Strained Harmony

A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.

By Josh Temple and Trimatter

 

Naturally, I own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma. So here's the disclaimer

Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC.

 

Previous chapters and other works can be found at our  fanfiction websites.

http://home.austin.rr.com/trimatter/

http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com

 

C&C as always is wanted.

 

Yes this is a co-writer project between both Sunny and Trimatter.  That should be all the warning you need.

 

 

Chapter 1 The Shape of Things to Come

 

-------- 

Crossing the nearly empty street, Ranma marked off another job opportunity listed in the want ads. The warehouse job just didn't pay enough.  

"It ain't enough to live on even if I live out of my tent," he groused to himself. Safely on the other side of the street, Ranma set down his oversized pack and folded the newspaper over to the next page. "Maybe I could get a job in construction or something."  

Leaning against the brick wall, Ranma read the folded newspaper and scanned the listings. His face turned sour the more he read. "They all pay better than waitressing, but damn, most of these ads are looking for experienced people or someone that's twenty or older."  

Sighing in disappointment, but not willing to admit defeat, Ranma continued to read the ads in hopes of finding something to his liking. Nothing presented itself; it was either not enough money or the employers wanted experience or he was too young. This left Ranma with his only option.  

"Maybe I can get a waitressin' job at one of those fancy restaurants... but that might make me be too visible... maybe a shrine maiden?" he thought as he skimmed that particular ad. "Damn that Nabiki."  

He was about to move on to the next page, when one caught his eye near the bottom. There was nothing especially outstanding about it, but for some reason he couldn't help but feel drawn to it.  

"Hmmm... Housekeeper/Nanny needed," Ranma paused in his reading and checked the listing heading. "Construction? Man, talk about being in the wrong section," he thought before he resumed reading. "Looking for a responsible female that is willing to do light housework and care for the needs of a young child of delicate health. No experience necessary and will train. Room and board provided with a monthly allowance. Those interested please come to..."  

"Damn," he swore to himself. "Sounds like just what I need. Room, food and some spending money. The only problem is I gotta be a girl..." he paused in thought, "but it'll only be for a few months or until Akane gives me the all clear."  

He looked at the ad closer, feeling a mixture of amusement that it was in the wrong section and eeriness for no rational reason.  Shaking off those feelings, Ranma looked around. "If I gotta be a girl, I better go in disguise. The last thing I need is to be spotted by Nabiki or Huang."  

Twenty minutes later, Ranma emerged from a stall of a public restroom, female and dressed appropriately for her gender. Looking in the mirror, she double-checked the dye job she had given her hair - one she knew she botched the instant she washed the excess dye out. Instead of the jet black hair she was trying for, she had ended up with a more natural looking dark auburn color that matched her complexion better than the planned black hair would have done. Ranma studied herself in the mirror.  

"Hmmm... I need something more... something that would make it even harder to recognize me," she thought as she leaned forward, examining her reflection for a moment before exclaiming, "Ah!"  

Ranma knelt over her backpack at her feet and proceeded to dig through it. After a bit of rummaging, she pulled out a small case and withdrew a pair of dark-rimmed glasses from them. "I knew these would come in handy again," she thought with a touch of mirth.  

In the mirror, Ranma adjusted the fit of the fake glasses, the same ones she had used as a disguise when fooling Ryoga, then took in the newest addition to her look. "I look like a... bookworm... or one of those geeks from the science club," she regarded her reflection with a cock of the head and a critical eye. "Perfect! Not even my own father would recognize me."  

On her way to the address given, Ranma waffled back and forth between applying for or trying to find another job more suited to her tastes. It was not that she minded being a girl for a stretch of time - in fact she had already half expected it - the problem was that she was hiding as a girl. For some twisted reason of logic that only Ranma could fathom, hiding out as a man would have been less... unmanly. In the end, standing outside her destination, the decision was made for her when the dark clouds overhead whispered of thunder.  

"What the heck," she concluded as she looked up at the modern and expensive looking apartment building. "At least it'll get me out of the rain."  

-------  

Slightly nervous, Ranma carefully placed her heavy pack by the doorway off to one side where it wouldn't be stepped on, and knocked on the nicely varnished wooden door. Shifting from one foot to the other, trying to calm her nerves, she idly noted how expensive the interior of the building was. It was while waiting for the door to be answered, she realized that she needed to think of how she was going to present herself.  

"I can't go in speaking like I do - if I do that, I'll never get the job," she thought as she took in her surroundings more. "And by the looks of this place, they're either looking for someone with class - a lotta class - or a sensitive girly-girl type."  

Ranma considered knocking again, but got side tracked by trying to decide how to act. "Heh, maybe I should act like Kasumi or ask Akane to knock me on the head... Hey! That's it! I'll just act like I did when I got knocked in the head and thought I was a girl! Perfect!"  

Before she could cackle at her cleverness, the door opened unexpectedly, causing Ranma to slightly jump. There, on the other side, was a tall woman with long green hair and magenta eyes. She looked Ranma in the eye before looking her up and down, then she returned her gaze to match Ranma's. The green-haired woman was dressed rather sharply and sported a slight smirk on her face - the type that one has after hearing a secret joke or something.  

"May I help you?" the woman asked in an odd mixture of authoritativeness and gentleness in her tone.  

Blinking, Ranma tore her eyes from the woman and came back to herself. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said in her best 'Ranko' voice as she bowed. "I didn't mean to stare."  

"That's all right," the woman said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Are you here about the position of Nanny?"  

"Er.. yes ma'am," Ranma replied. "I saw your ad and came right over."  

"Please come in."  

Following her host, Ranma couldn't help but be captivated by how this person moved, causing the knee-length hair to sway with each step. Asserting some self-control, Ranma looked past the woman and took in her surroundings. She noted that the apartment was richly furnished as she half-expected it to be and concluded that whoever this woman was, she was loaded.  

All too soon, Ranma was sitting across the table from her host, with a tea service between them. The green-haired woman now took on a business-like air, which was why Ranma was caught off guard when the green-haired woman introduced herself so casually. "My name is Meioh Setsuna, and you are?"  

"Er, I'm..." Ranma paused as another problem presented itself: To give her real name or not? Better to play it safe and stick to something she was already familiar with; it was less confusing that way. "My name is Saotome Ranma. I'm very pleased to meet you and I thank you for asking me in."  

"Quite all right," Setsuna said as she offered Ranma a cup of tea. "You are kind of young to be looking for a full time job like this. Aren't you still in school and does your family know?"  

"Oh crap!" Ranma thought loudly to herself. Using the natural break that is involved when sipping tea, her mind raced for an acceptable excuse. During Ranma's mental grasping, she missed the bemused expression on her host's face. Finally, after a short wait, Ranma came up with something that was essentially the truth. "Um, I've been having... problems at home...," she said lamely.  

"I see," Setsuna said with that secret-type smirk on her face. "What are your qualifications?"  

"My what?"  

"Your qualifications. What can you do?"  she clarified as she sipped her own tea. 

"Oh. Well, I can cook, clean and..." Ranma paused as she thought of the lazy, bedridden boy that she tried to get to go outside and the various other 'problem children' she had dealt with in the past. "I've had some experience with kids," she said with some confidence.  

"What experi- oops," Setsuna said as she expectedly spilled some hot tea in Ranma's direction. "Did I get you wet?" she asked her guest as she took several napkins and wiped up the mess. 

"N-n-no, I'm fine," Ranma said from her new spot, perched atop the back of the chair. 

"My apologizes for being so clumsy," Setsuna said as she wiped the last of the spill. "Now, where was I? Oh yes. What experiences have you had with children of... weakened health?"  

"Er... I ain't- that is, I'm not a nurse or anything" Ranma replied while reclaiming her seat. "What's wrong with him?"  

"Her," Setsuna corrected. "She has a weak constitution-" she stopped when she noted the blank stare of her guest. "She is physically weak and gets tired easily."  

"Oh. Well that can be helped with some exercise," Ranma said offhandedly. "I know some things that will build her up real quick and-"  

"You don't understand," Setsuna interrupted. "She isn't that strong to begin with."  

Ranma pondered that. She switched from being in a 'interview mode' to a 'martial arts mode' without being aware of it. Her speech reflected that as she spoke her thoughts. "Well... there's some of the softer arts... like tai-chi and stuff... that might help build her up without tiring her." She puzzled over the problem a bit more. "I'm sure that there ain't nothing that can't be helped with a little work and a lot of time."  

Setsuna smiled at the auburn-haired girl. "Would you like to hear me outline some of the duties of the job to see if you are interested?" 

"Um, yes please," Ranma said, this time with her 'Ranko' lilt. 

"As nanny, your job will be basic housekeeping, some cooking, and errand running," Setsuna explained. "But those are only your minor duties. Your most important duty will be attending to the wellbeing of my ward, Hotaru. This means escorting her to and from school, assisting her in school work and any extra-curricular activities." 

Ranma felt a slight sinking feeling in her stomach, the kind one gets when they find themselves in over their heads. 

"Most important to me," Setsuna said firmly while locking eyes with Ranma; Ranma was captured and captivated by those magenta eyes. "I am looking for someone who can help Hotaru get stronger and healthier. As I said earlier, her constitution is weak and I worry about her health."  

Thinking for a moment, Ranma unexpectedly came up with a reasonable response. "Er, Miss Setsuna, it seems that you are looking for a professional. I don't think that I'm what you're looking for." 

"That may seem true," Setsuna said smoothly. "But the problems that I have been encountering with professional help are that they either don't want to deal with someone as frail as Hotaru, or they don't understand and fear Hotaru's - gift." 

"Gift?" 

"Yes... Hotaru is a special child - and because of that people are leery of her," Setsuna explained with a note of sadness in her voice. "It has made her all but an outcast." 

"What is her, er, gift?" 

"She can heal a person's wounds by touching them." 

Ranma waited for that other shoe to drop. After a long moment of staring at her host, it was now obvious that nothing more was coming. "That's it?" Ranma finally asked. 

"Well... occasionally, she seems to have visions of the future, but I haven't had time to really explore that claim." 

Ranma mentally sighed. Why was it that the rich ones were always the weirdest. Part of her wanted to leave and find something else, but... if she could put up with Picolet and Madame St. Paul and their martial arts eating, then she could put up with one little girl. A bizarre little girl maybe, but a little girl none the less. 

"I don't have a problem with that," Ranma said. "I've seen some pretty weird stuff." 

Setsuna smiled at the younger girl. "Would you like to meet her?"  

Blinking a few times, Ranma answered with a nod.  

"Hotaru, would you please come in here?" Setsuna called out.  

Soon they were joined by what looked to be a ten year old girl with neat, shoulder-length dark purple, almost black, hair.  She was thin and willowy, and she looked as delicate as Setsuna had described her. She had an air of indescribable sadness about her, as if she was trying to fade into the background as not to be noticed. Though the young girl avoided eye contact, Ranma managed to catch a glimpse of the dark purple color of Hotaru's eyes. 

"Hello, I'm Ranma," the currently auburn-haired girl greeted. "You must be Hotaru." 

"Yes ma'am," the small, short-haired girl said. 

Without batting an eye, Ranma smiled at the smaller girl. "Don't worry, I don't think you're a freak or anything." 

Hotaru gave Ranma a thin, guarded smile as she looked up. "R-really?" she asked in a voice filled with hope. 

"Nah. I've seen some real strange stuff," Ranma said candidly. "What you've got, er - what you have is nothing compared to some of the things I've seen." 

"Like what?" Hotaru asked with curiosity. 

"Er, well... I know someone who keeps an alligator as a pet." 

"What so strange about that?" 

"She named it Mr. Turtle and keeps it in the koi pond." 

"That doesn't seem very strange," Hotaru pointed out. 

Not one to back down from a challenge, even one that wasn't really given, Ranma continued. "Okay, how about this: I fought the Eight Headed Orochi in Ryugenzawa - almost got eaten by him too." 

"You lie," Hotaru said softly as she smiled at what she thought was a playful tease. 

"No, I ain't," Ranma gently insisted. "There was also a cursed bathing suit that I had ta... well, never mind that one. I did have to fight this goofy lookin' bird called a Phoenix that nested on top of some idiot's head." Then Ranma muttered, "Darn beak, hurt like heck too." 

Hotaru let out a small giggle. 

"The toughest one so far has been Pantyhose," Ranma said offhandedly as she fell into bragging. "He fell into the Spring of the 'Yeti Riding a Bull, Holding an Eel and a Crane' now he looks like a winged bull when he gets splashed with cold water. You want to talk about someone with a bad attitude... we darn near beat the tar outta one another, but I put his lights out..." 

Hotaru blinked at Ranma. "Huh?' 

Ranma blinked in return and stared at Hotaru for a moment. "Never mind," Ranma said with a wave of the hand. "You see, compared to the things I've been through, your gift is pretty neat because it doesn't blow stuff up." 

"O-kay," Hotaru carefully responded. "You blow things up?" she curiously asked. 

"Not that I mean to," Ranma found herself replying without thought. "I just happen to get caught up in stuff that always seems to explode in my face." 

"Like Family problems?" Setsuna asked with just a hint of sarcasm. 

"Er... yeah. That's one way of looking at it," Ranma admitted. "It seems all my problems come from my family. Er... like my problems with cats and stuff," Ranma muttered the last while mentally adding, "stupid Pops." 

"What's this about cats?" Setsuna asked. 

"Um... I'm... ummm... I'm allergic to c-c-cats! Yeah, that's it," Ranma said unconvincingly. "I get sick just thinking about them." 

I see," Setsuna said in a tone that hinted at something more. "It does seem to be a common allergy." 

"You're allergic to cats?" Hotaru asked. "My friends have cats, does that mean I can't play with them?" 

"No. No, not at all," Ranma responded. "Er, my allergy is... um... different. It's kinda like, er, a... ahhh... I get sick when I see them sorta thing." 

"How can looking at a cat make you sick?" Hotaru asked with the innocence of the ten year old she was. Setsuna sat and quietly watched the exchange with a bemused look on her face, one she had been wearing for most of the conversation. 

"Er... it's not quite sick," Ranma bumbled out. "It's kinda like... I get... er, a little... um, scared." 

Hotaru looked up at the teen and blinked at the admission. "You're scared of cats?" 

"Um... yeah." 

"But why? They're so cute," Hotaru said in a voice just filled with curiosity. 

"Um... would ja, er, I mean, would you believe a training accident as a child?" 

Hotaru gave her prospective nanny a doubtful look. 

"I'm serious," Ranma insisted. "I got... er, mauled by a bunch of hungry c-cats when I was a kid and... I've been... scared of them ever since." For some reason, the obvious admission seemed hard for Ranma to make. 

"How horrible," Hotaru said with sympathy. 

"Mauled by hungry cats?" Setsuna piped in with a smirk. "What happened? Were you covered in fish cakes and thrown into a pit with them or something?" 

"How'd ja-kno-, er, I mean," Ranma's brain slipped out of gear for a moment before re-engaging. "Something like that," she finally said, feeling a little creeped out about the green-haired woman. She slipped into 'Ranko' mode and spoke,  "Let's just say it was an... unpleasant experience that I never recovered from." 

"You poor girl," Hotaru said with the same sympathy as before, she surprised Ranma by giving her a hug as if to make it all better. 

"Er, thanks Hotaru," Ranma said with a mixture of unease and genuinely being touched by Hotaru's gesture. 

"Very well," Setsuna said business-like. "You don't have to worry, we have no pets here. Is there anything else we should know?" 

"Umm..." Ranma's mind stalled as she considered saying that she was allergic to hot water, but dismissed it as pushing her luck. "No ma'am, I think that covers most everything." Ranma mentally added with some bitterness, "Everything that doesn't involve curses, multiple fiancees, and a freaky rich guy that's 'bought' you as a slave. Stupid Nabiki." 

Setsuna turned to Hotaru. "What do you think about Miss Saotome?" She asked. 

"I like her," Hotaru replied. She then gave Ranma a warm smile. "She's nice." 

"I agree. I think you will do," Setsuna announced to Ranma. "You seem to have a certain way about you. You are not frightened by Hotaru's gifts, and you seem like someone that I can trust with her well being. Would you be interested in accepting the position of Hotaru's nanny?"" 

Surprised at being offered the job, especially one she felt like she was over her head in, Ranma had to blink a few times before answering. "Oh yes I would," she replied in her 'Ranko' voice. "When do you need me to start?' 

"Tomorrow would be fine," Ranma's new boss replied. "Here," she said as she rose from her chair, "let me show you around." 

For the next fifteen minutes Setsuna showed Ranma around the large apartment. Hotaru tagged along and added a few comments on where everything was as enthusiastically as only a child can do. Soon Ranma was escorted to the back of the apartment to what would be her room. It wasn't as big as the room she had at the Tendos', but she didn't have to share it with a part-time panda either. After a few more minutes of small talk, Setsuna excused herself and ushered Hotaru to her own room since it was starting to get late. 

Ranma was alone in her new home. 

Breathing a sigh of relief, Ranma sagged against the wall of her room and relaxed. The relief she felt over getting a job, that also doubled as a good hideout, was tempered by the fact that, during the interview, she was almost hit by hot water no less than three times. "I'm gonna have to do something about that," she thought with an edge. "I can't be turnin' into a guy - especially with Hotaru around."  

Ranma pondered the problem. She knew of one way of temporally locking the curse, but the ladle and kettle were in China with Herb and she had neither the time nor the inclination to go there and get them. Besides, the chances of Herb lending them to her were practically nil. "There's gotta be a way... dammit, it's like once I solve one problem, another takes it's place."  

Ranma ran through other options  and didn't like where those led either. They had the advantage of being closer to her new home, but that meant running the risk of running into certain people she'd rather avoid at the moment. "It can't be helped," she concluded. "I can't spend my time between doing my job and watching for hot water. Whether I like it or not, I gotta go get some of that waterproof soap or something to keep me a girl. I don't like it, but I gotta be sneaky about it." 

With that course of action firmly in mind, Ranma mentally began her plan of attack in acquiring what she needed. 

---- 

In the deep shadows on the buildings and alleyways, a shadow slinked in the darkness of a moonless night. Slipping out of Setsuna's apartment was no problem and making her way back to Nerima was a cinch, it was the coming raid on the Cat-Cafe that had Ranma's nerves on edge. Although she did not know it, all her elaborate planning for breaking in entering without alerting the inhabitants of said cafe were for nothing; the Amazons had left the day before searching for her, so there was no one home when Ranma entered through a second-floor window. 

Exiting the building a few moments later with a bag filled with plunder, Ranma decided to take a minor detour on her way back to her hideout. 

Leaving the bag of ill-gotten goods on the roof, Ranma swung down and hung from the overhang outside of a certain tomboy's bedroom window and tapped softly on the glass. She repeated the process a few times before the curtain was shoved aside and a sleepy short-haired girl peered out the window, almost looking at her eye to eye. Blinking a few times, Akane cracked open the window and addressed the upside down girl. 

"Yes?" Akane asked not quite awake enough to realize what was truly going on. 

"Akane, it's me," Ranma said lowly. 

The short-haired girl blinked a few times before narrowing her eyes. "Are you a fiancee of Ranma's?" she asked sharply. "Well he isn't here and I don't know where he is." 

"Akane, it's me," Ranma repeated a bit louder and firmer than the first time. 

Akane's sleepy eyes widened when she finally realized who was hanging outside her bedroom window. "Ranma!" she hissed lowly under her breath. "What are you doing here? What happened to laying low for a while?" 

"I was in the neighborhood getting some things," Ranma explained in a whisper while dangling from the roof. "And I wanted to see... how things were going." 

Looking left and right conspiratorially needlessly, Akane leaned toward Ranma and lowered her voice. "It's still the same as it was four days ago when you left," she said. "Huang is still here, and still wants you as his personal slave." 

"I didn't think that showing him my guy side would backfire like that," Ranma said sourly. "Who would have thought that he had a thing for girls and guys?" 

"Ssshhh," Akane admonished. "Keep it down. Anyway, he has even hired some private investigators to look for you." 

"Great," Ranma whispered bitterly. "What about Nabiki? She started this mess." 

Akane bit her lip in thought before answering. "Well... she said she was sorry and didn't think that things would have gotten out of hand like they did... but you know Nabiki." 

"Yeah, and I wish I didn't." 

"Well she really didn't expect that the guy who bought you in Hong Kong to be rich enough to bother us here," Akane said, somewhat feeling the need to defend her sister. "But... I think she is looking for you too, so she can collect the reward." 

"Well, tell her the next time she gets in a ten yen battle with someone, she's on her own," Ranma hissed out. "What about my pop and yours?" 

"Well, daddy is worried about the schools being joined - your dad keeps going back and forth between 'being proud that you mastered the Saotome Secret Technique' and trying to negotiate a higher price for you with Huang." 

Ranma stared at her fiancee for a moment and seemed to sag in the direction of gravity. "Great. Just great." 

A silent moment fell between the two that told Ranma that there was something more. 

"What?" she asked, having the feeling that the other shoe was about to drop. 

"Um... it's about Nabiki," Akane said lowly. "She's... she's also been trying to move the engagement over to her." 

"WH-" Ranma loudly began, only to have Akane's hand pressed against her mouth, silencing her. 

"Do you want to wake the house and have her find you here?" Akane hissed. 

Ranma exhaled, causing her cheeks to poof out; she then shook her head slightly and Akane removed her hand. "Why?" Ranma asked. 

"It's not so hard to figure out," Akane said." You're an 'asset' and a 'money making investment' now," she explained with a certain amount of contempt. "She's probably planning on buying and selling you... or at least renting you out." 

Ranma shook her head. "She has some nerve - well, it's not like she hasn't done that before. Don't tell me pops is going along with this?" 

With sagging shoulders, Akane nodded sadly. "I think Nabiki promised him a percentage of the profits." 

In an effort to rein in her anger, Ranma counted to ten. Then twenty. She was almost calm enough not to hunt down her father and kill him by the time she got to forty. By fifty she was much calmer and only seeing red. Seventy-five rolled around and Ranma was just fuming enough to be able to hear what Akane was saying. 

".. you all right?" 

"Just... dandy..." Ranma replied through tightly pursed lips. This bit of news was highly unwelcomed, it meant that it was likely that Ranma wouldn't be able to return home to the Tendos' as soon as she hoped. She exhaled. "Thanks for the warning... now I gotta watch out for pops and well as for Nabiki and Huang." 

An uncomfortable silence followed. 

"So... where are you staying?" Akane asked. 

"I ain't telling." 

"What!" Akane whispered loudly. "You come here, wanting my help, and you don't trust me?" 

"It's not that!" Ranma replied in an equally loud whisper. "I've been thinking." 

Akane gave Ranma a doubtful look. 

"Look, if I tell you where I am, chances are that the Amazons would try and get it out of you," Ranma explained. 

"I'd never tell them anything," Akane said firmly. 

"I know you wouldn't... willingly. But what if they try something like that memory stuff? Mess with your head? Make you tell them without knowing it?" 

Akane blinked a few times. She hadn't thought of that. "I... see. I can't tell them what I don't know." She then looked at Ranma for a moment. "Well, how am I supposed to get in touch with you then?" 

"I dunno right at the moment," Ranma confessed, then an idea struck her.  

"Say, is the class trip to Tokyo Tower still on in a few weeks?" 

Akane replied with a nod. 

"Well, I'll meet you there... say the top observation deck. I should have something figured out by then." 

"Okay. I'll see you then, but be careful." 

"I will," Ranma said with a smile. "Er, say Akane?" 

"Yes?" 

"Thanks for, ya know, helping me and everything... and stuff," Ranma awkwardly stammered out. 

Akane smiled broadly. "You're welcome." 

Soon Ranma was gone to parts unknown, leaving behind Akane, who was snuggled back down in her bed. A warm feeling of contentment flowed through her at the thought of actually helping Ranma for once without making matters worse. Hugging her pillow as she drifted back to sleep, she basked in the feeling. It was nice.  

------ 

Slipping through the apartment window, even one that was as high up as Setsuna's, was child's play for Ranma. Silently crossing her new quarters, Ranma gently turned on a small desk light and nervously looked around. She breathed a sigh of relief when she discovered that she was alone and her room appeared to have been undisturbed. Ranma then placed the dirty-brown bag on the desk and examined her 'take' for the night. 

The first thing was the waterproof soap. She had found two and a half boxes in Shampoo's room. "I wonder where the other bars of soap were?" Ranma silently mused as she pulled out the second, larger box from the bag. It was a small, wooden box that resembled a miniature crate. Ranma fingered the Chinese lettering on the top with apprehension. "Instant Curse Spring of Drowned Girl," Ranma read to herself and sighed. "Either one will keep me safe from hot water and I have enough to last me a while. Damn. I wished that... damn that Nabiki." 

Controlling her anger at the situation she found herself in, Ranma carefully placed the boxes of soap and instant spring water safely in the bottom of her pack, then set the pack in her closet. "They should be safe there," she thought as she settled into her futon and looked at the clock. "Better get to bed if I'm gonna beat everyone to the bath tomorrow- after that, I won't have to worry about hot water anymore." 

Rising before the morning sun, Ranma crept into the apartment's large bath. Unlike many apartments that Ranma had seen, where the bath and furo were tiny - only big enough for one, this one was large. While not as large as the one at the Tendos', it was still large enough to accommodate at least two - maybe three people. Lathering herself up using cold water and the waterproof soap, Ranma effectively locked herself in her girl form - at least temporarily. 

"There, that should do it," Ranma thought. "If I ration it enough, I should be able to stay a girl and hide more than long enough for things to settle down. Once everything returns to normal, I'll deal with Nabiki - somehow." 

After rinsing the last of the waterproof soap off and stowing it away in a small soapbox, Ranma eased herself into the warm water of the furo. Though she expected not to change, the fact that she was still a she, soaking in warm water lent an air of alienness to her already new surroundings. In spite of this, Ranma was intent on relaxing before starting her first full day as a nanny. 

Unfortunately, life had other plans for Ranma. 

"Miss Saotome!" chimed Hotaru as she slid the door to the bath open. "Good morning!" 

"ACK!" Ranma squealed in surprise, almost submerging herself. 

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to surprise you," Hotaru said sincerely. Thankfully, she was wearing a bathrobe. 

"N-no... I'm fine," Ranma stammered. "I wasn't expecting anyone to be up this early." 

"Okay," Hotaru said softly as she slipped out of her bathrobe and onto a washing stool. Ranma panicked, averted her eyes and watched the ripples in the bath water as a distraction - which was a good plan until Hotaru asked, "Miss Saotome, would you please wash my back for me?" 

"H-huh?" Ranma asked dumbly, panic gripping her heart. 

"Could you wash my back? Aunty usually does it, but she isn't up yet,"  

Hotaru explained as she sat patiently waiting, her back to Ranma. 

"Oh crap," Ranma thought. "Oh crappity, crappity, crap." 

"Miss Saotome?" Hotaru asked. "Is everything all right? I... I'm sorry. Did I offend you or anything?" 

The hurt in the young teen's voice snapped Ranma out of her self-crappity thoughts and forced her to refocus on the needs of Hotaru. "Um... No! Of course not! I was... surprised, yeah, like you said. I'm just, er... used to bathing alone - yeah, that's it, and I wasn't expecting anyone. Yeah, right, uh-huh. That's all." 

"Oh," Hotaru said plainly, the hurt in her tone still there. "If you want me to, I'll leave." 

"No!" Ranma exclaimed while rapidly shaking her head. "Er, don't do that. It's my problem. Besides, I'm supposed to help take care of you... and we're all, ahh... girls here - er, right?" Ranma stammered. 

"Okay," Hotaru replied. "But I wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable." 

"It's okay," Ranma said with determination. She wasn't going to let some stupid fear of nudity stand in the way of doing the right thing. Stepping from the furo with water sheeting off her body, she knelt down behind Hotaru and soaped up a wash rag. "Let me get your back for you - I want to help you." 

"Thank you," Hotaru said while looking over her shoulder, gracing Ranma with a wide smile. Soon Ranma was soaping up the smaller girl's back and making some observations about the girl who she was charged with taking care of. 

"Good lord, she is so pale - does this kid get outside any at all?" Ranma wondered as she rinsed the smaller girl off. She went from being freaked out about being around a naked girl to analyzing her physical development. "I know a lot of girls like to have pale skin, but this is almost pasty. Hmmm... She does have some muscles, but their tone is very soft... almost like a baby's." She peeked at Hotaru's ribs. "She's getting enough to eat, so she ain't starvin' or nothin', but she doesn't seem to have the layer of fat that a lot of girls her age should be gettin'." 

Ranma frowned in her assessment. "Gotta talk to Setsuna and see if Hotaru has some weird disease or if she was a 'runt of the litter'. If she is just a runt, then gettin' her outside and some exercise will definitely help." 

"All done," Ranma said as she helped Hotaru into the furo and followed her in to continue her soak. It was easier to be in the same room as Hotaru now that all of the naughty bits were safely submerged underwater. 

Having calmed and gotten used to Hotaru's presence, Ranma relaxed a bit. But this was soon undone when the door to the bath slid open once again and Setsuna glided into the room. "Good morning Hotaru, Miss Saotome," she said as she let her bathrobe fall to the ground. "Did everyone sleep all right?" 

While Ranma could ignore Hotaru's nudity because she was a child and mostly had her back to Ranma, it was impossible for Ranma not to see all of Setsuna in all her naked glory. To say that Setsuna was, to say the least, one of the most beautiful women that Ranma had ever seen would be a vast understatement. Then it dawned on Ranma that Setsuna's hair was her natural color and she clamped a hand over her nose to keep any blood from seeping out. 

"I slept well, Aunty," Hotaru replied with a happy tone. "Miss Saotome already washed my back for me." 

"That's good. How are you this morning?" Setsuna asked directly at Ranma, who was trying hard not to notice the many interesting jiggles that the green-haired woman had as she moved. 

"Er... er... er... I gotta go get breakfast started!" Ranma announced and almost literally teleported herself from the furo, out the door, and into the hallway. 

"Wow, she's so fast," commented Hotaru as Setsuna merely snickered. 

------ 

While escorting  Hotaru to where she attended school, Ranma took in her surroundings carefully since street signs were hard to come by in Tokyo. The last thing she wanted was to get lost in her new, temporary home. Every so often, she would eye the much smaller girl who led the way. Hotaru was dressed in the summer version of her school uniform which meant that the red short-sleeved blouse and green skirt were shorter and the dark blue stockings only came up just short off the knees. The blouse sported a matching blue 'sailor' type kerchief that had a light blue bow in the front. 

It made Ranma dread what kind of school uniform was waiting for her at Juban High. When Setsuna found out that she was not planning on attending school, Ranma was quickly admonished and pretty much ordered to attend. Setsuna made it a point to let it be known that a 'proper education' was part of the job. 

"Well, she is the boss," Ranma thought forlornly as they came upon a grouping of buildings surrounded by a low wall with a wrought iron gate. The words "Mugen Gakuen" were cast into a plaque that was mounted into the brick wall next to the gate. 

"We're here," Hotaru announced in a small voice.  

"It looks... nice," Ranma commented as she looked at the grounds of the private school.  

"It's okay," Hotaru said thinly. "See you after school?"  

"I'll be here," Ranma said in a surprisingly reassuring way. "Er, can you point me in the direction of Juban High?"  

"It's just down the street," Hotaru replied with some amusement. "It's just a few blocks away."  

"Right, I'll see you later then," Ranma said awkwardly as they parted ways, Hotaru heading into the building and Ranma in the direction of Juban High.  Less than five minutes later, Ranma found herself in front of a building that, except for the details, could have passed for Furinkan. Shrugging, Ranma entered the main building and located the office within. 

The principal was not exactly what Ranma was expecting. The Schoolmaster was actually helpful, but did reaffirm what Setsuna had told Ranma earlier, that a uniform was required. Internally, Ranma balked at the thought of wearing a school - or any other type of uniform - but in the end concluded that it would help with her disguise. Then, of course, there was an unexpected twist that Ranma had not counted on which came up and resolved itself without any effort on her part. 

"Oh yes," the Principal said as he was showing Ranma to the door, "Your employer, Ms. Meioh, called in and arranged for your records to be brought over from your old high school." 

"S-she did?" Ranma said in surprise. 

"Yes, and I already took care of the corrections," the Principal of Juban said. "I can't believe they had you down as a male... but knowing Principal Kuno like I do, he probably did that to you because you didn't cut off your pigtail." 

"Er, right!" Ranma readily agreed. "He always had it out for my pigtail," she said as she absently twirled her hair. 

"Rest assured we don't have any nonsense like that here," the Principal said with a smile. "I look forward to seeing you tomorrow; dressed and ready for school." 

"Yes sir, I'll see you tomorrow." 

At the uniform store, Ranma fingered the Juban High uniform as it hung from its hanger, and pushed back the idle thought that this might be the beginning of something bigger. "Whoa," she thought. "I've never seen a uniform look so... girly." Then Ranma thought somewhat smugly to herself, "Heh, Nabiki would never suspect that I'd wear something like this,"  

Unlike the uniforms of Furinkan, the Juban uniforms were similar to what Hotaru wore except in color. The blouse was white, and unlike Hotaru's, long sleeved with dark blue and red striped trim. The sailor-type kerchief was the same dark blue color as was the knee-length skirt that went along with the whole ensemble. Ranma was not particularly thrilled with the bow in the front, but justified it to herself as all being part of the disguise. 

"Oh well, Setsuna did say I had to attend school as part of the job," Ranma thought somewhat forlornly as she half-sneered at the collar and bow. "And she did give me the money for it."  

After leaving the uniform store, Ranma spent the next few hours getting acquainted with her new surroundings. You could never tell when you would need an escape route and Ranma was determined not to be entrapped by her 'master' or Nabiki. Pushing those unpleasant thoughts aside with a disgusted snort, Ranma noted the time and headed toward Hotaru's school to pick her up. 

Nearing the gates, where students of various ages moved through and scattered, Ranma spied Hotaru, but something was obviously amiss. She was by one of the brick posts for the gates and she was not alone. Ranma noted a taller, slightly older boy standing over Hotaru in a menacing way. She might not have known exactly what was going on, but she knew it wasn't good. Ranma crossed the last few dozen yards almost instantaneously and came up behind the boy. 

"I hope for your sake that there isn't a problem," Ranma half-growled to the boy, making him jump. 

"What's it to- AHH!" the boy cried out as Ranma took his hand in hers, twisted it slightly and applied pressure. 

"Ya okay squirt?" Ranma asked Hotaru. 

"Yes, Miss Saotome," Hotaru replied with relief filling her voice. 

"What's going on?" 

"Hiro doesn't like me," Hotaru explained plainly. 

"Is that so?" Ranma said to Hiro. 

"It's none of you busin- AHHH!" the boy tried to answer in a defiant-laced voice, but was cut down as Ranma applied pressure. 

"Well, I'm Hotaru's nanny and it is my business," Ranma sharply said. 

"How are you doing that?" Hotaru asked as she watched Ranma easily subdue Hiro. 

"This? It's easy," Ranma answered. "It's all about proper leverage." 

"AHH!" the boy cried as Ranma applied a small amount of pressure to his hand. 

"See?" Ranma said as she pointed with her free hand at the way she held the boy's hand. "It doesn't take much pressure and strength for this hold." 

Hotaru nodded at the lesson as the trapped bully tried to wiggle free. 

"And if you think they're gettin' too lively, you just push a bit with your thumb-" 

"AHHH!"  

" - and it reminds them that you have'em by the bal-, er hand,' Ranma explained. "Do you want to try now?" Ranma asked Hotaru. 

"Um, I don't think I should, Miss Saotome," Hotaru replied softly. 

"Think of it as a taste of stuff I'll be teaching you later," Ranma said, forgetting that this was supposed to be only a temporary hiding place until things blew over. 

"Well... only if it's all right with him," Hotaru said. 

"That I'm sure of," Ranma said cheerfully before looking the boy dead in the eye; the tone of her voice dropping to sub-zero. "I'm sure he'd think of it as an apology for pickin' on you, right?" 

The boy tried to free his hand again and was rewarded with a jolt of pain. 

"Right?" Ranma said somewhat forcefully. 

"Right! Right!" the boy agreed readily. 

"Good. Now Hotaru, take what's-his-name's other hand and hold it like I'm doing," Ranma said as Hotaru tried to mimic the hold. 

"Like this?" 

"Almost squirt,' Ranma said, ignoring the boy who had turned sheet-white. "You need to bend his wrist back a little more." 

"Like this?" 

"Yeah," Ranma replied. "Not bad. Now take your thumb and press the spot between his middle and ring finger..." 

"Okay." 

"Press a bit harder." 

"Okay," Hotaru repeated as she obeyed Ranma's direction. 

"AHHH!" the boy cried out. 

"See? That wasn't so hard was it?" Ranma said while releasing her grip on the boy. The boy tried to take advantage of this and make his escape, but was stopped when Hotaru applied pressure to his hand. 

"AHHH!" 

"You're right Miss Saotome," Hotaru said with a thin smile. "This is easy." 

"Just practice that everyday and you'll have it down in no time," Ranma said, she then added dangerously to the captive boy, "I'm sure he wouldn't mind helping you with this - would you?" 

"Hell yes I min- AHHH!" 

"Wrong answer, idiot," Ranma admonished. "Wanna try again?" 

"Okay! Okay!" the boy gave in. "Just let me go!" 

"Okay Hotaru, let'im loose," Ranma said. As Hotaru obeyed, Ranma snatched the boy up, leaving him dangling in her grip. "Remember, you said you'd help. If I find that you went back on your word..." Ranma let the threat hang as she set the boy down. 

Escorting Hotaru home, Ranma felt smugly satisfied with the lesson she had just dished out. Hotaru, who seemed to enjoy the turnabout, was quiet and wore a slightly thoughtful look on her face.  

"Ya okay, Hotaru?" Ranma asked, picking up on the change in Hotaru's mood. 

"Just wondering... did we do the right thing?" 

"What'ya... I mean, what do you mean? He's a bully, I just taught him a lesson," Ranma replied. 

"I know, but...," Hotaru paused in thought, soon she stopped in their walk and looked up at Ranma who had also stopped. "I admit it felt... good to do that to Hiro, but it seemed wrong at the same time." 

"Whata ya mean wrong?" Ranma asked perplexed. "All we did was teach him a lesson. He should know better than to bully people weaker than him." 

"I know, but it seemed to me that... in order to stop others from bullying the weak, you have to be a bigger bully?" Hotaru asked. 

Ranma's brain tried to process that concept, but it seemed just out of reach. "What da ya mean?" 

"I mean, in order to keep Hiro from picking on me, you threatened him with worse," Hotaru explained. "Isn't that bullying? Even if you are bullying a bully?" 

For some reason that made Ranma's brain jump a sprocket. She had not really looked at things that way. She had been so busy stopping the little punk from picking on Hotaru and dispensing her vision of justice that she had not even questioned her way of doing it. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time and Hotaru did seem to enjoy getting in some payback. Now Ranma wondered if what she did was right. "What should I have done then?" Ranma asked. 

"Well, maybe you should have held him while I went and got the principal," Hotaru suggested. "He is a student there and they do frown on that type of behavior." 

Ranma thought about that with a sinking feeling in her gut. Then she vocalized a thought.  

"But the principal wasn't around," Ranma said. "We handled it the best way we could." 

"I guess so, "Hotaru said in a not quite convinced manner. "Stopping a bully is one thing, but it seems wrong to... take the law into your own hands." 

Stumbling - physically and mentally - at that, Ranma tried to come up with something, anything to justify what she did. It was slightly disheartening to have the wind taken out of her sails like that, but Ranma couldn't see any way of excusing her behavior. "Okay squirt," Ranma said. "Next time I catch anyone picking on you, we'll do what you just said, get the principal or whoever involved." 

---- 

"I'll be right back," Ranma told Hotaru as they entered the apartment. It had taken the better part of two weeks but Ranma had started to settle into her new duties. Part of her had not expected this job to take this much time. "Let me change and we'll grab a snack and start to work." 

After receiving an enthusiastic reply from the young girl, Ranma made her way to the back of the large apartment to where her room was. There, she tiredly set her schoolbooks on her desk, sighed, and prepared for work. She removed her school uniform and hung it neatly on a clothes hanger for tomorrow's classes and took down her 'nanny uniform' and slipped it on over herself. 

It roughly resembled the maid's uniform that Akane and Mr. Tendo wore during the martial arts eating thing. It was black, mid thigh-length dress that was well tailored to fit Ranma's form. It had a narrow white collar that circled the neck and, since the weather was still warm outside, was thankfully short sleeved.  Over the dress, Ranma donned a plain, white apron that she wore around the apartment, but didn't have to wear when she was outside. The interesting thing about the apron was that it too was tailored to fit her form. 

Next, she rolled on the white, knee-length stockings and slipped into her house slippers. 

Last, Ranma secured a pendant-like broach to the front of her collar. It was a small, emerald-green jewel that was unassuming. Setsuna had insisted that she wear it because it was supposed to be a family badge that employees of Setsuna's family used to wear. Of course as old as it was, it supposedly acquired some magical protections, brought luck, had a demon trapped within it, or some such thing that old family heirlooms are supposed to acquire as they aged. 

To Ranma it was just a pretty rock - not that she'd ever admit to using the word "pretty". Ranma just shrugged her shoulders and figured that it would help with her disguise since a proper nanny probably should wear one piece of jewelry. Checking her reflection in the mirror, Ranma double-checked to make sure everything was in place and was satisfied with what she saw. 

Overall the uniform was a blend of sophisticated and traditional styles that reflected the tastes of her employer. 

Pausing just long enough to check and see if Hotaru was doing her homework, Ranma headed immediately to the kitchen to prepare some snacks. After she placed the tray of tea and rice cakes on the table, Ranma retrieved her own homework from her room and sat beside Hotaru and worked on it. Finding today's homework easy, Ranma's mind started to reflect on what her life had become over the last few weeks that she'd been here. 

Usually her day started with a bath for both her and Hotaru, then she dropped Hotaru off at her school in the morning, headed to Juban High, after school she would pick up Hotaru and attend any after school activity she may have - which wasn't often, come home, have a snack, do homework, teach Hotaru Tai-chi, check Setsuna's schedule and prepare dinner if needed, then there was 'down time' where Ranma would - depending on how Hotaru was feeling - play games with her or take her out to the park to meet with friends, and all of this was followed by an evening bath and bedtime. 

Truly a full time job and then some. 

Most nights after Hotaru was in bed, Ranma swung up to the roof and practiced her martial arts. Though she felt she was well concealed, Ranma knew it would only be a matter of time before she was discovered and recognized - most likely by Ryoga - and all hell would break out. She was determined not to let her other skills slip while she was practicing the 'Saotome Secret Technique'.  

Ranma found her life had gained a new routine. It was a routine that unexpectedly had a sense of accomplishment to it, one that Ranma found more fulfilling than, say, beating Ryoga, Kuno or Mousse. Ranma smiled as Hotaru's tongue peeked between her lips and out of the side of her mouth as she concentrated on a math problem and marveled at the young girl's determination to 'get stronger'. Though Ranma had learned martial arts as a means of combat, which usually meant beating up bad guys, she was pleased that she could take what she learned and apply it to helping this one girl. 

"Miss Saotome?" Hotaru asked, breaking Ranma from her musings. "What are you thinking?" 

Blinking as she came back to the here and now, Ranma gave Hotaru a slight smile. "Nothing, are you through with your homework?" 

"Almost," Hotaru replied. "So, who is he?" 

"Who's who?" 

"The boy you were thinking about," Hotaru said with mischievous eyes. 

Ranma's hands spasmed a bit, making the pen in Ranma's hand fly up into the air and land on the open book in front of her. This caused Hotaru to let a dainty giggle escape through her lips.  

"I knew it!" Hotaru said triumphantly. "You found a boyfriend? Who is he?" 

"I-it's no one!" Ranma replied in a half-panic. Boyfriend? Gah! No way! "I was just thinkin' about what I gotta do next, that's all." 

"Really?" Hotaru asked with doubt and disappointment in her tone. 

"Really," Ranma said accompanied by vigorous nodding of her head. "I ain't got no- I do not have time for a boyfriend," Ranma explained. "Gotta remember to speak proper," she admonished herself. "Setsuna wouldn't like it if Hotaru ended up talkin' like me." 

"But you want one, right?" 

"Gah!" Ranma thought. "What's this interest in my sex life? Oh yeah, I forgot, girls are like that - and they call guys perverts." Looking down on the smaller girl, Ranma smiled and formulated a response. "Nah, not really. Besides, if I got a boyfriend that would mean less time for you and we wouldn't want that, would we?" 

"I guess not... but you want a boyfriend someday, right?" 

"Er, yeah - um - Yes! Of course I do, but not right now," Ranma quickly replied while not trying to gag on the thought of her having a boyfriend. She was a guy! She just didn't swing that way. "Maybe after high school or something." 

"Okay," Hotaru said, disappointed that her new nanny wasn't doing anything interesting boy-wise. 

Ranma leaned down on the table and rested her chin in her hand, and looked at Hotaru in the eye. "Ready to learn more Tai-chi?" she asked with a lilt in her voice. 

"Oh yes," came the enthusiastic reply. "And then the park?" 

"Okay squirt, the park it is." 

"Yay!" 

------ 

Noting that Hotaru was looking tired, Ranma suggested that they rest at an open park bench.  

"But I'm fine, really I am," Hotaru half protested in a small voice.   

"Well, I'm tired," Ranma said as she plunked herself onto the bench. She really wasn't, but it was the best excuse that Ranma could come up with to get her young charge to rest. "Man, Setsuna wasn't kidding when she said that Hotaru wasn't strong," Ranma thought as she watched the young girl sag on the bench next to her. "We haven't even walked five miles and I can tell she's exhausted - but... I gotta hand it to her, she is determined to get stronger."  

"We'll rest here a bit and head home, okay?" Ranma said as she leaned against the back of the bench.  

"Miss Saotome?" Hotaru asked lowly. "Can we stop for some ice cream on the way home?"  

Still leaning back against the bench, Ranma tilted her head toward Hotaru. "That sounds like a wonderful idea," Ranma said in 'Ranko mode'. "And please stop calling me Miss Saotome, just call me Ranma. Okay?"  

Hotaru smiled at her nanny before she too leaned back against the bench, "Okay, Ranma."  

Ranma raised her head to better view the resting ten year old. She realized that there was about a six and a half year difference in age between them, but Ranma hadn't really met anyone who was in such poor physical condition as Hotaru. "She's as frail as a six year old," mused Ranma. "No wonder Setsuna worries about her."  

Popping her neck, Ranma felt her hair catch on something and pull. Absently, she reached back behind her to free her pigtail and felt something squishy between her fingers. Probing around a bit, Ranma drew her hand in front of her face to see what was the matter. With a confused look, Ranma noted sticky, thin, spiderweb-like filaments dance in the sunlight.  

"What the hell is this?" she wondered as she reached back again to explore what was caught up in her hair. She continued to pull and prod and it only seemed to make matters worse. Something was definitely sticking to her hair near the base of her pigtail and it wasn't coming out.  

"Miss Saotome!" Hotaru exclaimed. "Stop! You're making it worse!"  

"What?" Ranma asked worriedly. "What's in my hair?"  

"You somehow got gum in your hair," Hotaru explained. "Stop touching it, you're only working it into your hair more."  

"Gum? Gah! How'd I get gum in my hair?" Ranma exclaimed as she continued to mess with her hair, heedless of Hotaru's advice.  

"It looks like it came from the back of the bench," Hotaru softly said. "Someone was pretty careless with their gum."  

"Great, just great," Ranma said irritably as she examined her sticky hand. "Now what am I gonna do?"  

Thinking only for half a second, Hotaru piped up, "We can go over to Kikuko's Salon. They would know what to do."  

Ranma was about to object about going to a hairdresser - it was so girly. But she did see the reasoning behind it. If anyone knew how to get gum out of hair, it would be a master of hair. Sighing, Ranma agreed. "Lead the way."  

Soon Ranma and a much reenergized Hotaru entered a small, but polished, salon  wedged in between a small grocery and a manga store. The salon was geared toward the younger set with posters of idol singers on the walls and other 'teenage girly' stuff decorating the shelves.  But the equipment was spotless and held in organized racks Even the posters were framed and neatly spaces showing a very... precise mind at work.

As luck would have it, there were not many customers in the shop. Ranma's senses were assaulted by the smell of hair gel, spray, and perfume.  

"Hotaru! What a pleasant surprise," a woman of twenty something called out as she swept up hair clippings from the floor. "You're a few days early for your trim - and who's this you have with you?"  

"Mrs. Ayanami, this is Miss- er, I mean Ranma; she's my new nanny," Hotaru explained quickly in one breath. "Can you help her? She got gum in her hair."  

"Oh no," Kikuko Ayanami said dramatically as she waved Ranma over to a chair. "We'll have a look and see what... we..." there was a long, pause. "Oh dear."  

"What? What?" Ranma asked.  

"I'm afraid that it is worked in rather deep," Kikuko said as she addressed Ranma's reflection. "I hate to say this... but we'll have to cut it."  

"Oh," Ranma said. "So, you have to cut it. What's the big deal?"  

"Ranma, that's your name, right?" she received a positive nod. "I'll have to take as much as this," she held up the pigtail for Ranma to see in the mirror, "to get the gum out."  

Ranma's eyes widened when she saw how much would have to be trimmed off and scowled. It had taken a long time for him - well - her, to grow her pigtail and it had become her trademark; a trademark she kept despite the other changes she made recently. Her eyes then narrowed when she realized that she was probably thinking like a girl and hair length shouldn't matter to a guy. "Do it," she said evenly.  

On that the hairdresser went into action, unbraiding Ranma's pigtail and trying to minimize the damage that the gum had done. "Good lord, how many sticks of gum are in here?" she muttered as she worked.  

As Kikuko continued to untangle the gummy knots that Ranma's hair had become, Hotaru started flipping through several books that had pictures of various hairstyles in them. After digging through a few, she paused on a page and cocked her head. "Ranma? What do you think about this style?" she asked as she held the book open for Ranma to see.  

It took all of Ranma's control that she had learned on her training trip not to openly retch at what Hotaru showed her. True, it was a simple cut, not too girly, and would work with the amount of hair that Ranma would have left. The big problem was that it was the same hairstyle as someone who had made her life hell and she'd rather not think about.  

"Ooo... That would be perfect," Kikuko commented as she snipped a few gummy strands off of Ranma's hair. "It would frame your face so nicely. The boys would definitely notice you."  

"You don't like it?" Hotaru asked plainly, having caught Ranma's reaction. She could not have known that the reaction was from the hairdresser's words and not anything that Hotaru had done. Though Hotaru did want her nanny to have hair that the boys would notice. 

"I don't want to look like Nabiki," Ranma replied evenly at the photo of a model sporting a pageboy cut.  

"Who's Nabiki?" Hotaru asked.  

"Someone who made my life hel-, er... she made my life difficult," Ranma explained. "She has that kinda hair; I don't want to look anything like her."  

"I'm afraid that with as much as I had to cut, we can't do much more than that," Kikuko as she studied the photo and Ranma's hair. "But we can put some mousse in it to give it more body. It would change how it looks so it wouldn't be the same."  

"I don't want no Chinese Amazon stuff in my hair either," Ranma said while staring at her reflection and fingering her shortened locks. "I had enough problems with them as it is."  

Hotaru and Kikuko stared at the seated girl in incomprehension. 

"Miss Saot- I mean, Ranma, mousse is stuff that adds body," Hotaru said, standing next to Ranma's chair. "I think it'll make you look good."  

"What's wrong with my body?" Ranma asked. "I've been told I have a great body."  

"It adds body to your hair," Kikuko explained as she looked at Ranma dubiously.  

"Oh."  

Cocking her head to one side, Kikuko ran her fingers through Ranma's hair, making Ranma shudder as it tickled the back of her head. "You know," Kikuko said as she continued to comb Ranma's hair with her fingers, "I could give you a permanent. That would definitely be different. How long ago did you dye your hair?" she asked, having noticed the red roots in the nanny's auburn locks.  

"A what?"  

"A perm, dear," Kikuko said patiently. "But I need to know when you dyed your hair. If it is too soon, it'll mess up the perm."  

"Oh, about a couple weeks ago, I guess. It was just some dye I put in to darken it." Ranma said.  

"Oh! A perm! That would look really good on you, Ranma!" Hotaru excitedly interjected. "You'd look so pretty!"  

Ranma tried not to wince at Hotaru's choice of words. He was - that is, she was a guy. Pretty is not something she wanted to be! "Um, that's a thought," Ranma stumbled out. "But I don't want anything done that would be permanent to my hair."  

Hotaru and Kikuko looked at the former redhead, at each other, then back at the seated girl. "Ranma," Hotaru said, "You can get a perm undone if you don't like it. But I know you'll like it! You'll look so cute!"  

"Well...," Ranma began, only to be undone be Hotaru's puppy-dog eyes of persuasion. "Umm... er... that is..."  

"She is right, Ranma," Kikuko chimed in. "It would look softer and nice. It would be very feminine."  

"I'm a guy-, er, I mean," Ranma sighed - and caved in. "Oh, go ahead."  

"Yay!" Hotaru cheered. Ranma had the feeling that she was doomed.  

Gripping the armrests of the salon chair like a condemned man awaiting execution, Ranma tried not to lose her nerve and bolt from the small establishment right then. She watched with forced detachment as Kikuko opened counters and pulled out bottles of evil smelling liquids that reminded her of the smell of a certain tomboy's cooking. Once she made that connection, Ranma found herself feeling unexpectedly homesick and cursed Nabiki for making a bigger mess of her life.  

With some flair, Kikuko started to work.  

It was a process Ranma would not fully recall later. She remembered the odd chemical smells and the painful ways her hair was contorted, but for some reason the manipulation of her hair was also relaxing. The sensation was unlike getting your head scratched and Ranma found herself in a cozy, half sleep state. It wasn't until Kikuko announced that she was finished that Ranma came around and saw the results.  

There in the mirror, a complete stranger stared back at her. Behind the stranger in the mirror, Hotaru and Kikuko both cooed in delight.  

"That... that's not me...."  Ranma asked in thinly controlled panic.  

"You look great Miss Saotome!" Hotaru said. 

"Now don't wash it for three days or the curls will come out." Kikuko advised as she put the finishing touches here and there. 

"Right," Ranma dumbly said as she put a hand to her hair...  the one consolation was that the style was nothing like Nabiki's.  Nabiki would never have something this... girly. 

"You look so pretty, Ranma! I bet all the boys will think so too," Hotaru exclaimed. She somehow hoped that this new style would help her nanny get over her apparent boy-shyness. 

Ranma tried not to gag as her hand pulled away from her hair as if it were on fire. 

"I may have gone a bit overboard on the curl and body, but a Nanny should have a nice style," Kikuko said. 

"It's all puffy! What did you do to my bangs?" Ranma asked as she reached up again and flicked the curled ends to her hair. Ranma looked at her reflection and couldn't believe that the little springs attached to her head was her hair... or what was left of it. 

Kikuko removed the cape covering Ranma and helped the nanny to her feet. Hotaru handed Ranma her glasses and as she donned them caught a glimpse of her full self in the large mirror. A young woman with adorably feminine hair and a black dress with a white collar and matching white stockings. Ranma was not wearing her apron but she could easily envision it on her feminine frame. 

Being too stunned by her appearance was all that kept Ranma from looking ill.  

"Oh man," Ranma thought. "As if the curse isn't bad enough, now I really look like a girly-girl. Man, I'm glad pop ain't here to see this."  

"You look wonderful Nanny Ranma!" Hotaru repeated.  

"Just... Ranma," Ranma said, half dazed at the fix she found herself in. How in the hell did her life come to this? 

"Okay!" Hotaru happily chirped. She was thoroughly enjoying helping her nanny like this - a girl's hair was important, after all. "Ranma it is!"  

"I can set you up for a monthly appointment," Kikuko said as she touched up Ranma's hair with a brush. "Same day as Hotaru comes in? That way you only need one trip?"  

Still dazed and not quite all there, Ranma simply nodded her head.  

"Great.  Should I add your bill to Miss Meioh's tab? Or will you pay yourself?"  

"Just put it on the tab," Hotaru chimed. "C'mon Ranma, let go home and show Aunty!"

 

------- 

Stretched out on the couch and rubbing her tired stocking feet together, Setsuna pondered over how well Ranma had fitted into her and Hotaru's life. It was really amazing the turn around that Hotaru had under Ranma's guidance. This was no small feat considering the lack of any positive parental role models Ranma's had in his, that is her, life. 

Feeling her feet were much better after today's abuse, Setsuna stopped rubbing them and thought back to when Haruka, Michiru and she first took the reborn baby Hotaru away and the debate as to who was going to raise the child. At first, Michiru suggested that she and Haruka take the baby in, but Setsuna did not wish to burden them with a child yet. Michiru's and Haruka's capabilities were also an issue. Setsuna knew that Hotaru would need special care, and that those two might not be the best for it.  

Setsuna decided that she would take Hotaru and, with the occasional help of Haruka and Michiru, raise her. Hotaru grew quickly at an astonishing speed until she reached her current, physical, age. 

Setsuna's mouth drew into a thin line as she wondered how strong Ranma's and Hotaru's bond was and how well it would withstand whatever might come. She was not omnipotent, not by any stretch of the imagination. Her job was not to alter the course of time, and while she knew more than most people; it was due as much to research and networking as it was to any... magical powers. 

A prime proof of this lack of total knowledge walked into her apartment. Setsuna was not alarmed when she heard the front door being unlocked; Ranma obviously had a key and did not expect her employer to be home yet. 

Setsuna walked to the foyer and immediately smiled at her ward. The young girl had been through so much pain, and it was good to see her regain some confidence and normality.  Setsuna then looked at her employee and was about to congratulate her when the green-haired woman noticed Ranma's new hairdo - and did a double-take. 

"Oh... my... " Setsuna paused to regain her composure; this was unexpected. "It is... very cute, but why the style change Miss Saotome?" she asked, shock and surprise slowly seeping onto her face. 

"Uh... I got gum in my hair," Ranma blushed more in annoyance than embarrassment as she closed the door behind her. It seemed like every other person along the way home had to stop and comment on how 'cute' she was with her hair done up like this. Stupid girly crap. 

"Isn't it pretty?" Hotaru happily asked as she and Ranma removed their shoes. 

"That it is." Setsuna smiled thinly. "It certainly suits you Miss Saotome." 

"Er...  thanks..."  Ranma sighed and tried to think what "Ranko" would say. "It's a bit much Miss Meioh but Hotaru insisted, and it is nice." 

"Hair like that will take much more time to take care of," Setsuna commented. 

"It will?" Ranma asked cluelessly. 

"Don't worry, I'll help," Hotaru assured. 

"Good, I wouldn't have my employee looking poorly.  Since I got in early I'll help you with dinner Miss Saotome." Setsuna's smile grew. "You know it really is a very adorable hairstyle," she added. 

Ranma felt like denying it, but didn't have the energy to. "Tell me about it," Ranma agreed tiredly as she followed Setsuna into the kitchen.  Her only consolation from the whole hair ordeal was that at least her disguise had gotten better. 

"How was your day?" Setsuna asked Ranma conversationally as she began to remove foodstuffs from the refrigerator. 

"Oh... okay, I guess," Ranma replied as she took the vegetables from Setsuna and began washing them in the sink. "Not much happened in school... Hotaru's getting better at Tai-chi, I'm gonna probably step that up just a bit and... I'll have to double check, but I think that there is a form for you to sign." 

"Oh?" 

"Yah, just a permission slip so Hotaru can go on a field trip," Ranma said as she shook the remaining water off the vegetables. Thanks to the waterproof soap, she didn't have to worry about changing. "I'll get it for you after dinner." 

Setsuna nodded and mentally noted that Ranma was fitting into the nanny role rather quickly. As the two worked together preparing the meal, Hotaru  wandered in and sat at the table and watched. "What time do auntie Michiru and uncle Haruka get here?" Hotaru asked as she watched the two prepare the meal. 

"Around seven," Setsuna replied, then paused. "Oh yes, I almost forgot. We're having guests tonight." 

Ranma nodded in reply as she worked on the vegetables. "How many are coming so I can set the table." 

"Just two," Setsuna said. 

With her apron now added to her 'nanny uniform', Ranma helped put the finishing touches on dinner. Hotaru was excited that her "aunt and uncle" were coming over for a visit and was anxious to introduce Ranma to them. Setsuna had informed Ranma that Michiru and Haruka were old and very close friends and were considered family by herself and Hotaru. Ranma was still 'on duty' as Hotaru's nanny and she was expected to be available if and when she was needed, but it was alright for her to relax and socialize with the guests. Ranma had just completed placing the plates around the dining table when the doorbell rang. 

"I'll get it," Ranma called out to the kitchen where Setsuna was before heading down the short corridor that led to the front door. Ranma paused in front of the hall mirror just long enough to check and see if everything was in place before opening the door to greet Hotaru's aunt and uncle. Giving a polite greeting while bowing, Ranma stepped aside and ushered in, what appeared to be, a blond-haired boy and a teal-haired girl.  

"They're kinda young to be Hotaru's aunt 'n uncle," Ranma thought as she led the way. "Then again, Setsuna seems kinda young to be raisin' a kid too." 

"Auntie! Uncle!" Hotaru chimed loudly as she charged the two. All three people enveloped in a mutual, warm hug. Ranma suddenly felt uncomfortable - as if she were intruding on a private moment. 

"My you've gotten stronger," the blond boy said as he broke the hug. "What have you been doing?" 

"My new nanny has been teaching me tai-chi," Hotaru replied happily. "She’s also showing me a lot of stuff to help with my stamina so I won’t be so tired." 

"Oh, is that so?" The teal-haired girl said as she looked between Hotaru and Ranma, who was standing quietly by the entranceway. "I hope you're not pushing yourself too hard," she said in concern as she faced Hotaru. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to my favorite niece." 

"Don't worry, auntie," Hotaru said merrily. "Nanny Ranma has been taking real good care of me." 

"Hello there, I'm Tenoh Haruka," the young man said. "I'm Hotaru's - uncle." 

"I'm Saotome Ranma," Ranma said as she bowed respectfully. "I'm pleased to meet you." She studied the young man. He had longish hair for a guy, but not too long - at least not as long as Ranma's had been before the 'gum incident'. He wore a neatly pressed dark colored, sports jacket and a white button up shirt. The slacks were the same dark color as the jacket. "Er, may I take your jacket?" Ranma offered, feeling awkward. 

"Thanks, but you don't have to," Haruka replied offhandedly. "I'll just toss it over a chair somewhere, we're very casual here. I'd like to introduce Michiru," he said as he motioned to the girl at his side.  

Ranma bowed to the green-haired girl as she considered how odd Haruka sounded. The words used were definitely masculine, but Ranma noted the almost preadolescent tone in which they were said in. Before she could contemplate anymore, Michiru addressed her. 

"I heard a lot about you through Setsuna," Michiru said politely. "I hope that you are careful with Hotaru though," she cautioned. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to her." 

"Auntie! Nanny Ranma is careful, if anything, she's going too easy on me," Hotaru said in Ranma's defense. 

Ranma smiled and rubbed the top of Hotaru's head, mussing the hair a bit. "Thanks squirt," Ranma said as Hotaru gave a playful pout as she straightened her hair with her fingers. "But I can tell when you've reached your limit better than you can, you'll get there." 

"Welcome Michiru, Haruka," Setsuna said as she entered the room. "Dinner will be in a few minutes. Ranma, could you help me carry things out?" 

"Yes, ma'am," Ranma replied as she excused herself. Though it was an informal affair, Ranma felt the need to be formal - if anything to keep her from making any accidental faux pas'. 

"You forgot to set a place for yourself," Setsuna commented as she gathered the food laden plates to carry into the dining room. 

"Er, I didn't think it'd be right," Ranma responded. "I mean, I'm just the nanny here." 

"Ranma," Setsuna said as she handed the plates in her hands to Ranma, "You're more than a nanny to Hotaru. Yes, you are her nanny, but in the short time that you've been with her I can tell that she sees you as a friend, a mentor, and someone to look up to." 

"I... am?" 

"Yes, and I would like it very much if you would join us at the table," Setsuna continued as she gathered more serving plates. "And I'm sure that Hotaru's aunt and - uncle would like to get to know you better as well." 

"O...kay," was all Ranma managed as a reply. 

Once seated, the food was quickly passed around and things started to get more and more relaxed. Ranma found out that Hotaru's aunt, Michiru, was very artistically inclined, being able to play the violin and paint. Her aspirations to become a violinist were evident in the amount of practice she said she had. Haruka, the uncle, was charming, told jokes, but also seemed to have an underlying strong edge to him. There was no doubt that he and Michiru were a couple and it floored Ranma that both were still in school, attending the same school as Hotaru, but in a higher grade. 

"So, how long have you been a nanny?" Michiru inquired politely. 

"Um... not long, if fact this is my first time as a nanny," Ranma answered.  

"Oh?" Haruka said with a cock of the eyebrow. 

"So far, Ranma has exceeded my expectations," Setsuna said firmly. "In the short time that she has been employed, she has helped Hotaru physically and emotionally." 

The blond boy and the teal-haired girl looked at Ranma in an approving way. 

"And I'm helping her too," Hotaru chimed in. "I'm helping her be a little more feminine; Ranma is a real tomboy." 

"Really now?" Haruka said as he studied Ranma closer. "With such an adorable hairstyle, you don't seem the type that would be a tomboy." 

"I was noticing that," Michiru added in. "It seems to suit you so well." 

Ranma sighed, she couldn't understand it - it was just hair. "I just got it today. Hotaru suggested this style after I had to have my hair cut because I got gum in it." 

"I must say that my niece has good taste in hairstyles," Haruka said as he smiled at the youngest member of the table. "How did you wear your hair before?" 

"Umm... in a pigtail that came down to my shoulders," Ranma replied, not really understanding why hair was so important to a person's image.  

"Well, I must say again you look adorable in it. When we came in, Hotaru said that you were teaching her tai-chi?" Michiru asked. "Have you been doing that long?" 

Smiling at a more comfortable subject, Ranma replied. "Oh yes. I've been involved in martial arts all my life." 

"Any good?" Haruka asked. 

"I'm..." Ranma trailed off and reconsidered bragging. "Very good," she finally said with a thin smile. "I still find new stuff to learn though." 

"And why tai-chi?" 

"Because it is a soft art that emphasizes building strength, control and flexibility," Ranma replied. "Between that and walking, she's starting to build up some strength." 

After that the conversation drifted around to various subjects from racing cars to music. Ranma found a certain irony that Haruka liked pandas and wondered if he'd be interested in having a certain one as a pet. Ranma felt more relaxed than she had in quite some time. There was no crazy Amazon busting down a wall, no arguing or prodding to get her married, no fighting over food, or any of the other things that had been part of her daily routine at the Tendo's. 

After dinner was finished, Hotaru insisted on helping Ranma clear the table while idly chatting with Michiru and Haruka about various subjects that were now running from Tai-chi to school to boys. While Ranma freely conversed on the first two subjects, she carefully avoided saying much on the latter. Hotaru did notice this however, and assumed that it was due to Ranma's boy-shyness; something that she was determined to help her nanny overcome. The guests noticed as well and drew their own conclusions. 

Setsuna joined in and helped carry the last of the serving dishes, placing them next to the sink for washing later. For Ranma, she was glad that her table manners were improving. When she first arrived, she slipped up for a brief instant causing her employer to raise her eyebrows. She had to fight the urge to 'eat as much as you can fast as you can' mentality that had been beaten into her over the years, but knowing that someone was judging such behavior harshly quickly curtailed it.  

Soon afterward Haruka and Michiru excused themselves and departed back to their place. Ranma was still amazed that the two were on their own, being as young as they were. There was no doubt that the two were definitely a couple. By the time Setsuna and Hotaru said their goodbyes, Ranma was in the kitchen and elbow deep in the soapy water, washing, rinsing, and placing the wet dishes in a drying rack. 

"Can I help?" Hotaru asked in a almost tiny voice. 

"Sure can, squirt," Ranma replied with a smirk. "Grab a towel and start drying." 

Both girls were efficiently washing and drying; Ranma would do the cleaning and pass the plates to Hotaru who wiped them dry with a clean, soft towel. Watching and smiling inwardly, Setsuna was pleased that Ranma and Hotaru were getting along so well. The change in Hotaru in such a short time was better than she could have hoped for. Ranma fumbled around with the dishes in the sink and felt something flatter than it should be. 

"Ahh!" Ranma screamed involuntarily; the pain was sharp and intense. Withdrawing her hand from the dishwater, a crimson mark ran across where her fingers joined the palm of her hand. 

"Are you all right?" Setsuna asked in concern as she rushed to Ranma's side. 

"Yah," Ranma said as she carefully dug around the sink with her uninjured hand. "I cut myself... on this," she said as she pulled a sharp knife that was under the dishes and hidden in the soapy water. 

"Let me look," Setsuna said as she proceeded to examine Ranma's injury without waiting for a reply. 

"It's nothing," Ranma said reassuring. "I've had worse." 

"No doubt you have," Setsuna said offhandedly as she studied the cut. "Ranma, you might need stitches on at least one of these cuts." 

"Stitches? Feh," Ranma said. "It'll be all right. Trust me." 

"Can I look?" a small voice said. Both women turned to face Hotaru who stood near the sink, wearing an expression of deep concern. "I want to help," she finally said. 

"That's okay," Ranma said. "It's no biggie." 

"Please?" Hotaru half pleaded. 

Looking at the dreaded puppy dog eyes of persuasion, Ranma knew she was definitely out of her league. "Okay," she relented. Sighing as Hotaru began to probe the cut with her fingers, Ranma idly thought that she should try and master that look; oh, the ice cream she could scam. 

She was jolted out of her musings by a warm, flowing feeling that radiated from her hand. It wasn't unpleasant, as matter of fact it felt comforting, almost as if Ranma were being held in a protective way. Then another feeling accompanied it. This one though was intangible, like something being... changed? 

"All done," Hotaru announced, bringing Ranma back to the here and now. 

Holding her hand up for inspection, Ranma first noticed that the pain was gone; the second thing that came to her was the fact the cut was no longer there, in fact there wasn't even a scar. Ranma blinked a few times as her mind wrapped around the fact that Hotaru had healed her. "Wow," she finally muttered. 

"Is it all right?" Hotaru carefully asked. Though Ranma had said that she didn't mind her gift, this was the first time that Ranma had seen it in action. 

Sensing the young girls reservations in her voice, Ranma smiled at Hotaru putting her at ease. "All right? This is great!" Ranma beamed, brightening Hotaru's mood considerably. "I wish I could do something half as neat." 

"Really?" Hotaru asked, her grin broadening. 

"Really," Ranma reaffirmed. Ranma was getting a kick out of seeing Hotaru so happy about the fact that she wasn't creeped out by her 'gift', that Ranma ignored the slight dizzy sensation that passed over her. "C'mon squirt," Ranma finally said. "Let's finish up these dishes." 

------- 

Leaning against the rail, Ranma looked out on greater Tokyo from the vantage point of the top observation deck of the Tokyo Tower. She had cut school - something that she had hated to do since she had promised her employer that she would continue with her studies, but she had to meet Akane here. The only consolation about going to school and being a nanny was what she got out of any after school obligations - part of her duties was dropping Hotaru off at her school and picking her up afterwards.  

Aside from that difference, Ranma's new school was as boring as her old one. 

While waiting, Ranma fingered the collar of her Juban high school uniform and divided her time between watching the scenery below through the thick glass and watching for Akane. The uniform didn't bother Ranma too much since she considered it part of her disguise like the fake glasses she wore; she looked at everything she wore as part of her disguise, right down to the bra and panties she was currently wearing. Ranma had figured that Nabiki would be looking for a guy-acting girl and not a, well, girly-acting girl. Sighing, Ranma watched the lines of traffic far below that moved about the streets like a column of ants, the ugly rooftops, and some tennis courts and a soccer field in the near distance. 

The observation deck was much smaller than the main one that was located three hundred twenty feet below and cost an extra fifteen hundred yen to get up to, but it still had its share of tourists, mostly foreigners. Most importantly, the extra cost might keep most of Ranma's old classmates down on the main deck instead of venturing up here; there would be less chance of recognition.  

Ranma shook her head clear of a touch of vertigo as she looked down. It was odd, but she had been having spells of slight dizziness since the other day, but had been dismissing it as stress.  

Soon, a short-haired girl wearing the familiar Furinkan high school uniform exited the elevator and looked around the modestly occupied floor. Ranma frowned somewhat when she saw that Akane was not alone; she was accompanied by Yuka and Sayuri, two of her closest friends. 

"Great, how am I gonna get Akane alone?" Ranma asked herself. Then she noticed that Akane was looking around with nervous eyes, completely overlooking her. Ranma smirked when she realized that Akane didn't recognize her. "Not that that's a surprise considering what I'm wearing." 

Seeing no harm in trying, Ranma maneuvered behind the trio of girls as they looked over Tokyo and nudged the short-blue haired girl in the middle. Getting no response, Ranma nudged again, this time a bit harder than before. This time Ranma got a response. 

"Is there something I can do for you?" Akane asked as she turned to face the annoyance. 

"Um, sorry you look like someone I know," Ranma said lamely as she watched the other two girls to see if they would look; as luck would have it, they didn't. Ranma mouthed "It's me" to Akane in hopes that she'd understand. 

Wearing a mask of confusion before her eyes lit up in recognition, Akane did a comical double-take as she took in the changes to her fiance.  As Ranma patiently waited for Akane to come around, she clasped her hands in front of her, mirroring the habit she had picked up working for Setsuna. Unfortunately, Akane's staring lasted long enough that Yuka and Sayuri noticed that their friend had stopped responding to their conversation and turned to see what was the matter. Ranma remained calm on the outside and said a silent prayer that they wouldn't see through her disguise. 

"Who's this?" Sayuri asked Akane. "A friend of yours?" The girl with glasses looked somewhat familiar to her,  like most of the pretty but mousy girls in school. 

"Ah... yeah," Akane managed to get out.  

"Ooo... I love your hair, who did it?" Yuka, noticing the tight curls, asked the new girl. 

"Um, I had it done at... er," Ranma's mind drew a blank before she grasped at straws, "at my employer's hairdresser. I'm sorry, but I can't recall the name right now." 

Akane came out of her stunned state and deflected anymore question from her friends. "Um, girls this is a... friend of mine from another school. Can you give me a moment to talk to her?" Akane asked her friends. 

"Sure," and "Make sure you get the name of her hairdresser," were the replies from Akane's friends as Ranma smiled and led Akane towards the opposite railing, breathing a sigh of relief at dodging a bullet. 

"What happened to your hair?" Akane asked as she tried, but failed, to tear her eyes away from Ranma's new hairdo. 

"I dyed it," Ranma deadpanned. 

"I mean...," Akane motioned. "What's with the curls?" She examined Ranma's hair closer. "Say... did you get a perm?" 

"Yes, I got a perm. I didn't mean to, it just happened." 

"Ranma, perms don't just happen," Akane said with a hand on her hip. "How did you...?" 

Sighing, Ranma relented. "I got gum in my hair and they had to cut it out." 

Akane blinked, paused in thought, and then blinked again. "Ranma? What kind of weird martial arts challenge did you get yourself into that involved getting gum in your hair? I just want to know so I can avoid it in the future." 

"It wasn't a martial arts challenge," Ranma half-hissed. "It was a plain, old, everyday accident. I leaned back on a park bench and the next thing you know: gum in the hair." 

"But - the perm? Have you seen how you look?" 

"Like I stuck my finger in an electric outlet right after a shower?" 

"No!" Akane said, forgetting Ranma's true nature. "You look... cute." Part of Akane wondered where Ranma had gotten the perm and how Akane herself would look in one. "It really compliments your face... and," she stared closer at Ranma's face, "your.... makeup?" 

"My boss expects a certain amount of... feh" Ranma waved off the question. It was bad enough having Setsuna expect that she carry and present herself in a professional way and also having Hotaru bug her about looking feminine enough - it was just plain bad to be feminine at all in Ranma's book. She was a guy, dammit! "Look, I don't want to look cute," Ranma whispered to Akane. "I'm a guy - guys aren't cute." 

Akane gave Ranma a half-liddened gaze. "Ranma, there are guys that are cute. Besides, you're not exactly a guy right now." 

Rolling her eyes, Ranma sighed dramatically causing a brief moment of silence that was broken by Akane. "So, why did you decide on a perm?" 

"Hota- that is, the kid that I watch, her hairdresser did it to me," Ranma half-explained before grumbling, "She first wanted to make me look like... never mind, stupid foo-foo hair - now everyone thinks I look cute." 

"Well you do look cute," Akane pointed out again, much to Ranma's discomfort. "I just never expected to see you like this." She then cocked her head in thought. "Say, you said you were babysitting?" 

"Er, yeah. Mmm... not quite, you see, I'm a, er, well," Ranma stammered, while inadvertently looking the part of a blushing schoolgirl. 

"You're a what?" Akane pressed. 

"I'm a, er... a nanny," Ranma finally managed weakly. 

Blinking, it took a moment for Akane's mind to shape Ranma's words into something meaningful. It didn't work the first few times and the mindless blinking she was doing as she stared off into space was starting to worry Ranma a bit. 

"Akane? Akane? Akane, are you all right?" the former redhead asked, trying to get the other's attention.  

"Did you say... nanny?" Akane finally asked. 

"Yes I did, but that's not important right now," Ranma said, attempting to move the conversation along. "What's the news from home?" 

Shaking her head free of any more thoughts about nannies and perms, Akane focused on the situation on hand. "It's worse," she sighed out. "Uncle and Nabiki have convinced daddy to move the engagement over to her," Akane practically spat out. "I never thought that my own sister would be such a... a..." 

"A sneaky, amoral, money-grubbing bitch that won't stop at nothing until she has made every yen outta using me?" Ranma said sharply. "Feh, I ain't surprised; look at what she did to you, selling pictures to Kuno and stuff." 

Akane nodded in agreement, she had no reason to defend her sister's selfish actions anymore. "And Huang has stepped up his efforts in looking for you - his 'property' as he calls you. I tell you Ranma, that guy gives me the creeps every time he comes over, and what's worse Nabiki treats him like royalty." 

"That's because he's rich," Ranma pointed out. "If it wasn't for that, Nabiki wouldn't give the guy the time of day." 

Sagging against the rail, Akane shook her head. "I don't understand Nabiki, I mean, daddy makes enough for us to get by on - we even get a small allowance... she has no reason to do the things she does." 

"Some people are just that way," Ranma snorted out as she turned to face the city below them. "She loves to make life difficult for others and make money at the same time. She thinks it makes her in control and better than everyone else - which means you will have ta watch out Akane - I mean it." 

"What do you mean?" 

"How long will it take for Nabiki to subtly suggest, for a modest fee, an omiai between you and Kuno?" 

Eyes widening in horror, Akane leaned away from Ranma as if she suddenly developed bad breath. "She wouldn't!" Akane said. "She knows how much I hate him." 

"Doesn't matter," Ranma said flatly. "Look what she did to me, her future brother-in-law, er... now future husband, if she thought she could do it and get away with it, she'd sell you out as well." 

"She wouldn't!" 

"Akane, she has already sold pictures of you to Kuno, fed his delusions, and made money off of your fights in his attempts in pursuing you," Ranma said while giving Akane an even glare. "Wake up and smell the tea; it's probably only a matter of time before she approaches your father saying something like," Ranma switched her voice to mimic Nabiki's, "since I'm now engaged to Ranma, Akane is free and there's a rich boy who-" 

"No! She wouldn't," Akane insisted loudly, drawing some stares from the people around them.  

"When there is money to be made?" Ranma asked pointedly. 

"She... she... she would," Akane uttered in defeat. 

Ranma smiled as she finally got through to Akane. "Just keep your eyes open," she warned Akane while looking at her dead in the eye and taking Akane's hand in hers for emphasis. There was a small, barely detectable shock of electricity that was ignored by both. "If she tries anything like that, you get the hell out of there as fast as you can. I'll help you as much as possible." 

"How would I even get a hold of you?" 

"My boss is gettin' me a cell phone," Ranma replied. "I'll get the number to you - somehow." 

An uncomfortable silence fell between the two girls as they stared out the window and onto Tokyo below, their futures now more uncertain than ever. 

------- 

"I heard you left school early today," Setsuna said conversationally over dinner. 

Ranma froze, chopsticks halfway to her mouth. She knew that her employer expected a certain amount of 'excellence' from her and skipping school could be considered an infraction. Still, it was important that she had spoken with Akane, so Ranma decided to be honest about her absence. 

"Er, yeah," Ranma replied with unease. "I had to meet and talk to someone - a friend. It was important." 

"I see," Setsuna said. "Everything is all right, I hope." 

"Um yeah... well, not really," Ranma said uncertainly. She was waffling between completely trusting Setsuna and not. It wasn't anything that Setsuna did that made Ranma hold back, but with the problems that Ranma had, she had a fear of being turned away. 

"Some boy didn't get you in trouble, did he?" Hotaru scandalously asked. 

"Huh?" Ranma said, breaking from her internal debate.  

"Now Hotaru, I'm sure that Ranma isn't that kind of girl," Setsuna said with that secret grin on her face. "I'm sure it had something to do with the 'family problems' that she had hinted at before." 

"Oh," Hotaru said with a mixture of relief and disappointment. 

Blinking a few times as she looked between Setsuna and Hotaru, Ranma wondered if she'd missed something. "Um... right,' she managed out. "It's about my family problems." She paused; her boss was a sharp woman and remembered everything 

"I see," Setsuna said, returning to her earlier conversational tone. "Is there anything I can do to help?" 

Ranma stared at Setsuna for a few heartbeats. "You want to help me? You've only known me a couple of weeks, how do you know I'm worth helping?" Ranma asked. 

"I'm a good judge of character," Setsuna replied. "And I did hire you to take care of Hotaru. That alone shows my trust in you.  I could tell that, in spite of your - roughness about the edges, you are a good person at heart. Do you think you would have this job if I felt otherwise?" 

Ranma blinked at the answer. "Oh," she said dumbly. Internally, Ranma was rather touched to know that someone had put that much trust in her. "It's... kinda... complicated," she ventured, not sure where to begin. 

"I'll tell you what," Setsuna said as she picked up a bite of food. "After dinner, we'll get together and talk about it - if you want." 

Finding her rice very interesting at the moment, Ranma picked at a clump of grains. 

"We'll both help," Hotaru chimed in enthusiastically. Ranma couldn't help but smile, Hotaru had a way of disarming her.  

After the dishes were washed and put away, all three girls settled in the living room. Setsuna sat on the overstuffed couch and motioned for Ranma to do the same. Hotaru, not wanting to be left out, but not wanting to get in the way, established herself in the arm chair across from the two older women. Silence dragged out for a moment before Setsuna cleared her throat. "So, what sort of family problems are you having?" 

"Um... it's kinda complicated," Ranma said. "I  don't know where to really begin." 

"Why not start with what caused you to leave home," Setsuna suggested, "and we can work from there." 

Pursing her lips, Ranma thought for a moment. "I can't tell them everything... like the curse - they'll think I'm a freak.  Better tell them the truth, but sorta switch things around a bit," she concluded. Taking a deep breath, Ranma began her story starting with the Ten Yen Battle... 

A bit later and after several cups of tea, Ranma managed to tell Setsuna and Hotaru the events that led her to their door. Though she had edited out the more bizarre or magical moments in her life, that still left a great amount to be amazed and appalled about.  

"So your father and your new fiance are basically trying to rent you to the highest bidder?" Setsuna said with frost in her voice. She'd had been somewhat familiar with the past of Ranma Saotome and knew the type of person she was dealing with: a kind and caring young man wrapped in a cocoon of crassness. It would be fair to label Ranma an asshole, but it was his willingness to go to extremes to help someone in need - even strangers - overshadowed that personality quirk that he acquired from his upbringing. 

Setsuna found herself being moved as Ranma outlined the schemes of her fiancee's 'brother' and her father's attempts at reducing her life to being nothing more than a high-class whore. Setsuna found that addition noteworthy.  

"Um... yeah, basically," Ranma said nervously, eyes darting between Setsuna and a horrified looking Hotaru. 

Feeling anger build up in her chest, Setsuna took in a claiming breath. There was something very different about speaking with a real flesh and blood person about their problems.  There was no clinical detachment; the situation was tangible now, personal. "And your first fiancee, the one that they switched the engagement from... he helped you escape?" 

"Yes. Sh- er, he was a great help in making sure I wasn't followed or nothin'," Ranma replied. 

"Is that who you had to meet?" asked a wide-eyed Hotaru. 

"Er, yeah," Ranma replied. "Er, he's been keeping me up to date on what's going on... back home." 

"I see," Setsuna said as she considered something. "You trust him?" 

Ranma blinked at the question and nodded. "Yeah, I guess I do." 

"Is he handsome?" Hotaru asked with interest. 

"Er... something like that," Ranma stammered. "Look, it's like we kinda like each other, but... there was just too much pressure to get us married," Ranma explained. "S-he's a good friend, that's all." Thinking of Akane as a guy was too weird; though if they were the same sex then there would be no romantic tension. 

"Well no one can blame you for leaving home," Hotaru said with righteous justice burning in her eyes. "There should be a law against what they're trying to do to you." 

"I'm very sure there is," Setsuna said in the same tone Hotaru had just spoken in. "Ranma I think that you did the right thing in getting out of a bad situation, but you're partly responsible for allowing it to continue as it has."  

"Huh?" Ranma said, she was confused by that slight accusation. 

"Why haven't you reported this to the authorities?" Setsuna asked. "Surely you have to know that these people are breaking the law." 

"I can't do that, "Ranma half-retorted. "They're my family... sorta." 

Silence fell in the room as Setsuna and Hotaru eyed Ranma incredulously. 

"Ranma, if this is your family, then you would be better off without them," Setsuna said in a surprisingly blunt manner. 

"B-but..." 

"Ranma, what your father and your so-called fiance are doing to you is awful," Hotaru said in a thin, almost scared way. "I can't imagine what I'd do if I was in your shoes, but I know I wouldn't allow them to get away with breaking the law." 

Another bout of silence followed 

"At least your ex-fiance seems like a decent man," Hotaru pointed out. "But even though it is his brother that is doing this, he still should have reported it as well." 

"And by not reporting it yourself, you are allowing yourself to be victimized," Setsuna added.  

"I-I see," Ranma said, slightly unnerved by the inescapable conclusions that these two relative strangers had arrived at. There was no denying the logic behind their reasoning and that disturbed Ranma even more. Ranma sighed in indecision. "Um... guys... I need to think about this." 

"That's okay," Setsuna said as she leaned forward and captured Ranma's eyes with her own, making it impossible for Ranma to ignore anything that was about to be said. "But remember: No one can abuse you unless you allow them to - and if you need any help, I'm more than willing to help you." 

Ranma jerkily nodded as she wrestled with what to do. 

------ 

Eight and a half miles north of where Ranma was staying, Akane entered the grounds of the Tendo dojo. She was tired and the fact that the bus returning them from the field trip had arrived back late didn't help - and she still had homework to do. Tiredly she slipped out of her shoes and she made her way into the family room. 

"Great," she though bitterly. "I won't be able to relax with some TV while he is here." 

Scowling, she saw her sister, Nabiki, entertaining Mr. Huang - Ranma's "master", still trying to "pool their resources" and find "his property". Reining in her anger toward her older sister, Akane decided that she didn't want to deal with either one of them at the moment, so she retreated to her room and changed out of her school uniform. 

"She better not try marrying me off to Kuno," Akane thought in irritation as she pulled the jumper part of her uniform over her head. "If she does..." 

She sighed. Outside of taking Ranma's advice of getting the hell out, there was little she could do. If Nabiki did manage to put a bug in her father's ear, Akane knew that she'd be pressured into agreeing to the arrangement by her father, Nabiki, Kuno, and most likely Mr. Saotome as well. Deep in her heart of hearts, she knew the pressure would be greater than she could handle. 

She sighed again. Life was never easy when you had a gold-digging bitch for a sister. 

Sitting on her bed in just a bra and panties, Akane brought her bandaged right knee up to examine it. She had skinned it pretty badly the day before practicing in the dojo and wanted to see how it was healing. Using her fingernails, she picked at the edge of the adhesive bandage until she was able to get a grip. In one even pull she separated the wide strip from her knee and blinked at what she saw. 

And blinked again. 

"What the-? I know I skinned my knee," she thought as she ran her fingers over the smooth, unmarred surface of her knee. Akane looked at the inside of the bandage, still in her hand, and saw that there was dried blood there. "Maybe I'm finally starting to be a faster healer like some of the other martial artists around here." 

-------- 

Ranma drummed her desktop with her fingers as she waited for the teacher to enter the classroom. It was between classes and everyone had taken the opportunity to gather into their little cliques and talk amongst themselves. Since it was still morning and Ranma had managed to cultivate a reputation for being a bit grumpy at that time of day, she was left alone for the most part. While waiting, she had time to reconsider if hiding out as a nanny was a good idea or not for the umpteenth time.  

Sighing, she stared off into space, she wondered if and when it would be safe for her to go home again. It had been a month since she went into hiding and two weeks since she saw Akane at the Tokyo Tower. In all that time, Ranma was still trying to decide on what to do, whether she should report Nabiki's dealings to the police or not. Ranma felt lost in the face of a simple moral dilemma that should have been easy to resolve; she was just too used to handling things herself. 

At least her cell phone helped things; as long as Akane called her from a private location it would stay secure. From the clandestine phone call she had with Akane the previous night, the situation at the Tendos' hadn't improved at all - there was too much money involved in finding her for things to quiet down. Ranma sighed again and wished that she could go back to her normal life 

That is, back to his normal life. "Gotta stop doing that," Ranma scolded herself. "I'm a guy. I ain't no girl. I gotta take a break and turn back into a guy... even it it's for a few minutes," Ranma concluded. "I think this curse is startin' to mess with my head."  

This was the most disturbing development in the whole hiding out thing: "He" was starting to pick up behavior that he had always attributed to women. Being around more "normal" people and emulating their behavior to better fit in was one thing, being around girls "his" own age and emulating them to fit in was another. Over the course of the last few weeks, Ranma had discovered, much to her dismay, that the mannerisms that she had picked up were becoming more and more second nature.  

Except for a few things...  

"Miss Saotome?" a voice asked, breaking Ranma from her thoughts. Looking up, Ranma was greeted by a tall and handsome upperclassman who towered over her.   

"Yea- , er, yes?" Ranma replied as she looked the young man in the eye.  

"I'm Kanagaki Ken, senior in class A3," the tall, handsome boy said in a voice that cracked with a trace of nervousness. "I, er... say, I really like your hair; it really fits you." 

Ranma frowned and made the boy fidget even more.  She hated that such cute, girly hair could "fit" her and she still couldn't grasp what the big deal about her hair was. It was just hair after all. She sighed in resignation.  

"Thank you for noticing," she softly said as she unconsciously ran her fingers through her hair. She had decided that it was easier to be nice about it than indignant; she seemed to make more friends that way or at least get less negative attention. And negative attention was the last thing she wanted right now. 

"I was wondering... if... if," he paused to gather his courage. "I was wondering if you would mind going out with me this weekend." Ken's smile and tone were laced with hope. "I would be most honored if you came with me to the beach."  

It took a few moments for Ranma to register that she had just been asked out - nicely. This was so unlike Kuno's demands, or blackmailing for dates, or kidnapping that she couldn't make head or tails of it at first. Still after intellectually understanding what was going on, it still took a few moments for that fact to actually sink in.  

"He asked me out," she thought indignantly. "He asked me out. That... that... jerk."  

Face flushing in irritation, Ranma controlled herself as to not to stand up and punt the boy out of the room for even suggesting that she'd be interested in going out with him. However, a cooler part of herself prevailed and overruled that first instinct. "Wait, he doesn't know I'm really a guy, so I can't get mad at him," Ranma thought as she watched the upperclassman's expectant face. "Gotta act like a girl... but I don't wanna date no guy either."  

Not wanting to do anything that would blow her cover, Ranma put on her best 'Ranko' look, smiled and stood up by her desk, facing the upperclassman. "Thank you for asking me," she said with a bow to the upperclassman. "But because of my responsibilities, I'm afraid I have little time to date," Ranma said as she pushed her glasses back up. Bowing was always a pain while wearing them.   

"I'm sorry to hear that," Ken said as he bowed to the shorter girl. "Perhaps another time when you're free?"  

"Er, yeah," Ranma managed to get out. "That would be, er... wonderful," she finished as she flushed with further indignation of the situation.  

Sagging with relief as Ken strode away and out of the classroom, Ranma ignored the excited buzzing that the scene created among her classmates. Reclaiming her seat, she tried to focus on other things to take her mind off her perceived embarrassment of the situation when two girls wearing glasses came up on either side of her, both sporting broad grins.  

"Gosh Ranma, you're so lucky to be asked out by Ken," Kimiko gushed.  

"I can't believe you didn't take him up on it," another girl said as she adjusted her glasses.  

"I bet it's because of your new hair," Kimiko smiled. The perm showed that Ranma really did want to become more feminine; she was just cautious.  Kimiko was a bit jealous; she knew she didn't have the guts to change her hair like that. It was very daring and attention-getting. 

Ranma sighed, as she unconsciously adjusted her own glasses.  She really liked Kimiko and Nami, but their determination to 'break Ranma out of her shell' was wearing a bit thin. This, coupled with the fact that Hotaru thought of her as 'boy shy', added unneeded complications in her life. But the problem was that Ranma couldn't really get mad at any of them because in their minds they were helping her; so Ranma did the best thing she could in a situation like this: grin and bear it.  

"I ain't- er, that is, I have too many things to do after school for dating," Ranma said.   

"I know, I know. You're a nanny and your charge comes first," Kimiko said. "But you have a day off every now and then. You should've gone for it."  

"Hotaru keeps me very busy," Ranma explained.   

"C'mon Ranma," Nami insisted. "Everyone saw how you acted, all blushing and everything - anyone who saw can tell you were interested."  

"I wasn't blushing, I was...," Ranma insisted - before her mind froze and then stumbled.a bit at the realization of how she probably looked; in spite of her best effort, Ranma paled a bit. "Aw crap," she thought. "They mistook me gettin' mad as blushing."  

"You've got to stop being so shy and live a little," Kimiko said in a cheery way as she mistook Ranma's stammering as shyness. It was important to keep positively supporting her. They had already seen Ranma getting more comfortable with makeup and get more proper in her manners, not to forget the amazing progress made by changing her hairstyle. 

"I ain't," Ranma paused and sighed. "I'm not shy, I have a job after school that I have to do," she explained, slipping back into 'Ranko' mode. "I really don't have time for boys."  

"I'm sure your boss would understand that you need a day off," Nami urged. "You're her employee, not her slave."  

"Look," Ranma began patiently - it was just so hard to get mad at these two, irritated, yes - mad, no. "I just...," Ranma paused to collect her thoughts. Maybe a 'white lie' would do the trick. "Guys- er, girls, my life is a bit of a mess right now," Ranma explained. "I just got out of a bad situation and it's not over with yet."  

Both girls looked at Ranma with wide eyes. "Oh dear... why didn't you tell us, we would've understood," Kimiko said.  

"You would've?" Ranma asked at the sudden turn of events. She had been trying since she had met these two to get them to stop their matchmaking.  

"Of course," Kimiko said in slight admonishment. "You should have said something."  

"So who was he?" Nami asked.  

"Who's who?" Ranma asked.  

"The boy who broke your heart," Kimiko said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.  

"I bet he was a real jerk, wasn't he?" Nami added in.  

"Huh?" Ranma asked, wondering how they made that great leap of logic.  

"Your ex-boyfriend," Kimiko replied in the same obvious tone.  

Ranma spasmed. "I ain't got no-" she paused to rein in herself. "I don't have a ex-boyfriend. I've never had a boyfriend," Ranma said as she mentally added, "and I never will."  

Kimiko and Nami looked at Ranma incredulously before shaking their heads in unison. "You poor girl," Kimiko said as she slightly 'tisked'.  

"I'll say," Nami chimed in. "I have never met anyone as boy-shy as you are." 

"And Nami is a girl that swooned the last time she was asked out," Kimiko grinned. 

"He was dreamy," Nami mumbled. 

"Don't worry, we'll help you through it," Kimiko said, then paused. "Wait - if it's not an ex-boyfriend, then what is the problem?"  

"Er..., it's...," Ranma stammered about, trying to think of a solution. In a stroke of inspiration, Ranma decided to tell the truth - in a way. "I'm trying to get out of an arranged marriage," Ranma finally said.  

"Marriage?" both girls plus a few more in the classroom who overheard exclaimed. "You're engaged?" asked Nami.  

"No! Not really, my father arranged for me to marry an abusive bitc-, er, bastard," Ranma said as she thought of how best to describe Nabiki. "There's no way I'm gonna marry 'im."  

"Oh my," Kimiko said in a Kasumi-esque way before continuing in a dramatic way, hands clutching to her chest. "The horror of being trapped in a relationship with an abusive, self-centered, egoistical lout."  

"Er, guys," Ranma said, knowing what would happen if these two girl's imaginations took over.  

"And your only escape was to run away before you were forced into a loveless marriage," Nami added, just as dramatically as Kimiko.  

"Um... guys," Ranma tried again.  

"Don't worry Ranma," Kimiko said in all seriousness. "If that lout shows up here, you'll have every guy in the school willing to defend you. No one today would blame you for running away."  

Ranma sighed as she sank into her chair and was ever so glad to have a teacher show up when she did. "Maybe I should have taken that shrine maiden's job," Ranma thought as the teacher began her instruction.  

-------- 

The afternoon was a lazy one as Ranma lay on the couch and thumbed through her textbook. Since it was officially her 'day off' she chose to relax in a red pullover with loose, dark blue silk pants. Though she still thought homework was a drag, Ranma stuck with it; with the sharp decrease in martial arts challenges that used to unexpectedly come her way, she focused on schoolwork as something to overcome.  

Shifting her attention away from world history, Ranma smirked a bit as Hotaru watched a hokey kung-fu movie on the television. Ranma had been too engrossed in her studies to pay much attention to the screen, but she could tell very easily how cleverly the fights were choreographed. Ranma could tell that Hotaru was completely absorbed into the movie.  

On screen, two bare-chested men were duking it out; fists were striking out and legs were kicking as both combatants dodged and weaved around one another. One of the men got a punch in, sending the other into a stack of thick bamboo, sending it scattering on the pavement. Scrambling about in the pile, the fallen man emerged with a particularly sturdy staff of bamboo and began swinging at his opponent in an almost dance-like way.  

Hotaru leaned toward the screen and seemed to soak in every move and detail the stick-welding man was making. At this point, the other fighter grabbed a broomstick and defended himself with it artfully. Hotaru continued to watch as the fight went on; each thrust and parry was punctuated by the combatant's grunts and the smacking sounds their weapons made.  

"Wow," Hotaru whispered. "Are you watching this?" She asked without taking her eyes from the action.  

"Mmmmm," Ranma replied noncommittally while she continued to watch over the edge of her history book.  

The small girl on the floor turned to face Ranma. "Do you know how to do that?" Hotaru asked wide-eyed, motioning toward the action on the screen.  

Lowering the book to get a better view of the television, Ranma studied the two over-muscled men fighting it out with staffs. It reminded her of the many bouts she had with her father. "Yes," Ranma replied as she raised her book up as if she were reading it. "My Pops and I used to practice with staffs and a bunch of other weapons."  

"Can you teach me that?" Hotaru asked, excitement leaching into her voice as she motioned again to the action on the screen.  

Answering while hiding her sly smile behind her book, Ranma shrugged and pretended to continue to focus on her reading. "Oh... I guess I could... sometime..." she said coyly.  

"Oh Miss Ranma, you have to teach me that," Hotaru exclaimed as she climbed onto the edge of the couch. "I wanna learn how to do that!"  

Looking into Hotaru's purple eyes, Ranma saw a fiery determination burning inside them. Her enthusiasm for learning martial arts sometimes exceeded her capabilities, but Ranma figured that there would be no harm in teaching Hotaru how to use a staff. "Especially if I combine it with the Tai-Chi and Karate that I already taught her and move up from there," Ranma mentally concluded.  

"I don't know...,"Ranma said with a teasing smile and a turn of the page. "I don't want Miss Meioh to think I'm pushing you-"  

"Then we'll keep it a secret!" Hotaru interrupted as she stood. "Like that other cool stuff you taught me."  

"Well..." Ranma drawled out playfully, "I just don't know..."  

"Miss Ranma!" Hotaru insisted with a stamp of her small foot. "Please!"  

Smiling at the younger girl's antics, Ranma allowed a small giggle to escape. Hotaru looked at Ranma with an adorable pout on her face before realizing that she had been made fun of. "Ooo... you..." Hotaru sputtered.  

Grinning, Ranma stared at the indignant girl, snorting in suppressed laughter.  

"Miss Ranma!" Hotaru roared in mock anger while attacking Ranma with tiny fingers that sought out and found Ranma's most ticklish spots. Squealing at the assault, Ranma dropped her book and counterattacked eliciting howls of laughter from the smaller girl. Both wrestled for dominance as each tried to out-tickle the other until both rolled off the couch and landed on the floor with a soft thump.  

"I'm sorry, squirt," Ranma said coming down from her laughter. "But I couldn't help it."  

"You'll teach me, won't you?" Hotaru asked longingly as Ranma picked up her dropped book.  

"Yeah squirt, I'll teach you," Ranma conceded before being enveloped in a glomp, causing Ranma's just recovered book to be jammed hard into one of her breasts.  

"Thank you, thank you," Hotaru said as she hugged her nanny, making Ranma grunt with pain as a corner of the book jabbed her. Breaking the hug, Hotaru looked excitedly at Ranma and almost danced around the middle of the room. "I'll work real hard at it, like when you taught me how to breathe right and stances and blocks and..."  

Hotaru continued to rattle off the various things that Ranma had taught her in an increasing excitable way. "I wonder...," Ranma thought as she picked herself off the floor. "If I was given the choice, would I have been as excited about martial arts as Hotaru is?"  

"This is going to be so cool!" Hotaru announced, interrupting Ranma's reflections. "When can we start?"  

"We'll have to get some supplies," Ranma replied. "We'll have to make another trip to Daishi's."  

"That's fine," Hotaru whole-heartedly agreed. "You think that he'll still have that gi?"  

"Dunno, let's find out." 

------- 

Stretching at the table, Ranma sighed in relief. She had just finished her homework and not only had tonight off, but Sunday as well. This windfall of time off was due to Hotaru spending the weekend at her aunt and uncle's. This left Ranma with a day and a half that she could do anything she wanted. Not that it mattered, for she rarely went out except to practice her martial arts clandestinely and maybe visit this great little sushi bar that Nami introduced her to a couple of weeks ago. They had rice cooked so finely that it rivaled anything that Kasumi could do and the price was affordable.  

"Hmmm," Ranma thought, "maybe I can go there and get a bite or three... or four." She cocked her head. "And with Hotaru spending the night with her aunt and uncle, I can hang out late if I want to."  

Closing the book before her and piling up her school work, she continued to consider things to do for the next few days. "I wonder if I can find a  bath house somewhere and scrub this waterproof soap off," she thought while absently playing with her curly locks, not even thinking about the perm she was currently sporting - or what it would look like on her guy form. "I really need to change back into a guy... I think I've forgotten what's it like to pee standing up."  

The doorbell rang, breaking Ranma's musings. Before she could rise from her seat, Setsuna called out "I'll get it."  

Sagging back into her chair, Ranma relaxed. Yes. Changing back to a guy would definitely be the top order for this weekend. "I'll just tell Setsuna that I'm going on a short training trip and find a cheap hostel somewhere and-"  

So deep in thought, Ranma did not even register when Setsuna entered the room, or the two other people that she was leading.  One was a green-eyed brunette with her hair pulled into a pair of ponytails that fell straight down behind her ears. The other was a bit shorter, though still taller than Ranma, had brown eyes and black hair that was shorter and pinned back in a simple bun, and a more statuesque figure.  Both were wearing glasses as well.

"Ranma," Setsuna announced softly. "You have visitors."  

Blinking, Ranma looked up to see two very familiar people. "Nami? Kimiko? What are you doing here?"  She noted once again how... different they looked outside of school. When in uniform their glasses and shy tendencies were dominant, but in normal clothes,  a somewhat expensive yellow dress for Kimiko and a white blouse and red skirt for Nami, they looked like a pair of lively, outgoing girls. 

Ranma was starting to wonder why they had such problems with boys.  They could dress well and were very nice...   She halted her line of questioning.  That was the exact sort of thinking that they, and Hotaru, were using on her.

"Please, have a seat," Setsuna offered the two as she seated herself to the right of Ranma.  

"Thank you," the the two girls chirped as they claimed chairs across from Ranma.  

"Er... what's up?" Ranma asked her unexpected guests.  

"We were passing by while heading over to Mori's Sushi, and thought you might want to come along," Nami said as she idly adjusted one of her ponytails.

Ranma smiled. Nothing wrong with thinking about food. "I guess so," Ranma replied. "I was thinking about going over there tonight myself."  

"That's great and..." Kimiko paused and noticed something different about Ranma. "Did you get new frames?" 

"Yeah, my old ones are a bit... clunky." Ranma explained as she fingered the rectangle-ish half-frame glasses; the old, fake ones she had used were not designed for comfort and Ranma finally tired of having a sore nose. "These are much lighter and don't pinch my nose."  

The slight magnification real glasses gave Ranma actually made them more effective than her old prop ones.  A part of Ranma was annoyed that the drugstore bought reading glasses could actually help make reading much easier. 

"They're very stylish," Nami agreed. A good pair of glasses could really help a girl's self esteem. 

"I guess," Ranma agreed with a slight shrug. Instead of looking bookish and geeky she looked bookish and shy. Her salary had easily covered the new frames, and they made for a superior disguise.  

"We can celebrate your new glasses. That's something worth eating some good food." Kimiko added, impressed with the new look. Combined with the hair they really helped define a style for Ranma. 

Ranma grinned, so long as food was involved she'd celebrate anything. 

"And after that we could do some shopping and go back to my place," Kimiko continued. "You know - have like a sleep over."  

"Er... thanks guys," Ranma stammered out. "But -"  

"I think that's a marvelous idea," chimed Setsuna. "I've been worried about you not getting out enough."  

"Er, it's not that," Ranma said with a squeaky voice. She paused to clear her throat. "It's just that I like to be available just in case that Hotaru needs me for anything."  

"Well that won't be happening, you know she's over visiting her aunt and uncle for the weekend," Setsuna pointed out. "You have no reason to stay in tonight."  

"Er, right," Ranma said lamely before inspiration hit her. "But I was planning on going a training trip this weekend."  

"Training trip?" Kimiko queried. "Ranma, you have the weekend off and you want to throw it away by training?"  

"I'm not throwing anything away," Ranma defended. "It's just that I don't want to get soft."  

"I've seen you in the showers, Ranma, getting soft is the least of your worries," Kimiko said with half-lidded eyes.  

"Besides," Nami added in. "You need to relax, have fun. You know what they say about all work and no play, don't you?'  

"Er... no," Ranma replied dumbly.  

"All work and no play makes - Ranma a dull girl," Nami said in slight exasperation.  

Ranma looked between her school friends and Setsuna, who was wearing a amused look on her face, and sighed. "I ain't getting out of this, am I?" 

"Nope," chimed Kimiko. "We're determined to help you get out of your shell and have some fun. C'mon, you're only young once."  

"Yeah! And it probably won't be too long from now that you'll find that special guy, get married and settle down and have kids," Nami added. "You don't want to throw away your youth by being closed up all the time, do you?"  

Ranma looked back and forth between Nami and Kimiko as each girl spoke in turn. The last comment made her internally retch, but she managed to suppress any outward signs.  "Damn, why do these two insist on being so helpful?" Ranma thought with slight annoyance. "If I had these two as friends back... home, I'd, I'd," Ranma pause a moment. "I'd have at least someone to talk to about my problems." Ranma sighed.  

"Ranma?" Setsuna asked with a slightly worried tone.  

Breaking from her thoughts, Ranma looked at Setsuna and then to her friends. "Oh what the heck," she finally said. "It's not like I have to go on a training trip."  

"Great!" Nami squealed excitedly. "We've been trying you to get you out and live a little for weeks."  

"Really now?" an amused Setsuna asked. "Well, Ranma is the type of person who gets over-dedicated  - a trait that is to be admired, but she does need to 'live a little'."  

"C'mon," Kimiko urged while standing. "Let's grab a few things and go."  

"Er... guys... um...," Ranma floundered about verbally as she had a sudden attack of second thoughts and tried again to find a plausible reason for not going - unfortunately she was drawing a complete blank.  

"I think it's an excellent idea," Setsuna affirmed. "This would be a good chance for you to relax a bit."  

"But... er... ummm," Ranma verbally and mentally floundered again. Her shoulders sagged and finally admitted defeat to herself. "So much for turning into a guy this weekend," she thought bitterly. "Let me grab my purse."  

----------  

Three glasses wearing girls were sitting around a long bar inside Mori's, a small "mom and pop" restaurant that wasn't too fancy but still had an air of tradition about it. Though it was Saturday night, the crowd was thin and mostly composed of two classes of people: highschoolers looking for a cheap night out and dating college agers there for the same reason. The block was peppered with such restaurants that served the vast youth market of Tokyo.  

Ranma sat on a stool, sandwiched between Nami and Kimiko, as she plucked one of the rice rolls from the plate and dipped the fish side into the small bowl of soy sauce before popping it into her mouth. God, she loved good, cheap food.  

"So where to after this?" Nami asked.  

"I was thinking that we should go down to Two Rivers mall and see what's on sale," Kimiko ventured.   

"You have money?" Nami asked.  

"A bit. What about you Ranma? Is there anything you'd like to do while we're out?" Kimiko asked.  

Ranma thought for a long moment as she munched on the sushi that just melted into her mouth before shrugging her shoulders. "I don't know... I mean, I don't - er, that is, I rarely go out, so I haven't really thought about it."  

"And besides," Nami interjected, "we're here to show Ranma how to have a good time. Let's head over to Two Rivers and just have fun hanging out."  

Ranma paled a bit. Shopping? Fun? In the same sentence? That was a bit too girlish for her tastes. Maybe she should do something to change that. "Er, guys..."  

"That's okay Ranma," Kimiko interrupted. "We'll show you how it's done."  

"We promise we'll be gentle," Nami assured. 

Ranma wilted under the kind, understanding gazes of her friends. "Er, ahh... yeah," she reluctantly agreed.  

Soon Ranma found herself strolling alongside Nami as Kimiko gawked at the display of dresses in the window of a shop in the Two Rivers. Though Ranma tried to hide it, she was more apprehensive than bored. For the first time in weeks, she was in public. The very thought of being recognized, no matter how unlikely, by someone who knew her... unsettled her. This fear was reflected in her eyes as they continuously scanned the crowd around her.  

The shopping plaza was crowded with many groups of people Ranma's age. She watched as each group, large and small, herded themselves from one building and its stores to another. Loud music escaped from the open maw of a ground floor night club as couples waded into and out of its dark depths. Ranma stuck close to Kimiko and Nami as they threaded themselves through the thick crowd that choked the sidewalk.  

All along, Ranma's eyes never ceased their almost predatory scan of the mass of people, looking for any threats.  

"You have GOT to relax," Kimiko gently admonished, noticing Ranma's unease.  

"I'm fine," Ranma lied as she continued to scan the crowd. "I'm just... not used to crowds. Yeah, that's it. Crowds make me nervous."  

"Then there is only one thing to do," Nami announced over the din of the people around them.  

"Go home?" Ranma asked hopefully.  

"Nope, you silly girl," Nami answered in false primness. "We go inside!" she announced as she looped an arm around Ranma's arm and half-lead and half dragged Ranma into a dress shop that they found themselves in front of.  

--------  

"What do you think?" Kimiko giggled as she spun around, modeling the dress. The dress was a one piece, navy blue and thin strapped. Form fitting on top, it loosened around the waist, flaring outward into a knee-length skirt.  

"It's so you," gushed Nami. "What do you think, Ranma?"  

Ranma mentally shook her head. She understood the need for shopping - but only when the need arose, but never really understood the social aspect of it. "It looks okay," Ranma admitted. Still, it was more relaxing inside the shop than it was among the bustling crowds outside. "It might look better with something more," she added absently.  

"Like what?" Kimiko asked as she smoothed the front of the dress.  

"I dunno," Ranma replied with a shrug. "Maybe a contrasting scarf or something." Thanks to the time she spent with Hotaru, Ranma was starting to get a bit of "fashion sense".  

"How about this?" Nami asked as she held up a thin, white scarf. She thought it was a wonderful suggestion; Ranma was making excellent progress, she was not a total tomboy.   

"Nice choice Ranma," Kimiko complimented.  

"It was just something I noticed," Ranma explained while making warding gestures with her hands.   

"Ranma, there's nothing wrong with what you said," Nami assured. She put her hand to her friend's shoulder. "Why are you so afraid of doing normal stuff?"  

"I ain't scared - er, that is, I'm not used to doing things like this. That's all," Ranma replied.  

Kimiko and Nami shook their heads a bit. Ranma imagined that she heard a light pair of "tisk's".   

"Ranma," Nami began as she sorted through a rack of blouses as Kimiko reentered the dressing room. "What happened after you swam to China?"  

"Huh? Oh," Ranma stammered a bit. They had spent the entire time in the shop, looking and trying on clothes and talking in detail about Ranma's life. Ranma found the whole experience disarming, but remained on her guard so that her true nature wouldn't slip. "Well, Pops had a guide to various training grounds in China and we spent the next few months visiting them."  

"Sounds exciting," Kimiko said as she exited the dressing room, this time in her street clothes. "Didn't you have any time for fun?"  

"Well... training was fun," Ranma explained.   

"But it was all you did," Nami commented as she held up a green blouse to Ranma, checking the color. "Surely you did more than just train."  

"We... walked. A lot," Ranma then shook her head. "Travel and train was mostly what we did. Hell, I barely managed to attend school enough to keep up with my grade, but that was about all."  

"Did you make any friends?" Kimiko asked as she eyed some earrings.  

"Yeah..." Ranma replied while thinking of Ryoga and Ukyo - then her heart fell a bit. One was obsessed with avenging himself, the other with possessing her. "Well, I'd like to think so."  

"Certainly you looked around the places you visited," Kimiko asked as she plied through a selection of skirts. "It would be a shame to travel as much as you did and not really get to look around."  

"Not really," Ranma admitted, then she contemplated. "I did manage to go off by myself at times..." her voice trailed off as she revisited a place in her mind. 

Nami and Kimiko watched the smaller, curly-haired girl intently as a thin smile crept  across her lips that was soon replaced by a frown. Ranma stared off into space for a few moments before blinking and returning to the here and now. Realizing what had happened, Ranma gave a nervous chuckle as she rubbed the back of her neck. "Er, yeah," she said lamely.  

An awkward silence fell.  

"Are you all right," Nami asked tentatively.  

"Yeah," Ranma said off-handedly as she idly fingered a long, bright blue dress that hung on a mannequin.  

"What were your parents like?" Kimiko prompted, hoping to move the subject along less depressing paths for their new friend.  Perhaps they could get Ranma into that dress or at least try something on.

Ranma sighed - and then gently shook her head. "They're part of the problem."  

Another awkward silence fell.  

"Oh c'mon girls," Nami admonished. "We're here to have fun, not mope. Here," she said while thrusting the green blouse she had been holding into Ranma's hands, "Try this on and then we'll get something sweet to eat."  

"W-wait - what?" Was all she managed to get out before she found herself being lead to the dressing room behind her. Ranma halted when she realized where she was being lead, looking between the others and the garment in her hands.   

"Go on and try it on," Nami urged as she closed the drapes. "And we'll talk more."  

Ranma found herself separated from her school friends by a thick curtain. Though there wasn't much between her and the two other girls, she could barely make out their idle chatter. Sighing, Ranma looked at the green blouse in her hands, held it up to her torso and studied herself in the mirror. She relaxed and smiled at her reflection. "Oh what the heck," she muttered with a smirk.  

"What do you think?" Ranma half- giggled nervously as she exited the dressing room, spun around, showing her friends the blouse that Nami had picked out.  

"Wow," Kimiko commented. "It really goes well with your hair and complexion." She smiled. Once Ranma got over her initial apprehension she was just as proud of looking good as the next girl. 

"You look so cute in it," Nami gushed. "I knew that was your color." 

Ranma smiled just as a low growling was heard. "Heh," Ranma said in embarrassment.  

"Er, can we get something to eat now?"  

------  

"So - you grew up on the road?" Nami asked incredulously.  

"Yeah, my Pops wanted me to learn the family martial arts," Ranma explained as she took a lick of ice cream. "So we took off when I was five years old or so."  

"Wow, that explains why you talk like a boy when you're not paying attention," Kimiko commented before pausing to take a lick of her own cone. "And why you're such a tomboy at times."  

"Er, yeah," Ranma managed. Having friends who actually listened when you talked was kind of eerie. They seemed to almost know more about herself than she did. 

"It was just me and Pops for ten years, traveling and training."  

"I'm surprised you turned out as normal as you did," Nami added in as she licked away at her cone, catching a long drip before it dropped. The girls fell silent as they enjoyed their ice creams, each licking a portion of their cones. 

"I bet your father had no idea how to raise a girl, did he?" Kimiko asked. 

"I bet he didn't know how to raise a kid," Nami added in darkly. "Pit of cats. What an idiot." 

"My father..." Ranma trailed off briefly as she gathered her thoughts. "My father is not that bad," she defended lamely; it sounded hollow even to her. "He just doesn't think before he does something." 

"What about now?" Kimiko asked pointedly. "He's trying to sell you to the highest bidder. That's something a father who cares for his child wouldn't do." 

"Er... well," Ranma floundered a bit as she munched down the last of her cone. 

"Well I think it great that you've at least gotten yourself out of that bad situation with your new fiance." Nami piped up. "But I want to know: Why haven't you reported any of this to the police?"  

Ranma stopped wiping her fingers clean with a napkin and stared at the glasses-wearing girl across from her. "Er - what?"  

"Ranma, why do you allow your father and fiance to do that to you?" Nami asked. "I mean, selling you like that. You know they do have laws."  

A strong wave of deja vu flooded over Ranma. This was like the conversation she had with Setsuna and Hotaru. "Well... I've been thinking about it," Ranma conceded. "But I need to make sure that nothing bad happens to my, er... ex-fiance," she excused.   

"Well he should have reported it too," Kimiko pointed out as she finished the last of her cone.  

Ranma grumbled to herself for only a moment before asking, "Can we talk about something else? I really don't want to think about it right now."  

Smiling Kimiko agreed. "Right. We're here to have fun. What do you want to do next?"  

Ranma shrugged her shoulders as Nami piped in, "The arcade!"  

------  

Flames erupted across the screen as Ranma ramped the high-performance car off a loading dock, sending it crashing into the side of a building and the words "Game Over" splashed out the flames, informing Ranma of the obvious. It was the third time she had done that and in the exact same spot and instead of growling in frustration, she found herself laughing along with Kimiko and Nami.  

"You got the pedals mixed up again, didn't you?" Nami asked the still seated Ranma.  

"Yup," Ranma replied, looking up with an elfish grin. This was the first time she had been in a place like this and was glad that she brought along some of her wages. It was turning out to be fun.  

"Let's try something else," suggested Kimiko.  

"Okay," Ranma said as she climbed out of the cockpit of the racing game. "Let me pick the next one."  

Scanning the crowded room for the next machine to try, Ranma ignored the masses of people around her and focused on the gaudy to gaily lighted games. The room itself was just one floor of a massive multi-story arcade. Young people were clumped together playing or spectating in front of the machines as more people flowed like rivers between them. The atmosphere was energized as Ranma's eyes looked about for the next plaything. 

"Let's do that one," she pointed to a rather large blocky video game with two large drums mounted to the front of the machine not far from where they stood.  

"Taiko no Tatsujin?" Nami asked. "Okay."  

Ranma's two friends readily agreed and after a quick skim of the instructions and the depositing of the correct amount of coinage, they were soon taking turns beating the drums' plastic "skins". Long losing her self consciousness, Ranma enjoyed the challenge of tapping, furiously pounding and gently rapping the drums in sync to the directions on the screen. Each girl taking a turn, they soon played the machine out.  

"I need a drink," Ranma commented as she replaced the plastic drumsticks in their holders. Her throat felt dry and parched, she felt sweaty and tired, but at the same time she also felt very much alive. She had to agree, at least to herself, that this was the most fun she had in quite a while.  "Do they have anything here?"  

"This way," Nami replied as Kimiko replaced her sticks. "They've got everything here."  

Strolling from the drum game, past a row of crane machines filled with everything from plushies to adult-oriented figures, the three girls made their way to the back of the arcade. There, Ranma was greeted by a long row of vending machines that lined the entire length of the wall. There were hot and cold drinks and even snacks from candies to sandwiches.  

"Er, maybe I'll get me a little something to eat while I'm at it," Ranma said with a smile as she felt her stomach rumble.  

Shaking her head, Nami commented, "I can't see how you keep your figure with the way you eat."  

"I practice martial arts," Ranma explained as she walked up to one of the sandwich machines. "I use up a lot of calories."  

Soon Ranma was happily munching away on a slightly dry tuna and seaweed sandwich and drinking, at Nami's suggestion, an iced coffee. The drink was not too bad, but Ranma felt it was slightly bitter for her tastes. The three were gathered around a worn "standing" table as each munched on their own treats.  

"What's next?" Ranma asked eagerly. For the first time in so long she felt like she was living - really alive - and she didn't want to let go of that feeling yet. 

"You want to leave or hang around some more?" Nami asked. 

Ranma's eyes darted between her friends and the crowded arcade and made her decision. Their was no way she was going to walk away from this new-found fun yet. "Well... I wouldn't mind trying a few more games..." 

"Let's try that one over there," Nami excitedly said as she pointed into the room. Ranma had no idea which machine Nami was pointing to, but it didn't matter; as long as the fun didn't stop. 

Kimiko glanced at her watch. "We have time," she announced. "Let me get some more change and - ow!" 

The metal band that edged the table had separated a bit where they joined together and a small, ragged edge was exposed. Kimiko had the misfortune of catching her arm just below the elbow on it and blood began to freely run down her forearm. 

"Kimiko! Are you all right?" Nami asked as she tended to her friend. Ranma herself had grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser on the table and was heading around to Kimiko's side of the table. 

"Let's see," Ranma said in an almost commanding way. She was used to dealing with injuries and felt the need to be... protective of her new friend.  

"It's just a scratch," Kimiko muttered, embarrassed. "It surprised me more than it hurt me. See?" She held up her arm for Nami's and Ranma's inspection. Just below the elbow was a small, one inch cut that looked as if had been made by a razor. Blood oozed freely from the rent. Though it was minor, a band-aid was definitely called for. 

"Let's get you cleaned up," Ranma said as she wiped the blood away and pressed the napkins over the cut to stop the flow. The slight static-electric shock was lost in heat of the moment. "Where's the ladies room?" She asked as she looked around. 

"Over in the corner," Nami replied. 

"Guys, I'm not hurt bad," Kimiko complained. "It's not like my arm was cut off." 

"You still don't want an infection," Nami pointed out. 

Ranma removed the napkins to wipe anymore blood that might have escaped and blinked at Kimiko's arm. "What the-?" 

"What's wrong?" Kimiko asked as she turned her arm to see what was the matter. 

"Wow," Nami said. "I guess it wasn't as bad as it looked at first." Ranma nodded absently. Kimiko's arm was unmarred and unscratched. The only testament that she had even been hurt was the drying blood on her arm. Cocking her head, Ranma wondered if there was something more to it, then just as quickly dismissed it. After all, if she was a fast healer, why couldn't anyone else be one too? 

"Well, let's at least wash the rest of the blood off," Ranma offered as she wiped up what she could. 

"Told you it was nothing," Kimiko said through a smile. Knowing Nami as she did, Kimiko wasn't surprised by her reaction, but she was genuinely touched that Ranma would show this much concern for her, considering the short time they had known each other. 

"Right," Nami piped up. "Then we can get back to having fun!" 

-------- 

It was just before midnight when the trio of girls made it to Kimiko's apartment. It was located not far from where Ranma now resided and while not as ritzy as Setsuna's, it was nice with a charm all its own. The small lobby was just large enough to accommodate two elevators whose doors were flanked by cheap, plastic potted plants and a bench. Kimiko pushed the call button. "This is where I live," she informed Ranma. "It's not much, but it's nice." 

"Hey, it beats the hell out of living out of a tent," Ranma said, her language relaxing. She then realized what she had said and quickly corrected herself. "I mean, this is much nicer than what I'm generally used to," she rephrased with a slight 'Ranko' lilt. 

Nami and Kimiko giggled at their friend's slip. She had been doing that off and on all evening and they had found great amusement in Ranma's "self-correcting" of her speech. 

"That's okay, Ranma," Kimiko said as a 'ding' was heard and a light lit up above an elevator door. "We're your friends." 

Blinking at that, Ranma felt a certain amount of camaraderie wash over her. It wasn't a much stronger feeling than when she used to hang around her friends back... home, but it was more focused. Any more thoughts were sidelined as the doors of the elevator slid to one side and she followed her companions inside. Kimiko pushed the 'five' button on the control pad and waited as the doors closed. 

"How did you like getting out?" Nami asked as the elevator started to move. 

"It was... it was great!" Ranma replied with a broad grin; it took some self control to keep from just gushing about how much fun it was. "I can't remember the last time I've had this much fun." 

"See, we told you so," Kimiko playfully admonished. "You need to get out more." 

"I... guess," Ranma reluctantly agreed. "I'm just not used to all of this." 

"I guess it is a bit of a change from what you told us of your life," Nami conceded. "I think I would have run away a long time ago. Who needs idiots attacking you out of the blue?" 

"Er, heh," Ranma coughed. She had the feeling that perhaps she had already said too much this evening, but it was too late to take any of it back. At least Nami and Kimiko didn't seem to think any less of her because of it. 

"It's okay," Nami reassured as she snaked an arm around the shorter girl's shoulders and giving her a warm hug; it had the affect of pushing any fears of rejection away. "We don't think less of you because of what you had to live through," she continued as if reading Ranma's mind and adding in a comforting smile. "If fact, I think you're probably the strongest person I know. Many people would have cracked under the pressure." 

"Er, thanks," Ranma said as she smiled back. It was rather awkward. On one hand Ranma was glad to be accepted, but if these two knew her true nature... she didn't want to think how they would react. 

There was a soft ding and the door opened into a narrow hallway. Kimiko lead the way out of the elevators with Nami and Ranma in tow. Halfway to the end of the corridor she paused and fished a keychain from her purse before continuing on to the very end of the hall. 

Inserting the key, Kimiko paused for a moment. "Don't mind my folks," she said. "They're a little weird." 

"Kimiko, your parents are just fine," Nami said. "Ranma's father is now the new standard in weirdness." 

"Right," Kimiko giggled out. Surprisingly, Ranma joined in on the joke at her absent father's expense. Without further ado, Kimiko turned the key in the lock and opened the door. Upon entering, the girls were met by a tall, long-haired woman in her forties. 

"You're home - and before curfew," the older woman commented. 

"Hi mom," Kimiko greeted as she used the toe of one shoe to hold down the back of her other shoe in order to step out of each one.  

"Hello Nami, how are you? And who do we have here?" the woman asked as she appraised Ranma who stood between Kimiko and Nami. 

"This is Ranma," Kimiko said gaily. "She's the friend from school I've been telling you about." 

"Oh, the reforming tomboy," the woman said with a smile. "Hello, I'm Akako, Kimiko's mother." 

"Er, hi," Ranma replied with slight nervousness at meeting someone new and the "reforming" comment didn't help either. 

"Mom!" Kimiko exclaimed.  

Akako chuckled at her daughters embarrassment. "Oh Kimiko, I was just teasing. Come on in girls," Akako said as she led the trio into the apartment. 

Looking about, the first thing that Ranma noticed was that Kimiko's apartment was much smaller than Setsuna's and only sparsely decorated. The front door opened into the long, main room. At the very end of the room was one large window with a sliding patio-type door that opened to a narrow balcony. Starting from the back, on the left wall of the apartment, was a small kitchen that was comprised of a sink, a countertop with two electric burners and a modest, but small, upright refrigerator. Next to the small kitchen area was a stacking washer/dryer combo. 

To the right, about a quarter of the way from the front door, Ranma spied a short hallway that most likely led to another small room. In an apartment this small there would be no room for dedicated bedrooms, so most likely every room had to be multipurpose. Next to that, nearest to the front door, was a half opened doorway that led to the bathroom and a small, separated stall that housed the family's toilet. 

Opposite the kitchen area, was a rather largish television on its stand. In the middle of the room, beside a low table in an equally low chair, sat a middle-aged man with a receding hairline typing into a silver-colored laptop. Peeking over his dark-rimmed glasses, he smiled and revealed his yellowing teeth. 

"Hello girls," he greeted in a rich, low voice. "It's good to see that you managed to get home before curfew." 

"Dad!" Kimiko said with false exasperation. But still, it was so uncool to have her friends know she had a curfew. 

"Sorry dear," the man chuckled lowly as he stood. "I couldn't resist." He then cast a speculative eye on the curly-haired girl standing next to his daughter. "You must be Ranma," he said. "Kimiko has spoken of you." 

"Er, hi," Ranma said with uncertainness that came across as shyness. 

"It's a pleasure to meet you," he rumbled out, giving Ranma a slight bow. "I'm Kiyoshi, Kimiko's father." 

Suddenly remembering her manners, Ranma bowed deep to the taller man. "I'm Saotome Ranma," she said with her "Ranko" lilt. "I am pleased to meet you as well." 

Kiyoshi gave a deep, rumbling chuckle as he peeked at his watch. "Well, it is getting late. We'll let you girls do whatever you girls do." 

"Goodnight dad! Goodnight Mom!" Kimiko exclaimed. 

"Goodnight dear," Akako said as she joined her husband. "Don't stay up too late." 

"We won't," Kimiko promised. 

When the parents retired for the night into the next room, Kimiko quickly removed some futons from a shallow closet that was off to one side. With the help of Ranma and Nami, she laid them out in the main room of the apartment. 

"You guys want anything to eat?" Kimiko offered as she finished spreading out the last of the red and white striped futons.  

"I'm fine," Nami replied as Ranma simply shook her head. 

Nami and Kimoko stared at Ranma for a moment. "Nothing?" Kimiko asked doubtfully. 

"I'm fine," Ranma said. "But I could use something to drink." 

"We have Sangaria, Ramune and orange juice," Kimiko said as she poked her head in the refrigerator. 

"Orange juice, please," Ranma said politely. 

Soon the three were sitting cross-legged on their futons chatting. The room was cast in a half shadow, a single floor lamp being the only source of light. What was amazing to Ranma was not so much the differences between what guys and girls talked about, but the similarities.  

"I heard a joke the other day, wanna hear it?" Nami asked. 

"Sure," Ranma answered as Kimiko motioned Nami to continue. 

"A hunter kills a deer and brings it home," Nami began, "and he decides to serve it for dinner that night to his family." 

Kimiko and Ranma sat in rapt attention. Internally though, Ranma wasn't expecting much, since it was a girl that was telling the joke. 

"The hunter knows his kids won't eat it if they know what it is - so he does not tell them that it is deer," Nami went on. "While the hunter was preparing dinner, his little boy keeps asking him, "What's for supper?" "You'll see", was the hunter's reply." 

Nami paused and snickered a bit before continuing. "Anyways, they start eating supper and his daughter asks "What are we eating?" and the son asks the same thing. "Ok," says the hunter, "here's a hint, it's what your mother sometimes calls me."  

A grin spread over Nami's face as she let the body of the joke sink in to her audience before delivering the punch line. "The son's eyes got real wide and he screams  'Oh my god! We're eating asshole!' " 

Ranma burst out laughing heartily before covering her mouth, bringing it down to manageable levels. Kimiko giggled away as Nami snickered. "Who told you that one?" Kimiko asked. 

"Yuki, from the class next door," Nami replied. 

"Figures," Kimiko said. "That is the type of joke she'd tell." 

"I didn't think girls told jokes like that," Ranma commented as she came down from the humor.  

"What makes you say that?" Nami asked. 

"The only people I know that tell jokes like that are guys," Ranma responded before she realized what she said. "Er, that is, most of the girls I've met before never told jokes like that... they've always told, er... little kid jokes," she finished lamely. 

Kimiko giggled a bit. "That's probably because they were trying to be polite," she explained. "Heck, most of the raunchier jokes I've heard came from Mrs. Waibi, our neighbor." 

"R-really?" Ranma asked, mentally caught flatfooted. 

"You meant you never told jokes like that?" Nami asked. 

"Of course I did," Ranma replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I used to hear some real dirty ones when me and Pops visited some of the dojos in the south or camping out like we did." 

"And you find it strange that you told jokes but other girls didn't?" Nami pointed out. 

"Er, ahh, it's just that," Ranma floundered about when she realized how she sounded. "It... was different when it was on the road." 

"I see...," Kimiko said as she thought of something. "You know, I think you are more than just a tomboy that is trying to fit in." 

Ranma blinked. She knew some amazing leap of logic was about to be performed. "Okay," she prompted. 

"The way you behave is one extreme or another, "Kimiko continued. "You either act like a perfect little girl or a tomboy." 

"Oh-oh, Kimiko: Junior Psychologist strikes again," quipped Nami. 

"Well look at the facts," Kimiko said. "Ranma is not just any tomboy that is trying to fit in, she was raised by her father on the road - don't you see?" 

The two other girls blinked at their friend. Kimiko shook her head at their incomprehension. "Okay, I'll bite. What's so obvious that I'm missing?" Nami asked. 

"Well, to be fair, I didn't put it together until Ranma loosened up and started telling us about her life and how she lived, but you do notice that Ranma talks like a boy?" 

"Yeah, so?" Ranma said, wondering where this was leading. 

"Ranma," Kimiko said, focusing a gaze on the curly-haired girl. "You were raised as a boy, weren't you?" 

A stunned silence followed for a brief moment.  

"You're right," Nami agreed. "I never thought about it. Is it true Ranma? Were you raised as a boy?" 

Wide-eyed, Ranma looked back and forth between Nami and Kimiko. She didn't know what to do. Of course she was raised as a guy, she was a guy! But she couldn't tell them that. 

"Er, yeah... that's it," Ranma admitted rather meekly, fearing that somehow the two might have figured out more than possible. It came across as embarrassment to the others. "My Pops raised me like a son." 

Ranma's two friends "tisked" at that. "Your father is a bigger idiot than I thought. What was he thinking?" 

"It's not your fault," Kimiko said with a reassuring squeeze of Ranma's shoulder. "It's just the way you were raised." 

"But some of the things your father did - an all boys school of all things. I mean, really, what was he thinking?" Nami repeated. 

"How'd you know about that?" Ranma said in a half-panic. 

"You told us when we were at the arcade, remember?" Nami reminded. "You said that you had to fight some guy for something to eat everyday." 

Ranma paled while she mentally slapped herself. She really had said too much. Though uneased by her just discovered slips, Ranma had to know how much damage she had done. "Er... guys... how much did I say tonight?" 

"Quite a bit," Nami said as she stretched out on her futon, getting comfortable. "Some of the things you said were bizarre, but considering your father..." Nami gave a disgusted snort.  

"Yeah... hee, hee," Ranma said nervously. 

"Don't worry about it," Kimiko said as she stifled a yawn. "You're a sweet person. You act like a boy at times, but with your upbringing I'm surprised you don't have more problems." 

Ranma blinked. "Like what?" 

"Well, considering that your father tried to raise you - his daughter - to be a 'man among men'..." 

"Oh crap," Ranma mentally kicked herself. "When the hell did I mention that?" 

"... I'm surprised that you didn't turn out to be a sexist when it came to other women, arrogant, and egotistical," Kimiko finished while rolling to her side to get more comfortable. 

Nami noticed the redhead's eyes widen in shock. "But you're not," she reassured. "Like Kimi said. You're a sweet person - and our friend." 

"Er... yeah," Ranma lamely said. There was a certain amount of truth to what Kimiko had just said and it was disquieting, but Ranma didn't feel like dealing with those feelings at the moment. "Er, guys... would you mind keeping this to yourselves?" 

"Ranma," Kimiko began, "we're your friends. We won't blab anything you told us around to anyone." 

Blinking, Ranma looked between the two girls. Ranma was taken aback by the fact that she just asked two people that she had known for a comparatively short time to keep her personal life to themselves - and they agreed. No bribery or deal cutting was involved. "Er, thanks," she uncertainly said, and she pushed her own glasses back up her nose.. 

"Well, I'm beat," Nami announced. "Goodnight," she finished with a sigh. 

"Me too, see you in the morning," Kimiko said as she reached for the dangling lamp cord. 

"Goodnight," Ranma said quietly as the room plunged into darkness. Ranma laid awake in the dark, listening to the breathing of Nami and Kimiko for what seemed like hours before their breathing became regular as sleep overtook them. Sleepily, Ranma's mind played over the evening's events and came to an inescapable conclusion: "It was fun." Which was her last thought before sleep claimed her. 

------- 

Morning came, and after a light breakfast and some quick goodbyes, Ranma began her trip back to the apartment that she was, in spite of herself, considering as home. That very notion gave Ranma cause to pause in her walk.  

"It isn't my home," Ranma mentally chided herself. "It's just a hideout." 

Shaking herself free of that thought, she mused over last night's events. Hanging out with Nami and Kimiko had been fun. More fun than she could ever remember having. 

"I definitely have to get out more," Ranma thought resolutely. "After I go back to the Tendo's, Akane and I are going to go shopping and hit the arcade-" Ranma paused in thought. "What the hell am I thinking? Wait a minute." 

Frowning, Ranma tried to collate her feelings. "That's girl stuff," she internally objected. "I can't have fun... doing... girl's... Her thoughts trailed off as the thrill of the memories of playing at the arcade asserted themselves. "Okay, I had fun. But it really wasn't girl stuff, heck guys were out there doing the same thing I was doing last night. So it doesn't count." 

Internally satisfied with her excuse, she shoved anymore disturbing thoughts aside and concentrated on another matter that had been dogging her over the majority of her stay. "Nabiki," she thought the name like a curse. "What am I going to do about Nabiki?" 

Absently waving and smiling at a now familiar neighbor, Ranma entered the apartment building that she lived and worked at. "I gotta take a stand... but I don't wanna hurt anybody," she thought as she pressed the elevator button. "I gotta talk to Akane and see what she thinks." 

Entering the building, Ranma mentally went over what day it was. "Two days - she's due to call me in two days. I'll talk to her and see what she thinks." 

--------- 

Late in the afternoon, Ranma was back in her "nanny uniform" and escorting Hotaru for her monthly appointment at Kikuko's Salon for a trim. Of course these monthly visits also meant that Ranma had her hair touched up as well; it had become a regular part of her routine. Ever since last week's sleepover, Ranma had felt a bit more natural in public. 

It was not that Ranma had grown fond of her new accidental hairstyle, but Hotaru could easily convince her to have her hair taken care of. Ranma justified it as keeping her disguise up, though that reasoning was fast growing thin - even to herself. She could have let her hair grow out and be loose or in a ponytail or any other style, but instead kept getting it short and permed. 

Her health improving more and more, Hotaru's hair reflected that by growing a bit faster and developing a beautiful sheen. Hotaru had toyed with the thought of letting her hair grow out longer, but decided in the end to let keep it at the length she was used to. After Hotaru's quick trim, Ranma eased herself into the chair and waited as Kikuko gathered the necessary items to fix up Ranma's hair. She eyed Hotaru who was energetically hovering around her. 

"How were your aunt and uncle doing?" Ranma asked Hotaru conversationally as Kikuko began to fuss over her red tresses. 

"They're doing swell," Hotaru replied, merrily. "I showed them one of the kicks you taught me." 

"Which one?" Ranma asked as she winced at having her hair pulled slightly. 

"The snap one," Hotaru's excitement came off in waves. While Ranma had been teaching Hotaru Tai Chi; Hotaru had taken quickly to the sprinkling of the basic Karate moves that Ranma had taught her - this on top of the exercises with the staff. 

Ranma smiled at the younger girls enthusiasm. "You didn't over do it, did you?" 

"No Miss Ranma," Hotaru answered as she began practicing a kata in the open space of the nearly empty salon. "I didn't want my auntie and uncle to fuss over me." 

Ranma smiled at the 'Miss Ranma' title that Hotaru had bestowed on her. It was a compromise between the formal 'Miss Saotome' or 'Nanny Ranma' that Ranma didn't feel comfortable with. Also the tongue and cheek playful manner in which it was delivered helped immensely.  

That her charge was so eager to practice really brightened her day too. Hotaru's life had really turned around. It scared Ranma a little bit, not only was she responsible for Hotaru's safety, but her charge looked to her as a role model. 

Ranma frowned briefly. Hotaru looked up to a shy tomboyish, martial arts nanny. Most of that was a lie. 

"Thanks squirt." Ranma winced again at her hair being pulled. "Last thing I need is for them to be calling Setsuna again telling her that I'm wearing you out - a little more control on the thrust there, Hotu-chan." 

The young girl nodded as she repeated the motion with her arm in a smoother and more controlled way. 

"Better," Ranma commented. 

"That is really cool, Hotaru," Kikuko said as she worked on Ranma's hair. She had noticed the improvement in Hotaru. Setsuna had hired well. Ranma may be young, but she was dedicated to her charge. Plus, she had such well-behaved and beautiful hair, that really took well to perms. 

Hotaru paused in her spontaneous exercise. "Miss Ranma," she began, "do you think you could teach me more karate?" 

Smiling, Ranma replied. "Sure, as long as you keep yourself fit." 

Hotaru smiled in return and restarted the slow Tai Chi kata, carefully minding her form. 

--------- 

Sitting on the very bench that had cost her her pigtail, Ranma leaned her head back slightly and stared at the starry sky. Before sitting down she had checked the bench. Over the past few months she had learned to take care of her coiled hair.  

She looked up at the few bright stars that could be seen through the urban haze and light pollution of the city and sighed. It wasn't that the hour was late, it was just that time of the year when the sun started to go down early. Ranma was glad that the cold weather hadn't really kicked in yet, but she knew that it was coming and coming soon. 

With a chirping sound, Ranma's eyes were torn away from the hazy sky and to the matter at hand. Reaching into the pocket of her skirt, she withdrew a small lavender-colored cellphone. Looking at the time on the faceplate, Ranma smiled. "Right on time," she mussed as she hit the answer button. 

"How's it going, Akane?" Ranma asked into the mouthpiece. 

"Well..." Akane began somewhat hesitantly, "Mr. Huang left to go back to Hong Kong yesterday-" 

"He's gone?" Ranma excitedly interrupted, leaning forward on the bench. 

"Yes, but-" 

"Then I guess I can come...," Ranma paused. She felt unsure about or that she was missing something. "Akane, is there anything wrong?" 

"Yes, I've been trying to tell you, but you keep interrupting me," Akane said exasperatingly. 

Silence fell over the phone as Ranma waited patiently for Akane to continue. After a few long moments, Akane resumed. "Mr. Huang left, but Nabiki..." 

"Don't tell me Nabiki is still going to sell me out," Ranma finished in disgust. 

"Yes, Huang has put Nabiki on 'retainer' in case you showed up," Akane explained, ignoring the fact that Ranma had interrupted her again. "He is very interested in having you as his 'toy'." 

Silence revisited the conversation. 

"Akane... I've been thinking... how would you feel if... if I reported Nabiki?" 

"To who?" Akane asked cluelessly. 

"To the authorities," Ranma replied impatiently. At least she was not the only clueless one. 

"I wish you would," Akane almost spat out. "She has been more obsessed with money since Mr. Huang came around waving wads of it under her nose all the time." 

"I bet ol' pop was right there with her." Ranma exhaled. It seemed like no one was untouched. "Are you all right?" 

A thick silence fell briefly before Akane softly spoke. "My... my father too. It's like they've all turned into... it's like they're all trying to win the big prize, you know? I don't think that they're really thinking about what would happen to you. I can't even talk to them anymore, the only people I can really talk to is Kasumi, my friends at school and you." 

Ranma smiled and felt... warm inside? She was glad that she made Akane's short list. Sensing that there was something more, Ranma waited patiently. 

"Your mother visited last weekend," Akane said with a trace of sadness in her voice. "She came looking for you and your father again." 

Swallowing, Ranma asked, "What happened?" 

"Well, you father hid as 'Mr. Panda' and Nabiki and daddy asked if your mother had heard from you," Akane replied. "She got very worried when she said she hadn't, but Kasumi managed to calm her down before things got too out of hand." 

"That's... good," Ranma said neutrally. 

"Then she asked about 'Ranko" and daddy screwed up by saying that 'she' and Ranma went on a training trip, well you can imagine how your mother reacted to that." 

"Oh man..." 

"Oh man is right," Akane said. "She said that it was improper for you to take any girl with you on a training - or any other trip - unchaperoned. She said that she was going to give 'the both of you a stern talking to about what was and wasn't proper behavior'." 

"Oh man..." Ranma repeated. 

"But daddy backtracked and calmed her by saying that your father was with you," Akane continued. "That seemed to settle the matter, but your mother seemed so sad that she missed you." 

Feeling empty at the news of her mother, Ranma struggled to remain detached emotionally. "Stupid Pops..." she muttered. 

"I'm sorry Ranma..." 

It's not your fault," Ranma sighed. "It's Pops fault." 

"What are you going to do?" Akane asked. 

Biting her lip briefly, Ranma responded. "First thing, I'm going to call in a tip to the police... or whoever... and get Nabiki and most likely Pops off me." 

"Okay..." 

"Er... Akane, can I ask you something?" 

There was a second of silence; Ranma could almost imagine Akane blinking into her handset. "Sure," Akane's voice replied. "What do you want to ask me?" 

"Well, Akane... er, why haven't you... you know, called in about your sister?" Ranma asked tentatively. 

A long moment of silence fell; long enough that Ranma feared that Akane wouldn't answer. 

"I don't know," Akane finally replied. "I mean, she's my sister, but in spite of that I know I should have. I think it is because it would upset daddy, but now that he is a part of it..." 

"You don't want me to?" Ranma asked. 

"No! No, that's not it," Akane said in a rush. "It's just... I thought this whole thing would just go away, you know? Like suddenly one day everything would be fine." 

"I kinda thought that too," Ranma admitted. Things used to do that, but this had gotten out of hand, too big. "But it's not going too." 

"I know that now," Akane interrupted. "You make the call, I don't blame you." 

"Er, thanks." 

"Listen, I have to go," Akane said in a low tone, "same time next week?" 

"Right, I'll be waiting for your call," Ranma replied. "Bye." 

"Bye," Akane echoed. That was followed by a soft click as the connection was cut. Ranma soon pressed the 'end' button on her cellphone, shutting it down. 

"I gotta do something," Ranma concluded as she made her way back to the place that she was slowly considering home. "Everyone is telling me the same thing, I can't let Nabiki get away with treating me like that." 

"I'll talk to Setsuna about it next weekend," Ranma concluded aloud. "Hotaru is going to spend the night with her aunt and uncle again and I don't want her to worry about me." 

------- 

Ranma had just finished vacuuming the apartment and was inspecting her handiwork. She really did not mind such domestic tasks; the work was easy and she took pride in keeping the place where she lived and worked clean. In another life, she might have thought the work was a bit feminine. However, any effeminate feelings that light housework brought were far out shadowed by the fact that she was a living as a nanny and wore a frilly apron daily. 

"Miss Ranma!" Hotaru's voice suddenly shouted from the bathroom, jolting Ranma from the task at hand. Having taken care of Hotaru over the last several months, Ranma had easily detected the undercurrent of stress in the younger girl’s voice.  

"What is it?" Ranma asked anxiously after she ran to the door. "Are you all right? Are you hurt? Did your nausea get worse?" Her heart pounded and not from the minimal exertion the short run gave her. Little Hotaru had been complaining that her stomach had been cramping off and on for the last few days. This was on top of hearing about a stomach virus that was hitting junior high schoolers and Ranma feared that Hotaru might have caught it. 

"I... I don't think so," Hotaru's voice drifted from the stressed tone to one of embarrassment. 

"Well, what's wrong? Is it related to that stomach bug going around?" Ranma knew that Hotaru had been cranky earlier, her stomach had been giving her problems and she had felt cramps. 

"I'm... er...spotting... you know... bleeding," Hotaru coughed. "Um... down there." 

Ranma paused; her brain momentarily locked up as the meaning of what Hotaru had just said rattled around her head. Her face flushed; this was not something that she, of all people, should be dealing with. But taking care of Hotaru was her job, so Ranma sucked in her personal discomfort and addressed the still closed door. "Oh... Well... do you want any help?" She asked, while secretly hoping that none was needed. 

"Er... I think... just a little. Just as long as you make me one promise." 

Ranma thought she heard a trace of fear in Hotaru's voice. "Sure thing, squirt." 

"No red beans and rice. I don't wanna have Auntie and Uncle over and surprise them with this." 

Ranma blinked. The couple television shows she had seen showed that this was something that girls - real girls - looked forward too." Why not?" She asked in genuine puzzlement. 

"It's embarrassing. I'm only thirteen, my birthday was only a month ago," Hotaru replied through the door, Ranma could hear the pout in her voice. 

"Well... you've started growing these past few months. That could do it," Ranma proposed.  

"How old were you when you got your first period?" Hotaru shot back. 

"Uh... well..." Ranma coughed. "It was on the road and... it was freaky." Ranma sighed. "Look, I can show you how to use my stuff and then we can talk about getting your own pads." 

"I'll let you in if you tell me," Hotaru teased. Her nanny always had good stories, especially the ones that made her embarrassed. 

Ranma sighed. "Fine. I was running for my life in China. Had some crazed Amazon trying to kill me." 

Hotaru giggled and unlocked the door. Ranma entered and was surprised to find that Hotaru had already cleaned up and was reading the side of one of Ranma's feminine hygiene boxes. 

"So, while I was trying to get you to let me in, you were doing it all yourself?" Ranma asked with a cock of the eyebrow. 

"I wanted to make sure I was doing it right," Hotaru pouted with her lip trembling. 

"Oh don't you try to look cute at me," Ranma crossed her arms and attempted to glare in a stern way, but failed miserably at it.  

"Sorry," Hotaru said while a small smile broke across her face. 

Ranma shook her head and opened the box and started explaining what was required. So focused on the matter at hand that the absurdity of her, a girl who was really a guy, explaining some of the facts of life to a girl, who was really a girl, escaped her. This side of a period was not too hard to deal with; in Ranma’s mind it was like covering a wound. - the fact that it would bleed for a few days every month was the creepy part... and what it really meant. Ranma's hands spasmed at that thought. 

"I shouldn't be this weirded out. I've had a few of these things while over here - even before I came here. It's just part of being a girl.” Ranma froze at that admission. "No..." 

"What is it?" Hotaru asked after her nanny had stopped her mini-lecture. 

"Oh? Nothing. I was thinking back to... my first period." Ranma coughed and put the package in Hotaru's hands. 

"When you were being chased across China?" Hotaru asked, suspicion creeping into her voice. 

"Yeah, that's the time. Found out that those girls are real sore losers." Ranma grinned. 

"You saying you were hunted just because you beat someone in a fight?" Hotaru asked after she turned aside and adjusted something. She turned back at her reflection and morosely noted that Miss Ranma was right; she was starting to mature. At thirteen, she was starting to mature. She sighed at her reflection. 

Ranma nodded and hoped that Hotaru would stop digging into her past. She then noticed something wrong with her charge. "Depressed?" She asked; then cocked her head to one side, looking fairly motherly as she did so. "Are you scared about becoming a woman?" 

"How... how did you know?" Hotaru slowly turned from her reflection to her nanny. She knew what she would look like when she became a... woman, and it scared her.. among other things it might bring. Hotaru took heart in that she seemed free of any... influence, and had people who cared for her. 

Ranma smiled weakly, and tried to piece together a sentence. "I... well... I had problems with my body too –um- when I was your age." 

"Really? But you're so strong and pretty," Hotaru said incredulously. "Was it because of your father and being on that trip?" Hotaru knew all about fathers. 

"Uh, yeah that's it." Ranma sighed. Even when she had escaped her family; they were still affecting her. "So do you feel better?" 

"Not really, Miss Ranma." Hotaru frowned. "I'm just cramping a little... I hope the blood won't ruin my clothes." 

"Being a girl can really suck," Ranma agreed. 

"But it sure beats being a boy," Hotaru replied. 

"Uh, yeah." Ranma frowned; she didn't know how to feel about that statement. Things were starting to get confusing. "Come on squirt, let's make you a snack." She then led her charge out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. 

------- 

The week wore on in a comfortably predictable fashion. Ranma was very pleased with Hotaru's performance as she enthusiastically wanted to learn more martial arts. Ranma found herself having to hold Hotaru back because she wanted to attempt things that she was not ready to try, and thankfully the small girl took Ranma's cautions seriously. 

Ranma walked through the park with a broad smile; a large shopping bag swinging easily at her side.  It had been a relaxing weekend. She wondered if she should call Nami and Kimiko or wait for them to call her. She thought a moment, and decided to call them later when she got back home.  

She looked down at the bag and nearly giggled with secret excitement.  Hotaru deserved it and should like the outfit; Ranma had noticed Hotaru eyeing the purple silk gi every time they went shopping together at Daishi's, the martial arts supply house they’d been frequenting. It would make a good present as a reward for all the hard work that the young girl had been doing. Ranma knew that Hotaru would be delighted to show it off to her aunt and uncle this weekend.  

The nanny would have bought it sooner, but she knew Hotaru did not want any gifts in relation to her first period. It was a sentiment that Ranma could easily understand and respect. 

As Ranma walked the paved path through the overhanging trees, she idly noted a young boy climbing amongst some branches. The boy looked down and waved at the girly woman before resuming his climb.  Ranma slowed to watch as she remembered climbing when she was that age, and male.  Though it was not a game back then. Stupid wolves.  

Her amusement died when she saw the kid slip. In a helpless moment, where time seemed to slow, Ranma watched as the young child's arms and legs flailed about all the way down until he hit the ground with a hard bounce. His shrill scream pierced the serenity of the park.  

Quickly, thankful that her employer did not require heels, Ranma ran over to where the boy had fallen.  With her heart in her throat, she knelt down over the boy.  He was crying and holding an arm. "Where does it hurt?" she asked inspecting his body.  

He looked up to the woman in the nice black dress, wearing a green pendant. Tears flowed freely from his eyes and a whimper escaped his lips as he tried to move his arm. There was a cut on his forehead but it did not look deep and only oozed out.  

"Oh God." Ranma noticed the unnatural lump and angle of his forearm. It had to be broken. She pulled her cell phone out and paused for a split second; her attention was drawn to a sensation that asserted itself. The hand she had on his shoulder felt odd, yet somehow almost familiar.    

She slowly put the phone down on the grass and with her now free hand gently placed it onto the boy's wrist.  There was a slight warm sensation after the contact was made.  "It's okay. It's okay," she gently assured as she moved her hands closer to the break.  

The warm sensation grew into a electric one; it was not a painful shock, but a gentle current that seemed to flow between Ranma and the downed boy. Blinking a few times, Ranma realized that she could almost feel into his arm.  The nature of the break became more obvious to her. She closed her eyes and focused on the sensations that flowed freely between them... and then things started to change.  There was a shifting and the mental image of damage decreased.  

The redhead opened her eyes to find that her hands were next to each other. Hesitantly, she pulled them off his arm.  Numbly, the boy flexed his hand and rotated his wrist.  "What, happened?" he sniffed.  

"I... I'm not sure," Ranma blankly said as she pulled her hands to her lap.  "I think I healed you," she ventured softly with uncertainty.  

"Wow, that's great!" the kid said as he wobbly stood back up, checking his arm again.    

"It was... nothing," Ranma smiled as she stood - then she blinked.  It really was nothing.  There was no difficulty or effort involved.  Her touch just healed.  

"Okay!" the kid nodded.  He then looked down and noticed his torn clothes and scrapped hands. "Awww man!  I'm all torn up. Mom's gonna yell at me."  

Ranma laughed. "You were climbing a bit high, kiddo."  She looked down at the child's face and the small cut on his forehead and without thinking ran a finger over its length.  As her finger traced the cut, that feeling manifested itself at the point of contact. Removing her hand, Ranma inspected the area, but now she could find no sign of there having been any damage. "What in the hell is going on?" she wondered in a half panic.   

"You can't fix my clothes can you?" the boy asked.  

"I don't think so." Ranma shook her head; she was beginning to feel creeped out.  

The boy sighed disappointedly. "Well thanks anyway, Lady!" He said giving a little bow. "It would have sucked to have a cast.  I knew this kid in school who had one and he couldn't have any fun for a while."  

"Well, be more careful,"  Ranma cautioned in a surprisingly motherly tone.  

"Okay," he said before running down the path and presumably back home.  

Ranma gathered her cell phone and shopping bag.  Pushing an idle strand of coiled hair she pondered. "What's happening to me?  Hotaru can do this stuff, but...  I mean it's not like she's contagious. Maybe that's why I've felt so close to her.  We both can do  healing, but why now?"    

Ranma thought about some of the superhero manga that Kimiko occasionally read.  Unless you were a mad scientist, superpowers always came up when you were a teenager. "Maybe being around Hotaru activated my dormant abilities," Ranma mused. "I always was a fast healer."  

Ranma sighed. She knew she was reaching with that explanation, but it made some sense.  Not everything was due to magic crap. Hotaru's abilities were not magical, as far as Ranma knew; or as least she hoped it was not magic.  Every new magical thing she ran across seemed to be just another chance to screw with her curse. And it was not like Ranma hadn't been exposed to any magical nonsense, but she'd like to keep her life as a nanny sane.  

------- 

Ranma eyed the faucet.  After the incident in the park she had changed soaps for the past couple days.  She turned back to the bathroom door and doubled checked that it was locked - for the fifth time. Just avoiding the waterproof soap was hard enough.  Without it...  she was at risk - and knowing that her protection was fading frazzled her nerves to no end.  

She figured that if she changed accidentally she could either play dumb, or denounce her manhood.   Neither option looked good, but if someone suddenly found out that their female friend, employee, or nanny was a guy...  "They'd understand a girl hiding an embarrassing affliction a lot more than a guy hiding out in some cursed body," Ranma concluded.  

Looking at her reflection, Ranma knew that in retrospect the risk of a couple days of being revealed seemed light.  There was also the chance that her fears were unfounded.  That the soap was not even needed.  

Her lip trembled.  Living as a girl was one thing,  being stuck as one was another.   

Ranma adjusted her robe and put her arm under some hot water from the shower. The transformation hit.  Ranma looked at his reflection, and then down into his robe.   

"Good, I can change to a guy, where's the cold water," Ranma mumbled to himself as he adjusted the shower back to cold.  She then proceeded to shower   

Ranma was starting to use her normal soap, when a voice interrupted her.  

"Ranma!  Is everything okay in there?"  Setsuna asked from out in the hallway. 

"Uh,  yes it is Setsuna-san,"  Ranma choked out, forgetting that she had her face in the stream of water. Worried that she might have been too loud as a guy, Ranma started to sweat under the spray.  

"Oh, okay that's good," Setsuna said through the door. "Well, just remember that if something is wrong, I'm here for you."  

"What would be wrong?" Ranma feigned innocence as she lathered up with the waterproof soap. Now that she was sure that the healing stuff had not messed with her curse, she could lock it again and make sure that there was no chance of her becoming male.  

"There is the matter of that Nabiki person."  

"Oh yeah - right," Ranma called as she shut the water off. "I'll be out in a second."  

Exiting the shower and grabbing a towel, Ranma scrubbed the remaining water off of her. An empty feeling crept into her gut and settled there. She looked at her reflection in the mirror above the sink as if she were looking at herself for the very first time. Leaning forward to look at her reflected eyes, she gripped the edges of the sink so hard that the porcelain threatened to break, Ranma studied her reflection in the mirror.   

"This is wrong. This is wrong."    

Those words kept repeating themselves in her mind as she continued to search herself, hoping to find some answers. She sagged a bit and exhaled loudly when no answers popped into mind. Taking another calming breath, Ranma allowed her fingers to ease up on their pressure as she tried to deal with her emotions.  

"I shouldn't be like this," Ranma thought as she scrutinized her reflection - a reflection that had become all too familiar for her. "I shouldn't be feeling like this - not like I am."  

Ranma searched her blue eyes in the mirror, looking for answers there - and fearing what those answers might be. The whole thing was preposterous. She couldn't be - not like she was. Looking back, it was sneaking up on her from almost day one, but she was too caught up in hiding out to really notice it. When the notion first crept into her consciousness, she pushed it away, denied it and ignored it in a vain hope that it would go away. It did not matter, the truth was written across her face as an elfish grin slowly spread across her lips.  

She was happy.  

For some reason that fact was hard to admit to herself. Herself 

Herself? She's a guy... she was a guy... is a guy... right? She shook off that uncomfortable train of thought without any effort. 

For the first time in her life, Ranma could say she was truly happy. She felt free and unrestrained in what was supposed to be a temporary hiding place. Though the thought did cross her mind more than once to wonder why no one had found her yet, those thoughts were quickly forgotten in her new sense of freedom.  

Freedom. She had never been so free in all her life. And with that freedom came the discovery that you could go out and have fun... and friends... and a real sense of belonging.  

The only dark spot in her happiness was that it was all a lie. Ranma tried to push these thoughts away as she concentrated on fixing her hair. She had let the dye run out and was shocked to find she actually enjoyed how the brighter red complimented her perm. 

Her friends in her new life accepted and cared for her. Her boss liked her enough to offer any help that was necessary with the problems that Nabiki's scheming had caused. Hotaru loved her as a nanny and... like a big sister 

Ranma stopped. Those were natural feelings for a teenaged woman doing her hair while getting ready for her job as a nanny, but not as a martial artist, at least not a male one 

"This is bad," Ranma concluded to herself. "I really painted myself into a corner this time."  

But why? Why would it be so bad to stay like this?  

"Of course it would," she mentally objected. "I'm a guy, not a girl!"  

If I leave here, what do I have to go back to?  

"I can go back to being a guy," Ranma pointed out to herself.  The test before the shower proved that. 

A guy who has unwanted suitors trying to marry him. A guy who has debt collectors hunting him down for debts that his father incurred. A guy who has so-called friends that try to use or kill him to obtain what they want. A guy whose master is a pervert and would think of nothing about blaming all his misdeeds on him.  

A silent moment followed.  

"What about Akane?" Ranma mentally brought up in her internal dialogue. "How about her, huh?"  

Another long silence followed as Ranma searched her feelings for the tomboy before a question popped up. "Do I want to marry her?"  

Yet another long silence fell; a mental silence that betrayed her warring emotions. Ranma knew she was facing some disquieting truths. "I like her," she finally admitted to herself. "I like her a lot, but I don't know if I - like her enough to marry her, but I do know that I like her."  

Then it's a no.  

"Dammit! I said I don't know," Ranma objected to herself.  

If she was the one, I would know.  

"It's not that easy. Honor-"  

Doesn't mean a damned thing when my father has broken many of his sworn oaths so many times. Which marriage arrangement should I honor? And how would I avoid dishonoring one to honor another? And what about everything else that comes flying out of the past that I don't know about?  

Ranma lowered her head, lost between thoughts and feelings. "If we did get married, it... it just wouldn't work out," Ranma sadly realized. "It would only be a matter of time before pressure to produce an heir, my current or other suitors coming out of the wood work, debts that my father rang up coming to haunt me and who knows how many other crazy rivals after me for something I did or didn't do..."  

Ranma gripped the edges of the sink more firmly as she stared down at the sink. Tears of frustration threatened to escape, but she was determined not to shame herself like that.  

"Too much baggage," Ranma concluded. "If Akane and I did get married, it would only be a matter of time before everything... everything that we have no control or responsibility over, would tear us apart."  

A tear tickled her as it traced her cheek, lingered on her chin before dropping into the sink. It was a painful truth that she had been avoiding for a while now. She did like Akane, she really did - she might even love her, but she knew that no matter what her feelings might be, in the long run it wouldn't be enough. "Maybe we can be friends," Ranma hoped.  

I could see that. We do look out for each other.  

"Yeah, we do," Ranma agreed as she thought of the times that Akane had or tried to help her in the past. Akane helping her escape from being sold off as a sex toy to a rich man figured prominently in her mind. "How am I going to tell her without hurting her?"  

I have to be honest with her, I may not be able to avoid hurting her, but I owe her that much.  

"Damn," Ranma swore to herself. "When did life get so complicated?"  

Ranma looked up in the mirror and at her reflection, wondering when she started talking to herself.   

--------- 

Setsuna raised an eyebrow slightly when she saw Ranma emerge from her evening shower. It hadn't escaped her notice that her employee had been unusually quiet this evening and only mentioned that she came to a decision about Nabiki before locking herself in the bathroom.  

Now, she knew for certain that more was troubling the redhead because, while Ranma always wore her uniform well, today it was too... precise. Ranma was trying too hard. "What's wrong?" she asked gently.  

Ranma looked up at her boss. Thinking about Akane had led to the other women in her life. Setsuna deserved the truth. "Miss Meioh, can we talk?" Ranma asked, bowing her head.   

"Oh what's this about? Is it Hotaru? Or maybe that horrible Nabiki woman?" Setsuna asked. She knew this had to be hard for Ranma, but it was a good sign. Ranma had to overcome her past.  

"Well..." Ranma hesitated as she sat down in the living room, next to Setsuna on the couch. Nabiki was something she had been thinking about. She could tell Setsuna that was why she was all worried, and then ask for help. It would not be a lie, but it was not the truth. "Well... yeah... but there's something more important than that I have to talk to you about."  

"It's okay. I knew you had a troubled past when I hired you." Setsuna smiled reassuringly. "Over these months I've come to trust your decisions with Hotaru and have felt that you're more than just a nanny. You're family, to both of us."  

Ranma looked aside and found herself blushing for some reason. She had been a guest at the Tendos' much longer than her stay here, this was the first time she did feel like she was part of something bigger than herself. She knew this was going to be hard, but she had to do it.  

"Don't be afraid. I've put a lot of trust into you, please put some in me," Setsuna pleaded as she took the smaller woman's hand inside hers. This had the affect of drawing Ranma closer to Setsuna.  

"I did tell you about my past, but not everything," Ranma sighed, but Setsuna's nearness made her feel a bit shaky. "Please, don't think I'm a pervert."  

Setsuna blinked as realization dawned on her. She did not expect Ranma to come clean about that part of her life, not this soon. "Why would I? You're a wonderful person. Hotaru loves you too."  

The gender neutral content passed over Ranma's head. "You know that I was raised as a boy, right?" She ventured.  

"That did slip out occasionally during conversation," Setsuna nodded, not smirking this time as the seriousness of situation dampened any amusement she would have found otherwise.  

Ranma fidgeted with her apron. "It's because... because..." Ranma steeled herself for a moment and blurted out, "I was born a boy."  

Ranma looked down at her lap at the end of her admission. Setsuna's hand never left Ranma's, and the redhead received several reassuring squeezes.  

"Oh dear," Setsuna had not expected it to be phrased that way. More like: I am a boy, I'm cursed to become a girl, was more like what she envisioned, not the blunt delivery of the truth.   

Ranma looked away from her lap and at the green-haired woman with wounded eyes. "This is it," she thought " I'm committed now.  I gotta tell her the truth."   

"What happened?" Setsuna was curious as to how Ranma would explain her situation.

 

"It was magic. It was a curse, it made me a girl." Ranma blinked. That was the truth. Was it the whole truth?  

"That must have been a very hard change to deal with," Setsuna ventured.  

"Yes it was..." Ranma trailed off. "It was hard... but now..." Silence fell as Ranma mentally grasped for words.  

"You're used to it?" Setsuna prompted.  

"Er, kinda... I guess," Ranma said awkwardly. "It's like... I'm better - but not in a way I thought I would be."  

"How?" Setsuna asked as she scooted closer to the younger girl. This had the affect of making Ranma feel even warmer. Ranma had always privately thought of Setsuna as beautiful, but the amount of concern that she was giving to her made Ranma feel better.  No one had ever just cared for her, concerned themselves with what Ranma felt. 

"It's like... I mean... I still I'm a guy..." Ranma half-heartedly said, hoping not to sound like a complete fool. "But I'm not quite... all guy... anymore."   

"It must have been hard for you," Setsuna said sympathetically while releasing her hold on Ranma's hand, looping her arm around her shoulder and drawing the smaller girl into a half-hug.  

"Hard? I'm happily living as a nanny with a nice perm and cute shoes." Ranma smiled ruefully while trying desperately not to blush. For some reason, being held by Setsuna was having quite an affect on her.   

"At least you're happy," Setsuna pointed out. "That's what's important." Setsuna's mouth had gone dry. This was not following her, admittedly, rough plan. It made sense that a new life with less stress would make Ranma happy, but not that it would make Ranma more female than she started.  

"Well, yeah." Ranma fidgeted nervously. "Helping Hotaru is nice, and I'm sure... well I'm a kind of a girl now ain't I?"  

"You're not sure?"  

"Well - I was raised in the wild. Pop's ideas about girls don't make much sense, and mom's ideas about being a man are just as bad. I can't really tell what I am." Ranma sighed. Life was complicated. "I know that I've felt most at home here, that's why I didn't want to tell... I was afraid."  

"You didn't like this curse at the start did you?" Setsuna asked, knowing the answer.  

"Of course I didn't," Ranma snorted. "It wasn't my body, and it was all off, but then..." Ranma shook her head. How did it come to this? Accidentally succeeding at being a girl... and now wanting it - even if she was not sure exactly that that meant.  

"You're just Ranma then, in a cuter body?" Setsuna asked while reassuring Ranma with another hug.  

The redhead flushed at the warmth of Setsuna's body next to hers. Feelings that she had been barely aware of were now welling up; it was both scary and reassuring at the same time. She decided to push those feelings down for now. "I was scared of losing my job and my new friends."  

Setsuna did not press Ranma about avoiding her question - now was not the time. "Don't worry. I can see why you've kept that part of your past secret."  

Ranma nodded, but her eyes were still skittish.  

"Don't worry, please." Setsuna squeezed Ranma to her side again.  

"You accept me? Just like that?" Ranma tugged at her apron.  

"Yes, I accept you." Setsuna promised as she brought her other arm around, bringing Ranma into a full hug.   

Ranma effortlessly leaned into the embrace. She felt safe being held by her... friend. The redhead felt she could get used to this attention. Was it getting warm in here?  "What about my past?"   

"That doesn't change who you are now."  

"Who I am now?" Ranma muttered.  

"That's for you to answer," Setsuna replied as she released Ranma from the embrace to look at her in the eye.  

"So now what? You know the truth. I... I was... maybe I'm still a little bit... a guy." Ranma shivered at not really knowing anymore. What she had admitted to so far frightened her and she feared thinking further. "Hell, maybe I'm both! I really don't know anymore. This shouldn't be this hard! I don't..."  

"Ranma, calm down," Setsuna said in a gentle, yet firm, way while placing a finger over the redheads lips. Involuntarily, Ranma's heart rate rose at the touch. Once Setsuna was satisfied that she had Ranma's attention, she continued. "Can you still become a male? What kind of curse is it?" Setsuna asked though she already knew the answer.  

"Yeah, water changes me back and forth," Ranma answered as Setsuna removed her finger. It gave her the chance to control the mixture of emotions that was stirring in her. "Well, it normally does - I'm using this special soap that blocks the change."  

"So you could have made yourself stay male." Setsuna noted.   

"I was already-" Ranma closed her eyes. "I was just hiding then, but I still liked... I can't believe it," Ranma's shoulders sagged in defeat. "Is this how Ranma Saotome loses her manhood?" 

"Her manhood?" Setsuna asked dryly. 

"Gimmie a break, I'm a nanny now," Ranma said crossly.  

"The uniform does compliment you," Setsuna smiled.   

"Thanks," Ranma tried to say sarcastically, but failed; it came out as flat. Since first getting her uniforms a few months ago she had to let out the chest and hips a bit.   

"But remember," Setsuna continued, "Clothes don't make the... person."  

Blinking at that, Ranma eventually went with confusion.  

"You are basically the same good person now as when you arrived, right?" Setsuna asked.  

"Er... I guess so," Ranma replied uncertainly. Though she knew she had lost a lot of her 'rough edges', she was still basically the same person she was.  

"There you go," Setsuna said in a somewhat satisfied tone. "I can accept you because you are still you. Understand?"  

Despite not really knowing where Setsuna was initially going, the meaning slowly crept upon her and she rewarded Setsuna with a bright smile. "Thanks," Ranma said sincerely. "I needed to hear that."  

"And you cook very well." Setsuna's continued, eyes twinkling with mirth as she gave the compliment. It lightened the mood considerably. "Hotaru's no longer rail-thin. Rich meals and good exercise have done wonders, not to mention the help your lessons have given her."  

Ranma's lips edged into smiles. Hotaru was the cornerstone to her new life. "It's all this good living. I never got the chance for regular meals..."  

"And you wanted to make sure she got a good childhood, what you never got." Setsuna could see the effects of "good living" on Ranma's figure too.  

Ranma pondered that before nodding in agreement. Standing up, she smoothed out her dress and apron and adjusted her pendant. "Should I start dinner then? Hotaru should be home from Michiru and Haruka's in an hour or so."  

"How about we go out tonight?" Setsuna said with a little smile.  

"Hotaru would like that," Ranma absently adjusted the tie to her apron. Maybe Setsuna could help explain her past to Hotaru - or perhaps not say anything. Ranma mentally shook her head; one thing at a time.  

"I was thinking Hotaru could stay with Michiru and Haruka for the evening."  

"Re-really?" Ranma choked, she felt as if an invisible hand clutched her heart. "Is this because you found out... I'm..." She closed her eyes; she did not want to continue that line of thought. 

"No, of course not," Setsuna reassured. "I just thought it would be nice to spend some time together. I thought maybe we can go out... eat and talk some more." 

"Oh," Ranma said in a calmer voice. "Er, do you... er, want me to be a guy?" 

"No, I don't want you to be 'a guy' - that's something for you to decide on. So please don't worry, I'm not going to pressure you. I just think you deserve something nice... to be pampered for the evening."  

"Oh, that sounds good," Ranma grinned teasingly.   

"Then get yourself ready," Setsuna replied. "I'll make the reservations." 

Ranma shrugged and walked back to her room. Setsuna noticed that the redhead had a noticeable spring in her step.  

Setsuna made a series of phone calls and then took a quick shower. She then donned one of her suit skirts. She smirked at her reflection. It was a simple look, but effective. She then knocked on Ranma's door. "Are you ready?"  

"Oh good," Ranma said as she opened the door. "Can you zip me?" She presented her bare back to Setsuna. Setsuna could not help but notice how wonderfully smooth Ranma's skin looked. 

"Of course," the green-haired woman said as she zipped Ranma into her... gown. "Where did you get that?" Setsuna asked when she got a good look at Ranma.  

"Oh this?" Ranma said as she adjusted the thick choker-like collar to her dress and clasped her pendant over it. "I picked it up a few weeks ago after Hotaru and I got through at Kikuko's."  

The dress was a long, light blue number that matched the color of her eyes and went down to her shins and had a slit running up the left side. The thin silk that the dress was made of looked as if it had been tailored to hug her curves, especially her hips and bosom, while still not being overly tight in any of those areas.  

The shoulders were a bit puffy, but not overly so, and the short sleeves allowed for a few inches of arm to be exposed before being hidden under the matching opera gloves. A pair of plain blue pumps were sitting on her bed. Some simple blue and green earrings were already in place. Her makeup was slightly more elaborate than normal, and her hair had been freshened and had more body and spring. 

The whole ensemble may have looked plain on another woman, but on Ranma it accentuated her curves without being overt. Its modesty was enticing as well; it showed sensibility and maturity, as well as physical beauty. Setsuna felt that it hid a subtle sexuality... she mentally blinked; she was reading too much into things. 

"Yes, you have a very good fashion sense. Classy, but understated. I was worried you'd pick something gaudy." Setsuna appraised.  She was curious as to why Ranma had bought such a lovely dress.  Hotaru's enthusiasm only went so far. Something this pricey Ranma had to have bought for herself.  Setsuna filed the question away for later. 

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "I do know what I'm doing."  

"Oh yes, I was complimenting your taste." Setsuna pondered as she watched Ranma bend down to pull a purse up off the closet floor and put it next to the matching shoes. She did dabble as a fashion designer. Perhaps Ranma would be interested...  

Ranma walked over to Setsuna her hips swinging confidently. "So am I dressed good enough to be pampered?"  

"Very much," Setsuna gave a little smile. It was amazing how Ranma opened up after getting her past off her chest. She seemed free to revel in her new life.  

--------  

"Please, relax," Setsuna said mirthfully to the woman that sat across from her. The redhead was doing an admirable job of controlling her fidgeting, but the air of apprehension still hung about her. Setsuna found a certain amount of amusement that Ranma, a person who could punch through concrete walls bare-fisted, would be nervous about eating at such a fine restaurant. 

"Sorry." Ranma blushed in slight embarrassment; she felt like a fish out of water. "This place is just nicer than I was expecting." She looked around at the wood paneling on the walls and discrete lighting. It was nice - very nice. 

Setsuna raised an eyebrow. "You're wearing opera gloves, a fancy dress, and got your hair permed." 

"I like my hair this way," Ranma said crossly. Then it hit her: She really did like her hair up out of the way like this. She filed that tidbit away for self examination later, right now she wanted to concentrate on the here and now. 

"I do too. Though it took some getting used to," Setsuna laughed. 

"Tell me about it," Ranma sighed. She understood the morning ritual women had now. Maintaining her hair took a bit more work than that pigtail, but the advantage was that her hair did not whack her in the face when she completed a spin kick any more. Her attention perked up when she saw a waiter approach their table.  

"Would either of you elegant two ladies care to place an order?" the thin waiter asked respectfully with a bow. 

Ranma slid on her thin glasses.  Once she had them in place she boggled at her menu before her; there was so much she wasn't sure about. "Well... I dunno...." The smell of grilled steak from the other tables was exotic and intoxicating and not helping her decisiveness. 

"She'll have two top sirloin steaks," Setsuna said giving Ranma a reassuring smile. 

"How would you like them grilled, rare, medium, or well?" 

"Blue," Setsuna said. 

"Blue?" Ranma asked. She was nervous... even with her new salary, the prices at this place were shocking. She rubbed the bridge of her nose, just where her glasses were perched. 

"Very rare. Trust me you'll like it," Setsuna explained. "Now she'll want both the baked potato with sour-cream and the steak fries." 

"And for you?" the waiter asked. 

"Rare mignon fillet, with the peppercorn dry rub." Setsuna was not too hungry and knew she had to pace herself. Her appetite was nothing compared to Ranma's. Seeing the waiter nod. "And what red wines are good tonight? This is my friend's first steak and I want it to be good for her." 

Ranma's eyes glazed over as the waiter and Setsuna discussed wine. It was like some secret code or something. Dry? Were not all wines liquid and therefore wet? Ranma sighed at her ignorance as she peeled off her gloves, and looked down at her lap. Manicured hands and strong arms, with delicate creamy skin, poked out from loose ribbons of silk gloves. She twitched subtlety and folded her gloves and put them in her purse. 

"I'm sorry," Setsuna said to Ranma after she and the waiter had made their decision. The redhead's nervous fidgeting was adorable. 

"It's okay... this is just... well..." Ranma coughed. "It's..." Ranma looked around the richly decorated restaurant as she grappled for words, "... the nicest date I've ever been on."  She then used the chance to return her glasses to her purse.  There should not be any more reading for the night. 

Setsuna's eyes widened. She knew Ranma's past was lacking in affection, but if the bar was so low that merely ordering in a nice restaurant was the top... then the fullness of what Setsuna had planned for tonight would blow the redheaded nanny away. 

Realizing what she had just said, Ranma gasped at Setsuna. "No! It's not like that. I know it's not a romantic date. We're both girls... well... I'm... and you... I don't want you thinking... that I'm... ack... trying anything with you... I'm not some guy... some perverted guy." As the redhead babbled her cheeks and ears began to match her curled hair. 

"Just calm yourself," Setsuna said reassuringly while giving Ranma's hand a squeeze; this had the desired affect of calming the younger woman. She looked over to see that the waiter had returned with the wine. "Now just sip it. I don't want to have to carry you," she advised as Ranma's glass was filled. 

Ranma nodded as she recalled her lack of tolerance and gingerly drank. She swallowed and then took a few breaths. The flush on her cheeks stayed but her ears cooled. "It's okay I guess," she finally said running a finger over the rim of the crimson-filled glass. 

"We'll have to refine that palate of yours." Setsuna took a sip. "Besides it'll taste better when it compliments your meal." 

Ranma nodded. "It's just... I don't know any of this stuff." Her voice was soft and she hesitantly took another small sip. 

"You're doing great. So what else is on your mind?" Setsuna planned to avoid mentioning gender. Ranma was still trying to sort through that herself, and in light of the admission she had made earlier that night, any undo pressure would not be a good idea. 

"Random attacks," Ranma said as she put her glass down. The intimate atmosphere and Setsuna's presence did have a soothing effect and she eased herself back more into the comfortable chair. "Sure, it's not Nerima, and no one knows I'm here, but I'm still Ranma." 

"You're waiting for the other shoe to drop." Setsuna guessed as she took a sip of her glass. The waiter actually knew his vintages. That was good. This restaurant was lacking a proper sommelier, though their servers were fair wine waiters. 

"No that's not it." Ranma's pose became less stiff. "I just don't want to have to worry about crap like that. Challenges and quests, they're distracting. I love martial arts, but most of the nonsense back then wasn't martial arts," Ranma cocked her head in an introspective way. "Petty fights. That's all it was... petty fights." 

"I see," Setsuna replied. 

"Not really," Ranma shrugged, causing her puffy shoulders to bounce merrily. "It wasn't that bad really. It was an adventure and I liked all the attention, but I don't want to be some prize." Ranma sipped some more wine. After she put the glass down she looked at the lipstick stain she left on the rim, seeming to focus on the red print for a long moment. 

"Ranma?" 

"I like this life. I really do," Ranma admitted. "I like my friends. I love my job. I've never had it this good," she smiled at Setsuna. "Thanks for trusting me." 

"But what will you do?" Setsuna asked. She noted that Ranma had nearly finished her first glass. Once Ranma had enough to take the edge off, Setsuna would have to make sure Ranma slowed down. They had a long night ahead. 

"If they mess with me - or anyone I care about - I'll... make sure that they'll regret it," Ranma said as her wineglass was refilled. She thanked the waiter with a dazzling smile and turned back to Setsuna. "Though I suppose you could use your connections to help with the other stuff." 

"Like Nabiki?" 

Ranma considered that for a brief moment, then nodded her head. "Like Nabiki," she echoed.  

"What are you going to do about Nabiki," Setsuna delicately asked. 

Ranma's reply was interrupted by the waiter confidently striding toward the table with a lifted tray. 

He first gently set Setsuna's dainty cut of meat in front of the older woman. Then with a flourish he deposited an immense wooden platter in front of Ranma. The redhead's nose flared at the scent. The pair of steaks were flanked by the side dishes and the platter had a channel along the edge so that the blood that oozed from them pooled in a small basin at one edge. 

"I would recommend Miss wait a few minutes for the steak to properly set," the waiter said as he placed a large knife and an equally sturdy fork to the sides of Ranma's platter.  

A tiny spoon was placed next to the blood basin. 

"Uh... yeah," Ranma gulped staring at the pieces of meat. She had seen meat before, but not prepared like this and not in this amount and not all for her. 

"Will there be anything else?" the waiter asked. 

"Just some more wine," Setsuna said watching Ranma. The poor girl was practically salivating. 

"Very good. Enjoy," the waiter bowed and left the table. 

"So what are you planning to do about Nabiki?" Setsuna repeated as she nibbled some steamed asparagus that came with her steak. 

Ranma stared at her platter in thought; the unreal portions of richness were distracting. She was at a loss... and hungry. "I think the authorities need to be called in," she finally said before taking a bite of baked potato. 

"She's gotten involved in some rotten stuff." Setsuna noted the smile the side dish generated in Ranma, and looked forward to when the redhead tried her steaks. 

"It's not like she planned it. She never does," Ranma grumbled irritably before the truth of her own statement dawned on her; it was Nabiki's thoughtless opportunism that angered her. Nabiki did not have any concern that she was ruining Ranma's - or anyone else's - life; she just seized an opportunity to make some money, regardless of the cost to others. 

"That's no excuse," Setsuna watched Ranma's thoughtful expression. She had a small file on Nabiki, and what she had found out confirmed that petty opportunism. 

"No, but it's an explanation." Ranma sighed as she re-eyed the steaks. "Nabiki's a jerk. She saw a chance to make money, and started doing whatever it took to get the big payoff." She ate a few more bites of potato and looked longingly at her steaks. The heavenly and primal scent the lightly charred, waffled meat cuts gave off taunted her

"So that's that then? You're going to call the police?" Setsuna noticed that Ranma had closed her eyes. The older woman idly noted that Ranma was quite skillful in applying her eyeshadow and eyeliner. 

"Yeah, I know enough about her and Mr. Huang to put some serious hurt on them." Ranma looked at her employer. "Of course, I could always use some help. You are a respected member of the community and all." 

"Excuse me ladies, but your steaks have set for long enough," the waiter said as he, discreetly, refilled their glasses. 

Ranma gave a predatory smile and grabbed the silverware. Despite her gusto, she maintained decorum and civility. With a slight effort she sliced a chunk of meat off of the first steak. The interior was a deep red that almost gave a ghostly hint of being blue. Her eyes watched as a blood drop fell from the chunk and landed on her platter.  

Immediately after the morsel entered her mouth Ranma's eyes lit up. The rugged, simple, and succulent flavor satisfied a need in her that she did not even know existed. Primeval cravings were sated by the bloody meat. It was a fascinating contrast to the sophisticated and refined atmosphere of the restaurant. 

Ranma went back to her knife and cut another piece and consumed it. This she chewed more thoughtfully savoring the experience. After a few more pieces she sipped some wine and froze as the flavors mingled in her mouth. 

"I told you the wine would complement your steak." Setsuna said after eating a couple slices of her steak. She was impressed. Despite her obvious pleasure, Ranma was taking care not to spill a drop onto her fine dress. 

"Yeah, it does," Ranma said before going back to her meal. After decimating her first steak she looked back to Setsuna. "Thank you. This... this is wonderful," Ranma blushed. 

"It's the least I could do. You've been a wonderful nanny, and you needed this," Setsuna warmly smiled. "Oh, don't forget about your blood. It's kind of redundant on the steak, but I always liked it on my potatoes." 

Ranma started experimenting with the blood and was delighted to find the flavors created when mixed. Even her steak could be enhanced by dribbling some on it. "Thanks," she said before continuing her contented consumption. 

"It's my pleasure." Setsuna put down her fork and watched her employee eat. She took a sip of wine and resumed working on her own steak. 

"So what's yours like?" Ranma asked. She has started on her second steak and had noticed that Setsuna was slicing hers into thin strips. 

"Would you care for a taste?" Setsuna offered a forked piece to her companion. 

"Oh, why thank you," Ranma sounded extra polite as she leaned out toward Setsuna to take a bite of the offered food from the end of the fork. 

--------  

"This really has been nice," Ranma said as she walked down the street next to Setsuna. The walk had been brisk and helped settle things. 

"Oh, it's not over," Setsuna said with a mischievous smile. 

"What've you got planned?" Ranma asked with a raised eyebrow. 

"Are you still hungry?" Setsuna had stopped walking. 

Ranma blushed. She was always hungry, even when Setsuna had been discreetly handed what had to be an immense bill. "Oh, no. I'm fine." She did not want to abuse her boss' hospitality. 

"That's a shame," Setsuna shrugged sadly. "I did just happen to make reservations at this Italian place, but if you don't want some nice rich pasta. I'll just go in and cancel. Sorry, if I offended you." 

Ranma watched Setsuna open the door of the restaurant and was immediately assaulted by a rich blend of aromas that wafted out. "Wait no! I'm hungry," she cried as she chased after her. The redhead shortly found herself whisked into another richly appointed dining room. This one was airy and more brightly lit than the steakhouse. It reminded her a bit of how Picolet's mansion was decorated. 

"Anything look good to you?" Setsuna asked after they were handed menus. She was pleased to see Ranma more at ease. It would be good to get Ranma used to class. 

"I'm not sure." Ranma fretted over the menu. She wondered why she even bothered putting her glasses on. "Um.... could you order for me?" 

"Trusting my taste, again?" Setsuna smiled. 

"Well you're so good at it." Ranma playfully removed her glasses and fluttered her eyelashes flirtingly before breaking into a fit of giggles.  

"Oh alright," Setsuna knew what to get for Ranma; she just had to decide what she was getting for herself. She made her decision and talked with the waiter. Unlike the steakhouse this place had a sommelier. During the ensuing conversation on which wine to get she noticed Ranma start to play with her gloves. Setsuna made a note to start educating Ranma in at least the basics of wine. 

"Sorry, I get a bit carried away sometimes." Setsuna said after the sommelier returned with the bottle. Setsuna smiled when Ranma sipped her wine and actually looked contemplative. The sommelier bowed and went to another table. 

Ranma put her glass down. "It's okay. There's nothing wrong with being enthusiastic. Hotaru's like that all the time." 

"Hard to imagine that the shy, frail girl you met those months ago would become that little firecracker," Setsuna said before sampling the wine. 

"She's still pretty weak, and'll always be willowy," Ranma shrugged. "But yah, she's got some real spirit to her." 

"You really like working with her," Setsuna appraised. 

"It's like having... a little sister, and it's great that the art can help her." Ranma brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear. "I'm just glad she's got someone like you to raise her. She really needs someone to love her and help her with stuff." She sighed. "Hotaru's alone the rest of her life: outsider at school, and afraid of her powers and being different." 

"You've done more for her than I have," Setsuna said reaching out to grab Ranma's hand. 

"I... guess," Ranma blushed. It was scary to think of having that important of a role in a child's life. "That does come with the job doesn't it? I mean, I'm her nanny right?"

"The best," Setsuna assured. 

Ranma coughed. She assumed that someone praising her and padding her ego would feel good like it had in the past, especially in an expensive restaurant, but instead her face was flushed and she felt embarrassed at the attention. 

"It's okay to be proud of what you're doing. I wanted the best, and you nailed your interview. You treat Hotaru like family." 

Ranma smiled but her blush remained. "Hotaru... Hotaru's-" she paused. "- she's very important to me. I really want to help her." 

"And you're doing great, always remember that." Setsuna said, just as a pair of waiters approached. 

Ranma eyed the salad that was placed in front of Setsuna. It was full of whole tomato slices and the scent from it was a heavenly mixture of oils and spices. Then the second waiter arrived and placed Ranma's meal down. The plate was a giant china platter and on it was a layered structure of an unfamiliar cheese, giant noodles, and a thick tomato sauce full of meat and hearty spices. 

"Wow, they actually gave you the whole pan," Setsuna dryly said with approval. 

"This… this is amazing." Ranma said as the aroma hit her, making her stomach demand immediate attention. "Do I have to wait for this to set too?"  

"Oh no. You can dig right into your lasagna." Setsuna said before eating some of her tomato salad. It was a simple dish, but if the right spices were added... it could be amazing. Though it did lack the shear inertia of Ranma's meal. 

Ranma picked up the fork and knife; once again her meal was too heavy for chopsticks. She separated a large piece and put it into her mouth. She had tomato sauce and noodles and cheese before, but did not know what to expect. 

"Good?" Setsuna mirthfully asked after Ranma's delightful reaction.  

Ranma nodded and ate another piece. She looked at the plate and decided on a third. Unlike the steak, this food was a composite of textures and flavors. "What... what kind of cheese is this?" she asked after using a napkin to dab her lips. 

"Ricotta is the main one. I'm sure there's some mozzarella too. Maybe a bit of parmigiano reggiano. Though that's a harder cheese." 

"Figures you'd know about cheeses," Ranma said as she cut another piece. 

"Yes, I do. You know that; you've sampled some of the more exotic ones I have when Haruka and Michiru were over for that dinner party." 

Ranma chewed the cut piece and swallowed. "That was fun. They make a cute couple. Even if Haruka is a bit too pretty boy for my tastes." 

Setsuna raised an eyebrow. She had assumed Ranma had not changed in that regard... As she sipped some wine, she supposed that her nanny could have figured out Haruka's real gender and was turned off by a girl dressing as a boy. Though there was that Ukyou person in Ranma's past after all. 

"Uh... Setsuna?" Ranma asked once her boss had stared off into space for a bit too long. 

"Oh I was just wondering Haruka and Michiru. It's great that they found each other. Amazing given their age," Setsuna shrugged and resumed her meal. 

"Yeah, that is nice for them." As Ranma ate, she looked at her single boss and pondered. Setsuna was a fairly busy woman and did go out with business associates and others to network, but Ranma could not remember a single date. In the months Ranma had lived with her, she had never seen her boss appear even remotely interested in anyone. 

While she made a considerable dent into her huge lasagna, Ranma pondered on that. Tonight was the closest thing Setsuna had to a date, she then blinked at the realization that the same could be said for herself. "It's not the same, I've got Nami and Kimiko. Well, I guess Haruka and Michiru count for Setsuna. Wow, no wonder Setsuna adopted Hotaru and is so nice to me. She's lonely.” 

Chewing idly, Ranma sized up what she knew about the green-haired woman sitting across from her. 

"Just like me... I wonder if she's got family problems too. She's never mentioned any family." Ranma looked down at the second meal in front of her. Setsuna really did think of her as more than just an employee. "She wants me as a friend." Ranma concluded. 

"So, what are you thinking about?" Setsuna asked, returning the favor. 

"Uh... well..." Ranma shook herself from her contemplations and tried to think of something else. "About Nabiki... Yeah... I'm wondering what'll happen with that. I'm ready to talk to the police, but do you think they'll care?" 

"Why wouldn't they? It's kidnapping and slavery."  

"I'm sure Mr. Huang will get it, maybe he'll just be stuck in Hong Kong, that is where this mess started." Ranma picked at her food and took a small bite of the deliciousness. "He's bad, but I want Nabiki to get hers too. If she wasn't pickin' at things it would have all blown over." 

"She is largely responsible," Setsuna agreed. 

"I dunno if what I have to say is enough. I know a lot of dirt on her, but that's not really proof." Ranma shrugged and sipped some wine. The white was different in ways she could not describe. Maybe Setsuna was right about this culture stuff. "Eh, maybe they'll get interested enough and do some digging, but then what?" 

"Hoping that someone starts looking to find the skeletons in her closet?"  

"They'll just find hundreds of little scams and shady deals," Ranma replied. "Up until now, she was always small time." 

"How can you be so sure? It's not like Nabiki would tell people what she's been up to," Setsuna pointed out with a cock of the head. 

Ranma stared wide-eyed at the woman across from her. It was a fact that she had not considered before. Thinking back, even Akane did not have any real idea what Nabiki did or was capable of doing. If even after growing up together, Nabiki's own sister had so little knowledge, than it stood to reason that Ranma knew less than she thought about the middle Tendo child. "I guess," Ranma conceded. "So... what do I do?" 

After taking a quick sip of her wine, Setsuna smiled a bit to reassure Ranma. "Let me look into a few things - and then we'll go to the police together." 

Ranma nodded slowly as she worked on the bite in her mouth. “Okay,” she agreed after swallowing. “What now?" 

Smiling as she wiped her mouth daintily, a gleam in Setsuna's eyes seemed too intensify. "Dessert." 

"Oh what do you have in mind?" Ranma asked her mind conjuring visions of sweet confections. 

"It's a surprise. Though we can't go until you finish your meal," Setsuna joked offhandedly. 

Ranma looked down at the remaining quarter of her lasagna and went to work. It was a great offer: In return for eating the delicious food in front of her she could get even more. 

Setsuna shook her head and went back to nibbling on her salad. She should have realized that Ranma did not understand sarcasm when food was the subject. Setsuna continued to catch glances of the redhead's progress and her energetic, but neat manners. 

"Oh, that was good," Ranma said as she leaned back slightly, leaving the fork and knife crossed in the center of an empty platter. Stretching slightly and inconspicuously, she felt the heavy meal as it rested weightily in her stomach. 

"How was it?" Setsuna asked. Towards the end they had both exchanged tastes, and while it was good, the older woman found the lasagna a bit too rich. 

"Oh it was wonderful. Thank you. I've never been treated this way." Ranma's eyes twinkled in delight, and she stood up. "I'm going to freshen up. Excuse me."  

Setsuna smiled. At least Ranma had a grasp on euphemisms. "Of course." Once Ranma had left for the bathroom. Setsuna flagged down the waiter and settled the bill. She then sipped her wine and waited for her employee to return. 

She sighed. Things were working well - and that had her worried. Ranma had come completely clean and the redhead was not hiding anything from her employer anymore, a woman replete with secrets. Ranma had to learn more and more about Hotaru, but that was inevitable; her job was to watch and care for the young girl. 

As she contemplated, Setsuna took another sip, letting the flavor of the wine settle in her mouth. Before there was a parity of hidden agendas, but not anymore; the tables had turned unexpectedly and she had to decide on how much she should tell Ranma.  

"I owe her more of the truth," she thought. "But how much of the truth should I tell her?" Setsuna paused to take a sip, the wine was quite good. "She deserves to know more about what makes her charge so special." Her thoughts drifted as she watched Ranma hip-sway her way back to the table; the movement was captivating.  

"Are you ready?" Ranma asked as she gently sat back down into her chair. 

Setsuna's weak smile was quickly replaced with a convincingly joyful one. "As soon as you are," she said looking over Ranma's blue gown.  

"One second," Ranma said as took a mint from the tray that the waiter had left when he retrieved the bill from Setsuna. 

"This is really the first time you've had to calm down and unwind isn't it?" Setsuna asked, after taking a mint of her own. 

"Hotaru and school do keep me busy," Ranma said as she idly moved one of her curls. She had touched up her hair and makeup in the bathroom, but that spiral in front of her left ear would never stay in the proper place. "Not that I don't get to have any fun.  There's going out with Kimiko and Nami, and there's this which is different, but still great." 

Setsuna nodded in agreement. "It is... and then there's also keeping up on hair and fashion," Setsuna added with a playful smirk. 

Ranma flushed. She didn't feel embarrassed, but she did feel uncomfortable about that line of thought. As far as she was concerned, her keeping up with fashion used to be all part of her disguise. "Used to be?" She mentally pondered. "No, wait... it's all part of..." Ranma stopped in mid response, and gathered her thoughts.  

"I know I know. It's a girly hairstyle, but I... well... you know. Though I do kinda wish it was less cute." As she slid her gloves back on, she considered letting her hair grow out again, but that would give Kikuko more material to work with, and her spirals could get even longer. 

"I meant from before. It took you months, but your paranoia's started to drain away," Setsuna said as the two got up and left their table. 

"Yeah," Ranma agreed offhandedly as she walked beside the taller woman. "At first I was always worried about being discovered and... made to do things that I didn't want to do. But now it's been so long... you know... Say, you know, it's strange that no one has found me yet; heck, I haven't even run across Ryoga." 

Setsuna just smiled. 

The pair stood at the restaurant's exit. Ranma briefly watched the progression of people and cars before speaking again. "I thought I was living in hiding, living a lie. It took me a while to realize that this life was better than what I was hiding from." 

"How good can something be if you have to hide from it?" Setsuna asked. 

"Not that good," Ranma admitted. "It's just that... I didn't think... that this would be... permanent." Ranma looked to her companion. 

"It'll be what you want it to be." Setsuna said, leading them towards their destination. "After this Nabiki thing gets sorted out-" 

"What? Mr. Tendo will love it when he learns that I told the police about his baby girl." Ranma shook her head ruefully. "And I know my dad'll be angry that I cost him whatever bribe that freak offered him. No, I'm not so naïve that I think I can go back, even after Nabiki's been taken care of. 'Course I got out, I'm on my own and have it good, others ain't so lucky." 

"Nabiki's siblings?" Setsuna inquired. 

"Yeah, Akane and Kasumi. Kasumi'll be okay I guess. Akane... I dunno," Ranma looked down and watched her shoes and dress move as she walked. "She might need help." 

"You feel that you abandoned her?" 

"A bit, but she's not the one Nabiki and Mr. Huang are after." Ranma looked to her boss. "Is that right? I've been warning her though, and I think she's starting to see Nabiki for what she is." 

"It's hard to see betrayal, especially when it's family that does it," Setsuna flatly agreed. 

Ranma paused. Again she wondered what had caused Setsuna to cut off all contact with her family. Was it betrayal of some sort? Pondering this, Ranma realized that everyone in the apartment was alone. Hotaru was an orphan with no family other than Setsuna and her aunt and uncle - that she had no real relation to... and her nanny. Ranma knew her family situation, but Setsuna... what was going on with her? 

"It would be easier if Nabiki were actually evil. You know, if her schemes were more damaging, but she's not bad enough for me to really fight. I can't hit her, but she can ruin my life," Ranma smirked and adjusted her opera gloves. "Well, she could ruin that life." 

"You have a unique definition of evil then," Setsuna said as she paused in their walk. She faced Ranma with a most serious look on her face. "Most anyone would consider what Nabiki is doing evil." 

Ranma blinked. It became clear to her how much she had been overlooking and excusing what the middle Tendo girl was doing. If she, an outsider to the family, was capable of making excuses for the behavior of Nabiki, then Akane and the rest of Nabiki's family must have done it more then they themselves want to admit to. But the time for excuses was past, it was time for some justice. 

"Ranma?" Setsuna asked with a gentle tug on the nanny's arm. 

"Yeah." Ranma shifted her weighted body. "Nabiki did it herself. Whatever happens to her because of this, is her fault - and hers alone." Ranma looked at her finery and shrugged. Time and distance had helped but she still felt the slow anger at what Nabiki had done, what Nabiki had forced her to do. 

"We're here," Setsuna said drawing Ranma's attention. 

The nanny looked up to see a quaint shop with lots of shinny metal accents and a large countertop. It reminded Ranma of the... soda shop, she thought the name was, featured in that old American movie she had watched with Hotaru a few weeks ago. 

Setsuna opened the door for her, and Ranma stepped into place with a scent that was somehow more pleasurable than either of the other restaurants. A hostess in a cutesy, but high class, uniform smiled and asked for their names. 

Ranma watched as Setsuna introduced herself to a woman wearing a pale-pink dress. The redhead realized that the hostess, and the other staff in the restaurant were dressed in a vaguely old fashioned and stylized manner. Thanks to Kimiko, "retro" was now tangentially part of her vocabulary, and that word fit the theme of this place. 

The hostess led them to one of many plush booths and gave them a pair of menus. Shortly after that a similar uniform, this time she had an apron on, sauntered up. "Would either of you care for a drink?" she asked pulling out a pad. 

Setsuna ordered a coffee for herself and after a moment's thought a French vanilla milkshake for Ranma. 

"You like ordering for me," Ranma dryly noted.  

"You like it too." Setsuna said flashing another genuine smile. 

"Yeah," Ranma blushed; Setsuna was really getting to her tonight.  

Setsuna smirked. 

"I do feel a bit overdressed," Ranma confessed as she removed her gloves and once again stored them in her purse. 

"Nonsense," Setsuna said as she gazed at the blue gown. "You look very proper and dignified."

Ranma cracked a smile. She knew she looked good, and was starting to discover the powers of subtlety. She did not need to flaunt her body to... well.. flaunt it. Her dress had no exposed cleavage and was not that short, but she still looked great in it. 

"Besides," she thought with a little chuckle. I'm a role model for Hotaru. I can't have her think that it's okay to dress like some hussy. Ranma came to the sudden and disquieting conclusion that she - that is he - had learned feminine modesty. She picked up a menu and started looking at the items to distract herself from those disturbing thoughts and soon found herself engrossed at the selections and wondered what Setsuna would order for her. 

Shortly, the waitress had returned with their beverages. "We make our shakes thick, Hon," the waitress laughed after seeing Ranma try to drink hers. 

"Yeah," Ranma nodded after she worked up the suction to consume the thick white fluid. "Oooh, that is nice." 

Setsuna and the waitress shared little smirks. Setsuna then looked at the specials and made her decision. "We'll have the double chocolate cheesecake." 

"That's very good. So will you each be having a slice?" the waitress asked. 

"No, we'll be having a whole cheesecake if that's possible," Setsuna smiled, at Ranma who was eagerly sucking at her beverage. "And another milkshake when it comes out too." 

Studying the young... person across from her, Setsuna couldn't help but notice just how much Ranma's face was an open book to her emotions.; it was obvious that the redhead was troubled. Deciding to get to the bottom of Ranma's discontent, Setsuna cleared her throat, getting her table-mate's attention. 

"Is anything wrong?" Setsuna asked as the waitress laid a plate before Ranma and herself. Ranma looked like she was lost for a moment before blinking a few times and focusing on her table mate. 

"No... yes," Ranma replied, irritation leaking into her voice. "I... It's just that..." Ranma fell silent as she obviously wrestled with something internal. 

"Ranma?" 

"There's something else... something that had just sprang up in the last couple of days," Ranma managed out. 

"What is it?" Setsuna asked as she leaned back in her seat. "If there is anything that I can do to help you, you know I will. You can trust me." 

Her lips making a thin line across her face, Ranma contemplated briefly. "It's not a matter of trust," Ranma explained. "It's just that - I'm not sure what's going on myself." 

"Why don't you tell me about it. If anything, maybe I can help you figure it out," Setsuna offered as she leaned forward, bringing herself closer to Ranma. 

"Okay," Ranma sighed out. "You know how Hotaru can heal other people?" Setsuna nodded in affirmation. "Well... I kinda can do the same thing." 

The atmosphere thickened as a silence fell between the two. 

"Excuse me?" Setsuna asked, clearly caught flatfooted at Ranma's admission. 

"I mean...," Ranma stumbled verbally before pausing a moment, then beginning again. "I mean, I can heal people by touching them - like Hotaru can." 

Setsuna blinked. This was most unexpected. Her mind raced around some odd possibilities before slowing; more information was needed. "Are you sure?" She asked. 

Nodding, Ranma replied as she leaned toward Setsuna for emphasis. "Oh yes, I even healed some kid in the park the other day. He fell out of a tree and broke his arm; I touched him and his arm healed right before my eyes." 

Setsuna regarded Ranma for a few heartbeats. "How long have you been able to do this?" queried Setsuna. She was a bit alarmed; she knew most of what Ranma could and could not  do and this wasn't factored into anything she knew about the boy turned girl. 

Leaning back in thought, Ranma searched her memories before shaking her head. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "The only other thing that sticks out in my mind was that time when Kimiko got a cut on her arm a few weeks ago." Ranma then stared at Setsuna. "I thought it was odd how fast the cut healed, but since I have always been a fast healer, I figured... I just didn't think much of it at the time." 

"I see..." Setsuna  said.  Tonight was proving to be full of surprises.

"And now that I am thinking about it... along with what happened at the park... I don't know," Ranma sighed out. "I know I never used to be able to do that. What does this mean?" 

"I'm not sure," Setsuna admitted. "But as long as it is not dangerous to you or anyone else, I wouldn't fret too much about it." 

Shifting in her seat, it was obvious that Ranma did not feel very reassured by Setsuna's words.

Reaching across the table, Setsuna took Ranma's hand in hers. "I'm sure it is nothing to worry about," she said with a broad, disarming smile that hid her concern masterfully. "Hotaru has had no ill affects from her gift," the green-haired woman pointed out. 

Scrunching her features in thought, Ranma eventually conceded. "Okay." 

Setsuna shrugged.  Ranma had been totally honest tonight; she deserved some reciprocation. "I really have no idea why you've got this gift, but I promise we will get to the bottom of this."

"Thank you.  Maybe it'll help me to understand Hotaru's gift too." Ranma nodded. In a way strangeness creeping into her life was reassuring. Things had been getting a bit too normal with her new job, and it was not like her new powers would cause any trouble. It was just healing. "Maybe that's why I connected to Hotaru so well. I've always been a fast healer, but now... but now I'm healing others."

"Exactly,  it doesn't seem bad, but we should figure it out." Setsuna smiled again. "And now, if I'm not mistaken, our cheesecake is here." She made a mental note to look into Ranma's recent past as soon as possible; this was not something she would have overlooked and that suggested that this had to be a new development. It was too... perfect - Ranma was becoming exactly what Hotaru needed.

Looking to one side, Ranma spied that waitress as she came in carrying a large metal platter with one hand and had a milkshake mixer in the other.  With a compliment she placed the cheesecake and then swapped Ranma's empty milkshake for the new one.

Setsuna gave a small smile of satisfaction.  The chocolate sauce-drizzled cheesecake looked sinfully decadent.  It was perfect.  She started cutting, and on reflection made it a modest piece. The better to tempt with.

"Wow, that does look good," Ranma gawked as she eyed the round, dark colored cake between them. 

"It is," Setsuna affirmed as she placed a small bit on the end of her fork. 

Ranma nodded, but her emotions dragged her away from admiring the cake and back to what she was feeling. "You know what? I wished I knew then what I know now," she said as she watched Setsuna cut a bite from the cake with a fork. "I probably could have avoided a lot of headaches." 

"The advantages of growing older," quipped Setsuna. "Open up."  

Ranma obeyed the green-haired woman and took the offered food; then Ranma's eyes got big - very big - as the flavor of the food hit her. 

She had chocolate before, but never like this. The rich confection of flavors was transcendent. She could almost feel the whole of creation within the morsel of cake- hell it was  the very meaning of life, the universe and everything. Ranma felt her body shudder involuntarily in pleasure as the cheesecake melted in her mouth and flowed into every fiber of her being. Spikes of obscenely concentrated delight shot down her spine, rounded her seat and shot back up front back to her taste buds. 

A smile bloomed on Ranma's face while a small moan escaped her. She bit down on her lower lip to try to hold it back in.  After that brief respite she hungrily looked at the remainder of the cake. 

Grinning at Ranma's reaction, Setsuna ignored the raised eyebrows and looks that a handful of other patrons were giving them and cut another small piece of the cake. She held it out for Ranma's eager mouth; it was devoured greedily. 

"Oh my" Ranma said her voice dripping with pleasure as another spike shot through her body, causing her to ever so slightly twitch. She then giggled when she realized she had said Kasumi's line. Ranma looked down and remembered that she was wearing a frilly silk gown and being hand fed delicious desserts.   

The waitress who stood nearby cocked her head toward Setsuna. "First time?" 

Setsuna replied with a nod and smirk as Ranma's moans got a bit louder. 

Ranma put her fork down and flushed with embarrassment.  She tried to nonchalantly sip some of her milkshake but the complementary flavors almost set her off again.  Hand trembling she lowered the glass and looked at her plate.  The slice of cake was almost gone.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't let you go empty," Setsuna said as she cut another slice and placed it in front of her employee.  Then after some consideration she put an equal-sized slice in front of herself.

Ranma tried to pout but the scent transformed her expression to a ravenous one, and the gowned-girl grabbed her fork.

As Setsuna watched the redhead achieve new heights of... culinary  delight, she partook of some of the cheesecake.  She briefly closed her eyes.  It was better than she could have hoped. Ranma would not stand a chance.

"You're too good to me," Ranma complimented in between eating and mutterings of pleasure.  After her fourth piece she leaned back and put her hands to the straining silk around her stomach.

"Full?" Setsuna mirthfully asked. "Has the mighty Nanny Ranma been brought low by a simple dessert?"

Ranma gave Setsuna a serious eye, "I'll finish."

------

 

Ranma held an elegant box in her gloved hands as she watched Setsuna lean over to pay the taxi driver. She watched the graceful moves of her companion and how smooth and exact her motions were. She always thought of Setsuna as beautiful, and  tonight she did not disappoint. Smiling, she turned her attention to the box in her hands that held the remains of her cheesecake and rued the fact that there was only so much she could eat, and wondered if she should do something to remedy that limit. Of course she could have tried, but not without making herself sick. As good as the cheesecake was it wasn't worth embarrassing  Setsuna like that.

"Besides," Ranma smirked to herself as she ran a finger over the box that contained concentrated chocolate delight, "this way I can share it with Hotaru."

The prospect of not just sampling this treasure of a dessert again, but sharing it with her charge pleased her; she imagined what Hotaru's face would be like on the first bite. The surprise that she planned for Hotaru  made Ranma feel a bit giddy. It was not until Setsuna had returned and hooked her arm around Ranma's that the redhead pulled out of her musings.

"What were you thinking about?" Setsuna teased As the two started to walk to the door to their apartment building.

"Um... Chocolate," Ranma blushed. "Man that was good," she warbled out, leaning on the taller girl. With one hand on her purse and the other rubbing her belly, Ranma let a tiny groan escape.

"Full?" Setsuna playful asked as they made their way back home.

"Uhhh," Ranma groaned out a little louder.

"But it was good, wasn't it?" Setsuna asked as she nonchalantly put her arm around Ranma's shoulders. 

"Uh-huh," Ranma replied as she leaned further into Setsuna; it felt... nice. 

"What are you going to do with the leftovers?" Setsuna asked as they neared the entrance of the apartment building. It was fairly late and the sidewalks were sparsely populated.

"Mmmmm, eat it," hummed the redhead, while shaking that one coil of hair from her eyes that wouldn't stay put. "I'll share though, Hotaru has got to try some of this." 

"Corrupting your charge?" Setsuna playfully asked. 

"Spreading the joy," Ranma said with a smile and a yawn. 

"Tired?" Setsuna asked, drawing Ranma closer. 

"Uh-huh," Ranma replied as they climbed the short steps to their apartment building. The wait on the elevator was a short one and both women rode it up in silence. Ranma leaned onto the wall for support; the combination of the motion of the lift and her fatigue were taking their toll on her, the two stone of rich food in her belly did not help matters either.

"Did you have fun?" Setsuna asked as she helped the slightly wobbly redhead down the hall to their apartment.

"Oh yes," Ranma smiled as she rubbed her belly again for the umpteenth time. "I never knew food could be like that." She smiled and returned her hands to holding her purse in front of her. Though the food was good... Ranma shook her head.  Of course it would be good, that was the whole point. She wondered if  she would eat that much again...  maybe. Though next time she promised to pace herself better. That way she would avoid discomfort.

"Stick with me and I'll show you all the finer things." Setsuna winked as she unlocked the door.

Ranma sleepily nodded as Setsuna held the door open for her and she crossed the threshold. "You're too nice. I'm going to make you a great breakfast tomorrow," Ranma gave a silly grin as she managed to sit on the couch with surprising gracefulness; considering how full she felt that was no small feat. She knew her boss must have spent a, hopefully, small fortune and it was the least she could do. Besides, she liked cooking for them.

"That would be nice," Setsuna agreed as she sat down, next to the drowsy redhead. "You know, technically you didn't finish."

"Oh, it was a challenge?" Ranma asked jokingly with a contented smile. "If I'd have known that I wouldn't have stopped."  Ranma patted her belly and shifted her weight. "Definitely going to have to pace myself better," she reaffirmed to herself with an internal groan.

"Glad you had a full night."

"Maybe next time we can do something with Hotaru too. Have the whole fam-" Ranma paused to peel off her gloves and corrected what she was about to say. "-household come."

"Maybe a picnic," Setsuna offered. "Before it gets too cold." She smiled thinly at Ranma's bleary expression.

"That would be nice," Ranma nodded and wobbled and slid up against the woman sitting next to her.

"Any regrets?" Setsuna asked as she patted Ranma's shoulder.

Ranma's blinked at the question before her eyes widened; she suddenly realized that she was happily stuffed and wearing a silk ball gown she had bought for herself, and had permed hair that she had decided that she liked and wanted to keep. All part of her disguise.

Was it even a disguise anymore? Sure she was a nanny, but things were going well.

Only because she was hiding?  Right... she was just doing this to get control to her life.

Her life? Ranma recalled staring into the mirror before this date and coming out to Setsuna.  Her life sounded about right. The maelstrom of confusing thoughts and emotions combined with looking into Setsuna's eyes had caused Ranma's brain to seize up. "Uh...."

"About the cheesecake," Setsuna clarified. "I was wondering whether or not you could eat the whole thing, but I guess it was that good."

"Oh that!" Ranma laughed nervously and then brightened. "Oh it was great. I'm sorry if I was embarrassing you. I did get a bit... loud." Ranma blushed as she leaned further into Setsuna; butterflies briefly danced in Ranma's stomach before her weariness suppressed them . 

"Don't worry about it," Setsuna said in a contemplative and distant tone. Ranma was right, more of these events were an excellent idea, and there was no need to have Hotaru present for all of them.

"Okay," Ranma dreamily stated as she tried to rise to her feet. A quick intervention by Setsuna prevented her from tumbling over; the extra weight she was carrying threw off her balance. "I'm sorry," Ranma blushed.

"It's fine," Setsuna reassured the sleepy girl as she escorted Ranma down the hall.

"You're the greatest," Ranma smiled sleepily before playfully kissing Setsuna on the cheek. "Thanks so much," she smiled before sliding into her room.

Setsuna stood in the hallway a brief moment before chuckling as she heard Ranma thump around. She guessed that dress would be hard to get off, and hoped that Ranma would not damage it in the process.  The woman went to the living room and put the box containing the spare cheesecake in the fridge. She then straightened up the shoes next to the front door.

As she put down Ranma's blue heels, Setsuna smiled. Things were proceeding well. "Too well," Setsuna concluded after a moment's evaluation.  She could not let herself get distracted by patting herself on the back.. Ranma was turning out better than she could have ever hoped, and Hotaru was improving better than she had dared to hope.

Setsuna however was concerned about Ranma's supposed healing powers. "I wonder if that ties in to Ranma's...  confusion?" She mused seriously over that before shaking her head; there were too many unknowns running around.

Ranma's powers had to be connected... somehow, it was too much of a coincidence to be just random chance.  Hotaru would not be that lucky. Tomorrow she would start working with Ranma to try and get to the bottom of it. It might even be a way Setsuna could ease Ranma into the rest of the truth.

 

 Author's Notes:    

 

We'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, Pyro Raven, Wray, Mondu the Fat, Terra, Pale Wolf, Questara, and Jerry Starfire. They were great on working on this chapter.

 

Edit:   Note some revisions in this chapter to clear up errors in character ages and elapsed time.