pit before he found out. Neither he nor the leopard dared sleep the first to nod off would probably be the next meal, and several more meals after that. Dawn was coming, and he could see his companion more and more clearly.
Genma set to digging at the sides of the pit. If he were careful, he could collapse the sides bit-by-bit, and build a mound to climb out on. But half-a-dozen swipes at the earth, and his claws were tangled in something. He looked over his shoulder at the leopard, just in case, and tugged.
A net. The pit was lined with a net.
Well, pandas and leopards could climb nets. He began digging again, with renewed enthusiasm. But before he was even halfway out of the pit, he heard voices approaching, talking in Mandarin. Brute faces looked down into the pit, saw the bear and the leopard, and drew back. There were shouts. Then he could see them hooking a rope and pulley over a stout branch, and the net coming together overhead.
With creaks and grunts and laughter, the net was pulled out of the earthen sides of the pit, then hauled into the air. Genma and the leopard were squeezed into one struggling lump, but took only minor damage because they'd used their claws on the net instead of one another. The air filled with growls and roars.
Oh Kami-sama, thought Genma. Those guys are Musk. And those guys were also spreading the net out on the ground, so panda and leopard could get away from each other. They tossed nooses over the net, tied them off, and Genma was in his own claustrophobic mesh bag, well-separated from the leopard. Then the Musk warriors snapped off saplings to use for poles, stripped the branches off.
Strong ones, too, Genma thought. Best not to do anything until they open the bag.
The warriors slung the bags under the poles, hoisted the whole assemblage up, and trotted downhill along the game trail. Occasionally they detoured around seemingly-innocent patches of trail but Genma could see they were pitfall traps. What are Musk collecting animals for? Genma wondered. And then a terrible memory came to him. They used to dunk animals in the Spring of Drowned Girl, then lock their curse. That's how they got their wives.
The procession came around a ridge. Below and ahead, Genma saw the valley of Jusenkyo.