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.


Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

C&C as always is wanted.

Chapter 2: Beautiful Destruction, Poetic Snare

Akane slammed down to the grass with enough force to push the air out of her lungs. Dozens of panes of glass shattered into a storm of razor-sharp shards scything through the air.

When she found out her fiance had a secret life as some type of magical maiko this... this was what she had expected. Or at least some kind of martial arts mayhem.

Honestly, this was less disturbing than seeing the soft-spoken demure black-haired "Risako" act.

Pushing that aside, Akane felt a few hot burns of minor cuts on her arms and neck. Panting, Akane ran hands over herself. Her hands shook as she realized none of the cuts were very deep.

The martial artist would have had more time to ponder her luck, to notice that despite the grass and grounds surrounding the atrium being utterly covered with broken glass...

There was a small bare spot in a circle around where Akane had been laid down by the blast.

Instead, the Tendo girl was transfixed by what had risen out of the pool.

A figure in ragged ebony robes with pallid grey skin floated into the air, discharging dark green light. Lank white hair was pulled back in a tight, plaited braid. Dark pinpoint black eyes stared down at the kneeling maiko.

The wizened crone cackled as she pointed a gnarled finger. "ScarletFlairNight, how lovely to see you again."

The maiko slowly rose, daintily brushing off the few shards that had dusted on her hair and kimono. There was a single fine cut on her left cheek. Even her shamisen was as pristine as the rest of her.

Akane was amazed that the maiko's garment was not slashed to ribbons. Other than that tiny cut, the redhead's pale skin and hair looked untouched.

She gave a shallow, somehow sarcastic, bow.

"Allow a measure of impropriety, this girl cannot recall a personage such as you." The maiko, Ranma, stated with a cocky grin.

That grin was all Saotome. All her fiance. Despite the makeup, the clothes, the affected speaking, she was Ranma.

Akane's heart sank, and fluttered.

"You lie." The hag shook her head and pulled out a long hairpin set with a dark red stone. She smiled at the little maiko. "You lie... you remember me, it hasn't even been half a century since we last met."

And dropped the pin into water.

There was more burbling in the pool as things started to bob out of the newly murky water. Bloated, ghostly figures clambered up in sickeningly amphibious motions as their translucent flesh bellied out of the pool.

Continuing to play her shamisen the maiko, Ranma, stepped back.

"Though, I approve of your new garments. That bold scarlet suits you, and such a delicate little sleeve." The hag's eyes narrowed. "And must you play that distracting racket?"

Akane lost count as more of the slimy creatures, with their gaping mouths and lantern-like bright yellow eyes, formed and started to clamber out of the pool. She was holding together well, until the rancid mildew and seaweed stench wafted over to her in choking drifts.

The little redhead gave another mocking bow to the hag and her song reached a final ear-splitting crescendo as blue-white tendrils of power crackled over her fingers and the strings. It covered up the Tendo girl's manic, pained laugh.

The long ornaments in the crimson updo flared, electricity crackled over the thick insulating material of her kimono, and with a final strum of the shamisen, she sent an arc of lightning right into the water.

Air snapped with thunder and water boiled as the animated corpses flashed and sizzled, some outright deliquesced into clear goop while others vanished back as the summoning expired.

The ones that had already reached dry land rushed forward. Akane noticed the gasping frog-like things had no undead shuffle, instead they bounded in weaving hops with squelching bare feet.

The maiko let her instrument fall to where it hung on its strap. She pulled out two black, lacquered objects. They flipped open revealing fans made out of deep ruby leaves. The edges glinted in the sickly light.

Despite her heels, despite the constricting clothes, the maiko met the mob. She did not charge or hurry, but instead every movement was graceful and flowing. If not for the deep spraying cuts that each motion made as she checked attacks by capturing and slicing through limbs it could have been an elegant dance.

Akane was still, rapt by the macabre spectacle.

The black mourning kimono was startlingly appropriate as arms and hands flew apart and taunt clear torsos and abdomens were sliced open spewing rotting glistening guts.

The blood, ichor and other mess simply slid down from the latex-like kimono material not even leaving a stain in its process.

While the maiko decapitated one monster and gave a delicate kick to push off another, Akane watched as a third took advantage of the slightly awkward motion on the maiko's part to claw her side.

Gasping, Ranma turned. She snapped one fan shut to use it as a makeshift baton to lock, twist, and break the ghouls' elbow joint while using the other fan to open its neck.

Red blood, the human shade looking strangely bright compared to the watery maroon-black blood of the monsters came out the maiko's side.

Akane watched the black kimono material start to pucker and knit back together. She then saw two of the revenants had squirmed out of the atrium. One cut itself on some of the remaining glass shards. Both headed towards her; their rotted noses snuffling about.

Glancing past them, Akane saw that the maiko had, despite her restrictions, jumped up onto the framework of the atrium. Exchanging blows with her fans and blasts of electricity with the hag, the redhead effortlessly kept her balance on the skeletal metal spars.

She gracefully walked backwards down a beam without looking and gave a disquietingly-dainty hopping skip to bound to the next frame over. Akane could not help it, she giggled at the sight.

For over a year Akane had suffered through watching Ranma walk down fences and do other showboating examples of balance.

All the time he claimed it was for training. And the Saotome boy was right. Except, it was training how to fight monsters while dressed up as some sort of shiny rubber geisha.

Some man among men, Akane thought with a chuckle. Though given Auntie Saotome is behind this-

Akane's mirth was cut off by the galumphing ghouls nearing her.

Arms outstretched, the first one lunged at her. Side-stepping, Akane grabbed a slick limb, turned, and twisted. She applied pressure to the arm bar and had merely planed to throw the creature. Instead, there was a sickening, wet cracking, noise like tearing cabbage, and the arm tore off with gooey skin dripping down Akane's fingers.

Almost retching, she followed through and levered against the creature's back, just to the side of the shoulder blade, knocking it down. Grabbing a discarded shovel, she flipped it over and used the edge to shatter the creature's skull. She turned and found the second one was nearly upon her; she kicked it square in the chest.

At least I can kick high, Akane giggled to herself.

The ghoul tumbled back a few meters and with disquieting, insect-like quickness scrambled back to its feet. The creature's mouth opened revealing a mess of yellowed peg-like teeth.

The wind shifted direction, putting Akane upwind of the creature and the fetid pool, and she breathed a bit easier. Papers and debris still swirled about and she felt her skin prickle with static electricity.

Doubtless excess energy from the pretty and shiny maiko's fight against the hag above her.

Akane gave another kick and this time the ghoul flipped back into the atrium. Halfway at least. The creature flopped back and landed on some of the remaining shards of glass in the vertical wall near the doorway.

Flesh separated and dirty blood spilled out as the creature eviscerated itself from back to front. It let out a wailing keen.

The battle stopped and the hag gave a gentle clap, while the maiko, Ranma, glanced down. Her made-up eyes widened slightly but Akane did not see much shock on the girl's mask-like face.

"One of yours? Another fresh girl for the okiya to devour?" the hag looked to Akane and inhaled. "Yes..."

A ruby fan flew out and the hag barely avoided its blades as several strands of dark hair fell as her braid was shorn. It embedded itself in part of the steel framework. "She is not for one such as you."

"Little willow, that is not your choice to make." The hag chuckled and then surged forward. Her hair and ragged robe trailed behind her like a dirty comet.

The maiko smoothly rotated on a heel and with no extra motion, no panicked speed, avoided the hag and then dropped off the metal framework of the shattered atrium.

Resuming the melody on her shamisen, which caused the hag to shriek, she fell, her ribbon and hair ornaments fluttering, and landed with no more fuss than if the maiko had stepped out of a carriage.

Demurely ignoring her fall of nearly seven meters, she gave Akane a gracious bow. The Tendo girl smirked at another practical application of Saotome training

"Pardon this meager girl's imposition," the maiko said, with a gleam in her eye.

The maiko then smacked a metal pole which caused the atrium framework to vibrate, loosening the embedded fan, which then fell into her outstretched hand.

Stepping closer, the maiko smiled shyly and then decapitated the impaled ghoul ending its wailing.

Akane blinked. Then wiped some ichor from her face. She had fought two of the creatures and her clothes were already a mess, meanwhile Ranma was literally fighting in high heels and full makeup and did not have a hair out of place.

The Tendo girl's nose tickled. With hardly a meter between them now, the redhead still had on a subtle floral scent about her, nothing as crass as perfume, but there was no scent of sweat or exertion.

Glancing back up at the hag, Akane swallowed. "Monster first, questions later."

"That shall be the good Lady's wish," the maiko, Ranma, bowed before turning to strum her instrument, sending a fresh bolt of thunderous lightning into the pool before bounding back up onto the upper frame work of the atrium.

Watching her rise, Akane could not help but give a mad laugh. The restriction on that kimono kept the redhead from separating her knees much, so her jumps were more of a bounding hop, almost like a skip. In spite of the impressive vertical lift, the whole display was quite femininely graceful as the maiko seemed to float up into the air.

Once balanced on the atrium's framework, her playing intensified and the maiko started using her fans to flick bolts of electricity at the crone in fluid, yet deceptively sedate, motions.

"Okay... maybe I should have asked some questions," Akane said as she used her shovel to spear another ghoul and hurl it into the pool.

Above her there was a burst of sickly, baleful light from the hag's magic that burst against the maiko's electricity.

There was a squall of feedback like a poorly-setup amplifier turned into an auditory explosion and the hag tumbled to the ground in a flailing contrail of ragged robes.

She landed in a disturbingly flowing heap on the far side of the pool just before the bar and the broken doors that let deeper into the mansion.

Ranma gently landed in a flutter of her rubbery kimono's latex bows and fluted hems. Arcs of electricity ran up and down her constricted form.

Clutching her shovel with one hand while the fingers of her other hand idly flicked over it, Akane ran around the edge of the pool. "What the hell was that thing?"

The maiko took a dainty step to the side so she could address Akane while keeping the hag in her sight. "Good Lady, before you is a witch fallen to loathly sanguinary magic."

"Riiight. You're a magical geisha hired to fight monsters like a shiny exterminator?'

As she intensified her playing, the redhead gave a bashful smile. "Good Lady, the esteem you have for a mere girl is heartening, and this lowly scullion dreams of attaining such a loftily rank."

The music did not sound quite so discordant to Akane's ears, but by the way the hag jerked and twitched, she could tell it was unpleasant to that creature's ears.

Akane sighed. "Right, you dream of becoming a full geisha. Well at least your makeup wouldn't be quite so over the top."

The maiko looked patient and gave a little bow. "Apologies sweeting, allow this lowly damsel her expiry work." Concluding the song, she let the shamisen hang and closed in; her ruby fans crackling with power.

Bolting up, the crone shot a lance of sickly light that knocked one fan off and squirmed up the maiko's insulated arm, burning black material and fraying the strap to her instrument.

The redhead pirouetted to the side and came down with a wobble that almost folded her heel under her ankle. She stood beside the bar, broken bottles and glasses crunching under her feet.

The hag cackled and the lights dimmed as the pool water burbled and started to steam. She then swept her hands and a lance of dark frost shot out and blasted the maiko into the study and through a bookcase.

"Poor little Red, you should have practiced more like a good little Lady." The hag shook her head. "Your dear Okaa-san should never have sent you out alone. You haven't even changed your collar, you poor thing."

The hag turned to Akane. "Let this warn you. You have potential young one. Do not bind yourself foolishly."

"Why are you doing this? You expected to fight her?" Akane demanded.

The hag smiled and for a moment she had a distant regality to her aged features. "Of course, this was a trap. Her late oneesan, BlackFlameMist, was skilled enough to cast baffling and banishment spells at the same time with that instrument. Not that it was enough to save her life. And now little Red is alone."

"Not counting me?" Akane demanded as she strode closer, her foot almost touching the shamisen. She stood on scattered pages from books that had blown out of the ravaged study, many having their spines ripped off.

In the silence, Akane felt a sickly oppressive power creeping down her back.

The hag turned and the pressure increased. "Should I? You may have some future, but you don't know the stakes in this war, you don't know the sides." Her smile twisted. "You don't even know my name."

"Are we going to introduce ourselves then?" Akane glanced into the study. There was a dark form stirring under one of the bookcases.

Books tumbled as a shadowed figure moved. Akane knew she could not stare for long but she pulled away only after seeing the bubbling, running almost oozing edges of the redhead's kimono.

"Mofuku are impressive," the hag said, almost wistfully. "There is the weight of history in those garments, oppressively so."

She turned and crooked a finger, freezing Akane in place. She felt something scrabbling at her mind, pressing on her will. "I have no quarrel with you, but I know you'll object to taking your... friend's life."

"She's not!" Akane managed to exclaim, shouting past the pressure.

The hag shook her head. "It's for the best; the path your little friend is on will end badly." She said turning to look at the maiko.

Seeing her moment, Akane reached down, her fingers tingled at the contact with a jolt of static electricity. "And who are you to-" Her hands moved. Instinct and memory guided her.

The hag turned back, saw the shamisen in the Tendo girl's hands. The wind gusted into the ruined atrium, kicking up papers and other small bits of debris. The song resumed. It warbled and the melody was a bit off, but the pressure of the hag on her boiled away. Akane felt bad to not use the instrument's pick, but there was no time to find it. She had to play the strings without.

The crone turned, hate in her pinprick eyes as she flew towards Akane.

Strumming, the Tendo girl concentrated and there was a burst as the shredded papers from the broken books snapped into the air and shot across in an inverted hail, flensing the hag.

Grey skin and old robes shredded as more dirty blood welled out.

A dark form darted out of the study as the maiko held one fan braced with both hands and slammed down in a sweeping arc that had all of her, albeit dainty, mass behind it.

The ruby fan struck the crone in the heart. It stuck into her chest by several centimeters. Scarlet light began to pour out of the hag as her body began to twist and shrivel.

There was a buzzing as dark brown beetle-like creatures with sickly green glowing abdomens started to buzz out of the gash cut into the deliquescing body. Hair ornaments tarnished as the metal rusted out and jewels cracked to powder. Even her battered robes started to fray and split into clumps of rotted fabric.

Giving brief gasp, the maiko fell to her knees and gave a couple demure pants; she closed her eyes and bowed her head.

Still playing, Akane stared. Risako... Ranma's hair was...

Not perfect.

A few strands were hanging lank down her face while her bun teetered and was about to come undone, and a bit of her makeup looked... cracked.

The maiko bowed her head and a ripple ran through the glossy liquid shiny material. Undulating, the inky mass wrapped around her body. Hair started to migrate back into place as she put her face back on.

Then with perfect poise, she rose back up on her feet. "Good lady, with grace please accept the deepest apologies from this mere girl." She bowed.

Akane blinked down at the instrument in her hands then back up at the redhead. "Uh... what? What just happened!"

The maiko smiled. "A lady took the initiative to use the instrument a lowborn girl failed to retain."

"Uh, sorry 'bout that?" Akane asked, noting that her clothes were ruined and muddy while the maiko was just as perfect as she was before the fight.

"Your concern is heartening," The maiko looked around the destroyed pool and study.

"Is it over? What's Aunty Saotome going to think about this?"

"Oh, yes, perhaps mother would best explain."

Akane frowned at the special emphasis the redhead put on "Okaa-san". The term itself was a bit formal for Ranma. Then again, Ranma normally did not speak in a feminine Kyoto accent, but still it seemed a bit... impersonal.

"If a suggestion is permitted, mayhap some freshening of your raiment and grooming would make a world of difference."

Akane gave the diminutive woman a level gaze. "Do you have to speak so damn obliquely?"

"Good Lady," the maiko shyly said.

Though to Akane's ear, she could make out a dry, not quite snide, undercurrent to the comment.

The maiko turned and gave a bow to the older man slowly making his way through the study from the far end.

Mr. Idomi looked a bit sick as he surveyed the torn books, shattered furniture, and the mangled lumps of glistening translucent meat scattered about. Then he looked at the pool filled with noxious debris and the shattered atrium.

"Oh... well, this was..." Idomi frowned.

"I'd change the water in the pool first," Akane muttered.

Idomi looked from Akane to the maiko. "It was a serious infestation then?"

"My Lord is correct," the redhead stated.

The man stepped about and frowned, then ran a hand through his silver hair. "And are you okay?"

"If our gallant Lord would be so kind to allow the use of washing facilities, that would hearten a mere girl." the redhead said in a coy voice.

Akane snorted. No matter the form, Ranma was not above using her appearance to wheedle favors.

"Well... come on then," Idomi gestured for them to follow.

The redhead bowed her head and beckoned Akane to follow.

After a watching her fiancee gently mince over the wreckage scattered over the study, Akane got closer. The shiny kimono gave off the slightest of scents. Her attention was split between how the shiny kimono dipped down in back to reveal her neck and the way it clung to her body.

"Prithee, dear Lady, allow a discretion; the Lording anticipated a plain haunting, a mere doit of a task. If he frets overmuch give patience and temperance," Ranma whispered, a ghost of an edge to her words.

Akane frowned and translated.

She could imagine Ranma saying, with no small amount of frustration: "Look Akane, this gig caused a lot more damage that the client expected, but given the cheapskate said this was a simple haunting, he can't complain. Now let me handle this, as he may try to weasel out of the bill."

Seeing comprehension on the Tendo girl, the maiko nodded, shifting to her placid and pleasant mode, and then proceeded to suck up to Mr. Idomi, to sooth his ruffled ego.

Akane noted that the maiko never directly mentioned her fee or the payment. She supposed directly asking about the money would be too crass.

Instead, the redhead focused on being... entertaining. She started recounting stories about parties that had had far more embarrassing incidents and damages.

The redhead did not use any names. Akane knew geisha and maiko were known for their discretion and privacy. They would never reveal what a specific client had gotten up to at a given party.

Akane had assumed that was to cover for well-to-do salary-men and managers and other getting drunk and acting foolish and piggish. But after today... she wondered if there was more to the secrecy of this little world.

She spaced out for a bit and found herself in an indulgently large bathroom, that had an excessively-scaled shower stall on one end next to a furo.

Looking down, the glossy maiko smiled.

Akane realized she was still holding the shamisen. "Uh, you can take that back."

The redhead smiled. "This girl has satisfaction that it found someone. Aki Momiji belonged to someone special. Hidaka would be happy." The maiko bowed and silently slipped out of the room.

Akane frowned wondering when the redhead had removed those PVC ultra high heeled boots, and how the redhead had done it so quickly. She shook her head and put the shamisen to one side of the room. She ran a hand down the neck of the instrument, looking at the fine wire inlay in the pattern of maple leaves billowing in the breeze.

She disrobed and climbed into the shower. Before the water hit, she realized just how grimy she was and it came as a warm cleansing relief. Akane took time to clean thoroughly and then indulged in a quick soak.

There was a pile of clean clothes waiting for her just outside the bathroom. As she pulled on the underwear and loose shorts and dark blouse, Akane idly wondered where they came from.

The clothes did not fit her exactly, which came as a relief. Also that there were some fairly well used feminine shampoos and other accoutrements in the bathroom helped convince Akane that Idomi had daughters or nieces, or some such.

She took a cloth bag that her old clothes had been folded into and the shamisen and went down a corridor towards the sound of Idomi laughing.

Akane entered a broad living room that had a sweeping view of the estate's luscious back garden that spread out below them. The view was a bit marred by the shattered atrium below them and the damage on the patio just beyond the room.

However, Akane was staring at the wealthy man's hostess.

The glossy porcelain faced redhead, in her shiny black kimono was gone. In her place was the demure delicate, and dainty maiko with soft cerulean eyes, elegant and styled ebony hair. She was dressed in a heavy floral patterned pink kimono with a red collar, white trim, and a pastel purple obi done in an intricate knot.

She was kneeling next to Idomi and reaching over to fill a sake glass, while not letting any liquor or food stain the long sleeves of her ornate kimono. Akane stared for a few seconds as the tiny woman was engaged in a conversation of yachting or something.

Idomi seemed to be in cheerier spirits and was musing about a poem to paint on the stern of his boat.

"Our Lady, how may such a meager girl be of service?" the maiko turned to Akane and gave a deep bow from Idomi's side.

"Please come and sit! Dear Risako was just saying how much of a help you were and how you're the bravest girl she knows." the man cheered as his arm nearly encircled the maiko's shoulders.

Akane knelt down across from them. This close and in good light she could tell what she had suspected in the park. That the diminutive and lithe little maiko was, unless that kimono and obi were exceedingly tight, smaller in the chest than her. However, "Risako" did seem to have more in the hips than Akane.

Risako bowed her head, her obsidian sculpted tresses shining in the light as her hair ornaments sparkled. The white makeup made it impossible to tell if she were blushing, but she gave every impression of it.

Suddenly, Akane was struck with a vision of Risako being pulled into Idomi's lap and helping... sooth him. Maybe, his hand slipped down her collar. A jealous part of her wondered what had they really been up to while she had showered?

Despite the mental image, Akane still felt a vindictive thrill at the idea of, for once, having a larger chest than Saotome.

Though, if he did pull Risako into her lap, that bottom of hers would be quite the pillow, that sinister voice in her crooned.

Akane shook her head; geisha, maiko, did not do that. Not with clients, they were entertainers, hostesses, raconteurs; physicality was not part of their job.

That poisonous voice reminded Akane that normal geisha were not magical warriors either. And idly wondered if Risako's obi was not tied as tightly as it was in the park.

"Quiet you," Akane murmured to herself.

Risako gave a polite look to her as she filled a glass of water and a small cup of sake. "Good Lady? Any refreshment?"

Akane looked at the glass of water Risako placed before her. "I'm... good."

"Mayhap anon," Risako smiled.

Akane nodded as the maiko went back to Idomi. She knew the ebony-haired girl had to be acting. No one could be that charming and servile and be sincere. Especially, given the tiny subtle looks Risako... Ranma kept giving her.

"Are you with the Koutei no Joesi?" Mr. Idomi asked, looking down at the shamisen at Akane's side.

"Err... no." The Tendo girl coughed. "I was planning on meeting... Risako after and I saw she was in trouble."

"The good Lady was a wondrous savior," Risako cooed, with even by her standards, Akane found a laid on a bit thick.

Idomi nodded. "Yes, it was good you were here. It was strange to see dear Risako without her oneesan Hidaka."

Despite herself, a ghost of sorrow fell on Risako's face.

Based on what the hag said, Hidaka, or BlackFlameMist, did not simply retire. She had fallen in battle. Losing an oneesan, a mentor, a friend, like that had to have hurt Ranma.

He looked to the maiko. "I suppose you are nearly ready for your Erikae."

"Our good Lord is too munificent with praise for such a meager girl."

Akane wanted to scream. Specifically: "You can shoot lightning! And jump around even in a tight kimono and fetishy PVC high heel boots! You don't have to play the meek little waif!"

Instead she exhaled. "Erikae... turning the collar?"

"An ending of an apprenticeship, if Okasan and other esteemed seniors find such a lowly girl worthy," Risako added, her melodious Kyoto-ben turning just a bit wry.

"You mean you'd become a full geisha?"

Risako gave a gracious bow.

"That would double her fee, but I suppose she's has earned that," Idomi allowed. "And she would look good with her hair in a shimada style, not that her current ofuku does not look good."

"Gallant Lord," Risako cooed, as she refilled his glass.

And, Akane noticed after that the tenor of things... changed. Idomi had accepted the idea of paying, despite the damage to his mansion.

"And, it could have been worse, yes the study and the pool will have to be redone, and the back yard swept but..." Idomi shook his head. "While my friends at the clubhouse ooh and ah over Karakuri Combine; they have yet to produce anything that doesn't just burn the building down. No, Lady Risako, you are the far superior at providing... entertainment."

"My lord's wisdom is tempered by experience," Risako agreed.

Akane sipped her water and began to see Risako's game. Now that the client was willing to pay, the maiko was starting to close the deal.

Akane had to bite her lip. She wanted to ask more questions, maybe even play her instrument... but that would lengthen the time here. And the questions she really wanted to ask were private with... Ranma.

So, she kept quiet, watched, and tried to accept that even when a maiko was trying to leave, she could not hurry things overmuch. It was interesting to watch how shamelessly flattering and engaging in a conversation Ranma could be.

Akane wondered if her fiancee, fiance, was argumentative and headstrong in her... his off time as some sort of stress release.

Still, they did just wreck a lot of this guy's house, and normal geisha were very expensive. Magical ones had to be more so, doubtless enough to offset the half price deal having a "mere" maiko gave Mr. Idomi.

Akane blinked as Risako started collecting the cups.

"It is with the deepest regrets that this mere girl must depart our Good Lord's company," Risako said with downcast eyes.

The Tendo girl had to keep from snorting. But, she did glance at the clock. It had not been too long since she got out of the shower. She sighed, in all honesty she had spent more time in the shower.

As Mr. Idomi also went through the ritual of saying his regrets, Risako shot Akane a look. Under all the makeup, and despite how mild mannered it would appear to anyone else, Akane knew Saotome well enough to recognize the reproach in her eyes.

Akane coughed and waited for Mr. Idomi to escort them to the door, as both he and the maiko profusely praised the other.

The final motion between the two was so brief that Akane was not sure what she saw, but she suspected that she saw the maiko slip a sealed envelope up a voluminous sleeve.

Then they were outside the compound. Akane leaned on the wall and sighed. It was just the two of them. Now Ranma could stop this act and answer Akane's questions.

Instead the maiko gave a demure nod. "Does our Lady require refreshment?"


Mute, Akane followed the dark-haired, slender maiko in her stiff pink silk and violet floral kimono down the sidewalk. Watching the effortlessly elegant stride, she had questions. She was not sure how much time had passed since the... battle, things were still a daze for her.

The Tendo girl admitted to having missed out on much of the conversation, her hands were still idly strumming the lacquered shamisen. Visions of her wielding its power... no, pushing her own power through the instrument filled Akane and she missed the bulk of the geisha's conversation with her... client.

By the time Akane's focus had fully returned, they were outside the mansion. She found her own clothes had dried; the stringed instrument was now wrapped in silk and clutched in her hands; and the maiko, no Ranma, was in a demure kimono. While far less revealing than the black latex outfit, the full maiko regalia was not exactly "street clothes."

Holding her bundle, Akane took a moment to watch her... companion. The flowing, heavy layers of the garment and the big bow on the back of the obi really emphasized just how slight the girl was.

As they entered the park, she tried to formulate her first question. In a way... it was a relief that Ranma was battling supernatural monsters. That was... normal. That it seemed that her fiance had to do it while using some questionable magic was also familiar, if less comforting.

Akane mulled over things as she drifted along while the ebony-haired maiko went to various festival stalls. The problem, a problem, was that this was not some inadvertent adventure her fiancee had fallen into.

No, there was a familiarity that could only come from long experience, a place of employment which indicated scale and permanence, and Aunty Nodoka was also at the center of this.

Blinking, Akane found they were in a secluded part of the park. There were other revelers about in their yukatas and even a few in kimonos, none of which were as nice as her companion's. But, they were alone and had stopped walking.

Gently lowering an armful of clinking items in a large bag, the shorter woman also produced and then unfurled a large, soft red plaid picnic blanket. "May a humble girl beg a question of the good Lady?" the maiko asked, with downcast eyes.

"What are you talking about, Ranma?" Akane glanced about and saw a collection of beverages and snacks that had been purchased in addition to the blanket.

The dark-haired girl bowed. Then in a smooth, practiced motion she went to her knees. "Merely a small boon of our gentle Lady's time so that a meager girl can express a portion of recompense for saving silly scullion by slaying a loathly creature," the maiko softly said as she genuflected.

"Um... what?" Akane stared. She was pretty sure Ranma was thanking her for helping her in a fight.

The maiko rose up to kneeling. A tiny frown marred the perfect white makeup covering her face, and there was a... stillness to her posture. "Potations have given this girl mental clarity," she admitted.

Tilting her head, Akane sat down. "Ranma, what game are you playing?" she asked, putting her bundle to one side.

The maiko paused in selecting beverages. "Humbly put, my good Lady, that is not the name which refers to this girl."

"Really? You're still keeping up the charade that you're Risako?"

The maiko bowed her head. "Would it be a burden for the good Lady to give her refreshment preference? Alas, the tea is cold and already made, but there are juices and soft drinks."

Akane rolled her eyes. "I'll have a cranberry."

The maiko brightened as she opened the bottle in her hand and passed it over. Risako folded her hands in her lap and looked demurely expectant.

After taking a sip, Akane exhaled. She could hear a distant melody "I've got a lot of questions."

There was some shift in the maiko's stance, as if a pressure were off her shoulders. Her back was still ramrod straight. "Nothing would make this paltry girl's heart swoon more than answering the good Lady's inquiries."

"What's with the fancy talk? And why the Kyoto accent?"

Risako gave a tiny coy smile. "Even a lowly girl must keep certain standards, and many geisha, not that this mere maiko of a girl is a full geisha, hail from Kyoto," she said, emphasizing the melodic refined accent more than her usual.

Head buzzing, Akane pondered. The maiko gave a polite bow to her head. "Why do you have to keep up certain standards? Isn't the job over? Heck, you changed into this getup right over there." The Tendo girl pointed to the bathroom building on the other side of the park. "As the very least, why aren't you back into that yukata you were wearing before this getup?"

The maiko clapped her hands as her cerulean eyes lit up. "The good Lady is most perceptive of this girl's changes in her raiment. Care for some chocolate?" she picked up a small bar of fudge.

"Right." Nibbling on the treat, Akane glanced at the wrapped instrument, she could almost feel the music. "Are you stuck? But... you changed out of that latex fetish outfit."

Risako looked embarrassed. "Verily the good Lady is correct that this girl is no longer adorned by her sable equipage."

Absently patting the shamisen, Akane chewed her lip. "You came out here stepping up through three stages each more... geisha . Fought a crone, a witch, and then afterwards sent down one level, but you cannot step down to the next?"

"The good Lady's supposition bears weight," Risako nodded.

"But why can't you go to that yukata form? You still looked like Ranma, moved like him too, well his girl form." Akane sighed and took a swig of her juice. "Your girl form. Because, you are Ranma."

"This girl would never dare to correct the good Lady." The maiko made a polite noncommittal murmur.

"And you're stuck treating me like you did rich Mr. Idomi?"

"The good Lady is too kind," Risako said lightly

Akane narrowed her eyes. "That was almost sarcastic. For as servile as you act, you can be a snarky little thing."

Putting a hand to her mouth, the maiko gave a tiny gasp. "Forgive this girl, but she would never dare to make light of the good Lady."

Akane snorted. "You're still in there aren't ya, Ranma? But the magic's what..."

The maiko blinked before her eyes lowered she shifted her knees and resumed her incentive gaze.

Following it Akane realized her hand was still on the instrument, s he could feel its strings softly vibrating. "The magic's lingering?" Akane fingered her shirt. "That why you can't change back?"

The maiko's posture shifted. She still knelt with complete grace and gazed upon Akane with a disconcerting subservience, but the stiffness was gone.

"That's it? You have to wait for this magic to... cool off before you can change back? And until that happens you're stuck acting all maiko."

The maiko blinked. "Perhaps the good Lady could avail herself of some more refreshment?" Risako inquired.

"That's a yes," Akane sighed. "Okay... so why the heck did you agree to a magical power up that forces you to play geisha to use it?" The Tendo girl had to keep her hand from going back to the instrument. She wanted to unwrap the bundle and start playing.

The maiko tilted her head. "The good Lady understands?"

"Oh, I'm just getting started... Risako."

The ebony-haired girl shifted her kneeling position slightly. For an instant, her downcast gaze caught Akane's and she blinked.

Akane exhaled. "Ah, is that how you're playing?"

"The good Lady?" Risako diffidently, too diffidently, asked.

"Ranma if you're in there, and I mean guy you, not this fluffy serving girl you're pretending to be, blink."

Giving a level look, Risako blinked. "Pardon this meager girl being confused by your orders, the good Lady." She then blinked in confusion.

"Is the magic, maybe the kimono, doing this to you? Blink if yes," Akane added.

Putting a hand to her eyes and seemingly blinking away the dust, Risako then gestured to the instrument at Akane's side. "Perhaps, the good Lady would humor this girl showing some meager musical skill?"

"How'd you get this way? Were you forced into it?"

"Or maybe some tea?" Risako asked, without blinking.

"I've got a drink, thank you," Akane automatically replied. "Anyway. So you're in there, the magic's making you act this way, and you weren't forced into this setup, or this getup. Why are you doing this?"

"The good Lady is aware this humble girl does have a duty to her geisha house," Risako said with a barb hidden under silken demureness.

"That's not a straight answer. Which is probably why you're being snarky."

The maiko blinked prettily.

"I'm glad you're having fun."


Akane snorted. "Maybe I shouldn't be talking, between that cursed strength-giving gi and the jellyfish swimsuit I've seen the appeal of magic clothes."

"It sounds like the good Lady has had an eventful life."

"That had to be sarcastic. You've had all sorts of crazy Amazon magic, Happosai's' creepy incenses and other leftovers, not to mention every other magical gimmick. Heck, I've been right by you and seen most of it."

Risako conveniently had to blink a bit of pollen out of her eyes.

"Very funny." Akane sighed. "Maybe I should make you another omamori charm. Protect you from this mess."

"This girl would find that to be a lovely gesture."

"But would it help?"

"Protection would be appreciated." The maiko did not blink.

"Right. Doing the magical girl thing, but you're stuck being a girl afterwards. Or a geisha playing a part. How girly are you like this?" Akane peered at the geisha. "Like what about... Ryoga?"

Risako's movements became a bit more guarded. "Hibiki-san?"

"Let's ignore any practicalities or relationships that might get in the way, just us girls, it is just us girls right?"

After a moment Risako lowered her head and slowly blinked. "This meager girl would not dare to speak out of place with the good Lady."


"This girl knows the good Lady has spent more time with Hibiki-san."

Akane paused. Was that jealousy she heard? "You're playing the role very well. Is that what Ranma thinks? That a meek maiko should be in love with a buff martial artist?"

Risako exhaled. "Hibiki-san is a very handsome man, at least in the meager opinion of this girl. He is very lucky, as is the good Lady."

Akane noted that the geisha's makeup made it nearly impossible to tell if she were blushing. "Is that a bit of jealousy I hear? But I'm not dating Ryoga. So, who are you jealous of?"

"Good lady!" Risako gasped.

"Okay," Akane gave a sly smile. "Who would you rather see without their shirt on?"

The maiko squeezed her knees together and folded her hands in her lap.

"I mean Ranma's seen both," A bit of anger flittered across Akane's face. "I'm still a bit annoyed at all the bathroom mishaps, even if a few weren't your fault. Though... I don't know, if any is your fault. Ranma's in there, but are you just Ranma playing a part or..."

The ebony-haired coiffed girl met Akane's gaze, unblinking. "I am Risako a maiko of Koutei no Joesi, the Emperor's Ladies," she then bowed her head.

"Well, then maybe we can talk about how Ryoga looks shirtless. He's very muscular, not in those too sleek swimmer's build of some boys I could say," Akane smirked.

"His shoulders are very broad," Risako agreed, a shy smile forming over her painted features.

"Okay Ranma... that's a better act than your normal 'I'm a cute girl' flirt," Akane frowned.

"This humble girl would dare not deceive the good Lady via theatrical performance."

Akane snorted. "Please, geisha are all about theatre. Your makeup's literally designed to look like a mask."

"Forgive a mere girl daring to correct her better," Risako prostrated.

Looking down at the maiko's ebony updo, Akane blinked. There was now a yellow and black spotted bow that tied back some of those obsidian tresses.

"Still imagining Ryoga's muscular chest?" Akane asked. "Would he really like a girl as slender as you? Maybe you hope he prefers girls with more hip and backside"

Risako rose back up to her kneeling position.

Akane studied her face. The maiko's reserve was a bit fractured and her gaze was a bit strained, she almost seemed a little bit flush.

"Good Lady? Pardon this girl for her distraction."

"And what about Tatewaki?" Akane smirked. She leaned in closer to the slender maiko. "A young lordling as you would say. Traditional, bushido-minded. And very dashing... in his way."

Risako brought a hand up and daintily waved it in front of her face. "More refreshment, Good Lady?"

"You know he had an eye for me. And that he was fond of his 'pigtailed girl,'" Akane inspected the Maiko's hair. "But you don't wear a pigtail."

"Master Kuno does try to appreciate culture."

"His calligraphy may be awful but at least he tries?"

"Mayhap a tutor with the right skills could provide the Kuno heir with the proper incentives," Risako said in a small voice.

Akane noticed the glossy blue steel lightning bolt pin in the Maiko's ebony hair, opposite the yellow and black bow. "Better hope Kuno is okay with a servant who more pear-shaped, given how often he grabbed even my breasts."

"This meager girl would perform her service," Risako pulled her knees together.

"Fantasizing about reforming a bad boy? Oooh..." Akane gave an exaggerated leer. "They both have that in common."

"Maybe this mere girl could entertain both at once," Risako held a dainty hand in front of her face before softly giggling. "Such a party that would be. Making such divergent headstrong lordlings be civilized."

The ebony-haired maiko gave Akane a shy "just us girls look". "Sooth, mayhap a piece of discord would be exciting."

You want them to fight over you? Why not add Mousse too? He may be obsessed with that harlot and too prideful to wear his glasses, but he does look very bishi with that long hair. You should love long glossy black hair."

There was a slight tremble in the maiko's shoulders.

It took a mere moment for her placid composure to reassert while a silver feather adorned with tiny pearls formed on the front of Risako's hair bun, in between the lightning bolt to the left and the bow to the right.

"Mu Tsu has many qualities that mitigate his deficiencies, and as a lord from foreign lands his ways are exotic. Oh." She gasped. Then with a look of surprise put a hand to her mouth and then fanned herself once more. "A mere maiko could not handle three such lords by her lowly self. If this girl were a full geisha..."

"Oh, what would you do?" Despite herself, Akane smirked down at the smaller maiko.

"It is not the place of a mere girl," Risako blushed.

At least Akane assumed she was blushing. "Come on, it's just us girls. Right?"

Risako exhaled. She gave Akane a shy glance. "Each young lord has his own appeal." She ran a hand down her obi.

Akane frowned, the patterned sash was tighter and a bit wider, doing more to show the girl's slender frame, though there was a bit more flare in back around her hips.
The Tendo girl tilted her head, she was not sure if Risako's makeup had shifted or her features had changed, maybe a more button nose, maybe a softer chin-line. Either way, it all made for an even more delicate, dainty girl.

"But do you have a favorite?" Akane smirked. "I mean, Mousse has a one-girl mind and Ryoga's utterly hopeless around girls. And neither of them is what we would call... cultured."

"They are headstrong, and could use some help in appreciating the finer things, provided they can take the time to realize what they had been lacking," Risako allowed in a very, very polite voice.

Akane chuckled. "The kitten has claws I see."

Risako bowed her head.

"And Tachi? He'd appreciate a maiko... well the buffoon would put on airs."

"Perhaps his comprehension could grow."

"But you, right now at least, lack a certain thing he cares about," Akane gestured to the maiko's chest and then to her, comparatively, much larger one.

"A mere maiko is not fit for a man such as he," Risako said.

"Right... but a geisha? Don't you have some sort of patronage system?"

Risako gave a slight nod. "This girl could be so lucky to have a future of such choices." She said before offering the Tendo girl some more refreshments.

Akane ate a few nuts. "You don't really want to date these two do you?"

"My lady?" Risako asked.

"Oh not like that. I mean even if you weren't all meek maiko with a stick up her butt, you find those three to be boring and boorish."

"Good lady, this humble girl was merely admiring the young lords' physical capabilities."

Akane scoffed. "Right, I'll admit martial artists do tend to be easy on the eyes. Right, Ranma?"

Risako gave a little blink then a tiny smile.

Leaning back on the grass, Akane's mirth grew as she laughed. "Oh, you little tease!"

"This girl is glad her good Lady is enjoying herself," Risako said leaning forward to freshen Akane's tea.

"Well, I wanted to ask questions about your magic, not talk about boys."

Risako gave that little smile. "This girl does not mind either conversation."

"How generous." Akane took a sip. "You've gotta cool off from your magical girl thing, right? How much longer until you won't have to be a mild-mannered maiko?"

"Does this entertainment displease our good Lady?" Risako asked.

"I wanna know how much time I have left."

"Oh, good Lady," Risako gasped.

"Not like that!"

"Pardon the embarrassment," the maiko bowed.

"Like you're really apologizing."

"Does the good Lady doubt this mere girl's sincerity?" Crestfallen, the maiko genuflected.

"Yeah... see, how sincere can it be if your geisha magic is making you do this, or if not that you're still playing the role." Akane eyed the smaller girl.

"This girl does not know how to further assure the good Lady of the purity of intention."

"I haven't really gotten a straight answer out of you." Akane snorted. "But not like you were straight with Mr. Idomi either. That was no haunting he had. That crone was after you."

"Mayhap there was a personal animus"

Akane laughed. "Why should I be surprised? You've been doing this double life for... well how long? If you're about to become a full fledged geisha that's... what a year? Longer?"

Risako lifted herself back up and gave a very demure smile with a ghost of pride.

"And Aunty Saotome's part of this. Is this her geisha house? How many secrets have you been keeping from us?"

"This mere girl does not relish the requirement to prevaricate."

Akane exhaled. That was worrying. The Emperor's Ladies had to lie?

The maiko tilted her head. She gave a wan smile. "Alas, my good Lady, this mere girl's allotment has passed."

"What?" Akane asked, but then realized what was happening as the maiko's form shimmered.

Hair brightened as glossy ebony made way for bright scarlet. Pallor faded as her cheeks and face turned to a more natural color. The elaborate kimono simplified and lightened. And the girl's figure shifted, becoming less delicately slender and thin and more... buxom.

"Geeze Akane, you're nosy" the redhead said as she stretched her shoulders and then cracked her neck as she assumed a languidly relaxed kneeling position. "At least it's you that found me out, if one of the guys had seen this..." She trailed off and coughed.


The redhead gave a smirk.

"You're..." Akane gestured to the shorter girl's outfit.

"Yeah? I was wearing a yukata before I had to put my face on." Ranma adjusted the simpler robe she wore.

Akane frowned. Yes, earlier tonight she had spotted the Saotome girl in a simple plum yukata with a plain red sash.

But now, the redhead's almost lavender yukata had a bit of feathered gold edging in and the sash was now patterned in silver threaded storm clouds.

"You're still pretty... girly."

Ranma snorted. "Please. Do you know how much goes into getting your hair done up in an ofuku? Not that it doesn't get appreciative looks."

"Don't you just use magic?" Akane noted that while Ranma still wore her hair in a ponytail like before... it was now far neater and held back with a yellow bow, and her bangs were curled over her forehead.

The redhead rolled her eyes. "Oh, it ain't that easy." She grabbed one of the cans and drank from it. "Those special pillows are a pain in the butt to use."

"Pillows?" Akane suspiciously asked. She was pretty sure that Ranma did not have such glossy lips earlier in the night nor had had a hint of makeup around her eyes. But she had to admit she did not get that close to the redhead. And this would not be the first time Ranma had indulged in eyeliner.

"To keep your fancy maiko hair from getting mused up." The redhead waved away. "Never mind." She gave a distant look.

"So... you're still you? What about all that girl talk?"

Ranma glanced down at herself. "That was your idea."

"Sure, but you seemed pretty into it. Talking about how all three had their finer points. So?"

The redhead blinked. "Damn it. I can't stop thinking about how handsome they are. This is your fault, Akane."

"What? Oh, that's not my fault!" Akane bristled.

"You chatted up clients with a magical maiko eager to become a full geisha? What did you think she'd do?"

"You're her!" Akane cried.

Taking a sip, Ranma rolled her eyes. "Anyway, yeah Kuno's the only one who'd have a clue on how to deal with a geisha, and he ain't bad to look at. Ryoga's got an edge in that, given the lunk's a slab of muscle."

Frowning, Akane rubbed her forehead. "This is... blatant."

Ranma laughed. "Please, I could be far more blatant but... a girl shouldn't kiss and tell."

Akane exhaled. "You're getting back at me for treating you like servant?"

"Nah, a magical little maiko was following you post battle, you were gonna get waited on hand on foot," Ranma adjusted her seating.

"Oh, that's good-"

"I'm getting back at you for making me think about hunky guys," Ranma took a swig of soda and swished it around in her mouth before swallowing. "Come on, Akane. I've got enough issues with that working at the okiya."

"What? What do you have to do at the geisha house?"

Ranma gave her a sweet smile. "It's not all fighting ghosts, dark witches, and yokai, our Lady," she said, her voice dropping into a demure tone.

"Gah! Don't do that!"

"As our Lady wishes," the redhead said, her Kyoto accent returning.

"Great, not only are you a better marital artist, and a better looking girl, but you're also better at the traditional arts too."

"I've always been a better cook," Ranma snorted.

Akane glowered.

"And you seemed pretty happy to find out your breasts were bigger than Risako's."

The Tendo girl's ire grew.

"Akane you've got a talent. And you did save me tonight. Let me thank you as Ranma," the redhead bowed to her.

"Ranma's a guy," Akane dryly noted.

"Not at the moment," she frowned. "If only we had some hot water for tea, I could have used that."

"And a talent?"

"Akane... you've been fondling that shamisen all night. Honestly, I'd be a bit jealous if not for you distracting me by talking about which guys you think I'd like more."

"You're not going to let that go?"

"It makes a girl ask questions."

"Guy," Akane corrected.

Ranma rolled her eyes.

The Tendo girl poked at the redhead. "And you're the one who keeps bringing it up. Do you want to keep talking about it?"

"It's not like you were talking about girls. Nothing about how a poor geisha-in-training would be swamped by the delusional, egotistical, and obsessive combination of Kodachi, Ukyou, and Shampoo. Such dominating girls over the poor meek maiko," the redhead gave a sigh.

"You're distracting me?"

"And you want me all for yourself," Ranma winked. "I could put my hair back up. I could even keep it red, that's not a proper maiko look but you seemed to find my ScarletFlair form appealing enough. "

"You're a magical girl," Akane whispered.

Ranma simply gave her a level gaze.

"I know, I mean it's just all... magical kimonos and mind bending powers. It is the kimono that gives you the power, right?"

The redhead sighed. "The mofuku have power, yes. Each is a mantle passed down generation to generation."

"You're not the first ScarletFlairNight?"

Ranma chuckled. "Hardly."

"Is that why you have to... play the role? Why you're all... Risako?"

The buxom redhead's eyes glinted. "The mofuku we use did not start out as black, women's black mourning kimono. In fact they were originally none of those things. But over time they got used to those things, to having their magic wielded by geisha and maiko."

Akane felt her stomach clench and grumble, her hand went to the neck of the Aki Momiji. During the battle, it had felt wonderful to play the instrument. Even now she had the urge to play the shamisen. Was wearing one of those transforming kimonos like that?

Refilling Akane's cup, Ranma gave a sympathetic smile. "It is a burden Akane. Even without the magic, being a geisha, a maiko, is all about assuming a role, playing a part."

"Putting on a mask?"

The redhead shook her head. "Turning your face into the mask."

Akane stared. "It was playing me..."

Ranma glanced down to the shamisen. "Aki Momiji does like you. You can feel honored, Hidaka treasured it."

"She didn't retire did she?"

Ranma shook her head. "Our work can be dangerous. Hidaka was my oneesan, she trained and guided me, was sponsoring my Erikae. Losing her..."

Akane pulled her hand off the instrument and put it over the redhead's. "And that's why you've been keeping it a secret?"

The Saotome girl snorted. "Hidaka died when I had been a maiko for over a year. I didn't want you, or anyone really to know that I'm really good at this job."

"You've played the girly girl before," Akane smirked.

"Sure, but elegant? And you know what Risako is like."

"And that's the magic at work?" Akane lifted her hand of Ranma's

The redhead sighed. "Kinda. It's all part of the pageantry, the costume, the role of it. They may not have started out as mofuku being wielded by the Emperor's Ladies, but... that sort of magic gains an inertia in an object, a power."

Akane nodded. "Wait... when Aunty Saotome gave you this job you asked about Kochan, if she could help you with it."

The redhead nodded.

"No wonder you were griping about how Ukyou treated Konatsu." Akane shook her head. "Is that why he... she.. quit?"

Ranma delicately coughed. "Teahouses are part of the same world of flower and willows, Karyukai, as geisha houses and um... orian."

"Are there still courtesans in your secret magic spy world?"

"Not as such no," the redhead shook her head. "But you can see how a teahouse kunoichi of considerable grace and skill would be a natural fit for..." she sighed and gestured towards herself.

"Yeah, but Konatsu's..."

Ranma just gave Akane a level look.

"Right, forgot who I was talking to." Akane chewed her lip, an uncomfortable feeling in her stomach. "You recruited Konatsu didn't you?"

"Not intentionally." The redhead blushed and bowed her head. "She got curious and tracked me... and well... Normally, I have more time to get to the okiya. I can make sure I'm not followed before leaving the geisha house. I have more time to assume the role."

"But today you were rushed."

The redhead adjusted her kneeling position.

Akane looked down at her drink, then back up at the elegant, but now spirited young woman before her. "This is why you were so weird about university and teaching on the walk back from school today. You're worried about your future."

"Ranma's future. Risako's future is set" the martial artist waspishly added.

"Really?" Akane grimaced.

"As long as Idomi-san doesn't lodge a grievance given tonight. I'm set for my

Erikae. And then I'll be a full geisha of Koutei no Joesi."

"You or Risako?"

"Is there a difference?"

Akane bit her lip.

"Under the mask... I'm still me. It's just a hell of a role. Being a geisha, a geiko, a maiko, a hangyoku is all about the role."

"But you're not a normal geisha, your house isn't. You do special tasks. Fight monsters."

The redhead snorted. "You'd think I'd go along with this getup if there wasn't more to it than being a prim, proper, party-planner?"

Akane's frown deepened as she thought through it. "That's the catch isn't it? You can do work as a powerful martial artist banishing monsters and other threats, but it's at the cost of that uniform, that mantle, that role."

The redhead gave a wry grin. "Yeah, it's a total magical girl mess."

"At least you don't have to deal with a mini skirt or a lot of bows."

The redhead sighed. "I dunno, you have any idea how hard it is to fight in a tight kimono? Kicks become a whole new process. And one giant obi knot is worse than, like, a dozen gothic Lolita bows and ribbons."

"Maybe you just need bigger hips to support that obi," Akane smirked.

Ranma rolled her eyes. "Laugh it up. Risako's all demure and it just... shows up."

"Riiight," Akane drew out the word. Part of her suspected that her fiance's gender issues played a part in this. In the past whenever Ranma pretended to be a girl, she would always go overboard. Though much of the time that was to tease one of her rivals.

"I guess it's good that I found you and not, say, Ryoga," Akane mused.

Ranma refilled her glass and gave a shy but confident smile. "Please, even as Risako, I could wrap him around my little finger."

"Yeah..." Akane admitted. Ranma had once pretended to be Ryoga's girlfriend and little sister, on separate occasions. "Still think he's the most handsome?"

"I never said that..." Ranma chewed her lip. "Eh, he's got the most muscles but the least brains... not that the other guys I know are all that bright."

"Welcome to my world."

"Nerima is really lacking." The redhead nodded. She then blinked as realization hit her. "Hey! I'm not that dumb!"

"Be happy I'm still calling you a guy. Given today and all," Akane said with forced cheer. Her fiance's, or perhaps fiancee's, ease at being female was worrying.

But that's only the most obvious of warning signs. This whole thing doesn't sit right, not with me, and not with Ranma, Akane thought to herself as her hand ran over the strings of her, no Hidaka's, instrument

The yukata-glad girl harrumphed. "Yeah, that's fair. It's easily to forget what this all looks like to an outsider."

Akane bristled, but calmed herself.

The redhead gave a sympathetic look.

"You're worried about me no longer being an outsider," Akane felt a bit of insecurity burble in her.

Ranma's gaze simply lowered to the shamisen that Akane was idly pinking.

"Right, and... you're not afraid I'm some clumsy tomboy who can't hack it." Akane recalled the fight. It was alluring, it also was a massive restriction. Beyond the weight of the costume itself, the whole thing...

Though part of her found the idea of being a very feminine, very traditional, and very proper warrior to be appealing. It scratched an itch that formed whenever she measured herself against Ranma's other fiancees.

"I think you've got the latent talent... If you dedicate yourself to it... if you really believe in the role..." Ranma gave a sympathetic, but slightly haunted smile.

Akane's emotions flicked. She was not sure what kind of hot retort would fit. The redhead did not seem to be talking down about her marital or feminine skill. And the insecure part of her noted that if Ranma and Konatsu could be magical maiko then surely a "real girl" could do it.

But then the even more insecure part of the Tendo girl pointed out that maybe Akane was such a tomboy that even the likes of those two could be better and more feminine girls than her. And that they were even more dedicated marital artists

"You're not sure I should try?" Akane asked in a small voice.

The redhead winced. "It's... not..."

Akane held up a hand. "No, you're not worried about what would happen if I washed out. You're worried what would happen if I made it."

Ranma nodded. "You caught a glimpse of the mantle we're under."

Akane imagined being like Risako, having to be utterly meek and demure, with a quiet subtle sarcasm as her only way to vent. "That's... not fun."

"Especially when your fiancee wants to talk about boys." Ranma shook her head. "Geeze, Akane were you trying to setup a double date?"

The Tendo girl blinked. "You sound interested."

Ranma rolled her eyes.

"No, obviously Risako would have been ecstatic on a date; you sound interested."

The redhead coughed.

"Um, nevermind."

Ranma gave an awkward grin. "Well... at least you wouldn't have that problem."

"No, I just have to deal with being a meekly traditional and properly feminine girl."

The redhead smoothed her yukata. "That is a great burden."

Akane snorted. "I guess you would have plenty of experience."

"Upside, all the geisha client interactions are formal enough that it's not like going to school as a girl."

Akane nodded, pensive. She wondered if that was why Ranma-as-Risako was so enthused about the idea of dating. Did... Risako want to spend time as a girl doing more than just being a magical maiko?

That led to further a question: just who was, or is, Risako?

She looked up to the redhead's blue eyes and found herself unable to voice the queries.

" 'kane?" Ranma tilted her head, causing her ponytail to swish about.

"Sorry just..."

"Felt like you fell through the looking glass? Tell me about it. I went from living in fear of Mom declaring I wasn't a 'man among men', to her sponsoring formal geisha training and declaring me her atotori."

"Heiress? Because you're the," Akane paused, "daughter of a geisha?"

Ranma nodded. "Maybe fearing her sword was kinda silly."

Akane forced a smile. Part of her wondered what Aunty Saotome's reaction would be if her child turned out to be neither manly nor willing to work as a maiko at an okiya.

The two fell silent for a minute.

"She probably never expected you to be part of that world, her world, given you were born a guy." Akane winced; she did not mean to imply Ranma was no longer a guy.

The redhead gave a gracious smile. "But Konatsu."

"Oh... maybe Aunty Saotome wouldn't mind if you ended up working a tea house instead," Akane murmured.


"Sorry, I'm still..." She eyed the redhead. "This is a hell of a thing you've been keeping a secret."

Ranma blushed. "Yeah."

"I can see why," Akane still felt hurt but she put on a smirk. "I mean Risako is a total doormat, and that latex kimono is something even Kodachi and Shampoo would think was too much."

The Ranma laughed nervously.

Akane took some relief that the redhead put her hand behind her head instead in front of her mouth.

"And that's just your female suitors. We've discussed your guy problems already."

"Perhaps a bit too much," Ranma murmured.

"An attitude like that will get you another discussion about how Ryoga looked when you to shared the furo, or maybe all those times you were in the boy's locker room."

The redhead's face clouded as she used a demure little handkerchief to dab at her face.

"Really?" Akane snorted.

"Risako was far too polite to say it, but she, no... I noticed you certainly had eyes for her, um, me. Which I'm sure was merely just you comparing our figures to yours."

Akane rolled her eyes. "Maybe I'm just worried what it'll be like if I'm wearing one of those fancy kimonos."

"You'd have to get through a probationary period as a minarai, before your misedashi where you'll debut as a maiko."

"So many rituals." Akane narrowed her eyes. "You said I could handle the girly parts and the martial parts."

"Sure," Ranma shrugged. "But could you sit quietly watching your oneesan work while you're in the most elaborate kimono you've ever seen? Not to mention being loaned out to an ochaya to learn the basics of serving tea and the like."

"Maybe Aunty would have been okay with you being a teahouse kunoichi," Akane murmured.

"It depends on the lineage of the ochaya," a mature woman's voice smoothly said in a rich Kyoto accent. "There are some hovels that barely deserve the name."

The woman glided forward in an elegant dark tomesode kimono with forest patterns on the lower hem and a gold obi tied around her waist. She had black hair sculpted up in a style that was familiar to Akane, but she could not name it. Though she was certain that was not the woman's natural hair color.

From her kneeling position, Ranma genuflected. "Okaa-san, this lowly girl did not expect to see one such as thee," the redhead said as her hair darkened slightly as her own accent came in.

"Daughter, there's no need for formalities. It's not like we're among outsiders" Holding a long silk bundle, Nodoka then gave a slight bow to Akane. "Are you enjoying your instrument?"

Akane's eyes went to the shamisen she still had in her hand.

Nodoka knelt down next to her... daughter. Together their similar looks lent an air of elegance, with their not quite fully pale faces serene. Akane began to understand the way multiple geisha and maiko could build off of each other, a form of resonance.

The Tendo girl idly plucked a note.

Glancing to her mother, Ranma adjusted her yukata which looked a bit fancier with more body to her obi and while her hair was still crimson in the night air, it had gained a few hair ornaments and flowers.

"I heard from Idomi-san." The look Nodoka gave Ranma was full of questions.

The redhead with her newly updone coiffure nodded.

"Yeah, I followed Ranma, I overheard you two and thought he was up to something," Akane crossed her arms. "Turns out I was right."

"Fools rush," Nodoka shook her head as she looked over the drinks and snacks that Risako had gathered and idly started neatening them.

"There were concerns, Mother," Ranma looked down.

"Yes, and what you found," the older geisha shook her head. "And what you both fought."

"What did we fight? That hag seemed to know Ranma and have a grudge against your whole geisha house."

Nodoka gave a slow nod. "Sometimes witches are corrupted by dark powers and spirits. Magic can change a person, especially if not used with caution."

Akane gave her fiancee, who seemed to have reverted to a kimono, was paler than her mother with fully upsculped and ornamented glossy ruby hair, a warding look

"The Mofuku are carefully calibrated to be used by the Emperor's Ladies. Each of us goes through rigorous training to handle the power."

"Right... that's the whole geisha rituals and roles," Akane looked between the two women. "It's your way of controlling the power, channeling it. You aren't just party-planners in fancy dress."

The redhead gave a demure little smile but her eyes had a wicked gleam.

Nodoka tisked. "Ah, so Risako was being a very obliging hostess was she?"

That gleam grew, even as the full pallor of oshiroi makeup covered her features. "Perhaps this mere girl was not sufficiently servile, Okaa-san."

Nodoka shook her head then turned to Akane. "Broadly correct, each of us is still skilled at the non-combative parts of the job. Some of us are more... natural at it than others."

Akane blinked. "Wait... so you don't go all robo-geisha like Risako-Ranko over there?"

"We'd be honored to have you visit the Koutei no Joesi," Nodoka smiled.

The redhead nodded, her lips in a smile that was overtly demure, but Akane could now see the hidden sharpness.

"I'm not sure..." Akane strummed her hand. Then realized she was playing a melody, a familiar subtly discordant one.

"The temptation is there, our Lady," the redhead noted.

Nodoka smoothed her kimono a bit. "I won't pressure you."

You don't have to, Akane thought. "I'm still curious but..." Her eye went to the long silk-wrapped bundle Nodoka had put down by her side.

"The Pledge?"

"Man among men?" Akane gestured to the redheaded maiko now in nearly full regalia. "The training trip?"

Nodoka exhaled. "We have all made mistakes. And there were things I did not anticipate. Regrets I have.

She means if Ranma were born a girl she could have avoided all this, the traitorous voice though in Akane/s mind.

"Ranma's martial arts skill serve her well, no matter what she, he, does with his life," Nodoka assured.

Akane pondered. Her attention went to Ranma. The redhead let her composure slip for a moment, revealing her nerves.

"The same could be said for you." The senior geisha smiled benevolently at Akane.

"Yeah... Ranma already gave the pitch," the Tendo girl exhaled.

The redhead blushed demurely, but had a coquettish grin."

"She was subtle and coy," Akane assured.

"Well done, daughter." Nodoka bowed her head. "I do regret keeping you in the dark for so long, Akane. If you desire, I can do what is in my power to make up for it."

Akane tried to center herself. It was a soft sell, but it was there. Aunty Saotome was more refined and confident. There was a power to her, it was polished and silken but the redhead deferred to her

She licked her lips.

"Don't feel pressured," Nodoka assured.

Akane had to keep from snorting. She had seen this act before when Ranma was playing the coy temptress. Perhaps...

She looked over to the redhead who gave a tiny, tiny nod.

Right, Ranma was showing Akane how it worked, the tactics a magical maiko, or her magical geisha mother would use.

"It is a generous offer," Akane allowed. She knew about getting power from magical artifacts. There was always a price. Though...

Her hand played out a note. The offer was tempting, and unlike Ranma, she was already a girl.

The question was if it would change the type of girl Akane was. She figured she could play the part of a maiko while on duty but... if it changed her...

Then again, that Ranma was able to fool her, and everyone else for a year. So if Ranma could lead a double life...

Akane smirked at the thought of keeping a secret from the other fiancees, from her sisters. "If it's not too much trouble, maybe I could come and visit your geisha house."

The redhead gave a tiny exhale.

Akane eyed the maiko with her dark red hair. Did Ranma want this? Was Ranma afraid of this? Did Ranma want more of her, his, Nerima life to come into this world of magic and maiko, ghosts and geisha?

A spark of pride grew in Akane's chest. Ukyou wasn't here, neither was Shampoo, nor Kodachi. She was the fiancee Ranma had spent the evening serving.

A frown filtered over the Tendo girl's face. Risako had been serving her most of the night. Or was it Ranma wearing the mask of Risako.

Akane studied the two women. Ranma wore more makeup, but even Nodoka's face was pale, almost porcelain, masks and mantels.

"I think you'll have a wonderful time," Nodoka smiled as if sharing a secret with the two girls.

Akane exhaled. She could back out, pretend this night never happened, but... that would deny the temptation. She wanted to know. If she turned back now she would never be able to look at Ranma the same way.

"I hope so," Akane smiled at the two Saotome women and rested her hand on her shamisen.

End chapter 2

And here it is. Akane's learned more about the secrets the Saotome women have been keeping, but there's still more of a mystery and more of a temptation.

Thanks to DCG, Ellf, Kevin D Hammel, Henry Stickman, and . for their help with the corrections. Once again special thanks . for corrections on word choices and other bits that really helped flesh out the... unique descriptions and speaking style in this story.

Hope you all enjoyed it and are looking forward to more.