Strained Harmony

A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.

By Sunshine Temple and Trimatter

Regrettably there was difficulty in contacting Trimatter for much of this chapter. Time and other RL issues have made co-writing not as feasible. I have tried my best with the story.

Naturally, We 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.


Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

C&C as always is wanted.


Yes, the next chapter is here. Sorry for the long, long, long wait

Chapter 3 Buttressing Support Part 1


            Ranma rubbed her fingers on the sides of her face just below her temples. She looked to the sliding door and slowly let her hands fall back to the table where she lifted up her cup of tea.

            With subdued lighting, soft chairs, and understated paintings, the private room in Green Mountain was normally a calming influence. The sounds from the rest of the restaurant were muted, distant. The redhead closed her eyes and her heartbeat quickened with every half heard sound. There was a gentle pressure on her hand and the nanny's eyes snapped open.

            Setsuna's hand was over Ranma's. "It'll be okay," she assured as she patted the back of Ranma's hand. "We're just going to have a nice dinner with some friends."

            The redhead gave a weak smile. "One who's a magical princess. Your boss."

            "Usagi'll love you," Hotaru assured, hugging Ranma. She was wearing a periwinkle blouse over a dark violet skirt.

            Ranma leaned back, some of the tension going out of her spine. She rolled her shoulders then tried to adjust the bows of red silk ribbon tie knotted under her collar. Her stomach was tying itself into a similar knot just thinking about magical girls, princesses, ancient kingdoms on the moon. It seemed all perfect. She wondered when the other shoe would drop.

            The green-haired woman eyed the nanny. She reached up and started adjusting her tie.

            "Thanks... I... I never really got into ties," the redhead blushed.

            "They're more of a boy thing," Hotaru said.

            Ranma looked down at the shiny big bows and lace edges of her tie and had to laugh. "Good thing Sesuna's here to help us."

            "Setsuna-Mama does like her suits," Hotaru happily agreed.

            After making sure that the bows were equal length, Setsuna caught the curly-redhead's eye. "We don't have to tell the Princess everything. At least not tonight."
            "About those mean people that think they can take Ranma from us?" Hotaru angrily asked.

            "Yes," Setsuna agreed, locking her gaze with Ranma. "There are some things we can wait on."

            Straightening her shoulders, Ranma nodded. Hearing footsteps, her head swiveled around to face the door. It slid open and a kimono-clad hostess bowed before stepping back and bowing to the two people she had been escorting.

            The redhead's heartbeat spiked for a moment but immediately settled down when she saw the couple. They were fairly tall. One was blonde, but had very short hair and was definitely not Usagi. Leading an aqua haired woman in a pale rose dress into the room, the blonde wore dark grey slacks, a loose collared shirt, and a green sport coat. Both thanked the hostess.

            "Thank you dear." Setsuna nodded to the hostess. "Could you give us some time? That is unless our final guest shows up, then you can see her in."

            The hostess nodded placed two menus in front of the couple, and then closed the door behind her.

            Still smiling, Setsuna pulled a small silver key out of her coat pocket. Its top was heart-shaped and held a spherical red gem. She glanced at it like it was a pocket watch, an impression which was enhanced by the fine silver chain that ran from it, before returning it to her inside coat pocket.

            The woman with long blue-green hair appraised the trio as her partner pulled out a chair for her. Her attention settled onto Ranma. "Lovely glasses? Are they new?"

            The redhead idly pushed up the thin framed-lenses. "Uh yeah. Turns out I need a bit more than just some reading glasses."

            "Eyestrain is cumulative, it's good that you're managing your astigmatism sooner rather than later."

            Ranma rolled her eyes a bit. Another part of her disguise had become real, though she did have to admit her eyes did feel a lot less fatigued after a long day.

            "You should have gotten darker tinting," Haruka suggested.

            "Oh my yes." Michiru clapped her hands. "All three of you. Some sunglasses, and black ties and Serenity's Spooks would be just ready."

            "You are talking to the Mistress of Time and the Bringer of Silence." After sitting down Haruka leaned over the table and took Ranma's hand. "Now what does that make you?"

            "That's a good question," Setsuna admitted. "She's a healer."

            "Like Mamoru?" Michiru asked.

            "More like Hotaru."

            Ranma blushed and pulled her hand back. She then brushed her hands off each other and adjusted her glasses. "It makes me someone who was pretty shocked to find out you were a girl."

            Haruka coughed. "Well yes..."

            "That said, I wouldn't mind seeing you in a skirt."

            "She does have lovely legs," Michiru added with a sigh. "You should show them off more."

            Haruka crossed her arms. "Come on, it's not like I'm trying to fool people."

            "The first couple times we had you two over, Ranma thought you were a guy," Setsuna said, clearly amused.

            "And I've known quite a few cross dressers in my day." Ranma took a sip of her tea, then raised it in salute to the blonde. "And you're a natural."

            "She does make a lovely 'pretty boy'," Michiru agreed. "I'm glad I've got your approval, Ranma. You have good taste."

            The redhead flushed with embarrassment.

            Setsuna laughed. "Feeling better?" she asked the redhead.

            Nodding, Ranma gently put the cup down. She then dabbed her napkin against her lips. "So... what's this about the Silence?"

            "Well... there's two types of Sailor Senshi." Haruka said.

            "Right, there's the Guardian Senshi that protect the Princess. Usagi and her clique make it pretty obvious. And the Outer Senshi that protect the Solar System from whatever horrors from beyond. We're the Outer Senshi," Ranma said with a touch of pride as she put an arm around Hotaru.

            Haruka caught Setsuna's eye. The green-haired woman nodded. "Yeah, so... we've got different goals and methods than the other Senshi. It's caused some... friction."
            Setsuna laughed.

            Michiru looked down. "We... uh..."

            "They suggested that Usagi abdicate." Setsuna picked up her cup and sniffed the warm sake before taking a sip. "Naturally, a fight broke out."

            Haruka sighed. "Afterwards we apologized and made up for it."

            "Yes, after she beat you two down and only when you were on bended knee did she accept your apology," Setsuna smirked.

            The redhead blinked. "No Ranma, don't be worried about meeting the Princess. She's very nice," Ranma said in an overly sarcastic tone. "Don't be being paranoid Ranma. Everything will go fine."

            "She's really very nice," Michiru assured.

            "Yeah, we did attack her first."

            "Why? And what does this have to do with the Silence?"

            Setsuna downed the rest of her sake cup.

            Hotaru made a nervous, embarrassed, whimper-like noise and clutched onto Ranma's arm. She looked down and whispered. "I didn't mean to swallow their souls..."

            The redhead tilted her head. "What?"

            "You know how Hotaru's special?"

            Meeting Hotaru's eyes, Ranma nodded.

            "Her father knew that. He was a scientist and...." Setsuna looked off into the distance, past the walls of the room.

            With her free hand, Ranma reached over and refilled Setsuna's sake cup.

            Setsuna bowed her head in thanks. She picked up the cup. "Well, let's say things went bad. Hotaru was chosen to be the host of an eldritch horror, Mistress Nine."
            "Mistress Nine would herald the arrival of her master," Hotaru whispered.

            "We disagreed with the Princess on how to stop this. To stop Nine and her master Pharaoh 90"

            Hugging Hotaru, Ranma noticed her sad, embarrassed and shame filled face. She then saw the similar looks that Haruka and Michiru had. The redhead exhaled and tried to steady her voice. "You tried to kill her? To stop Nine? To stop the Silence?"

            Neither Haruka nor Michiru could meet Ranma's eye.

            "What's wrong with you two?" Ranma demanded. "She's just a kid."

            "She... Mistress Nine... killed people, ripped the souls of the Guardian Senshi out of their bodies, Pharaoh 90 came! He would have smothered the planet," Haruka said, her voice becoming quiet at the end.

            "And what happened? Clearly you didn't kill her. Did the Princess save you?"

            "No." Setsuna patted the redhead on the shoulder. "Hotaru did it. She rose up. An ageless spirit from Beyond had taken over. She had been broken, twisted, possessed. And still Hotaru rose up and broke Mistress Nine. Sailor Saturn stood and dropped the Silence Glaive.

            "Imagine a black orb the size of a moon. Imagine writhing tentacles as wide across as a city. Imagine this horror, this blasphemy pushing into our world. Imagine something that its very presence assaults your mind and corrodes your soul. Now imagine Hotaru standing up to this being, entering it, sacrificing herself to stop it."

            "Oh, wow." Ranma ran her hand through Hotaru's hair. She wanted to doubt them, to claim that what they were saying was insane but... she could turn into a magical maid, and the utter conviction that they spoke with was chilling. "That's... that's something else squirt."

            Hotaru nodded.

            "Wait... sacrificed?" Ranma asked.

            "The Princess. She wasn't going to leave someone behind. She doesn't leave anyone behind, not even in death. At the last moment, she crossed over. Withstanding both Pharaoh 90 and Saturn's destructive powers, she got Hotaru."

            Hotaru flushed with embarrassment.

            "So this princess of yours went into the maw of an elder demon... as it was being banished, to recover Hotaru?"

            "More vaporized than banished, but yes," Setsuna nodded.

            Ranma eyed Michiru and Haruka. "And you two wanted to kill her?"

            "Only after Mistress Nine took over!

            The redhead sighed at the blonde.

            "It's okay, they were trying to save the world. Mistress Nine... yes... she needed to be stopped. But...." Hotaru shook her head and closed her eyes.

            "So the Silence... destruction. I thought you had healing powers, squirt?"

            Hotaru nodded.

            Setsuna reached behind Ranma and patted her adoptive daughter on the back.

            The slight girl brightened a bit.

            "I'm guessing she's not a healer. At least not as her primary power."

            "You'd be correct. The Outers... we're troubleshooters. We deal with invasions from Beyond."

            "Right, you're the spook. You know things and manipulate people." Ranma blushed. "Uh... I didn't mean it like that."

            "No..." Setsuna sighed. "That's basically what I told you about my powers."

            "Right, well if you can look back in time you can spy on pretty much anyone."

            Michiru scoffed. "Like a magic window to spy on someone?" she asked with a slight smile.

            "Think about it, look back in time a second ago. That's basically a live feed on anyone anywhere. You wanna find out more? Dial it a bit back."

            Setsuna pulled her arm back and drank some more sake. "It's not quite that simple."

            Ranma noted that was not a full denial. "And that leaves you two who... " she rubbed her chin. "Combat magic? You thought you could take the Princess in a fight and kill some eldritch horror."

            Haruka nodded. "Sailor Uranus. Sky-related powers. Yeah... sure I'll get the same type of dreams that the others get-"

           Ranma thought to the nightmares that Hotaru would have, and when she would sleepwalk and talk with her reflection.

            The blonde continued. "I'll also get the occasional ill omen, but it's mostly combat stuff. I've got a magic sword and World Shaking which is both an air and an earthquake attack."

            "Handy," Ranma said, noting the information. She wondered what training with them would be like.

            Michiru smiled. "Sailor Neptune. You can guess what my powers are."

            "Water?" Ranma asked. "Water can be very effective. It's flowing but powerful. Heavy but fluid. There's a lot you could do with control over water."

            Blushing, Michiru shook her head. "It's not water itself. It's more... drawing energy from the deepness of the ocean. My Deep Submerge is more about the pressure than getting someone wet."

            "No, that's what your magic mirror is for," Haruka corrected.

            "Magic mirror?" Ranma asked.

            "Don't worry, this one doesn't make clones," Setsuna assured.

            "Or travel through time?

            "No, there was only one Nanban Mirror and you took care of it." Setsuna smiled.

            Michiru blinked. Wait... Red's already dealt with time traveling magical artifacts? That explains a few things, she thought to herself. "Well... it helps with my precognition and astral projection."

            "A hah!" Ranma accused. "So you do have a magic window to spy on people.'

            "It's not quite that simple," Michiru said echoing Setsuna.

            "Right...." Ranma shook her head. "Okay, so of the Outers there's two with combat and some spying. One with more spying and some combat. And one...."

            "Doomsday weapon," Hotaru whispered. "I'm the last line," she raised her head. "When nothing else can stop the enemy," her voice grew cold. "I will."

            Ranma saw the determination and will on her ward's face. The redhead closed her eyes. Her stomach twisted and... unclenched. Here was the "other shoe". She was not dealing with perfect, eternal magical girls. Infighting, betrayals, corrupting transformations... these were things that Ranma understood. The redhead gave a confident little smile.

            The eleven year old girl looked up. "Nanny?"

            "Come here kiddo," Ranma said as she scooped Hotaru up, sat her on her lap, and hugged her.

            "Adorable. Too adorable," Haruka stated.

            "Yay!" Hotaru cheered.

            "I told you, you were strong. I knew you were special," Ranma assured.

            After pulling Ranma's chair a bit closer, Setsuna took her hand in hers. "This is why you were so important. Why your job was so vital. "

            Smiling, Ranma nodded.

            "You've been doing a great job with her," Michiru said.

            "Yeah, we're almost a little jealous," Haruka added.

            "Jealous?" Ranma blinked and looked to Setsuna, who still had her hand.

            Setsuna coughed. "There was some debate on who would adopt Hotaru."

            "Oh?" Ranma asked putting an arm on Hotaru's shoulder.

            Haruka and Michiru looked to each other. "Yeah... well she is one of us," Michiru said.

            "I think you made the right choice," Ranma squeezed Setsuna's hand. "Though I'm a bit confused that this was even a debate."

            "Hey!" Haruka glared.

            "Now, now. Haruka and Michiru are a key part of Hotaru's life," Setsuna said.

            "And I forgave them," Hotaru assured.

            "It's not that. I mean, maybe I'm biased, but I think Setsuna's a better choice."

            "Yes, you would be," Haruka teased.

            Ranma blushed.

            Watching the three across from them, Michiru smiled "If this keeps up, I fear the Outers will develop a reputation."

            "What reputation?" Ranma asked. "I mean she's not-"

            There was a gentle knock at the door, and the redhead stopped her question. She frowned, she had not heard anyone approach. She felt Hotaru go tense as the door slid open.

            A lone hostess stood just outside the door. She bowed. "Apologies for the interruption, but I just got word that the final member of your party just got off the train. Would you like any refreshments while you wait?" Keiko asked.

            Haruka twisted in her chair. "She called you?"

            Keiko hesitated. "She called the Green Mountain, yes."

            "And not one of us?" Haruka looked to Setsuna who simply nodded at the hostess.

            Keiko exhaled; she was well aware of who kept a monthly account at this table. "Miss Tsukino also asked for directions. She decided to take a.... different route here."

            Michiru laughed. "She got off at the wrong stop, didn't she?"

            Setsuna gave a contained little smile.

            "I would not presume," Keiko said, giving a somewhat amused smile. "Can I offer you any drinks? Perhaps some light sorbet?"

            "We'll take some more of the house tea and another bottle of whatever she's drinking." Haruka pointed to Setsuna's sake.

            "Very good," Keiko bowed, then looked straight at Ranma. "The patissier has been trying some new recipes."

            "Oh? So early?" Ranma asked.

            Keiko gave a neat little smile. "But of course. One is rather light and dainty: Sfogliatella Riccia. It's tiny morsels of s
oft, flaky dough stuffed with a filling of ricotta, seminola, cinnamon, eggs candied citrus, and confectioner's sugar. "

            "Sounds delightful," Ranma said, the anxiety of the night momentarily forgotten.

            Setsuna "Yes, perhaps have it arrive with Miss Tsukino. I believe she'd appreciate a small repast as well."

            "Excellent, I'll make sure it's ready." Keiko bowed and withdrew, closing the door behind her.

            "Special meals? My, my," Haruka smirked.

            Michiru laughed and gently elbowed the blonde's side. "Uh Dear? Any restaurant worth its salt will offer the occasional special dish to its regulars. It's part of how the chef ensures they stay regulars."

            "Yes, yes." Haruka smiled though clenched teeth. "So, Ranma, you know a bit about our powers, what're yours?"

            "Healing." Ranma said with a little blush.

            "No attacks yet?" Michiru asked.

            The redhead shook her head.

            "We haven't had too much time to explore her powers. We're still unsure of exactly how she got them." Setsuna admitted and gave an embarrassed cough. "I've actually called Ami and she'll be examining Ranma with her computer."

            "Outside help? My," Michiru noted.

            Haruka leaned forward, and Ranma blushed a bit. "Interesting. But you're a martial artist." She rubbed her chin. "You could work with Makoto."

            "The tall brunette on the other team?" Ranma asked.

            Haruka nodded. "She's a martial artist too. She actually knows how to fight, unlike the other Guardian Senshi."

            "Miss Kino is not at Ranma's level, and while training with her will undoubtedly be of benefit, I will be handling Ranma's initial training," Setsuna sternly said "Though... she probably would have an affinity with Jupiter."

            Sensing jealousy in the older woman's voice, Michiru frowned. Something else did not sit right with her. "You don't know why Ranma's a Senshi? How? We're bonded to heavenly bodies."

            "We think Ranma's connected to Saturn."

            Ranma hugged Hotaru a bit tighter while Hotaru gave an almost smug smile.

            "Is she a Moon?"

            "Sort of..." For a brief moment Setsuna looked unsure. "Hestia was the name of one of Jupiter's moons."

            "Hestia? Pretty name," Haruka said as she looked down through the table, as if she was distracted.

            "Well, you used to be a planet," Michiru teased.

            "That's different." Setsuna patted Ranma's shoulder. "That's why I want Ami to check her out, but I also need more time seeing Ranma's powers up close."

            "She gets personal training?" Haruka crossed her arms. "We haven't gotten personal training."

            "Ranma's a special case." Setsuna stated. "She doesn't even have an attack yet."

            "Hardly the first Senshi to have that problem," Haruka muttered.

            The redhead looked to Setsuna, who had simply continued her train of thought. "She's still having problems transforming."

            "I'm getting better." The redhead pouted. "But she's right, Setsuna. We should practice together. We're a team, we should act like one."

            "Damn straight!" Haruka agreed.

            "I fear she's going to make us have a group hug," Michiru said to Haruka.

            "Nah, that'll happen when the Princess arrives."

            "And that means not killing each other. Just because a cute little girl is possessed by a demon that wants to destroy the world is no reason to try and hurt her," Ranma stated in a full deadpan.

            Michiru blinked.

            "You're kidding... right?" Haruka

            "Of course not. I think we're all pretty scary here..." The redhead shivered. She closed her eyes and fought down a growing redness in her earlobes "And no, being a cute, homicidal, couple doesn't get you off."

            "She thinks we're cute at least," Haruka grinned.

            "I believe she's talking about me. Ranma did think you were a guy," Michiru reminded.

            "You're still both plenty cute. Fine." Ranma rolled her eyes. "One's cute and handsome. And the other's cute and elegant."

            Haruka leaned forward. "Flatterer."

            "Err... well..." Ranma shifted Hotaru to a different knee. "I try my best."

            "Ranma's the best nanny! She's beautiful and cute and strong!" Hotaru gushed.

            Seeing Haruka's smile, Michiru, once again, nudged the blonde on the side.

            Setsuna chuckled. "And I was worried I'd have to make you take some sake."

            "Now who's being suggestive?" Haruka teased.

            "I'm just glad that Ranma's getting over her anxiety. I was worried that we'd have to loosen her up."

            The blonde laughed while the redhead blushed.

            "I think we'll be fine," Haruka smirked.

            "Are they going to hold off on my tea?" Michiru asked as she twisted back to look at the door to their private room.

            Setsuna exhaled through her teeth. She slipped out a phone. "I don't think I made that clear to Keiko."

            "You're not calling her are you?" Ranma asked, brushing against Setsuna's blouse as she leaned over to get a view of the phone's screen. Reading the screen, the redhead laughed then smugly pulled back and resumed hugging Hotaru.

            "No... she's not. She isn't?" Haruka asked disbelieving. "I can just get up. See easy," the blonde stood. "Not everyone's got a lap full of Nanny and Doomsday Girl."

            In a moment of exasperation, Setsuna rolled her eyes. Looking far, far younger she waited for the phone to connect. "Oh, hi Usagi. Yes, it is- No it's not that late. I was wondering...." She paused. "Really? Well, I won't keep you." Setsuna closed her phone.

            "She's right outside the room isn't she?"

            "Nope." Ranma shook her head. "We'd hear her."

            "Really? That waitress moves pretty silently," Michiru said.

            "This is the Princess we're talking about." Haruka eyed Setsuna's sake cup. "I'm guessing she's just entering the restaurant."

            "Close, she's near the park just down the street." Setsuna glanced at her phone to check the time. "I guess Keiko told her to cut across and come in by the front entrance."

            "It is more recognizable, the back gate's hardly got any sign at all," Hotaru said.

            "You'll do great," Setsuna leaned down to whisper into Ranma's ear.

            Ranma smiled and nodded.

            "I don't see why you're worried. I mean she forgave us," Haruka shrugged.

            "I suppose the bar is pretty low then." The redhead forced a chuckle.

            "What she means-" Michiru paused to glare at Haruka. "Is that the Princess is very understanding... maybe too understanding. Hotaru loves you, and you're a Senshi."

            Ranma looked down, then caught sight of her tea cup and picked it up. "Yeah... I'm just..."

            "You're not a fraud," Setsuna said, a bit sharply. She blushed and hugged both her and her daughter again. "Don't you ever think that."

            There were footsteps in the hallway and the door clicked open. Keiko swept into the room carrying a platter. The round silver tray gently descended, and she smoothly unpacked a selection of tea, a carrier of small ceramic sake bottles with matching cups, a ring of delicate little bowls forming a sorbet rainbow, and a plate covered in delicate little dumpling-like pastries. Lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar, each was no bigger than a piece of candy and would be difficult to eat in more than one bite.

            For a moment everyone in the room gazed at the collection. Though Haruka's attention was split when Keiko poured both her and Michiru drinks. Then they noticed that Keiko had not arrived alone.

            A young woman with bright blonde hair done up in twin, long ponytails, gazed at the plate and bowls as if she could devour the sweet appetizers by sight alone. She wore a white dress with matching heels.

            Simple and understated, the dress had a bit of pleating the bottom hem around her knees, which helped draw attention to long, shapely legs. The top of the dress, around her shoulders was embroidered with a line or roses with a complementing rose cluster wrapping around her right hip.

            For a second, the young woman in the white dress seemed just as oblivious of the Outer Senshi as they were of her. Then the moment broke and she looked up. Her eyes immediately locked onto the trio sitting at the far end of the table in matching blouses and skirts.

            Feeling the Princess' joy as a nearly tangible force, Ranma found herself smiling. Then she looked up, and to the redhead's amazement the blonde's eyes somehow got even larger and more hungry with excitement.

            "So cute!" Usagi said as she stepped around the table. "I should have known you'd be a..."  The blonde glanced at the waitress. "Be on our team. I mean with hair that pretty how couldn't you be? Who's your stylist, I know Ami and Rei go to a place in the mall right by our school but I think it's a bit too slow."

            "Uh... " Ranma absently patted her curls as her confidence grew. The Princess had a bouncy energy that made her bunny-like hairstyle quite appropriate. "I like your hair; I'll have to tell my friend Kimiko about it. She's into that kind of stuff."

            "Thanks! I know people think it's a lot of work, but really it isn't. So, where do you get your hair done? How hot do their hair driers run? I think the place in the mall has their's a bit too hot and I worry about split ends. Do you worry about that? I mean with your perm and all."

             "I go to a little salon. Actually... it's right by here." The redhead lifted her arm and was about to point, but then blushed, and realizing she was inside, lowered her hand.

            Usagi took her seat and ordered a soda from Keiko.

            The hostess put down a menu for Usagi, politely nodded, and excused herself from the room.

            "You're a Sailor Senshi then?" Usagi rhetorically asked as she picked up a pastry and popped it into her mouth. She had seen the redhead around at school, and she was the only one in the room that Usagi did not know already was a Senshi.

            Ranma nodded and Hotaru handed her a pastry and a bowl of plum sorbet.

            "Use a plate and utensils," Setsuna gently chided.

            "At least she waited for the door to close," Michiru said.

            "Right like, Puu's magic secret field needs that to work." Usagi said as she took a little bowl of cherry sorbet.

            "The warding does work best with the door closed, and doesn't work on anyone inside the room," Setsuna stressed.

            "I know, that's why I waited!" Usagi pouted. "Oh this stuff's great!"

            "It should be Alfons is quite skilled," Setsuna said as she picked up one of the Sfogliatella Riccia. She eyed a tiny bowl of mango sorbet.

            Haruka sipped her sake while Michiru pulled an orange sorbet for her and a strawberry for herself. Hotaru had taken a pale green, fresh mint that Ranma could smell.

            "So what Senshi are you? What color's your uniform? I bet it's something with pink, that'd go great with your hair! What made you transform? How'd you find out you had powers? I bet it was defending Hotaru. What do you think about my dress? I tried for something elegant but I didn't want to be too formal you know. It's just too much. What shampoo do you use? I’m thinking of switching brands." Usagi asked in a gushing torrent.

            "Calm down," Setsuna advised. "Have some sweets and relax."

            Usagi exhaled and started eating.

            "Well..." Ranma had to laugh. This was the woman she had been so nervous about. A woman who for how cute her hair was had no idea about color coordination. Ranma shuddered at the idea of red hair and a pink dress.

            She had assumed that the bubbly Usagi from school was a façade, an act, that behind her peppy exterior was, well, a Queen. Or at least a Princess, someone a woman like Setsuna would see fit to serve.

            Usagi's blue eyes seemed momentarily sated as she swapped between eating the tiny flake pastries and eating her sorbet. She was already on her second bowl; deep reddish-black raspberry.

            Ranma paused to enjoy her own refreshment. "You're mostly right." She then licked her spoon clean and placed the now empty bowl on the table. "I'm Sailor Hestia... apparently. It was Hotaru that brought out my powers. They're healing."

            "And the pink?" Usagi eagerly asked.

            "My uniform's mostly black and white." Ranma flushed with embarrassment.


            "Yes, yes I've got some pink trim. Near the top edging the dress and my collar."

            "And around your apron!" Hotaru helpfully added as she handed a fresh bowl to Ranma.

            "Adorable!" Usagi cheered. "You've gotta show me the uniform."

            "You wear a miniskirt and an apron?" Haruka asked disbelieving.

            Ranma's flush tried to grow but she fought it back. Having some lemon sorbet helped. "Actually no. My skirt goes to a bit under mid thigh."

            "Huh. That's uh... not bad," Haruka nodded.

            "She didn't deny the apron," Michiru reminded.

            "It's great, it's shaped like a heart and has the cutest ruffles that match her hat," Hotaru smugly said.

            "It's not really a hat." The redhead frowned.

            "What is it?" Haruka asked.

            Michiru put her hand onto Haruka's and shook her head.

            "What's wrong?"

            Setsuna patted Ranma. "Ranma's got some difficulties transforming. And worse... her uniform's a bit, well, cute."

            "At least she can fill out the damn thing," Haruka grumbled. "Us tall girls don't have such luck."

            Ranma shrugged. "Setsuna wears hers just fine."

            "Red, I'm taller than her by a couple inches. Makoto too. And they both... wear it better."

            The redhead then winced in understanding. Haruka was a tall woman with long limbs and a thin but powerful frame. As the redhead tried to imagine how a Sailor Senshi uniform would fit on her, a bit of bitterness welled within. "I'm sure you look very... handsome."

            "Gee, thanks." Haruka narrowed her eyes, then sighed.

            Usagi looked as if Haruka had punched her in the stomach. "You... you don't like the uniform?" she asked in a wounded voice.

            "It's fine enough, it's just not the most flattering thing."

            "It makes your legs look good," Michiru assured.

            "Anything would," the tall blonde noted with pride. "Though those shoes do help."

            Ranma shook her head, "We'll have to compare uniforms."

            "Sure, we can do it when we train together," Haruka caught Setsuna's eye.

            "Yes, that sounds like a lovely idea," Setsuna allowed. She poked at her sorbet.

            "You guys train together? Wow that's great! It's really cool how close you all are, like you're a family," Usagi happily chirped.

            Ranma and Haruka's expressions softened a bit. The redhead studied the Princess. The ponytailed blonde seemed to completely innocent in her statement. And Ranma could see that Haruka was not suspicious. "Yeah... it is," Ranma admitted as Hotaru moved back to her own chair after giving her a hug.

            "Awwww" Usagi smiled. "You must be the best nanny! No wonder you're a Sailor Senshi. I guess the threads of your destiny were pulled in the right direction."

            Frowning, Ranma pulled herself up from the hug. Again, she studied the princess. Again, the blonde face was open and happy, and her big blue eyes seemed completely devoid of guile.

            Also there were the puns. For a Princess of the Moon to have the name like Usagi Tsukino and to have rabbit themed hair... The redhead frowned and idly tugged at one of her curls.

            It would be easier if she could simply assume this Princess had some plot to make her into a nanny and a magical girl but she seemed too... nice. Ranma looked to Setsuna and raised an eyebrow.

            The green-haired woman shook her head and then motioned towards Usagi with her hand, as if to say: Go on, you can trust her.

            The nanny blinked.

            Setsuna shrugged. "Look, if she's playing you, she's playing me too, and is like unto a god at it, because I haven't noticed it."

            The twin-ponytailed blonde looked at the two women. "Hey!" Usagi then said indignantly.

            Ranma nodded and cleared her throat. "Well... what do you mean?"

            Usagi laughed. "Of course, someone Setsuna hired would end up a Senshi. Isn't that how it goes?"

            The redhead stared.

            "I mean, that's how I meet the Inners... the Guardian Senshi."

            "You... hired them?"

            "No silly. Though I guess I could have had Ami as a tutor." Usagi laughed to herself. "But no, what I mean is that with my friends, my Senshi. All of us had a special connection before we ever met. Just as I know you've got a special connection with the people you love." Usagi leaned over and hugged Ranma. "Welcome aboard."

            Ranma blushed but returned the embrace. She felt a warmth and a flowing empathy that reminded her of Hotaru's almost unconditional love and adoration." You're... You're very trusting," the redhead admitted after the hug broke.

            Usagi nodded, and snatched a single-scoop of peach sorbet, dragging the tiny bowl away from the rapidly depleting multi-colored ring. "I'm a pretty good judge of character. And when I'm not. Well... Rei burnt him to a cinder."

            Ranma blinked. She saw Michiru give a somewhat glassy smile while Haruka nodded approvingly. "Oh."

            Usagi blissfully continued. "But you've got Hotaru and Setsuna on your side and that's pretty convincing to me. The Pharaoh 90 thing proved to me that you can totally trust little girls powerful enough to fight off demonic possession." The blonde finished the bowl and ate a couple pastries.

            "An interesting metric. To say the least," Setsuna admitted. "Shall we consider ordering?"

            Usagi looked down at the pile of empty bowls, half of which were on her menu, and gave an awkward laugh.

            "I suppose we should think about what we want to order," Michiru said as she picked up her menu.

            "Oh..." Usagi pushed the bowls off and picked up her menu. She noted that it was a heavy leather bound folio with several pages of elegantly written descriptions. The blonde took a moment to pause and ponder if the calligraphy was actually hand-drawn before bothering to actually read the descriptions.

            She was through the seafood section before she noticed two things: first that there were no prices listed, and second that Ranma was the only one not reading from a menu. "Are you feeling okay?" Usagi asked the redhead.

            "Fine... why?" Ranma asked, before eating a tiny pastry.

            Usagi glanced down at the menu in front of Ranma. "Aren't you going to order something?"

            Glancing between Usagi and Setsuna the redhead blushed. "Oh well..."

            Setsuna lowered her menu. "This is a big night for Ranma. I'll be ordering for her. And might I recommend the yellow-tail. It would seem that they got a particularly good catch today."

            "Oh? I could go for a grilled fillet of that," Michiru noted.

            "Are you giving our specials today?" Haruka smirked. "What happened to our waitress?"

            "I can call Keiko back if you wish."

            Haruka nodded. "Please do," she then added politely.

            "Uh..." Usagi's eyes darted across the menu.

            "Would you like something fresher?" Setsuna folded her hands. "While sashimi is not the chef's specialty, they are more than adequate. Or would a nice broth suit you? We can always go for something richer."

            "Well... the prices," Usagi looked around from what she had seen Green Mountain's handful of private rooms amounted to more floor space than most restaurants in Tokyo, and this place seemed to just keep on going.

            Setsuna smiled softly. "That's not a concern. Consider tonight a gift," she stood and smiled, warmly, at the assembled Senshi. "If you'll excuse me, I'll be back presently with our server."

            "Oh... okay," Usagi flipped to another page.

            "Look over your menu. If, when I get back, you're still unsure I'll order for you."

            Usagi blinked.

            "Just ask Ranma about my judgment in such things."

            "She's very good at this high class stuff," Ranma agreed.

            Reading the beef section, Usagi absently nodded. The steaks sounded fascinating.

            Setsuna gave the redhead a coy smile and left the table.

            Giving an approving nod, Haruka watched the green-haired woman slip out of the room. When the door closed she turned back to see Ranma looking at her. The redhead blushed slightly and went back to her sorbet.

            The tall blonde chuckled. "She does know all the high-class tricks. I mean she can even make going to the bathroom sound dignified."

            "Really, Haruka?" Michiru asked.

            "Why do you think Puu's leaving the table herself?"

            "Fine," Michiru sighed. "Anyway, I think I will be going for the yellowtail. Maybe grilled What about you?"

            "If it's Fatty Yellowtail they've got. I...." Haruka agonized over the menu. "I might go for the miso soup with yellowtail. I'm not sure if it's the right season."

            "They'll make an exception," Ranma helpfully added.

            "And the Dashi soup stock? What brand?"

            Ranma laughed. "They make their own. It's just dried kelp and skipjack tuna."

            "They do?" Haruka had made up her mind. "What's their katsuobushi supplier? Same place they get their fresh fish?"

            The redhead tilted her head. "I told you, they made their own."

            "They... dry, ferment, and smoke their own fish here?" Haruka shook her head. Few made their own Dashi anymore. And hardly anyone make their own katsuobushi. The smoking process could take over a month, which required multiple sessions with rest periods in between. Then came the sun drying which was even more labor intensive and required exact humidity and climate control.

            The redhead leaned over and flipped Haruka's menu a couple pages forward. "There's a whole section of smoked meats."

            "What, do they have their own smokehouse?"

            "There's like three, right in back up on the roof," Hotaru helpfully added.

            "Wow, this is some place," Usagi said with a nervous smile.

            "Yeah, they've even got a nice garden with a good size pond." Looking over the Princess, Ranma found herself becoming less apprehensive. Seeing the blonde ill at ease did help to humanize her, make her more approachable.

            "Oh? Sounds cool," Usagi glanced at the door, then looked at the menu.

            Michiru and Haruka sat a bit straighter, subtly pulling back from the table.

            "I can show it to you if you'd like," Ranma offered as she pushed her chair back.

            "If it's no trouble."

            "No, no I should," Ranma paused. "Powder my nose. Sorry, that just sounds silly." The redhead laughed.

            Haruka joined in. As did Usagi, who smiled as she stood.

            "And if Puu gets back before you two?" Michiru asked.

            Usagi glanced at the menu she had left atop the table. "I'll have what Haruka's having. And that smoked trout appetizer."

            "Good choice; trout's a delightful fish," Ranma said as she pulled the door open. She then helped Usagi put on her shoes, a pair of white pumps, and Usagi returned the favor.

            The blonde and the redhead passed down the hushed corridor. It contained a handful of doors, each going to a small private room like the one Setsuna had reserved. They then went into one of the main dining rooms. Hushed and low-lit, it was easy for the pair to cross between the widely spaced tables.

            The far side of the room presented a view of an interior courtyard complete with a garden containing a sprawling pond. Movable blinds and screens adjusted the light coming into the room and divided the view between painted landscapes and the garden itself.

            "Oh wow," Usagi's pace quickened, her heels sounding off of the wood of the dining area.

            Smiling, Ranma followed.

            The sound changed and became more hollow when Usagi crossed through an open pair of doors and onto a long-porch that ran the length of the dining room. It was raised a bit above the ground and made even more of a hollow thunk.

            Usagi leaned against the railing and watched fish slide past. Ranma came up alongside her.

            "It's great that you've joined up!" Usagi cheered. "I can tell Hotaru really loves you, the others too." Her smile pulled back and she looked back out and looked between the rounded stones and precisely trimmed trees. "I know you'll make a great Senshi."

            Taking a moment to relish the compliment, the redhead then studied the Princess... her princess. "Wait, you're still getting used to this whole royalty thing?" Ranma's eyes then widened. "You're new to this stuff too?"

            Usagi nodded, then shook her head. She sighed. "It's been years since I found Luna, but I'm... I'm still getting used to it. I never..."

            "Finding out there's more than you expected to your life?" Ranma leaned onto the railing, and ran a nail across the polished wood.

            "I mean, I dreamed about being A princess. What girl didn't?"

            Ranma chuckled.

            "But the actual experience..." Usagi looked back to the slowly circling fish. "It's scary."

            "I know," Ranma whispered.

            "Maybe." Usagi gave a little laugh. "It doesn't normally get me down. The weight of it all, but sometimes..."

            "Sometimes you realize how much responsibility is on your shoulders. And you wonder if you can handle it?"

            Usagi nodded. "You wonder if you're too young."

            "Or in over your head."

            "Or not smart enough."

           "Or not strong enough," Ranma flexed her fingers before grabbing onto the side of the railing. "I just learned that my... boss' two closest friends, people that are basically family... that they tried to kill her daughter, kill my Hotaru." The wood creaked under the pressure.

            "They made a mistake. They thought they were doing the right thing..." Usagi put her hand over Ranma's and the redhead relaxed. "It's easy to get caught up when you think you're the good guy."

            "You stopped them; you beat them up," Ranma pointed out. She looked around. They were alone, but still the redhead felt guilty Setsuna had a device to shield them. Then again she had taken it with her to the bathroom. Ranma smiled.

            "I am on the side of Love and Justice," Usagi brightened monetarily. "But that had consequences too...." Usagi turned around and looked into the restaurant and watched the wait staff glide between the tables. "Hotaru saved them, saved everyone."

            "And she gets teased at school for it."

            Usagi returned her gaze to Ranma. The blonde looked sad and hurt. There was also some determination bubbling behind her eyes: a steel resolve and will.

            "Things are much better though, she's been able to stand up for herself."

            The blonde nodded. "I've heard you've been a wonderful teacher." She returned to the water. "One day things will be better. People won't be tormented for being different or special. One day I'll make sure of it."

            Her curls flying every which way, Ranma recoiled and would have stepped back... if not for the iron grip her hand had on the railing. There was a force behind the blonde's words. It was not said with arrogance or pride. If anything it was said with trepidation.

            The redhead swallowed. She recalled that Hotaru, an apparent doomsday device, had a fraction of the power of the Princess. She unconsciously spread her legs a bit to get a firmer stance on the ground, it felt like the whole of the decking would give way beneath her.

            "But that's later, that's in the future," Usagi said as her mood tried to brighten.

            "They'll still be Senshi. Even then you'll need them... need us."

            Usagi's mood sunk. "Yes."

            "That's why you're nervous."

            Usagi nodded. "It's great that you're on the team. I can tell the Outers really like you but..."

            "But I'm at as much risk of possession as they are?"

            Usagi gave a sad little nod. "And worse," she admitted.

            Ranma gave a bitter laugh, released her grip, and ran her hands through her crimson coils. "And I was worried that I wouldn't be up to snuff. That I wasn't a real gi- that you wouldn't see me as a real magical girl."

            Usagi shook her head and took Ranma's hands. "I know what it's like to doubt who you are. I didn't know I was the Princess. I never dreamed I was the Princess. We were all looking for the Princess and even when we did find out that it... that it was me, not everyone believed me."

            "Haruka and Michiru?"

            "Not just them," Usagi softly said.

            "The others... the Guardian Senshi?" Ranma asked as she straightened herself up. She was almost certain that the blonde had also doubted herself.

            Usagi nodded.

            "But you proved them wrong."

            Still leaning against the railing, the Princess smiled ruefully. "Sometimes I wish I didn't. Sometimes I wish that I was just a normal girl. Or even just a normal magical girl."

            "It's okay." Ranma leaned over and hugged Usagi. "Setsuna and Hotaru trust you, and I trust them."

            Usagi smiled and leaned into the embrace.

            The redhead cradled the blonde and patted her shoulder.

            "I can see why Setsuna hired you," Usagi dreamily said.

            Ranma hesitated and gave Usagi a final hug and lifting the blonde's shoulders so she stood up straight. "Oh?"

            "You must be wonderful for Hotaru." Usagi idly straightened her dress. "She's had so much pain in her life. It's great that she has someone special to be there for her."

            Ranma blushed and turned away.

            Usagi followed the redhead's gaze out to the pond. "You've got some problems in your past too."

            "My family..." Ranma blinked her eyes.

            Reaching out, Usagi stepped forward. "You're not alone. Us Senshi...." Her hand froze. "There's another way I'm special. Both my parents are alive and I live with them. Minako's the only other Senshi that can claim that"

            Lifting her glasses, Ranma quickly wiped her eyes. "Wait? All of the others?"

            "Hotaru's situation is a bit extreme but... she's not the only orphan. My Mamoru, my fiance, and Makoto both lost their parents at a young age. And the others... Rei lives with her grandfather and can't stand the sight of her father and Ami hasn't seen her father in... well..." Usagi shook her head and this time she reached out and put her arm around Ranma's torso.

            "I guess I do fit in then?" Ranma asked, retuning the gesture by putting her arm around Usagi.

            "Of course. You're one of us," Usagi said, steel in her voice.

            Ranma felt the Princess's grip tighten as a sense of warmth flowed to her. Her stomach lurched as her own powers began to hum. The blonde met Ranma's gaze and then looked up slightly. Ranma felt her hands tingle as her healing powers flared and both she and Usagi gasped.

           The blonde released her arm and slipped out of Ranma's slack grasp with a little spin that would have been graceful... if she had not twirled into the glass wall.

            Trying not to smile, Ranma helped steady Usagi as the blonde checked out her shoulder then her feet.

            Looking at Ranma's forehead, Usagi giggled "I told you that you were one of us."

            Ranma raised her hand but could not feel anything.

            "Don't worry, it faded," Usagi said, almost disappointed to see the mark go. It had been the most complex one she had ever seen.

            "What faded?" The redhead recalling the glowing symbols that had appeared on Hotaru and Setsuna when they had transformed. "My Senshi mark? You make it appear? In public?" Ranma angrily asked, lowering her voice. "What did it look like?" she added.

            "Really cool! It was all in green, and had Hotaru's symbol at the center surrounded by a snake biting its tail. And then there were wings on either side of that. I wonder if your powers are related to Mercury too."

            "Healing actually." Ranma smiled despite herself. "My scepter's got the same stuff on it."

            "Neat. I wonder why you've got such a big one. The rest of us just have our planets."

            "It's because she's not a planetary Senshi," Setsuna said, stepping onto the decking. She pulled her silver and garnet key out of her coat pocket and gave a little sigh. "And this is really not the place to play with magic."

            Ranma blushed.

            However, Setsuna focused her ire on the blonde. "What if she had transformed? I told you she's still adjusting and learning about her powers."

            Usagi looked down and shuffled her feet. "I just... we were having a moment." The Princess looked up. "I'm sorry for putting you at risk Ranma." She gave a somewhat awkward bow.

            "You didn't know what you were doing."

            "But I did! I have enemies. People will want to destroy me... destroy us. I shouldn't be sloppy. Knowing me puts you at enough risk."

            Blinking, Ranma turned to Setsuna. "It's not just me?"

            Setsuna took Ranma's hand and led the pair back inside. "You're not the only person with secrets that'd put people at risk."

            The redhead blushed and tightened her grip. "I..." She then fell silent as they crossed the hushed dining room.

            Watching the pair, Usagi held a pleased and somewhat confused expression. While she was happy, it was blatantly obvious that Ranma was Outer Senshi material. She had the same awkward, nervous secrecy about her.

            "What did you order for me?" Ranma asked as they crossed into the small corridor.

            "Oh, it’s a surprise," Setsuna said as she opened the door to their private room. The heady smell of savory soup, grilled, smoked, and fresh fish wafted out of the room. The green-haired woman sighed. "Well, that was short-lived."

            "Ranma your meal came !" Hotaru looked up from the little fillet she was nibbling.

            "Oh wow," Usagi looked between her meal, a steaming bowl of soup surrounded by a selection of smoked fish and the vast combination platter that was Ranma's meal.

            Gasping, the redhead let herself be led to her seat as she looked over the platter. Vaguely fish shaped, the meal was a blend of different styles of preparing fish. Towards the tail was a mix of sashimi and sushi. The head was a contoured bowl of soup and in between was a mix of grilled tuna, swordfish, and yellow tail steaks.

            "Oh my," Both Usagi and Ranma echoed.

            "Took you two long enough," Haruka said before sipping her soup. "Where'd you find them?"

            "Just by the koi pond."

            "How appropriate," Michiru remarked.

            Ranma sat down and got hugged by Hotaru.

            Taking her sat, Usagi gave a tiny frown. "I just ordered the smoked trout right?"

            "Yes, but I embellished it a bit," Setsuna smiled as she folded her hands under her chin. "Please enjoy."




            "We're home!" Ranma and Hotaru said as they entered the apartment.

            Setsuna stepped in from the kitchen and nodded. "Good. We've got training."

            Closing the door, Ranma put her books down. "Man..."

            "You're getting better," Hotaru helpfully added.

            Ranma went to the living room. "Yeah, yeah. Just get the antacids ready."

            "This is working." Setsuna put her hand on Ranma's left shoulder.

            The redhead smiled and leaned into woman's gentle and confident touch.

            Hotaru made a thoughtful noise and for a moment looked into the distance. She then stepped over and hugged her nanny's right side.

            "Yes, if it wasn't I wouldn't be doing this." The redhead adjusted her glasses. She inhaled and enjoyed the feeling of bonding and trust. Reluctantly she stepped forward and broke the hug. "Hestia Power makeup!"

            A wave of energy built within Ranma and with it came a wash of nausea and fever over her body. For a split second Ranma felt herself burn and twist as the power slammed over her, through her.

            Then it was gone.

            Gasping, she rose to her full height. She blandly eyed the ruffled maid-like uniform. After two weeks of almost daily transformations the clothing's stigma had worn off. She could accept the heart-shaped apron, the smoke colored stockings, even the black dress and shoes (which were surprisingly sensible), but it was the ruffled maid's cap that really galled her. But it was not the worst part of the transformation.

            "How do you feel?" Hotaru asked; having transformed herself. She held her nanny's hand with one hand. The other held her glaive.

            "Here," Setsuna handed a glass of water to the redhead.

            Putting down the gold scepter with its entwined snakes and spread white wings, Ranma took a sip and found her stomach quieting down... a bit. "Man... how do you guys do this?"

            Hotaru looked down, but squeezed Ranma's hand.

            "They were reincarnated this way." Setsuna frowned. "You seem to be more... adopted. Or more..." The Senshi of Time got her own faraway look.

            "What?" Ranma asked.

            "I'm recalling when I first got my powers."

            "You said they reincarnated with their powers, no sickness."

            "When I first got my powers." Setsuna emphasized. "I haven't reincarnated. I'm still on my original body."

            Studying the green-haired woman's profile, the redhead swallowed. It was easy to forget just how... alien, she could be.

            "The training and bonding..." She turned back to Ranma.

            "You felt sick?"

            Setsuna shook her head. "Headaches. Bad but... they passed."

            "Being a Senshi comes with some problems doesn't it?"

            Setsuna gave a bittersweet smile. "Yes."

            "You don't mind?" Hotaru softly, almost guiltily, asked her nanny.

            Ranma squeezed back. "I love sharing this part of your life... I just wish it wasn't so... queasy. It still feels like I'm not quite right for it."

            "We'll make sure it works for you," Hotaru promised.

            Setsuna nodded. "It's like being on a boat. At first you'll get seasick but eventually you'll get your sea legs and not notice the waves."

            Ranma gave a weak smile. "Don't say waves."

            Setsuna snickered. "Hotaru, go get the barbell and a single forty kilogram weight from the set you got Ranma last week."

            Hotaru nodded and ran off.

            "Just one?" Ranma asked, adjusting the green glasses that came with her uniform.

            "We're not doing lifting, but staff training."

            Ranma blinked. "With a weight on one end?"

            Setsuna smirked. "So, are you ready?"

            Ranma looked around the apartment. "Here? What about the walls?"

            Setsuna chuckled. "Don't worry, I have a place, but... are you ready?"

            "Just a bit," Ranma took another sip. "Yeah..." She flexed her arm. "At least there's one upside, I feel stronger like this. We should see how much. The weights are a good idea."

            The green-haired woman nodded. "Strength is only part of it. There's your other powers," Setsuna looked to the scepter Ranma had rested on the table.

            Hotaru had returned with the barbell and weight. She placed them down and grabbed her glaive. Her frown returned and she looked at the weapon's blade.

            Ranma picked up the gold rod and felt a slight jolt as her black glove touched the golden material. "Yeah...." she said absently.

            Setsuna's smile slipped away as she looked off into the distance.

            "What's wrong?" Ranma asked.

            "One moment," Setsuna exhaled. "Pluto Planet Power, Make Up."

            Sailor Hestia watched the transformation with a awe and a bit of jealousy. Between Setsuna's tall elegant frame, the black and dark reds of her uniform, and the raw almost sinister energy emanating from her jewel-topped staff, Sailor Pluto looked the part of a cryptic and wise knower of secrets and a fearsome and powerful leader of warriors.

            Hestia bit her lip and tugged at her apron. She looked over to Hotaru, to Sailor Saturn. Her glaive resting on one shoulder, Hotaru stared off again. Then she turned to Setsuna and raised an eyebrow. There was concern on her face, and a bit of fear, but it was not overwhelming her.

            Ranma gave a smile. While she only had a slight idea as to what Hotaru could do, she found the dark purples and reds to be reassuring and confidence building. She could see her lessons and Hotaru's drive and hard work paying off. She now moved with more confidence and purpose, though part of Hestia did wonder how much was her training and how much was due to Hotaru's Senshi magic.

            Hestia did have to laugh as Hotaru tapped on a sparkly watch and used it as a communicator. Despite the seriousness on her ward's visage, the whole thing looked adorable, especially when relief blossomed on Saturn's face.

            Despite feeling in over her head, Ranma held onto her smile. She knew that she looked more like Sailor Maid, but she trusted her team mates. At least they made their uniforms look respectable.

            Setsuna peered into the Garnet Orb topping her silver key-styled staff. Her lips moved.

            "Well? What's wrong?" Ranma asked.

            Sailor Pluto glared at the spherical crystal for a couple seconds. "I don't know."

            "Are Michiru or Haruka in trouble?" Ranma asked.

            Hotaru shook her head. "Just called them."

            "What about the... princess?" Ranma found her grin refusing to leave. Here they were all dolled up in ribboned and bowed uniforms, with magical artifacts and communicator watches, and she was asking about the safety of some princess.

            Hotaru shook her head. "Chibi-Usa says they're out on patrol... but it's been pretty dull."
            Setsuna sighed. "Tell them to be careful."

            "Right, I'll pass on your cryptic and vague warning. They'll love that, Setsuna-Mama," Hotaru laughed. She then spoke into her watch, where Ranma could just hear Chibi-Usa make almost the exact same observation.

            Pluto grumbled.

            "Your job? It's not easy is it?" Ranma asked as she spun her scepter.

            "No, it's not." Pluto exhaled.

            "Are we still on for training?" Ranma asked.

            "Yes. If something does come up..." Setsuna shifted and leaned on her staff. "We'll at least be ready for it."




            Standing on the office building's roof Ranma's legs tensed. Before her was another building, another flat roof. It was about half a story lower than the one she stood on. She felt herself moving forward. Here she was on one high roof overlooking another. The scenario was obvious.

            Hotaru stood to her left, while Setsuna stood to her right. Both, like Ranma, were in their Senshi forms. Pluto made a point of walking to the edge of the roof and looking over.

            Ranma followed. Her gaze went down. The building's lobby jutted out below them. Then came the mostly darkened street. It was late; though the occasional car raced down the street; its lights cutting through the gloom. Most of the buildings on this street were offices with the odd apartment block. They were similarly darkened, save for a handful of lit rooms.

            Wind blew against the redhead's skirt and apron as she gauged the distance. The street was at most three lanes. Her eyes went from Saturn to Pluto.

            "Worried?" Pluto quietly asked.

            Ranma looked across the street. She felt her legs flex again. "Not about me."

            Pluto leaned down and looked Ranma in the eye. "She'll be fine, I promise," she said, squeezing her shoulder.

            "I know but..." Ranma put her hand up and held Setsuna's arm. "The timing's just… suspicious."

            "Timing?" Pluto blinked.

            "Hotaru's got her physical tomorrow." Hestia smirked at Pluto's reaction. "You do remember?"

            "I thought you were taking her. That is why I hired you," she said with mock seriousness.

            Saturn giggled.

            "I am," Hestia shrugged. "But it's still a coincidence. I don't want her to... fall. And getting hurt right before visiting the doctor-"

            The green haired woman put an arm around Hestia. "She's done this before." Pluto's expression turned playful. "And so have you for that mater."

            "Oh," Ranma let go and turned back. "Well, the park doesn't count. It was flat. If I missed I'd just hit grass. And I did miss the first couple times."

            "But not once you figured it out. Besides, the distance was the same. This is a part of it. You're not scared?" Pluto quietly asked.

            Ranma shook her head. "I can do it," she stated with absolute confidence as they walked back to Hotaru.

            "Good," Pluto said as she twisted around and bolted. She rapidly gained speed and jumped.

            Ranma watched as the green-haired woman lofted up in a high ballistic arc and landed on the roof on the far side of the road. The redhead smiled. It was too much. Even the most powerful ki-infused leaps she had seen in Nerima did not have quite this much... air. It was like gravity was optional for her.

            Feeling the energy through her legs, as she strode back, Ranma wondered if that were true. She inhaled and looked across the roofline.

            "You can do it!" Hotaru cheered.

            And that was it. Ranma shot forward, and at the right moment left the rooftop behind. She had a chance to look below her and see a passing van and a few dimly lit windows.

            Landing on in a flutter of ribbons and pleats, Ranma exhaled as she landed with a bit more force than she expected. Glancing back at the building she had leapt from, she took a step forward.

            Pluto stood before her bearing a slight smile. "Feels familiar no?"

            "Something like that," Ranma gasped. Fighting in high heels was one class of bad idea, but long-jumping in them was another.

            Pluto smirked and looked across the street to the building the redhead had just come from. She nodded.

            Saturn then jumped over the street and touched the roof like a falling leaf, and shifted into a fighting stance.

            Ranma grinned with pride.

            She smiled at her nanny. "Isn't it fun!"

            "Sure is," Ranma noted, idly twirling her scepter.

            "Bet you're happy you can do stuff like this now?" Saturn said brightly.

            Sailor Hestia caught Pluto's eye. "Well..."

            "I'm certain this isn't Ranma's first time roof-hopping," Pluto teased.

            "Oh?" Saturn stepped back and looked over the edge of the rooftop.

            Hestia blushed.

            "Indeed, remember that Ranma's had plenty of adventures before us." Pluto said as thunder rolled in the distance. She looked off pensive.

            "Yeah... adventures," Hestia found herself giving a bittersweet smile. She then noticed Pluto. "The others? Their patrol?"

            Pluto nodded.

            "Mako-chan?" Hotaru's voice was hollow as she took her nanny's hand.

            A brilliant ball of golden light shot across the horizon before exploding in a crash of thunder and lightening.

            "And that's Uranus," Pluto said. Her communicator started ringing, followed by Saturn's and Hestia's.

            Hestia tried to look at her chirping earring.

            "What's going on?" As she listened Pluto exhaled. "Really? Yeah, I can give some backup."

            Pluto gave a wry smile, relishing the surprise at the other end of the connection. It grew when she heard her teammate's suggestion. "Oh? Good idea. Yes, we'll move to intercept."

            Saturn tapped a button on her communicator then giving an embarrassed smile, tapped Hestia's earring silencing it.

            Her face set, Pluto looked at her Senshi. "That was Neptune."

            "Pincer move then?" Hestia asked thoughtfully. "What're they fighting?"

            "Some monster woman made of shadows. Really fast. No casualties but she's tossed everyone around." There was another burst of light to the West. This time there was flash of fire.

            Looking at plume of greasy smoke, Saturn squeezed Hestia's hand. Her eyes had grown distant and both her fingers twitched.

            "You ready?" Pluto asked.

            Hestia looked down at her ribbons and skirt and stepped forward. "Of course," she tensed her legs.

            Pluto nodded. "Great, follow me." She then took off with her Senshi at her heel. Saturn gave a final squeeze and started running. Hestia followed.

            The trio took off and jumped. Skirts and bows flapping the Senshi were suddenly airborne. Not breaking stride, they raced across the next roof and jumped. As they went from rooftop to rooftop they rapidly ate up the distance and the thunder got louder and the fire got brighter.

            Gently landing, Hestia took another breath. The angled roof of the warehouse slanted away from her. She strode forward, several meters ahead of her was the edge of the roof. Below that was a construction site. The side closer to her was a muddy lot filled with concrete blocks, rebar, pallets of sand bags, and other construction supplies. Further out was a half completed building, with a skeletal frame that rose out of walled and windowed floors.

            Pluto and Saturn fell next to the redhead. Heavier this time. The metal roofing reverberated. Hestia was about to glare but then saw Pluto's expression. The green-haired woman's eyes were hard and her jaw was clenched

            Both she and Saturn had their weapons out. Hestia flipped her scepter and almost pinked with embarrassment. Lightening crackled in the distance. A screeching cloud of darkness rose up and swallowed the light. It was followed by a booming, fiery explosion.

            Her eyes momentarily darkening, Saturn's gloves gripped her glaive.

            Pluto tapped her communicator. "Princess, we're here! Due east."

            There was a loud, static-filled, squelch over the communicator

            Pluto's eyes narrowed, and she tapped a couple buttons. "Uranus! Neptune, what's the status?"

            Hestia heard the reply on her own communicator.

            "Fast! Real fast," Uranus said gasping.

           The screeching got louder and a Senshi in red appeared on the far side of the building. She raced down a steel beam. Flames bloomed around her arms and shot out. A feminine, shadowy shape appeared in the light.

            It shot forward and the red-glad Senshi jumped to the side and caught a cross beam on the next floor down. Her arms and chest hit the beam with a heavy thud. A Senshi in green jumped down and helped her to her feet.

            Hestia's stomach lurched. Seeing others getting hurt... Her scepter almost buzzed in her hands.

             "That's it!" Hestia yelled as she started running.

            "Ra- Hestia careful!" Pluto shouted as she took after the redhead.

            Saturn looked at the shadowy figure. Disbelief covered her face. The figure turned and looked to the east and seemed to catch Saturn's eye. The Senshi of Silence shivered as worry filled her. "No, not now," she promised as she took off after the rest of her family.

            At the construction site, a trio of blonde Senshi, two with long hair, one with short, raced past Jupiter and Mars. There was a bust of light and chains and explosions and the forest of steel I-beams lit up.

            The shadowy figure snaked between the blondes.

            Heel skipping, Hestia almost fell onto one of the beams. She grabbed a vertical member and then stepped onto one of the lines of wooden planks that made up a walkway.

            Hestia could see the fight, a floor above her and fifteen meters away. The enemy was a woman made out of shadows. When lit up by fire or light some details became apparent. She had ropey flowing hair and flowing skirting that were made of slightly lighter bits of shadow. Her limbs were blurry and seemed to be in more than one spot at a time.

            Her arm shot out and she grappled the short haired blonde and tossed her into one of the others. She then went forward and a screaming line of shadows hit out at the Princess.

            Still wracked with worry, Saturn let go of her Nanny's hand and ran forward.

            Stomach lurching, Hestia watched the assault. Her attention then went to Jupiter and Mars. She could tell that the raven-haired girl was injured. Her scepter tingling, Ranma jumped to the next beam and began making her way to the pair.

            Out of the corner of her eye she saw the shadow woman lunge forward. Screaming, Saturn slammed her glaive onto the enemy. Neptune and Mercury let loose and while water shot forward, Uranus and Venus opened up, while a thick crimson beam shot out from Pluto's garnet orb. Hestia even caught a flash of pink and a man in formal wear with a sword cane. Heavy, almost overpressure, the air stank of ozone, and Hestia felt her skin tingle.

            Waves of power assaulted the shadow woman. Shadows shot out and deflected. Then she counterattacked. There was a meaty thump, and pair of blondes were airborne. Hestia caught Uranus and both watched as a dazed Sailor Moon went airborne. Hestia, and the other Senshi, turned to see the Princess tumble over the edge and fall.




            Standing in her kitchen, Sailor Hestia eyed the platter. It was just cheese and crackers but... her guest had insisted. The redhead paused and adjusted the savory rice crackers into a more symmetrical fan. She then pulled a couple more out of the open box to better balance out the pattern.

            Eying the small bowl of soft cheese, she stepped to the side to put the rest back into the fridge. After closing the door her arm bumped the cracker box. It flipped off the counter and for a split second she watched it tumble towards the hard tile floor.

            Her leg kicked out and tapped the box. With a rattle of crackers, the box began to rise and her hand reached down to catch it. Holding the box she looked around the floor to make sure nothing had spilled.

            The redhead pulled at one of her curls before sealing the box and putting the crackers away. "If only last night had been so simple," Hestia sighed.

            She picked up the platter and squared her shoulders. "I've got our snacks," Ranma said as she entered the living room.

            Putting her computer down, Sailor Mercury looked up she sat on the Meiou apartment's leather couch. Sailor Hestia took a seat across from the blue-haired girl. The redhead idly adjusted a platter, a slim plastic pencil case, and then the small blue computer.

            Hestia blushed slightly and leaned back. "Sorry..."

            "It's okay, " Mercury assured as she examined the readings being displayed on her blue visor. She flipped open her Mercury Computer and tapped a couple buttons.

            "Thanks for coming in. I really appreciate you making time to visit on such short notice." The redhead bowed her head.

            "After last night..." Mercury softly smiled. "I think you've more than earned a rush job."

            "Of course, Setsuna can't be here," Ranma gave a soft sigh, but she knew Hotaru's health was important and the doctor's appointment had already been scheduled.

            Mercury nodded as she worked at her computer.

            "Well? Am I a Senshi? A... real one?"

            Mercury put the computer down and smiled. "You're still asking that? Even after last night."

            "I don't have an attack. I couldn't hurt that... thing" Hestia's mind flashed back to the battle, to the rushing, the running, her blood pounding in her chest and eardrums. That was normal. That was familiar. That was exhilarating. They were going from rooftop to rooftop. She understood the chase, the pursuit...

            The Senshi attacked. The sky ripped open and lightning came down. Ice shot out, walls of water slammed forward and beams of death crackled and arched. And in the middle of it all Hotaru stood and scythed forward. Shock had covered her young face, as if the enemy before her affronted her very sense of self.

           The battle was bad enough, a battering shock to Ranma's senses. Then came the counterattack. A torrent of writhing, whipping shadows. Senshi were knocked about. Hestia caught Haruka but she was not the only Senshi launched airborne.

            And Usagi fell. Blonde ponytails fluttered behind her like golden streamers. And she hit. Badly.

            It was a construction site. Scrap rebar and concrete blocks had been piled up, ready to be disposed of. The Princess landed on a pile of jagged steel and hard cement. The redhead shivered at the memory.

            Mercury reached out and took Hestia's hand white glove in black. "I know exactly what you mean. I didn't have an attack to start with either. I just had bubbles."

            Hestia winced in sympathy. "But you have an ice attack and that harp thing."

            Mercury nodded but blushed. "Though they weren't very effective last night were they?"

            "Better than trying to kick a gangly bag of shadows," the redhead grumbled. "So how long did it take?"

            "Before I got an attack?" Mercury asked as she examined the readings from Hestia's transformation sequence.

            Hestia nodded.

            Mercury put her computer down. "My first one, Shine Aqua Illusion, came in about a year after I got my powers. But you're different."

            "Oh," Hestia's shoulders slummed and she slouched forward.

            Mercury looked up from comparing swirling patterns to see the curly redhead slump down.

            "A year?"

            "No, no!" Mercury rushed forward and held the redhead by the shoulder. She then blushed and let go of Hestia making an embarrassed little gasp. "You're different in a good way. I er... I mean I don't think you'll have to worry about power."

            Hestia looked up. "What do you mean?"

            "You're based off of Saturn."

            The redhead laughed. "Yes the glowing brand on my forehead made that abundantly clear."

            "No... you're based off of Saturn," Mercury repeated as she spun the little computer around. On it were two swirling patterns that vaguely looked like forked tornados. One was tinted green and faded in and out in brightness the other a deep purple.

            Hestia leaned in, took a cracker, and nodded. "Yes?"

            "You're not just getting your powers from Hotaru but you're... styled off of them too. Of all the Senshi your magic signature is the most like hers. You'd have a similar overlap."

            "We both have healing powers."

            "Yes, I think I figured out that bit," Mercury called up another signature, this one a more sinuous golden twister. "This is Mamoru's profile. He's got healing powers too."
            Hestia gave Mercury a flat glare.

            The blue-haired woman coughed. "Right... you'd know that."

            "He only helped me put his fiancee's guts back in," Ranma stated.

            Mercury went back to the display. "Well yes, so the three of you all have the same little pinch here." She hit a key and a red dot appeared on each of the three figures.

            "Uh... okay." Hestia leaned in. She could see that the little kink was the only part all three figures had in common.

            The green and the purple were more tightly coiled, almost like twirling springs. However, the green coils where thicker in diameter while the purple ones were smaller but had denser windings. The green swirl also flickered occasionally while the purple one was rock-steady.

            Hestia licked her lips. She could see what Mercury was driving at. She looked at the platter, her appetite gone. "The Silence..."

            "I don't think it's quite that much. I mean you're similar but not identical," Mercury explained as she cleared the screen and called up two more figures.

            Hestia gave a nervous laugh. "You wanted an attack, Ranma, well you got it," Hestia said to herself.

            "It might not be that bad see!" Mercury pointed out two wobbling tubes. One was pulsing bright blue while the other was cyan. The bright blue one twirled and bulged changing shape and form while the cyan was more solid, and heavy, still save for the occasional ripple.

            "You and Michiru?" Hestia asked suspecting that Ami added in the colors to make them easier to tell apart.

            Mercury nodded. "Our powers are similar, but not identical."

            "Great. What am I gonna do blow up a world?"

            "No... you don't have the power," Mercury sympathetically said.

            Hestia flexed her hands. "I can't believe it. Part of me.... part of me's jealous." She looked down and smoothed out her apron. "How's that for sick?"

            "I know. I know how you feel" Mercury said, a bitter edge to her voice as she looked at the figures.

            "You... and Michiru?"

            "Why not? She's elegant, beautiful, smart, rich, a water-based Senshi and she's more powerful than me!" Mercury's voice rose as she pointed to the flickering blue swirl.

            "And she's in a steady relationship," Hestia muttered. She also let the rich comment slide. Ranma knew Ami lived in a condominium with her mother that was at least as big the Meiou family's penthouse apartment.

            Mercury huffed. "Oh and she's an artist too! I bet father would love to look at her paintings."

            Hestia reached out and held Mercury's shoulder. "Um... are you okay?"

            "Yeah it's just..." Mercury shook her head. "I've always been apart because of my intelligence. Even when I became a Senshi it was... I wasn't a fighter, I was the one with the solutions. I was the one that had to slap Usagi after Makochan died."

            Heastia's grip slipped. "Antarctica?" she asked. Setsuna had told her that story, briefly.

            "I was the one that stayed behind. For her. And it was me, the weakest of the Senshi, that took out two of Beryl's strongest Youma, by herself. I died for her," Mercury's voice was haunted, but there was pride in her words.

            "And Michiru tried to fight her. Tried to kill Hotaru," Hestia said with more anger than she expected.

            "No... no. Well not the first part. We all doubted Usagi, but..." Mercury tapped an earring making her visor vanish. She looked across at the redhead, blue eyes locking onto blue. "I'm gifted. I know it. But I have to work at it. If I don't do my best I'll be beaten. Kurume's already out-scoring me on far too many tests."

 Hestia nodded, vaguely recalling a messy haired student with glasses that had to be three times thicker than hers. "And you think Michiru does it without any effort?"

            Mercury shifted her legs. She broke eye contact, but Hestia pulled her a bit closer. "No...." she blinked. "I know she's not competing with me but... well it's like she's the Outer version of me."

            Hestia held her tongue. Given Michiru's mirror and her clairvoyance the redhead suspected that Mercury was not too far wrong.

            "And she's so much more mature and elegant and...." Mercury sighed. "I'm sorry. This is your friend I'm talking about."

            "It's okay; I've got some issues with her and Haruka too," Hestia assured as she slipped over to give Mercury a quick hug.

            Mercury hesitated for a moment but returned the hug. "Still... I shouldn't dump all this baggage on you."

            "It's okay," Hestia sat down next to Mercury. "There's a lot of history. I'm still an outsider here," the redhead said a bit sadly.

            "Secrets are hard."

            "It almost makes you feel you're living a lie?" Hestia added somewhat lightly.

            Mercury briefly frowned, wondering what joke she missed. "Or at least being deceitful... but..." She shook her head and grabbed the jewel at the center of her chest bow.

            The Sailor Senshi uniform flashed, the material turning to blinding white light. It then burst into a flitter of tiny snowflakes that quickly faded revealing a familiar blue Juuban High School seifuku.

            "Should I change back?" Hestia started to reach for the green Meiou family broach that she wore in the center of her uniform's chest bow.

            "No, no." Ami grabbed the redhead's wrist. Instead of halting Hestia, the blue-haired girl had her hand simply tugged to the side.

            Hestia blinked, then pulled her arm back to the right.

            Dumbfounded Ami kept her grip.

            Smirking, the redhead raised her arm over her head and whipped it to the side. Pulled up off the couch, Ami gasped as Hestia's arm was wrenched out of her grip, and the blue-haired girl feel back to the cushion with a soft whump.

            "Sorry," Hestia innocently said.

            Ami flexed her arm. "I forgot you were still in Senshi form. Of course you'd be a lot stronger than me."

            The redhead managed to refrain from her usual retort and simply raised an eyebrow.

            Ami blushed and picked up her computer and started typing.

            Hestia noted that Ami could still use her computer. "More tests?"

            Putting the computer back onto the table, Ami picked up the grey pencil box. "If it's okay with you. You don't have to do it."

            The redhead glanced down at herself then at Ami, who was rolling up her left sleeve. "And a test where I have to be in Senshi form and you don't."

            "Of course." Mercury nodded and opened the box. In addition to the expected pencils, pens, and erasers were several sealed packets.

            Hestia recognized the sterile packaging medical equipment and first aid supplies came in.

             "It's totally up to you if you don't want to do it," Ami assured as she looked between two packets. Her hands shook a bit; she swallowed. Nodding she tore open the shorter, but thicker one revealing a small vial of clear fluid and an applicator swab.

             Putting her left hand onto the table, palm down, Ami began to rub the antiseptic onto the back of her forearm well above her wrist.

            "Ami...." Hestia reached out then stopped.

            "You don't have to do it," Ami assured as she took up the other packed and peeled back the plastic exposing the white handle of a scalpel and pointed it towards the redhead's waiting hand.

            "You want me to cut you." Hestia closed her eyes. "That's crazy."

            "I want you to heal me." Ami glanced at her computer; it would be a waste if it did not record the magical healing. "Therefore I need something to be healed."

            "Is this necessary?"

            "Don't worry, you don't have to cut deep. The knife is very sharp and that side of my arm is pretty safe. Not that there's much risk... I've seen what you can do..."

            Hestia's vision flashed back to the Princess, bloodly limbs. Broken bones upon a pile of concrete blocks. Her body impaled by lengths of bent rebar that had clawed through her torso like steel fingers.

            Ranma's stomach twisted and lurched. " I thought you figured out my powers."

            Ami shook her head. "We know where they came from and what their style is. We don't know how they work, or why you got them."

            "Isn't there a better way?"

            "Yes," Ami nodded. "I should have been recording everything in the battle. That way I could have caught it when you healed Usagi. I mean I..."

            Hestia stared. "That's not... that's not what I meant."

            "Please. You don't need to do much. And even if somehow you can't heal it, we can take care of it the old fashioned way." Ami pointed to the other packets in the pencil case that contained gauze and liquid bandages and more antiseptic creams and alcohol sterilizers.

            "Well... you're prepared at least. But we've got a bigger kit in the bathroom... I'll..." Hestia huffed and grabbed the scalpel. The white plastic felt almost pliant in her hand. Ami's right hand held onto the wrapper as the curly redhead withdrew the blade. The razor sharp silver edge gleamed.

            Hestia lowered the scalpel and stopped. Come on.... you're a martial artist you've trained for years on how to inflict pain. You've done far worse in fights. She thought to herself as her hand trembled ever so slightly. Yeah, but those were fights, another part of her mind retorted. It's one thing to try to hit the enemy, it's another to hurt a friend who's offered up her own arm for you to slice and dice.

            Ami flexed her wrist. "So... ?" she hesitantly asked before setting her jaw.

            Hestia moved her arm forward. The blade hovered over Ami's arm. The redhead sighed and slowly shook her head.

            "It's okay," Ami took the scalpel with her right hand.

            "I'm sorry," Hestia began to pull back.

            "It's a bit much to ask." Ami looked at the blade then at the redhead.

            Hestia nodded.

            "Asking you to stab me just to heal me was a pretty silly idea." Ami twisted the knife in the air. She then looked over to confirm that her computer was still recording.

            "Nothing wrong with that; we all have bad ideas," Hestia said with relief as she leaned back on the couch.

            "And I was putting too much pressure on you." Ami clenched her hand.

            "So, you wanna get a bite to eat? Maybe train? Hotaru and Puu will be back from the doctor's in a bit."

            Ami twisted her wrist, pointing the scalpel down. She flipped the blade and held it over her left arm. "After this. We've still got some more Science to do."

            "Uh... Merc?"

            "Don't worry. I know you can handle this. You ready Ranma?" Ami exhaled; the knife shook.

            "Ami, slow down."

            "No, that's the wrong way. It's like ripping off a bandage. Do it quick, in and out." She hissed through her teeth and slammed the blade down.

            "Ami!" The redhead's eyes widened. Her power spiked.

            Gasping, Ami let go. "There now you can heal me." She looked down at the scalpel embedded in the back of her forearm. "Oh no." Blood started to ooze out around the wound. She then screamed.

            Energy surging, Hestia rushed forward and put her hand down clamping Ami's arm below the elbow. "Ami... don't panic."

            "It hurts. What did I do? Why did I do that?" Ami babbled as she reached out for the blade. She reached it and was about to pull it out when-

            Hestia clamped down on Ami's right hand. "Don't. Not yet."

            "I just wanted a little cut."

            "Yes, you did," Hestia inspected the wound. The blade had not sunk in all the way. "I think you hit bone." The redhead gave a little sigh. "Well... you got what you wanted."

            Ami tried to pull her arms, first wounded left, then the right. But both were held fast by Hestia's adamantine grip.

            "Ami..." Hestia leaned over catching Ami's eye. "When I let go. I want you to pull the blade up. Straight up. If you rake it across you'll just make it worse. Do you understand?"

            Ami nodded. Her arm felt tingly; she was not sure if it was from the pain or the pressure the redhead had put her under. At least there was little blood loss.

           "Good," Hestia eyed the wound. Her power welled and pulsed; it could sense someone injured and the urge to heal... to help was irresistible. "Okay... go!" She let go.

            Jerking her arm, Ami yanked the blade out.

            The wound was thin but deep. Blood spurted, but Hestia's hand was already closing in. There was a flash of green light as the redhead put her palm over the wound.

            Ami looked at the bloody blade. Then at the arm Hestia had clamped down onto the table. The stabbing pain and pins and needles sensations in her arm were rapidly overwhelmed by a warm soothing sensation that began to creep up her arm. "Oh, tingly," she muttered as she slumped back. The scalpel falling from her hand and onto the couch.

            Hestia looked over and sighed. "Great... now I've gotta clean that too."

            "Sorry for the inconvenience," Ami deadpanned.

            "It's okay," the redhead assured. "Wait no, you're the reason it's all bloody!"

             As the wound knit closed, Hestia felt the flow of power wane and eventually stop. She lifted her hand and used a bit of wetted gauze to clean off the spots of moist and dried blood. "See, the cut's gone."

            Ami took her arm back and inspected the skin. It seemed a bit... brighter than normal. Though it matched the tone on her right arm. Eying the warm glow that her skins seemed to give off, she shrugged and went to her computer. The thing was still recording, and she did not expect any side effects. Usagi had none, for example. "Well... at least it recorded."

            "At least there's that," Hestia picked up the bits of plastic wrappers and spent gauze. "Excuse me." Carefully holding the scalpel, she then stood up and carried it and the rest out of the room.

            Ami was playing back the recording the Mercury Computer took when she looked up and saw Hestia return. The redhead was holding a spray bottle, some paper towels, and a foam blotting pad.

            "Could you scoot over?" Hestia asked as she knelt down next to the couch.

            Ami obliged and the redhead sprayed the bloodspots on the couch and began to mop up. "And I was told you wanted to be a doctor?"

            The blue-haired teen had picked up her computer and had it in front of her. She tilted her head. "I do..."

            "You've taken first aide training right?" Hestia asked as she moved onto cleaning the table.

            Ami eyed the black-dressed Sailor Senshi before going back to the computer. "Of course."

            "Now, I've only taken a few classes. And that's mostly on physical therapy, but I do recall stabbing yourself until you hit bone being a 'bad thing'." Hestia did a final wipe on the table and stood up. She inspected both the table and the couch before nodding to herself. "Pardon me for asking, but were you... powdering your nose at that point in the lesson?"

            "It was really sharp!"

            Hestia gathered her cleaning supplies and went back to the kitchen.

            Cheeks reddening, Ami's hands shook and her computer nearly tumbled off her knee. "I just forgot, okay!" she shouted to the redhead's back.

            Idly straightening her uniform's apron, Hestia returned, she was carrying a class and a bottle of nausea medicine. "It's all right. You got excited. Though it could have been worse." She thought back to Usagi and shivered.

            "I made sure not to pull the blade along," Ami pouted.

            Putting the glass and bottle on the table, Hestia sat down and clasped her hands over her knees. "That was good. It made things easier. Healing trauma is one thing, but when you lose a lot of blood..." the redhead looked down at her hands. There was still a bit of blood on her gloves. Though far, far less than after she had held Usagi so that Hotaru could cut the rebar out from under her.

            Ami looked up and forced a smile. "Thanks. For healing me and... um... letting me test you."

            "Can I change back?" Hestia asked.

            "Uh, sure. I'm still recording," Ami glanced at her computer to double check then nodded.

            Hestia reached for her broach. She closed her eyes. There was a green flash and her uniform bloomed in brightness until it turned into light and dissolved away. The curly-haired nanny took a slightly more relaxed stance and sat with her back leaning on the couch and her knees slightly apart.

            Ami blinked. She knew Ranma would be wearing her "work" uniform, but the similarity to her Senshi uniform was... suspicious. The black seifuku was replaced by a far more modestly cut black dress that had a fluted shin-length skirt, and a narrow white collar that circled her neck.

            The redhead wore white knee-length stockings under her house slippers and even had an apron on. Though this one was plain white with just a bit of ruffling on the sides. It was also clearly a working apron and had a couple ghosts of what had to have been stains. The emerald-green broach at the center of her bow was now held by a gold chain and worn like a pendant. It was supposedly a Meiou family heirloom which, in and of itself, was suspicious enough to raise Ami's curiosity.

            Ami looked at her computer and sighed. This whole thing would have been easier if she could just accept it as some scheme on Sailor Pluto's part.

            Ranma's knees wobbled and she reached for the bottle and downed a swig of the viscous, chalky fluid.

            The redhead sat back down. Holding the bottle, she leaned over and peered at Ami's computer. "Well?"

            Ami looked up. "Well?"

            "You learn anything from me changing back?" Ranma crossed her legs and put the bottle down. She took a sip from the glass to clean her mouth out with water and picked up a cracker. "You know I could make you something nicer, it wouldn't take long."

            "No thanks." Ami found herself blushing. "I just had lunch before coming over."

            Eying the snack in her hands, Ranma nodded. Her stomach had started to feel better.

            Returning to her work, Ami typed on her computer for a bit. Finally noticing the silence, her fingers hovered over the keys. Her blush returned. "Oh right, you were asking about the change?"

            "Yes," the redhead agreed and then nibbled on her cracker.

            "Looks pretty standard. Your power left and you turned back into a normal girl."

            Ranma found herself giving a tiny smirk at that. "Nothing surprising then?"

            Ami glanced up. "Maybe a bit more... jittery, but..."

            The nanny tilted her head and picked an imaginary crumb off her apron. "Yes?"
            Clearing her throat, Ami studied the display. "Normally the jump Senshi to civilian is smooth. One power level to the other. You've got... like turbulence."

            Eying the bottle of nausea medicine, Ranma tapped her chin. "That's one thing to call it."

            "You seem to be doing better," Ami offered.

            Ranma gave a crooked smile. "Yes, I'm not bent over vomiting."

            "Oh." Ami went back to the display. "That could have been the turbulence.

            "Something that none of you get." A bit of irritation entered the redhead's voice. "But I'm getting better on it."

            "She should have brought me in earlier," Ami absently muttered. "I would have loved to have recorded your first transformation."

            Irritation crossed Ranma's face. She folded her hands and then exhaled. "I suppose that could have helped. If I'm getting better," the redhead repeated. "That means, that my body is adapting?"

            Ami looked down at her left forearm. There was no trace of the cut. In fact, the skin almost glowed. If she did not know better she'd think the other arm was the one that she hurt. "Adapting? I'd say so."

            Ranma idly pulled at one of her curls. She had been doing that. She looked down; she felt more… comfortable. Even the horror of last night was mitigated by the support she had gained, the family that had grown around her. "That'll make Puu happy, when she's told after she gets back." A slight frown crossed her lips.

            Ami took Ranma's hand. "She wanted to be here."

            The redhead nodded. "I know, but..."

            Ami waited for the nanny to gather her thoughts.

            "I'm feeling selfish," Ranma said in a small voice. "I want them to be here."

            "There's nothing wrong with that. You'd want to be with Hotaru right now too?"

            Ranma nodded. "I was originally going to be with her." She picked up another cracker and absently started nibbling on it.

            "There you go." Ami spread her hands.

            "So, I'm not being selfish and egotistical?"

            Ami eyed the permed, apron-wearing redhead. "Ranma, you dote on Hotaru; You're literally employed as a personal servant and nanny; and as a magical girl you're a medic who jumped into her first battle to save someone's life heedless of the danger. You're one of the most selfless and least egotistical people I know."

            Ranma stared. She then looked down at her neatly folded hands and polished nails. "Um… I'm not like that. I'm just a… just..." she trailed off.

            "Humble too," Ami reached over and put her hand atop Ranma's.

            The nanny shook her head. After pushing her glasses back into place, her expression brightened. "My offer for food stands. The others will be back in a bit."

            "That's the third time you've offered me food." Ami raised an eyebrow. "And you still think you're selfish?"

            "I'm trying to be a good hostess," Ranma said a bit reproachfully.

            Mercury smiled. "You don't have to try so hard. You've more than earned some slack and familiarity."

            "You could indulge me," Ranma smiled. "I assure you I can make something better than just crackers."

            Arm tingling, Ami looked in the young woman's blue eyes. "Well..."

            "I know you just ate, but how about some dessert?"

            "After lunch?"

           "Why not indulge yourself? Think of it as a present," Ranma said, putting a generous dollop of cheese on her cracker.

            Ami eyed the nanny as she slowly savored her treat, specifically how the redhead filled her uniform. "That's true… you were great last night. You saved her."

            Ranma laughed lightly. "Not just me. You've also done great," she said sweeping her hand over Ami's computer.

            "It was nothing."

            Ranma leaned forward, and turned her hands over to take Ami's in hers. "No, you've been great. We've had a shortage of answers for what's been happening to me. Why I'm... changing. You're a huge help."

            Ami blushed.

            The redhead's smile grew, and she gave another squeeze. "Now. Have you ever had cheesecake?"




            The redhead's frown lessened slightly. Her friend had started to calm herself. "So, are you okay, Kimi?" Ranma asked the brown eyed girl who was still slumped over their table in the mall's food court. She hated seeing her friends in pain, but this time there was no magic wand she could wave to make it all better.

            The redhead gasped as a vision of blood splattered blonde hair flashed into her mind. The earthy scent of broken masonry and the sharp tang of rust returned. Shivering, she concentrated on Kimiko.

            Kimiko straightened her back and started to fix her hair; redoing the small bun she kept her black tresses in. After securing her hair she smiled; at least she could still do that right. "Wonderful," she sighed. "Knowing you were tricked is a great feeling, especially the realization that my friends were right all along and I was the one being a fool," she quietly admitted with a mix of embarrassment and anger.

            Returning with an armload of snacks, Akane frowned at the girl's statement. "So you found out Kenusuke's a real pervert?"

            Kimiko gave a curt nod.

            Nami had also gone over with Akane and handed out the drinks she had bought before sitting down. "We really are sorry, we know how... happy you were...." Her green eyes looked sad but Akane wondered if there was a hint of vindication there.

            "What's the point of being happy if it's all a lie?" Kimiko asked as she tore open her can of chilled-tea, almost ripping the top off.

            "Err... how did you find out?" Akane's eyes briefly went to Ranma's. She took out a bag of Bokun Habanero

            The redhead looked down at the cartoon spokes-pepper with its angry, almost demonic smile. She looked away from the bag, the light flashing off her glasses.

            Popping open the snack-bag, Akane frowned. It seemed that the nanny also had her own issues at play. Eating some of the habanero flavored potato rings, she flexed her legs. It seemed to be the expected mix of quiet pride and apprehension that she had come to expect from the curly-haired girl. However, she did not want to offend her... friends by being too familiar. She and Nami had left to give Kimiko some space... with Ranma.

            "It turns out he wasn't spending every other weekend working in his uncle's office," Kimiko noted darkly biting into a couple Pucca Chocolates. "The worst... the worst was when I saw him... and her," venom entered her voice, "was that he said that me and her would look good... together. What was he doing, trying to get a harem?" she spat.

            Akane pulled back seeing the girl's cold, angry glare made even more severe by the weight of her rounded black-framed glasses. However, it was undercut when Kimiko shook the bag she was holding and little chocolate and strawberry cream filled pretzels shaped like cartoony fish and octopods spilled out.

            Akane's eyes went to Ranma who had abandoned her box of Botan Rice Candy and was giving the slightly taller girl a one-armed hug. Nami had done the same from the other side, leaving Akane alone, opposite the emotional girl. "Well, some guys are real jerks," Akane said after a few moments of silence. "They don't really care about anyone else, especially women."

            "So, why can't I find a nice guy?" Kimiko's voice had started to even out in tone.

            "Because nice guys are totally clueless, they wouldn't know what to do with a girl if a nude one walked right up to them." Ranma sighed and made a mental exception for Mamoru. He seemed like a good sort, and was very grateful... afterwards. Which was expected given what had happened to Usagi.

            "While a jerk would know exactly what to do," Nami added, taking some of Kimiko's pretzels. She then took a sip from her cherry soda.

            Akane blinked. Did Ranma just say that? she asked herself. Is He speaking from experience or does She really think that way about "nice guys"? Akane tilted her head. And has she changed her perm? Her hair looks richer, deeper red, and how come her hair can grow back so fast? It would've taken me twice as long after Ryoga cut my hair.

            The curly-haired girl turned to Akane. "What do you think 'kane?" Ranma asked taking a sip of her chocolate milk. "You've had a lot of boy troubles."

            Akane stared for a moment.

            Ranma continued, "I used to think the 'pretty boys' were the biggest jerks. You know the type, but now I'm thinking it's more that the jerks who happen to be handsome can get away with more."

            Thinking of Tatewaki, Akane had to nod. "Uh... sure, but why ask me?"

            "You are the exotic martial artist, full of crazy adventures and the like," Nami added. "It must be nice to not care what people think and just be yourself."

            Looking across the table, Akane realized that she was the only one not wearing glasses. Ranma's friends were nice but they were also more... girlish. They wore skirts and eye shadow; they styled their hair; they wore jewelry.

            Akane eyed their faces. There was even something different there. Makeup aside there was something about Ranma's face that made her look more like her soft non-martial artist friends than… Akane, than she did before.

            Ranma had a pair of jade earrings that matched her broach. Kimiko wore a silver bracelet, and little dangling crystal earrings. And Nami had a little gold chain necklace. Where Akane wore no jewelry. It all added up to a stark contrast. Akane looked at her neatly trimmed nails and sighed; she had not even considered that difference.

            "Yeah, it is real hard. Especially when most of the guys let their hormones get the best of them." Looking over her glasses like that Ranma almost looked... sly.

            "If the alternative is them swarming you, I think I prefer most of the guys ignoring me," Nami said with a bit of sadness.

            "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll find someone," Ranma said brightly. "That guy with the short hair in your poetry club seems nice enough. He can even make the guy's school uniform look good."

            Akane stared. "What?" she flatly asked.

            Ranma shook her head. "Now, now, Akane. You know as well as I do that most boys skimp on their grooming, anyone that bothers with his appearance has an automatic leg up."

            "Like Tatewaki?"

            Ranma sighed in disgust "He'd be more repugnant if he didn't bathe right?"

            "Oh... eww."

            "Annoying guy?" Kimiko asked.

            "The worst, deluded nut ball from my old school. He's got a lot going for him." Ranma started counting off with her fingers. "Money, mansion, some martial arts skill, and he's even handsome enough." She looked to Akane and flushed a bit in embarrassment.

            The redhead coughed and continued. "But his personality..."

            Akane had to nod. In the abstract she would agree that Tatewaki was handsome, and she knew that Ranma, nanny or no, was no more attracted to him than she was.
            "Cancels the rest of that to the point of repugnancy?" Nami surmised.

            "And his father is the principal and even more insane. And he looks it too," Akane added.

            "Tatewaki's proof that you can't judge a book by its cover." Ranma nodded. "So try your friend at the poetry club, Nami. What do you have to lose?"

            Nami blushed. "Kazuo is nice; I don't know if he's interested, though."

            "Maybe you should find out," Ranma suggested.

            "Just don't go too fast," Kimiko advised. "You don't want him breaking your heart."

            "Love's full of risks, Kimi. If you don't expose yourself... you won't get anywhere." Ranma took a moment to adjust her glasses and wiped at her eyelashes.

            Akane tilted her head. She could hear shades of regret in the girl's voice, and wondered about her own lack of... initiative.

            "Oh?" Kimiko's eyes glinted. "You're the most cautious person I know when it comes to romance. Even Nami's gone out, and had a boyfriend for a bit last year."

            "I've gone out," Ranma crossed her arms over her chest.

            "On dates," Kimiko clarified.

            Ranma blushed.

            "Oh.... is that why you want to go clothes shopping after our snack?" Nami asked.

            "Well, Kimiko..."

            Kimiko gave a half-lidded gaze. "Ranma, you're not clueless. You know I'm not one of those neurotic girls that feels better just because she's bought something pretty."

            The redhead blushed.

            "I also know you're the one looking forward to shopping for something pretty."

            "Right, just what is this special dinner of yours for?" Akane asked.

           "Just a nice dinner with one of my boss' friends and her fiance," Ranma managed to get out. Hating that she had to lie, she felt her cheeks flush. Setsuna holding a dinner in her honor was embarrassing enough, which was why Ranma had insisted on cooking for it.

            Despite the burning on her cheeks she smirked at that. It might be a celebration in her honor but she was going to pull her own weight. Looking to her friends she frowned at having to lie to them. At first she had thought it was sad that the Senshi tended to avoid having "normal" friends, but she was starting to understand why it was so hard for them.

            Trying to smile, Ranma eyed Kimiko's luxuriously shiny black hair. "What about some hair supplies? I know you've been eyeing some new brushes, and you were thinking about a new conditioner."

            "And some ribbons and barrettes," Nami added. "Those always cheer you up."

            Kimiko blushed.

            "Ranma with a clue?" Akane blurted nearly spraying her soda. She sharply inhaled when the three girls wearing glasses turned to her.

            Nami tilted her head. "Sure, she's a bit naive, but Ranma's got a pretty good read on people."

            "Or is this from... before she... moved?" Kimiko delicately put.

            Akane swallowed. "She was a real tomboy. Though she didn't go as far as wearing the boy's uniform. That was another girl we knew."

            Ranma pushed her frames back up her nose with a slight grin.

            "But..." Akane eyed Ranma's figure and the demure pastel blue blouse she wore. "She did wear her hair real simple, no makeup, and she refused to wear glasses."

            "I didn't pay enough attention in school or read enough to get much eyestrain. Stupid astigmatisms," Ranma pouted.

            "Maybe that's why you were such a lousy student. You'd get a headache after reading too long," Akane guessed.

            "It's not that bad, at least you can see without your glasses," Nami groused. She was rather nearsighted.

            "We've got distracted, girls," Kimiko sternly said. "Apparently, Ranma has a dinner date that she needs to get ready for."

           "Oh, is that why you're taking a personal day away from work? I was hoping you'd have brought Hotaru," Nami said.

            "It's not a date," Ranma sighed. "It's a dinner party."

            "And how fancy is this mysterious party?" Kimiko asked.

            "Well, not that fancy, or else you could wear your homongi," Nami noted.

            Akane turned to Ranma. "You have a kimono like that?"

            Ranma coughed. It seemed the secrets she could tell her friends were juicy enough.

            "You're kidding, right?" Akane asked Nami.

            "Oh no, she showed it to us in her closet." Kimiko assured. "Light blue nagajuban with white snowflakes, bright green obi with winter trees, and a homongi that goes from deep red to yellow in a nice cloud pattern. It's really beautiful."

            Akane's mind locked up. She had long been used to the idea of Ranma wearing feminine clothes. She had even gotten a handle on Ranma preferring a style that was not flashy and actually approved of the girl getting some feminine modesty. However, something that formal and... expensive still boggled her mind. It was as if she learned Ranma also had a corset and ballgown.

            "The geta she got are adorable too. A bit high, but great lacquer," Nami added.

           Embarrassed, Ranma turned to Akane. "After I told my boss about how Aunty Saotome took us to the White Crane, she insisted on coming too."

            "And she bought you a formal kimono?"

            Ranma nodded. "And a yukata for Hotaru, but we managed to get her to buy a komon for herself. She wanted us to go to a formal dinner as a family."

            "I see." Akane realized that she should not be too surprised about Ranma getting fancy clothes. Even... before the redhead had a knack for it, but what did disturb her was Ranma's reluctance to give the full story of her life. However a fancy dress was one thing, a full blown kimono like that was another.

            Akane could understand the secrecy, but it hurt, especially since Ranma's other friends were able to visit Ranma's house. She looked down at her drink. Nami and Kimiko had expected Ranma's ward to come today, but Ranma had kept her away... because of Akane, because of Nabiki. The martial artist inhaled. She really hoped things would settle down; the police presence, technically the delivery van, maintenance truck, and too-observant salary man presence, around her house seemed to have increased lately.

            Maybe things were about to come to a head. Though she knew the police would only make a move when they were certain they could force a solution with minimal fuss to the neighborhood's harmony and would only press charges if positive they would get a conviction. She looked over and saw Ranma's almost bashful stance. She knew that the redhead was keeping secrets.

            "So, a dinner party... who's it with?" Nami asked.

            "Some friends of the family," Ranma stated before taking a sip. She consoled herself that the truth was too crazy. She was being honored by a grateful space princess and her consort to be. The redhead knew that only one of her friends had a chance of believing that.

            Akane's insides cooled. This was the second time the redhead had alluded to things being more... emotional than a mere employer and employee relationship.

            "Sounds nice, where are you all going?" Kimiko knew Miss Meiou was something of a gourmet.

            Ranma gave a little smile. "Oh no, I'm going to be cooking."

            "Oh.... have you drawn up a menu yet?" Nami's eyes sparkled.

            "Well, I've got a few ideas. There was a real good soup in that cookbook you lent me," Ranma admitted. In fact drawing up the menu over the last few days had kept her mind distracted from the events of that night. It had kept her mind off of the bright vibrant green energy blasting away blood and knitting together torn flesh. It helped push aside the rasping and wet sounds of metal rods being sliced and pulled out.

            Nami smiled thinly. "The one with the crab and the ginger noodles?"

            Ranma nodded. "And it's not just for me either. Hotaru's..." Ranma held her tongue. She couldn't say that Hotaru had been a great "nurse". She looked to Akane and her heart sank.

            Akane nodded, thinking Ranma was embarrassed about revealing the name of her ward.

            Nami pretended not to notice. "What about dumplings? You could serve them with the soup. I've got a recipe that I think you'd really like."

            Kimiko shot a sympathetic look across to Akane. "Here they go, again."

            Despite herself, Akane chuckled. The curly-redhead was so animated as she and Nami leaned forward, to Kimiko's discomfort, and discussed various dishes.

            Eventually, Ranma and Nami noticed that they were the only ones talking. "Oh sorry," the Nanny blushed, adjusting her glasses.

            "Yeah, we can talk about this later," Nami admitted, nervously shifting her frames as well.

            "Maybe we should find something nice for Ranma to wear," Kimiko noted before she finished her drink.

            "That's just because you want to try on clothes," Nami noted.

            "We can't all be tomboys like you and Akane," Kimiko smirked.

            "Wait, I'm no longer a tomboy?" Ranma blinked.

            Kimiko leaned over, and with a critical eye, she gave one of Ranma's spiraled tresses a slight tug. She then gently ran a finger over the startled redhead's cheek and carefully studied the result. "Nope, I think you're in the clear. In fact, you're a great example of all the potential a tomboy really has."

            "Hey...." Ranma then pulled at Kimiko's bangs.

            The black-haired girl stuck her tongue out.

             "And I'm not that girly. See?" Ranma made a point of dropping her purse onto the table, rummaging through it, before finally out a compact to "inspect the damage." It was her favorite curl.

            "You're not fooling us." Kimiko smoothed her hair back.

            Watching her former fiance pout as she repaired her blush, Akane started to laugh. "Auntie Nodoka was right. You really were meant to be a proper young woman."

            Ranma flipped her compact closed with a loud snap. "At least I outgrew my tomboy phase, 'kane."

            Akane's laugh resumed. She eyed Ranma's blouse and had to force herself to not go with the immediate retort that came to mind. Her tomboy phase was not the only thing Ranma had outgrown.

            "Dear, that's a powerful insult," Akane said with mock drama as they cleaned up their drinks and snacks and stood up.

            "Yeah, it's not like Ranma can attract more guys than you ," Nami noted.

           Almost stumbling, Akane then blinked. She looked around at the floor, it felt like a trapdoor had opened beneath her.

            "Sure Ranma's got a better bust-line, but aside from that she and Akane are kinda close. But ultimately Akane does have the better figure," Kimiko agreed as they walked down the mall.

            Akane gave Ranma another glance. Her waist did seem less... trim, and even with her loose skirt, the redhead's butt was fully curved and happily swayed back and forth as she walked.

            "Also Ranma's a bit too bookish and shy. Most guys want a girl with more spirit.:

            The Tendo teen skeptically turned to the supposedly shy servant and saw a... tepid... timid response.

            "Guys... I'm just not... forward." Ranma clutched her green leather purse with one hand and tried to smooth the high-collared pastel-blue blouse she wore.

            "Yes, you could show off a lot more of your figure if you wanted too," Nami noted.

            "Not that flowing long skirts aren't cute," Kimiko assured.

            Akane watched Ranma blush. The redhead's green skirt looked comfortable with blue embroidery on the hem, but the other girls were right. It was long, going to her shins. Both the skirt and the blouse were more... concealing of Ranma's exact figure. The redhead was still quite... endowed but had eventually gotten the sense to stop flaunting it.

            Akane stopped in mid stride and looked down at her own top and knee-length shorts. She was showing more chest and leg than Ranma... the disquieting realization held her in her place for a couple seconds.

            Ranma turned to look at her frozen friend. "Akane... we're almost there." She pointed to a door.

            Akane blushed and followed her friends into the dress shop where after a couple minutes of browsing each had a handful of "kills." In the private alcove just outside the dressing rooms, Akane hung a miniskirt on a hanger with a slight shudder. Purple was not her color. One of the other dressing room doors opened and she turned to see Ranma step out.

            Akane stared. The other girl's bra was very demure in style, if not size. It looked like acres of white silk with subtle lace edging and frills worked in all to support the other girl's bust. Curiosity getting to her, Akane's eyes wandered down. The redhead's underwear matched being just plain... girly. There was also something... off about the other girl's shape. Somehow her breasts looked... smaller

            "Excuse me." Ranma's blush spread from her cheeks to her neck and ears as she hung up a knee-length skirt.

            "No... it's okay," Akane said stepping back. "We're both girls after all."

            "Thank you," Ranma gave a relieved smile. "Oh... why did Nami have to put that down there," the redhead groused looking at a lower shelf where Nami had put a grey cashmere dress.

            As the redhead bent down, Akane stared at the disrobed Ranma. Over the months and months, she had been aware of Ranma's growth, especially in how the nanny swayed when she walked, but until she had removed the voluminous blouse and skirt the full impact had not set in.

             The redhead's figure was changed but... familiar. It was like the one Akane saw in the mirror every day, but more exaggerated. Ranma had always had strong thighs but Akane had prided herself in having even stronger ones. At least relative to Ranma's girl form... back when that distinction was required.

            Now, Ranma had finally beaten Akane there. Her thighs had more muscle and were still coated with a smoothening layer. Akane prided herself on her lower body strength but it looked like the redhead could easily crush a man between her legs.

            Immediately, above her thighs lay the bulk of the growth. It was why despite the redhead being somewhat larger in bust line, her bosom still looked outsized by her buttocks and hips. Both girls were "thick as a brick" but while Akane was a house brick, Ranma was a cinderblock.

            The rise in the flare to Ranma's hips, coupled with a butt that merrily jiggled in its lace and silk prison would have given the redhead a pear-shaped figure. The scale of her bust line helped mitigate that somewhat, but if her butt grew any more it would stick out more than her bosom.

            Biting her lip, Akane estimated Ranma could balance a deck of playing cards just above her butt and be able to keep it from spilling as she walked.

            Akane noticed that the redhead's upper body work had not followed the toning of her legs. Ranma's arms were thicker and looser and instead of giving off a sense of raw power they looked soft and only revealed the musculature beneath when her arms flexed.

             Her stomach, instead of going inward, actually extended a bit past her ribcage in a tiny little tummy. It reminded Akane of a scaled up version of the one she had finally managed to work off.

            Altogether, it made the nanny seem to be a short, solid collection of soft curves. Akane fought off a bloom of jealousy. She felt like the redhead had taken her body-shape and added twenty percent to it, and she still looked better than her!

            Finally, Akane figured out what had made Ranma's face so... odd. The frilly perm, slim glasses, and makeup contributed, but the addition of baby fat to the girl's cheeks and chin had all helped to put a different cast on her face. Instead of being sexy and more "sharp", Ranma's face was rounded, inviting, soft.

            Which fit… the body that it went with. To Akane, the redhead looked like a young woman who had been exposed to a rich life and was comfortably growing into that lifestyle. Again Akane got the strange feeling of looking into a distorted funhouse mirror.

            "Yes?" Ranma asked as she somewhat nervously adjusted a new bra.

            "I wasn't staring!" Akane gasped.

            The redhead pushed her glasses up her nose and raised an eyebrow. It seemed that she was not the only one clumsily hiding secrets.

            Akane coughed. "Er... I... it's just your new look."

            Rising back up, Ranma followed Akane's gaze. The redhead's flush reignited. "I know, it's embarrassing to be... "

            "Big butted?" Akane blurted, still a bit shocked by what that flowing skirt had concealed.

            "I was going to say 'hipish'," Ranma's eyes narrowed. "Now, I know what you've gone through." Ranma's blush reached her ears as she slipped on a long dark green dress. "I'm sorry I ever made fun of your figure. I didn't know how hard... It's not even fifteen kilograms!"


            "And there's muscle too. The training with Hotaru's been making me stronger. I've been teaching her a lot of Tai-chi and Karate and a working on Aikido. Though more muscles just mean bigger thighs don't they 'kane?"

            Akane gave a sympathetic nod. "Those lessons are for physical therapy?"

            "And building confidence, she's had a... hard life." Ranma looked down.

            Akane exhaled, understanding why Ranma would be so committed to her job. "I mean if you don't mind me asking?" Akane asked as she watched Ranma pensively study her own reflection. "It looks good on you. It... hangs very nicely."

            Once more, Akane looked down. Her eyes traced the strong... flare of Ranma's hips, the... jutting curve of her buttocks and the slight... pillow of her stomach. "Yeah I guess we're both. 'Thick as a brick.' " she said echoing her earlier thoughts.

            Ranma gave a slight chuckle. "I never thought you'd admit your own figure."

            "Well, it's easy when you see someone... bigger than you."

            "Jealous?" Ranma asked.

            "Not really," Akane coughed. Knowing it was in part a lie. She was still jealous of Ranma's old figure, and was still… jealous of her new one.

            "So..." She glanced around. "You're still not worried about your curse?"

            "I made a special... shopping trip when I started my job." Ranma gave a happy smile.


            "And good thing that I did, given the place closed down a few months later."

            Akane's eyes widened. "You raided the Cat Café?"

            Ranma tapped her nose.

            "And you're still okay? It's been a while." Realizing the concern in her voice, Akane paused. When did she start thinking Ranma's curse getting unlocked being a bad thing?

            "Well, I got a coupla boxes of waterproof soap, a few instant curse packets, and a few other odds and ends." Ranma's eyes darted down. "Just in case."

            "That's still a finite supply...." Akane felt her mouth dry at her implication.

            "I've got over half a dozen bars left and... my boss is looking into ordering more. Even if she has to have an agent go to China and buy some for her."

            "She would have the money to throw around," Akane said a bit brighter. She was somewhat relieved that Ranma was not looking for a permanent lock. Akane then wondered why she was only partially relieved, and why even that much? Did she still hold out hope for a male Ranma?

            Even after the curly-haired nanny broke things off and asked for friendship. Or was it simpler? Akane wondered if she just wanted Ranma to be able to choose her gender... and a part of her feared that the nanny had already made her choice. Her eyes then widened at the realization that Ranma's boss knew about the curse, and was willing to help her keep it locked.

            Forcing a smile Akane looked at the clothing rack. "Here... maybe the lavender on this will look better on you," she said as she handed over another dress.

            Juggling the two dresses, Ranma held the purple garment over her body. Frowns grew over both girls' faces as their eyes went downward.

            "Too tight up top.... and bottom," Akane noted. The dress was blatantly too small in the waist and hips.

            "I'm sorry. It's too small," Ranma said after a couple seconds.

            Akane gave a slight nod as she continued to look over the redhead. Ranma always had a little of baby-fat to her face in girl form. It was what helped her do her "cute as a thousand buttons act" when it was time to get free sweets. But now... Akane confirmed that that is what was different. Ranma's chin had definitely smoothed out, seeming less pointed and her cheeks were a bit rounder

            "That's not the only thing," Akane said as she poked Ranma's upper thigh. "Now you know the problems with keeping up leg strength."

            Ranma looked down at her thighs. "Yes, they're hard to keep.... slim."

            "Well, I have been working out more," Akane offered. Though she knew the extra muscle definition she had gained had done nothing to thin her figure, save for on her stomach.

            "It shows," Ranma tried to smile as she picked up the soft grey dress and looked at it thoughtfully. "I've been practicing more too, well... I've been getting more chances to teach and be a sparring partner."

            Akane exhaled. Instead of seeing her fiance, instead of seeing the obnoxious tomboy, what Akane saw was an unsure, introverted girl. A girl who wanted to look special for her family, and was craving the approval of her friend.

            Stepping forward Akane hugged the larger girl from behind. Both had grown over the months and months, but Akane was still taller.

            Gasping, Ranma bumped back, her butt almost knocking Akane over. "'kane!" Ranma cried.

            "It's okay... "No matter what... we're still friends. And... " Akane took the dress out of the nanny's hands and draped it in front of her. "You still make me feel jealous." Still smelling the mix of the redhead's shampoo, body wash, perfume, and a bare hint of her perm, Akane released the hug.

             Lowering her head and blushing, Ranma pulled the dress over her head and smoothed it down. The soft and thick cashmere clung to her figure and took a bit of effort to get it to lay down at its full length.

            Akane gave a little clap. "Very lovely."

            Still looking down, Ranma's smile bloomed. She turned and looked at her reflection. She shifted her body and put a hand to the dress' neck to simulate it being buttoned up. "Yes it is, but one problem."


            "Well... you can see my bra straps and panties."

            Akane blushed. "Well... not really, just a hint... it's a thick dress."

            Ranma shook her head. "Little miss tomboy. You do know why we women wear slips right?"

            Akane glared. "Oh, you're now playing up the girly act?"

            Ranma looked over her glasses. "Playing?"

            "Fine." Akane snorted. "You got your dress. I suppose you'll need a slip and all the other accessories for it."

            Ranma turned around and started to pull the dress off. "What makes you think I've decided on this one?"

            "Please, I can tell when you've made your mind."

            Ranma quirked her lips into a smile. "I suppose so," she admitted putting her skirt and blouse back on.

            "So what new accessories do you need to buy?" Akane picked up the cashmere dress and fingered the material. "A slip right?"

            "Nah, I've got one that should work." Ranma buttoned up her blouse and shifted her skirt. "I have some slippers that will match. Maybe some gloves." The redhead frowned and started counting with her fingers.

            "Well, aren't you prepared," Akane scoffed as she handed the dress back.

            The redhead pulled down her skirt and smoothed it to hang off her hips. "I try my best," Ranma smirked as they left the dressing room and met Nami and Kimiko.

            Nami was looking at the belts and had a thin blue suede in her hands. Nearby, Kimiko held a bag in one hand and was inspecting a can of hairspray she had pulled from a long shelf. She had already added a can of styling gel into the bag.

            "Oh, what'd you find?" Nami asked turning to face Akane and Ranma.

            "Something cute?" Kimiko asked putting the can back on the shelf.

            "Akane thinks so!" Ranma grinned, lifting the dress up.

            Eyeing Kimiko's bag, Akane idly pulled at her bangs. She was due for another haircut. Something that seemed a bit more important after seeing Ranma's increasingly long and curly style.

            "She's got good taste." Nami gushed. She reached out and ran the soft material between her fingers.

            Kimiko copied and smiled at the touch of the cashmere. "Lovely stuff. You going to get it?"

            Nami picked up the tag and stared.

            Glance at the redhead's skirt, Akane looked up and craned her neck to see the price tag in the brunette's hand. "Oh."

            "What?" Ranma took the tag from Nami and nodded. "Yeah, that's about right."

            "What?" Akane gasped. "You know how many dresses I could get for that price?"

            "Or how many shoes?"

            Kimiko looked at the label. "About three pairs, leather, designer label."

            Ranma nodded. "That's right. And the price is right for the quality and the material. Wool like this isn't cheap."

            "You know, I never expected you for a fashionista," Akane remarked.

            Ranma laughed. Compared to some of the Princess' friends she hardly qualified herself. Though Setsuna did give her an edge.

            Kimiko matched the redhead's expression. "Really, because some of the stories you say..."

            "I'm shocked she knows the nuts and bolts. I mean, sure, she'd put on a stupid, bimboish costume," Akane shook her head. "One time she put on this skimpy minidress and tried to teach her... well a new girl how to pick up guys."

            Recalling the mirror clone debacle, Ranma blushed. "Yeah... that wasn't my brightest move."

            "You, taught someone how to do that? How inexperienced was this girl? Did she just pop out of thin air?" Kimiko asked.

            "That's about right."

            Frowning, Kimiko went to an accessories table and started picking up some odds and ends: a spool or two of ribbon, a few plain hair clips, a couple more ornamental clips, and a few silly bobbles like a trio of shiny bells, a pair of duck-shaped barrettes, and a pink head band. It helped keep her mind off the breakup. She told herself that at least Kenusuke had found her attractive; she could try again, and this time not settle for a perverted jerk.

            Akane smirked. Ranma might spend more time with her new friends, and have a lot in common with them, but there were still some things that were still just between her and Ranma. "And there was this one cooking competition where she got a leotard and a pair of-"

            "Now, now," Ranma said putting a manicured finger to Akane's lips.

            Akane nodded. She figured explaining the okonomiyaki competition would inevitably go to Ukyou which would inevitably lead to engagements and cross-dressing and... curses. "Still, you seem to know a lot."

            Ranma shrugged. "My employer is a fashion designer."

            Kimiko nodded and looked at the label. "You think she'd mind you buying from a competitor?"

           "Nah, this isn't really a competitor anyway; she's done some work for this line. Part of a summer collection last year... I think."

            After looking Ranma over again, Akane tilted her head; she wondered if Ranma realized how much she had let slip. "I suppose that explains a lot," she said as they walked to the front of the store.

            "What?" Ranma asked fiddling with her purse.

            "That working for a fashion designer would rub off on you."

            Ranma giggled as the saleswoman rang up the dress. Nami also chuckled while Kimiko concentrated on emptying the bag she had filled and adding a couple cans of hair product and spray. She then smirked.

            "What?" Akane asked, her eyes watching Ranma pull out an envelope and start counting out bills.

            "You've not giving these two enough credit." Ranma nodded to her two other friends after placing the somewhat depleted envelop back in her purse.

            "Oh yes, we've put a lot of work into our Ranma-chan," Nami said with a broad grin.

            Kimiko also smiled proudly.

            Blushing Ranma found the bowing cashier handing her a discrete box tied with ribbons that contained the folded dress.

            "Ah," Akane stated.

            As the quartet left the shop, Kimiko giggled. "Really 'kane?" she asked the martial artist brining up the rear. "It's not like you haven't been helping our poor shy redhead."

            Nearly stumbling to a halt, Akane froze. Looking the glasses wearing redhead over an expression of mute shock formed. How much of this was her fault? Would she have supported Ranma, kept Ranma's secrets, if... she knew this would be the result?

            Akane recalled hugging Ranma in the dressing room, reassuring the redhead. She sighed. Yes she would have supported her friend.

            Ranma stopped walking. She looked up, shook her head, and pointedly did not look behind.. "Nami is she staring at my butt again?"

            Nami crossed her arms. "Well, not anymore."

            "She is blushing and sputtering," Kimiko helpfully added.

            "Oh no, you're not blaming me for this!" Akane cried.

            Ranma slowly turned and tapped a foot. "Blame?"

            "I'm not the reason you're all... all.... frou-frou. No way, I'm a tomboy," Akane proudly said pointing to her chest.

            The redhead stared for a couple seconds. She then lowered her gaze and, muttered under her breath. When she brought her head back up, her smile was broad and her eyes were sparkling. "Come on girls! Akane's right. We have tired ourselves out with all this shopping. Let's go get something at the food court and talk about the pretty things we bought!" She clapped her hands and gave a happy titter.

            Glaring, Akane furrowed her brow. "You think you're pretty funny don'cha Curly?"

            Ranma smirked. "I try my best." She took Akane's arm. "Though really you should treat yourself sometime," she assured as they resumed talking.

            Fighting down a flare of jealousy, Akane exhaled.

            "Not everyone has such a... comfortable job," Kimiko gently reminded.

            Ranma bowed her head and as they walked through the mall. Upon reaching the food court they split up into two pairs. Kimiko and Ranma went to the left and got in line at a place that sold cookies and ice cream.

            Akane and Nami went to the right.

            "You want some sweet buns too?" Nami asked

            "Huh?" Akane looked at the short line ahead of them. "Yeah, yeah. Just thinking."
            Nami patted Akane on the shoulder. "I know it's hard... going all this way out here..."

            Akane sighed. They both knew the trip from Nerima to Juuban was not that bad, especially on a day without any school. However, the lie was simple shorthand for the truth.

            Nami then squeezed Akane's shoulder. "But Ranma really appreciates it when you visit. You should hear her at school. She's been looking forward towards this all week."

            "Yes, I can imagine. Spending all week looking forward to shopping at the mall and buying pretty dresses." Akane sighed.

            "You know that's not true." Nami squeezed a bit tighter.

            Turning, Akane glared. Her expression then softened, and she gave another sigh.

            Nami released Akane's shoulder. "Fine. She likes putting on dresses. She likes getting ready for fancy dinners. She likes shopping with her friends. Most of all she likes doing that with You."

            Akane rubbed her eyes. "Don't you think I know that?"

            "Well, what's wrong with letting Ranma be happy doing girl things?"

            "You wouldn't understand." Akane wiped her face. "Trust me."

            Nami pressed her lips together forming a thin line. "Right. Look I know you feel guilty that she had to run from –well- from some bad stuff, but you can't blame yourself. Not for what's happened."

            Akane exhaled. "How can you be so sure?"

            Nami's gaze turned serious. "I was there when you ran into ' Auntie Nodoka' and explained to her that 'Ranko' was hiding because of something your sister Nabiki has been trying to do to her."

            "You heard! But you were in the changing room," Akane's face reddened. She knew running into Nodoka when looking for a yukuta for Nami would be come back to haunt her.

            "The White Crane's a narrow little store, and the changing rooms just used fabric curtains for privacy." Nami's frown then turned into a smirk. "And you're not the most quiet girl."

            Akane swallowed recalling the rest of the conversation that Nami had been privy too.

            "Now, I can get the whole 'Ranko' thing, it's confusing enough to be engaged to one Ranma and have another as your cousin. But between running and how Auntie Saotome looks..." Nami let the suggestion of family resemblance hang in the air.

            Akane set her jaw. "Yes?"

            "Well, that's my point. Ranma or cousin Ranko had a very good reason to leave the way she did, and you-" Nami took Akane's hand. "You aren't to blame for what your family has done."

            Closing her eyes, Akane nodded. She then squeezed Ranma's friend's, her friend's, hand back. "Thanks. You don't know how much of a burden this is. All these family secrets."

            Nami returned the gesture. "Some things have to be kept private." She then stepped forward, pulling the more muscular girl along. "Come on, the line's moving."

            Now only a handful of people stood between them and the counter. "So..." Nami rotated her stance so the counter was to her left and Akane was across from her. "Are you still... well... is your fiance... is that –uh- Ranma still gone too?"

            Akane blinked a couple times and lowered her head. "Yeah, yeah he is."

            Nami winced. "Another problem of your sister's doing?" she asked in a lower voice.

            Akane gave a mad laugh. "Oh no, I bet that pervert ran off and is shacked up with one of his other fiancées!" She smirked, at Nami's confused reaction. Of course she didn't get the joke; she didn't know Ranma, not really. "Hah, I bet there's girls his father set him up with that he's only now just meeting. A big martial artist like him'll always be surrounded by girls." She gave the brunette a cockeyed look.

            "A real heartbreaker?"

            "If he weren't so clueless he'd be a major bad-boy. Raised on the road, always training, half feral you know. Never wore a uniform, always dressed like he was gonna fight. Course he was right about that." Akane shook her head.

            "Raised on a training trip too?" Nami nodded thoughtfully.

            Akane hugged her own sides and seemed to draw herself inward. "If... if I didn't. Yeah, I'd almost blame Ranko... er Ranma for stealing him from me."

            Laughing, Nami shook her head. "That's a good one!"


            "Sorry 'kane, but from what you're saying, your Ranma sounds like the exact wrong type based on what I know of my Ranma."

            "Is that so?" Akane bristled, mostly at the "your/my" Ranma distinction.

            "A wild-boy clueless, marital artist with no fashion sense?" Nami snickered. "We're talking about the girl who suggested I try to woo Kazuo, the sweetest, most bishounen guy in my poetry club for heaven's sake."


            "Also, don't forget that both Ranmas were raised under very similar circumstances."

            "Uh, yes?" Akane tried to recall exactly what Ranma had said for a cover story. She had no idea how the redhead managed to keep all the stories straight. She idly wondered if perms somehow helped boost memory recall.

            "Well, the Ranma I know is full of regret on how she was raised. Always alone, deadened social skills. There's a reason she's so shy and introverted. And that's not even getting into the..." Nami lowered her voice. "The gender thing."

            "Uh, yes," Akane lamely agreed, as she wondered what Nami knew, or what she thought she knew. Clearly she did not know about the curse, unless she was humoring Akane, or somehow thought female Ranma was once male, and that there was also a male Ranma running around. Akane started to get a headache. "Yes, that sure was a big issue for her."

            Eyes sparkling, Nami shook her fist in triumph "You see! Do you really think our little redhead likes seeing the man her father wishes she were? Hell, they even have the same name." The brunette shook her head.

            "Ranma does have issues with her father. Especially over the engagements and the... worse issues."

            Nami nodded. "Exactly! And we're not even getting into the arranged marriage that got Ranma so boy shy in the first place." She lowered her head and looked over her glasses. "Tell me she wasn't engaged to this other Ranma, because that would be too, too weird."

            Akane stared at the other girl's earnest, almost amused, face. She realized that she was in the midst of an avalanche of lies and that the only way out was to ride it to the end. Or simply blurt out the truth, but she was not sure it would be believed.

            "Well, I'm not sure. I don't think so, but well... none of our fathers are too bright." Akane eventually said. "No, Ranma's father tended to engage his kid to anyone, especially if he needed a hot meal or a soft bed."

            "Boy Ranma's father or girl Ranma's father?"


            "Ah," Nami shook her head. "Still, that's why I'm thinking our Ranma isn't too attracted to the other Ranma. Too many bad memories. Too much of a reminder of her old life."

            A key part of Ranma's old life winced at that.

            "It's okay... I didn't...." Nami turned away.

            "No, you're right. Ranma did the right thing running away. Making her own life, escaping the whims of her moronic Father. Not having to deal with insane pressures and demands." Akane's tone shifted to wistful and bitter.

            Nami reached out then pulled her arm back. "She's still hurting. I saw the pain when she met Auntie Saotome. The wounds run deep. For all three of you."

            "More than you know," Akane said with a bit of perverse pride. You might see Ranma on a daily basis, but I knew more of the redhead's secrets, Akane thought, ignoring the gaping holes in her knowledge of Ranma's job.

            Nami nodded. "I know... I know it's hard but if you want to talk. We can. I know Ranma likes to be secure with contacting you but I think we can arrange something."

            "Why don't I just give you Auntie Saotome's number?" Akane suggested a bit flippantly. "I'm sure she wouldn't mind playing courier."

            A brunette eyebrow went up as Nami pondered. "That could work. She'd know how to contact you. And it wouldn't be unusual if she called for you." She pulled out her cellphone and paged to her phonebook.

            "What?" Akane asked, immediately seeing the problems of the system. Involving another person seemed unnecessary.

            "Hurry, the number? we're next in line," Nami reminded.

            "Oh right," Akane rattled off Nodoka Saotome's phone number before turning to face the counter. She was halfway into her order when she realized what she had done. She then watched Nami slip her phone into the purse and place her own order. Taking the tray, Akane frowned as she and Nami walked over to the tables and find their friends.

            Akane put down a platter full of snacks and drinks. Sitting down, Akane glanced at her watch.

            Ranma happily sat down and started munching on the ice-cream sandwich she had bought. It was fudge swirl mint ice-cream sandwiched between two chocolate cookies with chocolate chips. She also had what looked to be some type of malted strawberry and chocolate milkshake.

            Akane rolled her eyes at the nanny's snack.

            "Something the matter?" Ranma asked.

            "I'm just admiring your skills," Akane gave an exasperated sigh.

            "At? I'm a great martial artist, a fair housekeeper, I've got a knack for physical therapy. I'm good at cooking. I'm a fantastic nanny, oh and these two seem to think I'm good at all this girly girl fashion nonsense. So, you're going to have to narrow it down a bit." Ranma held up her free hand and slowly brought her thumb and forefinger together.

            I'm also such a girly magical girl that I can't even hurt a monster but at least I'm a damn good medic. And the girls could use another one of those, Ranma thought to herself. And Ami thinks I'm not egotistical.

            Ami did not have any ideas on how she had gotten her powers, but she had been a comforting ear on the whole "no flashy magic attacks" problem. Her early powers had specialized in support, intelligence, and defense. For one, Ami was very good at neutralizing massed minions.

            "Your ego's in check at least." Akane snorted, once again noticing Ranma was lost in thought. "It's not any of that. I mean, you must spend every day pretending to act like you're falsely letting on that you aren't not unbetraying someone you don't not purport to allegedly not work for but really do! How do you keep this shit straight without having an aneurysm?" Akane demanded nearly out of breath.

            "Huh." Ranma then took a bite out of her cookie. "I have no idea what you just said." She wondered if even Ami could have decoded that.

            "Oh, Akane's just miffed given the stories she has to tell Auntie Saotome versus the stories she has to tell her family versus the real life you're living here," Nami explained giving Akane a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "I also think she's gotta deal with the other Ranma's escape too."

            Ranma raised an eyebrow. Apparently, Nami could decode Akane-speak.

            Kimiko took her seat.

            Feeling a tad vengeful, Akane gave a wicked smile. "You know, Auntie Saotome's son. The Man among Men. Him?"

            "I can see why this all gives you a headache," Kimiko agreed before licking her fudge-dipped vanilla ice-cream on a waffle cone.

            The nanny nodded. "Ah yes, how's he doing?" She then covered her mouth in surprise. "Sorry! I know you're keeping that a secret too."

            "Gah!" Akane screamed in frustration.

            The redhead twirled a coiled strand of her hair idly. "I'm starting to see the problem."

            "It's okay," Akane gave a smile. "I really just shouldn't say anything, should I?"

            "Keeping secrets is hard." Ranma's smile turned bittersweet.

            "Ain't that the truth," Akane said, glancing at her watch for the second time.

            Kimiko looked through her bag. She took out a pair of brushes and handed one to Ranma

            "How much time do you have left?" Ranma asked as she absently felt the bristles.

            "I've got plenty." Akane frowned as the redhead played with the brush. "Must you?"

            "What?" Ranma looked down at the long handled brush. "Oh it's nice, but too stiff for my hair."

            "Oh?" Akane asked.

            "It would be bad for the perm," Nami explained. She then caught Kimiko's eye.

            "Ah," Akane shook her head and gave a sidelong glance at the bag full of clothing and accessories that Ranma had bought. It was still smaller than Kimiko's bag of various hair care products but that was small comfort.

            Ranma, opened her purse, pulled out a list and started checking off items, her smile growing. She then slipped the list back into her purse and went back to her ice cream cookie.

            "You ready?" Kimiko asked.

            "I think so," Ranma grinned rolled her shoulders. "I'll have to go over what I've got for tonight, but yeah. And this isn't even counting the food shopping, but I did most of that yesterday."

            Nami tilted her head. "I think you should do something with your hair. What do you think Kimi?" she asked her friend, hoping to cheer her up.

            Ranma blinked. "Really? What's wrong with it?" She patted her curls. "My perm should still be good."

            "Perm." Akane sighed.

            Kimiko brightened, thoughts of betrayal and broken hearts pushed aside by thoughts of beautification.

            Nami leaned forward with her elbows on the table. "Well, this is a special night, you're dressing up for it why not do the same with your hair." Her eyes widened. "Oh! How about a great big bun, you could pile it up." She looked to Kimiko's small bun and stuck out her tongue.

            The nanny leaned back. "Uh, I'd have to get an appointment with Kikuko, and I don't think more curling would be good for my hair."

            "Really, how sensible," Akane grumbled, as she looked at her can of tea.

            "At least for a while," Ranma admitted as she concentrated on eating her ice cream before it melted. "And that's a lot of work."

            "What about a lacy headband with some ribbons?" Kimiko asked.

            Ranma crossed her arms. "Why not go for a full maid's cap?" While she had insisted on cooking for tonight's party, even she felt that dressing as for maid in a dinner in her honor was too far.

            "Nah, I was thinking butterfly bows instead," Kimiko added.

            Nami smirked. "Well, you are a nanny."

            "I think my hair's fine."

            "What about a big bow in the back!" Nami eagerly exclaimed.

            "Yeah you could pull it all back in a big bouncy ponytail," Kimiko added.

            "With that much hair?" Akane leaned over to look at Ranma's hair. "I can see the bouncy, but not so sure about the big."

            Ranma tapped her chin with Kimiko's hair brush. "Really?" she asked handing the brush back.

            "Your hair's not long enough, maybe if it were back when you had the braid." Akane winced a bit at the memory.

            Finishing the last of the ice cream, Ranma then nodded in understanding. "Yeah, I know. And I know people with longer pony tails. But really... that's not quite me." She put the two cookies down, to save them for later.

            "It could be!" Nami claimed. "What's wrong with ponytails?"

            Akane stared. "Why not give her two?" she flatly asked.

            Kimiko and Nami blinked and started to smile. Nami thoughtfully played with her twin braided pigtails. "Akane you're a genius!" Nami cheered.

            "Oh no. No way." Ranma waved her arms. "That's not really my style. And besides my hair's not long enough. I'd look silly."

            Looking between the girls, Akane felt her spine chill. "Long enough for what?" she asked not sure she wanted to know the answer.

            "Oh nothing," Ranma nervously laughed. "I have a friend, and she's got double ponytails that go down to her ankles."

            Akane burst into laughed. "And how do you know someone like that?" she asked still snickering.

            She's the Magic Princess that my new family has sworn to serve and protect, and I managed to save her after she got thrown off a building, Ranma thought. She then gave a sigh. "The girl I take care of is friends with her little cousin," she explained.

            Kimiko nodded Ranma had told her about Usagi's hairstyle. The redhead was right, her hair was nowhere near long enough to replicate that style. She also knew how private Ranma was with Hotaru.

            "Ah, sorry. Still, she sounds pretty crazy."

            "Compared to some of the people we knew?"

            "Exactly." Akane blinked, then sighed at the tense Ranma used.

            Nami looked Ranma over. "I don't know... you could wear them in the back like I do but would that be good for your face?"

            "That's a good point. I'm not sure." Kimiko turned to Ranma. "It's okay we wouldn't dream of making you look silly. Especially for a big night like tonight." She then squeezed Ranma's hand.

            Biting into a cookie, Ranma smiled. "Well.... giving me big pointy pink odangos, sticking out of the top of my head would make me look pretty silly."

            "What?" Akane asked, flatly disbelieving. "So, this girl has ankle length ponytails and two big buns?"

            "No, no," Ranma shook her head. "Usagi has long blonde hair and little round buns. It's her cousin that has pink hair that points up. Looks like a demented bunny."

            "In that case why not pull you hair to either side and have it fall down? Then you'd at least look like a lop bunny," Akane offered, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

            Ranma laughed. "No thanks, but it's still better than giving me a giant fluffy bow."

            "Come on, I think Hotaru would love it!" Kimiko cheered.

            Akane blinked. She knew those girls tried to be careful about naming who Ranma worked for. She wondered if Kimiko had forgotten that in her excitement, or was breaking the rules as part of a ploy to sway Ranma.

            "The bow or the bunny look?"

            "Bunny, silly." Nami admonished. "You know she totally would!"

            "Uh, girls... I dunno," Ranma looked to Akane. Part of her felt uncomfortable, but a larger part knew that Hotaru, and Usagi, would love a getup like that.

            "And it's not like it'd be hard to try out." Nami looked to her dark-haired friend. "Kimi-chan you have any ribbon?"

            "Sure do," Kimiko said as she opened up her shopping bag and pulled out a spool of deep green silken ribbon.

            Standing up, Nami took a length of ribbon and circled around to Ranma's back.

            "Little help?" Ranma asked.

            "Oh no, they're your friends, you wanna stop them, that's your business." Akane leaned back and gave a little smirk. "Besides, it's just a couple ponytails."

            Nami and Kimiko each took a side and began pulling Ranma's hair into a pair of big ponytails such that each fell just above her ears, nearly covering them. They left the redhead's bangs alone, leaving the little springy coils in place. Looking up she could see her favored lock sitting just at the edge of her vision, happily swaying and bouncing.

            Using a smaller gold ribbon, Nami tied each ponytail a couple of inches below the green ribbons. She then removed Ranma's earrings and pinned the ribbon into place before putting them back on and looping them back around.

            Finally, Kimiko took a can of hairspray out of her bag and a little brush. She then started using both to fix the curled ponytails into place and did a bit of shaping to flatten out the coils and give them more body.

            When the two stepped back, Akane burst out giggling. The young nanny looked like she a pair of large, very curly "lop" ears falling down and framing her face.

            "Having fun?" Ranma asked as she leaned forward with her "ears" trailing over the table onto Akane's hands. She then gave the girl a hug.

            Sighing, Akane gave the "ear" a slight tug and Ranma gasped in surprise. Akane gave another, gentler, tug and Ranma murmurs thoughtfully.

            "Well, well... Hey, Nami what'd you do?"

            "What?" Akane asked.

            Nami pouted. "I had to anchor those secondary ribbons somehow."

            Ranma picked up the big cookie two handed and nibbled it thoughtfully. "I'm not sure that's a good idea." She knew the others would get a kick out of her hair done like this. It was silly, but maybe a bit of levity would help tonight's party.

            "Take 'em out if you want." Nami waved her hand. Ranma nodded and slipped the gold ribbons off her earings.

            Akane started studying the dual-ponytailed redhead. Her bangs were still springy and the curly hair on her head was pulled in tight. It gave her an almost pixyish style, if one ignored the "lop ears". However if one took those into account, along with the glasses, soft and sweet face, and the nibbling on an ice-cream cookie... Akane shook her head.

            Glancing over she noticed Kimiko making a similar visual study. The raven-haired girl smirked. "You thinking what I'm thinking 'kane?"

            "That she's still too damn adorable?" Akane stated.

            Ranma smirked.

            Kimiko nodded. "Sure, but I was thinking if she kept growing her hair longer she'd have longer 'ears' and wouldn’t need to pull as much in."

            "So?" Akane asked, while Nami's eyes widened in excitement.

            "Because! Then Ranma could have her normal hairstyle and the bunny ears!" Nami cheered. "I see it. She keeps growing out the ponytail sections, but trims the rest to fall at –oh- about chin height, and the curls will help keep her real ears from showing."

            Sighing, Akane poked at her food. The idea of Ranma having curly permed hair as normal was... was reality.

            Tilting her head Ranma stared.

            "You don't think Miss Ayanami could do it?" Kimiko teased.

            Ranma thought back to her stylist. "Oh no, I'm sure Kikuko could manage. You guys really think I should go through with this? I look pretty silly."

            "No," Akane stated.

            "Yes!" Kimiko cheered.

            "Wait until you return home and let your family see it," Nami smirked.

            Absently patting a lop style ear, Ranma gave a little smile

            Wincing Akane gave a defeated nod. She knew who Ranma considered her real family. Who Ranma trusted. There was some consolation in that Akane was among that list, however it was no longer as a fiancee but as... one of the girls.

            Watching the nanny put the cookie down and start to suck at her milkshake. Is this how it goes? Akane thought to herself. I've dreamed of beating the other fiancées. I dreamed of being the one left standing, the one Ranma trusted. And here I am, Ranma's girlfriend. Right along side her other girlfriends Nami and Kimiko.

            Lost in her sweets, Ranma gave a happy murmur.

            Nami held the tips of her fingers to her lips for a moment. "You know... you could go back to dyeing your hair."

            "Really? Didn't you guys think muting the reds was a symptom of my overall shyness?"

            "Shy?" Akane asked between snickers. Laughing at that incongruity of Ranma's immediately brightened Akane's mood.

            "Sure, sure. But I don't mean dyeing the whole thing," Nami explained.

            After deducing her friend's suggestion, Kimiko's jaw slackened. "Really?"

            "Is she suggesting what I think?" Ranma asked.

            Kimiko nodded.

            "What?" Akane asked.

            "Well, my fellow double ponytail... er.. haver, is suggesting that I dye these-" Ranma lifted up one of her ponytails. "A different color than the rest of my hair."

            "Not by a lot, just a different shade. Bring out some contrast," Nami said.

            "I'd look like a big bunny," Ranma grumbled before picking up the crescent-shaped remains of ice-cream cookie. Then taking constant if small bites, she quickly, but neatly devoured the dessert.

            "You already look like a bunny!" Akane cried.

            Her ice-cream finished. Ranma put her hands down. She used a napkin to clean her hands and took a moment to admire her nails. She then made a point of slowly giving first one then the other ponytail a light tug. She tapped her chin. "Really? I don't see it."

            "Gah!" Akane cried, nearly throwing her drink.

            "Too subtle?" Nami smirked.

            Kimiko leaned over the table and started to look at Akane's hair. Pondering, she tapped a brush against the table with one hand while caressing her can of hairspray with the other. Ranma's hair had been... easy, and she was starting to wonder just what she could do.

            "Oh no!" Akane's eyes widened in horror. "My hair's fine!"

            "It's only fair 'kane-chan. You let them do this to me." Ranma paused from eating her milkshake to lift up one of her bunny lop ears.

            "That wasn't my idea!"

            "Uh, yes, yes it was," Nami said while Kimiko pulled out her ribbon spool and gently placed it on the table in front of Akane.

            Akane's angry muttering was cut off by the spool's shockingly heavy clunk. Her eyes narrowed and she stared at it.

            "Where's your sense of adventure?" Ranma asked.

            Akane eyed the soft nanny. "Burned out," she admitted.

            Ranma looked down at her blouse. "Oh."

            "What about yours?" Akane asked.

            The nanny kept her head down. Usagi falling off the third story of a half demolished building replayed in her mind. She saw Hotaru charge at the shadowy figure while the other Senshi screamed in horror. Some rejoined the fight, others like Ranma rushed to the fallen Princess.


            "Yeah... burned out," Ranma whispered.

            "Sorry we were just thinking of some good fun." Nami assured, taking both Ranma's and Akane's hands.

            Kimiko continued to idly tap her brush.

            "Besides, what would you do with my hair anyway?" Akane asked pulling at her short straight tresses.

            "Oh, I've got some ideas," Kimiko assured. She reached out with her brush and Akane's hand whipped out and knocked it away.

            "I'm not sure why you're so tweaked," Ranma said.

            "I know how this goes," Akane stated.

            "We're not talking about taking you to the salon. There's only so much they could do to you."

            "They turned you into a bunny!"

            "No, not really. The ribbons can come right off."

            Putting her brush down, Kimiko smiled. "It's okay Akane; I understand."

            Akane blinked. "What?"

            "Well, there's no need to pressure you. Especially if you're not comfortable," Kimiko poked the brush so that it pointed at Akane.

            "No, you're not guilting me into this."

            Nami and Ranma grinned. "Oh, a challenge then?" the redhead smirked.

            Akane sighed. "Come on, Ranma."

            "What? I let her do my hair in a bunny style..." Again Ranma tilted her head causing her "ears" to sway.

            "That's different," Akane huffed.

            "Yes, this was your idea," Nami smirked gently tugging one of the lop ears.

            "No, I mean she's already got silly and girly hair,"

            "Got me there." Ranma shrugged.

            Akane laughed. "There was a time when you'd argue with me."

            Drinking some more of her milkshake, Ranma giggled. "Hey, you've known me with hair like this longer than me with the pigtail."

            "Really?" Akane asked, eyes widening. She looked to Ranma's other two friends, and her stomach sank. That meant that Ranma had been living... been living as a girl longer than she'd been living in Nerima. That Akane had known the cute and curly nanny longer than the brash and male martial artist.

            Nami frowned. "You okay, 'kane?" she asked waving a hand in front of the girl.

            "Huh? Oh sure."

            "We were just joking. If it's too scary to have us play with your hair we understand."

            "Yes, hair's very important to a girl," Kimiko agreed while Ranma nodded.

            "Too scared?" Akane scoffed. "I'll show you too scared."

            "I thought we couldn't guilt you into it?" Nami teased.

            Akane glared.

            "She's a martial artist." Ranma grinned as she leaned forward. "You can always challenge her."

            "Is that what we're doing?"

            "I'm not afraid," Akane said. "I just don't want my hair to be messed up..."

            Kimiko sniffed.

            "It's just brushing and hairspray," Ranma assured. "You don't even know what Kimi wants."

            Frowning, Akane eyed the girl. "That's true, but..."

            "I was thinking of something to match Ranma's style."

            "Thank goodness my hair's too short for a bunny." Akane eyed the nanny. "Huh."

            Kimiko's eyes brightened up. "Idea?"

            Akane ran a hand through her hair. "Well..."

            "Surprise idea!" Kimiko stood up and leaned on the back of Akane's chair. "What's your idea?" she asked whispering into her ear.

            Akane looked over the table at the redhead. Her lips curled into a playful smirk. "Oh it's an idea. But I'm not sure I have enough hair for it."

            Kimiko's eyebrow went up. "A challenge?"

            Tilting her head, Ranma leaned her cheek on her palm. "See Akane! You're not the only one that can be goaded that way."

            "So what's the idea?" Kimiko asked, her head almost on Akane's shoulder.

            Akane turned and whispered her idea and Ranma's phobia to her friend.

            Kimiko's eyes widened. "Really? This... this won't scare her?" she asked in a low voice, wondering again if there was any limit to the tragedy in Ranma's childhood. At least this was a thing Kimiko could understand, she had a little cousin who was deathly afraid of dogs because one bit her when he was a baby.

            Akane saw the concern grow on Kimiko's face. "Of course not. She's not that scared," she quietly assured.

            "Good," Kimiko said, absently brushing Akane's hair.

            "Can you even do it?"

            Kimiko ran her brush and eyed the length and thickness of Akane's hair. She tapped her fingers on Akane's scalp.

            Akane gave a snort of irritation. "Well?"

            "Sure! Can do!" Kimiko declared, her confidence surging back.

            Ranma absently pushed one of her ponytails back over a shoulder. "What's the plan, then?"

            "Oh it's a secret," Kimiko stood up and began walking around the table. She'd occasionally stop and look at Akane and tilt her head to get a different angle.

            "Ohoho, someone's got a plan!" Nami cheered.

            "You didn't do this for Ranma," Akane said, pensive.

            Kimiko had made it to the curly redhead's side of the table and straightened one bunny-girl nanny's hair ribbons. "Ranma's design was much simpler."


            "If it's too much I don't have to do it," Kimiko assured.

            "You saying I can't handle it?" Akane glared.

            "Maybe she's saying she can't handle it," Nami teased.

            "Yeah..." Akane smirked. "Maybe you're trying to chicken out."

            Ranma giggled.


            "Akane... you're getting all competitive over some hair fun at the mall. You have any idea how girly that is?" Ranma asked as she straightened her posture and adjusted her green broach.

            Akane narrowed her eyes. "How girly is it to giggle about it?"

            Ranma smiled and rolled her hand to acknowledge the hit "You'll do it then?"

            "You just want me to give up."

            Ranma paused to take a sip from her milkshake. "Nah, I wanna see what Kimiko and you've thought up. I just don't want you to do anything rash."

            "Well it's no perm. I can just go back." Akane eyed the black-haired girl. "I can go back right?

            Kimiko looked up from the cans of hair gel and hairspray she was comparing. "Sure, sure. It'll all just wash out."

            The table became quiet and Akane paused to take a drink. She looked at the cans in the girl's hands. "That's less than reassuring."

            "Cold feet?" Ranma teased.

            "I'd rather not have my hair get wrecked, you know?"

            "Yeah, you can only have it get cut so short," Ranma happily agreed.

            Akane smirked. "Yes, Ryoga's little accident wasn't nearly as bad as the grave dangers of gum." She then stuck her tongue out.

            "Hey! It was really bad."

            Nami shook her head. "Don't worry Akane. This is the same stuff Kimiko uses on her own hair."

            "That's a relief," Akane said.

            "Then again, she has had that bun since elementary school." Nami rubbed her chin. "Come to think of it, I've never seen her let her hair down. Even in the swimming pool."

            "Nami!" Kimiko hissed. "She's just kidding 'kane. Besides hair doesn't work that way."

            "Right," Akane licked her lips. "Just go ahead and do it."

            "Great choice!" Kimiko cheered. "I think I've got a good idea on how do to it!"

            "Can't wait to see," Ranma said.

            "Now no cheating." Kimiko said as she turned Ranma's chair around so her back was to Akane. The brunette then took a seat facing Ranma and scooted over so she could have a view at the process denied to the pseudo-bunny girl.

            Taking a brush, a mouthful of hair clips, and a can of gel, Kimiko set to work. Walking around her subject, her canvas, she studied Akane's head and made a few experimental swipes with her brush.

            Giving a slight shake, Akane looked Kimiko in the eye. "Just do it."

            "Right! One surprise coming up."

            The brush bit into her hair, and Akane closed her eyes. She felt her bangs being pulled back. Suddenly her forehead felt taut and cool as Kimiko started using the various hair products in her disposal. All she had left were the little dangling tresses that fell in front of her ears framing her face.

            Then came a weirder sensation as Kimiko brushed the rest of Akane's hair forward. The top was pulled forward over the bangs and Kimiko started deploying the hair clips. The springy little metallic clips went down pinning Akane's hair in place.

            She winced as the hair on the sides of her head was pulled forward and pinned to the remnants of her bangs. Her ears started to feel a bit hot and muffled. Then her neck began to feel cool and naked as Kimiko began to brush the rest of Akane's hair forward.

            Gripping the table, Akane had to keep her head still as she was filled with a strange backwards, almost inside out sensation. Her neck and forehead felt cool, her ears felt hot, and her scalp felt pinched and pulled in the wrong directions.

            She could see Nami watching it all with an amused expression. Though the brunette would often divert her attention to Ranma and converse with the redhead. Akane sighed, wondering if this was how Ranma felt when she let her pride get the best of her.

            Then Kimiko pulled out the headband. It went down on a straight vertical right in front of Akane's ears. First her bangs were threaded under the headband and pulled into two little "tails" each kept by a pair of little rubber hair bands.

            Then the rest of Akane's hair was drawn forward in four longer and thicker tails, threading them on either side of the rearward facing "tails". Kimiko gave each of the six short ponytails a tight tug then pushed the headband into place anchoring them down.

            Licking her lips, Akane became lost at what happened next. Her hair was now taunt, tight. She felt like she was wearing a bun or heavy braid of some kind. Except, the weight was atop her head where she could feel Kimiko toy with each of the six little ponytails.

            As Kimiko worked she would pull the hair tighter, then plait then spray and finally repeat. As she worked to build a pair of little structures atop the headband, she brushed around the tight helmet of hair around the rest of Akane's head and removed the holding hair clips once there was enough hair product to keep things in place.

            She did leave a couple just under the headband in front of Akane's ears. Finally, Kimiko gave the last bit of hairspray to the twin triangles atop Akane's head. She stepped back, frowned. Then eyeing the spool atop the table she grabbed it and reached into her bag.

            Nami nodded. "Good move!"

            Akane's eyes widened as she saw the silver bell come out. "Oh no you don't!"

            "But it'll be so cute! Kimiko chuckled as she threaded the ribbon through the top of the bell and then tied it loosely around Akane's neck.

            "Yay!" Nami clapped.

            "Can I turn around yet?" Ranma asked, rolling a shoulder.

            "Mirror, now!" Akane growled.

            "As you wish," Kimiko flipped open her compact with a snap.

            Akane stared.

            A pair of big cat ears proudly stood atop a smooth and glossy head. Kimiko had woven fine braids into the right shapes. And then she stiffened Akane's hair and sculpted it to place. And in the process had exposed her forehead and neck, with hair pulled tight against her skull. It made her look sleek, almost predatory. Her ears, her real ears, had been successfully hidden by her hair and the hairband itself.

            "I'm a..."

            Kimiko put a finger to Akane's lips. "Let's have it a surprise. Okay Ranma you can turn around!"

            Ranma spun around. The nanny stared. Anxiety and a bit of fear welled in her stomach, but she thought back to the fight and found herself feeling better.

            "Oh, they're so cute! We need to take a picture," Nami cheered as she pulled out her phone.

            "What? No!" Akane blinked as Nami's phone flashed in her eyes.

            "Yeah... Y- you look great!" Ranma got up, held back for a couple seconds, and then darted forward pulling Akane to her feet. The redhead looked at the cat ears and worry flickered across her face.

            Akane felt a smug smirk grow at the bunny-girl's nervousness, and she leaned forward looming over the shorter girl. "I do?" Akane asked.

            "Yup... yup!" Ranma gave a big smile.

            "I felt it was a bit much..."

            "No... very cute."

           "Not scary," Akane held her arm up and let her hand fall limply at her wrist and bat at one of the redhead's "lop ears".

            Pulling back, Ranma blushed.

            "Too cute!" Nami said taking another picture. "Perfect."

            "Do you have to?" Akane asked.

            "She's just having some fun," Ranma said getting a bit more confidence. "Don't be such a stick in the mud." Ranma put her arm around Akane's waist. "Now smile 'kane!"

            Akane smiled and was blinded by another flash.

            "Wonderful job Kimi-chan," Ranma said as she inspected Akane's hair. "You did a lot of work."

            Nodding, Kimiko walked around the two girls. "Yes, not bad for a first try." She grinned triumphantly.

            "I'm glad I was such a successful experiment," Akane sighed.

            "You are!" Ranma cheered tightening her hug.

            "You two make an adorable pair," Nami said taking another picture.

            Ranma ran her nails along Akane's sculpted scalp. "So smooth."

            Akane's eyes widened at the scratching, almost slick, sensation. Her mind started to drift and her gaze drifted to the far end of the food court and begin to lose focus.

            "She's purring!" Nami squealed.

            Akane pulled her head to the side as her eyes snapped back into focus. "Am not!"

            "I think we found Akane's next cosplay outfit."

            "Oh no.... " Akane waved her hands.

            "Relax 'kane, it's not like you're wearing a cute shirt and shorts and dressed up like a.... cat-girl."

            "This was all your idea," Akane pouted.

            "Actually it was all yours," Nami reminded.

            "Yeah, you really have some good creativity. I'd have never thought this stuff up without you," Kimiko added taking out her own phone. She pointed the camera closer in, concentrating more on the hairstyles she had made.

            Akane opened and closed her mouth. She looked over to the "bunny girl" who was still hugging her: glasses, skirt, curly hair, bunny ears, all check. She then considered herself: shorts, sneakers, bell necklace, cat ears, all check. She shook her head.

            "Akane?" Ranma asked.

            "It's a good thing you're not wearing a frilly apron." Akane snickered. "And it's a real good thing Kimiko didn't have a cat-tail in that bag of hers."

            Ranma put a finger to her lips in though. "I've got a couple aprons at home."

            "Of course you do," Akane sighed. She then forced another smile as Kimiko took yet another picture.

            "Hey! It's part of the job."

            "Are they frilly and pink?" Akane asked while Kimiko handed her phone off to a girl with a long teal ponytail and asked for a photo of all four of them.

            "No! They're white," Ranma defended as she stepped over so Kimiko could get a place between her and Nami.

            "And frilly?" Akane asked.

            Ranma's eyes went down. "Well... they do have ruffles."

            "Her work uniform looks really good," Nami defended.

            "I'm sure it does, but it's still a frilly uniform. And really it fits you," Akane stuck out her tongue.

            Thinking of her Sailor Hestia uniform Ranma laughed. "Oh you have no idea 'kane."




            After pulling the stockings up her legs, Ranma attached the garters to hold them. She then walked over to her closet and pulled out the thick white-slip she had bought. After pulling it on, she fingered the soft, quilted cotton material and its strong seams. The redhead smiled as she adjusted it over her hips and chest; the sales-lady had assured her that this would provide the extra support and she was right. Though it was rather... broad in places

            Next she pulled the dress of its hanger. Pausing for a moment she simply gazed at the rather heavy garment. It was a grey cashmere dress. With a little smile she slipped the delicate wool garment over her head. When she had tried it on, she had found it a bit tight. That was without wearing the slip. As she pulled it down, she felt the material stretch and smooth. Once in place she pushed her glasses back up her nose.

            Finally, she got the bottom hem down to her calves. After buttoning up the dress' chest and neck she slipped the top hem of the dress under the choker she had pinned her locket to. Sitting down on her bed she took out a shoe box and slipped on a pair of grey velvet slippers. Having a three-inch wedge heel they resembled pumps, but were soft soled for inside use and "special" occasions. From another box she pulled out a pair of cotton gloves. Plain white with grey trim they went to just below her elbows.

            She then evened the sleeves of her dress so each would show the same couple inches of skin. Ranma then went to her vanity. With practiced ease she put on her makeup. It did not take long, though she had to pause to pull off her frames to put on her eye shadow and eyeliner. She only put on enough to further soften her face, not overpower her natural coloration.

            Fluffing up her perm she inspected her hair. She then worked some light brushing and some volumizing spray to add a tad more body and curl than normal. She looked at the two green ribbons on her vanity. She tapped her finger on the dresser's edge. "Well... Usagi..." Her memory went back to helping Sailor Moon back to her feet.

            Her lips quirked into a smirk and she picked them up "Yeah, she'll get a kick outta these ponytails."

            After some adjusting she had gotten her hair pulled into twin ponytails. That part was easy. It took a couple of minutes of spraying and shaping to form the fluffy "ears" that Kimiko had so effortlessly sculpted earlier.

            After that she put on a pair of bracelets that alternated between pearls and little emeralds that were almost luminescent in their verdant brightness. A matching set of emerald stud with hanging pearl earrings came next. Then she put on the emerald pendant with the Meoiu family crest. Finally she slipped on a long double length necklace of tiny pearls with a gold locket. It took some adjusting of the necklace loops to get the locket to hang at the right height.

            Finally, she went to her closet again. Not wanting to endanger the dress she pulled out her longest apron. She slipped the top loop over her head and then tied it around her waist, making sure to make a large bow. A gift from Hotaru, it was far more decorative than what she normally wore in the kitchen. Crisp white cotton, it was edged in layers of red-trimmed ruffles. Stitched on the left breast in a matching color were the words: Nanny Ranma. From her chest down to her knees, it provided good protection, though the apron itself was a bit too nice to use.

            Stepping in front of the mirror she gave a little gasp. The thickness of her slip and dress conspired to make her figure much... smoother. Her hair was curly and pulled into a style that was overtly adorable and cute.

            Giving a little smile and careful not to smudge her blush, she raised a gloved hand to her cheek. Behind slim glasses with a stylish but demure U-shaped frames, her eyes were warm, soft... happy. "I'm ready," she said in a light whisper and exited her room. Even with Hotaru helping, she had spent enough time away from the kitchen and had to get back to finishing dinner.

            Opening her door, she went down the hallway and stepped into the living room. From the kitchen, Hotaru looked up from the stove and ran towards her. Ranma opened her arms to intercept the smiling girl.

            "You look great!" Hotaru exclaimed nuzzling her nanny's belly. She looked up at the ponytails and giggled.

            Hugging her charge, Ranma blushed a bit. "Thanks... I was... it's not too formal is it?" She tilted her head causing her hair to sway.

            Somewhat reluctantly, Hotaru pulled back; she then looked the older girl over. "No, you're... a bunny." She reached out and petted Ranma's hair. "I love it!"

            The nanny smiled. "The girls told me you would."

            "They were right, so soft..." Hotaru hugged her nanny again. "Though..." she looked down and giggled. "You're wearing shoes inside."

            Her flush growing Ranma looked to her feet. "They're actually slippers. How do they look? " She then did a little twirl, showing her outfit from multiple angles.

            Hotaru giggled lightly. "Very nice. It suits you, very well."

            "Really?" Ranma asked. "So how's dinner going?" she asked as they walked into the kitchen.

           "Great!" Hotaru said as she started showing off how she had kept the food in the oven from burning, stirred the soup, transferred dessert to the fridge, and had moved the rice from the cooker to the serving bowls.

            "Very good." Ranma smiled and sampled some of the soup. "You're really getting good at this."

            "Aww, you were the one that cooked this, I was just helping."

            Ranma chuckled and lowered the ladle, careful not to spill onto her apron, dress, or hair. Having her hair pulled this far forward was a new experience. "You've done great kiddo, but I think it's time for you to change."

            "Aww, do I have to?" Hotaru pouted.

            "I'm sure that nice violet dress would be comfortable," Ranma assured as she adjusted her glasses idly.

            "Not as comfortable as yours." Hotaru giggled as she poked her nanny in the upper thigh.

            Giving a surprised gasp, Ranma turned to look down at Hotaru. The thick, soft material of her dress and slip spread and reduce the pressure. It almost felt nice. "Go on, get dressed," Ranma said gently nudging Hotaru out of the kitchen.

            Alone, the redhead went to work. Nearly a dozen dishes were starting to reach their finish and Ranma found herself having to go from one to the next. Hotaru was right, it was better to do this barefoot, especially with all the trips between the dining room sideboard and the kitchen. Concentrating on moving a platter of dumplings, Ranma almost missed the front door being unlocked and opened.

            Stepping in, Setsuna saw her employee's motions and paused. The fluid, precise grace was quite appealing. The older woman then noted how Ranma was dressed. After a few seconds of watching the softly-dressed teen work, Setsuna cleared her throat. Of course the hair was the most obvious change. From behind Setsuna almost mistook the knot tying the back of the nanny's apron for a cotton ball.

            "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you come in," Ranma blushed as she tried to bow while holding a full punch bowl. Her lop ears nearly fell into the bowl and she had to quickly pull back up.

            "Lovely dress, you bought that today with your friends and the... hairstyle... they came up with that?" Setsuna noted with a broad smile that made Ranma feel prideful and a bit... embarrassed. "Let me guess. Usagi and Small Lady came up in the conversation?"

            "Yes, they did," Ranma said as she put the punch in the center of the oak sideboard next to the dining room table.

            "What happened those few nights ago didn't, right?" Setsuna asked.

            "Of course not!" Ranma blushed." But... you don't think she'll be... offended."

            "I'm sure the Princess will squeal with delight and want to brush your pretty, pretty hair," Setsuna noted following behind the redhead. "I'm sorry I had that meeting, and couldn't help you," she said looking over the exquisitely set dining room.

            "Thank you, but you worked all day," Ranma assured as she went back to the kitchen.

            "I guess," Setsuna lifted one of the silver covers to a large platter and smiled as the scent wafted up at her. When she looked up, she saw Ranma walking over to her carrying a small lacquered tray. On it was a porcelain container of sake with some warmth wafting from the top. Next to it was an etched saucer and a small cut crystal plate with a sampling of small pastries and cut fruit.

            "Now come on, and rest," Ranma said a bit of steel entering her voice as she led Setsuna to the living room. The redhead then placed the serving tray on the coffee table. "The guests will be here in under a half hour."

            "This party is supposed to be for you," Setsuna reminded.

            "Hush you," Ranma gently pushed Setsuna to the couch.

            Sitting down, Setsuna looked past the ruffles and to the locket that rested on the soft bed of Ranma's chest. "Were you able to find photographs that fit in that?"

            "Oh yes," Ranma stepped forward and knelt down to present her locket just before Setsuna's face. Her frames slid down her nose a hair, and Ranma peered above her glasses at the older woman. Her "ears" framed her face and her chest by falling down on either side.

            The woman smiled at the view before picking up the locket and opening it. On one side was a picture of herself and Hotaru in kimonos, on the other was a cropped photo-booth picture of Ranma and her three friends. "Very nice," she said letting the pearl necklace fall back down onto the curved expanse of cashmere.

            "Thank you," Ranma said as leaned over to fill the saucer.

            Setsuna emptied it in one long sip. "You're really doing a wonderful job." she reached out to hug Ranma, but since she was sitting, her arms went around and she hugged the nanny across her backside. The nanny gave a surprised squeak but put her own arms around Setsuna and with a tiny smirk hugged her employer to her chest.

            "Really? Both of my... jobs?" Ranma asked in a little voice.

            "I know you didn't expect to have that as your first fight, but you made all the difference," Setsuna assured "You're doing great."

            Gasping as crimson curls and warm soft cashmere enveloped her, Setsuna reflexively clenched her hands, which caused the nanny to shift her hips forward. She then pulled a hand away and, with one hand, refilled the sake saucer.

            "I kinda wish I had an attack spell."

            Somewhat reluctantly, Setsuna pulled away from the hug, though only her right hand moved. She took the saucer Ranma offered, but instead of drinking it, she lifted it up and after giving a sharp squeeze with her right hand the Nanny's lips parted to allow the alcohol in. After swallowing the sake, Ranma coughed and her cheeks flushed.

            "Give it time. You're just starting. You should celebrate a little bit too." She smirked and gave a little slap with her left hand.

            "But I have dinner to finish?" Ranma pouted.

            "Oh fine then," Setsuna waved her hand.

            Her eyes twinkling, Ranma gave a generous bow, refilled the saucer again, and sauntered back to the kitchen where Hotaru stood with a broad smile as she stirred a large pot.

            Setsuna watched Ranma leave. Specifically her eyes, followed the bow that tied back the nanny's apron. It was just above the redhead's butt and thus not only was it pushed upwards by Ranma's assets but the ribbon also swayed back and forth with considerable amplitude. Tempering Setsuna's mirth were thoughts of what would happen when Ranma's fully adapted to her new Senshi powers.




            Toweling off, Akane eyed the door to the bathroom. She then looked to the door to the toilet room, the closet, then even back to the inner bath where she had come from. She found nothing. A part of Akane's mind whispered that even if she looked, they made cameras so small that she would never find them.

            Akane recalled a certain makeup compact of hers that a certain redhead had disposed of. They never did find where Nabiki had hidden the tracker in it. Shaking her head, she went to the pile of fresh clothes and started to get dressed. Pulling up the plain grey skirt and blouse, Akane frowned.

            Once she would have gotten dressed in her room. But now... the idea of crossing two hallways and a set of stairs in just a robe... Akane's hands clenched. What made it worse was that her room was on the end of the upstairs hallway, past Nabiki's.

            Finished with dressing, Akane folded up her dirty clothes and put them under one arm. Her hand on the door slide, Akane ran a hand through her still-damp hair and sighed. It was still a bit tacky.

            "Kimiko, you sneak," Akane muttered. She turned back to the bathroom mirror and grabbed a stiff comb. It was still wet from when she last used it. A few more brushes seemed to help, but her hair was still more shiny than normal.

            Akane shook her head and frowned at the feeling of hair against her neck and forehead. She then saw the bell and ribbon and the hair band on the counter. Blushing slightly, Akane slipped those into her pile of dirty clothes.

            She opened the door and started walking down the hallway. Through the kitchen, she could see the stairs to the second floor at the other end of the house.

            "Did you have a good time meeting your little friends?" Nabiki smirked as Akane crossed the kitchen. Playing with a tablet computer, Nabiki came out of the family room that took up the corner of the house opposite the stairs.

            Akane sighed. "Must we? This is getting old."

            Nabiki shrugged. "It's no big deal, I know you went to that big mall you like... where was it... Azabu right?"

            Tilting her head, Akane tried to look at what was on the display in her sister's hands. "That's creepy." Akane brushed past her and turned to the fridge.

            Nabiki followed. "Annoyed that I'm not the only one that's under surveillance?" She arched an eyebrow.

            "Kasumi still out?" Akane asked as she pulled out a soda.

            "Yes, she's not the only one with... interesting hobbies."

            Akane exhaled and then sighed. She wondered if Nabiki wondered why Kasumi suddenly started going to sewing society meetings, or if Nabiki even cared. Akane just knew she was not the only one who needed to escape from the house.

            "And the idiots are going to be 'out drinking'. Mr. Saotome thought that his wife was stopping over," Nabiki eyed Akane. "But you wouldn't know anything about that. No fancy yukata for one."

            "Not today at least." Akane smirked and took a sip.

            "You're being pretty coy, maybe I should tag along the next time you go visit Auntie Saotome." Nabiki gleefully suggested.

            "That'd be a wonderful idea."

             Nabiki felt her stomach go cold. "What?"

            "I'm sure she'd be very interested to know all about what you've been doing with her child."

            "Right, like you'll tell her about Ranko," Nabiki said, her confidence returning.

            "That's true." Akane took another sip. "But Mr. Huang isn't just after 'Ranko' is he?"

            Nabiki's vicious smile evaporated.

            "What? I'm sure she'd love to hear all about your little business ventures. After all you did pester your father to get the engagement moved."

            Frowning, Nabiki took half a step back "Right, so I have every right to talk to her."

            "Yes, you do." Akane finished off the can and smiled at her sister with cold flat eyes. "Perhaps you should get to know your potential mother-in-law. I bet she has all sorts of questions."

            "What have you told her?"

            Flexing her hand, Akane chuckled. She put the can down and threw caution to the wind "Really sis? Don't worry, it's nothing Ranma hasn't already said," she chided.


            The younger sister tilted her head. "Now, now, Oneechan. You're not the only one to have made connections."

            Nabiki glared.

            "And I suppose I'm not the only one under surveillance."

            "You do know about the police?"

            "Well Sis, if you think the police are following you, then maybe that's just a guilty conscience talking."

            Nabiki grimaced. "But you just said..."

            Akane shrugged. "Like you think your worries are limited to just the police."
            "You don't know the half of it." The older sister huffed. "You think I want to spy on you?"

            Akane leveled her gaze at Nabiki and simply waited.

            "Fine. Would you rather my people were watching you, or Huang's people?" Nabiki looked down at her tablet computer and a wary grin floated back up. At least she had someone she could rely on.

            "Aren't they all the same? They all get their money from the same source." Akane took a couple steps to the side springing on the balls of her feet.

            Nabiki sighed. "Yes, though it's not just about Ranma anymore is it."


            "It's been nearly a year. Mr. Huang has been going back to Hong Kong more and more. "

            "Good, maybe he'll stay there."

            "Maybe," Nabiki looked away. "I'm not betting on it. He wants his pound of flesh."

            "You probably shouldn't have taken it in the first place."

            "That's not possible, for one I've paid people."

            "Yes... these goons of yours, do they know about the curse?"

            "The ones I trust..."

            Akane barked out a bitter laugh. "You... trust?"

            Nabiki brushed that aside. "The others, the private investigators.... No. Easier to tell them to look out for two people who happen to be nearby."

            "And what have you found?" Akane asked leaning back on the counter.

            "You expect me to just tell you."

           Akane picked up the empty can and held it lengthwise between the tips of her index fingers. She took a step forward.

            "That's not going to impress me."

            Smirking, Akane released her fingers, pulling her arms back. Nabiki's eyes followed the can as it tumbled down and then Akane's leg shot up.

            The kick was high and clipped the edge of the tablet computer slamming it right into Nabiki's nose. The middle sister screamed as the can clattered onto the floor. Akane scooped the can up on the second bounce.

            Her vision blurring, Nabiki shook her head and saw that Akane had resumed holding the can between her fingers. "We can keep playing if you wish, dear sister."

            Eyes flashing with anger, Nabiki looked down at her computer. The screen was unbroken, and a quick tap with her finger showed that it was still working. She then rubbed her nose and held her hand under it to see if she was bleeding.

            Giving a slight grin, Akane slowly returned the can to the counter. "Don't be such a big baby. Father'd give you worse back when you actually bothered with his lessons."

            Glaring, Nabiki looked down at her finger. There was no blood. "Fine. They know that Ukyou's started dating again. They've found Ryoga a couple times, mostly when he pops up around home. Oh, and you have been making the most interesting of friends."

            Disbelief colored Akane's face.

            Nabiki chuckled. "You lead a predictable life, Sis. You go to school, you train here, you hang out with your friends. The last group... well it's easy to find when you're out of the area."

            "I know I've been followed," Akane stated.

            "Not all the time," Nabiki shook her head. "If that were the case, this would all be over. I'd have my Money, Mr. Huang would have his girl, and Ranma'd have a zany adventure and eventually come home."

            Akane snorted. "You really believe that?"

            "That Ranma could escape the clutches of a rich loon?"

            "Fair enough," Akane reluctantly agreed. "Then what are you telling him? Wild guesses?"

            Nabiki grinned. "Yes, sis. I'm guessing that whenever my sister goes on a long trip, tries, and then succeeds at losing a tail, that she's done something interesting." Nabiki took note of Akane's confident shift at the word "losing". "Now, it's not much of a deductive leap to guess who you've been seeing, or what you want others to see."

            "And you're telling me this why?"

            "Well you've been going on more of these little trips, but you're not just seeing Ranma are you? Has he finally moved on? Have you?"

            Trying to keep her face neutral, Akane stared as she wondered what Nabiki was talking about. Sure she had gone out and had fun without visiting Ranma. But those trips were all closer to home, save for the time Sayuri dragged her and Yuka to that weird Scandinavian metal concert. Akane's ears rang for three days afterwards and she had spots in her eyes for just as long from the pyrotechnics around the stage.

            She wondered just how much her sister was spying on her. And if Yuka and Sayuri were also being followed. Again, Akane felt that Ranma's paranoia had been well deserved, though if anything the redhead was distracted by something else.

            Akane thought of the last phone call she had with Ranma at that time, the girl had seemed... distant. Her voice had sounded... strained, especially whenever the subject of school and her job came up. Something about the little girl's problems returning.

            That last call was short but polite. Ranma's voice was even more strained, to where it broke and seemed to almost shriek. Something was eating at her, but she refused to say what it was.

            She looked at her elder sister and frowned. Ranma had been adamant, and refused to speak any further, out of fear of... Akane frowned. It had to be fear of Nabiki, more specifically of what Nabiki represented.

            "I'm sorry, I don't know what you're talking about."

            Nabiki's smile revealed her teeth. "Nicely done. You're finally learning how to lie. Granted I know it's a lie, but that's mostly due to previous knowledge."

            "So what do you know that I don't?"

            "Care to trade?"

            Glaring, Akane placed her palm atop the soda can she had returned to the counter.

            Nabiki nodded. "Good, good. I'll beat you yet, but I do enjoy the challenge."

            "You really think you can find Ranma?"

            Nabiki looked down the hallway next to the family room and out at the koi pond. "Personally, I think Ranma decided to become a man like his father. Whenever things got tough Mr. Saotome would just leave. Ranma's old enough where he figures he can live on the road as a martial artist, which conveniently keeps him off the grid."

            "I thought martial arts tournaments and training halls would be the first place they'd look?" Akane blinked. She had not considered what Nabiki would have assumed Ranma was up to. Akane had focused entirely on keeping the truth a secret and not on where her sister's suspicions would lead her.

            Nabiki shrugged. "So, Ranma avoids the big places. He doesn't like the 'tourist' crap anyway. No he'd go for the obscure out of the way places, especially since he's got people looking for him. Just like his father."

            "Hey! Ranma's..." Akane trailed off realizing what her protest could reveal. She looked down. "Well... martial arts is all she seems to care about."

            "She?" Nabiki chuckled. "That's rich. You've still got a thing for him," she purred. "And it kills you to realize that he's just like his father?"

            Akane held her tongue. She wanted to yell to disagree, but she held herself back.

            "Struck a nerve? At least I didn't suggest he was using the curse to con people?" Nabiki tapped the side of her computer and grinned. "Maybe you'd like that?"

            Akane coughed. "You said it, Ranma's more than willing to use the curse..."

            "Yeah, to get free food or slip away from people after a guy. Just like his father, really. Course he couldn't keep it up for long," Nabiki's grin turned lecherous. "Shame for you?"


            "Ranma hates the curse. Especially that he knows some pervert, a real pervert, wants it." Nabiki snorted. "Thus, the last thing Ranma'd do is stick around in girl form. Not only does it annoy him, but a slight little girl with bright red hair, it's far, far too unique." She entered a few commands onto her tablet's touch screen.

            Akane betrayed a slight wince.

            "Even you couldn't find a good substitute." Nabiki said as she figuratively pounced and spun the tablet around to face Akane. "Though I'm sure that fat girl with the ridiculous hair is a nice enough... friend?"

            "Hey! She's not fat!" Akane blurted staring at a picture of a soft redhead in glasses with lop-style hair hugging two black-haired girls, one wore her hair in a bun the other wore her hair to simulate cat ears. Akane had to smile, most of Nami was cropped from the picture which looked like it was taken at a distance at high resolution and simply zoomed in on.

            "Uh... that is. " Akane then went with the first name to enter her head. "Usagi's not fat she's just-."

            "Wait, a heavy girl named Usagi with hair that makes her look like a giant bunny?" Nabiki blinked a couple times. She then just sighed. "Wow, you picked the worst decoy."

            Biting her lip, Akane figured feigning indignation would help her here. "Hey!"

            Nabiki made a point to pretend to study the picture. "Then again, I'm seeing that you share 'little' Usagi's interests. And of all the cosplays you could pick, you chose catgirl? Maybe there were other reasons you picked her up?"

            Akane found herself blushing as she looked at the picture again. The disguise was... well it did not look like the Ranma that Nabiki knew.

            "Really Akane, as much as I'm impressed with your deviousness," Nabiki gave a sisterly smile. "If you're going to find a decoy, you should at least pick one that could pass."

            Akane tilted her head. "What's wrong with Usagi?"

            "Oh other having twenty extra kilos on her-"

            "She's not that big. Not even close," Akane grumbled.

            Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Struck a nerve? Does your little girlfriend know why you're... hanging out with her?" Nabiki chuckled. "I should have known this would be how you'd rebound."

            "It's not like that!"

            "Whatever." Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Are you saying she's not just a decoy? Because she makes a lousy Ranma. She's nearsighted and she's loaded. Just look at the pictures, my girl sent me. That dress is a designer label, so are her shoes, add in the jewelry... that's old money, " Nabiki said as she paged through some more pictures taken later in the day.

            Nabiki gave a thoughtful nod. "I'm actually impressed Akane. You've shown deviousness, intimidation, and the willingness to get into the good graces of someone with money in order to take advantage of their body. Though next time pick a closer physical and mental match. Though I suppose picking a shy girl with self esteem issues does make her easier to manipulate into being your decoy." The middle sister leaned forward. "That is... if Usagi-chan is just a decoy you hang out with. If she's something.... more, well, then I'd guess the rumors about you at school were right afterall."

            "She's just a friend," Akane felt her insides go numb as the words left her mouth.

            Nodding, a bare bit of sympathy flickered across Nabiki's face. "I'm sorry to hear that, Sis."

            "Nabiki...." Akane sighed and then she leaned back onto the counter. "Do you have any... No of course you don't."

            Brushing the images off her tablet's screen, Nabiki shrugged. "You've been vanishing, I know that sometimes you go out to see Ranma, and then I hear from my people that you've been palling around with a redhead. What am I supposed to think?"

            "A sneak like you?" Akane looked to the floor. "You thought: payday."

            "Yeah, until I looked at what she sent me," Nabiki shook her head. "I'm gonna have to dock her pay, not all the way, she did manage to find you again."

            "You're all heart! Who'd you send, Sanko? Eri?" Akane asked, standing back up.

            "Doesn't matter."

            "You know what'll happen if I spot them?"

            Nabiki pinched the bridge of her nose. "Threats? Really."

            Akane tapped the can again.

            "Fine fine." Nabiki looked at the blank black screen of her tabled. "At least you didn't just grab the first redhead you ran into."

            Akane tilted her head by a few millimeters.

            "No, being her.... friend explains things. You didn't care that she's too young, too heavy, or too rich?"

            "Fooled you though? Akane smirked trying for some bravado.

            "Yes, when the pics arrived on my phone I was ecstatic. Until I realized I had a chubby wanabe bunny girl and her catgirl friend on my hands." Nabiki leaned forward. "Say... does Usagi need anything? I'm sure she can afford it."

            "Hell no! I'm not letting you get your mitts on a replacement redhead!"

            Nabiki's laughter trended off into a bitter sigh. "If only. No Your 'little' Usagi does not fit Mr. Huang's tastes. For one thing I doubt very much that she turns into a man."

            Akane snorted.

            "If it were just a matter of finding another redhead, this would have been over months ago," Nabiki glared at her reflection. "Besides, Usagi has money, at her age that means her family has money. I'm not stupid."

            Looking up Nabiki saw Akane's barely concealed smile. "Oh quiet you!"

            "Not stupid? But you'll go through all this and ruin Ranma's life, just to get in bed with gangsters from Hong Kong?" Akane asked. "That's your problem Nabiki, you don't plan."

            "Like you do."

            Akane shrugged. "I don't try to scheme either."

            "Meh, what's Ranma going to do?" Nabiki smirked. "Other than run away. It's probably for the best, if he were here he'd just draw more attention to the nice policemen looking out for Mr. Huang."

            Akane stared.

            "Meanwhile your 'little' bunny probably has a daddy in with the Zaibatsu or maybe the Diet." Nabiki said, ignoring Akane's shocked stillness. "I'm not touching someone who can whistle up lawyers like ordering sweet buns."

            "So... you're not worried?"

            "About what?

            Akane rolled her eyes. "About this swirling mess you're stuck in."

            "Oh that?" Nabiki's grip tightened on her tablet as she flipped the screen up and put the picture of the bunny girl and the cat girl into Akane's face. "You don't think this is a sign of desperation? You know what'll happen to me if I can't find Ranma?"

            Crossing her arms, Akane allowed a little smile. "If I were you I'd be hoping the police get to me before Huang does."

            Nabiki lowered her arm to her side. "So that's it?" she exhaled and her shoulders drooped. "Look... sis-"

            Akane cut her off. "No Nabiki. I won't sell out a friend. You made this mess." She leaned forward and gave a toothy grin. "He's not coming back, your fiance's not going to save you. It's over. You broke the game."

            Shrugging, she picked up the can.

            Nabiki glared. "Sis... you know what happens when you push someone into a corner?"

            "It's what you did to me." Akane shook her head sadly, spun on her heel, made for the stairs, and went to her room.


End chapter 3


Author's Notes:


 I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Pale Wolf and Kevin Hammel. They were great on working on this chapter.


Special thanks go to J St C Patrick for his repeated runs through this chapter finding typos and other inconsistencies. He went above and beyond chewing through this huge thing. I'd like to thank him again for his exemplary work. It's all on him.


I'd also like to apologize for the long wait in getting this chapter out. To all of you who waited the five years for this chapter, thanks for your patience. I hope it wasn't a letdown.


 I also want to thank Trimatter. We may not have been able to write this chapter together like the previous ones but I hope this was still worth a reader.


Edit: Note some changes to clarify mistakes in a certain character's age.