Koru Hosei Academy is a collection of arches. Arched windows, arched doorways, reliefs of arches as decoration, topped by a dome, arching under the blue sky of this beautiful Nerima morning.
Hordes of pupils stream through an arched gate into the building that contains the school's ice rink. There is a banner above the gate, proclaiming that the contest for the "Charlotte Cup" will be held here today. Everybody is excited to see their school's champions handle the challengers.
In a small changing Room, Ranko and Akane are putting on their outfits. Ranko has some trouble squeezing into the small number she is going to wear on the ice. She is annoyed.
Ranko: This is so stupid. Why do we hafta dress up like that.
Akane: [sighs] Because it's a public match. It's expected that the contestants are something to look at, too.
Ranko: It's still stupid. Mikado and Azusa are professional showoffs - no matter what we put on, they're going to out-glamour us easily. So why should we play into their hands by trying to compete with them? The important thing is the match.
Akane: I know. But I'd still like to look good for once.
Ranko: [grins] So why are you putting on that leotard? I bet you'd turn some heads if you went out there without it.
Akane: [swats at her, playfully] Baka.
She pulls on her garment and then eyes Ranko, who has succeeded in putting on hers.
Akane: I don't know what you complain about; This fits you perfectly. If I had let you have your way, you would only have worn some loose-fitting stuff that hides your figure. Why do you like those outfits so much?
Ranko: It's got nothing to do with "like". What do you think would happen if I got splashed while wearing this?
The arena has filled up almost completely, mostly with pupils from either Koru Hosei or Fuurinkan who are treating this as if it were a school match, shouting their encouragements to their respective "home team". The speaker system squeals for a second, then a voice echoes through the stadium.
Announcer: Welcome to this exciting battle on ice - the competition for the Charlotte Cup.
The audience cheers. Somewhere in their ranks a boy turns to his neighbour.
Boy: Why's it called "Charlotte Cup"?
Boy 2: Beats me.
On a display near the announcer's desk stands a large prize cup - and chained to it a disgruntled little pig with a necklace. It "bwee"s furiously. Slowly the lights dim, and spotlights dance over the ice.
Announcer: And now... The first contestants to enter are Koru Hosei's champions of martial arts freestyle skating - Shiratori Azusa and Sanzenin Mikadooo!
Singled out by one of the shining spotlights, The two skaters make a magnificent entrance, displaying at once their confidence, their proficiency upon skates and above all their good looks. Sparkling with sequins they take their bows, while the screams and yells of their respective fanclubs wash over them.
By the side of the rink, Ranko mutters to Akane.
Ranko: What'd I tell you? Showoffs. By all rights we should now make an entrance to knock their socks off, just to show 'em.
She grumbles darkly, knowing full well that they would never be able to do that.
Akane: [smiles] I know something better we can do.
Ranko: Yeah? What?
Akane: We'll go in there, sock them one and knock them out of the rink!
With that she steps onto the ice, Ranko following.
Announcer: And on the other end we have the Challengers, Tendou Akane and Saotome Ranko, both of Fuurinkan High.
As Akane and Ranko skate slowly, but steadily to the center, another spotlight follows their path, highlighting them. A few cheers erupt, from the Fuurinkan population on the ranks, but neither of them has an actual fanclub, like both of their opponents.
Ranko radiates animosity, and the air of subdued power around her gives her a sparkle that is no smaller than Mikado's - if somewhat less inclined to make women swoon. Akane's form, flattered by her outfit, makes many a boy's heart beat faster, but none of them follows the Azusa-fans' example by hollering and whistling. Not since Ranma once disbanded a group of Akane's insistent would-be suitors.
Finally the two teams face each other and the lights are turned up again. The showing off is over - let the show begin. Azusa speaks up with a sneer.
Azusa: You can still give up and go home. Charlotte will love it with Azusa-chan.
Akane: P-chan belongs to me! I'll never back down.
Azusa: Well, it's you funeral.
Akane: [coldly] We'll decide that when the coffin lid is closed.
Announcer: And the match begins!
Without losing a second, Mikado and Azusa speed towards Akane and Ranko, Azusa suspended over Mikado's back by their joined hands. Showing no hesitation, their opponents approach them, likewise with joined hands.
Akane: Take this, thief!
With this cry, Akane leans over, swinging Ranko forward and up by her hands. Ranko uses the momentum to do a flying leap, aiming a kick at Azusa while keeping her hold on Akane's hands. Azusa evades the blow by pushing herself up and sailing over both, Ranko and Akane, landing behind them. Mikado ducks through, right under Ranko, and sticks his head between their outstretched, linked arms, so that he now faces Akane from mere inches away.
Mikado: My, you look even more lovely in a true skater's outfit.
He leans in towards Akane, whose hands are not free to defend herself, because they are still holding Ranko's. She sets her jaw and prepares to bite his nose, if necessary. Mikado pouts his lips.
Akane blinks, when suddenly she looks into Ranko's eyes. Where, fractions of a second ago, there were Mikado's puckered lips, she now sees Ranko's determined grin. Reflexively, she lets go of her hands.
Ranko is standing with both feet on Mikado's head, pushing his face into the ice. Casually she hops off and motions for Akane. Akane gives her an angry stare.
Akane: So much for that maneuver.
Ranko: How was I to know that he'd do something like that?
Akane: [sarcastically] "Always expect the unexpected", Ranko.
Behind them, Mikado has pulled his face free of the ice he had unexpectedly been forced to kiss. Through blue and blistered lips he speaks.
Mikado: Saotome Ranko! Your jealousy will not prevail. You had your chance and you refused - now let Tendou Akane enjoy my attention without interfering.
Ranko grabs her head, shaking it in disbelief.
Ranko: Oh man! He actually thinks I am envious of you for being kissed by him.
Mikado: Indeed, I shall steal her lips without fail.
Ranko puts her hands on her hips.
Ranko: Oh yeah? Let's see you try. Akane is my best friend - Try to lay a lip on her and you die!
Mikado just smiles at such naive insolence.
Mikado: Such strong words about such a fragile bond. We have shattered stronger links than that.
Ranko: [thinks] What is he talking about?
Mikado: Know that we, the Golden Pair of Martial Arts Skating, are also known as the Anti-Matchmakers. We have split up loving couples with ease - don't believe that something as a mere friendship can withstand our attacks.
With those words, Mikado starts the offensive again. He grabs Azusa's hands and they fly towards Ranko and Akane in their attack formation. Ranko takes Akane's hands as well.
Ranko: Let's try something similar again; That way I hope we can separate them. If Azusa jumps away from Mikado again to evade, let go of me and I'll land behind him. Then we can try to work on him simultaneously. Without his help Azusa will only be of limited danger.
Akane: Sounds like it could work. Let's try.
The two teams circle each other once, then Ranko and Akane shoot forwards. Again, Akane swings and pushes Ranko up, giving her the momentum for the flying kick. But Mikado and Azusa do not react as expected. Instead of separating, like the last time, Mikado just turns sideways, allowing Ranko to sail past, dragging Akane by her hands. He shifts his grip on Azusa, holding her by the legs now, so that he hands are free. Just as Ranko is passing her, Azusa leans over and grabs her ankles.
Ranko: Huh, what...?
Announcer: There! Already the golden pair is using their ultimate split-up technique.
Mikado lifts Azusa up, letting her feet rest on his shoulders. Ranko is now dangling heads down from Azusa's grip, still clinging to Akane's hands. This proves to be a mistake, as Mikado suddenly begins spinning - faster and faster around his axis. Akane is carried outward and up by the centrifugal force.
Announcer: It's the dreaded "Good-bye whirl"!
Mikado: It's the first time that I use this move on two girls. Too bad - this way it will last even shorter. You might as well give up now. Release her, and I'll stop spinning.
Announcer: That is the subtle cruelty of the Couple Cleaver. If the trapped male betrays his love, he alone will be spared - and if he doesn't, she will hurt even more, when he finally cannot hold her. How long can these two girls withstand a move designed to split even loving couples?
Akane just snorts as she hears this.
Akane: These idiots. Trying to manipulate you into feeling guilty as if you were a man. Now, let go.
Ranko: No way!
Akane's eyes widen at Ranko's sudden protest.
Akane: What?! Are you crazy? The longer you wait, the faster they spin and the faster I'll fly. Let go now. I'll be safe.
Ranko just shakes her head. She grits her teeth and grips Akane's wrists firmly. Sweat forms on her brow, as Mikado proceeds to spin them around faster and ever faster; She is determined not to give in to his dishonorable methods. But soon she realizes that she cannot keep this up; Her fingers slowly slip, millimeter by millimeter.
Ranko: [thinks] Damn, I can't hold her for long. If only I was in cursed form - then I could hold her forever. I could hold her until those freaks have to give up. Damn! [out loud] Akane. I'll have to let go.
Akane: [angry] About time! What the hell took you so long?
Akane prepares to fly off and waits for Ranko to let go of her wrists. Her eyes go wide, when Ranko does not release her grip, but suddenly twists about her lengthwise axis, forcing Azusa to let go of her legs, if she doesn't want her neck broken. Both girls go sailing off.
But she cannot complete her question, as Ranko starts her next maneuver. She twists in mid-air, swinging Akane back and releasing her, thus sending her hurtling towards the still spinning Mikado. Mikado's eyes bug out as he sees two bladed feet shooting towards his head. But the sudden loss of weight at the top of their spinning column has thrown it too much off balance, and the two skaters have enough to do, just trying to keep from collapsing in a tangled heap. Unable to evade, Mikado takes a high-speed facefull of skating blades. The impact makes him let go of Azusa, who goes sailing across the rink.
Meanwhile, Ranko has problems. Due to the laws of physics, the act of throwing back Akane has more than doubled her velocity - and now she is flying back-first. Frantically she tries to correct her position, but it is too late: With a sickening crunch she impacts on the wall fencing the rink and remains embedded in it, head down. She doesn't move.
Akane, who is disentangling herself from an unconscious Mikado, looks around and sees Ranko. With a yelp she jumps up and skates over as fast as her blades allow. She stops before the wall, her blades digging deep furrows into the ice, and gingerly touches the unmoving, upside-down Ranko. This unlodges Ranko from her position and she falls down onto the ice, where she stays lying face down - still motionless.
Akane: R... Rankooo!
Akane falls to he knees beside her friend and cries. She buries her face in her arms and weeps on Ranko's back.
Akane: Ranko, how could you? You idiot! What were you thinking, sacrificing yourself like that?
She keeps crying until a rather pained voice speaks up.
Ranko: Um, Akane? Could you stop that? It hurts like hell.
Akane's head snaps up. She watches in astonishment, as Ranko pushes herself up from her prone position. As soon as Ranko is sitting upright, Akane lunges at her and hugs her tight.
Akane: Ranko! I was so worried.
<crick snap crack pop>
Ranko: [waves her arms] Stoppit stoppit stoppit! That hurts!
Akane lets go of her guiltily. Ranko looks around the rink. She catches a glimpse of Mikado, who is being carried off the ice on a stretcher. The sides of his head are shaved free of hair, courtesy of Akane's skating blades, and there is a deep gash across his brow; He is obviously in no form to fight.
Ranko: Fine. That leaves just Azusa.
Akane: I don't think so.
She points over to the side of the rink, where Azusa is pasted up against the wall in a very similar way to Ranko. While the girls watch, Azusa separates from the wall and goes from vertical to horizontal in a very final way. The next stretcher is already on its way to her.
Ranko: OK. Great. That means we've won, right?
Akane: [slowly] Yes, Ranko, it seems so.
Ranko: Well, then we only have to show them that we're still standing and collect the price.
Akane: Are you still standing?
Ranko: [grins wryly] If you help me a bit, I am.
With a hand from Akane, Ranko climbs to her feet. Akane takes Ranko's arm around her shoulder and supports her with her own arm around Ranko's back. This way, they slowly circle the rink, to the cheering of the audience.
Akane: [silently] But you've got to tell me Ranko: whatever gave you the idea to wait so long before letting go? If you had let go of me right at the beginning, none of this would have happened.
Ranko: What? And let a total klutz like you sail off alo- Eeeeyoow!
Akane's supporting arm around Ranko's back has changed positions, squeezing her bruised ribs.
They come to a stop before the prize table, where the Cup stands.
Announcer: And now the winners can rightfully claim their prize.
Akane: [shouts] P-chan. He's gone!
She holds up the broken end of the chain that had secured the pig to the prize cup.
Ranko: Oh man. I knew that pig had a tendency to wander off, but this is ridiculous.
She looks around and soon spies a movement in a corner of the arena, half hidden behind the seat rows. A kettle of water sits on a camping burner, and a small black pig is watching.
Ranko: [grins, thinks] That Ryouga. I wonder how he got that set up in pig form.
Suddenly a light reflex glints of something on the pig and Ranko freezes.
Ranko: [thinks] Oh damn! That idiot, doesn't he realize...? [out loud] Akane, look! I think I saw him.
She points into the opposite direction from Ryouga.
She turns and skates over to search for her pet. As soon as she has her back turned, Ranko takes off at top speed, racing over to the place where the fallen Azusa is just being placed on a stretcher.
Ryouga's eyes are on the kettle. Soon the water will be hot enough to change back. Finally! For the first time in a week, he has been able to slip away unnoticed. Azusa's challenge had brought out the protective "mommy" in Akane and there had been virtually no time where she didn't make sure that P-chan was by her side.
The first wisps of steam emerge from the kettle, heralding the correct temperature.
Ryouga: [thinks] Now quick, before it gets too hot.
Twisting a valve of the burner with its snout, the little black pig snuffs the flame and - breathing hard - begins to shove the kettle off its seat, trying not to burn itself.
Ryouga: [huffs] Damn that Ranko and her jokes about my pig curse. I'd like to see her cope with a cursed form that has no hands!
The water washes over his black hide, and Ryouga exults in the feeling of the change, rejoicing at the thought of soon being human again. With a smile on his face, he continues to fill out and grow - until he feels a tug at his throat.
Ryouga's eyes bug out and his mouth gapes open, like a fish caught on dry land. He claws at the little metal collar that is digging deep into his neck and throat, but cannot seem to dislodge it. He grows desperate, threatening to pass out.
Gasping, wheezing, sputtering, Ryouga welcomes the air back in his lungs. Deep breath after breath he sucks in. Finally he is able to look up. Before him stands Ranko, dangling the locket in front of his face. The little heart-shaped key is still sticking in the little heart-shaped lock.
Ranko: Well, I heard that some guys complain that all those little tokens of affection don't leave them enough space to breathe, but you don't have to take everything so literal, Ryouga.
Feebly he feigns a punch at her, but his gratefulness shows on his face.
Ranko: [turns] Uh oh! I think Akane is heading over. Better put on some clothes - unless, of course, you figure this is the best way to convey your love for her...
Blushing a deep crimson at the realization that he is sitting naked in front of a girl, Ryouga frantically scrambles for his clothes that lie in a heap near the kettle and burner. Ranko gets back onto the ice and skates towards Akane to buy Ryouga some time.
Akane: Did you find him?
Ranko: [shakes her head] No, sorry. I'm afraid he wandered off again. [sees Akane's worried expression] Don't worry. A pig that can break out of a solid chain like that can likely look for himself.
Akane: You think so?
Ranko: Sure. Look, I found Ryouga over there. He saw the match and I'm sure he'd like to congratulate you personally.
She guides Akane over to where Ryouga is leaning on the railing; Fully clothed now and only slightly flustered.
Akane: Hello Ryouga-kun!
She flashes him her special smile that always seems to unsettle him so much. Not that she ever noticed.
Akane: Say, Ryouga-kun, did you see my P-chan?
Ryouga: Me?! A-heh, I mean, no, I didn't see him. But I am sure he will find his way back to you.
Ranko: Trust him, Akane - Ryouga knows how a pig thinks. Ooomph!
A light punch to her stomach drives the wind out of Ranko's lungs.
Akane: Stop picking on him, Ranko!
Ranko: [thinks] Hmmm. She really seems to like him... Now if he only had the guts to confess. [out loud] Say, why don't we three meet at the Dojo for a little winning celebration, huh? See ya after we change costumes, Ryouga.
As she and Akane skate back to the exit of the rink, to get to their changing room, Ranko thinks to herself.
Ranko: [thinks] If I nudge him a little along, this could work out...
It is evening already, when Ryouga, wearing his backpack again and holding a bouquet of flowers in his hands, approaches a man on the street.
Ryouga: Excuse me, sir. Could you perhaps tell me the way to the Tendou Dojo?
Man: No, sorry, I only arrived here on Okinawa today, myself.
Ranko sits with Akane at the table in the Tendou living room. She stares out into the darkness, tired, her head resting on her palm.
Ranko: [thinks] Then again...
-- End of Part 31.
To be continued...
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