"Kasumi, do we have any yellow thread?" Akane rushed into the living room and began rummaging through the sewing basket.
"There should be some under the tray, on the right. Is there something you'd like me to mend?"
"Ah, found it. Thanks, no, it's just a simple thing."
"But I've finished, so I'm not busy right now."
"Thanks sis, but I can handle it."
"Okay." Kasumi sipped her tea quietly while Akane raced back upstairs. In a moment more footsteps were heard rushing back down.
"Kasumi, which of these do you think would be better?" Nabiki held up two swimsuits, a practical brown one piece and a far less modest white bikini.
"Brown is a good color for you."
"Mmm. Okay—" Nabiki paused, biting the inside of her cheek. "Thanks!" She bounded back upstairs.
"Kasumi! Oi! Kasumi!" Soun entered from the back.
"What is it father?"
"I can't find my overnight bag, do you know where it is?"
"It's in the front closet. I'll get it."
"No, no, don't get up, I'll get it!" He rushed out, leaving Kasumi with her tea. He returned in a moment. "Swimsuit?" he asked.
"Stacked with your other clean clothes. I did the laundry today." Soun stood motionless. "I put it in your room."
"Oh, okay." He rushed off back to his room.
Kasumi rolled her teacup between her hands, the warmth soaking into her fingers and palms. She smiled and sipped the last of the tea, then placed the cup gently on the table. Tomorrow is going to be a lot of fun, she thought.
"Ne, brother, how about her?" Sixteen year old Mariko Tanaka was engaging in her favorite activity, matchmaking.
"Where?" Eighteen year old Souichi Tanaka was engaging in his least favorite activity, fending off his sister's attempts at matchmaking.
"Red boots and purse."
"Her? But—she must be at least twenty."
"Mmmm?" Mariko hummed. It was both a question and a bit of an admonishment that her brother should be more open minded. Mariko and all her friends had picked up the 'Mmmmm', and become surprisingly proficient at conveying a wide range of information with it. "That's not too old for you, you know."
"Okay, Okay." Mariko sulked.
First a trickle, then a flood of passengers poured down the steps from the tracks above. Mariko scanned the crowd for prospects, but that train had been full of salary men and office ladies.
"Brother, you've got to help me here. What kind of girl are you looking for?"
"I'm not looking."
"Hmmph. Looking is all you ever do."
Souichi kicked firmly at the stone floor under him. There was more than a little truth in what she was saying.
"Look, brother, we're on vacation. You should just relax, and have a little fun. Flirt a little. Show off your nice smile."
Souichi turned to his sister and gave her a menacing grin.
They stood silently watching the crowds come and go.
"Where did our parents go?" Souichi asked.
"Last I saw them they were headed for the shops, we still have twenty minutes before the train leaves, do you want to go poke around?"
"No, I'm saving my money for when we get to Hakone."
"Me too. Let's just watch the people for now."
"Hey, sis, how about you? Maybe we should find a boy for you."
"Aha! There, that one, yellow and black bandanna."
"Oh, he is really cute, nice muscles, but he has that 'lost' look"
"Yeah, that's the third person he's asked directions from."
The crowd thinned out, then another rush appeared.
"Hey sis, how about him, long hair, white robe."
Mariko watched the boy for a moment. "He keeps talking to the posters, besides, what about that girl with him?"
"The one with the purple hair?"
"So is purple hair your type?" Mariko nudged her brother.
He watched as they crossed the room. "Keba-keba." [Too showy (fluffy)]
"Mmmmmmm," Mariko hummed.
"Mmm?" Mariko replied, then laughed.
"Here's one. He's perfect for you, red shirt, pony tail." Souichi nodded across the room.
"Just coming in. He's with the big guy in the Judo gi, and the pretty woman in the kimono."
"Mmmmmm." Mariko looked over the group.
"I translate that to: 'he's cute, but there's something about him...'"
"Yup." She nodded knowingly. "He's taken. It's the way he keeps looking around. He's waiting for someone."
"Mmmm?" Souichi asked.
Mariko elbowed her brother. "Do you have any idea what you said just now?"
"No, What did I say?"
"It's... It's... Well... It's just not something you should ask your sister, that's all, okay?"
Soichi gave his sister a confused look.
Mariko pouted, then a smile broke across her lips. She began to giggle, covering her mouth with her hand.
"Brother, you are so gullible."
"And you..." Souichi began, but his attention was drawn over his sister's shoulder.
Mariko ducked, waiting for her brother's reprisal. She looked up, but he was looking past her, so she turned to see what had so captured his attention.
A tall man with long hair and a neat mustache was being pulled up the hallway by three young women. Mariko looked at her brother, he was clearly captivated by one of the three. The tallest was wearing a serene smile and a simple blue dress. She carried a patterned overnight bag. The next wore a gold blouse over tight designer jeans, and carried a small backpack. The last was wearing a red sundress and carried a large and apparently very heavy athletic bag.
"Ne, brother, what's wrong?" she whispered. Her brother did not answer. "Brother?" she asked again.
"She's so cute!" he answered dreamily.
"Which one? Which one?" Mariko asked.
"I'm not telling you. You'll have to guess."
Mariko looked over the three. "Hmm." Her brother usually preferred the shy reserved type. "Blue dress, with the long pretty hair."
"Uh-uh." He shook his head.
Mariko looked at the others, The one in the red sun dress was having trouble with the heavy bag, and the one in the gold top was shaking her head in disapproval. As they came closer she could overhear some of their conversation.
"Sis, I told you not to pack so much..."
"But I couldn't decide what to bring..."
"Now you'll have to carry that huge thing all over..."
"Daijyobu! [it's okay], you'll see. I don't have to carry it much farther..."
Mariko nudged her brother, "You like the one in red don't you..." she began, then stopped, because the girl in red had stopped and began to wave across the waiting room. The boy in the red shirt with the pony tail smiled and waved back, then rushed out to meet her.
"Oops—looks like your dream girl knows my boy," Mariko whispered.
When the boy reached her there was an embarrassed pause as they both became aware of the public surroundings, and their families' watchful gaze. The girl in red offered the bag and the boy took it, then nearly dropped it. He made a show of complaining about the weight, but then flipped it over his shoulder as if it were empty.
"Poor, poor brother," Mariko began. "You must be crushed. To find love at first sight, then it's..." she snapped her fingers dramatically "...snatched away. Still, it's better to have loved and lost, than..." Mariko noticed her brother was not paying attention to her.
"Isn't she cool?" he asked.
"Huh?" Mariko followed her brother's gaze. He was eyeing the girl in the gold top. "Her?"
"What do you mean, 'her?' she's cute."
"Mmmmmm?" Mariko replied.
"And just what do you mean by that?"
"You want to meet her? I could just go over there and..."
"Nooooooo! I'd die of embarrassment."
"Poor brother. It'd just be saying 'hi'. Hmmph. Anyway, what does it matter? They're going to get on a train and go one way, then we're going to get on a train and go another, you'll probably never see her again."
At that moment the group headed for the stairs, lead by the woman in the kimono, walking with the tallest girl. The men followed, laughing and carrying on together like school boys. Then came the couple in red, (the boy carried both bags), then lastly, the girl in the gold top. She took a couple of steps then stopped and looked right at Mariko and Souichi. He blushed and looked away for a moment, when he looked back, the girl smiled at him, then turned and left.
Mariko looked at Souichi. "Oh, brother... you've got it bad."
Ranma and Akane took the seats behind their fathers, already deep in a game of shogi on a portable game board. Kasumi and Nodoka took the seats across the isle, and Nabiki had two seats to herself across from her father. The train smoothly accelerated away from the station exactly on time for the 41 minute trip to Odawara.
Ten minutes out of Tokyo station Nabiki poked her head up over her seat, "Auntie, what kind of room do we have?" she asked.
Nodoka pulled the reservation sheet from her purse. "We have two ten-tatami rooms, with a door between them."
Nabiki frowned, then smiled. "I think we should put our two 'lovebirds' in one room, and the rest of us can all jam into the other."
"Nabiki..." Akane hissed.
"But don't you two deserve a little privacy? You know, it'll make up for when..."
"Nabiki!!!!!" The hiss turned to a growl. Akane glared at her sister, and blushed.
"Auntie, I really don't think that putting Ranma and Akane in their own room a very good idea," Kasumi pleaded.
Nodoka thought a moment. "You're right, Kasumi, for one thing, if we left the lovebirds alone in one room, why... why... then the rest of us would have to share one bathroom."
Ranma picked himself off the floor.
"Mother..." He hissed, then blushed.
"So... I think we'll have one girl's room, and one boys room, that splits it up three and four, and this way you girls won't have to put up with my husband's snoring."
"Or the funny noises from the other room," Nabiki added.
"That's it Nabiki!" Akane jumped to her feet. "How would you like to walk the rest of the way?!" Nabiki shrieked and ducked down in her seat.
Akane plopped angrily back into her seat. "Jeez."
For the remainder of the trip Kasumi and Nodoka made plans, pouring over vacation pamphlets. Nabiki stayed out of sight and Akane cooled down, though an ember still glowed.
Mariko sat next to her brother. "She's in the next car," She said nonchalantly.
"Who?" Souichi asked.
"Who?" Mariko mocked. "Just Ms. Gold Top, that's who."
"I'm not joking. She's on the this train."
"Sister, if you're making this up..." Souichi gripped his armrests.
"There's an empty seat next to her..."
Souichi glared at his sister for ten seconds and then made for the back of the car. He returned a minute later.
Souichi slumped in his seat. "She's so cute," he said in a daze.
"Maybe they're headed for Hakone too."
"If only she would... oh, never mind." He buried his head in his hands. "I'd never get that lucky."
"At this rate, you may never 'get lucky'".
"And just what do you mean by that?"
"Brother, didn't your friends ever tell you that before you can get to 'A' with a girl you are going to have to actually meet her and talk to her first?" ['A' = first base, kissing]
Souichi stewed in his seat. "I know, I know."
The train slowed, then switched to the platform tracks with a gentle rocking. A prerecorded voice announced Odwara Station in Japanese and English, and the train glided smoothly to a stop.
Souichi rushed to the back to get their bags, and to take another peek into the next car. His heart pounded when he saw her pulling on her backpack. The notion of meeting her both thrilled and terrified him.
Mariko joined him at the passageway. "Lucky!" she whispered. "It looks like she's stopping here. Now we need to plot a way for you to meet her."
Souichi turned his attention to the bags. "Sister, please don't..."
"Nabiki, do you know her?" Soun nodded to the front of the car.
"Mm?" Nabiki turned and looked. The girl waved. Nabiki looked around the car, but the wave could be for no one else. She turned back to the girl and waved tentatively.
"Ahhh!" Souichi grabbed his sister by the arm and dragged her away from the doorway. "What are you doing?" he shouted.
"I'm just being friendly"
"Well, stop it."
"Don't you want to meet her?"
"No." Souichi frowned at his sister. "Yes.—Anyway... you shouldn't..."
A North bound train thundered past at nearly 200 kph.
"But Brother, you said..." Mariko shouted over the passing train.
"Said what?" Souichi shouted in reply
The end of the train flashed past.
"She's—so—cute!" Mariko's words echoed in the now silent car.
After a moment Akane leaned on her shoulder. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" She whispered in her ear.
"No, what are you thinking?" The annoyance was plain in Nabiki's voice.
"I'm thinking you have an 'admirer'."
"A what?" A chill went through Nabiki. She watched as a red faced boy dragged the girl out onto the platform. "No way!"
"It's okay—maybe she's rich," Ranma whispered in her other ear.
Nabiki shivered, then followed the others out the back of the car in a daze.
Nodoka thanked the lady at the front desk and returned to the others. "Our room won't be ready till three, so..." She walked to a nearby brochure rack and pulled one out. "We have some time to see the sights. Let's see, we could take the tram up the mountain." She pulled another from the rack. "Or we could go down to the sculpture museum in Gora or.." Nabiki picked one and handed to Nodoka. "The Hakone Wedding Chapel."
Akane trembled in anger. "Naaaaabiiiiikiiiiiii!!!" she seathed. Her sister ran to hide behind their father.
"Hmm. The wedding chapel. Say, that's a fine idea, don't you think Saotome-kun?" Soun nodded wisely.
"So, so. A very fine idea, Tendou-kun," Genma agreed, patting him on the back.
"Old man..." Ranma popped his knuckles menacingly.
"Or we could go to the onsen park instead." Akane held up another brochure. She flipped it open and read: "The visitor will find over 30 heated pools climbing the hillside with a spectacular view of the Hakone hills."
"Onsen Park! Onsen Park!" Soun and Genma cheered, waving fans and little rising sun flags in the air.
Nodoka sighed. "Well, I see we have their vote. Kasumi?"
"As much as I'd like to see the chapel..." she smiled sweetly at Ranma and Akane, "I think today we'd better stick with the onsen park."
"Tough decision, but if it's between the onsen park and the chapel, I'll have go with the swimsuits and boys."
Akane picked up a brochure in one hand. "Onsen, or..." she picked up the other brochure with the other, "...chapel."
She held both brochures in her hands. gazing first at one, then the other. She turned to her fiancé. "Oh Ranma, I... I can't decide."
"Eh?" Ranma's eyes popped out. Large drops of sweat formed on his brow.
"It's just..." she paused, looking first to her father, then Kasumi, then Nabiki, then Nodoka, then finally back to Ranma. "I can't decide which swimsuit to wear."
Souichi leaned back against he rough rocks lining the side of the steaming pool. He closed his eyes and tilted his face up seeking the cool drops of water that fell from the rocks above. In moments the warm water relaxed him, and his mind began to drift. With his eyes closed he could almost imagine he was all alone, and the sounds of the others sharing the pool and the ones nearby was just piped in ambiance. His daydream was interrupted by a splash of water.
"Wake up, sleepy-head, she's here," Mariko chimed.
"Who again. It's Ms Gold Top again, except this time it's a brown swimsuit."
"Will you stop joking around?"
"I saw her in the dressing room. They were just coming in as I was going out."
"Sis, if you're making this up..."
"Here's the plan. I'll go down and get into the same pool as her and strike up a conversation. Then you can come join us and I'll introduce you. Easy, no?" Mariko jumped from the pool and headed down towards the entrance. "Don't you chicken out on me!" She called back over her shoulder.
"Wait a second. What about..." Souichi called, but it was too late. It was a good plan in principle, but he wondered if Mariko had forgotten about the encounter on the train.
Mariko reached for the handle of the dressing room, then stopped. After this morning it might not be good if I tried to strike up a conversation in the dressing room, she thought. Maybe I'll just wait for her out here.
She picked a nearby pool and climbed in. The pool was shaped like a fountain and the water was slightly pink and smelled of roses. Several girls came out of the dressing room, but she didn't recognize any of them. Then after a few minutes the door came open and she could hear voices from inside.
"Akane-chan, are you ready yet?"
"Go on ahead, I'll catch up."
"What's taking so long?"
"I still can't decide."
The tallest of the girls from the train held the door for the woman Mariko had seen with them that morning.
"Thank you, Kasumi," the woman said. "I wonder if the boys are out yet?"
"I don't see them." Kasumi shaded her eyes with her hand and scanned the pools.
"Never mind, they'll find us. Let's pick a pool nearby so we can spot them coming out."
Mariko slid around to give them room to climb in. "Please, go ahead."
"Thank you," Nodoka said to Mariko, then she and Kasumi slid into the steaming water.
"Ah, this rosewater is so nice, isn't it, Auntie Nodoka?" Kasumi waved her arms through the warm water.
"Mmm yes, and probably more peaceful than the visiting the wedding chapel would have been," Nodoka giggled.
"Say, didn't I see you on the train this morning?" Mariko asked. "I'm Mariko Tanaka." She bowed, accidentally dipping her nose into the water.
"Hee-hee," Kasumi giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. "Sorry. Anyway, I'm Kasumi Tendou, I'm very pleased to meet you, and this is..." she paused, pondering how to describe the relationship. "... my sister's mother-in-law, to be."
"Nodoka Saotome, pleased to meet you."
"When I first saw you I thought you might be sisters..."
Nodoka blushed. "You are so nice!" she said.
"But you look so young," Mariko prodded.
"Young lady, I have a son about your age."
"Oh, I remember. Red shirt and ponytail, right?"
"That's Ranma, and the girl that was with him is my sister Akane. Ah, here she comes." Kasumi waved her sister over.
"Wasn't there another girl about my age with you?" Mariko asked.
"Yes, that's Kasumi's little sister Nabiki," Nodoka said. She made room for Akane to join them in the pool. "This is Akane Tendou, my son's fiancée."
"Hi, I'm Mariko Tanaka, I'm pleased to meet you."
"I'm pleased to meet you." Akane bowed. This girl looked somehow familiar to her.
"A fiancé? you're so lucky to have found someone," Mariko said.
"Well, our fathers arranged it."
"Still, how about you, Kasumi?"
"Oh, I think they're very lucky, too."
"No, what I meant was, do you have a boyfriend?"
"Oh, no, no. I'm far too busy with taking care of Daddy and my sisters."
"Well, there is someone..." Akane prodded.
Nodoka turned to Kasumi, her eyes twinkling. "Really?!?!"
Souichi got out of his pool and looked down the hill for his sister. The pools were terraced down the hillside, with paths meandering between them. He began to crisscross down the hill, checking for his sister. At one point the path doubled back and he found a couple making out in a secluded pool. He blushed and turned away to continue his search.
Mariko listened attentively to the conversation, waiting for the right moment. "So, you're engaged," she said looking at Akane, "and you have an admirer," she said to Kasumi. "What about Nabiki? Does she have someone special?"
Akane froze. It was the word Mariko had used. 'admirer'. Now she remembered. Mariko was the girl from the train. Masaka! [After all] (it might be true) She just asked if Nabiki had 'anyone special', not about any boyfriends.
Souichi was halfway down the hill when he bumped into a boy with a ponytail. They both apologized, then there was a moment of recognition, and the both pointed fingers at each other. "You look familiar," They both said as one, then laughed.
"We were on the train together. I'm Ranma Saotome."
"Pleased to meet you, I'm Souichi Tanaka." Souichi answered automatically. Then it hit him. The station. The train. His sisters blundered attempt at matchmaking. "Oh no, that was you..." he let his head fall in shame. "Saotome-san, please allow me to apologize for the unfortunate incident with my sister, this morning" he said formally.
"Huh? Oh, no problem," Ranma replied cautiously.
"You see, my sister is really quite notorious in this respect," Souichi explained. "Ever since she started high school, she's gained quite a reputation."
"I see," Ranma said. He and Akane had only been joking with Nabiki, but perhaps there was more to it.
"You understand how sixteen year old girls sometimes are..."
"Well, yes, that's something I know about." Ranma nodded.
"Sometimes they settle down and grow out of it, but with my sister, I suspect it may be a lifelong thing."
"So..." Ranma said, backing away a little, so he was under the lip of a pool on the next terrace.
"Ranma-kun!" Nabiki called cheerfully from the pool above.
Souichi looked up, there she was, smiling down on them. He watched fascinated as she dumped a child's pail of water over the edge in front of him, then she disappeared back behind the edge.
"Eeeeeeeeeeeeyyaaaa! That's cold!" Ranma-chan shrieked.
"That'll be Ranma. Again." Akane sighed, then dipped her head underwater and shook it slowly.
"Mmmmm?" Mariko looked up the hill. It wasn't hard to find the source of the disturbance, since every guy in the place was staring at one point. No, better make that two.
Souichi looked back down, and a red headed girl was standing right where Ranma had been just a few seconds ago. He pondered that mystery only for as long as it took to notice that the girl was topless. Very topless. Right here, right in front of him, really, very, topless. He wondered then for a moment why his peripheral vision seemed to be going dark, and why was it when he rubbed a tickle in his nose, his hand came away bloody? Then he wondered why the topless girl seemed to be floating away, and why it was getting dark so very quickly, and finally he wondered why it was his sister kept screaming his name?
Mariko was out of the rose water and halfway up the hill by the time Souichi hit the ground. She found her brother lying on his back on one of the cobbled paths. A red headed girl kneeling over him, gently slapping his cheeks.
"Oi, Oi, are you okay?" she was asking.
Mariko stood at her brother's feet, steeled herself to her full five foot three, crossed her arms, and demanded; "Hey, you! What did you do to my brother?"
Ranma jerked around. "Nothing. We were just talking, and he passed out." The commotion caused a small crowd to gather around them. The motion gave many of the boys nose bleeds.
Mariko blushed at the brazenness of the redhead. Her hands found her hips and she leaned in closer.
"Do you expect me to believe that? You—You—You—Hussy!!!!"
Souichi drifted awake as from a dream.
There was something rough pushing on his back, and it was wet.
He could hear shouting, and the person shouting sounded a lot like his sister. What happened? He opened his eyes a slit and saw his sister shouting at a girl.
Girl. There had been a girl. Oh yes. Definitely girl... and she was... and they were...
Souichi sat up.
A searing pain shot from the back of his head, straight to the center, where it lingered a moment before it split. Half sought out the sensitive region just behind his right eye, and half found the left. His eyes reflexively snapped closed. Cautiously he reached up and found a huge bump on the back of his head. "Itai" he said. [Ouch.]
"Souichi!" Mariko cried. "Are you Okay?"
"Oh, he's awake." Ranma turned, her chest inches from Souichi's nose.
"Te te te." Souichi hissed in a breath. "I was talking to this guy, but then there was this girl, and she was..." Souichi picked that moment to open his eyes. She was back, and this time just inches away. "...top—less..."
A second trickle of blood left his nose, and soon the bump on his head had a second one for company.
"Make way!" Akane pushed her way through the crowd, saving her last shove for Ranma-chan, tipping her and three or four bystanders into the adjoining pool. "Back up, give him some air!" She shouted at those remaining on the path. She bent over Souichi with Mariko. "Is he okay?"
Souichi moaned and rubbed the back of his head. Mariko stood and turned, scanning the crowd. "Where'd that red-headed hussy exhibitionist go?" she screamed. The crowd pointed to the pool where she and the others had fallen, but there were only boys—including Ranma—who searched around convincingly, and a very surprised gaijin [foreign] couple. The redhead was nowhere to be seen.
Ranma completed his search, shrugged, and climbed from the pool to join Akane. "Is he okay?"
"He'll be all right, but he doesn't have your hard head"
"Thanks. Anyway, I think I'll take him down to the showers." Ranma helped the groggy Souichi to his feet and started down the hill with him.
Akane called after them, "Oh, Ranma, as long as you're there why don't you get a T-shirt for yourself, you wouldn't want to be too exposed to the sun, you know."
Akane found the still fuming Mariko. "Ranma's taking your brother down to the locker room so he can clean up."
"Thanks. Have you seen that half-naked red-head?"
Yeah, frequently... Akane thought, but the words came out as "Ah... well... No."
"Will you help me look for her?"
"I'm sure she's long gone by now, don't you think?"
Mariko stalked off. "I'm going to keep looking."
Nabiki stretched contentedly in a secluded pool. She was rather pleased with the effect of her little trick, after all, Ranma was family, (well, practically), and it was high time he took his lessons in the Tendou school of unlimited pranks (Nabiki Tendou, founder).
She'd stuck around at the back of the crowd long enough to observe the after effects of Ranma's change, and hoped (with a slight twinge of guilt) that the boy who'd been rewarded with an eyeful had not been hurt. Nabiki smiled. He was kind of cute...
Mariko had given up on her search and was heading back down the hill to find her brother, when she spotted a trail curving off towards the edge of the park. She followed it, expecting it to end in a service shed or pump room, but instead the walls, which were waist high at the opening, grew steadily higher. Further in, the trail narrowed enough that she could brush each side with her hands as she walked. The walls began to curve over her head, until the path had nearly become a tunnel. It opened onto a small pool surrounded with high walls of rough rocks. There was a woman there, but she didn't have red hair, and unlike the floozy redhead, she was wearing a brown one piece swimsuit.
Nabiki looked up. For an instant the steaming water felt like ice.
Mariko turned to leave, then turned back. "Oh wait, you're Nabiki aren't you?"
Nabiki paused, then nodded hesitantly.
Mariko stepped down into the pool. She sat on a rock near the edge of the path, and dangled her feet into the water. "I was on the train this morning. This is so perfect! I've been really hoping to talk to you in private." Mariko slid down into the pool. "Ooops. My manners. I'm Mariko Tanaka."
"Oh... ah... hi..." Nabiki nodded tentatively. "How did you come to know my name?"
"Oh, I met your sisters earlier, they told me all about you."
Nabiki swallowed on a dry throat. "Is that so? What did they say?"
"Nothing much, except that you're not dating anyone special."
"Well no I..." Nabiki shifted uncomfortably.
"Me neither." Mariko looked up at the clouds and waved her arms lazily in the water. "There was someone, but we broke up last month."
"Oh. That's too bad." Nabiki surveyed the walls. They were too high, and Mariko was sitting in front of the only exit.
"I'll say. I was really sad about it for a while, but now I feel like it's behind me, and I'm finally ready to meet someone new."
Nabiki felt dizzy. She wasn't sure if it was the conversation or the hot water.
"Anyway, you should be happy. Starting this morning you have an admirer."
"Eh?" Nabiki stood suddenly. Akane's whispered words thundered in her head.
"You shouldn't be so surprised, you know. I think it was that sexy outfit you were wearing this morning."
Each of the pools was equipped with flat stone seats, to give the bathers a place to cool down out of the water. Nabiki found one and sank heavily onto it.
"Oh, I like that swimsuit too, it's something a girl would wear for herself. It looks very comfortable."
Nabiki didn't feel very comfortable. For the first time she regretted not having taken up martial arts. Akane could have made it to the top of the wall and away in one jump. Mariko continued to talk, but Nabiki tuned her out, the words becoming an indistinct mumble. I don't want to make a scene, I should just tell her I'm not interested, and leave, she thought.
Mariko soon got around to mentioning her brother, and went on and on how he wanted to meet her, but was too shy to make the first move.
She might as well have been talking to the rocks.
"...so maybe we could meet for ice cream later..."
"Wait..." Nabiki interrupted, her attention suddenly returning. "I.., I don't want to sound ...well..." she took a breath. "I think you should know—I prefer the other gender."
"Eh?" Mariko choked. Nabiki wasn't interested in her brother, she preferred the... other... gender. "Oh, I see," she said edging her way out of the pool.
"I hope you don't mind."
"Oh no, why should I mind? I don't mind." Mariko worked her way closer to the exit.
"I'm glad you're so understanding. This could have been really awkward..."
"Oh yeah, awkward..." That was exactly the word that Mariko was looking for.
"So, you're okay with this?"
"Yeah... sure." Mariko got up to leave.
"Good, I didn't want to offend you or anything."
"No, no problem... Ah look, I have to go check up on Souichi, he bumped his head earlier, and Ranma took him down to the locker room."
"Oh? Souichi? That was your brother?"
"Mmm. Bye bye." Mariko waved and sprinted away down the path.
She seemed nice enough, Nabiki thought, I wonder if she would introduce me to her brother?
"Four?!?!?!" The improvised ice pack fell to the bench, then rolled to the floor.
"Careful with that, it's the only plastic bag we have. Anyway, It's not like it sounds. Two were arranged by my father, one was a misunderstanding in China, and the other one just decided for herself. None of them were really my idea."
Souichi returned the bag of shaved ice to his head. "Still, four fiancées at the same time. That must be some sort of record. Four." He shook his head. "Wow."
"It's really not at all it's cracked up to be."
"Look, I ah, I don't suppose..."
"I get that a lot. No." Ranma threw a towel at Souichi. "Find your own."
"Oh yeah. I get that a lot too. Don't you have a girlfriend?"
"No, I..." Souichi kicked at the mat under the bench. "...but there is someone here at the park I really want to meet."
"Well, see, that's a start. What did you do? Did you talk too her?"
"No, I didn't have a chance. I only saw her for a moment, then I ended up here."
Ranma turned. "Oh yeah. Her."
"One of your four?"
"But you know her, right?"
"Oh well, yes, you could say that." Ranma opened the door.
"Will you introduce me to her?"
"I'm sorry Souichi, but don't waste your time chasing after her. I happen to know for a fact that she's not really interested in meeting boys." Ranma left, letting the door close slowly behind him.
Souichi watched the door close, and in a few moments the ice pack fell to the bench for a second time.
Nabiki left her hideout, and walked warily to the end of the path. She poked her head out and checked to her right then left, then stepped out to the right, square in front of Akane.
"Going somewhere?" Akane planted herself in the middle of the path , blocking Nabiki's way. A child's pail swung heavily from her right hand.
"Oh, hi Akane, what's up?
"This yours?" Akane held the plastic pail out, sloshing a little to the cement walkway.
Nabiki watched the pail swing.
"I found it in the cold pool." Akane let a little spill again. It splashed onto Nabiki's feet.
"Akane, this is against the rules, you can't get even for Ranma, he has to do that for himself."
Akane smiled, and let the bucket down a little, then slid her other hand under the bucket, ready to throw.
"Akane, wait..." Nabiki felt her way back into the narrow stone pathway, her hands seeking purchase on the stones on each side.
Akane followed her step for step.
"Akane..." Nabiki pleaded, but Akane only smiled wider, and readied the bucket. "You can't. It's the rules. Ranma should..." Akane paused. "You have to wait for him. Where is he?" Akane's eyes flicked past Nabiki a moment. "Oh, very good. I've seen you use that trick on Ranma a hundred times. It's not going to work on me." Akane looked past her sister again, then nodded. Nabiki shook her head. "Akane, stop that. I know he's still in the dressing room."
Nabiki's swimsuit, while quite modest in front, plunged to an inch above her waist in the back. In one smooth motion Ranma reached out, hooked it with his left index finger, and pulled it an inch. His right hand dumped half of his shaved ice into the back of her suit. Nabiki jumped, the ice sliding to the small of her back.
"Kyyyaaaaa!!!! Cold!!!!!" She turned, Ranma was leaning against the stone wall grinning at her. "You!" Nabiki glared at Ranma and pulled the fabric of her suit away from her skin, but that only allowed the ice to slide lower. Her eyes went wide and her chin quivered a moment, then she let out an undignified "Eeep!" and ran gingerly for the relief of the hot pool.
Akane joined Ranma. "Not a bad move for your first game."
"Thanks. Now are you going to explain this game?"
"Sure, but first I have to decide what to do with this." Akane swung the bucket menacingly.
Rather than backing away, Ranma reached down and hooked his thumb into the back of Akane's bikini bottom. "No, I think the question is, what am I going to do with the rest of this shaved ice?"
Their eyes locked. Akane was clearly weighing the risk against the entertainment value.
"Hey Ranma. This stuff better not stain!" Nabiki called from the pool.
"It's melon," Ranma called back, his eyes not leaving Akane's.
"The syrup was clear, so it should be okay." Akane smiled, but kept her eyes on Ranma. "Pretty sticky, though."
Nabiki stood up and tested her suit. "Oh jeez yuck. I'm heading for the showers." She walked stiffly out to where Ranma and Akane were locked in a Mexican standoff. "Okay Ranma, we're even. It wasn't really fair using Akane to help, but since you're a beginner, I'll give it a pass." Neither Ranma or Akane looked up. "Oh jeez. Are you two going to stay like that all afternoon?"
"I'll put down the pail if you put down the ice." Akane let the pail down an inch."
"Okay. on three. Ready? One... two... three." Ranma began to lower the ice, and Akane lowered the pail halfway. Nabiki reached out and flipped the pail, drenching Ranma and Akane with the ice cold water.
"Your turn! " she shouted, running for the exit.
"Ranma, Wait." Akane grabbed his arm.
"But she's getting away, why shouldn't I go after her now?" He tugged but couldn't get free.
"Three reasons. One, you forgot your tee shirt." Ranma-chan checked. Akane giggled. "Maybe that's two reasons. Umm.. Three, It's more fun if you make her wait. The longer she has to wait, the more nervous she'll get. Then after a while she'll start to relax..."
"Yes! Then I get her." Ranma-chan rubbed her palms together.
"No. Then you make it clear that you could have, but you don't. You wait, and then do it again, and again.
"Thanks, but that's actually Nabiki's ploy, I was never that patient, I just cased right after her. But anyway... Most importantly... Number four..." she leaned to Ranma's ear an whispered. "That secluded pool is empty." Akane dragged her fiancé off towards the pool.
"Sounds nice, where is it?"
Mariko pointed up the hill. "Follow that path up past the cold pond, then go behind the sauna, and watch for a gap in the wall."
"Are you coming with?"
"No, I should wait here for my brother."
"Okay, see you later."
Nabiki held her swimsuit under the steaming shower, rinsing and twisting it to remove sticky syrup. Ranma learns quickly, but it was worth it, she thought. She smiled, closing her eyes to remember the scene when she'd surprised him. The look on Ranma's face had been absolutely priceless, and the effect on the other boy... Nabiki looked at the wrinkled swimsuit. I wish I'd brought my white bikini,she thought. Oh well... She turned off the water and was about to put her suit back on when she remembered Akane's beach bag. She warped herself in a towel and set off to raid her sister's collection.
"Souichi, over here." Mariko waved her brother over.
"Hi sis." He stepped into the pool.
"How's your head?"
"Still spinning. I had a very—interesting conversation with Ranma."
"I had one of those with Nabiki."
"Oh?" Souichi thought about it a moment. "I'll bet."
"I'm sorry Souichi, but I have some bad news."
"She's not interested in boys?"
"Ranma filled me in."
"It's too bad too, she's really nice."
Mariko splashed her brother. "Stop it."
"Jeez. Are you sure this water is hot enough?"
"It should be, but this seems to be taking far longer than usual."
"Did you ever find out exactly what temperature is needed?"
"No, the Furinkan science club wanted to do an experiment once, but when I showed up the club had quadrupled in size, and seemed to now include all the members from the photography and video clubs, and they all insisted that clothes would somehow throw off the results. I never did find out"
Akane giggled, "Maybe you need more water." She filled the bucket and poured it over Ranma's head. She was dipping it again when the change came.
"Thanks, that's enough." Ranma took the bucket from her hand and set it on the rocks above. "Now, tell me about this game of yours."
"You mean this game?" Akane shifted, floating onto Ranma's lap. She hugged him and leaned up to kiss him.
"Here it is... Oh, is that you Akane?" Kasumi stood in the narrow passage.
With a loud splash Akane shifted to the other side of the pond.
"Ah, there you are Ranma." Nodoka poked her head over Kasumi's shoulder. "What are you two up to?"
Nabiki checked her profile in the mirror. It was a little tight, no, it was a lot tight, but all in the right places. This suit was surely not what a girl would wear for herself.
"It was just this game that Nabiki picked up in school from some of the boys," Kasumi explained. "She was about nine or ten at the time, and she decided to try it out when we went to an onsen in the mountains. She hid some balloons in her swimsuit, then filled them with cold water from a hose, then she climbed a tree above the pond and dropped them on us. Akane grabbed the hose and turned it in her, and of course the cold water rained down on everyone, including the other guests."
"So you didn't get even?" Ranma asked.
"Oh yes she did," Akane interrupted. "That night we had sushi and Kasumi loaded one with wasabi and put it in front of Nabiki. She took one bite and there were tears rolling down her cheeks. She had to drink 5 cups of tea to wash it away."
"Kasumi, you didn't..." Nodoka looked shocked.
"Oh yes she did, and that's not all," Akane giggled. "One time Nabiki pulled some prank at home, I don't even remember what it was, but I remember the revenge."
"Oh? What was it?" Nodoka asked.
"It was amazing. It took over a month before Nabiki figured it out." Akane began to laugh. "She... She..." Akane doubled over laughing.
"Kasumi-chan, you'd better tell us." Nodoka prompted.
"It was just a little sewing, that's all."
Akane let out an "Eep!" then covered her mouth.
"What did you do, dear?"
"I just took her school dress in a little."
"That's all?" Nodoka looked confused.
"Oh, and I let it out a little."
Akane recovered. "There was a little more to it. She took it in at the hips just a little tiny bit every other night, and let it out in the bust just a little tiny bit at the same time. Nabiki thought she was putting on weight in the backside, and loosing what little bust she had."
"Kasumi, I'm shocked." Nodoka smiled conspiratorially.
Souichi settled in. "What was wrong with the last one?"
"It was okay, but this one has a better view."
Souichi looked around. "I don't get it, we still can't see the valley from here."
"That's not..." Mariko paused to watch a boy walk past. "...the view I was talking about."
"That was too close, Saotome-kun."
"Hmmm. Too close, Tendou-kun."
"Did you spill any Saotome-kun?"
"Only past my lips, Tendou-kun."
"We should find a more hidden pool, don't you think, Saotome-kun."
"Sou-sou, Who'd have thought that a place like this wouldn't serve sake, Tendou-kun?"
"A very strange rule, indeed, Saotome-kun. It's a very good thing we bought our own."
"Sou-sou, a good thing, Tendou-kun. Let's have a look up that way."
Nabiki peeked out of the dressing room. She was a little perplexed that Akane and Ranma had not immediately chased after her, but it probably meant that they were planning something. She smiled. Planning had never been their strong suit.
"Say brother, I have an idea."
"What's that, sis?"
"Well, you know... it's like a thought, or plan for solving a problem..."
Souichi splashed his sister. "Get to the point."
"I think you should ask Nabiki out for an ice cream."
"It'd be just as friends, not a real date.
"Brother, you are so dense. Think about it. Just because Nabiki doesn't date boys doesn't mean that she won't talk to them. You could think of it as a practice date, but with none of the boy - girl pressure. Besides, you might have something in common."
"Well, for one thing, you two might have the same taste in girls."
"Wait, look here Saotome-kun, this looks like a likely spot." Soun paused and looked up a narrow stone passageway.
"So-So Tendou-kun. This looks ideal." The fathers wove unsteadily through the path. They turned the last bend, then backed up to leave when they noticed the pool was occupied.
"Is that you dear? We were wondering where you had gone." Nodoka waved her husband into the pool.
Genma turned to his friend. "Tendou-kun, we've been found out."
"Daddy, please come and join us." Kasumi slid over to make room in the pool for her father.
Soun nodded and whispered drunkenly to his friend. "Act natural, maybe they won't notice." He slid the bottle—till now hidden in a towel—into a crack in the rocks.
"Oh, and please bring whatever's left of the sake with you." Nodoka held out her hands.
Nabiki slowly worked her way up the hill, pausing frequently to check for Ranma and Akane. She'd stop to take an experimental dip in a pool here and there, but only if there were cute guys in it.
Nodoka poured sake into a tiny cup, and held it out for Kasumi, who eyed it suspiciously.
"No thank you," she said. "I prefer tea."
"Son?" She held the cup out to Ranma.
Akane nudged his feet under water.
"...I think I'll pass."
"Thanks, but I'd really prefer a lemonade, or maybe a shaved ice." She nudged Ranma's feet again and nodded in the direction of the exit.
"Huh?" Ranma looked at the exit then back at Akane. She nodded more emphatically at the exit and gave him a firm kick.
"Hey! Ow!—Oh." He got out of the water and held out his hand. "Umm, what you say we head down to the snack bar?"
"Mmm! What a good idea." Akane took his hand and they made for the exit. "We'll be back in a little while."
"If you see Nabiki, let her know where we are."
"Okay Kasumi, Bye bye!" Akane waved to her sister.
"Say, Tendou-kun, you know a shaved ice really would go down well just now."
"That's true, Saotome-kun. Shall we go..." Genma got up to leave.
"Dear, please leave them alone," Nodoka said quietly, but firmly.
"But don't you think we should check up on them? If we leave them alone, who knows what they might be up to?"
"I want you to leave them alone, and they can be up to whatever they want. After all, it's a public onsen, I don't think we need to worry."
"But it's a father's place to worry." Genma backed between the rock walls of the exit. "I'm going"
"You're staying." Nodoka hurled the plastic bucket at her husband. The warm water Akane had filled it with had long since cooled.
The sound caught Ranma and Akane just where the passageway opened up onto the main path. They turned to each other, sighed and returned to find that the narrow passage was now entirely plugged with damp panda.
Ranma laughed, "Heh heh, looks like you'll be here for a while, pop. That'll teach you not to sneak around snooping on us."
Genma strained to get free, growling and muttering to himself.
"Ranma, shouldn't we do something?" Akane asked.
"Yeah, I suppose you're right." Ranma thought a moment, then took Akane's hand and pulled her back out the passage and onto the path. "I know just the thing."
"W—Wait!—Where are we going?"
"You'll see." He pulled her down the hill, checking each pool as they went. They turned a corner and came onto a group of young boys playing in a shallow wading pool. "Ah. Here we go," Ranma said under his breath. He squatted down and motioned the boys over. "Shhh, listen. Did you know they keep a tame panda up that way?" he said, pointing up the path.
Akane pulled him upright. "Ranma, what are you doing?" she asked.
"Pop'll be stuck up there a while, I just thought he'd like some company."
"Miss," one of the boys rocked on his heels. "Is there really a panda up there?" he asked shyly.
Akane bent down and smiled that smile that adults use when they have to explain things to little boys. "Well... you see it's kind of complicated..."
"You mean there isn't really a panda up there?" The boy sneered at Ranma.
Akane took a breath. "No, no, it's not that, there really is a panda..."
"Yay!" the boys screamed, chasing up the path in the direction Ranma had indicated.
"Wait!" Ranma called. The last of the boys paused and bounded back. "If he's making a kind of 'bahro - bahro' sound, that means he's too warm. He likes to be cooled off with cold water."
"Okay!" the boy called back, then he disappeared up the path.
"I wonder where she went?" Souichi pondered aloud. He rolled over and peered over the rocks down the hill towards the locker rooms.
He turned and glared at his sister.
"Joking! Joking!" Mariko shifted out of convenient splashing distance. "Are you still thinking about her?"
"No. Yes. I..."
"Poor brother, in case you've forgotten, I have a better chance of getting a date with her than you."
Souichi kicked water at his sister. "I only want to ask her out for ice cream."
A small group of boys rushed by, then another, and another. "I wonder what's up?" Mariko asked.
"'Don't know," Souichi replied. "Let's ask." When another group came by Souichi waved down one of the boys. "Hey, what's all the excitement?" he asked him.
The little boy pointed up the path. "They have a tame panda up there, and I'm going to go help keep him nice and cool," he said, holding out a red plastic bucket for Souichi to inspect. "Gotta go. He needs me. Bye bye!" the boy called as he ran off up the path. Souichi got up to follow the boy.
"You don't really believe all that panda stuff do you?" his sister scoffed.
"Well, there's something going on up there, and anyway, I'm going to check out some of the other pools."
Kasumi dipped the bucket in the steaming pool and passed it to her father. "Daddy, I really don't think this is working," she said.
Soun took the bucket and passed it to Nodoka. "We'll just have to keep trying," he said.
Nodoka swung the bucket, splashing her panda-husband, then passed it back. "If this doesn't work soon we'll have to think of something else."
"This one looks nice, let's try it." Akane tugged at Ranma's arm.
"Hey, careful, I don't want to spill this," he said, switching the shaved ice to his other hand.
"I didn't get much of the last one. I had to, ummmm—share it with your sister."
Akane sat in the steaming water. "You know you really should have finished it in the snack bar. They don't want food or drink out here."
Ranma sat in the water next to her. He chopped at the ice for a moment with the plastic spoon, then picked up a bit and slowly lifted it to his lips. He placed it gently inside his mouth then sucked on the spoon before pulling it out. He sighed. "Ahhh—there's nothing like shaved ice when you're sitting in a hot onsen." He began chopping out another bite when he noticed Akane watching him. He slowly raised the spoon, she tracked it inch by inch with her eyes. He paused. Her gaze flicked from the spoon to his eyes, then back to the spoon. He moved the spoon closer to his mouth, her eyes following it hungrily. He stopped and waited.
The trail cut across the steepest part of the hill. The uphill side was a two-meter retaining wall made of rough gray and brown stones, indented in several places for alcoves containing stone benches. The downhill side offered spectacular views of the pools and valley below. Nabiki walked quickly across it, but not so fast as to attract attention from below. She paused to peek around the corner where it ended at the main path that lead down to the locker rooms. Ranma and Akane were nowhere to be seen. It was most perplexing. Akane had always tried to get even with her right away, but now it had been almost twenty minutes. She heard voices coming down the main path, and backed away from the corner. She spun to head back across the hill, took two steps and ran squarely into Souichi Tanaka.
"Oh, excuse me," she said automatically, bowing in embarrassment.
"It's okay," Souichi said, "I... I..." he stammered, suddenly realizing that the girl in the very tight bikini standing right in front of him was the very same girl from the station, and the train.
Nabiki looked up. "Oh, hi." There was an awkward silence, which Nabiki finally broke. "I'm Nabiki Tendou. You're Mariko's brother right?"
Souichi tried to speak, but the best he could manage was a nod and an affirmative grunt.
Must be the silent type, Nabiki thought. "Look, I'm sorry about the bump on the head earlier. I hope you're okay."
"It's nothing, really, I feel better now," Souichi lied. His head felt better, but now his stomach was in knots.
"Oh good." Nabiki relaxed a little and leaned against the terrace. "I felt bad when you hit your head. You'd be surprised how often that sort of thing happens around Ranma," Nabiki laughed.
Akane looked up from the spoon. "Wasn't that Nabiki?" she whispered.
Ranma turned to look at the downhill edge of the pond. "Maybe," he whispered back.
Akane leaned forward, and bit the shaved ice off the spoon.
"Hey!" Ranma protested.
"Shhh. Go check." Akane held out her hands. "Leave the ice."
Ranma jabbed the spoon into the cone and handed it to her. He went to the pool edge to peek over.
Nabiki leaned against the wall and took the weight off her left leg, bending it slightly at the knee. She arched her back, just a little, and let her hands fall to the wall behind her. It was a classic pose, meant to evoke a classic response from Souichi.
"D-d-did you know there's an ice cream shop in the hotel?" he stuttered.
Nabiki smiled. It wasn't the exact response she was looking for, but it held promise. She raised the ante. "Do they make parfaits?"
"I don't know..." Souichi cast his eyes downward, then blushing he looked back up.
Nabiki looked him over. Okay, he's cute, in a sort of schoolboyish way. He has a nice voice, even if he does have a little trouble getting started saying anything. "You want to find out later?"
Souichi's heart jumped into his throat. Relax. It'll be just like going out with one of the guys, he thought. "My family has reservations for dinner, maybe after..." Souichi tapped his index fingers together nervously. No matter what his sister said, she's still a girl.
Ranma had to crawl out of the pool and onto the rocks to see over the edge. On the path below he could see Souichi talking with someone, but they must have been beneath the rock he was on, just out of sight. He eavesdropped a moment, waiting to hear the other's voice.
Nabiki smiled at Souichi. "Okay, eight o'clock then."
"Okay. Eight it is." Souichi's heart was pounding. The awkward silence that followed was interrupted by a pebble falling from the rocks above.
Nabiki watched the pebble come to rest at her feet. Her smile melted to confusion, then to realization. She pointed to the rocks above, and mouthed 'Ranma?' to Souichi. Soiuchi glanced up, then down, then nodded slowly. She thought a moment then signaled him to move back up the trail. He backed up a dozen steps and waited.
Ranma looked back over his shoulder to Akane, pointed over the edge and mouthed 'Nabiki'.
Akane nodded once and began to look for a place to put the ice down.
At that moment Nabiki made her move. She'd braced herself against the rocks then launched herself down the path towards Souichi.
It was a very simple plan,
and it failed in a very simple way.
She'd only taken one step when the simple mending that Akane had done the night before came undone. From Souichi's point of view, spectacularly undone.
Ranma heard a noise from below and turned just in time to see a flash of yellow fabric heading for his face. He grabbed it out of the air.
"Go! Go!!!! Run!!!!" Nabiki shouted to Souichi, who was frozen in the middle of the trail. She pushed into him to get him moving again, but their feet tangled and she ended up on top of him.
Souichi drifted awake as from a dream.
There was something soft on his chest, and it was warm.
He could hear shouting from the rocks above, and the person doing the shouting was a girl. A very angry girl.
He opened his eyes in time to see Ranma fly from the rocks above into the valley below. There was a surprisingly long pause, followed by a distant splash and some most unladylike cursing. Something yellow fluttered down towards him, and he reached out and caught it.
Nabiki looked up. Souichi was examining something wadded up in his hand, turning it one way then the other. He opened his fingers and the mystery item uncrumpled out of his palm. He pinched a corner and shook it out.
It was a bikini top.
A yellow bikini top.
Nabiki looked down.
Her bikini top.
"But, he said we should use cold water!"
"Who told you that?" Soun asked.
"He was down there," one of the boys volunteered, pointing down the hill. "He had a pony tail, and he was with a girl."
"He told us Mr. Panda liked to be kept nice and cool," added another.
"I see." Soun rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well... Thank you, and well done, but now he's a little too cool, and we can't let him catch a cold. Do you think you could help some more by getting some nice hot water for him?"
"Okay!" The boys cried, then turned, except for one, who's bucket was still full of cold water. He doused the panda with it, then ran after his friends. "Be right back," he called over his shoulder.
Soun climbed gingerly down. He had climbed up to look over his friend's head, finding toeholds in the rock walls on either side of the path. "Well, I think I've found the problem, and I think it will soon take care of itself," he said, slapping the rock dust from his hands.
Nabiki covered Souichi's eyes with her hand, "Don't... peek," she commanded.
He obeyed. Her feminine scent enveloped him. Her skin was hot against his chest. She shifted, and he felt the swelling of her chest sliding against his.
"Swimsuit," she said tartly, tugging the fabric from him with her free hand. She shifted again, sliding up and down his chest.
He'd never even held a girl's hand before, and this was so...so...
She struggled with the suit, trying to put it on with her free hand, her warm skin bobbing against his chest. The struggle went on for a few precious moments, then stopped.
She grabbed his right wrist and pulled his hand up and placed it firmly over hers. "Promise me that you will not peek."
"P—P—promise," he stammered. Her hand was so soft.
He felt her hand slip out from under his, then she pressed his hand down firmly over his eyes, completing the swap. She shifted again—soft bulges of warm skin caressing his chest—then rolled off him. He lay on the path savoring the contact.
"Okay, it's safe to look now," Nabiki said after a few moments.
Souichi sat up and opened his eyes. She was sitting, leaning her back against retaining wall, still fussing with the suit. It was one of kind with no shoulder straps, and it had split in the narrow part between the cups. She held a free end in each hand, tugging them together, the yellow fabric tightening and loosening against the flesh below. safe did not come to mind. All she would have to do was twist her wrists and she would be.. they would be... he began to feel light headed.
Nabiki noticed his gaze, and glared at him. His eyes suddenly found something interesting to look at on the path in front of her feet. "This never happened. Right?" she asked. It wasn't a question.
"Therefore... you'll never have to tell anyone about it. Right?"
"R-right." Souichi stole another glance. There was exposed skin from her lips to her bellybutton. Nothing was really showing, but it was still the sexiest thing he'd ever seen.
"Good." She tried to get up, but with both her hands busy, so she was having trouble.
Souichi got up and offered his hand.
Nabiki glared at the offered hand, then down at her swimsuit, then back to Souichi, who was looking again. "No, I don't think so," she snarled at him. "Turn around."
Souichi turned and waited. And waited. After a half a minute he turned to find she had gone.
Over fifty pools, all but three of them hot, and she drops me in this one, Ranma thought. It's not even my fault. Again. She rubbed the bump on her head. "Ouch." Just when things were going so well...
Akane sat in the pool angrily munching the remainder of the shaved ice. How could he do that? My own sister, after all, oh jeez!!!!
"Wow!!!" the boys cried. "How did you do that?"
"A magician never gives away his secrets," Soun replied smoothly. "Now how about a round of applause for my assistant?" Nodoka, Kasumi and the boys clapped while Genma bowed.
"Again! Again!" the boys called.
"Sorry, just one show per day," Genma apologized. "But tomorrow, we can turn that boy with the pony tail into a girl!"
"Oh ewww! We'd rather see Mr. Panda again..."
Nabiki huddled behind some trees next to the trail. "Ohgodohgodohgod!!!" she muttered. Her heart was pounding, and she was sweating and shaking. Ranma, this is all your fault, she thought, but that thought was suddenly interrupted by other thoughts of her very bare chest against Souichi's. She pushed them out of her mind with anger. So you want to play dirty, eh? Dirty. Souichi was suddenly back and very warm against her. She shook the thought away, and took a deep breath, and turned her attention the break in the swimsuit. If my stupid sister wasn't so damn flat-chested then...
The broken yellow threads were a slightly different color, and inexpertly sewn. Huh? Could it be? Akane? Are you in on this too, little sister? The notion appealed to her. Could her sister have really planed it? Could she have planted this booby trapped suit in the top of her bag where I'd be sure to find it?
Her speculations were interrupted by the sound of footsteps up the trail. She ducked behind a bush and peeked out. Moments later Souichi appeared between the trees. He'd nearly passed by, but he stopped at the sound of splashing from the other side, and craned his neck to look that way. Nabiki ducked further into the woods, pushing the low branches of the trees out of her way. She ducked behind a tree and peeked back. He was at first nowhere to be seen, but then he appeared near her first hiding spot. He bent down, and came up with something in his hand.
She felt the blood rush to her face. She was half-naked in the woods, and there was a boy just ten steps away. He checked up and down the trail, then returned his attention to the item in his hand. He lifted it tentatively to his face.
Entranced, she watched as he gently touched the fabric of one of the cups to his cheek, then closed his eyes and breathed in the scent.
She felt a jolt go through her. Her heart was pounding from the trill of exposure and concealment.
The other cup was resting against his chest. His free hand rose, trembling. Softly and timidly he explored the edges, then he cupped it gently against his heart.
Ten steps away, behind the branches, Nabiki mimicked the motion.
She wanted to kiss him.
She wanted to step out of her concealment, walk up and press herself into his hand and then kiss him. Her knees went weak at the idea.
Suddenly he turned and looked up the trail, and Nabiki heard voices coming from the hill. He looked panicked for a moment, then he bolted for the trail. She was about to scream 'stop!' but he froze and stared at the incriminating evidence in his hand. He stepped back off the trail and hung the top gently on a branch. The tips of his fingers lingered on the swell of the fabric, then he was gone.
January 18 2000
"Oh hi Akane! There you are." Akane waved then waited while Nodoka and the others came down the trail. "Where is everyone going?" she asked.
"Dressing rooms. We need to get ready for dinner." Kasumi looked around. "Where's Ranma?"
"Don't know," Akane growled. "And I don't care." She pointed down the hill. "He landed somewhere down there."
"They're fighting..." Soun hung his head.
"...Again," Genma finished.
"Well, that hentai started it."
"Tell me what happened, dear," Nodoka sighed.
"Well, we were in this pond, and we thought we heard Nabiki, so he went to look over the edge, I looked away for a moment, and when I looked back he had it in his hand."
"Had what, dear?"
"Nabiki's swimsuit. He reached down..." Akane demonstrated with her own hand. "And came up with the bikini top." She whipped her hand up and held it over her head.
The others stared at her hand for a moment, then they all began to clap appreciatively.
Akane stared at them, confused, until Kasumi pointed to her hand. She looked up. In her fist was the yellow bikini top.
Ten feet away, Nabiki let her head smack the tree she was hiding behind. "Oh great," she muttered.
Kasumi took the bikini top from the astonished Akane. "Ranma must have dropped it." She inspected the yellow fabric. "Say, Akane, isn't this your swimsuit?" Akane frowned at it. After a moment she seethed, "Yes, it's mine," then she turned and followed the others down the path to the dressing rooms.
"Kasumi!" Hurry up, we don't want to be late for dinner," Soun called from down the trail.
"Hai!" Kasumi turned to follow, but paused when she heard a sound from off the path.
"Pssst - Kasumi. Hey, Kasumi!" Nabiki hissed from behind her tree.
"Nabiki? Is that you? What are you doing back there?" Nabiki stepped out from behind her tree, then jumped back as a couple of boys approached on the path. She waited while they passed, then poked her head back out. "Swimsuit!"
"This?" Kasumi held up the bikini top.
"Yes, could you..."
Kasumi innocently eyed the top. "But this is Akane's swimsuit."
"Please, Kasumi!" Nabiki plea hand. She looked up. In her fist was the yellow bikini top.
Ten feet away, Nabiki let her head smack the tree she was hiding behind. "Oh great," she muttered.
Kasumi took the bikini top from the astonished Akane. "Ranma must have dropped it." She inspected the yellow fabric. "Say, Akane, isn't this your swimsuit?" Akane frowned at it. After a moment she seethed, "Yes, it's mine," then she turned and followed the others down the path to the dressing rooms.
"Kasumi!" Hurry up, we don't want to be late for dinner," Soun called from down the trail.
"Hai!" Kasumi turned to follow, but paused when she heard a sound from off the path.
"Pssst - Kasumi. Hey, Kasumi!" Nabiki hissed from behind her tree.
"Nabiki? Is that you? What are you doing back there?" Nabiki stepped out from behind her tree, then jumped back as a couple of boys approached on the path. She waited while they passed, then poked her head back out. "Swimsuit!"
"This?" Kasumi held up the bikini top.
"Yes, could you..."
Kasumi innocently eyed the top. "But this is Akane's swimsuit."
"Please, Kasumi!" Nabiki pleaded.
"Oh, It's okay, I'll make sure she gets it," she said. "See you at dinner!" Kasumi turned and skipped down the trail, the innocent look replaced by a smile of mischief. She had nearly caught up with the others before Nabiki screamed "Kaaa—ssssuuuuu—meeeeee—!"
Souichi closed his eyes and leaned back through the steaming waterfall. His heart was still pounding, and he was still wearing a dopey grin, but at least he was finally warm again. After his encounter with Nabiki, he'd needed to spend some time soaking in a cold pool.
He heard a splash and opened his eyes. Through the curtain of water he saw a girl step into the pool. A red-headed girl. He strained to see through the water. A topless, red- headed girl. He leaned forward, through the water, and rubbed his eyes.
"Hey," Ranma called from across the pool. "How's your head?"
Souichi rubbed his eyes again. "Was there a... I could swear I saw..."
"Saw ...?" Ranma prodded. He was splashing himself with the steaming water.
"It's just, that I thought I saw her again."
"That girl I saw before."
"Oh. Her. Just forget her Souichi. You're not her type."
"But was there... a... someone else in the pool a second ago?"
"Nope. Just me."
"Ahh." Souichi rubbed his eyes again. "Maybe I've spent too much time in the hot water." Ranma just nodded in reply. After a time Souichi broke the tense silence. "Say, Ranma. You must know a lot about girls, right?"
"Hmmph. I don't understand them at all," Ranma fumed.
"Okay, okay. I won't ask. Jeez."
Ranma looked up the hill. "She always does this."
"Mmm." Souichi nodded in agreement. His sister had used that 'Mmm' on him before, and it usually worked.
"She always over-reacts."
"Mmm." Souichi nodded again.
"She never gives me a chance to explain."
"Mmm." Souichi began to worry that he was overusing it..
"And things were going so well..."
"Mmm?" He tried a new variation.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay." Souichi nodded sagely, but wondered why that variation had failed. They were interrupted by Genma before he could re-start the conversation.
"C'mon Ranma, we're going to dinner."
July 22, 2000
"You missed the magic show!" said one of the boys.
"They turned a panda into a funny man!" said the other.
Mariko tilted her head in disbelief. "A real panda?"
"Yeah! We were keeping him cool," said the first, holding out a blue plastic pail.
"Then the magician asked us to help warm him up!" said the other, displaying his red bucket.
"You're sure it was a it was a real panda? Not just a man in a panda suit?" Mariko asked.
"Yeah! It was so—cool! A real panda," said the one with the red bucket.
"Huh," was all Mariko could think to reply.
"Tomorrow they said they would turn a boy into a girl!" said the boy with the blue bucket. "Well, gotta go, it's almost dinner time!"
The boys sped off, leaving Mariko alone in the pool. "Ridiculous!" she said after them.
The only part of their story that made sense at all was the part about it nearly being dinner time, so she left her pool to head for the locker rooms. She was halfway down the hill when she noticed some movement in the trees beside the trail. The brush was pretty dense, but just for a moment she saw a flash of skin, and...
Mariko moved down the path a few meters. She still couldn't see the person's face, but It was a girl, making her way through the brush. Definitely a girl. A topless girl. Unless there were a whole convention of topless girls at the onsen today, it was probably that red-haired hussy who'd been flashing her brother.
She raced quietly down the trail, then took to the woods and set her ambush behind a large pine tree. This girl is definitely going to get a piece of my mind, she thought. She could hear her approaching her hiding spot.
"Ouchohdamn," Nabiki seethed under her breath. "I REALLY REALLY HATE the woods." Her feet were tender from the sharp stones and pine cones, and her arms and back were scratched from the brush. She came to a dense spot, and once again turned away from it, protecting her sensitive chest with her hands and arms. She began to back her way through.
Mariko jumped from her hiding place and braced herself for confrontation. Her prey soon appeared, backing her way through the dense brush. She reached out to grab the other girls arms, but at that moment the other girl tripped on a branch and tumbled into Mariko.
"Ohdamnit!" Nabiki swore, rubbing the dirt from her palms. "When I get my hands on..." she stopped. Hands. There was another set of hands. And those extra hands were cupped around her... "Kiiiiiiiyyyyaaaaaaaaa!" she screamed. "Pervert!" She rolled away from her attacker and covered herself. "What do you think you're doing?"
Mariko lay sprawled on the ground, her eyes clenched shut in pain. "Ouch," was all she could think to reply. She reached up and found a growing lump on the back of her head. "Oh—Ouch."
"You again! You nearly scared me to death!" Nabiki screamed. She sat panting for a time, waiting for the adrenaline to pass. "What's the matter with you, grabbing a girl like that!"
Mariko had recovered some and finally sat up and opened her eyes. She stared in confusion at the girl in front of her. Topless alright, but not a redhead. "But I thought..." she began.
"Well then, you—thought—wrong," Nabiki snapped back. "Besides, I told you that I prefer boys."
"Huh?" Mariko head hurt too much, and she was having trouble enough dealing with the fact that she'd ambushed the wrong girl. This was too much information all at once.
"And anyway, even if you prefer girls, grabbing my chest isn't exactly the best way to say 'hello', is it?
"No, I..." Mariko shuffled that in her mind a moment. "Who said I preferred girls?" she asked indignantly. "You're the one who said you preferred the 'other gender'."
Nabiki's mouth opened and closed as if she had something to say, but her brain wasn't finding any words put through it. Finally she said; "Yes. I prefer 'the other gender'—boys are the other gender, right?"
"Ah—", Mariko replied, finally understanding. "And you thought that I..."
"Well, what am I supposed to think? What about the train? Hmmm? what about snooping around asking about me, Hmmm? What about sneaking up on me in the onsen, and now pawing me in the woods? What would you think?"
"I...I...I..." Mariko buried her face in her hands and began to sob. "I was only doing it for my brother."
"Brother?" Nabiki thought. Yes, Mariko had said something about her brother in the onsen. She watched Mariko's quivering shoulders a while, then moved to sit next to her. She reached out and put her hand on her shoulder. "Listen, I..."
"Ahem!" Mariko glared at her. "I too, prefer boys!" she sniffed. They stared at each other a moment then began to giggle. "I'm sorry, this is all so confusing."
"'Could be worse. You could be missing half your swimsuit." Nabiki looked down at her chest. She had been covering herself with one arm through the entire conversation.
"Ummmm, I have my... reasons for hiding in the woods, but why did I bump into you?
"Well, there's this half-naked redhead who was exposing herself to my brother earlier, and I thought you were her."
"Oh! You thought I was Ranma."
"No, I thought you..." Mariko got a very confused look on her face. "Ranma? No. It was definitely a red-headed girl."
"That's our Ranma!" Nabiki chimed. "Listen. There's quite a story behind it. If you could help me out here..." She waggled the arm covering her chest. "I'll tell you all about it. Believe me, it's well worth it."
Mariko stared at her incredulously, then nodded. "Uh, Okay." She got up to leave the woods. "I'll find something and be right back."
"Anything will do!" Nabiki called after her. She sat back and smiled. Maybe she could help in other ways, she thought, then she got down to some serious plotting.
Kasumi paused under the lights at the makeup mirror and examined the swimsuit top. "Akane, this isn't bad, I can fix it in no time."
"Thanks, sis, but don't worry about it. I'll fix it again when we get home."
"Again?" Kasumi re-examined the break. "Akane, is this what you fixed last night?"
Akane stopped brushing her hair and joined her sister. "Yeah, I used the yellow thread from the sewing basket."
Kasumi looked closely at the broken repair. "Oh, but that thread is too fine for something like this. It could break all by itself. That could be very embarrassing."
Akane took the swimsuit and examined it. Break all by itself?
"Nabiki! Nabiki!" Mariko hissed.
"Over here." Nabiki poked her head out from behind a tree. "Say, Mariko how would you like to help me play a trick on my sister?"
Mariko picked her way through the brush to Nabiki's hiding place. "Umm... Sorry." She held out two plastic pails, one red and the other yellow. "I looked all over, and this was the best I could find.
Akane put the yellow bikini top in the plastic bag with her damp suit and dropped the bag into the end pocket of her gym bag. Okay, maybe Ranma hadn't snagged it as a prank, she thought, but her thoughts and emotions were still a tangle. First she was angry at Nabiki—but mostly because Ranma had seen her.
She eyed the gym bag, and the anger was replaced by amusement. Well... maybe it was worth it. She pictured her sister stuck outside with half a swimsuit, hiding anytime someone came by. But then she remembered that Ranma was out there too, and the anger was back. Why was he peeping at her?
She went over to a full length mirror, and looked at herself. So what if Nabiki needs a bigger swimsuit, she thought jealously. She turned to check her profile. Besides, Nabiki needed bigger pants, too.
She tugged and adjusted her sundress until it showed a little more bust. And anyway, she thought, if that's what Ranma wanted to see...
"Wait!" Nabiki hissed. "My sister might still be in there. Could you..."
Mariko sighed. "Okay, but this story had better be worth it." She opened the door to the dressing room just in time to see Akane and the others heading out the other door. She waved Nabiki into the dressing room.
There was a soft knock on the door from the next room.
"Just a moment," Nodoka called in reply. "Nabiki's not here yet, and we're still getting dressed."
A muffled "Okay, but hurry up, or we'll be late for dinner," filtered through the door.
"Men," she muttered in reply. She twirled her finger for Kasumi to turn around. "Let's see."
Kasumi turned gracefully, and for a moment it seemed as if the inexpensive hotel yukata had transformed into an elegant kimono.
Nodoka whistled. "That looks perfect on you, like it was made for you!"
Kasumi blushed and looked at her feet. "Thank you."
"My turn." Nodoka turned. "What do you think?"
Kasumi bit her lip. "Umm... may I?" Nodoka nodded. Kasumi made a careful adjustment to the belt, then tugged gently on the left shoulder. The adjustments were tiny, but effect was magical. The puckers and folds were gone.
They both turned to Akane. "Your turn."
Akane sighed and turned on her heel. "Well?"
Kasumi frowned, then tugged at the sleeves. "Oh. I see. It's clinging to your T-shirt."
"It's the only one I brought."
"You don't really need it, dear", Nodoka said, unknoting the belt.
"But..." Akane protested. In moments the T-shirt was gone.
Kasumi held the yukata for Akane while she put her arms through the sleeves. "It won't cling to your underwear and bra, so it will fit better."
There was another knock at the door, then Genma called; "Hurry up! I'm starving!" The door opened a crack.
"You'll live." Nodoka replied, slamming the door shut. She turned to the girls. "Next time I'll pack some bamboo."
Kasumi giggled while she re-tied Akane's belt, then she made an adjustment at the collar. "There, that's better."
Akane checked the mirror. It was better. A lot better. "How did you do that?"
"I took that class on wearing kimono last spring. I tried to get you to sign up, remember?"
"Um", Akane replied. She thought it would have been boring, and not very useful.
Nodoka slid the door between the rooms. "We're ready, but Nabiki still isn't here yet."
"Well then..." Soun began, but he stopped when he saw Kasumi and Akane. Tears welled in his eyes. "Oh, look at you! Ranma, Soutome, come see." He waved the others to the door.
Genma came to the doorway. "Oh my don't you look..." he paused when he saw his wife. "...beautiful." Ranma pushed him out of the way into the room.
"What's the big..." Ranma began, then he caught sight of Akane. He'd always liked her in a kimono, (not that he'd ever told her) but tonight she looked especially nice.
Nodoka grabbed his arm and pulled him into the room. "So Ranma, what do you think? Doesn't she look wonderful?" there was a long pause, then Nodoka stepped on his foot.
"Oww. Oh. Umm.. Uh... Yeah," he stammered.
"Oh, no way. I don't believe you."
"But it's true. I've seen it hundreds and hundreds of times. And his father fell into a spring that makes him turn into a panda."
"A panda? You mean fuzzy? Black & white?"
"Yup." Nabiki held her arms out. " And huge. Oh, and he sometimes eats bamboo."
"R—ight." Mariko looked longingly at the exit. "Umm.. I really have to get going."
"But I haven't told you about my plan yet!"
"I don't know... I..."
"It won't work without you. Please... It'll be a lot of fun."
Mariko stared at Nabiki for ten seconds. "Okay. I'll listen."
Nodoka folded the note over, and stuck it next to the doorknob. "Well, Nabiki will just have to catch up to us in the restaurant. This way!" She lead the others toward the lobby, with Ranma and Akane trailing the rest.
"I wonder what's taking Nabiki?" he asked.
"I suspect that she's still out there looking for something," Akane huffed.
"Don't you play innocent with me, Ranma. I caught you red handed. Or would that be yellow handed? Anyway I found it right in your hand. Hentai."
"Yellow?" Ranma stopped and scratched his head. "Oh that. All I saw was a flash of yellow headed my way. I caught it. That's all. Really."
Akane turned and glared at him. "That's really all you saw?"
"And you didn't see anything else? Hmm?"
"Well, there were some stars, then I got a close up view of the bottom of a pool. A cold pool. I really don't know how you do it. I checked and there was only one cold pool within a hundred meters of there, but you found it..."
They walked on, and Ranma reviewed at some length and detail the impossible odds that put him into that particular pool, but all the while Akane was thinking that maybe, just this once, It really was a coincidence. Maybe, just maybe,the swimsuit had just snapped free at that moment.
Akane stopped. "So you didn't see..."
Ranma turned and walked back to her. "Didn't see..."
"You're positive that you didn't see..."
"Akane, what are you talking about?"
She looked in his eyes. "It's nothing. Let's go." She took his hand and pulled him up the hall after the others.
Souichi almost dropped his menu when he saw Nodoka leading the Tendous and Soutomes into the restaurant. He fumbled with it a bit, then held it so that he could watch the door (for Nabiki) while pretending to look at the entres.
"Hey, It's Souichi, isn't it?" Akane tapped his shoulder. The menu flew from his hands toward the ceiling. Ranma caught it, then handed it back to him. "Sorry 'bout that.. How's the bump?"
"Ah... much better, thanks." He'd been so busy watching the door that he hadn't noticed that the waiter had placed them at the next table.
"Are you really sure about this?" Mariko frowned.
"Positive. It's the last thing they'll be expecting. Com'on, it'll be fun. Just play along."
"Well, Okay." Mariko checked herself in the mirror. "I'm Ready."
Souichi dropped his menu. There she was. Holding hands with his sister.
December 31 2000
The attack was swift, and brutal. It came from behind, and before Souichi could react there was blood, a sickening thud, then a lot more blood, then darkness and silence, and finally the words 'Game Over' glowing on the screen. He reached into his pocket to dig for another 100 Yen coin. "Shimata. I'm going to have to break a bill," he said under his breath. He found the change machine next to the karoke booth, and while digging through his wallet decided that his heart just wasn't in it.
He wandered off with the vague notion to seek out a place in the hotel that sold manga, but that was merely an excuse to wander, just as urgently locating the video game room had been an excuse to get away from his family—specifically his sister—after dinner. It had been awful, his sister and Nabiki, the looks between them, the winks, the giggles. Nabiki was so open, so obvious about it, but careful too. His parents hadn't seen the hand holding, and hadn't noticed the looks.
He came to the hallway that bridged the road between the onsen park and the hotel proper, and watched the cars passing under on the steep road. The sky was turning dark, and by holding his arm against the glass he could see the first stars.
"Nice night, isn't it?" came a female voice from behind him. He jumped in surprise, his heart felt as if someone had plunged it in ice water.
"Sorry Souichi." Nabiki smiled. "Been waiting long?"
"Ahh... Huh?" was all that Souichi could muster.
Nabiki nodded up the hallway, where just before the stairs was the ice cream shop. "You're in luck, they have parfaits."
"I keep telling you, I didn't see anything." Ranma had thought that this argument was over.
"Hmph," Akane sniffed.
He followed Akane down the hallway, two steps behind.
"Aww, Com'on, just listen to me."
Akane picked up the pace, and she and Ranma left their parents and Kasumi lagging far behind.
Ranma stepped out in front of Akane and grabbed her by the arms. "Wait, I..." Ranma paused, confused by the expression on her face. He had not been expecting a smile.
"Ranma, I'll meet you in the garden in 15 minutes," she whispered. "Now make this look good for the others."Her hand swung back menacingly. "Rannnnmaaaa no baaaakaaaaa!" she shouted, her open right hand racing for his face.
Hidden from the others, her open left hand took the blow, but Ranma spun with it, rubbing and covering his undamaged cheek with his hand. She winked, then stomped away, pushing past the others.
Playing along, Ranma muttered something under his breath and strutted off in the other direction.
Kasumi watched her sister storming away. "Oh no, and we've only been here a few hours."
"Are they always like this?" Nodoka asked.
"Always," Soun, Genma, and Kasumi answered as one.
Akane strolled through the lobby of the hotel, then down past the video game room towards the garden. In the entry-way she paused to look in a display case that held silk kimonos embossed with the hotel emblem, much nicer than the cheap cotton one she was wearing. She pulled at the fabric, trying to smooth and adjust it, as her sister had, then seeing her reflection in the glass, she wished for a mirror. There were none on the hallway, but there was a doorway to the ladies room.
Ranma went down the stairs at the end of the hall. He found a door that lead outside, and found himself in the parking lot. It was almost dark, but the sidewalk to the garden was lit by low lanterns.
He followed the path, pondering the events of the day. He still wasn't sure what Akane had been so angry about, but that wasn't so unusual. Now dinner, had been unusual. Mariko had introduced her family, who just happened to be at the next table, then Nabiki had swapped seats with Kasumi, so that she and Mariko could whisper between courses. The Tanakas had left the restaurant first, then Nabiki had excused herself on the way out, declaring that she had a 'date'.
Ranma wasn't sure what was going on, and every time he thought about it, he ended up muddled. He knew exactly what might be going on, and that was much of the problem. The more specific his thoughts became, the harder it became to concentrate.
After a time he looked up from his thoughts to find himself deep in the garden. He paused to look around, then followed a narrow path that lead up the hill away from the hotel to a lighted gazebo.
Akane stared at her reflection in the mirror. She checked her makeup, then ran a brush through her hair. She'd planned her little scene with Ranma to lead the others to think that she was still angry with him, in hopes that it might lead to a little privacy for a change. Okay, she thought. I'm ready. Ready for... for... her heart began to pound.
She closed her eyes took deep breaths. Okay, maybe I'm not ready for that...she thought.
But still... I want...
She took another look in the mirror, then turned in profile. She frowned at the yukata, which just wasn't as revealing as the silk one in the display.
She reached inside the sleeve of the yukata and slipped the bra strap off her arm, then reaching behind, she undid the clasp. She reached her hand through the other sleeve to pull it free, but it caught on the inside the sleeve. She was splitting her attention between trying to recover it from the lose folds of fabric, and looking a for a temporary hiding place in the restroom for it, when the solution hit her. She held out her arm and shook it, and the bra fell to the bottom of the deep cuff. She wouldn't need another hiding place, the sleeve made a perfect pocket—and she wouldn't need to return here to get it, either.
Mariko watched the moth as it fluttered against the window. It was being drawn to the lights behind her in the lobby, just as she had been drawn to the quiet corner of the empty tearoom. She wasn't exactly angry, or upset, but after the performance at dinner she needed a few moments alone to sort things out.
She thought Nabiki had taken it too far. The hand-holding, the secret looks, the whispers. It had been a good act—maybe too good to have been just an act. She worried that her parents might have noticed, that would take some explaining. In any case, Souichi had very much noticed, and she was going to have to convince him it was all just a show. At least her part had been for show.
Jeez, and Nabiki had convinced me to play along with some crazy story about boys turning into girls, and men into pandas! And I fell for it, hook line and sinker.
Now she was beginning to be angry. She'd been taken for a fool by Nabiki's ridiculous story of cursed pools and sibling revenge games. What was she really after? Was it really some game she was playing on her sister, or was it something else...?
Souichi watched as Nabiki swirled her spoon around the top of the ice cream, shaving off a smooth curl. She lifted it and abruptly and put it in her mouth, savoring the flavor. She pulled the spoon back out, leaving a thick coating of chocolate. She twirled it at him.
"Are you sure you don't want to try some chocolate?" she asked seductively.
"Ahhh..." Souichi stared longingly at the spoon.
Nabiki waggled it at him. "Well, I'm not that kind of girl." She stared him in the eye then began to laugh. "Souichi, you are so serious!"
"No buts. Since you don't want any of my chocolate..." Nabiki licked the spoon clean. "...you can at least tell me where you live."
"Chiba's a pretty big place."
Nabiki sighed. "You don't do this very often, do you. Dating, I mean."
"No, not really."
Souichi looked away.
Nabiki rested her chin in her palm. "Thought so. You worry way too much. Relax. Just pretend I'm your sister." The look in Souichi's eyes told her that it was a touchy subject.
"Maybe you should be pretending that I'm my sister," he said quietly.
Nabiki came close to slapping him. "And what exactly do you mean by that?" she asked. A little light went on in her head.
Souichi got up. "Maybe I should go"
"Sit," she commanded. He sat. "I'll explain. This may take a while."
It was a warm night, but Akane paused to adjust her yukata against the gentle breeze that explored inexperienced skin.
The garden was bigger than she expected, and she was beginning to worry she'd missed him when she saw him waving to her from the gazebo.
He stopped in mid-wave, the woman looked like Akane, but she was walking more like... like... a woman. He watched her, wondering at the transformation. She stopped in the middle of the gazebo, and without a word of greeting, she smiled at him. He too remained silent, there was something about her...
She lifted her fingers to her lips, her motion formal and precise, like the tea ceremony. Her full attention went to her hand, and he felt as if he'd been dismissed from her senses. She slowly licked her thumb, then her fore and middle fingers as one. The tea ceremony had suddenly gone, to replaced by seduction. Her gaze shifted, just the tinniest bit, from her fingers to his eyes, and his heart jumped in his chest. She tilted her head, just a fraction. The ceremony was back. She pulled back the sleeve on her right arm, and raised it over her head.
She paused for a heartbeat—her smile was the last thing Ranma saw before she twisted her wrist and the light went out.
February 25, 2001
All eyes in the ice cream shop turned to the noise.
Mariko loomed over her brother and Nabiki, massaging her throbbing hand. "Just what are you up to?" she hissed.
Nabiki picked the freshly flattened spoon from the table and examined it. "Well, we were having parfaits..." She waved to the girl behind the counter. "One more, and... umm... another spoon, please." She turned back to Mariko. "Chocolate okay?" Mariko stared at her for ten seconds, then nodded once. Nabiki nudged Souichi, who pulled an empty chair from the next table and slid it to Mariko, who sat heavily into it.
They sat in tense silence until the parfait arrived. Nabiki smiled and nodded thanks to the ice cream girl, then used her fresh spoon to dig out the cherry she'd been saving. She taunted Souichi with it for a moment before eating it, which earned her another glare from Mariko. She waited until Mariko had taken a couple of bites before speaking. "Feeling better?"
"Okay then. What's on your mind?"
"What was all that?"
"What was all what?"
"Umm, chicken—I think."
"You know what I mean. The hand-holding, the looks, the giggles..."
"...and the kisses?" Nabiki finished with a grin.
Souichi choked and had to spit his ice cream back into the glass.
Nabiki put her hand on his arm and looked him in the eyes. "I'm only joking."
"Ahem." Mariko pointed her spoon at Nabiki's hand.
"I think your sister is getting jealous," Nabiki said sotto voce.
Mariko made to fling a spoonful of chocolate at Nabiki. "Out with it. Now."
"First, sorry. It didn't work. At least, I don't think it worked, but sometimes..."
"What didn't work?" Souichi asked.
"Plan?" Mariko prodded.
"Okay, okay. I'll admit, it wasn't really much of a plan. We didn't have time to work out any details, and, of course, prior to this, I've always worked alone, but with my sister, it's usually more than enough to start anything. Anyway, it was you who gave me the idea in the first place." Nabiki pointed at Mariko. "Remember the train this morning? After you two left, my sister and her fiancé got it in their heads that I had an 'admirer'. So tonight I figured that might be a good theme to start something."
Mariko and Souichi just looked at each other.
"It's all part of the game..."
"Game?" Mariko and Souichi asked as one.
In the darkness, Ranma took a cautious step forward, but so had Akane. The ensuing collision quickly transformed into an enthusiastic hug.
With his eyes closed, he could still see the image of her smile. He held her as the image faded.
She pushed him away, found his hands, and locked her fingers through his. She kissed him, then holding her lips to his, began to push him back.
He took one step back, then held his ground. He pushed back, all the while keeping the kiss going. He backed her up slowly until she was pinned against the post at the entry to the gazebo, then he broke the kiss.
He felt her grip tighten, and she pushed him away. He fought back, but she was using the post as leverage, and soon he was backed up against the other side of the entry. Then she kissed him, gradually letting up the pressure on his hands. She came closer, then pressed herself tight to him. The first thing he noticed was that he could feel her warmth right through his clothes, then he noticed her shape. There was no mistaking that the warmth that he felt pressing him from his knees to his chest was coming from a girl.
Akane held him. He was warm, he smelled good, and there was ample evidence that he was in boy mode.
"I swear, I'm telling you the honest truth."
Mariko just crossed her arms and stared at Nabiki. "How can I believe you? Boys turning into girls. Martial artists turning into pandas. Yeah, sure."
"Souichi, tell her!"
"I..." Souichi began, then faltered.
"It happened right before your eyes. Don't you remember that topless girl?"
Mariko broke the surprisingly long pause. "What are you two blushing about?"
"Nothing," they answered as one.
Nabiki dropped her spoon into her empty parfait glass. "Well, anyway, I suppose the only way out of this is to track down Ranma and prove it to you."
"Do you suppose he's with Akane?" Marko asked. "I saw her heading out into the garden."
"Ne, Ranma. Do you think there's anything to it?" Akane asked.
Ranma shifted her on his lap. "What do you mean?"
"Do you think Nabiki's just playing another trick on us, or do you think she's really interested?"
"In that girl?"
Ranma looked off through the trees at the hotel lights. "I don't know. She's your sister, what do you think?"
"I was only joking this morning"what if we were right? What if she does have an... umm... admirer after all?"
And I suppose that she rushed off after dinner to be... umm... admired?"
Akane pinched him. "Baka. Not on a first date."
Ranma responded by tickling her tummy. She giggled and tickled him back. They wrestled playfully until she slid off his lap, and when the squirming was done, his hand was cupped over her breast.
She grabbed his wrist, and he closed his eyes and steeled himself for another brief sub-orbital journey. He counted down from ten to three, then realized he'd never once reached seven before. He opened his eyes. Her smile was back. She gently peeled his hand away, nudged his knees apart, then turned and sat on the bench in front of him, all the while holding his wrist. "Baka," she whispered, then guided his hand into her yukata.
July 10, 2001
"I give up." Mariko groused. "We've looked everywhere, they're not out here. They probably went back to the hotel."
"Oh, com'on, just a little bit further," Souichi urged half-heartedly. What he really wanted was for his sister to go back to wait at the hotel, leaving him with Nabiki.
...the dark garden...
"No, I've had enough." Mariko grabbed her brother's arm and tugged. "Let's go."
Nabiki took his other arm and held him in place. "Wait," she whispered, "I thought I heard someone over that way." She pointed down a narrow, overgrown path into the woods.
Mariko let out a suffering sigh, but when Nabiki pulled her brother away, she followed.
Thirty seconds later they were standing in front of a low shed. "See, it's a dead end," Mariko said. "Can we just go now?"
They all turned to leave, but stopped in their tracks when they heard giggling from beyond the shed. Nabiki took charge, motioning the others to follow. She led them around the side, pressed tight against the wall to stay in the shadows.
Again the giggles came, not from behind the shed, but from a hill nearby.
"Up there," Souichi whispered. "In that gazebo. Is that them?"
Nabiki cupped her hand behind her ear. "Hmmm, could be, let's get closer."
Mariko crossed her arms and leaned back against the shed. "I'm not going to go crawling around through those bushes in the dark. I'll wait here."
"Okay then, but you'll miss all the fun." Nabiki took Souichi's hand and pulled him into the brush.
Well, at least somebody is having fun, Mariko thought. More giggles came off the hill. Maybe everyone, but me.
Nabiki ducked behind a bush and motioned for Souichi to join her. She leaned close to his ear, and whispered, "That's them."
He felt her breath warm on his cheek. He nodded and turned to whisper back, catching the scent of her hair. "What do you think they're doing?"
Nabiki gave him a mischievous grin. "Oh, I don't know—let's see, whatever could it be? A boy and a girl, alone in the dark..." She bumped her shoulder playfully against his. "Hmmm, What could they be doing? I wonder..."
Akane snuggled back against Ranma's chest, and leaned her head against his shoulder, while his hand continued to gently explore. "Ne, Ranma, why do you find them so interesting?"
"I don't know..."
"It's not like you've never—well, you know, you... umm... have your own, sometimes."
"It's not the same."
He gently traced the curve starting from underneath around to the outside with a finger. "So warm... so soft..."
She squirmed and giggled. "So ticklish..." She turned, straining to kiss him.
He pulled his hand free, and in one fluid motion, he scooped it under her knees, lifted her, and set her gently across his lap.
She nuzzled his neck. "Ummm. This is better," she whispered, then licked his ear lobe.
"Eeeeeeh! th-that tickles," he said, turning his head away and squirming to prevent another ear attack.
She lifted her hand to his cheek, and and gently turned his head till their eyes met. First she pouted at him, then she tilted her head, just a little, and smiled.
Oh, jeez, she really can be cute, Ranma thought. He was torn between kissing her then, and just looking at her. He reached up and brushed a lock of hair from her eyes, then kissed her. She grabbed a fistful of his shirt, pulled him close, and returned the kiss, gently at first, then more enthusiastically. As their tongues met, she opened her hand and gently rubbed his chest, smoothing the fabric that lay over his heart. The kiss became more intense, and Ranma's trembling hand found its way back into her yukata.
Mariko was fumbling around for a place to sit in back of the shed, when she tripped on something sticking out of the ground. She landed face first in the dirt. "Ouchohdamnit," she hissed. She rolled over, sat, and kicked out with her heel at whatever had tripped her. She connected with something small and plastic. There was a snapping noise, and a thin stream of water arced two meters into the air, landing in the bushes.
"Oooooops," she said, watching the impromptu fountain. A muffled click came from inside the shed, then the sound of a pump starting up, then of water rushing through pipes, then finally squeals and curses from several locations on the hill.
A few moments later, the brush parted and a panda walked into the clearing. It stopped and looked around, idly scratching itself. Mariko began to crab away backwards, muttering "Pa-pa-pa- panda?" The panda finally noticed her, turned away for a moment, then turned back holding a sign that said Pardon me.
A woman appeared from the bushes. Her hair was dripping wet and her yukata hung damply from her shoulders. "Dear, have you seen the others?" she asked the panda.
The panda shrugged and flipped the sign, the other side said; 'haven't seen them'
Mariko waved her arm to get the woman's attention, pointed to the panda, and stuttered, "Pa-pa-pa-panda?"
"Oh hello, I didn't see you down there. It's Mariko, isn't it?"
Mariko nodded and continued to point and blink at the panda. Nodoka reached down to help her up. "Oh, don't mind him, this happens all the time," she said.
"Soutome-kun, where are you?" came a voice from the woods.
The panda cupped his paws around his snout and called back, "Ba-hro—".
There was thrashing in the bushes, then Soun came into the clearing. He held the branches apart for Kasumi. They were both soaked.
"Ara, Mariko?" Kasumi said. "What are you doing here?"
It wasn't the noise that the sprinklers made, or even the cold spray that Akane had noticed first. One second she had been caressing Ranma's well-muscled chest, and the next—she'd found herself holding something softer, and rounder. She giggled.
Ranma broke the kiss. "What's so funny?"
She made a show of looking down at Ranma's hand, then at hers.
"Ah, Shimata." [Damn.] Ranma reached out with her free hand, holding it out as if to catch rain. She let her head roll back until it hit the back of the bench. "Not again."
Nabiki pressed tight against his back, trying to stay out of the worst of it. "Hurry up, I'm getting soaked."
Souichi picked a path between two sprinklers, and crossed his arms in front of his face to protect his eyes. "Okay, here goes," he said, walking into the spray. They worked their way to the edge of the garden, picking the driest path they could find, and only once having to backtrack for a broken sprinkler. They stopped at a waist-high wooden fence that marked the border between the garden and the hotel lawn. "Umm, I'll go first." Souichi planted his left hand on the fence and vaulted over. He turned and held his hands out to Nabiki. "Be careful..." She climbed to the top, and was ready to jump down when the mud on her shoes slipped on the smooth wood. She squealed and fell, knocking Souichi over and landing on him. For the second time in one day he found himself flat on his back, with Nabiki lying on top of him.
"You know..." she said, "we've really go to stop meeting like this."
"And hot water turns him back?" Mariko eyed the panda suspiciously. She felt safer walking a few steps behind.
Kasumi sighed. "I'm afraid we go through a lot of hot water, even though he frequently prefers to be a panda."
Mariko watched the panda plodding along next to his wife. His fluffy tail twitched from time to time.
Kasumi bit her lip and thought a while. "It's funny, because he'd do almost anything to get rid of the curse... but he seems to spend a lot of time as a girl." They turned the corner and the hotel came into view. "Sometimes I think he just forgets."
"Well, at least the path back was dry," Akane said.
"Yeah," Ranma replied. Given the choice, she would have traded a wet path for a few more dry minutes in the gazebo.
"Hmph. I'm not the one who set off the water, you know."
"I know, I just..."
"I just wish they'd waited a bit..."
Akane giggled and took Ranma's arm. She leaned close and whispered "Me too."
At the hotel Akane reached for the door, then stopped and stared at the bulge in her sleeve. Did I really do that? she thought, blushing. In the gazebo it seemed so accidental, so natural. She looked at her reflection in the glass. But I started it, I w-wanted it to happen...
"What's wrong?" Ranma asked, opening the door open for her.
She looked up, "Oh, it's nothing..." She walked through the door and stopped to look again at the silk kimono in the display case. She felt the lump in her sleeve. She imagined Nabiki finding it, (What would that cost?) or Kasumi, or Ranma's mother... She could see Ranma reflected in the glass, and behind him the door to the ladies room. She turned. "Umm, Ranma, let's make a stop before we go up to the room." She crossed the hall and opened the door to the restroom, reached inside and snapped on the light.
Ranma shook his head and pointed to the sign on the door. "But I can't go in there, I'm a..."
Akane looked at Ranma from head to toe, shaking her head.
"But I'm a guy!"
She grabbed Ranma by the wrist and yanked her into the room, then backed her against the door. Akane slowly pressed herself tight to Ranma, until their noses touched. "I know", she said.
February 10, 2002
Mariko found herself back at the window in the empty tearoom. She hadn't actually seen the transformation, but she had undeniably seen a panda. A huge, damp, sign-making panda. She chewed her lip, and frowned at her reflection in the glass. So—there really were cursed springs in China—and her chance encounter with a sprinkler valve probably meant that somewhere, out in the garden, there was a damp girl that answers to the name of Ranma.
I suppose I owe Nabiki an apology, she thought. Nabiki. She'd forgotten all about Nabiki. And Souichi. Nabiki and Souichi! She cupped her hands against the window and looked out. The last time she'd seen them they were walking hand in hand deeper into the woods. She turned and sped from the tearoom.
Nabiki rolled off Souichi and sat next to him, hugging her knees. "That, umm, didn't exactly turn out according to plan", she said.
Souichi remained on his back, rubbing the new lump on his head. "Ummm", he moaned.
"It's the woods, you see." She glanced back over her shoulder and shivered."I'm just not at all good at woods."
Souichi sat up. "Mmmmm?" he asked.
"I'm really much more at home in a really good department store."
"Mmm," He agreed. He'd never tried his sister's trick on a girl before.
"Ginza is my favorite place on Earth. Well, so far. But I haven't been to New York, or Paris or Milan yet." She looked at him. "How about you?"
He panicked. "I... ahh..." he said, shaking his head.
"I'd even settle for Honolulu, for a first overseas trip. I hear they have good shopping there."
Souichi regained his composure and nodded. "Mmm."
Nabiki looked at him from the corner of her eye. "It's all so sudden, but okay. It's settled then. When do we go?"
Souichi swallowed hard. "W-what?"
"You promised to take me to Hawaii!"
"I did not. When?"
"Just now." Nabiki brushed her hand dramatically thru her hair."I've got this great bikini..."
"You're not serious!"
She turned to him. "Do I look serious?"
He looked in her eyes. "Well..."
Her chin began to quiver, then suddenly she broke out laughing.
He stood and turned away from her. "We should go," he growled.
"Oh, come on. Souichi—don't be mad," she pleaded.
He began to walk away.
"Souichi—wait... I—I'm sorry."
He turned back to find her holding her hands out to him.He reached down and pulled her to her feet. As they began to walk back to the hotel, he suddenly noticed that she was still holding his hand.
"So, tell me. Did I really look that serious?"
"Oh yeah, you really had me convinced."
"Well... that's because I was serious."
Souichi stopped in his tracks. "About Hawaii?"
"No... But I really have got this great bikini..." She squeezed his hand, winked and tugged him in the direction of the hotel.
Mariko concentrated on the sound of the wind as it whistled past her ears. It had occurred to her back on the stairs that she didn't, in fact, need to be in a hurry, but when she'd reached the bottom and saw the empty corridor, her feet seemed to take over. She'd never tried very hard in sports at school, and was now surprised and a little proud of how fast the doorways flashed by. Near the end of the hall, she pulled up with a painful stitch in her side, and limped the rest of the way to the double doors of the game room.
She pushed the doors open into the blaring of a dozen video games, then walked in, panting and holding her side. She looked around from machine to machine, but Souichi and Nabiki were nowhere to be seen, so she followed a sign near the karaoke booth to the garden exit.
At the door she stopped and again cupped her hands against the glass. Nothing. She reached for the handle, then stopped. Why? Why am I chasing after my stupid brother?She turned and leaned her back against the cool glass. He's a big boy, after all, and Nabiki is a... big girl. She let her head tilt back, until it struck the glass and surveyed the game room. The boys there were either too young to be of interest, or far to old to be playing games.
Suddenly, a door in the side of the entryway pulled open, and a red-haired girl was pushed out. From behind the door Mariko heard the exasperated whisper of yet another girl: "Because... I'll never get it back on while you're in here!" The door slammed shut, then cracked open an inch. "Wait for me, I'll only be a minute..." The red head pushed playfully against the door, more for show than real effort, but the door snicked shut against her.The girl turned and looked at Mariko, then at the door, then back to Mariko. She pointed to the door.
"D-did you, umm, just see...?"
The girl turned bright red. "It—it—it's not what you think!"
Mariko hadn't in fact given it any thought to it up to that point, but the very first thing that came to mind caused her to blush as well.
Akane tugged at the shoulders of her yukata, trying to duplicate Kasumi's expertise. She checked herself in the mirror, gave her yukata one final tug, then decided that her efforts would have to do. She leaned in close to the mirror, then touched her lips with her fingertips. Ranma is still—Ranma after all, so it's okay, right? She tasted her lower lip with the tip of her tongue. But it was—different, somehow.
When they reached the door, Nabiki took a step ahead of Souichi and turned holding her arms out to block the way. "Listen... about the ahh..." She waved a hand into the darkness.
"Woods?" Souichi offered.
"Well, that too, the woods, the game, the plan, all of it. I probably shouldn't have dragged you into it."
"Oh, it's okay, really. I, ummm..." Souichi stopped. Tonight he could have returned to the room with his family to read or watch TV, or he could have played more video games. (The hotel only had older models) Instead of all that, he'd had parfaits, and a walk in the woods with Nabiki. "I had a great time."
She gave him a puzzled look. "Really?"
"Hmmm..." Nabiki eyed him, then placed her palm on his forehead. "Nope, there's no fever..."
Souichi's heart skipped a beat, then began pounding. He took her hand, and held it.
Nabiki looked at his hand, then into his eyes. In that moment she knew exactly what he was thinking, for she had been thinking the exact same thing. She fumbled backwards, reaching for the door with her free hand. She hadn't planned this. "Wait... ah... Souichi..." As first kisses go, this might be a good one, She thought, her heart racing, but... Then her hand found the latch handle, and the cold metal felt like power flowing into her fingertips. No, she hadn't planned this, but she had the latch, so she had control. It wasn't much, and it didn't make any sense, but it was enough. She tilted her head up to him, closed her eyes and squeezed her hands into fists.
There was a loud metallic 'pop', and the door flew open. Then there was the screech of a surprised girl, followed by the peculiar, yet now familiar, 'thunk' of the back of someone's head as it hit the sidewalk.
December, 10 2002
She drifted awake as from a dream.
Her back was pressing on something hard, and it was cold.
There were soft things in her hands, and they were warm.
She could hear shouting, and the person shouting sounded a lot like her sister. The shouting stopped and she felt a warm hand caress her cheek. She opened her eyes to find Souichi kneeling by her side, and Ranma and Akane standing over her.
"Nabiki--Nabiki, are you okay?" Souichi asked, gently brushing her hair.
"Oh-ouch", Nabiki replied. "What happened?"
"Well, there was the door, and then, umm, my sister.."
"Your sister? What about your sister?"
"If you don't mind..." Mariko reached up and grasped Nabiki's left hand and peeled it from her chest. "As long as you're asking..." She grasped Nabiki's right wrist and used it to prize her other hand free. "I'm just fine". She sat up, and crossed her arms over her chest protectively. "I do believe that makes us even."
Ranma and Akane looked at each other. "Even?" they asked each other.
"Oh, never mind."Mariko waved her hand dismissively. "It doesn't matter." She tilted her head and peered at Ranma.
"Even for when she groped me..." Nabiki interrupted, pointing at Mariko. She tugged at Souichi's sleeve. "Your sister groped me. In the woods." She sat up and rubbed the back of her head. "Ouch."
Mariko eyed Ranma up and down. "Well, I was looking for a topless girl at the time..."
Souichi looked confused. "But--why would you be looking for a..."
"There I was," Nabiki interrupted, "Just walking along in the woods, minding my own business, and the next thing I know, I'm on the ground, and her hands were..." She waved her hands vaguely over her chest, "...all over."She looked over her shoulder at Ranma. "It really should have been you, she was chasing after you, you know."
"Oh, I was not," Mariko protested. "Not like that."
Nabiki caught Mariko's eye, "Oh, yes you were." She grinned, and made suggestive squeezing motions with her hands."Just like this!"
Mariko sneered back. She wondered why Nabiki was making fun of her.
Nabiki continued her hand motions, but her eyes flicked towards Ranma and Akane, then she gave a wink and a barely perceptible nod.
"Oh---!" Mariko said, finally getting the invitation. "No, no, no, It wasn't going to be like that," she said, wrinkling her nose and mimicking the squeezes. "More like this." She smiled cheerfully, cupped her hands, and made gentle stroking motions.
"Ah-- I see." Nabiki nodded sagely and copied the motion. "Okay, I think I've got it now."She turned to Ranma and said, "More like this."
"Yeah, that's it. You've got it," Mariko said, joining in the pantomime. "Like this!"
"Will--you--two--CUT IT OUT?" Akane seethed. She took a step forward, but Ranma held her back.
Nabiki eyed her sister. "Ara--, a little sensitive, are we?" She turned to Mariko, and whispered loudly; "She seems a little protective, don't you think? I suspect she might be jealous."
"Jealous?" Mariko glanced back towards the restroom door. "No..." She caught Akane's eye. "I suspect she might be ticklish."
Akane blushed, grabbed Ranma by the arm and pulled him aside. "What... what did she see?" she asked him in a whisper.
"Mariko was near the doors, she saw me when you pushed me out."
"What about Nabiki? Did she see us?"
"She was right outside with Souichi... but I don't think she saw anything."
Akane bit on her thumbnail and looked off into space. "This could be bad. We need to separate them and talk to Markio before she spills the beans to Nabiki, or we're never going to hear the end of this."
"Hey, what are you two whispering about over there?" Nabiki called.
"N- n- nothing sis, ummmmm... how are you feeling?Akane reached out her hand to help her sister. "Maybe we should take you up to the room..."
Nabiki waved Akane's hand away. "I'm fine." She turned to Mariko. "What's all this about being ticklish?"
Akane elbowed Ranma in the ribs. "Do Something", she hissed through clenched teeth. "Now."
"B- but that was quite a fall you took, Y- you should have Kasumi or my mom take a look at it."Ranma turned to offer a piggy-back ride. "Here, I'll carry you."
"No thanks. Please stop being so nice to me. You're making me nervous."Nabiki stood up, then grabbed a handful of Souichi's shirt to steady herself. "Okay, maybe I am a little..."
"Whoa, I've got you", Souichi said. In one continuous move, he turned, dipped, and lifted Nabiki onto his back before she could protest. "Which way?" he asked.
Nabiki pointed into the hotel. "It's that way, faithful steed". She lay her head on his shoulder as he reached for the door handle.
"Oh, you can take that one," she said to Mariko, nodding her head towards Ranma as they passed though he door.
"You can get up now, Ranma", Akane said. "She found a better ride."
"You -- you really are a boy," Mariko said in amazement.
"Well... yes..." Ranma said.
"I mean you don't look like one just now, but you really are one, aren't you?"
"Yes, but what makes you say that?" Ranma asked.
"Oh, come on. Think about it. You offered to carry Nabiki when there was a perfectly good boy handy. Did you really think she would take you up on that offer? Only a boy would have done that."
"She has you there, Ranma", Akane said, shrugging her shoulders.
"Are you sure you're not a martial artist?" Nabiki asked. "That was a pretty smooth move back there."
Souichi walked on a few steps before answering. "Well, I couldn't very well let her carry you."
"Thanks." Nabiki smiled. "But I'm really okay. I was kind of faking it."
"I'd guessed that", Souichi chuckled.
"You can put me down now."
Souichi kept walking. "In a little bit."
Nabiki rest her chin on his shoulder. "Okay."
Ranma swore under his breath, dug into his pocket, pulled out a another 100 Yen coin and dropped it into the machine.
"I don't know why he always goes for those fighting games, he's really not very good at them", Akane sighed.
"Souichi likes them too. I prefer the snowboard game." Mariko looked around the game room. "They don't have it here."
Akane took a deep breath. "Mariko, can I trust you?"
"It's ah..." Akane looked around the room, then motioned Mariko to follow her to a corner near the karaoke machine.
"It's ummm.... related to what you saw earlier." She blushed and took Mariko's hands in hers.
"Mmmmm?" Mariko replied defensively.
"Can you keep a secret?" Akane squeezed her hands gently.
Mariko nodded cautiously. "Mmmm."
"It'll be our secret, no one else needs to know."
"Our Secret?" Mariko took a step back.
"The three of us. You, and Ranma, and me."
"The th- th- three of us?" Mariko gulped. "No, Akane, I... I can't... I... Mmmmmmmmmm..."
"Oh please, it would really mean a lot to both of us", Akane pleaded. "Please?"
"Akane, no. Please, don't ask. I can't".
"Why not? -- Please?"
"It's just that I really prefer..."
Mariko yanked her hands free and crossed them over her chest. "Akane! I really prefer boys!"
When they reached the elevators, Souichi turned so that Nabiki could push the "up" button. The doors opened, and he carried her inside where he bobbed and ducked playfully while she tried to reach the correct floor button. After a few attempts she finally punched the "3" button. He sighed and let her slide off his back. As the doors closed, he stepped to the back of the car to wait, but Nabiki loitered at the front, tracing around the buttons with her fingertip. The metal panel was smooth and cold --- smooth and cold like the door handle had been. She stared at the buttons, lined up in two even columns, awaiting the touch of her finger, awaiting her command. She was in control.
When the elevator was between the second and third floors, Nabiki pulled the halt switch, and the car jerked to a stop. Souichi began to speak, but she placed her index finger over his lips and gently shook her head.
Souichi's heart began to pound. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears. He studied the soft brown pupils of her eyes, the graceful curve of her eyelashes, the girlish shape of her nose. When he reached her lips he took a ragged intake of breath. He wanted them. He leaned forward, letting his lips gently touch her finger.
Nabiki's eyes darted between his lips to his eyes. She slid her hand to cradle his cheek in her palm. She wet her lips, closed her eyes, and waited for his kiss.
May 25, 2005
Is anyone still reading?—Let me know.
"Yellow Parts 1-12" 1997 - 2005 Joseph Palmer
Thanks to Douglas MacDougall, who went through chapters 1-5 with a fine tooth comb, and sent me over 20 pages of corrections and comments. It's a much better story for his help. (Thanks again!)
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Hit count is equal to [TextCounter Fatal Error: Could Not Write to File _fanfic_colors_Yellow__shtml] hits.
Parts 1-11: 20801 hits
Parts 1-10: 11546 hits
Parts 1-9: 7266 hits
Parts 1-8: 3844 hits
Parts 1-7: 1567 hits