Tendō Akane could never quite explain what it was about her Sunday afternoon exercise routine that refreshed her so.
Certainly, the many winding streets of Nerima made each of her runs different and exciting. Since she’d started jogging nearly two years ago, she’d practically never run the same route twice, and the few times she had, had been far enough apart that she’d started to learn the rhythms of Nerima’s seasons. She knew that Yamada-san, the old woman who lived a few doors down and who always ran into Akane while coming out of her gate to pick up the newspaper for her lunch, bundled up come October. She knew how the corner market, the one where she would often run into Kasumi while jogging back home, would start expanding their outdoor displays in April once the days started getting warmer. She’d watched kids in playgrounds put their coats on come November and shed them by May. She’d seen Nerima in the sun, the rain, the cold.
She’d seen Nerima change, too... Newer apartment buildings springing up where redevelopment had been running its course... The way those fancy transparent LED displays seemed to appear in more of the high-end shopfronts all the time... New solar panels appearing on rooftops year after year... Together with the regular changing of the seasons, it almost made Akane feel like Nerima was fresh and alive.
And her runs left her feeling fresh and alive, too, each pump of the leg, each pace helping to channel her energies, calming and preparing her for her return to the Tendō household. In some ways, her jogs felt like the one chance she had each week to pull together all her regular annoyances and stresses and resolve them with one solid blow, namely the ritual smashing of concrete blocks that inevitably followed her return.
Jogging, then smashing. Jogging, then smashing. Something about the regularity of it helped center her... given her nerve-wracking home life.
And so it was one Sunday when, after popping her earbuds out, after dropping her smartphone in the hamper with her running gear, after dressing and stacking and smashing, her older sister Nabiki had interrupted her post-workout glow to say something about some boy and... an arranged marriage? No that couldn’t be right. Those things were outdated over half a century ago! Still, here she was, stomping down a hallway to the distant sound of thunder, dusting her hands off after dumping those concrete blocks into the trash, quite determined to get to the bottom of this.
Finding her father and two older sisters already seated at the table when she got there, Akane gruffly took a seat next to Nabiki, across from her father. “What’s all this I hear from Nabiki about a fiancé?”
Her father, Sōun, had apparently pulled himself together for the occasion, wearing his finest hakama. He carefully sipped his tea before setting it down in front of him as the rain began to pour down outside. He was never this formal. Not unless... The corner of his mouth curled into a faint grin. Oh, he was trying to cover for some foolhardy idea of his again, wasn’t he?
“Oh yes, the son of one of my good friends. Apparently goes by the name of Saotome Ranma.”
Akane was shocked. “You didn’t even know this son’s name?”
“Now, now, Akane,” tutted Kasumi, Akane’s oldest sister. “Surely Father has his reasons for proposing such an... unusual request...”
“It just so happens that I do!” Ugh. There was that grin of his, growing wider. It was definitely a bad idea, and he knew it. “You know that fewer and fewer people have been coming to train at the dōjō as I’ve grown older. And as one of the two remaining masters of Anything-Goes Style Martial Arts, it’s my duty to the art to ensure that the dōjō and the art live on. As the son of the only other heir to the school, I could die happy if one of you girls were to marry him and carry on the legacy of my dōjō...”
Akane slammed her hands on the table, barely able to contain her frustration. “Why on earth would you think it was right to marry your daughters off without their say in this day and age! Maybe that sort of thing was okay back when your dad was a kid, but now? In a world where you could be one of thousands of people killed in an instant at a pop concert? Get real, Dad!”
“It’s true, Father.” Kasumi added. “We’ve at least got to meet the guy, first. Ranma, you said?”
Very helpful, Kasumi. I’m trying to raise hell and here you are trying to make excuses!
“Oh, yes, heh, well...” There was that damned grin again. “That is easily fixed. You see, Ranma and his father have been on an extended training expedition that recently led them through China...”
Nabiki’s ears seemed to perk up at the word. “China? Wow...” Akane could tell that the gears were turning in Nabiki’s head already. Fleecing a Japanese martial artist who was rich and stupid enough to travel through China definitely would be fun for her, wouldn’t it?
“Is he cute?”
Yup. Nabiki must have thought so, too.
“I don’t get it. What’s so great about training in China? Couldn’t he have just stayed here in Japan?” scoffed Akane.
“I have to agree with Akane, Father, there’s a lot we don’t really know here...” Kasumi, at least, seemed to share Akane’s concern... Or so she thought. “I mean, how old is he? Young men are a bit... tiresome...”
“Yeah, what is this Ranma guy like, anyway?” Nabiki chimed in. “You’ve never even mentioned him before now.”
The Tendō sisters’ father began to laugh. A deep, gutteral laugh. Akane knew that laugh. Her father had absolutely no idea what he was doing, and they all knew it.
“Never met the guy, actually.”
Akane’s astonishment quickly turned to confusion as the sound of shouting faintly echoed through the Tendō family’s front gate. The distant commotion was soon accompanied by a rough voice tinged with a strange sweetness yelling “Let me go, you asshole!”
Her father sprang to his feet at the racket. “Oh! That must be him right now!” He gestured for his daughters to follow him to the source of the noise. “Come! Come!”
Akane followed along after her more curious sisters, still wary of her father’s “arranged marriage” farce. The last thing she needed to deal with right now was another boy she was supposed to care about. Their constant affections gave her enough trouble every weekday. And this one might marry her? Ugh. Still, she supposed that she ought to see for herself...
Akane rounded a corner only to be greeted by the sight of her father and Nabiki dashing back down the hallway, directly towards Akane, chased by what looked to be... a giant panda? Carrying a red-haired teenager?
“Hey! Put me down, jackass!” The redhead had apparently yelling at the panda this whole time. “You’re just freakin’ them out more!”
“Father... Why is there a panda in the house?” asked Kasumi.
Nabiki seemed equally confused. “Is this panda... your friend?”
Sōun shook his head in disbelief, clearly as baffled as his daughters. As if responding to their collective confusion, the panda grabbed the figure on its shoulder, and plopped it down in front of the Tendō family.
The figure set before them was a diminutive one, standing barely higher than Akane’s nose, if she had to guess. Stranger still were their clothes, which seemed to consist of a magua-like red shirt fastened down its length with yellow buttons and a pair of dark, loose-fitting pants cinched tight round the ankles and waist. If this was the Ranma her father claimed had been training in China, well... they certainly looked the part in that get up. Still, Akane had to admit: they looked oddly cute in it...
Baffled of what to make of such an offering, redhead and father stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. It was Sōun who broke the silence first. “So... You would be...”
The redhead turned her head away, her face filled with a strange, pained emotion Akane couldn’t quite place.
“Saotome Ranma... Sorry ‘bout this.”
Sōun, however, looked pleased and brought the redhead into a tight embrace. “Ranma! Fantastic! I’m glad you made... it...” Akane’s father trailed off suddenly, clearly disturbed by something she couldn’t make out.
“You... Those are...” he sputtered. The Tendō patriarch let Ranma go, giving them a strange look that quickly attracted the attention of his daughters.
“Is something wrong, Father?” asked Kasumi.
“Hmm...” Nabiki went to inspect and prod the clearly oversized chest of their new arrival. “These are breasts, Daddy. I don’t know what kind of trick you were trying to pull, but this Ranma of yours is a girl.”
Sōun looked distraught. “I... I’ve got to go lie down.”
Tendō family and visitors crowded around the futon that had been laid out for Sōun. Akane’s father was clearly distraught, tears streaming down the sides of his face. Whatever plans he’d made for the future of the Tendō dojo had clearly been dashed to pieces by the presence of the red-haired girl sitting by his side, who was now clearly trying to be distract herself from the situation by fingering a small oblong pink gem hanging from her neck. Akane could almost feel sorry for her father. Still, it was his own fault!
Kasumi wrung a cold towel out in a bowl and placed it on her father’s head. “What a shock! Father must be so disappointed!”
“Disappointed? You’d be disappointed too if you found out that you’d almost married your daughters off to a girl! You’d think Daddy would know better than to assume his kids were okay with... that!” As Nabiki gestured to the redheaded girl with a flourish, Ranma reactively winced. Clearly Nabiki was none too pleased with the loss of her prospective boytoy.
Despite the situation, Akane found herself bristling at her sister’s comment. Something about talking about this Ranma girl as if she’d had any more say in the matter than Nabiki or Akane had, let alone that weird assumption of hers that something was inherently worse about marrying one of them off to a woman than a man, rubbed Akane the wrong way. In fact, given the way she was now even more awkwardly absorbed in that necklace of hers, Ranma was clearly not exactly pleased to be stuck in this situation either...
“Come on you two! It doesn’t matter if he’s a she! She’s still our guest!”
But Nabiki would apparently have none of it. “Daddy, this is all your fault! You should have made sure you were engaging us to a guy! How could you be so foolish and not check!”
“Well I was told he had a son!” Sōun replied, a note of exasperation in his voice.
“So?! Do you think this looks like a son??” Nabiki grabbed one of Ranma’s breasts, as if to emphasize the point.
Ranma pulled back from the unwanted attention, jerking away from Akane’s older sister only to cover her breasts. “You could leave th’ merchandise alone, y’know!”
Enough was enough. Whatever the situation was, Akane could tell that Ranma was about as done with her family’s antics as she was and could probably do with some extra space to breathe.
Wait, Ranma was supposedly a martial artist, right?
As Nabiki and Sōun continued to argue (and Kasumi did her best to mediate), Akane edged over to where Ranma was sitting and tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey, you want to join me in the practice hall? Dad and Nabiki are probably gonna be like this for a while. Might help take your mind off things.”
The redhead looked away from her necklace and up at Akane for a moment before nodding. “I... I think that’d be alright...”
“The name’s Akane. Sorry everything turned out to be such a mess. I hope we can still be friends...”
The Tendō dōjō itself was rather modest, smaller than some Akane had visited, but larger than it ought to be, given her father’s near-complete lack of students. But that still left plenty of space for a pair of teenaged martial artists to spar...
“You know kempo, right?” Akane asked.
Ranma nodded. “A little...”
Oh! This could work out then! “Mind if we have a little match then? Just for fun!”
The red-haired girl seemed somewhat taken aback by the suggestion.
“I dunno... I sorta just thought I’d...” she trailed off.
“Don’t worry. We don’t have to take it super seriously. Just something to take your mind off whatever’s bothering you.”
Ranma hesitated for a moment before nodding. “I... I guess one small match would be alright...”
The two quickly bowed toward the front of the dōjō, showing their respect to the shomen, before moving to opposite sides of the room to face each other. While Akane quickly took to a ready stance, Ranma simply stood there, hands tucked behind her back, looking quite distracted, before shaking her head and focusing her eyes on Akane. Was this... a joke? Perhaps Ranma didn’t know much kempo after all.
Still, a match was a match, so Akane decided to move in towards the redhead and throw the first punch... only for Ranma to simply jump, tucking her legs in, allowing Akane’s fist to sail into open air. Since when were aerial acrobatics part of kempo?
“Yaa!” Akane swept out her leg in an attempt to hit Ranma’s side, only to find the girl once again leaping high up into the air, out of her reach. “Sei!” A fist sailed into empty space as Ranma effortlessly dodged to one side. “Hwah!” Another kick dodged when Ranma ducked under it. Her moves were almost unreal!
Akane was growing annoyed. Dodging was all fine and good, but Akane had been expecting a bit more of... well, a fight. Ranma’s cadence was all wrong! Blow was supposed to eventually be exchanged for blow! That was the whole point of the art!
“Aren’t you going to swing at me?”
Saying nothing, Ranma kept dodging attack after attack, as if she knew each move Akane planned on making before she made it.
Why are all my strikes missing her? Shouldn’t I be able to land something?
As her muscles began to burn from the cumulative exhaustion of her weekly jog and the plethora of attacks she had been throwing at the redhead without effect, Akane paused to catch her breath. Enough was enough! If this was how Ranma was going to play, she might as well give it her all. Clenching her fists to muster as much power and speed as she could manage, Akane came in for one last punch... only to make contact with the wall, which exploded in a blast of splinters.
A sudden tap on the back of her head caught Akane off-guard. As she turned and saw Ranma standing there, Akane knew that continuing was pointless. Ranma had managed to evade every one of her attacks and managed to get inside her defenses without throwing a punch. And now there she was, nervously laughing, clearly unsure how her sudden victory was being taken. She was certainly good.
“Well... That was a match...” Akane tightened her belt and straightened her gi. “At least you’re a girl...”
The redhead cocked her head. “Hmm? Whaddaya mean?”
“Oh, just... If I’d lost to a boy like that... I dunno. I’d just feel awful.”
Ranma seemed to pause for a moment, a concerned look on her face, as if looking desperately for something to say. She then shook her head as if to disabuse herself of the idea, before silently bowing to the shomen once more alongside Akane.
While Akane had offered to show Ranma around the rest of her house after the match, the redhead had asked to be left alone to “think through some shit”, as she had put it, leaving Akane to her own devices. With nothing else to do, Akane found herself wandering the halls of the Tendō home.
What a strange girl.
Akane couldn’t help but reflect on the enigmatic visitor as she wandered. As rough as Ranma’s speech might have made her seem at first glance, Akane saw a certain soft, feminine air about her. After all, a guy would have tried to take charge of the situation with her father, panda or no panda, wouldn’t he? A guy would have rushed her and tried to fight her, or worse, refuse to. But Ranma had actually fought Akane, and her style, however unorthodox it might have seemed in the moment, now struck Akane with its strangely feminine-like passivity. And there was that strange distance she seemed to keep, too! How absorbed she’d been in that necklace of hers...
What kind of a girl was this rough and tumble girl that had arrived on the Tendō family’s doorstep sight unseen, with a giant panda?
What kind of a girl was this easily distracted girl who hid such strongly-focused passivity in her fighting style?
And this girl supposedly left China with this panda and made it all the way here without any issues?
Akane was intrigued. There was something strange and wild about Ranma that she wished she could find in herself. At least if she had, maybe she wouldn’t feel so... stuck. Day after day of the same thing: fighting the boys in the morning, pushing her way through the school day... for what? To come home to a father who barely kept a roof over their heads and two sisters that had to regularly step in on the numerous occasions he hadn’t quite managed to? Homework, perhaps practice some martial arts like a hien or a kata (depending on the day and her father’s moods), then bed. Every single day. Not much of a life.
She hated it.
At least Ranma... Ranma was different. If she were to stay for a bit while things got sorted out with this arranged marriage business... well... Maybe Akane’s life would get more interesting. She might actually have someone to talk to... They looked to be about the same age, after all. Maybe they’d go to school together and grow to be close friends as they worked on homework together and one night while they were taking a break from homework they might even...
And to think that the afternoon had started with her not even imagining that she was going to be engaged to a guy!
Akane’s reverie was broken by Nabiki. “Akane! There you are! Just wanted to let you know that the furo’s ready.”
“Oh thanks!” A bath in the furo would be pretty nice right about now.
Akane quickly made her way to the bathroom, following a brief detour to her bedroom to pick up a clean towel. Shutting the door behind her, Akane carefully untied the ribbon holding her hair back, and disrobed. Yes, a nice soak would put her mind more at ease.
She opened the door to the furo...
And found a guy.
In the furo.
Nice muscles though.
Akane slid the door closed behind her and took one breath, then another. Heart still pounding, head still flush with a rush of teenage hormones, she threw her gi back on and stepped back in the hallway. Everything was normal out here. No one had seen this? No, of course not. Today had been weird, but it couldn’t be that weird... And yet the inescapable fact remained: A boy had seen her in the bathroom!
Akane let out a blood-curdling scream that quickly broke into a cry of rage as she began pounding down the hallways toward the garden out back.
“I’ll kill him. I’ll drown him in that damn furo!”
She grabbed a boulder from a decorative pile of rocks and had just turned to bring it back into the house, only to once again run into Nabiki, whose curiosity about Akane’s yelling had clearly gotten the better of her.
“What’s going on Akane? What’s the rock for?”
“There’s a pervert in the bathroom, Nabiki! I was planning on making sure he would think twice before trying to peep on us like that again!”
Nabiki looked equal parts surprised and perplexed. “But... why the rock? Why didn’t you just take him on right there?”
“B... Because I’m afraid! He saw me naked!”
By this point, even Kasumi had come to investigate the ongoing commotion. “What’s going on?”
Nabiki shrugged. “Akane saw some kind of perv in the bathroom.”
Kasumi’s brows furrowed. “Strange. I told Ranma to take a bath a little bit ago. I hope she’s okay...”
Just then, the floor behind the Tendō sisters gave a sudden creak, immediately drawing their attention to the person that had made it.
“Who... Who are you?”
Before them stood a young man wearing an outfit much like that which Ranma had been wearing only minutes earlier, tugging on his single black braid of hair. Closing his eyes, he breathed in deep and exhaled before opening them once more.
“I... I’m Saotome Ranma. Sorry ‘bout this.”
Akane had heard it said that one’s introduction was the first and only opportunity to make a great impression. And whoever this boy... this pervert was, whether he was really Saotome Ranma or had just stolen the redhead’s name, he had not exactly made a good one.
In a strange stroke of fortune, however, as if to punctuate the boy’s statement with an uncanny sense of cosmic timing and a complete and utter disregard for Akane’s barely bridled anger and increasing confusion, a green laser suddenly lit the evening sky behind him and fractured the full moon into two pieces.
Looking back on it some time later, Akane would only ever say that of course someone like Ranma would show up the night the moon exploded.
__ ,--,/' / 戦姫絶唱 / //_,' ,--,`-' ,----, ,--------, ,---` '--, ,----------, /____/ ,--, ,-----, /_____ / ,--, /___ ___/ /_______ / ,----, / / /____./ / / ,-----` `-, ,---' '--, ,--,/ / /____/ / / / / /__ _ _/ /___ ___/ / / `-' / / __.-, ,--` / ,-` _// / / / / / .------'` / .----` __/ /___,-' /_,-` /__/ / / .---'` / /_______,-'` /___,--` /__/ /____,-'` S Y M P H O G E A R _,.._ ,.. ,.. ,^` `^. _,---,__ | \ / | | ,---. |'` ____ `.\ \ / / | '---` | ',_ `-.' \ x / | ,, ,.-``-. `-._ / \ | | \ \ ``-., './ /^\ \ | | \ `-,--.__./ / / \ \ `-.-` `-..',_ ,.'._./ '._.' `''^'' MAYBE ONLY THE NEVERENDING WAVES WOULD KNOW WHAT'S BEEN DECIDED IN MY HEART...