A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.
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.
C&C as always is wanted.
Yes, the next chapter is here. Sorry for the long wait
Chapter 4 Buttressing Support Part 2
The elevator doors opened and a couple and their child stepped out into the plushly carpeted hallway. The corridor stretched down the length of the building and the wide spacing between each pair of doors showed just how expansive the apartments were.
The three were dressed well, with the father in a dark suit and crimson tie, and the mother in a blue and gold evening dress. However, their daughter spoiled the composition. The square purse she carried was a neon, luminescent pink. Her nearly garish purple skirt and blouse contributed, but her pink hair, bright red eyes, and age were more dominating factors. She seemed too old to belong to her parents, especially as her blonde mother was at the most just out of high school, and more likely not even that.
Usagi looked down the hallway. "I never get tired of this. Puu's really got it made."
"Haruka and Michiru have a bigger apartment," Mamoru reminded.
"They don't have a live in servant."
"You know Ranma's not really a servant."
"No, she's one of us," Usagi's voice rose and her hand went to her side, remembering the pain. It was gone now, save for a bit of lingering tenderness. She then giggled, recalling Sailor Hestia's uniform.
"Yes she is. So it's kind of mean to call her a servant," Mamoru gently chided, squeezing her hand.
"But she is Hotaru's nanny!" Chibi-Usa pointed a bit jealously.
"Shy girl too. I don't think I've ever seen her date."
"No offense, but most of your friends have pretty bad luck dating. Even Makoto," he added with a sigh.
"Now that's not true! Naru's doing well."
"And we can't do all of our couple things with Naru and Umino."
"They're our friends."
"Yes, but we should branch out. And I'm sure they'd like to do other things."
Usagi's pout returned. "Fine."
"You do have a point. What about that friend of Naru's boyfriend... the one that's really smart?" Mamoru snapped his fingers. "Suri, right?"
Usagi blinked. "
"Didn't he have a thing with Ami?"
Usagi thought back to the whole Mercurius Mystery debacle. "You can say that," she grudgingly admitted. The whole thing had blown up in the Senshi's faces. Both when Ami's desire to find out who 'Mercurius' was had made her vulnerable to attack by an evil spirit and when, later on, Ami found out that the other Senshi had kept his identity a secret from her.
"They're in a competition right? His test scores are as good as Ami's or my buddy Ittou."
"He does compete with her on test scores." Usagi shrugged. "More so now that she knows who he is," she coughed while glancing at the floor.
"It's not like Ami was that mad at you guys!" Chibi-Usa mocked.
"It really did seem like a bad thing to cover up. So what if Suri's got thick glasses and messy hair; he seems like a good enough guy. At least he's not into UFOs," Mamoru added with a sigh.
"Dear, you're talking to someone who has her own Moon palace."
Mamoru rubbed his chin. "You think there are any ships left? Ittou'd get a real kick outta that."
Usagi allowed a slight smile. Ittou Asanuma was a thin blonde with short hair who looked a bit like a slightly less masculine Haruka. Interested in space and the paranormal, he saw himself as something of a protege of Mamoru. It also helped that he had managed to piece together their secret identities, something Usagi suspected Suri had also figured out.
"That's not exactly a reassuring comparison," Usagi said, continuing her strained smile. It was hard for her to get past her initial impression of that "suspicious boy", more so because he had managed to figure out Mamoru's secret... and hers too.
"What, Ittuo? He's a real good guy," Mamoru assured.
"He did get us those dance lessons."
Mamoru nodded. "See? not all of his hobbies are weird."
"Shame about him and Makoto."
Usagi tilted her head. "Is that it then?"
Mamoru stopped walking. "What?"
"You're playing matchmaker. Your first attempt to find a boyfriend for one of my friends fell through so now you're looking for another."
"Well... more double dates would be nice."
Usagi crossed her arms. "And what's tonight?"
Mamoru coughed. "So... is Suri interested in Ami?"
Chibi-Usa snickered. "Oh, he's got a crush on her."
Mamoru nodded. "Interesting."
"You've been talking with Mina and Mako-chan haven't you?" Usagi smirked.
Her fiance coughed.
"Well, to ask how Makoto was dealing after the breakup," Mamoru sighed. "Oh well, at least it didn't go too far and they can still be friends," he added brightening up.
"Yeah, it'd be bad if someone who knew our secret identities became a jilted ex." Stopping in front of the door to the Meiou apartment, Usagi eyed him. "Isn't that right?"
"This is about Rei? That's water under the bridge."
"Hey, you're the one that's decided to join my friends in playing matchmaker."
Mamoru coughed. "I think what Rei and I did hardly counts."
Chibi-Usa's snickering grin grew.
"It's not like I dated her," Usagi said
The pink-haired girl then burst into laughter.
Mamoru frowned. "You know Usako... sometimes I wonder about her."
Usagi tilted her head. "Really now?"
Mamoru held up his palms in shock. "I know," he deadpanned. "Our creepy child from the future is laughing at inappropriate times, giving the impression that she's privy to secrets that we are not."
"I'm right here!"
"Yes you are." Mamoru held his chin. "And how come you haven't mentioned Sailor Hestia before?"
Chibi-Usa tried to look innocent as her fingers tapped against the side of her blindingly pink purse.
"Yeah, it would have been really helpful to have another healer on the team," Usagi said absently rubbing her side.
"Especially one of her caliber," Mamoru nodded. He was a bit jealous. Then again his healing power was secondary while Hestia's magic seemed entirely centered around it.
"You're right. I should have told you when I first arrived. Just like I told you about Hotaru and Haruka and Michiru oh and let's not forget Helios," Chibi-Usa counted off with her fingers.
"So what else are you keeping from us?" Usagi eyed her daughter.
Usagi narrowed her eyes. "You're a real pain you know that, Spore?"
Chibi-Usa nodded. "Now, knock already! I'm sure Puu's been waiting."
"If you insist, Small Lady." Mamoru pressed the doorbell button.
Before the chimes could finish the door unlatched and a redhead in a soft grey dress opened the door.
Staring, Chibi-Usa frowned. She glanced down at her cheap digital watch and looked at the month. Her gaze returned to the gently rounded form of the grey-clad nanny in the doorway. Her smile grew and she started to giggle. No wonder Hotaru, and Saturn, wanted her help!
Ignoring the girl, Ranma looked at the couple. Mamoru looked good, for a guy, and Usagi was dressed... Her warm smile flickered as she recognized the blonde; the image of Usagi crumpled over a pile of broken concrete and jagged steel rods superimposed itself over her vision. Her breath caught and her body flushed with a warm sensation as she remembered healing the blonde; healing her Princess.
The redhead bowed, perhaps a bit too deeply as her "ears" nearly touched the floor. "Please come in," she said gracefully, rising back up.
Chibi-Usa's eyes widened and she gave a gleeful, high pitched, incoherent squeal. The nanny's dress seemed a bit tight, but the rest was too cute. She bolted across the threshold and hugged the redhead tightly. "Bunny!" she squealed in delight after finding her voice again.
Fiddling with his tie clasp, Mamoru pointedly looked down at the blonde on his arm, then at his daughter, and finally at the girl with the glasses and the grey dress. The double ponytails were still there. "Your idea, Usako?" he asked after looking to confirm that yes, there were now three of them.
Giggling, Usagi shook her head. She slipped out from Mamoru's arm and smoothed her blue cotton dress. Short and a bit flounced at the shoulders, it helped define her legs and had enough gold trim to catch the eye without being overly gaudy.
Blushing, and with Chibi-Usa happily clinging to her like a limpet, Ranma stepped back and beckoned for the couple to enter.
Mamoru closed the door and began to remove his loafers. "Really now? Small Lady?" Mamoru asked as he took Usagi's heels.
"Nope!" Chibi-Usa gave Ranma's waist another squeeze, her face buried in the soft cashmere.
Mamoru shrugged. "Well, come over here, anyway."
The pink haired girl frowned but released her grip and submitted to having her footwear taken off. She looked up and saw Hotaru had snuck up and was now standing next to Ranma, holding her Nanny's hand. Their gazes locked, and for a split second Hotaru's eyes smoldered with jealousy before being replaced by pride.
Chastised, Chibi-Usa lifted her purse which seemed to mollify the purple-eyed girl.
"Appreciating the new bunny?" Haruka asked as she came in from the living room, a tall glass of white wine held in her hand. She wore a dark blue suit that was cut sharper than Mamoru's and gave her a sleeker appearance than his solid style. She had a bright amber tie with a little sword shaped tie clasp. Her eyes went from the nanny to Mamoru's blood-red tie and gold clasp.
"It's quite the hairstyle," Mamoru shook his head. "Does it take much to manage? I know Usagi spends a lot of time on hers."
"Dunno, I just started doing it up this way," Ranma idly patted one of her "ears". "It can't be too much work over keeping a perm." She glanced at Haruka then turned back to Mamoru. "And I've dealt with more frustrating things today," she gave a laugh, trying to smooth over a wrinkle in her cashmere dress. It was feeling a little too constricting; Ranma made a mental note to have it sent out for tailoring with the next batch of her uniforms.
Usagi gave a little smile at the exchange.
Mamoru gave a slight smile and just nodded amiably. He knew how much time Usagi put into keeping her hair in shape, and did not want to pop this girl's bubble just yet.
Noticing his expression, Haruka laughed. "Girls and their long hair, am I right?" she slapped Mamoru on the back and emptied her glass. "At least her hair doesn't go to her knees."
Mamoru blinked. "Uh... yes? Sure, that'll help."
Hotaru looked up at her nanny for a second before snuggling back against her side.
Hugging Hotaru, Ranma gave a big smile. "Would you like some refreshments? I know Tenoh-kun would heartily recommend the wine."
"The sake's quite good too! Maybe Mamoru'd like to have the bunnies serve him that!" Michiru shouted from the leather couch in the living room, causing Setsuna to choke on her drink.
"Oh I'm sure he would," Haruka's smirk grew as Mamoru coughed and immediately put his arm around Usagi and pulled her close. "You're really going to be a heartbreaker, Red," Haruka said, eyeing the curvaceous nanny.
Looking up at the blonde, Ranma blushed and then turned away.
Chibi-Usa pouted at Hotaru who simply gave a serene, if ever so slightly smug smile. The princess knew Hotaru would always be a bit possessive of her nanny. The red-eyed girl stepped a bit closer to Hotaru.
Still flush, and giving a little smile, Ranma led them to the dining room where a collection of platters and bottles had been placed on the sideboard.
"She's right," Usagi gushed as she reached out to pet one of Ranma's lop ears. "These really look cute."
"It's not too much?" Ranma asked as refilled Haruka's glass.
The short haired blonde took back her wine and briefly savored the aroma. "You're asking someone with rabbit style ponytails that go to her ankles."
Ranma blushed. "Yeah, but her hair's straight."
Usagi caught Ranma watching Haruka out of the corner of her eye as the redhead put the wine bottle back down. Tilting her head, her eyes widened slightly.
"And what would you like to drink?" Ranma asked.
"I'll try some of the sake," Mamoru said before he noticed Usagi's expression. He pinched his nose. "Oh no."
"I'll just have some juice," Usagi absently said.
Ranma nodded as she filled a wine glass with white grape juice.
Standing next to Hotaru, Chibi-Usa looked up; both had been watching the nanny. "Same for me."
The purple-eyed girl winked at the pink-haired girl.
Usagi accepted her glass. "Say... who does your hair anyway?" she asked as something tugged at the back of her mind.
Ranma blinked. "A little salon called Kikuko's."
"Oh right!" Usagi brightened. "I already asked you."
"You're not seriously thinking of a perm?" Mamoru asked. He looked at the small ceramic cup in his hand and downed it. The warm contents seemed to help.
"Well..." Usagi frowned. "But her ponytails are so pretty!"
"Thank you," Ranma said as she automatically refilled Mamoru's cup. "But I'm not sure a perm would go well with your buns. You'll have to talk with Kikuko about that."
"Right, right." Usagi's eye turned critical. "Like how you had to make sure the product you use to keep your 'ears' in the right shape won't interfere with the perm."
Haruka forced a smile. "Lovely chat girls! If you don't mind we'll-" she grabbed Mamoru by the elbow, "-be over with the others at the couch." Pulling the worried Mamoru towards the living room she asked, "So where did you get that tie?"
Ranma coughed. "I... uh... just got these. I think the hairspray and gel will work fine."
"It's what your friend Kimiko uses right?" Hotaru asked.
"She came up with that?" Usagi asked.
"Yup, she and Nami. Though my friend Akane came up with the idea."
"It's really cute."
"That's nothing, you should see what they thought up for Akane," Ranma said, heading to the entryway to retrieve her phone from her purse. She fiddled with the screen until she got to the pictures that Nami had sent her.
She held the display in front of the other two rabbit-tressed girls. It showed an image of Ranma hugging a slightly taller girl with short, slick hair done up in cat ears. On either side of the bunny and cat girls were two slightly more normal looking girls, each wearing glasses similar to Ranma's. One had dark black hair done in a small bun, while the other was a brunette with twin braided ponytails.
"Hah! Usamimi and Nekomimi!" Usagi cheered as she clapped her hands.
Also giggling, Chibi-Usa gave Hotaru short nod. The willowy little girl got up and slipped off to her room, the pink-haired girl followed.
"Your friend does great work," Usagi said.
"Thanks," Ranma blushed as she put the phone down. "Kimiko's got a real gift. I'm hoping I can get her to do more with it. I know a stylist and..." Ranma blushed. "Well, first I've gotta help Nami with some stuff she got roped into for her club."
Usagi smiled. "You like helping your friends."
Ranma nodded. "I wish I could do more for Akane, though." She looked down, a slight frown creasing her soft features. "It's been very hard for her, you know? Especially since..." She just shook her head.
Usagi took the redhead's hand. "You're being too hard on yourself. You're a wonderful friend."
Ranma shrugged. "I dunno. I tried encouraging Nami to pursue her crush and now she's stuck with running a club booth for a school festival, Kimiko had a hideous breakup all because I couldn't convince her that she was dating scum, and poor Akane..."
"What about Akane?"
Ranma hesitated. "Her sister's done some very bad things."
Usagi paused. "Okay. Does she know?"
The redhead nodded. "She's encouraged me to do something about it but-"
"It's okay," Usagi put a finger to Ranma's lips. She then smiled at the redhead's confusion and hugged her. She almost giggled at the softness but found it very comforting. When she tightened the hug she could feel the redhead's strength; enough that it seemed to eclipse Makoto's.
"You worry because you care. And you try your hardest. There are some things you can't force your friends to do, and there're some things that they'll do for you regardless..." Usagi pulled back and clasped her hands. "Things you'll feel guilty for."
Ranma found herself smiling despite herself.
"You care; that's why Setsuna hired you. That's why Hotaru loves you," Usagi smiled.
"I just wish things could be simpler," Ranma chuckled. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Hotaru and Chibi-Usa returning to the room. Both girls were giggling over a purple photo album Hotaru was holding up. "Heck, right now getting dates for those two seems to be the simpler option," the nanny said. She took some relief that Hotaru had not brought her camera out. She did not know why her ward had bought the clunky thing.
"Oh?" Usagi thoughtfully asked.
Ranma picked up a porcelain platter with a matching cover. "Now I know you've got a bit of a sweet tooth..."
Sniffing, Usagi eyed the platter held by the apron-wrapped nanny.
"Well, I put together a special recipe." Ranma removed the lid revealing a mass of little mooncakes. What had started out as azuki bean paste filled pastries had been covered in powdered sugar, glazed, then powdered again and finally drizzled with chocolate and raspberry sauce.
Her train of thought slamming to a halt, Usagi's eyes widened and her tongue ran over her lower lip.
Moving the platter aside, Ranma leaned in until her chest nearly bumped the blonde's. Their ponytails also nearly entangled as the nanny's soft face became almost conspiratorial. "I'll confess," she whispered. "They're more than a little bit decadent."
The blonde nodded, enraptured.
"So don't get mad if they're a bit much." Ranma picked one up and, holding it between her manicured fingers, placed it in front of Usagi's mouth.
Usagi snatched the mooncake, kissing the nanny's fingers in the process. She quivered as the over loaded sweet hit her tongue.
"How is it, my Princess? Good?"
Chewing, Usagi nodded enthusiastically as her fingers flickered about.
The nanny looked down at herself, saw her dress, the platter, and her apron and giggled. "Here I am, dressed to the nines, a real-deal magical girl, and giving sweets to an actual Princess."
As she said that, Hotaru snuck up and hugged Ranma from behind, encircling her arms around her nanny's midsection and giving a soft but very firm squeeze.
Swallowing, Usagi looked down, first at the straining chest of the nanny's cashmere dress then at the platter. She felt a pang of jealousy until a hand adorned with lacquered nails presented another mooncake to her lips.
Usagi savored the second little cake. "Oh my, you're a great addition to the team."
Ranma blushed. "I'm glad the cakes turned out well."
"Though you're not the first Senshi with those talents," Usagi teased as she looked Ranma over. "Makoto's got 'em too."
The redhead blinked, then followed Usagi's gaze and blushed.
"No no!" Usagi waved her hands. "She's a martial artist and a cook too!"
Ranma snickered. "Oh? I knew she practiced." She lifted another Mooncake. "So does she bake?"
"Oh, her cookies are to die for!" Usagi eyed the cake.
"Thank goodness," Ranma giggled. "I thought you were talking about my..." she waved to her chest.
"Yeah! You've got that too." Usagi's gaze turned apprising.
Wondering if she should get a jeweler's loupe for the blonde, Ranma felt an awkward mix of pride and embarrassment.
Finally, Usagi snatched the cake. Stuffing it in her mouth, she nodded. "You two might be the same size." The blonde politely said, though she was pretty sure that Ranma had a good lead on Makoto. "You should at least be able to compare notes on bra shopping. I know Mako-chan has problems finding things that fit just right," she happily added. Usagi held her tongue on the subject of panties; with those Ranma was definitely not the same size as Makoto
"She does?" Ranma tapped her chin. "Setsuna has been a help. Maybe I could give Makoto-san some tips."
"Oooh! Maybe next time you can both cook together!" Usagi said as she shamelessly coveted the mooncake tray.
Wearing a sleek turquoise evening dress with black trim, Michiru glided up to the pair. "It figures," she said, eyeing the sugared and glazed mooncakes.
Michiru picked up one of the cakes. "That you'd love these overly sweet things." She then tore it in half and gave half to Usagi before taking the rest for herself.
Ranma pouted and slipped out of Hotaru's hug.
Chewing, Usagi also managed to pout.
"Oh, you make a pair," Michiru laughed. She then looked over to the kitchen and suppressed a little smirk.
Following her gaze, Ranma frowned. She then gently returned the tray to the sideboard and gave Usagi a quick hug before going to the kitchen. There she saw Setsuna and Mamoru chatting as the former had just finished closing the oven and was checking the rice cooker and the stove top.
Ranma crossed her arms over her chest and pushed her glasses up her nose.
Mamoru studied the curly redhead's glare and felt a prickly pressure. He downed his drink. "Okay... that's actually intimidating."
"Well yes, magic tuxedo or not I could still bend you in half," Ranma said distractedly as she stepped up to Setsuna.
"Yes?" Setsuna asked as she lifted the lid to the simmering soup pot. She ladled out some broth and took a sip.
"I'm supposed to be cooking."
"And you are! Wonderful job, by the way," Setsuna said, ladling some soup into a saucer.
Ranma took the offered saucer, sipped, and gave a happy murmur before her face turned serious again.
"You were having such a lovely conversation with Usagi that I didn't want to interrupt."
The redhead pointed to her apron.
"Fine, bend my arm." Setsuna handed over the ladle and stepped back. She shook her head. "Servants these days. Always demanding to cook for dinners being held in their honor."
Feigning comprehension, Mamoru nodded.
"It's not like that," Ranma rolled her eyes. She then looked to the soup and picked up a bowl of diced garlic and green onions and added a dash.
"Is it now?" Setsuna leaned back.
"I figured you just liked to cook, Red," Mamoru said.
"That's sweet," Ranma smiled and refilled both Mamoru's and Setsuna's sake cups.
"But not entirely accurate," Setsuna cryptically said.
Mamoru turned and caught the older woman's eyes flashing red.
Ranma frowned and waved the ladle at Setsuna. "Don't you give me that ominous secret line!"
"Pardon?" Setsuna frowned. It was not like she intended to be ominous. If she had... well the injuries Usagi had taken two months ago were sufficient enough.
"Who do you think does the laundry around here?" Ranma asked.
Setsuna blinked in confusion while Mamoru burst out laughing.
"What? I..." The Senshi of Time frowned. "What am I missing?"
After downing his cup, Mamoru got himself under control. "It's hard to buy into someone being a great oracle or even a magical princess if you know what underwear they've got on"
"Got it in one." Ranma gave him another refill. "Nice to see Usagi picked you for more than your..." the redhead turned away and coughed.
"Really?" Setsuna rubbed her forehead. "Come on now, my underwear is perfectly normal."
"Yes, it's actually very classy," Ranma said as she began to heat up a pan and added some oil to the surface. "Comfortable too."
"What?" Mamoru asked, confused. He just managed to stop short of glancing down at the two girls' hips.
"Not like that. I've got some of the same brand," Ranma sighed. "Besides, Setsuna's stuff wouldn't fit me."
"Oh." Feeling uncomfortable, Mamoru started to edge out of the kitchen.
"That wasn't my point... There's no grand secret to be had by my underwear. I mean it's not like the bunny and kitten print stuff that Usagi has."
Both Ranma and Mamoru, who froze in his tracks, turned to face Setsuna.
"Really?" Ranma asked.
"Puu... I know about your underwear because I do the laundry around here. Mamoru is Usagi's fiance, so yeah, he'd know all about her underwear. But... how do you know that?" Ranma gently asked.
Ranma turned to Mamoru. "And mentioning that I do the laundry was my second idea. Originally, I was planning to point out that I did all the cleaning here." Seeing the confusion Ranma sighed and continued. "All the cleaning. Including the bathrooms."
Setsuna flushed. "Really, Ranma, that's enough."
"What? I'm not saying a single thing about the household I serve. Not like my employer and who she serves," Ranma said with a smirk.
"You've got bunnies coming and going," Mamoru laughed.
"Bunnies?" Hotaru asked entering the kitchen with a curious Usagi in tow.
"The hair was not my idea," Setsuna stated.
"Yes, it's a pure coincidence that Hotaru's nanny ended up with the curly version of the Princess' style. I'm sure there was no meddling on the part of our mysterious time guardian," Mamoru added before finishing his drink.
"Well... it was my fault." Ranma blushed. "I told my friend about Usagi and Chibi-Usa and she thought up the idea."
"See! I didn't have anything to do with that," Setsuna denied.
Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Puu... do we have to go into you abusing your powers again?"
"Don't you think I'd use my powers more productively? Like dealing with this shadowy enemy that just ups and vanishes."
"At least she didn't say things were too quiet," Haruka sighed.
"What's omniscience for if not to be abused?" Mamoru asked while Ranma automatically refilled his cup.
Forcing a smile, Setsuna turned to Hotaru. "I think Usagi would really want to see your yukata."
"Good idea," Ranma said before going back to the stove.
"And then you and Ranma can show off her lovely kimonos."
"Ooooh, sounds pretty," Usagi said, leaning on a counter.
Ranma blinked, smacking the end of the ladle onto her wrist. "I still have to get everything ready."
"I think I can handle it from here. Now go show your Princess the pretty things."
"But..." Ranma pouted as Hotaru took her hand and gently pulled her away from the stove.
"Don't be so fussy. I'm sure Setsuna's not that bad of a cook," Usagi laughed as they crossed the living room and through the den where Haruka and Michiru were sitting on the couch. Chibi-Usa sat a ways from them, near the other end of the big piece of furniture.
The couch's sizeable frame made even Haruka seem petite, let alone the diminutive pink-haired girl. Happily flipping through Hotaru's photo album, the red-eyed girl hardly noticed that her open purse had spilled some of its contents on the large cushion.
"Hey!" Setsuna cried from the kitchen, "You've still got your apron on!"
Ranma looked down at herself and laughed.
"Fine, fine," Haruka stood up and tugged at the bow tying Ranma's apron into place.
Blushing, the redhead stopped to reach back and loosened the rest of the ruffled apron, slipping it over her shoulders. Idly folding it, she was about to hand the apron over to Haruka who was still holding a glass of wine in one hand.
The blonde looked down at the garment and raised an eyebrow. "And what am I supposed to do with that?"
Ranma's blush grew. "Well..."
"Quit teasing the poor girl, Haru-kun!" Michiru laughed from the couch.
"But she's so cute!"
"She is!" Usagi cried as she leapt over and gave Ranma a hug.
Snatching back her photo album, Hotaru quickly followed and Chibi-Usa jumped to her feet and joined in.
"Huh, group hug."
Michiru had also stood up. "Maybe she is more an Inner Senshi than one of us?"
"Hotaru's also doing it." Haruka put an arm around Michiru's waist.
Sighing, Ranma basked in the warmth and comfort and returned the hug. Trying to draw in all three, she hugged them tight and closed her eyes. She felt her power pulsing and flowing. She could feel her friends, her family. She could tell that Usagi had fully healed from the fall and damage and took a warm satisfaction in her work.
Watching, Haruka's arm tightened as Michiru also put an arm around her shoulder. The couple watched the group hug until it slowly broke apart with a blushing Usagi stumbling and grabbing onto Ranma's torso for stability.
Chibi-Usa laughed at her mother's clumsiness.
The blonde gave a little gasp and looked at her daughter. Smiling the pink-haired girl winked at Hotaru. The willowy girl shook her head and took her nanny's hand.
For her part, Ranma smoothed out her dress and gave a tiny bow. She then coughed into her hand. "Well... you still wanna see my kimonos?"
A fat crescent moon hung high above a slumbering apartment building. A dark shape gracefully lit upon a patio several stories up. Pulling up a hooded cowl, the feminine figure briskly crossed the pebbled concrete. With a rustling crack, the door snapped open, and she stepped through.
Her boots clacked against the tile floor as she stepped through the tiny kitchen, straight across the open living room, and slid open a bedroom door.
A young woman lay fast asleep on a futon in the center of the small room. Standing over the slumbering blue-haired girl, the figure looked around the shadowy, moonlit room. Smiling, her attention returned to the futon.
With a barest of hesitation she slipped out of the room. Taking a stool from the kitchen, she returned, closing the door and locking it behind her. Sitting, she unclipped her whip from her belt and let the long weapon fall to the floor. The light from the moon crept across the floor as the cowled woman worked.
Consciousness swam into pained focus for the sleeping woman. She rolled over and, finding her legs and arms bound, screamed. Or tried to; only a muffled squeak escaped. Fine, braided threads ran under her chin, cinching her jaw shut. Panic spiked as she rolled over and squirmed.
The same type of soft but tight cord was also wrapped around her knees, ankles, elbows and wrists. Above her came a disappointed sigh and the cords wriggled and crawled across her body, tightening to the point of pain. Her body was forcibly torqued onto its back, leaving little doubt of her chances of breaking free. She gave another nasal cry and the pain in her jaw shot up.
Her eyes tearing, she hyperventilated through her nose and found the bindings loosening. She pulled at her arms and nearly screamed when her wrists were wrenched. Breathing, she let her arms fall limp and was rewarded with an almost blissful loosening of the restraints.
Above her the sigh became a more thoughtful noise. The blue-haired woman turned her head, slowly, shakily. With her night-adjusted eyes, she could just make out a woman in a long pleated dress, perched primly atop her kitchen stool, just in front of the bedroom door.
Some kind of cape made out of a shimmering black-velvet went down past her waist and connected to a matching cowl that concealed a pale face. However, the bound woman's attention was on the large bow on the dark woman's chest. It was only after the better part of a terrified moment that she noticed what the dark woman held in her gloved hands.
Her left hand lazily held a weapon familiar to the bound girl; her sister was quite the expert in lashes after all. Tracing the long whip as it curled to the futon, the bound woman's heart sank. The lash split up and became the various braided cables that swarmed, tentacle like, across her body. Even her sister Ves, as impulsive as she was, would not do something like this. Not anymore at least.
Worse, she had to force herself still when she saw what the dark woman held in her right hand. It was another whip, but this one was much smaller and stouter. Only a meter and a half, it split up into at least a dozen stiffly flexing strands, which terminated with jagged crystals studding the ends.
The crystals began to glow with a sickly purple light, pulsing slowly. The bound woman's eyes widened when she saw the cold but playful smile the dark woman's lips had curled into. It reminded the bound woman of the smile Ves gave before training the animals.
"You can learn then?" the dark woman asked, in a soft, almost hesitant voice.
The bound woman nodded.
"Palla... Palla." The shadow woman let the words slide out. She leaned forward as if to study the woman on the futon. "I'm wondering if you've been a good girl."
Her stomach clenched, Palla thought she saw a flash of silver on the dark woman's brow. Indecision and regret punished her more than the fear and the pain. If she had the powers she abandoned... If she had the powers she was promised... If she had those, she could fight.
The dark woman's head slowly turned left and seemed to look at Palla's dresser. "You have been given a rare gift, a rare grace. Do you know that?" she asked in an awestruck voice.
"If you promise to be good, I'll let you speak. Won't that be easier?" the dark woman asked in a suddenly chipper tone.
Before the blue-haired woman could finish nodding she felt the whip cord loosen from her chin. Her joy was short lived when she felt it slip down her face and encircle her neck.
Palla blinked away some tears. Like the cords on her arms and legs, the one around her neck was slack, for now. She coughed and gasped for a bit. "Who... what?"
The blue haired woman noticed that strange hesitation in her "guest".
It soon passed. "I am Countess Nemesis, Senshi of Themis," the mysterious woman regally declared. "And you, PallaPalla of the Amazoness Quartet and the Dead Moon Circus, still owe the Queen a debt."
"I'm... I'm not," Palla gasped. "We didn't mean to!"
A flicker of sympathy passed the countess' face; she leaned in. "Beg forgiveness? For all the pain you caused?"
"She was still hurt," the dark woman distantly said.
"But we gave up the Amazon stones. And Sailor Moon forgave us!"
"Yes, the queen was gracious enough to let you have this life before you take your duty among the Sailor Quartet. However-" Countess Nemesis glared down at the bound girl. "Making Senshi is no trivial matter," she continued, voice becoming bemused, "Which is why I have come."
"Do you really think the Queen would let her daughter's future guardians do whatever they like?" Nemesis asked, giving her cat-o-nine-tails a light shake, the eerily pulsing stones flaring. "Standards are expected. Duties must be upheld." Her attention returned to Palla's dresser.
Following Nemesis's gaze Palla shivered. "This isn't... right. This isn't how the Princess... how Sailor Moon should operate."
The countess' smile grew, revealing a flash of white teeth that shown in the darkened room. "It isn't? 'For Love and Justice, pretty sailor suited soldier Sailor Moon! In the name of the Moon I will punish you!' Love and justice. You've embraced our kingdom's love, fought our punishment." The dark woman's smile turned soul chilling. "Let us hope you do not have to face my justice."
"I haven't done anything!"
Nemesis nodded. "Yes, but now the time has come."
"What do you want?" Palla cried. "I'm just a girl now!"
"Do not sell yourself short!" Nemesis's voice sharpened before becoming returning to being soft and distant. "You created the Amazon Trio, turning animals into people and monsters. You can shape and control Queen Nehellenia's servants. You can even transform human beings and change their age."
Palla lowered her head. She heard a scratching from atop her dresser, and shortly a lacquered wooden box was lowered in front of her. The blue-haired young woman blinked. The braids holding up the box had unwound slightly and looked fine, almost like hair.
Her thoughts were distracted when the whip cords pulled the lid off, revealing the box's contents. What looked like a few half melted, smiling green jawbreakers rattled in the box with the top half of an empty tube of toothpaste and a flattened red clown nose.
Feeling the magic reflecting off the broken shards, Palla closed her eyes. "I can't."
"You don't have a choice," Nemesis murmured, her voice gentle.
Palla gasped as the cord around her neck slowly tightened.
"If you did, I wouldn't have come like this," the Countess promised as the cord held its pressure for a moment before falling slack.
"But I gave up my powers!" Palla cried she leaned closer to the box. The remains of her minions, of her... friends.
"No. It's never that simple." The countess sighed. She stood up and looked out the room towards the balcony. "Regretting the damage you've done; that is the first step. It is not the last.
"Even if it were... Even if you could put aside what you were, all the darkness you had done, a part of you still longs for it. You have the guilty conscious. You know what it's like to sin, and a part of you will always remember the power fondly."
Palla looked down.
"You gave yourself to the Queen. You owe her." Remaining seated, Countess Nemesis leaned forward, her eyes glinting ominously in the dark. "You owe me."
The Countess's arm came down, forcing Palla to recoil from the purple light of the dangling, pulsing crystals.
The crystal-studded flail dipped into the box and pulled out one of the green jawbreakers. The only unbroken, unmelted one. The cords around Palla's wrists and elbows released. The flail separated and the piece of PeroPero, the Candy Doll fell to the floor.
Palla's freed arms went out and she automatically caught the jawbreaker.
"You don't have to do much. Think of it as recycling, even. Her memory, her pattern won't go to waste now." Nemesis smiled. "I promise you'll enjoy it."
Etsuko Suzuki, proprietor of the White Crane, looked up as the door to her shop opened. The elderly woman took in the customer's smartly cut suit, a dark blue skirt with matching jacket and blouse, and noted the leather valise. Her gaze continued to seep upwards ad recognition started to set in.
Her smile flickered for a split second when she saw her guest's face. "Miss Meiou, so lovely to see you." Pausing, she glanced back down to the petite, pale girl trailing behind. "Ah, and your daughter." Etsuko broadened her smile. "What can I do for you? Something special for Ranma, perhaps?"
Setsuna chuckled while Hotaru gave a little nod. She then raced forward and put her nose to the glass counter and looked at the contents. The case was full of various earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and hair ornaments. Most of it semi-precious jewelry and the like, but there were a few heavier pieces, most of which were in their own special black velvet platforms.
"I do have some fabrics. Perhaps something custom? It would take some time, but could be well worth it."
"Actually, not this time, but that is a wonderful idea for later," Setsuna assured.
"Something for someone else then?" Etsuko looked appraisingly. "Perhaps a bit more formal attire for Hotaru? She could be quite the little princess."
Laughing again, Setsuna shook her head. "Close, but the wrong customer." She walked towards the counter at the front of the store. She put the valise onto the counter and flipped the little briefcase open, revealing a couple photographs and a typed list of measurements. "Last month she saw some of pieces you had made for Ranma and has since expressed an interest."
Etsuko picked up two of the photos, one a head shot and the other a full-length portrait. "Pretty eyes. Hair's a bit overdone."
"You should see Ranma's latest style," Setsuna said.
Etsuko nodded. "But she has good bone structure and I do have some Komon that could drape very nicely on her frame. Though with such long limbs and her ponytails maybe the swinging sleeves of a furisode would work for her," she said evaluating the pictures.
Setsuna made a thoughtful noise at the furisode.
"How formal of an occasion do you have in mind? Any particular ceremonies or occasions? Wedding, mourning? She's a bit young for coming of age... Tea?" Etsuko asked, looking at the girl's measurements.
"With Usagi?" Setsuna exhaled. "We'll have quite the spectrum to work with. Definitely a Homongi. She has a fiance but they still haven't set a date, so a wedding is still a bit far off."
Nodding, Etsuko contained her pleasure. Another repeat customer would be quite beneficial. She had assumed the girl was single based on the lack of a ring in the pictures and her relative age. "And of course there's always Yukata," Etsuko reminded.
"Indeed." Setsuna leaned over and looked at the pictures of Usagi.
Etsuko placed the pictures into a neat pile and folded her hands atop the counter "So, what kind of a surprise gift do you have in mind? We should start with what colors and patterns she likes and then talk about what actually compliments her."
Setsuna gave a tight smile, putting a hand on Hotaru's shoulder. "That's why I brought Hotaru. Ranma's at a sleepover with her friends, so I decided to spend some time with my daughter."
Hotaru nodded. "Usagi really likes Miss Ranma's fancy kimono."
Etsuko recalled the deep red to bright yellow homongi done in cloud patterns over a light blue nagajuban with white snowflakes. "She has good taste."
"Especially the giant green obi," Hotaru added.
Etsuko tapped her chin. "Does Usagi prefer flashy and vibrant or more understated and elegant?"
Setsuna turned to Hotaru. "Did you show her my kimono?"
"Yup! She thought it was very pretty, but I could tell it wasn't her style."
"I see," Etsuko returned her gaze to the photographs. "Surprise kimonos are a challenge, but-" she looked up at Setsuna and smiled. "But I hardly need to tell you that."
"Yes, given the gold and blues I was thinking something in lavender and shades of pumpkin would work as a start. Though for something more regal a stronger color will be required," Setsuna said.
"Perhaps," Etsuko frowned, thoughtful. "You might want more contrasting colors. Or you could go with blue and gold directly."
The door clicked open, causing both Etsuko and Setsuna to look up towards the entrance. Another woman in a dark suit skirt stepped through. She had auburn hair styled in a wave and held a leather valise like Setsuna's in one hand, and a thick leather briefcase in the other.
Standing just inside the shop, Nodoka froze. The heavy case slowly stopped swinging, her eyes darting from Hotaru to Setsuna then to Etsuko. Finally, she stepped forward to look down the length of the store with an almost hopeful expression.
Seeing no one else in the shop, Nodoka lifted her briefcase and gingerly placed it atop the counter with the lid facing Etsuko. "You must be Miss Meiou," she said, smiling at Setsuna. "Ranma and your daughter have told me such wonderful things about you." She gave a respectful bow.
"Charmed. Ranma's very fond of you too." Returning the gesture, Setsuna automatically appraised Nodoka's clothes and accessories. The woman was professional enough, though her business-like facade was clearly rattled.
"She's not here today?" Nodoka asked, a mix of hope and apprehension in her voice.
"She's out with her friends today."
Blinking, Nodoka slowly reached for the cell phone clipped to her belt as she glanced back outside the shop.
"Is something wrong, Saotome-san?" Setsuna coldly asked.
"Yeah, Miss Ranma's just having a sleepover with her friends," Hotaru added.
Nodoka's head snapped back, the phone left untouched. "Oh? Well, that's just delightful." She put the thin valise down atop her briefcase and gave Etsuko a meaningful look.
The older woman forced a smile. "You're not giving them back. I'm just holding onto them for a little while... just until you know what to do with them."
Nodoka nodded. There was more than monetary value to the contents of that briefcase. She addressed Setsuna, "It's a shame that Akane-chan did not have the opportunity to play hostess."
Etsuko opened the valise and removed a thick envelope sealed with string and wax. Wordlessly, she slipped it into her obi. Then she grabbed the handle of the briefcase and, with a bit of strain, pulled it off the counter.
"Actually, Akane was unable to attend. I was under the impression that the Tendo family was... indisposed. Perhaps I was mistaken," Setsuna's voice had cooled to a crisp, curt politeness.
"I regret to be the one to suggest that perhaps you may be a bit premature," Nodoka, stated gamely trying to match Setsuna's gaze.
"Hotaru-chan, I've got to put some stuff away. Do you want to help?" Etsuko asked.
Looking up at the suited women, Hotaru shook her head.
"There's lots of pretty yukata I haven't had time to put out yet. And there's some jewelry to put in the case. Maybe a pretty broach?" Etsuko offered.
Hotaru turned away from the pair. "Oh! Maybe I can find something for Miss Ranma."
"That's the idea," Etsuko smiled thinly as she led Hotaru midway down the length of the narrow store, stopping before a passage hidden behind a curtain depicting a large octopus. Hotaru made a grab for the case and beaming with pride, managed to carry it with just one hand.
Setsuna smiled as she watched the girl go.
"You've done a wonderful job with her. Both of you." Nodoka then sighed.
Setsuna tapped her fingers against her valise.
"Doubtless you have your own suspicions about all this," Nodoka sniffed, picking up the little black case.
"It would seem almost vulgar to point them out," Setsuna said with a dash of sympathy. "You trust her, then?"
Offense crossed Nodoka's face before her demeanor became all business. "Of course! Suzuki-san helped make me the woman I am today. She basically raised me." Nodoka's voice cracked. "Who else would I turn to?"
Setsuna tried to see the woman before her as Ranma's mother. Instead she simply nodded.
Nodoka gave a resigned laugh. "It's truly a sad state. I wonder if Ranko realizes what it would mean for her to be right about my husband? What it would cost her family?"
"Her family? Ranko-" Setsuna paused to almost savor the word. "With a singular exception Ranko was betrayed, so she fled. She owes her former family, the Tendos, nothing. And expects nothing from them."
"And, still it breaks her heart," Nodoka shifted her footing and glanced at the photographs spilled on the counter. "Even when one suspects... disappointment, even when one expects to be disappointed, it still stings. You may not be surprised but that's not much comfort."
"Have recent actions at the Tendo household provided you with enough evidence?"
Nodoka set her jaw. "Far from it. My husband's actions raise further questions. The only comfort, if that word is appropriate for such pitiful solace, is that when faced with overwhelming pressure, my husband's oldest friend acted in the exact way I expected him to."
"The slander against your husband's good name continued then?" Setsuna asked icily.
"Fanciful tales of dual-souled innocents facing the depraved advances of bisexual
Waiting, Setsuna allowed the moment to draw out.
"However, mere attempted kidnapping... that is not so farfetched is it?" Nodoka looked into Setsuna's eyes. "Even the shame of a family willing to look the other way at an 'arranged marriage' could be explained. Especially for a mere country cousin. But my son..."
Setsuna smiled. "You son was part of the deal."
Nodoka's face clouded. "I'm well aware of that." Her hands flexed and the valise nearly fell to the floor. "Don't you think I know my family has disintegrated? That even the pathetic veneer I could cling to has been stripped away?"
Setsuna gave a short nod. "Arriving at the Tendo dojo to find your husband and son gone."
"Yes, and with Soun, Ranko and the other Tendo girls in their place," Nodoka clenched her teeth. "At least I could see evidence of them. Their room was proof enough. I knew where they lived; I knew they lived."
"So you took comfort in the illusion of a family?" Setsuna asked as she tapped her pen against the counter, the photos catching her eye. Etsuko's discussion had been inspiring; a furisode would make for a lovely kimono.
"As evidence that after all these years they were alive." Fidgeting with her valise, Nodoka sighed. "Perhaps I clung too much to such meager scraps. Not wanting to push for fear of losing even those pathetic crumbs."
Nodoka stepped to the side and looked out the window, her eyes following the few pedestrians walking past. "Do you know what it's like to cling to an illusion because the alternative is to have nothing?"
Nodding, Setsuna absently flipped a small pad open, jotting down a few notes before starting to sketch something out.
Pacing back towards the other woman, Nodoka slapped her valise on the counter. "Well now I've got neither! My husband has left, disgrace circles his oldest friend, and my son has utterly vanished." She lowered her head, straining to catch a glimpse of the other woman's kimono design.
Setsuna looked up and lowered her pen. "Apologies," she bowed her head. "I was struck by inspiration."
Nodoka glanced away, her brow furrowed. "I fear that instead of uniting our two houses, Soun's greedy idiocy has destroyed them both. How sad is it that the supposedly simple country cousin knew the way the wind was blowing and fled to safety and security? And here I am hiding things like a squirrel with the blizzard already upon her.
"You think it's too late?"
"For what?" Nodoka dusted her hands and sighed. "I suppose there's still time with the police. You know how they like their high conviction rate. And Soun's position in the community makes the situation... delicate."
"And Mr. Huang?"
Nodoka's eyes flashed. "What of him?"
"He instigated all this."
"Yes, but how much could he have accomplished without willing help?"
Setsuna leaned back slightly.
"If the Tendos had..." Nodoka shook her head. "Allow me to be frank."
Lifting her hand, Setsuna motioned for Nodoka to continue.
"Given the example set by their father, maybe I should take some comfort in the behavior of Soun's daughters." Nodoka tilted her head. "Or maybe one positive, one apathetic, and one sabotaging is too low of a bar?"
"Would it be my place to say?"
Nodoka's face soured. "Please, don't feign propriety at a time like this."
"Fine. I think Huang's money and influence served as a crucible."
"He revealed everyone's true nature?"
"I suppose that would happen. You offer someone everything for a simple task. Why wouldn’t they do it? And why not go a bit further?" Nodoka eyed the green-haired woman.
Setsuna exhaled. "In my experience. Offers of riches can only go so far at first. You can't get someone to do something they would not normally do."
Pacing back to the counter, Nodoka's expression turned quizzical.
Setsuna held up a hand. "At first. Once a person is drawn in, well... then you can nudge them forward. A skilled hand can always toy with a person's drives and motivations; pushing them along, pulling them in deeper."
"When giving someone a baited hook it's helpful to make sure they like the bait?"
"And that they're hungry," Setsuna tapped the counter. "Mr. Huang didn't spend much time with Akane or Kasumi did he? It was the other residents of the house that he... worked with"
Knowing who she was referring to, Nodoka slowly nodded.
"Otherwise you wouldn’t need to be here," Setsuna said.
"Such precautions would be prudent even without any... questions regarding my husband," Nodoka eventually replied.
"Who are you hiding all this from, if not your husband?"
Nodoka exhaled. "You know the answer to that."
"There is the loathsome Mr. Huang and the contemptible Mr. Tendo. Are you so afraid of them raiding your house? Do you think they would be so desperate?"
"From what poor Ranko has gone through?" Nodoka asked smoothing her coat.
Setsuna smirked. She then bowed her head in acknowledgment.
"But if you must know. It's not them I fear."
"Your husband then?"
Nodoka tilted her head. "Is loyalty to your friends a virtue?"
"In the abstract? Yes. However, it depends on your friends."
"Yes, it does."
Setsuna gathered the spilled photos together, stacking them neatly beside her pad. "You still think he's a good man?"
"There is clear evidence of his poor judgment. Does that mean he is a... criminal?" Nodoka returned to the shop window. "I am simply removing a temptation."
Setsuna nodded. "I suppose that's what Ranma, both Ranmas did."
"They had no choice." Nodoka looked down at neatly manicured hands coming out of pale French cuffs. Her gaze went to Setsuna's neatly folded hands. "I wish they had come to me."
Setsuna raised an eyebrow.
"I would have..." Her shoulders drooped. "I would have treated Ranko just like when I met her and Hotaru in the park. Maybe even more skeptically."
"I don't know." Nodoka's composure slipped. "How could I? I'm just glad that at least one of the Tendo girls managed to escape this mess."
Nodoka tapped her wrist.
"Assume the hypothetical. Assume the Tendo's are charged to the fullest extent. Assume your husband... well... assume he's culpable and has a similar fate."
Nodoka stumbled backwards nearly catching herself before hitting the shop's front window. Wordlessly, she pulled herself back up and straightened her suit coat. "Shall we presume that my son is lost as well? That he was nothing more but a mirage?"
Sadness and regret crossed Setsuna's face. "You shall."
Nodoka's eyes hardened; her lips curled into something like a sneer. "In such a case the dreams of uniting the houses will be crushed and the houses, the families, themselves scattered. Hubris, confidence, greed, and... denial led to such destruction.
"What does that leave for the rest of us? Poor Ranko had to flee and live under an assumed name and she has fared the best. Akane is full of rage and shame, she sees her father's failings and is at a loss as how to handle a man who she assumed to be honorable, if foolish, descending into abject depravity."
"Does she?" Setsuna quietly asked, certain that Nodoka was not actually talking about Akane or Soun.
"What else?" Nodoka scoffed. "And that leaves Kasumi: A damaged maiden forced to bear the burden of motherhood until the weight of years wore her down. And now her reward is to see her family disintegrate? A decade of sacrifice and smiling and pretending to be proper, all wasted."
"And you?" Setsuna prompted.
Nodoka blinked. "Oh yes, of course. I am all that remains... if we presume your hypothetical is true."
"And if the hypothetical is true?"
Nodoka motioned towards the back room where Etsuko was showing off various bits of jewelry as she transferred them, the documents, and other vital things of Nodoka's to one of the store's safes.
"Yes, you're preparing for Winter, but what after it? The Saotome family, such as it is, would be secure. What about the other remnants? "
Nodoka bristled at the Saotome comment. She then exhaled and looked over the green-haired woman. Her composure had not faltered; her judgment was sound. She had taken in a Tendo... Nodoka laughed. "Interesting proposal. It is not my son, but those two girls do need someone. If only for a short time in Kasumi's case."
"The Houses could yet be joined." Setsuna quietly offered. She glanced back to see a rustling as Etsuko and Hotaru exited the back room.
"If you want to be so formal. Perhaps merely offering a house, a home."
Turning to face the window, Nodoka looked back out at the street. "Ranko... she tried to warn me. I thought she had been taken in... been made the fool... but now. I should... something."
"Cassandra truths are like that. At least someone managed to listen to Ranma – listen to Ranko," Setsuna corrected.
"Yes, you," Nodoka gave a weak smile. "I should have acted faster. Finding Ukyo Kuonji..." She shook her head.
"We are all fools," Etsuko assured as she took her place behind the store counter. She placed a small brass case atop the counter top.
Nodoka gave her mentor a weak smile.
"Auntie Saotome has some really neat stuff!" Hotaru took her place at Setsuna's side. She then bowed to Nodoka. "Thanks for letting me see it."
"So polite." Nodoka's smile grew and she looked to Etsuko.
"It's packed up," Etsuko assured. Patting a hand on the brass box; she smiled at the white lie.
"Good." Nodoka exhaled. "Heirlooms can be a real burden." She eyed Setsuna. "But I suppose you're well aware of that."
Setsuna bowed her head.
"I heard you're looking to... apologize to Hotaru's dutiful nanny?" Etsuko asked patting Hotaru on the head.
Nodoka squared her shoulders. "My husband may yet prove himself but..." She looked down and shifted her stance. "But Ranko was right to warn me. She was right."
"I have an idea." Etsuko folded her hands atop the counter. "I recall a similar headstrong girl making the painful transition from tomboy to lady. I recall her insisting to warn an elder and in the end proving to be right."
"Those pretty gold bracelets?" Hotaru happily asked.
"Your old bracelets?" Nodoka asked, nearly echoing the young girl.
"They're your bracelets." Etsuko slipped the lid off the polished brass case revealing a quartet of large matching gold and emerald hoop bracelets.
"Impressive," Setsuna leaned forward inspecting them.
Nodoka smiled wistfully. "Yes, it'd make a fitting gift. Thank you." She caught everyone's eye in turn. "Thank you. Thank you all."
Three girls wearing glasses sat around a table on the grounds of
Picking through her store-bought bento, Kimiko looked over at Ranma's box. She gave a little frown. The polished hardwood box with lacquered insets was beautiful, and the food inside lovely, but, but despite maintaining its customary volume, it lacked the overall... elegance of the redhead's normal lunches.
Kimiko chewed thoughtfully, eyeing the curvaceous girl. The voluminous bentos had become the norm for the shy redhead and it showed. Ranma had filled in a lot in the last few months; gently rounded cheeks, a bustline that strained the seams of her uniform, and easily the widest hips in the class. And even with a little extra padding, her waist could still be thought of as compact, too.
Kimiko's gaze drifted back up, stopping around mid torso, and she gave a small sigh. She was happy that her friend seemed more comfortable with herself and, quite frankly, she was jealous of that bust. However, she really did wonder about the nanny's growth.
Ranma raised an eyebrow and paused in the act of lifting a pair of red and black chopsticks up to her mouth. There was a soft jangle as the gold bracelet she wore shifted down her forearm.
Kimiko gave a nervous smile as she tried to find something to justify her staring. "So shiny!" she exclaimed. "I love your bracelets!"
Nami looked up from a notebook she was worrying over. "Oh, we're asking about those?"
"Yes, you told me when I got in today." Bemused, Ranma shook her head causing twin curly ponytails to flop back and forth. She had kept her curly bangs and had only pulled in some of her hair to make the "lop ears". As her hair had grown out she had gained more flexibility in styling them.
"Well, they are very pretty."
"Yes... they are. But that's not what you were staring at." Ranma pushed down a slight blush as she shifted her legs. She knew her skirt was starting to get a bit too tight. She wondered if she could get away with letting out a bit more length. She already had the longest skirt in the school. Not counting Mako-chan, anyway, and she did not even wear a Juuban uniform. The redhead frowned as she thought to herself.
Kimiko coughed. "Well... it's about your lunch."
The redhead blinked.
"It's a bit plain."
Ranma laughed. "Oh that. I was running a bit late this morning."
"Poor Hotaru. You mean she didn't get a personalized lunch made by her nanny?" Kimiko asked with mock shock.
"Nah, I made sure she got a special lunch. Just cut into my own time." The redhead lifted an arm in noncommittal acceptance. "Was that it?"
Kimiko's eyes followed the gold bracelet as it went up and down. "Well..."
"The bracelets, tell us about them," Nami said, not looking up from her notebook.
"Oh." Ranma bashfully lifted her arms and held her hands out to showcase the twin bracelets. Each consisted of a gold tube that was perforated in a repeating hexagonal pattern. As the redhead rotated her wrists, faceted emeralds and polished spheres of silver tumbled within the tubes.
That got Nami's attention and she and Kimiko watched, fascinated. The sharp corners of the gems caught on the perforations while the hollow spheres fell freely into the gems. Each collision was accompanied by a soft, bell-like ringing. Due to the ratchet-like effect of the perforations the ringing was sporadic, but would happen more the faster Ranma moved.
"Fancy." The brunette tried to keep herself restrained at the excess of said jewelry. "But how'd you get them on?" Nami leaned forward.
"It's got a couple clasps. See?" Ranma flipped the lid of her bento box over and rested her wrists atop it. She then moved a couple of clasps on the sides of her bracelet, rotated her wrist, and undid the matching pair on the other side. As she lifted one of the bracelet halves a half dozen emeralds and silver bells tumbled out of the tube and into the box and the redhead gave a soft, but unladylike, swear.
"Oh wow! That's really cool," Kimiko smiled.
"Those are awfully easy to lose," Nami picked up an emerald and stared. She then looked to the bells and finally at the bracelet itself. Exhaling, she looked to Ranma's emerald and gold broach and gave a little sigh, handing the gem back to Ranma.
The redhead nodded and returned to refilling the bottom bracelet. She took some comfort in that she had only worn half the set. The other two "bracelets" seemed to be even more of a pain to put on.
"That looks like a real pain to take on and off," Kimiko echoed Ranma's thoughts.
"Yeah, you really have to be careful that all the bits are on one side when you take it off... Otherwise..." Ranma gave a little shrug and joined the bracelet halves and then locked the clasps in place. She gave her wrist an experimental twist and nodded in satisfaction at the chiming flash of green and silver within the gold tubes. She then picked her chopsticks back up.
"Must mean a lot to you," Kimiko noted.
"Expensive and complicated jewelry? At school?"
Nami then pointed to Ranma's Meiou family broach.
The redhead blushed. "It's not for every day."
"You mean like these?" Nami asked as she gave one of the redhead's lop ears a slight pull.
The redhead's glare wilted before it could really get started, and she simply nodded.
"They're not from some guy are they?" Nami nervously asked.
"Uh, no... of course not."
Ranma blinked. "What gives? Haven't you guys been trying to get me to go out and not be as shy?"
"Of course." Nami nodded. "And that's why we know you haven't been on a date in a while, let alone have a boyfriend."
"Ohhh... I see," Ranma said in understanding, and ignoring the boyfriend comment. "So if I got these, that means I've started dating someone new and-"
"And got a very expensive gift, on what would have been at most the third date. Which is far too fast," Kimiko primly added.
Ranma nodded. She knew that Kimiko's ex, the sleaze that he was, had tried to bribe her with baubles, though nothing like the bracelets.
"So if it's not from a boy..." Nami let the question hang in the air.
"Are they from your boss?" Kimiko asked giving Nami a smug grin.
"Uh, no..." Ranma looked down. "They're from Auntie Saotome."
"The woman that took us to the White Crane." Nami stated.
"Oh, her." Kimiko shrugged. She had never met this Saotome woman, but knew she was deeply involved in Ranma's past.
"Well, Hotaru helped."
Nami raised an eyebrow. "Uh, Ran-chan? Weren't you having issues with your Auntie?" she asked taking Ranma's hand.
Ranma gave a slight squeeze. "These... these are her way of apologizing."
"What do you mean?" Kimiko asked.
"It has to do with why I left. Auntie... Auntie wasn't a part of why I left. But she didn't believe me either." Ranma swallowed. Nami tightened her grip, and Kimiko took the redhead's other hand.
Sniffing, the redhead smiled. "She believed some of what I said. But not everything. She thought
Ranma smiled. "Now, she's admitted she was wrong."
Nami gave another squeeze. "That's great news!"
Ranma's smile became mixed and she gazed off at the edge of the campus. "Yeah, shame it took all this time, shame it took so much pain, shame there's still secrets between us."
Kimiko glanced at Nami who gave a little nod. "Everyone has secrets. Not all of them are sinister."
Ranma's expression clouded. "Mine are."
"Really?" Nami asked. "From what I've seen none of your secrets are your fault."
The redhead blinked. The curse, Mr. Huang, Sailor Hestia, none of those were her doing but... "I dunno. I'm still keeping things from people, from you guys for one."
"Do you have a good reason?"
"It's not that simple." Ranma quickly pulled her hands back. "Akane's... things are going to get tough for her."
"Because you're keeping secrets?"
"Well... no. But with the police asking her father for a con-"
Kimiko held her hand up. "Do you really want to tell us this?"
Nami nodded. The police liked to move only when they were sure they would get a conviction, and matters within a family were considered especially... delicate. She was also pretty sure that Akane's father was some sort of "pillar of the community", which would mean the police would be methodical, polite, plodding, and would build their case with the utmost delicacy, discretion, and respect... until it came time to bring down the hammer. And that was for a "normal" case; given Ranma's secrecy there had to be a lot more to the case.
She watched as Ranma seemed to freeze at being interrupted. Nami wondered what it would be like to have to wait for the slow, slow wheels of justice to grind forward. "Yeah, especially if it's sensitive legal stuff," she added.
Ranma's smile made a tepid return. "But what about Akane?"
Kimiko raised an eyebrow. "Are you doing everything you can –"
Nami cut her off. "Or everything you should do to help her?"
Ranma rubbed her hands. She looked at her nails. "I... I'll have to think about it."
Kimiko blinked. "Uh, okay."
Nami's glared at Kimiko and motioned her to be quiet. "Now, next question." She forced a smile. "Is there any secret you're keeping from her that could help her?"
"Akane?" Ranma touched her broach. The details about Setsuna and Hotaru, the Sailor Senshi, Usagi being a Princess of the damn Moon, my own powers... the redhead closed her eyes. Wow... that's a lot I've been keeping from Akane but...
"No, I don't think it would help her. If anything it'd just make her life more of a mess. And she's got a hard enough time as it is," Ranma added with a little sigh.
"And it's going to get worse?"
The redhead nodded.
Nami reached out and once again took her friend's hand. Kimiko quickly mirrored the gesture. "It sounds like Akane needs her best friend, and it sounds like you've already earned her trust," Nami softly assured.
Eyes watering, Ranma blinked rapidly. Hearing the slight undercurrent of jealously coloring Nami's voice, the redhead's smile faded. She clenched her friend's hands, and pulled back when they both winced. "Sorry!" she exclaimed, embarrassed by the loss of control.
"It's okay, we know you're strong," Nami assured.
Ranma grimaced. No... you don't. Ranma grimly thought to herself. You girls haven't seen me, not when I was at my top... not when I'm Hestia. Even Hotaru and Setsuna only saw me really cut loose in that fight... and Miss creepy shadow bounced right back up.
Giving a quick bow, the redhead then looked up. "I know it's hard. Being... being my friend. But thank you. Both of you."
The three girls held hands as the minutes passed. Nami loosened her fingers, and after a moment Ranma reciprocated. "It's our pleasure," the brunette assured while Kimiko nodded.
"Big things going on for you two," Kimiko smirked as she gave Ranma's hand one last pat before resuming her lunch and giving Nami's notebook a meaningful glance.
"Oh no, I've got more than enough to deal with. This festival's a nightmare."
Ranma smiled. "You guys helped me." She leaned over and looked at the notebook. "And unless I need new glasses, half of those recipes look like mine."
"You are helping me, and it's been great but..." Nami's face clouded. "It's for the poetry club. What business do we have doing a bake sale?"
"School clubs are a vital part of academic life. And club events at festivals are a way to show community cohesiveness, teamwork, and the ability to express your school spirit," Kimiko replied from rote. "Of course some of us don't have to be in clubs."
"All you need is an employment waiver." Ranma stuck out her tongue.
"And a boss that's willing to put enough pressure onto the principal to accept such a thing," Kimiko grumbled.
"I can't argue with that." Ranma sucked in air through her teeth.
"I wouldn't mind if Misaki wasn't so disorganized," Nami muttered, once again staring at her notebook. This time at a page with an event schedule on the left side and a to do list on the right. Few of the items were checked off.
"Being a club officer does tend to be a popularity contest."
"For club president sure. But not Treasurer!"
Ranma shrugged. "You're the one that wanted to join the club."
"That's because I like-"
"Kazuo." Kimiko interrupted her.
Nami glared. "Because I like poetry."
"I dunno, both of you will be working that bake-sale together."
Giving a slight blush, Nami tapped her notebook. "Yeah, maybe. But that's not going to happen if we can't even get things organized."
"And if it doesn't happen Kazuo will never open his heart and ask you out on that date you've been dreaming of?" Kimiko asked.
"Kimi!" Ranma admonished while Nami glared.
"No... it's... Never mind," Nami sighed.
"Are you okay?" Ranma asked.
"I'll be fine. I'm just worried that I'm building things up and that nothing will happen or worse..."
Kimiko's expression turned sympathetic as Ranma took Kimiko's hand. "Or worse you'll get him and find out that he's a bore, a jerk, or worse: someone that will take advantage of you?"
Ranma leaned over and put an arm around Nami's shoulder.
Kimiko wrapped both her hands around Nami's. "Look. I know Kensuke was scum. I know that, now. But you can't hold yourself back. Being cautious is one thing, but if you're too cautious then you'll never go anywhere. You'll just burrow down into a soft, padded little box and hide there. And that won't be fun for me, will it?" she added with a smirk.
Considering Kimiko's words, Ranma let her mind drift for a bit. Her musings were interrupted by a high pitched squeal followed by equally high and even faster chattering.
"Oh my god! You're wearing your hair up today! Well it's actually down, what with the double braids. But it's in your bunny style!" Usagi's barrage came faster and faster as she ran towards the table. Her own blonde ponytails trailed behind her. It did not stop when she finally reached the table. "It's like mine but shorter and lower. Though my ponytails go down too. Huh, I wonder if one of us should try doing our hair up? Or would that be too much?"
She looked at the trio and clapped her hands and gave a little hop. "Oh wow! You've got double braids too. Not quite bunny style, but very cute! And you've gotta be Nami then! Great imagination. I love the style you did for Ranma's other friend."
Usagi sat down between Kimiko and Ranma. "Not that you didn't do great with Ranma over here. I'm so glad you decided to wear your hair like this now. Is that a regular thing?"
The noise suddenly stopped and Ranma relished the relative silence for a couple seconds. Nami and Kimiko stared.
But before she could answer, Usagi had started up again. "I mean, I get you doing it for just special occasions. And I don't know how hard it is to manage a perm and do your hair like that. I wanted a perm, but you knew that, but Mamoru said my hair took too much time to manage. Anyway, it's great! And we bunnies have to stick together," Usagi cheered as she hugged Ranma.
Blinking, Kimiko snapped out of her daze and picked up her phone and snapped a picture of the two girls.
Seemingly dazzled by the flash, Usagi tilted her head. Then released Ranma, exhaled and gave a long, lung-filling, inhale. "So? How's things with you guys?"
"Uh... you're Usagi right?" Nami asked.
"Yes, yes she is," Kimiko deadpanned.
"Yeah, Tsukino Usagi, nice to meet you!"
"Yes, they know," Ranma smiled despite herself. "These are the friends I was talking about, Kimiko and Nami."
"Where's Akane?" The blonde looked about. "Is she wearing her hair all styled up too? Though I'm not sure if she can do that style herself."
"She doesn't –uh- live around here," Ranma said with a frown.
"It's still good to see you," Ranma said putting on a grin.
"It's great to see you too," Usagi matched the redhead and surpassed her in sugary smiles. "That was a great party! And you did a great job doing Ranma's hair for that!"
Kimiko nodded, satisfied.
"How'd you two meet?" Nami asked. As far as she knew Tsukino's clique was nearly impenetrable. The only girl who could get in was Naru, and that was because she and Usagi had been friends for such a long time.
Ranma coughed into her hand. "It's a long story," she said amidst jangling.
"Well?" Nami asked.
Eyeing Ranma's bracelets, Usagi's hand shot out. "Oh wow! Pretty! Another gift from Setsuna?"
Ranma blushed. "Not quite..."
"She got them from a relative," Kimiko stated.
Looking to the black-haired girl, Ranma mouthed a silent thanks.
"So how'd you two meet?" Nami asked.
"We've got some friends in common," Ranma said, evading the question.
Usagi nodded. "Poor Haruka and Michiru."
"Poor?" Nami asked.
Ranma paused to adjust one of the bows keeping her "ears" in place. "Yeah, I don't see how being between the Meiou family and you and your fiance is a bad thing," she cautiously stated.
"Mamoru's on a whole 'couples dates' kick. And Haruka and Michiru are one of the few couples we know. And that frustrates Mamoru a bit."
"Frustrated?" Kimiko quietly asked.
"Oh, well... what's wrong with that?" Ranma asked feeling like she was edging along a cliff-face. "We spent plenty of time with Haruka and Michiru. "
"Yes, I can see why they enjoy your company," Kimiko said. "They rave about your cooking too don't they?"
"They do make a lovely couple." Ranma blushed. Pretty-boy style aside, Haruka was a lot like Setsuna. Ranma smiled; Michiru was a lucky woman.
Seeing her friend's slightly dreamy, slightly jealous expression, Nami made a thoughtful noise.
Usagi continued, "Know what we really need? Another party! Maybe at Mamoru's."
"I'll have to check when Setsuna is available." The redhead said; the feeling of apprehension momentarily lifting.
"She doesn't have to come."
Ranma tilted her head. "Uh... yeah. I guess so."
"Now who's being all shy," Nami teased.
"I'm not being shy."
"Right, right. Who do we know that loves dressing up all fancy and pretty and going to elegant parties?" Nami tapped her finger to her lips and pretended to think. "Oh wait. You do."
Feeling her whole face turn flush, the redhead looked down. She could see the sides of her bunny ears, her jeweled broach and her gold bracelets. She did take some comfort in the fact that this hairstyle did conceal her actual ears, which seemed to lessen the embarrassment somewhat.
"It could be real fun. But... I'm single. That won't be a problem?" Ranma eventually asked.
Usagi giggled. "Don't worry. Mamo-chan's getting antsy but he's not up to Minako and Makoto levels yet."
Ranma's blush faded with relief. "Thank goodness. It's bad enough dealing with these two." She gestured to Nami and Kimiko.
"Hey! You're the one trying to set me up on a date!" Nami exclaimed.
Once again Ranma flushed slightly and coughed into her hands.
Nami glared at the redhead who, shoulders slumped, tried to make herself seem smaller. The brunette held her expression for a minute before chuckling. "Got you!"
"Wha?" The redhead pushed her glasses back up her nose, and made a note to talk to Setsuna about maybe getting another pair.
"You think I can get mad for you doing what Kimiko's been trying for years?"
"Or what you do," Kimiko muttered.
"You're different... you've got a crush."
"Maybe more than that," Nami whispered, her cheeks pinking.
"You're swooning again," Kimiko sighed, mildly annoyed.
"Like you were any better with Kensuke?" Ranma asked.
Kimiko glared. "Point taken. But yeah, Nami, we just want you to be happy."
"I know, I know, but can we focus on Ranma first?"
The redhead's eyes widened. "Well... you're ahead of me."
"That just means you have to catch up!"
Usagi laughed. "Your friends are really fun, Ranma!"
The redhead smiled proudly. "Thanks!"
"You said a perm would be too much, but have you thought about doing any other work for your hair?" Kimiko asked studying the blonde's ponytails and hair buns.
Blinking, Usagi's smile slowly grew. "What're you thinking?"
"You've got a lot to work with, probably want to keep something very vertical, goes with your long limbs." Kimiko started flipping one of her chopsticks between her fingers.
"You just had to encourage her," Ranma sighed.
"Who spends the most time on her hair at this table, Red?" Kimiko asked.
The redhead looked up at her curly bangs. "I don't really-"
Her explanation was cut off by another student approaching the table. "Nami, are you done with those recipes? Ibuki-chan has to know what ingredients she needs to buy tomorrow!" she exclaimed in a voice almost as loud as Usagi's. Wearing a uniform with a tighter blouse and shorter skirt, the new teen was a bit of Ranma's opposite. Tall and slender, her build was closer to Usagi's, but she was slightly longer in the torso. She also had long, straight, bluish-purple hair and purple eyes that seemed almost red when she faced the sun.
"Hi, Misaki-san," Nami sighed.
"Well?" Misaki, treasurer of the poetry club, demanded, her hands on her hips.
"I'm almost done, I'm just... consulting on the last few recipes," the brunette admitted, hoping Ranma would pick up her plea.
Usagi looked to Ranma who shook her head before putting on a big smile. "Nami's right! She's got a great lineup that should sell really well. I think she just needs to consult with Ibuki about fridge space so nothing will go bad. There's also how much time and oven space you'll have."
Misaki blinked. "You're Ranma, right?" she asked, not waiting for the redhead to respond. "What do you have experience cooking? And I'm talking about cooking for groups of people, not just playing in the kitchen." Moving her hands off her hips, she crossed her arms and looked down at the curly-haired redhead.
Ranma squared her shoulders. "I'm an experienced retainer of the Meiou household, including catering and event hosting."
Misaki tapped her elbows. "Okay, you've volunteered."
Nami cleared her throat. "She's not in the club."
"No, but if she's helping you determine what we're going to serve at the booth she might as well come."
Misaki rolled her eyes. "We've got a club meeting."
"The whole club or just the event group?" Ranma asked giving a playful smirk to Nami.
"Just the event group. Come on."
Nami nodded and began packing her lunch.
Ranma caught her eye and shrugged. "I guess I'll come too." She started packing. "Uh, if you don't mind."
While still holding her left elbow with her right hand, Misaki waved her free hand dismissively. "Yes, yes. Nami swears by you and she's the best we've got."
Blushing a bit, Nami still bristled at the backhanded compliment. She finished packing and got up.
"I guess," Ranma said after she closed her shiny leather briefcase-like book bag and slung it on the opposite side of her purse. She turned to Usagi and Kimiko. "Now stay out of trouble, you two."
"No promises," Kimiko smirked. "How about you?"
"Me?" the redhead blinked.
Kimiko turned to the brunette. "You going to keep our dear, innocent friend out of trouble? Or will she get drawn into the dreary politics of school clubs?"
"Don't worry about our bunny," Nami patted the redhead's formidable backside.
Giving a surprised noise, Ranma blushed and turned to the brunette, confusion on her face.
The brunette smiled back at her friend. "Yes, I'll take good care of her."
"Nami..." Ranma said before there was another tap on her bottom, this one a bit sharper.
"Come along." Nami tugged at Ranma's arm, ignoring the faint, warm tingle at the contact. To Nami's pleasant surprise, the redhead let herself follow. It also helped that the brunette felt her spirits lift. "Don't worry about those two," she assured, a spring in her step.
"If you say so," Ranma sighed as she and Nami followed Misaki back to the school building.
Usagi watched them go. "You guys are trying to help Nami find someone?"
Kimiko nodded. "A friend in the Poetry club."
"Ah," the blonde nodded. "I'm actually a bit surprised Ranma's willing to play matchmaker."
"It's because she's so shy?"
Usagi glanced back to the building. "Not that..."
Kimiko tilted her head. "Then?"
"She's very private. Her whole family is."
"Family?" Kimiko slowly asked, curiosity rising. She wondered if Usagi knew more about Ranma's past.
"Oh sorry, I meant Setsuna and Hotaru." Usagi blushed.
"No, no I know what you mean," Kimiko sighed. "You're not kidding on her being private, especially with her family."
"There has to be someone, I mean look at her bracelets."
"Actually those were a gift from a friend of the family," Kimiko corrected, killing off the idea of Usagi knowing anything about Ranma's family.
"She cares a lot about you two; at the party she kept talking about you. Especially on the hair and how you helped pick out her clothes. I don't think she had a lot of friends growing up," Usagi said with some sympathy.
Kimiko nodded. "You should have seen her when she moved here. Total tomboy."
"I swear," Kimiko picked up her phone and started paging through the albums. She dropped it onto the table on frustration. "I changed phones in the spring so I don't have any photos old enough."
"Oh no! You didn't lose them."
Kimiko chuckled. "Of course not. I make copies and backups. Photos are windows to the past. I'd never want to lose them."
Usagi nodded. "They are kind of magic."
"But take my word on it. She started out with clunky round glasses, no fashion sense, not a lick of makeup, a scrawny frame... But you wanna know the most unbelievable part?"
"Scrawny?" Usagi shook her head.
"Well, she still had it up here," Kimiko motioned to her chest. "But other than some hips she was pretty thin. Built kinda like a runner, but shorter."
"Where now she's more like a weight lifter?" Usagi asked, recalling the leaps and strength Hestia displayed in the fight. She could certainly outclass Jupiter in a lot of ways, not that her attacks amounted to much. Usagi idly rubbed her side.
"Sure, if you cover all those muscles in curves. She's a brick, but a voluptuous brick," Kimiko said, absently wondering about Ranma's future figure.
Usagi giggled. "But what's the most unbelievable part?"
"Well, I know she's been letting it grow out. And the bunny ears obviously..."
"Nope." Kimiko snickered. "She started out with straight hair. Not a single curl. And it was in a heavy French braid. And it was a dark auburn color."
The blonde blinked a few times. "She... didn't have a perm? And... braided it?" Usagi put a hand to her forehead. A scrawny, straight haired Ranma was a little hard to imagine. However, a little part of the blonde did whisper that every time she saw Ranma, the nanny did seem a little bit curvier. "Huh. I think you'll need to show me some pictures of her back then."
"I think I've got some on my computer at home," Kimiko admitted.
"It's just... so not her."
"I know. And the worst part? She only got the curls because she got some gum in her braid. Can you imagine? Such a big thing happening from such a small source?"
"Absolutely." Usagi recalled going done an alleyway and rescuing a certain bandaged cat. "And now your tomboy is a happy nanny that tries to play matchmaker with her friends and proudly defends her cooking and event planning skills?"
"She cooked for that party of yours, didn't she?" Kimiko asked leaning forward.
"She did," Usagi touched her side. She could understand Ranma's embarrassed humility at her actions. It was not the first time one of her Senshi had stepped in to save the life of their Princess, and it would not be the last. At least this time no one had to sacrifice themselves to ensure Usagi lived.
"And she makes the best mooncakes!" Usagi exclaimed, focusing on something happier.
"Yes, we figured you'd like the recipe she made."
"You were right! Once again."
Kimiko chuckled. "You're good at this."
"At what?" the blonde tilted her head.
"At talking with people while being agreeable. It's... infectious."
Usagi smiled. "So, Nami's got a crush and you girls are trying to help her?"
Kimiko looked at the album on her phone and zoomed in on a picture of her, Nami, and Ranma. "And you've got a fiance that wants to do more couples stuff?"
"Yup!" The blonde pulled out her own phone. "I think Mamochan's got a good idea. Even if he's being a bit pushy, you know. Double dates are a lot more casual and have less pressure. I mean it's not one and one. You can do that on any event. And it's gotta be harder when starting out. Can you imagine how bad a blind date would be? All alone with just some guy. Though a triple date might even be better! But scheduling six people could be a real pain, you know?"
Kimiko smirked. "That seems pretty ambitious. Would it even work?"
"Well, we wouldn't know if we don't try." Usagi then shook her phone and smiled.
"Fine." Sighing, Kimiko, paged through her phone and read out Kazuo's phone number.
Usagi fiddled with her phone. "So we have Nami and her friend."
"We do? Are you just going to call him?" Kimiko asked. "He doesn't know you."
The blonde blinked. "Oh."
"And do you even have someone in mind for Ranma?"
Usagi smiled. "Well... I have some ideas."
Kimiko nodded. "That's got us beat."
"She's that shy?" Usagi asked.
"Well... I've caught her eyeing classmates and people when we're out at the mall. She definitely approves of good grooming and likes people dressing up."
Smiling, Usagi nodded.
"You've seen that too?"
"Well, at the party she liked Haruka and Mamo-chan's suits."
"That's not much," Kimiko sighed.
"She won't be more specific?"
Kimiko shook her head. "She'll just go back to her job taking up her time.
Usagi tapped the table. "She does dote over Hotaru, but..."
"It's an excuse." Kimiko exhaled. "I dunno, what'll we do? Set up a blind date?"
"You've got someone in mind?"
Usagi fidgeted. "I can ask Mamo-chan. And Haruka and Michiru. They might be a better gauge on Ranma's interests."
Kimiko raised an eyebrow. "Huh."
The blonde shrugged.
"Still wanna do that triple date? Especially with Ranma and her mystery date being the only unknowns? Lotta pressure."
Usagi seemed to crumple. "But..."
Kimiko held up her hand. "I think we're getting too ambitious. We don't even know if you can get Nami a date, let alone one for Ranma."
"Double date, then?" Usagi offered.
"It's at least manageable. But we've still got the problem of setting it up."
Usagi chewed her lip. "Maybe Mamoru could ask. Or I wonder if this Kazuo knows Kurume Suri."
"Suri?" Kimiko asked as she took a sip from her drink. "He's the geeky guy in that rivalry-romance thing with your friend Ami right?"
Usagi coughed. "Not exactly... "
"Well, if he combed his hair he'd be decent enough."
"Tell me about it! Naru has the same complaint about Umino."
"Wait... you've already got friends that are in a relationship?"
Usagi slumped forward propping her arms on the table. "Just those two. It's funny, half of my friends are so interested in getting a boyfriend and it's Naru that lands a guy."
Kimiko gave a sympathetic nod. "Trying to widen the circle a bit?"
"Back before my breakup, I tried something similar."
The blonde gave a thoughtful smile.
"Yes, yes. I know. I'm looking too."
"Okay! I'll keep you in mind too!" Usagi happily chirped.
Usagi was oblivious. "So... there's an idea, Umino and Suri are friends. Maybe they know Kazuo. I'll ask Naru about it."
"Sure, that'll keep this a surprise."
Pulling back Usagi crossed her arms. "I know how to keep a secret."
Kimiko closed her phone. She met the blonde's gaze. "There's more to it isn't there?"
Usagi gave a nervous laugh.
"This is a lot of work for a friend of a friend. Is it really about Nami? Or even Ranma?"
The blonde blinked in confusion.
"No, it's all about showing up your matchmaker friends is it?" Kimiko leaned forward and poked the center of the table with her index finger. "I've heard Minako claim to be the 'Goddess of Love'. Everyone knows Mako-chan will brag about her old boyfriends. But they're still single, aren't they?"
"Uh, yes?" Usagi frowned.
"They can't help themselves, but here you are building a dating network. Right. Under. Their. Noses."
"It's hardly that sinister!"
Kimiko blinked. "Really?"
"I swear. I just want Ranma and you girls to be happy."
The black haired girl sat back down. Sighing, she made a point to study the blonde's eyes once again. "Oh. Well, good then."
"You almost sound disappointed."
Usagi sighed. "You're still thinking about that triple date aren't you?"
"A really fancy date would be something. The food, the dresses," Kimiko smiled. "The hair. I remember some of the fancy events with Ranma and her Aunt. You ever feel like a princess?"
For a split second the blonde's expression froze and her eyes hardened. Then it was gone and Usagi giggled.
Kimiko felt herself go cold and began to understand just how Ranma could get into such strange situations.
"Well?" Usagi playfully asked.
"I don't know if we can get all that to work. But... I think we should try."
"Sure, and maybe you can do people's hair?" Usagi cheered.
"I think a real salon might be more appropriate."
Usagi nodded. "And we can't have you do your own hair," she quietly added.
Kimiko eyed the blonde but shrugged. "Though, the first thing is actually getting the date set up. I'm not sure Nami will ever get the nerve."
"She makes Nami look decisive and take charge."
Usagi offered her hand. "Welcome aboard then!"
Kimiko hesitated, but pushed that aside and took the blonde's hand.
Built into a hill,
Down slope, the trees became thicker with the bottom level being heavily wooded. Like the middle areas, the dense forest was cut by narrow, meandering paths that connected the occasional clearing. Only here the paths were narrower and made of cleared dirt and flagstones instead of concrete, with the little glens being even more isolated.
The burbling streams and cool ponds were still precisely maintained, but the plants and little trees gracing the water features were more subdued and looked like natural, if idealized features. Squat stone lanterns provided lighting; their LED bulbs discretely hidden behind gauzy filters that softened the light.
The park took on a different character at night. Sounds became even more hushed and, with the colors of the plants muted and the water features becoming dark and glossy, the place went from brightly vibrant to starkly elegant.
Beyond an apologetic "Closed" sign strung between two rounded bollards was a partially disassembled stone bridge that straddled a rushing meter-wide creek. Past the creek, the path skirted a stout maple tree in a tightly bending set of stone stairs. Descending the stairs would bring a visitor to a winding walkway through a densely canopied stand of trees, and finally, a small clearing.
Hidden near the very center of the forest, and located far from any other path, it was designed for maximum quiet and contemplation. There was only the single entrance, and no part of the clearing was visible until one went around the final bend.
The glade itself was sparse. It held a single small pool that was little more than a wide depression at the base of a tiny waterfall, which trickled over a stone outcropping. The creek that poured out of the pool was so minor that an extra long flagstone was sufficient to ensure a safe crossing. There were two small stone lanterns that flanked the "bridge", and a bench to the left of where the pathway ended near the center of the clearing.
It was a small, private space. Despite being in the Minato ward in the heart of
One carried a long bladed staff, and wore a white uniform with purple skirting, lilac accents and dark maroon bows. Her sparring partner wore a black uniform with white bows, ruffled accents, and a heart-shaped, pink edged apron. Having curly red hair pulled into two rabbit ear-like ponytails, she wore a pair of green armless glasses and carried a golden scepter.
Both breathed heavily as they circled one other. The one with the staff was shorter, thinner, and younger, while her opponent was taller, larger, and stronger. She darted forward and thrust with the polearm, the impossibly sharp edge gleaming in the weak moonlight.
The redhead dodged to one side, planted her feet, and jumped. Taking to the air, she bounced over her attacker, twisting at the apex of the jump. She landed solidly at the purple-clad Senshi's back, a light touch on the smaller girl's shoulder signifying her hit.
For a split second the shorter magical girl glared. Twisting her glaive, she spun around and slammed it across with all her might.
Placid, the redhead leveled her free hand and caught the shaft of the glaive. The other Senshi's eyes widened as the long-shafted weapon was stopped dead in that iron grip and her own swing pushed her a full meter to the side.
"You telegraphed too much, Squirt," the redhead said, clenching her fist around the glaive's shaft.
The other Senshi, Saturn, frowned. "But Ra- but Hestia, I saw an opening!"
"And when it didn't work out you stopped." Hestia allowed a smile. "Good follow-through though."
"But you can't stop." Hestia smirked as she wrenched the glaive to one side, breaking it out of Saturn's grip.
"Hey!" Saturn lunged forward to retrieve her weapon.
"No one said Halt!" Hestia said in a sing-song voice as she went to one knee. Letting go of the glaive, she grabbed Saturn by the collar and back bow, and tossed.
"Nanny!" Saturn cried as she flipped through the air.
Worry flashed across Ranma's face, her eyes following the temporarily airborne Senshi, until she saw Saturn land on her feet and take a controlled tumble.
"Nanny! That was a trick!" Saturn pouted as she got back up.
Hestia picked up Saturn's glaive and nodded as she tested its weight.
Saturn paused and caught her breath.
Glancing around the clearing, Hestia quietly waited.
"Okay. Halt. Time out," Saturn said.
Hestia smiled. "You're doing good squirt! That was a good recovery."
Grinning, Saturn walked forward. "Really? But did you have to throw me like that?"
Hestia raised an eyebrow. "Gently?"
Saturn's smile froze and she tilted her head.
"Remember your gymnastics lessons?" Hestia asked as she met Saturn halfway and patted her ward on the head.
"You launched me..." The younger Senshi looked up. "That was a floor routine?"
"We're both pulling our punches," Hestia laughed as she tossed the glaive back.
Blinking, Saturn let her breathing ease back to normal. "And you knew I'd nail the landing?"
"I trusted you." Hestia hugged her. "You're the one that wanted to be trained harder."
Feeling warm, Saturn nuzzled her nanny. Her aches and strains lessened as she caught her second wind. "And if I didn't?" she energetically asked, pulling out of the hug.
"You're tougher in this form," Hestia stated. "And besides..." she wiggled her scepter side to side. "I can handle that."
Hestia smiled and gave another hug. "You're doing great! You're even helping me with my own powers."
Saturn's eyes widened. "That's why you waited until tonight to spar in our Senshi forms!"
Flicking her Silence Glaive to either side, Saturn's brow furrowed.
The redhead stepped back until she reached the flagstone bridge. "Are you ready to go again?"
Continuing to twist her glaive, the purple Senshi took a couple steps forward. She watched the blade flash in the moonlight.
Hestia blinked as Saturn took another step, further reducing the distance between them. "Oh you little sneak! It's on!"
Grinning, Saturn thrust forward; Hestia sidestepped the glaive, hooking the shaft with one of the wings of her scepter. Matching her partner's smile, the red-haired Senshi turned in, shifting her stance, her enhanced muscles pressing the weapon down to the ground.
Using the extra leverage, Saturn swept out with her leg, undercutting Hestia's right foot and sending her tottering back. Reacting swiftly, the redhead pushed off with her left foot, abandoning her hold on her opponent's polearm. After a short, stumbling hop she caught her footing.
"Good move! Don't limit yourself, use every advantage you've got," Hestia said as she bounded back.
"Like how you used yours?" Saturn asked, planting the Silence Glaive on the ground and exhaling as she leaned on it.
"Exactly, but whether you're casting a magical spell or kicking someone it's you doing it."
"The mind is the weapon. Everything else is a tool." Saturn dutifully recited the rote phrase, eyeing her nanny carefully.
"Right, and some tools are better than others. Though even I'll admit this hardly counts." Hestia shook her head at the winged and serpent-entwined golden scepter.
Thinking back, Saturn began to smirk. "Miss Ranma?" she asked walking towards the lop-eared Senshi.
"Names," Hestia chided as she looked up from her study of the golden scales adorning the physical manifestation of her power.
"You didn't say 'Halt'!" Saturn gleefully yelled as she rushed forward, the moon-lit edge of her glave glittering as she swung down in a short, hard arc.
"You little sneak!" Hestia twisted and lifted the hand holding the scepter, aiming to once again catch the glaive's shaft.
Grinning, Saturn pulled back at the last moment and the magical blade struck the golden orb at the end of the scepter. There was a loud crack as a network of fissures spread over the orb's surface, rays of bright green light pouring out of the gaps. The fissures spread, pieces of the orb's surface breaking away as it dissolved into a spiral of glowing, golden motes. Unbound, the green light of Hestia's magic burst forth, flowing and churning in a roiling column of energy.
As the light filaments slowed, they wove into each other; thickening, growing, and ultimately freezing into a solid, nearly two meter long, shaft of polished ironwood. The far end was capped with a gilt spherical counterweight. Ahead of that was a long, octagonal cross-sectioned two-handed grip. A metal ring consisting of two silver-inlaid wings curled around the club forming a blade guard that marked the end of the weapon's "hilt".
Forward from that point, the shaft grew thicker and thicker all the way to the tip, which was capped in a heavy gilt brass hemisphere over five inches across. The length of the shaft had been inlaid with a pattern of coiled serpents in some shiny, shimmering metal. The intricate design and iridescent luster of the metal inlay gave the twinned serpents an eerie, life-like appearance.
Staring, the apron-wearing Senshi held the unfamiliar weapon by the long, two-handed grip. The wicked edge of the glaive's blade had sunk into the dense, glossy wood, but was caught between two runs of snakes. A grin slipped over the redhead's face as she heaved, parrying Saturn and grabbing the club with both hands.
Flipping it around, she almost lost her grip; there was something off about the inertia compared to the oddly light mass. Recovering, she managed to present it upright as she advanced forward. "Well, well..."
"Yay!" Saturn cheered, as she shifted the position of her glaive.
Hestia tore her eyes off the twinning serpents. "Halt," she ordered. "Let's take a break from practice."
Eyes gleaming, Saturn bowed her head. "Yay!" she repeated, running up to hug her nanny.
Hestia returned the hug. "Come on, let's get some water," she said as they walked to the rock wall. A couple of meters from the waterfall sat a purple duffle bag.
"I told you you'd figure out your attack if you practiced enough," Saturn said as she raced ahead and pulled out two bottles of water.
Hestia rotated the large club and held it horizontally between her hands. "Well... yeah." She flexed her arms, testing the heft. It felt a lot lighter than she expected, given the notoriously hard, heavy wood and weighed ends.
Handing her nanny some water, Saturn leaned in. "Oooh, it really fits you."
The redhead raised an eyebrow. "A big tetsubo fits Sailor Nanny?" she asked before taking a drink.
"Well, not when you put it like that silly!" Saturn giggled.
The redheaded Senshi shook her water bottle.
Looking bashful, Saturn took a drink.
"You may be all superpowered right now, but it doesn't hurt to stay hydrated." Hestia lifted the metal-bound ironwood club and rested it on her shoulder; it extended well, well above her. "So... how would you put it?"
Saturn's grin widened. "Well you've got your pestle, now you just need a mortar and you can start making rice cakes!"
Hestia blinked until the penny dropped and her confusion was replaced with a gentle groan.
Giggling anew, Saturn gently pulled one of Hestia's "ears".
"I knew it..." Hestia sighed. "We already had a moon rabbit... I just had to play clever."
"Maybe that's why you told Akane about Usagi and encouraged her and your friends?" Hotaru took another swig from her bottle.
"You think I knew I'd get a giant bunny club?
"Maybe." Saturn offered. "I mean every child in
"Right... so part of me knew I'd get a weapon outta some myth and then subconsciously told the girls about the other moon-rabbit I knew?" Hestia tapped the tetsubo in contemplation. "Why'd I tell her about Haruka then?"
"Because it's funny that you thought she was a guy," Hotaru laughed.
Ranma flashed a quick smile. "True, but I dunno about the bunny stuff..."
"It does sound silly," Saturn admitted.
"I'm wearing a maid themed magical girl outfit," Hestia explained in a deadpan before laughing. "The bunny ear ponytails and giant hunk of wood are the least silly parts." After having a drink, she tossed the plastic bottle back to the duffle bag.
"We do know that you're growing into your powers."
"And that I've been getting a sort of 'jump start' from yours..." Hestia held her chin. "But that'd just explain my healing powers. Not this..." She swung her tetsubo in a lazy arc. "And can it really be connected to some folklore shadow-shapes on the moon?"
Saturn looked down and shrugged.
"Did any of the other Senshi need to change their hair to get new powers?"
Hestia forced a smile and took her ward's shoulder. "No, Honey... I'm being serious. I don't know, but I could see it. I mean what about our Princess? Or Jupiter? Did they change their hairstyles between upgrades? Or how about Merc? I can see her hair color changing."
Hotaru shook her head.
Hestia swung her too-light feeling club around in a lazy arc, her eyes distant.
"You wanna go again?" Saturn eagerly asked.
"Well... " Hestia looked up at the sky and frowned. "One sec." Idly swinging her club, she was still unable to pinpoint exactly why the weapon's weight should feel off like this. She walked back to the duffle bag and let it slip from her hands; the club fell and clipped the edge of one of the walkway stones.
With a startling crunch, the heavy brass cap slammed into the rock and punched a rough hole through the solid, inch thick surface, before burying itself into the ground. The nanny blushed, reflexively looking around to see if anyone had witnessed the accidental destruction, but there was only Hotaru, her eyebrow raised.
Eying the length of wood anew, Ranma gave a little smile. Ignoring Hortaru's questioning gaze and opening the duffle bag, she pawed past a set of energy bars, some more bottles, a bag of chocolate-mint candies, an unused medical kit, a couple changes of clothes, and, near the bottom, a plastic wrist watch.
Tugging at the club, Saturn frowned. "Awww... it's not too late?" she asked after giving up. It was stuck firmly into place. She glanced down at her fuku, trying to banish the odd feeling that she had transformed back somehow.
Hestia double checked the seal on her bottle and put it and the watch back into the duffel bag. "Sorry, kiddo. We do have to get up tomorrow."
"But we're already up late!"
Leveling her gaze at her ward, Hestia raised an eyebrow.
Saturn pouted and tossed her bottle to the redhead.
"Good throw!" Hestia cheered as she zipped up the bag, shouldered it, and stood up. With a small flourish, she picked up her tetsubo and walked back to Saturn. "Sorry but, it's nearly quarter to eleven."
"You did great today, and next time I promise we'll get to play with this." Hestia pulled up her club with one arm.
Saturn watched with a little smile. "Yay!"
"And maybe we can have Puu take a look at this thing." Hestia tapped the wooden handle. "So, how do I get rid of it?"
Saturn blinked. "Just concentrate and will it away," she slowly explained as she held up her glaive. The bladed weapon shimmered and vanished. "See!"
Hestia rolled her eyes and concentrated. Green light flared and consumed her club. The energy spiraled off and broke into little flickering motes that lazily spiraled about as they slowly faded into nothingness.
The redhead shook her wrist and the last of the green sparks flew away revealing her golden Hestia scepter. "Oh, just like that?"
"It's always hardest to activate the power the first time," Saturn gently chided.
"Right, right," Hestia then tossed the scepter and flicked her fingers; the winged golden rod to vanish in a flash of green light. "Think I can access my club out of Senshi form?"
"Probably not," Saturn shrugged. "I mean Mercury and Neptune Mama and the Princess have some stuff they can access when not in Senshi form, but that's about it."
"Puu too, I'd bet," Hestia shrugged and crossed the tiny stone bridge. She looked across the path that exited the clearing and up the stone stairs.
"Well, if I could use my club casually... that'd be another thing I'd have similar with Akane."
"Names, Nanny," Saturn smirked. "She's a martial artist too? What does she like? Clubs? Maybe a nice tonfa?"
"She might!" Hestia laughed. "Though she prefers mallets or shinnai. Or bokken, when she can get 'em. Or tables... even that stone lantern a few times." The redhead smiled fondly. "I'll give her that... A good blunt object can be devastating."
"Another similarity with Akane," Saturn murmured as they started walking up the stone stairs.
"What?" Hestia asked without turning back.
"Nothing, just thinking about..." Saturn smiled. "About the festival at school. I heard the Poetry Club's booth was a success?"
"Did you?" Hestia paused. "Wait one sec," she put the duffle back down on the steps and jumped the rest of the way, effortlessly taking them three at a time before she bounded out of view.
After a couple seconds, the redheaded Senshi returned, descending the steps with just as much energy as she had risen them. "Okay, coast's clear," Hestia said as her form shimmered and the apron and Senshi uniform vanished to be replaced by... another seifuku.
Giggling, Saturn did the same, returning to her own school uniform.
"What's so funny?" Ranma's bracelets chimed as she lifted up the duffle bag
"You jump like a bunny!" Hotaru laughed.
"Har har," Ranma flipped one of her "lop ears". She leaned forward and looked over Hotaru, the smaller girl was looking a bit pale. "You okay, squirt?"
Hotaru blushed. "I'm fine."
"You were complaining about being tossed about," Ranma put a hand to Hotaru's forehead. She felt a bit of a drain on her healing energy, but nothing that indicated an injury.
Ranma drew her hand back and bowed slightly. "Sorry, but it's my job to worry. Come on, we should get home," Ranma said as they started going back up the stairs.
"So how did the festival go?" Hotaru asked when they reached the top of the stairwell.
Putting a hand on the trunk of a large maple tree to her right, Ranma waited for Hotaru to catch up.
"Oh, it was fine. They managed to get everything but the plum jam working."
"And?" Hotaru asked.
"Well, there's a lesson there. When making a preserve for the first time you shouldn't try some big and complicated recipe. Damn pectin. I knew we bought the wrong kind."
Hotaru stamped her foot. "That's not what I meant."
Ranma eyed her ward and gave a little sigh. "Not you too?"
"Come on! Tell me if Nami managed to talk with her dream guy!"
Ranma laughed. "Yeah! They talked. I made sure he helped her clean up the mess."
"Yay!" Hotaru cheered. "I knew you'd be good at this matchmaker stuff too!"
"No, no... I mean... they were both so clueless and..." Ranma rubbed her forehead. "Wait? Too?"
"You've got lots of friends!" Hotaru looked Ranma in the eye and innocently smiled. "Kimiko and Nami have been trying. Usagi and her fiance. Oh! Can't forget Minako and Makoto."
"Yeah, can't forget them," the redhead noted sourly as they walked down the path back to the rest of the park. "They mean well but..." Ranma shook her head.
"They do have bad luck," Hotaru agreed.
"Ami seems to have better luck with boyfriends than them."
Hotaru made a thoughtful noise.
Ranma stopped. She wondered if Hotaru would ask about what boys she was interested in. Thinking, the redhead shook her head slightly. This whole thing... what have I got myself into? Well, I like fancy dinners and I do have some great formal wear but... she paused. On the one hand Haruka and Michiru show you don't need "boys" to have... fun. On the other, Mamoru does show that guys aren't all clueless jerks... so Akane was wrong about that but... And what would Setsuna... think... Shaking her head the redhead frowned.
"Nami and her... crush, they're not dating are they?" Hotaru asked, hope entering her voice.
Ranma's line of thought abruptly terminated. Blinking, the redhead briefly mulled over Hotaru's question before giving an amused snort.
"Oh, heavens no. Those two blockheads are talking now but they're both too shy." She shook her head. "It's great that she found a nice guy, but I'd prefer he had a bit more spine."
"Do you now?" Hotaru asked.
"It's only polite; you can't just dance around the issue..." Ranma thought back to Akane. Stopping at where the path met the broken bridge, she sighed.
Ranma walked up the bridge. It reached to halfway across the span before abruptly ending. Most of the far side of the bridge was piled on the river bank awaiting new concrete and mortar. "Nevermind."
"Aww, it's okay," Hotaru said as she snuck up and hugged her nanny.
Ranma hugged her back. "Thanks squirt. It's just... grownup stuff."
"Don't worry! I just know you'll find someone,"
Inspecting the little river and the bridge, the redhead chuckled. "I think you've got more than enough optimism for the both of us." She tossed the duffel bag across the thin, but fast moving, river.
"Glad to hear it." Ranma stepped back and put her other arm around Hotaru.
"Hey! I can make it on my own!" Hotaru said as she slipped out of her nanny's grip
"You sure it's not to far?"
Hotaru gave her nanny a skeptical glance. "I can jump across rooftops."
Remembering the street leaping, the redhead blushed. "But only as a Senshi," Ranma pointed out.
Hotaru looked at the stream and shook her head. "No, I can do it."
Ranma gave a mock gasp. "You don't want me to throw you again?"
Hotaru rolled her eyes and eyed the river. "I can do it!"
The redhead looked her ward up and down. Turning back to the river, she eyed the distance across and checked to see that the path on the far side was clear of debris. "Right," she nodded.
Hotaru giggled, but managed to avoid rolling her eyes.
"Just make sure you clear the bank and land like I taught you."
Grinning, Hotaru took a couple steps back and launched herself off the edge of the bridge, easily cleared the little river, and landed on the far side.
Ranma clapped as Hotaru took a bow and collected the duffle bag. The redhead then sailed over the water in a single leap, landing solidly, and gave the younger girl a hug.
A redhead in a sleek cashmere dress vacuumed the entryway. Her wedge-heeled slippers clacked against the tile floor as she pushed the vacuum back and forth. A soft chime from the kitchen interrupted her focus.
Smirking, the redhead gave the short hallway a couple more passes, her golden anklets lightly jangling as she worked. Turning the vacuum off, she coiled the power cord and slipped it into the closet. Proud of her timing, she reached the kitchen and slipped on a ruffled apron.
She adjusted her twin "rabbit ear" pony-tails and went to the oven. Slipping on a pair of mittens she opened the door, her movements fluid enough that the matching bracelets were silent. Taking a death breath, she smiled at the aroma that drifted out. Humming, she took out the platter of cookies and placed them onto a cooling rack. She turned off the oven, reset the timer, and returned to the closet by the entryway.
Still wearing the apron, she pulled out a duster, polishing cloth, and went to work. She had just cleaned the kitchen counters but knew the dining room and living room could use some more work.
Catching her reflection in the long, polished-oak framed mirror over the sideboard table she shyly smiled and idly pushed up her glasses. The Meiou family broach sparkled, nestled in the cleft atop her prominent chest.
Her soft dress and padded silk slip nicely followed the rounded contours of her body, even if both should be sent to the seamstress for adjustments again. Her grin turned prideful as she leaned over the dining room table and polished the cut crystal decanter that Setsuna had left out.
As she dusted living room coffee table she looked over at the long, oak-framed, leather couch and frowned. With a quick glance at her watch her mood brightened; she still had time. Glossy lips smiling, she retrieved the vacuum from the entryway closet.
Returning to the room, she pulled the cherry end tables away from the couch. Plugging in and turning on the vacuum, she approached the space she had cleared.
One hand on the vacuum's handle, she bent down. Pausing, she eyed the massive piece of furniture. In deference to her physical therapy lessons, she adjusted her stance, going into a crouch. Gathering herself, she lifted, while also pushing with her thighs.
The couch flew up and escaped her left hand. The nanny squeaked as the couch flew up until it stood on its far end. Nearly touching the ceiling, the big construct of thick leather cushions and oak framing wobbled before it started to fall back down.
Ranma gasped as she reached out and caught the falling end of the couch. Catching it easily, she exhaled in relief. Hefting the offending furniture a couple of times she looked around. She was still holding the vacuum, and the couch was now lifted up. The redhead shrugged and resumed cleaning. It did not take long, and soon the furniture was back in place and the vacuum had returned to its closet.
The nanny looked at her watch and gave a satisfied nod. Even with the near disaster, she had still undercut her estimate. Shrugging again, she spent a couple minutes of idly playing with her curls and freshening the lacquer on her nails before the timer went off. Careful to make sure her nails were dry she picked up one of the candied almond and pecan cookies.
The curly-haired redhead gave a happy murmur. The fudge and white chocolate had cooled just enough to set perfectly. Licking a finger she eyed the cookies. She had tried one of the small ones... and the larger cookies would take more time to cool.
After taking a second cookie, her hips swayed at another successful experiment. She got out a serving platter, a plate, a pair of glasses, a pitcher of whole milk, and a storage container. And between every step she made a short stop to sample. Finally, before sealing the cookie-filled plastic bin, she slipped a couple into one of her apron's pockets. There they bumped against something heavy and metallic
She took up the platter with its plate and two full glasses, making her way out of the kitchen and towards the bedroom hallway. Balancing the silver-inlaid tray on one hand she knocked on the door.
"Come in," a somewhat distracted voice said.
Ranma slid the door open.
"That smells great!" Hotaru said as she jumped up from her desk.
The nanny nearly did a full pirouette as she managed to intercept her ward's happy hug and keep the platter from spilling.
Ranma returned the hug. "Thanks! Michiru gave me the recipe." She gently placed the platter down on an open spot of Hotaru's desk, sat down on the edge of the bed, and smoothed her apron out. Her bracelets jangled softly.
Looking around the room she smiled. There were plenty of photographs on the walls, and while the bags for Hotaru's training gear and clothes made the room less neat it did give the room a more lived-in feel.
"How's your homework going?" Leaning forward, Ranma took a cookie. She also looked down at the papers on the desk. A math textbook was out and a page of neatly printed proofs was laid out. Next to it was a rougher page of scribbled notes and rougher calculations. On the corner of the desk was a bag of chocolate candies.
Leaning back she handed Hotaru a cookie.
The dark-haired girl bit it in half. "These are great!"
Her attention on the papers. Ranma nodded.
"You should have one too!" Hotaru said as she snatched another cookie and held it under Ranma's nose.
The redhead took it and began to nibble. Hotaru giggled and slipped out of her chair and onto the bed, next to her nanny.
"You're doing these problems twice?"
"I'm showing all my work," Hotaru pouted.
The nanny nodded. "But only copying down necessary steps to get the right answer." She finished the cookie. "Very good!" She hugged Hotaru to her side.
Hotaru blushed but still nuzzled up against Ranma's dress.
Ranma gave Hotaru her glass. "No need to be embarrassed. It's a lot quicker than how I do math."
"Oh?" Hotaru asked looking at the plate of cookies and the bag of candies. She decided to go with the cookies instead.
"Line by line, slowly to not scribble." Ranma looked down and pushed up her glasses. "My handwriting gets sloppy if I go too fast."
Hotaru giggled and snagged two more cookies. She took one and waved the other under Ranma's chin.
The redhead swallowed the treat. "How's the rest of your work going?"
"Are you sure?" Ranma raised an eyebrow. "I recall you having some trouble last week with that poem Mrs. Ikari assigned you."
"Oh? Suddenly you're an expert in poetry?" Hotaru gently chided her nanny.
"Since I've been helping Nami and her friends at the poetry club. It rubs off you know?" Ranma gave an exaggerated motion as if she were polishing the dining room table.
"It doesn't work that way!" Hotaru giggled.
"You'll learn more when you're older," Ranma nodded wisely. "Okay, I'll admit, I did talk with them about it. Nami's... friend Kazuo knows his stuff. Good at teaching too."
"Is that your professional opinion?" Hotaru asked as she took another cookie.
Ranma accepted the offering. "Eh? I suppose. But you make teaching easy. And poems are easier than martial arts, but I can see why Nami..." the redhead coughed.
Hotaru obligingly offered her nanny the other glass of milk.
Sipping, Ranma nodded. "Thanks kiddo. Anyway... I hope it works out for them."
"You like helping your friend?" Hotaru shyly asked.
"Well yeah. Nami's got real problems opening up. I don't know if this guy's the one for her but... well he's not a pervert, so least she'll have something," Ranma grumbled about Kimiko's ex before she realized Hotaru was listening.
Eying the candy, Hotaru looked pensive for a few moments. "I'm glad that you like helping your friends," she brightly added. "Have they gone on a date yet?"
Ranma shrugged. "Well they were chummy at the festival, but you know how shy girls like Nami are."
Offering a cookie, Hotaru eagerly nodded.
Ranma thoughtfully chewed through the fudge and nuts. "I do wonder if one of Kimiko's schemes wouldn't be..." She shook her head causing her lop ears to sway.
Giving a tiny smirk, Hotaru slipped from Ranma's side and returned to her desk, but not before leaving a final cookie on her nanny's lap.
Holding the cookie, Ranma took long pull from her glass. "I'm being silly."
"A silly bunny?" Hotaru asked.
"I'm not that silly." Ranma grumbled.
The younger girl nodded and returned to her homework.
"How's the rest of school going?"
Hotaru's pencil stopped. "Okay... they do keep..."
Ranma tensed. "The teasing hasn't started up?"
The small girl shook her head. "No, it's just that the ballet team is trying to recruit me."
"Oh?" Ranma grinned.
"They saw me practicing after lunch and Megumi thought I could join. She said I was perfect."
"Well, if you want... It is more physically demanding than you'd expect, but it's not as dangerous as rhythmic gymnastics or cheerleading."
Hotaru stared. "What?"
"Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics can get really aggressive. Especially when they play loose with the 'only gymnastic tools are used to hit your opponent' rule."
Hotaru blinked. "Uh... nanny?"
"It's not that bad," Ranma admitted. "St. Hebereke's School for Girls plays more aggressive than... most other schools."
"And cheerleading? Is there combat cheerleading?"
"Eh, that's even rarer." The redhead shrugged, thinking back to the unfortunate encounter with Mariko Konjo. "Though the normal cheerleading is bad enough."
"Normal? With the... pom poms? And chanting"
Ranma gave an indulging smile. "You're a bit too young, but at the upper levels cheerleading has a lot of aerial work. Leaps, tumbles, being thrown into the air. If your partner doesn't catch you right or you botch a landing..."
"Oh..." Hotaru looked down.
"Well, Megumi thought I would be great because I'm small enough that I could picked up really easily."
Ranma winced. "Ballet's not that bad. And we've been working on aerial work both in Senshi and civilian mode so I'm not that worried.
Hotaru absently nodded.
"That is if you wanted to do this."
"Is there a downside? You make it sound like I could get hurt."
Ranma nodded. "You'll have to be careful about your feet and ankles; ballet can be worse than using high heels."
"You don't seem to have a problem with them," Hotaru reminded as she nibbled on her second cookie.
The redhead glanced at her slippers. "Well no, and I wouldn't have a problem about aerial work either."
Hotaru held her tongue, eying the redhead's plush curves. She did wonder how many of her nanny's classmates would be able to pick her up. With a small grin, she reached up and popped another cookie into Ranma's mouth.
Finishing her treat, Ranma smoothed her apron and stood up. Still holding her glass she gave Hotaru a hug and took a couple cookies afterwards. "Now Setsuna says she'll be back home in a couple hours. I've got my own paperwork to do, but give me a call if you've got any trouble."
"Yes, Miss Ranma," Hotaru said with forced gravity.
The nanny huffed. "It's not like I'm inspecting your homework."
Hotaru raised an eyebrow.
Ranma ignored that. "Anyway, I am thinking we can do some more aerials with your training. You've advanced enough that we can start working on..." Ranma's mind flashed to Usagi's bloody form. "On... falls."
Hotaru gave her nanny another hug.
Ranma hugged back. "You try to have fun kiddo," she smiled.
"I'm doing homework," Hotaru frowned.
The redhead blushed. "Well... we can have some fun after dinner. Maybe Setsuna would be up for some Senshi training. "
Hotaru smiled. "Are you sure?"
"I'll see what I can do. If not I could teach her some things." The nanny leaned down and kissed Hotaru on the forehead. Straightening up she strode out of the room and softly closed the door behind her.
Taking a cookie out of an apron pocket, Ranma made her way to the master suite. Slipping past Setsuna's vanity and bed she opened the closet doors.
She walked into the decadently large room. Dresses, blouses, skirts, and pants filled the length of one side of the room, neatly arranged by style and color. The opposite wall was given over to row after row of drawers, containing Setsuna's meticulously ordered stockings, shirts, bras, and other foundation garments. Shelves ran around the upper circumference of the room, holding boxes for an extensive collection of shoes and hats. Ranma was glad she didn't have to do much with those; the high shelves were well out of her reach.
Ignoring all that she went to the hamper at the far end. Flipping up the lid she nodded to herself. The nanny then took note of the suit coat, skirt and shirts that had been hung above the hamper and gave a little sigh. It looked like she'd have to visit the dry-cleaners early this week.
Shaking her head, Ranma went to Setsuna's polished maple desk. With stout, arching legs, it was an antique Dutch roll top. The surface of the desk was concealed by an undulating surface of linked maple slats that ran in tracks on either side of the desk.
Giving a light smirk, Ranma reached into her apron and pulled out a heavy, polished brass key. It clicked into the lock and, after a deft twist, she pulled up on the slats, the cover retreating smoothly up into the back of the desk.
This revealed a large green-leather trimmed blotter, a row of pens in a depression carved on the desk top specifically for them, a compact pendulum clock in a vacuum sealed glass hemisphere on a brass base, and ranks of small wooden drawers and cabinets that lined the back of the desk.
Ranma pulled up the high-backed maple chair and softly sat into it before pushing herself up to the desk. She opened one of the cabinets and pulled out a dark red bound leather ledger. It was thick and much taller than it was wide. Using a silk bookmark integral to the spine, she flipped it open and looked at the ranks of numbers and neatly written descriptions.
Giving a tiny sigh, she opened another cabinet and pulled out a silver-edged teak box. The lid came off revealing a pile of receipts and notes. From elsewhere in the desk came another bound book, this one with clear plastic sleeves, and a round mechanical calculator that looked like a black pepper mill.
The redhead looked at the mechanical device. She flipped a few of the dials that ran the circumference of its midsection and gave the looped lever on the top a couple twists. The numbers did add up.
She shrugged and pulled another item out of her apron. She brushed the cookie crumbs off of her rounded black and blue metal-cased phone and onto the desk, which she then swept up. Flipping the phone open, she tapped a few of the buttons until the phone's calculator popped up on the screen.
She picked up the first receipt from the box. It was a bill for weights, socks, shoes, and a leotard: training equipment for Hotaru. Taking a pen she started filling in a new row on the ledger.
Using her phone, she did the arithmetic and updated the running tally on the final column. Slipping the receipt into a spare plastic sleeve of the second binder, she filled in the label on the plastic sleeve with the serial number from the matching row in the ledger.
Giving a little sigh, Ranma pulled out another receipt. This one was the monthly bill for the dry cleaners. She shook her head at the figure as she filled it in. At least it was better than what the household spent at the salon. The next one was for the fish market that Ranma liked to shop at, and the one after that was for new shoes for Setsuna.
After working halfway through the box she sighed and leaned back. She looked at the door to the hallway then at the time on her phone. The redhead tilted her head at the sound of a door opening then another opening and closing. From the echo on the latter door she could tell it was to the bathroom she shared with Hotaru. Shaking her head, she refocused on the task at hand. She would have to check the contents of her purse, Setsuna's purse, the petty cash, what was in the safe, and then match that with the monthly bank statements.
She was engrossed in finishing out the pile when she heard doors opening and closing again. The redhead glanced up but went back to logging the IOU's and notes. Finally, the redhead put her hand into the wooden box and came out empty.
Pushing up her glasses, she gave a little sigh. This would be easier if more places accepted credit cards, but few restaurants and shops took them. ATMs were common enough in convenience stores and she could use a bank card or get a cash advance but then she'd still be paying for items with cash.
"Why does Puu have to be so anal about these records?" Ranma muttered to herself. The door to the hallway creaked.
Blinking, the nanny looked at the door, and then around the rest of the room. Her fingers flexed, and she returned to work. She checked the sums on the ledger one last time before putting it and the rest of the gear back into the desk.
She slid the desk cover back down and locked it in place as the hallway door creaked again. Moments later, a weight fell on her shoulders.
Eyes widening, Ranma's left arm went into motion, raising up to grapple with the person while her right was about to summon her scepter.
Long straight, green hair fell over the nanny's crimson curls. "I like being organized," Setsuna whispered into Ranma's ear.
Tilting her head up Ranma smirked. "Oh, and here I was thinking you were worried about the help stealing from the till."
"If I were I wouldn't let you keep the books." Setsuna hugged the nanny.
"And if you didn't trust me you wouldn't let me train our cute little doomsday weapon."
"Oh, I suppose so." As she smiled and hugged the nanny from behind, one of Setsuna's hands snaked down and ran across the apron. Fingertips played over ruffles and padded curves before her hand slipped into a pocket.
Blushing, the nanny gave a little squeak as her mistress fished in the apron pocket and brought out a cookie.
Bringing the cookie to her mouth, Setsuna took a bite. Chewing, she made a few happy noises. Then, leaning even more on the redhead, she reached out and took the glass of milk that had been balanced atop the desk.
She took a long sip before dropping it into the nanny's waiting hand. She gently ran her freed fingertips over Ranma's hair before resuming the leaning hug. "Lovely... You truly have been a... lovely member of the family," she whispered to the still blushing redhead.
Swallowing, Ranma leaned back into the embrace, pressing Setsuna's chest against her shoulder blades. Pushing her glasses back up her nose she adjusted her legs, fighting a rising flush. Her feet went from being separated by a couple inches to crossing her ankles and pressing her knees and thighs together. "Thank you, I'm honored to serve," she blurted out, her mind now a bit clearer.
"We both serve our Queen."
The nanny gave a shy blush. "You still took me in, gave me a purpose... I owe you," she lowered her head and pressed her knees tighter. Setsuna's embrace also tightened around her chest, and the redhead was thankful for her choice in clothes.
A frown crossed Setsuna's face. Sternly, she leaned in and gave Ranma a kiss on the cheek. "Never sell yourself short! Everything you are, everything you've done you've earned," she swore, her voice stern.
Ranma twisted her head and caught sight of Setsuna's eyes. Her breath caught and her head stilled as she was captured by that dark gaze. Deep burgundy eyes stared back at her; experience had aged them, worn them. Her eyes glinted like polished gems and Ranma's stomach lurched. For a moment she forgot all about the kiss and the long lasting hug. She was struck by how... distant Setsuna was. The Senshi of Time was a woman apart; she served for eons; oversaw a team of magical warriors, and was the custodian of a living weapon in the form of a once frail girl.
Ranma's thoughts were interrupted when Setsuna broke the hug and straightened. Taking the redhead's free hand, she pulled the nanny to her feet. "So," Setsuna asked, her eyes shimmering, "How is our little doomsday weapon today?"
Bending forward at the waist, the redhead smoothed her apron and her dress. It was a gesture that was somewhat like a curtsy, with the side benefit of giving her a moment to gather herself. Exhaling, she straightened her glasses. "Hotaru's doing quite well with her homework. When I last checked she was making good progress with her math and, given the other assignments she had completed, that just leaves her poetry assignment."
"Her physical improvement continues to progress. It also seems to be overlapping with her socialization at school. Some of the girls in the more physically active clubs are showing interest in her," the nanny continued, her tone crisp and somewhat business-like, even though there was a clear undercurrent of pride to her words.
"Ballet for one. We'll have to look into how much time that would demand, and the physical strain. Though the benefits of a club could be good for getting her more friends her own age. Of course this depends on Hotaru wanting to join."
"Of course," Setsuna tapped her chin. "Well... I never thought Hotaru would..." She gave the nanny a small, bemused smile. "You really are doing wonders."
Ranma bowed her head.
"Though this does assume that she'd be accepted onto the team." Setsuna's smile broadened, her eyes twinkling. "I mean she'd have a major handicap on experience alone."
Head still lowered, the nanny gave a half-lidded gaze over the top of her glasses. "If Hotaru wishes to study ballet I will ensure she has the skills to make her school's team." Ranma's eyes flickered. "To lead the team, should she so choose."
"So fierce," Setsuna smiled as she shrugged out of her coat. She could almost see the training regime already forming behind those bright blue eyes.
Setting her milk aside momentarily, Ranma took the lavender garment. "I try my best," she murmured as she hung it in the closet.
Setsuna watched the nanny's back as she worked, smiling gently. After a moment, the smile widened. Picking up a tape measure she approached the closet.
Turning back, the redhead eyed the tape measure in the older woman's hands and flushed. "Uh, my measurements are fine."
Setsuna wrapped the tape around her wrist. "I know; we did just get you some new better-fitting underwear." Setsuna's appraising eye sized up Ranma's substantial curves. "But..."
Stepping out of the closet, the redhead's blush grew. "But?" She asked, shyly lowering her head, her face partially hidden behind her curly bangs and rabbit "ears".
"But I have been working on that special dress for you." Unwrapping the measuring tape, Setsuna circled the nanny.
"Kimiko's planning a special party."
"I know," Setsuna's grin. The tape came out and she started taking some measurements.
"How can you get the right numbers... with my clothes on?" A glimpse of Setsuna's bright smile nearly sent the nanny's blush into overdrive.
"I'm just checking a few things. You will be wearing considerable foundation garments with this gown." Setsuna chuckled. "However... if you want to strip for me in my bedroom... "
Once again, Ranma was glad that her hair hid her ears and that her more visible "ears" were just hair. Still, she nearly dropped her recovered glass and had to hold her milk with two hands.
Setsuna studiously pretended to ignore that as she measured around Ranma's midsection. "Yes... I think you'll like this dress. I want to make sure that the bodice is more than comfortable for you."
"You don't have to-"
Setsuna put a finger to the redhead's lacquered lips. "The girls are putting a lot of work into this party. And you know me; I'm not one for half measures."
"What is it? A formal ball?"
Setsuna smiled. "Do you see your friends doing that?" Her smile withdrew. "Tedious things anyway," she murmured.
"Nami and Kimiko? Nah. But you said gown, and I do know a princess."
The green-haired woman laughed. She quickly covered her mouth. "Dear, you've never seen our Princess dance have you?"
"She tried, Mamoru and her even had lessons," Setsuna sighed. "But don't you worry."
Nodding, Ranma looked down at her glass. She did like dressing up for fancy dinners, and she was confident she could figure out dance. It could not be harder than martial arts.
Setsuna finished measuring the considerable distance around the redhead's chest. "Are you going to drink that, or can I have your milk?"
Ranma handed the glass over.
"Too generous," Setsuna assured as she took a long pull from the glass. "You'll help your friends even at the cost of your own comfort."
Setsuna gave the shorter woman another kiss on the cheek. This time Ranma tilted her head and the corners of their lips touched.
Setsuna's eyes widened and Ranma's lips curled into a triumphant smirk. "You were saying?" the redhead asked.
The green-haired woman stared for a moment. Her cheeks pinked ever so slightly. Turning, Setsuna nearly finished the glass. "I was saying; you'll do a lot for your friends."
"I wouldn't say getting dressed all fancy and pretty for a party is a great sacrifice," Ranma nervously fluffed her curls. "That doesn't sound like a great gesture."
"I recall that Usagi's involved somehow."
Nodding, Ranma clasped her manicured hands before her
"Oh my, a magical princess is helping?" Setsuna circled behind the nanny and lightly ran a hand down the side of her torso. "Whatever shall this simple servant girl do? You're just a poor girl from the country on the run from being sold into the hands of a sinister foreigner."
Ranma's arms anxiously trembled in front of her ruffled apron.
"It sounds like this is a sacrifice for you." Setsuna draped her arms over the redhead and gave her a gentle hug. "Don't sell yourself short. You or your friends."
Smiling weakly, the nanny leaned back into the hug.
Eyes sparkling, Setsuna held the hug for a long moment before she broke contact, walking to her dresser and placing the glass atop it. Her shoulders slumped slightly. "That brings me to the other subject."
Ranma eyed the lack of coaster and sighed. Her attention then went to her employer's words. "What?"
"You should probably warn your friend." Setsuna looked at the picture frames atop her dresser. Most were of Hotaru, but there was one of Usagi and another of the Meiou household watching the cherry blossoms fall.
"Who?" Ranma's hands dropped. "Akane?"
Setsuna nodded. "The police think they have enough to pressure everyone into confessing. They might not get Mr. Huang but..."
The redhead looked over her dress. She knew how the justice system worked; It was slow and ponderous. Confessions were seen as coin of the realm, and investigators did everything they can to get them. They helped ensure a conviction at trial, though the only trials that went forward were those that all but guaranteed a conviction.
It got worse the bigger it got. The more criminals the more time it took to get confessions. And with those that would not confess other evidence had to be gathered. Then came the international aspect. Huang's organization was based in
The nanny swallowed. She knew this was coming. An investigation of this scope would yield results. But still...
"I can talk with Mrs. Saotome if you like." Setsuna offered as she walked back to the nanny. "She seemed open to taking in your friend, and perhaps Kasumi too."
Ranma shivered a bit.
Setsuna moved in and embraced the nanny once again.
The redhead exhaled. "They're the ones that did this," she whispered hugging back. "Did they expect me to take it lying down?"
Setsuna held her tongue. In the beginning, Nabiki, Soun, and Genma were just playing Mr. Huang. It was a scam; but bit by bit they were drawn in. Ranma's continued absence built up Mr. Huang's desire, but Nabiki's failures in locating the redhead required more elaborate excuses and more funding. Soon enough, all three were indebted towards Mr. Huang. And if Ranma had not left then...
"No! They expected me to come in and save them." The girls arms tightened around Setsuna convulsively. "Pops... er Father I can understand. He was never responsible, and always left others handle the tab. And Mr. Tendo? He's weak and will follow. But Nabiki thought selling me off was some game? And then freaked out when I refused to play."
The green haired woman's lips curled into a smile.
The redhead gave a bitter laugh. "Heaven forbid I do something normal! You know, like call the cops about a kidnapping conspiracy."
Feeling that her servant needed to speak her mind, Setsuna simply hugged her tighter.
"It just sucks that Akane and Kasumi..." She leaned on the taller woman. "I don't think they'll be quite as lucky as me." The redhead looked up.
Setsuna mulled over the likely unstated question. She had the funds; she could hire them on. Alternatively Mrs. Saotome may have a place for them. And that presumed Kasumi did not have her own plans.
"I suppose... No- I suppose Mother would also work," Ranma slipped out of the hug and straightened her apron. "She could use some employees too I'm sure."
"Her appraisal work?" Setsuna asked, dubious. She was not certain Mrs. Saotome needed employees, but there was no need to dissuade Ranma. Or give the redhead too much hope, in the case of Mrs. Saotome's thoughts on adopting the two Tendo girls. "That has a certain symmetry I suppose."
Ranma nodded and stepped back. "Well, unless you need further assistance I should start dinner," she bowed her head slightly, her professional demeanor reasserting itself over her turmoil.
"You don't have to-"
The redhead cut her off. "I insist." She then strode over to the dresser. Lifting up the glass of milk, she then slid a heavy coaster over and gently placed the glass atop the polished hardwood disk. Her bunny ears swishing, Ranma shook her head, then straightened the row of picture frames atop the dresser.
Setsuna gave a chuckle.
"Whatever would you do without me?" Ranma asked as she clasped her arms in front and pressed them together, thrusting her substantial bosom forward. She lowered her head so her curled bangs and "ears" fell over the broad curves, holding the pose just long enough to catch Setsuna's widened eyes. Striding back across the room, she gave the taller woman a one armed hug, briefly pressing against her.
Hesitant, Setsuna's hand lifted and hovered over Ranma's torso. She was unsure of how... intimate to make the hug.
As Setsuna hesitated, Ranma leaned up and loosened her mistress' tie. Giving a coquettish smile, she undid the top two buttons to Setsuna's blouse.
The green haired woman coughed. "Oh, I'd probably fob Hotaru off on Haruka and Michiru and brood by the Time Space Door. Maybe I'd start obsessively spying on Usagi and her future daughter."
The redhead's mind skipped at that. "Oh."
Setsuna leaned down, her hand unfreezing and coming to rest on a well rounded hip. "That was a joke," she whispered as her other hand reached around and gave the back of the opposite hip a playful tap, "Now, you were going to make dinner?"
Blushing fiercely, Ranma slipped away. "You know," she pouted, "I was going to make you a drink, but I think you can wait." The redhead stuck out her tongue and, with a satisfied smile, unhurriedly strolled from the bedroom.
Pulling off her ribbon tie, the green haired woman grinned. Waiting was not exactly a punishment to someone like her, but the novelty was heartwarming.
Ranma then poked her head back into the room. "Oh! I told Hotaru that you'd be up for some Senshi training later tonight. I'll give you time to think of something fun to teach."
Smiling, Setsuna watched the redhead glide down the hallway and turn out of sight. She looked at the nearly empty glass of milk and her smile fell. She gave a little sigh; a drink would have been rather nice.
End chapter 4
I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: Mahou Sensou, J St C Patrick, Crimson Vixen, DCG, Pale Wolf and Kevin Hammel. They were great on working on this chapter. Mahou Sensou, J St C Patrick, and Crimson Vixen were especially helpful despite having a crazy busy winter.
I'd also like to apologize for the long wait in getting this and chapter 3 fixed. As those of you who have read the original chapter 3 will notice there are some scenes that have been pushed out to ch4 and even chapter 5. If you've read chapters 1 and 2 and then waited years and are disappointed with these more recent chapters you have my apologies.
I've tried to do to the best of my abilities and written something that I think is enjoyable. Though based on ch3 I think most readers have figured out where this story is going and what its tone will be.