Azabu-Juuban and its residents had been interesting, but Ranma and Akane were back in Nerima. Cologne and Shampoo had gone to the Cat Café, while Ranma and Akane went home to change into warmer clothes. (In Fall the temperature drops at night.) Then they'd headed out (separately) to the park to talk. They were still playing at standoffish – the two wanted their wedding to be a complete surprise to Soun and Nodoka.
"Could you believe the look on Mamo-chan's face when I transformed?" They sat on the same swings they'd been using when they decided to marry.
"Poor thing," Akane said. "Here the guy is completely surrounded by powerful girls. I'll just bet he's of two minds about that."
"N’en I come along, and c'n do both sides all by myself," Ranma noted with a smirk.
"After we took out the daimohn that stole his heart crystal, he's not about to complain. But he must be thinking hard."
"Well, he wasn't at his best. We'll just haveta see what he's like when he's on top of his game."
"They say he's going to marry Usagi, and the two of them will rule the Earth."
"They're nice enough, an' there's nothin' wrong with ambition. It'd be interestin', an Emperor and Empress who can kick monster butt. I hope they have time ta grow up first, though. An' they better keep those cats as advisors. Things go better with cats."
The two smiled at each other for a while. Then Akane got serious. "How are we going to work the wedding? My father and your mother should be there. But if we aren't careful, we'll make them suspicious. For one thing, you haven't been talking with your mother lately."
"I'm bein' careful," Ranma said. "Careful she don't see me this way. You know what a fuss she makes about 'man among men'. Do I look like a man among men to you?" She gestured at her petite body and generous bosom. "I been doin' 'woman among women' ever since I figgered out what that scent meant. It's more peaceful that way, but it sure ain't manly.
"Okay, we get married in a week. That's 'man among men'. But if you don't start popping out grandbabies real soon, next thing you know here comes the cloth-wrapped bundle. We're too young for kids. We gotta put an end to that. No, I gotta do it. She might talk a good line of belief, but it won't stick unless she gets it from me."
"Sometimes I think your mother is just as loopy as your father."
"They did marry each other."
"You told Tatewaki he suffered the same curse you did: being raised by an idiot father without a mother to soften the problems. You might be even worse off if you'd had your mother along for the ride."
Their shadows moved back and forth in the moonlight, and the swings creaked, as the two girls swayed in thought.
"Moshi moshi, Saotome residence."
"Ranma? What are you doing as a girl, son?"
"Ano … telephoning my mother?"
"That isn’t very manly."
"Telephoning? Sorry about that." There was a click, and Nodoka heard a dial tone. She raised one eyebrow, and dialed.
"Moshi moshi, Tendo residence."
"Akane, I would like to speak with Ranma."
"I’m sorry, she just left. She seemed angry."
"Well, I’m disappointed. Why’s Ranma a girl?"
"She’s practicing being a woman among women. Doing a rather good job of it too, from all indications."
"She has wonderful clothes sense. Oh, she wears modern clothes; but if she had the money, she’d get a proper kimono too. And she’s not nearly as much of a pervert. When she changes for phys-ed in the girls’ locker room, there’s hardly ever any problem."
" … "
"We were having some trouble with this cat business, but Ranma made a breakthrough. Now she's not only a cat among cats, she's one of Tokyo's top cats. Why, even the tigers in the zoo would probably back down from her!"
" … "
"Are you okay, Auntie?"
Akane covered the phone – lightly – with her hand, and bellowed. "Ranma, get your furry tail in here and talk with your mother. I think I broke her."
Ranma, who was standing beside Akane, gave her a grin and a thumbs-up. Then she trompled her feet in a startlingly-good imitation of stamping in from outdoors. She took up the phone. "Mother?"
"Woman among women? Cat?" Ranma held the phone away from her ear. Nodoka seemed upset.
Ranma took the phone to the sofa, and settled down for a long talk. "Cat. It all started when oyaji took me on that training trip."
"Ranma, don't call your father 'the old man'. It's not respectful."
"Now mother, who spent the last ten years with him? I have more experience with him than you do. And a lot of it has to do with the cat. Have you heard of the neko-ken?"
"I've heard rumors – both Genma's family and mine are martial artists. But I don't know any details."
"Well, it goes like this. First you dig a BIG hole … "
Half an hour later, Ranma finished an abridged account of his training under Genma. With a quaver in her voice, Nodoka asked, "He did all that to you?"
"Oh, those were the highlights. I left out the wolves, and the cliffs, and the shopkeepers. Those actually worked."
"Nothing like a pack of wolves to keep you running longer than you'd normally manage. Great endurance training."
"A pack of shopkeepers can keep you running almost as long as wolves."
"I don't think I want to know about the cliffs."
"Just as well."
"Now, son – as I asked before, what are you doing being a girl?"
"Well, that goes back a couple months, to when I was in Minnesota."
"We can explain that some other time. Anyway, since I'm a shapechanger, I was invited to a meeting of shapechangers. Most of them were werewolves, but quite a few were were-cats. I'm afraid I freaked out at that, and tore the place apart."
"Later, mother. Nerima is full of shapechangers. There's me, and Shampoo turns into a cat – oh, by the way, I'm officially her shield-sister now. And Mousse turns into a duck, but he's gone back to China. Why shouldn't Minnesota have shapechangers too?"
Nodoka sighed. "Keep on with the story."
"Anyway, Bjorn, the guy who owns the place, is a were-bear. He's a master of the Bear-claw, and he said I showed all the signs of a strong berserk. So he offered to train me to better deal with the Cat."
"You keep saying 'the Cat' like it really exists."
Ranma sighed. "It does, mother. I came out of his training with the soul of a cat in my head, as well as the soul of a human. Both souls have been there since oyaji's neko-ken training – in Minnesota, we just learrned to get along. Now, instead of going inssane when there are too many cats, I understand what's going onn. I can use my clawss any time, and my ssensess are all sharperrr. And since learning to be a cat improved my life so much, I decided to learn more about being a woman. If I'm going to be female half of the time, I should be good at it. There were a few other reasons, but we can talk about that some other time too."
"I can understand that, son, but being a woman isn't really all that manly."
"Mother. You declared me sufficiently manly some time ago, remember? Annnnd I wonnn't ssssstand sssstill forrr ssssseppukkkuuuu."
"Ranma? What happened to your voice?"
"That was the Cat. He shares my body, after all. He's not about to let it get killed."
"Well, he shares my memories too. And you did make an awfulll fusssss about that connntrrract."
" … "
Ranma held out the phone to Akane. "Thiss time I think I brroke her. You want to take over the conversssation?"
Akane took the phone. "Auntie, Ranma actually had something quite different in mind when she called."
"What, more troubles?"
"Not at all. Ranma thought I could benefit from training also, so Bjorn-sensei is here in Japan for a while. He's arranged for me to meet a swordmaster-priest down in Okayama this coming Saturday. Since you bear the Saotome honor sword, I thought you might like to come along. I hear Katsuhito-sama is one of the finest swordsmen in all of Japan."
Nodoka wasn't about to turn down an offer like that, so after a bit of discussion she agreed to meet them at the Tendos' early on Saturday morning. Then they and Bjorn-sensei (and Mao, his translator) would take the bullet train to Okayama. And maybe Mr. Tendo would come along too; he had some swordcraft, and appreciated a chance to talk with people like Katsuhito-sama. When Nodoka finally said her goodnights, she sounded dazed and a bit whipsawed.
Ranma and Akane grinned at each other. "Get 'em off familiar ground, eh?" Ranma said.
"Hitting her with the cat before she had a chance to rant about manliness put her off-balance," Akane replied. "Nabiki's been doing a good job tutoring us in Anything Goes conversation."
"Now we gotta talk with your father. That should be easy, compared to this. Tomorrow, after school?"
Akane nodded, and they went upstairs to thank Nabiki for the lessons. But Nabiki wasn't home yet, so they went to bed. Separately, of course, but the days were counting down on that.
The next morning, as Ranma and Akane approached Furinkan, they saw Bjorn and Mao outside the gates. "We didn't want to disturb you at home, this early in the day," Mao said. "Bjorn wants to discuss your training with a few of your teachers. We can't stay much longer – we should be home by the full moon, in a little over a week. But while there are some things better taught in Minnesota, there's much you can learn here at school."
Akane raised her eyebrows. "It's a very strange school." Ranma nodded in agreement.
"Might that be the principal's doing? And didn't Ranma threaten him two nights ago? And get away with it?" Mao raised her eyebrows back at Akane. "That was quite a story she told."
Ranma and Akane blushed a bit. "He's moonstruck in his own dysfunctional way," Ranma said. "A story doesn't have to be sane to get to him. Sometimes, it doesn't even have to exist. Just watch out for the pineapples, coconuts, and hair clippers."
They entered the yard, and Kuno Tatewaki was waiting for them. He might be paying his attentions elsewhere these days, but he still enjoyed greeting his fierce tigress and the pig-tailed girl. His hair ruffled in the autumn breeze, as leaves blew past. "Did I hear you mention my father?"
"Bjorn-sensei wants to arrange some special training for Akane," Ranma said. "We were worried he might try to sneak in a haircut."
"No problem. His plane took off yesterday. Right now, he's probably eating lunch in Hawaii. You put quite the scare into him. I'm more worried about my sister."
"How is she?" Ranma and Akane said together.
"Her mood flutters about like a sheet in a hurricane. But really, 'twere best spoken of at another time. At this moment, we have work to do. Let us go to the vice-principal's office."
"We can talk more at lunch," Ranma agreed. And they all headed towards the school entrance.
Kyoutou-sensei's office was as unlike Principal Kuno's as it was possible to get. Instead of sand and small palm trees, it was modern, but Japanese. There was a Hokusai print on the wall, and tatami mats on the floor. His clothing was business formal, and his secretary a proper office lady. He was obviously trying to distance himself from his boss. "What may I do for you?" he asked.
Kuno Tatewaki bowed politely. "Kyoutou-sensei, I would like to introduce Bjorn-sensei." Bjorn heard his name, and sketched a bow. "He is here for a short time, training Tendo Akane in his Art. But he must return soon to his home, and would like to discuss her education here at Furinkan."
The vice-principal raised an eyebrow. "Very well, I can give Bjorn-sensei some time. But not much; I find myself suddenly in charge, and there are many things to do."
Tatewaki's mouth twitched. "My father is in Hawaii, and will probably not return soon. I must apologize for his departure on such short notice."
The vice-principal smiled. "I shall bear up under the strain." He indicated the door. "Now, it is past time for you to be in class. Kaede, will you give them notes excusing their lateness?"
After the youth had left, Kyoutou-sensei motioned Bjorn and Mao to chairs before his desk. Mao sat down; Bjorn sat down carefully and gently, to avoid overstraining his chair. Mao spoke first. "Vice-principal, do you speak English?"
"I taught English before I took up administration," he said – in English.
Bjorn smiled. "Practice is good in all arts, save perhaps the art of dying. Thank you, sir, for making things easier for me. I only recently found myself with two Japanese students, and have not yet learned your tongue."
The vice-principal waved this aside. "We are both teachers; we simply have different subjects. What is yours? What are you teaching Tendo-san?"
"I'm a master of the Bear-Claw. It's an ancient warrior art from the Norse countries. By giving yourself over to your fighting spirit, you can become far more powerful in battle. But it is dangerous for novices. Sometimes the spirit takes over when it shouldn't. That can cause problems.
"As martial artists, Ranma and Akane unknowingly woke their fighting spirits. I am teaching them control and moderation."
"The school can use that," the vice-principal agreed. "Have you begun already? There's been less property damage recently, and not just from those two."
"I taught Ranma over summer break," Bjorn said. "Akane is a new student for me. Her spirit takes the form of a mallet, or hammer. Do any of your teachers deal in the gentle control of hammers?"
The vice-principal smiled. "Ah, the famous mallet. I think Kinomoto-sensei, the art teacher, might do. He's looking for a few more sculptors."
"Coppersmithing, perhaps?" Bjorn said.
"We already have some of the tools," the principal said. "I'll let him know you'll want to speak with him."
"One more thing," Bjorn said. "They are to visit a swordmaster-priest in Okayama, this coming Saturday. It would be nice if they could prepare on Friday. Could they have that day off?"
"I don't see why not. They've gone off on enough adventures without advance warning. Kaede, could you do the paperwork?"
At lunchtime, Ranma and Akane looked out the window and decided there was too much wind, and too little sun. They went off to find Tatewaki, who was eating lunch with Nabiki in the classroom they shared. They joined them. They'd have privacy, because nobody in Furinkan was foolish enough to eavesdrop on Nabiki.
"I got a note in class, from Bjorn," Akane said. "He wants me to join the art club and practice coppersmithing."
"I like that," Ranma said. "I've been having fun there. Now we can have fun together." Nabiki waved her index finger in a tut-tut sort of way, with a roguish smile.
"Coppersmithing," Tatewaki said as he thought. "Perhaps some day you might take up swordsmithing?"
Akane nodded happily. "Bjorn has already suggested that. If he gets good reports about my work with copper, he'll arrange some ironworking for me."
"Good," Ranma said. "But from earlier – how is Kodachi, sempai?"
"She was doing well for several weeks," Tatewaki said. "But something broke the night of the dinner. She alternates between despair, and confidence she can overcome it."
Nabiki nodded agreement. "Sometimes her mood switches within just a few moments." She looked drawn, and it was obvious she'd been up late trying to lift Kodachi's spirit.
Ranma's new watch gave off a quiet beep. A light glowed on it. "I'll be back in a minute," she said as she rose from her chair. Then she jumped out the window. The schoolgrounds were only sparsely populated, because of the chill.
She lifted the crystal of the watch, and saw Sailor Mercury. "My computer is picking up a daimohn in Shinjuku."
"Location?" Ranma said. And Mercury told her.
"Damn, that's pretty near where the last one was. Akane and I will get on it. You let Shampoo know. And tell her to bring Bjorn, if he's around. He might enjoy a fight." Ranma jumped back to the window. "Akane – emergency. We gotta go now." In an instant, the two were diminishing figures, bounding across the skyline.
"What?" said Tatewaki.
"It hurts to say it, but I don't know," replied Nabiki. "They won't tell me. All I'm sure of, they've hooked up with a couple devil-hunters and their talking cat. Something the cat told Ranma really affected her. I think Tokyo has a bad devil situation brewing."
Akane and Ranma looked down from a tall building. A bulky daimohn that looked like she had a garbage truck in her ancestry was raging about, shouting "Trash! Trash!" in a voice like an airhorn as she tried to pry a young woman out from a narrow crevice between buildings.
"We shouldn't let 'em think they can predict what's comin' at 'em," Ranma said. "Disguise yourself as Monlon of the Seven Lucky Gods school, remember her? Hittin' 'em with a mallet or a mandolin, it all looks the same. As for me …" Ranma lifted her disguise pen. Light swirled, and she morphed into a very large bobcat. She leaped, snarling.
Suddenly, the daimohn found herself beset by a hissing, clawing buzzsaw of a cat. She swiped at it with one of her loader-arms, only to have the arm slashed off. "Trash!" she cried, and spewed forth a great pile of – trash – at the bobcat. Which was attacking her from the rear by the time the trash hit in front of her.
As the fight swirled about, it was plain that Ranma-cat had the advantage in speed and cutting force, but the daimohn was immensely strong. Worse, she was filled with all sorts of things she could use as weapons and patches, even before cut-off portions could rejoin her. This was not a fight Ranma was going to win easily, if at all.
As the daimohn turned in an attempt to catch Ranma, she found herself looking at the rapidly-approaching belly of a long-necked mandolin. It smashed into her face with a loud twang, and knocked her backwards halfway through a concrete wall.
The tall, pale-haired woman with the mandolin turned to the cat. "I got the woman to safety."
The daimohn moaned. One of her headlight-eyes was swollen shut, but the other began to glow with a black light, and sent a beam of darkness writhing towards Monlon-Akane. She blocked it with the mandolin. The darkness splashed off it, then began to flow around. It reached Akane, and she screamed in agony as she fell. By then, the bobcat had slashed the daimohn's head off, and it went rolling in the street. That didn't kill her, but it sure spoiled her aim. After a few quick, shuddering breaths, Monlon-Akane stood, and walked towards the daimohn. Just as the head was returning, the mandolin hit. The head became the grille and headlights of a truck, and lay there.
Wouldn't it just be Ranma's luck that the daimohn had backup lights? She was still able to fight, backwards, though her great cries of "trash" were reduced to shrill beeps. The fight was easy, though long and messy. Ranma sliced, Akane smashed, and gradually there was less and less of a daimohn to deal with. In the distance, Ranma could feel the ki signatures of Cologne and Shampoo approaching.
"Keep alive," Shampoo cried as she joined the fight. "See if it can answer questions." The daimohn shot a black beam at Shampoo, but it was a feeble thing and easily shrugged off. By the time the Scouts arrived, they'd whittled and crushed Ms. Trash down to a nub.
"Sorry we're late," Sailor Mercury said. "We had a daimohn of our own to handle first. I think they're trying to double-team us." She looked at Monlon-Akane. "Who are you?"
Akane whispered in her ear. "Disguise pen – I'm Akane, that's Ranma," as she nodded at the bobcat. Then she whispered the same to Shampoo.
"Safety first," said Mercury. "Moon, do you think you can purify what's left without killing it?"
The small daimohn lay in the street, peeping. Moon looked it over. "That's not much of a threat any more. I'll try my gentlest healing spell." A crescent wand appeared in her hand, and she spun as she said "Moon Healing Escalation." The air about the daimohn filled with stars and crescents.
"Refresh!" cried the daimohn, in a high piping voice. She wobbled, and then a small toy truck tipped over on the pavement. A withered seed-husk fell from the back, and split open. A grey mist came out, in the shape of a small ghost. Ranma immediately pounced on it with a yowl, caging it within her claws; but it poured right through them, and blew away.
"We gotta figger ssome way to catch that ghossst," Ranma said. "I think there'sss been one frrrom every daimohn I've fffought. We're not gonna have luck asskinng garbage truckss questionsss, but maybe ghostssss?" Normal people would be unsettled by a talking bobcat – but everybody here was used to talking cats.
"And how do you plan to ask a ghost questions, granddaughter?" came a gravelly voice from behind. The sailor scouts jumped. The Amazons didn't; they knew Cologne liked to surprise, and wouldn't give her the satisfaction.
"Sailor Pluto is always startling Moon," Sailor Mars said. "Do you think you could give Pluto a startle for us?"
Everybody chuckled, though some of the chuckles were more melodious than others.
"We could try finding Mao-Mo-Lin to ask the questions," Ranma said. "He's a ghost."
"Not want him around," said Shampoo. "He almost turn me into full-time cat."
"I'm a miko," Sailor Mars noted, "and have dealt with spirits before."
"Good," said Cologne. "You and I can work on a way to catch one of them."
"The Moon Kingdom also had ways of handling spirits," said Mercury.
"You too, then." And Cologne sighed. "I just failed to catch a witch. Got her good and proper in the instant-unconsciousness point, but she disappeared anyway. At least our difficulties involve daimohn-ghosts and witches getting away, rather than pursuing us."
The bobcat sat on its haunches and proceeded to lick its paw and wash its face. "What we need iss sssomebody who can latch onto the witchessss, and go with them when they disappear. Then spread panic and connnfusionn."
Cologne sighed. "It keeps coming back to Happosai, doesn't it?"
Ranma-bobcat spread her claws. "Happosssai hass an underssstanding with me. He behavesss, and I don't circumsssize him." She cocked her head. "Witchesss are magical girrrlss, sssorta. He'd rissk a lot forrr their pantiesss."
Cologne sighed again. "You talk to him."
"Wait a minute, magical girl panties?!" Moon and Mars said in unison. They looked at each other with surprise. "Make sure he knows we're wearing leotards, no panties involved. Armored leotards. Impervious armored leotards."
This time Ranma-bobcat sighed. "You do know how to hand out a challenge."
In the mountains of Western China, a cloaked figure of indeterminate sex and species stood in the cold mist by the side of a gravel track. I think this is the road they brought me up to Joketsuzuku on, in the back of that truck. I wonder how well they guard the truck.
Shivering slightly, Genma began to trudge downhill.
Standing in the hall outside their classroom holding buckets, Ranma and Akane muttered and grumbled. "Save a woman, slay a monster, help the sailor senshi, and get back to class five minutes late. Five minutes! And what do we get?" Ranma shook her hand, and the water in the bucket splashed. Ranma was already a girl, and the water was cold, so it was only pro-forma.
"But wasn't it fun?" Akane said. "Hey, next time we disguise ourselves, let's do Wedding Peach!"
Ranma wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Nah, they're already used to magical girls. I want Super Mario Brothers."