Secret Flowers, Sheltered Willows

by Sunshine Temple

Naturally, I do not own Ranma. So here's the disclaimer:

Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video

Other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

Temporary Backup Site.

fic/

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

C&C as always is wanted.

Chapter 1: Glamorous Opportunity, Binding Obligation

Akane Tendo thought about her future and sighed. Glancing at her fiance walking next to her did not improve her mood.

School had let out; at least it had been a quiet day. No one... strange had shown up to interrupt class, and there had been no fights. For a few hours, her life had almost been normal: no magic, no curses, no weird martial arts challenges.

She eyed the dark-haired young man and knew it would not last.

Normality, by merely existing, exposed problems. Problems, in Akane's view, one Ranma Saotome seemed content to ignore. He had been languid, distant, almost disconnected.

"You don't seem too worried about graduation or entrance exams," Akane noted.

Without slowing his easy, graceful pace, Ranma turned back to her and shrugged.

Akane grew cross. Even when walking, her fiance was a showoff. At least he was on the sidewalk and not on the fence. "You're not worried about your future?" she asked.

Now walking sideways so he could face her, Ranma gave a somewhat manic grin. "Of course I am! But entrance exams and college rate pretty low compared to my other concerns."

"Right. Martial arts is your future," Akane snidely noted.

"Hopefully," Ranma said with false cheer.

Akane eyed the street and watched cars pass. "Then you need to do more than just practice and fight. Do you even know how to teach? Hell, your attendance is abysmal. Not to mention, when you are around you'll run off to do martial arts things instead of staying home and doing homework. We can't all vanish at the drop of a hat for weird duels, quests, competitions, or training trips."

She noticed a bit of concern flit across Ranma's face.

He gave a slow shake of the head. "Shows what you know."

"You can't just be paid to beat skulls," Akane narrowed her eyes.

He laughed, that distant expression returning. "Sure I could."

"Nope." Akane shook her finger. "Underground prize fighting isn't something your mother would approve of."

Ranma blinked at her then nodded. "Yeah, that ain't high class enough for her. She wants me to keep up an image. Sometimes, I wonder if staying Ranko would have been better. She'd at least have less pressure on me" He gave a theatrical sigh.

Akane laughed. "Sure, you complain, but I know you're happier not pretending to be a girl around your mother."

Ranma gave a wry smile. "Not having the fear of losing my head did improve things."

"Still, you should be worried about your future and start planning. You don't even have a job." Akane gave her fiance a challenging look, daring him to refute her statement.

Ranma looked at her frowning, then he turned back, and shrugged.

Akane gave an angry exhale. She could tell Ranma had something he wanted to say, but he could be so stubborn.

"Not every job is as bad as working for my sister," Akane offered. A few months back Nabiki had taken advantage of Ranma's desperation and organized a few "gigs".

Basically, having Ranma fetching drinks and snacks, and singing.

Ranma shook his head. "First, you want me to study and be a college boy, now you want me to get some after school job?"

"Kuno got into college," Akane stated.

"That shows it ain't exactly a hard thing." Ranma shrugged.

"He got into teaching."

"Case in point," Ranma snorted. "Besides, his father's our principal. That just proves you can be crazy and lazy to do that job. And I'm sure his rich dad didn't play a factor at all."

"Teaching's still a job," Akane pointed out. "And better than working for my sister."

Ranma shook his head. "I guess doing glorified karaoke sing-alongs for Nabiki wasn't bad enough. Maybe you'd want me to waitress for Ukyou too. Or be a hostess at the Cat Cafe?"

Akane paused to gather herself. "That wasn't an invitation for you to get a job in your cursed form working for your other fiancees."

"Oh?" Ranma paused and waited for Akane to catch up. "Way I remember, most of the time Nabiki had me doing that singing and dancing and fetching snacks as a certain redhead. And I was once engaged to her as well."

Akane crossed her arms. "Don't remind me."

"What can I say? She got greedy." Ranma looked down the street and eyed the Tendo Dojo. "Which is hilarious given how low-paying and low class the whole thing was. Which made it really not worth the effort."

Akane laughed. "Right, bad enough your Mom would find putting on a dress to sing in a karaoke bar 'unmanly' but it being 'low class' would really offend her."

Ranma gave a mock guilty shrug.

"Like you care about acting all proper." Akane said, still grinning. "You would think Nabiki'd have better things to do than run those scams, she's in college after all."

Resuming walking, Ranma gave a noncommittal waggle of his hand. "A poor man can be just as much a miser as a rich."

"Oh?"

"Take Ucchan, do you know how little she paid Konatsu?" Ranma asked as they crossed the street to the block their house was on. "It was insulting."

Akane had to keep from pausing in the crosswalk. Ranma badmouthing his "cute fiancee" was... unexpected. Come to think of it, the cross-dressing kunoichi had moved out a few months back.

"Uh... yeah, even if you add in that she was giving him room and board, she'd been paying him next to nothing. No wonder he quit," Akane murmured.

Ranma nodded. "And for all the work Konatsu did? Poor Kon's a natural, really a top talent, and Ukyou made a kunoichi of that caliber a waitress, a poorly paid waitress."

"I'm guessing you're not looking to be his replacement?" Akane asked as they made it to the front gate in the wall that surrounded the property.

Turning Ranma looked at her. He then burst into laughter. "Oh... no."

"Right," Akane smirked as they went through the gate and onto the Tendo Compound proper. "I'm sure your mother would find being a waitress nearly as bad as being a karaoke girl."

"The former is a real job," Ranma admitted before he stiffened.

"Ranma?" Akane asked looking up to see the front door open. "Oh," she said, noting who was in the house waiting for them.

"Hello, Mother." Ranma eyed the kimono-clad older woman.

Seeing some odd expression flit across his face, Akane frowned.

"Son," Nodoka nodded. "If I may have a moment of your time?" she asked formally.

"Of course," Ranma said with a tiny ghost of apprehension.

Akane pursed her lips. Her fiance was always a bit skittish around his mother. It was expected to be honest. While he no longer lived under fear of his curse being discovered and Nodoka invoking the seppuku pact, Akane knew Ranma had to be nervous about not living up to Nodoka's expectations of what was a "man among men".

"Ah, Akane! Wonderful to see you again," Nodoka's expression softened and her smile became a bit less formal.

3
2
12345678987654321
2
3

Akane liked Aunty Saotome. The woman was a bit... odd and had been a bit scary. Beyond always wearing a kimono, the coiffed, elegant woman, also always carried a katana in a silk bundle. It was a symbol of the pledge Ranma had signed, or as a toddler unwittingly put a handprint on, promising to be a Man Among Men, under punishment of death.

But that was in the past, the woman seemed accepting of Ranma's curse now.

Before that, Ranma had hid in girl-form and pretended to be one Ranko Tendo. At least there were no more secrets between mother and child.

Akane stood and smiled as Nodoka and Ranma chatted while they walked through the house. The teens had gotten rid of their school bags and Akane wanted to change out of her uniform, but she was also curious what Aunty Saotome was here for.

She was also a bit jealous, Ranma never bothered with a uniform so the guy had no idea how much of a pain it was to be forced into some getup.

"Akane?" Nodoka asked as they went to the kitchen.

"Oh sorry, just a bit distracted," Akane said as she nodded to Kasumi.

"She's all worried about exams," Ranma shrugged.

"Will you be staying for dinner, Aunty Saotome?" Akane's eldest sister asked.

"I would love to, but unfortunately, I have a prior commitment, but I wanted to catch up with my son before leaving," Nodoka apologized.

Kasumi nodded.

Once out on the back porch. Nodoka gave her son a look, then turned to Akane. "Exams? A prudent concern."

Akane smirked a bit at Ranma's sigh.

"She may have a point, we do need to think about your future," Nodoka said in an almost... playful voice.

A bit of trepidation crossed Ranma's face.

It was not quite fear, but Akane could see a remnant of the trouble the two had in their relationship. Out of fear of the pledge, Ranma had pretended to be Akane's cousin "Ranko". Though, the real problem with that seemed to be the traditional woman had found Ranko to be a hopeless tomboy.

Akane smirked at memory.

"And there's your fiancee's future," Nodoka mildly said.

Akane coughed. "Me?"

"Well, you are to wed my son?" Nodoka's voice was coy.

"I... uh..."

"Don't tease her, Mom," Ranma's tone was chastising, but he had a bit of a tiny smirk.

"Now, now, Ranma. There's nothing wrong with ensuring that you have a proper wife."

Akane's cheeks pinked as she anticipated Ranma's snide comment. She knew the jerk could not resist making a crack about her tomboyishness, her lack of feminine skills, or maybe just an unflattering comparison to one of his other fiancees.

Instead...

"You going to train her?" Ranma asked, his voice low.

Nodoka looked out at the garden in the back yard before responding. "She could use a mother's influence."

"I'm right here!" Akane glowered.

Nodoka blinked.

Akane stared watching the older woman's mask... slip. The vaguely-vapid feminine facade slipped and something... stern glinted at her with gimlet eyes before Nodoka gave a bashful smile.

"I'm so sorry Akane-chan! I didn't mean to be insulting, or remind you of any losses," she bowed to the girl.

Akane bristled, but... her mother had died young, and Aunty Saotome had been a good influence.

Sure, it had been embarrassing when Nodoka had given lessons in womanhood to both Akane and "Ranko". And it was worse when her "cousin" proved a more adept student. Akane had taken some relief in Ranma's frustration, but it was still galling that her clueless fiance could play at being a girl so well.

Akane turned to the young Saotome man. Despite protests to the contrary, he was not above using his curse to his benefit. The ill-fated business with Nabiki was just the latest in a series of schemes, ruses, and tricks. Most were short term and centered around finding a cure, but there were also ostensible martial arts contests.

Such as seeing who could sell the most okonomiyaki , which required Ranma to dress up as a bunny girl. Or when Ranma had pretended to be his rival Ryoga's little sister... or the time he pretended to be Ryoga's fiancee.

"What are you looking at?" Ranma demanded.

Akane snickered. "Oh, just thinking of how strange your life is."

Ranma's eyes flicked to his mother.

The older woman gave an inquisitive look but after Ranma gave the barest negation of his head, Nodoka shifted into giving a reserved little laugh.

Nodoka looked around the yard. "Your father isn't home."

"Uh, you know we just got here," Ranma shrugged but paused after glancing at his mother. "Oh, another debt?" he ventured.

"It is a delicate matter." Nodoka turned to Akane. "If you'll forgive me, I need to talk with my son with regards to a personal matter. I promise I won't take up much of his time."

Akane nodded. Aunty Saotome's words were soothing and so polite, but there was an undercurrent to all this. She looked to Ranma but her fiance seemed to be annoyed and muttered to himself. At least that seemed normal.

She nodded again to the older woman and excused herself back into the house.

Standing in the kitchen Akane pondered going to her room and changing out of her uniform, but something, perhaps her lingering suspicions, made her hesitate.

Glancing out a window, she saw Ranma and Nodoka walking towards a garden bed beside the porch. After exchanging pleasantries with Kasumi, she went to the hallway. Akane paused and looked at the stairwell.

Silently, Akane reversed direction, went to the dining room and sat down by the low table with her back to the window. She should be out of sight of anyone outside and as long as no one in the family disturbed her...

Akane leaned back and concentrated. Ranma's voice was quiet, but she could just make it out.

"Why today? Can't Kochan and Midori do it?" he asked.

The Tendo girl bristled wondering who these two girls were. Her first suspicion was that Ranma had been roped into, or the jerk invited, more fiancees, but he was talking to Nodoka. And Akane knew while Ranma's mother thought multiple suitors was manly, having only one wife was the proper course of action.

Nodoka made a quiet disapproving noise. "They're already booked."

Ranma grumbled.

The Saotome Matriarch's voice softened, straining Akane's attempts to hear. "It is short notice, Dear, but Idomi-san wanted to know if you were available tonight?"

Ranma paused, took a couple of steps and shifted around; Akane could imagine the marital artist glancing about as he moved.

"I thought he wanted us... er.. I thought that was tomorrow," Ranma softly said.

This time Nodoka's quiet noise had a guilty tinge.

Ranma sighed. "Sorry, I'm still not used to Hidaka being gone," he said, his voice distant.

Akane blinked. There were at least three girls that Aunty Saotome and Ranma had been keeping secret from the Tendo family.

"You can use her instrument," Nodoka gently offered. "Idomi-san sounded most perturbed."

"I'll have time to stop off and pick up Aki Momiji?" Ranma asked.

Akane wondered what kind of instrument would be named Autumn Maple.

"On your way over, yes."

"Is it a rush job?" Ranma asked, his voice now business-like.

"Not exactly; I think he's being overly worried," Nodoka said.

"But?"

"Well, we don't want to upset out customers. Not with the Karakuri Combine and their prototypes," the older woman's voice was annoyed but a bit anxious about that.

"Those buggy jokes? I could make a better puppet."

"Son..." Nodoka warned.

"I'm available, Mother. If that's what you're referring to, but..." he sighed.

Akane frowned, Ranma said that last part a bit too formal for him. Her concern grew as she could feel tension rise.

"I mean, alone? Without Oneesan or someone like her? Or even a junior member of the house. What is Kochan doing? Can't she be moved to help?"

Akane bit her lip. Were the Saotomes hiding another child, an older sister to Ranma?

"And I can handle it alone," he continued, with a low grumble. "But, is that proper? I mean..."

Hearing Nodoka bid her farewell, Akane got up and eased forward and went to the hallway. The Saotome woman's ending words were ones of confidence, but...

Ranma seemed hesitant, and about decorum of all things.

Akane made halfway up the stairs and hesitated. Whatever those two were talking about it didn't seem to have anything to do with Genma Saotome's thieving and other crimes.

She turned back and looked down to the first floor. She supposed this job, whatever it was, for Idomi-san, whoever he was, was to make up for some sin of Genma's. Either way, the casual deception on Ranma's part disturbed her. Akane wasn't sure if she wanted to go back and ask Kasumi if she overheard that conversation too.

A moment later Nodoka glided into the hallway. The prim woman in her crisp kimono looked up. "Ah, Akane, I'm sorry but I won't be able to stay for dinner."

"Oh?" Akane asked as she walked down the stairs. "I hope the trouble caused by Mr. Saotome isn't too bad."

Nodoka gave a polite smile. "We manage. But alas, I must attend to sudden commitments," she bowed her head and went to the door.

Akane's mouth went dry as she finished descending the stairs. "Uh, Aunty, if I may?"

"Of course," Nodoka said with a serene expression.

"I know it's personal, but how did Ranma take the news?"

Nodoka shook her head. "He may disparage his father, but part of him still looks up to the man. I'm afraid the latest scandal may have put my son into a mood."

"Ah," Akane kept her tone even. Aunty Saotome just lied right to her face. And did it with practiced skill.

"I'll bet the jerk will spend the evening sulking," Akane managed to add.

"Now, Dear, don't be impolite," Nodoka chastised, but her eyes were calculating. And her voice dropped a bit as she leaned in. "Though I may admit, my son could be a bit moody. He may need his space this evening. It might be the best if he avoids confronting his father tonight."

Akane forced herself to nod. "The Saotome Secret Technique, eh?"

Nodoka shrugged. "That may be more harmonious than direct confrontation"

"The jerk, he can't run away from all of his problems," Akane said with a bit more venom than she intended. The Saotome Secret Technique boiled down to retreat, come up with a solution, and return. Akane had given Nodoka an opening, and the older woman had seized it.

Aunty Saotome practically gave a gift-wrapped excuse for Ranma to vanish this evening. Confronting Genma about it would only reinforce things. The senior Saotome had run so many cons he hardly remembered them all, and he was such a habitual liar he'd deny the ones he did remember.

Akane blinked. Clearly, Genma wasn't the only liar in his family.

"Are you okay, Dear?" Nodoka asked her concern seeming genuine.

"Just annoyed at Ranma and his games," Akane said with total honesty.

3
2
12345678987654321
2
3

Ranma jumped the wall of the Tendo compound.

Akane glared. If she had not expected her fiance to slip out, she would have missed him. Leaving out the back, she spotted Ranma down the street. His furtive movements easing back into his usual swagger.

His red shirt was somewhat distinctive. The Tendo girl had changed into a dark skirt and light jacket over cream leggings and a green blouse.

She did not wear this outfit much, it should help her...

What are you doing? she thought to herself. The jerk gets into all sorts of mischief. Is this worth following him?

Idly, she regretted having shorter hair. Her old style would have been long enough to easily pull into a ponytail.

She figured this was a normal scam of Ranma's: maybe a plan to get a cure for his curse, maybe dealing with some fiance trouble, maybe it really was Genma's fault.

And yet... Aunty Saotome treated this as routine. Implying this "job" was something Ranma regularly did.

Akane knew Ranma went off on his own on many evenings and weekends. He also had a horrendous attendance record at school.

Akane knew most of those absences were due to martial arts duels, quests, and other shenanigans. Her own attendance was less than stellar, due to her own involvement in such misadventures.

And after the secret of the curse was revealed, Ranma was free to spend more time with his mother, without the fear of a seppuku pact.

The Tendo girl tried to look like just another person on the sidewalk. Fortunately, the sidewalk was busy, and there were plenty of people going about their business in the early evening light.

If Nodoka was involved, whatever this was could not be too "unmanly". However, his mother seemed a bit awkward around Ranma.

That there were more people, possible coworkers, suggested some kind of business. Regardless, Aunty Saotome and Ranma were keeping secrets, and Aunty Saotome was more than willing to lie to Akane about it.

The Tendo girl looked around the street. Taller more commercial buildings cast shadows in the approaching sunset but if anything the pace of people about business seemed to increase.

Akane froze and looked into a display window of a cosmetics store. Ranma had looked her way when he turned down a side street. She glanced up, but her fiance seemed to have missed her as he descended the steps to a rapid transit station.

Gritting her teeth, Akane went down after the martial artist. At the bottom of the stairs, she saw Ranma waiting at a platform, stomping an impatient foot.

The station was a branch of the Metro Tozai Line. Ranma was waiting for an east-bound train going downtown.

Akane managed to fall behind some of the crowd that had filled the station. Inspired she took the time to buy a set of cheap sunglasses from a kiosk, and on an impulse grabbed a ball-cap, pen, folded map, and newspaper. She had also stripped out of her jacket and stuffed it in the plain bag her purchases had come in.

The train arrived. Ranma had been one of the first ones on; Akane had been the last.

Unfolding her paper, she leaned back and held it up to read, blocking her face.

After seven kilometers, Akane's heart beat rose when they neared the Waseda University stop. Maybe Ranma actually had higher education plans?

Then the train stopped, let off passengers, and let on more.

Ranma had stayed on.

Akane glanced at the route-map on the wall. Tokyo University was a bit further down the line. Maybe he was going...

But they were at the next stop. And Ranma was already getting off.

Akane looked at the sign as she followed: Kagurazaka.

Built at site of Ushigome bridge over the Kanada river, Kagurazaka was a neighborhood achingly close to Edo Castle.

Ranma started walking south-east down a main road that was in the direction of the Imperial Palace. Then Ranma turned off that road.

Compared to the main road of Kagurazaka, the side street had less bustle, more trees; things were quiet. With the thinning crowd, Akane had to pull back to not be seen. She found a clump of foreigners excitedly speaking in German to put between herself and Ranma.

Suspiciously, the tourists took a turn through an even smaller side street as if following Ranma through a carved gateway adorned with trellises full of blooming flowers.

This area was even quieter, downright serene. The Germans took out various electronic devices and start recording the pristine traditional buildings, gardens, and kimono-clad people

The pale-faced geisha and maiko in their colorful kimonos bustling about on business made it obvious that this was a geisha district: a hanamachi.

She chastised herself for being surprised. Kagurazaka, along with Shimbashi and Asakusa, were famous for their hanamachi.

Akane slowed her pace and made a point to look at some of the buildings.

There was a cluster of okiya, geisha houses, surrounded by a couple of high end kaiseki restaurants and some quite ochaya, tea houses. The only buildings that were not lovingly traditional Japanese were a handful of rarified French restaurants and a few equally Gallic fashion boutiques.

Akane had thought that Tokyo had less of a formal tradition where maiko were the trainee geisha. But she was not sure. She recalled something about them training at a kaburenjo a school specifically for training geisha, but was not sure if they did that anymore or if they apprenticed under senior geisha.

The intricacies of such things were not something she had spent much time thinking about. Part of her thought that maiko were actually apprentice geiko. And that geiko were different than geisha, somehow.

Regaining sight of Ranma, she frowned. The pigtailed martial artist casually walked up to one of the okiya. A geisha by the door in an almost somber dark kimono greeted him and Ranma smiled and made a few hand motions. The young woman nodded, the ornaments on her elegantly coifed hair chiming and Ranma entered the opulent property.

The property was smaller than some of the other geisha houses. Which probably meant they had less staff. Akane did not know if the trainee geisha, the maiko, still had to live on the okiya.

The door around the wall opened to reveal beautifully-tended grounds. The trees and pools and gardens were exquisite and they gave an impression of seclusion by providing an indirect path from the entrance to the building at the far end of the narrow, but long, lot.

Akane bit her lip and tried to push dark thoughts out of her mind. She told herself that since Nodoka was involved it could not be too girly. She would never stand for it.

Besides, geisha were pretty stuffy even if one discounted the costumes. They were entertainers, but it was a very specific kind of entertainment. There was drinking and food, but as far as Akane knew, the geisha were really fancy waitresses who provided jokes, party games, light music, and stories. They were supposedly excellent conversationalists, knowing just what to say to people to keep them entertained.

She knew Ranma had tried playing hostess with her sister and that had been a disaster. She doubted that was because Ranma found Nabiki's idea of party entertainment not traditional enough.

Still... Akane was gnawed by doubt as she passed by the elegant okiya.

A subdued sign in carved wood by the entrance said "Koutei no Joesi": the Emperor's Ladies.

She smirked at that and continued to walk past. That was a bit of a boast, but they were near the Palace.

The maiko who had been outside had wandered off but there was something about the pale, coiffured woman that caused her neck to prickle.

Part of Akane felt underdressed and that she was just as much a tourist here as the Germans and other gawking foreigners with their cameras.

Akane consoled herself. Even if Ranma did work here, it was probably as a gardener or maybe he did security. Akane told herself that protecting the geisha from ruffians seemed like something Nodoka would approve of. And it would fit with her fiance's macho self-image.

A spike of jealousy grew in her, the maiko and the older geisha were skilled in the exact proper and feminine skills that Akane herself lacked.
The Tendo girl did pause when she remembered Ranma had said something about picking up an instrument before going to the job

3
2
12345678987654321
2
3

The bench Akane sat on gave her an oblique view of Koutei no Joesi, She was about to crumple her newspaper and storm into the okiya when a redhead slipped out of the gateway.

Seeing the robe-like garment the girl had on, Akane's breath stilled.

Then she got a better view and relaxed. The redhead was not wearing a kimono, colorful or otherwise; she wore a simple plum yukata with a plainly-tied red sash.

Akane's tension eased further. No elaborate bun; the redhead still had messy bangs. And while she had let her braid out into a simple ponytail, those crimson tresses were free of ornamentation.

The diminutive, but busty, girl was too far away for Akane to be certain that Ranma was totally free of cosmetics, but it was obvious her face was not covered in heavy white foundation.

Ranma also moved with her normal loose and aggressive expediency. Steps that were at odds with the flowing elegant glides of the geisha moving in and out of the okiya.

Leaning over one shoulder was a long, silk-wrapped blue bundle that was similar to Aunty Saotome's sword, except this one a flared at the base becoming boxy and large. A smaller bulge was at the top of the bundle, making its shape a bit awkward looking.

Thankful, she had changed her coat again and put on her hat, Akane puzzled over this as Ranma passed her. The redhead seemed distracted and walked with purpose.

Ranma had some sort of relationship with this particular geisha house. She used it to change form, clothes and pick up something.

Standing, Akane supposed that was the instrument Aki Momiji, Autumn Maple, Nodoka had asked Ranma to retrieve

Following Ranma out of the "flower town", she pushed an obvious answer out of her mind. Aunty Saotome would never approve of Ranma being a geisha.

Besides, Ranma was dressed far too casually for that.

A little voice insisted that while Ranma was not dressed like a real geisha, her fiance was in girl form.

Akane sighed as she saw Ranma heading to another train station.

Keeping some distance as they went to the platform, Akane just managed to get through the rear door of the same north-east bound car that Ranma entered via the front door. Despite being traditionally dressed, the redhead was not above shoving her way through

However, she did take pains to protect her blue silk bundle, which suggested fragility or at least value.

Sitting down, Akane tried to watch the redhead indirectly, using the reflection on the windows. Akane's disquiet grew.

Lost in thought, Ranma seemed almost distracted by the whole thing.

When Ranma rose, Akane estimated that this trip was maybe twice as long as the one from Nerima to Kagurazaka.

With something almost like a shake of her body, the redhead regained her focus with the first few steps. Shouldering her bundle, Ranma got off the train in a quick, confident stride.

Making sure a few people were between her and the redhead, Akane also exited.

She found herself in an upscale area with almost scandalously large properties and parks. Old shrines and quaint little shops dotted about, seemingly kept for atmosphere.

Despite trying to rearrange her clothing once again, Akane was starting to worry that even a distracted Ranma would notice her.

He would be distracted doing a geisha job, she thought to herself.

Akane shook her head. No, Ranma couldn't be that. Aunty Saotome would never approve, and besides, she was dressed all wrong.

Ranma crossed the street and cut into a park. The Tendo girl sighed. If the redhead was trying to spot a tail, then changing direction would be a way to do it.

Akane let the redhead get a bit further away.

One side of the park had enough trees to make a miniature-forest. There was a fountain and a couple of outbuildings. Light poles illuminated the twilight grounds.

Opposite the grove, a small stand had been setup and a string quartet was playing to a small audience. People ambled about, enjoying the music and refreshments from a few stalls.

Spotting Ranma enter one of the buildings, Akane sprinted into the park. It was the restroom.

She flushed with anger, of course that pervert would use the woman's room. Akane exhaled as she circled around the building. She supposed that Ranma would have problems given the men's room, what with that body he currently had.

A couple of college age girls left the restroom, and an older blonde office lady entered.

She continued her inspection of the outbuilding, confirming it had only one entrance. More people were entering and exiting the men's room, but a few more had left the woman's as well. One of them, a stern-looking matron of a woman with grey hair wore a somber kimono that reminded Akane a little bit of Nodoka.

No one leaving had red hair.

A minute after the matron exited, an exquisitely coiffed maiko minced out of the restroom.

Akane boggled.

The girl was diminutive, delicate, and demure

Perfectly sculpted ebony hair glinted with subtle ornaments nestled in the folds of her updo. Akane was not sure about the style, she recalled there were a lot, doubtless each had a unique meaning that determined the girl's rank in the geisha house.

A heavy, pinkish kimono with dark violet accents in a floral pattern tightly wrapped around her slender frame. The gentle curves of the girl's chest and hips were a subtle contrast to the wide, stiffly-flat pastel obi that was also wrapped around the maiko's tiny body.

Serene, cerulean eyes were edged using precise eyeliner and sculpted brows. Her lipstick, which only colored the middle section of her lips, was a vibrant red that shone against the stark porcelain white of her face and neck.

Something leaned against one shoulder.

With effort Akane kept herself from staring as the feminine figure slowly walked away from the restroom with precise little steps on her elevated geta.

Akane's hand trembled.

This could not be Ranma. The redhead had not been in the restroom for more than a few minutes.

Even Ranma could not change that fast. Let alone do that much makeup and dye her hair.

Ranma had only been carrying that odd-silk bundle, not the kilograms and kilograms of silk that made up such an ornate kimono, obi, and underclothes. She also did not have the time, the hours it took to dress, style her hair and do her makeup in such elaborate ways.

Akane watched as the maiko gave an absent smile as her sedate pace took her closer to the little festival.

What about magic? a nasty little mental voice asked. She frowned at what she assumed was a young trainee geisha. The hair color was wrong, her figure was also wrong. The diminutive girl was dainty.

Akane gave a little smirk when the figure passed directly under the light of a lamp. It was hard to tell with the kimono, but if she had to guess the little maiko's chest was smaller than hers.

So? the treasonous voice asked. If that perverted jerk used a magical transformation to dress and do his makeup, then why not make him less busty?

Frowning, Akane closed to both the restroom building and the retreating maiko. Her cynical side had a point, But that kimono was...

Yes, it was bright, and colorful, and had intricate patterns, but that meant it was normal, for a maiko.

If this was a magical change, wouldn't the kimono be something special?

And yet, there was the girl's small stature and those blue eyes.

Akane halted as the maiko stopped and adjusted the silk bundle in her pale hands.

Glossy black hair shone in the light as she absently turned her head to take in the darkening park. Akane stepped into the shadows cast by the side of the restroom building.

Those eyes were placid and serene, without a trace of apprehension or embarrassment. They were not the eyes of a cocky martial artist.

Akane had to admit to her suspicious side that the geisha was carrying the same blue silk bundle as Ranma.

Akane pulled back and looked at the woman's room doorway. A few more people had left, including a bubbly, busty brunette in jogging clothes who practically ran to the little festival.

She turned back to the maiko who had resumed her slow, deliberate pace. The girl's body language was gracefully deliberate; every motion was done with purpose and gentle elegance.

Akane's cynical part pointed out that the kimono's heavy, tight wrap would have made it impossible for the modestly-figured girl to move in any other way.

Clearly, Ranma was working with geisha. And he was able to change at that okiya. Maybe this maiko was waiting for Ranma to bring her the silk bundle.

Clinging to that idea, Akane went into the restroom, expecting to find the redhead hiding somewhere.

She soon ran out of places where Ranma could have concealed herself, including one awkward bit where Akane accidentally opened an occupied stall.

Furiously apologizing, the Tendo girl pulled back and let her eyes track along the walls. The windows were too small for even a short redhead to escape. There were no other doors, and unless Ranma had climbed up into the ceiling, the cursed-marital artist had vanished.

"She" didn't vanish, that treasonous voice whispered.

Face flushing with irritation, Akane left the restroom.

Fortunately, the maiko's sedate pace had not hastened, and she was still just within the park.

Akane had to keep herself from running as she caught up. She did not want to spook some strange girl.

This isn't Ranma. she's not acting like Ranma, doesn't have Ranma's figure, or her hair-color, Akane told herself as she watched the maiko glide past the festival even the musicians paused and the small crowd's attention was drawn to the coifed girl.

The maiko took the attention with a shy grace and made her way slowly through; she did pause for a couple of pictures.

Akane used this chance to catch up without having to rush. That voice in her head tried to counter her denial. And a normal kimono would deemphasize her chest. And if this isn't Ranma then where is he?

She shook her head. Ranma is a martial artist, he could have hid and run. Maybe his job was to give this instrument to some maiko who was waiting for him.

The problem with that was that Aunty Saotome made it sound like the job she wanted Ranma to do was more complicated than delivering an instrument.

She made her way through the audience. Unlike the elegant girl in her stiff kimono, no one paid Akane any mind.

If this isn't Ranma, then when why are we following her?

Akane grit her teeth. Because she's my only lead, she mentally hissed at her cynical side.

The maiko's maddeningly sedate pace took her past the little festival, towards one of the obscenely-large properties.

Akane supposed she had few grounds to complain. The Tendo compound had gardens, a free-standing dojo, half a dozen bedrooms, and above all, space. Many in Tokyo would see her family's residence as just as much of a mansion as the giant building before her.

Yes, but your home doesn't butt up against a forested park, and your father doesn't hire maiko to make house calls, the cynical voice whispered.

The mansion's short stone walls almost went up to the sidewalk, with only a token strip of grass between the wall and concrete. The wall rose up a meter and a half and then there was another meter and a half of wrought iron fencing above that.

Akane did smirk as she slowed her pace again. Ranma would not be patient enough to slowly walk around the park and property. He would simply run through the park's trees and hop over the fence.

The Tendo girl eyed the few meters of wall tipped with iron accents. It was something she would not have a problem getting over. And she was wearing tights and a skirt.

But you're not wearing a stiff kimono tightly tied down with a wide obi, Akane's suspicious side whispered.

Akane's concern grew. The distance between the house and the lack of pedestrians had all but eliminated her cover. A truck for pool cleaning company was parked on the street but that was it.

The maiko made her way to small gatehouse to the side of the property. Small relative to the giant iron gates, for the wide driveway took a meandering path to encircle a fountain in front of a mansion that made the Kuno estate look understated.

The ebony-haired girl paused before the gatehouse and Akane watched as the maiko checked her kimono, obi, and hair ornaments in a self-conscious but well practiced movements.

Realizing she had gotten dangerously close, Akane went to the truck. Using her pen she and some newspaper she made like she was leaving a note under the windshield wiper.

The maiko hit a button which triggered a series of bells. Akane was not sure if they were real bells or just a really good recording, but the chiming was lyrical.

"Idomi residence, whom may I ask is calling?" a crisp male voice said from a speaker near the slender maiko.

Akane frowned, the man sounded... strained somehow.

"If it pleases Sir, your Lord may find of interest that his presence is wished to be graced by a girl of the Koutei no Joesi," the maiko delicately stated.

Akane blinked. The maiko spoke with the Kansai dialect, specifically with the soft, courtly cadence of a refined Kyoto native.

Maiko and geisha were even more prominent in Kyoto than Tokyo.

The maiko's melodic, flowing accent was completely at odds with Ranma's gruffly informal tones.

But her voice is in the same vocal register as Ranma's girl form, Akane's traitorous side whispered.

There was a pause that seemed to linger, but the maiko seemed perfectly patient.

Akane pretended to examine the note she had written.

The voice on the speaker returned. "Ah, excellent. Mr. Idomi wishes to know which of the Emperor's girls will be... entertaining his... guests?" the man gave a nervous cough.

"Submit to your gallant Lord, Miss Risako is the name of this girl awaiting without his lands."

Akane pondered. Without seeing what kanji were used there could be a dozen meanings for that name. Though a part of her suspected that the maiko had one of the more feminine meanings. One that involved jasmine, plums, gems, gossamer, cherry blossoms, or tea.

Oh, Ranma'd certainly pick the most feminine kanji for her geisha alias, Akane's cynical voice gleefully dripped.

This time the pause on the speaker was shorter. "Excellent!" a new voice said. This was a sterner and more boisterous male voice. "When I told the Oka-san things could not wait for tomorrow, I was worried she would send someone with less experience in your stead."

Akane blinked that was an odd title. Granted Aunty Saotome was Ranma's mother but... The Tendo girl swallowed and gave the maiko a glance. Could it be true? Could this be Ranma?

"To allay our Lord's concerns, a mere girl hied hither with upmost speed. Humbly, this girl begs an invitation to address our Lord's needs," she urgently offered in that melodic voice.

Exhaling, Akane pushed down the irritation that threatened to boil over. There was something... extra to the maiko's tone. Yes, her smooth words were overly polite, but Akane wondered if there was not a glinting, sarcastic, barb hidden in that Kyoto accent.

That, more than the clothes and demure demeanor, was more disquieting to Akane.
She missed the response from those in the house, but she saw the gate click open.

With a gentle little glide, the maiko wafted though.

The door closed behind the dark-haired girl.

Akane was alone.

The trail had ended and she had few answers and more questions.

The job Ranma was doing at Aunty Saotome's behest had something to do with that geisha house.

And Ranma might have, somehow, changed clothes, hair color, demeanor, and accent.

Or Ranma might have simply dropped off a bundle to a coworker.

Then why did Ranma do it in girl-form? Why put on a yukata and change her hair? that poisonous little voice whispered in Akane's mind.

Aunty Saotome's role was key. She was giving Ranma orders, and she easily lied to Akane about it.

Even if the slender little maiko was not Ranma, the whole thing was suspicious.

Akane considered going home.

If she loitered here, someone would confront her.

Ranma would come back to the Tendo house. She could corner him then.

Or she could go back to Kagurazaka and poke around the okiya of Koutei no Joesi.

Among the watchful, elegant geisha that prowled the hanamachi neighborhood Akane would stick out even worse.

Are you just going to give up then? that voice mocked.

Well what am I supposed to do? Barge in and confront a girl who doesn't look anything like my fiance? Akane shot back.

Her cynical side chuckled. Why not? Jumping to conclusions is what Ranma would do?

Akane's frown returned as she pondered that.

If she were honest...

She had to admit that jumping to such conclusions, directly confronting Ranma when he was doing something potentially perverted, was normal for her.

But... Akane looked up at the fence that topped the wall. It was high, but it was not that high.

There was something Ranma would do in this situation.

3
2
12345678987654321
2
3

Akane had to admit that she used a bit more discretion than Ranma would have.

She went back to the wooded portion of the park and jumped the fence there.

Her landing was far from the gatehouse and the mansion itself, but she was on the property. Specifically, she was in a patchwork of shade gardens that dotted between large trees.

Leafy branches added to the evening gloom, and a nervous chill went down her back.

Exhaling, she crept forward. Careful, Akane stuck to the stone paths, not stepping on any branches or some of the papers that were strangely scattered around.

Reaching the garden's end, she nearly tripped over a bright blue pool skimmer. It was not that it was hard to see the long-handled object, but more that the incongruity of its presence was so unexpected that Akane barely avoided it.

An immense building took shape in the darkness. Statuary edged a stone patio going up to a glass-sided building containing a great indoor pool. Doors were open and equipment was scatted about.

The intruder's disquiet grew.

Geisha were entertainers. Where were the guests?

Akane recalled that geisha were also expensive, especially on a "house call". If this rich guy had spent the money on this little maiko, then why the mess outside?

Taking a wide berth around the pool house, Akane's tension tightened.

Once past, she slipped behind a little cedar-walled shed. That older, refined male's voice then came from the side of the mansion.

"After what happened to the pool cleaners, I knew I couldn't wait until tomorrow," he said.

Akane peered over and saw a silver-haired man in a dark grey suit with a cobalt tie slowly descending a set of stairs from one terrace on the side of the mansion to a lower patio that gave a commanding view of the back gardens and the pool house. Akane suspected that this was Mr. Idomi.

"Which is why I asked the Oka-san to have you come over tonight," he continued

The little maiko delicately floated down the stairs. She fluidly minced in his wake, daintily holding up the edges of her kimono so it did not brush the steps.

"Our gallant Lord, might the fate of thy aquatic hirelings be revealed to a mere girl?" the woman going by Miss Risako gently asked.

Once again, Akane got the sense of a barb hidden under all that flowery language.

"Oh? The ambulance took the two away," Mr. Idomi said dismissively. "It looks like they swallowed a lot of water. Though I suppose the younger of the two was using the whole thing as an opportunity to shirk from his duties."

Smoothly bowing and genuflecting, the Maiko replied, "The Koutei no Joesi shall not disappoint our Lord in such a manner."

Akane almost smirked. She might have been reading a bit too much into the girls' melodic tone, but she sounded a bit sarcastic. Still, she had no idea what this dandy had hired the maiko for.

"Oh, I have no doubts, but I did expect two of you," Mr. Idomi cleared his throat. "Where is your oneesan?"

"Alas... our Lord... Lady BlackFlameMist hast retired," the maiko answered, a minor strain darkening melodic voice.

"Oh, such a shame, but I know you can handle it. I always thought you should be a full geisha."

"Such generosity. How many dost our Lord expect for tonight's venery entertainment?" Miss Risako asked.

Idomi coughed. "Well... I just saw the two, but the maids said there's more... they were the ones that got the pool cleaners out. And there was such mess... water everywhere... and the stains."

Hearing a rustle of silk and the twang of a stringed instrument, Akane risked another look. The maiko had undone the silk bundle and held a gleaming, lacquered shamisen.

The Tendo girl stared at the guitar-like instrument. It was beautiful, and a traditional instrument of geisha. It was not surprising that the maiko had such a thing.

Aghast, it took effort for Akane to pull herself back out of sight.

It took conscious effort on her part to not stare at the instrument, nor at the elegant maiko wielding it. And somehow she found herself more drawn to the stringed instrument than the girl.

"May a paltry girl ask our Lord the location of his guests?" the maiko inquired as she checked the shamisen and pulled out a large pick.

"Ah yes..." Mr, Idomi coughed. "Obviously, the pool house is where all the trouble is, but the library is also in a bad spot."

Akane heard the maiko give a sharp little exhale. It was the first real crack in the woman's polished demeanor, and the Tendo girl only picked it up because she was looking for it.

"Then with our Lord's leave, a mere girl shall commence with the venery and merriment."

There was a pause, and Akane lifted her head to get a fresh look. That word was vaguely familiar to her, she could almost recall its meaning. It was either something naughty or something involving hunting. She caught the older man nodding.

The maiko's elegant eyes fluttered closed and she started to play a mournful melody.

Then the maiko spoke. Her lilting tone rolled the words and if anything her Kyoto accent thickened.

"Scarlet glistening," she said softly, her voice managing to carry to Akane's position.

"Flair on obsidian robes," the maiko's words echoed and the air seemed to crackle.

Akane felt her skin prickle as the air pressure began to drop. The music became even more haunting.

"Night-fall brilliant spear!" the maiko cried, for once raising her voice, but not breaking her lyrical cadence.

A power-chord thrummed out of the shamisen and rose into a thunderous crescendo, followed by a crackling, blinding flash.

Lightning arced over the elegantly slim young woman and her intricate pink kimono began to... run.

Akane stared as the maiko's garment shifted. Complex purple and pink patterns smeared and darkened as the robe-like garment transformed. Soon her body was encased in a something that resembled a mofuku.

The Tendo girl shook her head. No, a mofuku, a funerary kimono, was all black. The maiko's kimono had red trim along the collar and edges.

More jarring, instead of silk it was a glossy almost... rubbery latex-like material.

Akane stared as a bit of electricity arced over the girl's form. Part of her wondered if it acted as an electrical insulation.

Either way, it was not a normal kimono. Instead of a proper obi her waist was cinched in by a trio of buckled-down black straps. There was still a great big bow tied behind her back, but now fanned out with crimson flair.

Akane's gaze went up and now she saw the expected bosom. Unlike the pervious kimono that cinched down the maiko's chest, this one flaunted it, even going so far as to have a crimson-trimmed V-neck, complete with thin black straps that crossed over her jutting clavicle bones.

A black strap was also tied around her neck, complete with a matching buckle. Wisps of electricity danced up the maiko's chest but instead of touching her cleavage they flickered and grounded against a gauzy barrier.

Further study on the Tendo girl's part revealed that a wispy fabric panel shielded the maiko's V neck, forming a forming a translucent but shiny high neck that clipped onto a glossy black, silver-buckled, choker that formed around her throat.

Above that was the expected heavy white makeup, but even that seemed... thicker and more glossy. The maiko's features had a smoother, more porcelain sheen. The crimson of her lips was more intense and the scarlet makeup around her eyes was intricate and flared.

But Akane hardly noticed that, she instead stared at the maiko's hair. Her tresses were sculpted and brushed up into an artistic bun, but instead of being glossy black, they were now ruby red. Silver ornaments and were nestled into her updo complete with delicate chains that hung down either side of her head. Silver pendant earrings dangled from dainty ears.

However the most obvious ornaments on her were the most plain. Six "chopsticks" fanned out from the back of her head three on each side. Unadorned silver shafts, they radiated with corposant electricity that flickered and danced down her features and curves.

The Tendo girl licked her lips. That figure, that hair, that height. Underneath all the frippery and fetishy accessories, it was Ranma.

Akane frowned and wondered if the maiko's makeup provided some sort of insulation. With some reluctance her gaze went down and she looked to the redhead's hands. She still played the instrument with pale fingers tipped with long nails. Though the image flickered and for a moment it looked like the maiko's hands were sheathed in glossy white PVC gloves.

Similarly, her pale bare feet with their crimson pedicure and tottering geta sandals flickered to shiny PVC boots with platforms and spiked heels that rose over her ankles, up her calves and vanished somewhere under the bottom hem of her kimono.

The crimson maiko let her hands slow and the final notes of her shamisen echoed over the estate. She demurely bowed her head and with some concentration the crackling power about her lessened to a few sparks arcing up and down her three pairs of silver chopsticks.

Mr. Idomi stared with only a bit less shock than the Tendo girl. He took a few absent steps and smoothed out his suit, causing some static electricity to snap and pop.

Putting a hand to her mouth in aghast horror, the maiko deeply bowed. "Please excuse an immaterial girl's malapertly gaudy display our gallant Lord," she whispered prostrating herself before the man.

She rose back up. Akane saw a slight hitch, a bit of hesitation as the shiny geisha took to her heeled feet. "If my... our... Lord will allow, as ScarletFlairNight, a mere girl is ready."

Akane saw the geisha shyly steal a glance at Mr. Idomi before demurely lowering her head. Sparkling light flickered from her hair ornaments and her body shifted.

It was not the perfectly smooth elegance the Tendo girl had come to expect, there was... hesitation and a bit of nervousness.

A cock of the hip, a shift on a glossy high heeled boot, and the geisha's shiny and lower-cut uniform took on a different aspect. Akane noted that the geisha's gauzy modesty piece got more translucent the less electricity arced over it

Precisely painted crimson lips parted and she gave an almost indelicate exhale. She swished closer to him, but mid-step shifted into a delicate prancing gait.

Only Akane was watching close enough to see that the redhead recovered from a near misstep with a high heel. Akane could feel the concentration the geisha was putting into her motions, there was no longer the effortless effeminate elegance.

The geisha went down and leaned forward. The voyeuristic Tendo noted there none of that minute hesitation. Akane supposed meant that the geisha had practiced prostrating herself to where she could do it perfectly even under stress.

"A great Lord is begged a small indulgence by an insignificant, baseborn maid. Grant your loathly servant a measure of venery entertainment; accept a mere girl's pledge that He would not be shamed by her efforts," the shiny geisha gasped, not daring to lift her head as a tiny tremble went through her body and antic light crackled down her form.

Pondering the meaning of "venery entertainment", the intruding Tendo flushed heavily. She practically expected the geisha to strip or something. The air hummed with potential and this gussied little bit of feminine frippery had presented herself to this dandy and seemed eager to...

Akane's concerns were interrupted when Mr. Idomi gave a wave that was both magnanimous and dismissive.

"Well then, do your duty, little Maiko," he cheerily said, striding away.

Akane watched as the shiny geisha waited a few seconds before pulling herself back up. Her graceful stance was almost brusque and formal. "Wisdom. Our Lord, it is better, and safer, for both Lord and servant, if He repairs to the mansion with His guests whilst a mere girl attempts her meager efforts," she murmured in a tone that Akane could swear was wry

One thing she knew was that even in this form the geisha still spoke with a barbed tongue.

Akane got a voyeuristic little thrill. Sure, she was all but certain that the strange geisha before her was, somehow, Ranma. But now she could see how the shiny redhead acted when alone.

The pick in her delicate fingers idly strummed a tune as she resumed her liquidly elegant descent. Shiny heels gently touched down as she made sure both her feet were on a step before she tackled the next.

The hem of her rubbery kimono was now short enough that she no longer needed to hold up the ends to keep it from touching the ground.

"Shall a mere girl ponder her Lord's great wisdom?" she murmured her lyrical voice low. "Mayhap a foolish lurdan would dither and wait to secure further maids."

She tilted her head haughty pride conflicted with demure refinement as she gazed into the distance and studied the pool building.

"Sooth striking with all quickness before loathly vermin infest and accurse is the greater task," she pledged, seemingly too herself.

There was a crackling and a pause in her playing as she stopped to brush a hand over the gauzy material over her chest removing a smoldering leaf that had fallen there.

The Tendo girl blinked. Infestation? What was really going on here?

The redhead, Akane had a hard time thinking of this being as Ranma, paused as a quiver ran through her. Her painted smile gained the ghost of mischief. "But who is this scold of a scullion girl to question her Lord or the Oka-san."

The stairwell turned away from Akane's position as it went towards the pool. And it gave the Tendo girl a view of the way the sable material of the kimono clung and draped down from the belts around her waist to the red hem that swished over her shining heels.

Almost as if comforting herself, the maiko started playing her shamisen with greater intensity. The melody prickled about. While it did not quite react the way the power chords that heralded her transformation did, the reverbing music prickled up and down Akane's spine.

Feeling even more creepy and oppressive with her voyeurism, Akane darted to a low garden wall between the wooded glen and the swimming pool atrium.

Pulse quickening, Akane found the jangling music to be the opposite of the serene, calming tone she had expected Ranma, no not Ranma, to play.

It was not that the maiko was playing poorly. Her fingers were clearly moving with the unconscious motions of long- practiced skill.

There was something deliberately discordant about the music, as if the opposite of providing a soothing clarity, it engendered distraction and made it harder to think.

Blinking as a bit of static prickled on her hair, Akane exhaled. She had gone so far that turning back did not occur to her.

The wind gusted.

The bow in the back of the maiko's glossy kimono fluttered in the wind as the crimson-haired woman set her heels at the glass door.

A couple of pieces of paper blew across the back garden spiraling about. One twisted and changing its angle hit Akane in the face.

Quietly muttering, she peeled it off.

When her vision returned, she saw the maiko had entered the enclosed glass atrium.

A few steps in front of her was the seemingly glass-calm pool. Opposite the water was a section for beach-style lounge chairs, a bar, a counter with a niche for cooking and beyond that another set of glass windows and doors.

Beyond that was a study with hardwood walls full of heavy books and more rooms that led deeper into the mansion.

Akane circled around the low wall, trying to get a better view. She was to the far side of the atrium from the forest but now could get a side-view of the maiko though the glass wall.

Using careful, deliberate grace, the maiko knelt down before the pool, smoothing her rubbery garment and resumed playing. Her speed increased, Akane watched the redhead's nimble hands strumming the strings with perfect tempo and precision.

Jealousy grew in the Tendo girl. Both for the maiko for having such an instrument, and for the instrument getting such... attention. Akane shook her head. The music was getting louder, as if amplified. The glass panes that made up the atrium began to vibrate.

Akane shook as the strongly discordant music set her teeth on edge. It wormed her way into her mind. The wind started to blow in regular pressing bursts and those papers and debris from the gardeners swirled around her.

She wanted to know, there was something pulling at her. Even if this maiko was not Ranma, Akane's curiosity pulled towards her, prying.

And then the atrium exploded.

End Chapter 1

Well, that's a bit of a cliffhanger, but don't worry. The next chapter, Beautiful Destruction, Poetic Snare is written. And many of Akane's questions will be answered and both she and Ranma will have some decisions to make.

Thanks to DCG, Ellf, Kevin D Hammel, Henry Stickman, and J. St. C. Patrick for their help with the corrections. Special thanks to J. St. C. Patrick for getting corrections in before Xmass